The First Winter

Jabari had always been a courageous kid. When his mother was alive, she used to tell him that he was the only baby in the village not to cry when the fierce storms whipped at the huts and the thunder shook the earth with a mighty rumble.

Jabari meant ‘the brave one’ in the Bankonjo dialect. But Jabari wasn’t feeling brave at all. He was scared and lonely. The Bankonjo village belonged to a fading dream, and Jabari had woken up in another world.

The alien fields and woods that lay before his dark eyes were desolate and colourless.

The plains in the Semuliki Valley had always been verdant and the trees luxurious, their branches heavy with leaves. Jabari’s feet were hard and calloused due to the scorching earth he had walked on for the past seven years.

Now he was trembling as frosty fingers brushed the bronze skin of his round face, and icy needles pierced through the uncomfortable sneakers he was wearing. 

All around him the grass was yellow and the branches carried no leaves at all.

Jabari had never imagined that such a place could exist. An inhospitable land where icy winds and barren landscapes were the only scenery for miles on end.

Jabari had returned to the village one evening from a three-day fishing expedition with his two elder brothers to find their village razed to the ground. Spirals of smoke rose silently from the blackened huts and rubble, while strange people clad in white roamed around like ghosts in the smoky mist. Jabari had been deadened with shock, staring at the deserted village before him. Then the lady with the ashen face had come and knelt beside him taking his honey-brown hand. She had whispered odd words mixed with the Bankonjo dialect. Right away, Jabari knew he could trust the stranger with the green eyes speckled with grey. He had gone with her leaving his brothers and the phantom village behind.

Jabari knew she would take care of him just as his mother had. But now, he was scared. Why had she brought him here, to this hostile place?

A hand rested on his frail shoulder, the same hand that had taken his in the faraway plains of the Semuliki Valley.

“It’s winter Jabari,” came a gentle voice from behind him, “Here, we have four seasons. Spring is my favourite. The temperature gets warmer, and the blossoms burst from the branches with pinks, whites, yellows and reds. Flowers paint the green fields with a palette of bright colours. Then comes summer when the sun is nearly as hot as it was in the village where you were born. You wait. We’ll soon swim in the lake and snooze under the canopy of the oak trees.”

Jabari wondered what she meant. There were no leaves on the trees here. Why didn’t the leaves just stay on the trees all the time, and why was it so cold? He liked the thought of colourful flowers and wondered if they would be bell-shaped like the ones in the forest near his village.

The soft voice soothed his agitation. “Then comes autumn when the first chill wafts across the land from the north. The leaves fade and turn yellow, brown, orange, and even purple. The wind blows hard, and the leaves get carried away from the trees and settle on the ground for the winter.”‘

Jabari didn’t like the sound of the harsh wind tearing the leaves off the branches. Maybe he could say a prayer and ask God to stop the evil storm from destroying the leaves. Jabari wasn’t afraid of the storm. He was scared of the desolation. The storms in the village had never ripped the trees bare from all their leaves, but this wind was bad. It took everything away with it.

“Finally, winter comes. This is the time Nature sleeps and regenerates, and the animals take shelter in their burrows and dens. It’s such a peaceful time of the year.”

Jabari shivered. How long would the animals hide for? Would the fish bury themselves under the silt at the bottom of the lake? He wanted to go fishing again like he had done with his brothers. What was so lovely and peaceful about the grey and frozen land before them?

Another hand touched Jabari’s other shoulder, and now the gentle voice was close to his ear.

“Close your eyes Jabari and smell the air. Can you sense something different?”

Jabari closed his eyes and sniffed. His nostrils tingled as droplets of frost shot up his nose. The air was still and silent and felt less hostile now that his eyes had blocked out the dreary scenery.

Jabari remained silent with his eyes closed for a few minutes, then started to fidget.

“Be patient Jabari, soon very soon, you’ll see how wonderful winter can be.”

Jabari, couldn’t imagine anything beautiful about desolate fields and trees void of their emerald ornaments. Still, he waited, feeling the comfort of the reassuring hands on his shoulders, and the warm breath as the voice whispered in his ear.

Suddenly, Jabari felt something tickle his nose, then his eyelid. It was strangely warm and cold at the same time. It brushed his cheek then the other, and the tip of his ear. He tasted something fresh and prickly on his lips. The atmosphere was shrouded in complete silence, yet was charged with magnetic energy.

Jabari could no longer wait for the voice to tell him he could open his eyes. His eyelashes fluttered open, shaking off something heavy and wet.

“This, Jabari is winter.”

Jabari opened his mouth, but no words escaped. A tiny white flake dropped and melted on his tongue, then another. All around him, little bundles of cotton, like the ones he used to pick with his mother, fell from the sky and settled over the bare land. They covered the dry grass, the barren branches, and the brown shrubs. A layer of pure white cotton formed on his bristly black hair. He touched his head and tried to pluck off the cotton. It felt soft and cold, and when he looked into the palm of his hand, he saw the cotton disappear, leaving a small puddle of droplets.

Jabari turned around his eyes wide with amazement searching the green eyes speckled with grey.

Then the most wonderful thing happened. The green eyes smiled and filled with joy. The lady with the ashen face hugged him hard for the first time, and Jabari felt a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“This, Jabari is snow,” she said as she held him close against her heart. They stood there for a long time, while the snowflakes came floating down from the sky laying on and all around them, glowing like pearl drops. Jabari opened his mouth and waited for the snowflakes to fall onto his tongue, so he could taste the freshness of winter. Winter no longer seemed barren and cruel. It wasn’t an enemy like the fire that had taken away his family and village, leaving him cold and empty inside. Winter carried the snow, which was soft and harmless and purified his heart from all the sadness he had been too afraid to voice.

 He whispered a prayer, wishing that winter would never end and the warm embrace would continue forever. 

 

©2020Sonia Ferrigno