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Authors: Jan Michael

Just Joshua

BOOK: Just Joshua
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Just Joshua

JAN MICHAEL

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Sebastian Adams

Joshua lay on his back in the warm sea, his eyes closed. At this moment his father was killing the pig. He’d watched once. The pig had looked at him with misery in its small eyes, eyes that were rimmed with lashes as long as his own. And when it had wriggled and shrieked it had sounded almost human. After that, Joshua made sure he was out of the house whenever a pig was to be butchered.

The sea rippled under him and salt water splashed across his mouth. He spat it out. His stomach gurgled and he opened his eyes. Above him wisps of early morning cloud were being stretched aside like elastic, leaving the sky clear and blue.

‘I’ll be back as soon as it’s killed,’ he’d promised, making his escape.

‘Mind you do,’ his father had answered, taking rope down from a nail to tie up the pig. ‘I’ll need you
afterwards
.’

Joshua didn’t mind helping out afterwards – when the killing was over.

He really ought to be heading home, but he lay there
a little longer, being rocked by the waves, his shorts ballooning up in the air. He tried not to think of the pig, but the slaughter flashed into his mind just the same. After he tied up the pig, his father would slice off its ears. It was the custom, he said. It was so that the pig could not hear the moment when its life left it.

‘Go in, Joshua,’ he muttered to himself.

He flipped on to his front and swam in from the deep water, letting the breaking waves carry him with them, till his stomach scraped the sand. Then he got to his feet and walked out of the sea. The water had dragged his shorts halfway down his skinny hips and they were full of sand. He shook his legs to dislodge the grains, hoisted his shorts back up to his waist and tightened the drawstring. The hot sun beat down on his back, drying his skin. He shrugged on his shirt, ran up the beach and on to the dirt road, scuffing up puffs of dust which joined the sand that stuck to his legs.

When he reached the clearing it was deserted. The fishermen had set out hours ago and the inhabitants of the small houses that were scattered between the
coconut
palms around the edge of the clearing had not yet emerged to begin their day. His father always chose the early morning to kill the pigs. No one was around then. No one had to hide their eyes from what he was doing.

Their house was on the far side of the clearing, with a sturdy table set in front of it. On the table was the pig,
not moving, dead. Good, Joshua thought.

Now his part in the ritual began.

As he approached, a chicken scuttled out of his way, clucking loudly, and a thickset man with shiny black hair looked up at the sound. His father. He bowed gravely to his son. Joshua bowed back. Still in silence, his father passed Joshua a white bowl.

Joshua took it to the end of the table and squatted down. He dipped his thumb in the bowl and pressed it into the earth. Then he tipped the bowl till blood
trickled
into the hollow. Using his thumb, he drew a long straight line and then four shorter lines joining it on either side. It took a while to finish the design because the blood dried so quickly. He stood up, bowed to his father and returned the bowl.

As his father took the bowl, a frown creased his
forehead
and Joshua wondered if he had done something wrong. But his father wouldn’t say anything until the ritual was over. He stepped back a pace and turned the bowl upside-down. The rest of the blood drained into the dusty earth at his feet and spread out in a large, irregular stain.

Joshua went to the other end of the table and gripped one of the pig’s legs tightly. The animal felt warm under his hands.

His father raised the cleaver in the air. Thud! A leg was severed from the body.

His father breathed out noisily. They could talk now. ‘I’ve told you before, Joshua, you mustn’t stand at the pig’s head when you give me back the bowl.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Next time, remember, all right?’

Joshua nodded.

‘Okay, then. Now pass me the leg.’ The butcher held out his hands and placed the leg on a table behind him.

A cloud of flies rose into the air and dived down again to gorge. His father waved them away. As soon as he stopped waving they came back, as if they were playing grandmother’s footsteps.

‘Pests!’ he exclaimed, irritated. ‘I’ll be glad when the shop is finished and we can keep the meat away from the flies. Which reminds me, I’ll need you to help me with the building later today.’ He pointed the knife at the second leg as he spoke.

Joshua gripped it.

‘And ask Robert to come and help too, will you?’ his father went on, raising the cleaver again.

Thud! The leg came off cleanly.

‘Okay.’ Joshua turned to go. Robert was his best friend.

‘Hey! Not so fast. Help me finish this first.’

Joshua held the carcass steady as his father slid the knife under the pig’s skin, slitting it down the side. He had to move his fingers nimbly so as not to get in the
way of the knife. His father’s hands were big and broad next to his, but they worked quickly and delicately; no one was as accurate with a knife as his father. He was the only butcher in the village. All the other men made their living from fishing.

‘They’re no good at killing pigs,’ his father had told him once when he’d asked. ‘They’d botch the job and end up being cruel. They’re so used to fish eyes that it doesn’t bother them, but I think they find pig’s eyes frightening.’

Sometimes Joshua wondered if that was all.
Sometimes
he thought his father was a butcher only because he couldn’t fish. Joshua had never even seen him in a boat.

‘Hold the ribs still,’ his father ordered. Joshua shifted his hands further up the carcass.

‘Ouch!’ His hands slipped. A horse fly had bitten his leg. He shook it vigorously, stepping back from the table.

‘Watch out!’ his father said crossly.

Too late. Joshua had already knocked into one of the buckets containing the pig’s innards. He grabbed for it and saved it just before it could topple right over. He pushed it under the table out of harm’s way and re-adjusted the cloth protecting it from the flies.

A van drove into the clearing, hooting noisily. A man jumped out of the cab.

‘Here.’ His father tossed Joshua a coin.

He streaked across and was the first to be handed a loaf of bread from the back of the van.

It was hard, round and still warm, finely dusted with flour. He hugged it to his chest. A bit of the crust broke loose as he walked back to his father. He caught it, put it in his mouth and crunched. It was as crisp as a biscuit. His fingers found the gap left by the fallen crust. He dug into the bread and tore out a chunk, which he offered his father. His father put down the knife, wiped his hands on his shorts and took the bread. He rested his other arm on Joshua’s shoulders as he ate. Joshua pulled out another handful for himself.

‘Was it a good swim?’ his father asked, relaxed now that most of the cutting was done.

Joshua glanced up at him and nodded, his mouth too full to speak. He noticed that his father had forgotten to put his hat back on. He was hardly ever seen without it, removing the battered hat only to go to sleep at night and during the pig ritual. Joshua picked it off the ground and his father bent down for him to squash it on. His father’s face immediately looked flatter.

‘Thanks, Josh.’ All trace of his earlier annoyance had disappeared, and he looked at his son with affection. They made a good pair. Together they stood there, chewing, watching as children and women tumbled out of their houses for the early morning bread.

‘Go on,’ his father said to him. ‘Make us coffee, then you can be off. I can manage for a while.’

Joshua rinsed his hands under the standpipe, shook them dry and carried on round the back to their house and up the steps to the door. The other houses all had doors opening on to the square, but theirs was at the back. Joshua’s father said it was to protect them from the flies that were attracted to the meat. Joshua thought it was a strange reason; the flies still came in through the window.

A dog dodged away as it saw him coming, then waited in the shadows, muzzle raised. The dog was old and smelly and an outcast. No one liked him, not really, and he knew it. The villagers called him Swabber.

Inside there was only one room, but that was the case in most of the village houses. In the middle of the floor, between their two beds, stood a shiny display counter that his father had been given and which Joshua was using as a cupboard. From it he took matches, cups, a spoon and two jars and carried them outside along with the paraffin stove. He set the stove down on a bit of level ground, pumped the little lever on the side, struck a match and watched the flame spring into life.

Swabber came and stood at a respectful distance. He wagged his tail tentatively a couple of times, but Joshua ignored him as he put on the kettle, spooned instant
coffee from one of the screw-top jar into the cups and then sugar from the other. When he squatted down to wait for the water to boil, Swabber sighed deeply and sat too. Joshua stayed perfectly still, listening to the
rattling
of the palm leaves over his head and the jumble of voices behind in the clearing. He watched idly as a steady stream of ants marched towards the grains of sugar that stuck to the spoon.

It was a morning like hundreds of other mornings, except that it was the first morning of the school holidays.

A scruffy bright-eyed mongrel trotted towards the market, past the tailor who sat on the floor sewing, past the metal workshop and the watch repairer. Looking neither to left nor right, it threaded its way through bicycle wheels and long skirts, searching for someone to play with.

Joshua heard the sounds of the market before it came into view.

‘Beans! Sweet, juicy beans!’

‘You! Hey! How much are the yams?’

‘Jamalacs! Only twenty millis a pound! Jamalacs!’

The shouting was tossed noisily back and forth. The dog picked its way down crowded aisles, sniffing ripe fruit and vegetables, tail wagging, still searching.

‘Pummel! Oy!’

The dog stopped and pricked up its ears. It doubled back and raced to the low outer wall of the market, where a boy was perched. It jumped up at his knees, barking with excitement.

Robert leaned down and scratched between
Pummel’s
rough hairy ears. ‘Hey, Pummel. Good dog.’

By now Joshua had arrived at the market. The
village
market was as old as he was. The government had built it the year he was born, the same year his mother had died. He prowled round the edges, knowing that Robert would be here somewhere, probably watching the market sellers. Halfway round he found his friend, having a tug-of-war with Pummel over a stick.

‘Hello, Robert.’

At the sound of Joshua’s voice, Robert looked up. He let go of the stick and Pummel tumbled backwards,
surprised
at his sudden victory. He dropped the stick at Robert’s feet and barked hopefully, but Robert ignored him.

‘Thought you’d come,’ Robert said to Joshua, talking fast as usual, getting what he had to say out before anyone could interrupt. ‘Let’s try Mama Calla. She’s in the corner over there. I’ve been watching her.’ All the market sellers were women, wearing wraps of cloth that were as colourful as the fruit they sold.

Robert hopped down from the wall and they set off. Suddenly splashes of water hit their feet. A man was hosing down the aisle. ‘You two again!’ he greeted them. Joshua recognised Simon, a retired fisherman who lived near them. He leaned back from the blast of bad breath from the man’s rotting teeth. ‘Who are you going to pick on this time?’

‘Mama Calla,’ Robert answered and Joshua nodded.

‘Mama Calla, indeed.’ They all looked to where Robert was pointing. Mama Calla was sitting
cross-legged
, fruit and vegetables laid out on bright blue and orange material in front of her and piled in heaps behind her. She was taking no part in the conversation shouted from one seller to another, but kept
rearranging
her fruit, moving bananas from left to right,
changing
the position of a coconut here, an orange there. It looked as if she wanted to be somewhere else.

‘In that case …’

The boys squealed as water from the hose hit their legs, blasting away the dust and sand.

‘There. At least you’ll be clean for her. She’s fussy, is Mama Calla.’ Simon pointed the hose at Pummel and drove him away before him.

‘Wait here,’ Robert told Joshua.

Joshua watched Robert saunter down the aisle, his flapping feet too big even for his long legs. He reached the woman’s pitch. Joshua watched their heads come together and he tried to follow the gestures they were making with their hands. Negotiations seemed to be going well. A couple of minutes passed.

Robert turned and waved Joshua over.

‘One koria fifty an hour, and a paw paw each,’ Mama Calla repeated her offer to Joshua.

He glanced at Robert, who nodded. ‘Fine,’ Joshua said. It was a good deal. Apart from mangoes from their
own tree and the odd coconut, they had to buy the rest of their fruit and vegetables from the market.

Mama Calla gathered up her cloth bundle and patted him on the cheek, something he hated. ‘I’ll be back in an hour or so,’ she said. ‘Here. A peach for your voice. Sing well.’

Joshua joined Robert on the sacking between the fruit and tucked his legs under him.

‘You first,’ Robert said.

Joshua bit into the peach, sucked, chewed,
swallowed
, and took a deep breath.

‘Passion peaches, mellow mangoes, paw paw and bananas.’

He paused and went on, singing out even higher.

‘Bent bananas, ranel, koli-kutti,’

He was making it up as he went along.

‘Ranel, koli-kuttu, anamulu, ripe bananas.’

‘We’ve only got ranel,’ Robert objected.

Joshua didn’t care. He liked the sound of the names; some of the fruits were really there, others were from a book he’d found dropped in the road and had taken home and studied.

‘Mellow mangoes!’
he sang out, really getting into his stride now.

‘Caraboa, minnie and gundoo. Tamarinds, sweet tamarinds,
tamarinds
, come buy!’

And they came. His voice rose higher than the women’s calls and it attracted customers.

‘This is better than hearing you sing at Mass,’ Robert said.

‘Don’t remind me!’ Joshua retorted, thinking of the solos the nuns sometimes got him to sing in chapel at school. ‘I –’

‘Don’t talk,’ Robert snapped in the bossy voice that he put on for his many younger brothers and sisters. ‘I can talk, but not you. You keep singing.’

‘They’re good tomatoes, Madam,’ he said, in his normal voice, to the woman in front of him. She had a tomato in her hand and was sniffing it. ‘You won’t find any better. Was it a pound you wanted?’

‘How much?’ the woman asked suspiciously.

‘Twenty-five millis a pound.’

‘Do you think I’m made of money?’ the woman asked indignantly.

‘Then take two pounds. Only forty millis for two pounds.’

‘Tasty tight tomatoes, Mama Calla’s best!’
chanted Joshua at his side.

‘Who needs two pounds?’ The woman considered the offer, shifting her basket to the other arm. ‘I’ll give you eighteen millis for one pound.’

Robert shook his head. He’d noticed that she had brand new sandals on her feet, and her cloth looked pretty new too. ‘Twenty-three millis,’ he said.

‘Twenty,’ she bargained, picking up the tomato she
had put down, scenting compromise.

‘Twenty-two,’ Robert said firmly. ‘It’s my final offer. Won’t get better tomatoes anywhere.’

She nodded and held out her basket.

‘Passion peaches! Minnie mangoes!’
Joshua sang.

Robert held up the scales for all to see, put a pound weight in one copper dish and filled the other with tomatoes till the scale balanced. Then he put them down and tipped the tomatoes gently into her basket, careful not to bruise them.

Several women were clustered around the stall now, picking up mangoes and smelling them, prodding watermelons, examining the beans.

‘You sing now,’ Joshua said, shifting position.

Robert shook his head.

‘Ten millis change,’ he said to the man he was
serving
, taking it from Mama Calla’s cloth pouch. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You go on. I prefer doing the talking.’

And Robert was better at the bargaining, Joshua
conceded
silently; he had all the market mamas’ patter at his fingertips. ‘All right, big feet.’ Joshua took another bite of peach and sang on while Robert did the talking and bargaining. They took it in turns to weigh the big green ranel bananas, to slice through melons and pile sweet yellow mangoes into baskets and bags.

They had done good business by the time Mama Calla returned. She weighed the pouch Robert gave her
and took two korias and two fifty milli coins out of it, 1.50 korias for each of them. ‘Not bad,’ she said, ‘not bad at all.’

Joshua ducked before her advancing hand could reach his cheek a second time. He jumped across the fruit into the aisle, grinned and took the money, along with the promised paw paw. He put the money in one pocket and the paw paw in the other. ‘Come on, Robert.’

‘Come back and help me tomorrow!’ Mama Calla screeched after them as they squeezed down the busy aisle. ‘Mangoes and bananas,’ she cried hoarsely,
settling
herself, ‘Tamarinds, juicy tamarinds.’ Her cries joined the hubbub of other calls and were swallowed up behind them.

It was just as they were leaving the market that Joshua saw him.

He gripped Robert’s arm. ‘Look,’ he said.

Robert followed the direction of Joshua’s gaze. A man was standing a little distance away at the edge of the market, not quite in the shade. He was on his own. People were taking a wide berth around him. No one stopped.

Berries were piled up in a mound on a makeshift table in front of the man: red, golden and black berries, jumbled up together and gleaming. Trickles of juice ran off the wooden board and into the earth, staining it.
Joshua stared. It was very like the stain made by the pig’s blood earlier that morning.

Despite the sun’s heat, the man wore a blanket around his shoulders. It was striped red and green with a black crocodile woven down the back. He stood
perfectly
still behind his berries, impassive, indifferent, eyes on the ground.

Joshua and Robert came a little nearer.

The man did not raise his head.

They drew closer still. Joshua crossed himself quickly against bad luck. Robert copied him. As he did so, he stubbed his foot on a stone and sent it flying. The man looked up and almost instinctively reached his arms out over the berries, as if trying to protect them. Sweat was pouring down his face.

‘Mountain man,’ Robert whispered to Joshua out of the side of his mouth.

Joshua nodded, not taking his eyes off the man. Men from the mountains were rarely seen in their village. They lived high up where it was cool, at least one day’s walk away, where the earth was as hard and cracked as this man’s skin. Mountain people had their own
customs
and spoke a dialect that the village people found hard to understand. They kept to themselves and ignored the government, which was down at the coast. Their mountains loomed over the village, as if they were trying to push it off the narrow coastal strip and
into the ocean. Perhaps that was why the fishermen distrusted them. They made no secret of their dislike for the mountain people. Joshua hadn’t needed Robert to tell him what the man was.

He took twenty precious millis from his right pocket and held the coins out as carefully as if he had been holding out food to a wild dog, his eyes not leaving the man for a moment.

Surprise flashed across the man’s face. It passed so quickly that Joshua wondered if he had seen it at all. The man accepted the coins. From the folds of his clothes, he took out a stone scoop and a bag made of newspaper, which he unfolded as if it were a treasure. Slowly and deliberately he dug the scoop into the mound of berries, three, four times, until the fruit filled the bag. He put the scoop back in his pocket, folded over the top of the bag, and handed it to Joshua in both hands, bowing slightly as he did so.

Startled, Joshua bowed back. He noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that Robert was doing the same.

The boys turned and walked away, not speaking. When they had gone about eight metres they stopped and looked back. The mountain man hadn’t moved. There he stood, still as a statue, eyes downcast, passive and alone. If it wasn’t for the bag of berries in Joshua’s hands, their transaction might never have happened.

Joshua unfolded the top of the bag and sniffed.
Robert took a berry, put it to his lips and hesitated. Joshua took one out too. He popped it straight in his mouth and squashed it with his tongue. Strange, sharp, sweet juice spurted into his mouth. He decided that he liked the taste.

The boys walked on till they were out of sight of the man, then perched on stones by the roadside to eat the berries, first in twos and threes, then in small fistfuls.

But the fruit was too ripe for the heat of the coast. They were only halfway down the paper bag when, soaked by the juice, it gave out in Joshua’s hands. What was left of the berries plopped to the ground between his feet and lay there, a mushy mess. Joshua and Robert watched in dismay as small red and black ants advanced at once from all sides, as if this was what they had been waiting for all morning. Then larger soldier ants marched purposefully through their smaller
cousins
to the front of the feast.

Joshua screwed up the bag and licked his fingers clean. ‘Let’s go and help Dad build the shop,’ he said. ‘He asked if you would come.’

Robert brightened. He enjoyed himself at Joshua’s. There would be just him and Joshua and Joshua’s father. It made a change from being at home with his big family and having to help his mother by looking after the smaller children.

‘Well, you two,’ Joshua’s father greeted them. ‘Took your time, didn’t you?’

Joshua grinned. His father might sound gruff but he knew he didn’t really mean it. ‘We were at the market.’ He remembered the paw paw in his pocket and took it round to the house, where he left it in the shade.

‘Now, where do you want us to start, Dad?’

‘I’ll go on spreading the mortar, you two put on the stones. Use the ones in that pile over there.’ He jutted his chin towards a large heap of stones, then turned back to the wall and slapped on some more mortar.

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