“Whoah, look out!” Jamir Faez tugged his short, beefy friend out of the way of a topless fire-breather’s way as the man lifted a long taper before his face and sprayed out a mist of alcohol that caused the flames to flare extravagantly with a whoosh.
“Damn near took my eyebrows off! Thanks, Jamir!” exclaimed Babr Mimoun, checking his brows and then running a hand over his smooth ebon pate, which glistened in the glare of the drumming sun.
“Not a problem, my friend,” replied Jamir as the two sauntered along Meduza Beach, where folks had gathered in their hundreds for the spring equinox celebration.
Many had come from the nearby port town of Talipalau, as had Jamir and Babr, but many had journeyed from further afield just to participate in the annual festival. Strolling south, the two could see Talipalau as a bump on the horizon further down the beach, behind a flock of colourful banners and awnings of rippling satin and silk. Waves of noise crashed against them as they went, just as breakers crashed on the shore, the sound of so many mouths making music merging into one ungodly babble, where hawkers’ high cries pierced the mismatched melody and at the same time the moan of myriad mutterers gave it an undertow. Peals of drunken laughter elevated the pitch now and again, before it was brought down once more by smokers’ coughs. The salty scent of the sea was overlaid by the more human scents of body odour, baui smoke and a faint whiff of puke. Jamir thought he had never heard or smelled such a complex symphony – and would never like to again.
“I can’t wait for the race to start,” he said, taking his pipe and a hide pouch from a pocket in his yellow breeches. “I can’t stand this hullaballoo.”
“I like it,” replied Babr, perfectly at home as he swaggered along, swapping greetings with folks here and there, waving and winking and smiling genially. Beside him, Jamir was a rake of a man who stank of unfriendliness, sullen-faced and sallow. “These are our people, Jamir, and they’re here to see us! What a day, eh?”
“Yes,” said Jamir with as much enthusiasm as a man being led to the gallows. “What a day. If I have any more excitement, I think I’ll bust a rib.”
He stopped at one of the many fires lining the beach, fished out a lit twig and used it to light his pipe before tossing the twig back into the heart of the flames. He puffed until he was swimming in a sea of smoke, and watched as Babr wandered over to a stall selling wine. Jamir chuckled as Babr argued with the man, saying he did not want two cups, he wanted two jugs, and then haggled over the price. Eventually, Babr paid the man a few copper coins and moseyed back over to the fire to hand Jamir one of two jugs of rich red wine.
Jamir tapped out his pipe, put it away and took a draught of the wine gratefully, smacking his lips. “Mm, fruity. Thanks, Babr.”
“Not a problem, my friend.”
They ambled on, slower now, careful not to spill their wine down their tunics. The blue sky had never seemed so vast, thought Jamir, watching pelicans circle.
“How goes business, my friend?” he asked after a few minutes of companionable silence.
“Ah, you know,” replied Babr off-hand, stroking wine from his black beard, neatly trimmed into the shape of an arrow, and licking it from his palm. “There is always a need for boats by the coast, so a boat-builder is never entirely out of work. How goes yours?”
Jamir smiled. “People will always need fish, and I will always need solitude. It’s a good time to be a fisherman. Look out.”
They took a circuitous route around the troop of flailing dancers who seemed determined to kick Babr in the head as they performed their flipping routine, all dressed in bright colours that shone in the noon sun. Jamir grimaced as they passed the men and women playing drums and brass instruments to make music for the dancers.
“What a caterwauling,” he muttered under his breath.
“Isn’t there anything here that interests you, my friend?” asked Babr, hearing him over the din somehow and chuckling. “Boiled crab, fresh and smoked fish, squid, octopus tentacle, dancing, singing, wrestling, coal-walking, pantomime, games of chance and strength … There must be something here that tickles your fancy?”
Jamir surveyed the plethora of pleasures to be had on Meduza Beach that day and shook his head. “Let’s just go and wait with your family. It can’t be long now.”
Babr sighed dramatically and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “I know you miss your wife and daughters, my friend, but you can go home to them as soon as the race is over. I won’t ask you to stay for a single drink.”
Jamir nodded as they turned and headed back along the beach towards the serried rowboats. “I know. It’s just that the Straits can be perilous …” He shook his head to clear it of the storm cloud of negative thoughts brewing.
“That’s true,” agreed Babr, chipper as ever. “There hasn’t been a race where a man wasn’t lost at sea in some twelve years now. And even then, he was injured on the rocks out there.” Seeing his friend’s face fall, he quickly added, “I’m sure we’ll be fine, though. You’re still young and strong. You’re one of the best rowers on the team. You’ll be fine, Jamir. We’ll both be fine.”
“Yes,” said Jamir, wondering if his twenty-eighth year was his last on Maradoum. “I’m sure we will.”
“I don’t know about you,” said Babr, puffing out his barrel chest, “but I’m looking forward to it. A chance to pit myself against a force of nature as raw and powerful as the sea. I love it. Been looking forward to it all year.”
Jamir looked at him askance, wondering if he had hit his head. “I just want to represent Talipalau and bring honour to our town. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it particularly.”
“Bah!” scoffed Babr. “You’re a Tiger, man! Show some claws! Let me hear your roar!”
Jamir’s lips twisted. “Roar.”
Babr laughed heartily. “Haha! Maybe you can work on it before the race, hmm?”
“There you two are!” snapped an officious, masculine voice, articulate and clipped, belonging to a muscly man with a shaven head and face. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“Clearly not true,” said Babr, a twinkle in his hazel eyes. “We were only down the beach there.”
“Wherever you were,” ground out the dark-skinned man who had accosted them, “it was not where you were supposed to be. And now I find you drinking! And reeking of baui smoke! Don’t you know we have a race to win? Could you not have kept your bodies clean and your minds clear until afterwards?”
“A shameful display,” drawled a thick-set man as he approached, a swagger in his stride, his curly black hair and beard bouncing with his movement. He grinned with the warmth of a reptile, also smelling of wine and smoke. “Can you not control your team, Ejaz? There’s no way you’ll win today. I could give you some pointers, if you like.”
He and his two cronies guffawed, while Ejaz began to colour.
“Shut up, Mabood!” Ejaz snapped back. “Shouldn’t you be teaching the Monkeys how to deal with your inevitable loss today?”
“Oh-ho!” chortled Mabood Mufti. “Temper, temper, Ejaz! Wouldn’t want to start a brawl on this special day, would you?”
“Just take your lackeys and begone, Mabood,” said Ejaz through gritted teeth. “We’ll see who is the superior man after the race today!”
“Like your chances, do you?” asked Mabood, eyeing him sceptically. “Very well, then. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You Talipalau boys are no match for us men of Crysali, men of the big city. See you out on the waves … boys.”
He turned and sauntered off, and Ejaz turned on Jamir and Babr with fury scrawled across his face. “Can you two fools keep it together and hold off from embarrassing me until the race is over? D’you think you can do that? I want to teach that whoreson, Mabood, a lesson he won’t soon forget!”
Babr started forward violently upon being called a fool, but Jamir subtly held him back and replied, “Yes, Ejaz. We’ll teach him that we men of Talipalau are stronger than he thinks. Babr and I were just preparing ourselves for the race … mentally and physically.”
“Drinking and smoking yourselves into a stupor, you mean,” Ejaz said resentfully. “Where have you been all morning?”
“We’re here now, Ejaz,” replied Jamir breezily, “and the race hasn’t even started yet.”
Ejaz Wahed scowled. “Well, it won’t be long now, so don’t wander off again!”
“We won’t,” said Jamir. “We’re just going to see Babr’s family.”
They turned on their heels and walked away, smirking, to the sound of Ejaz flapping his arms helplessly and wailing, “What did I just say?”
“You get more and more beautiful every time I see you, opal,” Babr greeted his voluptuous, ebon-skinned wife, Ebele, clasping her thick, curly black hair and touching his forehead to hers. Then, he turned to his four-year-old son, who was clad in only a long green tunic and holding Ebele’s hand. “And how are you doing, little Gamil? Ready to watch your father trounce the Crysali Monkeys? Atta boy!” He ruffled the young boy’s onyx hair and grinned.
“Nice to see you again, Ebele,” offered Jamir, nodding.
“And you, Jamir,” replied Ebele, tilting her head and smoothing her teal robes with her spare hand. “Send my best wishes to Pallavi and Ife and tell them I pray for them. I do hope everything went well with the pregnancy? I heard you had another girl called Lachina. It’s been some time since we last saw you, but you know how busy life becomes when you have a little one underfoot. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, since you have two!”
Jamir smiled. “Indeed, you do not. I well know how hectic can become a household with children. Pallavi gave birth without incident, thank the Prophet, and yes, my second daughter’s name is Lachina. I will pass on your wishes and prayers to all of them, thank you, Ebele.”
“Gather round! Gather round!” Ejaz Wahed called amid an intensification of the tumult by the boats. “The race is about to begin! Gather around! Jamir, Babr! That means you, too!”
Babr gave his wife a long-suffering smile, hugged her and kissed her, patted his son on the head and bade them farewell. Jamir bowed and followed his friend, while Ebele and Gamil wished them well. Making their way down to the waterline by the rowboats, Jamir and Babr were subjected to a dark glare by Ejaz, which they ignored, being well-practiced at it by now.
A leather-skinned old man with a long grey beard and equally long grey dreadlocks, his plain white robe billowing in the wind, raised his arms and cried out in a surprisingly powerful baritone given his scrawny frame, “Silence! The race is about to begin!” The crowd quietened down and gathered closer to hear the old man by the boats. “For those of you who do not know me, my name is Hafiz Zamal and I have the great honour of calling myself the headman of Talipalau and the host of today’s festivities!”
The crowd whooped and cheered, until he gradually waved them to silence again.
“Today, we have come together here on Meduza beach to honour a tradition stretching back almost to the Time of the Witches some two hundred years ago, a tradition wherein we, the Babese people, sacrificed our own people in rowboats to the monsters who live in the depths of the Silent Straits in order to satiate their hunger and protect the coastal towns from their terrible wrath. Thankfully, that tradition has changed over the years. Sightings of the dreaded Sea Serpents are far less frequent now than in the past, and most of our rowboats now come back home. Thus was born the spring equinox race. Teams must row out to the Leviathan’s Tooth, that pinnacle of rock that can clearly be seen there, circle around it and return. The first to do so wins! The other headmen and I have all put some money in a pot, so that the winning team will receive five hundred Babaloons!”
The crowd cheered, and Hafiz waited for them to quiet down before adding, “I would just like to take this opportunity to remind the rowers that the money is traditionally given to the headman of the winning town in order to spread the money evenly among the community.”
Babr rolled his eyes. “Why doesn’t he just say what he means?” he murmured. “He wants to line his own damned pockets.”
Jamir shot him a glower. “Don’t speak like that of Hafiz. He’s a public servant, an honourable man.”
Babr rolled his eyes again.
Meanwhile, Hafiz was wrapping up his speech. “Lastly, good luck to all the teams gathered here today, and may the Prophet grant that we all come home safe and sound! You may take your oars, but wait for the flaming arrow to touch the sea before you go.”
Along with seven other bulky men from Talipalau, also dressed in bright yellow breeches, Jamir and Babr clambered into their rowboat behind the leader of the team, Ejaz Wahed. The other ten-man teams did the same, each team wearing a different colour, each man stripping off his tunic and placing it on his seat in the boat for a little added comfort. The body ran hot while rowing. Soon, all the teams were sculling just offshore, waiting for the race to begin. Jamir and Babr fitted their oars into the oarlocks and waited, the sea clapping against the boat as if applauding their bravery, the wind chilly on their flesh.
Jamir breathed deep of the salty air and whispered, “Prophet, protect the Tigers. Permit us to return to shore safely that I may see my family again.”
Ejaz counted off the teams. “Storks, Leopards, Sharks, Monkeys … Only five teams this year, lads! I think the Talipalau Tigers have a real chance of winning!”
“I wonder why none of the teams from the northern towns have come?” one of the Tigers echoed the thoughts of the others.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Ejaz briskly. “What matters is they’re not here and that ameliorates our chances of victory. We must take every advantage we can. We are here to win, boys, not come in second place, you hear me?”
“Aye!” the crew replied as one.
Except for Babr, who muttered to Jamir, “Easy for him to say. All he’s got to do is beat the drum!”
Jamir stifled a snigger as Ejaz glared at them from his position behind the drum strapped into the head of the boat.
“Here it comes, rowers!” Hafiz Zamal shouted from the beach. “Here comes the flaming arrow! Ready and … go!”
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