A Triptych Tale...

The Little Wise One

A Triptych Tale

 

From his birth, everyone called him Olororu: “The Round-Bellied One.” His parents rejoiced to have such a healthy-looking baby.

But Olororu never grew into the vigorous son they’d hoped for. He didn’t run and play with other children, but sat beneath the redbean trees while others climbed them, cradling that swelling roundness and looking weary, sometimes cocking his head as though listening to a barely heard voice.

Yellow-fly fever took Olororu’s parents. He grew into an emaciated youth with the belly of a pregnant woman. He did his share of work in the water-wheat fields, and more, although it grew ever harder to bend down among the irrigation furrows, and to breathe when he lay down to sleep. The men shunned him, children stared and pointed, and young women tittered behind their hands when they saw him. Only the old women who’d borne many children treated him kindly, showing him ways to ease his aching back, making a bolster to raise his head so he could breathe while he slept. Eshe, the old midwife, puzzled over him, calling him her “impossible patient” and bringing him extra redbean porridge to lessen his constant hunger.

That was the first clear idea he sensed from the Other inside him: Hungry.

The men shunned him, children stared and pointed ...

The Other had no voice, no words as Olororu understood them. With time, Olororu had grown aware of the Other’s signals: strange tastes in his mouth, shifting pressure on his lungs, cramps in his constricted stomach. The Other seemed very like what he knew of babies: always eating, always demanding more.

The second signal he learned from the Other was Danger. He’d stolen just the tiniest taste of a sweetcake meant to honor Eshe the midwife after a birth. The father-to-be, a prosperous herdsman, had set out a great pile of cakes, covered with netting to keep off the birds. Eshe was supposed to take them with her when the birthing was over and mother and child were safe. Olororu figured no one would miss a tiny crumb.

At first the Other seemed gratified by the sweetness. Then Olororu’s stomach clenched. His mouth flooded with bitterness and bile.

“Danger. Poison,” he gasped.

“Guilty conscience, more likely?” said Eshe, appearing with her still-bloody hands on her hips. She studied the pile of cakes, and sniffed one.

“Danshoi, you fool!” she called to the new father. “You used spoiled grain in the cakes. Are you trying to make me sick?” She turned back to Olororu, frowning. “You can’t have eaten enough to sicken you already.”

“The Other said it was bad.”

Eshe frowned and took him to her hut. She poked and prodded, made Olororu drink oceans of water and examined his urine, and asked questions about the Other. To Olororu’s shame, Eshe’s pretty daughter watched everything from the doorway.

“Meiwi is my apprentice. She has to learn,” said Eshe, palpating the bulge in his abdomen.

Olororu forgave the midwife for the embarrassment, firstly as penance for stealing from her, and secondly because for a week she kept him in relative comfort, propping him up with soft cushions and bringing him things to eat and drink while questioning him about the Other’s reactions. Most of the things were pleasant, and she only gave him minuscule amounts of the nasty ones, or asked him to smell them. The Other could detect evils an ordinary person wouldn’t notice. A single drop of tainted water or taste of spoiled food brought the Danger! feeling. Sweets or pleasant scents like ginger and vanilla brought a wave of relaxation that he learned to think of as Happy. True poisons, like those for killing vermin, brought on gut-roiling terror from a mere sniff.

Only tastes and smells affected the Other. Light and darkness made no difference to it. The midwife laid hot and cold cloths on Olororu’s body, and although the heat relaxed his aching muscles, the Other did nothing. It didn’t react when Eshe praised it or shouted at it, although Olororu blushed when she swore.

Olororu thought it responded to him, though, by letting him breathe easier when he was calm, or putting a sour taste in his mouth when he was afraid.

“Well, Olororu!” said Eshe at last. “This thing inside you is useful. Your testing has kept two families from getting sick from bad food. You’ve become something of a wise man.”

He shook his head and touched his belly gingerly. “I’m not wise. I’m only repeating what the Other tells me. The Little Wise One.”

The midwife pursed her lips and looked grim, but only said, “Well, listen to it. The more you can understand of what it tells you, the better.”

“This thing inside you is useful."

Olororu had grown weak from lying idle for so long. Eshe and pretty Meiwi had to help him walk back to his own hut, and the villagers stared. Their stares were different now, holding not only mockery and disgust, but a touch of awe. Eshe made a soft bed lined with furs and with a raised back. Reclining on it made him feel presumptuous, like a boy pretending to be as important as a midwife, but he had to admit that he could breathe easier on it.

“It’s not prideful. It’s practical,” said Eshe. “You can’t work in this state, so you might as well be as comfortable as possible.”

“But I have to work!” Olororu met the midwife’s grim glare with his own. “To feed the Little Wise One, if nothing else.”

The next day he tried to go out to the fields. His legs wobbled, and he fell to his hands and knees in the mud. He fought for breath, taking in scents of earth and air and the water in the furrows, and choking. When two men from the families who’d escaped poisoning carried him back to his hut he blurted out everything he’d learned from the Little Wise One: There was sickness in the ground and the water, sickness that would soon bring fever if the channels weren’t rerouted. The men grumbled, but at Eshe’s orders they made the changes. Illness swept through nearby towns, but in Olororu’s village no one got sick, and the water-wheat grew taller and greener than ever before.

Olororu didn’t have to work in the fields any more. People brought earth from their furrows and water from their wells for the Little Wise One to test. They brought grain and fruits and fish for the Little Wise One to declare wholesome. In return, they left gifts for the Little Wise One’s host. Olororu marveled at the sight and scent of the luxuries they brought: steamed water-wheat with saffron and nuts, fruit dipped in honey, fish baked in redbean paste.

Hungry, said the Little Wise One.

It was always hungry. There was no room inside Olororu for both the Little Wise One and enough food to satisfy it. Trying to eat more only brought pain. The delicacies tasted sweet in Olororu’s mouth, but his arms and legs grew thinner than ever. Eshe and Meiwi took away the uneaten food before it could spoil.

Trying to eat more only brought pain.

Olororu was grateful for them. They were the only ones who remembered that he was more than just a vessel for the thing inside him. His former friends and neighbors only came to beg favors of the Little Wise One. They kept their gazes on the floor or fixed on the taut dome of Olororu’s abdomen, and backed out again once they’d received their answers and left their offerings. Only Eshe and Meiwi looked him in the eyes and spoke to him as to a person. They made him smile with tales of life outside the confines of the hut, kept him clean, and eased his cramped and withering limbs. Meiwi had such gentle hands.

She came to visit Olororu the day Eshe confirmed her as an official midwife, wearing the ceremonial scarlet robe with jingling golden bells on the hem and with the scent of orangewood incense still lingering about her.

“You look beautiful, Midwife Meiwi,” he ventured.

She laughed. “I sound like a walking spice-seller’s cart.” She knelt beside his bed, careful not to crush the bells. “I have news for you. Before a girl can become a midwife, her mentor casts a prophesy for her.” She looked thoughtful. “I think it’s to give the spirits a chance to warn her in case the girl’s too clumsy to catch babies. But Mother said that I’ll be the one to relieve you of your burden.”

Olororu looked down. The Little Wise One had thrived on worship and tastes of rich food. Olororu’s skin now stretched tight over a hard round bulge that no shirt would cover. “I didn’t think that was possible,” he murmured.

Meiwi looked troubled. “Well, those were Mother’s exact words. I’m sure it’ll be clear when the time comes.” She detached one of the bells from her skirt. “Here. Ring this if you need anything.”

He took it, sure that he’d never be so bold as to summon her. But he lay awake in the dark that night, thinking.

Relieve him of his burden. How? Would he actually give birth to the Little Wise One, like a woman with child? He didn’t see how that could be possible. Perhaps he’d vomit it up. Or simply burst. The thought made him shudder, sending pain up his spine.

Hungry, said the Little Wise One, even though Olororu had a piece of sugar in his mouth. Hungry.

Olororu simply couldn’t eat enough to satisfy the being inside him. It was stealing his strength, his breath, his life. Something had to happen soon.

“What are you?” he demanded of the weight inside him — silently, because speaking wasted precious breath. “What are you doing to me?”

Hungry.

“I have nothing more to give you!”

Hungry.

#

The Little Wise One grew until Olororu barely had breath to repeat its pronouncements. Then Meiwi stopped visiting. Eshe tended him instead, answering his gasped questions with “Never mind that foolish girl. Save your breath.”

She wouldn’t say any more. Only when she’d gone, leaving Olororu alone with his thoughts and that tiny, insistent voice, did he realize that there was another way to relieve him of his burden. Perhaps the prophecy had shown Meiwi killing him. Gentle Meiwi could never do such a thing. He remembered the troubled look on her face, and closed his hand around the tiny bell she’d given him. He didn’t dare ring it.

Just before longing outweighed fear Meiwi came back — with two strangers. They wore white coats that had obviously never been near the mud of the grain fields. One, with rounds of glass over his eyes, stared and pointed and spoke in urgent tones. Olororu couldn’t understand a word he said. The other, younger man spoke Olororu’s language, although with a heavy accent.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “We’re doctors. We’re going to take you to the hospital and get this thing out of you.”

Just before longing outweighed fear Meiwi came back — with two strangers.

“It’s time for the Little Wise One to be born?” said Olororu, but they were already strapping something to his face that made it easier to breathe but impossible to converse. He had just enough time to raise a hand in farewell to Meiwi and Eshe.

They took him away in a white wagon that howled like a death-demon, far beyond the wetlands to an enormous brick building. The smell of the air here threw the Little Wise One into a frenzy, crying Danger! with every wrench of Olororu’s gut. The strange men put him in a bed that helped him sit up and breathe, and stuck a tube in his arm. His sense of the Little Wise One inside him faded, although the taut bulge of his belly didn’t.

The man who spoke Olororu’s language promised that he would help to take the Little Wise One out of Olororu’s belly.

“Like a baby from a pregnant woman?” he asked, The young man translated, and the older one chuckled and nodded.

“But that’s Meiwi’s fate,” Olororu protested.

“The young midwife?” said the younger doctor. “She may have saved your life already.” He did something to a bag connected to the tube in Olororu’s arm, and everything went black.

#

Olororu took a deep breath. His lungs expanded more than they’d been able to in years. He listened for the Little Wise One’s reaction to the medicine-scent in the air, but nothing answered. His belly hurt in a sharper, lighter way than usual, and his head felt heavy. He opened his eyes and looked down. It took him a while to realize that he was seeing his toes. The older doctor was shouting in his alien language, waving sheaves of papers and looking stunned but elated. The younger man hushed him, came to the bedside and said in Olororu’s language, “How are you feeling?”

“I can breathe. Thank you,” said Olororu, smiling despite his anxiety. “Where is the Little Wise One?”

The man frowned. “The Little Wise One?”

“Inside me.”

The man sighed, pulled up a chair, and sat. “Olororu, we thought you had a tumor inside you. We found something different, and extremely rare. It’s called fetus in fetu. It’s when two babies who would have been twins grow one inside the other instead. The one inside can never become a child, but it will kill the host if it grows too large. You were very lucky the young midwife came to us when she did.”

Olororu sat in silence for a moment. “The Little Wise One was my brother?”

“The thing inside you had no brain or heart or lungs. It wasn’t a person.”

“Wasn’t? The Little Wise One is dead?”

“It was never alive. Never aware.”

“But he spoke to me.”

“Olororu, it couldn’t have. It had no way to speak, or even think.”

“I need to take him home and bury him with our parents.”

The young doctor translated this for the older one, who responded with an emphatic negative and pointed at his papers. The young doctor apologized, and told Olororu to rest and get his strength back.

He had just enough time to raise a hand in farewell to Meiwi and Eshe.

Over the following days, Olororu obeyed the doctors’ instructions to eat and exercise. Although his heart grieved for his lost brother, his body responded with treacherous enthusiasm. His flattened stomach eagerly turned food into flesh. His liberated lungs reenergized his body, giving him back muscle and strength. His step, freed from the weight of the Little Wise One, became quick and light. No insidious unheard voice demanded his blood and breath. Outside, he was stronger than he’d ever been. Inside, he felt hollow.

The young doctor brought him back to the village in the white wagon, now silent. Before he left, he slipped a paper packet into Olororu’s hand.

“It’s just a bit of hair,” he said. “But it’s something.”

Olororu understood. “Thank you,” he said.

No one spoke to Olororu as he walked to the Place of the Dead. He sat beneath a redbean tree, unfolded the paper, and gazed at the strands of dark hair inside.

“I’m sorry, my Little Wise Brother,” he said.

He refolded the paper and crushed a redbean pod with his fingers. He smeared the symbols for Death, Life, and Blessing on the paper with the sticky red paste. Then he dug a hole beneath the tree with his hands and buried the folded scrap.

Little bells rang. He stood up and turned around, and saw Meiwi, in her red robe, standing just outside the sacred ground. Eshe stood farther away, watching.

“You’re looking much better, Olororu,” Meiwi said. Then she smiled and looked at his flat, scarred torso. “Although your name doesn’t fit you very well now.”

“The Little Wise One is dead,” he told her.

“I know. Mother told me she’s seen many strange things birthed, and not all of them can live in this world.”

“But he was my brother.”

“No. It was a thing.”

Olororu shook his head violently. “No! The Little Wise One spoke to me. He helped people.”

“You helped people. Doesn’t it comfort you to know that what died had no heart or mind?”

“No.” Olororu pressed his hands to his temples and looked down. “Because if it wasn’t the Little Wise One, that would mean I gave my life to a thing, and let it devour me.”

“But it didn’t. You’re here, alive.” She nodded at the raw earth beneath the tree. “That was a kind thing you did.”

“I should have done more.”

“What? Let it kill you? That would have been a foolish waste.”

“But now the village no longer has the Little Wise One. And I’ve spoiled your prophecy. You didn’t deliver the Little Wise One. The foreign doctors did.”

Meiwi gave him a strange look. “The prophecy said I’d deliver you of your burden. Are you going to keep standing in the Place of the Dead, or come out here with the living?”

She backed up and he followed her out of the circle. Then she stopped.

“Your burden isn’t the Little Wise One. It’s your guilt,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

Olororu drew in a deep, shocked breath. Over Meiwi’s shoulder he saw the old midwife smiling.

“You’re not going to spoil my prophecy, are you?” Meiwi said.

Slowly, he removed the tiny, treasured bell from his pocket, rang it just once, and stepped forward to meet her. Meiwi laughed and put her arms around him. And a voice inside him said Happy. Good. Very, very good.

Melissa Mead lives in Upstate NY. Go here to learn what she’s been up to: http://carpelibris.wordpress.com/.