The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Along A Seashell Path
David watched a hoi polloi of villagers, as they rushed around to repair their fractured streets. Hurrying down the hardscrabble roads with wheelbarrows bumping along in front of them, they stooped to gather up the stony remains of a bombed-out cathedral.
They threw the rubble into the wheelbarrows, then onwards they swayed to come to the piles of rubble stacked high on the street corners. They dumped the contents of their wheelbarrows, then back to the streets they scurried, pausing only to bow their heads when they came up on a stone table known as Thach Ban. At Thach Ban, the fairies who came down from higher realms, played chess, and the villagers stopped momentarily to pay their respects.
Streams of black smoke were pouring from a kettle of tar that simmered and smoked over a curbside fire. David followed the smoke to come to a scolding woman dressed in black with a conical hat on her head. In between her scolding and tending the fire, she dipped metal containers into the smoking kettle.
Figuring that she was the one in charge of road repair, David was anxious to make contact with her. But though he tried repeatedly to begin a conversation, she wouldn’t greet him; nor would she answer his questions. She wouldn‘t even lift her head to acknowledge him. Shrugging his shoulders, he stood around with his hands in his pockets, observing while he rocked back and forth on his feet. And while he watched, she dipped in rhythmical motions, then handed container after container to another women who was standing beside her. The standing woman passed the containers along a line of fisher-men’s wives until they reached the nodding fishermen sitting in front of the holes left by the bombs' explosions. Slowly, they poured the hot tar until it covered the loose stones and sand that came from the nearby ocean; both stone and sand previously jammed into the gaping holes by the village children.
‘How simple it is for them to know what they are to do,' David reflected. ‘Fish by the stars. And when the sun comes up, pass along buckets of healing to mend their village.’
While the villagers patched up and filled in, street urchins scurried to pick up the remaining scraps and salvage left behind. Later, they would pedal it to the pirating guerrillas who rowed in from the seas at night after the fishermen rowed out.
In the background of fairies playing chess and the hustle bustle of road repairs rose sandcastle mountains with sun kissed peaks. The mountains cradled the broken village as it basked to heal itself in the afternoon sun. And in the hot skies overhead, floated parachutes laden with military supplies that lazily drifted to the ground.
David ambled over to a peasant woman, walking while shouldering a pole with baskets on either end; both baskets laden with seaweed and crabs. Could she tell him about the latest bombing, David wondered. Obliging, she told her story with her conical hat bobbing up and down with her words. It bobbed rapidly when she told David about the leveling of the cathedral. Her arms enunciated her frustration. They bobbed about so exuberantly that her baskets began to tip. She stopped to readjust them.
'About the bombings,' David prodded. 'When, how long, how many? Casualties, injuries, damages?
On and on she prattled with her singsong litany of war and destruction. He scribbled her words in a small notebook that he pulled from his shirt pocket.
After thanking her, 'Cam on rat nhieu,' he set foot along a path to follow Seth’s map: he crossed a bridge that arched across a dark river, the river bloated with monsoon rains; so much rain that the river was gurgling up on shore. On the river’s waters bounced small white sampans.
‘Like ghosts they seem; dipping up and down before they disappear around a narrow bend, only to reappear after they pass a peninsula of tall grasses,’ David reflected.
One end of the lagoon closed off to a shore of rice paddies, shining emerald in the sun. And beyond the paddies lie train tracks that cut a path into the landscape. He headed for the tracks. Around a bend chuffed a train of pale green carriages that dated back from the French Colonial period. Like a gentle dragon, it puffed soft sighs while chugging along the tracks with its wheels spinning in waltz rhythm.
He waved to the passengers and they waved back as they hung out the open windows to catch breaths of air, as the train ambled along to come to a smoky stop at an old station of adobe walls. The train whistle sounded shrill and loud to burst into an afternoon of heat waves trembling across the air. The whistle disturbed a rooster sitting atop a gate post. He crowed with aplomb to announce to the sutlers, drowsing inside the station that now was the time for them to hop aboard with their soup, sandwiches, and drinks for the passengers’ lunches. While rubbing their sleepy eyes, the sutlers scurried through the station doors with their baskets of wares. Slowly, they climbed up the train’s steps to disappear into its dark interior.
Around a corner of the station lies the path that David was to follow; so said the ticket seller at the station when David showed him his map. The seller matched his map against David’s for the quickest way to the milk bar, but he warned David that the path was long.
He walked on with his gaze stretched ahead. ‘I see the fishing village leaning towards the sea. The bamboo huts moving closer to the tides, by which the village fishermen row out to cast their nets into star-lit waters.’
He looked further ahead to see fishing boats tipped up on rocks to dry their bottoms. He noted that each hut had a rain barrel. And on the sides of the barrels hung the hairy shells of coconuts from which to drink the water. Above the huts waved raggedy fronds of lontar palms, and under the palms lie piles of shrimp drying in the sun.
The fisherman’s huts came to an end when David, like the path, began to walk away from the sea. Coming up on an alleyway, he looked down it to see a circle of old men on wooden chairs playing cards on a tree stump. He saw too that the dirt road he had been walking on, came to an abrupt end before it arrowed out in two directions. Neither of the maps showed the two-way road. ‘And so, which way to go?' he wondered.
He walked over to the elderly card players to ask them. One of the men spoke a broken English, and it was he who replied to David. His face of silver whiskers was lined deeply from the glaring light of the sea he once fished. His eyes held irises the color of mist … weak and straining … and he shaded them when he looked up to talk to David. While explaining, he waved his hands in the direction of nearby rice fields; bright green and bloated with rain.
'That is the way to go,' he told David.
David thanked him before he walked to the end of the alleyway. He was heading towards the rice paddies when he felt crunching under his feet. He looked down to see his path turned to seashells; pale rainbows of them under his feet; pearly pink and blue. He looked up then to stretch his gaze to the blue-green waters sparkling in the sun. On the waters bobbed a Burgas schooner whose sails were raised to court impish sea breezes cavorting just out of reach of the schooner‘s sails.
Then David brought his gaze in closer to shore ... and horror upon horror, he spotted the breathing straws of guerrillas. A panic began in his chest: it twisted his stomach to knots.
‘Why are ‘they’ in this fishing village? Are they coming ashore? When? Why?’
He quickened his pace … his head, his throbbing chest forward, his legs hurrying to catch up. His heart thumping. Periodically he turned to see the breathing straws. In his fright, he imagined the straws to be expelling ghosts. 'Wraiths moving towards me on wings.’
He ran zigzag down the path, as though to dodge the winged wraiths whose presence he felt flying above him. The wraiths’ wings darkened the rainbow shells of his journey. And as he ran, he kept looking back to see if the sappers were coming ashore.
He ran onwards past the vision of breathing straws; ran until he was left with only enough stamina to stumble. He momentarily paused to take deep breaths, then stretched his gaze in the direction where he was headed. At the end of the seashell path rose a meek little Buddhist pagoda; the pagoda a story high had incense curling from its ceremonial braziers. Now the seashell crunch was being replaced with trod-upon dirt. He turned again to look back and see if the sappers were behind him, but he saw no one, which made him more jittery than if he saw them. A looming unknown tightened his stomach. He forced his eyes ahead, and that’s when he saw a little cart of children being pulled by two silky ponies. The ponies were trotting in front of a roadside shrine dedicated to Thien Hao, goddess of the sea.
Then, from out of nowhere and rushing at him, a pack of smudge-faced urchins. They swarmed him getting close, as if to trip him up. Badgering with a singsong nag; their fierce begging seemed a call to arms that brought forth other urchins; all of them in thread-bare rags and barefoot. And as they were swarming him- unexpectedly, suddenly, flashed blazes of fire into the air. Right behind the fire- a fierce boom that throbbed across the afternoon in echoes … on and on. The villagers in the streets, at first paralyzed, rushed about frantically; their faces contorted in disbelief and fear.
Automatically, he grabbed the child nearest him, and yelled “down,“ but neither the bui doi nor the villagers knew ‘down.’ A foreign word not familiar to a people that were, nonetheless, familiar with death and destruction. He and the child hit the ground; they were lying forwards on their bellies when the second mortar hit. The villagers thrown backwards with another deafening explosion. The first explosion, or was it the second? maybe the third, that splintered the cart and laid the trotting ponies in pools of blood. Neither David nor the child knew how many explosions there were; how could they know? They could scarcely think or breathe as they lay within the layers of fear that covered them in the walkway. In time that could not be measured, so fearsome were its moments shivering by, David lifted his head but the slightest.
With astounded eyes, he watched a village man and a small boy rising into the air. Like clouds, up effortlessly … before being dropped without a second’s delay; without a single dignity to their passing. They lie prostrate in un-earthly contortions, as if their bodies had been taken to a fifth dimension. Next, the moment came so fast … the dead child being picked up so quickly that David thought that he was imagining it. Two men divided the child’s weight between them before they lowered him into a wheelbarrow. It suddenly appeared. ‘Like the explosive; like the urchins,’ David thought. ‘Was it the breathing straws that brought guerrillas to shore to heap destruction on the fishing village?’
One of the peasants pushed the wheelbarrow away; it was filled with palms.
‘The child is lying within a palm leaf shroud.’
Then came another palm-embedded wheelbarrow.
'Wheeled up from somewhere, nowhere.’
Two villagers lifted the prostrate man and laid him in the wheelbarrow. But before he was taken off, one of the men retrieved the hat blown off the corpse’s head at the instant of the explosion. He replaced it on his head, and then he too was wheeled off with his legs and arms hanging out of the wheelbarrow.
‘As though he is too large for such a humiliating death.’
David watched the cart leaving; going beyond the village in the direction where the two paths joined.
‘Two paths; seashells and dirt. Bright waters and dark earth coming together; a village where two religions butt heads. A village of breathing straws, a some-where milk bar, and a bombed-out cathedral. Cart, ponies, and peasants here then gone like fevered nightmares into a sun-struck afternoon where now descends a vast quiet. Stilled the frogs chorus and quieted too the gecko-lizards’ love songs. Even the peace bells of the Buddhists are silenced.’
In the ensuing melee, shocked waves of indignation and exclamations rose
up to ripple up and down the streets. David, yet prostrate, waited long moments in the dirt before he moved. The throes of life crying out in outrage gave him the courage to rise from his groveling on the ground. Rising cautiously, he looked around for a long time before he pulled up the sobbing child. David tried comforting him, but the child would not stand still; he broke loose and ran off screaming with his face contorted in fear. His cries echoed behind him.
© Susan Dale September 2011
Susan writes regularly for print magazine, WestWard Quarterly, Pegasus and Hudson View. Online she has poems and fiction on Ken * Again, Smoking Poet, Eastown Fiction, and Jerry Jazz Musician, Tryst 3, Word Salad, and Pens On Fire to name a few.