BOMAI Witne’s article about the Yuri in yesterday’s PNG Attitude mentioned ‘white horses’ – the Yuri people who, without adequate roads, carried white coffee sacks on their backs and who, from a distance, looked like horses.
This evocative image reminded me of Jeff Febi’s winning short story in the first Crocodile Prize competition in 2011.
Jeff is primarily a poet and was surprised to win the award.
You can see the poetic influence in his lyrical and humorous story, which shows that the crossover between the two forms can be quite narrow.
The story is still glorious and is worth reprising in 2017.
A song for camels
THERE was an abrupt scream. And Mihi stopped in his tracks. He turned slowly with his heavy load and there was no one in sight.
His heart jumped! And beat faster. Then his body started shaking in panic. The sudden rush of blood forced out sweat and compelled him to do something.
He quickly but carefully lowered his sun-dried coffee beans in the tightly packed, used white 20kg flour bag to the ground and ran downhill calling loudly.
“Somolieeeeee! Somolieeeee!” He didn’t hear his quivering voice echo across the jungle yonder.
Somolie, a short and thin but tough guy with really strong arms hanging from broad shoulders that defined his physique, could easily be hidden from his view by tall grasses; but he was not certain.
He stopped at a spot where some kunai had been bent under the weight of something. He stepped forward, carefully, and called out.
A desperate voice responded and he moved closer to the edge of the cliff. Then he peered over and saw Somolie hanging desperately onto some vines and small branches.
Mihi breathed a deep sigh. And for the first time ever saw the top of Somolie’s bald head. It was smooth and shiny, even under the cliff’s shadow. Mihi called down and asked if he was alright. The response was positive.
Somolie’s cap was missing and he dreaded the thought of losing it. He looked down and spotted his coffee bag. Fortunately, it had landed on a cluster of wild tiny bamboo that was growing there. And realised it was safer where it had landed than he was.
He carefully climbed down, then retrieved his coffee bag. His cap was underneath and he jammed it back on his head. He managed to drag the bag back up to where the vine that Mihi had thrown down had landed.
When Somolie and his coffee bag were safely up on the track, they sat down to rest.
It wasn’t the first time for such an accident to have occurred. Many others had lost stuff, including store goods such as cartons of SP beer to the fast flowing river below. Men, women and children had all had their share of experiences on this steep stretch of Kuipi track; a shortcut over the Kuipi Mountain which constituted one half of a rather unforgiving gorge.
It is a major track and its users call it their highway. Upon it tonnes of garden food, coffee beans, store goods, building materials, and even coffins with corpses have been transported for years - after their only road became impassable to vehicles due to continuing neglect.
Mihi broke the silence. “You’re lucky!” And pointed to a spot further down and remarked. “If it had been there; it’s a plummet to certain death”.
Somolie agreed with a weary nod as a vivid recollection of a recent fatal fall he had witnessed flashed across his mind.
Then he slowly stood up and caressed his bottom. “It hurts,” he groaned. “Something has scratched my bottom,” he continued, then jokingly checked his private parts to ensure their wellbeing. “All intact!” he declared with a grin, and ensured his cap sat well on his head.
Mihi let out a stifled laugh. He didn’t want to offend Somolie, but he really wanted to laugh. The sight of Somolie hanging like a bald cuscus was funny. He bowed his head to conceal his beaming face.
Then Somolie started laughing. Mihi burst into laughter and they laughed together. Somolie managed to explain between laughs that he had stepped aside to urinate and lost his balance. Then he had dropped his coffee bag and fallen after it.
After a good long laugh, Somolie shouldered his bag and followed Mihi up the track. They had to reach the top, which seemed further still, before the sun gathered all its strength.
As he was slowly climbing, Somolie began to sing a song; with a voice that seemed devoid of shock.
“They call us camels. They call us white horses. They call us semi-trailers. They call us many names. Names of things we don’t know much of.
“We’re they who walk with the strength of our fathers. Those bygone men who had tamed angry rivers, appeased bellowing clouds and walked with mists.
“Our coffee beans shall not go to waste! Our coffee beans shall not go to waste! O no - no - no; shall not go to waste!”
Mihi joined and they sang with a certain pride that sent the song speeding downhill on the wings of a determined breeze.
Far below, an army of white bags in a long and winding line resembling a herd of camels on a journey came into view. When the song reached them, hearts were touched and moved. Many repeated the chorus and the gorge reverberated with their inspiration.
It is their song and they loved it. It inspired strength, which they need in order to climb Kuipi; and confidence to walk shamelessly with their loads through villages whose inhabitants ridicule and call them names along the road.
And they continued singing their hearts out - husbands, wives and all their children.