‘Arrow’, Barry King

Illustrations © 2012 Cécile Matthey

 [ Civet, © 2012 Cécile Matthey ] The day I was chosen by Fletcher, I had killed Civet. Sango and Chelo and I were playing with our barbañas—the small bows given to boys to play at hunting. Papa had been unhappy with me for killing the small sparrows that cluster like mice on thin branches. Like mice, they have no wisdom, no breath-spirit, he told me.

That day, I was leader of our little hunting-party. I wanted to take away the shame I felt, so I called the hunt in the early hours, and we went, barefoot in the cool damp of early morning. I remember us being very serious, as only boys can be when they play at being men.

Civet was coming home to sleep. We smelled him first. We trod the path lightly, the swish and crackle of leaves under our feet quieter than Leopard-Cat’s wake. Pulsing choruses of shrieking birds and hissing beetles masked our breathing. We were dark and invisible in the canopy-gloom, where dawn comes late in broken blue fragments from above. I took care to keep the clearing behind me, and well that I did, because when Civet returned to his home, dawn light filled his eyes with a blue-green glow and I saw him.

I think it was because of that meeting that Fletcher chose me. There, beneath the slender bone-arms of the Batam-bush, Civet and I met for the first time as equals. I could see his shape against the broken sky above. One hand was raised, poised to take another step along the branch, and that’s when our eyes met, and he knew me and I knew him. He stopped for me and offered his breath-spirit to me like a mother gives her child nutmeats she has chewed herself. The spindly shaft, iron-tipped, sped true from the rickety little barbaña and caught him just below his chin, but he was already dead, having given his spirit to me with his eyes.

I picked up the shaft, and Civet hung from the end. That is how I carried him back to our longhouse, holding him by the arrow buried in his neck, an ugly gap of red around the wound marring the pattern of his coat. His smell was strong like smoke, but animal and potent, and it surrounded us like the morning chorus, giving us the strength of his blessing. I was thrilled at my first real kill, and was looking forward to Papa’s praise, mother’s stew, and basking in the respectful gaze of Sango and Chelo, who were already looking to me as if I was Headman.

Fletcher was waiting. We did not see him until he was right there in front of us. He was sitting on a rock in the clearing, his knees up under his chin, his old, creased face the skull of Death himself. Like Death, he watched me with cold, dark, patient eyes, and for a space of a few breaths, I felt apart in the world from the others. Only Civet, myself, and the arrow that joined us were real beneath the gaze of Fletcher. He stood slowly, unfolding from his seated position until he stood above us, looking down from the rock. He stepped down lightly and made a brief gesture to the others. Sango and Chelo ran back to the longhouse without a word.

Fletcher looked at me, his head bent down, studying me and Civet. He paced around me, and I felt his eyes all over. I didn’t dare move. Then he squatted down and examined the arrow, running his finger along the shaft and touching Civet where it pierced his coat. He ran his finger through the blood. Then he looked up and asked me, “Did you make this?”

I nodded, unable to speak.

He touched me, then, right at the breastbone, where Civet had been pierced, making a small circle. I had never seen Fletcher this close. I looked into his headdress, which swept up over his head. His hair had been woven with feathers from the Red Macaw and the Orange Pangpang. His brow was bound by a bright cloth into which thin wires of gold had been woven. They shone in the early morning light from the mist above the canopy.

He led me back, behind the thick stilts of the longhouse, to the small hut outside where he lived apart from the others. His two wives were outside the hut, coaxing the fire back to life from the embers. He waved them away and told me to take the arrow out of Civet while holding him over the fire. I did. The arrow was barbed and did not come out cleanly. A trickle of blood fell from the wound and hissed on the hot coals. The smell of cooking mixed with the musky smell of the animal, mixed with the smoke from the fire. He took Civet from my hands and gave him to his older wife, a woman almost as ancient as himself, telling her to prepare a feast with her own hands and her hands alone.

Then he broke my arrow. He did it quickly, snapping it like a twig and throwing it into the fire. I wanted to stop him, but I knew I should not. Fletcher is the master of arrows, and all arrows are his, even the ones I make for myself.

I listen, as I always do in the night. Maybe the liquor hides the Little-Men from me. Maybe there are no Little-Men. But I am still afraid in this mill-house. I feel them, I think, sometimes. I feel they are angry with me. Or maybe they are just angry.

Someone is crying. It is Chelo. He cries because his mother is dying. The missionary said it is because she lived a bad life, and she must accept it. He must accept it. But it is the old logger that is to blame, I think. He put his death into her before it killed him. A woman should not outlive two husbands.

It only takes a day, now, to reach the village by truck. With five days off from work, we decided to stay two days. Now I wish we had not gone. Yalai was there, still, with her shop. She will not speak to me anymore. But she will sell me rum. She is still cold in her eyes, as before. Cold and strong like the river. She will outlive me. She will outlive all of us.

I don’t remember coming in last night. Chelo and I started drinking before we reached the logging-camp. He is mourning his mother. I can’t say what I’m mourning. But it was I who bought the rum.

I raise myself on my elbows. “Chelo,” I tell him in our own tongue, “be strong. She will live. You’ll see. You’ll be paid again next month, and then we can buy her more medicine.”

“The medicine doesn’t work. The Murphy said so.”

The Murphy—the missionary in the village—would know. He is a healer, one of theirs they call “Doctor”. He knows about their illnesses.

I roll over, facing away from Chelo. He still follows me, like he did years ago. Maybe there is a Little-Man in him that wants to remind me how I have failed. Maybe it is Fletcher’s death that waits in him. Waiting for his time to strike me from behind, like the arrow you never see, never hear.

Fletcher never taught me to make arrows. But he showed me how to make the hunter’s bow. While his wife was preparing Civet for the feast, he took me to the longhouse. Mama was weaving on the boards of the high room where the morning sun came in. She was sitting in the sunlight, the weaving stick between her feet, humming a weaving-song. She did not see me enter with Fletcher, but kept pulling the cords and knotting them back and forth. Fletcher touched my shoulder and nodded his head at her, so I went to her to show her I had come back from the forest. First she touched the spot on my neck.

“Did you cut yourself?” she asked me.


“It looks like blood.”

“He put it on me,” I said, and pointed to Fletcher.

She squinted at the shadow behind me. Fletcher was quiet. Mama was quiet, too. She stood up and rolled her unfinished cloth around the weaving stick. She did not look at Fletcher.

“Where is your husband, Ayani?” Fletcher asked.

She would not speak to him. Instead, she thrust an arm towards the hills.

“Tell him I will take the boy to the hill. He will go to the tree now.”

She looked down at her feet and said nothing. Then she turned away from us and disappeared into the gloom of the rear.

“Mama?” I called for her, but she did not answer. I went to follow, but he stopped me with a touch on my shoulder.

“Come. You must come with me now. We have a thing we must do before you can return.”

I was too scared of him to say no. We walked a long way, along the ridge towards the high lauan trees. I watched his feet as he led the way. This I learned about Fletcher from walking with him that first time: when he walked, he moved with perfect precision. His feet thought for themselves, like the feet of Leopard-Cat. His legs placed every footfall exactly where it was best to step, like the legs of Mouse-Deer. His arms swam through the underbrush, gliding smoothly through the thicket like long-tailed Macaque goes through the branches above. His head scanned the forest, taking in all sights and sounds like wide-eyed Tarsier. But his body he held like a man, his torso and his chest never rising or falling, never tilting this way or that, always in balance. He must have been older than any man of the village, but he moved like a man half his age and twice as strong. He took me to the highest lauan tree that stood on the top of the hill above the longhouse, and had me sit. He gave me water from a gourd at his belt, and he gave me a leaf to chew. He called it kampar. It was strong-tasting and made me gag, but he had me swallow it all with small sips from his gourd. I coughed many times, and my nose began to run and my lungs hurt like I had breathed in smoke. I squeezed my eyes shut to stop the burning.

Then he showed me how to make the Little-Man. He began to tap me on the chest where the blood was. He was singing, and my ears were ringing as I coughed. I thought I was coughing up a bit of stuff from my lungs, trying to clear them, but it fluttered in my chest like a live thing. Like a butterfly.

When his song ended, he whispered in my ear. “Let the Little-Man out. The Little-Man that you trapped today.”

I tried to cough it up, but it wasn’t in my lungs. It was in my chest somewhere, and just as I felt I couldn’t gasp another breath, something came out of me. It seemed to come out of my chest, not out of my mouth, but in my mouth there was a taste like blood.

“Good, good,” he said, and patted my back until I could breathe again. My eyes stopped stinging, and I felt a calm come with the end of my coughing, like falling into your hammock after you have walked all day, toe-to-heel, on the forest-tracks. He made me sit on a root of the tree and rest.

Sitting with him there up on the hill in the sunlight, the biting flies were at my hands and feet, and I swatted at them while we talked. He said that before he could teach me to hunt properly, I had to have the Little-Man taken from me.

“Today, you think you killed Civet. You did not. He gave you his life. So you took his death as well.”

I told him I didn’t understand. The flies were distracting me, though they didn’t bother Fletcher.

“When a thing, whether fish, or bird, or beast, gives his life, he also gives his death. The death must be spoken for, or it will always look for a chance for vengeance.”

I slapped a biting fly. “Even flies?”

“No. You do not understand. Listen to me. When a thing gives its life. Chooses to give it. Civet gave you his life. You are a man, so his death is a man for you. A Little-Man that waits for you, waits for a chance to pierce you like he was pierced by your arrow.”

“Where did it go?”

“I put him in the tree. You will learn to do this.”


He looked at me with those eyes. I stopped slapping the flies. Under those eyes I felt like a fly myself. He could just swat me down, and my death would take me away just like that. It would mean nothing to either of us.

“I understand,” I said slowly, because I did. This pleased him.

We talked for a while. He spoke slowly, in a gravelly voice. I asked him about the tree. He smiled and touched it, both of his dry dark hands clasped around the rough grey bole before him.

“Many deaths live in this tree. Fletcher before me filled it with deaths. And Fletcher before him. It is full of deaths, this lauan. You will fill it with your deaths when you return from the hunt. And one day, if it is your fate, you will know a Little-Man has come to a youngster, and you will teach that one to put his deaths into this tree.”

“Do all the hunters do this?”

“No, only the Fletcher.”


“Why should flies matter? Come. Before the day is over, we must plant a panaka-vine.”

Everyone knew what the panaka-vine was for. “To make a bow?”


“For who?”

“Who do you think? Your mother?”

“But it will take years to grow!”

“Of course. And when you are ready, it will be ready.”

Soon the yellow-cap men will come out of the mess-hall and start up the great yellow machines. They are building again. This means they are first tearing down. Clearing.

For now the rhythm of the birds and the hissing of the crickets and the cicadas and tree-frogs weaves around me. The music swells and fades like a vast pair of lungs, breathing in sleep. My heart stirs with their song, and I feel the spirit of Leopard-Cat still there, crouched in the darkness of my chest.

I breathe deep the musty scent, and catch a whiff of pig, reminding me of why I’m out here.

Balthazar the cook gives me a two-handled stock pot, deep and heavy, filled with tailings and mash for the pigs. His back hurts him as he leans out of the back door and lowers it down to me. He complains, grinding his golden teeth as I take the pot off his hands. The dogs under the kitchen floor get up and follow me, but not all the way to the fence. I don’t think they like the smell of pig. I don’t, either, but it is better than diesel-smoke, which robs the body of its strength.

I look around, but nobody is watching. Behind a board by the sty I have a cracker-tin. Inside I keep some money and my cigarillos. I can’t keep them in the dormitory, they get stolen, so I keep them here with some dried meat and a fire-piston. Only I feed the pigs, so my secret is safe, even the other tin, the new one. Before I dump out the pig-swill I light a cigarillo from the piston’s burning punk and blow the smoke into the roof of the sty so it doesn’t show in the mill-windows.

The smell of tobacco wakes the pigs. They come running up, tails and ears bobbing, their little black eyes hungry. They remind me of someone, but before I can think who, Chelo calls me. He is calling me up the hill. I point to the stock pot with my chin. He shakes his head. He looks angry. No. He looks worried. He hunches forward and begins to run down the hill to me with little quick steps, his hands out, jiggling in the early light. He has grown fat here, in the mill camp. His chin wobbles. I know who I was thinking of, now. But that thought makes me worried, and I do not laugh. I stub out the cigarillo and pick up the pot as he reaches me.

“Did you hear about Raul, big-brother?”

“The foreman?”

“He is in the infirmary, getting bandaged up.”

I chuckle. “Did he cut off his pee-pee?”

“No, big-brother, I am serious. He has been beaten.”

The pigs are pushing each other aside to get at the peelings. “Who by?”

“Villagers, he thinks. It was dark. He was locking up and saw people in the shed.”

“Does he know who?”

“No, big-brother. It was dark.”

He calls me big-brother now and sometimes I call him little-brother, just like the villagers do. But it upsets me. More than Raul being hit would upset me, I know. Raul is a liar and a thief. I tell Chelo I suspect he has been selling the yellow-hats’ things to the villagers and maybe this time he was cheating them.

“Is he hurt?” I ask.

“Not much. They hit him on the face. But they took everything.”

“Everything in the shed?”


“We’re lucky, then.”


“No work today. Not until they replace what was stolen.”

Chelo grins and snorts with laughter. More than ever, he looks like a pig. I am afraid for him. Run, little-brother. Run away. But he does not.

Seven years it took to make my bow. Fletcher and I tended the vine and made it grow into the right shape. When he and I hunted together, we would always go check on my vine before going to the hill to fill the spirit-tree. I had learned to make the Little-Man without kampar-leaf. I could feel each death in me. I had learned how to keep them in place so they would do me no more harm than the biting flies and I learned how to put them into the tree.

But the days became harder. We had to walk further, then, to hunt. There were more villagers coming, and they often went into the forest, chasing away game with their boots and their rifles and their stupidity.

Sometimes the villagers would come to the longhouse. Not often, but often enough that they learned the trade words: one, two, three, rice, knife, saltfish, yam, pork, cassava, taro, gold, glass, venison. Words like that. At first they had little to trade except gold coins and gold teeth. They were a poor people, and their hair was red and brittle because they were hungry and had nothing but millet.

Later on, they had meat again because they brought their black buffalo from the down-lands. But before, during the hungry time, during those first years while I was waiting for the vine to grow, the down-landers were at war. The warriors of the North had killed them with great machines like dragonflies, and the villagers were afraid to go down to their old lands or to clear fields to raise cattle on.

Chelo learned their tongue. He told me they were poor because there were too many of them to live in the village, and not enough for everyone to eat. They were bad hunters. We traded meat with them, because they were so bad at getting it themselves. That way, I gained a good steel knife that I used to make my bow. They said it was “steel from the legs of the sledge that moves itself”. Now I know they mean “spring-steel”, but then I did not understand.

When I cut the vine and made my bow, I made it alone in the woods. I made several bows in the seven years before that. Each was better than the last, Fletcher said, but only the last one mattered. This bow was made from only one piece. It was cut with only one knife, and Fletcher warned me that if I should break it, or break the knife in making it, that I should never make another. That is how the Little-Men tell us our fate. Fate is for only one man at a time.

That year, I almost took a wife. Or I should say she almost took me. Living with Fletcher, I did not go with the girls like the other boys did. So when it came time for me to take up my new bow, I had no woman to make the patum, the wrist-guard, from her hair. Yalai made mine and she came to me when I was alone with the knife and the bow was almost finished. Her footfalls were quiet, but not timid, and she kept her eyes high. I put down the bow and she knelt in front of me, tied on the patum to see if it fit. It did, and she laughed at her cleverness. “You must keep it now,” she said and went away smiling. The strength of her spirit warmed my heart.

Yalai was always the only one for me, and I courted her with gold, but I did not win her over. We ran out of time for that.

Chelo and I do not want to be drawn into some other kind of work, so when Foreman tells us we are not working today, we go up onto the hill to watch the yellow-hats bring down a big lauan tree. When the charges go off, there is a flash of fire that fades before a huge crack like thunder shakes the air around us. Every bird for as far as the eye can see rises up into the air at once. It looks as if leaves from every tree are falling up into the sky. For a second, the whole forest holds its breath.

Fletcher used to say that Death comes with every breath. Every time we breathe out, the breath-spirit waits for a sign from Death. If we do not die, we breathe again. And again. And again. But one day, Death nods, and the breath-spirit leaves forever. I waited for the forest to breathe again.

“Was that one of them?” Chelo asked.

I know what he means. “A spirit-tree? No. No Little-Men in that one.”

The tree starts to fall. Its shaft is perfectly straight, shattered on one side from the dynamite. I think of a feather, drifting softly down to the forest floor. But when it strikes a lesser tree, there is the shimmer of splinters flying, then the sound of smashing and screaming of wood.

The cracking and shifting dies at last and the drone of chainsaws begins, great flies buzzing in the woods. We turn away.

“Hey you. You guys. Hey!” says a voice from behind. It is Tommy Dos Santos, from our work-gang. He is the only down-lander in the camp, tall and yellow-skinned. We watch him approach and say nothing.

“Raul told me to find you,” he says, out of breath, when he comes close. I’ll never get used to how the villagers smell. Sour and bitter. Fletcher used to think it was from eating beef and palm-oil. But we all eat the same now, out of cans. Tommy still smells like a villager.

“There’s going to be some company-men,” he says.

“You mean more yellow-hats?”

“No, big men. VEE EYE PEAS. Foreigners. From the head office.”

“Why are they coming here?” said Chelo. I was worried, too.

“I don’t know. Maybe they want to see what’s going on.”

Chelo wrinkles his brow, but I am curious. “Why did Raul send you to tell us this, Tommy?”

He has the goodness to look embarrassed. “He wanted me to say that you are not to talk about what happened last night.”

“You mean we are not to let them know he let the shed get robbed.”

“He didn’t let it. They beat him.”

I say nothing.

“Besides,” says Tommy, “it’s Boss who says don’t tell. He doesn’t want the Company Men to be worried.”

They must be important, then, if Boss is also afraid of them.

“You’ve told us, then,” I say. I suspect something. I say, “You want to stay? I have smokes.”

He looks tempted. I think it might be him who had been stealing my cigarillos, but he doesn’t give away enough in his face for me to be sure.

“No, I need to get back. You should get back, too. They need people to help with the visit.”

“Not me,” said Chelo, and looks up to me for confirmation.

I don’t give it. “I think I will come. I would like to see these VEE EYE PEAS,” I say.

Chelo puts a sulking face on, like the boy he will always be. “You can stay, Chelo,” I say to him. Stay, little-brother. Please stay.

“No, I want to see, too,” he says, lying.

Hunting became very bad after I had my bow. The villagers had taken far too much game and we had to make a long trek every day. There was trouble, then, among our tribe. Some wanted to move the longhouse up past the Spirit-Tree Hill, closer to where the game was. Some wanted to hunt the villagers, and to chase them from the forest.

Fletcher would not say one way or another. I did as he did, and remained silent.

One day, as we rested, Fletcher said, “If the tribe goes upland, we will find other tribes, other villages, and we will soon have to go upland again. And again. Then we will reach the green mountains where game is sparse. In your life, maybe your child’s life, we will be gone. We need to stay where we are. But if we fight the villagers, they will hunt us with rifles.” A long time he thought about this. All night and into morning.

The next evening he announced to all the people in the longhouse that he and myself would hunt Pig together, just the two of us, and there would be a feast, because we would bring back the game that had gone away.

We went over Spirit-Tree Hill to the plateau and found a run where a great old boar had been rooting. We put cooked yams on a banana leaf on the ground every day. Every day, we placed them closer to the longhouse. “When hunting Pig, you must draw him to the place where you will kill him,” said Fletcher.

On the seventh night, his wives led the dancing. We dug a pit down near the village, where the villagers hunted. He showed me how to knot the bark of the panaka-vine into rope and from rope into a net strong enough to hold Pig. He told me this was an up-lander net. Down-landers only made nets for catching fish.

“The up-landers are good hunters, but they are foolhardy. When they hunt Pig with the arrow, too often the hunter is killed. Pig will hold on to his life until he has put his death into you. Then he will tear you open and take his death back. Unless you hit him just right, an arrow will not kill him, and he will not give you time for a second.”

“So we will shoot him in this hole? That does not seem right.”

“No. No shooting. The bow will bring the death only to you. You must not use a bow with Pig. Only an arrow.”

He did not explain more. Instead, he sat me down on the other side of the track with the yams in the pit between us.

We waited for Pig. Quietly, so quietly I could barely hear him, he spoke. “Today’s hunt is different. We will not take a Little-Man to the tree. Instead, we will make him work for us.”

I waited for the racket Pig makes when he come through the thicket. Nobody is stronger than Pig, and he moves without fear.

“Game will no longer come here because the Little-Men swarm like biting-flies,” he said, “they are chasing away others of their kind. Pig will clear the Little-Men away. That is how Pig dies. Then the game will come back.”

“Pig too?”

“No, Pig will never come again to where he was killed. He is too wise for that. Kill him, and you drive him away forever.”

When Pig did come, the netting wrapped him tight. It took all our strength to drag him out. Fletcher showed me how to kneel on his shoulder and to push the arrow into the vessel in his neck. All the while, Pig kicked and screamed. It was the loudest scream I have ever heard in my life. My ears rang, even after Pig’s last blood drained out, taking his death with him. Fletcher told me this is why you must bleed a pig. To let the death out.

“He is so loud. I wanted him to stop,” I said.

“No,” he said, “the scream chases the Little-Men. Nothing is stronger against them!”

And for a while, the game did return and the villagers stayed away. But I never saw Pig again this side of Spirit-Tree Hill.

Emmanuel the houseboy is missing, ever since last night. Balthazar swears he was in on the robbery, but I can’t believe it. Emmanuel is a calm man, young, and slight of build. When we left the longhouse he was half my height and he grew taller but not strong. There is no strength in him to swing a club, no fire in his heart to want to.

“So why is he gone, then?” Balthazar asks me. I try to imagine Emmanuel striking Raul with a club and I can’t. Emmanuel always apologizes, even when he has done nothing wrong. I remember being harsh with him when I was drunk. He just looked down, said no word. I told him to go away, to get out of my sight. He kept his head down and ran, like a little boy, away from me. We have neither seen nor spoken since then. I wish we had. I want to tell him I’m sorry for making him run. I don’t know why I did it. I think of what Yalai told me, and I think I am becoming a wicked man.

One of Boss’ helpers catches me in the hallway as I am headed for the kitchen.

“You have good clothes you can change into?” he asks.

I say “yes, I do,” which is true. I bought them before I came to the camp, although I never wear them. I have a fine shirt and some good pants and shiny good shoes. I don’t want to say how I got them.

“You need to wash up, though,” he says to me. This is also true. I smell of rum and sweat from the hillside. I ask where I am to go. He says, “Kitchen duty. Go to Balthazar. He’ll tell you what you need to do.”

“No, you tell me.”

He tells me. I laugh. “They can’t serve themselves coffee?” I ask.

Boss’ man looks at me sternly. “They are too important!”

I am about to say that he can find someone else. But I don’t. I want to see these Company Men.

There are no dances when one hunts Leopard-Cat. Leopard-Cat is wise, and he listens at the edge of the firelight and listens to people talking. When Fletcher told me what we were going to do, he whispered it in my ear through his cupped hands. Then we made loud talk about how tired we were and how we were going right to sleep. That is how you fool Leopard-Cat.

We met him by the stream that runs down from a seep on Spirit-Tree Hill. The moon was half-full, which is the right time to be hunting him. When the moon is full, he can see everything in the forest and will stay away. When the moon is dark, you will never see him, even if he walks beside you. But at half-moon, you can see him in the water and that is the only time you can kill him, because his Death is blinded by the sight of the moon on the water. It is like looking into the sun is to us, but when Leopard-Cat is thirsty, he will risk blindness for water.

Fletcher and I had hunted so many years together that we no longer spoke. He knew what I was going to do before I did it, and I could feel him move before he moved. When we moved through the forest, our thoughts were mingled like breath, and like breath, we felt the other’s movements without seeing them.

So when Leopard-Cat came to the water, I knew it was I who would be taking him. And then it happened the second time. I saw right into Leopard-Cat’s eyes and he knew me, and he gave me his life with his eyes. The shaft struck him between the ears, and like Civet, he was dead before the arrow pierced him.

Fletcher saw what had happened, and the cold light of the moon on his face was terrible to see. And I understood something, then, that he never had to explain. Death was in Fletcher, like a Little-Man that had not been purged. Death had grown steady and patient and fat in Fletcher. His time had come.

Right there, he skinned Leopard-Cat with my good steel blade and put the bloody skin over my head, the fore-claws knotted under my chin.

“Now you will carry the Little-Man of Leopard-Cat in you. Like Leopard-Cat, you will walk unseen and silent. No one will see or hear you, and you will deliver them their death.”

“Am I to be Fletcher now?” I asked, but he said nothing.

The last arrow I will ever make had already been broken and burned.

Balthazar shows me how to hold the tray.

“Remember,” he says, “always come from their right. Let them fill their cup on the tray and put in sugar or milk. Let them do it for themselves. That is what they prefer.”

I nod. I almost want to laugh at how serious he is treating this. He sees my face, and he is troubled, more frightened than angry.

“Don’t laugh. It will go badly for us if you laugh.”

“I won’t laugh. Don’t worry. Why so serious?”

“These are big men. Very powerful men.”

“I know. VEE EYE PEAS. You said.”

“Listen to me. Without these men, there would be no camp. There would be no logging. These are the men that began this camp and many others. I have children, brother. I need these men. They feed my family, and without them, we would starve.”

“You could hunt,” I say.

He looks down and it shames me. It was unworthy to show him his weakness.

“There are a hundred camps like this,” he says in a whisper, “a hundred Balthazars. If they decide that they don’t like this camp, they could close it. Like that,” he says and snaps his fingers. “Don’t get me in trouble. Please.”

“Don’t worry, Balthazar. They will not hear or see me.”

This much, I know, is true.

I heard the noise of the helicopter coming from below; I thought it was a night-spirit coming to take me to the house where they live. I had heard that noise once, in a dream. A Little-Man grabbed me once while I was sleeping and the noise was everywhere around me, like I was caught in a drum being played. I was terrified, and he shook me a long time before he let me go. Fletcher told me it was just a mischievous ghost and I should ignore it.

But after that, I was frightened of the night-spirits, so when I heard the noise again, I got up quickly so he could not catch me. Then I noticed the noise was coming from outside the longhouse, not from a dream. I had just made it down into the light of daybreak when the first rockets hit.

I am a logger. I have grown used to the sound of wood being torn apart by explosions, but this was the first time I had heard that noise. I believed the world was over. The world was over, in a way. I could not tell the difference between the scream of wood and the scream of the dying.

Again and again the rockets came. Each one a burst of flame and a noise so loud I thought my bones would shatter. The longhouse was ripped apart behind me. Mama was screaming. Papa was screaming. Fletcher’s wives were screaming. Only Fletcher was not screaming. He stood at the mouth of his hut and looked up at the helicopter. He raised his arms to it and I think he was calling his Death. The hut around him burst into a ball of flame and I saw the old man fly from the door like a broken sheaf of branches.

I ran to him. To him. Not to my mother and father. Not to the longhouse. I did not try to save anyone but him. I ran to the broken body of Fletcher and knelt by him while the helicopter flew off, happy and fat with our deaths.

He was burned on one side and one arm was a broken tree-stump. But one eye was clear and one hand reached out to touch me where Civet’s lifeblood had been put on me. I leaned in and he whispered in my ear to tell me what I am. That’s when I learned I was never to be Fletcher. There would be no more Fletchers.

Yalai found me there, long after sunrise. She had been calling for help, but no one came. She cursed me. She told me I was worse than an old woman. While I sat there, her little brothers had burned alive, and I had done nothing. Her shouting brought me to motion, but not to life. I helped her to get whoever was left out of the collapsed longhouse. Her mother was alive in there, but her father was not. I found my mother and father as well, but they had died. Sango was gone, too. Half of his face was smiling, the rest was cut away as if with a fine steel knife. I fainted to see this. Yalai kicked me awake again. Then we got everyone together and walked to the village.

Coffee is over. I am waiting in the bar, pretending to wash glasses in the small sink there. Boss is with Chelo, speaking the yellow-hats’ language to a Company Man. The Company Man smiles. He looks satisfied and kind, but his eyes are small, black and shiny like Pig’s. He says something and walks across the room to another Company Man. Chelo and Boss step aside and start to talk quietly.

Without looking at anyone, I step out of the room. But only partway. There is a small dark space near the door where I can stand out of sight at the edge of the room and listen. I listen to Boss.

Boss is speaking the villager’s tongue, because he does not want the Company Men to know what he is saying. I understand most of it. He is happy I served coffee so well. He thanks Chelo for bringing me. Chelo does not say anything.

Boss then says something I never heard before. He says that maybe all the logging camps will soon shut down, and the company men are here to decide if this will be so. They came here today because this mill is better than the others and they want to know why. Boss knows why. He says the Company Men think we are down-landers. Everyone knows down-landers are lazy.

So he asks Chelo to have dinner with them. He needs Chelo to tell the Company Men that people from our tribe are happy the mill is here. Boss says it’s important that Chelo and I show that we are better men. Maybe Chelo will go back with the Company-men to their country, where he can tell everyone how happy our tribe is to have the camps. Then, when their countrymen all see we want the logging jobs, they will decide to keep the camps going.

Boss then says maybe Chelo will be boss himself someday, with a mill of his own. But first he must show how happy we are that the Company Men are here. One tree at a time, Boss says. “One tree at a time clears the forest”, he says.

Chelo says he will help. And he says he will get me to serve at dinner to show we are good workers and how happy we are that the camp is here for us.

He will not run. I won’t ask him again.

I walk back into the room and Chelo and Boss stop talking. But they look at me. They are the only ones. I walk through the room and pick up the empty cups and put them on my tray. Nobody sees me, nobody notices I am there. Even in my white shirt and my shiny shoes, I am invisible.

There were twelve of us left, and three were children. Of these, I carried one, and Yalai carried another and Chelo led the third by the hand. Everyone came out to see us. They stood in their doorways and watched us, eyes wide.

When we explained what had happened, the big man of the village did a strange thing. He opened his mouth as big as it could go and bent over like he was going to be sick. Then he wiped tears from his eyes and welcomed us. He went to the main square and told everyone there to make us welcome and to spare us what they could spare, and to take us in if they could.

Then he went back to his house and did not come out for some time. I wondered at that, but by nightfall, I understood from what I heard from the women talking with Yalai. The helicopter had made a mistake and thought the longhouse was the village. They had been spared, and now they owed us a debt that they did not want to pay, but they also could not refuse. For a while, we were given food and we were given shelter, but not happily and not for long, except for the Murphy, who took in the children.

Yalai sold her gold bracelets, even the two I gave her, and bought a house for her and her mother to live in. Chelo’s mother left and married a logger only two days after we arrived. She told Chelo not to come to the wedding; not to the logger’s house. Chelo was not to be her son anymore. The logger was jealous and did not want a stepson.

We lived on the street in the village for a while, me and Chelo and the other men, until the winter rains came. Yalai invited Chelo to live in her house for a while. She had heard how he tried to see his mother, but his stepfather beat him and his mother did nothing. Yalai did not want me there, but Chelo did, so she let me sleep on the floor in the main room and let the other men stay, too. Chelo slept by my side. He clung to me close like a child for the first few days, and then he stopped talking for a while. None of us spoke much.

Many people came through the village that winter. The war was ending, they said. They said that everyone was now “Citizens of the Prosperity Zone”. And when the New Year Moon was new, the villagers lit firecrackers and made the beast they call Dragon, which is their way to chase away the Little-Men that the war had made.

Yalai gave the dragon-men money to do this in her house. Also, she only cooked beef now. No pork. No civet. I understood. She was telling us that she did not need us anymore.

But I know she really meant me. She wouldn’t tell me to my face. She would only talk to me if I was with Chelo or someone else, and then she would talk to all of us at once. She never spoke to me as a person. Bile sat in my throat when she talked without looking at me.

I left. We all did, but only Chelo stayed with me afterwards. After that, Yalai turned the house into a shop with rooms to rent. She bought and sold with the boat-men and she made a place for people to eat and sleep, but only if they had money. People were traveling again.

Then there was talk of yellow-hat men in the forest. Even when people began to talk about the new logging-camp they were building, I never saw one of the yellow-hats until I went to their camp. They flew in with their helicopters and began logging. I sold my bow and I sold the skin of Leopard-Cat, and I sold my good knife. I bought good down-lander clothes and I hired a truck and I took Chelo with me to the new camp.

It was the hardest thing I ever did, walking into that terrible mill. That mill made of white planks of the lauan tree cut from the tallest tree on the hill. From Fletcher’s tree.

Walking through the doorway, Chelo behind me, I could hear the Little-Men buzzing like biting-flies. All those deaths, all those vengeful spirits. They filled the air. They filled me. But I was dead; just as dead as they were, and it no longer mattered. They did not see me and they did not hear me. I had become nothing more than an arrow, flying blindly in the dark.

“Keep the cover down until you’re ready to serve it. I don’t want any flies getting on the chicken,” says Balthazar as he hands me the tray. I nod. He trusts me now, and doesn’t watch me as I go out the door.

Between the dining-room and the kitchen is the pantry. There is a door there to the outside, to the garbage-hut and the path down the hill to the pigs. Instead of walking past it to the dining-room, I turn into it with my shoulder. It opens out, the long spring chiming against the frame. Flies are so thick they darken the air. They swirl around me in the hot afternoon sun like Little-Men in the darkened dormitory. I run, holding the cover on the tray with my thumbs.

Halfway down, my polished leather shoes skid on slick roots in the track. I fall, but catch the ground with one hand. Sauce slops out of the side of the tray and the lid nearly comes off. I remember who I am. I rise, balancing against the weight of the tray. My next footfalls are clean, precise, quick as Mouse-Deer’s, stepping from root to root until the track flattens out and I am again by the sty.

I empty the tray over the fence. The pigs come running, crowding together, jostling as they wolf down the chicken-parts whole. I hear the little bones crack as they try to fill their mouths, trying to keep one another from getting any. Their squealing is the squealing of beasts proud of themselves, glad to be taking their fill.

From behind the board, I get out the other tin, the one I put there last night. Everything is in it and ready. All I need is the lighter, the one Raul dropped when I hit him. I try it out. It is small, but the flame is high, and I feel the flame bite at the callus on my thumb. I am ready.

By the time I make it back, Balthazar is looking for me. He is coming out the door, wiping his hands on the towel in his belt. When he speaks, his voice is a whisper so loud it might as well be a shout. His eyes are wide with anger and fear. His open hand quivers in the air like the head of a snake about to strike. I know he wants to hit me, but he is afraid to.

My grin is fixed. I say, “Sorry, brother. I must go. I will explain later.” Cursing, he lets me by. He does not see the flies swarming around me, blacking out the edge of my vision. I go in. I push the tray through the double doors into the cool air of the dining room. I turn the bolt and pull out the key, letting it fall to the carpet. I turn and almost lose my nerve when I see Chelo. He is there, saying something to a Company Man. He looks like a boy at missionary-school, talking sweet to the Missus Murphy. There is a smile on his face that falls when he sees me watching. But it is too late to save him.

I let the lid fall as the lighter flares in my hand. I rake the flame across the detonators and throw the tray onto the table as Leopard-Cat springs into the room. Sparks fly from short fuses. Dynamite scatters, rolling on the table, falling into the company-men’s laps. They rise, but they are caught here in my net.

I close my eyes and I breathe out for the last time. Around me, Pig is screaming as Fletcher’s last arrow strikes its prey.

 [ Helicopter, © 2012 Cécile Matthey ]

© 2012 Barry King

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