Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Place of White Wood

Fictional short story

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 12/10/08

Three hundred years ago:

The coastline was long and pale and unmarked. A lean strip of sand faded in both directions and the branches of the trees behind it were white like bones. The schooner swung on its anchor rope in the running current beyond the turquoise of the shallows. They had ridden there through four tides; four times the flat stretch of grubby brown reef, picked over by white birds with long black legs, had opened between the boat and the hot shoreline, and four times it had been covered by bright, breeze-cut water.

The boy’s name was Salem. He was thirteen. He squatted on the warped planking of the deck where it swept towards the high white prow, squinting in the hard light, peering at the shore. The coarse ropes of the rigging slapped against the mast in the wind and the schooner smelt of tar and salt and sweat.
The other men, five of them, were sleeping through the white midday. They lay among the ropes and baskets at the rear of the deck. They were lean, sun-scarred men with thin, muscled arms and deep lines on their faces. They wore only short sarongs and white head cloths, bound loose over cropped black hair.
Salem squatted, and shaded his eyes and squinted at the long coastline. It was marked by nothing. There were no promontories or river mouths; no swelling headlands reared from the shore and there were no villages. But they were waiting for something.

His father called this blank coastline the Place of White Wood. Salem understood the name now as he looked out across the reef to the thin trees beyond the sand. They fronted a thicket of deep, dust-green, but their trunks and branches were the colour of the palest ash on the hearth in the morning. No hills or mountains rose inland and all that Salem could see of this unknown country was the empty beach and the white-boned trees.

Salem was of the Bugis people. They traded back and forth between the Islands in white boats. Salem’s father was born in Makassar and Salem was born in Bima. He had seen many ports before his tenth birthday, but he had never been this way before, had never travelled on the route his father had learnt from his grandfather: due south across empty ocean to the Place of White Wood.

The journey had been long. After Sumba the sun had beaten away to the north behind them and at night great smears of stars twisted above the schooner’s snapping rigging. Once, in the middle of the ocean, they passed a strange piece of shoal ground, all boiling white water under a wheeling chaos of seabirds. But beyond that there was nothing, and the trade wind chased them south and the men spoke less and the light was sharper every day. Salem came almost to believe that they were the last men on earth, aboard the last boat in the ocean. And then they smelt the land. It smelt of charcoal and honey.
They anchored off the edge of the shallow water and the schooner swung to the current and the rigging rattled in the breeze and the reef opened and closed and opened and closed in the tide.
“When will we go ashore?” Salem asked.
“Not yet,” said his father.

He watched the coastline and his eyes ached and flickers of darkness played at the edge of his vision. The slack of the high water at midday came and went and the flow of the tide changed and the dark blotches of the reef began to show in the shallows. And then, quite suddenly Salem saw the people.
First there was just one upright outline, black against the white of the sand at the water’s edge. Then another came slowly from the edge of the forest. Then another, and another, and two small ones, and another until there were nine of them: black silhouettes moving very slowly in the yellow heat. Salem could see no cloth and no colour; they looked like fragments of the blackest of the forest’s shadow that had broken free and drifted onto the salt-crusted shoreline.
Salem hissed through his teeth. “Look! Look! There are people!”
The men shifted and stretched among the ropes and baskets and Salem’s father hitched and retied his sarong, peering at the beach.
“We’ll go ashore now,” he said.

They paddled across the reef in a pair of small canoes, dipping the paddles into the bright water. The smell of charcoal and honey came stronger. The canoes ground onto the hot white beach and they stepped lightly over the hissing edge of the water. The black figures were standing in ragged formation on the sand, looking towards the Bugis.
“Come on,” Salem’s father said. Each sailor took one of the rough bundles from the canoes. “Go quietly,” he said, and they moved towards the black men, and came to stand before them in their own rough alignment.
“As-salaam aleikum,” Salem's father said.
The man standing before him did not reply. None of them replied.
Salem stared, shyly, nervously.
They were all naked – four men, three women, and two children, and they looked like no people Salem had ever seen. Their skin was the colour of coal dust and it did not shine in the sunlight. Their long arms hung loose at their sides; their thin legs bulged in odd places and their bodies formed heavy blocks against straight spines.
Salem’s father unwrapped the cloth bundle he carried. Inside were a pair of iron axes and a long-bladed knife for cutting cane. He held them out to the black man at the head of the group, who took them, handled them uncertainly, then passed them back to the others behind him. Salem’s father hissed and called the crewmen forward, taking each of the bundles, unwrapping them and passing what was inside to the naked stranger. There were more knives and axes, and some strips of good cloth, and blocks of rank tobacco. The black man handled each object, and passed each to his companions until all of the bundles had been unwrapped. Then without speaking or nodding or making any acknowledgement all nine turned and moved away slowly down the beach with their strange, bow-legged gait, carrying the gifts with them, axes and knives swinging loose at the end of long, thin arms.
The Bugis watched them go for a moment, blinking in the sunlight.
“We can work now,” said Salem’s father.


The tide was low in the evening and the whole reef was dry and flat and long. The sun had fallen away into the west over the empty ocean and the fading light had a purple tone. The wind had gone now and the sea was smooth offshore and the men were out on the reef, filling their baskets.
Salem was on the sand, cooking the fish they had caught over a fire beside the beached canoes. He had had to go a little way into the forest to collect the wood for the fire. The ground was dry underfoot and the branches were full of the calls of strange, unknown birds. The forest was open and he could have walked away into it quite easily. The trunks of the trees were white.
Salem’s father came up the beach from the edge of the reef with another basket of sea cumbers. They were strange things, neither animal nor fruit nor plant, but they fetched a good price with the Chinese traders of the Islands.
Salem’s father sat down beside him where he knelt to tend the fire. “Did you go into the forest?” he asked.
“Just a little way, not far.”
His father nodded. “Be careful in there.”
Further down the beach the black figures had appeared again, but they did not look towards the Bugis and they were moving away slowly along the coast in the other direction. The women walked along the very edge of the reef, pausing to pick at something from time to time; the two children trotted ahead of them. A pair of lean, yellow dogs came down out of the trees and loped behind them.
“What are these people called?” Salem asked, watching them go.
His father shook his head; “People of White Wood. I don’t know what they call themselves.”
They were just black shapes on the fading shore now. “They… they are people aren’t they?” Salem asked, uncertainly.
“But they don’t have any villages? Any towns? Do they have kings?”
Again his father shook his head. “Nobody knows.”
The fire crackled and Salem turned the fish on the cross-branches he had rigged for cooking. There was a band of pale orange light along the horizon and the rigging of the schooner, riding offshore, was stark against the sky. Flocks of black birds were beating along the line of the coast. Salem glanced back at the forest. It was very dark now, but the trunks of the foremost trees were whiter than ever.
“What is behind the forest?” he asked.
“Nothing,” his father said, stretching out on the cooling sand. “My father told me that when our people first came here they went with the black men. They wanted to meet their king because they wanted to ask permission to work on this coast. The black men took them into the forest.”
“What happened?”
“They travelled for many, many days.”
“Did they meet the king?”
Salem’s father smiled. “There was no king. There was nothing but forest. It did not end; it went on forever. They travelled for many days, always in the forest. Sometimes they crossed shallow rivers, but the water was not good. My father said that when the black men made camp at night they did not even have blankets; they just slept on the ground with nothing to cover them.
“Eventually, when they were already far from the sea, our people realised that the black men were not taking them to their king, or to their village; they were not taking them anywhere: they just didn’t know how to tell our people to stop following them.”
The black people were just thin stick figures in the distant dusk now, still moving on down the beach away from them.
Salem nodded in the direction they were moving, “What is further on, along this coast? There must be ports or villages.”
His father reached out towards the fire – “Is that fish ready? Don’t burn it!” –then he looked on down the coastline and shook his head. “There is nothing. My father told me that this coastline goes on forever.”
The other Bugis were coming in off the reef now, lugging their loaded baskets of sea cucumbers towards the beach, following the good smell of the cooking fish.
“I don’t understand,” said Salem, watching them. “Our people are everywhere in the Islands. If this place has good fishing, and if there is no king, why don’t we build villages here?”
Salem’s father smiled and his teeth showed white in the smoky dusk. “Because,” he said, “this is not our country.”

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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