If only I could be like the tree at the river’s edge Every year turning green again!
— Han Shan
6. MAMU (GHOST)
I remember the sound of a dog barking; more than anything else I remember that. As I walked toward Solomon and the carriage, I heard in the distance a dog barking in a steady cadence, like a chant, and urgent. I was sure there was someone trapped in the wreckage, but alive, and the dog was barking for anyone to come and look; find them; save them. No one else seemed to hear it. I stopped walking and looked past the carriage in the direction of the sound. Then he spoke and the barking stopped.
“It is long time since we see each other — eh, Zianno?”
Was it really Solomon standing there speaking to me? I didn’t know until that moment how much I had truly missed my good friend.
“I must say, Z, my partner, you look much the same.” He winked and made a formal bow, waving his top hat in a low arc across his body before placing it carefully on his head as he rose.
I laughed out loud. “I wish I could say the same for you, old friend.”
“What? You must mean these rags?” he said, pulling at the trousers of his very expensive suit. “Or zis?” He yanked on his full white beard. “I am same man, Z. Solomon J. Birnbaum I am, was, and shall be.”
“We thought you might be dead. You know that, don’t you?”
“Dead I am not.” He paused and took another slow turn, surveying the refuse and debris that had once been a neighborhood and Mrs. Bennings’s House. Speaking more to himself, he said, “We should have been here two days ago. We were delayed. by the weather.” He looked once at Carolina, who was staring at him hollow-eyed, and he glanced at Ray standing easy in his bowler hat. He turned back to me. “We will talk of all zis later. Now, come. Come and meet Sailor.”
The sun was glinting off the polished black surface of the carriage. Shading my eyes, I stepped between Solomon and the Chinese man holding the door open. As I passed Solomon, I whispered, “How did this happen?”
He pursed his lips and shrugged. “Business,” was all he said.
A single shaft of light cut through the darkness of the carriage, catching as it did a hand reaching from the shadows; a hand just like mine but for a small ring on the first finger. It was a ring made of star sapphire set in silver and six different rays of color shot out from it in the light. I grabbed the hand and was helped into the carriage and onto the bench.
“Happy birthday, I believe, is a proper opening.”
The voice came from the shadows. It was a measured voice; a voice that accented each syllable evenly; a voice that had studied this language and learned it as it had a hundred others.
“I had forgotten,” I said. “As you probably know, they start to seem the same.”
“Ah, but that is not true, Zianno.” He leaned forward out of the shadows, putting his elbows across his knees. I could see him clearly now. “Birthdays are not the same, not a one of them. Whether out of longing or loathing, you must remember each of them fully, if for nothing else — a testament to your survival.”
I heard him talking, but I wasn’t listening. I was finally seeing, in the flesh, this man-boy I had been looking for half my life. I ran my eyes over him. He wore leather boots like Unai and Usoa, laced to the knees. Tucked into them, black silk trousers held at the waist by an old leather belt with a brass buckle. He wore a burgundy silk tunic open at the neck, and hanging from a single leather strap worn as a necklace were the Stones. His hair was dark and cut short, except for one braid that hung from behind his left ear down to his shoulder, tied with a tassel and an oval of lapis lazuli. His eyes were dark as coffee beans and one of them, his right, had the only physical imperfection I’d seen in any of us. Around the iris, his eye was gray and cloudy instead of white. He was smiling. It was a shy smile, unexpected but genuine.
“I call it my ‘ghost eye,’ ” he said, aware that I was staring.
“Your name is Sailor?”
“Yes, most call me that.”
“I have been searching for you for much of my life. Now I don’t know what to say. The last thing Mama said was ‘Find Umla-Meq; find Sailor.’ Now, at least, I have found you. Umla-Meq remains a mystery to me.”
He was still smiling. “Then your journey is over, Zianno.”
“What? How do you mean?”
He reached into his pocket, pulling out something small and holding it in his fist. “Let me introduce myself,” he said, dropping his smile. “I am Umla-Meq, Egizahar Meq, through the tribe of Berones, protectors of the Stone of Memory.”
“You mean, you’re the same person?”
“Yes. Your mother, Xamurra, must have been trying to tell you, but there was too much to tell and too little time.”
I looked out of the window of the carriage. I thought, “I am here, Mama, I have made it. I have done what you asked.” I felt something touch my hand and I glanced down at it. Nothing had.
“It was her touch,” he said, “it is common.”
I looked at him and then out of the window again. Solomon was talking to Carolina, holding her hand. Ray was kneeling down listening to him, but stealing glances at the carriage. The dog was barking again somewhere in the distance. I turned to look in the face of this boy, this ancient boy who I realized had found me, just like Usoa had said. I had not found him.
“Open your hand, Zianno. Open your hand and hold it out, palm up. I wish to give you the oldest Meq greeting and exchange.”
I held out my hand and he placed a cube of salt in it and closed my fingers. In a very low voice he said, “
I asked him what it meant and he said it roughly translated as “the long-living truth, well searched for.” I told him I had so many questions I didn’t know where to start. He said he would be glad to answer anything he could because that was part of the exchange in the giving of salt. It was the first exchange and the most important; when others are lost and questions asked, answers will be given. Then he did something strange. He told me to turn my head and look in the light. He knelt down and came in close, searching my eyes.
“You have seen the Fleur-du-Mal, have you not? He has burned himself inside you, has he not?”
I lowered my eyes and eased back against the seat, out of the light. “Yes,” I said. The same rage and sense of vengeance I had felt talking to Ray came rushing back to the surface.
“I have an offer to make to you, Zianno. It will involve the feelings you have toward the Fleur-du-Mal.”
Suddenly there was a commotion outside and I heard Solomon’s voice rising and coming toward us talking to the Chinese man. The door swung wide and Solomon thrust his head in.
“Zis young woman needs food and rest, Z!” He was red in the face and his eyes were watery. “She told me everything, everything that happened. Great Yahweh, Z! If only. ” He trailed off and turned to the Chinese man, talking belligerently about having enough room and not to worry. I looked at Sailor and he was smiling again, but not at me, at Solomon. Then Solomon was waving his arms for Carolina and Ray to get in the carriage and for the Chinese man to jump on top and get going.
“Now, Li! No more protests! Up you go!” he yelled.
In a matter of thirty seconds, we were all in the carriage and on our way. Solomon removed his top hat and, huffing a little bit, said, “You will all come and stay with me. No questions, no worries. Zis is good business.”
Ray and Carolina were sitting next to me. I looked at Ray and he shrugged, as if to say “why not.” I looked at Carolina and she seemed worn-out; inside and out, she was beaten down. Almost in unison, we all turned to look at the boy sitting next to Solomon.
“Carolina, Ray, this is. ”
“Call me Sailor,” he said, saying it as easily as if he’d said it a hundred thousand times.
“We go downtown. We stay at the Statler Hotel,” Solomon said. “We have many, many things to talk about.”
Just then, Carolina jumped in her seat and turned sideways, craning her neck out of the window. “The piano!” she screamed.
Solomon and I leaned over and pulled her back in and he caressed her face with the palm of his hand. He spoke softly to her. “Don’t worry, my child. I will have Li take care of it.” He looked over at me suddenly with a puzzled expression. “By the way, Z, where is your mama’s baseball glove? Do you still have it?”
Ray reached behind his back and pulled it out, saying, “I figured you might not want to leave it.”
Sailor leaned forward; he looked at the glove and then at me. “Would you mind if I held that?”
“No. No, I wouldn’t mind at all.”
He took the glove and studied it all the way downtown. He turned it over in his hands, feeling the stitching and smiling, almost as if he were touching Mama’s own hands.
Passing Freund Bros. Bread Company, Solomon lamented the loss and the unavailability of his favorite German rye bread. No one else spoke. We stared out at the aftermath of the tornado and drove on. North of Soulard, there was little storm damage and we pulled up to the hotel in the middle of the everyday traffic and frenzy of downtown St. Louis.
Footmen and bellboys rushed the carriage. The Chinese man, Li, jumped down and barked orders to all of them in badly broken English.
“What is Li’s full name?” I asked Solomon.
Grimacing, he said, “He calls himself Li Wen-ch’eng because he thinks he is great White Lotus rebel reincarnated. His real name is Po, but he won’t answer to it. I tell you, Z, he is more stubborn than Otto, only he save my life, so now I think I try to save his.”
“Solomon, you have much to explain.”
“I know, I know. Zis is true for all of us. Now, follow me!”
We were led through the large and well-appointed lobby of the Statler Hotel. Solomon and Li conferred with the concierge about the transfer of all his luggage from Union Station, where he had left not only his luggage but his private railroad car as well. He was boisterous and generous with everyone and even though most of the patrons and passersby stared openly at our strange little troupe, the staff and management’s curiosity was kept to a minimum by Solomon’s deep pockets.
He had us booked into a suite on the top floor. Each of us had our own room and they all opened onto a central parlor filled with fine furniture, paintings, mirrors, electric lamps, and a huge walnut table in the center. The floor was polished hardwood and covered with Persian rugs. I told Solomon I had a few things left in a room on “the hill” and he said, “Unless they are important, leave them. I will make sure everyone has what they need. Now we all rest and clean up. Tonight, we have big meal in zis room and tell our tales.”
Carolina welcomed the chance to rest and bathe, but before she left the room, Solomon asked her for all her sizes from hats to shoes and sent them on to the concierge with instructions to go to Barr’s and “buy properly.”
Ray went straight to his room, tipping his bowler hat to the rest of us. I waited until Solomon retired to his room, then walked over to where Sailor was examining one of the electric lamps.
“I am still amazed at this magic,” he said, holding his fingers close to the light, expecting to be burned.
“Mr. Edison wouldn’t call it magic; he’d say it was electricity.”
“Ah, but I would wager that if you asked Mr. Edison where he discovered this electricity and he was honest, he would say it was like magic — someone showed it to him and he found it for himself.”
“Like you found me?”
I watched him in the light. His ghost eye shone like the Milky Way with a black hole in the middle. He was calm. He waited for me to speak. Finally, I said, “I want to find the Fleur-du-Mal.”
“Yes, I know. Is it because he killed the Giza, the sister of Carolina?”
“Do you wish to kill him when you find him?”
“Yes, I mean, I think I do, I don’t know, I’ve never felt these feelings.”
He took a step toward me, searching my eyes, then turned and walked to the door of his room. I spoke to his back.
“You said you had an offer to make — an offer concerning my feelings toward the Fleur-du-Mal. What was it?”
He ignored my question, opening his door and speaking over his shoulder. “Your father had more reason than that to kill the Fleur-du-Mal and he let it go, he gave it up.”
He walked the rest of the way into his room and turned to face me with his hand on the doorknob. I could see his ring reflecting colors in the lamplight.
“Which why?” he said. “Why did he want to kill him or why did he let it go?”
“Both,” I said. My tongue felt thick in my mouth and I couldn’t swallow.
“The Fleur-du-Mal murdered your grandfather,” Sailor said, “and your father wanted revenge for three hundred and sixty years.”
Without thinking, I touched the Stones around my neck. Sailor saw me and nodded slightly. “You are Egizahar Meq,” he said, “you are the Stone of Dreams.”
I drew in a long breath. “Why did he let it go?”
He shut the door, but behind the door I heard him say, “To have you.”
I stood in silence staring at the door. Minutes passed, then I turned and walked to one of the large windows looking downtown. The sun was setting in the west and I watched the black smoke from the hundreds of factory smokestacks and chimneys swirl up in the fading light. It was blowing east, over the river, and it took me with it. Somewhere — east, back, behind, before, I don’t know, but somewhere, and while everyone was resting, I had the first of my Walking Dreams.
I walked across the Persian carpets and down to the lobby. I walked out of the lobby and onto the street toward something or someone, I wasn’t sure, but I seemed to know where I was going, and as I walked, I was a canal, a stream, a passage, and the people, wagons, horses, trolley cars, and bicycles on either side were oblivious to me.
I walked to Union Station and stood under the Whispering Arch. I heard something flapping and looked up to see a bird, a finch, trapped up near the ceiling with no exit and no perch. I thought I heard a voice whispering. I watched the people passing. They didn’t see me. I looked up again and the bird was gone. The voice was louder, but still whispering; moaning. It said, “Beloved, hear me!” Over and over, for several minutes I heard the voice, then it faded like an echo in a canyon and disappeared into the steady hum of a busy train station.
I was awake. I walked back in the twilight to the hotel and up to my room. I lay on my bed and waited for dinner. The waiting felt natural.
I heard Li’s voice first, then Solomon’s, telling waiters and busboys where and how to set the places. I quickly washed and walked into the central parlor where a royal feast was being carried in and presented on the big walnut table. There were two silver candelabras holding a dozen candles each, surrounded by oysters on the half shell, shrimp, roast pheasant, prime rib, fresh peas, corn, squash, and a mountain of mashed potatoes. Solomon had arranged our place settings evenly around the table.
Everyone was in the room, but I only saw Carolina. She was radiant in a dark blue, almost black, velvet dress and a single strand of pearls around her neck. She wore long velvet gloves, which I’d never seen on her before, and she was smiling, which I hadn’t seen her do in a long time. She saw me and walked over, not smiling now and pinching at my clothes as if they were filthy rags. Then, in her most aristocratic voice, she said, “You simply must learn to dress for dinner, Z. What will the waiters think?” She maintained her stern look for a few moments more, then broke into a full, robust Carolina laugh, a laughter whose return I welcomed.
“You look beautiful,” I said.
“Why, thank you, sir.”
“Solomon has good taste. I never knew—”
“Then you should have paid attention,” Solomon burst in. “You would have known, Z, I have best taste in all things beautiful, especially women.” He took her arm in his and led her to the table. “Now we eat,” he announced to all of us and one of the waiters held a chair out for Carolina. Another waiter uncorked a bottle of champagne and filled her glass, then moved over to fill Solomon’s. “Champagne for everyone, young man!” Solomon barked at the waiter.
“The children too, sir?” he asked, glancing at Sailor, Ray, and me.
“Yes, I believe so,” Solomon said with a smile. “I think everyone is old enough.” After the waiters had filled our glasses, they were shooed out of the room by Solomon. We were alone in the room, except for Li, who sat in the corner as still as granite. I caught Solomon’s attention and nodded toward Li. Solomon waved his arm, dismissing any concern. “He won’t eat with me,” he said. “The damn man thinks I am beneath him.” Then, rising from his chair, he motioned for everyone to stand and toast.
Ray stood up first, glass in hand, and I noticed that he had actually removed his bowler hat. I don’t think Ray had ever sat down to such a meal.
Sailor seemed calm and comfortable at the gathering and rose up slowly. I could tell he had done this many times, whether at a campfire or the courts of kings.
Carolina and I stood up together and it was to her that Solomon turned and began his toast.
“Zis is first and last time I say zis. Here is to Mrs. Bennings; a woman I loved, but from too great a distance; a woman of good manners and taste and a woman I wished to see once more, but was denied by fate and the whims of Yahweh. May she rest in peace.”
Everyone drank from their glass and Solomon continued. “And here is to Georgia, the sister of Carolina I never met, but in knowing Carolina, I know her presence too. May she rest in peace. I give them both grand funeral, I promise.” He gave a solemn nod to Carolina and everyone lifted their glass to drink.
“Wait,” I said, “I want to add a toast — a toast to you, old friend, for coming back and for helping all of us.”
“Hear! Hear!” everyone said and we all leaned across the table to touch glasses.
Solomon looked at Sailor, Ray, and me one by one, then he said, “You are the children the old rabbis spoke of, the ‘Children of the Mountains,’ the children of Yahweh, and one of Yahweh’s greatest mysteries. It is my honor to help.”
I looked at Sailor who silently toasted Solomon himself. I looked at Carolina who had tears in her eyes and she made me think of Georgia, which made me think of the Fleur-du-Mal and I had a sudden flush of anger, but I pushed it out. I looked at Ray, who was grinning and clearly enjoying himself. I was sure he had never been treated like this by anyone, Giza or Meq. And I looked at Solomon, white-haired and bearded, full of gladness, sadness, and pride. I knew this was the time to ask him.
“Well, Solomon, are you going to tell us?”
“Tell you what, Z?”
“Oh, not much, just where you went, how you got rich, and why you ended up back here with Sailor, who I couldn’t find a trace of in twelve years at sea. That’s all.”
He laughed out loud. “Let’s eat zis wonderful meal and I will tell you while we eat. It is simple, really.” He picked up an oyster and let it slide out of the shell and down his throat, gulped an entire glass of champagne, and began to tell his story.
“I left St. Louis to become rich man. How? Where? I didn’t know, but I told myself, ‘Solomon, you will not come back same as you are leaving!’ Zis much, I knew, but first I was to meet a man in St. Joseph named James. You knew about that, Z.”
“Yes,” I interrupted. “Did you get our telegram?”
“The one we sent, actually Mrs. Bennings sent, warning you about the big storm.”
He looked puzzled. He pulled on one of his earlobes. “No, no,” he said slowly, “I never receive telegram, but I was delayed in Booneville two weeks because of that damn storm. I lost Otto and Greta because of that damn storm. I hated that damn storm, but I finally get to St. Joseph and things have changed. The man I was to meet is no longer. He had been killed, shot in the back by someone he knew.”
“Who was the man?” I asked.
Carolina lurched forward in her chair, staring at Solomon. “
“Yes, yes, he was good man; outlaw and robber, but he was always good man to me.”
“How did you meet him?” Carolina was fascinated, leaning forward with her elbows on the table.
“That is another story, but I will tell you I met him after Civil War in a card game in Kansas, where I, uh, how should I say. advised him. He went his way, I went mine; that is life, but we stayed in touch, occasionally. Then, in that spring of 1882, I get letter from him saying he wishes me to transfer something for him to California, where he will start a new life. He has made ‘a deal,’ he says. I get to St. Joseph on April 19 and check into the World Hotel, where we were to meet. There is big hoopla and craziness going on, so I ask the desk clerk what zis is about. He thinks I am crazy and tells me Jesse James was killed April third and zis is the day they are auctioning off all his things just down the street. Then, he gives me letter, unmarked, that was left for me some time ago.
“I go to my room and the door is unlocked. I walk in and there is already another man staying there. He is a funny-looking man with long, wavy hair and wearing clothes even I could not have tailored. We introduce ourselves; his name is Oscar Wilde and he says he is there to watch the auction from the window. He says, ‘Americans love their heroes and they usually love them criminal.’ I tell him yes, but zis auction, zis is bad business. I take my leave, saying there must be a mix-up about the rooms and wish him well.”
“Yes,” Solomon said and continued. “I get a new room and sit down to read the letter that was left for me. It was from Jesse and dated April first. He said he couldn’t chance a meeting with me in public, but he had made a deal, through a lawyer named Hardwicke, with Governor Crittenden and the Pinkerton Detective Agency that they would let him and his brother Frank alone if they would change their names, give up crime, and simply disappear for good. However, they couldn’t take anything with them, except their immediate family and personal belongings. They especially couldn’t take any ill-gotten gains with them and that is where I came in. I was to take the keys that were taped inside the letter, go to the bank in Liberty, Missouri, and open several safety-deposit boxes using the name Solomon Barnes. Then, I was to go to San Francisco with the contents and wait for him to contact me through the Union Pacific Railroad.
“Well, I cannot believe what I am reading. I walk to the window and look down on zis ugly auction taking place, insulting my dead friend. I say to myself, ‘Do zis, Solomon! Why not? Yahweh smiles!’ The whole situation was backward, upside down. It made me think of the old proverb, ‘War makes thieves and peace hangs them.’
“The rest was simple. I check out of hotel, go to Liberty and collect $163,575 in gold and cash, catch train in Kansas City for San Francisco, and when I get there, I book passage to Hong Kong on the first steamer leaving.
“Once in Hong Kong, I ask around, find out what’s what and who’s who. I meet a French sea captain, Antoine Boutrain, who loses a great deal of money to me in a game of chance. In lieu of payment, he wishes to give me business tip, the ‘deal of a lifetime’ he says.”
The name was familiar to me somehow, then I remembered — Isabelle — Unai and Usoa. I glanced briefly at Sailor and he returned my glance with an enigmatic expression. Solomon continued.
“He says to go south to Shanghai and he will give me proper introduction to Sheng Hsuan-huai who will welcome my investment in the China Steamship Navigation Company. In two years’ time, he says, I will be rich man; he was right, except it took five. In one year, I make my money back; in two, I double it; in five, I am a millionaire. I always said the big money would be on the water, eh, Z?”
“Yes, you did, Solomon, you did indeed. But how did you meet Li? And when did you meet Sailor?”
“Ah, first things first,” he said and stopped to refill everyone’s champagne glass. He turned and looked at Li, sitting like a human stone in the corner. Solomon lifted his glass in a silent toast to him. “A few years ago,” he went on, “things began to change in Shanghai for me and for all foreign investors. China wanted in on all the action. Most investors sold out and moved on; I stayed, maybe a little too long. A comprador there, Cheng Kuan-ying, who was a liaison between the mandarins and the foreign investors, wanted me out — poof! — for good. I knew zis, but ignored it.
“Li was working as a laborer on the docks and quays of the Whangpoo River. I did not know him personally, but I knew others like him; workers who were also members of some damn crazy sect who thought they were White Lotus rebels reincarnated. They were violently opposed to the ‘Old Buddha,’ the Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi, and all her mandarins and their compradors.
“One night, I am walking from ship to office and Cheng sends four men to take me out. Li, who was there by chance, he told me later, sees them pull out knives and clubs and steps in. Like lightning, he cracks all four of their skulls in seconds. I thank the man, try to pay him reward, but he won’t accept; he has some crazy fool belief that once you save a man’s life you are responsible for his safety until he dies; and if you don’t do zis, you will succumb to a nine-headed, soul-swallowing dragon. He is a crazy man, but as you can see, still to zis day, is concerned for my safety, even though, I am sure, he would love to see me croak and die so he can get on with his life.”
Solomon raised his glass to Li once more in silence. I looked around the table and most of the food was eaten. Ray had one leg slung over the arm of his chair and a toothpick in his mouth; he looked fat and happy. Sailor sat back in his chair holding his champagne glass on his knee. The ring on his forefinger danced in the candlelight. Carolina sat enraptured with Solomon and his life and had barely touched her meal.
“So, you and Li left Shanghai then?” I asked.
“Yes, it was a good time for leaving. For both of us. We went to Macao and I liquidated everything from there.
“I stayed in Macao another seven years, living quietly, and still making investments, only they were investments of a more high risk and, how should I say. independent nature.” He bent over and lit a cigar on one of the candles. Leaning back, turning toward Sailor and exhaling, he said, “Six months ago. we meet.”
“But how?” I asked. “How did you find him?”
Solomon leaned forward again and cupped his hands around his mouth. In a false whisper, he said, “I do not think I found
Sailor laughed and, pointing his glass toward Solomon, said, “No, no, my friend. If you remember, it was you who walked up to me.”
“You were too easily found,” Solomon said.
They both laughed and Carolina, who was sitting up cross-legged in her chair, said, “How did you meet?”
Sailor spoke. “As I remember, it was outside the Pomegranate, a Taoist refuge and restaurant, in the center of Macao. I was there waiting for someone. There was a fierce sun overhead. I was sweating and, despite the heat, felt something warm bearing down on me through the crowd. I looked among the faces and saw Solomon staring at me. I stared back. He walked straight toward me without hesitation and asked, ‘Is your name Sailor?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Do you know the family Zezen?’ ‘Yes,’ I said again, and he said, ‘There is one looking for you.’ We went inside the restaurant and shared tea. He told me of Zianno and this place, St. Louis. He said he felt like a ghost, but wished to return. I told him he was no ghost and that he should return. He agreed it was time and offered to take me with him and, alas, here I am.”
Just then, not a second apart, Ray laughed and there was a loud knock at the door. Solomon and Li rose to answer the door; the rest of us looked at Ray. He hadn’t said a word all night.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I guess it ain’t really funny,” he said, rolling his bowler hat around in his hands. “It’s just that this used to be a big world. That’s all.”
Solomon opened the door wide to allow four men to roll into the room a slightly damaged, but still sound, upright piano — Georgia’s piano. We moved couches and chairs out of the way and Solomon had it positioned in an appropriate and honored place in the room.
Carolina walked over to him as the men were leaving and placed two fingers on his lips. Then she pulled a chair up to the piano and sat down. She bent over, spreading her arms and laying her cheek on the keys.
I watched her, but let her alone. She was fine. She didn’t need help, just healing.
Solomon suggested we call it an evening and we all agreed. Li began snuffing the candles and we exchanged good nights. Solomon walked Carolina to her room. As I was passing Sailor on the way to mine, I said to him, “I had a new kind of dream this afternoon.”
He smiled his shy smile and said, “You shall have many.”
An hour later, I was awakened by music. From a sound sleep, I gradually became conscious of a melody, a simple five-note melody, being played over and over on a piano. I stood up and walked toward the sound. It was coming from the big parlor, from Georgia’s piano. In the faint light, I saw Sailor and Carolina also leaving their rooms and walking toward the piano. We got there at about the same time and the melody went away.
“You heard it too,” I said, looking first at Sailor, then Carolina.
Carolina started trembling. “That was Georgia, Z. It didn’t just sound like her, that was her.”
Sailor and I held her arms and helped her into the chair she’d pulled up earlier. She tensed slightly, then relaxed. “It’s warm,” she said.
I looked at Sailor and he smiled. “There are ghosts all around us, Carolina,” he said. “Some we chase, some we embrace.” Then he looked up at me and said, “It was her touch. ”
“It is common,” I said.
7. ARTZAIN (SHEPHERD)
During the late spring and early summer, before the real heat and humidity arrive, there is no better or more beautiful place to be than St. Louis. To the east, with the rising sun, the wide Mississippi seems even wider and more majestic in its slow roll around the city. By midday, in the heart of the city, there is the sweet scent of Forest Park. Baseball, music, laughter, and commerce of all kinds surrounds you. To the west, at sunset, the Meramec River curls below the limestone hills and cliffs like a lazy, blue ribbon. It is a place of converging waters, highways, and railroads; a place easy and exciting to live in, but during that time between seasons, difficult to leave. And yet, by the end of the second week in June 1896, that’s just what I was doing.
After the big feast, and for the next few weeks, we made a sort of home out of the Statler Hotel. We came and went like some extravagant and eccentric family on vacation. Solomon and Carolina went shopping everywhere, with Solomon tipping heavily from a wad of bills that Li carried. We all went bicycling in Forest Park many times and ate lunches on the veranda of the Cottage Restaurant. I insisted that we see a baseball game and we watched the up and coming Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Phillies. As the game went on, I explained it to Sailor and he was fascinated, especially with the fact that the game had no time limit. Ray took us to a “private” club that sponsored their own prizefighting matches. Solomon loved that, but Carolina was bored stiff, agreeing with Mrs. Bennings’s axiom, “Public brawlin’s nothin’ but bad manners.” We even went to the Grand Opera House to see Verdi’s
Carolina already had her plan for the future in place along with the full approval and promise of financial backing from Solomon. I found out about it late one afternoon on a bicycle ride through Forest Park, something we tried to do together almost every day. Carolina had the lead and took me through and out of the northeastern entrance, past Laclede’s Pavilion and into the “old money” neighborhoods around the northern edge of the park.
“Where are we going?” I yelled ahead. She just looked back over her shoulder and smiled.
We were in the four thousand block of Westminster, an elegant tree-lined street with one Victorian stone mansion after another. We pedaled through bars of sunlight and shade cast by the huge oaks. It was a rich and silent street; a sanctuary. Suddenly a boy appeared out of the shadows and began running alongside us. He was a handsome, skinny boy, younger-looking than I was, but somehow older than his years, and he had obviously seen Carolina before. He wore knickerbockers with a white shirt and tie and he was smiling as he ran.
“Hello, Thomas!” Carolina shouted.
“Hello, Miss Covington!” the boy shouted back as he tried to keep up. “Will you be stopping this time?”
“No, no. Now, watch where you’re going or you’ll run smack into a tree, Thomas.”
“Don’t worry about me, Miss Covington,” he yelled, but his voice was already behind us. I looked back; he had stopped and was standing in the street and staring at the receding image of Carolina on a bicycle. We rode on a bit and I asked who that was and how he knew her.
“His name is Thomas Eliot,” she said. “He’s a nice boy — wants to be a writer.” She stopped her bicycle and I pulled up alongside her.
“Well, I think you’ve already inspired him to write something,” I said.
She laughed and pointed toward the brick and stone mansion in front of her. “Look at this place, Z. Just look at it.”
I looked at it and it was magnificent, with three stories, climbing vines, big leaded windows, stone verandas, and a driveway that led under a brick arch back to a carriage house half the size of the main house.
“Thomas told me the family that owns it has it quietly up for sale,” she said.
I was still confused. “How do you and Thomas know each other?”
She leaned her bicycle against a tree and started pacing back and forth, looking over the property. “I’ve been riding through here and thinking, Z, about a lot of things. One day, he just came up to me, right here where I’m standing, and we started talking. He’s home from boarding school and I think he was just lonely. He and his family live back there where we saw him and he told me about most of the families in the neighborhood. Most of the things I need to know.”
“You need to know for what?”
“To start a new life. Right here.”
I turned in a circle and looked around at where we were. I saw nothing but wealth couched in castles of abstinence, discipline, and propriety — very conservative, very Victorian.
“Doing what?” I asked and Carolina looked right at me. Her eyes were bright and her freckles stood out.
“I thought about it, Z. It came to me the other day when I read in the newspaper that there’s going to be two national political conventions in St. Louis this summer, and Union Station’s got more railroads coming in and out than any other point in the United States, and ‘old money’ like their vices close by, they don’t like the risk in risqu?, and then, at the opera, I was sure of it; I studied the faces around me and I knew,
“The right place for what?”
I looked around again. “Here? In this house? On this street?”
“Yes. That’s the beauty of it. What they can’t get at home, they can get right next door, or at least down the street, or down the street from someone they know. Private. Expensive. Very discreet and filled with beautiful, intelligent women who
“You’ve thought about this.”
“And Solomon agrees?”
“Does Thomas Eliot know he’s going to be living in a red-light district?”
She laughed and said, “No, and don’t tell him either. He’ll think we’re the Muses. And we will be.”
We got back on our bicycles and rode until we turned on McPherson and stopped for chocolate at Bissinger’s. I was still thinking about her plan, seeing only disadvantages. “Seriously, Carolina, is this what you want to do? It is against the law, you know?”
“It’s what I know how to do, Z. It’s what Georgia and I learned. I can’t just quit because Georgia’s gone and it’s illegal. I never make anyone do anything they don’t want to do and I won’t allow anyone around who does. I’ll have Li close by to make sure of that. I’ll also bet ‘the law’ is our best customer.”
“I guess it is better than having babies.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Z. Just because I’m for one thing doesn’t mean I’m against another.”
“I’m sorry, that was stupid.”
“I love babies,” she said.
There was an awkward moment that passed between us. It happened rarely, but it did happen; the unspoken knowledge and fact that our difference wasn’t just in our remarks, it was deeper in the blood, further back in time. It was a difference that we ignored, but would forever keep us apart, a difference we could not change. Carolina used the tension to tell me more.
“Another thing, Z. I know you’ve been thinking about that evil one, that one that did those things to Mrs. Bennings and Georgia. I want you to stop. I want you to let it go and remember Georgia, not avenge her. I know Sailor wants you to do something, not about that, but about something else. I don’t know what it is, but I think you ought to do it. For your own good.”
Her words hit me hard. Inside, underneath everything else, I knew she was right. I was changing, but all I was really changing was one obsession for another. In my heart of hearts, chasing Sailor had turned into chasing the Fleur-du-Mal, and for all the wrong reasons. I knew she was right about Sailor too. I knew he wanted me to do something, but he hadn’t mentioned his “offer” since that first day.
“I hope you have lots of babies,” I said, “and I hereby bestow Mama’s baseball glove upon your firstborn.”
“You’re crazy,” she said.
We rode our bicycles back the way we came and turned them in at Forest Park. We walked back to the Statler Hotel in the twilight, a long walk, but a good one at that time of year. The next day Sailor made his “offer.”
We took the train west out of Union Station to the Meramec Highlands, an amusement park that the Frisco Railroad had a direct line to, hauling five hundred passengers a day. Once there, you could ride horses, pedal bicycles, row boats, or swim in the Meramec River. “Privacy in Public” was their motto.
Solomon, Carolina, and Ray chose horseback riding. Sailor said he wanted to row a boat and he asked for my company. As we launched our boat, I asked him if he didn’t think the name “Mera-mec” was ironic, considering the circumstances. He said no, he hadn’t thought about it, but that was in the area of what he wanted to discuss. We set out on the water, Sailor rowing easily, gracefully, better than any twelve-year-old in the world.
Several minutes passed. I watched his concentration and the way every stroke was complete, none more important than the other, each with a meaning all its own. While still rowing, he said, “I am reminded of the first time I rowed with passion. It was 2,737 years ago, 841 BC by the Roman calendar. It was the time of ‘Those-Who-Fled.’ ” He stopped rowing and looked at me, trying to catch my reaction. I sat still. I hadn’t asked him about these things, but I wanted to know. He started rowing again and went on. “I was escaping a Phoenician ship in what is now the Bay of La Concha, near the Basque village of Gipuzkoa. We left in the dark when the tide was right so we could float in silence before we had to row. There were forty-three of us, all that would fit in the tiny boat. Others had to stay behind. Choices had to be made. It was decided that the five Egizahar families carrying the Stones would leave and the rest would escape later, somewhere, somehow. There was someone very important to me that we left behind on that ship. Someone whose absence from me made me row with hatred for the Phoenicians and fury against any power that would let this happen. They had violated my family, betrayed our Basque protectors, and stolen my Ameq.”
“What is Ameq?” I interrupted.
“My beloved. the one for whom I waited. Deza was her name. I tell you this now because you feel hatred for the Fleur-du-Mal and the way he has violated your family, your Giza family. I want you to go with me and meet some of your real family, your own blood, your own protectors, and then make a decision about the Fleur-du-Mal. You may still seek revenge. It will be your decision, but I ask you now, Zianno, to go with me first. There is another way to defeat the Fleur-du-Mal. He knows something we need to know and he thinks we are unable to find it without him. You may have the power within you to find it yourself.”
He stopped rowing altogether and drew in the oars, crossing them over his knees. He leaned forward, closing his left eye and searching my eyes with his right, his ghost eye. “Your dreams,” he said. “You are the Stone of Dreams. Your father and six fathers behind him have carried the Stones since we left that Phoenician ship so long ago. They have all gone deep within their own dreams, but none has found what we need, none has broken through.”
“What do you need?”
“The fifth set of Stones and the Bihazanu of the one that wears them.”
“It is an old word, a Meq word; it means heartfear. I will tell you of this and much, much more if you go with me to your western United States, to the high desert. There are people there you should meet, people there you must meet.”
“Your protectors; Basque shepherds from the tribe of Vardules and others, old friends of mine.”
He smoothly slipped the oars back into the water and turned us around in an easy, practiced motion. We headed back to the dock and I noticed that all the rowing boats were painted exactly the same. Coming and going, each one, just like the other.
“Yes,” I said suddenly, “I will go with you.”
After that, events moved swiftly. Solomon arranged for us to use his private railroad car and have access to any line on any railroad in the United States; money was no object. We were to meet a man, Owen Bramley, in Denver, and he would make sure everything went according to Solomon’s wishes. Solomon said Bramley was “his man” and would handle everything with efficiency and discretion. “He is one of those damn Scottish men,” he said, “he will pay you no mind and get the job done and done right.”
Even with Ray going, which Sailor had insisted upon, we had very little luggage. I left my baseball glove with Carolina, this time with her full knowledge, but for the same reasons. We spoke very little on the way to Union Station. It was a beautiful, clear green and blue day. This parting seemed natural, expected, and we were both comfortable with it; but leaving is still leaving.
“We have done this before,” I said.
“Yes, we have.” She wore a yellow dress and carried a yellow parasol, unopened. She was sitting on a stranger’s trunk that had been left alone on the platform and she was attracting stares from a few passersby; ladies simply did not sit on trunks.
“I’m not sure why I’m leaving this time.”
“It’s not the why that concerns me, Z. It’s the where. I don’t want to lose touch with you for another twelve years. I’m not a vain woman, but even I might be too old for you by then.”
We both smiled and watched Li and Solomon conferring with the conductor.
“Write to me,” I said. “Solomon told me Owen Bramley will be able to find us anywhere.” I turned to get on the train. Sailor and Ray were already on board.
“What? What does that mean?”
“It has something to do with a long-living truth.”
“I agree,” she said, standing up and opening her parasol at the same time.
As we pulled out of the station, I waved to Solomon and he gave me the new sign he had been using for “good business”; he gave me a thumbs-up.
Sailor smiled his sly smile and gave a silent nod through the window and a kind of salute to Solomon. Ray was pacing back and forth in the railroad car anxiously looking out both sides and taking his bowler hat off and on. He was nervous about something.
“What’s the matter, Ray?” I asked.
“Nothing. Nothing’s the matter. Why?”
“You seem edgy, that’s all.”
“Well, maybe I am, a little, I don’t know. It’s just that I. I never been to the mountains. Ain’t that odd? All this time and I never been to the mountains.”
“It’s not the mountains, Ray, and you know it.” It was Sailor who spoke and he spoke in a voice we hadn’t heard him use before — a voice of authority. He was staring out of the window, but he was speaking to both of us.
I looked at Sailor and asked, “What is it then?”
He turned his head and motioned for Ray to sit down, close, so he could see Ray’s eyes. He watched him as the train settled into a steady rhythm. We were nearing the western fringe of the city, where Victorian homes and trolley cars became small farms and cornfields and cattle.
“Ray is nervous because he knows where we are going. He knows we are going to meet some people, some Giza, who not only know who we are, but protect us. Not like Carolina and Solomon. He has known others like them. These people are Basque and he has only heard of them in legend or a story his mother may have told him. This makes him afraid because he is Egipurdiko, not Egizahar. Am I right, Ray?”
Ray looked sheepish. “Am I that easy to read?”
“No, no,” Sailor said, “your anxiety is natural. It is always natural. I knew your mother, or at least I knew her family in the Azores hundreds of years ago. They and others like them have always thought these Basque tribes, if they exist, favor the Egizahar over the ‘diko.’ That somehow, if you are ‘diko,’ you will be found out and harmed. That is wrong. First of all, they do exist, and second, they make no distinction between us. Unfortunately, only
“No, Ray, you have nothing to fear from these Basque we shall meet. They are good, honorable people descended from the tribe of Vardules, simple shepherds really. And they would all give their lives to save Zianno and what he wears around his neck. They always have, they always will.”
I thought this was as good a time as any to ask him what had been on my mind for some time. “Why do they protect us? And if they do, why haven’t they come to me?”
Sailor turned the ring on his forefinger, pausing, then looked me in the face. His “ghost eye” was cloudy and swirling. “The answer to that,” he said, “is older than I. I only know that they know of us, they always have. The Basque and the Meq are like sky and water — each taking credit for the other’s origin.
“There are few left; few of them and few of us. And the few who are left honor the old traditions. The first one of which is, Zianno, you come to them — they do not come to you.”
“What do they know about the Stones? Do they know what we can do?”
“Of course. The Stones are a sacred mystery to the few Basque who know of them, as they are to us.”
“What do they think of someone like you? Someone who outlives them all for countless generations and remains a kid? A boy?”
“We have worked that out,” he said. “You will find out what I mean for yourself.”
Ray got up from his seat and walked the length of the car and back. He rubbed his hands over the soft velvet of the furniture and the burl walnut finish of the cabinets. “You say they’re shepherds, is that right?”
“Yes,” Sailor answered.
The trip through Missouri went too fast. Every stream was blue and every tree was in full leaf and still colored a spring green, not the deep green they would soon be. We were treated like princes by the porters and given everything we needed. By the time we hit the endless, flat prairie of Kansas, we all agreed that if you had to cross this land, this was the way to do it.
In Denver, we were surprised to find that Owen Bramley wasn’t there. After what Solomon had said about him I expected him to be opening our door before the train had stopped. He did leave a telegram for Sailor though. It was sent from San Francisco and said, “Sorry didn’t make connection STOP Am waiting for extra cargo STOP Will meet in Boise STOP Owen Bramley STOP.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Sailor folded the telegram in quarters and placed it inside his boot just below the knee. “I’m not sure,” he said and then smiled. “We may have an unexpected guest.”
Just then, I felt a presence, a presence laced with fear — the net descending. I looked at Sailor and Ray and they felt it too. We instinctively looked around and through the crowd. Someone was watching us and it wasn’t the usual glance of curiosity. I searched the faces, at random, quickly, chasing the eyes that were following mine. And just for a split second, I thought I caught the razor-thin eyes of a man in a bowler hat, like Ray’s, staring back, knowing me. Then he disappeared in the crowd.
“Was that the unexpected guest?” I asked Sailor.
“I think not,” he said.
“Then what was that?”
“I do not know. Let’s hope our train leaves soon.”
“Does Solomon have any enemies?”
“I presume many, but that presence was directed at us. There is always danger when two or more of us who carry the Stones travel together. That is the first time I have felt danger since we met.”
“Have they been stolen before? The Stones, I mean.”
“Never, though it has been attempted a thousand times. The gems have always attracted the Giza’s attention.”
“But how would they know? How would they ever know where any of us were going to be?”
“Mistakes, inattention, carelessness, fatigue, taking time itself for granted, false security, the Fleur-du-Mal—”
“The Fleur-du-Mal!” I shouted.
“Yes, his greatest avocation is selling the Giza on a plan to steal the Stones, getting his money, and laughing as he leaves, knowing they will not succeed.”
“What stops them?”
“Our. abilities. and the kind of people we are on our way to meet. They and their ancestors are tireless sentinels.”
Solomon’s railroad car was recoupled to the appropriate line and we departed for the spectacular route through the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Basin and Salt Lake City. I watched Ray watch the mountains and I could tell he really had never seen them before. As we snaked through passes, only to find more mountains, more passes, more of everything, he watched in silence and awe and truly became twelve years old again.
I thought briefly of Mama and Papa, but not in a sad or nostalgic way; I felt that their bones inhabited a good place; a place of clean rock and water, pine, aspen, and hawks. Their material passage back to dust would be a good place for their spirits to rise.
Sailor rode through the mountains in silence. He was alone in himself, but his memories were crowded. He turned the ring on his forefinger sideways and stroked the priceless sapphire with the smooth part of his thumb.
We made a connection in Salt Lake and turned north toward the high desert and Boise, Idaho.
We arrived in the late afternoon. It was hot, dry, and windy. Sailor opened a window and a fine mist of grit and dirt blew in. You could feel it like sand in your eyes and teeth. Our railroad car was uncoupled on a side track and left by itself as the rest of the train pulled back on the main line. We stepped down from the car and looked around for our hosts. I saw people scurrying in and out of the station, holding on to their fedoras, Stetsons, bonnets, and scarves, most keeping a handkerchief over their nose and mouth.
Ray was holding on to his bowler too. “I wonder if it’s always like this?” he said.
Out of nowhere, a voice answered, “Not always, se?or. In the winter it snows.”
We all turned at once to see a wiry young man of about twenty years old holding a red beret in his right hand and motioning us toward a wagon with his left. He and three other men on horseback, all wearing red berets, had appeared silent as shadows around the corner of the station.
“This way, please,” he said. “I will take you to the Aita.”
Sailor took a step toward him, squinting with his ghost eye. “Are you Pello?”
“Yes, se?or, I am.”
“In the blink of an eye,” Sailor said, “I swear, Pello, in the blink of an eye you have become a man.”
It was odd. I had never seen it before, but the young man, who looked to be at least Sailor’s older brother, maybe even a young father, was self-conscious and slightly embarrassed, as he would have been if an uncle or grandfather had made the same remark.
Sailor turned to me and told me he wanted to check and see if Owen Bramley had sent a message. He left for the station and the Basque men dismounted and loaded our things onto the wagon. Sailor was back in minutes and I couldn’t tell from his expression whether there was a message or not. He jumped in the wagon and we headed south across the Snake River, trying to shield our eyes and mouths from the grit. The Basque didn’t seem to notice.
I asked Sailor what “Aita” meant and he said it meant Father. We were on our way to see the Father of the western clan of the tribe of Vardules. Most of them were sheepmen and many had emigrated from Vizcaya and Navarra in Spain. Cousins, nephews, sons, and daughters, all came and went under the tutelage and blessing of their “Aita.” Only this “Aita” hadn’t always been a sheepman. He had been a sailor in his youth and toured the world many times before he became “Aita.” Sailor knew him as Kepa, Kepa Txopitea.
We changed direction at a town called Riddle and headed east and south, crossing two small rivers. The sun was low and the mesas to our west cast shadows across the basin ahead of us. Just at sunset, we veered toward what appeared to be a single mesa at least twenty miles long, but as we came closer, turned out to be two mesas, running parallel and staggered.
We rounded the end of the first mesa on a narrow, well-worn trail and a world within a world came into view. Between the mesas, two miles wide and five miles long, was a valley, an oasis, a green world of pine, aspen, and spruce with a bursting spring-fed stream winding down the center. So unexpected and dreamlike was the sight that Ray whispered, “Damn.”
We followed the trail that followed the stream back toward its source. Along the way, I saw thousands of sheep grazing in four different natural meadows angling up and away from the stream. I heard music at one point and Sailor heard it too. He straightened up sharply and we both looked in the same direction. It was behind the pines, among the rocks somewhere. Sailor smiled. It was the same melody I’d heard from a distance in Bermuda. It was Meq.
We slowed for the gate to a corral to be opened and closed behind us. We came to a sprawling set of buildings, all of them stucco with red tile roofs and supported with pine beams. Each was directly or indirectly connected to the other and together they loosely formed the shape of a horseshoe.
There was life everywhere. A campfire burned in the center even though there was still some daylight. There were men tending to sheep and horses; women carrying water and baskets of vegetables while yelling at children who were laughing and ignoring them; dogs, chickens, cats, and, on the veranda of what looked like the central building, an old man in a rocking chair, watching our arrival.
We pulled to a stop in front of him. Sailor got out first, then Ray, then me. The children gathered and surrounded us. Some were shorter than us and some taller. The men on horseback tied their horses and stood behind the old man’s chair. A small woman with gray hair pulled back in a braid came from inside the building wiping her hands on a cloth and smiling. She walked over to the old man and stood beside him.
He rose slowly, but no one moved to help. I could tell that even if he needed help he wouldn’t have asked for it or expected it. He was thin and wiry, but not weak. His hair was white and close-cropped and he had at least a seven-day growth of grizzled, white beard. He wore an old and unique vest of sheepskin and leather with colored symbols carved and dyed into it. Underneath the vest, he wore no shirt and there was a small tattoo of a bull on his left breast. Even in wide cotton trousers, I could tell he was bow-legged and he started walking toward us, then stopped abruptly.
“Miren!” he said, turning to the woman at his side. “My beret!”
She quickly ran inside and back, handing him an old red beret. He placed it on his head at a precise angle. Then, he walked directly to Sailor and said, “It is good to see you, old one.”
“You too, Kepa,” Sailor said in a monotone, then he smiled and added, “You smell like sheep.”
Everyone broke into laughter and the real greeting began. Sailor already knew half the crowd that had gathered and was introduced to the rest. Then Sailor introduced Ray to Kepa, his wife Miren, his four sons, one of whom was Pello who drove our wagon, three of his seven daughters and their children, and several other cousins, lieutenants, nieces, and nephews. He turned to me then and spoke to Kepa.
“I brought someone else, someone I think you should meet. It is a good time of year for such a thing.”
“It is a good time of year, indeed, old one,” Kepa said. “We have fat lamb and fresh water from the stream and even a full moon tonight. Let us meet.”
He walked over to me and looked down in my eyes. He was an old man, but still taller than I was and I met his gaze with my own.
“Your father was like a father to me,” he said. “I miss him as a blind man misses touch — I want you to know that. I am Kepa Txopitea, Aita in the tribe of Vardules, protectors of the Stone of Dreams. I welcome you to our camp. We would have met sooner or later, but I am pleased it is now. Now is a good time of year.”
“Yes,” I said, “now is the best time of year.”
We embraced and it was a formal embrace, but genuine. He backed up a step or two and opened his vest, nodding his head for me to look at his tattoo. I looked and it was magnificent; a bull as big as his fist in profile and drawn with skill and detail in now faded blues, blacks, reds, and golds.
“You see,” he said, “Zezen, the bull. Your name, your family,” and then he placed his open hand over his chest. “My heart,” he said.
Miren elbowed him in the ribs and made him introduce her to me, then she insisted we be shown to our rooms and be given fresh towels, soap, and water. We were treated like family, not guests. I appreciated the feeling and told Kepa so. He shrugged it off, waving his arm, and said, “I know you have been to sea, Sailor has told me; so have I, but wait ’til you see the stars here, Zianno. There are more than in the Fijis.”
“I’ve never been to the Fijis.”
“Then remember these — they will be enough.”
Our rooms were simple and clean. There was a single bed in mine with a window next to it looking out and across the space between the mesas. It faced west, and by turning your head from right to left, you could follow the stream all the way up the valley to where the mesas seemed to join and the stream found its source.
I sat on the bed to take in the view and almost sat on a cylindrical leather case lying on the blankets. It was very old, about eighteen inches long, and divided into two sections held together with brass clasps. Slipped underneath the case was a note folded in two. I read the note and it said, “For the Shepherd of the Izarharri — Good for wonder, good for wolves!”
I opened the leather case carefully. Inside and fitting perfectly in a molded purple velvet lining was a single-lens telescope in two parts, one sliding into the other. It was made of brass and highly polished. The craftsmanship was exquisite and there were no markings on it except for two tiny initials engraved near the eyepiece: A. L.
I held it in my hands and it felt somehow familiar. I extended the two sections and looked through it to the west where the sun had set and the first few stars were appearing. Old as it was, it worked perfectly.
I put the telescope back in its case and walked to Sailor’s room where he had changed clothes and was lacing up his boots.
“This was lying on my bed,” I said and handed him the case. “This was with it.” I gave him the note. He read it and smiled.
“What does ‘Shepherd of the Izarharri’ mean?” I asked.
“Izarharri is the old word for Starstone. You are the Shepherd, the caretaker, of the Starstone. Kepa wants to give you something in recognition of this, something priceless to him. Therefore, he gives you his telescope; the same telescope that your father gave to him years ago.”
“Yes, and it was given to your father in the seventeenth century by Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher, who in turn had it given to him by Anton van Leeuwenhoek. It is very rare and of very good quality for its time. Look, there by the eyepiece, you can read the etched A and L.”
“I know, I saw it. I can’t keep this, you know. Even if it was my father’s, it must mean too much to Kepa for me to accept it.”
“You must accept it. It would be an insult not to. It is because it does mean so much to him that he gives it to you.”
I walked to Sailor’s window and gazed out at the same view I had from my own. It was getting dark and light at the same time. The full moon was rising. Something basic and fundamental occurred to me. I suddenly felt light, almost weightless, as if I were a piece of paper no bigger than Kepa’s note and I might, at any second, fly out of the window, over the stream, up the face of the mesa, and disappear in the western sky. I turned to Sailor.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to
“Do? You are not supposed to
“Why do you think I will have the dream?”
“I do not think it — I hope. There is no way to know, but there is also no reason for you to worry and doubt. Besides, tomorrow you meet Eder-Meq, my sister, and her Ameq, Baju Gaztelu, and their daughter, Nova. Nova is newly born and I have only seen her once myself. Kepa is planning a feast that will last all day and night. Do not worry, Zianno. You have time. You are Meq, remember? You have all the time in the world, so enjoy it.”
“You have a sister?”
“Yes, it is strange to see her aging, but always good to see her, nevertheless.”
“Was that her singing we heard? From the wagon?”
I remembered the melody, the ancient melody, and the way the notes rose and fell, hanging on to each other like hands across an abyss, lifting and swaying, never letting go.
“The song’s about return, isn’t it?”
Sailor had long since finished lacing his boots and he stood up, motioning toward the door for us to leave.
“Yes,” he said.
“Return to where?”
“We do not know.”
That night, we had what I’m sure was, for Kepa’s clan, a quiet meal. There were but fourteen people at the table and it only lasted two hours. During the meal, I noticed Pello watching me; not in a menacing way or even staring — just watching.
Kepa talked about the problems the Basque sheepmen were having. More and more grazing land and forest were being federalized and made into reserves where the itinerant Basque and his sheep were not welcome. Some were called “tramp farmers” and discriminated against like the Chinese had been. No one wanted to do the work of the Basque, but no one wanted the Basque to do it either.
Afterward, I walked with Kepa to a low stone wall overlooking the long valley and the stream. The water was shining in the moonlight.
“The stream looks magic tonight,” I said.
“Yes, it does,” he said, then stepped up on the wall, looking back at me. “It is a small stream, but a good stream. A small stream that flows into another that flows into the Bruneau that flows into the Snake. not unlike ourselves, no?”
I told him I wanted to know more about my papa, about their times together, and he promised many stories and tales to come. He told me I was welcome here as long as I liked and would be for the rest of his life and his son’s and his son’s sons’. We said good night and I walked back to my room, thinking the long day was over.
There was a lamp already lit on the nightstand next to the bed. I spread the blanket out and sat down, dead tired and ready for sleep. I took the telescope out of its case, just to see it once more before I slept. I thought about my papa holding it, using it. I thought about where he might have used it and wondered if he kept notes and if he did where they would be and who might have them, and then I thought about Kepa and I opened his note and read it again—“Good for wonder, good for wolves!”—and I thought about the Fleur-du-Mal and I thought about Carolina and I wondered, wondered. then I fell asleep, for how long I don’t know, but the telescope had rolled off the bed and hit the floor, waking me, opening the door to a Walking Dream.
I pick up the telescope and walk out of the room. I walk outside and back to the stone wall. I step up and over the wall and I land on four legs. I am heavy, but graceful. I am grazing, making my way down the slope toward the stream. I know my way, I have been here before, but this time there is something different, something new, something that has never been here before. I take a different path to the stream. I see the wolf ahead of time. He is surprised. The ritual is well known and understood. He is alarmed and I see it in his eyes. He starts upstream, loping through the rocks in the shallow water by the shore. I follow easily. He takes the familiar path, but this time I close the gap. I pick up speed and so does he. We run for miles and I see the jewels and dead bodies strewn among the rocks. I pay no attention. I close the gap even more. We ascend, climbing the mountain, toward the source of the stream and the place I cannot follow, the place I have never been allowed. I change shape and walk upright on two legs, but I continue to climb and gain ground. The wolf stops and turns and stares. He has never seen me, not this me. I start to cry out. The wolf turns and runs to where the stream pours out of the mountain; the dark pool and spring where I cannot go. He does not look back and leaps into the swirling abyss. I stop at the edge and look down. There is a trail of stars where he has disappeared. I remember the telescope. I take it out and extend it, looking through the veil of water and stars until I find the wolf retreating, changing; form became feeling and feeling became beauty and she was revealed. naked. innocent. and wearing the Stones. Then something else happened — something so outrageous, unknown, and unexpected that I woke up.
I was alone on a slab of rock jutting out over a four-hundred-foot drop. The sun was just rising over the mesa. I had no idea where I was or how I got there. The telescope was in my hand. From behind me I heard a voice.
“Do not move, se?or. Before you stand, let me help you.” It was Pello. He said he had followed me all night and watched me, keeping his distance, but at some point he lost me and didn’t find me until that moment when I cried out. I asked him where we were and he said we were far to the south, miles from camp.
He helped me up and we started back along a narrow ledge, then down through brush and scrub cedar until we found a trail he knew by heart.
It took five hours to walk back to Kepa’s camp and when we finally stepped over the low stone wall and were in the compound itself, no one seemed to notice. Most were gathered by the veranda of the central building, children especially.
They were surrounding a tall man with red hair and a bristly red mustache, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and showing everyone how to assemble a Chinese kite. Some other men were preparing several lambs for an open-pit cookout. I asked one of them who the red-haired man was and he said his name was Owen Bramley and he and someone I might know had arrived by train in Boise the night before and made their way here this morning. I looked at Pello and he shrugged.
I walked toward my room, and just before I went in, I saw Sailor talking to someone, someone our size. Neither one of them saw me approach. They were deep in discussion about something. Then I saw two things I hadn’t seen in a long time, but they were still familiar — a black beret and black ballet slippers. It was Geaxi, and as I got nearer, I could just hear the end of her sentence “. but she is no longer there, she has vanished.”
From behind them, I said, “I know who you seek.”
They both turned at once and stared at me.
“You seek Opari,” I said.
They both showed no surprise, but they continued to stare.
“And I know her Bihazanu, her heartfear.”
“What is it?” Geaxi asked.
8. IZAR (STAR)
Sailor and Geaxi kept staring at me. They could have been two strange children, perhaps brother and sister, dropped off suddenly by someone and left without a ride. Their looks were a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment, and wonder.
Sailor walked over to me. He looked at my torn clothes, the caked mud on my face and hands, and the blood-crusted scratches on my arms that were healing and disappearing as he looked.
“You have had the Dream?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
“I have had
Sailor turned for a moment and glanced at Geaxi. Silently, gracefully, she closed the few paces between us.
He turned back to me and said, “Your father and your father’s fathers never had anything revealed to them. They had to be told her name, and even then, she never revealed herself to them.”
“I think I surprised her and I think I know why, but I can’t be sure until I see her.”
Once again, Sailor and Geaxi looked at me and smiled. I hadn’t seen that smile since being surprised by her so long ago on that hot afternoon down that dark alley in St. Louis.
“Hello, young Zezen,” she said and she reached in her vest and took out a cube of salt, placing it in my hand and closing my fingers.
“Five fingers — one hand,” she answered.
“I haven’t heard that one.”
“There are a million of them,” she said. “Sailor probably knows two million. I cannot keep track. Now, tell me, can you find Opari?”
As tired and weary as I was, I still almost laughed. Nice, blunt, and right to the point — that was Geaxi. I did manage a smile and turned to look around me before I answered. It was midafternoon and the whole camp was alive. I caught sight of Ray standing among the Basque children watching Owen Bramley and his Chinese kites. Kepa was watching too, sitting in his chair with one of his grandchildren on his knee. Miren was standing next to him, her hand on his shoulder. Dogs barked everywhere from the excitement and activity. This was a day of celebration and feast for the Basque, all on account of us. But who were we? What were we?
I looked hard at Sailor and Geaxi and said, “I need to know now who Opari is and why you need to find her.”
Geaxi started to speak, but Sailor cut her off and said, “There is a better one to answer your questions. Go and clean yourself and change your clothes. We will go to see Eder, my sister.”
Geaxi nodded her approval, and even though I wanted an answer, a hot bath and clean clothes sounded good.
An hour later, the three of us and Ray were walking the same trail on which I had heard the singing back behind the pines. Sailor had insisted on Ray coming along. He liked bringing Ray into a circle of friends and family he had never known. He wanted Ray to feel good about being Meq.
Sailor knew the trail well and, at some point only he could see, took us up through the pines and scrambling around boulders three times our size until we entered a natural clearing hidden from the world and open to the sky.
At the far end of the clearing and slightly up the slope from us, there was a small, well-constructed log cabin. In the middle of the clearing, standing by itself on a leveled stone platform, was something I had never seen before — a sundial. It was amazing. Sailor said it was an early Roman sundial that Baju had taken with him from Spain when he and Eder moved to America. It was so incongruous and yet it seemed always to have been there. Sailor said Baju had been known for centuries among the Meq as “Stargazer.” Now that he and Eder had crossed in the Zeharkatu, he preferred just Baju. He was from the mountains of Bizkaia where they respected time and silence and the night sky. He had the ability to foretell certain “events,” as Ray could the weather, and Sailor hoped Nova would inherit the trait. “One never knows,” Sailor said. “That part is tricky.”
We walked past the sundial and approached the cabin. There was a covered veranda on all four sides and standing on the one facing west and waving to us was a young man and woman with a small child perched on the man’s shoulders. As we drew nearer and I could make out their faces, I caught my breath and stopped abruptly. Except for clothes and hairstyles, they could have been my mama and papa. Geaxi seemed to know what I was thinking and turned to me. She said, “Familiar, no?”
I couldn’t reply, but I walked on with the others and when we got to the cabin, the young couple met us on the steps.
Sailor made the formal introductions and I found out Baju was also through the tribe of Vardules. Our families shared a long history. When Sailor introduced Ray, a very unusual thing happened. The little girl, Nova, who was about eighteen months old and clinging to her papa’s neck with her arms and legs, suddenly opened her arms wide and begged Ray to take her. Ray got that sheepish look again, as if he’d been caught doing something he had no idea he’d done, but he let her swing over to him and sit on his shoulders and play with his bowler hat. She was attached to him and stayed that way the entire time we were there.
Sailor’s sister watched and waited her turn. As Sailor began the words, she waved him off and came over to me, embracing me with no words at all. I held her tight. It was as natural as embracing Mama and, unexpectedly, I felt tears sliding down my cheeks. She whispered in my ear while we held each other.
“Your mama was my closest friend. I never got to say farewell.”
Slowly, we eased our hold on each other. She backed up taking my hands in hers and examining me like a rare but familiar coin. As she studied me, I studied her. It was strange. If I had been Giza and looked my real age, she would have looked younger than I did. I could even have been attracted to her, as any man would to a pretty young Basque woman, but that was not the way it was. It was a kind of Meq paradox. I was in a child’s body, and until recently she was as well but she was much, much older.
“Come,” she said. “Come with me.”
She kissed Baju and Nova, gave Sailor a lingering glance, and led me off the veranda and into the pines. We followed a winding, well-worn path up and away from the cabin until we came to an outcrop of rocks with a few boulders in the middle lying flat on their sides. They formed a gigantic, natural table with a view of the horizon at all four points of the compass. The sun was low in the west. We climbed up on the huge stone table and she sat down cross-legged, reminding me for an instant of Carolina and Georgia. The air was cool and dry, but the wind was swirling. She reached up and adjusted her hair, taking out two ivory barrettes with strange markings on them.
“Eder? Should I call you that?”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “I forgot. We never exchanged names. I have always known yours, but you must never have heard of me before today.”
She laughed a little and turned her head to the side, sliding one of the barrettes into place. “Those barrettes are beautiful,” I said. “Where did you get them?”
She held one out in front of her, turning it over in her hand and rubbing her fingers over the markings. Then she handed it to me, saying, “My mama gave them to me on my twelfth birthday — my first one. They are the oldest things in my possession. Mama said they were made in the Time of Ice, when the ice was retreating and we lived in its shadow.”
She took my other hand and rubbed my fingers over the markings. The tiny lines and half circles were etched deep in the ivory.
“That is Meq writing,” she said.
“What does it mean?”
“We do not know. We have lost the ability to read it. Perhaps you will dream the code, no?”
She stood up and looked toward the sun in the west. It was almost over the horizon, but still glowed like a round, bloodred ruby. She walked in a circle around the stone table. “Your mama would have liked it here. Your papa too. He and Baju could have watched the night sky and had all their old arguments about the stars. I miss them. I wanted them to see Nova. I wanted. ”
Her voice trailed off and she stopped to watch the sun finally set. After a few moments, she turned toward me and I knew it was time to ask her. I wanted to hear more about Mama and Papa, but that could wait. “Tell me about Opari,” I said.
Suddenly she smiled and then put her hand over her mouth. She stared at me in disbelief. “You have had the Dream?” she whispered through her fingers.
I looked away from her for some reason and saw Venus rising in the east. “I have had
She sat down slowly, cross-legged again. She leaned forward a little with her hands folded in her lap.
“Then I shall tell you,” she began. “I shall tell you what I know as best I can because I have never seen her. Sailor is the only one of us to have seen her and that was long ago in the time of Those-Who-Fled. It is rumored that the one we call the Fleur-du-Mal has also seen her, but this has always been speculation.”
She stopped for a moment with a peculiar expression on her face. “Did Sailor tell you anything? Anything at all?”
“Ah, I see. Well, that should not surprise me. It is still difficult for him, even after all this time. He carries too many memories.”
“Go on, please,” I said. “I need to know everything you can tell me.”
She went on, speaking quietly, but urgently. “Opari is the oldest among us, if she still exists. She is over three thousand years old. At the time she was born, all Meq lived in the Pyrenees. Her family lived in the hills of Oiartzun, through the tribe of Autrigons. They wore the Stone of Blood, as you wear the Stone of Dreams. Our histories and traditions, our customs, rituals, and ceremonies were known to all the Meq and were intact and used. Our written language was still practiced and passed down. It was an ancient culture even then, and known only to a few Basque of the five tribes. Our ‘differences’ and ‘abilities’ were totally unknown to the rest of the world. Then the Phoenicians came.
“At first, the Basque in the coastal villages treated them the same as they had the Celts and Picts, who had come by sea from the north, as equal and respected traders. The Phoenicians came seldom and generally left the Basque alone. Then, their visits became more frequent and they left men in the villages with the Basque to mine tin and other metals they could trade in the East. The Basque became less and less enchanted with their presence. This was new to the Basque, who had been isolated in their land for thousands of years. The Phoenicians had sophisticated weaponry and fortified ships, however, and they were practical and more interested in good business than conquering lands. A few leaders of the five tribes of the Basque approached the Phoenicians with an offer. If the Phoenicians would remove their men from the mines and their standing armies from the villages and only trade, in the future, from their ships in the coves and harbors, the Basque would trade exclusively with the Phoenicians. But they were naive. The Phoenicians never planned on staying in the first place. The cost of mining and the distance of their routes were becoming less profitable. Nevertheless, they told the Basque they would agree to these terms if the Basque could offer them something as a ‘gift,’ something that would be treasured and desired by the rest of the world and only the Phoenicians would have it. And whatever it might be, it would be the bond that would seal the promise between the Basque and themselves. The Basque believed them. After many meetings among the leaders of the tribes, an Aita of the Autrigons suggested a ‘loan’ rather than a ‘gift.’ He said there was no gold, tin, silver, or anything else as rare as the ‘Children of the Mountains.’ He suggested that a few of us could travel with the Phoenicians, serving as ambassadors and symbols of the magic in the Basque homeland and also represent the power of the Phoenicians. No one else could think of a better alternative and they sent the Aita to talk with the uncle of Opari. What was said is not known, but for some reason he agreed and he spoke for all the ‘children.’
“The families gathered in a central village and were told of the situation and opportunity. We were also naive and many thought it would be an honor and a chance to travel beyond the Pyrenees, Opari and her sister Deza included.” Eder stopped and asked, “Do you know of Deza?”
“Yes,” I said, “a little, mainly just the name.”
She nodded and went on. “Opari and Deza had been in the Itxaron, the Wait, for hundreds of years. Neither had met their Ameq. They both hoped to be chosen for the voyage, but Opari wore the Stones and early at the gathering it was decided that the five who wore the Stones would be the ones to go. The disappointment Deza felt did not last long, however. At the gathering, Deza met her Ameq — my brother, Umla-Meq.
“He and I had been in the Itxaron for only a few years, like yourself, and he never expected it. I was not at the gathering, but he told me later about the shock of the experience. A thousand years later, I found out myself.”
“What exactly is the Itxaron?” I interrupted. “No one has ever really told me.”
She looked in my eyes, searching, as Sailor had. I saw Mama turning her face toward me on the train. Slowly, evenly, she said, “It is the one thing that makes us — the Meq — different from all other species. The Egizahar
“Trumoi-Meq, an old one, once said, ‘The Wait is a wheel with spokes of discipline, frustration, silence, and love. It takes great patience and perseverance to keep it turning.’ Not all can do it, especially now, since we are so few and those few are in all corners of the world.”
“So, you never know when it will happen? Ever?”
“You never know. And it may never happen. The wheel may be more like the stone of Sisyphus and only turn to return to the beginning. Or you may live on, like Sailor, after your Ameq dies.”
“On the day they were to set sail, the Phoenicians pulled their ruse and tricked the Basque and us. They only knew of us through a few of the Basque leaders, but they had heard of the Stones and the power of the five who wore them. In a ceremony of pomp and circumstance and surrounded by their own fully armed soldiers, the Phoenicians gave the Basque grain, wine, beautiful urns of all sizes, and robes and fabrics, each dyed their distinctive shade of purple. In return, they only asked to see the Stones and hold them for a moment.
“The five wearing the Stones foolishly, trustingly, took the Stones from around their necks and handed them over to the Phoenicians. Then, on command, the soldiers charged in, holding the Basque at bay while they forced as many of us as they could onto their ship. In the hours that followed, a hasty plan of escape was devised, but only a few could go. At the same time, Opari’s uncle was stealing back the Stones. He was quick and cunning, like Geaxi, and an excellent choice for a thief. Sailor was put in charge of the escape even though he was considered ’very young.’ He wore the Stone of Memory and that would be essential. Deza was not among those chosen to leave. This was a tragic and bitter moment for Sailor, but he made a vow to Deza that somehow he would save her and the others. Opari was beside herself with terror and loss and had to be dragged from the Phoenician ship.
“The escape was dangerous, but successful, and the Phoenicians sailed away thinking they had the Stones and a captive cargo of magic children they could parade through the cities and temples of the Mediterranean.
“As their ship sailed west and south on the long trip around what is now Spain and Portugal, Sailor, Opari, and a few others made the trek across the Pyrenees to the easternmost point of our land, the Cape of Higuer. There, they were given a Basque fishing boat and crew and sailed for Carthage, the largest Phoenician port in the western Mediterranean. But they were too late. The Phoenicians had arrived with their prize two days earlier and promptly discovered that the Stones were missing along with forty-three of us. They were furious, but took no particular revenge. They were only interested in money and prestige and now the ‘Children of the Mountains’ could provide neither. Instead of parading them, they decided to sacrifice them. They had a temple that served as a sanctuary and was called a ‘Topheth.’ Inside, in a ceremony and sacrifice called ‘Molk,’ they killed children in the belief that the children would be possessed by their deity, Kronos. It was barbaric and idiotic, but Carthage was rich and decadent and such practices were common.
“The temples were filled with scribes, servers, musicians, barbers, sacred prostitutes, and priests and priestesses. When Sailor and Opari found the ‘Topheth,’ there was not a chance of getting close enough to save anyone without risking capture themselves. They watched in horror as, one by one, the Meq were decapitated and disemboweled. Sailor will not speak of it. He never has. Others who were there told me later that Sailor put his arms around Opari and his hands over her eyes and mouth. He held her so tight she nearly suffocated and did fall unconscious before Sailor realized it and let her go.
“Since then, Sailor has had an underlying hate for all Giza, no matter the language, race, or place. He will trust one occasionally, but never completely.
“Opari didn’t speak on the entire journey back to the Cape of Higuer. She stayed at the bow of the boat, holding on to the lines and staring at the sea. Once they were ashore, she turned to Sailor and told him she blamed the Meq and him for her sister’s death. She said they all could have escaped from the Phoenician ship — there was no reason to leave anyone behind. She said it had all been about the Stones instead of lives, including her sister’s, and if Sailor had truly been Deza’s Ameq, he wouldn’t have left her. She said these things and much more in a calm, dispassionate voice. Sailor said she had gone inside herself to somewhere cold, somewhere barren, where no one was welcome, especially the Meq.
“It was the time of Those-Who-Fled and Opari was one of them. She turned east and told Sailor never to follow, never to look for her. If he or any of the rest of us tried, she said we would only find the footprints of a ghost. We would not find her. She was no longer Meq, she said, only the ghost of one.
“And since that day, no one has seen her. Her presence has been rumored in many places at many times and, ironically, we think it was Opari who used the Stones the one and only time they have affected history. Giza history. It was when Attila the Hun had amassed his armies on the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He was ready to strike and at any moment could easily have taken the city in a bloodbath. But he didn’t. He suddenly changed his mind and his armies retreated. Christians said it was a miracle due to the divine presence of Pope Leo I. However, we now know it was Opari. Attila, though it is not widely known, was a dwarf. Opari traveled with him as an omen, a charm, a magic child with a bold sexual presence. He always kept her near. On that day, evidently after she had seen enough of his pillage and murder and knew what was to come, she withdrew the Stones from around her neck and used them on Attila, telling him to turn around and go home. We know this because, through the ages, Opari has kept with her and trained as courtesans orphaned Meq girls, usually Egipurdiko, and one of them, Aurkene, told us this occurred. Aurkene didn’t call her by the name Opari, but she described the Stones and what happened perfectly.
“After that, Opari continued traveling east, always protected by royalty; sheiks, sultans, maharajahs, and even emperors in China have hidden her, lied for her, even stolen from their own families to appease her and her unique ‘charms.’ She has never been found by us. She has power, perhaps because of her age and isolation, but if ever we get near, she is gone. She can sense our presence long before we sense hers. That is why your papa and his papa and all before have tried to use dreams to find her. It is the only way. We must catch her unaware or she will always be a step ahead.
“It is also said the Fleur-du-Mal might know where she is. We don’t know for certain, but we think he may have ‘found’ orphaned Meq girls for her in the past.
“It has been a long search, a long wait, and still we seek Opari. We do not even know if she still exists.”
She stopped talking and we both looked up at the sky. Night had fallen and there were ten million stars wheeling around us.
“She exists,” I said. “But I still don’t know why you need to find her.”
Eder looked over my shoulder toward something behind me and nodded. “Ask one of them,” she said.
I turned and sitting behind me as silent as stones themselves were Sailor, Geaxi, and Baju. I had not heard or felt them approach and had no idea how long they had been there.
Baju rose to speak. I could not get over how much he reminded me of Papa, especially under starlight.
“You look at me and think of Yaldi, no?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “How did you know?”
“I did not know for sure, but it is good, because your papa would have told you this himself, someday.
“In a little over a hundred years from now, there will be a time, an occurrence, that is sacred and unique to the Meq. It is the reason your mama and papa crossed in the Zeharkatu when they did, so that you could be born in preparation for it. It is the same reason Eder and myself crossed and were blessed with Nova. We know of it through legend and story, but also through Sailor’s family and the Stone of Memory. It is even mentioned in fragments on a stone in the Pyrenees called the Idol of Mikeldi. The language is a transitional language between Meq and old Basque, but the name is the same. It is called the Gogorati, the Remembering.”
He paused and looked at the others, not sure how to continue.
“What is the Remembering?” I asked.
Geaxi rose from her squatting position and said, “We do not know. We only know that all five sets of Stones are to be together at a certain place and time. The place is called Egongela, or the Living Room. We also know it is a cave somewhere in the Pyrenees. The time is the time during the Bitxileiho, or the Strange Window. We know when that is and Baju will tell you what it is later. The important thing, nay, the imperative thing, is that we find Opari. Without her, we cannot know, we will never know. ”
“The truth,” Sailor finished.
He had circled behind me and stood opposite Geaxi. Baju and Eder stood together in front of me and slightly to the side. We almost formed the shape of a five-pointed star with one point missing. The configuration did not go unnoticed by Sailor. He said, “We must find her, Zianno. Geaxi is right. It is imperative. The Gogorati will come and go and we must be there with the five Stones or we may never know who and what we are.
“I will tell you that before I met Solomon and came to you, Geaxi and I were in the Far East on the trail of Opari. Through various and disparate contacts, we learned that someone of her ‘description’ was living outside Shanghai with another one like herself called the ‘Pearl.’ They were protected by a secret cadre sent from the Empress Dowager, or the ‘Old Buddha,’ as she is called by her enemies. But, as you heard Geaxi tell me earlier, she has vanished.
“And now that you know her story and ours, have you indeed. ‘seen’ her?”
“I don’t know where she is,” I said, “but if I could get close enough, and I don’t know why, she will not sense my presence, at least not in her usual way. I could find her then.”
“Then we shall go back to the Far East,” Sailor said. “And pick up her trail.”
I wasn’t sure I believed what I’d just said, not completely. I felt lost in what I’d heard, lost and small, like a grain of dust in a great wind, one star blurred by the Milky Way and Time itself. But I also felt a sense of family, blood, and connection to my own history that I had never felt before. They were Meq and now, finally, so was I.
I looked at Eder and suddenly thought of Nova. “Where is your daughter?” I asked.
She laughed and took my hand again. “We only have to find Ray to find Nova,” she said. “I am afraid my daughter is literally physically attached to Ray.”
We came down from the clearing and back to the cabin to discover just that. Ray and Nova were on the floor playing a game that mainly involved Nova sitting on Ray’s bowler hat and pulling on various parts of his face while giggling to herself.
Ray looked up at me in obvious pain and joy. “Damn, Z, where you been?”
We rested that night in Eder and Baju’s cabin and returned in the morning to Kepa’s camp. He welcomed us as if we’d never been gone and all that day and night the festivities continued. There was accordion music and dancing and roasted lamb and games of competition among the Basque like stone-lifting and wood-chopping. Old men played a card game called Mus and Ray played pelota, or handball, with the children.
Kepa introduced me to everyone I hadn’t yet met and gave me a long diatribe about each of their faults and virtues. I even taught a few, including Pello, the basic rules of baseball and we had a makeshift game in the center of camp. It was a good day, a full day, and though everyone was happy enjoying a day of play, I saw Sailor only once, and that was at sunset walking toward the stream with his head down and Geaxi’s arm gently folded in his. I found Eder and asked if he was all right.
“Sailor is fine,” she said. “As fine as he will ever be.” She watched the two of them walk down the slope, disappearing into the pines. “Geaxi is good for him. She knows his darkness.”
“Is it because of Deza still?”
“Yes. Did you know that he was not born with his ‘ghost eye’? It became cloudy when he saw Deza murdered and dismembered in front of him. He says that Deza is in his eye now. She is the ‘ghost’ of his vision. But Geaxi is the quickest and brightest among us. She knows when to comfort him and when to leave him be.”
“Does Geaxi still do the Itxaron?”
“Yes. A long time now.”
“Has she never met her Ameq?”
“No, and she will never speak of it. She and Sailor have different demons, but the same will and perseverance to survive. She is the Stone of Will and he is the Stone of Memory. Those two things together keep hope alive.”
As Eder was speaking, I caught sight of the one person I hadn’t met, the one person present who was neither Meq nor Basque — Owen Bramley. He was just leaving a group of men gathered around a corral admiring horses and saddles. I excused myself from Eder and walked over to him. He saw me approaching and stopped to face me. He was a good foot and a half taller, but I could see in his eyes that he considered me no less than equal. He nodded to me without speaking.
I spoke first. “My name is Zianno Zezen.”
“And mine, Owen Bramley,” he said, holding his hand out.
We shook hands. He had a strong grip and his shirtsleeves were rolled up above his elbows. He was freckled, a thousand times more than Carolina, from fingertip to forehead.
“Solomon told me you were ‘his man,’ ” I said.
“That sounds like Solomon. You are either ‘his’ man or you are someone else’s.”
“He also said you were Scottish.”
He laughed out loud. “I am Scottish, at least my parents are, but I’m from Chicago. I think Solomon likes to call me Scottish, as if it were a curse, because I know how much he spends and I tell him when it’s too much.”
He laughed again and I wondered what he knew about me, about us. He seemed at ease, so I asked.
“What did Solomon tell you about myself and the others?”
“He said to treat you as I would him — with respect — and to keep an open mind and enjoy myself.”
“Did he give you any special instructions?”
“No, only to make sure you and Sailor have anything you need, anytime, anyplace. And if I can, prevent any. accidents.” He took his glasses off and cleaned them with the front of his shirt. “You’re probably wondering why Solomon would trust me with this,” he said.
“Well, yes, I was.”
He chuckled to himself and said, “I don’t know, really. Based on our first meeting years ago, I would think he might trust me least of all.”
He waved his arm, dismissing the thought, and said, “It is a long story, but just let me say, it was Solomon who saved my life and I am forever grateful to him. If it is only trust he asks of me, then he shall have it without question or doubt.”
“I know that feeling,” I said, meaning every word and missing the old man as I said it. In the distance, I could hear a Basque woman singing a beautiful ballad accompanied by a guitar and accordion.
“Sailor says we must leave this place soon,” he said, “and we may have a long journey ahead of us.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“I will miss these people and this place, even though I have only just arrived.”
I looked around at the joy of life and sense of place that was everywhere in Kepa’s camp. “And so will I,” I said.
We spent the next two weeks at Kepa’s camp making plans to leave. Owen Bramley left early to secure our train and steamship schedules in Boise, where we would rendezvous later. It was decided that Sailor would go by himself with one of Kepa’s sons to San Francisco and then on to Shanghai. Geaxi, Ray, Baju, and myself would go north through British Columbia to Vancouver with Owen Bramley, Pello, and one of his brothers, Joseba, as “chaperones.” It would be easier for Ray and me to have identity papers made in Canada and Sailor said Baju had advised him there was something in Vancouver I must experience as an Egizahar Meq. He said it would be good for Ray to know of it as well, since many Egipurdiko do not even know it exists. He wouldn’t elaborate except to say the time and place were right and we must take advantage. It was absolutely essential that I go “to it and through it.” Whatever it was, Geaxi was not that excited about it, saying, “Once is enough,” but she agreed it was essential and “since it no longer affected Baju, we were safe.” Baju himself was mostly silent, saying only “we must be on the ship in Vancouver by the morning of August 9.”
When we left Kepa’s camp, everyone gave their long thanks and embraces to Kepa and his wife, Miren. Kepa told me Pello was the youngest and the best and that was why he was sending him with Joseba. He leaned into my ear whispering and asking, “Did you take your telescope?” I whispered, “Of course, it will always be with me as your tattoo is with you.”
Ray had a harder time leaving than the rest of us. Nova wouldn’t let him go. She was laughing and pulling on his nose and shirt. Finally, he gave her his bowler hat and she let go and he jumped in the wagon. Still laughing, she threw sunflower seeds at him as we were pulling out. He caught nearly every one of them. The last image I saw of Kepa’s camp was Eder and Nova waving, and Eder and Baju exchanging a look I had seen before only on the faces of Mama and Papa.
In Boise, we met Owen Bramley and went over our plans, times, and routes to meet finally in Shanghai. Sailor’s train left first and even though he was alone, except for Kepa’s son, I knew he would be safe. He had traveled this way for longer than any train or road that carried him had even existed. Only the sea was older. He gave Baju an extended embrace and stepped onto the train without a backward glance. Now that I knew about Deza, everything Sailor did seemed to have something else attached to it. I glanced at Geaxi and instead of watching Sailor depart, she was watching me. I walked over to her and said what I was thinking.
“He pays a price for his memories, doesn’t he?”
She paused a moment and said, “No more than every breath.”
A short time later, we boarded our own train and headed north. We crossed the border into Canada, stopping briefly at a small station with a single agent and no customs. Owen Bramley took care of the paperwork and we were on our way. We passed through a wild and beautiful town in southern British Columbia called Kelowna. Huddled between mountain ranges in a valley made from receding glaciers, it was a paradise of the north with peach trees full and ripe all around. Geaxi was napping, but I woke her up as we passed through and it was the only time she smiled during the whole trip.
On the afternoon of August 8, 1896, we arrived in Vancouver under a steady rain. An hour later, the sky was clear and the sun was shining. We were told this was a daily occurrence. Ray, the “Weatherman,” said he would be too busy to live here. Baju looked worried and said he hoped it would be clear in the morning.
We went directly to the docks and the ship on which Owen Bramley had booked passage, the
Still in the midst of the Klondike gold rush and already known as an international port, Vancouver was a new town, a frontier town with all the cardsharps, punks and thieves, whorehouses, saloons, and backstabbing that goes with it. You felt free in such a town, but not necessarily safe. And with Geaxi and me both in the same place, and after what we had sensed in the Denver train station, there was cause for concern. I admired Pello. He showed patience and calm, but kept a steady and keen alertness amid the chaos. I was sure he’d never been in a place like Vancouver.
We ate in a little saloon on Water Street near Carrall on the edge of the Burrard Inlet. It was called Gassy Jack’s. Someone was playing a loud, out-of-tune piano the whole time we were there. The place was filled with men and women of all kinds from all ends of the earth. It was one place where a group like ours was nothing unusual.
Owen Bramley ordered for everyone, but it didn’t make any difference, since a huge piece of salmon and a bucket of beans were the only things on the menu. During the meal, I changed places at the table and sat next to Baju. I had to know more about the next day.
“Tell me what will happen tomorrow,” I said.
He stopped eating and looked around the table. No one else could hear us over the general racket and discordant notes of the piano. “I will tell you more and we will talk again afterward, but I will tell you this”—he paused and wiped his mouth with a hand towel—“the sun will rise and appear tomorrow and then disappear.”
I looked at him as if it could not be that simple. “You mean an eclipse?”
“Yes, an eclipse. A total eclipse of the sun will occur here tomorrow. But to us it is more than that. To the Meq, it is the time of the Bitxileiho, the Strange Window.
“For reasons we have never known, or have known and forgotten, during an eclipse of the sun, there is a strange”—he paused again and took a drink from a large mug, then went on—“thing that we, the Meq, experience. It is similar to what happens to the Giza when the Stones are used on them, only for us it is more difficult; a deeper place; a wider gap. But it is necessary to know this place, because it is there that you cross with your Ameq in the Zeharkatu. To the Meq, the Bitxileiho is as strange and common and magic and sacred as a drink of water.”
“Will I feel—”
He cut me off and said, “We will talk of your feelings afterward, Zianno. It will be the same for you as all others, yet uniquely your own. Since Eder and I have crossed, I will not be affected. This is also not understood, but I am like the Giza now, and Pello, Joseba, and I will be there while you, Geaxi, and Ray are. somewhere else. This is all I have to say now — afterward, afterward we will talk.”
Geaxi got up suddenly to go to the ladies’ room and was escorted by Pello and Joseba through the rowdy crowd. I thought I caught a glimpse of Ray ahead of her, but I turned and saw him still in his seat scooping up the last of his beans with a piece of bread.
On her return, I noticed Geaxi looked extremely pale and I asked if she was all right. She could only point to her stomach and say “the food.” Ray looked at her with an expression of bewilderment.
Owen Bramley paid the bill and we walked the short distance back to the ship. There was a low fog hovering over the whole town and out on the Burrard Inlet. I walked alongside Geaxi. I was nervous, uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to say or what not to say. She looked over at me.
“Do not worry, young Zezen. I know that you are anxious, but Sailor is right — it is time for you to gaze in the Window.”
Back on the
I mostly lay on my bunk wide awake with thoughts tumbling one into the other. I did drift off once and dreamed I was playing catch with Papa in a bright green field with the sun high in the sky above us. I was wearing Mama’s glove. Papa was tossing the baseball to me, higher and farther each time until once he tossed it so high I lost it in the sun and turned my head, afraid it would hit me. It did hit, but it hit the ground, splitting open and spilling out the Stones. The gems sparkled in the sunlight. I tried to yell to Papa. I tried to yell “I broke it, Papa, I broke it!” But I couldn’t yell. I couldn’t even speak. Then Mama was talking to me. She was saying something over and over, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the Stones and the gems sparkling in the light.
“Wake up! Wake up, Zianno!” It was Geaxi. “It is almost time.”
I dressed quickly and met her at the railing on the deck, not twenty feet from my door. Baju was there with Ray. He said he wanted us close to our cabins. It was light, but there was no sun yet and a fog still clung around the ship.
I looked up and down the deck on the starboard side. I saw Pello standing out of sight under some stairs to my right. To my left, Joseba was walking casually beside the railing. Past Joseba were the only other passengers on deck, a group of men setting up tripods, cameras, charts, and graphs, all speaking at once in a rapid and excited French. Baju said they were members of some obscure French astronomy society. Owen Bramley was nowhere in sight.
Then it began. First, the sun rose above the horizon of the mountains and the fog gradually burned off. The air was cool, the sky became clear. Baju lined up three deck chairs behind us. “You may have to sit down,” he said. “You will notice nothing at first, but during totality you will not be able to move.”
We were in an eerie half-light. The moon was sliding into place. I looked out across the water and there were low-contrast bands of light and dark racing over the seascape. The amateur French astronomers began to cheer and whistle at the other end of the deck. I glanced quickly at Baju. He was smiling. I looked up and there was only a thin bright crescent of the sun remaining. I was hypnotized by that crescent. The horizon around us was yellowish or orange, the zenith a pale blue. The seconds ticked down — five — four — three — two — one — Incredible! It was the eye of God. A perfect black disk, ringed with bright spiked streamers stretching in all directions. I could see a few red peaks in the ring and a star or two behind this wonder, this window blazing in the surrounding blackness at midmorning.
And half of me fell away. There is no other way to say it. Part of me was open, weightless, nothing there. I could see, but what I saw went on without me. I could feel nothing, move nothing. Why move? There was nothing to move. I was at the other end of a strange telescope, a tiny point, a speck of. what? It was cold and dark, so dark. I wanted to sleep, but I heard a voice, a whisper. It said, “Beloved, wake.” I felt a fluttering of wings. I looked back through the telescope, this window, and saw movement. I saw Geaxi and Ray sitting in chairs and a figure approaching them. Everything was in slow motion, but it still happened quickly.
The figure slipped behind Geaxi and in one practiced motion removed the necklace with the Stones from around her neck. Then he moved behind me and I could feel a tickling sensation as he took my necklace and Stones. I couldn’t move. I felt trapped in a thick, invisible sand. All I could do was watch.
He bent down in front of us and was holding the Stones on the deck with one hand and prying out the gems with the other, using a uniquely designed pointed tool. At the same time, Baju, Pello, and Joseba were rushing forward from three different directions. When they got to within a few feet of the man, three shots rang out from a pistol. In the grand silence of a solar eclipse, they sounded like cannons from another world.
Baju and Joseba went down, both hit hard in the chest. Pello fell against the railing, hit in the thigh and unable to move. The man who had fired the shots walked through the darkness and over to Pello. It was the man I’d seen in Denver in the bowler hat with the razor-thin eyes. He lowered his pistol and pointed it at Pello, but didn’t shoot. Instead, he looked up the deck toward the French astronomers. Owen Bramley was out of his cabin and running toward us. The man with the pistol yelled something in a strange language to the man picking at the Stones. Owen Bramley was gaining ground. Finally, the kneeling man had all the gems picked from the Stones and leaped up, running past the man with the pistol. Backing up, the man kept his pistol aimed at Owen Bramley who had closed the gap and was going to charge the man, gun or no gun.
Light returned — bright only an instant after totality. I could move again and just as the man with the pistol cocked the hammer to fire, I reached for the Stones, which were no more now than a black rock shaped like an egg and I held this rock with both hands and I turned to the man and said, “Stop now, Giza! Stop and forget! Turn and go!”
Then, as if a switch had been turned, the man dropped his pistol where he stood and walked away in the direction in which the other man had fled. I looked at the pitted, black rock in my hands. There were deep gouges where the gems had been picked out and stolen. It was now only a rock — an old, old black rock. Geaxi was staring at me. Owen Bramley was out of breath and crimson-faced. He didn’t have his glasses on and he was squinting in the bright light. “What happened?” he gasped.
I looked for Ray and he was kneeling by Baju, who was still alive. Joseba had been killed instantly. Pello was hanging on the railing and losing consciousness. Owen Bramley went to look after him. Geaxi and I ran over to Baju and knelt down next to him. Geaxi took off her beret and held it with her hand under his head. She shook her head slowly, sighing, and said, “Baju, Baju.”
He opened his eyes and coughed. There was a dark bloody hole in his chest. He looked at Geaxi and said, “This was supposed to be my last time, old friend. Did you know that? I was going to teach Nova and the next—” He broke off in a coughing spasm and blood ran out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes were closed, but he opened them again and looked at me. “Zianno,” he whispered, “come closer.” I bent down so that his mouth touched my ear, as I had for Mama, and he said, “This was not about theft. This was—” but he never finished. Baju Gaztelu died on the morning of August 9, 1896.
I looked at Geaxi. She had tears streaming down her face, but said nothing. This was the second time I’d seen someone murdered and both were senseless.
I said, “Someone will have to tell Eder and Kepa about this.”
Ray said two words and I knew he knew everything that went along with them. He said, “I will.”
Owen Bramley had Pello leaning against his shoulder. He was conscious, but bleeding badly. Owen said, “I will make the arrangements to get all of us back to Kepa’s safely.”
Geaxi and I exchanged glances. “We won’t be going with you,” I said. “Geaxi and I will go ahead to Shanghai and meet Sailor.”
Owen Bramley gave me a long look. “After this? Are you sure?”
Geaxi answered for both of us. “Yes.”
We talked to the police and the officials of the shipping firm, giving our explanation that the eclipse must have driven a madman over the edge and he had shot at random the first phantoms that appeared in his delusion, who happened to be our friends and uncle. All agreed it was a misfortune and a tragedy.
One of the members of the French astronomy society, the photographer, told Owen Bramley a strange thing might have happened. As the shots rang out, he had been startled and bumped his tripod, swinging the camera to a different position, one that caught the madman directly in his lens. He had squeezed on his bulb without realizing it and may have taken the madman’s picture. He couldn’t be sure until it was developed, but it was very possible, indeed. I overheard and asked Owen Bramley to get his name and address. We wanted to see that photograph.
Later, when Ray, Geaxi, and I were alone, Ray said, “The Fleur-du-Mal?”
I shrugged and looked at Geaxi. She didn’t respond to that, but she reached into her vest and held out the two egg-shaped black rocks. “I do not think it matters any longer which is which,” she said. “Do you, Zianno?”
We looked at each other with a hard truth and new understanding of what we had seen.
“No, it does not,” I said.
“You know the Basque have always had the true name for these,” she said and tossed me one of the rocks. I caught it easily. She held hers in her fist with her arm pointed straight up.
“What is it?” Ray asked.
She brought her arm down and opened her hand, staring at the object she had been born to wear and had worn for so many centuries. Was it a blessing or a curse? She had always thought the “secret” to be in the gems. She looked at Ray with a sad smile.
“Starstones,” she said quietly.
9. HERENEGUN (DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY)
The departure of the
Of course, Ray wouldn’t need his passport anymore, except to reenter the United States. He and I talked a little about him joining us again soon somewhere in the Far East, but neither of us knew when or where that might be. Something in Ray had changed or maybe it had always been there and I was just now seeing it, but Ray took the death of Baju personally. I could see it in his eyes. For the first time, he had a sense of purpose that was, without a doubt, his own. We had been through a lot. We were true friends and I would miss him, but there is something odd and wonderful about true friends — farewells are easy. The feeling that true friends share is always in the present. Time in any direction is not the point.
As we pulled out of the Burrard Inlet in patchy fog with broken clouds overhead, Ray was on the docks, standing between Owen Bramley and Pello, who was in a wheelchair. Pello waved meekly and Owen Bramley stood ramrod straight. Ray reached up to tip his bowler hat to us, but then remembered he’d thrown it to Nova. He tipped an invisible one anyway. I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder and turned around to see who it was. There was no one there and I had to remember. “it is common.” I was looking west toward the horizon and beyond, toward China. I had the same feeling I’d had so many years before on a pale cold winter morning when Carolina and I had been kids, real kids. An overwhelming sense of leaving and barely a trace of return.
The voyage across the Pacific was long and made even longer by a series of storms off the coast of Japan. The
Geaxi and I had stayed in our cabins for most of the trip — the less seen, the fewer questions — a lesson both of us had learned a long time ago. I did tell her what Baju had whispered: “This was not about theft.” We both had plenty of time to think about what had happened and what it meant. In Yokahama, we talked about it.
We went ashore and Geaxi found directions to a teahouse. Along the way, I kept thinking that two Western children on their own, one of them a girl in black leather leggings and a beret, would draw attention, but no one gave us a second look. We were merely two more strangers weaving their way through traffic. Geaxi said, “It will not be this way in China.”
We arrived at the teahouse and were taken to a low table in the back that faced an open area with a small stone garden. The fence around it was old and rickety, but the garden itself was beautiful and well tended. Geaxi ordered for us and then caught me staring at the garden and the odd placement of stones with sand around them raked in perfect but natural lines, resembling waves.
“Like islands in Time, no?” she said.
I looked at her, and even though she was in shadows, I could tell that something in Geaxi had changed since Vancouver, something subtle that softened her expression and came through her eyes.
“What do you think Baju meant?” I asked.
She looked out over the garden herself. “I do not know,” she said. “I only know that finally the Fleur-du-Mal has gone too far. This time, his obsessions have killed one of us.”
“Sailor told me he murdered my grandfather.”
“That is true, but that was personal.”
“So you think the Fleur-du-Mal is behind it?”
“It has all the hallmarks of his sick sense of humor. No one but he would know our movements or anything about the Window. However, one thing bothers me.”
She stared at me strangely, then looked away as the hostess brought our tea and silently poured out two cups. The girl was not much older than we appeared to be and Geaxi was extremely polite and respectful to her. As she left, bowing, I said, “What thing?”
Geaxi sipped her tea, holding the cup with both hands. “We will have to ask Sailor when we see him if he has been harassed or followed. If he has not, and what you said about seeing the man with the pistol in Denver is accurate, then there is only one conclusion.”
“They were only following you.”
She looked at me for the first time since I had known her with an expression that said, “
Two Russian sailors sat down near us and loudly ordered sake. They were already drunk, but were obviously not ready to stop drinking. They looked our way and laughed at some inside joke between the two of them.
Geaxi said, “How did you know the Stone would work for you without the gems?”
“But somehow you knew it would, you believed it would.”
“Yes, that much is true, but I don’t know how. There wasn’t time. I simply acted.”
One of the Russians spat out his sake and yelled something at the hostess. She bent down to wipe up the sake and he threw his cup at her, kicking it when it bounced off the floor. She crawled on the floor to retrieve the cup and he yelled something else at her in Russian.
“There is still so much we do not know about ourselves,” Geaxi said and she reached in her vest and pulled out the Stone, clenching it in her fist. She started to turn toward the Russians and I stopped her, putting my hand over hers and holding it to the table.
“Not here, not now,” I said. “We
Her hand loosened under mine and her eyes looked away toward the stones in the garden. Then she smiled. “You are too young to sound so wise, Zianno. Shall we leave?”
“Yes,” I said, and as we rose to leave, Geaxi helped the girl up and out of the drunken presence of the Russians. Walking past them she whispered,
The delays did give me more time to spend with Geaxi. I found out when and where she was born (51 BC on the island of Malta) and when she met Sailor (AD 480 after the Fall of Rome). I learned her parents had died naturally after living long lives among their friends in Malta, tending a large olive grove where she had practiced her climbing skills as a real child. I found out little else about her personal history, but still enjoyed her company.
I asked her many questions about the Fleur-du-Mal. She answered some, but admitted that, until recently, she had considered him irrelevant. She told me that Unai and Usoa were the experts on the Fleur-du-Mal and one other whom we might or might not meet, Zeru-Meq, his uncle. When I heard the names Unai and Usoa, I immediately asked how and where they were. I had often wondered, but never inquired. Geaxi said they were in New Orleans, or had been, following the movements of the Fleur-du-Mal. Then she corrected herself and said they had been following the “rumors” of his movements. She said the Fleur-du-Mal was often harder to track and find than Sailor. He was unpredictable, completely unpredictable. But he could be a connection to Opari and so they persisted, as they had for centuries. Geaxi said she doubted he was a connection, but now, after Baju, he might be capable of anything. I had my own memories to verify that.
We disembarked, secured what little luggage we had, and made it through customs easily. After that, it was a madhouse. All China and half the rest of the world seemed to have docked in Shanghai. There were ships of every size and shape coming and going. The docks and wharves were filled with anything and everything that could be bought or traded. I heard languages I’d never heard, saw faces I’d never seen. This was Shanghai, the true gateway to China, and it was chaos.
We looked for Sailor and would never have seen him, even though he stood just fifty yards away, except he was the only thing not moving. He was standing next to a rickshaw and staring at us. He wore a bright red and gold robe with wheels or circles embroidered around the edge and a round straw hat with a flat top and a drawstring pulled tight under his chin. He looked like a circus puppet. I glanced at Geaxi and she didn’t seem to think it odd in any way.
We made our way over to Sailor, dodging through the maze of people and goods, and without a greeting except to look in our eyes, he said, “This way.” A man with the thinnest shoulders I’d ever seen loaded our luggage on the back of the rickshaw and then pulled the three of us to a section of Shanghai known as the Chinese City, the oldest part. We were almost twenty-five days overdue and I wondered if Sailor knew about Baju and what had happened.
We stopped in front of a shop crowded next to a hundred others on a street crowded next to another street just like it. There were a thousand sounds and smells, a few of which made you want to know the source, but most of which didn’t. It was a shop that sold nothing but funeral trappings. And far from being grim and somber, it was bright with color everywhere. Crimson satin coverings for coffins hung aloft and around on the shelves or under glass cases there was apparel for the dead; richly embroidered robes, slippers, and headgear. There were priests’ robes and white cotton raiment for the mourners. Somewhere in the shop there was everything for a proper and glorious Chinese funeral.
Sailor led us quickly to the back of the shop and through a door to the private living quarters. It was cramped but fairly clean, with a single window that opened onto a narrow alley and very little light. He took off his straw hat, laying it carefully on a nightstand, and without being asked, gave me answers to the questions I had been pondering.
“There was a cable waiting for me when I arrived,” he said, “from Owen Bramley. It was good that I had not let Kepa’s son, Gotzon, sail with me.”
“Were you assaulted?” Geaxi asked.
“No,” he said and looked at her strangely. “I was thinking of Gotzon and how he would have felt if he had heard the news of his brothers here, so far from home. It has been a long time since I have lost someone as close as Baju. I know Gotzon would have felt helpless, as I have.” He fell silent and stared at the sapphire on his finger, rubbing it with his thumb and turning it around and around. Then he looked up at Geaxi. “Did they get the Stones?”
Geaxi glanced at me before she answered. “Yes and no,” she said.
Sailor looked puzzled. “I do not understand,” he said and looked over at me.
Geaxi told him the whole story, leaving nothing out except the few moments we were in the Bitxileiho, for which Sailor needed no explanation. She slowed down when she told him about me and the Stone with no gems and the man with thin eyes dropping the pistol. Sailor did not react and she went on until she got to the part about Baju. She took her beret off and clenched it in her hands. She started to speak again and then stopped, looking away from both of us toward the single, airless window.
I let a moment pass and then told Sailor what Baju had whispered to me as he was dying. Sailor’s puzzled expression returned, but he said nothing. He walked the few steps over to Geaxi and took her hand in his. Then he spoke to me.
“I have often suspected this about the Stones,” he said. “Your father and Baju and I used to discuss it, but we would never have defiled a sacred trust merely to satisfy our curiosity. It is ironic, no? That we have solved this mystery in such a horrid manner and for such an empty purpose.”
I watched him. I watched him look inside himself and I could almost see him sitting with Baju and my papa and others on a cliff somewhere in a remote part of the world, talking of the mysteries of Life, and the Stones, and of being Meq. I could see them all sitting there, knowing so much, sharing so much, and being careful with each other and the Truth. Now, another one from that circle, another friend, was gone.
“Tomorrow we begin our search,” he said. “This news, more than any other, tells us who we seek first. We must find Zeru-Meq. It will be difficult, yes. He is unpredictable, completely unpredictable, but I know he is in China.”
“That’s what Geaxi said about the Fleur-du-Mal,” I said.
“It is true. That is where he learned his unpredictability, from his rather unusual uncle. Fortunately, his uncle is not ‘aberrant.’ There is a difference. If the Fleur-du-Mal is responsible for Baju’s death, he will tell Zeru-Meq about it. He will be compelled to do so.”
“How do you know?”
“You will have to ask Zeru-Meq the source of that. It has always been so. When the Fleur-du-Mal has acted ‘badly’ and is proud of himself, he always finds his uncle to boast and brag of it. It is a mystery.”
“What about Opari?”
“We have exhausted every lead, rumor, and trace of her in Asia. If she is still in China, Zeru-Meq is the only one who will know it. There is a problem, however.”
“What is that?”
“Zeru-Meq is nearly as difficult to find as Opari herself.”
I looked at Geaxi. She was not despondent, but as close to it as she had ever been. Sailor let go of her hand and sat down on a bed that was really no more than a bench. As he did, the sash holding the red and gold robe came undone and the robe opened. Underneath, he was wearing a cotton shirt, trousers, and his leather boots laced to the knees. I said, “What are you supposed to be in that robe and that straw hat?”
“The same thing you will be starting tomorrow. A Tibetan Buddhist monk. It is not unusual for their monks to be children. We will say, if we are asked, that we are from some obscure sect, which could also explain our Western features, and we are traveling together on a sacred pilgrimage.
“We are on our own now, as it should be. We must use our wits, skills, and powers in a controlled and muted fashion. I will cable Unai and Usoa tomorrow before we leave and tell them who we seek and why. They will need this news of the Stones. I will tell them to watch for any appearance of the gems in the purlieu and underground world of the Fleur-du-Mal. We will find Opari and then turn our attention to the Fleur-du-Mal.” He paused a moment, looking back and forth between Geaxi and me. “Do you both agree?”
We agreed and told him so, but inside I wished the order of our search could be reversed.
The next day, our journey began. It was the fall of 1896. Sailor had secured passage with an old Chinese man from the south, Ling Kai, and his even older Chinese junk to take us up the Yangtze River as far as we needed to go. Ling Kai considered it an honor, saying he had long been a devout Buddhist and mystic himself. He also smoked three bowls of opium a day.
Our long Buddhist robes were uncomfortable at first and we now looked like three puppets instead of one, but in time we all adapted to wearing them. And they served us well. Before we had gone a hundred miles upriver, we were stopped or boarded four times by Chinese and British officials. I wondered if this was the way it was going to be, but within another hundred miles, we were just another vessel sailing upstream and back in time on a river that was once known as the “River at the Center of the World.” And I believed it when Geaxi translated a poem for me. It was carved into a five-foot stone pillar that served as a bollard for securing boats on one of the little docks in one of the endless villages along the Yangtze. It seemed to be centuries old and I asked Geaxi if the author had signed it. She said no. The inscription read, “Upriver, downriver — it is nothing to disappear in China.”
Our destination was the sacred Taoist mountain of Hua Shan in the province of Shensi. Sailor said it was a good place to start because of its inaccessibility. Zeru-Meq loved impossible places, he said, especially places as contradictory as Hua Shan. The mountain had been held sacred in China since very early times and often appeared as a backdrop in scrolls because of its spirituality and isolation. It was a trip which by junk, train, and donkey should have taken no more than a month. It took us three. One step forward, two steps back. China.
Hua Shan lies to the east of the ancient city of Sian and looms over the Yellow River and the narrow valley below it. It is surrounded by the Tsing Ling mountain range and the mountains of Shansi to the north. Hua Shan itself is a jagged circle of sharp peaks around a patchwork of flat land and small plots. It is beautiful and dangerous, foreboding and inviting all at the same time. The peaks rise two to three thousand feet and are very steep. It seemed ironic but fitting that the last leg of our difficult journey was a short and easy train ride to the nearby hamlet of Hua Yin, which means “under the shadow of Hua Shan.” Along the way, I thought of Zeru-Meq and what Geaxi and Sailor had told me about him.
Born premature in 356 BC, the same year as Alexander the Great, he was so tiny his papa could literally hold him in the palm of his hand. He was Egipurdiko and his family were fishermen and gamblers in equal parts. They were known but rarely seen in every thriving port of the western Mediterranean. Most of them died or were killed in a violent manner, some even taking their own lives, a phenomenon Sailor said was unique to the “diko.” Zeru-Meq and his sister, Hilargi, were eventually left with no one but themselves and traveled together, surviving that way for more than a century. Then, when Hannibal, the Carthaginian, was making his ill-fated march toward Rome, they joined his armies and entourage, becoming elephant handlers. During Hannibal’s retreat to North Africa, according to Geaxi, they both met their Ameq and Hilargi crossed in the Zeharkatu, but Zeru-Meq did not. The reason has never been known. Eventually, Xanti, the Fleur-du-Mal, was born to Hilargi in a ruined village somewhere in North Africa. They were staying as far away as they could from the murdering Romans, who were killing anything or anyone associated with Hannibal. After that, something happened. It has never been explained, but Zeru-Meq appeared in what is now Barcelona with the infant Xanti, saying Hilargi and the father were dead. He handed Xanti over to an old Basque family that had once done business with him and returned to North Africa, disappearing for the next few centuries in the deserts and mountains. Sailor said that since then Zeru-Meq had had so little contact with other Meq you could count the occasions on one hand. It was known he first went to China with Marco Polo in the thirteenth century after coming out of the African desert with a strange passion for all things mystical in Giza religions. He stayed in China, seeking out the old Taoist poets and mystics, which he does to this day. Geaxi said he knew of Opari and our search for her. However, it might not matter. He thought the Remembering and the Meq themselves were insignificant and irrelevant. She said that was why they had not sought Zeru-Meq before; even if they did find him, he might decide not to help. But, she added, now we had no choice. The Fleur-du-Mal himself had made it so.
We walked the fairly short distance from the station to the Jade Spring Temple, which was the start of the ascent of the mountain. Our long robes and hats were dirty and worn and we truly looked like three tired and road-weary pilgrims. Geaxi asked the monks who greeted us if there was a head priest we could have counsel with and ask a very private question. They were cordial and did not treat us as children at all, but as equal seekers of an immutable truth, even though we were Western and dressed as Buddhists. They told us there was no head priest, but five priests had permanent residence on the North Peak. They would be the ones to ask.
The way up the mountain took most of the rest of the day. At one point, it was so steep that the path led up nearly perpendicular rock faces in which steps had been hand-cut and iron chains were set in rock to provide handholds.
Finally, we emerged on the North Peak, which was really a knife-edged ridge with a few temple buildings and a monastery perched on top. The ridge was so narrow that the path had to pass through the buildings, with no room on either side. From the ridge I took my first full view of the plain below, the mountains of Shansi in the background and the great Yellow River flowing in between. All around were daggerlike pinnacles and rock walls, the whole scene continually changing through the dance of sunlight and drifting mist.
Walking slowly, we started toward the monastery. We passed a monk sitting on his haunches and painting an elaborate rendering of a Chinese character on a scroll. I asked Geaxi what the character meant and she said “shou,” or longevity. I was nervous with energy. I wondered inside what Zeru-Meq might be like.
The monastery itself was a simple stone structure with a steeply angled tile roof. Two twisted and gnarled pine trees somehow clung to the ridge beside it and hung suspended over a three-thousand-foot chasm. There was no one inside except a boy about our size sitting by an altar. He had his back turned to us, but we all knew he was not Zeru-Meq. We walked through an open door at the other end and there, sitting cross-legged on a rounded boulder against a background of clouds and mist, were five Taoist priests. They wore full-length blue-black robes and small four-cornered caps set back high on their foreheads. They each held a fly whisk in their hands. Their expressions were indifferent, but the one in the middle motioned for us to approach, as if he had been expecting us.
Sailor stepped forward and spoke to him in Chinese. He introduced himself and told him it was an honor to visit the mountain and thanked him for receiving us. The priest said it was indeed their honor to receive pilgrims who had come so far and then they spoke of the monastery and Sailor asked about the boy we had seen inside. The priest said the boy had been sent there from Shanghai by his parents for the benefit of his health. Just then, I saw the boy appear out of the corner of my eye and take a seat behind and to the side of the priests. Sailor went on to ask the middle priest if he knew of another boy, one that looked like us, with the name Zeru-Meq. The priest shook his head, but at the mention of the name, for just an instant, I saw the boy smile. Sailor thanked them all again and we turned to leave, bowing first to show respect. As we walked back through the monastery, I glanced at Geaxi to see if she had seen what I had. She nodded.
Once we were out of sight and sound of the monastery and were about to make our descent, the boy appeared again. Geaxi spoke to him. He said he knew the one we asked about and that Zeru-Meq had taught him to play cards and even written a poem while he was there, carving it in a pine tree. He took us to the tree and there it was, recently carved and in Chinese. Geaxi translated. It said, “Time is only fire and spark knocked off flint. Let’s play.”
Sailor asked the boy when Zeru-Meq had been there and the boy said we had just missed him. He had been there the day before yesterday. I was confused. The five priests had told us they had no knowledge of him. Sailor looked at Geaxi and then at me. “I was afraid of this,” he said.
And so it was. We set out on a trail that followed whispers, rumors, intimations, and outright lies. We eventually made pilgrimages to all of the eight remaining sacred mountains in China. We were delayed for weeks and months at a time by floods, mudslides, tornadoes, and snowstorms. We were forced to make detours again and again by washed-out bridges, transportation strikes, misinformation, and the overall chaos of a changing and disintegrating empire. I often thought of the old inscription on the stone anchor post I’d found on the Yangtze and how true it was — it is nothing to disappear in China.
Sailor asked me regularly if my dreams had revealed anything: a name, a place, or direction. But my dreams were as chaotic as the country we were in. Once, I dreamed Mama and Papa and I were staying in the Statler Hotel in St. Louis and we went to a baseball game in a rickshaw. The grandstands were full of screaming fans, but there were no players on the field. I turned and asked Mama what all the cheering was for and she said, “Watch. Just wait and watch, Z. It’s a good game!” When I looked back to the field, the bases were being swept away by torrential rain. It was raining everywhere, but we stayed completely dry. I watched and watched until I woke up.
Our search for Zeru-Meq became an endless cycle of discovery and disappointment, almost always ending with the revelation that he had been there the day before yesterday.
For three and a half years we ate simply, traveled lightly, and crisscrossed China in our hunt for the enigmatic Zeru-Meq. We went as far west as the isolated fishing village of Shigu, where the Yangtze makes an impossible hairpin turn from south to north within a few hundred yards. And we went as far east and south as the island-city of Macao, where we could finally take off our Buddhist robes and blend in with Macao’s large Portuguese population. And everywhere, at every temple, village, monastery, shipping dock, and gambling house we found only a trace, a poem, a riddle, or an odd anecdote concerning the missing Zeru-Meq. I was tired of tracking him. It seemed pointless, hopeless, and fatigue overtook perseverance more than once. Then something wonderful happened.
It was May 5, 1900. My birthday had come and gone the day before and would have passed unnoticed except that Sailor had mentioned it and reminded me that each one counted. “The Meq must count birthdays,” he said, “the way bankers count money or else we will own nothing of ourselves.”
We had recently left the town of Ch’u Fu, where Confucius had lived and was buried, and traveled north to T’ai An, which lies below T’ai Shan, another sacred Taoist mountain in the province of Shantung. The roads were heavy with traffic and there was generally more chaos than usual. We had heard rumors of revolution and violence throughout the province and that the Germans had taken control of Kiachow peninsula. We were taking tea at a monastery outside T’ai An and the monks were telling us what a dangerous future there was in store for China and the monasteries if the foreign devils came inland. I had learned enough Chinese to understand what was being said, but I was drifting and paying no attention. Half a mile from where I was sitting, a train had stopped on the tracks at a small crossroads. It was not a regular stop, and as I watched, I could see several men working on the wheel of the car just behind the engine. There was nothing unusual about that. But then I noticed, on the other side of the train and rising above it, one by one, Chinese kites. I had seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of kites in China, but these I had only seen in one other place. Kepa’s camp.
I got up without a word and started walking toward the train as if I was being reeled in by an invisible line. As I got closer, I could hear the voices of children laughing and shouting, some in Chinese and some in English. I knelt down and easily crawled under the train. On the other side, in the middle of an open field and twenty or so children, stood Owen Bramley patiently assembling his kites and helping the children to fly them.
I watched for a moment and then started toward him. He saw my bright red and gold robe immediately, but the hat must have fooled him. He turned back to his kites, then paused and slowly turned around again, staring at me and adjusting his glasses. He gave the kite he was holding to a boy about my size and walked to meet me.
“My God,” he said. “She was right. She said I would find you when I least expected it.”
He looked the same, maybe a little thinner, but then so was I. He wore the same white shirtsleeves, rolled up, and his trousers were held up by suspenders. He was grinning and shaking his head back and forth.
“How are you, Owen?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, at the same time turning and looking around anxiously. “Come, let’s walk somewhere. I’ve got something for you.”
He took my arm and we walked about a hundred yards away from the tracks where a long, shaded walkway to the monastery’s Hall of Incense began. There were ancient cypress trees on both sides and it was paved with square-cut stones. We walked a short distance and stopped. We were standing between two massive stone lions, facing each other across the walkway. The late afternoon light was broken and made the lions look as freckled as Owen Bramley.
He unbuttoned his shirt and reached inside for something. “Carolina Covington gave this to me for me to give to you. I told her I would, but until now, I never knew how.” He grinned again and handed me a letter. It was coffee-stained and wrinkled, but still sealed and intact. There was only one thing scratched across the back. “Z.”
I know of nothing more treasured than a letter from someone you love. Its very presence has power. I held the letter from Carolina as if it were older and rarer than the bones of the one who had carved the stone lions I was standing between. I was astonished. I couldn’t move. I looked up at Owen Bramley.
“How did you. when were you. what are you doing here?” I stammered.
He laughed and took his glasses off, wiping them clean.
“I met her in St. Louis while visiting Solomon,” he said. “A remarkable woman, that one. When I told her I was coming to China, she took me in her confidence and entrusted me with the letter. She was ecstatic that I might see you, though privately, as I told you, I had my doubts. Anyway, there you are and here I am. How are you. progressing?”
“There are good days and bad,” I said, trying to be honest, but having no real way to answer him. “Why are you in China? I know it’s not just to find me.”
“Actually, I came as a favor for my parents to begin with, but now it has turned into something else. We have relatives, my aunt and uncle, the Reverend William and Daphne Croft from Cornwall, who moved to China thirty years ago as missionaries. When my parents heard the rumors of this uprising in China and that Christian missionaries were being slaughtered by the Boxers or whatever these hooligans are called, they asked me if I would help get the Crofts out of China. Of course I said I would, but I had no idea I’d be taking out twenty-nine children as well.” He paused for a moment and looked toward the train, which was close to being repaired. “Z, as a foreigner, you should be very careful in China these days. It is dangerous and it’s going to get worse. There may be a war.”
“The Chinese think we’re Tibetan Buddhists,” I said.
“Just don’t slip up. These Boxers are fanatics. I don’t trust a one of them. Tz’u-hsi, the Empress Dowager, thinks they might bring the old China back with their lunatic magic. She might be as crazy as they are. Anyway, it’s time to leave China, not stay. Have you thought about it?”
“No, it’s not possible. We still have unfinished business. But tell me, how is Pello and. how did Eder take the news?”
Just then, Sailor seemed to appear out of nowhere and walked up beside us. He acknowledged Owen Bramley with a nod and said, “Please, go on.”
Owen Bramley hesitated for a moment. Then he answered. “Pello is fine. He walks with a limp, but he is well and back at Kepa’s.” He turned to face Sailor directly. “Eder is. brokenhearted. Kepa said she is well, but very sad. However, Ray is with her and Nova keeps them both very much alive.”
Sailor looked down at the cracks between the ancient paving stones, then up to Owen Bramley. “Good,” he said.
The train blew its whistle long and loud, signaling that the repairs were finished and it was time to board. We all looked in the direction of the children and they were frantically trying to pull in their kites. Geaxi was standing next to the boy Owen Bramley had handed his kite to earlier. They were both looking our way, the boy almost frozen, like one of the stone lions.
We started back toward the train. Owen Bramley said, “Listen, Z, I have a contact, don’t ask me who or how, but it’s the best, inside the Forbidden City, inside the imperial palace itself. If I ever have to reach you outside normal channels, I will use this contact and I guarantee you will get my message. How soon is another matter.”
We reached the train and it was five minutes of Chinese chaos gathering kites, counting the children, and making sure all were back on the train. The boy Geaxi was standing by barely moved the whole time and seemed to be transfixed by me. In five more minutes, they were all accounted for and the train steamed forward toward the hills and eventually Tsingtao. Owen Bramley waved once. The same boy leaned out of his window and stared at me until the train was completely out of sight. I turned to Geaxi and said, “Who was that kid? And why was he staring at
A mischievous grin was spreading across Geaxi’s face. “His name is Willie Croft,” she said, “and I told him you were Buddha.”
Sailor chuckled and we all stood there, staring up the empty tracks and listening to the last echoes of the disappearing train. Six hours later, I was on a cot in the monastery and I tore open Carolina’s letter. By candlelight, I read it slowly, five times.
My only Z,
I am writing to you, hoping and praying this will reach you. Solomon said not to worry, that Owen Bramley would somehow accomplish the task. He is a nice man and told me as he took the letter that it would not leave his person until he handed it to you. If you are reading this, then our luck still holds and he has found you.
I ache for you, for your presence, but not in a sad or painful way. I am so happy, Z, I feel so wonderful I am about to burst with joy.
I have met a man, a good man, a man I can love. I know you would approve. He is a sportswriter for the Post and loves baseball. And me, of course!
I met him out of the blue while attending a game at Sportsman’s Park (the Cardinals need pitching, by the way). Solomon and I have got box seats and season tickets, but that day I was alone. In the third inning, he simply sat down, unasked and unannounced, and passed me a box of Cracker Jacks, never taking his eyes off the field. I never said a word, nor did he, and I was in love by the fifth inning. That was last year. I would have written to you sooner, but I wanted to wait, wait and see if what I felt was real. It is real, Z, and now I have even more wonderful news. I found out the day before yesterday I am going to have a baby. A baby, Z! Can you believe it? And I always thought you were the crazy one.
God, I wish you were here. I have so much more to tell you, so much I wish I could share with you. I pray every day that you are well and will remain so. I do miss you terribly. I even think Georgia misses you, wherever she is. I don’t hear her playing as often as I used to.
From my heart of hearts,
PS. His name is Nicholas and the “business” is doing well, thank you very much.
That letter cleansed my soul and cleared a dark window I’d been afraid to look through. I’d thought of her so often, worried and wondered, and now I knew. I was overjoyed for her. I carried that letter and read it every day for six months. It became a talisman, a lucky charm, and it served me well.
Owen Bramley was right about war. Through June, July, and August, there was a war, of sorts. They called it the Boxer Rebellion, but it was really an ineffectual attempt by China to stave off the inevitable. China was an old woman falling down and the Western powers were going to help her, not to get up, but to stay down. The Boxers and their belief in old magic and the notion that bullets would turn away from their holy bodies as they killed Christians were only crazy examples of China’s refusal to accept change, both good and bad, especially the imperial family and the “Old Buddha.” The Boxers could be dangerous, however, and we tried to avoid them. And cities. And trains. Sailor said the Meq had no place in Giza politics and their penchant for barbarism and war. I said what about the Fleur-du-Mal and Sailor said that was what made him “aberrant.”
We did learn something, however, as a result of an encounter with the Boxers. We were in the remote province of Kansu following another “clue” about Zeru-Meq’s whereabouts. It was long after the “Rebellion,” late 1901, and these Boxers were on their own, no longer connected to anything political or even righteous. They were roaming and raiding, murdering and torturing at random in the poorest towns and villages of Kansu. In all our years in China, it was the first time we were forced to reveal ourselves as Meq.
We had stopped to rest at a small inn and get some relief from a bitter wind that seemed never to stop blowing. The Boxers arrived suddenly, maybe thirty in all, and a few came inside and ordered the innkeeper to give them whatever they wanted or be dealt with as a nonbeliever. They wore the symbolic red sashes and turbans they were known for, but theirs were old, tattered, and stained. Outside, the rest of them were noisily torturing some poor innocent. They were calling their victim a “liberal old crow” and we could hear the high-pitched screams as the Boxers delivered their blows.
In a very few minutes, whether it was the immediate situation or an accumulation of our years in China and the futility of our search, I don’t know, but Geaxi had had enough. She was out of the back door and up on the roof in a matter of seconds. Sailor and I followed, but neither of us was as quick as Geaxi. When we got to her, she was on the edge of the roof looking down on the Boxers and the beating that was taking place. She had the small, pitted black rock, the Stone, in her hand. I took mine out as Sailor and I came up beside her. With just a glance toward me and a nod, she looked back down on the Boxers. We both raised our hands and spoke low in unison, “Hear ye, hear ye now, Giza!
The Boxers were carrying everything from ax handles and homemade swords to government-issue carbines. They laid them all down immediately and walked away. In less than a minute, they were gone in five different directions. Sailor stared at us in mute fascination. This was the first time in twenty-six centuries he had seen the Stones used without the gems.
We climbed down the front of the building into the little courtyard surrounding the inn. The person the Boxers had been beating sat huddled against the wall and trembling. It was a man, but as Sailor approached him he let out a piercing, high-pitched screech like a crow. And as I approached, I could smell something foul about him, not from lack of hygiene, but something else. He was a eunuch and, judging from the robes he was wearing, an imperial eunuch. He, and thousands like him, had run the daily palace affairs and served at court for centuries. They were known, at least some of them, to be masters of deceit and intrigue. Eunuchs like him, who sounded like crows, were usually castrated after puberty. Others had a softer tone and had probably been castrated as children. The Boxers hated them and blamed them for a long list of imperial wrongdoings, especially the liberal ones who believed in Western influence.
Sailor stopped and told him not to be afraid. He looked at Sailor, still trembling, and in Mandarin replied that he was not afraid, he was thankful, and he had screamed only because an ancient legend and rumor in the imperial palace had now come true. Sailor asked him what that was and he told of a tale that had been passed among the eunuchs down the years. That Li Lien-ying, the chief eunuch, and the Empress Dowager herself, Tz’u-hsi, harbored a girl, a girl with Western features who was known for her powerful presence, sexual and otherwise, even though she was physically immature herself. And she supposedly had a hypnotic effect on others whenever she wanted them to stop what they were doing. The legend held that she was called the “Hare” and sometimes the “Jade Hare.” He said that when he heard us and saw the Boxers leave it was the same thing.
Sailor looked to Geaxi and then to me, barely suppressing a grin. We knew the “Hare” had to be Opari.
We helped the man up and he gathered his sensibilities, then departed in a flurry to who knows where. On the spot, we discussed if our search for Zeru-Meq should continue or whether we should go to Peking and explore other avenues. Sailor said we should keep looking for Zeru-Meq. “Without him,” he said, “we will get nowhere in Peking. If Opari is behind an imperial gate, Zeru-Meq will know the gatekeeper.” Geaxi and I reluctantly agreed.
After that, we stepped up our search, traveling faster and resting less. We covered Honan province and Hupei to the south. We doubled back through Shensi and north as far as Ningsia. At every stop, whether riverfront opium den or mountaintop shrine, Sailor thought we had learned something, inched a bit closer, or didn’t have long to go. He had started asking certain questions in a certain way, so that he could read between the lines of the answer and anticipate Zeru-Meq’s movements. The longer we kept at it, the more obsessed he became.
For two more years we searched in vain. Then, in a remote Taoist monastery near Yushu, at the far west end of Szechwan, not far from Tibet, which was supposed to be our country of origin, we gave up.
It happened suddenly. After our arrival and a few inquiries, we were taken back to the kitchen and shown an ancient slab-oak table, twelve feet long and four feet wide. We were told it was used for everything from the preparation and serving of food to communal meetings and prayer. On the far end and carved into the edge was a poem. We were informed, after asking, that it had been written “the day before yesterday.” It read:
The oyster folds over the Pearl
The Hare stays put in the nest
Your steps are loud
Your thoughts are thunder
Why do you still hunt?
Sailor turned bright red and pounded his fist on the table. The monk who had shown us the carving jumped back and then excused himself, not knowing how to respond to such a violent reaction. Then, just as suddenly, Sailor broke into laughter, loud and long, more than I’d ever heard him laugh before. When he stopped, he said, “This game is over. I will not play any longer. Do either of you have anything else in mind? Anything will do. We must try something else.”
I suggested we go to Peking and cable Unai and Usoa. They might know something of Zeru-Meq through the movements of the Fleur-du-Mal. While we were waiting for their reply, we could try and find a hint of Opari. What could we lose except time?
Geaxi agreed and Sailor was open to anything. The next day we started on the long trip to Peking. It was spring of 1904 and we had been after Zeru-Meq for almost eight years.
We traveled by train as often as we could. Now that our priorities had changed, we were anxious to get to Peking. We were silent for hours on end. I think all three of us were disillusioned, but when we did speak, I noticed Sailor was much more pleasant. We watched the vastness of China pass around us, and in our Buddhist robes we probably looked more like the young monks we were supposed to be than we ever had.
When we were still a good distance from Peking, maybe two hundred miles, the train made an unscheduled stop close to Ta T’ung and near the ancient Y?n Kang caves that contained thousands of Buddha statues, images, and carvings. We were there for at least twenty minutes and outside I heard men shouting and yelling while they loaded something heavy into a car farther down the train. People inside were grumbling about the delay, but once we got going, everyone settled back into the stupor of a long train ride.
I was dozing myself when I was suddenly jolted awake by a boy falling into me. He was carrying an armful of umbrellas and he fell across my lap and rolled into the seat next to me, forcing Geaxi to squeeze up against the window. He never once dropped the umbrellas, holding them with both arms in front of him like a bundle of trees. I couldn’t see his face, but he was apologizing profusely in Chinese. Sailor was sitting across from us, facing the boy. Then the boy began placing the umbrellas between his knees, lowering them one at a time. After two or three, Sailor could see his face.
“It is not so,” Sailor said. “Please, say it is not so.”
The boy lowered the rest of his umbrellas and I could see his face. He had curly black hair, green eyes, and he was definitely Meq.
Geaxi laughed out loud.
Geaxi, still laughing, said, “And five lights shine at the birth of every Buddha.”
The boy laughed along with Geaxi and said, “I am afraid I am out of salt,” then he looked directly at Sailor and said, “Hello, old one.”
Sailor stared back at him and without taking his eyes off the boy said, “Zianno Zezen, meet Zeru-Meq.”
The boy turned and focused his concentration on me. He looked me over thoroughly. “I did not know your father,” he said, “but I knew your grandfather. A tragedy.” Then he nodded toward Sailor. “Did this old wanderer tell you I was ‘unpredictable’?”
I looked at Sailor, who was shaking his head. “Actually, he said you were ‘completely unpredictable.’ ”
Zeru-Meq started laughing again and trying to find a place to put his umbrellas, as if we had all been planning to meet and he was just a little late.
Sailor said, “Why now? Why here? What’s the point?”
“The point is, old one,” Zeru-Meq said, finally putting up the last of his umbrellas, “that to find something while one is still looking is to lose it, but to find something after one has stopped looking, that is discovery. Anyway, it is I who need your help at the present. We can discuss your needs later. Do you still carry those wonderful Stones?”
Sailor, Geaxi, and I all glanced at one another, unsure of how much information we wanted to share. Sailor solved it, saying simply, “Yes.”
Zeru-Meq said “very well,” and went on to tell us that during the decay of the Ch’ing dynasty, open vandalism and looting were taking place at many sacred temples and shrines such as Y?n Kang, which we had just passed. That was why the train had stopped, he said, to pick up stolen heads from several statues of Buddha to sell to foreign museums and art collectors. Zeru-Meq said this was an abomination to him. He told Sailor that just outside Peking, where the shrine robbers had planned their drop-off, he had planned his own pickup. Once they had unloaded their sacred contraband, if we could make the scoundrels “forget,” then his men would be there to return the heads to their rightful owners in Y?n Kang. He also said that doing this would make Sailor “feel better.”
Geaxi stifled a giggle and we all agreed to help. Sailor was silent for most of the remaining journey, but I spoke to Zeru-Meq about many things and in the course of our conversation brought up the Fleur-du-Mal. I asked him what he was capable of and, straight out, if he had heard from or seen him recently.
He looked at me openly and smiled. He had the same brilliant white teeth as the Fleur-du-Mal, and his eyes were the same deep green, but there the similarities ended. I sensed no evil in Zeru-Meq.
“The Fleur-du-Mal,” he said, “is a righteous man. He does only one thing based on one way of thinking — that which is forbidden. He is not a grand thief or even a good murderer. He is a common man, as clear as a mountain stream, only he does not think he appears this way because of his obsession with the forbidden. If starving were forbidden, he would never eat another egg. The Fleur-du-Mal, Xanti Otso, is a pilgrim. A sad, dangerous pilgrim.”
“But have you seen him in the last eight years?” Geaxi asked.
“No,” he said, “I have not spoken with him since the 1860s.”
I thought about this and what Sailor had said about the Fleur-du-Mal and his habits. I glanced at Sailor to see his reaction, but he was staring out of the window.
We arrived at the station Zeru-Meq had said was the rendezvous point around dusk. A strong wind, laden with grit and sand, was blowing out of the west. Our plan was simple: surround the scene of the exchange at three equidistant positions and use each of our Stones together, simultaneously mouthing the words the way Geaxi and I had done at Kansu. In a matter of minutes it was done and Zeru-Meq had all the Buddha heads carefully loaded into two-wheeled peasant carts and “his men” discreetly hauled them away and back to the caves of Y?n Kang. The other men, the thieves, wandered off aimlessly.
Later, Zeru-Meq mentioned that he hadn’t seen any gems imbedded in either my or Geaxi’s Stones, only in Sailor’s, yet they all seemed to work as they always had. He asked Sailor about it and Sailor was silent. He smiled and said, “This puts things slightly askew, doesn’t it, old one?”
Sailor finally said, “You know what we seek, Zeru-Meq. And you know we would never ask for your help if there were any other means. Will you help us find Opari?”
“If I had not seen what I just saw with the Stones, I would say no. And I have always thought you and the others were wasting your time with your fixation on the Remembering. We are who we are. The Remembering will not change that.”
“You have your opinion,” Sailor said.
“Yes, I have,” Zeru-Meq said and paused a moment. “Anyway, I can only arrange an audience with Li Lien-ying, the chief eunuch, and even then, an audience of only one. Three would never be allowed. Once inside the Forbidden City, whoever it is will be on their own. I would be very careful. Li Lien-ying and Tz’u-hsi herself are the only ones that know of Opari and another one with her called the ‘Pearl.’ They are very jealous of their magic children and protect them accordingly.”
We entered Peking and I saw everything from dogs and children sharing the same scraps of food in the street to wide avenues lined with peach trees in full bloom.
Zeru-Meq helped us locate rooms near the Forbidden City and we finally took off our Tibetan Buddhist robes for good. There seemed to be hundreds of thousands of children on their own in Peking and four more like us would alert no one.
That night, it was decided that I would be the one to visit Li Lien-ying. I was still convinced that it was Opari’s heartfear that made her vulnerable and her heartfear was me. “Why” was a question I couldn’t answer. All those years in China and I hadn’t heard one voice or dreamed one dream that made anything any clearer. But I was excited. I knew I was close. There were only a few miles separating us that night and I knew that soon even that gap would be closed.
The next day, Sailor went to cable Unai and Usoa. No matter what happened in Peking, he wanted news of the Fleur-du-Mal. Zeru-Meq went to arrange the audience with Li Lien-ying. He said it could take five minutes or five hours. There was no way to know until it was done. Geaxi and I began to walk around the Forbidden City, but the wind was still full of grit and sand and we returned to our rooms. It was odd. Whole years had swept by me, barely noticed or counted, and now a few hours seemed a lifetime. I was nervous. Geaxi laughed at me and said, “The one thing you should be able to do, and do well, is wait.”
Sailor returned at about four in the afternoon, saying only, “Peking has lost its charm.” Zeru-Meq arrived at six and said I was to be outside the east gate at eight o’clock sharp. An audience had been accepted. He said he had had to give my name, it was required, and the truth seemed most appropriate. He said “the truth” from now on would be my ally; it was so rarely heard inside the walls of the Forbidden City.
We had tea together at a small caf? as the sun was going down and the wind with it. Outside, however, the Peking traffic remained constant. Sailor went over everything I should say to Opari if the chance arose and reminded me that I would be the first to do this. “Do not be the last,” he said.
I was met at the gate by four eunuchs, two in front to escort me and two behind for no reason other than ceremony and ritual, the way it had always been done.
We walked through the massive gate and along the wall to another smaller gate, through that and across a courtyard into a large hall with two huge doors, painted a brilliant vermilion. All around the building were hundreds of intricately carved lattice windows. Inside, there was electric light, which somehow seemed incongruous.
I was handed over to four other eunuchs in slightly more elaborate dress and led down a corridor alongside the hall. It must have been the living quarters for hundreds, maybe thousands, of eunuchs. The same sour odor of decay I had detected in Kansu was overwhelming.
At the end of the hall, we crossed another courtyard and I was left alone on the steps of a smaller, but just as magnificent, structure. It was a two-story pavilion with stone dragon heads peering over the upturned corners of the roof.
The building was dark inside and around me the sounds of Peking were only a distant murmur. The door opened gently and a small man asked me politely in English to come in.
It was deathly quiet. I followed him to the center of the large room where a man was standing with his back to me: a tall man, taller than any of the other eunuchs I had seen. He was standing beside an ancient cherry and teak wood desk with a single candle on top. It was the only furniture in the room. The small man moved slightly to the side, into the shadows. I was not introduced, so I stood where I was, waiting.
The tall man said something in Chinese I couldn’t quite catch. His voice was high-pitched, but not the screech of a crow The small man spoke immediately after, interpreting. “Your name is Zezen, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said, speaking to the tall man.
He spoke again, still with his back to me, and the small man interpreted. “Is it Zianno Zezen?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you know a man, a Chinese man, named Po?”
I thought for a moment, trying to place all the names with all the faces I’d seen in China. Then, I thought again. “I know a man named Li who used to be called Po. He lives in America with a friend of mine.”
“Then our meeting is most fortuitous,” he said, turning around as the small man was translating.
“I am—” he started, then caught his breath in his throat and his eyes widened slightly. He was startled at seeing me and I thought if he had known of the Meq, then he hadn’t known many. He composed himself and continued. “I am Li Lien-ying, chief eunuch for the imperial court of Ch’ing, and please tell me, how is my cousin?”
I almost laughed out loud, but managed to keep a straight face. “Li, I mean Po, is your cousin?”
“Yes, my first cousin on my mother’s side. We would have starved as children if it had not been for his family. He has always been opposed to my chosen profession, but I have always owed him a debt of gratitude. I have promised to deliver what was given to me.”
I was confused. I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You mean, you will take me to Opari?” I asked.
At the mention of Opari, he was genuinely surprised and looked down on me with a cruel, paranoid stare. “No, no,” he said rapidly. “That would be impossible.”
“Then what did you promise to deliver?”
“This!” he said and pulled open a drawer in the desk, drawing out a letter and handing it to me.
I looked at it. It was very familiar. There was nothing written on the side facing up and I turned it over. In the middle, scratched in black ink, was a single letter. “Z.”
I ripped it open and read it by the light of the single candle.
Z, my only Z, please get this! I am afraid. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who else to tell. I have seen the evil one, the one that killed Georgia and Mrs. Bennings. I saw him in the French Pavilion at the World’s Fair. And he saw me!! I had my baby with me, Z, and he gave me a look that was like a knife in the chest. I am so frightened. I know he will do something, I can feel it, but what? And when? I can’t bear this with my baby around, Z. I am more afraid for her than me. Please, Z, I don’t know what you can do, but you are the only one who understands. The only one. I pray this gets to you.
I looked up and glared at the chief eunuch. “When did you get this?”
He looked over at the small man, as if to confirm it, and said, “The day before yesterday.”
At that moment, the door to the large room opened and in the darkness we could hear the rustle of robes followed by a sharp command in Chinese. Li Lien-ying and the small man stood frozen in their slippers.
Shuffling toward us with tiny steps and gradually becoming visible was an old woman dressed in a priceless robe of yellow, orange, and purple. Embroidered with seed pearls and coral, it was covered with ideograms and images of bats and dragons. A girl about my size, with a translucent scarf over her head for a veil, accompanied the old woman and held her arm gently. It was Tz’u-hsi herself, the Empress Dowager of China.
She stopped not three feet in front of me. Behind me, Li Lien-ying said, “Good evening, madam.”
She stared at me, up and down, as if I were an exotic animal. “It was,” she said, “until We were informed of certain proceedings. We would think that We would be informed when such a special guest is in Our midst.”
She tried to smile at me, but the right side of her face sagged and her eye and cheek began to twitch violently. She turned away from me and barked, “Why does this ‘magic child’ come to Us?”
Li Lien-ying answered, “He seeks one of his own kind, madam.”
Still hiding her face from me, Tz’u-hsi said, “And who would that be?”
“Opari,” I said.
“Silence!” Li Lien-ying yelled.
Tz’u-hsi raised her hand and said, “There is no need for that.” Then she reached over and lifted the scarf from the girl’s head and revealed her face. She was Meq. She had green eyes. She was somehow familiar. “This is Opari,” Tz’u-hsi said. “Tell her what you seek.”
I looked down at the letter I was still holding in my hand. Suddenly all I could think was “I may be too late. I’ve got to get there.” Then, I thought I heard a bird crashing against the lattice windows, somewhere in the darkness. It was loud and I looked all around me, but no one else seemed to hear. I looked at the girl who was staring back at me, expressionless. There was something about her, something in the eyes. Then it made sense.
“You’re the ‘Pearl,’ aren’t you?” I asked her. She took a slight step back. “But your real name is Zuriaa, isn’t it? You’re Ray’s sister!”
The girl’s eyes opened wide and her pupils rolled up and disappeared in the back of her head. She fainted and fell at Tz’u-hsi’s feet.
Li Lien-ying let out a piercing cat scream and Tz’u-hsi shouted into the darkness, “Seize him!” Hidden doors that looked like windows opened on all sides and government soldiers with rifles and long-robed eunuchs with swords started toward me. I reached into my pocket as slowly and casually as I could. I felt the Stone in my palm, cold and solid. I turned first to Li Lien-ying, whom I knew would have a weapon. He was pulling a long stiletto out of his brocaded sleeve and I raised my fist with the Stone in it. In a droning cadence that was loud enough to fill the room, I said, “Hear ye! Hear ye now, Giza! All stop now!”
I looked in Li Lien-ying’s eyes, and where they had been burning into me a moment ago, there was now a softness, a dullness, staring back. He dropped the stiletto and I started backing away, looking around me and trying to find the door and still chanting, “
The soldiers dropped their rifles and stopped in their tracks. The eunuchs let their swords fall. Tz’u-hsi was kneeling over the girl and seemed somehow unaffected. She watched me turn and walk through the dreaming soldiers, more in wonder than fear.
I hurried out of the door and into the courtyard, stopping for a moment to locate the large hall of the eunuchs. Every building looked the same. I was lost. I started to pick any path, any direction, then I dropped Carolina’s letter and bent to pick it up. Before I could, I heard the Whisper.
It was soft but strong, like incense or perfume. It had texture. It had fingers and stroked my hair and touched my eyes. I breathed it. It filled my heart and mind with mist and musk. It spoke no word. It said no name, but it was speaking to me, as it always had, as it always would.
I looked up and from behind a life-size statue of some forgotten emperor she stepped out in a plain blue silk robe. She was my height and looked about twelve years old. Her hair was black and cut straight at the shoulders. Her eyes were dark and set wide over high, round cheekbones. Her nose was short and round at the tip. Her eyebrows were as black as her hair and thick. She wore no earrings, but her robe had an open neck and I could see a necklace with the Stones attached, sparkling in the lamplight. I could see the vein in her neck throbbing and I could feel her heart beating from where I stood. I could see her lips, her beautiful lips, tremble.
I knew two things instantly. I knew she was Opari and I knew she was my Ameq.
I heard men shouting somewhere and saw more lights coming on. I heard a deep ringing bell from another courtyard, an alarm of some kind. I knew there was no time. Not here. Not now. I picked up the letter and glanced at her just once more. She moved her lips and mouthed one word. “Beloved.”
I turned and ran, climbing over rock gardens and under bridges like Geaxi, racing through halls as fast as Ray. I was lost, but kept running until I found a gate that was still open with several foreign diplomats and their wives straggling through. I lost myself among them and, once outside, lost myself on the streets of Peking.
One day later, I was in Tientsin, and two days later, I was on board a ship bound for San Francisco. I had spoken to no one. I could only keep thinking, “I may be too late. I’ve got to get there.” And then another thought occurred to me. I was already hundreds of miles from Opari, from my Ameq, and I had only met her the day before yesterday.
10. GURPIL (WHEEL)
The tramp steamer
In a split second, I had felt her inside me, felt it in my chest physically, and everything I had ever thought about this world changed forever, because now I knew she was in it. It was the most urgent and powerful feeling I had ever felt.
On the long crossing, I watched the spray of ocean as our ship cut through the Pacific, I stared at a rose in the old-fashioned wallpaper of my cabin, I looked up at the bright star Vega, shining at the top of the night sky, and only thought of Opari, only saw her eyes and her trembling lips. I could still hear the whisper, as you would a gentle, familiar voice waking you from a long and unsettling dream. Thoughts of Opari ran parallel or intersected with every thought I had. I understood why the Itxaron and the power behind it was so difficult to describe. It would be like trying to tell someone who only lived in the desert about the effects of a flood. And still I went east, away from her, toward St. Louis, toward Carolina. There are two things you are never prepared for: suddenly finding love and suddenly losing love.
I knew Sailor and Geaxi would have no way of knowing what had happened, and Zeru-Meq would have to call in many favors and ask endless questions, perhaps ultimately to find no answers. Whatever had happened inside the Forbidden City would have to be explained later.
Coming into San Francisco, I had the same anxiety and fear I’d had years earlier approaching New Orleans with Captain Woodget, only this time my fear had a specific name and face. The Fleur-du-Mal was a killer. I knew that now and I was determined that he had to be stopped. I knew who he was and I knew what he was and my fear increased with every passing second, because now I knew where he was.
I made it through customs with only a slight delay due to the fact that I was unattended and had no luggage. I told a long and pathetic story about my missionary parents and their wish to get me out of China as fast as possible to the United States and a Chinese Christian family in San Francisco that was to take care of me. I even spoke a little Chinese at one point and gave him Owen Bramley’s name as an American reference. I was in the country and at the train station within an hour. I thought about trying to reach Owen Bramley and decided against it. I thought about wiring Solomon and Carolina to tell them I was coming and decided against that too. It was best, this time especially, that I come unannounced. If something had already happened, then I would find out soon enough. If something was about to happen, if Carolina was being stalked, then the best way to stop it would be to stalk the stalker. I didn’t know how the Fleur-du-Mal “worked” or what he had in mind, but I could find out from a distance. Then, I could stop him forever, if I had to.
I boarded the first train with connections all the way to St. Louis using a similar story on the conductor that I’d used in customs. It worked again and I was able to gain free passage all the way through. He put me in a cabin “for looking after” with an unusual family of three also traveling to St. Louis. There were two men, one very old and one middle-aged, and a woman of about thirty. They were Ainu, an ancient people from northern Japan who are unique in their own right. They have Caucasian features, some are said even to have blue eyes, and the men have heavy, thick beards. No one knows why they are the way they are or where they originally came from. I felt an immediate kinship based solely on isolation and survival. The conductor told me they were part of an entire contingent of Ainu living in the grounds of the World’s Fair. “Some promoter’s idea,” he said, “they got people from all over kingdom come living there.” He told me the woman spoke very limited English and the two men hadn’t said a word in any language. They all wore brightly colored tunics and wide trousers covered in simple but beautiful patterns. The woman watched me take my seat and made a slight bow with her head. I nodded back. The two men stared impassively out of the window. I followed their gaze and we stayed that way for hours. Together, we watched the twentieth century in the Western world pass by us for the first time. I thought about what Sailor had said, deep in China on the eve of the twentieth century. “We must look out for this century,” he said. “Our kind must adapt quickly. The Giza are shrinking the world with their inventions in communications and travel and they have only just begun. Our old ways must change or we will be swept away, obliterated and forgotten. It will be very difficult for many of us, but we must do it or none of us will live long enough to see the Remembering. The twentieth century, if we are not alert, could be the extinction of children such as us.” Going east, I watched the cities, farms, faces, fashions, noises, and spaces and I knew he was right. Especially, thinking of Baju and the Fleur-du-Mal, if we were going to kill our own kind.
The two men never spoke the entire journey, neither to me nor to the woman. She offered me a rice cake once in silence and I accepted in silence. Twice I exchanged glances with the older man, once while passing through Colorado and once while crossing the Meramec River, just before we arrived in St. Louis. As we were preparing to leave, the old man whispered something to the woman. It sounded like a series of low belches. She looked over at me and in very broken English said, “Grandfather say you have very old eyes for so young one.”
I looked at the old man. He was looking out of the window at the traffic in Union Station. I said, “Tell Grandfather he has very young eyes for so old one.”
We bowed to each other a final time and I thought I saw a trace of a smile on her face.
I stepped from the train and was hit by a wall of heat and humidity. I had almost forgotten the infamous St. Louis summer. There were people everywhere speaking in a dozen different English accents and in another dozen foreign. St. Louis had always been a hub for railroad and river traffic, but now it was the center of a wheel of international culture and commerce. The World’s Fair was in St. Louis and St. Louis had attracted the world.
I tried to focus and concentrate. It had only been eight years, but for some reason I was disoriented and walked aimlessly through the crowd. The men all seemed to wear the same flat-topped straw hats and the women all had parasols, which reminded me of the last time I’d seen Carolina in her yellow dress with her yellow parasol in hand. I kept thinking the same thought I’d had for weeks—“I may be too late.” I felt dizzy and couldn’t catch my breath. I made my way the best I could through the noise and bustle and finally came to a halt, slumped against a cool marble wall. I let my head fall back and closed my eyes. What was wrong with me? Was it the heat? I tried to relax and breathe deeply. Somewhere in the back of all the noise in Union Station, I heard music and the unique sounds of a calliope. I opened my eyes and walked toward it. I passed under the Whispering Arch and looked up at the cavernous ceiling. There were no birds flying. Beyond the arch and in the open was a small carousel crowded with children and their families all around. As the calliope played, the children rode in a circle on painted lions, tigers, giraffes, and elephants. Vendors on either side sold pins, ribbons, and flags announcing St. Louis and the World’s Fair. The strange, hypnotic sound of the calliope drew me closer. I looked at the faces of the children on the carousel. One had Opari’s nose and lips. Another had her eyes and eyebrows. Still another had her hair and lips again. She was everywhere. I saw Opari in a part of every child in front of me. My temples throbbed and my breath caught again. I turned and looked back through the arch and saw something else, something I never expected, something that brought my mind into focus instantly. I walked back toward what I saw. I wondered how close I could get without being seen or felt. I didn’t get far. Still thirty feet from them, they stopped what they were doing, turned in unison, and stared at me. They stood next to a woman speaking in rapid French to several porters at once. They wore loose black trousers tucked into leather boots laced to the knees. Both had white cotton shirts with broad collars. I smiled at them. Unai and Usoa smiled back.
They nodded toward a shoeshine stand next to the wall and I walked over to meet them. I could see the outline of the Stones with the gems still intact under Unai’s shirt. Usoa still wore the blue diamond in her ear. We stood three feet apart and looked at each other in silence. The shoeshine boy, who was about our size and busy with a customer, glanced over at us. He looked at our faces for a moment, astounded by our similarities, but then looked down in obvious admiration of Unai’s boots, which were of the highest grade leather and craftsmanship and polished to a high sheen. He looked up again and shouted over to Unai, “Man, where did you get those?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Unai turned and said, “In Barcelona, after the Romans left.” The boy turned back to his customer laughing and repeating the words, “Right, right.”
Unai turned to me. “
“Hello, Unai. Were you expecting me?”
Before he could answer, Usoa grabbed my hand and said, “You do not look well, Zianno. Are you all right?”
I looked at her. How many years now since I’d seen them? Ten? Eleven? She was exactly the same, only now she wore barrettes in her hair similar to the ones Eder had worn. I was still amazed by us, by the Meq. “I am fine, Usoa. Exhausted perhaps, but fine.”
“I suppose coincidence occurs, even for the Meq,” Unai said, “but this is extraordinary. What brings you here, Zianno?”
I looked in his eyes, and Usoa’s, and saw a blend of honesty and uncertainty. “How much do you know?” I asked.
Unai grabbed the front of his shirt, holding the Stones tightly. “We know about this,” he said, “and we know about Baju. We thought you were somewhere in China with Sailor and Geaxi.”
“Then you haven’t heard from them recently?”
“No,” Usoa said. “We have been in St. Louis for two months with the woman, Isabelle, and watching another.”
“Another?” I asked. “Do you mean the Fleur-du-Mal?”
She paused a moment or two. “Yes,” she said.
Instinctively, I looked around as if I might catch him darting between parasols and luggage. “Have you seen him?” I blurted out. “Has he done anything? Has he harmed. anyone?”
They exchanged a look between them, one that held a world of information. It was a look that I’d seen pass between Mama and Papa, between Baju and Eder. A look that held the deepest possible trust in each other and one that I thought I’d glimpsed in the eyes of Opari.
“He has gone,” they said in unison. “He harmed no one, not even your Carolina Covington.”
“You know Carolina?”
“We know of her,” Unai said, “and of her sister’s tragedy.”
I looked hard at them both. I was slightly dizzy and my breathing was shallow. “He must be stopped,” I said.
“He will be,” Unai said, “at the proper time. ”
“And in the proper manner,” Usoa finished.
I looked over to the scene of the woman still struggling with the porters in rapid French. She was craning her neck, searching for Unai and Usoa.
“Is that Isabelle?” I asked. If it was, she had not fared well through the years. She was made up like a clown and had dyed her hair red.
“Yes,” Usoa said. “Sad, is it not?”
“Yes, it is,” was all I could manage.
“You know, old Captain Woodget is still her escort, after a fashion. He retired from the sea and lives across Lake Pontchartrain. He visits her twice a month and spends the rest of his time in his garden. A quite beautiful one, I am told.”
I was glad to hear Captain Woodget’s name and that he was alive and well. He had helped and taught me a great deal. I let the moments pass in silence, a state in which Unai and Usoa were most comfortable. They were old ones. They had survived a very long time on will, sharp wit, and the love they shared. It was strong and carried its own presence. I couldn’t believe they had not yet crossed in the Zeharkatu. I looked them both in the eye before I said it.
“I have found Opari.”
They drew in a quick breath. Together, they whispered, “Where?”
“It is complicated, very complicated. More than you know, more than I can explain.”
“But then, that brings me back to my initial question,” Unai said. “Why are you here?”
“That also is complicated, but the answer is the Fleur-du-Mal. I will not let him kill again. It’s as simple as that.”
Unai looked at Usoa, then put his hand on my shoulder. “It will not happen here, my friend. Be certain of that. Whatever ‘business’ the Fleur-du-Mal had in St. Louis, it is concluded. We have reports he is already back in New Orleans.”
He paused a moment and Usoa continued. “Enjoy your visit to St. Louis, Zianno. Then come to New Orleans and tell us of Opari and we will discuss what to do with the Fleur-du-Mal, once and for all.”
Just then, the shoeshine boy yelled over at Unai, “One of y’all better get back over to that lady before she gets arrested!”
Isabelle was frantic and both Unai and Usoa turned to leave and rescue her. Unai said once more, “The Fleur-du-Mal is in New Orleans, Zianno. We will watch him closely. Adieu.”
They walked back to Isabelle and the porters, arrangements were made and tempers cooled, and they were gone, nodding to me ever so slightly as they walked toward the trains. I looked over at the shoeshine boy who watched it all with little expression. “What’s your name?” I yelled.
“Mitch,” he yelled back. “Mitchell Ithaca Coates. What’s yours?”
“Z,” I hollered over my shoulder. I was already on my way to Carolina’s. No detours, no waiting. I sneaked on a streetcar at Lindell Boulevard and took it west toward Forest Park. The streetcar was packed. Most of the World’s Fair was being staged in Forest Park and I overheard a passenger say a hundred thousand people a day were going to the Fair. I picked up a discarded newspaper and read the sports page, trying to stay calm. If everything Unai had told me was true, and I had no reason to doubt him, then Carolina was safe and well. I was not too late! But I had to see her in the flesh to know for myself. I wanted to hear her voice tell me it was so. In the sports section there was an article about the Cardinals, why they were doing so poorly and what they should do about it. It was well written and whoever wrote it obviously knew a lot about baseball. I looked at the byline and saw that it was written by Nick Flowers. I knew that had to be Carolina’s Nicholas.
I stared out of the window at the summer and St. Louis and the flurry of people. I tried to think about everything I felt. Nothing was left out, but it was all upside down. How can your heart be longing for one person and still be beating in anticipation of seeing another? It was a mystery, but I felt both emotions in me like a wheel turning over and over, like a source of light, as different and necessary as sunrise and sunset.
I hopped off the streetcar at De Baliviere and Lindell, near the entrance to the Fair. I walked through a throng of people, spilling out in the streets for blocks, on their way in. Every man, woman, and child was excited and thrilled to be there. This was the biggest event in St. Louis’s history and it was in full flight, an amazing spectacle even from outside the fairgrounds.
I found the neighborhood and walked down the long streets of ancient oaks and stately mansions. A half block in, the noise from the Fair was only a faint hum in the background. I passed the Eliots’s and thought about that first bicycle ride through this neighborhood. The “old money” had been sleeping soundly then. Since Carolina’s arrival, I wondered if it still was.
Finally, I came to the house I remembered. Sweat was dripping in my eyes even though there was shade from every angle. I walked up the paved driveway and paused to look around. There was nothing in particular to distinguish this house from any of the others. No lanterns, no red carpets, no invitations of any kind. There was a formal front door with a brick walkway to it, but I kept walking, under the stone archway and back to where there were two massive oak doors that were obviously the “commercial” entrance. The paved driveway that once circled back to Westminster now went straight back past the carriage house and through the adjoining property to the rear and eventually on to the street beyond. A private alley. It was simple, discreet, and made perfect sense. She had purchased the other property so that people could arrive on one street and leave by another. I thought of what Owen Bramley had said in China: “A remarkable woman, that one.”
Suddenly I heard a chorus of female laughter cut through the heavy silence. And even that was cut through by a high-pitched squeal that could only have come from a small child, either being tortured or having so much fun she could barely stand it. It was not coming from the Fair. It was coming from the far side of the carriage house. I followed the sound and came to a wall of forsythia, wisteria, and honeysuckle. The bushes were old and had grown together, standing ten to twelve feet high and forming a circle thirty feet across, with a small opening facing the carriage house.
I walked through the opening. Inside, in the private clearing made by the surrounding tangle of bushes, was a scene as absurd as it was beautiful. There was Li in a tuxedo, but barefoot with his trousers rolled up to the knees, and holding a huge barrel over his head while staring stone-faced into some unknown point in space. Around him in a circle were five women and a little girl; two wore jersey-knit bathing suits and bathing caps, and the other four were naked, including Carolina and the little girl. There was a hose attached to the bottom of the barrel and as Li held the barrel high and steady, gravity allowed Carolina to wave the hose and spray the women as they danced, leaped, shrieked, and laughed. It was unique. It looked like Buddha in formal dress, standing in the middle of the Garden of Delights.
I stood and watched for a few moments unnoticed, then Carolina saw me and dropped the hose. She started walking toward me. She was so beautiful, magical, and completely oblivious of her nakedness. One of the other women quickly grabbed a towel and wrapped her in it as she was walking. The rest stopped and stared. The little girl was the last to notice and she squealed, “Mommy?”
Carolina knelt down in front of me and spoke over her shoulder. “Come here, honey. I want you to meet someone.” She looked into my eyes and I looked into hers. “My God, Z,” she said, “you came back, you really came back.” She put her arms around me and we held each other as tight as two people can without hurting each other. Her towel slipped loose and fell to the ground, but she didn’t bother to pick it up. The little girl ran over and leaped on Carolina’s back, giggling. “You’re naked, Mommy,” she said.
Carolina eased her hold on me and casually picked up the towel, swung the little girl around to her lap and covered them both in one wrap, giggling herself. She made sure the girl was looking at me and then said, “Star, I want you to meet. Uncle Z.”
“Uncle Z,” I said. “Please!”
“All right then. Z. Just Z.”
I looked at the girl and she was staring at my face and features, but still giggling. “Hello, Star,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” The girl turned her face and buried it in her mama’s chest, being shy, then grabbed Carolina’s chin with her little hands and pulled it down, saying, “Mommy, he’s a boy.” Carolina kissed her on the head and smiled at me. “Yes, he is, honey. He is most certainly a boy. the rarest of boys.”
I took Carolina’s hand in mine and Star watched me carefully. “Are you safe?” I asked. “Have you. seen him?”
Carolina turned and gave Li a sign and he rounded up the other women and shooed them through the opening in the bushes. They left quietly, almost reverently, and for a moment it was like being in China again. Carolina kissed Star on both cheeks and handed her over to Li, who gave me an almost imperceptible glance as he was leaving. I said nothing to him, but nodded in recognition. Star left giggling and saying over and over to herself, “Z, Z, Z.” She had discovered a new sound, letter, and name all in one. Carolina waited until they were all gone, then touched my cheek with her hand and traced my eyebrows, nose, and lips with her fingers.
Quietly she said, “Yes, I am safe, Z. I have not seen him.” She paused and looked away, started to cry and then stopped herself. She turned back to me. “I can’t believe you came. I feel like such a fool now. I sent that letter to Owen Bramley like a crazy woman, but I was so frightened, Z, seeing him out of the blue like that, and knowing that he recognized me, seeing it in his eyes. I had no idea what he might do. I could only think of you. I could only call out to you.” She paused again and looked hard in my eyes, wanting me to know she was sincere. “But I haven’t seen him since, Z. It’s been three months and I haven’t seen or felt a hint, a trace, or a glimpse. Now I’m not even sure he was the one I saw. ”
“It was him,” I said. “You would never be wrong about that. However, I do know from another source that he’s not here. He’s been seen in New Orleans, and logically, he should have no interest in you anyway. Unfortunately, I also know he’s completely unpredictable. And he’s dangerous. We both know that.” I paused and looked at her face and shoulders, her hair and freckles, the shape of her body under the towel. She was so beautiful, so ripe and full of life. I breathed in the sight of her and the sight of her was as rich as the honeysuckle surrounding us. I had made it. I was not too late and she was safe and well. I looked in her eyes and said, “Your daughter looks just like you, I’m afraid.”
She backed away slightly. “ ‘I’m afraid’? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m afraid she’s got no chance. She’s doomed.”
“Z! What do you mean? Don’t scare me. Doomed how?”
“She is doomed and bound to be beautiful, just like her mama. She’s got no chance.”
Carolina gave me that same look she’d given me as a kid, as if I was hopeless. “You’re crazy,” she said. Then she jumped up, holding her towel with one hand and taking my hand with the other. “Come on,” she said, “let me change and I’ll give you the grand tour.”
As we turned to leave, I looked around the space we were in. It was odd. A perfect circle of sweet-smelling bushes at the back of a garden that was closed in on itself. There were day lilies and yellow roses planted at intervals around the inside. They were blooming, but a few other plants were not. They were all well tended. “What is this place?” I asked.
Carolina looked around with wonder and satisfaction. “I don’t know,” she said. “It was here when I moved in. I’m putting different plants all around the inside, so that something will bloom in every season. It’s my private place. I call it the ‘Honeycircle.’ ”
I groaned at the pun and let her lead me not in the direction of the main house but to the carriage house. She told me that was where she and Nicholas and Star had made their living quarters. It made it much easier to keep her “public” and “private” lives separate.
The carriage house was two-storied. The bottom level looked to have basically the same functions it had always had — a storage space for equipment and tools, and stables for draft horses. The upper level had been completely refurbished. Windows that opened outward had been installed all around and a long balcony was attached on two sides of the structure, with one overlooking the “Honeycircle.” There were wide stairs leading up to the balcony, but before we could climb them we had to negotiate a path between all Star’s toys and then remove the largest of them, a tricycle, from in front of the bottom step. Carolina said, “Her daddy spoils her rotten.”
She started up the stairs and I said, “I suppose you’ve bought her nothing.”
“Not a thing,” she said.
We walked inside and it was beautiful, simple, and very comfortable, with the smell of honeysuckle wafting through the windows. It was a real home. Carolina went to change and told me to look around, especially Star’s room.
At first, I simply stood and stared out of the windows, at the life she’d made all on her own, with only the support of Solomon to make it a reality. Remarkable. Then I turned to look around. There were fresh-cut flowers in vases, framed photographs on the mantel, Persian rugs, a few Tiffany lamps, and the constant, sweet smell of honeysuckle everywhere.
I found Star’s room easily. The trail of toys was a quick giveaway. It was a normal child’s room in every way but one. The walls were all painted a deep blue, and on the blue there were hundreds of painted stars. But not the cartoonish stars and moons that usually grace a child’s walls. These were detailed, accurate renderings of all the major stars and constellations in the Milky Way, with their names underneath in bold reds and golds. It was almost a work of art. It was certainly a work of science and wonder.
Carolina had silently slipped in behind me. “Nicholas did this while I was pregnant. He said he wanted his son or daughter to have a real sense of place and not just know the address of their house.”
“It’s wonderful,” I said. “Can she place the stars on the wall with the ones in the sky?”
“Not yet, but she knows there’s a connection.”
I turned and looked at her. Her hair was tied in a loose bun and she wore a simple skirt and blouse. No jewelry or makeup. She resembled a schoolteacher and mother much more than a wealthy madam. “How do you make this work with that?” I asked and nodded toward the big house through the windows.
“It’s simple really, Z. I don’t know any other way. Nicholas approves and when Star’s old enough, I’ll answer any question she’s got. She’s loved, well taken care of, and later, she’ll be able to go to good schools. I can’t hide it from her. I’ll tell her it’s a part of life, in my case a business, but certainly not all there is to life. What she does with that information will be up to her.”
“You’ve done well, Carolina. I’m happy for you.”
“Come here,” she said. “I want you to see something.”
We walked to the mantel and she lifted up a small, framed photograph and held it for me to see. It was a picture of herself and a young man with a mustache sitting at a caf? table and smiling for the camera. They were holding hands under the table.
“This is Nicholas,” she said.
“That would be Nick Flowers to the rest of us, correct?”
Her mouth dropped open and she could only say, “How on earth. ”
“I read the paper on the way over. You know me, sports page first.”
She paused and looked out of the window for a moment, shook her head, then turned back to me. “This was almost five years ago,” she said. “Look at my eyes and tell me what they say.”
I looked again. “You are in love. That much is plain.”
“Yes, and when I first saw you in the ‘Honeycircle,’ I could see it in your eyes. You have met someone, haven’t you? Someone. like yourself.”
I thought about everything I could say, everything I wanted to say, but that would just have made everything else less clear. I still didn’t understand it myself. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes, I have.”
She looked at me strangely, curious for more detail, but knew instinctively to leave it where it was. She drew in a deep breath, placed the photograph back on the mantel, and said, “Where to?”
Without hesitation, I said, “Take me to Solomon.”
“Sure. Why not?”
She looked out of the window, confused at first, then laughed to herself and said, “You’re right, Z. I’ve never been there, but sure, why not?”
I didn’t get the inside joke. “You’ve never been where?”
“ ‘Chestnut Valley.’ It’s downtown along Chestnut and Market Streets near Twentieth. It’s our ‘red-light district.’ ”
“And that’s where Solomon is?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, but not necessarily for what you may be thinking. He goes for the gambling and the music. He knew the original owner of the Rosebud Caf?, ‘Honest John’ Turpin, and next door, over a drugstore I’m told, is a gaming room. He’s got a permanent seat at ‘the wheel,’ as he calls it. He hardly ever wins, but he never fails to play. I’ve heard that the music coming from next door is terrific. Honest John’s son, Tom, runs it now. Evidently, he’s a gigantic Negro man, who is supposed to be very nice and play a very wicked piano.”
“Why have you never been there?”
“I’ve heard that there’s a certain amount of jealousy toward me from a few madams in the area. However, it’s never been a real problem, because Solomon spends all his money there and I stay away.”
Now it was my turn to laugh to myself. Some things, beside the Meq, never change. “How is the old man?” I asked.
“He’s fine, but he drives me crazy. Of course, Star loves him and Nicholas thinks he’s some legend out of the Wild West. I just wish he would slow down a little. Anyway, let’s go, and go now, before I think better of it.”
I followed her out of the door and down the stairs. She swung open the wide door at the far end of the lower level, and instead of horses inside, there was a bright yellow automobile. I didn’t quite know what to say and laughed out loud.
Carolina looked it over with pride and turned to me. “Stanley Steamer,” she said. “It’s the latest thing, Z. But first, I have to check on Star and I want you to come with me. I want you to see something.”
She led me to the back of the big house and a separate, private entrance. She said it was Li’s living quarters and the only place Star would take a nap. I told her I had met Li’s cousin, also named Li, in China.
“Well, I hope he is a bit more sociable than our Li.”
“He does what he can.”
Carolina gave me a peculiar look and gently tapped on the door. She paused for only a moment, then opened the door. “He never says come in or go away. He never says anything to anybody, except I’ve heard him talking to Star when he wasn’t aware I was listening.”
Inside, it was clean, simple, and spartan in decoration. Li sat in the corner as still as a stone. He was gazing straight ahead at the opposite corner. He looked like a prizefighter between rounds with perfect posture. Star lay on the single iron-frame bed against the wall. She was curled up on her side, sound asleep and sucking her thumb. Under her head, as her only pillow, was Mama’s glove.
I watched her sleeping. I knelt down and listened to her breathing. Inside her breath, I could hear the steady clackety-clack of the heavy railroad wheels and feel the rocking motion of the car, and all the hours, and all the miles across Kansas resting in my mama’s lap with that same glove under my head.
“She won’t sleep without it and takes it with her everywhere,” Carolina said.
I got up and glanced at Li. He hadn’t moved an eyelash. Carolina kissed Star lightly on the cheek and we turned to leave. On the way out, I spoke without facing him. I said, “Your cousin wishes you well.” I paused at the door, but heard no response.
Carolina cranked up the Stanley Steamer herself, put on a wide bonnet that she tied securely under her chin, and we took off, loud and elegant, through the heavy traffic of the World’s Fair and downtown to Market Street and a different world. We didn’t talk much on the way. We couldn’t, it was too loud, but I did find out that Nicholas was in Pittsburgh with the Cardinals and the next day was Star’s birthday. A big celebration was planned along with a trip to the Fair. Carolina said I had to see the Fair without question. “There are no words to describe it,” she said. “It is a visual encyclopedia.”
Somehow, she found a parking place on Market Street. With the heat, the Fair, and all the action that follows such things, the streets and sidewalks were filled with people, mostly black and of every age from nine to ninety. Carolina shut off the engine and stepped down into the chaos as if she’d been there every day. People up and down the street took notice. Between Carolina and the setting sun glinting off the big yellow Stanley Steamer, I was invisible, or at least I thought I was.
“Z! Hey, Z, man!”
I heard my name being yelled from somewhere behind us in the crowd. I turned, and coming out of the shade of a storefront awning, I saw the shoeshine boy I’d seen at Union Station. He walked up to Carolina and me.
“Hey, Z, you remember me, man?”
“Yes, I do,” I said and turned to Carolina, who was staring at me in wonder. “Carolina Covington, I would like you to meet Mitchell Ithaca Coates.”
He wiped his right hand on his shirt and then held it out to her. “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he said.
Carolina shook his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Mitchell. How on earth do you know Z?”
“We met this morning at Union Station,” I answered. I didn’t think this was a good time for him to tell her everything he might have seen.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “But I got one question. What are you people doing here?”
“Do you live nearby, Mitchell?” Carolina asked.
“Yes, ma’am, at the moment, I do.”
“Well, Mitchell, we are looking for a place, actually a man in a place. He’s an older man. ” She paused and Mitch was looking at her blankly. “He’s a gambler,” she added.
“Oh, you mean Solomon. Everybody knows Solomon. Come on, follow me. I know just the place he’s at.”
He took us down the street two blocks, past the Rosebud Caf? and around the corner, into an alley that had a flight of stairs rising up the side of a building.
“He’s up there,” Mitch said. “But you better tell ’em y’all are family. They’re kinda funny like that.”
“Thank you, Mitchell,” Carolina said. “I doubt we could ever have found it on our own.”
“I don’t know about that, ma’am. I think you might be able to find whatever you want.” He turned to walk back to the street and stopped halfway. “Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll watch your automobile for you for two bits. Make sure nobody harms it. What do you say?”
Carolina was already three steps up the stairs. “It’s a deal,” she said, laughing.
We walked up the stairs, and without really thinking about it, I put my hand in my pocket and found the Stone. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but neither of us had ever been here before. Carolina knocked and a black man in a bowler hat, smoking a cigar, opened the door. My worries were unfounded, because as soon as she mentioned Solomon, we were let in and told he was sitting by the back wall, at the roulette table. The man did ask about me and my youth and Carolina told him I was a foreign boy who had been left in her charge for the run of the Fair and I couldn’t be trusted to be left alone. That seemed to make sense to him and we walked into the noisy, smoky, crowded room.
Now I really was invisible. Every man and woman in the place turned to get an eyeful of Carolina. Some of them obviously knew who she was and the rest of them wanted to. She ignored all of them and leaned over toward me, shouting, “Do you see him?”
I started to yell “no” and then heard a very distinctive and angry “Great Yahweh!” coming from somewhere in front of us. I pushed through the crowd, ahead of Carolina, and there he was, sitting in a straight-backed chair, leaning his elbows on the railing of the roulette table. He was laughing, cursing, counting his chips, flirting with a woman named Yancey, and trying to light a cigar. He still had a full head of hair and a full beard, all white. Even his eyebrows were white. He was sweating profusely and wearing a formal tuxedo. I smiled to myself and got an idea.
Looking around quickly, I spotted a boy about my size, carrying a tray of cigars, snuff, matches, toothpicks, and other assorted items. He was making his way around the room, but hadn’t yet reached Solomon’s table. I glanced back at Carolina, then slipped between the tables and stopped the boy, telling him if he’d let me borrow the tray, the man at the roulette table would buy the whole thing. The boy agreed, but warned that he’d be watching me, just the same. I put the strap of the tray around my neck and made my way over to the roulette table, stopping beside Solomon and lighting a match. He leaned over when he saw the lit match, still talking and laughing, not noticing who was holding the match.
I whispered in his ear, “You can’t beat the wheel, old friend. A muleskinner told me that a long time ago.”
He turned, dripping sweat and dropping his cigar on the floor. Our eyes were level and we looked into each other’s eyes. “Zianno,” he whispered back.
Carolina almost crashed into us from behind and knelt down, laughing and smiling. She looked back and forth between us. Solomon turned to her.
“Is zis true? Is zis Zianno or an impostor?”
“I am afraid it’s the real thing, Solomon,” she said.
“Good to see you, old friend,” I said. Then I glanced at the table and his dwindling stack of chips. “I see you are losing.”
He gathered his chips, put them in his pocket, rose out of his seat, and told the woman, Yancey, to hold his chair, that he would return another time. Then, he turned and took both of us by the arm, leading us out through the crowd. “I am no longer losing, Zianno. Partners know when to call it quits.”
Carolina and I both laughed and then I remembered the boy and the tray with matches. I told Solomon the situation. He found the boy and gave him a double eagle, a twenty-dollar gold piece. The boy said that was more than it was worth and Solomon told him, “So was the surprise.”
We walked out of the door and down the stairs, slowing a little for Solomon. He was still tall and vigorous, but time and his body were betraying him. I could tell it annoyed him more than anything else. On the way to the Stanley Steamer, he asked Carolina if her being down here was such a good idea. She said she could ask him the same thing herself. It was obvious this subject had come up before.
We reached our parking place and Mitch was on patrol, not allowing a soul within three feet of Carolina’s property, which looked golden in the light of the setting sun. She gave him four bits, tip included, and Solomon tossed him a double eagle when he turned around. Mitch looked at me and I gave him a wink. He winked back and Carolina drove the big car away, toward Forest Park and into the last light of a long day.
All the way home, Solomon went on about the wonders of the World’s Fair, all the aboriginal peoples that had been gathered from the far ends of the earth, the architectural and engineering feats of the canals, bridges, lagoons, and fountains, the palaces, pavilions, the ice-cream cones, and the Observation Wheel, also called the Ferris Wheel, and named after the man who had invented it, George Washington Gale Ferris. He said it was remarkable and called it “structure in motion.” He talked about Geronimo, the Igorots, the John Philip Sousa Marching Band, and the Pike with all its amusements. He said he’d leased a car all to ourselves on the Ferris Wheel, for Star’s birthday, and a private tour of Jerusalem, which he said I’d love because they made it “more real than it ever was,” whatever that meant.
He talked and talked and the more he talked, it seemed as if I’d never been away. Not once did he ask about my sudden appearance or the reason for it. I wondered how much Carolina, or even Owen Bramley, had told him. His sense of arrivals and departures, and the trivialities attending them, reminded me of Zeru-Meq.
After coming to a screeching halt in front of the carriage house, Carolina announced that “business” was closed for the evening. The big feast was on and everyone in the house was invited. I asked her if my presence needed explaining and she said it was not my presence she was worried about, it was my absence that needed explaining.
She immediately began taking charge of the preparations and suggested Solomon take me on the grand tour. I asked him if he would prefer a short nap and he said, “Nonsense.”
He took me through the big house and introduced me to all the “ladies” who lived and worked in Carolina’s home. There were five who lived there normally, but the youngest one, Lily, was visiting her ailing brother in New Orleans. They were gracious, bright, and obviously all in love with Solomon. I wasn’t sure of their ages, but none looked younger than eighteen or older than thirty. Solomon’s simple introduction to each one was the same, “Zis is Zianno.”
He led me through all the rooms and salons, which were elegant and immaculate, comfortable with every nuance of taste and decoration, and definitely giving the impression of someone’s home rather than someone’s whorehouse.
We ended up in his room and Solomon eased himself into a beautiful burl walnut rocker set close to the window and facing west. I turned and looked around the room. It was a good room, a warm room. I’d never known him to keep photographs, but he had two of them, framed and displayed on his dresser. One was a formal portrait of Mrs. Bennings, which I’d never seen before, and the other was a blurry shot of Star trying to keep still in the grass of the “Honeycircle.”
I asked him how he liked living in one place for such a long time. He looked through the window first, then rose out of the rocker and walked to the dresser. He picked up the photograph of Star.
“It is zis one, Zianno. Zis child has stolen my heart.”
I looked at the picture with him. He was right. Her eyes were as bright and full of promise as a sunrise.
“She is lovely,” I said.
“Yes. yes, she is,” he said, almost under his breath. Then he smiled and said, “Do you remember your Plato, Z?”
I laughed. “I’m not sure, what do you mean?”
“Basically, Plato said all we really needed to do in zis life was to cultivate reason, honor, and passion. But zis one”—and he pointed at Star’s photograph—“zis one has taught me that the first two can go poof! All we need is the last — passion — and we must rediscover zis passion every day. Star does zis without effort, as every child can, I know, but I tell you, Z, every day I watch in wonder. It is such a simple thing. I think Yahweh must have meant for us to go full circle. I see zis world more and more as Star does than as Solomon.”
He carefully placed the photograph back on the dresser, then made his way to the other side of the room and disappeared into a walk-in closet. I heard some rustling and grumbling and he tossed the tuxedo to the floor. A few minutes later, he walked out in slippers, long, loose trousers, and a black velvet smoking jacket, tied at the waist. I didn’t say a word, but smiled to myself, remembering that scarecrow I’d seen years ago in Colorado.
“Come, Zianno,” he said. “You must eat if you want to grow up big and strong.”
He put his arm around my shoulders and we both laughed all the way down the stairs.
Dinner was a feast in every sense of the word. The food was delicious, the women were beautiful, the spirits were high, and the tales were tall. Much of the conversation concerned the Fair and the life around it. The women talked at length about the international fashion they’d seen and, at the same time, the lack of it. Carolina brought me up-to-date on professional baseball a little, telling of the exploits of a few players and recounting the World Series, the first one ever, the year before. Star bounced back and forth between Solomon and Li and I could see that each was jealous of Star’s affection for the other. Solomon told stories about China and held the women mesmerized. As he was in the middle of one particular tale in which he was pulling the wool over the eyes of a Chinese man, I glanced at Li, who was sitting as silent as stone in the corner and shaking his head from side to side, as if poor Solomon would never get it right.
The whole evening was loud and lusty, and as it began to wind down, the table thinned out. The women left one by one and Star fell asleep in Solomon’s lap, with Solomon himself nodding off soon after. Li picked up Star to take her to bed and Carolina assisted a grumbling Solomon upstairs to his room.
I walked outside through the kitchen and, without thinking about it, wandered in the darkness back to the “Honeycircle.” I took a few steps in, but stopped short of entering. I could see nothing except a faint light from above, inside the carriage house. The heavy, sweet scent of honeysuckle was overpowering. I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and as my lungs were nearly empty, I heard in the darkness someone else breathing in. I closed my eyes and opened them again, trying to see a form. I stood silent, waiting. Then, ahead of me, inside the darkness, I thought I saw a shape, a silhouette, something. I took a few steps forward, toward it. Something was familiar, something particular was forming and coming toward me. This couldn’t be, I thought, but I could almost see them. I could see the lips, her lips, coming toward me. They were parted and trembling. Suddenly, from behind me, I heard footsteps, real ones. I turned and it was Carolina, carefully making her way through the opening.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
She took my arm and led me up the stairs to the carriage house. She showed me the room I was to stay in, and as she was fluffing up pillows and turning the bed down, I walked out to the balcony and looked down on the “Honeycircle.” I don’t know how many minutes passed, but I was lost, somewhere inside and far away. Without my knowing, at some point Carolina had slipped in behind me and was looking over my shoulder.
“What is her name, Z?” she asked.
“Opari,” I said, after pausing only a moment.
“That is a beautiful name.”
I turned and looked at Carolina. She was standing with the light behind her and her eyes were in shadow.
“Did you leave her to come to me?”
“Yes and no.”
“If I have caused you pain in any way, I couldn’t—”
“You have not,” I interrupted. I took her hand in mine and moved to where I could see her eyes. There was a single tear sliding down her cheek over her freckles.
“Will you tell me more about her?” she asked.
“Yes, I promise.”
“Good,” she said. “Let’s get some rest.”
After a long overdue and dreamless sleep, I was awakened to Star’s birthday by Star herself. She was leaning on my bed, shaking my knee, and saying, “ZeeZee, wake up! ZeeZee, come on! ZeeZee, we ride the Fierce Whale, we ride the Fierce Whale.”
It took me a minute to figure out she meant “Ferris Wheel, Ferris Wheel,” and then I remembered our plans for the World’s Fair.
Everything moved quickly. We had a hearty breakfast in the kitchen of the big house, then all gathered under the stone arch at the top of the driveway. At first, we debated whether to walk to the Fair or not, thinking of Solomon, but he would have none of that, and away we went. There were six in our party: Solomon and I took up the rear; Li and Carolina walked in front of us, and leading the whole pack were Star and Ciela, the second youngest of Carolina’s “ladies” and the most trusted. She was of Cuban descent and still had a trace of an accent. Star seemed to treat her like a sister and she was along to celebrate, as well as babysit, if Star got tired or sleepy.
Carolina and Ciela both carried parasols, and by the time we approached the main entrance near De Baliviere and Lindell, both were unfurled. The sun was already high in the sky and the day was hot and getting hotter.
We entered with a swarm of people, tens of thousands, and started up the main avenue, the Plaza of St. Louis. Solomon was right. The sheer size and magnificence of the fairgrounds and buildings took your breath away. As we walked, we passed a statue of Hernando de Soto, who discovered the “Father of Waters” while in search of the Fountain of Youth. I couldn’t help but think of Geaxi and what she had told me once about De Soto. She said he was a fool who would probably have mistaken a horse trough for the Fountain of Youth.
On we went to Festival Hall, which Carolina insisted we see. Along the way, we passed lagoons with people in motorboats and gondolas, some shaped like Cleopatra’s barge and some like swans’ and serpents’ necks. Other people rode in roller chairs and zebu carriages, in Irish jaunting cars and all kinds of oriental contraptions. There was also a scaled-down train on the fairgrounds itself, carrying people from point to point.
We stopped to watch the Cascades, a series of fountains and waterfalls, which tumbled down the hill into the lagoon. Star almost jumped in, but was restrained by Li.
Solomon took us through the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy, where there were workers actually mining coal in a full-size coal mine. There was also an oil well, again full-size and working. The women were more impressed by the huge obelisks guarding the entrance.
Next, he guided us through a tour of the Palace of Electricity and everyone was astounded that, from here, St. Louis could communicate by wireless with Chicago, Springfield, and Kansas City. Solomon leaned over to me and said, “Zis is where the big money will be in zis century, Zianno. Communications.” Then he winked and whispered, “Perhaps the ‘Children of the Mountains’ should become experts, eh?”
Carolina took us to our next stop, the French Pavilion. It was a reproduction of the Grand Trianon at Versailles and set in a fifteen-acre garden. It was rich and luxurious and surrounded by espalier trees, which I’m sure no one in St. Louis had seen before. Inside, there were expensive tapestries and elegant furniture. At the end of one long hall and next to the twenty-foot draperies around a huge window, Carolina nodded toward a spot against the wall. No one understood, but I got her meaning — that was where she had seen the Fleur-du-Mal.
After touring the Palace of Machinery and the Palace of Liberal Arts, Star wanted a boat ride. We boarded one of the gondolas and cruised through the lagoons and canals, cooling off and listening to the gondolier serenade us with Italian songs.
We disembarked and Solomon declared it was time for lunch. We stopped at the Falstaff Inn, a two-story structure with flags waving on top and tables and chairs outside under an awning. We sat outside and didn’t order off the menu. Instead, Solomon sent Li to purchase two of his favorite foods that had been introduced at the Fair for the first time, hot dogs and ice-cream cones. A few minutes later, we were all toasting Star’s birthday with a hot dog in one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other. Star giggled and dribbled and gave Solomon a hug and a kiss that left traces of mustard and chocolate in his white beard. Even Li liked the ice cream and grunted as it melted and ran down his stone face.
Within moments of finishing her ice cream, Star was tugging on Carolina and saying, “Fierce Whale, Mommy, let’s ride the Fierce Whale.”
Solomon interjected and announced that our appointment for our private ride was at four o’clock sharp. Our appointment for our private tour of Jerusalem was at three-thirty and, therefore, we could not dawdle. “The Fierce Whale at four,” he said, “and Jerusalem at three-thirty, but first — the Pike.”
The Pike was easily the most crowded area of the Fair and the most fun. It was one long, wide boulevard with everything you could imagine from “Blarney Castle” and the “Tyrolean Alps” to the “Battle of Santiago” and the “Galveston Flood.” The Pike was a living color picture of the world. Architecture, scenery, concessions. Anything, everything. We even saw a statue of Teddy Roosevelt made of butter and a bear made of prunes. We wandered in and out of everywhere, but Star loved Hagenbeck’s Animal Circus best. There she got to see animals she’d only seen in books, roaming at large inside a huge compound. Except perhaps in her dreams, it was the closest she’d ever been to elephants and tigers. Solomon was as fascinated as Star, or perhaps because of her, and had to be reminded by Carolina that three-thirty was approaching.
We hurried down the Pike and reached the gates of Jerusalem just in time. A dark, heavyset man who seemed to know Solomon greeted us and escorted our entire party inside and to a tent where six camels stood saddled and in a line, one behind the other. We were introduced to our guide, who wore a long robe and turban, despite the heat. We were each given a robe and turban to wear and told, “Believe it or not, you will be cooler.” The women were asked to wear veils, even Star, and we all looked very mysterious as our caravan set out through Jerusalem. Our guide was in front, followed by Ciela, Carolina with Star in her lap, Solomon, myself, and Li as a sort of caboose. The camels were each attended by two boys, one in front with the reins and one by the saddle for assistance. The camels snorted and baulked at first, but then fell into their lazy, awkward gait. Carolina and Star were laughing hysterically and Solomon looked like a long-lost Arab prince returning home.
Jerusalem was one of the largest exhibits of the Fair and the most labyrinthine. Streets led into streets that led back into themselves. Every passage was narrow and claustrophobic with people and dust. Dogs barked and merchants shouted in foreign languages. It was dreamlike, exotic, and felt, as Solomon said, “more real than it ever was.”
After several minutes, maybe ten, maybe twenty, we came to a particularly tight and congested corner. The camel boys slowed the camels, but it was too late. A man had tumbled out of an open doorway into the street and surprised our guide and the lead camel. The camel stopped abruptly and kicked the camel boy behind, who screamed and fell, spooking Ciela’s camel into a spin and tangling legs with Carolina’s camel, which lost its balance and fell sideways, throwing Carolina and Star into the crowd.
Just in front of me, Solomon tried to get down from his camel, but the crowd pushed against him, locking him in his saddle. I had to get closer. I turned around and waved to Li and the both of us leaped into the chaos and, with Li as a battering ram, made our way to Solomon. I yelled up at him, “Can you see anything?”
“Yes, I can see Carolina,” he said. “She is standing. She is all right, but confused, a little dazed, I think. But. but. ” He was straining forward in his saddle, looking left and right, frantically. “I can’t see Star, Z. I can’t see Star!”
Li and I pushed forward, finally making it to Carolina, who had lost her robe, turban, and veil. She was shaken, but coming to her senses. People speaking in Arabic were dusting her off and feeling her limbs, making sure nothing was broken.
“I’m fine. Thank you. Enough of that, thank you,” she was telling them. Just then, she saw Li. “Find Star,” she yelled, “find Star, Li!”
I got to her a moment later. “Are you all right?” I had almost to yell myself.
She reached out for my hand. “Yes, yes, I’m fine, just scared. Where’s Solomon?”
“He’s all right. He’s stuck back on his camel.”
“Good,” she said. “Let’s find Star, Z.”
The camels had been secured and the panic of the crowd had dissipated. Shouts passed back and forth between our guide and two other men about who was to blame. Up ahead, there was a circle of people gathered around a doorway. Li was on the outside of the ring, waving to us. We ran toward him. He nodded at the circle and Carolina pulled at people’s arms and shoulders, yelling, “Out of the way!”
In the middle of the circle, sitting on the stoop of the doorway, Ciela was holding a trembling child, wearing a robe, turban, and veil with her head buried in Ciela’s chest.
“Is she all right?” Carolina asked in a kind of strained whisper.
Ciela nodded, but didn’t speak. She held the child close, rocking back and forth, and softly saying, “Shh, shh.”
We stood in silence, catching our breath, which was difficult. Dust was everywhere, kicked up during the melee, and the camel boys were still trying to calm the animals. I looked back for Solomon, and just as I saw his familiar white head above the crowd, I caught sight of something else familiar, a movement between the camels, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. Then Solomon broke through and took charge.
“Is everyone in one piece?” he asked Carolina.
“Yes, thank God,” she said. “We could have been thrown anywhere.”
“Is Star unhurt?” He bent down and patted the child, who still clung to Ciela for dear life. “Star, honey,” he said in his softest voice, “are you all right?”
She nodded, but kept her face pressed against Ciela’s chest. Solomon stood up and looked around angrily for our guide, who had disappeared. “I shall sue them for zis,” he said, then he helped Ciela to her feet. He and Carolina put their arms around her. “Come,” he said, “if everyone is up to it, we go ride the Ferris Wheel. I guarantee in five minutes, Star will forget zis ever happened.”
After several wrong turns, we eventually found our way out of Jerusalem and through the Japanese Gardens, just in time to make our prearranged ride on the Ferris Wheel. We were still flustered as we approached it. I could barely comprehend the sheer size of it. It was over two hundred and sixty feet high, had thirty-six cars that were almost thirty feet long and over twelve feet wide, an axle one hundred and forty feet above ground, and steel rods extending in pairs to the rim all around. To me, it looked like a giant, spinning spiderweb.
We walked up the platform and the doors to our car were opened. There were glass walls on all sides so the entire fairgrounds could be observed as the wheel turned in its great orbit.
After all the cars were loaded, the ride consisted of four revolutions. On our first revolution, we all stood in silence and gazed down on the Fair and Forest Park from a new perspective. At the top of the arc of our second revolution, Carolina, who had been standing next to Ciela, leaned over to kiss Star, pulling the veil away.
She jumped back, spinning and hitting her back against the glass wall. “That’s not Star!” she shrieked.
Ciela tore off the turban of the girl she was holding and Solomon looked at Carolina, turning as white as his beard. “What did you say?” he asked.
My own throat went dry and I felt the old feeling of the net descending. We all looked at the child, who was staring back at us blankly. She was blond and female, but clearly not Star.
I went to the glass wall that looked out over where we’d been, over Jerusalem. Two hundred and sixty feet below me and boarding the small train that ran through the Fair, with Star frozen against him, paralyzed in fear, was the Fleur-du-Mal. He wore the same robe as one of the camel boys, but had taken off the turban. I could barely see the green ribbon at the back of his head. He turned and looked up at the Ferris Wheel and grinned. Even from that distance, his teeth were a brilliant white.
Solomon saw where I was staring and looked down. He found her immediately. He ran to the glass, pounding his fists on it, trying to break it, and screaming, “No! No! Zis cannot be!”
The big wheel wouldn’t turn fast enough for him. He kept pounding and screaming as we made our descent. What was probably two minutes seemed like two hours. Before we got to the platform, he turned bright red and began to cough violently. Li and I tried to reach for him, but he slid down the glass wall and sprawled on the floor. He went into a seizure and his chest heaved in spasms. Carolina knelt down and loosened his shirt, but he started to lose color and his breathing stopped completely.
Finally, we got to the bottom of the arc and Li rushed out onto the platform to find water. I looked around at the crowd and asked if there was a doctor among them. There wasn’t. Carolina shouted out that he’d started breathing again, but just barely. Then, two of the Jefferson Guard appeared and called to a third to find a stretcher. They were policing the Fair and I wondered for a moment if I should mention Star. Carolina must have thought the same thing, because she looked out at me, then quickly shook her head.
Li came back at the same time as the stretcher arrived. He sprinkled water on Solomon’s face as we lifted him onto the stretcher and into the shade of the Falstaff Inn, a hundred yards away. His breathing was shallow and uneven and he drifted in and out of consciousness. Carolina decided we should get him home as soon as possible and have her doctor meet us there. A carriage was located and we were transported through the main entrance, with an escort of ringing bells to clear the way, and on to Carolina’s, where she had him moved upstairs to the carriage house. She opened the windows wide on all sides and made sure there was a breeze getting to her sofa, where Solomon lay on his back. She propped his head up and, when he was conscious, tried to help him sip water. She didn’t mention Star once, nor did anyone else. I looked at her eyes. They were as glassy as if she had taken strychnine. She was in shock, but somehow managing to go on, to function.
Time passed and the doctor failed to arrive as he was supposed to. The room was hot and the air was thick with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Ciela was becoming more and more frantic and overwhelmed with worry and finally snapped, running down the stairs and crying uncontrollably. Li sat in the corner of the room, as always, but once I saw his hands tremble slightly. I walked out onto the balcony and, for some reason, screamed as loudly as I could at the setting sun. It was my kind that had done this. It was my kind that was poisoning the lives of the two people I loved the most. It was not just the Fleur-du-Mal who was an “aberration.” We, the Meq, were all an aberration, a mistake, a flaw that would eventually act as a virus and destroy the whole grain, the “natural” beauty, the way things should have been without us, alive and undisturbed.
We waited. Each of us sat and waited. Darkness fell above and below and Carolina lit candles inside. The doctor never came.
Solomon awoke around midnight, just enough to open his eyes and call for me. I sat on the floor next to him.
“Zianno, come close now,” he said. I leaned over so that his voice was in my ear. “On my way through the Milky Way, I will leave a trail. Will you be able to find it, Zianno?”
“I couldn’t miss it. You are an excellent pathfinder, old friend.”
“Then I shall do it,” he said and took a quick, shallow breath. “Yes. that is it, Z. zis is good. zis is good business.”
We shut his eyes for him. He simply left. I looked at Carolina and she was tearless. Sad, broken, and tearless. Li got up slowly, walked out of the door and down the stairs. A few minutes later, I thought I heard the door to his small apartment open and close. After several more minutes, I made Carolina stand up and I took her to her room. I gently helped her lie down and said, “Tomorrow we find Star.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know we will,” but she was numb, inside and out.
I closed her door, put a blanket over Solomon, and walked out onto the balcony, overlooking the “Honeycircle.” I breathed in the thick, oversweet scent. I wanted more of it. Without thinking, I leaped over the railing and dropped twelve feet, crashing into the edge of a honeysuckle bush and rolling in the grass.
Somewhere in the darkness, somewhere inside the “Honeycircle,” a voice said, “Careful now, you could hurt yourself doing that.”
I felt the net descending for certain. It was him. I got to my knees, then stood up.
I turned. He was standing in the opening. His silhouette was black against black. His teeth sparkled white.
“Why have you done this?” I asked. “You already killed her sister.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, moving slightly to his left. “I realized that when I saw her, quite by accident, a few months ago. I immediately thought of our last visit, brief though it was. I believe your words were, ‘She’s not the one you want,’ or words to that effect. I could not resist the chance to right a wrong, so to speak. Do you see my point,
“I want the child back.”
“Oh, such a simple wish and yet so difficult to grant.”
“I want the girl!” I lunged at him and he seemed to disappear in the dark, then I felt a hot sting, first in my right shoulder, then my left. I tried to reach out and couldn’t. He had slashed all the tendons at the top of my shoulders. Then, just as I tried to turn, I felt the same hot bite behind my knees, this time with pain. I went down without a step. I was bleeding heavily, but I crawled through the opening. He was waiting, standing over me. I could see his ruby earrings reflected in the candlelight from the carriage house. I kept crawling toward the stairs and the light. He walked alongside me, casually.
“Perhaps we shall meet again, Zezen, when your manners have improved. I should like to talk with you at length sometime, about the Meq. I think you would find it enlightening.”
I kept crawling. “What do you care about the Meq? You had Baju killed and stole the gems from the Stones.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Yes, but you have the wrong villain,
I looked up at him. He was smiling and backing away. His teeth were all I could see, but they were blurry and spreading apart. I was losing consciousness. I tried to get to the stairs, just the stairs. I made one more push with my elbows and hit something next to the bottom step. I rolled over in pain and everything began to go black. The last thing I saw was the wheel of Star’s tricycle, spinning against the sky.