With Halloween approaching – I can hear the leaves crunching as it gets nearer – here is an excerpt from a 17,000-word sci-fi novella I wrote last year. (There’s more, should that be required.)
The story, “Tafelberg”, is one that I tried to write, “in the genre”. Now, to me, that sounds very writerly, but I am not exactly sure what it means. What I want to say is that it is written in the kinda breathy, urgent style of a serialized story, one with cliff-hanger chapter endings and — if it were a TV show — lots of musical stings, right before commercial breaks. I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and I tried to channel a little of that dramatic over-the-topness.
Part 1 – Battle Weary
It was almost dawn and I shuddered with exhaustion, laying the hot, heavy torch on the sandy ground at my feet. Climbing up the nearby beacon tower, I reached the observation point. From there, I could see to the base of the cuneate rock slide below our position on the peak of Tafelberg. After attacking with mortal consequence all through the night, our enemy would stop and simply – even meekly – descend, at sunrise.
Down into that decimated landscape is where the kakkerlaks retreated.
Only the spiniest, hardiest flora remained – the omnivorous beetles had devoured everything else. Scant shade remained for their daylight retreat. By now all the plants that were left were inedible. Dry and spiked; impossible to chew even for these plate-sized eating machines that – like their plant kingdom counterparts in this arid place – wore their skeletons on the outside of their bodies. The remaining cacti – big Kadushi and Yatus, as well as smaller Pear cacti and Turk’s Cap stood defiantly on the rock strewn slope. Scraggly, leafless Acacia trees cowered dutifully, facing ever westward. They dotted the lower elevations as did partially eaten Aloe Vera plants. The largest, fleshy spears of Aloe were turning red-brown in the sun; the remnants looking like they had been attacked by a school of piranha.
If they make one more run for us this morning, we will make it, I thought.
My shoulders hurt. The rotator cuffs – ruined long ago – now seemed to enjoy the pain they inflicted; burning like embers in a dying fire. How did a Canadian club volleyball team on a winter junket to Costa Rica get involved in this supernatural, international catastrophe?
I switched gears; thinking not of larger whys and what ifs, but concentrating rather on the immediate and the dire.
We have enough homemade napalm left and the ignition torches are fully charged. If they surge again, we’ll burn them back and then the sun will come out fully and they can go and do whatever it is they do during the day.
I listened intently, my head to one side, but could hear no rustle. I could not hear the characteristic whisking sound – like plastic on plastic – of the roaches as they rose up, millions strong, along the side of the mountain, walking on the backs of the multitude above them. Climbing, ever climbing they came – a single-minded horde of limitless number.
“Matt!” I heard Willem shout from the next post, to the east. I climbed down, labouring a bit. I could smell the kerosene smoke on the wind as his blow torch smoldered, burning precious fuel greedily. “Dey are going down,” the thickset Dutchman said as he walked towards me. “There is a huge pile of dem on a flat spot just below Jan’s position upwind. Dey are piled up and eating something and dere’s a group – maybe thirty – iggies close to them, hissing like fury.” He stopped talking as he reached my post.
Leguaan, I thought, pronouncing it mentally in the slurring, luxurious Dutch fashion. I had learned more Dutch – curse words in particular – than I thought I ever would. Papiamentu too, and in just 15 days.
These island iguanas were tough buggers alright, no matter what you called them. The cockroaches left them alone and lately we had noticed the lizards actually killing and eating some of the giant insects. Big iguana adults – there were quite a few five-footers around now, which is something you rarely saw before the mutation – would whip their tails furiously into a swarm of bugs, killing a few. Then a company of smaller iguanas would run in – comically bow-legged and bright-eyed – and retrieve the carcasses. There were precious few leaves left on the trees – the voracious roaches consumed those – and so the iggies were evolving; reverting to their carnivore roots. Like us, I hoped – that we few humans left on the island of Curacao, le humain, could evolve and remain on top of the food chain. I did not like our odds – they were unspeakably bad in terms of numbers – but I did like mankind’s track record. We’re good at war – even we Mennonites, if we are forced.
We are making a new language, I thought. Tafelgesprek: Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Papiamentu and German. And, before the internet died, the language of knowledge, as we frantically researched what these enormous insects were; how we might fight them; where to find our resources and how to build our weapons.
“May I tell the boys to shut down and getting some sleep before it is too hot?” Willem asked.
“Yeah. Schlope tiet (sleep time) I offered, in Plautdietsch. “They should eat and drink first, sleep until ten and then we should be able to drive down to scavenge some avgas, kerosene and water.” I replied.
It was interesting to me; Willem – a Dutch expat – could sometimes comprehend my lousy low German. My Mom would be proud. Likewise, a few Dutch phrases: Pas Op! dicht bei; g`n dach; resonated to me.
Jan, the crew chief from the next post, was coming up to us. “Is there cold beer for breakfast?” he called, his boots kicking up yellow dust as he came towards us. Another person, a slender black teenager, jogged towards us, his low-slung camo pants exposing a swath of bright green underwear.
“Hey, ti gason! (‘little boy’ in Papiamentu)” Jan called to the thin boy, “if I had SNOT green underwear, I would not show it off.”
The boy, Boosty, grinned and shook his head. “We are all out of bug sludge, but there were hardly any big ones on our side, since midnight really. Mostly just the smaller, light brown ones. I don’t think they like all the gravel over dat way – they seem to get coated with dat yellow dust and it irridates them or somethin.” He was a local boy and spoke Papiamentu, Dutch and English perfectly (almost), as well as lots of French and a little German.
“It’s true,” Willem said, his big voice bouncing off the rock wall behind me. “Dey hate da mine dust over on dat side. Dig themselves out and wriggle (he grinned – proud of the English word) and shake dey big wings and they, well they clean each utter off.”
We stared at him, blank looks on our faces. Insects that groomed one another. Every day was a new series of revelations and astounding, incomprehensible conclusions.
What’s in the mine dust that bothers them? I wondered.
~ ~ ~
Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016