By Ng Shing Yi
The young man looked at the old man across from him, who was sitting ceremoniously on the mat. A face heavy with dignity, his eyes nearly closed. The old man could have been graven on earthen stone.
"We will have to do it before noon," the young man said.
"When the sun climbs to the peak of the sky, it will be too hot to move. The flies will come in droves," he spoke again.
The old man showed no sign of movement. Perhaps he was thinking, the young man thought. Or perhaps he was asleep.
"Papi, we have no choice," he called the man that was not his father. That was what they called their village chief, Papi. Because he was father of the village, and had to judge their fights over goats and preside over their marriages.
Papi opened his eyes. He said, quietly,
"No. We will not."
The young man had to control himself in order that he would refrain from shouting. He tried to say calmly,
"How can you? Papi? These are your people. Your people are dying."
Papi closed his eyes once more, as if in pain. His wives looked at him anxiously from behind the beaded curtains of the next room. Someone was trying to hush a child that was crying. He spoke in tones accustomed to projection, over celebratory songs and funeral dirges.
"Crops. We have our God here, to look after us. This has happened year after year, and yet we are. Still here, with our crops."
Papi looked at him, who was about to speak, and silenced him with a thin bent finger. He continued to say,
"You are a newcomer. You are a stranger to our ways. We survive. Your plan will kill our crops. You will kill us all."
He was furious. He stared at the old man, who sat immobile as a stone idol, and thought of how he tried to be civil amidst the chaos. Yet the old man refused to be civil in return. I ask only for courtesy, he thought, anger lighting across his mind like a bolt. He said nothing, however, and only took a sip from the weak tea in front of him. It was ceremony to drink and eat what was offered in hospitality. He took a bite from the bread. And he stood, to leave, knowing that this would be the last time he would see the old man. He was not asking for the old man's permission. His mind was made up. He was asking the old man to save himself and his family.
He walked out, making sure that he did not look back, and tried not to hear the cries of the child. It must be Sumi's, he thought miserably. He did not look back. There were many things at hand.
Quattroyol was known as the land of the blind. It was the name of the village that was also the name of its god. Its god was a totem in the middle of the village square, carved out of old, whitened bark. It had the shape of an inscrutable eagle with human eyes and a hooked beak. Its wings were large, powerful at rest.
The women prayed to Quattroyol for crops to grow and food on the table. The men prayed for rain and children who were not deformed.
No one prayed for their sight to be returned.
In the monsoon season, the skies grew overcast and the air grew pregnant with rain. But it was the river that truly swelled, higher and higher till its banks overflowed. The worms in the river were afraid, and swam in a frenzy, ducking in and out of the weeds where they lived. They were so small that they were seen as a fine thread, as fine as a crack in a porcelain cistern. But the flies had sharp eyes, for only the people in Quattroyol were blind. The flies had sharp eyes for they too were hungry. They swooped into the churning river waters and drank from the river.
At night, when it grew cold and the men returned from their fields to goat cheese and tea and brown rice, the flies went to the houses of the village to keep warm. Hungrier than ever, they fed on the food of the children, and fed on the blood behind smooth, fine, ebony skins.
The worms in the stomachs of the flies that passed into the new blood gave the people of the Sub-Saharan river basin, bad dreams at night, cold sweats, and fevers that ran so high as they babbled and tossed. At the end of the fever, if they were strong and had the fortune of Quattroyol's protection, they went blind. But they would be alive.
It was the children who died.
He was a medical student working in Quattroyol as part of his medical course with his university in the city. A long time ago, his parents had been from Quattroyol. When his parents died as he turned eleven, he was sent away to an orphanage in the city. Working hard, he had won a scholarship to study medicine in a foreign land. He wanted to be a doctor. He had wanted to be a doctor since the time his parents died. He sat in lecture halls and cafeterias filled with skins so white they looked like paper, and studied medicine. He sometimes missed meals so that he could save money for the trip back.
He did not listen to the professors and friends who told him to apply for top medical schools in the foreign land. His mind was full of wet churned earth and muddy monsoon rain. At night he dreamt of the smell after tropical rain. He looked at the paper skins and clear eyes that pleaded with him to stay. He returned to enroll in a medical school in the capital of his country, where it was compulsory to carry out community medicine in the villages as part of one's medical course. He was young, and bore the two rows of tattoos on his cheeks that were inscribed onto ten-year-old boys in Quattroyol during a rite of passage into manhood. He was a tall, broad-backed and graceful gazelle of a man.
He went to the village square, where he directed the men, women and children who waited for him, to take only their healthy animals and leave their crops. He ordered them to take only the essentials. No one could carry heavy sacks of rice or sentimental pictures of their ancestors. And definitely no stone idols of the god Quattroyol. There was some resistance to this, but it faded away when parents looked at their children. The children were to put on shoes, for those who could walk. Those, who could not, were loaded onto carts lined with blankets and straw, so that they could be pulled by man or mule.
They were so weak, some of them, from diarrhoea and vomiting that he could not watch them without pain. The children were whispering for water constantly.
Large cisterns of water were carried in a cart, pulled by the village's two strongest donkeys.
He did not give himself time to think of anything except for the route and the things that had to be packed and carried. They were to reach the next empty town by tonight. The next evening, they would reach the provincial hospital, where they could find a place for treatment and refuge while the monsoon season raged its blind fury in the river of Quattroyol.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003