It was a typical Spring day in Mozambique. Even at 7am the sun was high and the water was warm.
I was only knee-deep at the edge of the lagoon, but with my face in the water there was plenty to see. A little yellow fish, a smallish crab, some anemones.
Plenty. Enough to report back, and prove I’d gone snorkeling. I took another look at the crab, to be able to describe him. He was… crabbish. Like something from an old Space Invaders game painted yellow-grey, gone 3D, with little spikes sprinkled on. He’d lost his big claw.
Perhaps I’d already stayed long enough that I could wander back now and say I was too tired to go out with the boat, that I’d seen plenty of reef for the day. As long as that smartass rebel daughter of my mom’s boss, Rachel, didn’t dare me. Then I’d have to go, or look like a wuss.
If I walked slowly I might already miss thelaunch. I could wave; they wouldn’t turn back if they were already over the breakers. But, I should be seen walking back now, making an effort, so it didn’t look like I did it on purpose. If only I knew exactly what time they would leave…
Anyway, the stupid mask was fogging up. I pulled back onto my haunches and squatted, sea water dribbling through of my hair.
A gigantic boulder stood just out of the water, on the sand.
Funny that. I didn’t remember any big rocks on this beach. I rubbed a salty hand over the goggles but the fogging was on the inside. I squeaked the strap down over my ears, and froze.
It wasn’t a rock.
Little piggy eyes stared like shiny raisins from a monstrous grey puffed-muffin face. Ridiculous tiny ears flicked once, twice, on either side of the bulbous head. The hippo was looking right at me. It’s whiskers looked like they were made from solid iron wire. This brute was huge.
Really, I should laugh, he looked so ridiculous. But lining up to be dead isn’t funny.
I was still frozen, and realised how lucky that was. I hadn’t screamed, hadn’t run for it, and the hippo hadn’t charged. Yet. Hippos kill more people than lions, than crocodiles, than sharks – I told an invisible Rachel – and, they don’t need provocation.
Staring back and trying not to blink, I saw something even worse. It looked like someone had sprayed this monster with blood.
For a few seconds the water around my thighs gushed warmer. I was glad Rachel wasn’t there to see, even though it was fair enough, even though the water would have hidden it.
I hadn’t had breakfast yet, or I’d have chucked that, too.
Did they swim in salt water? Was I between it and the deeps? Should I edge my way out of its path? It wasn’t trying to go anywhere. Yet.
Perhaps I looked like a rock, in turn. But then, what if the hippo walked over me? Thanks to the surf, nobody would hear me if I screamed for help. Except the hippo, who might not like it.
I was busy thinking that through, my mind desperate for some answer, when the hippo grunted and turned away.
I watched his rounded five tonnes lumbering off over the damp morning sand, leaving footprints you could use to plant coconut trees. As he went, he pooped at me, little tail waggling to spread it around, then followed through with a piss in my direction, a backwards-pointing stream strong enough to douse a bonfire.
He’d been looking at my towel, I realised now. Just curious. Like a giant cloth diaper, it wasn’t white anymore.
Ew. Thanks dude.
A lot better than getting my leg bitten off, though.
He disappeared over the dunes in the direction of the jungle.
My body started to shake.
Walking back down the beach I couldn’t stop shuddering. I was just cold from being too long in the water, I told myself.
I almost cried when I saw the boat was gone, though. After a near-death experience even a fifteen year old tough guy wants to see his mom.
The little bamboo-stick cottage was silent. She’d added a line under my note on the little table between our beds: “Bfast $ in shorts pocket. Back @ noon. XX Mom.”
A trickle of sweat sneered at me, proving I wasn’t cold. It must be hunger making me shaky. A two minute shower outside the back of the hut, then off to the village market.
Bright coloured sarongs flapped on washing-line displays; bright cloth petals to draw busy-bee tourists like Rachel.
I tipped the coconut back, wishing I had a straw. The sweet milk slid down my throat and dribbled over my chin, which I licked clean.
In front of me, bare black arms lifted a wooden paddle from the brick oven, transferring my crispy white loaf to a wooden table to cool. The bread smelt warm and comforting, just what I needed to get me settled down. It was too hot to touch just yet, though. I’d learnt that lesson yesterday.
I wandered over to the next stall, trying to look casual enough that the seller wouldn’t get pushy. Waiting for my bread, dude, that’s the whole deal. Couldn’t say that in Portuguese, so I had to say it in swagger.
The stall was a clutter of glossy wooden shapes. The wooden fruit was bright, in green, yellow, red, but the rest of the carvings were dark, probably ebony or something like that. There were boxes, people, animals. At the end of the row was a knee-high hippo. He yawned, showing peg-teeth, inset, carved out of something like bone.
My body started to shudder all over again, but I forced it to stop, since the vendor was looking at me funny.
I made myself walk over to the sculpture, bend down, stroke the smooth lips. The artist hadn’t bothered with whiskers or even dimples. I guessed most people wouldn’t notice them. I guessed I should think myself lucky. I was alive, not even injured.
And, I realised, I had a killer excuse for missing the boat. I imagined what Rachel’s face might look like later as she watched me tell the story. Minus the peeing my pants bit, of course.
I stroked the hippo’s back in a kind of prayer of thanks. Lucky.
At any rate, compared to the shirtless owner of this stall, I was lucky. Running water, electricity, clothes without holes.
There was no way I could afford the big hippo, let alone fit it on my lap for the drive back. Not that I wanted it.
The seller was getting excited by my interest, though. Probably pay for his food for a week. There weren’t many tourists yet, perhaps he was still waiting to make a sale. He must have seen the bread man give me change, heard the coins clink in my pocket.
Perhaps there was something smaller I could buy. There were other shiny black hippos, or course, in every different size. That would be logical, but I really didn’t want them. Behind the big hippo, though, something caught my eye.
It looked like the hippo had laid an egg.
I reached my hand behind him, and pulled out…
… a teapot?
Among all these African figures, here was a small, pale teapot – spout, handle, lid and all. It was decorated all over with words, carved in relief. It seemed to be made of the same golden wood as my mother’s ancient oak kitchen table.
Why a teapot?
Most of the things on the stalls here were repeated in every market, stock items that tourists liked. Animals, shells, jewelery. African stuff. Not tea pots. Certainly not sculptures of tea pots.
I checked the lid and tapped the sides. Yup. Aside from being too small to be much use, never mind being made of wood, this teapot was solid, not hollow. Crazy. Meant for a little girl’s toy, perhaps? But why then, covered in words?
I didn’t want it, but now I’d shown too much interest in it.
The vendor was telling me a price, already giving me discount, so sure of his sale now, that it felt mean to deny him. I had enough in my pocket, and to spare. His smile was wide and bright when I gestured him not to give change.
I flopped back on my bed, and brushed a final crispy crumb from the fuzz on my top lip and into my mouth, nibbling at the smoky crunch of it. The bread here was worth the rest of the trip, easily.
I had in mind to nap until the others got back for lunch, but the hippo still glared at me when I tried to close my eyes.
I rolled onto my side, but bamboo-pole walls aren’t all that much to look at. No cellphone signal here, no internet, had to pack so light my mom wouldn’t even let me bring books.
I wasn’t supposed to need a book, being busy with the delights of snorkeling.
Fifteen years she’d known me, and my mom still hadn’t figured I was terrified of the sea. That’s the thing when someone is crazy about something, they can’t understand how other people might not feel the same way. Especially their own offspring.
Actually, though, I suspected I was here to entertain Rachel. Now there was something my mom had not thought through. What if Rachel decided she wanted to date me or something? What if it didn’t work out? Would my mom’s job be safe if I displeased the bosses’ daughter?
So far I’d done my best to avoid her, while still seeming polite.
I rolled back the other way, facing the little table.
Idly, I picked up the teapot. My fingers enjoyed the edges of the raised letters. Underneath was the maker’s name, “Outjie Botha”, and the date – the day before yesterday, I realised. That meant it must be local, since it hadn’t had time to travel. “Outjie Botha” didn’t sound very local, though. South African, perhaps, but not Mozambican.
One of the words on the side of the little pot seemed to be a name, too – ‘Machel’. That sounded vaguely familiar, and could be Portuguese.
I rotated the little sculpture, taking in the detail.
Woah. The word before Machel was ‘kill’. ‘Kill Machel’ ? What a friendly thing to use as a souvenir decoration.
Intrigued now, I looked for the start of the text, working my round. When I was done, my eyebrows were lost in my hairline.
‘Help me get out of here. I can testify. I saw them kill Machel. I watched them move the beacon.’
What that meant, I had no idea. What did seem possible, though, if this wasn’t a joke, was that what I held was a kind of ‘message in a bottle.’ A message carved onto a teapot, perhaps by a man whose captors didn’t speak English. A man who was close by to the bed I lay on, now. A man who needed help.
Oy. I’m just a kid, and my name’s not Harry, or Percy, or Artemis. Mozey’s my name, chillaxin is my game. This ‘holiday’ had already been way, way, way too eventful.
My first thought was to get rid of the thing, maybe toss it into the sea. But what if it didn’t wash up, didn’t get found by someone strong and responsible?
This carving must have taken a while, and let’s face it, paper would have been easier. What if he couldn’t get paper, or make any other kind of plan? What if this was for real, and, what if this guy had only this one chance?
…what if I held his life in my hands?