In the Isle of the Beholder
Mommy and Daddy say I’m beautiful, but I don’t believe them. They are the ones who are beautiful, not me. I look nothing like them. I can spend hours touching their faces, running my fingers over the features that are much more interesting than mine. Daddy says I look just like Mommy did before they fell from the sky onto the island. I don’t believe that either. When I look at my reflection in a shiny object or a pool of water, I can’t imagine Mommy looking as strange as I do.
But those are the sort of things parents tell their children out of love, I guess. Like when Daddy was teaching me how to fish and I just couldn’t get the worm to stay on the hook. He told me it was okay because the worm really liked me and would rather spend time with me than with the fish. Or the time Mommy was teaching me to cook and I kept burning the food. She insisted Daddy liked it that way and she could never quite manage to burn it the way he preferred it like I could.
Mommy and Daddy are always telling me things like that because they love me. So when they told me I need to run and hide if I ever saw pale men in green clothes, it was hard to take them seriously. But they were very serious. Scary serious. Even after they described these strange people as sometimes wearing turtle shells on their heads, which sounded very funny, they stayed very serious and insisted I promise I would run away if I ever saw the Pale People. I told them I would, even though I didn’t believe, because I love them.
I tried talking more to them about the Pale People, but they didn’t want to. They just said they are very dangerous and were part of the reason why they were on the island. The only other time they did not want to talk about something is when I asked about the Outside World. They said it was a bad place. Very busy. People were mean to each other. People collected useless things and fought over them. Mommy and Daddy said there was nothing in the Outside World I would want. They said everything I needed was right here on the island. It was better here.
I asked them if there were other children to play with in the Outside World. Mommy and Daddy would look long and sadly at each other, then at me and say, yes, there are other children in the Outside World, but it wasn’t worth it to go into the world to meet them. It was because of the world the aero-plane crashed on the island. It was because of the world there were thirty-two piles of stones next to the aero-plane wreckage with someone buried beneath them. It was because of the world they were afraid of the Pale People.
I’m thinking of all these things because I’m standing on a cliff, looking down at the beach and there are people down there. It is far away and I can’t see them very well and I’m asking myself if those are turtle shells on their heads? It doesn’t matter, really, because they are strangers and they can only have come from one place: The Outside World. Which means they are bad. They are gathered around a big metal box that is half in the water. What is that thing? When did they come? How did they come? Why are they here?
It was luck that I came to this side of the island, because I rarely come here. Because Mommy’s birthday is coming soon, I came to this side to pick the tasty sun-fruit that she loves so much that doesn’t grow near home. Mommy and Daddy don’t like coming to this side of the island because it means passing by the aero-plane and the field of stones where their friends are buried. It makes them sad.
But because it’s Mommy’s birthday, and because the sun-fruit only grows over here, I saw the strangers in time, before they could sneak up on us on our side of the island.
Still, as I watch them form a single file line that disappears into the jungle, I ask myself again if those are turtle shells on their heads and if they are Pale People? Maybe they have children? Maybe they brought some and I just can’t see them from here?
I decide that I must investigate further. Just to be sure. After all, Mommy and Daddy will want to know as much as possible when I go back and warn them about the strangers. Daddy especially would expect nothing less. “Both a good scientist and warrior,” he says, “gather as much information as possible before taking action .”
I back track into the jungle and angle towards where I’m certain their path will cross mine. I hide along a creek, the bank of which is the path of least resistance they are most likely to take when walking through the jungle.
It isn’t long. I hear them long before I see them. They speak in a strange tongue that sounds more like noise than language. Just as I see their shapes bobbing in the trees and leafy plants, a breeze blows my way and I can smell them. They smell even stranger than they sound. But there is something familiar about the smell too, like maybe something I’ve smelled before near the aero-plane.
As they come closer, I gasp and quickly cover my mouth to hide the sound, and just as quickly am angry with myself for making the noise. Angry that, despite how well hid I know I am, my heart is still beating hard. “A good warrior,” Daddy says, “never gives her position away. She is calm, swift, and silent.” These words were often repeated while showing me how to move silently among dead leaves while hunting wild pig.
But this was my first time seeing the Pale People. A people I had, until now, thought were make-believe. A people my parents made up to scare me into going to bed on time or eating my vegetables when I was little.
But there they are…with turtle shells on their heads.
Their faces are indeed pale, as are their hands. But they cover the rest of their bodies with too much clothing. The same green clothes Mommy and Daddy described. Their faces are not only pale, but ugly and strange. Too smooth for a person. They are smooth like the rocks you find at the bottom of the creek.
They have all manner of belts and straps and stuff jangling on their bodies as they noisily tromp through the jungle. Even their feet were completely covered. Why wear so much stuff? Why wear anything in this heat? The very sight of them makes me uncomfortable. I get hot and sweaty just watching them an arms length away in my hiding place. And most strange of all, they carry a combination of metal and wood walking stick in their hands. They look very heavy and uncomfortable to carry, and they weren’t even using them to help them walk.
Mommy and Daddy were right: The Pale People from the Outside World are very strange indeed…and they have no children with them.
The last of them pass by and continue on their noisy way deeper into the jungle. Towards home. Judging by the speed they are traveling, it will be easy to sneak around them and get home first to warn Mommy and Daddy so we can hide.
I step out onto the path and watch the last one disappear into the darkness of the jungle. I turn to leave by another way, but something on the ground captures my attention. I look and see a strange object. One of the Pale People had dropped something.
It’s flat, rectangular, and brown in color with shiny edges on its smaller sides. One side has more shiny material exposed than the other and is crumpled like the metal on the damaged portions of the aero-plane, but in miniature. The brown portion has strange writing on it, no doubt Pale People language.
Heart racing at the idea of touching something real from the Outside World, I reach down and pick it up. Its flatness easily covers my entire palm, but it’s very light even though it’s only as thick as my finger.
I turn it over repeatedly in my hands, curious. Looking closer I see that the brown is more like black, and the surface is glossy. The writing is white, block-shaped letters that make no sense. I draw a breath when I realize it’s actually a form of paper, something like the kind of paper used for photographs. I’d only ever seen a few examples of paper, and this looked closest to that used for photographs. There were a few photographs at home from Mommy and Daddy’s former life…mostly pictures of sunsets and landscapes….and Daddy explained their creation to me once. I understood, but still found it hard to believe that paper could capture images with chemicals. Was this photo paper?
I poke the crumpled metallic looking end, making a crinkling noise. When I pull, it unfolds stiffly and remains in the last position in which I leave it. I frown at this development, biting my lower lip as I concentrate on twisting, bending, and reshaping the silvery fragile stuff, noticing in the process that it has a backside made of white paper. My frown deepens. I know this because I can almost make out my ugly reflection in the shiny side.
Mommy and Daddy should see this, I decide. If only for proof that the Pale People are here. I stand from my crouching position where I was handling it and make one last twist to satisfy my curiosity. When I did so, something crumbled at the center of the object beneath the different papers and falls out, landing at my feet.
I bend over and retrieve it, seeing that it looks like a half dried piece of mud that someone went through much trouble to shape into a perfect tiny square. Well, it would have been if one side of it didn’t have a jagged edge where it broke off from a bigger piece.
Curious again, I peel back the paper further and see that it’s merely a cover for more of the half dried mud. There was the jagged edge where the portion in my other hand had come from…and teeth marks?
I look at the small portion suspiciously. I sniff it and am surprised when I smell a pleasing, yet unfamiliar smell. It makes my mouth water.
Food? Wrapped in photo paper?
I put it in my mouth and chew. Right away the taste hits my tongue like sweet mud sending bolts of pleasure to the center of my brain. I’m shocked, but in a good way, eyes widening. Then I close my eyes, momentarily under its influence .
When I open them again, my heart stops with an icy blade through it.
I haven’t been a very alert warrior like Daddy has taught, because on the path in front of me is one of the invaders, a shocked look on his pale face staring at me from underneath his turtle shell.
My stopped heart suddenly does the opposite and jolts into flutters as I break through the jungle, leaves and branches whipping my face. Daddy would be angry at me for letting myself fall into such a panic so quickly. He would expect more from his “Little Jungle Warrior.” With this shameful thought, I calm myself and choose my steps more carefully, ducking under the undergrowth. I go into pig-chasing mode . And not a minute too soon because I can hear the man on the path crying out to his companions. I don’t understand the strange words, but it can’t be good.
I slip silently towards home, but stop suddenly in my tracks. A different Pale Stranger appears in front of me, but his back is to me as he scans the jungle, no doubt looking for me. He’s holding that strange wood and metal stick in a funny manner as if it would help find me.
I duck in another direction and sprint a little further, but stop again. More Pale People circling in. They’re not as dumb as they look. I jump under a bush and before I curl up into a tight ball, I throw a rock a ways behind me, making sure it makes a lot of noise in the jungle.
The Pale People grunt and shout as they chase after the noise. I watch them stumble by, almost stepping on me as they search the foliage with their sticks.
When they’ve passed by enough, I first crawl away a bit, then stand and sprint. I almost make it to the clearing with the aero-plane when one of them notices and sounds the alarm.
I double my speed, hurdling over the stone piles. I say an apology, a prayer really, to Mommy and Daddy’s friends who are buried beneath them. It can’t be very respectful to be jumping all over them like this, but I am in a hurry.
I make the far side of the clearing, near the aero-plane’s broke-off tail section. I can hear the Pale People are not far behind me. Despite all the stuff with which they weigh themselves down and their stifling clothing, they are actually kind of fast. Maybe Mommy and Daddy were right; maybe they’re dangerous.
At the tail section I decide to do something different. Next to the aero-plane there is a bow-shaped coconut tree. I pass it all the time and have even climbed it before, which is exactly what I have in mind when I don’t even slow down to run up the inward curving trunk.
Just as my momentum slows down and my bare feet start to slip I hug the trunk and scurry the rest of the distance monkey-like to the top of the aero-plane, scaring off some real monkeys in the process. They aren’t very happy at the intrusion and noisily let me know, which draws the attention of the Pale People who start to gather around the coconut tree.
More of the Pale People are entering the clearing with the aero-plane. One in particular captures my attention. This stranger is different. He doesn’t have a turtle shell on his head. Instead he has thick black hair. He is shorter and not quite as pale, though just as ugly. He doesn’t even wear the same clothes. His are brown, but just as all-covering with the trade mark Outside Worlder’s sweat stains at the neck and arm pits. He pauses at the site of the aero-plane and then the many piles of stones. Even from this distance I can see his face. The strange smoothness oddly makes it easier to read his emotions and I can clearly see in his brown eyes that he is very sad at the sight of the stones. The noise the Pale People are making around my coconut tree, however, distracts him and he runs over.
The Pale Men point and yell at me, kind of like the monkeys. One throws his stick over his shoulder by its strap and starts to climb the tree after me. I should run and climb the cliff next to which the tail section rests and finish the short cut to home so I can warn Mommy and Daddy. But I decide to pluck a coconut from the tree and bounce it off the turtle shell of the stranger who has the nerve to follow me. Oddly, the turtle shell makes a metallic “bong!” sound just before the stranger’s eyes roll back into his head and he falls from the tree like a stunned monkey. He falls to the ground with a loud thud, and one of his friends steps up and for some reason points his stick at me with both hands.
Almost as soon as he does, the short man with the sad face jumps forward.
He knocks the other’s stick aside just as it makes the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life. Fire and smoke shoot about a foot out of the end that had been pointing at me less than a heartbeat before. A coconut near me disappears in an explosion, showering me with milk.
As I stare in shock at where the coconut had been, realizing that could have been my head, the short stranger yells angrily at the fire-stick wielding stranger.
I waste no more time and climb the cliff and run home.
It’s not a long journey to home: our little village of huts made from bamboo, palm leaves, and sheets of aero-plane.
I run up to Daddy and frantically try to explain that the Pale People are here. I’m talking too fast and Daddy tells me to slow down. Mommy comes over, concern in her beautiful face. I take a deep breath and tell them of the invaders, how they’ve already seen me, and are right behind me.
There is only the briefest of pauses that shows a hint of disbelief…not at my truthfulness, but the fact that this day should come at all…and wise Daddy hurriedly shepherds us into the food cave. It’s not really a cave, but a hollow in the cliff against which home is built. With the tightly woven bamboo door that covers it, food tends to stay cooler and lasts longer. The door is also over grown with vines and other plants over the years, making good camouflage. I’m certain if there were time Daddy would have taken us into the jungle and to higher ground. But there wasn’t.
No sooner than we’d shut the door than the strangers come into our area of residence. Our home. We can see them through the cracks of the bamboo and vines, but surely they can’t see us.
They’re led by a Pale Person who is even taller than the others. He is barking orders in their annoying language, pointing here and there. Mother gasps, but quickly puts one hand to her mouth and puts her other arm around me protectively.
More Pale People filter in, the sunlight glinting off of their turtle shells. They start poking around our camp with their fire-sticks. Seeing the weapons again, I wish I had had time to tell Daddy about the destructive nature of the sticks. Daddy probably already knows. He knew about them wearing turtle shells for hats, didn’t he? He is watching them intently through the door now. He is holding his breath, squeezing my hand hard.
There is a ruckus among the strangers. The short stranger comes along and is having strong words with the tall Pale Person, pointing to the other green wearing Pale People who are tearing our home apart. Chief Turtle Head shrugs and puts his hands on his hips.
As the exchange continues, Daddy gasps and mumbles something as he looks at the short stranger. I can’t hear what he says, but his voice rises as if he were asking himself a question. He moves his head closer and squints to see better through the door.
The heated exchange between the tall and short strangers is over and the short stranger steps away. It is his turn to put his hands on his hips. He looks around. He is still angry, or sad, or both. He shakes his head.
Daddy jumps back and grabs his heart.
“Hiro?” he says, tears filling his eyes.
Daddy turns to Mommy who is looking at him curiously just as I am. He says something so fast we don’t understand him, and to our shock he swings open the door and staggers towards the short stranger.
Every thing happens so fast. The Pale People react strongly. They point their weapons at Daddy and move forward. Mommy and I scream in horror. Daddy falls to his knees not far from the short man, talking quickly. The short man is shocked, but throws up his arms and stands between Daddy and the weapons, shouting over his shoulder. Chief Turtle Head shouts even louder and the Pale People lower their sticks as fast as they can. They shuffle away from the tall man, afraid.
Daddy is babbling. The short stranger cautiously approaches, disbelief in his eyes.
“Yoshi?” the short man addresses Daddy by his name.
Mommy and I gasp.
Daddy and the short man run into each other’s arms and start crying. The short man eventually pulls back and runs his hands over Daddy’s face, much as I like to do, but there is sadness and concern in his eyes. Daddy gently pulls his hands down and I catch bits and pieces of their conversation. I hear, “shot down…crash…fire…no medical treatment…both of us.”
It’s then I realize that the short man is no longer speaking the language of the Pale People, but the language of Mommy and Daddy…our language.
“Both of you?” the short man asks.
Daddy bobs his head and turns to me and Mommy cowering in the cave and waves us to come out. He tells us that it is ok. Mommy takes me by the hand and we cautiously join Daddy.
The short man looks upon us with wonder, and he has that same sadness in his eyes when he looks at Mommy’s face. It makes Mommy touch her face and look away.
The Pale People in green start to gather around, making me nervous. Chief Turtle Head is standing near, but just watches curiously with his thumbs hooked into his belt that has so much stuff hanging on it. Mommy and Daddy were right: the Outside Worlders are fond of their stuff.
“This is Hiro,” Daddy says, addressing the short man. “He is my brother. He has been searching for us for a long time.”
Mommy looks up and makes a noise of surprise, then does something I’ve only heard her explain people do in the Outside World: she bows gently at the waist. Hiro returns the gesture.
Daddy introduces Mommy and myself.
Hiro’s eyes get big and he smiles. He bows again, to both of us this time.
“The Ambassador’s daughter?” Hiro asks, looking at Mommy.
Mommy says yes.
Hiro smiles big again, makes funny noises and elbows Daddy in the ribs. Daddy suddenly looks shy, as does Mommy who daintily puts her hands to her mouth and giggles a little.
I’m confused at this exchange, but Mommy just puts her arm around me.
Chief Turtle Head discreetly clears his throat and mildly says something to Hiro, who acknowledges by nodding. He first looks at Mommy and Daddy and then at me.
“My niece is very beautiful,” he says almost apologetically, “but perhaps it would be wise if she were to put some clothes on.”
It’s then that I notice that the Pale Men in green have been staring almost entirely at me this whole time. Now that I have time to really pay attention, I can see that they are really just boys not much older than me. Chief Turtle Head is older and is glaring at them like an angry father.
Mother gasps and rushes me to the nearest hut and makes me put on a dress I only rarely wear. I ask why, but she only says she will explain later.
When we return, Daddy and uncle Hiro are deep in conversation.
“…war is long over. They are our allies now. Cap-tan Ander-Sen here has been assigned to search these islands for MIA. I am his UN appointed liaison. I volunteered because I knew this is the area in which your plane went missing.”
“UN?” Daddy asks.
“Long story, but there will be time for that…”
And the conversation went on for a long time.
Eventually Mommy and Daddy pull me aside.
They tell me things are going to change. That we all have to leave the island now.
I say I don’t understand. I remind them they’ve always told me that this was home, that it was better here, that the Outside World was dangerous.
They nod and agree, but tell me there isn’t much they can do because the Outside World knows where to find them now and will never leave them alone. They have family who miss them. Their friends buried beneath the piles of stones at the aero-plane have families who deserve to know what happened to them.
And they need medical attention.
I say I don’t understand.
They point to their faces and the scars on their bodies. They say these, and other injuries that I can’t see happened to them when they fell from the sky. They could die someday soon because of them , leaving me all alone on the island.
I shake my head in disbelief and start to cry. They were beautiful. I loved their faces. How could there be anything wrong with them?
Mommy hugs me and rocks me back and forth.
“You deserve a normal life, a proper education,” Daddy says.
Uncle Hiro and the Pale People approach. They are already gathering our belongings, now gently under the stern watchfulness of Cap-Tan Ander-Sen.
I look up at Mommy and Daddy through tear filled eyes and ask, “Will there at least be children to play with?”