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Adventure

Into the Tide

“Almost deadlier than the contagion is the fear it inspires.”

The monsoons were the beginning of Outam’s problems; the guide told Roy who had arrived at Maluha a month before on a privately financed microbe hunt in the South Pacific. Praful Roy was a Professor of Microbiology at Calcutta Medical College and headed his own laboratory on Maniktala Road.

“A plague afflicts the people of Outam, massih, such as we have never heard of before here in Maluha or on any of the other islands. This island is at a distance. Almost nobody go there and the islanders, they not go out.”

“Then how did you learn about the plague?” Roy asked him.

“We could tell, massih, by the bodies floating in the waters around its shore. Mostly children and some women. We islanders do not bury our dead in the earth, but in the ocean, and always after sunset. The water spirits take the departed to the Ocean Gods. By the numbers of the dead we knew it to be an epidemic”, the guide explained. He was a native of Maluha himself, but he knew reasonable English. “When you live in a group of many islands, it is important to keep your neighbours’ business in your eye. When I was on the lookout not long ago, I saw the first of the corpses. We could have fetched those which passed close to our shores to see what was ailing the islanders of Outam, but we feared a contagion.”

“How are you so sure that it was a contagion, Ngunah? It might have been a massacre of some sort. A civil war, perhaps.”

“No, massih. Men would surely have been among the dead for they are warriors; though in these islands women too take part in battle. And the bodies which floated close by Maluha, they showed no signs of violence upon them. They were bloated, yes. But injured, no. One thing, Roy massih, the limbs of the children were shrivelled to the bone. Some - both legs shrivelled; others - only one. Sometimes, but only sometimes, a child’s body also had a withered arm.”

Roy sat up in his chair, ‘Shrivelled, did you say, Ngunah?”

“Yes, massih.”

“You say that no one goes to the island. No visitors ever?”

Ngunah thought back while he sipped on the small peg of tonic water that Roy always gave him after dinner. “Now you help me to remember, massih. About a year ago, a ship with a foreign flag entered the waters of Outam. May be to shelter from a storm for the weather was very bad. Within the week it went on its way. No one stays at Outam for long. Not even White men. The tribes are not, what you call it, a ‘friendly’ people.”

Roy looked up at the stars visible through the silhouettes of palm fronds. “When will you take me to Outam, Ngunah?”

“When the monsoons are over in a few weeks, massih. It is not safe in these waters before that.”

****

The boatman brought Praful Roy and his guide only as far as a sheltered cove on the north coast of the island. He was a taciturn fellow who pointed to the sunset, then in the opposite direction and held up seven fingers to indicate that he would return at daybreak, a week hence.

There was a plopping of oars as he steered the canoe away from the island and in the direction of Maluha. Roy paused to watch man and craft disappear into the shocking pink and purple stretches of the ocean. Then he picked up his leather bag and followed the guide into the rainforests that skirted the beach. They concealed themselves among bushes and bright begonias, squatting on earth slick with the dampness of the retreating monsoons.

****

“Massih, what we do now?”

“We will wait and watch tonight, Ngunah. There may be more ocean burials if the contagion still afflicts the people of Outam. At dawn tomorrow we will approach them with a white flag to show that we come in peace. You will speak to the King and tell him I have come to help him to drive away the evil spirit that torments his island.” He patted his bag. “Do you understand me, Ngunah?”

“Yes, Doctor massih.”

They listened to the waves licking the rocks with lazy tongues, and to the whisper and scurry of small life in the jungle around them. The sun went down in an oblation of burnt orange which quickly dissolved into the unrelieved blackness of night. Roy raised his binoculars to his eyes. A gleam and then another and yet another caught his attention. It was like the gathering light of a premature sunrise - in the wrong direction. He handed over the field glasses to Ngunah, there was urgency in his whisper, “There to the west, what do you see?”

Ngunah, trained the glasses in the direction pointed out to him. “They are the flaming wooden torches carried on night processions. I think, Massih, it is a funeral on its way. Yes, yes! Can you hear the gongs and the chanting?”

Roy inclined his head and listened: Oonga! Oonga! Hoi! Hoi! Oonga! Oonga! Hoi! Hoi!

“What does it mean, Ngunah?”

“It means: ‘Here we come! Here were come!’ A procession is on its way, bringing the dead for burial in the ocean.”

Ching! Chong! Ching!

It was close now. The night quivered to life.

The first flares came into view in smoky reds and golds. There were women, their hair dressed with scarlet orchids, their faces ecstatic in the firelight; they carried small objects which they scattered at the water’s edge. They were followed by men striking gongs. Conch shells blew: Phoooonaaanh!

But Roy’s sight was riveted on a single figure who twirled and chanted. His face and dark, banded body were fitfully illuminated by torchlight: features plastered with mud and paint; feathered head dress; a loin cloth which covered just enough of tattooed buttocks.

Perspiration broke out on Roy’s temples, underarms and back. He turned to his companion, “Who is that?”

Ngunah strained his neck in that peculiar way he had, “From the sacred ink that covers his body, I can tell he is the island’s kwooluku. You know?”

Roy shook his head.

“He is the healer man and priest. He communicate with spirits. He answer questions about the future; he advise the King. The King often do what he say. Sometimes he has as much power as the King. Sometimes, more. And the people they believe him. Because he has friends among the Spirits and the Gods.

The crowd was silent now. The kwooluku alone spoke. He raised his head to the night sky and suddenly flung the spear in his hands into the waves. It flew in a perfect arc and impaled itself in the sands where ocean met shore. Then he fell on his knees writhing; his voice, a shriek now, “Ulu’fa saya mama! Banne mama aswandi banti!”

The crowd responded with heads lowered, “Huan! Huan!”

“What does the healer man say?” Roy instinctively moved closer to Ngunah and spoke into his ear. The guide drew his eyebrows together and replied, “Massih, I think we mistaken about a funeral. Because this man saying—” Ngunah looked at Roy, but the doctor was not paying attention now. His head was turned towards those who followed the kwooluku. Women and children came into view. Some children were carried in their mothers’ arms. There were more of them, then more and yet a few more.

Roy gripped Ngunah’s arm, “This is not a burial of the dead! Is it some kind of healing ritual?”

The two men watched the children. Some had slow legs which they dragged behind them in the sand; others tottered despite assistance. But all the young, without exception, had withered limbs.

The mothers with their children massed the shoreline.

The tide was rising now. It inched closer under the inexorable pull of the new moon. Drums beat frenetically.

The kwooluku cried out in a horrid voice, “Ulu’fa saya mama: Gwana tuma aswandi banti! Chielo tuma banti leya go Paparos. An tuma banti swandi isht ulaya. Tuma agabaka banti ualaya. Mamba ingo!”

The crowd echoed with lowered heads, “Mamba ingo! Mamba ingo!”

Roy’s lips curled back in terror, “What in heaven’s name! Do you see that?”

Under the unswerving gaze of the kwooluku and the torch-lit crowd of islanders, the women and their children walked into the Earth’s deepest ocean at high tide. Nacre waters washed over their heads as they drifted into the darkness and vanished.

Roy’s mouth had acquired a life of its own, “Those children, Ngunah, are not dead! They are alive! And their mothers!” He attempted to get to his feet.

Ngunah held him back, “Do not, I beg you massih! Now is not the time if you wish to do good. But if you wish to die, then go.”

Roy sank back on his knees. Ngunah held a small flask of brandy to the doctor’s lips, “I was telling you, massih, just now. But you not listen to me. You not pay attention. The kwooluku, he saying – Bring out your sick! Bring out your lame! Not – bring out your dead. He saying, ‘Let your children be taken to the water spirits who will convey them to the Gods. They will be healed. And then, they will return! It may be long, but in the wombs of the women of Outam, they WILL RETURN! All you mamas take your ailing children and go with them - into the tide.’”

Roy made an indecipherable sound between growl and sob.

A wild rush of water carried itself to the edge of the trees where he and his guide were concealed. A tiny object was washed up at their feet. He studied it with wide, vague eyes then pointed it out to Ngunah, “This?”

“A wooden toy, massih. The people, they think – when the little ones return, they need their toys to play with.” Ngunah breathed deep and long.

The place was quiet now. The crowd had dispersed into the contours of the distant hills.

“I am thinking, massih: the children who have the illness, maybe it is good that they go into the tide?”

Roy clutched a fistful of his blue-black hair and tugged at it futilely, “Why in Heaven’s name didn’t that occur to me? This plague: I wager it is the highly contagious infantile paralysis conveyed by the foreign ship to these remote islanders, a year ago. It has since spread like a wild creeper. If one child has the paralysis – no child is safe. And the kwooluku of Outam is fearful. For all his fabled powers, he has no measures of control, but this….  Dear God!  Cordon sanitaire! This is the kwooluku’s version!”


February 26, 2021 17:18

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1 comment

Scott Weedman
21:59 Mar 10, 2021

I really enjoyed this story. The adventure (or perhaps misadventure) of Roy and his guide reminds me of the protagonist in Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. They are both new to their surroundings and the alien customs they encounter. But are said customs (or rituals) so far removed from our own?

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