Once upon a time, newspapers printed short stories and serializations; a tradition that gave us the writings of Charles Dickens, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the acerbic wit of Mark Twain, and the intricate imaginings of O. Henry.
Reviving that tradition, The Free Press of Rockland, Maine, challenged best-selling mystery novelist David Crossman to write an original short story every week for 24 weeks. Here, in book form, is the result: Storyteller (originally titled A Propinquity of Opposites), a novel, a collection of short stories, “a literary tour de force unlike anything you’ve ever read” and worthy of the heritage that brought it into being.
Briefly: A private plane crashes in the south Pacific. The lone survivor, rap star Rat Badger Junkmouth Flash, washes up on a desert island where he is confronted by a most unexpected resident.
The island’s only habitation is a magnificent mansion in which are twenty-two rooms. In each of these he will encounter a dimension of existence – and of himself – that he never imagined.
by David A. Crossman
A Propinquity of Opposites
ooooCummings stood at casual attention on the beach of the desert island and stared out to sea in the direction where he’d seen the plane go down just before dawn.
He was dressed every inch the proper Victorian butler, from his shoes – polished the bottomless sheen of black chrome – to the perfectly starched and pleated collar and cuffs that protruded exactly five-eighths of an inch from the neck and sleeves of his perfectly-tailored Dege and Skinner swallow-tailed coat. The creases in his trousers could have sliced apples and the seven brass buttons on his waistcoat reflected the rising sun with seven tiny lighthouses of welcome to the survivor.
ooooHe stood and waited, a carefully folded white towel draped over the crook of his left arm. His right hand held an ornate silver serving tray, upon which rested a siphon of seltzer, a decanter of hundred and twenty year old scotch whiskey, and a sparkling glass of cut crystal which waited, like Cummings, with expectant, if not discernibly excited equanimity. One glass would suffice. There was never more than one survivor: a regrettable reality of this uncharted corner of creation to which Cummings had long resigned himself.
ooooIf he was warm beneath the wide-eyed stare of the inquisitive sun and his own butlery livery, not so much as a pore bespoke anything but a man perfectly at peace with his world and his place in it. He was a butler and would soon have someone to butle. The best of all worlds.
ooooRat-Badger Junkmouth Flash, nee Harold Erasmus Jackson and still called ‘Little Harry’ by the grandmother who’d raised him, was known simply as Rat to his friends and fans. At the moment he was floating aggressively. That is, his arms and legs had begun moving earnestly as the upward-tilting wing tip of the plane to which he’d walked himself, slipped with a gentle wave into the terrible blue-gray grip of eternity below; a sleek, multi-million dollar coffin for the eighteen souls of his entourage. Perhaps, like the mummies of ancient Egypt, they would be found one day amid the luxury of their burial chamber, leaving their discoverers to ponder the sea-crusted detritus of the funerary objects by which they’d hoped to be accompanied into the afterlife.
ooooIf Rat Badger entertained such notions, it was but briefly as he was struggling to keep his head above water. Not a natural swimmer, he was nevertheless sufficiently buoyed by his thrashing to keep adrift.
ooooThe thing about thrashing though, particularly in the South Pacific, is that it attracts the attention of unwelcome marine specimens. One of these, to Rat’s horror, began rubbing against his leg like an over-affectionate puppy dog. The hide of this puppy, though – much the texture of 20-grit sandpaper – was wearing his seven hundred dollar trousers to shreds.
ooooRat stopped flailing, buoyed briefly by the shocked intake of air that filled his lungs. To his aquatic companion he might have seemed an oversized blowfish, though this is speculation. He stared at the sky with wide, pathetic Buckwheat eyes that would have awaken at least a twinge of conscience in the hungriest shark, were sharks given to sentimental introspection, which this shark, at least, was not. Instead, it seemed to be leisurely removing the wrapper from an afternoon snack.
ooooOne benefit of having his eyes thus widened was that it allowed Rat Badger a broader perspective of his surroundings. At first glance, these had seemed an endless, unbroken expanse of horizon spreading infinitely in all directions. Now, however, he saw that there was in that long, salty sentence – that liquid requiem – one pearl-edged emerald of punctuation. An island not a mile away. So close and yet, as a sandpapery pass at his torso reminded him, so far away.
ooooThe proverbial straight-flying crow would sneeze at such a distance. Many of the creatures in God’s menagerie, in fact, would have closed the interval without raising a blush. Rat Badger was none of these. But when a giant white-gray fin rose menacingly from the water and began surrounding him as if it had all the time in the world, he found that, much to his surprise, he could swim after all, and at a commendable clip. In between strokes he screamed at the top of his lungs, which may or may not have aided in his propulsion.
ooooNevertheless, he must have taken comfort in the display for he performed it with gusto.
ooooGraceful he was not. But apparently the shark was not judging as much on style as overall affect, for it held back a moment in thoughtful deliberation. Were this North Dakota in the bleak midwinter and there very little likelihood of a fresh meal elsewhere in the vicinity, it would undoubtedly have scarfed the rap star whole and, burping a little cloud of residual profanity, sallied off amidst the snowdrifts as contented a shark as ever toured the Badlands. But, as observed, this was the South Pacific and meals much less likely to spoil the digestion were not hard to come by. So the shark, pursuing lethargically for a stroke or two – more out of curiosity than gastronomic intent – eventually called an end to the game and undulated away with only an occasional backward glance. No doubt he considered the experience axiomatic and would, later in his lair, compose an appropriate parable for the edification of his fellow omnivores.
ooooCummings knew the shark – which he’d nicknamed Hodgekins after an old public-school chum with particularly bad teeth – by the peculiar double-vee notch that had been taken from its dorsal fin in some long-distant sub-marine confrontation. The animal, to Cumming’s way of thinking, was possessed of an unpredictable nature, sometimes pursuing his quarry with an almost playful malice, allowing the unfortunate individual to nearly feel the sand under their feet before dispatching them in a few rude gulps. Other times, as now, simply losing interest for no apparent reason. Whatever may be said of the beast, it was not British.
ooooAs Rat Badger windmilled frantically toward the shallows, Cummings adjusted an eyebrow slightly, indicative of mild surprise. He had never attended a gentleman of color. There had been the French Canadian, Gascard Montrose, who, given the swarthiness of his complexion, may have had a Corsican or two among the lower branches of the family tree, but his tastes were capable of anticipation, after a fashion – though running a little more to sauces than Cummings would have liked.
ooooBut he was French.
ooooA Negro though. Cummings had no personal experience of the race, they being conspicuous by their absence among the upper classes whom he’d served in the days, long ago, when he’d been a butler in London. His eyes drifted casually to the siphon and whiskey and a small, skeptical thought fluttered across the placid landscape of his mind.
ooooPerhaps he should have brought gin.
ooooHis gaze returned to the spume-bejeweled figure of Rat Badger as, getting his feet under him a good distance from shore owing to the gradual declination of the sea bed, he began a kind of spastic marionettish lope through the surf toward the beach. Rat Badger, for his part, may be excused for not noticing Cummings until this moment, the bulk of his attention having been otherwise occupied. Emerging victorious from the battle for life and limbs – of which a quick inventory assured him he was still in possession – his eyes clapped on Cummings as on an apparition and he halted suddenly amid a corona of foam. His mouth gaped to accommodate the superfluity of sensation his eyes couldn’t handle. He uttered a word often found spray-painted on subway walls – a thesaurus to which he referred often during his speech and which, if represented by blanks in the narrative would result in a lengthy story of empty pages.
ooooSufficient to say this edition has been abridged to move the story along.
ooooOne might not say it is anthropologically possible for an individual to express formidable hospitality unless one saw Cummings from Rat’s point of view at the moment. Beneath the rap icon’s overt contempt for anything white was a nameless, unexamined fear which manifested itself as suspicion and he knew at a glance he’d never seen anything more white – hence more suspicious – than the butler who stood waiting on the beach.
oooo“What are you lookin’ at?” inquired Rat by way of greeting. He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hands, but the apparition remained.
ooooIf Cummings was asking the same thing of himself, nothing in his demeanor betrayed the fact. With a flip of the wrist the towel unfurled from his arm like a flag of welcome. Rat Badger snapped it up and, eyeing the butler warily, dried himself.
oooo“Your trousers would appear to need mending, sir,” said Cummings.
ooooRat Badger emerged from his towel and looked at his sartorial remains.
oooo“If you would remove them, I shall attend them presently.”
oooo“You want me to take off my pants?”
oooo“Heavens no, sir. Only your trousers.”
ooooThis illustrates how two cultures can be divided by a common language, for in Cumming’s England pants were trousers and underpants were pants. At no time during the exchange that followed, however, did the unflappable butler give the slightest indication of flapping. Discerning from the late arrival’s indignation that there must be some misunderstanding relative to terms, he quickly and quietly got to the core of the problem and an international incident was averted.
ooooAt the conclusion of negotiations, Rat’s trousers had taken the place of the towel on the crook of Cumming’s arm and the rap star was standing in his leopard skin briefs, sipping appreciatively at the scotch and soda.
oooo“How come you ain’t sweatin’?”
oooo“Beg pardon, sir?”
oooo“‘Beg pardon, sir’,” Rat mimicked. “I like that. You keep it up and we’re gonna be friends. Even if you are a mirage.” Which is what he suspected. The scotch, especially, convinced him that at any moment he’d wake up in his plane, surrounded by his comforting coterie of sycophants. It was going to be one King Kong of a hangover, but anything was better than a dubious dreamland inhabited by white butlers up the whazoo. “I asked you how come you ain’t sweatin’ like a barbecued pig, all dressed up like that. It’s hot here. Look at me, I’m smokin’.” True, steam was rising from his ebony flesh in soft, mesmerizing clouds. “And I’m from Alabama.”
oooo“One becomes acclimated, sir.”
oooo“One does, does one?” Rat Badger laughed, finished his drink and put the glass on the salver. “Well, that’s the best mirage scotch I ever tasted. Now, let’s get down to business. Who are you, what are you doin’ here, and where is here anyhow?”
ooooCummings nodded slightly and, clearing his throat, began. “Taking your queries in order, sir, I am Cummings, the butler. I came to this island in nineteen hundred and six. As to the third point, I’m afraid I’ve never been able to ascertain with any degree of geographical accuracy exactly where this island is located. An educated guess (I must qualify my estimate by saying that I am guided by my memories of Captain Cook’s journals, which I read as a schoolboy) is that we are in the South Sea, somewhere between the island’s of Tahiti and New Zealand. The stars confirm, at least, that we are in the southern hemisphere.”
ooooRat was still several sentences behind. “1906 you say?”
oooo“Just so, sir.”
ooooThe skepticism with which Rat Badger had been regarding the butler took on a deep, new dimension. He did some quick math – which meant converting all figures to the common denominator of dollars and cents – and named the resulting figure. “You tellin’ me you’re that old?”
oooo“I was forty-seven at the time of my shipwreck, in 1906. I have not aged perceptibly since. Not externally in any event, though I hope I am not immodest to suggest that my experience in the intervening years has made me a wiser, deeper man. Be that as it may, to all outward appearance I am as I was.”
oooo“You say you shipwrecked.”
oooo“You understand correctly, sir.”
oooo“Then, you must know where we are. I mean, where were you went you went down?”
oooo“Just off the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. I was attending the master and mistress upon their return from Belfast to Southport.”
oooo“The Irish Sea?” said Rat Badger who, though geographically challenged, was having difficulty reconciling his impression of that body of water with his present surroundings. “That ain’t near here, is it?”
oooo“You swam all the way from there to … wherever we are?”
oooo“Not that I recall, sir. I did swim, for a bit – having determined that the master, mistress, and silver plate were beyond rescue, of course.”
oooo“Of course,” said Rat, as if he’d have done no less.
ooooCummings inclined his large head inscrutably. “Just so. When I emerged from that exercise – which seemed no more than five or ten minutes – I was here.”
ooooRat tucked that enigma away for future reference. “And you haven’t aged since?”
oooo“As I said, not outwardly, sir.”
ooooRat Badger had to get a longer rope for his mental bucket as he dipped even deeper into his well of doubt. “Right. And you’ve been here for …” and he named the number of years his calculations had brought him to.
oooo“As to that, I take your word, sir. It is, together with my own apparent longevity, one of many curious anomalies of this place that it is impossible to measure the passage of time. No mark or device so intended will last a night. My previous visitor, a very spirited Argentinian woman named Ana Maria Consuela Conchita Sanchez de Juarez Ortia, arrived in 1983, so she said. She never gave me reason to doubt the veracity of her assertion.”
oooo“Where is she now?”
ooooCummings demurred. Was it Rat’s imagination, or did the butler whisk away a tear with his gloved finger? “I expect you are desirous of dinner, sir. I regret our menu is limited to those comestibles the topography supplies, but I shall endeavor to see such as we have is prepared to your satisfaction.”
oooo“Are you gonna keep talkin’ like that?”
oooo“The more you talk the less sense you make. You gotta use up the whole dictionary every time you open your mouth?”
oooo“I shall endeavor to be less loquacious, sir. This way, if you please.” So saying, Cummings led the way from the beach up a beautifully groomed path through thick foliage, punctuated at regular intervals by unlit lanterns of conch shells.
oooo“Where’s the nearest phone, Jack? I gotta call my agent.”
oooo“Telephone. Cell phone, e-mail, iPhone, YouPhone, MePhone. I ain’t fussy. Whatever you got.”
oooo“Previous guests have requested similar devices, sir. For communicating with the world outside, I deduce. I’m afraid you must share their disappointment. I have not so much as a telegraph to offer.”
oooo“No phone! You’re jerkin’ me around.”
oooo“I would presume to do no such thing,” said Cummings, concealing his alarm. “In the other instances to which I refer, I have suggested depositing a message in a bottle and casting it into the sea in hopes the current would carry it to some inhabited country.” He lowered his head slightly. “I regret to say response was not forthcoming. However, should you wish to make the attempt . . . ” He cocked an eyebrow at the decanter.
ooooRat studied the butler with one eye closed, as if this would reduce Cumming’s superabundance of whiteness by half. “Maybe later. First things first. Let’s get to the grub. Lead on, Jimbo.”
oooo“Cummings, sir,” Cummings corrected.
oooo“Whatever. I’m right behind you.”
ooooThey walked the upward-winding path in tandem silence for a few steps.
oooo“Say, who’s the chief honcho around here?” Rat asked conversationally.
oooo“You mean the master?” Cummings appreciated the hazards of misunderstanding and wished to diminish them with clarification.
oooo“Master!” Rat’s atavistic corpuscles bridled at the word. “What are you talkin’ about, master?”
oooo“That would be you, sir,” said Cummings.
ooooRat sifted the notion. This was different. “I’m the master?”
oooo“Indubitably, sir. There is no other on the island.”
oooo“I’m the master, you’re the slave?”
ooooCummings cleared his throat into the back of his hand. “Servant, sir. The distinction is an important one.”
oooo“Right. Hey, you don’t have magical powers, do you? You know, like I Dream of Jeannie or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
ooooCummings gave some thought to his response. “Not that I have discovered, sir. Not directly, at any rate.”
oooo“Not directly. What’s that supposed to mean?” Rat curvetted around an overreaching oleander.
oooo“Well, things do seem to happen, sir.”
oooo“What kind of things?”
ooooCummings reserved further comment for several steps. “Perhaps the type of phenomena to which I refer will make itself evident presently.”
ooooFurther comment on Rat’s behalf was stifled as, rounding a final corner in the path, the vegetation abruptly gave way to a wide expanse of lawns and gardens – with gently gurgling fountains – sweeping gracefully to a hill in the near distance. Squatting atop the hill was an Edwardian mansion, its broad wings embracing an immense courtyard of crushed stone, sprinkled here and there with Greco-Roman statuary. Rat halted in his tracks and breathed a scatological epithet.
oooo“Sojourner’s Hall,” said the butler, anticipating his companion’s wonder. It was impossible not to detect a trace of pride in his voice.
oooo“Who lives there?” Rat demanded, sensing that things were getting whiter and whiter.
oooo“You do, sir.”
oooo“Me? That’s my crib!”
ooooSo overcome was Rat Badger at this development, that only as they began the long ascent through the verdant parklands toward the mauve brick mansion did he realize he was fully dressed. Faux leopard-skin briefs had been supplanted by the full dinner attire of an Edwardian gentleman, exquisitely cut, and perfectly tailored to conform to his athletic physique. The discovery, while not unpleasant, was nonetheless alarming. He spun in circles several times, as if trying to get beside himself, the better to take in the sight.
oooo“What did you do!”
oooo“Nothing, of which I am aware, sir,” said the butler, not breaking stride. “You have experienced one of the phenomena of which I made note. If I may suggest, it is best to get used to it.”
ooooThe next instant proved Cumming’s suggestion a wise one, for Rat found himself transported to the mansion’s cavernous dining room, of the type in which Queen Victoria could have comfortably swung any of the larger felines in her extensive dominions without imperiling the Royal Dalton. The center of the room was occupied by a table of burled walnut, roughly the length of a regulation basketball court. There was only one chair, however, at the head of the table, and in that chair Rat Badger sat masticating the last bite of a sumptuous meal, the courses of which – like the ephemera of a dream – he couldn’t recall. Nevertheless, he was completely sated, in indication of which he burped as was his wont at the conclusion of a satisfactory repast.
ooooThe percussive echo bounced around the room, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, until it became the relentless, rhythmic thumping of a bass drum, which brought to mind the lyrics of the misogynistic ditty Love ’em and Eat ’em, that had earned his first CD the vociferous (and well-deserved) censure of the Southern Baptist Convention; hence chart-topping success.
ooooThe song had been inspired by a nature program he’d seen on PBS which featured the conjugal habits of the praying mantis. Reversing the role of the sexes and applying the principal to himself, well . . . it was a very big hit among the easily entertained.
oooo“How many bedrooms does this place have?” he asked, sensing Cumming’s presence in the shadows.
oooo“One can never say with any degree of confidence, sir. The configuration changes, you see, according to the . . . needs . . . of the inhabitant.” A table bearing a cigar and a snifter of brandy appeared at Rat’s elbow. “I shall count them, if you like.” Rat ran the cigar beneath his nose and crinkled it by his ear. “Havanah,” he said appreciatively. “Light me, Jeeves.”
oooo“Cummings, sir,” the butler remonstrated gently.
oooo“Then count away, Cummings. And be quick about it.”
oooo“There are twenty-two bedrooms, sir.”
ooooRat Badger started as if he’d fallen into a doze. “What?”
oooo“You directed me to count the bedrooms, sir. There are twenty-two . . . at present.”
ooooRat’s gaze fell to his cigar, which was burned to a nub. He didn’t remember having taken so much as a puff. “I must’ve nodded off. It’s dark in here. Turn on some lights.”
ooooCummings directed his steps toward a gas sconce on the wall. “It is not the first time I have seen this configuration,” he said. “If I deduce correctly, you may be in for an unsettling experience, sir.” He twisted the valve and the jet of burning gas leapt to attention, staking a small principality of illumination at the edges of which misshaped shadows surged toward the darkness.
ooooOnce his eyes were accustomed to the brightness, Rat received the jolt which Cummings had prophesied. The walls, before, behind, and around him – were made of mirrored glass in which the majesty of the room and its accouterments were multiplied in hallways that disappeared into infinity. Likewise, armies of Cummingses were strung out in endless array toward each of the cardinal points.
ooooIt was by none of these optical phenomena that Rat was jolted, however, but by the fact that his own reflection was – in all those infinities of images – absent, and in it’s place was a rodentish-looking gnome with anxious red eyes, ragged grasping claws, and a vile, gaping maw.
oooo“It is as I anticipated,” Cummings said, more to himself than to his master.
ooooRat started from his chair. “What’s that?” He snapped. The timbre of his voice registered a heightened degree of consternation. “Where’s my reflection?”
oooo“Ah,” Cummings sighed knowingly. “As to that, I fear my response may disquiet you, sir. Are you sure you wish to know?”
oooo“Of course I want to know!” Rat protested. “Where’s my reflection?” Impulsively he ran to the nearest wall and waved himself around in front of it, which activity was perfectly mimicked by the creature in the glass. “And what’s that ugly thing?”
oooo“I can only predicate my conjecture upon previous experience.”
oooo“This has happened before?”
ooooCummings inclined his head slightly. I, myself, cannot see what you see, sir, but I am not without certain events from which I may infer. One being the brief residency of a carnival barker named Ignatius Flang, sir. His arrival was much like yours though, as I recollect, the misadventure that brought him to these shores involved the wreck of a ship called the Royal Tar . . . ”
oooo“Skip the specifics,” Rat commanded. “What’s he got to do with this?” He gestured broadly at the mirrors, from which the grotesque figure gestured back. “Well, I hesitate to be so bold as to apply Mr. Flang’s experience in the present instance, sir, but, since you ask, it was demonstrated by bitter evidence that- in his case – these mirrors reflected his soul.”
oooo“Soul?” Rat flashed a panicky glance at the walls. “That is my soul?!”
oooo“Your immortal, incorporeal essence, yes sir. So it would seem.” Cummings regarded the reflections critically. “In Mr. Flang’s case the creature was, I understand, reptilian, with a slight magenta cast about the eyes.”
ooooRat was no theologian, but he inferred that this condition did not bode well from an eternal perspective. “That ain’t good.”
oooo“Philosophers, and theologians may dispute the point, sir, but no. To my way of thinking, it ain’t good.”
oooo“Well, what are you gonna do about it?”
ooooCummings nearly raised an eyebrow. “There’s nothing I can do, I regret to say.”
oooo“What did this Horatio guy do?”
oooo“Ignatius,” Cummings corrected, sighing heavily. “A regimen was prescribed which, I fear, he was not assiduous in performing.”
oooo“Once more, in English,” said Rat, fighting back a wave of desperation.
oooo“It was suggested that if he were to occupy a different bedroom each night for as many nights as there are bedrooms, his soul might somehow be redeemed.” Cummings lowered his chin. “Midway through the second night, he fled the house with his soul, more rapacious and reptilian than ever, in hot pursuit, if you will pardon the vernacular.”
ooooRat didn’t want to know the answer to the question he was compelled to ask. “What happened to him?”
ooooCummings began collecting plates on a large tray. “Only a few bones, an ossified heart and a tin of curiously strong breath mints were recovered for burial.”
ooooRat Badger gazed in horror at the reflection of his soul. “What’s in those rooms?”
oooo“I don’t know, sir.”
oooo“But you’re sayin’ I gotta sleep in all them rooms to get me a half-way decent looking soul?”
oooo“As to sleep, I make no guarantee. Spend the night in each of them, though. Yes. That would be my recommendation.” He was solicitous. “It is my understanding that the task must be completed in concurrent nights. I gather it is a rigorous exercise, sir.” Cummings hesitated but a moment. “‘If t’were done, t’were best t’were done quickly’. Shall I prepare the first, sir?”
ooooRat Badger thought how like his sobriquet was the creature that leered hungrily at him from the mirrors. “Call me Harold,” he said.
ooooWhether he was ready or not the echo of his voice hadn’t died before he found Cummings tucking him beneath the plush duvet of a canopied bed in a grand, heavily rococo room, from the wall of which a gas candelabra glowed warmly. “Things happen fast around here,” he commented. oooo“Some things do indeed transpire with alarming alacrity,” Cummings replied. “Is there anything else you require?”
ooooHarold scanned the room at a glance. “No MTV, I guess?”
oooo“I am not familiar with the acronym, sir.”
oooo“Nevermind. Shove off, then.” Harold wanted nothing more than to ask Cummings to stay in an adjoining room with the door open and, while he was at it, to see if he had a teddy bear lying around anywhere, but the proposal was argued down by pride. “See you in the morning.”
oooo“’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” said Cummings, stepping into the hall. “Pleasant dreams, sir.”
ooooThe door closed behind the butler, revealing, on its reverse, a full-length mirror – in the darkened recesses of which Harold perceived something faintly stirring. Battling the urge to plunge beneath the covers, he climbed from his bed and approached the mirror tentatively, only to be confronted by the image of a raggedly dressed young girl, approaching him with equal trepidation. Behind her, the mirror reflected not his room but an African wasteland of charred trees and dust. The girl’s face was so black that her features were not discernible at first.
ooooHow it happened, he couldn’t comprehend, but he knew the reflection was his own. In a manner that is usually confined to dreams, he had fused with the girl’s subconscious. Her world was his. Her experiences – a waxworks of horrors stretching into the deepest recesses of her young memory – were branded on the synapses of his being as were her fears, her sense of loss, of abandonment, of aloneness and the perpetual, gnawing hunger that formed the core of her being.
ooooIn the near background, seemingly guided by the girl, a full-grown elephant loped contentedly, now and then tossing trunkfulls of dirt in the air, as if to test which way the wind was blowing.
ooooHarold Erasmus Jackson had entered upon the first of his twenty-two nights.
The Elephant Walker
The first night
ooooHer name was Bedpinny. That was all of her own story she knew. The perpetual warfare in southern Sudan had consumed her family in savage bites. Of all her relations, she was the only survivor. The bodies of her mother and grandmother had shielded her from the blast that killed them. She had waited for a long time for them to move. But they didn’t. Beyond the acoustic cushion of their flesh the gunfire thudded like blankets being beaten with straw brooms. In time the screams died away. There was no one left to make them. Only Bedpinny. Bathed in the blood of her ancestors, she crawled from beneath the corpses and stood looking at them.
ooooHer mother and grandmother.
ooooMinutes ago they had been singing, and laughing and teasing her about the baseball cap she was wearing. She had found it in a pile of clothes spread out on a table in front of the Presbyterian mission. It had a ‘B’ emblazoned on the front, but she was too young to know a ‘B’ from any other letter. She liked the color. She took it, put in on, and proudly wore it home. Her mother and grandmother were in high spirits. They had caught a rabbit in their snare. “We’ll have meat tonight!” they had told her. “Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve had meat?”
ooooThey skinned the animal and prepared it for the pot. Bedpinny couldn’t remember ever having had meat. She knew beans, both white and red, and rice. And onions. She loved onions. And course bread of sorghum meal. Sometimes cabbage. Sometimes kale. Most of all, she knew hunger: a ravenous, insatiable beast that burrowed in the belly and ate holes as deep as the grave.
ooooShe had only a vague awareness for the purpose of setting the snare, but they’d been doing it all her life, so she didn’t think it strange. It was a tradition; one of those inexplicable rituals in which adults engaged. A primitive lottery.
ooooNow Beepo, her grandmother, was lying face down on the clay floor of the tukl, her long, skinny arms and legs at impossible angles. Mamma was lying on top of her, draped backward, facing the ceiling. Her right arm, hacked away in the mindless orgy of bloodlust, was a foot away, the rabbit’s intestines still grasped in its fingers.
ooooThe rabbit was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, skinned and eviscerated, it had run away.
ooooMama’s eyes, still moist with tears, were open. She was looking up – as if to watch her soul away. Bedpinny’s gaze drifted toward the smoke hole in the thatch. Motes of dust descended leisurely from the straw roof, and floated this way and that as a hot, overweight breeze nudged its way through the oppressive atmosphere.
ooooBedpinny picked up the baseball cap and put it on. She didn’t think about what to do next. Her actions were intuitive. Grabbing fistfuls of dead ash from the edge of the fire, she sprinkled them over her mother and grandmother. The wordless requiem of a three-year old. She left the hut. ooooOutside, the air was hung with languid wreathes of smoke. A group of soldiers sat on their haunches around a hot, low fire, in the coals of which the rabbit was roasting. They didn’t notice her. They were intent on the rabbit. Beyond them, seven young women, bound hand and foot, were tied to trees. Bedpinny knew them, but not why they were tied there. Fifty dollars each. Soon they would be shipped north to the outskirts of Khartoum and distributed throughout the Middle East to serve in the homes and commercial enterprises of Muslims; a commodity with a long tradition. Tribal Africans had been selling each other to the Arabs for a thousand years. And killing one another. Partially dismembered bodies littered the common space between the huts.
ooooBedpinny feared the soldiers. There was something evil about their laughter amid the carnage and destruction from which her spirit shrank. She walked away from them. Not along the road, where troops were still coming and going – their arms draped over the rifles suspended behind their necks – but down the familiar path toward the river.
ooooShe was nearly out of sight when one of the soldiers by the fire spotted her. At first he thought she was a wild pig. His eyes, tinged with the red tracery of malaria and teared with smoke, were blurry. He unslung his gun from his shoulder, aimed through the miasma and fired. The bullet stung the back of her hand like a wasp. She swatted at it reflexively, and looked with detached curiosity at the bulging thread of blood that oozed from the scratch. She didn’t run, though. She stumbled a little, and kept walking.
ooooAn animal would have run. The soldier knew this. As his eyes cleared, he realized he had just shot at a human being. Scrawny. Fleshless. A wasted bullet. Little more than an infant, she would die soon enough without the assistance of an ounce of lead. His comrades laughed at him and resumed poking at the rabbit in the coals. The marksman slung the gun over his shoulder and blushed inwardly.
ooooAs Bedpinny walked away, every step was like the stroke of a brush of forgetfulness, wiping away the memory of all she had seen, all that had gone before – the death of her father and brothers in the wars, the disappearance of her older sisters and aunts to slavers, the disease that claimed her cousins and her uncle. By the time she arrived at the river, she didn’t know what had brought her there, where she was to go, or what to do. But she wasn’t to fetch water. She wasn’t to return home; the sticky blood that caked her flash and matted her hair told her so in whispers.
ooooShe was Bedpinny. That was all she knew. The memories were still there, of course, folded deep in the recesses of her subconscious, but remembering was not. She continued along the river until the path ran out, then she walked through the tall grass, making a path of her own. She walked all day and into the night. The moon was full, and presently she found herself on another path. With nothing to do but follow, she followed.
ooooSoon she was stumbling over her own feet in exhaustion. She never thought to lie down in the tall grass, or climb into the protective arms of a nearby tree and sleep. She walked until she collapsed. And where she collapsed, she slept. She was awakened by a large, gentle nudge against her lower back. Opening her eyes, she found herself staring up an elephant’s trunk. She didn’t startle. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrists and looked again. The elephant was staring back, swinging its head slowly, slightly from side to side, fanning the air with large, leathery ears.
ooooBedpinny had never seen an elephant. Like most animals, they had long ago been driven across the border into Uganda and the Central African Republic by constant warfare and the perpetual fires that raged out of control across the landscape, inhaling the nourishing grasses in leaping infernos of waste. She reached out and touched the trunk. The animal didn’t flinch, but returned the touch, brushing the back of her injured hand with cool, healing mucous.
ooooThe elephant seemed to be waiting. Bedpinny stood up, adjusted the hat on her head, and studied the deep brown eyes that returned her gaze. Set in folds of creased and furrowed flesh, they sparkled with moisture as if with laughter. She was reminded of someone she had known, someone old and wise. The memory wouldn’t awaken but left, in its stead, a comfortable feeling. There was nothing Bedpinny could do with the elephant. It was too big to eat, though her hunger was big enough to swallow it whole. Hunger was the engine that drove her. She looked in the direction from which she’d come. She didn’t remember it, but something told her there was nothing for her there. She looked ahead, and followed her eyes with her footsteps. The elephant followed behind, every now and then nudging her playfully at the base of her back. Her heart wanted to smile, but her soul wouldn’t let it. She just walked on, never looking back at her unlikely companion, but confident it was there.
ooooThe first village she came to smoldered in its own ashes. A cloud of vultures and crows feasted on the fat of humanity, a humble meal. Looking neither right or left, Bedpinny followed the path threaded between the charred remains of the tukls, accompanied by the syncopated tamps of the elephant’s feet and the deafening buzz of flies. She walked on. At the end of the day they came to a river. The elephant waded eagerly in among the sweet grasses and, punctuating its meal with trumpet blasts and jubilant explosions of spray from its trunk, made itself comfortable.
ooooBedpinny peeled the husk from a waterlogged cassava root, as she had helped her mother do many times. Rather than boiling it and beating it into a paste, as mamma had done, however, she ate it raw. The plant had as little taste as nutritional value, but the sound of chewing went a long way toward filling her belly. She climbed a hillock of soft grass, lay down and slept. The elephant stood watch.
ooooThe next day, about mid-afternoon, they discovered a secluded field of sugar cane, and ate their fill. Bedpinny peeled, and sucked, and chewed, and spat out chewy wads of fiber and was soon drenched in sweet, sticky juice that made her a magnet for flies. The elephant, too, enjoyed the treat, bundling five or ten stalks at a time in its trunk and feeding the furnace of its mouth which curled at the edges in a perpetual smile. That night they walked as long as the moon allowed. When it gave out, Bedpinny rode the elephant’s trunk to the low, blackened branches of a teak tree that had been half burned for charcoal, and slept. The elephant slept, too.
ooooBefore sunset the following day, they came to the outskirts of an inhabited village and their appearance caused considerable excitement. A lone boy came upon them as they were emerging from the woods and immediately, as if news of the arrival had been communicated telepathically, children from the village swarmed ’round, poking the elephant with sticks and leering and making faces at Bedpinny as if she was something grotesque and unnatural.
ooooThe elephant turned aside the assault on its person without comment, but when the children began threatening Bedpinny with their sticks, it stepped forward, sheltering her between its legs, and trumpeted a warning, instantly widening the perimeter by several yards.
ooooThe general tumult emptied the village and soon the clearing was filled with people. One of the older boys, excited to rash action by the possibility of imminent death, was still taunting the animal, lunging from a safe distance, jabbing, retreating. Upon arrival, with a gesture, his mother put an end to the exercise.
ooooPresently the crowd parted and Cosima, the headman of the village, stepped into the clearing.
oooo“It’s an elephant,” observed Twal, the chief’s right-hand man. Cosima withered him with a glance.
ooooHe stepped toward the intruders, but the elephant sharply warned him away. He stepped back. “Where do you come from?”
ooooBedpinny pointed up the path behind her.
oooo“Where did you get the elephant?”
ooooBedpinny did not respond. She’d done nothing wrong. Somehow, she felt the elephant had always been with her.
oooo“I haven’t seen one in a very long time,” said the chief.
ooooBedpinny wondered when was the last time he’d eaten meat, but she didn’t know where the thought came from.
oooo“Where are you going?” the chief continued. Probably no more than forty-five, he looked seventy. His features were marked by the wrinkled, faded dignity that comes with the realization that one’s authority extends only to the edge of the village, and how large was the world beyond those borders. To Bedpinny, though, he just looked old and imposing. Flesh sagged from his bones in miserly folds, as if there was no adhesive of fat to connect his skin to his sinews.
ooooBedpinny shrugged again. She was going in the direction of her next meal, that was all. Of course she hadn’t thought to hoard sugarcane against the journey. She was only three. She hadn’t eaten all day and her head was light, her knees weak. Familiar sensations.
oooo“Stay with us. We have rice,” said Cosima. Some of the women mumbled protest, but the chief silenced them with a wave of his hand. “Come.”
ooooBedpinny followed the headman, the elephant followed Bedpinny, and the villagers followed the elephant, who seemed unconcerned by the hunger in their eyes.
ooooReturning to his tukl, the chief found an unexpected guest, a British missionary lady of advanced years and kind heart. With the promise that any day now – perhaps tomorrow – he would convert to Christianity, he had been harvesting the resources of this pleasant woman to the tune of a new well, twenty bags of seed, and seventeen chickens. He would play fast and loose with his salvation until he was assured her bag was empty then . . . well, there were many missionaries in the area.
ooooHe was a desperate man, and as far as he knew, his soul was his only marketable commodity.
ooooDespite the missionary’s advanced years and failing eyesight, she noticed the elephant. “What have we here, Dada Cosima?” she said, employing the patriarchal term of respect. “An elephant? Are they returning to Sudan?”
oooo“So it would seem,” Cosima said, a little nervously. He leaned close to her and whispered. “If you stay, we will have meat soon. Praise God.”
oooo“And who’s this?” said the woman, ignoring the implication for the moment. Her name – befitting a missionary – was Mary. “I haven’t seen you here before, have I my love?” She knelt so that she was looking Bedpinny more or less in the eye. “No, I’m sure I haven’t.” She lapsed into Arabic. “Where are you from?”
ooooBedpinny had never seen a white person at close range. She had seen people with diseases that turned patches of their skin this awful, sickly pinkish color, but never a whole person completely consumed by it. She backed away a step, and would have retreated further, but for the elephant’s leg.
oooo“Is that blood?” said Mary, lifting the corner of the t-shirt that constituted Bedpinny’s entire wardrobe. Bedpinny looked down, then up at the lady’s kind, gray eyes.
oooo“The elephant came with her,” said Cosima. “It is a gift from God. Hallelujah!”
oooo“Hallelujah!” said several of the villagers, practicing grace.
oooo“Indeed,” said Mary. She’d been a missionary a long time and knew the hearts and minds of those among whom she labored better than they thought she did. She also knew the hunger that motivated them. Feeling it important that she understand their suffering, she had, early in her ministry, fasted for forty days and forty nights, as exemplified by the founder of her faith. However, the exercise had not lead to heightened spiritual awareness, as she had hoped. All she thought about was food. Indeed, things she had never considered in that light began appearing on her mental menu. She dreamt of it. Wept for it. Ached for it. Still, in her depths, she knew there were those to whom she could appeal for food at any time and in minutes a feast would appear before her.
ooooNot so for the villagers. They woke with the fist of hunger pressing hard on the hollow around which they orbited; lived throughout the day tossing leaves, beans, bugs, any organic matter that came to hand into the massive hole that defined them; slept with dreams of food while the hunger ate away at their lives. Those were the good days. Other times they feasted on memories.
oooo“She’s starving.” The chief looked at the elephant as if to say ‘not for long.’
ooooThe missionary discerned his intent. She had no Bambi complex. If she thought that elephant steaks would save the villagers, she’d have killed it and cut it into bite-sized pieces herself, without a qualm. But, as a nurse, she knew the sudden infusion of elephant meat into their diet would make most of the villagers sick. Some would glut themselves and die. Most of the animal would rot and be wasted. She racked her brain. There had to be a better idea, some way to turn the animal to advantage. She said a quick mental prayer, and received divine inspiration in reply.
oooo“This elephant can earn you money, Dada Cosima,” she said. “The NGOs are clearing the forest for farmland. The stumps and roots are impossible to remove. If this elephant could be trained to do it, and they would pay you every day.”
oooo“Elephants cannot be trained,” said Cosima. He had heard of elephants in India being trained to work, but African elephants were too wild. “It is not possible.”
ooooMary didn’t know anything about elephants, but this one seemed docile enough. She argued her point. The possibility of a daily income was a powerful inducement.
ooooCosima considered. Intellectually the plan had appeal, and he could see its long-term benefits. But it was telling the drowning man that a ship could be expected in a day or two. Mary understood the dilemma, she fished through her pocket and produced a 20,000 schilling note – which she had intended to give him anyway. “I’ll pay you for today. Bring the elephant to the YWAM compound and we’ll put it to work.”
ooooContrary to his impulse, Cosima didn’t lunge for the note, but received it with stern dignity – a jungle god receiving his due offering – and folded it in his palm, where he gripped it like salvation. “It may be a good plan. The animal seems tame, but as to its working on command, I make no promises.”
oooo“Of course not,” Mary replied, hoping that, for its own sake, the animal would perform. “I’ll go tell them to expect you. We’ll have hay for it. In an hour?”
ooooCosima glanced at the sun and nodded gravely. Mary climbed into her road-ravaged Landcruiser and drove away. The rearview mirror reflected a world under control.
ooooIt was not.
ooooNo sooner was the missionary out of sight than Cosima took two decisions. First, he gave the money to his wives and sent them to Yei, four miles distant, for food. Secondly, he appointed Twal to take the elephant to the YWAM compound. What followed would have appeared comedic to an outsider unaware of the villager’s desperation. Twal approached the elephant with the intention of taking it by the ear and leading it away. The elephant flapped its ear, lifting Twal off his feet and depositing him in a pile several feet away. He cast an appealing glance at his chief. Cosima, cloaked with authority, ducked into his tukl. The order had been given.
ooooAn hour later, despite the application of teak switches, shouts, threats, and insults, the elephant hadn’t moved. Twal, dripping sweat, stood outside Cosima’s door and waited for permission to enter. This formality observed, he burst in almost in tears.
oooo“It won’t move! It’s grown roots and started to eat the roof off my house! There is nothing I can do, Dada Cosima. It is a willful and obstinate beast.”
ooooCosima looked past Twal at the still life framed by his door. The elephant, the semicircle of dejected, defeated villagers dropping their sticks and prods to the earth in exhaustion, the strange little girl sitting at the edge of the clearing eating a fistful of cold rice. He began to wish she’d never brought the elephant.
ooooThen it occurred to him. She had brought it!
oooo“It will follow her,” he said aloud, unaware that he was speaking.
oooo“What did you say, Dada?”
ooooCosima stood and raced to the door. “The elephant will follow the little girl. You lead her to the compound, and it will follow.” It sounded too simple as he said it, but sensible all the same.
ooooAnd it worked. Twal took the girl by the hand and led her down the road, and the elephant tagged along.
ooooAnd so from this humble and inauspicious beginning grew the curious career of Bedpinny and the elephant. It happened that whatever task Bedpinny could be made to understand, she could communicate to the elephant with a gesture. Early on, those who hired the elephant’s services from Cosima learned that instructions had to be very specific. A slight misunderstanding on Bedpinny’s part could result in the wrong tree being uprooted, or an entire tukl or fence being trod down before the startled owner could get his tongue back and protest. All in all, though, the arrangement worked well. Cosima’s village became Bedpinny’s home – though she lived apart, beneath a thatched lean-to of her own, always within reach of the elephant – and prospered to a modest extent.
ooooThe village women took good care of her, without grudging, though always a little in awe of her inexplicable control over the elephant that haunted the environs of the village like a spectral mountain, and would allow no one else near. The children left her alone, and she them. This was not the place she belonged, it was simply the place she was.
ooooIn time they ceased to cause a sensation, except among newly arrived relief workers, and became a fixture in the woods and fields around Yei. They worked long, hard hours through both the dry and rainy season, and farmers and NGOs in the area found more than enough for them to do.
ooooAnd so the years tumbled by. The war had become distant and only now and then made itself known when a plane or helicopter would drop a bomb into someone’s backyard or blow a gaping, pointless cavity in the forest. Villagers ducked, dove into ditches and waited, then crawled out, buried the dead, and lived their lives.
ooooBedpinny was nine years old and the people called her the elephant walker.
oooo“What is this? A great beast,” said the old man. He sat beside the road on a stump and inclined his ear rather than his gaze toward Bedpinny and the elephant. “And a child.”
ooooBedpinny stopped in front of him. The elephant stopped behind her. Though she’d often traveled this road, she’d never seen the man before. He was wrinkled, like Cosima, but his eyes were white, like a dog of her acquaintance. “Are you blind?” she asked.
oooo“In my eyes, yes,” said the man. “But not my ears, or my nose. That is an elephant?”
ooooThe man smiled and nodded. She watched the wide, floppy brim of his hat go up and down. “He is very heavy on the ground. And the smell. Only an elephant smells like an elephant. It has been a long time, but it stays in the mind.”
ooooBedpinny didn’t notice the elephant had any particular smell, but she lived in its presence. She was reminded of something Mary had said about sin; “the longer you live with it, the less obvious it is. It even seems homey after a while. As comfortable as home cooking.”
oooo“Where are you going?” asked the man. His light blue cotton shirt was clean with long sleeves that protected against mosquitoes, as did his blue jeans and beige Timberland boots. His hat was of irregular design and cast a shadow that made his black face impenetrable.
oooo“To Miriya,” Bedpinny replied, nodding up the road.
oooo“That is where I am going.”
oooo“Were you resting here?”
oooo“No. I was waiting for someone to guide me. The roads are so bad. If I fell in one of these potholes,” he gestured at the road, “I might never be seen again!”
ooooBedpinny considered. The road was bad? She had nothing to compare it to. The elephant didn’t seem to mind. But the holes were deep. “We will guide you.”
ooooHe put his weathered hand on her shoulder and so began the second magical encounter of Bedpinny’s short life.
ooooAs they walked they talked of this and that, inconsequential things as strangers do, to begin with. But before long, in response to the blind man’s guileless questions, Bedpinny had surrendered all she knew of her life’s story.
oooo“And before the day the elephant found you, you don’t remember anything?”
ooooShe shook her head.
oooo“Nothing at all?” He was insistent on this point.
oooo“I remember eyes in dreams sometimes. But that’s all.”
ooooThe blind man reciprocated briefly with tidbits from his own life he thought the girl might find entertaining. She was a good audience. Very accepting of everything he said, however unlikely. Not that being unlikely made it untrue.
ooooEventually they lapsed into a companionable silence.
oooo“Bedpinny,” the old man said.
ooooShe looked up at him, and he sensed it.
oooo“That’s an unusual name.”
ooooWas that so? Bedpinny had never thought about it. She didn’t know anyone else called Bedpinny, that was true.
oooo“I knew a woman once, and a man in a village far from here who had a child called Bedpinny,” said the blind man.
ooooBedpinny accepted this. “Where was the village?”
oooo“Oh, very far away,” said the man. “It’s not there anymore. Everyone is gone. Dead. Sold.” The statement could be made of countless villages in the region. “Gone.”
oooo“Gone,” Bedpinny echoed. “Even Bedpinny?”
ooooThe man shrugged. “No one knows what became of her. Too bad. Her family came from kings.”
oooo“From kings, like Cosima?” She had told him about Cosima.
oooo“Cosima? A king?” the blind man laughed. “Cosima is only a village headman. No. Bedpinny came from kings who ruled the world!”
ooooThere are no words a storyteller loves more. The blind man, like Homer, rose to the occasion, dipping into a past no one could recall . . . or challenge. He spoke of ancient days when Nubian kings held mighty Egypt in their grip, of the battles in which his Bedpinny’s royal lineage was forged, of alliances poorly formed and revenge hopelessly plotted; of the collapse of kingdoms; of heinous treachery and selfless fidelity; of love and betrayal. The magic of his language brought generations of the girl’s colorful ancestor’s – men, women, boys, and girls, dancing and surging to life, spinning and swirling until the air was choked with them and Bedpinny could hardly breathe. The next instant, they were swept away by the onslaught of a new generation. Even greater warriors, even lovelier princesses, even more star-crossed lovers, as the blind man fell under the spell of his telling.
ooooAdventurers, too, leapt and bounded across the telling, weaving wondrous, frightening strands that struggled against the pattern of the whole; white explorers from Europe – a continent of eccentrics, with their strange ways, mighty deeds, and pointless wanderings. Arab traders and slavers from the north, and from Zanzibar, that bloodthirsty island where souls were bought and sold and the devil gleefully totted up the score. Of gods and goddesses, lusting for blood and fear, that warred ruthlessly for the soul of the continent. The stroke of the blind man’s brush swept through history in broad, daring strokes, making of the blank canvas of his Bedpinny’s past a grand, tumbling tapestry of human endeavor, peopled with human beings whose love, and hurt, and joy, and pain, and hope, and fear, and loss was enlarged in the throes of their battle with destiny – sanctified, baptized, and made noble.
ooooBedpinny didn’t know the emotion that seized her when the blind man came to the end of his telling with the very parents and grandparents of the little girl. She had never been envious before. Oh, to be the blind man’s Bedpinny. To have a place not only in the present, but in the past! A strong foothold for the future. Where was this fortunate girl? The blind man must find her. She must be told. She must know. It was impossible to think she might be going through life unaware of the greatness that coursed in her blood!
oooo“Ah, there,” said the old man as they reached their destination and prepared to part ways, “how can she be found? As I said, everyone is gone. All I know is that, before he died, her father the last king of his line, gave her a cloth hat, with the first letter of his name sewn on it.”
oooo“A ‘B’!” said Bedpinny breathlessly. “Was it a ‘B'”?
oooo“Why, yes, it was,” said the blind man, seeming surprised. “His name was Bebijay. How could you know?”
ooooBedpinny began rummaging madly through the bag she carried on her back. She pulled out the baseball cap. “Here,” she said, thrusting the cap into the blind man’s hands and forcing his fingers over the embroidered letter. “It’s a ‘B’. It’s a ‘B’!” Mary had taught her letters.
oooo“Why, so it is,” said the blind man, his smile deeper and happier than any she had ever seen. “Then, you are my Bedpinny,” he said, his enthusiasm hushed with reverence.
ooooShe hugged the elephant’s trunk, as she often did for comfort. “I am,” she whispered softly for fear of shattering the moment.
oooo“And the people I’ve been telling you about … they are your people.”
ooooThe awareness oozed magically into her bones; seeped into her spirit. “My people.”
ooooThe blind man placed a hand on her head and stroked her hair gently. “How proud they would be of you, Bedpinny.
oooo“Thank you for being my guide.”
ooooBedpinny almost didn’t hear. As she and the elephant padded down the dusty road, the voices of all those generations were shouting, singing, and rejoicing in her ears. They had found her!
ooooThe blind man inclined his head in the direction of their departure and waited. When he could hear their footsteps no longer, he smiled. He had learned the story of the elephant walker from the elderly missionary lady on her last day in Yei. Even as he spun Bedpinny’s tale, he wondered how he could weave the baseball cap into the telling. It had all come together nicely.
oooo“It could have happened that way,” he said. “Why not?”
ooooAs the mists cleared from his sight and Bedpinny’s consciousness slipped slowly from his brain, Rat Badger found himself staring at the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. He had no idea how long he’d been there. He became aware that he’d been holding his breath. Something was tugging at him, something so deep inside it was beyond himself. In the mirror, the room was reflected in all its particulars, except for him. There was at first no discernible change in the wretched gargoyle that occupied his place among the images. The anxious red eyes were the same. The ragged grasping claws were the same. Then its lips parted in a stupid, inscrutable grin, revealing a brand new tooth.
oooo“You slept well, sir?” said Cummings, who had sifted into the room as unobtrusively as that quality of mercy which falleth as a gentle dew from heaven, and materialized at Rat’s bedside. The golden rays of the sun, sliced into neat oblongs, inquired through the large French window at a respectful angle, creating a shadow-laden still life of the silver salver in the butler’s left hand and the lightly frosted glass of papaya juice it held. It was morning, the first day.
ooooCummings placed the glass on the bedside table.
ooooRat Badger, rap icon, hadn’t slept a wink, as far as he knew. Nor, if the crust that coated his eyes was any indication, had he blinked in a very long time. Draped awkwardly over the mahogany footboard, his feet tangled in the sheets, he had been staring at the mirror on the back of the bedroom door.
ooooThe images that haunted its depths the previous night had dissipated when Cummings interspersed himself, but a disturbing effluvium remained. Rat breathed a blasphemy – as was his wont when at a loss for words to express deep emotion – blinked a few times, and massaged his sandy eyes with trembling fingers.
ooooHe was about to commend himself, somewhat shakily, on having survived the night, when he awoke to the fact that he was in another bedroom — this one rustic and humble — and that Cummings was, once again, tucking him in. It was night. A soft, cool breeze, scented delicately with sea rose and salt, brushed the white curtains aside and waltzed about the room with the haughty command of a corpulent duchess.
oooo“It’s time already?” he said.
oooo“I missed the whole day?”
oooo“On the contrary, sir. You had a very active day — the events of which I shall be happy to recapitulate at some future date, should you so desire. It is another of the peculiarities of this island that the days are often no sooner completed than forgotten. Night and day trade places; are juxtaposed, as it were, with the events of the night branding themselves upon the brain while those of the daylight hours dissolve like a dream – forgotten – ” Cummings added with a politic clearing of the throat into the back of the white glove on his right hand, “except by me. Thank you for the daisy chain, by the way.”
oooo“It’s of no consequence. Is there anything you require, sir, before you sleep?”
ooooRat considered. “Shouldn’t I be hungry?”
oooo“No, sir. You ate most heartily at luncheon.”
ooooWell, he wasn’t hungry. He was tired, though, and said as much.
oooo“It is to be expected, sir. You have been greatly exercised.”
ooooRat’s head, suddenly the density of overcooked oatmeal, sank into the abyss of his pillow — which smelled of mothballs. It was then he noticed the mirror on the ceiling. The room began to roll slightly as his sleep-besotted numen drifted upward. Seagulls cried in the distance and he was aware of the taste of stale tobacco and Budweiser on his tongue and an alcoholic fogginess that taunted the suburbs of his brain. Nevertheless, he untied the sheepshank with practiced, work-worn hands — white hands, he was surprised to see — and, stumbling only slightly, pulled his way to the middlemost seat of the rowboat, little suspecting that he was about to partake of . . .
An Omelet of Fishermen
The second night
ooooThe first thing tourists observe as they cross Penobscot Bay in the ferry to the islands is the lobster buoys. Recreational boaters also remark on them in Anglo-Saxon terms. In fact, the bay is so carpeted by these multicolored impediments to navigation that it’s almost possible to walk upon them like stepping stones from Rockland to the islands without getting your feet wet.
ooooThere is an exception, however, an area of about one mile in radius that the fishermen call, simply, the Deep. Ancient experience has told them that this particular quarter is bottomless, and many a fisherman’s gear has been lost in the attempt to prove otherwise.
ooooPartly Smith — who earned his nickname by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Smith, but his father was unknown — had spent the day at the Lobster Festival and was going back to the island as night descended.
ooooDespite being drunk he had managed to make it to the end of the pier, find his skiff — or at least one that looked enough like it to make stealing it excusable — row to his lobster boat (which must have been his because the key worked), undo the mooring without falling overboard, and crank ’er up.
ooooEmboldened by these successes — and wanting to be home before Maggie, his wife of thirty-odd years, got home from the crab factory — he chose to fly in the face of local wisdom and take a short cut across the Deep, which commercial fishermen, wisely it turned out, had come to avoid.
ooooBacchus had few surprises in his bag of tricks for Partly, who had come to regard hallucinations as an acceptable side-affect of his liquid lifestyle. Thus, when an island or two turned up in the wrong place, or mermaids frolicked in the phosphorescence of the wake on his evening forays across the bay, he winked and, laying a finger knowingly aside his nose, plowed on.
ooooAs the bow of the Vengeful Maggie cleaved the placid waters of the Deep, however, he was met with a novel apparition: a configuration of lights that floated just below the surface. His first thought — describing the random firing of the synapses in his brain in liberal terms — was that he was looking at the reflection of stars. He looked up. Clouds blanketed the sky.
ooooThere were no stars, or anything else that could account for the lights. He looked down. There they were. He closed his eyes and shook his head in a manner that had long ago proven useful in dispelling vagrant islands and wandering mermaids, and opened them again. Still there.
ooooPartly pulled the throttle all the way back and in a moment the boat gathered in her foaming skirts and squatted down in the water like a somnolent duck. He shut off the engine — as if silence would help him see better — and leaned over the rail for a closer look.
ooooThe lights were of a soft aquamarine hue — what an interior designer, had there been one aboard, might have described as a dusty seafoam green — and about the size of a baseball. They pulsed subtly, hypnotically, and those nearest the surface were no more than three or four feet deep. So it seemed.
ooooAfter a brief monosyllabic soliloquy, Partly decided he’d grab one and take it home to show the boys down at the lobster co-op next morning and see what they made of it. He took the gaff from under the gunwale and, leaning over as far as his gut would allow, plunged it into the water. His first swipe passed below the nearest object. He tried again. This time the hook connected, telegraphing a tantalizing gelatinous sensation up the pole. At the same time, the orb sank a few inches. He leaned over a little further and took another stab, and the process repeated itself. Another touch. Another slight retreat.
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