A Distant Glimpse’, Simon Kewin

Illustrations © 2016 Eric Asaris



 [ trash hillside, © 2016 Eric Asaris ] Mina was half-way up one of the trash hillsides, rummaging through tattered, slime-coated plastic bags for bottle-tops and other treasures, when her eye caught the glint of light. A flash of white, up on the summit. Just some shard of glass lying at the right angle to catch the sun, but beautiful. She stood up straight, one hand shading her eyes to admire it. If she swayed backwards and forwards she could make it wink on and off. A star, her very own star, shining for her. She found herself smiling at the sight of it.

“Come on, Mina. You’ll get in trouble. You’ve hardly collected anything.” Babat, picking through the trash down the slope, looked worried. Babat always looked worried. But then he was only eight. Just a kid. Two years ago, she’d have been the same. She peered up the slope, assessing the climb, marking out a likely route.

“I’m going up to the top,” she said. “Wait here. Keep an eye on the others, okay? I’m relying on you.”

“No, Mina. The men will be here soon. They’ll beat us with their lathis again if we don’t collect enough.”

She sighed. It was hard being the leader. She missed Setu. Once, Setu had done all the thinking, all the worrying. But then she got sick and died, coughing so much that it seemed to tear her up inside, and she, Mina, had to take over the job of looking after them. Babat and Ed and the whole gang of them. She wished Setu was still alive.

“There’s an hour yet,” she said. “I’ll collect as I go up, okay? I’ll be back before you know it.”

He looked unconvinced, worry clouding his filthy face as he stood there up to his knees in rot and slime. He always worked next to her, didn’t like her to go anywhere without him. She understood. She’d lost her mother, too. Maybe that was why she’d stuck to Setu so much.

Mina set off, wading upwards. It was hard going, the piled mountain of rubbish giving way beneath her feet, slipping backwards. She’d seen more than one person engulfed by an avalanche, the whole hillside breaking free to swallow those at the bottom. She stopped and worked her way sideways, away from Babat and the others, then began to climb again. At one point she placed her foot onto a soft spot, the hillside sucking her whole leg in. She sprawled forwards, cutting her hand on the jagged top of a tin. A family of rats, nesting in the hillside there, squealed and boiled out of the hole she’d made to scatter across the hillside. She glanced down the slope to see Babat watching her, eyes wide with alarm. She waved and, heaving her leg out on the third attempt, carried on upwards. Another couple of minutes, out of breath, she reached the summit.

The rolling hills of the landfill stretched away in all directions. In the sunlit haze the scene was beautiful. She liked to come up here. The sight pulled at her, tugged on her insides in ways she didn’t have the words for. Other garbage hills lay all around. Other gangs of kids worked those other hills. Some of them she’d never even been to. This hill was their home. Their whole world. A place they’d had to defend more than once.

Kites wheeled in the sky above her. The birds didn’t fly away. She often wondered about that. They lived here, like she and Babat and the others. Everyone knew, of course, about the outside world. In the evening they told stories about it. Told of the princesses and kings who lived in their golden palaces, everything they could ever want given to them, more food than they could ever eat. Clean clothes and soft beds and machines that sang gently to send them to sleep. And when they were bored with something, those princesses and kings, they simply threw it away. Even if it still worked, even if it could still be used or eaten or worn. Then other people collected all the discarded things from the palaces and brought them to the tip. Twenty or thirty truck-loads of it each day. That was how it was.

Mina had lived her life in the landfill. When she was a baby, her mother worked the mountains and swamps with Mina swaddled to her back. Later, Mina was able to help, working beside her mother, picking through the layers in the hope of unearthing those precious treasures the site occasionally gave them. Computer chips (their use unfathomable), unbroken bottles, pens, beads. Even coins. She had a secret collection back in the hut, buried in the ground in a tin. The treasures she kept for herself. When she was alone, or the others were asleep, she would take the items out and hold them, look at them, wondering who’d once owned them, what their stories were.

She began to search for the shard of glass she’d glimpsed from down the slope. Perhaps it would be another such treasure to add to her collection. But she could see nothing. The sun was at the wrong angle. Or she’d imagined it. She worked her way around the hill-top, thigh-deep in the trash at places, setting small avalanches rattling down the slopes more than once. She was about to give up when she caught a glimmer. A flash of metal this time, not glass. Metal was good. The people outside could make marvellous things with metal. She worked her way over to it, thrilling with excitement at what the precious treasure might be.

A short brass tube housing a round, glass lens lay embedded in the trash. Heart thundering, Mina picked it up. Who would throw away such a wonder? Another, smaller lens filled the other end of the tube. A pair of brass wheels at the narrow end could be turned, allowing something within to be altered or adjusted. It was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen in her whole life.

She knew what it was, although she’d never spoken the word out loud. Saying it was awkward as her tongue tried to give birth to the difficult syllables. Eventually, she had it.

Telescope.

 [ telescope, © 2016 Eric Asaris ] She held it to her eye. She saw nothing but a blur of colours, browns and blues. She turned the wheels on the device, hoping that would make it work. The colours swirled and then snapped into sudden clarity, smudges becoming hard lines. At first she couldn’t understand what she was seeing. Then she made sense of it. One of the other trash hills, brought right up close. She lifted the telescope to look beyond. In the distance, white and gold in the haze of the horizon, she saw towers and domes, a distant glimpse of huge buildings. Bright sunlight glinting off a thousand windows. The homes of the princesses and kings. Their beauty took her breath away. She took the telescope from her eye. The palaces were gone; all she could see on the horizon was the familiar haze, as if the world stopped there.

“Mina!”

The fear in Babat’s voice was clear as he shouted up at her. Down the hill, the men had arrived in their van to collect their days pickings. They were early, and the sack she carried tied over her shoulder was still all-but empty, only a few plastic bottles to show for her morning’s work. Below her, Babat stood transfixed, looking up at her, looking down at the men, caught between them.

Mina rattled back down the slope, hastily snatching up any scraps she could see and dropping them into her sack. She took Babat’s arm and led him down to the ground, calling to the others to join them.

There was a silence as they each emptied out the treasures they’d recovered onto little heaps in front of them. One of the men kicked at Mina’s meagre pile and raised his lathi to strike.

Later that evening, the five of them huddled in the little hut they’d built against the side of the hill, sheets of rusting corrugated iron to keep the rains off when they hammered down on the tip. Mina sat quietly. When she moved it hurt sharply, all across her shoulders and back where they’d beaten her. She didn’t cry, but Babat, lying beside her, sobbed helplessly. She placed a hand on his hair, stroking him with her thumb.

There were many stories about the city. Some said it was a lair of demons, too, a place of suffering and danger as well as marvel. There had to be some truth to that, especially if that was where the men came from. Perhaps good and evil fought there, battling over those palaces. She couldn’t keep the images she’d glimpsed from her mind. When she finally closed her eyes they were still there, glowing in the sun. Setu had talked about escaping. A long and dangerous journey with terrible hazards in the way. But it had to be possible. There had to be a road for the trucks to rattle along. Mina wondered how far it was. By some magic the telescope made the buildings visible, but to walk there was a different matter. Was such a thing even possible? Was it simply a matter of distance?

For the following five days she worked as hard as she could, picking over the arriving truck-loads of rubbish, or scavenging through fresh layers exposed by the bulldozers as they moved the trash around. The pains from her wounds subsided a little, although livid bruises lit up across her back and shoulders. Each day, when the men came, her sack was full and her pile of pickings large. The man who’d beat her grunted and told her to throw what she’d found into the van.

As she did so, Mina studied the vehicle, just as she studied the great snarling trucks when she could. Was there a way to hide away underneath them? Hitch a ride to the distant city? She imagined Babat clinging on as they jolted over dusty roads. Then his tiny hands losing their grip, Babat falling to the road, the wheels jolting as they thundered over his body. No. That was no way to do it.

After five days, she finally allowed herself to work her way back to the top of the hill, picking through the garbage as she climbed so that it looked like she had no definite destination in mind. At the top, she had to kick aside tatters of plastic to find the telescope. It was still where she’d dropped it. Hands trembling, she crouched so that no one could see her and raised the device to her eyes once more.

She squatted there for half an hour, as long as she dared, studying the palaces, studying the world between her and them. The landfill stretched away for a great distance, ending in a high wire fence. Beyond lay a river and a bare brown plain of mud, scattered buildings upon it, low and square. Then, seemingly many miles further on, the great buildings. She couldn’t see roads, but she did trace the routes the trucks and carts took. When she had everything clear, a map in her mind, she slipped the telescope into her sack. Before the men came, she would add it to her collection of treasures.

That night, in the dark and the quiet, she awoke coughing. Unable to stop herself, not wanting to keep the others awake, she slipped outside into the moonlight.

“Mina! Where are you going?”

“Hush, Babat. Go to sleep. I’ll be back soon.”

Following the shadowy outlines of the garbage hills she walked for an hour or more, doing her best to move quietly in enemy territory, covering her mouth as the coughing fit continued to plague her. If she was caught by the children of the other hills they would beat her and kick her. Fortunately she reached the fence without seeing anyone. The mesh towered over her, impossible to climb. She felt around in the dirt, but it went down into the ground, too, to stop it being tunnelled under.

She followed the line of the wire until she came to a garbage mound that had been bulldozed right up against it. The fence bulged from the weight but still stood. She walked around the hill ten minutes more, until the eastern sky began to lighten and she had to hurry back to Babat and the others.

That day passed in a blur, exhausted as she was from her explorations. More than once she had to sit down and wait for the fits of coughing to pass. Babat stayed closer to her than normal, occasionally slipping things he found into her bag rather than his. When the men came, her pile was smaller than usual but fortunately not small enough to incur their wrath. She returned to the hut and lay down to sleep utterly spent. Tomorrow she would be better.

But the following day she felt worse, no strength in her muscles. She shivered even when the sun rose to warm their little tin hut. When she coughed it seemed to pull on every muscle in her body,

Babat came to her, his eyes full of worry. “Are you going to die like Setu?”

“No, of course not.”

“This is what happened to her. You’re going to leave too.”

“No. I need to rest. Tomorrow I’ll be right as rain.”

“If you can’t work the men will beat you.”

“They’ll give me a day to recover. If they kill me I won’t be able to collect for them tomorrow, will I?”

Babat looked unconvinced, but he left with Ed and the others, leading them from the hut as she normally did. She smiled at him as he left.

By that evening she knew that he’d spoken the truth. She couldn’t eat or drink. The sickness filled her. Now when she coughed it felt like something was tearing inside her. She’d slept a little, so she thought, and was surprised when Babat and the others returned, the day already over. She was burning hot but still shivered. Babat gave her water and it helped a little, trickling cold inside her.

At some point in the day she’d come to a decision. She knew what she had to do.

In the middle of the night, when the world was quiet once more, she forced herself to rise and dress. She roused the others, telling them to be quiet, follow her. She slung the bag of treasures over her shoulder, along with a length of tattered rope scavenged long ago.

“Where are we going?” said Babat. There was a note of accusation in his voice. “You need to rest. You look sick.”

The hut, the faces of Babat and the others swirled and danced in front of her, all the reliable, solid lines melting. Her legs wobbled but she refused to succumb. “Follow me. I’ll show you. It’s not far.”

She didn’t need to tell them to creep quietly past the other hills. They walked hand-in-hand, following her without further question. At the fence, she squatted and whispered to them what they had to do.

Babat looked up at the fence, at the slope of garbage she’d told them to climb. “You go first,” he said. He seemed to know what she was thinking, what she really planned.

She shook her head. All her strength was gone. “No. I’ll watch here. You go first. Tie the rope to the top of the wire and let yourselves down.”

“You’re going to follow aren’t you?”

“Of course.”

She thought he was going to refuse but then he relented. Leading Ed and the others he began to wade up the morass of trash leaning against the fence.

Twenty minutes later, Babat and the others were all on the other side, the rope dangling down long enough to let them fall uninjured to the ground. The sun was rising, a golden light in the haze of the east. She sat against the fence, slumped like the mountain of garbage, panting as if she’d been running. She handed the telescope through the wire to Babat. “Here, take this. I can’t come with you but this will guide you.”

Babat refused to take the telescope. He looked as if all his fears had come to pass.

“Please, Babat. Take it. It’s a magic telescope. Hold it to your eye and you’ll see the palaces. Keep looking and walk towards them, that’s all you have to do. Lead the others for me. Don’t look down. Don’t look around.”

Still he hesitated. She thought he might begin to cry. If he did, she didn’t know what she would do.

“Babat, I can’t look after you any more. You were right. Now you have to do this. I’m sorry.”

Ed and the others stood behind Babat, waiting to see what would happen. Finally, quietly, Babat took the telescope from her fingers and held it to his eye.

© 2016, Simon Kewin

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