“Timor Highway” by Michael Brown

Connected October 12, 2011 16:27

topic: CONNECTED medium: TEXT
Liesl Schillinger, of the New York Times Book Review, had this to say about “Timor Highway”:
While this story doesn’t adhere to the theme of the contest—“Being Connected in the 21st Century”—as directly as the others, it shows that connections of love, duty and loyalty don’t necessarily change, century to century, on every part of the globe….and don’t require wifi. The poor Timorese children in Michael Brown’s story–an older brother and little sister– could as easily exist in the 19th century as now. They sell knitwear to soldiers who pass through their mountainous village, and befriend one soldier, who generously pays the little girl’s school tuition. All three main characters show a decency and selflessness that rarely feature in contemporary fiction, and given the popularity this story had with PenTales readers, these old-fashioned virtues still have pull in the present.

One of the Winners of the “Connected” Contest

Every morning, Fernandez and his little sister, Lee, ran up and down the road that winds from Dili to Baucau. They looked for the biggest potholes and, after stormy nights, for any trees that had fallen across the road. If they were lucky, there would be a mudslide holding up a big line of cars and army trucks. When it had rained more than usual, Mother let them run a little further in case there was a nice big new pothole. But they were not allowed to go anywhere near one section of the road. “Do not go anywhere near that cliff,” their mother would scream as the children knotted themselves out of the open door of their hut.
The children were always armed with handbags and hats that Mother had knitted and weaved ever since they could remember. The handbags had some of the colours of Timor, some of which Fernandez and Lee had not even seen for themselves. The misty green that blanketed the island of Autoru. The brilliant blue that surrounded the secret islands where people had hidden during the bad time. The red that a soldier who could speak Tetum had once said to the children was “a colour to remember for love, not blood.” Fernandez always sprang down their hill and sculled water at the spring while he waited for Lee to catch up.

“Fernandez, can you piggyback me?”
“You’re too big now. You don’t want the other kids to think you’re still a baby do you?”
“Well, c’mon then. We have to get to the road before the soldiers come. Here, I’ll carry your bags so you can use your arms to run fast,” Fernandez said as Lee slurped the spring water. One day, when a soldier’s truck broke down, the children sold enough handbags and hats to send Lee to school for a whole month. When she was back on the road, Lee told Fernandez everything that she had done and learned.

“We lit candles for the people that died in the bad time. And I learned that there are seven continents and they all used to be joined together.”
“Can you list them all, little sister?”
“Yes. Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Antarctica.”
“That’s only six. What is the other one?”
“Um, I can’t remember.”
“I know this one. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the closest one to us.”
“Where the soldiers are from.”
“Yes. Did the teacher tell you why the continents all split up?”
“No. We were going to learn that this week.”
Fernandez looked down at his little sister. She was so smart and knew how to count to ten in English.
“C’mon, let’s sell ten more hats before it gets dark and maybe you can find that out next month.”

Instead of eating their usual meal of chicken and rice one night, Father treated them each to a whole fish. Father’s boss had given him the afternoon off because of some trouble in Dili. So Father spent the time scavenging for some line on the beach. For bait, he used the guts of a fish that had been left on the sand.
“Father, please try some of my fish. You caught it, you should try it,” said Lee.
“No. Watching you enjoy it makes it worth your mother yelling at me for not coming home straight away,” Father said as he passed his daughter’s fish back to her. Fernandez wanted Father to look at him the way he was looking at Lee.
“Father, I have a great idea about how we can sell more to the soldiers!”
“Son, I have told you many times. You are not old enough to go to Dili alone. And even if you were, there is still too much trouble there.”
“It’s not that Father. I thought we could push big rocks and trees onto the road instead of running up and down it all day trying to find a good pothole. Then we could help the soldiers get the mess off the road and they would buy something.”
“Boy, that is not work.”

The next day, Fernandez piggybacked his sister down the hill.
“I thought you weren’t going to piggyback me anymore?”
“This isn’t a piggyback, it’s horseback!” Fernandez neighed as he bounced down the hill. Lee laughed and screamed for her brother to slow down. When they got to the bottom of the hill, Fernandez cupped his big hands together so that Lee could drink the spring water more easily and he ran as fast as he could after every car.
“G’day mate,” the soldier said when Fernandez caught up with him. “Well I can’t say no after you’ve chased me from a kilometer away.”

Fernandez only knew enough English words to sell bags and hats and ’kilometer,’ wasn’t one of them. The soldier didn’t speak Tetum so they both just stood there, looking at each other. Fernandez thought the soldier had a friendly face. His cheeks were chubby and red and he smiled beneath his sweaty moustache. When Fernandez finally caught his breath, he lost it again when he realized where he was.

Birds flew beneath. It looked like a training place for eagles, circling in secret. They hovered above a blanket of fog before one flew up and above Fernandez. The eagle stalled and for a second, Fernandez thought Mother had trained one to alert her if they got too close to the boundary. Suddenly, the eagle plummeted through the fog, as if it were treated to some fish like Fernandez and his sister.

The soldier’s lips moved but the only sound Fernandez could hear was the wind threatening to grab him by the ankles and tug him over the edge. He turned around to see that Lee was slowly making her way towards to the cliff. Fernandez was pleased the soldier looked like he was going to buy something, but he wished the soldier would hurry up. Lee was only metres from the edge of the cliff. Because she hadn’t ever been past the boundary, she didn’t know about the sudden turn in the road. Every year or two, someone either didn’t see the turn or was driving too fast and flew right off the edge of the mountain. Fernandez wanted to yell out to Lee but the wind was blowing so strong, as though it were trying to trip up the eagles.

“C’mon on then, I’ll take a hat.” The soldier took out his wallet. “And you better give me a handbag for my daughter. Please.”
Lee crept up to the cliff.
“My name is Tony. What is your name?” Tony handed Fernandez some folded American dollar notes. As soon as he had the money in his hand, Fernandez dropped the bags and hats on the road and bolted for his sister.“Thank you, please,” yelled Fernandez as he ran.
“Wait! Your bags!”
When he got close enough to his sister, Fernandez could see that she was crying. He sprinted on the rocky road without curling his soles. By the time he got to her, Lee was curled up in a ball on the ground, with one hand holding a rock. Lee didn’t stop crying all the way home. That night, when Lee had gone to sleep, Fernandez handed his father the money they had made for the day.

“Did you do anything bad to get it?”
Fernandez froze, like he had when he looked over the cliff.
“Did you, boy?”
Father stepped closer and Fernandez burst into tears.
“I tried to do everything right. I ran so fast and so hard that I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to get as much money as I could without cheating. I wanted to so much that I ran and ran and chased a car down.”
“Well, what is wrong with that?”
“I ran so fast that I didn’t know how far I’d gone. I was ahead of Lee and before I knew it, I was at the edge of the…”
“It’s okay, Fernandez. Lee told me –‘
“I didn’t mean to leave her!”
“No, boy. Lee told me that you saved her and you have told me the truth.”
“So, am I in trouble?”
“I do not want to hear your mother scream tonight. Just make sure you watch your sister next time.”

From that day on, Tony passed twice a week and bought something from the children. He stopped even if there was no obstacle to hold him up. Sometimes, he brought fruit or a bottle of water to give to them.
“Coca Cola?” Fernandez asked Tony a couple of weeks later.
“No Fernandez, very bad for you.”
By the end of that year, more and more soldiers passed by the road and Fernandez, and Lee when she wasn’t at school, were making a lot of money. Fernandez practiced his English with every soldier who bought a handbag or hat, and he always asked Tony about his daughter.

“Does your daughter like fish, Tony?”
“Tony, how old is your daughter?”
“Will your daughter ever visit you in Timor Tony?”
Tony liked to learn Tetum and would practise it with his friend Fernandez.
“Bon Tarde, Fernandez! Abrigado,” Tony would say as he drove off. When Tony returned from visiting his family for Christmas, he introduced Fernandez to his Portuguese friend who owned a Pousada in Baucau.

The next weekend, and every weekend after that, Fernandez cleaned rooms at the Pousada as best he could. During the week, he continued to sell Mother’s bags and hats along the road, but the weekends at the Pousada were much more exciting.
He soon learned how to fix the plumbing and figured out how to get the generator going when the power went out. He carried luggage for the UN people and gave advice to the few tourists who passed through. An Australian journalist, who was staying at the Pousada, came back one night with a sprained ankle. She had been looking for the tree where the president hid during the bad times. She was crossing a stream and a rock had moved beneath her. Fernandez carried her all the way up to her room and then ran back downstairs to bring her bags up.

“You are my own little He-Man,” said the woman as Fernandez laid her down on her bed. When he next saw Tony, Fernandez told him about what happened with the journalist.
“Who is this He-Man, Tony?”
Tony opened up his laptop and brought up an image of He-Man. They burst in laughter in the air-conditioned reception.
Tony studied Fernandez. His arms and chest were much thicker than when he first sold him the handbag along the road. Also, when Fernandez spoke English he didn’t pause between words and he looked Tony in the eye.
“Fernandez, do you remember how I told you my daughter likes to swim?”
“Yes Tony, and that she can swim two kilometres without stopping. That is like from one end of Baucau to the other.”
“Well, I told her about you and she came up with the idea that we should pay for Lee’s school fees.” Fernandez moved away from the air conditioner that was making him cold, and looked down at the floor
“That way, you can save your money to start a business of your own or to buy some tools or something.” Fernandez hadn’t cried since the night he disappointed his father with his stupid idea. Looking over at his friend, Fernandez fought against the tears. He gripped the table to send them back down into his eyes.
“Thank you very much, Tony. You are very kind. But we cannot accept this. You might need the money to pay for your daughter’s school.”
“School is cheaper for us in Australia. Besides, I have already paid a visit to Lee’s school, so it is already done.”
“How long until your daughter is coming to Timor?”
“On one condition, you stop asking about my daughter!”

From that moment, Fernandez worked twice as hard as he was already working. Whenever he noticed a problem with the plumbing, the electricity or even a door that didn’t close properly, he went straight to the boss to ask for the key to the tool shed and worked until he fixed the problem. When he felt exhausted from selling along the road all week and working at the Pousada at weekends, he thought of his little sister. He loved to hear Lee’s stories about the young teacher who yelled at a visiting politician about providing her class some paper and pens. “You should have seen it, Fernandez, the politician got right on his motorbike and came back with paper, pens and a lolly for each kid in the class!”

Lee loved to hear her brother talk about his good friend, Tony, who was always so happy and generous.
Soon, Fernandez no longer worked on the road because his boss at the Pousada had asked him to work full time. Lee was the top student in her class. She could have short conversations in Portuguese with her teacher and she was able to write poems in English. She hadn’t seen Tony again, but she gave Fernandez poems and cards to pass on to him and his daughter.

Thank you, Tony
for sending me to school.
I am 11.
How old is your daughter?
I promise I will not tell Fernandez.

In class one day, Lee saw a picture of Tony in the English newspaper. His big smile reminded her of how lucky she was. Lee was about to carefully tear out the picture when four words jumped off the page.

Over the following weeks, Lee waited. At school she waited for the principal to come and drag her out of class because her fees were not paid. At home she waited for Fernandez to say he had not seen Tony at the Pousada. Lee’s teacher asked her to stay behind at lunchtime.
“Lee, I need to talk to you about something.”
“I know, my fees are not paid and I can’t come to school anymore.” Lee cried and clutched the picture of Tony inside the secret pocket Mother had stitched for her. She didn’t care about being kicked out of school. All she wanted was to be running along the road with Fernandez again. She hardly saw him anymore. She wanted to drink spring water and chase soldiers and for Fernandez to give her a piggyback.

“Don’t cry, Lee. It’s okay. Look! Here is a letter from Tony’s daughter. It says that she has a job on the weekends as a swimming teacher and that she wants to pay half your school fees.” Lee got angry at the teacher. She wasn’t upset about school; she only cared about Tony’s daughter and how her brother might feel. Lee didn’t know what to do and imagined she had the same feeling as being trapped under a mudslide: If she was to stay at school, she would have to ask Fernandez to pay half the fees. If she was to keep Fernandez from being sad about his friend, she would have to return to the road and it wouldn’t be the same without her brother.

That night, Lee cried as she softly slid her thumb across the picture of Tony. She lit the candle that Fernandez had bought her for her birthday and looked at Tony’s chubby cheeks and moustache. Lee decided it would not be right for Tony’s daughter to have to work on the weekends to pay for her school fees, like Fernandez used to.
“Blow out that candle, Lee! You need to get some rest so you can work hard tomorrow!” yelled Mother.
Lee blew out the candle and thought about how lucky she was.