Kocchuk – To Be Broken

Malila bows her head and takes her leave after he makes the universal sign of thanks and repeats it in his own tongue. Her duty to offer him the choice food is done for this feast, but it was done with mixed emotions. Where her hands had performed the duties of a real medicine woman and spiritual leader of the clan (her first step in taking over the ceremonies), her heart had, oddly enough, leaped up at the sight of the young trader's face. When the medicine woman had told Malila that she was not feeling well and that she should act in her place, Malila had expected someone older, like most of the other traders who had come in the past. What was more, she had not expected one so handsome. In that one glance into his face, into his eyes, she had been attracted to him.

As she hurries away, Malila tries to calm the quick beating of her heart and chastises herself for feeling this way. After all, she is the next in line to becoming medicine woman for her clan. She is supposed to act with grace and calm in any situation, and here she was, almost falling over herself in surprise upon seeing a trader's handsome face. A stranger should not have this kind of effect on her.

The village is astir and has been since the watcher sent word ahead that a trader had come to visit. Everyone is alive and festive. After all, it had been a long time since a trader had come this way. The rain and snow had started earlier this past winter and had isolated the valley until now. Indeed, the trader's coming was the perfect reason to celebrate the arrival of spring.

Everyone is smiling, even the women who continue to cook for the last minute feast. All, from the chief and his council to the smallest babe, are attired in new ceremonial clothing, everything having been painstakingly made and stitched and dyed during the cold and brutal winter for an occasion such as this.

Malila feels a hand grasp her arm and stop her from her retreat. "Who is this trader, Malila? I do not think we have seen him before."

Malila grasps the hand and squeezes it affectionately. Out of everyone else in the clan, Kaliska was the one she could call a sister, even though they had been born of different mothers. They had been born the same summer and had been inseparable since the two had learned to walk.

The two of them go to Kaliska's fire to see if their offerings are ready to be brought to the communal fire.

When she feels her voice is ready to respond without betraying her emotions, she replies, "His name is Liwanu, and yes, you are right in saying you have never seen him before. I believe he said that he comes from near the sea."

At this, Kaliska's eyes light up. "A water person? We haven't had someone come from the ocean in a long time. Do you think that he has any of those pretty abalone shells or some olive shell beads? I've been thinking of making a new design I want to try out with some new beads."

Malila laughs easily now. "If he does, I am sure you can wait until the morning when trading begins. Let him eat and rest this night."

"Oh, I know. I am just curious. What do you think I can trade?"

"Why are you questioning me? The clan knows that your baskets are among the best if not the best in the valley. And if not, you could even trade some of the other jewelry you make as well."

"I suppose," she says, eyeing her belongings towards the back of her hut.

"Do not worry Kali," she says, using her nickname. "You will find something to trade, and I am sure he has an abundant supply of everything you need and want. I doubt that the other women like Tolinka will be able to trade for and use it all."

Malila relaxes when Kaliska finally laughs and shrugs off her worries.

"Where is Kosumi?"

"He is on his mat asleep. At least he was when I left to find you."

"Well he is not anymore," Malila grins. "Hello Kosumi. How is my favorite little boy today?" The infant claps his hands and gurgles happily as Malila takes him into her arms. "Ugh," she grunts as she lifts the boy. "You are so heavy now Kosumi. The way your father and mother feed you, you are growing up so fast. If you keep this up, we may have to have a coming of age festival for you by the time the first snow sets in," she kids as the boy wraps his arms around her neck.

"Malila, I think the meat is done. Would you mind carrying some of the food to the fire and carry Kosumi as well? I will carry the rest of the food."

"I do not mind at all," she replies, taking up a dish of steaming meat in one hand while holding onto Kali's child with the other.

The two women walk back the short distance to the tribal fire and add the food to the bounty already laid out. The two spot some friends and go over to join in the festivities.

At that moment, Liwanu feels a presence that makes him look up from his bowl of food. Immediately, he spots her beyond the fire, in the midst of a group of females. It is the woman who had offered him his first dish, the woman whose beautiful face was etched into his memory in that moment before she had turned away and whose eyes, for some reason, had captured his very soul. She had reached him in a way he could not understand and he knows there is something special about her. Something drew his attention to her, and even now, she stands out among the group.

In her arms is a baby boy.

A strange feeling enters his stomach. He is surprised when he realizes that he is a little jealous. For a moment, he tries to analyze this feeling. He is in no position to be jealous as he knows nothing about her or the people in this village. He admits to himself that he is attracted to her.

Sewati, the tribe's leader, becomes aware of the trader's silence and follows his guest's gaze to see what it is that preoccupies him so. "Her name is Malila," he says in a low but powerful voice to the young trader sitting next to him when he sees where his gaze lands.

Liwanu blinks back to the present and realizes that he has been staring at the woman. He drops his eyes back down to his plate, a little ashamed. "She is very beautiful," the trader acknowledges as he tries to keep his voice neutral.

Sewati acknowledges the comment with a nod of his head. He waits to see what will happen between the two.

That night, the village stays up late into the night as the clan's storyteller, Helki, and the trader take turns telling stories, much to the delight of everyone. Helki goes first, graciously giving Liwanu more time to digest his meal and relax before he tells his first story. Helki's first tale is the familiar one about the human-eating giant Uwulin. The children watch with wide eyes and listen as Helki narrates the gruesome tale, and by the time he is finished, they are all as wide awake as ever. Liwanu, therefore, chooses a love story to tell as his first tale to contrast with the action of Helki's. He introduces the story of a beautiful woman who marries the moon as one he had heard himself from a trader who heard it from another trader who heard it from yet another trader and so on from a people who lived in the far north. Liwanu then relates the tale itself with a such a nature as to leave the children asleep and the adults, young and old alike, enchanted.

Malila forces herself to leave then. It is getting late and she offers to put Kaliska's son down for the night. She also takes a bowl of food with her and goes to the medicine woman's home. The old woman smiles when she comes in. "How was the feast Malila?"

"It was good. Helki and the trader are telling stories now."

"That's nice."

"Yes. Do you want something to eat? I brought a lot of the food for you."

"No, thank you, dear. I am not hungry. Do we have anymore yarrow root though?"

Malila frowns a little bit as she goes to where their medical supplies are storied. "Yes, we have a few left. Is that cold still bothering you? You have been fighting that since the time when ice still crashed more than a few times from the falls."

"I am fine dear. I am just getting old."

Malila says nothing as she prepares the root for her elder.

Later that night, when the old woman is finally asleep and resting easy, Malila goes outside and sees that everyone else is in bed as well. All of the food has been put away and the communal fire is now burning low. She sighs and wraps her rabbit-skin blanket a little more tightly around her shoulders as she silently walks through the village, unable to sleep. Thoughts of the medicine woman occupy her mind. Malila is very worried because she is not recovering as she should have been. With a heavy heart, she finally admits to herself that even if the woman is to recover, she will not live through another winter – and the old woman knew it, she could tell.

"Perhaps if I get some more yarrow root though," she argues with herself. "Fresh this time and not so old. Or what about…" She lists to herself the different remedies that could work in fighting this illness, trying to ignore the sudden realization that her "second mother" was going to die.

"Is someone ill?"

A quiet voice startles Malila out of her thoughts and she looks around quickly to find the source. A male figure walks out of the shadows and steps into the moonlight next to her. "Forgive me. I did not mean to wake you," she says to him, speaking in her tongue while signing her words to the best of her ability as well.

"Do not worry. I was not asleep," Liwanu replies. "I am sorry for startling you."

She smiles a little. "That is all right. As long it is you and not some ghost come to haunt me."

Without realizing what he is doing, he raises a hand and lays it lightly on her shoulder. "This is not the touch of a ghost now, is it?"

She trembles slightly. "No, it is not."

He smiles. "Come," he says, drawing her towards the fire in the center of the village. "You seem worried and I would like to help if I can."

"It is all right. Do not trouble yourself with the fears of a woman," she says in protest.

"I insist," he smiles. "You are obviously troubled with something, and it is not as if I am going to be sleeping any time soon."

"But surely after such a long journey…" He gives her a look that stops her protest and she bows her head a little. "Very well. Where should I begin?" she asks as she takes a seat next to him.

"Well, as a trader and, therefore, unofficial storyteller, I suggest the beginning. Every tale has to start somewhere."

She nods her head in agreement. "Every tale does have a beginning. My own began when I was a few summers old and my father and mother died. This was when I moved into the home of our medicine woman."

She continues quietly and unable to look at him as she speaks. Malila tells of how she has lived with the woman since and trained for what is undoubtedly to come. She spills her worries about the illness that won't let go of the old woman and how she will not live for much longer. Also, she admits her fears about what is to come for her, her possible inability or ineptitude to do a job well done for her people. The training Malila received had been done to her alone and she would therefore bear the weight of an entire village. Her fears as a woman also surface for she has not found a suitable husband for herself within the village and she knows that at her age, she should have been married by now. Although it is true that there is really no need for her to find a mate (the village would provide for her needs in exchange for her services to the community), it still made her wonder if there was something wrong with herself.

He listens to her and stays silent during her emotional talk to him as well as to herself. He sometimes looks at her out of the corner of his eyes whenever her throat tightens and sometimes looks down into his own hands. His heart goes to this woman who is very much troubled and he tries to help her by offering his own tale of doubt and trouble on his journey to be where he is today. He tells her that there is nothing wrong with her as a woman, that the man she is meant to be with for life will show up when the time comes, although he speaks these last few words without looking at her. His thoughts are still confused as to what his feelings are for this woman.

She is grateful to him for his presence that night, though. As he speaks, she looks at him and sees his sincerity. She sees that his intent to help her is genuine and that he does not mind staying up this late talking and helping her at all.

That night, the two take another step into forming a relationship. They add onto their initial attraction a respect for the other. Each is able to connect to and understand what the other is going through. And for this night, it is enough.

The next few days are busy ones for the entire village. Besides the normal, everyday tasks of cooking and cleaning and gathering food, individuals often make their way to the trader who has his exotic items for trade displayed in one area of the village. Besides the normal abalone shells (of which Kaliska got plenty in exchange for a few baskets and some jewelry), obsidian, and salt, there are dried sea fish, kelp, and more than a few handfuls of beads from the people that lived by the sea. From his travels to the north and south and exchanges with fellow traders who lived and worked further east, Liwanu brought with him beautifully crafted jewelry and trinkets, feathers from birds even he had never seen before, skins of foreign animals, and vivid stories to go along with everything in his packs. At his young age, he is already considered to be a very wealthy man; one only has to look at the bulging of his pack and the amount of goods exchanged to know this.

Malila and Liwanu continue to talk in the occasions they happened to run across each other. Her friends giggle and smile as they watch her interact with the foreigner, all of them realizing how much he is changing her. Where before, she had always been serious and rarely took the time to relax and take things easy (though they completely understand why the work is important to her), there is now an air of happiness and innocent joy about her that had not been there for many years. Part of that lighthearted attitude is undoubtedly attributed to the fact that the medicine woman is finally recovering from her ailment and resuming more of her former activities. Teacher and student are able to further cement Malila's lessons, allowing the young woman to take on more and more of the duties required of the medicine woman.

Her friends, however, believe that the main source of happiness in Malila comes from Liwanu himself. Others in the village have also noticed the transformation in Malila and approve of the change. Her smiles come more often and more easily. Her laughter is music to the ears of those patients she treats when they confess their fears and she brushes them off, easing their worries by helping them get better. She even starts wearing delicate wreaths of flowers in her hair and in her ears more often. She does it unconsciously but the villagers know that she is doing it to impress the man she has come to care deeply for, and even if she does not know it herself, everyone who watches her and Liwanu silently hope that she has found the one.

In the time Liwanu spends in that majestic valley, he comes to appreciate the crisp air of the mountains, the liveliness of the waters that run through it, and the richness of the earth here. Of course, he also learns to love the people whose village had become his home for almost a moon. One woman in particular occupies his thoughts, and he finds it more and more difficult to think of ever leaving this place.

But leave he must. On the eve of a new moon, he is reminded of another trader he must meet in the south to exchange news and goods for his own home and people by the sea. Already, Liwanu knows that he has stretched out his time here and he must hurry in order to meet the man in the specified number of days. With a heavy heart, he approaches Sewati and announces his plans to leave in the morning, giving his reasons why.

Where another chief may have taken such an abrupt departure as an offense to their hospitality, Sewati understands the trader's predicament. Without Liwanu having to tell him, Sewati knows that the young man's devotion still lies with his home. He sees it in his eyes when the trader briefly mentions the village by the ocean. Sewati finds no place to ask for the reason as to why it is important that Liwanu gets whatever news he is waiting for, but entreats him to stay anyway, out of custom, to which Liwanu graciously declines. Sewati bows his head a little in acceptance and dismisses the trader before going out himself and announcing that there be another feast that night for the trader's farewell.

Malila and the old medicine woman return to the village after spending an entire day gathering plants for supplies and see that the festivities have already begun. The medicine woman calls out to a girl on her way to the fire and asks what is going on.

"There is a feast tonight. The trader is leaving in the morning," comes the reply before she scampers off.

To say that Malila is shocked is an understatement. At no time during her conversations with Liwanu had his leaving been mentioned, and although she had always had the thought somewhere in the back of her mind, to hear it come out of another's mouth saddens her a great deal and she is hurt by the news. Old fears of her own inadequacy resurface as she thinks back to how it was likely possible that she herself was the cause for his being driven away. She remembers her first conversation with the man, when he had persuaded her that nothing was wrong with her. She remembers how honest he was and how she had seen the truth in his eyes. "Unless he lied to me," she says quietly to herself as she unloads their packs and puts their things away. It is only at that moment that Malila realizes she has come to love this man, and the pain she feels that he is leaving her threatens to overwhelm her.

Liwanu is quick to stop such thoughts, however. As soon as he hears that Malila has returned, he goes to the medicine woman's home and asks for the young woman. When she comes out, he takes her hand and leads her away for some privacy. "Malila, I am so sorry to leave like this," he says, clutching her hands in his tightly to his chest to emphasize his emotions. She does not look at him. Her heart is still weighted down with sadness and pity towards herself. "If only I hadn't promised the other trader to meet with him so soon after I had left-"

She looks up then and stares at him. "You are leaving for business then?"

"Of course. Why else would I leave?"

Malila looks away sheepishly. "I do not know. Maybe I did something and I lost your favor."

He smiles gently and cups a hand to turn her head back to his. They stare into each other's eyes. "Nothing you can do will ever make you lose favor in my sight, Malila. I love you." His words come out before he even knows what he is saying, but once he realizes this, he knows that those words are true. For all the time they had shared together here, he could not think of another woman whom he would like to spend the rest of his life with. His heart soars when she smiles at him, speechless. Then she turns her head and rests it lightly on his chest as his arms wrap around her body. "Come with me," he whispers into her ear.

She backs up a little in his arms to look into his eyes. "What?"

"Come with me," he says again. "Don't let me leave without you."

Malila frowns a little. "I don't know what to say."

"Say yes."

"But this is my home. I have responsibilities here."

"I do not want to live a day without you by my side, though." She continues to frown.

"Liwanu! Malila! Where have you two been? We have been looking for you!" a villager calls to them.

"Come," she says, taking his hand and leading him back. "We can talk about this later."

The "later" that she proposes does not come that night. Immediately upon being seen near the fire, the two are separated. Liwanu is taken to the fire, where he is once again, offered a seat at the chief's side. Malila is asked to help the medicine woman perform some rituals of blessing over the food and over Liwanu for his upcoming journey. The feast gives them no time to interact as Kaliska and her other friends dominate Malila's time. But always in the back of each other's minds, Liwanu and Malila think about the coming morning. Will two of them be leaving when the sun rises or just one?

That night, Malila retires early and feigns sleep, ignoring the quiet signals that announce Liwanu's presence outside her home. She needs the night to think and she knows she can only do that alone, without Liwanu's influence. After a handful of unsuccessful tries, she hears him leave and head back to the guesthouse. With a sigh, Malila shifts on her mat and stares at the sleeping form of the medicine woman nearby. The woman sleeps peacefully, and it is a relief to hear her breathing normally and without any trouble this night. Malila's thoughts travel back to the time she first entered the woman's home to live here. How kind the medicine woman had been to her, how she treated her as the daughter she herself was never able to bear when her husband had died and left her childless. Malila remembers growing up in this household and being taught the secrets only women knew by a woman whose patience and love and kindness knew no bounds. Malila asks herself how can she imagine leaving behind the woman who has given her so much, who has helped her become the woman she is today? And what is more, how can she think about leaving her, knowing that she who had helped her for most of her life, needs her help now? If she leaves, who would watch over the old woman when she falls ill? And who else would watch over the village once the old woman dies?

The young woman looks away from the sleeping figure and looks into one hand, where she is fingering a bone that had been shaped into the figure of a salmon. It is part of a set of figures given to her by Liwanu. She cannot see it clearly in the darkness of her home and relies on touch to trace the outline and the details of the fish. She sighs again, quieter this time, as she wonders how she can think of letting go the one man who loves her and finds her worthy of being his mate. How can she let go of the man whose stories bring smiles and laughter to all those around him and whose love for her makes her feel complete?

In the morning, as the sun begins to change from black to purple and gray, the inhabitants of that valley village wake to wish the trader farewell. Liwanu finishes putting away the last of his things and hoists the heavy pack onto his shoulders. With shoes around his feet for the hard journey before him, he steps out of the lodge and into the light of pre-dawn. He scans the crowd of smiling faces all wishing him well but he cannot find the one whose face he wants to see most. With heavy feet and an even heavier heart, he puts on a smile and moves through the crowd to be on his way, taking a path that leads to the south.

When the sun's rays finally begin to enter and flood the valley with light, Liwanu is already long out of sight of the village. The trail is becoming harder to follow now as no one really travels this way, and he tries to focus on the path ahead, navigating his way towards his goal while trying to find the best possible route. In the back of his mind, however, his thoughts are on Malila. So intent is he in thinking about her and wondering why she did not come to wish him farewell that he begins to think he is hallucinating when he sees her figure where the path ends. As he approaches and realizes it is her, though, he smiles and runs the last few steps, closing the distance between them until there is none. "Malila," he breathes, embracing her. "You're coming with me?" He waits for her answer but she allows silence to answer him for her. All of the happiness he had had upon seeing her again vanished and he slowly backs up, dropping his hands to his sides.

"I love you, Liwanu," she says, looking into his face and memorizing it. "But I cannot leave my home."

He stares at her, his shoulders slumping and his eyes losing the sparkle that Malila had loved about him. "I understand," he answers.

He begins to move, his intent to leave clear, but Malila stalls him a little bit longer. With a light touch to his chest, she stops him. He holds his breath as she removes a necklace from around her neck and places it around his. The beads are warm from her body, and he watches still as she takes one of the salmon bone figures he had given her and ties it to the beaded string around his neck. "For remembrance," she says, looking him in the eye. "May the path ahead of you bear you no troubles, Liwanu."

He hesitates a moment longer and then moves, stepping around her so he can continue on his journey south. She does not stop him, but she does turn around to watch his retreating figure walk away from her and disappear.