Though his listener Benda had long since drifted off into sleep, Tob continued his tale, unabated, ritualistically, as if driven by some inner light which must be expressed. As Benda dozed, the words of Tob’s tale blended with the wanderings of his dreaming mind, which bent ever toward his home and family.
Tob went on, “Try as I might, I could not reach the copper knife on Lam’s belt. Though I succeeded at length in climbing up his leg and onto his back, the blade was sheathed at his waist on the front, and when I made a lunge for it, I merely tumbled onto the ground amidst the still slowly slithering vines which entrapped the man’s wrists most thoroughly.”
“Lam laughed aloud on seeing me tumble and roll off him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he offered, stifling further laughter. ‘I shouldn’t be laughing at such a brave helper in my hour of need.’
“‘I dare say not,’ said I in reply. ‘Though, in my short life, it seems that laughter is the one thing I’ve been given which I’m able to freely give to others in turn. Would that I could give more or greater gifts…’ I sat down on the soil in despair, small tears welling in my many eyes. ‘But alas, it’s no use.’
“‘Be still,’ said Lam. ‘It may yet prove to be enough.’ But just as he said that, the deep groaning slithering sound reached a crescendo, and a tough spiny vine crawled up the length of his arm, and pulled the man’s shoulders heavily downward. He cried out, and I leapt to my feet, tearing at the vine with all my might. But bodily strength have I not, and Lam was now pinned shoulders to the ground, as another vine crept up his leg, reaching toward his waist, to pull him fully down.
“Despite the horror of his situation, Lam remained calm, saying to me, ‘Give me then what gifts you have, little one. That I may find comfort in this most inglorious end.’ Through loud sobs, I sprang forward, finding new reserves of energy within the core of my being. Without knowing what I was doing, a tune broke from my lips, and I began to dance and twirl about, in an apparently most ridiculous fashion.
“It must have worked, because Lam bellowed in deep laughter, which resounded up and bounced among the cliffs above, returning tenfold until it seemed the whole putrid valley was laughing. I danced harder than ever, and began to enact spontaneously an elaborate pantomime, waving my arms in an exaggerated fashion, and the wordless tune on my lips suddenly turning to lyrics of a tale I did not know that I knew.
“It was the tale of a horrible monster whose hunger caused him to maraud among a village of innocent men, until one brave soul – a hero – stood up to his advances, and struck the killing blow. It was no longer a comic performance, but suddenly tragic, and tears poured forth from my many eyes, though I did not know why.
“‘I know this tale, little one,’ said Lam. ‘And you needn’t cry, for it ends well. It is my tale. I am – or I was, in any case – the hero.’ And all at once, awareness flooded through me that it was my tale too, or rather the tale of my brother-father, and that as his clone, the shameful poison which had animated that monster lurked deep within me too. I was astonished, therefore, to realize that Lam, whom I longed to save, was the hero who had killed my progenitor. But I saw too at once that he had done so not out of malevolence, but that his act of protection of his family and his village was too an act of kindness for my brother-father, who had suffered long, and whose rootlets had grown twisted and intertwined with all manner of evil from which he was no longer able to extricate himself.
“My weeping stopped, and I stood up with new resolve, realizing that as Lam’s waist was nearly now pinned to the ground, his knife had become accessible. I lunged for it, and with my rootlets was able with a giant tug using all my might to pull it forth from its sheath. The effort threw me back, but I retained my grip, got up and raced to where his hand was pinned. Blade pointed down, though the tool was nearly the length of my body, I stabbed downward at the vine which held him.
“‘Whoa there, little one!’ Lam laughed again, despite his dire situation. ‘Take care to sever only vine and not too my fingers, writhing though they may be.’ I apologized, and taking more careful aim thrust down through vine, into soil beneath. Where I cut through vegetal flesh, a stinking sticky white liquid oozed forth. I took great care not to let it touch me, after a few drops splashed onto me, and I could feel them burn my flesh.
“At last, Lam’s wrist and hand were free, and exhausted, I let go the blade, falling onto my back.”
Benda stirred in his slumber, but spoke not a word. Tob continued.
“Seizing then the blade with his free hand, Lam stabbed and hacked at the vines binding his other arm, and had almost freed his upper body when a horrible shriek pierced the air. Out of the mist appeared a hideous bulbous shape, smaller than a man by half, skin hard and taut, pale putrid yellow. An enormous horrid gourd it was, and with it came a revolting stench. It strode rapidly toward us on viney stalks for legs, and its malevolent intent was clear. I yelped in terror, and Lam frantically cut away at the remaining vines which bound his shoulder, pulling himself up, and hacking at those which still gripped his waist and legs.
“It was no use though, and the hideous being was almost upon us. I ran out in front of Lam, trying to protect him with my tiny useless body. As the gourd closed the space between us, he kicked me away with a single confident stroke, and reached out to Lam with evil intent.
“But his blow never fell, for in that instant, we heard a great whistling whoosh of air, and the point of a stone spear burst forth from what should have been the gourd’s horrid face. And up rushed Wawiro from behind in a fury, who leapt on the beast, and where the spear had landed began clawing and biting, until the gourd was torn to foaming pieces. Lam’s brother Dal appeared out of the mist, retrieved his spear, and with its butt-end pulverized the remains of this foul creature. Working franctically meanwhile with his knife, Lam was able to free himself and stood up with weariness. Wawiro leapt on him with the greatest joy conceivable, though still foam-flecked from the struggle with the monstrous gourd. Lam and his brother too embraced. ‘Not a moment too soon!’ said he, and looking around at the carnage, they laughed together.
“‘Let us flee from this wretched place,’ said Dal. ‘Aye,’ Lam agreed. ‘But not without my little friend.’ ‘Friend?’ said Dal. ‘Who?’ Lam explained what had befallen him, while they hunted around for me. The vines slithered but did not attempt to strike or grasp again, especially since Dal trampled them heavily under foot, and where any seemed too aggressive, he stabbed and hacked with the point of his spear. After a while, they found me, fully in a daze, partly hidden by leaves, some ways off. They took me up, and left that terrible place.”
Benda had woken somewhere near the end of the tale, and said groggily, “Is that all?”
“That, my friend,” said Tob. “Is just the beginning.”
Benda groaned, and rolled over, pulling his cloak over him for warmth.
“After tending to the flock, provisioning his brother, and recovering from the slight wounds and shock of the fight with the vines and the hideous gourd, Lam took me back home with him as his guest of honor. And I lived for many seasons with that delightful family. I played with his young son Bola in field and forest, who taught me the jokes and songs only children know. And we spent endless hours exploring along the shores of the Great River, where I cut and fashioned my reed flute. In the evenings, Useld, his wife, taught me the spells and knowledge of the wise women. She fashioned for me this marvelous hat I wear. And Lam, he taught me the history and tales of his people going back as far as anyone could remember. Though he was the killer of my brother-father, with them and the people of the village – who accepted me despite my curious nature – I was really and truly happy. The poison in me seemed to recede ever farther from memory…”
Benda, who was snoring rather loudly and to Tob’s ears rudely, snored so loudly that woke himself up. Realizing after a moment that his little companion had finally fallen silent, he ventured against his better judgement, “Then why did you leave them? And how came you here today to cross my path?”
“That,” said Tob somewhat sadly, who seemed to finally have exhausted the endless well of his energy, “is a tale for another day.”