The Clearing

by Tricia Lowther

Fumo has just found a quiet spot to eat his lunch when he feels it, like a weight pressing into his stomach. The child is near. He shades his eyes from the glaring Congolese sun and squints across the narrow river. On the opposite bank, sheltered by the edge of the rainforest, stands the girl. She’s looking straight at him.

Hunger forgotten, he drops his cassava bread into the filth-filled water.

She’s barefoot, legs together, arms stiff by her sides. Her shoulders are hunched, fingers clenched, and her head tilts to one side. Close-shorn hair emphasises her massive dark eyes and cute sticky-out ears. Sunlight dapples her ragged but colourful sundress. Fumo knows every stitch; every vivid turquoise swirl, the pink satin frill that dances around her knees, the matching, jauntily angled pocket. She’s in his dreams every night.

From her lips, the faintest breath of a whisper, a language Fumo does not understand. Is she cursing him?

He rises from his squatting position, flings out his arm and points toward her. He works his jaw. Where are the words he needs? His hot, sticky body turns cold. Fear sends shivers racing through him.

“It wasn’t me!” His voice is thin and reedy, like an adolescent’s. “I would never do such things.” He waves his arm back the way he came. “Tamu! Pierre! Alain! They are the ones to blame, not me!”

She changes the angle of her head, answers him with her eyes. You did not stop them.

His forehead shines, he pants. “I didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t know how to stop them.”

Her skin begins to blister. You did not try.

Fumo sobs. “I need this job! I have a son, Jamba. My wife is pregnant again. The money from the timber pays for our food.”

Her jaw drops open. A soundless wail fills the muggy air. My father had a daughter. My mother sewed a pink frill around her daughter’s dress.

The newspapers said her name was Safika and that she was seven years old. Her name means to correct, or put right, but Fumo knows this can never be put right.

“I’m sorry.” He falls, weeping, to his knees. “Please, Safika, forgive me.”

The newspapers said an investigation was underway, into claims by an indigenous tribe that loggers had burned a child alive to warn them off their land. The newspapers had not said what the men did before they set fire to her body.

When Fumo’s vision clears, Safika is a blackened skeleton. A tear rolls from her charred and empty eye socket. A scrap of once pink fabric floats to the ground.

He brings his hands together, and prays once more for forgiveness. He prays that when he opens his eyes she will be gone, disappeared back into the trees. The trees that Fumo’s crew will fell this afternoon, timber torn from the ground to make furniture for wealthy customers in Europe and Asia.

Eyes downcast, Fumo turns away from the river. He walks back towards men and machines, determined not to wander alone again.

Tricia Lowther is a freelance writer based in North East England. Her short story publications include pieces in; The NoSleep Podcast, The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories, and Flame Tree Press.

Published 7/16/20