The Ferris Wheel
Anju lay starfished in the sand. The ferris wheel behind her had been there for decades, and stood there now as a famous monument to the unfortunate part of the island. The part of the island where children were dumped. The wheel did not go round and round. It just stood there rotting into the sand.
Like every other morning of her life, Anju had awoken to call of the rooster. But this morning she had not slept well and wished for the old cock to be murdered. If Aji did not do it today, Anju would take the honour herself.
But Aji would probably do it. Aji had chained her skinny body and soul to labour. She had to tend to the sugarcane every week. She had to work in the dalo plantation every day. She had to milk the goat most mornings, and she had to cut the grass on the full moon. She had to grow, uproot, cut, cook, sell. She had to, for Anju's sake, and for the sake of the nine other children who took refuge in Aji's tiny tin home by the sea. She had to for the sake of her secret drug habit, a habit shared by some of the other women in the poor village, women who also took in orphaned children.
Anju's forearm burned as she turned her face away from the sun. Parrots in palm trees sang acapella into the morning. Lizards in the sand made percussive mating clicks from their throats. She thought the rhythms of wildlife were a curse today. Her damn arm. The air smelt like heat, and Anju, like infection.
Yesterday she had allowed Jimi, the child artist, to tattoo her. A hawk. She wanted a grey bird of prey like the ones she saw in the jungle that swooped down on mongooses, eating them whole. But what Jimi had done looked more like a parrot.
Jimi had an Aji too, but he called her Bubu. His Bubu and Anju's Aji, along with the other Bubus and Ajis, played card games and smoked and drank kava on Friday evenings. The children weren't allowed.
Anju fell asleep in the sand with the parrots and lizards. When she awoke, it was dark.
On Friday evenings, Anju, Jimi and nearly twenty other children met by the ferris wheel. This night the moon was bloated and shiny like the belly of a spoon. A powder-white owl watched them from the wheel-top. The tallest boy, Shaan, climbed the wheel and shooed the owl away. Shaan could climb coconut trees twice as tall as the ferris wheel.
Anju sat quietly, yawning and tonguing the wiggly tooth at the back of her mouth. The children were comparing their home-made tattoos. Some had animals, some had crucifixes, some the names of their parents.
‘Eh Jimi. My arm is sore,’ Anju moaned. Jimi examined her swollen forearm.
‘Hmm. It happened to me too,’ he said. He lifted up his eggshell coloured t-shirt and showed her an equally swollen cross above his left nipple. On his hairless torso were three red streaks of dried blood, which Anju knew of too well.
‘What did you do to get that?’ she asked, tracing his fresh scars with her thumb. Jimi jerked away and let his shirt fall back down. Anju noticed that the blood had seeped through his shirt.
‘Bubu don't like that I tattoo my skin. I'm too young,’ he said.
‘Oh. I don't think my Aji cares. She's got a snake wrapped around a dagger on her arm, a skull on her hand and a rose on her foot.’ Anju spat onto the sand.
‘Let's go watch them eh,’ Jimi said. Anju nodded and they walked away from the other children.
Anju and Jimi liked to watch the women's games from behind the old mango tree that canopied Siteri's house, where the card games were held. The children liked to inhale the second-hand smoke and lose themselves in the laughter of the women.
The funny thing, unknown to Anju and Jimi, was that these women weren't even old enough to be real Ajis and Bubus. Grandmothers. They were maidens in their early thirties who had also been abandoned on this side of the island when they were young.
Five of them sat cross-legged on a disintegrating flax mat, surrounding the kava bowl centrepiece. All the women wore floral sulus, except for Siteri, who was showing off a short-sleeved dress she had made that day from old curtains. Amidst the cloud of smoke from raw tobacco and marijuana, the ladies dealt around the cards. They would have liked to gamble but did not have much to risk.
Without parents, husbands or brothers, they could live as men. They could toil in the sun by day, feed their animals and lost children by twilight and lose themselves in smoky euphoria and laughter by sundown.
Tonight as Anju and Jimi watched, Anju's Aji made an announcement that shocked her entourage. Aji said she was getting married. She said she was moving to the city. A man from the other side of the island liked her hard work. He was not educated and did not care that she wasn't either. She said she hated working alone on a farm. She wanted somebody else to take on her children. But all the other women shook their heads. They could barely look after the ones they already had.
A black queen mosquito sucked at Anju's knee, and she let it. Anju was hurt. Without Aji she would have nothing.
She wanted to leave Aji with nothing too.
‘Come with me,’ she whispered sternly, taking Jimi by the hand.
She led him three houses down to Aji's red tin abode. Almost tripping over a sleeping dog, the children entered the pitch black house. Nobody was there. All the other children were still playing by the broken ferris wheel. In the dark, Anju lit the kerosene lamp by the sink.
‘What are we doing?’ Jimi asked.
‘Aji is leaving me. You heard,’ said Anju. From under the sink Anju retrieved a tub of plain white flour. Taking a handful, she threw it up in the air. The flour fell gracefully in her curls, in the sink and on the floor.
‘Anju! Are you mad? You will get me killed. What are you doing?’
She ignored Jimi's pleas and repeated the ritual, tossing flour all over the one-roomed dwelling. The doilies, plates, floral linoleum and sleeping dog were caked in white baking flour. Anju and Jimi were too.
Anju ran outside and fixed her palms on the bark of the first palm tree she saw, leaving behind small white handprints. Then Jimi did the same. He laughed.
Anju ran to the back of the house, where Aji’s animals were kept. She opened the back gate so that the animals were free to wander the island just as she was. First she released the pigs, then she started to undo the knots in the ropes that imprisoned the goats. Jimi was reluctant to help as he did not want any more beating scars like those on his belly. But he was enchanted by Anju's lack of fear, and slowly began untying the goats too. The black ones left covered in white flour handprints.
‘We should make them leave us so that we can be here on our own. We should make them all leave.’ Anju drew the kerosene lamp close to her and began walking towards Bubu’s land, certain that he would follow.
Together it took them just over an hour to set all the animals free in the neighbourhood. For that hour, Anju forgot about her infected parrot. Walking back towards the beach where the other kids were, Anju and Jimi could still hear the cackling laughter of the women. They didn’t know yet what Anju and Jimi had done.
Anju spied a black rooster amongst the trees beside them.
‘Jimi. Have you ever killed one before?’
‘Eo.’ He nodded.
‘Let’s do it, Jimi. We can take it to the others. We don’t need our Ajis and Bubus doing it for us.’
‘Okay Anju. Let's do it. Just get me a knife eh.’
There was a fire burning when they got to the ferris wheel. The eldest boy was scaring the little ones with ghost stories from the olden days. He was delighted to see the dead bird, and knew exactly how to pluck its oily feathers.
Anju sighed and wiped her brow with flour and rooster blood.
Young fingers tore apart the rooster corpse. The pieces were distributed amongst all the children, who splashed the raw flesh with seawater, penetrated it with a stick and cooked it in the fire.
Anju ate her piece whilst resting her back against the skeleton of the ferris wheel, hand-in-hand with the sleepy Jimi, getting lost once more in the thunderous laughter of the women.
The Madman and the Donkey
I was a lost girl. I had been walking barefoot through the dirt for days, following soft footprints from where dingoes had been. I had forgotten the names of my parents. I had forgotten my country's flag.
I met a madman by the creek. He had a soiled loincloth and a dirty face. The water was brown. He cupped his hands and drank from the flow. He blew me a kiss. It hit me in the face. I felt loved – now we were connected. My lost soul and his mad soul. He smiled his smile showing one rotten tooth.
The madman had a crooked face. Big black eyes and grey, shaggy hair. He had a gap between his teeth and a serious overbite. When he closed his mouth his upper lip hung, swollen and pink, above the lower one. There was a serpentine stroke in the madman’s swagger. He could not speak words, but our love did not require words. I held him tight. He pointed to an animal asleep on the grass. A donkey.
We rode his donkey over the hills and down into a valley of pumpkins. Cigarettes were smoked with anaemic fingers. Eyelids opening and closing. Lip-skin chapped and broken. We blew our smoke out at the stars.
Wine coloured our days. We stole it from a shanty town where crows sat idly on terracotta rooftops and screeched like orphaned infants. The locals sat on porches with big guns, but all their eyes were shut. Even the ones working in shops had their eyes shut. They did not see us take anything. They did not want to see us. The madman picked up cigarette butts off the ground. Once, he picked up a lizard and put it in his pocket.
Under the moon we drank until our mouths were purple and smoked until our lungs were ash. The moon belongs to tramps, wanderers and lost kings. These are the people who are also entitled to cigarettes. Cigarettes for keeping you company when you are down and out and alone in the world. The madman slept under the tree next to me, his donkey next to him.
We all felt the hurts and colds of being alone. It is different when you are living in a city full of other lonely people doing lonely things. When you are alone with a leaf, a pouring river or a starry sky, this is when you truly mourn your existence. It is the closest thing to death. The madman talked so loudly in his sleep that I could not dream until morning.
When I awoke the madman was not next to me. He was taking a piss on a rotten pumpkin. I called out to him. He looked back at me and snarled. He picked up a rock and threw it at my face. I looked at the donkey. But the donkey did not say anything. He was not mad. He was not dumb. Just quiet. He wondered why it was that he had to walk on four legs when the madman could swagger around on two. The madman was trying to uproot a pumpkin to throw at me. I realised then that the simple structure of human friendships and love are based upon knowing that you could easily destroy somebody but choose not to. The donkey understood this. But the madman did not.
So I went for a walk. I walked down a muddy path lined with daisies. At the end of the path was a little wooden hut, rotting into the mud. I knocked on the door. Nothing. I stepped inside. There was no furniture. Just a pile of stuff. Bones. I sat on the other side of the room. I didn’t touch the bones. They lay in a pile in the corner. The skull was on top. I whistled. I pretended not to notice them. I whistled until I had cottonmouth.
Then I thought it might be best to hide the bones under the floorboards. Under the kitchen sink. Behind a mirror. Somewhere I could not look at them. The bones were beginning to disgust me. I liked the idea of the bones staying away forever. So I left that hut. I did not want to be in a room full of somebody else's old bones.
The madman was waiting for me outside. He offered me a swig of old goon. I took it. He gave me a warm pus-lipped kiss. And I took another swig of goon. I hoped it would cure my cottonmouth so I could whistle again. He smiled his rotten tooth smile. Then he went into the hut. I lay with the donkey on the muddy path lined with daisies. The donkey had the biggest eyes I had ever seen. Stone cold eyelash prince.
The madman came out cradling the bones. He began making a fence around the hut. I sat and made a daisy chain. I thought about open roads, swags and motorcycles. I thought about the time I almost drowned swimming in a quarry. I thought about nocebos, black holes and Hare Krishnas. I thought about running taps, George Orwell and boxed tawny port. I thought about the times that I had been harpooned, buried and broken. I thought about the first time I made my father cry.
The madman neatly placed the skull by the door. He licked his hands and wiped them on the arse of his loincloth. I placed a daisy necklace around the donkey's neck.
And then he threw the skull at my skull. We had reached a point where we had a hard time understanding each other. For I was not mad, and he was certainly not lost.
So I went for a walk again. Ancient sunlight ignited the earth and I was alone. Clouds lolled and curdled and the wind whistled and cooed. Crows overhead screeched like infants. Red and yellow ochre lined the red rocks – bloodshed of an ancient mother snake bleeding for her life. I smeared the ochre on my cheeks. Red centipedes crawled in between my naked toes. I howled at the sun and kept walking. I must have walked for days. I saw broken eggshells. Magic mushrooms. I was now pus-lipped, rotten-toothed and full of swagger. Old road, lonely road. I could see it now.
And I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. I could feel the wrinkles on the corners of my eyes. I was tired. I stuck out my thumb. I hoped somebody would pick me up soon.