The Human Child (A short story)

My short story, The Human Child, was published in Busybird Publishing’s [untitled] Issue 6. It won second place in their annual writing competition.

The Human Child

In my dream, I am a child again, no more than eight years old.  I’m back at home, in the village, standing in the yard behind the family house.  Everything burns with colour.  The sky is a rich indigo.  The grass is as green as my mother’s emerald ring.

But the woods at the edge of the property are a monstrous black.  The baka trees seem to be creeping forward, eating up the ground as they move towards me.  I want to run into the house and bury my face in my mother’s skirts, but my feet are rooted to the spot.  The sky is growing darker now, and all the colour is leaving the world.

Suddenly Sam bursts out of the woods, his chubby two-year old legs running as fast as they can.  He looks frightened, and something terrible blooms in my stomach; I have never known my brother to be afraid of anything.  I yell at him to run faster.  The black tide is nipping at his heels.  I want to go to him, to pick him up and carry him, but I still can’t move.

As he runs, the yard grows longer, and he gets further and further away.  I pull hard against the forces keeping me in place and all at once I’m running towards him, screaming his name.  I know I’m growing older as I run, the way these things are known in dreams.  By the time I reach the middle of the yard, now the size of two rugby fields, I am my normal twenty-four year old self.

Sam is growing older too.  He grows and grows until he is taller than me, until he’s the eighteen-year old boy whom I do not recognize anymore.  It’s been so long since I have looked upon his face.

We’re barely five feet away from each other when the branches of the baka trees reach forward and wrap around Sam’s feet.  He screams at me to help him, and I try, I try so hard, and for one eternal moment my fingers brush against his, but the branches are too strong and too quick and they sweep Sam off his feet, pulling him into their black embrace.

I wake up screaming.

My mind tries to dislodge itself from the nightmare and back into the real world as I fumble and flail in bed.  My heart is thundering and my hair’s matted with sweat, as if I really did run the length of those two rugby fields.  The clock on my bedside table reads 3.21am.

A loud ringing noise shatters the silence.  I let out a muffled scream, which quickly dissolves into a hysterical laugh-sob when I realise it’s just my phone.  Grabbing it from the bedside table, I frown at the screen.  It’s a private number.  For a moment I consider not picking up, even though the call must be important, given the time.

There’s a deep sense of foreboding, of something rushing towards me.

“Hello?” I say into the phone.

“Kesa?  That you?” A woman’s voice comes over the line.

“Who is this?”

“Kesa.”  The woman says.  “It’s Ari.”

Ari.  Arieta.  My big sister, whom I’d not spoken to in a little over seven years.  My heart picks up speed.

“Ari,” I say.  “What – how –”

“I got your number from Mesake’s mum.  I know it’s late but I need to speak to you.”  There’s no ‘How are you’ or ‘It’s good to hear your voice’.  I don’t expect there to be, not after how I left, but the part of me that loves my sister dies a little.

“It’s about Sam,” Ari continues.

For a moment, I see Sam being pulled back into the woods.

“Sam?  What about Sam?”

“He’s gone missing,” Ari says.

“What do you mean, gone missing?  What happened?”

“I don’t know, exactly.  It’s been three days and we still haven’t heard from him, and Ma is…she’s not doing so good.  She asked for you.”

The angry words I was ready to say Three days?  He’s been missing three days and you only tell me now? sticks in my throat.

“She did?” I whisper.

“Yes.  We were wondering if you could…if you could come back.  Here.  Home.”

Home.  I remember home.  I remember Ma’s vegetable garden in the front yard and the red letterbox held together by mismatched wood and superglue.  The way my father used to sweep through the front door after work with mud on his clothes and the way Sam and I used to race home from school, Ari following behind at a more dignified pace.  I remember the smell of the soil and the woods, and the sound of hymns on Sunday mornings.

“Okay,” I say.  My voice is resolute despite the trepidation I feel.  “Okay.”

*****

The bus travelling from Suva to Tavua is so old I half expect it to break down as soon as the driver turns on the engine.  It splutters and coughs like a chain smoker before settling into a deep rumble that never lets up during the entire eight hour ride.

I’m squashed in my seat by a large Rotuman woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and who smells of pineapples.  I try to sleep but the air is stifling and the road is riddled with potholes and there’s a baby crying in the seat behind me.

I remember Sam as a baby, how tiny and red he was, how all he seemed to do was sleep.  Even though he didn’t cry and he loved to smile, I hadn’t liked him at first.  In my six-year old eyes, my brother was a nuisance, a small thing that took up entirely too much attention.

Then one day my mother had plonked Sam in my arms and told me to look after him.

“You’re the big sister now,” she had said.

I looked down at Sam.  He had large brown eyes, and he smelled of baby powder.  When I poked his nose experimentally, he reached up with his small hand and gripped my finger.

“He loves you best, I think, Little Bit,” my father had said.

Another death rattle from the bus accompanied by a hard nudge from the Rotuman woman pulls me from my memories, and I’m surprised to find tears at the corners of my eyes.

Ari is waiting at the main bus station.  A man I recognize from the wedding photos as her husband stands beside her.  I dismiss the husband for the moment, focusing all my attention on my sister.  She’s thicker in the waist than I remember, which makes sense given the two children she’s borne.  Her long dark hair is still long and dark, but perhaps not as lustrous.  Her face, though older, is still so beautiful, and I feel the familiar awe in the presence of my sister’s beauty.

“Ari,” I say, not sure what to do.

“Hello Kesa,” she says, and pulls me in for a brief hug.  I blink furiously at the sudden sting in my eyes.

“This is Temo, my husband,” Ari says when we break apart.  I shift my attention to him.  He is a very tall man, with hands that are as big as my head.  He smiles politely at me and we shake hands.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I say, and the tall man nods solemnly.  I’m reminded of a time when I was seven and Ari was eleven and we were in our mother’s room trying on her make-up.

“When I grow up, I’m going to wear make-up every day,” Ari had said.

“Me too.”

“And my husband will tell me I’m beautiful every day.”

“What will your husband look like?”

“He’ll be very handsome, like Pa.  He’ll have nice eyes.  And tall, he’ll be very tall.”

Something of the memory must have shown on my face because when Ari’s eyes meet mine, there’s a hint of amusement in them.

*****

At first, the drive to the village is silent.  Temo drives expertly along the dirt road, maneuvering through the darkness and potholes with ease.

“Have the police said anything?” I ask after a while.

Ari’s voice is hard when she answers.  “They’re useless.  It took them two days to even come out to the house.  And then all they did was ask questions instead of getting out there and actually looking for him.  They think he ran away to Suva.  Like all the other kids.”

Like you.  The words, unspoken, hang heavy between us.

“He’d never run away,” I say.

“How would you know?” she bristles.  “It’s been a long time since you spoke to him.  Things aren’t the same, you know.  He’s grown up.”

“He wrote to me.” I shrug casually even though I feel a certain vindictive thrill.

“What?”

“Yeah.  Sometimes it would be six, seven months before I heard from him.  But he wrote.  He sent me your wedding photos.”  In the dark of the van, I see Temo’s left hand close over Ari’s right.  It goes quiet once again.

“So no one saw anything the night he disappeared?”  I break the silence.

“Nothing.  His bed was rumpled, so he must have slept in it.  There wasn’t anything missing from his room.  He’d just…vanished.”

It’s almost eleven by the time the car arrives at Veikoso.  As there are no roads through the village, we park at the entrance and continue to the house on foot.  It’s darker out here than it is in the city.  As we walk, I catch glimpses of soft figures moving against windows lit up by candlelight and the glint of an animal’s eyes in the moonlight.  There’s a yaqona session happening somewhere; I can hear laughter and the faint strum of a guitar.

We cross through Mr. Vatulele’s plantation and suddenly the house is just there, pouncing out of the dark like a monster.  The front door is open, as usual.  The only time it’s ever closed is when we’re asleep.

“I’ll see you at home,” Temo says to Ari, and with a jolt, I realize my sister no longer lives in the family home; she is a woman now, with a house and family of her own.  Temo turns to me.  “Goodnight, sister.”  He gives me a small smile before being swallowed up by the night.

Ari picks up a lantern on the doorstep and lights it.  She leads me through the house, stopping now and again to point something out, as if I’m a stranger, and the wrongness of the gesture makes me angry.  I may not have been welcome in this house for years, but I have slept here and fought here and lived here.

“I don’t need a tour,” I say.

Ari’s eyes are flint.  “Come then.  Ma’s outside.”

The blackness of the night is all-consuming in our backyard.  The only light in the world seems to come from the glow of the lantern in Ari’s hand, and even then the brightness of that light is dimmed in the face of all the darkness around us.  The woods loom large at the edge of our property, the tops of the trees reaching up into the sky.

Ma sits in the middle of the yard, some six or seven feet away from where the woods begin, her back to us.  When I draw alongside her, I see the way her eyes track the woods’ border, back and forth, searching the shadows.  She looks smaller, more fragile, more wounded than the last image I have of her: standing tall in our living room, finger pointing theatrically to the open door.  It would have been funny had it not been so heartbreaking.

Go!  After all I have done for you.  What would your father say?   Go then!  Never come back!  You hear me?  Never come back!

And I went, and I told myself I would not return, not until the stars fell from the sky and the world neared its end.  But I’d been young then, only seventeen, and time changes everything, even a hardened heart.  Or maybe the world is just ending.

“Hello Ma,” I say, crouching beside the still form.  She doesn’t acknowledge me.

“Kesa,” Ari says.  “Ma’s been…acting a bit strange since Sam disappeared.”

I frown.  “What do you mean?”  I reach out and shake Ma’s arm.  “Mama?”

She blinks and turns to me.  “Have you seen him?” she whispers.  Her first words to me after seven years, and the subject is someone else.  I feel a horrible, fleeting envy of my brother.

“No, Ma,” I say.  “But we’ll find him.”

She stares at me for a few more seconds, before turning her gaze back to the woods.

I look at Ari accusingly.  “What’s wrong with her?”

“Let’s talk about this inside,” Ari says, reaching for Ma’s arm.  “You should come back inside now, Ma.  Come and have some tea, it’s cold out here.”

“No, I have to wait for him,” she replies.  Her voice is soft, hopeful.  “He’ll come home soon.  You go.  Leave the light, maybe he’ll need it.”

“What’s she talking about?”  I demand.  “What’s wrong with her?”

Ari shakes her head.  “I don’t know,” she says, but the words don’t match her eyes.

“Kesa?” Ma says, turning to me.  There is awareness in her gaze now.  “Is that you?”

“Yes, Ma, it’s me.  It’s me.”  I touch her hair, her face, her shoulders.

“You came back.”  She places a hand against my cheek and I lean into it.  This feels like forgiveness, this feels like home.

“Of course I did,” I say.  An army of words marches up my throat and out my mouth.  “I’ll always come if you call me.  I’m so sorry, Ma.  I never meant to hurt you.  I never meant to hurt any of you.  I just wanted…I just wanted.  I’m so sorry.”

She continues to caress my cheek, a faraway smile on her face.  Suddenly the smile falls.  “You shouldn’t have come back,” she says, removing her hand.  Her voice is cold and empty now.  “I told you never to come back.”

An abnormally large bird flies out of the woods, blacker than night.  It passes over us with a loud caw and I remember what Sam used to say.

The word of a bird is a thing to follow.

“They’re watching us, you know,” Ma says.  Both Ari and I turn to look at her.  “They’re right there, can’t you see?”  She points at the woods and I can’t help staring in the direction of her finger.  I’m afraid and I don’t know why.

“There’s nothing there, Ma,” Ari says.  “Let’s get inside.”  She leans down again to grasp Ma’s arm and suddenly Ma is screaming in her face, a terrible piercing shriek that causes Ari to fall back, lantern shattering against the ground.

A flare of hot, white-blue light illuminates us for a moment as the kerosene from the lamp mixes with the fire.  Later that night, I would tell myself I was mistaken, but in that brief instant, I see a figure standing between the trees by the edge of the woods, a shadow of a shadow.

Then the fire relents, and darkness falls once again.

My eyes blur, trying to adjust.  Ma is still screaming, clawing at the grass and the soil beneath.  Ari stomps out the last meagre flames of fire and leans down to pull her away, but she is strengthened by madness and can’t be moved.

“Help me!” my sister says to me, and the command unfreezes my limbs.  Together, we grip Ma’s arms and drag her across the yard and into the house, shutting the door firmly behind us.

*****

It takes more than an hour to get Ma to calm down.  Ari does most of the work, soothing her with soft touches and even softer words until at long last the terrible screaming stops, and is replaced by nonsensical babbling so dark down there, my poor, poor baby which gradually tapers out as she falls asleep.

The screaming has drawn the attention of some of the neighbours, including Temo.  I shake my head at him and he nods in understanding, practically frog-marching the neighbours away, telling them there is nothing to see here and to go back to their homes.  My sister has found a good man.

“Here,” I say, pressing a hot cup of tea into Ari’s hands.  We sit in silence for a while, eyes on the rise and fall of Ma’s chest.  The room smells like camphor oil.  One of my earliest memories is of my mother sitting on the floor, massaging the oil into her feet after a long day at the markets.

“How long has she been like this?” I ask.

“Since Sam disappeared,” Ari answers.  “She sits outside every night, watching those damn woods.  She keeps saying he’s in the woods.”

“Have you looked?”

“Yes.  Me, Temo and some of the villagers did a search.  Nothing.”

Ma lets out a soft moan, and Ari pets her hair until she quietens.

“Do you remember when Sam was little and Ma thought he was cursed?” Ari asks, not looking at me.

I remember.  It happened when Sam was two years old.  His good nature had flown out the window seemingly overnight.  He had cried and screamed and pulled his hair.  He didn’t want to be carried and he didn’t like being sung to.  He didn’t speak and he didn’t laugh.  He was taken to the hospital in Tavua and the doctors ran a series of rigorous tests on him, but they could find nothing wrong.

Ma thought it was a draunikau, a curse, and the witchdoctor was called to their house to dispel the demon from Sam.  Ari and I weren’t allowed to watch the exorcism but when we returned to the house the next day Sam was still howling like the wind during a cyclone, so we knew it didn’t work.  The village descended into rumour and gossip, and I heard snatches of conversation here – not even his son.  Remember when she made eyes at Tevita?  I always thought – and there – get him out of the village, I mean, it’s just not natural for – and the kids at school started calling Ari and me names.

I remember taking Sam from his cot one day while my mother slept and running to the woods behind our house.

“Sam,” I cooed to the boy as he cried.  “Please stop.  They’ll take you away, don’t you see?  Please, I love you, okay?  Just be a good boy, Sam.  Be a good boy.”

And just like that he stopped.  He gazed at me, his eyes still large and brown, but there was something unsettling about his stare, something old, something knowing.  The sun ducked behind the clouds and the woods went darker, colder.  For a moment, I was actually frightened of my brother, for a moment I almost thought this isn’t Sam but then he leaned into me and put his small arms around my neck and I hugged him tight, shivering.  His touch was so cold.

“Yeah, I remember,” I say to my sister.

She’s quiet for a moment.  “There’s something I haven’t told anybody.  Ever.”  She looks at me.  “Not ever.  Not Temo or Ma, nobody.”

I nod, my heart beginning to beat faster.  “Okay.”

I watch her swallow hard.  “When Sam was little, I used to check in on him at night, sit with him for a little while,” she says, “I just…I know he loved you the best, but sometimes I just…I wanted him for myself too.”  I feel a pang at those words and opened my mouth to say something, but Ari shook her head.

“One night, the night before Sam…started acting strangely, I went to his room,” she continues.  “Everyone was sleeping.  It was late, after midnight, I think.  I noticed the room was kind of cold, and I saw the window was open, so I went to close it.”  She holds my gaze.  “And I saw something.  Something outside, just outside the window.”

Goose bumps break out on my arms.  “What did you see?”

“A monster,” she says, flatly.  “There was a monster outside.  It was small, like a dwarf, and it was shaped like a man, but its body was black and twisted, and it walked weirdly, like…like it wasn’t used to it.  It was carrying something, but I couldn’t see what it was.  It was walking away, towards the woods, but it must have sensed me or something, because it turned to look at me.  And its face, dear God, Kesa, its face…”  She begins to cry and I pull her into an embrace.

“Sshh,” I say, rocking our bodies to and fro.  “It’s okay, it’s okay.”  For the first time in my life, I feel like the older sister; I feel like the stronger one.

It doesn’t take long for Ari to pull herself together.  She looks embarrassed by her crying as she wipes her nose in the folds of her sulu.

“Do you know the changeling story?”  She asks.

“Changeling?”  Scraps of childhood fairytales come to mind.  “You mean, that story about fairies who exchange their fairy child for a human one?  What’s –”

It was carrying something, but I couldn’t see what it was.

Changeling

“No,” I say.  Ari does not look at me.  I feel myself go pale.

“No,” I say again.  “You’re wrong.  Whatever you think you saw, you’re wrong.”  She flinches.

It was carrying something.

Without another word, I leave the room.

*****

The next few days are strained.  Ma is sometimes fully cognizant and then she slips back into an almost child-like madness.  Ari does her best to take care of her, but her husband and children need her attention too, so I try to be the one Ma relies on.  Despite her aversion to doctors, I manage to convince Ma, in a rare moment of lucidity, to allow one to check her over.  The doctor diagnoses her condition as a temporary psychotic break, most probably due to the trauma of Sam’s disappearance.  There is nothing we can do but be patient, and allow her to come back to us in her own good time.

Nothing makes sense.  The police still have no leads on Sam.  Ma is half-way crazy.  Ari and I refuse to talk about the revelations from the other night.  It’s as if by not speaking about it, the entire incident could be erased.  I long for my life in the city, where everything is stable and ordered.

“Kesa?”

I glance up from my book.  I’ve been sitting with Ma for a good two hours now, keeping an eye on her as she stares up at the ceiling, mouthing words to it in silent conversation.

“Yes Ma?”

“Are you married?”

I blink.

“No, I’m not.”

“Your Pa and I were married for eighteen years.  God rest his soul.”

“I know, Ma.”

She turns her gaze from the ceiling to me.  “You were gone a long time.”

Putting the book down, I shift to sit beside her on the bed.  “Yes.  But I’m here now.  I’m back.”

She hums a little.  “Sam will come back too.  I saw him go into the woods, but he’ll come back.”

“You saw him?”

“Yes.  On that night.  Something woke me up.  I don’t know what it was, maybe the back door?  I don’t know.  I looked outside from there,” she says, pointing to the window by the bed, “and I saw him walking through the yard, into the woods.  I called him and he turned to look at me, but there was nothing in his face.  Nothing.”

The unsettled feeling in my stomach grows stronger.  “What do you mean there was nothing in his face?”

“There was nothing.  It was him, but it wasn’t.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” I ask.  “Ari said nobody saw anything that night.”

“I just remembered.  Everything’s all jumbled in my head.  I can’t…I can’t –”

Patting her hair, I shush her.  “It’s okay, never mind, it’s okay.”

Ma reaches for my hand, her dark eyes boring into mine.  “I’m sorry too, you know.  I was so angry with you.  I should never have told you not to come home.”

Bowing my head, I caress the hand in mine.

“Be careful,” Ma says.  I look up to find her eyes once more on the ceiling and I know she has gone again.  Her voice is almost robotic.  “Be careful.  There are monsters in the woods.”

*****

The trees are pulling Sam into their embrace.  He is reaching for me, and for one eternal moment, our fingers brush against each other.

Help me, he says, and I pray to God for His mercy.

But it’s too late.  I wake up with my Sam’s name on my lips.  My heart is thundering.  I lie in the dark, wishing for morning.  I want to smell the sun in the soil, and hear the village come alive.  Morning would chase away all these shadows.

A sound comes from downstairs.  It is soft, barely perceptible.  It sounds like a door opening.  I frown.  Ari and I had put Ma to sleep a while ago and she had been strangely acquiescent, despite the interruption to her nightly routine of sitting in the backyard.  Surely she’s not going outside at this hour, I think.

Slipping out of bed, I light the lantern and make my way to Ma’s room.  I open her bedroom door.  She’s sound asleep, her face turned towards me, soft snores escaping her mouth.  Slowly, I head downstairs.  The front door is closed.  I move through the living room into the kitchen.

The back door is wide open.  Lifting the lantern higher, I peer from the back door out into the yard, but I can’t see very far.  The stars are not out tonight.  I close the door softly, making sure to click the lock into place.  As I walk back through the living room to my bedroom, I feel a prickle in my spine, and a heavy dread comes over me.  I stop in the middle of the living room.

From the shadows cast on the floor by the lantern in my hand, I can see there is someone standing directly behind me.  I stop breathing.  Terror has me rooted to the spot, binding my feet into the ground.  I have never been so frightened in all my life, not even when my father had died and we were told to cover up all the mirrors in the house, to stop his dead soul from coming back to haunt the living.

The person behind me leans in and I smell soil and trees.  My fists are clenched so tight I am certain I’m drawing blood.

Kesa, the person says, and even though the voice is all wrong, even though it’s high like a bird’s chirp, I know it’s Sam.  Ma was right.  He has come home.  When I spin around, there’s no one there.  I race back to the kitchen.  The back door is open once again.

The word of a bird is a thing to follow.

“Sam!” I scream, running through the yard to the woods.  “Sam!”

The woods are dark, but the light from the lantern stops me from falling over and bumping into the trees.

“Sam!” I scream again.  I pause, listening.  Everything is still, caught between breaths.  The lantern’s fire goes out abruptly and I let it drop to the ground with a curse.  My eyes try to adjust to the gloom.  For some reason, I’m unafraid, even though I was terrified mere seconds ago.  Sam is out here, and I will not go home without him.  A slight rustle comes from the right, and I blink in that direction.

“Sam?”  I can make out the shape of someone standing a few feet away from me.  “Come home, Sam.  Please come home.” I say, taking a step forward.

Another figure separates from the darkness and stands beside Sam.  They are the same height.  They have the same leanness.

The Sams

It was carrying something but I couldn’t see what it was.

Do you know the changeling story?

I remember Sam the baby, gripping my finger with his little hand.  Sam the two-year old, angry and spiteful and cold, but still looking at me as if he loved me best.  Sam at five, not speaking to any of his classmates at kindergarten.  Sam at eight, eyes too old and knowing.  Sam at eleven, watching quietly from the doorway as I packed my bags for my life in the city.

My legs buckle and I fall to the ground.

“Sam,” I whisper and then I start crying.  I don’t know who I’m crying for; my parents, Ari, myself, Sam.  Sam, the changeling, Sam the human child.  They are both my brother.  A hand touches my neck as I kneel there, head bowed.  The hand rests at my nape for a long while.  The touch is cold.

Then he is gone.

*****

The next morning burns blue and bright.  I lie in my bed while the roosters crow and the dogs bark.  In the light of day, the events of the previous night seem unreal, dream-like.  But there’s mud on my feet and dried tear tracks on my face.  The ache is still there in my chest and I know it will be a constant thing now, a grief I will have to bear for the rest of my life.

Because my brother is never coming home.

I go outside and find Ma and Ari sitting in the backyard, eating buttered bread dipped in tea.  I sit down next to them.  Ari offers some of her bread and I accept it with a smile.  Ma touches my arm fleetingly, eyes still darting towards the edge of the woods.

“Will you stay a while?” Ari asks.

Overhead, a bird calls.

“Yes,” I say.  “I’ll stay.”

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4 thoughts on “The Human Child (A short story)

  1. Vivien Ngo

    Dear Andrienne

    My name is Vivien Ngo living in Sydney. I am one of your fans who read your stories in Sunday Telegraph weekly. I like your sense of humour that makes stories interesting. Can’t wait to read new story in the ST.

    Cheers,
    VN

    Reply

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