When the Orchids Bloomed

Fynbos on Table Mountain, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

In the span of a breath, everything changed. Breath is powerful; it can transport and transform you. Sethunya had learned this lesson at an early age. But on this day, it would transform her beyond anything she had experienced. It would carry with it new life.

Early that morning, she had ventured out into the quiet scrubland surrounding the settlement, ignoring the protests from the other women. “You must rest,” they had implored her, “your time is near.”

Sethunya waved her hand to dismiss their concerns and assured them she would be fine. “It’s a lovely morning for a walk,” she said before she turned and disappeared into the sun-gilded mist that had settled across the valley.

Sethunya was young, almost a child herself, though she already possessed great wisdom. Because of this, and her kind and gentle ways, even the older women listened to her. In those days, it was common enough for one so young to be wed and on the verge of motherhood. But her situation was different, for she was not wed and the father’s identity was unknown. Stranger still, she radiated with an inner glow that inadvertent mothers usually did not possess. As her belly had grown, so too had the bewitching twinkle in her eye. And none of the menfolk gave any sign – haughty or otherwise – of having played a part in the conception. So it remained an enigma.

Usually, shaman women did not wed or bear children. Usually, they were older — often elders. And it was certainly unheard of for a shaman to practice while with child. No one could recall one before Sethunya who had been so young, or so unusual.

She was indeed as rare as the orchid for which she had been named, an orchid that blossomed only once a year and, when it did, remained scentless but for one magnificent hour. To the people of the settlement, this orchid was a wonder. And for this reason alone, they might have chosen to name her after its blossoms. But it just so happened that the orchids began to release their scent at the moment she appeared. The perfume, believed to be the most beautiful in all the world, continued to grace each step she took that day, illuminating her with its miracle until nightfall. No one could explain it, just as they could not explain the girl’s mysterious appearance. The settlement’s shaman, the oldest woman among them, proclaimedthat her coming was meant to be and invited Sethunya to live with her. It was she who named her after the orchids.

After the shaman passed on to the stars several years later, Sethunya stayed on in the hut and, despite being only 12, took over the role of shaman, applying all the lessons her mentor had taught her.

Now, at 15, Sethunya had earned the love and respect of her community, and she loved them in return. These lands were the only home she knew, these people the only family she remembered.

On this particular morning, she was following the red, earthen paths worn into the countryside by centuries of nomads, the ancestors of her adopted people. She passed the towering rocks and gnarled branches that left shadowy, mythic shapes in the mist. She breathed deeply, feeling at peace, enjoying the beauty surrounding her. Every now and then, the mist cleared and she glimpsed the sparkling blue of the distant sea.

As she paused beside a small lake to admire the stillness of the water, her child began to stir. Instinctively, she knew she had gone too far to make it home before the birth. Looking around, she saw an outcropping of rocks which shielded a patch of long grasses. It would be a soft place to lie, she thought, and would protect her from the sun when it rose higher. Small white orchids – her special flowers — poked up here and there through the grasses, their delicate starburst blooms dainty among the other plants.

People have been giving birth on this land forever, she reasoned.

She knelt down and prepared herself. Nature welcomed and enveloped her and a calm settled upon her.

Her labour did not last long. At the final moment, Sethunya took one deep breath. In the span of that breath, she smelled the scent of the orchids and was transported. She was free of pain, she was one with the Earth. As she exhaled, the next shaman was born.

20 thoughts on “When the Orchids Bloomed

  1. I love the mystery surrounding Sethunya’s arrival and how powerful she is. This would make for a great longer story — have you thought of that? The ending is especially good with the scent of the orchid coinciding with birth. Does Sethunya die? I hope not–I would like to read more. Well done, my friend.

    • Thanks, Meg! I hadn’t thought of making it into a longer story but I quite like the possibilities of her character. It’s interesting that you ask if she dies. I had thought about that when I was writing it – the idea that with the birth of the new shaman, the previous one would pass on. But I didn’t want to have to make that call and there weren’t really enough words to build that in delicately. Maybe instead she raises the next shaman, dies at an old age, and her child takes over 🙂

    • Thank you so much! I think goosebumps are always a good indicator 🙂 I took the photo while I was visiting South Africa in April. The prompt photo reminded me of it, and of a lot of the landscape I saw near Cape Town, so that was where my mind went as I developed my story.

  2. I feel like I was transported to another world for the past few minutes, which is one of the things I like most of all in your writing. 🙂

  3. I have a very distinct sense of place and community reading this story. Your description of Sethunya walking into this village and commanding its power as a young girl is incredible. Charming people (see what I did there?) can do that — have everyone on their side in minutes. I have a little trouble trying to figure out when the story is being told. “But on this day” and “early that morning” are written in the first few paragraphs, but then in the fourth paragraph “In those days” is mentioned. Does that mean the narrator is retelling this story? Or do “those days” refer to the older women?

    • Thanks as always for your very helpful comments and questions, Nate. Now that you point it out, I can see why you’re confused about the timing of the story. The idea was that the story was being narrated on the morning of the birth, but you’re right, when I say “in those days” I’m getting confused and making it sound like I’m narrating it from in the future, looking back on a folktale from the past. As I think I like it being a folktale, I’ll have to adjust the “on this day” references. Thank you so much for reading so carefully and providing great feedback!

  4. The best I have had a chance to read from your writings so far.

    As this has made me curious for real now, I shall return more often to find out. 🙂

    Lots of greetings,

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