And now and then a son, a daughter, hears it.
Now and then a son, a daughter,
— Lew Welch
11. ZOR (DEBT)
As the Meq heal, part of us, the part of us that calls itself “I,” must go into a waiting room, an annex of ourselves that is safe and silent, completely inviolate and yet as empty as the space between stars. I remember nothing of the five days it took me to heal. The five days of mystical Meq restoration of tissue, fiber, sinew, and bone. Willed or unwilled, our bodies are repaired and made new. Outside, we awake unscarred and innocent. Inside, the ravages of time and events are piling up in our annex, our waiting room, like stacks of unread letters and unopened bills.
Sometimes, the healing is ordinary, no more complicated than rest and bandages. It is nothing special, only faster, and we return physically as we were. Other times, it is far beyond ordinary, and we have “evolved,” adding something to our senses and our unique arsenal for survival. It is awkward, clumsy, and always unpredictable. I discovered this as I awoke, not to sight, but to sound.
“I tell you, Carolina, he just vanished.” It was a man’s voice and it brought me to consciousness, though I kept my eyes closed. It sounded nearby, but somehow muffled. I listened harder and I realized the muffling was caused by a wall between wherever I was and the voice. A living wall. A deafening, roaring wall of cicadas. I moved my fingers, my toes. I could feel that I was lying on my side with my legs drawn up to my chest in the fetal position. “Not a word, not a note!” the voice said loud and clear. It was moving back and forth, as if the man was pacing. I opened my eyes slowly. I was in half-light, dawn or dusk, I couldn’t tell which. I was staring at dots, dots in a long ragged line, and then, as I focused, one dot, one dot that became a star named Sirius, the Dog Star. I knew because it was written in bold red print outlined in gold. It was painted on the wall. I was in Star’s bedroom, in the carriage house.
“Nothing! Nothing except that damn baseball glove.”
“Nicholas!” a woman’s voice shot back.
I sat up quickly with some discomfort, but no pain. My clothes were in the corner, stacked neatly on a chair. I was wearing someone’s nightshirt and sitting on the edge of Star’s bed. Everything came back to me at once — Solomon, Star, the Fleur-du-Mal — the sharp sting of the knife blade — everything, but it was all being drowned out in my head by a cacophony of sounds. The cicadas, dogs of all kinds, birds, street sounds, children playing, and the breeze barely blowing through the trees like a howling wind.
I stood, unsteadily at first, then walked to the chair holding my clothes and put them on. I checked my pockets for the Stone and found it. I walked out of the bedroom and around the corner to the small kitchen where I thought I would find them, the voices.
“I’m sorry, Carolina.” It was the man’s voice and he was moving again. “I just want her back. I don’t understand any of this.”
I heard him as clearly as if he were standing next to me, but he wasn’t. He was at least forty yards away, behind thick brick walls, inside the kitchen of the big house. I walked out of the door and started down the stairs, but had to stop and kneel on the steps, covering my ears with my hands. The cicadas hit me in a grinding wave of noise, louder than anything I’d ever heard. My hearing was a hundred times greater than normal. Then I realized what was happening, and just as suddenly as I gained awareness, it went away.
Sailor calls them our “abilities.” I would rather call them our “insanities.” Some of us are born with them and some of us, like me, develop extreme ones after severe trauma. Ray was the “Weatherman,” Geaxi had her amazing agility, and they both were faster than was natural. Now, I had discovered a kind of hyper-hearing, but I had no idea when it would arrive and depart, or how I would live with it if it stayed. It was madness to hear that much sound at once. I wasn’t sure if it was a new weapon or an old warning, but either way, I would need to learn it and learn to use it. As the cicadas died down in the darkness, and I sat on the steps staring across the driveway at the big house, I realized that I had awoken from my healing with something else. Something burning bright and cold without rage or panic. Something pure, honed, and yet involuntary as an eyeblink. It was natural to me now. Ingrained and immediate. It was an efficient, working obsession to find the Fleur-du-Mal. I would find him and kill him. There was no other choice.
I drew in a breath and glanced up at the sky. I found Orion and let my eyes drift to the southeast, to the constellation Canis Major and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, the Dog Star. I reached in my pocket and felt the Stone. There was no other choice. I stood up and started for the big house. I was alone with it now, alone with my cold, new companion — hate.
The tricycle that was usually at the bottom of the stairs had been removed and put away somewhere. I walked to the back door leading to the kitchen and opened it silently, standing in the entrance, listening. What I thought before were loud voices were just emphatic whispers. He was pacing the kitchen and she was standing at the end of the long table.
“Why not?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “there will be no police, Nicholas. There is only one way. Believe me.”
He saw me at once, but she had turned toward the stove and had her back to me. His mouth dropped open beneath his mustache. His eyes were red and weary. He wore a wrinkled dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar. His sleeves were rolled up and his suspenders hung loose at his sides. He didn’t say a word, nor did I. She sensed something and turned sharply, finding my eyes and holding them, searching for what she needed to know. She looked haggard and drawn. They both were beaten down, exhausted. She was holding a pot of coffee with both hands. “Are you. all right?” she asked in a clear voice.
“Yes,” I said, “I feel like your Stanley Steamer ran over me, but yes, I’m fine.”
There was almost a smile on her face, but it never surfaced. She walked to the long table and set the coffeepot down, then sat down herself. Nicholas had not moved a muscle. She looked at me. She spoke again and her voice was suddenly sad and defeated. “It was him again, wasn’t it? He was the one who cut you.”
I waited a moment. “Yes,” I said. “But he will not harm Star, Carolina. He will not kill her and he will not torture her.” I glanced at Nicholas. His mouth had closed and he was listening from a different place. I went on. “That is not. that is not how he wants you to suffer.”
Suddenly Nicholas started walking the length of the table, never taking his eyes off me and finally standing behind Carolina with his hands on her shoulders, staring down and across the table. He was a foot and a half taller than I was.
“All right,” he started, “what I’ve got to say needs to be said and I need to say it.” His voice was hoarse from coffee and fatigue, and he was nervous and maybe frightened, but he didn’t waver and Carolina let him speak. “I know who you are because Carolina has told me about you, and I thought most of that was fairy tales, but I’ve watched you heal from wounds that probably would have killed or maimed for life any other. person. And Solomon told me once that I would never have met her if it hadn’t been for you. I owe you for that. But I don’t give a whisker about you or. your kind when it comes to my daughter. If you or one like you is responsible, I want her back. And I’ll do anything to get her back. And Carolina will not suffer one day because of it. I will not have it.” He paused and wiped his mouth and mustache. “I hope you don’t take too much offense at my manners, especially before we’ve even met, but I wanted to say what needed to be said.”
“I understand,” I said without hesitation. “And I agree. One of us is responsible and I am leaving for New Orleans tomorrow morning to take care of that.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“I can and will.”
“You can’t, you don’t—”
“Sit down!” Carolina interrupted. “Both of you, please, sit down.”
We did as we were told and after he sat, Nicholas started to say something, but she put her hand over his mouth and he stayed silent. I watched her compose herself. She was remarkable. Practically her whole world had fallen apart, she was as physically drained as I’d ever seen her, and yet she seemed as if she had seen it coming and knew what to do.
She took a deep breath and said, “Nicholas, this is Zianno. Zianno, this is Nicholas.” We exchanged glances and a nod. I could tell he was a good man because he listened to her wholeheartedly and with faith. He had let her inside him to that place where deep and unquestioned trust is required. A place of no proof and no doubts. A place that is only held in place with love.
She gave us both a hard look. “Neither one of you is going anywhere.” She went on. “At least not in the morning.”
“Hush!” She cut me off. “You are not ready to travel, no matter what you say, and two days will not make a difference if and when Star is found, and she will be. I have more to say to you about that, but not now. I wired Owen Bramley four days ago about Solomon, saying nothing about Star and only mentioning that you were here. He wired back that he’d be here in five days with ‘extra cargo,’ whatever that means. I want you to stay until then. I am going to hold a gathering for Solomon, not a service, more of a ‘remembering.’ I owe it to him. We all do.”
“All right,” I said, “I’ll stay, but only until I’ve paid my respects to Solomon, then I’m gone.”
“And I with him,” Nicholas said.
Carolina turned and looked at him, almost breathing him in, she was so close. She reached up with her hand and traced his features with her fingers, then whispered to him, “You cannot help, not with this, my love.”
He took her hand away and held it carefully in his. “Christ, Carolina, what am I supposed to do? She’s my only daughter.”
Carolina glanced at me for the briefest moment, turned back and said, “Stay with me, Nicholas. Please.”
“Because I’m pregnant.”
There was a full ten seconds of stunned silence. Nicholas was trying to make sense of so many mixed feelings, he couldn’t begin to form a coherent thought or sentence. For some reason, I could only think of one thing to say, something I’d never said. I said, “Great Yahweh!”
“Yes,” she said and rose up out of her seat. She picked up the coffeepot and felt the sides for warmth. She looked to the counter for cups and went to get them. Nicholas and I watched. “Yes,” she said again. She came back with three cups, two hooked in one finger, and set them down. She reached into the pocket of her blouse, taking out a handkerchief and wiping her nose, which was as red as her eyes. She sat down again and gave her hand back to Nicholas. He still had not found a response. She looked over at me and said, “Another thing, Z. You cannot afford the luxury of what I see in your eyes if you intend to bring Star back whole and healthy.”
I waited a moment, almost afraid to ask, knowing she would get it right, but also knowing there was no stopping it. Not now.
“What do you see?” I finally asked.
“You must let it go, Z, for Star’s sake.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Hate. Hate and vengeance is what I see.”
I watched her and watching her was like staring into moving water. You surrender, and in surrendering, are revealed. “I’ll find Star,” I said. “That much I promise.”
She moved again, this time to the other end of the kitchen and a drawer in the sideboard. She withdrew something wrapped in a scarf and brought it back, laying it gently on the table. “You will need this, not just for your own peace of mind, but when you find Star, she will recognize this, no matter what she’s been through. The scarf is hers too.”
I unwrapped the scarf. It was silk and hand-painted with pictures of Chinamen caught in a storm at sea. Inside was Mama’s baseball glove.
Suddenly Nicholas found his voice. He almost shouted, “Carolina, how long have you known you were pregnant?”
I looked up and she was still looking at me. “Is this what Nicholas found earlier?” I asked. “When he was talking about someone vanishing?”
“Yes,” she said.
I turned slightly and looked at Nicholas. What I’d asked had made him curious. “How did you know that?” he asked.
“It’s not important, not now anyway, but tell me, was it Li you were talking about? Was it Li who vanished?”
He sat down in the chair next to Carolina and dragged it closer to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. They leaned their heads together.
“Yes,” he said. “It was Li, but I’m not surprised. He never said hello; why should he say good-bye?”
She started to pour the coffee and I stopped her. “No more coffee,” I said. “It’s your turn to heal.”
Rain fell all the next morning and most of the day. It was a September rain and the air was chilled by it. Carolina and Nicholas slept in. I wandered the grounds and the neighborhood, staying close by in case Owen Bramley arrived, but he never did. It felt good to walk in the rain. I stepped into the kitchen of the big house to dry off and ran into Ciela, who was going shopping for Solomon’s “remembering.” I asked her where the other girls and staff were and she said Carolina had closed the “house” and let everyone go, but Ciela said she would not leave while the child was still missing; she owed Carolina that much.
Listening to her, I walked to the far end of the kitchen and noticed an alcove with a door just beyond it. I asked her where the door led and she told me it was the inside entrance to Li’s room. I opened the door and walked into the tiny, empty space in which he had lived. I wondered about the odd man who had spent his life devoted to Solomon for a reason I never did understand. I wondered where he was and knew somehow that he was probably not on his way back to China. I looked out at the rain through the one narrow window and across to the “Honeycircle.” I thought I would have a violent jolt of memory, but I didn’t. I only thought of what I must do. I had to get to Unai and Usoa. Why had they told me the Fleur-du-Mal was in New Orleans when he was in St. Louis, most likely all along? I had to find some truths. I had to talk to Eder and find out if she might know what Baju had meant when he told me “this is not about theft.” I knew what my heart felt about Opari, but I had to clear it in my head. And I had to find Star. If I was going to kill the Fleur-du-Mal, I had to find Star first. Sailor, Geaxi, even Opari, would have to wait. I leaned my head against the window and watched the raindrops run down the glass. One drop ran into the next, then the next, and the next.
I stayed in Solomon’s room that night and, for the first time in years, slept with Mama’s glove as a pillow.
There was a reason deeper than mere recognition of Solomon’s passing in Carolina’s gathering, her “remembering.” She knew instinctively the emptiness that others felt could and should be filled, if only temporarily, by sharing memories of the old man’s presence, his ability to fill up space and give it color, movement, life. “That’s what people needed to remember,” she said. “They owed some of their best memories to Solomon’s presence.”
And they came by the dozens, some with tears, some with smiles. Every one of them was greeted with charm and no outward signs of stress relating to Star. Carolina had had an informal meeting earlier with Ciela, Nicholas, and me and let it be known that the standard reply would be, “Star is in the park with Li.”
They came on foot, in taxis, a few in automobiles, and one group composed entirely of musicians arrived in an elegant parade-dress, horse-drawn carriage, driven by none other than Mitchell Ithaca Coates, who was resplendent in an oversized tuxedo and top hat. He handled the horses well and brought the carriage to an even halt under the stone arch. I walked out with Carolina and Nicholas to greet them and felt a smile on my face for the first time since I’d healed. I glanced at Carolina and Nicholas and they were smiling too. It was as if Solomon were arriving for his own “remembering.”
I helped Mitch with the door and he introduced each of the passengers as they stepped down from the carriage. There was the big man, Tom Turpin, who gave his condolences to Carolina from himself and everyone else downtown who was “in the shuffle.” There was the stunning woman, Yancey, who I’d seen with Solomon at the roulette table. She was decked out from head to foot in black lace and chiffon, and even wore a black veil, which she held across her face. She simply nodded toward Carolina and Carolina did the same in return. There were two more pianists and two horn players, followed by a Creole man Mitch introduced as Bernie de Marigny, the grandson of “Johnny Craps,” the man who had brought the game that took his name to America. The man bent over and took Carolina’s hand, but stopped short of actually kissing it. Then, in a raspy whisper, he said, “Solomon liked to live life on the Yo,” which Mitch said meant the number eleven. “It’s a difficult roll,” de Marigny went on, “but it pays well.” He smiled and I could see the light catch the diamond embedded in his eyetooth. The last person to step down was a black man of about average height, wearing an inexpensive but neat and clean black suit and bowler hat, which he removed after stepping down. Mitch was beaming when he said, “This is my teacher and the king of ragtime, the eminent—”
“I am previously acquainted with Mr. Joplin, Mitchell, but thank you for the courtesy,” Carolina cut him off. “We are old friends and I’m only sorry Miss Lily could not be here to greet him,” she said, giving the man a warm embrace and taking his arm in hers. I could tell he was a shy man and he only smiled a little and said, “I’m so sorry, Miss Carolina, about Solomon. I just lost someone myself not two months ago.” Then he extended his hand to Nicholas and they shook hands. “That goes for you too, Nick.”
“Thank you, Scott. He believed in you, you know.”
“I know,” the man said, “I know.”
Mitch nudged me in the ribs. We were just two kids in the background. “That’s my teacher, man. That’s Scott Joplin. He’s teachin’ me to read music. write it down too. He’s the best, Z, the best there is.”
Carolina led everyone into the large dining room and main salon where people were already mingling and enjoying the food, wine, and beer that Ciela had prepared and laid out. There wasn’t any formal design or shape that Carolina had planned for her “remembering.” She believed things would take care of themselves. “Solomon’s presence is everywhere in this house,” she said. “Let him decide.”
The musicians all gathered around the Steinway grand piano in the main salon along with most of the others. It was the first time I’d noticed the absence of Georgia’s old upright. As Ciela replenished refreshments, Carolina rearranged the furniture so that everyone could be closer to the piano and the music. She asked Nicholas and me to move some couches, sofas, and chairs, which we did almost without complaint and without speaking. Nicholas was having the obvious problem of not knowing how to relate to someone who looked twelve years old, but was older than him in reality. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t helping. Then an odd thing occurred.
The two of us were trapped for several minutes behind the couches and sofas as a line of people resituated themselves with their food and drinks. We were both awkward in the moment and neither of us knew exactly how to make it better. We started to talk about long lines and waiting in general, but especially at the gate of any good baseball game, then about the frustration of the fans with prices and conditions, then the state of the game itself, the current standings, Cy Young, pitching, fundamentals. everything, anything that related to the new friend we had in common, the one that eliminated our differences and allowed us to become direct and easy friends — baseball. Baseball is the one great communicator. Baseball overrides it all.
Carolina encouraged the way things were going. She joined in as Tom Turpin sat at the piano and played several of “Solomon’s favorites.” Every room was filling up and a path had to be cleared for the horn players to get to the piano. In the crush, Scott Joplin turned and gave me his bowler hat, saying, “Would you mind finding somewhere safe for that, son?” I said I would be glad to and slipped through the crowd to an alcove under the stairs with an empty bench and a door I hadn’t seen before. I left the hat there and found Mitch listening to the music, nodding his head. Scott Joplin was at the piano. “That’s called ‘The Chrysanthemum,’ ” Mitch said. “It’s just published, brand-new!” Mitch knew all the particulars about him. He’d found his hero and teacher in the same person. The piece came to a close and Scott Joplin turned on the piano seat and Carolina took his hand. He dedicated the next composition to Carolina and “the missing lady,” calling it “Leola.” It was slow and haunting, and as he played, Carolina made her way back through the people, greeting everyone cordially, keeping her real terror somewhere deep inside herself, but it was taking its toll. I caught her eye for a moment and she knew I’d seen her weariness. I felt as guilty as if I had surprised her naked. I had done this to her. I had put her in this role where she had to assume all grief, inside and out, grief that should never have been hers in the first place.
I took a step toward her and felt a gentle tug on my sleeve. I turned, confused for a moment, then recognized the Ainu woman and her grandfather from the train ride to St. Louis. In so many words, she told me it was Solomon who had paid for their trip and allowed them to join their people at the Fair. They never got to thank him properly and felt the debt would go forever unpaid. I told her not to worry, Solomon would have considered their presence as payment. She asked if I had known him well, and as I was about to answer, the old man interrupted with his low, growling belches. He was looking at me, but speaking to the woman and she responded with a puzzled look. I asked her what exactly he had said. I told her not to try and make sense of it, but just to translate, literally, if she would be so kind. She said, “My grandfather asks for you to ‘name what you keep alive.’ ” I looked at the old man and knew there was only one answer. “The Meq,” I said, “the Meq is what I keep alive.” He seemed pleased and lowered his head in acceptance. I did the same. The woman smiled, embarrassed that she had missed something. I asked her name and she introduced herself as Shutratek and her grandfather, Sangea Hiramura. I told her my name was Zianno, and looking at the old man, told him I would keep his name alive in my memory. He belched and she said he said he would do the same.
I turned to look for Carolina and instead saw Nicholas was waving me over to meet the Cardinals’, player-manager, Charles “Kid” Nichols. Between us there were cardsharps and rabbis. I saw two bakers from the old Freund Bros. Bread Company and the tiny, five-foot tailor, Ira Stern, whom Solomon used to visit every day on his rounds. I saw the Deputy Police Commissioner, several old riverboatmen, and caught a glimpse of Annie Dunne, young Thomas Eliot’s nurse from down the street. Every room was alive with color, movement, music, and stories. It was the river of Solomon and somewhere across it, above it, I heard my name being shouted. It was Carolina.
Like the suddenness of being stung and the time it takes to realize it, I was aware of my new “ability,” my hyper-hearing. The clutter of noise and conversation became deafening, but I focused only on Carolina and found her the next time she shouted my name. As I started toward her, the “ability” went away, but just as it faded I thought I heard another voice, a voice as familiar as a younger sister’s would be, if I’d had one. It was Meq, I was positive. It was saying something about the Ferris Wheel and how beautiful it was, but vanished as a mirage does, probably some side effect of the “ability,” I thought.
I got to Carolina and her jaw was set tight in a false smile and there was a trace of panic in her eyes. She was standing with two men, one of whom I remembered from years before. Thankfully, he did not remember me. His name was Gideon Boehm and he’d worked in St. Louis for years as a sometime lawyer, sometime promoter of horse races and prizefights. His reputation was marginal at best, but it wasn’t him who Carolina seemed worried about. It was the other one. He was a plain man, taller than average, about sixty years old, with a strange but not unpleasant expression on his face. He seemed out of his element, yet completely at ease with it, as if he’d felt that way half his life.
“There he is,” she told the men, pulling me to her and putting her arm tight around my shoulders. “He was Solomon’s favorite grandnephew, this one,” she said, patting me on the arm, then standing away, looking at me hard and keeping her smile in place. “Zianno,” she said very slowly, “I couldn’t let these gentlemen leave without having you meet one of them. I know how much you love history in school and, well, I just couldn’t let this moment pass.” She paused again, keeping her smile frozen. “Zianno, I’d like you to meet Frank James.”
I stared back at her and she nodded, assuring me that I’d heard correctly, and in that moment we asked each other silently the same question. did Frank know Solomon had taken Jesse’s stash?
I looked up at the man and he smiled, extending his hand. “Nice to meet you, son,” he said.
We shook hands and I told him it was a real pleasure to meet him because the history books were doing him a disservice and not telling his side.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said and he glanced at Carolina. “Both sides pay in the end. Besides, son, it’s not history keeping me from talking, it’s the governor of Missouri.”
The other man laughed at that and I sneaked a glance at Carolina. I said, “Mr. James, did you know Solomon? Is that why you’re here?”
He looked down at me and he answered, but as he spoke he continually looked at Carolina. “No, I can’t say I knew the man. I heard his name once or twice, after the war, a card game, I believe, and maybe one other time. later on. No, son, I am here with Mr. Boehm and tomorrow I will fire my pistol to start a horse race. It is the only time the state will permit me to use a firearm.”
Carolina seemed to let out a breath that she’d been holding and thanked both men for coming, especially Mr. James for talking with me. They turned, and as Gideon Boehm led the way out, Frank James paused and spoke back over his shoulder to Carolina privately. “I don’t know how he did it,” he said and he winked at Carolina. “Never have. But I’ll tell you one thing. Jesse would have thought it damn clever.”
We both watched him disappear in the crowd without a word between us.
“Come on,” she said. “This ‘remembering’ is over. Solomon just said good-bye.”
She scanned the crowd and took my hand, weaving through the people until she found Nicholas near the music. Tom Turpin was back on piano and the woman, Yancey, was leaning on his massive shoulder. Carolina whispered something to Nicholas and we moved again, toward the stairs and the alcove with the door. On the way, she found Ciela and told her to clear the kitchen and the smaller rooms graciously. Nicholas was going to announce that it was time for things to wind down. She kept my hand in hers and led me through the door into the little room.
“I call it Georgia’s room,” she said.
It was a kind of office, study, and sanctuary all in one. There was a window in one wall with the curtains open and a beautiful cherry wood desk in front of it and a Tiffany lamp on the corner of the desk. Books in oak shelves lined two other walls from floor to ceiling, and against the wall closest to the door was Georgia’s piano. Outside, I heard Nicholas’s voice above the others, thanking everyone for coming, but now gently encouraging them to leave. Carolina sank into the chair behind the desk. She was completely spent. She looked up at me and in the smallest voice asked, “What will that evil one do with her, Z?” Star had never left her mind.
Just then, there was a light knock on the door, which was still open. It was Scott Joplin.
“Yes, Scott. Please, come in.”
He hesitated, then stepped inside. “I don’t want to bother you,” he said, then glanced at me. “I’ve got a favor to ask you, kind of private.”
She saw where he was looking and said, “Don’t worry about Zianno. He’s family. Now, what do you need?”
“Well, I’d like you to keep this for me,” and he handed her a manuscript. It was titled “A Guest of Honor — an Opera.” “It was meant for Lily to sing,” he said. “I just don’t see any reason to pursue it until I know she’s all right. She has that voice, that voice that drips just like honey, and I can’t hear anyone else in the lead role.”
“I know, Scott. I have heard her singing to Star on many occasions. She has a lovely voice.”
“Well, I’d like you to just keep it here with you, then. Safe and secure. And if you hear from Miss Lily, I would be grateful if you’d find me or leave word with my publisher. I want Lily to know how I feel, Miss Carolina. I am serious about this piece and I am serious about her singing it.”
“I will be glad to keep it for you, Scott, and it will stay with me until I hear from Lily or you tell me otherwise. I miss her too. She had a lot of promise. My daughter, Star, she always loved to. she always. she—” Carolina broke down and covered her face with her hands. Scott Joplin asked if she was all right and she nodded behind her hands. He asked if he’d said something wrong and she shook her head. He looked at me for some kind of assistance or explanation. I said, “She’ll be fine, she’s just exhausted. Would you like me to get your bowler?”
He took the cue and turned for the door, saying, “Yes, son, thank you. Young Mitchell Coates will be looking for me.”
Carolina suddenly uncovered her face and looked up. “I like Mitchell,” she said. “I could use someone just like him around here.”
Scott Joplin stopped at the door. “Well, I believe he’s available, Miss Carolina. He’s a hardworking boy, bright, and he might be a good player someday. I will send him by.”
“Thank you, Scott, I mean it. Solomon always believed in you. Always.”
“I know,” he said, “I know.”
I slipped past him into the alcove and reached down for his bowler resting on the bench, and as I grabbed it, another bowler spun through the air and landed on my hand. A much older, nastier, and uniquely familiar bowler.
“Bull’s-eye,” the voice said.
I looked up and he was smiling, almost as brilliant and white a smile as the Fleur-du-Mal, only a thousand times more welcome. Ray Ytuarte. “What’s the matter, Z? It looks like you seen a ghost.”
Behind him stood Owen Bramley with Eder and Nova, who was almost as tall as Ray, only a hundred and ten years younger. Owen Bramley said, “It seems we’ve missed most of the festivities.”
I looked back at him, then over to Ray. I turned and looked at Scott Joplin, then past him to Carolina sunk in the chair behind the desk. I looked behind her through the window past the “Honeycircle” and beyond that to the shadow of a beautiful doubt and the echo of a whispered word, “beloved.”
“Yes,” I said. “You have.”
Twelve hours. It was just twelve hours from the time Ray had tossed his bowler that we were both boarding a train for New Orleans. Yet, in that short span I was witness to something so rare that Eder told me later it had never happened in all her time among the Giza. She had only heard mention of it through her parents in legends and stories from the Time of Ice.
It began with embraces and awkward introductions in the alcove, and Scott Joplin assuming we were family. Then Mitch rounded him up and Ciela cleared the house with shouts of “Out! Out” (in English). Nicholas helped show the last of the stragglers out with the utmost courtesy.
Carolina decided to leave the house as it was and clean up in the morning. She suggested we all gather in the kitchen around the long table, which we did, and Owen Bramley immediately began a long explanation for their late arrival, which was not unusual. Since I had known him, he had never been anywhere at the time he was expected to be there. “When I heard the news from Carolina about Solomon,” he said, “I was damn near inconsolable. However, when she mentioned that you were already in St. Louis”—and he nodded at me—“then I remembered that Ray had asked me to wire him if I ever heard you were back in the States. I had trouble with a man in Boise, but after I told him. ”
As he rambled on, I looked around the room. Ciela was busy at the stove, oblivious to the fact that anything at all was out of the ordinary. Nicholas stayed close to Carolina, first standing, then sitting beside her. He was still sorting through new realities and fears though he was handling it well. Without warning, his world had assumed a missing daughter, a pregnant wife, a dead friend and mentor, and now his kitchen was full of beings out of some fairy tale he might have read to his daughter. He listened to Owen Bramley, but rarely looked at him. In fact, neither of them looked very long or very often at the other, but they were always more than cordial to each other. Owen Bramley mostly paced as he talked, wiping his glasses when he paused. I’m not sure what Nicholas thought of Eder. He might not even have thought of her as Meq, even though he knew she was Nova’s mother. He would have seen a woman, about Carolina’s age, with slightly exotic features, who could easily have been from Spanish Town on South Broadway. I know Carolina was fascinated with her. This was the first time she had ever met an “adult” Meq. And Nova broke her heart when she handed Carolina a carefully wrapped bundle of sprigs, saying, “It’s Solomon’s seal. It’s a herb that will come back every year and bring back the memory of your missing friend.” When I heard her voice, I knew I’d heard it before, recently. She was the younger sister. She was the one I had heard talking about the Ferris Wheel. She had been blocks away and probably talking to Ray and I had heard it. I knew then that I must harness my new “ability.”
Ray was Ray and his presence felt good. He’d found a spot on the countertop instead of a chair and sat there with one leg pulled up against his chest and one leg dangling, swinging back and forth. He was smiling, winking at me, and making faces at Nova, who ignored him. Domesticity had only changed one thing that I could see; instead of wearing his bowler, he was twirling it on his finger. Watching him, I made a decision. I decided not to tell him about the “Pearl,” about Zuriaa. I don’t know why, maybe I thought I had to know more, more of the truth, before I told him. I have never known why we sometimes decide on behalf of the ones we love what they should and should not know. It is a mistake. In the end, we are all found out. I glanced at Nova and marveled. It was apparent she had a quick intelligence and an innate capacity to focus and concentrate, read between the lines of the moment. She was listening to Owen Bramley, but I could tell she was more aware of Carolina, and even me, as I watched and thought about her. Owen Bramley was just finishing his long tale. “So in the end,” he said, “even with the additions, the solution lay in packaging, not logistics.” I had no idea what he was referring to, but then he suddenly changed the subject and said, “By the way, Carolina, where is Li? And where is Star? For God’s sake, I have only seen her in photographs.”
Carolina looked at Nicholas, taking his hand, then she looked at me, wondering what to say. It was impossible to keep it hidden any longer.
“The Fleur-du-Mal kidnapped her,” I said. Eder let out a small gasp and glanced at Ray, who returned her look and dropped his smile, confirming something between them. Even Carolina looked a little stunned. She had never heard me refer to him by name. I went on, “I don’t know why he has taken her, but I have an idea. I am going to New Orleans tomorrow. That is his home, of sorts, and that is where I will find her. and him. Li has disappeared.”
Owen Bramley stopped pacing. “Who in the hell is the Fleur-du-Mal?” he asked.
I looked at Eder first, then Nova, then Ray. He shrugged his shoulders. “You got the stage, Z, tell the man,” and he waved his bowler in front of him as an introduction. I glanced again at Eder and she nodded her head slowly. This was reckless, maybe even dangerous to her. She had never before shared information like this with the Giza. To her, we were still Meq, even the worst of us, and our safety had always been our silence.
“He is. one of us,” I said. “He is one of our kind, but he is also different. He is supposedly an assassin by trade and has been for a very long time. He might, he probably does, have a vendetta against me. All I know is, he has Star, he’s responsible for Solomon’s death, he killed Carolina’s sister and Mrs. Bennings”—and I paused, looked at Eder and Nova, thinking of Baju—“and he may have been behind some other things. I don’t know.” Eder gave me a quizzical look.
Owen Bramley took his glasses off, wiping them furiously and looking back and forth between Carolina, Nicholas, and me. “Did Solomon know this Fleur-du-Mal?” he asked.
I looked at him. Until then, I hadn’t thought about it. “No, why?” I asked.
“Because if he had, this would make more sense. But it does not, it does not make a damn bit of sense. Why haven’t you brought in the police on this one?”
“You know better than that, Owen.”
“But this is Carolina and Nicholas’s daughter! For Christ’s sake, Z, this is not Vancouver!” Then he stopped as if he’d been shot or had shot himself. His freckles all merged into one red blotch and he looked at Eder in panic. “Eder,” he said, “I’m sorry, I never meant—”
“It is all right, Owen. I know what you meant,” Eder said evenly.
“Vancouver?” Carolina asked. “What’s Vancouver?”
“That’s where my papa was killed,” Nova said and all eyes in the room looked to her, even Ciela’s. Nova looked back, one by one, into each and every face. The only sound I could hear was the hiss of a gas jet from the stove behind Ciela. In those few, strange, silent seconds, something happened to everyone in the room. Through the innocence and wisdom of Nova’s eyes, we all drank from a common pool, a quiet place of loss and restoration, and realized one by one a common trust and hope. Without having to say a word between us, we became what Eder said had only been legend — a family — an extended family of Giza and Meq. Not a family formed through time, geography, and circumstances, as we had with Kepa, but a family of strangers, formed in a few moments with love and blind trust.
Nicholas stood and cleared his throat. He put his hand on Carolina’s shoulder and spoke to Eder. “I don’t know if you were planning on staying in St. Louis or not, but if you are, then Carolina and I wouldn’t have you stay anywhere but here. You, Nova, Ray, and you too, Owen, if you have to,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at Owen or even Eder, he was looking down at Carolina. “We’re going to have another baby in the spring. I won’t have our baby being born in some big, empty house. No, ma’am, I won’t have it.”
Carolina looked up at him and smiled. “I agree,” she said.
Ray jumped down from the counter and pulled a chair up next to mine. Owen Bramley sat down too, next to Nicholas. “How do we find Star?” he said. “What can I do?”
Ray said, “Get me and Z to New Orleans.” Before I could say or do anything, he added, “You’re gonna need me, Z. It’s my town.”
So we sat at the long table making a plan and setting up a network of communication. Owen Bramley assured me I would have no problems traveling to New Orleans now or at any time in the future. And I could stay anyplace I chose. Solomon had left me a quarter of his estate and it was so well invested and diversified, he said I would only get richer. The other three-quarters had been willed equally to Owen himself, Carolina, and Star. “A bank account will be set up for you in New Orleans in a matter of hours,” he said, “and there is no need to worry about your youthful countenance. Not with this much money.”
I asked him if he still had the name and address of the French photographer on board the ship in Vancouver. He said he probably did, he’d have to look, and asked what that had to do with finding Star. I told him I wasn’t sure, maybe nothing, and I felt Ray watching me, wondering the same thing.
Then I asked if there had been any word from China and Owen Bramley said he’d received one telegram with one line from Sailor, which he couldn’t figure out at the time, but it said, “Have lost Zianno — gone searching.”
Finally, after a long day and night, Carolina called a halt to the gathering, saying she was exhausted, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Nicholas put his arm around her waist and asked Ciela to show everyone to their rooms. Carolina said, “Don’t leave before I say good-bye, Z.” I watched her walking away and I said, “We’ll find her. I promise.”
But there were no good-byes. I sneaked into Ray’s room at dawn and woke him up with my hand over his mouth. I whispered, “Let’s go,” and within minutes we were out of the door and standing under the stone arch in the driveway, shivering. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees and it had begun to rain again. The seasons were changing. Ray pulled his bowler down low over his eyes. All he said was, “Damn, Z.”
I noticed two huge wooden crates stacked under the arch, side by side. As we passed them, I asked, “Yours?”
“Don’t ask,” he said. So I didn’t.
Our train snaked its way down through Missouri and the eastern edge of the ancient Ozark Mountains. The rain stayed with us the whole trip and once, during a stop in the lowlands of Arkansas, I asked Ray if he could tell how long it would last.
“No, Z. I got no idea.”
“But you can tell when it’s coming, you can ‘listen’ for it, right?”
“No, it don’t work like that, either.”
“Well, how do you know then, what makes it happen?”
“I don’t know. I never have. I just sorta get a vision. I see the whole thing at once and I know when and where it’s going to change. I sorta see the mind of the storm, I guess. But I can’t tell where it’s going after where I see it. I only know what I know close-up, like somebody’s face right up against you. You see them real good, but you can’t see anything else around them.”
“And you can’t do it on purpose? You can’t will yourself to see something?”
“No, I don’t have nothing to do with that.”
I looked at him a long time while both of us stood there on the end of the platform like two kids, two brothers or cousins, watching the rain and waiting, waiting for something.
“Do you ever think it’s a curse?” I asked him. “Not just being the ‘Weatherman,’ but the whole thing, being Meq, I mean.”
“No, I try not to think about it like that.”
I put my hands in my pockets and turned to look at the flat cotton fields surrounding the station. I felt the Stone that I still carried there, cold and silent. It never gave me a reason or an answer. “I wish I felt about us the way Sailor or Geaxi does,” I said.
“You sure you want to?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I feel these days.”
He bent down and picked up a penny from the platform in front of him. He turned it over in his hand, then tossed it side-arm through the rain somewhere deep into the cotton field. “You ain’t lived as long as they have,” he said. “Give yourself another hundred years and then ask yourself how you feel.”
When we boarded the train and were back in our seats, he turned to me and said, “By the way, are you gonna tell me or not?”
“Tell you what?”
“Did you find her? Did you find Opari?”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes and no?” He paused, looking at me with streetwise eyes that had seen every kind of bluff and con there was. He took his bowler off and adjusted what was left of the brim, then set it on the seat next to him. I watched him, then turned and looked out of the window at the flat land and flimsy shacks that reminded me of ones I’d seen up and down the Yangtze. I turned back and told him everything, the whole story, and I told him as rapidly as I could, so that when I left out the part about Zuriaa, I hoped he hadn’t noticed. And I told him about the “Honeycircle” and everything that happened there. And then I told him that I was going to kill the Fleur-du-Mal as soon as we found Star.
Ray picked up his bowler again and examined it carefully, looking for any imperfections, of which there were many, and then slowly set it on his head at just the right angle. He looked straight at me with clear green eyes. “Well, Z,” he said. “It seems like that son of a Carthaginian’s got it comin’.”
I almost laughed out loud. “Where did you hear that phrase?” I asked him.
He looked back with a blank expression, then we both sniggered and started to laugh together, loud and long enough to draw attention from the other passengers. “I heard Kepa say it,” he finally answered. “I thought it kinda rolled off the tongue.”
I laughed again and then asked him about Kepa, Miren, Pello, and the others. He said Kepa was still as strong as barbed wire, but he and Pello were worried about the future of the Basque way of life in the territory. More and more, the sheepmen were being forced off free-range land. They had formed mutual aid societies in Boise and other places, but Kepa was not optimistic. I asked him if that had anything to do with him bringing Eder and Nova to St. Louis and he said no, that had been Eder’s idea. Nova would begin the Itxaron the following year and Eder wanted her to know more about the world than just the high desert and the womb of protection that Kepa and his Basque tribe provided. When Ray mentioned Nova, I noticed his concern for her was as great as Eder’s, maybe greater, but he agreed that she should live among the Giza and learn their ways. He said he thought Nova could “see things,” but he didn’t explain it further and I didn’t ask. I did ask if Eder had told him anything of Unai and Usoa, since he had never met them and it was they who we would seek first in New Orleans. He said Eder thought the Wait had taken its toll on them. They had been together so long, she said their only thoughts were for each other.
I looked out of the window of the train and tried not to think of what that meant. Thoughts only of each other, only of your beloved. I could not let myself think that way, not if I wanted to find Star. I looked at the live oaks and cypresses, some thick with moss, and the tangle of rotted logs and brush beyond. We were approaching New Orleans from the west, skirting the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Suddenly the image of Captain Woodget came to mind and I remembered that Usoa had said he was living there, somewhere across the lake. I promised myself to try to find him, if and when I could.
We wound through the outskirts and finally stepped off the train well after midnight. Ray had not been to his “town” in over forty years and New Orleans, in the fall of 1904, was no longer anybody’s “town.” It was a wide-open and well-lit city with an international port and a legalized red-light district. However, it didn’t take Ray long to adapt. Within twenty minutes of me telling him I knew only that Unai and Usoa lived somewhere near the Vieux Carr?, in a house owned by a man named Antoine Boutrain, we were in the French Quarter and he was asking all the right questions in just the right way, streetwise and elusive, vague and straight to the point. He was a master at it and within another twenty minutes we had a description and an address.
The house was less than two miles away on a street just off St. Charles Avenue. The street was dark and claustrophobic with heavy, overhanging limbs on both sides. “Orange trees,” Ray said. “The Creoles loved ’em.” The house itself was stuccoed brick and set back from the street. It had a wide front door and four sets of long, rectangular windows, floor to ceiling. There was a single gas lamp burning faintly by the front door and in the pale light I could see the house had once been painted yellow, but the bricks were now chipped and weatherworn and the color was mostly a memory. Ray said, “Your move.”
I took a step toward the house and stopped. I was certain I heard singing. I looked at Ray and could tell he had heard nothing. I listened harder and even though there was melody, the singing wasn’t really singing, it was more like breathing. Then it stopped abruptly.
I nodded to Ray and he followed me along a brick path around the house and through a trellised arbor of bougainvillea to an open courtyard. In the middle there was a circular, tiled fountain and pond and lying near it, either unconscious or dead, was the woman Isabelle.
“What the. ” Ray said and started toward her.
“She prefers to fall asleep and wake up in the same place, monsieur.” It was Usoa and she appeared out of the blackness like a ghost. “Most often, that place is her own boudoir, but other times, as is now the case, she finds somewhere else to run from her dreams. We always make sure she is safe and wait for her to wake.”
She turned to me and smiled. From behind me, a shadow moved and another voice said, “
Unai walked over to Usoa silent and barefoot. Indeed, they were both barefoot and wearing long, beaded tunics made of muslin, which looked to be simple nightshirts, but I knew they were more than that and probably from somewhere I’d never been. Usoa reached into a pocket hidden in the folds of her tunic and then took Ray’s hand, placing the traditional cube of salt in his palm.
Ray glanced at me, then mumbled, “Uh. well. ”
“You are Ray Ytuarte,” Usoa said softly. “We have heard of you through Eder and we welcome you. I am Usoa Ijitu—”
“And I am Unai Txori,” Unai finished.
I noticed they introduced themselves informally. It was unusual for old ones and their whole demeanor seemed more relaxed. Their names together meant “Gypsy/Bird” and standing there barefoot in muslin tunics they seemed just that.
Ray glanced again at Isabelle, who was snoring peacefully on the ground. Usoa smiled at him. “Damn,” he said.
She turned and took Unai’s hand in hers, then lifted it to her lips and held it there, nodding once.
“We have something to tell you,” Unai said. “You will be the first to know.”
“What is that?” I asked.
He paused for only a moment, then said, “We have decided to cross in the Zeharkatu. For eleven hundred years, we have waited and soon the Wait shall end. Next year, in Spain, there will be a Bitxileiho. It is near our home, our ancestral home, and we will use the circumstances to cross. It is right. It is time.”
My mind raced. I had question after question, but I only asked the first one. “Why now?”
Unai laughed and Usoa kept his hand tight against her lips. He said,
He turned her head slightly and kissed her on the lips. I saw the blue diamond in her ear flash in the low light as she turned. Another question I had was being answered. I was envious of their openness and tenderness but realized those very things had made them lose their vigilance. Eder was right — their only thoughts were for each other. They had not lied to me or given me any false indications. They had simply been fooled.
“What about the Fleur-du-Mal?” I asked.
“What about him?” Unai answered. “We are weary of the Fleur-du-Mal, as were Yaldi and Xamurra. He has
“What if he is stealing children?”
Usoa let go of Unai’s hand and took a step toward me. “He has stolen children before,” she said. “You know that, so why do you ask, Zianno?”
“What if he stole Carolina’s daughter?”
She was standing directly in front of me. She reached up and touched my cheek with her hand. “This is why you come, is it not? This is what has happened?”
I hesitated. I saw so many things in her eyes at once. She looked back at Unai and I followed her. I saw the same things in him. They had survived so long, living with the seed of a powerful, rare, and almost supernatural love, keeping it hidden and suppressed, waiting for the time to let it germinate and live, and then at that moment that same love somehow betrayed them and made them weak, vulnerable. Love, guilt, risk, consequence.
“Yes,” I said.
On the ground, Isabelle groaned and rolled over onto her back, leaving her mouth open and slack. There was saliva running out of the corner of her mouth and the angle of her head made her look as if she was snarling. Everyone looked down at her and for some reason Ray said, “She ain’t no Queen of Hearts, is she?”
Usoa knelt down and gently rolled Isabelle back on her side and replaced a small silk pillow under her head.
“What will he do with her?” I asked.
“If he lets her live, he could do many things. He has in the past,” Usoa said, rising. “But I think this may be personal and, therefore, he may take his time. He is unpredictable, but this is his favorite game of all.”
“What? What is?”
“The corruption of innocence. And pulling your heart out by the roots.”
Unai stepped up beside Usoa and put his arm around her waist. “Our watch is over, Zianno,” he said. “This information only proves it. We have made mistakes before, but none this egregious and untimely. We regret it and pledge on your mama and papa’s memory to help you any way we can. If I could change the way events have transpired, I would.
“You owe me nothing,” I said. “The Fleur-du-Mal owes me the return of a little girl who has nothing to do with this. And in return for her, I will take his life.”
“What can we do?” Usoa asked.
“We begin tomorrow. Ray and I will need your insight and knowledge, your memories and maps of his haunts and habits. We are no longer watching. We are after him like dogs.”
Unai clutched the Stone beneath his tunic. I looked down at Isabelle sleeping, dreaming there on the ground. She smacked her lips once and made me think of a doll, a dreaming doll being kept by two children older than any place her dreams could ever go.
Ray said, “Dogs?”
We checked in to a hotel that same night. It was an old hotel well past its prime, but centrally located and still run with discretion and an emphasis on privacy. There was cast-iron grillwork all around with thick vines weaving in and out. Ray and I liked the old place and the fact it was called the St. Louis made it a good fit.
I gave them my real name at the desk but registered under Owen Bramley’s and told the management he was the executor of my grandfather’s estate. There was no problem and the date of our departure was left open.
The next day, at about noon, Ray and I began a ritual that was to last much longer than either of us had anticipated. I awoke before him to the overpowering smell of fresh-baked bread and pastries coming from a bakery below our windows and not half a block away. Our rooms in the suite were separated by a sitting room, but each opened through louvered shutters onto a balcony that ran the length of the suite. I dressed and made my way downstairs and to the bakery, where I picked up a dozen assorted croissants and rolls with fresh butter and jam. When I returned, Ray was awake and waiting for me on the balcony, drinking chicory coffee that he’d ordered from room service. That in itself, a twelve-year-old kid ordering coffee, would have been out of the ordinary anywhere but in New Orleans, where the unusual becomes the ordinary. We sat on the balcony sharing the rolls and coffee, speaking little and watching the street life of New Orleans pass around and below us. Eventually, we planned our strategy for the day. We were searching for the Fleur-du-Mal, who was referred to by several names in countless countries, but whatever name was used, he was actually known to only a few. Ray, in his manner, decided to start in the French Quarter, then make his way to the far side of the Quarter and Storyville, the red-light district. My plans were slightly less practical and a lot more vague. Ray said, “Where you goin’, Z?”
I said, “Everywhere. Nowhere.”
Ray found out more that first day, on his own, than he ever did following any name or place that Unai and Usoa gave him later. It was not their fault, really. Ray had known the underworld, especially the kind of vice, deceit, and shifty deals that was New Orleans, most of his life. Unai and Usoa’s life, until they had been watching the Fleur-du-Mal, had been quite different. That evening, I found out some of it.
We met at Isabelle’s, as we would many, many nights thereafter. I only saw Isabelle herself infrequently. As usual, she was in her boudoir preparing for a grand ball that didn’t exist, and when I did see her, she was in a panic and yelling to Usoa that they would be too late, she would have to cancel. She was quite mad and Usoa always told her they had more than enough time and not to worry, she looked lovely. I asked Unai how long she had been this way and he said it had been a gradual but increasing decline, probably due to her love of absinthe. He said he had seen it before, the Giza destroying themselves from the inside out, as had most Meq. At the mention of the Meq, I thought of Sailor and Geaxi and asked if he had heard from them. He said no, but that was normal, he had once gone a century without hearing from Sailor. Impulsively, I asked him when and how he had met Usoa. He laughed out loud and sat down in a beautiful wicker chair with broad armrests and a wide, fanned back. He looked so tiny in the chair. A child in high leather boots and yet, when he spoke, when I looked in his eyes, I knew he spoke from twenty lifetimes before the chair was even made.
“I owe it to Charlemagne,
“Was it sudden?”
“Was what sudden?”
“Your realization of it, your. connection.”
“Ah, I see,” he said. “No, no, Zianno. Our realization and our connection were
I sat down in a wicker chair opposite him and leaned forward. I caught a glimpse of Ray moving in the shadows, finding a place on the ledge of the fountain, and I thought of Opari, appearing out of the shadows and into my life, changing everything in an instant. “Tell me the story, Unai. Please.”
He looked at me strangely and asked, “Where should I begin?”
“At the moment you knew she was your Ameq.”
He turned his head and stared into the darkness of the courtyard and then looked up, focusing his black eyes on the night sky above us. “You want to know of the Isilikutu, the silent touch, the Whisper, only our hearts can hear.”
“Yes,” I said.
“All right,” he said. “I shall begin there, but first, I must tell you where ‘there’ was.
“I was staring at the sky as I am now. I was in the Pyrenees, hiding among the boulders above a narrow pass called Roncesvalles. The year was AD 778. It was the first time I had been back to the Pyrenees in over two hundred years. I was summoned, or more properly, Sailor was summoned in North Africa by his Aita and I was traveling with Sailor at the time, so we decided to return together, more out of curiosity than anything else. Charlemagne was in retreat across the Pyrenees, making his way to the safety of his Frankish kingdom. He had discovered that the Basque, even most of the Christian Basque, did not want his presence in their homeland, and he was about to suffer the worst defeat and humiliating military campaign of his entire career. He would be ambushed in the narrow pass and cut off from his rearguard and supplies, all of whom would be killed and the supplies scattered in ravines by the time his massive army and entourage were able to turn and bring relief. He had underestimated the Basque and their ability to join separate, fiercely independent tribes into a cohesive fighting force. And in the Pyrenees, with their heavy weapons and armor, Charlemagne and his men would be no match for the Basque. In the mountains, the Basque could become ghosts.
“Sailor’s Aita, Bidun, had summoned him to witness the occasion and very possibly, in case something went wrong, use the Stones, though he must have also known Sailor would never do such a thing.
“The point is, we did witness it, and in the midst of the carnage, while the air was filled with Basque arrows and the screams of men and horses being pierced and blinded, I stared up at the sky and suddenly felt the presence of something else, something unknown and yet as familiar as my own heartbeat. I heard her breathing. I heard her breathing rapidly. I was six hundred and forty-four years old and had been in the Itxaron for six hundred and thirty-two of them and I knew instantly I was in the presence of my Ameq. I looked down fifty feet below and at the head of the baggage train was a caged caravan breaking away from the others and making a run for freedom along the narrow ledge. Behind the bars of the caravan were several men, women, and children, all Christian Basque who had resisted Charlemagne. And there was one other among them who resembled a child, but of course was not. The caravan struggled, passing and pushing oxcarts and packhorses into a three-thousand-foot drop. Then, just as the caravan broke free and moved away, she grasped the bars and looked up among the boulders, searching for me. Amid the screams and chaos, she had heard my heartbeat and felt my presence. I stood up from my hiding place and looked for the first time into the eyes of Usoa. She whispered one word which I heard with all my being. She said, ‘Beloved.’ In another instant, she was gone and the caravan disappeared around the rock cliff. I stood staring,
“Later, Sailor had to tell me what had happened, that I had experienced the silent touch, the Whisper, what the Meq call the Isilikutu.”
Unai stopped talking and rose from the wicker chair in silence. He took Usoa’s hand and held it to his mouth, kissing her palm. I had not heard her approach. She sat down in the chair and, except for the blue diamond in her ear, could have been his twin.
“Do you know the story of Pyramus, Zianno?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“It is the story of a legendary youth in Babylon who dies for love of Thisbe, his beloved. The details are unimportant, but for the next twelve years, Unai nearly became my Pyramus. Using passion instead of reason, he endangered himself constantly, finally cajoling and manipulating Bidun into convincing Adelric to take him along in his entourage to Worms, where Adelric had been summoned. Charlemagne wanted an explanation for the abduction of Count Chorzo of Toulouse and Unai wanted to find me at any cost, though he told Adelric he was acting as a spy at court, where, everyone knew, children were ignored. But once there, he was no child. He stalked the grounds of the assembly and foolishly used the Stones almost at random on guards and emissaries until he found me.
“Ironically, it was Unai’s entrance that secured our safety and eventually gained us favor. Originally, I had been captured along with some Basque families from Navarra as punishment, but after Roncesvalles I was put into service as a handmaiden to one of Charlemagne’s own daughters, Berta. She thought of me as a charmed being and a good luck omen for her. When she heard the commotion of the falling soldiers, who had been ‘charmed’ themselves by Unai, she burst out of her chambers and saw the two of us embracing. I told her it was Unai who had saved me from an assassin and thereby saved her. With that act and Berta’s natural belief in fortune of all kinds, we were both made a part of her permanent entourage. Adelric returned to the Pyrenees thinking he had planted the perfect spy and Charlemagne welcomed us as magical angels of good luck and fortune. In fact, we were merely two Meq in love. But the ruse worked and we stayed in the courts of Charlemagne for many years, traveling through Aquitaine and the rest of his empire at will. We even became elephant handlers, taking care of Abul Abbas, Charlemagne’s pet elephant, until it died in Saxony in the year 811. I could tell you story after story about Unai and that elephant. Later, of course, we had to leave that world and move on, as the Meq always do, but that is when and how we met and soon our long journey and Wait will end. The Zeharkatu awaits us like a gate to a place we have only named in whispers.”
From deep in the shadows by the fountain, I heard Ray say, “Damn.”
I never said what I felt that night. Not that night or the next or the next. I let it burn up inside me and drift away on its own like smoke. I was honored to have heard Unai and Usoa’s story, but inside I felt only melancholy and confusion. What had happened in China was real, I knew that now. It was common to us, it even had a name. Isilikutu. But what had happened in St. Louis and what it meant was more confounding than ever. If I was going to find Star, I had to let it go.
In the days and weeks that followed, Ray and I stuck to our routine: “breakfast” at noon on the balcony and then off to follow our separate trails and sources of rumors, clues, and bits of information about the Fleur-du-Mal, then a brief meeting with Unai and Usoa at Isabelle’s, dinner somewhere, and then back to the French Quarter or Storyville for our nightly tour of hotels, clubs, whorehouses, saloons, pool halls, poker rooms, docks, markets, and the streets themselves.
Physically, it seemed to rain more and the temperature dropped a bit, often dramatically, at night. But I noticed no change in the seasons to speak of. New Orleans is a season unto itself, especially at night. Storyville never closed, and it was there that we concentrated most of our attention. The Fleur-du-Mal was an assassin, but as Unai and Usoa told us, for centuries he had also trafficked in young girls and women in a complex network between the Muslim East and the Christian West. White slavery had become his stock-in-trade. New Orleans, with the only legal red-light district in America, was a natural hub of that wheel.
Ray and I made acquaintances with most of the “players” in the district; the gamblers, bartenders, pimps, and some of the madams. Even though we were “just kids” in their eyes, we were streetwise and it was New Orleans, a place where life didn’t always need distinction between such things. We moved freely and easily and Ray knew the game well. With just the right amount of laughter and bluff, he could steer a conversation into a gentle interrogation. “Countess” Willie Piazza, the colorful madam who spoke seven languages and wore a monocle, made the first actual reference to the Fleur-du-Mal, and even that was an alias we’d not heard before. Ray had simply asked her if she knew any characters that looked like us. She laughed out loud and took a drag from a cigarette lodged in a holder as long as her arm. “Oh, yes, honey, I certainly do,” she said. “The Genie, that’s what I call him, always poppin’ up out of nowhere with teeth as white as milk and eyes as green as pine trees. But I don’t like what he’s sellin’.”
“What’s that?” Ray asked.
“Girls, honey. Girls younger than he is, younger than you. Girls that should still have a real mama.”
“Well, when was the last time the Genie popped up?”
“It was at the opera,” she said and took another elaborate drag on her cigarette. “Somethin’ by Mozart, I believe. Anyhow, between acts one and two, he came up to me with that cagey smile and asked me about Jelly Roll Morton, of all things, and if he was still playin’ at my place. He was in a custom-tailored little black tuxedo with that black hair slicked back and tied in that green ribbon. But like I said, I don’t like what he’s sellin’ and I politely took my leave. That was just after Mardi Gras, honey, last March or April.”
Through the end of the year, that was as close as we got to the Fleur-du-Mal. It was a frustrating, empty time. A chase without a starting place. A game that he was playing and probably enjoying, but a game that Star never asked to play. He was using her life without permission.
I wrote to Carolina and Nicholas every other day, trying to sound positive and sometimes making up leads when I had none. I knew Carolina would read between the lines, but I did it anyway. Ray even wrote to Eder, and Nova especially, something I never thought I’d see. I heard from Owen Bramley occasionally, as did the hotel management. He helped legitimize our stay and keep curiosity to a minimum. He also said he was moving to St. Louis from San Francisco. Nova had insisted and would not allow any other decision, some doom and gloom prospect in the city’s future, she had said. And he mentioned he had contacted the French photographer and was in the process of obtaining the prints and negatives I had requested. They were old, but they were there, they existed. No one heard a word from Sailor or Geaxi, not Owen Bramley, Eder, or Unai and Usoa, who were already preparing to leave for Spain and an end and a beginning that was unlike any other. We entered the year 1906 frustrated, separated, and in some ways helpless. Unai’s toast on New Year’s Eve was apropos:
Ray was a good friend, companion, and the closest thing to a brother I’d ever had. We laughed a lot, enjoyed the same food, and shared a love for music, particularly what was going on in New Orleans. On our rounds, we always caught “Stalebread” Lacoume’s Razzie Dazzie Spasm Band wherever they were playing. Jelly Roll Morton was a regular at Willie’s and he was doing things very similar to what Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin were doing in St. Louis, only his music was looser, more danceable. And at the Economy, a tiny club that seemed never to close, we stood outside and listened to a form of music that affected us deeply. Players from all over the South came through the club and they were all playing the “blues.” I was hypnotized. Each player took a common theme and structure and made it their own, made it unique. And when they played together, the music became timeless in a way Ray and I understood instinctively. Complex in its very simplicity, it was an enigma. Through the music, the players themselves shared a joy and camaraderie, almost a secret, acknowledged with a grin or a common nickname. You could feel this music, almost touch it and taste it, or as Ray said, “This is gonna last, Z.”
It was a guilty pleasure for us, but it did yield information about the Fleur-du-Mal, even if it was always in the past tense. Several people said they’d seen “the kid with the smile,” or “the quiet kid with the green ribbon,” but few could remember when and none had a clue where he lived.
We both loved the music, but Ray also loved the crowds, the noise, the late nights, and the constant ebb and flow of strangers in New Orleans. When the crush of Mardi Gras came, I stayed at Isabelle’s for two weeks. I needed a break and I needed to know anything they might have forgotten to tell me about the Fleur-du-Mal, anything I might have missed. Ray stayed put in the St. Louis Hotel and immersed himself in the smothering chaos of Mardi Gras.
The peace was welcome and so was the time spent with Unai and Usoa. These were the last few days and weeks they would be as they were, as they had been for so long it was difficult to imagine. They had spanned an immense length of time with a conscious, living bridge of denial and survival and were on the brink of burning that bridge with another conscious decision that would both confirm their love and trigger their own mortality. The Zeharkatu. It was perhaps the greatest mystery of the Meq and the one I knew least about. I wasn’t even sure what to ask. When I did bring it up, I was surprised at their reluctance and shyness, as if they were as ignorant as I, but didn’t want it revealed.
“Where will you go?” I blurted out. “What happens next?”
We were sitting in the courtyard in the wicker chairs. It was a beautiful morning near the end of my stay. The sun was shining through the live oaks in warm pools of light and Usoa was pouring each of us a cup of rich chicory coffee. After a moment, Unai leaned forward in his chair, but before he could speak Usoa gently pushed him back and spoke for both of them.
“We follow in the footsteps of your mama and papa,” she said. “In the old way.”
“And how is that?” I asked.
“We were with them when they decided to cross. We will do as they did.”
She paused and looked at Unai, who took her hand in his.
“Go on, please,” I said. “Where were you?”
“We were staying on the island-city of Kilwa, across from Tanganyika on the East African coast. It was 1859. Your mama and papa arrived with the favorable winds from India, trailing a man who had supposedly done business with Opari. Ironically, it was the same man we were watching because we knew he did business with the Fleur-du-Mal. It was ironic because none of us ever found the man, but it was with us that Yaldi and Xamurra made their decision. The man’s name was Hadim al-Sadi and he was the current ‘sultan’ of an old Muslim family of trader-merchants that dealt in anything from gold and porcelain to silk and slaves, as long as it was profitable. Hadim’s family was said to have discovered an ancient trade route, older than the Sahara, that connected East Africa with West Africa through the kingdom of Mali. For centuries, the Fleur-du-Mal has been obsessed with Mali. Why, we have never known. The point is, we thought we had a link between the Fleur-du-Mal and Opari and we were excited. We thought we might find a way into her invisible world.
“But as the months passed and we watched and waited, Yaldi and Xamurra became more abstracted and distant. Their interest waned, and, looking back, it is clear they were at the end of a much greater Wait, the Itxaron, only none of us knew it.
“Then, late in the year, Baju and Eder came through Kilwa from the west on a Portuguese ship. Baju said he was making a survey of the stars in the southern hemisphere and seeking the lost African tribe that worshipped Sirius, the Dog Star. His interests were eclectic and ever-expanding and their visit was a surprise, but not unusual.
“One morning, not unlike this one, we were all sitting on the abandoned walls of the old Gereza fortress, watching the everyday traffic of the harbor, when Baju casually mentioned there would be a Bitxileiho, a total solar eclipse, in Spain the following year. The news was not extraordinary, but for your mama and papa it crystallized every emotion and focused every vague yearning they had experienced for months. They looked at each other for a moment, smiled, then Yaldi announced to everyone that he and Xamurra would sail to Spain and cross in the Zeharkatu the old way, in the Pyrenees. His statement was shocking and grand. No Egizahar had crossed in hundreds of years and no one in our lifetime had crossed in our homeland, in the old way. I remember being a little jealous and greatly puzzled. You see, no one, including your mama and papa, knew what ‘the old way’ meant. When to go? Where to go?
“Finally, Sailor had to be tracked down and asked what to do. It took another two months, but a day before their last opportunity to sail in fair weather, we got word from Sailor. His note said simply, ‘Sail to Biarritz. Trumoi-Meq will find you.’ ”
Usoa paused and took a sip of her coffee. The sunlight streaked her cheek and flashed off the blue diamond in her ear. “And we shall do the same,” she finished.
“Trumoi-Meq?” I asked. “I heard Eder mention his name once, but I assumed she was speaking of someone dead.”
“Quite the contrary, Zianno. He is an old one, perhaps as old as Opari, and the only one who knows the mountains and ‘the old way’ of the Zeharkatu.” She leaned over and placed her other hand on top of Unai’s. “Finally,” she said. “He awaits us.”
“But how. how did you know it was time?”
Unai spoke from deep in the wicker chair. “It is like taking a breath,” he said. “How do the lungs know when they are full? I do not know, but they do,
“What about the Gogorati? The Remembering?”
He shrugged and said, “You have found Opari, no?”
“Yes and no.”
“Well, we now know she exists. And as Baju and Eder, your own mama and papa, and now Usoa and I have discovered, we look forward to our son or daughter being there, fresh and strong and less than a hundred years old. That is our wish, our dream. It is clearer to us now than it ever was imagining ourselves being there. It is best. It is right.”
I stood up and walked to the fountain. Thoughts and images of Mama and Papa, questions and doubts about Opari, history, and mystery were all mixed up and racing in my mind one into the other like brushfires. I could not allow it. I turned and changed the subject.
“What about this place?” I asked. “What happens to Isabelle?”
Usoa looked over at me and laughed slightly. “You will be amazed to learn that he has asked and she has accepted.”
“Captain Woodget,” she said. “He has asked her to marry him and she has accepted, even though in her lucid moments she still considers him socially inferior.”
I laughed along with Usoa and once again promised myself to go and see the old man. “How is he?” I asked. “And where is he, where will they live?”
“He is fine. Crusty and ornery, but fine. And they will live on his family’s plantation, old property deeded to them after Andrew Jackson left. It lies on a tributary to Lake Pontchartrain, past Mandeville, and on the way to Covington.”
“Yes. Covington, Louisiana. Why? Is there something odd about that?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “It’s just ironic, that’s all. The kind of irony that the Fleur-du-Mal might love. Has he ever been seen there? In that area?”
Usoa looked over at Unai, then back to me. “No. Not that we know of,” she said and paused slightly. “But, as you know, we have made mistakes.”
“No, you have not,” I said and walked over to where she sat in her wicker chair. I knelt down and took her hand in mine. “The Fleur-du-Mal is the mistake.”
I looked up at Usoa and she said, “Crush the loathsome one.”
Three days later, I watched them set sail for London and Biarritz, their final destination. Farewells had already been exchanged, and as they boarded, I thought it was remarkable they still only carried two pieces of luggage: two finely crafted pieces of Italian leather, at least four centuries old. I watched them and thought of that moment as being the last time I would see them as they were, as I was. Then I thought about the chance of seeing them after whatever awaited them and realized they would be the only Meq I had known before and after the Zeharkatu. I smiled and looked forward to seeing them again, although I had no idea when or where that might be.
I walked back to the St. Louis Hotel, making my way through the aftermath of Mardi Gras, where the exotic and the profane still lingered in every sight, sound, and smell. An ascent and descent bound so closely together, one was hardly distinguishable from the other. An almost alchemical blend of real beauty and real beasts.
Ray was waiting for me. I saw him from a block away, pacing the balcony outside our rooms and looking more agitated than I’d ever seen him. When I got within earshot, I called to him. He turned, located me on the street, and shouted, “I think I might of found somethin’, Z, you’ll have to tell me.”
I kept walking toward him. He was gripping the iron railing so hard his knuckles were changing color. A spike of fear hit me in the chest.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I was directly under him and he was staring down. I could tell he hadn’t slept much since I’d seen him last.
“Come on up,” he said. “It won’t happen until later, anyway. I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Come on up,” he repeated. “You ain’t gonna like it.”
For the next few hours, Ray told me about what he’d discovered and he was right, I did not like it. I was shocked and more frightened with every detail, but never prepared for what I actually saw later.
We waited until after midnight, then walked to Storyville. Ray said the “show” was only held once a night at around one A.M. We stood in the shadows of an alley behind Emma Johnson’s place on Iberville. She was probably the most notorious madam in Storyville, known for anything sexually out of the ordinary. The “Parisian Queen of America” they called her. She was a trafficker in practically everything, but specialized in young virgins and supplying young boys for aging homosexuals. There was no perversion too repugnant or difficult for her, no crime too low. She also produced what she called “sex circuses,” where deviations of all kinds were performed on a raised stage, surrounded by an audience. It was one of these we waited for, only this “show” involved a much younger girl — a child — a child Ray thought I might know. “It could be her,” he said. “It could be Star.”
Security was tight. There were three doors on the back of the building and all three were guarded by various bouncers and thugs. Two of the doors were legal fire exits and well lit, but the third was off to the side and kept dark. It was the “stage door” and the one we wanted. Ray had already “greased the wheel,” he said, by incurring a debt from the two biggest members of the security force, who he said were “suckers for three-card Monty.” They both thought letting Ray and me slip in to see the “show” was easy payment. At precisely five past one, their backs were turned as planned and Ray and I walked out of the shadows and through the unattended door.
Once inside, we instinctively found a corner of the room where we could watch without being seen. It was dark, as dark as you could get and still find your way. The only continuous light was a single, bare, blue light, hanging from a twenty-foot-high ceiling over a round stage in the center of the room. Matches flared occasionally in the darkness around the stage, lighting a cigar or cigarette and outlining the leering faces of the audience. In the brief flashes, they looked like ghouls to me. There was no way of telling how many there were. It was too dark. I asked Ray how many times he’d done this and he said, “Once.” Then the music started.
It began with rattles and shakers, then the slow and steady beat of a conga drum, then another conga with a deeper tone, playing fewer beats, and finally a hum of voices, all male and chanting an obscure African dream song.
The far end of the room was really a curtain. Two black men walked through, naked to the waist and carrying a ten-foot log between them, hoisted on their left shoulders. In their right hand, each carried a burning candle. Wrapped around the log, and clinging to it like snakes with their heads entwined, were a man and a woman, completely naked and glistening with oil from head to toe. They were motionless on the log, as if they were sleeping. The woman seemed to be a quadroon or octoroon and the man was coal black. They made their way slowly to the stage, through the audience, which was beginning to stir. I heard at least two low whistles from somewhere in the room.
Once on the stage, the first man holding the log turned to face the other and they stood that way in silenceblack man reached orgasm. for several moments, then the rhythm of the drums changed pace slightly and two more men appeared, carrying stone posts, which they set on the stage at precise positions and the log was laid between, then secured, so it was resting a few feet above the stage. All four men turned and walked back through the audience and disappeared behind the curtain. The human snakes on the log remained motionless and silent under the single blue light.
A female voice; a lilting, beautiful soprano began what sounded like an aria over the tribal chant. Finger cymbals were added, then a lone violin came out of nowhere, weaving its way melodically through the rhythm of the congas. It was East and West, good and evil, pain and pleasure, discordance and harmony. I glanced at Ray. He was extremely uneasy and shifting from one foot to another, as if he could run away without moving.
I looked back at the stage and the blue light flickered out, followed by the sound of a gong that reverberated through the room. The drumbeats picked up tempo and five red lights descended from the ceiling slowly, until they stopped in a circle above the stage. At the same time, something was rising out of the stage, directly opposite the sleeping snakes. It was in the shape of an oyster, maybe four feet wide and three feet high. When it came to a rest, the top half of the oyster unlocked and began to open. The sleeping snakes awoke, then fondled each other and began writhing and undulating on the log in very much a human fashion. Three-quarters of the way open, I could tell there was something in the oyster, something or someone where the pearl should have been. I took a step toward the stage and Ray grabbed my arm.
“You make sure you’re sure, Z,” he said. “This ain’t no place for mistakes.”
I took another step and stumbled, tripping over an outstretched leg. I fell to the floor in the dark. Whoever I tripped over kicked me with his boot and said, “Scram, kid!”
On my hands and knees, I looked up at the stage; the oyster was completely open, exposed in the circle of red light from above. When I saw what I saw, my body jumped, as if I’d been electrocuted. I felt rage, shock, terror, and pity all at once, and violation in the deepest sense. There was Star, dressed as a miniature Aphrodite in a white gown, sitting on a raised bench inside the oyster, staring across at the human snakes achieving every possible sexual position on and around the log beam. Her eyes were glazed, but not from drugs. It was something else, something worse. It was as if she were sitting at the bottom of a dry well, staring up at a light, an escape that was too distant to believe in or hope for, a light without salvation.
I screamed inside at the Fleur-du-Mal and his evil, his “aberration,” as it had been so delicately described. I stood up and started for the stage again, grabbing the Stone in my pocket as hard as I ever had. This could not go on.
Suddenly the drums became thunder in my head and the finger cymbals sounded like great glass panes crashing to the ground. The beautiful soprano voice was shrill and loud as a siren. The low sighs and moans of the audience became a snorting, slobbering herd of beasts. I could hear the skin of the human snakes slapping as they increased their tempo and passion. I could hear the log itself groan against the stone posts. I could hear Star breathing. I turned and glanced at Ray. He was a frozen silhouette in the darkness, watching me.
I took another step toward the stage. Then, from somewhere in the middle of the cacophony of music and noise, I heard my name. “Zezen,” a voice said in a low whisper. I stopped where I was and waited, focusing. “Zezen,” it said again and this time I knew the source. I looked up at the stage behind Star to a narrow opening, a slit in the oyster shell, and peering back at me through the shafts of red light were two familiar green eyes.
I looked left and right.
I stared back. “Yes,” I whispered. “And I suppose you can hear me just as easily. Correct?”
“Of course, of course. An ability that is a necessity if one is to survive against all odds.” He paused. “You look upset. Not because you are already missing your sycophantic little Meq watchdogs, I pray.”
I waited and tried to gather myself. “Why do you do this?” I asked. “This is sick and unnecessary.”
His eyes darted briefly to Star in front of him. “It is never too soon to start an education. You should know this,
I pulled the Stone out of my pocket. I was gripping it so hard, I could feel it almost piercing the skin on my palm.
“I would reconsider using your precious Stone, Zezen,” he said. “Look to the left of the child, by her throat.”
I looked and there, not two inches from Star’s jugular vein, was the point of a stiletto sticking through another slit in the oyster shell. I knew he would use it without a moment’s hesitation. “Please, I beg of you,” I said. “End this. End this now.”
“Oh, but now would be too soon. Just listen to that voice, Zezen.” The soprano was in full throat, building to a crescendo. “She could be Pamina in
I looked at Star’s face. She had the same blue-gray eyes as Carolina, even down to the same flecks of gold in them. The same mouth and hair and freckles, but her expression was lifeless, traumatized, and lost.
“When will you let her go back to her mama?” I asked. “And deal with me. You know I won’t relent. I will not quit. I will find you.”
“You shall only find me when I wish you to, Zezen, and you shall never find me when I do not. In revenge, I am afraid you are a novice and compared to some Arabs I have known, you are truly a child.”
“You must release the girl,” I said. “How could she possibly interest you? She needs her mama and her mama needs her.”
He laughed his low, bitter laugh. “I do not think so. I think her mama will be busy soon with another little Giza abomination.”
My heart froze. He knew Carolina was pregnant. He knew all about it.
“Surely, you won’t, I mean, you don’t plan to—”
I couldn’t figure it out. What was the point? “Then, why?” I asked. “Why do you want Star?”
He laughed again. It cut through the drums, the soprano, and the sudden cry of release as the black man reached orgasm.
“The grandchild, you idiot,” the Fleur-du-Mal whispered. “I want the grandchild.”
At that moment, the red lights dimmed and a curtain began to descend from the ceiling. In a few more moments, the entire stage would be covered.
“Wait,” I pleaded.
“Oh, yes, it is true.”
I thought he was trying to distract me and somehow use my confusion to escape.
“There is a sixth Stone?”
The curtain dropped the last few feet and covered the stage all around, followed almost immediately by seven or eight huge men who surrounded it. Lights in the back came on, and before I realized it, Ray had me by the arm and was leading me to the exit.
“It’s best we get on out of here, Z,” he said and glanced in my eyes.
We squeezed through the crowd and darted out of the door, not stopping until we were three blocks away and Ray pulled me in under the limbs of a magnolia tree.
“It was her, wasn’t it?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” I said. I could hear my own voice sounding like a stranger’s. “It was her.”
By May, Carolina had indeed given birth to a boy, Solomon Jack Flowers, born the evening of April 26 and named after our Solomon and an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, Jack Murphy, who threw out three Pirate runners at the plate that day and is the only major leaguer to have done so.
Ray and I had not mentioned seeing Star to anyone, especially Carolina and Nicholas. At that point, it would have done no good and neither of us could have found the words.
We heard nothing from Sailor or Geaxi and I needed to ask him a few simple questions, to say the least. Ray and I had discussed what the Fleur-du-Mal had told me and both of us were in the dark. I knew the Fleur-du-Mal was mad, but I wanted to know if there was madness in what he’d said. Nothing made sense.
Adding to it, coincidentally or not, on my birthday I received a gift from the Fleur-du-Mal. There was no card attached, but there was no doubt as to who had sent it. A phonograph player and a single playing disc were delivered to our rooms with the explanation that it had been left for me at the desk by a beautiful woman no one knew. I didn’t make the connection with the Fleur-du-Mal until we played the disc. It was a woman, accompanied by a piano, singing an aria, “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” from a Mozart opera. She was a soprano, the same one I’d heard singing over the drums at Emma Johnson’s. Every month after that, on the same day, we received another phonograph and another disc with the same voice singing a different aria. It was his way of letting me know he could find me anytime he wished, while I could only sit, wait, and guess. Eventually, I had to move my bed to make room for them. I told the management our family were big collectors.
We expanded our search west as far as St. Charles and east along the Gulf coast to Mobile. On July 21, 1905, the Board of Health announced that yellow fever had broken out in the city and there was a general panic and exodus from New Orleans. The disease didn’t affect us, of course, but we thought the Fleur-du-Mal would try to protect Star, now that we knew his long-range motivations. By September, we had combed every port and bayou we could find and come up empty. In New Orleans, there had been 3,402 cases of yellow fever and 452 deaths, but it was over. They had oiled and screened thousands of cisterns and salted miles of gutters to get rid of
In October, I kept the promise I’d made to myself to visit Captain Woodget. I crossed Lake Pontchartrain by steamboat and followed the meager directions given to me by Usoa. Outside Mandeville, after several inquiries, I was told it would be easier to find his property on water than land, taking Cottonmouth Slew to where it met the Bogue Chirito just below Covington. “You cain’t miss it, boy. It’s the damnedest thing you ever seen,” they said. I hired an old shrimper to take me there, and by noon as we rounded a bend in the channel, I knew what they meant.
There, anchored and resting between scaffolding erected on a long private dock, was an exact, scaled-down replica of the
I paid the old shrimper and jumped onto the dock before he’d even come to a stop. Captain Woodget watched me walk the fifty feet or so between us. He removed his garden hat as I got close and leaned on the railing of his ship. I stopped and admired the
“I heard you’d retired,” I said with a grin I couldn’t conceal. “But I thought gardeners planted seeds, not clipper ships.”
“Holy Trident!” he shouted. “If it did not walk and talk, I would think it a ghost.”
He scrambled down a makeshift ladder and we embraced warmly. He was older, thinner, but his eyes were bright and he held my shoulders with hands as strong as any that still worked the sea.
“The last time I saw you, lad, you were spinning a good yarn to a customs agent.”
“I still do, on occasion.”
He laughed and stepped back, running his eyes up and down me. Aye,” he said. “You wee people amaze me,” and he looked around him, then up at the sky. “God in his infinite wisdom and all that, I suppose.”
I smiled and said, “I suppose.” Then I asked for a tour of his ship and he showed me everything, top to bottom, all fifty-three feet of her. He was proud, but hesitant and slightly embarrassed, as if I might think the project crazy. It was crazy; crazy and beautiful.
I asked him if he missed his old life, and just as on the first night I met him, he paused and filled his pipe before he answered.
“I miss nothing about that damn business, Z, but I miss the smells, all of them, good and bad, on the ship, in a thousand different ports and especially the smell of the open sea itself.” He lit his pipe and took two long pulls. “Do you think I’m over the top, lad? Should I be scuttled before it becomes too obvious?”
“I don’t think so, Captain, not yet.” We both laughed. “And I agree with you about the smells, except for a few places in China.”
“China?” he asked. “So, you’ve been to China, have you?”
I nodded and he put his arm around my shoulder and led me on a walk through his property and gardens, which covered several acres to the north and east toward Covington. As we walked, he told me the names of hundreds of flowers and gave me a season by season history of plantings and cutbacks. We walked by trellises of roses in every color and under long arbors of bougainvillea. At first, it seemed a wild and random maze, but soon I saw the overview, the grand plan of wildness within order. He told me of his love for Isabelle and how it grew along with his chaotic gardens, unplanned and unavoidable. He said when he walked with her through the disordered beauty, it was the only time she felt peace. Somehow, that made more sense than anything else.
He showed me through the mansion, which had seen better days, and around sunset he cooked a savory meal of catfish and fried potatoes. Isabelle never made an appearance, but I did hear her singing on and off from somewhere in the upper rooms.
He asked me to stay the night but I refused, telling him I still had business in the city that evening. As usual, he inquired no further and drove me to the ferry in Mandeville without my asking. I caught the last crossing of the night and promised to return. Inside, as was usual for me, I had no idea when that would be.
Ray and I were invited to St. Louis for the holidays, but we refused, giving various and vague excuses. Ray even passed on a chance to see Nova on her twelfth birthday, an event I was sure he had promised to share. We were both burning out from our complete lack of success in finding even a trace of the Fleur-du-Mal.
Owen Bramley finally moved to St. Louis from San Francisco in March 1906, just ahead of the earthquake. Ray reminded me of Nova’s prediction and Owen Bramley said his building had indeed been in the center of the collapse and fire. We both agreed Nova may have been born with an “ability” rare for Meq and Giza alike.
We continued to make our rounds in Storyville and the French Quarter. Ray established new contacts in places like Mahogany Hall and the San Jacinto club. Meanwhile, the New Orleans summer seemed to turn everything, even time itself, into a thick, slow-moving syrup.
I was tired of questions and secrets and I felt the weight of not telling things, not telling Ray the truth about Zuriaa, and not telling Carolina the truth about Star. Self-loathing was gaining on my hatred for the Fleur-du-Mal. Even Ray was showing the strain. We rarely laughed or enjoyed much of anything.
Then, in September, Owen Bramley came for a visit and quite by accident, almost as an afterthought, everything changed.
He arrived by train on the afternoon of the fifth and, after a brief meeting with the hotel management, joined us on the balcony outside our suite. The heat was stifling. He wore a three-piece suit, but within minutes had removed his jacket, tie, and vest and resembled the Owen Bramley I remembered, wiping his glasses on his white shirt and complicating the obvious.
“Much warmer here than it should be,” he said. “I’ve talked with several meteorologists and they all agree there is some sort of bulge in the Gulf — overlapping lows or something to that effect.”
“Drink some iced tea,” Ray said and he poured out a tall glass and handed it to Owen Bramley. “It seems to help.”
He drank the entire glass, asked for another, and got right down to business.
“I brought the photographs and negatives of the man who shot Baju. I would have delivered them sooner, but I wanted a friend of mine, a detective of sorts in San Francisco, to see what he could find out first. He found out two things — the man is nearly a ghost and he is not freelance; he works for a single person, a woman, although her identity is unknown.”
My pulse jumped and quickened. Maybe the Fleur-du-Mal had told the truth, maybe the man was working for Opari.
“The problem is,” he went on, “the photographs are ten years old. The damn man has disappeared.”
“Does he have a name?” I asked.
“No, not a proper one, anyway. Evidently, several years ago in Macao, he did some particularly nasty work that the locals referred to as ‘the work of the Weeping Widow.’ He is half Portuguese and half Chinese and supposedly an ex-eunuch, if that is even possible.”
I took the photographs and stared at the fuzzy image of the man with the razor-thin eyes, caught in the act of murder. I was hoping to find some reason or truth hidden somewhere in the picture, but I saw none of that. I only saw a killer.
Ray asked about Eder and Nova and Owen Bramley assured him they were doing fine. He said Eder, and especially Nova, did wonders for Carolina, keeping her spirits high and rejoicing in the new baby. Owen himself, though he masked it well in his speech, showed new lines of concern in his face around the eyes and mouth, and there were streaks of gray in his red hair. I couldn’t help but think that if I had been Giza, I would have shown the same lines and streaks.
At one point, he happened to notice the five phonograph players crowded together in my room and he asked about them. I glanced at Ray, who shrugged, and I had to tell him they were “gifts” from the Fleur-du-Mal, part of a game of psychological torture he was playing where the “gifts” served as a reminder that he could find us, but we could not find him.
Owen Bramley asked if they had come with any notes or messages of any kind and I told him about the discs and the same woman singing from different operas. Then, after we had exhausted every angle and nuance as to what they might mean, he asked if he could take one of the discs with him, “just for the hell of it,” he said. I carefully packed three of them and the next day they left with Owen Bramley and his luggage on his return to St. Louis.
Exactly two weeks later, on September 19, I was awakened by two loud raps on my door and told there was an urgent telephone call for me at the desk. It was ten o’clock in the morning. The temperature had dropped at least twenty-five degrees overnight and gusts of wind were blowing in through the open doors to the balcony. Ray was nowhere in sight. I closed the doors and dressed as quickly as possible, then ran down to the lobby and the telephone. There was static on the line, but I could hear Owen Bramley shouting at the other end.
“Z! Is that you? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “You’re breaking up, but I can hear you.”
“Good. Listen to me. I have amazing news.” He was excited. His voice was a full octave higher. “The girl’s name is Lily Marchand. Do you hear me? Lily Marchand,” he repeated.
“What? Who? What girl?”
“The girl on the disc, the girl singing the operas. Carolina even knows her, for God’s sake.”
“What? You’d better start at the beginning, Owen. I don’t understand.”
The static on the telephone line was getting worse. I glanced out of the front of the hotel where anything loose in the street was blowing away.
“I was playing the discs,” he said. “I was alone in Carolina’s office, Georgia’s room she calls it, and Scott Joplin burst in shouting, ‘I know that voice! I know that girl!’ He was visiting Carolina, you see, and just happened to be there, he just happened to hear it, Z. Well, of course, I said, ‘Who is it?’ and he said, ‘That’s Lily, Lily Marchand. She used to work for Carolina and disappeared right before the World’s Fair. I been lookin’ for her for two years!’ I asked him if he knew where she lived and he said he had only heard it was somewhere around New Orleans, but, and this is why I called, Z, this could be a break, he said a woman named Willie Piazza had known the family for years and might know how to find her. Do you know of this woman, Z, do you know Willie Piazza?”
“Yes,” I shouted. The line was almost all static.
“Find her,” he yelled back. “Find her and you might find—” The line went dead and Ray burst through the front door of the hotel, out of breath, which I’d never seen him, and soaking wet. Outside, sheets of rain were blowing sideways.
“Damn, Z, I missed this one,” he said and shook the water off his bowler. “I didn’t see it, feel it, nothin’!”
“The hurricane,” he said. “And she’s comin’ right now.”
The manager of the St. Louis Hotel was standing nearby and overheard. He turned to Ray.
“Did you say hurricane, son?”
“That’s right, sir,” Ray answered. And she’s a big one — still ain’t hit landfall, but she will soon and if I was you, I’d get all them shutters shut around this place.”
The manager glanced out of the window, then back at Ray. Ray held his gaze, stone-faced, and even though he wasn’t sure why, the man did as the “Weatherman” requested, clapping his hands and scrambling the staff to close the shutters and prepare for a hurricane.
I grabbed Ray by the arm and told him, hurricane or not, we had to find Willie Piazza now. Without asking me why, he slapped on his bowler and said, “Come on.”
We made our way to Storyville as best we could, corner to corner, street to street. The wind was fierce, blowing in gusts of seventy to eighty miles an hour, but it was the rain that caused the most havoc and danger. I had never seen so much rain fall so hard. Whole streets turned into rivers within minutes. Abandoned carts and automobiles were picked up and washed into buildings, causing balconies to tumble, lampposts to splinter, and windows to crash and break into shards, which were swept away in the water like flashing knives.
Somehow, we found Willie. She was hanging on to what was left of her double front doors, standing in two feet of swirling water and debris, and yelling at three men in two different languages. The men were bound together by a long rope that was anchored to the main building. All three were trying to save Willie’s big sign, which had toppled from the roof to the street and was being sucked into the rushing waters. They were fighting a losing battle.
When we got close enough, I tried to get her attention. “Willie!” I shouted. “Willie, I’ve got to talk to you.”
“Not now, honey,” she shouted back. “We got a world of trouble here.”
I kept on. I was only a few feet from her, but I still had to yell. “Do you know Lily Marchand?” I asked. “Please, tell me if you do, I’ve got to find her.”
“Not now, honey,” she said again. “I’ve got to save that sign,
“Just tell me if you know her, that’s all.”
At that moment, the sign broke loose from the men and disappeared under the water, finally bobbing up in broken pieces half a block “downstream.” Willie watched it go.
“Do you know her?” I repeated. “Do you know Lily Marchand?”
“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes, I know Lily, or I should say knew her. Haven’t seen her or her pitiful brother, Narciso, for three, maybe four years. Old Creole family, honey. Lost all their money a long time ago.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
“I know where she used to.”
“Across Pontchartrain, somewhere near Covington on the Bogue Chirito. A run-down plantation called ‘The Vines,’ if I remember right. I told the Chinese man I couldn’t be sure, but ‘The Vines’ sounded right.”
“Chinese man? What Chinese man?”
“The one that came lookin’ for Lily last week, same as you. I told him ‘The Vines’ was most likely it. It just sounded right.”
“Were his eyes like two slits, two razors?”
She laughed. “Honey, they all look alike to me.”
It was my turn to say “Come on,” and I waved to Ray, who was standing in the doorway with several of Willie’s “nieces.” I thanked Willie, then Ray and I ran through the rising water on Iberville and across town.
Luckily, we caught the last ferry crossing Lake Pontchartrain. The storm slowed as it made landfall and the north side of the city had not yet felt its full force. Still, we were pelted with driving rain and Pontchartrain was rough with whitecaps all the way across.
Just before we docked, Ray said, “Who is Lily Marchand?”
“She’s the one singing the operas,” I told him. “And the same voice I heard at Emma Johnson’s.”
He arched an eyebrow and tugged on his bowler.
“I got a feeling, Ray. I got a feeling this is it. This is where he is. This is where Star is.”
The rain filled the brim of his bowler and spilled over the sides. He ignored it. “Then, let’s go get her,” he said. “Let’s take her home.”
Our luck ran out once we were in Mandeville. We were out of transportation. The few people we saw were all seeking shelter. Except for about twenty or thirty lost chickens, we were the only ones still on the street. I had no idea exactly where to go or how to get there, but I knew who would.
We set out for Captain Woodget’s on foot and arrived at nightfall. Both of us were shivering and as wet as I’d ever been at sea. The captain and Isabelle, who was in one of her lucid periods, met us at the door and rushed us to the fireplace, where Isabelle reminded me more of a worried grandmother than a madwoman, drying our hair with towels and telling the captain to make us tea while she found us clothes. I was sure she had no idea who we were.
I introduced Ray to Captain Woodget and then explained as much as I could about who and what we had to find. I told him it could be dangerous. The captain said he knew of the old place, but there would be no way to reach it at night and in “this breeze.”
“Well, you know what I mean, lad. You and I have seen much worse than this.”
“That we have, Captain, and that’s why you don’t have to do this. You owe me nothing.”
He paused for only a moment. “Oh, but I do, Z. I owe you for changing the way I thought about this world, the way I was overlooking the mystery of it, what was beyond what I took for granted, and what was inside as well. I owe you for that, but I am most indebted to you for the life I have now. If I had not met you, I would not have met the biggest damn mystery of all — Isabelle.”
I tried to assure him I had nothing to do with his love for Isabelle, but he wouldn’t hear it. We were fed, clothed, and given hot tea to drink, which the captain spiked with a?ejo rum, and thereby ruined both the tea and the rum.
He offered us each a bedroom for the night and Ray accepted. I asked if I could stay where I was and bed down by the fire. I didn’t know whether it was the hurricane or the anxiety of finding Star, or both, but I was dog-tired with fatigue. I knew we were close. I knew we’d found a flaw in the Fleur-du-Mal’s plan. What I didn’t know or understand was the possible presence of “Razor Eyes.” He was a cold-blooded murderer and his arrival, for whatever reason, put Star in twice as much jeopardy.
Isabelle brought me a pillow and a pink goose-down blanket. I welcomed both. We all said our good nights and I stretched out by the fire.
Outside, the hurricane never slept. The wind rose and fell in swells and the rain pounded through the night, constant and hard. I stared at the fire. I waited for sleep. I waited.
I heard a voice. I was being called. summoned.
I was with some others. We were walking toward the opening in a cliff, the mouth of a cave. We were invited. We were the painters, they expected us. They were taller than we were. They led us deep into the cave with tiny lamps held in their palms. They stopped and said we would know where to go from there. We went on, we knew where to go. We set up our scaffolding and brought out our rubbing cloths and ochre. We painted the beasts as they ran through our minds. I went ahead. I saw a light and heard a thundering roar. They told me to stop, but I went ahead and the light became another opening and the roar was a waterfall in front of it, blocking what lay beyond from view. I put my hands in it. I spread the curtain of water and instead of a river below, there was another opening to another cave. I walked through the space in the water and there was a fire inside the cave. It was a small fire that had been burning for days. The ashes were spilling out of the pit. I saw something in among the ashes. I reached in and flicked it out, watching it tumble and roll on the floor of the cave. It was a skull, a child’s skull. It was not Meq.
“Z!” the voice shouted. “Wake up, lad.”
It was Captain Woodget standing over me with Ray leaning in at his side.
Ray said, “You look pretty good in pink, Z.”
They were both fully dressed. It was still raining and there was little light, but I could tell it was morning. Where I’d been I didn’t know and there was no time to think about it. It was September 20, 1906, and the hurricane raged on. Even the captain said he’d never seen anything like it. “Most of them move on in a few hours,” he said. “But this one’s in love with Louisiana.”
We discussed our options for getting to “The Vines” and there were none. The roads were completely washed out. Our only chance was by water — up a low backwater river that was already out of its banks, in a hurricane, on a half-sized sailing ship that had never been used. The captain said he could do it.
At the dock, Ray and I fashioned rain slickers out of scraps of canvas and the captain wrestled with the scaffolding. Eventually, we had to tear it down entirely in order to get the
Amazingly, there was traffic. Mostly fishermen in small craft, making a dash for home or helping the stranded. We saw one barge that had no choice but to go on and try to make it to port and one steam-driven trawler with no lights burning, traveling in the opposite direction at a reckless speed. As it passed, I had a strange sensation, a buzzing in my head, like static on a telephone line. I looked over at the trawler, but the distance and the rain between made it impossible to see any faces.
We pushed on, tacking often at severe angles. We couldn’t hold a good line for longer than a few minutes, but the captain remained steadfast and the rain never bothered him.
After three tight, difficult bends in the river, he waved to me, pointing at a dock on the opposite shore and shouting, “The Vines.”
It took all our efforts and another half hour to turn the ship against the current and secure it to the dock. We walked up to the main house on a wooden walkway with missing boards and broken railings. The cypress trees on both sides had taken a beating and still were. The wind tore at them from every direction and the rain never let up.
The house was dark as we approached, except for a light in one of the back rooms. It was a big house, an old plantation mansion with columns in front and a veranda all around. It looked as if it wouldn’t make it through the storm.
We watched and listened.
Suddenly, faintly, somewhere between the rain and wind, I heard music. I turned to Ray and the captain.
“Do you hear that?”
They both looked at me and then at each other.
“Hear what?” Ray asked.
“Lily Marchand. It’s her, it’s her voice. She’s singing.”
Neither Ray nor Captain Woodget could hear what I heard. My “ability” had awakened. I concentrated and pinpointed her voice to one of the front rooms, one of the rooms in the dark.
We walked up a short rise and stepped onto the veranda. I could hear something else behind the singing, a hum or a churning, maybe a small engine. The door was wide open and the rain was blowing in, soaking the floorboards of the entryway.
We passed into a hallway that was dark except for a light at the end, the one we’d seen from outside. There was no furniture. Ray found some candles against the wall and gave us each one. Captain Woodget had matches and lit the candles. Two rooms appeared off the hall. The one on the left was completely empty, but the one on the right was filled with sofas, chairs, rugs, lamps, and, most of all, phonograph players. There must have been fifty of them, stacked and squeezed into every niche and corner of the room. And one of them was playing Georges Bizet’s
They were gone. We’d missed them, I knew it. I looked around and found the phonograph player, the one I wanted, easily. I followed the hum, which was a generator supplying the phonograph player with power until it ran out of gas. I took the needle off the disc and there was silence in the room.
Captain Woodget said he was going to check out the room in the back, the one with the light. Ray and I stayed and looked around.
We saw plates and dishes with food still on them, saucers and coffee cups, all recently used. Phonograph discs and pornographic studio portraits were strewn everywhere. Sadomasochistic contraptions and devices, things I’d only seen in places like Emma Johnson’s, were lying about. In the corner of the room, there was a giant cage or playpen. Inside the playpen, on top of two Persian rugs, was a mattress and a small blanket. This was where he kept her. This was where she slept.
Suddenly there was a loud crash and Captain Woodget was shouting, “Holy Trident and dammit to hell!”
Ray and I ran down the hall, toward the light. We pushed through the door and Captain Woodget was standing over a wine decanter he’d knocked off a long wooden table, a table similar to Carolina’s.
He’d stumbled into it when he saw the man and woman sitting at the table, across from each other, their faces flat against the wood, their arms and hands splayed out on either side. Their throats had been slit. The table was covered in blood and pools of it swirled at their feet. The man’s shirt had been ripped open, as had the woman’s blouse, and both their backs were covered with a bloody rose, carved into the skin with the point of a stiletto.
I knew it was Lily Marchand and most likely her brother, Narciso. I looked up and Ray’s face was frozen with disgust and disbelief. I remembered that neither of us had seen the Fleur-du-Mal’s handiwork and unmistakable signature since Georgia and Mrs. Bennings.
“We missed him,” I said. “He must have known. He must have known we were coming.”
“You better come down here, lad,” the captain said. He had regained his balance and was standing at the other end of the table. “There’s another one — a Chinaman.”
“A Chinaman?” I bolted for the end of the table and looked down to see what the captain had found. I expected to see “Razor Eyes.” I saw Li instead.
He wasn’t stripped and carved up like the others. He’d been stabbed just below the heart and his throat was partially slit. There was a green ribbon stuffed in his mouth. I had no idea where he’d been or how he had got to where he was. We’d never seen a trace of him the whole time we were in New Orleans.
Ray reached down and pulled the green ribbon out of his mouth, and as he did Li opened his eyes and saw me. He was alive. I knelt down and he tried to grab my leg and missed. He made a raspy, coughing sound and then he spoke directly to me.
“She. go. ma. lee”
It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me and the last. His mouth went slack and his eyes dulled.
I leaned over to close his eyelids and Ray said, “Who’s Molly?” That triggered something in my memory, something I’d learned about the Fleur-du-Mal from Unai and Usoa.
“It’s not a who,” I said. “It’s a where. The Fleur-du-Mal is taking Star to Mali — the country.” I looked out of the window at the never-ending rain. The wind rattled the window in its casing. “How?” I said, almost to myself. “How did he know?” Ray was wrapping the green ribbon, first around one finger, then around another. His expression was black and lost, like mine. “We’ll never catch him now,” I whispered.
Captain Woodget knelt down beside me and ran a fingertip through Li’s blood, which was spreading on the floor. He looked at me. “This blood is fresh, Z,” he said, then he winked at me.
At first, I didn’t get his meaning. Of course it was fresh, I thought, Li had just died. Then it hit me.
“Captain,” I said. “Do you recall the trawler we passed in the channel?”
“Aye, lad, and going at a fair rate of speed, not minding the weather.”
“That’s the one,” I said. “Can you catch her?”
“If we can make it to Pontchartrain and she’s not yet all the way across, I know I can. I can play this breeze in open water. The trawler won’t be able to.” He gave me another wink.
I insisted we take Li with us. “I don’t want to remember him here. like this.” Ray and the captain nodded in agreement.
The three of us carried Li’s body to the
We set out for Lake Pontchartrain. It was late in the day and we were losing what little light we had. Without paying heed to channels, currents, or traffic, the captain steered us on a course that brought us critically close to one bank, then another. The rain was dense and constant. The trawler was nowhere in sight.
Then, as we spilled into Lake Pontchartrain, the captain caught the wind and made a good line almost directly for New Orleans. He guessed we were doing twenty to twenty-five knots. The
The rain and fading light obscured the horizon by the minute. I couldn’t tell if we were gaining on the trawler. I had Ray tie a rope to me and I climbed up the mizzenmast, hoping to use my “ability” to listen for the trawler. Ray helped the captain hold the wheel and fight to keep the line. The rain felt like tiny knives and the wind whipped my canvas slicker like a handkerchief. I heard a foghorn and turned, but it was too far in the distance, too far west.
Then slowly, like a pulse or heartbeat, I heard the steady chug-chug of a steam engine, plowing through the wind and water. We were close, closer than I thought. I yelled to the captain, “Port, ten degrees!”
He managed the slight change in direction and we gained even more speed. Suddenly I could see the trawler. It was a faint black dot, bobbing on the horizon. Smoke poured out of the smokestack. It was no more than a mile ahead of us.
We closed the gap. A thousand yards. five hundred. one hundred. Then, just as I thought I saw a figure on board the trawler, I heard a ripping sound. Our foresail was shredding and the ship jolted from side to side. I heard a crack, followed by another crack, louder and longer. The
Ray pulled the captain out of the way just before the mainsail fell on them. I tried to slide down to the deck and was thrown overboard as the ship actually snapped in the middle. The waves tore at the opening, and piece by piece, the
The rope tied around me was still attached to a section of the mizzenmast and I used it as a raft while I looked for Ray and Captain Woodget. I could see the trawler steaming away and a single figure on deck, staring back. I could even hear him. He had a white smile and a familiar, bitter laugh.
I found Ray holding on to Captain Woodget, who was unconscious. He was struggling to reach something with his free hand and barely staying afloat. I helped him with the captain and he finally snatched what he was after — his bowler.
The last thing I saw of the
Three days later, we were on the balcony of the St. Louis Hotel, waiting for the weather to finally break. Captain Woodget was in hospital recovering from a collapsed lung and exposure. We swam four miles to shore that night, through rain and debris, and the experience took its toll on the captain.
I talked to Owen Bramley several times and told him what I could, but no matter how I worded it, the story had the same conclusion. I asked him to come to New Orleans and check on Captain Woodget and make sure he had the money to rebuild the
I informed him that Ray and I had booked passage to Africa. Everything else was unknown.
The hurricane of 1906 lasted five days and killed three hundred and fifty people in Louisiana and Mississippi. The assistant to the mayor of New Orleans said in a public statement that his city owed a great debt to the unfortunate of the city of Galveston, which had lost so many lives to the hurricane of 1900. “If all those folks hadn’t died,” he said, “we wouldn’t have learned what we learned and then we would have had more people die last week.”
I have always wondered if he knew what he was saying.
12. GEZUR (LIE)
R ay and I left New Orleans with no fanfare or ritual. We were both in it now, both deep in the obsession. Ray no longer thought of New Orleans as “his town,” or anyplace else. For us, it was just another stop, another place on the map. We were disappointed, but not discouraged. We were still in it, still on the Fleur-du-Mal like dogs. We had only momentarily lost his scent. The problem was with the word “momentarily.” A moment for us could equal weeks, months, even years in the lives of Carolina, Nicholas, and Star. Ray knew this as well as I and even though, if I was honest, I had to admit we were following a hunch at best, we both felt the urgency of finding Star, if she was ever going to know her parents or have a chance at a normal life.
My hunch was really a deduction with a leap of faith at the end. Li told me Star had gone to Mali and the Fleur-du-Mal himself had told me he wanted “the grandchild.” In his way, he had hinted at her future education and training, as sick as it was. Usoa had also mentioned Mali and the Fleur-du-Mal’s centuries-old fascination with it, for reasons never known to the Meq. I knew Star could not have a child for several years. I knew the Fleur-du-Mal was unpredictable, but something told me he would not have the patience to wait for that event. He would instead keep her somewhere remote with someone he trusted, while he followed his other pursuits and interests. This was my hunch. The leap of faith was that we would find the somewhere and someone in Mali, somehow.
Our ship sailed just before sunset on the evening of October 7. It wasn’t much of a sunset. The light was low and flat under a cloud cover and it spread and faded into darkness without inspiration. Ray and I stood by the railing and watched in silence. There was nothing to say. We were both in it, I knew that, but still I couldn’t help feeling guilty for bringing him into it. Earlier in the day, I had read a story in the sports pages about Ty Cobb and his teammate, Ed Siever. The day before, during a game, Ed Siever had cursed Ty Cobb for not hustling in the field and they got into a fight. Cobb knocked him down and kicked him in the head. Ray was more than a teammate to me and he would never curse me for not hustling, but standing there by him in the fading light, feeling his blind trust and determination, I felt just like the honorable Ty Cobb.
Neither of us knew much about where we were going. In all my time at sea, we had rarely dropped anchor, and then never for very long, anywhere off West Africa. The ancient kingdom of Mali was a complete mystery. I wasn’t even sure of the languages we would encounter, let alone the dangers.
Ray had scoured the streets in the days before our departure trying to find connections, names, and places of anyone we could use. He came up with nothing. The only time he had heard Mali or any other country in West Africa mentioned was in a tale told by a grandchild or great-grandchild of a slave. Every connection and transaction between New Orleans and West Africa had at some point, in some way, involved slavery. Ours was no different. She was only one child, and white, but she was a slave. Even our route would be close to the routes of the old slave ships; New Orleans — Havana — Puerto Rico — Dakar. The irony was complete when we changed ships in Puerto Rico and boarded a small passenger steamship named the
We were sailing east, toward Africa. It was late 1906 and the evil of slavery had long been abolished and we were going back, back to where it had begun. Times had changed, but Ray and I knew evil had not.
I stood by the railing and looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Ray was strong. What he didn’t know, he learned fast, and what he couldn’t change, he accepted — to a point. In our preparations for leaving, the only thing he sought for protection was a talisman, a good luck charm. A woman he knew, a voodoo priestess, gave him a collection of small bones, “directions for your dreams,” she called them. For my part, I had exchanged bank drafts for brand-new double eagle gold pieces and assorted small gems. Enough, I hoped, to buy protection, false identities, bribes, tolls, whatever it took to survive and locate Star. Ray had found two money belts to carry the gold and gems. They had been difficult to find because they had to be small enough for us to wear, yet sturdy and secure. When I noticed Ray stuffing one of the pockets on his belt with the bones, I asked him if he didn’t think that space should be used for gold rather than bones.
“Damn, Z,” he said. “It’s as clear as a tear, ain’t it? We can get more money, but I don’t want anybody stealin’ our luck.”
On the Atlantic crossing, I watched Ray enjoy the open ocean almost as much as he had the mountains. He gained his sea legs early and we ignored the Meq custom of staying out of sight and wandered the decks at will, watching the sea spray by day and the star spray by night. Whenever asked, Ray was always willing to talk and tell our story, which got longer and further from the truth with each telling. His white lies changed color depending on the interest of the listener. I don’t remember exactly how far he went with it, but his original story was that we were cousins from New Orleans; Spanish Catholics being sent by our parents to visit our dying grandfather in the old country. He was good at it and I could see that it gave Ray a wicked, but harmless, thrill to spin his tales for the Giza, giving them what they thought they wanted, just enough to quell their curiosity and spark their interest at the same time. In two days, half the passengers had become our adoptive “travel” parents. We were covered in the kindness of strangers.
Ray was unpredictable and reliable at once. A rare quality, but perfectly suitable, even necessary, for survival. He confronted the Giza and the world at large spontaneously, knowing and trusting in his ability to respond. No doubts, few fears. Confront, that’s what he did. It made me think about something I hardly ever thought about, something that never seemed to matter — the difference between Egipurdiko and Egizahar.
I really only knew two Meq who were Egipurdiko. Ray and the Fleur-du-Mal. Their natures and character, morality and beliefs, were as far apart as they could get, but there was one trait they shared. They both confronted the world of the Giza, used it, manipulated it, were at home in it. The other Meq I knew, all Egizahar, avoided the Giza’s world whenever possible and certainly never felt at home in it. I was Egizahar, I carried the Stone, I had a power the Egipurdiko did not and yet it was Ray who wrote to St. Louis, telling the right lies, shading the truth, protecting Carolina and Nicholas from losing hope. I didn’t do it. I avoided it. I thought it would break my heart to lie again to Carolina. Ray knew instinctively that without a word, truth or fiction, Carolina’s heart would break long before mine.
I watched Ray as we sailed east. I watched him carefully and tried to learn what he had to teach. He was an open book and an easy read.
Still four hundred miles from Dakar, Ray told me we’d probably turn north soon. I asked him why and he said there was a “big blow” coming up from the south. I wondered if the “Weatherman” still had his “ability.” He’d missed the one in New Orleans, after all. Forty-five minutes later, the
“Damn,” was all I said.
Usually, captains of passenger ships are conservative without exception. I was expecting our captain to be no different and tack hundreds of miles to the north and northeast in a long arc until he made berth in Dakar, maybe three or four days behind schedule, but safe. He surprised me by turning due east after sailing north for only one day and half the night. He was in a hurry, as if any deviation in his timetable was more important and more dangerous than the weather. We did hit rough seas, but it was due to the strong currents from the north that run down the coast of West Africa. I remembered them from my time with Captain Woodget. The captain of the
We anchored at the end of a long gangplank connected to others that were all secured to the main docks. The sun was a fat gold ball hanging over the river to the east. The sky was blue and cloudless except for a single white hump far to the south. It was eighty-five degrees and felt like paradise. The air was filled with the smells of the savannah surrounding the river. Trees, grass, flowers in the distance. Land. Ray took a deep breath and filled his lungs with it.
The captain gathered all passengers on the gangplank and explained our situation. Ray and I hung back and stayed to the rear as everyone crowded in to listen. We had sustained two minor cracks in the boiler in our race against the storm to the south, he said. There was no way they could make Dakar. The repairs would have to be done here; there was no choice except to chance blowing the boiler. It would take some time — two weeks at the most — but all who wished to continue would be accommodated by the company — on board ship or ashore. All who wished to disembark in Saint-Louis would be provided with their luggage and a modest rebate. I glanced at Ray. There was really no choice for us. Two weeks was not an alternative. Besides, what difference did it make where we started? Our destination was Mali and Saint-Louis as a starting place seemed like a good omen. We talked about it and Ray reminded me I’d said the same thing once before and it hadn’t turned out so well, but he agreed that lost time was more important.
We kept our true intentions to ourselves and told the captain we preferred accommodation on shore during the delay. We were kids. We needed to play. “Why not?” he said. “It’s Christmas.”
The first mate was ordered to retrieve our luggage and personally escort us through customs, making sure we were registered and established in a secure hotel. We walked the long gangplank to the customs house with several other passengers and both of us had a smile on our faces. Ray gave me a wink. “Good start,” he said.
It was slow-going through customs. There were only two French officials available and they were in no hurry. Their tunics were unbuttoned and neither wore their caps. The first mate said that most of the Christian population was in the city watching the annual Christmas parade. Waiting our turn, Ray and I walked back to the gangplank to watch the gulls, herons, and flamingos in the distance.
Suddenly I felt pinpricks in my skin. I actually looked down at my arms and hands. It came on so fast, I didn’t recognize it. The old feeling of fear and presence — the net descending. I instinctively turned in a circle, searching, watching for the eyes watching me. Nothing. I asked Ray if he could feel it and he said, “Feel what?” I looked at each of the passengers, but none was paying us any attention. I looked out over the river but there was little traffic. Two Arabs in a single-masted fishing boat were standing and staring our way, but not at us. I turned and looked past Ray to the end of the maze of gangplanks. The only activity was on the deck of a well-appointed private yacht flying two flags. The top flag was a crest of some sort and the lower was the national flag of Germany. Deckhands seemed to be preparing to leave. None of them was looking our way, but I felt something, something very dangerous. Just then, the first mate from the
“Why have you got that out?” Ray asked.
“What?” I said and then felt it in my hand. Unknowingly, I had taken the Stone out of my pocket and was holding it as tight as I could. “I don’t know,” I said.
Ray put one arm around my shoulder and made a sweeping gesture with his bowler toward the customs house. “Then, let’s go and see Africa, my friend.”
We made our way up a long, slow rise to the center of the old city and our hotel, the Cour Royale du Senegal. The streets were unpaved and we tried to use boardwalks where they were available. The first mate carried our small amount of luggage and Ray and I followed close behind. I kept myself from turning around. The fear I’d felt was unreasonable, I told myself. There was no way for anyone to know Ray and I were landing in Saint-Louis. It was unscheduled.
The streets became more and more crowded. As we approached the hotel, we had to detour around the Christmas parade that was in progress right in front of our entrance. French soldiers and police were scattered among the people, but most were slouching in groups and leaning against walls, relaxed and out of the way. The sun was bright overhead and it was a beautiful day for celebrating and rejoicing. Every Christian family, French and African, was either in the parade or watching. Ray was fascinated by all the different headgear. I noticed that even the Islamic community had closed their shops and markets to witness the pageantry. Children of every shade were tugging at the robes and blouses of their mothers to get even closer. Suddenly Ray and I were just two more kids among a thousand others.
The first mate barked at a group of French Catholic nuns to let us through. They did, but not without a few words for the first mate and stern looks all around. He told us to wait on the stone steps of the hotel while he took our luggage inside and made sure of our accommodation with the management. There were three gradated steps leading up to the hotel. Ray and I found a space at the far end of the highest step to wait and watch the parade.
The parade itself was a feast of color. Everyone in the procession, European and African, adult and child, wore their finest formal dress and each carried a symbol of faith. For most, it was a small cross made of gold or ivory, but several people carried long hand-carved wooden crosses festooned with anything they felt was holy. Feathers, garlands of flowers, bells, even symbols from another faith. I saw the crescent of Islam attached to the top of at least twenty crosses. It didn’t seem to matter. It was a holy day, a joyous day, and they were celebrating the anniversary of a miraculous birth.
Ray grabbed me by the sleeve. “Look at that,” he said.
I followed his eyes to our left, away from the parade and the main body of onlookers. Several Senegalese women dressed in cotton robes of bright greens and golds with elaborate turbans on their heads were in a panic and carrying a younger woman into an alley leading to the service entrance of the hotel. She had lost her turban and was obviously in labor. They were all talking at once in high-pitched, cackling voices. The younger woman did not cry out, but she was shaking her head back and forth frantically and holding her stomach, as if she could keep the baby inside her with sheer will.
I couldn’t look away. I wasn’t sure if I should even be watching, but I couldn’t look away. They tried to find a place for the younger woman to lie down. One of the cackling women found some large sacks of peanuts and lined them up against the wall. They were helping the younger woman down on the sacks when one of the sacks split and peanuts spilled out underneath her. She cried out finally. It was too late. She was having the baby. I looked around and the parade was still moving. No one had noticed. There was a troop of Catholic girls approaching, dressed as angels and singing French Christmas songs. I looked at Ray. He was speechless.
I turned around and walked down two steps. I had to get closer to the struggle. I could not look away. Two of the older women held the younger woman by the arms. She kept trying to get up. They were all yelling and one of them finally broke away and ran to find help. Another woman, the one with the finest jewelry and beaded necklaces, unwrapped her turban and placed it under the younger woman’s legs, just in time to catch the tiny dark life that dropped onto it.
I could tell the baby was probably premature. It was too small and not able to breathe. The younger woman, the mother, looked down once and fainted. One of the other women began to wipe the baby off and pinched it gently on the legs and arms, trying to make it cry and take a breath. Nothing. They all started cackling again and waving toward the woman who had gone to get help.
She had disappeared in the crowd. Seconds ticked away and I knew if someone didn’t do something soon, the baby would surely die.
I started to turn and ask Ray if he knew anything about this when someone rushed past me, spinning me halfway around on the step.
It was a young black woman of about twenty or twenty-one years old. She wore no turban or skull cap and her hair was cropped close to her head. Her robe was plain, rough cloth and only covered one shoulder. Without a word, she separated the cackling women and knelt down over the baby. One of the women shrieked at her and she glanced back, silencing the woman instantly with a fierce gaze. She bent down again and executed a series of rapid movements with her mouth and hands. In fifteen seconds, she rose up and spat something against the wall and the baby cried out. It was a thin, ragged little cry, but it was life. Divine or not, I was certain I had witnessed a miracle.
I watched the young black woman more closely. I could only see her in profile and I knew it made no sense, but there was something familiar about her. She was carefully cleaning the baby’s face with her own saliva. She wore no rings on her fingers and her touch was tender and efficient. She wrapped the baby in the rest of the turban and helped rouse the mother by gently laying the baby in the mother’s arms.
Then she looked directly at me. It was a sudden, instinctive movement and seemed to surprise her more than me. I stared back. Her eyes were chocolate brown and lighter than her skin, which was smooth and unmarked, except for three raised horizontal lines on each temple. There was a single silver pearl piercing her left nostril. She opened her mouth slightly and whispered a word to herself, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. I heard it easily. “Meq,” she said.
That was the last thing I expected. I took a step toward her and her expression changed from surprise to terror. She raised one arm and pointed somewhere behind me, then bolted for the hotel. I turned in time to catch sight of Ray in the middle of a duck-and-run. Two sailors, surrounded by several others, and all of them in foreign uniforms and wide-brim flat hats, were trying to strike and grab him from behind, but he was much too fast and disappeared into the crowd before they could touch him. All the sailors held what looked to be shortened oars and were gripping them like baseball bats. Just then I felt a sharp pain in my lower back that knocked all the breath out of me. I knew I’d been hit with one of the oars. My knees were buckling, the colors of the crowd swirled, then another blow sent me forward and down. As I was falling, I saw Ray’s bowler hat tumbling down the steps and I reached for it, somehow catching it in a last grasp. I could hear him yelling in the distance, “Come on, Z! Move!”
Sprawled on the steps and barely conscious, I tried to rise and run toward his voice. I couldn’t. My legs would not respond. I had no pain anywhere, except where I’d been struck, and yet I couldn’t move anything below my waist. Seconds passed, then minutes, and I tried not to panic. Dazed and facedown on the steps, I could only breathe and listen. The sailors gathered around me, shouting at the crowd and each other. They were speaking and yelling in German. Through the legs of one of them I saw the split sack of peanuts spilled in the alley. The women and the baby were gone. I tried again to turn and rise, but the effort was useless. Another voice, a high-pitched male voice with a strange accent, broke through all the others.
I fought to concentrate and remember the little German I’d learned with Solomon. The voice had said, “You’ve crippled him, you idiot! I can’t use a cripple!”
I panicked. That meant they, whoever “they” were, wanted me and weren’t going to be careful about it. I reached for my pocket and the Stone, then felt the sole of a boot clamp down on my elbow and wrist, pinning my arm to the step.
I lay still and waited. With my face buried against the step, I couldn’t see who was above me. The boot moved, then raised and kicked me in the legs. I never felt it. The kicker bent down and whispered in my ear. It was the same man who had screamed at the sailors, but to me he spoke slurred English with a Chinese accent. “Not this time, not this time,” he repeated, then pulled the Stone out of my pocket, thrusting it down in front of my face to let me know he had it. Before I could ask who he was, he stood up and began speaking German again to someone behind him. I understood enough of the conversation to know they spoke of “contracts” and “damaged goods” and the necessity to decide whether to take me “as is” or do something here and now, something quick and final before the police or anyone else arrived.
I had no legs, no Stone, and I was out of options.
“I think I’d leave him be,” a voice said suddenly from in front of me. I glanced up and it was Ray. He gave me a wink, then walked past me toward the others and spoke calmly, as if he’d been there all along. “I think I would, if I were you, leave him alone right here where he is. and take me. He ain’t no good to you now — not this way.” He paused and I heard him walk up behind me, then move me around, shoving and kicking me, just enough to get his point across. “Once one of us is broken. especially like this,” Ray said, “well, he just don’t come back. You might as well take me and let him lie here. If you take him, he’ll be nothin’ but trouble for you.” Ray paused again, then added, “I’m tellin’ you the truth and you know I am, don’t you? You do and you know you do.” He kept rambling on as if he was stalling for time. Then it hit me. That’s exactly what he was doing. He could have stayed somewhere in the crowd, invisible and uncatchable. Instead, he had walked out into the open, putting himself in grave danger and staging some kind of crazy game, trying to buy time. I figured there must be help on the way, but where was it?
“Seize him!” someone shouted in German. Ray almost let them take him, then wriggled free and pretended to fall, landing next to me on the steps, where he could see my eyes.
“Who are these guys, Z?” Ray whispered.
“I don’t know. What are you doing back here?”
“Ah, don’t worry about that,” he said, as if he had all the time in the world. “I think I might know one of them — the Chinaman — I just can’t remember where or when.” Two sailors reached for his arms and he slipped out easily. “Listen up and listen fast,” he said. “I talked to that black girl, the one who delivered the kid. If we don’t make it out of here together, then just do what she says. You’re messed up, Z. She can help you heal.”
“What? Who is she?”
“I don’t know.” Two more sailors joined in trying to hold and secure Ray. He went on talking while he was letting himself be taken. “Just don’t worry about me and don’t worry about her. Find Star, Z. Do that first.” He paused, then winked one of his green eyes and said, “Some Christmas, huh? Damn.”
Just then we heard several whistles and shouts coming from the top of the steps. The high-pitched voice barked out a command and the sailors all turned at once, fleeing back into the crowd, toward the docks, and dragging Ray with them. He was smiling, then he yelled back at me, “And try and learn a little somethin’ about the weather, would you? You’re gonna need it.”
Once again, maybe because I was Meq, or maybe because I had a friend like Ray Ytuarte, I knew instinctively that somehow I would see him again, and he knew the same. He had sacrificed himself for me. He knew that if one of us hadn’t been captured, then they most probably would have hunted one or both of us down — and that would not bring Star back. If he went with them, then it would be over and the search for Star could begin. I didn’t have a clue why Ray was being kidnapped, or who his kidnappers were, but I had no doubt whatsoever they would have their hands full.
The whistles and shouts and commotion from the top of the steps became several men running past me, all waving their arms and brandishing kitchen knives and rolling pins and meat cleavers. They ran into what was left of the Christmas parade, shouting and threatening everyone and everything, yet going no farther than the street in front of the hotel. They were certainly not the police, as I’d assumed. They looked more like an entire kitchen staff gone mad, which was close to the truth. The young black girl Ray had spoken of appeared just then from above. She knelt down next to me on the step. In English, she asked, “Are you all right?”
I nodded and grunted, “I can’t walk.”
“We will fix that,” she said, then added, ‘’ ‘I sing the body electric.’ ” I looked up at her. She smiled and said, “Walt Whitman — the great American poet,” then stood up and shouted over to the men still waving their kitchenware at the unknown assailants. The German sailors were long gone. She spoke in a local language and French, mixing the two as she went along. When she finished, the men all stopped what they were doing immediately and trudged back up the steps toward the hotel. Most of them seemed slightly disappointed they had not engaged the enemy.
“Friends of mine,” she said. “All of them work for the hotel, the kitchen staff. They were there and they came to help. Good friends each one.” Suddenly she dropped her smile. “Your friend — the other one — was he taken?”
“Yes,” I answered, and left it at that. I had too many questions for this woman, but this was not the place to ask. I was paralyzed from a severe blow to the spinal cord and I had no idea how long it would take to heal, if at all. I had to find shelter and find it quickly. There were still a few hours of daylight left and I wanted to be as far away as possible by nightfall. Ray had told me to trust her and I trusted Ray completely. The decision came instantly. “Can you get me out of here?” I asked. “Can you take me somewhere safe?”
“I will take you to PoPo, to our home, and. ” She paused and straightened up, tapping her finger on her lips and turning in a slow circle. “And I will take you in a wheelchair.” She almost laughed, then started up the steps. “Give me a moment,” she said, “I must borrow something from the hotel with the help of one of my friends. Do not move. I will not be long.” She stopped and covered her mouth with both hands, then dropped them slowly. “I am sorry. That was in bad taste, was it not?”
“Just hurry,” I said. Then with a smile, “Please.”
Less than fifteen minutes later she returned with one of her friends from the kitchen staff. She was pushing a crude wheelchair and he was carrying my luggage along with Ray’s.
“What about the sailor from the
“I never saw him,” she said. “My friend, Bakel, retrieved all of your belongings. Should I inquire?”
“No. Let’s go on. let’s leave now.” She helped me into the chair, arranging my legs and strapping me in. She was quick and efficient. “What is your name?” I asked quietly.
Without looking me in the eye or slowing down, she said, “Emme. Emme Ya Ambala.” I told her my name was Zianno, but she could call me Z. When she was satisfied I was secure, she glanced up and, in a curious mix of question and statement, said, “And you are American.”
“Yes,” I said, “and you speak English — better than most Americans.”
She laughed out loud. “ ‘Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?’ ” Then she looked over at Bakel and said something in the local dialect. We set out around the corner and down a narrow street at a rapid pace. Emme was pushing the wheelchair and Bakel was trailing, carrying our luggage. After a few blocks and several changes in direction, we finally slowed down. I turned as far as I could in the chair and caught her eye.
“Walt Whitman,” she said, never hesitating. “The great—”
“American poet,” I finished.
“That is correct,” she said, then laughed again.
The two of us spoke little the rest of the day and Bakel never spoke at all. By sunset, Saint-Louis was far behind and we had trekked almost five miles upstream on the Senegal River. We stopped for the night in the first settlement where it was possible to get riverboat passage to Kayes. Emme said we could transfer there to the one and only railroad connecting Kayes to Koulikoro on the Niger River. Where we were going from there remained a mystery. The day had been the longest I could remember. I’d lost my best friend, I’d lost the Stone, I’d lost the use of my legs, and at the end of this longest day, I was lost in Africa, completely at the mercy of a young black woman who wore a silver pearl in her nose and quoted Walt Whitman. I still had no idea why she was doing what she was doing, or how she knew I was Meq. Then I thought of Star and how lost and helpless she must feel. After that, the damp mat I was sleeping on seemed like a featherbed. I closed my eyes and waited for a dream, any dream, and let the long day go.
The next morning came too soon. Emme shook me awake and told me we had to leave right away. She handed me a flat biscuit and a bowl of something that resembled oatmeal, and I gobbled it up as if it were a gourmet meal. As I ate, I stared at the wheelchair and wondered how this would ever work. Bakel had already arranged for our things to be transferred to the riverboat, and once there, handed his duties over to another man named Masaka. While we were waiting to board, I asked Emme if she needed money for our trip, for Bakel, for Masaka, for anything. She said, “No, no, no,” brushing off the idea with a wave of her hand.
“You have many friends,” I said. “Is it like this for you everywhere in Africa?”
She laughed and pointed to the three raised horizontal lines on each of her temples. “It is because of these,” she said. “These signify to others that I am a granddaughter of a wise man, a holy man. For that reason Bakel and the others wish to help. By doing so, they believe it will enhance their own lives.”
“Is it true? Are they better off for it?”
“I think so,” she said, “but only because of Obongelli. He has true powers.”
“Who is Obongelli?”
“My grandfather. He is also called PoPo. He is the one I take you to see. He may be able to heal you. I know he will be overjoyed to see you.”
“That explains why everyone is helping you,” I said, “but why are you helping me?”
“Because of this,” she answered, changing her expression and pointing to the silver pearl in her nose. “It is Meq. It is from one of your Starstones.”
“What? How in the world do you know about that?” I involuntarily reached down for the Stone in my pocket, then remembered it was gone.
Emme smiled and said, “I will let PoPo tell you about this truth. It is only right, and he should be the one.” She pushed me and the wheelchair on board the riverboat, which was badly in need of repair, then leaned over my shoulder saying, “Now we go home and you must tell me all about America on the way.”
“Where is home?” I asked.
“Dogon land,” she said, “deep in the Federation of West Africa.”
“Is that anywhere near Mali?”
“Yes, more or less. We live south of the Niger River and north of the Volta River, on the edge of the Dolo Valley.”
Without explaining or mentioning Star or the Fleur-du-Mal, I managed a faint smile built on faint hope, and said, “Good.”
For the next two and a half weeks, we traveled in a generally eastward direction, leaving the green world and humid climate of western Senegal for a landscape that occasionally reminded me of Kepa’s camp in America — dry, reddish brown, and remote. Masaka stayed with us until we reached Koulikoro, where he told Emme he must return to his family. As far as I know, he never once inquired about who I was or why she was caring for me. From there, we took another boat ride north and east, downstream on the Niger River, until we disembarked and began our journey overland. Emme procured two donkeys for the trip, securing me, our luggage, and the wheelchair to one of them, while she led the way on the other. The donkeys were thin and old, but they served us well, and three weeks later we were nearing Dogon land.
Emme and I talked often along the way about Africa and her life there. She was opposed to the French presence in her homeland, but she was also obsessed with a Frenchman, a doctor she referred to as A. B. or Antoine. It was obvious she was in love with him, although she never expressed it openly. He was the reason she had been in Saint-Louis. She had wanted to apologize to him. “For what?” I asked. “For not believing in something,” she said. “Not believing in what?” I asked her. “In him,” she answered quietly.
My own obsessions I kept to myself. I thought about Ray almost every day and worried about Star every night. I wondered why I wasn’t healing and constantly had to tell myself that I would, that my Meq blood would eventually find the source of the injury and renew all damaged nerves and tissue. That’s what I told myself, but as each day passed and my legs remained paralyzed, I wondered more and more if it was still true.
The mystery of who had attacked Ray and me, and why, had plagued me since we’d left Saint-Louis. Since I had never seen who it was, I could only make wild guesses, and none of them made any sense. I only knew that the man in charge, the man who had stolen the Stone, knew me and knew what I was carrying. Emme and I rarely spoke of the attack. Then, only a day before we entered her village, she said something that triggered a connection, or at least the possibility of one. We were halfway down a sandstone cliff overlooking a dry and desolate valley. The ridge of sandstone ran five miles on either side of us. The sun was setting and everything had the look of either the first or last place on earth. She was talking about her grandfather and how my presence, my existence, would vindicate him and his long-standing story about the Magic Children, a tale she had heard since early childhood, a tale she never quite believed until the day she saw me, Ray, and the man behind us.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“I call him Snake Eyes, but PoPo knows his real name and has always warned me of him. PoPo says the man also knows of the Meq, and would like to steal the Ancient Pearl. He is an evil man, a trader in flesh and murder, and he smells.”
That’s when something dawned on me. Ray had said he thought he knew the man, the “Chinaman” he called him. “Snake Eyes”—“Razor Eyes.” It had to be. “Is the man a Chinese-looking man?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you know him?”
“I might,” I said, thinking back to that long-ago day when Baju had been murdered, and the man who had done it—“Razor Eyes.”
That night and most of the following day we stayed in a cave that Emme said PoPo had shown her when she was a girl. It would be a good place, she explained, for us to rest and clean ourselves before the end of our journey. She left the wheelchair on the donkey and carried me in her arms. The entrance to the cave was almost invisible, even from a short distance away, and had not been altered in any manner, except for a few symbols carved in the stone. Farther in, I saw the outline or imprint of hands on the walls. Tiny hands, the hands of children, hands like mine. Emme said there were other caves in the area with similar carvings and drawings, but this was the only one with a hot mineral spring. Twenty yards from the entrance was a natural cavity in the rock floor where the spring formed a pool. Emme lowered me into the steaming, mineral-rich water, then lit several candles that were hidden in niches and crevices around the pool. The effect was immediate and I felt better in five minutes than I’d felt in five weeks.
“The best surprises are the simplest pleasures,” Emme said, climbing in next to me.
I glanced over at her. “Whitman?”
“No,” she said, laughing and splashing water in my face. “Me.”
We both laughed and that was the moment I chose to ask her where and when she had learned to speak English. Her expression changed instantly and she looked away from me, staying silent for a full minute. Then she turned back and said, “It is a little complicated.”
“Believe me,” I said, “I am used to that.”
For the next hour I heard the most improbable and unlikely story I could imagine — a story of shipwreck, slavery, love, betrayal, and heartbreak, involving her mother, Libe (now dead), a desert warlord named El Heiba, and her father, a black American engineer who called himself Ithaca. Someday I will retell it in its entirety, but the essence is that Emme and her grandfather learned to speak and read English from her father and three books he left behind — two books of elementary grammar and a copy of
The following day we rested, bathed, ate, and did very little else. Emme said we would stir up less commotion by arriving after dark. We waited for sunset, then left the cave for the last few miles of our journey. The air was almost cool as we descended the cliff. It turned pitch-black quickly and even though I couldn’t hear any sounds of wildlife, I knew we were in a vast and wild place. Overhead, a river of stars burned in silence.
We arrived at the edge of her village and were met by several children who seemed to be waiting for us. They ranged in age from about six to twelve, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. They were smiling and giggling. Emme said they had seen her care for many strange orphans in nature, but never a white child. When they saw her help me off the donkey and into the wheelchair, their speech became more animated. Emme had to quiet them and eventually scold them, waving her arms and making them scatter back into a maze of dwellings.
She wheeled me in through what I took to be the back door of a structure that was very simple and unusual at the same time. It was two-storied, perfectly square, and made out of mud bricks. It was small, maybe twenty by twenty feet around. The roof was banded straw or reeds in a pyramid shape and seemed to top the dwelling like a hat. Close by, there were other structures, some in the shape of cylinders, but it was too dark to tell who or what they housed.
She showed me the place I would be sleeping, a simple pallet that she raised with mud bricks to a level where she could easily get me in and out of the wheelchair. Once our belongings were inside, I stacked my two small suitcases against the wall and rested Ray’s bowler on top. I knew that inside one of the suitcases I had Mama’s glove wrapped in Star’s scarf. Under my shirt and around my waist, I still wore my money belt full of shiny American double eagles. I suddenly felt lucky. I was alive and conscious, and even though I was barely mobile somewhere in the most remote part of the world, I knew I had all I needed, the reason and the means to heal and keep going. It was stacked right there in a small pile against the wall.
Emme helped me onto the pallet and straightened my legs.
“Emme,” I said, “I am more than grateful.”
“It is nothing,” she said. “It is I who am grateful because tomorrow PoPo will come to see you. I doubt he ever thought he would see one of the Magic Children again.”
“Again? What exactly does that mean?”
“I think PoPo should answer that,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
There are horseflies in West Africa — big ones. Wherever man and his animals go, wherever their food, their shelters, their droppings are, the horsefly is their companion.
I awoke to one crawling on the curve of my ear. I jerked my head involuntarily and it buzzed away. I was lying on my side staring at a drab brick wall. Behind me, over my shoulder, I heard someone stifle a laugh. I turned my head and saw him sitting on his haunches not three feet away, staring back at me. I assumed it was PoPo. He was an ancient black man with a narrow face and enormous ears. His eyes were large and watery, but very much alive and intense. He wore a strange four-cornered hat with flaps hanging over his huge ears. He almost laughed again, then held a monocle in front of his face. It had a hairline crack in the glass and was attached to the end of a stick, which he held regally. He leaned forward, and behind the monocle, his left eye looked twice as big as his right. Then he set the monocle down and spoke.
“Sometimes I am awake all night,” he said directly to me, not waiting for introductions, “and cannot sleep because I am consumed by the number of lies I have told in my life — lies that got me into trouble, lies that got me out. Lies that came and went as easily as slurred speech and lies that stayed and decayed like rotten teeth. It was lies that followed me and lies that led me on.”
He slapped his palms together, so quick and sharp I jumped, then opened his hands and from between them the dead horsefly dropped on the dirt floor. He winked at me and spat at the horsefly, missing it and making a small wet circle in the dirt next to it.
“There we are,” he said.
Then, for reasons I have never understood nor have they ever been explained to me, I stood up on my own two legs. They were wobbly, tingling, and not yet capable of running, but definitely awake and healing. I looked over at the old man.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing. I did nothing,” he said. “Your body awoke with your mind, that is all. It is common.”
I thought of Sailor and his explanation for ghosts. I never quite believed him and I was certain the old man was being more than modest. Whatever the explanation, it felt like a miracle to have my legs back and I took a few tentative steps. The old man watched me as if he were watching a dream come alive. Standing by a stone hearth, Emme was watching too, only she was watching her grandfather as much as me. I was what he had told her about all her life. I was the lie made true. I turned to PoPo.
“My name is Zianno Zezen,” I said, then hesitated, but only for a moment. “My name is Zianno Zezen, Egizahar Meq, through the tribe of Vardules, protectors of the Stone of Dreams. please, call me Z.”
This time he could not contain his laughter. He rolled on his side and called to Emme. His hat tumbled to the floor and she came to his aid, but merely to rub his bald head affectionately. She looked over at me and smiled. “Do not be offended,” she said, “he is only overjoyed.”
She helped him onto the pallet that was my bed. He wiped his watery eyes and asked Emme for his monocle, then he composed himself and crossed his legs under him as if he were about to begin meditation. His posture was extraordinary for such an old man.
“Are you a young one or an old one?” he asked.
“A young one,” I said, not at all sure where this was going. “What do I call you? Your granddaughter has given you two names.”
“Call me PoPo. I would be insulted if you did not.”
“But your formal name is Obongelli? Is that right?”
“Yes. Obongelli Ambala. I am also Hogon, which is ‘the oldest.’ I have many names and I answer to them all, but I prefer PoPo. Po means ‘smallest seed’ in our language, so I am the smallest of the smallest seeds. I prefer it that way.”
He seemed to be searching my eyes as he spoke. I reached down and retrieved his hat and handed it to him. “How do you know of us?” I asked.
He put his hat back in place, then decided against it and set it down. “I have always known of you. Unfortunately, I have only seen one of you once before, when I was a child myself, and it was only for an instant.” He leaned forward and searched my eyes again. “I am sorry,” he said, “my eyesight is weak and I wanted to see if your eyes were green.”
“Why is that?”
“Because his were.”
I felt a chill as sharp and sudden as a knife blade on my neck. “Did he also wear his hair tied back with a green ribbon?”
The old man’s watery eyes cleared and focused on a single event, probably seven or eight decades earlier. “Yes,” he said, and his eyes widened slightly. “He did indeed wear a green ribbon.”
That proved it. At that moment I knew Usoa’s information and my hunch were correct — the Fleur-du-Mal had been to Mali. There was a connection, or at least there was one in the past. Whether he had come again, I had to find out. I thought starting at the beginning, PoPo’s beginning, would be a good place. “Please tell me about the one with the green ribbon,” I said, “and everything you know about the Meq, PoPo. I need to know what you know.”
Emme walked over with two large silk pillows and a small rug rolled up under her arm. She spread the rug on the dirt floor and gently placed the pillows on top. The rug matched the primitive surroundings, but the silk pillows were hand-embroidered in intricate Arab geometric designs and were obviously not Dogon. She anticipated my question. “My mother obtained them,” she said. “They came from the harem of Hadim al-Sadi. Would you like to sit while PoPo speaks?”
Emme and PoPo waited for me to take my place on the pillow, but I told her no, I would rather use my legs, and I paced the small room while PoPo spoke.
“Many years ago,” he began, “my grandfather took me on a pilgrimage. I say pilgrimage, however, my grandfather never used that word. He merely said there was a meeting he must attend. He sounded more professional than spiritual and referred to the meeting as ‘good business.’ It was a pilgrimage to me because I knew I might get the chance to meet one of the Magic Children. He had just revealed your existence to me a few weeks before. It is one of the oldest secrets of our ‘deep knowledge’—the existence of the Meq. I must tell you now that only two of our people know of this truth at the same time in each generation — an old one and a young one. Usually, they are in the same family, but not always. Families sometimes dwindle to one, then the truth must not only be kept and passed from old to young, but leap across to another family, as one would use faith and trust helping another across a stream. It is never too difficult. The choice is always clear. Emme and I hold this truth now. It is all the lies surrounding this truth that make it worthy of great laughter. Do you agree?”
I laughed and though I had no clue what he meant, I answered, “Yes, of course.” Not since Solomon had I felt so immediately comfortable in a stranger’s presence. “Please. go on.”
He made an odd grunting sound and then continued. “We traveled north across the Niger to the tents of Hadim al-Sadi. He was camped outside Walata. As a child, it was the most exotic place I could imagine and I could not wait to arrive. In reality, it was harsh and cruel. The sand swirled constantly and stung the eyes, and the camels smelled worse than goats. My grandfather told me to be silent and not complain. ‘Stay out of harm’s way,’ he said, ‘because someday, PoPo, you will also make this journey.’ He made a vague reference to a pact that had been sealed centuries before between three parties — our ancestors, the ancestors of Hadim al-Sadi, and a single Magic Child. My grandfather called him the ‘little wolf,’ but also told me he had been called other names in other times.
“I wore the Ancient Pearl in my nose, as Emme does now, and my grandfather said the ‘little wolf’ must not see it. I was to stay far away from the meeting and remain there. Of course, as a curious child, I did not obey and followed him secretly to the meeting. Hadim traded in slaves and dealt with many black tribes, so it was not unusual for a black child to be seen around his tent. I wandered among the camels and horses at first, then found a place near the entrance where I became no more than a shadow. I could not see inside, but I could listen. I understood little of their conversation. They spoke in low voices and often in Tuareg, a language I did not yet understand. However, I knew my grandfather’s voice well and after only a few minutes, he said something that was answered by a bitter laugh. It was a child’s laugh and yet it was not. I have never forgotten the sound of it. That was followed by something being kicked over and then the entrance to the tent, a curtain of embroidered silk, was flung back. A child, a white male child, rushed out and then paused a moment. He seemed to sense my presence and turned his head slowly. We were not ten feet apart. He was my height and stared at me eye to eye. He had green eyes. Then he noticed the Ancient Pearl in my nose and he smiled — a white and frightening smile. The moment passed and he was gone. I knew who he was. He was the ‘little wolf’ and he was Meq. As he walked away, I now remember seeing the green ribbon. I can see him disappearing through the sparks of the campfires.”
PoPo stopped speaking and inhaled slowly. He was an old man and reliving the old memory had surprised him with emotion. I let time pass and glanced at Emme. She nodded gently to assure me that he was fine.
“Why was he at the meeting, PoPo? Can you tell me?”
“The Prophecy,” he said. “The Prophecy and the Lie.” A single tear formed in the corner of one eye and then he smiled. “I have all my life longed for and feared that he would return to hear it from me, just to laugh at its truth, as he has always done in generations past.”
“What is the Prophecy?” I asked. “And what is the Lie?”
“They are one and the same according to my grandfather, each a result of the same event long ago. The one with green eyes came to Mali in the 1300s when Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, returned from his pilgrimage and brought Arab architects and merchants with him. The one with green eyes was among them. Being the only white child anyone in Mali had ever seen, he was treated with a blend of curiosity and respect that enabled him to be granted nearly anything he wished. When he heard of the Dogon and our cosmology, he asked to be taken into Dogon land and introduced to the head priest. This was an odd request for anyone, especially a child, but Mansa Musa approved it and the child, along with Hadim al-Sadi’s ancestors, made his way to Dogon land in the upper Sanga. Two of my ancestors were there to greet them. They went to the mineral cave and others like it where Meq handprints were shown to the ‘little wolf.’ He told the priests that he was Meq, and to prove it, he cut himself and asked for poison to drink. The priests were horrified, but his wounds began to heal in front of them and the poison only made him belch. Then my ancestors made a mistake. They told him about the Starstone.”
PoPo paused and followed me with his gaze. I was still pacing the room. “Go on,” I said.
“It was told that long ago, when there was only Water and the Word and the Meq came to visit, they left a Starstone in one of the mineral caves. When they held the Starstone in their hands, it was said they had power over Nature and were able to make the animals sleep. Only the Meq could do this, so the Starstone was buried in the water, but the gems that adorned it were passed among the elders of the Dogon. The Ancient Pearl is the last remaining gem. The others have been lost in time.
“The one with green eyes wanted to know where the Starstone was buried, but the priests had no real knowledge because the Meq were already ancient lore — an auxiliary myth. The ‘little wolf’ suddenly became furious and bade Hadim al-Sadi take two daughters of the priests into slavery unless the priests led him to the Starstone. The priests pleaded their ignorance and begged for their daughters, but the one with green eyes lost his patience and slit the throats of the daughters in front of the priests. In return, the priests issued a curse on the evil one in the form of a Prophecy. They foretold that he would die like the bastard Nummo in our cosmology — at the hands of twins. They said, ‘You will kill a twin whose other will have a child that will have a child that will kill you.’
“The one with green eyes laughed at them and vowed to return in every future generation of their families to laugh at them and what he called the Lie. If the priests did not appear when he summoned them, Hadim and his descendants would kill their daughters and their daughters’ daughters.
“So, there it is — the Prophecy and the Lie.”
PoPo stopped talking and I nearly stopped breathing. I sat on one of the silk pillows and the pieces to an enigmatic puzzle started falling in place. Incredibly, I realized the Fleur-du-Mal’s madness in abducting Star had its source right where I was. Whether the sixth Stone existed or not, he believed it did, and even more, he believed the Prophecy. All the needless death and suffering came down to simple superstition and pride. When he found out he had murdered the wrong woman and Carolina was Georgia’s twin, he waited for Star to be born and now he was waiting for Star’s child—
“Because twins have great significance for the Dogon. The starting point of creation is believed to be in the twin star that revolves around Sirius, the Dog Star. The Dogon have known this as long as they have known of the Meq. My ancestors called on the power in the smallest and heaviest of all the stars for potency in their Prophecy and curse.” He paused and leaned forward on the pallet. He reached out for my hand and I gave it to him. His dark skin was leathery and he held my hand in his as he would a butterfly. “Is this important information to you?” he asked softly.
“Yes, PoPo, it is. You see, that is why I came to Africa — to find the one with green eyes.”
“Ayiiii,” he yelped and started laughing hysterically. He clapped his hands together and turned to Emme. “And what do you think now, my granddaughter?”
“It is a small world, PoPo,” Emme said. “It is a small world.”
“I need more information, PoPo,” I told him, “about both the past and present if I am to do what I need to do. I will need your help.” I paused and looked at Emme, remembering I had no Stone in my pocket and no real understanding of where I was or where to go. “I will need your help too, Emme.”
PoPo glanced at his granddaughter and I could tell he was not sure what her response would be. His big ears seemed to lean toward her and his eyes widened. Her expression gave nothing away, then she smiled and picked up the old man’s strange hat, placing it carefully on his bald head.
“I would be honored,” she said. “We had hoped there was another kind of Meq than the one with green eyes. PoPo has always believed in this. We have been waiting for you.”
For the next several days I walked. I walked with Emme outside the village along ancient trails that were red in color from the decay of rock older than the trails. I wanted to see all the caves where they had found children’s handprints on the walls. The trails were rough and wound through desert scrub and stunted trees. Every day my legs grew stronger and Emme took me to another cave more remote than the last. Some of the caves had handprints spread throughout and some had only two or three in a small circle. Most were made from colored ochre, reds and yellows, and some were outlined in black. A few of the handprints were missing fingers. Emme said the Bambara, a tribe similar to the Dogon in fundamental principles and metaphysics, also had knowledge of such caves and handprints.
“Do they refer to them as Meq?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Only PoPo and I know of the Meq by name.”
I walked with PoPo too. He was the most amazing walker I have ever seen. He always seemed to be walking backward because he never looked ahead and yet never ran into anything. The Dogon had a complex system of division and direction in their village. Everything was laid out in a north — south arrangement that symbolized the human body. Every space was accounted for and had to be traversed with care. Popo made his way laughing and talking, without care and without even looking.
I told PoPo everything I knew about the Fleur-du-Mal and the kidnapping of Star. I saw no reason to hold anything back. I had to find answers and connections. I showed him the old photographs that I still carried in my luggage of “Razor Eyes” from the awful day in Vancouver. PoPo recognized the man, as I’d hoped, though he said he looked much older now and was partially paralyzed in the face. PoPo called him by the single name Cheng, and said the man was well known in the slave trade from Lagos to Timbuktu and beyond. He always bought, never sold, and it was always girls. He sometimes traded with the sons of Hadim al-Sadi — Mulai (the elder), and Jisil (the younger). It was Jisil who had revealed to one of PoPo’s acquaintances that Cheng sought the Ancient Pearl. Jisil had also let it slip that Cheng was merely a buyer for someone else, someone never seen and only referred to as “the girl from Peking.”
We walked and talked at length and the time I had lost and my sense of it passing became acute. The more I learned, the more frustrated I became. It was Star I was after, and that was all. At times, I found myself wishing I could be Giza. I wanted to be large and strong, barging headlong into the desert, making people tell me the truth, by force if necessary. My hate was gaining ground again, but it wasn’t focused or sharp. I was thinking like a victim and the Fleur-du-Mal would only find that amusing, never threatening.
After ten days, I was healed completely. My legs were strong and I took even longer walks with Emme. It was easier to concentrate when we were on the old trails and it kept the fuss over my presence in the village to a minimum. While we were on one of our walks, another of PoPo’s acquaintances, Jean-Luc Leheron, formally Captain Leheron, arrived in the village unannounced. I was later told that he was the man, according to Mulai and Jisil al-Sadi, who had killed their father, Hadim, somewhere in the northern Sahara in 1902—an unforgivable act. For that reason, Jean-Luc Leheron had kept one eye on the comings and goings of the two sons ever since. It was his retirement and exploration of the upper Niger that originally brought him and PoPo together. Their mutual respect for the legendary revenge of Hadim’s family kept them in touch. Anything unusual or unexpected they reported to each other. PoPo said it was a good thing that Jean-Luc had already departed before Emme and I returned. He would have asked unanswerable questions about my presence, and I would have been unable to contain my reaction at the news.
“News of what?” I asked.
“News of a girl, a blond girl called the ‘bluebird,’ seen in the camp of Mulai two months ago.”
My mouth dropped and PoPo stifled his urge to laugh.
“And Cheng was there,” PoPo continued. “Jean-Luc said several Tuareg chiefs were angry because they were expelled from Mulai’s camp when the girl arrived. The chiefs were given no reason and Mulai then headed north into the desert at a time of year that is traditionally spent near towns and trading centers. Cheng disappeared just as quickly.”
It had to be Star. I was excited at the news, then suddenly a thought occurred to me that I had ignored until then — diseases. There were a thousand different ways for her to get sick in Africa. “Was the girl. all right?” I asked. “Did he say anything about her health or condition?”
“No,” PoPo said. “He only reported that she was seen.”
I walked past PoPo and glanced at Emme. She had been washing her face and hands while PoPo told us the news. She stared at me with the towel folded in her hands. Unconsciously, I picked up Ray’s bowler and began to twirl it on my finger while I paced. What did the Fleur-du-Mal plan to do? I turned to PoPo. “Did anyone mention seeing the one with green eyes?”
“No,” he said flatly.
That was no surprise, but what was “Razor Eyes” doing there? And why had he stolen the Stone and kidnapped Ray? Even with the news that Star was alive, I was more confused than relieved. Staring at the old frayed bowler as it twirled, I felt helpless and sat down on a bench next to PoPo. Emme must have been thinking along with me because she was the one who put it together.
“If the one with green eyes is as you say he is,” she began, “and he is indeed the same one who laughed at our ancestors, then he is trading with Hadim’s sons to fulfill and control the Prophecy.” She set the towel down even though her face was still wet. “Without a doubt, slavery is the key and the lock he will use to ensure it,” she said, looking straight at PoPo. It was evident this was an issue they tried to avoid.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Mulai and Jisil keep slaves. and a harem. They are a closed society, as closed as any in the world, and they are in constant motion throughout an area as remote as any in the world. The one with green eyes stole the child knowing who she was, knowing that she could be the mother of his executioner. He raises the child himself until she is strong enough to travel and has forgotten her past. Then he hands her over to Hadim’s sons to be raised as a slave and impossible to trace. The girl grows to be a woman and has her child, the father of whom is also chosen by him. He controls the girl, the baby, and in the end, the Prophecy. He then kills the baby at his leisure and sells the girl, now a woman, into further slavery—”
“To Cheng and whoever he works for,” I interrupted.
“Yes,” Emme said. “The deal has been struck. That was the purpose of their meeting and the reason for Mulai’s sudden departure.”
“But why did Cheng attack me and abduct my friend?”
“That I do not know,” Emme said. “However, being aware of his habits and his history, I would say he sold your friend to someone and pocketed the profits.”
I let Emme’s words sink in, then turned and looked at the old man. He was watching me carefully.
“If you choose to go after her,” he said slowly, “it will be extremely difficult.”
“I have no choice, PoPo. I promised her mama I would find her.”
PoPo glanced at Emme, exchanging something common in their history with his eyes, then spoke in a low whisper, to himself as much as me. “Then find her soon,” he said. “She will not remember her mother long.”
* * *
I wanted to leave the next day, but that was impossible. It took Emme another three weeks to gather and pack the provisions we would need. Finally, we left Dogon land some time before my birthday, in 1907. I had no idea of the exact day or week. I would soon find out that days, weeks, even months, had little significance where we were going. The hard fact that Star would turn seven years old that same calendar year made my own birthday meaningless. Sailor might not have agreed, but that’s the way it was.
PoPo insisted on going along as far as Gao, on the Niger River, which made Emme insist on bringing two cousins with us to assist PoPo on the return journey home. The donkeys were loaded down and our progress was slow and tedious. I brought a single suitcase stuffed with my things and Ray’s. I had to flatten his bowler slightly, but it was not possible to leave anything of his behind. I wore the money belt under my clothes and around my waist at all times. The gold and gems would be necessary for everything from information to camels. Emme thought we should travel poor and keep to ourselves, but I remembered something Solomon had taught me long ago—“Poverty often ensures no response, while gold is an international language.”
Outside Gao, Emme unpacked one of the bundles on her donkey and laid out several robes and scarves. They all had a deep blue sheen and were the traditional color and cloth of the Tuareg, the “blue men” of the desert. In another bundle she brought out an assortment of bracelets and earrings made of silver, all inlaid with colored stones in geometric patterns. She put two big silver loops in her ears and handed me a short dagger made of serpentine.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
“All Tuareg men wear it above the elbow of the left arm. It is called an
“But I am supposed to be a boy.”
“Wear it anyway,” she said.
She carefully arranged a blue scarf on her head, leaving her face uncovered. The scars on her temples were not visible, but the Ancient Pearl in her nostril stood out against her dark skin and the dark scarf. Then she began wrapping the turban-veil, which she called the
I briefly thought back to China and how uncomfortable Geaxi and I had been in the heavy monks’ robes that Sailor had made us wear. For another moment, the first in a long time, I smiled to myself and wondered where they were and what they would be doing. Then I thought of where I was and what I was doing and I could barely answer that. I decided I should at least send a letter to Owen Bramley.
Emme and I walked into Gao while PoPo stayed on the edge of the desert with the donkeys and the two young cousins. He told us he had no desire to see any more towns. “They are only sinkholes of gossip and money,” he said, “and I have no need of either.”
The outpost town was tiny and we easily found the one government building that served all civil purposes from jail to mail. I sent Emme in to post the letter. It contained few words, almost no information, and little truth. It was the best I could do. The letter was this: “Dear Owen — I’m still alive and so is Star — I will find her — it won’t be long — Z.”
I asked Emme how much time it might take for the letter to reach St. Louis. She said there was no way to know for sure, but it could take five or six months. Five or six months, I thought; maybe I could beat the letter with a telegram that said I’d found her.
Emme seemed to read in my eyes what I was thinking. “Do not think ahead,” she warned, “the Sahara will not allow it.”
Later, outside Gao and near sunset, we said good-bye to PoPo. The old man made a formal farewell, sitting straight, as always, on the back of his donkey. He removed his strange hat and then looked down at me through his monocle-on-a-stick. He said, “I wish you well, Zianno Zezen. I know you prefer ‘Z,’ but one does not call the first drink of water from a deep well by a nickname. Please, if you can, watch over my granddaughter and ignore her complaints. She is a proud girl, much like her mother. She has a keen mind, but her heart wanders.”
PoPo stayed where he was with the two young cousins while Emme and I headed north into a haze and horizon that had no definition. I turned and waved farewell, thinking I would surely see the old man again someday. It is a simple thing you tell yourself, not even a thought, really — more of a notion, a feeling that time and events will bring you back together in a future that is taken for granted. It doesn’t always work out. After that last glance and farewell, I never saw PoPo again.
It is difficult for the Meq to talk about Time. To the Meq as individuals, time is not a question of gain or loss, and saving time is absurd. Without physical change, time is an internal concept and only distance, whether from a person or from a goal still unaccomplished, feels like a loss of time. Perhaps there is a crossroads, a paradox, a place where strangers, both Giza and Meq, wait in the twilight and the loss of time has no bearing at all on the only thing that can be found in Time and truly missed — love.
In the first few months of going deeper and deeper into the central Sahara, and traveling now on camels instead of donkeys, my thoughts continually revolved around Time. We were chasing Mulai and Jisil al-Sadi, and any information concerning their whereabouts became harder to get and less specific. It was more frustrating than it had been in China searching for Zeru-Meq. Their entourage included hundreds of people, camels, horses, and everything that went with them, all moving at will across political, geographical, and tribal boundaries like ghosts. The word Sahara is Arabic for “sand sea” and the al-Sadis seemed to sail through the desert on an outlaw ship with its own charts and ports. Emme asked questions and often got nods of recognition and stories about Mulai, Jisil, and sometimes Hadim, but not a single direction.
For many months we traveled, generally heading west through Araouane and Tichit, never finding their camps or coming close. Emme refused to get discouraged and we drove each other on. She was concerned, however, that as time went on, Star would not welcome us as friends or liberators. In her mind and body, even spiritually, she would be nothing more than a slave to Mulai and Jisil. Emme was certain of this. Star’s captivity by the al-Sadis became something we rarely talked about, never doubted, and followed obsessively. The drone of distance, time, and silence became a cocoon and a companion. We lived day to day, season to season, and eventually traveled in every direction without calendars or clocks. From the Ahaggar in the east to the Adrar in the west, we journeyed and searched, year after year, never relenting, never stopping.
In the beginning, we both seized any opportunity to send a note or letter, Emme writing to PoPo and me to Owen Bramley mostly. I wrote one letter to Carolina, but after reading it I tore it up because there was nothing in it. I never mentioned Ray in my letters. I rarely mentioned myself. The letters were more like postcards from no one describing nowhere. As the letters from both of us became shorter and less frequent, our obsession grew. Obsession is a clever and insidious drug. It drove us on and isolated us simultaneously. Human contact only served as a source of information and fuel for the pursuit. The extremes of heat, cold, wind, distance, and especially time affected us less and less. We were insulated in our cocoon, our obsession, and obsession is an amazing eraser of time.
I remember the night we were camped to the west as far as we had ever been, in a bleak and desolate stretch of desert beyond any traditional or commercial trade routes. Emme said we were only miles from Nouadhibou, or Port Etienne, as the French had renamed it. The sun was still an hour from setting and I turned toward the west and stared at the endless dunes and hills. Emme was tying the camels outside our tent and the only sounds to break the silence were our own voices and the groans from the camels.
“Look there,” she said, and pointed low on the horizon.
I looked and saw a string of black dots weaving in the air over the dunes, flying north to south.
“Ringdoves,” Emme said, “migrating down the coast.” She paused and we watched the birds until they were gone, then kept staring into emptiness. In minutes the temperature had fallen fifteen degrees. I found blankets for both of us and we sat in silence while the sky darkened like a bruise, then filled with light. Emme’s eyes seemed to glaze slightly, but she wasn’t crying. She looked up at the great Milky Way and pointed at the bright dancing star that was Sirius. “The earliest Egyptians called it Sothis,” she said. “They believed it was the home of departed souls. The Dogon believe the same thing.” She wrapped her blanket tighter around her shoulders and looked at me. “What do the Meq believe, Z?”
I only hesitated a moment. It was an easy answer or, as Ray liked to say, clear as a tear. I said it once, then realized how very true it was. I heard myself say it again. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
Several weeks later we were gathering fresh supplies somewhere outside Tindouf, a traditional stop on the old caravan routes and a place where many tribes crossed paths for trade and gossip. I asked Emme if the man we were trading with could tell us the month and year. When he answered, I was shocked but Emme showed no reaction. Maybe it was because she was used to the natural, internal changes of her own body. Or maybe she had seen in her reflection the aging around her eyes and in the hollow of her cheeks, all things that never occurred to me — the boy, the Meq, the one who should not have been surprised. The man told her it was January in the year 1916.
Almost nine years had passed and we were still searching for the al-Sadis and Star. Nine years of crisscrossing the desert and its wells, trading centers, oases, and caravan routes, asking questions that were dangerous, hiding the gold that I carried, watching Emme get us in and out of places no western traveler would ever see. Nine years of learning to navigate by wind and stars, and learning a nomad life of survival that had not changed for millennia. Suddenly, for that one brief moment, it seemed time, distance, and the Sahara itself had swallowed all of us up.
My despair lasted the rest of that day and the next. I wandered through the open markets alone and sat for hours by a crumbling stone wall, staring at a lone acacia tree on the horizon. It was bent with the wind, permanently twisted and stretched, bare and isolated in the landscape, yet surviving. I thought continually of Star and her life. I thought of the Fleur-du-Mal and myself, then just before sunset of the second day I stood up and turned away from the tree and ran to find Emme. I had a hunch and, ironically, that was all we needed.
Emme had mentioned years earlier that Mulai and Jisil al-Sadi bred, trained, and traded
The week passed quickly and on the morning of the wedding Emme and I were up early and scouting the race grounds and surrounding camps, still wearing our Tuareg clothing, but steering clear of all Tuareg encampments. By midafternoon, the wedding party arrived in clouds of dust, loud cheering, and clanging cymbals. The races began shortly after, with fifty or sixty camels and their drivers, snorting and yelping and coming off all at once from the starting line, which was a quarter of a mile across. Emme and I found a place to watch, standing next to a ragged group of camel drivers and slaves. The drivers were Tuareg and two of them nearest to us wore gold rings in their ears and bracelets made of ivory, silver, and turquoise up and down their arms. None of the others wore jewelry as rich and plentiful. It was unusual and Emme and I stayed near them just to listen. With our Tuareg turbans and veils masking our faces, they spoke freely without fear of an outsider’s presence. Their dialect was one I had never heard. Emme said it was archaic and used by only a few tribes, including the al-Sadis. She translated as they spoke, but two minutes into the race I didn’t need it. I distinctly heard one of them yell “Mulai!” and saw him point to the man who was leading the pack. I only managed to turn and look at the man for a few seconds before the whole group passed and he became invisible in the dust and sand. He wore dark blue from head to foot and gold strands were woven into the cloth, making it sparkle in the bright sunlight. Then Emme leaned over and translated what I couldn’t understand. They were also yelling, “My chief! My chief!”
Finally, we were in the right place at the right time. I glanced at Emme and she gave me a quick look, then stepped over to one of the camel drivers and grabbed his sleeve. I had no idea what she was doing or that she was going to do it. She lowered her veil and told the man that our chief wished to buy camels from Mulai al-Sadi — good camels—
Emme’s gaze was too powerful for the first man to doubt her and the other man stared at her pearl and thought of gold. The ruse worked, but only to a point. Neither of them had the authority to finalize any deal without the complete knowledge and approval of their chief. A meeting here, at the races, was completely out of the question. Emme kept after them. She was lying, of course, dropping names and telling them our chief had been under El Heiba and now wished to quit the resistance and return to his homeland and race camels. The drivers paused and stared at each other for just a moment, then the conversation changed in tone completely. She had finally come up with a name common to them all. This enabled the camel drivers to verify their trust and at least tell her the exact location in which Mulai would be pasturing his camels along with his prize Arab horses the following year, without ever having to say or use his name. It was an elaborate and baroque deal, but a deal nonetheless.
Emme never mentioned the “bluebird” by name but at the same time steered the dialogue toward a blue-eyed white girl our chief had sold to Jisil al-Sadi years before. Emme asked if Jisil had sold her yet; being so white and skinny, Emme thought she would never adapt. One of the men said that Jisil only wished he could buy and sell the girl. She was not his, the man said, and she never would be. He added that the problem would solve itself in little more than a year, when the girl would be sold — then their chief could get back to the business of camel racing full time. Emme asked if the girl ever traveled with them to events such as this. One of the men said no, never, that it could never happen. Then the other man interrupted him with a stern look and brought the conversation back to camels.
The races went on until early evening. Emme and I left long before that, but we now had what we needed — a time and a place. We would meet them there. We would be waiting.
As we were leaving, in the midst of shouts and swirling clouds of sand, I started laughing and couldn’t stop.
“Why are you laughing?” Emme asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not that funny. I was remembering something.”
“Another day similar to this one. The first time I rode a camel.”
Emme watched me for a moment, then reattached her veil. “Where was that?” she asked.
“In St. Louis.”
“A lifetime ago. the day Star was stolen. The day an old friend died.”
“Look at me,” Emme said, unfastening her veil again, so I could watch her say the words. “We will find this girl, Z. She may not be Star anymore, but we will find her and free her.”
“I know. I just never thought it would be with camels.”
Early the next day Emme posted a letter to PoPo, telling him our good news and giving him our route and probable stops along the way, then we left Tindouf and began traveling in a zigzag, easterly direction. We were in no hurry and our final destination was still far away in the central Sahara and massif of Tassili-n-Ajjer. Our spirits were high and we talked at length about what the camel drivers had said and what it meant. It seemed clear that Star would be sold in just over a year, and that would be the same date the Fleur-du-Mal would do whatever it was he had in mind to do. What was not clear was Star’s relationship with Mulai and Jisil. Somehow, in some way, she had come between them.
For six long and uneventful months we had good luck with both the weather and the animals. We ran into no sudden storms and the camels stayed healthy. We even purchased two goats along the way. Why not, we thought; we were rich with hope. Emme talked often of the future, not only scenarios for Star’s rescue and escape, but for herself afterward. She said she might rethink a decision she had made concerning the mysterious A. B., the Frenchman from Saint-Louis in Senegal. She didn’t say what the decision was and I didn’t ask. I never asked about him because I never mentioned Opari. It had always been an area of mutual silence between us and seemed a fair trade.
Finally, on a clear but windy morning, we came within sight of In Salah, an ancient town in the heart of Algeria. It had been a crossroads for caravans, wars, and warriors for centuries. That day, although there were a few stragglers like us, it seemed desolate and nearly abandoned. Emme stopped an old herdsman who was leaving just as we were arriving and asked if there had been sickness or a threat of some kind to the people. In Berber, he replied, “No, no, only an Englishman, a soldier who has fled the war in the east. The people think other English soldiers will come after him. They want nothing to do with him, so they stay inside and wait for him to leave, but he doesn’t leave. He only sits in the shade and smokes Turkish tobacco. Very unpleasant, very bad.”
The old man waddled off and Emme shrugged her shoulders. We knew there was a war going on in Europe, and we knew there was fighting in Africa, but that was thousands of miles away, mainly in East Africa and South Africa and nowhere near the central Sahara. Emme thought that it was of no concern and told me to tend the animals while she went to post a letter to PoPo. I agreed without telling her what I really intended, which was to find the English soldier. I wanted news, English-speaking news.
I combed the markets and alleys of In Salah until finally, under the awning of an empty stall at the very edge of town, I found him, sound asleep in the shadows. He was snoring loudly and looked to be about twenty or twenty-one years old. His face was unshaven, but his beard was blond and barely more than peach fuzz. Either he or someone else had torn all the insignias off his ragged uniform. They were lying in a pile beside him, along with several papers, including a British newspaper. I figured he must be a deserter; there was no other reason for him being alone and so far from anywhere. I tried to find out what I could without waking him. I knew there was nothing I could do for him — not here and not now. Among his papers I discovered he had been in the Second Battalion of the Nigerian Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Austin Hubert Wightwick Haywood. The name sparked a memory. I had heard the colonel’s name before in other remote parts of the desert. He was known as the only Englishman in recent years to have crossed the Sahara. I looked down at the sleeping young soldier and wondered if he had heard the same thing, maybe even tried to do the same thing. I would never know. I took the British newspaper and ran back to my goats and camels and began to read.
Minutes later, I discovered the United States had entered the war in Europe. That was no surprise. Sailor had always said the Giza would eventually find a way to fight a world war. The rest was not news, not really, just reports of what was in fashion — economically, culturally, spiritually. Two things did catch my eye. One made mention of a new American poet on the scene — Thomas S. Eliot — and I wondered if he could be the same boy on the bicycle who had been so infatuated with Carolina, then dismissed the thought as impossible. The other was an article, with pictures, of a new biplane that was going to be tested in Scotland as a seaplane. I could not believe how far men had come, once they learned to fly. The machine looked remarkable. There was something familiar about the name of the pilot, and I was squinting in the sun, trying to place it, when Emme’s shadow interrupted. I looked up and knew immediately something was wrong.
“What is it?” I asked.
She was trembling slightly. She handed me a letter, but it never made the exchange. It dropped in the dust and I picked it up.
“It was waiting for me,” she said slowly. “It has been here more than a month.”
I opened the letter and looked at it. It was in French and I only understood a few words. However, I could read the signature at the bottom clearly — Jean-Luc Leheron.
“What does it say?” I asked, then changed my mind. “No, what does it mean?”
“It means I have to leave, go back to Dogon land — now — today”
I knew there would be only one answer to my next question, one small seed of an answer. “PoPo?”
“Yes. He is. not well. He is. ” She stopped, then swallowed hard. “He is dying.”
“Then I’ll go with you.”
“No, you will not. You will go on and stop this abomination. You must — we have never been this close to her. If you left now, you might not get back in time. many things might happen, many things. You will free that girl. She will fear you, she will have another name, but you will free her. You must! You will free her as you would a bird. You will do this because you were meant to do this. You have no choice, as I have no choice. PoPo is my blood and I know you understand this, Z, more than I.”
I looked at her and knew without a doubt she meant what she was saying, and that what she was saying was true. There was no other way for it to be. Any delay was just that. “Then I think we’ll only say a temporary farewell, Emme Ya Ambala. I have not yet seen enough of you in this world.”
“I feel the same, Zianno Zezen. There will be a day somewhere, somehow, and you will introduce me to Star. That will be a good day”
We embraced in the sand with grit swirling around us. The wind was coming from the west and picking up. I heard dogs barking in the distance. The sun was low, but the sky was still bright with several hours left in the day. Emme loaded her camel with supplies, then climbed on, ready to head south.
“You will have to learn some new dialects,” she shouted down at me.
“I will talk backward,” I said, “it always works.” Then something else came to me. “ ‘I, now forty-seven years old in perfect health, begin, hoping to cease not till death—’ ”
“I am impressed,” she said, ‘’ ‘Song of Myself,’ but the correct age is thirty-seven.” She was laughing. “You are crazy.”
“Someone else told me that once. Do you know what I told her?”
“No, what?” Emme shouted back. She was already moving, swatting at the camel and straightening the reins. The camel groaned and balked as always. I walked alongside.
“What does it mean?”
“Something about truth,” I yelled. She was pulling away.
“I will remember that,” she yelled back. “Is it old?”
“Yes,” I shouted, but I knew she couldn’t hear me any longer. She was only a blue dot melting into a shimmering, shapeless horizon. “It is very old,” I whispered.
I left In Salah two days later, moving north and east, slowly at first — one day, one night at a time. As I crossed the oldest north — south caravan route from Ghadames to the Niger, I traveled even more slowly. I bought two more goats and a donkey. It was twice as slow and twice as convincing. By the time I got to the sandstone cliffs and hidden canyons of the Tassili-n-Ajjer, I was a full-time goatherd.
Mulai and Jisil’s “property” was neither legal nor defined by boundaries in any way. It was what they could hold on to and defend. However far that defense was extended was their current “property” line. Sentries on horseback and in pairs usually patrolled the entire remote area surrounding the al-Sadi camps. Occasionally, one sentry would be posted for a few months at a time near strategic passes and lookout points. My goats and I found one of these passes at the northern end of the Tassili range. There were two small streams and ragged pastures nearby and in the cliffs all around were caves and grottoes where I could camp and make myself familiar with the sentry, who would be lonely, hungry, and angry at being posted so far from his main camp. At least, this was what I hoped for, since disenchanted soldiers sometimes say more than they should. I had to find out anything I could, in any way I could, about the “bluebird.” It was still early in what passed for spring in the Tassili-n-Ajjer, but the deadline the camel driver had mentioned was only months away.
I started out making my rounds with the goats at a good distance from the pass itself. Gradually, daily, I let the goats stray closer and closer. I was in luck. The sentry who was posted to the northern pass was not hungry or angry, far from it, but he was lonely and one day called out to me. I played mute, waving my arms and making hand signals. He took pity on me and we struck up a friendship, of sorts. He did all the talking and I nodded my head. To keep him talking, I often brought tobacco and dates, things I kept with me for trade, but never imagined would be used as bribes for information. In such a fierce and friendless place, they were better than my gold.
He was named Idris, after Idris Alooma, the sixteenth-century ruler who brought firearms to the Maghreb. This Idris was heavyset, which was unusual in the desert, and I never saw him look at his rifle, much less use it. He was jolly and gregarious and he still had a small spark of innocence left in his eyes, though he was anything but innocent. He had killed many men. Death, especially as a warrior for Mulai and Jisil, was common to him. He could slit a man’s throat and still take time to sample the dates the man had been about to swallow. He would fondly remember the dates, never the man.
He spoke a common Berber dialect, which I understood, not the difficult archaic speech of the camel drivers. Since I always brought gifts and never spoke back, he encouraged my visits and even used his hands more for expression, as I did. When I pointed at my eyes with two fingers and made a fluttering motion with my interlocked hands, imitating a bird, a “bluebird,” he shut his eyes and waved his hand across his face, telling me this must not be seen, not be discussed. It was a forbidden subject. I knew that no female, more specifically a female slave, would have become a forbidden subject unless the chief or chiefs had made it so. Star may not have known she was the daughter of Carolina Covington, but her blood did.
I began staying longer, returning sooner, and generally becoming a friendly nuisance until I was virtually living at the pass with Idris. He showed me hundreds of caves in the area and most of them were decorated with paintings and engravings from ancient times. Idris had no idea who had put them there or what they meant, but he pointed out that some of the older engravings were of animals that now only existed in the south — rhinoceroses, giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, hippopotamuses. In Berber, he said, “Many rivers, long ago.” Most amazing was a cedar tree near one of the caves, its limbs spread and twisted, reaching fifty feet up and out between two rock walls, rooted in what was the riverbed, maybe three or four thousand years ago. It was still alive.
I began sleeping in the tree. There was a crevice in a gnarled limb where I could stretch full-length and even watch Idris as he kept his watch in the pass. He did little. There was little to do. No one came through the pass in either direction for weeks. Idris said sometimes the sentry of the northern pass could live through the entire length of his watch and never see another human.
I waited, watched, and listened. My Meq “ability” to hear at great distance increased dramatically the first night I slept in the old cedar tree. I was learning to focus, turn it on and off, and even listen in my sleep. It was more than an increased intensity of a sense. It was more like another one.
It was during this strange sleep-listening on the night of a new moon that I first heard the horse of Jisil. Idris confirmed it for me the next day, nervously, because Jisil had been alone and this was never done. Somehow, I had known it was Jisil when I heard the hooves. He stopped for only a moment in the pass, so Idris could recognize him, then headed north at a full gallop. Three nights later he returned. He was alone again and charging hard back to his camp. I was worried. Something urgent was driving Jisil, but it was still weeks before the season Mulai’s camel driver had spoken of, the season the “bluebird” would be sold.
The next day I stayed close to Idris and the pass. Around sunset, I gave him the last of the dates and herded the goats back to my camp. I fed the donkey and the camels and climbed up into my perch in the coiled limb of the old cedar. As the Milky Way spread itself overhead, I watched Idris sit by his small fire. His silhouette was the only thing that moved in all directions. Then something began to happen. Something that proved forever what Sailor had told me years before. “Chase a whisper,” he’d said, “and you will find the wind.”
I heard a sigh. I turned my shoulders toward the source of the sound and I was staring into empty space. At first, it seemed to come from space itself, from somewhere near Sirius, the Dog Star. I waited and listened for it to come again, but it did not. My eyes drifted to the rock face opposite the cedar and just beyond the farthest outstretched limb. The moon cast light and shadow against the stone at precisely the right angles for me to see something I had never seen in the rock face before — an opening.
The sigh returned and doubled in strength, then tripled. It was as if one sigh had found a gap in the silence and the others were following, curious and crowded behind each other, anxious to come through and spill out from wherever they were. And they were all coming from the opening, which was forty feet up the rock face and fairly small, so that only a child could enter without difficulty.
I put some candles in my pocket, climbed down from the cedar, and made my way across the ancient riverbed. In the dark, scaling the sandstone cliffs would usually have been impossible, but once again, because of the angles of light and shadow, I was able to see footholds and handholds clearly. I climbed slowly and surely toward the opening. The sighs had become so numerous they seemed to flow like water from a spring or fountain.
I found a ledge that ran in front of the opening. It was very narrow and could have been invisible from the ground. I lit a candle. I peered into the black space of the opening. The air was dry, as dry and light as ashes. The opening itself was no more than three or four feet high and wide. I followed the sound and flow of the sighs.
The passage wound into the mountain and gradually increased in height, but remained narrow. The walls were smooth and as I ran my hand over the stone, I could feel engravings at different points along the way. I shone the light on several and they were all in languages and symbols I had never known or seen before. The sighs sounded more and more like water.
Abruptly the passage ended. There were no other ways in or out, only the one narrow passage that ended in a domed stone room in the natural shape of an oval. I set one candle down in the sand and lit another. The walls were covered with more engravings of symbols and animals, some of which I knew were extinct. At the narrow end of the oval there was a dark opening in the stone that was the source of the sighs. Water was flowing from it, clear and sparkling, disappearing into the sand where it fell.
I was suddenly thirsty. I had to drink from that water. There was no other thought as strong. I walked toward the dark space and the water and knelt down and bent forward, placing my palms against the stone on both sides of the fountain. I opened my mouth for the water, closed my eyes, and leaned into it.
But there was no water.
I opened my eyes and the dark opening that had been the source of the water and the sighs was actually a circle in the stone, indented and stained black, and my palms were not in some random resting place against the stone. I had unknowingly put them in handprints exactly my size that had been there for millennia, carved or worn into the stone in exactly those positions. I leaned back and looked at the wall. Around the black circle and engraved in a language I had never seen written, but understood intuitively, were two intersecting lines. They were written in Meq. The script Eder told me we had lost, the script that had been scrawled into the bone barrettes she wore in her hair. Translated, they read like this:
I looked around for more. There was absolutely nothing else in the room. No pottery, no tools, no remnants of any kind. I scanned the walls again and something caught my eye to the left of the black circle in a small and tight script. I held the candle close to the wall. It read:
And it was signed. The name was Trumoi-Meq.
I don’t know why, but I suddenly thought of Mama and the train ride to Central City. When I had asked her how we were different, she had said, “We are more than just Basque, we are older.” I hadn’t understood and I remembered how she had looked out of the window and let out a long sigh. Was that what I heard coming first from the skies, then the cave, and now from a nonexistent fountain? Was it the sighs of a whole species trying to explain itself?
I sat in the sand of the ancient room and listened. I tried to feel a connection with what I’d discovered, but I’d never felt so distant, so lost and alone in my life.
I rose and walked back through the passage, leaving the lit candles in the room. I followed the faint shafts of moonlight to the opening and stepped outside on the ledge. The sky over the Sahara seemed to be blazing with stars. I wondered if all the others before me, the old ones, had stepped out of the cave and onto this ledge and felt the same sense of relief and loneliness. I took a deep breath of air and let it out slowly. It was a paradox of awe and despair.
I turned and looked toward the pass and beyond. Idris was in his place by the fire, still eating dates. What teeth he had left were stained and the rest were missing because of his love of dates. The trail to the north sloped down and away from his lookout, but was visible for at least a mile in the moonlight.
Then I heard the hooves. They were coming from the south, at a trot, not a gallop, but I knew the sound. It was Jisil. And he was not alone. There was a voice saying his name, speaking in another language, but a voice I knew well, a voice that sounded as if it could be Carolina’s twin, only Georgia was dead. It was Star and she was very frightened.
I tried to find them in the darkness and couldn’t. From the sound of the hooves, I knew they were near and both riding the same horse. I had to make a decision whether to start climbing down the rock face or wait and watch them ride through the pass. I decided to wait.
Idris eventually heard the sound of the horse and recognized it also. He stood up slowly and walked to the edge of his lookout.
Jisil and Star appeared almost at the same moment. His horse was a solid gray Arab stallion and they were only slowing down, not stopping. My pulse quickened and my heart pounded. Finally, she was flesh and blood, alive and right in front of me. So many times I had doubted this would ever happen. I could not see her face and she never spoke, but I knew it was her. She rode on the saddle in front of Jisil and wore simple white robes and a turban with a veil. Under the veil, she was breathing rapidly. I could hear her easily with my “ability.”
Jisil wore a dark turban and veil that seemed to sparkle in the faint light. Gold strands had been sewn in with the cloth. He glanced up at Idris as they passed and waved his arm once in an arc. I couldn’t tell whether it was a greeting or a farewell. They disappeared down the north slope as quickly as they had arrived and Idris went back to his fire and his dates.
For a moment I was frozen on the ledge. I don’t know why. In the same moment I heard the hooves of another horse, far to the south, but approaching fast and in full gallop. This time I didn’t wait. I started for the end of the ledge and began my climb down the rock face. I had only gone a few feet before the rider from the south was already in the pass. Clinging to the rocks, I glanced at Idris as he rose from his seat by the fire to greet the rider, then dropped his bowl of dates where he stood, and pointed north. The man wore a dark turban and veil like Jisil and his horse was the same color gray, only mottled slightly with whites and darker grays. He carried something on his back, which he slung around in one motion and held to his shoulder. I couldn’t quite make it out, but the motion was familiar. It was a rifle and he was aiming down the north slope, down the trail that led to Ghadames, down toward Jisil and Star.
In the moonlight and because of the distance, it was a difficult shot, but he only fired twice. The two cracks were close together and were quickly swallowed by silence. His horse never moved. The man rested the rifle on his thigh and watched the darkness to the north. Nothing moved, not the horse, the horseman, Idris or me. A full minute passed, then he slowly turned his horse and addressed Idris in that archaic dialect I did not understand. The only words I did understand were names—“Mulai” and “Allah.”
Then he raised his rifle and shot Idris between the eyes. Idris fell and toppled along with the dates over the rocks and into the pass. The horseman looked back to the north once more, then turned south and rode back the way he had come, this time in a slow and arrogant trot, the trot of a chief and the arrogance of an assassin.
I scrambled down the rock face, slipping, losing balance, going much too fast. I ran across the riverbed and found my packs. I untied all the animals and wished them well, then ran and stumbled my way up to where Idris had pastured his horse. I secured the packs and saddle, fumbling with every buckle and strap. I tried to calm myself and slow down. As I rode north, away from the pass and down the slope, I held the horse to a trot. At a gallop, I would never see them, dead or alive.
I found Jisil’s horse first. He wasn’t far off the trail and he was pacing nervously. As I slowed to a walk, he bent his head and nudged something, then backed away, shaking his reins and snorting. When I got close enough, I looked down. It was Jisil. He was sprawled facedown in the sand. He had been shot through the spine and heart. I never saw his face. His dark turban had wrapped around him and whipped in the wind above his head. I was watching it when something broke loose from his hand and flew up like a handkerchief. I reached out and caught it. I couldn’t tell what it was, but there were drawn lines and words in Arabic and it seemed to be a map. I tucked it away and listened, as hard and focused as I ever had, I listened.
I let my “ability” spread and deepen. The two horses shuffling and snorting sounded like a stampede. I concentrated and narrowed myself, centered myself like the small black circle in the oval room of the cave. The wind was raging. I could hear it scraping the rocks clean. I had to go under it, underwater, under time, under the wind, to find her.
I heard a sigh.
I turned and ran toward the source. It came from the opposite side of the trail in a mass of brush and sand. I looked down and saw the white muslin veil. The sigh came from behind it. I pulled the veil back slowly and stared down at the face, the mouth, that had made the sigh. In the moonlight, I could see enough of her features to tell that her eyes were closed, but her lips were parted and she was alive and breathing. There was a ring in her nose, a gold ring in the center attached by a chain to another smaller ring in her left nostril. That was attached by another chain to another, larger ring in her left ear. But it was not the rings or chains that caught my attention, it was the freckles. Carolina’s freckles, all across her nose and cheeks. I was certain that under her closed lids, the eyes were blue.
I lifted her head gently and she sighed again. She had been shot through the shoulder, probably knocked from the horse by the impact and then rolled into the brush. I wasn’t sure if she was conscious and less sure what to say to her. I had never thought about it in all the years I had been looking for her.
“Star?” I whispered.
Her eyes fluttered and opened about halfway, then found mine and opened wide. She tried to speak, saying something in Jisil’s archaic dialect, then fell back into unconsciousness, either from the sight of me or the pain of her wound, or both.
I dragged her out of the brush roughly. There was no other way. I pulled back her robe and looked at her shoulder. It was still bleeding, but I knew it would stop. The bullet had not lodged and the wound was clean. I bound it tightly with her veil and mine, then stood up and looked for Jisil’s horse. There was no chance of getting out to the south because of Mulai’s camp. The east and west only promised more desert. The only way of getting out was to the north and that would take a good horse.
I found him near Jisil’s body, still skittish and watching me as I approached. The wind tore at Jisil’s turban and stung my face and eyes with sand and grit. The animal was a chief’s horse and ignored the wind. To him, the wind had never been an enemy, only an ally, and that gave me an idea. I tore off the part of Jisil’s turban that was loose and blowing. I started walking toward the horse, deliberately, and wrapping the cloth around my own head at the same time, slowly. I stopped within five feet and waited. After a cautious snort and whiff of me, he lowered his head and shook his reins. I turned and walked back toward Star, not looking once over my shoulder. When I had almost reached her, I heard his hooves crossing the trail of crushed stones behind me. It was a gamble and I had been lucky, but Jisil’s horse, one of the finest Arabs I had ever seen, never questioned it.
I loaded and strapped my things on first, then with great difficulty, I managed to get Star on the horse and in the saddle behind me. I literally tied her to my back, even though she was taller and heavier. It was not her weight that gave me problems or concern. It was what I discovered when I first picked her up. It changed the way I touched her, moved her, and it had probably changed everything for Jisil.
Star was pregnant, very pregnant.
We traveled at a steady pace along the trail to Ghadames and the oldest of the caravan routes. Jisil’s horse knew the way when I didn’t. Star remained in a semiconscious state and only took water with the aid of my fingers.
Somewhere outside Ghadames, we rested near a grove of palms. It was midday. There were mounted and motorized patrols in the distance. What army for which country, I couldn’t tell. I found water and traded for biscuits, helped Star to a place in the shade, then sat by her and took out what I’d caught in the wind from Jisil, what I hoped was a map.
It was a map and a little more. Jisil had outlined the north coast of Africa from Tripoli to Tunis. He had marked two places on the coast by name and symbol. The one to the east was named Sabratha and marked with an X. I had never heard of this place. He also had a trail of arrows that headed west, avoiding Sabratha and ending in the other place, which he had marked with a circle. The name was Carthage. In the margins he had scribbled notes and several names, all in Arabic, except one—“Cheng.”
I looked over at Star and it came to me. I remembered Jisil’s two midnight rides a few days before. He had been making a deal. The new pieces fitted into the old puzzle. Jisil had fallen in love with a slave — Star — and was trying to save her and the baby from a deal that had been sealed long ago, a deal that Mulai would not break, a deal with the Fleur-du-Mal. I figured Cheng would be working for the Fleur-du-Mal or against him. Either way, he could lead me to him.
I had heard of Carthage and I definitely knew of Cheng. There was no choice but to take Star there. She needed to be free and safe to have her baby. Her shoulder I knew would heal. I could end the madness there, in Carthage, because Cheng would be expecting Jisil, not me.
I followed the map generally and asked directions occasionally. Sometimes I spoke in my rough Berber, sometimes in French, and once in English. I no longer cared about any pretense or disguise. Star continued to drift in and out of consciousness. I tried to stay behind her when she woke, so my presence wouldn’t startle her. She drank more water, but she was weak from the loss of blood. Without being aware of it, she often held her belly when she slept.
South of G?bes, a day and a half later, we came out of the desert and the mountains. Birds circled overhead, and even though we couldn’t see it yet, we could smell the salt and the sea air of the Mediterranean.
We camped that night near a rocky outcrop on the high plain between G?bes and Sousse. Star was pale and drawn and I couldn’t seem to make her comfortable. Her sleep was more delusional. I tried to think of what Emme would do. Sirius was as bright as a streetlight in the sky. Star opened her eyes once and stared at it, then mumbled something in the old Berber dialect and fell back into her restless sleep.
Then, as if someone had whispered it to me, I remembered something, something that had once been a pillow of dreams for this daughter of Carolina, something I still carried with me — my mama’s glove. I reached in my pack and pulled it out. Carolina had said she would never forget it. I unwrapped the old scarf with the drowning Chinamen and held it in my hand. I put my other hand inside the glove and pounded the pocket with my fist. Everything worked, everything felt good. I slipped my hand out of the glove and placed it under Star’s head. I put the scarf in her hands and covered her with a blanket. The rest would have to be magic. It was the only medicine I had. I had already decided that if she didn’t improve by morning, I was going to find a town and a doctor.
As soon as I awoke, I knew something had changed. Star was awake and staring at me. It was not hostile or even lively. It was as if she was searching for something underwater and couldn’t quite get the physics right, couldn’t quite reach it. But she was alert and conscious. I rose up and faced her, sitting cross-legged the way Carolina, Georgia, and I used to. Neither of us spoke. She saw Jisil’s horse not far away and, without taking her eyes from mine, nodded toward the horse. I slowly shook my head and she looked down once, but that was her only reaction. She reached one hand up from her belly and held it over her wounded shoulder, asking me with her eyes if I was the one who had attended to it. I nodded once. I showed her Jisil’s map and pointed to Carthage, asking her with my eyes if that’s where we should go. She nodded once. I smiled and she didn’t. She hadn’t decided yet if she trusted me, but she held on tight to Mama’s glove and the old scarf. I stayed silent and we traveled that way. The fact that I was still a child, still “physically” the same, was a blessing and a curse. It would help her remember her past, possibly, but never explain her present. I stayed silent and tried to let the present win her trust. The past would come later.
We rode overland and off the trail the last fifty miles approaching the ruins of Carthage. Only Jisil’s horse had drawn any real attention. Our skin color and appearance seemed to have little effect on the few people we saw. It was another world to the one in the deep desert. Star had to dismount twice along the way because of the pain, not in her shoulder but in her belly and back. We were walking with the horse between us when we stopped on a natural rise that opened up two views around us. It was twilight and the sun was setting in the west over what I assumed were the Atlas Mountains. To the north and east, in the long shadows, were the fields and pastures, roads and ghosts of roads leading to what had once been Carthage and the harbor beyond.
It was a good place to camp and let Star rest. I had no idea of the final arrangements in the deal Jisil had made. I knew I’d never seen Cheng work alone and I didn’t expect him to now.
The site was not inhabited nor was it deserted. There was evidence of excavations begun and abandoned. Some fields had been plowed and sowed around the broken stones of temples and markets. Robber trenches from centuries past crisscrossed the various sections of the old city. It was haphazard and ragged. The Romans hadn’t left much standing and time since had given it no dignity. The wind blew in from the north. The Mediterranean was a dark blue band in the distance. I smelled the faint scent of goat in the air and looked down the rise toward the remnants of a stone gate or tower. Foraging in and around the ancient foundations were a few goats and sitting on one of the stones with his back to me was a boy about my size, the goatherd. He seemed harmless, but I didn’t want any surprises. I was going to leave Star where we were and try to find Cheng somewhere among the ruins, before he found us. I decided to find out who the boy was. He might have heard or seen the movements of someone like Cheng. Another boy, another goatherd, would not intimidate him and any information he gave me would be more than I had at the moment.
I helped Star lie down on her side and covered her up, making sure she was out of the wind and had Mama’s glove under her head. She held her belly constantly and grimaced at times, but never made a sound. I knew she would need attention soon, the kind of attention I knew nothing about. I waited for the last rays of light, then walked slowly around and down the hill, toward the goatherd.
I had barely rounded the hill when I felt it, more acutely and more powerfully than I ever had before. The impact literally hit me like a blow to the chest and I changed my gait, slowing to a single measured step at a time. It was the presence of Meq, and more than one, I was sure of it.
I looked down at the goatherd. He hadn’t moved. He sat on the stones facing west, but his goats were nowhere in sight. I walked silently, listening with my “ability” and drawing closer. He wore the heavier cloth of the northern tribesmen, with no turban. There was a hood instead, attached to his robe and gathered at the back of his neck. He kept his head averted. I could not see his face. When I got to within ten feet, I stopped and waited.
“Where have you been?” the voice asked.
Suddenly an arm and a hand reached out from the robe. The hand waved me over. There was a small ring on the first finger, a star sapphire mounted in silver. It was the same hand that had come out of the darkness of a carriage long ago in St. Louis and helped me in. It was Sailor.
I sat down on the stone next to him without a word. As he turned to face me, I noticed his high-laced boots under his Arab robe. His star sapphire sparked with color in the starlight. I looked at his face and in his eyes. The same. His “ghost eye” winked at me.
“I think it was Mencius, the Chinese philosopher, who said that a great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart,” Sailor said. He smiled faintly. I was staring at him, speechless.
“I think he meant to say ‘a great-looking man,’ ” he finished with a broad smile. “Do you not agree, Zianno?” He posed in profile, then laughed out loud.
I was still in a stunned silence.
“I felt your presence as soon as you came around the hill,” he said. “I was hoping you would come soon. I have been expecting you for some time and I could have used your help.”
That woke me up. “
“No, that was why I asked.”
He acted as if I’d seen him only yesterday. At first I was angry, then just as quickly I realized that time and its passage were different for Sailor and all the old ones. The desert had taught me something, but I still had much to learn from my own kind. Sailor was not alone, however, and I could feel the presence of another. It was strong and familiar. I finally smiled and Sailor and I embraced warmly. As we did, I whispered in his ear, “We’re not alone, are we?”
“No,” he whispered back. “There is another and she is the reason I knew you would return.”
I pulled back and stared at him again. What did he mean? Who did he mean?
“Why are you here, Sailor? I mean here, in this spot, now?”
He paused for only a moment and unconsciously turned the sapphire around his finger. “Because I have found Opari,” he said. “And she is here.”
“Why would she be here?”
“To buy a slave. She has done it for years. I have followed her since that night in the Forbidden City. Zeru-Meq discovered her escape and I began following her in Macao. She has always bought slaves, traded in them, but never personally made the transaction. This is a first. I have already seen her here with that baboon of a eunuch who usually buys them for her. They are waiting for the slave now. A girl, I believe, coming from the south with an Arab chief.”
I looked back toward the hill where Star was resting. I listened hard for anything out of the ordinary.
“They are waiting for me,” I told Sailor. “The Arab chief is dead and I have the girl.”
“Then we shall use the girl as a Trojan horse, so to speak, and confront Opari.”
“No,” I said. “This girl will be no slave for anyone any longer.”
Sailor gave me a studied look and his “ghost eye” clouded slightly. “Why?” he asked.
I told him who Star was and the condition she was in. I told him of her connection with Jisil, the Fleur-du-Mal, and the Prophecy. And I told him of the promise I had made to Carolina, a promise I would keep. I told him whoever was trying to buy Star and her unborn baby was either doing it behind the Fleur-du-Mal’s back or he was behind it all. He was obsessed with breeding his own assassin.
“The Fleur-du-Mal believes this?” Sailor asked.
“I always thought his aberrance did not affect his intelligence. I was wrong.”
I didn’t respond. I was struggling to try to make sense of everything. One thing did not make sense at all and went against everything I felt in my heart. Opari. How could she be doing this? Even in that one moment we shared, I learned enough to know that she would never have had anything to do with someone like Cheng. Or would she? The heart is not a predictor of anything to come or a lie detector for what has been. Love can make mistakes. If Opari was doing this, then I would do what I had to do to keep Star free. Star was the truth. All I had to do was follow the lies.
“Where did you see them, Sailor. this eunuch and Opari?”
“Come with me. We must be cautious, but there is something odd.”
“She seems not to be aware of my presence, and yet I can feel hers even now.”
I didn’t say so, but I felt it as well, strong and catlike, somewhere around the walls of everything else, on the move, watching.
I followed Sailor down the slope only a few hundred yards to one of the old wall lines of ancient Carthage. Sailor had a pack hidden there with several things inside. He pulled something out and handed it to me.
“You left this in China,” he said. Then he glanced up at the moon and down to a distant point on the hill. “Take it out and I will tell you where to look.”
It was Papa’s telescope in the old cylindrical case that Kepa had given to me. The brass was polished and the two pieces locked solidly in place. Sailor told me to look downhill near an abandoned excavation where wooden shacks had been constructed during the dig, then left to the elements. All were missing windows and some had no roof. One had a gas lamp inside that was lit and casting light on a young girl in Arab dress and a sickly, yellow old man. He was not wearing a bowler. He was bald except for a few straggly gray hairs. His face was sunken and his body was hunched over and leaning to the side where he sat. His eyes, the eyes I had seen for so long in my mind, were no longer razor slits. They were swollen, dark, and sagging. It was Cheng. I swung the telescope over to the girl’s face and focused in on her eyes. Her green eyes. I had seen the face and the eyes once before.
“Do you see her?” Sailor asked.
“Yes, but that is not Opari.”
“What?” He grabbed the telescope and pointed it down the hill, focused in, then backed off. “Explain this to me, Zianno. I do not understand,” Sailor said very seriously.
“That is a girl named Zuriaa. Did you not look at her eyes? They are green.”
Sailor looked startled, unnerved, like something given had been inexplicably proven wrong. “No,” he said. “It was the presence. The presence was always too strong for me to doubt. She has the presence of a very old one. I can feel it now. Do you not, Zianno?”
“Yes,” I said. “More than ever.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know.” I looked at Sailor and he was deeply troubled. If anything, he knew what the Meq could and could not do. I wondered what he would say about the possibility of a sixth Stone. “I know the old man too,” I said. “His name is Cheng and. and. ”
“And what? Why do you hesitate?”
I realized that Sailor had not put the two men together — the one he had been watching and the one who had murdered his good friend and brother-in-law.
“He is the same man, Sailor. The same evil whose presence we felt at the train station in Denver. And he’s done a few other things since.”
He never changed expression, but Sailor’s “ghost eye” began to swirl with clouds. He was Umla-Meq, the Stone of Memory, and he felt he had been betrayed by his own memory and instincts. It had been almost three millennia since he’d actually seen Opari, but how could he have mistaken her presence? I’m sure he felt he should have recognized Cheng also, though he’d never actually seen him before in his life.
Sailor closed the telescope and handed it to me. I was setting it back in its case when we both heard an agonized, guttural scream from up the slope and behind the hill. I knew it was Star.
Neither Sailor nor I hesitated. We turned and sprinted through the darkness, first up a winding trail, then to a shortcut between the brush and scree.
“You care greatly for this girl, this Star?” Sailor shouted as we climbed.
“Yes,” I shouted back.
“She is like family to you? Like blood?”
I was getting winded and worried. I kept tripping over rocks and I hadn’t heard another sound from over the hill.
“Then you have found family?” Sailor yelled.
“Do you think Eder and Nova have found this family? Do you think—”
“Yes,” I said and grabbed his sleeve to stop. We were near the crest of the hill and I wanted to go on quietly from there.
We caught our breath, then started a slow crawl to the very top of the rise, directly above the place I’d left Star. Sailor kept rambling on about the last time he had been in Carthage, the last time he had crawled to peer over a ledge in this city of the Phoenicians. It was unlike him to keep talking, especially under the circumstances. He asked if I knew the story, if I knew what had happened. I was only vaguely paying attention, but I said yes, Eder had told me. Then he asked if I knew who had been with him, but before I could answer we reached the lip of the rise and leaned over to witness something that neither of us ever expected. It changed my life forever, and Sailor’s too, no matter what he would like you to believe.
Below us, my one and only oil lamp was lit and secured in the sand, and protected from the wind by Jisil’s saddle, which had been propped on its side. Jisil’s horse was nowhere in sight. The saddle was being used as a backboard for Star to lean against and hold on to for support. Star was lying on her back with her head and shoulders leaning forward. She was dripping in sweat. Her eyes were open and glazed. She was staring between her legs at a young girl who was bent over a naked, motionless baby, born premature and not breathing, just like the one I’d seen born in the alley in Saint-Louis. The young girl was performing the same cleansing of the baby’s mouth and throat that Emme had. She moved rapidly and with great expertise until she had cleared a passage, then she leaned down and carefully, purposely, breathed life into the child. Within sixty seconds, the baby let out three fierce and tiny cries. The young girl wet her little finger and gently wiped the baby’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Then she wrapped the baby in Star’s old scarf with the drowning Chinamen and helped her lean back against the saddle, placing the baby in Star’s arms. She bunched several blankets around them to keep out all wind and drifting sand, then sat cross-legged in front of them, waiting for the new life to take comfort and take hold.
She never looked up at us, even though she was aware of our presence. I watched with a fascination that only began there and has never since ceased. It was Opari.
I couldn’t see her face, but her hair was shining black and still cut straight at the shoulders. She wore loose, white cotton trousers that were tied at the ankles with the straps of her sandals and at the waist with a wide leather belt. Her arms were bare and hung from something resembling a shawl, but heavier and covered in designs I had never seen anywhere.
After several minutes, Star and the baby were breathing evenly, sleeping and possibly even dreaming. Opari turned slowly in the sand and looked directly into my eyes. It felt as though I had been struck in the center of my chest and every atom in my being had been charged with light and grace.
“Hello, my beloved,” she said, as simply as life itself. She had an accent, but it only seemed to soften the language, not confuse it. “You must forgive me,” she said. “It is berri, no, I mean new to me, the English. I will learn well, in time.”
“Yes,” I said, but my voice was a whisper, choked and barely audible. I cleared my throat and said, “We have time.”
She looked to my left and I followed her eyes as they met Sailor’s. They had not spoken in almost thirty centuries.
“You look well, Sailor,” she said.
“And you, Opari,” Sailor said quietly. Then the answer to the puzzle that had unnerved him spread across his face. “So it was you following me all these years,” he said. “And you let me think the other was the presence.”
“Yes,” Opari said, then waved for us to be quiet and pointed to a curved shelf of rock, exposed to the wind on one side and sheltered on the other. She wanted us away from Star and the baby.
We met her at the low shelf of rock and all huddled close together, out of the wind. Opari glanced at me once and looked over at Sailor to speak. I watched her lips as she formed the words and they moved out of her mouth. I could not believe I was where I was.
“There is no time to hear reasons,” she said. “Zuriaa and the eunuch have heard the baby being born. They will, how you say,
“Investigate,” Sailor answered.
“Yes, they will investigate.”
“I will not lose Star and the baby,” I told her.
Opari looked at me and reached up with the tips of her fingers and touched my lips. “This is the girl and the child they wait for, is it not?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, and took her fingers in my hand and felt her skin for the first time.
“What is this?” Sailor asked, dumbfounded. “No one told me of this,” he said, nodding his head toward my hand holding Opari’s fingers. “When did this happen? Is this why you left China, Zianno?”
“No, not quite.”
“It is complicated.”
“And who is Zuriaa?” he asked.
“She is Ray’s sister.”
“Who is Ray?” Opari asked.
“He is my friend. I think Cheng might have—”
“Never mind,” Sailor broke in. “Opari is right that we have no time to hear reasons. We must save the girl and her baby. The Fleur-du-Mal and his obsessions have inadvertently created a good thing. I may be able to get us out of Africa tomorrow — all of us. Why all of us are here, now, is no longer important. The fact is, we are Meq. These things occur. Our reasons will be shared later.”
“How can you get us out?” I asked.
“You would not believe it.”
“From where?” Opari asked.
“From the old harbor,” Sailor said, and he looked at Opari, “near where the Topheth stood.”
Opari’s dark eyes narrowed and her eyebrows bunched together. Though Carolina was blue-eyed and blond, I had seen her do the same thing occasionally at the mention of Georgia’s name. Then I remembered the Topheth from Eder’s story. It was the place where they had sacrificed slaves and children, where Sailor had held his hands over Opari’s eyes to keep her from seeing her sister, his Ameq, slaughtered in front of them. Opari reached up with her other hand and circled Sailor’s “ghost eye” with her finger. At first, he flinched and backed off, then closed both eyes and went inside himself, letting her fingertip follow the outline of his eye and cheek.
“I still see her, Umla-Meq,” she said. “But only in my heart.”
Sailor opened his eyes and he and Opari looked at each other for several moments, resolving something that had taken almost three thousand years to burn out and blow away.
Then she turned to me and said, “It is because of you—” She paused and smiled. “It is, how you say,
“A laughing matter,” Sailor answered.
“Yes.” She smiled again and said, “I have never said the name out loud. It is because of you—” and she leaned over and kissed my cheek, then my lips. “Zianno,” she whispered.
Sailor smiled also. A rarity. “These things occur,” he said.
The moment passed as quickly as it came. There were voices coming around the hill and only seconds to get Star and the baby out of harm’s way. We all three ran to Star’s side and Opari said something to her in the ancient Berber dialect she understood. Star handed her baby weakly over to Opari. Sailor blew out the lamp and I kicked it over on its side along with Jisil’s saddle. I wanted it to look as if something violent had taken place, anything to confuse and delay Zuriaa and Cheng.
I threw Mama’s glove in my pack and Sailor and I helped Star to her feet. She was able to stand and even walk, though it was slow and the voices were getting nearer. Sailor and I picked her up between us and we all ran for the low shelf and just made it around and down the hill before Zuriaa and Cheng came into view.
Once we had descended a few hundred yards and were sure no one was following, Star wanted to be let down and we walked at her pace the rest of the way. She was pale from loss of blood and trauma of all kinds, but she never spoke out or complained. We followed Sailor through the darkness, winding back and forth down the slope and stopped at the place where he’d left his pack with the telescope and other things. A little farther on we stopped again and he picked up a second pack. From there, not fifty yards away in a grove of pine trees, we detoured and stopped to pick up Opari’s things.
“You were that close?” Sailor asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Opari rearranged her pack so that the baby could ride inside and strapped the pack on her shoulders. The baby was safe, tight, and warm between her shoulder blades. We started toward the old harbor and she took Star’s hand in hers. The way was long and tedious and mostly in the dark. We used no lamps or torches and stayed close to the sound of Sailor’s footsteps. Along the way the young mother and the ancient young girl never dropped hands. Our final stop was an old fisherman’s shack next to what had once been a deep water port and was now marsh and lagoon leading out to the sea and the breakers of the Mediterranean. There was a long wooden walkway extending from the shack far out past the lagoon into open water. I saw a light in the east, but it was only a glow, a false dawn. The real one was still an hour away. I had plenty of time to think about the next day and that thought gave me a strange realization. I knew the year was 1918, but I had no idea what month or day. For some reason, I thought about the enigmatic message I’d read on the wall in the cave—
Sailor stayed busy checking the walkway for missing planks and broken boards. Opari was looking after Star and the baby. She spoke to her softly in that old dialect and at one point Star’s eyes opened wide in a kind of shock, then accepted something. She turned her head to the side and calmly let Opari remove the rings and chains in her nose and ears. In a few minutes, I saw only the blond hair, the blue eyes, and the freckles. She looked down at the baby in her arms and smiled for the first time, then turned back to Opari. I could have sworn it was Carolina.
Just then, I heard the hooves of horses. Only seconds later, Opari heard them too, and outside the shack I saw Sailor looking up the rutted road that led back to the ruins.
I glanced at Opari. “Is it them?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I would know Zuriaa’s presence from years away, and easily when she is filled with this much, how you say,
“Hate,” Sailor answered as he raced in from the walkway.
“Yes,” Opari said. “She is hating.”
What happened next, happened quickly. Opari made sure Star and the baby were safe and out of sight, then stood in the open doorway of the shack and told Sailor and me to stand behind her and wait. In moments, two horses approached down a short rise between the remnants of a gate and came to a halt ten feet from the shack. I saw the faces of the riders in the first few rays of real dawn. One was pathetic, paralyzed, sagging, dying, and empty. It was Cheng. The other wore no veil, looked exactly like Ray, and burned with fury behind her green eyes — Zuriaa.
She yelled something at Opari in Chinese. I had no idea what she was saying, but I could tell she was offended at Opari’s presence, as if Opari had no business being there. Opari remained calm and told her to speak in English.
“English?” Zuriaa shouted.
“Why English?” she asked again and dropped her voice slightly, leaning forward in her saddle and finding me standing behind Opari.
“You,” she said, staring at me blankly.
Opari took a step forward. “You lied to me, Zuriaa.”
“No, I did not.”
“Yes, you said you would leave alone this business. this selling of the children.”
Zuriaa paused a moment, then she spat out the words, “I was made to do it.”
“You know the one, the only one who would.”
Opari stood a moment in silence, then turned and glanced at me. “Why does he want this child, Zuriaa?” she asked over her shoulder.
“I do not know.”
I stepped forward next to Opari in the doorway. “But I do,” I said, “and you can tell him this will not happen.”
“I. I cannot do that,” she stammered. She had trouble speaking to me, then I realized she thought I must be the only one who knew who she really was.
“You will tell him that,” I said. And you will tell him who told you to tell him that.”
“Where is he, Zuriaa?” Opari asked. “Where is the Fleur-du-Mal now?”
Zuriaa glanced at Cheng, who was having trouble staying in the saddle, then together they spurred their horses to make a charge at the doorway. In the same instant their heels struck the horses, Opari and Sailor reached for the Stone that each wore around their necks, and held them out, tight in their fists, at arm’s length toward the horses. The horses snorted and stumbled, refusing to go forward, as if they sensed a cliff and a chasm and had the good sense to go no farther.
Opari and Sailor had reacted instinctively. I’m not sure at the time if they knew what they were doing or if it was going to succeed. But it did and it made me think of the loss of the last true gift my papa had given me — the Stone — and I remembered the one who had taken it.
“Zuriaa,” I shouted. “Does Opari know about the gems that Cheng stole from the Stones of Geaxi and me?”
“What?” Opari turned and asked.
“And that Baju was shot and killed by Cheng?”
“What?” Opari and Sailor said in unison.
“And do you know, Zuriaa, that Cheng stole the Stone from me in Senegal?. The same place he probably sold Ray to a German, like a slave.”
“What?” Zuriaa shouted from her horse.
She whirled in one motion and threw the gems that she kept in her pocket into the air in the direction of Opari and the doorway. She spurred her horse and raced by Cheng, stabbing him in the heart as she passed. I never saw her reach for the stiletto, but it hung and dangled from Cheng’s chest before he and the knife fell together and the knife was dislodged, along with something else that rolled out from under him like an ugly black egg — the Stone.
Opari bent down to pick up the gems. I watched Zuriaa disappear up the rise and back through the ruins, then I walked out to where Cheng lay dead and picked up the Stone. I tossed it to Sailor, who had to hold one hand up against the rising sun to catch it. Opari watched the black thing fly through the air and couldn’t believe it.
“These things occur,” Sailor shouted to me.
“Are you going to be saying that now, I mean, from now on?” I asked.
“Many times,” he said. “Many times.”
Then we all heard a strange sound that was growing louder by the second, coming in from the open sea toward the lagoon. A sound that made no sense to me, the sound of engines whining at full throttle over water.
Sailor said, “Look.”
I looked and what I saw came out of a dream, but was real. My dreams could never have been that rich. I saw two biplanes outfitted as seaplanes with wooden skids hanging underneath, the kind I had seen a photograph of in the desert. They were at a height of no more than two hundred feet over the water, approaching and descending.
Sailor said, “Come on.”
I grabbed all the packs and Opari helped Star and the baby. We followed Sailor out to the end of the walkway where the two seaplanes were landing in the lagoon. The big engines roared and the two planes fishtailed in the water as they slowed down and got their bearings. Then they pulled up one behind the other alongside the walkway.
When I tried to see the pilot of the leading plane, at first there seemed to be no one in the cockpit, then someone small leaped out and onto the walkway. She had short dark hair under a leather cap, which she yanked off with one hand. With the other hand, she removed her scarf and goggles. It was Geaxi.
“Hello, young Zezen,” she said. “I did not expect to see you here.”
“Well, these things occur, Geaxi,” I said. “Where did you learn to fly?”
“Canada, actually,” she said without hesitation. “But tell me, why are you here? Sailor said it would only be himself and possibly Opari.”
“He was right,” I said. “Only he had the wrong Opari in mind.”
“What?” Geaxi asked.
“Never mind,” Sailor interrupted.
Geaxi pulled her beret out of a vest and set it on her head, looking around for someone until she found her.
“You must be Opari,” she said and they exchanged a long look loaded with information.
“Yes, I am Opari.”
“You have been missing.”
“Yes, but no longer.”
Opari took my hand in hers and held it against her chest, near to where her heart beat underneath.
Geaxi looked at us both and smiled. “I see,” she said, “but that still does not explain—”
“Never mind,” Sailor said. “We will have time for this later. Time is not our problem. I need to know if we have too much weight for the planes to take off.”
“That should not be a problem,” Geaxi said, “but I will ask Willie.”
She waved over the second pilot. He was a tall man, about thirty years old with a boyish face. He wore a British uniform, but everything was slightly unbuttoned or fitted him oddly. He had sandy hair and, except for a broken nose, a handsome face. He seemed completely at ease with Geaxi and was not startled to see other Meq around. There was something vaguely familiar about him.
As he came close, Geaxi started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I have just remembered something,” Geaxi said, and with a deep bow and a wave of her arm, she introduced him. “Willie Croft, I would like you to meet my good friend, the Buddha, also known as Zianno Zezen.”
Then the name and the face came together and rang a bell. He was the kid outside the train in China, the one Geaxi told I was the Buddha and he had believed it. The recognition was simultaneous and the tall man dropped his face, almost embarrassed.
“Hello, Zianno,” he said.
“Hello, Willie, but you can call me Z.”
“Well, then, hello, Z.”
“We’ve got a weak and wounded mother and a newborn baby, Willie. Will it be too rough for them?”
“No, I shouldn’t think so, just a bit long is all.”
“Good. How did you hook up with Geaxi?”
“Well, it’s a long story,” he said. “Would you want to hear it now?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Do we have too much weight?” Sailor asked.
“No,” Willie said. “We’ll make it.”
“Where are we going?” I asked Sailor.
“Tripoli, then Alexandria and on to England by ship, if it’s safe.”
Geaxi took off her beret and slipped her leather cap back on. She fastened her goggles and wrapped her scarf around her neck. “Who flies with me?” she asked.
Opari sat in the other plane behind Willie Croft, keeping Star and her baby warm and calm. I looked at her once as we took off and every other minute after we were in the air. The two planes stayed close and climbed to almost a thousand feet. Geaxi seemed born to fly and handled the experimental plane with ease. For a moment, I thought about Ray and how much he would have loved to be with us. In my heart, I resolved to find him and free him. We headed south, hugging the coastline, then east into and under the sun as it rose in the sky.
Eventually, we flew over a strip of white sand that was scattered with the ruins of an old city. Broken stones and columns littered the area. The only structure I could identify was the remains of a Roman amphitheater. In the center, standing alone, was a small figure who looked up as we flew over. Even from a thousand feet, I could see the green ribbon and the white teeth.
“What is that place?” I yelled at Sailor. We were sitting close, but the noise of the engine and the wind made it difficult to hear.
“Sabratha,” Sailor yelled back. “The Fleur-du-Mal was born there.”
I leaned forward and tapped Geaxi on the shoulder, pointing down at the ruins and the figure standing among them. Geaxi recognized him and couldn’t resist circling and waggling her wings. After one full circle, the figure knew who it was above him and what it meant. It was the first time I had seen his brilliant teeth bared in a grimace and not a smile.
We flew on toward Tripoli and I forgot about the Fleur-du-Mal within minutes. Flying does that. The Mediterranean seemed as blue as Sailor’s star sapphire and the sky was bright and light. I looked over at Opari in the other plane and she was staring back, silently mouthing the first word she had ever spoken to me. “beloved.”
I turned to Sailor and yelled, “By the way, do you know what day it is?”
“Yes,” he yelled back. “It is your birthday.”
He was trying to put on his goggles and having trouble with it. He finally tossed them over the side and let the wind hit him full face.
“That can’t be true,” I said. Then I looked over at him and whether he was laughing or crying from the wind, I couldn’t tell, but his eyes were full of tears.
“It is not true,” he said. “It just sounded good.”
Then we both started laughing and he added, “I have no idea what day it is.”
13. PAR (LAUGH)
We stopped five times on our flight to Alexandria — three times for fuel and twice for Opari to look after Star and the baby. Opari said the bullet wound was healing and the loss of blood was a concern, but both mother and son were doing well under the circumstances.
“Son?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, then looked at me strangely. “Did you not know?”
She laughed out loud and shook her head, then kissed me while she was still laughing. It was a rich, full laugh — not a giggle — and I laughed with her. I couldn’t help it even though I was the source of the joke. She was beautiful. Her dark eyes sparkled and danced. Her mouth opened and I almost wanted to count her teeth, they were so white and perfectly shaped. The sound of her laugh was free and spontaneous and I was jealous of all the others before me who had heard it. Much later, Opari would tell me it was the first time she had laughed in over a thousand years.
Sailor took charge as I expected and I was grateful for it. He had a plan, which he and Geaxi had already set in motion, and he merely fitted Star, the baby, and me into it. It was unclear what he had in mind, but Sailor was the one who made sure Star got immediate medical attention after we arrived, not Opari or Geaxi. He told Willie Croft where to take her in Alexandria and even held the baby while she was helped onto a stretcher. Star could have made the trip under her own steam, but Sailor insisted on taking every precaution. I had never known him to put the welfare of the Giza before that of the Meq. It seemed very unusual, and even more strange, it seemed genuine.
As he was handing the baby back to Star, the baby’s hands found Sailor’s single braid behind his ear, pulling Sailor’s head down and finally grasping in his little palm the piece of lapis lazuli that hung from the bottom of the braid. Without hesitating, Sailor untied the lapis lazuli and Star was carried away with the baby still holding the gem tight in his tiny hands. Star looked back at Sailor and smiled. Sailor waved. I had never seen him wave before to anyone, anywhere. I had no idea how long he had worn the lapis lazuli. I knew it meant something unique to him, and yet he had given it away in a moment to the child of a Giza, a complete stranger. While he was waving, I noticed that even Geaxi seemed to look twice. Perhaps it was because he had finally found Opari and their differences had been settled. Or it could have had something to do with his questions about Eder, Nova, and their relationship with Carolina. Whatever his reasons, the change was a dramatic surprise to everyone. As for me, I was so happy I was useless.
We had made our final landing a few miles west of Alexandria in a makeshift safe harbor, completely isolated and obviously not part of a British base. A man in uniform, which he wore as casually as Willie, helped tie the two planes to a dock covered with a tin roof and palm fronds on top of that. The man seemed as unconcerned about being around the Meq as did Willie. It was sunset. The air was cool and the light was golden.
Everything seemed slightly surreal. The landscape was barren and the point at which it met the sea was unremarkable, but I felt as if we had landed in paradise. As long as Opari was there, I was sure of it. I watched her as if she was in slow motion. I watched her help Star and the baby out of the plane, the way no movement was wasted and no touch in a place of pain or discomfort to Star. After Sailor took charge and Star and the baby had left with Willie and the other man, I watched her gather our things and help Geaxi with the planes. I watched her hands. I watched the way she knelt and stood up, the way she turned and smiled. I watched everything. Opari — my Ameq. I thought of Unai and Usoa and wondered how they could have waited so many centuries to cross in the Zeharkatu. As I watched Opari, I could not conceive of it. Now that she was with me, that we were free and together, the Itxaron — the Wait — seemed absurd and unnecessary. Opari was a rich and complex woman living in a girl’s body. I thought I knew everything about living in a boy’s body, but I was learning something by the moment that neither Papa nor Sailor nor anyone else had ever had a chance to tell me about being Meq, being male, and being in love. It was a feeling as old as time, but brand-new to me.
“She has become more than a ghost, no?”
I turned as if I’d been caught stealing. It was Sailor. He had been watching me watch Opari. His “ghost eye” actually winked at me.
Embarrassed at first, I relaxed, remembering his own connection with Opari. “Yes,” I said, then stammered, “she is. she has. ”
“Her sister was equally as lovely,” he said. He turned and watched Opari himself, and for a brief moment, I knew he was seeing Deza, then he turned back to me. His “ghost eye” narrowed and focused. He twirled the star sapphire on his finger and spoke in a low monotone. “You will, you must, become accustomed to this feeling, Zianno. There is so much still to be done. I will tell you more later, but remember, you are Meq, you are the Stone of Dreams. We will need you. You must dredge your dreams, conscious and unconscious, good and bad. In the muck of an ancient nightmare, you may find a diamond. In the bright blue of an imagined summer day, there may be a hornet you ignored. It would be your mistake to miss either through lack of curiosity.”
“What about Opari?” I asked. “Have you spoken to her?”
“No, but she must do the same. She must stay the same. She is the Stone of Blood. I am certain she thought of this before. before she found us.”
“Aha!” I said. “So you finally admit someone found you and not the other way around.”
Sailor laughed once, but that was his only response.
Darkness came quickly and a breeze picked up. It was warm compared to the night air in the deep desert, but still cool and it blew the salt air in from the Mediterranean. Geaxi led us to a low stone building with a newly rebuilt roof and most of one wall missing. She said the British had used a nearby site for target practice two years earlier. A stray shell had caught the side of the building. I was amazed at the size of the hole and couldn’t imagine the weapon that had produced it. Geaxi circled the one large room inside, lighting kerosene lamps along the way. There were only two windows at the top of one wall and none of the lamps was beneath them. There seemed to be no electricity and no running water. Several straw mats covered the floor and a few personal items lay around two of them. Another was off by itself, clean and sparse, with two blankets neatly folded on top and two black ballet slippers at one end. By looking at it, there was no way to tell if the occupant had been there a day, a year, or ten years. I smiled to myself at the almost invisible address of Geaxi. I turned to speak to her, but she and Opari were busy preparing a kind of nursery for Star and her baby. I found Sailor instead.
“What is this place?” I asked.
He looked around all four sides of the large room and up at the windows. His eyes moved to the roof, which was temporary at best, then to the blown-out hole in the wall facing away from the sea. He flared his nostrils and took a deep breath of the breeze that filled the room with the fresh and ancient scent of the Mediterranean. He closed his eyes a moment and stood still, holding the air in his lungs. Then gently, slowly, he let it slip through his mouth and lips and over his tongue, tasting it as it left his body. He knelt and felt the stones in the floor, tracing their outlines with the tips of his fingers.
“The Greeks built the floor,” he said without looking up. “But not the Greeks who lived down the coast, the ones who built the Lighthouse and the Great Library. These Greeks sailed in darkness and kept no books. These Greeks traded with the last of the Phoenicians.” He glanced up at me and his “ghost eye” was filled with clouds. “It was here,” he said, then paused. “It was here where the trades were made.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Geaxi and Opari had stopped what they were doing and were watching us.
“Trades in what?” I asked.
“Bones,” he said. “The bones of the Meq who were slaughtered in their temples.”
I turned to look at Opari and both she and Geaxi were now staring at me. Just as the question “why” was on my lips, Opari shook her head once and I understood. The “why” was irrelevant; it was the “where” that haunted this place for Sailor. I understood that we were probably standing on the floor in the room where Deza’s bones had been bought and sold, traded among the Giza like so many pieces of silver. Looking across the room into Opari’s living eyes, I wondered how many places were like this for him, how many times he ran into a past that haunted him, a past in which he was still a living presence.
“Young Willie Croft owns it now,” Geaxi said, then she started toward us. “Nay, I should say the Daphne Croft Foundation owns it in the proper and legal sense.” Her movements were liquid, graceful, almost weightless, and her voice brought Sailor out of the past.
“Yes,” he said, rising to his feet and breathing in deeply once more, “yes, that is correct. This place is merely a stage, Zianno. One of many we are acquiring.”
“We?” I asked.
Suddenly Geaxi burst into laughter. She was standing next to Sailor with her hands on her hips. She was wearing boots, not her ballet slippers, but she went into a pirouette, laughing hysterically and raising her arms, waving her beret like a drunken ballerina. Opari walked over and took my hand, smiling, but also asking me with her eyes what was going on. I had no idea. I looked at Sailor and he was staring at Geaxi, just as mystified.
“Is something funny?” he asked.
She stopped turning, but still laughing she said, “You must admit it is a bit absurd, Sailor.”
“What is absurd?”
“The Meq acquiring property.”
Opari and I looked at each other, both in the dark about everything.
Sailor said, “It is time to tell our stories. There is much to clarify.”
Geaxi nodded, but she was still smiling. “I will get the bread and cheese and those wonderful olives and meet you there.” She turned and walked away, but laughed once more to herself. Over her shoulder she added, “And boil some water for tea. This may be a long evening.”
Opari and I looked at Sailor. He was watching Geaxi’s back, shaking his head. There was a trace of a smile on his face, then it disappeared.
“Follow me,” he said. His “ghost eye” was clear and he spoke in an even voice.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “I thought we were here.”
“Under the sea,” he said. “Or at least under where it was and where it shall be. That was one of the pass phrases used by the Greeks. Clever people, the Greeks, even their pirates, but riddled with riddles.”
Opari squeezed my hand. “I know of this place from Zeru-Meq,” she said.
“Zeru-Meq?” Sailor asked and both eyebrows arched high on his head, then relaxed. “I should have guessed as much,” he said, nodding to himself.
“Yes,” she went on, “I believe he called it ‘The Shadow in the Shallows.’ ”
“He would know,” Sailor said, then motioned for us to follow. “We must make haste before the others return. Willie is not aware of where I am taking you. No Giza is.”
We left the way we had entered and then veered sharply to the west, away from the path leading to the dock. We walked in a line and followed Sailor through rock and brush and sand in a complicated zigzag pattern that eventually ended in a tiny spit of sand that would have been underwater had it been high tide. If it was a trail we had taken, only Sailor knew it.
In moments, Geaxi appeared from behind us, dressed in black and carrying a large candle in one hand and a netted sack stuffed with food in the other. I never heard her approach. She was as silent as a shadow come to life. Overhead there was only starlight. The moon was hidden behind a low bank of clouds. I glanced at Opari and then turned to Sailor.
“What now?” I asked.
“Look out to sea,” he said. “Not directly in front of you, but obliquely. Watch the water. Watch the light on the water. Try to look for—” He paused and smiled at Opari. “A Shadow in the Shallows.”
I turned and faced north, trying to see everything and nothing. The Mediterranean stretched into darkness, but suddenly, not a hundred yards out, I caught the outline of a form, a shadow darker than the sea around it and rectangular. It was just under the surface.
“Now you have it,” Geaxi said and splashed out in the water, stepping high and holding the candle and cache of food above her head. In seconds, she was standing on one end of the shadow, which caused the other end to rise up like a seesaw and Geaxi was underwater up to her chest.
The shadow was no shadow at all, but a single slab of stone, balanced and hinged, accessible only at low tide and weighted so that someone as light and small as Geaxi could easily make it move just by stepping on top of one end.
“Come!” she shouted. “Come quickly!”
Sailor walked into the water without a word. Opari and I glanced at each other and followed. When we got to the slab of stone, I could see that under the raised end there was actually an opening, a kind of trapdoor. The shallow water of low tide was disappearing down the opening in a descending spiral. Geaxi stepped off the stone and lit the candle with a match she had tucked behind her ear. In the flickering light, I could see steps, also descending in a spiral and a slightly diagonal direction.
“The water only follows the spiral for two fathoms,” Geaxi said. “Watch your step and stay close,” she added, then walked into the darkness under the stone and beneath the sea.
The light from the candle was weak and Opari held my hand as we tried to keep pace with Geaxi. Sailor pointed out niches in the walls that had once held oil lamps. I asked him who had carved the steps and niches and he waved us on, remaining silent. I felt as though we were winding our way down and through the empty shell of a giant nautilus, the mollusk I had first seen in the Indian Ocean.
After twenty steps or so, the passage began to level out and the water that had been descending with us gathered and swirled in a pool. The carved steps wound around the pool and beyond, ascending slightly. The pool served as a drain and collection point for another passage whose opening was triggered by the weight and volume of the water above it. That passage, Sailor said, connected with another, then another, and so on until all water was returned to the Mediterranean. Gravity determined its course, but I still had no idea where ours was leading.
“We are nearly there,” Sailor said, reading my eyes.
Geaxi had stopped and was waiting for us only a few more steps up the incline. She was standing where the steps ended and the passage became completely level. The carved stone gave way to sand underfoot — old sand, dry and crystalline, reflecting the candlelight and leading to something ahead in the dark. The entrance to the corridor had been enlarged and bordered with huge, perfectly beveled, square-cut stones.
“The Greeks did this,” Sailor said and he ran his fingers along the edge of one of the stones. “They discovered this place and thought it too small, so they carved away, thinking as always it was somehow meant for them. I am afraid they were mistaken. It was here long before they brought their chisels. Still, one must admire their attention to detail.”
Geaxi led us on. Arcane signs and symbols appeared on the walls. Animals and birds and fish, real and imaginary, overlapped and joined, all drawn at different times and ages. A single Greek word was engraved over one of the drawings, an outline of a hand exactly my size. The word was “KTEMAESAEI.” I pointed it out to Sailor.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
Without slowing down or glancing back, he laughed bitterly and said, “A possession forever.”
Suddenly Geaxi’s candle flared and I realized we had reached the end of the corridor and entered a higher, broader chamber. There was no other entrance or exit. It was a room, an oval room, and it was instantly familiar.
In the candlelight, I saw two wooden planks, roughly sawn and set on stones in the center of the room as a kind of table. Around the planks, resting on the sand, there were several mats like the ones in the bombed-out building above. Geaxi placed the candle on one of the planks and emptied the bread, cheese, olives, and what appeared to be two wineskins on the other plank. She smiled and removed her beret with one hand, waving it over the table, as if welcoming us to a feast. But it was Sailor who spoke first.
“Sit down,” he said. “And let us speak of the Meq.”
We sat down facing each other, all of us cross-legged on the mats. Geaxi began to split the bread and reached into her vest for a knife to slice the cheese. Opari and I held each other’s hands. Behind Sailor, in the background at the deep end of the oval room, I caught a glimpse of a black-stained, indented circle in the stone wall. There were shadows of two small handprints on either side. There was something written in the stone in a circle around the circle.
“This — this place,” Sailor began and he raised his forefinger and traced the circumference of the room in the air. His star sapphire shot back brilliant blues and greens as it passed through the candlelight. “This place is Meq. It is very old, from before the time of ‘Those-Who-Fled,’ possibly and probably from before the ‘Time of Ice.’ ” He paused and glanced at Geaxi, then stared hard at Opari and me. “We are not sure of its purpose. We. we speculated that this place and others like it will lead us to the next Remembering. The Gogorati.” He stopped again and made sure he had Opari’s attention. “This was why we searched for you, Opari. This place is reason enough for proof that the Gogorati is not a myth. It will occur. no matter what Zeru-Meq believes. And since this place does exist, we must unite. Those who carry the Stone must be of one mind if we are to solve the riddle that is here, now, in this place. All five Stones are required at the Remembering. All five Stones will be required even to find it.”
“I am here because of Zianno,” Opari said softly. “But my heart has.
“Awakened,” Geaxi translated and leaned over, offering us both an olive.
“Yes, awakened,” Opari said, then she looked each of us in the eyes, ending with Sailor. “I have been sleeping, Umla-Meq. You must forgive me. Now, tell me of your riddle.”
“I wish I could,” Sailor said. “But, alas, we cannot read it, let alone determine its meaning.”
“Who is ‘we’?” I asked. “You mean Geaxi?”
“No. Another. The one who found this place long ago and two others like it in all the years since. He knows more about these oval rooms than any other.”
“Who is he?” Opari asked.
Sailor smiled and almost laughed under his breath. “He has used the name ‘Mowsel’ for centuries, but his
“Yes,” Sailor said. “He lives.”
“Ayii,” Opari said, then she made a high-pitched trilling sound with her tongue against her teeth, a sound I had only heard made by women in the deep desert. I pressed her hand and she glanced at me, then turned to Sailor and spoke in her softest voice. “He was a ghost, a myth to us as children. We were never thinking he was real. Can this be true?”
“Yes, but I see him rarely,” Sailor said. “And speak to him only when necessary. He found me almost two thousand years ago.”
“To help you find Opari?” I asked.
“No. That was incidental to him. He has always sought something else, something a bit more difficult to find.”
“Who we are. The answer to the question all of us carry and never ask — why are we here? Why do the Meq exist at all? But even he cannot read the old script. He can read an altered version and even write in a later, transitional script, but not the old one — the original. No one can.”
“Like the one behind you?” I asked. “In the circle around the dark circle in the wall?”
Opari looked at me while Sailor and Geaxi stared blankly at each other, then turned to me. It was Sailor who said, “Yes, exactly like that.”
I walked to the far end of the room and knelt in the sand in front of the dark, indented circle. I put my two hands on the wall and let my palms and outspread fingers press into the spaces that fitted them perfectly, that were made by someone long, long ago. Someone with hands exactly my size, exactly
A good joke is always difficult to predict, but somehow easy to follow. It is the same with the truth. As I was kneeling in the sand, I thought back to the cold day in St. Louis when Ray had held Papa’s baseball and drawn a circle within a circle on the frozen glass of my bedroom window at Mrs. Bennings’s House. I remembered how I felt when he told me what it was to be Meq. I don’t know how my eyes looked to Ray, but as I turned and looked at Sailor, Geaxi, and even Opari, I saw in their eyes a mirror image of how I had felt watching Ray draw his circles on the glass and listening to his simple, powerful truth.
I motioned for Sailor to come and kneel next to me. I took his hand and the finger with the star sapphire and translated for him as I traced the characters and lines in the script with his finger. It read as follows:
Geaxi picked up the candle and the light in the oval room danced and shifted. She and Opari walked over in silence and dropped to their knees alongside Sailor and me. I let go of Sailor’s hand and he continued to trace and retrace his finger over the old writing. I watched him closely. Over and over, he said the words to himself, moving his lips without speaking. I suddenly realized that in the heart and mind of an old one like Sailor, I had given him a gift as great and simple as the Meq could receive — connection with the past and hope for the future.
I told him of the other room I had found in the barren waste of the Tassili range and the script I had discovered there, along with the lines written by Trumoi-Meq.
“Yes,” he said, almost with a smile. “But you can read both. He cannot.”
“These things occur,” I said, but no one laughed. I looked at Sailor and he was staring back with an expression in his eyes I had never seen before. A look a prisoner might have after a sudden and unexpected release. Slowly, another realization dawned. What I had done was more than a gift — I had unlocked the door to his lifelong obsession, an “ability” far more significant than hyper-hearing, quickness, or silence. I could
Opari took both my hands in hers. She was frowning and leaning forward to look at Sailor. “What does this mean?” she asked. “That Zianno is the one? That Zianno has the Gift?”
Sailor stared back. “It is time,” he whispered. “No one knew it would be Zianno. We might have hoped or wondered, but no one knew.” He paused and glanced at Geaxi. “We have less than a hundred years to find the Egongela, the Living Room, and prepare for the Gogorati. I long suspected someone would come in time, someone from among us I would least expect. Alas, someone comes and even he is unaware of the Gift he possesses. He reads the writing without study or preparation. It comes to him. He comes to us, the youngest child among the Children, and behold, it is Zianno.”
Geaxi took off her beret and tossed it to me. I caught it with one hand. “You have done well, Zianno,” she said. “Now that we know what it says, the real work begins. We must try and find out what this gibberish means.”
We all turned to the wall and gazed at the stained circle and the two handprints on either side. Geaxi had stuck the candle in the sand and it shifted suddenly, spilling melted wax over one side and snuffing out the flame.
“Everything has changed,” Sailor said and we sat very still in the silence and the dark. Over our heads, beyond the stone walls of the oval room, I knew there was a vast sea teeming with life, and beyond that, an even vaster sea of sky teeming with stars. Under all of that, inside all of that, I could hear all our hearts beating.
“Light the candle again,” I said. “Let’s tell our stories.”
There is a unique synergism that takes place when the Meq share their stories. There is little reference to time in the usual sense, only in terms of its relevance to an action and whether that action is positive or negative in its completion, no matter how long it takes to complete it. We assume survival. The connection and exchange is as discrete as the blood in our veins. The stories are shared like bread and wine, sweetly tasted and swallowed. Sorrow and joy are tossed like grapes across the table. One tale becomes many and many intertwine. Time becomes a passenger, a paying customer, someone along for the ride through the long, tangled here and now. This is our wonderful and terrible essence. This is our strength.
Sailor said, “Then you begin, Zianno.”
So I began and I covered it all, starting with Li Lien-ying handing me Carolina’s letter in the Forbidden City. From St. Louis to New Orleans to Africa, from Star’s abduction to Ray’s abduction, through ports, places, facts, faces, reasons, hunches, yearnings, visions, dreams, and obsessions — I took them with me. When I got to Emme and PoPo and the Dogon myths and their secret, singular knowledge of the Meq, Geaxi and Opari leaned forward like little girls at camp, eager for the next word. Sailor sat in silence, unmoving, and twisted the star sapphire on his forefinger. I told them of the Prophecy and the reason behind the Fleur-du-Mal’s obsession with Star, and Geaxi laughed out loud, while Opari seemed to withdraw and reflect on something deeply personal.
“He is beyond mad,” Geaxi said.
“Yes,” Sailor responded suddenly. “But not beyond dangerous.”
It was then that I asked Sailor about the star sapphire in his ring and the blue diamond that Usoa wore in her ear. I told him the story of the Ancient Pearl that PoPo had told me, how it had originally come from a Stone of the Meq. I told him what the Fleur-du-Mal believed, that they all came from a sixth Stone, and I asked him if it was true. All eyes turned to Sailor and he paused before he spoke.
“No one knows,” he said. Then he laughed bitterly to himself. “It is an odd irony. Geaxi does not believe it, nor Unai or Usoa. Trumoi-Meq does not and Eder does not.” He paused again and looked directly at me, then continued. “Your mother and father never believed it, never thought it possible. The only one other than the Fleur-du-Mal who believes this is so. is myself.” He laughed again. “Quite an irony, no? It is the only thing on earth, apart from being Meq, that I have in common with the Fleur-du-Mal.”
I let his words sink in and glanced into the eyes of Geaxi and Opari. Nothing in their dark eyes and beautiful, innocent faces would tell a stranger anything about the mysteries within.
“What would it mean?” I asked. “If there was a sixth Stone?”
“There have been theories,” he said, then shook his head slowly. “But no one knows.”
I noticed when Sailor shook his head that the braid behind his ear was coming loose at the end and I remembered the lapis lazuli.
“Why did you give Star’s baby the blue gem?” I asked him. “If you knew it was. if you believed it came from the sixth Stone?”
“Yes, Sailor,” Opari said. She squeezed my hand and leaned in closer. “I was wondering this also.”
“Because she is in this now. She and her child—” He paused and stared at me. “And Carolina and Nicholas and Jack, their son. And Owen Bramley. All of them. What is mine is theirs and theirs is. ours for sharing.”
“What? You can’t be serious,” I said. “Have we not caused that family enough grief? I have thought about this and I think once we have safely returned Star and her baby to Carolina, we should get out of their lives forever — and take care of our own — take care of the Fleur-du-Mal!”
“You can blame it on Solomon, if you like,” Geaxi said suddenly.
“Who?” I snapped. I stared at her and felt blood rushing to my face in anger. “What does that mean?”
“Calm down, Zianno,” Sailor said. “Geaxi meant nothing derogatory in her remark. In fact, it is a compliment. We can
He stopped and watched me, his “ghost eye” swirling gently. “Perhaps I should explain,” he said.
“Yes, perhaps,” I said as sharply as I could, but I’d lost my bite. I turned and looked at Opari. She was holding back a smile and I suddenly felt silly.
“No — perhaps I should explain,” Geaxi broke in. She picked up her beret and walked toward the center of the oval room. She turned to me. “I was mistaken to mention Solomon so casually, Zianno. It was careless. I know what he meant to you, nay, I should say
I was curious now. I wondered what Solomon could have seen coming that Sailor had not. Even in death, my old partner loved surprising me. “Tell me what Solomon ‘saw,’ ” I said.
“A network,” Sailor interrupted. “A system of stations, places like this one, some remote and some anything but remote. ‘Bases,’ in Solomon’s words.”
“I thought you said no Giza knew of this place.”
“They do not, at least not what is underground — only what is above.” Sailor was excited. I could hear it in his voice. He looked at me and laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothing. I suppose it must be the irony. Solomon’s words were so simple, yet so timely. Now that we know you are able to read the old writing—”
“What words? You keep saying Solomon’s words.”
Sailor glanced at Geaxi and Opari and dropped his smile. “He saw two things you and the rest of us will need — communications and safe passage. He saw a home base with satellite bases throughout the world, run by Giza, owned by Giza, and protected from the prying eyes and ears of Giza less enlightened than himself. He called it ‘the Diamond.’ A reference, I believe, to your game of baseball.” Sailor paused a moment, then added, “It was in his will, Zianno. A codicil, all prepared and ready for Owen Bramley to set in motion. Owen Bramley himself will have to tell you how it all fits together. At this point, I am afraid he knows more about how it will work than I, but—” He paused again, breathing in slowly and gathering himself, then continued. “The old man cared about you very deeply, Zianno, enough to know you could not survive on your own and keep going. You, we, us — the Meq need a strategy to survive, to last in this world, this ‘game’ Solomon called it, a ‘game’ with no time limit. He even added a prophecy, a warning, of sorts. He said the Children of the Mountains will be sought more than ever before because of man’s fear and confusion with himself and his own mortality. Soon, communication and safe passage will be the only protection from man’s ravenous pursuit of the miraculous, which he already sees in himself, but cannot prove. His fear is great. His hunt will be relentless. The Children of the Mountains will be his prey and proof.”
“Solomon said that?” I asked.
“Yes, well. something like that.”
“Who is Solomon?” It was Opari. Her voice was soft and her eyes looked into mine. I stared back. The question was innocent enough, but the answer was not.
Inside, in an instant, I felt as if I had missed a step or a beat in some unseen rhythm. A simple question, an honest question that anyone might have asked on any given day and I would have answered — splat! — suddenly became unanswerable and lay like a stone in a still pond. “Who is Solomon?” I saw the ripples, not the stone. I heard Solomon’s voice, something among his last words, “I will leave a trail. Will you be able to find it, Zianno?”
Opari saw it in my eyes.
“We must tell our stories another time,” she said, looking first at me, then at Sailor. It was the same look we had both seen in Carthage when she finally turned around after delivering Star’s baby.
It was and is the softest sword I have ever felt.
Geaxi couldn’t see Opari from where she was standing, but she could hear her and it was the same thing. She walked over to the rest of us and knelt in the sand. “In England,” she said. “We shall leave this until England.”
Without a word, without an outward or obvious sign from anyone, we all held our hands in the air, fingers spread and palms facing out toward each other, fingers and palms all the same size. In the candlelight, Sailor smiled. Our hands were casting shadows that exactly matched the ones stained into the wall.
“Zis is good business,” he said.
Three days out to sea off the coast of the tiny island of Gozo, just north of the slightly larger island of Malta, it rained. I had almost forgotten the feeling of getting wet from the sky. I held my face up to it and let the liquid darts sting my eyelids, cheeks, and mouth. I opened my mouth and drank it straight from the sky, laughing and spitting. Rain. Africa and the Sahara had taught me never, ever to take it for granted. I thought back to Emme’s words at the edge of the deep desert—“Do not think ahead. The Sahara will not allow it”—and standing there in it, feeling the rain again as only a scattered shower, as one among many to come, it was more than relief. It was return. But with return came an anxious, familiar habit — thinking ahead and looking ahead.
The ship was cruising west, ignoring the sudden squall and sailing through it. Star, Opari, and I were at the railing in the stern, facing east where the sun still shone. We were aboard HMS
“Such as this one?” I asked.
“Quite. Rather neat and tidy, isn’t it?”
“Quite,” I told him.
I liked Willie from the beginning. I knew he had been formally raised and educated, but his whole demeanor suggested exactly the opposite. His speech was a curious blend of formal and informal, and physically, he was simultaneously awkward and graceful. I never saw him bump into anything or break anything, but I always expected it at any moment. He had a quick mind, an honest smile, and most of all I trusted him. I still didn’t know the exact nature of the Daphne Croft Foundation and its relationship with the Meq, but I knew that I could trust Willie. I knew it because I had seen what was in his eyes when he returned from Alexandria with Star and her baby, only hours after the rest of us had returned from the oval room. I watched as he helped Star by holding her arm and elbow, though she hardly needed it. She looked radiant, even with a bandage on her shoulder, and beamed a smile across to Opari. Willie was grinning like a teenager and whether he knew it at the time or not, he was in love. It shone out from his heart straight through his eyes. Star wore a print dress he had found for her — a simple English dress. She had tied her old scarf around the waist and looped it through Mama’s baseball glove so that it hung at her waist like a purse. She carried her baby in her one good arm and her blond hair hung loose over her bandaged shoulder. I knew then that I would trust anyone who loved someone who looked so much like Carolina. Star was the image of her mother as I remembered her. To Willie, she was much more than that. All that day and night Willie kept one eye on Star and one eye on his job, which was to secure and cover the experimental planes and get all of us out to sea for our rendezvous with the
Two days later, standing in the rain and feeling resurrected, I wondered if Star would ever remember Carolina or Nicholas. She had not spoken to me, at least not in English, since I’d found her. She seemed to understand what Willie said to her, but only spoke to Opari in the old Berber dialect and even that was in whispers. She accepted the Meq intuitively and never addressed Opari as a child, but as an equal, a friend, the midwife of her own child. She had regained her spirit and strength completely. Willie had called it “simply remarkable” and it was, only I knew where it came from and I was not surprised. Opari had told me she would teach her English, that they would learn together. That was fine, I said, but what I really meant, what I did not say, was that I wanted her to remember not just her language or her name, but something much more elusive — her innocence.
For that to happen, the heart must allow the mind to remember and vice versa. It is tricky. It may never happen. When it does, if it does, who knows why? As Opari would say later, “All it takes is a crazy boy and a rainbow.” Perhaps. I only know that as I stood by the railing that morning off the coast of those ancient islands, laughing and spitting in the rain, I suddenly remembered that it had rained the morning Ray and I left St. Louis in search of Star. And for some reason, just as my mind focused on two large wooden crates that Ray or someone had left under the archway of Carolina’s big house, a rainbow appeared over our stern, stretching across the Mediterranean. Opari and Star had taken cover behind me and I heard Opari yell out, “You are crazy! You are crazy in the rain!” I turned toward her voice and I heard another one, softer, almost a whisper, coming from over Opari’s shoulder. It was Star. She was repeating something again and again, as if she had just discovered the sound of a stranger inside herself. “Fierce Whale,” she said. “Fierce Whale.” I walked toward her. Rain was dripping in my eyes, but I could hear her voice clearly, and in English. It was the same voice I had heard the morning of her birthday in 1904, the voice of a little girl who wanted to ride the Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair — the voice of innocence.
She was watching the rainbow. I turned to look and the colors were actually dancing in an arc over the sea. I turned back and Opari was staring at me, asking me what this meant with her eyes. I couldn’t answer. I knew this was the tricky moment, the one where the heart and mind awaken and discover themselves alone and together in one soul. What they decide is never certain and in Star’s case I could only guess what she would see and what she would remember. I took another step toward her. She was out of the rain and standing partially in darkness. Slowly, her eyes looked down at me and I could see the same blue-gray with flecks of gold as in Carolina’s eyes. A smile appeared, then a look of recognition and acceptance. Her freckles danced on her face with her smile. Softly, in slightly accented English, she said, “We ride the Fierce Whale, ZeeZee.”
Just then, Willie came lurching down the stairs that led up to the captain’s quarters. His shirt was drenched and his red hair was matted flat against his forehead. Before he could speak I said, “What day is this, Willie? What’s the date?” I wanted to think of it as a new birthday for her, a new beginning.
“What? That’s odd,” Willie said. “The date is precisely what I ran down to tell you. Turns out it’s become rather significant.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“November 11, 1918. An armistice has been declared in Europe. The ‘war to end all wars’ has ended.”
I looked at Opari and then Star. Their expressions were as blank as mine must have been. I had forgotten there even was a “war to end all wars.” I continued to stand there, happy, empty, somehow unimpressed by the end of a world war. Then Sailor and Geaxi made a sudden appearance from their cabins inside. They squeezed by Star and stood next to Opari.
“You are standing in the rain, young Zezen,” Geaxi said.
“Yes — yes, I am,” I said.
Willie laughed to himself and scrambled back up the stairs, leaning down to catch a last glimpse of Star. From inside her cabin, Star’s baby awoke and cried out for breakfast. Opari and Star both turned to leave and answer his call. Geaxi followed and Sailor and I were left staring at each other. I hadn’t moved an inch. The rain had slackened, but I was still soaking wet.
“Are you all right, Zianno?” he asked without a trace of irony.
“Yes,” I said, then added, “quite.” I felt a smile just beginning at the corners of my mouth.
“I sent word to St. Louis,” he said, pausing for a response, then going on. “I told them you had done it, you had found Star and we were on our way to England.”
“Good,” I said.
He turned to go back inside and waited for me. It took a moment, but I finally moved and came in out of the rain. As he opened the door to the cabins, Sailor nodded toward the sky behind us and winked.
In a whisper he said, “You conjured a beautiful rainbow, Zianno.”
“Thank you,” I said, walking in behind him and grinning like an idiot. Return. I had to laugh at the word and its meaning. It should feel like completion, game over, the end. But it always — always feels like beginning.
The news of the end of the Great War instantly changed the mood of every man in the crew and even changed the course of the
The days became mild and sunny and we made good time. In the evenings, Willie insisted we share our meals in the captain’s quarters, though the captain himself was never present. We sat in a tight circle and Willie always, at the last possible second, managed to sit next to Star and her baby, whose name I learned that first evening after the Armistice was Caine. Caine Abel Croft. I found out Willie had a hand in that too. Geaxi held the baby as we ate that night and during the meal told me the story. She agreed that Willie must truly be in love because she had never known him to act so impulsively and get everything wrong while doing it.
In Alexandria, Geaxi said that while we had been in the oval room he had taken Star directly to Sailor’s contact, who escorted them all to a British doctor the man said would look after Star and the baby and then look the other way. Star still spoke no English and Willie was nervous about leaving her alone, but he had another man to see about passports and identities for Opari and me. The plan was for all of us to be of the same family when we reached England. Star was now the fair peach among the basket of cherries. He had no idea what to do about her or the baby until he returned to the doctor’s and was asked his son’s name for the birth certificate. Willie looked at Star who seemed to understand and she whispered, “Kahin al-Jisil.” Willie misunderstood her, but he did not want to hesitate, and he anglicized what he heard, writing down “Caine Abel,” and then adding “Croft” without blinking, making him a father and husband on the spot. The doctor never mentioned the baby’s dark eyes and tufts of dark curly hair, nor did Willie. The rest of Star’s papers were filled in accordingly and she left for England, on paper at least, as Mrs. Willie Croft.
Geaxi said the ironic fact was that “Kahin” really did mean “Cain” in old Berber. It was one of the few biblical names that crossed into the Sahara. She doubted, however, that Willie or Star would ever care, but Daphne, Willie’s mother, would definitely want an explanation for Star’s third name — Croft — and the Mrs. in front of it.
I remember laughing along with Geaxi about Willie and thinking how wonderful it was and how close we were to returning Star to Carolina and Nicholas. They had waited long enough. Whatever had gone before and whatever lay ahead would be worth it. Their daughter was coming home and their grandson with her. Names, false or otherwise, would make no difference. Nothing would make a difference.
Three nights later, we rounded the big rock at Gibraltar and turned north by northwest into the Atlantic. Opari and I again stood by the railing in the stern. She wore her shawl with the unusual and exotic designs. It was well past midnight and cold. The temperature had dropped considerably since we’d left the Mediterranean. I tried to urge her back inside, but she wanted to stay out.
“I feel like a stranger,” she said.
I held her close and told her, “That’s impossible. We’re together now.”
“No,” she said, “I mean a stranger to this ocean. I have not seen it or breathed its air in twenty-eight hundred years.”
“Is that all?” I asked. “It seems like only yesterday.”
She groaned at my sad attempt at humor, but continued to hold me close. She took my hand and put it to her lips, then held it against her cheek. The Atlantic rolled and swelled around us.
“Will it be a good life from now on, Zianno?”
“We’ll make it so.”
“Then breathe, my love. breathe.”
I did and the air itself seemed to taste and smell of rebirth and new life. What neither of us knew was that at that very moment the air throughout the world was carrying something else — a killer — a deadly microscopic guest that traveled everywhere at once from who knows where, finding humans as hosts, hosts who rarely survived the visit. It still had no name, but it would have one soon, and it affected all of us, Giza and Meq, forever. It was later nicknamed “the Spanish Lady.” I pray that she never visits again. Unfortunately, I am afraid she will. Beware if she does. Most warnings are fiction, jokes, or bluffs. This one is not — beware of “the Spanish Lady.”
We arrived in the busy port of Southampton by midafternoon and had to wait until the next day to find a berth. Troop ships by the dozen were returning and all had the right of way. Most of the men I saw disembarking were jubilant and singing or wailing to loved ones waiting ashore, but others had a distant, vacant gaze in their eyes, as if “return” was no longer a word with any meaning.
Willie handled our pass through customs and immigration with great efficiency, considering the chaos around us. In the past, Sailor and Geaxi might have entered on their own in secret, in disguise, or both. The trust Sailor had in this new “network” of Giza and Meq was a mystery to me, especially since there were four of us together carrying the Stones. Then I thought of Solomon himself, and even Owen Bramley. They had both proved their willingness to help the Meq many times over. This new situation was only an extension of that trust. If Sailor had harbored any mistrust of Willie, or thought he couldn’t manage the situation, we wouldn’t have been there.
Our papers declared Sailor, Geaxi, Opari, and I were all of one family. With our dark hair and eyes, and our slightly exotic dress, we passed easily as a French family orphaned by the war and being taken in by the Crofts. Willie said he was working on a better idea for the future — diplomatic passports. I still wore my money belt and a considerable sum hung around my waist under my shirt. Fortunately, they weren’t checking children for gold.
The weather had changed drastically overnight. The temperature dropped twenty degrees and clear skies gave way to English fog. It was wet, cold, thick as smoke, and Star was fascinated by it — as she was by everything. She had gone through the entire process of customs carrying Caine at her breast, asking Opari questions, who in turn was asking me questions. They were both speaking English at all times, even to each other. Star was learning the language in great leaps and bounds and Opari had a natural ear for all languages.
Willie made one last call on the captain of the
“Where is she?” Sailor yelled. “There! Over there!” Willie yelled back, and pointed toward a long limousine, parked away from the other cars and flashing its headlights on and off.
A tall figure emerged from the driver’s side of the car and stood up. The figure was waving for us to come over. Through the fog, I saw long arms moving inside a very large black seaman’s slicker. Was it warning or welcome? For a brief moment I thought of the first time I had seen Solomon, a scarecrow waving far ahead, a beacon in a black cape trying to tell us something.
“Mother!” Willie shouted.
We walked the short distance to the car and rain began to fall through the fog. We huddled in front of the headlights and Daphne Croft looked down on all of us with a strange, angular smile. She was a woman of about seventy or seventy-five with long, gray hair tied up at the back, not in a bun, but gathered at the neck and hanging down her back. She raised one of her arms inside the big slicker and shielded her eyes from the rain. Her eyes were bright blue, even in the fog and rain. She wore no makeup and the lines on her face were deep and well earned. She seemed surprised by the number of us, but not the
“Who is this child?”
Star glanced around at everyone, then realized she was the one being addressed. She walked toward the old woman and stopped not a foot away.
“I am the one your son is choosing to love.”
Daphne looked Star up and down. Star had changed her English print dress for a pair of trousers. She used her scarf as a belt and kept Mama’s glove hanging to one side. Willie had found an extra leather jacket on the
“Then come,” she said. “Come in out of this rain, child. My goodness! Come! Willie — help this child into the car, will you? My goodness, we shall all catch the flu.”
“You shouldn’t be driving, Mother,” Willie said.
“Nonsense. I drive all the time.”
“Precisely my point,” he said, then turned to Opari and me. “I suppose intros and all that sort of thing will have to wait.” Willie started toward the car to open the rear door. Just as his hand was about to reach the handle, the door opened.
“Oh, my Lord,” Daphne said, “I almost forgot. Mowsel and another man, a Basque man, came along. I believe they are here to see you, Sailor.”
Sailor, who had been paying little attention, turned at once to Daphne.
“What?” he asked.
He seemed more stricken than surprised. He glanced at Geaxi and I could tell this was not in any of his plans. At the same moment, a boy leaped out of the open door of the limousine. He wore leather boots laced to the knee with loose-cut trousers tucked in at the top. A navy jacket that was long past seaworthy covered his torso and arms, and a hood covered his head. He pulled back the hood and stood staring at Sailor eye to eye. He had dark hair that curled around his ears and glistened as the rain hit it.
“Greetings, you old Jack tar,” the boy said. He smiled and I was drawn to his mouth. He was missing one of his two front teeth. Trumoi-Meq. The only one among us I have ever known to be missing a tooth. Also known for centuries as Mowsel, a name I later found out had everything to do with his missing tooth.
Without acknowledging anyone, he took Sailor by the arm and led him away from the car. As they huddled together in the rain, he spoke to Sailor rapidly and close to his ear, no longer smiling.
I turned and someone else stepped out of the car. He was wearing a red beret, and as he stood, he leaned slightly on a cane for balance. His eyes found mine and I knew them immediately.
“Hello, se?or,” he said softly.
Twenty-two years had passed since I had seen him last, waving to Geaxi and me from a wheelchair on the docks in Vancouver. The lines in his face told me they had not been easy ones. I could only think of those terrible moments when his brother Joseba and Baju were gunned down and he was shot in the leg — violence that was so quick, so permanent, so senseless. I glanced at his cane, then felt guilty about it. He saw what I was thinking.
“There is no pain, se?or. Only a leg that refuses to listen.”
“I’m sorry, Pello, I didn’t mean—”
He smiled and it was the smile of a shepherd and a soldier. It was welcome, genuine, and I sensed not often shown. My thoughts turned to his papa and mine.
“Kepa,” I blurted. “Does the old man still live, Pello?”
“He lives, se?or. Miren has passed, however. It has made him very sad. He shrinks back in himself.”
“I will come and see him. Soon.”
“That would brighten his eyes, se?or. Perhaps even the old bull on his chest would again swell with pride. He misses the old ways, the old life.”
“As soon as possible, Pello, I will come and see him. Tell him so. Tell him I will come and we will watch the stars together.”
“I will tell him, but please, if it is not an inconvenience, I must ask you to tell me something.”
“Why you are here, se?or. I was not expecting your presence.”
I was thinking the same thing about him, but I didn’t mention it and turned to introduce him to Opari and Star. No one was there. Opari, Geaxi, Daphne, and Willie were helping Star into the other side of the car. Daphne seemed to be in charge, yelling something to Willie about notifying the motor car industry of the need for safety belts.
I turned back to Pello just as a taxi pulled up behind the limousine. The horn squawked twice and Pello took off his beret, bending over slightly. His hair was more gray than black.
“We must go, se?or.”
“Wait,” I said, glancing at Sailor and Trumoi-Meq. They were walking fast toward the taxi. “Where do you go?”
“Kepa’s camp, se?or.”
“No, no, forgive me. We have all moved home.”
“I thought home was in Idaho.”
“No, se?or. Our original home — the Pyrenees.”
Pello wheeled in one motion, using his cane for balance, and walked toward the taxi. His cane was more than a crutch. Through practice and determination his cane had become both arm and leg on his damaged side. He moved quickly and directly, meeting Trumoi-Meq and Sailor at the door of the taxi and holding it open. Sailor stepped in without a single backward glance. Trumoi-Meq was right behind him, but he paused and turned his head, staring at me through the rain. Without hesitating, I whispered, “Dream of Light — we are.” They were his own words carved in the wall of the oval room I’d found in the desert; words I was sure he thought no one else had ever read. His mouth dropped open enough to show the gap of his missing tooth, then he was yanked inside and Pello followed, closing the door behind him. The taxi backed up and sped away. The fog and rain swallowed their lights, then their sound, and they were gone. Not a word of explanation had been given by anyone.
I spun around and found Geaxi staring up the narrow street where the taxi had disappeared.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she said. Her voice was flat and stoic, but her eyes met mine and I saw the concern.
I was worried and a little frightened. Something was wrong somewhere. I had never seen Sailor vanish quite like that.
“Why was Pello here?” I asked her.
“I do not know, Zianno. There may be a problem with Kepa.”
But that didn’t make sense, I thought. Pello had just told me Kepa was alive, and though he was heartbroken, he was not sick or in trouble. I would have asked her more, but I still wasn’t sure how much to say in front of Daphne and Willie.
“Let’s sort it all out inside the car,” Willie interrupted. He was holding the door open and Geaxi ducked inside. I stood a moment staring up at him. His hair was matted down again and his clothes were soaking wet. He smiled faintly and added, “It’s raining, Z.”
Opari grabbed my hand and pulled me in next to her. Willie made certain the trunk was shut tight and then jumped in beside me. Daphne was driving. Star was up front with Daphne, holding Caine in her arms. The rest of us sat in the back, facing each other on two wide leather seats. I leaned forward and looked out of the side window as Daphne put the big car into gear. The window was steamed up and I had to wipe a clear circle with the palm of my hand.
Outside, just as we pulled away, a soldier dropped to his knees, then fell into the path of a stranger walking in the opposite direction. He hadn’t stumbled or given any warning whatsoever, and he was unconscious by the time he hit the street. As we disappeared in the fog, I caught a glimpse of his face. His eyes were hollow and his skin glistened, but not with rain. The rain only fell in his open mouth. He was drenched in his own sweat.
Opari shook my arm and pulled me back in the seat. “Z, Z,” she was saying. It was the first time she had called me “Z” and it sounded good. I turned and wiped the rain out of my eyes, then looked into hers.
“Did you see him?” she asked.
I knew who she meant. It was not the soldier, or Pello, or Sailor. She was smiling and excited. The fact that Sailor had left without a word didn’t seem to bother her. Then I remembered she hadn’t seen Sailor until recently in over twenty-eight hundred years. Why should a sudden exit now cause any alarm? I smiled and said, “You must mean ‘missing tooth.’ ”
“Yes,” she said, laughing, taking my face in her hands, kissing me while she laughed. “I have known since you were born, my beloved, that you would find me, and since China, that I would be finding you. Once my. Bihazanu?”
“Heartfear,” I said.
“Yes, heartfear. Once my heartfear was lifted, I knew I would find you through Sailor. But never, ever in my long living did I think I would see this one. the one with the missing tooth. Trumoi-Meq.”
I took her hands from my face and kissed the tips of each finger, then I took her face in my hands and kissed her eyebrows and eyelids. I kissed her nose where her nostrils flared, her cheeks, her chin. her lips.
Suddenly, Daphne changed gear and the big motor car coughed and backfired, jarring us apart. Opari was laughing and, for some reason, I had tears running down my cheeks. I felt a weariness as heavy as the fog. I wanted to ask about Carolina and Nicholas, if anyone had heard from them, if anyone knew we had arrived. I wanted to ask about Sailor and Pello and Mowsel. The long car rolled through the market town of Romsey and then turned west toward Somerset. Willie was talking with Geaxi and I interrupted.
“Where are we going, Willie?”
I asked the question, but I had no real interest in the answer. I was almost falling asleep as I said it. I had my head in Opari’s lap, resting on her ancient shawl.
“Home,” he said. “Home to Caitlin’s Ruby.”
“And where is that?” I asked, closing my eyes.
“Cornwall,” Willie answered.
I nodded in my mind and fell asleep. I’m not certain if my weariness came from the inside or the outside. Either way, I surrendered and slept, dreaming my way through most of Devon. I slept soundly and dreamed wildly, but still listened to everything around me the way I’d learned in the twisted limbs of the old cedar tree, waiting for the sound of Jisil’s horse.
Opari slept with me for a few hours, stretching out beside me in the seat. Her breath was warm on the back of my neck and I listened to nothing else while we lay together.
It wasn’t until we were far to the west and the big limousine stopped for gasoline that I awoke to something I heard, and even then I stayed perfectly still. Willie had just finished saying something to Geaxi about relieving Daphne behind the wheel and driving the rest of the way himself. He opened the door and a fierce wind blew in along with a man’s voice, yelling to Willie from somewhere near the car, possibly a doorway or window. Willie yelled back. “What’s that, Tom? Can’t hear you in this wind.” I heard the man clearly. “A middle-aged man,” the voice said. “American, judgin’ by the accent — askin’ for you, Willie.” “Was it Owen Bramley?” Willie asked. “No, ’twasn’t him,” the voice said. “I’d of recognized him. ’Twas a fellow with a gray mustache travelin’ with a woman and child. Quite worked up, he was, sir.” At first, Willie had no response, then he said, “Thank you, Tom,” and stepped outside, shutting the door behind him. The man’s words were still sinking in when the door opened again and Daphne Croft climbed in, speaking as she entered. My face was turned away from her, but I assumed she was addressing Geaxi. I was certain she was referring to Star.
“That wonderful child is in love with this weather. Can you imagine? My goodness, I’ve lived half my life on this forsaken boot of land and I’ve never met one like her. How delightful. ” She paused and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Is he asleep? I should have noticed—”
“It is all right, Daphne,” Geaxi said. “He sleeps through everything.”
Willie put the car into gear and we continued west. Daphne ignored what the man Tom had yelled to Willie and spoke instead to Opari.
“Now,” Daphne said, as if to calm herself, “you must forgive my manners earlier, my dear. I am always honored to meet another member of Mowsel’s family. Each time is a miracle. Each one of you is a miracle, my goodness.”
“I am the honored one,” Opari said. “Willie has great praise for you.”
“Yes, yes. Willie is a good boy, a good son. He is my youngest, you know. Born in China, a complete surprise, long after the others.”
“I have lived in China,” Opari said.
“Really? How long were you there, my dear?”
“A few years — longer than I expected,” Opari said softly, then laughed and Geaxi joined her. It was the first joke I had ever heard her make, at least in English, and I almost laughed myself.
Geaxi interrupted. “Daphne Croft — I would like you to meet Opari. She travels with the one who is sleeping in her lap, Zianno Zezen.”
The car jolted suddenly as it went over a rough patch in the road. Willie had picked up speed and Daphne turned to tap on the glass that separated him from us. I never moved.
Geaxi went on. “Tell Opari about where we are going, Daphne. Tell her the story of Caitlin’s Ruby.”
“Yes, do,” Opari said, then added, “My.
“Imagination,” Geaxi translated.
“Yes, my imagination has no compass in your land. Tell me of this place and, please, tell me more of Mowsel.”
“Well then,” Daphne began. “I shan’t waste a moment. We’ll be seeing Falmouth soon and Caitlin’s Ruby is not far beyond.”
I didn’t move a muscle. I wanted answers to other questions, but Opari was running her fingers through my hair, and besides, I’d always learned more from the story than the storyteller. Daphne’s voice was high and clear, almost musical, and she spoke in rapid bursts.
“Where shall I begin?” she asked.
“With Caitlin herself,” Geaxi said.
“Yes, well, of course. Where else? It all begins with Caitlin, doesn’t it? Caitlin Fadle, the Irish beauty said to have had hair as black as a tinner’s grave and eyes as blue and lovely as the first day of spring.
“No one knows where she was born. No one knows how she came to Cornwall, but she was first seen as a tiny lass in the streets of Truro, no more than six or seven years old, fending for herself, living on scraps, and sleeping where she could. By the time she turned twelve or so, she was known to have been in Penzance. It was the year 1595, the year Penzance was sacked by the Spaniards. Caitlin Fadle, it is said in one version, was merely one of many women and children stolen and taken by sailors, then sent to Spain. In another version, she is taken aboard, but only she, and only by the captain. In yet another, my goodness, she is slipped on board a Spanish gunboat and hidden below by a boy — a boy with a missing front tooth. In every version, she does not return for twenty years. She has been forgotten completely because she was never missed. She had no family in Penzance and yet, she returns — and here is the mystery — she returns saying she is searching for someone, but she never gives a name and never asks a question. She has many trunks in her luggage, all filled with clothes worn only at court and only by nobility. My goodness, she has suitors calling by the dozen and speaks to none of them. She has no money or letters of credit. For survival, she has only one thing — a ruby bigger than a man’s fist.
“She leaves the ruby with a man who is a stranger to her, a Scottish blacksmith named Bramley, and walks the shore of the harbor around Mount’s Bay and the inlets and creeks that empty into it. She walks the coast and cliffs to Land’s End and back, nine miles going and coming, always alone, always searching, but for what, for whom — she never says.
“Then one day she asks the blacksmith, ‘Who owns the property at the source of the creek that flows into Newlyn from the north?’ It is property that is difficult to reach both by land and sea, it is so remote. My goodness, the blacksmith tells her, that’s no place for a woman, no place at all. She tells him to sell the ruby to the merchants on Wharf Road and buy the land in her name, Caitlin Fadle. ‘Keep a tidy sum for you and your family,’ she says, ‘and I’ll use the rest to build it.’ ‘Build what?’ he says. ‘The waiting place,’ Caitlin tells him. ‘Me home.’ ”
At the mention of the name Bramley in Daphne’s story, I almost rose up and gave myself away. But I was able to remain still and she went on. Outside, I knew we were far from anywhere. The big car cut through the wind and weather and we neither met nor passed any other vehicle.
“And she builds it. Can you imagine? In the middle of nowhere, all alone, though some say a stranger comes and goes on occasion, rowing in from the open sea and up the narrow passage to Caitlin’s home. No one ever sees him. The blacksmith never mentions it and even defends Caitlin against the self-righteous scoundrels in Penzance.
“Many years pass. Caitlin still walks the cliffs to Land’s End and oftentimes is seen inland between St. Ives and St. Just, walking among the standing stones. She always wears a long, woolen coat and cape, dyed dark red like the ruby, and keeps it wrapped around her, tip to toe. She bears a child, unknown to the blacksmith, perhaps because he only sees her in the red cape. My goodness, who knows. He has a family of his own, but Caitlin asks him to raise the child, a boy, to give him a normal life among other children. The blacksmith and his family take the child in and raise him without question or shame.
“Caitlin grows old and one day she begins dying. The blacksmith comes first with a doctor, whom she sends away. Then the blacksmith brings a priest, who is whisked away before he says a word. Lastly, he brings a solicitor, who is asked to stay and write her will and testament. Her once raven black hair is now a tangled, wiry gray, but her eyes are fierce and still blue as mountain ice. She tells the blacksmith that all her land, the heather and broom, the stone and thatch, all is his with two provisions — he and his descendants must never sell the land, the place she calls Caitlin’s Ruby, and her son and his descendants must always have a home there, to work and live in and do with as they please.”
Daphne paused a moment. I couldn’t see her face, but I could feel her turn and look out of the window. “Caitlin passes,” she finally said. “And not a clue, not a whisper to anyone, including the blacksmith, of why she came, why she stayed, or for what she was waiting. Not a whisper.”
Then Daphne laughed suddenly and Geaxi laughed with her. “Please, you cannot stop there, Mrs. Croft,” Geaxi said. “You must tell Opari what occurred over the next two hundred and sixty years, or so.”
Daphne continued. “The property is handed down from Bramley to Bramley. The maze of buildings, terraces, and pathways that Caitlin began is expanded. The real Caitlin Fadle is forgotten, but the legend and story of Caitlin’s Ruby grows. The public of Penzance and all Mount’s Bay believes to this day she stole the ruby and waited hopelessly for its rightful owner, the Spanish captain, to come after it. But of course, he never did. The Bramleys always believed she waited for someone else, and it was his legend that grew among the Bramleys for generations. They always believed Caitlin waited for the boy with the missing tooth — the boy who saved her and many other children through the centuries.”
“Mowsel,” Opari whispered.
“Mowsel, indeed,” Daphne said.
Willie had slowed the big car down and was making a series of tight turns. It was becoming more and more difficult for me to lie still and continue to feign sleep. Opari started to say something, then stopped. I knew what she was thinking. So did Geaxi.
“I believe Opari is wondering how you learned of us, Daphne,” Geaxi said.
“Oh, my dear,” Daphne said, her voice rising a full octave. “I never would have if it hadn’t been for my nephew. You see, my maiden name is Bramley. My nephew is Owen Bramley. He brought Mowsel to me. He brought all of you to me, and you have all saved my life.
“My wonderful husband, William, who always believed in miracles, by the way, died suddenly after our long return from China. I was not prepared for the emptiness that came after. My children were all grown and gone, even Willie was away at school in Canada. Caitlin’s Ruby became for me a beautiful prison, a beautiful prison with generations of memories for bars. I was completely lost, heartbroken to a point I thought not possible. Even old Tillman Fadle, Caitlin’s last direct descendant, couldn’t cheer me out of it. Then one day, quite by surprise, my prodigal American nephew returned. My goodness, what a day that was. He told me the most outrageous and lovely story about his recent life and an old Jewish man named Solomon J. Birnbaum.
“There were two children with him who looked as if they were related. What lovely children I remember thinking, so quiet and well behaved. They were introduced to me by name — Geaxi first, then a boy with a missing front tooth that became apparent when he greeted me and smiled. Mowsel. Not only did the oldest Bramley myth and legend become flesh and blood, but my spirit lifted and soared, almost as if William was saying to me, ‘See, you old fool, there are miracles!’
“Owen went on to tell me Solomon’s plan of communication and safe passage and a little of what would be required of me and Caitlin’s Ruby. In a way, I was reborn to this life and its mysteries. Old Tillman Fadle had always preached that someday we would know why Caitlin sold her ruby to live in a place so remote and lonely. ‘Wait and see,’ he always said. ‘Wait and see.’ He was right, as was my husband and, of course, that dear man I never knew, Solomon J. Birnbaum.”
Just then, Willie came to a near halt and I felt the car turning and angling downward. My eyes were still closed, but I was wide awake.
“My goodness,” Daphne said. “We are here at last.” There was a tap on the glass from the front seat and Daphne added, “That lovely child is pointing for us to look at something.” I knew she meant Star and I remained silent, but I could feel Opari tense slightly and lean forward.
“Where?” Geaxi asked.
“There,” Daphne said quickly. “Just ahead, do you see? There ahead of us, by the gate, a man with his arms spread. He’s waving, I believe. Dear me,” she said and paused. “He looks like a scarecrow come to life.”
I rose up as if I’d been struck by lightning. Only Daphne was startled.
“Hello,” she said. “You are Zianno, I presume.”
Willie braked hard and stopped the car. “That must be the man old Tom was going on about,” he shouted back through the glass.
I glanced at Daphne’s blue eyes and she smiled. The smile was friendly, childlike, angular, and wide. All the lines on her face had to move and make room for it.
“Zezen! Look ahead!” It was Geaxi. “Do you know that man?”
I leaned forward and looked through the glass. Up front, both Willie and Star were staring ahead, straining to see the figure approaching. Willie was gripping the wheel and Star had Caine inside her jacket, holding him close. I followed their eyes to a man standing in the middle of the road, not twenty yards away, between two stone pillars and an open gate — the entrance to Caitlin’s Ruby. He was wearing a long trenchcoat and trying to wave, but he kept losing his balance and stumbling forward. There was only a light mist falling, yet his gray hair and mustache were soaking wet. I thought he was alone when suddenly a woman and a girl appeared from behind the pillars. They ran toward the man, but the woman fell before she reached him. The girl helped the woman to her feet, then caught the man just before he buckled. The girl then stood between the two, holding them upright, and stared back at us.
“My goodness, who are they?” Daphne asked.
I was certain I knew the girl, but I had to look twice before I recognized the man and woman. They had both aged since I’d seen them last.
“It’s Nicholas,” I said.
“And Eder,” Geaxi said, reaching for the door and opening it.
“Who is the young one?” Opari asked.
“Nova,” Geaxi and I said, then climbed out of the big car together.
I’ve never been much of a philosopher on the “why” of things. To me, it’s just a part of the game, never the game itself. I have always been fascinated, however, with the “when.” Synchronism, coincidence, luck, fate — all are words for that place in time where the rules change and, whether we like it or not, so do our lives.
Geaxi and I ran and got to them first. The mist had settled and it seemed abnormally calm. Willie and Star were close behind and Willie rushed past me to pick up Nicholas, who had passed out completely just before we reached him. I knelt down to help and Eder saw my face.
“Zianno,” she whispered, then slipped after Nicholas into unconsciousness.
Star leaned over to look at the stricken man and woman. She had no idea she was staring at her own father. As she bent down, she held the back of Caine’s head with the palm of her hand. Nova made a quick move and stepped in front of her.
“Keep the baby away from them!” she said sharply. Her voice was clear and precise, not angry or demanding, but something was visibly wrong. She looked quickly at Geaxi and glanced at me. “Keep the others away,” she said quietly, “and help me, please, they’re very sick.”
The light was fading by the moment and I thought I saw another man approaching with a lantern. No one else seemed to notice.
“Who are they?” Star asked. Her eyes were wide and frightened and she instinctively held Caine tighter, straightening up and backing away. “And who are you?”
Nova looked a little frightening herself. Her hair was short and black and parted in the middle with bangs across her forehead. She had some sort of oil in it, which created an odd sheen in the mist and fading light. She wore heavy eye makeup, unusual I thought for any twelve-year-old, but especially for the Meq, and it was dripping down her face like black tears.
“You’re Star, aren’t you,” Nova said. It was more statement than question.
“And that is your child?”
Nova looked at Caine’s dark, curly hair peeping through Star’s fingers. “Take him inside. The two of you must stay clear of these two,” she said, nodding at Nicholas and Eder.
“Why did you say the word ‘him’?” Star asked. “How did you know my baby is a boy?”
“I. I just knew.” Nova bent down and put Eder’s limp arm around her own shoulder. As she did, she said softly, “Please, you must back away. My name is Nova. We’ll talk later.”
Suddenly Opari was in the middle of all of us. She looked at Nicholas and Eder, then pulled their eyelids back and ran her finger over their lips, which were turning purple and blue. “This is a virus,” she said, then looked at me. “They are dying.”
Daphne arrived just in time to hear Opari’s last words. She was slightly out of breath and gasped, “It is. Spanish flu. took three souls yesterday in Falmouth. we thought it. came home with the soldiers, but my goodness. ’tis everywhere.”
Geaxi turned to Opari. “I have seen this before, once before,” she said. “It was in Constantinople during the thirteenth century. Have you seen it?”
“Yes, many times in one form or another. It is quicker than the wind — a black seed that kills fast and at random.”
“A virus, no?”
“Yes, the worst kind. It can.
“Fly” Geaxi translated.
“Yes, and it mutates to survive.”
The man I’d seen approaching with the lantern was an old man, tall and wearing a whaler’s coat and hat. Willie yelled to him.
“This way, Tillman, quickly!”
The man neither hurried nor slowed down. As I was to learn, that was how he did everything. He was Tillman Fadle, Caitlin’s last descendant. He stood a full head above Willie, probably six feet eight or nine, and as he held the lantern out, for just a moment, he looked more like a vulture than a man. I couldn’t see his face. The lantern’s light was too weak. It was antique, made of glass and brass with tiny holes in the top. The light came from a candle inside. The heavy mist was seeping through the holes and making the flame spit and dance.
“Thought it was you,” the man said. His voice rose and tailed off at the end of every sentence. “Couldn’t tell, couldn’t see,” he went on. “Knew it was, though, knew it was. Had to be.”
“For God’s sake, Tillman!” Willie interrupted. “Of course, it’s us. Now help me with these people, will you?”
“No! Please!” Nova shouted. “It isn’t wise.”
Willie started to speak and Daphne cut him off.
“It is all right, my dear. Really, I assure you. If this family could be spooked by the flu, then we would have been gone from this place long ago.”
Nova had been kneeling the whole time, still trying in vain to support her mother and Nicholas. Geaxi bent over and placed her beret on Nova’s head, then wiped the mascara and black tears off her cheeks.
“Come, Nova,” Geaxi said. “You must help us get them inside. It is safe here.”
Opari reached over and took Nova’s hand. She made sure Nova was looking at her before she spoke. “How long have they been sick?”
“Eder, only one day,” Nova said in a monotone. “Nicholas, two.”
“Were you searching for us?” Star asked suddenly, as if something had just struck her, but didn’t quite make sense.
“No, Star,” Nova said in the same flat, distant voice. “Not all of you. Just you.” Then her eyes found mine and I saw more tears running down her cheeks, only these were real and clear. “For so long, Zianno,” she turned and whispered, “I thought this day, this time, this moment, would be for rejoicing. Now it’s here and. and. what is this?. why is it like this?”
I said nothing. I could hear Tillman’s old lantern swinging on its brass hinges and the candlelight flickered and slashed across Nova’s dark eyes. Everything else was silence, except for the big limousine, parked and idling behind us.
“Come,” Geaxi said. “There is much to do.”
All of us helped carry Eder and Nicholas inside, with Daphne leading the way. In the rush of the moment, even in the falling dark, what I remember most were the eyes and movements of cats, dozens of them, following us, darting in front of us, peering down from tiled and thatched roofs, from every window ledge, every doorway. Willie told me later that the farmers and fishermen in the surrounding country considered them good luck whenever sighted. The “Cats of Caitlin’s Ruby,” he called them. Legend said that on the day Caitlin died they began to appear, one by one, then stayed and multiplied. They never came inside and rarely gathered all at once. But they did that night. They were all there. I will never forget their eyes.
Daphne led us through an entrance hall and down another long hall flanked by stairs leading up on both sides. There were few lights along the way, but I could see the wide beams overhead, ancient and straight and still holding their weight in an even line. I could also see the sweat glistening on the faces of Eder and Nicholas as we carried them through.
Finally, we were able to lay them down on two separate beds in what Willie called his “quarters.” There was a large stone fireplace in one corner with a fire already blazing.
Opari said, “Strip their clothes and burn them. Wrap their bodies in wet sheets. We must try to break the fever.”
She moved quickly back and forth between the two beds, telling Geaxi, Nova, and me exactly what to do, then turned to Daphne and told her that she and Willie and Star and the baby had to leave — there was nothing they could do and it was indeed dangerous. Daphne agreed reluctantly and took Star and the baby upstairs. Willie said he would be in the kitchen and within shouting distance. As he was leaving, he asked, “Should I send Tillman for a doctor?”
Opari never looked up and said evenly, “No. I fear it is too late for that.”
For several minutes, Opari and Geaxi did everything they could to break the fevers of Eder and Nicholas, who remained unconscious and struggling for every breath. Their lungs were filling with fluid and getting worse. Their blood could not oxygenate, and as a result, once their clothes were removed I noticed their feet had turned black up to their ankles. Nicholas seemed to be hallucinating. His eyes would open and shut at random and his body jerked and convulsed. His breathing became more labored than Eder’s and I knew he was much closer to death. I tried saying his name over and over, hoping to wake him, but it was no use. Nova did the same with Eder, holding her hand and repeating in her ear, “Wake up, Mama, wake up now.”
I caught myself staring at Eder’s face and body. She was a woman in her forties, going gray in her hair and slack in her limbs. Her belly was rounder and her breasts sagged slightly to the side. The lines in her face were the same only deeper, more permanent. She was still a beautiful woman, but bore no resemblance to the girl she had been, to the Meq, to the child-woman who had lived for over two thousand years completely immune to the virus that was killing her now. It made no sense. There were three of us in the room, three Egizahar Meq who carried the Stone, and we could do nothing. This powerful, mystical Stone that could make animals and Giza change their minds, their reality itself, was impotent and unable to do the one thing that mattered—
Opari stayed busy trying to make them comfortable. She mostly pointed and nodded at what to do, saying little and moving quietly. I did hear her whisper once to Geaxi, “Sailor should be here.” Geaxi only replied, “Yes, but this was never expected. Never.”
Just then, Nova turned and grabbed my sleeve with her free arm. “Where’s Ray?” she asked. I knew there had always been something between them, more than I’d had a chance to see in St. Louis and more than Ray had ever let on in Africa. Still, her question caught me off guard.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, he was kidnapped, stolen, I don’t even know if he is alive. I’ll find him though. The Fleur-du-Mal knows where he is, I’m sure of it. As soon as. as soon as—” I stopped and looked hard into her eyes. “Where is Carolina, Nova? Tell me. Tell me now.”
Before Nova could say a word, the door to Willie’s “quarters” burst open and Star was standing there wide-eyed and trembling. I am certain no one had told Star the dying man lying in the bed was her father, but when she appeared at the doorway, unasked and unannounced, I knew at a glance she had somehow figured it out. What happened next is still a mystery to me. The Meq have a word for it—
Star had changed from her trousers and navy jacket to a long striped dressing gown, probably borrowed from Willie. Her hair was wild and tangled and slightly wet. She even held a towel in her right hand and it looked as if she’d run downstairs the moment the truth had struck her.
It had been fourteen years since she’d seen her father’s face, and physically he had aged twice that, but she walked over to him and sat on the bed next to him and held his hand in both of hers. “Papa,” she said in the softest voice. “Papa,” she said again, then again and again as if the word itself had shape and weight and meaning beyond the sound. It was a word to her from another life, another self. It was a word she’d buried in order to survive, but used without speaking it aloud to protect her in Louisiana, in the camps of Mulai and Jisil, maybe even through our escape and the birth of her own son. It was her secret word, her magic word. “Papa” had power. “Papa” was the one word that kept her alive and the one word she never thought she would say again.
A single tear dropped from her eye and fell by chance on Nicholas’s dark blue lips. One more time, one last time, Star whispered, “Papa.” As if by magic, his mouth opened and his tongue went to taste the tear. His eyes fluttered and opened. He looked around wildly at first, then focused on Star’s face. I have no idea how he got his breath because his lungs were filled with fluid, but he opened his mouth a little wider and almost smiled, then spoke to her, or at least to the woman he thought she was.
“Carolina, honey, I knew you’d be here. I told everybody. I remember. I remember—” He paused and looked away, squinting and blinking, but his eyes couldn’t or wouldn’t focus properly. “Where are we?” he asked, looking back at Star. “Where are we, honey? I’m a little cold.”
Without saying a word, Opari handed Star a wool blanket. Star exchanged looks with her, then glanced at Nova sitting on the other bed and holding Eder’s hand.
“Carolina is your mother,” Nova said simply.
“And he is my father,” Star whispered.
The two women held each other’s gaze for several moments. One was not much older than a girl, yet had born a child herself, and the other was a woman nearing thirty, yet still in the body of a child. An “understanding” passed between them that was beyond age, gender, or species. A bond and trust were formed instantly through the timeless sense of love and the endless sense of loss.
Star turned and leaned over her papa and kissed him full and hard on his blue lips, not as herself, but as Carolina — the Carolina who was in his heart, his mind and memory, his last words. And she kept kissing him. No one stopped her. No one tried. She kept kissing him and crying and kissing him until it was over and Nicholas was gone.
Gently, Opari and Geaxi lifted Star away from Nicholas. I took the wool blanket and began to cover his body. Just as I pulled the blanket over his head, Eder moaned and coughed. She tried to speak and coughed again, only it did no good. Her lungs were too full and she was too weak. Her eyes were still closed.
“Mama,” Nova said, then leaned over and whispered in Eder’s ear, “do you know where you are?”
Eder coughed again, this time violently. Nova held her closer. There was nothing she could do. Then, suddenly, Eder opened her eyes and she was staring at me. She moaned again and her eyes fought to stay open, then somehow she began to speak, and while she could, she told me what she saw.
“I see your mama and papa, Zianno.”
“Where? Where are they?”
“Just ahead, oh, what is the name of that place, that old fort in East Africa?”
“I. I can’t remember.”
“Baju will know. He always knows where we are. Yes. Baju will know.”
Eder never closed her eyes. She left as quickly and thoroughly as Solomon had and I closed her eyes as I had his. Nova laid her down on the pillow and sat still by her side for several minutes, staring at her mother’s face and features. Behind me, Opari began a low chant that seemed at first to have no melody or words. I learned later that it was not Meq. It was older; a chant she had learned from her mother, who said the Meq had learned it from “others” during the Time of Ice. It was called the “Song of the Glacier.” Her mother said the “ancient ones” sang it together at the passing of one of their kind. They sang it to give shape and sound to the departing spirit, which was like a newborn at death and needed the strength of the still-living spirits to begin its infinite journey. They buried the “old” body of the “new” spirit in the direct path of an advancing glacier and chanted the song, or prayer, for hundreds of miles to and from their camps.
It was slow and beautiful, a song of mourning, but there was no time for mourning or ceremony. Circumstances would not allow it.
I left Willie’s “quarters” and found Daphne and told her what had happened. We both found Willie and his first concern was Star. Daphne assured him she would look after Star and the baby. Willie and Tillman Fadle then took the bodies of Eder and Nicholas into Falmouth for several reasons, but the most immediate was to confirm the cause of death. If there was danger to anyone at Caitlin’s Ruby, most importantly the baby Caine, then all precautions must be taken. Opari stopped her chant as we lifted Eder from the bed and she warned, “The man ‘old Tom,’ the one who gave directions to these two, is in great trouble. The virus was still able to fly when they met.”
“What about here? Now?” I asked.
“No danger,” she said. “No danger now or when we found them.”
Nevertheless, after Daphne had taken Star and Nova upstairs, we all agreed the wisest and surest thing was to have postmortems performed in Falmouth by a medical doctor. I knew that none of us — none of the Meq — could be affected, but everyone else was in harm’s way.
The wrapping and removal of the bodies was tedious and difficult. Willie, being taller and stronger, took charge of the task. He was exhausted and confused. I felt numb and Opari said little except to tell Willie what to ask the doctor. Geaxi was completely silent. Afterward, Geaxi, Opari, and I sat quietly in Willie’s “quarters” until we heard the doors on the big limousine open and shut, then the crunch of gravel under the wheels as Willie and Tillman Fadle made their way up the drive and through the gate. No one spoke. I saw the headlights flash by one of the old leaded windows and in the few seconds of illumination I saw the eyes of a dozen cats outside on the ledge, staring in at us. I turned to mention it and then saw the eyes of Geaxi.
Eder had been Geaxi’s oldest and truest friend, a confidante, a sister, and more. Geaxi was the Stone of Will. She could run nearly as fast as Ray and escape almost every possible restraint. She was the Spider. She was graceful, silent, proud, and a master of acting in the moment. But when she was confronted with the death of a friend, something happened to her inside. She became frozen and her grief was so frightening, so deep, and utterly alone, she went to a place I have not been. Opari, fortunately or unfortunately, knew this place. She had been there.
“Do not waste your tears in that cold place,” Opari said. “You must turn away and come to us. We must remain. We must. Blood of time, we are.” Opari picked up Geaxi’s hand. “Shed your tears now, Geaxi.” She took my hand and joined it with her own and Geaxi’s. “Share your tears here, now, with us, or they will be your poison.” She paused and added, “You must do this.”
Geaxi cried that night as I have never seen her, before or since. Her whole body shook and sobbed and Opari and I held her between us. Some nights pass quickly, some do not. Some are so long and sad and empty, they are no longer in time and they never pass or resolve. But they exist, and finally, eventually, end.
Do you know the sound of castanets? The sharp cracks of rhythm over a melancholy chord announcing the Spanish Lady is about to dance? I used to love that sound. It always filled me with excitement and anticipation. Whether it was outside or inside, concert hall or campfire, I always felt lightning was about to strike any second from anywhere and the castanets held it all in the balance. It was thrilling. That was before the deaths of Eder and Nicholas, before the rest of it, before the real dance of the Spanish Lady. Ever since, I have heard another sound announcing another, darker dance.
It began with a dream I was having while dozing on the sofa in Daphne’s sprawling living room, waiting for the return of Willie and Tillman Fadle. In the dream, I was standing alone on a cliff near Kepa’s camp and thought I heard the sound of castanets behind me. I turned, expecting to see the Spanish Lady, and saw instead a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike. I opened my mouth to scream and could make no sound. It was a hopeless, helpless feeling. I couldn’t turn away and I couldn’t stop the rattle. It was Daphne who shook me awake.
“Wake up, Z, my dear. You are dreaming.” I looked up at her bright blue eyes and she winked. “Come,” she whispered, “and come quietly.” She pointed at Geaxi and Opari on the floor in front of the fireplace. They were sound asleep under the blankets and shawls that Daphne had thrown over them. I could see the gems embedded in Opari’s Stone. Her necklace had fallen loose from inside her shirt and the firelight bounced brilliant blues off the tiny sapphire and diamond. I bent down and put the Stone back in her shirt. I knew Daphne had seen it, but she said nothing. As I was to find out, the secrets and mysteries of the Meq were unimportant to her. She was a Cornish woman first and last; a survivor. Magic was everywhere in Cornwall, in song and story, and she’d grown up with it, but she knew it could heal neither body nor soul. “Grief,” Daphne told me, “is like a wound, and one treats a wound with tenderness and kindness, not magic. You let it heal in its own time from within. My goodness, it’s quite simple, really. A living thing loves to live. It’s the same with all of us, my dear.”
She led me through the long and cluttered kitchen out of a rear entrance and along a path beside a low stone wall. I had to hurry to keep pace. The wind was blowing strong from the west and Daphne leaned into it. There was a faint scent of sea in the air, though I knew we were miles inland from harbor and coast. Low clouds kept the sky gray from horizon to horizon. Behind us, a few gray and yellow cats followed and watched.
She stopped in front of a combination stable and garage and unlatched two tall wooden doors, then swung them open. As she did, I blew on my hands and looked around quickly at the startling beauty of Caitlin’s Ruby, even in November. On distant ridges I could see several cedar trees, rare for where we were, and everywhere there were paths leading off somewhere, lined with heather and wildflowers and marked at crosspoints with unique structures, lookouts, and shrines. Daphne put her hands on her hips and stared down at me. Her mouth opened in that odd smile, but her eyes were all business.
“I fear there shall be a quarantine placed on us.”
“A quarantine,” she said, pausing. “Perhaps you are not familiar—”
“No, no, I know what a quarantine is, Daphne. It’s just that I need to find someone now, soon, right away.”
She let another long moment pass. “Is it Carolina?”
Her question stopped me cold. I stared up at her crooked smile. “I thought you didn’t know who Star and Nicholas were?”
“I did not, but I know of Carolina through Owen. My goodness, he rarely mentions her by name, but I certainly know of Carolina. I also knew of her missing daughter and absent husband, but never by name until last night.”
“Absent husband?” I was confused and wondered if we were talking about the same person.
“Yes, that’s right, the poor soul of a man who slipped away last night. I assumed you knew him, Z.”
“I do, I mean I did, but how did you—”
“Nova told me all about who was what to whom this morning and the. urgency you might feel to find Carolina.”
“Where is Carolina?”
“I think you should ask Nova.”
“Where is Nova?”
Daphne smiled again and turned toward the darkness inside the garage.
“With Star and the baby,” she said. “That is my point. I think we should try and take Star and Caine into Penzance before the quarantine is imposed, for quick help if it’s needed and, my goodness, to contact Carolina, finally. Do you agree?”
“I. I don’t know.”
“You and Geaxi and Opari could wait here for Willie and Tillman. There is an old milk truck in the garage. I’ve driven it before and it runs perfectly well. What do you think, my dear?”
“I. I want to talk to Nova first.”
“Certainly” Daphne said. “She is right behind you.”
I turned and saw Star hurrying toward us, carrying Caine inside her jacket and lugging a suitcase that seemed to keep coming undone, causing her to pause every few steps and pick up the falling contents. At least a dozen of Caitlin’s cats brushed against her every time she knelt down. Not far behind, Nova followed at her own pace, looking out over Caitlin’s Ruby as I had done, and even stroking a few of the cats as they appeared and disappeared along the way. Daphne said simply, “I’ve never seen them let any person do what they’re letting Nova do.”
I could tell at a glance that both Star and Nova had already put last night behind them and resolved something in their hearts and minds, especially Nova. She seemed to have transformed herself. There was a calmness in the way she walked and moved, the way she stroked the cats and scanned the landscape. It was as if she was “seeing” something else, something more. I suddenly remembered what Ray had said about her, that he thought she might be able to “see things.” I knew at that moment he was right, though I had no idea what she was “seeing.” She wore a hat pulled down low over her forehead that looked familiar, but I couldn’t tell what it was until she stopped in front of the garage and turned my way. It was a bowler exactly like Ray’s only without the wear and tear that his had seen. She wore red lipstick and dark blue eye shadow that made her look like an Egyptian. I almost laughed, and would have, except for the look in her eyes. It was all Meq. Compassion, mystery, trust, everything that usually came through the eyes of an old one, shone through Nova and out to me.
“Where is Carolina?” I asked. The worst thoughts imaginable were running through my head.
“She is. she was. ”
“What? Is she dead?”
“No, no, Zianno, that is not what I meant.”
“Is she sick with this virus?”
“No. at least not that I know of.”
“What then, Nova? Tell me. Where is she?”
Nova took a deep breath and turned her head toward the garage where Daphne was cranking up the old milk truck. “Your friend,” she said, “Captain Woodget?”
“Yes,” I said slowly. “What about him?”
She turned her head back and looked in my eyes. “He passed away in New Orleans. It was only a week after the woman he lived with had died in her sleep.”
“Yes, and Mama was supposed to go with Owen to their funeral. Owen insisted on giving them a full New Orleans funeral with lots of pomp and circumstance. Carolina took her place at the last minute and Mama and I stayed in St. Louis with Jack and Ciela.”
“Where was Nicholas?”
“Not at Carolina’s. That’s the ultimate irony, Z. We hadn’t seen him in six years and he suddenly appeared, not ten minutes before Sailor’s message arrived.”
“Where had he been?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why did he leave?”
“It’s complicated. I think Carolina should answer that. But there he was and he almost came apart when he found out about Star. He wanted to leave for England immediately, but Mama and I wouldn’t let him go alone. He was a ghost of himself. We left that afternoon for New York and paid a shameless amount of money to get aboard the first ship out. We had no luggage and actually slept on the decks, but we made it, or thought we had. You know the rest. Somewhere en route, Nicholas and Eder must have contracted the virus.”
I stood motionless and breathed in as much of the faint smell of sea as I could. There was no time to remember Captain Woodget now, but I promised myself I would find Caitlin’s old path to Land’s End and walk to where I could look out over the sea and remember everything about him.
“Z,” Nova said softly. “I don’t want to bury Mama here. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I’ll have Willie take care of it. Don’t worry.”
Just then, Daphne drove the milk truck out of the garage and opened the door for Nova. She jumped up and in, holding her bowler by the brim. Star was in the middle and leaned out of the window as I shut the door.
“Come here,” Star shouted over the noise of the old engine.
I had to step up on the running board to get near the window. Then she leaned out farther and kissed me on the cheek.
“I have no choice, Z. I must think of Caine. If he was to get sick here—”
“I know, I understand.”
“Willie knows where we will be,” Daphne yelled across the seat. “Tell him to come and get us if there is no quarantine. My goodness, let us hope that is the case.”
I hopped off the running board and Daphne hit the throttle. The milk truck sputtered through the gate and slowly climbed up the narrow road that led to Penzance. Everything seemed absurd and backward. If Caitlin’s Ruby was now under quarantine, that meant the only ones quarantined were Geaxi, Opari, and me — two girls and a boy who couldn’t get sick if they tried.
I turned and started back toward the house. Halfway down the path I was overcome with images of things dissolving, falling apart, coming unraveled. I stopped to catch my breath and my eye caught something on the ground, wedged between the gravel path and the heather. I recognized it immediately, but it took a second to reason why it was there. Then I remembered Star almost running to the garage, spilling everything and trying to retrieve it all, while holding on to Caine. She must have dropped what I now found in the process. I walked over and picked it up slowly, sliding one hand inside and pounding the pocket with the other. It was Mama’s glove, and as I walked the rest of the way into the house, I tried to remember the last time I’d had it on my hand. I couldn’t do it.
I entered the living room through the kitchen and Opari and Geaxi were waiting for me. It was more evening than afternoon, but they were just waking up. I envied their yawns and puffy eyes.
“What was that noise?” Opari asked.
“A milk truck,” I said, then told her what had happened and why. Opari disagreed vehemently with Daphne’s conclusion, insisting that they were much safer where they were and should not have left. I told her we were stuck; it was too late. We would have to wait for Willie’s return before anything could be changed.
I felt I was in a kind of trance. I looked at Geaxi and watched her folding her blanket and placing it neatly in a corner chair. She was unnaturally quiet. Opari walked over and touched my temples with her fingertips, making featherlight circles and then kissing the places she had touched.
“Yes. I am.”
“Come,” Geaxi said suddenly. “We will lose all light if we do not leave now.”
“I want you to sleep,” Opari told me. “Geaxi is taking me somewhere, somewhere she wants to go, somewhere on this land. You must sleep while we are away, Z. You must sleep and dream deeply if you can.”
I glanced at Geaxi and she was ignoring me, preparing to leave.
“Will you do this? Please?” Opari asked.
“I will do this. I promise.”
Geaxi tossed a heavy coat and wool cap over to Opari. She put her own beret in place and started toward the door, then stopped and looked at me. We hadn’t spoken a word to each other since Eder had died. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I chose silence and hoped she was all right. Then she began to laugh — hard — as if she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t cynical, bitter, hollow, angry, or anything else. It was just a laugh and when Opari joined in I knew it was on me.
“Someday, Zezen,” Geaxi said, “you must teach me to play.”
It was then that I realized I still had Mama’s glove on my hand. I pounded my fist in the pocket and joined in the laughter. “I will,” I told her. “I will do this.”
Geaxi reached in the pocket of her vest and removed a simple gold ring. It was slightly scratched and big enough to be a man’s ring. Without her saying so, I knew whose it was. She had slipped it off his finger the night before while we were wrapping the body. She gave it to me without a word, then turned and opened the door for Opari.
“Now or never,” she said.
They were through the door and disappearing up a path heading north within minutes. From a distance they looked a little like two schoolgirls out for a walk in the country, followed by a few stray cats. They were each and all anything but that.
For a few moments, I stood there with Mama’s glove on one hand and Nicholas’s wedding ring between the thumb and forefinger of the other. Silent, inanimate, haunting — they were only things, things made by hand and fashioned to fit another hand for a simple, specific purpose, and yet, what lives they had led; what secrets, dreams, fears, and hopes they held just because they were made and given to another. I slipped the ring over my thumb, the only digit that would hold it, and threw Mama’s glove on the big couch in front of the fireplace. I put a few logs on the dying fire and fell back on the couch, stretching out and using Mama’s glove as a pillow. The fire caught quickly and the flames looked like birds taking flight. I watched and wondered at what I knew and what I didn’t. I turned the ring around and around and around and fell asleep.
I slept for what felt like only seconds, then woke to discover I’d been out for hours. The fire had burned down to embers and the whole house was dark and empty. I listened for anyone moving and heard nothing, then sat up and listened deeper, using my “ability.” I could only hear the wind swirling outside and the old house straining against it.
Suddenly the hair stood up on my arms and I shivered from head to foot. It happened again, then again and again, like waves, until I had to shout out loud to make it stop. I was not frightened — the Meq cannot afford superstition — and I was not cold. Still, something or someone had made the hair stand up on my arms.
I went to the fireplace and stirred the embers, adding new logs and waiting for the flames to catch. I felt off balance, out of breath, and something else I couldn’t quite define. I knew I was awake, but everything seemed to be taking place in a slightly altered state and time — a dream time.
Then, far away and barely audible, I heard the sound of tires on gravel, the sound of someone turning down the drive into Caitlin’s Ruby and approaching the house.
I started to move toward the door and found I couldn’t do it without tremendous effort. My legs and feet seemed long and thick, my hands and fingers useless and unnecessary. I tried to think and couldn’t concentrate on any line of thought or single image. I wasn’t spinning, but I felt weightless and weighed down at the same time, as if I would begin to spin, if I only knew how.
The fire popped and cracked and the new wood began to catch. It sent shafts of light across the room and cast shadows of the furniture on the walls and windows. The shadows became dangerous cliffs on a dark coastline and I was being drawn toward them. I was adrift at sea and I was going to crash for certain. The cliffs danced and beckoned. I knew it wasn’t real, but I was losing all perspective. One reality was slipping easily into the other and I didn’t know which was which or even care. I was weightless, inside and out. A beam of light swept back and forth across the cliffs or the walls, I couldn’t decide, and the lighthouse kept moving and coming closer. I could also hear it and it sounded like a car, but that didn’t make sense at sea, or did it? I couldn’t decide and it was so hard to think.
It was then I heard the cats. In slow motion, I turned toward the sound and there were six of them on a window ledge, outlined clearly by the beam of light and staring in at me. I heard a door slam on the lighthouse, the car, the house — I couldn’t decide and all sounds had an echo and the echoes all had different origins.
I heard a voice repeating something. It was a woman’s voice and she seemed to be shouting, “Is me own home! Is me own home!”
I closed my eyes and tried to find what was real and what was not. I knew I was fatigued, but that didn’t explain what was happening. Where was the voice? Whose voice was it?
I heard another door open and a gust of wind followed the sound and brushed across my face. I opened my eyes and a woman in a red cape with a hood pulled over her head stood in the doorway between the shadows of the cliffs and coastline.
“Is anyone—” she started, then stopped when she saw me. She took another step inside the room. “Home,” she said flatly, then added, “Z, is that you?”
I couldn’t see her face clearly inside the red cape and hood, and I knew it made no sense whatsoever and probably proved me insane, but my first thought and explanation for what I saw was that she could only be one person — and that person had died long ago.
“Caitlin?” I asked in a whisper. “Caitlin Fadle?”
The woman slowly pulled the hood down from her head with one hand and unbuttoned her cape with the other.
“No,” she said, taking another step toward me. The firelight framed her face and I knew in an instant why I’d felt that first shiver. “It’s me, Z,” she said. “It’s Carolina.”
There is no word in English, Meq, Basque, or any other language I know that can describe the feeling, the sensation, relief, warmth, surprise — the utter and infinite dumb joy I felt at that moment. Life has only a few moments that can stop the heart and empty the mind. Perhaps that’s why there is no name for them. I only know I couldn’t speak and could barely stand, so I sat down right where I was and stared up at her, and for the first time in years, I felt exactly like the child I appeared to be.
“Is it true?” she asked before I’d said a word. “Have you found her, Z? Have you really found Star?”
She spread her cape on the floor beside me and sat down cross-legged. She wore borrowed clothes — a man’s sweater and trousers, and some kind of all-weather boots that were coming undone. In the center of the red cape was a red cross on a white background. It was the symbol for the International Red Cross Society and explained her cape, but not the rest of it.
I watched her adjust her sweater and run her hands through her hair. She was eighteen years older, in her late forties, and the years had not changed her beauty, they had only made it sharper and more permanent. Her hair was shoulder length and the color of winter wheat, with a few strands of silver among the gold, and the gold flecks in her blue eyes literally danced in the firelight. There were lines and creases around her mouth and eyes, and even they seemed sculpted and natural. She picked up one of my hands, keeping her eyes on mine, and held it gently between hers. I had not yet said a word. I glanced at her hands and after eighteen years and a thousand scenarios played out in my mind of what I would say to her, all I said was, “Freckles.”
She looked down, puzzled at first, asking “What?” Then she looked up and began to laugh, saying, “Yes, yes, yes, they’re everywhere. I’ve got families of them now, Z. You should see them, they’re everywhere.”
“Carolina, how did—”
She cut me off and put her fingers to my lips. “Shhh,” she said. “You must tell me, Z, is it true? Have you found Star?”
“I knew it,” she said. “I knew it was true. I told Owen I knew it was true the minute we heard. I told him, I’m going to meet them, I’m going over there.”
“Just a minute, Z. I want to tell you first that I am still angry about you and Ray leaving the way you did. You promised me—”
“I promised you I would find her.”
“But you never wrote or wired or anything, not a clue. not to me, anyway.”
She put her hand to her face and rubbed her eyes. She was exhausted and pushing herself to the brink. “Where is she, Z?”
I reached behind me and pulled Mama’s glove off the couch and handed it to her. She smiled and held it close to her face and was about to say something, then opened her eyes in surprise and started to cry. I knew she was sensing Star’s presence, touch, scent. something. Anyway, I’m not sure there is a name for that feeling either.
With more hope than truth, I said, “She’ll be back soon.”
“Oh, God, Z, can it be true, finally? So much has been lost. So much time and. so many other things.” Carolina exhaled and drew in a breath slowly, trying to gather herself, then suddenly sneezed violently several times, almost uncontrollably.
I panicked. “You’re not sick, are you?”
“No, no,” she said, wiping her nose and eyes with her sweater. “It’s those damn cats outside. How many are there?”
I laughed and reached for Mama’s glove and she stopped me, grabbing my hand and turning it over until my thumb stood upright. I’d forgotten about the ring.
Her face went blank and her eyes glazed over. She slipped the ring off my thumb and held it in her palm, staring down on it as if it were the most curious and precious thing on earth. Then she closed her eyes and made a fist around the ring, holding it so tight her knuckles showed white through her skin.
“What happened?” she whispered.
“He was in St. Louis, at the house, at the moment Sailor’s message arrived. He. he had to come. he wouldn’t wait. He must have caught this strange virus on the way. He got here before us. He was sick, no, they were sick—”
“Nova and Eder were with him.”
“They were all sick?”
“No. It is impossible for Nova to get sick. remember? It was Eder.”
We stared at each other in silence, then the tears started down over her freckles and I couldn’t stop them. I watched them drop and fall off her chin as they ran their course, gravity pulling them on, forcing them downward through space until they hit the ancient hearthstones in front of us, in front of the fire. All the new wood I’d tossed in earlier had caught and the fire was blazing. The tears didn’t last a second on the hearthstones, and each one disappeared faster than it had taken to fall.
“My God, Z,” Carolina said. “My God.”
Death is a mad seamstress, a drunken messenger with no plan or sense of order — no pattern. Life is nothing but patterns and patterns are everywhere where in life, or seem to be. Geaxi finds them everywhere; rock gardens are her favorite because the patterns are oblique and subjective, but ultimately she pays them little mind. Sailor thinks they are absolutely essential and depends on them as he would wind and waves. Opari finds them darkly mysterious and yet useful — the trick, she says, is in discovering their interconnectedness, their weave.
Death is different. It has no pattern, no weave, no design. Death can go where it wants.
I propped pillows up against the couch and pulled all the blankets around us. Carolina lay with her head in my lap and held my hand next to her cheek. If there had been people outside instead of Caitlin’s cats staring in at us, they might have thought they were seeing something very odd — the grandmother in the lap of the grandson perhaps — but it was never that way for us. It never had been that way and never would.
I asked if she wanted to sleep and she said, “Not now, not yet.” We watched the fire and talked. She wanted to know everything about Star and I told her everything I knew, leaving out some of what I’d seen in New Orleans. When I told her she really was a grandmother, I thought her response would be wild and exuberant, but she only held my hand tighter and quietly said, “Good.”
She asked about Eder, if she’d been in pain at the end and I said, “No, not at the end.” She never asked any details about Nicholas — how he looked, what he said, none of that — and I never asked what had happened between them, but I found out anyway in so many words, or the lack of them. I could hear in her voice that whatever had happened was still a mystery to her. I could also tell she was deeply in love with him; she had never lost that.
Nicholas suffered from what she called “madness of loss” and it consumed him. She said Eder was familiar with the condition, knew it herself and, though she said it was rare, admitted to Carolina that many Meq had been destroyed by it or destroyed themselves because of it. From what she told me, “madness of loss” sounded just as deadly as the virus that actually killed him, only slower.
After the Fleur-du-Mal kidnapped Star and after Ray and I had gone chasing them, Carolina said Nicholas became more affectionate and caring than he’d ever been. At first, she enjoyed being waited on and pampered, but it was not his true nature, nor hers. He was trying too hard, and after Jack was born, he tried even harder. He bought things for both of them impulsively, things they would never need or use. He began remodeling Solomon’s old room himself, though he knew nothing about carpentry. It was supposed to be Jack’s nursery and eventually his bedroom, but Carolina said the room took on the size and smell of a gymnasium. He worked obsessively for months until one day he simply stopped. Nothing was finished and he left the room as it was, tools and all, and walked away. Carolina said he gave no reason and never discussed it. When she asked about the room, he told her there were many more things to do. “Too many,” he’d said, “too many.” He began to forget other things — birthdays, appointments, deadlines. His health deteriorated and he developed odd eating habits when he ate at all. His mood swings were wide and dramatic and he began drinking heavily to find a balance or forget there was one. Carolina said he withdrew from company, even hers, and as the months passed his only mood was not even a mood — he simply quit feeling. “His heart was not broken,” she said. “It was frozen solid.”
And it only got worse. In his lucid moments, he was aware of his downward spiraling life and spirit and hated it. He cried often and promised to change, staying sober for weeks at a time and teaching Jack to play baseball, even taking him to watch games at Sportsman’s Park. But Star’s absence haunted him like nothing ever had, Carolina said. It was a nightmare he locked inside himself with ever-changing keys, but none of them worked. The keys always dissolved or disappeared and the nightmare would spill out again, worse than before and obvious to everyone he loved. Nicholas was not stupid or insensitive and in his lucid periods he realized the toll his behavior was taking on those he loved, especially Carolina, and on Jack’s seventh birthday Nicholas himself disappeared. Carolina said she sent Mitchell to look for him and he tracked his movements as far as New York before he lost all traces of him.
“Mitchell?” I asked. “Do you mean Mitch Coates?”
“The very same,” she said. “He’s been a life saver in many ways for us, Z, particularly for Jack.”
I smiled and thought back to my favorite memory of Mitch. He was winking at me and catching the double eagle that Solomon had tossed him. I could still see the gold piece turning over and over in the air and the easy way he caught it, almost without looking.
“Where is Mitch now?”
“He’s in St. Louis and doing well,” she said, then she saw the smile on my face. “He’s a good man, Z. You would like him.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“A little of everything, I’m afraid, but his real passion is music. He owns three clubs downtown and the music is wonderful.”
Talking about Mitch seemed to bring Carolina back to the present, except for one more statement.
“I wish I could have kissed him, Z,” she said. “Just one last time.”
I knew who she meant and I knew how much it broke her heart to think it, let alone say it.
“You did,” I said without explanation. “You did.”
Just then, the biggest log in the fire broke into pieces and shot several live coals and sparks in all directions, one of which landed on my forearm. I jumped, then brushed it off, howling in pain. Carolina rubbed the red mark it left, then blew on it gently and kissed it once for good measure.
“Do you remember, Z, when you cut yourself on purpose right there in that same place and made me watch until the wound began to close? We were in Forest Park and you had to prove to me who you really were. who you are. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I said, “and it hurt then too.”
“But do you remember what I said?”
“Yes, I think so. You said it was like something out of the Bible.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind.”
“What do you mean? How?”
“I mean after all this time and all these years, I’ve changed my mind. I was wrong.” The mark on my forearm had completely vanished, but she kissed it again and said, “There is nothing like you in the Bible.”
In England, during the last days of 1918, the number of deaths from influenza was staggering and yet no one seemed to be paying attention. The end of the Great War and labor disputes in London and elsewhere took precedence over the death dance of the Spanish Lady.
A cartoonist was the first to give the virus the nickname “Spanish Lady,” probably because the first reports of death in great numbers had come from San Sebastian, Spain. It was an inaccurate assumption and cruelly ironic. The source of the virus was not in Spain and the chaotic nature of its appearance in all parts of the world among all parts of every population was anything but ladylike. The Spanish Lady killed roughly twenty million people worldwide in just seventeen weeks, then disappeared.
As Carolina and I finally fell asleep on the floor of Daphne’s living room, we heard no castanets or sad guitars, but everywhere else in the world the Spanish Lady was still dancing; fast and silent, without rhythm or mercy, she was still dancing.
The fatigue I’d felt earlier overwhelmed me. I went deep into sleep and found myself in an old dream. I was standing on the mound in Sportsman’s Park and everyone was waiting for me to pitch the ball. I looked down at Mama’s glove and the ball was no longer there. I could feel it in my hand, but it wasn’t there. I glanced up in the grandstands and saw Nova sitting between Nicholas and Eder. All three stared back at me in silence, then Nova lowered her head and closed her eyes. I heard footsteps and turned toward home plate. There was no batter or catcher and the umpire was walking toward me, taking off his mask, just as he’d done in the old dream. I knew him, I knew him well.
“Z,” the voice whispered. “Z, wake up.”
I opened my eyes and Willie Croft was standing over me, motioning silently with his finger and pointing toward a sleeping Carolina. I rose at once and followed him back to his “quarters.”
Willie walked quickly and pushed the heavy curtains back from the windows just inside and all around the odd-shaped room. He bent down near the fireplace in the corner and for a moment I thought he was going to fall in, but of course he didn’t. He stacked kindling inside and then backed away, lighting the fire with a long match and old newspapers. His red hair was wet and so were his clothes. I turned to look through the leaded windows and it was raining. I could barely hear it falling, but it was steady and gray, and I could only guess at the time of day. There was no sign of the limousine and I assumed it was in the garage. With or without my “ability,” I never heard the big car return.
“Where’s Tillman?” I asked.
“He dropped me off and drove back to Falmouth,” Willie said and paused slightly. “To wait for the coffins.”
“There’s no quarantine?”
“Yes,” I said. “On Caitlin’s Ruby. Opari was right, wasn’t she? It was a virus.”
“Yes. The Spanish flu. quite nasty, that.”
“Daphne thought there might be a quarantine imposed.”
“No, no, there is no quarantine on anything or anyone. There is too much indecision among the powers that be for that. But tell me, Z, where is Daphne? And where are the others? Where is Star, for God’s sake, and Caine? And who is the woman sleeping in the living room?”
“You didn’t recognize her?”
“No, should I have?”
“Well, let me just say that Star will look something like her in a few years.”
Willie blinked once, then started to speak and stopped. He took in a quick breath and held it. He looked at me the same way he had years ago, in China, when he was still my size and leaning out of the window of a train. He was a boy then and it had all been a practical joke to Geaxi, but the look of wonder is ageless.
I nodded to him and confirmed that it was true and said, “They haven’t seen each other since Star was a child.”
He cleared his throat. “How. how did she get here?”
“I don’t know yet, at least not all of it. I do know in some way or another she used the Red Cross.”
“Is she aware that Star is here, or was?”
“Does she. I mean, have you. ”
“Yes, if you mean Nicholas and Eder. I told her.” I sat down on the side of the bed nearest the fire and something occurred to me. It had bothered me all along. I now knew why no one had seen Nicholas before; he had disappeared from everyone, and I knew why Star was a surprise — she’d been in Africa — but why was Carolina a stranger? It made no sense. “Willie,” I said, “I’m going to ask you something straight out and please, if you can, give me an honest answer. Why, if you know about us, about the Meq, and you know about Solomon, tell me why you and Daphne don’t know Carolina? In all this time, how could you not?”
Willie paused only a moment and never blinked. “We do and we don’t, Z. It goes back to Owen, really.”
“Yes, well, what I mean is we knew
“Quite,” I said.
I was even more confused. Had Owen been protecting Carolina or was it something else? Sailor, on the other hand, I could understand. But what did he mean by “work itself out?” I was sure that Sailor, more than anyone, would have kept Carolina involved, because of her closeness to Eder and Nova, if nothing else. The past was unraveling with the present. I looked at Willie and he was not only confused, he was anxious and worried. Then I remembered Star.
“Daphne said you would know where she’d gone,” I told him. “She loaded Star and Caine and Nova in an old milk truck and took off before I could talk her out of it.”
“Yes, it’s a pub in Penzance. We own the apartment on the top floor. Mowsel lives there at times. I’m sure that’s what she meant. I only hope Star and the baby are”—Willie paused and his eyes moved from mine to a point directly over my head, toward the door—“all right,” he finished.
“So do I,” a familiar voice said from behind me. It was Carolina. I had no idea how long she’d been there. She was looking straight at Willie. “Are you the father by any chance?”
“No,” Willie said. “I’m the husband.”
Sometimes life takes longer to explain than it does to live and the adventure coming home delays the tale until eventually it becomes the tale itself. Zeru-Meq takes all his visitors through potholes on his way to the palaces and shrines. It is the way and it is mostly unmarked. He says we are all strangers, unasked and unannounced, and we must greet each other along the way with humor and patience because we are always, each and every one with each and every step, a little late.
As Willie stood staring at Carolina and before she could respond, there was a loud crash outside coming from the direction of the garage. My first mental image was a milk truck slamming into the stone foundation. I saw the same fear in Willie’s eyes. He bolted past me and out of the door. I glanced at Carolina for a split second, then we were right behind him. We ran through the living room and Carolina shouted, “Wait!” Willie ran on ahead, but I stopped and watched her put on the big boots she’d worn earlier. She was having trouble tying them and I said, “Come on, hurry.” She said, “I’m trying, I’m trying.” I looked down at the boots and they resembled some sort of military wear. “Where did you get those?” I asked. “From a Canadian,” she said. “I bought everything he had, including his car.” We glanced at each other and thought the same thing at once. That was the sound. Someone had crashed into the car that Carolina had driven and parked in the driveway in the dark. We raced through the kitchen and down the path, toward the garage. The rain obscured our vision and muffled the sounds, but I could definitely hear voices ahead of us, female voices, and they were laughing.
Suddenly Carolina stopped and let out a sound, a yelp, and I thought she might have slipped on the wet path, but when I turned to look she was standing perfectly still with her hand over her mouth. “My God, Z,” she said, then lowered her hand and she was smiling. “That’s her.” “That’s who?” I said. “That’s Star, that’s her laugh,” Carolina said, then started laughing herself. I looked at her and told her she was crazy, there was no way to know that. “Come on,” I said. “Someone might be hurt.” “Wait here,” she said. “Please, just wait for me. It won’t take thirty seconds. Please, Z, don’t go yet.” She turned and ran back in the house and I looked toward the sound of the crash and the laughter, but stayed where I was. In thirty seconds, she was back and out of breath, beaming, grinning ear to ear, and soaking wet. “Come on!” she shouted and grabbed my arm.
We ran through the rain down the twisting path toward the laughter and finally out on the wide gravel drive in front of the garage. Then we heard Willie laugh somewhere to our left. We turned and the first thing I saw was Carolina’s car. It was a black coupe with one headlight missing, but not from a crash, and parked at an odd angle where the drive split from the garage to the house. And just beyond the coupe, flat against the gravel without any wheels or frame underneath, was the cab of the old milk truck. All around it shards of broken glass from the windshield lay on the gravel and flashed in the rain. Inside the cab, unharmed but in a kind of shock, as if they’d just been dropped from outer space, were Daphne, Nova, and Star with Caine tight against her chest, laughing themselves silly.
It took a moment to figure it out. Daphne must have braked hard when she saw the parked car and the jolt, along with inertia, had broken the rusted cab loose from the body and sent them flying. They were more than lucky. Willie was laughing with them, probably to keep from crying. He was trying to help Daphne out and she finally stopped laughing long enough to let him. I ran to help Star, whose jacket and hair were covered with glass. Nova hopped out in front where the windshield had been and was the first to see Carolina. She said not a word.
“Well, there is no quarantine,” Daphne said as she got to her feet. “But, my goodness, there is no more milk truck either.” Then she saw Carolina and smiled. Once again, her blue eyes shone bright right through the rain. “Welcome,” she said casually. “You must certainly be Carolina.”
Wishes may or may not come true, I’ve never been sure about wishes, and I’ve never been certain about anything in doubt coming true simply because we “trust” it will. Reality does not work that way. There is a truth, however, a place, a feeling, a moment, who knows what to call it? It does not go by names. It travels though, and stops occasionally in the middle of our lives, if we’re lucky. It happens when the longest-standing hope finds the most distant dream. and it lights the world.
At the mention of Carolina’s name, Star raised her head and looked into her mother’s eyes for the first time since she was a child. Carolina stared back and for an instant I felt something pass through me I had not felt since my papa found my mama’s eyes in the moment before the moment that killed them. I felt the weight of their lives. But it didn’t frighten or overwhelm me as it had before. The feeling that passed between Star and Carolina, and somehow through me, was only surrender. surrender to something in time and yet out of time. something in the center of life realized at the moment it is being lived. It is the most peaceful and powerful feeling on earth.
“Mama?” Star asked.
“Yes,” Carolina said and knelt down next to Star. She was crying, but her tears were drowned in the rain. She put her hands on her daughter’s face and ran her fingers over her lips, then she saw Caine peeping out of Star’s jacket and bent to kiss his dark curls. She turned and looked at me.
“It’s a miracle, Z.”
“No, Carolina. It’s your family.”
She was laughing, crying, trying to wipe her nose and hug Star all at once.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She reached under her soaking sweater and pulled out what she’d run back into the house to get. “I guess I won’t need this,” she said.
I took it from her and put my hand inside and pounded the pocket.
“What on earth is that?” Daphne asked. She stood straight and tall and the rain seemed not to bother her.
“It’s called a baseball glove, Daphne. I’ll have to teach you how to play.”
“My goodness, yes,” she said. “I love American games, but let’s do it on a slightly nicer day, shall we, Z?”
“For God’s sake, Z, she’s right,” Willie broke in. “Let’s get everyone inside. I’ll take care of this mess later.”
“Quite right, Willie,” I said and with everyone helping everyone else through the broken glass, we all made our way back to the path that led to the house.
I hung back at one point and let the rest walk on ahead. I don’t know why, I suppose I just wanted to watch them all walk together and listen to the small talk and, of course, the laughter. It was a wonderful feeling, a kind of nudge in the ribs, a wink from somewhere that suggested life was working. That’s when I knew Nova really could “see things.” She turned around at that very moment and gave me a real wink, a wink as clever and knowing as any Cleopatra ever gave.
I laughed and started to catch up, but I only took a step or two before I heard another laugh, a laugh I knew as well as my own. I turned and found Opari walking right behind me and Geaxi right behind her. I had never heard them approach.
“It is seeming you are always in the rain, my love, while others always take shelter. I hope the desert has not touched you permanently.”
“Me?” I asked. “Where have you two been all night and day? And how long have you been back?”
“Long enough to see a miracle, no?” Geaxi said with a grin.
Opari took one of my hands and Geaxi took the other. They led me like a schoolboy up the path and toward the house. They were both wet, but neither was soaked nor looked the worse for being outside nearly twenty-four hours. “No, tell me,” I said. “Where have you been?”
“In a shelter that is older than I,” Opari said.
“Yes, Geaxi will take you there, or I will.”
“But. what is it? I mean, why did you go?”
“You will see it soon enough, Zianno,” Geaxi said. “When Sailor arrives. It has many long names in several languages; ‘Lullyon Coit’ is the Cornish name. It is made of granite, prehistoric granite, and we are not sure of its purpose. I like to call it ‘the slabs.’ ”
“Is it far?”
“No,” Opari answered. “It is quite near.”
“At the highest point of Caitlin’s Ruby,” Geaxi added.
None of it made sense to me, but I felt too good to worry about it. I turned to Opari and said, “Come on, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“I know,” she said. “I saw her and now I am knowing the answer.”
“The answer? To what?” I tried to stop walking, but they both kept pulling me on.
“I never knew,” Opari said and glanced over at Geaxi, “I never knew why you left China. now I do.” She leaned forward and looked into my eyes. I loved her more than I ever thought I could and I was only beginning.
“Good,” I said. “Then you also know why it will not be possible ever to leave you again.”
Suddenly Geaxi pulled me to a halt.
“What?” I asked. “What did I say?”
She dropped my hand and stood staring at me, her eyes bearing down like black bullets.
“I have heard some sorry attempts,” Geaxi began, then drew in a deep breath and waited a moment. “I have seen some sorry attempts, Zezen, many, many times in my long, long life at grand professions of profound love, but. ” She paused and let out a slow, lingering sigh that ended, “That was the worst.”
I had to agree and we walked the rest of the way in laughing like children coming home from school.
Captain Woodget was the first to teach me about knots — knots of all kinds and complexities. Solomon taught me how to untie and slip out of many things, but not knots.
To Captain Woodget, knots had power and purpose. He had a sailor’s knowledge of knots and a working relationship with the mysteries of strength and coiled tension. A length of rope, resting in the corner and wound around itself, had the potential for many things with the proper knots. It could sail a ship, save a life, raise and lower cargo, pull a woman on board, secure a chest left behind, hold a man at the stake, hang a sailor at sea — if the mind could dream it up, the rope could carry it out. If you knew your knots, it could be done.
The Meq are fascinated with knots and their secrets of tensions and strengths. Ours are just harder to see. They are learned in the blood more than the mind. They are learned on a rope of time and with trust that each will remain unbroken. But, of course, there is always a key to unraveling any knot. For the Meq, it always seems to be a simple twist of fate.
That first night together, we began telling our stories and connecting times, people, places, and events that only those in the room would understand. It was an impossible knot of hopes, dreams, and circumstance that ended in a bond only felt through blood and trust — the sense of family. Everyone there welcomed it, nourished it, let themselves come out of themselves and be a part of it. It was healing, it was spontaneous, and it lasted through to the next day and the next until the end of December and the end of the year, 1918. We did what the Meq do well. Along with Carolina, Star and Caine, Willie, Daphne, and even Tillman Fadle, we were letting time pass. We were not worried about the future, we were simply waiting for it.
There were unwanted tasks and necessary arrangements that still had to be made, such as the legal transfer of Nicholas’s and Eder’s bodies and coffins into Carolina’s name, but even that was done without hesitation or remorse. Carolina used the trip to Falmouth as a chance to call St. Louis and go on a shopping spree for Star and Caine. She was remarkable, but so was everyone.
The Daphne Croft Foundation, as a “concept,” was still a mystery to me. Neither Willie nor Daphne ever mentioned it. The Daphne Croft “household,” however, I could easily understand. Every day the food was fresh and so was the linen. She found suitable clothing for Carolina and shared remedies and recipes with Opari. Geaxi and I helped Willie keep the firewood split and stacked and the constant smell of something baking filled the kitchen. Everyone helped take care of Caine. I’ve never seen more babysitters in one place than I saw at Caitlin’s Ruby. Each day felt like a found day, a gift, and was filled with stories and small chores, long walks, loud dinners, and quiet good nights. Any talk of anything beyond the next day’s needs was wasted. No one cared. It wasn’t necessary.
I did find out a few things indirectly when I asked Carolina about Captain Woodget and Isabelle. She said that Isabelle was sick for some time, but after she passed, Caleb Woodget only lasted a week. He died quietly in his sleep with a pencil in one hand and a partly drawn diagram of a new galley for the
There were other questions I never asked, as there were for everyone. There was a question Nova almost asked and didn’t, the same question I asked myself and couldn’t answer — where was Ray? There was a question Carolina could have asked and never did, the simplest one — why? I was afraid she would because the answer meant it wasn’t over, the Fleur-du-Mal was still alive and so was her grandson, so was Caine. And there was one other question even Geaxi dared not ask, the most obvious one — where was Sailor?
We didn’t see much of Tillman Fadle. He seemed to come and go on a different schedule to everyone else and yet I was always vaguely conscious of his presence, similar to that of the vulture he resembled. I was told he was a good man, a gentle man, a fisherman by trade who was self-educated with wide and varied interests. He and Daphne had, of course, known each other since childhood. His residence was separate and somewhat secret. It was his way. Daphne said that when she was alone after William had died and before she met the Meq, Tillman taught her a great deal about faith. “Though I rarely ever saw him,” she said, “I knew he was never far away.”
On New Year’s Eve, I finally got to talk with Tillman. The night was rare for many reasons as it turned out, but it started with Tillman Fadle and it was the last time I ever spoke to him. It was also the first time I heard the name Einstein.
We were watching the stars. It was the first clear night in weeks, and after a grand meal and two pieces of Daphne’s apricot pie, I wanted to walk and look at the sky. I made an offer that anyone was welcome to go with me, but only Geaxi took me up on it. She said she knew a good spot, a place she thought was made for sky-watching. I found Kepa’s telescope among my things and we set off along a path that Geaxi seemed to know well. The air was cold, but there was a new moon and even the wind was down. It was pitch-black and as my eyes adjusted to it the sky became a dancing diamond mine, a treasure ship spilling its jewels across a bottomless sea. I was startled by it. It reminded me of the sky in the desert and I was speechless.
“There’s a good spot, a better’n farther on, there is,” a voice said matter-of-factly from somewhere behind us. “But this is a good one too, it is.”
Geaxi and I turned to find Tillman Fadle leaning on a walking stick. He was wearing a huge black slicker and he looked seven feet tall. We weren’t listening for him, but neither Geaxi nor I was aware of him standing there. It was unusual.
“It is a big sky, it is,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” Geaxi said and waited.
He stared at the sky a full minute before he addressed us again. “The big sky, the big picture,” he said enigmatically. “Same thing, though. all of it. same thing.”
“Do you often come here?” I asked him.
“Oh, most certainly, sir, as often as I can.” He took a step or two toward us, and as he did, he turned his head and spat in the darkness. “You know, sir,” he said, “I think there’s a young fella took a snapshot of the big picture.”
“What do you mean ‘a snapshot’?” I asked.
“They’ll be provin’ it ’fore long.” He spat again in the dark and reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t recall who. “You wait and see,” he went on. “The ancients knew it, knew it, they did. Couldn’t prove it, though, couldn’t prove it. Won’t be long, sir, you wait and see,” he said. “This Einstein fella is on the track.”
“On the track of what?” Geaxi asked.
Tillman looked up in the direction of the constellation Orion, then tilted his head to the side and peered out of the corner of his eye. He held his thumb and forefinger in front of him and peered through the space between them. He spat one last time and I remembered who he reminded me of — PoPo.
“That,” he said. “He’s after that.”
“What?” I asked.
“What gets through the cracks,” he said.
“You mean the light?” Geaxi asked.
“I mean that what turns
Just then, we heard the sound of a car in the distance. It was coming toward Caitlin’s Ruby and it was not one of Daphne’s vehicles, I could tell from the constant backfiring of the engine. I turned and raised Kepa’s telescope in the direction of the sound, but there was nothing to see, no headlights, nothing.
“That’d be Cap’n Uld,” Tillman said. “Norwegian man. owns a few boats in the Scillys. owns the Falcon. He won’t drive a motor car with headlights. same as at sea. won’t have ’em, won’t use ’em.”
“Is he coming here?” Geaxi asked.
“Yes, I’d say he was, yes.”
“Did you say the Falcon?” I asked him, remembering something Willie had said.
“Yes, the Falcon. in Penzance, it is.”
“Would Mowsel be with him?”
“Yes, most likely. Comes and goes that way, he does, with Cap’n Uld.”
Geaxi and I glanced at each other and knew in an instant there would almost certainly be another passenger, another boy who came and went that way — Sailor.
I closed the telescope and Geaxi said we’d better go, then I turned back to Tillman leaning on his walking stick in the dark.
“What was that fella’s name again?” I asked. “The one looking for what turns on the light?”
“Einstein,” he said. “Albert Einstein.”
“Where is he looking?”
“Up there,” he said and looked at the sky, but pointed his finger to his head. “Up there and in here,” he added and smiled again, I think.
“It was a pleasure talking to you, sir,” I told him.
“And you, sir,” Tillman Fadle said. “And you.”
Geaxi led the way back without a word and we were there in no time. She was as swift as I’d ever seen her and only paused when we reached the gravel drive. Coming from the direction of the house, we could both hear the strain of Daphne trying to sing, accompanied by an accordion. She was singing “Auld Lang Syne” and there wasn’t a cat within fifty yards of the house.
Sailor was standing outside the house, on the drive next to the car with no headlights. He was standing in a swirling, rising cloud of exhaust from the car. I couldn’t see Mowsel, but Cap’n Uld was behind the wheel with one arm out of the window. He was smoking a pipe and didn’t seem to be getting in or out. Then a door slammed on the opposite side of the car and Cap’n Uld put the car in gear and lurched forward, driving away in the darkness.
We slowed to a walk and Sailor turned to greet us. Mowsel had his back to us and was walking toward the house and Daphne’s voice.
We stopped not three feet from Sailor. The cloud of exhaust had blown away and he was standing with his legs spread and his hands on his hips. It was then that I felt something I had not felt for so long I’d forgotten it; an inner warning and presence of fear — the net descending. It was powerful and tangible. I’d noticed it and felt it increase the closer we got to Sailor.
“Come with me,” he barked. “We must not wait. Geaxi, can you find Lullyon in the dark?”
“Of course,” Geaxi said.
“Lullyon?” I asked. “You mean ‘the slabs’? Now?”
“I mean we must not wait,” Sailor said. His breath became steam in the cold air. He took a step closer and stared hard in my eyes. His “ghost eye” was milky and bloodshot. “We must not wait, Zianno. Believe me.”
“Sailor,” Geaxi said. “There is something I think—”
“Not now, Geaxi!” Sailor screamed. I had never heard him raise his voice to that level, even in China. Slowly, with dark emphasis on each word, he said, “This. involves. us. all.” The night itself could have cracked, it was so brittle and silent, then Sailor whispered, “Please, Geaxi, do this. Take Zianno and I will bring Opari.”
Perhaps it was the shock of hearing him speak to her like that or perhaps it was some other knowledge of him that only she possessed. I do know Eder had called her his “dark” companion and I do know what she was trying to tell him. She was trying to tell him that his only sister, Eder, had passed. Whatever it was that stopped her, it stopped her. Geaxi turned to me without a glance at Sailor and said, “This way, Zezen.”
I’d been to “the slabs” once before, but not at night. Opari had taken me on a cold day with the wind coming straight off the North Atlantic. It was a long walk filled with switchbacks and false crossings — a path that I thought had to be seen to be followed. But that was me, not Geaxi.
From a distance, Lullyon Coit, or “the slab,” looked like the “stone boys” I’d seen the shepherds leave on the farthest reaches of Kepa’s land. They were a form of signpost or station for the Basque, both personal and professional. They were unique and each possessed a kind of power, a power of place and intelligence. Lullyon Coit possessed a similar power, only it was much older and much larger. The stones weren’t picked from a field, they were quarried and lifted, cut, arranged, and designed. There were four of them — three great slabs of granite standing upright in a triangular configuration and the fourth lying on top of the other three. The whole structure seemed to be pointing in a westerly direction. Ancient shelter? Burial site? Who knows? Caitlin never said what she believed, but leading away from Lullyon Coit, out of brick and stone and beaten earth, she left six different paths to get there.
In the dark, without ever taking a false step or a wrong turn, Geaxi and I arrived by one of them. The entire way, she never said a word.
The wind gusted and seemed to change direction at will. We were on the highest point of Caitlin’s Ruby and there were no trees or even brush around “the slabs.” They stood tall, black, and silent as they had for thousands of years in this place, in these exact positions. There was only starlight overhead. Orion was low and close to the horizon and Venus was far to the west.
While we waited, Geaxi paced and I sat against the base of one of the stones. Geaxi wore boots, a jacket, and her beret. I wore boots and a jacket, but my head was bare. The wind was relentless and neither of us was prepared to be where we were.
“Why does he want us here, now?” I asked. “Especially here in this place?”
Geaxi never stopped pacing. “The ‘now’ disturbs me,” she began. “The ‘here’ is because this place will have great meaning during the time of the Gogorati, the Remembering. We are certain of this, but we are not certain why. Sailor has always wanted this place to be the first place where all five Stones come together. He thinks. no, he is certain we will learn something.”
“We will find out.”
“What about Eder? When will you tell him?”
“Later. Something is wrong, I am most certain of that.” She stopped pacing for a moment and looked at me. “We should find this out first, no?”
“Yes,” I said. I knew she was right. Sailor was more upset than I’d ever seen him and our news would only make it worse. The wind blew and I thought how long it might take them to climb the path, then I thought about where I’d last seen Opari, then I thought about where I’d last seen Nova. If Sailor walked in and saw Nova, then.
“There they are,” Geaxi said. “I can feel them.”
Sailor came out of the darkness first and Opari was immediately behind him, wearing a full cape and hood. Neither had made a sound. Opari walked over and knelt beside me. She smiled, but remained silent. I looked around for anyone else and there was no one. In the small space inside “the slabs” there was only Geaxi, Sailor, Opari, and me.
Sailor spoke almost at once, but he was hesitating, something I’d never heard him do.
“There has been a terrible. a multiple. an unexplainable tragedy, I am afraid. with possible consequences. I am not sure where to begin.”
“Then begin with Pello,” I said. We hadn’t heard from him since he’d left with Pello.
“I could begin there, Zianno, but the. tragedy does not. No, not there. ” Sailor trailed off a moment, then looked at Opari and back to me. “And the consequences. the consequences may affect you directly, Zianno. Believe me.”
“Let me go on, please. I do not know what to make of this. It. it could mean. no, I am not sure what it could mean. That is why I wanted us all together — now, here, all five Stones together at last, in this place. to find out the meaning. ” He didn’t finish and began pacing.
“What has happened, Umla-Meq?” Opari asked in an even voice, a voice aware of Sailor’s fear. “Tell us what you know.”
“What do you mean ‘all five Stones’?” Geaxi interrupted. “I do not see Unai. There are only four of us present. Is he—”
“No,” Sailor said suddenly. “No, he is not dead. He is. in another state.”
“Another state?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“Please,” Opari said to all of us at once. “Let Umla-Meq speak. He says there has been a tragedy. We are all. we are all Meq, first, last, and for all in between. we must remember this and listen, because in the end there will be no one else, no one. You Zianno, my love, you are too young to know this, and you Geaxi, you know a great deal, more than anyone, perhaps, but you too are young. You, both of you, do not yet know of. consequences. Now, please, let Sailor tell us what he knows.”
“This is what I know,” Sailor said. He continued to pace in a lopsided figure of eight pattern and spoke as if he’d thought it over many, many times and distilled it into a few drops of information that still would not break down and yield anything that made any sense. “I know Unai and Usoa crossed in the Zeharkatu several years ago. They came to Trumoi-Meq to help them do it, in the old way, and they went into the Pyrenees, where it was done. It was done and their blood became like Giza. They conceived a child not more than a year ago and moved to the Balearic Islands, awaiting the birth. There is a fishing village on the coast of Menorca that Unai wanted their child to experience in the years before the Itxaron, and learn the life there. The war in Europe had not affected this village in any manner. It was a good place, a safe place. a good choice.”
Opari took my hand in hers and held it tighter than usual. Sailor went on.
“Now Pello comes to Mowsel with disturbing news, at the very moment we are leaving Africa, he comes with news that Trumoi-Meq has never heard before, news that. ” Sailor stopped pacing and turned his back to all of us. “Pello told Trumoi-Meq. that the child of Unai and Usoa. had died of influenza.”
Opari began a low, rumbling growl that climbed octave after octave until it became a high, whining trill. Geaxi joined her, like another dog or wolf, and added a clicking sound with her tongue against her teeth. It was frightening. I looked at Sailor and he stood where he was, staring away in silence. For a moment, I thought the slab of granite over our heads had moved. I stretched my hand out and touched the stone behind me. It was cold and solid. My heart was racing and my thoughts tumbled and slipped. I had missed something. What was it? I couldn’t grab hold of it. I took a step out of the enclosure and looked up at the sky. I focused on one star and then another, and then the space between them, which became another star, and another. I turned back inside and almost fell on Sailor. My voice felt disconnected.
“Will Usoa not be able to have another child?” I asked.
“No, beloved, no,” Opari said. “Do you not see? Do you not see the truth. the consequence?”
Then, like a crack between the light, Sailor’s meaning came to me and took my breath away. I said it out loud and Opari shed a tear with each word. It was so simple and yet, for all these millennia, it was the only true thing that separated us from all others. “Meq. babies. do not die.”
“That is correct, Zianno,” Sailor said. “Meq babies do not die — they do not.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means we may be the last,” Geaxi said. “The last ones.”
“Not necessarily,” Sailor said.
“But we only have our blood!” Geaxi shouted. “You know this, Sailor. What is the Wait about but this? Nothing! Nothing but our blood sustains us. Nothing!”
“Wait,” Opari said firmly. She was the oldest and had been on her own the longest. Even Geaxi calmed down and listened. “Sailor, why do you carry Unai’s Stone?”
Sailor reached inside his jacket and pulled out a cracked leather pouch, gathered at the top with a thin leather strap. He opened it and out rolled the Stone into his palm. The tiny gems still embedded in Unai’s Stone sparked and flashed like shooting stars as he turned it over and held it out. “He could not wear it any longer,” Sailor said. “He has. drifted. He is very close to madness. Usoa does not even try. She is completely lost within herself and will not stay in any one house or dwelling longer than one night. They move about like child demons. Unai gave the Stone to Pello, telling him his heart was too weak to wear it.”
“Sailor,” Opari said gently. “What do you think we should do?”
“I. am not sure,” he said and started pacing and retracing his figure of eight. “But. I feel somehow we should. we must find it here. there may have been something. possibly the Stones. together. I am not sure, but. ”
“Sailor,” Geaxi said, grabbing him by the shoulders, “you are rambling.”
At that moment I saw a look in Sailor’s eye that made me think of something Carolina had said when she spoke of Nicholas, what she called the “madness of loss.” But it was only beginning. What happened next was a madness unique to Sailor, a madness I have not seen since, and a madness that is the reason Sailor is sought to this day. Prehistoric slabs of granite weighing several tons each do not move themselves. For the first time in my life, I was witness to the “ability” of Umla-Meq, Egizahar Meq, Stone of Memory.
“The old way will not work,” a voice said out of the darkness. It was Nova. “The old Zeharkatu will not cross in the old way. The shift is soon. The light has been turned on.” She walked inside the enclosure without explanation and was followed by a silent Trumoi-Meq. At the sight of her, Sailor seemed to do what I had done earlier. His mind tumbled and glanced, sorting through a thousand reasons why Nova would be there, how it was even possible, then landed in an instant on the right one, the real one.
“Where is Eder?” he asked.
No one said a word. All around us, the wind hammered at the ancient stones.
“Sailor—” Geaxi said.
“Where is Eder?” he asked, turning and walking within a foot of Opari. “Where is Eder, Opari?”
“She is dead,” Opari said evenly. “In Nova’s arms she died, Umla-Meq. from influenza.”
Opari watched Sailor and his movements, his breathing, his eyes. “In Nova’s arms, Umla-Meq,” she repeated. She spoke evenly and easily, as a shepherd to one of his flock about to bolt. “There is still Nova, Umla-Meq. you must see this. there is still Nova.”
“Yes, I see, Opari! And you are correct, as Zianno was correct. Yes, yes, yes, there. is. still. Nova.” He took three quick steps and tossed Unai’s Stone through the air in Nova’s direction. She caught it gracefully with one hand. “You wear that, Nova. You wear that and remember its. travels,” he said with a snort and a laugh. Sailor turned back to Opari. “Is that all I should think, Opari? That there is still Nova and not see what has happened, what is becoming? Am I to ignore, after all our precious time among the Giza, learning to survive their pettiness and viciousness, learning to survive and last despite being maimed, ridiculed, tortured. beheaded! Now, in the very century before the Remembering, am I to ignore that their poison has poisoned my own blood — our own blood! Yes, yes, yes, despite this, there. is. still. Nova.”
Sailor closed his eyes and his whole body shook and trembled. He leaned his head back, then forward until his chin was buried in his chest. And then I felt the rumbling. It was almost silent, and rolling, like a hibernating bear beneath our feet turning in his sleep. I barely felt the first one. Suddenly Sailor raised his head and looked at Opari.
“This place shall be the first correction,” he said.
The rumbling became audible and a vibration began below us and around us, causing the massive slabs of stone to move.
“I am ending this plan I foolishly conceived and believed in, the plan I sold to Solomon and bought myself. Do you appreciate the irony, Zianno? Solomon would. Well — there is less than a hundred years until the Gogorati. I do not intend to let the Giza interfere with this inevitability. What did Nova say? ‘The shift is soon.’ She is correct. and it begins here. now! I suggest all of you find safety at once.”
Sailor started walking west, the same direction in which the ancient builders had pointed “the slabs.” “Opari,” he yelled. “You and Geaxi follow Nova’s progress and be patient. Zianno, you must serve the family. it is a good choice,” he said and laughed. “I will not be back. the light has been turned on.”
The sound of his laughter was drowned out by twenty tons of granite vibrating and beginning to fall as easily as a house of cards. And Sailor had done it with his mind.
Sailor disappeared, of course, even before the stones had ceased falling. There was no reason to discuss it or ponder it. It was clear what he wanted and it would have been impossible to find him, even if we’d tried. None of us was injured. Caitlin’s six paths became our paths to safety. I checked Opari thoroughly, then listened for the last broken stone to settle and rest. I looked up and Sirius was rising in the east, and Opari’s words came to me, “We are Meq. first, last, and all in between.”
Sailor was gone, I knew that. Lost, found, shaken, driven, who knows? The best way to describe it might be the way Mowsel described it later. He said, “Sailor is sounding.”
After that night, it took us just two weeks to sort out what to do. There was hardly any debate and no indecision. We even took a vote and had to stop, laughing, because we never got to the second choice. It was amazingly simple. Out of the chaos of that night, our path became clear — Lullyon Coit was forgotten and our “direction” was away from Caitlin’s Ruby, west to America and St. Louis. Sailor used the word “family” and that’s what we would be. Carolina’s home would be the only place to do it.
There was no joy in our leaving. Daphne had become much more than a gracious host. Leaving her and knowing we might not see her again was painful, but not awkward. She was also attached to Caine like a fierce mother lion and promised “not to die” before he was old enough to remember her.
Willie decided to go with us. He had no choice, really. He was addicted to Star. Nova was a mix of emotions, as was Star, and both wanted to stay longer, or at least promise to come back often, and that’s what we did. Solomon’s “Diamond” could wait, but regular visits were promised and assured. If the Fleur-du-Mal was still in business, then he would find us, no matter where we were.
Tillman never turned up, as expected, and we left on a morning that was gusting with wind and rain, similar to the afternoon when we’d arrived. Daphne stayed inside until we pulled away, but I saw her sneak a last look through a window from the kitchen. I still have a dream that always begins with our departure from Caitlin’s Ruby.
One unusual event occurred as we were leaving the country that has become more humorous with time. I don’t think anyone has ever known the truth of what happened except me.
We had to stop briefly at the foreign desk of Lloyd’s Bank in London, in order for Willie to make some transfers for Daphne and himself before we left. Willie went in alone, but Star and I were lingering in the lobby, watching the bank traffic and trying to keep Caine from grabbing my nose. I looked past Caine’s little finger and through the glass and realized I knew the young man inside, the agent from Lloyd’s Bank who was doing business with Willie. It was Thomas Eliot from St. Louis, the kid in love with Carolina. He was older and taller and wearing glasses, but there was no doubt.
I couldn’t resist what came to mind. It was just too good and Ray would have loved it. I knocked on the glass until I got their attention. I told Star to play along, no matter what I did and no matter what Willie said, to stay silent and just nod if she had to acknowledge anything. She agreed. When we entered the office, Thomas Eliot was telling a joke and had his back to us. He had reached the punch line when he turned and saw something only he and I could see, an impossible time warp to him, but just family relations to me. He saw a young woman, Carolina to him, almost exactly the same age as the last time he’d seen her — impossible — and she was with the same dark-haired boy she’d been with that day. It was too much for him. Instead of finishing the joke, he laughed to himself. It was a laugh to keep from falling apart, a tiny laugh of last defense, and Willie said, “Dammit, Tom, if you were plannin’ on tellin’ me a joke, then end it with a bang, not a damn whimper.”
I never told Carolina about it, but I smiled the rest of the way. Mowsel was waiting on the docks to see us off. His hair curled out from under his cap and around the collar of his old jacket. Willie left him with a thousand instructions and only stopped when Trumoi-Meq smiled and displayed the proud gap of his missing tooth. It seemed to be a signal Willie had long understood as the end of negotiations. I had only spoken to Trumoi-Meq twice between New Year’s Eve and our departure — once to say we had much to say to each other and once to promise someday to do it.
On the crossing, I asked Geaxi what she might do. I knew she would eventually become restless at Carolina’s. She said she had heard of something new in aviation called “barnstorming,” and thought she might look into it. I said, “But you’re still only a twelve-year-old girl.” She said, “Exactly.”
Carolina told Daphne before we left to keep the black coupe until Caine was old enough to come back and drive it. Carolina and Opari talked constantly about everything and Opari and Star never stopped asking Carolina about America, even baseball, and they all became mothers to Caine. Willie took care of Nicholas and Eder. They were secure belowdecks and beneath the waves.
The voyage west to America was cold and wet and we kept mostly to ourselves, as always. Just before we docked in New York, I took a walk on the deck, alone, and stared out at New York as it came into view. I was leaning on the railing and behind me a voice said, “Excuse me, son, would you mind looking after my things while I step inside a moment?” I turned and there was a thin old black man in a perfectly fitted and pressed black suit. “Not at all, sir,” I said. “I’d be glad to.” He turned and walked quietly through the door behind him, never looking back. His “things” consisted of two books and a train ticket to Ithaca, New York, stuck in one of the books as a marker. The books were
Just then, the old man came back through the door and smiled. “You religious, son?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” I said.
He laughed, and looked familiar when he did it. “Where’s home, kid?”
I hesitated for a heartbeat; I hadn’t thought of it that way since. since I’d asked an old Jewish man the same question, a stranger who was taking me there anyway. I could still hear his voice in my head, so I answered the old man the way Solomon would have answered. I said, “St. Louis, kid. St. Louis.”
I’ll remember you, while you remember me;
I’ll remember everything you wanted to be.
So, please be a brave lad,
My heart sails with thee.
And I’ll remember you, while you remember me.