A man once went to the forest and climbed up a great tree. When he climbed back down, his spirit stayed behind on the tree. The man went home but became sick to the point of death, and his relatives gathered in his courtyard, expecting him to pass over any moment. The only sound heard in that darkened house was the slow rasp of his breathing. His wife sat by his side, wetting his mouth with a damp cloth and wiping her tears away.
Swiftly his clansmen gleaned all the details. They knew that part of the forest where his spirit had left him. The elders said, "That is not a place that you go to alone. It is so dangerous. Didn't he know that?"
"Everyone knows it," replied one of the men, "He must have forgotten."
In a last effort to save him, his male relatives went to the seer who said to them: "His spirit has forsaken him. You must go and call it back as soon as you can. Do it at first light. When you find it, pretend you don't know the way home. Urge it to lead."
The next morning, they set out for the forest as soon as it had grown a little light: three men, two of them carrying lids of pans.The third man carried a spear. When they were at the foot of the tree, the first man called out, "Pesuohie (that was their kinsman's name), come on, we are going home." There was no response. The men took out the lids and beat on them, making a terrible clanging noise. The silence of the forest magnified the clamour. During the pauses they called out, "Come on, we haven't all day!"
After some time, one of the men shouted, "Come, come, your friend is ailing upon his bed!" at which there was a rustling in the upper branches. The men looked at each other knowingly. The one with the spear held it closer to him, trying to look less threatening, but preparing himself for any eventuality.
The next sound was ever so slight: a soft footfall just barely audible. The men cocked their ears and ceased speaking. Their eyes darted from one to the other. The first man spoke again, "Pesuohie, you must lead the way, we don't know these parts well." He picked up his lid and looked as though he were going to walk out. But he paused to give the spirit enough time to position itself in front of the men.
"You go first," said the men to it alternately as they herded the truant spirit.
They came to a small stream and the first man spoke again,
"I still don't know the way from here." The coaxing was incredible to see. They spoke to the spirit as to a recalcitrant child, humouring it when it tarried and urging it homeward. Eventually they spied the path to the village and the first houses around the corner. The second man said loudly, "Better hurry now, the wife will be anxious."
Soon, they arrived at the gate of the sick man's house. The first man now spoke in an obsequious tone, "Ei, you are the host here - you must go in first."
Inside the house, the man lying on the narrow bed, insensible to anything around him, slowly began to recover. He coughed and opened his eyes for the first time in three days.
"Oh, how tired I feel. Have I been sleeping long?" were his first words. His wife smiled and wiped a tear away. She lifted a glass of water to his lips.
"Drink that slowly. You will soon feel better." She dared not let him out of her sight and she called to their daughter,
"Ninuo, get a cup of hot tea for your father!" Surprised, the girl came running. "Mother! Has he woken?" The man was now struggling to sit up, aided by his wife. His relatives came into the room and congregated around the foot of his bed.
"Pesuohie, be easy on yourself. You have not eaten in three days! You must slowly recover your strength."
The household of the man rejoiced at his recovery. The seer's advice had been good; the expedition had left just in time, and succeeded in calling back Pesuohie's spirit from the great tree. Had they waited one more day, they would have lost him.
But in the days and weeks that followed, the man began to change in subtle ways. He would fly into a rage over the most trivial of matters. He struck his wife who recoiled in fear. Who was this stranger who had usurped her husband's body? Pesuohie had never lifted his hand against her before. Now nothing was right as far as he was concerned; he would get angry and say the rice was not cooked properly, that the firewood was damp, and that the things he was looking for in the inner room were not there. His wife was bewildered at this change in him.
"What is wrong?" she cried. "What has the incident in the forest done to you? You are no longer yourself!" Her words cut him, and with great effort he checked himself.
The next day he alarmed everyone with a decision.
"Going up the tree again?" shouted one of his clansmen who had gone to call his spirit back, "Man, are you quite mad?" "I must," Pesuohie said, "I have left a part of myself up that tree."
"You must be completely crazy. I am not going back into that place to call your spirit back."
This was the conversation they had had when they found out what he intended to do.
"Please, do not go," his wife pleaded, "We will lose you again. You don't know how it was for us." But his mind was made up. Shaking his head, he picked up his dao* and walked out of the house. His wife slung her six-month old baby on her back and followed him to the edge of the forest. With the baby howling for milk, they made their way into the forest.
"Stop, Pesuohie, return with me! I cannot follow you further!"
"Then don't follow me!" he shouted and began to run. She ran after him, but was unable to keep up, and he sprinted easily into the deeper part of the forest. The woman wept loudly, but it was no use. With the child on her back, she could not proceed further. She sat down to feed the crying child, and when she had sat there a long time, she sighed and returned home with a heavy heart.
Pesuohie found the tree without any difficulty. It was as though the tree wanted him to find it. There were other big trees as well, in the same vicinity, but this particular one was quite distinctive. It was old and grew very high, and spread itself out at the top. Pesuohie found footholds that seemed to be simply waiting for him, and clambered up swiftly, his dao in its sheath, strapped to his back.
There were some things he had not told his wife and kinsmen: he had been to the seer who had sworn him to secrecy. In the pouch slung across his chest, he carried a powder that the seer had given him. But its potency would be rendered powerless if he told anyone about it, so he had kept it to himself.
When he reached the top of the tree, he felt his spirit slipping out of him. It was a slow slithery movement - how strange it felt, the way it slid off his chest, groin and lower limbs. He steeled himself. This was the way it was supposed to be. But this time he would not be defenceless or without knowledge. When his spirit left him, he was overcome by a great fatigue, but his mind was awake and he saw other spirits come to join his spirit. One of them was a girl spirit and he was struck by the look in her eyes. She looked unabashedly malicious. She took his spirit by the hand and led it away; they glided upward. He waited. If he moved too quickly, he would destroy his chances.
The seer had said that it was important - no, it was a matter of life and death - that he should stay very still for fifteen minutes. It was the longest fifteen minutes of his life, yet he waited it out. The spirits returned, and he was able to see more in his mind's eye. There were other spirits among them. He recognised two of his neighbour's children who had died within two days of each other. Their mother had been inconsolable. There was an old man's spirit too, which he recognised with a shock as his father's cousin. The spirits of the dead, and the spirits of the living congregated with familiarity. There were no barriers between them.
Pesuohie's own spirit seemed to have completely forgotten him. But when it glanced at him with a look of pity and mild curiosity, Pesuohie quickly threw the powder at it. The action caught everyone by surprise, and the spirits fled fearfully. Some of the powder had landed on his spirit, and Pesuohie sprang to its side, and poured more of the powder on it. The spirit opened its mouth to scream but no sound emerged. Pesuohie drew his dao and quickly made cuts in the tree marking off the place where his spirit lay. Use metal to deflect the power of evil spirit presences, the seer had said. The other spirits drifted further and further away, as though they had become impotent. With the dao he finished marking the boundary around his spirit. The girl spirit stood at a distance, fixing a look of deep hatred on him.
Pesuohie felt his spirit return to him. This time he watched as it climbed towards him and spread itself on top of him.
"Not yet!" Pesuohie shouted, "Not like the last time!" His spirit stopped and bowed its head.
"Is that clear?" Pesuohie asked again loudly. The spirit made the slightest movement with its head, and Pesuohie stopped resisting its re-entry.
Down the tree they went at an unhurried pace. At the foot of the great tree, he struck the trunk of the tree with his dao and pronounced, "I am Pesuohie! Sky is my father, Earth is my mother, I believe in Kepenuopfii,** none can harm me!" The other spirits did not follow.
All the way home, Pesuohie spoke to his spirit, reminding it of the things they had experienced together.
"Is life not sweet? Do you remember the day we swam in the river? How Bunyii was swept away by the river and we could not save him, but he caught the branches of a tree, and came back to land? I have never forgotten how precious life is from that moment on. And after that, remember the hunter's bullet that whizzed towards us at the community hunt? If you had not pushed my head down! Wasn't life sweet after that? When we come so close to losing it, isn't life always so good?" He talked incessantly to his spirit as they walked out of the forest, and he continued like this until they reached the field-path. It was dusk and Pesuohie could not see anyone on the path.
At the crossroads, he felt his spirit make a sudden movement. "No, my friend," he admonished, "You are coming home with me. I am the stronger one today. Do not squirm so if you don't want to feel the powder which is harmless to me, but which brings you much grief." His spirit stopped wriggling, yet Pesuohie continued to talk until they were very near the village. Some people stared at him as he walked quickly past them, talking loudly all the while to a companion who was invisible to the naked eye. The village was small and everyone knew what had happened to him in the past month. Those who witnessed his strange conduct wondered if he had lost more than his spirit in the forest.
As they neared the square, Pesuohie said, "Let's sing that duet we sing so well together; I shall take the first voice and you can take the second." Then he burst into song, singing a familiar folk tune but pausing at places where the second voice was supposed to come in. Witnesses later swore they had heard a thin voice singing the second voice, but saw only one man.
Pesuohie's house lay beyond the village square. The situation was still precarious. He walked on singing his lone song, beginning another whenever he finished. He was thinking of the woman whose spirit had refused to enter her husband's house and abandoned her at the gate. It was crucial to get his spirit beyond the gate of his house. Only then would he be secure. They walked on and the singing became more urgent. People watched from behind their doors, awed by this strange ritual, a man who had left his spirit behind in the forest would be helped by his clansmen to call his spirit back. But who had ever heard of a man trying to bring his own spirit back?
When they neared his house, many people saw very clearly the tall, lean man and his spirit, walking in tandem, heading straight for the house. Suddenly they paused. One figure was desperately trying to flee. The singing grew louder, interspersed with high-pitched ululating. The two figures seemed locked in a deep spiritual battle.
Louder and louder sang the man. The spirit was trapped by the song - it was obligated to sing the second voice. Slowly they passed through the gate. Pesuohie's wife flung the door open. The last thing the villagers saw was the two figures collapsing in a heap at the entrance. The woman pulled her husband inside and shut the door.
*dao: long-handled Naga machete
**Kepenuopfii: the birth-spirit, the creator deity
Easterine Kire is a poet, short story writer and novelist from Nagaland. She published the first English novel by a Naga in 2003 entitled, A Naga Village Remembered (Ura Academy). Her second novel, A Terrible Matriarchy (Zubaan 2007), has been translated to Norwegian, German and Marathi.
Bitter Wormwood, (Zubaan 2011) her fourth novel, was shortlisted for ‘The Hindu Literary Prize 2013’. In 2011, she was awarded the Governor's prize for excellence in Naga literature, and in 2013, she was awarded the “Free Word” by Catalan PEN, Barcelona. In 2016, she won the Hindu Literature Prize for her book, When the River Sleeps (Zubaan). Her book, Son of the Thundercloud (Speaking Tiger, 2016) won the Tata Litlive Book of the Year award in 2017. She lives in Norway.