Under the shade of the willow tree, eight-year old Rami dangled his toes into the muddy river water. He had parked his oversized, rickety bicycle against the wide girth of the tree trunk and flung his singlet on the ground. His flip flops too had been kicked off and lay resting on the parched grass, like to wet fish out of water. The hot afternoon sun beat down, too bright for rays, instead one all consuming blanket of heat that wrapped itself around every creature, every blade of grass, every human in a clingy embrace. Occasionally a breeze would break through the curtain of heat, drawing it apart for a momentary swish, then letting it fall back closed again, a heavy drape that let nothing through.
Under these layers of heat, Rami found cool relief in the warm yet cool-to-the-touch waters of the river. There was no one around; this section of the river was quiet, most villagers preferring the part that ran near the square where there were benches and steps on the riverbank for easy access. He could see the square from where he was, the usual cluster of stalls, shops and people going about their afternoon business. His mother was at home with this baby brother, and Rami figured he had some time because she began looking for him.
With great glee he slid his sweaty body into the river. The tea-colored waters lapped at his chest and ran through his fingers. He dunked his head under, raised it and shook it like a wet dog shakes its body, droplets spraying everywhere and glistening in the sun. Treading water he tried to reach for the bottom with his toes and was tall enough to just about graze it, feeling slick oily mud, pebbles and tangled vegetation. Holding on to an overhanging branch, he kicked about, enjoying the openness and the freedom of a sunny afternoon and of a childhood that as far as Rami was concerned would last forever.
A stray dog barked at him from the bank across the river. Rami barked back playfully, and laughed when the dog looked surprised. A slip of a creature, the dog was tan with white patches, pointy, all legs and with eyes that were too big for its head. Rami pretended to splash it by thrashing his legs in the water and the dog turned around and scuttled away, looking back once or twice to see if Rami was following.
Rami sawn to the river bank and sat down, half submerged. Folding his arms behind his head, he lay down and with the sun beating down on his cool body, began to feel waves of sleep washing over him. Just as he was nodding off, he heard a bit of a commotion going on in the distance. Opening his eyes, he looked up and saw a group of people gathered at the village square. They looked rather confused and distressed, and among them he recognized his mother, cradling his baby brother on one hip. For some reason, when Rami saw that he felt the need to hide. So he crawled out of the river, sat on the side of the willow not facing the square, and craned his neck round the tree trunk to get an idea of what was happening.
A blurred cacophony of voice filled the air, and there was a lot of hand gesturing. One voice rose above the others and said, “He’s might be over there.” The group of villagers, including his mother, scampered over the “there”—which was the river bank—and peered into the distance, in different directions. Some of them were gazing in his direction, others in the opposite direction, and yet others just gazed at some far point visible only in their minds. Then he heard his mother’s voice, “He told me he was going for a ride near the river. That was two hours ago!”
Two hours?, thought Rami. Surely he hadn’t been gone that long. In his estimation of time, it felt like he had only been away an hour at the most, but when he saw the position of the sun in the sky he realized that he was wrong. Rami understood what was going on. His mother was looking for him. She was worried, and she thought he had gone to the section of the river most frequented by the villagers.
Even more so now Rami felt the need to hide. He squeezed his body up against the tree trunk, as if that would help make him invisible, and shut his eyes. Even though there was little chance of him being discovered from so far away, and that being discovered might actually be the best thing for him, he feared the outpourings of his mother’s fear that would come before any kind of relief or joy.
When he mustered up the courage, he opened one eye and peeped round the switches of the trunk. Oh my, the group had grown. The uncle from the snack shop had come out to join the party, as had the newspaper man, the bread man and the aunty who sold wonton noodles on the corner. They were standing around with their hands on their hips, nodding their heads and chatting. Then the village builder stood up on a bench. He was sometime the de facto village senior, the one people went to for help and support. The crowd gathered around him, he addressed them and the next thing Rami knew the group split up into smaller groups, each going off in its own direction. A search party!
Feeling the pressure of having a formal search party go out looking for him, Rami felt more than ever that he could not let himself be found. If they discovered that he had been playing safely by himself all along, was not in danger or had not been kidnapped or hurt, they would be livid! Because in their mind, something terrible had obviously happened to him and to reveal that he was okay, that their anxiety and vigilance had been over nothing, that their frantic search had been unnecessary would in a strange way be letting them down. So Rami lay his bicycle flat on the ground, stuffed his singlet and flip flops into a crevice in the tree, climbed up and hid himself among the branches.
For about half an hour he lay there, making no sound or movement but with his ears perked like a civet cat. None of the search parties even came near where he was. One group poked around the village square, another went off in the opposite direction and the third came towards him but stopped a fair distance away. He noticed that some of the energy the villagers exuded at the start of their search was beginning to flag, and some people were now sitting down, while others looked around as if they had run out of ideas for where to search.
Finally after about an hour, they returned to the square. They patted Rami’s mother on the back and started to disperse. Rami’s tired and worried mother adjusted the baby on her hip and headed towards home, a rather forlorn expression on her face. When Rami saw that his heart tugged at him. Slipping down from the tree, he gathered his things, got on his back and peddled as quickly as he could so he would reach home before she did and she would find him waiting.
Written on 5 March 2006
Photo by K. Schuller