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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Strong Spirits
by Chris Speck

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On the Fly River, against the backdrop of a green canopy of impenetrable jungle, three wooden canoes angled by. The little kids standing at the sterns dug at the water with their paddles, bending their knees, but there was no joy in it, it was the trip home from a wash in cleaner water further up the river. The heat of the day was up, as it always is around five oíclock, the ground reflecting back the tropical warmth it has taken in during the day. I could feel the sweat rolling down my face, but it was nothing new. Uncle Two Thousand got out of his white utility truck and picked up the fish that was in the back. We were standing on the bank looking across at the KuKoo, his boat, which rested on the calm waters in front of us. He slung the fish on his shoulder and bid me to follow. I hesitated and caught his eyes across the chipped bonnet of the truck; he motioned his head. I hauled my own bag from the back and carried it in both hands in front of me like it wasnít mine, but it was mine, and I had to have it shown.

To get onto the KuKoo we crossed the two wooden planks that Blackie the ship's boy had laid there when they had moored the day before. Itís always a frightening time, either side is a drop into the water, and the boards get so water logged from the rain that they bend and buckle under your weight. The planks didnít scare me so much that day, just a feeling of emptiness. Uncle Two Thousand clambered over the handrails, and disappeared into the depths of the ship. I said hello to Blackie, and he squinted back. I didnít have the heart for a joke, because I knew what was coming. We took a seat next to the bilge pump, and it sprouted water out into the muddy water of the Fly River. I sat for a while on my own watching the kids in their canoes turning into dots in the distance, I realised that I was just going to have to explain to Uncle Two Thousand.

When he sat down he took off his shirt and hung it on a hook that stuck out above his head; I did the same.

"Listen Uncle Two Thousand, I know what I promised you before you went away down the river last time, and... Iíve tried my best." I looked down to gather strength. "I just donít think this one is as good as I said it would be." He did his usual, and let out a low growl, half anger, half mocking, and took the sack that I had brought on board.

"Itís good enough for me," he said, reaching down to grab a bottle from inside. He took out a plastic one litre, and held it out over the water so that the sun could shine through it. "You put it in bottles with a tube this time?" I nodded. "It looks clearer." He opened it with long fingers and put the lip to his nose, there was a sort of mmmm sound like he was considering it, then he took a small sip and let the skin of his lips draw tight around his teeth as he drew in breath.

"Itís good," he said.

I took myself a bottle and let the cap open. I put the stuff I make in empty pop bottles, they keep the fizz, and are airtight. This one was four weeks old, and had love in it. I had used a can of apples that was expensive at the store, and it had two kilograms of sugar. The yeast had come from a two day yeast starter, and my green bucket had been taped shut, and left untouched for almost a month. I had bottled the day before. For all his encouragement, I could tell that the man was not impressed. When Uncle Two Thousand is pleased his eyes flash the gold of a sunset, and the mouth opens to show the few teeth, and there is gladness there. He could make a brew like no-one in the whole town, a brew that would knock down four men with two litres, like the brew that once threw the captain of the KuKoo, DogoDog over the side, that had sent Mr Kongimo the president of the golf club into a coconut tree in his truck. Even the devil himself or the spirits down the Fly River would be hard pressed to drink more than a litre themselves. Perhaps even God too.

DogoDog, the captain, sauntered up; he was a squat chap without hair, and a small star shaped tattoo under the left eye. The head was shaped like a moon, and under thick nineteen sixties glasses, one solitary tooth stuck out from the top gums. We shook hands and exchanged dignitaries in his dialect, Motu. From past experience, he knew that Uncle Two Thousand was going to have a session with the white-man, and rightly judged that to once again imbibe the brew would be close to farce. He moved off and was replaced by two younger crew men. They sat shirtless on the guard-rails on the side, and blinked in the afternoon heat at Uncle Two Thousand and myself. Rich streams of sweat rolled between their muscles, and the Sepik initiation scars they wore along their back rose out from their skin, dark, in the design of a crocodile, both alike.

When the captain had got out of earshot, me and Uncle Two Thousand swore at each other, and held our stomachs and swore more, as the burning of the brew left its imprint, and we shared out more from the sack. The boys from the guard-rails wanted to cool their necks off, we became a happy four on the deck of the KuKoo, sharing smokes and laughing at jokes I could barely understand.

We had eaten the fish and Uncle Two Thousand had sang songs with the crewmen, little Blackie had done his usual wanting to touch my skin to see if it was real, and even Lalela, the deaf and dumb giant that lived in the engine house had poked his eyes up over the ladder to see what the noise was. For him, the worst time of the day was sunset, a time for the most evil spirits. DogoDog had sense enough to stay away, and the sun was sinking over the far end of the jungle. The light was orange, and it reflected off Uncle Two Thousandís chest so that it looked like it was gold. He did his machine gun laugh, and rocked on the balls of his feet as he was sitting down. It was almost all gone.

I took out the last bottle, from the sack, and passed it along to Uncle Two Thousand. He did his funny noise, the one that comes half way between mockery and anger, and starts at the back of his throat, I looked down at my toes and worked my fingers around the grime that had stuck there. I knew that Blackie had already been dispatched down into the engine room, deep into the bowels of the ship, where the giant Lalela held silent vigil over the machinery and the deafening noise. When the boy returned, he carried an old three litre juice bottle and two plastic cups. The crewmen had more sense, and it was a unspoken rule, those who had been touched by the strength of Uncle Two Thousandís brew were wise, they had felt their heads the next morning, and groaned as they clutched their stomach. There was no fizz as Uncle Two Thousand opened the lid, and he bid me smell. It had that sort of hospital aroma, of a deep, powerful detergent that flushed out germs, with just a hint of apples. We filled out plastic cups, and I took a deep long draft, for two reasons. I knew that to drink so much would be a source of pride for the brewer, it showed my trust and admiration for his work, secondly, I felt like losing what little intelligence I had.

Twenty-five minutes later, I was standing looking out on the muddy waters of the river. It had been a botched attempt at relieving myself over the side, most had ended up dribbling down the leg of my shorts, and I had managed to wet the bottom of my shirt where it hung down too low. Now, tackle still out, I searched across the horizon, and watched the orange glow of the sun as it dipped further behind the curtain of trees. Older kids on the river were paddling home again after their wash, they went faster, with the experience of age, and the grandfather in the front nattered them on, for the fouler spirits were abroad now. There is a stage to heavy drunkenness that comes only fleetingly, emotions that normally dwell in the underbelly of our consciousness swim up to the surface of the brain. Some express it in rage, or laughter, and at times these have come to me as well. Standing on the deck of the KuKoo, and feeling the warm wind, it came to me as a great sadness. For two years I had worked every Saturday morning, chopping fruit, cleaning bottles, experimenting with quantities of sugar and yeast. Two years of striving to make the brew as powerful as was humanly possible, obtaining scientific advice from the chemistry teachers, siphoning, watching, hoping, waiting. Here, as always, Uncle Two Thousand had beaten me again, not that that was the problem. It was a pleasure for me to drink with him, and all I wanted was to be able to give the same back to him as he had given to me. Even just once, to see his face light up in an orange beam of light, and let his machine gun laugh bounce around the walls of the KuKoo. I was wet eyed when I returned, and Uncle Two Thousand was sitting on the deck with his thin legs dangling over the side. The crew men had moved off to bed, and little Blackie was curled up under the table, asleep like a cat.

"I think I ought to go, Uncle Two Thousand," I said, and he looked up, the normally sharp face replaced with the eyes of a drunken simpleton. He waved his hand, and made his funny noise again, this time with less enthusiasm. "I wanna show you something." He got to his feet, and pointed below deck, to the engine room. We could hear the roar of it, and the thud of the pump that worked the bilge that cooled the whole operation. He took hold of the top rung of the ladder and climbed into the blackness. I thought of Lalela, and his huge bare chest in the engine room, dark and the fierce, the whites of his eyes showing. We got to the bottom, and Uncle Two Thousand led the way deeper, and the noise got stronger, with the stink of grease and sweat. At a small door, he crouched and fumbled at a catch. Behind me I could feel the dark shape of Lalela, watching, and without the fortitude of so much home-brew, I think I might have pissed in my pants. He opened the door and we crouched through.

The room was no bigger than a dog kennel, and I lit my lighter to look around. It stank of spirits, and the must that comes from a place that has not seen daylight or had fresh wind for decades. Uncle Two Thousand leaned over and pointed to two white buckets in the corner. No doubt where the brew was made. The noise of the engine, and the thud of the bilge pump made speaking impossible, and as my lighter fizzled and spat, he put something into my hand. It was glass, it did not have the feel, or the newness of plastic. I ran my fingers along the bottle and found the neck, solid and old, it felt like it was something dangerous. I held the bottle up to the lighter and turned it so I could see the label, the words read clear and black, and my lighter fizzled out. It had said, Surgical Spirit. In the darkness, I could not see his eyes, but I could sense his presence near me, and I knew that the look on his face must have been a grim one. Like when you find out your father is not the immortal you thought he was when you were a kid, or you finally get to kiss that girl youíve been dreaming about for so long. Over the noise of the engine, and down there, squatting like two sewer rats, in the dirty tropical heat I yelled as loud as I could.

"Youíre still the best," and I knew that he heard.

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