by Aaron Eastley
Sharlimar looked up. Moved to the bank to be sure. Far up river she heard the engines. They were early, she hadn’t expected them till Thursday at least, it must be something gone wrong.
She walked quickly back up the trail to the camp in the clearing and fired up the single burner. Poof. Almost out of kero. Good ting they comin’ already, she thought. It ent regular though. Even Vishnu ent able to drink out as many Caribs in fived days as last trip’s gold and di-monds probably sold for. But trouble for the boss-man usually does be good for she.
Sparks flashed in the flames. She lowered them expertly.
Back out at the bank she listened to the heavy ruble of the approaching engines blasting before them down the corridor of trees. Two boats. Maybe three.
Behind her, filling the emptiness all around, a thousand palm fronds and fern branched struggled madly, chatoticly, but utterly still in what seemed to her a never-ending effort to thrust their long necks out beyond the thick, intertwined tangle of growth, out of the enveloping warmth and moisture into a cooler, finer air that doesn’t exist in the bush. The mammoth ferns, she had often thought, struggled hopelessly, irrelevantly, and only the river brought life.
A spider fell from the canopy off to her left, and caught itself with a line about four feet above the ground. She knocked it down with the flat palm of her hand, then covered it with one sandal and worked it methodically from side to side. The ground by the bank was worn and hard. Almost imperceptibly, her lips curved. She knew to be afraid of the black ones. Killing them was like killing mosquitos – there are always more – but she liked it anyway. It was plenty bad if they got to you first.
“Why you does be back so early?” she asked Vishnu after they finished unloading.
He spat on the ground.
“Rasheed get in trouble in Georgetown. He talk all too big about de di-monds we findin’ an about he nice set-up here in the bush. Before we get all our gear an food an’ ting arranged for proper, a street boy we meet get all excited an try to fine out we camp spot an sell the story to people in the Organization. At las we haf to take the boy he self an run back here to keep quiet the story.
“So, here we is,” he went on, “in the bush without nuf food or haf our replacement gear. An I’s still suppose to sen’ de divers down an make the kidnap’ boy work.” He kicked at the cook fire and looked straight at her.
“I tell ya. Is Rasheed get styupid, an now we all is drinkin’ Ginger Tea fuh he fever.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything.
He started to walk away, then stopped up short by his cot, rummaged through a bag and pulled out a cotton print dress, yellow with red hibiscus blooms printed on it. Walking back he pushed it into her hands and walked away.
“Deh nah,” he said over his shoulder, “I was able to get that one ting. It should take yuh figure well.”
“Dis roti does be col’ like de dog nose,” one of the men yelled from his cot. Sharlimar looked up from the fire.
“Ya is lucky to get dahl-pouri a-tall,” she replied looking sidelong at Rasheed.
“I find is nicer working for Americans,” the first man said. And this time he too looked at Rasheed.
“It was the first night. Rasheed pulled out his revolver and spun the cylinder once, twice slowly. It was loaded, all chambers. He took out one bullet and rubbed it on his pant leg as if to clean it. Sliding the bullet back into place, he clicked the cylinder in line with the barrel and rested the gun on his knee, then continued to eat. The other man looked down at his roti and didn’t say anything again.
“If yuh still hungry,” Sharlinmar said to him, paying no attention to Rasheed, “yuh can hunt for wild meat in the bush.”
Rasheed glared at her. “Don’t talk to dem stypid lickle boyz, Sharlimar. They ent worth nothin’.”
They ate in silence for awhile, then turned to talking about where they would work in the days to come. Across the clearing, on of the new men whispered to Vishnu.
“Why she cyan’t talk with us?”
Vishnu didn’t say anything. But Rasheed heard and answered.
“Yuh shut-up boyee!” he yelled, jumping up and crossing the clearing. “Yuh jus’ shut up.” He leveled the barrel of the revolver at the man’s head.
The man’s plate clattered to the ground and he stared wide-eyed at Rasheed. But before Rasheed could move or speak Sharlimar came between them and stood still, looking stolidly at Rasheed, ready. Rasheed stared at her, saying nothing, and slowly lowered the gun. Without a word Sharlimar moved back to the stove and Rasheed fixed his eyes on the man, who remained as he had been, wide-eyed and speechless, and spoke to him very quietly.
“Is what I say yuh do, uh?”
The man recovered himself slightly. “Ya mahn, ya mahn!”
“Dat’s right,” Rasheed whispered. “Dat’s bettah.”
Later, after Rasheed had gone to his cot in the higher clearing she stood out of the light at the edge of the clearing, and listened to thtem taling among themselves.
They liked she. “Dat woman does be sharp like a half-grown tamarind,” one said.
“Yah mahn. You see how she ent care about if she be shot or en-ting? She have more guts than ah calabash.”
Still, she ignored them, mostly, in three years she had seen plenty of them, and buried plenty, too. It ent no use to be friendly, she’d learned. It only vex Rasheed and make he send them down more often.
These days it only did be Vishnu she talk to, because he been with Rasheed too long an he too good a diver for Rasheed to shoot he or do he en-ting, and sometimes he could make Rasheed listen when she needed he to. Probably Rasheed know Vishnu will kill he when he ready, an he doesn’t want no trouble, especially in the bush.
They’d been working for six days now, but so far it was only gold dust and small diamonds they found. The new men were getting anxious. It always happened that way. The old ones just sent them down more and laughed at them once they were gone below. The boss-man himself, he never went down.
They had fled Georgetown without much flour, but they had brought a big six-cylinder diesel engine. Three hundred horsepower, Rasheed said, strong enough to pull water through an eight-inch pipe. Sharlimar knew what that meant: dangerous but fast. Plenty more than mud and rocks an ting come up the big pipes . . . but also sometimes man arm, an sometimes man whole body. She had watched them at work plenty times, moving the floating platforms up and down the river, the pumps thrumming deeply as they churned water and mud up from the river bottom and spewed it out into long wooden troughs lined by the remaining men. She had even worked the platforms on trips when Rasheed had come back without enough men, so she knew the work and the code of rope pulls the divers used.
The pipes were flexible with handles for the divers to old onto on each side of their mouths. Holding a pipe with both hands, and with one rope around an ankle and another one around the waist, the divers would swim down fifteen or twenty feet to where the slope of the bank met the flat river bottom. A tug of the ankle rope meant they were ready. Once the engine was on, the divers moved the mouths of the pipes across the base of the bank, sucking up as much raw material as they could. Most divers couldn’t stay under for more than three minutes, so they worked in threes: every couple minutes the ankle rope would jerk and another one would go down. Above, the free divers breathed and watched the signal ropes. One jerk on the ankle rope meant I’s ready, two jerks meant kill the engine, three on either was for full stop and bring me up. Anything but one jerk, the boss-man get mad. She had seen it all plenty times. Rasheed never cut the engines for switches.
About half an hour before sunrise on the seventh day, six men went upstream in one boat and the remaining five went downstream in the other. Most of them had never known any climate but that of South America and the Caribbean, and the chill breeze past the speedboats made their skin rise. They wore only short pants cut off just below the knee.
Sharlima watched the downstream boat pick up speed and plane down the corridor, and noticed the boy, Ravi. She’d asked Vishnu, he was thirteen.
Whatsoever, she thought. He ent nah child or Rasheed wouldna have even bring him. If is a story he had an Tasheed ent think he tough, he’s be at the bottom of the Essequibo now.
Dat would be like Rasheed. Rasheed, de big boss-man. Biggest coward in the bush. Curious, she followed the downstream boat, in spite of it being lead out by Rasheed, and hid in the bush to watch them work.
“Wa-djoo do deh boyee?” It was high afternoon, and the boy had found something in the pumping mud. Found, and pocketed. It was a di-mond. A big one. But Fozzle done see him.
“Waa! How ya mean?” the boy called out. “Wa-opin witchu anyway, sneakin’ up behin’ me all quiety an ting?”
“Ya shut up mahn! I ent styupid ya know! . . . Yadoes think I’s styupid?”
“Na mahn, na mahn! Let go ya me!”
“It have a di-mon in ya pocket boyee! It have!”
“Na mahn, ha mahn! Ent have! Ent have!”
“Ya lie boyee!”
On the near bank, Fozzle had the boy by the throat with both hands and was holding him with his feet a few inches off the ground. The boy could barely choke out his violent denials. Fozzle threw hims to the ground and held him, kneeling across his stomach with one leg to each side.
“It have!” Fozzle roared. “It have!”
The boy just gasped.
Off to one side and behind Fozzle’s back, Sharlimar saw the di-mond half-covered by leaves. It was still crusted around with sand and smeared with mud, but hot sun reflected in one surface clear and bright. She jumped from the bush and planted her foot on it, driving it into the mud of the riverbank.
Others were coming now, in from the platform.
“Wa-oppnin’ here?” Rasheed yelled, waving his gun at Fozzle and the boy and Sharlimar all at once.
“It have a di-mond somewhere on he,” Fozzle growled, still furious, but backing cautiously away from the marauding barrel. Rasheed didn’t need any cause to send him to the bang-ground, and Fozzle knew it. The boy’s eyes were mostly all white now.
Rasheed put the barrel in the boy’s face and told Vishnu to strip him.
“If it have a di-mond,” he said, “then we does out yuh light.” The boy passed out.
When they didn’t find en-ting, Rasheed almost shot Fozzle for he was so vexed at all the trouble. The divers had been jerking at the ropes for three, five minutes, running out of air and getting real desperate. If they came up with the pipes they would suck air and the whole thing would have to be primed again.
The boy lived. Rasheed was sore vexed at she for leaving the camp, but he only swore at her a bit. She ent care. He always got vex with she when she show she ent afraid to move in the bush or talk to the men. He always afraid she will run away with one of them, or go back to her own people in the deep Rupununi. Today, she thought, he right.
Later that night, when the moon had drifted down across the river, she moved out to the bank and looked up-river. She watched the moon ripple and settle brilliant white on the crystal black water. Half an hour later it descended behind the drooping branched of the trees that stretched out over the river from the far shore. The bush was silent. All around, she knew, a million things were moving in that silent darkness, but all were invisible and mute, shut-up tight in the giant living grave of the bush, intentionally silent, prolonging life only by this chosen death of silence, both hunters and prey. For here, during the night, everything was always both, so each creature kept silent and was never certain why.
Once the moon was gone, she stared forward at nothing for awhile. Then, turning her eyes up-river again she whispered: “It ent life there either. In de bush it ent life anywhere a’ tol.” It didn’t take long to dig the di-mond out of the mud and get back to the camp.
They had found another big one that day, and all the men were drunk, laughin’ and kicksin’ with each other around the fire. They had bush whiskey they bought on their way in, so it couldn’t have taken long. By three-thirty they were all passed out, and she left for good.
She knew it was no use stealing a speedboat. She didn’t know how to drive one, and they’d just follow her in the other. She had to stick to the bush. Vishnu was the only one with the guts to follow her and she knew he wasn’t stupid enough to try.
After a long, nearly emotionless final look at the oblivious face of Rasheed, she moved to the edge of the cleared area and out into the night. The moon, so high and clear before, had sunk low into the canopy across the river, and she picked her way through the great trunks and hanging, finger-thick vines in almost total darkness. In the canopy above all was silent, almost completely silent, disturbed only by the almost imperceptible hiss of rapidly beating bats’ wings.