Ulug brushed the patch of ground before him clear of twigs and fallen leaves. He then opened the leather pouch at his waist and took out the grains. Ceremonially, one by one, he laid out seven in a row on the cleared patch of earth, in a rough semicircle. Seven was the mystical number. He placed a single grain in the approximate centre of the semicircle. Slowly, grunting slightly with the effort, he squatted down to wait.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2008
He was stripped to the waist, and his skin was coloured with blue and yellow dye to signify his status as the tribe’s bard. Not for him the red of the warrior or the black of the shaman: he was bard, singer, keeper of the tribal lore. He – and he alone – had the right to the blue and yellow.
He took his pipe from where he had tucked it into his waistband next to the pouch and began playing on it, softly. He ran his fingers along the shaft, and the pipe made its tunes, rising and falling softly, plaintive and happy by turns. He did not have to wait long.
The bird came down, as he had known it would, in a flurry of feathers and perched on the branch above. It was small and dark grey with a white breast, and as it raised and lowered its sharp little beak it began to echo the pipe, up and down the scale, till it was leading the song and the pipe followed.
Ulug glanced up at the bird as he played. One-handed, careful not to scatter the semicircle of grain, he lay down a line of ten more grains, closing the open end of the semicircle. He slowly lowered his pipe and began to speak.
“Bird,” he said, formally, in the spirit language, not the language of everyday speech. “I follow your song. I acknowledge you to be my master. Your music rules mine. Your spirit rules mine. I salute you and bring you tribute.” He scattered some of the rest of the grain on the ground before him, lightly. The bird was used to this. Every day for the last moon Ulug had done this. The bird had long since lost all fear of him.
It came down then from the branch, and bent its head to peck. Ulug threw down the last of the grain in front of him and waited, head bowed with reverence, as the bird, pecking, came before him. It bent its head again.
Ulug’s hand flashed out then, so quickly the bird had no chance to react, grabbing the feathered form in his large fist, crushing down, turning the warm beating body into a shattered pulp of bone and feather. With the third thing he had in his belt, the little knife, he cut open the bird and took out its heart, which was still trembling slightly, and swallowed it whole.
“I have honoured you, bird,” he said, formally. “Your spirit is in mine. There can be no greater honour I can bestow on you. And I thank you for the sacrifice you made.”
He clambered slowly to his aging feet and went down to the village. There was to be a feast tonight, and his music would be needed.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2008