The man woke up with a headache. It was still light so he figured that he had slept for only a few hours. He knew he had to hurry and face that which scared him, for he did not come this far just to turn back and head out of the forest.
Still groggy, he took off his clothes and jumped into the stream. The sudden shock of cold water jolted his senses back to life. Reinvigorated, he got out of the water, put his clothes back on and mounted his horse.
Part of him did want to turn back, for what he was about to do he found distasteful. But he knew he had to do it, otherwise he would never find peace with himself in his new life outside the forest, and the only way for that to happen was for him to have closure in his old life.
Riding as fast as the fading light allowed, his heart too was racing because he knew that he was nearing his destination. And soon enough, he saw the clearing.
Slowing down, his chest felt heavy once more. More than that, he felt guilt, and sadness, because when he saw his village, his people, his home, he knew that he no longer lived there. Then as if that wasn’t enough, he felt a hopeless despair, because he knew in his heart that he had never really lived there at all.
He brought his horse to a walk as he entered the village of the Fenek, or what he secretly and mockingly called “The Rabbit People”.
He was first greeted by his thirteen year-old cousin Kannello, who was already running towards him. “Ghaqli!” the boy cried. “It’s Ghaqli! Ghaqli!”
Ghaqli smiled when he saw the boy, now almost a young man. He could still remember Kannello as a small kid the last time he saw him. How time had passed. “Kannello! My Ku Kannello! How you’ve grown!”
“You’re back, Ku Ghaqli! You’re finally back!” And Ghaqli alighted his horse and hugged his cousin. Kannello quickly said, “Come, come, surely the chief wants to see you.”
“And how is Chief Ka Boxxla?”
“Oh, he is well. He had been waiting everyday for your return. It’s been two years but he knew that you would come back to take your place among the Fenek. We missed your cooking. The new village cook, the one who took over from you, uses a white crystalline powder. We don’t like it because it puts too much flavor and the taste seems so artificial, and there was an increase in the number of dog poisoning and a decrease in sexual activity.”
Hmmm…missed me for my cooking, my natural way of cooking that promotes good health. You rabbits. All you care about is food and sex. No wonder why I left. “Is that so? That’s good, except for the dogs. Be sure not to feed them anything prepared by the village cook. If you can’t cook on your own that’s fine, because dogs eat raw meat.”
“But what about us? We don’t eat raw meat!”
“That’s why you have your village cook. His cooking is good for you, good for this village, good for this entire ecosystem.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, Ku Ghaqli. Could you please explain?”
“Ku Kannello, better take me to Ka Boxxla. I need to talk to him in private before I address the rest of the village. My time here is very short.”
“But Ku Ghaqli…”
“Take me to Ka Boxxla, Ku Kannello. Please, let us hurry.” Kannello hesitated, but seeing the urgency in Ghaqli’s eyes, he relented and took his long-lost cousin to the chief’s house.
While they walked across the village, his old neighborhood, Ghaqli noticed that nothing much had changed especially in what he felt, or more importantly, what he did not feel around the place. He could not understand why no one else left the village, but being a fair man, he was never quick to judge. Still, he knew with all honesty that he could not live in this place for one more day.
“Ghaqli!”, cried the chief as he embraced his long-lost tribesman. I knew you’d come back! I thought it would be sooner though, much sooner than this. Nevertheless, you’re here and that’s all that matters. And it isn’t too late because my daughter Fidda is still turning twenty. She was seventeen when you left, and had you married her then, you would have had kids by now.”
“Ka Boxxla, please, let us not talk about the might-have-beens. I have a graver matter to discuss.”
“I see. What do we need to talk about then?”
“I am leaving here for good. I can’t live here anymore. I don’t want to live here. I do not feel alive in here.”
“What are you talking about? Can’t you see how happy we are, here together?”
How happy you are, here together. “I am sorry Ka Boxxla, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, and I never mean to insult you, but whatever it is that keeps you happy here, I do not see it, do not feel it. In fact, I never once experienced it in all the years that I lived here.”
The chief bowed his head and wiped a single tear from his eye. “How sad to see you leave the village again, and for good, you say?” Then Ka Boxxla lifted his head and looked hard at Ghaqli. “But infinitely sadder still is to know how empty you had been all your life here. I am sure you have your reasons, and whatever is there outside the forest that caught your heart, we respect that. You will have to explain – not justify – just explain, that to the whole village though, as a courtesy. They deserve that from you.”
“Of course. That is my intention.”
“Very well then my dear Ghaqli. But you will have to tell your story to the village tomorrow, for tonight we shall feast! You arrived at the right time, because a traveling merchant had just traded a cartload of seafood for three of our cows. You shall do the cooking tonight, so the village can savor great food one last time.”
“What kinds of seafood? Are they fresh?”
“Lobsters, scallops, squids, and some very nice but very rare fish I don’t even know what it’s called. The trader said they were caught this morning, and they were transported all the way here covered in sea salt. ”
“Then have some volunteers wash them down with fresh water, and others to prepare a fire – make that four fires side by side in a single line, and a pot above each fire. And I need four people to help me in the preparation.”
“Very well”, said the chief, and barked out his orders. Men and women went about to wash the salt off the seafood and build the fires. After a while four women came to Ghaqli, each carrying a large basket, one for each kind of seafood.
Ghaqli taught them how clean and prepare the shells, shellfish, and fish, and when he was satisfied that they got it right he went to the village garden to get some herbs and spices.
When he came back with a bagful of leaves, roots, barks, and seeds, all the seafood had already been cleaned and readied for cooking because the other villagers had helped. The fires were now also burning, heating the pots hanging above them. Satisfied, Ghaqli instructed the women to put the seafood into their separate pots. Next he crushed some leaves and dropped them in two of the pots but not in the others. He did the same with the roots, barks, and seeds. No two pots had the same combination of the herbs and spices, and yet the smells from all four pots seemed to blend perfectly, whetting the appetites of the villagers. He took two large wooden spoons and stirred the pots two at a time and covered them, letting the ingredients simmer for a few minutes.
“I need some of our village wine,” he told Ka Boxxla.
“Bring out the inbid!” shouted the chief, and several young men arrived, one of them Kannello, carrying jugs of inbid, the famous village wine originally concocted by Ghaqli himself.
Ghaqli took one jug with each hand and poured them into the four pots, but not evenly, as he filled some pots more than the others. Then he took two more jugs and poured them both into the pot filled with fish, and loosely covered all of them.
Now the vapors escaping into the air were driving the villagers crazy, and Ghaqli suggested that all of them first have a cup of wine to wash the tongue so that no stale taste may corrupt the flavors of the dishes. They obliged, and after a drink they lined up for the pots and started to feast on lobsters, scallops, squids, and some very nice rare fish. Ghaqli told them to wash each bite with wine especially when shifting between two kinds of seafood so that the flavors don’t overlap with one another, otherwise he might as well have cooked it all in one big pot. Again they obliged, for they knew that no one else knew more about food than Ghaqli. And how they ate and drank.
Around midnight when everyone was full and a bit drunk, some a bit more than the others, Ghaqli asked Ka Boxxla if he could address the village now.
“Can’t this wait until tomorrow morning?” said the chief. “We are having a great feast, all of our people think that you came home for good, and now you’re going to ruin it by telling them that you only came home to finally say goodbye? How cruel could you be?”
“Which is crueler,” replied Ghaqli, “to tell them now or tomorrow? If I tell them now at their drunken state their festive mood will weaken the blow. If I tell them tomorrow morning when they are hungover, the headache will make any bad news seem like the end of the world.”
“You have a point there, my wise friend.” And Ka Boxxla called the attention of the villagers. “Our friend Ghaqli has something say to all of us.” And with that he sat down and patted Ghaqli on the back, urging him to speak.
Ghaqli hesitated for a second, and hesitated for real, because although he already made up his mind on leaving this village for good, he realized that a very small part of him actually longed for this place, for these people. Then he thought of his life outside the forest, and how he felt so much more alive out there.
He took a cup and poured wine into it, and he drank deep and drank it all. He put the cup down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and said, “My friends, I am very thankful for this great feast that we have all prepared. This is a great night, and how I wish all nights were like this.
“But my friends, we all know that all nights cannot be like this, no matter how we may wish it to be so. And now it is with deep regret that I tell you that this will be the last night that I will sharing with you.”
The villagers gasped, and Fidda, the chief’s daughter to whom Ghaqli was betrothed, shouted “No!”, but Ka Boxxla hushed them up. “Please let Ghaqli finish,” he said, and nodded to Ghaqli.
Ghaqli nodded back, and said, “Tomorrow I shall no longer be with you. At the break of dawn I shall be heading out of the forest, back to the place where I now live, my new home.”
“But why?” asked Fidda. “Aren’t you happy here with us? What could be there outside the forest that you would choose over us?”
“Fidda, my dear Fidda, you wouldn’t understand. Even if I told you, even if I took you out there to see for yourself, you still wouldn’t understand, because you have to be me to see things through my own eyes.”
“Fidda!” Ka Boxxla cut her off. “Everyone, please, let us respect Ghaqli’s decision.”
Fidda wept, and Ghaqli’s heart melted. He poured another cup of wine and drank, and noticed how his feelings were starting to numb, and he was thankful for that.
“Goodbye Fidda. Goodbye all of you. This pains me more than you could imagine. But I am just not happy here anymore.”
Everyone was sad, and Fidda continued crying. Then Ka Boxxla said, “Come on everyone. Let us all drink some more wine. Ghaqli is leaving, but that is his choice, and we cannot compel him to stay, because it is so much sadder to hold a man whose heart is far away.”
Everyone thought of what Ka Boxxla had said, including Fidda, and they all refilled their cups and drank more wine. And after a while they began to accept the reality of Ghaqli’s leaving, and slowly the spirit of gloom lifted from the air, and they continued to eat and drink through the night.
Ghaqli sat by the fire, cup in hand, and took a long look at his villagers, at Kannello, at Ka Boxxla, and finally at Fidda, who stared back at him and made an attempt to smile amid the tears.
And Ghaqli smiled back, but mostly he smiled to himself, because he knew that he was now truly free. He filled his cup once more, almost to the brim, and he drank.