Came Forth Sweetness
Story by Andrew Peregrine
I let my right hand trail in the water. It felt cool and warm between my fingers as it rushed through, forced by the gentle speed of the boat. My other hand I left free to occasionally stop my oversized wicker hat from flying away. The hat had been an impulse buy and made me look like a tourist. But I was on holiday, so no one who knew me would ever see. It may have been a fashion mistake, but the wide brim was my only shade. The sun seemed so much brighter and more intense here. But I was comfortable, laid out like a queen in her carriage in the low stern of this small motorboat. This may have been only a river taxi to the island we were staying, but I could have lain there forever.
Richard and Sarah had chosen a more active way to spend the journey. They were both in the very front. Sarah, with typical enthusiasm, was leaning far too far over the edge, forcing Richard to keep holding her, just in case. I enjoyed seeing them together. All the effort I needed to spend was the occasional acknowledgement every time Sarah shouted ‘Look Mummy’. While I loved my daughter very much, it was relaxing to know that for the next few hours it was my husband’s turn to play guardian.
Our pilot said little. He knew more of my language than I did of his, but it still wasn’t enough to communicate. So he stood at the wheel of the boat staring ahead, almost motionless. He was a tall, dark creature, dressed in shorts and a plain t-shirt. The heat from this Caribbean sun was of no concern to him. Only a slight gold sheen on his dark skin showed the sun had any effect on him. From my low position he was almost like the Colossus of Rhodes, and I was happy to bask in the occasional shade he provided.
We had not chosen a standard package holiday. We couldn't afford the plush hotels and expensive dinners of a Caribbean holiday. Well, truth be told we could, but only if Sarah didn't want to go to college or ever get married. The 'sand and sea' holiday was my idea, Richard had other plans. But with a wife's prerogative for choice he didn't stand a chance. He gives in to me too easily; it is one of his most endearing and annoying qualities.
Richard wanted to see New Orleans; he liked the nightlife and roar of the place. That wasn't my idea of a holiday. I'm quite a simple creature really; I just want a sunny beach and a good book. There are plenty of places like that, but Richard wanted local colour and something different. He needs to feel he has left the safety of home when we go away. He wants adventure, to know he has escaped England. Personally, I'm aware we've left England when it stops raining. But I had to allow him at least some decisions. No, that's unfair of me; he isn't some weak-minded fool who just asks my opinion. I can be very stubborn, but I think he sometimes just wants to go with the flow. We had worked out our budget, and after looking through a small rainforest of glossy brochures we were no nearer to finding something we both wanted. Then the travel agent told us of this special offer in the Caribbean. The deal was a little basic, self-catering in a village, not a hotel. There would be no pool or satellite TV. However, there was a beach and sun for me, and Richard could immerse himself in ethnic life and pretend he was Indiana Jones and not a bank clerk.
Anyway, who needed a pool when you have clear water like this? I could have holidayed on just the boat. The rocking of the tides and the warmth of the sun were so relaxing I could drift away into sleep. But who would close their eyes against such scenery? It was as if this place was a land shattered by some angry god. We were on no river, but a sea between hundreds of small islands. They rose around us, clustered and yet somehow each alone. It was almost as if we were flying above blue clouds to see the tops of mountains. They were all rather similar, and only the very large ones were inhabited. They were green and verdant, but so covered in trees that I wondered how dark it would be under such a claustrophobic canopy.
We rounded the corner of another island and got a first look at our destination. Sarah resumed her chorus of 'look mummy' and Richard did his best to stop her running around and shaking the boat. The island we were bound for was rather larger than the others. It was shaped like a huge iceberg, a hill rising straight from the water. Most of the island was forest apart from the side we approached where the village was. Here the trees had been cut away in a strip and the village packed around one rambling street that led up the hill. The houses were all wood, but painted in just about every colour you could think of. Some had been done a long time ago, and the paint was peeling and stained. But the village was still a lively and welcoming shade of rainbow.
The only building that looked different was almost at the top of the island. It was a small church. It wasn't painted like the rest of the houses. It was just a simple wooden building with a small bell tower. It sat there high up, looking benignly down on the village of its congregation.
Cutting the engine, our pilot cruised the boat up to the small jetty at the base of the hill, and it seemed the whole village had turned out to meet us. It was mostly women and children, as this was a fishing village and the men were most probably out in their boats. The people here were almost as colourful as their houses. They were wearing a pattern of clothing and colours A lot of the clothes and colours had dulled with age or wear. These were not very well off people. But the warmth of the welcome they gave at the quayside made the whole island glow with colour. It was like being welcomed into a friend’s house, but here the whole island was being offered as a home.
There was one person who did stand out, the holiday rep. She wore a light yellow suit, which made her easy to spot. It also made her job obvious, as no one wears that shade of yellow unless forced to by a career choice. She had the same welcome smile as everyone else, if a little less genuine. The hint of glamour she wore with her city make up and good shoes somehow seemed arrogant and gaudy here among the poverty of the village, even though she would have seemed quite everyday in the city we had come from. She came towards us as we climbed out of the boat. We said thank you to our pilot, whose English ability deprived him of a reply greater than a nod. The rep offered her hand to us all and introduced herself as Cordelia. We were surrounded by smiles from the villagers. A few tried broken English greetings, to which we nodded politely. I thought for a moment that the crowding and smiles from these people was some sort of play for money, believing us to be rich, although in comparison we were. But then I realised they were amazed at the odd pallor and strange form of us. We were all human of course, but we looked very strange to these people, used to their own company on a remote island. They just wanted to get a good look at us.
Cordelia led us up the hill towards one of the houses near the church. We went to gather our luggage, but were told someone would bring that up. I didn't mind, as the hill was quite steep. We were all a little breathless when we arrived, Richard was panting and Sarah was just beginning to moan. But as we reached the house we turned to look down and the view made the climb worth it. The small island stretched out below us, and extended into the crystal sea, away to the other thousands of islands dotted across the ocean.
Cordelia let us into the house and showed us around before handing Richard the key. It was a pleasant holiday cabin. There was running water and the usual conveniences. It was small, but big enough for the three of us. The ground floor was basically a living room with a small kitchen attached. There was a bathroom built on as an extension, and then a small upstairs with two bedrooms. Sarah was pleased to see she had her own room. She ran up excitedly (which she had been doing all day) took the bedroom she wanted, and promptly fell asleep without meaning to.
Richard and I listened carefully as Cordelia explained how to get the taps to work and various other essentials of house operation. I paid little attention, but luckily Richard realised this and made a point of remembering what Cordelia was telling us. Among the reminders about pump systems and when to flush the loo she also mentioned the phones. Needless to say our mobile phones would do us no good here. However there was no other form of phone either. It seemed the only method of communication with any mainland was the radio that the village priest had near the church. It was an old tradition of this island life to send messages to relatives and friends in other places after church, although the priest usually didn't mind anyone sending things at other times. We told Cordelia that would be better as we were not regular churchgoers. She replied that while the villagers would respect our beliefs and foreign culture, ignoring the church wouldn't make us any friends here.
When she had explained everything, and gone over it all again just to be sure, she left for the harbour. She reminded us she had to return to the mainland, but if we needed anything to call on the radio. The priest knew how to get in touch. She left in a bit of a rush, as the boatman didn't like to wait too long before returning. He made his money taking people from island to island. Time spent waiting at some remote island was a potential fare he could miss.
Richard decided it would be a good plan to meet this priest. But I was too tired, and one of us had to stay with Sarah. So he went out and I went upstairs to find my daughter. She was sprawled on the bed fast asleep. Arms and legs all over the place, taking up as much room as her small body possibly could. I sat down next to her and she snuggled up to me. So I settled down with her, not realising how tired I was, and fell asleep.
Time passed slowly on the island. Days seemed to take longer than twenty-four hours to complete. I spent most of the time lying on the small beach watching the locals fishing in their small boats. Many of the women sat near me while they repaired nets and looked after very small children. I didn't mind at all. They were always near enough to provide company, but somehow distant enough to ignore. They would often talk in the odd Caribbean version of French they all spoke. I understood very little. But sometimes the odd word and sentence would make sense. They understood a lot of English, but not enough to reply in my language very often. With faltering steps we were able to communicate most needs and conversations.
Richard would sometimes join me, but more often went exploring. His initial conversation with the village priest had gone very well. The man's name was Samuel, and he was a keen woodsman. He had fascinated Richard with talk of the interesting animals and plants that lay in the wilds of the island's jungle. He appealed easily to Richards’s sense of adventure. The two of them became friends and spent most of their time walking jungle paths together. Richard was keen to experience every part of the island. Samuel was glad of having someone to teach and share his interest. He was a little bored of the villager’s interests, which were limited mostly to fishing.
Sarah found the other children on the island very welcoming. She spent the holiday running and sleeping. All day she would hare about the village playing chase and similar games with the village children. I think language was less of a barrier for her. Children are better at using signs and feelings to communicate. I never worried for her. It amused me that even from the beach it was easy to pick her out in the groups of children. Not just because she was a pale shape among dark ones. It was mainly as she was always the loudest.
It was probably from playing so closely with the other children that she caught the disease that killed her.
The people of the island weren't diseased. That isn't fair. It was just that there are some things in other places that the locals are used to, and visitors are not. Children are good at picking up every bacterium they can possibly acquire. The village children were no different. But a cold to them was something else to Sarah.
She came up to me at the end of the day telling me she had a headache, which I put down to her running in the sun all day. But it was still there before she went to bed, and as I felt her forehead I realised she had a fever. Richard went to Samuel to use the radio, to get help. By the time he came back, to tell me they could only get a doctor here for late tomorrow, Sarah was shivering with fever. She cried all night, and left the sheets soaked with sweat. We stayed with her all night. That was how we noticed the rash appear, and how blood was mixed with the sweat. Apart from being a priest, Samuel was also the village nurse. He came over as soon as he could, leaving a friend of his by the radio. But he could do nothing for Sarah.
The next afternoon the doctor arrived. When he reached the house, after running up the hill, Sarah had been dead for three hours.
He signed the certificates and checked Richard and me for any signs of infection. We were alright. He knew the disease that killed my daughter. It was rare but not unknown. Luckily it wasn't very contagious, and it was difficult to pick up. Sarah had been unlucky. I began to find his platitudes annoying. Simple bad luck didn't make you cry for two days straight. Neither did it leave you with a hole rotted out of your soul where your daughter used to be.
Once he had finished with the forms, the doctor then told us that Sarah had to stay here. There was a small possibility of continued contagion he said. Richard gently put his hand on mine as the doctor spoke to us. He knew I wanted to shout at him for calling my daughter 'contagion'. She was just my little girl, why couldn't she come home? The doctor said we could fight the order, but it would take time. Anyway, just bringing her to the mainland would be expensive. Richard continued to talk to the doctor, but I hardly heard a thing. All I could think about was Sarah. I was going to leave my little girl behind with strangers.
It was Samuel who brought my attention back to the conversation. His cold and
level tone frightened me a little. He was telling Richard and the doctor that
Sarah couldn't be buried here.
"She is not a part of the island," he was saying.
"That doesn't matter," replied the Doctor, "Sarah was a Christian, like her parents, so you have a legal obligation to bury her, as well as a moral one."
Samuel was maddened by his lack of understanding, and repeated himself twice. The doctor did the same and they both gave up the argument. Samuel walked out, with a sad and somehow frightened look to us before he left. The doctor shrugged and muttered something about 'superstitious islanders'. Then he dismissed the conversation and continued telling Richard about the remaining forms and legalities.
So we buried Sarah on the island. Richard and I talked about it for a long time. I wanted to take her home, and I knew Richard did as well. But he had done the maths, and we couldn't afford the cost, or the time. That sounds harsh I know. But I wanted to get home and grieve, not stay away fighting red tape. Nothing would bring her back. It was better she stay here, where her time had been happy. At least I could think of her spirit running about in the sun, shouting and laughing.
The funeral was an odd affair. We would have cremated Sarah, but the island didn't have the facilities. I hated the idea of burning her; she had been through enough already. As the only priest, it was Samuel who performed the short service. We expected it to be just Richard and I, but most of the village turned out. I don't know if it was because they liked Sarah too, or through some sense of pity for Richard and I, but they all came, filling the tiny cemetery at the top of the hill. They were all still as colourful as before, but all wore the look of genuine bereavement, the same look I had seen in the mirror for the last few days. Some were even crying, but not in the crass way some people do, because it's expected. Those who wept felt real pain at the loss of a vibrant young life, and were not ashamed or embarrassed to show the world how they felt. I was suddenly angry at them for their wailing and mourning. It was jealousy that fed my anger, and I knew it. I had no tears left, but wanted more than anything else to cry, and never stop crying.
When the coffin was brought out, the pain came again. This place was not right for a funeral. There was no rain, no people in long black coats offering me flowers and platitudes. I didn't even know these people. Their tears for a girl they didn't know stole a little something from me. It made me feel like a visitor at a stranger's funeral, wondering who this person had been who could mean so much to these people. The coffin reminded me of my connection with terrible and uncompromising reality. It was the size of a child, short and peculiar. It could have only one occupant.
Samuel said a few words in his native language, and a few in Latin, as the box was lowered into the ground. Not once did he look at Richard or me the entire service. I didn't pay much attention to the ceremony. I could think of nothing other than my little girl in that box. I shuddered as Samuel threw a handful of earth on the coffin. Sarah was dead, I knew that, but there seemed so many other things to follow that made it final. That had been the last of them.
The only other thing that made me pay attention was an odd local custom. As each of the villagers turned to leave they threw a handful of dirt on top of the coffin themselves and muttered something in their own language, ‘Elle est fille du village’. Then they came to Richard and me and offered sympathy with words I didn't understand. I appreciated the gesture of their attendance, and acknowledged their looks of mournful sympathy, in the spirit it was offered. But I wanted this to be just Richard and Sarah and me, alone together one last time.
Then at last we were alone. Samuel came to us and shook hands again. His mood had changed. He held a distance from us that had been absent before. He didn't offer the usual ineffectual words of sympathy. He just said, "We have done all we can, now we can only hope."
That night I couldn't sleep any better than I had on any other night since Sarah's death. The clock showed three o’clock. So I decided to make a cup of tea, hoping that it would help. Tea was not the answer; having my daughter alive was the only way I would sleep. But there was little else to occupy the hours of sleeplessness, so I got out of bed.
The night was still, but made thing feel lonely rather than peaceful. Richard was asleep beside me, for which a small part of me hated him. Even though I don't know how I would have coped with no one to share the pain with. I went downstairs into the quiet of the living room. I took a cup from the shelves and switched on the kettle, letting it disturb the night with its roar. Richard came down the stairs, drawn by the peaceful racket I was making. He was never much good after being woken up, so he said nothing, but put his arms around me. Sometimes he just knew what I wanted, but maybe this time he had noticed the unconscious hint of me making such a noise while making tea quietly. Maybe it was none of that, and he just needed to hold me too.
We both turned at the crash from the living room. Glass was shattering, wood was snapping. We both went into the living room, where the crash had come from. It was dark there, although we could both see a small shape moving in the gloom. It was turning over the chairs and tables, whirling about frantically. Then it stepped into a shaft of light from the kitchen, and I saw Sarah. Her skin was sallow and thin. Her hair bore the ruins of the arrangement it had been given at her funeral. Several ribbons hung absently from the mane of earth-clotted hair. Her fingernails too were caked with mud and filth. Her best dress and favourite shoes were torn and scrapped with the soil that had rejected her. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but there was no doubting that this was Sarah.
I went towards her, but she ignored me, sniffed the air for a moment and then ran back to hole she had made in the window and wall. Richard ran after her catching her just before she barged out of the smashed window. He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her from the floor. She thrashed and struggled in his arms. Although she was only a little girl, Richard was having trouble holding her. She twisted and writhed, turning herself in his grip until they faced each other. Then she paused in her attempt to escape, as if she had noticed something.
Richard screamed. I don't know if it was because he finally saw what his daughter had become, or because she now held his heart in her tiny hands. She had punched into his chest and ripped it free. He staggered back, moving but already dead, and crashed to the floor. Blood ran from the hole in his chest like a river. Sarah rolled free of his limp grasp and took a bite from the bloody organ she had pulled out of her father. But it seemed not to her taste, and she discarded it. Then she knelt next to him and stared closely at him, up and down. She seemed to find something of what she sought, and quizzically put her fingers through his eyes, gaining purchase on the sockets, and lifted off a part of his skull with a large crack. She put her hand in the hole, tearing at the membranes inside until Richard's brain lay exposed. Then she reached in, this time very carefully, and pulled out a piece. She chewed on it thoughtfully, but seemed unsatisfied.
I lay paralysed with a mixture of emotions on the other side of the room. I wanted to go to her, but seeing her butcher her father made me fear her like nothing I had ever faced. She looked up at me; dropping the half eaten organ she held and sniffed at the air. She came towards me slowly, crawling on all fours. She moved into the light again and let me see her properly. This was my daughter, but no longer my little girl. Her eyes were sunken, her flesh rotting and sallow. Her tiny hands were broken and torn from pulling herself from the earth, but still resembled talons. She was a corpse, yet somehow still moved.
She came towards me, and I could do nothing. My husband lay dead, as did my daughter before me, and this creature was coming for me too. I was sitting on the floor, I didn’t even know when I’d fallen here. It felt as if I was dragging myself through treacle. It would be so simple to get up and run, but my body wouldn’t respond. I looked down, away from Sarah, and saw the pool of darkening red liquid that covered the floor. Richard’s blood ran from him in a stream towards me, almost as if reaching out to me. I crawled away from Sarah, the hem of my dressing gown just missing the liquid. Sarah seemed unconcerned with me, but curious. She seemed to wonder if what she thought she’d found in Richard would be in me. Then she sniffed the air a little again, and staring at me cocked her head to one side, as if she was thinking. Perhaps she wondered if tearing me apart was worth the time, just in case.
But before she made any decision, Samuel broke in through the doorway. He carried a torch and a small gauge shotgun. He didn't pause to think but blasted Sarah with the weapon. She made a gasping screaming noise, perhaps the only sound that could issue from soulless vocal chords, and she was thrown back by the blast. From where I lay against the wall I saw her get up, her chest gouged deeply by the cartridge. Samuel fired again, and then with trembling fingers tried quickly to reload. Sarah was tossed aside by the second blast, but seemed unconcerned. Instead of going for Samuel, she ran for the window. She dived through before Samuel could finish reloading, not even slowed down by the damage inflicted on her small frame.
Samuel came over to me, and I found myself holding him tightly. It was as if
he was my only anchor in the pain and grief that threatened to overwhelm me.
While he held me I found myself muttering, "She's alive."
"No," said Samuel, without room for any argument or hope. "She is returned because the earth could not hold her. We try, the whole village try. You were warned, but you didn't understand. I didn't truly believe the old ways until now. I found the empty grave and knew she would come here."
"To be with us? But she killed Richard." I could hardly say his name, kneeling here next to his remains.
"She looks for her soul. The earth has rejected her because she is not from here. Her soul is gone, but the body needs it, and does not understand it is dead. You must stay here. I will hunt it, and burn it, and then it will be gone.
"You mean find peace?" I asked.
"I do not know," he admitted, "Maybe."
I was consumed by that remark. There could be no maybe. The last few days of terror and anguish rose up inside me and I grabbed the gun from Samuel. He went to stop me so I brought it down on his head and he collapsed on the floor. No one was going to cut up and burn my Sarah. I was all she had left, and she was all I had now Richard was gone. I was her mother and she would recognise me and call me mummy. I would hold her again and make it better. I checked Samuel was still breathing. He moved, woozy but conscious and I knew he would be all right. He tried to call out after me as I ran into the night after my daughter.
So I am here now, in the forest, in the dark between the trees on the wild side of the island. I am calm now. I wanted to be with my daughter, but is it really her out there? I'm not sure. What a fool I am, running into the night. Where could she go? This island has no escape. I'll wait in the village and we'll find her tomorrow. But it is too late now, as she has seen me. She faces me from across a clearing, my husband’s blood on her hands and mouth. I feel the gun drop from my fingers and I reach out to her. Without a soul will she remember me? Will she mistake my soul for hers as she did Richards? Like his, will mine be a close fit for her own absent necessity. Please remember me Sarah. I miss you, are you still there? Let me hold you. If you just let me hold you we can make everything better again.