I lay back in the firelight and tried not to be sick. Which wasn’t easy. Nessa had conspired to get me to a “medicine woman” – which seemed to be a polite way of saying “witch doctress”. When I’d tried to point this out, Nessa had shushed me with a well-placed elbow to the stomach. It doesn’t pay to offend the only person with a knowledge of magic and potions for miles around.
The medicine woman wore a carved painted mask with red curving lips and big stylised uptilted eyes. It looked disturbingly feminine. And the way she looked at me through the slitted eyeholes was plain disconcerting. Hungry, almost … She swayed about the place like someone who was used to not hobbling around in baggy robes and stirring potions over smoky indoor fires, and I couldn’t work out why that was bothering me.
I looked woozily up at Nessa who was sat leaning against a pillar of the hut nearby, ‘Are you sure we’re in the right place?’ I’m not sure how well it came out because my voice tends to get all slurry when I’m like this anyway, let alone when I’ve been gently but firmly fed a potion I’m assured has not got alcohol in it, not even a teensy-weensy wee drop. Could have fooled me. That and it was served in a coconut with the top taken off and had a slice of lime perching on the rim. Maybe I was just the suspicious sort.
‘Hush,’ Nessa said. ‘Let the medicine work.’ Yeah, medicine … Did anyone else hear drums?
‘Anyone ever tell you you’re a funny kind of a mermaid,’ I tried to say. But I’m not sure if she heard me or if it even came out as anything other than the doped-to-the-gills mumbling equivalent of ‘You’re my best friend in the whole wide world, you know that? Here’s to ya!’.
‘Shhh, just rest.’ There were definitely drums, though … and animal noises in the undergrowth outside the walled enclosure around the hut. The medicine woman lived apart from the rest of whatever tribe or village was out here. What that said about how terrified any monster or predator must have been of her, I didn’t like to think. I just lay back smiling to myself, listening to the sound of the drums, just some poor sap who’d had a drink from a suspicious coconut with medicine in it … You take the Limey and the coconut, you … Wait? What were all those noises? I couldn’t seem to move … in fact, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see, either. What was going on … Were those screams? Soon, even that thought, pinned in my mind like a butterfly to a cork, faded into the drowsy, fumesome, smoke-laden night …
I woke up as cold early-morning light fell through an open window of the hut. I was cold and shivery. The fire had long since died down to ashes and gone out. Which was odd. Where was the medicine woman? And where was Nessa?
A weary certainty seemed to dawn in my mind: I had a bad feeling about this. I blinked and tried to push myself up off the reed mat I was lying on and succeeded only in turning myself awkwardly half onto my side.
The hut door was lying flat on the ground. Things were a mess in here. There must have been one heck of a struggle. Things broken, powders and liquids everywhere … A forlorn-looking coconut shell lay crushed on the ground along with the squashed remains of a lime. The only sounds, a few squawks from the undergrowth and … wait … something else. What was that in the distance?
It was one of those cold mornings that semi-tropical islands in bent-out-of-shape fairy-tale worlds mysteriously seem to get from time to time. There was the chill of pre-dawn and the beginnings (or remains) of a fog lying trailing along the ground. The gates to the enclosure were wide open to the – I guess you’d call it a jungle. And there was no one to be seen. Eerie …
That was when I noticed the arrows and the poisoned darts, the scuffed up ground, the signs of someone being dragged – kicking, screaming, and fighting tooth and nail, by the look of it – away into the night. I shivered again. A cold sweat trickling down my back. Somewhere in the numbness that was my head a voice kept saying, Please be okay, please be okay … I realised it was mine. I followed the trail until faded it into the undergrowth, but it seemed to vanish.
My head swam as I leaned back against a tree, just to catch my bearings, you understand – not to stop from falling over or anything. I couldn’t see clearly enough to tell where they’d gone. But I could still hear. For want of anything better I turned back and listened.
It wasn’t much of a lead, but it was the only one I had. It led me to a strangely steaming pool, almost perfectly round, surrounded by rocks and tan-coloured sand. It had a small waterfall pouring into it. Here and there, little lumps of porous stone littered the ground. From somewhere behind the waterfall, there was an oddly musical sound. It sounded like someone was singing in the shower.
‘If yoouuu were the only giirrl in the worrrld, and I were the only boyyy …‘ It came out all gurgly through the splashing falls. ‘Singin’ in the bath tub … ruffling a few feathers …’
I stepped closer, careful not to make a sound. Maybe whoever it was had seen something, could help me on the trail. I hoped. I didn’t like to think what might have …
‘What good would common sense for it doooooo …’
‘Um, excuse me, please, but I wondered—’
There was an outraged spluttering behind the falls, as if some of the faintly steaming water had gone down the wrong way. ‘Rawk! Who goes there! I mean … Look, I know you guys told me not to use the falls …’ A feathered, beaked head peered out from behind a rock. Water was dripping off it. ‘Say, you don’t look so good …’
‘A parrot?’ I said. ‘You’re a parrot.’
‘Give that boy a cigar and a key to the banana plantation,’ said the parrot, ruffling its feathers and shaking off water in my general direction. ‘Name’s Feathers. Pleased ta meetcha.’ It extended a soggy wingtip towards me.
And that was how I found myself shaking hands with a talking, singing, sopping-wet parrot.
‘But what … What were you doing under the waterfall—’
Feathers the parrot tilted his beaked head onto one side. ‘Kinda slow, ain’t-cha? ‘S all right. You probably can’t help it. Like, maybe you was dropped on the head when you was small … Or more recently,’ said the bird, looking me over and somehow waggling its eyebrows. ‘I was having a bath. Only … Well, the Amazons, they don’t like it when I use the facilities. They say it’s not hygienic – I mean, I ask you …’
I just kind of swayed on the spot looking at him. ‘Amazons?’
‘Yeah. You know, female warrioress-ess-es – they live out here. On this island. Only, a word to the wise, don’t get on their bad side – I seen that happen once. Not pretty …’ Feathers grimaced, shaking his head. Then his expression clouded over and he glanced quickly downwards. ‘Still, couldn’t-a happened to a nicer pirate.’ He spat.
And that was when I noticed that there was something wrong with the parrot’s legs. There were sores around them, just above his clawed feet. Almost like he’d been wearing tiny manacles …
‘Anyway …’ he said, ‘I haven’t seen them around for a while, see, so I thinks, Feathers, this is your chance. The pool’ll have washed out by the time they get back – so where’ s the harm, I ask you?’
I nodded slowly.
‘Right, right. Hey, sit down, sit down,’ said the bird generously. ‘You look dead on your feet. Only, be careful, some of them other guys around here see you, they’d grab ya – no questions asked. We gots all sorts, just on this one stinkin’ little island. Amazons, pirates, and don’t even get me started on those jerks up by the volcano … I’m tellin’ ya, some people just ain’t right … Luring people in with a phony “medicine woman”, pah! Who’d be dumb enough to fall for that …’
Feathers eyed me. ‘So it’s like that, is it.’ He sighed. ‘At least ya got away. It’s their big ceremony coming up and they been scouring the island for victims. I wouldn’t want ta be a live human, right now, I tells ya. No, sir. Why, if I was human, though, I’d show ’em. You bet I would— Hey!’
I’d grabbed hold of Feathers with both hands. ‘Victims?’
‘Watch the feathers, watch the feathers. I just got clean.’ Feather sniffed. ‘Say, uh, pal, you know, seein’ as the Amazons ain’t around at the moment, you could do with a bit of a bath yourself, you know what I’m sayin’?’
‘What ceremony?’ I asked, my voice tense.
‘Oh, right, that. Well, it’s kinda gruesome, really. They ties people up in a bamboo cage and lowers them down over the lava on a vine … But don’t worry – you’re still here. Anyway, if they’d caught you, they’d probably just eat’cha. It’s only the young ladies— Hey, buddy, are you all right?’
I had this horrible sinking feeling. Nessa …
I told Feathers everything. Or as much of everything as I could remember or bring to mind. I don’t process so good when things get on top of me like this. By the time I’d finished, the sun had started peering over the horizon.
‘Can you take me to them?’ I asked. ‘To where they’ve got Nessa. Do you know where they’d be?’
He looked at me. ‘There’s a lot of them, you do know that, right? Dozens and dozens. They’ve got spears and poisoned darts and knives and bows and arrows. They eat people. They throw them into volcanoes, they— Aww, who am I fooling …’
‘So you’ll do it? You’ll help me?’
Feathers sighed. ‘The things I get myself into … Rawk!’
To be continued …