2nd Place Winner: 2006 Curios Fiction Contest
The Big City
Mattaeo slipped through the house door, which was only a curtain of stringed wooden beads. He both loathed and adored the faint clicking noise the beads made when rustled, but this time the noise brought sadness for he knew he would not hear it again anytime soon—maybe never. He grabbed the strings in his hand to silence them so his family would not wake.
Mattaeo sped down the dirt path, covered with white pebbles, which ran from his house to the beach and eventually to the small marine town of Ochibandowa. His thin sandals glided across the ground and did not make the usual flipping and flopping sound as he ran. He breezed past the palm trees and lizards of his childhood, softly glowing blue under the moonlight. Mattaeo came to the end of the path and found himself on a white beach. It was only a short running distance from his house to the beach, but it would be much longer until Mattaeo reached town. As he ran, his legs moved with feline grace across the sand, slicing across waves that crept up the shore. On his wiry frame he wore a faded T-shirt and khaki shorts that illuminated against his dark skin, and a line of sweat, salty like the air, grew along his spine. But he did not stop to cool himself in the ocean. He never slowed his pace and in less time than usual, Mattaeo reached town, panting softly.
Silver clouds covered the moon. The dock, where Mattaeo was supposed to meet the man who would take him to the Big City, was at the very end. It was so far down the row of docks that no lights hovered above to guide him. The lack of light felt ominous to Mattaeo, and he began to doubt himself and what he was about to do when he saw in the distance a faint silhouette of a small boat with a man sitting in it. There was no time to waste pondering his decision, so Mattaeo slid quietly along the beach until he reached the last dock and approached the man in the boat.
“Are you my ride?” Mattaeo whispered.
“Yeah, get in," said the man, unconcerned with whispering.
Mattaeo unraveled a greasy line from the dock cleat and tossed the rope into the boat. He took one quick glance at the island he was leaving before he climbed into the boat and gave a strong push off the dock. Right after Mattaeo pushed off, he ducked down and lay on the bottom of the boat, hoping the boat driver would not ask any questions. His heart was pounding quite rapidly for fear of being caught running away, and he could hardly breathe. He tried to settle himself and pressed his ear against the dirty boat floor; he listened to the slurping noise of water bouncing under the boat. Sweet alcohol emanated from the boat driver and filled the air inside the boat, which was only a little more than a dinghy.
As they rode away from the island Mattaeo became more and more uncomfortable being in a strange boat with a strange man, heading to a strange place. Mattaeo eventually sat up and gazed out at the water as it streamed by, dark blue with tiny white caps. The beach was now completely out of sight; they were surrounded by water only, and Mattaeo realized he could not turn back. He began to think about his family and tried not to think about his mother, how her warm face would turn cold when she woke to find his empty bed.
The journey went on and on until the hours seemed like minutes. The boat driver and Mattaeo were now many miles away from shore or any other boat, and both remained quiet. Mattaeo was intimidated by the boat driver; he tried to think of something to say, but feared the boat driver would only snarl at him. Although afraid of the man, Mattaeo was intrigued by the extreme unkempt state the boat driver was in. He had gray wiry hair everywhere on his head and face and on his gut which was sticking out from underneath his food stained T-shirt. His disheveled appearance did not allow Mattaeo to look down on him as one would assume, but struck a cord of reverence within him.
The night sky had begun to grow lighter and lighter. By the time the first whisper of pink appeared on the horizon they had run out of gas. The boat driver lifted up the seat Mattaeo was sitting on, still without a word, pushing him backward so he fell onto the boat floor with a thud.
“Hey," Mattaeo said timidly.
Ignoring Mattaeo, the boat driver grabbed a scuffed red gasoline can. He filled the tank until the can was empty then started the motor back up, launching them forward. He moved toward the bench to put the can back and this time Mattaeo moved out of the way lest he be thrown backwards again by the old man. Just as Mattaeo was standing up, an awkward chop of a wave struck the side of the boat and thrust Mattaeo’s slight body into the unwelcoming waters of the ocean.
Mattaeo was a great swimmer. He lived his whole life in Ochibandowa under its clear waters searching for gold. The adults told him there was no more gold in Ochibandowa to be found, but Mattaeo searched every day anyway. He was not a stranger to this ocean, but it did not matter now because his leg became entangled with the line he had so sloppily tossed into the boat. The driver quickly turned the boat around to retrieve Mattaeo, not realizing he was caught in the line. When he turned Mattaeo became even more knotted in the rope and he was swung silently underneath the boat, ending up on the other side.
The boat driver became greatly discombobulated and continued driving around in circles, scanning the water’s surface ahead of him. Mattaeo tugged furiously on the rope, trying to loosen his leg. He was unable to get the driver's attention for he was gulping water by the mouthful, trying to keep his head above the waves. Mattaeo was now completely submerged; he could not understand why the mean old man was not stopping the boat. The line was now pulled taut and soon became tangled in the propeller. The line grew shorter and shorter as the motor chewed it up, leading Mattaeo straight into its hungry teeth.
Alkaline smoke filled the air, and the motor made a horrible screeching noise as the rope wrapped around the propeller. The wretched noise drew the driver’s attention towards the back of the boat where he saw Mattaeo just below the surface and rushing towards the motor. For a second, the driver did not know what to do, everything was happening so fast. He cut the motor and held his breath as he watched Mattaeo speed underwater towards the blades. Just as Mattaeo's leg reached the motor, the propeller made its final spin. The boat glided until it eventually became idle and Mattaeo was at last able to come up for air. The boat driver hardly waited until Mattaeo came to the surface to begin yelling at him. "What’s the matter with you? Do you think I have time for this? I really don’t need this, especially not from a kid like you!" The old man's face was nearly purple. "Can you at least untie that knot and get back in the boat, huh, can ya?”
Mattaeo said nothing for fear of aggravating the driver even more. He tried to untangle himself, but was only able to retrieve a few feet of rope. The only way he could reach the knot on his leg was by lifting it or going underwater, and both of these took more energy than Mattaeo had. Finally, he gave up the struggle.
“I have a knife in my bag there by my seat. Maybe you could just cut the knot off,” Mattaeo said.
“Hell no, kid, I’m not wasting a perfectly good line. Just unwind the damn rope and get in the boat so I can untie you."
"I tried already, it's stuck."
"Oh wonderful! I'd seriously have no problem leaving you out there kid if I didn't need that line back. Don't look at me like that. Here just give me your leg."
The driver hastily reached over the back of the boat, grabbed Mattaeo’s leg and began picking at the knot while Mattaeo struggled to keep his head above water. It took a long time before the driver recovered all of his badly frayed line from both the motor and Mattaeo's leg. By that time Mattaeo was thoroughly exhausted. Without assistance, he lifted himself back into the boat and collapsed into his seat. The driver pulled the rope to start the engine, turning the throttle to give it some gas. The motor started momentarily, then made a cracking noise and fizzled out. The driver tried again; he pulled the rope over and over until sweat soaked through his shirt, but nothing happened. The motor would not start back up and the driver sat and stared dejectedly at his broken engine, breathing heavily.
“Now what?” Mattaeo said finally.
“Now what?” whispered the boat driver as he turned to face Mattaeo. Then he shouted, “NOW WHAT? Is that what you have to say for yourself? You break our motor in the middle of the ocean and ask ‘now what?’! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Mattaeo looked down and pretended to inspect the rope burns on his leg; he was too ashamed to respond. The boat driver took a deep breath and opened his mouth to start yelling again, but instead looked away, letting Mattaeo stay silent. Mattaeo peeked up from his leg and expected to see a raging demon. Instead he saw a docile old man, and for this he was relieved.
They sat in the boat which was unnervingly placid, like a dead fish on top the ocean, left only with their thoughts, first of panic, then of hunger, then of fear. Dense tension clung to the silence—tension filled with Mattaeo’s shame and the boat driver’s rancor, mixed with a sense of dread from both. The boat driver soon grew tired of doing nothing and lifted the motor into the boat to take a look at it. He poked at it and brought his face right next to it to get a closer look, but he did not seem to know what he was doing. Since the driver had lost all interest in talking to Mattaeo, Mattaeo was the one to finally puncture the silence.
“Do you have any paddles or anything?” Mattaeo asked.
"What the hell good is a paddle going to do us? We're way too far out to paddle anywhere.”
"So do you have any?"
"Do you have any flares?"
"What should we do then?"
The boat driver stared at Mattaeo incredulously then said, “Listen to me kid, I been on these waters thirty some years and this has never happened to me. Christ, I never even heard of this happening to someone else. How the hell should I know what to do? Do you realize that winding a line around a propeller isn't very normal. I ain’t been in this deep of shit ever, not even when I was getting mugged every day in the City.”
“You mean you’re from the Big City?”
“That’s what it looks like, Genius. Anyway, enough of this getting-to-know-each-other crap, we need to do something about getting us back to land. Pretty soon some not-sofriendly fish is going to find us and, if that doesn’t happen, our food and water are going to run out and we’ll be praying we get swallowed up just to end the misery. You know how to catch fish?”
Mattaeo was becoming increasingly amused by this man’s rough singsong speech and liked that he was from the Big City. He was starting to hope the boat driver would like him, even though he was very unpleasant, and tried to speak in more adult tones toward him.
“Not in the deep sea like this. I only know how to fish where it’s shallow by the reef. Besides, I’m the one who should be worrying about starving, not you. You have more fat on your belly than I do see?" Mattaeo grabbed his stomach to prove his point, to which to boat driver rolled his eyes. "I think we need to find some way to lure the fish to us then stab them when they get close. What do you think? I have a knife.”
“That’s impossible kid. We don’t even have anything on this boat to lure fish to the surface, forget about it.” With this the driver returned to inspecting the motor.
“Here let’s see.” Mattaeo grabbed a ham sandwich out of his sack and began creating an apparatus with a plastic bag to keep the sandwich from going to the bottom of the ocean. He sliced three strips of the plastic with his knife, braided them, looped the braid through the sandwich and wrapped the sandwich in the remaining plastic so it would not get too soggy.
"What are you doing?" The driver asked.
Mattaeo tossed the whole thing, including his sandwich, over the side of the boat.
“No don’t!” The boat driver protested but it was too late, the sandwich was ruined.
“I can’t believe this. We need to save our food, and eat it sparingly, not throw it in the water! Jesus kid.”
Mattaeo could see the old man did not want a response so he just sat and stared at his bait. While he was waiting, Mattaeo's attention shifted toward watching the old man, who had begun to dismantle the motor, and wondered how they would ever make it to land. His mind drifted to thoughts of his family which made his stomach feel sick. He was imagining how disappointed his family would be of him for leaving, especially if he died this way. His eyes grew tired with these heavy thoughts and he leaned back in his seat, soon falling asleep. He had, after all, been awake all night and all morning. The old man fell asleep shortly after Mattaeo.
Hours passed. Nothing happened. Only the sun seemed to change; everything else was sealed in time. Neither knew how long they had been sleeping exactly, but when Mattaeo woke up he found his sandwich half gone.
“Wake up, wake up,” Mattaeo said, shoving the old man’s leg. “Look, something ate the sandwich!”
The old man looked over at the remainder of a water logged ham sandwich floating atop a plastic bag, then back at the boy. The driver shook his head as if to regain his bearings and did not look happy at all to have been woken up.
“Do you get what this means old man?”
“Yeah kid, I do, it means you woke me up out of a great dream, you wasted your food, you didn’t bother to stay awake to see what happened to it, and now we’re going to starve. Just leave me alone and let me sleep for a while, will ya.”
The boat driver leaned back, pulled his straw hat over his face to block the sun and fell back asleep. Mattaeo hung his head and slouched over in discouragement, but he did not give up. His eyes did not move from the ham sandwich, he watched it like his life depended on it, which he knew was a strong possibility. While Mattaeo stared at the water his mind wandered to visions of the Big City. He pictured crowds of people, like schools of fish, darting on sidewalks, all living lives far more glamorous than his. He thought of buildings that reached into the clouds, like he had seen on postcards shown to him by the sailors. He dreamed about being invited into one of these buildings. As he was trying to imagine what the inside of the building would look like, a spot of white was quickly emerging toward the water’s surface.
Mattaeo came out of his fantasy just as the white spot was going for his ham sandwich. He saw it was a fish, and, in one swift movement, slid his body to the edge of the boat and raised his knife to eye level. He paused until the fish was an inch away from the sandwich, and then he struck the fish through its tender belly. He lifted the fish out of the water; it was as big as his forearm. Before waking the old man, Mattaeo triumphantly watched the fish flopping on his blade and was overwhelmed with relief.
“Look what I got us old man!”
“Leave me alo--” He started, but then saw the fish on Mattaeo’s knife and completely changed his tone. “Good lord, you did it! You actually did it kid! Here, hand it over, let me see it.”
Mattaeo was thrilled the old man no longer seemed so hostile. They cut open the fish and ate its pink flesh. Mattaeo saved a piece of its meat and set it out as bait. Fish continued to come. After they finished the fish, Mattaeo felt a slight sense of being full, but not nearly as much as he would have hoped for. With the edge of hunger taken off, Mattaeo began to feel he should do something like apologize to the driver, or thank him.
“Hey, what’s your name old man?”
“Mine’s Mattaeo, if you want you can just call me Taeo because that’s what I’m used to.” Jack did not say anything. After a while Mattaeo started again, “Hey Jack, I just want you to know that I feel so bad about this and that you made me really happy that you saved me and everything, you know, from the engine.” Mattaeo became too emotional for his words to come out right. “And I am thinking you are a very good man and its good for me I wasn’t put on a boat with someone else.”
The old man looked up from his fish and said, "What are you trying to say kid? There's no point in apologizing now, if that's what you're getting at."
Mattaeo looked down and tried to think of something else to say. He guessed his silence made Jack uncomfortable because he put his fish down and began wringing his hands, looking all around.
“So...what are you going to the City for? You got family there or something?” Jack asked awkwardly.
Mattaeo perked up. “Nope, all my family is in Ochibandowa. They didn’t even know I was leaving.”
“Don’t you think they’ll be worried about you leaving?”
“Yes, but I had to go. I couldn’t stay there anymore.”
Mattaeo was beginning to feel very guilty. “You see, the sailors have been telling me about the Big City my whole life and every time I’d ask my mother about going she’d say no. This is the only way I could go.”
Jack stared off for a while then shook his head. "Heh, crazy," he murmured.
"What?" Mattaeo asked.
"Nothing. It's just that you remind me a lot of myself when I was a teenager."
"Really?" Mattaeo tried envision how he could possible resemble the crude old man.
"Yep, I was stuck too once, with my mom, in our apartment. I hated it. My mom wouldn't let me leave either. I'd ask her every summer to take a trip out to the shore with my friend's family. She'd give me some lame excuse every time."
"Did you ever leave?"
"No, I stayed there, that's how come I'm on this boat with you! Jesus. No kid, I left, just like you, I ran away."
"I didn't run away." Mattaeo snapped.
"OK kid, whatever, you didn't run away. Anyway, I got fed up with my mom running my life and hitched a ride on a produce truck to the shore."
The ornery old man Mattaeo first met seemed to almost fade away when Jack talked about his past. "Were you afraid?" Mattaeo asked.
"Hell yeah, I was scared. The first week I spent on the shore I thought I saw my mom everywhere. I got over it, though, when I found a job on a sailboat heading to the Southern Islands." Jack laughed. "I at least knew my mom wasn't going to find me there."
"Then what happened?"
"Then... I came to Ochibandowa." Jack's gaze became distant, transported into the memory he was recalling. "Me and the crew had to stay in Ochibandowa longer than expected because of a hurricane. We couldn't stay on the boat so most of us hung out at the bars all day. That's where I met Amira. She's the reason I stayed in Ochibandowa."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't really want to get into that kid. Let's just say, at this point, she wouldn't miss me too much if I died out here on this boat."Mattaeo felt confused about this and wanted to know more, but did not have the courage to pry, so he dropped it.
“Then, are you glad, Jack, that you left the Big City and your family and everything?”
Jack seemed to think about this a long time, for conversation moved much slower than if they were in ordinary life, then he eventually said, “You know, it’s hard and lots of nights in Ochibandowa I think back to the City, I think about my mom and my friends, and I miss it, a lot really.” He stopped and thought some more. “But you know what kid, I would never go back because this feeling of missing things I used to know isn’t so bad. It’s not as bad as feeling like I was missing things I would never know. Ah, never mind. None of this is making any sense.”
It did make sense, though, at least to Mattaeo, and he at last felt like someone could understand him. He wanted Jack to keep going but sensed from Jack's returned focus to the motor that he was finished talking. They sat in the boat, again not talking for a great while. Mattaeo was thinking still about what it would be like if he ever made it to the Big City. His thoughts were interrupted when a green light and a red light appeared in the distance. Jack did not see it, but Mattaeo did and he began to scream and wave his arms. Jack realized why Mattaeo was screaming, and he began to scream as well.
Two days later both Jack and Mattaeo were safe on shore. On the way there Jack told Mattaeo all about Amira. He told Mattaeo about how her long black hair shone when they met and how they got married a week later. He told how they never left each other's side for the first two years. Jack explained that after he started taking more and more long boat trips, Amira became resentful. She could not have any children and grew lonely in Jack's absence. Things went on like that for decades, until last year. All the while, though, Jack felt Amira was still his soul, his reason for living and he never stopped wanting her. Then, when Jack was away for two weeks ferrying people around to different islands, Amira cheated on him. Jack told Mattaeo that when he found out it felt like a building landed on him, but he was willing to forgive Amira. She left him anyway.
It took the entire two days for Mattaeo to learn all of this information about Jack's past. By the time they reached port, Mattaeo could not remember, even when he tried, the surly old man he had left Ochibandowa with.
The boat dropped Jack and Mattaeo off at Prince City, which was a few hundred miles south of the Big City. Mattaeo now only had a few more hours on a bus heading north until he reached the Big City. He was hopelessly nervous as he boarded the bus and tried to look like he knew what he was doing. Jack was there to see him off.
“Jack, thanks for everything, you are a very good man. I want to write you if that is okay. Can I have your address? I’d give you mine but I don’t have one right now.”
Jack envied Mattaeo and wished he was the one who did not have an address. “Sure kid, hey, you’ll do great. Just don’t stop wondering what else is out there.” Jack turned and walked away.
Don’t stop wondering what else is out there, Mattaeo thought as he stared out the bus window at a hard, gray paradise.