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SPAN
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by Michèle Drouart

Prose: Valley of Sound

Rosanne Dingli Further from this well is another hollow whose sides ring with the laughter of wolves. I sink: more into the cavity of noise than into some explanation of it. The reverse is also true. Silence extends some precognition of the place as if its geography were an audible one, raised in relief in curves and registered on five lines and remembered as a chord. The bass tone is recorded like a history of clamour subdued by deaf vagaries of space. There are no echoes here.
Here, the falling of a stone in water is succeeded by as much silence as introduces it; one waits in vain. Here, the only expectation is that confirmed by the baying of animals. They circle the visitor with hung tails and howl the changes of cacophony with each tremor of human eyelid, human limb. Barks and piercing howls ring onceÑand just once more from stony banks, with silence filling shortened air thereafter. I hear no repeat: a legacy of silence stalls the ear.
The well is wet, its lap a scored and battered rim. Claws, the canine nails of wolves, have scratched its face until a hieroglyphic countenance becomes its mask. Its mouthed song seems a written score, a composition etched by paws of beasts.
I founder: to slink into slow departure is a lie, a falsehood dreamt by ghosts; by apparitions of some other selves whose vulpine cries have carved a path out of this place.
But I must leave. To stall the fear of mauling, I seek another recessed site, with darker rock and fuller stones than these. The trail is long. It winds a weary track for those who see, a tortuous one for those like me who fail to gird the night with light, as fallen torches are the scourge of sight.
I find, with aid of stock and hands that grope and scratch, a deeper valley where the stones are brown. The dawn is hurrying warmth to stroke the earth with ochre. The pebbles here are dull, unscratched. They bear no trace of animal claw, no spoor decorates the ground with signs of presence.
The one I hold; the stone which weighs my hand and shows I still can grip, is hot. The sun has filled it with a thickened steam.
The solid roundness of a wielded stone now fills a fist whose clutch becomes strong as daylight shows a way. A reddish stone, a marker of a place, a tool with which to sign a haven for the torn. Without this tool, I would begin to search for one. I make a cavity in a slab, to fill with water from the well of wolves. I make a bowl to slake this drought, if I can brave a scurried circuit there before a savage thirst confounds my thoughts.
To mark a trail, I now must scrawl some signs with this brown stone on lighter land, to lead me back when I have filled the bowl. Crosses or lines, comforting tokens towards a thin safety, a small haven distant from the howls.
There is no noise. A stifled silence fits the vale like milk. A flight of quiet birds disguises clouds with flecks and stripes of black. They make no sound.
The stone is in my hand. On whiter ground, I stoop. I sense the beasts before they divine my approach. The menace of a snarl heard just once is worse than a panoply of echoes. Before I scratch a brownish sign upon the ground, I see it has been done before. And then again. A trail of marks; of crosses and of signs which lead ahead and I withdraw my primitive pencil. I hold it to my chest and fill, like a rainbarrel in a storm, with questioning.
Who has been here to trail this place with marks whose conception is my own? Who came to tread these steps like me? The marks are light, in places all a-shake, in places hardly visible at all. And in a curve, I find a bowl; the crude and simple twin of what I carved. Who has been here, to live this first, to happen upon fear as I have done?
My eye pursues the chalky line of brown to where it disappears behind a bank. Someone has chalked a route away from here: or maybe scored a course in this direction. I turn again. My thirst will wait while I discover more. The marks stop hereÑor start, whichever was. To look about is to define a way to see, for this plain geography of rock throws sharp relief on things I thought I knew. I thought I knew the shape of hole and stone, of boulder, pebble, dust and precipice.
Now, the shadows move. An echo of no noise is hard about the ears. I hear a whine. . . . or do I hear a whine?
If I keep still, and measure chord for note, and try to balance noises that I make with those of cloud; with those of sky and sun and fallen torch? If I keep still, I will detect some movement.
The flicker of a tail. The flutter of my own eyelid is not a lizard, but a snake has twined its form about the broken skeleton of a boat. A boat? Here are the gunnels, made of wood. Here the grey particles of sail upon a drunken boom.
These timber ribs once swelled with sea, once rocked a charted course among these hills where dust and rock now sing. The confirmation of a shell is sought, and I find some. The curving, screw-like insides of old shells which shine like new are testimony of wet.
I look again. The snake is gone. But it was thereÑa thick and mobile rope of pulsing skill and sleight.
It is all so: no matter where I turn it is the same. The howling wolves where water holds its pledge, and here a hidden snake where quiet shelter seemed to offer rest. More into the cavity of noise than into an explanation for it, I reel and turn, sinking as the stone I hold would sink in an old well.
The din is high. It is the sound of hills, the sound of dales. It is the clamour of a hundred cairns.


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