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Kuanna



Kuanna noticed the sixth body for the week being taken to the jungle in a funeral parade. A group of nine or ten followed the four who were carrying the corpse wrapped in cloth, singing their funeral song. Six deaths in a week; this was unusual. Kuanna resisted the urge to speak to the funeral party. After all, her tribe disowned her nine years ago for bringing misfortune to the village with the warring man that she chose to love. She had vowed to never return to the people who killed him.


So, she sat watching the road from the village into the jungle, long after the funeral party had disappeared. Their mournful song trailed off into the wilderness. Why she couldn’t leave the earshot of her village—her despicable, arrogant tribe’s village—she could never tell. Every time she tried to leave, a stubborn and unreasoned voice convinced her not to. “They will come to you”, it said. 


 

The next day, a seventh funeral party came, singing and weeping as they carried their dead.


The next day, a seventh funeral party came, singing and weeping as they carried their dead. 


Then followed the eighth, the ninth, and soon, the thirty-eighth within twelve days. 


Kuanna boiled a broth of turmeric, ginger and sirimani roots and poured it into her largest dried gourd bottle. She packed the near-broken one of her knives and the older one of her only two rags; she knew that she wouldn’t be able to recover them from what she was setting out to do. Then, she waited for the thirty-ninth body. It came soon. As soon as the mourners left, singing their dreadful song, Kuanna walked over to the cemetery. She crouched near the body; it was a young girl. Her skin still held a trace of warmth to Kuanna’s touch. She had only died in the last few hours, Kuanna understood. The village must be sinking into panic now; they’re abandoning the dead and rushing the rituals. Kuanna took her old blade and dug it into the girl’s body and drew a smooth line from the throat to the groin. The line swelled in red as blood started oozing out. Kuanna began to examine the corpse, prodding its interiors with her knife.


 

By the time Kuanna had reached the water stream, jackals had descended on the body. She heard their fervent fight for flesh in the distance. As if affected by the jackal’s urgency too, Kuanna set out to clean herself in a frenzy. That stench in the dead girl’s lungs…it wasn’t ordinary, Kuanna knew.


She poured the root boil from the gourd bottle into her palm and hurriedly rubbed it inside her nose. Then, she poured some into her mouth, gargled it in the throat and spat it out. She poured the remainder over herself and rubbed every inch of her body with it before immersing in the stream.


 

Kuanna lay down on her mat and gazed at the sky through the torn thatch of the roof. The cobra that dwelled with her—Naga—slithered across the floor and curled up near her neck where warmth was gathering. Kuanna still remembered the stench from the dead girl’s lungs. It was putrid and had metallic tones to it. An element was deeply corrupted. What was it? She wondered. 

 

That night, Kuanna dreamt of herself standing over the Earth. Its brown skin split open in a clean line that swelled with liquid red from the inside. From within it, came a flame; a red, orange and gold flame. It rose slowly into the air and halted in level with Kuanna’s eyes. Amidst the flame was water—rapidly swirling in a spiral. 


 

Kuanna peeled the jungle to find wakapitha berries. She finally spotted the flame-red berries on a tree adjoining the hill. She broke open one of the berries—inside, its bright red exterior faded into orange, circling the golden yellow seeds at its heart arranged in a neat spiral. Kuanna tied a long strip of rag around her waist, and formed a pocket between its folds; then, she started climbing the knotty bark of the wakapitha to collect more.

 

 

Kuanna placed the ground pack of medicine, tightly packed in banana leaf, in front of Naga’s face and laid down next to the cobra. She gazed into Naga’s eyes. In Kuanna’s mind’s eye, she could see the village clearly; the footpath from the jungle would get wider as it inched closer to the village. It was distinctly marked from where the road bringing carriages would meet the footpath. Beyond that, where the water wells were, there would always be women and men with pots. Nowadays, with death so thick in the air, their speech would be hurried and whispered. Some would look terrified, and others would be already broken.


 

In the next few days, the villagers experienced something strange. A white cobra would slither near the well, drop off small packages wrapped in leaf, and slither back into the jungle. On the first two days, no one touched the package. On the third day, a man prodded it with a stick and unravelled the leaf. Other villages looked on; they gave him mixed instructions shouting from all directions. He shushed them and dug the end of his stick into the contents of the leafy package. Then he raised the stick to his nose as excited voices cried caution around him. 


 

The eighth time that Naga returned from the village, Kuanna noticed that she was fed. The shape of three quail eggs in Naga’s belly was easily recognizable. The streak of white on her pink tongue meant milk. 


They have finally understood the medicine. 


 

The processions of bodies eventually ceased, save the occasional. Kuanna watched the stars change patterns through the broken thatching of her roof.


One night, she dreamt of a line of black ants swarming near her feet as she slept. They swarmed at her feet, spilling out of her jungle hut, beyond the jungle and teeming along the footpath from the village.


 

The next day, when Kuanna returned from the stream with her pot of water, there was a reed salver left in front of her jungle hut. It held fruits, betel leaves, a small bowl of rice cooked with coconut milk, plums, and nuts and six yards of crisp cotton folded neatly. 


An offering. 


 

Kuanna’s story was written based on the historical character Kuwēni (also known as Kuanna) linked with the legends connected to the origin of Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka. Click here to read more and to sample this as a spoken story.



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