As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
'Another dead baby,' Fen said.
He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn't know if he was joking.
Ahead lay the bright break in the curve of dark green land where the boat would go. She concentrated on that. She did not turn around again. The few Mumbanyo on the beach were singing and beating the death gong for them, but she did not look at them a last time. Every now and then when the four rowersall standing, calling back to their people or out to other canoespulled at the same time, a small gust of wind struck her damp skin. Her lesions prickled and tightened, as if hurrying to heal in the brief dry air. The wind stopped and started, stopped and started. She could feel the gap between sensation and recognition of it, and knew the fever was coming on again. The rowers ceased rowing to stab a snake-necked turtle and haul it into the boat, still writhing. Behind her, Fen hummed a dirge for the turtle, too low for anyone but her to hear.
A motorboat was waiting for them where the Yuat met the Sepik. There were two white couples on board with the driver, a man named Minton whom Fen knew from Cairns. The women wore stiff dresses and silk stockings, the men dinner jackets. They did not complain about the heat, which meant they lived here, the men overseeing either plantations or mines, or enforcing the laws that protected them. At least they weren't missionaries. She couldn't have tolerated a missionary today. One woman had bright gold hair, the other eyelashes like black ferns. Both carried beaded purses. The smooth white of their arms looked fake. She wanted to touch the one closer to her, push up her sleeve and see how far up the white went, the way all her tribes wherever she went needed to touch her when she first arrived. She saw pity in the women's gazes as she and Fen boarded with their dirty duffels and their malarial eyes.
The engine when it started up was so loud, so startling, that her hands rose to her ears like a child's. She saw Fen flinch to do the same and she smiled reflexively, but he did not like that she'd noticed and moved away from her to talk to Minton. She took a seat on the bench at the stern with the women.
'What's the occasion?' she asked Tillie, the gold-haired one. If she'd had that hair, the natives would never have stopped touching. You couldn't go into the field with hair like that.
They both managed to hear her over the engine and laughed.
'It's Christmas Eve, silly.'
They had been drinking already, though it couldn't have been much past noon, and it would have been easier to be called silly if she hadn't been wearing a filthy cotton shift over Fen's pajamas. She had the lesions, a fresh gash on her hand from a sago palm thorn, a weakness in her right ankle, the old Solomon neuritis in her arms, and an itchy sting between her toes that she hoped wasn't another batch of ringworm. She could normally keep the discomfort at bay while she was working but it kicked in hard watching these women in their silks and pearls.
'Do you think Lieutenant Boswell will be there?' Tillie asked the other woman.
'She thinks he's divine.' This one, Eva, was taller, stately, bare-fingered.
'I do not. And so do you,' Tillie said.
'But you are a married woman, my dear.'
'You can't expect someone to stop noticing people the minute the ring goes on,' Tillie said.
'I don't. But your husband certainly does.' In her mind Nell was writing:
ornamentation of neck, wrists, fingers
Excerpted from Euphoria by Lily King. Copyright © 2014 by Lily King. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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