“I have not yet begun to fight!”

John Paul Jones

  

1

The road descends all the way to the sea, as though the whole world was a huge basin where everything drove, sailed, glided and swept down to the bottom. I’m on my way to visit my mother. I’m riding my old green bicycle, peddling happily, gears greased, hands firmly gripping the rusted handlebars. The evening air is humid but a gentle breeze sweeps my hair back and brushes against my face. And when tiny beads of sweat bud on my lips I lick them away, tasting their salinity. I speed past an illuminated billboard on which Mel Gibson grins with a smile once enthralling, but no longer. The first time I saw Lethal Weapon I laughed uproariously at Martin Riggs seated with Roger Murtaugh in the gleaming boat parked on his lawn, because it reminded me of the oval ocean in which father placed me and Eran when we were children. On bright summer days, father would stand outside our window, press his nose against the screen and call out loudly: “Who wants to be Archimedes today?”

“Me! Me!” we’d both shout, quickly undressing and rushing outside in our white underwear and tanned skin to father’s exciting ocean. The tub was already filled to the brim with fresh water, cold at first, from the garden hose. “Today you’ll be Archimedes,” father declared, beaming, pointing to the oval sea, “Get in. Let’s see how much water you’ll splash out today.” Eran followed me down into the depths and the green grass surrounding us was flooded by waves of water in adherence to the incontrovertible truth of Archimedes’ Law, which father patiently explained to us. He handed us the long pole, one end of which was already green with mold and always served as a mast, and tied a square of white cloth to it which had been surreptitiously cut from mother’s old holiday dress. When all was ready he grasped the thick rope tied to the tub’s handle and cried out, “Eran, today you’re Magellan! We’re sailing to Tierra del Fuego!” On another occasion I was Christopher Columbus. We bravely sailed west to discover India and, as always, when it was my turn to be Columbus, father would ask, “Well, my pretty one, what are the names of your three vessels?” and I would quickly clutch the rim of the tub to keep it from overturning because father was already running as hard as he could on the grass around the house, the tub careening, water splashing, me yelling back to him, “Nina, Pinta and Fanta Maria!” and the three of us roared with laughter because that’s what I’d say when I was little and didn’t know its name was “Santa Maria.”

We traveled with father to many faraway lands. We journeyed to Sweden to view the Vasa which had sunk in Stockholm’s ancient harbor with all of its crew and cannon as it set out on its maiden voyage; we sailed from port to port on the magnificent Love Boat and disembarked to tour Puerto Vallarta; and once even reached Polynesia where we embarked in a double pirogue and didn’t tip over. And on one unusually hot day father sprayed us with the hose so we wouldn’t become dehydrated, God forbid, and announced, “Today we’ll sail from Ashkelon to Arcachon and Biarritz, where the rich French people have summer homes.” But I, who’d already studied geography in school, said with an innocent expression on my face, “Dad, that’s not possible. They’re on the Atlantic coast.” Father was briefly mortified but recovered. “Alright, then we’ll go back to earlier times, they’re always fascinating.  What do you say, let’s join Odysseus, King of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War?” My face expressed indifference because I didn’t like wars. I proposed boarding a black gondola on the canals of Venice, “If Eran agrees, of course.” I think that was the year the oval tub grew too small for both of us and father had to sail me first and then my brother. I no longer feared to journey alone to the Cape of Storms, and when we’d rounded the continent we decided unanimously to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. But Eran grew impatient even before we’d gone ashore and stamped his feet, “Enough, Dad, now it’s my turn.  I want to go to the Galapagos, to the iguanas!”

We learned about many exotic locations and historic maritime expeditions during the delightful games with father on the lawn. Once Eran asked with a challenging thrust of his chin, “And what long voyages did you make, Dad?”, and father thought for a long moment, while the water in the tub settled, scratching his head as though attempting to remember, “Ah, I went on a long trip in Mauthausen, then a march from Bergen-Belsen, before then I also visited Auschwitz, which was a long time ago and I don’t really remember very well, but what I can tell you is that I was plunged into the eye of a storm long before I ever saw the open sea – “

Eran and I fell silent and our gaiety faded.  We were already familiar with these names, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and other names of similar places from mother’s whispering to Aunt Lily, one of them crying silently, the other crushing larval cigarette butts in the glass ashtray, fingering a white handkerchief in her lap.

Father saw we’d quieted down and quickly moved to reinvigorate us. He pulled the rope with such strength we almost tumbled from the boat as he began rushing us to Mount Ararat to locate, once and for all, Noah’s lost ark.

Then Eran really got big. Hands, feet, neck, all his clothes and shoes were too small for him and his voice changed and he asked to move to the closed-in balcony, at least he’d have his own room, without me.  I kept pace with him, as though we were twinned. I’d already discovered Osnat was using tampons and wondered when my turn would come. Meanwhile, I was wearing a double-A bra and putting on mother’s pink lipstick whenever she left the house.

One day, almost as an afterthought, the tub was shoved into the crawl space under the house, a shady, cool place with a musty odor where mother’s cats would shelter from the heat. Our last voyage in father’s tub was to the Lofoten Islands where the maelstrom, the deadly ocean whirlpool, waited in ambush at high tide. Father told us it was known even to Jules Verne; it was the mysterious whirlpool in which the Nautilus sank – and at night when I lay in bed, curled in a blanket, my nose between the pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I was pleased to learn the French author had been right. And because we had escaped the whirlpool the water in the tub subsided and Eran and I, and father, listened intently to the sirens’ song. Father shut his eyes, turned his ear to the wind and rhythmically stroked his cheek with pleasure. Eran wrung out his wet undershirt with abrupt movements, looked at father, an unfamiliar expression on his face, as if he were seeing him for the first time, and said angrily, “What sirens are you talking about, Dad, it’s only the wind and the crickets!” and turned to enter the house, dripping wet. Then he yelled, in a parting shot, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about soccer?!”

I silenced my brother quickly. As he walked away, I yelled at him that he didn’t understand anything! I still heard them singing, their gentle, tantalizing voices, and still looked up to my father, even though I too began to wonder how he knew so much about brave admirals like John Paul Jones and Captain Cook, about distant seas and exciting missions in places whose names sent chills of pleasure through me and filled me with an urgent lust to see the world.

Mother never swam in the ocean or in the pool and father dared only infrequently to drive our white Susita automobile as far as Beersheba or Tiberias, and even less frequently picked up a book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. “He no longer has patience to read,” mother sighed, tightening a screw in her eyeglass frame with a tiny screwdriver. “They killed his patience.”

At the end of that summer, just before the autumn winds began whipping the tips of the cedars along the border of our fading garden, and just before the spikes of the sea squills began their torturous emergence from the hard earth, at the end of that summer mother ran into the house with a terrified expression in her eyes. She’d been weeding the garden and saw a marbled snake slither beneath the house.  Father ran outside, bent down between the oleander bushes and stared for a long time into the narrow, dim coolness between the earth and the house above. When he rose to his feet and saw mother standing at the doorway fingering the hem of her skirt he spread his arms – “there’s no snake there” – but when his glance met her frightened eyes and he saw her shrinking back he crouched again with a sigh and carefully removed all the junk that had accumulated beneath the house through the years: a roll of chicken wire that no one could remember why it had been purchased; Eran’s scooter, which had surrendered all its majesty; and the periscope we had constructed from plywood and mirrors, almost in one piece and perhaps still usable. And when he pulled out the small tub I saw sadly that time had corroded its surface into red-brown rust and had left it pitted like one of mother’s lace doilies that rested on the cushions of the living room armchairs, starched and stiff.

 

The days passed slowly, then sped on their way. The winds awoke from their summer slumber as though they’d been alerted.  Mother picked pomegranates from the tree and placed them in a blue clay bowl that highlighted their pinkish-yellow colors.  Most had been attacked by insects, but were still lovely on their surface. The grape arbor still sagged with the weight of lush clusters. Eran and I stretched our hands toward their twined vines, grasped the tendrils and pulled the ripe fruit down into our mouths. When the wagtails returned to peck the earth then autumn had truly arrived and the summer became a hazy memory. The traces of our adventurous journeys in the tub dissipated. Clouds arrived from the sea and clumped in corners of the sky like huddled sheep. Nights were chilly and brought rain. After days of downpours that beat down everywhere with unfathomable intensity the rain was transformed into a whispered, calming drizzle. I wandered outside for hours in my gray raincoat, seeing visions deep within the mirroring puddles. And when a storm arrived to beat wildly against the slats of the shutters, mother said it was the winter’s swan song and how pleasant it was in such weather to be beneath blankets in the eye of the storm. It was mother who taught us that the storm’s eye is the safest place to be at sea during a whirlwind, the exact opposite of what we’d believed, even father, and that ships can sail in the eye of the storm without fear.  And so, if that winter’s final rain was a storm, we remained in the calm isle of its eye.

One morning the last orange dropped from the tree in obedience to an unspoken instruction and embarked on its journey of decomposition. Spring was brief that year and the summer very hot and oppressive. Eran was finishing twelfth grade. Every evening he ran a timed hour along the beach. He’d returned from the naval commando team-building exercise bruised and exhausted, and also dirty and somewhat ill, but with a smile of victory on his lips. However, he wasn’t accepted into the naval commando unit and no one could console him, not even his girlfriend Nitza. In the autumn Eran reluctantly joined a different unit, completed the training with distinction, eventually came to terms with the bright red color of his unit’s beret, returned to Nitza, and was killed one dark night in an ambush in southern Lebanon.

Afterwards, a silence descended on the house and never lifted. The sailors and brave discoverers of new lands who filled our childhood sailed away in their ships beyond the horizon, pennants flying, and never returned. We remained planted in the earth. Mother wrapped up her pain and buried it deep within her – “There’s still a child here at home” – while father submerged his rigid denial in the sea’s cold waters, swimming to a small island until his strength gave out or taking long morning walks along the beach, striding beside the waves on the same route Eran took every evening at the end of twelfth grade, pacing pensively, searching for a trace of his son’s footprints, his back bending, his heart unravelling.

2

I stopped at a red light, brakes screeching. I wiped the sweat from my face and adjusted the straps of my backpack. In the distance I saw the sea’s dusky shadow merge with the sky into a unitary boundless gray entity, pierced by pale starlight and the eyeballs of the round lamps along the promenade curving to the south. When the light turned green I made my way toward the anchorage. The gloomy sea was hidden momentarily by a brighter one: a giant billboard advertising a Greek island holiday.

On one of the few occasions that mother and father had enough money and energy to take a short holiday, the four of us drove to Eilat. The journey was long and enchanting.  “It’s like Africa,” said Eran, amazed by the acacia trees struggling to survive in the arid heat, seeming to flee from him as fast as we were driving toward them.  Mother told us that the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert hadn’t fallen from the sky, as is written in the Torah, and that scientists believed that the biblical white material was, in fact, sweet secretions of ants living on the acacia branches.  She went on to tell us the meaning of symbiosis, and Eran and I immediately responded, “Ugh, secretions of ants – “, then my brother turned around and swore he saw Lot’s wife. I cried that I saw ibexes leaping on the cliffs.

We reached Eilat hungry and dusty. The Red Sea’s waters were dark blue and the beach curving and golden. An expanse of cloth tents blossomed on the sand. Before it grew dark we also built a tent of flapping piqué bedspreads and broomsticks, near our Susita, and mother gave each of us our favorite sandwich. After eating we entered the water, except for mother. We splashed, swam, insisted we’d seen scorpion fish and parrot fish and took care to avoid being stung by the black sea anemones. All our urgings were useless, mother refused to go in the water.  Father gave up first.  “Leave mom alone,” he motioned, she’s hopeless, and again wet his black hair. “Did you forget the business with the cats?” We hadn’t forgotten.  Mother observed one of the neighbors bathing three kittens in a large metal bucket and wanted to look, and saw their small heads and limbs trembling beneath the shimmering surface. With their remaining strength the kittens tried to free themselves from the grip of the man bent over the pail glancing out of the corner of his eye at the neighbors’ daughter, at mother, “You know what cats do in the garden, wailing all night like they’re being slaughtered? Then they give birth and the kittens bring fleas.  It’s the same every year and their mother never learns!” He didn’t release their striped bodies until they grew limp and the water in the pail no longer moved. Since then mother’s fame had spread to all the stray cats in the neighborhood, who came to her for refuge. And since then – so we assumed – mother avoided water resolutely. When the town built a swimming pool she would enter only to her ankles, and never took her worried eyes off Eran and me though we swam like dolphins. Only when father placed us in the tub’s oval sea and became a daring admiral did mother watch us contentedly, seated on the porch stairs.

After Eran had been killed father lost all sense of time. He sat alone in the garden for hours on a wicker chair frayed from age and the sun, slumped in the lacy shade of the Persian Lilac tree, fingering an old piece of rope, as though reviewing all the knots he’d taught us when we were children: fisherman’s knot, overhand knot, reef knot, granny knot. Father’s fingers were thick and nimble. “You already know how to tie your shoelaces, right?” he said the first time he showed us the rope’s wonders, “so you already know one knot!”

When I saw him sitting like that in the shady garden I was horrified and a fist clutched my heart: father had shriveled and seemed so lost he required a lifeline. I imagined him leaning toward me and patiently explaining where to place my fingers and how to form the rope into a loop and where to pull and tighten so the knot would be secure, but I didn’t exactly remember what went where anymore.  And so father continued to fade away from us until he silently disappeared from our lives, one moment visible, then illusory, glinting, then quenched in the distance – until he descended into the endless, macabre abyss at the horizon where the sea ended – and was never seen again.

 

I’m flying downhill on the bicycle, the wind flinging my hair back and cooling my skin. Mother moved away from the old house long ago. Now, though it seems unbelievable, she lives on the sea.  Literally on the sea. A man with white hair desired my mother for her silences and the sorrow that withered her spirit, and brought her home to him. The stability mother always sought in a safe harbor she found, as it happened, on the man’s small, rocking boat anchored in the Jaffa marina. “Our house is big and empty, and it’s like a museum,” she sighed to me one morning, “Eran’s gone. Dad is gone. You have your own life, I don’t want to live here any longer. The house is yours now, with all that’s in it, and all that isn’t, it’s all yours. And if you don’t want it either, you’re welcome to sell it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”

Mother didn’t wait for me to sell the house – nor had I decided what to do with it – but packed a few suitcases and moved in with her sister Talma. After a while she also moved from Talma’s because she’d met Herbert. This was the first time she had invited me to her new home.

I arrived at the marina, panting heavily. I tied the bike to a streetlamp and scanned the area to locate the lights of the boat mother had described on the phone. “On the stern is the verse you, Eran and Dad always loved,” she set me a riddle we’d solved long ago, and added, surprised at herself, “You won’t believe the coincidence,” that is – I inferred – the verse was a sign this man was also a kindred spirit. I smiled to myself. For a brief moment my brother and I were again seated in the splashing tub, the sun gilding our heads, and repeated along with father the magical fact that “All the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.” My brother and I roiled the water’s surface and were answered by waves rippling outward, and we tried to understand how all the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.

I’m standing beneath the streetlamp, my feet in the puddle of light, hands on my hips. Large boats and small fishing craft rock in the marina’s waters. Nearby waves shatter dully against the rocks of the breakwater. The air smells of fish guts mingled with flecks of salt the wind carries to shore. In the deepening darkness I can’t find the boat or the verse on its stern. Only thanks to my cellphone do I find mother and Herbert, who have emerged onto the deck of a shiny white boat and are now waving a flashlight at me. He smiles pleasantly and extends a trembling hand as I climb up to his bobbing home. I look at him with interest, he’s the man who was able to do what father never could – detach mother from dry land.

I follow him down into the boat.  Mother’s expression is welcoming, her eyes gleam and she hugs me tightly, “This is my daughter,” she proudly says to her new partner. “I’m pleased, pleased to meet you,” Herbert repeats.

The boat rocks gently and I glance at mother surreptitiously. She looks back at me with unfamiliar confidence. Her eyes tell me everything’s fine. My mind eases, mother has found new love, everything’s fine. Mother gestures and I sit opposite her on the upholstered bench, and Herbert immediately offers hot tea or cool cocoa, whichever we prefer.

I ask mother where they’re headed.

“We’re not headed anywhere, sweetheart,” she calmly replies, “We’re not headed anywhere. Nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. I’m not stepping into the water. Herbert assured me the boat is securely tied to the dock, we’ve dropped anchor and the basin within the breakwater is usually smooth as butter. It’s a house, that’s all it is.”

“And I thought you’d finally gotten over that business with the kittens.”

Mother shrugs, “Why would you think that.  We’re staying here, and during the winter we’ll move to his apartment in Giv’at Olga. Anyway,” her smile sparkles, “No lands remain for us to discover – “

I thank Herbert as he hands me a cup of hot tea with a charming gesture and asks whether to add a sugar cube and whether I like sailing, or whether I’m “like your mother.”

Mother sips carefully, “No, she’s not like me. I’m something special. I never sought adventure, but who knows? You only live once.”

Herbert strokes her head very gently. I examine the cup in my hand.

“You know, Herbert,” mother says, “One day I’ll find the courage and then the three of us will sail west, perhaps to Ile d’If, opposite Marseille. We could pause near the St. Jean fortress, perhaps Dantès will wave to us through the bars of his cell.”

I stare at mother in amazement. Had she been listening when father read The Count of Monte Cristo to us? I don’t remember her ever reading it.

She smiles at me encouragingly. Father’s image, tall and joyful, appears momentarily between us. Our thoughts drift to Eran who had begun, for a short while, to resemble him, until a large, returning fishing vessel chugs toward us, and as it maneuvers its way into the anchorage the water grows agitated and Herbert’s boat sways.

A striped cat I hadn’t noticed before jumps onto mother’s knees and curls up in her lap like a snail. Its half-open eyes examine me, then close again.

I hear mother ask, “Have you decided what you want to do with the house?” and I, distracted, answer “No, not yet,” thinking about my green bicycle tied to the streetlamp on the pier, and that I’ll soon have to pedal back up the long slope that led down to the marina. Perhaps I should say goodbye, and leave.


 

*From “A Sensitive Woman”, a collection of stories, (The fifth book by Edna Shemesh, to be published in 2019)

 

A Chapter from the novel, Black Foam

 

(7)

 

He placed the suitcase lightly into the tray, and then took off to meet it on the other side. However, the soldier across from him waved him back as he scrutinized the screen in front of him. The conveyer belt moved backwards, and as the suitcase emerged from the screener, everyone looked suspiciously at it and its owner. It moved again and disappeared inside the baggage screener. The man crossed over for a second time to wait for it on the other side, but once more the soldier sent it back to where it had come from. The owner of the suitcase wanted to ask what was going on, but by this time the soldier was busy talking to a coworker. He stepped forward slightly, only to receive a stern gesture to stay where he was. Looking in his wife’s direction, he saw that she had finished going through inspection and was anxiously waiting for him.

The line behind him had grown quite long by this time, and impatient grumbles were getting steadily louder. Faced with no other choice, the soldier instructed the man to step aside for his suitcase to be searched by hand, and gestured to those behind him to pass through. Once again, the man looked over to where his wife was standing. She was witness to what was happening, observing his public humiliation as two soldiers gingerly spread out the contents of his bag for all to see, eyeing him warily the entire time.

“Ok. Go ahead.”

After being engrossed in what was happening to the Arab man in the neighboring line, Dawit snapped to attention at the sound of a soldier’s voice. Fearful of meeting the same fate, he placed his suitcase hesitantly onto the conveyor belt, then straightened up in anticipation. He waited for the bag as it passed slowly through the baggage screener, his eyes fixed on the security officer’s facial expression, which registered no reaction. He picked up his suitcase and turned to the officer, awaiting his decision, and saw him wave another traveler through.

He looked back at the Arab, who was still in the same spot, nervously chewing his nails as he watched his belongings being strewn about. When at last he got the signal to gather them up, his fellow travelers were passing through one after another without being stopped by either the machine or the security official.

Dawit felt sympathy toward the man, perhaps because he himself was all too familiar with the taste of humiliation. He had experienced it first in his home country. From there he had fled from the Blue Nile Valley to Northern Ethiopia. When he first reached Ethiopia’s Endabaguna Camp, he had jumped for joy despite his exhaustion after the lengthy, grueling escape. Yet, despite his initial relief and elation, he had grown wearily accustomed to being humiliated anew in his place of refuge.

It was a voyage of desperation that could have had only one of two outcomes: either arrival at the final destination, or death at the hands of border guards. Nevertheless, his existence in the forced conscription camp had become so meaningless that it made no difference to Daoud whether he lived or died. So, when he crossed the border amid scores of others, he was different from all the rest. Unlike them, he paused to look back. He wanted to take in the full reality of deliverance. He wanted to experience what it really felt like to be leaving humiliation and degradation behind once and for all. There, beyond the distant mountains that had drained his strength to the last drop as he had climbed some and skirted others, lay Eritrea. He felt no nostalgia at all. With every step he took on his journey of escape, nostalgic longing had fallen away from his spirit. He’d been purged by his growing distance from the Blue Nile Valley, emptying out his store of pain and distress in the attempt to come home to his spirit before it was caked with scars.

“Hurry up … quick … this way.”

At the entrance to Endabaguna there was something else one needed to be delivered from, namely, an Ethiopian soldier who was using a whip to make new arrivals line up correctly. The whip missed Daoud and hit a woman behind him, who was so taken by surprise that she had no chance to get out of the way. Everybody was lined up in a snake-like fashion so that larger numbers could be accommodated in front of the registration office, and the soldier took pleasure in either keeping the lines in order or scattering them if they got too orderly on their own, finding sadistically artful ways of drawing their curves with his heavy lash.

The registration office served as the entrance to the sprawling camp. Beyond it lay scattered tents of varying sizes, most of them so threadbare that the blue UNHCR logos printed on them were hardly visible anymore. What with the thick crowds lined up in front of him, the slowness of the registration office bureaucracy, and the noonday sun beating down on people’s heads, the time crept by without Daoud’s turn coming. He sat down on the ground and busied himself drawing random circles in the sand. He ran his hand over his knotted black and white woolen wristband. He shut his eyes and saw black. He opened them again, and the sun, which had been lying in wait for him, hurt his pupils. He held his head between his knees and lifted it up again. Then he repeated the sequence, but nothing changed. He was still just as far from the registration office as he had been before.

“Don’t tell them you’re Muslim.”

Keeping his curiosity in check, Daoud resisted the urge to turn toward the source of the lowered voice. As much as he wanted to follow the conversation he’d picked up on between a couple of young men behind him, he was afraid that if he let on that he was listening, they might stop talking.

“Migration organizations won’t pay any attention to your file. I’ve heard that a lot. And they’ll make up excuses without giving you the real reason.”

Daoud knew Endabaguna was nothing but a reception camp and that for some there was a slight chance of resettlement in European countries, while the rest would be distributed among permanent camps in Ethiopia. This was what made him wish he could join in the conversation, make more inquiries. But the whispered exchange was obviously a confidential one. When a silence ensued, Daoud feared that the conversation might still be going on, but too softly for him to hear.

“What to do?”

Rescued by the other young man’s question, he put his senses on high alert. Adjusting his sitting position, he managed to inch slightly backwards, his ears pricked for the answer he was looking for, and which was rather late in coming.

“Do what I did. I got rid of my identity papers and chose a Christian name.”

As sundown approached, Daoud stood outside the registration office, brushing off his clothes as he listened to the question being addressed to him. His head lowered, he gazed at the blank sheet of paper and the blue ink pen hovering over it. Then he lifted his gaze somewhat toward the dark hand with the protruding veins, and from there toward the angry-looking face that was waiting for his answer. The employee repeated his question irritably. As David ran his hand again over his knotted black and white woolen wristband, the employee filled in the box according to what he had heard: “David.”

Bo’u nelech.” 1  The group coming from Gondar followed the signal from a girl wearing a blue suit and holding a sign that read “Beta Israel” in Hebrew and Amharic. Looking as though they’d stepped straight out of some period of ancient history, this bewildered mass of black humanity piqued the interest of passersby who stopped on both sides to gawk at them, with some of them taking pictures.

In the middle of the group, Dawit pulled his head covering down in an attempt to cover as much of his face as possible. He still felt vulnerable and exposed, as though his features invited attention. For all he knew, his looks called out to passersby, telling them that he was a thief, and in possession of all the evidence of his crimes.

The group proceeded in a semicircular path that ended at a glass door. The door opened automatically, and as soon as it did, cries went up and a commotion erupted. Dawit couldn’t make out what was happening. The group had been thrown into confusion. Some of them wanted to go back inside, but the organizers ordered them to keep going.

Lama ba’tem?! Lama ba’tem?!” Dawit’s ears were pierced by the screaming of a white girl, who was heatedly asking why they had come to Israel. He looked over at her, only to find her glaring at him. She had picked him out of the crowd to be the object of her enraged stares. Then he stopped hearing her shrieks. He was too busy looking at the greenish veins in her neck that were swollen with rage. When he reached the point closest to her, he averted his gaze and hurried past as her screams tried to overtake him. When he’d gotten some distance away, he looked back to see what was happening behind him. In the process, he bumped into a suitcase, knocking it accidentally out of the hand of its owner, who shoved him and lit into him with curses and insults. Leaning towards a woman next to him, the man grumbled, “These slaves have overrun the country!”

Without a word, Dawit moved quickly away, raising his hands in a gesture of silent apology. Then suddenly the man’s features stopped him up short. It was the Arab who had been searched by the soldiers in such an insulting way.

When he turned to be on his way and catch up with the group, his glance fell on a blue neon sign in bold Hebrew letters: “Broukhim haba’im li Yisrael: Welcome to Israel.”

 

The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops.

We are meeting in a room in a London university so that you can tell me, in anodyne safe surroundings, a bit about your life so far; I say so far because you aren’t old, you are maybe 30.

We meet at the front door and follow the man who’s showing us to the room. We go through several doors and down then up some stairs. We go through a lot of corridors, then some more corridors, then down more stairs and along more identical corridors, then further down again and along a corridor with lagged pipes in the ceiling above our heads. We go through some swing doors, round some corners to some dead ends. We double back on ourselves. The man, who’s not sure where the room is, has to keep pressing codes into doors on our way in and then on our way back out again because we’ve come the wrong way or taken a wrong turning.

Eventually we find the room we’re being lent for the two hours. It’s a room with some tables pushed together and two or three chairs in it. There’s a window with a view on to bricks and the side of a building. You put your bags down, one on each side of you, and we sit down at the pushed-together tables.

 

You begin to speak. You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.

Later, when we leave this room and go back up through the maze of university corridors, you and your rucksacks keep getting caught in the swing doors because you aren’t strong enough to hold them open; the door hinges are stronger than you.

Here’s what you tell me. It’s all in the present tense, I realise afterwards, because it is all still happening.

So: the first thing you remember knowing is that there isn’t any more school. Your mother dies when you are three, you don’t remember. You never see your father, so you can’t remember him. You know, from being told, that your father’s family fought with your mother’s family; his were Hausa, hers were Christian. So you get given by your father’s family to a man in the village and for a short while there’s school under the great big tree, where you sit in the shade on the ground and the teacher sits on a seat and you get taught letters and reading.

Then the school has to have money so the man you’ve been given to takes you to the farm.

You are six years old.

There is definitely no school on the farm.

There is cocoa, there are bananas and plantain, and the harvests run from January to December. The older kids, seven or eight and upwards, drag and carry the sacks. The younger ones, like you when you arrive, do the bagging and drying. Cocoa, you explain to me, has to be dried twice. You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside then pour them into the baskets, then there’s the spreading them out to dry on the leaves or on the tables. The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag, shorts sewn from sack. It’s hot there. Not like here. You look out the window at the bricks. Not like when it’s hot here either; there on the farm it’s the hottest that hot can mean.

You arrive at the farm when you’re six and you run away when you are 21. That’s not the first time you’ve run away. The first time you’re 15. Hunger. Beatings. Headaches. You have a headache, you have it quite often, and you have to have the right medicine or leaves for it or you hit the earth.

One day when you’re 15 and the boss isn’t there, you just go. You get out. There’s a road. You follow it. It isn’t a tarmacked road like here, you tell me. It’s kind of a dirt or dust, an earth road. Anyway the boss catches you on that earth road. There are beatings for a week, and every day between the beatings you’re out to work again carrying the firewood on your head, sometimes five miles, sometimes eight, and at the end of the day the boss coming in to the room with the sleeping mats in it saying how you’re not making him enough money and beating you again.

There’re always beatings.

A man sometimes comes to the farm, he’s in the removing business, he comes to remove the stored beans. He sees the wounds on you when you are 20, 21. He says to you on the quiet, Beaten again? You need to get out of here, he says, or you’ll die.

You think about the boy called Nana, who was beaten so much that he hit the ground. He didn’t wake up. He didn’t respond. He just lay there. You went to work, you came back, he wasn’t in the house any more. Some days later you were told he was dead and that’s when they started to lock you all up at night.

You put your head in your hands, here in the nondescript university room, all the years later, in London.

A very difficult time, you say. A very very difficult time.

I’ve been working here for a long time and I know what I’m talking about, the man says. You’ve got to get out of here.

He says he is going to help you out.

I watch you remember, now, without knowing it’s what you’re doing, the wounds you had then. Your left hand goes to your right forearm, then to your right leg. I notice there’s a scar on your forehead too, the size of a walnut shell, like someone’s at some point scooped a handful-sized piece out of you.

The man tells you to go, when everyone else is busy eating, to the latrine, and when no one can see, to go through the hedges at a certain place. He tells you where the footpath is. He tells you to follow the footpath all the way.

It’s eight hours to the village. It’s a day when the boss and his wife aren’t at the farm. You go to the latrine. You push through the hedges. You find that path. You walk till it’s dark. You meet nobody. You walk till you get to a village. A woman is cooking under a shade. She sees you. She asks you where you are going. You tell her the man’s name and she takes you to a house.

You sit in this house and you hope you won’t be killed.

You wait there for four hours. The man comes. He says that because they’re already looking for you he has to move you tonight.

You walk almost the whole night to get to a town. You are there in a room for a week. Then the man comes back and another man with him. The other man takes your photograph. We are going to take you somewhere, he says, where you are going to be safe. This is where the white people are, do you want to go there?

You are in the town where the lorry station is for a month until the man comes back with a car. He tells you not to worry. He tells you this all the way through the local villages, all the way to the proper road. You never see that brown earth road again. From now on, instead, you see a lot of lights. Then there’s no lights, then lights again. Then you’re standing at the counter in the airport at the man’s side and there’s a girl, and another boy, and the man.

Say nothing, he says. If they ask you who I am to you, say I am your uncle.

When you get to the other airport, though, it isn’t London. You don’t find out for quite some time. It’s just a shut room that you’re in, and a warehouse. Much later you get to know that it’s called Luton. The shut room is all mattresses on the floor and there are six others and you in the room. There are girls in the room above, men in the room below. That night they give you all chicken and chips and tell you the work will start early so you’d better be ready.

A van comes at 4am. Someone opens the front door. The back of the van, with its door open, is right up against the front door. You and the others get in one by one. The van door closes. It’s dark in the van. You get to the warehouse. You hear the warehouse door go up. The van goes in. The warehouse door comes down again.

Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Four in the morning. Nine at night. Packing shoes. Ladies bags. Sorting dresses. Cleaning microwaves. They give you a cloth for this. Cleaning TVs. Cleaning fridges. They give you a roll of white rubber to wrap the electric things. They give you a winter jacket, one pair of jeans and a towel. They give you two shoes. They tell you it’s cost them a great deal of money to bring you here. They say you’ll be working till you’ve paid it all back. There aren’t beatings but there’s shouting. There is a lot of shouting.

Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Five years. Most weeks all week, 18 hours a day. You sit in silence, now, with me. You hold your head in your hands.

You meet a guy, you tell me. He’s the driver. He takes a liking to you. He says he can get you out of there and find you a cleaning job in London. You trust him.

You say the word trust and it is as if your whole body fills with pain. You sit silent again for a moment.

Then London. One place to the next, one place to the next. But you go to a church. You make some friends at the church. You tell them about your life. They tell you there are things that can be done to make this better. You can write to the Home Office, they tell you, and explain to them what’s happened to you, and the Home Office will help you sort this out.

You do it. You write to the Home Office.

They come. They arrest you.

They put you in prison for six months because the passport you’ve got is the wrong kind.

First it’s prison, then detention. That takes two years. Then they release you for six months. Then they arrest you again. Back to detention, another six months. Then they release you. Any moment now they can arrest you again. They say: We have accepted you are a victim of human trafficking. But to go back to Ghana? You have nobody there to go to. Indefinite leave to remain. That means they’ll arrest you again. They can, any time. We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.

Most of all, you tell me, you want to go to school. Right now you are in a house belonging to a man from your church, and the man who has the house lets you live there. You do cleaning, do errands, you help look after the baby. It is kind of him to let you stay. There isn’t any money. You sleep in the lounge when they’ve gone to bed. There is a chair you can sit in. You just stay at the house, that’s what you do all day, except for the days you have to report. There isn’t any money for any rail or bus tickets. This is sometimes a problem. Central London to East Croydon is a long walk.

You want most to go to college, you tell me in that university, in the room borrowed for two hours. But colleges need ID. The piece of ID you have, the colleges tell you, isn’t enough for colleges.

You don’t tell me about what detention is like until we walk back up to street level through the interminable swing ­doored corridors, up staircases that lead to other corridors.

You stop in the middle of a corridor. You look at me and you say: you would ask God not to send your enemies to detention, where fellow human beings treat you not like human beings.

And being out of detention, and knowing they can put you back in detention? It is all like still being in detention. Detention is never not there.

You have seen things, you tell me, with your own naked eyes. The room there in detention has a window, sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door. And the door in detention is an iron door, and when they come to lock it they bang it. They do it on purpose, to make the great noise that it makes. And there’s no privacy in detention. There’s no religious privacy. This is a terrible thing, you say. And there’s no medication guaranteed in detention. Not even for epilepsy, your headaches. Prison is better. At least in prison there is something to do. But not at the removal centre. They call it the removal centre, you know?

You raise your eyebrows at me.

Removal, you say. When you arrive they remove you from a life. Then they remove your phone from you. They make sure it isn’t the kind with cameras. They take it away for several days, and they put it ‘through security’.

But still, I’m thinking to myself as you speak. It can’t be that bad. It can’t be as bad as prison. And surely there’s a reason to take a phone away to check it. It’s for security, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound so rough, not really, and there’s a window. Albeit a window that doesn’t open. A window, all the same.

I am an idiot. But I’m learning. A mere hour or two with you in a university room and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been being taught is something world-sized.

Later this same day I will go and visit, for another couple of hours, what it is to be a detainee, in this day and age, in our country. No, not even that: what I’ll go and visit is only what it’s like to visit a detainee.

I’ll take the train to the removal centre you told me about, the very place where you’ve been detained then detained again, then any minute now might be detained again.

 

It’s a place so close to a runway that the sound of the planes taking off and landing is its only birdsong. There’s a jolly painted sign above the visitor centre reception desk. PROPERTY CHECK-IN, it says with a big painted tick, for correct, next to it. It’s the first thing I see. Is it a joke? Is it supposed to put people at ease? It’s an obscene irony, and, as I’ll find, maybe the most human thing in the process it takes to visit someone here. There are creatures painted, too, on the back wall of this check-in building, and some toys on the floor beneath them for visiting kids. The painted creatures are meant to be Disney jungle creatures but one looks anguished, as if in pain, and one has huge ferocious teeth.

Everywhere else there are bright information posters proclaiming in words and symbols how people of all origins, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations will be treated equally here.

 

I will have to fill in two forms. I will get given a bright red wristband. VISITOR, it says on it. (Anna, my companion for the afternoon, is a regular visitor of the detainees held in the centre, and will warn me with some urgency not to lose this wristband.) I will have to empty my pockets into a locker, all the pennies and the five pence pieces, all the bits of tissue, crushed receipts, even the little balls of fluff in the linings of the pockets. I will lock the locker door on my own ID, on everything that proves I’m me, and will get given a number instead and a lanyard. Visitor Lanyard 336.

 

I quite often get given lanyards in my job. At literature festivals they’re used as passes into all the events or the hospitality and the green rooms. I throw away several lanyards a year without thinking. This one, the one I’ll be given this afternoon, will render every other lanyard I’ve ever been given and ever will be given from now on nothing but a frippery. The little plastic wallet it’s in will be bent as if it’s been twisted over and over in someone’s hands, chewed by a hundred nervous people or their children – a beaten-up lanyard, a lanyard with a history. I will have to go through a guarded door and then through an airport scanner – no, something much more down market, scale down your vision, more like a body scanner would have been if this was back when I was in my twenties, 30 years ago, and was ill and was claiming invalidity benefit at the DSS and part of that process of signing on had ever involved being body scanned. Before this, a man will write down my number. He will check that I’m me from a photograph that’s already been taken, a minute ago, front of house, by a security camera. After it, a woman will come out of his glass-barrier office. She will make me take my boots off. She will thump them, shake them upside down. She will go through all the pockets of the coat she’s made me take off with more thoroughness than I’ve ever had at any airport. She will find a pencil sharpener and a spare coat button in a little button envelope in my inside pocket. She will hold them both up.

Were you going to use this sharpener to sharpen a pencil and write on this envelope? she will say. No, I’ll say. I didn’t even know that envelope was in there.

As I say it I will feel guilty, though I’m telling nothing but the truth.

She will put the things on a table by the scanner machine.

They may or may not be there when you come out, she’ll say. We take no responsibility for what’s left here.

Then, after she’s searched me from head to feet, the woman will unlock a door and we’ll go into a waiting space and the woman will open another locked door on the other side of the room which will open into a yard with a razor- wire fence so high and encircling such a tiny yard space that it would pass as a literal example of surreality.

Then she’ll unlock another door and we’ll pass into the Visitor Centre H-Block.

There will be placards everywhere. Inside the H-Block the placards will all be inspirational messages about how good the teamwork and the care are here.

Up some stairs there’ll be another security check.

Altogether there are four security checks, before you can visit someone here. Then a man will unlock a door into a big square room, somehow both bright and dim, with blue carpet tiles, blue chairs. We will be shown to a seat. The form we will have signed says we have to take the seat we are shown to, and no other seat. We will do as we’re told. Someone will unlock a different door behind us. The man we’ve come to visit will be shown through this different door.

No, not a man, something closer to a boy – a sweet tired boy, not much past adolescence. He is Vietnamese. He will find his painstaking way in English for just over an hour, telling me he is embarrassed not to be better at speaking it. I will tell him not to worry, that my Vietnamese isn’t up to much. He will laugh at this. The laugh, like a clear little torchbeam, will light up the true and profound state of this young man’s dejection. Anna will tell me later he spoke no English when he arrived here, and the epic nature of the story he tells me in hard-won broken phrases, of the one-and-a-half months hidden in the back of a lorry it took to get him here, will be pretty clear even though all the time I’m trying to listen to him all I’ll be able to hear are the guards of this place, three or sometimes four of them, rattling their keys and their keychains incessantly up and down the length of the room, though there’ll be no one here to guard but us and one other family on the cheap blue seats.

 

Airless, the room, and its windows barred and perspexed – and suddenly I’ll understand what you were telling me this morning, about how a window, when no air can come through it, isn’t the same thing as a window. You didn’t even mention the bars.

I will ask the boy I’m talking to if the windows in this room are the same as the window in his room. Yes, he’ll say. Do they have those bars on them? I’ll say. He will nod gently. I will ask him what the food is like here. The guards, male and female alike, will walk up and down, shaking their keys. It’s okay, he’ll say.

He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese- English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking with each other over and above our conversation and the whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will long to leave.

 

Meanwhile the young man will be looking overjoyed at the slip of paper Anna has given him, which means he can receive a little blank notebook she’s brought for him, though he won’t see it for several days because it’s got to go ‘through security’, though already we will have spent quite a long time, when we arrived in ‘check-in’, filling in forms about the notebook and having the notebook weighed and processed. He will say, several times, how delighted and grateful he is to have had visitors. Two visitors! Anna came! And another person! Like he can’t quite believe his luck. Again this moment of brightness will mean I catch the real low ebb of his spirit.

He will tell us in broken English that his mother, at home, is ill right now, how she doesn’t have a phone, and how someone from home has phoned him and told him. He will tell us he told his friend to tell her how he is fed and has a bed to sleep in. He doesn’t want her to worry, he will say. He will rub his forehead with his thumb between his eyes above his nose, trying to get to the right words. He will struggle, again, for polite enough, good enough words of apology about his English not being better.

 

Then it’s back to the H-Block reception and back through the barbed wire coiled yard. The man unlocking the doors will small-talk Anna and me about the weather. It’ll be a grey, grey English day, the day I go to the detention centre. My pencil sharpener and button will still be on the table and, as we go out, Anna will tell me she is surprised I managed to get through and keep both my pairs of glasses since, a couple of weeks before, she’d been disallowed a pair of clip-on shades she sometimes wears over hers and they’d sent her back to ‘check-in’, made her check in all over again.

We’ll go out to the carpark in the regular noise of the planes, another taking off, another one landing as we drive along the barbed wire airport fences through the new no-man’s-land.

After I get home, because I’ll finally have sensed the real depth of depression in the young man I’ve just met, I’ll do a bit of digging around in what information there is, to see if there’s such a thing as therapeutic help for people in detention.

There isn’t.

Even if you’re traumatised? Even if, when you arrive there, you’ve seen deaths, been tortured? It isn’t provided. Even if you’ve got a mental illness? Like schizophrenia? Surely the place is full of people with post-traumatic stress disorder? Since nobody leaves home for no reason. Nobody crosses the world crushed in a crate in a lorry, drinking his own urine for one-and-half months; nobody gets flung on a plane from one trafficking destination to another, without terrible mental consequence.

For terrible mental consequence what there is is isolation, where the light is on 24 hours a day, where there’s no sheet on the bed and nothing else in the room, and where Security check on you every 15 minutes.

 

When I find this out, I’ll think of you and the epilepsy, and the beatings, and something you said in passing about how difficult, in detention, it is, to get the simplest medication.

Anyway, I’ll be out of there, and on my own safe way home. Anna will drive me to the station. When we get there, she’ll lean over, open the door for me and thank me for making the journey today.

Me? I’ll say. Making a journey? Today?

I’ll think of the young man in the lorry. I’ll think of you on all your roads, the road between the gone school and the farm, the first dirt road the time the boss caught you, the ground coming up to meet you when you fell with the headaches, the footpath to the village, the brown earth road you didn’t see again when the road to the airport took you to another country.

I’ll think of me asking you if you ever had visitors in your own time at the removal centre, and of how your face softens when I do for the only time in our talk.

Yes, you say. Mary.

Then you don’t say anything else.

This morning, in the university room, just before we attempt to find our way again around that building, I ask you if you’ll mind showing me the piece of paper that they give you as the proof of who you are – the proof that’s not enough, when it comes to ID, for colleges.

 

I watch you go through your bags. I realise, by the length of time it takes you to find it, that it is a very painful thing I’ve asked you to do. The longer it takes the more terrible I feel for having asked you to find it and show me.

But there it is at last. You unfold it there between us. It’s an A4 piece of paper, a photocopy whose ink is creased and flaking, beginning to disintegrate in the folds.

I pick it up. I hold it in my hand.

What kind of a life are we living on this earth when a photocopied piece of paper can mean and say more about your life than your life does?

 

On the train home this evening, I’ll think of the moment you say to me, as we’re saying goodbye: people don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.

On that train home, and all these weeks and months later, I’ll still be thinking of the only flash of anger in the whole of your telling me a little of what’s happened to you in this life so far.

It was a moment of anger only. It surfaced and disappeared in less than a breath. Except for this one moment you’re calm, accepting, even forgiving – but for these six syllables, six words, that carry the weight of a planet, weight of the earth – yes, earth, like those roads there under all our feet, whatever surfaces we cover them with, under all our journeys, the roads you walked between one place and another in the mix of fear and hope and the dark falling.

But when I came to this place, when I came to your country, you say.

I sit forward. I’m listening.

You shake your head.

I thought you would help me, you say.

 

 

 
When Suzanne came back from Switzerland, she’d left three-quarters of her body weight behind.  That wasn’t her only loss, however, or the most significant. And I don’t think she’d object if I told you that losing her husband as soon as she got back wasn’t her greatest loss either.

I’d been working mornings as a waiter in a cheap café. When my shift was over, I’d switch to being a customer and enjoy the service until fairly late, and then ride my bicycle back to my humble room. One night I crossed the street not far from a thin girl. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming as if she’d seen a ghost.

Flustered, I fell off the bike, which rolled into the middle of the main street. Meanwhile, the girl started laughing hysterically. Then suddenly she calmed down and said, “Sorry, I’ll make it up to you! Here’s a hundred dollars. But don’t buy a bicycle with it!”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t want to hear the story.”

“No, I’d love to. I’m a sucker for stories.”

“You’ll never ride a bicycle again.”

“That’s all right. Besides, that’ll keep another bicycle from getting in your way.”

“In my way?” she giggled. “No, it won’t. You’ll see!”

I bought a cup of hot coffee from the last street vendor, and Suzanne started telling her story.

“It was a month ago in Lucerne, Switzerland. I got off the bus, happy to have the long ride over with, since my butt was killing me from being squished into the narrow seat all that time.”

“But you’re so skinny,” I interrupted.

“Let me finish the story,” she said. “There’s a group of chalets at the edge of Lake Lucerne that I’d been wanting to visit. I wanted to go there to meet a Frenchman that I’d heard had a phenomenal ability to help people lose weight.”

“But you’re so skinny,” I interrupted her again.

“Let me finish the story, damn it! The village can be reached by boat, or by crossing a bridge. But the bridge had been under repair for years, and getting there by boat wasn’t an option for a big fat girl like me.”

Glaring at me with an unspoken warning not to interrupt her again, she continued, “I decided to get there through a narrow tunnel that had been used in the past by wine-transport wagons. And since it was really late, I decided to rent a bicycle. I saw a guy wearing a tall green fur cap and riding a red mountain bike. Getting straight to the point, I asked him if I could rent it.

“He smiled. ‘It’s a deal,’ he said. ‘But you’re so fat, I’m afraid you might break it. You’d better just buy it from the start. You can have it for 200 bucks!’”

“But you’re skinny as a rail!” I interrupted again.

“You can go to hell,” she snapped. “Just let me finish my story! . . . So I handed the guy 200 bucks. He took it and thanked me. Before leaving, he said, ‘Don’t use the tunnel road. Don’t even think about it. Better wait till morning, or go around the lake.’ But I didn’t pay any attention to him. I got on the bike and headed straight for the tunnel, which was only half-a-kilometer long. Within minutes I’d nearly come out the other end. But just as I was exiting, I noticed something weird. I was exerting a huge effort, and the wheels of the bicycle were turning, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. The road surface was moving, but the bicycle was at a standstill. Before long I realized that it was like riding on a treadmill!”

“Why didn’t you stop?”

“I tried, but whenever I quit pedaling, the bike would start sinking into the asphalt, so I had no choice but to keep going. Exhaustion was killing me. Meanwhile, the street kept moving, and when it was almost sunrise, I thought I was going to die. People I knew would pop out of the darkness and wave at me, saying, ‘Hi, Suzanne!’ Then the moving asphalt would take them away like a conveyor belt, and others would appear, and so on it went.”

“So how did it end?”

“It went on for hours. Then all of a sudden, the bicycle started moving—I don’t know why. Maybe the giant machine that had been moving the roadway stopped. In any case, when I came out of the tunnel, I’d lost two-thirds of my weight, and I looked like a little girl wearing her grandmother’s clothes.”

“What kind of a machine was that?”

“I don’t know. And who’s to say there actually was a machine? I’m just trying to imagine what happened. But that damned bicycle haunts me in my dreams every night, and I run away from it in my sleep.”  

A shiver went through me as I said goodbye to Suzanne. I turned and cast a momentary glance at my wreck of a bike, and when I looked back in her direction, she’d vanished into thin air.

I never met up with that shadow-puppet of a girl again, and I don’t ride bicycles anymore. As for jesters in green hats, I never liked them, even before I heard this story. 

 

I

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.

The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.

He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.

It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.

‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.

‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.

‘Believe in what?’

‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’

‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’

Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’

She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’

Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’

‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.

 

II

 

He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’

Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’

His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’

Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’

‘The use of what?’

‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’

Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’

‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.

Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’

‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’

Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’

‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’

‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’

Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’

‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’

Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’

‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’

The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’

‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’

‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’

Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’

The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’

‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’

Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’

‘Well, what do you call a success?’

Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’

There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.

He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’

He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.

Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.

‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.

‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’

Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’

‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.

‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’

‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’

Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’

‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’

They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’

‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.

‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.

 

III

 

‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’

‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’

‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.

Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’

‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’

They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’

‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.

‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’

‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’

‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’

‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.

And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’

Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’

It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’

‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’

‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.

‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.

‘Then why did you never tell me———?’

‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’

Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’

‘Oh!’ said Lance.

‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’

‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’

‘Oh, one has always something.’

Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’

Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’

‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’

‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’

‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’

Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’

Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’

‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’

‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.

‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’

‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’

‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’

Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’

‘She’d throw him over.’

‘And come round to us?’

Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.

 

IV

 

Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.

His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.

‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’

‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’

‘Still my mother?’

Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’

‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’

Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’

There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?

‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’

‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.

‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’

‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’

‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’

Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’

‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.

The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’

He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’

‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.

Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.

‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.

‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.

It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.

 

 we aRen’T aT all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.

And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.

When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back — it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.

On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets — but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.

The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a ‘little place’. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say ‘in’, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do — it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor — but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.

So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.

On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver — I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough — he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name — he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.

I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.

Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.

‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’

‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’

‘Oh, do you listen to music?’

I wondered what he thought we might listen to — the speeches of Enoch Powell — but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’

‘Mind if I twiddle?’

‘Be my guest.’

‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)

He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.

‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.

In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.

‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’

‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’

Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’

‘It must get tiring.’

‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’

‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’

‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’

‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’

I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.

We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.

‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’

‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’

Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’

‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’

‘Do you feel sympathy?’

‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’

‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’

He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab — as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.

‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’

He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’

‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’

‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’

Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’

Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’

I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’

‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’

I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’

‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’

‘You say potato.’

‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards a l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’

Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’

‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’

‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’

‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’

‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’

‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’

I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’

He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’

‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’

‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’

We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.

Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’

‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’

‘But seriously?’

‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’

‘God! Have you ever done that?’

‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’

I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’

‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’

He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’

‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’

Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’

It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.

Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.

‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’

‘There is that, I suppose.’

‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’

‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’

‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’

‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’

‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’

‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’

‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’

He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’

‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’

We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.

‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’

‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’

‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.

The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.

I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.

After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’

‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’

Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’

‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’

‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’

‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’

He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.

‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’

We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.

‘How many times have you done this?’

‘Enough.’

‘Do they pay you for it?’

I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’

‘So why do you do it?’

‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’

‘What made you start?’

‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’

‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’

I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’

‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’

The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.

‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.

He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’

This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us.  We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I.  My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.

It was a very quiet life.  The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village.  Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home.  Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live.  But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.

I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world.  Its splendors stunned me and dazed me.  We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth.  For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.

There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic.  My father was very agitated when the news of his death came.  “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over.  I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.”  I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional.  So I had a second visit to the capital that year.

Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul.  This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course.  You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair.  We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus!  Long live the Consul!”

(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch.  I was very surprised at that.  My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders.  He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one.  The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch.  I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium.  It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier.  To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor.  But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time.  Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)

Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere.  I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school.  Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious.  And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.

 

***

 

There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building.  “I’ve seen it myself,” he said.  “The ghost, I mean.  He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”

I didn’t believe him.  I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost.   Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it.  For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much.  My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living.  For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.

But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there.  Everyone in the village knew that.  It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together.  Hardly anyone ever went there.  The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.

It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that.  My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort.  Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her.  My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be?  I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.

But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone.  This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure.  The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by.  You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves.  I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest.  So I took my sister along.

I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted.  Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging.  What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found. 

Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god.  (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors.  This made my grandmother angry, naturally.  “But we are Romans,” she would say.  “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)

It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going.  The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often.  We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there.  (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)

Then we got into deeper, darker territory.  The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here.   Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves.  I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak.  I hadn’t mentioned it to her.  So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.

Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness.  The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor.  But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here.  We’d been hiking for hours, now.  I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back. 

It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides.  I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her.  And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.

“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.

“There,” said Friya.  “Look.”

I followed her pointing hand.  At first all I saw was more forest.  But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge.  Yes!  Yes, it was!  I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.

So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house.  In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.

And then I saw the ghost.

He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls.  His clothing hung in rags.  He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast.  I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.

For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified.  Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.

“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured.  “There really is a ghost here!”

Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her.  But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly.  He’s nothing but a scared old man.”  And went to him unhesitatingly.

 

              ***

 

Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times.  The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds.  Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though.  There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.

He was terrified of us.  “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking.  Latin was what he spoke.  “Are you here to arrest me?  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I’m not any kind of a danger.  I’m only the caretaker.”  His lips quavered.  “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.

“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him.  “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”

“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.

We laid him out on a couch.  There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow.  He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much.  We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food.  Then he closed his eyes without a word.  I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off.  We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.

“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken.  Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings.  No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here.  In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more.  I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger.  Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was.  Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another.  And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.

When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened.  Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.

“From the village, are you?  How old are you?  What are your names?”

“This is Friya,” I said.  “I’m Tyr.  She’s nine and I’m twelve.”     

“Friya.  Tyr.”  He laughed.  “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh?  But times have changed.”  There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant.  He gave us a confidential, intimate smile.  “Do you know whose place this was, you two?  The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who!  This was his hunting lodge.  Caesar himself!  He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”

He began to cough and sputter.  Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.

“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir.  You don’t have the strength.”

“You’re right.  You’re right.”  He patted her hand.  His was like a skeleton’s.  “How long ago it all was.  But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ”  A look of torment, of sorrow.  “There isn’t any Caesar, is there?  First Consul!  Hail!  Hail Junius Scaevola!”  His voice cracked as he raised it.

“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him.  “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”

“Dead?  Scaevola?  Is it so?”  He shrugged.  “I hear so little news.  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “

 

***

 

But of course he wasn’t the caretaker.  Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall.  You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags.  But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes.  It was the royal face, all right.  I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things.  The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself.  Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.

He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit.  He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.

But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.

For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said.  “It’s thousands of years old.  You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you?  You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?”  And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.

That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges.  I looked at them, mystified.  “From Nova Roma,” he explained.  “Where the redskinned people live.  The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are.  He went there almost every year to hunt.  Do you see the trophies?”  And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.

We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer.  He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead.  “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us.  Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging.  In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother.  It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it.  But he was grateful.  Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt.  He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me.  I wondered about that.  If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood.  But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.

Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home.  “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr?  Or the Emperor himself?”

“What?”

“He’s got to be one or the other.  It’s the same face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”

“The big portrait on the wall, silly.  Of the Emperor.  Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”

I thought she was out of her mind.  But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.

What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day.  “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said.  “But you can have these.  You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand.  As relics of history.”  His voice was bitter.  From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver.  “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said.  They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man.  “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”

“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.

Indeed he did.  Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker.  I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him.  He began to tremble.  I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again.  “No,” he said faintly.  “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ”  And his shoulders shook and he began to cry.  Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little.  He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back.  “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked.  And his tale came pouring out of him.

A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur.  He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius.  He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.

Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power.  We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny.  To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.

Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths.  Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week.  Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi.  Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.

Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained.  But in the confusion he was overlooked.  He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne.  Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.

“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us.  “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of.  The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead.  The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.

After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”

“And when did you come here?” I asked.

“Almost twenty years ago.  Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I

could live here undisturbed.  And so I have.  And so I will, for however much time is left.”  He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass.  He drank it in a single gulp.  “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost!  What madness it was, to destroy the Empire!  What greatness existed then!”

“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.

I kicked her ankle.  She gave me a sour look.

Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village.  We were trained to see the entire world in a glance.  The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire.  Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all?  Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul?  Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long.  Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form.  But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last?  If one man can take power, so can another, or another.  There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words.  Or fifty.  And every province will want to be an Empire in itself.  Mark my words, children.  Mark my words.”

I had never heard such treason in my life.  Or anything so wrongheaded.

The Pax Romana?  What Pax Romana?  Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries.  But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification?  And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica?  No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force.  The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic.  So my father had taught me.

But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood.  Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these.  I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty.  And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.

When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said.  “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure.  All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered.  When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them?  But I want you to have these.  Because you’ve been so kind to me.  To remember me by.  And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”

For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire.  For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus.  And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.

The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day.  We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it.  She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.

“Where did you get this thing?  Where?”

I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much.  But as usual she was ahead of me.

“We found it, grandmother.  We dug it up.”

“You dug it up?”

“In the forest,” I put in.  “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around.  There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “

She turned it over and over in her hands.  I had never seen her look so troubled.  “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno!  I want you to swear to me before the Goddess.  And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”

Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.

Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother.  I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “

I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too.  It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.

She held the figurine out, its base toward me.  “Do you see these marks here?  This little crest stamped down here?  It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr.  That’s the mark of Caesar.  This carving once belonged to the Emperor.  Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest?  Come, both of you!  To the altar, and swear!”

“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly.  “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”

“Of course not, child.  Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”

“The haunted house in the woods,” she said.  And I nodded my confirmation.  What could I do?  She would have taken us to the altar to swear.

 

***          

 

Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was.  The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.

Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense.  And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother.  He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended.  And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors.  But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble.  We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic.  Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.

We were children.  We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.

Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting.  Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions.  Then things returned to normal.  My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.

That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar.  Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was.  I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself.  A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars.  But, as I say, we were children then.  We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism.  Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.

“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later.  “Stay away from it.  Do you hear me?  Stay away.”

And so we would have, because it was plainly an order.  We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.

But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house.  Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle.  “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say.  “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”

“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked.  “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”

“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said.  “Rifles don’t have ghosts.  It’s a real rifle.  And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”

I repeated all this to Friya.

“What should we do?” I asked her.

“Go out there and warn him.  They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”

“But father said – “

“Even so.  The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide.  Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”

There was no arguing with her.  Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself.  That left me with no choice.  I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.

“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge.  “I can tell.”

Friya always had a strange way of knowing things.  I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.

We crept forward warily.  There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced.  Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other.  I took a deep breath.

“You wait here,” I said, and went in.

It was frightful in there.  The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments.  Someone had slashed every painting to shreds.  The collection of arms and armor was gone.

I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius.  He wasn’t there.  But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.

Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.

“We’re too late,” I told her.

 

***

 

It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course.  They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job.  I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had.  So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall.  I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.

Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down.  I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line.  During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”

“A long time ago, yes.”

I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.

Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it.  And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”

He seemed taken off guard by that.  He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled.  “So you heard about that, did you?”

“I wondered if there was any truth to it.  That he was a Caesar, I mean.”

Lucentius glanced away.  “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone.  “An old lying tramp.  Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.”  He gave me a peculiar look.  And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.

A filthy old tramp, yes.  But not, I think, a liar.

He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire.  And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying.  Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them.  But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.

For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume.  These matters are not so simple.  The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt.  The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil.  What if there had been no Roma?  What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build?  Imagine the madness of it!  But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage.  Or so I think now.

In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it.  I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus.  Now and then I take it out and look at it.  It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight.  My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago.  Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade.  For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire.  As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.

During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.

But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.

The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.

Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.

One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.

“Swimming,” said Changming.

Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?

“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”

“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”

“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”

“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.

When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.

“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”

Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.

“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.

Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.

“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”

“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.

“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”

Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”

“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”

“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”

“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”

Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.

“Must?” her father said.

“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”

Must and must again.”

She said nothing.

“Your need is strong.”

She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.

“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.

The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.

She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.

Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.

Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.

She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.

She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.

Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.

 


Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.

One of the robots offered to carry Pico for the last hundred meters, on its back or cradled in its padded arms; but she shook her head emphatically, telling it, “Thank you, no. I can make it myself.” The ground was grassy and soft, lit by glowglobes and the grass-colored moon. It wasn’t a difficult walk, even with her bad hip, and she wasn’t an invalid. She could manage, she thought with an instinctive independence. And as if to show them, she struck out ahead of the half-dozen robots as they unloaded the big skimmer, stacking Pico’s gifts in their long arms. She was halfway across the paddock before they caught her. By then she could hear the muddled voices and laughter coming from the hill-like tent straight ahead. By then she was breathing fast for reasons other than her pain. For fear, mostly. But it was a different flavor of fear than the kinds she knew. What was happening now was beyond her control, and inevitable … and it was that kind of certainty that made her stop after a few more steps, one hand rubbing at her hip for no reason except to delay her arrival. If only for a moment or two….

“Are you all right?” asked one robot.

She was gazing up at the tent, dark and smooth and gently rounded. “I don’t want to be here,” she admitted. “That’s all.” Her life on board the Kyber had been spent with robots — they had outnumbered the human crew ten to one, then more — and she could always be ruthlessly honest with them. “This is madness. I want to leave again.”

“Only, you can’t,” responded the ceramic creature. The voice was mild, unnervingly patient. “You have nothing to worry about.”

“I know.”

“The technology has been perfected since —”

“I know.”

It stopped speaking, adjusting its hold on the colorful packages.

“That’s not what I meant,” she admitted. Then she breathed deeply, holding the breath for a moment and exhaling, saying, “All right. Let’s go. Go.”

The robot pivoted and strode toward the giant tent. The leading robots triggered the doorway, causing it to fold upward with a sudden rush of golden light flooding across the grass, Pico squinting and then blinking, walking faster now and allowing herself the occasional low moan.

“Ever wonder how it’ll feelf” Tyson had asked her.

The tent had been pitched over a small pond, probably that very day, and in places the soft, thick grasses had been matted flat by people and their robots. So many people, she thought. Pico tried not to look at any faces. For a moment, she gazed at the pond, shallow and richly green, noticing the tamed waterfowl sprinkled over it and along its shoreline. Ducks and geese, she realized. And some small, crimson-headed cranes. Lifting her eyes, she noticed the large, omega-shaped table near the far wall. She couldn’t count the place settings, but it seemed a fair assumption there were sixty-three of them. Plus a single round table and chair in the middle of the omega — my table — and she took another deep breath, looking higher, noticing floating glowglobes and several indigo swallows flying around them, presumably snatching up the insects that were drawn to the yellow-white light.

People were approaching. Since she had entered, in one patient rush, all sixty-three people had been climbing the slope while shouting, “Pico!

 

Hello!” Their voices mixed together, forming a noisy, senseless paste. “Greetings!” they seemed to say. “Hello, hello!”

They were brightly dressed, flowing robes swishing and everyone wearing big-rimmed hats made to resemble titanic flowers. The people sharply contrasted with the gray-white shells of the robot servants. Those hats were a new fashion, Pico realized. One of the little changes made during these past decades … and finally she made herself look at the faces themselves, offering a forced smile and taking a step backward, her belly aching, but her hip healed. The burst of adrenaline hid the deep ache in her bones. Wrestling one of her hands into a wave, she told her audience, “Hello,” with a near-whisper. Then she swallowed and said, “Greetings to you!” Was that her voice? She very nearly didn’t recognize it.

A woman broke away from the others, almost running toward her. Her big, flowery hat began to work free, and she grabbed the fat, petalish brim and began to fan herself with one hand, the other hand touching Pico on the shoulder. The palm was damp and quite warm; the air suddenly stank of overly sweet perfumes. It was all Pico could manage not to cough. The woman —- what was her name? — was asking, “Do you need to sit? We heard… about your accident. You poor girl. All the way fine, and then on the last world. Of all the luck!”

Her hip. The woman was jabbering about her sick hip.

Pico nodded and confessed, “Sitting would be nice, yes.”

A dozen voices shouted commands. Robots broke into runs, racing one another around the pond to grab the chair beside the little table. The drama seemed to make people laugh. A nervous, self-conscious laugh. When the lead robot reached the chair and started back, there was applause. Another woman shouted, “Mine won! Mine won!” She threw her hat into the air and tried to follow it, leaping as high as possible.

Some man cursed her sharply, then giggled.

Another man forced his way ahead, emerging from the packed bodies in front of Pico. He was smiling in a strange fashion. Drunk or drugged… what was permissible these days? With a sloppy, earnest voice, he asked, “How’d it happen? The hip thing … how’d you do it?”

He should know. She had dutifully filed her reports throughout the mission, squirting them home. Hadn’t he seen them? But then she noticed the watchful, excited faces — no exceptions — and someone seemed to read her thoughts, explaining, “We’d love to hear it firsthand. Tell, tell, tell!”

As if they needed to hear a word, she thought, suddenly feeling quite cold.

Her audience grew silent. The robot arrived with the promised chair, and she sat and stretched her bad leg out in front of her, working to focus her mind. It was touching, their silence… reverent and almost childlike… and she began by telling them how she had tried climbing Miriam Prime with two other crew members. Miriam Prime was the tallest volcano on a brutal super-Venusian world; it was brutal work because of the terrain and their massive lifesuits, cumbersome refrigeration units strapped to their backs, and the atmosphere thick as water. Scalding and acidic. Carbon dioxide and water made for a double greenhouse effect…. And she shuddered, partly for dramatics and partly from the memory. Then she. said, “Brutal,” once again, shaking her head thoughtfully.

They had used hyperthreads to climb the steepest slopes and the cliffs. Normally hyperthreads were virtually unbreakable; but Miriam was not a normal world. She described the basalt cliff and the awful instant of the tragedy; the clarity of the scene startled her. She could feel the heat seeping into her suit, see the dense, dark air, and her arms and legs shook with exhaustion. She told sixty-three people how it felt to be suspended on an invisible thread, two friends and a winch somewhere above in the acidic fog. The winch had jammed without warning, she told; the worst bad luck made it jam where the thread was its weakest. This was near the mission’s end, and all the equipment was tired. Several dozen alien worlds had been visited, many mapped for the first time, and every one of them examined up close. As planned.

“Everything has its limits,” she told them, her voice having an ominous quality that she hadn’t intended.

Even hyperthreads had limits. Pico was dangling, talking to her companions by radio; and just as the jam was cleared, a voice saying, “There… got it!”, the thread parted. He didn’t have any way to know it had parted. Pico was falling, gaining velocity, and the poor man was ignorantly telling her, “It’s running strong. You’ll be up in no time, no problem….”

People muttered to themselves.

“Oh my,” they said.

“Gosh.”

“Shit.”

Their excitement was obvious, perhaps even overdone. Pico almost laughed, thinking they were making fun of her storytelling … thinking, What do they know about such things! … Only, they were sincere, she realized a moment later. They were enraptured with the image of Pico’s long fall, her spinning and lashing out with both hands, fighting to grab anything and slow her fall any way possible —

— and she struck a narrow shelf of eroded stone, the one leg shattered and telescoping down to a gruesome stump. Pico remembered the painless shock of the impact and that glorious instant free of all sensation. She was alive, and the realization had made her giddy. Joyous. Then the pain found her head — a great nauseating wave of pain — and she heard her distant friends shouting, “Pico? Are you there? Can you hear us? Oh Pico… Pico! Answer us!”

She had to remain absolutely motionless, sensing that any move would send her tumbling again. She answered in a whisper, telling her friends that she was alive, yes, and please, please hurry. But they had only a partial thread left, and it would take them more than half an hour to descend… and she spoke of her agony and the horror, her hip and leg screaming, and not just from the impact. It was worse than mere broken bone, the lifesuit’s insulation damaged and the heat bleeding inward, slowly and thoroughly cooking her living flesh.

Pico paused, gazing out at the round-mouthed faces.

So many people and not a breath of sound; and she was having fun. She realized her pleasure almost too late, nearly missing it. Then she told them, “I nearly died,” and shrugged her shoulders. “All the distances traveled, every imaginable adventure… and I nearly died on one of our last worlds, doing an ordinary climb….”

Let them appreciate her luck, she decided. Their luck.

Then another woman lifted her purple flowery hat with both hands, pressing it flush against her own chest. “Of course you survived!” she proclaimed. “You wanted to come home, Pico! You couldn’t stand the thought of dying.”

Pico nodded without comment, then said, “I was rescued. Obviously.” She flexed the damaged leg, saying, “I never really healed,” and she touched her hip with reverence, admitting, “We didn’t have the resources on board the Kyber. This was the best our medical units could do.”

Her mood shifted again, without warning. Suddenly she felt sad to tears, eyes dropping and her mouth clamped shut.

“We worried about you, Pico!”

“All the time, dear!”

“… in our prayers …!”

Voices pulled upon each other, competing to be heard. The faces were smiling and thoroughly sincere. Handsome people, she was thinking. Clean and civilized and older than her by centuries. Some of them were more than a thousand years old.

Look at them! she told herself.

And now she felt fear. Pulling both legs toward her chest, she hugged herself, weeping hard enough to dampen her trouser legs; and her audience said, “But you made it, Pico! You came home! The wonders you’ve seen, the places you’ve actually touched… with those hands…. And we’re so proud of you! So proud! You’ve proven your worth a thousand times, Pico! You’re made of the very best stuff —!”

— which brought laughter, a great clattering roar of laughter, the joke obviously and apparently tireless.

Even after so long.

 

***

 

They were Pico; Pico was they.

Centuries ago, during the Blossoming, technologies had raced forward at an unprecedented rate. Starships like the Kybei and a functional immortality had allowed the first missions to the distant worlds, and there were some grand adventures. Yet adventure requires some element of danger; exploration has never been a safe enterprise. Despite precautions, there were casualties. People who had lived for centuries died suddenly, oftentimes in stupid accidents; and it was no wonder that after the first wave of missions came a long moratorium. No new starships were built, and no sensible person would have ridden inside even the safest vessel. Why risk yourself? Whatever the benefits, why taunt extinction when you have a choice.

Only recently had a solution been invented. Maybe it was prompted by the call of deep space, though Tyson used to claim, “It’s the boredom on Earth that inspired them. That’s why they came up with their elaborate scheme.”

 

The near-immortals devised ways of making highly gifted, highly trained crews from themselves. With computers and genetic engineering, groups of people could pool their qualities and create compilation humans. Sixty-three individuals had each donated moneys and their own natures, and Pico was the result. She was a grand and sophisticated average of the group. Her face was a blending of every face; her body was a feminine approximation of their own varied bodies. In a few instances, the engineers had planted synthetic genes — for speed and strength, for example — and her brain had a subtly different architecture. Yet basically Pico was their offspring, a stewlike clone. The second of two clones, she knew. The first clone created had had subtle flaws, and he was painlessly destroyed just before birth.

Pico and Tyson and every other compilation person had been born at adult size. Because she was the second attempt, and behind schedule, Pico was thrown straight into her training. Unlike the other crew members, she had spent only a minimal time with her parents. Her sponsors. Whatever they were calling themselves. That and the long intervening years made it difficult to recognize faces and names. She found herself gazing out at them, believing they were strangers, their tireless smiles hinting at something predatory. The neat white teeth gleamed at her, and she wanted to shiver again, holding the knees closer to her mouth.

Someone suggested opening the lovely gifts.

A good idea. She agreed, and the robots brought down the stacks of boxes, placing them beside and behind her. The presents were a young tradition; when she was leaving Earth, the first compilation people were returning with little souvenirs of their travels. Pico had liked the gesture and had done the same. One after another, she started reading the names inscribed in her own flowing handwriting. Then each person stepped forward, thanking her for the treasure, then greedily unwrapping it, the papers flaring into bright colors as they were bent and twisted and torn, then tossed aside for the robots to collect.

She knew none of these people, and that was wrong. What she should have done, she realized, was go into the Kybei’s records and memorize names and faces. It would have been easy enough, and proper, and she felt guilty for never having made the effort.

It wasn’t merely genetics that she shared with these people; she also embodied slivers of their personalities and basic tendencies. Inside Pico’s sophisticated womb, the computers had blended together their shrugs and tongue clicks and the distinctive patterns of their speech. She had emerged as an approximation of every one of them; yet why didn’t she feel a greater closeness? Why wasn’t there a strong, tangible bond here?

Or was there something — only, she wasn’t noticing it?

One early gift was a slab of mirrored rock. “From Tween V,” she explained. “What it doesn’t reflect, it absorbs and reemits later. I kept that particular piece in my own cabin, fixed to the outer wall —”

“Thank you, thank you,” gushed the woman.

For an instant, Pico saw herself reflected on the rock. She looked much older than these people. Tired, she thought. Badly weathered. In the cramped starship, they hadn’t the tools to revitalize aged flesh, nor had there been the need. Most of the voyage had been spent in cold-sleep. Their waking times, added together, barely exceeded forty years of biological activity.

“Look at this!” the woman shouted, turning and waving her prize at the others. “Isn’t it lovely?”

“A shiny rock,” teased one voice. “Perfect!”

Yet the woman refused to be anything but impressed. She clasped her prize to her chest and giggled, merging with the crowd and then vanishing.

They look like children, Pico told herself.

At least how she imagined children to appear… unworldly and spoiled, needing care and infinite patience….

She read the next name, and a new woman emerged to collect her gift. “My, what a large box!” She tore at the paper, then the box’s lid, then eased her hands into the dunnage of white foam. Pico remembered wrapping this gift — one of the only ones where she was positive of its contents — and she happily watched the smooth, elegant hands pulling free a greasy and knob-faced nut. Then Pico explained:

“It’s from the Yult Tree on Proxima Centauri 2.” The only member of the species on that strange little world. “If you wish, you can break its dormancy with liquid nitrogen. Then plant it in pure quartz sand, never anything else. Sand, and use red sunlight —”

“I know how to cultivate them,” the woman snapped.

There was a sudden silence, uneasy and prolonged.

Finally Pico said, “Well… good….”

“Everyone knows about Yult nuts,” the woman explained. “They’re practically giving them away at the greeneries now.”

Someone spoke sharply, warning her to stop and think.

“I’m sorry,” she responded. “If I sound ungrateful, I mean. I was just thinking, hoping … I don’t know. Never mind.”

A weak, almost inconsequential apology, and the woman paused to feel the grease between her fingertips.

The thing was, Pico thought, that she had relied on guesswork in selecting these gifts. She had decided to represent every alien world, and she felt proud of herself on the job accomplished. Yult Trees were common on Earth? But how could she know such a thing? And besides, why should it matter? She had brought the nut and everything else because she’d taken risks, and these people were obviously too ignorant and silly to appreciate what they were receiving.

Rage had replaced her fear.

Sometimes she heard people talking among themselves, trying to trade gifts. Gemstones and pieces of alien driftwood were being passed about like orphans. Yet nobody would release the specimens of odd life-forms from living worlds, transparent canisters holding bugs and birds and whatnot inside preserving fluids or hard vacuums. If only she had known what she couldn’t have known, these silly brats…. And she found herself swallowing, holding her breath, and wanting to scream at all of them.

Pico was a compilation, yet she wasn’t.

She hadn’t lived one day as these people had lived their entire lives. She didn’t know about comfort or changelessness, and with an attempt at empathy, she tried to imagine such an incredible existence.

Tyson used to tell her, “Shallowness is a luxury. Maybe the ultimate luxury.” She hadn’t understood him. Not really. “Only the rich can master true frivolity.” Now those words echoed back at her, making her think of Tyson. That intense and angry man … the opposite of frivolity, the truth told.

And with that, her mood shifted again. Her skin tingled. She felt nothing for or against her audience. How could they help being what they were? How could anyone help their nature? And with that, she found herself reading another name on another unopened box. A little box, she saw. Probably another one of the unpopular gemstones, born deep inside an alien crust and thrown out by forces unimaginable….

 

There was a silence, an odd stillness, and she repeated the name.

 

“Opera? Opera Ting?”

Was it her imagination, or was there a nervousness running through the audience? Just what was happening —?

“Excuse me?” said a voice from the back. “Pardon?”

People began moving aside, making room, and a figure emerged. A male, something about him noticeably different. He moved with a telltale lightness, with a spring to his gait. Smiling, he took the tiny package while saying, “Thank you,” with great feeling. “For my father, thank you. I’m sure he would have enjoyed this moment. I only wish he could have been here, if only…”

Father? Wasn’t this Opera Ting?

Pico managed to nod, then she asked, “Where is he? I mean, is he busy somewhere?”

“Oh no. He died, I’m afraid.” The man moved differently because he was different. He was young — even younger than I, Pico realized — and he shook his head, smiling in a serene way. Was he a clone? A biological child? What? “But on his behalf,” said the man, “I wish to thank you. Whatever this gift is, I will treasure it. I promise you. I know you must have gone through hell to find it and bring it to me, and thank you so very much, Pico. Thank you, thank you. Thank you!”

Death.

An appropriate intruder in the evening’s festivities, thought Pico. Some accident, some kind of tragedy… something had killed one of her sixty-three parents, and that thought pleased her. There was a pang of guilt woven into her pleasure, but not very much. It was comforting to know that even these people weren’t perfectly insulated from death; it was a force that would grasp everyone, given time. Like it had taken Midge, she thought. And Uoo, she thought. And Tyson.

Seventeen compilated people had embarked on Kyber, representing almost a thousand near-immortals. Only nine had returned, including Pico. Eight friends were lost… Lost was a better word than death, she decided… And usually it happened in places worse than any Hell conceived by human beings.

After Opera — his name, she learned, was the same as his father’s — the giving of the gifts settled into a routine. Maybe it was because of the young man’s attitude. People seemed more polite, more self-contained. Someone had the presence to ask for another story. Anything she wished to tell. And Pico found herself thinking of a watery planet circling a distant red-dwarf sun, her voice saying, “Coldtear,” and watching faces nod in unison. They recognized the name, and it was too late. It wasn’t the story she would have preferred to tell, yet she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Coldtear was on her mind.

Just tell parts, she warned herself.

What you can stand!

The world was terran-class and covered with a single ocean frozen on its surface and heated from below. By tides, in part. And by Coldtear’s own nuclear decay. It had been Tyson’s idea to build a submersible and dive to the ocean’s remote floor. He used spare parts in Kyber’s machine shop — the largest room on board — then he’d taken his machine to the surface, setting it on the red-stained ice and using lasers and robot help to bore a wide hole and keep it clear.

Pico described the submersible, in brief, then mentioned that Tyson had asked her to accompany him. She didn’t add that they’d been lovers now and again, nor that sometimes they had feuded. She’d keep those parts of the story to herself for as long as possible.

 

The submersible’s interior was cramped and ascetic, and she tried to impress her audience with the pressures that would build on the hyperfiber hull. Many times the pressure found in Earth’s oceans, she warned; and Tyson’s goal was to set down on the floor, then don a lifesuit protected with a human-shaped force field, actually stepping outside and taking a brief walk.

 

“Because we need to leave behind footprints,” he had argued. “Isn’t that why we’ve come here? We can’t just leave prints up on the ice. It moves and melts, wiping itself clean every thousand years or so.”

“But isn’t that the same below?” Pico had responded. “New muds rain down — slowly, granted — and quakes cause slides and avalanches.”

“So we pick right. We find someplace where our marks will be quietly covered. Enshrouded. Made everlasting.”

She had blinked, surprised that Tyson cared about such things.

“I’ve studied the currents,” he explained, “and the terrain —”

“Are you serious?” Yet you couldn’t feel certain about Tyson. He was a creature full of surprises. “All this trouble, and for what —?”

“Trust me, Pico. Trust me!”

Tyson had had an enormous laugh. His parents, sponsors, whatever—an entirely different group of people — had purposefully made him larger than the norm. They had selected genes for physical size, perhaps wanting Tyson to dominate the Kyber’s crew in at least that one fashion. If his own noise was to be believed, that was the only tinkering done to him. Otherwise, he was a pure compilation of his parents’ traits, fiery and passionate to a fault. It was a little unclear to Pico what group of people could be so uniformly aggressive; yet Tyson had had his place in their tight-woven crew, and he had had his charms in addition to his size and the biting intelligence.

“Oh Pico,” he cried out. “What’s this about, coming here? If it’s not about leaving traces of our passage . . . then what!”

“It’s about going home again,” she had answered.

“Then why do we leave the Kyber! Why not just orbit Coldtear and send down our robots to explore?”

“Because….”

“Indeed! Because!” The giant head nodded, and he put a big hand on her shoulder. “I knew you’d see my point. I just needed to give you time, my friend.”

She agreed to the deep dive, but not without misgivings.

And during their descent, listening to the ominous creaks and groans of the hull while lying flat on their backs, the misgivings began to reassert themselves.

It was Tyson’s fault, and maybe his aim.

No, she thought. It was most definitely his aim.

At first, she thought it was some game, him asking, “Do you ever wonder how it will feel? We come home and are welcomed, and then our dear parents disassemble our brains and implant them —”

Quiet,” she interrupted. “We agreed. Everyone agreed. We aren’t going to talk about it, all right?”

A pause, then he said, “Except, I know. How it feels, I mean.”

She heard him, then she listened to him take a deep breath from the close, damp air; and finally she had strength enough to ask, “How can you know?”

When Tyson didn’t answer, she rolled onto her side and saw the outline of his face. A handsome face, she thought. Strong and incapable of any doubts. This was the only taboo subject among the compilations — “How will it feel?” — and it was left to each of them to decide what they believed.

 

Was it a fate or a reward? To be subdivided and implanted into the minds of dozens and dozens of near-immortals….

It wasn’t a difficult trick, medically speaking.

After all, each of their minds had been designed for this one specific goal. Memories and talent; passion and training. All of the qualities would be saved — diluted, but, in the same instant, gaining their own near- immortality. Death of a sort, but a kind of everlasting life, too.

That was the creed by which Pico had been born and raised.

The return home brings a great reward, and peace.

Pico’s first memory was of her birth, spilling slippery-wet from the womb and coughing hard, a pair of doctoring robots bent over her, whispering to her, “Welcome, child. Welcome. You’ve been born from them to be joined with them when it is time… We promise you. ..!”

Comforting noise, and mostly Pico had believed it.

But Tyson had to say, “I know how it feels, Pico,” and she could make out his grin, his amusement patronizing. Endless.

“How?” she muttered. “How do you know — ?”

“Because some of my parents … well, let’s just say that I’m not their first time. Understand me?”

“They made another compilation?”

“One of the very first, yes. Which was incorporated into them before I was begun, and which was incorporated into me because there was a spare piece. A leftover chunk of the mind —”

“You’re making this up, Tyson!”

Except, he wasn’t, she sensed. Knew. Several times, on several early worlds, Tyson had seemed too knowledgeable about too much. Nobody could have prepared himself that well, she realized. She and the others had assumed that Tyson was intuitive in some useful way. Part of him was from another compilation? From someone like them? A fragment of the man had walked twice beside the gray dust sea of Pliicker, and it had twice climbed the giant ant mounds on Proxima Centauri 2. It was a revelation, unnerving and hard to accept; and just the memory of that instant made her tremble secretly, facing her audience, her tired blood turning to ice.

Pico told none of this to her audience.

Instead, they heard about the long descent and the glow of rare life-forms outside — a thin plankton consuming chemical energies as they found them — and, too, the growing creaks of the spherical hull.

 

They didn’t hear how she asked, “So how does it feel? You’ve got a piece of compilation inside you… all right! Are you going to tell me what it’s like?”

They didn’t hear about her partner’s long, deep laugh.

Nor could they imagine him saying, “Pico, my dear. You’re such a passive, foolish creature. That’s why I love you. So docile, so damned innocent —”

“Does it live inside you, Tyson?”

“It depends on what you consider life.”

“Can you feel its presence? I mean, does it have a personality? An existence? Or have you swallowed it all up?”

“I don’t think I’ll tell.” Then the laugh enlarged, and the man lifted his legs and kicked at the hyperfiber with his powerful muscles. She could hear, and feel, the solid impacts of his bootheals. She knew that Tyson’s strength was nothing compared to the ocean’s mass bearing down on them, their hull scarcely feeling the blows… yet some irrational part of her was terrified. She had to reach out, grasping one of his trouser legs and tugging hard, telling him:

“Don’t! Stop that! Will you please… quit!?”

The tension shifted direction in an instant.

Tyson said, “I was lying,” and then added, “About knowing. About having a compilation inside me.” And he gave her a huge hug, laughing in a different way now. He nearly crushed her ribs and lungs. Then he spoke into one of her ears, offering more, whispering with the old charm, and she accepting his offer. They did it as well as possible, considering their circumstances and the endless groaning of their tiny vessel; and she remembered all of it while her voice, detached but thorough, described how they had landed on top of something rare. There was a distinct crunch of stone. They had made their touchdown on the slope of a recent volcano — an island on an endless plain of mud — and afterward they dressed in their lifesuits, triple-checked their force fields, then flooded the compartment and crawled into the frigid, pressurized water.

It was an eerie, almost indescribable experience to walk on that ocean floor. When language failed Pico, she tried to use silence and oblique gestures to capture the sense of endless time and the cold and darkness. Even when Tyson ignited the submersible’s outer lights, making the nearby terrain bright as late afternoon, there was the palpable taste of endless dark just beyond. She told of feeling the pressure despite the force field shrouding her; she told of climbing after Tyson, scrambling up a rough slope of youngish rock to a summit where they discovered a hot-water spring that pumped heated, mineral-rich water up at them.

That might have been the garden spot of Coldtear. Surrounding the spring was a thick, almost gelatinous mass of gray-green bacteria, pulsating and fat by its own standards. She paused, seeing the scene all over again. Then she assured her parents, “It had a beauty. I mean it. An elegant, minimalist beauty.”

Nobody spoke.

Then someone muttered, “I can hardly wait to remember it,” and gave a weak laugh.

The audience became uncomfortable, tense and too quiet. People shot accusing looks at the offender, and Pico worked not to notice any of it. A bitterness was building in her guts, and she sat up straighter, rubbing at both hips.

Then a woman coughed for attention, waited, and then asked, “What happened next?”

Pico searched for her face.

“There was an accident, wasn’t there? On Coldtear… ?”

I won’t tell them, thought Pico. Not now. Not this way.

She said, “No, not then. Later.” And maybe some of them knew better. Judging by the expressions, a few must have remembered the records. Tyson died on the first dive. It was recorded as being an equipment failure — Pico’s lie — and she’d hold on to the lie as long as possible. It was a promise she’d made to herself and kept all these years.

Shutting her eyes, she saw Tyson’s face smiling at her. Even through the thick faceplate and the shimmering glow of the force field, she could make out the mischievous expression, eyes glinting, the large mouth saying, “Go on back, Pico. In and up and a safe trip to you, pretty lady.”

She had been too stunned to respond, gawking at him.

“Remember? I’ve still got to leave my footprints somewhere —”

“What are you planning?” she interrupted.

He laughed and asked, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m going to make my mark on this world. It’s dull and nearly dead, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to return here. Certainly not to here. Which means I’ll be pretty well left alone —”

 

“Your force field will drain your batteries,” she argued stupidly. Of course he knew that salient fact. “If you stay here —!”

“I know, Pico. I know.”

“But why —?”

“I lied before. About lying.” The big face gave a disappointed look, then the old smile reemerged. “Poor, docile Pico. I knew you wouldn’t take this well. You’d take it too much to heart… which I suppose is why I asked you along in the first place…” And he turned away, starting to walk through the bacterial mat with threads and chunks kicked loose, sailing into the warm current and obscuring him. It was a strange gray snow moving against gravity. Her last image of Tyson was of a hulking figure amid the living goo; and to this day, she had wondered if she could have wrestled him back to the submersible — an impossibility, of course — and how far could he have walked before his force field failed.

Down the opposite slope and onto the mud, no doubt.

She could imagine him walking fast, using his strength… fighting the deep, cold muds… Tyson plus that fragment of an earlier compilation — and who was driving whom? she asked herself. Again and again and again.

Sometimes she heard herself asking Tyson, “How does it feel having a sliver of another soul inside you?”

His ghost never answered, merely laughing with his booming voice.

She hated him for his suicide, and admired him; and sometimes she cursed him for taking her along with him and for the way he kept cropping up in her thoughts…” Damn you, Tyson. Goddamn you, goddamn you…!”

No more presents remained.

One near-immortal asked, “Are we hungry?”, and others replied, “famished,” in one voice, then breaking into laughter. The party moved toward the distant tables, a noisy mass of bodies surrounding Pico. Her hip had stiffened while sitting, but she worked hard to move normally, managing the downslope toward the pond and then the little wooden bridge spanning a rocky brook. The waterfowl made grumbling sounds, angered by the disturbances; Pico stopped and watched them, finally asking, “What kinds are those?” She meant the ducks.

 

“Just mallards,” she heard. “Nothing fancy.”

 

Yet, to her, they seemed like miraculous creatures, vivid plumage and the moving eyes, wings spreading as a reflex and their nervous motions lending them a sense of muscular power. A vibrancy.

Someone said, “You’ve seen many birds, I’m sure.”

Of a sort, yes. …

“What were your favorites, Pico?”

They were starting uphill, quieter now, feet making a swishing sound in the grass; and Pico told them about the pterosaurs of Wilder, the man-sized bats on Little Quark, and the giant insects — a multitude of species thriving in the thick, warm air of Tau Ceti I.

“Bugs,” grumbled someone. “Uggh!”

“Now, now,” another person responded.

Then a third joked, “I’m not looking forward to that. Who wants to trade memories?”

A joke, thought Pico, because memories weren’t tradable properties. Minds were holographic — every piece held the basic picture of the whole and these people each would receive a sliver of Pico’s whole self. Somehow that made her smile, thinking how none of them would be spared. Every terror and every agony would be set inside each of them. In a diluted form, of course. The Pico-ness Made manageable. Yet it was something, wasn’t it? It pleased her to think that a few of them might awaken in the night, bathed in sweat after dreaming of Tyson’s death… just as she had dreamed of it time after time… her audience given more than they had anticipated, a dark little joke of her own…

They reached the tables, Pico taking hers and sitting, feeling rather self-conscious as the others quietly assembled around her, each of them knowing where they belonged. She watched their faces. The excitement she had sensed from the beginning remained; only, it seemed magnified now. More colorful, more intense. Facing toward the inside of the omega, her hosts couldn’t quit staring, forever smiling, scarcely able to eat once the robots brought them plates filled with steaming foods.

Fancy meals, Pico learned.

The robot setting her dinner before her explained, “The vegetables are from Triton, miss. A very special and much-prized strain. And the meat is from a wild hound killed just yesterday —”

“Really?”

“As part of the festivities, yes.” The ceramic face, white and expression-less, stared down at her. “There have been hunting parties and games, among other diversions. Quite an assortment of activities, yes.”

“For how long?” she asked. “These festivities… have they been going on for days?”

“A little longer than three months, miss.”

She had no appetite; nonetheless, she lifted her utensils and made the proper motions, reminding herself that three months of continuous parties would be nothing to these people. Three months was a day to them, and what did they do with their time? So much of it, and such a constricted existence. What had Tyson once told her? The average citizen of Earth averages less than one off-world trip in eighty years, and the trends were toward less traveling. Spaceflight was safe only to a degree, and these people couldn’t stand the idea of being meters away from a cold, raw vacuum.

“Cowards,” Tyson had called them. “Gutted, deblooded cowards!”

Looking about, she saw the delicate twists of green leaves vanishing into grinning mouths, the chewing prolonged and indifferent. Except for Opera, that is. Opera saw her and smiled back in turn, his eyes different, something mocking about the tilt of his head and the curl of his mouth.

She found her eyes returning to Opera every little while, and she wasn’t sure why. She felt no physical attraction for the man. His youth and attitudes made him different from the others, but how much different? Then she noticed his dinner — cultured potatoes with meaty hearts — and that made an impression on Pico. It was a standard food on board the Kybei. Opera was making a gesture, perhaps. Nobody else was eating that bland food, and she decided this was a show of solidarity. At least the man was trying, wasn’t he? More than the others, he was. He was.

Dessert was cold and sweet and shot full of some odd liquor.

Pico watched the others drinking and talking among themselves. For the first time, she noticed how they seemed subdivided — discrete groups formed, and boundaries between each one. A dozen people here, seven back there, and sometimes individuals sitting alone — like Opera — chatting politely or appearing entirely friendless.

One lonesome woman rose to her feet and approached Pico, not smiling, and with a sharp voice, she declared, “Tomorrow, come morning… you’ll live forever…!”

Conversations diminished, then quit entirely.

 

“Plugged in. Here.” She was under the influence of some drug, the tip of her finger shaking and missing her own temple. “You fine lucky girl… Yes, you are…!”

Some people laughed at the woman, suddenly and without shame.

The harsh sound made her turn and squint, and Pico watched her straightening her back. The woman was pretending to be above them and uninjured, her thin mouth squeezed shut and her nose tilting with mock pride. With a clear, soft voice, she said, “Fuck every one of you,” and then laughed, turning toward Pico, acting as if they had just shared some glorious joke of their own.

“I would apologize for our behavior,” said Opera, “but I can’t. Not in good faith, I’m afraid.”

Pico eyed the man. Dessert was finished; people stood about drinking, keeping the three-month-old party in motion. A few of them stripped naked and swam in the green pond. It was a raucous scene, tireless and full of happy scenes that never seemed convincingly joyous. Happy sounds by practice, rather. Centuries of practice, and the result was to make Pico feel sad and quite lonely.

“A silly, vain lot,” Opera told her.

She said, “Perhaps,” with a diplomatic tone, then saw several others approaching. At least they looked polite, she thought. Respectful. It was odd how a dose of respect glosses over so much. Particularly when the respect wasn’t reciprocated, Pico feeling none toward them….

A man asked to hear more stories. Please?

Pico shrugged her shoulders, then asked, “Of what?” Every request brought her a momentary sense of claustrophobia, her memories threatening to crush her. “Maybe you’re interested in a specific world?”

Opera responded, saying, “Blueblue!”

Blueblue was a giant gaseous world circling a bluish sun. Her first thought was of Midge vanishing into the dark storm on its southern hemisphere, searching for the source of the carbon monoxide upflow that effectively gave breath to half the world. Most of Blueblue was calm in comparison. Thick winds; strong sunlight. Its largest organisms would dwarf most cities, their bodies balloonlike and their lives spent feeding on sunlight and hydrocarbons, utilizing carbon monoxide and other radicals in their patient metabolisms. Pico and the others had spent several months living on the living clouds, walking across them, taking samples and studying the assortment of parasites and symbionts that grew in their flesh.

She told about sunrise on Blueblue, remembering its colors and its astounding speed. Suddenly she found herself taking about a particular morning when the landing party was jostled out of sleep by an apparent quake. Their little huts had been strapped down and secured, but they found themselves tilting fast. Their cloud was colliding with a neighboring cloud — something they had never seen — and of course there was a rush to load their shuttle and leave. If it came to that.

“Normally, you see, the clouds avoid each other,” Pico told her little audience. “At first, we thought the creatures were fighting, judging by their roaring and the hard shoving. They make sounds by forcing air through pores and throats and anuses. It was a strange show. Deafening. The collision point was maybe a third of a kilometer from camp, our whole world rolling over while the sun kept rising, its bright, hot light cutting through the organic haze —”

“Gorgeous,” someone said.

A companion said, “Quiet!”

Then Opera touched Pico on the arm, saying, “Go on. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

The others glanced at Opera, hearing something in his voice, and their backs stiffening reflexively.

And then Pico was speaking again, finishing her story. Tyson was the first one of them to understand, who somehow made the right guess and began laughing, not saying a word. By then everyone was on board the shuttle, ready to fly; the tilting stopped suddenly, the air filling with countless little blue balloons. Each was the size of a toy balloon, she told. Their cloud was bleeding them from new pores, and the other cloud responded with a thick gray fog of butterflylike somethings. The some-things flew after the balloons, and Tyson laughed harder, his face contorted and the laugh finally shattering into a string of gasping coughs.

“Don’t you see?” he asked the others. “Look! The clouds are enjoying a morning screw!”

Pico imitated Tyson’s voice, regurgitating the words and enthusiasm. Then she was laughing for herself, scarcely noticing how the others giggled politely. No more. Only Opera was enjoying her story, again touching her arm and saying, “That’s lovely. Perfect. God, precious…!״

The rest began to drift away, not quite excusing themselves.

What was wrong?

“Don’t mind them,” Opera cautioned. “They’re members of some new chastity faith. Clarity through horniness, and all that.” He laughed at them now. “They probably went to too many orgies, and this is how they’re coping with their guilt. That’s all.”

Pico shut her eyes, remembering the scene on Blueblue for herself. She didn’t want to relinquish it.

“Screwing clouds,” Opera was saying. “That is lovely.”

And she thought:

He sounds a little like Tyson. In places. In ways.

After a while, Pico admitted. “I can’t remember your father’s face. I’m sure I must have met him, but I don’t —”

“You did meet him,” Opera replied. “He left a recording of it in his journal — a brief meeting — and I made a point of studying everything about the mission and you. His journal entries; your reports. Actually, I’m the best-prepared person here today. Other than you, of course.”

She said nothing, considering those words.

They were walking now, making their way down to the pond, and sometimes Pico noticed the hard glances of the others. Did they approve of Opera? Did it anger them, watching him monopolizing her time? Yet she didn’t want to be with them, the truth told. Fuck them, she thought; and she smiled at her private profanity.

The pond was empty of swimmers now. There were just a few sleepless ducks and the roiled water. A lot of the celebrants had vanished, Pico realized. To where? She asked Opera, and he said:

“It’s late. But then again, most people sleep ten or twelve hours every night.”

“That much?”

He nodded. “Enhanced dreams are popular lately. And the oldest people sometimes exceed fifteen hours —”

“Always?”

He shrugged and offered a smile.

“What a waste!”

“Of time?” he countered.

Immortals can waste many things, she realized. But never time. And with that thought, she looked straight at her companion, asking him, “What happened to your father?”

“How did he die, you mean?”

A little nod. A respectful expression, she hoped. But curious.

Opera said, “He used an extremely toxic poison, self-induced.” He gave a vague disapproving look directed at nobody. “A suicide at the end of a prolonged depression. He made certain that his mind was ruined before autodocs and his own robots could save him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yet I can’t afford to feel sorry,” he responded. “You see, I was born according to the terms of his will. I’m 99 percent his clone, the rest of my genes tailored according to his desires. If he hadn’t murdered himself, I wouldn’t exist. Nor would I have inherited his money.” He shrugged, saying, “Parents,” with a measured scorn. “They have such power over you, like it or not.”

She didn’t know how to respond.

“Listen to us. All of this death talk, and doesn’t it seem out of place?” Opera said, “After all, we’re here to celebrate your return home. Your successes. Your gifts. And you… you on the brink of being magnified many times over.” He paused before saying, “By this time tomorrow, you’ll reside inside all of us, making everyone richer as a consequence.”

The young man had an odd way of phrasing his statements, the entire speech either earnest or satirical. She couldn’t tell which. Or if there was a which. Maybe it was her ignorance with the audible clues, the unknown trappings of this culture… Then something else occurred to her.

“What do you mean? ‘Death talk…”‘

“Your friend Tyson died on Coldtear,” he replied. “And didn’t you lose another on Blueblue?”

“Midge. Yes.”

He nodded gravely, glancing down at Pico’s legs. “We can sit. I’m sorry; I should have noticed you were getting tired.”

They sat side by side on the grass, watching the mallard ducks. Males and females had the same vivid green heads. Beautiful, she mentioned. Opera explained how females were once brown and quite drab, but people thought that was a shame, and voted to have the species altered, both sexes made equally resplendent. Pico nodded, only halfway listening. She couldn’t get Tyson and her other dead friends out of her mind. Particularly Tyson. She had been angry with him for a long time, and even now her anger wasn’t finished. Her confusion and general tiredness made it worse. Why had he done it? In life the man had had a way of dominating every meeting, every little gathering. He had been optimistic and fearless, the last sort of person to do such an awful thing. Suicide. The others had heard it was an accident — Pico had held to her lie — but she and they were in agreement about one fact. When Tyson died, at that precise instant, some essential heart of their mission had been lost.

Why? she wondered. Why?

Midge had flown into the storm on Blueblue, seeking adventure and important scientific answers; and her death was sad, yes, and everyone had missed her. But it wasn’t like Tyson’s death. It felt honorable, maybe even perfect. They had a duty to fulfill in the wilderness, and that duty was in their blood and their training. People spoke about Midge for years, acting as if she were still alive. As if she were still flying the shuttle into the storm’s vortex.

But Tyson was different.

Maybe everyone knew the truth about his death. Sometimes it seemed that, in Pico’s eyes, the crew could see what had really happened, and they’d hear it between her practiced lines. They weren’t fooled.

Meanwhile, others died in the throes of life.

Uoo — a slender wisp of a compilation—was incinerated by a giant bolt of lightning on Miriam II, little left but ashes, and the rest of the party continuing its descent into the superheated Bottoms and the quiet Lead Sea.

Opaltu died in the mouth of a nameless predator. He had been another of Pico’s lovers, a proud man and the best example of vanity that she had known — until today, she thought — and she and the others had laughed at the justice that befell Opaltu’s killer. Unable to digest alien meats, the predator had sickened and died in a slow, agonizing fashion, vomiting up its insides as it staggered through the yellow jungle.

Boo was killed while working outside the Kyber, struck by a mote of interstellar debris.

Xon’s lifesuit failed, suffocating her.

As did Kyties’s suit, and that wasn’t long ago. Just a year now, ship time, and she remembered a cascade of jokes and his endless good humor. The most decent person on board the Kyber.

Yet it was Tyson who dominated her memories of the dead. It was the man as well as his self-induced extinction, and the anger within her swelled all at once. Suddenly even simple breathing was work. Pico found herself sweating, then blinking away the salt in her eyes. Once, then again, she coughed into a fist; then finally she had the energy to ask, “Why did he do it?”

“Who? My father?”

“Depression is… should be… a curable ailment. We had drugs and therapies on board that could erase it.”

“But it was more than depression. It was something that attacks the very old people. A kind of giant boredom, if you will.”

She wasn’t surprised. Nodding as if she’d expected that reply, she told him, “I can understand that, considering your lives.” Then she thought how Tyson hadn’t been depressed or bored. How could he have been either?

Opera touched her bad leg, for just a moment. “You must wonder how it will be,” he mentioned. “Tomorrow, I mean.”

She shivered, aware of the fear returning. Closing her burning eyes, she saw Tyson’s walk through the bacterial mat, the loose gray chunks spinning as the currents carried them, lending them a greater sort of life with the motion… And she opened her eyes, Opera watching, saying something to her with his expression, and her unable to decipher any meanings.

“Maybe I should go to bed, too,” she allowed.

The park under the tent was nearly empty now. Where had the others gone?

Opera said, “Of course,” as if expecting it. He rose and offered his hand, and she surprised herself by taking the hand with both of hers. Then he said, “If you like, I can show you your quarters.”

She nodded, saying nothing.

It was a long, painful walk, and Pico honestly considered asking for a robot’s help. For anyone’s. Even a cane would have been a blessing, her hip never having felt so bad. Earth’s gravity and the general stress were making it worse, most likely. She told herself that at least it was a pleasant night, warm and calm and perfectly clear, and the soft ground beneath the grass seemed to be calling to her, inviting her to lay down and sleep in the open.

 

People were staying in a chain of old houses subdivided into apartments, luxurious yet small. Pico’s apartment was on the ground floor, Opera happy to show her through the rooms. For an instant, she considered asking him to stay the night. Indeed, she sensed that he was delaying, hoping for some sort of invitation. But she heard herself saying, “Rest well, and thank you,” and her companion smiled and left without comment, vanishing through the crystal front door and leaving her completely alone.

For a little while, she sat on her bed, doing nothing. Not even thinking, at least in any conscious fashion.

Then she realized something, no warning given; and aloud, in a voice almost too soft for even her to hear, she said, “He didn’t know. Didn’t have an idea, the shit.” Tyson. She was thinking about the fiery man and his boast about being the second generation of star explorers. What if it was all true? His parents had injected a portion of a former Tyson into him, and he had already known the early worlds they had visited. He already knew the look of sunrises on the double desert world around Alpha Centauri A; he knew the smell of constant rot before they cracked their airlocks on Barnard’s 2. But try as he might —

“— he couldn’t remember how it feels to be disassembled.” She spoke without sound. To herself. “That titanic and fearless creature, and he couldn’t remember. Everything else, yes, but not that. And not knowing had to scare him. Nothing else did, but that terrified him. The only time in his life he was truly scared, and it took all his bluster to keep that secret —!”

Killing himself rather than face his fear.

Of course, she thought. Why not?

And he took Pico as his audience, knowing she’d be a good audience. Because they were lovers. Because he must have decided that he could convince her in his fearlessness one last time, leaving his legend secure. Immortal, in a sense.

That’s what you were thinking. . .

. . . wasn’t it?

And she shivered, holding both legs close to her mouth, and feeling the warm misery of her doomed hip.

She sat for a couple more hours, neither sleeping nor feeling the slightest need for sleep. Finally she rose and used the bathroom, and after a long, careful look through the windows, she ordered the door to open, and stepped outside, picking a reasonable direction and walking stiffly and quickly on the weakened leg.

Opera emerged from the shadows, startling her.

“If you want to escape,” he whispered, “I can help. Let me help you, please.”

The face was handsome in the moonlight, young in every fashion. He must have guessed her mood, she realized, and she didn’t allow herself to become upset. Help was important, she reasoned. Even essential. She had to find her way across a vast and very strange alien world. “I want to get back into orbit,” she told him, “and find another starship. We saw several. They looked almost ready to embark.” Bigger than the Kybei, and obviously faster. No doubt designed to move even deeper into the endless wilderness.

“I’m not surprised,” Opera told her. “And I understand.”

She paused, staring at him before asking, “How did you guess?”

“Living forever inside our heads…. That’s just a mess of metaphysical nonsense, isn’t it? You know you’ll die tomorrow. Bits of your brain will vanish inside us, made part of us, and not vice versa. I think it sounds like an awful way to die, certainly for someone like you —”

“Can you really help me?”

“This way,” he told her. “Come on.”

They walked for an age, crossing the paddock and finally reaching the wide tube where the skimmers shot past with a rush of air. Opera touched a simple control, then said, “It won’t be long,” and smiled at her. Just for a moment. “You know, I almost gave up on you. I thought I must have read you wrong. You didn’t strike me as someone who’d go quietly to her death…”

 

She had a vague, fleeting memory of the senior Opera. Gazing at the young face, she could recall a big, warm hand shaking her hand, and a similar voice saying, “It’s very good to meet you, Pico. At last!”

 

“I bet one of the new starships will want you.” The young Opera was telling her, “You’re right. They’re bigger ships, and they’ve got better facilities. Since they’ll be gone even longer, they’ve been given the best possible medical equipment. That hip and your general body should respond to treatments —”

 

“I have experience,” she whispered.

 

“Pardon me?”

“Experience.” She nodded with conviction. “I can offer a crew plenty of valuable experience.”

“They’d be idiots not to take you.”

A skimmer slowed and stopped before them. Opera made the windows opaque — “So nobody can see you” — and punched in their destination, Pico making herself comfortable.

“Here we go,” he chuckled, and they accelerated away.

There was an excitement to all of this, an adventure like every other. Pico realized that she was scared, but in a good, familiar way. Life and death. Both possibilities seemed balanced on a very narrow fulcrum, and she found herself smiling, rubbing her hip with a slow hand.

They were moving fast, following Opera’s instructions.

“A circuitous route,” he explained. “We want to make our whereabouts less obvious. All right?”

“Fine.”

“Are you comfortable?”

“Yes,” she allowed. “Basically.”

Then she was thinking about the others — the other survivors from the Kyber — wondering how many of them were having second or third thoughts. The long journey home had been spent in cold-sleep, but there had been intervals when two or three of them were awakened to do normal maintenance. Not once did anyone even joke about taking the ship elsewhere. Nobody had asked, “Why do we have to go to Earth?” The obvious question had eluded them, and at the time, she had assumed it was because there were no doubters. Besides herself, that is. The rest believed this would be the natural conclusion to full and satisfied lives; they were returning home to a new life and an appreciative audience. How could any sane compilation think otherwise?

Yet she found herself wondering.

Why no jokes!

If they hadn’t had doubts, wouldn’t they have made jokes!

Eight others had survived the mission. Yet none were as close to Pico as she had been to Tyson. They had saved each other’s proverbial skin many times, and she did feel a sudden deep empathy for them, remembering how they had boarded nine separate shuttles after kisses and hugs and a few careful tears, each of them struggling with the proper things to say.

 

But what could anyone say at such a moment? Particularly when you believed that your companions were of one mind, and, in some fashion, happy. …

Pico said, “I wonder about the others,” and intended to leave it at that. To say nothing more.

“The others?”

“From the Kyber. My friends.” She paused and swallowed, then said softly, “Maybe I could contact them.”

“No,” he responded.

She jerked her head, watching Opera’s profile.

“That would make it easy to catch you.” His voice was quite sensible and measured. “Besides,” he added, “can’t they make up their own minds? Like you have?”

She nodded, thinking that was reasonable. Sure.

He waited a long moment, then said, “Perhaps you’d like to talk about something else?”

“Like what?”

He eyed Pico, then broke into a wide smile. “If I’m not going to inherit a slice of your mind, leave me another story. Tell… I don’t know. Tell me about your favorite single place. Not a world, but some favorite patch of ground on any world. If you could be anywhere now, where would it be? And with whom?

Pico felt the skimmer turning, following the tube. She didn’t have to consider the question — her answer seemed obvious to her — but the pause was to collect herself, weighing how to begin and what to tell.

“In the mountains on Erindi 3,” she said, “the air thins enough to be breathed safely, and it’s really quite pretty. The scenery, I mean.”

“I’ve seen holos of the place. It is lovely.”

“Not just lovely.” She was surprised by her authority, her self-assured voice telling him, “There’s a strange sense of peace there. You don’t get that from holos. Supposedly it’s produced by the weather and the vegetation…. They make showers of negative ions, some say…. And it’s the colors, too. A subtle interplay of shades and shadows. All very one-of-a- kind.”

“Of course,” he said carefully.

She shut her eyes, seeing the place with almost perfect clarity. A summer storm had swept overhead, charging the glorious atmosphere even further, leaving everyone in the party invigorated. She and Tyson, Midge, and several others had decided to swim in a deep-blue pool near their campsite. The terrain itself was rugged, black rocks erupting from the blue-green vegetation. The valley’s little river poured into a gorge and the pool, and the people did the same. Tyson was first, naturally. He laughed and bounced in the icy water, screaming loud enough to make a flock of razor-bats take flight. This was only the third solar system they had visited, and they were still young in every sense. It seemed to them that every world would be this much fun.

She recalled — and described — diving feet first. She was last into the pool, having inherited a lot of caution from her parents. Tyson had teased her, calling her a coward and then worse, then showing where to aim. “Right here! It’s deep here! Come on, coward! Take a chance!”

The water was startlingly cold, and there wasn’t much of it beneath the shiny flowing surface. She struck and hit the packed sand below, and the impact made her groan, then shout. Tyson had lied, and she chased the bastard around the pool, screaming and finally clawing at his broad back until she’d driven him up the gorge walls, him laughing and once, losing strength with all the laughing, almost tumbling down on top of her.

She told Opera everything.

At first, it seemed like an accident. All her filters were off; she admitted everything without hesitation. Then she told herself that the man was saving her life and deserved the whole story. That’s when she was describing the lovemaking between her and Tyson. That night. It was their first time, and maybe the best time. They did it on a bed of mosses, perched on the rim of the gorge, and she tried to paint a vivid word picture for her audience, including smells and the textures and the sight of the double moons overhead, colored a strange living pink and moving fast.

Their skimmer ride seemed to be taking a long time, she thought once she was finished. She mentioned this to Opera, and he nodded soberly. Otherwise, he made no comment.

I won’t be disembodied tomorrow, she told herself.

Then she added, Today, I mean today.

She felt certain now. Secure. She was glad for this chance and for this dear new friend, and it was too bad she’d have to leave so quickly, escaping into the relative safety of space. Perhaps there were more people like Opera… people who would be kind to her, appreciating her circumstances and desires… supportive and interesting companions in their own right… And suddenly the skimmer was slowing, preparing to stop.

When Opera said, “Almost there,” she felt completely at ease. Entirely

calm. She shut her eyes and saw the raw, wild mountains on Erindi 3, storm clouds gathering and flashes of lightning piercing the howling winds. She summoned a different day, and saw Tyson standing against the storms, smiling, beckoning for her to climb up to him just as the first cold, fat raindrops smacked against her face.

The skimmer’s hatch opened with a hiss.

Sunlight streamed inside, and she thought: Dawn. By now, sure… Opera rose and stepped outside, then held a hand out to Pico. She took it with both of hers and said, “Thank you,” while rising, looking past him and seeing the paddock and the familiar faces, the green ground and the giant tent with its doorways opened now, various birds flying inside and out again… and Pico most surprised by how little she was surprised, Opera still holding her hands, and his flesh dry, the hand perfectly calm.

The autodocs stood waiting for orders.

This time, Pico had been carried from the skimmer, riding cradled in a robot’s arms. She had taken just a few faltering steps before half-crumbling. Exhaustion was to blame. Not fear. At least it didn’t feel like fear, she told herself. Everyone told her to take it easy, to enjoy her comfort; and now, finding herself flanked by autodocs, her exhaustion worsened. She thought she might die before the cutting began, too tired now to pump her own blood or fire her neurons or even breathe.

Opera was standing nearby, almost smiling, his pleasure serene and chilly and without regrets.

He hadn’t said a word since they left the skimmer.

Several others told her to sit, offering her a padded seat with built-in channels to catch any flowing blood. Pico took an uneasy step toward the seat, then paused and straightened her back, saying, “I’m thirsty,” softly, her words sounding thoroughly parched.

“Pardon?” they asked.

“I want to drink… some water, please…?”

Faces turned, hunting for a cup and water.

It was Opera who said, “Will the pond do?” Then he came forward, extending an arm and telling everyone else, “It won’t take long. Give us a moment, will you?”

Pico and Opera walked alone.

Last night’s ducks were sleeping and lazily feeding. Pico looked at their metallic green heads, so lovely that she ached at seeing them, and she tried to miss nothing. She tried to concentrate so hard that time itself would compress, seconds turning to hours, and her life in that way prolonged.

Opera was speaking, asking her, “Do you want to hear why?”

She shook her head, not caring in the slightest.

“But you must be wondering why. I fool you into believing that I’m your ally, and I manipulate you —”

“Why?” she sputtered. “So tell me.”

“Because,” he allowed, “it helps the process. It helps your integration into us. I gave you a chance for doubts and helped you think you were fleeing, convinced you that you’d be free… and now you’re angry and scared and intensely alive. It’s that intensity that we want. It makes the neurological grafts take hold. It’s a trick that we learned since the Kybei left Earth. Some compilations tried to escape, and when they were caught and finally incorporated along with their anger —”

“Except, I’m not angry,” she lied, gazing at his self-satisfied grin.

“A nervous system in flux,” he said. “I volunteered, by the way.”

She thought of hitting him. Could she kill him somehow?

But instead, she turned and asked, “Why this way? Why not just let me slip away, then catch me at the spaceport?”

“You were going to drink,” he reminded her. “Drink.”

She knelt despite her hip’s pain, knees sinking into the muddy bank and her lips pursing, taking in a long, warmish thread of muddy water, and then her face lifting, the water spilling across her chin and chest, and her mouth unable to close tight.

“Nothing angers,” he said, “like the betrayal of someone you trust.”

True enough, she thought. Suddenly she could see Tyson leaving her alone on the ocean floor, his private fears too much, and his answer being to kill himself while dressed up in apparent bravery. A kind of betrayal, wasn’t that? To both of them, and it still hurt….

“Are you still thirsty?” asked Opera.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Then drink. Go on.”

She knelt again, taking a bulging mouthful and swirling it with her tongue. Yet she couldn’t make herself swallow, and after a moment, it began leaking out from her lips and down her front again. Making a mess, she realized. Muddy, warm, ugly water, and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be thirsty. Such a little thing, and ordinary, and she couldn’t remember it.

“Come on, then,” said Opera.

She looked at him.

He took her arm and began lifting her, a small, smiling voice saying, “You’ve done very well, Pico. You have. The truth is that everyone is very proud of you.”

She was on her feet again and walking, not sure when she had begun moving her legs. She wanted to poison her thoughts with her hatred of these awful people, and for a little while, she could think of nothing else. She would make her mind bilious and cancerous, poisoning all of these bastards and finally destroying them. That’s what she would do, she promised herself. Except, suddenly she was sitting on the padded chair, autodocs coming close with their bright, humming limbs; and there was so much stored in her mind — worlds and people, emotions heaped on emotions — and she didn’t have the time she would need to poison herself.

Which proved something, she realized.

Sitting still now.

Sitting still and silent. At ease. Her front drenched and stained brown,

but her open eyes calm and dry.

As soon as they called the First Class passengers I stepped to the head of the line, hurried down to my seat and braced myself for the crowd that came slumping past minutes later with their loose, swollen bags.  Any of them could stop, pretend to cough or adjust a strap, and a runty hand could pull out a cobbled together shank which he’d stick into my chest, my neck, my cheek where it would clatter against my teeth, again and again, sinking through the soft meat of my eye.  I left my seatbelt unbuckled, ready to fly up and fight my way back to American soil.  When the stewardesses began their pantomime of safety I was able to relax a little, probably only because by that time I’d finished two vodka tonics.  I was hoping to drink myself to sleep, but as we reached cruising altitude and the ice in my drink tumbled under the collar of my shirt, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky this time. 

When I was first told they were sending me to this country to do an accounting of the Canadian mining firm’s books, I told them I couldn’t. I said, “My wife is sick.”

There was silence on the other end of the line and I was suddenly unsure if I’d ever met the man to whom I was speaking.  I’d assumed he was the same Steve we’d had over for dinner a few years earlier.  My wife had made enchiladas with mole sauce.  Steve had picked around the plate, ate half his salad and a few scoops of refried beans, leaving two perfectly formed enchiladas like a big old fuck-you to his hostess who’d spent hours in the kitchen, lifting the skin off broiled peppers. 

The man on the phone eventually said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.”  Another pause, as though this made what came next acceptable, “Your flight’s tomorrow, at seven.”

“Seven?”

“A.M.” he explained.

As turbulence wobbled the plane I leaned my head into the oily leather seat and breathed deep, but this made the pressure in my chest expand into a lead weight.

Half-way through the flight the woman beside me turned and grinned until I stopped pretending to be asleep.  She was an American, a Mississippian, she clarified, and was going down to visit her daughter, who was about to marry a young man from the country’s elite.  She wore a beige suit like an ill-fitting exoskeleton.  Every inch of exposed skin – face, neck, hands – was layered with foundation and powder so a smell of petroleum oozed out from beneath gusts of perfume.  Her eyes were small and a beautiful blue, startling to find rooted in that puffy, twitching face.

“They’re very nice people,” she said, then admitted that in fact she’d never met them.  “But they own three coffee plantations.  The wedding is going to be at one of them.”   

Despite her grin, she was clearly horrified that her daughter was about to be swallowed up by a family of brown people, no matter how rich they might be, no matter how comforting the word plantation.

“You know, they’re not actually Hispanic, they’re Spanish.  I mean, they have no Indian blood at all.”

Eventually, she left me alone and began searching through her cavernous plaid handbag, setting off an incessant clinking of lipstick cases against her cell phone, wallet, makeup case, the tinny rattle of loose change.  At one point she pulled out a photograph in a gaudy metal frame.  In it a beautiful young woman in a tight fitting white dress leaned against a stone wall.  The woman stared for a few minutes then, with an elaborate sigh, dropped the frame back into the purse.

I’m sure I looked like a compatriot, an overweight, middle-aged man with thinning hair gone white expect a few strands of black that looked permanently wet.  The starched collar of my button-down shirt, the faint pinstripe on my suit pants, and the shine of my black shoes all suggested not only that we were both Americans, but that back home we might even have been friends, would’ve invited each other over for dinner parties where we’d drink too much, flirt clumsily at the fridge, then turn our energies to moaning about our ingrate children, the awfulness of youth in general, and the folly of anyone who disagreed with us about anything.  And, I knew, we were compatriots of a sort, but I was too tired, too angry at being on that plane when I should’ve been home with Joyce.

I’d promised no more trips after she got sick.  I told her I’d work from home, or at least from the American headquarters of the firms I audited.  But, it turned out, this wasn’t possible, and so every few months I was off again – Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa – in each place working to make sense of the tangle of fraud that constituted the local office’s financial records.  I had a particular talent for this, an ability to see through bureaucratic madness and to articulate a legally defensible financial record.  Typically, I went down to the capitals of these godforsaken places and took a limo to my hotel – the nicest in the country, holdovers from colonial days – and the next morning another limo would ferry me to the offices that were always staffed half with gringos who looked like they’d had too much local rum, and half by locals who hadn’t quite learned how to smother their bitter scent.  I was given my own office, usually that of some recently fired executive, and I would make sense of the confusion they’d all bred in their frenzy to pull minerals from the earth. 

We descended through a scrim of clouds.  The city clung to a tangle of ravines at the foot of sheer, black mountains, the lower slopes of which were smothered with shanty-towns.  The downtown was marked by dull gray buildings and a few half-finished concrete towers.  Our plane touched down with a jolt, the seatbelt cut into my gut, then we seemed to be rising again before slamming down a second time, the engines whirring, the smell of burning rubber filling the cabin.  Then we were there, trembling on the runway.

 

***

 

None of the three men holding name-signs were waiting for me when I came through customs.  The glass doors weren’t tinted and the near-equatorial sun set off a pulsing headache behind my eyes.  When I checked my cell phone, set up with world-wide access, it said, Looking for Service

Maybe it was my exhaustion, my hangover, or the soldier who stepped away from the wall, eyeing my bag, but I felt suddenly weightless and lost, as though waking from one dream into another when I should’ve been back in the real world, not caught in this greasy airport with the high, rising scream of a woman at the customs point as soldiers tossed her underwear, her socks, her shirts to the floor, then held up a pair of blue jeans and scythed them in half with a knife.  Whatever the reason, I panicked and joined a clump of passengers heading for the glass doors. 

“Excuse me?” an American voice said.  There beside me were two young hippy travelers, a boy and a girl, both grinning like idiots.  They wore loose, dirty clothes that might’ve been hemp and stank of patchouli and sweat.  Loose leather sandals showed off filthy feet, toenails blackened with grime, feet they surely planned to tan before going back home with dysentery and a few snapshots of indigenous kids atop a trash heap.

“Do you know which way the train is?” the girl asked.

“There’s no train,” I said, hurrying after the crowd.

As we rushed along, the tall, thin boy held up a travel guide and said, “No, it says there’s one that goes into the city center.” He said this with a kind of desperation, which was understandable.  Stretching out around the airport was a dead zone of warehouses with metal shutters pulled over the doors.  Power lines sagged from leaning poles.  All this made it look that if there had once been a city here it had long ago been abandoned.

“No,” I said, “the book’s wrong.  There’s no train.”  I quickened my pace, hoping in their confusion they’d fall away.

“So, how do we get to the city?” the girl asked, scurrying to keep up.

“Take the bus,” I said, pointing at the crowd ahead of us, which bulged around the doors before squeezing out, like a clot of blood from a narrow wound.  “Or a taxi.”

“Dude, isn’t that expensive?” the boy said.

“Depends on what you think of as expensive,” I said.

The girl was still smiling, bobbing her head as though we were listening to a good, thick reggae beat.  Then we were outside in the too-bright light.  Sitting at the otherwise empty curb was a black SUV and in it were two men wearing sunglasses.  They leaned forward and though it was possible they were just trying to get a better glimpse of the American girl’s thin white shirt, I felt sure they were waiting for me and so I started walking faster, pushing through the crowd.  Behind me the American kids were shouting.  I hunched down and jogged to the orange bus.  In that SUV a rifle could be sliding up between the men, scope swirling out of focus before sharpening in on the white hairs at the back of my head.

The bus driver was leaning in the open door and for a moment my Spanish abandoned me.  I gestured at the door and nodded.  I glanced back at the SUV.  One of the men was standing in the street, pointing.  Finally, I found the word, “Abierto.”

Lo siento,” the driver said, stepping aside.  I sank into a narrow green seat, my legs pinched up against my gut, suitcase and briefcase piled to my chin. 

At that moment, I finally paused to wonder what in the hell I was doing.  My limo driver was probably inside right now, he’d probably just gone to the bathroom, but here I was, in the open, jammed into this bus which was already filling up with peasants hauling bags of all shapes and sizes they’d managed to smuggle past the driver who screamed at everyone to toss their luggage onto the roof. 

“Is this taken?” The American girl was smiling at me, pointing at the empty six inches of seat.

Once settled, her leg pressing against mine, she held out a hand. “I’m Allie.”

“Robert,” I said.  Her hand was slim and cool and in the midst of my confusion, I held on too long, until she was forced to pull back with a pitying smile.

Soon, every seat was full and the aisle was packed.  The American boy, Billy, was pinned between two fat ladies, his spiky blond hair brushing the ceiling as the bus lurched away.

“Is this your first time here?” Allie said, leaning across me to look out the window so her breast rested on my arm.  I tried to see the road behind us, to see if the SUV was there, but the angle was wrong.

“No,” I lied, because it was easier.

“It’s mine.  But I was in Mexico last year for a couple months.  In the Yucatan.”

I tried to smile, though my mouth was so dry my lips stuck against my teeth. 

We passed a few dozen warehouses and pulled up onto a truck clogged highway. Men bent beneath enormous piles of sticks, or stones walked along the road, their faces gray with the diesel and dust kicked up.  We passed a line of auto-body shops where cars sat stripped and piles of tires leaned toward the street.  Mangy dogs and naked children scampered in and out of the open garages while shirtless men hefted greasy tools and wiped their sweating faces with handkerchiefs.

“Dude,” Billy shouted, leaning toward our seat.  “Have you ever been to Tonterrico?  I hear the waves are awesome.”

I didn’t answer, all my energy focused on ignoring the puddle of what was possibly piss sticking my shoes to the floor.

 

***

 

At the bus station, I paid for my ticket and those of the kids, who patted their pockets as though they’d lost their wallets.  I’d hoped this generosity would be enough to get rid of them, but they followed me to the hotel shuttle.  There was no sign of the SUV, and as I was ushered to a plush red seat by a man in a tuxedo shirt and bow-tie, I felt a measure of calm returning.  While the driver stood in the door to see if there were other passengers – there weren’t – I noticed that neither of the kids had backpacks, or, for that matter, bags of any kind.  They looked tired and unwashed, though that, I knew, might be an affectation.

“Are you staying at the Palacio?” I said.  These kids were pretending to be vagabonds, and so I knew they’d never put up the cost of the room, which was, considering the general destitution of this entire region, extravagant.  But now that my confusion had receded, I felt sorry for them.  They were scared and lost and I could help them out, a little.

Allie said, “We don’t have a reservation, but maybe.  Is it nice?” 

I said it was unquestionably the best.

“Well, so maybe we will,” Billy said, plastering his face against the window. 

As the shuttle pulled away, Allie started telling a story about the time she’d traveled to Saint Petersburg and ended up getting in a cab whose driver promised to take her to a club. 
“He said it was the hip new place.  Then we got off the road and were driving through these warehouses and I got pretty nervous.  I mean, I thought he was going to rape me or something, but then we turned a corner and there was this one warehouse, with lights and techno music.  I guess I was just relieved, so I didn’t think it was so weird when the driver got out of the car.  The music was so loud it was like shaking your head apart, and he opened the door for me.  I didn’t step inside.  I could see that the place was empty, I mean, almost empty, except this huge speaker stack and these towers of strobe lights and then I noticed like four or five guys, all holding baseball bats and on the ground in front of them was this guy, all beaten up.  The guy on the floor looked up and shouted, “Help!”  He was American.  I started running.  If I’d been wearing sandals I’d be dead.  I ran and ran and that fat fuck of a cabbie couldn’t keep up and eventually I hid in this empty warehouse.  I could hear the men go by, looking for me, and they came by again later.  I was hiding behind this stack of metal barrels, but if they came into the warehouse they totally would’ve seen me.  It was the middle of the night, you know, but I ran out and went to another warehouse, in case they decided to search that first one and I heard them, shouting, a ways off.  When it was light I snuck out and walked back to the city along the train tracks.  It was pretty goddamn scary, though.”

In all likelihood this was a myth she’d heard while traveling, or one she’d read on the internet.  That it wasn’t true didn’t matter, what mattered was telling the story and the practice this gave her.  In a few months she’d come down from the remote mountains to get drunk in gringo bars on the coast and talk about all the crazy stuff she’d seen.  It wouldn’t matter if anything she said was true, because facts weren’t important, what was important was the idea of herself that traveling confirmed: she was brave and adventurous and open-minded and now she could go home thirty pounds lighter and filthy, which would frighten her parents enough to allow her to live off their money for a few more years.

“That’s totally fucked up, man,” Billy said, his face up against the window as we pulled past the gray government buildings.  “Hey, isn’t that the Department of Interior?”

“So, are you traveling, or what?” Allie said, picking at the dirt ground under her nails.

“No, I’m here for work.”

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a consultant.”

“For what, the government?”  From the hardening of her consonants it was clear she had me figured out: I was a bad guy and she was more than eager to judge, not all that different from my daughters, both of whom fancied themselves world savers.  They had the security to use their educations and opportunities however they saw fit – one was an Assistant D.A. in New Jersey and the other was a school teacher in Brooklyn – all because I’d worked my entire life to make enough money so they could attend Columbia and Brown. 

“Not the government,” I said.  “Independent companies.”

“What kind of companies?”

“A mining company.  I’m auditing their operations here.”  I said this in a rush as though I was flustered, which I guess I was.  That’s how I got any time my daughters started in on universal health care, or how awful American foreign policy was.  Susan, our oldest, the teacher, was home helping Joyce while I was away and for her I’d pounded a sign into the front lawn: Thank You, George Bush.

Allie just stared, as though waiting for horns to sprout from my forehead.  Billy was still muttering about this building and that building and the civil war. 

Aqui, El Palacio,” the driver said, easing to a stop. 

I left the American kids frowning at the glimmering façade of the hotel and hurried into the revolving door.  The lobby, with its slick stone floors and dribbling fountain, was empty except for a cluster of boys in bright red jackets and black pants who looked desperate to snatch my bag away. 

In my reserved room I went to the drawer of the bedside table and found the promised handgun and shoulder hostler. I splashed cold water on my face, dried it on a plush towel, lay down on the slightly lumpy mattress, and watched the jerking ceiling fan.

 

***

 

I woke to the knocking at the door and groped for the gun, nearly falling out of bed, shouting, “Hold on. Just hold on.”

Through the peephole I saw a bellboy.  He was barely five feet tall and so thin his arms and hands looked withered, his fingers long and spindly.  He rattled away in Spanish, spraying spit.

“What?” I said.  “English.  Speak English.” 

“Guests, down.”  He pointed at the floor.  “Wait.  You.  Guests.”

“Who?  Who is it?”

He shook his misshapen head and pulled his lips up into what he must’ve imagined was a smile. 

“Why didn’t you call?”

“No phone work,” he said, pointing into my room.  “Guests.  Down. Bar.”  Then, probably sensing I wasn’t going to tip, he shuffled away.

I checked the phone.  There was no dial tone, just a blank space.  I checked my cell, hoping to call Joyce and make sure Susan had arrived.  The phone said, Looking for Service.  Before leaving the room I grabbed my briefcase.  You could never be sure with these companies.  They were often frantic and might want to see something to comfort them right away.

The bar was off the lobby, through a frosted glass door.  I let my eyes adjust to the darkness, taking in the sour smell of bleach, half-full ashtrays, and rum.  An oily sunset was smeared across the one window.

From a booth near the window a woman waved.  It was Allie, and beside her was Billy.  They were drinking tall, fruit-adorned cocktails. 

“We were waiting,” she said, pointing at their drinks in which quivered flecks of poisonous ice.  “Someone’s got to pay for these drinks, after all.” 

Still in something of a daze, I joined them, settling the briefcase on my lap.  The waiter appeared and soon we were sipping a round of beers. 

“Are you staying here?” I asked, not quite able to pull myself fully into the waking world.

“Dude, are you crazy?” Billy said.  “This place costs a fortune.”

“We found a hostel,” Allie said.  “Not too far away.”

“Well, that’s great,” I said, tipping my bottle at them, then taking a sip and trying not to gag.

“But we thought we’d come and meet you for dinner.”  She reached across the table to pat my hand, as though they felt sorry for me.  At that moment her smile reminded me of Susan, with that smug twist to her mouth. I’d assumed these kids were in their early twenties, but now I thought they might be the same age as my daughters, late-twenties, on the cusp of realizing that life wasn’t a game, that it was hard and ruthless and that the main thing was to keep from getting completely and totally screwed over by others.

“Sure,” I said.  “We can get some dinner.  I bet the food’s OK here.”

“Don’t be silly,” Allie said, leaning forward to slap my shoulder.  “Not here.  We know a great place nearby.”

“Is that a good idea?  The food can be pretty dodgy down here.”  I touched the gun under my arm.

“Come on,” Billy said, biffing me on the shoulder.  “We’ll be fine, man.  It’ll be an adventure.”  He stared at the briefcase on my lap, seemed about to say something, then just grinned dopily.

I should’ve gone to my room and back to sleep.  Maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe, like that idiot Billy said, I just wanted to do something different, something that might help me slip for a moment out of my life.

“Just don’t order salad.  You’ll be fine,” Allie said.  “And you better get the check, big guy,” she said, then threw back her head and chugged the rest of her beer, clinking the bottle down on the table.  Gasping for breath, she said, “Ready?”

 

***

 

They refused my offer of a taxi and so we walked, gathering attention on every street – three gringos ripe for a mugging, or, if the locals were feeling more industrious, a kidnapping.  The chances of this increased the farther we walked, out of the governmental area, through what counted here as a “middle class” neighborhood and past a hostel with a few gringos hanging around out front.  I asked if that’s where they were staying and they smiled dimly. 

We walked on, into a slum.  The narrow passageways between crumbling concrete walls were littered with garbage and an open sewer trickled down the middle. All the children were barefoot and ravenous, dark eyes glittering as they displayed their stumpy teeth.  A clutch of them gathered around us, tugging at our pockets and sleeves and smearing swarms of bacteria over my fingers and the brass lock on my briefcase, so eventually I cradled it against my chest.  What the hell am I doing here, I kept thinking, but I didn’t turn back.  I began to wonder if I’d picked up some tropical bug and was in the early stages of delirium.  Sweat soaked my back.  I touched the handle of the gun again and again for comfort.

This was probably just the sort of thing Susan had done during her recent trip across India.  She’d come back with a new wardrobe of sari’s, a streak of red dye in her light brown hair, and stories about the noble poor and our responsibility to them.  Like Allie and Billy, Susan had played at destitution, renting rooms from families in remote villages where she could’ve easily been raped or killed.  During her recent visit she’d worn me out with her stories and self-righteousness.  One night, after listening to awful, jangling music for an hour, I’d helped Joyce to bed, hooked up the tubes, and said, “Well, that was quite a performance.”

“Performance?” she said, in the raspy near-whisper that was all she’d been able to manage for the past year.  The brittle strands of her hair clung to the crisp pillowcase.

“Susan,” I said, kissing her papery cheek.  “That music.”

Joyce closed her eyes and said, softly, “I thought it was beautiful.”

“Beautiful?” I said.  She opened her eyes and at that moment she looked frightened of me.  I tried to calm myself.  “Don’t be silly, Joyce.  It was awful.”

“No,” she said, closing her eyes again.  “No, Robert.”  And then she was asleep.  Music leaked up from below for hours and I ground my teeth until my jaw throbbed. 

I told myself that Allie and Billy weren’t much different from my daughters, which is obviously part of the reason I went with them: I wanted to protect them and, in so doing, I thought maybe I could teach them something useful.  The longer I was around them, the more ragged they looked.  Both were severely under weight, especially Allie, whose jaw was drawn so tight it looked painful, and she had the wild look of hunger, the kind of fear that could get her into real trouble.  There was something black and feral in her eyes, as though they didn’t quite see you, only what she could get from you.  She’d carried her Central American adventure too far and soon, if she wasn’t careful, would end up truly lost.

At the door of the restaurant the urchins fell away.  At first my relief they were gone was so great I didn’t notice that the restaurant doubled as a brothel, but by the time we were seated at a rickety plastic table, I’d noticed the sickly girls, none older than sixteen, lined up against the far wall, shifting their legs apart so their tiny dresses rode higher.  The bar stools were full of heavy men wearing cowboy hats which they tipped back on their heads to peer at us through the smoke-haze. 

“Apparently,” Allie said, scooting up to the table, “the tacos here are killer.”

A tiny Indian woman with wildly unkempt hair took our order.  I lied and said I’d eaten but that dinner was on me, of course.  A few urchins approached the door warily, eager for us to emerge, drunk, easy targets. 

When the food came the American kids bent over the paper plates and crammed everything into their mouths, even the lettuce, sauce dripping over their dirty hands, which they licked clean like dogs.  I signaled to the waitress for another round of tacos, and they tore into them, letting out little groans of pleasure.  Wiping their mouths on their sleeves, without a word of thanks, they pushed their plates away and grinned at me. 

“Hey,” Allie said, sitting up straighter.  She pointed at me.  “Do you have any money?”

“What?” I said.  “Of course.”

“So, like, do you think we could borrow some?”  She cocked her head and grinned and when she did I noticed she was missing several teeth, as though they’d been pried from her raw, red gums.

“For what?”

“To buy stuff,” she said, so brightly, so stupidly that I pulled out my wallet.

“How much?” I said, peering at the lump of nearly useless local money and the crisp American bills behind.

“I mean, whatever you can spare.”  She was still smiling, but it had a harder edge now.  This wasn’t the first time she’d asked someone for money.

I pulled out two American twenties and handed them across the table.  She squinted at them as though not quite believing I was so cheap, then slipped them beneath the table. 

“That’s great.  Thanks,” she said.

“Hold on.” I pulled out another two twenties. 

“Thank you,” she said softly, folding the bills carefully and tucking them away.  “I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Done with me now, the American kids started yakking about something, music, I thought, though the arcane names of bands, or brands, or TV shows proved impenetrable.  I fell into the role of observer, watching men slip in from the street, skirt the far wall until they reached the line of girls, one of which would peel off and lead the man through a curtained doorway.  One of the girls had noticed me watching and kept catching my eye, smiling, maybe thinking I’d be good for a big tip.

“So, are you like actually going up to the mine?” Allie said, cutting Billy off in the middle of one of his stories.

“Excuse me?”         

“The mine, are you going there?”  She was squinting, as though I was far away.

“No.  There’s plenty of work to do at the headquarters.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she said, propping her knobby elbows on the table.

Like my daughters, this girl clearly had some fantasy about a world made up of good guys and bad guys.  This was a liberal delusion, one that sensible people eventually realized was a limited and immature way of seeing the world. 

“I’ve heard about that mine,” Allie said. 

I knew she meant in Harper’s.  Susan had mailed me a copy of the issue.  The article focused on the displacement of the local population and the tensions this generated within the community and the possibility that it might reignite the civil war.  In truth, I’d only skimmed the pages, bloated as they were with nonsense.

“I guess that makes you an expert, doesn’t it?” I said.

“I think it’s pretty fucked up,” she said.  “I mean, how can you work for that company?  They’re stealing those people’s lands.”

“Those people don’t own the land.  That’s the point.”

“That’s such bullshit!” she shouted, slapping the table.  The men at the bar turned on their stools.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, just above a whisper.  “The opportunities that mine presents for this country outweigh the concerns of a few subsistence farmers.”  I hated myself for getting sucked in, but I’d never been able to stop myself.  Thanksgiving dinners always ended in acrimony in our house.

“Of course it does!”  Allie was shouting now.  Everyone was watching us.  “Opportunities for the rich who’ve raped this country for hundreds of years, and for North American corporations.  Which I guess is what your job is, right?  Grease the fucking gears.”

There was something in her tone that made me think she wasn’t just someone who’d stumbled across an article, which had mentioned, now that I thought about it, the presence of international human rights organizations, serving as observers and even human shields for the local communities when the mining company sent in men to burn the villages.  Seeing her indignation, I began to wonder if maybe she was one of these.  Even brainless Billy could’ve been an activist.

“I think you’re simplifying things.  The world isn’t that easy,” I said.

“It’s not?” she shouted.  “What’s so complicated?  Thieves come down and steal land, property, goods, and call themselves a company.  That’s how it’s always been.”  Her face was red and the cords of her neck stood out.  A little vein pulsed along her forehead.  Billy watched all this with a bemused smile, as though we were speaking a foreign language.

“That’s how a child thinks,” I said.  “Just because you read something in a magazine doesn’t mean you understand anything.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?  What fucking magazine?  I guess you,” she lunged forward, trying to poke me in the chest, but the table caught her in the stomach, “are just naturally full of fucking wisdom, aren’t you?”

Before I could say anything she stood and stomped to the bar, squeezing in between two men.  Billy fussed with the label on his bottle, then followed.  They whispered together furiously while I finished my beer and gestured for another.  Little peaks of their bitching rose into audibility every now and then.  When I’d nearly finished my new beer, they went and sat at another table, back near the prostitutes. 

Maybe at that point I should’ve left.  But I’d seen the way the men in the bar were looking at the American kids, and though they were strangers, I felt responsible for them.  I ordered another beer, told the waitress I was paying for everything the Americans had, and snuck a look at my cell phone, which was still getting no service.  Though the lopsided clock on the wall said it was only six o’clock, dark had fallen.  Back home, Joyce would be exhausted, barely able to shuffle to the bathroom where she’d strain to urinate, and then brush her teeth.  Susan would have to help lift her mother into bed, hook up the tubes and set the level of the oxygen.  These are things I’d done every day for the past year when I was home and I’d come to think of them as rites no one knew how to enact but me.  I hated when reality imposed on this feeling, as it continually did when we had to hire nurses to help while I was abroad.  This time, Joyce said she didn’t want a stranger.  She couldn’t stand another bored, tired nurse changing her bed pan, lifting her frail shoulders from the sheets to slip her nightgown off before sponging her down, massaging her legs and slipping a clean gown over her head.  I’d written out how to do all this in explicit detail for Susan, but I was worried something would go wrong.  Joyce might die and even though I knew this was inevitable, knew that soon enough she’d be gone, I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t accept it.  And now I was here, thousands of miles away and out of touch.  I wanted to be there, to take care of her, to sit up in bed when I heard her sighing in pain, or just shifting her hips.  I was alert in a way I haven’t been since Susan was born and for the first few weeks had only been able to sleep nestled between us.  All that time I slept thinly, always aware of her delicate body on the mattress.  Instead of thrashing around in the sheets as I usually did I was suddenly calm and careful, and it was how I felt taking care of Joyce, the slight weight of her body in my arms as I cradled her and lifted her up and set her down in the soft seat of her wheelchair.  But what was I suppose to do when the man who might’ve been Steve called?  If I’d refused to come down here, they’d have fired me, had nearly already done so because of my “personal conflicts” that were “hindering my accountability,” and if that happened we’d be left without health insurance.

Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice the two men join Billy and Allie.  The men looked about the same age as the Americans, but were of a whole other world.  Both men had cowboy hats tipped down over their narrow faces.  I’d seen men like this all over the world, charming enough on the surface, but an inch down they were criminals.  I could tell from the way they sat in their chairs that beneath their shirts were knives, or guns.  The two men laughed, stood up, and gestured to the Americans.  Allie and Billy complied.  They knocked at a door on the back wall, which opened a crack, then let them in.

By the time I fumbled up out of my seat and across the room, the door was closed.  The nearest prostitute grinned at me, tugging down the neck of her blouse.

I knocked and waited.  While I did, I reached into my jacket and lifted the gun half an inch out of the holster, let it fall back.  In my other hand I gripped my briefcase, full of financial papers and spreadsheets and my laptop computer.  When no one answered my knocks I turned to the bartender, who avoided looking at me. “Abierto la puerta,” I said.  The bartender smiled at me, then nodded and stepped around the bar and unlocked the door. 

“Dancing,” he said, speaking Spanish slowly, as if I was a child.  “Good dancing.”

A steep flight of stairs led down into a room that pulsed with blue light and a dense, throbbing music.  The stairwell was smothered with water sodden posters – political ads, deodorant advertisements, and what looked like rock bands, men and women studded with piercings, sticking their tongues out and flicking off the camera as they danced atop blood red letters that had blistered and burst apart.  The door above slammed, a lock thrown. 

The music was too loud to hear voices in the room, the walls of which seemed to be shaking with the violent strobe light, and it took me a moment to recognize Allie and Billy at a table near a low wooden platform out of which rose a greasy metal pole.  The Americans were laughing, bent doubled over as if in pain, and the two men they’d been talking with were smiling and smoking, holding what must have been joints out as the kids straightened up.  There were half a dozen other tables, only one of which was occupied by a single man in a long trenchcoat, a baseball cap pulled low over his face.  I sat at the table nearest the stairs, turning my chair so I could see if someone came down.  A tiny, shriveled woman stepped from the shadows, her old body grotesquely squeezed into a leather bra and panties, her loose, cellulite thighs quivering as she stepped beside me and glared until I ordered a beer.  Watching her slink back to the bar in the corner I noticed a wall, covered with leather straps, whips, and a long, thin machete. 

I jumped when the music cut off, just long enough to hear Allie say, “Exactly.  That’s exactly what I’m –,” and then the music erupted again, a crashing heavy-metal that felt as if it was scraping the inside my eyes.  A silvery cloud drifted along the low ceiling filling the room with the overripe stink of marijuana. 

At the far end of the wooden stage a heavy black curtain was pushed aside and a young woman walked out unsteadily on high, silver stilettos and nothing else, her small, high breasts not moving even when she tottered into the bright puddle of a spot light.  She stopped in the middle of the stage and stood smiling shyly, her skin shining blue with sweat, or oil.  She stared straight ahead, blinking heavily in the spot light, smiling.  One of the men at Allie and Billy’s table stood up, stretching his arms over his head, leaning down to whisper something to Allie, who laughed and nodded.  Slowly, as if everyone wasn’t watching, the man walked to the wall beside the bar and took down a short-handled black leather whip with three strands that sagged at the ends.  Hefting it to test the weight, he walked back to his table, made another joke then, as the music rose to an even more frantic pitch, stepped onto the stage beside the woman.

I stared at my beer, but I could hear the wet, heavy snap of the whip and once I heard, through the din of the music a single cry of pain.  Only when the music shifted between songs and I heard a woman’s voice, “No, I’m serious,” did I look up. 

Allie was being pushed toward the stage by one of the other men, his mouth open, teeth flashing.  Allie tried to turn, but the man grabbed her arms and spun her around to face the stage on which the naked girl was bent over, her face hidden by a fall of hair.  Allie shook her head, but the man on the stage leaned down, grabbed her wrist and jerked her onto the stage.  Billy, I noticed, was staring at his hands in his lap, as if about to go to sleep.  The man on the stage held the whip out toward Allie.  She turned to step down, but the man grabbed her arm and pulled her back and thrust the whip into her hand.  I couldn’t tell, with the flashing light, with the blue haze, with the pounding music, but I thought she might be crying as she looked down at the whip in her hand, but I know that as she stepped up beside the kneeling girl she looked up, back at me, as if she’d known all along I was there.  I put my hand on my gun, out of fear I guess, but also because I felt sure at that moment that I was in danger, that after she was done with the girl, she’d come for me.  Then the fear left her face and Allie twirled the whip around head and gyrated her hips.  Beneath the music I could hear the men cheering as I scrambled out of my seat, knocking over the untouched beer on my table and ran up the stairs, slipping so I hit my knee painfully, so that I limped through the door after knocking wildly until it was opened.

Outside the bar I got lost immediately, but kept hobbling until I found a larger street, lined with auto-body shops, against the fences of which snarling black dogs hurled themselves.  I walked along the side of the road, tucking the gun back into the holster, my briefcase in the other hand, glancing back until I spotted a cab and flagged it down. 

 

***

 

Now it’s nearly morning.  Allie and Billy are surely dead, raped and tortured and robbed, all because they thought life was a game.  In a few hours, the men from the mining company will come for me.  We’re having breakfast here before heading to the office.  It’s all there on my itinerary.  The phone in my room is still dead.  My cell phone still has no service and of course there’s no internet, so I can’t check on Joyce, can’t make sure Susan arrived, that they’re all still safe.

There’s nothing more to write.  But I can’t stop thinking about what must’ve happened to Allie.  I can’t stop thinking there must have been something I could have done to save her, to keep her safe. 

In a few weeks her mother will start to worry.  In a month she’ll call the embassy and her daughter’s degenerate friends to see if they’ve heard anything.  She’ll sit up for hours, staring into the brittle, suburban dark, unable to even begin to imagine what might have happened, or what the world that swallowed her daughter was like.  With no answers, there’ll be nothing she can do but wait and hope for some final word, for anything other than the silence.