THE NEW WORLD
The morning was a lighter shade of night. Mau felt as if he hadn’t slept at all, hunched up among the broad fallen leaves of a coconut tree, but there must have been times when his body and mind just shut down, in a little rehearsal of death. He awoke or maybe came alive again with the dead gray light, stiff and cold. Waves barely moved on the shore, the sea was almost the same color as the sky, and still it rained tears.
The little river that came from the mountain was choked with sand and mud and bits of trees, and when he dug down with his hands, it didn’t flow. It just oozed. In the end Mau had to suck at the rain as it trickled off leaves, and it tasted of ashes.
The lagoon was a mess of broken coral, and the wave had ripped a big hole in the reef. The tide had changed, and water was pouring in. Little Nation, which was barely more than a sandbank on the rim of the lagoon, had been stripped of all its trees but one, which was a ragged stem with, against all hope, a few leaves still on it.
Find food, find water, find shelter… these were the things you had to do in a strange place, and this was a strange place and he’d been born here.
He could see that the village had gone. The wave had sliced it off the island. A few stumps marked the place where the longhouse had stood since…forever. The wave had torn up the reef. A wave like that would not have even noticed the village.
He’d learned to look at coasts when he’d been voyaging with his father and his uncles. And now, looking up, he could see the story of the wave, written in tumbled rocks and broken trees.
The village faced south. It had to. The other three sides were protected by sheer, crumbling cliffs, in which sea caves boomed and foamed. The wave had come from the south of east. Broken trees pointed the trail.
Everyone would have been on the shore, around the big fire. Would they
have heard the roar of the wave above the crackle of the flames? Would they have known what it meant? If they had been quick, they would have headed up Big Pig Valley, to the higher ground beyond the fields. But some of the wave would already have been roaring up the eastern slope (all grassy there, nothing much to slow it down), and they would have met it pouring back on them.
And then the rolling cauldron of rocks and sand and water and people would have broken through the west of the reef and into the deep water current, where the people would have become dolphins.
But not everyone. The wave had left behind fish and mud and crabs, to the delight of the leg-of-pork birds and the gray ravens and, of course, the grandfather birds. The island was full of birds this morning. Birds Mau had never seen before were squabbling with the familiar, everyday ones.
And there were people, tangled in broken branches, half buried in mud and leaves, just another part of the ruined world.
It took him a few long seconds to realize what he was looking at, to see that what he had thought was a broken branch was an arm.
He looked around slowly and realized why there were so many birds, and why they were fighting. He ran. His legs took him and he ran, screaming out names, up the long slope, past the lower fields, which were covered with debris, past the higher plantations, too high even for the wave, and almost to the edges of the forest. And there he heard his own voice, echoing back from the cliffs.
No one. But there must be someone…
But they had all been waiting, for someone who was no longer a boy but had yet to become a man.