The sun’s warmth and reappearance was anti-climactic in it’s promise of warmth and security as it peeked over the horizon. Fingerlike rays danced bashfully around the clouds as far as the eye could see in the expanse of the turquoise water. It was if the sun knew about the horrific damage done in it’s absence.
Caring little, the lackluster islanders crawled out from the safety of nooks and crannies like cautious mice. Words died on shocked lips while surveying their surroundings. The lingering fog slinked around the islanders like a vaporous snake, hovering in wait. The dense mist echoed moans and cries into the far distance, communicating better than telegraph, where and who was hit worst. The sounds of loss ranged from weary sniffles to woeful wails. The massive hurricane had not spared much.
The clean-up was crippling and slow, mechanical in motion and with little time to grieve. Unspoiled food and potable water was the first to address and working together was crucial while children cried, lost and unsure where to go.
And … the dead needed burying.
Methodically, days passed and life went on as survival does. Crude dwellings got rebuilt and crops replanted. But, it would be a long time before souls were restored; before children played, giggling; before daily routines merrily abounded; and before the night could again be trusted.
Some of the newbie islanders left the island at the first opportunity. Others relocated from the valley to the higher safety from flooding the dense mountaintops offered. Only the most seasoned diehard of the native islanders stayed put in the village, daring nature to remove them.
Lost in private worlds of reconstruction and recuperation, no one paid much attention to the old man with weathered skin, dark as night, cropped hair and beard, white as snow, as he wobbled down the mountaintop path that lead to the beach every day.
Until one day.
“Who is dat old man? De funny one pulling a child’s red wagon down de beach path every day?” A young father of four asked his wife as he watched the grizzled man shuffle past huts and disappear into the dense foliage below.
“Who knows,” his wife shrugged. She snapped a wet shirt before pinning it on the clothesline. “He will return dis evenin wit it empty as always. Would be nice if he brought back someting we all could use, or eat, like fresh urchins or clams, or …” Her voice trailed off in weary defeat.
“… a ball? A puppy? Children’s laughter?” The young father finished for her. His sad dark eyes meeting her tired chocolate ones.
Slow, but sure-footed, the feeble old man kicked larger pebbles out of the way for his wagon as he made his way down the steep hill. He stopped only once, leaving the wagon on the path, and veered into a field of tall green stalks that reached proudly to the sky.
Back and forth he hobbled between the green rows. He touched the plants with reverence. Shoots of healthy foliage spiked upward from thick pole-like stems as he inspected each plant for pests or disease. He smiled at the progress and spoke aloud to them.
“Survival. Regrowth. Pfft. Easy for you to do on de cursed island. You should share your knowledge wit our young islanders on how to do it. Dey are too sad.“
He bent over and continued his rant while pulling threatening weeds.
“Lived tru tree storms of dis size, I have. Each one de same. Destruction de same. People hurt de same. Spirits crushed de same.” He shook his head.
“One ting I know, fo sho — healing will come faster wit de laughter. You nourish de spirit, de soul, and happy days return. Renewing begins wit de fathers. As a man, I know dis! You heal de spirits of de father. He tends to de spirits of de mother. De mother happy, everyone happy. Soon will come de laughter and more babies. Simple as dat. Where dere is good life … dere is laughter.”
He picked up the worn handle and resumed his walk, still talking.
“Pfitt! You are laughing at me. You, wit your lovely leaves waving in the breeze. Here you are almost ready to be harvested and dis ole fool talks and wastes time. I have much to do if I am to keep up wit de likes of you, my friend.” His voice dissolved into the breeze as he made his way down the slope.
The turquoise waves rolled gently to the shoreline with a gentle slap, barely audible, as if ashamed from the gluttonous taking the ocean did several months ago. The sand was already hot, but not a problem for tough callused feet. Debris continually washed ashore and amazed the old man. If not for the bent and broken handful of now-dying palm trees and the regurgitating of objects, signs a hurricane had ripped through the island weeks ago were non-existent.
The old man hummed a song of his youth and was deep in thought as he worked. He knew the islanders thought him odd, but he just smiled. Old age and family long gone allowed him to do as he wished, so let them wonder.
He squinted through the early morning light with still sharp eyes. Spying objects of use recently washed ashore, he ventured farther down the beach. Slow from stiffness he worked, picking up and inspecting bits and pieces, odds and ends of broken items, tossing ones of use into the red wagon and others to a garbage pile. It was a good day. He’d found bits of metal scraps, nuts and bolts, a tattered door screen and a round aluminum vent hood.
Arching his back, he looked to the receding sun, and decided to call it a day. He headed to the treeline, disappeared a moment, and returned pulling a battered rowboat to the water’s edge. Returning to the wagon, he pulled it toward the boat. The wheels rebelled and dug a deep path in the sand from it’s heavy burden. He unloaded his finds into the boat, shoved the boat into the water, and clambered in.
He settled himself and began rowing across the calm waters of the lagoon. The power of nature never ceased to amaze him; lifting large heavy items and throwing them about as if weighing nothing.
“Hello, my Beauty,” He spoke aloud to her, a huge faded red metal apparatus listing to one side. He sat there grinning like a besotted teenager as he allowed his mind to wander back to the day he had found his Beauty.
It was the day after. He’d wanted to help, but quickly found an old man just got in the way. He would retreat to the comfort of the beach, bone-early of living and ready to leave this life and move on. If he could just get past the breakers …
He reached the end of the mountain path, stepped out of the thick foliage, rounded the cove, and … stopped dead in his tracks. His mouth fell open and speech left him in a gush of air.
Is that … I think it … it can’t be. But is was! There she sat, in all her glorious and rusty routundness, sitting atop broken concrete stuck solid in the rocky pier. His Beauty. He’d known her all his life. Naturally she was older, more ragged, and not in her own element wedged as she was in between the stone-craggy rocks, but how grand she looked. He had not seen her since he retired.
The sharp boulders melded into the earth and extended from the mountainside as it reached out a half mile toward open ocean. It sliced the water creating a natural pier, albeit a dangerous one. It was this very place that harbored the breakers he was going to swim past only moments ago. Even the island fisherman stayed away and did not have much use for the sharp rocks, not when the island offered much better fishing areas. No, it was this part of the beach children were scolded if caught straying to. It lured, though, to hunt and collect whatever washed ashore.
He came to her daily, afraid she had broken free and would be gone. He asked, prayed to the ocean gods to release her and push her to him only when he would be here to rescue her. It seemed hopeless. There was no one who would think this important enough to help him.
For weeks, the ocean pounded waves against The Beauty. She was beaten and battered, pulled and pushed relentlessly into the sharp craggy points of the pier. He wondered if she could even survive the constant bashing. Sadly, he thought not.
Until one day.
The sun wasn’t completely up yet when he stepped onto the cool sand and, again, could not believe his eyes. Sacre’ blue! The Beauty was floating free! She was surrounded by calm blue water. She was unharmed. She was floating out to the open sea!
He sprang into action. He got his battered dingy, a worn rope, and rowed quickly to her. He circled around her with the rope, tied it and managed to row back into the middle of the lagoon. It was long before the concrete pad she perched on was anchored solidly and embedded deep into the soft sand a mere three feet below the water level in the middle of the lagoon.
He jumped into the water, splashing to the shore and pulled the rope for all he was worth. He was aware of his muscles shaking uncontrollably and bones rubbing together, but ignored them. He tied the rope around the nearest tree trunk.
He ran like a teen back to the water, climbed onto the platform and rubbed his hands all over her, around her, feeling the metal seams for leaks. It was a miracle! She was spared irreparable damage. Her silo-like girth, groaned and listed to the side as she bobbed, but was okay! The old man jumped back into the water, and hopped up and down splashing and screaming like a toddler.
“Oh my Beauty … sure you … have missing parts … here and dere … but … just look at you!” He said haltingly between breaths. He whistled through his teeth and grinned in anticipation of getting her up and running again.
Every day since, Beauty greeted the old man, renewing his purpose in life. He never tired and worked long hours with little to eat. And each day he made a little progress. She was his beautiful monstrosity, his rusty-metalled diva, his iron-bellied queen with an uprooted concrete for a throne.
Days were spent happily looking for parts that would work. But other days, the work left to do seemed insurmountable. He prayed for help, someone with the same dream as he — to revive this island.
Sighing, the old man tied the boat off onto a piece of rebar sticking out of the concrete and carefully unloaded his wares inside the huge rusted belly of the beauty. The sun was half a coin behind the mountaintop when he headed back up the path for home.
Several weeks later, he decided the ocean gods must have heard his pleas as on his trek home with his empty wagon one night the old man saw a familiar face; an old friend that had worked the same shift with him for years at the factory. They rejoiced in each other and reminesced well into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, the mountaintop villagers saw not one, but two, old and odd grizzled men shuffling down the path — one pulling the tired wagon, and the other pushing a sad torn baby buggy.
“What tis it dey do?” The young father worried to himself as he watched them for the hundredth time. The Oddities, as the villagers began calling them, descended the path to the ocean every day until they were out of sight. The young father roughly hefted the large burlap sack full of his first root vegetable crop for the year hurricane.
He frowned at himself. He refused to think any more about the Oddities, or the storm, or anything. It does not matter what the senile old farts are doing, he thought to himself. A ship was due in today. He would barter for shoes, clothes and books for his children and maybe canning jars for the wife. He took the worn path leading to the valley and semi-broken town below.
Days turned into nights, and nights into days and still the young father was beside himself with curiosity. He anger turned into envy. He whispered under his breath, “What solitude dey surely must find. No mouths to feed, no responsibilities, not a care in de world. Fishing, swimming, bathing in the sun … What a life!”
He listened to the rattling of tiny wheels on rocks grow distant before hitching up the large roll of wire onto his shoulder. He trudged off to repair a fence with a jealous backward glance.
And weeks passed.
“When was de last time you remember seeing de two old goats?” the young father asked his wife one afternoon as he washed up.
“De Oddities? Well now, lemme see,” she said, brows furrowed. “Musta been at least two dehs ago. Maybe tree.”
“Humph…” The young man grabbed a net and his makeshift pole. “Goin fishin’ dis evenin’,” he announced. His wife looked at him and shook her head. He knew she watched him trot down the path, could feel her eyes. He knew he didn’t fool her one bit, knew that she knew he was going in search of the two old coots.
Then she did something he did not see, something she’d not done in a very long while. She smiled.
He heard long before he saw the ungodly contraption. It was a cacophony of grinding metal, groaning and squawking in rusty agony, the like of which he’d never heard. It sounded as if something was being tortured. He dropped his net and pole.
The god-awful sound was coming from a large contraption. It was stuck with concrete poured around it and looked about to topple over while it sat on the beach. It was a huge faded round metal thing the size of a small silo. A large belt-less gear stuck out from atop one side and a smoke stack sat angled on the other side. On the front facing him were two large gauges two feet apart of each other horizontally and covered with plates of broken glass. They looked eerily like eyes wearing cracked glasses. Below toward the middle was a handle of a door opening.
The whole effect was like a pair of comical ears, eyes and nose of a huge cartoon mouse, or cat, staring at him while steam or smoke, or both, wafted toward the fading sky.
He walked closer.
A crude pipeline, of sorts, completed the characature looking like a tail that ran from the contraption to a strangely made water wheel, before disappearing into the palm trees. The water wheel had paddles made of asphalt shingles, cut open plastic jugs, woven palm fronds, and curved tin sheets. A separate pipe went from the water wheel back to the fat metal thing and yet another smaller pipe descended from the top of the thing (between the ears) back to the beach then disappeared into the trees. The dilapidated apparatus belched smoke, as if in relief, before it went completely silent.
All of a sudden it started hissing. The hissing was growing in intensity, getting louder and louder. It was building pressure. The fat cat started to shake. The young father began stepping backwards, fell over a pile of freshly cut sugar cane, and laid there watching it shake the sand. Never taking his eyes off of it, he managed over the pile of stalks, dug his heels into the sand and back-crawled to the tree-line.
It was about to explode, and suddenly when he thought it could take no more before splitting wide open, the contraption belched horribly and emitted a giant puff of smoke and steam before starting the awful groaning all over again. He released his own breath in a huge sigh of relief.
Then, he’d heard something else. Something he had not heard in a long, long time.
What the … Is that … giggling? It was laughter. Hearty, manly, robust and deep, gut-wrenching laughter. He was pulled in the direction, the sound luring him like the flute of the Pied Piper. He got up, stepped over the large pipeline and followed the smaller pipe that disappeared in the leafy shadows.
He had walked only about a hundred feet until he entered a clearing. Backs propped against an old skiff were the Oddities, roaring and breathless, kicking bare feet in the air with glee. They pounded hands hard on their knees and swayed as they sat in front of a fire and were dangerously close to falling in it. Arms lifted and heads shot backwards downing a drink and the fire hissed as they inadvertently sloshed drips it’s way.
The young father stood there with his mouth wide open for the second time that evening. He cleared his throat. “We … we all were concerned. “ He nodded. “We thought maybe you had a fishing accident.”
The Oddities turned in unison to look at him. They recognized one of the young fathers from the village standing aghast. He didn’t seem able to close his mouth.
They looked at each other and busted out laughing again.
The young father stood there, embarrassed, waiting for the laughter to die down.
The Oddities motioned with all four hands for him to come over to them.
Four hours into the evening became night casting long shadows into the gritty foliage floor as two seasoned retirees and one young father of four sang horribly into the fire-lit darkness. One bawdy song after another was belted out while in the distance the waves slapped, and the rustic beauty belched and squeaked, in rhythm.
“An nutter toast,” one said. Various mugs of choice were raised high in the air; a tin peach can, a glass baby food jar, and a plastic water bottle cut in half.
“Ta hell wit fishin’, ” the young father said.
“Ta spirishul healin’,” one Oddity slurred to the stars.
“Ta Kill Devil,” the other Oddity spewed. “De best damn rum ‘o de West Indies!”
“To Kill Devil!” They echoed and emptied their mugs.
Someone hiccuped. Another farted. One burped long and deeply.
Laughter had returned to the island as they fell back on the sand in drunken fits of unmanly giggles.
And the healing began.
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed bringing it to life. It was written by me, Ronda K Reed as a flash fiction piece in the WDG — Writers Discussion Group — weekly fiction exercises with a 500 word count limit in 2013. Revised by me, Ronda K Reed in 2016 and elevated to a short story and I edited again in 2018.
A side note from the author:
This was the picture prompt used for the flash fiction piece in 2013, titled then simply, The Oddities.
In the West Indies, Kill Devil was the reference to the “raw rum” product by the island locals, meaning the highest percentage of alcohol in it’s rawest pure form. It was much like the moonshine in the states.