We always know they've come when we hear the laughter.
When the fishermen draw their nets in from the river and the village matrons usher the children indoors. When the mist settles so heavily over us that we can barely see our shaking hands in front of us. When the raft people have long since left, for fear of those cursed evenings.
This is the time when they come to us. This is the time when we go out to meet them again.
We come out from many places. Most of us have no homes anymore. No families. We crawl down out of mangroves, or up out of covered ditches. The way toward the river brings us down the path through the village. Candles are snuffed out. Children cry or question.
Families shut their doors and cover their windows before they even see us. They don't like to look at us. They stopped wanting to look long ago.
We walk in a line down toward the bank. We always move slowly. Most of us can no longer walk straight. We do not help the ones who trip and stumble. They will have to crawl after us, and then we will get first pick.
The laughter comes again, louder and closer. It laughs at nothing, and everything. The boat's hull pushes aside the reeds and strikes the side of the dock. Ropes tighten and creak. Bottles clink and rattle, and our ashy mouths water until our cheeks ache.
The mist slowly peels away to reveal them. They stand as they always do. They tower over us, even sitting down in their little boat. They are always taller when we fall to our knees.
Words form out of the laughter, as the one with a face like an elbow rubbed raw looks to us. He folds back the sleeves of his neat robe and slowly opens one basket. We don't need to look inside to know what it is. The smell wafts over us.
Sickening sweetness coats our throats, and we choke.
He asks us how we have been. If we are all still here. Someone lifts their head to tell him that Sibe has died. He feigns sorrow, and then asks how it happened. How much it hurt. Where the body was now.
No one says anything, and no one looks up to see the smile we all know he has.
The boat rocks, and the other stands up with his stick and his tablet. He is so pale, we all thought he was a ghost at first. Now we know that he is something worse. He taps the stick upon a bottle impatiently, and all our hands fumble.
Coins spill out onto the sagging pier beneath us. Stones and cowries clatter together on strings. A grey ring, still with a finger attached, is lifted up in bloodied palms beside me.
The laughing man collects, offering congratulations at bigger piles, and tutting at the small. He does not stop or look at the ones who bury their faces in the wood, weeping and empty-handed. He stops to look down at me for a long time. If the hairs had not fallen out of my skin a long time ago, they would all stand on end beneath his gaze.
I know not what the thing I hold is.
Only that it is made of metal, and glass, and that it has a weight which makes me hope for its value.
He asks me how I came by it. I spare no detail.
The raft man had separated from his fellows to walk through the trees. I tackled him and came down hard on top of him, grabbing for the knife that they all carried with them at their hips. But it was dull, and the point was broken. Twenty-eight times before he stopped moving, and I could take my hand away from his mouth. I took the thing from around his neck. I lie and tell myself that I don't know why I counted the stabs.
I know why.
The man delights. He takes the thing from me and clasps his hand upon my shoulder. I recoil, but I start breathing again at his passing.
When his hands are filled, he turns and walks back to the boat. He empties them into a chest which weighs the aft end down and thrusts the prow upward. The pale man makes more marks in his tablet and nods or shakes his head. Coins and cowries land upon many more of the same.
We are not their first stop today, and we will not be their last.
One by one we stand up and step into line. It is the longest walk to the end of the dock. Tremors run through us. The one in front of me doubles over and vomits. The tight skin of his back stretches and then tears around a sore next to his backbones. It oozes. I walk through his puddle as the line moves.
Golden-red at the edges of the vessel, darkening to a deep, bloody red at its deepest. Murky, and always swirling. Glowing in the dim light. The cork and one side of the neck sticky and slimy, insects landing upon it and then falling off dead.
Before he lets me have it, the pale man grabs my jaw. I open my mouth and he peers in. He counts my teeth, checks my arms and legs. I turn around once for him, raise my fingers up to my nose. He grunts and then lifts the bottle up with a gloved hand.
When the bottle comes into my hands I have to force myself to stop shaking. I can't drop it. I turn and hold it close to my heart as I hurry back onto the dirt. Others are already sprawled out with their own bottles. Some get it thicker, if they've done well. The ones who brought less get the bottles that are cut with water. The ones who brought nothing at all are still crying on the dock.
The stupid ones pull the corks out and tip them right back, drinking it like they would water.
I squat down and use my fingers to spoon it up a bit at a time. That way it will last longer. Last me until the next time they come.
I suck my fingers clean. Something comes off in my mouth. After swallowing the honey, I spit the thing out. I've lost another fingernail. There is no blood this time. The hole underneath it looks like it should hurt. But the honey is working, and I don't feel anything at all.
I keep scooping.
Old Koge falls down in front of me. He can't drink anymore. It makes him sick, and if he vomits he loses all of the honey in it, even if he tries to scoop it back up. So he uncorks his honey and brings the neck up close to his cheekbone. Old Koge leans back and holds the mouth of the bottle over his eye- the one that doesn't see anymore. I can see his eyelid open through the murk. It takes him a few seconds to cry out in pain, but he holds it until enough of it absorbs, and the pain stops. He brings the bottle back down, honey running down his cheek. I don't know if it is honey or blood in his eye.
He across grins at me.
One voice is louder now. I look up, and everything leaves a trail of color behind my eyes when it moves. A man whose name I do not know is raising his palms toward the laughing man. He is begging. He says that he cannot bring enough anymore, not without his leg. I did not notice the festering wound until now.
The laughing man puts a hand on the top of his head and pats him. He tells him that there is a way. He takes his hand and helps him up. The pale man moves things around on the boat, emptying a space. He brings the man down into the boat and sits him there, but he ties his hands together before he can reach for the honey. He will come with them back to where they come from, and where the honey is made. He says that there will be plenty.
We all know what will happen. We will not see him again.
I keep scooping.
The line is gone now. We are all taking our honey. The laughing man holds his hands on his hips and smiles. He smiles when he is disgusted. He always smiles. The pale man finishes his writing. He puts the tablet away under a sheaf of dried leaves. He takes a new one out. He speaks to the laughing man in their tongue. The laughing man barks something back at him.
The laughing man grabs the handle of the bullwhip he wears like a belt. The pale man lifts his coat to show all of his gleaming knives.
They both stop, and start to laugh together.
The boat pushes away from the dock. The crying man is crying harder now.
The laughing man waves his hand and begins to bid us all farewell.
His hand blurs into a smear of fuzzy light, and his voice is like the sound of bullfrogs in the swamp.
My toes tingle, and I start to taste orange.
The color. Not the fruit.
The mist begins to cloak them again.
I keep scooping.
Click here for Part 2.