The Twelve Brothers (Part the Second)
"How could you let me live without knowing?" was all she said at first, but the King and Queen exchanged a look of complete, sorrowful understanding. "Surely," continued the princess, "you could have told me about my brothers. They know about me!"
"We would have told you," began the King slowly, "had the circumstances been different. As it was--"
"You were afraid I'd seek them out and harm them!" the princess gasped.
"No, daughter. We only feared to burden you with a ridiculous guilt."
"'Ridiculous'?" echoed the princess.
"Yes," spoke the Queen for the first time. "Fate so often seems ridiculous."
"'Fate'?" The princess fell silent, thinking, This is what separates me from my brothers: a ridiculous fate. "Tell me about them," she finally said.
King Abdu and Queen Rukiya were surprised at the delight that rushed up within them at the princess' demand. It was as if the desire to boast about their twelve wonderful sons had lain enchanted, asleep, for eighteen years, and could not have been awakened save by that one voice speaking those four words.
So the King and the Queen and the Princess sat on the ground in the garden, and the parents told stories about their twelve sons to the thirteenth child. Often interrupting each other, stumbling over their own and each other's words, and even speaking some words in unison, Abdu and Rukiya told the happy stories, the sad stories, the funny stories, the frightening stories, the strange stories, the important stories, and the unimportant stories about their twelve sons. They told stories that illustrated the personalities, skills, weaknesses, habits, and needs of their twelve sons. They told stories about the friends, enemies, loves and acquaintances of their twelve sons. They told stories that other people, family, advisors, servants, onlookers, had told of their twelve sons. By the time Abdu and Rukiya stopped telling stories, the moon had risen and was beginning to fade again before the dawn; their voices were ragged and hoarse, their cheeks blotted with falling, dried and fresh tears.
And Talitha had wept, too. Finally she asked the question she had asked the day before: "How could you let me live without knowing?" And one other question: "How could you live without telling me?" Yet even as she asked these questions, she knew there was no answer--none the King and Queen could give her, in any case. A ridiculous fate, she kept thinking, separates me from my twelve fine brothers.
For three days and nights, the princess neither spoke nor slept after that. The servants and advisors to the royal family, wisely sensing great agony of soul, whispered and tiptoed about.
But Enobakhare the seer was nowhere to be found.
At supper, the King and Queen met each other's eyes over the Princess' weary head with apprehension. Outside, a storm, complete with gray, brooding clouds, over the palace threatened, and there seemed to be a storm threatening within the walls as well.
At the beginning of the fourth day, the storm broke with a great clash of thunder. It was the same clash that heralded Princess Talitha's entrance into Enobakhare the Seer's solitary, drafty, brightly lit suite of rooms, located in a parapet of the palace. The Seer turned from a great old book on a stone table to meet the burning eyes of Princess Talitha.
"Where are they?" she demanded.
When the King and Queen learned of their daughter's firm intention to bring her brothers home, they were filled with dismay. But neither of them resisted Princess Talitha's resolve.
"We have attempted to thwart Fate," murmured Rukiya. "But although it was a grand struggle, we remain powerless." The King folded his wife into his arms.
"There is still hope," he said. “We will continue to pray.”
In that hope, the royal city saw Princess Talitha off with great rejoicing. There were three days of singing, dancing and eating, the last of which Talitha enjoyed with gusto: who knew when she would next eat so well?
On her journey, the princess would carry three changes of light textured, dark green clothing, most of which were coveralls with cowls or hoods; seven changes of undergarments; a black cloak; she carried insect repelling salves and healing ointments; strong, but light footed brown boots; a sharp, short heavy knife in a thick, leather sheath, a heavy bag (which converted into a enveloping sleep pallet) made of leather and canvas, to carry over one shoulder; a stout walking stick (which doubled as a sort of bayonet when its shoe was removed); several short, thick rolls of white cotton cloth; a brown loaf of soy bread as big and round ("and as hard," said the King) as Talitha's head; and a skin of water. The food would last several weeks if the princess ate and drank sparingly. The princess left her golden crown and gorgeous robes at home.
Early in the morning of the fourth day, Princess Talitha bound up her braided hair and set off in search of her brothers. She began her journey trudging through the great, dark forest, the edge of which her brothers had inhabited months before her birth. The forest was so great, she had been told, that it would take two months to cross it on foot, even if it hadn't been filled with strangling snakes, slavering wolves, smothering sand pits, sharp-toothed panthers, poisonous plants and seemingly starving, ever-present insects. Talitha learned quickly never to lean, stand, sit or lie on any thing before careful examination.
But the forest was beautiful, too. Filled with multitudinous shades of green life and gold light, clear pools dancing with silver fish, riotous (in sound and appearance) birds, and the most marvelous insects, the forest became a delight as well as a challenge to the princess. She soon learned to spear the fish that moved, as well as looked, like mercury, and found that a book knowledge of plants and animals (acquired in eighteen years of palace schooling) would save her life a thousand times.
Her favorite creatures were spiders, some of which were hardy enough to catch small fish in their waterproof webs. The princess admired spiders most because of their tenacity: the willingness to fashion and re-fashion webs whether the originals were destroyed by prize or peril; the patience to wait and wait for the thrill of a thread, which betokened survival; and the boldness ready to fight any enemy, regardless of size. Ants were as bold, but lacked separate wills, individuality. Bees had the same mindless drive as ants. No, spiders were best, displaying initiative, creativity, courage, and (most easy for the princess to immediately identify with) the ability to cope with prolonged solitude.
Her solitude broke on the third week of Princess Talitha's trek. While sitting on a (carefully examined) rock just long enough to wipe her brow and take one swallow of water from her bag, the princess heard the snap of a twig, the whisper of leaves against cloth and the jingle of a bell. Having dashed quickly, quietly, carefully behind a broad, ivy-draped tree, the princess stared in the direction of the sounds. Her heart thudded in her ears. One of her twelve brothers?
No, for though he was a man, and apparently of royal birth, he carried no green and gold. His family's colors were, apparently, black and gold, for that was what he, and the night black horse he was leading, wore. His feet were covered in dull black hunting boots, his well muscled legs, slim gold trousers; he wore a matching light, gold jacket with a cowl which was black on one side and gold on the other. There was a square on his right breast pocket that was cut into four smaller squares, one gold, one black, one black, one gold. He was much taller than Talitha (who stood taller than the tallest woman in her kingdom); he had beautiful broad shoulders, and his biceps bulged in his sleeves. A pretty shape! thought the princess. Curse that cowl for covering his face! The sound of bells came from the horse's braided leather harness, which was also black and gold, as was the saddle and the blanket under the saddle.
"Whoever you are," said suddenly a deliciously deep voice from the cowl, making the princess jump, "it's too late to hide. I have seen you already. Come out. I mean you no harm." As the speaker was coming closer with each word and obviously headed straight for her hiding place, Talitha quickly, quietly unsheathed her short knife (though she did not hold it out in the open) and stepped out from behind the tree.
"'Harmless' hardly hides," said Talitha, gesturing with her free hand at the cowl. The stranger, understanding, removed his cowl, revealing deep ebon brown skin, deep set brown eyes, a wide nostriled nose, full lips, and crisply thick, black, close cropped hair. He smiled, disclosing perfect teeth and a dimple in his chin, but it was too late for the dimple: the stark planes along his cheeks had already snared Talitha's heart.
"I was hardly the one hiding," he responded. "My name is Prince Kamau. But my mother," he went on, "called me Abayomi.” He paused. “I don’t tell many people that name. Are you in trouble?"
"I am Talitha. I come from the kingdom far on the other side of this forest. I am not in trouble, but I am far from home, seeking twelve lost kinsmen."
"Are they lost, or are you?" Kamau smiled again. "My kingdom is far on that side of the great forest, six weeks away, but you are welcome to ride home with me and restore your provisions." He patted his horse's neck, and it snorted and shook its head. "Montsho can bear the weight of another friend." Kamau's eyes twinkled as he added, "You see I call you 'friend' –although your knife has not yet decided." Talitha's face grew hot as she brought the knife out from the folds of her cloak and sheathed it.
"Your offer is kind to a stranger, but I cannot forsake my quest. It may not last much longer, and after I find my brothers, we can seek out your kingdom, so that you may celebrate with us."
"Your brothers? They do not live in the kingdom? Or," Kamau quickly added, as a shadow fell over Talitha's face, "Maybe they are on a hunting trip, as I am."
"I will tell you the story one day, should my quest be successful," Talitha said simply.
"Well, if I cannot persuade you to come home with me," responded the prince, "maybe you will stop at the cabin yonder. It's not mine, to offer its hospitality, but the young woodsman who lives there seems friendly enough. Allow Montsho and me to show you the way. Would you like to ride?" Talitha inclined her head at this fresh kindness, although she refused the ride, so Prince Kamau also walked, alongside his horse, holding the rein, as he led Talitha to a little cabin in the forest. It was so craftily built to be hidden among the shadows and trees of the forest that, had Talitha not met the prince, she might not have found the cabin alone.
"Hello, the house!" cried Kamau as the two approached. The door opened, and Talitha looked into the face of her youngest brother. She knew it was he by his stark resemblance to her mother. He was the same height as Talitha, broader across the shoulders, but carried his mother in his smooth, heavy eyebrows, long, dark eyes, and sculptured lips. His skin was the color of carob powder. Before she knew it, Talitha had flung herself at him, startling Kamau and the young man both.
"God be praised, brother! I am your sister, Talitha," she explained once she had caught her breath. "Look at me. Can't you see I am your kinswoman?" As Adisa held the stranger at arm's length, he could. The mixed feelings of bitterness and fear that he and his brothers had known for eighteen years gave way to wonder as Adisa gazed upon the lovely, open face of his sister.
"There is my father," Adisa whispered, "in the shape of your brow and the line of your nose. But," he continued, as tears flowed from his eyes, "your smile is my mother's." Adisa realized then that he had no choice but to love his sister, regardless of fate or prophecy. He knew his brothers would feel the same.
"It appears there will be a celebration," murmured Kamau. He could feel his eyes burning, too.
"Yes!" replied Adisa. "The celebration starts now. Please stay with us, Kamau, until my eleven brothers return, and share our joy."
"My desire is here," said Kamau, as his eyes gently brushed Talitha's face, "but I have been away from home for more than a month now. I must return to the kingdom. However, at the palace, I will make ready to receive you and your brothers, to continue the celebration." Talitha turned to Kamau and embraced him, too.
"Surely I, with your mother, can now call you Abayomi. Providence brought us together," she said.
"Neither my mother nor my father is with me any longer," responded the prince, "so I haven't heard that name in a long time. I like the sound of it from your lips. I am overjoyed that your quest has come to a happy end. You and your twelve brothers must not forget to bless my kingdom with a visit. Please."
"It will give us great pleasure to share our joy with you, Kamau, our benefactor," said Adisa. The prince climbed upon his black horse and, saluting the reunited brother and sister, rode away.
At nightfall, Talitha's other brothers, Chinelo, Akil, Liu, Nizam, Fadil, Chijioke, Masomakali, Harith, Tabari, Jawhar, and Shawki, returned. (They had been hunting, as Kamau had surmised.) Each was envious that it had not been his turn to stay home that day, and so be the first to welcome their sister after eighteen years. At first sight of her, they, too, loved Talitha with all their hearts. And Talitha found that looking at her brothers was like looking at portraits of her beloved parents.
"Our parents," said Tabari, "must learn of this reunion. As soon as possible, we must all return home and end their worries." All the brothers and Talitha agreed, but Masomakali pointed out, “It will be another whole day before we can be ready. But after that, come the dawn, we must be on our way." So that night, the twelve princes and their princess sister feasted and regaled each other with stories of their lives while they had been apart. They felt so much joy, they could hardly sleep for the excitement at the thought of seeing their parents' faces.
The next morning, Chinelo, Akil, Liu, Nizam, Fadil, Chijioke, Masomakali, Harith, Tabari, Jawhar, Shawki, Adisa, and Talitha began packing up everything portable in the cabin. And then, at one point, all of the princes had to leave Talitha: each of them had left something in the forest that he wanted to take back with him.
"We will return," they said, "cook supper, and begin our rest for the morning's journey." And off they went, in twelve different directions, it seemed.
Alone in the cabin, Talitha decided to decorate the only thing they would not be able to carry home: the large, heavy table Nizam had built for meal times. Talitha went outside the cabin, looking for beautiful plants, and she was charmed to find twelve violets growing together, but alone, in a clearing. Talitha had seen violets in the forest before, but never so many blooms in one plant, and never so large. Each blossom was as large as the palm of Talitha's hand, with royal purple petals surrounding a gold center. Talitha knew such a gorgeous bouquet, as a centerpiece to her brothers' table, would gladden their last day in the cabin.
She sang as she plucked the violets, but as soon as she had gently snapped the stem of the last one, Talitha heard a thunderclap, and the sky darkened about her. She turned at the sound of a soft step behind her, and was hardly surprised to see the face of Enobakhare.
"Good cheer, Seer," she greeted him. "I suppose you have learned of my safe reunion with my brothers." Talitha said these last words almost with gloating, remembering the prophecy with which Enobakhare had troubled their lives.
"'Safe'?" responded the prophet. "But what is that in your hand?"
"They are flowers for my brothers' table," said Talitha, and she was about to add, "Aren't they beautiful?" when she looked again at them and saw that they were very quickly wilting. "Oh, the poor things! I should never have plucked them!"
"You are quite right, Princess," said Enobakhare. "For these are more than flowers: these are the bodies of your twelve brothers, who are now soaring the wind in the shape of ibis. Unless you can undo the harm you have wrought them, they will remain sacred waterfowl forever." By now, Princess Talitha had fallen weakly to her knees in horror. The wilting violets she managed to keep, though, gently cradling them in her hands.