The sun is just beginning to glare above the treetops on this chilly, smoke-choked morning in the Central Highland village of Son La Phu. A taxi drops Layla into the mayhem of the bus depot, amongst the mutinous chickens and bawling infants, with the flea-bitten dogs and wily pickpockets. Her driver glances grievously at the slim generosity pressed into his palm.
She elbows her way to the booking window; a timely hip check secures the final ticket. Her seatmate is a tiny tribeswoman with midnight-black hair wrestled into a cone; newborn piglets as pink as bubble gum squirm in her lap. Cursing unfortunates scuffle for space on the roof.
She’s calculating an estimated time of arrival to the coast, the map spread across her knees, when she hears the crackle of gunfire. It’s followed by small-calibre pops and heavier whump-whumps. She’s heard of residual fighting in the hills, and slides, unaware of doing so, low in her seat. A young man–a student, she supposes, as he’s bent over a bulky text–leans across the aisle and says in a fine English, “Shooting range.”
Soon afterwards the bus driver announces an unscheduled stop. A tire has deflated, requiring attention, and an unsecured passenger up top was seen at the last sharp turn sailing into a stand of bamboo. “Someone will run back and have a look,” the student says. “It happens.”
Most passengers decamp to the food and beverage carts that pop up alongside the remote highway. She’d never been to a shooting range or even handled a firearm, but she’s curious and saunters across the road to where traffic fumes give way to the arresting stench of spent gunpowder.
A barefoot girl distributes earplugs. The shooters–all men–are spaced out, blasting away with rifles and revolvers at beer cans and crudely sketched paper targets. There’s a beer hall feel to the place. Cheers, hoots, laughter. Birds in the surrounding hills take to the overcast sky.
In an adjacent enclosure, customers take aim at bewildered rabbits and rodents, as well as several life forms unfamiliar to Layla. Uzis, M-16s, and AK-47s are for the cats, dogs, goats, and sheep. She hears someone say the tripod-mounted Browning machine gun, for which there is a surcharge, is a leftover from the war. The sawdust floor of the pen is stained a moist crimson, a metallic odour defiles the air. Carcasses are heaved into a pit out back. The birds return.
At another station, a man stands outside a chest-high wire fence while an attendant shepherds spectators behind a sheet of Plexiglas. A gate to the enclosure swings open and in rushes a boy swatting the hindquarters of a recalcitrant water buffalo. The boy scampers to safety, and the man slides the pin from a grenade.
An image comes to her, as images do, of a lazy summer day back in Canada, of a father and son in an open field smacking golf balls. The explosive rolls across the scarred earth, stopping like a well-placed putt between the animal’s front hooves. A profound silence follows, Layla holds her breath. She had only heard munitions detonate at the movies, and is startled by the intensity and volume of the blast. Even with the plugs, her ears ring, the ground vibrates. Dirt sprinkles the spectators like rain. When the smoke dissipates, the buffalo has vanished. Someone points to a spot high in a rubber tree. A slab of fresh meat has snagged on a branch.
Everyone shuffles onward, although she wonders what could possibly trump the disappearance of a large mammal. She feels ashamed of her fascination with the recreational slaughter, yet she follows the others to the edge of a deep trench, where several downcast men are chained together at the waist. The crowd parts, a man wearing a bandana across the lower half of his face steps forward. A rocket launcher rests on his shoulder.
Layla had been backpacking in the peninsula and staying at budget accommodations graded cool by the hipster guidebooks. She’d always been intrigued by the jungle, its mysterious recesses, the goofy-looking and cuddly residents featured on the National Geographic channel. At the hostel in Langkwai she waves around the photo of herself on the neck of an elephant, which lasted all of five terrifying minutes. Cropped out is the long line of foreign tourists–the jambo-kin–awaiting their turn atop the chemically pacified pachyderm.
In Con Bao she checks into a shabby beach hotel, the Paradiso, which the guidebook claims has “an alpha ambience and savage native eats.” She joins its bohemian clientele at a coffee bar on the boardwalk and unpacks a smile. Within a few hours she has chatted with a campy gay couple from the Netherlands, Johannes and Tikko, fresh from an all-inclusive ashram outside the capital; with Conor, a gloomy, self-published Welsh poet; and–names withheld–with a goateed Australian professor and his miserable companion, a hefty student mistress on her maiden assignation. “I like them big,” the prof confides. “What’s wrong with that?”
Richard Somebody, a disillusioned painter from New York City, characterizes his unappreciated oeuvre as “Salvador Dali meets Banksy.” He’s sitting with Krista, who claims to have sung backup on a Lou Reed album. “I was eye candy for the video.”
Sullen younger guests slouch in front of the hotel’s capricious a/c or stroll the property’s postcard shoreline. They convene most afternoons on the seawall, rolling the locally sourced cheeba they’d flown halfway around the world to sample. On the parental dime, most of them, she supposes.
They are a stark contrast, this bunch, from the locals. She glances at the anxious pecan-coloured faces of the waiters stationed along the periphery, at their pressed black trousers and stiff white shirt collars. Hair greased, shoes buffed, Colgate smiles, they’re poised for a summons—for a refill, for another round, more of this or that—whatever is required to fetch a generous baksheesh, the life-saving gratuity. “Where’s the goddamned salt?” booms a North American voice. “How many times do I have to ask?”
The travellers warm to Layla. It’s the interest she pretends in whoever sits across from her, she believes. The schoolgirl innocence she throws off. She can read a face and knows who to be, and with whom. She can switch it on or off, from the demure flower, pliant and obliging, to her natural self, a scrappy, steel toed bull dyke who doesn’t take guff from anyone. It sometimes feels like she’s two people in one body, and she suspects that deep down there might be many more. She’s certain several of her new friends want to fuck her.
Her stay in Con Bao passes contentedly: waking each morning to the soothing ocean breeze ruffling the brittle leaves of the eucalyptus trees; the first jolt of the country’s potent coffee; sweet beans embedded in the steamed breakfast bun; the sound of the sea through the open window massaging pebbled terra firma. Afternoons flit by swimming and sunbathing, learning backgammon. Taking long naps and cooling showers. Most nights are spent around a driftwood beach fire getting shamboozled with her new cosmopolitan cohorts. And later, should the chemistry be mutual, sharing a mattress or a secluded pinch of ground clenched to a desirable stranger. Under a tamarind tree or, better still, as a seriously sloshed South African girl expresses it, “up against one.”
She hears of a nearby island; it doesn’t appear on any map. Its proper name to most visitors from the West is unpronounceable and thus referred to as Avalon after the isle of fruit in the legends of King Arthur. Many of the backpackers stay at the Hi Dive, a hostel in Natang, the largest village. “The people there are conservative and wary of outsiders,” informs the know-it-all professor. He casts an icy glance at fellow travellers. “And for good reason.”
The ferry sails once a week, on Sundays. A Swede, Tobias, heir to an assemble-your-own-furniture fortune, is impatient, so he charters a dhow. Layla, “the hottie from TO,” is invited to come along. “You won’t regret it,” says Naomi, a Japanese-American who’d visited Avalon several times. “It’s not Xanadu, but it’s close.”
The sea is without a ripple when they set sail at dawn, but begins to roil mid-crossing. First to sacrifice their breakfasts are the poet and the backup singer. “I can always tell who has a weak stomach,” boasts Tikko, who the previous evening had drunkenly explained anal bleaching to a horrified party of evangelical Texans. He soon joins the others bent over the side.
The hardy take no notice of the infirm or the turbulence, inserting bawdy lyrics into Celtic sea shanties led by a boisterous Brit with a smarting toe fungus. The creaking rosewood craft nudges landfall in just over an hour, and the wobbly legged seafarers wade ashore. They are greeted by child hustlers known as Charlies, who shout, “Charlie get you everything! Hello-goodbye!”
Waiting taxis convey the well-healed to the five-star resorts on the far side of the island. Everyone else makes for the Hi Dive. It’s nearby, and separated from the wilderness by a wall of corrugated aluminum sheets. Food kiosks and juice stands crowd the busy entrance. Most commerce is between liberally garbed young ladies and males of all ages and nationalities admiring the strutting merchandise. At the rear, the discount aisle, heavily painted older women gossip amongst themselves.
“It was a U.S. military base during the Vietnam War,” Naomi says. “The people come from all over. There are Malays, Han Chinese, Filipinos, Polynesians. Apparently the island was first settled by fishermen who’d been blown off course.”
“I’m in the right place, then,” says Layla. “Off course.”
They consider the girls and the hungry men appraising them.
“They aren’t thought of as prostitutes here, at least not like ours back home. Most sell themselves to support their families. Everyone calls them ‘professionals’ or ‘P-girls.’ I’ve heard the arrangement has led to several marriages.”
A striking middle-aged woman stands off to the side. Her artificially lashed eyes spy each new arrival.
“Mina,” says Naomi. “A tough cookie.”
The main gate to the hostel swings open and in, single file, plod the sun-blistered pilgrims. “Truckin’,” the Grateful Dead anthem, blares from a standup bar. Layla and Naomi agree to share a Quonset hut. It’s simply furnished and clean. Johannes and Tikko snag the unit facing them. Campers, a kind of steerage class, pitch their nylon tents in a rocky field behind a row of portable shithouses. Charlies are permitted free reign to flog their wares.
“The little buggers outnumber the mosquitoes,” says Johannes.
“Don’t they go to school?” Layla asks.
“This is school,”Naomi says.
She’d met Sam—Samantha, from Vancouver, a decade her senior—at a girls’-only retreat in a gift shop of a country in the Caribbean. She ambled up to Layla in a slinky, spaghetti-strap dress, slurring, “I have a craving for a muff burger. Care to join me?” For the next two weeks they toured nearby islands aboard a professionally crewed sailboat. Sam has a trust fund.
Layla is the middle child of an alcoholic, long-distance trucker and a bipolar mother. Family life was a gong show. A younger brother was in and out of juvenile detention until he required higher fences and thicker walls. Each of her siblings split as soon as their legs were long enough to carry them away. An older sister stayed behind to stick up for her when the old man found out. She paid for the Caribbean holiday peddling ecstasy and other popular remedies at Toronto nightclubs.
When Sam encouraged her to visit Vancouver, she asked for a few days to think it over, but Layla didn’t have to think it over. She was thirty, waitressing weekends at a failing Greek restaurant in Dundas West, sharing a one-bedroom with two straight girls and a histrionic drag queen. A tomboy who’d never stayed at a top-shelf hotel or eaten lobster tail and beef tenderloin. Who’d never sipped champagne from a seashell or even heard of wild berry cheesecake.
Her resumé is a slim and deceitful directory of short-term employment. Her best job ever was working two summers in Parksville, B.C. as an assistant to a team of sand sculptors competing in a seaside competition. She helped produce an abstract the first year, which won top prize, and in her second year a medieval village, which earned an honourable mention. The others appreciated her enthusiasm, and taught her how to properly handle the tools. About river and estuary sand with its unique mixture of clay and silt. “It has angular grains,” explained the team leader, who she sensed had amorous intentions. “Good for bonding.”
At the end of her second summer he took Layla aside and gave her a share of the prize money. He told her about the schools teaching the art. “You have a way with the sand. Why not explore it? Top competitors travel the world.”
Layla was unaccustomed to praise, and the compliment pleased her greatly, but she was a practical girl, had to be, and she didn’t ever expect to have enough money to attend such a school, the best of them being in California or Florida. Still, she’d sometimes slip into playgrounds late at night and by flashlight practise in the sandbox what she’d learned on the beach. When she could, she’d return in the morning to take photos of her modest creations—and of the delighted faces of the children on first discovering them.
Sam paid Layla’s first-class fare out to the coast, picking her up at the airport in a Lamborghini. She was blown away by the penthouse overlooking Coal Harbour, by Stanley Park mere steps away. By the view across Burrard Inlet through a powerful telescope of the British Properties and the North Shore Mountains. There was a lap pool and 24/7 concierge. Maid service and a French chef named Baptiste. She’d always been curious about the people who lived in these places, what the world must look like from that side of things. Yet a few weeks of rich food and fawning servitude made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t quite know why. Sam noticed. “You’ll get used to it, lover. Money can be scary when you don’t have any.”
What would she know, Layla thought, of an empty pocket? Of desperation? She never did get used to it, or of Sam, whose primary activity was shopping online for items she’d soon ditch. She cold-shouldered anyone who didn’t bend a knee, and ignored messages from people judged boring. Layla wondered how long before she qualified.
At a party, everyone pickled, Sam disappeared with Adongo, a Kenyan stripper with hideously upholstered lips. On her return to the apartment the next morning, Sam denied anything untoward. But it was a pattern, and patterns, she knew, are telling enough. So when Sam went off for a weekend “on business”—with the Mau Mau skank Adongo, no doubt—Layla packed her things and emptied the household petty cash of fourteen thousand Canadian dollars. She scrawled a crayon adieu on the living room wall. The words dripped from her like scalding water: “Ya lyin’cunt.”
They sleep in most days. Depending on where and with whom they’d partied the night before, sometimes late into the afternoon. They often join Johannes and Tikko for a late breakfast on the beach; Johannes is a chef and generously feeds all comers. Dinner is usually some place in the market, fresh fish or chicken on a stick with wild rice. Carousing resumes at sundown.
At Bongo Bill’s one night a few hometown drunks pester Layla. They’re called the Hai Tai, a band of idle teens who have a thing for foreign birds. “Come on, pretty girl,” says a light-skinned kid with prominent teeth and a pitted complexion. “Taste my banana.”
“I took you for a banana-lover,” she fires back. His friends understand, and laugh loudly. The boy’s blemished face flares a tomato red.
For safety reasons, vacationing females rendezvous at closing time for a group slog back to the hostel. It always surprises her how many elect to remain behind. The Hai Tai are said to bid for those who do.
At the lagoon, soaking their feet after a hike around an uninhabited isle nearby, Naomi recommends they both hire, as she had on previous visits, a pandu, private security. “They’re former military or retired policemen, and some footballers are coming to town. They can be sore losers.”
“Punks don’t scare me. I can hold my own.”
The wildest bashes are at Tiger Moon Bay, up island. Golf cart taxis service the route, but only until midnight. Partygoers take chances flagging down a ride in the wee hours. There’d been talk of muggings and worse. Foreign nationals are favoured targets.
“Pandus don’t charge much,” Naomi says, “and they take you wherever you need to go, and at any hour.”
Outside the apothecary shop they meet up with Allan, Naomi’s pandu from her last visit. He’s brought along a friend, Shamir. Allan has a swagger and barbell biceps, the faded tattoo of a spider crawling up one of them. Shamir, who doesn’t speak much English, is older, lean and compact, with a short, sugar-dusted beard. Special Forces, both of them, or so Naomi has been told.
Layla senses a gentleness about Shamir, a lightness of spirit one doesn’t associate with military types. He rolls up the cuff of a pant leg, where he deposits the ash from his cigarette. She appreciates that he doesn’t try impressing her, as does Allan, who several times leaves the conversation to admire himself in a shop window.
The two-lane, cross-island highway ends at the cruise ship terminal on the populous eastern shore. The beaches there are colonized by swimmers and surfers, with tour groups and harried guides jabbering in many languages. The sea is a brooding sapphire when the clouds stall overhead, a soft teal after they’ve pushed off. Fly-swatting women wrapped like gifts in vibrantly coloured saris line the roadway, the catch of the day spread out before them on sheets of newsprint. Bicycles, dogs, and oil-spewing vehicles render lawless the main intersection.
Beyond the sugar cane plantations and wet rice fields are a smattering of villages. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the next one begins. Many of the shelters are built with scavenged supplies and fitted like Lego onto cinder blocks. Derelict autos and crab traps piled head-high are stored between them. Everything and everyone reeks of fish.
They turn inland, where thatched-roof homes are artfully camouflaged and the inhabitants reticent. A flock of parakeets disperse as the whining scooter bounds along the rutted road. Layla’s aunt had a parakeet. It had never occurred to her until now that its native home was not the pet store where the avian had been purchased, but some place like here, like Avalon. She can feel the stupid peeling away like sun-fried flesh.
An extinct volcano is central to the mountain range extending along the island’s spine. The climb is steep and in some spots hair-raising, yet the higher they motor, the fewer the bugs and the better the view. Several times they have to stop and lift the scooter over rocks dislodged by a flash flood.
The temple is hundreds of years old. Its high walls are chipped and cracked. They roll the scooter under the entrance arch where they are greeted by the sound of a stringed instrument, the gentle notes suspended like flies in the sticky equatorial air. A novice extends a gracious welcome and serves a lunch of spiced fish and fruit salad with a delicious green tea. He wears a wine-coloured robe, his hairless skull gleams like a polished shoe. Afterwards, Shamir cools himself at the fountain and stretches out in the shade of a banyan tree.
This ability to nap anywhere at any time fascinates Layla, who is unable to sleep aboard a plane or in a moving vehicle. Islanders might lay themselves down on a private plot or under a bench in the square, and no one seems to notice. During her short stay she’s come across a snoozing body on tables pushed together at the back of a restaurant. Truck driver doze atop the cab of their semi-trailers.
Their young host, educated at a school run by American missionaries, is keen to flaunt his English. He tries explaining the provenance of his denomination, but his account is torturous. From the statuary stationed throughout the temple grounds she determines it’s an offshoot of Buddhism, a religion that interests her.
Many islanders accept that natural occurrences have special meaning, and that animals possess souls, so she asks about the black panther, which is revered as a protector of believers, a kind of leonine Saint Christopher. She’d heard that though the cat had long ago been hunted to extinction, some are thought to have survived and still roam the hinterland. During pageants and cultural events, a likeness of the solitary animal is displayed on banners and flags. Its fearsome visage is splashed across T-shirts.
“Have you ever seen one?” she asks the novice. A beam of sunlight spills through the forest canopy, etching their shadows on the gravel pathway.
“It has green eyes,” he says. “Some are bright yellow.”
“But have you ever seen one? Do you know anyone who has?”
“The panther has a very long tail. It helps with balance.”
Layla sighs, looks away.
He says, “I may have heard one in the night.”
From Natang, the shortest route to Shamir’s is by water taxi, which can be costly, and the certainty of the sailings doubtful. The inexpensive option is overland, aboard the ubiquitous and ear-splitting scooter. Detouring off the unpaved service road and bushwhacking along a labyrinth of overgrown pathways only islanders can discern. They come across a woman on such a corridor bent over a stream, scrubbing a stack of cooking pots. He introduces her as Irdina; a toddler at her side amuses himself with marbles. In contrast to Shamir’s diminutive stature, Irdina has the dimensions of a Samoan wrestler. She scrutinizes Layla boldly, as wives the world over are want to do in such circumstances. A knitting needle is buried like a dagger in her unravelling chignon.
Their home is on the west side of the island. It’s one of about a dozen stilt shanties on the shore of a protected cove. Wooden stairs and rope ladders connect the honeycomb of weathered domiciles. Some structures climb to three unstable levels.
Shamir and Irdina have five more children for whom clothing appears optional as they romp across the wide, flat beach fronting their home. The older kids when she arrives are charging into the water, bracing themselves against a suite of powerful incoming rollers. An old woman keeps watch over the little ones, whose play is restricted to the bath-warm tidal pools. She is not referred to by name, this bent and shrivelled creature, but by her title within the family—nenek, or grandmother. Layla scribbles the noun into the notebook she keeps of high-frequency phrases and expressions. There is a melodic ring to the dialect that appeals. When she attempts to speak the language–greetings and simple pleasantries mostly–it feels as though her mouth is filled with mint leaves.
Irdina prepares a shrimp curry over rice on an outdoor table cooled by a salty ocean gust. The meal is followed by a strong black coffee in shallow cups and a slice of orange plucked from an overhanging branch. Her voice is authoritative, her expression stern, the very opposite of Shamir, who speaks in a whisper and smiles shyly when Layla stands too close. Aboard the scooter, he flinches when she slips her arms around his narrow waist.
The infant crawls under the table, from where he can more effectively tickle her toes. His marbles slide across the deck and like descending musical chords tumble down the rickety wooden stairs into a waiting Atlanta Braves cap. Shamir’s shirt is damp and dirty from the long ride. Irdina pulls a replacement from the laundry line and tosses it to him. Her tone with him is harsh, so Layla makes her way down to the shore, sitting with nenek, who offers her a pull on her pipe.
She scoops up a handful of sand and examines the texture. Dampens it with seawater and prods for adhesiveness. Farther along the beach she can make out patches as black as an oil stain, which she knows is caused by ash from the volcano that over the centuries has burrowed into the earth.
Shamir waves to her from the head of the trail. He’s pushing the scooter—to where, she doesn’t know. “Papa get gas,” says Yasmin, the couple’s eldest child, a copper-skinned beauty emerging naked from an exploding wave. She tugs at the visitor’s hand to join her. Layla mimes her lack of a bathing suit, which causes a giggle, so she strips and follows the girl to a spot several metres offshore, from where they dive to the mélange of soft pinks and paisley blues of a coral reef. A school of startled angelfish scoot into the shoal’s crevices. A curious octopus observes the intruders through large, mirthful eyes.
Shamir, when he returns, finds her surrounded by the children, their pails and shovels strewn across the beach as they help her construct a miniature Avalon. Everyone has shed their clothing, even granny, even Irdina, with her flopping Amazonian breasts and sand dollar nipples. He uses sign language to explain the importance of leaving promptly if they hope to reach the Hi Dive by nightfall. The children protest. Ten minutes down the trail, she can still hear their wailing.
Layla and Naomi have become fast friends, and but for the mice and mosquitoes, they are happy with their lodging. Naomi passes most days visiting acquaintances from previous visits, while she spends hers on the back of Shamir’s scooter, visiting sites around the island or at his home, where she has become something of a favourite auntie and English teacher to the children of the cove. Neighbours brighten at her approach, and Irdina, too, encourages her company. Sometimes Naomi comes along; they sleep in a lean-to on the beach with some of the older kids. With Yasmin translating, nenek prophesizes their fortunes with the toss of kau chim sticks.
One night Naomi persuades Layla to join her at Tiger Moon. She’s sweet on a fella working at one of the hotels and has agreed to meet him there, but she doesn’t know him well and is reluctant to go alone. Shamir had asked for the night off, so Allan swings by the hostel in his jeep. “Careful tonight, girls.” He’s rehearsing a Clint Eastwood squint in the rearview mirror.
The first few hours pass pleasantly. The sea this night is a flat indigo; a cruise ship the size of a megamall and all aglow skims the horizon. Palm fronds ringing the shore clack like mahjong tiles in the dreamy evening breeze. She meets people from all over the world. There are singalongs, Frisbee, volleyball. Pandus provide security for the P-girls, who work from tents back from the beach. Charlies flog liquor and much more at hefty markups. Hello-goodbye.
Tiger Moon becomes a much different place after dark. Serious revellers arrive, hard drugs circulate. So do hooligans. Some are locals like the Hai Tai. Others are merchant seamen or toughs from the mainland. Fights break out at one end of the bay. Tourists cue anxiously for rides into town.
Layla is tired and wants to get back to the hostel, but she’d promised Naomi she wouldn’t leave without her. She widens her search to include the parking and picnic areas, where she overhears a few sailors conspiring to spike the drinks of the P-girls. “They’ve been ripping us off,” says one. “It’s our turn.” She’s stoned and a little drunk, and is uncertain if she’s heard them correctly. Thinking Naomi will turn up eventually, she finds an abandoned but still-smouldering firepit and immediately drops into a dreamless sleep.
She’s roused groggy and disoriented. There are three of them. She can hear merrymakers down the beach, but they’re a long way off. “Time for some fun, girlie,” says the bucktoothed Hai Tai she’d shamed weeks earlier at Bongo Bill’s. He loosens his belt, the others do the same. There’s nowhere to run. She’s tackled trying.
She thinks she might be hallucinating when a figure steps from the darkness: Shamir. The belt buckles whirl past his face, glancing off his arms and shoulders. He crouches and twirls, then unleashes fists and feet. Two boys fall quickly. The third releases his grip on her and flees.
The boy with the prominent teeth rights himself, spits something obscene. “We’ll talk again, little man,” he says in English, presumably for her benefit. The blow catches him on the bridge of his nose, blood leaching into his mouth, dribbling down his pocked cheeks. He groans and staggers off. She’d felt a bone give and thought it might be hers. Shamir examines the hand: It isn’t.
They do a sweep for Naomi, but no one has seen her since earlier in the evening. They meet up along the main trail with Mina, who’s counting a fistful of foreign currency. She and Shamir share a chuckle, and then the madam pulls back a clump of vines where her girls are rifling through the pockets and billfolds of several unconscious seaman—the same seamen Layla overheard earlier plotting revenge.
Mina retrieves a tiny jar from her shoulder bag and smears a stinging ointment on Layla’s bruised knuckles. “Good girl.” The madam makes a fist, feigns a knockout punch: “K-pow!”
Layla understands that they’ve found the cash of all of the sailors but one, who is splayed before them. A Malay girl rolls his underwear down over his hairy buttocks, but Mina soon grows impatient with the search. She slips a surgical glove over her right hand, drops to her knees and inserts two fingers inside him. She roots around until she finds what she’s looking for.
Layla hangs on tight for the ride back. The road dips and swerves, there are potholes. Her hand aches, the head spins. They slow to pass villagers in a torchlight procession. She fears a hurl coming on and taps his shoulder. Cleaning up, Shamir relieving himself nearby, she hears a noise in the bushes. She sees or senses something dense not more than a metre away, an oval shape against the blackness of the Avalon night. A pair of eyes peer back at her. When Naomi wakes her in the morning, she can’t recall if they were green or yellow.
Her tools are spread out across a sheet of plywood that has washed up with the tide. There are buckets, shovels, a garden rake, trowels, a modified pastry knife, and a brush. Not a complete set, but the best she can round up on short notice. Naomi has recruited kids to carry buckets of black sand to the site. Shamir digs the moat, Irdina moistens the finished sections with a spray bottle.
Throughout the afternoon neighbours trickle out of the forest. They recline in lawn chairs, squeeze together under umbrellas; out come the snacks. Some of the onlookers snap photos of the keep and the tower, of the drawbridge and the plastic figurines arrayed along the battlements. Several islanders request selfies with her.
She packs the black sand, uses the smaller trowel to remedy anomalies. Circles the project one last time, viewing the workmanship from every angle. She realizes in what the Buddhists call a satori or illumination, that this, now, the seawater swirling around her ankles, is the finest moment of her life. She understands that all that follows will be compared to it.
The obsidian beast looms over the castle. One paw, with its sabre-sharp claws, is poised to strike. Children approach timidly and examine the deadly seashell fangs. The water rises quickly. The walls crumble.
Those who were present that day will remember the rolling muscles beneath the cat’s velvet coat, how its marble eyes glistened in the glaring afternoon sun, but most clearly they will recall the grand fortress and its queen, who for a moment in time coaxed the elusive beast from its lair, making it come alive. Out of the darkness and into the light, for everyone to see.
Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea, and Hong Kong. He has published three story collections: In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad, a 2009 ReLit Award finalist); Brunch with the Jackals (Thistledown Press, 2015); and Ouch (Page Count Press, a 2020 Whistler Independent Book Award finalist). More at donmclellan.com.