Norman Allan
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Art and Fiction

Chapter Sixteen

Rested and beardless next morning Chris, in his new kaftan and babush and his dark glasses, hitched south-eastward through the westernmost fringe of North Africa. Deposited in the Rif he walked. To either side of the road the fields lay gaunt, cadaverish, littered with the skeletons of young Nirvanaleaf plants nipped in the bud. A sinister dirge, a sound like that of a distant defeated army, filled the air. Whispers of wind accompanied this whistling only lisply for there was no leaf for the breeze to stir. It no longer sang in passing. Just hissed.

Chris Pashanski trucked resolutely down the road passed a deserted cottage, the door ajar. He thought he heard a voice, a whimpering baby's cry. He stopped and entered the hut to explore.

The house was abandoned, though a scattering of household items stood as though left only for a moment: a jug and bowls for water, bread still fresh upon the table; a kit pipe lay forgotten on a chair and, by the dead fire, the ashes high, a basket filled with clothes sat waiting.

As Chris entered the hut the crying stopped. Someone listened back, but was nowhere to be seen. Chris stood and waited. He cleared his throat and was answered with a whimper from the clothes hamper over near the fire. He crossed to the basket and bent to look at the infant, but there was no-one. Carefully he leafed through the clothes, and two layers down he came to the source of the sound: a caterpillar, barely two inches long, caterpillary all over, except for its face. Its face was like a miniature of a human child's, but jade green in colour, and its mouth was opened to wail. The caterpillar looked up at Chris through soft eyes, blinked and stilled its cry.

Chris picked up the caterpillar with his right hand, carefully placed it in his cupped left palm, and held it up to his eye. They stared at each other, Chris through his shades, the caterpillar through its large baby blue tear-filled eyes.

"Well, well, well," crooned Chris. "So this is a kif bug."

"Mpht" creeked the caterpillar.

Chris crossed back to the table by the window, placed the caterpillar on the table and, lifting the kif pipe from the chair, sat there to rest and think. He took out some Kashmiry gummygue he had brought with him from Brighton hidden in his hair: provision against the famine. He placed the mite of resin in the small ceramic bowl, and lit up. The smoke and Christopher rose. The smoke hung languidly in the sunlight and drifted over the table. The caterpillar whirled round and sniffed. It looked up at Chris with eyebrows raised and face amazed and came crawling towards him at an incredible lick screeching, "Gií me!"

"A gi'me grub," said Chris.

"Gi'me!" shrieked the grub.

Chris, toking deeply, exhaled a pungent cloud slow and full over the bug. The caterpillar spluttered in the smoke. Then it sighed and crying "Ohhh" like a well touched lady, it curled up in a ball and went to sleep.

With the embers of his pipe dying in the bowl Chris got up and walked towards the door. Like Bashu's abandoned baby, he left the bug behind.

Chapter Seventeen