The sun’s warm reappearance was anti-climactic in it’s promise of comfort and security as it peeked over the horizon. Fingerlike rays danced bashfully around the clouds reflected the expanse of the turquoise water as far as the eye could see. It was as 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, and words died on shocked lips while surveying what was left of their lives. The lingering fog slinked around them like a vaporous snake, hovering, waiting, to carry moans and cries into the far distance; communicating where and who was hit worst with echoes that ranged from soulful sniffles to woeful wails.
The massive hurricane had not spared much.
The clean-up was crippling and slow with little time to grieve. The men and women moved mechanically, working together to find unspoiled food and potable water while children cried, uncomforted and 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 giggled in loud abandonment; before daily routines merrily abounded; and before the night could again be trusted.
Some of the newbies left the island at first opportunity, while others relocated from the valley to the higher safety of the dense mountaintops. It was only the most seasoned diehard native islanders that stayed put in the lower valley of the village, stubbornly 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 hobbled daily down the mountain path leading to the beach.
Until one day.
“Who is dat old mon?” A young father of four asked his wife. He watched the grizzled man shuffle past huts and disappear into the dense foliage below. “De funny one pulling a child’s red wagon down de beach path every day.”
“Who knows,” his wife shrugged. She snapped a wet shirt then pinned it on the sagging clothesline. “He will return dis evenin wit it empty as always. Be nice if he brought back someting we all could use or eat, like fresh urchins or clams, or …” Her weary voice trailed off.
“… 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 away for his wagon as he made his way down the steep hill. He stopped only once, dropped the handle on the path, and veered into a field of tall green stalks reaching tall toward the sky.
Back and forth he shuffled between the green rows, touching each plant with care. The healthy foliage spiked upward from thick pole-like stems as he inspected them for pests or disease. He smiled at their progress, then frowned, speaking aloud to them.
“Survival. Regrowth. Pfft. Easy for you to do on dis cursed island. You should share your knowledge wit my young islanders on how to do it. Dey are too sad.“
He leaned down and pulled 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. Renewal begins wit de fathers, I tell you. 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.
“Pfitt! Look at you wit your lovely leaves waving in the breeze. You are almost ready to be harvested and here I am, an ole fool talking and wasting time. I have plenty to do if I am to keep up wit de likes of you.”
He bid them adieu and picked up the worn handle and traversed down to the ocean’s edge.
The turquoise waves rolled gently to the shoreline, and their gentle slap was barely audible, as if ashamed to make a sound after the gluttonous taking it did several months ago. The sand was already scorching, but not for tough callused feet. And amazing things continued to wash ashore. If not for a few bent and broken palm trees, and the regurgitating of objects, things looked nearly normal.
On the outside.
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, he ventured farther down the beach. Slowly, joints stiff, he picked up and inspected bits and pieces, tossing some things into a tall pile of garbage, and dropping others safely into the red wagon.
It was a good day. He’d uncovered precious nuts and bolts, a round aluminum vent hood, and a tattered door screen. The pile grew in the little red wagon as the day wore on and soon the old man headed to the tree line disappearing into the dense jungle that surrounded the backside of the cove. He returned momentarily, pulling a worn and splintery skiff, and tugging it over the sand, didn’t stop until at the water’s edge.
He arched his back, squinted at the receding light twinkling between the trees, and decided to call it a day as he made one last load. The tired wagon rebelled, wheels digging deep into the sand from it’s heavy burden as the old man forced it toward the battered rowboat. He unloaded his booty into the boat, shoved the boat into the water and clambered in.
He settled himself, then rowed gently across the calm waters reflecting on how 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 said, grinning like a besotted teenager at the apparatus bobbing in the middle of the lagoon. He welcomed the memory of the day he found Her as he neared Her pot-bellied girth …
It was the day after. He’d wanted to help with the cleanup, but quickly found an old man just got in the way. He decided to retreat to the comfort of the beach, bone-weary of living and ready for his soul to move on. He would swim past the rocky pier and let the breakers take his tired old body.
He reached the end of the path, where green met sand and stopped dead in his tracks. His mouth fell open and speech left him in a gush of air.
Is that … It couldn’t be.
But is was!
Waiting for him, in all Her glorious monstrosity-metaled bulk and sitting atop a broken chunk of weathered concrete pierced with holes the size of limbs, imbedded precariously in the rocky pier was his Beauty. She’d been uprooted miles away, repositioned grandly, and wedged in-between the large boulders that jutted from the mountainside. He’d known Her all his life. Naturally, She was older, faded and tired, but how grand She looked. He had not seen Her since he retired.
The craggy large rocks were an extension of the mountain, slicing the ocean and creating a natural pier, albeit a dangerous one. It was this very place beyond the breakers he was going to swim just moments ago.
Even the native fishermen stayed away from it’s danger and did not have much use for the wind and sharpness, not when the rest of the island offered much better fishing areas. This area was so unpopular, children were scolded if caught straying to it. The cove lured, though, to hunt treasure and collect whatever washed ashore.
He came to Her and stared longingly at Her each day. He asked, prayed, to the ocean gods to release Her and push her to him, but it seemed hopeless. There was no one who would think this important enough to help him retrieve Her.
For weeks, the ocean relentlessly pounded waves against the rocks and The Beauty was beaten and battered, pulled and pushed without end. 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 once again could not believe what he was seeing. Sacré bleu! He found Her floating, with nothing but calm blue waves supporting Her. The Beauty was free. She had beaten the odds. She was …
… heading out to sea!
He sprang into action. He gathered the dingy, untied a tattered rope he kept around a palm trunk and went to work. Adrenaline kicked in and he rowed as if his life depended on it. Finally, he reached Her, circled Her girth with the rope, tied it to his boat and managed to tug Her back to shore. Soon, the concrete pad She was perched on was anchored solidly into the soft sand a mere three feet below the water level in the middle of the lagoon.
He jumped into the water, jogged to the shoreline pulling the rope for all he was worth. Muscles shaking uncontrollably and bony joints grinding, were ignored as he tied the rope around the nearest tree trunk. Only then did he relax, gulping deep breaths of air and grinning like an idiot.
Once his breathing returned to normal and his heart settled down, he water-jogged back into the water with the excitement of a teen going on his first date. He climbed upon the platform, rubbed his hands all over Her, around Her, up and down and felt the metal seams for leaks.
It was a miracle!
She was spared irreparable damage. Her bloated girth, wobbled and groaned, and gave to one side as She bobbed. He couldn’t stop grinning. She was going to be okay. He jumped back into the water, splashed and hooted for joy.
“Oh my Beauty what a sight you are. Oh sure, you have missing parts here and dere, but just look at you!” He whistled through his teeth and grinned in anticipation of getting her up and running again.
“Wit your help, my Sweet, we’ll revive dis ole island. God willing …”
A seagull cried, breaking the old man’s reverie. He looked to the sky. It would be dark by the time he got home.
The old man tied the skiff off onto a piece of rebar sticking out from the concrete and carefully unloaded his wares inside Her huge rusty belly. The sun was half a coin behind the mountaintop when he started back up the path.
Every day since, he gave thanks to his Beauty. She had saved him. She greets him daily, renewing his purpose in life. She was his beautiful monstrosity, his rusty-metalled diva, his iron-bellied queen complete with crumbling concrete for a throne.
He had a bounce in his step and never seemed to tire, working long hours with little to eat. And each day he made a progress.
One evening, on his trek home, the old man saw a familiar face: an old friend that worked the same shift with him for years at the factory. They talked into the wee hours of the morning.
That next morning, the islanders saw not one, but two, odd grizzled old men shuffling down the path — one pulling the tired red wagon, and the other pushing a sad torn baby buggy. It was loaded with hand tools.
“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 mumbled and frowned and roughly hefted the large burlap sack over his shoulder. It was full of his first root vegetable crop for the year hurricane.
“Humph!” He snorted. No time to waste on two old fools. 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. He had work to do. Hard work. 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, but one day the patterned habit of the Oddities suddenly changed. The pink buggy continued on the same path downward, but the red wagon took a different path inland. One rarely used anymore.
The young father was beyond curious now. It ate him like the rodent nibbling on his vegetables. His curiosity turned to anger and then to envy as he grumbled everyday.
“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. I can not wait to get old!”
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 vowed to ignore them, now and in the future.
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 on his back. He knew he didn’t fool her one bit. And he 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.
The young father heard long before he saw the ungodly contraption. It was a cacophony of grinding metal, groaning and squawking in rusty agony, the likes of which he’d never heard. It sounded as if something was being tortured. He dropped his net and pole.
The large apparatus was stuck in concrete and looked about to topple over, listing to one side on the sandy beach.
It was huge and round and orange–a faded red–the size of a small silo. A 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 hand-sized gauges, horizontally and two feet apart of each other, and covered with plates of broken glass. They looked eerily like eyes wearing cracked glasses, positioned as they were below the top gear and smokestack. In the middle of the thing was a metal hook, a handle to a door. It rested below and between the cracked gauges.
The whole effect was like an overstuffed cartoon cat, with a pair of comical ears, nose and eyes staring at him while steam or smoke, or both, wafted toward the fading sky.
He walked closer.
The tail, a crude pipeline of sorts, completed the whole look running from the bottom of the contraption to a strange water wheel nearby, consisting of asphalt shingles, broken plastic pieces of unknown origin, palm fronds and a curved tin sheet. A separate pipe went from the water wheel back to the fat cat. And yet another smaller pipe descended from the top–between the ears–to the beach before disappearing into the dense palm trees.
All of a sudden the groaning stopped. It was replaced a second later by hissing. It grew in intensity, louder and louder, as pressure built. He could almost see the metal expanding as the god-awful thing started to shake.
He began inching backwards, fell over a pile of freshly cut sugar cane, and laid there watching with glued bug eyes as it vibrated in the sand. It took only a moment to get moving as if something were after him, digging heels into the sand and back-crawling into the tree line.
The dilapidated machine added wheezing to it’s list of symptoms. The young father held his breath and covered his head. It was going to explode as the pitch went higher and higher.
Then finally it happened. It belched horribly and emitted a giant black puff of steamy smoke into the twilight sky.
He released his own breath in a huge sigh of relief, as the machine returned to normal, clanking and grinding merrily again.
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-busting laughter. He was pulled in that direction, lured like the flute of the Pied Piper. He got up, and followed the smaller pipe that disappeared behind him into the leafy shadows.
He had walked only about a hundred yards until he entered a clearing. Backs propped against an old skiff were the Oddities, roaring and breathless. They kicked bare feet in the air with glee, pounded hands hard on their knees and swayed as they sat in front of a fire. They were dangerously close to falling in it. Arms lifted and heads shot backwards downing a drink and the fire hissed as inadvertent drops sloshed into it.
The young father stood there with his mouth wide open for the second time that evening. He cleared his throat. “Harrrrumph, um … I … we … my wife and I … were concerned.” He nodded at the old men. “We thought maybe …” his voice turned from contrite to accusing as a frown emerged. “… you’re drunk!”
The Oddities turned in unison to look at him. They recognized the young father from the village as he stood there in a huff. He appeared to them as if he was unable to close his mouth, straighten his eyebrows, or stop nodding. His eyes went questioningly from one to the other.
The Oddities looked at each other and busted out laughing again.
The young father stood there, his face reddening, and waited for the laughter to die down.
The Oddities beckoned him, loosely waving come hither with all four hands for him to join them.
Four hours into the evening became night casting long shadows into the gritty grassy ground as two seasoned retirees and one young father of four sang horribly into the darkness. One bawdy song after another was belted out while in the distance the waves slapped the shore and the rustic beauty squeaked, hissed and belched in rhythm.
“Anutter toast,” one said. Various mugs of choice were raised high in the air; a tin peach can, a glass baby food jar, and half a water bottle.
“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 lifting mugs, and throwing back heads.
Someone hiccuped. Another farted. One burped deep and long.
They fell back on the sand in drunken fits of unmanly giggles. Laughter had returned to the island.
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. Picture shown is NOT a part of a distillery, but was just the inspiration behind it.
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.