Moon for a Time

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Moon for a Time



The crescent-shaped island of Birana protrudes like a fragment of rusty steel from the aqua-green stillness of the Coral Sea. Rain here is infrequent. Fallen water evaporates or sinks like alcohol through the gravelly soils. Lying like flotsam thrown up by the waves, fishing villages occupy mangrove flats in small bays along the northern coast. On the terraced slopes of the ancient volcano that formed the island the people of Birana grow hardy, genetically-modified corn, which they do not eat but rather sell to buy rice. On the coast they net and sun-dry tiny schooling fish, which are sold by weight from white fertiliser bags in open air markets along the beach. Petrol is expensive. Women and men steer squeaking bicycles along trails paved with white lumps of coral. Five times a day megaphone minarets wail into the dusty air. Pale dingo mongrels lie sleeping on broken roads.

Laws in this remote outpost are hard to enforce. Two or three men from each village are paid by the distant government to police illegal fishing in the straits. In the evenings they leave their wives and take to the water in timber outrigger canoes that are driven by quiet electric motors powered by leaking car batteries. They creep alongside large prahu that are fishing in restricted areas or using dynamite and the villagers announce their official presence with loud threats of prosecution. They are of course charlatans, and for a bribe as minor as a box of clove cigarettes they will descend back into their canoes and allow the illegal boats to carry on hauling in the catch. In their litter-strewn home villages their role is deemed important but merely symbolic. They represent a respectable level of stewardship without jeopardising the imperative to pull as many immature fish from the sea as time and technology will allow. They are respected not because they carry out their mandate, but precisely because they do not.

It was in the small, shingle-roofed timber shack of one of these men that I heard a story that has stayed with me. I have not been back to his house on Birana, but I think of it often. It was built, like all others in the village, on square timber piers, the entire structure hanging out over the waves so that you could look through cracks between the unfastened floorboards and see the movement of water and floating debris. Against the far wall, sitting atop an empty diesel can, was a blank television. It was dusk. The electricity supply had cut out for the evening and we sat by the blue light of an LED torch.

The man’s name was Hendrikus, a swarthy descendent of a seafaring people who were centuries ago slaughtered and driven by a reigning Sultan from their ancestral island. After a long journey in stitched-hull sailboats they settled in their hundreds on uninhabited Birana. When the island was annexed by the Colony, Hendrikus' people were granted partial autonomy providing they signed hundred-year contracts to grow corn from seed purchased from the corporations. I was paying Hendrikus to take me in his canoe across the strait to Corofan, where I hoped to find a berth on a freighter back to the Colony. I no longer had any appetite for that part of the world. A persistent fungal infection had crippled me and I walked with the aid of a bamboo staff. The young wife of Hendrikus spooned me coconut fish broth while Hendrikus settled himself, squatting with his back against the wall. An unlit cigarette dangled from his fingers. Framed and hanging on the wall was an official stamped document ? his patrol license. I was running a light fever. The creases in his coconut-husk face showed sharply in the light of his torch. Perhaps in an effort to distract me from my maladies he began to speak.

‘A long time ago,’ he said in his percussive, lisping islander accent, ‘the earth was orbited by two moons. The other moon was much smaller and appeared pale pink in the sky. The people who were alive in those times, our lobster-fishermen forbears, worshipped the pink moon as the fishing grounds of their dead ancestors, who roamed nomadically across the distant lunar sea as nomads, tirelessly pursuing their quarry, forever moving from one anchorage to the next.’ Hendrikus deftly squashed a mosquito that had alighted on his bare shoulder. ‘That is not the modern belief. My people now see the sky as a treacherous, fraught place, a fume-spoiled desert. But the ancients awaited their death in the knowledge that they would move up into the sky to become sea gypsies. That is what they believed.

‘There being two moons in the sky, the orbits were interconnected and constantly changing. Because the orbits were variable the tides came more frequently, and because the tides came more frequently many things were different. For example, a woman in those times took only two months to conceive and give birth to a child. This is what is said and people have no reason to doubt it. Then, too, it was possible to be struck by lightning out on the water and feel only a sensuous tingling through the body, and during the onset of a thunderstorm sailors would caper on the deck, climbing the mainmast and raising their hands to see who could get himself struck first.

‘The two moons, pink and white, chased each other across the night sky, sometimes so close together they appeared as one, the little pink one hiding inside the white one like a yolk inside a pelican egg, and sometimes lying low on opposite horizons like a bickering husband and wife. At that time, before the coming of Islam, our people still lived on the Homeland, the green island of our origin. In their coastal villages they constructed thatched-roof temples to the pink moon, places one went to have conversations with the dead.’

Night had fallen. A wizened man carrying a machete and leading a goat on a leash stopped by and through the open window handed Hendrikus a wad of banknotes. They spoke quietly for a moment and the man moved on. Diesel prahu with lamps in their prows were leaving the village, fanning out over the oily green water like slow-moving fireflies. Above the bay loomed the ragged silhouette of the caldera. Hendrikus’ wife brought us scratched glass tumblers filled with steaming syrupy coffee made from a packet. Children, mud-streaked and chattering, straggled home from where they had been playing out in the village. I felt myself growing sleepy. I leaned into the cushion at my back and blew at the coffee. Hendrikus struck a match and lit his cigarette.

‘One season in those ancient times brought a blight that killed the lobster in great multitudes, causing a black stain which bloomed over the red carapace and ate its way through the creature’s body and into its heart. The beaches lay stinking with rafts of rotting animals. The first man to catch a blighted lobster was diving from his canoe. He caught it from the reef with his hands. To his surprise he saw the inky spots spreading to his own skin, expanding slowly but inexorably into broad patches that grew and joined with others until they covered his entire body. He returned to his village and passed it to his wife and children, and to the pigs that they kept in a raised wooden cage. The pigs died overnight. Some people in the villages did not contract the blight. This was seen as a sign of their blamelessness. Those who contracted the blight had committed an error and incurred the wrath of the creators.

‘The sick, in vast numbers, grew weaker and experienced fevered visions, frightening flashes that set them weeping. They saw men as animals, animals as men. In less than one week they became utterly listless and wasted. One by one they passed, leaving the ancients with a population much reduced. Many towns were of necessity consolidated into one. Out of fear, the people slept at night on the sand outside their huts in the consoling light of the pink moon.

‘The dead were transformed into sea gypsies. They drifted one by one over the ocean and through the freezing celestial expanse to the pink moon, whose watery integument stretched before them like the raw muscle of a flayed sailfish. They were met by the boats of those who had come before them, who asked why they were arriving in such numbers. The blight victims' natural leader, a woman who in village life had been deaf and deranged, told the tale of the blight, its spread, and the terrible losses incurred by all villages on the Homeland. The new arrivals touched the feet of the ancestors and were invited to fish. When asked what their quarry was the ancestors replied that it was a lurking shadow that yielded only only to dynamite, that it was silent, utterly silent, and finally that it did not matter what it was. The fleet set out across the pale swell. The sky was empty of clouds and a swirling storm of stars stretched from horizon to horizon.

‘But the sea gypsies never encountered their shadowy quarry. The stain of the blight had been conveyed from Earth by the dead. All ceased sailing and lay together on the cold decks drawing laboured breaths. Those who had died from the blight now endured a second agony, which they now shared with their forebears. And from their bodies the blight gnawed into the timber of the boats and bled out into the water, radiating from where they drifted, an expanding circular shadow.

‘Back on earth those who had been spared gathered on the island’s beaches and looked each evening into the sky as their pink moon was slowly enshrouded. The spreading darkness gathered pace. Soon it was no longer pink but the deep colour of old charcoal, barely visible in the night. They watched as it withered to half of its former size, then a third, a quarter, until finally it became a hazy speck that dwindled to nothing. On the day of its disappearance the ancients, first the women and then the men and children, removed their headdresses and waded into the sea, wailing, singing for its return. But the light of the pink moon had been extinguished.

‘Years passed. They allowed vines to strangle their temples. When Arab traders arrived in their dhows preaching the word of Islam my people took hold of it, clutching to it like rats to a floating oar.’

It was late. Hendrikus fetched a blanket and water and tried to make me comfortable and then left in the canoe for his nightly patrol. I did not hear him return. The next morning we travelled over the water to Corofan. I was struck by the barren aridity of Birana as her shores receded behind us, the slopes of her hulking volcano shimmering in the heat. Hendrikus had wrapped the disconnected car battery in an old shirt and he used it as a seat while he manipulated the handle of the petrol motor, which buzzed behind us like a chainsaw. With his free hand he baled water with a decapitated Coca-Cola bottle. At midday he cut the engine and we drifted as we ate wrapped bundles of rice and dried fish packed for us by his wife. I imagined us to be drifting over the ocean of a diseased moon. The sun stung my ravaged skin. I concentrated upon keeping the food down.

‘You know Senhor,’ said Hendrikus, rinsing his hands over the side, ‘the story which I told you in my house last night was a falsehood. Mothers and fathers among my people retell it to their children as if the events it describes are facts. But it is nothing but a myth, a fabrication, a fantasy of a people whose deepest fear is to be set adrift.’

‘So there is no truth to it, then?’ I said.

‘There is truth in the story, sure. But facts and truth are different things. A person can accumulate so many facts as to be drowned by them. Facts mean nothing. On the other hand, a single truth can take one out of himself, illuminating something about this world. A truth need not be a fact.’

He reached into a pocket for his lighter. ‘It is for its truth that this story has been retained by my people. Its presence in our homes gives us the sense that our culture rests upon solid foundations, that our endeavours each day are not without purpose. Our abstinence from lobster meat is an important part of our tradition. But as I told you, the whole thing is a myth. It never happened.’

He restarted the outboard motor and we continued across the strait. I believe that I lost consciousness because when I awoke I was already on a bunk in the berth of a docked freighter bound for the Colony. I do not know who carried me there. Three times the amount upon which Hendrikus and I had agreed was missing from my purse. Great engines began to rumble in the hull. I lay in the dark and watched through the porthole as cattle or men were herded by torchlight up the gangway, their feet slipping over rotted wood.

Submitted: February 06, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Jed Calvert. All rights reserved.

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