An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Steamship Short Story Award
1980. KOKODA, Oro Province. One bright sunny Saturday a group of skinny village kids and their dog set off for a picnic trip by the river Iora, Kokoda.
They romped through their parents’ gardens, deftly picking tomatoes here, shallots there, a clump of ginger and bunch of bananas. All went into a tin pot and a bilum that carried the most prized of all picnic treasures: a can of Say’s corned beef, pure delicacy, heaven in a can.
It was a typical Kokoda day, crisp clean air and clear blue sky erratically dotted with white puffy clouds. The main road, dirt and well-travelled but neat, was clear and stretched silently seemingly without end in sight.
The adventurous children ran, skipped and hopped nimbly through the forest, along cocoa trees and through plots of rubber and coffee all the while singing, each taking a position in their choir of happy voices.
The smallest boy, doggedly plodding along, happily carried a bilum full of prized essentials: matches, salt, a knife and two packets of two-minute noodles, happy to have been finally and grudgingly accepted by the rest of the gang of five, a collection of older brothers and cousins.
This was some picnic, a feast indeed. They had saved their share of proceeds from the sale of the family’s cocoa beans that Saturday and had planned this day well. The village dog was in front sniffing out possible prey to add to the picnic and bounding along happily. The children burst through the final stretch of cocoa trees onto the main road and walked along telling outrageous tales of fishing and hunting expeditions previously embarked on.
High above a team of parakeets streaked by in their red, yellow, green shrieking like demons, the boys scrambled for throwing rocks too late. “They were surely mine!” boasted the largest and his main rival sneered with disbelief, “You couldn’t hit a gecko if it fell on your nose”.
On and on the conversation went as the barefoot adventurers romped toward Robroy’s block entrance, the road to the picnic site along the Iora River, so cold that one could barely stay in it for longer then 20 minutes at a time.
Several kilometers away, a young girl and her younger brother finished breakfast and cleaned their yard, sweeping away leaves, picking up rubbish and depositing it into a pit for burning. The young girl would look at her wrist and check her new watch, a silver Casio bought only that Christmas by her proud father for having done so well in school.
“Soon father will be home,” she announced to her brother who stared at his sister with large brown adoring eyes. Since their mother died, the family of three had become ever closer. Having left the rest of the village, the father had settled on a plot of land to cash crop, cocoa, coffee and rubber trees. And raise his two children, children he adored and loved.
He was a hard worker, a gentle man everyone respected. He was well on his way to becoming the proud owner of a Store. He had a small chicken farm and a couple of cattle, all purchased with a loan from the Agriculture Bank that serviced the rural people of Papua New Guinean in more optimistic times.
Ukoa had travelled to purchase the first supplies for his new store. He had worked hard for this day and finally he had the grant needed and his savings to start providing services for his community. He had selected a presents for his children, snacks and clothes, a radio transistor, stationary and a soccer ball for the boy.
He had purchased an ice cream for himself and Kemo, a friend and neighbour from his tribe who had a block portion of land near his. Kemo and he were best friends and cousins and shared everything. They chatted away about politics and a new crop they heard of called “oilpalm” while standing under the rain trees in the small township of Popondetta awaiting the PMV.
Meanwhile the gang of five plus one and a dog had finally arrived at their destination. Whooping and shouting in glee they leaped into the cold crisp Iora that welcomed them like a happy mother would errant children who had returned home. Splashing and singing, diving and floating they played, taking short breaks to nap on hot boulders and tell scary stories of the monsters that surely live in the dark jungle further towards Mount Victoria.
A collection of twigs and dry wood was quickly brought to fire and the pot was cradled on a forked branch hanging, gently bubbling, a soup of epic proportions bubbling away, the scent of corned beef and shallots hung in the shade of a giant Jujuma tree as the boys sat exhausted, happily chatting and embracing their hunger. Iora bubbled along. A white crane slowly flew by and crows sat on a dried tree cawing lazily. Distant thunder rumbled and clouds gathered as the bright day suddenly became eerily dark.
The girl held her brothers hand and walked to the main road. Showered and dressed well as their father had always taught them, they walked to the main road humming the latest song by Oro Flames, a band of some repute in this hopeful Province of a recently independent pacific island, Papua New Guinea, the boy aiming his slingshot at imaginary giant pigeons.
Ukoa and Kemo were almost there, Ukoa making a mental note of all his cargo and reminding Kemo that he was invited to dinner with his wife that Sunday after church to celebrate the new Store. Rain had started as the PMV tottered along towards its destination.
In the PMV tired mothers returning from the markets in town were holding dozing babies still breastfeeding and the village and plantation men earnest and deep in their conversations about a recent development in politics and business as they rattled along the dirt road. A pair of teenagers examined their newly purchased Walkman radios and latest music cassettes and whispered exciting developments in their lives, sports, music and girls, big city opportunities.
Somewhere along the way to the main road, the young girl and her brother met evil.
Further down several kilometers, unaware of any evil but legends told in the darkest of rainy nights by their grandmothers’ fireside, the gang of five plus one and dog had finished their feast. Not a single item of food was visible and all scraps were carefully removed, as is the tradition in Hunjara to not allow for possibility of sorcery and evil shamans that may come across remnants and do their evil trade. Even dog had something for himself.
Bursting into song, the gang started reluctantly away from Iora, skipping across water cress and water lilies and climbing the cliff edge of Robroys block, eyes red with satisfaction of swimming Iora, stomachs full and hearts happy. There was a bass, there was the falsetto and surely a lead guitarist was among the gang too making tunes like their favorite band, hand actions and feet tapping, veins of their necks almost bursting as they sung a great song.
A bright Saturday was closing its day, a small drizzle and thunder grumbled. “Grandma says that days like this are when death approaches a house” whispered one in hushed urgency as the others looked at the darkening sky, dark clouds gathering fast. The gang, hurried along, urgency in their bare feet steps, even the dog lowered his ears and looked especially alert, closer to the gang.
Near the road that was the entrance to Ukoa’s block, perhaps a distance of 20 meters, the track looked bare, neat, grass cut and swept away. The PMV stopped and Ukoa and Kemo alighted, the other passengers marveling at the store goods for Ukoas new store and Ukoa announcing that it would open Monday. They carefully placed the cartons on the road and remarked that it was fortunate the rain had not yet burst forth in torrents as is usual in Kokoda.
The PMV moved off to its final destination and the remaining passengers bid their farewells, the women reminding Kemo to greet his wife from them and telling Ukoa he was lucky to have such a smart, intelligent daughter who would surely graduate the top of her class and go onto high school.
As the PMV drove off, Ukoa gathered his goods with Kemo and they both looked at the track. It was quiet. Too quiet. “Where are the children?” Ukoa muttered. It was highly unusual. Suddenly, he felt a foreboding. A chill passed through him and he was gripped with anxiety.
They walked briskly and ran towards Ukoa’s home, without words. At the exact entrance to his home, his new store in proud sight, Ukoa stumbled. Disbelief, his mouth open, not a sound came forth. Kemo dropped his entire load and caught Ukoa who fell. Their eyes gripped by an awful sight. A glint of silver, a watch, from the edge of the track, the grass flattened by some intense activity stretched a circle, and there almost hidden in the brush, the young girl and her brother, coated in blood, fear and shock captured in their dead eyes, lay in each others arms.
The boy obviously shielded by his sister but nonetheless he too dead. His hands bloodied clutching her upper arms, his eyes shut tight, as if in anticipation of blows, coming or about to. Her cotton dress ripped and soaked with blood, the red flower patterns etched with the deep red ink of her final expression of life. Her hand stretch out as if to reach for her beloved Father, their young lives, extracted by the blade of a machete, her mouth quietly ajar, his teeth clenched. What terrible evil!
Ukoa lay next to his two children gathering them in his arms, his voice finally arriving in deep sobbing moaning sounds. Disbelief. Despair. Oh agony and pain. He desperately moved shook them, checked kissed their bloodied cheeks, weeping bitterly.
Kemo held his best friend and wept along with him and the rain fell hard and dark, washing the blood into a pool beside the dead children and Ukoa, holding them firmly in his anguished arms. Torrents. As neighbors and others hearing and seeing, wailing and crying approached. Shock and horror saturated the community. Ukoa, his life now as good as ended, wept bitterly.
The gang of five plus one and dog came quietly to this ominous scene and stopped to observe. Fearfully and quietly they hurried on their journey home, soaked in rain, tears welling in their eyes as they heard what had happened to their schoolmate and classmate. The rain fell hard and long. Darkness crept out day. Dog ran ahead, ears flattened, tail lowered.
It happened long ago, it seems, 30 years.
But I remember that day as if it happened yesterday.
The murderers were never caught, never known. What had happened that day, remains a terrible, tragedy, a fathers dreams for his children crushed…a horrible mystery….
A bright Saturday, that ended so dark, shrouded by ominous, heavy rain, an innocent loving family, torn asunder by evil.