Datu – Beasts of Jute

Toloko, inhabitant of a secluded village on a distant tropical island originally was a proud lazy person, using his mind mostly just to find ways to avoid work. But when a "black wave" attacks his home, he's tasked with saving his grandmother, only to end up in the midst of all the conflicts the island is plagued by. Otherworldly beasts, dubious NGOs, gangs, pet abductions and overly loud hip-hop beats alongside strange rhymes.

– Written by Jute (@feurison on Twitter, @juteanworld on Tumblr, @jutean on Discord – feel free to reach out to me there or write an e-mail to jute [at] posteo.de

Map of the islandMap of the village of Saavahai, Toloka’s home


Chapter 1

BLACK WAVE


A fishing trip and a nap interrupted

Black waves in the sky? That… was certainly new, Toloka thought, as he saw it appear above him while he walking towards the beach, passing by thick rows of coconut palms. Look, he would tell anyone listening now, but there was no one, so he was just talking to the wind picking up more and more – I might not have paid much attention in school during weather class (or any class, for that matter…), but even I know waves in the sky are supposed to be either white and slow-moving, or come in dark swarms. And always fluffy, like wool. This one is neither! It’s pitch-black, and has… – he squinted to take a closer look, although the gusts were already becoming so strong, he was struggling to maintain his footing – it has sharp edges and moves faster than even the fiercest ocean waves during a storm...

But storms are always caused by those dark sky swarms, and rarely come out of nowhere. No way could a single wave cause something like he was now experiencing. He felt strong shivers go down his spine, but he kept his countenance as confusion at the seemingly impossible sight and the growing annoyance at the realization that his noon fishing will be spoiled. Why should he be concerned? Everyone knew tragedy only hit the hard-working, noble people. Dawdlers like him had nothing to worry about, living long, lazy lives. Had he chosen this life on purpose? Of course not, that would have required him to actually make some kind of decision on his own, and take responsibility for it. He preferred to go with the flow, regardless of what all the other villagers thought of him. Sure, it didn’t make him exactly popular, but eh. That just always seemed like a lot of needless work and trouble.

His musings were interrupted by fishing rod getting stuck at a palm whose long feather leaves were shaken vigorously by the storm, and before he even realized it, some had inexplicably fallen on him, smothering him below like he had just been tucked in by the wind itself for the night. And he would have definitely taken a midday nap right then and there, because why waste a good opportunity? Except this one was a bit different. He was unexpectedly feeling hot, too hot at places, like a flame had just kissed him good night. But that was nonsensical. He was lazy, not stupid. In fact, he believed that laziness took a lot of intelligence to make work – plenty of people do so much work that later turns out to have been unnecessary. Avoiding that required foresight, and some logical thought. Which now was telling him there was nothing that could have started a fire here, no lightning, firestone or stumbling while holding a burninng torch. (That last thing happened only once. Well, twice in a row then, but still.) And regardless, there was no way a fire spirit could even survive in this kind of weather, everyone knew fire was weak to wind.

And yet, sometimes the world rudely refuses to make sense. Actually, that was a daily occurrence, but this one was particularly galling. No matter how much he hoped the burning sensation would go away, how much he believed it was just in his mind, it didn’t. So he was finally, after who knows how much time, required to open his eyes again and actually check what was happening. He disliked that tremendously, because he felt that being at peace and not letting things be were fundamentally at odds. Good things happen to people who don’t check. Much to his chagrin, he realized he really was actually on fire. A bit. The palm leaf was smouldering and a bit of charcoaled no-longer-green had dropped on his arm and was slowly burning through his red t-shirt. He had gotten it from who knows where, no one knew how clothing at this end of the world ended up here anymore, but the thought of having to fix or replace it nagged at him more than any pain. The effort!

Some rolling on the ground and carefully measured fanning with the leaf later it was all extinguished, and his mind began to wander what in the world had made him be so incorrect in his reasoning. He got up and looked at the sky some more. The black wave wasn’t where it used to be, the sky seemed spotlessly blue again. He tried to get his miraculously unharmed fishing rod unstuck when he smelled more fire. But this time, with no hot embrace by a burning spirit. He turned around and saw columns of dark smoke rising behind the palm trees he had just passed. Those were clearly thicker and larger than a normal stovetop fire coming up through one of those newfangled chimneys.

Hey, he thought, that’s where I came from! I mean, that’s my home– ugh. He facepalmed, trying to keep his subconscious from erupting like a spring. He pictured a rock being thrown into his stream of consciousness, making water splash everywhere for a moment before settling down and flowing around it. Just like he now had to well, adapt to the new situation. So much for fishing or a nap, then. He didn’t feel concerned, or at least tried to tell himself he wasn’t. But not knowing what was happening would probably cause trouble later and disrupt his evening plans of more fishing and napping too, so he better got on with it.

He slowly walked back, still on the lookout for that dark sight in the sky, but it seemed to have disappeared as quickly as it had come. Like it was some kind of celestial prank! He wasn’t as self-centered as to think it was made specifically to ruin his fishing trip and napping, though. But then, what was it? What had actually happened?

He was now staring off into space again, lost in thought, and so tripped over a stone at the ground, and fell, almost making a pole vault with his fishing rod. After the dust had settled, he looked around for the offending stone, but could find nothinng but an oddly tear-shaped, shiny black thing that was also oddly flat for a stone on top of everything else. Wait, was this a giant scale? Who would have lost it here, that far from both the sea and the jungle? It’s impossible to overlook, so seemed unlikely for any fisher to have lost it, too.

Well, he thought, no one’s probably gonna miss it and in fact removing this tripping hazard should count as a good deed, and he was raised to do a good deed every day, so he pocketed it. But now he really hoped that there was not more fire where that smoke he saw was, after so much effort and exertion. He could only hope to be able to return to his lazy days tomorrow.


Homewards

Grumbling he walked down the main path of the village, palms on the right, buildings on the left, mostly in disorderly rows alongside sidepaths. Both of them were showing inexpicable fire damage, with some palms smoldering, and people busy putting out smaller fires in straw and palm-leave roofs. They were fortunately all under control, even if getting water to them could be slow, as vehicles didn’t really exist here, not even pack animals. Everyone normally had to go about their day on foot, maybe dragging a cart behind themselves that occasionally might have some children in it, an infirm person, or some construction material. He also saw a wheelchair user once. Moving those on a dirt path required serious determination and strength in your arms, he thought. The undeterrable determination of people was admirable. Everyone in their own way, of course. As for him, he was mostly just determined to never work a day in his life, but also never have someone work for him. Why have someone else waste effort he is saving? He would rather teach those around him in his ways, if only they listened.

After some five minutes of walking, his head fixated on the clouds in the sky, he had reached the end of the path, nearing what people here called the netu, or the border to the wilderness, the jungle that surrounds the village on three sides. His home was right next to it, and he would always hear distant cries of wild beasts when being there in the evening. It was what he went to sleep to and what he woke up to, and had become a comforting sound to experience every day. What wasn’t as comforting were the all-too-common arguments with his mother, and the frequently upset ramblings of his grandmother. He did appreciate them both, and was sure they felt the same about him, just the way they showed it was, well, still surprising every time.

Fortunately, his home turned out to be unscathed.

He hadn’t even entered the footbath next to the front door yet to wash his bare feet before entering when he could already hear steps approaching all too quickly and noisily, always the sign of foreboding and trouble. The door was thrown open and words were poured on him from the waterfall of language that his mother’s mouth could turn into sometimes. He let them pass over him like a cold shower, waited patiently with his head cast down, and finally entered when he was allowed to pass.

It seemed like it would be a normal evening, until he noticed that his grandmother wasn’t in her usual place at the window drinking her coconut tea. His eyes started at the empty chair, and as he got closer to the table he saw that the jute pillow on top of it was undisturbed. He struggled to come up with any good explanations, or explanations at all beyond a huge lonely beast, maybe one of those giant owls, abducted her and his mother is blaming him for it.


The Doctor

Even worse, he had no idea what to do next, or what would happen next. He braced himself for another cascade of words but the silence stayed even as his mother approached him, and as he turned towards her again and finally saw the look on her face he realized he didn’t need to hear anything. He stormed out of the building and towards the healer’s building, located at the main path just across the corner.

As he ran past his neighbors’ homes he noticed a red cardinal sitting on top of one of the tiny landing spots usually reserved for carrier pigeons that were so fundamental to long-term communication on the island. He abruptly came to a stop, and would have begun a staring contest, when he noticed another column of smoke emanating from a house in the background, remembered where he was going to, and silently bid the bird goodbye.

He cut the corner and entered the yard of the healer’s house. Like all houses in the village it had no fence around it, let alone a gate.

What he saw stopped him in his tracks. What he didn't did so even more, as he tripped over a root in the small path leading him to fall down on his face instead of to the porch of the house that really didn't look any different than his own home. The only difference were blue and green feathers hanging from the porch roof. They weren't decorations; they were the confederal symbol for medical workers. Although he always felt they did make for nice ornaments and as he got up and saw the healer come out of the building, wished once again he could wear a necklace made of such feather the way she did as part of her profession.

His attention could not stray for long this time, as the healer beckoned him to come inside. He moved past a small chemistry lab situated on a table on the porch with one beaker still emitting smoke, and when he looked back into the face of its owner saw it was in fact covered in soot, something he had somehow failed to notice until now. It was odd to see someone otherwise so preoccupied with cleanliness receive anyone in this state. His heart sank further as his mind went through the possible explanations, each grimmer than the last. As he stepped inside, the cooing of several cages with carrier pigeons greeted him, and a desk with a book propped open and a letter finished and ready for sending was in front of him.

He approached it slowly, one small step at a time, not feeling ready but also not wanting to put off the inevitable.

He realized how he had never even thought of what to do if someone needed help, dismissed the possibility even, something that now left him feeling quite helpless, the regret burning his heart. He had to force himself to not look away again, to listen to the labored breathing coming faintly from below the banana leaf covers, to see the left arm hanging limply by the side like a broken twig and, after he had taken the three steps to the bed, to feel the other arm that had so tirelessly fought with any and all weeds intruding in their garden now so weakly grasp his own hand that he dared not move it. His vision became blurred with his eyes flooding, motionlessly and wordlessly he stood. And the world around the bed seemed to disappear and there was only one thought left in him now, to find a way to vanquish the dread of not knowing what to do now, to not know how to make up for not having been there when it was needed.

He could still not look his grandmother in her eyes, so he turned towards the desk again, in front of which the healer was now standing again, unmoving, like a rock at the beach. The woman shot him a stern gaze before casting her eyes down to the book and sighing, seemingly absent-mindedly playing with a small empty pot made of clay in her hand at the same time. Toloka carefully let go of his grandmother's hand, putting it back on the green blanket, and walked back to take a closer look at the pot. The thing had some writing carved in on it, which had reawakened his curiosity, and he welcomed this briefest of respites from his current life.

He regretted it as soon as he was close enough. The writing said "whiteberries" on it, and it dawned on him that the healer hadn't just picked it randomly as a kind of fidgeting tool. A look back at the herbalism tome confirmed his worst suspicions, with all his grandmother's symptoms, most strikingly the whole one body half being limp part, being described there as curable with them. A thought spurred him into action and he frantically, even somewhat carelessly to the visible displeasure of the healer, leafed through the large book trying to find an alternative. But every time he thought he had found something and expectantly looked back to the woman still standing behind him his face fell as she wordlessly shook her head each time.

He could still not look his grandmother in her eyes, so he turned towards the desk again, in front of which the healer was now standing again, unmoving, like a rock at the beach. The woman shot him a stern gaze before casting her eyes down to the book and sighing, seemingly absent-mindedly playing with a small empty pot made of clay in her hand at the same time. Toloka carefully let go of his grandmother's hand, putting it back on the green blanket, and walked back to take a closer look at the pot. The thing had some writing carved in on it, which had reawakened his curiosity, and he welcomed this briefest of respites from his current life.

He regretted it as soon as he was close enough. The writing said "whiteberries" on it, and it dawned on him that the healer hadn't just picked it randomly as a kind of fidgeting tool. A look back at the herbalism tome confirmed his worst suspicions, with all his grandmother's symptoms, most strikingly the whole one body half being limp part, being described there as curable with them. A thought spurred him into action and he frantically, even somewhat carelessly to the visible displeasure of the healer, leafed through the large book trying to find an alternative. But every time he thought he had found something and expectantly looked back to the woman still standing behind him his face fell as she wordlessly shook her head each time.

He trotted off, slowly, but with a firm conviction. Earning the right to not be called "useless", or as they said here, dahomol a vakelavan se, "not a dragoncatcher for sure".

What could he do? Especially in such a small, remote village. He had enjoyed the solitude, the feeling of being so far away from everything that could potentially spell trouble, but this day had shattered it all and he now wished he could pull the land below his feet closer to the main parts of the island, like a young adult that wishes to return to their mother. In the absence of literally earthshattering spiritual powers, moving his feet instead would have to suffice.

There he would have to find those elusive small berries. Well, "there" was remarkably unspecific, unfortunately. He did not enjoy the thought of what he would have to do next.

This morning I certainly didn't see myself doing schoolwork by the afternoon...


To the library

He started moving to the local library, dragging himself, really, as part of him was apparently strongly resisting it. Not on the inside, it seemed to him more like his spirit had split into twins, one pushing him to go on, the other holding him by his knees, pulling him back into the pit of despair. This lethargic side preferred to stick with what is familiar even if it had failed him now and staying would only deepen the wounds inside.

A strangely familiar call made him stop and turn his head around. But he didn't see anyone standing anywhere. Yet the call returned once more, clear and loud enough it had to be nearby. He looked left and right, until he realized it was somehow coming from near the ground. There it was again, the same red cardinal as before. It's like he had been followed the entire way and now had someone wait for him. The bird took to flight and he followed it with his eyes, not speaking a word this time. It eventually perched down on his shoulder. He was surprised, but decided to leave it be. A bit of moral support right now might be nice, in fact.

Soon he and his new friend found themselves back on the long path that was moving past the village on one side and past the coconut palms and banana trees protecting it from the ocean on the other side. Waves higher than any house here could land at the shore that was so exposed to the open sea, and the village was often cut off from the wider world entirely as a result, jammed between the green jungle behind it and the blue, wet jungle ahead of it.

That's not to say the land stayed dry in comparison. Rain was an almost daily spectacle the tropical climate entitled everyone living here to experience. Every day, all year long, ranging from light, refreshing showers in the dry season to torrential downpours that could make him feel that all the world's rain was coming down at once during the wet season. And one was starting just now, with the dry season just having ended.

His reluctant spirit twin let go of him and he began to run.

Thankfully the library was just the time you needed to eat a banana away. Most things were nearby, the beach here he had meant to fish on earlier was just one banana more away, or two for fast eaters. Trying to measure the distance to the nearest town the same way would however give anyone potassium poisoning, rot their teeth and turn their blood sweet. In short, it should be avoided. (Also, any boat would struggle to carry the necessary amount across the sea.)

Toloka threw the eaten banana away, letting it fall on top of a nearby vegetable patch. Banana peels made for good mulch, containing a lot of nutrients that would be slowly released as the peel decomposed. He was now standing on the village plaza in front of the largest building of the village, containing an assembly room for weekly meetings of the community on the ground floor, an archive with records on the second, and finally the library on the third one. Unfortunately, the bakery right next to it was closed from the storm, so he would not be able to score any banana pancakes today as provision. But its store of raw ingredients had been swirled all over the place, and so he picked up another banana and began eating it.

Thankfully the library was just the time you needed to eat a banana away. Most things were nearby, the beach here he had meant to fish on earlier was just one banana more away, or two for fast eaters. Trying to measure the distance to the nearest town the same way would however give anyone potassium poisoning, rot their teeth and turn their blood sweet. In short, it should be avoided. (Also, any boat would struggle to carry the necessary amount across the sea.)

Toloka threw the eaten banana away, letting it fall on top of a nearby vegetable patch. Banana peels made for good mulch, containing a lot of nutrients that would be slowly released as the peel decomposed. He was now standing on the village plaza in front of the largest building of the village, containing an assembly room for weekly meetings of the community on the ground floor, an archive with records on the second, and finally the library on the third one. Unfortunately, the bakery right next to it was closed from the storm, so he would not be able to score any banana pancakes today as provision. But its store of raw ingredients had been swirled all over the place, and so he picked up another banana and began eating it.

He stepped towards the large and bulky community center doors and tried to open them, but they wouldn't budge. Of course, the storm and the destruction it caused would obviously led to the librarian in charge of the whole thing closing it. Looking up, he could see that while the house itself had survived it all mostly intact, save for some scorch marks here and there, all the windows had been broken and rain was getting into the rooms with the bookshelves.

Oh no.

Seeing the threat the collective memory of the village was under, he doubled down on trying to open the doors, rattling on them, holding his feet against them to add grip, but to no avail. But all he got for his troubles was a bucket of rainwater on his already wet head. His red-feathered friend let out a loud indignant chip and took off briefly to shake the drops of water from itself.

That was reason enough for him to give up. The librarian clearly didn't want to be disturbed and didn't want any help dealing with the mess the phenomeon earlier had caused , and he wasn't going to shout at him to argue. Waste of energy, for one. And he also had had harmony drilled into him since a young age, or mohomo. Mohomo with other people, pets, plants and so on. Did it mean care? Usually. Did it mean give and take equally freely? Absolutely. Could it also mean "stay away if you don't want to live in harmony with worms, ants and fungi"? Yes.

In this case it, too, meant "stay away", although he didn't remember the librarian ever being that dangerous.

But what alternative was there? He couldn't risk asking the healer, probably busy like never before now, risk seeing that grim face again. And with no chance to consult books on his own here, what was there left to do?

He really did not enjoy the thought of what he would have to do next.

– To be continued –