By Ashleigh Synnott
He wanted to drive the tyre himself but he was too small to push as hard as he needed to push: he would have to do it with sticks. He searched the ground for two sticks long and strong enough for the job then chewed the end of both to form a soft, flat surface. The taste left in his mouth was bitter and clean.
Using the biggest stick to stab the rim he got going and kept going by pressing the smaller stick to the bottom of the tyre, light and steady. In this way he steered and kept it from toppling. He imagined his father’s face – waking from his manaba alongside the runway with all the other workers and the children left behind – to see his own son strong and fast and barefoot on the bitumen, driving a treasure sure to score a bit from the soldiers. Maybe even a full bottle of beer.
He had found the tyre that morning in the predawn moments before he turned seven years old and became a man, before the Americans arrived, before the island's four eight inch guns opened fire, before one shell penetrated the ammunition storage so all the sky turned black. He had seen the tyre in a pile of rubble, spotted it from the barrel of the Vickers gun he had climbed every morning since it appeared, all of a sudden stuck there on the beach like a gigantic steel shell. This was in 1942, and the Japanese were at it again.
They had first arrived the year before, landing in the southwest at three o’clock in the morning. Many people got out before dawn on foot to the north of the island. Everybody else was captured and rounded up near the Post Office. A wrong answer to a question had you tied to a tree; the only store for food other than what was grown or hunted was raided and later burnt; at about four o’clock in the afternoon their strange flag was hoisted and they were gone before midnight that very day. When they returned they destroyed all sailing and fishing canoes so nobody at all could escape. Taro and coconut crops were cut down and buried or burnt and the tiny island was cleared of trees, manabas and houses. They enforced severe curfews and hard labour, and stole all personal belongings including clothes. His father had not escaped either the first time or the second – then again, he hadn’t wished to. With three wives and three families it was too hard to decide to stay with one or go with another so he did nothing. He worked when he was told to work on constructing war bunkers, expanding the runway and laying concrete structures crowned with sharpened metal on the reef to prevent entry from the lagoon. At night he drank, but it was not his fault.
These were difficult times. The soldiers now paid wages in beer and there was no fresh food, only tinned pork to eat. People were too tired and too hungry and too pepped up on Spam and orange soft drink and alcohol to be angry – they became sluggish, instead, and disappointed. They worked when a bottle was in it and when it wasn’t they did nothing. When they slept it was a disturbed sleep – feet kicking out, lips twisting, teeth bruising – and when they awoke clutching themselves or somebody else’s child, on their minds was the day ahead and the next drink at the end of it.
It was not an easy thing on the island to steer anything. The land – about four thousand miles from Pearl Harbour – was flat and the sand soft but it had lately become so overrun with empty shells he had to be careful about where he put his feet. There were other things that slowed him down. There were bits of debris like bricks and wood and steel and altogether more terrible things like the limbs of the crops, or the stupid, left to rot. As he rolled the tyre towards the lagoon in the direction of the runway, he had to avoid these things.
When the gunnery duel started up between two battleships it became difficult to dodge the thick splinters of roots of palm trees and trunks that were shooting through the air, travelling like twigs in the wind. Several of the sixteen inch shells found their mark and he steered away from the loud noise and did not look up. Sweat streamed down his face. Near a plot of hacked and burnt coconut trees he saw how tufts of dark hair tumbled over the mess like little hay bales, a small river of red running thick over the sand. He didn’t bother to go around it. A little blood was nothing, not for a boy almost seven.
For a long way along the sand in the direction he moved, there was one small pink footstep after another and the print of the tyre to mark his way towards manhood. He looked towards his coming of age with all the serious expectation of a bachelor towards marriage. For all his life he had suffered what to him were the indignities of childhood – he made water directly into the sea during bathing; he wore the bright blue paste on his face without complaint; he even accepted the duty of feeding his grandmother since his mother had gone to the Spirits – and come the dusk celebrations everything was going to change. He knew he had to work as hard as he could since he was so soon to be called a man, and so he drove the tyre until every part of his body moved independent of his will, until even his jaw ached. The sun beat down on the back of his neck. It began to hurt from looking down for so long, and from the sudden jerks he made to look up. His rib cage shivered with the effort of getting the air in, his ear drums felt as if they were bleeding, and yet he never paused or stopped, not once, until he came to the mangroves. He should not have come to the mangroves. Something was wrong.
He turned his head in the direction of screams which came to him amidst a rain of shots, towards the east. His dark, concave chest was heaving and he steadied the tyre with one hand to wipe the sweat that had dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision and also stinging. He squinted there at the figures in the distance. There were at least a dozen of them. They were huddled in a broken circle, all facing a local man tied to a tree. He looked hard and recognised his father, but the man looked stupid tied to a tree, and his hair was slicked down over his eyes instead of sitting up in the wide-branching way it did when it was real.
Instead of dropping the tyre and running for his father – which he might have done any other time – he instead took several steps back, gripped both the sticks in one hand and pressed his palm on the lip of the hot rubber with a little something like fury, ready to push off. It was his father, but it was not his father – the man’s head was at such an awkward angle, his arms were so strange all twisted like that, and he was doing nothing about it all. He was not doing all the things his father normally did – not drinking, not shouting, just standing there – so it could not have been his father, no way, and he would have gone then, only he noticed something strange. Each of the soldiers held something small in their hands and one by one they knelt in front of the prisoner and reached up between his legs. The screams again.
Something thick and dark dripped inside his ear. He was so glad the man was not his father, he so wanted to be moving again towards his father, he could see with such clarity how his father’s vague gaze would meet the picture of his son with the tyre on the runway. He looked in the direction he wanted to go and there his gaze found two women. They were not far away from where he stood, clinging to each other. He thought he recognised them as his father’s third and fourth wives but that could not be true because certainly wherever they would be his father would be, too.
He turned away as the soldiers raised up their swords and the silver flashed the sun. He began to push the tyre, a great effort now until his body fell into its own special rhythm. The smell pursued him – of dynamite and something else – but he left long behind him those screams, just the song of a broken bell. Those screams, just the last cries of a bird he would name on his own. Just another lot of mourners, naked except for the black paint in sharp lines across their stomachs and upon their chests. He left those screams behind because to him they were just the echoes of mystery from the land underneath his bare feet, which he had such love for, and trust.
He did not think it possible to continue on through the mangroves – he also did not stop. He moved his sticks in the same way he had been moving them all along – a kind of stabbing motion, holding hard with his hands, so there were blisters there. The tyre was solid and his speed enough so that he bent the thick roots of the mangroves as he moved over them and in this way formed a kind of path for himself. At times he felt happy – his feet were cool, and while the stink rose the air in there was different, clean and crisp. When a sudden fatigue overcame him, when he longed to lie down, when a blister burst or when the tyre threatened to stick every second, he thought of his father and pushed on the sticks and moved his feet one after one after one and in this way travelled through the mangroves and made it out the other side.
The sand, after the mud and the roots, gave him the feeling he was walking on water. He was so close to his father and the adulation that would surely come from being so lucky a boy on the anniversary of his birth – he imagined the people of his village emerging from their thatched tin roofed houses along the runway with praise for him in the way of pineapple chunks and strips of oily dried coconut bursting from banana leaves – and when he did hear the plane he knew it could not possibly be a plane because the horn had not blown.
The horn, the horn that blue the same tone as a pig in heat, the horn was meant to raise the red flag to send the white truck to make sure the runway was cleared of homes and people and workplaces before the plane came in to land. As he rolled the tyre along the runway, hardly aware of the pain in his body – such was the intoxication of his triumph as well as the magnificent ease with which the tyre now moved on the near-smooth surface – he noticed a terrible confusion of black all around. Perhaps they had lit fires in the sky for him – he the only boy on the island to roll a tyre all the way from the Vickers Gun to the Kiribati International Airport – and with that idea, head down now because humility was everything in glory, he ran along the runway as fast as he could.
Later, amongst the flattened homes, the melted aircraft, the remains of the people their children and their work, he dragged the bigger stick behind him, leaving sticky black tracks, and worked his way towards the ocean. He would find his father there, and his mother perhaps come in on the tide, and he sat down on the sand with all the noise behind him and put his eyes on the sea.
It was strange what he saw. It was supposed to move, supposed to rise to the moon and fall to the shore. Yet the sea just sat there. While big black birds fell from the sky.