In a humpbacked island of three suns and a split moon, in a place locked away from the rest of the world, lived a widower named Tusk.
He had a daughter named Lunar. She was a velvet-eyed bear hug who approached and put her arms around you for three heartbeats, and your ribs burned a boatload of heartbeats later. The bear entered those arms the very moment the girl’s mother died from wasp bite as the tot on her breast suckled. Tusk pulled the bub from his wife’s cold body and it clutched him until he passed out. The poison in the milk did nothing to harm the child and, story had it, it became a charm that protected Lunar from whichever harm.
But in this world there wasn’t much to bring harm, so the potion was of little use to the girl and no one questioned anything. They did not wonder about much, really, like perhaps ask why the moon was shaped like half the shell of a cracked egg; they had seen nothing different. Its glow put shimmers in their eyes and overwhelmed the shooting stars that whooshed past on their way to nowhere. At day islanders stretched out like lizards on the sand under the blonde beams of triplet suns that smiled, merry sunflowers in an emerald sky.
The young women especially looked luscious sprawled like that on the gentle land, but Tusk firmly decided never to wed again. It was not often that fate came about, and a long-lashed pretty turned out to be a fairy godmother who made chariots out of pumpkins. The stepmother thing was the most risky affair, he resolved, and his Lunar might wind up unclogging toilets and cleaning cinders from a chimney. Figuratively speaking. His mud and straw hut held no chimney.
Housed within the same unsophisticated hut was his Lunar who, five moons ago, became a woman. Tusk was sure of this, no? That’s the truth. He watched as Lunar’s hips swelled, as her chest softened and her moods swung in tune to the dazzle of the north east star. Now heat in the velvet of her eyes told Tusk that his daughter was in love. He hoped she was about to kiss a frog that would turn into a rich and handsome prince shipwrecked to the island from a faraway land. So he was on standby for her proclamation when it came.
‘Baba. I have found my rib,’ she said.
He went silent as a shadow. And then he said: ‘Who?’
‘The one who is a fisherman?’
‘The one who was raised by a hag named Miriam, she found him in a basket by some tall grass in the lip of the ocean, and she left him nothing but farts and the debt of three black roosters for her funeral when she died?’
Clouds was no frog. But he was no big bad wolf either. He was a bald head with a single tuft of ginger on his crown. He owned a hut beside the chameleon green ocean that turned to cinder at dusk and spread licks of ash along the forlorn coastline where the lovers had met. And he was penniless, not a rusted penny to his belt.
Tusk, who had singly cared for his girl since fate in the fangs of a wasp snatched his wife, desired the best, only the best for Lunar, and understood she would live hand to mouth with the fisherlad. He considered Clouds. He was a decent lad, no? That’s the truth. An honest face, that mattered.
So Tusk did something random: He said ‘yes’ to the marriage.
Perhaps, he later thought, Clouds might bring the luck of a lad who put a bean in the ground and it grew into a stalk that twined into the sky where a giant abode with a goose that laid golden eggs.
As the wedding loomed, Tusk scratched palmfuls of receding hair, in edginess about the wedding feast. He did not have three little pigs to spare. Not by any power of the chinny chin chin. And it was not like he had a magic lamp to rub and produce a genie that granted wishes.
He cast his eyes outside the hut and settled his gaze on a goat named Spirit.
Spirit was Tusk’s only goat, a prized possession. It was birthed from a lineage of goats handed down for generations. Spirit was the last of its kind. In three moons, Tusk was proposing to coax the island chief’s doe for a kid. And there was more to his attachment to Spirit. Lunar, from the moment she could crawl, had developed such a bond with the goat, it was like a mother. When the toddler vanished, all one had to do was find the goat and there was Lunar, sucking her thumb and fast asleep, tucked between its hooves.
Tusk pondered for a moment, thought no. But his daughter’s future unfrocked his misgiving. A fine celebration brought with it good fortune. You could not invite people to a wedding and keep them famished. Well, invitations were not necessary—invited or not, everybody would attend. And that was exactly the point. Tusk could not do a miracle of five loaves and two fishes and hope to feed a whole island.
He took to the kitchen, seized a huge paring knife. Hands behind his back, he approached the goat. As if intuiting its fate, the usually amenable goat dodged his reach and trotted away with a heart-wringing bleat. Frankly, it galloped really fast and the sound was more like a bray.
A short burst of speed and a leap: Tusk delivered his blow. The goat’s final cry shook the skies and pulled out a roar of thunder. As the animal slumped to the ground, a spray of crimson stained the rustic earth.
Straight from rendezvous with the pauper prince to whom she was betrothed, Lunar found Tusk bent over red clay and skinning a corpse. She cast herself at the slain goat, hair floating in a sheet around her face. She fastened the bear around the corpse’s belly. ‘Why. Baba. No.’
Tusk looked at his daughter toppled over the goat. Her hair soaked up blood like a towel until the crimson crystallized into a crown of rubies. Her injured eyes, her wet voice, her words a whip: ‘That’s savage.’
‘Someone had to do it, no? That’s the truth.’
‘Baba. He was family.’
He closed his eyes. Spirit was a necessary sacrifice. Still Tusk felt a little angry. No hand of the gods had appeared to spare the goat, swap it from the altar with the right sacrificial lamb. When he looked, Lunar’s face was laid against the goat. She put a finger to the animal and tried, with no success, to close those unblinking white-as-white eyes that had glassed.
‘It is what it is,’ he said.
‘He was your favourite!’
‘I never have favourites. I always ask questions.’
Gently, but firmly, he pried her off the carcass, and even the bear in her arms was too distraught to resist.
Liquid velvet shimmered in Lunar’s eyes. Her cry was tortured as she ran.
Tusk picked his knife. But he could not bring himself to dismember the animal. Instead he skinned it, dressed it with herbs and quinoa, placed its head back so the animal looked whole. He set it overnight by the hearth to marinate.
It was the eve of the wedding.
Tusk’s sleep was a dance of shadows. Silhouettes swept towards him from the shores.
He awoke dazed, roaring flames all around. His panic turned to horror as people leapt from the flames and exploded one after another, airborne. Just then a raven hopped out of the orange tongues. It morphed and turned into a shark that lunged at Tusk’s galloping heart. He shrank, raised his hands, but before the creature snapped him in a gobble, a sound rushed at Tusk like hungry waves: Baaa!
His relief was so pure, it brought a tear to his eye. The flames, the people, the raven, the shark … It was all a dream.
Baaa! The bleat was real.
Baaa! It came from the hearth.
A moonlit window cast a filter of light upon the beast.
Lunar arrived quietly behind Tusk. Together they considered the goat, its jaw stretched into a death smile. Its ribs heaved. Was that a wink?
The surreal moment unlocked something, and Lunar touched his hand.
But white-as-white eyes, glassed, melted his doubt. Or was it hope?
He waited for a blast of flame to shoot from its mouth, a volcano that rumbled and lit the room violet, pyres of flame from which Spirit would leap out like a phoenix, reborn.
‘I could have sworn it was alive, no? That’s the truth.’
‘I’m tired.’ Lunar put her arms around him in an enfold that suffocated.
As he neared passing out, his gaze went out the window. He saw to his astonishment that the generally halved moon had grown whole. Not whole as in a mango-flesh coloured bracelet with a pith in the middle, but a fleshy, hearty egg yolk ensconced in the sky. This was the first of several anomalies he was to observe.
He went to bed but sat up for hours. Rather than collapse into sleep like his daughter, Tusk examined dawn as it arrived. One sun unsheathed from the tomb of a faraway galaxy and climbed to the surface. Slowly its light stretched across the jewel-hued horizon. Tusk’s brow furrowed. A single sun; the other two were gone. This was the second anomaly.
Guests arrived in throngs. Fishermen and their wives, fisherlads, girls and tots. The old chief came wrapped in feathers. Bracelets and anklets tinkled. He walked skewy, a little tipsy from banana brew. He was the celebrant. Eager footfalls from the islanders soared up billows of dust. Outside Tusk’s hut, naked waists stood taut with impatience for the gamey taste of a home-grown wild goat descended from generations. Second best to manna from the heavens.
The chief began his rumblings but folk dived into the spit roast way before he announced it was time for an exchange of vows. People marvelled at how the meat melted in the mouth, how the mushrooms and flowers tendered in the goat’s breast and belly.
Tusk scratched his head; he’d left the innards intact, no? That’s the truth. He never swapped the goat’s kidneys, heart or liver for floral tasters, never set out for the balance of fragrance and bitter now rife in the meat he had tasted in courtesy as a host. Those mushrooms and flowers were the third anomaly, and three was unlucky. No? That’s the truth.
It was unthinkable to expect that Lunar might touch the feast. And neither did Clouds, whose ginger crown, on this day, blinked like a shooting star.
The next day, still single-sunned, was moody. Alone, in his hut, Tusk lit a fire but was so overwhelmed with weariness he collapsed in sleep.
Later islanders would tell stories, varied, of how the hut caught fire and orange flames licked the man alive. There was nothing left of Tusk for a princess to kiss and wake up.
That same day a toothy shark leapt from the calm water and ate up a boat, Lunar and Clouds in it. Miraculously they survived. Remember the wasp? Somehow its sorcery was potent enough to also save Clouds.
Clouds sourced a fisherlad to help dig a three-foot-wide, eight-foot-long hole to bury his father-in-law. Together they ploughed and loosened soil at the back of the hut. Then Lunar summoned the islanders.
The old chief began the last rites. Just then, a northern raven crashed from the sky and all eyes turned to the big sooty bird beating its wings as it hopped about the grave. Every now and then it gave an echoing croak. People were still speechless at the bird when it croaked at the ancient chief and he staggered back and tripped on an anklet. He fell thud! into the dug hole and bashed his head on a rock. Death was instant.
Before anyone could accommodate this new grieving, news arrived of a family that was sprouting. Sprouting? someone said. Whoever heard of such a thing. Sprouting.
But all forsook the funeral and dashed to the lip of the island. There, indeed, they witnessed mushrooms and flowers growing out of the eyes, nose and ears of a family of four. Horrified, helpless, islanders watched the father, mother, a fisherlad and his sister writhe and gasp as their bodies bloated with innards turned to vegetables, until the bodies exploded.
And so it was. One by one, all who feasted on the roast spit ...