AVAILABLE ON KINDLE
© 2016 by Jess Mowry
Donte wearily trudged to the wagon and heaved the big burlap sack off his shoulders. It thudded atop the others he'd loaded and puffed out a pale cloud of dust. Each sack weighed about half as much as Donte, who paused to wipe sweat from his round-cheeked face, which was large onyx-eyed and pertly snub-nosed above full lips often parted at rest revealing the gleam of startling teeth. Donte was thirteen and chubby, his chest a pair of proud hemispheres concealing considerable muscles, his well-padded biceps bulging a bit under skin of a dusky, sooty shade, though now striped like a zebra with sweat and white dust. He wore only ragged cut-off jeans that exposed robust hips like a loincloth with pockets and seemed to be more decoration than clothes, leaving a lot of his plump bottom bare, while the roll of his belly spilled over in front like the cheerfully lolling tongue of a puppy, his navel a funnel-shaped cave into night.
The evening sun was a blazing brass ball as it sank toward the turquoise sea in the west; and Donte turned toward it, spreading his arms to welcome a rising breeze on his body, while seabirds circled and soared overhead, calling down avian curses on him for still being there when they wanted to land. But then, as if hearing a distant voice, he faced eastward and studied the sky, which was cloudless and softly shading to rose, and cocked his head as if listening. He remembered a seafaring proverb -- Red sky at night, sailor's delight -- yet he frowned for a moment.
The wagon, merely a flat bed of planks mounted on four iron-spoked wheels from a 1917 Liberty truck, was hitched to an even older steam tractor that looked like a little locomotive fitted with Caterpillar tracks, and was parked on a small flat area at the rim of an ancient volcano. Specters of heat wavered up from its boiler like transparent phantoms entwining in dance, while a wraith of black smoke drifted out of its stack. Deep within the volcano's cone was a little lake that mirrored the sky, surrounded by vine-tangled trees. South-east, a hundred meters below, lay most of the tiny island; a patchwork of various well-tended crops interspersed with lush stands of green native forest.
Despite being tired from working since dawn, digging, sacking, and loading guano, Donte shook dust from his bushy hair and took a long moment to look around. He'd read many books about faraway lands, and seen many pictures in magazines, but Petite Orphelin Isle seemed a prettier place than anywhere else on earth.
Again he studied the eastern sky and seemed to listen for something, but finally turned back to the west. Far out at sea was a passenger ship, probably bound for Jamaica. Closer, but still at considerable distance, a big motor-yacht was approaching, but would probably soon alter course... few foreign tourists visited Haiti, and none ever came to Little Orphan.
Down in the sea near the base of the mountain, a small open sloop with patched brown sails was expertly tacking through black lava reefs on a south-eastern course for the island's cove. Donte shaded his eyes with a hand and watched as the helmsman guided the boat through a foaming gap in the jagged rock teeth. To sail inshore was the fastest way home, but also a dangerous passage; and though Donte had often done this, he would never have tried at this time of day on a wind shifting toward a lee shore. He watched until the boat cleared the rocks and reached deeper water in safety, then checked the tractor’s water sight glass, adjusted a valve on the fuel-oil feed, then walked to a little three-sided tin shed.
Inside were piles of burlap sacks waiting to be filled, and an ancient machine to stitch them shut. There was also a wooden table and chair; and another boy lounged asleep in the chair with his bare feet on the table-top. To say this boy was fat would have been an understatement of enormous proportions. Though the same age as Donte, sooty black and about the same height, he was over four times the diameter, his chest a pair of opulent orbs, his body mostly composed of rolls, his vast belly spilling over his lap; and though he was clad in cut-offs like Donte, little of them could be seen.
"Timothy,” called Donte. "How many have we accomplished?"
The other boy opened his eyes, which were large, bright onyx, and cheerful in a face as round as an ebony moon, with cheeks overwhelming a wide, bridgeless nose. He casually yawned and leisurely stretched, then carefully shifted his wobbly mass in the very apprehensive chair and reached for a notebook on the table. "How many were loaded after lunch?"
"Ven," said Donte... Kreyol for twenty.
Timothy took a pencil and added numbers on the pad. "Senkant," he said with satisfaction. "Fifty sacks we have loaded today while the men were at work on the schooner. Thanks to us she will have a full cargo."
"We make a good team, mwen Chéf,” said Donte.
"I am not your chief yet," said Timothy. "Our people will make that choice for themselves when my father retires."
"But for three-hundred years it has been the same choice and Little Orphan has always prospered."
"Thank you, loyal subject."
Donte came into the shade of the shack. A half-empty water jug stood on the table amongst the remains of a lavish lunch, and he took it up with both hands, tilted it to his lips and gulped, then doused himself to wash off the dust.
"You must be tired," said Timothy.
Donte wiped mud from his chest. "Fifty sacks has been no fun, even with your companionship.”
"But, what else is on your mind?"
"Is my skull transparent?"
"Your face is sufficient barometer to show you have stormy thoughts."
"... Andre dared the reef just now."
Timothy frowned. “On a shifting wind, and at low tide?”
"Perhaps there was a reason," said Donte. "Andre is not foolish. And with Thomas aboard."
Timothy considered. "Thomas may have been the reason. Still, I will speak to Andre. I will not have our fishing boat risked."
"Will you tell your father? ...Maybe I should not have said anything."
"It was your duty to tell me, though my father need not know, and this is easily mended. ...Oh, and that reminds me; the stitching machine has jammed again."
"Easily mended," said Donte. From a goat-skin pouch on the table, he selected a small monkey wrench and a wooden-handled screwdriver, which though ancient, were polished and oiled, and tinkered with the machine. Then he inserted an empty sack and revolved an iron wheel, watching a big needle jab and retract. "Good as new for the next century.”
"You are as skilled with machines as your father."
"Which seems only natural, as are your diplomatic skills."
Timothy avalanched out of the chair, all his rolls rearranging themselves and his vast belly cascading down to his knees as he leaned far backward to balance its bulk. Donte returned his tools to the pouch and slung it over a shoulder on a goatskin strap. Then the boys went out to the tractor, Timothy's body rippling all over with every ponderous step.
The machine, though over a century old, was freshly painted silver-gray, its mechanisms, gears and controls all well greased and lubricated, its many brass fittings brightly polished, including a plate on the boiler: HORNSBY CHAIN TRACTOR, LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND, 1904.
With assistance from Donte, Timothy mounted one of the tracks to settle his undulant bulk in a seat upholstered with goatskin. Donte also climbed aboard, squeezing himself beside Timothy as if melding into midnight softness, adjusted the fuel valve and gripped the controls, but paused and lifted his head to face east.
Timothy studied him. "You look like Anubis. What do you hear?"
"...Nothing," said Donte. “It is only a feeling."
"Can you describe it?"
Donte searched the rosy horizon, darkening now as sunset neared, the placid sea shimmering reddish-gold, and not a ship or sail to be seen. "Only as if... something... is out there. ...And perhaps coming our way."
Timothy also scanned the sea, then raised his eyes to the cloudless sky. "It is too early for hurricanes... though they seem to come earlier every year, and with more ferocity."
"So say our elders," said Donte.
"We will listen to the weather report before the schooner sails."
Donte checked the pressure gauge, then gently opened the throttle. The tractor shuddered a moment like something coming to life, then piston rods began to thrust, a massive flywheel started to spin, and, chuffing and puffing, with jets of steam spurting and black smoke billowing out of the stack, it lumbered away with the sack-laden wagon, its iron tracks squealing and clanking on rock as it reached the volcano's rim and descended. The grade was steep as the trail snaked down toward the little lake in its green bowl of forest, and Donte eased the throttle in as the heavy wagon pushed them on. The air was cooler amongst the trees, but Donte was shiny and dripping sweat from pushing and pulling long heavy levers to steer the lurching and bucking machine. The trail leveled off to circle the lake, and Donte opened the throttle again, the engine chugging steadily as the wagon lumbered behind. Timothy lounged back in the seat with his arms crossed behind his head, while the orbs of his chest quivered and bounced and his belly rippled like ocean waves to the rocking and jolts of the tractor, which clattered and chuffed beneath towering trees leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Sunlight shafted down through the leaves, golden now in late evening, and bright-colored birds flew squawking and screaming, disturbed by the clanking invasion. Donte opened the throttle wide as they emerged from the forest, and the tractor, billowing sable smoke, clawed its way up to the top of the rim, balanced there for a breathless moment, then dropped its nose with a bone-shaking crash and descended toward the fringe of forest encircling the mountain’s base. Donte battled the levers again as they tossed and pitched down the slope.
"Is she under command?” asked Timothy.
"She responds to the helm at least," puffed Donte, his chub-padded muscles revealing themselves as he yanked and shoved the controls. “But I would not ask her to stop.”
The trail veered south at the foot of the mountain, muddy and soft under centuried trees, and the rattling tracks threw mud everywhere. They passed the village graveyard, with headstones painted in many hues that rivaled the flowers blooming amongst them. Timothy seemed to be napping, but asked without opening his eyes, "You are thinking of your mother?"
Donte looked back at the peaceful graveyard. "It has been two years, but I still miss her."
Timothy touched Donte's shoulder. "She will always live in your heart."
The tractor chuffed and clattered on through twilight’s deepening shadows, but Donte knew the way by heart and ducked the occasional low-hanging vines that dangled like sinuous snakes from trees. Night-birds started to twitter and chirp, and bats flitted silently past, some as big as foxes. The trail crossed a rippling brook several times, the tractor splashing and flinging up spray that hissed and steamed on the boiler. A slim silver crescent of moon like a smile had materialized in the deep-purple sky as they finally rumbled into the village, which was only a score of small houses clustered beneath massive trees. The dwellings were various ages, the oldest of logs and heavy ship timber, the newer of plywood and packing crate planks, and all were raised on stones or blocks, roofed with rusty sheets of tin; and their porches were wide and meant be used for sitting and conversations. Their windows had screens instead of glass, with shutters to close against storms.
Scents of cooking haunted the air like friendly welcoming spirits above the tractor’s mechanical smells of fire, hot iron and oil smoke... rice and beans, fried plantains, and the rich aromas of goat meat and pork. The soft glow of candles and kerosene lamps glimmered from windows and open doorways, while children played hide-and-seek in the shadows or sailed model boats in the moon-sparkled brook that meandered its ferny-banked way to the cove. The younger children were naked; the older boys clad in cut-offs or shorts; while elder girls were dressed the same in addition to tank-tops or T-shirts. Many children were chubby and some were rolly-poly fat, though far from approaching Timothy’s bulk, and even those of lesser mass boasted proudly prominent tummies carried on gracefully sway-backed builds; and brindle dogs with looping tails romped about with everyone. Donte nodded to Andre DeFoe, who puffed a slender cigar on his porch. He was fourteen, and the second fattest boy on the island next to Timothy, and reading David Copperfield by golden lantern light. Timothy signaled for Donte to stop, and asked, "How many fish today?"
"Four full baskets," Andre replied, puffing the spheres of his chest a bit.
"Very good work," said Timothy.
“Thomas pipes, and fish flock to the net."
"But you haul them in," said Timothy. "Pack a larger lunch tomorrow, so he won't ask you to do something foolish to get him ashore for supper."
"But he is your brother," said Andre.
"But you are captain at sea, and responsible for your vessel and crew."
Andre nodded. "Wi, mewn Chéf."
"I am not your chief yet," said Timothy. "But, even if so, I would bow to your judgement as captain at sea."
"I understand," said Andre, touching his forehead in salute.
Timothy nodded, and Donte drove on. "That was easily mended," said Donte.
"We all have skills," said Timothy.
Younger kids ran to climb on the wagon for a short ride to the cove, Timothy's brother, Thomas, amongst them. He was eight and wondrously fat, his belly rolling upon his thighs, his cut-offs baring the moons of his bottom, while a wooden flute swung on a leather strip between the bobby balloons of his chest. Donte stopped to haul him aboard the tractor, loading him onto Timothy’s belly, then resumed the controls.
"The schooner is almost ready," puffed Thomas. ”The men are launching her now."
"Bon," said Timothy, holding his little brother secure as he bobbed about on blubbery waves. "She can sail as soon as the cargo is loaded."
"The weather report," Donte reminded.
Thomas scanned the heavens. "The sky is perfectly clear."
"If you have a bad feeling..." said Timothy.
"Neither bad nor good,” said Donte.
"But, that something is coming?"
“...Or maybe waiting.”
"We should consult Damon Millay."
"If there is something, she probably knows."
"Supper is almost ready," said Thomas.
"Which reminds me," said Timothy. “Captains are in command at sea."
"...Oh," said Thomas.
They clattered on through a grove of palms to emerge on a white-sanded beach, where a forty-foot schooner was almost afloat, rolling on logs with a dozen men pushing.
"Everyone help!" ordered Timothy, and the children tumbled to the ground and ran to add their shoulders, including Thomas at a rippling trot. The new copper sheets on the schooner's bottom gleamed in the glow of kerosene lanterns set here and there in the sand; and in minutes the vessel was floating free amid the cove's shimmering wavelets.
Donte could never quite decide if Timothy's father, Jean-Luc Durant, reminded him more of a Sumo wrestler, or maybe a mighty model of Buddha. He wore only tan canvas shorts, which couldn't be seen in a full frontal view, and stood knee-deep in the moonlit water, talking with Donte's father, Paul, a huskily muscular man.
“...three barrels of kerosene," Jean-Luc was saying. “And three of fuel-oil for the tractor... both of which are becoming expensive, so we must raise the price of guano another fifty gourdes per ton.”
"I will inform the company, though I doubt they will be pleased,” said Paul.
Jean-Luc shrugged. “Men of business are seldom pleased to pay a fair price if they can pay less. Remind them that Cuba is not far away, a company there has offered us more, and the wind is still free."
Paul touched his forehead. "Wi, mwen Chéf." He studied the schooner to see how she floated, then glanced at a mountain of guano sacks on the beach nearby. "I will check for leaks while the crew goes to supper. Then we will load her and sail at midnight."
Timothy called, “We should hear the weather report," while slowly unloading himself from the tractor.
"We have," said Paul. "Clear, with sufficient wind for good sailing.”
Donte closed the fuel valve, let off the remaining steam with a WOOSH by opening another valve, then waded out to his father to get a hug and a kiss on his cheek. "We should listen again before you sail. ...It is a feeling I have."
"Then we will listen," said Paul. "Should we also consult Damon?"
"She has said nothing?"
"Non. But, if you feel something amiss..."
"If after supper I still have this feeling, I will ask her about it,” said Donte.
Timothy waded out to Jean-Luc to also receive a hug and kiss, then indicated the wagon. "Donte and I loaded fifty sacks."
Jean-Luc smiled. "An impressive day's work for two young men." Then he gave Donte a wink. "You must be tired."
"Hungry mostly," said Timothy.
"As am I," added Thomas. "Four full baskets of fish today."
"I am proud of you both," said Jean-Luc. "And no less of Donte and Andre."
Timothy asked, "May Donte have supper with us?"
Jean-Luc nodded. "Your mother already invited...”
The beach was suddenly lit bright as day as the blue-white beam of a powerful searchlight stabbed across the water. Jean-Luc shaded his eyes with a hand and peered toward the rocky jaws of the cove. "Now, what is that? Not a gunboat, I hope. I thought those days were over."
Donte's father faced the glare as the searchlight probed for a way through the rocks. "A gunboat would wait until morning. The last one to try our passage at night got stuck on the reef for three days, and a tug was required to pull her off."
"I saw a motor-yacht," said Donte. "From up on the mountain an hour ago, but I did not think she was coming here.”
"She seems to be trying,” said Jean-Luc. “Launch the longboat and guide her in. Hurry or there may be a wreck."
Timothy grabbed a lantern. "We will signal them to wait."
"I am coming, too!" piped Thomas.
"Get the rifle," Timothy ordered. "In case they are smugglers or pirates."
"Or terrorists!" said Thomas, puffing away at his rippling trot.
"Perhaps that was your feeling?" Timothy suggested. "Something has come to Little Orphan."
"...Perhaps," said Donte.
A short time later, the gleaming white yacht, twice the size of the island's schooner, diesel engines murmuring, let go her anchor within the small cove like an iron fist through liquid crystal. Her portholes and windows blazed with light that sparkled the water all around and brought curious fish to the surface. Donte pulled the oars of the longboat and squinted up at the teakwood decks. "Electric lights are painful."
Timothy, filling the sternsheets, shaded his eyes with a hand. "People must get used to them.”
"And probably seldom see the stars."
Thomas, in the bow, held the "rifle,” a massive old Hotchkiss machine-gun longer than he was tall. "Blancs," he observed, as two white men somewhere in their forties, tanned and slenderly muscular, clad in immaculate boating shoes, white cotton trousers and polo shirts, came out on deck to check the anchor. "Do you think they could be terrorists?"
Donte studied the men with interest: he hadn't seen many blancs in his life, and only in Port-au-Prince when sailing on the schooner. "They do not look like terrorists."
"How do terrorists look?" said Timothy. "According to my father, many wear suits and ties these days. ...Thomas, ready your rifle."
"Shall I aim it at them?"
“That would be rude."
Thomas cocked the heavy bolt and its ominous clack echoed over the water.
The men exchanged uncertain glances, then offered their hands palms out.
Timothy smiled. "The universal sign of peace: ‘see, I do not have a rock in my hand.' ...I wonder if they speak French?"
"I doubt they speak Kreyol," said Donte.
"Bonsoir," called Timothy, using the French pronunciation. "Welcome to Little Orphan."
"Bonsoir," answered one of the men, who had sandy-blond hair and a neatly-trimmed beard. He seemed surprised to hear Timothy's French, though his own when he spoke was deplorable. The "rifle" obviously made him nervous despite being aimed at the stars. "Thank you for chaperoning our float. May we make speech with your ancient head?"
Timothy murmured in Kreyol, “‘Take me to your leader.’”
Thomas giggled. "They do not look like Little Grays."
Timothy said in French, "I am the chief's son."
"As am I," said Thomas, then murmured, “Also male heir to the ancient head.”
Donte poked Thomas and whispered, "Be quiet and tend to the gun."
"...Er," said the blond man. "A solo of engine marches unwell. We are entreating..." He searched for words. "...a mender of mechanisms who float.”
Donte murmured in Kreyol, "My father could look at their engine."
“As could you," said Timothy. "Since your father must ready the schooner."
“I have my tools."
"But, supper!" protested Thomas.
Timothy spoke to the men in French. "We were about to have supper, and you are invited. We can take you ashore if you wish."
"...Er... Thank you." The blond man conferred in low tones with the other, whose short beard and hair were brown; and though they possessed different features, they very much resembled each other in some subtle way Donte couldn't define. They spoke in English, he noted, debating whether to come with the boys or use their own boat. He heard the words, "primitive" and "offended," murmured by the blond man.
To which the brown-haired man replied, "I hope it isn't fried caterpillars!"
"Starchy stuff, I'd guess," said the blond man, "judging from their obesity. Probably beans and rice from all their foreign aid. Just don't drink the water." At last he addressed Timothy in his horrid approximation of French, "Allow us a voyage in our canoe, thus to avoid the discommode of replacing us within the sea."
Timothy grinned, but politely replied, “Comme tu veux."
The men went aft to lower an outboard-powered skiff, and Donte's eyes were drawn to a doorway as a boy of around his age appeared. The boy was barefoot and wore only jeans, which looked very ragged and tightly outgrown for someone aboard so splendid a vessel -- one knee ripped, and their cuffs dragging ribbons while leaving his bottom half bare -- and though not far over Donte’ weight, was very soft and wobbly fat, his chest a pair of opulent orbs that bobbed about to his movements, an undulant torus encircling his waist, chubby rolls squeezed under his arms, and his belly a pendulous appendage lolling almost midway to his knees in a pair of lobe-like teardrop shapes, his navel tunneling upward between them. His face was plump-cheeked and pertly pug-nosed like those of newsboys in old-time cartoons, with fierce front teeth likely always displayed behind full rosy lips at rest in a pout, while his shaggy mane of golden-blond hair tumbled in tangles over his shoulders and almost completely covered blue eyes. Compared to the men he was very white, his inverted nipples so pale a pink as to be almost invisible. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, and a green bottle by its neck in one hand.
Thomas remarked in Kreyol, "What a marvelous belly he has! It rivals even yours, Timothy.”
“A marvelous shape,“ agreed Timothy, “though nowhere near the mass of mine.”
"What is that bottle?" asked Thomas.
"Heineken," said Timothy. "A very expensive beer."
"Does it taste better than ours?"
"That I doubt," said Donte. He compared the clothes of the men and the boy. "One might think him the blond man's son, but why dress a rich boy so poorly?"
“Perhaps he is a crewman?" said Thomas.
"Observe his hands," said Timothy. "He pulls no lines, nor manually labors."
“A cabin-boy?" said Thomas.
"Perhaps the cook, and if so a good one."
“That seems evident,” said Thomas, “with such a wondrous apron.”
"But do not stare, it is rude," said Donte.
Aft, the men had their skiff in the water. The blond one saw the boy and frowned. "I assume you'll be staying on board," he stated rather than asked in English.
The boy started to shrug, but saw the longboat and shambled his rippling way to the rail, his chest rolling over as he looked down, the pendulous lobes of his belly protruding cheekily out beneath, their undersides even whiter than the rest of him. "Woah! You're awesome!" he exclaimed, obviously meaning Timothy.
"Randy!" yelled the blond man. "Shut up before you offend them!"
The other man muttered, "Lucky they can't speak English.”
Timothy smiled at the boy. "I am not in the least offended, and you are awesome, too. Will you come with us?"
Thomas added, "Supper is waiting." ...Also in English.
“I like the sound of that,” said the boy.
END OF EXCERPT