Dedicated to the memory of all those who perished on MV Rabaul Queen in February 2012
By Ge Abolo
The land, the sea, and the sky are swathed in deep orange. The sun is on its final leg of descent as the boy finds him sitting on the beach - legs crossed, arms folded in front, staring blankly at the masterwork. He sits down quietly next to him.
They stay like this for long moments; watching the spectacle, not speaking.
“I should have gone with her,” he whispers. The boy turns to him, then turns back to look over the sea.
“I should never have let go of her hand,”
“I think they’re dancing and singing now; just there, on the water’s edge,” the boy pipes up.
“The angels. They are dancing - right there where the sea meets the sky.” The boy picks up a small driftwood branch close by and points it at the descending glorious sun.
“Hmmff.” He scoffs then falls silent, ignoring the boy.
The child continues, unperturbed by the condescending reaction from his companion. “They like beautiful lights, like sunset light, because their bodies are made only of lights.”
They both fall silent, each in their own train of thought.
Minutes go by. Out on the reef’s end, the surf is breaking softly, signalling the changing tide. The scorched reef - a good three quarters of a football field - is caught in the kaleidoscopic lights, bringing momentarily to life its corals and rocks and whatever else that is now exposed. The white-sandy beach is bathed pink as it continues unbroken down the south coast of the island. The minutes go by.
He comes to and shakes his head. “I should never have let go of her hand, should not have, never have…..But everything was happening all at once, so very fast.”
“Three big ones hit us, one upon another too quickly. Suddenly, we were going down into the water – people, cargo, everything! It was very, very rough. She was saying a prayer as I reached for her hand and still saying the prayer when we jumped,” he pauses for breath.
The boy stares at him, daring not to move a muscle, lest he change his mind and stop talking again.
“The rain was pouring down heavily and the wind …. kept on crashing, one huge wave onto another. She was still in my hand as we surfaced, but not for long; another big wave swallowed us, and when we surfaced again, I realised she wasn’t with me.
“I don’t know what happened, why her hand wasn’t in mine anymore. I tried to find her but…,” he trails off, his voice cracking at the seams but he successfully finds the handle and steadies it.
He shakes his head.
“I couldn’t find her. It was just too rough, too much panic and confusion, and the dawn light wasn’t good. There were many, many others too; the rescuers just couldn’t find them. And they spent days searching.”
He falls silent eventually. The boy waits for more, but nothing else issues.
Out over the sea, the perfectly-round luminous sun has dropped onto the horizon, rendering the world the deepest crimson and still and dreamlike. The boy stares, enthralled; even he pauses in his faraway thoughts and pays some attention. They watch as the sun drops past the water line.
“They are very strong. I don’t think the wind and rain would have stopped them,” the boy says finally, looking up into the sky.
He glances with some confusion at the boy. “Who?”
“The angels. Mum’s angel and the angels for all those other people.”
“Why do you keep saying that, Daddy?!” The child turns to him with open bafflement and a touch of exasperation, and as their eyes meet, a flash of memory crosses his mind. The man sees himself at home - at another time; a lifetime almost - his head bowed in prayer, his wife and son with him. He looks away across the sea, shamefaced but not really caring either.
“They would have flown straight down and picked them up, then flown up again… to Heaven.” The child continues quietly.
A minute goes by.
“I should never have let go of her hand,” he whispers again.
The boy turns and stares at him for a while. Then turns and picks up the driftwood again and starts digging the sand beside him. Refusing to look up, he mutters: “That’s all you ever say!”
“You never say anything but that! Ever since you came back. Just now, you said some things, but I know when we go back to the house, you’ll just sit there and whisper that same thing over and over.”
The father stares - immobilised, tongue tied.
“You don’t piggyback me anymore. Or hold my hand. You don’t even call me by my name.” The white driftwood now turns into a full earth-drill flying up sand as one thrust becomes more pronounced than the last.
“I know you are very sad because Mummy isn’t here. I am too, Daddy.” The child’s little voice breaks so dangerously he almost loses it, but with visible willpower beyond his years, he steers it back on course. The driftwood drill, however, keeps its onslaught.
“She is gone and it’s like you are gone too! I see you but it’s like you are not there too! You just sit there …. I am waiting for you to call me but you don’t even call me!”
He notices his son sitting there, on the sand next to him, really notices him this time – his little frame, how his small shoulders have drooped, his bowed head, the little right hand clasping and driving the stick – and he realises the last time he looked at his son this way was some six months ago, when he and his wife were farewelling the boy and his grandmother at the Buka wharf before they boarded the ship for Rabaul. He realises the boy sitting next to him looks different from the child he farewelled; this one looks older and weary and very sorrowful. Suddenly, something akin to lightning or an electric shock cuts across the pit of his stomach and he feels a familiar tightening around his throat.
“Why don’t you call for me anymore, Daddy?,” the driftwood takes its most violent plunge and stops erect like a dead mini tree stump as the first sob escapes from the little body.
He can’t take it anymore. The lightning has forked and re-forked by the hundreds inside of him, he feels his stomach filling and heaving with torrents of grief and remorse and sorrow, the flood pushing mightily against his already-constricted throat. His eyes burn with boiling tears.
He lunges for his little boy and crushes him to his chest as the first wave of violent sobs, guttural and from some hidden place beyond his stomach, slams into his body. The sobs come, wave upon tumultuous wave, ferocious and furious and uncontrollable. He lets himself go to the mercy of his storm, allowing it to burst forth, rage forward, to roar freely. On and on the tempest rages, as he clings onto his little boy until, finally, the gale abates and, soaked and exhausted, they settle into a slow-rocking, hugging, sniffling cove.
He looks up at last, wipes his face, then his son’s. On the boy’s face, he lingers - touching this gently, wiping that softly as he peers into his only child’s visage.
“Josh.u.a.” He lets the name roll over his tongue, syllable by syllable, so deliberately that he feels another tide of emotion well up and his eyes blur again.
Through his tears, he picks up his son’s hand. The palm is purplish and the young skin tender from the violence of the digging. He holds it to the left side of his chest and, still searching the little face, feels his heart rise to his mouth. “I promise never ever to let this one go.” The tears drop and he lets them.
Then he turns his son around, sits him on his lap and draws him to his chest. They stare out over the blackening sea.
“Do you think I have my own angel too?” he asks after a while.
“Yes. Mummy said everyone has their own angel. You have yours too.”
He looks up into the night sky, lost momentarily in a faraway thought.
“Do you think Mummy is up there?”
A pause, but only the smallest one this time.
“Thank you, Joshua.”
“For giving me your hand.”
“What’s that mean, Daddy?”
“Someday - when you’re older - I’ll explain it to you.”
Up in the sky, the stars burst forth, in unison and in such multitudes that it seemed someone had just sprinkled the sky with twinkling, sparkling dust for a show. He closes his eyes and inhales the salty sea air deep into his lungs.
“It will be a bright, sunny day tomorrow; a good day,” he says.
Then he whispers into his son’s ear. “Are you hungry?”
“Then, time we went in.”
They get up and, without another word Adam hoists his son onto his back and piggybacks him up Kesa Beach toward home as the sea lays quiet and docile beside them.
PostscriptThis short story by Ge Abolo was ranked number 71 when it was first entered in the 2012 Crocodile Literary Competition and worked its way up in popularity and the judges findings to number 3 by the close of that competition.
Storyboard likes this story because of its Heminwayan and Raymond Carverish appeal in subject matter, on a February 2012 Papua New Guinean tragedy that cost hundreds of lives. The events talked about in this story are true.
Ge Abolo is the pseudonym of a talented writer known to the Crocodile Literary camp, to Storyboard, Steven Winduo and many other well respected PNG writers. She appears under a pseudonym here due to reasons quite justifiable to us in many respects.