Praying Over A Meal

Aruvinda turned his back on the first rays of the sun, coveting every moment of sleep he could glean before the day’s labors began.  He was meant to wake at dawn, but the past day’s work overtook him, and the cold dawning breeze whittled away his strength. He pulled the cover of his sleeping bag as far tight over his head as he could, and returned firmly to his dreams. Though he felt aware of footsteps and felt the steaming of the family’s pot nearby, nothing woke him. When he finally opened his eyes, and knew that they would not close again until nightfall, the sun was high over his square tent. He had slept tight in his bag until the afternoon, and soaked himself in sweat.

Despite his newfound lucidity, Aruvinda found himself troubled to stand, his whole body recalling past exertions and beginning to throb and twist with dull pain. He reached for his sister’s little writing table to help boost himself to his feet. On the table his hand grasped something soft, and he seized it. His sister had left him a message on old parchment. She always wrote in large, curled, carefully-sketched characters that were recognizable even to Aruvinda ‘s hazy morning eyes.

“Brother, you have overslept,” she had written, “I have gone to the river for our wash water. I left you some dahl and naan. Please remember to pray.”

At the opening to their tent, beside the long-since cold bowl of lentil soup and the limp flatbread floating on it, was a large wooden bucket of water, a tiny beetle crawling around its rim. Aruvinda ‘s dog-like ears bristled and drooped, and he felt a great shame. His sister had come and gone twice already, while he stayed in and slept, and did not even eat the meal she’d left while it was warm.

Though his arms and legs continued to ache, Aruvinda stood from his sleeping bag and knelt by the door of his tent, praying over his cold dahl and soggy nan, and eating it quickly. He washed his hands and his face and left the tent, taking a clean, dry sash from a hanger and tying his robe tight. Right over left – like she’d taught him. This whole week he was tasked with chopping firewood, and he prayed that his sister hadn’t had to do too much of his work. After all she’d done, this was unforgivable of him.

His little wing of the village was deserted – everyone had vacated the wide circle of tents in the forest clearing, leaving for the day to engage in their work or play. There were dozens of footsteps in the sandy clearing, leading out into the wood past the forager’s tents and toward the fields of amaranth and beans were the farmer’s tents were laid up. From that edge of the forest, the village carefully collected its supply of firewood.

Aruvinda hurried past the line of shrubs and into the forest, careful not to trip over the roots of the tall sabera trees forming the vast canopy overhead. Not a minute into his dash, he was already tired, and in the distance he could see a gaggle of smaller boys and girls returning from the fields, having partaken of their usual lunch of the locusts and beetles that had dared harass the village crops that day. They soon spotted him, and they all ran up, tails and ears wagging, and tumbled into him, laughing and cheering as he dropped to the ground along with all of them.

“Spirits defend! Everyone, please,” he begged, when they began to try to tickle him, “I need to get out to the fields! You little devils have more than proven your guile!”

All at once, the children stopped, raised their heads and stared at him, their many and varied ears and tails all raised in unison and alertness as well.

“Is something wrong Aruvinda?” One girl said, alarmed, “Did we hurt you?”

“No, no! I’m fine.” Aruvinda replied. “I just have something to do and I’m in a hurry. I’m an adult now, and I can’t just sit around and play anymore.”

A very small boy holding on to his leg let go of him, looking very disappointed. His little winged ears hung. He put Aruvinda’s sandal back on his foot.

“Oh, don’t be that way. I’ll play with you all again on my rest days.” Aruvinda said.

“Is this about your sister?” Another boy said. This one had no ears nor tail, for he was a Cuporo and not a Iomadi like Aruvinda and the rest. He was older than the others, but about the same size nonetheless, and a small red flower grew from his dark hair. How it grew was fairly perplexing. “We saw her out in the fields.”

“Is she chopping wood?” Aruvinda asked, helping himself stand again.

“She has been chopping wood.” An older girl said, old enough to understand what was transpiring. “She’s been there practically all day Aruvinda, thanks to you.”

“You’ve been naughty!” Said the little Cuporo boy, following her.

Aruvinda dashed past them, not giving them another instant to jeer.

He made it out of the trees and unto the village’s fields. The crops were grown in an ancestral clearing that had been kept for generations. The farmers laid their tents here, and because of the village’s covenant with the forest, it was here that they chopped for firewood, despite the loggers living scattered about every wing of the village. Aruvinda and his sister lived in the artisans’ circle, and had been since their parents passed. Aruvinda’s sister was the finest potter in the village.

And there she was – that most familiar woman, tall and thin with a round, friendly face and long brown hair, her spirit markings reminiscent of a dog, like his own, her flesh brown as an acorn, like his own also. She was standing by a pile of split logs, heaving an axe with expert precision. Her cheeks and nose were red with exertion, but nonetheless, she had almost completely done his work. Her tail stood straight as she raised the axe overhead, and curled when she brought it down upon a log. The halves fell to either side of the felled trunk she used to support them.

Aruvinda could hardly approach her. None of the villagers noticed him. They were too busy with their own tasks, watering the gardens, distributing firewood, discussing the season and the weather, and for some, singing prayer hymns to lift the general spirit. Aruvinda squirmed at the edge of the treeline.

Suddenly, she turned around to face a cool breeze, which swept up her hair. In that instant she saw him in the woods, and gave him a dull look. He was caught, and sent a chill down his spine, and he felt as though his throat had been seized.

“What are you doing there Vinda?” She called. She set down the axe and ambled over to him, straightening out her robe, which was near to falling off her shoulders. Aruvinda cast his eyes down to her feet – he’d have to look up to meet her eyes.

“Nothing, nothing Rajni. I just, well,” He paused, unable to say anything. Other villagers cast glances over, some waved, most didn’t seem to pay attention.

“Did you eat the breakfast I left you?” Rajni said.

Aruvinda nodded quickly, closing his eyes.

“Did you remember to pray?” Rajni said.

“I did.” Aruvinda said, his voice barely above a whisper.

Rajni mussed her little brother’s curly hair with a smile.

“That’s good then.” She said. “You should always pray over your food.”

Rajni stretched her arms up, yawned, and patted his shoulder again. She then took his cheek gently, and raised his face so that their eyes met. She smiled. “You can go finish up those logs. I have some pots to make for the foragers.”

With that, she walked past him, humming a common spirit hymn.

Aruvinda watched his sister’s back until she became a shadow in the distant wood.

“Thanks, Rajni.” He whispered, still struck dumb. The wind blew again, and the axe fell off the stump, reminding Aruvinda of his duties. He took it up, and felt motivated to ignore his sore limbs and get to work. He had to do at least as much as Rajni had done for him, or he would not be able to look past her feet again at dinner time.

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