The Child is father of the Man.
— William Wordsworth
1. EZEZAGUN (STRANGER)
For me, that window was May 4, 1881. It was my twelfth birthday for the first time. I was traveling with my mama and papa on the last leg of a long journey west from St. Louis to Central City, a boom town in the mountains above Denver. We were jammed into a noisy, crowded train filled with people of all sorts and sizes. My papa was going to be the “
My mama said, “Zianno, put that baseball glove down and leave it be. You make me crazy with the rubbing, the rubbing.” That’s my name — Zianno. My mama sometimes called me “Z” because her name was Xamurra and my papa’s name was Yaldi and he liked to think of us as “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” the three unknowns. My mama made the baseball glove by hand in St. Louis. It was my most treasured possession. It was crude and rudimentary, but in 1881, so was baseball.
I kept that glove with me at all times on the trip west. I used it as a pillow at night and rubbed it constantly with my spit to “break it in.” My papa had made me a baseball — actually two, one I kept with me and tossed around and the other he kept with him. We never played with that one.
“Mama,” I said, “you know I’ve got to make it soft. The softer the better.”
“Soft is one thing, my child. Crazy with rubbing is another. But never mind, there is something much more important I want to talk about today.”
The train was inching its way through a mountain pass. Outside, there seemed to be hundreds of waterfalls, some small, some large; a result of heavy spring rains. Papa had made his way to the front of our car in order to listen to a fat man ramble on about recent gold strikes. I put my glove down and looked at Mama’s face. I loved to look at Mama’s face. She had creamy skin and her features were round and small. Round nose, mouth, and eyes that were coal black and always laughing. But not that day. She was serious and I knew it.
I said, “What, Mama? What’s important?”
Mama looked hard into my eyes and reached up with her hands to touch my face. She ran her fingers over my eyebrows and down the line of my cheekbone and traced the outline of my lips. I sat dead still. She touched me often with much love, but not often in this way. It was as if she was trying to remember me with her fingers. The train lurched suddenly from side to side. We were beginning the descent from the pass and picking up speed. It startled Mama, but she wasn’t scared and neither was I. We were sick of trains. She put her hands back in her lap.
“You must listen to me, Zianno. This is your birthday, your twelfth birthday.”
“I know that, Mama, and when we get to—”
She cut me off with a hand gently placed on my mouth. “Now listen, my son. Your birthday is different, this birthday, this one today is different, just as we are different; you, me, and your papa.”
“Different? How are we different, Mama? Because we are Basque?”
“We are Basque, yes, that is true, Z, but we are more than just Basque, we are. older.”
“Older?” I was confused. “You mean you are older. I am twelve, Mama.”
She let out a long sigh and her eyes glanced out of the window, then back to me.
“I mean our. our people are older, different, not like the Giza, the other people. Your papa will tell you everything you need to know, everything about us when we get to Central City.”
“Mama,” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, then sat back in her seat. “I know, my child, I know. I said the same thing to my mama a long time ago, a very long time ago.”
The train was gaining speed. The men gathered at the front of our car were laughing loudly at something the fat man had said, my papa included.
Through the window, the space between our train and the mountain wall opposite was widening. I could clearly see the river racing beside us, swollen from the runoffs and waterfalls I had seen at every turn higher up the mountain. I was trying to make sense of what Mama had said and I wanted her to tell me more, but she was staring out of the window at the rushing water. I started rubbing the pocket of my glove and leaned my head closer to the window. Up ahead, we were coming to a low bridge over a narrow section of the river. Then I saw something very strange.
“What, Z? What?”
“Look up there, Mama, by the bridge. There’s a scarecrow waving his arms.”
She moved closer to me and followed my finger to where I was pointing. Up ahead, next to the bridge on the embankment, someone or something in an enormous black coat was waving like crazy at the train.
“It’s a scarecrow, Mama.”
“That’s no scarecrow,” Mama said. Her voice was low and even, as if she were talking to herself. She rose slightly out of her seat and stared harder at the scarecrow. He was getting larger as we were getting closer. In a blink, we were passing him and I could see that he was not a scarecrow at all. He was a man, a tall man with a beard and a small, round cap on his head. His long arms in the great black coat dropped to his sides as we passed. I saw his eyes, which were wide open, and his mouth in the shape of an O. So did Mama. She grabbed my hand, jumped up out of her seat, and screamed, “Yaldi, Yaldi!”
The train was already on the bridge. Through the noise of the train and the men laughing, my papa heard Mama’s voice and turned toward the back of the car. I saw him catch her eye and I turned to look at Mama too. Her eyes were a bonfire of black, but without panic. I turned back to look at Papa. His eyes were the same. Their eyes were locked on each other, and for an instant, there was no sound in my world. No voices, no laughter, no metal screeching as the train tried to brake and avoid the washed-out track on the other side of the bridge.
I felt something pass through me, something that can only be described as Time. The weight of Time. Years upon years, people, places, joys, sorrows, and journeys, endless journeys. I was weightless, empty, and they were filling me, telling me. My mama held my hand, and she stared at my papa and he stared back, in that instant they gave me the weight of their lives.
All the cars of the train were uncoupling and falling from the tracks. There was nothing we could do. Bodies were being tossed around and Mama and I were flung through the window on our side of the car. I never saw Papa. He was somewhere in the middle of a tumbling mass of arms and legs and screams.
I saw the waterfalls. Hundreds, thousands of them; spinning, shining, falling upside down, trailing diamonds and gold, they were like comets. I watched how they spun and fell. I tried to reach out and touch them, but my arms wouldn’t move. I felt cold somewhere. Then there was only one waterfall and it was warm. I opened my eyes.
I was wedged between two boulders and Mama was above me, face down on the rocks with one arm dangling over my face. The waterfall was blood, blood that was gushing out of her neck where a large piece of glass was embedded, and running down her arm into my eyes. She was moaning and trying to speak. I forced myself to move and, in moving, felt the pain in my right arm. It was bent at a crazy angle and pieces of glass were sticking out everywhere like darts in a dartboard. But I could only think of Mama. I crawled up to her and gently rolled her over. It was easy, too easy. She was no more than a rag doll broken on the rocks. The blood was pouring out of her neck. She tried to speak, but it was low and hoarse. I leaned down closer.
“Yaldi. Yaldi,” she whispered.
“No, Mama, it is Z.”
She opened her eyes for a moment, those beautiful coal black eyes. She stared straight at me the same way she had been staring at Papa in that last instant on the train.
“You must find Papa, Z. You must find him now.” Her voice was weak, but clear and determined.
“No, Mama, no. You’re bleeding. You’re. you’re. ”
“I am dying, Z. But I will not die yet. You must be strong. You must go and find Papa and come back to me.” Her voice was so calm and I was shaking, trembling from head to foot.
“Go, now. Go, my son.”
Somehow, I did what she said and got up from beside her and made my way through the rocks and boulders, stumbling, crying, yelling, “Papa! Papa!” I was lost in a dead world, a world of broken glass, twisted metal, splintered wood, and bodies, dead bodies everywhere, torn and crushed and split apart.
I couldn’t find Papa and probably never would have, except for a tiny sound, a sound that was barely there, but so different from everything else around me I couldn’t help but hear it. It was singing. Someone was singing.
I followed the song, the voice. It was a sad and simple song, not in English, or Basque, or any language I had ever heard. It was. it sounded. older.
Then I saw him. Underneath several mangled seats from the train, my papa was impaled, flat on his back with a jagged piece of wood from the sideboard of the train jutting up and through his chest. And he was singing. With his eyes closed and blood running from his mouth, he was singing.
“Papa!” I yelled.
I tried to move the seats, but I couldn’t. I was too small and only my left arm would work. My right arm was broken and useless. I got on my knees and tried to crawl between the seats. It was too tight. I reached down with my left arm and stretched my hand out as far as it would go, but I still couldn’t get there, I couldn’t touch him. Then the tears fell from my face to his. He opened his eyes and stopped singing.
“Z,” he said, slow and soft, like someone whispering just before sleep.
“Papa,” I said. “I. I heard you. I heard you singing.”
“It was Mama’s song.”
“But it was. I mean. I didn’t understand it.”
“You will, my son, you will.” He coughed violently and blood shot from his mouth. I started crying again because I could do nothing to help him. Then, through an opening in the tangle of debris, he somehow raised his arm and I saw that tightly gripped in his hand was the baseball that he had made for me in St. Louis.
“Zianno, quickly, listen to me.”
“What, Papa? I’m here.”
“Zianno, you must listen now and listen with all your mind. Take this ball, this baseball, and never lose it, always keep it with you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Papa.” I was still crying, but I was listening hard. His voice was very weak.
“Z, my son, my blood. Remember, we are. we are. the Dreams.”
I took the baseball from his hand and held it next to me. He began to sing again, but only got through one line, then his head fell to the side and my papa was gone.
In the distance, a train car was coming apart, sliding down the rocks and crashing into the river. I could hear the wood cracking and splitting. I stood up dazed, numb, blank. Mama, I thought. Mama.
I ran back to her through the wreckage and mud and rocks and death. I couldn’t feel my arm. I couldn’t feel anything. I fell down on my knees beside her. She was covered in blood and her head was bent back on the slope of the boulder. Not six feet away was my baseball glove; I reached for it and put it gently under her head. The glass was still in her neck.
“Mama,” I whispered. “Mama, Papa was singing. Papa was singing and I heard and I ran and I. I. ”
“I know, Z. I could hear him.” Somehow, she was alive, but her voice was hollow and distant. “Zianno, come close, my child.”
I leaned down and put my face against hers so that her lips touched my ear.
“There is so much, Z, so much we never told you. So much you will need to know. You must be strong. You must not stop. You must find Umla-Meq. You. ”
Her voice trailed off. I rose up slightly and saw that her eyes were closed.
“Mama? Mama? Please, Mama, don’t go away. Don’t go away. ”
She moved her lips again. She tried to open her eyes but her lids were fluttering and when she did get them open, her gaze was dull and cloudy. “So tired,” she said, “so tired. the Dreams. tell Papa. Zianno. Zianno.”
“Yes, Mama, yes. I love you, Mama.”
She drew one long, slow breath and then, using all the strength left in her, she pulled me even closer and with that last breath whispered, “Find Sailor.”
The Window opened. All of Time and Space narrowed to a single, black dot. A dot that became a tunnel rushing toward me, growing larger, gaining speed. I screamed, but no sound escaped. I tried to run, but I had no legs. Then I turned and fell somewhere dark and deep; a nameless place beyond borders, a place of loss and terror, a place so empty and hopeless, I thought I might never return.
Four days later, I awoke near what is now Limon, Colorado. My first memory of that moment is sky; the endless western night sky filled with the Milky Way. The Silence. The Brilliance.
I smelled smoke. I turned my head from the fire in the sky to a fire on earth — a campfire. Someone was bending over it, rattling pans and mumbling. His back was to me, but somehow he seemed to know I was conscious and turned to look at me.
“So, kid, you live. Zis is good.”
My head was propped against a log and I was lying on my back wrapped in a blanket from neck to toe, except for my right arm, which was in a sling across my chest. I couldn’t feel it. My lips were dry and cracked. I tried to speak, but my lungs just pushed out an empty, raspy sound. I couldn’t form words. He was leaning over me.
“Here, kid, here. Drink zis.”
I drank the water. I looked up into his eyes, big and black as walnuts.
“You’re the scarecrow,” I said.
He scratched his beard and laughed a low, strange laugh, almost a gurgle.
“Scarecrow?” he said. “Scarecrow, no. Man of vision, weaver of wisdom, muleskinner, singer, miner, tailor, rabbi, yes. Solomon J. Birnbaum I am, was, and shall be. Yes. yes, indeed. Do you have a name, kid?”
“Zis is good. And what is it?”
“Z,” I said. “My name is Zianno Zezen. My mama and papa call me Z.”
“Ah, yes. Your mama and papa. Yes, of course.”
Solomon was a big man, a tall man, maybe six feet five, and when he knelt down, as he did then, he did it slowly. He had large feet and hands and my own right hand disappeared as he took hold of it with his.
“Listen, kid.” He paused and looked away from me into the darkness. He pulled and scratched his great black beard. He turned back and spoke slowly. “Do you know what has happened? Do you know what has happened to you and your mama and your papa?”
For a moment I just looked at him. What a stupid question, I thought. Of course I knew what had happened. I knew Papa was dead and I knew Mama was dead, but was I dead? I could still hear Mama’s voice, a clear whisper, “Find Umla-Meq. find Sailor.” But it was an echo with no source. I was scared. I looked up at him. He held my hand tighter.
“Yes, mister,” I said, “I know my mama and papa are dead.”
“Zis is good. But first you do not call me mister. You call me Solomon. For now, for all time, you call me Solomon.”
I said, “Am I dead, Solomon?”
“No, kid, no.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and went on. “Now, listen. Zianno, is it? Yes, well, now listen to me, Zianno, you hear what Solomon says. I try to stop the train by waving with my arms but train is going too fast. It wrecks anyway. I scream out loud, I pray to God, but it is too late, train cars everywhere, upside down, sideways. I unhook Otto, my mule, and go to see if anyone lives. No one does. I hear singing and go to see, but I only find dead man and little boy running away. I follow him. His mama is dying. He stands up to run again, but he spins and falls. I catch him. I put him on Otto to take out of zis place, zis horrible place. He is passed out but mumbling something. ‘Baseball,’ he says. Over and again he says, ‘baseball.’ At his mama’s side, there is a baseball, so I pick it up. Under her head I see baseball glove, so I take it too. I bury his mama there where she has died. I know now the dead man was his papa, but he is under too much train. I leave him. I lead Otto out with the boy on top. He is bleeding and his arm is broken. I take out pieces of glass and sew him up good. I put his arm in splint and make sling for it. We take my secret way through the pass. All night we are walking. All the next day and the next and the next. Then I am cleaning my pans by the fire and poof! he wakes up. Zis is you, Zianno. Zis is what happened. Do you understand?”
Yes, I understood. I was still dulled and numb, but I understood. My mama and papa were gone. It was the most sure thing I had ever known or understood. Then something struck me, a question as much about fate as about fact.
“Why were you there?”
“Zis is my business,” he said without hesitating. “I go there, not to that place, but beyond there, to Central City. I sell the things to the miners that the miners need, some they know they need, some they don’t. So, I rejoice with them, I invoke the spirit of Yahweh, we sing, we dance, and poof! they find out they need these things. Simple, sweet. Zis is good. Then I return and do the same thing again. I was returning when the train came, Zianno. I don’t know why I was there, except I am on business.”
He started to rise, then knelt down again and with his huge fingers spread my eyes open and searched them thoroughly. Then he straightened up, adjusted the small, round cap on the back of his head, and said, “Let’s have a look at zis arm.”
When he untied the knot on the sling and unwrapped the bandages, he gasped and said, “Great Yahweh!”
I looked down at my arm. There were no cuts, gashes, stitches, nothing; only a few faint red lines marred my smooth, twelve-year-old skin. I moved my fingers. I stretched my arm out straight and opened and closed my fist. I had total movement and strength. Nothing was wrong. It was as if nothing had ever happened.
The big man looked at me closely, up and down, as if I had appeared from nowhere. Then he unwrapped the blanket and said firmly, “Stand up, kid.”
I did and I was unsteady at first, but in a moment I felt fine.
“I have heard of zis,” he said.
“Heard of what?”
“Zis thing, zis trick, zis gift of Yahweh.”
I didn’t know what he was saying. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that he had found me, taken care of me, and I was physically healed. I was a million things inside, mostly sad and lost, but unasked and unannounced, this man, this stranger, had saved me.
“The old, old rabbis from Germany told stories, stories of wondrous children who lived in mountains by the sea.” He was talking to me, but his eyes were remembering long-forgotten men and places. “What are your people, Zianno? What were your mama and papa?”
“Basque,” I said. “Sort of.”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“My mama was telling me on the train we were more, or different, or older. She was telling me just before—”
He cut me off and said, “Never mind. We will not talk of zis now. We will talk later. Now we rest. Tomorrow, we start our journey and we will talk on our journey like many women at once.”
“No,” he said. “There is only sleep now.”
He kicked dirt on the fire to douse it and eventually settled down in his blankets. I did the same and lay there sleepless for a time. Then I said, hoping he was still awake, “Where are we going. Solomon?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “St. Louis, kid. St. Louis.”
The next day we were on our way, sitting on the bench of his wagon, the Solomon J. Birnbaum Overland Commodities Co., being pulled by Otto and his stablemate Greta. We mainly followed the railroad tracks, but occasionally Solomon had his own trails and shortcuts. It was a long journey that is a story in itself and on that journey we talked about many things. I never once thanked him for saving me and he never asked. Strangers never do.
2. EGURALDI (WEATHER)
We arrived in St. Louis in the late summer of 1881. The last four days of our journey had been in a constant, steady rain. We were wet and miserable and the mules were stubborn and feisty. Still, we went out of our way to meet a friend of Solomon’s in Washington, Missouri, who had a makeshift ferry. We somehow got the mules and wagon on board. In the rain, we made our way down the last stretch of the Missouri River and around the bend into the Mississippi, docking in the dark somewhere in south St. Louis. When I asked why we had gone to so much trouble, Solomon just said, “Zis is good business.”
He had many strange routines concerning business, especially when it came to arrivals and departures. Solomon had anxious creditors at every stop. He was a fair man and always paid his debts eventually, but his ideas, appetites, and love for all games of chance came first.
We made our way to a boardinghouse Solomon was well acquainted with. The house seemed huge to me at the time, but really was only ten or twelve rooms. The landlady was Mrs. Bennings, an Irish woman with black hair pulled back in a bun, sky blue eyes, creamy white skin, and a figure Solomon described as “ripe as a great melon.” I never saw a Mr. Bennings, nor was he ever discussed, and courtesy was her strong point.
“Good evening, Mr. Birnbaum. And what might you be doin’ out on a night when all right-thinkin’ persons are safe and warm inside somewheres?”
Solomon shook the rain from his great black coat. I just stood there, dripping silently. He put his hands together as if in prayer and made a full bow from the waist.
“Please, call me Solomon, Mrs. Bennings. It is good to see your bright face again and on such a dark night as zis.”
“And yours too, sir. Will you be needin’ one room or two, seein’ how you sprouted a son since I seen you last?”
She glanced over at me and gave me a look that had more questions in it than anything else.
“No, Mrs. Bennings,” Solomon said, “zis is not my son. Zis is my. ” He paused and looked at her and she at him, ready for this latest explanation of himself. “Zis is my silent partner, Zianno Zezen.”
“Well, then, you’ll be needin’ two, won’t you, sir?”
“That is correct, Mrs. Bennings, that is correct. Partners need privacy. Zis is good business.”
“It is, it surely is, Mr. Birnbaum.” She was smiling to herself and turning to get room keys and towels. She stopped and looked at me.
“Do you ever speak, child?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, then, what do you say?”
“Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Bennings.”
She laughed out loud and sneaked a look back at Solomon. Her laugh stopped abruptly and she said, “Do you still have them stinkin’ mules and that damned old wagon, Solomon?”
He was already at the door, halfway out. “That I do, Mrs. Bennings, that I do,” he said.
“Well, then, put ’em where you usually do.”
He made another short bow and, with a wink, said, “That I will. That I will.”
We settled into our life at the boardinghouse. Every morning, we had breakfast with Mrs. Bennings and she made sure I always had enough to eat and was properly clothed. No one asked her to do these things. She just took it upon herself to do them. Some mornings I could smell whiskey still lingering on her breath, the same whiskey I smelled on Solomon’s. They spoke little in the mornings and I was quiet myself, so nothing was ever said about these things.
The rest of the day was spent in the busy streets of St. Louis. Solomon and I in the wagon, the mules in front, crisscrossing south side to north side, over to midtown, back to the river; all in pursuit of “business.” Some days, it was simple bartering; some days, gambling on fights, dice, cards, horses, baseball. The world turned and Solomon gambled. Some days we would just watch the river traffic, the coming and going of the big barges and pleasure boats. Solomon would say, “Zis is where the money will be, Z. On the water, you watch.”
He left me alone a lot, not out of negligence, but just because that’s the way it was for Solomon. Aloneness, not loneliness, was a natural and pleasant state for him. Many times while he was doing “business,” I wandered through St. Louis. I found our old neighborhood once and ended up playing baseball with a few kids I had known. I told them all that we had moved and never mentioned what had happened. I played with Mama’s glove and kept Papa’s baseball in my trouser pocket. I always kept it with me just like he told me. I tried not to think about Mama and Papa too much. I didn’t know how. Every time I thought of them, I thought of them as living and talking and laughing. I couldn’t think of them as dead. It didn’t make sense and what they told me didn’t make sense—“Find Umla-Meq. find Sailor. we are the Dreams.” It didn’t make sense, but their voices were still living within me and, somehow, I would do what they asked of me. I always had.
Solomon and I became best friends. He never tried to be a papa to me and I never tried to be a son. We were equals, silent partners. There were other children around, gangs of them, especially in the south side, but I preferred Solomon’s company. He told me stories and taught me to love books. He told me jokes most twelve-year-olds would never hear. He taught me simple mechanics and went on at great lengths about exotic religious rituals. He pointed out the different dialects and accents that we heard everywhere in St. Louis. He taught me all the games of chance and what to listen for when making a deal — any deal. And he never mentioned the train wreck or the curious way my arm had healed afterward, except once.
Fall had turned to winter and it hit hard. Off and on for six weeks, the whole south side was frozen in. A fever had spread street to street, house to house. Nearly everyone came down with it, including Solomon and Mrs. Bennings. I wasn’t sick yet, but I was worried that if I got sick we were in trouble, because there would be no one to do the chores and tend to the mules. Solomon called me to his bed and he said, “You will not get zis, Zianno. You will not get zis fever.”
I said, “What do you mean? How could I not?”
“No, no. Listen to me,” he said, “remember your arm?”
“Yes,” I said, but it was really more like remembering a dream.
“Well, listen to Solomon. Your kind does not get sick. Ever. The old rabbis knew. They knew. ”
Then he trailed off and went to sleep, but Solomon knew something. He knew something I didn’t. Later, when he got well, I tried to talk about what he had said, but he waved me off and seemed uncomfortable with it. He just said, “Zis is not good business, not now.”
I was different and I felt it, though I didn’t know why. Mama had said I was — we were — different and I felt more that way every day. Not just because I was Basque and didn’t look Italian or English or black or German or Chinese. And not because of my small size and quiet ways. My dreams had changed. They were deeper, richer, farther away. When I woke, I felt less in this world than another and sometimes this world became a dream. And I was alone. I felt alone with this difference.
Then I met the “Weatherman.”
It was March. A fierce, cold wind still blew out of Canada and was freezing the Midwest. In St. Louis, solid ice spread out a quarter of a mile from the riverbank into the Mississippi. All major trade virtually stopped. Solomon and I still made our rounds, but not as often. He hated the cold and so did his mules. And he hated missing his other “business,” his daily card games and gambling.
A friend of his told him of a poker game in which Solomon might be able to play mainly because he was German. It was held each day in the back room of one of the saloons favored by the new beer barons of St. Louis. In fact, the friend told him, Solomon looked quite a bit like one of the Lemp brothers, one of the players who would surely be there with lots of money in his pockets. But he would have to trim his beard, take off his little Jewish cap, and keep his opinions to a minimum. Solomon thought this to be a minor inconvenience in order to do “good business.” And with Mrs. Bennings’s help in the trimming and tailoring, he was physically transformed into a man he thought had the look and figure of a beer baron. He turned this way and that in front of the mirror, admiring the change.
“Not bad, eh, Mrs. Bennings?”
“Not bad at all, sir, but I’ve got to ask. What will you be playin’ with? Them fat old fellas got more in their pocket than you got on your whole person.”
He looked at her sharply, then back to the mirror. “I have enough to begin. After a few hands, zis will not be a problem.” He turned and looked to me as he was lighting a cigar. He said, “Zianno?”
I just said, “You look the part, Solomon.”
We took the wagon and mules to the address he had been given. The sky was dark, even though it was just after noon, and a hard wind was blowing. Ice still covered most of the streets and the mules were slower than usual.
Solomon wanted to be let off in the alley leading to the back room, probably so no one would see the mules and the wagon. As he stepped down and took his first few treacherous steps on the ice, I heard a voice, a boy’s voice from somewhere in the alley, say, “There he is. There’s Lemp.”
I looked around and saw no one but Solomon. The boy thought Solomon was the beer baron, loaded with money, arriving for his daily poker game. Solomon didn’t even look up. He was still concerned with the ice. Suddenly there were three of them, then five, then six. Half of them were about my size and age, but the others were bigger and older, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Before Solomon could do or say anything, they had him pinned against the brick wall of the saloon. They were yelling and shouting at him to stand still and when Solomon did try to speak, one of the older ones pulled out a baseball bat and swung it hard against Solomon’s legs. The smaller ones were tearing at his pockets, looking for money.
This all happened in half a minute. Then one of the older ones glanced back over his shoulder into the darkness of the alley and said, “Ray, he ain’t got but a few bucks. Should we do him, anyway?”
I knew what that meant and, without thinking, jumped out of the wagon. I was scared and mad. I didn’t know what to do. I reached in my trouser pocket and grabbed hold of Papa’s baseball. I pulled it out and held it up, ready to throw at the first boy that moved.
Then a strange and magical thing happened.
“Get away from him now,” I said. “Turn around and get away from him.”
Everything went silent, except for the wind, which was still howling around us. They all looked at me bewildered, entranced, as if some great clock had reached the hour and they were waiting for it to chime. But what clock? And for what reason? I didn’t have a clue. Then, without a word, they let go of Solomon, the one boy dropped his bat, and they turned and walked away, puzzled as to why they were even there in the first place.
I watched them leave. I was still filled with rage, but somehow calm. Solomon was slumped against the wall, moaning. I went over to him and asked if he was all right. Before he could speak, I heard something move in the darkness, back in the alley where the boy with the bat had glanced. At first, I couldn’t see anything, then a shape appeared. It was another boy, one who looked just like me or at least enough like me that we could have been somehow related. He walked over to me and stared in my eyes, searching for something. Then he looked at my hand holding Papa’s baseball.
“You are Meq,” he said.
I said, “What? Who are you? Why did they do that? Do you know who this is? This is Solomon J. Birnbaum, that’s who.”
The boy looked at Solomon, then back to me. He was listening, but not so much to what I said as to how I said it. He came a step closer.
“How long?” he said.
“How long what?”
I looked at Solomon. He was hurt, I could tell, but he wasn’t saying anything. He was just staring back and forth between the boy and me.
“You don’t know, do you?” the boy said.
“Look, I know you know those punks — you tell them they got the wrong man and they’d better. they’d better watch out.”
He laughed to himself, a strange laugh for a child, almost bitter. He took two or three steps backward, still looking at me until he was out of the alley and in front of the wagon and mules. Then he took off running. Fast. He literally ran like the wind; fluid, compact, graceful, like no boy I’d ever seen, and he was on ice.
Solomon finally spoke. He said, “Great Yahweh.”
I helped Solomon into the wagon and I grabbed the reins and drove us back to the boardinghouse. Solomon’s legs weren’t broken, but he was badly bruised. Mrs. Bennings and I helped him into bed and I could tell she had seen and touched the results of violence before. She was gentle and efficient and hardly spoke a word until later, when she asked me what had happened. I was confused, mad, even a little guilty for some reason, and I told her everything, even about the other boy, the one who looked like me.
“Well, don’t that beat the devil? I never heard such a thing. And them boys just walked away like that, peaceful and all?”
“Yes,” I said, “they did.”
“Well, then let’s just let it lie, eh, child? Best we tend to Mr. Birnbaum and get him standin’ on them long old legs of his.”
I agreed with her and tried to “let it lie,” but I couldn’t. I thought about it all that night and the rest of the week. Even my dreams were no refuge. They were filled with strange faces, animals, and voices. They all merged and separated, changing, dancing like images seen through a fire on the wall of a cave.
When Solomon began to recover and get his strength back, he came and woke me from one of my dreams. I was sweating and shaking and gripping Papa’s baseball so hard my fingernails had broken through the hide. He held me gently by the shoulders. He said, “Zianno, we go find that boy. You hear me? You must do zis. Tomorrow, we find that boy.”
But we didn’t have to find anything. He found us.
At breakfast, Mrs. Bennings asked why I had been up so early wandering the neighborhood. I told her I hadn’t been anywhere and Solomon and I exchanged glances.
“When did you last see him — or me, Mrs. Bennings?”
“Why, not ten minutes ago, child. And what do you mean ‘him’?”
I got up from the table and went to the door. I looked at Solomon. He wore an expression as serious as I’d seen since the train wreck.
He said, “Go with caution, Zianno. Remember what those others did.”
I walked out of the boardinghouse and down the hill to the nearest corner. It wasn’t more than a hundred yards. For some reason I knew he’d be there, and he was, leaning against a stone post. When I was no more than ten feet away, I could see how much we looked alike, but up close, in better light than there was in the alley, I could also see our differences. He had green eyes, where mine were almost black, and his lips were fuller, rounder than mine. He had no scars or blemishes that I could see, but neither did I.
I said, “How did you find us?”
He just shrugged and looked out over the houses around us. Then I thought how easy it would be to find us. I’d told him Solomon’s name. All he had to do was ask around.
He looked down at his feet. He kicked a loose rock and we both watched it arc and tumble down the hill. I waited for him to speak.
“You’re the first one I seen in a long time,” he said. “That’s all. And you got the power of the Stones. I thought that was somethin’ my old lady made up.”
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. All I know is that those boys hurt my friend bad and that one boy was asking you if he should do more.”
“Yeah, well, they’re Giza, that’s what I’m tellin’ you.”
“Giza?” I said and then I remembered. When my mama was trying to tell me something on the train, she said we were not like the Giza, the other people.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Ray, Ray Ytuarte. Yours?”
“Zianno Zezen. My mama and papa called me Z.”
“Called?” he said. Then he bent down and picked up another loose rock and threw it down the hill. He had a good arm. “Where are they now?”
“They’re dead. So what?”
“No what. I was just askin’.”
I wasn’t sure if I liked him or not, but I was curious. So was he.
“How long have you been twelve?” he said.
“How long have I been twelve? How do you know I’m twelve?”
“Because we all are.”
I got a sudden chill. I thought it was the wind, which was still coming out of the north and bitterly cold. I turned my back to it and said, “Listen, why don’t you follow me. We can go in the boardinghouse. I’ve got my own room.” I didn’t know why I was saying this, maybe it was dangerous, but I had to know more. “It’s too cold out here, anyway,” I said.
He looked around and up at the sky nonchalantly. “Yeah, maybe, but it’ll be nice tomorrow and almost hot in three days.”
“How do you know?”
He just shrugged and laughed that same, strange laugh.
We came in the same way I had left, through the kitchen door. Solomon and Mrs. Bennings were still sitting at the big table. Solomon looked the boy over, knowing he was seeing something he’d only been told about as a child, something he thought was a tall tale told by a crazy old German rabbi. Mrs. Bennings’s mouth had dropped open and she was speechless.
If someone, anyone, had looked in my room for the next half hour, they would have thought they were just seeing two boys, maybe two brothers, talking. But it was more than that, much more.
The first thing Ray Ytuarte did was ask to see Papa’s baseball. I took it out of my pocket and tossed it to him. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched him. He walked around the simple room and over to the only window. He turned the baseball over and over in his hands inspecting every stitch and the gouges my own fingernails had made. The window was completely frosted over. He blew on it and rubbed a clear circle with his fist. He stared down through the cold glass, then looked at me.
“You really don’t know anything, do you?” he said.
“No, I don’t. Why don’t you tell me. The first thing you said to me was ‘You are Meq.’ What does it mean?”
“I can only tell you what my old lady told me and she didn’t know much. It’s the word we use for ourselves, the old word. She said the Giza have called us other things, in other times; the Children, the Flock, the Enigma. I don’t know that much about that part. It’s all lost.”
“But what does it mean?” I said. My mind was racing with questions.
“Well, it means you ain’t gonna get sick. It’s in your blood. And you’re gonna heal fast if you get cut or broken. And you’ll stay twelve. You won’t get any older, at least not your body.” He blew on the glass again and this time traced a circle with his fingertip, then another circle inside that one. “It’s called Itxaron,” he said, “the Wait.”
“Can you die?”
“Yeah, you can die. If you get your head cut off or stomped beyond recognition by somethin’.”
“How old are you?”
“Older than that old man downstairs.”
“You mean Solomon?”
“Yeah, Solomon. Solomon J. Birnbaum. I seen him around years ago, but he didn’t see me.”
“You are actually older than Solomon?”
He laughed that hard laugh and blew more of his breath on the glass. He wiped the sleeve of his jacket across the circles he had made. He answered in a low monotone.
“I was born in 1783, in Vera Cruz. That’s Mexico. I turned twelve in New Orleans. Spent a lot of years there. It was easy for a kid, but not so good for my old lady. My old man was killed in a zipota match for money. Had his brains kicked in. My sister didn’t know how to stay twelve too good. She took to the brothels and slipped out somewhere. I ain’t heard a word of her since. I learned how to run gangs and that’s what I did. They called me the ‘Weatherman.’ But you gotta keep movin’ when everybody’s gettin’ older and you ain’t. You’ll learn that quick. My old lady tried to live like the Giza and got her throat cut in a fancy hotel. They never found the guy. I just made my way upriver, town to town, city to city, until I got to St. Louis. I been here to this day. In all that time I only seen a few of us and none could do what you did in that alley. My old lady told me only an Egizahar could do that. She said they’re the only ones with the Stones. I thought it was just another one of her crazy stories about us.”
He stopped talking and tossed me the baseball. I caught it and sat there in a daze.
“Where’d you get that?” he said.
“My papa made it.”
“Well, if my hunch is right and it usually is, that ain’t just a baseball. Did he tell you what to do with it?”
I looked down at the baseball, remembering Papa. “He said ‘never lose it.’ ”
“That’s because you’re Egizahar. You gotta protect the Stones.”
“What does it mean,” I said, “ ‘Egizahar’?”
“It kinda means ‘old truth.’ According to my old lady, there’s two bloodlines: the Egizahar and the Egipurdiko. ‘Diko’ for short, which kinda means ‘half-assed truth.’ The ones who Waited and the ones who didn’t. I don’t really know what it means. She was crazy, but I don’t know; I ain’t so sure now that I seen you and what you did.”
“What did I do?” I said.
“You stopped the Giza. You made them all forget, turn around, and leave. They wouldn’t — couldn’t have done that on their own. That’s old magic, old power, and for us, there ain’t nobody that can do that without the Stones. We got other things we can do, but not that.”
I still sat on the edge of the bed. I hadn’t moved. I was lost. overwhelmed. It was like one of my dreams. I felt as if I had stepped into a shallow pool only to be dragged out to sea.
He stepped away from the window and took something out of his pocket.
“Look, kid,” he said, “I know what that baseball probably means to you, but. ”
“Don’t call me kid,” I said. “It’s ridiculous. You look just like me. Why don’t you be Ray and I’ll be Z.”
He put his hand out to shake. “Deal,” he said.
I looked down at Papa’s baseball. “So, Ray, you think this baseball is magic?”
“I don’t think the baseball is magic, but I think what’s inside is.”
“That’s right. I think your papa put the Stones in the middle of that ball. Why don’t you give it to me and let me cut the stitches. I got a penknife right here.”
“No,” I said, but I didn’t say it with much heart. I wanted to find out myself. I had to. I tossed him the ball.
He didn’t waste a second. Without a word, he sat down on the bed and put the baseball between us. He cut the stitches one at a time and carefully peeled back the flap of hide. He took out the coarse hair and fiber underneath and suddenly there it was. Like a single egg in a bird’s nest, there it was. In fact, it was shaped like an egg. A dark, pockmarked stone in the shape of an egg that would easily fit in the palm of your hand. And like the four points on a compass, there were four tiny gems embedded in the Stone. In the light, they all reflected a different, brilliant color. I lifted the Stone gently and it was heavier than I expected. The gems were a mystery, I had no idea what they were. But Ray did.
Ray said, “That one there at the top, that’s blue diamond. The one on the bottom is star sapphire. The other two are lapis lazuli and pearl.”
I turned it over and over in my hands. I touched the gems with my fingertips, then I put it in my palm and closed my hand over it. I shut my eyes and thought about Mama and Papa. I couldn’t touch them anymore. I couldn’t run up to them and ask them a thousand different questions. I opened my eyes and looked at the cold glass of the windowpane. The light coming through was low and faint. I turned and looked at Ray. He was putting his knife back in his pocket.
“What do I do now, Ray?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I got a hunch you’re gonna figure it out.”
Three days later it was almost hot, just like the “Weatherman” had predicted. Solomon was on his rounds again, doing more bartering than gambling, now that he was getting prepared for his annual trip west. I went with him and tried not to let him see what I was thinking and feeling. I should have realized he knew me better than that. He said, “You don’t go with me out west, kid. You stay and find zis thing, zis thing inside you.”
We had never discussed me going west with him, but I think we had both assumed I would.
“You know about me, don’t you?” I said.
He barked at his mules, then turned to me.
“I know what I know, Zianno. No more than that.”
I made him stop the wagon and I told him I had discovered something special, something I didn’t understand, something from my papa. I told him I had to find something else now. I had no choice. I had to find someone named Sailor; it was the last thing my mama had said and maybe Ray Ytuarte could help me do it. He said he understood and that he’d already made arrangements with Mrs. Bennings for me to stay with her. Of course, I’d have to earn my keep and maybe watch over her a little for him. He said he might go all the way west this time, maybe to California. I told him that sounded like good business.
In the next few weeks, Solomon and Mrs. Bennings made no more pretense about their relationship. She knew he would be away for at least six months and they spent most of their time together.
I spent a lot of that time with Ray. Every day we met somewhere and I asked him about the Meq. Ray still ran his gang, but I could tell he was drifting away from that. He was starting to need me as much as I needed him, for what I didn’t know. Some days he actually seemed like a twelve-year-old and some days he was just strange and distant. One day, for no reason, he told me his sister’s name. He said it was Zuriaa, a beautiful old Basque name, but she had changed it to something else.
I asked him about us, all of us. How could we even be born if our parents stayed twelve. I knew babies didn’t come from storks.
He said there was a ritual, something only the Meq did, called Zeharkatu. He didn’t know much about it because he’d never done it, but after the ritual the Meq became like the Giza, the other people. They could have babies, get sick, grow old and die, just like the Giza. But their babies would be Meq. He wasn’t sure when or how the ritual was done. He said it had something to do with the Itxaron, the Wait. He said there were all kinds of old stories and legends, but his old lady only knew a few and since he’d been on his own, he’d learned very little. He heard that some of us were old, older than you would believe, and some were not to be messed with. I asked him if he’d ever heard of one named Sailor and he said he had, but it was more like a ghost in one of his old lady’s stories. I asked if he’d ever heard the name Umla-Meq, but that name was unfamiliar. We both wondered about the Stones I carried — Ray a little more than I.
Finally, the day came for Solomon to leave. St. Louis was turning green with spring and it was a fine bright day. He and Mrs. Bennings said their good-byes inside, she acting as if it was just another day, but I knew better. Outside, after he’d hitched the mules and climbed in the wagon, he tossed me the little round cap off his head. “Here, kid,” he said, “zis will make you safe, smart, and rich.” He waved once and was gone.
Four days passed and I hadn’t seen or heard from Ray. Then, he burst into my room one morning and wanted to know which way Solomon had headed west. Had he taken a northern or southern route? I said I didn’t know, but probably northern, because he had mentioned a man in St. Joseph named James he wanted to see and if he went that way, following the railroad as was his custom, he would stop at the Missouri — Pacific Railroad in St. Joseph to check on new lines and track. Ray said this was bad because there was a big storm about to form and there would be tremendous rain and flooding in that part of the country. I almost laughed, but he was serious, so we told Mrs. Bennings that she ought to wire St. Joseph and warn him. She thought that was silly, but when it came to Solomon her feelings were clear—“better safe than sorry.”
She sent the telegram and we waited for a reply, but none came. One day later, news broke of a devastating storm that raged through the Great Plains and created hundreds of flash floods and destruction everywhere. Mrs. Bennings feared the worst. Two days after that, Ray disappeared without a word. I looked for him in the pool halls, outside the saloons, around the levees, and all his usual street corners. He was gone. We never heard from Solomon.
I felt lost again and I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do next. Solomon had asked me to “watch over” Mrs. Bennings and that’s what I would do, but somehow, I still had to find Sailor.
That night, my dreams were filled with driving rain and mules and baseballs and pistols and wind. Everything kept splitting apart and everyone was screaming and crying and running for dry ground and a safe place to hide. In the middle of it, calm as could be in a bowler hat, there was a boy waving to me and saying something I couldn’t quite understand. I woke up soaking wet from my own sweat and took a deep breath, then a thought crossed my mind. even if you can predict the weather, you can’t predict the “Weatherman.”
The next day was May 4, 1882. I would be twelve again.
3. ARMI-ARMA (SPIDER)
It was Independence Day before Mrs. Bennings and I really talked about it. Solomon’s absence in body and spirit, by wire and by letter, was absolute. We hadn’t heard a word from him or about him. Mrs. Bennings kept busy and never mentioned it. She might have had an extra nip or two in the evenings from her bottle of Old Bushmills, but that was the only outward sign I could see that she was worried. After chores, I spent most of my time combing the piers and levees looking for traces of Ray. He had vanished as completely as Solomon.
At breakfast that morning, Mrs. Bennings suggested I accompany her to Sportsman’s Park for the day. She had tickets to the baseball game between the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox and after the game there would be a fireworks display. I told her I’d be glad to go. I loved baseball and she loved fireworks.
There were several thousand people there and after she bought us both lemonades and we made our way through the shouting, sweating crowd, we sat next to each other in the grandstands. That was my first professional baseball game. I took in everything at once. I loved it. I still think the few minutes just before a game starts are the most exciting. Mrs. Bennings turned to face me, oblivious to the hoopla around us.
“I think it’s gettin’ to be downright rude of Mr. Birnbaum to not be tellin’ us whether he’s alive or dead.”
“I think we’ll know soon,” I said. “I think we’ll find out he’s just fine.”
She looked out at the field, started to say something else, then didn’t. She watched the whole game and never spoke. The Browns won and the sun went down and the fireworks began. She took off her wide-brimmed hat and some of her black hair fell loose from the bun on top. Her blue eyes flashed in the fireworks. For a few minutes, she looked more like a child than I did. Then she said, “I’ll not be waitin’ to learn.”
“Learn what?” I asked.
“The truth,” she said.
After that, Mrs. Bennings’s spirit changed. For better or worse, only time would tell. She still worked hard, but her heart wasn’t in it. She spent more and more evenings in the saloons and taverns on the south side. I followed her for a while, “watching over her” as Solomon had asked, but after a time, I quit. It was her life and she seemed to want it that way.
I spent all of my free time at the ballpark, hanging around with other boys, sneaking into a game when we could and trying to get the ballplayers to talk to us. Most of them would and I became good friends and errand boy for one of the most notorious players, the “Whirling Dervish,” Billy Covington. He was a great second baseman and a wild man on the base paths. He’d tell me stories about baseball and growing up in the South and how he’d love to have his twin girls see him play, but he couldn’t afford to keep them. I’d listen to everything he said and then run to get him a sandwich and a bromo. He always needed bromo, because he had a reputation as a “whirling dervish” on and off the field. Billy got me my first job as a bat boy in a weekend series against the Phillies. I’ll always be grateful to him for that and for something he had nothing to do with at all, except for dying.
It was a Saturday in late summer. The game started at one o’clock, so I was up early and at the ballpark by ten to watch batting practice. I noticed right away that Billy wasn’t on the field. I asked around and Charlie Sweeney, the pitcher, said he was out by the ticket office talking to his girls. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I thought I’d go and see anyway. When I got there, Billy was still in his street clothes, holding the hands of two girls who looked completely lost. They were both blond and skinny, about twelve years old, and wearing dirty print dresses. Billy saw me coming.
“Hey, kid,” he yelled, “come here, I want you to meet my girls, my daughters.”
They both looked over at me. One of them smiled and one didn’t. I could tell they were twins, but they weren’t identical.
“This here’s Georgia,” Billy said, pulling the smiling one forward and patting her head. I nodded and so did she. “And this here’s Carolina,” he said. He pulled her forward and she looked me up and down.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hello,” I said. I was smiling, but she kept a straight face. Both girls looked tired and worn-out. Billy knelt down so he was on our level.
“Listen, kid. I been waitin’ for you. I got a game to play and these two, well, they been through a rough time. You know your way around, so you stay with ’em, will you, ’til after?”
“Sure, Billy,” I said, “do you want us to just stay here?”
“No, no. I got y’all tickets.”
He slipped me a silver dollar and kissed both girls on the forehead, then he did one of his “whirling dervish” moves and went in to dress. They watched him leave with blank expressions. Carolina picked up her sister’s hand and turned to me.
“Who are you?” she asked. Her face was still blank.
“Zianno,” I said. “Z for short.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. I love baseball, that’s all.”
I didn’t say anything and turned and motioned for them to follow me. We went inside and watched the game. I bought roast beef and lemonade for all of us with the silver dollar Billy had given me. Billy had one of the best games he’d ever played. He went five for five and scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. After the game, a bunch of players carried him off the field on their shoulders. They took him out of the ballpark and down to Chris Vonder Ahe’s Beer Garden, where he drank fifteen beers and chased them with fifteen whiskeys, then did one “whirling dervish,” passed out, and never woke up.
The manager, Charlie Comiskey, was told about the girls and the fact they were waiting for Billy back at the ballpark. He found them sleeping by the ticket office next to me. He’d seen me around.
He leaned over and said, “You with them, kid?” There was whiskey on his breath and he was louder than he thought he was.
“We’re waiting for Billy,” I said.
“Well, he ain’t coming back.” He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his nose. I couldn’t tell whether he was just drunk or he’d been crying. “The good Lord threw him a curve and struck him out for good,” he said.
I looked over at the girls. Georgia was still asleep, but Carolina had opened her eyes. In her eyes was a look I knew myself. That afternoon she’d told me why they came to St. Louis. They had only seen their daddy twice in four years, but their mama got sick with consumption and when she died she left just enough money and instructions for the girls to take a train to St. Louis and their daddy, the only place she knew to send them. Now he was dead. I looked up at Charlie Comiskey and lied.
“Well, sir, they’re really with me, not me with them. Billy set it up for them to stay at Mrs. Bennings’s boardinghouse.”
“Then you best take ’em on over there, kid. We’ll sort all of this out later.”
He glanced down at the girls, blew his nose, and left.
I stood up and Carolina did the same. We looked at each other, but neither one of us said anything. She woke Georgia and whispered something in her ear, then she turned to me, but all she said was, “Which way, Z?” Georgia never did speak, but she cried most of the way to Mrs. Bennings’s.
Some girls don’t have to explain themselves or have things explained to them. They walk into rooms and know where to sit, what object to pick up or leave alone, what to say without speaking. Carolina was like that and Mrs. Bennings loved her for it immediately. She welcomed her and Georgia into her home as if she’d been expecting them. She asked her if Georgia ever said a word at all and Carolina said, “No, she hasn’t said a word since birth, but she doesn’t need to. I can read her eyes.”
Mrs. Bennings gave the girls their own room and within two weeks had taught them everything she knew about how to run a boardinghouse. I think just having them around filled a void for Mrs. Bennings, a void I was sure that Solomon had left. She especially took to Georgia and her simple, quiet ways. Every night after all her chores were done, Georgia would go to Mrs. Bennings’s room and brush her long, black hair. The two of them shared a common need; Mrs. Bennings had found a daughter and Georgia had found a second mother.
I became friends with both girls and at every opportunity tried to take them on some new adventure in St. Louis. Carolina loved seeing new things, going to new places, watching people, and she really could “read” her sister. Georgia never once had to tug on her sleeve to get attention or point her finger to say where she wanted to go; Carolina “knew.”
The girls filled a void for me as well. All summer I had tried not to think of Solomon or Ray and what had happened to them. I tried not to think of Mama and Papa and finding Sailor. I tried not to because, when I did, I got confused and angry at everything. I didn’t know what to do. I was alone with mysteries beyond my comprehension.
I told Carolina about some of it. I told her how Mama and Papa had died and I told her about how I got to St. Louis. She listened and understood because she’d been through it, but I never told her about the Stones and about being different, being very different. being Meq.
Every night I held the Stones in my hand and wondered what they meant, but they were mute, like Georgia, and they never spoke. My dreams were, as always, full of people and places I had never known, never seen. I dressed in the mornings and put the Stones inside Mama’s glove. I never took them with me anymore. It was a habit that would change.
On the last day of the baseball season, Chris Vonder Ahe, also known as the “Old Roman,” decided to combine two events into one. Since he owned both the St. Louis Browns and the Beer Garden, he felt somewhat guilty about the circumstances surrounding Billy Covington’s departure. To ease his guilt, he came upon the idea of having the last game of the year followed by a special circus performance all the way from Europe. Two great events for one slightly elevated ticket price, the difference being donated to the unfortunate orphaned twins, Carolina and Georgia Covington. The whole day would be in Billy’s honor and he could rest in peace and pride knowing he was still contributing to the welfare of his loving daughters.
Mrs. Bennings thought it was a grand idea and a very good deed. She was already in love with the girls and could always use the money. She wasn’t greedy, but there were three extra boarders now, even if they were just children.
She took charge of everything, finding two pretty dresses for the girls and making sure we were all washed and clean. She and the girls took turns fixing each other’s hair and then we all climbed into a carriage that the Browns had arranged to take us to Sportsman’s Park.
We took our seats, which were right behind the Browns bench, and enjoyed the game. Mrs. Bennings knew nothing about baseball, but was constantly asking about the players, especially the veterans. I kept looking over my shoulder the whole game with the strange feeling someone was watching me. Carolina saw me and turned to me in the sixth inning, saying, “What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “something, nothing, I don’t know.”
“You’re crazy,” she said.
Georgia even leaned over and pointed to the side of her head with her finger and made a twirling motion.
After the game, Charlie Comiskey and Arlie Latham came over and escorted the girls out to home plate where Charlie made a speech about the legendary “Whirling Dervish,” which nobody could hear past the first few rows. Mrs. Bennings was clapping loudly and even whistling, something no lady ever did, and I’d certainly never seen her do. Then, Charlie Comiskey made a big deal out of waving a wad of bills in the air, the money for Carolina and Georgia, and putting it all in a cigar box and handing it over to Carolina. Both girls seemed shy and out of place, but she thanked him and they came back over to our seats. Charlie Comiskey gave Mrs. Bennings a big wink as he left.
Most people in the stands were restless and unsure whether to get up or stay seated, because they hadn’t been told anything about the big special performance that was supposed to follow the game. There was only a huge hand-painted poster, hanging by the ticket office, of a spider, to give any clue of what was to come.
Just then, a man walked out to home plate. He was a skinny man in a black suit and a black string tie. His hair was slicked back and he had a megaphone in his hand which he held up and used to announce to the crowd that his name was Corsair Bogy, the St. Louis promoter who was bringing to the city and the ballpark today the only Midwest performance of the great Geaxi, Spider Boy of the Pyrenees! The performance would take place just after dark, he said, and then we would all witness the defiance of gravity itself.
Everyone was excited and Mrs. Bennings remarked that this might be the perfect time to introduce herself to a few of the ballplayers and thank them personally, along with the opportunity to wet her thirst just a bit. She left in high spirits, reminding us not to wander too far and meet her back in our seats for the big show.
Carolina, Georgia, and I decided to take a walk down Grand Avenue. Carolina tucked the cigar box under her arm and off we went, with Georgia leading the way doing a sort of “whirling dervish” dance all her own.
After a few minutes, Carolina turned and said, “Didn’t you say your mama and daddy were Basque?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Well, don’t Basque people live in the Pyrenees. you know, in Spain?”
I had been thinking the same thing, wondering if the Spider Boy might be Basque.
“Yes, they do,” I said.
“Well, don’t you think you ought to talk to him, find out if you got something in common?”
“I was thinking about it, but I don’t know. It’s probably a hoax anyway,” I said.
Carolina stopped walking and looked at me. She said, “Why do you think it’s a hoax?”
“It’s simple,” I said. “Geaxi in Basque is a girl’s name, not a boy’s.”
Carolina started to speak, but didn’t get the chance. Out of nowhere two boys grabbed her from behind and one of them put his hand over her mouth. A moment later two more grabbed me and did the same. I struggled, but they were bigger and stronger. They were dragging us into an alley filled with broken bricks and loose stone. Out of the corner of my eye I could see they had Georgia too. There must have been eight or nine of them and I didn’t recognize any of them. In thirty seconds, they had us back in the alley and underneath a scaffolding that was set up between the buildings. They threw us on the ground and surrounded us. Carolina cut her knee as she fell, but she didn’t say a word and she held on to the cigar box. Georgia crawled over to her and they huddled together. One of the boys was talking to me.
“I been watching you, bat boy,” he said.
I looked up at him and had no idea what he was talking about, then I remembered his face. He was the boy from Ray’s old gang, the one who had hit Solomon with the bat.
“I don’t know what happened last time, but it ain’t goin’ to this time,” he said. He looked over at Carolina and grinned. “And I know what’s in that box too.”
He motioned at two of the boys and they started for Carolina. She and Georgia crawled farther back against the wall. I thought of my Stones and reached in my pocket, then remembered that I’d left them at the boardinghouse. The two boys going for Carolina bent down and picked up bricks and the one talking to me said, “Let’s get ’em.”
Just then, in one of the few shafts of sunlight penetrating the alley, I saw a glint of color, a bright blue, and then another, a red, descending through the light, down the scaffolding. I followed the movement and saw a shape around the colors, a body, arms, legs, I couldn’t tell, climbing down the scaffolding in the blink of an eye. When it reached the ground there was a voice from its direction. It was a girl’s voice, but low and droning, like a sad and ancient ballad sung many times.
“Hear ye, hear ye now, Giza.
The boys put down their bricks. Their faces all had the same blank, puzzled expressions. Without another word or even looking at each other, they all turned and walked out of the alley at an even pace.
I watched them walk away. Carolina and Georgia watched them too, then we all stared at the figure left standing in the alley. Dressed in black leather leggings and a black vest held together with strips of leather attached to bone, wearing ballet slippers for shoes and a black beret for headwear, there stood a child — a child who could have been my twin.
“I am Geaxi.”
“You’re the Spider Boy, aren’t you?” Carolina said. She didn’t even mention what had just happened or the fact that we looked just like each other, except Geaxi’s hair was cropped even closer than mine. She went on, “But you’re not a boy, you’re a girl.”
“Yes, I am a girl.”
I looked at her more closely. Around her neck was the source of the colors I’d seen reflected in the light. Hanging from a simple, braided leather necklace was the black egg-shaped rock that held the gems, what Ray had called the Stones. It was the same as mine. I was staring at it. She saw where I was staring.
“If you had yours with you, young Zezen, this would not have been necessary,” she said.
I looked up at her face. She was smiling. She turned and looked back toward the entrance to the alley.
“Tell the girls to wait for you there,” she said. “We must talk.”
I looked over at Carolina and she seemed to understand. Without being asked, she and Georgia helped each other up and walked toward the street. Carolina’s knee was bleeding badly. I watched them until they got to the entrance and leaned against the wall. I turned and looked at Geaxi. She was still smiling.
“You are surprised, no?”
I still hadn’t said a word and she went on before I could think of anything to say.
“You should always wear the Stones,” she said. “Later, as you get older, you will learn a sense of danger that will help protect you, but not like the Stones. You protect the Stones and, in turn, the Stones protect you. You are Zezen, through the tribe of Vardules, protectors of the Stone of Dreams. I knew your mother well and—”
“You knew my mama?” I blurted.
“Yes, I did. And your father and your father’s father when I was a child.”
“But you are a child,” I said.
“No, young Zezen, I am not. I am old in a child’s body. But we are great friends, myself and this body of a child. We know each other well.”
I started thinking back to something Ray had said—“Some of us were old, older than you would believe”—and now I knew he was telling the truth. I was standing next to one. I looked in her eyes. They were a child’s eyes and yet they weren’t. There was a calm and compassion not possible in the eyes of a child; an innocence drowned in experience.
“Tell me who you are,” I said.
“I don’t know what any of that means,” I said.
“You will learn it,” she said, smiling again.
There were so many things I wanted to ask her, so many things I needed to know. She walked over to the scaffolding and every step was purposeful and graceful with no wasted movement.
“How did you find me?” I asked. “And why?”
“I have my ways,” she said and climbed ten feet up the scaffolding in one effortless move. “You will too, in time. I had to see if the Stones were safe.”
“What about the Stones? Are there many of them?”
“There are five, at least there were five when Umla-Meq saved them in the time of Those-Who-Fled.” She climbed up ten more feet diagonally. “They were given to five separate families for protection.”
“Did you say Umla-Meq?”
“One of the last things Mama said was ‘find Umla-Meq.’ ”
She was already up the scaffolding another ten feet. I could barely see her in the shadows. She shouted down at me, “Then you better get busy.”
“But where? How?” I shouted back. “And who’s Sailor?”
I could hear her laughing somewhere up in the darkness, a spider safe inside her web. Suddenly she leaned her head into a lone shaft of sunlight and looked down at Carolina and Georgia. They were leaning against each other at the entrance to the alley. She shouted to me, “Beware for that one.”
I turned and looked at the girls, then up to her and yelled, “Which one?”
Geaxi was gone, probably up and over one of the buildings, but gone. She never answered.
Georgia and I helped Carolina walk back to Sportsman’s Park. The bleeding had stopped and she balked at our helping her, but we did it anyway. We found Mrs. Bennings in our seats sitting with two of the St. Louis Browns. She was glad to see us, but several rounds of beer and the attentions of two baseball players sort of made us invisible. I told her I was taking the girls home, because Carolina had cut her knee and Mrs. Bennings thought that was a grand idea and said she’d be right behind us. Several hours later she made it home and, before she passed out, told us that the Spider Boy of the Pyrenees never showed and Corsair Bogy had been booed and showered with debris. Several fights broke out and that’s when she said she took her leave. “After all,” she said, “public brawlin’ is nothin’ but bad manners.”
That night, Carolina asked me the first of a thousand questions about what she had seen. I don’t remember my answer, but I clearly recall the dream I had later.
I was in a cave or cell made of stone. I was staring at a single opening in the wall above me. I felt desolate and defeated. I saw a spider crawl into the open space and begin to spin a web across it. Four times she spun her web only to see it break and fall. On the fifth try the web held. I reached up to touch it and the strands were razor sharp. I cut my fingers and the blood poured out and kept pouring out until it covered the floor.
I kept bleeding and the blood around me kept rising. I was sure I was going to drown in blood. Just before it reached my mouth and nose, I looked up and saw the spider, alone in the center of her web, waiting.
I awoke then and one word filled my mind — Meq.
4. MUGALARI (SMUGGLER)
For the next few months, Mrs. Bennings ran the best and most respectable boardinghouse in south St. Louis. The girls had willingly handed over to her their “welfare” money from the Browns and Billy’s fans. She used most of it on improvements to the house and a brand-new, hand-painted sign out front that read: “Mrs. Bennings’s House — A Proper Place — Visitors Welcome.” A good sign and a simple sign that reflected perfectly the character of the owner. She was a good woman, a loving woman, and I think maybe her only flaw was the hole in her heart created by the total absence of Solomon. She was haunted by it, I could tell, but still we never spoke of him.
Along with improving the state of the boardinghouse, she grew obsessed with improving the minds and manners of the girls. She bought new clothes and books and enrolled both of them in school, making sure everyone from the principal on down understood that even though Georgia was mute, “her mind was as sharp as the sting of a bee.”
For some reason, maybe something instinctual, Mrs. Bennings never mentioned the possibility of me going to school. It was not discussed, nor was the fact that the girls were changing physically and I was not. But all around me I was sensing and learning what Ray had told me—“You gotta keep movin’ when everybody’s gettin’ older and you ain’t.” I could feel the lingering stare of a neighbor or hear the unasked questions if my name was brought up among the boarders. I began to stay away from the boardinghouse more and more, especially during the day, and spent most of my time wandering through Forest Park or Henry Shaw’s gardens, alone, thinking about who I was and what I was. Carolina went with me sometimes and it was there in Forest Park on the first day of winter that I finally told her everything I knew about myself and the Meq. I told her everything, but naturally she thought I was crazy.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, “something like that just can’t be.”
“Well, it is,” I said.
We were walking in the heart of the park, not along the laid-out paths, but through and around the trees, kicking dead leaves as we went. She stopped and looked at me, waiting for me to explain. I couldn’t.
“You mean you’re just going to stay twelve and that’s it?” she asked.
“I guess so. I don’t know.” I wanted to tell her more and make it clear for her. She was my best friend and we shared everything, but I knew I couldn’t. She was Giza, I was Meq, and I was learning the difference.
“How do you know any of that stuff is true,” she said, “and how do you know what we saw that girl do in the alley wasn’t just some trick?”
“Because I know.”
I took off my jacket and rolled up one of my shirtsleeves. I reached into my trousers and pulled out my penknife. I opened the blade and held it up in front of her. Sunlight glinted off the steel blade. She started to speak, but I made a motion for her to keep quiet. I slowly dragged the sharp edge of the blade across my forearm. Carolina jumped back.
“No, Z, what are you doing?” she screamed.
She put her hands to her mouth and looked at me wild-eyed. I stared back at her with as steady a gaze as I could hold. The knife blade hurt.
“Wait,” I said.
“Now I know you’re crazy,” Carolina hissed with real anger.
We both watched as the blood poured out of the cut and down my arm. A minute passed, then Carolina said, “Please, Z, stop this now. Let me put something around that.”
“Wait,” I said again.
In less than three minutes the bleeding had stopped and the wound began to close. Carolina stared in fascination. In another minute there was only a dark red line where there had been an open wound. I knew that even that would be gone by the next day.
“You see,” I said, “I’m not like you, Carolina. I’m something different. something else.”
Carolina stood still and straight, barely breathing. I watched her face. She had a band of freckles that crossed her cheeks and nose and were barely visible unless she was flushed. Right then, I could count every one of them. She was still angry, but confused and amazed at the same time.
“I don’t believe it,” she said, “I saw it, but I don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense. That’s why I’ve got to find some things out,” I said.
“But, Z, that’s a miracle. It’s something out of the Bible.”
“It’s not out of the Bible,” I said. “It’s in my blood.”
She reached down and grabbed a handful of leaves, then walked over to me. “Give me your arm,” she said. I let her take my arm and she wiped the last traces of blood off my skin with the leaves. “Is that girl, Geaxi, like you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “and a lot older. I’ve got to find out some of what she knows. My mama said to find Sailor and I’ve got to do it. I don’t know how yet, but I’ve got to do it.”
I looked into Carolina’s eyes. They were a gray-blue with little flecks of gold reflecting sunlight. She took my hand in hers.
“I’d go with you,” she said, “if Georgia wasn’t so happy here.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m going anywhere yet.”
We started walking toward home, kicking leaves again.
“You’ll go,” she said.
She was right. Not six weeks later Mrs. Bennings and a lady friend of hers, who introduced herself only as Natalie, came home late one night accompanied by two men. I should say that although Mrs. Bennings was running a successful and respectable boardinghouse at the time, she was becoming more and more drawn to a life after dark, a life of saloons and whiskey and men. Georgia was troubled by this and always stayed up late, waiting for her, ready to brush her hair and help her to bed. Carolina and I were up with her that night, sitting by candlelight at the long kitchen table when the foursome arrived, loud and drunk.
Mrs. Bennings led the way, almost crashing through the door, arm in arm with a skinny man I’d seen before, but couldn’t place. Behind them and laughing like hyenas were Natalie and a shortish, red-faced man with a full beard and wearing a tam-o’-shanter tilted at an angle.
“Hush now, darlin’s, we’ll wake the boarders,” Mrs. Bennings said to the others. She was trying to put her finger in front of her mouth, but she was swaying too much to find it.
“Let the buggers wake up and piss themselves!” the skinny man yelled.
I recognized that voice. I looked closer at the man’s face. I remembered the slicked-back hair and the gaunt, sunken cheeks. I was sure of it — he was Corsair Bogy, the promoter who had brought Geaxi to St. Louis only to be booed and humiliated when Geaxi disappeared.
Mrs. Bennings said, “Shhh! I’ll not be hearin’ that kind of talk. I’ll have you know, we don’t—” But she never finished her sentence. Instead, she stumbled into the kitchen table and suddenly saw the three of us. “Children!” she said.
Corsair Bogy was drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and looked at us. He smiled at the girls. then he noticed me. Suddenly all his features narrowed into a look of fierce rage.
“Why, you little son of a bitch,” he snarled, “I don’t believe you got the nerve to come back around here.”
The other man and Natalie stopped laughing. Mrs. Bennings looked at Corsair Bogy, completely baffled. I stared straight into his bloodshot eyes. He went on. “Well, Spider Boy, I think you owe me about five hundred dollars.” He turned to the other man and said, “Ain’t that right, Mr. Woodget?”
I glanced at the other man. He was looking hard at me, but said nothing. I unconsciously moved my hand up and grabbed hold of the Stones, which I now wore all the time, around my neck and under my shirt, just like Geaxi.
“Or maybe I’ll just take it out in pleasure,” he said, taking a step toward me and smashing the whiskey bottle on the edge of the table.
Mrs. Bennings tried to cut him off, but she tripped and fell on the floor between us. Georgia and Natalie both rushed over to her. She looked up and said, “No, no, he ain’t no Spider Boy. He’s Zianno.”
Corsair Bogy held the neck of the broken whiskey bottle in one hand and with the other he took hold of Mrs. Bennings’s arm and tried to jerk her out of the way.
“I’ll decide who’s who,” he said. “Now, out of my way!”
I glanced quickly at Carolina. Her eyes were wide open and scared. I held the Stones tighter. “Stop right there,” I said. “You will leave this place now and you will harm no one.”
My voice was steady and firm. Corsair Bogy looked at me as if he were looking at a blank wall; no more, no less. He gently placed the broken bottle on the table and stared at it, as though he had no idea why he’d picked it up in the first place, then turned and walked out of the door, paying no attention whatsoever to anyone else in the room.
After the door shut behind him, there was nothing but silence, then Natalie said, “Why, Mrs. Bennings has passed out.” She looked at Georgia and said, “Help me take her to her room, will you, missy?” They got her to her feet and she murmured something, then they half dragged, half walked her out of the kitchen and up the stairs. The room was empty except for Carolina, me, and the other man, Mr. Woodget.
I looked over at him. He was still red-faced and his eyes were bloodshot, but they were staring directly at me, steady and focused. I wondered what he thought about what he’d seen. It was the first time I had knowingly used the Stones.
Then, still without saying a word, he bent down and started picking up pieces of broken glass, stacking them neatly in a pile on the table. He pushed the pile to one side and sat down slowly, deliberately.
“That was a close call, eh, boy?” he said, pulling out a long-stemmed pipe and lighting it. He glanced up at me.
“Yes, it was,” I said.
I watched him. Carolina watched him. He took two long pulls on his pipe and exhaled. He was in no hurry.
“The name’s Woodget, Caleb Woodget,” he said, “and in twenty-five years at sea, I have only seen what I just saw twice, both in the last year. And both times, the parties involved that did what they did were children, children that looked so much alike they could be twins. Now why do you suppose that is? Eh?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Mr. Woodget.” I tried not to show concern or give away anything. “But could you tell me the name of that other child? Was it Sailor?”
“No, no, it wasn’t. I never got the name,” he said, “but Bogy called him the Spider Boy. Only thing was, he was no boy. He was as female as that one there,” he said, pointing toward Carolina with his pipe.
I looked at Carolina. She was twirling a strand of hair between her fingers.
“Why was she with you?” I asked.
He tapped his pipe on the table, refilled it with tobacco, and lit a match.
“I smuggled her into the country for Bogy. Picked her up in Port-au-Prince and slipped her in through Biloxi,” he said. “Easy job, good money, but it was in the harbor at Havana that I saw her do something I have never seen before or since. Until tonight. You want to tell me what it is, boy?”
“I can’t do that, Mr. Woodget. Why don’t you tell me what she did.”
He sat back in his chair and looked at me. I could tell he wasn’t sure whether to go on or not. He took several long pulls on his pipe.
Finally, he said, “I am captain of a fine and fast clipper ship, the
“I should have done something, maybe called out the captain or stopped it myself, but I did nothing. Flogging has been outlawed since the sixties and I knew it, but still, in my business, you often lend a mute conscience as well as a deaf ear and a blind eye.
“But to the point. That Spider Boy, who I soon found out was a girl by the sound of her voice, had somehow sneaked up my own mizzenmast and was dangling there in the rigging, looking down on the
“I didn’t say, but her name is Geaxi,” I said.
“Yes, well,” he went on, “she looked down at me and, I swear by Neptune, she knew I had been listening and watching, but we never spoke of it and I delivered her safely to Bogy in Biloxi.”
He looked down at his pipe, saw that it had burned out, and tapped it again on the table. Whether it was the circumstances or he could just handle his liquor, I didn’t know, but he now seemed completely sober. He was a patient man, I could tell, and he was going to wait until doomsday for a response.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
He looked me squarely in the face and leaned forward.
“Can I speak openly in front of her?” he said, nodding toward Carolina.
“I want to hire you, boy. I want you to come and work for me. I will take you on as an apprentice, so you don’t have to bunk with the crew and you can do what you do, however you do it, when I need it. I need your power, or whatever it is, to protect me. There are a great many scoundrels in my profession, let me tell you. I will show you the high seas and a fine life of adventure. You will not regret it.”
I looked at Carolina. A million things were going through my mind. Was this it? Was this my chance to do what Mama said and find Sailor? Carolina was tight-lipped, but she was nodding, as if to say, “Yes, yes, do it. This is your chance.”
I looked back at this odd man in his tam-o’-shanter, holding his long-stemmed pipe. He wasn’t going to say another word or persuade me in any way and, in that respect, reminded me of Solomon. I liked him for that.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll go with you and I’ll do what you said when it’s needed, but I’ve got to tell you now, I’m going for another reason.”
“And what would that be?” he asked.
“There’s someone I’ve got to find; another one like me named Sailor.”
“Aye, that would be the one you asked about. Well, not to discourage you, boy, but almost every man at sea has, at one time or another, been called Sailor.”
“I know,” I said, “I’ve thought about that.”
“Well, never mind, we will find what we can find, that I promise you. I expect to leave for the Gulf bright and early in the morning. Can you be ready?”
“Yes,” I said.
He got up to leave and stopped at the door.
“By the way, what is your name, lad?”
“Zianno,” I said. “Call me Z.”
He tipped his cap to Carolina and said, “In the morning then, Z.” And he left, leaving Carolina and me sitting by the light of a single candle, staring at each other.
We sat like that until dawn, talking and trying to imagine what my life was going to be like. Carolina saw it as the adventure of a lifetime and I did too, but I couldn’t escape another feeling; I felt guilty about leaving and not “watching over Mrs. Bennings” as Solomon had asked; and I felt guilty about leaving the girls alone after Geaxi’s warning. Carolina said Mrs. Bennings would be fine, she’d see to it and she would always be there for Georgia. I said, “Yes, but who’s there for you?”
She said not to worry, everything would be fine, and we both acted as if I’d be back in a few weeks. It was a lie. We both knew that too.
I stopped by Mrs. Bennings’s room before I left. Natalie and Georgia were asleep in chairs, but Georgia had pulled hers next to the bed. Mrs. Bennings was curled up on her side in the center of her bed with the sheets tucked all around her. Her right hand was at an odd angle beside her cheek. She was snoring. She had something clutched in her hand and I bent over to see what it was. I recognized it immediately, but I hadn’t seen it in a long time; I thought I’d lost it. It was Solomon’s cap, the one he’d tossed to me when he left.
I walked out of the boardinghouse into a pale gold dawn light. It was the winter of 1883. It was cold. Carolina and I stood shivering in it.
“You know that when I come back it will be completely different between us, don’t you?” I said.
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because you’ll be older. different. a woman. ”
She just laughed and turned to run back inside. She got to the door and as she went in, leaned her head back out.
“Well?” I said.
She laughed again. “What difference does that make?” she asked, and closed the door.
Two weeks later I was at sea, after traveling with Captain Woodget, as he now liked to be called, down the Mississippi by steamer to New Orleans and then to Biloxi by train. We slipped out in the dark of night by longboat and met the
He made sure that everyone on board understood I was his apprentice and not a cabin boy. No one ever doubted him and I was given free rein on the ship. He was a good captain, hard but fair, and he was an expert in sail-making, rigging, and navigation. He had the respect of every seaman on board and each one knew that things would be done one way — Captain Woodget’s — no matter how trivial it might seem.
I got my sea legs early and never got seasick, even crossing the Gulf Stream, which was rough. I made friends with many of the crew and most called me Z, but I also got a nickname from our Portuguese cook, who called me “Peque?o Basque,” or “Little Basque.”
Captain Woodget became a friend and helped me search for Sailor in every port, as long as I remembered my primary task, “watching his back.”
I loved the life at sea; the wind and the smell of the constant spray and the stars at night, ten million more than I’d seen when I woke up to the Milky Way in Colorado. I was kept busy most of the time, but I also had endless hours to think about Mama and Papa, Solomon, Ray, Georgia, and Carolina; people I had loved and somehow lost, much too quickly.
Time has a different pace at sea. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months so easily. It rolls under you and you sail through it as you would the sea itself. It is vast and broken only by the light, the weather, the next harbor, a memory of lost things. Sailor, if he existed, must have felt this way a thousand times, I thought.
I hadn’t found a trace of him. After Captain Woodget had taught me how and where to look, I talked to seamen of all colors and nations. I stopped and hounded dockworkers, barmaids, whores, kitchen cooks, anyone and everyone. Months went by, then a year, then two. My Meq blood and sensibilities concerning Time didn’t seem to notice; only my obsession with finding Sailor mattered. We took on cargoes of tea, wool, coal, jute, redwood, brown sugar, dyes; hundreds of different goods from hundreds of different ports. We anchored off West Africa, Brazil, Madagascar, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, the whole rim of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Most of our cargoes were legal, but the
Then we anchored in a cove on the coast of Bermuda, not in the main harbor, but near it. It was New Year’s Day 1896, and twelve years were about to feel like twelve seconds.
Captain Woodget and I came ashore after dark with his first and second mates. “This is a human cargo,” he said, “a job beneath me, but still worth the money.”
As we made our way up a rocky path, he told me we were transporting the mistress of Antoine Boutrain, a well-known captain of the French shipping firm Bourdes, to New Orleans.
“Seems the good captain has a beautiful and loving wife at home,” he said, “but he likes to have this one meet him in different ports around the world. She cannot sail with him, so this time she sails with us. He is a warped man, I tell you, probably from trading that damned Chilean nitrate, but he pays well and guess what more is in it, Z?”
“I think I know,” I said.
Captain Woodget stopped on the path and turned to look at me. It was dark all around us, but I could feel his eyes bearing down.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I mean, I’m not sure, but then again, I am.”
“Damnit, Z, say what you mean!” he fumed.
“This woman,” I said, “this mistress you’re picking up, she has an entourage; two of them, two Basque like me, right?”
“Holy Trident and dammit to hell! How did you know that? Only Captain Boutrain told me and I told no one.”
I looked in Captain Woodget’s face. He knew me as well as anyone by now.
“I don’t know,” I said.
We left the rocky way and started on a path of sand between the seagrass and weeds. The ground leveled out. We could see the house ahead of us, alone and lit by candles, white against the black sky.
I heard the song first. The lonely notes. The ancient melody and words woven into the night. Two voices exchanging lines, sad lines in a forgotten language; singing, swelling, falling. I knew that language. It was Papa dying, singing Mama’s song.
Captain Woodget asked if I was all right. I nodded and we walked toward the house.
The captain introduced himself and his first and second mates to the mistress, whose name was Isabelle, and was ushered in. I hung back in the shadows. The singing had stopped, if it had even begun. I turned and made my way in the dark around the house to the rear, which sloped down through the marsh and rocks toward the Atlantic, a thousand yards away. I stood in the silence.
Then I felt them. I couldn’t hear them, but I felt them. I felt them closing in, coming nearer. I knew they would and they knew I would feel them. It was what we knew. It was knowledge I had never been taught, but now could never forget.
“I am Unai,” he said.
I turned to my left.
“I am Usoa,” she said.
I turned to my right.
I looked back and forth between them, our eyes exchanging greeting and welcome. They had come to within ten feet of me and never made a sound. They were both dressed in loose black trousers tucked into leather boots laced to the knees. They wore broad-collared cotton shirts and no jewelry, except that he had a necklace around his neck and she a priceless blue diamond in her pierced right ear. They looked like twins, and if they were twins, I could have been their triplet.
“I am Zianno,” I said.
“We know,” they said in unison.
“I heard you singing, I think. What is it?”
“It is an old Meq song,” Unai said, walking over to Usoa and taking her hand in his.
“It is about Home,” Usoa said, “and return, the longing for return.”
“It was beautiful, but I don’t know the language.”
“You will,” Unai said.
“It will come to you,” Usoa said.
“Be patient,” Unai said, “you have come a long way, Zianno. You are learning, believe me, but I should introduce myself formally. I am Unai Txori, Egizahar Meq, through the tribe of Caristies, protectors of the Stone of Silence.”
He lifted Usoa’s hand. “And I am Usoa Ijitu, Egizahar Meq, through the tribe of Autrigons,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. It had been over twelve years since I’d seen one of my own kind and the last time had been almost too short to remember. But there was a presence, a kinship. something.
“You’re wearing the Stones around your neck, aren’t you?” I asked Unai.
“You knew my papa?”
“Of course,” he said, “and your mother.”
“And you know Geaxi?”
“Then you know that I look for Sailor and Umla-Meq.”
He glanced at Usoa and they exchanged a bewildered look. “Both?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “it was the last thing my mama told me to do.”
Usoa looked at me and said, “Sailor is the wind, Zianno. He finds you, you will not find him.”
I looked at Usoa and then over to Unai and understood that I would get no more directions to Sailor from them; that somehow I was to find Sailor myself.
They turned together, holding hands, and started back toward the house. I went with them.
“I see you have learned the Giza,” Unai said, “and you work well among them.”
“Yes, I have,” I said.
“It is a good way to travel; to be with one who needs the Stones. We do the same for the woman, Isabelle, and we have our freedom.”
“Do you travel together always, you and Usoa?” I asked.
“Yes, always,” he said. “We do the Itxaron, the Wait, together. We will cross in the Zeharkatu when it is time. when we have finished something. Until then, she is
We had reached the stone steps at the back of the house. I looked at them. Their black eyes were shining in the light. They were absolutely quiet and still.
“How old are you?” I said.
They both laughed, sounding just like two children giggling.
“On the way to New Orleans, Zianno. There is time for everything.”
“Why do you go to New Orleans?” I asked.
“Because the woman Isabelle goes there,” he said, “and Usoa and I seek an evil one. Let that be that.”
Captain Woodget, his two mates, and Isabelle appeared that moment at the door and we set off — first to the
On the voyage, I learned many things about the Meq and heard tales of adventure that trailed back to the courts of Charlemagne and beyond, but I wanted more. I wanted to know everything; I was hungry and thirsty for any and every detail. I asked about Mama and Papa and they told me of caravans and crusades, journeys to the East Indies with the Portuguese, all manner of people and places and times they had witnessed together. I listened to it all and still wanted more. They sang Meq songs and once, while my eyes were closed, I caught myself singing along without any idea how I even knew the words. Usoa laughed and told me it was common, a trait we carried inside ourselves from the time we were painting horses on the walls of caves in the Pyrenees, caves that were still unknown to the rest of the world. “
The captain sailed the
We arrived outside New Orleans on a late afternoon in March, not long after Mardi Gras. It was snowing — strange weather that was just beginning. We decided to drop anchor and not disembark until morning. Captain Woodget wanted to make sure all his papers were in order, both legal and illegal.
I was supposed to stay on board and only Captain Woodget would accompany Isabelle and her entourage ashore and through customs, acting as her escort. This was as close as I’d been to St. Louis in more than twelve years and I thought about it most of the day. I felt anxious and after dinner I asked Unai and Usoa who was the “evil one” they sought. Their answers were vague, only telling me that he was “diko” and “aberrant.”
I fell asleep in an agitated and frustrated state of mind. Outside, it kept snowing, and inside, I came apart.
I dreamed I was in the stone cell again, only this time there was an opening in the wall and a hole in the floor. I walked over toward it and saw that it was really a well, a dry well, with no borders around the edge. I had to watch my step. I heard a voice or thought I heard a voice, coming from inside the well. I got down on my knees. I crawled to the edge and looked over. Down in the darkness, floating in space, was Carolina’s head. Her eyes were wide open and she was trying to scream, but there was only a faint cry coming from her lips. I reached down and couldn’t touch her; her head kept floating away. I yelled “No! No!” but it was drowned out by another sound, a sound like a train roaring through the night, and Carolina’s head spiraled out of sight, disappearing into nothingness.
I awoke in terror. I knew what I must do. I had to get to St. Louis and get there quick. Carolina was in danger and a dream as sudden and clear as lightning had told me so. I thought of Papa’s very last words, “We are the Dreams.”
I ran to Captain Woodget’s cabin. I knocked and woke him from a sound sleep. I told him of my dream and the absolute necessity for me to leave at once. He was calm, just as he was at sea. I never remember seeing him anything but calm in dirty weather. He told me to wait and slip ashore when he and Isabelle disembarked. He would create a diversion, and as a child, I could easily get lost in the chaos.
I waited. Morning came and the rare snowstorm had disappeared. Captain Woodget and Isabelle, along with Unai and Usoa, went ashore. The captain immediately created a ruckus concerning the luggage and the customs agents came running. I slipped easily through the confusion and shouting, acting as if I were lost and looking for my sister.
I was in the United States, in New Orleans, and on my way to St. Louis.
For over twelve years I had smuggled goods and valuables in and out of countries. Every time, the cargo was something someone wanted or treasured. This time, I only smuggled fear.
5. ETSAI (ENEMY)
It was more difficult than I expected picking up a ride to St. Louis. I finally hired on as a cabin boy on a barge hauling coal to Dubuque. In a little more than a decade, river trade had begun to decline due to federal regulations and competition with the railroads, I was told. Maybe Solomon was wrong when he said the money would be on the water.
Whatever the reasons, I was being delayed and in my mind the fear kept growing that I might be too late, but too late for what, I didn’t know. I only knew that up ahead, upriver, there was danger, and the closer we got, the more I felt its presence.
After stops in Natchez and Memphis, we docked in St. Louis late at night. I collected some of the wages due me and said I’d be back in an hour. I never returned. I made my way through an unfamiliar St. Louis to the south side, walking hills and streets I knew from memory, but feeling like a stranger.
I rounded the corner where I had met Ray and saw the boardinghouse. I walked toward it. The sun was just rising. I saw the sign out front and it still read “Mrs. Bennings’s House.” I walked around the back to the kitchen door. It was unlocked and I opened it.
She was in the kitchen, in the dark, but I saw her in the half-light that shone through the windows. She was standing by the stove putting water on to boil. Her blond hair was piled on top of her head. She tried to tuck a strand of it behind her ear. I watched her in silence. She was in her mid-twenties and beautiful, even in a worn old cotton robe and unlaced boots. She was at least six inches taller than I was. She watched the stove. I watched her.
“You know it won’t work like that, don’t you?” I said.
She jumped back, kicking over a chair and landing against the table. She regained her balance and looked over toward the door. “Who’s there?” she yelled.
I said, “You can’t boil water and watch it too. You know that.”
She didn’t make a sound for several moments, then she got on her knees and sort of half crawled toward me and the light from the open door. She stopped and looked at me, started to rise, then sat back down on the floor and crossed her legs, never taking her eyes from mine.
“Hello, Carolina,” I said.
“God, Z, I knew it. I knew you would come back just like this, just this way. I didn’t know when, but I knew how.”
I stared at her. I had seen the gold flecks in her eyes before, but now those eyes were in the face of a grown woman, a beautiful woman. Suddenly we both laughed, not a nervous laugh, but a real out loud laugh. It felt so good to see her.
“She’s fine, she’s fine.”
She reached up and put her hand on my cheek. It was a woman’s touch. It was my mama’s touch. This was crazy. Inside, I was a man who had traveled fifty thousand miles at sea for twelve years; outside, I was a child being touched by the fingers of a beautiful woman.
“Should we talk about this?” I asked.
“This? What do you mean — this?” She put her hands in her lap and rubbed them together. She nodded at the door. “Why don’t you shut the door. it’s cold.”
I shut the door. “But what about—”
“Come on,” she said, cutting me off and taking my hand. “I’ve got something for you.”
I wouldn’t quit. “But what about—”
“This?” she said, cutting me off again. “I told you a long time ago, Z, ‘this’ doesn’t make any difference.”
She took me out of the kitchen and through what had once been the front room. Walls had been knocked out and the whole space was one big parlor with velvet couches and chairs, a full bar at one end, a card table, and an upright piano between two windows hung with thick, blue velvet. There was one gas lamp lit, next to one of the couches where a woman in a full-length red gown was sleeping, snoring heavily.
“Shhh,” she said, covering my mouth.
She took me up the stairs and down the hall, which now had a runner of rich blue carpeting down the center and tiny gas lamps over every door. She pulled me into her room.
“Carolina,” I said, “you want to tell me what I just walked through?”
“A lot has changed, Z.” She knelt down by a chest in front of her bed. She opened it carefully and brought something out. She stood up and hid it from me behind her back. “I’ve got something for you,” she said, “something I think you forgot.”
She smiled and held out Mama’s baseball glove. I took it from her and put it on my hand, smiling myself. I pounded the pocket with my other hand and rubbed it as I’d done a thousand times before. “I didn’t forget it. I left it so you wouldn’t forget.”
She sat down on the bed and looked directly in my eyes. “That would be impossible,” she whispered.
I sat down on the bed next to her. Everything felt strange, yet familiar. I looked around her room. A few pictures were new, and perfume bottles, and clothes, lots of clothes, but many things were the same. The bed we were on was the same one we had sat on as children. when we were both children. A lot of things were the same, but now I was the only child in the room. I stood up and walked over to one of her pictures and turned around.
“Look,” I said, “I’ve been around a little bit and this place — downstairs I mean — it looks like, well. uh. a whorehouse.”
“Yes. It is,” she said.
Just then, Georgia burst into the room. At first, she didn’t see me. She ran over to Carolina, picked up both of Carolina’s hands, and spread them apart. Then, she waved them back and forth, one at a time, in front of her own face, acting as if Carolina were slapping her. Carolina nodded and took her hands back, then she smiled and pointed to me. Georgia turned and saw me. She cupped her hand over her mouth to stop a scream that never came, never had. She sat down on the bed next to Carolina and stared at me, her eyes welling up with tears.
“How are you, Georgia?”
She didn’t answer, but she looked over at Carolina.
“She can’t hear you,” Carolina said. “She started going deaf about three years ago. Now, she can’t hear a sound. It’s funny, though. It seems the more she gets cut off from the world, the more she gives back. She plays the piano now, real well, and she never did before she went deaf. And she’s the only good thing Mrs. Bennings has got left.”
I looked at Carolina and Georgia. So alike, so different. They were Giza, “the other people,” Mama had said, and I was Meq. But it was like that among us too. So alike, so different. I cleared a place on the floor and sat down. I motioned for them to do the same, like we used to, and they did. I looked at Carolina’s face and thought of my dream.
“Tell me what has happened,” I said.
Carolina glanced at Georgia and Georgia slowly closed and opened her eyes, then nodded her head once. Carolina could still “read” her.
“It happened by degrees,” she said. “After you left, Mrs. Bennings seemed to unravel. I don’t know whether it was you leaving or you taking with you the last reminder of that man you told me about, Solomon. But, either way, she started drinking heavily; drinking to get drunk, and going around more and more with Corsair Bogy.”
I looked at her with alarm and straightened up, unconsciously reaching for the Stones beneath my shirt.
“No, no,” she said, “he hasn’t done anything to us. Yet. But I am scared of him, Z. He’s not a good man and I think he’s hired someone—”
“Wait, Carolina,” I interrupted, “you’re way ahead of me. Tell me the rest. from the beginning.”
She went on. “Mrs. Bennings got worse and worse. Corsair was with her all the time, and for a while, I guess he was good for her. At least he paid attention to her, but in time he sort of took control of her; told her what to do, what to wear, who to see, and who not to see. Georgia and I were in school most of the time and it was during the day, during that time, that I think Mrs. Bennings was finally worn down and let him have complete control of her and this place. Within a year, he had turned it into a house of prostitution and Mrs. Bennings into a madam. A madam with good manners. That was the only thing she insisted on, that all the girls have good manners.
“Corsair is from an old Creole family that lost its money decades ago, but he still has connections and a whole slew of ‘cousins’ in New Orleans. For years, all the girls came from New Orleans. Now, almost all the girls are from here in St. Louis, trained by me.”
I stopped her right there. “You mean, you and Georgia. work here?”
“Of course not,” she said. “We run it.”
I looked in her eyes. She stared back at me. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew there, in her eyes, she hadn’t changed.
“I am not ashamed of what I do, Z. It is a good business and I learned. we learned,” she said, nodding at Georgia, “how to do it well. We are not deprived or made to do anything we don’t want to do. We take good care of our girls and we take good care of our ‘visitors,’ as Mrs. Bennings likes to call them. I like everything about it except for Corsair. He’s got out of hand, Z. Two months ago, he finally talked Mrs. Bennings into marrying him and now he wants control of everything. He’s dangerous. I know he hates me and my influence and lately he’s been slapping Mrs. Bennings for no reason at all.”
“Is that what Georgia was trying to say?”
“Yes.” Carolina stopped talking and gave me a strange look. She pointed her finger at me and made a circling motion. “Z,” she said, “why did you come back now?”
I looked down at the floor, then up at her and Georgia. “I had a dream,” I said. “The rest is a little complicated.”
We sat in silence. I stared in wonder at these two young women, these Giza, sitting on the floor talking like this with a Meq, a child.
“Have you found Sailor?” Carolina asked.
“No,” I said. She turned to Georgia and shook her head, saying no, as if they had talked of this before. “Why did you say Corsair had hired someone?” I asked.
“I said I
“To do what?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’m afraid for Mrs. Bennings.”
I thought about my dream again. I was much more afraid for Carolina. I knew that Corsair Bogy was the source of my fear. Everywhere around me I felt an invisible, prickly net descending. It was a heightened sense of danger; an awareness of it that I was learning, as Geaxi said I would. But it felt like waking up. “Don’t tell Mrs. Bennings I’m back,” I said. “I have a plan.”
It was a simple plan. Corsair Bogy had to be watched; all the time, everywhere he went, inside the house or on the town. But Mrs. Bennings couldn’t be told. Carolina agreed — if I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t see me. We could not alert him. Corsair Bogy was a snake, but he wasn’t stupid; whatever he had in mind for Mrs. Bennings or Carolina, he would not do it himself.
I stood up to leave. I wanted to be gone before anyone in the house saw me. Carolina handed me Mama’s glove. “Don’t forget this,” she said.
“I never have.” They both walked me back through the house to the kitchen door. “Be careful and watch him like a hawk,” I said. “I won’t be far away.”
It was a cold morning, but spring was in the air and I walked into it, glancing back once at the two women I had known so long ago as girls. They were holding hands.
* * *
I got a room in the Italian neighborhood known as “the hill,” just off Hampton Avenue. It was a place where I could easily blend in and live cheaply. No one noticed another dark-haired boy on “the hill.”
Every day, I followed Corsair Bogy wherever he went. Most of his time was spent in the saloons or at Sportsman’s Park. The baseball season had started and Bogy had box seats, three rows up on the first base side. I hadn’t seen a baseball game in years, except for a few crude games in the Caribbean, and it was exciting to smell the smells, hear the sounds, and watch the players. Sneaking in was no problem; under Captain Woodget, I had learned to sneak into any place. The Browns were terrible. They had a great slugger at first base, though. His name was Roger Conner and he held the record for most home runs until Babe Ruth broke it. I thought about being a bat boy again, at least for a game or two, but that would make me too visible. Instead, I hung back in the shadows and watched Bogy.
At night, I stayed outside the boardinghouse and spied on those who came and went. I had seen whorehouses before, almost everywhere around two oceans, but never one like Mrs. Bennings’s House. There was no red light over the door or girls leaning out of the windows. From the outside, it looked the same as it always had.
Carriages pulled up and left, dropping off gentlemen in fine dress and top hats. I suppose that not all were gentlemen, but they looked the part. Every once in a while I thought I heard Georgia playing the piano. She was good. I could tell that Carolina and Georgia ran a genteel business, and except for the traffic, it could still have been a boardinghouse.
Each night I met Carolina somewhere outside and asked her if she had seen anything or anyone unusual around Bogy. For three weeks, she didn’t. Then, on May 1, she told me something that sent a chill through me. I was on the corner and she ran to meet me.
“I just heard him talking to someone,” she said, out of breath. “It was out back, just beyond the kitchen door. I don’t know who it was, it was too dark to see, but whoever it was said that Bogy had to come up with more money. Bogy said, ‘A deal is a deal,’ and the other voice said, ‘Not if there is more than one body to do.’ Those were his exact words—’more than one body to do.’ And, Z, here’s what scared me. When he turned to leave, I got a glimpse of him. He was a boy, Z, a boy like you, only with green eyes.”
One name flashed in my mind and one name only — Ray Ytuarte. It didn’t make sense, but he was the only one of us I knew who might think like that. He had made his living from violence, I knew that too, but an assassin? It just didn’t make sense. I felt that prickly net descending again; the danger. If it was Ray, what could I do about it? Ray had shown me to the Stones and told me about them, but would they have any effect on him? On us? On the Meq? I looked at Carolina and knew it made no difference. Whatever I had to do, I would.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But Corsair will have to see him again, about the money. Then I’ll know. You stay with Georgia. Go to Mrs. Bennings’s room. Lock the door if you have to. Just stay together.”
“Where will you be?”
“I’ll be here, close, unless Bogy leaves.”
She was still upset and anxious. I could see the band of freckles across her face standing out in the faint light. She turned and started back, then stopped.
“Do you still get scared, Z? Or is it different for you?”
“I turn twelve again this week,” I said. “What’s so scary about that?”
The night passed and Corsair Bogy never left the boardinghouse. I saw nothing unusual and the sun rose in a cloudless blue sky. All over south St. Louis the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom. I was tired, but edgy and alert, and for some reason the image of Captain Woodget came to mind. I could see him holding on to the weather rigging in his yellow oilskins and long leather sea boots, watching aloft and hanging on until the last minute. I had to keep that same resolve. I had to find the will of Geaxi and the silent strength of Unai and Usoa. I had to bury fear and wait. something I knew the Meq could do very well.
Corsair Bogy appeared around noon and headed straight for the saloons adjacent to Sportsman’s Park. Before I left to follow him, I saw Carolina standing in the window of Mrs. Bennings’s room. She put two fingers to her lips and pressed them against the glass. I nodded once and went off after Bogy.
He visited three saloons, the first two for only minutes and the third for over an hour. He played cards with his cronies and I only lost sight of him once, for a few minutes, while he was in the men’s room. After that, he and two men walked the short distance to Sportsman’s Park to watch the Browns play Cincinnati. The sky was still blue, but the temperature was dropping.
I stayed close to him in the park, closer than I had before, so I could hear him talk. Mostly, he drank beer and yelled at the manager of the Browns, Harry Diddlebock. He was loud and the drunker he got the more he yelled and bragged to his cronies about women and money; but that was Corsair Bogy all over and such behavior was nothing unusual.
About the seventh inning, a low bank of clouds appeared to the southwest. Gusts of wind blew loose paper and debris around the stands. I felt something else — a presence. I glanced around quickly through the crowd and thought I caught a glimpse of something or someone familiar. I wasn’t sure.
I made my way to one of the exits, where I could scan the whole crowd, and turned in a slow, full circle. Nothing.
Suddenly I heard Carolina’s voice. “Z!” I heard her scream. She came running toward me, through the crowd. “He’s here,” she said. “He came to the house, the one with green eyes, and he wanted to know where you were.”
“Did he hurt you?” I asked and looked her up and down.
“No, no. It was strange. He just wanted to know where you were. I didn’t say a word and he took off running — fast.”
It was Ray all right. That proved it. “Why did you come here?” I said. “You should stay with Georgia and Mrs. Bennings.”
“I had to do something. I had to warn you.”
Then a thought struck me. If Ray was hired by Corsair and Corsair didn’t know I was around, why would Ray ask about me and show himself at the same time? It didn’t make sense.
The wind was blowing harder and fat drops of rain began to fall. I could hear Corsair’s voice yelling over the crowd at an umpire. Then I heard something else — a haunting, bitter laugh I hadn’t heard in years. I turned and saw him, standing with his legs spread in baggy black trousers, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a black bowler hat, staring at me.
“You’re lookin’ the same, Z,” he said and laughed again. “Ain’t that odd?”
I stared back at him. If he was running one of his games on me, I couldn’t tell. “How are you, Ray?”
“About the same. How ’bout you?”
He took a step toward me, holding on to his bowler hat. The wind was blowing much harder and hail was starting to fall. Carolina came closer, never taking her eyes off Ray.
“Why are you here, Ray?”
“I was in Cincinnati and I had one of my ’forecasts’ come to me. I thought about you, Z, so I thought I’d come and save your ass, if you were still around. I hitched a ride with the ball club and I been lookin’ for you ever since.”
“When did you get here?” I asked and glanced at Carolina.
“This morning,” he said. “Look, Z, I don’t know how much time we got.” He put both his hands over his eyes and looked at the sky. “You mean, you weren’t here last night?”
“No. Hey, Z, let’s get out of here. Now.”
I was confused. If it wasn’t Ray, then who.
“Now, Z, now!” Ray yelled.
“What? Why?” I looked at him dumbfounded. He pointed to the sky.
“A tornado’s comin’. A big one. I saw it three days ago.”
I looked at Carolina. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She didn’t know Ray, she didn’t know the “Weatherman,” but I did. She probably thought he was crazy, but I knew he was never wrong about the weather, and he was no assassin. I kept looking at her and her face seemed to change. I was in my dream again and her head was floating, only it wasn’t her head and her face. it was Georgia’s.
“Let’s get to the house!” I shouted.
We turned and headed out of the exit, but everyone else was doing the same. The storm came in so fast that the umpires had no time to call off the game. All the players and four thousand fans were trying to leave at once. It was chaos. We squeezed, pushed, and ran through the crowd, finally making it to Grand Avenue, where we ran straight into Corsair Bogy. He looked at me. He looked at Ray. Something about us stunned and shocked him, then he saw Carolina.
“You bitch, you’re supposed to be at the house!” he screamed.
“Come on!” I yelled and we took off, leaving Bogy in the driving rain and hail.
The streets were filled with people running for shelter. Streetcars with bells clanging were racing to make it back to their stations. Some fences were already falling down and the blooms of the dogwoods and redbuds were being blown through the air like snowflakes in a blizzard.
A block from Mrs. Bennings’s House, Carolina stopped in her tracks from a dead run. She was gasping for air and so was I. Ray wasn’t even out of breath. She put her hands over her ears and her eyes seemed to be staring into some unknown hell. “Georgia!” she screamed and tears poured down her cheeks.
I took her hand away and dragged her toward the house. She was no longer herself. She had fallen somewhere dark and deep inside. I knew the place. Solomon had caught me falling there.
Suddenly the rain and hail and wind stopped. There was a strange, eerie calm. I glanced at the sky and it was green and black.
“It’s comin’!” Ray said.
We made our way around back and I saw the “girls” running from the kitchen to the cellar door. I told Ray to take Carolina down into the cellar with the others. I stopped one of them and asked her where Mrs. Bennings and Georgia were. She said they were still in Mrs. Bennings’s room, the door was locked, and they wouldn’t come out or answer. She ran on toward the cellar and I looked at Ray.
“Someone is in there or he’s been there, Ray. He was hired to kill and he’s one of us. He’s got green eyes, like you.”
“There’s only one like that,” Ray said. “He’s somehow related to me on my old lady’s side.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
I stared back at Ray. I reached inside my shirt and pulled out the Stones; holding them, showing them to him. “What about these?”
“They won’t make any difference,” he said, “not on the Meq, not on him.”
I turned to go inside and glanced back at Carolina. “Watch out for her,” I said.
He nodded once. “You’d better hurry. You ain’t got much time.”
I walked through the kitchen and into the large room that was the parlor. A few gas lamps were lit, but the room was empty and silent. The piano stool was on its side, as if someone had stood up suddenly and kicked it over. I reached the stairs and started climbing the steps one at a time, trying to stay close to the wall. Outside, I could hear a faint but distinct sound, like a distant train.
I got to the top of the stairs and saw Mrs. Bennings’s door wide open. The girl had said it was locked. I started to call out, then stopped myself. I took a step toward the door, then another. It was then that I heard the laugh. Inside the room, someone was laughing; a low, mean laugh, like Ray’s, only. different. older.
I ran to the open door. I looked inside and saw Mrs. Bennings slumped on a couch, her dress split open from the back, blood covering her chest and her throat slit from ear to ear. Next to her, Georgia sat with her head held back by the hair, screaming in silence, a knife blade at her throat. She saw me and her eyes grew even wider. Behind her, holding her, laughing, was the Fleur-du-Mal.
He looked up at me and smiled. His teeth were a brilliant white. He had deep green eyes, a short ponytail tied with a green ribbon, and two red ruby earrings. He was slightly taller than I was but that was the only other difference.
“I know who you are,” he said.
I stood there in silence. I felt a sense of evil and danger I had never known.
“The weather is bad, no?” he said, laughing that laugh.
“Let that one go,” I said.
“No, no, no,
“She’s not the one you want.”
“No? Then who is she?”
Just then, the front door downstairs crashed open and a ferocious wind blew in along with Corsair Bogy. He saw me and started for the stairs, yelling, “You little son of a bitch!”
A tremendous roar followed and the house began to come apart. I looked at Georgia. Her eyes were frozen with terror. The Fleur-du-Mal laughed again, but I couldn’t hear him and he cut Georgia’s throat in one motion from ear to ear.
After that, I remember nothing. Nothing but the dream; the dream of endless falling through a black hole, of floating heads, trains, and spiders dangling from the masts of ships being torn to shreds in the black winds. And there were stars in the winds; stars made of red rubies, diamonds, and lapis lazuli. I fell through a thousand lifetimes, spinning, weightless, like ash from the fire in a cave.
They found me with my arm and shoulder under the corner of the piano. My arm and collarbone were broken and I had dozens of cuts and bruises. I knew all that would heal. They found Corsair Bogy under the rest of the piano.
There was no more Mrs. Bennings’s House. The tornado had raged through south St. Louis and cut a swath a half mile wide, wiping out whole neighborhoods and leaving nothing.
The Fleur-du-Mal had vanished with the tornado.
Ray found Mama’s baseball glove not far from where he discovered the bodies of Georgia and Mrs. Bennings. When I was able to look, he showed me something on their backs. It was a signature of the Fleur-du-Mal. He had carved a rose on their backs with the point of his knife before he slit their throats. Ray said his own mother had been killed that way in New Orleans.
Carolina was in shock and we took her and the other girls to a brewery warehouse where a temporary shelter had been set up.
Ray and I returned to the wreckage and rubble of Mrs. Bennings’s House. We sat there through the night, the following morning, and the rest of the day. It was May 3, 1896, the day before my birthday. During that time, we talked about where we’d been and what we’d done in the last dozen or so years. He told me he had left the way he had because he’d received information through his network of contacts that his sister was in the Far East, working with a famous courtesan. He combed most of the western Pacific looking for her, but never found a trace. He asked me about Carolina and I told him as much as I could, but I found I was barely able to talk about her. I was becoming consumed with a thought and feeling I had never experienced. It had many images and shapes, but only one name — revenge.
I asked about the Fleur-du-Mal and he told me what he knew. The Fleur-du-Mal was an old one, how old he didn’t know. He had come to America with the Portuguese and had been the only survivor when the ship went down in a storm off the coast of Florida. He had many nicknames, one of which was “Sugar,” because he had a habit of eating whole pieces of sugar and the Giza thought it odd that his teeth stayed a brilliant white. His real name was Xanti Otso, but the Meq only referred to him as the Fleur-du-Mal, the flower of evil. He was an assassin, a good one, and had been for centuries.
We watched the sun come up and it lit a broken, battered world. We checked on Carolina and she said she was fine and wanted to leave. She wanted to see the house even though we told her nothing was there. Arguing was pointless and so we walked through littered streets back to the house.
Standing in the sunlight, staring at what had been her life and her sister’s life, she scanned the debris until she saw it. To no one in particular, she said, “We’ll save the piano.”
At that moment, a formal carriage pulled by two stately draft horses turned the corner and stopped in front of us. The driver, who was Chinese and wearing a long, braided pigtail, jumped down from his bench and opened the door facing us. A man stepped out; an old man, tall, with white hair and a white beard. He was dressed in a finely tailored black suit and held a top hat in his hand.
“Zis is not good business,” he said, taking in the whole neighborhood with a slow turn. He looked at me. I looked at him.
“Come here, Z,” he said, “there is someone in the carriage I would like you to meet. I think you call him Sailor.”