My secret people
Thousands of years before my time on the continent of Mu, there used to be a great civilization of amphibian people. Their jungle choked cities can still be found in old swamps or buried under centuries of erosion. For reasons lost to time, their society collapsed and everyone says they are extinct. But I know better, because I saw some, and for a single day they were my best friends. It all started when my last sister was born.
My father yelled for us all to come when she was birthed. Stampeding feet dashed past me so fast that my hair and dress was lifted by the wind. All eight of my siblings, my swarm of cousins, aunts and uncles dashed out of the quinoa fields and alpaca stables to see the new baby. Not me. One look at the wall of family spilling out the hut my mother was in, all ether cooing, or standing on tipi toes to look over shoulders, made me feel hopeless. Seeing them all reminded me of once being allowed to hold a baby, and being told I would be a good mom someday. Not this time, or the time before that. With a sigh, I went into my little tree branch fort draped scrolls over my shoulder, packed a brush and paints, then started on a very long hike into the woods.
When reaching the top of the plateau, I found a swamp that, certainly, no one had ever seen before. I approached it, about to call it mine, when I heard a splash. Something was trying to hide from me. I slowly circled the swamp, avoiding sudden movements, while pushing away ferns and watching my step for the fallen branches. When I accidentally stepped in the swamp water I heard another splash as startled creatures of some sort swam fast to distance themselves from me. When I looked carefully, I could just barely see a pair of watchful eyes upon me. With concerted effort I pulled my foot out of the swamp goo, sat on a fallen tree and waited.
As the mind behind the eyes realized I was a small and dainty girl who could do no harm, it slowly approached. Then other eyes appeared and drifted towards me. I expected for the amphibians to simply be giant frogs, which would have been amazing enough, but when one of the amphibians rose out of the water on its two feet like a person, I gasped and was too surprised to run away. Slowly, others of its species came and all stopped to gaze and gawk. Finally, after a group of ten formed, I willed my way out of my shock. I placed my hand and on my chest and said, “Cava.”
I was with the frog people for the rest of the afternoon, studying them, learning from them and taking many, many notes. That evening I raced down the mountain, leaping and dodging fallen trees. My bag of scrolls was rising and falling with every jump and landing. I had to get home quickly to memorize, and elaborate my notes, otherwise my discoveries would go cold and stale in my mind. I rushed so fast that I barely noticed my family playing and dancing to flute music and drums. They were celebrating the birth of my new sister; but my family could always think of excuses to sing and dance.
My mother called to me yelling, “Cava, come dance with us!”
“Can't talk now, mom, busy”. Before they could say anything else I ran past our home and into my tree branch fort. Though the fort's walls of leaves and brush were flimsy they provided me with the precious solitude that let me work.
I was in the process of unrolling my scrolls when I heard foot steps behind me.
“Cava,” my mother said with a lowered tone. She hobbled in with my sleeping, baby, sister strapped around her chest. I quickly stashed my case of scroll under some blankets.
“Yes, mom?” I gave her a fake smile. I had no doubt where the conversation would go. Her soft tone alerted me to the lecture of “concern”.
“We're all a little concerned about you, Cava,” she said. I did not want to have this conversation, but at least she respected my boundaries enough to not step though the doorway of my fort. “You spend so much time alone that we're afraid you must be getting lonely.” Waving my hands in denial I said, “Not at all, Mom. You know me I'm a loner. I just like my space.”
“Well, so long as you’re happy and not getting into any trouble. But you haven't been going way up into the wood again have you?” My mother forgot about my boundaries and stepped forward when she accused me. My fake smile must have cracked a little.
“No, Mom, I've been keeping in sight of the house, just like you told me.”
“Well, you better. It's dangerous up in the woods. Many dangerous animals are up there, from crocodiles to snakes, wild terror birds. There's even rumors of jaguars up there.”
I was sure that my mother had never seen a jaguar before, but for some reason it was that predator that made her shudder. “Don't worry I'm being very careful.”
I was sure at any second my facade would slip, but my mother sighed, took a step back, and said, “Well since you really want to be left alone, I guess we can see each other tomorrow when we do chores. Good night Cava.”
“Good night, Mom.” My mother took way too long to finally leave. With the sun falling fast, I unrolled my scrolls. Flat on the ground my sketches and writing brought to life my first meeting with the frog people.
After I had introduced myself with a hand on the heart, one of the frog people mimicked me and said, “Riza.” It waved its stubby arm and hand in a sweeping motion over his kind and ribbeted, out “Coolusukias,” I assumed then that “Coolusukias” was the title of his kind. One by one the Coolusukias dispersed, for their chores included diving in the water and coming up with struggling fish, and sweeping the swamp for algae, which was fed to their crying pollywogs. I looked to Riza, the only one who stayed. I was sure he was male. His voice was deeper than half the others, and he wasn’t as tall. Boy frogs are always small than girl frogs. Looking at him, I wondered if these were ancestors of the same legendary creatures that dotted the continent with their cities. If they were then why were they just a humble tribe of hunter/gathers?
When Riza turned his back on me like the others I yelled, “Hey!” to prevent my only opportunity of getting answers from leaving me. I tapped the space on the log beside me to invite him to sit next to me. The frog man looked to members of his kind for some insight as to whether he should join me or not. When he saw everyone was too, busy he came and plopped down next to me.
Riza's stench of mildew swamp was hard to bear, and with both a language and species barrier between us we were impenetrable to each other. Yet even with the daunting challenge of communication before me, I thought, “I am not going to let this chance slip, so just as Riza was getting up to go back to work, I found the crack in the wall between us. “log,” I said as I placed my hand on the fallen tree. The Amphibian tilted its head and said. “Nizel”,
“Nizel,” I repeated and then pointed to a cypress and said, “Tree.” Riza bobbed his head and his throat formed a bubble as he crocked out, “Trrrrrry.”
“Tree” I corrected. Finally he managed to get out “tree.” As we went on translating, we came to words that we couldn’t translate. Riza couldn't seem to pronounce the “G” sound to save his life. No matter how much I contorted my tongue and throat I could not make the “peeping” sound, which was their word for dragonfly. When we came to a word we couldn't pronounce, I whipped out the scrolls and started inventing symbols. Effectively Riza may have invented his kind's first written word for a kind of bird whose name he couldn't pronounce. Having refined our system, Riza and I continued to teach words to each other. Words we could pronounce and invented symbols for words we couldn't. The sun moved from the South East to the West, and during that time we taught each other 43 words. More of Riza's kind came to learn of our writing.
That night I was pleased with the progress I had made with learning the Amphibian language, but I also realized that I had a mountain of work ahead. There were so many words we had to learn, and I couldn’t even think of how we were going to arrange them when we talked, but I wasn’t going to let that get me down. In fact the challenge made me want to lean frog even more. I was going to learn to communicate with these people. So I hid my scrolls in a secret hole I dug a while back. I didn't sleep well that night, because I was so eager to know more of the frog people's secrets. I was filled with excitement at the prospect that they might have some memory of their once great civilization. Even if they didn't, the fact that I would be the one person, who could communicate with them filled me with excitement. I fantasized being welcomed as a fellow frog person, deliberately forgetting that I wouldn't be able live in the swamp as they do. I had known the frog people for less than a day, and yet I saw them as my family, a family that no one could take that away from me. I was so wrong.
The next day I woke up earlier than normal, raced through all my farming chores, then rushed to my tree fort. I wanted not a ray of sunlight wasted. I had my scrolls packed in a bag and was about to run out when I turned around and saw something that startled me.
“Hi, Cava. How are you?” My oldest sister asked me while standing in the doorway.
“Uhh... fine,” I said with my heart still leaping my chest. In my mind I begged the gods to make sure she didn't steal too much time. “We've been thinking that we haven't been paying much attention to you lately.” As my sister spoke I thought to myself, “Really? After all these years of ignoring me you’re going to start paying attention to me now?!” I was seething as my sister babbled on.
“It's gotten to be so bad that some of your cousins think of you as a stranger, so we've decided that we're going to do something fun with you today.”
I performed another fake smile and assured my sister, “Oh, you don't need to do that. You know me. I like playing in the woods alone...Wait, did you say 'we?'” I forced myself past my sister and to my horror, I found that my tree fort was completely under siege by my siblings and cousins.
're going to play 'ball' with you,” said some brat relative I didn't care about. The brat hit the leather ball to me with her hip the best she could. I gritted my teeth.
“No, I would just get in the way.” I backed away, and bumped into my oversized older brother who cut off my escape route.
“Ah come on,” he urged, “It will be fun.” No one in my family moved and yet I felt like they were closing in on me.
“You are all very kind, but I am fine really.” My eyes darted in all directions to find another way out. “You guys have fun without me.” I found an opening and made a mad dash into the woods like a squirrel. Running up the mountain I breathed a sigh of relief, and then cringed at the thought of all the time that would have been wasted had I played “ball”. “They're a bunch of time parasites.” I thought. When I finally reached the swamp I found the amphibian people had been waiting for me. Apparently they were as excited to teach me their language as I was to learn it, for they had invented new symbols and carved them into squares of bark.
I was about to greet my new friends, but then I heard what I had been dreading.
“Cava!” my mother called. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.“This is way too far into the woods! I want you to come back to us right now.”
I did not run back to my mother. Instead my heart dropped to my feet, and hope left my body. Something way worse than being chewed out was about to happen. My mother and the rest of my family came up the hill, and when they saw the frog people they stopped speaking and stopped walking. As they stood in shock I knew I had but one last task before everything fell apart.
With a lowered head I said, “Mom, dad...everyone else...meet the Coolasukai.” The Amphibians picked up on the fact that I had introduced them to the new group of humans. They nodded. Fascinated with each other, the two peoples came together for better looks. Being old news it was hard enough to find a place for me to fit in, but then my mother brought up my baby sister. The amphibians couldn't resist the adorable little human Pollywog. Nor could my family turn down the chance to coddle the cute little baby frogs. At that point both of my families became unreachable for me.
I could anticipate what was to come. I would be chastised when they were done, and that would be it. I would not have a monopoly on the frog people anymore, and my family would either forget me or smother me like always. I sighed, looked at both peoples one more time, and then decided to go on another long hike.