Blue Umbrellas as Seen From Above (extract WiP)

Just a tiny tiny sample from my current work in progress – 17/11/2011

Blue Umbrellas Seen From Above

Primo stood at the opposite end of the shed roof to Alda, leaning against the brightly coloured shaft of his spear, his eyes restlessly scanning the weeping jungle. Though he wore only the red sarong of a sentry, and he kept his back turned on the patient gathering in the yard below, Alda couldn’t help but notice that he had added extra ornaments to his hair, and more bracelets to his wrists. She wished she had thought to do the same. She felt very plain and underdressed in her own sarong. It was the first time in their adult lives that she and Primo had not donned the bright, heavy costumes of the welcoming ceremony, the first Springtime ever that their tattoos remained free of ceremonial colour, their teeth and the tips of their fingers innocent of the red dye that would have beautified their smiles and emphasised the grace of their hands as they danced.

She rose from her crouch and stretched her back, her eyes never leaving the edge of the concrete platform below and the living forest floor that surrounded it. All around the compound similarly red-clad soci were prowling the flat roofs, spears in hand, watching the wakening forest for beasts too hungry yet to have the sense to stay in their own territory. This sentry guard was made up almost exclusively of older men and women – those no longer pleasing to the soldiers’ eye – or those small number of soci whose natural inclination was not towards dance or song. The elderly, the clumsy, the chronically tuneless, and – for the first time ever – Alda and Primo. Alda sighed and glanced again at Primo. Rain was running down the contours of his bronze face, dripping from the ends of his braids, plastering the fabric of his sarong to the planes of his body like a second skin. Behind them it drummed its familiar springtime rhythm against the tight skins of the umbrellas. The light would be blue as aggamen eggs under there, the rain would look like silver thread pouring from the spokes. The beautifully dressed soci would  be standing in patiently smiling formation: waiting, waiting, waiting as they had been since the sun rose hours before.

Alda wondered how difficult it was proving for them to hold onto their smiles down there. It usually wasn’t so hard. The joy of it being spring and the anticipation of the visit usually made smiling the most natural thing in the world. But this year … Alda did not think she had ever been so hungry in her life and she could not imagine the others felt much different. She thought of the goats she had slaughtered the evening before, their skinned corpses hanging now in swaying rows, waiting to be handed over. She thought of the milk they should have at least been able to give to the children this morning, had she not killed the only two nannies still capable of producing it. Her stomach grumbled and she breathed deeply in and out to quell a small moment of dizziness brought on by these thoughts of food.

The children were sitting in cross-legged rows within the shelter of the veranda, bright as parrots in their little costumes, high as bird-kites on the last of the Makan leaves which Armand had allowed them divide between themselves. Alda wouldn’t have minded a cheekfull of Makan right now. She had never liked the way it numbed the lips and throat (even kissing a soldier who had indulged in it made her tongue feel dead) but the way it dulled the appetite would have been a nice bonus this morning. Armand had been right to hand the last of it over to the children, though. Without it, the hunger would have made them unbearable. High on Makan, they could be depended on to remain quiet and pretty and smiling, and in no danger of disrupting the ceremonies.

She eyed Salvatore, leaning dreamily at the corner of the veranda, his hair brushed, his face clean for once in his cantankerous little life, and hoped the boat would come before the hit wore off.


She drew her attention from the compound, surprised that Primo had broken their imposed silence. They were not supposed to speak, even to each other. He was tense, his spear aimed down into the loam which came right to the back wall of this particular shed. ‘Cento,’ he whispered.

Lifting her own weapon, she splashed across the roof to stand at his side. She waited, her eyes fixed on the spot where Primo was aiming. There came a slow, roiling turn beneath the surface – an oily heaving of the leaves. Alda bent at the knee, her left arm out for balance, and drew her spear back, ready for a throw. Had to hit the neck, just behind the head. Had to pierce the spine or the creature would attack with lightening speed. Primo sank to a similar pose, and, as if performing a dance, they both shifted their weight to their back foot. The cento rose from the leaves, its massive pincered mouth opening and closing as it tasted the air.

Alda and Primo shuffled sideways as one, trying for the angle which would ensure a kill. The rain filled Alda’s eyes and by the time she had blinked her vision free, the Cento’s head had already coiled under. All that remained visible was the slow unspooling of its body beneath the loam. Damn it. Alda whistled between her teeth, alerting the compound to danger. She did not tear her eyes from the ripple of movement as the cento crept along beneath them. If it hit the wall and began to climb, they would have to wait for it to breast the lip of the shed roof before having a clear throw again.

‘I’m going to try for it before it hits the wall,’ she said. ‘Be ready.’

Primo made a sound – probably of disagreement – but Alda was already stepping to the brink of the edge, pulling back for the throw again, aiming for the heave of loam where she thought the head might be. She fired, the spear shooting from her outstretched arm as if from her body itself, its yards of anchor line ribboning out behind it. The spear hit. The cento rose, roaring, from the loam, and Alda cursed at the knowledge that she’d missed the mark.

‘Better pull free before it carries you under,’ said Primo, sidestepping her and lining up for another shot. She jerked her arm back, ripping the spear from the creature’s flesh with a sharp tug on the anchor line which was attached to her at the wrist. Eyes on the thrashing cento, she began rapidly hauling the spear back into herself.

‘You’ve raised it anyway,’ murmured Primo, dancing along the rim of the roof, following the erratic movements below, trying to aim.

Alda’s spear clattered the wall as she dragged it upwards. Then it was in her hand again, ready, and she was at Primo’s side. They danced the rim together, waiting their chance, saw an opening and threw. Their spears were a twin dash of colour in the rain drenched air, and the cento was theirs.

Primo whooped, and hauled on the anchor lines; the two of them dragged the heavy body from the loam and up the side of the building. It must have been over five paces long, its body wide and heavy. Its pincers were opening and closing reflexively as they pulled it across the edge of the roof and they weren’t stupid enough to put themselves anywhere near it. Instead Alda ripped her spear from its neck, plunged it into the cento’s tail, and together they raised its still feebly rippling body on the tips of their weapons like a banner. Primo whooped again as they turned in triumph to display their kill.

The other sentries had been leaping from roof to roof towards them, but at the sight of the dead cento, they came to a halt still several buildings away, grinning with relief. One gummy third gen man raised his spear over his head in the usual gesture of congratulations, and Alda and Primo paraded the body to the edge of the roof, showing it to the others. There were uncertain smiles from beneath the edges of the umbrellas, fleeting glances in Armand’s direction. He stood, unsteady and alone at the head of the crowd, his braids and skin a sickly green in the blue light of his solitary umbrella. His gaze fell from the dead cento to the two triumphant soci holding it up, then he turned expressionlessly back towards the river. Eyes were dropped, smiles faded, painted faces disappeared beneath their umbrellas. Within moments Alda and Primo were gazing down at a rain dabbled roof of blue while the other sentries walked away from them in silence. On the veranda Salvatore and the other children were asleep.

‘Well, what did we expect,’ murmured Primo. ‘Ribbons?’

They tipped the cento back over the edge, watching it sink into the leaves where the scent of its blood would keep others of its kind at bay, then resumed their duty, each standing at opposite ends of the roof. But something had been broken between them, some kind of self imposed constraint, and it was hard not to keep glancing at each other. After a while Alda’s stomach growled, and Primo’s followed soon after. She glanced across to find him grinning into the rain misted trees. She looked away, smiling. He waited until she looked again, then did a tiny, shuffling version of the successful kill dance. Alarmed, she glanced around the compound – there was nothing but turned backs to witness this terrible act of self-congratulations.

Primo was watching her. One more look around, and she did the dance herself, dipping her knees, stamping her feet into the gathered rain, quickly lifting and dropping her spear over her head. It was double speed and cramped and ridiculous and it made them both stifle their laughter behind their hands.

After a while she hunkered down again, leaning on her spear, her attention back on her duty. Very quietly below the drumming of the rain, she began to sing. Primo didn’t even turn to check the others before adding his secret voice to hers.


April 13th 2012 I finished converting this project to 1st person and  posted this small section to celebrate : a finger’s breadth of Blue

5 Responses to Blue Umbrellas as Seen From Above (extract WiP)

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