Spring 2024

How we know the Forest’s Name

By Jamil Badi


The clouds were leaning upon the night with the threat of a storm, but I did not let them break. Yes, I was thirsty for rain, my barked fingers pruned a dry and brittle grey, but I made the clouds wait. A pair of them, boy and girl, he tracing his fingers along my bones, her kicking the leaves of my dead hair. I told the storm to wait, for I could sense a story in these two, and there is no better thing to quench the throat than story. 


I sent them a kiss to welcome them. The boy yelped when a mosquito bit his shoulder, scared as if his blood were to abandon his body from one little bite. The girl just laughed as I kissed her shoulder. I turned the mosquito’s head away from her and up to the air, sucking away at that laughter, a warmer lifeblood than what runs through the veins of animals. I wanted to confess to them that it had been a long time since I had tasted laughter, but they paid no attention to my voice in the wind. They instead unzipped their bags and donned jackets, their goosebumps deaf to my speech. 


I spun a web with my spider so that I might taste the blood my mosquitos had drunk. As my lips lay twitching within that web, I could taste their families; though they looked like brother and sister, they came from different kin, one from the town past the tips of my toes, the other at the end where my head won’t grow. My spider coughed on the salt in the boy’s kinstream, from all those fish his family must have eaten. This must be how the ocean tastes. My veins are yet to reach such waters, though I hear stories of others like me who inhale the ocean as though it were air. Her family was more like dirt and animal blood, though this dirt tastes cold and of dry metals. It makes a desert of my mouth, leaving me a stone in my own web. 


He must know the colour of my eyes, for he has been watching me while she stokes fire. I wonder if he knows what makes my bones grow strong, what keeps my skin damp and teeth nice and sharp. Does he merely see my eye, or is he gazing at the expanse of my body? As I open three more of my eyes, I watch him shake. Four more makes a mouse of him, scurrying back to the safety of her. A chuckle creaks out my throat. She tells him it is just the wind. He must see me now, for he points at my lookings, telling her there are more than before. I open nine more and can now see he has pissed himself, clutching her arm. My whole body starts to sway, drunk on his fear, and I realise that he has never seen me before, nor anyone like me, all the way out in his little water haven. Perhaps he will taste better than any story his blood carries could. I lean ever closer now, the fire making a devil of my eyes. I don’t see her take something from her bag, something sharp and shiny. He screams and I can’t see him. I can’t see the fire. I can’t see her plucking out my eyes, but I can hear her stomach, her smile, her muscles. He tells her to keep going, to keep blinding me, but she says not to take more than you need. I lean back, far enough to see them both. She has done this before.


They are both approaching now, having gorged themselves on my eyes. He walks heavy upon my skin, as if he knows I can feel him. The boy sings now, perhaps to scare me. She warns him that I might follow them, but he strums his throat louder. His words tickle my ears, as they are not yet those of a man, but I still listen. He sings of the albatross who lost his wings, and learnt to make boats of bark to fly on water instead of sky. He sings the bird’s name as if it were his own, and that makes the tale taste better. I have dined on this story before, but those men knew not to sing songs about themselves, and so their words were caked in a tired old dust. But the boy, I feel his blood patterning each image he conjures, as if he were pulling his life from deep in his throat. Just for me. He asks her to sing him a song from her home, but she says nothing. She says nothing for some time, and I wonder if she knows I am listening for story, starving me out of a childish cruelty. I put my ear closer to them, until they can see me. The boy is in awe but the girl says nothing. I push closer and I hear his eyes widen, as if I were prey, but I hear his heart sigh as it knows he is but a boy. She tells him that if you whisper a secret to an elephant, they will guide you to a watering hole. He tells her that if he brought back the head of an elephant then his village would make him king. She and I both laugh. I lean my ear down towards my navel and they both follow, perhaps to maim me again, or perhaps to see a story come true.


I still intend to lead them to my mouth, to lick clean the ancestry from their bones, to make my skin glow with their being. But the way the boy’s mouth opens like a horizon, hearing my breath send shivers down everything, to see that the girl was right. Story makes everything taste better, especially when it is born before you. She walks to my navel and looks down through the water. She tells the boy that at the bottom of every waterhole, the heart of the forest beats. I hear him creep up behind her and he shoves her into the water. She resurfaces, laughing, cackling, before pulling him in. They do this for some time, and I can’t help but listen. I don’t think they notice me anymore, so I open my eyes, from afar, and watch them. They kick about as if they’d never felt water before. She drifts towards the edge and steadies herself, but I know they boy could swim and splash about until his hair grows knotty and grey. He asks her who she heard the elephant story from. I hold my breath, hoping she doesn’t notice. She traces shapes in the water with her fingers, looking down into my navel again, as if searching for my heart. She swims over to him and whispers something. I lean in closer, closer until I can hear the coursing of my own veins beneath my navel, the pulsing language of my own heart. I hear her. 

I tire of old stories, so I tell my own

My eyes widen into a sky’s expanse. My ear tumbles into the water. I let the storm tear open like cracked earth. My jaws creak open.


The water in my navel inhales, sucking them down, quicksand to their kicks. They breathe the water and their eyes dart about like flies trying to know why they aren’t dead. He looks up to see the sky shrink, whilst she looks down, relaxing, knowing. How does she know? I have never devoured storytellers in this way before, and yet she knows that my heart beats violently in the back of my throat. She tugs on his sleeve, clutching him, embracing him, their racing fears ricocheting off each other’s bodies. He finally looks down into the expanse of my maw and relaxes. They see my heart, its swollen trunk, pregnant with hunger, its arteries reaching out both ends, bark hands awaiting the children. She takes him and dives down, faster, closer to my heart. It beats faster with each kick, the water thinning so each paddle brings them nearer. They grab onto the edges of my heart, looking into its black, endless eyemouthear. She struggles to hold on, but the boy holds her steady. She climbs into the black, submitting to fate, to nature, to me. He holds her ankles so that I may not gorge on her storied soul. Like all boys, he thinks himself stronger than he is. But I hear her whispering something. I let him keep his strength, and I listen.

Spare us, and I will weave your story into the blood of every newborn from this day forward

I tell her that without a songvoice to strum, she won’t ever teach another my story.

He, with the voice sewn for stories, will teach me to sing, in the way my kin would never do

I think on this, for his voice makes stories all the more delectable. 

I ask her how I know she means the truth.

If the next person to walk across your skin doesn’t utter your name out of respect, then I will return to your heart and feed you stories until my mind grows worms and maggots

The water swirls as I grow dizzy on the thought, on the possibility. 

I agree to her bargain, if each traveller offers me a story. I promise to provide safe passage in exchange. 

Oh great, endless forest! I promise you that from this day forth, kin who live past your crown and below your toes, they will forever know your name, and pass it to their children as if it were an heirloom. No stories shall be traded without your name passing the teller’s lips. We shall know the flavour of your name so that we may cook our food with it. I swear it.

I spit them out, drenched and spluttering. My fingers parted my hair, for they had reached the top of my head. The boy grabbed her and ran, battering my skin, tripping over my fingers, weeping. I could hear him singing praise to a god I didn’t know, and dreamt of what my name would sound like from his voice.

Jamil Badi is a creative writing student at RMIT, with a particular interest in African oral storytelling and folklore. His work has been published in Babyteeth Journal’s Never Heard of Them Emerging Writer’s anthology and the South Coast Writers Centre Uncommon Words anthology. He has also been highly commended for the 2019 Wollongong Short Story Prize, highly commended for the 2019 John Marsden and Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers for poetry, and commended for the 2023 Wilbur & Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow Adventure Writing Prize. He works as a bookseller in Yarraville.

Spring 2024