The Ring

By Anthony Aikman

Every day of his young life Safrudin climbed the forest to the cave by the waterfall and brought food to the old man. The old man never thanked him, never smiled, never spoke. ‘Speak to me!’ demanded Safrudin, but the old man remained silent. ‘Listen to me,’ persuaded Safrudin but the old man appeared not to hear. So Safrudin went back down the mountain, washed in the river, ran to school, hurried home, helped his mother tidy their small house, collected and chopped firewood for cooking, went fishing, played with his friends, ate supper, sat outside the village shop while inside the men drank palm wine and smoked and the bigger youths played their guitars and sang, went home, unrolled his sleeping mat, wrapped a sarong around him, slept, awoke, collected the cooked rice and a little vegetables saved from supper and hurried up the mountain to the cave. The old man always sat in the same position. ‘Does he ever move?’ Safrudin wondered. Surely he must move – he must relieve himself, he must eat or drink or wash. But it seemed to him the old man was a living statue, his face a mask of life. The only apparent change each morning was the empty plate. ‘Perhaps the birds ate the food?’ Safrudin wondered, or the wild monkeys, snakes or lizards. Sometimes the old man’s silence made Safrudin cross. Especially when it was raining and slippery or he was late. ‘Why are you here?’ he demanded. ‘Are you here because you are Good or because you are Bad?’ But never by word or expression did the old man offer any clue to his thoughts – if he had any thoughts, which Safrudin began to doubt. Nobody else offered any suggestions about the old man. Neither Safrudin’s mother busy cooking and cleaning, or his father ploughing the paddy-field or going out fishing in their leaky canoe, nor the village schoolteacher or the headman. They all simply shrugged. ‘He is a hermit,’ they agreed and returned to more important and more immediate concerns. Sometimes Safrudin reproached the old man. ‘Every day I bring you food, but you never thank me. I ask you questions but you never reply.’ The old man remained silent and motionless. As Safrudin went away he was tempted to shout back spitefully, ‘Perhaps you are as stupid as a water buffalo and don’t know anything at all!’ But he didn’t say it, because he didn’t really believe it and he sensed that if he did there was something about the silent and harmless old man that would reproach him. After that Safrudin did not want the old man to speak. He did not want him to reveal anything about himself. He wished him to remain a mystery. And sometimes when he brought him his food he was so scared the old man might say something that he even raised a finger to his lips to stop him. Nothing changed except the seasons. The old man remained in his cave and Safrudin continued to bring the food his mother provided. And the only witness was the mountain, the sky, the clouds, trees, butterflies – silent watchers to this small unchanging scene. Then one day a man, who tapped rubber from trees growing wild in the forest, announced the hermit was no longer in the cave. ‘Vanished,’ he told an audience in the village shop always eager for gossip. Next morning Safrudin hurried to the cave but the report was true – the cave was empty. The old man had left. There was no trace of his ever being there. The sandy floor at the entrance where he always sat lay undisturbed. For a few days the old man’s disappearance was a key topic of conversation. Everybody had a theory of their own or supported someone else’s. Had the hermit been attacked and robbed? Had he been eaten alive by wild animals? But there was nothing valuable on him to steal and little enough flesh to eat, and no sign of violence. It was almost as if he had simply dissolved in the thin air around him. For a few more days Safrudin continued to visit the cave just in case the old man returned – but each time the cave faced him as empty as the day before. On his final visit Safrudin sat down on the sand floor in the same position he had always seen the hermit; his legs crossed and his feet tucked under one another, one arm resting across his lap and the other hand upturned loosely on his knee. Safrudin realised how awkward and uncomfortable it was to try and sit motionless like this, and he was amazed the old man had managed for within a few minutes Safrudin felt cramp in both legs and had a struggle to unknot his limbs and massage the pain away. When he finally stood up he noticed that his efforts had disturbed the sand and revealed a small gold-coloured ring. He picked it up. It was too small to fit on any finger – a cheap ring one would buy for a small child and he wondered who might have dropped it, for he had never seen the hermit wearing it. Perhaps the old man had found it somewhere on his journeys and he too, thinking of the child it had been bought for crying briefly at its loss, had kept it as a talisman. Safrudin carefully put it in his pocket – the only one without a hole; deciding he too, as the inheritor of the ring, would keep it. He smoothed down the sand and left. Later at home he found some thread and hung the cheap ring round his neck. For it reminded him that someone somewhere had made it, an excited child barely old enough to speak had pointed to it and proudly worn it and carelessly lost it and briefly cried over it and the old hermit passing later had picked it up and kept it. So the tiny ring assumed a significance out of all proportion to its value – which was nothing, and Safrudin continued to wear it round his neck long after the hermit and the excitement of his disappearance had been easily and carelessly forgotten. Now that Safrudin had more time to spare his mother suggested he might help an old couple in the village who had very little to live on. The husband was a tall, gaunt man who made brooms – binding together the spines of coconut fronds, or the husks. His wife, who had one of the loveliest smiles Safrudin had ever beheld, was so bent and crippled with arthritis she could no longer even straighten her fingers. Their children had grown up and left except one good-for-nothing son who did no work and cadged whatever he could from anyone he could persuade. As a young man the broom-maker had worked as a fisherman and the half-rotten canoe still lay pulled up in the muddy creek outside their hut. Safrudin set to work to repair it as best he could, caulking the leaks, carving a new paddle and mending the patched sails, so that sometimes he could help the old broom-maker go downriver and across the lagoon to the island of coconut palms where he still loved to fish and remember bygone days. When the broom-maker saw the ring around Safrudin’s neck and heard how he acquired it he told him a story. ‘Your ring reminds me of one I found long ago when I was a young man fishing near here.’ The old man peered at him. ‘The sea was clearer then or maybe my eyes were, but I loved to dive deep among the reefs and watch the fish darting between the corals; slender finned fish sailing like stately schooners, fat fish I would have loved to harpoon, fish of all shapes and sizes, - especially the tiny ones – brilliant blue, or the orange striped fish that shelter in the fronds of the anemones.’ Safrudin nodded. He too loved to dive down into the clear depths and watch the sea life.  The old fisherman went on, ‘There are giant clams down there that open and close like jaws and be mindful never to put your hand in them or they will snap shut and nothing can dislodge them, so that you will drown before you can escape.’ His father too had warned Safrudin of this danger. ‘One day,’ continued the old man, ‘I saw something shining within the open jaws of this giant clam and peering closer I realised it was a golden ring. Later I weighed myself down with a small sack of sand tied round my waist, so as to stay down longer. Only each time I went too close the clam snapped shut as if to hide its treasure.’ He adjusted his hat to shield off the glare from the sea and gazed at Safrudin with a wistful smile. ‘It was as if that clam was a self-appointed guardian of some secret, for often I wondered where the ring came from and how it got there.’ ‘So you never got it?’ ‘No – and after a while I didn’t wish to. I decided the ring was not meant for me to take. However,’ he continued, ‘because I was a young man who liked to sit in the shop and drink palm wine, and had a loose tongue, I told the story to the other fishermen, but although I described very carefully where the giant clam lay – among which corals, on which reef – and although many young men dived for it armed with weights and knives to prise open the reluctant clam, no one ever found it.’ He scratched his grizzled chin, ‘So it became a legend and the legend grew into a myth. Even now boys who go swimming there believe the reef is the guardian of some great secret, and as is the way with myths – they travel and as they travel they become grander and less believable.’ He reached for a paddle to steer the canoe home across the lagoon. ‘Be wary of myths and legends,’ he advised Safrudin. ‘And of those who tell them, for they may tell you the way to discover a great secret and you may be persuaded to follow their advice only to find the secret eludes you. For what they cannot tell you in words, what they cannot share with you is that moment of triumph when they alone glimpsed this secret that swayed their heart.’ With a following breeze and the patched sail bellying out, Safrudin and the old fisherman sailed across the sandbar and up-river to the village. Later, as the old man was tying his brooms together, binding them tightly with supple strips of rattan bark he returned to the story. Looking carefully at Safrudin he said ‘Perhaps there was no gold ring at all – perhaps it existed only in my imagination. For sometimes when I think of it the gold ring lies not on the bottom of the seabed but deep within the secrets of my own soul and one day, perhaps soon, who knows, I will dive down again in the clear blue depths as I used to long ago, only this time it will not vanish and, clutching it with both hands raised above me, I will soar up to the surface shining far above.’ In the village there lived a boy called Nauli, whose limbs and face were twisted – so that one foot dragged sideways and one hand held up against his chest, and his mouth opened awkwardly so that he couldn’t speak, only utter noises. Sometimes he started to shake uncontrollably and fell twitching pitiably on the ground. Despite all this Nauli invariably smiled his misshapen smile and waved his misshapen hands at everyone who passed and the whole village cared for him. Nauli had been abandoned by his parents. Rumour claimed he was cursed to be crippled because he had been born outside marriage. But if his real parents were too ashamed to claim him, the village took their place; mothers clothed and fed him, working men let him follow them and children helped him to join in their games as much as he was able. Soon after Safrudin acquired the hermit’s ring Nauli seemed to seek him out for particular attention. He took to waiting by Safrudin’s house, sitting on a wall and waving as he went to school and following him when he came home again. And whenever he came close he peered at the little ring on its string hanging round Safrudin’s neck, reaching up clumsily with his one good hand to touch it. One day, because Nauli indicated it, Safrudin hung the ring around Nauli’s neck. Then the crippled boy led him slowly by the hand along the path where they sat together in the shade of a tree and Nauli picking a thin twig started to draw a butterfly in the dust. Safrudin was astonished how well he could draw with his one good hand, while the rest of his twisted body splayed awkwardly on the ground. After he had finished he smiled happily at Safrudin, brushed out the drawing, pulled off the ring and gave it back. Next day Safrudin hid a school slate and some sticks of chalk under his shirt to bring home and in the afternoon walked slowly with Nauli into the forest. As the boy stumbled behind him he kept exclaiming in delight at the flowers, the insects, the butterflies. When he saw a blue kingfisher swoop low over the stream he followed its flight with his good hand, trying also to mimic its call and later when Safrudin handed him the slate and hung the ring around his neck, Nauli from memory drew a perfect replica of the bird in flight and when it was finished, laughed in joy, and rubbed his sleeve across the slate to wipe it out. One day Safrudin forgot to take the ring back from Nauli – who clutching his treasure eagerly to his chest struggled up the stony path into the forest. And there quite alone he lay down and looked up through the treetops to the clear blue sky and watched intently and with great inner joy the birds flying between the branches and the bright butterflies folding their wings as they rested. There and then, only and absolutely Nauli felt complete peace and pleasure rise up in his heart, but later as the shadows lengthened he realised evening was coming and struggled to get up – promising the place he would return soon. His crippled hand still clutching Safrudin’s ring to his chest, Nauli staggered back down the steep path, trying to hold on to the trees for support. Out of breath now, he paused panting against a steep rock for strength; through a giddy haze it seemed to him that instead of the broken path down through the forest, there unrolled before him a carpet of green light and when he tried to claw his crippled hand away from his chest it opened like a white bird’s wing, and his dragging feet lifted as easily as a leaping footballer and he looked up into a sky that was no longer dark with doubt but silver and starbright, full of hope and expectation. And as in a dream a great voice was softly calling to him, ‘Nauli, Nauli, Nauli ...’ Nauli released his grip on the rock and let himself fly. All night the village searched for Nauli, carrying flares and calling his name. At dawn they found his broken body wedged between jagged rocks, hand and feet flung out all ways. Safrudin could not wipe back the tears of his grief fast enough, but even as they carried Nauli’s body away for burial, looking up he saw a sea eagle flying back and forth high overhead, dipping its wings as if in a final salute. A blind stranger working his way slowly down the path where Nauli died poked his guide stick into the dust where the ring had spun out of Nauli’s grasp and quite by chance the ring jammed on the spike.  The blind man continued towards the village. He was thirsty and tired and gaining the shade of the first house he came to – which happened to be Safrudin’s – he sat down wearily. Safrudin, seeing him outside, took him a glass of water and a plate of boiled yams. As he offered them he was astonished to see his ring glinting on the tip of the blind man’s stick. He carefully removed it. It was easy to guess how the blind man had come upon it but Safrudin questioned him, just to be sure. ‘Ah, so that’s what I picked up – I didn’t know,’ he replied. ‘I heard something tap-tap against the rocks as I continued but I didn’t realise what it was.’ Safrudin told him the story of the ring. ‘It was my talisman,’ he concluded. ‘Only it didn’t bring any luck to Nauli.’‘Who knows what luck is?’ the man suggested. ‘For it guided me here and you have given me food and drink to help me on my way.’ ‘So why didn’t it guide Nauli out of harm’s way?’ sobbed Safrudin quite overcome by the memory of his friend. The blind man reached an arm across to comfort him. ‘You say how attracted he was to it, and when he wore it with what artistry he could draw. Who can tell what illumination it gave to your friend, what visions it inspired, what release from his infirmity? Do not blame yourself, it gave him freedom and who knows but even now his spirit, freed from the prison of his body, may be flying above our very heads among the birds and butterflies he loved, and smiling down at us.’ The blind man rolled the ring in his palm. ‘Why, perhaps it will give me insight also, and guide me on my way.’ ‘Where are you going?’ asked Safrudin, anxious not to lose his ring to a stranger. The blind man replied rather vaguely, ‘On a pilgrimage, I suppose.’ ‘What religion are you?’ inquired Safrudin politely. ‘All religions and none,’ replied the blind man. ‘How can that be?’ asked Safrudin, astonished. A wistful smile crossed the blind man’s face. ‘Over the centuries how many pilgrims, how many devotees have followed the path of one inspired prophet or another – seeking to understand their teachings, to copy their example, to dedicate their own SELF to the greater self of the prophet, and so discover the path to salvation. Is that not so?’ Safrudin nodded uncertainly, making a concentrated effort to understand exactly what the blind man was suggesting. The stranger paused for a sip of water. He went on, ‘But I am blind so I cannot read learned books and too much teaching and preaching confuses me. It seems to me in my stupidity that however dedicatedly someone may follow their chosen prophet can their message alone enable one to glimpse the moment of inspiration that changed their life. For one prophet it happened under a spreading tree, another in the desert. But if you or I, even with the very same words of these devout prophets on our own lips and in our own hearts, sit beneath the same tree or fast in the same desert, the same vision of enlightenment will not necessarily come to us.’ He paused again to nibble a yam. ‘Everyone must discover enlightenment for themselves!’ He chuckled, still clutching the ring. ‘I stumble here and there like an idiot, never knowing from one day to the next where I’ll end up, for although the goal is the same the guides may be different.’ He tapped his stick and handed Safrudin back his ring. ‘Sight will not show me the way,’ he concluded, ‘If the quest is not already printed on the map of my heart. And your talisman,’’ he murmured, ‘it used me to come back to you. Yes,’ he reflected, ‘There are so many guides. We ignore them at our loss. The smile of a crippled boy, a bird soaring in the sky, the sun setting over the ocean. For me it lies more with other senses; - a friendly voice like yours, the sound of a stream, the sigh of wind in the trees, a ring my stick picked up that led me to refuge.’ So after he had rested the blind stranger went on his way and Safrudin replaced the ring on a string around his own neck and although he often grieved over his crippled friend’s death he was comforted by the blind man’s words. By now Safrudin was a tall, strong youth. He excelled in sport, was clever at school and played the guitar better than anyone in the village. All the girls in the village admired him and their heartbeats quickened when he smiled at them. Both teacher and headman predicted a golden future for him. All this flattery did not affect Safrudin. He didn’t neglect his family and was as happy helping his mother in the house as he was working with his father in the field. When he was eighteen he was engaged to a girl he had known since childhood. His parents were delighted. The couple were married with all the ceremony the families could afford. As custom dictated for a year Safrudin lived with his young bride at her parents’ house, and when he brought her home, there came also their new-born son – a bright eyed impish boy, who gurgled and laughed as he lay rocking in his hammock. They named him Safi after his father and on the day of his naming Safrudin untied the ring from around his neck and slipped it onto the first finger of his child, and the infant son raised his tiny fists in the air and laughed with delight. Happiness seemed assured. Suddenly everything changed. Like a black cloud of locusts sweeping in over the open plain came war. But if this was a freak of nature it was entirely human made, fermenting as if out of some small speck of chaos in some deranged human heart until it grew to overwhelm with a madness of indiscriminate destruction. Nobody in the village understood. All they knew was an approaching unstoppable terror that overcame everything and everyone. Towns bombed, villages burned, women raped and hacked to death, men lined up and shot, children gutted. In fields where the emerald green rice was peaceably growing now lay a hidden sowing of landmines yielding a harvest of sudden agonised screams, blood and death. So they ran. Safrudin, his young wife and child, his parents. They fled into the forest building shelters of sticks and leaves, scratching at stones and sky for edible roots and berries, sometimes eating dirt to stem the gnawing pangs of hunger. Fear forced them on – fear led by the insatiable inflowing tide of war that left in the flotsam of its fury ample evidence of its capacity to destroy. So instead of smiles and laughter between them came only tears, sadness and the shadow of fear. The child wasted, Safrudin’s mother lay too weak with malnutrition and malaria to go any further, Safrudin’s father consumed by black depression and hopelessness, and his young wife miscarried their second child in a paroxysm of grief and pain. Safrudin venturing out of the forest one day to try to find food or medicine found himself suddenly surrounded, thrown into an open truck manned by armed and drunk militias demanding whose side he was on, who he supported, where his loyalty lay. And when he could not give the answers they wanted they clubbed him with rifle butts and kicked him with their boots until his face was smashed to pulp, his teeth broken off, his eyes closed, his nails torn out, his ribs cracked, his legs broken. Pain falling on pain numbed him into a vacuum of mindlessness where all he begged for was the blows to cease, the agony to end. Lost too in the faraway corners of his thoughts were those fears for his family – fears that he dreaded above even the pains of his torment for the waves of despair they brought seemed to tear open his heart even as this constant torture tore his body. Safrudin tried to force these thoughts so far back into the dim recesses of his memory where they could no longer parade before him and add to his terrible despair. He lived moment to moment, day to day, moon to moon, leaf fall to leaf flush without hope and in the end almost without fear for himself. Sometimes he was dragged out of his cage, manacled and set to work. By night he heard only the agonised screams of those whose torture provided the pleasure and diversion of the thugs who boasted they were freedom-fighters, guardians of liberty and who, ripe with drink, sang their hollow heroic songs. So each day Safrudin was dragged out to flush and sweep away the blood and gore from the stinking cells that were the militia’s playpens, and on each occasion he felt a creeping terror lest he should discover among the debris of shoes and clothes and skin some evidence of his own family. One day his worst fears seemed to come true when he saw something glinting on the floor and clutching this ring Safrudin grovelled sobbing and retching in uncontrollable spasms at the thought of his butchered child. It was only later in the foetid cage where he was imprisoned that he dared look again and found to his immense relief that the ring was too costly – and too big, even for his own fingers. Perhaps it was because he appeared to have lost his mind that Safrudin was saved. He became the camp simpleton, mocked, cursed and spat on as he dragged his broken legs behind him like the crippled boy, Nauli, half blinded by malnutrition, infections and beatings, he tottered along using, like a blind man, a bamboo stick to guide him. Sometimes Safrudin smelled perfume and heard the teasing laughter of women come to entertain the soldiers, but he found it impossible to consider them remotely related to his own wife and mother who sometimes appeared in his dreams only to haunt rather than comfort and he woke screaming and deranged from these nightmares. In time Safrudin became little more than a caged beast, homeless, helpless and completely at everyone’s mercy. And this suffering and indignity lasted long beyond his ability to count. Days and nights numbered in hundreds and then in thousands. Safrudin knew of no other existence but the one he now had and he expected none other until he vaguely supposed the agony of his life would succumb to welcome death. But even as he eked out this animal existence somewhere far beyond his knowing, beyond even the knowing of the militias, beyond the furthest horizon of this forest and that ocean and the next, powerful men – merchants of power who bought and sold and bargained not rice or rubber but war and peace for their profit, dealing between them poverty and prosperity in stakes of millions of this and billions of that, shuffling cities and frontiers and whole populations as no more than gaming chips, these great men who held at their mercy the future and fate of millions, sat around long, polished tables in lofty elegant rooms lit by glittering chandeliers, ministered to by dutiful attendants, their every move and gesture watched and noted by a selected audience of accredited reporters. In this way the economics of war and peace were debated and the behind-door bargains were agreed and the public manifestations of the mighty were committed to paper. When the official handshakes, photocalls and interviews appeared in newspapers and televisions the world over, when the presidents and princes, democrats and dictators left their heady responsibilities behind and retired once more to their palaces and their people waving bits of paper titled the Treaty of this or that, promising everlasting peace and prosperity and an eternal end to suffering and persecution, when the dutiful attendants covered the ceremonial chairs and the polished tables with dust sheets and rolled up the red carpets, when the reporters set off seeking new sensations to traumatise or entrance, then gradually spreading back over the horizons of distant continents and empty oceans came drifting new clouds – white, fluffy clouds heralding a new beginning – where what had been was now dismissed as one of those unfortunate aberrations of politics. These white, fluffy clouds of peace took a long time to reach the distant shores of Safrudin’s land, but already, quite unknown to him, a restless fear of retribution fed the minds of those who managed the dreaded death camps. Safrudin noticed nothing except that everywhere seemed quieter, and then one day he awoke to find the place apparently deserted. No one came to harass him, or to drag him manacled from his cage. He waited. One thing he had learned during all those long years was waiting. Another was fasting and a third was silence. So he waited. He had banished long ago and far away such luxuries as hopes or dreams and these didn’t willingly return to such a reluctant host. But when after one or two days nothing happened – no rattle of dragging chains, no screams or pleas for pity, no mocking laughter, no pistol shots or the sickening sounds of human butchery, no acrid smoke from victims burned alive by rubber tyres – only a stubborn enduring, uninterrupted, rather unnerving silence, broken only by geckos calling in the swamps and the whining of mosquitoes in the humid dark. Safrudin’s bamboo cage was so rotten that it required little force to prise the bars apart. He sat outside on the edge peering about with his blurred and troubled vision, puzzled and wondering what he should do. He had no idea where he was. For so long his world had been a small barred space that the outside scared him by this challenge of openness. He was so used to living from one order to the next that the absence of any confused him. He sipped water from a broken pipe and dragged himself into the prison yard. Ahead, hanging open stood the barbed wire gates. Flies buzzed heaps of filth. No guards challenged him. Safrudin moved a step forward expecting a shout or clout or shot. Another step, then another. He slowly passed between the open gates as in a dream and viewed dizzily before him a dirt track going somewhere. But somewhere frightened him. Going somewhere had trapped him before. Safrudin, during his caged years had gained animal instincts of which the most important was to be wary. And he had also learned a dread of people. So unlike most expectations he did not follow the track leading somewhere but turned into the forest beyond the swamp leading nowhere. Nowhere was where he might be safe, and he lay down beneath the tall shading trees and wondered if he dared to try and think. A butterfly settled on his smelly rags and then another. Within a few moments he was covered with small yellow butterflies. It was as if his filthy body was their food and he no more than a field pushing up bright yellow flowers. The idea repulsed him so that he shook them off and sitting up he noticed the sun shining through the treetops. He sat very still hoping the sun would not turn into a prison lamp waking him for a night’s beating, but the sun seemed quite uninterested and settled out of sight and the dusk grew deeper and high up between the trees he watched as stars appeared and a small rather worn-thin moon. Safrudin watched uncritically and dry-eyed. Deep within he sensed years of pent-up tears welling but they did not burst. There seemed no point. Not now. Not any longer. He did not know how to define his feelings – or if he had any. He felt empty of wonder, relief, hope, anticipation. He watched the night sky pass slowly overhead and with the rising sun he gathered himself stiffly together, found a broken stick as a crutch and hobbled forward through the trees.As the day proceeded and he met no one he began to consider where he should go. ‘If I follow the sun,’ he thought logically, ‘Will it not lead me to the sea?’ Safrudin had long ago given up the hope of there being any home to return to but the idea grew in him just to glimpse the sea again – just once, would be enough. For days he walked slowly over the forested hills sometimes along overgrown paths, sometimes deep in the jungle. His only guide was the moving sun and his only wish to glimpse from afar the sea – as he remembered in his boyhood. The countryside he passed through was deserted; villages abandoned, schools destroyed or with their roofs collapsed. Sometimes out of curiosity or for shelter he entered village halls to find faded photos or notices barely legible still pinned to the walls and the floors littered with discarded papers. He had little to eat, sometimes wild bananas or fallen fruits, but he no longer felt hungry or any urge to eat. A weakness and a wariness slowly overcame him so that he often stumbled or had to sit down to get back the little strength he had left. His only concern was lest the weakness would win and prevent his last wish to view once again and for a final time, the sea. Now he found himself going slowly downhill slipping on the loose soil and the wet rocks. He could hear a stream close by and feeling thirsty aimed for it only to fall heavily. He was stopped by a half-rotten tree, which as he clutched it left his arm covered with stinging red ants. Weakly shaking them off he gathered himself together and staggered towards the stream only to be confronted by a small pool fed from high up by a think cascade of water and beside the pool, the dark cool shade of a cave. Safrudin knelt on the sand floor at the entrance to the cave and cupping his hands drank from the pool, before wearily lying down on the ground. He fell into a deep dreamless sleep. It seemed to him that he slept for centuries. When he woke up he was immediately aware he was not alone. A small boy stood beside the pool watching him. As Safrudin looked at the boy he sensed something familiar, something far off tugging at his memory. Then he fell asleep again. When he next woke up the boy had returned and placed a plate of boiled yams in front of him. He wanted to thank the boy but no words came. He wanted to smile but no smile came either. It was as if he had not spoken or smiled for so long he had forgotten how to. He looked at the boy who seemed to understand for he slowly and deliberately raised a finger to his lips as if to indicate there was no need. Now, once again as he watched the child Safrudin had an overpowering sense of familiarity, not so much of the boy but of himself. It was almost as if he was seeing himself through the boy’s own eyes. As the child got up to leave, Safrudin wanted to call out but his mouth would not open. Then the boy turned as if remembering something and lifting a string carefully over his head he handed him a cheap shiny ring. Then suddenly Safrudin knew and tears rolled down his face washing out the weariness and despair so that it shone again as if he was newborn. And the sun rose over the mountain behind, and far off before him Safrudin saw the shining sea.

THE END

 
 
     
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