Wednesday 28 September 2011

In the forest, the river

This is a story about a girl and a dolphin.
The girl lived in a little hut on the bank of a channel that fed a tributary of a great river, in the middle of a thick forest, so thick that the sun had to struggle to reach the ground even when it was high noon.
The girl lived with her grandfather.  Neither she nor the old man had been born in the forest. The life they led, in that little hut by the river, was nothing like the life the old man had known before, or the life the little girl remembered from her earliest years. The man and the girl had been slaves. They had run away and were now free, but if they were caught they would be slaves again.
The girl was somewhere between eleven and twelve years old, thin for her age, and went about nearly naked most of the time. She spent her days tending the little patch of ground she farmed along with her grandfather, gathering wood for the fire, and swimming and walking around the forest in the vicinity of the hut. She loved the forest, and sometimes, she almost felt the forest loved her in return.
Down on the coast, the great city raised its church spires and mansions skywards, and in the fields, plantations and mines around it the slaves worked at producing sugar and rubber, coffee and tin, to feed the hunger of the city’s residents – to feed and clothe them, and for them to send off to foreign lands on big ships in return for other things they could eat and wear and play with. The slaves saw none of these things. They existed for one thing – to work. And, once in a while, some would take the opportunity to run away. There was only one refuge, the obvious refuge – the dark sheltering wall of the forest.
The girl and her grandfather had run away when the fever had struck the slave lines and carried away the girl’s parents and the old man’s wife all in the space of two short weeks. The slave overseers had made even the sick slaves work till they dropped, and the rest of them had been merely waiting until they, too, sickened and died. As long as the rubber and tin kept flowing, the mine managers and plantation owners couldn’t care less about whether the slaves lived or died.
So, one night when the lightning had flashed incessantly in the sky and the rain had thrashed the ground, the old man had taken the girl in his arms – then only a toddler, but already put to work sorting and arranging – and had escaped out of the slave lines into the forest. There had been guards posted, but they had been hiding from the storm, and nobody had seen them go.
They had been in the forest ever since.
The day the girl first met the dolphin was just after the season of the great rains, when the river overflowed its banks and submerged large portions of the forest. The girl had been up since before the dawn, and now that her work was all done, she’d come down to the river for a swim. Though the water was murky with the debris of the flood, here in the channel it was still quite calm and still. The little girl knew the channel well, its twists and turns, and where the bottom fell away into deeper water where the current could be strong, and where it was completely safe to swim. She knew the channel so well that she could, and often did, swim it in the middle of the night in pitch blackness and never lose her way.
On this day, the girl had walked into the channel to her armpits, and was about to push off with her feet from the flat rock on which she was standing, when a surge of water swept over her body, as though something large had passed her just under the surface. The water was opaque with murk, its surface dotted with twigs and leaves, and the girl wondered for a moment if she had imagined it. But the movement came again, and a very slight touch, as though someone had drawn a feather across her midriff.
Terror might have come then, if the girl hadn’t known the channel so well. She knew – none better – that hereabouts there were none of the caymans that lay like logs of wood on the mud flats further downstream. Nor did the great constrictors that twined around the branches of trees inhabit this patch of forest – and, in any case, these would have either attacked her already or stayed away. They would not have been swimming around her as though curious as to what she was.
She thought momentarily of leaving the water and watching from the bank for whatever it was to show itself.  But if it had come to her only because she was in the water, it might leave and then she’d be left wondering what it was. She hesitated, unsure.
Then the surface of the water bulged in front of her and parted, as something rose. First it was a beak, long and thin, followed by a bulbous pink head. The beak opened, rows of sharp teeth gaping, and a little black eye gazed at the girl for a moment. The creature breathed out with a mighty huff, and then plunged under again. A curve of bright pink back broke the surface, followed by a pair of flukes that slapped the water and vanished. The water rippled and spread from the spot, slapping against the girl’s chest and upper arms. Slowly, the ripples spread and vanished.
The girl knew what it was, of course, though she had never seen one before. It was the boto, the encantado, the pink dolphin which haunted the river and in the season of floods swam amongst the trees of the forest, which her grandfather had told her took human form and seduced maidens in the night, leaving them pregnant with its babies when the dawn came. It was the creature of mystery and awe, of which she’d heard so much and never thought to see with her own eyes. She was still gaping open mouthed at the water when the surface exploded.
The boto rose from the water like a god rising from the depths. His beak lunged for the sky, spray flying from the flippers as he pushed himself up, his body a column of flesh, looking far larger than his actual size. He hung suspended above the surface for an endless moment, his body shuddering, his little black eyes watching the girl. Slowly, toppling, he fell back into the water with a mighty splash and disappeared.
“Why did he come here?” the girl asked her grandfather that evening.
They sat on the bank in the darkness and listened to the boto break the surface to breathe every few minutes. “He must have followed a female into the forest when the flood was high,” the old man said, “and lost his way when the water began to recede.”
“Does that mean he’s trapped here?” the girl asked anxiously.
The old man peered at her in the darkness. “Why, no. If he wants to go, all he has to do is swim downstream. He’ll be all right.”
The girl hesitated before asking the next question. “Did you mean all that you’d told me – about the boto taking human form and seducing maidens?”
Her grandfather chuckled softly and touched her shoulder. “You know that’s a story as well as I do. Why – were you hoping it wasn’t true...or that it was?”
The girl did not answer. Embarrassed and furious with herself, she turned away and hoped her grandfather wouldn’t know that she was blushing.
Over the next days she spent more and more time with the boto. He would swim around her as she stood on the rock, rubbing her body with his flank, or nuzzling her with his long beak as though he were a friendly dog. And though she had seen that same beak snap a large fish in two with no effort at all, and knew something of the animal’s power, she felt no fear of him whatsoever.
Sometimes the boto would roll on the surface, slapping the water playfully with his flippers, or juggle a large seed he’d found somewhere as though it were a ball. He’d flip it back and forth, and then push it to her, as if it were a gift, and she would pick it up and take it to the shore. She had a small pile of these gifts from the dolphin in one corner of the hut, and her grandfather had begun teasing her that the dolphin was courting her and would come for her one of these nights.
And she would swim with him, down where the water was dark and impenetrable, and he would guide her,  as though she were blind, and she would let him rub and push her along. And as well as she knew the river,  the dolphin knew it too, even though he had never been in it before. He could find his way quite unerringly past the sunken trees and jutting rocks, the flotsam and jetsam at the bottom she had come to know well over the years, as clearly as though he could see them all.
“Some say,” her grandfather told her when she mentioned it, “that they have a separate sense, that they can see where it is impossible to see, know where they are going when it is impossible to know. Perhaps it’s a secret we will be able to understand someday. All we can say is that they are special in a way we don’t understand.”
As the days went on, the water levels dropped, and the girl grew anxious that the dolphin would go away. Each morning, as soon as she woke, she rushed to the river’s edge and scanned the surface eagerly, until she was rewarded with the sight and sound of the boto’s rising to breathe. Only then would she settle down to the chores of the day.
Some days the dolphin would disappear, often for many hours, and she would fret and worry constantly until the familiar sigh would come from the river and she would sigh, too, with relief and happiness. knowing the creature was back again.
“You’re so besotted with that animal,” her grandfather grumbled, “that I wonder who’s going to end up seducing whom.” But he would watch the girl and the dolphin play in the water, and he would smile secretly.
And then one day the slave overseers came to the forest.
They came in rowboats, muskets across their knees and coils of ropes and whips at their belts, to hunt down the runaway slaves who had not gone far enough into the forest, to whip and tie them and bring them back to the plantations and the mines, to grow more coffee and rubber and dig out more tin for the people in the city to exchange for the bright and shining toys and the shimmering foreign textiles their hearts so craved. They came with their dogs and their chains, but all they found were abandoned huts and little villages surrounded by plots of cultivation that were already falling back into jungle. Their coming had been expected, warned of by word of mouth, and the slaves had fled deeper in the forest, where the wild men dwelt and the slave overseers dare not follow.
The only exception was the girl and her grandfather, who lived away from the other runaway slaves, had no contact with them, and who did not know.
The girl saw them first. She had gone some way down the channel, to find a vine the old man had asked her to look for, because he wanted to use it to make ropes. She hadn’t found it where she’d expected, so she’d had to go further until she had almost reached the point where the channel emptied into a wider one.
The slavers’ boat was rowing up the channel.
The girl froze, sure they’d spotted her. But they were looking up river, and talking to themselves in low voices. They did not see her, and she slipped silently behind a tree and then deeper into the forest, until she could break into a run. Going by a more direct route, she managed to beat the boat back to her grandfather.
The old man was digging in the plot behind the hut when she arrived, gasping for breath, her little breasts rising and falling. All expression left his face when he heard what she had to say. For her, slavery was a word, a dim and almost forgotten memory. For him, it was a weight he had borne on his shoulders almost all his life. If there was one thing he feared, apart from dying and leaving the girl to fend for herself before she was ready, it was a return to slavery.
“We have to escape,” he said. “But where?”
Already, they could hear the dogs. They were long-limbed tan-and-black striped monsters, bred and trained to hunt runaway slaves, and it was said that any of their quarry would be better off giving himself up rather than be ripped into by their great yellow teeth.  Some of the slavers would follow the dogs through the forest, running behind them as they struck the scent, while others would take the boats up the channels and creeks and cut off the slaves’ retreat. It was a very familiar tactic, but no less effective for that.
“The dogs will catch us if we try to run into the forest,” the old man said. “Where is the boat? Almost here?”
“The boat is still part way down the channel,” the girl replied. “The dogs will be here long before it, from the sound.”
“We must go into the water, then,” the old man told her, “and swim upstream. They will stop and search this place, and that will give us a chance to put some distance between us and them. Come.”
“We’ll lose everything that we have put together here,” the girl said.
“We’ll lose it just as surely if we wait to be taken back in chains,” the old man snapped. “Come quickly.”
The howling of the dogs was loud in their ears as they slipped into the channel, swimming smoothly upstream and as far as possible underwater. They swam as close to each other as they could, touching each other in the murk because they could not see, and coming up only long enough to take a quick breath before submerging again. Although both were strong swimmers, the exhaustion and tension overcame them and finally drove them to leave the water and wait on the bank for a brief rest.
“Once they find that the hut’s deserted,” the girl observed, “they’ll come upstream behind us.”
“They will,” her grandfather said. “But we have no choice but to keep going.”
“The water is getting shallow,” the girl told him. “Soon it will be too shallow to swim. And we can’t wade fast enough to beat the boat, even if we manage to stay in the water so that the dogs lose our scent and can’t find it again.”
“We have no choice,” her grandfather repeated. “If it were only I, maybe it would be different. After all, I’m old and I don’t have long to live. And I’ve had a taste of freedom, at least. But you deserve better.”
“Don’t talk like that,” the girl said. “We must keep going.”
Only a little way past the next bend of the stream, the girl’s toes touched the bottom mud, and she found herself standing hip-deep in the water. It was too shallow to swim.
“Should we wade as far as we can,” the girl asked, “or get out now and move on through the forest?”
“I...” the old man began. What he was about to say was lost in a distant shout and the slaver’s boat rounded the bend behind them.
“They didn’t stop at the hut,” the old man gasped.  “Go quickly – get away while you can.”
“I’m not leaving you,” the girl told him.
“Go,” the old man said, and slapped her. She stared at him with shock. He had never struck her before. “You’re young,” he said. “You have a future, you can have a life. They might settle for me alone. Go!”
Still staring at him, she backed away. He turned away from her to look at the oncoming slavers, the tears running silently down his cheeks.
The overseer was in a foul mood.   He had been on many slave hunts, but never one as fruitless as this one. They had been hunting for days, almost run out of time and rations, and not found a single slave. At the most they could remain out for one day more, and then they’d have to turn back.
He hated the slaves for the animals they were. He hated them because they forced him to come out into the heat and humidity of the river, this horrible place where the air was thick with clouds of mosquitoes, ticks would bury their heads in your skin if you accidentally brushed the leaves on which they were lying in wait, and leeches would bite your legs if you stepped in the water, and for all he knew schools of murderous toothy fish were waiting to strip you to the bone. It was all the fault of the slaves, and they didn’t even have the decency to get caught.
He’d dropped the dog handlers and their animals at the mouth of the channel, waiting until he was sure that they’d picked up a scent, and then followed the waterway. He had no great optimism that the dogs would hunt any slaves down – the quarry had grown remarkably elusive and resourceful in recent days, and they’d most likely have left already, or would the moment they heard the dogs. Perhaps they’d leave behind a decoy or two. Well, he had had enough of decoys. A murderous anger had begun to smoulder inside him. If he caught a slave or two, he’d take them back, yes, but first he would make them pay.
He had ignored the hut when he’d glimpsed it some distance up the bank, and snapped at the boatmen to continue. Unless the slaves who had lived in it were deaf or too infirm to move, they’d be long since gone, and if they were still there, the dog handlers could have them.  He looked over the prow of the boat, at the sluggish murky water, and his rage at the slaves rose with every splash of the oars in the water.
By the time they finally glimpsed the two wading figures, he was almost beside himself.
The nearest was an old man. The overseer was not particular – a slave was a slave – but his attention was fixed on the other one, the adolescent girl. She was further off, but they could always come back for the old man. He wasn’t going anywhere. Now, that girl – she would be valuable on the market, and besides, with her nubile young body and her small bare breasts, she was a morsel he would enjoy to the maximum.
Slapping the oarsmen on the shoulders, he turned the rudder to steer towards the girl. The water was very shallow, and the boat wasn’t flat-bottomed, but he wasn’t about to run aground. Not now, with victory within his grasp.
A few more oar strokes, and he would have her. He could feel his heart hammering with excitement.  Standing up, he leaned forwards for a better look.
And then the water under the boat erupted.
The boto had been far away in the forest, swimming among the trunks of half-submerged trees, looking for fish; and now he was returning to the channel, to the spot in the river he had begun to think of as home.
As he went, he scanned the environment before him, bouncing a stream of sonic waves off submerged logs and stones, off the shelving earth of the banks and the flat undersurface of the water above, painting a picture of the world in sound. A fish darted past his jaws, invisible in the murk but roiling the water with its fear-stricken passage. Without pausing, he stunned it with a sonic hammer-blow and scooped it up with a snap of his toothy beak.  A few more thrusts of his flukes and he was in the main channel, swimming homewards.
He had grown extremely fond of the creature which now regularly came to frolic with him in the water. Unlike the females of his own kind, he didn’t have to fight with all his strength for her affections, and she didn’t demand anything from him except his companionship, which he was more than happy to give. He always felt a thrill of pleasure when she plunged into the water and swam over to him, kicking about in her hilarious, clumsy way. He hadn’t yet seen her today, and was looking forwards to it.
He realised something was wrong long before he reached the spot. The water vibrated, erratically, and there was a noise of splashing and commotion. At first he thought it was wounded prey – but this was far too noisy, far too unnatural, to be prey. Cautious at first, pressing himself to the muddy bottom, he swam over to investigate.
He sensed her presence before he came upon her. He’d got to know her so well, over the time that he’d spent with her, that he could recognise her signatures instantly – the sonic imprint of her legs and hips, the sound of her voice, raised in anger and fear. And he could see the huge shape, squat and hulking, which was heaving itself through the water at her, accompanied by splashing.
The boto knew fighting. Like all the big males of his kind, he could be brutal when he had to be, utterly without pity as he snapped and bit at blowhole and fluke as he fought for females. He could be roused to an anger so single minded that his kind was feared by all the other denizens of the great river. And in this instant the anger took over, driving caution from his brain.
The creature who was his friend was in danger, and that was all that mattered.
The boto struck from below and to the side, slamming himself against the wooden hull of the boat. It lurched, tilted, and as the overseer flung out his arms and dropped overboard with a splash, the boat almost turned turtle, shipped water, and rolled back, the oarsmen yelling. The overseer, cursing, scrabbled in the muddy bottom of the channel for his gun, slipped and fell, and finally found his feet. Roaring furiously, he waded towards the girl.
And then the boto struck again.
We can stop now,” the old man said. “They’ll never find us now.”
The girl leaned against the nearest half-submerged tree, gasping. For longer than either of them could remember, they had followed the dolphin as he had led them through a succession of little waterways and flooded passages through the trees, alternately walking and swimming, until now, with night falling, they could go no further.
“They won’t be back anyway,” the girl said. “They were frightened out of their wits.”
“They’ll probably destroy the hut before they go,” the old man said. “It’s a pity, but in a day or two we can go back and see what we can salvage.”
“Just now,” the girl said, “I just want to find somewhere I can lie down and sleep.”
Not far away, the boto snorted in the gathering darkness.
“He saved us, didn’t he?” the girl asked. “Grandfather? You remember the story about them taking human form?”
“What about it?” the old man asked.
“I think he’s fine as he is,” the girl said.
With an explosive rush of air, the boto breathed again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

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