Chapter IX.

14 Jun

Increasingly, Ranid passed small clachans where the so-called “swampers” lived. These had to be avoided at all costs, he told himself. It was dangerous to be seen by anyone who could then report him to the pursuers. No such chances were to be taken.

He caught sight of arboreal frogs, the famed flying batrachs of the Cheerless Swamp. Their aerial nests overhung the waters of bayous. At times the young hiker spotted birds native to wet areas: the ibis, heron, egret, bittern, boatbill, grassquit, fringilla, crested seriema, yellow-hammer, brambling, and seedeater. These creatures showed no fear of him whatever. They appeared to be ignoring him, knowing that he was only passing by them and would be gone.

Flying insects continually pestered the tired walker: ephemera, dipterons, aedes, and cullices. At night, as he rested in a sleeping bag, the cicala sounded from afar and nearby. Several times he came upon raccoons and muskrats. Once a pair of hunters with long shooting arms crossed his path without seeing him. He was glad there was no occasion to talk with them.

The landscape slowly changed, though. He saw more grass trees, fringe trees, tupelos, and black gums. Fields of rice and sugar cane appeared. Diving coots and scoters became common in ponds and lagoons. Waterweed, club moss, lycopods, asphodels, and meadowsweet grew predominant. Ranid picked and ate wild pieplant and rhubarb, along with juneberry and serviceberry. Orange-flowered butterfly weed and red bloodroot gave the bogs a strange beauty that captivated the fancy of the fugitive scholar. Swamp marigold and kingcup thrilled him with their luxurious brightness of color. He marched by them as if in a trance.

The ground started to become spongy and water-logged. Ranid had to tread forward carefully over layers of peat, recognizing the danger of sudden bog-slides. The unwary could quickly be buried. The time had come, he realized, to find a clachan where food was available for purchase. But where was it best to replenish his supplies? he asked himself in desperation. How would he know whether the local residents were trustworthy and safe to deal with?

His decision was to enter the first hamlet that gave him a sense of safety.

Early after dawn, as the swamp mist was dissipating, he took his chance, ambling boldly down the single street of an obscure, isolated clachan.

Two swampmen in brown twill approached him, one from the right, the other from the left. The outsider stopped, expecting inevitable questioning by them.

“Are you looking for something, brother?” said a tall, skinny man with a brimless hat on his head. “Perhaps we can be of help to you.”

“I am on a long journey and need to buy some food to carry with me,” replied the stranger from the capital. “I am able to pay for everything that is provided me. My hope is that someone will agree to supply me what I need.”

“Come with us,” directed the second local. “We will take good care of you.”

Walking off between the pair, Ranid realized that these were Anurans in a village of the same. He knew it intuitively. What would it mean for him, though? How would the residents treat him?

The three came to a reed hut where the lanky swamper knocked. A short, round man opened the plank door. His hydrargyrum eyes fastened on the stranger in the middle.

“This man is seeking to buy some food,” said the tall, thin local. “I thought you might wish to deal with him, Tadige.”

The owner of the small reed cottage stood aside so that the unknown man could enter the shadowy front room. Neither escort followed him in.

“Please, take a seat,” said the fat man. The two sat down on rough hassocks with cushions filled with bird feathers.

The man who had been addressed as Tadige offered his visitor a saucer full of planera nuts. “No, thank you,” said Ranid, instantly regretting his refusal. When would he again have anything as solid to eat? he wondered.

“You must be from far away,” gently declared the villager. “I can tell by the way that you speak. You are not of our region or area.”

“Yes, I am from the capital city, Caecilia. The Cheerless Swamp is absolutely new and unfamiliar for me. It is not at all as easy to traverse as I earlier supposed. The swampland has many hazards that one must avoid in order to cross it in safety.”

Tadige peered intently at the outsider from elsewhere.

“Are you fleeing something?” he unexpectedly asked.

Ranid was unable to conceal his confusion and distress at this point. “Why do you say that to me? Do I look like a person running away? What makes you think so?”

The other gave a knowing sort of smile.

“I can catch certain signs that few see. My power of interpretation has always been a high one. From the first moment, it seemed to me that you are trying, with enormous effort, to conceal inner anxiety of mind and nerves. There is a serious tension within your soul, not hard at all for me to detect.

“But do not at all be afraid. Patrollers rarely come here, for we are quite remote. You are safe in our clachan from official snoopers. We have nothing for them to pry into. And our people include no active busybodies. So, there is nothing for you, sir, to be afraid of among us. Nothing at all, I assure you.”

A sudden idea flashed into Ranid’s head. “Can I find a place to stay in your clachan? I am exhausted and need considerable rest. All expenses will be paid, I promise.”

Tadige did not need time to consider.

“I myself own a small, unoccupied cottage on the edge of a nearby muskeg. At present, my only use for it is to store the anil I collect for indigo dye. I can rent it for whatever you wish to give me. I hope that it satisfies your needs and taste.”

“It will. I assure you it will.”

“Good,” nodded the swampman. “You and I shall go to see it at once.”

Ranid became acquainted with the life of the people of the clachan, but carefully limited any information about himself. Yes, he had been born and raised a Salamandrite, but his spiritual views were larger and broader. Experience had made him tolerant and unprejudiced. He longed to learn more about the Anuran concepts and way of thinking. His mind was open to new spiritual ideas and interpretations.

Ranid had to walk carefully across gazon and grass turf, avoiding the mud holes referred to as loblollies. He joined the swampmen in the gathering of wild oxhearts, spiceberries, checkerberries, partridgeberries, sapodilla plums, and breadfruit. Exploration of the low, marshy swales of the area occurred, with Tadige as his guide.

The latter related his happy-go-lucky philosophy of life to the newcomer.

“Everything we do or strive for depends on the lucky chance,” he expostulated. “It is the happy fluke that produces happiness, it is the windfall that gives good fortune. Why do we honor and revere the batrach frogs? Long ago our forefathers discovered that frogs are the most apotropaic of all the amphibians. They enjoy special favor with the spirit of the odyle. The world is as simple as that.

“Let me tell you a story about an uncle of mine. Today, he is dead and long gone. But when he was alive everyone could hear him curse against the frogs of the delta. He complained they kept him awake at night with their loud croaks. And they invaded the garden that he cultivated for himself. Yes, he railed at them as noisome pests that ate his food and interrupted his sleep.

“So what happened to this uncle of mine?”

“Tadige made a dramatic halt in his narrative at this point.

“He ate some wild caprifigs that killed him rapidly,” he said with a grin. “But our local folk healer claims it was really frog fever that did him in.

“Who can say?”

Ranid soon made most of the tiny community his friends. He learned their interpretation of orthodox Anuranism, a simplified version taught to him by Tadige.

He learned to refer to the local frogs as grenouillians and the toads as crapaudics, the way that the villagers did.

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