For two days The Pig continued to navigate the extensive archipelago of islands, scattered like a handful of pebbles, that dotted this part of the Southern Seas until, as midday approached, Alvez gave the command to drop the anchor.
‘Is this it?’ the boy asked quietly.
‘Yes,’ Alvez replied solemnly, looking out upon the small isle which stood before them, ‘The Island of the Dead.’
A short time later the pair heaved The Pig’s much patched rowing boat up onto the narrow strip of powdery white sand which lay between the sea and the dense, ancient, rainforest interior.
‘What now?’ asked Pukunati apprehensively.
‘First we must conceal our presence here,’ replied Alvez, as quickly they worked to cut armfuls of large leaves which they swept across the sand to brush away their footprints and then to conceal the rowing boat at the tree line.
‘Now what?’ asked Pukunati in a small voice as they hid themselves away amongst a thicket of bushes bordering the beach.
‘Now, we wait,’ replied Alvez.
‘What are we waiting for?’ whispered Pukunati looking around nervously.
‘A dead body,’ replied Alvez studying the beach intently.
‘A dead body?’ repeated the boy in disbelief.
‘Yes, a dead body,’ Alvez replied with finality. ‘As I have already explained to you, at least three times,’ he grumbled, ‘some cultures believe this island is where the spirit of the dead begins its journey from this life to the next. I have heard the dead are left on the beach but we need to find out what happens after that. We need to know to where the spirit travels, the ‘Path of the Dead’ if you will, and now all we need is a dead body,’ he added brightly.
‘Yes, you explained to me about the island,’ replied Pukunati in frustration, ‘but you never thought to mention that we would have to sit in wait for a dead body? That’s quite an important detail you know.’
‘Well, I am telling you now,’ replied Alvez, ‘if I had told you sooner you would have only ended up making a big song and dance about it…. oooh a dead body! I do not like dead bodies, oooh,’ he continued in a mocking taunt.
‘Probably,’ agreed Pukunati, ‘but you should have still told me.’
For what remained of the morning Pukunati surveyed the beach with trepidation, but also undeniable fascination. His mother had fallen ill and passed away shortly after he was born although he remembered nothing of it other than, as he was growing up, many seemed to blame him for her passing. Otherwise, he had experienced little of death in his short life; although there had been times when he had wished that that were not the case.
Alvez, like the boy, had not known his mother either. She had been taken during childbirth, and it was that absence of a maternal figure that became one of the shared bonds which tied him to the boy when they first crossed paths. The end of life however held no such fascination for him, he had already seen far too much death. And, on the rare occasions he did choose to dwell on his own mortality, the finality of it filled him with nothing more than abject, cold-hearted terror…. one of the ghosts.
Waiting for the arrival of a dead body however proved to be a frustrating process, particularly so for a man not blessed with a wealth of patience. For two days they maintained their vigil but no corpse was forthcoming. ‘This is ridiculous,’ grumbled Alvez, ‘we live in a time when one man will happily kill another over a presumed slight. This beach should be littered with bodies. I would wager if we did not want a body they would stretch for as far as the eye could see. But, now that we want one, just one, where are they all? We cannot wait forever,’ he muttered in conclusion. Pukunati considered pointing out that some people might consider the absence of dead bodies to be a good thing but one look at Alvez’s glowering countenance convinced him otherwise.
As darkness fell on the second night Alvez fought down his inner turmoil and cleared his mind, it had to be now, under the cover of darkness, he could wait no longer: and, as the boy watched out over the beach, Alvez drew his dagger….
By the light of the moon, Alvez worked quickly to wrap the boy’s body in the spare sail they kept on the rowboat. I had no choice, this was the only way he told himself. Once wrapped he secured the shroud with rope and, just before sunrise, hefted the boy’s dead weight up over his shoulder and struggled to the centre of the beach where, as gently as possible, he lay the body to rest. Forgive me. He stood back and looked at what he had done, what he had done in the pursuit of riches. Fighting back self-loathing he sank to his knees in the soft, warm sand and lent over the body, ‘I am sorry,’ he said quietly, ‘but it had to be this way.’ Hurriedly he brushed away his footprints and began his vigil over the corpse.
Around mid-morning Alvez was relieved to see his actions had not been in vain, when finally, four loin-cloth clad natives emerged from the forest. About time too. In the nearby bushes he held his breath as the men slowly approached the body and reverentially lifted it onto a litter, which they then hoisted up onto their shoulders, before making their way back into the forest: keeping a safe distance, Alvez followed.
At a stately pace the cortege made its way through the ancient trees along a well-worn track, which, in time, wound its way up a short, steep hill. Sweating profusely in the humid undergrowth Alvez followed cautiously until he reached the brow of the hill. From his vantage point he could see that they appeared to have reached their destination, as carefully the natives lowered the litter onto a platform which had been constructed over a low pile of wood. And it was here that the boy’s body lay for the remainder of that day and through the long, cold hours of darkness.