Encounter: A Short Story (Part II)
After what seemed to be an hour's march, they finally arrived at a huge camp set in the form of a village, with several scattered stone buildings, log cabins and smoking huts. The setting brought to Aremon's mind memories of some scenes in East Africa, yet the constructions seemed unlike any other type of constructions he had seen before.
A land of new and strange things, he mused within himself. As they passed the various houses, he could see cooking women, children at play, men at work. A number of inhabitants voiced greetings to the warriors with whom they exchanged brief conversations at stopovers. Several stared silently at the newcomer while others whispered comments, pointing at him as they walked by. Some bold children gave him broad smiles which he tried to return and look amicable, although inwardly he could only hope against hope.
Presently they stopped at what appeared to be one of the best constructed and well maintained houses in the area. The one whom Aremon assumed to be the leader turned to the others and again spoke authoritatively in the unintelligible tongue. Leaving the rest of the warriors stationed outside, he took Aremon by the arm and led him into the building.
The door swung open to reveal the cool interior of a well-furnished hall. As his eyes adjusted to the setting, Aremon could make out some wooden tables, chairs and stools neatly arranged with decorated overlays. He was still caught up with the skillful designs of the interior he did not notice a reclining figure by the window on his right, until the latter straightened himself up and approached them.
Unlike the others, this man was much leaner in size. He also appeared much older. From the way the house was set and the respectful manner in which the warrior greeted him, Aremon deduced he may have been a senior member of the community but not himself a warrior.
After the salutations, the two proceeded to converse. The leader was obviously filling him in on the details how they had come across Aremon and the events leading to his capture, as he punctuated his talk by making repeated gestures toward the pilot. During the entire period, the older man's eyes were fixed on the newcomer, giving him a keen, searching gaze. He folded his arms and nodded from time to time at the narration, without shifting his eyes.
Aremon did not know which version he was being presented with. But as soon as the narration was over, the older man walked directly to him and proceeded to take both his hands. As he looked at him closely, Aremon noticed the man's demeanour was so cordial, full of such genuine warmth, that he actually began feeling relieved without a single word having been exchanged - something that took the aviator by surprise. The senior smiled broadly at him and touched his shoulders, which Aremon later understood to be their form of greeting and expression of comradeship. Presently, he posed a question to Aremon.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Aremon replied, trying to use gestures.
“Oh excuse me. I was asking, what is your name?”
Aremon could not disguise his incredulity, “I'm Aremon - you speak my native language!”
The man smiled. “Well, it would appear so. My name is Unitan. Welcome to the land of Ishara. Where exactly do you come from?”
“East Africa. I was crossing over your land in the process of getting across to the ocean to deliver some goods. But along the way something strange happened. I suddenly lost bearings and crashed in the jungle.”
The man frowned slightly. “First, I do not know the land you speak of. What means did you use to travel?”
There was a brief silence. Finally Unitan shook his head. “I’ve not heard of that before.”
“It’s a craft designed to fly in the air.”
It was his new host's turn to be astonished. “Do you know where this craft is?”
“The wreckage...” he suddenly stopped as it dawned upon him. In the rush to escape and the trek to the camp, he had lost track of the whereabouts of the scene of the crash.
“Don’t let it worry you,” the man said quickly, patting his shoulder, “We have some trained scouts here whom I can send to mobilize a search party. This sounds interesting. I think we have a lot to learn from you and you may have a bit to learn from us.”
“Is this one of the villages of Ishara?” Aremon asked.
“Yes, you are in Camp Umoja, one of several communities here.”
“But you do not appear African. How is it you speak my language and they don’t?”
“That is why they brought you to me.” Unitan turned to the warrior leader and gave him some quick instructions. The man nodded and as soon as he was off continued, “I belong to a network of leaders in this land they refer to as Wajumbe which in your language means ‘messengers'. Of course we do not know everything, but we are the ones who have retained at least a part of the knowledge that has been passed down the ages and use it to teach others. We welcome strangers and newcomers because we know it is important everyone has a part of this knowledge to use in life. Do not fear. You are safe here.”
Aremon blurted out. "Who are these men?"
"Scouts from the fifth Umoja Division."
"My experience with them was far from welcoming."
"They wield blood-clotted weapons and attack newcomers. By the stream, I was nearly executed and had to flee for my life."
Unitan offered him a seat. Aremon was however hesitant, still not knowing in his mind what to make of all this. The leader observed his apprehensive state for a moment.
“They were trying to save you,” he remarked quietly.
“What? Oh, sure. I guess they left out the part of the crossbows, arrows and lances and the net which they-"
“Aremon, they were not attacking you.”
Unitan had a half-smile. "You were clearly in danger. But not from my warriors."
"I don't understand."
He patiently motioned to the nearest chair, “Will you please have a seat?”
Aremon looked at the unfeigned expression in his eyes and complied, though cautiously. Unitan pulled forward another chair and sat facing him. He clasped his hands and started again slowly.
“Please excuse our scouts. They are used to war situations and may have given you a fearsome impression by the manner in which they handled the entire episode. We are still training them to be more discerning and sensitive.”
“You stated I was in danger, but not from them. What do you mean?”
“You were being trailed by dygrony, one of the deadliest river predators in these parts and you could not see it from where you stood. It was coiled directly above you on the tree branches. Its poison may not kill instantly, but can considerably paralyze the normal functioning of the body. The venom immobilizes and weakens, making one defenseless and therefore prone to other dangers of the jungle. You could not see this creature in the thick foliage by the stream because of its sinister camouflage.”
With a jolt, Aremon recalled the uncanny notion he had felt near the stream, as though he was being followed.
His host continued. “Our scouts are trained in combating beasts in the jungle. They tried to warn you of the danger you were in but quickly realized they couldn’t communicate with you. They knew as I did, from your attire and deportment, that you were a newcomer in the region. They saw through your poor jungle instincts and absence of skill, recognizing you lacked the basics needed to make it alive in the dangerous territory into which you had entered. They had already eliminated the reptile by the time they began crossing the stream after you, which explains the state you observed of their weapons. You attempted to escape, but they knew letting you go would only jeopardize things because of the quicksand.”
“Yes. Beyond the stream in the direction you were heading when you took off from them.”
Aremon watched him closely as he spoke almost in disbelief. There was not the slightest hint of deceit. A complete shift in paradigm was taking place in the aviator's mind now and his countenance begun to soften as the truth started to dawn on him.
Unitan went on. “They held discussions because before they brought you to me, they could not really be sure whether you were friend or foe. They were also uncertain if you were alone or had company. This is why they had to be careful. Many of our people have been deceived by misjudging encounters in the wild.”
“I see. I'm sorry. I thought they were...”
“I know. Anyone could have imagined the same way given a similar set of circumstances. Besides, the language barrier already created a gap between you and them.”
Aremon thought for a moment. “They must have been trying to warn me to back off, but my panicky state clouded everything. I ended up misinterpreting their moves and making the wrong conclusions.”
“Panic and confusion go together. The scouts knew as long as fear was driving you, there were even greater dangers that lay ahead. So they resolved to apprehend you regardless of the immediate cost and bring you here. For your own safety.”
“I have not yet encountered the wild creatures of this region, but judging from the appearances of your warriors, a lot of physical strength must be required in order to survive here.”
Unitan smiled. “Not as much stamina as wisdom and foresight.”
“Where is their trainer?”
“You are talking to him.”
Aremon's eyebrows shot up. He regarded the man before him for a moment and then remarked, “No offence meant, but you don't appear to be much of a fighter yourself.”
Unitan laughed off the comment, “Thanks for the compliment. But as you have already begun discovering, things here are not always the way they appear to be. There is still much for you to learn.”
Just then, the door opened to reveal the stalwart features of another warrior. Aremon recognized him as the first man he had seen on the other bank across the stream. Unitan nodded his consent and the man walked in carrying something familiar. It was Aremon’s backpack. In the rush to escape he had forgotten all about it! He conveyed his heartfelt thanks to the man as he handed it over to Unitan who quickly interpreted the aviator's comment. The man smiled back at Aremon and made a remark.
“He says you don’t need to thank him" Unitan explained. "He is just grateful and relieved that you are okay.”
After the man had departed, the two were again by themselves.
“You know, after the plane went down I was surprised to find myself alive let alone bruised. To tell you the truth I did not expect I would survive the impact of that crash. As far as I could tell, I was on my way to eternity.”
“Apparently the Lord had other plans.” Unitan replied, handing him his backpack.
“The Lord? You know Him too?”
“I do,” Then he added with a sparkle in his eyes, “and I can tell you are a believer too."
“As you say, one who has much to learn."
Unitan proceeded, "So do we all. Regardless of how incompatible they may appear to be outwardly, we all are brothers, here to protect and serve one another."
Up to this time Aremon had been inquisitive. But with this latest discovery, curiousity came upon him like a huge wave. “How...”
“...And when and why and where...” Unitan was laughing, “I know you are about to ask a thousand questions, but one thing at a time please. First you need a proper bath and a new set of clothes. And we need to have a look at those scratches and bruises. I'll organise for someone to attend to you at once. Then you can ask your questions.”
He spoke with such a fatherly manner Aremon could not help but go along. From the short time he had spent with him, he already sensed the disarming nature of this man's warmth and knew he was among friends.
In the days that followed, Aremon lived within the camp. He knew whatever the explanations were, it was clear he had stumbled upon unexplored territory, a strange land whose inhabitants seemed disconnected completely from life in the 21st century. He couldn't wait for the opportunity to return with the news of his discovery back to his own people.
Unlike many communities Aremon had known previously which were joined together chiefly by traditional, ritualistic and political values, here was one which was bonded by simple truths, whose fellowship and passion were much deeper than what he had come across in his own homeland. They lived in some ways similar to the manner in which cultures of previous centuries had, without many of the modern things he was used to and often took for granted.
He was taken aback by how quickly he grew accustomed to living among the inhabitants of this strange otherworldly community, a civilization that seemed to be of another age, yet with remarkably parallel features of the modern era in which he himself lived. He got to learn of their way of life, striking a deep bond with Unitan whom he came to respect as a leader of deep conviction, a man endowed with both wisdom and knowledge.
He deeply missed his own family and community, often looking forward to the day he would return and assure them of his safety. He was convinced the private flight company had already launched a search party by now and they would be scouring the place in search of him and the plane. He felt somehow that if he could just return to the scene of the crash, he would be able to retrieve his chart, compass and other instruments whose repair would enable him not only locate his whereabouts but perhaps also send a message back home.
The scouts and other members of the community were kind and considerate, offering to assist him locate the spot where the wreckage of the plane was. They made organized trips back together to comb the area across the stream but they couldn't find any trace of it. However any further excursions there were curtailed the third day by a heavy downpour that came upon the region. Members of the party who had gone out that day reported back with the news that the stream had overflowed its banks, making the area impassable and too dangerous for further searches to be conducted. However, the leader assured him repeatedly that they would resume the search as soon as the water levels subsided.
For the time being, he resolved in his mind to absorb as much as he could to learn from this place before going back. He was deeply moved by the genuine love and care they extended to him, taking him in as one of their own and affording him the opportunity to learn as much as he could by interacting with them on a personal basis, through of course, lots of interpretations.
They also had the Old and New Testaments in records which according to Unitan they had obtained from a group of visitors from a far country who had brought the message of the Gospel to their community. The knew how to read and write in their language and had developed a variety of arts and other branches of knowledge as well.
They were more than eager to hear the history of his own land and so he had many opportunities to share with them how communities in Africa developed over time right up to the scramble and partition of the continent by foreign nations, and how each country later achieved independence. He then updated them on the progress the individual African countries were striving to make in the effort to better themselves against many compounding odds. By way of introduction, he recounted the state of affairs as it is in the modern age, as well as he could summarise, giving them a general preview of the same.
As would be expected, they were enraptured by the examples he gave of improved social life, technological innovation, infrastructure and other features of modernity which were previously foreign to their hearing. On the other hand, they were deeply moved with concern over the miasma of moral crises and widespread woes that had been set in motion in the wake of these same advancements.
In one sense it was a completely new culture and setting. In another strangely, he felt it was familiar to him, as though he had been here before, but in a way he could not quite explain. This feeling prompted him to seek to learn even more.
The room was spacious and well-ventilated. The sight of the setting tropical sun beyond its windows as it gave out its final radiance for the day was breathtaking. The two men who were watching it, engaged in quiet conversation presently turned around.
The aviator was waking up.
He blinked several times. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he realized he was looking up toward a ceiling. Two faces were staring back at him.
He was lying on his back in what seemed to be a single bed. Apart from some medical equipment to his right there didn't seem to be much else in the room. He instantly recognized the features of his manager and the company director. It was clear they had been observing him for some time. He could see consolation and relief written over their countenances.
The director was the first to speak. “Aremon, how are you feeling?”
“I feel fine. Where am I?” he heard himself respond in a quiet voice.
“Exam Ward," replied the manager. "You were flown here after they found you unconscious at the scene of the crash and have been examined for any injuries resulting from the impact. Apparently, your medical report does not indicate you have any issues that can keep you here for long. You will soon be discharged.”
The director edged closer and leaned over his bed. "The details in the flight data recorder indicated the plane crashed out of an unusual stalling. We received reports of unexpected weather changes after you left but could not get to warn you in time since the radio was malfunctioning. Even as we speak, investigations are being conducted to ascertain the details of what actually took place. As a way of mitigating such risks in the future, the resolution to install alpha-limiters on all company planes will be signed next week by the board."
The manger noted quietly, "All the same, we are thankful that you were brought here on time and that you survived. That's what is most important. We can replace machines, but we cannot replace a human life."
“How long have I been here?”
His boss checked his watch and then turned to him. “They rescued you from the plane about three hours ago.”
“You could not have been trapped there for more than two hours.” The director added.
Aremon forgot about his condition and was sitting up before he even knew it.
“What? Sir, with all due respect, that is impossible. There must be some mistake. I’ve been away for weeks!”
The manager was about to respond but the director held him back. “Come, I think the young man needs a rest. We’ll inform the doctor he has regained consciousness.”
At this, the corrugating brow of the manager softened and a knowing look settled on his countenance. The director smiled kindly at Aremon, “We can talk about that later. For now, you need to take time to relax, OK?”
With that, the two left the room before Aremon could protest. Soon, he was by himself.
This did not last long however, as his wife rushed into the room as soon as she received news that he had finally come to. The nurses briefed her on his condition and assured her he would be ready to be discharged soon.
As soon as they left, she sat next to him and took his hand in hers and squeezed it affectionately. She then shook her head at him and placed her finger on his forehead. “Reckless mister, don’t you ever do that to me again!”
They both laughed. "How nice to see you too," Aremon responded with a smile.
She then drew closer. “What is this I hear about you being gone for weeks? Tell me, what exactly happened?”
Aremon chuckled. “You would never believe it.”