The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
The boy was coming from the river. Barefoot, with his trousers rolled up above his knees, his legs covered in mud.
He was wearing a red shirt, open in front where the first hairs of puberty on his chest were beginning to blacken. He had dark hair, damp with the sweat that was trickling down his slender neck. He was bent slightly forward under the weight of the long oars, from which were hanging green strands of water-weeds still dripping. The boat kept swaying in the murky water, and nearby, as if spying, the globulous eyes of a frog suddenly appeared. Then the frog moved suddenly and disappeared. A minute later the surface of the river was smooth and tranquil and shining like the boy's eyes. The exhalation of the mud released slow, flaccid bubbles of gas which were swept away by the current. In the oppressive heat of the afternoon, the tall poplars swayed gently, and, in a flurry, like a flower suddenly blossoming in mid-air, a blue bird flew past, skimming the water. The boy raised his head. On the other side of the river, a girl was watching him without moving. The boy raised his free hand and his entire body traced out some inaudible word. The river flowed slowly.
The boy climbed the slope without looking back. The grass ended right there. Above and beyond, the sun burnt the clods of untilled soil and ashen olive-groves. In the distance, the atmosphere trembled.
It was a one-storeyed house, squat, whitewashed with a border painted bright yellow. A stark wall without windows, a door with an open peephole. Inside, the earthen floor was cool underfoot. The boy rested his oars and wiped away the perspiration with his forearm. He remained still, listening to his heartbeat, the sweat slowly resurfacing on his skin. He remained there for several minutes, oblivious to the sounds coming from behind the house and which suddenly turned into a deafening outburst of squealing: the protestations of an imprisoned pig. When he finally began to stir, the animal's cry, now wounded and outraged, deafened him. Other cries followed, piercing and wrathful, a desperate plea, a cry expecting no help.
He ran to the yard, but did not cross the threshold. Two men and a woman were holding down the pig. Another man, with a knife covered in blood, was making a vertical slit in the scrotum. Glistening on the straw was a squashed crimson ovule. The pig was trembling all over, squeals coming from the jaws secured with a rope. The wound opened up, the testis appeared, milky and streaked with blood, the man inserted his fingers into the opening, pulled, twisted and plucked inside. The woman's face twitched and turned pale. They untied the pig, removed the cord round its snout, and one of the men bent down and grabbed the two thick, soft testicles. Perplexed, the animal swerved round and, gasping for breath, stood there with its head lowered. Then the man threw the testicles to the ground. The pig caught them in its mouth, avidly chewed and swallowed. The woman said something and the men shrugged their shoulders. One of them started laughing. And at that moment they saw the boy in the doorway. Taken unawares, they fell silent and, at a loss as to what they should do, they began staring at the animal which had lain down on the straw, breathing heavily, its lips stained with its own blood.
The boy went back inside. He filled a mug and drank, allowing the water to trickle down the corners of his mouth, then down his neck on to the hairs on his chest which seemed darker. As he drank, he stared outside at those two red stains on the straw. Then he stepped wearily out of the house, crossed the olive-grove once more beneath the scorching sun. The dust burned his feet but, pretending not to notice, he walked on tiptoe to avoid that burning sensation. The same cicada was screeching on a lower key. Then down the slope, the grass smelling of warm sap, the inebriating coolness beneath the branches, the mud getting between his toes until it covered them.
The boy remained there, watching the river. Settled on the sprouting mosses, a frog as brown as the previous one, with round eyes under bulging arches, appeared to be lying in wait. The white skin of its gullet was palpitating. Its closed mouth creased scornfully. Time passed and neither the frog nor the boy moved. Then, averting his eyes with difficulty as if fleeing some evil spell, he saw the girl reappear on the other side of the river, amidst the lower branches of the willows. And once again, silent and unexpected, a blue streak passed over the water.
Slowly the boy removed his shirt. Slowly he finished undressing and it was only when he no longer had any clothes on that his nakedness was slowly revealed. As if he were healing his own blindness. The girl was watching from afar. Then, with the same slow gestures, she removed her dress and everything else she was wearing. Naked against the green backcloth of trees.
The boy again looked at the river. Silence descended on the liquid skin of that interminable body. Circles widened and disappeared on the calm surface, marking the spot where the frog had plunged in. Then the boy got into the water and swam to the other bank as the white, naked form of the girl withdrew into the shadow of the branches.
Reprinted by kind permission of Verso Books.
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