Excerpt

A Short Walk Through a Wide World

Douglas Westerbeke

April 1, 2024 
The following is from Douglas Westerbeke's A Short Walk Through a Wide World. Westerbeke is a librarian who lives in Ohio and works at one of the largest libraries in the US. He has spent the last decade on the local panel of the International Dublin Literary Award, which inspired him to write his own book.

The paper is clean and white—she hasn’t drawn her first line—so when the drop of blood falls and makes its little red mark on the page, she freezes. Her pencil hovers in her hand. Her heart, like it always does, gives her chest an extra kick. She drops the pencil. Hand, like a reflex, goes to her nose. She feels the wetness creeping through her sinuses, tastes the brine in the back of her throat. It’s a trickle now, no more than a nosebleed, but in moments it will be much worse—and here, of all places, just as she’d sat down.

It’s too soon. It’s bad luck. She’d hoped to sleep in a real bed tonight, not hammocks or hard ground, and in the morning have a bath, a proper bath in warm water, with soap. She’d hoped to add more entries to her book, like tinder or f lint or paper—but how to draw a piece of paper on a piece of paper so that others will look at it and say, “Oh, I see. A piece of paper.”

She’d hoped to try the food. Look at this market—taro preserves, steamed crab claws, curried prawns wrapped in sheets of bean curd. No, this will have to wait, too, for another time and another market. The list of things she won’t do is even longer than that—what list isn’t?—but there’s no time to dwell. The bath can wait. She’ll find a bed somewhere else. The list is gone. Now is the time to get the hell out.

But the marketplace is alive, the people friendly, and the river right there, a shiny tearstain through the green, clogged with colorful skiffs and fishing boats that can whisk her away, no effort at all. This is Siam, a watery part of the world, all jungle, seasons measured by rainfall. She knew as soon as she set foot here that rivers would be her mode of escape.

That old man, selling fish—such a kindly face, weather-beaten, but a glint in his eye still. He will help. Quickly, she slings her bag over her shoulder and cradles her book in the crook of her arm. She picks up her walking stick, as tall as she is, and moves through blue hairs of incense smoke and burning charcoal. She moves past fishmongers and cloth merchants and tables made of bamboo. The old man smokes a long, thin opium pipe, surrounded by racks of dried fish, dried squid, and dried octopus— anything that was once wet now hangs dry, the old man perched among the racks like a caged bird. She doesn’t know the local language, but the French have colonies to the north and the British have influence to the south.

“Please,” she asks in her accented English, “a boat? Do you know where I might find a boat? I need a boat.”

The old man doesn’t understand. He hadn’t noticed her before, just looks up and there she is, the tallest person in the market, with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes, looming over him. The walking stick in her hand, long and straight, makes her look regal, like a venerable Buddhist nun or an emperor’s daughter. Nothing about her suggests the West—no corsets, no bows, no high lace collars, only local fabrics and a laborer’s straw hat—but she will never blend in here, not in this market, not in this country, where she’s at least a head taller than everyone else.

She sees the baffled expression on the old man’s face. She smiles so that he might lower his guard. She rarely blends in anywhere. It’s more rare that she tries. Her appearance invites curious looks and lots of questions. It’s the best method she has of meeting people, but it’s not working on this old man.

He begins chattering in a language she can’t understand. There’s a shift in his demeanor. It happens all the time. He’s mistaken her for a rich foreigner instead of a poor one, instead of someone who has slept in the tops of the jungle canopy and bathed in hidden rivers for the past three weeks. He tries to sell her a stick of dried pomfret. The way he’s gesticulating he might be trying to sell her his whole stand. She raises a single alarmed eyebrow. She’s wrong about this man. Her instinct has failed her. It rarely happens, but when it does it’s downright unnerving. It’s her instinct, her ability to size up a stranger with a glance or two, that’s kept her alive until now.

And then the pain strikes—a terrible, venomous pain—a weeping pain, like an ice pick through a rotten tooth. It drives straight down her spine, from the base of her skull to the small of her back. She shudders as if electrified, then stiffens up, crushing all the slack out of her body. The old man stops his chattering, watches her face turn cold and pale, watches her lips form soundless words. He’s afraid she might topple over in front of him. But she doesn’t topple. She doesn’t even cry out. She clenches her jaw, her body, and shuffles toward the next stall, a jagged limp in her step.

“A boat!” she calls out to anyone. Many turn to hear. None understand. “A boat, a boat, a boat . . .” She chants the words as she limps past vendors and their stands, as if tossing lifelines from a sinking ship to those onshore. Another stab of pain and the first sparks of panic fly through her brain.

She approaches a woman by a firepit, stirring a yellow curry in an iron wok. She opens her book to the page newly decorated with a drop of blood. Not easy, with all her muscles twitching.

The pages are full of little drawings, hundreds of them, a collection of useful things—bananas, beds, parasols, horses and carriages, needles and thread, locomotives, clockfaces, and candlesticks. She flips through pages with rattled hands until, finally, she finds the little pencil sketch of a boat, of several different kinds of boats—sailboats, steamboats, luxury liners, and canoes, so there can be no mistake.

“A boat? Bateau?”

No response from the woman. Do they know Cantonese here? China is not so far. She’d been in China only a month ago, or so it seemed, cutting through the jungle with a worn-down machete. Now she’s here, south, begging for her life on a riverbank.

“Syún?”

Still the woman doesn’t respond, only stares. Does she know the local word? She’d picked up a few. She’d thought that much ahead. Touk? Was that it?

“Touk?”

But instead of answering her, instead of engaging in some kind of pantomimed conversation as people usually do, the woman drops her big wooden spoon into the curry and silently backs away.

And now she knows she must look very bad. She looks at the handkerchief in her hand. It’s entirely red. The noises of the market have, bit by bit, gone mute, as if she’s underwater, which could only mean that she’s bleeding from the ears, too, and, of course, her mouth is full of blood. She can taste it. She licks her teeth and it pools over her lips and then, to her shame, she knows it’s been dripping down her chin the whole time. She must be a terror to behold.

The pain advances; her entire head is an exposed nerve, a jagged blade scraping the inside of her skull. A terrible pressure builds up against her eyeballs and the ice pick that skewers down the small of her back drives straight into her left leg. She stifles a scream. When she walks, her leg drags behind her like a dead animal.

She wipes her face with her sleeve. It only smears blood across her cheeks. She scans the market for fishermen, ferrymen, anyone who might take her away. She holds out the picture of the boat for all to see.

“Boat! Bateau! Syún!”

No one comes to her aid, but they do stare, fascinated and afraid. She looks rabid, crazed. She looks like someone who can’t be saved. Why would a diseased woman want a boat? To die in? A floating coffin in which to lay her dead body? Would they ever get their boat back? And she can’t explain because this is one language too many. She’s learned plenty by now—Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese, even more, even a little Circassian, for God’s sake—but she can’t learn them all.

Then she hears—yes, it is—English behind her, somewhere in the crowd, a small clear voice.

“Mama, that lady needs help!”

She turns and sees the child, a little golden-haired girl above the crowd, above a sea of black hair and conical hats, as if suspended there in her white sunny blouse and pinafore dress—but no, actually sitting on someone’s shoulders, near enough to see, but too far to help. British? American? They will understand her. She holds out her red-stained hand, as if to wave, but in another moment the girl is swallowed up in the marketplace.

A new pain, a vulture in her womb digging itself out. She doubles over and falls to her knees. In one terrible cough, she sprays so much blood on the ground that the crowds swarming around her gasp in unison and back away.

Her hat falls off and her walking stick clatters to the ground. She tries to control her breathing—carefully, because even the smallest breath tempts the gag in her throat. She picks up her walking stick, hugging it close to her chest. She leaves the hat. The hat is not important. She can get a new hat. She climbs to her feet, wipes her mouth, approaches the men in the boats by the shore, unloading fish, selling melons and plantains. They see her coming, see the blood, the stagger. They’d flee but they’re trapped against a logjam of boats.

“Je dois avoir un bateau, s’il vous plait . . .” she says.

Some of the fishermen point. Some shoo her away. It’s not like anything they’ve seen before, this sickness. She stumbles along the shore and the crowd parts before her.

“Someone . . . please . . .”

She trembles, her own little earthquake. People scramble up the riverbank to get out of her way. Some choose to flee into the river, up to their knees in mud, up to their thighs in water. Now there are no more people in front of her and she’s standing on a dock that extends past the boats and into the river.

A ferryboat full of people has just cast off, chugging upstream, clouds of thick black smoke from its funnel. Over the noise of the engine is that same voice, the shout of a little girl.

“Come here! This way!”

She looks and sees two blond-haired children in white—in white of all things, a perfect lambswool white—waving to her from the stern of the boat.

“Here!” they shout. “We’ll help you!”

She tucks the book into her sash, wobbles, and almost falls over again, but she focuses and fights her pain and untaps the last of her strength. She runs the length of the dock, clutching her walking stick in her hands. She runs and when she reaches the end, she doesn’t stop or slow down, but leaps into the muddy river. She leaps and swims with all the power she has left to catch that ferry with the powerful steam engine. And everyone in the marketplace rushes to the shore to watch.

The crowd holds their breath and the children egg her on. She swims and swims and she manages to catch up to that ferry before it can find its speed, all the while her walking stick in one hand, her bag dragging behind her. The people on the ferry, amazed by this feat, reach down and lift her up by the arms and pull her into their boat.

Then she is sprawled on the deck, sopping wet, in a puddle of river water and diluted blood. She clutches her walking stick tight to her body, the way monks clutch their prayer beads. She looks up at her rescuers, her fellow travelers. Panting, she asks them, “Oh, mon dieu . . . Are we moving? Are we underway?”

The two children, a boy and a girl, stare down at her, and

their father, too, a big vault of a man with a New Zealand accent, kneeling beside her. He says, “Yes, yes. We’re moving.”

Relief. Reprieve. No more blood, not from her nose, her lips, or her ears. The pain has already faded away. She can breathe again.

Dieu merci,” she tells them and smiles. “I am aweigh.”

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Excerpted from A Short Walk Through A Wide World: A Novel by Douglas Westerbeke. Published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2024. All rights reserved.




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