Jinju watched the swallow rotating her shiny helmeted head, the feathery white tuft of her crown, until her eyes locked onto his. He could squeeze her in all her goodness in the palm of his hand, but somehow, in his cloak of coal dust, he felt smaller than the bird. If only he could soar to a higher perch.
Instead, he rubbed his eyes, itchy and dim, while shuffling along the jagged edges of rocks at the river bed with his two younger brothers. The air of daybreak wafted down on his shoulders, heavy and humid as if trapped under a dome, and he soon crouched on one knee, leaning it against the head of a pickaxe he had brought from the back of their hut. He scanned the smoke stacks that lined the horizon and moved his eyes beyond the bridge to the land of somewhere else, a place he and his brothers had never been to. He led their adventure that morning as he often did, waving his right hand as if on a grand march, his voice trumpeting their arrival into what was a wasteland. He remembered that morning gnawing on his tongue, tasting ash and metal until his mouth was dry: they would search for something more.
He thought of the crayfish farther down the river, tasting the flaky meat under the hard dark shells of armor, their iron-like legs crimped into sharp daggers in counterattack. His brothers ran ahead as he yanked out two spears of wood that had broken off from the pickaxe handle and pierced his mottled palm. He watched the pools of blood spill over each other and flexed his hand open and shut, feeling the blood as he imagined what killing would feel like. They were hungry.
He imagined the taste of sea salt in the raw, spiny skeletons, tumbling hopelessly after capture in the balloons of his cheeks. His jaw would swish and mash the flesh and bones against his still-baby teeth until all the juices drained down in sumptuous small portions. His belly gurgled like a monster, taunting him from everywhere and nowhere, foaming in a disturbed and empty rage.
Jinju hit the rocks with the pickaxe, swinging it down from behind his head as if it were the long lance of a warrior king when instead it was a warped, dull tool used to dig for coal. It was said that before coal, vast beds of great black pearls had blanketed Jinjustan, the land of pearls for which he was named. He had first heard of these legends in the hollow chants of his father and other men like him who worked in the mines, digging ever deeper into rock. He would join them soon.
The large stone-white barrels, dozens of them forming a wall at the edge of the river, were at least a kilometer behind them now. The etchings of human skulls and crossbones had almost vanished, except that for him they formed a monument of empty eyes, alive with crimson gases, like the acids that had burned craters onto his palms.
Over the years, the poisons had flowed secretly into the river with the monsoon rains. His punctured hand, strangely numb as he rinsed it, stirred up an exotic residue, the dark purples of wild flowers, like those his father used to bring home for his mother – or so he would imagine. The flowers, like most species of birds, were extinct now and so existed only in imagination. Jinju would later swear that it was a swallow that had been there watching over him.
He turned his gaze to the long bones of his brothers, running and tumbling into each other. His eyes, like those of the skulls, were the source of magical powers. They magnified the mud caking onto their blue veins, the smears of darkness looming under their eyes, threatening to overtake the dreamy spirits still flickering inside of them. He perceived both of them faintly but surely holding onto some notion of what should be possible. He whisked off his shirt and twisted the tattered fabric of it into rope. His younger brothers did not ask for much – just a few smooth pebbles for each of them, even if they were small, ones that would skip across the waters in the way they were supposed to.
The swallow flew to a batch of reeds ahead. Jinju planted the pickaxe in front of him, pretending not to see her, but still he could feel her luminescence surround him. He rose, standing tall, and turned towards her, his lips rolling up in defiance: yes, he knew, the river was no place for food.
He strode forward, sweeping his hands over the rocks in wide open arcs, like a king presiding over his people. Bracing himself for something (he did not know what), he tied the rope in knots, jamming them taut under his ribs. He crept up close to the swallow, gripping the pickaxe. He could see her splayed black claws clutching the reeds as she began swaying back and forth in steady beats. Locking his eyes onto hers, he called out to his brothers, and before his call reverberated into silence, the swallow sounded her refrain.
He thrust himself forward with all his might, and in the sonorous roar of a man, he called out, “Wait for me!” His arms and legs began beating the air like a flap of wings. From a distance, it might have looked possible that he was part bird and glorious. And then she took flight, leaving only broken bits of straw in her wake, the last of her warnings. He watched her disappear beyond the bridge. He remembered that he felt no pain then. Instead, whispering his brothers’ names under his breath, his voice sang out again in a terrible calm. He flew ahead of them gripping his lance. Even if they all died tomorrow, they would feast in the kingdom tonight.
Photo By: Denis Collette