Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
‘No,’ I said. ‘There is nothing to be afraid of.’
‘Truly?’ Mister Cawdor said. ‘Well, I think I might be afraid. But perhaps it is only we Dimdims who fear ghosts.’
Then he picked open the door and we went into one house, and then the other house, gazing at the men’s somethings by the light of the Government torch. There were the men’s sleeping-mats and their lime-gourds and their water-bottles. There were their knives and bags and spears, their fishing-nets and shuttles and twine. Their footprints were still on the sand of the floors. Nothing was gone but the men.
‘We shall see,’ Mister Cawdor said, coming out of the second house and staring about him. ‘We shall see, Osana. Meanwhile, do not talk.’
think happened?’ asked Mister Dalwood, in English.
‘I don’t think I’m ready to start thinking yet,’ said Mister Cawdor. ‘Maybe they wandered off down to the underworld, before their time.’
‘What “underworld”?’ Mister Dalwood said.
‘The home of the dead,’ said Mister Cawdor. ‘Didn’t I tell you? It’s right here, under our feet.’
He pointed to the tall trees that hid the mouth of the cave, and said: ‘There, Tim, that’s the way to the afterlife. When you die, your relations build a little canoe for your soul, and launch it from the beach nearest your village. So your soul comes sailing here to Budibudi, and gets out and goes into that cave, and goes on down and down, till it comes to the other world, where the chiefs name is Topileta. And that’s where you stay, with Topileta, living pretty much as you live here, only more easily. You feast and you chew betelnut, and you don’t worry anyone walking about up here. But now and again something happens, Topileta leaves a door open or something. And then people up here hear a funny sound, that they say is like a Dimdim bell.’
‘You tell a fantastic story,’ Mister Dalwood said. ‘Well, don’t let’s call off the manhunt without having a look at the underworld.’
But Mister Cawdor did not answer, and only looked at me, and Mister Dalwood went on in a loud voice: ‘Alistair?’
‘Perhaps I am afraid,’ said Mister Cawdor to me, but smiling.
‘Why, taubada?’ I said. ‘You do not believe.’
‘But many people believe,’ he said. ‘And you?’
‘I am a Christian,’ I said, ‘like you, taubada, and Mister Dalwood.’
‘E,’ he said, ‘true. It is different for us, we Christians.’
Then he turned back to Mister Dalwood, and said: ‘Okay, let’s go. But do not tell anyone, Osana,’ he said to me, ‘where we have gone.’ And he moved away, swinging the torch, with Mister Dalwood behind him, into the shade and the wetness of Dipapa’s plantation. They walked very quiet, and white like ghosts, through the thin palm-trunks, climbing to the rocky rise where the earth opened in the middle of a circle of trees.
When we were among the trees he pointed to the narrow opening between the rocks. ‘Abandon hope,’ he said.
Out of the hole came a constant, echoing twittering. ‘It’s full of budgies,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Bats.’
We climbed down the rocks and stepped through the opening, and suddenly we were in a cathedral, under a great dome. Bats whirled in the light that seeped through the crannies in the coral, high up, and a steady drizzle fell as the soil of the island drained itself into the caves. The light from the opening stopped at a massive stalagmite. At the foot of it a clump of bracken glowed burning green.
‘What do you think?’ he asked, hushed, under the chirruping in the dome.
‘It’s—well, sort of grand,’ I said.
He kept moving on down, into the darkness, flashing the torch on fantastic columns and stalactites, slithering on the slimy ramp. Then we were beside a pool, that I heard before I saw it, from the slow plinking of water from the roof way overhead.
The smell of the mud and rock scoured my nostrils. ‘It does stink in here,’ I said.
‘Bats’ piss,’ he remarked expertly, and flashed the torch on a rock near me, and I saw little red beads on it, like blood.
‘The things you know,’ I admitted.
He was going on, into the wetter and darker darkness. The sort of path he had found was narrowing. High sloping walls of rock closed in and loomed over our heads.
‘They’re all hollow,’ he was saying, ‘these islands. They were reefs once. The sea used to boil through here. Think of that. And before then there were mountains, but they all went down under the sea. Think of that, too.’
Then he came to a sudden stop. Because golden eyes were swooping at us out of the dark, black furry bodies were zooming over our heads. ‘Flying-foxes,’ he called out, swinging round, following them with the torch, excited, like a kid. ‘Look at them, Tim. Look. Did you ever see so many?’
The beam swept about and caught, just for a moment, two golden headlamps bearing down on us like a train. Then the light went mad, and fell.
I heard a splash, and much silence.
‘Hey, Misa Kodo,’ I said, ‘it’s dark down here.’
‘Sorry,’ he muttered.
‘You wouldn’t maybe have a slight case of the shakes?’
‘It looks like it,’ he said, sounding humbled. ‘Well, we’d better go back.’
It was a darkness like I’d never seen before. It was perfect darkness. He was standing beside me, and I couldn’t make out even a glimmer of his clothes.
‘Alistair,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to go, you know.’
‘What?’ he said. ‘Go where?’
‘Away. Take sick leave. Christ knows, you look sick enough.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he said. ‘I’ve got to be shipped out because I dropped a torch?’
‘Forget the bloody torch,’ I said. ‘It’s because you worry people. You worry me, you worry Kailusa. You even worry Mak a bit. And poor old Naibusi, last night—’
‘What was wrong with Naibusi?’
‘She thought you were dying. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that, but you ought to know. It’s not just your business, it involves other people.’
He was thinking. And because he was thinking, I could hear the water dripping and the bats in the cave we had left behind. And him breathing, invisible at my side.
‘I do know about it,’ he said at last. ‘About involving other people. But it’s not a thing I ever asked for.’
‘Still, it happens,’ I said. ‘And if you’re sick—’
‘I’m not sick,’ he said. ‘But I would be if I hadn’t had a job to do.’
‘Wait a minute,’ I said, ‘let me finish. If you’re sick and carry on with it, you’re not the only one who’s going to suffer. If you care about these people, you ought to take a rest. I think you’ve thought that out for yourself.’
He moved beside me, his shoes slipping on the rocks. ‘Yeah, sure,’ he said, suddenly and loudly, ‘that’s fine for you to say. I know what you’re thinking. Then you’d be out there on your own, patrolling, your own boss. But they wouldn’t let you, not yet a while. And where am I supposed to go? Back to Dimdim, you’ll tell me, but what is there for me down there?’ He broke off for a moment, and then he said, in a strained voice: ‘This is my home. This is all I’ve got.’
I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, that something had happened, something had broken. I’d never thought before that he was weak, and I think now that he wasn’t, till then, when I couldn’t see.
I reached out and found his shoulders with my hands. ‘Let’s get moving,’ I said. ‘You lead the way, I’ll hang on to you.’
‘You’ll trust me not to fall down a hole?’ he said.
‘I’ll trust you,’ I said, ‘to give a piercing shriek as you go. Hey, what made that noise?’
‘A python,’ he said.
‘You don’t mean that?’
‘Yeah, I do. I heard it before.’
‘Oh Christ,’ I said. ‘It probably ate those three fellas. Did you think of that?’
‘No, I didn’t,’ he said. ‘Now, why didn’t I think of it? It seems so obvious.’
As we came nearer the big cave he was beginning to take shape in front of me. We were in a narrow slimy alley. His shirt formed itself, and I dropped my hands from his shoulders. Then we were both in the light.
‘How’d you get like that?’ I said. His face was smeared with slime and mud from his hands.
‘The same way you did,’ he said. ‘This underworld’s a scungey place.’
Yet he had stopped, in the middle of the cave, and was looking up at the bats in the lighted dome and the stalactites and the dangling roots of trees, as if it was something he wanted to remember.
you think?’ I said. ‘Seriously, I mean. About those three blokes.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, still with his face lifted up to the portholes of light.
‘You won’t admit what you think, will you? About that flying saucer.’
‘I never mentioned the flying saucer,’ he said. ‘That was Benoni’s theory.’
‘But you believe in it.’
‘In the star-machine? That it exists? Maybe.’
‘More than maybe,’ I said. ‘You’re in love with that star-machine. It’s crazy.’
He shrugged, his back to me. ‘My father,’ he said, ‘believes that Jesus Christ was the son of God. Boy, is he crazy, but no one says so.’
‘You were talking last night,’ I said; and at that he turned and looked at me, sharply, out of his blackened face. ‘When we put you to bed, you were babbling away.’
‘Well?’ he said, waiting for something painful. ‘What did I say?’
‘I don’t know. Nobody knew the language.’
‘Oh,’ he said, suddenly grinning, and glancing down. ‘Was I back at that? Well, I didn’t speak much English before the age of about seven.’
‘You were talking Martian,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said, staring at me, and starting to smile, in a puzzled way. ‘Explain that.’
‘You were talking Martian because you are a Martian. That’s what I always thought. That’s why the excitement over the saucer. It’s got your people on board. People like you,’ I said, laughing at the idea, and yet it wasn’t a joke, but something I’d seriously imagined, just before, in the dark. ‘Your folks,’ I said, thinking of his wife and what it must have been like for her, trying to talk to that, to love that, that visitant.
‘Hey, Tim,’ he said, gazing at me, ‘hey—Tim. Are you feeling all right? If you could hear yourself, you’d be worried.’ And he was frowning and looking hurt, and that was something I’d never seen before, but I didn’t care.
I saw ahead of us, over the low sea, the north point of Vaimuna trailing away on the left hand, and on the other hand the high ridge and the jungle of Osiwa island, grey with sea-steam. So I knew that we would not be going around Vaimuna, but through that fast deep strait between the islands, the gut of Vilakota.
Mister Cawdor was lying on his back again, not reading, not sleeping, nothing. There was black mud still on his skin, though he and Mister Dalwood had washed themselves in the sea, leaning from the dinghy as we came back to the boat.
‘We will anchor at Vilakota, taubada?’ I said to him.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘You like Vilakota, taubada? We always anchor there.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is like my own village. I would like to live there, and be an old man.’
‘E, taubad’,’ Kailusa called out, ‘let us garden at Vilakota, you and I.’
Mister Cawdor did not really smile, but looked quite gently at the hunchback, and shook his head. ‘We are too young now,’ he said. ‘But later, Kailus’, perhaps.’
Then the hunchback wandered away, looking sad. But I stayed to talk to Mister Cawdor where he lay.
‘Taubada,’ I said, ‘what did you find in the cave?’
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Much darkness. That is all.’
‘But the men, taubada? Where are the men?’
‘Gone,’ he said. ‘Vanished. I do not know. Soon I will make a report. Do not ask questions now.’
So I too left him, and climbed out of the belly of the
, to go and sit behind Mister Dalwood and watch the land.
The village of Vilakota sits on the beach, at the end of Osiwa island. There are ten houses, fifteen houses, I do not remember. Behind them is a grey cliff, the sharp edge of the coral ridge and of the miles and miles of jungle that divide those houses from every other village on Osiwa. In front of Vilakota is the fast sea, boiling between the islands, and beyond that the low point of Vaimuna with the wetter, more rotting jungle through which the Vilakota people walk to visit their relations of Vaimuna.
Usually there is a man with a canoe at one point or the other, waiting for people who want to cross the strait. I suppose he fishes, or hunts for shellfish, or sits in front of his house carving or mending nets, while he listens for a shout from the other shore. On that day too he was there, on the Vaimuna side, and before we saw the houses we saw his brown sail, then his darker body in front of it, waving at the Dimdim boat coming so fast towards him, fast as the sea, from the east.
went by with the man on one side, the village on the other. The man was shouting, and from the other shore people had run from their houses to call and wave. The
swept round the point into the blue-green milky water of the great lagoon that makes all the west of Vaimuna and Osiwa calm. Then the
was suddenly quiet, and we heard lories in the Vaimuna jungle, and frigate-birds in the sky.
When the dinghy was lowered, Mister Dalwood was the first man into it. He stood rocking on the sea, turning up his face so that I saw the mud in the roots of his hair which is coloured like rope.
‘Come on,’ he shouted. ‘Where are you? Kailus’, is your taubada asleep?’
‘He is sick a bit,’ Kailusa said. Then Mister Cawdor came out of the belly of the
and dropped into the dinghy and sat down.
His legs were shaking. It was the sea. It made him shake and be sick and be sleepy. I was sorry sometimes.
‘There’s no hurry,’ he said. ‘We’re nearly home. We won’t stay here long. Just half an hour, to see.’
Mister Dalwood said nothing, but was frowning about him, watching men get into the dinghy and seeming impatient with everyone, not only Mister Cawdor.
The smell of the jungle of Vaimuna came towards us in puffs. One minute you would say it was sweet, it was flowers or sweet berries or sweet leaves. Another minute it was bitter and rotten like disease.