“It’s going to be nice,” says my mother.
She stood up, grabbed my hand and led me out of the hut.
Walking down the dry path we already saw the crowd setting wood in its place.
We walk around the site one, twice, thrice.
“It’s the tradition,” says my mother. “It keeps us safe.”
A girl sits on the floor, not far from the wood. Her mother feeds her the special leaves and the root.
“Chew well,” says the mother.
The girl cries.
We squeeze through the crowd. The second time we get to the girl she still cries. I admire her necklace, a white elephant dangling from a chain of brown beads. I smile at her. She smiles back.
“Tears bring rain,” says my mother.
Men bring large pieces of wood.
The third time we get around the girl has stopped crying. She spits the rest of the leaves on the ground.
“Well done,” says the mother.
“Can I also have leaves?” I ask.
“No,” says my mother. “You are too young.”
Somewhere an old woman starts singing.
“It starts soon,” says my mother.
The girl stares at the large stack of wood. My mother and I stand with my cousins. We too look at the wood.
“It will be a big fire,” says one cousin.
“We will have much rain this year,” says the other.
The singing old woman walks the circle thrice. She stares at the wood. She waves to the men.
“Enough,” she says. “Just put the special wood on top.”
The special wood is light. Two men carry it to the top. It shines brown in the dim light.
A young man brings fire. The old woman continues her song. We all join in.
We all laugh and smile. Good weather for another year. The creatures of the forest will leave us alone. Even the girl with the elephant necklace smiles.
The fire begins. Slowly it eats its way from one side of the stacked wood to the other. The men chose wet wood or maybe they made it wet. The flames burn slow, the smoke is thick.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” says my mother “A new year of rain. A new year of safety.”
I nod but I don’t smile. The smoke blows in our direction. The smoke makes my eyes hurt, or maybe something else.
The singing grows louder and the fire joins in. The fire sings the loudest, a high, whistling tone. I dimly remember the one from the year before, it was deeper but not as loud.
The bodies start to move. With the fire we sing. When the fire sings louder we sing louder.
The flames grow. My mother takes my hand again.
“Walk around,” she whispers. “We have to walk around.”
I follow her lead. The circle of bodies moves slowly. Woman behind man or man behind man or woman behind woman. Feet step in sync, the left, the right.
And all the while the fire sings. Louder it sings and with more passion. And louder we sing and with more passion.
But the fire sings louder.
“It is a good fire,” says my mother. “Two hundred mouths, but the fire is louder.”
A little boy pulls away from his mother. He runs towards the woods.
A man runs after him, grabs him.
“Look at the fire,” the man says. “The fire brings life. The forest brings death.”
The boy cries. His mother takes his hand again while the bodies move past them.
“Don’t cry,” says the mother. “Just look at the fire. The fire brings safety.”
The fire sings louder.
“Good special wood,” says the old woman to another. “Very good wood.”
I look at the girl with the elephant necklace. Her eyes are closed. She sings with her mouth wide open.
I copy her. My mouth opens wide and I sing with full strength. My mother’s hand tightens around mine.
The circle speeds up. The flames rise. We walk faster. The fire’s voice grows. We sing louder. The stomping of feet as the rhythm for the song.
With every round the song grows louder and the circle stomps faster. Faces shine in the glow of the fire. The forest around us grows darker.
“Does fire hurt?”
“Yes,” says my mother. “But it protects us too.”
I look up to the girl with the elephant necklace. She still sings.
The voices grow, the feets stomp. Louder with every step and every round around the fire.
The fire screams.
“Soon,” says my mother.
We stomp on.
The special wood moves. Brown turns to black.
We all laugh and smile. The rain will come. We are safe.
In one last scream her body shakes.
The singing grows. The circle walks faster.
The fire stops singing but the circle continues.
It is midnight when we finally sit. The moon is full, the stars are bright. The fire is not much more than a glowing warmth.
On top of the glow sits the special wood. Not brown anymore, all black instead.
They all look and admire the black. The black means rain. The black means safety.
The men push the glowing wood aside. The special wood tumbles to the ground. Pieces break off.
“A bit too long,” says my mother. “It shouldn’t be that dry.”
I don’t notice her words.
The special wood is pulled down the fire. They place it on the ground not far from me.
“How beautiful,” says my mother. The women around us agree.
I look at the charred special wood and wonder why it had to be her.
Black fingers. An eternal grin.
“Look how happy she looks,” says my mother.
I wonder whether it is a grin of happiness or a grin of fear.
“It sang well,” says my mother. “Well and loud. That means good weather.”
An old man next to us laughs.
“Who cares about the rain? It means that they heard us. They will come soon.”
We move away from the blackened special wood.
“You will see them,” says my mother. “But don’t say a word.”
Tree branches move in the distance. Not from the wind.
Soon a first shadow appears, then another.
We move further away from the special wood, behind the fire. We watch.
Three creatures come out of the forest. They crawl and walk towards us.
My heart feels stiff and heavy.
They come closer. Like large gorillas shaved from head to toes. Their heads and hands are smaller than a normal gorilla. Their eyes are too large.
The figures come closer. The last of the crowd fall silent.
One of the creatures steps next to the special wood. It smells. It pulls blackened beads off the wood. Then it takes a bite.
I hear the crunching sound.
The creature roars. Red and black things are stuck to its chin.
It grabs the special wood and pulls it toward the forest. The other two help.
They and the special wood disappear between the trees.
“They like it,” says my mother. “Because it sang really good. This year we will be safe.”
My mother gets ready to leave. I quickly jump back on my feet. I run to where the special wood lay on the ground.
Two charred fingers are left. Right between them lies a blackened disc.
I pick it up. I rub it. The black goes. The white returns.