DargonZine 31, Issue 1

A View From Above: The Natives

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series A View From Above

Simon had been a simple deckhand when he first set sail from home. That ship, the Lilith, never sailed far out of sight of land, plying the local trade routes. After a while, Simon moved to a larger ship that sailed far out to sea, navigating by the stars. That ship had been chartered for a trading run to the tropics. The voyage took months and ended badly with the ship foundering and the crew in small boats. The last Simon had seen of any of them was in a storm somewhere in the area. Now, sitting on the beach, the warm waves washing over his bare body, Simon stared out into the sunset and wondered where his crewmates were, what welcoming islands they may have found, and what exotic native ladies they might now be consorting with. Simon had seen many different cultures on the trip south. The skin of the natives of each port grew progressively darker, and the features of those same natives resembled those of his fellow sailors less and less. He had lost the ability to understand the local languages after the first few port calls; by the tenth, no one on the boat spoke the local language. Fortunately, there was a rough sailor’s tongue in use all along the coasts, and that served well enough. When all else failed, the universal language was the color of silver. Simon had enjoyed the wide variety of life he had found along the journey. He had sampled the sights and sounds and flavors of each port along the way. Like all sailors, he had sampled the spirits, be they ale or beer or liquor or wine. Once or twice he had also sampled the locals themselves. Simon had not left his home port a virgin, but he was wise enough to know the dangers of love in a port town and avoided the easy company that attached itself to stray sailors. More than once, though, a tender-eyed girl had attached herself to him during an extended leave, hoping perhaps to get a taste of something exotic themselves. Perhaps it was the baker’s apprentice or the port master’s daughter. A tour of the city and a shared bottle of wine had left the new couple to welcome the sunrise from the same bed. Every time, though, that tender face was absent when it came time to go. As a youth growing up it had always been assumed that a family life awaited him. Now that assumption seemed less sure, and that bothered him. Simon thought about Danni and Bighair and the other children. They bickered and fussed and needed constant attention, but there was just this satisfaction from the way they seized every moment, every opportunity to learn and to do something new, something more. He knew, somewhere inside himself, that he would not be satisfied with a life alone. But that life lay an ocean away, and he needed to get there. Simon resolved that his time marooned on the island needed to end. It was time to secure a ride home. His language lessons had been progressing well, he thought. Perhaps the time had come to put them to the test. Danni’s father seemed to be the chief here. Simon resolved to go to him tomorrow and ask for a seat on a boat. Maybe it would just be a fishing trip, at first, but it would lead to a ride off the island. Simon was sure that he could handle any role they might ask him to play aboard. The boats themselves were much simpler than the ships Simon knew. A single hull hacked from a single tree was the majority of the boat. Simon wondered where they had found the tree trunk, for no tree on the island seemed big enough to make such a large dugout. Two outriggers were lashed on with two supports, leaving enough room for the crew to wield paddles over the sides. These tiny ships were the simplest of galleys, but Simon didn’t care. He would sail a coracle in a storm if it came to that. He hoped that Danni’s father would not make that necessary. The thought of Danni’s father brought back the thought of Danni’s mother, and the thought of Danni’s mother brought another unexpected twang from below his navel. Simon shook his head. How brazen she had been, dallying in view of her own child! Of course, she may not have known the girl was there — Simon had not. And, too, given the closeness of the houses here it would be difficult for any romance to consummate without risking some sort of exposure. Simon thought back to his own first taste of love. It had come when he was just getting his own first growth. A neighbor had been hurt, and the man’s sister had sent her daughter to tend him while he recovered. Simon immediately noticed her, and she immediately noticed him. Theirs was less of a romance than an exploration that culminated in a long night of experimentation together. That night repeated itself twice more before the uncle was well and the niece sent home a bit wiser than she arrived. It was years before Simon found that sort of friendship again, and never so intensely. The sun slipped under the ocean, and Simon picked himself up and dusted himself off. He stretched, wrapping his arms over his head and rising on his toes. He felt the nascent tension from his fond remembrances enliven his body for a moment, then fade as everything relaxed. He turned back to home, admiring the sunset as he walked. As he approached the rocky outcropping he spotted a figure moving in between the boulders. He slowed, a feeling of premonition seizing him. With the sky still glowing, the person was mostly silhouetted, making identification hard. Simon stopped beside a boulder. The person picked their way out through the rocks to where a small bay formed. The long legs and prominent breasts told that this was a woman of the village. She slipped into the waters and swam away from shore. Simon moved closer to the rocks as she swam away. Words fled from his mind, and those memories he had just put away came back to him. He watched her splash through the surf as he mounted the rocks surrounding the pool. Standing there in the open air, the cloak of darkness slowly concealing him, he allowed his body to fully express what he had been suppressing for longer than he had admitted. As the woman circled back Simon deliberately sat on a partially submerged boulder and waited, his shins dangling in the water, his obvious ardor visible to any who looked. The woman swam back to the rocks at a surprising clip, approaching the far side of the small inlet. She popped up out of the water, springing immediately to her feet. In the orange light, her nude body glinted with a blue hue as she shook the water from her hair. Simon made no sound, but she turned and looked right at him. Silhouetted against the light, she was not identifiable, but in his heart, Simon was sure this was Danni’s mother; he knew it just had to be her. Simon stayed right where he was, unmoving, part of his mind telling him what a bad idea this was and part of his mind forbidding him to leave. The woman stood unmoving for a moment, looking at Simon. She slowly slicked back her hair. The blue colored her bare flanks in the dying light of day, and Simon wondered if she had painted some new pattern on her body, blue to match the ocean, like a priestess of some oceanic deity. He watched as she slowly wiped her hands down the front of her body from shoulder to thigh, once, and twice, and a third time, slowly and deliberately. The fourth time her right hand stopped at her breasts, and her left at her loins. Simon had to force himself to not hide his own reaction. The expression on the man’s face in the tuber field came to his mind, and his heart pounded. He slowly leaned back on his arms, allowing the fading light to play across his body. Seeing his resolve, she stepped forward and dove toward him. She crossed the pool of water like a bolt from a crossbow. Simon’s heart had barely beat thrice before her head emerged from the water right before Simon’s splayed knees. His heart caught in his chest as her body emerged out of the water, moving closer, her face in shadow but her eyes wide. She reached out her arms, laying her hands on his open thighs and lifted herself up. Simon knew two things in that instant: her grip was like cold iron, and the blue he saw was not a hint of light or a splash of paint but rather the color of her skin over her entire body. His thighs were pinned under her weight, but he put his feet together, and felt her naked body slip over his shins, his toes coming to rest over her sex. Suddenly none of this felt right, and Simon put his hand out to stop her. For the briefest of moments she paused, then lowered her head towards his awaiting member, her eyes not leaving his. As she did so a last glint of light played across her blue face and, with a jolt, he saw that the pupils of her too-large eyes were not round, but slitted. She opened her mouth to receive his pulsing, hot offering, revealing a white row of sharp, serrated teeth. Like black lightning, a forked tongue flicked out and lashed his member. With a gasp, Simon found his strength and kicked out, flipping her aside. This was not Danni’s mother; this was not woman at all, but a monster. He scrambled backward on his hands and backside, gasping in horror. She tumbled into the water, and he came to his feet running. He bounded from rock to rock, dashing through the surf and running until he was past the tree line. He looked back, in terror that she had followed, but she was standing on the rock he had vacated, back at the pool. She stood there, a dark figure against the light sky, looking for all the world like any other woman would. The two stood staring at each other for a long moment, then she turned and dove back into the sea. Simon ran through the scrub, heedless of the scratches on his body, until he reached the great fire. There he stood, shaking. The old healer was there, with a young woman. They were talking as the healer was drawing a pattern on the other woman’s belly, between her navel and her tuft of pubic hair. It was a stylized image of a baby. They looked at him curiously, then went back to their conversation, occasionally glancing up at him. He sat down on a bench, panting. Blood from many scratches was running down his own belly, and his loins and his thighs. He scanned the outer darkness furtively. No one else was moving in that dimness. For many menes he sat there, beside himself. The other two finished, and the young woman went to the great house. The old healer walked past Simon, her woven palm shawl rustling faintly. She patted him on his head, then walked off into the dark, towards her hut. He watched her go, then realized he was now alone. He sprang up and ran inside the great house. He was greeted by the small sounds of the villagers, who were nestling down for the night, as usual. He quickly went to his hammock, popping Danni out temporarily while he climbed in. He lay there, listening to his heart. He realized he still had his belt on. He slipped his knife from its place and held it in his hand, ready. He lay there a long time, listening, ready. The next day life seemed to go on as normal. Simon arose and walked through his routine as always, but the very air itself seemed to have a different feel. He looked at each of the children as if they were somehow going to change color. He watched the adults to see if they were watching him. Everyone acted just the way they always did. He caught a glimpse of Danni’s mother from a distance, at the great fire, and she looked absolutely normal. The whole morning had a surreal air to it, even though nothing unusual happened. One effect the evening had, though, was to thwart Simon’s intent to approach Danni’s father about a seat on the boat. Every time he considered approaching the man the image of Danni’s mother came to mind, and Simon deferred. That evening there was a large gathering at the village. Simon could see the preparations underway and slipped away up the hill. The party took the place of dinner, but Simon was able to snatch a bit of dried fish before heading up. He scaled the hill and settled into the plaza on the hill. Sounds from below drifted up, the thud of drums interspersed with the ululation of singing. Simon would occasionally wander over to the path and glance down, but mostly he studied the other islands. At first, Simon stared off into the distance, trying to see what he could of the islands themselves. As before, the distance limited what he could see. Simon started with the island that corresponded with the pillar that was closest to the plaza. He was able, with a good hard stare, to make out the color of trees and the lighter blue of shallow reefs. Once he felt that he had seen as much of that island as his eyes and the afternoon light would permit, he moved on. Simon rotated rapidly around the plaza, trying to determine which of the other islands he could see best. To his pleasant surprise, forty-five degrees leeward there was another island and he could see tiny dots of what had to be boats. He immediately scaled a tall rock to get a better view, taking just a moment to check on the progress of the party down below. Satisfied that nothing of note was happening down there, he stared off at the horizon. The objects were impossibly small, but Simon was patient. He could see the barest hint of white and knew it had to be sails. The progress of the boats was painfully slow, but Simon could actually see them moving across the water. Another island lay in that direction, and it appeared that the boats were headed that way. Simon watched their slow progress, wondering what sorts of commerce they were seeking. After a while, it began to seem that the boats were actually moving away, for they were harder and harder to track. Eventually, Simon lost sight of them altogether. By this time the sun was low in the sky. Much of the hilltop was in shadow. Simon again looked down at the village, then took a cursory look at the island pillars themselves. It was quickly obvious that there were some differences between the islands, at least from a perspective of the artifacts he saw. One pillar was adorned with the empty shells of some large nut, along with what looked like large, broken arrows. Simon had not seen anything like bows or arrows for many months; they did not seem popular this far south. The next pillar had spears and fragments of vests made from some sort of woven beads made from seashells. One was festooned with empty crab shells and stones tied together with twine. Yet another had wooden clubs edged with shark teeth. All had the leathery objects around their bases, and most had flat rocks with some sort of scratches on them. The light was too far gone for Simon to see the markings well, and he did not feel comfortable disturbing the pillars or their artifacts for a closer examination. That would have to wait for another day. A change in the timbre of the sounds from the village caught his ear, and Simon jumped up on the rock and looked down. A large party of villagers was headed up the hill, carrying torches and wearing some sort of outfits. Simon decided he did not want to meet them up on the hill. He had spotted what looked like another path down, leading down the other side of the hill. He quickly found it again and quit the plaza ahead of the party. The path wound down the hill through the scrub. The sun had already set on that side of the hill, but the sky was still light enough to walk by. The path curved down and then split, one side going toward the beach, and one side staying in the brush. Simon decided to stay in the brush, fearing that if he ventured out onto the beach he would be more visible from the hill. He followed the path down and around until it once again emerged from the shadow of the hill and the tops of the brush still caught the last of the daylight. Halfway toward the village, Simon began to see ruins again. He knew he was still not quite to the yam field yet, so these had to be a different set of ruins. Indeed, the blocks were larger, and many were still set one atop another. Simon felt he still had time to kill; he wanted to slip into the village after dark and go straight to his hut. That way, the evening would pass and he would emerge from his hut like everyone else. Hopefully, they would have forgotten his absence from the festivities. If not, well, then, he had been out of the village all afternoon, right? What party? Simon took his time in the ruins. The carvings on the stones were better here, more clear. Also more clear was the evidence of a fire. The charred stumps of wooden timbers projected from holes drilled into the stone blocks. It occurred to Simon that the construction of these stones and the building they represented was beyond any capability the villagers had demonstrated. Simon frequently saw debris covered with sand in the corners of the foundations. He took a few moments to uncover some of it. He was surprised to find the burnt remnants of a wooden club edged with shark teeth. He had not seen the like in the village, but he had seen one up on the hill. He continued to examine the ruins, curious what else there was to discover. He came to a place where a wall still partially stood. Carved in relief on the stone were caricatures of people and animals. The male figures had grotesquely exaggerated features: paddle hands, bowed legs, bull balls, gaping mouths. The female figures were all bland copies of a stylized ideal. There were crabs and fish, birds and what looked like the black bug that had bitten him. His leg ached when he saw that. Most prominent of the animals, though, were the fish, and especially the sharks. A stylized symbol for a shark seemed to fill every niche, and a more realistic version graced many of the carved narratives. What caught Simon’s eyes especially were carvings that seemed to show creatures that were half animal and half human. Here was a crab with the head of a woman. There was a fish with the legs and genitals of a man. Carved on a line all their own was a parade of beings that had the heads and fins of fish and the torso and legs of men and women. In his mind’s eye, Simon was again sitting on the rock beside the pool, staring into the slitted eyes of a creature that had the breasts of a woman, the eyes of a snake, and the teeth of a moray eel. Were there creatures in the sea here that he had never heard of? The sun was on the horizon now, and Simon needed to head back. The island was a fairly safe place, but his experience the evening before had shaken his faith in the darkness. He slipped out of the ruin onto a trail that passed between the foundations. He struck what he figured to be a course toward the village. He hadn’t gone far when a flash of color caught his eye. Inside one foundation someone had laid some wreaths of feathers. He turned aside to see them. They were many sennights old, and they had unraveled for the most part. There seemed no particular purpose for them. He turned to go, and saw a shriveled arm sticking awkwardly from the sand. The arm itself was immediately recognizable, despite the weathering and decay. Simon guessed the owner was many years dead. The sand around the arm was disturbed as if someone had dug to uncover the arm. Simon stood still, shock freezing his limbs. He could feel a chill on his arms, despite the eternally warm air, and his testicles curled up and flattened out. As he stood there the outline of the body under the sand became apparent. Most disturbing was what was sticking up from the sand above where the chest must lay. It looked for all the world like a large arrow. It was just like the ones he had seen broken on the pillar on the hill. Simon left that place and hurried on. The light was all but gone when he slipped into the great house. He threaded his way through to his own place, where he found Danni waiting. To his surprise, she was standing, waiting for him, and not already in the hammock. “Where you?” she said with a hitch in her voice. “Up,” he said simply and laid down. She sat at his side for a mene, then climbed in. After a few moments, Simon could smell tears, and she sniffled. He drew her close, and she snuggled in against his chest. Her breathing steadied and slowed, and then she was asleep. The next day Simon and Danni started the day alone. Bighair was nowhere to be seen. Simon asked Danni where he was. “Jotuko is night alone,” she said with an odd tone in her voice. “Boy to man now. He go fish with boat men.” Sure enough, a quick glance up the beach showed more activity at the boats than usual. Simon went close enough to see that Bighair, or Jotuko as Danni now seemed to call him, was now part of the boat crew. Having worked with the boy for many days now, Simon disagreed that he was ready for such work; the boy was still quite small and tended to wander mentally. The decision was not his, however, and when the boats pushed out Jotuko was seated in the rear of the largest. Simon felt a surge of envy; why had they allowed the boy to ride the boats but not Simon? Next, he felt shame for not having learned the language better and not having pressed the issue more. He put both out of his mind and watched as the boats set sail. Throughout the morning, Simon found himself looking out to sea, both with his eyes and his mind. He could see that Danni was also watching the sea. Their catch was small. At the lunch break Simon lay down for a nap, and she joined him. They arose afterward and had better luck, catching several small fish and one larger one. That evening Bighair (Simon couldn’t help but think of him that way) was the guest of honor at dinner, and Simon joined in the revelry. The party lasted long into the night. The next day was largely the same, although now Danni was the one more watchful of the sea than Simon. Simon began to question Danni about the other islands. She was either unable or unwilling to provide much information. At midday, Simon took her out to the ruins he had discovered behind the hill. She listened carefully as he showed her the carvings, and she expounded for him the fact that these were carvings of people, and of half-people / half-animals, a fact that Simon was fairly sure that he was already aware of. After this redundant briefing the two returned to fishing. That evening Simon took Danni down to the boats and had her review the parts and operations of the boats with him. As the day faded, Simon and Danni went back to the village, and Simon tried to explain to Danni’s father that he wanted to go out with the boats the next day. This took a while with both Danni and Simon talking and much serious listening on the part of Danni’s father and many of the other villagers who came by to listen in. Simon did not see Danni’s mother, but Bighair was there, and his parents. Even the old healer came by. After a while, Danni climbed up into her lap and sat there, a fact that Simon filed away for future reference. After Simon and Danni finished talking, Danni’s father started to talk. He hadn’t said more than a few words when the healer spoke up, pointing at Simon and Bighair and gesturing off across the island. She hadn’t finished talking when Danni’s father responded testily. This set off an argument that Danni’s father settled by standing and shouting until many of the villagers, the healer included, walked off in disgust and fear. Finally, Danni’s father said a few words to Simon in a dismissive, if not unkind, tone, and shooed the two away. As they walked away Danni tried to explain to Simon what had transpired. “Father says you learn words more, and you go fish boat,” she said. “Old mother says you go night alone if Bighair and. Father says you old now, night alone boy.” Danni sighed. “Old mother says father is hair inside eyes. Father says old mother is old.” Danni looked down at the sand, obviously despondent. Simon patted her on the head as the approached the great hut in the growing dark. “It’s all right,” Simon said as they went inside. “I will learn.” The next day Simon threw himself into the language lesson even harder, grilling Danni and drilling with her. They spent the midday break wandering the island, talking and practicing. By the time the boats were drawing near Danni was wearying of the effort, and so Simon sent her off to greet the boats and he hiked up the hill. Halfway up he looked back. There seemed to be an unusually large number of villagers clustered around the boats. Bighair probably had a big day, Simon punned to himself. He tried to pick out which of the children clustered around the boats was Danni, but was unable to. Simon idly wondered what the big deal might be, then lost interest. He continued up the hill to the plaza, but decided to skip past it and go to the ruins instead. He headed down the hill, and then when he came to the fork in the path changed his mind again and descended to the beach. He had not yet walked this stretch of sand, and so that made a nice diversion. As was the case with the remoter stretches of beach, this one was unmarked after the last high tide. The life of a villager was busy enough to keep them off the beaches for the most part, and they seemed to prefer each other’s company to solitude. Simon walked until he reached an outcropping of stone that stretched out into the water. Recalling the strange incident on the rocks by the village, Simon approached these rocks with trepidation. Surmounting a tall rock, he surveyed the outcropping and saw no one. He did notice many very regular stone blocks, however. These blocks, each as large as he was and much heavier, were covered in carvings similar to the ones in the ruins. It dawned on Simon that this must have been some sort of pier once. He wondered how long ago that was. Simon returned to the village at dark to find his hammock empty. He considered going looking for Danni, but decided not to. He fell asleep alone. Morning found Simon alone. Few people were about, and those that were about seemed very quiet. Danni was nowhere to be seen. Simon got the nets and went fishing. Only one other man was also out fishing, and when the boats launched only one went out. Simon knew something was amiss. He waited and watched. At midday, he took his meager catch to the great fire, where he found Danni. He asked her what was happening, but she just stared at him, her finger in her mouth. He asked again, and she walked off and vanished into the great house. Simon sat, frustrated and confused by his own lack of understanding, and cleaned his fish. He had finished and was cleaning his knife when Bighair’s mother swept past, weeping. She was carrying an armful of flowers. She hustled to the altar where the shark effigies were and dropped the flowers on the altar. She lay there, draped over the altar, and sobbed and wailed. Simon stood there, stunned, as understanding crept into his head. He had not seen Bighair all day. He sheathed his knife and hurried to the great house, scanning the area for any sign of the boy. He found Danni in his hammock. “Danni, where is Bighair? Where is Jotuko?” She looked up at him, her face smeared with tears. She stared at him blankly for a moment, then her face clenched and she started whimpering. She rolled over, away from him, and he walked away. Outside the house, he stood by the fire-pit, futilely looking for a familiar figure he dreaded never seeing again. Finally, he turned and walked off into the bush, the anguished howls of Jotuko’s mother following and haunting him.

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