Not at ALL What You Thought

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Twelve Brothers (Part the Third)

"Dear God!" Talitha whispered. "This is what the prophecy meant. But how can I undo this horrible thing?"

"You must listen carefully, Princess, and fail not to accomplish my every word. From this day forth, you may not speak, or even laugh, until you have fashioned, with your own hands, a needle-grass cloak for each of your twelve brothers. Nor can any of you ever return to your parents until you have finished your task. As for these violets, drop them. Let them return to the earth from which they came. When you are able to speak again, they will bloom again." Talitha complied, letting the violets fall to the ground. Immediately, they turned black and sank into the earth. But Talitha had one more question.

"'Needle grass'? I have never heard of such a plant," said the Princess.
"You have lived a happy life thus far," responded the Seer. "Needle grass grows only in graveyards and otherwise barren places. It is a vindictive plant, not at all like violets: it stings and blisters the hand that uproots it." With these words, Enobakhare disappeared as quietly as he had appeared.

Talitha shuddered; still, she determined in her heart to accomplish every word of the seer, lest her brothers remain ibis forever. She remembered the question the Seer had asked her long ago: "What evil can you undo?" And from the moment she made that decision, she stopped speaking, spending her days alone, searching for more and more needle grass to make cloaks for her brothers. Her hands became feverish and covered with blisters; still, she spent every waking hour either picking needle grass or sitting in her brothers' cabin, painstakingly fashioning cloaks. Her brothers, now in the form of iridescent black and white ibis, brought her grains and nuts, and occasionally a frog (for which Talitha was grateful, but refused to eat).

Three months after Talitha had begun her new quest, Prince Kamau returned to the forest. "Hello, the house!" he called, as he and Montsho approached the cabin. At the sound of his voice, Talitha dropped the cloak she had just finished and rushed to the door. Kamau ran to embrace her, but was dismayed when the princess fell to her knees and began silently to weep.

"These are not tears of joy, such as we shared when we parted," he said, as he raised the Princess to her feet. "What is the matter? Where are your brothers?" Of course, Talitha could not answer him; she only shook harder with grief, though she was very careful not to make a sound. After a while, she ceased to cling to the Prince, and she went back into the cabin and sat down to begin another cloak. Kamau followed her. "Why are you so silent? Can you not even call me by the name my mother gave me?" he asked, looking into her face. But when Talitha's tears fell afresh, Kamau stopped questioning her and began pacing the floor.

"I came back to find out why you and your brothers had not come to my kingdom for the celebration. I can see now that I am too late, somehow. What is this you are making? Oh, God!" the Prince whispered, at the sight of Talitha's hands. He noticed, too, how thin and ashen she appeared. "What has happened here? I should never have left. All right, you needn't explain anything to me, but you must let me take you home to your family." When Talitha emphatically shook her head, silently weeping again and covering her face with her hands, the prince changed his tactic.

"Then, please, Talitha, if you cannot go home, come home with me. I myself will make certain that you eat, and I will bathe your hands myself. Please, Talitha, if you do not hate me for leaving you, please come with me." The prince's pleas prevailed upon Talitha, and, gathering the few cloaks and all of the needle grass she had into her bag, she climbed upon Montsho, who stood as still as stone while she did so.

"Noble beast!" Kamau praised his horse, watching. "Hold me tight, now," he said to Talitha, as he mounted in front of her. Talitha secured her bag around her waist and then firmly clasped the Prince about his. She sighed and relaxed, resting her cheek on the Prince's back. Kamau clucked to the horse, and Montsho was off home.

The two rode for days, stopping every now and then to dismount, stretch their legs, drink and eat. Some evenings they slept outside-- or, at least, Kamau did. Talitha continued to silently seek out needle grass and work on her brothers' cloaks. By this time, Kamau had surreptitiously watched Talitha at this work for a long while, but he had stopped asking questions and had determined not to interfere at all-- except to take her to his home, where he felt she would at least be comfortable. And whenever they came upon running water along the way, Kamau would stop and bathe Talitha's blistered and burning hands. Once, while he was carrying out this kindness, Talitha pulled one hand away and caressed his cheek with the back of her fingers. Kamau did not look up into her face at this, but he caught her hand again, and, before continuing to bathe it, he lightly kissed it. Then he said, "Let's go on." And they rode on until, finally, the two reached Kamau's kingdom.

The sentry on the watchtower of Castle Obsidian saw, afar off, two riders on Prince Kamau's horse and cried the news to another sentry, who took the message inside the castle. By the time Kamau and Talitha had approached the gates, Prince Kamau's uncle, Minkah Chafulumisa, was there to meet them. He was a tall, serious faced man, dressed in gold robes curiously embroidered in glittering black. His skin was the color of loamy earth, and his voice was as deep as a lion's; though he spoke with quiet joy at the sight of Kamau, Minkah was obviously surprised to see his young nephew accompanied by the ashy, poorly dressed beauty with circles under her eyes.
"Welcome home, nephew --and welcome to your companion . . . uh?" Minkah said, waiting for a name.

"Uncle, this is Princess Talitha," Kamau said, as he helped her dismount. A servant led Montsho away to the stables. "This is the woman I told you about the last time I came home. She has . . . come upon hardship and is in need of succor. I have offered her our home to rest and strengthen herself-- for as long as she needs to stay."
Minkah nodded in understanding and agreement. "And what is your trouble, Princess? How otherwise can we offer assistance to you?" But before Talitha would refuse to answer, Kamau spoke up, taking Minkah aside: "She would rather not speak of this trouble. And I, too, wish to exercise the utmost discretion. Let us leave her in peace, uncle, as much as we can." Minkah bowed his head in assent.

"Of course," he replied, and then clapping his hands, told waiting servants, "Make ready the best rooms for our guest!" And to Talitha, he said, "You will stay in my rooms, for as long as you like." And whispered to a servant: "Draw a bath for the Princess as well; use plenty of aromatic oils."

Kamau talked to the silent Talitha: "Although we must separate for now, try not to feel like a stranger. To this household --my household-- you are a kinswoman. As soon as you are rested and refreshed, we will reunite and dine together." Talitha almost smiled at the Prince's words of comfort, and then she allowed the castle's servant women to lead her away to her chambers.

She fell asleep several times in the hot bath full of flower petals, while the women gently massaged her feet and hands –and murmured disapprovingly at the pitiful state of those hands. The eldest servant, called Umm, was bold enough to say, "I am sixty years old and my experience tells me, from your bearing, that you are a noble woman, Princess; but if we had to judge you by your poor hands-- ! What have you been doing?" Umm did not wait for an answer (she seldom did), but, clucking in consternation, ordered medicinal salves for Talitha's hands while the others unbraided, washed, dried and dressed her hair, and then dried, oiled and powdered her skin with the most wonderful smelling ointments and talcs. (They even brushed her teeth and scraped her tongue.) As the women finished dressing Talitha in lovely, soft robes of gold satin, the salves Umm had called for arrived-- in the hands of Kamau.

"I couldn't wait for supper," he said, ignoring Umm's dark disapproval, "and since Umm would be scandalized if I bathed you myself"-- Umm scowled while the other women gasped and tittered-- "I settled for bringing the salves myself." This time, Talitha did smile; the luxurious bath and the beautiful robes had done much to restore her. But she did not forget her mission. She knew that she would not sleep that night, but begin again on her brothers' cloaks and the search for more needle grass. Kamau did not understand Talitha's quest, but he showed how well he was beginning to understand her: with the salves, he brought two pairs of gloves, one pair of soft gold lace, "To wear to dinner," he said; about the other pair, which were lined with down and made of thin, but strong leather, he said nothing. But Talitha knew what he expected them to be used for.

"You women may all leave," he said, "all except Umm, since she will not leave anyway, while I am here."
"Wise prince, you well know that a noble woman needs a female companion at all times when in a strange place," answered Umm. The other women left.
But before the door closed, another woman entered, saying, “And since I’m here, you needn’t remain at all, brother. Not that you will pay any of us any mind,” she added. The woman offered her hand to Talitha. “I’m Rachael, Kamau’s sister,” she said. She was a shorter, feminine version of Kamau, having a deep, beautiful brown face with high cheekbones and white flashing teeth. Her eyes were slightly lighter than her brother’s and her hair longer: it was a thick black halo about her head.

"How beautiful but sad you are, Princess! Do not be troubled: Kamau has not betrayed any confidence, and knowing him, he never will. But you may safely tell me nothing, Talitha, because, as you can tell already, I speak my mind. Still, we pray to God for you, to replace your sadness with peace." Rachael gently embraced Talitha and kissed her on the cheek. "And if there is anything I can do to help you-- besides pray-- you have only to speak."
"But the Princess does not speak much," interposed Umm meaningly.
"Then we will read her wonderful eyes! Or," answered Rachael, gazing at the elder woman suddenly without the merriment, "we will do --and say-- nothing. That has been known to help, at times, as well." And Umm bowed her head, cowed by Rachael's gaze. Apparently, despite her self-deprecating words, Rachael was also like her brother in understanding and diplomacy. While Rachael talked to Umm and Talitha of inconsequentialities –what to expect for dinner and whether the cooks knew what they were about that night-- Kamau gently applied the salve to Talitha's hands, and then gingerly helped her slide the lace gloves on. Talitha's heart turned over again as their eyes met briefly.

I love you, Abayomi, thought Talitha, as she experienced the prince's tender solicitation, And no wonder, for you are the kindest and noblest of men, besides my brothers and my father. The wonder is that you love me, too: a suddenly, strangely silent and lone woman. What can you know of me, to love me?
But Kamau would not meet her inquiring gaze again. I cannot look into those eyes long, Talitha, he thought. They are deep pools; even a strong man could lose himself in them. And if I am to help you at all, to love you at all, I cannot lose myself --not yet.

For Kamau had counted the ibis which had followed Talitha from the forest and now lived near the lake behind Castle Obsidian. He remembered waking during the nights of their trek through the forest, secretly watching Talitha silently fashion cloaks from blistering weeds. Kamau could not tell what evil had bound the thirteen siblings; still, somehow, he understood that Talitha was doing what she could to destroy the yoke of enchantment. Kamau understood that whatever Talitha had to do, she had to do it herself, alone, and that the best way he could help her was to keep others from hindering her. He devoted himself to that work, even, he decided, if he had to leave his kingdom again, with Talitha, until she finished her task.

Supper that night in the Castle's great hall was filled with uncomfortable silences and stilted conversation. Everyone's eyes were drawn to the beautiful, silent girl who ate hardly anything. Minkah looked surreptitiously at the girl. The handmaidens of his niece had braided Talitha's heavy hair into a glistening black crown atop her head. When she lifted her chin, the girl looked regal. Minkah suspected that Kamau had not been duped into accepting a common maid as a princess; it was obvious that the girl had, at least, a great deal of royal blood. Still, while diplomacy and soft spokenness were virtues where women are concerned, the uncle thought, taciturnity was completely inappropriate! What was the matter with the girl?

Rachael amused herself with watching her brother watch Talitha, thinking, The man is lost to us forever! She was glad that her brother had finally found a woman to his liking, silent and mysterious though she was. Rachael found Talitha lovely, and she was relieved that the princess had not that "delicate" loveliness which had become fashionable lately. Here was obviously a hardy beauty, proof against even the forest. This woman already bore herself as a strong queen should. But Rachael hoped the mystery would dissipate soon. She had little patience with mystery.

Kamau, who knew that Talitha would not speak (though he was not quite sure why), attempted to hide her silence from the company. His attempts fell flat, and they all breathed a sigh of relief when Minkah clapped his hands for the clearing of the table. The men and the women separated (Kamau and Talitha glancing wistfully at each other), and Rachael and Umm took Talitha back to her chambers.

"You look weary, as well as sad and beautiful," said Rachael.
"She kept falling asleep in her bath, Princess," volunteered Umm.
"I've been known to do that myself, after hunting with Kamau," replied Rachael. "In any case, Talitha, you need rest and probably solitude, which can be helpful in times of trouble." When they reached Talitha's chambers, Rachael kissed her again and said, "Rest well, my sister. Perhaps morning will bring an end to trouble. If you need anything, pulling the bell rope near your bed will summon Umm or one of the other servant women." Umm bowed her head and wished Talitha a good night as well.

In another bedroom, Minkah's sleep was troubled and filled with dreams that were trying to remind him of something: a man in white robes speaking over a baby. What had he said?

"A woman child, born with a star,
Will gladly take this man child far:
When she brings him back again,
His reign can never be the same.
Twelve sacred birds will surround this royal house;
They come for the woman, and not her future spouse.
The twelve ibis are more than birds,
But twelve brothers and warriors: hers.
Mark well the woman, the star on her head;
Mark well these words that I have said."

Suddenly, Minkah awoke and sat straight up in bed.


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