Three-eye Monsters

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The mangrove is full of monsters. I have seen them. Once, Honour's cousin Teale dared us to climb to the top of the nursery tree. Three-quarters of the way up, Teale slipped and fell into the green water. He swam willy-nilly toward a branch and almost made it, except this enormous mouth with ragged teeth got him, and pulled him under. Honour screamed, and would not stop until her mother came and took her away.

My people believe that the monsters — we call them three-eyes on account of the lump on their foreheads that looks like a third eye — take on the skills and knowledge of whoever they eat. That night I had nightmares about a three-eye that looked like Teale and knew my name.

"That little twerp," Honour said for weeks afterwards. "Teale was stupid, Eezel. He was going too fast and he went out onto that thin branch. He...he was killed because he was stupid. We're not stupid — that won't happen to us."

"But do you think that three-eye now knows all about us? You know, because it now knows what Teale knew? Do you think it knows how to climb trees like Teale did?"

"Oh for....!" Honour didn't finish her thought, but swung out of the branch and left me there without a word.

After that I took to watching the water for any sign of a three-eye Teale. One day, I was sitting on a low branch, watching for signs of life below the green sludge, when two trees south I saw Old Lady Kelty — she must be over 30. Her fur had started to come out in patches and her bare skin looked scaly and red. She was climbing straight down to the water. What the heck was she doing? I know the eyes go a bit in old people, mama told me that, so maybe she was lost, confused. I called out to her to stop, to turn around, to be careful. I don't know whether she heard me. She just kept going. She was humming to herself, and in slow motion sank into the water. She dipped her head under, surfaced and swam in graceful circles.

I held my breath, scanning for three-eyes. I ran to my dad. He was collecting paw-paws for my mom, who was stuck at the nest, nursing my younger twin brothers. "Papa, Papa, come quick — Old Lady Kelty is in the water!"

"Ah, is she now? I suppose it was inevitable. Had to happen sooner or later."

"But you don't understand, Papa, she didn't fall in, she just went in on purpose. I think she's gone weird in the head. We've got to get her out before the three-eyes come."

"No need, Eezel, it was her time."

"Her time for what?"

He stopped collecting fruit then, and looked at me. "Well, you're a little young to be knowing this. But when our kind turns old, and our fur starts to come off, we go into the water."

"What? What? What do you mean go into the water?"

"We stop living in the trees and go into the water. We give ourselves to the water God."

I was gob smacked. "You mean when I'm so old that my fur comes off, I have to kill myself?"

"Well, it's complicated. You'll understand some day."

But I didn't want to understand and I tried not to think about it. Instead I adopted Honour's way of thinking. I had to be smart—smart—because only stupid people get themselves killed — only the really retarded walk calmly into the water.

"I don't care how old I am, I don't care if all my fur comes out and I'm completely naked, I am not walking into that water," I said to Honour, who agreed totally and said so often.

Three years later, at the height of the winter floods, when my mom got swept into the surge and her limbs were torn apart by a tangle of three-eyes, I yelled at my Dad: "She was so stupid! Stupid! Why didn't she cling on to the branches better, why didn't she at least try to swim? She didn't even try! I hate her! I hate her — the stupid idiot!"

My Dad was so angry that he kicked me out of the nest and I have never been back there since. That's when I stopped foraging for the choicest paws-paws on the thin, top branches — too risky. I stayed away from the boys — who were always playing tag, daring each other to jump from tree to tree, from branch to branch. In all the years I lived alone, I saw a lot of youngsters fall into the gaping black gobs of the monsters — and I thanked the trees that I was too smart to end up there. And when I saw the old men and women calmly, deliberately ease themselves into the water — as if they could not stop themselves — as if they did not care for life — I shrugged and looked away and would not think of it.

When Honour and I had children, we taught them well. We taught them how to be smart, how to be careful, we did not allow them to associate with any idiots or the offspring of idiots. We kept them safe.

The hardest day was when I saw Papa limping down to the water's edge. I had not seen him in many years and I could not believe how old he looked. His fur had gone grey and white, but there was little of it left and above his eyes he had an open sore that oozed with puss. I stared at him, warring with myself. I knew what he was about to do. Should I try to save him, stop him somehow, at least try to talk him out of it, say something, say good-bye? But I had not talked to him for so long.

I hesitated and in that moment he plunged into the water with an audible sigh, as if it were a relief. He ducked his head under and never resurfaced.

When the first patch of fur fell off my back, I made Honour promise that she would stop me from going into the water, regardless of how much I pleaded with her to let me go.

But as it turned out she left first. She had been hot and thirsty for days — her itchy, naked skin tormented by the sun. I could see the monstrous thing she was becoming — what we were both becoming — and I recoiled at the thought. "You can't give in, Honour. Please, fight this. Stay with me." But she was tired and said she didn't want to argue anymore. And she kissed me and we held each other as if we would break at any moment and I fell asleep. When I woke up, she was gone — already gone to the water. I could not stop her, just as we could not stop the children from growing up, from drifting away, from doing all the dangerous things we forbade them to do.

And so I am alone again. I spend most of the time sleeping in the shade. I wrap myself in wet leaves, trying to cool my burnt, brittle skin, to quench the constant itch, to soothe the open sores where the sharp scales have broken through. I feel my mouth grow wider, my teeth more ragged. The sore on my forehead is like a third eye. It shifts and moves and shows me visions of other possibilities. I am so very thirsty. And when I sleep, I dream of cool, blessedly cool, green water.

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