MARC DE FAOITE
Weeks of currents, aquatic and magnetic, brought Penyu here again. She surfed the moonlit high-tide waves front fins tucked and glided up onto the beach. The soft sand made her progress slow and inelegant. She began to dig. Soft-shelled eggs slowly filled the nest, fertilized by the seed of several fathers, nature hedging bets that the strongest and fittest will continue the race. Still working in the dark she covered the glistening eggs with sand, then, as generations had done before her, for more than 100 million years, returned into the sea.
He shivered. The sea of stars had shifted. The waves still washed up on the shore, but now there was a band of smooth wet sand where the water had receded. Had Penyu been and gone, or was she yet to come? He had waited almost a year for her return, or any of her sisters or aunts and their precious cargo. Eleven months spent craving something other than rice and fish and tapioca. He stretched and waited until the stars began to fade.
He walked the length of the beach looking for tracks until he found Penyu’s nest. He crouched, then slowly excavated the soft-shelled eggs, piling them onto the batik sarong he had brought with him. There were almost two-hundred eggs though he couldn’t count that high. Like most islanders he had little use for numbers any greater than half-a-dozen.
He thought he heard voices behind the hiss and wash of the waves breathing in and out upon the shore. They were faint at first, perhaps imagination, but when he looked around he saw the boat. It was bigger than any vessel on the island and had more than a dozen men aboard. He raked his fingers through the sand, searching for any remaining eggs, then bundled up the laden sarong and withdrew into the shelter of the trees and undergrowth that marked the edge of the forest.
The boat drew closer. The men spoke an unfamiliar dialect, but he could understand most of what they said. Anchoring the boat beyond the breaking waves they half-swam half-waded ashore. Some carried their clothes in bundles held over their heads. Others brought baskets of firm-bodied gleaming fish. He watched them dress and gather firewood and soon the smell of cooking fish reminded him that he had not eaten in many hours. He hid the bundle of eggs in the undergrowth then ventured forth onto the sand, but from far enough away that the men could see him coming. Far enough away that he could escape into the forest if they seemed hostile.
He walked slowly back from the village, along the trail beside the rice paddies, carrying Penyu’s eggs and a small package made of folded banana leaves. His reluctant steps stirred the dust that coated his bare feet and clung to the hem of his threadbare sarong. Wrapped inside the leaves were four silvery fish. A stranger had given them to him. He didn’t know how to act around strangers. He didn’t know how to refuse. Their lidless eyes had been clear, the sheen of their scales reflected the afternoon light, they smelled of the vast ocean beyond the island. He took the fish, thinking they would make a welcome change to the muddy taste of catfish from the paddy fields.
Ahead in the distance he recognized the silhouette of Pak Wan’s boy sitting in his usual place beneath the mango tree, his knees pulled up towards his chin, his skinny arms wrapped around his legs, staring out over the luminous green fields of rice. Sometimes the boy would rock back and forth and make low moaning sounds, but today he was silent and unmoving.
Almost every family in the village had a child that was an outcast, or who was hidden like a shameful burden, kept in a back room, or sometimes outside in a pen, like an animal, living, eating and sleeping in its own waste. Some said it was part of the curse upon the island, but he knew that it was much simpler than that.
Last week he found the boy crouched on his hands and knees beside the calf in the lean-to behind his house, sucking on one of the buffalo’s spare teats. It surprised him that the boy managed to compete with the greedy calf, who always wanted more, butting its mother’s udder with its head.
A few months earlier he had walked halfway across the island with the buffalo to have her sired. It took him two whole days, one there and one back, and cost him a month’s worth of rice, but it was either that or risk another still-birth. It was an investment in the future.
He watched the suckling boy for a moment, then quietly stepped away. Let the boy drink what he could. There was hunger in the village. Those who contributed the least were the last to be fed. The boy contributed nothing. Nothing except heart-ache.
It was almost a year since the boy ambushed a girl on her way back from the fields. She lost the baby, whether naturally, or by an infusion of herbs gathered in the forest, no one knew. It wasn’t the sort of thing that was talked about.
The girl’s father came to see him. He talked about the rice harvest, and then about the lack of rain, working up his courage towards what he really wanted to say. You have a daughter of your own, surely you must understand. He nodded. He understood.
Some of the villagers wanted to kill the boy, he was a risk to their daughters too, but he spoke against it. The boy wasn’t right to begin with, he argued. He had less sense than a billy-goat. Besides, if they had to kill all those in the village who weren’t right …
He left the sentence unfinished, but still he was there that night they stuffed the rag into the boy’s frightened mouth. When the girl’s father lowered the heated knife he wanted to put his hands over his ears to block out the stifled screams, but instead he gritted his teeth and pushed the boy’s shoulders down into the ground.
“I got some fish and lots of eggs.”
His wife looked up. She and their daughter were in the small plot behind the sun-bleached wooden house, bent over the bed of new rice-seedling green. She stood up, placed her hands on her hips and arched back groaning, rubbing her lower back and pounding it with the sides of her fists.
He stood watching his daughter, the way her hips shifted as she worked. Though she kept its innocence, she had lost the awkward jerkiness of childhood. Now there was a smooth assuredness in her movements and a confident stillness in her eyes. He was proud of her. She was smart and obedient and she was a good worker. He wanted to say something about the sown seeds being the seeds of the future, but he couldn’t work out the right words in his head. Instead he said nothing.
His wife watched him watching the girl. He turned his gaze towards her and then towards his feet.
“A shipful of sailors landed today,” he said. “Their boat needs some repairs. They’ll be on the island for a few days.”
Husband and wife stood shoulder to shoulder looking out towards the hills on the horizon while upper teeth worried lower lips.
“Need to get the far field ploughed if we’re to get these seedlings in,” she said.
“I was planning on doing it now.”
He untethered the buffalo and rope-led her towards the fields. She looked back with a whining grunt, reassuring her calf that she would return he guessed. The calf was getting stronger every day. By next year it would be bigger than its mother and would take over the role of pulling the plough.
He bundled his sarong up around his waist, revealing his thin sinewy legs. He stepped into the sun-heated water in the paddy field. The warm mud beneath it oozed up between his toes and around his ankles. The ploughshare slid through the fermenting viscous muck, releasing bubbles of gas that smelled of childhood memories of when his father ploughed this field as well. He had made the ploughshare himself, from a piece of hardwood from the forest. Shaping it had blunted his parang several times. He worked back and forth across the field with the buffalo until the sun was low. He was tired, but the field was ready. Tomorrow the planting could begin.
The daughter walked in front of her parents. She was the only one left now. Their future depended entirely on her. They had lost three other children. All daughters. Two never made it beyond the first month of confinement, but it took nearly three years to understand that there was something wrong with the third, something wrong that could never be made right. She died in her sleep. She hardly even struggled.
The family worked side by side, sweating in the humid heat, pressing the slender seedlings into the warm nourishing mud. With luck and rain their work would ensure their survival for another season.
They finished before the hottest part of day. They washed and ate and rested in the shade.
His wife stayed behind at the home. Standing in the protective shade of the mango tree she watched them leave, her fingers knotting and unknotting. She followed them with her eyes along the trail that led towards the river until they were out of sight.
He saw that there were other fathers with their daughters at the river too, and some men with their wives. He recognized them all, but none would meet his eye, ignoring him, but without hostility, their eyes turned inwards, absorbed in their own thoughts. After some brief haggling over the price they all boarded the wooden sampan that would carry them downstream to the sea.
He watched the boatman position himself, standing on a raised platform at the back of the little wooden boat. He pushed the bamboo pole against the riverbed, but the seaward current did most of the hard work. It was the return journey that would be harder. For everyone. The surface of the river rippled as the boat glided forward, and each time the tip of the pole splashed free of the water he saw sunlight transform the shining droplets into molten silvery jewels.
Unlike their fathers, the girls did not behave as strangers to one another. As children they had played together, but now that they were budding women they rarely had the chance to meet. They were kept busy with cooking and laundry and hard work in the gardens and the fields. Most of them were cousins. Their youthful features looked so alike that a stranger might mistake them all for sisters. They were excited. Even though the walk from the village to ocean was only half a day they seldom had occasion to visit the island’s coast. Their carefree laughter and chatter filled the late afternoon, echoing across the water and through the trees as the boat smoothly slipped downstream.
The girls walked out onto the fine white sand, mesmerized by the sunlight twinkling on the vast ocean. The waves made a hushing sound, like whispered secrets that they could not understand.
At the edge of the forest the sailors had slung hammocks in the shade. Smells of wood-smoke and cooking drifted from a fire set upon the sand. Some of the men played music, twanging on homemade stringed instruments, beating goatskin drums, or whistling on little flutes. Others were busy cutting meat, a rare delicacy for men so used to eating fish.
He counted almost twenty of them. They were a mixed bunch. No two looked alike. Even without hearing their strange accents any islander would know that they were outsiders.
He spotted the man who had given him the fish and nodded. The sailor stepped out from behind the veil of smoke that rose above the cooking fire.
He called his daughter. She came and stood by his side.
He felt hatred towards this brute of a man, the man who had given him four shining fish. He couldn’t face seeing his daughter eat them in the end, so he had given them to Pak Wan’s hungry boy instead.
He lightly placed his hand in the curve of his daughter’s lower back, realizing with a sudden sharp intensity that he had never loved the girl as intensely as he did right now. He asked himself how it was possible to feel so much anger and so much love at the same time. He held his hand on the girl’s back for a moment longer, then with the gentlest touch he nudged her forward.
The sailor roughly took her hand. The look of confusion on her face changed to horrified understanding. She resisted at first, but her father nodded, while he clenched teeth and fists. His daughter’s expression would be branded on his mind forever. He tasted the sour saltiness of blood inside his mouth. He had bitten through his lip. It occurred to him that he was standing almost on the exact spot where he had gathered Penyu’s eggs. He swallowed the metallic taste, and watched the stranger lead his daughter away towards the trees.
Marc de Faoite was born in Dublin and lives in Malaysia. His short stories and essays have been published both in print and online in Malaysia, Singapore, France, India, and Ireland. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.