Tag Archives: Swamped

Short Story: Swamped

Final part of  SWAMPED

(JLeahy on Creative Writing with Isabel De Avila Winter ) ©

Public Domain image.

I remained standing at the T-junction and my attention shifted to where the two waterways met. I wondered where the birds were today. By now, the sun rays would have come through the leaves and woken the birds, causing an eruption of an electrifying orchestra. There was not a single bird-song. That part of the equatorial rainforest norm was missing.

My arms hung loose and lifeless, I could not feel them. I tried to, but I could not lift my arms nor move my legs. I was not terrified; I only felt stuck and this alarmed me a little because the mud was not deep. When I drew breath, it was slow, restrictive, and my chest was constricted. Something large of several layers like a heavy coil of thick, soft, rubber hung around my neck and shoulders. It weighed me down. I was tall for a teenager, but my thin, weak and small shoulders were crushed by this weight. I thought it was a heavy towel as we often hung towel around our necks to keep warm while fishing. I shut my eyes.

And then it moved, so suddenly. I realised this was not a towel. It was a large snake, a python! A different set of knots, the horrid kind, started tightening inside me. On me, I saw the coils move and could feel it tightened.

My eyes re-focused. The snake’s colour reflected that of the greyish mud, faint yellow like a banana skin, and the brown mangrove tree bark. I could see the diamond-shaped outline of each scale. It was detailed vividly in intricate patterns on its centre spine above my breasts and just beneath my chin. The scale patterns, beautiful and seamless, disappeared under the next coil. I became more aware, alarmed and numbed by the weight, closeness and firmness of its grip. I shifted my eyes ahead beyond the mangrove. It did not make sense to scream and it seemed too hard to remember how to scream. I refused to imagine where the snake’s head would be, I did not want to meet it nor look into its eyes. Now I remember how that poor pig must have felt when the python took it behind our house. Was this the same snake?

Timor Python: Public Domain image

I waited for a few more minutes and I sensed the snake was not trying to kill me. That was strange. It seemed comfortable the way it restricted and detained me, and I was afraid to move and disturb it. The dank smell re-appeared and honed the swamp stink. I could not feel the mosquitos. I wondered if that stink was the snake. Its weight became too much and I wondered how long I would be standing there in the mud, carrying the snake.

Then, a single call of a Sock-ngkwing bird, the spirit bird, pierced the silence and my eardrums. I moved to the bird’s cry. The python tightened its grip, and squeezing .. and I screamed just like the bird, feeling my body become alive. I moved my arms and legs. I flipped over and woke up with my bed sheet tight around my neck. It was THAT dream. Before I went to high school, in my early teens, I had this dream so many times. It was always the same dream. I shuddered. Still tense and terrified, I went to see grandma.

I re-told the dream to my grandmother; she looked at me for a long time.  Her eyes searched, speaking to my face, without words.

“There is a decision you have to make, a path you have to choose. What is stopping you from choosing, is your fear”, she said.

I looked at Tinang, afraid.

“Don’t be afraid” she said and hugged me. I shut my eyes and fell against her soft, tattered, spun rayon dress. Grandma’s scent of Chinese White Flower lotion, mixed with mustard and chewed betel-nut soon erased the swamp stink. I had thought about this dream interpretation often when I was growing up, and it always frightened me because I knew what it was, but it was not a single thing; it was many…

Short Story: Swamped

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

If you have missed the story opening published last week, click here

Although peeking through the pale mud with life and vibrancy, the young mangrove regrowth looked naked and vulnerable against the open swamp, and without the mother-tree nearby. In the distant, under the long shadows, piles of de-skinned fallen mangrove laid like stacked cadavers. This was part of an extensive wetland area used for fishing and gathering food like sugo, small snails and Kina, a fresh water mussel. There was some kind of an order in the distribution of the mangrove shoots along the random waterways. It was a peculiar, and neat arrangement. Amongst this orderly disarray, I stood out like the tallest cross in a dwarfed graveyard. The young mangrove shoots only came to my knees, just like the old stumps.

I must remove myself from here, I had thought although this had always been our favourite fishing spot. Today, the place felt strange, unlike before. Before, we would fish for hours and take our breaks on the logs. We ate with one hand and smacking of mosquitoes, then wiping their blood off and scratching the small bite mounds with the other hand. I had been to this place with my Grandma and Aunty Yellow. I also came here with my cousin Alison before she lost her mind to Malaria. I should not have been here alone today.

Once when Alison was eleven and I twelve we spotted a stranger here. On that day, we had brought with us Tinang’s (grandma) bush knife, which we were forbidden to use. The bush knife had cost a lot of money and one bush knife served many families in many ways. It turned out, the man we had seen was not a stranger, nor was he real. From his actions and the way the Sockwing (a type of wag-tail) birds were calling, my cousin and I became alarmed and we ran off, leaving grandma’s bush knife behind. I had to run back and get it. If we had left the knife there, we would have been punished for taking the bush knife. We were told that same evening, the man we had seen was a spirit of a dead great-uncle. This too was his favourite fishing spot.

I thought I saw a movement and my eyes tried to focus. Nothing seemed out-of-place, and everything around me looked like it had always been.

The Japanese bombing in the Second World War left a large gap in the wetlands. The bombs opened the place as wide as a soccer field, and made it lifeless; right in the middle of the thick mangrove that was relished by fish, birds, snakes, lizards and all kinds of insects. My Aunty Yellow said, in the open centre, mangrove regeneration since the bombing struggled for decades. The bomb explosions took both natural and human lives; our great-uncle was amongst those.

Apart from the war, this place was a landmark because the mouths of many small creeks gathered into the head of the largest one, which flowed into the main river, named Bu-dac. Budac meant Blood River, a name that reminded us of our history.

Our house was built along the river near its centre and at the entrance to our village. In pidgin, it is called, maus-rot which means mouth road.

I was standing at the head of Budac. There was a large T-junction, where the main creek met the river. The swamp clay was very soft and pale and covered with dead rotting leaves. In the dark river, life existed; a place where fresh-water fish feeding, spawning and nursery took place. Fish gathered daily to feast on other fishes and debris collected and deposited by the creek as well as the river at this meeting point. Not today, I had not seen fish movement breaking the water rhythm nor its surface. I could not understand nor remember why I was here today, and alone – only a few kilometres away from our village, just outside Lae, Papua New Guinea.

(© JLeahy, 2015)

More Swamped soon…