The children huddled closer together, skin touching skin, seeking shelter from the curious eyes of the onlookers. They shuffled and bent their slender bodies into one another melding into a seamless bundle of body and cloth, sweat and limbs entwining forming a oneness against the many that had come to watch. Small heads tucking into soft hollows of the older, stronger ones, arms enveloping them, closing the gaps in a well-practiced compaction. Eyes and ears covered, familiar scents shutting out unknown smells as fear lapped over curiosity and the desperate need for the known and the safe swelled against the tide of potential danger and hope this new place held.
“Hey, kids!” the strange accent of the white man called out to the many eared mass. Peeking eyes strained to follow the snatches of pale flesh that appeared and disappeared as the loose cloth of their sisters smocks billowed in the hot desert winds. The man was coming closer. They gripped each other harder.
“No worries guys. It’s ok!” the alien music of the man’s voice softened and dipped, the rhythmic clumping of heavy boots slowing as it neared, then stopped some distance away. “Kes?” ‘You ok?’ he was speaking in their tongue. Silence. A nose, a mouth, stained cheeks appeared from under an arm. Eyes, blinking in the strong sunlight, dared to face him straight on. “Ta kes!” ‘I’m ok’ the lips moved as the wisp of answer blew into the wind. He caught it and held it to him, smiling in surprise. “So you fellas can speak then ey! Well that’s a good start. There was I thinking yous might just ‘ave been a mirage hey!” he chuckled. More movement as the edges of safety spread a little wider in the bundle. Another head, an arm lifted by a smaller hand. A girl, the remnants of a girl, loosened herself, regaining her whole. Just for an instant. Then re-folding into the dust-infused weave. Another girl, smaller yet more solid emerged, hand still clutched from within the fabric by another more uncertain.
The man knelt and waited, smiling good thoughts across the baking, shimmering tarmac.
The bundle stared, impassive, checking him out – this small-toothed, cow-coloured being.
“You guys look kinda thirsty. You want some water? Anai? Anaei?” he lifted a thick hairy arm and pushed the honey hair from his face, then reached into the jaded bag slung low over his shoulder, to bring out a clear bottle. Ahhh anyei! ‘Water!’
“anyei. anyei” the word trickled back from seen to unseen. Anyei. He will give us water. It is a good place here.
The unravelling happened gently but quickly. Five dry, dry figures grew out of the one and padded softly, closely across the sticky surface of the runway to the outstretched hairy arm and the bottled welcome it offered. The smallest was first, hesitated long enough to gage the honesty of this gift, then opened her hands to accept what came. She stooped momentarily as the weight transferred, all the while watching for the flicker of light that would reveal the deception and the change to capture. But none came. They drank. All of them, cautiously sharing, all the while watching.
“It’s good stuff ey?” They felt the tension in the man drain as the bottle emptied. He was good.
“You want more? We got plenty of that ey kids.” He smiled and twisted, grimacing slightly as he uncoiled from the squat to stand upright in front of them. He was not tall. Not like one of their men. Not at all. But he was good. They felt this, their collective mind establishing this as a known.
“Just me knees kids. Don’t worry about the funny face ey!” he smiled again, eyes crinkling at the corners. A hairy hand, the other one, swept the long honey hair back against his scalp.
They smiled, the collective ease becoming known.
“So yeh, welcome. Welcome to paradise. We got water, we got food – good food hey!” he patted his front and laughed. And we got the biggest damn swimmin hole you’ve ever seen!” He rumbled away tumbling bellyfuls of strange sounds around and over them. The children shuddered briefly under their soft impact, re-combining faintly in response, securing their self in the felt heat of verging skin.
The words continued to fall as the man scanned about for evidence of more than just existence. “You got bags? Maybe not ey! No worries. We can sort that too. How long you been walkin’? Days?”
They stared, brows furrowing. He stopped. Noticing their re-mergence, the disappearance.
“Sorry kids.” More gently now “How long you been walking?” and moved two long fingers across an imaginary track. “By footing? Time” the pale fingers were up now, three, five, eight… “ Diäk, diaëc, bɛt.. how long?”
Malik and Anau connected, murmuring slightly as their minds swapped suggestions. A flick of a long neck. They knew. Malik turned to the man and pointed to the place where the moon would later rise. Anau held up two fingers and a third bent closed.
The man tilted his head, bridging their signs to his.
“Two and a half moons. Sheeiit. That’s….70….. 75 days. My god!” His mouth opened and shut like he too was drinking.
“Come, come with me” He opened his arms anxious to damp this human drought.
His compassion resonated through the searing desert air and soaked into the bundle. The children huddled closer, folding his scent into their midst. Ready to absorb whatever came.