My Favourite Passages From The Shadows of Paradise

 

 

I

 

Writing. A piece of fucking writing, Johnny mumbled to himself with awe-struck delight as he walked back to his seat. For a brief, intense time after that Johnny started telling the world, with the typically local graceless bravado, that he was going to be a writer! He suddenly spent hours reading, picking up ideas, reading travel books and adventure stories, and he had the eagerness of a pilgrim arriving at some holy land when it came time to work on a new essay. He wrote, always, travel stories, based on our grandfather’s tales; he wrote in Patagonia, Capri, Borneo, the Atlantic Ocean, New England… and when he wrote he locked himself up in the bathroom, sometimes for hours, and he would bark like a rabid Cerberus if anyone disturbed him!

Of course reading wasn’t the only thing he did with such private, howling passion. It appeared to me then, as in truth it still does now, that he needed his sexual drive to inspire his writing!

 

II

 

Along their trek they saw other wondrous insects – all inedible, despite their uniqueness. They saw a mantis with jewelled markings on its wings, ants with thorns protruding from their black heads, harmless, large carpenter bees, multi-coloured damsel flies, tiger-striped moths and a plethora of butterflies and beetles! All the while a studious, almost professional affection pervaded the man and the child. It was the kind of hard-working silence needed for admiration to grow its deep roots, and by the end, as they began the long trek back to the village, both of them felt a new immortal bond had been forged between them. And they conversed now like lifelong friends.

 

III

 

The tree was an almost right-angled hardwood beast! Yet, despite the discomfort, and the taste of rust in his mouth from the blade, he made it up. Now holding on beside Hai he spit the machete into his right hand and with a solitary swipe cut down the branch that held the pangolin and watched it go crashing down.

Right into the jaws of the expectant, blood-hungry dogs. As the pangolin fell, it looked stunned. It tried to run but the dogs kept digging their teeth into the scales. The scales were too hard, too well-positioned for them to be able to get a good grip on the pangolin. And the pangolin, noticing that escape was impossible, rolled itself up into an armoured ball. It has a gracious, intelligent set of instincts, Johnny thought from his vantage point.

But now Quang and Duc were kicking the dogs away, lest their hapless canines damaged the precious scales; Duc picked the pangolin up from its tail and held it up, its face still buried somewhere in its torso. As Duc held it up it remained unmoving, still hoping against hope. Johnny felt sorry for the defeat of that ancient intelligence, and pity for the ease with which those long-evolved scales had been defeated.

The dogs were still barking frantically, eager, it seemed to tear their well-earned quarry apart. But that privilege was reserved for Duc. “Come down, bring machete!” He shouted out mechanically to Johnny and Hai. When Johnny leapt off the tree he handed Duc the machete and Duc struck its rounded edge into the pangolin’s soft torso.

 

IV

 

Julia prepared the medication and the injection then handed them to Celine. Julia had graduated as a veterinarian in another time. She hadn’t practised since she retired a few years ago, but she was still allowed to carry out the euthanasia’s at the sanctuary which she practically ran. Celine wrapped her arms around Queenie’s neck, to hold her steady. Julia took the injection and pushed aside the golden fur from around her foreleg. Celine helped her find a vein and when she did Julia gave Queenie the lethal shot.

It wasn’t long before Celine felt Queenie going limp in her arms. It was a silent dying, no groaning, no whimpering, or pain; the only thing that told you the old girl was dying was the sight of her urinating and releasing gas as she took her last earthly breaths. The process was over within minutes. Queenie’s eyes remained wide open as she lay in her death thrall. They looked somehow puppy-like again, as if she were being reborn again. Julia, with a stray tear in her eye, patted Queenie’s back leg. “Lived a good life, my dear, eighteen years!” Celine smiled as she kissed Queenie’s muzzle.

Celine moved away from that sweetest of corpses and went to a low cupboard to take out the black bin bags. She wrapped Queenie inside it, her disgraceful coffin, as Julia made the call for the guys who would take her to the incinerator. Every time she made that call Julia thought more and more about her own end. She often had nightmares about herself suffering the same ignominious fate when she died. But, in truth, she wasn’t much soothed by the thought of a maggot-infested eternity. She would pray, then, when she thought these thoughts, and forced to the forefront of her mind glorious images of a white-clad heaven.

 

 

V

 

 

Celine went downstairs and went into her brightly-lit November yard. She stretched, yawned and felt energised by the sight of the verdure she had surrounded herself with. A tropical yard in the heart of the Mediterranean; palms trees, banana trees, ferns, creepers dominating the walls like the hordes of Genghis Khan, and here and there were the effervescent middle-fingers of birds-of-paradise flowers. She went inside and took out from the freezer a portion of ossobuco she had bought yesterday. She would thaw it, season it and leave it simmering over the course of the day. She checked the fridge for beers, saw beers were plentiful, and closed it happily. It was a Saturday and Johnny’s favourite football team was playing at 4pm. She looked at another photograph of Johnny stood next to the television and smiled at it with a raised fist, in the pose of a devoted football supporter.

 

VI

 

As they worked in the fields they had rolling, free-flowing conversations in a random mixture of pygmy Vietnamese and English. Diem so often demanded Johnny’s travel stories. As he strained rice or carried heavy buckets of water to and fro he would tell her about the hills of Tuscany, of his adventures on a hot-air balloon in Turkey, his trekking in the Sundarbans of India – and she would always take her eyes and her mind off her work to listen to him. This did not go unnoticed…

But it wasn’t a one-way relationship; both of them needed the other in equal measure. Johnny lived to see Diem happy. He loved especially to see her dancing at night, next to the bonfire, twirling with eyes closed, mouth smiling immaculately, her head bobbing, her small hands flowing and turning with panache, her loosened hair crashing into her eyes, bouncing on her shoulders. Johnny felt a furious tumult of emotions as he watched her. It was something he had never felt towards a child before. And for a while, it even scared him.

 

 

VII

 

She felt an impossible desire to like Livia in that moment. Celine admired the surprising, rare intelligence exhibited by the girl she had wanted to hate for so long. Who talks like this nowadays, with such passion, imagination, eloquence – certainly not sixteen-year-olds! Or however old she was. And, to Celine’s quivering surprise, she found it remarkably easy to like her.

There were no grudges, she bore no hostility, no hatred; as if, somehow, Livia had nothing at all to do with Johnny. Not anymore.

“How did you get interested in all of this?” Celine said, making no effort to hide her admiration. A rare emotion for Celine.

VIII

 

 

Of course, no symphony of beauty would be complete without nature. Celine began to call on Maya again to go stargazing with the astronomical society, or to charter boats to take them around the island, at night – Celine became affixed by the stars. She saw them as the visual siblings of music. In a world where stars and music reigned, there could be no unpleasantness, she thought.

Maya hadn’t yet recovered from the shock of seeing this suddenly revived Celine emerge from her dank pits. The shock even made her forget Celine’s bitchiness and Maya went along with her exploits whenever she could. She loved hearing Celine, her eyes pinned to a telescope as big as her, extolling the wonders of science; of the lunar cycle, or how our eyes are connected to the stars by the light they emit, millions of light years away, light that must enter our mind through our retinas – she called retinas our bridge to the cosmos – and she would also wax lyrical about the exoplanets, and the wondrous possibilities of other planets made of ice, or methane, with giant volcanoes and perhaps, even sentient life.

 

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