Kanu: Milk and Thunder

Milk and thunder

Many had taken refuge on the roofs of the buildings which still stood—the bus depot, the medical clinic—others had clamoured up trees, straddling branches and waving helplessly to the heads and head-shaped objects floating by.

From the ridge, Kobe looked down into the valley at the spume of life and death as if in a trance. Just three hours ago he’d been tying a load of cane to the back of his motorbike, whistling that tune that had been going around, and watching Jora belt the life out of a woollen rug with a piece of driftwood. “Am I so useless to you?” she raged, punctuating each word with a blow of the stick, “Useless! Useless! Useless!”, clouds of dust exploded from the rug’s woollen flanks.

Now he was trudging barefoot along the high forest path, Jora clasped to his aching back, past broken engines and oil slicks, past families sleeping under trees, welded together by twigs and mud, his feet cut and red… And he was still whistling that damn tune. The world had turned into a cemetery and he was whistling. Should he also laugh? Should he look to the skies and thank heaven for the joke? Or just be grateful the worst of it was over?

The day started like any: with Kobe bent over the trough under the serpentine branches of the flame trees behind the hut, washing the sleep from his eyes. Sun-warmed and fresh, the water felt good against his skin, pure and cleansing, and brushed aside all reservations he’d set himself the night before as he lay in his bed. It was seven o’clock and the sun had already seared its way over the dark, green hills on its slow journey towards the ocean. The janti birds lined themselves on the roof and were praising the air with song. Kobe shooed them away and smiled, marvelling at the order of things. By the time Jora had pulled herself out of bed he had already bundled the cane, refueled his bike, and eaten three bowls of banana rice. Normally he took a syrupy coffee from a street cart on Market Road as his only sustenance until noon, but that morning he knew that the extra energy would come in handy. He had a few hours of deliveries to get through before his rendez-vous at the mechanic’s at eleven. There he would be kept busy until at least twelve, after which the next load of cane was due further down the coast at Dutro village.

Kobe greeted his wife as she passed him. She said nothing and went to feed the clutch of chickens pecking around the dirt looking for yesterday’s corn kernels.

“Is that how a wife welcomes her husband into her new day?” he persevered. His wife hunched her shoulders, tossed circles of corn closer and closer to the house, as if the birds would scatter all threat of conversation. She knew where he was going; what he was going to do, and it only remained unsaid because there was nothing to say. Only the rug, the poor rug they had inherited from Jora’s mother received the brunt of her complaints—over the course of the year she had beaten the thing with such ferocity that tangles of loose threads had started to appear at its centre. Kobe had explained to her countless times that he didn’t think she was useless at all; he loved her, just as before, but that this was the just way things were, the way it had always been. Their situation was not rare. There were many marriages across island whose vines bore no fruit. Always the optimist, Kobe had insisted that they keep trying, and they did—ten times at least. They hired help from each of the island’s doctors, the new and the old, made love under a new moon in ancient rock pools as the priests had advised, mixed Kobe’s ambrosia with water from the shallow lagoon, and had taken pellets in all manner of shapes and colours. And each time, when Kobe’s seed did take, Jora had ended up either on the floor of the hut or in hospital, or at least on the way, bleeding between her legs and screaming to the gods.

No, he would not get a son from her. Not even a daughter, which he would have gladly accepted. Jora’s body had failed them and, according to tradition, the responsibility passed onto her sister, the younger but not more beautiful Farysha. Strong, with a determined will, Jora’s sister had always preferred the work of men; she chewed sugar cane like a wood splitter, and flew into week-long rebellions when pressed to learn the arts of cooking or working with string. Indeed Jora used to called her ‘Farysh’, a man’s name, and the first name of the island’s greatest wrestler, and teased her at every opportunity about her woeful skills around the house, and her inability to attract a husband. “No husband wants a woman covered in grease,” she’d say, and nod at Kobe as if to present her evidence. During their first encounters, it was clear that the grease-covered girl knew more about the inner workings of a motorbike than she did the private parts of a man; she was shy and awkward, and found no pleasure in their love-making. But as the weeks passed, Kobe discovered that the more he visited her, the more eager she became, and the less she resembled a beach-side mechanic.

On the ride down to Hatrang through the plumes of clay dust, Jora’s words stung his ears and stayed with him as he took his coffee and unloaded his cane; she was useless, useless—as useless as rotten coconut; they stayed with him as he watched the bright tourists swagger by with their shining swimming shorts and big noses, while he walked through the park where the stall owners were quarreling about the day’s prices—and they were still ringing in his head right up until he knocked on the mechanic’s corrugated iron door. Half an hour only, Farysha told him. They did it in the back of the shop among the two-wheeled carcasses, where it was dark and sweltering and smelled of motor oil, Kobe’s hand clasped to Farysha’s red bandana, his gaze fixed on the light streaming in from the shop’s front window through the shadows of helmets and handlebars. Nothing was in his mind at that moment, nothing but a white calm. And afterwards, when she told him she was pregnant, the calm stayed with him and he promised he would tell Jora, and tell her that everything would be fine.

“How much further?” Jora complained into his ear. “It’s been hours and I don’t feel much like dying on your back.”

“Sleep,” Kobe said, squeezing her foot gently. Even scarred and coated in black mud, the smooth skin and jade toenail polish was elegant. “We’ll be there soon.”

“That’s what you say.”

“That’s what I mean.”

“You should have left me there. In the water. You should have left me there.”

He ignored her and looked at the zigzag of people moving ahead of them. How long it was to the hospital by foot he didn’t know. Kobe had lived on the island his entire life, cut acres of cane at the feet of its hills, mapped its roads with a hundred rubber tyres, combed rings around its beaches that if strung together would spiral to the sun and back, but not once had he journeyed over the hilly path that dissected the island and joined Oporu to both coastlines. The groups of people that had passed him were either too shocked or too much in a hurry to stop and answer his questions, although they all nodded curtly or offered a grunt when he asked if they were travelling in the right direction. Some were steering packs of animals—goats, cows and ducks—and once or twice Kobe even saw a camel; most of them however were either with or carrying their own family members, and those who were alone were constantly squinting over their shoulders in bewildered dismay.

At a point where the incline evened out, they came across a man sitting on a bed of dried vine, his head rested between the balls of his knees. Beside him lay an open suitcase, in which a cat lay curled and sleeping. Kobe, grateful for the short respite from the climb, stepped off the path and stood next to him.

“Hello, Uncle,” he said.

The man’s head shot up like a turtle snapping at a fly. “You there,” he said before a violent and wet coughing fit arrested him.

Kobe waited for the man’s coughing to subside. “Uncle, how far to the hospital?”

The man pointed in the direction they’d come. “Did you see any girls on the way? Twins they are, about twenty, both with short hair, wide shoulders.”

The channels in the man’s skin were caked with silt and mud, flesh wrapped in a lace of tar.

“Your grandchildren, uncle?” Kobe asked.

“Daughters… seen them? I’ve asked every soul who’s walked this way, but no one has seen them.”

Kobe cast his eyes back down the path behind him. “No, we’ve not seen any daughters on our way,” he said.

“I saved their kitten, you see?”

“You’ve come from Hatrang?”

“Yes, where it used to be.” The man raised his head to spit at the ground, but the blood-stained globule misfired and slipped from his bottom lip onto his knee, and slid back down his thigh. “I saw it rolling up the flatlands. Like a herd of furious elephants. It forced all of us up the old road.”

“There was nothing any of us could do.”

The old man shook his head. Kobe thought he was on the verge of tears. “This road was once for the old priests, ‘The Pious Road’ they used to call it. The common folk never took it. They weren’t allowed. I don’t understand. Why should the gods make us tread it now, as if none of it ever mattered?”

“The god’s mysteries are our own, Uncle.”

“What should we do?”

“No god would do this.”

“You think so.”

“Does the hospital still stand?”

“Oporu’s on high ground.”

“I must go on. My wife needs medicine. Can you walk?”

After a moment, the man pulled a tuft of grass from the ground and began massaging it into his legs. “I walked up here, although don’t ask me to remember how. You go on. I will wait for my daughters. If you see them at the hospital, you’ll tell them I am where I am, won’t you.”

Kobe said he would and then drove headlong down the hill. “May the gods protect you,” the man said behind them. Only when he was already out of earshot did he realise that the man had not given his name or those of his daughters.

Sweat poured down his aching back and his legs stiffened with each step. The smell of fresh sewage subsided as he climbed and soon it was Jora’s breath, which smelled of ginger tea, and the acid in his own sweat that lingered. There were no bodies on the ridge, but Kobe could see them in the valley well enough, either floating among the restless sediment or snagged against poles and logs. Once or twice he thought he saw one of them move, wave an arm or struggle against the flow of the current, but it was too difficult to tell among the confusion of loose fragments.

The path had narrowed to a thin ledge of dirt, with a wall of leaves and rock on one side, and a sheer drop of fifty metres or more down into clouds of bushy ebony trees on the other. Kobe held his breath for each step of the trail, making sure to place each foot on a flat surface and avoid loose stones. They came to the wreck of a fallen tree, which, on its side came to the height of Kobe’s knee. The trunk was not high, but with Jora’s weight pushing down on his tired legs, it took three attempts before he managed to find stable footing, and stretch over without having to throw Jora over the other side. He was concentrating so intently on the task that, when he did land on the other side of the trunk, he forgot to lower his body to avoid the low-hanging branches, and they first scraped over his face, then whipped into Jora’s with a sharp crack. She screamed and the force of the blow sent them both reeling backwards. Despite Kobe’s best efforts to turn his body and take the blow himself, they both slammed against the scabrous bark. The wind left his lungs and his grip loosened. Jora’s body slipped from his back and slumped to the ground.

Dazed but not stunned, he quickly wrapped one hand around the trunk’s girth and gripped Jora’s arm with the other.  “Are you hurt?” he asked, immediately realising the stupidity of the question. The wound on Jora’s side had been seeping during the climb, and a crimson flower had bloomed across her hip and covered most of her clothing.

“Hold my arm!” he shouted, and she did. “I have you. Can you stand?”

She shook her head.

Kobe took his wife by her underarms, then, using all the muscles from his feet to his eyes, he lifted up onto the trunk and wrapped her body around him once more. One of Jora’s legs slipped from under his arm and his whole body almost buckled under the shifting weight, but he caught it and regained balance. “I just wanted see if you were still alive,” he said and laughed weakly.

The incline grew steeper and as they continued up the trail, Kobe made sure to move slowly and duck under the vines and branches, no matter how threadlike they looked, and when the path’s width allowed it, they rested by leaning against the rock face, allowing the more mobile to pass them by.

“The waters are still flowing,” he heard someone say behind him. “They will be waiting to drown us at Oporu at this rate.”

“Just see if they can drown me!” another said.

“Are you a water rat?”

“No, a water dragon.”

A baby began to wail, piercing and clear, its cries echoed from the mountain rock and swept across the valley. In an effort to subdue the child, the mother sang the first lines of a song Kobe knew well. It was a lullaby that mothers all over the island sang to their infants to protect them in sleep.

Child of Hatrang, child of mine,
boy of string and man of twine,
lay yours pearls down at the shrine,
you’ll always be this child of mine.

The last words fell from his mouth in a whimper, and he was about to sing them again when he felt a sharp clamp on his neck. Jora had closed her mouth on his skin and was biting into him as if he were a piece of wood.

Kobe swore and his legs faltered as he tried to twist his way out of her grip. “What are doing?” he cried. He could have released her to the ground if the path had not been so narrow; he could have dropped her where he stood. As it was he had to swing his body against the rock and push back to prevent them both from toppling into the valley. The muscles in his legs burned as if they were aflame.

“Move along there!” a voice said further down the path. “Or kill yourselves if you’re going to, it’s all the same to us. Just do it soon and let us pass.”

Using the fingers of one hand, Kobe wedged Jora’s face from the nape of his neck, and her teeth came away with a snap. His right foot slid forwards, catching on an exposed rock just before the fringe of the trail became a cliff. “What is this madness?”

Jora said nothing.

For a moment it occurred to him that he could just let her fall, loosen his grip on her thighs and shrug her off the side of the mountain, and be done with it. He could then concentrate his efforts on finding Farysha and his unborn child, if indeed they were still alive. He looked to the sunken eyes of the crowd behind him. They were more interested in getting to Oporu than in the fate of a barren cane-cutter’s wife. What would it matter to them? All it would take was the slip of his fingers. He would say that was due to the shock; that the mountain trek had rendered him fragile and temporarily mad. How could they expect civility in times of emergency? The irreparable breeds the irreproachable.

Jora began to weep. He felt his grip on her legs loosen.

“Look down there,” he hissed at her. “Is that where you want to go?”

“Yes. Let me go.”

“I will. And it will be your fault if I do.”

Her fingernails dug into his collar bone. “Do it,” she whispered. “And I shall haunt you.”

Kobe snatched at his wife’s legs, squeezed them, anger like a furnace in his veins, and began crabbing along the path. “It’ll be fine,” he said through his teeth. “You’ll see. Just let us get to the end of this snake road and we can rest.”

“Snake road for a pack of snakes,” he heard her whisper. “A pack of snakes crawling away on their bellies from the fire.”

“From the water,” Kobe corrected her, and continued up the path, trying not to look down.

The water had come like thunder. He’d left the mechanic’s hut not ten minutes prior, the square of his groins were still throbbing, and was riding up main road away from the beach when he felt a boom pound the earth beneath him. He slowed the bike and turned, expecting, although he could not say why, to see a plume of flames and smoke. But there was no explosion, no smoke, no fires. There was only the mountain: a great bluff of ocean rising from the horizon, bulging over the beach, swollen in muted delivery. He kicked the motorcycle into gear, crouched low and not daring to look over his shoulder, skimmed across the potholes as if they were cushions of air. The roars subsided and yielded to an aching grind like the joints of some rusted mechanical behemoth moving through the forest. On and on he rode, until he came to the gravel road where he made a hard right and skidded past the wooden sign indicating the border of Hatrang. Up ahead he saw the whitewashed walls of the shed. Dry and silent. A panicked chicken rushed from the long grass. He accelerated and had just shifted into fourth when the sea blasted out from the trees beside him, shooting him into the air like a cannonball.

Time expanded. Kobe dipped and dove between the blunt and the sharp, his lungs and mind crying for air.“Jora!” , he screamed over and over again.“Jora!” He saw her face, then his own, and finally the blank mask of nothing. The ceaseless boom swept him along, like a giant gurgling as it swallowed the world. Blind, he wrestled against the water, scrambling upwards for air, clutching at passing telegraph poles, rope, glass, the flailing bulk of a cow. He swallowed water and leaves and dirt and plastic, screamed back at the screaming bodies flying around him. It was only when a great hook grappled his waist and yanked him sideways that he saw her, sprawled over the front of a van wedged between the cement pylons of the village temple, brown filth surging through its broken windows. Jora’s arms were wrapped about the steering column while her lower body flapped in the gushing water like rags. The water was taking him right to her. He flailed through the flood of broken chairs, pipes, cans of food, televisions, and wire, found and somehow managed to extract his unconscious wife from the windshield, and keep her afloat until the surge washed them to higher ground.

After wading waist-deep through the fresh swamp for an hour, swatting at fleeing rats and snakes, they arrived at the foot of a hill: a collapsed bank of orange clay, dammed by debris. Kobe felt as if he’d been thrown into a barrel of glass which had been pushed down a mountain, but when he checked he found that the cuts on his arms and legs were shallow, and the bruises mercifully light. Jora however, had not been spared. A green branch, thicker than Kobe’s thumb protruded from the flesh on her hip, a hot wound with a reddish purple flame, and when Kobe looked upon it he himself could not help but wince. Jora barely seemed to notice it. Only when he pulled it out did she let out a broken cry, before passing out in his arms. Not a drop of blood ran from the puncture.

They came upon a shrine—three square slabs of concrete stacked from the ground with wooden blocks, on top of which stood carved idols of Kanu, the god of light and fertility, and five dried coconut flowers. Kobe turned and quickened his pace, hoping that he could slip past, but a hot gust of air on the back of his neck ordered him to stop.

“Put me down, Kobe,” Jora whispered.

“I’ll do no such thing.”

“We have to pray.”

“Not until Oporu.”

“Put me down, I said. Each step you take is like a coal in my side.”

“That’s a good sign, my love. It means your body is fighting. You just have to fight a little longer. We’re almost into the valley. Can you see? The sea is not so bold as to journey this far into the forest.” It was a lie, he knew—even up this high, the russet sludge had ventured with its collection of cars, smashed metal and wood and dead bodies and its children. Sprawls of rivulets and temporary streams ran in every direction.

“Let me pray.”

No argument would sway her. Kobe had not grown up believing in the gods and he didn’t trust any power that he could not touch or see. But he knew Kanu, at least the power he commanded over his wife. Jora had prayed to Kanu morning and night during her pregnancies, and then three times a day after they ended. Prayer had cooled her madness, tempered her grief, and for that Kobe was grateful. At times he’d even participated, reciting the prayers and (reluctantly) offering up cups of boiled rice at the local shrine; and there were a few occasions when he felt a peace he’d not known for an age, and a connection to Jora beyond the flesh and the trials of their daily lives, when he might have even let himself believe that all that supplication and whispering in the dark would have changed their fate. But it never did.

He set Jora down before the shrine, and steadied her as she crawled to her knees and fell into a delirious muttering.

“Great Kanu,” she said twisting her hands into a knot, “You who flood the sky with Your light, make new the land, make that what has been taken grow back stronger, where life has been taken, let life return, where love and light are shallow, may You send a thousand floods to fill our wells.”

When the words were done Jora fell to her hands and wretched over the side of the shrine. Kobe held her head and waited for the spasms to pass. “I’m fine,” she said, wiping her mouth.

“My love—”

Jora snatched herself away. “You should have left me. Left me to die.”

“Don’t say that.”

“The gods had decided—it was my time. You have no use for me. I am broken, like your motorbike.”

“Nothing is decided.”

“You decided, the gods decided.”

“No one did this—it was the sea,” he said, “it was a mountain of white and noise. Of milk and thunder. A poisonous mix. I was lucky to find you.” Then he added quickly, “But I did find you.”

Jora’s voice softened. “And the others? Uncle Bampa? Cousin Tere? Where are our nieces and nephews?”

Tired as he was, it didn’t escape him that she’d not mentioned Farysha.

“I can’t say, my love. But I am sure they are fine. Uncle Bampa is strong. They have a boat. He’ll have protected them from the worst. Your sister…”

“She is dead.”

“No,” Kobe said.

“She carried your child.”

He stopped breathing. Her sister must have talked. “What does it matter? We’re here—we are still alive.”

“I’m not afraid to die. Are you?”

Back then Jora was the most beautiful woman in Hatrang. She was the most beautiful person in Hatrang who didn’t know how beautiful she was. Her smile soothed sorrows, her laughter washed the lonely spirit; common muslin, once wrapped around her neck, became royal silk—she was like a princess with a hole in her purse: dropping golden coins among the poor as she went along without even knowing. Kobe had seen her at the beach the night of the annual fires, Farysha in tow, searching the circles of people for places to sit and sing to the summer stars, and wish for luck for the coming year. Like everyone else, he knew of her, knew that her parents, due to their royal lineage, were held in high esteem in the villages around Hatrang. She was of age, it was clear, but this too it seemed, she chose to ignore. There was no shortage of spaces for Jora. “Yes, sister!” the men shouted at her. “I have saved this place for you, next to me!” Old men shuffled along, young boys did somersaults. But none of them had room in their plans, or on the sand, for the much smaller sister. It was Jora they wanted. Her happiness infected them, made them forget their wives, their daughters… drove them mad. So when Kobe sucked in his breath and quietly rose to offer his place at the fire to both Jora and Farysha, the whole beach ceased their praying and stare at the thin, nervous, farm boy. Who is he to speak to such an island pearl? What good would come of it? “But your luck,” Jora said when he led her to his place. He replied: “If I am to have no luck this year it is not because I did not beg for it. It will be because I did not steady the course of luck to those who use it more wisely than I.” She  agreed. “So it shall be,” she said. “But should any luck come to me this year I shall set some aside for you.” And as she sat one of her braids brushed Kobe’s hand, startling him into a trance that had lasted many months, right up until the time he held her hand for the first time. So much for luck.

They left the shrine and continued along the path, which slithered more steeply into the valley. Those with whom they’d been travelling had now scattered, either left behind or had gone ahead. In some ways, Kobe preferred the solitude. He was free to walk, unhindered by the despair of others, who so desperately wanted to remind the world of their suffering.

Beyond the trees they came upon a road. Kobe saw the triangular shadows of roofs in the distance—a good sign, meaning that the aim of their journey was true—and his spirits lifted further when he heard the rattle of a motor. It was a motorbike, he was sure of it, and its sound rang in his chest and made his heart sing. He began to run, only slowing his pace when Jora complained that her jaw was banging against his shoulder.

“A motorbike!” he exclaimed. “And look—we’ve made it over the mountain.”

He followed the fading whine of the motorbike, into the village, through the sticks and mud and rubbish until he was standing ankle-deep in putrid ooze. The smell of decay broiled the air and brought strings of bile to his mouth. Around the base of the huts, whose walls appeared untouched by the devastation, lay the grey and grated bodies of the dead. With their twisted bones and bloated tongues, only the collared shirts and watches separated those who’d been washed from the coast from those who been taken from the poor inland farms. The motorbike, wherever it had been, had vanished, and at once Kobe felt Jora’s weight push him down into the earth. All day he’d been able to suppress every instinct, every emotion that had threatened to erupt; but now he felt them gushing from him.

A flock of gulls whooshed over their heads and undulated upwards with the rise of the valley until they were stretching like a white sheet across the sky. After they’d disappeared over the hills, Kobe wondered when he’d last seen a bird. A tear fell from his eye and came to rest on the crest of his moustache. He licked it off. “We need water.”

Jora groaned. “Where are we?”

“I don’t recognise this place.”

“Down,” Jora said with a wheeze. “I want to get down.”

They backtracked up the path to a patch of dry grass. Satisfied that there was nothing dangerous around, Kobe lowered his body. Jora collapsed on the ground with a sigh. Just a few minutes, he said to himself, looking at the flat place beside her. Just a few minutes rest before I go to find water and help. The ground was pulling him downwards by the eyelids and he felt himself succumb to gravity. It was only when his eyes fell upon Jora’s hip—a weeping frown of crimson blight—that he jolted and forced himself to his feet. Each of his joints cracked as he rose. “Stay here,” he said. “Try not to move, I mean. I’ll be back with help.”

Jora held out a trembling hand. “Kobe,” she said faintly. “The rug. I’m cold. Bring me the rug.”

“First you’re hot, then you’re cold… you can never make up your mind, can you?” He tried to laugh but his throat wouldn’t allow it. “I’ll go back for the rug tomorrow.”

“I want to stay here,” Jora said, her head turning into the grass.

“I’m not leaving you, you stupid woman,” Kobe said. “You’ll stay here and I’m coming back for you whether you like it or not. And if the gods gave you half the wits they gave a goat, you’ll… you’ll… you just stay alive, you hear me?” He touched her hand lightly and covered her wound with some long grass, before jogging back down towards the huts.

Up close, the bodies had the unnatural sheen of melting wax. Flies darted between their bloated faces and feet, which hung lifeless in pools of swirling soup. Kobe rapped on the side of the closest hut, called out several times, but the only answer was from a mottled dog who padded out from behind a crate of mud-stained oranges and sniffed at his legs. News of the disaster must have spread as fast as the wave itself. With a two or three-hour head start, the villagers would have reached Oporu long before he and Jora had arrived. Kobe kicked the dog away and went to inspect the oranges, which were all split or squashed. He knew better than to eat something that had been floating in river water; even the clams they pulled out in the estuaries were boiled and spiced until their flesh was almost powder—it was the only way to avoid swollen bellies and flux of the bowels. Further on, his luck changed: among the ribboned roots of a cypress, he found two unopened cans of condensed milk wrapped in a plastic bag.

The sun had not yet sailed overhead, but hung in the east like a seething beacon. They were heading in the right direction, he was sure of it now. Just keep travelling east, he told himself as he scampered over the roots and puddles back to where Jora lay.

If the air had not been so vacant of birds, he might have not noticed the whimpering coming from the branches above him. A cat, he thought at first, but when he heard it again, he paused and looked up. A pair of eyes peered down at him from between two thick bushels of leaves. The face and hair were painted with dried mud, but Kobe could see that his skin was as pale as cooked rice. Apart from his cherry swim shorts the boy was naked.

“Hey there,” he called up to the boy. “You can come down now. The waters have gone.”

The boy blinked.

“Come on then. Who are you?”

The boy shrunk back into the tree. Kobe pointed to the hills. “The hospital is this way. Just climb down. Well? Are you coming down or not?” He  waved impatiently. Everything was growing hotter and thicker as the sun rose and he had to get back to Jora. “Look!” he said, holding up the plastic bag, hoping to communicate to the boy’s thirst. “Come down and I’ll give you a drink. There’s no one here, you see. They’ve all gone to Oporu. Did you come from Hatrang?”

At hearing the word the boy nodded slowly.

“Where are your parents? Do I have to climb up there after you?”

A curious stream of syllables flowed from the boy’s mouth and Kobe understood from his bulging eyes that it was something important. Kobe could not understand how he’d ended up here, in this tree and still alive. The tourist resorts were at least ten kilometres away, on the coast and, if the waters had carried his little bones this far, it was a miracle that he had survived so intact. Kobe counted only a few scratches across the boy’s back, light lashes from a tarred whip, as he monkeyed down through the tree’s branches. At one point, the boy stopped. The branch beneath was too far below him to act as a safe step and it was a two-metre drop from where he sat. Kobe dropped the plastic bag and held out his arms.

“Come, jump! Jump!” he said.

It was if the boy had jumped and landed in his arms at the same time, for no sooner had Kobe braced himself, then he was already lunging forwards to absorb the shock. As he did so, he kicked a root and stumbled forwards, only managing to toss the boy aside before he landed sideways against the tree’s great trunk, twisting his ankle in the process. Pain stabbed his foot and ripped up his leg. His vision blurred, he fell to the ground and held his breath, waiting for the sting to pass. Several minutes passed before he could move, and, when he opened his eyes again, he saw the boy standing before him, both hands stuffed down the front of his pants. For a moment Kobe forgot where he was. Who was this boy? he asked himself. Why am I lying in the mud? Then the sun struck his face and the smell cut through his nose, reminding him of the floods, of the death, and of Jora. He tried to move but the sting in his ankle flared and he screamed. The boy flinched.

“Only a sprain, I’m sure,” Kobe said in between sharp draws of breath. “Help me up.” Kobe held his hand out and the boy took it. After several attempts and much cursing, Kobe was back on one foot, tilting over to use the boy’s shoulder for support. When he found his breath, he pointed to his chest. “Kobe.”

“Christoph,” the boy said immediately.

With a grimace set into his face, Kobe stooped to collect the plastic bag containing the condensed milk, but the boy was too fast and snatched it up and placed it in Kobe’s hand. “Thank you,” Kobe said. And together they hopped and wove through the trenches that led back to the path.

It was slow going, but they soon coordinated themselves so that the boy chose the path and Kobe hobbled after him, and not long after, they arrived at the patch of long grass to find Jora curled up into a ball. Kobe lunged at the ground beside her, nearly dragging the boy down with him.

“I told you I’d be back,” he said, panting. He opened a can of condensed milk and handed it to the boy, who began sucking on the aluminium hole as if drawing his last lungful of air. The second can he held to Jora’s chin and let the syrup trickle into her parted lips. The three sat in silence for some time, Kobe licking at the drops of juice, Jora wheezing quietly, the boy, tugging at the cord of his cherry shorts, until finally, Kobe sat up.

“Chreeeestoffee,” he said, rolling the ‘r’ hard over his tongue. “I guess we’ll have to find who you belong to. My wife is very sick, you see—we just have to pick her up and we’ll be on our way to the hospital, to Oporu.”

Dispersed in the boy’s babble, Kobe heard the word ‘Oporu’ repeated back to him. He nodded. The boy nodded in return.

Jora propped herself on one elbow, her eyes widening as she studied the strange boy, his white arms and alien freckles.  “What have you brought us?”

“This is Christoph,” Kobe said pointing his good foot at the boy. “I found him dangling in the branches of a cypress. He nearly broke my leg, but we got him down alright. He doesn’t understand our language. We’ll take him with us to Oporu though. Someone will be missing him.”

Jora gave him a worried look. “Or no one.”

Christoph sat cross-legged in the grass, shaking the can into his mouth and chasing the last drop of juice. If he feared for whomever he’d left behind, it was not visible in his bright eyes. “Maybe it’s a sign from Kanu,” Kobe added and wiped the sweat from Jora’s brow. She was staring at Christoph as if though trying to penetrate his skin. “Let’s try to move you now.”

Balancing his weight on his good leg, Kobe wrapped Jora’s limp body around his shoulders. She protested, but he ignored her and swatted away her attempts to strike him. The boy seemed to understand the purpose of Kobe’s efforts and did his best to stabilise the two adults by supporting them on the downhill slope. They managed to advance a dozen metres or so this way before Kobe’s legs gave in and all three of them fell to the ground. Kobe clutched at his ankle and swore.

“You can’t carry me like that,” Jora said through tears.

“I just need a few minutes, that’s all.”

“Leave me. Take the boy. Kanu—”

“To hell with your Kanu!” Kobe, still on the ground, took his wife by the arm and attempted to drag her towards him.

She flinched and wriggled backwards. “Go! I want to die in peace.”

“Say it one more time and I will. Now you do as I say.”

With the last of their energies they flipped and slapped and spat over the issue of Jora’s abandonment, dragging themselves around in circles on the ground as the boy attended in the low grass, possibly wondering if these two crippled creatures were fighting because of him.

A motor snarled beyond the thicket and they all turned their heads. Ignoring the pain in his foot, Kobe leapt to his feet and hopped up the path, yelling as loud as his throat would allow. When he saw the motorbike rattling over the rocky hills towards them, he let out a whooping laugh. “Over here, brother! You see? Here we are.”

Without the sidecar, the motorbike would have been not much bigger than his own but it carried a load far greater than any he had seen. Bodies glued to bodies, they spilled from the seat and the sidecar door. The rider was a withered stalk of a man and rode hunched over the front of the handlebars. Kobe waved at him.

“How do you fare, brother?” the rider said and stopped the motorbike. Six sets of eyes blinked vacantly into the sun behind him. “Are you headed to Oporu?”

Where else? Kobe wanted to say. “Yes. My wife is badly wounded,” Kobe pointed to where Jora and the boy, “and I have injured my leg so that I cannot carry her any further. We found a young boy, a foreigner. He is alone. Can your bike carry more?”

The rider turned and studied the bike. “One, maybe two perhaps. But no more. The boy and the woman if they sit on the front of the sidecar.”

“Is it far?”

“Heavy as we are, another hour.”

Try as he might, Kobe could not convince Jora to climb on the motorcycle. Eventually, the rider dismounted and he and Kobe dragged her by the arms kicking and wailing. They wedged her in the sidecar between two bruised and bloodied women. One of the women put her arm around Jora’s shoulder and began whispering in her ear. Another stroked her hair and put a filthy hand on her chest. Jora struggled but she was too weak. Finally her protests ceased and the heaving in her shoulders subsided. She closed her eyes and, Kobe thought she might have even fallen asleep, but as soon as he came back to the bike with the boy, she jolted and exploded from the women’s arms. “Leave me here,” she said, “let me out.” She pulled herself from the sidecar.

Kobe and the rider exchanged glances. “Jora, you must go with them,” Kobe said. “You have to look after Christoph. I will make it and see you there, I promise you.”

“Don’t touch me! I don’t want to look after anybody. Leave me. I want to die, why can’t you just let me die? My life for the boy, it is all I have to offer.”

“You speak nonsense,” Kobe said, pushing her head downwards. “We’ve not come this far only to give up.”

“Look who’s given up!”

The slap was more fierce than he had intended, and it sent his wife cowering into the napes of the other women, who reproached him with weary clucks of their tongues.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he moved closer to his wife’s ear. “The luck you owe me, my wife. Use it now. Use it now. Come back to me.”

The rider took Kobe by the elbow. “There is a road a couple of kilometres on,” he whispered. “You’ll find transport there. We’ve got others who are sick to pick up.”

“Take them,” Kobe said. “I beg it of you. Two life debts.”

“And what of the boy?”

“This is no place for him. Find his parents if you can.”

It was tight, but Christoph managed to squeeze between the rider and the handlebars. Kobe patted the boy on the shoulder. “Be safe,” Kobe said, and then to Jora, “stay strong.”

“Will the gods look after me?” she said, on the verge of fainting, “Will they, Kobe?”

“Kanu hasn’t forsaken you yet.”

When he was sure that everyone was safely attached to the bike, Kobe waved them away, and stood there on the path on one leg, until the putter of the motorbike faded and only the whisper of air on leaf remained. He gasped in pain as he eased himself onto the grass. Here I will stay, he thought to himself, just for a short while, between the grass and sky. He thought of his motorbike, and the price of cane that day, he thought of Faryhsa, the chickens in his front yard, the rug, his favourite towel. But mostly he thought of Jora and her silken braids, the droop of her lower lip, her teeth, sharp like her wit, and the life within a lifetime they’d just spent. She would will make a good mother, he thought, and me a good father. And when he turned his gaze to the expanse of blue above, his eyes grew heavy and warm. The tune came to him in a second, and he whistled it through his dry lips; a single low note that arched up into a high trill. Yes, that was it, he murmured to himself with a smile. Only a short while now. In the seconds before sleep consumed him, he felt a shadow pass over his head, and, for the second time that day, he thanked the heavens—the worst of it was over.

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Illustrated Shorts

I'm a creative writer and illustrator living wherever I can afford.