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Comale's Revenge by Mary E. Bamford

 

The Waves splashed on the bold rocks that guard the little harbor of Colombo on the southwest shore of the island of Ceylon. Groves of palm trees looked down on the one-story houses of the town. Upon a rock outside of Colombo stood a barefoot boy, his dark eyes gazing toward the tropically green mountains of the island. His attention was particularly riveted on one of the highest peaks, that one which is known to English-speaking people as "Adam's Peak," and which is reverenced by natives as being the traditional spot from which Buddha ascended to heaven.

"The butterflies are making their pilgrimage to the holy footprint," murmured the boy, Comale, to himself.

He could see from his standpoint great streams of butterflies, taking their flight apparently from all parts of the island, and going toward the famous Peak. These flights of butterflies, occurring occasionally in Ceylon, have won for the butterflies themselves the name of "Samanaliya," since it is thought that the heathen god, Saman, left his footprint on the mountain, and the butterflies, like devout beings, take pains to go on pilgrimage to the holy footprint.

Comale himself knew better than to believe in this old heathen tale, yet he never saw the myriads of flying butterflies without remembering what he had been taught in his earlier years, before Christianity came under the high-pitched roof where Comale's father and mother lived.

Long time did Comale stand on the rock and gaze at the vast numbers of flying, winged "pilgrims." The butterflies seemed countless, and at last Comale, sighing a little, said, "They are very good," and, jumping from his rock, made haste toward the cinnamon gardens where he worked.

Comale was a "peeler." In the perfectly white soil around the city of Colombo, the cinnamon tree flourishes as well as, if not better than, in any other place in the world. It requires much practice to become a skillful peeler of cinnamon, but Comale, having been taught by his father, and being moreover a careful, observing lad, was fast attaining a degree of success in his trade. Formerly the Cingalese had allowed the cinnamon trees to grow to their natural height, about twenty or thirty feet, and naturally the cinnamon bark from such trees had been tough. This was long ago, however, before even the Dutch owned Colombo. Better wisdom came with them, and in these later days of English rule, sensible ideas still prevailed. The cinnamon trees were kept pruned, and the comparatively young shoots were found to produce better cinnamon than old trees had done.

Comale, arriving at the gardens, began to work. The branches he chose for cutting were about three feet long and were the growth of from three to five years.

Comale made longitudinal cuts in the bark, two cuts in a small shoot, more cuts in a large shoot, and then with his instrument carefully removed the bark strips.

He placed the pieces of bark in bundles, in which shape the cinnamon was to stay for a while, that it might ferment, so that the outer skin and the under green portion might be more easily scraped away by Comale with a curved knife. After that, the inner cinnamon bark would dry and draw up, till the pieces looked like quills. But ever, as Comale worked this day, something inly disturbed his thoughts. He was very unhappy.

"Comale," warned his father sharply, "that was a bad cut! Be more careful!"

Comale's father was attending to some bark that had dried to quills. He was putting small cinnamon quills into larger ones, till he made a collection about forty inches long. Then he would bind the cinnamon into bundles by pieces of split bamboo. But Comale's father kept an eye on his son's work, also.

Comale was much abashed at his father's reproof. For a time the lad kept his mind upon the cinnamon. Then his thoughts went back to their old uncomfortable vein, for he found in a tree a little bundle of sticks from four to six inches long, all the sticks placed lengthwise, the whole looking like a small bunch of firewood. Comale knew what this bundle was, well enough, for many a time he had found this kind of a nest of the larva of a moth. He knew it was lined with fine spun silk, and that the heathen people said that the moth used once to be a real person who stole wood, and who, having died, came back to earth again in the form of a moth, condemned, for the former theft, to make little bunches of firewood. Comale sighed as he touched the little bundle hanging from the tree.

He thought of the "good" butterflies that he had that morning seen going on "pilgrimage."

"Some people are good, and some people are bad," thought Comale sadly. "The butterflies go on pilgrimage, but the bad moth's little bundle of firewood hangs in the tree. I wish I did not always do something bad!"

Ordinarily he would not have cared for the acts of either moth or butterfly, but to-day there was in Comale's heart a sense of guilt that found accusation from unwonted sources.

"Comale!" warned his father again, "another false cut!"

Tears of mortification sprang to the lad's eyes. Never had ha seemed to himself to be so awkward a peeler. It was something beside awkwardness that ailed Comale's hand to-day. He was worrying over the possible consequences of a deed of his.

That morning, he and his sister Pidura, who was about his own age, had quarreled. They did not quarrel as often now as they used to before Pidura and he knew anything about the way to be a Christian. They tried to be patient, usually, but this morning there had been a sharp quarrel between the two about the rice for breakfast. After breakfast, Comale, still feeling very angry, had gone into the veranda that each one-story house possesses. This veranda was overshadowed by the high-pitched roof, and while, inside the house, there was matting on the floor, as in Cingalese houses, the veranda had a rough material made from the husks of the cocoanut. This material was so placed as to prevent serpents from crawling into the house. Ceylon has many serpents, and Pidura, Comale's sister, was very much afraid of them. As Comale, yet very angry with his sister, stood in the veranda, it occurred to him that if he pulled away some of the rough cocoanut material, he might leave a place where a serpent could come into the house and scare Pidura. It would be good enough for her, he thought; and not pausing to reason about the consequences of his action, he pulled away the rough material till he left quite a space undefended. He did not believe that Padura would notice it.

He could see her, busy in the kitchen, which is a house separate from a Cingalese dwelling. Her plump, pleasant face bent over the fire, and then again she turned away, her light jacket and striped skirt vanishing toward another corner of the kitchen. Comale half laughed as he thought how scared she would be if a little serpent should find the opening he had made. Then he ran away.

But now, since beginning his day's work, his quarrel and the possible consequences of his misdeed had begun to weigh heavily on Comale's conscience, and had lent an accusing tongue to nature. So true is it that a guilty conscience finds censure where a heart that is at peace with God and man would find no reproving reminder.

Comale could not go home till nightfall, and all day his worry increased. Why had he done so wicked a thing? The quarrel over the trouble about the rice looked so little, now! If a poisonous snake should find that opening, and should creep in, and strike his mother, or Pidura, or the little brother, or, the baby! It was dreadful to think of! Why had he blindly followed his anger? Had he not often heard that he who would be a Christian must forgive others? Instead of forgiving Pidura, he had done something that perhaps might kill her.

"Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you." It was what the missionary had said.

"I ought to have forgiven Pidura!" Comale's heart cried. "Oh, I am bad, bad! How can I bear it, to wait till I can go home to see if all is safe?"

Naturally, Comale's work was not done well, to-day. But he cared little for criticism of his peeling, when at evening the time came to go home. He ran all the way. He plunged headlong into the street where he lived. He ran past the tile-roofed houses. There was his home's veranda with bunches of bananas hanging in the shade, and a basket of cocoa-nuts below. Comale hastened in, out of breath, yet trying to act as if nothing ailed him. Pidura was safe! He saw her. He found his mother and the baby in another room. Comale drew a long breath, and tried to stop trembling. His little brothers were in the street.

It was growing dusk, and another fear beset him. If a serpent had crawled into the house, the creature might have hidden itself, and might not come out till sometime in the night. Comale guiltily slipped into the veranda again. The unprotected portion had not been discovered. It lay exposed as he had left it.

As well as he could, Comale replaced the cocoanut-husk material, so that it might be a defense as before. Then he went softly around within the house, hunting for any possible hiding-place where the enemy he dreaded might be concealed.

"Comale," said his mother, "what are you doing?" And Comale did not dare to hunt any more.

He was dreadfully miserable as he lay that night in the darkness. He could not sleep. He listened for any outcry. To think that he might have let an enemy into his own home! Comale rose upon his elbow to listen. The walls of Cingalese houses are not carried up to the roof, and, because of this, an outcry or conversation in one room can be heard all over the house. Comale listened. Sometimes he fancied he heard the sound of something slipping over the matting on the floor. So worried was he that when he slept it was only by short naps from which he woke with a start, and resumed his listening.

Toward morning, when light began to come, Comale crept from his place. He looked toward where his little brothers slept. Hanging above one of the little boys was a slender dark line. It was alive! It swayed to and fro in the shadows, and seemed to slip a little lower toward the sleeping child. Comale started. He sprang forward with a cry, and caught the swaying thing. But it was no living creature that Comale brought with him to the floor. It was only a long, thin strip of bamboo with which Comale's father had intended to bind cinnamon bark! The strip had been hung up out of the way, and had swung a little in the current of air between the top of the wall and the roof. As the bamboo strip swayed, it had gradually slipped lower and lower toward the sleeping little boy below.

Comale's outcry had aroused the household; and without reserve the penitent lad told to the family the story of his misdeed. His dark- faced father smiled slightly and showed his teeth through his beard. He understood now the mistakes Comale had made in the cinnamon work the previous day.

"A wrong heart makes corundoo peeling go ill, Comale," he said gravely.

"Corundoo" is the native word for cinnamon.

"A wrong heart makes rice-cooking go ill, too," softly confessed Pidura. "I am sorry for yesterday's rice! It was I who made Comale's heart angry."

The father looked from one child to the other.

"Little children, love one another," he said.