Art by @ocaxoka
They both looked at each other in utter silence for a while until a chuckle left her lips.
Confused, Tooru furrowed his brows and took in the aura that now felt a lot more carefree.
“Ah, that really is a good one! I guess the examination is already over then huh?”.
The atmosphere changed as the chief’s shoulders shook while she laughed lightly, the wrinkles around her mouth crinkling into a smile.
What is happening?
Tooru’s thoughts swirled through his head, relief coming closer to him but he couldn’t let it get to him yet. The woman’s sudden shift in demeanor was troubling before it could be soothing.
“Examination?”, he carefully worded, his eyes trained on the chief.
Her laughter died down for a bit and she took in a long breath before going back to her calm poker face. Although she had stopped laughing, Tooru could definitely see a playful glint shimmering in her grey eyes.
“I am terribly sorry for all of that”, her voice continued to be soft yet stern as she spoke,”I prefer to get a picture of the people coming here first before letting them stay”.
She gracefully sat down on a carpet adorned with beautiful colours and motioned with her hand and a nod for him to sit as well.
With a slight hesitancy he approached the chief and sat opposite of her, placing his arms on either side of his crossed legs.
She had crouched down in the same manner beforehand, and he had seen most of the people sit cross-legged while walking around outside.
The chief eyed him with curiosity and began to tell the story of the foreigners that came here before.
“In the beginning of me being chief, we let anyone stay as long as they wanted to” her eyes grew distant, as if she focused on a sight only she could fathom, “we are a tribe rich in culture but isolated, so we have limited resources. Most travellers bring something with them which we benefited from for a long while”
Tooru didn’t dare to ask even though he had thousands of questions brimming in his mind, but he stayed silent.
“We learned how to make our own medicine and clothing, but we also learned that people around the world have a lot to offer for us. Some brought physical goods, others brought knowledge, we even got some maps for the places outside of our woods”, she stopped suddenly while her eyes closed.
Her eyes fixated on him and Tooru couldn’t read them.
“After a while, they all wanted something back. Which is a legitimate and fair claim”.
“What happened?”, he almost whispered, realising that something horrible must’ve occured if a formerly open civilization suddenly closed itself even more.
“There were some that promised to be trustworthy in the beginning. Unlike you, they were adamant of building up their trust with me, and I believed their claims”, a sigh escaped her, “they took things they shouldn’t have taken”.
The chief acknowledged the young man’s puzzled expression.
“You must know”, and the fury in her eyes came back with a brute force, ”there are things that after being taken just can’t be returned”.
A chill traveled through his spine as the words that left the chief’s mouth were just as cold as they were apathetic. Yet they had such heaviness to them that the young man didn’t know how to respond.
Something that can’t be returned?
Aren’t all things able to be returned?
What is it that was so severe that it can’t be changed anymore?
Tooru knew that time was one of those things, something that can’t be reversed, but was he really on the right track there?
Was it possible to steal something metaphorically? Something that can’t be grasped?
“Please excuse me for using such harsh words before you, the story of our tribe is generally a happy one except for what I’ve just told you”, the woman sighed and tipped her head back only to snap it forward again and smile at Tooru fondly.
He was not quite sure what to believe.
A gut feeling told him that what the chief said was true, and the fact that his stomach turned at the story was an indication that it must’ve been true to some extent.
A sudden thought rattled his brain.
Did they steal something from Lemsa?
Before he could take the throat further, the chief cleared her throat and his attention was back with her.
“If you want to stay, which I’m assuming you want to with that speech about trust you gave me”, her tone tried to hide amusement but Tooru felt an awkward shiver as she reiterated his words about trust, “you’ll have to work hard”.
His shoulders straightened and he looked forwards with a calm fury that didn’t go unnoticed by the chief, “No problem. I will pull my own weight”.
She nodded and stood up, to which the man followed.
“As you know, except for me and the children below thirteen years nobody talks”.
Tooru nodded in understanding, as he realized the quiet of the village except for the children’s laughter which made it all worthwhile.
“To explain all of that would take a while, but we will do all of that soon enough. I see Lemsa and you just communicate with gestures?”
He remembered the way she had spelled her name for him on his palm, and how she always tried to make her words clear with facial expressions.
“She spelled her name for me once, and I know that you also use whistle tones for long distance”
The chief nodded, almost impressed.
“That is true! We have our own sign language, which will be easy to pick up for someone as observant as you, and I’ll teach you personally so I’m sure you will get it”.
The chief as a teacher?
Tooru imagined what someone as strict and would be like as a teacher, and when she said ‘quick to pick up’ he really didn’t realise how quick until he sat there for what felt like hours going over the most basic signs.
And more filled his brain, and while he was sitting on the floor in the tent his thoughts always trailed back to the small healer and where she would be off too.
Did she know I was still here?
It’s probably been hours.
His head snapped out of his thoughts and into the lesson with the chief.
“What was the sign for wolf?”
Closing his eyes quickly to focus, he remembered the claws metaphor that the chief explained to him.
He held up both of his hands, one on top and one underneath and crooked his thumb, index and middle finger.
“Correct! Alright that shou-”
The chiefs’ voice was cut off as three long and sharp whistle tones staggered through the air.
“Already?”, she mumbled to herself as she briskly walked towards the exit, another wave of whistles to be heard.
Tooru recognized her eyes shot open and her palm quickly grazed her mouth before she composed herself and looked at me.
“The hunters are back early. Three injured badly, come!”
And with that she was gone as the door flap of the tent moved and I followed her outside into the now evening air.
“Tooru!”, the chief bellowed and I tried to follow her voice as I found her at the edge of the fence with other villagers who welcomed a pack of wolves.
Before I could move I saw two figures running in the same direction, one of them definitely Lemsa as she held another girl in her arms and pushed her forwards.
What is happening?