Innocents Aboard

New Fantasy Stories

Gene Wolfe

Orb Books

The Tree Is My Hat
 
 
30 Jan. I saw a strange stranger on the beach this morning. I had been swimming in the little bay between here and the village; that may have had something to do with it, although I did not feel tired. Dived down and thought I saw a shark coming around the big staghorn coral. Got out fast. The whole swim cannot have been more than ten minutes. Ran out of the water and started walking.
There it is. I have begun this journal at last. (Thought I never would.) So let us return to all the things I ought to have put in and did not. I bought this the day after I came back from Africa.
No, the day I got out of the hospital—I remember now. I was wandering around, wondering when I would have another attack, and went into a little shop on Forty-second Street. There was a nice-looking woman in there, one of those good-looking black women, and I thought it might be nice to talk to her, so I had to buy something. I said, “I just got back from Africa.”
She: “Really. How was it?” Me: “Hot.”
Anyway, I came out with this notebook and told myself I had not wasted my money because I would keep a journal, writing down my attacks, what I had been doing and eating, as instructed; but all I could think of was how she looked when she turned to go to the back of the shop. Her legs and how she held her head. Her hips.
After that I planned to write down everything I remember from Africa, and what we said if Mary returned my calls. Then it was going to be about this assignment.
* * *
31 Jan. Setting up my new Mac. Who would think this place would have phones? But there are wires to Kololahi, and a dish. I can chat with people all over the world, for which the agency pays. (Talk about soft!) Nothing like this in Africa. Just the radio, and good luck with that.
I was full of enthusiasm. “A remote Pacific island chain.” Wait…
P.D.: “Baden, we’re going to send you to the Takanga Group.”
No doubt I looked blank.
“It’s a remote Pacific island chain.” She cleared her throat and seemed to have swallowed a bone. “It’s not going to be like Africa, Bad. You’ll be on your own out there.”
Me: “I thought you were going to fire me.”
P.D.: “No, no! We wouldn’t do that.”
“Permanent sick leave.”
“No, no, no! But, Bad.” She leaned across her desk and for a minute I was afraid she was going to squeeze my hand. “This will be rough. I’m not going to try to fool you.”
Hah!
Cut to the chase. This is nothing. This is a bungalow with rotten boards in the floors that has been here since before the British pulled out, a mile from the village and less than half that from the beach, close enough that the Pacific-smell is in all the rooms. The people are fat and happy, and my guess is not more than half are dumb. (Try and match that around Chicago.) Once or twice a year one gets yaws or some such, and Rev. Robbins gives him arsenic. Which cures it. Pooey!
There are fish in the ocean, plenty of them. Wild fruit in the jungle, and they know which you can eat. They plant yams and breadfruit, and if they need money or just want something, they dive for pearls and trade them when Jack’s boat comes. Or do a big holiday boat trip to Kololahi.
There are coconuts, too, which I forgot. They know how to open them. Or perhaps I am just not strong enough yet. (I look in the mirror, and ugh.) I used to weigh two hundred pounds.
“You skinny,” the king says. “Ha, ha, ha!” He is really a good guy, I think. He has a primitive sense of humor, but there are worse things. He can take a jungle chopper (we said upanga but they say heletay) and open a coconut like a pack of gum. I have coconuts and a heletay but I might as well try to open them with a spoon.
* * *
1 Feb. Nothing to report except a couple of wonderful swims. I did not swim at all for the first couple of weeks. There are sharks. I know they are really out there because I have seen them once or twice. According to what I was told, there are saltwater crocs, too, up to fourteen feet long. I have never seen any of those and am skeptical, although I know they have them in Queensland. Every so often you hear about somebody who was killed by a shark, but that does not stop the people from swimming all the time, and I do not see why it should stop me. Good luck so far.
* * *
2 Feb. Saturday. I was supposed to write about the dwarf I saw on the beach that time, but I never got the nerve. Sometimes I used to see things in the hospital. Afraid it may be coming back. I decided to take a walk on the beach. All right, did I get sunstroke?
Pooey.
He was just a little man, shorter even than Mary’s father. He was too small for any adult in the village. He was certainly not a child, and was too pale to have been one of the islanders at all.
He cannot have been here long; he was whiter than I am.
Rev. Robbins will know—ask tomorrow.
* * *
3 Feb. Hot and getting hotter. Jan. is the hottest month here, according to Rob Robbins. Well, I got here the first week in Jan. and it has never been this hot.
Got up early while it was still cool. Went down the beach to the village. (Stopped to have a look at the rocks where the dwarf disappeared.) Waited around for the service to begin but could not talk to Rob, he was rehearsing the choir—“Nearer My God to Thee.”
Half the village came, and the service went on for almost two hours. When it was over I was able to get Rob alone. I said if he would drive us into Kololahi I would buy our Sunday dinner. (He has a jeep.) He was nice, but no—too far and the bad roads. I told him I had personal troubles I wanted his advice on, and he said, “Why don’t we go to your place, Baden, and have a talk? I’d invite you for lemonade, but they’d be after me every minute.”
So we walked back. It was hotter than hell, and this time I tried not to look. I got cold Cokes out of my rusty little fridge, and we sat on the porch (Rob calls it the veranda) and fanned ourselves. He knew I felt bad about not being able to do anything for these people, and urged patience. My chance would come.
I said, “I’ve given up on that, Reverend.”
(That was when he told me to call him Rob. His first name is Mervyn.) “Never give up, Baden. Never.” He looked so serious I almost laughed.
“All right, I’ll keep my eyes open, and maybe someday the Agency will send me someplace where I’m needed.”
“Back to Uganda?”
I explained that the A.O.A.A. almost never sends anyone to the same area twice. “That wasn’t really what I wanted to talk to you about. It’s my personal life. Well, really two things, but that’s one of them. I’d like to get back together with my ex-wife. You’re going to advise me to forget it, because I’m here and she’s in Chicago; but I can send e-mail, and I’d like to put the bitterness behind us.”
“Were there children? Sorry, Baden. I didn’t intend it to hurt.”
I explained how Mary had wanted them and I had not, and he gave me some advice. I have not e-mailed yet, but I will tonight after I write it out here.
“You’re afraid that you were hallucinating. Did you feel feverish?” He got out his thermometer and took my temperature, which was nearly normal. “Let’s look at it logically, Baden. This island is a hundred miles long and about thirty miles at the widest point. There are eight villages I know of. The population of Kololahi is over twelve hundred.”
I said I understood all that.
“Twice a week, the plane from Cairns brings new tourists.”
“Who almost never go five miles from Kololahi.”
“Almost never, Baden. Not never. You say it wasn’t one of the villagers. All right, I accept that. Was it me?”
“Of course not.”
“Then it was someone from outside the village, someone from another village, from Kololahi, or a tourist. Why shake your head?”
I told him.
“I doubt there’s a leprosarium nearer than the Marshalls. Anyway, I don’t know of one closer. Unless you saw something else, some other sign of the disease, I doubt that this little man you saw had leprosy. It’s a lot more likely that you saw a tourist with pasty white skin greased with sun blocker. As for his disappearing, the explanation seems pretty obvious. He dived off the rocks into the bay.”
“There wasn’t anybody there. I looked.”
“There wasn’t anybody there you saw, you mean. He would have been up to his neck in water, and the sun was glaring on the water, wasn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“It must have been. The weather’s been clear.” Rob drained his Coke and pushed it away. “As for his not leaving footprints, stop playing Sherlock Holmes. That’s harsh, I realize, but I say it for your own good. Footprints in soft sand are shapeless indentations at best.”
“I could see mine.”
“You knew where to look. Did you try to backtrack yourself? I thought not. May I ask a few questions? When you saw him, did you think he was real?”
“Yes, absolutely. Would you like another one? Or something to eat?”
“No, thanks. When was the last time you had an attack?”
“A bad one? About six weeks.”
“How about a not-bad one?”
“Last night, but it didn’t amount to much. Two hours of chills, and it went away.”
“That must have been a relief. No, I see it wasn’t. Baden, the next time you have an attack, severe or not, I want you to come and see me. Understand?”
I promised.
* * *
This is Bad. I still love you. That’s all I have to ay, but I want to say it. I was wrong, and I know it. I hope you’ve forgiven me. And sign off.
* * *
4 Feb. Saw him again last night, and he has pointed teeth. I was shaking under the netting, and he looked through the window and smiled. Told Rob, and said I read somewhere that cannibals used to file their teeth. I know these people were cannibals three or four generations back, and I asked if they had done it. He thinks not but will ask the king.
* * *
I have been very ill, Mary, but I feel better now. It is evening here, and I am going to bed. I love you. Good night. I love you. Sign off.
* * *
5 Feb. Two men with spears came to take me to the king. I asked if I was under arrest, and they laughed. No ha, ha, ha from His Majesty this time, though. He was in the big house, but he came out and we went some distance among hardwoods the size of office buildings smothered in flowering vines, stopping in a circle of stones: the king, the men with spears, and an old man with a drum. The men with spears built a fire, and the drum made soft sounds like waves while the king made a speech or recited a poem, mocked all the while by invisible birds with eerie voices.
When the king was finished, he hung this piece of carved bone around my neck. While we were walking back to the village, he put his arm around me, which surprised me more than anything. He is bigger than a tackle in the NFL, and must weigh four hundred pounds. It felt like I was carrying a calf.
* * *
Horrible, horrible dreams! Swimming in boiling blood. Too scared to sleep anymore. Logged on and tried to find something on dreams and what they mean. Stumbled onto a witch in L.A.—her home page, then the lady herself. (I’ll get you and your little dog, too!) Actually, she seemed nice.
Got out the carved bone thing the king gave me. Old, and probably ought to be in a museum, but I suppose I had better wear it as long as I stay here, at least when I go out. Suppose I were to offend him? He might sit on me! Seems to be a fish with pictures scratched into both sides. More fish, man in a hat, etc. Cord through the eye. Wish I had a magnifying glass.
* * *
6 Feb. Still haven’t gone back to bed, but my watch says Wednesday. Wrote a long e-mail, typing it in as it came to me. Told her where I am and what I’m doing, and begged her to respond. After that I went outside and swam naked in the moonlit sea. Tomorrow I want to look for the place where the king hung this fish charm on me. Back to bed.
* * *
Morning, and beautiful. Why has it taken me so long to see what a beautiful place this is? (Maybe my heart just got back from Africa.) Palms swaying forever in the trade winds, and people like heroic bronze statues. How small, how stunted and pale we have to look to them!
Took a real swim to get the screaming out of my ears. Will I laugh in a year when I see that I said my midnight swim made me understand these people better? Maybe I will. But it did. They have been swimming in the moon like that for hundreds of years.
* * *
E-mail! God bless e-mail and whoever invented it! Just checked mine and found I had a message. Tried to guess who it might be. I wanted Mary, and was about certain it would be from the witch, from Annys. Read the name and it was Julius R. Christmas. Pops! Mary’s Pops! Got up and ran around the room, so excited I could not read it. Now I have printed it out, and I am going to copy it here.
* * *
She went to Uganda looking for you, Bad. Coming back tomorrow, Kennedy, AA 47 from Heathrow. I’ll tell her where you are. Watch out for those hula-hula girls.
* * *
SHE WENT TO UGANDA LOOKING FOR ME
* * *
7 Feb. More dreams—little man with pointed teeth smiling through the window. I doubt that I should write it all down, but I knew (in the dream) that he hurt people, and he kept telling me he would not hurt me. Maybe the first time was a dream, too. More screams.
Anyway, I talked to Rob again yesterday afternoon, although I had not planned on it. By the time I got back here I was too sick to do anything except lie on the bed. The worst since I left the hospital, I think.
Went looking for the place the king took me to. Did not want to start from the village, kids might have followed me, so I tried to circle and come at it from the other side. Found two old buildings, small and no roofs, and a bone that looked human. More about that later. Did not see any marks, but did not look for them either. It was black on one end like it had been in a fire, though.
Kept going about three hours and wore myself out. Tripped on a chunk of stone and stopped to wipe off the sweat, and Blam! I was there! Found the ashes and where the king and I stood. Looked around wishing I had my camera, and there was Rob, sitting up on four stones that were still together and looking down at me. I said, “Hey, why didn’t you say something?”
And he said, “I wanted to see what you would do.” So he had been spying on me; I did not say it, but that was what it was.
I told him about going there with the king, and how he gave me a charm. I said I was sorry I had not worn it, but anytime he wanted a Coke I would show it to him.
“It doesn’t matter. He knows you’re sick, and I imagine he gave you something to heal you. It might even work, because God hears all sorts of prayers. That’s not what they teach in the seminary, or even what it says in the Bible. But I’ve been out in the missions long enough to know. When somebody with good intentions talks to the God who created him, he’s heard. Pretty often the answer is yes. Why did you come back here?”
“I wanted to see it again, that’s all. At first I thought it was just a circle of rocks, then when I thought about it, it seemed like it must have been more.”
Rob kept quiet; so I explained that I had been thinking of Stonehenge. Stonehenge was a circle of big rocks, but the idea had been to look at the positions of certain stars and where the sun rose. But this could not be the same kind of thing, because of the trees. Stonehenge is out in the open on Salisbury Plain. I asked if it was some kind of a temple.
“It was a palace once, Baden.” Rob cleared his throat. “If I tell you something about it in confidence, can you keep it to yourself?”
I promised.
“These are good people now. I want to make that clear. They seem a little childlike to us, as all primitives do. If we were primitives ourselves—and we were, Bad, not so long ago—they wouldn’t. Can you imagine how they’d seem to us if they didn’t seem a little childlike?”
I said, “I was thinking about that this morning before I left the bungalow.”
Rob nodded. “Now I understand why you wanted to come back here. The Polynesians are scattered all over the South Pacific. Did you know that? Captain Cook, a British naval officer, was the first to explore the Pacific with any thoroughness, and he was absolutely astounded to find that after he’d sailed for weeks his interpreter could still talk to the natives. We know, for example, that Polynesians came down from Hawaii in sufficient numbers to conquer New Zealand. The historians hadn’t admitted it the last time I looked, but it’s a fact, recorded by the Maori themselves in their own history. The distance is about four thousand miles.”
“Impressive.”
“But you wonder what I’m getting at. I don’t blame you. They’re supposed to have come from Malaya originally. I won’t go into all the reasons for thinking that they didn’t, beyond saying that if it were the case they should be in New Guinea and Australia, and they’re not.”
I asked where they had come from, and for a minute or two he just rubbed his chin; then he said, “I’m not going to tell you that either. You wouldn’t believe me, so why waste breath on it? Think of a distant land, a mountainous country with buildings and monuments to rival Ancient Egypt’s, and gods worse than any demon Cotton Mather could have imagined. The time…” He shrugged. “After Moses but before Christ.”
“Babylon?”
He shook his head. “They developed a ruling class, and in time those rulers, their priests and warriors, became something like another race, bigger and stronger than the peasants they treated like slaves. They drenched the altars of their gods with blood, the blood of enemies when they could capture enough, and the blood of peasants when they couldn’t. Their peasants rebelled and drove them from the mountains to the sea, and into the sea.”
I think he was waiting for me to say something; but I kept quiet, thinking over what he had said and wondering if it were true.
“They sailed away in terror of the thing they had awakened in the hearts of the nation that had been their own. I doubt very much if there were more than a few thousand, and there may well have been fewer than a thousand. They learned seamanship, and learned it well. They had to. In the Ancient World they were the only people to rival the Phoenicians, and they surpassed even the Phoenicians.”
I asked whether he believed all that, and he said, “It doesn’t matter whether I believe it, because it’s true.”
He pointed to one of the stones. “I called them primitives, and they are. But they weren’t always as primitive as they are now. This was a palace, and there are ruins like this all over Polynesia, great buildings of coral rock falling to pieces. A palace and thus a sacred place, because the king was holy, the gods’ representative. That was why he brought you here.”
Rob was going to leave, but I told him about the buildings I found earlier and he wanted to see them. “There is a temple, too, Baden, although I’ve never been able to find it. When it was built, it must have been evil beyond our imagining.…” He grinned then, surprising the hell out of me. “You must get teased about your name.”
“Ever since elementary school. It doesn’t bother me.” But the truth is it does, sometimes.
More later.
* * *
Well, I have met the little man I saw on the beach, and to tell the truth (what’s the sense of one of these if you are not going to tell the truth?) I like him. I am going to write about all that in a minute.
Rob and I looked for the buildings I had seen when I was looking for the palace but could not find them. Described them, but Rob did not think they were the temple he has been looking for since he came. “They know where it is. Certainly the older people do. Once in a while I catch little oblique references to it. Not jokes. They joke about the place you found, but not about that.”
I asked what the place I had found had been.
“A Japanese camp. The Japanese were here during World War Two.”
I had not known that.
“There were no battles. They built those buildings you found, presumably, and they dug caves in the hills from which to fight. I’ve found some of those myself. But the Americans and Australians simply bypassed this island, as they did many other islands. The Japanese soldiers remained here, stranded. There must have been about a company, originally.”
“What happened to them?”
“Some surrendered. Some came out of the jungle to surrender and were killed. A few held out, twenty or twenty-five from what I’ve heard. They left their caves and went back to the camp they had built when they thought Japan would win and control the entire Pacific. That was what you found, I believe, and that’s why I’d like to see it.”
I said I could not understand how we could have missed it, and he said, “Look at this jungle, Baden. One of those buildings could be within ten feet of us.”
After that we went on for another mile or two and came out on the beach. I did not know where we were, but Rob did. “This is where we separate. The village is that way, and your bungalow the other way, beyond the bay.”
I had been thinking about the Japs, and asked if they were all dead, and he said they were. “They were older every year and fewer every year, and a time came when the rifles and machine guns that had kept the villages in terror no longer worked. And after that, a time when the people realized they didn’t. They went to the Japanese camp one night with their spears and war clubs. They killed the remaining Japanese and ate them, and sometimes they make sly little jokes about it when they want to get my goat.”
I was feeling rocky and knew I was in for a bad time, so I came back here. I was sick the rest of the afternoon and all night, chills, fever, headache, the works. I remember watching the little vase on the bureau get up and walk to the other side, and sit back down, and seeing an American in a baseball cap float in. He took off his cap and combed his hair in front of the mirror, and floated back out. It was a Cardinals cap.
Now about Hanga, the little man I see on the beach.
After I wrote all that about the palace, I wanted to ask Rob a couple of questions, and tell him Mary was coming. All right, no one has actually said she was, and so far I have heard nothing from her directly, only the one e-mail from Pops. But she went to Africa, so why not here? I thanked Pops and told him where I am again. He knows how much I want to see her. If she comes, I am going to ask Rob to re-marry us, if she will.
Started down the beach, and I saw him; but after half a minute or so he seemed to melt into the haze. I told myself I was still seeing things, and I was still sick; and I reminded myself that I promised to go by Rob’s mission next time I felt bad. But when I got to the end of the bay, there he was, perfectly real, sitting in the shade of one of the young palms. I wanted to talk to him, so I said, “Okay if I sit down, too? This sun’s frying my brains.”
He smiled (the pointed teeth are real) and said, “The tree is my hat.”
I thought he just meant the shade, but after I sat he showed me, biting off a palm frond and peeling a strip from it, then showing me how to peel them and weave them into a rough sort of straw hat, with a high crown and a wide brim.
We talked a little, although he does not speak English as well as some of the others. He does not live in the village, and the people who do, do not like him although he likes them. They are afraid of him, he says, and give him things because they are. They prefer he stay away. “No village, no boat.”
I said it must be lonely, but he only stared out to sea. I doubt that he knows the word.
He wanted to know about the charm the king gave me. I described it and asked if it brings good luck. He shook his head. “No malhoi.” Picking up a single palm fiber, “This malhoi.” Not knowing what “malhoi” meant, I was in no position to argue.
That is pretty much all, except that I told him to visit when he wants company; and he told me I must eat fish to restore my health. (I have no idea who told him I am ill sometimes, but I never tried to keep it a secret.) Also that I would never have to fear an attack (I think that must have been what he meant) while he was with me.
His skin is rough and hard, much lighter in color than the skin of my forearm, but I have no idea whether that is a symptom or a birth defect. When I got up to leave, he stood, too, and came no higher than my chest. Poor little man.
* * *
One more thing. I had not intended to put it down, but after what Rob said maybe I should. When I had walked some distance toward the village, I turned back to wave to Hanga, and he was gone. I walked back, thinking that the shade of the palm had fooled me; he was not there. I went to the bay thinking he was in the water as Rob suggested. It is a beautiful little cove, but Hanga was not there, either. I am beginning to feel sympathy for the old mariners. These islands vanished when they approached.
At any rate, Rob says that “malhoi” means strong. Since a palm fiber is not as strong as a cotton thread, there must be something wrong somewhere. (More likely, something I do not understand.) Maybe the word has more than one meaning.
“Hanga” means shark, Rob says, but he does not know my friend Hanga. Nearly all the men are named for fish.
* * *
More e-mail, this time the witch. “There is danger hanging over you. I feel it and know some higher power guided you to me. Be careful. Stay away from places of worship, my tarot shows trouble for you there. Tell me about the fetish you mentioned.”
I doubt that I should, and that I will e-mail her again.
* * *
9 Feb. I guess I wore myself out on writing Thursday. I see I wrote nothing yesterday. To tell the truth, there was nothing to write about except my swim in Hanga’s bay. And I cannot write about that in a way that makes sense. Beautiful beyond description. That is all I can say. To tell the truth, I am afraid to go back. Afraid I will be disappointed. No spot on earth, even under the sea, can be as lovely as I remember it. Colored coral, and the little sea-animals that look like flowers, and schools of blue and red and orange fish like live jewels.
Today when I went to see Rob (all right, Annys warned me; but I think she is full of it) I said he probably likes to think God made this beautiful world so we could admire it; but if He had, He would have given us gills.
“Do I also think that He made the stars for us, Baden? All those flaming suns hundreds and thousands of light-years away? Did God create whole galaxies so that once or twice in our lives we might chance to look up and glimpse them?”
When he said that I had to wonder about people like me, who work for the Federal Government. Would we be driven out someday, like the people Rob talked about? A lot of us do not care any more about ordinary people than they did. I know P.D. does not.
A woman who had cut her hand came in about then. Rob talked to her in her own language while he treated her, and she talked a good deal more, chattering away. When she left I asked whether he had really understood everything she said. He said, “I did and I didn’t. I knew all the words she used, if that’s what you mean. How long have you been here now, Baden?”
I told him and he said, “About five weeks? That’s perfect. I’ve been here about five years. I don’t speak as well as they do. Sometimes I have to stop to think of the right word, and sometimes I can’t think of it at all. But I understand when I hear them. It’s not an elaborate language. Are you troubled by ghosts?”
I suppose I gawked.
“That was one of the things she said. The king has sent for a woman from another village to rid you of them, a sort of witch- I imagine. Her name is Langitokoua.”
I said the only ghost bothering me was my dead marriage’s, and I hoped to resuscitate it with his help.
He tried to look through me and may have succeeded; he has that kind of eyes. “You still don’t know when Mary’s coming?”
I shook my head.
“She’ll want to rest a few days after her trip to Africa. I hope you’re allowing for that.”
“And she’ll have to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Melbourne, and from there to Cairns, after which she’ll have to wait for the next plane to Kololahi. Believe me, Rob, I’ve taken all that into consideration.”
“Good. Has it occurred to you that your little friend Hanga might be a ghost? I mean, has it occurred to you since you spoke to him?”
Right then, I had that “what am I doing here” feeling I used to get in the bush. There I sat in that bright, flimsy little room with the medicine smell, and a jar of cotton balls at my elbow, and the noise of the surf coming in the window, about a thousand miles from anyplace that matters; and I could not remember the decisions I had made and the plans that had worked or not worked to get me there.
“Let me tell you a story, Baden. You don’t have to believe it. The first year I was here, I had to go to town to see about some building supplies we were buying. As things fell out, there was a day there when I had nothing to do, and I decided to drive up to North Point. People had told me it was the most scenic part of the island, and I convinced myself I ought to see it. Have you ever been there?”
I had not even heard of it.
“The road only goes as far as the closest village. After that there’s a footpath that takes two hours or so. It really is beautiful, rocks standing above the waves, and dramatic cliffs overlooking the ocean. I stayed there long enough to get the lovely, lonely feel of the place and make some sketches. Then I hiked back to the village where I’d left the jeep and started to drive back to Kololahi. It was almost dark.
“I hadn’t gone far when I saw a man from our village walking along the road. Back then I didn’t know everybody, but I knew him. I stopped, and we chatted for a minute. He said he was on his way to see his parents, and I thought they must live in the place I had just left. I told him to get into the jeep, and drove back, and let him out. He thanked me over and over, and when I got out to look at one of the tires I was worried about, he hugged me and kissed my eyes. I’ve never forgotten that.”
I said something stupid about how warmhearted the people here are.
“You’re right, of course. But, Baden, when I got back, I learned that North Point is a haunted place. It’s where the souls of the dead go to make their farewell to the land of the living. The man I’d picked up had been killed by a shark the day I left, four days before I gave him a ride.”
I did not know what to say, and at last I blurted out, “They lied to you. They had to be lying.”
“No doubt—or I’m lying to you. At any rate, I’d like you to bring your friend Hanga here to see me if you can.”
I promised I would try to bring Rob to see Hanga, since Hanga will not go into the village.
* * *
Swimming in the little bay again. I never thought of myself as a strong swimmer, never even had much chance to swim, but have been swimming like a dolphin, diving underwater and swimming with my eyes open for what has got to be two or two and a half minutes if not longer. Incredible! My God, wait till I show Mary!
You can buy scuba gear in Kololahi. I’ll rent Rob’s jeep or pay one of the men to take me in his canoe.
* * *
11 Feb. I let this slide again, and need to catch up. Yesterday was very odd. So was Saturday.
After I went to bed (still full of Rob’s ghost story and the new world underwater) and crash! Jumped up scared as hell, and my bureau had fallen on its face. Dry rot in the legs, apparently. A couple of drawers broke, and stuff scattered all over.
I propped it back up and started cleaning up the mess, and found a book I never saw before, The Light Garden of the Angel King, about traveling through Afghanistan. In front is somebody’s name and a date, and “American Overseas Assistance Agency.” None of it registered right then.
But there it was, spelled out for me. And here is where he was, Larry Scribble. He was an Agency man, had bought the book three years ago (when he was posted to Afghanistan, most likely) and brought it with him when he was sent here. I only use the top three drawers, and it had been in one of the others and got overlooked when somebody (who?) cleared out his things.
Why was he gone when I got here? He should have been here to brief me, and stayed for a week or so. No one has so much as mentioned his name, and there must be a reason for that.
Intended to go to services at the mission and bring the book, but was sick again. Hundred and nine. Took medicine and went to bed, too weak to move, and had this very strange dream. Somehow I knew somebody was in the house. (I suppose steps, although I cannot remember any.) Sat up, and there was Hanga smiling by my bed. “I knock. You not come.”
I said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been sick.” I felt fine. Got up and offered to get him a Coke or something to eat, but he wanted to see the charm. I said sure, and got it off the bureau.
He looked at it, grunting and tracing the little drawings on its sides with his forefinger. “No tie? You take loose?” He pointed to the knot.
I said there was no reason to, that it would go over my head without untying the cord.
“Want friend?” He pointed to himself, and it was pathetic. “Hanga friend? Bad friend?”
“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.”
“Untie.”
I said I would cut the cord if he wanted me to.
“Untie, please. Blood friend.” (He took my arm then, repeating, “Blood friend!”)
I said all right and began to pick at the knot, which was complex; and at that moment, I swear, I heard someone else in the bungalow, some third person who pounded on the walls. I believe I would have gone to see who it was then, but Hanga was still holding my arm. He has big hands on those short arms, with a lot of strength in them.
In a minute or two I got the cord loose and asked if he wanted it, and he said eagerly that he did. I gave it to him, and there was one of those changes you get in dreams. He straightened up, and was at least as tall as I am. Holding my arm, he cut it quickly and neatly with his teeth and licked the blood, and seemed to grow again. It was as if some sort of defilement had been wiped away. He looked intelligent and almost handsome.
Then he cut the skin of his own arm just like mine. He offered it to me, and I licked his blood like he had licked mine. For some reason I expected it to taste horrible, but it did not; it was as if I had gotten seawater in my mouth while I was swimming.
“We are Blood friends now, Bad,” Hanga told me. “I shall not harm you, and you must not harm me.”
That was the end of the dream. The next thing I remember is lying in bed and smelling something sweet, while something tickled my ear. I thought the mosquito netting had come loose, and looked to see, and there was a woman with a flower in her hair lying beside me. I rolled over; and she, seeing that I was awake, embraced and kissed me.
She is Langitokoua, the woman Rob told me the king had sent for, but I call her Langi. She says she does not know how old she is, and is fibbing. Her size (she is about six feet tall, and must weigh a good two-fifty) makes her look older than she is, I feel sure. Twenty-five, maybe. Or seventeen. I asked her about ghosts, and she said very matter-of-factly that there is one in the house but he means no harm.
Pooey.
After that, naturally I asked her why the king wanted her to stay with me; and she solemnly explained that it is not good for a man to live by himself, that a man should have someone to cook and sweep, and take care of him when he is ill. That was my chance, and I went for it. I explained that I am expecting a woman from American soon, that American women are jealous, and that I would have to tell the American woman Langi was there to nurse me. Langi agreed without any fuss.
* * *
What else?
Hanga’s visit was a dream, and I know it; but it seems I was sleepwalking. (Perhaps I wandered around the bungalow delirious.) The charm was where I left it on the dresser, but the cord was gone. I found it under my bed and tried to put it back through the fish’s eye, but it would not go.
E-mail from Annys: “The hounds of hell are loosed. For heaven’s sake be careful. Benign influences rising, so have hope.” Crazy if you ask me.
E-mail from Pops: “How are you? We haven’t heard from you. Have you found a place for Mary and the kids? She is on her way.”
What kids? Why the old puritan!
Sent a long e-mail back saying I had been very ill but was better, and there were several places where Mary could stay, including this bungalow, and I would leave the final choice to her. In fairness to Pops, he has no idea where or how I live, and may have imagined a rented room in Kololahi with a monkish cot. I should send another e-mail asking about her flight from Cairns; I doubt he knows, but it may be worth a try.
* * *
Almost midnight, and Langi is asleep. We sat on the beach to watch the sunset, drank rum-and-Coke and rum-and-coconut-milk when the Coke ran out, looked at the stars, talked, and made love. Talked some more, drank some more, and made love again.
There. I had to put that down. Now I have to figure out where I can hide this so Mary never sees it. I will not destroy it and I will not lie. (Nothing is worse than lying to yourself. Nothing. I ought to know.)
Something else in the was-it-a-dream category, but I do not think it was. I was lying on my back on the sand, looking up at the stars with Langi beside me asleep; and I saw a UFO. It was somewhere between me and the stars, sleek, dark, and torpedo-shaped, but with a big fin on the back, like a rocket ship in an old comic. Circled over us two or three times, and was gone. Haunting, though.
It made me think. Those stars are like the islands here, only a million billion times bigger. Nobody really knows how many islands there are, and there are probably a few to this day that nobody has ever been on. At night they look up at the stars and the stars look down on them, and they tell each other, “They’re coming!”
Langi’s name means sky sister so I am not the only one who ever thought like that.
* * *
Found the temple!!! Even now I cannot believe it. Rob has been looking for it for five years, and I found it in six weeks. God, but I would love to tell him!
Which I cannot do. I gave Langi my word, so it is out of the question.
We went swimming in the little bay. I dove down, showing her corals and things that she has probably been seeing since she was old enough to walk, and she showed the temple to me. The roof is gone if it ever had one, and the walls are covered with coral and the sea-creatures that look like flowers; you can hardly see it unless somebody shows you. But once you do it is all there, the long straight walls, the main entrance, the little rooms at the sides, everything. It is as if you were looking at the ruins of a cathedral, but they were decked in flowers and bunting for a fiesta. (I know that is not clear, but it is what it was like, the nearest I can come.) They built it on land, and the water rose; but it is still there. It looks hidden, not abandoned. Too old to see, and too big.
* * *
I will never forget this: How one minute it was just rocks and coral, and the next it was walls and altar, with a fifty-foot branched coral like a big tree growing right out of it. Then an enormous gray-white shark with eyes like a man’s came out of the shadow of the coral tree to look at us, worse than a lion or a leopard. My God, was I ever scared!
When we were both back up on the rocks, Langi explained that the shark had not meant to harm us, that we would both be dead if it had. (I cannot argue with that.) Then we picked flowers, and she made wreaths out of them and threw them in the water and sang a song. Afterward she said it was all right for me to know, because we are us; but I must never tell other mulis. I promised faithfully that I would not.
* * *
She has gone to the village to buy groceries. I asked her whether they worshipped Rob’s God in the temple underwater. (I had to say it like that for her to understand.) She laughed and said no, they worshipped the shark god so the sharks would not eat them. I have been thinking about that.
It seems to me that they must have brought other gods from the mountains where they lived, a couple of thousand years ago, and they settled here and built that temple to their old gods. Later, probably hundreds of years later, the sea came up and swallowed it. Those old gods went away, but they left the sharks to guard their house. Someday the water will go down again. The ice will grow thick and strong on Antarctica once more, the Pacific will recede, and those murderous old mountain gods will return. That is how it seems to me, and if it is true I am glad I will not be around to see it.
I do not believe in Rob’s God, so logically I should not believe in them either. But I do. It is a new millennium, but we are still playing by the old rules. They are going to come to teach us the new ones, or that is what I am afraid of.
* * *
Valentine’s Day. Mary passed away. That is how Mom would have said it, and I have to say it like that, too. Print it. I cannot make these fingers print the other yet.
Can anybody read this?
Langi and I had presented her with a wreath of orchids, and she was wearing them. It was so fast, so crazy.
So much blood, and Mary and the kids screaming.
I had better backtrack or give this up altogether.
There was a boar hunt. I did not go, remembering how sick I had been after tramping through the jungle with Rob, but Langi and I went to the pig roast afterward. Boar-hunting is the men’s favorite pastime; she says it is the only thing that the men like better than dancing. They do not have dogs and do not use bows and arrows. It is all a matter of tracking, and the boars are killed with spears when they find them, which must be really dangerous. I got to talk to the king about this hunt, and he told me how they get the boar they want to a place where it cannot run away anymore. It turns then and defies them, and may charge; but if it does not, four or five men all throw their spears at once. It was the king’s spear, he said, that pierced the heart of this boar.
Anyway it was a grand feast with pineapples and native beer, and my rum, and lots of pork. It was nearly morning by the time we got back here, where Mary was asleep with Mark and Adam.
Which was a very good thing, since it gave us a chance to swim and otherwise freshen up. By the time they woke up, Langi had prepared a fruit tray for breakfast and woven the orchids, and I had picked them for her and made coffee. Little boys, in my experience, are generally cranky in the morning (could it be because we do not allow them coffee?) but Adam and Mark were sufficiently overwhelmed by the presence of a brown lady giant and a live skeleton that conversation was possible. They are fraternal twins, and I think they really are mine; certainly they look very much like I did at their age. The wind had begun to rise, but we thought nothing of it.
“Were you surprised to see me?” Mary was older than I remembered, and had the beginnings of a double chin.
“Delighted. But Pops told me you’d gone to Uganda, and you were on your way here.”
“To the end of the earth.” (She smiled, and my heart leaped.) “I never realized the end would be as pretty as this.”
I told her that in another generation the beach would be lined with condos.
“Then let’s be glad that we’re in this one.” She turned to the boys. “You have to take in everything as long as we’re here. You’ll never get another chance like this.”
I said, “Which will be a long time, I hope.”
“You mean that you and…?”
“Langitokoua.” I shook my head. (Here it was, and all my lies had melted away.) “Was I ever honest with you, Mary?”
“Certainly. Often.”
“I wasn’t, and you know it. So do I. I’ve got no right to expect you to believe me now. But I’m going to tell you, and myself, God’s own truth. It’s in remission now. Langi and I were able to go to a banquet last night, and eat, and talk to people, and enjoy ourselves. But when it’s bad, it’s horrible. I’m too sick to do anything but shake and sweat and moan, and I see things that aren’t there. I—”
Mary interrupted me, trying to be kind. “You don’t look as sick as I expected.”
“I know how I look. My mirror tells me every morning while I shave. I look like death in a microwave oven, and that’s not very far from the truth. It’s liable to kill me this year. If it doesn’t, I’ll probably get attacks on and off for the rest of my life, which is apt to be short.”
There was a silence that Langi filled by asking whether the boys wanted some coconut milk. They said they did, and she got my heletay and showed them how to open a green coconut with one chop. Mary and I stopped talking to watch her, and that’s when I heard the surf. It was the first time that the sound of waves hitting the beach had ever reached as far inland as my bungalow.
Mary said, “I rented a Range Rover at the airport.” It was the tone she used when she had to bring up something she really did not want to bring up.
“I know. I saw it.”
“It’s fifty dollars a day, Bad, plus mileage. I won’t be able to keep it long.”
I said, “I understand.”
“We tried to phone. I had hoped you would be well enough to come for us, or send someone.”
I said I would have had to borrow Rob’s jeep if I had gotten her call.
“I wouldn’t have known where you were, but we met a native, a very handsome man who says he knows you. He came along to show us the way.” (At that point, the boys’ expressions told me something was seriously wrong.) “He wouldn’t take any money for it. Was I wrong to offer to pay him? He didn’t seem angry.”
“No,” I said, and would have given anything to get the boys alone. But would it have been different if I had? When I read this, when I really get to where I can face it, the thing I will miss on was how fast it was—how fast the whole thing went. It cannot have been a hour between the time Mary woke up and the time Langi ran to the village to get Rob.
Mark lying there whiter than the sand. So thin and white, and looking just like me.
“He thought you were down on the beach, and wanted us to look for you there, but we were too tired,” Mary said.
That is all for now, and in fact it is too much. I can barely read this left-handed printing, and my stump aches from holding down the book. I am going to go to bed, where I will cry, I know, and Langi will cuddle me like a kid.
Again tomorrow.
* * *
17 Feb. Hospital sent its plane for Mark, but no room for us. Doctor a lot more interested in my disease than my stump. “Dr. Robbins” did a fine job there, he said. We will catch the Cairns plane Monday.
I should catch up. But first: I am going to steal Rob’s jeep tomorrow. He will not lend it, does not think I can drive. It will be slow, but I know I can.
* * *
19 Feb. Parked on the tarmac, something wrong with one engine. Have I got up nerve enough to write about it now? We will see.
Mary was telling us about her guide, how good-looking, and all he told her about the islands, lots I had not known myself. As if she were surprised she had not seen him sooner, she pointed and said, “Here he is now.”
There was nobody there. Or rather, there was nobody Langi and I or the boys could see. I talked to Adam (to my son Adam, I have to get used to that) when it was over, while Rob was working on Mark and Mary. I had a bunch of surgical gauze and had to hold it as tight as I could. There was no strength left in my hand.
Adam said Mary had stopped and the door opened, and she made him get in back with Mark. The door opened by itself. That is the part he remembers most clearly, and the part of his story I will always remember, too. After that Mary seemed to be talking all the time to somebody he and his brother could not see or hear.
She screamed, and there, for just an instant, was the shark. He was as big as a boat, and the wind was like a current in the ocean, blowing us down to the water. I really do not see how I can ever explain this.
* * *
No takeoff yet, so I have to try. It is easy to say what was not happening. What is hard is saying what was, because there are no words. The shark was not swimming in air. I know that is what it will sound like, but it (he) was not. We were not under the water, either. We could breathe and walk and run just as he could swim, although not nearly so fast, and even fight the current a little.
The worst thing of all was he came and went and came and went, so that it seemed almost that we were running or fighting him by flashes of lightning, and sometimes he was Hanga, taller than the king and smiling at me while he herded us.
No. The most worst thing was really that he was herding everybody but me. He drove them toward the beach the way a dog drives sheep, Mary, Langi, Adam, and Mark, and he would have let me escape. (I wonder sometimes why I did not. This was a new me, a me I doubt I will ever see again.)
His jaws were real, and sometimes I could hear them snap when I could not see him. I shouted, calling him by name, and I believe I shouted that he was breaking our agreement, that to hurt my wives and my sons was to hurt me. To give the devil his due, I do not think he understood. The old gods are very wise, as the king told me today; still, there are limits to their understanding.
I ran for the knife, the heletay Langi opened coconuts with. I thought of the boar, and by God I charged them. I must have been terrified. I do not remember, only slashing at something and someone huge that was and was not there, and in an instant was back again. The sting of the windblown sand, and then up to my arms in foaming water, and cutting and stabbing, and the hammerhead with my knife and my hand in its mouth.
We got them all out, Langi and I did. But Mark has lost his leg, and jaws three feet across had closed on Mary. That was Hanga himself, I feel sure.
* * *
Here is what I think. I think he could only make one of us see him at a time, and that was why he flashed in and out. He is real. (God knows he is real!) Not really physical the way a stone is, but physical in other ways that I do not understand. Physical like and unlike light and radiation. He showed himself to each of us, each time for less than a second.
* * *
Mary wanted children, so she stopped the pill and did not tell me. That was what she told me when I drove Rob’s jeep out to North Point. I was afraid. Not so much afraid of Hanga (though there was that, too) but afraid she would not be there. Then somebody said, “Banzai!” It was exactly as if he were sitting next to me in the jeep, except that there was nobody there. I said, “Banzai,” back, and I never heard him again; but after that I knew I would find her, and I waited for her at the edge of the cliff.
She came back to me when the sun touched the Pacific, and the darker the night and the brighter the stars, the more real she was. Most of the time it was as if she were really in my arms. When the stars got dim and the first light showed in the east, she whispered, “I have to go,” and walked over the edge, walking north with the sun to her right and getting dimmer and dimmer.
I got dressed again and drove back and it was finished. That was the last thing Mary ever said to me, spoken a couple of days after she died.
She was not going to get back together with me at all; then she heard how sick I was in Uganda, and she thought the disease might have changed me. (It has. What does it matter about people at the “end of the earth” if you cannot be good to your own people, most of all to your own family?)
* * *
Taking off.
We are airborne at last. Oh, Mary! Mary starlight!
* * *
Langi and I will take Adam to his grandfather’s, then come back and stay with Mark (Brisbane or Melbourne) until he is well enough to come home.
The stewardess is serving lunch, and for the first time since it happened, I think I may be able to eat more than a mouthful. One stewardess, twenty or thirty people, which is all this plane will hold. News of the shark attack is driving tourists off the island.
As you see, I can print better with my left hand. I should be able to write eventually. The back of my right hand itches, even though it is gone. I wish I could scratch it.
Here comes the food.
* * *
An engine has quit. Pilot says no danger.
* * *
He is out there, swimming beside the plane. I watched him for a minute or more until he disappeared into a thunderhead. “The tree is my hat.” Oh, God.
Oh my God!
My blood brother.
What can I do?
 
Copyright © 2004 by Gene Wolfe