Four billion years ago, when the earth was a speck of molten rock hurtling across space, a strange force unlike anything the universe had ever seen, appeared on its hellish surface. Of tremendous strength, it reshaped the planet as a potter with a lump of clay. And as the planet aged and cooled, this mysterious energy started creating tiny beings that scuttled across caustic atmosphere and swarmed lava seas.

At first, they were bright and formless, no different from a spark, but in time they took shape and started to look distinct from one another. By the time the earth cooled enough for life to appear, the supernatural beings had branched out to millions of species with different shapes, sizes and even intelligence.

When the temperature fell further, many disappeared while loss of habitat drove many more to extinction. Still, a few clung on to existence in underground caverns, where it was still hot. Around three billion years ago, the first hybrids began to appear, creatures that were half organic and half supernatural. Of both worlds, they could exist both underground and on the surface.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, one intelligent ape started wondering about these beings, which they encountered often as they spread around the world. Having inexplicable powers, these running, crawling, flying and swimming beings became the stuff of fascination, fear, and admiration for the prehistoric human beings. And in a primitive tongue, long extinct save one word, one people called them – Chatham.


Chapter 1


The two tribes became rivals as soon as they met each other for the first time. In the hundred years before that meeting, each had thought they were alone in that vast and verdant jungle that seemed to stretch out endlessly in all directions.

For a few years, they remained apprehensive of each other, meeting occasionally during a hunt or a forage. They would behold each other for some time, tightening their grip on the spears and not making a sound. It seemed a war was gathering between them.

But then, they started to barter. During most previous encounters, they had spied each other’s weapons, trinkets and or implements. Each had something the other didn’t. Soon, stone and iron points, hide, meat, earthenware, wooden articles, and copper and gold ornaments exchanged hands. The entrepreneurial among the two tribes cleared a path through the jungle, connecting the two settlements and undertook regular trips between them, hauling wares.

In time, some of these early traders took spouses from the other tribe, further cementing the connection between the two. In the 50th season of their first encounter, the peoples decided to widen the path. Men and women from the settlements worked hundreds of days, clearing trees that touched the clouds and boulders that seemed unconquerable. The arduous work, however, made its completion all the more rewarding.

The road was wide and the undergrowth trimmed. People could now travel without thorny branches clawing at their sides or sharp roots piercing their feet. It seemed greater prosperity awaited the tribes.


It was a cold day when Kaju and mother Kava from the northern tribe set out to the south. The seven-year-old was looking forward to the stay at his maternal uncle’s house and games with cousins. The journey was 11 miles long through dense jungle and it would take about a day to cover it. The mother-son duo set out early in the morning, planning to reach the south before night fell. Kaju had a small spear while his mother had a larger one, which she also used as a walking stick. They carried a bag with food and water for the journey.

They entered the jungle before the sun was fully out. The air was cold and misty and was fragrant with the scent of wild flowers bloomed the previous night. Dew tickled Kaju’s little feet, bringing a wide grin on his round face. Morning birds sang, tigers roared and elephants trumpeted in the distance. The jungle was welcoming the travellers.

Grass had stopped growing on the path as numerous feet and cartwheels had packed the dirt tight. Kaju and mother were with a group of traders who had a donkey cart full of merchandise. Though Kaju’s mother wanted to keep him by her, the boy would often break into a sprint, examine a rock on the side or hit the thickets with a stick. He was fun for the men in the group, who laughed as the lad pretended fight off a leopard with his tiny spear.

“Come back here!” Kaju yelled after his imaginary foe who was now on retreat. “Oh, you are not escaping me,” he shouted and broke into a sprint. They were approaching a turn and Kaju soon disappeared behind the trees. “Kaju, stop, stay with me!” his mother shouted after him. Her worry rose to an alarm when she didn’t hear a reply. She threw her bag into the donkey cart and ran after him.

Kaju was standing in the middle of the road. A few feet ahead stood a massive tree with a dark grey trunk. It was so tall its canopy was invisible and was so wide that it sat on the entire width of the road. The woman saw Kaju standing with his right arm outstretched and making some straining sound. He was trying to touch the tree but couldn’t.

“Come back here,” yelled the woman. Kaju turned and said: “I can’t touch it. I can’t go nearer. Why is that?” The woman walked up to the child and tried to approach the tree but hit something solid a few feet before the trunk. There, the air had solidified and formed a thick transparent wall.

Terrified, the woman gathered the boy in her arms and ran back to the traders who were just approaching them. They stopped and heard the woman. One of them, a young man, took an axe and walked up the tree. When he, too, hit the invisible wall, he took a few steps back, lifted his axe over his shoulder and brought it down hard. There was a thud, akin that made by a blunt axe hitting a piece of hard wood. Ripples starts spreading from the impact point. The man dealt a few more blows to wall, but they did nothing but bending the axe’s edge.

Kaju stood there, mesmerised by the giant tree and the ripples that seemed to bend the scenery in front of him. It seemed to him like a still pool disturbed by pebbles thrown into it.

Kaju, his mother and the traders had to return that day, so did another caravan that was coming from south to north. Scouts from both the tribes tried to go around the tree by clearing another path but ended up hitting the same forcefield, which seemed to be stretching on either side of the tree for miles on end, cutting the two tribes off from each other forever.  



“What do you want for that root, boy?” The question snapped Kaju out of his rumination. He looked up and saw a man silhouetted against the evening sun. “Give that root to me and I’ll give you these cowries,” he unclenched his right fist and showed him a handful of the shining trinket. Kaju traded the root, which he had found in the river that morning, for seven large cowries.

The man put the root in a cloth bag. Kaju looked at him as he walked towards his village. He was a tall dark man with hair tied in a bun on one side. He walked with a little limp, making his bag swing like a pendulum, and used a strong bamboo staff as a walking stick.

“Hey mister! Wait,” Kaju shouted as he ran after the man. He didn’t stop though but Kaju caught up with him soon. “Where are you coming from?” Kaju asked him, squinting as the sun beamed on his face. “I come from the mountains,” said the man. “What are you doing in my village?” Kaju asked. “Just passing by,” the man replied without looking at him.

The boy followed the man through that evening as he went from hut to hut asking for a variety of forest products such as frankincense, honey, porcupine spikes, herbs, peacock plumes, eggshells of certain birds among others. He seems to always have something to barter in his large bulging bag.

The last house he visited that evening before night fell was that of Kaju’s. Kava was inside the hut and his father, Mohu, was sitting outside mending his fish trap. The tall man wanted crude pearls and clam shells, which Mohu had in plenty. The man offered Mohu a spool of thread for the amount of clam shells and crude pearls he wanted. “This thread is made by a glow worm found on the mountain. Use this on your trap and you wouldn’t have to mend it ever again,” the man declared.

Satisfied with the thread, which seemed to be stronger than anything he had used before, Mohu gave the tall man a few crude pearls and as much clam shells as he wanted. The man also requested Mohu if he could spend the night outside the hut, to which Kaju’s father agreed.

As the night fell, Mohu lit a fire in front of the hut and sat near it. He invited the tall man to join him. Kaju, who was sitting on his haunches near the doorway, soon found a place near his father. “What do you do and where are you going?” Mohu asked the man as he sat down crosslegged near the fire. “I am a Chathamkar and headed for south,” the man said.

The man, however, evaded questions about where exactly he was coming from and where he was headed. “But you can’t go south, the wall won’t let you pass,” Kaju said. When the man asked what the wall was, Kaju narrated the incident of on that day.

There was a moment of silence after Kaju was done telling the tale, broken only by cracking wood in the fire wood and an occasional hoot from an owl nearby. Then, the tall man looked in the direction of the jungle and then back to Mohu.

“Did you get any red frankincense recently,” the man asked Mohu solemnly. Mohu’s face suddenly became grave. “Yes,” he replied. The two men locked eyes for some time and Kaju noticed Mohu’s hand creeping slowly towards the spear nearby.

“No need for that. I’ll go,” the man said, following Kaju’s eyes. Mohu and Kaju looked on as the man gathered his things and rose to leave.

“Wait, are you saying that red frankincense has something to do with the wall?” Mohu asked, a tad embarrassed by the way he treated his guest. The man didn’t reply until after he had begun walking towards the jungle. “They are just trying to protect themselves from you.”


Of all that the forest offers to its people, nothing is more valuable than the red frankincense. The tribes call it god’s blood and values it more than gold and ivory. If burnt, it gives off a white smoke that is both fragrant and extremely addictive if inhaled directly. And if anyone gets addicted to the ‘ruby gum’, that person will go any extend to get their hands on it again and that will become his or her sole pursuit.


Mohu was never the same after he came back from the work in the forest. He was one of those many men and women who went to the forest to widen the road. After returning from the work, he stopped going with the other men for hunt or fishing. He was lethargic, mostly sleeping through the day and sneaking out after the night fell to some place he never told his wife or friends. As days went by, he became emaciated and the work burden on Kava doubled with her having to look after the house and bring food. She went with the foraging teams and occasional hunt or fishing. The work and the change in her husband’s behaviour was taking a toll on her. After much thought, she decided to leave for her parents home in the southern village. But the wall cut her off from that journey.

After the tall man abruptly left, Kaju couldn’t sleep that night. He, as usual, heard his father waking up in the middle of the night and tip-toeing out of the hut to wherever that he has been going for several weeks now.

To be continued….

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