2017 Doris Gooderson Competition Third Place – Papa Bombo

Papa Bombo

by Mike Watson

Bamboo is not just a plant. It is a banner in the breeze. A whip in the wind. As supple as rope and wire strong. Bamboo is loose limbed with more fingers than hands can hold. It is a “hoo” and a “haa” with rhythm tapping roots and jazz filled leaves.

Bamboo is not just a plant. It is spears in the sunrise, sharp in the bright and tasselled in the breeze. And, when the big moon rises and silvers the ocean in the bay, bamboo is the hush and ghostly sway.

Bamboo is not just a plant. It is where Papa Bombo lives. Everyone knows that Papa Bombo has lived there forever. He was there before you were born, before the village was born and before the first footprint in the sand. Papa Bombo has always been there.

His eyes and beard are wild. His teeth are brown and razored like snapped twigs. Papa Bombo has thin, long arms with knotted elbows and his scorpion legs are tipped with claws.

Bamboo is not just a plant. It is a great bush, a den, a lair, a hidey-boo!. It is a place of many doors but no exits and ways in and no ways out. In you go and in you stay.

Stand close and listen. Papa Bombo shakes the bamboo, rattles those bony stems.

“I’m in here,” he says, “why don’t you come in and visit. Step through and stay awhile. Play awhile. Come to where there is music sweet, soft food, cool water and the air is rainbowed with light.

Sometimes Papa Bombo has a voice of warm honey and sometimes like cracking shells. And sometimes, when the night is down, Papa Bombo whispers as soft as moth wings.

Every day in this land the sun is big and the sky is the colour of damsel flies. Every day the ocean is hot and flops its tongue out onto the sand. And, when the children are finished with teasing grandma and are tired of chasing lizards, they cluster next to the bamboo. There they huddle sharing courage in their numbers. The children are old enough to leave behind the warmth and comfort of home but still too young to join life beyond the village.

“Shush,” they say, “can you hear Papa Bombo?”

Wide eyed, and open mouthed like chicks in the nest, they lean close to the bamboo and listen. They can hear the sigh of tired waves on the beach and a flit of parakeets in the palms and…. Yes, there it is…. coming from inside the shifting wall of bamboo stems.

“I can hear Papa Bombo,” says a child.

“He’s growling,” says another.

“Scratching his scaly skin.”

“Opening his crusty yellow eyes.”

The children shiver and ease away from the bamboo. Fear spreads like a rash.

“Don’t go near,” they say.

But, one child makes fists, tightens teeth, lifts shoulders and speaks,

“There’s always somebody saying don’t do this and don’t do that. Always somebody saying be careful of the river and the monster Snapgot. Always somebody saying stay clear of the trees and the freckles that bite. Know what I say?”

The child squares a chin and flashes bonfire eyes,

“I say let’s find out what’s in the bamboo.”

The other children shrink back in horror as they watch their friend step into the bamboo and vanish behind stems that seem to rattle with thin laughter.

“Who ever goes into the bamboo, does not come out,” sob the children.

“Yes, everyone knows that.”

“Let’s run for help.”

“Save our friend from Papa Bombo.”

But the children stay rooted. They wait. They watch. Hoping their friend will appear after the next blink.

Deep inside the bamboo, the child sees it is just a plant. Just an ordinary plant growing on cold earth in turning shadows. The tall stems rattle like bones but they are just tall stems that hide the warmth of the sun and the blue of the ocean. There is the smell of old bodies but it is just dust that is born in darkness. And the only sound the child hears is the beat of a heart and the crunch of dried leaves beneath bare feet. Further the child explores the bamboo.

“There is nothing here but scuttling beetles and nervous mice with twitching whiskers.”

And, after the child explores the length and breadth of the bamboo plant, the mist of doubt is erased and the understanding of the real is clear.

“Papa Bombo does not live here any more.”

Outside the bamboo the children are still waiting. They huddle together. Their feet are restless. Their nails are bitten. Their hearts are breaking but look….see….what is that emerging from the bamboo? A shape is appearing. The stems are parting. Opening up. Out steps their friend. The children sigh with relief and they hasten forward with arms outstretched to embrace the one they thought was lost.

“Did you see Papa Bombo?” they ask.

“What was he like?”

“Were his claws big and sharp?”

“How did you manage to escape?”

The rest of their questions are halted by a raised hand they have never seen so firm before and a voice they have never heard so confident before,

“There are tales to make us hide deep beneath our blankets for safety and stories to send us into the arms of our parents for protection. Of these I have no wisdom but….”

There was a moment’s silence and the children wait with dry mouths.

“It also said that, who ever goes into the bamboo does not come out, and this, I have learned,  is truly spoken.”

The children hear the words but do not understand the meaning. And, slowly, nervously, they step aside, one by one, as the child that used to be their friend, and who used to join in their games, strides off to be part of the life beyond the village.