“What’s a baobab?” a little voice asked.
“It’s a kind of tree,” I answered, not taking my eyes off the computer screen in front of me. The stocks had been volatile today and I predicted that tomorrow I could make a killing. It was time to buy some blue chip stocks at a huge discount. I was about to make a bid on a stock when a small hand tugged at my elbow.
“I know it’s a kind of tree,” she says with a petulance only a girl of her age can muster. “But what are they?”
I snorted. I had bought her a half dozen books over Amazon and she was reading The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. I should have known that questions would be forthcoming.
Isabella has been living with me for the past two years now. The great storm that had leveled the city also took away her parents and I had made a promise to her mother that I would take care of her, and so here I am saddled with this precocious young girl. That would sound like something very ordinary in this day and age, except for one very important detail. I am not human. Or at least, part of me is not human.
When the storm hit Tacloban, her family tried to climb to higher ground as the storm surge began sweeping away buildings like the hand of some giant child who throwing a temper tantrum. Her father had already been sucked away by a wave. Somehow Isabella and her mother found themselves at the top of the warehouse where I was hiding, and right before the storm surge would swallow her, Isabella’s mother saw me and told me to grab her daughter. She told me to take care of her. I did not know if she knew what I was nor do I know why I said yes. You see, I am what is called a tikbalang.
I suppose the cat is out of the bag, or maybe it would be appropriate to say, the horse is out of the gates. I am half human, half horse. I am not a centaur. The Greeks had it all wrong, I have the head of a horse with a body of a man, as it should be. The other way around is just plain silly.
Also, I am not just a tikbalang. I am the Tikbalang. All those stories, all those legends, were probably stories of me interacting with your kind.
Yes, the stories are true, I am real. I am as strong as a horse, although it would seem strange if I was not. I am very good at hiding and I have a few dozen other tricks up my sleeve. And no, I did not get married when it rains on a sunny day. Whoever told that story must have drunk too much palm wine. The closest thing to a marriage I had was when a Hindu Rajah tried to marry me off to his spinster daughter. As far as I remember it was not raining then.
Speaking of remembering, I think I should share to you my People’s history and a bit of my own.
We came to be thousands of years There were many different versions of the Beast Folk, half man, half something else. Half horse, half lion, half elephant, half eagle, all kinds of animals. We were a virtual menagerie.
We each made our own marks in history. My sister Hathor once ruled a small city in Egypt. My brother Bob spent some time stuck in a maze somewhere. The Winged Ones soared the skies and were called angels. We did not age or get disease, but we could die by violence and treachery.
Then like in all stories, my kind and yours did not meet eye to eye, both figuratively and literally since some of us are really tall. Nobody knows how the wars started, but they did. Both sides were not entirely blameless, but then again in war nobody is ever innocent.
The Beast Folk had all kinds of different powers. The winged ones could fly of course. I had brute strength. On my own, I could probably beat a small army. However, we could not counter your two greatest strengths – your tenacity and your cunning.
Eventually, my kind was overwhelmed and I survived only because like the animal that shares my likeness, I could run and run I did. I have been running ever since. I ran when your kind destroyed Babel. I ran when the City of the Dead was buried by a maurading army, hellbent on destroying anything that is linked to my kin. I ran as every other one of the Beast Folk were hunted down and killed.
All my running led me here, to this small archipelago nearly at the edge of the world three thousand years ago. The natives here did not mind me, thinking I was some sort of benevolent spirit, and I have been living among the natives ever since.
I contributed as best as I could. I knew the language of the Xin when they came to trade and I translated. When the Spaniards came, I fought beside Lapu Lapu and I threw the spear that took the life of Magallanes. I made the Japanese lose their bearings when they hunted the guerillas.
Things were not always destined to go well. When the Spaniards came, I knew their religion would not allow me to exist. I would be called a monster, to be feared and hated. So I went back to hiding and I have been hiding ever since, showing myself to a select few.
Now I am here being bossed around by this tiny human. This is not the life I expected. I shut down my computer. Playing the stock market can wait another day. If you are wondering why I am trading stocks, a half-human, half horse legendary being has to make a living somehow and this fancy inventions of yours makes it so easy.
“You want to learn more about baobab trees?” I asked. “I’ll tell you more about them.”
I gathered up Isabella in my arms and began to tell her this story.
Hush now child. Let me tell you this story. Be quiet so I can tell this story properly.
A long long time ago in a land far far away, a a figure was running in a vast desert. He was running away from the armies that the great and terrible King Khufu had sent after him. Khufu was building a great city and he needed the demon’s power to build it.
“Wait, was the demon you?”
“No, child. It wasn’t me. Now shush.”
He had eluded the armies behind him but he forgot one important thing. There was no water in the desert and soon he was dying of thirst. He looked everywhere for water but he could not find any. Days passed and only his demonic constitution prevented him from succumbing to the rigors of the desert.
Finally, off in the distance, he saw a tree and thinking that water can be found there, he dashed over the dunes to reach the tree.
To his dismay, all he found was that same tree which at closer distance, proved to be somewhat fat and ungainly.
He touched the tree and began to talk to it.
“O lonely tree in the desert,” he said to the tree. “Perhaps you may know of a place where I can take a drink?”
“Here,” the tree. “Make a hole in my trunk and drink the water that comes out.”
So, the demon scratched a hole in the tree and water flowed out. The demon cupped his hand and drank his fill, the sweet wetness spreading in his throat.
When he had drunk his fill, he looks at the tree and he asks, “Why are you out here alone in the desert?”
“The cedars and the poplars all say I am ugly, so I ran away here where they could not make fun of me.”
The demon looks at the tree, then makes a promise. “I tell you now, noble tree, that because you gave me water, I shall undertake to spread all of your children wherever I go.”
The tree expresses its gratitude and tells the demon to take some of its fruit. The demon takes a bite of the sweet tart fruit and collects the seed from inside. As he ate, he recounted his predicament to the tree.
Then the demon asks the tree, “Where do I go next?”
“East and west and North are where your enemies lie my friend,” the tree replies. “You must go south, where lush lands await you. However, the edge of this desert takes many days travel. The desert will claim your life before you reach the end. So, if your promise is true, take me with you and I will give you water and food until you reach your destination.”
So the demon uprooted the tree and carried the tree on his back, drinking from the tree’s trunk when he was thirsty and eating the tree’s fruit when he was thirsty. Then after many days, they finally reach the edge of the desert which leads to an expansive savannah. By then, the tree had nearly dried up and its branches were stripped bare.
Still carrying the tree, he wanders the plains scattering the tree’s seeds wherever he goes. For a year and one night, he carried the tree until when he was at the coast, a flamingo tells him that a terrible army had emerged from the desert. Khufu’s armies had finally found him. He thanks the flamingo then whispers something to the tree, and with a knife he knapped out of flint, the demon fashions the tree into a boat.
Seeing Khufu’s armies off in the distance, he launches the boat and he travels the world, sailing to parts unknown and spreading the remaining seeds he has until finally, all of it is gone as he arrived on an island in the farthest east.
With no more seeds left, the demon decides to rest, until the wanderlust takes him again. Where he went, nobody knows.
When I finish, I peer at Isabella and see that she is sleeping, still clutching the Frenchman’s book. I carefully take the book away, carry her into her room and tuck her into bed. I look at this fragile thing given into my care and wonder how I ever ended up as caretaker for this young girl. I shake myself of this notion and I remind myself that I always, always keep my promises.
Then I go back to my study, and I sit down in front of the computer, wondering if I should turn it back on. Instead, I decide against it and open one of my drawers, and I take out an old piece of wood, the last piece of the baobab tree I had befriended so long ago.
“Thank you my old friend,” I say as I touch the piece of wood. Finally I decide that tonight I was going to sleep early, and I drift off to my bed, as dreams of deserts and trees take me home.
This is my entry for the Friday Fiction with Ronovan Writes. The theme for this week is the boab tree, but I made a little tweak to the theme. Hope that’s okay.