She hates the darkness, fears it. She makes a sound, not sure whether it’s a sob or a laugh. She stifles it as she feels the small, damp hand twitch in hers, steadying herself with a deep breath, then another. She must not lose control. But she is suffocating. The air is fetid, pressing against her, smothering. Her body is covered with perspiration and her bones ache. She caresses the hand on her lap and turning sideways, bends, brushing her lips against the soft cheek.
How long have they been here? Hours, days? She shifts slightly, painfully and the hand tightens in hers. There has been no sound for a long time, not even the scampering of rats or mice, or whatever the creatures are that they share the darkness with. She shudders and closes her eyes, remembering.
The village had been a somersault of panic and dread for months. Life suspended, people waiting, sun shining. The days and nights passing in a slow tumble of light and shadow and heat and shade. Rumours scrambling over each other like living things, each one more terrifying than the last. The villagers sweltering in unbearable heat as each day passed and still, nothing happened. But they lived with the terror: – waking, eating, sleeping, working, pushing the perspiration from their eyes and staring at the empty dirt road leading to the distant north.
At last, it came, as they had known it would. She was feeding rice to the child when she heard it. At first, she thought herself mistaken, deceived by months of imaginings and false alarms, and she stopped, spoon halfway to the child’s mouth. But no, there it was again, a series of booms like muffled drums, coming from the dirt road, an indolent serpent winding itself back all the way to the city, several days trek away.
The child’s eyes widened, the pupils darting sideways, but made no sound. Strangely, for a long moment, there was no sound anywhere. It was as if the village had been sucked into the very atmosphere itself, giving it the chance to take a last collective breath before being spat out, defenceless, puny, against the approaching madness.
From outside the open window, voices, an avalanche of voices, shrill, rapid, urgent. In the room, she could smell it, the terror, the helplessness, the inevitability, and as she laid the rice on the blood red tongue of the child, her hand trembled.
Now in the darkness, she prays for courage, but fears her God is far away, powerless to help them. Has abandoned them, even. She pushes the thought aside but it lingers, like a mist coiling itself into her mind, settling there, taunting, laughing.
She feels the child move beside her and clamber onto her lap. Wincing, she strokes the hair, damp, smelling of stale sweat and begins to croon softly. It is a rhyme her mother used to chant to her as they played games in the wood when she was very young. Shouts of laughter, rising in rhythm with the words, her mother swinging her round and round and she, squealing with happiness.
Hey ho, tipsy toe
Turn the ship
And away we go…
Thousands of miles and a wide ocean ago …
Her eyes jerk open. The child stiffens on her lap but remains silent. She hears a door burst open somewhere on the corridor outside, volleys of shouts, marching feet and a storm of voices, high pitched, alien. She swallows and puts the child gently from her, forcing her body upright. Her legs are shaky and she staggers, praying that she won’t fall, that she will be strong. She reaches for the child’s hands, gripping them – feels the small body trembling.
The knob turns, roughly, uselessly. The strange voices, high, excited, a crash against the door. It doesn’t budge. Then, more shouts and grunts, the door judders but still holds. It is only a matter of seconds, she knows that. She pulls the child closer, deeper into her side The wood is splintering now, creaking like an old arthritic knee joint. Not long now, not long.
Her lips move above the child’s head and the words come softly…
Hey ho, tipsy toe,
Turn the ship
And away we go, go go..