Deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle lives a magical race of creatures. Some say the Curupiras are the protectors of the Amazon and all who live there, but others say they are mischievous demons bent on torture and destruction. One boy is about to find out the truth.
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Deep in the Amazon forest, Naawe tossed and turned in his hammock. Hushed voices had woken him up. No words, just murmurs, hisses and guttural sounds from beyond the hut that made the hairs on his thin arms stand. The noise soon died down and Naawe closed his eyes. His grandfather had always assured him “it’s just the wind” whenever strange noises woke him up. He’d tell him to quiet his thoughts to hear the wind say “Excuse me, I’m passing through,” while it crossed the village, carrying the lost souls to their resting place.
Naawe tried to go back to sleep, but soon the voices returned, louder than before, even prevailing over his aunt’s snoring. That bothered him. Where were the usual night sounds? The wild cats’ calls, the owls’ hooting, the monkeys’ howling, and the cicadas’ singing were all part of the Amazon’s lullaby. He raised his hand and felt no breeze, much less wind. Had it been the wind, he would have heard the rustling of tree branches. The Amazon trees weren’t the quiet kind when the wind blew. The tall ones with large trunks and thick canopies full of branches, thin and thick, covered with leaves, never stayed silent with the wind. Why were there no rustling or other sounds, but just voices? He sat up.
With forty-two thatched huts, the Mani village stood alone in size in the heart of the Amazon. Fourteen-year-old Naawe lived in the largest hut, since his father was the tribe’s chief. The Mani huts had no walls, just poles across their interior for hanging the hammocks. Sometimes it got cold during the night and pre-dawn, as nothing protected them from the dew. Naawe would tie the hammock all the way up to his face, leaving only his nose and forehead in the open, but those nights were few. He only wished his hut wasn’t so crowded. Family members seemed to sprout from the tree trunks; every time he turned around, a new one appeared. Now they were up to twenty-three adults and eleven children. Mornings were chaos.
Naawe’s hammock hung close to the hut’s center, between his two older cousins’. His grandfather had the next one over. Since his grandfather’s body had become paralyzed, he never left his hammock anymore. Only his eyes moved.
Naawe looked past his grandfather’s to his father’s and found it empty.
He got down from his hammock and tiptoed toward the whispers. The voices were coming from inside the sacred hut—the only hut closed off on all sides. Once, when he turned four, Naawe had gone in with his father. He hadn’t stayed long. The moment he saw the five faint shadows with white pulsating spots in the middle of their chests, he ran. Spirits were a part of the Indian life, but they made Naawe uneasy. They had too much power over the living. And they could see through walls.
He didn’t dare get too close.
Naawe ducked into one of the communal huts and hid behind the wooden flour mortar. The smell of burnt wood from the cooking pit still hung in the air.
“You cannot wait anymore. She never failed you yet.” Naawe heard a woman’s voice speak, which caused him some alarm, since the guiding spirits were all men.
Then he heard his father. “If that is her decision, then it must be.” His tone carried concern.
“It is. We are in danger…” The woman paused. Naawe strained his ears as she resumed in a whisper, but he couldn’t make out more than a few words: ‘destroy all tribes,’ ‘nothing left,’ ‘you must’ and ‘time has run out.’
His father emerged from the hut and walked past Naawe with his head hung low. He looked sad. Two huts down, his father paused and raised his eyes to the sky, asking the Gods for guidance. Naawe had seen his father do that many times. Kauo was a man of few words; he allowed his eyes to do all the talking. The tribe members respected him as he seemed to know everything that went on in their lives.
Naawe remained crouched behind the mortar until his father rounded the next hut. He could make it back ahead of him if he circled around the other side. He would have to run fast.
Naawe prepared to dash. He stuck out his right foot and saw a shadow come out from the sacred hut. It didn’t have the white light in its chest, just a soft glow around it. Naawe froze and stepped back. The shadow paused before it turned toward him. Naawe winced and dropped down behind the mortar. He curled up into a ball. Maybe it hadn’t seen him. He held his breath and closed his eyes. He would count to ten before peeking.
“Naawe, you should get back to your hammock before your father sees you are missing.”
Naawe opened one eye to find his grandfather’s face inches from his. “Unei? Did your spirit become free?”
“No, I am still tied to the useless body,” Unei answered.
Naawe’s face wrinkled up in fear: Unei could roam? Oh, not good. “Do you tell my father everything you see?”
Unei narrowed his eyes. “Run. Your father is not far from the hut.”
Naawe hesitated. Maybe getting caught would be worth it if he could spend some time with his grandfather.
Unei seemed to guess his thoughts. “I’m not going anywhere. Now go.”
Naawe jumped up and zigzagged through the village. He reached the hut at the same time as his father, but while the chief had to weave between the hammocks, Naawe could crawl beneath them. He was almost there. Just five hammocks away. He saw his father’s feet stop and turn, then turn again, now in his direction. Naawe dropped onto his belly. He pushed forward trying to keep the pace without scraping his skin on the ground. His father was close—not more than a few feet.
Naawe reached the hammock too late. He couldn’t climb up without being seen so he dropped down and pretended to be asleep. Just in time. Moments later he felt his father’s arms scoop him up and place him into the hammock. He kept his eyes shut, sensing his father still stood over him. A hand touched his forehead, now wet with sweat. He tried not to panic. His heart continued to pump hard from the running.
“What are you dreaming of, boy? What makes your heart beat so fast?” his father whispered.
“Let him be,” Naawe heard his grandfather say. “He chases the wild cat that runs faster than the wind.”
His father chuckled and removed his hand. “Every boy’s dream.”
Poor Unei; he had always been so strong and full of life. Now he had to lie there and listen to the women chatter all day. Naawe waited a short while before turning to peek. He saw Unei return to his body. He missed being with his grandfather. He should have asked him about what he’d heard. Who did that female voice belong to? What danger was this that could destroy all the tribes? And what had the spirits told his father to do?
“I didn’t know Unei could do that,” Naawe said, rolling the Camu-camu berry seed to the side of his mouth with his tongue. There wasn’t much left of the berry’s sour pulp. He sighed, enjoying the last moments of dawn. With sunrise, humidity would replace the cool air and voices would drown out nature’s silence.
Odu, his armadillo, lay next to him with his belly up and his small legs sprawled. His long thin tail rested on Naawe’s shin.
Naawe closed his eyes and relaxed his back against the tree trunk.
Odu sighed. “I’ve seen him.”
Naawe’s eyes shot open. He spat out the seed and turned to his friend. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you never asked.”
“How was I supposed to ask if I didn’t know?”
“Hey…how was I supposed to know you wanted to know, if you didn’t ask?”
Naawe realized this would be one of those endless, roundabout arguments. He sighed in frustration. Had he known about Unei, he would have stayed up every night just to talk to him. Unei was the only one who didn’t think him crazy for talking to the animals. The older boys made fun of him, but his grandfather told him never to be ashamed; animals had souls too. He wondered if he knew it wasn’t a one-sided conversation. The day before he got sick, Unei told him the others were jealous of him because he knew all the forest’s secrets and they didn’t.
Naawe had been told he looked a lot like both Unei and his father. His brown eyes were the same shape, more rounded than most Mani, his lashes longer and thicker too. Their lips weren’t so alike as Naawe’s had more meat, but they had the same width—medium—and their noses were slightly thin. The exception were the shape of their faces and their slick, straight black hair, exactly like everyone else’s. Some whispered their different features set them apart and were a sign that the Gods meant them to be the chiefs. They had blessed blood through their veins which had altered their features just enough to set them apart. The sign of greatness. Naawe didn’t really believe any of that; he didn’t feel great at all. What did greatness feel like?
“Does Unei do that during the day?”
“No, just at night. I think. Well maybe. I don’t know. We’re never there during the day. We’re always so busy…doing…” Odu rolled onto his side.
Naawe knew that look: Odu’s ‘sermon look’.
The boy tilted his head up just as a parakeet relieved himself onto his forehead. He reached up and shook the bird’s branch. “Hey, go do that somewhere else.”
“It’s a free forest,” the parakeet yelled back.
Naawe wiped his forehead with a leaf.
“Things have got to change, Naawe. You have to stop sneaking out before everyone wakes up. You’re almost a man,” Odu said.
“Almost is a long way from being.”
Odu huffed. “You can argue that for another rainy season and then you better start getting ready, or you can join the monkeys. Nah, you’re too for lazy for them. By the way, did you notice your mother did not come looking for you today?”
Naawe eyed his friend. He had. Did it have something to do with what went on in the sacred hut? He wanted to find out more about what he’d heard the night before and Odu would surely know. Somehow the armadillo was in on all the secrets, but he would have to trick Odu into telling him.
Odu would not slip easily. He was too afraid of Kauo. Once Odu had told Naawe what he’d heard from inside the sacred hut. It concerned Naawe; the six-year-old boy had taken a few arrows from his cousin’s sack without permission. The spirits told Kauo about it and Odu heard them. When Kauo came to demand an explanation, Naawe had one ready. Kauo’s piercing eyes turned from his son to the armadillo. How did he know Odu knew?
“The spirits from the sacred hut, Odu saw you telling Naawe.”
Those gossiping spirits!
Naawe was given a punishment and Odu was then dragged into the sacred hut and given a one and only warning: he could never again repeat what was said inside the sacred hut or he would have the same fate as every other armadillo in the Amazon, he would become food! Odu promised and nothing would make him break that promise.
That didn’t keep Naawe from trying.
Naawe pulled on Odu’s front paw. “Do those other spirits leave the sacred hut?”
“They’re spirits. They can go anywhere.”
“Who are they?”
“I can’t reveal their identity; they will kill me if I do.”
“Oh, you are such a liar,” Naawe joked, shoving Odu’s belly.
“It’s true. You know why? If their family members knew who they were, they would form a line outside the sacred hut to ask for favors. I’ve seen it, endless demands, some very stupid, like ‘my parakeet lost his voice,’ or ‘my arrows won’t fly in a straight line,’ or ‘my son won’t obey me’; that’s your mother’s favorite.”
“She can’t go into the sacred hut,” Naawe said. Women weren’t allowed in.
“She stands outside and complains loudly about you not obeying her. I think she hopes they’ll do something about you to shut her up. She is very persistent.”
Naawe laughed. He could see his mother doing that. “I wonder what they were telling my father…”
“Huh, you know my rule about that. You shouldn’t have been listening to their conversation.”
“I heard a woman’s voice.”
Odu narrowed his eyes. “Might be a visitor. And that’s all I’m saying.”
“She spoke of danger.”
“There’s always danger in the forest.”
“She said something would destroy all the tribes. Time is running out.”
Naawe caught the tic in Odu’s eyelid—a sign the armadillo knew more than he let on. “Do you think she meant all the tribes in the Amazon or the three main tribes?”
“I must claim ignorance and innocence. Ask your father. I do not want to become soup.”
Odu got to his feet. “Time to go. You have a promise to keep.”
Naawe sighed, frustrated with Odu’s resistance. “It’s early. We still have time to…”
“Oh, no, here we go,” Odu interrupted.
“But we do.” Naawe stood and brushed off the dry dirt from his legs. “If I run, I can be back in plenty of time.”
Odu sighed. “Fine. But no more talk about the hut.”
Odu rolled into a ball for Naawe to pick him up.
“Naawe, Naawe. Naawe, Naawe!” Naawe’s mother, Iacuma called out through cupped hands, in every direction, until she once again faced her husband, Kauo.
Kauo shook his head in silence.
His wife saw the disappointment on her husband’s face, but not the usual anger. “You are not going to send for him?”
“Not this time. The spirits told me I must leave before the sun reaches the middle of the sky. I have to obey, unlike my son,” Kauo said.
Iacuma’s eyes fell to Kauo’s chest, to the three thick vertical stripes of black paint. War paint. Why was he wearing war paint?
“Kauo, are you going to fight?”
“I will be back in four days.” Kauo gave her a last look and left.
“I should have tied that boy to the post before sunrise,” Iacuma mumbled, as she watched her husband join the other men and boys. They were off to something other than hunting, leaving the women, small children and the old in the village—and, of course, Naawe. “Where does that boy keep running off to?”
Iacuma suddenly twisted to the right. There is danger lurking.
“Ready?” Naawe asked again from across the small, cleared patch of forest he called his secret field.
The tall surrounding trees and their extensive dark green canopies blocked the sun, preventing any undergrowth—a common occurrence in the Amazon where the battle for sunlight was intense. When he didn’t want to do his chores, which happened to be most of the time, he ran here to play ball with Odu, who also doubled as the ball and Egon, a heron with bright white feathers.
Egon, with his long neck, black bill and tall skinny black legs, acted as the marker to help Naawe with his aim. He was to stand six feet across from a Camu-camu berry tree to the right of the field. Not that the heron was very dependable. He swayed and moved whenever something distracted him, which seemed to be always.
Most times he had to be directed by Titi, the squirrel monkey, who lived in the Camu-camu tree. Naawe had nursed her when she was hurt by a wild cat. Naawe was seven and she wasn’t more than a baby then. Titi was funny, mischievous as all monkeys were, but she had always been a good friend to Naawe and Odu. However, today Titi was not there. Odu told him the monkey had gone to visit a cousin, who’d just had a baby, twenty-two trees away. She would be back by the afternoon.
“There he goes!” said Odu, as Egon ran to the left.
“Coming,” Egon called, swerving to the right.
Naawe had to figure out a way to speed up this process with the dizzy bird. He pushed his straight brown hair from his face and scratched the three small scars on his right temple. It had been months since he’d gotten his tattoos, a line of tiny black dots down his temples and cheeks, but a few had become infected and turned into scars. They itched whenever he became anxious, like now. When he grew older he would get a circle tattoo on each cheek. That would probably hurt.
Naawe eyed Egon. It took too long to position the heron between kicks. He wondered if the bird was all right in the head. “Stop Egon, that’s fine. I’ll just kick sideways.”
“Oookay,” Egon said, as he tried his hardest to stand straight.
Maybe he should tie a weight around those scrawny legs. With his dark brown eyes locked onto the target, Naawe took a few steps back to gain momentum. “Quick, Odu, roll up.”
Odu pulled his thin tail onto his belly and rolled into a ball. The armadillo had first come up with their game when Naawe was six and feeling glum about the older boys’ teasing. He’d rolled into a ball and told Naawe to throw him as far as he could. Naawe had stared at the armadillo, unsure of what to do.
Odu had unrolled after a long wait. “Why are you just sitting there?”
“What game is this?”
“One I just invented.”
“But I’ll hurt you.”
“Never…well…unless you throw me against a hard object. My shell is like a rock. The wildcats can’t bite through it. I don’t feel a thing, when I’m rolled up and the soil is soft.”
After a while the game evolved and challenges were added when Egon and Titi joined in the fun. Egon, the imperfect marker, kept Naawe guessing.
“Last time; you promised your father,” Odu said, from inside his thick shell.
“Last time,” Naawe agreed, knowing by the sun’s position his promise had expired; the hunting party had already left. He ran forward and hooked his right foot beneath the armadillo, lifting him high into the air.
“Yes!” Naawe called out, as he saw it would be a perfect kick, right between the tree and Egon…until the heron suddenly took off. “What are you doing? Stay still!”
“Oooh, there’s something there.” Egon fluttered his wings while he ran.
Egon kept running until he reached a thick bush, then dove in headfirst.
Naawe watched Egon’s thin legs being swallowed by leaves. Alarmed, he ran forward to where he had seen his friend Odu land, but the armadillo had vanished. “Odu!”
Odu’s armor-like shell had left a clear track on the soft soil leading to the tall grass beyond the trees. He had landed and rolled and…kept on rolling?
Naawe followed the trail. “Odu,” he called, while opening the tall blades with his arms. “Where are you?” He stopped as he realized an eerie silence had befallen the forest. Nothing good ever followed such a silence.
A branch cracked just ahead, then another, and another. He backed up, his heart beating fast. There was nothing worse than an invisible enemy. Was it man or animal?
He ducked and lowered his ear to the ground. The soft thumps headed away. A pack maybe, and moving fast. Naawe remained crouched, trying to figure out their direction, but before he could, the ground went silent.
They stopped? But they were still in Mani territory. He stood and canvassed the forest for movement or a trail of broken branches and crushed vegetation. Nothing, not a trace. Were they demons from within the forest? Why would they take Odu? Naawe’s jaw tightened as he realized he had to go in and save his best friend.
The forest wasn’t always a friendly place, and by going in alone, he would be disrespecting his father’s orders, but he had no choice.
Naawe ran to the edge of the clearing to fetch his weapons. With his bow and sack of arrows slung across his shoulders and his spear in his right hand, he returned to the spot where Odu had disappeared.
“Egon, Egon, Egon, Egon,” Naawe called, knowing it to be the only sure way of forcing the heron into the open.
“What? What? What?” Egon came out from behind a tree trunk. He had sensitive hearing.
Naawe shook his head at the bird. “I need your help to find Odu.”
“Ooooh, don’t like the sound of that. From the air, I will search from the air.”
“First from the ground, to find the trail. I need to know in which direction they went,” Naawe ordered. “If you don’t, I will tell Bado you are a coward.”
The heron shook like leaves during a storm. He was terrified of Bado, the tribe’s sacred bird. “Ooookay.”
“You take the right, I’ll go straight. And no arguing. Odu’s life is at stake.”
The two hadn’t taken more than ten steps into the forest when they both announced theyhad found a trail.
Naawe stopped. “Two trails? Take ten more steps and see if the trail continues.”
They did and found both trails continued.
Naawe decided to check the left side. If there were more than two trails it could indicate their territory had been invaded by another tribe. “Fly ahead, see how far the trails go, I’ll check the ground to the left.”
Egon flew back and announced the trails went on forever.
“Forever?” Naawe realized he needed help—from someone who knew the forest. He could try his grandfather, but if what Odu had said about him not leaving his body during the day was true, he would be of no help. He had only one other choice.
“Egon, continue to search from the sky for any suspicious movement. Go as far as the great rock and then return to the village. I will ask Bado for help.”
Again the heron shook at the mention of Bado, but took off as he’d been told. Naawe also feared Bado, but the sacred bird was the only one around who knew all about the forest demons.
Odu thought his landing had been bumpier than usual. He had rolled for longer than most times, but what alarmed him was being lifted into the air. Why had Naawe done that? He began to voice his protest when he was dropped into some sort of sack. That couldn’t be Naawe. So who? Maybe one of the other boys who always picked on Naawe, playing a trick on him, but they didn’t know about the field.
Or maybe they did.
“Hey! Let me go,” Odu called out.
To his despair, the person holding him gave the sack a harsh shake and broke into a run. Running was not good—this person had bad intentions.
Odu unrolled and tried to peek through the material, but couldn’t see anything. His heart sank. He just hoped his final destination wouldn’t be a pot of boiling water.
Naawe entered the village with his head high and his eyes straight ahead. He walked past the first of the communal huts, where five women beat strips of sodden inner tree bark into cloth. The Mani used the bark to make their loincloths as well as spiritual masks. Two other women separated Toucan feathers by size to be worn in their earlobes. No one gave Naawe as much as a glance. He guessed his not going hunting had something to do with their attitude.
Naawe drew in a breath when Bado’s lair, a forty-meter high tree behind the village, came into view.
Bado was a mean Macaua bird. Macaua birds were seen as guiding spirits by the Indians. Bearers of tidings, good and bad, they were consulted in difficult times by the healers and chiefs, who seemed to understand their gestures, odd behavior and screeches. Their feathers had very distinct colorings: gray on the head, red down the neck, chest and belly, black on their wings, and brown down their backs. Their beaks were dark gray and about three inches long, sharp enough to kill their prey with one strike to the head. The Macauas ate snakes and hung their skin as trophies from their trees. Those hanging skins were imposing and terrifying.
The Macaua eggs did serve as antidote to snake venom, but, this one positive side to Bado’s existence did not lessen in any way the terror Naawe felt at having to ask the nasty bird for help.
A few feet from his destination, Naawe stopped to summon his courage.
Perched on the third branch up from the ground, Bado seemed to be asleep. His favorite trophy, a dark green snake skin over an arm’s length in width and at least twenty in length, was wrapped around the tree’s trunk.
Bado’s eyeballs quivered beneath the lids and his beak twitched.
Naawe stepped forward. Bado didn’t move.
“Bado, I have come to seek your help.”
The bird opened one eye. “And you are?”
“I am Naawe, the son of Kauo.”
Bado opened both eyes. “What an honor. The chief’s son has mustered up the courage to speak to the old bird.” His eyes ran down to Naawe’s right thigh and there they remained.
Naawe fought his urge to turn around and run. Would Bado peck out a piece of his thigh? He slid his hand down his leg.
“A spot. You don’t wash very well,” Bado said.
“It’s a…birthmark…a star,” Naawe stammered.
“Oh, really now?” Bado stretched his neck, “I guess my eyesight is not what it used to be. So, what can I do for you?”
Naawe felt the sweat on his forehead as he summarized the reason for his being there.
The bird narrowed his eyes. “Describe the footprints.”
Naawe cringed. “I can’t.”
Bado shook his head. “What Indian doesn’t pick up on those details? If you hadn’t spent so much time running away from your father to play with your pets you would know.”
Naawe felt his cheeks burn but he didn’t respond.
“Is this armadillo very important to you?”
Why was Bado asking so many questions? “He is my best friend.”
Bado’s expression turned to disdain. “That’s the best you could do for a friend? He’s destined to become food. Cake at best.”
Naawe realized he had to make a stand or Bado would not help him, having made clear Odu was but cake in his view. “My father comes to you for guidance, a bird, and I don’t see you, or anyone from the village, thinking of him as weak. You would make a nice roast,” he added, regretting it the moment the words were out. Maybe that had been a bit much. Think of Odu. Odu.
Bado emitted a muffled screech. He stretched his neck and shook his head. “What insolence.”
Naawe stood his ground as Bado stared at him, probably willing him to fold and beg for forgiveness. Naawe’s knees were weakening; he wasn’t far from doing just that.
The bird tilted his head. “I will consult the spirits. Don’t move.”
Naawe watched relieved as the bird strutted toward the trunk and disappeared behind the snakeskins. He couldn’t contain his curiosity and crouched, trying to see behind the skins, but only saw Bado’s claws. He lowered himself even more and tipped to the left, twisting his torso and stretching his neck. When the loud screech echoed through the forest, Naawe lost his balance and hit his head on a rock.
“What? Are you serious?” Bado said.
Naawe scrambled to stand. He didn’t want the bird to catch him spying. Bado was known for pecking people’s eyes out. No, the bird wouldn’t dare. Naawe was a warrior, expert with his spear. Bado was no match for him. Still, he was a very big bird…
Bado spoke again a few moments later. “For an armadillo? He’s not a special armadillo, or the king of armadillos. He’s just…” Bado fell silent.
Awhile later the bird emerged. The feathers on the back of his neck were upright and his eyes bulged. He looked like he was about to attack. Naawe became desperate to get out of there. The courage he had mustered while the bird was behind the snakeskins seemed to have evaporated.
“I…changed my mind…don’t need help.” Naawe took three steps back.
“So you are a coward!” Bado’s voice thundered. “The chief’s son is a coward!”
Naawe halted, but he couldn’t stop his body from shaking like a branch in the midst of a windstorm. “I…” he cringed as the ‘I’ came out like a squeal. Bado called him a coward for the second time. Odu’s words came back to him. He had to change; he was almost a man. Only a rainy season stood between him and manhood, but today he was the only man in that village. Losing Odu was what stood between the boy and the man. He couldn’t lose Odu.
He cleared his throat and straightened his back. “I am not a coward.”
“Good to know. But words hold little weight in the forest,” Bado said. “Getting your friend back will be no simple task. Those tracks belong to the Curupiras.”
“The Curupiras?” He should have guessed.
Curupiras were dwarf-like magical beings that ruled the forest. While some Indians considered them saviors, Naawe knew of many who thought of them as demons. A few men from his tribe told of being beaten and whipped by Curupiras while on a hunt. His grandfather had explained they were the forest guardians and those they beat deserved it. And there were cases of extreme forgetfulness and confusion after seeing a Curupira. Confusion…those footprints all headed toward the field! Only the Curupiras could have pulled that off, because their feet were on backwards. They were pranksters by nature and leaving false trails was one of their favorite pranks.
“You still want your friend back?” Bado asked.
Naawe didn’t answer. “Why would they take Odu?”
Bado rolled his eyes. “You will have to ask them.”
The Shroud, the Curupiras’ dwelling, was a fortress of rubber trees with cascading aerial roots, deep within the forest and right in the middle of Mani territory. An independent territory, not subject to Mani laws. Naawe never understood why his grandfather Unei had allowed it, but he had.
“I will be your guide,” Bado said, sounding disgruntled.
“I don’t need a guide. I know how to get…” Naawe stopped, seeing the feathers rise on Bado’s forehead. “And what am I to offer them?”
Bado frowned and dislodged his lower beak to the left. Naawe wondered if the wise bird had forgotten about the Curupiras’ most outstanding trait—they were skilled negotiators. They derived their power from their ability to negotiate, information being their currency. They gave nothing for free and Naawe owned nothing, except his bow and arrows, his spear, and his life. Did he even own his life?
Bado huffed, paused, lowered his head, staying that way for a few, long moments. “On our way,” he finally said, looking pleased with himself.
“What are we trading?” Naawe insisted.
“You will know when you need to know.”
Odu felt nauseated from all the jolting. If this went on for much longer his heart would explode. Maybe that would be a less painful death. Being an armadillo, in a forest populated by Indians who seemed to go out of their way to create new recipes for armadillo meat and bones, was not an easy life. He had been lucky to befriend Naawe and, as long as he lived within the Mani village, he didn’t run the risk of turning into cake or soup.
The bouncing shifted to swinging; a change of pace. His captor had either reached safe ground or had arrived at his final destination. The sack opened and the bright sun blinded Odu. Final destination it was. Gentle hands set Odu down on the ground, inside a cage.
Odu sighed and froze as he saw the pair of feet. He knew those types of feet; they belonged to children. His eyes roamed up the thin calves and somewhat bony body. He noticed the tattoo across the right upper arm: two rows of diagonal slashes. The child wore a brown tunic of bark cloth and carried a small spear in his hand. When Odu saw the mask on the child’s head, a shudder ran through his shell. The black mask, with the green eyes and no mouth, belonged to the demon of the underground. What could a child want from such a demon?
“Welcome,” someone whispered from behind him.
“Welcome? To what?” Odu growled, before he twisted around and glared at the female armadillo in the next cage. She was quite a looker, but Odu had no time for such thoughts with his life at stake.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have sounded so cheerful,” she whispered.
Odu heard shuffling from the opposite direction and turned back in time to see the feet attached to the mask walk away. “Hey. Wait! Come back here!”
The child stopped and looked back, but just for a moment, before he continued on his way. Odu narrowed his eyes. The child had slumped his shoulders.
A sign of sadness?
“He doesn’t seem pleased,” Odu said.
“I had the same impression. I felt him very caring when he placed me in the cage.”
“Then there’s hope. Maybe he’ll feel guilty about cooking us and set us free.”
Odu’s neighbor scoffed. “We should be so lucky.”
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