Grand Prize Gold Winner: Boots Bilong Mi

By Patrick Ritter

On a dugout canoe trip through the interior of New Guinea, how far would you go for a pair of shoes?

I heard a splash behind me and I froze midstroke. Sounded close. I twisted around to see a large tree crashing into the water. The Sepik River winds across the swamplands of Papua New Guinea like a massive snake, its diet trees and eroded silt. The tree shuddered in the current. From the branches startled kingfishers escaped into flight, screeching. I glanced to Randy, my buddy from California, at the front of the dugout canoe. His face was sunburned and questioning.

“No,” I said, “not a puk-puk.” In New Guinea the Pidgin English word for crocodile is puk-puk.

I ruddered around a mat of grass. Behind us the current ripped the tree from the bank and it went under, the branches thrashing. On the Sepik River that’s the way a man would go in the chops of a hungry puk-puk. Thrashing. A Sepik crocodile will drag you underwater, spin you around a few times, and hold you down until you’re all done dancing. And that’s not the worst of it. After you’re done thrashing, a puk-puk will chomp off an arm or leg to satisfy its immediate appetite. Then it will stuff your body into a submerged crevice: an underwater food stash for another day. You’re not only dead, you don’t even rate as a main course. You’re leftovers, pal.

I’d seen a couple crocodiles so far on our three-hundred-mile river journey from the interior of New Guinea. Which seemed odd. You don’t usually see puk-puks during the day, so they said.

We didn’t have an official “float plan.” Just go into the far interior, get a dugout canoe, and take it down the Sepik River for a couple of weeks. We’d both canoed before, although not in hollowed-out logs. And we were at least a couple hundred miles from the Asmat region of New Guinea where Michael Rockefeller had been killed, and likely eaten, by cannibals in 1961. That didn’t happen anymore. Supposedly.

The temperature was over 100 and I had to cool off. We steered to the center of the wide river. Seemed relatively safe. The only two puk-puks I’d seen were resting on the bank. I unlaced my boots. Nothing like a good pair of boots, I thought. The design—knee-high, green canvas, rubber soles—first appeared in New Guinea during the jungle warfare of World War II. I’d bought them at the Highlands Steamship Company, a one-stop outfitter of everything from tools to flour. Not only did they protect my feet and shins from sticks, leeches, and mosquitoes, I could wash and dry them in 20 minutes. They were the most valuable equipment I had with me, besides my mosquito net. A journey to the Sepik without a mosquito net would be a sneak preview of the wrong side of the hereafter.

I undressed and stood up in the canoe, a twenty foot, hollowed-out log. We paid the equivalent of thirty bucks for it at the village in the interior where we began the trip. Only a little over a foot wide, we could barely squeeze into it. I slid my toe over a recent mud patch near the stern. It was still hard and would hold at least a couple days.

As Randy counterbalanced the opposite side I slipped into the water. It felt unbelievably good. Yet, images of gnarly jaws interrupted my enjoyment. Sure, I told myself, no problem with puk-puks during the day. That’s what they all said. But why did I still feel like a gem dealer with his store unlocked? I decided I was cool enough and climbed back into the canoe.

The afternoon stretched and yawned. Everything moves slowly in the Sepik heat. Even the mosquitos aren’t that quick. But they make up for it in numbers, and in malaria payload.

I broke out lunch, consisting of crackers, tinned fish, and two papayas I had obtained that morning in a trade for a lighter. I pulled out a small jar of a fermented yeast spread called Vegemite.

“Hey Randy, want some of this Vegemite?”  I asked.

“That crud? No way.”

I knifed out the last bit of the stuff and lathered a cracker. It actually did taste a bit off. But I sure wasn’t throwing it away. That might mean Randy was right about it.

I withdrew a wrinkled map. A woman we had met in the Highlands told us there was a British company named SSL doing oil exploration on the Sepik, and that we could probably stay on their barge for the night. She put a dot on our map where she thought it was. I squinted at that dot, now blurred by rain and mud.

“Think we can make it to the SSL boat today?” I asked Randy.

“Should be able to. What time is it, about noon?”

“Two-thirty.”

If the dot on the map was correct, we should be ten or fifteen river miles away. That would be about three hours. But the Sepik River doesn’t always follow the map, and vice versa. In the swamps of New Guinea, a river doesn’t seek its own course; it seeks to defy a course. We moved into a narrow bend. The sound of rushing water increased. Staring through the jungle I realized why. The river had completely looped back on itself. The downstream reach, flowing in the opposite direction, was visible less than fifty yards through the trees. Another flood or two and the river would break through the narrow isthmus.

The temperature dropped below triple figures. A flock of hornbills flew over, the sound of their wings like canvas tents in a heavy breeze. Three canoes suddenly appeared out of the tall pit-pit grass. They shot straight out from the bank, a blur of arms stroking in rhythm. Fifty feet away, they turned broadside just upstream. The largest canoe was a massive log of thirty or forty feet. Must’ve been ten guys in it. A man and two boys scrutinized us from the second canoe. I couldn’t see the third canoe now. It hung back, as if in reserve. But reserve for what? We floated downriver en masse. They stared intently at us. We stared back. Nobody stared downstream.

I said, “Haumas clok bot bilong waitman?” (How long to reach the white man’s boat?)

An old guy wearing a pig’s tusk necklace and a penis gourd pointed downriver and said, “Tupela.”

Two what? Hours? Days?

Another guy said, “Tripela ples.” (Three villages away.)

A guy with a bush on his head said, “Foapela ailan” (Four islands), nodding his head, and the bush, emphatically.

Four islands away? We passed a lot of islands, some of which later passed us because they were floating. So, the boat was four islands away, some of which could be moving. Was that a measure of time or distance? Probably the way he nodded his head that was really important. Subtle nods and hand motions can translate time and distance better than words, especially Pidgin English.

Sundown was a gaudy affair of incandescent orange against jungle green. Without a cloud in the sky, and a full moon due, it promised to be a spectacular night.

“You know,” I said, “I bet there’ll be plenty of light tonight. We could just keep going until we find the SSL boat.”

“Yeah, it can’t be that far. Might be interesting to be on the river at night.”

I set up our portable stove on the canoe floor and started cooking. But I had no appetite. “Man, I don’t feel so good.”

Randy turned around. “Funny, I don’t feel anything. And we both ate the same stuff today. Except for—”

“The Vegemite. Son of a bitch.” I wiped a line of sweat from my lip. In this heat, a yeast spread like Vegemite was an intestinal time bomb. “Well, we should see the SSL boat pretty soon. What do you think?”

“Yeah. I guess.”

All we had was a dot on a faded map that was many years old. That was eons for the Sepik River, which often changes course. Sepik maps should be printed with disappearing ink. That’s what the river did.

A full moon rose above the jungle, turning the river silver. An occasional fruit bat flew over. We stared for long minutes at the dark horizon until we found gaps in the tree line to navigate. Nine o’clock came. Then ten. My back ached.

Another hour passed. Clouds rolled in, blotting the sky into an El Greco painting. So much for a starry night. It smelled like rain. Then the first drops hit.

With the wind gusting, we quickly tucked a tarp over our supplies. The rain came in fits and starts, like a shower on the blink. Then it let loose for a solid ten minutes. The canoe took on water fast. We bailed with the mess kit pans slightly faster. Finally, the rain let up into a steady drizzle. By then, my gut felt like it had been drop-kicked. We had been on the river for almost seventeen hours that day, and it was taking its toll. It was almost one in the morning. The river was only a gray blur. For all I knew, we had already passed the SSL boat. We were river moles, squinting at a horizon that faded in and out of view.

The river fell silent. Even the geckos had knocked off for the night. Randy muttered, “Hey, that’s the same shore.”

“Huh?”

“That shore with the high grass. We passed it before.”

“No way, just looks the same.”

“Yep, been by it. We’re going in circles. It’s gotta be a lake or something.”

“No. We’re moving with the current, right? So we have to still be going downstream.”  We stopped paddling and stared at the shore. We were definitely moving.

“It’s crazy,” Randy said, “but we passed this before.”

It did look weirdly familiar. But then it all looked familiar. “Nah, it’s just late.”

Twenty minutes later I couldn’t deny it, as we passed the same high grass again. “Damn, we are going in circles.” I looked around. Hey, look over there. Isn’t that—?”

“Yeah, a light.” Across the water an eerie yellow light glimmered through the mist. If it was a mirage it was damn convincing. “Is that another shoreline?”

“Only one way to find out,” I said, turning the canoe around.

We paddled toward the light, against what felt like a current. Which didn’t feel right. The moon poked out between the clouds. It did look like a lake. I wondered how we had gotten into it. And how we were getting out.

Then I saw a small clearing, with logs and brush piled at the edge of the jungle. It looked strange, but could be big enough to pitch a couple tents.

We paddled harder. I thought I heard muted voices and laughing. But who would be up now?  We pulled close to shore.

A few feet from the shore the current increased wildly, like a gust of wind. I took giant, frantic strokes. Water poured over the gunnels. Seconds later I felt it flowing along the floor over my feet. We plowed up-current toward the bank, in slow motion.

The shore was just a few feet from me. I reached way out and drove the paddle down hard. But the current was weaker just along the bank. Hadn’t thought of that. The extra energy had to go somewhere, and it didn’t go into my stroke.

I fell in. Grabbing for the canoe, I gulped for a breath. The current raged against the bank grass. I grabbed again and caught the canoe, my legs swinging out. In between gulps, an image swam into my head. Black eyes and big muddy jaws. Puk-puks? Nah, they’re only a problem at night.

I don’t remember pulling myself into the canoe. Randy told me later it was the fastest canoe entry he’d ever seen. And there in my hand was my paddle, still vice-gripped.

By then we were back out into the current. We repeated our efforts, this time without my plunge, and finally landed the canoe. We tied it off to a couple stumps and listened. The voices in the bush sounded farther off and unrecognizable. Considering that over seven hundred different languages are spoken in New Guinea, that wasn’t surprising.

“This spot looks ok,” I said, pointing to a clear patch. In the moonlight I saw the stamp of exhaustion on Randy’s face, and the uneasiness. We set up his two-man tent first and stashed supplies inside. I had my smaller tent up when I heard someone coming through the bush.

Two guys stepped into the clearing. One held a kerosene lantern. They were natives but wore western shorts and khaki jackets. One guy stumbled and grabbed the other for support. Randy glanced at me and stiffened.

One of them shouted something, slurred and unintelligible, and the other guy laughed. It was too boisterous a greeting for that time of night. And it had an oddly familiar ring. Then I got it. They were drunk. I didn’t know if that was good news or bad.

In Pidgin I told them we needed a place to stop and asked if we could sleep there.

Hia?”  the guy holding the lantern said, laughing. “Yu lik slip long dispela ples?” (You really want to sleep here?) They both laughed.

One of them pointed to his chest and said, “Name bilong mi, Taoonay.” His eyes glistened with the dull wash of alcohol.

I said to Randy, “What’s the big joke about sleeping here?” So I questioned “Taoonay” about it. He became a bit more coherent. Sure, we could stay, he told us. He and his buddy were “working” that night, clearing trees. Translation: they were up drinking. And this clearing? “Dispela ples,” Taoonay said, “Matmat.” He didn’t laugh when he said that.

They stumbled around for a while and finally left, laughing. I was too exhausted to worry about it. We’d catch a few hours of shuteye and be off first thing. I undressed outside my tent. I could barely unlace my boots they were so thick with mud and debris. They looked like my brain felt. I pulled them off and set them just outside the tent. There wasn’t enough room inside for me, the boots, and the two pounds of mud, leeches and whatever else was on them. I lay down, naked, muddy, dog tired, and sick. “Hey Randy,” I called. “You have the Pidgin dictionary over there?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Look up the word matmat. That’s what they called this clearing.”

After a while Randy said softly, “Oh great.”

“What does it mean?”

“Graveyard.”

I wondered if I would get any sleep at all, but in two minutes I was asleep. I dreamed of desert gulches, dry and free of mosquitoes.

“Gerrup!” (Get up!) someone shouted, right outside my tent. It jerked me out of my dream.

Gerrup!” he bellowed again in a familiar, slurred voice. It was Tony, or whatever his name was, and he was still drunk. I rolled over painfully, glancing at my watch. Six o’clock, only four hours of sleep. Sitting up I felt the sharp pang of diarrhea cramps. An army was doing battle down there. I pulled on my shorts and unzipped the tent.

In the dim light I could just make out two guys running off, laughing. I had to relieve myself immediately, so I reached under the tent flap for my boots and…no boots. Son of a bitch! I felt around outside the tent but only came up with mud and grass. Meanwhile, the boys disappeared into the jungle, no doubt with my boots in tow. My immediate impulse was to run after them. But nature called more strongly. I stumbled into the bush to take a crap, swearing continuously, as the sticks and pit-pit grass jabbed my bare feet. In the distance I heard Tony shout “Gerrup!” again, which brought more laughing. As if it wasn’t bad enough to steal a man’s boots, they had the gall to wake me up to let me know, and then laugh about it.

When I got back, Randy stepped out of his tent, red-eyed. “What’s happening?”

“Someone took my boots.”

“Oh no.”

“I should have brought them inside the tent last night. It was one of those guys from last night. He was just here.”

“Yeah, I heard him. That Tony guy?”

“Yeah. He was still drunk and took off down that path. Sure hate to lose those boots.”

“Yeah, but we’re outsiders here. Maybe they consider it a mandatory offering.”

“Yeah, right. Or a convenient excuse for a damn robbery! And by a couple of drunks. I don’t care what the culture is, some things cross the line,” I said, hopped up.

“Damn straight. But maybe you can pick up another pair at the SSL boat.”

“Maybe.”

“Wanna keep going downstream and see if we can find that boat?”

My head said yes, just get the hell out of here. Put some distance between me and an unlucky break. Why couldn’t I just do it? I knew my boots were history. But I couldn’t let it go.

“What do you want to do?” Randy said.

“At least try to get them back.”

“Well, ok. But be careful, man.”

Surprisingly, my sickness had vanished. I was amped. Nothing like some righteous anger to get well fast.

“You’ll have to stay here and guard the stuff,” I said.

“Yeah. Keep your head, man. You’re on their territory. Alone.”

“I know, not worth a pit-pit arrow in the gut. But at least I’m going to talk to this Tony.”

One of our machetes was within reach and I took it out. It had a nice heft to it. So nice it was alarming. I put it back. Too much force. Badpela force. The wrong tool for the job. But I needed something. The tip of a broken paddle peeked out beneath the tarp. We carried it in case we lost one of our long paddles. I pulled it out. Splintered, only four feet long, it wasn’t much of a paddle. It wouldn’t stop arrows. But it did convey force without screaming it. The perfect big stick to carry. I didn’t plan to speak softly.

The mud path was cool marble beneath my bare feet. I walked a couple hundred feet and stopped, realizing I was tiptoeing. It seemed too quiet. Shouldn’t people be up and around? Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to hide from an entire village. I quickened my pace. No sense trying to hide. I was certainly an easy target, but it could serve as an advantage. Besides the element of surprise, bold action conveys at least a sense of purpose. Why else would a waitman, in shorts and bare feet, walk alone into a strange village with such a brisk step? Because I’ve lost my senses. I hoped they didn’t figure that out. But I didn’t care. I was roaring angry and justified. Righteous anger is an immensely powerful motivation, the kind that can bring success against long odds. Or get you killed.

I smelled ripe bananas, and passed a couple thatched houses perched on bamboo poles. Startled faces appeared at small windows. I must have looked alien to them. Too tall, white skin, blue eyes rimmed in red from lack of sleep.

Then a jumble of pole houses. Smoke seeped through one shaggy roof, giving it the appearance of a smoldering pile of leaves. I felt a chill, and it wasn’t the mud beneath my feet. I was sneaking around, unknown and uninvited.

More pole houses, and still too quiet. Suddenly I heard voices behind me and I spun around. Several men stood there, including three guys carrying fish traps. Two boys at the front carried armfuls of wood. They wore nothing but astonished expressions, as if they had never seen anyone with skin so white. They probably hadn’t.

I stared for a long moment, and then asked, “Way stop Tony?” (Where’s Tony?)

The boys looked at each other, amused to hear me speaking Pigeon. “Taoonay,” I repeated.

Taooni?” one boy asked.

“Yeah,” I nodded, “Ta-oo-ni. Way stop?”

One of the boys pointed to a large house, fully forty feet long. “Haus bilong Taooni.” It must have held several families.

I took a couple steps toward the house and paused. I had a hundred river miles to go and really needed those boots. But at what cost? Tony, or whomever, had more than my boots. He had an entire village behind him. Blood runs thicker than water, especially if it isn’t your own. If I surprised them, no telling what might happen. Just wasn’t worth it. Hated to do it, but I needed to swallow my pride and leave. But it left a bitter taste.

So I approached the log stairs leading up into the house. Shouldn’t be doing this. A crowd of ten now surrounded me, murmuring and pointing. Their faces showed disbelief and concern. Something serious was going down. I was vulnerable yet I felt strangely exhilarated, with a simple goal. I want my boots back. I don’t care how. They’re my boots and I want ’em back. Now.

I announced, “Sampela man stilim boots bilong mi” (Someone stole my boots.) No response. “Way stop Taooni?”

An old guy stepped forward. He had a bone through his nose and his teeth were totally black from chewing betel nut. He pointed to the house and said, “Taooni liv hia.”

I walked to the bottom of the log stairs and yelled, “Taooni!”

No response. The crowd was now around thirty. They seemed astonished, alarmed perhaps, but not really hostile. So I pushed harder, raising my voice. “Taooooni!”

No one did anything. Was my boldness that powerful? Probably not. Just a crazy westerner.

A young guy wearing a bark belt stepped out of Tony’s house onto a porch at the top of the stairs and said, “Mi no got boots.

Way stop Taooni?”

He paused. “Taooni slip nau.” (He’s sleeping.)

Yeah, well sleep through this. I started circling the house, screaming. “Taoooni!  Gerrup!” Startled faces appeared from tiny windows. From underneath the house several pigs squealed.

When I got back to the front, Bark Belt was still poised at the top of the stairs.

The crowd was now fifty or more. I felt a lot of eyes on me. I pointed into the house and asked, “Wapo Taooni no gerrup?” (Why doesn’t Tony get up?)

Bark Belt said. “Taooni sik.” (He’s sick.)

“Bullshit!” He understood the tone if not the word. He seemed annoyed, but uncertain. A waitman talking crazy about stolen boots he probably knew nothing about. Even if Taooni was the village drunk he was probably family.

Mi wanem boots bilong mi….Nau!”  I watched his eyes widen. This was some bad craziness, masalai. Yet the harder I pushed, the more he seemed to retreat. So I kept pushing. He looked more uncomfortable than hostile.

A young guy stepped out of the crowd. He wore a tee shirt and a troubled expression. He said, “Isi, isi.” (Take it easy.)

Mi wanem boots bilong mi!” I stomped the end of the paddle into the ground to accent each word. It might have relieved my anger. But instead it revved me up and gave me conviction. And alarmed me. A lot of guys around me had weapons.

I lowered my voice. “Yu bringim boots bilong mi, I go,” pointing downriver. I pounded it out with my paddle for emphasis. “No boots…no go.”

Tee Shirt spoke rapidly, his message passing through the crowd like a gust of wind, stirring up a flurry of activity. A group of men and boys marched off toward our campsite. “Em lookim boots bilong yu.”

Yeah fine, but why not look inside Tony’s house? That’s probably where my boots were. It was surprising someone that young took charge. Where was the village bigman, the guy who wore the most pig tusks and arbitrated all conflicts? That could be the problem. No bigman bilong village. Maybe Tee Shirt was the son of bigman.

Tee Shirt said, “No gutpela,” (not good) shaking his head. He was right about that.

A short truce commenced. I stopped yelling while they searched. It was half-time. With the women and children at a distance, the men stood in a large semi-circle around me, arms crossed, talking to each other without taking their gaze from me. Some argued. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. What were they arguing about? The merits of my claim? Taooni? Or just how to get rid of me? Most wore bark belts with pit-pit grass stuffed behind and coos-coos furs hanging in front. With cassowary bone daggers stuffed into their bark belts and pit-pit arrows at their side, this bunch was ready for anything.

After twenty minutes the search party returned. Their faces said the same thing: no boots. Tee Shirt said, “Ples no gat boots.”

Yeah, and I know what place does have ’em.

“Boots hia,” I said, pointing to Tony’s house with my broken paddle. Tee Shirt said in a low voice meant only for me, “Taooni no gutpela-man” (no good.)  That I already knew. All the more reason he shouldn’t get away with stealing my boots. The village didn’t want trouble. But no one could force Tony to give up my boots, or even come out.

Mi get boots, mi go. No boots….no go.” Then I screamed again, “Taooni! Gerrup! Nau!” Still no response.

Then I did something foolish. And dangerous. I started up the log stairs into the house. No matter how justified I felt, that overstepped the bounds. To enter another man’s house without permission was beyond boldness. It was lunacy. I only made it up three steps. Bark Belt stepped out. In one hand he held a stone axe, in the other a claw hammer, a scary meeting of old and modern. One of them would meet my skull if I went any farther. He shouted angrily, raising the ax and then the hammer. “No man kam insait!”

I felt around with my foot for the lower step, and began moving back down, easy-like. He watched me, unmoving, his face an imminent storm: not yet furious, but threatening. I reached the ground and backed off a couple of steps. He didn’t say anything else. His stare said it all. After a couple of minutes, the necessary amount of time for a show of force, he went back into the house.

I realized my recklessness and it scared me. I had been there an hour and the shock value was probably wearing thin. They wouldn’t put up with me indefinitely. And Randy must be going crazy, hearing all my screaming. I wondered if we had any stuff left.

Just leaving would have been best. But I thought of one last threat, a bluff really, since I wasn’t going to do it. I told Tee Shirt that if I didn’t get my boots back, I was going downriver and bring back the government polisman, whirling one hand in the air to imitate a helicopter. That seemed to register some effect. Although he might have just assumed I was crazy. Which wouldn’t have been far off.

I gave myself ten more minutes, and then I’d leave. The chances of getting my boots back were slim. At least I had given it my best shot. I glanced at the huge ring of men around me. And I hadn’t been shot.

A pig squealed. I heard children’s voices coming from the direction of our campsite. A few kids appeared, running toward the village. As they came closer, several more kids, and some men, joined them. Now what?

The circle of men around me opened and the group burst into the clearing. Several kids pointed towards our campsite. I wondered if the village bigman had finally shown up. Something was up. The crowd all talked at once, looking back down the path. For the first time all morning I wasn’t the center of attention.

In the distance a small figure approached. It was a small boy, couldn’t have been more than ten, walking quickly, but unsteadily, as if burdened. He trudged into the village, naked from the waist up, muddy from the waist down. He wore a band of ferns around his head. In each arm he carried a bundle of muddy grass or something. He walked straight toward me without speaking. Then I recognized what he carried. Although covered with mud and grass their shape was unmistakable. He set them down in front of me, sort of nodded, and stepped back.

I picked one up. “Boots bilong mi,” I said with amazement. As I shook the boot a large clump of mud fell off. It looked like it had been buried. I nodded to the boy and said, “Tenkyu.” (Thank you.) I felt the weight of anger lifting.

The boy pointed to the jungle behind our campsite and said, “Lik-lik riva” (small river.)

Taooni must have stashed the boots in a creek near our campsite. I scraped some mud off the boots, shook them out, and checked the insides for leeches. As I pulled them on muddy water flowed out through the canvas. They were cold, wet, gritty, and magnificent. My anger continued to recede, like a river after a storm. I managed a smile as I laced them all the way up. The boy who found them smiled back. No one else did. Couldn’t blame them, considering my previous display.

I did want to set the record straight though. I told Tee Shirt it wasn’t the village I was angry with, only the guy who took my boots. He looked relieved, surprising considering he had an entire village of guys backing him. What did I have, besides a broken paddle? I did have justice. And I had my boots back.

Tenkyu,” I said.

I turned and took a couple of steps. Instantly the crowd opened to let me through.  Faces stared from porches and narrow windows. The entire village, except for one guy, watched my exit. Taooni remained a no-show.

A picket fence of men, armed with pit-pit arrows and bows, lined the path. Rather than alarm me it gave me momentum. I felt vindicated, like a righteous warrior. And they gave me the definitive respect: stoic silence. They were probably just glad to be rid of me. Or was it community repentance for the theft?  No one said, and I didn’t ask.

The sun was up and hot on my neck. I headed back down the path to our campsite, hoping Randy would still be there, wondering if we still had a canoe. Through the brush I spotted it. Randy was sitting in the stern with all our stuff loaded. Two men stood on the bank nearby watching.

Randy looked up. “All right,” he said with relief.

I said nothing as I approached, just watching Randy’s eyes. He glanced at the two men and then back to me. He scanned downward, from my face, to the paddle, to my legs. Surprise swept across his face as he spotted the boots. I signaled with an upturned thumb. “Well,” I said as nonchalantly as I could, “let’s go.”

Wading into the water I said, “Let’s get out of here and I’ll tell you all about it.” I pushed the canoe out and climbed in. We paddled out. I realized how enormous the oxbow lake was. The location of the river outlet was now unmistakable in daylight. We headed for it. A crowd of villagers watched us from our campsite, the matmat graveyard where we had pitched our tents. No wonder we had so much trouble. Sleep in a damn graveyard, what do you expect?

We shot through the narrows leading out of the lake and left the village behind. I told Randy what had happened. “You know,” I said, “Tony might be punished after all, but not for the theft, or his drunkenness.”

“Why?”

“He wimped out. Never came out to answer his accuser while the whole village watched. Probably a lifetime mark.”

“Maybe.”

The Sepik widened into a river again. We stayed mid-river, soaking up the hot stillness and the welcome monotony. My boots were unbelievably grubby so I unlaced them and washed them off.

We paddled. In the distance I saw a bulky shape in the middle of the river, much larger than a canoe and definitely not an island. It seemed wildly out of place for the Sepik River. I shielded my eyes to stare downriver. If it wasn’t the SSL boat, it had to be something pretty strange.

I put my boots back on and laced them up. They were clean and green, and already almost dry.

Nothing like a good pair of boots.

______________________________________________________________________________

Patrick Ritter is an environmental engineer who has dealt with high level toxics. He took a break for a year to get away from hazardous job conditions, but little did he know that it would be more dangerous out on the road.

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