The tsunami of December 26, 2004, left millions dead, homeless and destitute along coastlines around the Indian Ocean. There was an outpouring of reactions, many in a creative way. One such project has been Higher Ground (edited by Anuj Goy al), a recently launched anthology in the U.K., with the proceeds going to charity. We reproduce in full, `Fire Stones' by Eoin Colfer, set in Nicobar, and one of the 16 stories in the book.
"First the earth shakes, then the mountain wave comes. We must go."
NATURE'S FURY: The devastation at Car Nicobar Island after the killer waves struck.
I REMEMBER thinking what a beautiful sight. It was just as Papa had always said, God is in the water.
First came the earthquake, then the sea retreated, almost to the horizon it seemed. But now it was coming back.
The wave was high and square with a snowdrift of white foam at its head. It was the biggest wave that I had ever seen, but not so big that I would run away. I had turned thirteen and was not easily scared. The wave would break on the shore, maybe even strand a few Bluefin in the sharp grass. I could return home with dinner. Mama would wrap the fish in palm leaves, bake it and serve it with rice cooked in coconut oil. I rubbed my stomach and smiled.
But then I remembered. Mama would not cook. She had returned to the village with a headache. The earthquake had given her a migraine. Tonight, Papa would cook. He would wear the apron and dance around, singing in a high voice. His impersonation of Mama. Actually, he sounded just like her, and we would have to blow our laughter into our hands, so as not to wake my resting mother.
The wave rumbled closer. It made a noise like all the creatures of the world rolled up in a ball. The lion's roar, the bull's bellow, even the snake's hiss. How fabulous. I wished my cousins were here to see it. I considered running to the village to fetch them, but I didn't want to miss the wave breaking. Also, I did not wish to share the fish.
There were more people on the beach. Further down. A group of teenagers were dancing around a radio, slugging coconut toddy from a Pepsi bottle. One had a foot hooked over the side of his canoe, but it was unlikely that he would actually venture into the sea. The Nicobari people respect the ocean and its power.
Something thumped on the sand behind me. Too loud to be a coconut, too soft for a wild pig. I turned reluctantly, not wishing to miss one second in the life of the fabulous wave. There was a boy on the beach. A Shompen boy. One of the ancient tribe that lived in the darkest forest. Papa said that as Christians we should respect every living thing, but even Papa could never summon much respect for the Shompen. They were barely more than cave-people. They were ignorant in the ways of modern life. The Shompen still sacrificed animals, they stole from rubbish tips and they shot arrows at helicopters.
The boy had a swipe of ebony hair hanging over one eye. The other was brown, wide and staring over my shoulder.
`Mountain wave,' he said in a gruff voice. I imagined a talking dog would have a voice like that.
`Are you speaking to me?' I asked.
Shompens were not known for their social skills. Generally they stayed as far away from civilization as the island of Great Nicobar will allow, although in recent years ancient barriers were being worn down and there was even some trading between the Shompens and Nicobari. But this was the first time in my life that a Shompen had addressed me.
I tapped my chest. `Me? Are you talking to me?'
The boy pointed out to sea. `First the earth shakes, then the mountain wave comes. We must go.'
The boy spoke Car with a heavy accent. The Shompen have their own ancient language, but no one outside their tribe can speak it. No one can be bothered to try.
`Go,' he repeated, gesturing towards the forest. `Now.'
My mother had always told me never to follow a Shompen anywhere, especially into the forest. And I did not intend to disobey her. Anyway, I wanted to watch the wave. It was really something when a big wave broke on the shore, cutting long furroughs into the sand.
I turned my back on the boy. Our conversation was over.
The giant wave made me catch my breath. Suddenly it was close and huge. I hadn't realised how big it must be. Higher than the trees surely. And fast too. It seemed as though the entire ocean was coming this way, not just the surface.
`What?' I said, in surprise, but my own words were smothered by the gigantic rumbling. I felt dwarfed. An ant faced with a descending human foot. But I was being silly. The wave would break on the shore. Waves always did.
I glanced down along the shoreline. The teenagers were not retreating. In fact, they were hooting and hollering, enjoying this fantastic sight.
I felt a hand in my pocket, and it was not my own hand. A brown arm had snaked in around my waist. The Shompen boy was picking my pocket.
`Hey!' I objected, grabbing at the stick-thin arm. But it was gone, and so was my money pouch, packed with my birthday rupees. The small Shompen boy darted between the palms on the edge of the beach. He would disappear now, I knew it, and I would never catch him. The Shompen were like ghosts in the jungle. They were harder to spot than a crocodile in a drift of logs.
But for some reason, the boy stopped. He turned and waved my pouch at me. A taunt that no thirteen-year-old boy could resist. That little thief may have been Shompen, but my legs were fast and I had the strength of the wronged behind me. I forgot the wave and ran.
It was quite a chase. I could run, but the Shompen boy could read the jungle like an open book. Every dip in the sandy clay, and every root that snaked from the earth to trip us, seemed to be a part of his plan. A quiver of arrows clattered on his belt as he ran, and I noticed a short bow across his belt. He wouldn't shoot me. Surely not. I almost called off the chase, but the boy seemed to sense my reluctance and waved my pouch over his head like a trophy. My brow burned, and I sucked a deep breath, sending the oxygen to my muscles.
Faster, I told myself. You are the taller boy. You will snap his arrows across his own legs.
So, for five seconds I ran faster, then the world changed forever. My ears were filled with the sound of my blood boiling, or so I thought. But the sound grew loud, filling the air, drowning out the insects. It was the wave, howling towards the shore.
I ran on, because I was already running. And maybe because something deep inside me knew already that this wave was not just slightly out of the ordinary. I looked to my right, through a picket fence of palms, to where the other boys stood, dancing like monkeys. Jeering the water.
I think that was the moment I knew for sure. I saw this wave, not like a swimmer's arm, curling up and over, but like a fighter's arm with a fist at its head.
The fist slammed into the boys, burying them instantly. There was no struggle or cry. Just alive, and then dead. I cried out, still running. Tears flooded my eyes, but I kept running. The Shompen boy sprinted ahead, barefoot, reading the ground. I followed. Mother had always said, never follow a Shompen, but I was thirteen now, able to make up my own mind.
Spray from the wave spattered my neck. Stones too. It was sending out messages. I am coming for you, little boy. Your little legs are not strong enough to outrun me.
There was a hill ahead. Small and rough, dotted with neem trees like arrows in a pig's back. The money thief ran towards the summit. So did I.
There was foam at my ankles. Noise buffeting me like a giant wind. Sticks flashed past, spearing the earth. Fish flapped on the ground. Wide-eyed and amazed.
Water now. Up to my knees. Fresh and salty. Not clear though. Thick with mud. The Shompen scaled a giant tree, right at the summit. He went up like an animal, fast and sure-footed. I tried to follow, tried to copy, but I am no Shompen. Our tribe have forgotten how to live in the trees. My feet slipped on the rough bark, my fingernails tore and bled.
Crying, I turned to face the water and was amazed at the ruin behind me. The wave had all but eaten the coastline and was flowing on towards the village. It was trying to scale the hill too, rolling its way towards me ...
PHOTO: V. GANESAN
DEVASTATED: This was a new world, a terrifying one.
The wave would make it, I thought. It would flick up a finger and dislodge me from my perch. Then on to my village. Maybe the entire island. What was happening to the Earth? Was this the judgement day the Bible spoke of?
Then, to my relief I saw that the wave was dipping. My feet were clear of the water. For several seconds, I sobbed in selfish relief, before I realised that my family were probably not so lucky.
This brought on a second round of sobs. I ran to the water's edge and peered towards our village. But there was nothing but water, its surface almost solid with smashed dwellings. For several minutes, I hopped on the hill with frustration. I must have looked like a monkey.
I calmed down momentarily, but then my panic returned. Oh my God. There was a second wave behind the first. Crouched on its back. Six feet higher, high enough to snatch me off my little hill. I scrabbled at the tree trunk again, but it was slick and gave me no purchase. Corkscrew thorns wormed into my forearms.
I turned to face my doom. I saw people in the water. And houses. And a shark. I swear I saw a shark snapping at the sea, its new enemy. An enemy that had always been its friend. The shark, mouth open wide, saw me, its last meal.
Then I was snatched, from above. The Shompen boy had me by the shoulders, hauling me into the neem tree. My sandals were ripped away by the wave. One found its way into the shark's mouth. I don't know how I saw that. It should have been impossible. But somehow, for a fraction of a second, the water was like glass and I saw the shark slide below me. A torpedo of steel-blue muscle.
Then I was in the branches. Cowering behind a sheet of leaves, as if they could shield me from anything. What did it matter? The wave would surely uproot the tree. We would both be dead in a few seconds.
The Shompen boy squatted beside me, apparently calm. His eyes were wide, but his body was relaxed and casual. He knew that there was nothing more to do. Whatever happened was beyond our control.
What happened was that we survived. The wave flowed inland for what seemed like an eternity, but it never managed to uproot our ancient tree. The hill became a little island on the back of our sunken island, and the Shompen boy and I were the only two inhabitants.
Things flowed beneath us that nobody should ever see. The sea had claimed its bounty, and now it was revealing it to me. Shacks, bicycles, livestock, and of course people. My heart was torn from my chest as I saw a girl I knew float past, her beautiful dark hair trailing behind her. I think she was a distant cousin. She was encased in driftwood and rubbish, like something lost and worthless. I will never forget that image. I have thought about her so much since that day that I feel she is known to me now. Much more than in life.
A sharp pain in my arm cut through the dull pain of despair. I looked down. The Shompen boy was twisting a corkscrew thorn from my forearm. I jerked away, then pulled at the thorn myself, but the boy gripped my hand firmly.
`Not pull,' he said, in his thick accent. `Turn. Pull makes a big hole.'
He gripped the thorn again, twisting it gently so that it followed its own path out. The tip was covered with half an inch of my blood. I almost felt sorry for myself, but then I remembered that I was alive to feel pain. My distant cousin was not. And what of my family? Mama and Papa. My God, what of them?
I wanted to jump down from our tree and run to the village. But all I could see were treetops and water. The wave still covered the ground and it was moving in fast muscular currents. If my parents were alive, they would not want me to kill myself. So I was stuck here for the time being, at the mercy of a pickpocket Shompen savage.
A savage who had saved my life, and fixed my arm.
I looked closely at the boy. He seemed friendly enough, but he was a thief. I couldn't trust him. Maybe he had saved me so that he could ransom me off later. If there was anyone to ransom me to.
`Why are you here?' I asked him.
The boy shrugged. `I was leaving with the others, for the high ground. Then I saw you walking towards the water.' He slapped the side of his own head incredulously. `Towards the water. Everyone knows that after the earthquake comes the mountain wave.'
I nodded, as if I too had known. As if any of the Nicobari had known. Maybe the Shompen were not as stupid as we thought.
`So, your family are safe?'
`Yes. High ground. Father will be angry with me. Stuck in a tree with a Nicobarese.'
`That's what you get for trying to rob an easy target. I suppose you thought the wave would drown me, and there would be no witnesses to your theft.'
The Shompen boy frowned. `Target?'
`Yes, target. Someone to steal from.'
`Steal?' spat the boy, as though that had not been his purpose. `You are stupid, Nicobarese. Stupid, like my father says. I should have saved a pig instead of you.'
And with that, he crawled to the end of a long branch, hiding in the foliage, leaving me to twist out the other thorns in my flesh.
Hours passed and still the water stayed, rolling about the trunk like a nest of giant snakes, waiting to snatch anyone foolish enough to venture down. I stayed where I was.
Miserable. I was cold, wet and hungry, but more than that I was feeling a terrible anguish. People were dead, that much was certain. But how many, I could not know.
I did know that my life had changed forever. This was a new world, a terrifying one. One that could end at any moment.
I could see nothing beyond the water. But sometimes I heard voices. In the distance, women were crying. That could be my own mother, crying for me. She must believe that I was dead, just as I thought she was.
Sometimes, people floated past our perch, clinging to anything that would float. In every pair of eyes was a blank look of shock. How could the Earth turn on us so quickly, and with such venom. As if we were responsible for the crimes of humankind. Our helpless little island.
I heard a rustle in the branches and looked up to see the Shompen boy approaching. His face was serious and he had an arrow notched in his bow. The arrow was aimed at me.
`Quiet, Nicobarese,' he whispered. `No moving.'
I did not move, though I was tempted to throw myself into the water. So the thief had graduated to murder. Papa had told me that the Shompen have no regard for human life outside their own tribe, so I suppose that I shouldn't have been surprised.
The Shompen boy drew the arrow close to his cheek, then fired. The arrow sped over my shoulder and into the leaves behind me. There was a long string tied to the arrow and the Shompen pulled at the other end. A half-dead chicken squawked feebly as it was yanked from its perch. It was wounded only through its wing, but the Shompen boy quickly finished it off with an efficient twist of its neck.
`Food,' he said, smiling.
I felt bad. I had suspected this boy of murderous intent, but now I saw that he had simply been trying to feed us. Hopefully us, not just him.
The Shompen removed his arrow and tossed the limp fowl to me.
`Feathers,' he said, making plucking motions.
I was glad to pluck the chicken. This was something I knew how to do and it would take my mind off my surroundings. I almost felt sorry for the chicken. Imagine somehow flapping your way out of that wave, then landing on the only tree on the island with an armed boy in it. Bad luck indeed. I gripped a handful of breast feathers and pulled.
As I plucked, the Shompen boy took up his knife and carved a hole in one of the branches. He filled the hole with the driest kindling he could find, then took two black stones from his belt and began cracking them together. Each crack produced a spark, and eventually, amazingly, one of these sparks actually caught. He fed the flame, blowing gently into the carved bowl. In minutes, a small but bright fire sent a thick stream of black smoke skywards. I felt its glorious heat on my face and the silent mosquitoes backed away from the smell.
`Amazing,' I said. And I meant it. I had never seen stones like that. To start a fire in the middle of a humid jungle was a great skill indeed. But to start a fire while stranded up a tree and surrounded by churning floodwaters was amazing.
The boy smiled again, our earlier disagreement forgotten. He frowned then, trying to think of the Car words for his precious stones.
`Fire stones,' he settled on eventually, sparking the stones together. `Very valuable.'
I nodded and even smiled, trying to send the message that I respected and was grateful for what the Shompen boy was doing. He may be a thief, but he had saved me and was now feeding me. I was prepared to forget about the money-snatching.
We cooked the chicken on a spit, picking off bits as soon as they were done. This was a real treat. Generally we saved chicken for special feasts. This fowl probably came from somebody's coop, but in the circumstances, this thought did not cause me any guilt.
The Shompen boy tossed the carcass into the water.
`For the shark that missed you,' he said.
`Thank you,' I said. It was all I could think of to say. There was no point in us communicating really. If it hadn't been for the wave, then we would never have shared anything except distrust, and when we got down from this tree, we would never speak again. This was the way things were. I was starting to think that this was a great shame. No matter what Papa said.
`Hey, you two!' said a voice below us. I looked down. There were two men in a canoe, paddling against the current. I recognised one, a Nicobarese from a nearby village.
`We saw the smoke. How did you manage to build a fire in that tree? It's wetter than my paddle.'
Then he saw the Shompen boy.
`Ah, I see. A little jungle magic. Anyway, climb down. This tree is not going to last long.'
The Shompen boy considered the offer, then leaped from the tree, landing neatly in the canoe. It took me a while longer, feeling my way down the trunk, wary of corkscrew thorns. The man's hands grabbed me under the armpits when I came within arm's reach.
`Are you hurt?' he asked, plonking me on the upturned crate that acted as a seat.
`No. Just a few thorns.'
`You are blessed. To have survived this near to the coast. We haven't found anyone else. Alive, that is.'
`My village beyond the ridge. Was it destroyed?'
The man frowned. `All the villages were hit. Most were destroyed completely. But many people made it to higher ground. There is hope.'
A strange numbness settled over me. I did not want to face the horror to come. I shut my mind to the terrible sights all around me. If I was to preserve hope then I could not afford to see all this despair.
The canoe came within ten metres of the shore and suddenly the Shompen boy was on his feet.
`Hey,' said the second man. `Sit down, Shompen idiot.'
`Don't call him that,' I blurted, surprised to find myself defending a Shompen. `He saved me.'
The Shompen boy jumped onto the rim of the canoe, then stepped off, into the water. Or so I thought. I saw then that he had landed on a floating tree trunk. He ran along it to the shore. Then he turned to look back at me. It was the last time I would see him. His last act before disappearing into the jungle was to pat his thigh, right where a pocket would be.
I automatically patted my own thigh. It was heavy with my money pouch. The Shompen boy had somehow put it back, without my feeling a thing. I pulled it out and of course all the money was there. And there was something else in it. Two black stones. The Shompen boy had made me a gift of his precious fire stones.
I almost cried at my own stupidity. The theft had been a ruse to make me follow the Shompen boy into the jungle. I had refused to come when he had simply asked, so desperate measures had been required. He had risked his own life, saved mine and fed me. And all I had done in return was call him a thief.
I felt more ashamed at that moment than any time before or since. I knew then that the Shompen boy was a better person than I. All this, and we didn't even know each other's names.
He would have his fire stones back, I decided, pocketing the pouch. When this was all over, I would find him and thank him properly, even if I had to scour the jungle on my own. Papa wouldn't like that.
And then I began to cry in earnest, the sobs shaking my shoulders. Maybe Papa wouldn't be around to disapprove.
The man behind me misinterpreted my tears.
`Don't worry, son,' he said, patting my shoulder. `You're safe from that Shompen savage now.'
I didn't correct him. I didn't have the right. Only this morning, I had thought the same thing myself.
A year later
"HIGHER Ground" is a first anniversary look back at the lives of the child survivors of the Tsunami since the disaster. The project is a combination of literature, performance, music and art, and includes: an anthology of 16 short stories, written by best-selling children's authors, and based on real children's experiences of surviving the disaster; an audio CD of music, and readings of the stories by actors and personalities; follow-up events in schools, based on online educational resources provided by "Higher Ground", to enable schoolchildren to find out how their charitable activities a year earlier have helped their overseas peers to rebuild their lives, and an exhibition of Tsunami art painted by Sri Lankan child survivors.
Produced by former Blue Peter director, Anuj Goyal, the "Higher Ground Project" is being organised in aid of the work of five children's disaster-relief charities that have helped to organise the project: UNICEF; SOS Children; Handicap International; Y Care International; and Save the Children. The art exhibition is being auctioned early next year to raise funds to build schools and orphanages in Sri Lanka.
Higher Ground was launched on November 16, 2005, in London, with contributors, aid workers and dignitaries.
Higher Ground, editor: Anuj Goyal, Chrysalis Children's Books, ISBN 184458516
Project website: www.highergroundproject.org.uk
The audiobook special edition can be purchased exclusively through this site.
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