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The slag belt polka

Marlon Moala-Knox

 

[to the tune of ‘Ievan Polkka’]

Up the stream from the Skinner’s port,

where the winter’s long and the summer’s short,

Paolo slept and kept his clothes in a hollowed-out Subaru.

Vincent had a shack with windproof walls

in a spot next to the firebug stalls.

Paolo, he turned green, you see, for a place that wasn’t cold.

 

I wakes to the sound of Vincent slapping the bonnet of my house. ‘Rise and shine, Uncle! The sackers is back in town.’

I hear a lot of hands chopping wood not too far away. That’s the sound of planning a party.

‘How many?’ I ask, lifting my head and opening one eye.

‘As many as whom still breathing.’

‘The number change, though?’

‘No,’ says Vincent, proudly.

A young firebug trainee comes up behind and taps his shoulder. She’s got scabs all over her fingers and Vincent takes a rag from his pocket and wipes the spot she tapped.

‘Chief, there’s a divvying dispute. Twain and Big Fred gots to split an odd number.’

‘I’ll be over in a skip, oh?’

‘Thanks Chief.’ She notices me curled up in the car. ‘How’s it going Mr Paolo?’

‘Very well, so they say.’

She runs off. Vincent winks at me. ‘D’you ever think I’d been up for all this?’

‘Still don’t know if you are, Vincent.’

‘Oh, shut up. You’s a daft one, Uncle Paolo.’

 

In the smoke of a festive night

When the sacking crew had won their fight

Paolo sat and fumed away in his hollowed-out Subaru.

Vincent had a speech to make

and a plan to move across the lake

‘I will lead our kin,’ he said, ‘to a place that isn’t cold.’

 

I can’t deny the kid looks like a real leader tonight, what with all the embers fluttering around his face. I suppose we should have seen it coming. The one what leads the firebugs usually ends up leading the rest of the town. Vincent just done it younger.

Loads of people dressed up tonight. Cloaks and jewellery. Paint on. But Vincent don’t ever bothered with that. Keeps his work clothes on for all times.

The sackers, they dress themselves heaviest, which is how I knows to keep the kid away from them. Anywhom sticks metals through their ears and noses before they goes off to bash people’s heads is whom don’t ever consider what happens when you get bashed back. I hads to spend a lot of words making sure Vincent understood that when he was young.

He wanted to join, you know? Told his mother he was for the sackers. His mother said no, because she had a brain. His father had a brain too. I’ve got a brain. Where’s Vincent’s brain, huh?

Something slopping around in his skull know hows to build a generator but it ain’t a brain. There’s bits in his head what figure out fluid dynamics from scratch, being that nobody’s seen a book on the topic in decades, but those bits don’t seems to impart the basic senses for living. A sense of self-preservation. A sense of what’s a necessity.

A nephew like that needs an uncle like me. An uncle with shifty eyes and a carrion crow’s patience. I mades a promise to put those traits to use, and I intends to keep it. Where Vincent goes, I go.

 

With the firebugs Vincent drew

the plans to build a steam canoe

He needed parts he didn’t have, so he set out to buy them.

But if Vincent didn’t make it back

Paolo could take Vincent’s shack,

and Paolo, he’d do anything for a place that wasn’t cold.

 

‘You’re joking, ain’t you?’

‘Why say that, Uncle?’

‘You’re not goings to get anything from those in that land. They’ll damn kill you!’

‘I’ll take the sacking crew.’

‘Then they’ll kill you without even talks to you.’

Vincent kicked a rotten tree stump, sending out a puff of splinters. ‘Why? Why should we believe they won’t trade? It’s the rational thing for them to do.’

‘They’re savages, man. I’m old, and seen all types of what people do, and one thing you can’t count on is they acting rationally when you wants them to. Especially not them types over West Drop.’

‘Then what the hell we meantsa do? The Slaglanders is expanding from the South, we’s only barely winning the fights in the North, and them in the West is smushed right against us, asking “Can you facken feel us?” All we got is the sea, Paolo. All we got is the facken—’ Vincent kicked a non-rotten stump by mistake and screamed.

 

Down the stream from the Skinner’s port,

where the Slag men lay landmines for sport,

Paolo knew of a wreckage site that no sane man would walk through

He said to Vincent, ‘Come with me.

We’re going to get your parts for free.

I want to help you get our kin to a place that isn’t cold.’

 

The distance we walk south ain’t much enough that we should feel a difference but it sure seems to get warmer. Vincent notices before I do. He’s always been heat sensitive. Don’t know where those genes come from. Porter people are supposed to be able to live anywhere. Maybe that’s why Vincent’s a leader. He’s picky.

‘If everything goes to plan, Uncle, and we make it across the pond, I tell you the one thing I won’t miss from the Port is the cold.’

‘Hah! So that’s the real reason you come up with this scheme, oh?’

Vincent shakes his head, smiling. ‘Just tryings to keep my people safe. Gettings to a warmer climate is what I would call a cherry.’

‘And I suppose if whoever lives over there don’t welcome us with open arms, our iceblood savagery will make a meal of their breezy, tropical ways?’

‘I heard rumours about who’s over there. It’s the breezy ways that means they will welcome us.’

‘What if someone’s wiped them out since the last time rumours went around? Hmm?’

Vincent rolls his eyes. Sometimes I can’t believe he puts up with me. Still, these things needs to be thought about.

We’re on routes to Fort Oleg, where the Slaglanders got beat up and beat away, back in ’73. You wouldn’t see unless you were looking for it, but there are signs we’ve entered a land was once a battlefield. Trenches, all filled in now. A couple of wrecked combat bikes.

We fought so hard for this land but then never found a use for it. I’d be surprised if anyone from the Port clans has even tried to salvage here the last four decades.

Porter people were stronger back then, during the war, and because of it we weren’t as smart, so we ain’t take the parts the Slaglanders abandoned.

Most of us forgot, but not my parents.

Nice of thems to give me a story to keep in my back pocket like that. I seen people give their children knives, watches, human bones – under the name of heirlooms. My parents gave me a fact. And here I am, finally dusting the lint off it. And for a reason I am. Sometimes to talk someone out of a plan you haves to offer them a better one. If I can’t convince Vincent we don’t need a ship, I can at least stop him getting killed tryings to build one.

 

The pair, they came to the wreckage site.

Now, Paolo, you see, he was light.

He scurried through the slag-field while the mines, they slumbered on.

But Vincent followed with heavy feet

and a mine, it made him twice-minced meat.

‘Finally,’ said Paolo, ‘I’ll have a place that isn’t cold.’

 

Tell me, whoever’s above, what I am supposed to do. You get born as a useless facken runt and it don’t seem you can chooses to be anything else, oh?

When Vincent was a baby I told him all sorts of stories. The story of Zathan Herberts and the Ambulank. The story of the dissolution of the Skinner’s Federation. The story of how we won the War for the South. He asked me questions I didn’t haves answers to. Why didn’t Herberts light only the first two fuses? How did they figure out the Skinner’s body count? He got raw round the lids about it sometimes.

His mother told me to fill in the blanks. She said it made the story better and that I might learn something if I did. I said it sounded like too much effort.

But if I was anything more than food for dogs, maybe I would have filled in those blanks.

Maybe I would have asked myself why nobody in the old days had the thought of comings here to get parts.

Maybe I would have got the wrong answer but sometimes the important thing is justs to have one.

It’s getting dark. I ain’t moving. I’m waiting for a Slag mans to show his face. Then I’ll teach him about the shiv in my hand. What he can does with a mine to an innocent’s body, I can does to his with four inches of tin and no flinching.

All the birds what got scared away by the boom, they’re coming back now. The Slag men ain’t. But I ain’t going home. I ain’t gonna sleep. I gotsa get a kill on the one what killed my nephew. Whoever’s above. Look around this place. Tell me what you see:

Breeze-blocks stacked up in towers.

Pick-up trucks half-buried in clay.

Empty crates.

Mr Paolo.

Did the blocks get him? No? Okay. The trucks? Thought not. Surely empty crates wouldn’t do such a thing? Well then.

I guess we have our culprit. And I guess I have my decision.

They ain’t gonsa find Vincent, but they’ll sure remember him. I hope they forget me as quick as they can.

 

With no remorse for the murdered man,

Paolo, he had one more good plan.

‘Since I’m here, I might as well take all the parts we came for.’

But the metal added extra weight

So Paolo shared in Vincent’s fate.

Now where has our Paolo gone? A place that’s never cold.

 

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