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Tuesday, 17 September 2013 22:23

Pictures of the Sky

No-one can remember exactly when Phillimina arrived in the village. This is strange considering its size and remoteness. Visitors from The World Outside were very rare. For many of the younger villagers, Phillimina was the first Outsider they ever encountered. And the last.

On that fateful day, whenever it was, the village rose at dawn like any other day, the people came out of their homes and there she was, as if she had always been there. Her little legs and considerable bosom were dressed in waves of flowing turquoise. Gold bangles covered the lengths of her arms like bridges across a great river. On her head, slightly askew, rested what looked like a mountainous gold turban. And the bemused villagers watched, rubbing their bleary morning eyes in case it was a dream, as Phillimina pointed a photo machine at the sky and took pictures, never looking down, even for a second.

Mutterings quickly did the rounds amongst the more seasoned onlookers. Whispers tickled ears and were passed along in the wind as it whipped up dust and made it dance. Some said she was a nomad, roaming the globe. Others were sure she was a witch, or a curse sent by a neighbouring village, perhaps the tall, ugly village upstream. Whatever the case, all decided it was best to keep at a distance and observe for the time being. Approaching her, even to chase her away, could be too risky.

But aside from the risk, there was undoubtedly a measure of quiet interest too. Whoever the strange woman was, wherever she came from, all agreed that she must have travelled many miles. You could see it in the lines on her face, smell it on her skin. She knew The World Outside.

The excited children did not share any of the weight of adult reservations. After school they would sit on the dirt and watch Phillimina and giggle and dare each other to speak to her. One day she beckoned them over without a word and laid an array of dog-eared, faded pictures on the ground before returning her attention to the sky. All the pictures had shaky, hand-written labels across the bottom. One said Nepal, another Australia, another Alaska, another Egypt and so on and so on. There were at least a hundred. But the children, most of whom couldn’t read the labels anyway, saw nothing except the sun and the empty blue sky, or clouds, or different shaped moons and stars, or sometimes just darkness. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Phillimina said as they looked at the pictures and scratched their heads for answers. It was the first time anyone had heard her speak. Her accent was soft and strange.

A small boy who was deemed to speak the best English was pushed towards her with a message from the group. The others stood behind eagerly. The boy puffed up his chest and tried to look important. “You where from?” he asked. For the first time she looked at the children. She smiled and her rounded cheeks squeezed tears from the corners of her small, slippery silver eyes. She told the children that she came from a place called Rhodesia. Then she turned away and raised her camera to the sky once more.

The children marched to the small corrugated iron school with an enthusiasm never before seen. They took out a colour atlas and swam through its great oceans from continent to continent and found nothing. So they ran home to their parents for answers, tugging at their sleeves. “Stay away from her!” they were told with angry mouths and stern eyes.

So the children sat in circles below the protective, arching arms of a great tree, shaded from the ferocity of the midday sun, and discussed. And many chins were stroked and brows furrowed, as and when it seemed appropriate. Eventually a conclusion was reached: Phillimina had come from the sky. Rhodesia, and the home that she had, for whatever reason, lost, were somewhere up there in the sky above them. She was looking for a way home and the pictures she took were like maps that she could sit down and study to help her in her quest.

The children continued to sneak outside every day while their parents dozed in the heavy heat of the afternoon, many of them suitably sedated with fire water. They would stand beside Phillimina - each holding one of the folds of her robes in their small hands - and follow the line of her viewfinder expectantly, hopefully. Perhaps today would be the day that she would find a way home again. She didn’t look down. Her photo machine kept clicking away. Then sometimes she would pause and lower it a little and smile at the sky. Sometimes she would cry. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she would say, again and again.

Before anyone had noticed, the long days of summer had walked over the horizon and left the village behind. And with the passing of time, the villagers, without realising it, had gradually grown used to Phillimina’s presence. Even the most sceptical adults had come to feel that as long they stayed away from her, everything would be fine and eventually she would simply fade away like an old man’s hair, as quietly as she had arrived. But The World Outside had other ideas.

One cold, bright morning, some of the children went to the stream to collect water for their mothers. As they approached the water’s edge they saw something bobbing on the surface of the water a little way out. They waded into the stream for a closer look. What they saw confused and frightened them. It seemed to be the body of a child, but it had no head, and short stumps where its legs, neck and arms should have been. The children dropped their water buckets and ran home to tell their parents about the strange, limbless child.

After a good spanking for being so nosy, the children followed the adults back to the stream, their bottoms still on fire. Most of the men had picked up pangas from their huts just in case. But theirs was not a fighting tribe and they tried to ignore the unpleasant feeling of cold sweat sticking to the wooden panga handles in their shaking hands as they walked on. Perhaps the ugly, tall people from the village upstream were to blame for the limbless child, they thought. God only knew what strange things those people might do to children and their limbs. God help us, they thought.

But when the panga-wielding convoy reached the stream they saw instead Phillimina standing alone in the water, her photo machine, as ever, around her neck, with the limbless child in her arms. She looked at the sky and wailed. She howled like a wolf, as some of the men of the village howled when they danced beneath the full moon at night, possessed by the animal spirits. For a moment everyone was still and the uneasy chattering about the tall, ugly village stopped. There was no sound but Phillimina’s sobbing and howling, no movement but the heaving of her sloped shoulders and the fluttering of her sail-like robes in the wind. Nobody quite knew what to do.

Then one of the fathers in the group recognised the markings on the limbless child’s torso. “My son!” he cried in his mother tongue. “You witch!” He ran into the stream waving the panga around like a mad man. He tripped and fell face first into the water. There was a spluttering of inappropriate laughter from someone amongst the crowd on shore. But undeterred, the limbless child’s father rose out of the water, lifted his panga high above his head and brought it down with a dull thud into Phillimina’s shoulder.

The rest of the men were suddenly shocked into action. They were worried that passivity on their part might be seen to be a sign of complicity to the taking of limbs. They all charged into the water. Panga after panga rained down on Phillimina’s head, shoulders, chest and arms. The men quickly became frenzied, blinded by the blood in their eyes and the adrenaline in their veins. The children on the banks were crying and telling them to stop. They hid their eyes with their hands and then looked through the cracks in their fingers.

Phillimina, meanwhile, had stopped crying. She seemed almost impossibly still as her own limbs were hacked into the water like old logs. And all the while she kept looking up at the clear, cloudless blue sky above her. “Isn’t it beautiful” she whispered softly, a half smile across her lips.
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Chris Clark

I am a freelance writer and journalist based in Cape Town. I write travel and international affairs for publications including News24, Africa Geographic and Bertelsman Futurechallenges. In 2012 I was featured among "60 of SA's Best" writers and thought leaders by the Big Issue. My fictional work has been featured in the Foreign Encounters journal.   

Website: www.cawclark.com/
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