He was standing under the moon edging the banca (pumpboat) closer to the silver edge of foam. When he turned to fetch the fuel, he found himself facing the old man, his name was Eric, and behind him, his flock.
“What the hell are you doing? Who in hell do you think you are?”
The man’s face was worn and red, livid even in the pale light. He was quivering.
“It’s him Eric. He killed Claire, and now he’s trying to escape.”
He held up a hand that clenched into a fist. He turned, twisted by his own rage and turned eyes like burning coals on Hugh, who stood on the beach in just his shorts, his t-shirt wrapped around his neck.
“God help me, tell me what you are doing… And WHY!”
“I wanted to see this Underground River,” Hugh said evenly, measuring every word.
“There’s nothing to see at night,” a young Filipino girl wearing a yellow bandana said. A hand held her back, slapped the back of her head firmly with a ssh.
“Well day or night the Underground River is dark. And I have this.” He held up his hands, then moved to the boat and pulled out a long staff.
“It’s just a stick.”
“Well I was about to go back inside to get a cloth, you know, to fashion a torch.”
“Hugh, my wife is dead, do you know that.”
Hugh folded his arms, with the long narrow staff poking out from either side of his upright body. “I know.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw her body before it was dumped into the reservoir.”
“And you didn’t tell us?”
Eric insisted: “WHY HUGH?”
Hugh slowly sank to his haunches, putting the staff down in the sand. He made a small nodding motion. Eric lowered himself to the sand, followed by some of the others. Those at the back remained standing, two young faces emerged between the arms and necks of the small group in front.
The sea sang a soft lullaby.
The breeze moved the dying Palm above them.
Hugh held up a finger. “In case you haven’t noticed, a small army is camping right behind us.”
“But one of them brought you to us.”
“Look, I’m new here, just like you. But ask yourself this: why would they help us? We are all fucked right here. And right now they’re thinking we can help them in some way. Perhaps the only way we can help them is through radio broadcasts we can interpret and they can’t. But pretty soon they’re going to get impatient, and they’re going to take over the house. It’s a matter of time. You know how people are. When they aren’t comfortable any more with their coconuts and dirty water…they’ll take what they want.”
“That’s bullshit. Eric has known these people for years. You haven’t.”
“Well I know people. I don’t have to know their names to know what they are capable of.”
“Eric we can’t take a chance. For all we know this shit was about to steal one of our boats. You know our rules.”
The group chorused: “No stealing of food. And second, no one person may take something for their own use. Everything is shared.”
Hugh felt the case against him was gathering momentum.
“Look, I am sorry. I can’t sleep and I wanted to visit this river. It was wrong of me to sneak off like this in the middle of the night.”
“Wait!” he hissed, snatching words out of the air with his fist. Hugh looked at his face, grubby with tears and misery. “Hugh, you know we saved your life, don’t you.”
“Sure. I know that.”
“And you know we need you. Each of us here needs you.”
“I know. That’s why I need to understand this environment. We have to know how it works if we’re going to survive.”
The sea sounds and the wind again.
“That’s true, but that can be our third rule. Home is our time carved understanding of our immediate environment, and each day we must do one thing to understand it better.”
For some minutes the group memorized this stanza, and finally rehearsed the entire epithet, from rule one to three. Hugh joined in, but softly.
Eric, now satisfied that there was unanimity in the group, turned to Hugh: “You can go to the Underground River, but not tonight. You can go tomorrow, at dawn. You can take the girls, Stella and Michael.”
Michael was the oldest fossil of the lot; the one who trusted Hugh the least.
“Agreed,” Hugh said, offering his hand.
Eric shook it, a cool wet fish rather than a firm grip.
“C’mon, let’s pull this back up.”
Together the group moved the boat back to where it was. There were far more hands than necessary to move it, but they lingered, desperate to seem useful. Afterwards they stood breathing hard, looking up to Hugh.
“Thanks guys, you’re a great team.”
Smiles broke out in dark faces. People joined hands. A small girl patted the watermark under his ribs softly, saying, “It’s a miracle.” A white hand grabbed her and pulled her away.
When they had all left, Eric pushed his staff painfully into the watermark.
“I had better be right about you,” he hissed, then handed the staff to Hugh and walked slowly into the dimly lit house, a dark shadow under the twinkling stars, and enormous moon.
“What’s important,” Hugh whispered softly to the beach, “is whether the world has become what it is, or whether it is still becoming. I think it is far from over, and if that’s true, nowhere and no one is safe.”
He speared the staff into the soft sand. It flopped over, he grabbed it and speared it decisively this time. It stood solidly against the pale flat moonscape around it. Hugh walked to his tent, gritting his teeth.
He knew the soldiers could steal any one of them in the night, and kill them for their amusement. He also knew the body in the water was a message. It meant they meant to poison, or in some shape or form, contaminate or kill every last person that couldn’t defend themselves.
When he lay down on a mere blanket covering the bare black soil, he blinked in the darkness.
I must try to escape as soon as I can. Before the storm. Before the soldiers get themselves drunk on wickedness.
And in his dream he saw the world shape shifting, from a potato to a strange plant, whose leaves opened, grew thorns, and began to eat itself.
In his sleep he murmured: “…still becoming…”
And he saw the silvery silhouettes of the young children on the beach. He saw them wither, like leaves, and all that remained was a bone white staff on an empty beach, its warm sands flooded in moonlight.