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July 7th, 2006

12:42 pm - The Journal of Ruth Pettier – 24th February, Frayed ends

I was wakened from a light slumber by the scrabbling of some large bird, picking its way across the slanting roof of the hospital. During the day I have witnessed these beady-eyed creatures - what I take to be a species of woodpecker, attempting to prise-up the red clay tiles, as if they are loose scabs of bark; mining the thin gullies in-between for hidden insects. Often there are several, all diligently working at different sections of the same building, in the process keeping it free from infestation.

My eyes slowly accustomed themselves to the muggy gloom of the otherwise empty ward; the sackcloth curtain, hanging down over the glassless frame, absorbing the bright glare of the morning sun; diluting the residue light to a thousand tiny pinpricks. I listened to the bird as it scrambled to gain purchase on the broken tiles. Soon afterwards, I heard the powerful downward beat of wings, carrying it past my window.

A moment later, a blast from the cargo ship’s horn roused the camp.

All traces of sleep banished, I pulled myself upright. Without leaving the bed, I got dressed, forcing my sweaty limbs into the damp, twisted garments. Poised on the edge of the mattress, I deposited my bare feet directly into my boots, stuffing the laces down the sides.

I left the room, shuffling weak-kneed, along the darkened corridor, towards the entrance of the hospital; passing through that undulating landscape of low moans and groans, which emanated from the mouths of the sick and the injured in the adjacent ward.

Ahead of me, a bright spike of light had penetrated several feet into the building – a sign that outside, the sun, was slowly inching towards a point where it would shine directly into the corridor, heating the cement floor and walls, until they became unbearable to touch.

The cargo ship was moored alongside the concrete quay, on the opposite bank of the river. Dark green netting had been draped over parts of the foredeck. In addition, a small portion of the aft hull had been painted in mottled green and brown blotches - this half-finished job lending the impression that the camouflage was a previous colour scheme that lay beneath the vessel’s flaking white overcoat. The redecoration had resumed at the front end of the ship, where wooden platforms, suspended from the ends of vine ropes, had been slung over the railings, and a frayed swatch of murky green paint applied to the bodywork.

Dr Moreira joined me on the veranda. I fumbled around in my pocket for my pencil and paper. Apparently, he was able to read my expression well enough to anticipate the question that I was about to pose to him.

“It has come a day early. You will excuse me Ruth, I have to prepare my orders.”

He hurried back into the hospital.

I made my way down the bank, my unlaced boots shifting about on my heels. By the time I had reached the bottom, they were beginning to chaff the skin on the backs of my ankles. It was only as I was ferried across the river that I laced them up properly; my efforts causing the small boat to rock unsteadily back-and-forth and earning me a sullen scowl from my pilot.

Outside the ramshackle, open-faced shack, where Jairo and myself had dined two evenings ago, I the approached the cook at his stove, indicating to him what I wanted, by pointing to the plates of other diners. I took a seat at an empty table beside the entrance positioning myself away from the kitchen smoke, which was blowing in a steady plume across the water.

The serving girl with the vine threading beneath the skin on the left side of her face, came over to my table. She squatted next to me, placing her hand on my cheek and turning my head; gently pulling down on the skin; in doing so stretching out my bottom eyelid. After a few moments she shook her head and muttered something under her breath.

Her examination was interrupted by a volley of rifle shots. We all turned in the direction of the gunfire, in time to see a troupe of monkeys scampering back into the jungle. A number of small bodies lay keeled over on their sides, next to some wooden crates. Further down the bank a firing squad of five men, were kneeling in the mud with their weapons aimed at the trees.

Long after everyone had returned to their meals and their conversations, I continued to stare into the jungle and the point where the monkeys had disappeared, imagining that I could see the end of the track; the one that, if followed, would take me far away from the deteriorating situation of camp and back to the simple, Spartan existence of the research station.

I was interrupted from my reveries by the arrival of my breakfast. The serving girl snatched an empty water jug from an adjacent table and disappeared into the shack.

Over these past days, as my mouth and throat continue to heal, I have noticed my appetite returning. I hunched over my plate, shooing away the flies with my free hand, while I wolfed down my food. When I next raised my head, to swallow the dregs of my gritty black coffee, I noticed Maggie Cotton making her way up the gantry of the ship, struggling with a large and evidently, very heavy suitcase. A pair of soldiers who had rolled a metal oil drum partway down the ramp, were caught off guard by her determined forward momentum and hastily clawed the barrel back onto the deck of the ship, allowing her free passage onboard.

Momentarily forgetting my speech impediment, I attempted to call to her. The only sound to come out of my mouth was a distressed “Mgggggggggtthhh.”.

A few heads turned in my direction and I was at once disgusted, not only by my failure to articulate myself, but also by the very sound itself, which seemed to convey a lack of intelligence or mental capability.

When I returned my attention to the ship, the two soldiers were still struggling with the metal drum. Evidently they had rolled it onto the gantry at an angle, its subsequent revolutions carrying partway over the side. The men were now attempting to roll it backwards, however it seemed that weight, gravity and gradient were all working against them. The drum tilted on the ramp and then, indifferent to the shouts and protests of its handlers, dropped over the edge, falling perhaps 30 feet; striking the quay with a hollow metallic thud. Immediately, a cloud of bright orange smoke engulfed the area of impact. In the midst of this fog, I saw the silhouettes of soldiers and heard their coughing.

The next instant the area around the ship became one of panic. Immediately after the accident I, along with many of my fellow diners, had risen from my seat and moved away from the orange smoke, which was now slowly spreading out from its point of origin in thin wisps. A pair of stretcher bearers rushed past me, carrying the convulsing body of a soldier. Every muscle in his face was clenched to bursting point. A tide of orange foam, frothed up from his mouth and nose, and seeped from the corners of his eyes. Other bodies were already being loaded into the small wooden boats and hastily ferried across the river.

Eventually the smoke subsided, leaving part of the quayside carpeted in a thick velvety dust. A group of men eyed it suspiciously from the relative safety of the riverbank, apparently discussing what should be done about it.

I crossed over the river and found Selton waiting disconsolately, knee deep in the water, as if he was thinking of wading all the way across. Nearby, Dr Moreira and his assistant were ministering to the injured men, directing some to be carried up the hill to the hospital. As I stepped out of the coracle, Selton met my eyes with a mournful stare.

“These men are dying, but he does not come down.”

I followed his gaze up towards the wooden church and the figure of Alan Cotton standing by its entrance, staring across the river towards the cargo vessel.

* * *

In spite of the accident, the ship unloaded quickly, departing no more than two hours later; long after the thirteen men, who had been enveloped in the orange cloud had passed away. Their bodies were doused in the river, before being laid out for burial along the waterline. Here they became the target of small crabs and wading birds, who picked at the loose edges of the tarpaulins, covering the bodies, concealing the rigid grimace of their death masks.

Later in the evening I sat with Jairo on the veranda of the hospital. His hands trembled as sipped at a mug of tepid coffee. In the distance we heard a muffled thud, so hard that it shook the camp. Soldiers stepped out of buildings and left their tents to see what had caused it. Those already in the open, pulled themselves upright and stared into the jungle. In the aftermath we thought that we could see a trail of smoke rising over the distant trees, but it was soon lost among the campfires and then in the encroaching darkness.

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June 25th, 2006

09:26 pm - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, 23rd February - “By his light I walked through darkness”

“At first I thought it was wine…”

In the small mission church, Alan Cotton was crouched down in front of one of the pews. Selton and myself stood nearby in the central aisle.

Since the executions Alan had seemed fraught; lacking in composure. It was as if the trials of recent days had caused him to lose some of the sense of purpose, which he had carried with him into the jungle. His white suit was dishevelled; ingrained with sweat and grime. The legs of his trousers had been turned a strange shade of orange, discoloured by the red soil of Mail Crossing. Several rusty brown smears, like dried bloodstains, daubed the breast of his jacket. His moustache had been left untended and was starting to grow out of shape. When he looked at me, there were dark rings circling his eyes; a glistening film of sweat covering his face. I wondered if I did not present a similar spectacle to him – yet another English soul for whom the jungle had proven too much of an ordeal.

The object of Alan’s attention was a maroon-coloured stain, marking the wooden bench seat of the pew in front of him. As we had entered the church I had noted similar deep red discolourations, each no bigger than an adult’s hand, covering the walls. After a while I had begun to notice other colours too, although these seemed to be confined to the sides of the church – the floor and the lower parts of the walls.

“…Then it occurred to me that it couldn’t possibly be wine, since it spoils so quickly in this climate and no one would bother to import any. Anyway, this morning I had a moment of inspiration.”

He lay one side of his hand on the pew so that it overshadowed the stain.

Selton and I shuffled forward, each of us staring down at the bench.

“It is too dark to see,” said Selton.

“The reason you can’t see it, is because it’s gone. It’s light from the confounded windows. There must be some kind of flaw in them. Look at the back of my hand.”

Indeed, when we looked at his hand, it was almost completely covered by a dark-red splotch. It was a strange light that seemed to deeply penetrate whatever it came to rest upon. On Alan’s skin it resembled the swelling from an insect bite or from some acute tropical infection.

Alan pulled himself upright. He slowly surveyed the church, as if familiarising himself with the extent of the problem.

“It looks perfectly dreadful… although I suppose that it can’t be helped.”

“We could move the seats,” said Selton. “Maybe we can stop the light.”

“To be honest Selton, if we were to take that course, I think we would be embarking on a fool’s errand. In any case I have noticed that the light does not keep to the same position. It moves around during the day. It must be dependant on the position of the sun.”

The three of us made our way back along the aisle, towards the exit of the building. In the doorway Alan paused and took one further glance at the interior of the church.

“Awful, simply awful,” he muttered, brushing a large mosquito from the filthy cuff of his suit jacket.

“It looks like blood,” said Selton. “It looks like there has been a murder here."

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February 22nd, 2006

12:51 pm - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 22nd – Family trees

Here in this jungle camp, beside the slow turn of the river, dusk is an ephemeral creature; at times glimpsed fleetingly in the irregular spaces between leaves or through the perforated gauze of a window screen; only occasionally caught out on open ground.

The sky smoulders and turns purple at the edges. A greyish half-light swamps the forest, dampening down the colours of the camp, merging the far-off detail of distant trees into a dark solid mass. Flights of bats rise up from their daytime roosts and take on airborne formations that map the fluid contours of the evening insect swarms. And, for a while, it seems as if time has quickened its step and what would normally unfold at the leisurely pace of the hour hand passes in only a few minutes.

Sitting on the veranda of the hospital, I was so absorbed in this precious final moment of the day that I did not notice Dr Moreira standing beside me, until I happened to turn my head in his direction.

“I thought that tonight I would take you out to dinner,” he said. “I know a wonderful place just across the river.”

We walked down to the water, which was higher up the bank than usual. Last night a heavy deluge had pummelled the camp, pounding some of the tents flat. It was rain that you could smell in the air long before it arrived. I had a fitful night’s sleep, listening to it thunder relentlessly onto the roof of the hospital; the occasional ripe droplet breaching the sackcloth, covering the window in my room, and splattering on the concrete floor. Outside, the raised voices of the soldiers roused from their slumber, fighting to secure their tents or abandoning them altogether to seek shelter indoors. I heard them shuffle into the corridor outside my room talking loudly amongst themselves until the doctor shouted at them to keep quiet.

At the river’s edge Jairo selected a wooden coracle. A milky-eyed ferryman
paddled us across the flat water. I watched his long bony arms - sunken skin clinging to skeleton and cartilage - clutching a wooden oar that also looked like it was made from bone and which he dipped into the river snagging small currents; the smell of hot food drifting over from the opposite bank, which we glided towards in a series of languid arcs.

In the few minutes that it took us to cross the water, the sky had turned completely dark. We approached the nearest of the tumbledown shacks - an open-faced, wooden structure that was collapsing on one side. A mismatched array of chairs and small tables spilled out onto the wet mud. These were illuminated by the sooty flames of slender candles which had been jammed into the necks of empty wine bottles; the green glass so covered in strings of dry white wax that they took on the appearance of cave formations.

Beside the entrance a native man was cooking what appeared to be large omelette on a hotplate. Using a metal spatula he deftly flicked it onto to a stack of old newspapers adjacent of the stove, using the spatula again to fold the omelette into a loose triangular shape. A young girl next to him wrapped it tightly in the top sheet of paper and carried it over to a table inside the shack.

Jairo spoke to the man in his native language. Their conversation carried back and forth in short bursts.

“It’s eggs, spring onions and tomatoes,” he said finally. “It’s like a pancake.”

We selected a small table, just under the overhang of the building. Jairo tested the chairs and sat down on the one that wobbled the most. A weak breeze blew hot smoke from the stove across our faces. I heard the sizzle of fresh eggs being poured onto the hotplate. A huge cloud of grey steam suddenly billowed out in every direction, flooding the shack. Then wind picked up again, and began to pull it in a steady train across the river; towards the water which lapped quietly at muddy shoreline, tugging at scraps of discarded kitchen refuse until they broke free and were carried off on the sluggish current.

A young native girl brought us our omelettes – thick, steaming, yellow/white sponges speckled with flecks of green and red, drooping out of their newspaper wraps. She put them down in front of us, left the table and returned again with a metal jug that was full of cloudy water. As she bent over and filled our two glasses I couldn’t help but stare at the tattoo on the side of her face. It was a design like a climbing plant, rooted in the corner of her eye, its limbs radiating outwards, some branching-off into smaller tendrils; other coiling in whorls that terminated in elliptical buds.

The girl, noticing my interest, beckoned towards me.

“Hih, Hih.”

She bent over the bottled candle, angling her cheek so that her heavily pockmarked skin was illuminated in the glow of the flame. I realised that the pattern on her face wasn’t an ink design at all. It was the shade of something solid, embedded beneath her skin, the pale brown flesh surrounding it, discoloured by a greenish bruise.

The woman suddenly up-righted herself and began to rigorously fan her cheek with one hand. Jairo made some comment and she laughed in response.

“It is plant, like a small vine,” he said. “Maybe you saw the buds. In July the flowers will burst out through her skin. She says the bees in her village offer her protection in return for the pollen.”

He spoke some more to the girl who had now become very animated. She stroked her cheek with the edge of one finger, then screwed-up her fist and made a rubbing gesture with it just above one eye.

“Okay,” said Jairo: “In her tribe after a person dies they cut the vine out of their face and replant it in the forest.”

The girl stared at me, her intelligent brown eyes gauging my reaction.

“When she was nine, her parents gave her some seeds that they had harvested from her grandmother’s tree. She rubbed them into the corner of her left eye - in her religion they believe that the left eye sees the past and the right eye sees the future. Now she can talk to her grandmother and ask her for guidance.”

The girl said something else and Jairo nodded.

“She says that her grandmother was a very wise woman. She had the power to cure… I think she means septicaemia – blood poisoning.”

He picked up his omelette and held it up in the air, one end sagging down towards his open mouth. He tilted his head back and began biting pieces off it. I adopted a daintier approach to my own, picking off small pieces with my fingers. The girl took our jug and carried it over to a line of covered water butts at the rear of the shack.

After we had finished our meal, Jairo gathered together the burnt leathery scraps of overcooked egg and screwed then up in the newspaper. He stood up, brushed himself off and then ambled over to the cook to pay him.

While he was away the serving girl, who I noticed had been throwing glances in our direction while we ate, returned to out table. She spoke directly to me; as did she pressed something into my hand.

I looked down to see what it might be and found a small folded over scrap of newspaper resting in my palm. When I opened it, a trail of tiny black seeds spread out along the crease.

“Cehreh!” said the girl, thrusting her hand underneath the paper.

I carefully folded it closed. Jairo had returned from paying for our meals and the girl spoke to him for a while. She put her thumb under her upper lip and tapped the roof of her mouth.

“She says these are the seeds from her Grandmother’s tree. You must rub them into your left eye…

…her grandmother knew the name of every plant in the jungle. If you listen to her she will tell you which fruits in the jungle are safe to eat.”

I nodded and thanked the girl. She smiled back at me.

As the doctor and I walked back towards the river, he said to me.

“I do not advise that you use the seeds on yourself. There are many health problems associated with this plant. Maybe you can use them in your research.”

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February 21st, 2006

09:21 am - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 21st - Two Birds

“Alan didn’t come home last night,” said Maggie. “He went to see the captain after he left here yesterday evening and then he didn’t come back.”

She clasped her hands together at her waist, her fingers overlapping untidily, fidgeting with one another; dried brown blood on the starched sleeves of her blouse. A patch of bright light, shining through the door of the hospital building, illuminated one side of her head making her chestnut hair look dead and lifeless.

“…And then, when I saw him this morning, coming out of the office with the captain and that awful lieutenant, I called to him and he didn’t even acknowledge me. And when I tried to go over to him, two of the soldiers ordered me to go back inside my tent – they actually pointed their rifles at me. They wouldn’t let me talk to my own husband.”

I was looking past her, through the door, my attention drawn towards an ominously large gathering of men, who were congregating on the muddy beach beside the red brown river. In among them I saw the white suit of Alan Cotton. He was lacking his usual upright poise and appeared to be staggering between of the scattered groups of soldiers, as if the purpose of each footstep was to redress the unbalancing effect of the previous one.

There was a sound of behind me. I turned around in time to see Dr Moreira emerge from one of the doorways, further along the gloomy, windowless corridor. He was dressed in his army uniform, a rifle slung over one shoulder.

“Ruth, you should go back to your room.” he said. “Maggie, you should go there too. I will arrange for someone to bring you tea.”

Duly provoked, Maggie’s fraught disposition suddenly composed itself into something more coherent and irritable.

“No, no… I’ve decided, I am going to talk to my husband. I just want to see my husband.”

She began to walk hesitantly towards the door of the hospital, apparently uncertain of her course of action; waiting for someone to either lend their support or question her decision. Happily Dr Moreira obliged. He took her firmly by the shoulder.

“Maggie, the situation today is extremely delicate. Your husband is there doing his duties as a minister. There is nothing that you can do at this point, but wait. Alan will come back to you once this is over.”

“Then I shall wait here. I shall see him afterwards, when he comes back this way.”

The doctor turned and addressed me:

“Ruth, do not feel that you are obliged to stay here because of your friend. I strongly advise that you return to your room.”

The three of us lingered in the corridor; none of us wished to be where we were, yet somehow each of us was keeping the other two rooted to the spot. I myself had no desire to stay, but felt unable to leave for fear that Maggie would do something foolish with no one around to stop her.

“I unfortunately do have to go,” said the doctor.

He walked past us and began to stride down the bank towards the soldiers.

Presently we saw the two young stowaways being escorted from the Office of Regional Affairs. They both had sacks pulled down over their heads and shoulders. Their hands and feet were bound in manacles. Three days of incarceration had left their clothes ragged and stained; the boys themselves appeared small and skinny in comparison to the soldiers around them.

“They’re just 13,” whispered Maggie. “I think one of them is 13. The taller might be a bit older…”

She ended her sentence with a sharp uptake of breath.

We watched for what seemed like an eternity as the pair shuffled down the bank, guided by an occasional light push from one of their guards, their bare feet unable to find traction on in the mud. Eventually one of the boys lost his balance and fell over, his legs suddenly shooting out from under him, while his back slammed onto the ground.

The soldiers waited for a moment, as if expecting him to get up under his own power. Eventually one of them roughly grabbed the chain linking the prisoner’s wrists, hauling him upright as if he was a piece of luggage. The boy began to shake violently. One of them men shouted at him and then pushed him forward; the procession suddenly jolting back to life, continuing at its pace funereal down towards the water.

When they finally arrived on the beach, the soldiers used the muzzles of their rifles to shepherd the two boys into a vacant spot a few feet away from the river. The crowd began to withdraw behind a row of six men who waiting with their rifles unslung, the shoulder stocks resting in the mud.

Alan was left standing alone on the shoreline, his entire upper body bent over. I thought that he might be vomiting but was too far away to tell. Having managed to draw himself upright, he staggered over to the nearest prisoner and appeared to be talking to him through the sack.

The other boy had turned so that he was facing away from the firing squad and was shuffling up the bank to the apparent amusement of some of the soldiers. I was reminded of a turtle I had once seen on a beach in East Africa and its futile efforts to escape the attentions of a pack of hyenas.

Having attended to the first prisoners Alan began to advance towards the other. Someone shouted what appeared to be an order and a solider ran forward and pulled him away, behind the firing line. The six men raised their rifles; the moment their guns were level with their shoulders, they fired, the shots still reverberating as the first boy crumpled to the ground.

In response to the gunfire, the surviving prisoner changed direction and hastened his shuffling, unaware that he was now walking back towards his executioners. The firing squad quickly re-cocked their rifles. As they were raising them, one man was still struggling with his weapon, his the final shot ringing out long after the others had sounded.

The boy buckled under the bullets, going down on one leg, staggering in a half circle, like a spinning coin at the point at which it exhausts its own momentum, before collapsing into the mud. After he had fallen I saw Dr Moreira run out from the crowd and push through the ranks of the firing squad. He knelt over the first prisoner for a moment, before quickly moving on to the second.

I heard him call out and saw him beckon with a raised hand. The next instant the Captain, who had been standing apart from the other men, was storming across the beach, angrily snatching the rifle from the man who had fired late. He stood over the fallen prisoner, holding the gun vertically, roughly halfway along its length, raising it into the air and then bringing the stock down hard onto the covered head of the boy.

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February 20th, 2006

01:31 pm - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 20th – Stuffed with rags

The two prisoners are being held in a ground floor corner room, in The Office of Regional Affairs. The room was obviously intended to be used as some kind of prison cell, as it is the only part of the building whose windows are barred with corroded iron. Since the incarceration of the two stowaways, wodges of sacking have been have forced between the bars, hiding what goes on inside from close scrutiny.

When Alan Cotton visited the boys on Sunday afternoon, he claims to have found them chained up in the corner, with rags stuffed in their mouths; fearful eyes nervously darting around the room - “like four agitated flies” is how Alan put it.

A ten foot strip of land between The Office of Regional Affairs and the hospital is all that divides the cell from the room where Dr Moreira sees his patients. When they are being interrogated no amount of padding will completely soak up the angry shouting, the pleading and the occasional screaming; all clearly audible.

I noticed that today the doctor has taken to visiting patients in their rooms. He also found excuse to leave the hospital to attend the funeral of the man who died last night from food poisoning - the result of eating bad crab meat. Over the past few days, I, along with all the other residents of the hospital have been privy to this man’s suffering; his rolling landscape of moans and groans. It is a terrible thing to say but, in the moments immediately after his death, I luxuriated in the hush that descended over the building. I daresay I was not alone in doing so.

This afternoon Maggie Cotton visited me on the veranda. We retired to my room and shortly after, Alan joined us.

“That Captain,” he said. “I honestly believe, he thinks we mean to break those boys out of their jail.”

“Yes, but Alan we must do something. Those poor boys.”

Maggie wound one lock of curly hair around her finger pulling it straight. I saw Alan looking with distaste at the fresh cuts on her wrist.

“I’ll go and talk to the Captain again. I’ll reason with him. We’re civilised people. He’ll understand that it serves no purpose to inflict any further misery on the prisoners.”

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February 19th, 2006

08:12 am - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 19th – The ark

Yesterday, the remaining pews were finally off-loaded from the tug boat; the vessel departing almost as soon as the last of the benches had been set down on the muddy shore of the river bank. It took a great number of men to help push the grounded prow of the tug back into the water.

After it was gone, the pews lay unclaimed on the beach. Gradually over the course of the afternoon most of them were carried further up the bank where they were divided into piles. I also saw a couple being floated across the river and later lined up along the quay, presumably to be used as waiting benches.

This morning gangs of soldiers began taking the pews into the concrete buildings. I sat on the veranda and watched as a procession of benches were carried into the hospital. After the fifth one had passed me by, I started to wonder where they were putting them all.

Later in the day Maggie arrived looking pale and fraught. She stood on the step biting the inside of her bottom lip.

“I suppose that you heard about all the commotion yesterday.”

I shook my head.

“They found two young boys stowed away in the hold of the cargo boat. The captain is saying that they hid there so that they could sneak into the jungle and join the rebels.”

The translucent shell of a crab’s leg was caught by the breeze; it tumbled across the concrete making a brittle, skittering sound.

“I know, I know, it’s completely ridiculous. Alan… Alan was asked to minister to them this morning. He said they had been beaten… quite badly beaten…

…Oh Ruth they are going to kill them. I am sure of it. They are going to kill them and they are just boys.”

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February 18th, 2006

10:10 pm - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 18th – Elocution lessons

“Ahh,” said Dr Moreira.

“AHH” he repeated. “Try to sound the letter.”

“ATH-FE,” I replied.

“AHH… AHH. It is the morning and you are breathing in the fresh air… AHH…AHHHHHHHHH.”

He pushed his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose, from where they had slipped. He leaned in closer, shining his torch deeper into my mouth, while I squinted into the beam.

Ath… bth… cth…

My speech impediment is caused by the ant fig leaf growing over the damaged tissue on the roof of my mouth. Unfortunately the leaf does not cling firmly to the palette. Instead it sags down in a spongy mass that also obscures the insides of my front teeth.

When I attempt to speak, my tongue catches on it, distorting my words – causing them to emerge barely formed. I find it extremely distressing to hear myself talk like this and prefer silence over the sound of my own voice. If I am honest it reminds me of a man employed as a caretaker at my old boarding school, who also suffered from a speech defect and had associated mental difficulties.

Dr Moreira has so far weathered my indolence and has been both persistent and extremely encouraging in his attempts to rehabilitate me. He believes that, with practice, I can adjust to the subtleties of the fig leaf and will eventually relearn the nuances of speech.

If only that were the only problem the leaf causes me. While I am asleep I find that it restricts the airflow in and out of my mouth. As a result I am frequently woken up by my own loud snoring.

I wrote on my notepad – ‘Dr, how much longer?’

He shrugged.

“Maybe July or August.”

My heart sank.

This afternoon I stepped outside in time to witness the aftermath of a scuffle, which had apparently taken place on the opposite side of the river, near to the supply boat. A larger than normal group of soldiers were gathered around the broken quay - the vestiges of crowd that was already in the process of dispersing. I saw two figures being dragged roughly out of the thong and half-pulled, half-shoved towards some nearby tents.

The Captain strode past the hospital veranda, struggling to buckle his belt, which was being pulled down by the weight of a holstered pistol. He appeared flustered and scowled when he caught sight of me.

“There is no mail for you again,” he said, as if he responding angrily to a question I had just that moment asked. “It’s not my damn problem.”

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February 17th, 2006

11:08 am - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 17th - One end of a loose thread

“I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but your breath has an extraordinary odour.”

I put my cup down in its chipped saucer and stared quizzically across the veranda at the woman sitting opposite me. Maggie, who has become adept at misreading my facial expressions, suddenly looked horrified at her lack of tact.

“Oh, I don’t mean that in a bad way,” she flustered. “- quite the contrary, it smells as though you have a mouthful of perfume. I assume that it’s the leaf?”

If I had been able to speak, I would have told her about the beetle I had accidentally breathed on the previous evening, only to watch it reel around on my bedside table, as if drunk. Eventually its staggering had caused it to fall over the edge, dropping onto the floor, where it lay on its back, apparently dead.

In recent days, Maggie has graduated from being a passing acquaintance to a somewhat overbearing and needy companion. My inability to speak has earmarked me as passive audience for what would ordinarily be her internal monologue. I don’t begrudge her my company since I am the only English-speaking woman in the camp and she has been kind to and considerate towards me. However, I am beginning to find her constant presence draining.

“Of course, Alan was a different man before he accepted the salvation of Christ. An English parish would never have suited him. Our posting abroad had been more of adjustment for me than for him. I just keep having to remind myself that God is testing me. He’s sent me where I’m most needed.”

Perhaps it was my own lack of tact, but I couldn’t kept help but glance at the scar tissue criss-crossing her butchered wrists, whenever they slid out from the sleeves of her blouse. Evidentially she noticed my interest.

“Oh these. Alan’s trying to make me stop. He says that they’ll get infected.”

She absentmindedly began to unbutton the cuff on one wrist, folding it back onto itself.

“Sometimes I forget that God loves me. I know it, but I don’t feel it sufficiently. In the past I’ve found it to be a good method for bringing that love back into focus.”

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February 16th, 2006

09:34 am - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 16th - The moment of truth

Alan Cotton had walked on ahead of our small party and had taken up station in front of the wooden church. He grasped the handles of the double doors, one in each hand. His grandiose attempt to pull them both open at once was thwarted by the uneven ground, which scraped against the wood. He had to get behind the door on the right and push it with his shoulder, while at the same time raising it up on its hinges.

He turned back towards us, his face flushed from the heat and the exertion.

“It will be better once we see to the landscaping,” he said apologetically.

Sunshine filtered into the building through the gauze of the sackcloth that covered the glassless windows; the light diffusing into a fuzzy glow that clung to the walls, leaving the core of the church in relative darkness. The wooden pews had been arranged in two columns of eight; the lectern poised on the right of a small stage at the far end. Lying down flat on the floor next to it, were the thin wooden crates that I had seen Alan carefully offloading from the tug boat the previous day.

“I have feel the holy spirit move through me.” said Selton. He spoke in slow, decisive English, methodically laying down one word after the other.

“I feel…” said Alan. “I feel the holy spirit moving through me.”

He strode along the central aisle, his hand running over the backs of the pews.

“I feel it too, Selton.”

Maggie followed close behind him.

“Alan, how many pews were there in the end?”

“I don’t know - just over sixty? I think the customs invoice said something like sixty three.”

“Well what are going to do with the others? The boat captain wants the rest of them taken off by tomorrow morning.”

“We’ll distribute them around the camp. They can chop them up and use them for firewood if they want.”

“Alan, they were a gift. We can’t just burn them.”

“Well, we’ll sort something out. Don’t worry about it now.”

He knelt down in front of the nearest crate.

“Now,” he said, “This is the moment of truth.”

He lifted the braced pine lid and laid it down on the floor next to him. From over his shoulder, I glimpsed a portion of a stained glass window, resting in a shallow bed of straw.

Alan began to work like an excited archaeologist. His hands brushed pieces of the packaging off of the glass, exposing a snowy landscape at the base of the window, then the legs of a trio of camels and finally the three wise men shown from an unusual front perspective - the man on the left pointing upwards at something out of the pane.

“It’s Siberian crystal glass,” he said. “Handmade in the Taiga… This is the first time I’ve seen it.”

We all gathered around him to admire the window, which, I have to admit, even to someone of my atheist leanings, was extremely beautiful.

“There is a belief in parts of Russia and China that the three wise men travelled to Bethlehem from central Asia. You can see here that they’re riding Bactrian Camels rather than Dromedaries.”

He looked up at us. Behind his neatly trimmed moustache, he was smiling broadly His eyes sparkled.

“You’re wondering where the star is? It will be in the window diagonally opposite to this one. This man will point across the church towards it… Maggie you appear to have some reservations.”

“It’s just a bit dull don’t you think,” said Maggie. “We don’t want to shut-out too much of the light…”

“That’s the beauty of this glass. It was made to absorb sunlight. It stays fluorescent after dark. In the Taiga they design their churches to be reservoirs of light - they get so little of it. Honestly my dear, when we set these in their frames, they will fill our little church with rainbows.”

He resumed his loving vigil over the window, unable to leave it alone; carefully picking stray pieces of straw off the glass.

“Actually I’ve just noticed it’s upside down. Selton, help me turn it over.”

The pair took the window by its top and bottom edges and raised it carefully out of the case. Seeing it from the side-on, I was struck by the thickness of it - perhaps just under an inch in depth. They tentatively turned it over in mid-air, then slowly lowered it back down onto the straw, allowing the weight of it to settle on the tips of their fingers, before withdrawing their hands.

“You know, I would quite like to see it in the light,” said Alan.

Selton, who was still kneeling over the window, prised his fingers back underneath the leaded frame, preparing to lift it.

“No, no, we’ll carry it out in the crate, its safer.”

Together they picked up the case. They shuffled along the aisle, holding it at their waists, with straight arms, as if it was a stretcher; Selton peering over his shoulder and, at one point, using his thigh to nudge the end a pew out of their path.

They set it down in the doorway and we all assembled around it. Alan took the arched end of the window and raised it into the air, until it had reached an angle where it was almost standing upright and had connected with the full glare of the sun shining through the open doors of the church.

Instead of reflecting the light, the glass appeared to absorb it, as if the rays were sinking into its structure - the midnight blue deepening in tone; the white glass of the snowy landscape becoming more opaque until it appeared to glitter with a sparkling crust of ice

Murky pools of colour began to collect on the floor of the building. As we watched, these blobs of light began to increase in sharpness and definition, gradually coalescing, composing themselves into an accurate if slightly magnified projection of the scene depicted in the window.

“Now, tell me that this wasn’t worth the money,” said Alan. “We’ll angle them in the frames so that they project onto the gaps in the floor. Or onto the opposite walls – whatever works best.”

He stood proudly beside the window still holding it upright with one hand; the wise man in the glass pointing west towards the river.

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February 15th, 2006

02:22 am - The Journal of Ruth Pettier, February 15th – Mud pox

Overnight, the mud banks on both sides of the river blistered into tiny cone shaped protrusions – this being the penultimate act of the spawning crabs, which swarmed out of the river a few days ago, while I lay recovering in a hospital bed. Having dug their burrows and retired underground they lay their eggs and expire soon afterwards.

By the time I had dressed and stepped out onto the veranda, flocks of parrots were already diligently breaking apart these artificial hills, plucking the bodies of the exhausted and dying crabs from their fresh graves; hooked beaks flinging them around like broken puppets; other birds taking flight, carrying them off into the jungle.

Dr Moreira came out and joined me on the front step.

“How are things with you, Ruth?” he asked.

I nodded an affirmative.

A gang of soldiers passed in front of us, picking the partly eaten and dismembered bodies of the crabs out of the mud and dropping them into a tin bucket.

“Food poisoning,” said Dr Moreira.

“Over 30 cases in two days. One man is very seriously ill.”

He remained with me for a while longer then walked silently back into the hospital.

I stayed out on the veranda. Shortly before noon, the rallying bell sounded, stirring the camp into cautious activity.

A tugboat, nosed around the bend in the river. The open hold was piled high with wooden church pews, heaped carelessly on top of each other. As the boat ploughed a course down the middle of the channel, causing ridges of cream-coloured spume to wash up on the shore, soldiers began to run down the banks towards it. I followed at my own pace and was able to observe the occasional cluster of crab burrows that had yet to be disturbed by predators or flattened by human footsteps.

The tugboat pivoted in the centre of the river, the aft swinging out, only to be caught by the over-revving engine which arrested its momentum so that it hung motionless for an instant, the propellers biting into the water, sending the blunted prow of vessel surging up the bank where it beached itself in the soft mud.

Two men, who had been perched on the edge of the boat jumped down into the shallow water. They took the ends of a pair of wooden planks, that other men onboard had extended over the sides, and secured them in the mud to make a sloping gantry. As soon as it was in place a number of soldiers embarked onto the tug. They scaled the mountain of pews and commenced the delicate task of dismantling it.

The freed benches were passed down the pile and then over the front of the boat into the raised hands of the crowd, who sent them back over their heads to the margins, where they were carried away.

A man in a white suit, who I took to be the mission worker - Alan Cotton – emerged from the cabin of the tug. He appeared to be wiping his hands with an over-sized handkerchief. Immediately he turned his attention to a stiff procession of five soldiers who were heading up the hill, carrying an upturned pew above their heads like a Chinese dragon costume.

“Selton! Let’s lay them out here first. I want to get an idea of how many we can fit in before we take them up to the church.”

The men shuffled around awkwardly, with the pew still on their heads and trudged back towards the river.

The soldiers had begun to arrange the offloaded benches into two columns on the bank, with an aisle in between. A gang of men, half carried, half dragged a heavy oak lectern to the front and positioned it roughly in the centre so that it was facing towards the pews.

Nearby, Maggie Cotton had set up camera on a tripod and was ushering men into the seating. Soldiers were still trickling down the bank in dribs and drabs. Others were making their way across the river in commandeered boats. In spite of the great effort expended in offloading the tug, the open hold was still heaped with a great quantity of pews.

“Smiles everyone!” called Maggie.

“Say cheese!”

The camera flashed.

“Okay, everyone stay there. One more.”

As she set about changing the flashbulb, she caught sight of me, standing apart from the crowd, further up the bank.

“Ruth come and be in the next photo.”

My reluctance must have shown on my face because she abandoned the camera, took me by the arm and marched me over to a pew, three rows from the front.

“Come on there’s plenty of room. Ronald will move up. Come on boys shift up a bit – actually no - Ruth you sit in the middle. Everyone let Ruth past…”

The men stood up, allowing me to squeeze past them. As they sat back down the pair nearest to me moved aside to create a narrow gap on the bench just wide enough for me to wedge myself into.

Maggie resumed her position behind the camera and took another photograph.

“Thank you everyone. That was Marvellous. Thank you.”

Some of soldiers began to return to other parts of the camp or went back on board the boat. Others appeared more reluctant to move and lounged around on the pews.

Alan Cotton was supervising the off-loading of some thin wooden palettes, which he was making the men lay very carefully on the ground.

Maggie packed-up her camera and carried the folded tripod over to some wooden crates.

“We’ve finally got bibles in Portuguese,” she said. “We’ve got some in English too. Ruth, do you have a bible? There’s plenty to go around.”

She lifted a black book out of one of opened the crates. As she did, the sleeves of her blouse slipped down past her wrists, revealing a criss-cross of faded purple scar tissue, overlapped by the pronounced bruising and swelling of more recent injuries.

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