This excerpt is from my upcoming book, The Great Snake. If you don’t like spoilers, feel free to skip today’s post.
Background: Many years ago, shortly after Jai had gotten married, Jai’s mother died after giving birth to a baby girl, Klee. Jai took Klee and raised her as his own daughter. His wife, Amal, was jealous of the baby and never liked her. When Klee was a teenager, she ran away from home. The fallout from this blew up Jai’s marriage, and he is now camping out in an abandoned house that used to belong to his father, Endu. While there, he gets a visit from the tribal shaman, Ikash, his little brother.
As soon as he was strong enough to walk around and visit relatives, Ikash went to see his brother.
This required going to his father’s old house, because that was where Jai was staying. Ikash had been inside Endu’s house plenty of times during the four years since the founding of the village, but it had by no means become a second home to him. He had never felt he understood the inner workings of the family his father had built with young Dira, who was only a year older than Ikash himself. All he knew about their family was that it felt different. Different from the one he had grown up in. And so the house had never been exactly homelike.
But now, it was completely alien.
Endu’s house was a cavernous rectangle. The door, set in the middle, gave on to a great central hall. On either end of this were smaller rooms where the family slept. This time, when Ikash entered the central hall, he found it completely filled with the dark, fragrant bulk of drying wood planks. The planks were stacked in hollow boxes with aisles in between. They rose nearly to the ceiling and gave the place a completely different feel. One’s view was blocked, making the place seem even bigger.
His dog, Frost, was at his side. She scrabbled her toenails on the wooden floor and then began to sniff around, cautiously, as if in a new place. Ikash put a calming hand on her back and muttered a command to stay with him.
He called out for his brother.
Instead of echoing, the words seemed to be eaten by the stacked wood.
It was evening and Ikash had it on good authority that Jai was here, bedding down for the night. He must be in one of the side rooms. Ikash picked an aisle at random and began advancing towards the side of the house where Endu had usually slept. He almost felt as if he ought to have a weapon with him, as if he was stepping into an ambush. That, of course, was ridiculous.
He came into sight of the end of the aisle. There he could see the wall, and the door to Endu’s old bedroom. Jai was sitting with his back against the doorframe. He had a stone fire-basin on the floor in front of him, and he was warming his feet at the fire. His big skinny brown dog lay at his side. The fire cast a long shadow from Jai’s sharp nose and lit up a section of the wall around him.
A few steps from the end of the aisle, the firelight fell on Ikash and Frost. Jai squinted, said sharply, “Father? Is that you?” and scrambled to his feet.
“It’s me, brother.”
“Oh, God,” said Jai, visibly relieved. “Of course. It’s Ikash.” He invited his brother to sit down. Then he apologized for his mistake. “I thought for a second you were his ghost. You looked so much like him.”
“I don’t look like Father.”
“You do, though, now that you’ve gotten so skinny. I thought you might be his spirit.”
“I’m not, but thanks for the compliment.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you,” said Jai. “I don’t keep food in this house generally. I had supper at the central fire.”
“I thought that might be the case, and I brought something.”
Ikash had with him a small satchel containing cakes that his wife had made using cornmeal, cattail-root starch, and last year’s dried berries. He brought them out and shared them with his brother, his brother’s dog, and his own dog.
He noted with surprise that this brought tears to Jai’s eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He too had been brought to tears, once upon a time, by the simple fact of someone cooking something special for him.
They sat in silence for a long time. Ikash kept waiting for Jai to speak, but he didn’t. He seemed too preoccupied to wish his younger brother a good recovery, if indeed he was even aware that his brother had been sick.
At last the shaman said, “How do you like this house, brother?”
Jai had a small, narrow face topped with his father’s long almond-shaped eyes. He now turned the face toward his brother and those eyes gave out their trademark flat stare that might have been hostile or incredulous.
“No, of course I don’t like this house. This isn’t a house at all. It’s a goddam warehouse. I am living here because I can’t live in my own house any more. I am homeless. That’s how I like it.”
Ikash drew a breath, but his brother wasn’t finished.
“And I am living here because, as I think you know, I was kicked out of my own house by your wife’s sister and her goddam family. I’ve been replaced by my mother-in-law. That’s how things are going. And you know what the chief is like, you know the way he is about his daughters. I doubt he’d let me back into that house if I wanted to.”
“Do you want to?”
“Yes.” The syllable was bitter, but it nearly broke at the end.
“Tell me more,” said the shaman.
Jai spoke for several minutes about his wife. He was clearly angry with her, mostly for being so angry with him. He was also very lonely. Endu’s house was spooky and unhappy, a far worse place to sleep than sleeping outdoors during a hunt.
Ikash nodded. He had felt the menace as he was walking through the drying wood stacks. He did not wonder that his brother had expected to see a ghost. Jai had the dog with him, that was the saving grace, but even he didn’t want to live here forever.
Ikash said, “What if you were to reconcile with my wife’s older sister?”
Jai stopped dead in his ranting and his long dark eyes looked sideways.
“Is that even possible?”
“Perhaps,” said the shaman. He had not spoken with Amal and knew little about her mental state.
“She insists that I not blame her for our sister leaving. But I have to. She mistreated Klee horribly. I didn’t think it meant so much at the time – she never beat her – but I was wrong. Girls are more sensitive, brother. All it takes to drive them away is words. Now I can’t believe that I let Amal turn her against me. I wish I had put a stop to it at once.”
“How would you have done that, brother?”
“I … don’t know.”
Silence descended as both brothers slowly realized that if Jai had tried to put a stop to it, it would only have brought on this very situation several years earlier.
“I’ve been a terrible father,” said Jai.
“You are not finished being a father.”
“You gave her a home, kept her fed and clothed, kept her alive as she grew. Now she is grown and gone. Married. As she would have done in any case.”
“That is true, brother.”
“Do you remember when we were young and we wanted to get out and explore?”
Jai got a fierce, faraway look and said nothing. After a moment he said, “Are you saying that I haven’t failed her?”
“Perhaps not as completely as she thinks.”
“But she hates Amal and me.”
“But she is alive and whole.”
“You are right,” said Jai. “Let her hate us if it makes her happy. I am still her brother.”
“She hates me, too,” said Ikash helpfully.
“And you hate our father.”
“No, brother, I don’t.”
“Well, you think he is dangerous, and a bad man.”
“In many ways, he is.”
“He was a great father,” said Jai. “I still don’t know how his house got so sad and ghosty. I can’t understand it.” He shook his head silently for a few moments, and then said, “Brother … I feel as if …” And then with a very fierce look, “Do not mock me.”
“I feel as if,” said Jai, stroking the dog and not meeting his brother’s eye, “As if, were I to … truly let Klee go … I’d be failing our mother. Again.”
And Ikash took a sharp breath as if he had been stabbed, but did not reply.
This was too big a matter for words, so the two of them sat in silence a time.
“But she is grown,” said Jai then. “Not dead, but grown. Do you really think I can reconcile with my wife?”
“Maybe it is possible,” said the shaman carefully. “I think … I think it might be necessary that the two of you stop talking about Klee. I know that … I realize what that … means to you. But you may need to do it if you want to reconcile with your wife. Perhaps you can sort of … start over.”
Jai’s face softened. “Start over,” he murmured. “If she agrees to start over …, would you do some sort of ceremony for us?”
“I’d be honored.”
His intercession did not make all come right immediately. But Jai began to make overtures towards reconciling with Amal. In the early summer, Ikash did a reconciliation ceremony for his brother and sister-in-law that involved smoke and sacrifices. Everyone was as happy as if it were a wedding. At that time, it had been exactly a year since Klee found out the truth about her parentage.
Not long after this, the tribe performed on Endu’s house what might be described as an extreme form of spring cleaning. The seasoned wood was removed and re-stacked in a dry outdoor location, with a temporary cattail roof overhead to protect it from rains. The house itself was then dismantled. Some of the timber was salvaged, but most of it, the “ghosty” part, was burned. Ikash performed a purifying ceremony over the land where the house had been. The newly seasoned timber was then used to make a tribal meeting hall. The remnants of Endu’s house were used in a remodeling project that Jai and Amal were undertaking.