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‘Ow!’ he said, as his brother dabbed at the cut on his forehead. ‘Ow! That hurts!’

Beads just kept on dabbing. He could see the wound, his brother couldn’t. It was a long, single slice that ran from one eyebrow diagonally across his unlined brow and finished up on the hairline on the other side.

 

‘Ow!’

‘A warrior does not show pain,’ Beads muttered.

‘You are my brother, fool. It doesn’t count with brothers. Is it still bleeding?’

‘It’s nearly stopped. Hold this on it. I’ll get some more,’ and Beads scampered away into the darkness of the forest leaving Feathers alone by the fire. He heard his father’s voice coming from behind the giant banyan tree. The old man was babbling now. He’d taken to this lately when things went wrong, he was losing control. Something was eating his mind, a spell or something. Something bad.

I-us forehead ached. The cut was clean, as if a razor had slashed just once across his head, but cut right to the bone. His eyebrows were matted with dried blood. Shock and pain had dissolved the kava in his system, he was alert and ashamed, all in one. His cheeks burned with the thought of the great defeat their village had just suffered, the loss of esteem, the sheer majesty of their surrender. He’d been drunk and out of it, his brother even worse, facing up to a horde of crazy men with an addled old fool as leader.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry father, he thought, but it’s time, you know. It’s time to pass the power on. Feathers had dreams of the day he would be Chief, but Feathers was the second son. Steven was the one to lay claim to that throne. Now Steven was gone and his father wandered like a madman through a deserted village shouting at the night. Deep inside the black man’s heart a bud of hope blossomed into the tiniest flower of greed. This was not the way of the warrior, indeed.

Beads was back with more leaves and a cigarette he had nicked from Christopher’s pack. All of the tourist’s belongings, his clothes, everything he had arrived with, was in that bamboo hut.

‘What else did you find? Feathers asked, eyeing of f that cigarette, taking his share when Beads passed it to him, his eyes watering, the smoke floating out of his nostrils and mouth, his smile engulfed in a vast wad of smoke.

‘Nothing.’

‘What do you mean, nothing?’

‘1 didn’t really look.’

‘Well, go and get it, half-wit. Let’s see what the white man brought.’

‘Why don’t you get it?’

‘Because I’m injured,’ his brother replied. ‘Because I was injured in the war.’

‘Some war,’ Beads said, gave up on his brother and got to his feet, They would banter like this for hours, the two of them, an endless one—upmanship that bored them both.

‘What do you mean? What did you do? Just stood there laughing!’

Beads stopped in his tracks.

 

‘I did not!’

 

‘Yes you did!’ his brother shot back, ‘Until somebody thumped you. You were drunk!

 

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm

 

Christopher’s belongings and dragged them out into the open air.

‘Show me,’ said Feathers and the two of them started to pull all the contents out of the backpack and dump them in the dirt. The detritus of a twentieth century traveler amazed them. Particularly the contents of a small grey leather toilet bag they found stashed in the corner.

Their father murmured behind the tree as they searched.

 

 ‘Steven, oh, I’m sorry Steven. I was drunk. You know how it is, son. I was drunk. I’m sorry.’

 

The lament continued as the old man wandered aimlessly through the dark, Nobody else had the faintest idea what he was talking about. Only he had felt his son rest briefly in his heart earlier on. All they saw was a confused, foolish old man conspicuously fail the test of leadership. The rest of the village, woken up by the argument, had slunk away silently as the whoops and hollers of the raiding party died away into the jungle. They had all seen him fail. The Chief knew that things were coming to an end. He knew what that meant.

Steven strode into the clearing. He was halfway across the open space before Feathers saw him, another five paces before Beads looked up in amazement and saw why his brother had became so uncharacteristically silent.

‘You’ve come back,’ Feathers said, and nothing could hide the false note of enthusiasm in his voice.

Beads was more perceptive than his brother. He noticed that Steven had changed in some imperceptible way, intuited the extra knowledge and power he had just inherited, knew at once that wild magic was afoot, For Steven, his eldest brother, had become a man of strength, had found his special power. He didn’t know how, of what volition this flowering occurred, but there in front of him was the glowing proof of his brother’s transformation. Steven emanated power, he shone from top to toe with a golden light that turned the dark brown of his flesh into amber, stood luminous in the night, a soft tang of fresh understanding in his face.

‘Yes. I’ve come back,’ he said finally, an incredible weariness about his voice, an exhaustion that deepened his voice, made it rumble and growl across the coals.

‘Look what we found,’ said Beads, holding up the dried animal foot, the dusty pods and twine and a large silver button. ‘These were in his bag.’

‘Put them back,’ Steven said roughly, ‘They aren’t yours to touch.’

‘But look at them, Steven. These are the things of a man of power.’

Steven sniffed, ‘1 knew that as soon as I saw him.’ And he had, from the moment that amber glow had appeared on the balcony at the resort, from the second he approached, shining out a great orange light around him, from the instant he started to speak, Steven knew that he had power. It shone from him. ‘Put those things away and look after your brother. I have something I have to do.’

With an ineffable sense of destiny he turned away from his two stupid brothers and sent his gaze into the dark, beyond the great central banyan tree. His father bickered with phantom friends there, rambled and shouted his fractured monologue, screeched and gibbered and raged. A Pacific Lear, a faulty, leaking brain-tap. Steven walked slowly over to the foot of the tree, stepped over the smaller curling roots that spread out in every direction from the base. He took a grip on an outstretched branch and began to climb high into the giant branches till he reached the bamboo tree house in the furthest cleft. It was perched there, a little thatched platform in the sky, barely three metres square, with open windows and leaky roof, a perfect look-out, a final throne.

This was the hut of old age and, as Steven reached the rough door he leant inside and grabbed a coil of rope and bamboo, threw it down to unravel as it went, stretching down a hundred feet to the clearing below, an ancient rope ladder bound together with twine.

 

‘Father!’ he called from his perch. ‘Father! Look here!’

From the depths of gibber and rave the old man heard his son shout, stopped, twitched suddenly and fidgeted as he listened to the air.

 

‘Up here, father!’ shouted Steven, and very, very slowly Moses looked up and into the branches above his head, ‘It’s time.’ he said softly.

Steven’s crazy father squinted, cocked one eye and tilted his head.

 

‘Steven? Is that you?’

‘Come up! Come up here with me!’ his son shouted.

Tears flooded into the old man’s eyes.

 

‘Steven? My dead son is back?’ His back arched and he held out one skinny arm as his lips trembled and a great thin cry from his heart of hearts poured out. He noticed the ladder swaying there and placed one bare foot on the lowest rung, changed his weight and stood swinging there just inches from the jungle floor. He had already left the earth.

‘Steven? My son? I’m sorry,’ he whispered as he swung, ‘I’m sorry I let you down, boy.’ There was silence from up above.

 

‘Steven? Are you there?’ And the old man took another faltering step up the rope ladder.

 

His hands grasped feebly for the bamboo rungs, each stretch was pain, each pull up each step an effort, but there at the top, a hundred feet away, was the dim glow of his son. He continued his rambling apology, a muttered, pathetic drone, as he climbed the ladder to the house of old age. Somewhere deep inside himself he knew what he was doing but feebleness and the mind of a child took his fear away. He climbed even further, the rope ladder swaying wildly underneath him.

 

‘Up here, father,’ his son’s voice crooned. ‘It’s time to climb to the top. It’s time, father. One more step, old man, take another step, climb to the moon with me, father, climb to the moon.’

He looked down at his father climbing up. Beads and Feathers were watching their father’s final progress from the fire. They knew what was happening. Steven saw the old man’s hands groping towards him, stretch out, clasp the stick of bamboo and heave himself up one more painful step towards his son. The effort of climbing had quietened him down now, there was just a dull rasping as fresh breath tested ancient lungs. He was looking up at Steven, his kindly face had a. new found strength that even the addled old man could see.

 

Steven glowed. When he was close enough his son leant down and grabbed his bony wrist, lifted him easily up and over the lip of the hut and sat him down on the timber floor. His father sat there panting then raised one hand to stroke Steven’s face.

 

‘My son. My son came back,’ he wheezed, and tears cascaded down his cheeks. His toothless lower gums were exposed as he wept and, in the dim moonlight, two huge shadows filled the sockets of his eyes. There was no fire left in his body.

‘Father,’ Steven spoke with deep sadness, a rich, masculine calm. ‘Father, your brother is dead.’

A look of confusion fled over the old man’s face, then a shudder wracked his body. He looked directly at his son and, in a distant echo of the vital, healthy chief he once was, pulled himself together and as regally as he could muster said coldly, ‘1 don’t have a brother.’

Then he started to rave and babble and cry out with rage. He lashed out at Steven and when his arms were held and he was huddled into his son’s bare chest, held tight and warm and safe, then, and only then, did he cry for his long-lost brother by the sea. Steven felt his father melt as a rigidity was pulled out of him, a life-long feud was thrown away. The old man’s head drooped listlessly on his scraggy chest when the moment was over, his frame seemed to crumble in Steven’s grip, and he whispered,

 

‘We are all dead now,’ Steven nuzzled his face into the back of his father’s neck and sadly murmured his reply.

Then he lifted his head to face the sky, tears smarting those eyes that had seen too much, cradled the old man in his arms and waited till his father fell asleep. Then gently, very gently, he lay him down on the floor and covered the dreaming man with a blanket. He stood and looked down at the curled up figure, then leant over to grab the top of the ladder. His hands glowed red and the twine fell apart beneath them sending the ladder crashing through the leaves to the jungle floor below.

Here his father would stay, without food, water, contact or sympathy, high in an ancient banyan tree in the house of old age, the house of used lives. It was tradition. Then, when the glow went out, the youngest of his tree sons would climb his tomb and carry him back to his favourite fire, there to sit and rot and smoke till his soul had climbed that listless path to the rim, stood on the edge and gone to meet the fire.

Steven looked back without emotion. That job was done, He braced himself and bent his knees, felt wind in feathers, leapt out of that tree and into the air. His brothers watched with amazement as a huge black eagle swooped low over the clearing, dived down and grabbed the pods from the ground at their feet, flicked its wings and headed for the Bay.

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