The day starts early in Arrakesh. At first hint of sunrise this morning, Megda rose and stirred the fire. Kattan rose too and had filled the water butt outside the cottage before I had wiped the sleep from my eyes. I slept remarkably well considering the thinness of the mattress.
After breakfast of toast (again made with almond flour) and tea, I wandered out into the village to observe the villagers going about their daily business. Just down the hill from Kattan’s cottage lies the Meeting Hall, a large building, not fully enclosed. Behind that lies the storehouse. I peeked inside and was astonished at how well stocked it is. The villagers seem to work together in all things. Meat caught while hunting, food gathered by the women, all goes into the storehouse. Even excess produce from each cottage’s garden is brought to the storehouse to be shared out by Pikat, the storeman.
To the north of the Meeting Hall lies a woodpile that would make any Carlikan weep. Again, it is the result of communal gathering, and will be shared throughout the winter.
The villagers are very friendly, eager to show me around. Many are also eager to ask me about Carlika or to tell me about their own experiences there. I must ask more about the Sharesh. It seems that very few Arrakeshi ever choose to stay in Carlika when their Sharesh is over, and even fewer ever return there afterwards. I am interested to find out why this is so.
I am still with Kattan and Megda. Apparently there is a spare cottage that I may have for the duration of my stay, but it needs maintenance before they deem it suitable for habitation.
Another villager shared a meal with us tonight, a young man named Jakan. He is relatively tall for an Arrakeshi, though still at least a foot shorter than me. I had guessed him to be about my own age, but Kattan tells me he is, in fact, only twenty, a good ten years younger. He was introduced as ‘The Treespeaker’, a title which intrigues me. He seemed reticent to speak about his role, however, and I have not yet had chance to question Kattan. I do know from talking to Arrakeshi visitors in Carlika, that there is a deeply held belief in the spirit of the forest itself. I presume this man is some sort of priest or seer, but I do not want to seem too greedy for information. I’m sure I will get a chance to learn more in time, if I can win Jakan’s confidence.
One thing that was clear was the obvious affection he had for Kattan and Megda. He apparently has no family of his own and lives alone in a cottage on the far side of the village. From what I saw in the village today, he is well respected by the other villagers, despite his young age. I look forward to getting to know him better, for I suspect he is the key to learning how Arrakeshi society functions.
Now to bed. I have been invited to go gathering yams with the women tomorrow. I am not sure whether to be pleased or insulted.
I arrived at the village mid morning, having left my camp at sunrise. It wasn’t an easy walk. The terrain in the forest undulates even more than in Carlika, and the recent rain on the leafy floor made it slippery. I would probably have made quicker progress if I hadn't spent so much time taking in my surroundings. The animal life here within the Veil is astounding and almost every plant is new to me.
A group of children met me outside the village. They were playing some game, involving running in and out of the trees (the seemed unhindered by the slippery ground). When they saw me, they all stopped at once, their mouths open. I must have seemed like a giant to them, for the Arrakeshi people are small in stature. Eventually, one of the older children came forward and asked if he could help me. They led me then, to the village and introduced me to the Chief Elder. Quite a crowd built up around me as we walked to his cottage. A stranger in the village, especially a Carlikan visitor, is obviously quite an event.
The Chief Elder, a man approaching fifty years of age, whose formal name is Kattanbek, welcomed me into his cottage. His wife, Megda, served me a tea, a strange concoction made with camomile and other herbs I couldn’t recognise, as well as some quite bitter tasting biscuits which she told me were made with almond flour. The two were not at all awkward about welcoming a stranger, explaining to me that anyone whom Arrakesh allows within the Veil is considered a friend and offered due hospitality, though they can be sent on their way if they don't obey the rules of the village. The explanation was given very politely, but the implication was clear.
There is nothing about Kattanbek to show his status as Chief Elder, but he has a tattoo at his wrist, a stylised bear design which I haven’t seen on others. He also has a tattoo below his throat, an eagle-like creature, but I noticed this design on others too, later in the day, so I can only presume it is a mark of the tribe, a totem of some kind. His wife, however, had a tattoo of different design. I will ask them about it at a later date.
Kattanbek’s cottage, which from what I could see is typical of the housing in the village, is small, constructed of slabs of roughly hewn wood, with a shingled roof. It consists of two rooms; a living area, sparsely furnished, with a stone fireplace on which the cooking is done; and a sleeping area. Bed rolls, thin leather mattresses stuffed with what smells like pine needles and lavender, are stored in one corner along with fur coverings. The living area has a floor of flat stones, but the other room has a dirt floor, cleanly swept. At the far end of the cottage is a stone byre. Most of the cottages seem to have a small vegetable garden and a few have goats tethered nearby.
I am to sleep here tonight and other accommodation will be found for me in days to come. Kattanbek, or Kattan as he's usually called by young and old alike, seems keen to talk with me of the places he visited on his ‘sharesh’ as a youth and Megda promises me the best roast rabbit I have ever tasted. They are a most hospitable people.
I'm in the forest. No one can know the thrill of being allowed into the shelter of this place, unless they have experienced it themselves. There's no fanfare, no ceremony. I simply walked in, and except for a slight tingling sensation on my skin, may never have noticed that I had passed through the Veil. Though completely invisible, it has protected the Arrakesh Forest from the depredation of those outside for thousands of years. Had I been found to have destructive plans for this place, the Veil would have turned to something like thick canvas, impenetrable and impossible to tear, and my trip would have been wasted. So many meet that wall and so few have come this far. That's how the forest has survived so long.
I didn't anticipate failure, yet still it's a relief. My intention, as I’ve said, is to study the ways of the Arrakeshi people. Nowhere else in the world do I know of any people whose connection with the land is so close that the land itself protects them. I wish to delve into the mechanics of this relationship, to unearth the stories connected with it, for I suspect there is much that Carlika can learn from these people.
The path to the village is clear as the boys promised it would be, but I don't intend to venture further today. My mind is overwhelmed by the strangeness of this place. The closeness of these trees is somewhat claustrophobic as well as exhilarating. I want to study the plant and animal life before I venture further, get used to the lack of horizon. I shall camp here tonight, in this glade protected on all sides by the sloping forest floor. Tomorrow, I'll make my way east along the path. I look forward to meeting the Arrakeshi in their own place.
My camp tonight lies close to the escarpment below the Arrakesh Forest. It’s a balmy night and I can smell the leaves on the breeze. It's such a strange smell, almost surreal to a Carlikan like me. Tomorrow, I'll climb the path and test whether or not I can enter into the trees, for no one can travel beyond the Veil that protects the forest unless the forest itself decides they present no danger.
Last night, I camped alongside two Arrakeshi youths on the first leg of their ‘sharesh’, a year out of the forest that almost every Arrakeshi (male and female) undertakes at the age of eighteen. They were excited about their journey, yet seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of Carlika and the relative absence of trees in this country. They had few plans, content apparently to simply wander at will, explorers like me in a completely new world.
The two boys advised me to come this way. The path from here will lead me to their home. They promised me that should Arrakesh will my entry, their people, the Fifth Tribe of Arrakesh, will greet me with kindness. Their village lies some distance into the forest, but the path, they said, is clear and easy to follow. I look forward to making friends with these people and learning their ways.
In this diary, I will record all I see, hear, feel, taste and smell; for only by experiencing the life of another person can we appreciate why they behave as they do.