There was tension in the air, so thick and suffocating it competed with the midday sun that was beating down mercilessly on the crowd gathered around the lone oak tree.
A clear divide between them, the two parties stared each other down, shifty eyes and whispered murmurs serving to add to the discomfort of the unbearably hot day.
Beneath the branches of the massive tree however, the smouldering tension had nothing to do with the heat, as two equally fierce men stood, eye to eye.
“We have a right to the river,” one growled, so low only those gathered in the shade, heard him.
“And we do too. In fact, we did first,” his adversary spat back, his teeth bared in hostility, his wide tattooed chest heaving up and down.
A gust of hot air blew suddenly, kicking up dust and moving the still air to give momentary relief from the heat and causing the leaves of the tree to rustle gently.
The sound of falling rain softened even the hardest of those attending the meeting.
“Ehh.. we could agree on new terms of sharing…?” a meek suggestion, put forth anonymously.
“We only accept the old agreement!” the tattooed man roared, flecks of spit flying.
“Then there is only one option,” the other chief responded, his growl deepening so it sounded guttural and animal. “War.”
Silence, uneasy and heavy, settled on the crowd. The minutes stretched on, the scene a perfect picture of “calm before the storm.”
And then suddenly a musical tinkle from beyond the circle of the gathering broke the choking quiet. Her ornamented feet light upon the ground, her gait graceful and her long strides easy, Pia walked through the divided crowd right up to the unmoving chiefs in the centre.
“It seems you have not found common ground,” her voice clear and pleasantly resonant, and her captivating eyes slanted jokingly, “if I judge correctly by your dark faces?”
“Where have you been?” both men snapped at the same time.
“Ha, ha.” Her lilting laugh relieved some of the tension in the air. “See? You do have something in common!” Then in response to the quick frowns, added, “I was in the mountains, gathering herbs. I’m here now, why don’t we…”
There was a palpable ease that passed through the crowd as Pia talked. Even the sun seemed to know the time for drama was over, and begun its descent from its punishing zenith.
Another gust of wind blew, this one longer and cooler than its predecessors of the day.
If anyone could talk to the two chiefs it was Pia, the only medicine-woman in the area and born of both tribes. She was young in years, but her soul, they said in whispers, was old and good and wise, and so she had the respect of everyone — the chiefs and even the elders.
“We will never accept that!”
“Then we will break you!”
“Oh!” Pia’s voice rose over the men’s enraged shouts. “Both sides have cut down the trees and destroyed the forest, both have caused this drought and both have suffered! Can’t you see? You will solve nothing by war…”
Suddenly the two men stalked off in opposite directions, cutting her off. There was truth in her words that they recognised, but they could not share the life giving river anymore; both had decided that their prosperity depended on the others’ demise.
The dawns were always cold. Those precious moments of tranquillity and faint colour, the symphony of the birds played against the backdrop of the lightening sky.
Splashed liberally in purples and reds and finally gold, the rising sun came up from behind the mountains. Pia loved this time of day, the peace blanketing everything still in slumber and the quiet movements of the early risers.
“Pia! Pia!” a young girl was running up the hill. “Pia, they are looking for you!”
The urgency and breathlessness of the messenger raised her senses, it couldn’t be good.
“I’ll come right away,” she said. Ignoring her unease, she always went where there was a need.
“No!” the girl shouted stunning Pia, freezing her in her stance. “They are going to fight today! They are looking for you. They say you must decide which tribe you will follow…” the girl stopped to catch her breath.
“I heard a few rumours that both sides want the medicine-woman for themselves,” she added softly.
“Hey!” a boy’s shout came up the hill, startling both, as the young girl recognised her brother running towards them.
“I…I brought this…” he held out Pia’s only possession, her pouch, as he bent over huffing in exhaustion. “You need to go now, they are sending out search parties.”
Pia knew the mountains well. It was where she went to think, to calm her soul. She was familiar with the terrain, knew the passes and valleys. She moved fast, lithe and fit, and soon she could see the peak.
“There!” came a loud shout.
Pia looked back. Not too far below a group of men had spotted her and were in pursuit. A slight shiver tinged with panic ran through her.
How quickly people could turn; she probably knew each of them and their families. Their greed had destroyed the forests and the resulting drought had changed them. They lost a little of their humanity dry day after dry day until nothing was sacred, they would kill for control of the water, and they would destroy each other for it.
Pia reached the summit and paused to take it all in one last time. She sighed as she traced the snaking river to where the earth met the sky and looked down on the valley she had always called home. Then she ducked into a maze of caves and disappeared forever.
The men, seeing her standing still on the peak, thought gleefully, “She’s given up.” They reached the top but she was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere.
“We always knew she had special powers…” was the end to the story passed down through generations.
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