A Flash of White
The story of a rebellious boy and a wise barn owl
The murky orange hue was spreading fast in the sky signalling the approach of the Dark. Korak knew he should be heading back home. But his stomach was still knotted up and tense. The throbbing head was no better. Going back home before he was calmer would mean further clashes with his mum, possibly even with Hajoor, their clan leader.
With a deep sigh, Korak leaned back against the cliff wall and closed his eyes, buying a few more moments of peace. That was a mistake, for the flashbacks from the morning began almost immediately…
“Boy, you must obey the rules for everyone’s good.” Hajoor sounded calm. But the half-smile on his lips couldn’t mask the steely voice or the hatred in his eyes as he looked at Korak. In Hajoor’s clasp was Korak’s homemade knife. Weapons of any kind were forbidden in their clan. The only armed ones were Hajoor’s guards.
It had taken Korak two months to source the metal and make his knife. He thought he had hidden it well enough under piles of dried husk. But, it had been found during a routine house check by Hajoor’s guards.
“He hates me and I hate him,” Korak burst out once back in the tiny thatched hut he shared with his mum Xanthe.
“Korak, you have to control your temper. You know it is forbidden,” Xanthe gently reminded her son as she ground the grain to make wheat.
Watching his mother’s measured, monotonous movements with the mortar and pestle, two thoughts crossed Korak’s mind. First, Xanthe was too timid, and next, they were having bread, again!
He had been working extra hard at the paddy fields in the hope of earning a few cups of rice in this week’s ration. His shift leader even commended Korak for his hard work! Where was the reward? The rewards usually went to Hajoor’s favourites. Everyone knew that. But, no one dared to question the blatant nepotism.
Korak’s rage boiled over as he grabbed the mortar and pestle scattering the grains on the floor. Even in his anger, Korak knew this was completely unacceptable. Grains were sacred, as valuable as life itself.
What he had not anticipated was being seen by Haqum. Hajoor’s brother and second in command. Haqum was standing in their doorway, scowling at the scattered grains. He must have followed Xanthe and Korak back to their hut! Was he spying on them?
These thoughts flashed through Korak’s mind as he shot out the door, almost knocking Haqum off his feet. He was not going to stay back to face Hajoor’s wrath and the inevitable punishment he knew would be given to him. Only water for four days and studying of the Rule Book that talked about the importance of obedience and the perils of not toeing the line.
Now, here he was. Perched high up on the sheer cliff face that he could scale with ease. A hideout Korak had regularly sought respite in over the last two years since stepping into his teens and starting to question Hajoor, the clan leader’s dictates.
Bhoomi, the land, stretched out for miles all around him. Red, dusty and barren except for the green patch where his village was. There were a few other clans around but they never mingled.
Korak remembered hearing from Xanthe how Bhoomi used to be lush, green and fertile many, many years ago when his great grandmother was a little girl. But man’s pride and desire to outsmart Nature led to the destruction of the environment. Bhoomi became hotter and natural disasters occurred frequently. Mankind was overwhelmed until eventually, human civilisation almost got wiped out.
The lucky few that survived, banded together to start again. The dictate was clear, live in harmony with Nature. Work the land, grow your food, barter to fill your needs. Do not try to build machines or outsmart Nature in any way. Respect it!
Korak had no problems with that. His problem was with Hajoor, the power-hungry, controlling leader of their clan. Hajoor wanted blind obedience from everyone. No questions were tolerated or explanations offered. That was unacceptable to Korak’s inquisitive and analytical mind. So, he got into the bad books of Hajoor soon after hitting 13 and starting to ask questions. It has been steadily downhill since then.
When answers weren’t forthcoming, Korak decided to do his own digging around, literally. That is how he sourced the metal, buried deep in a forgotten, scraggly bushland on the very outskirts of their village.
That is how he found the books as well. Old, yellow and very brittle. Wrapped up in layers of a material he could tell was made by man of the past. These books were not made of dried leaves, the writing was not of tree sap ink like they were now. These books were from his great grandmother’s times.
The books helped Korak form a clearer picture of the way Bhoomi and the humans used to be. What fascinated him was the pictures of the variety of animals and birds there used to be back then! All Korak’s world had were the big, dark angry looking Ravens, some Hawks and a few smaller birds that were mostly prey to the bigger birds.
A sharp hissing sound woke Korak up from his sleep. He looked around groggily but the pitch blackness made it impossible to see anything at first. He heard the hissing noise again. It sounded ominous. Korak felt a trickle of fear run down the back of his spine, chilling him to the core. Was this the call of Safed, the sacred one?
Safed was the guardian spirit of their clan. No one had seen him except for Hajoor. His mum had told him about seeing a flash of white in the night sky as a little girl when she had accidentally looked out through a chink in the shutters.
Safed was a Spirit of the Skies, the Guardian of the Grains. He protected them. He made sure the clan could harvest their crops each season. Hajoor claimed to be the Messiah of Safed. Whatever dictates the clan had were Safed’s, Hajoor was merely the messenger.
Korak did not believe the Spirit of the Skies was asking his Messiah to be a mean spirited control freak. But, he was worried about being out here in the Dark. The Dark was not friends with Nature. Everyone in their village stayed indoors after sunset. Safed roamed the skies after nightfall ensuring the clan and the grains were safe. But Safed hated being seen. Hajoor was the only one who went out in the Dark when he needed to communicate with Safed.
Korak cursed himself for falling asleep. His mum would be worried sick and crying. He had never, ever stayed out in the Dark. Scrambling to his feet, Korak began to descend down the cliff face. His vision had adjusted and in the distance, he could see the faint outline of the Grain House. This barn was the heart and soul of their village. This is where spare grains were stored. Of course, only Hajoor’s selected few had access to the barn.
Suddenly, Korak lost his footing and began to swing around helplessly. He broke out in a sweat despite the chill of the night air. A fall from up here would mean sure death. Korak was stretching his foot, trying to reach the narrow ledge when he sensed a presence above him.
A flame of white flashed by accompanied by the hissing sound as soon as he looked up. It was Safed! Korak was sure. The Guardian of the Grains was here to save him! With new vigour, Korak reached for the ledge again and managed to find his footing this time. Clinging to the rocks, Korak rested, panting, trying to catch his breath.
As he was about to resume his descent, Korak heard a loud and piercing screech in the distance. He stared spellbound as Safed glided effortlessly through the Dark towards the barn, his large white wings spread out majestically.
“Safed wants you to follow him,” an instinct prompted Korak.
Suddenly he knew what to do. Speak to Safed and tell him about how unkind Hajoor was and how he treated most villagers like his slaves. Once on the ground, Korak sprinted swiftly towards the Grain House. He wasn’t sure how he would get in, but he had to at least try.
Korak wrestled with the wooden planks on the outside wall of the barn. Hajoor didn’t post guards here at night as he never expected anyone to make it to the barn after nightfall. Sure enough, there was a plank loose enough for Korak to work on. He reached for the thin metal strip in his pocket, a tool that had evaded Hajoor’s eagle eyes. Half an hour of wrestling and prying made one side of the plank come off. A bit more effort and Korak could squeeze into the barn through a narrow gap.
The sight that greeted him made his jaw fall open. The Grain House walls were lined with raised, wooden platforms. On these platforms were sacks, hundreds of them. Korak knew those sacks would be filled with grains harvested by the hardworking villagers like him. Hajoor was hoarding the grains! The stock in this barn was fifty times more than what their little village would ever need! Why? What was Hajoor doing with so much surplus grain? Was he bartering them with the neighbouring villages to fill his own coffers? But what with? Coins were no longer in circulation!
Korak knew he had chanced upon something too complicated to be solved straight away. His focus was now on finding Safed. Squinting in the dark, Korak looked for anything white as he walked around the Grain House. A soft rustling sound made him look up. He caught a glimpse of a smallish white shape as it went behind a grain sack on the top platform.
Without any hesitation, Korak began to climb up the platform until he reached that very spot. What he saw amazed him beyond words. On a bed of feathers, small bones and coiled up strings lay three little white baby birds. They looked fluffy and soft with big heads and even bigger round eyes that stared at Korak fearfully. Baby owls! Korak had seen pictures of them in his bird book! Where was their mother?
As if sensing Korak’s thoughts, the mother owl stepped out from behind the sack. She was beautiful! Pristine, fluffy and white with a delicate heart-shaped face. Her large, hypnotic eyes glowed in the dark as she stared straight back at Korak and emitted a soft hiss.
This was Safed? A female barn owl who was looking after her babies? She was nesting in the barn, not guarding the grains! Korak’s brain raced on as he put two and two together. It was easier for Hajoor to spin this myth so the villagers would comply with his orders!
Safed, the mother owl hissed again as she poked at one of her fledglings with her beak. Korak looked closer and saw the poor little chick had its tiny leg tangled in the rope real bad. Reaching for his metal blade, Korak carefully cut through the rope until the leg was free.
“Thank you for saving my life on that cliff face,” Korak said as he smiled at Safed. “I must go now, my mum is waiting for me. But, I will come again and help you if you call me.”
Safed gave Korak a long, slow, blink as if to say “Thank you for saving my baby.”
As Korak made his way back to his village, Safed, the barn owl flew above him, silent and majestic. Korak felt safe in her presence.
She was his guardian spirit now.
Tomorrow would be a new dawn.