Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (3 page)

Ah, the pleasure I had, killing him. The richness of the smell in the forest, after the rains. The birds celebrating the new weather. How the life came out of him in thick slow bubbles as I kneeled on his shoulders to drown him in the brown water. And then I poured the rum on him and put the bottle in his hand.

This was years later. But for me time is folded, like cloth.

We were given clothes. Breeches and a shirt. It was stiff, the shirt, and harsh on my body until my sweat softened it. Then we walked in chains through the baking crowded streets of stone back to the edge of the cliff. Climbing down was worse than the climbing up had been. Abela went first. I tried to look only at his back because I was afraid the fainting sickness would take me. But halfway down I saw that at the foot of the cliff there was a great quarrel of the black birds. They fought and lifted and fell again, too many to count. And when at last we got to the bottom of the road I saw the reason for their business. A body, one of ours, lay burst in a gully and they were tearing at it. The eyes had gone and the face was a red mash. I felt a coldness in my blood, which frightened me. Later this coldness would be my power, but I did not know it then.

Again we were put on a boat. It was difficult, because they would not release us from the chains and we had to climb down an iron ladder with our faces to the wall. The boat was not much longer than a war canoe, but wider. It had a small sail, bundled on the mast like the white funeral clothes on a thin old woman. Four black men, two on each side, holding oars. At the front a white man with black fur on his face sat watching us, a gun across his folded legs and another one beside him. With his arms he told us to sit.

We waited a long time while things we did not understand happened. Then Morro climbed down the iron ladder, shouting up at people who stood above us. Sacks and bundles were handed down with a great amount of fuss and argument. The boat rocked and banged against the wall. Morro at last sat himself in a shelter made of cloth at the back of the boat. He had a glass bottle in his hand, half full of golden liquid.

At first the men rowed the boat. Then we passed a tongue of land and the wind and the waves grew. Sprays of water like thin rain landed on our skins, and the boat shuddered. I saw that Abela was afraid. The four men took their oars from the water and laid them down, then two of them untied the cords around the sail and it opened with a sound like thunder-crack, but softer. The boat swung and tipped. Abela hung his head between his knees and groaned. Morro shouted orders and pulled at a beam of wood fixed to the back of the boat. The sail filled with wind, and it was as if a great hand lifted us and we flew over the water. Morro drank from his bottle and then, amazing me, he began to sing.

Our flight across the sea slowed. The sail rippled and banged. Morro called out, and the oarsmen pulled on ropes. The sail swung and filled its belly again. The boat leaned. The waves now came from behind us, and broke into small pieces and ran away. I began to see sticks and leaves and sometimes big fruits drift past us, and then thickening streams of different-coloured water. When I saw forest on both sides of the boat, I understood. We were on a river. A wide, slow, green river.

My thoughts struggled in my head like a hooked fish. I wanted to believe I was coming home. Perhaps I had been in dream time, taken on a vision journey so I could receive the teachings of the dying pai. And now I was waking, returning to share the warning stories of what I had seen. Or perhaps the white men’s ship had sailed all the way round the bowl of the world, back to the beginning, and just beyond the next bend I would see my people waiting to greet me, glad that I had passed my manhood ordeal.

The sail finally slumped and died. The men lashed it into bundles again and bent to their oars. I looked at Abela and saw that he too was full of wonder, and that home thoughts had tricked him, also. Because tears lay in the hollows below his eyes. How cruel hope is, and what a sly hunter!

 

I
N THE AFTERNOON
of the second day the river changed its mood. I had slept through most of the morning so that the ache of remembering would not go on. I saw that although we seemed to be still in the same place, the water had coils in it and a rougher skin. The sky was grey like light shining on a knife. I smelled rain coming. Ahead of us, small islands covered in low bushes divided the river. I remember thinking it would be a good place to fish. Now the men broke their rhythm to let the river carry the boat closer to the trees. Then they would dig deep into the water, their muscles hard beneath their skins, and we would swing out again. They had good skill. But Morro had been rum-drunk the night before, and sat slumped with his arm on the steering beam, looking as if he had eaten bitter fruit.

We were close to a low island made of sand and small stones when the rain came down on us. It was good steep rain, and I lifted my face to let it run into my mouth. Then something punched the bottom of the boat. The men lifted their oars and called out. Everything tipped. I thought of the terrifying Big Mouth that walked underwater in Loma’s river, and fear rose in my throat.

But it was not that. We had wandered from the deep water, and the belly of the boat had run onto the soft floor of the river. It was Morro’s fault, and he tried to hide his shame inside anger. With shouts and kicks he drove us to one side of the boat while the oarsmen used their oars like poles on the other side. It seemed to work. The stern came free and drifted out, but then it was seized by the current. In a heartbeat, the boat swung round, its nose still stuck in the mud. Morro roared and fell upon the steering beam, but it was too late, and the oarsmen who now rushed to our side were blocked by our bodies and all was a confusion of arms and legs and chains. Now we were pointing back the way we had come, and in the grip of the river. Then another great blow to the belly of the boat and it stopped again. The gun man stumbled and would have fallen on top of us if he had not wrapped one arm around the mast. I looked down into the water and saw swirls of mud and dark tangles of underwater grass. The only sounds were the hiss and prickle of the rain falling onto the river.

Morro stood up. Water dripped from his chin and beak. He kicked the boat and said the same word many times.
Mierda
,
mierda
,
mierda
. The same word he used for us.
Shit
.

Morro looked down at us with his bloodstained eyes. He spoke, but not to us, because the gun man replied. We knew Morro did not like the answer because he roared the same words again. The gun man lifted his shoulders, then opened a box and took out a hammer and a thick iron pin. He gave them to Morro who stooped and seized Abela’s arm. He laid it on the edge of the boat, then used the hammer and the pin to drive the bolt free of the iron bracelet on Abela’s wrist. The chain fell away. Abela was now divided from the rest of us. Strangely, I felt a kind of sadness. Then Morro took my arm and used the hammer and pin to free me from the next man. Abela and I looked up at Morro trying to understand his shouts and signs. We could not. The rain was thick now and cloaked his words and everything around us. It seemed that he wanted us to stand, so we stood. He showed his teeth and pushed us and we fell backwards into the water. It smacked us with a soft warm hand, like a mother.

The boat was heavy, not like my people’s boats. Abela and I heaved at it with our hands and shoulders while Morro cursed down on us. The water was up to our armpits and the mud ran away beneath our feet. The oarsmen pushed against the river bed and signalled strength and courage, but we could not understand their words, and sometimes when we moved to a new position we sank deep and could find nothing to stand on. I worried because I knew the full strength of the river was waiting to carry the boat away like a leaf.

It happened suddenly. The bow swung out. I looked up and saw the gun man’s face pass above me, his mouth a red hole in its fur. Then there was nothing but water beneath me and the great weight of the boat sliding onto me, forcing me under. I sucked in a breath, saw Abela vanish, then I was in almost-darkness.

I learned then that the spirit of this river was not like Loma. It had a savage playfulness and its water was full of strong thin fingers. They snatched and dragged at me when I had kicked free of the boat’s shadow, and it took all my strength to escape them and climb into the air. The boat was already a spear-throw away from me. I heard shouts through the rain, saw Morro crouched at the stern, his arm raised, saw the oarsmen struggling to turn the boat into the current. I spread myself in the water and worked my legs. The clothes made me heavy. I thought that death and freedom were both close to me but I could not choose between them. Then I thought of Abela, and I lifted myself and turned this way and that but I could not see him.

When I was facing the boat again it was much closer, as if by some magic. A snake fell from the air and hit the water close to me. A rope. I reached it and held it, turning on my back to breathe what air there was between the river and the rain. I felt something hard and warm strike my legs, and I cried out, choking water.

Abela rose up close to me with death in his face. He may have known me, because he raised his arm with the iron bracelet on it. I tried to reach him with my hand but I could not and he was gone.

I pulled myself along the rope until hands grasped me, and then I was kneeling on the floor of the boat. The oarsmen had steadied it now, holding it skilfully into the current. Morro and the other white man were staring into the rain. The four chained men looked at me with eyes like moons. Then Morro shouted and pointed. The river and the rain were green smoke and grey smoke. Close to where they met and melted I saw something black for a moment. A head and a raised arm. Or the branch of a drifting tree that vanished.

The two white men shouted and snarled at each other. Morro seized the gun man by his shirt and raised his fist, but the gun man pulled away and went to the front of the boat, kicking me out of his way. I fell against the legs of the oarsmen and wanted to stay there and sleep or die. But I was taken by the front of my shirt and pulled up. Morro’s face was close to mine. It was like the mask of an evil spirit with the hair painted on and yellow teeth in the twisted mouth and some terrible animal looking through the eye-holes. He howled at me, then before I saw it coming his fist struck my face. My head filled with noisy light and the brown taste of blood flooded my mouth. I fell to my knees and when I put my hand to my face I knew that my lip was in two parts.

The rain stopped late in the day. The sun returned, a ball of red fire hanging low above the river. So when I saw Santo Tomas for the first time, the big white house on the hill seemed stained with diluted blood, like my clothes.

There was full darkness when the boat reached the dock, and men with flaming torches stood above us. I climbed up towards them in chains and began another life.

Two: A Guide to San Juan

F
ROM WHERE PAUL
Faustino stood there was possibly the best view that San Juan had to offer. Which, in his opinion, wasn’t saying much. Many of the old colonial houses around the steeply sloping plaza had been restored, or at least given a coat of paint. Confectioner’s colours, mostly: candy pink, pistachio green, marzipan yellow. The blue and white bell towers of the Church of Our Lady of the Good Death were quite impressive in a doll’s house sort of way. And because the Old City had been built at the top of the cliff, you couldn’t see the squalor, ancient and modern, of the port far below. Beyond the tumble of rooftops and churches there was only the blue division into sea and sky. Photographed from here, San Juan wouldn’t look too bad; which was why, Faustino realized, this was the view that featured on ninety per cent of the postcards you could buy in this otherwise miserable hole.

Faustino’s unfavourable opinion of the city of San Juan had been formed long ago. It had nothing to do with the fact that right now he had an iron collar around his neck, iron manacles around his wrists and ankles, and was fastened to a wall by three stout iron chains. The other members of his tour group – two gay Swiss men, a Spanish couple on honeymoon, three sombre African-American Baptists and four intense Japanese – took photographs of him. The guide continued his spiel.

“The terrace we are standing on is called the Old Slave Market. However, the truth is slightly more complicated. For over two hundred years, San Juan was the centre of the slave trade in South America. The majority of the houses around this plaza were involved in the selling of slaves. Most of them had walled yards in which slaves were displayed and offered for sale. Only one of these yards still exists, and that will be the next stop on our tour.

“The slaves sold in these houses were mostly women and children, and most were second-hand. Usually their owners did not want to keep them because they were not capable of doing the hard manual work on the sugar-cane plantations or tobacco farms. They were not economic. Or perhaps they were troublesome slaves who had run away and been recaptured. They were private sales. Only slaves fresh from Africa were brought up to the terrace for public auction and chained to the wall like this gentleman here.”

Faustino tried to bow ironically but the iron collar bit his throat.

The guide had an identity badge clipped to his shirt pocket –
EDSON BAKULA
– with a small photograph that did not do him justice. He was, Faustino thought, possibly the most handsome young man he had ever set eyes on. Beautiful, actually; but the habits of a lifetime made Faustino shy away from the word. The truth was, though, that only the guide’s good looks could have persuaded Faustino to make such an exhibition of himself. He would never have allowed himself to be chained to a wall by anybody
plain
.

“They were chained like this for two reasons. One was that they were not trusted. It was widely believed that all African men were warriors capable of killing with their hands and feet in ways unknown to white people. This was not true, of course. The second reason was that, after they had been bought, these men were made to witness the terrible punishments that took place in the Pillory, the square in front of us. And it was thought that seeing these sights might make them difficult to control.”

The Swiss with the shaved head now asked a question.

Edson Bakula said, unsmiling, “No, they were not entirely naked. The Catholic priests would usually insist that the private parts of the slaves were covered, in case the women in the crowd became…” He was stuck for a proper word.

Faustino croaked, “Inflamed?”

“Yes, perhaps,” the guide said, with some slight hesitation. “
Inflamed
. Thank you, Señor. Now, I think it is time you were released.”

Forty-five minutes later, when the group emerged from the Church of Christ the Redeemer and dispersed, Faustino backtracked to the Pillory and found a bar that claimed to have air conditioning. The tour guide’s rather too vivid descriptions of the whippings and maimings that had taken place in the square had left Faustino feeling both queasy and empty. A cold beer and a toasted sandwich were called for. The bar also sold newspapers, and he bought three: his own paper,
La Nación
; the regional tabloid,
El Norte
; and the local weekly,
Voz de San Juan
. He took them to a table at the back of the room and spread them out. All three, of course, featured prominently the story that had been dominating the news for the last seven days: the sensational and mysterious disappearance of Ricardo Gomes de Barros, otherwise known as El Brujito.

Voz
had the headline
BRUJITO: THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
and a photo of the eighteen-year-old prodigy celebrating a goal. The article recapped the story so far. After missing a penalty during Deportivo San Juan’s cup semi-final against unfancied Atlético, Brujito had been substituted. He had gone straight to the dressing room, apparently in “a state of deep dejection”. At the end of the game – which DSJ should have won but, “in a shock upset”, lost – the disgraced players returned to the dressing room to find that Brujito had vanished. At first it was assumed that the young star had been too shamed by his performance to face his teammates or, perhaps, too afraid to face the wrath of his manager, Victor Morientes. But DSJ became extremely worried when, after two days, they had failed to make contact with their player, and had alerted the police. Now, a week later, there was still no trace of Brujito, despite the fact that the police had “explored every avenue of investigation”.

The rest of the piece was padded out with background stuff and quotes. Morientes was “baffled and deeply concerned”, while the chief of San Juan’s Criminal Investigations Department was “deeply concerned and baffled”. Gilberto da Silva, the Deportivo chairman and owner, was “unavailable for comment”. No surprise there, Faustino thought. It was his wife, Flora, who did the talking. And wore the trousers, for that matter. But it seemed that on this occasion she had nothing to say either.

Faustino’s sandwich arrived and he scanned
El Norte
while he ate. The front page consisted almost entirely of a headline in a huge typeface:
BRUJITO RANSOM DEMAND A HOAX – POLICE.
For some reason, the colour photo that ran down the page was of a nubile girl wearing a bikini made, apparently, from three postage stamps held together by strands of cobweb. Faustino studied it for some time and then turned to the story, which was continued on page three. It seemed obvious to him that this kidnap stuff was what his boss called “life rafting”: something thrown in to stop a good story from sinking when there was nothing new to keep it afloat. So he was surprised when he turned finally to
La Nación
, where the Brujito affair had been relegated to the bottom of the front page, below the lead story which featured the latest atrocity in the Middle East. The piece was captioned
RANSOM DEMAND FOR MISSING SOCCER STAR
. The byline read:
From Maximo Salez in San Juan
. Faustino groaned aloud, but read the thing anyway. Then he sat brooding, pinching his lower lip with his fingers.

It was a pain in the rear end, to put it mildly. Here he was, the senior sports writer for the country’s biggest paper, the best – no point being modest about it – football journalist in the business. And here was this Brujito story, the biggest story since the World Cup. A perfect Paul Faustino story. He was even here, in godforsaken San Juan, right where it was all happening. But he wasn’t covering it. Couldn’t cover it. Because he was on leave, researching a book he wasn’t sure he could write.
Keeper: The Autobiography of El Gato
“as told to Paul Faustino”. A great man, El Gato, certainly the best goalkeeper – or ex-goalkeeper, now – the world had ever seen. But also maybe a liar. Also maybe a nutcase. Mind you, the money…

Faustino had been staggered, alarmed even, by the amount the publishers had offered him. The equivalent of two years’ salary, upfront, before he’d written a word. He’d taken it, of course. And agreed to deliver the book in six months. Dear God. He lit another cigarette. Nope, he’d have to leave the Brujito story alone. Leave it to halfwit semi-literate hacks like Maximo Salez, and morons who used phrases like “shock upset”. Damn!

Faustino looked at his watch: not quite noon. Now that his interview with Cesar Fabian had been put back a day, an empty afternoon yawned ahead of him. He ought really to visit the Park, that swathe of preserved forest where Gato claimed to have seen a ghost. But he didn’t fancy the trek out there, not in this heat. There were the famous churches, of course; San Juan was stuffed with them. Those old slave owners sure loved to build big churches. Amazing what you could do with a bad conscience and plenty of cheap labour. But to hell with churches. Monuments to dread, all of them. If he wanted to depress himself thinking about sin and the insignificance of human life he could do that right here, without getting off his backside. Two more beers and another read of the newspapers would do the job.

Maybe some sea air, then. Yes, why not?

Other books

HandsOn by Jaci Burton
The Last Christmas by Druga, Jacqueline
Romancing the Holiday by Helenkay Dimon, Christi Barth, Jaci Burton
Obsession by Debra Webb
Castle Murders by John Dechancie
The Uninvited by Liz Jensen
A Crazy Day with Cobras by Mary Pope Osborne