For two days the Biggun’s strongmen slogged and bogged up the Mud Road, sniffing the thief out with their meanest dogs. They found him slumped against a lightning-blasted stump, deep in a gasp-dream, eyes rolled back, blood running down his left crook.
I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders when they brought the thief back to the leech farms, dropping him right below the Biggun’s tower. It was raining – earth, stone and sky, everything sodden. The tower seemed heavy, sagging towards the swamp. Still the Biggun stood up there – proud as he was – on his slanted perch. The thief shivered like an insect, bleeding even days after boggin’ it down that muddy track. Leech bites don’t clot by themselves.
‘Dip the thief!’ An old man cried out.
‘Dip him!’ A woman screeched, her voice cracking.
Even my father below me – a gentle man – left grip-bruises on my shins that lasted for days. I saw the Biggun’s gaze flashing bright over all forty of us, spotting those who had kept quiet. Then he raised his hand, as if blocking light, and looked at the thief.
‘You haven’t stolen from me,’ he spread his voice across the empty farms. ‘You’ve stolen from us all.’
The thief stopped shivering.
(‘Dip the thief!’)
The muscles and veins in my father’s neck
went taut as gut strings.
(‘Dip him! Drain him!’)
‘Settle, darlings, settle,’ the Biggun crooned. ‘We have a proper way. We have a tradition.’
The Biggun played with their fury until some had burst into tears. The air went missing. Forty people holding their breath, the Biggun raising his fist. I became aware of the rain, how you could smell it in the grass and mud. The Biggun’s languid, smiling face faded into a mask of stone.
‘Dip. The. Thief.’ He dropped his arm. We surged inwards, cutting away the thief’s clothes, and then, slitting the body of a catfish, covered his nakedness with blood and viscera. We bundled him up a set of steps and onto a stage where the dipping coffin hung from scaffolds; tall enough a man could stand upright; so narrow he couldn’t wiggle. A strongman held the thief as another leathered him into place, stepping off while others began removing planks. Someone chucked the fish guts into the pit underneath. The inky water churned and frothed, hundreds of unseen things lapping at the chum.
I looked to the Biggun. He stared at me as the coffin dipped. Guts in my throat, my father gripping me, veins bulging on my feet. I remembered a leech feels blood-hunger as soon as it’s born. Family passes it down. We breed it into them, bury it deep inside.
‘Dip the thief!’ The words felt hot, sick, as they came out. The Biggun smiled, his long, black tongue rolling out of his mouth. He tasted the rain as though he owned every last drop.