Madilla is a novel I self published and is now available through most major online retailers, or through my website in Australia. I am publishing chapter 1 as a teaser. I hope it as enjoyable to read as it was to write.
“Mirror Soul” (You are the mirror of my soul)
“Do not look at the sparrows, Madilla,” Mama scolded. “Shaloma is teaching you now.” Mama was always very serious about the stories of our people. The same stories had been told by Kirra women since our ancestors came to the mountains, and Mama said they were very important; but I was more interested in other things.
“Yes, Mama.” I turned back to face Old Shaloma, hoping she would finish soon.
“And Kala’unga was carrying her firs’ child,” she said. I looked at my best friend Tanya. She was watching the sparrows too, but her own Mama was not there to scold her.
“Madilla!” Mama caught me looking at Tanya.
“Yes, Mama.” I turned back again as Old Shaloma continued.
“Da Mantu was angry and shook da ground. Giant rocks fell and killed Kala’unga inside da caves. But da spirit of her unborn child was still alive, trapped under rocks and waiting to be free for many t’ousands of years.”
“Did the spirit ever gettin’ out, Old Sh’moma?” Tanya butted in. She must have been listening.
“I do not know dis answer, Tanya,” she answered, and smiled.
“Which cave was it?” I asked, wide eyed after she had finally said something interesting.
“De’ are many questions I cannot answer. You girls can go now. T’ank you for bringing dem, Peshma. Dey are good girls.”
Many years have now passed, and it is strange to remember Tanya and me being so young. Now, my own daughter does not listen when she is too busy watching the sparrows, but her questions can be answered. Questions about the Mantu, the great mountain facing our village. Questions about the spirit of Kala’unga’s unborn child. Questions about how our people came to live in the most beautiful land on earth. The answers all began from listening to Old Shaloma, and I will never forget her.
“Old Sh’mamo talks funny,” Tanya said as we made our way back to her hut.
“Taormo says she is a ugly old witch,” I said and we both giggled. Taormo, my older brother, always said the funniest things about how people looked.
“Do not be so rude. Both of you,” Mama snapped.
We hurried home from Tanya’s hut because Papa was soon to be home and ready for his evening meal. I watched Mama standing at the wood fire stove wearing her tattered floral apron. She always made enough food for the evening meal that left some we could eat the following morning; the smells of coriander and turmeric still make me hungry to this day.
Mama’s whole world hovered around that stove. Her possessions included little more than a pan and serving spoon which sat on a single wooden shelf to one side of the room. There was a steel bucket for carrying water, a knife and cutting board, a dented steel bowl and the plates we ate from. And the cockroaches. There were always cockroaches somewhere in the hut. They could not have survived the freezing cold winters outside the dry warmth of our floorboards.
Our home was a white mudbrick hut of only one room, divided into separate bedrooms by old curtains from the local swap market. It was covered by a thatched roof that kept us dry; and a single wooden window shutter that kept out the deathly cold winds of our extreme winters. The whitewashed walls were stained in strange patterns by clay residue bleeding through the bricks every winter. Although the hut barely provided enough warmth on the worst nights, it was our home, built by my Papa, Sondoro, with his own hands.
My very first memory is of sitting on a lime green cushion with tassels on each corner, as I always did while Mama was cooking. Next to me sat my brother, Taormo, impatient as ever and filled with the energy of a young boy who just wanted to be outside running about. We ate at a low circular wooden table, sitting on cushions that Mama had collected over time. The table was barely as high as Papa’s shins. Papa seemed enormous to me as he walked through the door and sat beside me ready for his evening meal. The truth was that whilst being broad and strong, he was not a tall man, but everything appears bigger through the eyes of a child.
I think that I would have been three years old at the time of that first memory, and Taormo was six. He never stopped moving about and causing trouble; and he was always there, teaching me about how the world worked without even knowing that he was doing it. He loved trying things out and was never scared of being hurt or breaking things. If something was not tied down he would pick it up to see what it could do. Mama was always hitting him on the top of his head when he did silly things – not hard enough to hurt him, but enough that he knew she was angry with him.
As we waited for our meals, Taorma was fidgeting about and banging small sticks on the table. “Stop that, Taormo!” Mama yelled. “You have been too long in the sun.” The sun was where Mi gok garu came from. Mi gok garu was the Garu of strong men like Papa who worked outside. Papa was always restless too. He grabbed Taormo playfully with his big, builder’s hands and put him on the cushion between his legs, digging his fingers into the sides of Taormo’s ribs to make him squirm and laugh. It made me laugh too, but Mama turned her anger toward Papa.
“And you stop that too, Sondoro. Why do you teach him to be silly at evening meal time? This is not a place for fighting.” Papa looked at me and laughed, pretending that our eyes were hiding from Mama’s.
Papa’s skin was dark and hard from the sun and many of his teeth were missing, but his cheeky smile always made me laugh. His black hair was cut short to keep it from getting dirty when he was working, and Taormo’s was just the same. They both wore large sheets wrapped around their legs and waist, tied at the front, and brown goatswool vests over the top of their hemp shirts.
As Papa continued his game with Taormo, a chicken ran through the front door and scurried about the wooden floor until Mama grabbed a broom and chased it back outside. “Shoo, you silly bird. Get out!” The wide silver wrist bands that covered her forearms were banging about in all the fuss. Too many things were happening at once as she was trying to cook. Mama glanced sideways and noticed my innocent curiosity, quietly watching it all unfold. She had to try not to smile.
Mama was gifted to see into a person’s eyes and know what animal their spirit could be. She said that inside my eyes she saw the spirit of a sparrow, born to see all things from the endless blue sky. At the age of three years, I had seen little more than the small world inside our hut.
By the time I was learning Old Shaloma’s stories I was five, and the evening meal routine had not changed at all. The sun was setting outside our window, and the table looked wonderful as always with a garland of marigolds circling around the tray of curried chickpeas. Papa and Taormo were always served first because – Mama would say – men are very hungry after working. I did not mind because there was always enough food for me, and being served last was a female role that I shared with Mama. “Mayahe Katah, Madilla,” she would always say.
“Mayahe Katah, Mama.”
Our peaceful meal that evening was interrupted by a familiar voice laughing boisterously outside the hut, accompanied by the sound of heavy feet trudging clumsily towards the front door. A deep husky voice called out for Papa: “Sondo, my brother. Where are you hiding? I need to see you, brother.” This was followed by another spate of loud laughter.
Mama stared at Papa with eyes that would freeze the sun. Behind her strong cheekbones and dark brown eyes, Mama’s eyes would pierce like poison spears when she was angry. The mottled brown skin of her face appeared soft against such hard eyes. Papa stood up and attempted to intercept the intruder before he reached the door, but he was too late. Standing in the doorway was his younger brother Marlong, swaying like a cherry tree in the winds of the Tortima.
Marlong was the biggest man of our village and answered to no one but his older brother. He did everything he could to be different to Papa, but not so much out of disrespect as from a natural competition between brothers. One brother was dedicated to family and tradition, and the other was more at home amongst single men, drunks and whores. The Hardras brothers moved in such different circles that they would otherwise have despised each other, but having lost their father when they were very young, they had formed an unbreakable bond between them.
Marlong had been living for many years amongst the single men, squeezed into rows of small single-bed huts side by side. Every night they drank rayesh, a homemade alcoholic drink made from rice which traditionally was only to be consumed at the weekly gathering. The single men were always fighting and yelling into the night. Their huts were the only area of the village that was frequented by the Ram soldiers, who enjoyed the same lifestyle as Marlong.
“You should have been there for the game, Sondo. The new soldiers are stupid as goats, brother.” He followed with another spate of loud laughter. “Stupid Ram goats!”
“Okay, little brother,” said Papa, with his hand pushed firmly into the small of Marlong’s back, urging him outside. “I will come to your hut later and you can tell me then.”
“Why? What is wrong with now?”
“We are eating the evening meal now. I will come over when the children are sleeping.”
Marlong was uneasy around the families and traditions of our people. He did not like to follow customs as Papa did, and his appearance reflected that, as he intentionally grew his hair long and wild and had a scruffy beard that he never shaved. He had six small circular mounds burnt into the top of his left cheek by the embers of a thin burning stick. It was a symbol of manhood amongst the single men. All his teeth were missing like Papa’s, but it was not a happy smile when he laughed. Marlong looked very scary to me.
“Why do you keep such a stupid wife that you are still stuck here like a woman with those rats?” Marlong prodded.
“What business do you have questioning what I do?” Papa snapped back angrily. “I gave up just as much for you when Papa passed, you mindless goat.”
“Okay. Okay. Do as you want, Sondo, but you will not live forever. You should honour Papa’s short life by enjoying this one that you have.”
“What do you know of honour, boy? You have become a servant to the Ram soldiers with your endless drinking. My family holds me to the old ways, and that is how I will honour Papa.”
Marlong became belligerent, knowing that Papa was trying to draw him into an argument about his drinking.
“You call me a servant, Sondo? You waste your life on that whore, and I am a servant? Wake up, brother. There are easier whores in this village.”
“Is every woman that you cannot have a whore, Marlong, or only the ones that refuse you so they can be with a man they respect? Stop crying like a woman with your broken heart!”
Marlong’s nostrils flared. Papa had mocked him as only an older brother could, and the foul taste of long-kept secrets begged my uncle to spit them upon Papa’s perfect life. Mama could sense the oncoming storm and tried to stop Marlong before he spoke.
“That is enough!” she cried. “You have both said too much already.”
“Get inside,” Papa bit back at her. “Women have no place in matters between men.” Mama stepped back into the shadows, willing Papa to walk away.
“Yes,” Marlong said calmly. “Go back to our son, woman.” He smiled, knowing the sting of his words would cut Papa’s heart like a knife. True or not, to say that Taormo was not his son wounded Papa deeply. He would have struck down in a second any man who said those words – any other man. But Marlong was his brother.
Papa reached across and picked up a thick length of cane that was leaning against the side of our hut. “Go home, boy, before I break that stupid head of yours. I am tiring of your disrespect. We have work tomorrow and you need to sober up.”
Marlong’s breath steamed in the cold air as the last light hung in the whiteness of a late winter sky. His eyes locked on Papa’s fierce glare, standing defiantly and waiting for him to strike.
“Put down your stick, Sondo.” Marlong broke the tension calmly. “You are not so old that you cannot fight without a weapon. Anyway, I have enjoyed this night too much to ruin it now. Go back to your family and do whatever it is you people do. And I will not be working tomorrow. I have won enough this night that I do not need to. Be a good boy now, brother. I will see you when I am ready to work again.”
The standoff had served its purpose long enough to uphold both men’s pride. Marlong conceded and stumbled away smugly, fooling himself that he would not have taken a thrashing after drinking too much rayesh and smoking wan’gata leaf. Papa returned inside without the cheeky grin he had worn before his brother’s visit, avoiding the judgement of Mama’s staring eyes. Marlong’s drinking had become a regular occurrence, and his visits were no longer welcome.
“Your brother is a foolish man,” Mama said as Papa sat back down at our table. “He should not drink so much rayesh every day.”
“It is the world of the Ram, Peshma. He cannot fight against it.”
“He needs a woman, Sondoro. I tell you this.”
“And who would marry such a drunken fool? He should just stay away from those soldiers. They do not respect him as he thinks.”
“He is a grown man. The choices are his own,” Mama said wisely.
“Hold your tongue!” Papa exploded. “You will not speak of my brother like this in my own home. I have heard enough.” Mama stayed quiet, knowing that she had already said her piece. She also knew that Papa had heard many whispers about Taormo, but there was nothing she could do to change the past. Kirra women had no power over the desires of men, leaving them to fight amongst themselves about matters of pride.
Mama looked at me across the table as we finished eating. The troubles of our village were just as they had always been, but as long as we stayed together as a family, she knew that nothing could upset the balance of the Eternal Purity. Taormo picked up a stick and started banging it on the table. Mama glared at him but he looked back blankly, completely unaware of why she was angry. Papa took the stick away from him and threw it beneath the stove. A cockroach ran down the stove leg and hid beneath the floorboards, back to the safety of its own family.