It wasnt long before John decided he had gone far enough; he stopped, took stock of his surroundings, and noticed with a start of amazement that none of the trees were green; and that the sky had turned pale and yellow; and, far off, he could see a river that flowed in a broad swath cutting through fields of purple cane. People were there, near that river, bending over at the water, motionless. John started walking, picking his way carefully across the field, until the cane got so tall he could no longer see where he was going; and so he stopped, seeing before him only those tall, narrow shafts of purple cane. As he stopped there he was conscious of the hue of the day, of the haze that inhabited the air, and of the peculiar soundlessness of the day. Then he started forward. He was a young man, not easily tired or given to dismay, and he struggled through the cane until it was late in the afternoon and he was forced to stop a moment, wipe his brow, and once more take stock of the situation.
'There's no telling how much further to the river,' he thought. 'But I must go on—there's no assurance that I can find my way back home.'
So, in a moment, he started again. This time, after going a short distance, he heard a sound, a tiny wail, like a baby might make. It was the first sound he had heard that day. He started moving cautiously towards it. Then he heard a woman talking gently, soothing, and a strange, hoarse growl. John could not walk silently—the cane cracked and snapped, and flies rose to swarm in a cloud around his face. He was sweating now, the afternoon was hot, and the sting of the salt was in his eyes. The cane brushed against his arms, scratching and irritating. When he stopped, the flies attacked, landing on his face, in his sweat. The itch on his arms became unbearable. He couldnt stay still any longer—he crashed forward, through the cane, and heard, over his own sounds, other crashing noises, as if someone were running away from him. He lowered his head and flailed on; the cane broke, bent, fell beneath him, trampled to the ground. He followed the noises; they were going fast, but not as fast as he, and soon he heard curses, and again the wail. Finally their crashing noises stopped. John stopped too. He could hear panting beyond the wall of cane. Pollen, and the smell of cane, the heat, the sweat, the flies confounded his senses, so he could not be sure of the direction, but he pressed forward anyway. In a moment he was face to face with the three.
One was a woman; she had a baby in her arms. The third was a man, large, with a dark matted face. He wore a single length of cloth around his middle, and his chest was hairy and wet with sweat. He was breathing heavily, obviously exhausted, and, strong though he looked, could be no match at the moment for a younger man. John turned his attention to the woman. She was middle-aged, and her hair was damp and falling over her forehead, so he could not tell too well how she looked. She too was hot and tired, and frightened. But the baby was worse—red, choking, kicking in her arms, his skin full of bumps and irritations. John stepped forward and looked at the baby. The baby was going to die soon. There was nothing that could help him. John looked at the woman. Did she know that? She clung to the child, unable to protect, to help.
"You cant stay here," he said at last. "We shall have to go on, to the river."
She stared at him. The man's head lifted, dumbly.
John looked at the sun, to tell directions, and the sun was a hot haze boiling overhead. The cane rose upward, matting, thin. He started forward. He looked back. They hadnt moved. "Come on," he said. "Do you want to die?" He went on, not looking back, and after a moment heard them following.
They were a long time in the cane; the ground grew damper; he was hot, and could hardly bear the rasping touch of the cane on his arms. His shoes were muddy, and his pants dirty and freckled with flies. That was the worst of all, he thought, the flies that rose and swarmed and got into your eyes. There were flies hiding in the corners of his mouth; he could taste them, their tiny hard bodies, their whirring wings. Not once had he looked back; but the others were still following, he could hear their stumbling progress. The sky shadowed, the cane grew dark, but the air was no cooler. He no longer knew directions, for there were no stars, just clouds overhead. At last he called a stop, and they sat down together, on their haunches. The baby was still alive, but barely, cradled in her arms. The woman looked more woebegone than ever, but took off her blouse and fed the baby. The baby sucked for a while, then coughed, and white milk foamed along his lips. The dark man did not look at her. John watched the feeding with tired interest. The baby would be dead by morning. The woman buttoned her blouse back up. She looked up to see John watching her, but there was no emotion in her tired eyes.
After a while he got up.
"We have to keep going," he said. "We have to reach the river tonight."
It was late in the hot humid night before they came out of the cane, at the edge of the river. The water was swift and smooth, and when it met a rock, it flowed unbroken over and around. It made no sound. It was a silent, swift, dark river. For a moment John was afraid to enter it; he looked behind uneasily, at the girl and the man, and they too were staring at the water. The bank was deserted; on the other side could be seen the dark swell of the ground, and trees beyond. Slowly John took off his clothes. The cloth was limp and damp. He could smell his own sweat. When he was naked the woman came up to him, and handed him the baby, and he took it and felt its hot little body in his arms. It was dead already. At the river's edge, it was dead, so he laid it down on the mud and looked at the woman. She had forgotten the baby. She was tearing off her clothes, in a sort of agony, whimpering. Her eyes were glassy and unseeing. John heard a splash, beside him, and saw the other man already coughing and moaning in the water. He ducked his head, came up dark and drenching and blowing. In a moment the woman was in there too, her red welted body flashing, then gleaming with wetness. Slowly John followed them. The water crept up his ankles, his legs. The water was chilly and smooth flowing against him. The water was up to his chest. He went under, stretching his limbs, feeling the pleasure that was close to being agony. Everything was wet and cool and dark. The pressure of the river was against him. He came up, swam a few strokes, feeling the protest of his stretching soothing muscles. The flies had left him. The heat was ebbing. His body still itched, but now it was bearable.
After a while they all got out and stretched out at the river's edge and went to sleep.
He was the first to awaken, early in the morning, but they were all lying so closely together than when he stirred, the others awoke too. The man looked stronger, and more alert, and would bear watching. The woman was looking at him. There was mud on her face and on her legs. She seemed unaware of her naked body, of the openness of her thighs and the almost swollen largeness of her breasts. She still looked heavy and tired. The three of them stood up.
No one said anything. At last John went down to the river and washed, carefully, and then washed his clothes. The woman did the same. When she was finished he helped her out of the water, so her body brushed his. The dark man remained on the bank, watching.
"Where are you going?" John asked.
The dark man said nothing. She shot a glance at him, then said, "I dont know."
"What were you doing in the cane?"
"Nothing," the man grunted. He looked at the woman. "Come."
The woman did not answer him.
"Where is my baby?" she said.
John told her.
"I didnt want it," she said at last. "I'm glad it's gone."
He watched her closely, but saw only a vast relief.
"Yesterday," he said, "I saw some people here along the river. Perhaps, if we wait, theyll come out again, and we can find out where we are."
"Never mind that," said the dark man. "We have to go."
He took the woman's arm. She was still naked. She pulled away from him, but he just started dragging her along in the mud. She cast one fearful, pleading look at John, and he started after them. "Wait," he said, and the man turned. The man said nothing. He only raised one hand, large and dark. She lay silently in the mud. Her body was still red and irritated. She was not very pretty. But John came up anyway, near them, and said, "If she doesnt want to go with you, she doesnt have to. She doesnt belong to you."
"She's my wife," the man said. "That was my baby. She comes with me."
"No," John said. "She doesnt."
The man rushed forward and grabbed John by the throat. John threw his weight back, bringing the dark man over him. They skidded down next to the river. The woman had her hands at her cheeks, watching. The river was swift and still. The man was dark and grimacing above John. The solid huge hand lifted, and while John lay there limp and unable to move, descended. It was as if the whole sky descended, in darkness, collapsing around him. He couldnt see the woman any more. He felt the blow along his face. He skidded away into the darkness.
John awoke very suddenly, but there was still a gray buzzing in his head. The side of his head hurt. He sat up, glad he was still alive, and felt a little sorry for the woman. The baby was dead, but she hadnt wanted it. He remembered the hot red body. It had felt heavy and lifeless in his arms, like a stone. He looked around, and saw men sitting in a half circle around him. They were all small men, squatting on the ground, and they were all watching him intently. There was the cane on one side of him, behind the men, and the river on the other. The day was hot. The sun burned overhead through the sky. One of the men nodded, pleasantly. John nodded back. He wondered if they spoke the same language. They looked pleasant, smiling, fine men. John stood up, and they stood too. There were five of them.
"How do you feel now?" one man asked.
"Fine," John said, grinning. "I'm lucky I wasn’t killed."
All of them nodded. They all smiled.
The same man asked: "There were just two of them?"
"You mean the man and the woman? Yes, and the dead baby."
The man's eyes lighted up in interest.
"There was a baby?"
John nodded. "But he died."
He focused on the men. They stood around him, smiling. They looked a little like children, old children, with creased faces and small bodies. But there were five of them. He began to feel a little suspicious.
"Where did they go?" he asked.
"Not very far," said the man. "We have them."
The men's faces were old, but their eyes were childish. The sun beat down on their bodies, turning them brown, and in the slight wind the cane rustled. John looked at the river. On the other side were women with fat bodies, washing clothes in the water. They beat the clothes on the rocks. He knew what they were up to now; these little men wanted to capture him. He didnt know why—he thought it was foolish. They should leave him alone, to wander, to live. He should not have to fight—over the woman, or anything. He felt sorry about the woman, but wished he hadnt fought the man. Because that was foolish. That was just the way things were.
"What are you going to do with them?" he asked at last.
"We always kill strangers," said the man.
They were moving in closer; John said, "Dont you think that is foolish?"
"Not at all," they answered. "Will you come with us?"
He made his try, but they had him; more people came out of the cane, and the women went on washing, beating their clothes against the rocks, and the water swept smoothly over them, with a gloss like a mirror. He thought he had never seen a river so smooth and even. The men had little bodies, but there were many of them. Their arms clung, they tripped, they pummeled. They gloried in the battle against the bigger man. There was not much John could do. He fought until they had him down on the ground. They produced ropes, and bound his arms and legs. He thought he had killed one of them, and badly hurt others, but they had him tied and helpless. They stood above him, smiling and nodding, as if thanking him for the battle he had put up. He felt helpless and defeated. He thought the men must be mad. He wondered what they had done to the woman—the one with the red welts and the dead baby. Probably she was still alive. Perhaps he would see her again. He wished he believed in a god. There was nothing he could do.
They picked him up and carried him away.
NOTES: I wrote this story in about 1961. I was in Australia, staying with the parents of Elizabeth, my girlfriend. One day, while she watched, I began this story. It is actually an alternate version of a story I'd written years earlier. I dont know why I did this. This version is better than the earlier one, which now seems quite verbose. When I finished it I gave it to Elizabeth to read. She frowned. This is different from your usual stories, she said.
I think of this as one of my "wilderness" stories, a kind of post-apocalyptic series I did when I was quite young.