“Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

John 18:11

-Chapter 1-

Trou aux Biches, Mauritius

Thursday, 10th May 1956

When he tragically came to recall, Francisco realised that conscious human life, for him, had begun in Mauritius at the age of three. There, in the distant past, he had actually seen himself sitting as comfortably as an exhausted Buddha on the heat-breathing white sands of a deserted beach.

Behind him, where the pristine white sands clambered variously onto the darker earth, an embattled fringe of heavily pregnant coconut trees shivered against the advancing hordes. A gleaming red tongue stuck outward in a wet poke of concentration whilst infant thumb pressed infant forefinger to a pallid white around a naked twig. Abandoned by the unwilling seas, it now travelled towards far-off adventures, cut swathes and traced superhuman circles in the earth’s humid entrails. Then little Francisco froze and the voyage lurched to a drunken halt.

He looked over his shoulder… His parents were still there.

FranciscoThey looked calmly on from the bungalow, barely ten yards away, as their elbows touched and blended into a softer shadow above the balcony’s splintered wooden railings. Hot inland winds belched in and brushed past Francisco’s cheeks, carrying the urgent reek of medicines seaward; the shrill whiff of ether quickly followed up, riding shotgun on the group.

A healthy baby nostril perked upwards to confirm the visitors had departed.

From their sanctuary in the shadows, the couple observed their child in silence as the sun aggressively encircled and isolated his lonely figure. He had no shadows for company, none at all, except where the sun scythed his circular straw hat into the sand. There, the discus-like shadow continued to hover in a threatening tremble until it suddenly screamed off across the sands as Chico leaned forward to probe a funnel-shaped hole in the darker sand. His left eyebrow arched expectantly as he persisted.  There was no movement… Cautiously, very cautiously, he probed again.

Boulder-shaped grains came tumbling down but there was no reaction from the ant-lion trap.

He peeked even closer.

Suddenly, two iron-tipped mandibles shot out, machine-gunning sand at the intruder. “Bicho[1]”, Francisco’s lips pursed. “Bicho”, they murmured as he pulled the twig from the trap. “Bicho”, said his milk-blotched front teeth, as he fed the ant to those terrible mandibles. “Bicho” as invisible fingers seemed to press the ant down, but it was those hidden mandibles below that went about their terrible work. They pulled and they tore and they ripped and they dragged the poor ant into the dark earth.

Calm returned.  But little Chico’s attention had been dragged elsewhere. His tongue drooled into view where the greedy sun snatched at its red voluptuousness. He watched his father’s multi-buttoned sleeves embrace his mother, briefly pouting upwards the soft white orbs that were her breasts. Just as quickly again, the nervous fingers which had imprisoned her broke free. These were restless fingers that never stopped twitching, never stopped moving; opened and closed until skin clutched to blanched knuckle for Dear Life. When they finally came to rest, they trapped and squashed his mother’s great tumbling mass of fiery red hair.

houseHis father leaned over the balcony’s rough wooden railings and a powerful, rounded forehead met the sun. It oozed determination and was accompanied by a pair of piercing green eyes. Just as Francisco looked up at the eyes, something disturbed the green and the eyelids retreated to the shadows where they winced painfully, as if some terrible memory had returned. The bottom lip jutted out in pitted defiance whilst the teeth breathed the vapours of pain away.  Minutes passed. His father’s face relaxed again but the invisible torturer was never long gone. When he returned, it was in force and he grabbed the face and contorted it until it was ogre-ugly with pain.

It had started two years earlier with a quiet discharge of blood that Joseph Merlin had taken for haemorrhoids, but continued feeding and swarming into his every cell till the doctors, in their considered wisdom, had sliced his backside to expunge the terrible invader that had blossomed in his colon. Then they had sewn the whole mess up like some sort of sick cartoon and plumbed a hole in his side to replace his permanently buttoned-up rectum.

“Hey, Shinha”, he laughed -with a terrible raucous laugh- in the recovery room after the operation,  “At least no one can call me an arsehole, now.”  In the following days, and months, his bitterness at this infamy returned in terrible bouts of morbid humour. He would slowly, so very slowly, place his forefinger over his lips and murmur in mock confidential tones, “Ssssh… Right now…. Right-as-I-speak, double-delicious diarrhoea is secretly splurging from my Mickey Mouse Merde Maker.  Fuuuuh… What a whiff!  And that’s what I wanted to tell you, Tété[2]. My farting days are over. Je ne pête plus[3]. Já não me posso peidar[4]. Ne’er a pulverised turd will cross these sweet puckered lips”, he said pointing at his backside.  “Isn’t that awful? And a big pity, too. My budding career as a pétomane has been severely curtailed if not downright CUT short. Aaah! It would be so good now, right now, S-O G-O-O-D, to prove Mr Peristalsis wrong and fart through my shirt into people’s faces. Then, they’d know. They’d know what it’s like to be arseless.”  And when the re-concentrated vitriol screamed and spat to the surface again, he would make his entrance with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, in the RIGHT corner, we have the world famous Masked Invaders…. and, in the LEFT, we have the one, the only, the one-and-only, the a-m-a-z-i-n-g Chief Shitting Hole and his two slimy brown partners: Reeeeeectifiiiiiied Rectuuuuuuuuum and Aaaaaaaaatrophieeeeeed Arsehole. Let’s have a big RIGHT hand, gentlemen….” They would chuckle quietly together like conspirators, till silence returned to embrace them.

The boy on the beach shifted closer to the balconyThe boy on the beach shifted closer to the balcony.

His father emerged from the gloom of the bungalow and the sun was losing its grip. Shadows lengthened. They were ready to pounce. His father’s eyes were now like the pools the tide has forgotten. They were focused a million miles above Francisco’s head.

The infant eyed the green with a serious face and scanned the skies for confirmation.  But he saw nothing.

The forehead leaned over him. Loose flesh sagged expansively over angular jawbone. The nail on the left index finger had been chewed jaggedly back to the quick where blood rushed out in small hard globules of welcome.  As he pointed towards Francisco, the very same jagged nail unhitched a cotton strand from Teresa’s rounded hip. Mouth agape, Francisco watched his father’s nail slowly unravel a long, unbroken strand off his mother’s dress.  Behind the delicate strand, the sun lay dying.

Get the maid to fetch Francisco“, Joseph said, attempting, without success, to flick the fine strand off his fingernail.  “…I need… I would like… to go to the Hospital, early tomorrow. I am not….” Teresa delved deep into the eyes to gauge the depth of pain, but the orbs had escaped and fled into the far-off seas where impatient waves were kicking up phosphorescent crescents that rode confidently into the approaching night.

The maid’s dress rustled in the shadows. A welter of squashed black toes came at Francisco over uneven dunes. The toenails were bent and split like unseasoned planks on a battered raft. Some were browner than others; some had even warped up to get a better look.  But it was the big toe that grabbed his attention, bearing all the hallmarks of many battles and the telltale marks of a jigger that had crawled right beneath the nail. There it lay, all a-cosy, surrounded by a moonscape of small, wickedly inflicted welts and finely buffed marks that rose to a plateau of scar tissue where sparse kinks of fuzzy bushes scaled her black legs all the way to Francisco’s wide-open eyes.

White UniformA full white uniform appeared from the gloom of the bungalow as Francisco was scooped up in one fell motion and brought back to his mother. He watched, upside down as the nurse proceeded to close a silver lock on a leather medical bag she was carrying. The nurse’s eyes turned towards his mother and her lips whispered, “Madame Merlin, that piqure de morphine I gave your husband should last until eight o’clock, tonight. Eight o’clock.  Madame, please be careful as he is getting so used to the daily dose that it may be wearing off quicker. I am also, Madame, having problems finding places to inject him. His arms are all pockmarked. But I don’t understand why he is still in pain, he should have recovered from the operation, by now

As the small group filed silently towards the car, the unruly sea winds felt their main chance had come. They rose up and advanced towards land in fits and starts and swarmed the flowers on Teresa’s dress. Joseph surreptitiously eyed his young wife.  He noted how his emaciated body further accentuated the 17-year difference in their ages.

He fumbled into his jacket pocket for the small hand mirror and his photograph.

The cruel sea winds pressed further and were unrelenting; they flapped Teresa’s dress to a schizoid frenzy through her legs where her be-freckled fingers intervened. It was all in vain. They continued to smell, touch and toy with her as the tinkle of glass syringes gave an added a cadence to their footsteps. When they finally reached their car, the driver opened the doors and Joseph fell in a heap onto the grey leather seats in the back as his mind cast back to his first encounter with Teresa Vinagre.

[1] Bug or insect in Portuguese
[2] Diminutive of Teresa
[3] French: “I can’t fart any more”
[4] Portuguese: “I can’t fart any more”

Cup of Vinegar

© Craig Adamson