PAUL WAUGLA WII
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
People’s Award for Short Stories
THE glimmer from a lantern lamp was the only source of light inside the room. She sat quietly on a bamboo platform inside the dimly lit room and began to take out an assortment of items in her bilum which was lying on her lap.
She was carefully checking each item under the light from the lampwhich was suspended on a wire just above her head. She picked up something – amongst the odds and ends- which looked like a folded plastic bag.
It was indeed a plastic bag, an empty one kilogram Trukai rice packet. It was not unusual for mothers in the village to keep an empty plastic bag in their bilum for they might use it in a myriad of ways to store or carry things in it.
Lucy was a typical village woman at heart and therefore she was not far removed from this reality. What she was holding under the flicker of the lantern lamp was somewhat unusual and odd in that it was neatly folded in to a tight rectangular shape the size of a man’s thumb.
A rope was fastened around the folded plastic bag like a coil around a magnet in order to ensure that whatever treasure she was keeping in there would not drop out. Meticulously she undid the rope and as the plastic began to unfurl to its original shape, Lucy slid her fingers into it and pulled out some money.
She counted the banknotes under the flickering lamp. The money she was holding in her hand was the reward of her labour. The bank notes added up to fifty kina in total. It was not much but it was something.
A little smile was forming a curve in the corner of her lips. “Next week when the beans and some more kaukau from my new garden are harvested, I will make another fifty kina,”’she thought as she tried to make a mental calculation of the remaining amount of school fees that she must pay up before Toby could be allowed to stay in school for the last two terms.
She placed the money carefully back inside the bilum and, just as she was about to put it away, Toby walked into the house. He was dripping wet from the heavy rain outside.
“Ah, you are back and you are very wet indeed,” Lucy said as she surveyed his wet clothes and hair. “Yes, I am soaked to the skin,” Toby responded and, throwing his mud-covered boots under the bed adjacent to the doorway, he walked to one corner of the house where a towel was hanging from a wire suspended across the ceiling.
He dried his hair and face and after removing his shirt and hanging it on the wire or line, he came back and sat down beside the fire in the middle of the living room.
“Did you sell all the kaukau at the market today?” he asked his mum who was sitting quietly atop the raised platform which was her sleeping place. Toby looked intently at the burning flames now as he waited for his mum to say something in response to his question. “There were plenty of sellers at the market today,” Lucy began to explain.
“The Good Lord was merciful to us as He has always been. I earned a fifty kina. Most of the sellers could not even earn a twenty kina today. The rain came down and they brought their bags of kaukau back to their homes.”
Toby looked at the dancing flames as he tried to digest his mother’s explanation. He was going back to school the next and he had to go with a hundred kina in order to be allowed to continue in school. His mind was racing. ‘Where else can I get the other fifty kina?’ He was thinking.
It was already getting dark outside the house although the down pour has now receded to a mere trickle. A thick black darkness began to descend on the village as Toby sat there inside the smoke-filled hamlet with his mother. He was feeling so angry and distraught.
“But I told you, it’s a hundred kina…” his voice choked within his throat. He knew that he was not going back to school and the realisation pained him. Lucy sat there quietly for any careless word might provoke him to wrath. Toby sat there in silence, trying in his young mind to come to terms with the reality confronting him and his family.
Toby knew that he could not argue with his mum for she had done everything that she could do as a mother. He also knew that there was no one in this world unto whom he would direct his anger for no one in this world was the reason for his predicament. He felt so much pain within as he sat beside the burning fire.
Lucy sat in silence on her bed. She felt for her son and she understood what was actually going on in his mind. How could she not understand her son? After all they were in this predicament together.
“I left your food in the pot and it is on the stool near the cupboard,” she said after either of them had been lost in their own thoughts for a while. Toby found the pot exactly where his mum had left it and ate his dinner in silence.
She had taken particular care when she was boiling the green leafy vegetables over the fire and the food tasted delicious. Furthermore, this meticulous care with which his mother would prepare meals for the family was one of her many qualities that Toby, until now, has taken for granted.
While Toby was eating, Lucy stood up, adjusted the lamp and as soon as the lantern was glowing at an optimal efficiency, she made a comment about how long –lasting that lamp was although she had bought it almost ten years ago when Toby was in elementary school and his sister Suaire was a toddler.
At the mention of his sister’s name Toby looked up to his mother and asked about Suaire’s whereabouts because his sister had not returned to the house. His mother smiled a little when their eyes met and told him that she had sent Suaireto Goroka to spend the weekend with Uncle Mundua and his family.
After the meal, Toby stayed awake long into the night. From time to time he would look at his mum who was presumably past asleep on her bed. Tears welled up in his eyes when he tried to imagine what would become of his life without his mother.
She was aging and losing her strength and this was not, so much, a result of the passage of time but it was more so an inevitable outcome of the strenuous and back breaking work that she has been doing every day to raise her children after her husband died in a motor accident fifteen years ago. She has always been a hard working woman not only in regard to raising her own offspring but also in terms of her contribution in her own small ways to maintain cohesion and relationship with the members of her community for they belong in a close-knit society.
However, that feeling of communal responsibility has tended to diminish in recent years. As a result, Lucy has been fending for her children’s school fees mostly on her own. She has sold three pigs over the last three years to raise the money to keep Toby in Primary school and now secondary school.
The manner in which she has earned the money was not an easy a prospect as one might expect in other places. In all of the occasions, she has had to walk over slippery mountain tracks- pulling her pig by a rope tethered to its leg in order to sell theanimal at the station for the much-needed cash.
Toby had actually walked with his mum on a number of these marketing trips over the mountain to the nearest station and he has come to understand the pain his mother was going through to keep him in school.
He knew his mother was suffering so much for him and he thought it was really unfair. He wanted to tell her to forget about it so that he could stay back in the village to help out with the work. They would be happier together in that way.
However, that was not what his mother was having in her mind. She was prepared to go that extra mile in order to make sure that Toby would have a better education. “I will take another pig over the mountain to the market tomorrow,” she reasoned as she was lying down on her bed.
She knew that it was worth it because she has heard what the teachers have said about Toby. He was a bright student. In fact, Toby was more than a bright student. They were talking about a child who was none other than her very own. She did not want to allow their unfortunate circumstances to deprive her son of a good education.
Lucy was a fighter at heart and she was more than ready to battle the odds to get him through because she knew that Toby, like herself, would one day grow up to be a fighter in a world that would be very challenging and competitive…a world that would offer so much promise to a young man like Toby who would undoubtedly emulate the character of his strong-willed mother.
Feeling utterly exhausted, he crept quietly to his own bed. The dim glow of the lantern cast a shadow over the room while outside in the compound happy children were singing in the night and a dog was barking near the river bank below the ridge on which was located their village.