9. Watching The Stranger

Taypi had spent the last few days watching the stranger, and struggling to fit the things that he observed into any frame of reference that made sense. For a start the stranger seemed to be ridiculously ignorant of the jungle, like a child who has never left his mother's hip. Even whilst walking he kept examining and touching everything, even, at one point, standing on a nest of poison ants to sample the bark of a tree, scraping away at it with his machete. This tool, of wonderful sharpness was as different from the palm machete's of the Tribe as was everything else about the Stranger. Who knew, he might have some purpose for the bark that the Tribe were completely unaware of? It wasn't much good for anything, as far as Taypi knew. It was too crumbly to use for binding, inedible, no good in tea and with no known medicinal properties. The Stranger seemed to become very excited about it and packed the sample carefully away in one of his many pockets, after wrapping it in some banana leaf, along with a leaf from the tree.

Every so often he would stop, take out something bright from his pocket, cast around for some light between the leaves, and measure it up against the sun. He would scribble symbols on his arms and on the tablet around his neck. This reassured the boy somewhat, as he understood the sun, and the practice of recording knowledge on the body. For the Tribe it is a sacred process, the indelible symbols pricked on the flesh with sharp thorns, whereas for this strange creature it seemed as instinctive as breathing. There is no ceremony to the Stranger's writing - he makes notes as he goes, and the letters are not indelibly pricked on the skin, but scribbled in all on top of each other, new symbols etched over the faded tracery of the old. The implement he uses for the markings could be made of bone, yet it is the wrong colour; it's handle intricately worked. There were rumours of tribes that had the secret of metal: it could be that he was one of those... But that he seemed entirely foreign to this place, and Taypi was not even sure if those tribes still existed. There seemed to be far fewer drums rumbling through the jungle each year.

Taypi has not been able to get close enough to see what the stranger is writing in his book with many leaves, but the writing on his hands and arms stands out clearly. The script seems regular, repeating the same few symbols in a bewildering variety of combinations. Perhaps the man is making prayers on his skin, endlessly repeating the name of his guardian spirits. The idea that the written language could combine the same few symbols to reproduce any word in the language was foreign to Taypi - for the Tribe had thousands of symbols, each reflecting the essential properties of the object, idea or event they described. You could not lie, or describe something incorrectly in their language; each event, each hermes replica story has its own notation and style, variation but never repetition.

The stranger eats and drinks as he travels - but is clumsy in his foraging - ripping fruits from the trees and bushes and leaving scars on the jungle as he passes. Taypi does not need to cut his way through the thick vegetation, instead using almost invisible paths that weave through the clearings, sometimes travelling along the beds of streams, sometimes taking entirely to the river. This is always a last resort as the Tribe are afraid of the open sky. They believe that the spirits of those that have left look down at them at night, glinting like so many fireflies between the clouds, and that they are jealous of the living, stealing their spirits when they can.

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