Chapter 6: A bitter man

Batefimba and her grandson watched, transfixed, as Fevan’s dynamic display continued for at least another quarter of an hour. It was extraordinary, especially as she had been so exhausted the night before. She had an amazing amount of energy.

Aside from the elf’s acrobatics, something else was playing on her mind. Although Fevan barely stayed still for a second, every so often, when she saw the young elf’s face in profile, there was something distantly familiar about it. It had struck her a couple of times last night, when Fevan had been tucking into her stew. She had yet to work out why.

“Do you have doubts about her story, Umamba?” Mazimba’s question was the first thing either of them had said for some time, as the astonishing spectacle outside had absorbed them both.

“Not necessarily,” she replied, “but I certainly have some questions for our guest.”

“I thought you would have,” Mazimba said, “though I’m relieved that she hasn’t left, as I thought when I first came in here.”

“Yes, I’m not sure even the most agile or speedy packolvers would have been able to stay with her if she had decided to make a run for it,” his grandmother answered.

As she said that, they both became aware that the graceful yet high energy movement outside had stopped. Fevan stood, hands on hips, exhausted, staring off through the branches as she got her breath back.

As she finally bent to pick up her hat, Mazimba whispered, urgently. “We should get out of here, Umamba. She’ll see us.”

“That would only be delaying the inevitable, my boy. We need to speak to her, now. We’ll wait right here.”

Batefimba turned to see Fevan striding along the branch to the window.

As she spotted them, she slowed slightly, surprised to see them there, but then smiled as she reached the windowsill and stepped through into the room.

“That was an impressive display, child. I understand now where you get your nickname from,” Batefimba said.

“Thank you,” Fevan replied, a little coyly. “Dancing has always been an escape for me. It had become very important to me under my birth tree.

“At first, I would get away to dance whenever I could, but things have become difficult in our family over the last few years and I was worried about being away from my younger sister too much.

“Our mother, Valuvian, died two years ago, after being sick for some time. We were both very close to her, and my father, Stenovan, was heartbroken. He took to wandering aimlessly around the community and sometimes not coming home until late at night, which meant I had to stay at home to look after my sister, Rivazan. She has only just turned eight.

“My parents were so delighted to have a second daughter seven years after I was born. They had begun to think their chance of having anymore children was gone. Father told me just a few weeks after Mother died that their long struggle to have a second child had made him even sadder about losing her. They had not had the chance to truly enjoy Rivazan together.

“Then one day we came home from school and my grandmother, Venixan, was at our home. She told us our father had decided to go away for a time, as he was simply finding it too difficult to live in the home where he and my mother had always been so happy together. They had been married since they were 18.

“She told us we would have to go and live with her and my grandfather, Matthan. That was a difficult thing to hear. While both Rivazan and I love our gentle grandmother dearly, our grandfather is not a happy man. Something from his past has made him terribly bitter.

“The condescending way he sometimes speaks to our grandmother is terrible. I have stood up for her a couple of times, but it has put us at odds. My grandfather and I do not often speak.”

“A terribly difficult situation, my child, but sadly, we are all too familiar with parts of it. We lost Mazimba’s dear mother, my daughter, Wazutimba, in childbirth.

“His father, Mazinbimba, was similarly grief-stricken and struggled to bond with Mazimba, whose given name was one they had decided on together.

“He eventually decided it would be better for him to find work away from the settlement. He took a job at a timber processing plant several days’ walk from here, where they process fallen pine branches into building materials. Mazimba only sees his father for a few days each year, which is very difficult for him.”

“At least I don’t have to cope with a grumpy, bitter grandfather, Umamba,” Mazimba responded, and they were both quiet for a few seconds, reflecting on Batefimba’s late husband, Gazabinda, who had been known throughout the community for his gentleness and generosity. He had been a source of great comfort and companionship for Mazimba, who had regarded him as a second father.

“I’m sorry for the loss both of you have suffered,” Fevan said.

“And we are sorry for you and your sister, child. But please continue with the story,” Batefimba said.

“It was my difficult relationship with my grandfather that started me thinking about leaving Towering Pine about a year ago, but I was worried about what would happen to my sister and grandmother.

“Since then things have worsened, however, and I felt I had no choice, despite my fears.”

Towering Pine! The answer to one of the questions Batefimba had been waiting for the right opportunity to ask hit her with a jolt, but she tried not to give away her surprise. She didn’t want to throw Fevan off her stride when she was speaking so freely.

“There is something I have to be honest with you about,” the young elf went on. “I didn’t stumble across Mighty Pine by accident. I set out to find it.”

It was another question Batefimba had been seeking an answer to. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to ask any of the questions playing on her mind. She would carry on listening closely until Fevan was finished. The elf was in a talkative mood and allowing her to finish saying her piece felt like the best approach. Any further questions could follow.

“There was a man who started coming to visit my grandfather soon after we arrived in their home. At first it was once every couple of weeks or so, but his visits grew more frequent as months passed. He began to come to their house weekly, and then two or even three times a week.

“He never spoke to anyone other than my grandfather. Even when my grandmother opened the door to his knocking, he would brush rudely past her without saying anything and head straight to the study, where my grandfather spends most of his time when he is at home.

“They would sit in there for hours. Sometimes the conversation would get quite animated and I would hear snatches of it. That was where I first heard the name Mighty Pine. I had heard of the other settlements close to Towering Pine, like Spreading Pine and Reaching Pine, so I assumed it must be some distance from our tree.

“I didn’t know who my grandfather’s friend was. He was quite good-looking, I have to admit, and I imagined he would have been very handsome when he was younger, although his terrible manners made me dislike him intensely.”

She paused, gathering herself. Batefimba fancied she could see some moisture in the corners of her eyes. She waited.

“I asked my grandmother about Grandfather’s friend one day. She said she didn’t really know him, but that he and Grandfather had been friends many years before. He had disappeared from the community for a long time and only reappeared in the last year or two. His name was Everarn.”

The name hit Batefimba hard, and she gasped, despite her best efforts to conceal her reaction. She felt as though she had been winded.

She felt sure Fevan’s grandmother must have known something of Everarn’s history. Perhaps she had kept this from her granddaughter to avoid worrying her, a little like she had done with Mazimba, thinking him unaware of this difficult past episode.

“Are you all right?” Fevan asked, alarmed, glancing towards an equally concerned Mazimba as she did so.

“Yes, my child,” Batefimba replied. “Please carry on with your story. I will have things to tell you about Everarn when you are finished, although based on what you have told us so far, I would not be surprised if you had discovered these things already.”

By her lack of reaction it was clear the fact that Batefimba knew of Everarn had come as no surprise to Fevan.

She continued: “I began to sit close to my grandfather’s study when Everarn was in there with him, to try to overhear what they were saying.”

“That sounds dangerous.” Mazimba had not spoken for some time, absorbed in the conversation.

“It was,” Fevan replied. “Grandmother would beckon me away, worried that they would both be angry if they caught me listening, but I felt I had to know what they were discussing. Their increasingly frequent meetings made me uneasy.”

Batefimba nodded knowingly.

“The second or third time I sat there I heard them talk of Mighty Pine, and a little later I heard Everarn say ‘My spies tell me things there are still as they were more than 30 years ago. It’s not right.’

“’No, it’s not,’ replied my grandfather. ‘What on earth is wrong with creatures sticking to their own kind? Why should elves have to live alongside capanguta, and packolvers, and who knows what else? They should each have the chance to determine their own future. We’re a much more advanced species.’

“Then Everarn started to talk about what sounded like some kind of a plot, many years before, involving several resident elves from Mighty Pine. ‘If it hadn’t been for that woman’s interfering capanguta friend, I’m sure I would have succeeded in the plan to use her to get close to the leader, Masikazumba. She had his ear after all,’ he said.

“’From there, it wouldn’t have been difficult to assess the weaknesses in the community structure we could exploit. I had visions of us installed in that council building, making decisions for an exclusively pine elf community.’

“’A wonderful vision indeed,’ my grandfather replied.

“’With some help from like-minded young elves here, who were finding work hard to come by and would have welcomed the move, we could have sent them, and all the other capanguta in the settlement, packing, along with those packolvers and the oh so liberal elves who were in favour of an integrated community.”

He sneered. ‘As you know, there was definitely a core group of elves who strongly backed our cause, and I’m sure they could have influenced others.’”

Batefimba’s mind travelled back as she took this all in. She knew several elves on the brink of adulthood, and even a couple with young families, had been pulled into Everarn’s plot.

They had been imprisoned, in a jail some distance from the community, for varying periods of time, ranging from one to two years, along with the interloper, who got a five-year sentence that he was ordered to serve in full. A couple of the elves had been too embarrassed to return to Mighty Pine after their release, and she wondered if one of them could be Fevan’s grandfather. The name Matthan was not familiar, but it could have been changed. Knowing some of the details of his family, she wondered if the time periods involved made that a possibility.

She tried to listen to the new arrival’s story while crunching the numbers in her head at the same time, but quickly discovered it was impossible to focus on both, and gave her full attention to Fevan’s continuing story, meaning to come back to her calculations later.

“The longer I listened in on their conversations, the more bitterness I heard,” Fevan said. “They both sounded full of regret.

“However they also made this community sound to me like a most welcoming place. We rarely saw anyone who wasn’t an elf at Towering Pine. Everyone was the same. Occasionally capanguta would call with deliveries, but they were usually sent to an entrance near the back of the settlement, and I’m not aware that they ever got beyond that gate. I have always been intrigued by why they were treated so poorly.”

Batefimba had waited patiently for this story to gradually unfold, but news of the plot that had threatened their community, and the sentiment that obviously still simmered at Towering Pine, had her deeply troubled. She could wait no longer.

“So it sounds like your grandfather once lived, or at least spent time, at Mighty Pine? You said his name was Matthan. It’s not one I’ve heard around here before. Are you sure that was his real name?”

She blurted out the questions in a single breath, then realised what she was doing and paused, hanging on the young elf’s answers, more questions at the ready, anxious to have the whole story laid bare.

Then a shiver surged through her. She suddenly knew exactly who Fevan’s features reminded her of.

(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)

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