Meetings of the Many
Comadrito’s brain was buzzing with the sound of that buff-tailed bumble bee. Or was it the whirr of the wings of this great bird. What kind of journey was he on? Once a skilful predator now he might be prey. There was still no clue from this powerful bird. He was a mere weasel trapped in the talons of this bird. But it was those last Meetings of the Many that trapped him first.
In the dusk the messenger bird calls for the Meeting of the Many were compelling. There was to be no escape. His life would not be an ordinary weasel life. That night he was called to be a guardian of Navaselva. Surely, he was too young, too small? He could smell other dangerous species around him and one slid by close to his paw; the ladder-back snake liked young weasels. But he was safe. In a Meeting of the Many there were different codes that all abided by.
A lone turtle dove began to share her story. These included some old solemn story songs which after a while changed to a joyous chorus of love and survival. That evening was cold; his fur was not keeping him warm and there was no chorus, just one lone voice. The dove’s notes were less melodious and rang out about too many turtle doves and other messenger birds disappearing. When young the Navaselva turtle dove flew with large flocks but the flock was losing too many and last year she had been one of a flock of five. This year she was the only one to return. She had lost her mate somewhere on the journey back.
Comadrito trembled with tremendous responsibility for the fate of this turtle dove. Was it his greed as a young weasel that destroyed her family? And now she had lost her lifelong partner.
She told of the pairs that did survive their migration journey but were too weak and not able to lay enough eggs, and so, not enough youngsters survived. The dove also sung out about the loss of places to rest and feed on the long journey south. There were great thunderous bangs as well, and she had witnessed terrible fallings from the sky of so many in her flock. Was she to be the last of her kind at Navaselva?
Comadrito feared that the turtle dove might be too old to sing the following year—no more turtle doves with their golden brown, speckled necks and joyous songs of love. That would be sadder than their saddest songs.
And what was happening to the many swifts, bee-eaters, swallows and other messenger birds? They used to swoop down the valley in great flocks. Comadrito did not understand how so many messenger birds could be lost.
Had this Meeting of the Many really heard the turtle dove’s story? Or were all too preoccupied with their own survival stories?
Comadrito knew many plants and trees were suffering too. The plant kingdom of Navaselva blamed the animal kingdom and demanded help. Without the wolves, the wild boar and deer were destroying young trees. Too many insects were causing plant plagues. The bats of Navaselva tried to keep this in check but there were fewer of their species too and they couldn’t eat all the mosquitoes. Fat bats cannot fly well.
The equilibrium of Navaselva was unsettled. Not that long ago the tall pines on the ridge had discovered cotton balls amongst their tall branches. Caterpillars would emerge in long processions and eat their tough needles. The pine trees were not happy. Neither were the mongoose, martens and weasel families. Comadrito learnt not to touch these juicy-looking creatures when a sibling of his rolled in pain after trying some and died in the den that night. A meeting of the plant and animal kingdom helped solve some of that problem. The hoopoe bird, with its crown, but more sociable than superior ways, called in a whole flock to help eat away at the problem. Comadrito was relieved the hoopoes were scooping up these hairy caterpillars. What was good and tasty for one species could be death to another.
At the Meetings of the Many there were stories of hope and of horror. The messenger birds would point their wing feathers in the direction of the Outsiders. Outsiders had changed from natural predators to the cruellest of killers. Stories from the deep waters were of great blood baths. The swift’s stories of the great tuskers, once comical and joyful, were now full of torn tusks. Outsiders were now the strangest of hunters and left so many bodies to rot while only taking the hard tusks. How could an animal eat a tusk?
Comadrito had never seen one of these Outsiders, but they seemed to be in so many of the stories shared at the Meetings of the Many and some came too close to Navaselva not so very long ago. Navaselva was a place where the Many should find sanctuary but Old Lobo and his wolf pack could no longer safely stay and moved north.
Comadrito’s mind came suddenly back to the fear of his own imminent death by this great predator bird. His eyes opened to a surrounding brightness. Was he already dead? Was this all his life amounted to? Memories of Meetings? He then felt a sharp jab from the claw of the great bird, the pain of being conscious. He was now getting very wet but it didn’t seem to be raining. The bird was flying through low clouds. Comadrito drifted off again into more memories.
At that first spring meeting after the sad song of the turtle dove, Comadrito was close to a bumble bee that was buzzing with a whinge and whine. Her sounds were not heard in the general hubbub about the weather and the terrible losses of many birds. The bumble bee buzzed around Comadrito’s head and he wanted to take a swipe at her. But he had learnt to be more respectful. He held himself upright and seemed to be pawing the air instead. This was noticed by the jays and ravens who drew a lot more attention to his and the bumble bee’s location. Finally, the buzz of the bumble bee was heard by all, thanks to his movements.
At Navaselva there were many species of bumble bee and not all were of the same point of view or inclination. But when Buff, the buff-tailed bumble bee made it clear that it was getting too hot for her body to survive, there was a shock in the silent spaces of communication between the Many. Buff wanted to move to the north. There were reports it was cooler there. Some butterflies had been on the move. She wanted to move but needed help. She could not fly long distances in her rather bumbly body.
When she became more distressed, she caught the attention of a bee-eater, a bird with radiant colours and an angelic way of flying to catch bees, a bird with a self-interest in maintaining a high numbers of bees and other such insects. Abe Mero, a young male bee-eater had heard from another flock of bee-eaters travelling to the north. Perhaps it was a good place to go with more choice of bees. Warning cries were heard from the older bee-eaters.
Comadrito was confused by all this unusual commotion and the Meeting ended in disarray as the rising sun climbed over the tallest of the oak trees. The shock that any animal might need to leave the special protection of Navaselva was profound and echoed the loss of Old Lobo. It reached deep across the soil and into the roots of the plant kingdom. A summit between the kingdom of plants and animals was called for. The plant kingdom could not lose such an important contributor to their pollination and reproduction cycles.
The old white gecko, with its reptilian roots from the great era of the plant kingdom, called for the summit. Messenger birds squawked in alarm rather than singing the dawn chorus and the commanding male deer bellowed down the valley. The great black vultures of the western rocks circled high above, signs to other vultures and birds of prey, booted eagles, buzzards, falcons, to know there was to be a very important meeting. Maybe even the imperial eagle would arrive.
Comadrito had never been to a meeting with the plant kingdom. He knew the reports of how so many plant species suffered when Old Lobo and his wolf pack went north. Wolves helped keep these greedy herbivores’ numbers down with the result that more young plants survived. The plant kingdom wished for the return of Old Lobo and always made this clear to the animal kingdom at any joint meetings.
The gecko called for the summit to be near the ancient tree. This was the tree with eyes deep within its hollowed centre. Here the remains of the twisted trunk connected the roots to the leaves. Their knowledge was deep within the earth. It was also where the knowledge of earth and the living met with the sun. Plant knowledge used the sun’s rays to make food within the leaves, to store food and to draw water deep in the earth to the roots. The lungs of the living earth. No animal could do that.
The old tree called the meeting into silence, to wait in silence, to be deep in the silent ways of the world. The Many needed answers.
The roots sensed that there was a warming and the plight of the bumble bee was a warning. But the buff-tailed bumble bee did not need to leave Navaselva. The bumble bee must stay. The white-tailed bumble bee could change its timings. Flowers were blossoming earlier. Adjustments could be made.
But it was too late. Earlier that day there were reports that Abe Mero, the young bee-eater, had flown to the north carrying the bumble bee. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
A ripple spread out to touch many of the minds of the Many. Could it become too hot and dry around Navaselva? Would more and more species need to move? The aim was always to adapt and survive, but how when conditions were changing so rapidly, so drastically? Were there safe places in the north? Was this the time to find the lost forest of the last living wild? Where was it? Was it in the north?
The branches of the trees creaked as a wind blew strongly through the valley. The lost forest was one of the ancient stories that mustn’t be told and mustn’t be searched for. Comadrito shivered with the sudden cold gust. The wind blew the story away.
The messenger birds began to revive a story from Old Lobo. A story of survival against all odds. In the long, long, ago time, the north was covered with frozen coldness and many species travelled south to here in Iberia. Was there another great change coming about?
The wing feathers pointed to that one species, the Outsiders. The trees shook their branches. This two-legged species was up to something. It had caused so much destruction that maybe it was changing the weather? This was disputed. No animal could change the weather. The plant kingdom seemed certain of this but wanted more knowledge.
An animal was needed that could enter into that two-legged Outsider world and be fearless in discovering what that species with its oversized brain knew. All attention turned on Comadrito. He was under scrutiny. A weasel, known for courage and persistence, was small enough to go unnoticed. Comadrito’s sadness about the turtle dove stopped him turning his tail in refusal. Then there was an overload of requests for the other quests he must undertake.
He must go as far north as he could, and come back with as much new knowledge as possible from all the different worlds: plant, animal and Outsider.
He must seek out other meetings of the Many for help and guidance.
He must find the bee-eater. The bee-eater must come back. This was the main clamour from the messenger birds. The bee-eaters at Navaselva could not afford to lose a young male.
What about Buff? The plant kingdom wished for the return of the buff-tailed bumble bee but this may be beyond the possible.
The plant kingdom longed for more knowledge of the great forests to the north. Their rooted connections with the great forests had been lost long ago, but if the weather was turning against all living things, the ancient forests of the north could have knowledge of how to survive changes.
An old mountain oak tree remembered ancient trees telling stories about the lost forest. This might be important now. Maybe the forests of the north knew about the lost forest.
There was a cracking sound, the wind blasted down the valley again. And then there was a tremendous breaking sound and the old oak’s roots were dragged out of the ground.
Comadrito crouched down fearing the powerful strength of the wind. He understood the desires of the trees and the birds but was there some deep destructive anger in the wind that was preventing any stories being told about the lost forest of the last living wild. Why was this? There was a chasm between the living earth and the forces of nature. Those forces were indifferent to whether a living being like the great oak tree died. These forces were indifferent to any living being.
Fear, sadness and loss clouded over the Meeting but all were determined to send Comadrito first and then maybe others on a journey of discovery to help all adapt and survive.
Comadrito feared the unknown. He was not like his siblings who ventured beyond the safe boundaries of the valley. The Many had their purposes for him but he needed his own. Could he find a mate for the Navaselva turtle dove? There must be more of her kind in this special north where Old Lobo had gone. Her plight seemed forgotten by the Many in this new crisis. This idea gave him courage. He knew he wanted to be able to help this beautiful dove and keep her stories alive.
The beat of wings above Comadrito jerked his mind back into the present. The talons of the great bird were digging into his fatty tissue, built up from plentiful mice, voles and a recent rabbit. He became tense. Perhaps, Navaselva would have to manage without him. Perhaps he was just prey? Why hadn’t the noisy donkey he had heard come to the rock? A white bird had told a tale about being on a donkey, which Comadrito had found quite funny and surely a donkey would have been the safest way for a weasel to travel north across the land of Iberia. How else could an Iberian weasel travel?
Now Comadrito was in the grip of an unknown giant bird, high above and far away from his valley home. Could he manage to kill or escape this great bird? He sensed his blood running ready to fight on landing. He was now poised in the air ready to attack. He was a born killer with strong instincts to defend himself. He could not return to Navaselva without pursuing the purpose of the Many. Or without a mate for the turtle dove.
The bumble bee sensed movement in the air. She tried to raise both wings, to lift off but nothing happened. She was too exhausted, her body weighted down onto the warmth of the rock. She felt her life did not matter. There was no way for her to escape to a cooler climate. There would now be slow starvation for her and any colony she was able to produce. As the bee-eater caught her in his beak, she was ready to give up her life. She waited for the bash against a branch. It didn’t happen.
Food for Thought
Audio ch 5
Jay Ro bashed her fist on the desk full of papers with the determination of a hungry bee-eater that wants to eat but must first get rid of the sting. She was frustrated with only finding snippets of stories. She wanted to find the whole manuscript and get back to help her nana with any revisions needed before… Before what? She must make up for the time lost during those teen years when she was obsessed with diet and difficult friendships. For some reason when she was inside her nana’s Spanish house her mind was filling up with flashbacks from those years. Maybe another walk was needed.
She went out onto the porch and caught the sounds of a bee-eater close by. How odd, but it was the time of year that these colourful birds would gather together over Navaselva. She grabbed her nana’s binoculars and scoured the skies and then the tops of the trees. There was one bee-eater calling from the stag head of the old cherry tree. A little further down the tree was a woodpecker. Different birds with different colours, flashes of red, strong beaks and different ideas of tasty food. Jay Ro strolled down to the pond to check on the young frogs. As yet there had been no sign of local storks or herons looking for their favourite food. All needed to eat.
She seated herself quietly by the pond. How did her own story begin? Or was the question how did it all go wrong? Her childhood was happy. She loved her primary school. Yes, there were tiffs with friends but nothing nasty. The games in the playground were full of running around as horses or super heroes. She would become the super horse like the ones she read about, Bucephalus, Pegasus or the Asgard horses of the Norse sagas. Then there were the skipping games and ball games. In Year 6 it became a bit more cliquey and some girls would go off into little hush hush secret chat groups about the boys. Jay Ro loved being with the children who liked to make up little plays; one was about animals on a farm but the teacher didn’t like it and they weren’t allowed to show it to the younger classes. Animals eating other animals was not considered appropriate. But for how long can you keep the reality of experience from the innocence of the young? She missed those innocent days.
The changeover to secondary school was hard. Not many of her friends went to the school and she felt very much on her own for the first time. The first day went better than expected and there were no older students there. Stories were rife about how the older ones would take your ties and cut them short… or worse. That didn’t happen. The first year went quite well but she made few friends and there were lots more intense fall outs. The following year was all change. Groups were rearranged and older students became a part of your form group; some idea about being more like a family. Jay Ro wasn’t used to older siblings but others were and different friendship groups were formed. Jay Ro knew she was lonely, wanting to belong to a group or have a special friend. This was all before meeting Gaia who joined the school later.
Perhaps it all started with teasing, she wasn’t sure now but she remembered the tears welling up when one of the older ones, Tracy, started calling her names.
Grandad Joseph’s words came to her. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Or at least don’t show it, he had added. Tears were welling up. She missed her grandad but these girls now thought they knew what buttons to push. Rubbing the tears away she walked off hearing their hoots of laughter. She was crying because she missed him. He had died suddenly of a heart attack in the summer holidays while she was in Spain with Nana G. A decision was made that she was better staying there. When she returned the funeral was over, there was no grave, she was left with nothing, not even an empty chair where he used to sit. It was as if Grandad just disappeared.
At school, life seemed harder and it was more difficult in the new form grouping. The older girls focussed on how you looked: big nose, small eyes, fat parts, breasts, how you tied your hair or even wore your school uniform. Jay Ro wasn’t interested but this seemed to make some of Tracy’s other friends pick on her more. Some days it was just giggles and whispers behind her back, other days it was a nudge and a push or pull her hair during registration. The teacher never noticed and Jay Ro got told off for making ‘unseemly noises’ when she screeched in pain once.
At home she would wander into her parents’ bedroom to stand in front of the long mirror. There was a sewing box nearby and a dressmakers’ tape measure. She became obsessed with measuring all the parts of her body. She was certainly expanding. Puberty, curves coming, skin breaking out in spots. It was happening. Jay Ro started skipping breakfast. She didn’t like school lunches so just ate a bag of crisps. In the evening she would not eat much, saying she ate a big lunch. Within a few months she had lost her ‘puppy fat’ but also gained some shape with newly-emerging breasts. At this point no one in the family talked much about her changing body or experiences at school. Nor did anyone one talk about Grandad. There was one photo of when he was young but that was not the face she knew. There were more photos of their beloved dog who died the year before. Jay Ro wanted to be reminded of Grandad’s smile, his wrinkled frown, his eyes.
There was some croaking by the pond. Jay Ro jumped back into the present. Could she see them? Yes, two frogs, Iberian frogs with a thin green stripe. And what was that swimming along, swift as if the water was its home. A grass-snake? Effortlessly it climbed up the bank and then was nowhere to be seen. Some bumble bees buzzed around the pink scabious flowers around the edge of the pond. There were also some tiny butterflies, gatekeepers. She wondered what gates they looked after. Who they let in? Who they kept out?
‘Hi, there, uh is it a penny for your thoughts?’ Jonas was standing nearby. ‘Or a peseta?’
‘Peseta, what’s a peseta?’
‘Old money, the currency here before the Euro. Still can be found under mattresses or floors. Perhaps your nana has some hidden?’
‘I’m more interested in finding her stories, this novel she says she has written. You know my mother thinks it’s all imaginary.’
‘Oh really, but certainly real, she read quite a bit of it to us. And then wanted to change certain things. I’m sure you will find it.’
There were tears coming. Jay Ro wanted to brush them away but knew Jonas well enough to talk.
‘I’m sorry. I was thinking about my grandad and miss him. And that makes me think about Nana G. She is my only grandparent now. I hope—'
‘I think we all hope. And yes, that she will come back to Navaselva. Let’s eat together this evening. I remember the time we first met you and you turned your nana vegetarian. And then us, or almost.’
Jay Ro laughed now but at that time she was caught up with all kinds of eating dilemmas. And most were not healthy options.
‘Well, I didn’t mean to and it was sort of… well complicated. Yes, good idea, I can explain more, and you know, I owe you and Carmen, that summer was great fun. You really helped me turn a corner. I’ll make some vegan chocolate cake. It’s all about vegan now with my college friends.’
‘Great we can have a debate about sustainable food whilst eating well. And let us help you sort through some of those piles of papers too. Your nana definitely printed off the novel before her computer crashed. And thinking about it I’m sure Carmen had a print out of the opening chapters; you know, the ones that get sent off. She was giving some feedback. You can at least get an idea of how the novel begins. I certainly remember a bee-eater flying off with a bumble bee.’