The Toucan Feather: Chapter One
Miago lived in a house of bamboo and palm. On waking he would listen to the whoosh of the surf and the tinkle of his shell curtains because they revealed the mood of the ocean. A southerly breeze scented the boy’s room with bougainvillea but warned of strong currents; when he smelt hibiscus he knew the wind had swung to the north, which brought calm swells to the reef and nectar moths to his garden. Outside, a patchwork of coarse grass ended at a wall of coral rubble which was where the forest began. The beach was dotted with fallen coconuts and criss-crossed with crab tracks. A line of dugout canoes rested on the sand, their curved prows pointing at the vastness of the ocean where the boy was now swimming with the morning current.
Miago had heard rumours about this place, because the mollusc that poisoned fish and the fungus that tainted crops were unknown here; even the typhoons that ravaged the distant islands never came ashore. Despite these blessings, no one described it as paradise because his home rested in a shadow that was cast neither by the forest uplands nor by the old tower that reached skyward like a broken finger. Darkened and still, the house crouched like a mouse caught in a storm, beneath the rising slopes of a great volcano.
Miago sliced through the waves in search of shells. Ignoring his tiring muscles, he swam quickly in the cooler, deeper water that mixed strange shapes and colours with the promise of greater reward. Coming to a patch of dead reef where a stone column lay gripped in a fist of lava, he remembered the stories the old ones told of the eruption: how the reef choked beneath a blackened sky and the fish moved away. They said it took ten rainy seasons to wash the ash from the trees, ten more before they fruited again.
Miago glanced ashore at the crumbling palace and wondered what life had been like before everything changed. He felt a tingling and the colours around him brightened. “Not now!” he shouted. Because he knew he could drown if he had a vision when swimming.
In an instant he was transported to a place of soft light and chattering parakeets. An emerald hummingbird hovered beside him. “Why aren’t you afraid of me, little bird?” he asked. He walked down a broad avenue shaded with palms. There were elegant houses with doors of carved mahogany fronted by bright, ordered gardens; in one, lemon-winged butterflies danced over a fountain of bronze dolphins. The sound of laughter drew his attention and he stopped at the steps of a great temple where wide-eyed children fed fruit to black-eyed lemurs. Though his vision had opened a door on the past, Miago felt only sadness because he knew he was separated from the city of his ancestors by more than time.
The vision ended as quickly as it had started and now he was floating above a scattering of broken pottery. What had triggered it? A shape on the sand caught his eye and he dived. Down he swam, fighting against the pull of the current. He jabbed the claw-stick, snagging the shell, before thrusting upwards to join his bubbles that danced on the mirror of the ocean’s surface. Treading water, he slipped the conch shell into his bag and began searching for more. The seabed was deeper here and, as he drifted with the current, it dropped quickly away.
He checked his bearings; offshore, a bank of cloud shrouded Offal Rock. Onshore, boulders littered the sand. His pulse quickened because he pictured T’lu-i singing as she carried the baby turtles to the surf. Were the young monkeys watching her from the edge of the forest? He felt the heat of the sun on his face, which would soon drive her home and the monkeys into the shaded tree tops.
“What have you found?” he asked a circling seabird. It swooped and, on long, elegant wings, it carried its victim away. Miago wondered if he could reach the bottom here; he knew that one dive in search of shells wouldn’t hurt.
He went down quickly, pushing hard. Away from the reef he felt small and vulnerable but the challenge excited him – he was nearly a man and he’d prove it. Keep going Miago, show no weakness!
The beams of sunlight faded with depth. Another twenty strokes took him into a dimmer, cooler zone, a grey-blue world which the light that danced in the shallows struggled to enter. He spotted a drab starfish that would have shone red on the surface. The pounding grew in his temples, but he stayed because the stillness held him. When his chest tightened and the first spasms came, he ignored them and went deeper. Ten thrusts later and Miago was studying the seabed that stretched away into the watery mist. There were no fish; he saw no coral or weed. A flicker of light blinked on a shape far away.
It could have been anything but Miago dared to wonder because, like everyone, he had heard the stories. He remembered the old man who swore he’d seen a bright conch shell, the trembling of his voice when he said it shone like silver.
Miago drove himself on, marvelling at the pool of light the shell threw on the sand. A few more strokes and he lined up the claw-stick. Giddy with excitement, he thrust down but either his aim was off or his eyes betrayed him because he seemed to stab straight through it. Miago jabbed again but was rewarded with only a puff of sand. The pounding blackness was blurring his vision now and a desperate search failed to find the shell. With a silent shout of disappointment, he kicked for the surface. His only thought now was of air.
Miago’s first strokes were powerful. He pretended there was no danger but when he looked up, he knew he was too deep. His jaw tightened. What if I drown and they don’t find my body? Will they say I escaped and lock my family in the body cages?
Miago’s chest was heaving and a screaming filled his ears as he fought the urge to open his mouth and breathe. When he saw how the light reached for him like a flickering hand, he guessed he was halfway to the surface. He swore he’d never dive this deep again as he demanded one last effort from his tortured body. But he knew he wasn’t winning as the terror of drowning grew. Panicking, he struggled to remember which way was up as his jerking limbs slowed and everything blackened.
Gripped by the current he drifted like a clump of weed. As his eyes closed, an image flashed across his mind. Cufu, his lost brother.
The grey shape that twisted from the gloom arched under the boy’s body and jolted him upwards. He was dimly aware of a streaming brightness as the dolphin thrust him towards the surface. A surge of energy filled Miago and he burst through the waves gasping for air and coughing, dragging in air again and again as he filled his aching lungs.
Slowly his senses returned and the pounding in his ears receded. Squinting into the sunlight he tasted the salt of the ocean. Though he felt strong again, there was bruising in his chest. He coughed and spat something out, turning so that he wouldn’t see it. Despite the pain he was smiling: it was years since anyone had seen a silver conch and he, Miago, had found one. A splash made him turn. The dolphin was already arcing skyward in a second jump. He saw the grey of the flanks and the water that streamed from the slick body. What surprised him was its size: it was only a young dolphin. He heard its throaty clicks. To the boy they sounded like laughter, and he laughed too. He turned on his back and swam for shore with the dolphin at his shoulder.
Miago was alone when he entered the shallows. Far away the dolphin erupted from the surface. In one great leap it climbed skyward, its twisting body crashing back in an explosion of bubbles. As the surface calmed, he shouted, “Thank you, little dolphin, you saved my life. I pray the ocean always protects you!”
Miago’s thoughts darkened when he swam into the shadow of the volcano. He studied the blackened slopes and whispered, “Great Goddess Banakaloo-Piki, you took your revenge. Why won’t you forgive your people?” As his feet touched the sand, his thoughts returned to the silver conch. He liked the idea of boasting about it. But would anyone believe him? What if word reached them and he was summoned before the Supreme Council? Then there was the dolphin: its beauty and energy and how it had come from nowhere to save him. If he told his parents how close he’d come to drowning they might forbid him from swimming outside the reef. His days would then be spent hunting for stingrays on the sand-flats and searching for the buried valuables of his ancestors. As the water dripped from his body, he made a decision: he would keep the story of the silver conch and the dolphin to himself.
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