I I I
Always playing the chary, maverick loner, never an ally in any league of states, and yet too strong to be overcome without too much bloodshed, the Publicatexa continued on its contankerous way, searching with gimlet eyes for every opportunity to thwart the wishes of powerful neighbors such as Azteka, the Mexican "empire" that was so weak enonomically and sunk in corruption and tradition-opppressed culture, nobody wanted to devour its resources and heartland (though the Publicatexa was always nibbling at the edges!).
Kolumbia’s Pacific Coast was uninhabited, a barrier of miles-high lava cliffs hostile to traders by sea and land dwellers alike.
The nation’s rivers, too, were equally mighty and untameable, swooping down through gorges cut miles deep through lava flows.
The Kumbaya, which had given the country its name and raced thunderously east from the slopes of the volcano and formed a great delta on which the country’s main port, Spokanderun, was located, was navigable only as far as Sealtown, and then it was difficult for ships because of the treacherous sand bars, shoals of rocks, and swift currents. Everything about the country was outsized and stoutly resisting human development.
There was, beside impregnable geography, a religious reason why the land was not incorporated into the voracious C.S.A. and steadily resisted encroachment by its more powerful neighbor.
Though the orthodox Isman faith held the allegiance of millions on both sides of the straits, in the C.S.A. the schismatic Reorganized movement had dampened the fervor considerably and helped to placate the much put-upon Indian populations who to the death resisted conversion and held to ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs.
Just as staunch in holding to rigid orthodoxy, Kolumbians viewed their land as holy especially since the last kaliph of the line of Qoph had resided in the capital, “Qoph’s Magnificence of Sobriety Before the Faces of the Golden Tablets,” known more commonly as “Sealtown” because of the many seals in the river that ran through the city.
What an austere contrast to the murkily splendid metropolis of Tan-mul Tan, or Multan, far to the south, which in its day had also been the holiest city of Isman, the chosen residence of the glorious tenth kaliphate called the Grand Porte.
No longer able to boast it was the holiest since a secularized government took power, Multan yet was graced with the world’s largest domes and the tallest specimens of green-tiled prayer towers erected during the heyday of the Ismani faith as well as the factories and railroad yards and iron foundries of a fast developing world trade center.
Despite a large, standing army that fought like a jungle tiger for Kolumbian sovereignty, Kolumbia could boast few tanks, planes, and artillery that did not predate the last major defeat, followed by the overthrow and assassination of the kaliph and the setting up of a king whose name was. drawn by lots from the provincial Kolumbian chieftain list.
Buried soil, a black, peaty earth sometimes hundeds of feet deep possessing incredible fertility. Scraped off a continent and deposited there by long deceased glaciers, no trees had ever grown on it, and though covered with ice, it was now reclaimable with modern methods. Kolumbia would never develop it, since its technology was primitive, and capital too scarce.
But the C.S.A., thwarted from turning south, its chief agricultural provinces of Lousia and, Georgia, thanks to the cooling of the weather and regrowth of the Laurentide Ice Sheet glaciers, turning increasingly into White Pine forest, saw Kolumbia as no major hazard, not when the Confederacy controlled a monopoly of nuclear power. With arable farmland at a premium, the gamble was worth risk a war going sour.
But when the secularized state of the C.S.A. declared that the Orthodox Ismani religion was to be proscribed in the disputed territory, then the Kolumbians rose up as a man to fight to the death against the self-declared infidel who drank liquor, smoked, gambled, ate off wrong utensils, and let women go unveiled and unrobed.
In fact, the issue was put quite differently than it was described to the people in the political papers that everyone, no matter how small the village, read from cover to cover.
The Kolumbian king was, via a C.S.A. ambassador, given notice that the C.S.A’s consortium of several leading bank cartels and industrial combines planned to build a line of nuclear plants for generating an electric glacier-shield across the Northwest, employing the cheap labor force provided by Kolumbia, of course. Technicians would all come from C.S.A., of course, along with the heavy equipment and most supplies for the construction.
None of this the king could assent to, naturally, which both sides knew in advance, since it broke the law of the land that proscribed any foreigner of the Schismatic Church--considered worse than those of no faith at all-- from employing Kolumbians and also treading on “sacred Kolumbian soil” with heresy-defiled feet (for adherents of the Reorganized branch no longer practiced daily ceremonial cleansing of the feet, an elaborate, time-consuming process, which had been followed since the Founder’s time as an unofficial but mandatory adjunct to the Five Pillars of Isman).
The project mean a rise in living standards for millions of Kolumbians, and the king was well aware of the boost it would give his treasury when tax-collecting turned to reaping part of the windfall. Nevertheless, his hands were bound by sacred law, and the holy men of the temples and medresse, champions of orthodoxy, would never allow a change. Sniffed out, the project would incite the holy men to lead mass riots, and the king might lose his throne in a day.
With the C.S.A’s overwhelming firepower, it began and was going heavily in favor of the aggressor, after assurances were given to Ratna-Heruka that no territorial expansion was really intended by the C.S.A. and the allied R-H withdrew the promise of military aid to its more orthodox Ismani “Brethren of the North.” Kolumbian resistance collapsing without help of R-H’s greatly superior war machine, R-H was the chosen mediator.
Unable to match tanks and artillery with pitchforks and antique rifles, the powerful Publicatexa far too socialistic and secular to be considered a possible help in a tight situation (actually, Kolumbia was just too proud to ask aid from such a country, which it detested as a kennel of infidel dogs), Kolumbia signed a humiliating treaty, guaranteeing C.S.A. free passage of personnel and material over new rail links to the site of its northern project.
Also, Kolumbia was forced to furnish the major part of the work force.
So, with the gate wide open, the C.S.A. rolled north, laying track at a phenomenal speed. Soon vast shipments poured northward to the new rail and industrial center of Kaku, and hundreds of thousands of Kolumbians slaved in all hours and weathers to rear the titanic-sized reactors, electric generators of a Nuclear Glacier Shield strung across the northern wastes that C.S.A. economic planners had chosen to make the world’s greatest breadbasket, elminating C.S.A.’s growing dependence on the hated Publicatexa’s overflowing granaries.
Defeated in war, betrayed at the conference table to the C.S.A’s secularists and Reorganized schismatics by so-called orthodox brethren of the Holy Motherland, Kolumbia was barred from settling its own people in the new lands conquered from nature. Loyalty to Orthodoxy had gained Kolumbia nothing on in the world arena but her neighbor’s contempt.
She was called “The Sick Man of the North” despite all her efforts to remain ceremonially correct and pure. With all the sanctity of strict, religious observance, Kolumbia could do nothing more than watch in utmost frustration and rage as she found herself encircled by the enemy and weaker than before, furious but helpless to stem both the land rush to the northern lands and the tide of change sweeping Orthodox Isman into insignificance and subservience.
Not more than a stone’s throw from Rainy Lake, in the same fine, white, tall-pillared house where a bewildered girl had signed away her coming child to her elder sister and her husband, the lake where now a storm was casting a darkening line across the water as it moved toward the shore, the child of an impossible union, seeing the storm’s shadow line coming, a sure sign of the turn toward winter, hurried from the house to beat the rain and wind as he went to open up Bean’s Trading Post and Outfitters.
Villas were being built along the lake at the edge of town by people drawn to the unspoiled wilderness life he had pictured to them.
Buying the chicken factory with his grandmother’s permission, he closed it down and ended the worst pollution in the area forever.
Makon rapidly became a resort lodestone, drawing tourists with money to throw away on fancy monofilament lines, damascened reels, and bottled bait, as well as the lastest bush hats from Publicatexa. There was even serious talk in Kingston of banks financing a restored rail link to Makon and its “scenic wonderland of lake and virgin forest.”
No visible father. No visible mother. A very visible “grandmother” who had, it was said, plucked him off the streets of Baton Roo while on vacation. Despite an old, blind man’s best efforts, it was beginning to be a problem--a real one invading both days and nights.
Increasingly, when he looked in the mirror he saw someone familiar he should know but really didn’t. The image mocked him, the eyes always darkening with unfathomed meaning along with a gleam of challenge. “You don’t know who you are, do you?” it seemed to hurl at him time after time. “You don’t know--” “You don’t know--”
They had requested reservations for a party of fourteen important government and society people, and he had arranged for only four, it seems. Time was of the essence! A party of four was coming anyway, and the others had cancelled and taken another firm to service them. Moreover, they were very sorry but Dreamland Tours would have to do business in the future with his nearest competitor, Pipestone Outfitters of Korinth, Sparta, and Argos.
Any expenses for his mistake must necessarily be paid by him, not Dreamland Tours, Inc.
Whatever the emotion was, it did not go easily.
It was like master and slave relations, only the one regarded as the slave must somehow control the master in the situation in which he found himself.
How had it happened? he wondered as he exerted his entire will to push down the gigantic arrogance, superiority, and the urges that went with the master in him.
Determined to act like he had everything under control, he went to the file, avoiding his assistant’s stare, and discovered it really was his mistake. He had signed the shipping order himself that day. He found the original letter of request and it plainly said fourteen people.
He’d only get the nonrefundable fee of fifty confederates and whatever the four guests spent at the barge’s lounge and cafe, but, on second thought, he decided to return all their expenses anyway. Word got around quickly. He had to treat his patrons well, or expect the whole crowd to turn elsewhere.
Monied people were like that. They went where they knew everything could be counted on, with hardly a finger of theirs involved, except the ones, that is, that signed the cheque.
Homer shook his head. He had cost the store hundreds of confederates in the near future as well by losing the Kingston agency’s confidence. How could he have been so absent-minded? He wasn’t used to losing clientele, with money being so scarce. The news of this lost contact would soon get around, he knew. The area was a small pond, where bad news was concerned. A ripple went pretty far. He knew there was nothing to do but write the agency an apology, enclosing their fee in full. Maybe that would make them think kinder of him. Eventually, Pipestone might slip up too, and he’d get Dreamland Tours back again. After lousing up their tour schedule, that was all he could hope.
What could the family have done with his mother?
Why would they lie, saying they had plucked him off the streets in Baton Roo when he really was the son of a Sognstad? That should have been honor enough, being a Sognstad, since his grandmother prided herself on that name, saying they were from an old, distinguished ambassador’s family in Baton Roo. But who was his father? Someone called “Kal” by old Mr. Jensen?
A man who had run a mine on his ranch before vanishing somewhere to the south? His grandmother, when he ventured to ask, refused to talk about it. She looked furious, and then shortly after that old Jensen was packed up and on his way via the White Angel to Korinth.
There was a cloud over his grandmother as well. She had married into the Bean fortune, holding to the cherished Sognstad name in private correspondence with friends and family relations in Baton Roo and elsewhere. Why did she insist on his being called a Bean when the Judge was not his real father?
Homer, after the rebuff, had given the matter increasing thought. His “grandmother” was all he had of known “family,” and the Judge was a big, gilt-framed portrait in the library of the Bean mansion, the picture of someone he had never known but could only see portrayed by his grandmother and people in town who were old enough to have known him.
Those same oldsters might have told him about “Kal,” but, strangely, they always hurried off on an errand when he got nerve enough to ask.
The Judge, as his grandmother related it, had flown southward, and never returned. Wreckage of the type of plane he was flying was discovered scattered on the C.S.A. seacoast opposite Ratna-Heruka. That much he dug out of an old newspaper he found in his grandfather’s study, folded up and stuck, of all places, in a big vase that the Judge used to keep choice Kingston cigars after he was married. Why had he flown down there if he knew he was not well? No one would answer that question either.
Was it a business trip? Or just a social trip? His grandmother would not say either way.
The extreme south and south east meant places like Ratna-Heruka, Poseidonia, Venez, Panamania, Argentina, and other unspellable areas and cities he reckoned he would never see.
Everything across the straits, north and south, even the closest country of Publicatexa, he reckoned he would probably never go and see, so he had the foggiest notion of what lay over the water.
Just the same he asked his grandmother what business “Grandfather Bean” might have had in such places, as Ratna-Heruka and Poseidonia since it seemed he was flying over that way when he crashed.
She was helping Minny with a special layered cake she had planned to serve at a coming ladies’ luncheon and sale the next day called to help raise money for new tile on the church.
Minny was whipping batter for one layer, while his grandmother was assembling ingredients for the next.
She paused to look at him quickly, then went back to her work. At least she made the attempt, for Homer saw she was actually looking down at her rigid hands.
Homer couldn’t forget later how strange his grandmother had looked, her face gone white around her mouth and eyes, while Minny stared at them both, her hands on her aproned hips.
He now glanced up from the typewriter. His mind had been wandering again! At that rate his letter would not get finished before closing time! “Dear Effendi-”--using the most formal address reserved for aristocrats and high government people, whereas “Abi” served an ordinary “Sir” or “Mister”--was as far as he had gotten with writing something he hated to do, a letter of apology.
Angry at himself, he stood up to stretch his legs. He had been at his desk since opening, and it was now past noon. What did he have to show for all that time? From where he stood he could take in the whole store, and his impatient, though somewhat hazy dark brown eyes flickered up and down the aisles below until they stopped abruptly at the counter where tourist knick-knacks and trifles of feminine apparel were displayed.
There stood a city girl trying on earrings, the specialty kind decorated with Indian beadwork.
She leaned close to the mirror.
Without a glance at the girl or the crowd of boozy “customers” standing around gawking, he stamped the Baton Roo National Bank cheque while her eyes, with the cool appraisal of a safecracker, went up and down him, stopping at his silver belt buckle.
“Why didn't you come out to the barge party last night, darling?” she commented. “It wouldn’t have been such a crashing bore with you and that--ah-- buckle along.”
Her voice and the discovery of who she was stunned Homer. At a loss how best to deal with the group he had short-changed with his mistaken arrangements, he stared at her. What had she said? Had she called him, “darling”? Homer couldn’t believe his ears. Nice Makon girls didn’t talk that way. They'd lose their reputations! Half the crowd heard it, though, and sniggered, and a couple oafs hooted. Homer’s face suddenly went red as Dreng beside him was audibly gasping.
“Say, darling, are you?--yes--I believe you are! There was supposed to be fourteen in this party, most of them contest judges, but you reserved a table for only four of us, and it was too late for the travel agency to come up with something other, so we came anyway, just my manager and three of judges I wasn’t so sure of!”
Then she put her hands down on his counter, staring into his face determinedly. “Can’t you read in this hick town? I suppose, darling, you don’t realize whom you’re dealing with. Well, you’ll soon know, because all the papers will be full of my bathing suit strut for the judges!”
Homer still could not believe he was dealing with her likes, but something about her reminded him of another female, and he decided to let the fire burn itself out without heaping on further fuel.
He began writing out a cheque for the fee and, after a quick look in the ledger, what her group had spent on the barge.
“What are you doing?” Miss Coldbank interrupted him.
She held out long, expertly manicured nails, and smiled. “It’s a lie that I hurt anyone to get where I am, for unlike the others I can win on my own merits, as you can plainly see!” Then, walking right ahead without minding what was in her path, she swung out of the store, leaving the whole crowd gazing after her. She was wearing beaded Indian moccasins as well, and could obviously afford much better, for not only did she step off the curb into a limoisine but she did so with the style of someone who had learned all the graces of a ballet school while not forgetting for one moment she had the C.S.A’s finest pair of legs.
He felt he needed some fresh air badly. For some reason the old, familiar smells of the business felt suffocating to him, though they never bothered him much before.
The view, which he had not seen for years, was a fresh experience. He was again amazed by the transformation that, from a distance, made Makon look like it did in ancient times. In the blue mist the many-pillared bridge that swept by the city only to end, abruptly, in the middle of Rainy Lake, and the city walls, broken down with huge gaps, now seemed completely intact, and he couldn’t see the squat, dull-colored modern buildings, which shrank down out of sight.
Instead the stone walls looked as they must have to the dragon-ship people of the old pagan city, which was ruled by Minnepaul princes and kinglets who staged weeks of epic feasts and drinking bouts in their tall, multigabled mead halls of carved, red and green painted pine logs. The flourishing riverport back then boasted a war fleet of its own, seventy dragon ships to fight with other cities up and down the rivers and even raid the opulent Golden Coast cities along the far Straits of Qoph the Deputy of the Five Pillars, joining with other war fleets to attack and sack East Bear’s queen city on her hundred isles, Baton Roo, which yielded boatloads of gold trinkets and thousands of beautiful concubines before they burned all to the water line.
Shining with the golden light of a fast-fading summer, the walls looked restored to thirty-feet-thick and one hundred feet high with towers set every four hundred feet. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? he wondered.
No, he had seen this happen before, when the light was just right, and there was just enough mist to obscure the reality. Only the pale green church towers spoiled the effect somewhat, reminding him it was modern times.
He was standing beneath a dragon-ship hung from the rafters with huge chains and emblazoned with captured shields of rival cities, his gold-studded boots on the lower step of a carved, gilded throne-like chair, holding out a huge, many-colored, gem-studded beaker to men raising all their smaller beakers to him in a toast. His manly breast, beneath the gold-studded leather cape covering his naked upper torso, flooded with immense pride and joy.
Prince Homer, dragon-lord of the dragon-ships of Rainy Lake and its chief robber-city, drank his beaker down at one swallow! Clapping and cheering greeted his feat. He staggered a bit, then climbed up on his throne, waving the empty beaker for a refill from Sven Svenson his Chief Cupbearer, who stood ready at the huge gilded pot kept heated on an open fire in the hall.
He turned to the minstrel-poets. “Sing! Charm my ears with tales of my glorious deeds in the battle of Korinthgard, while the rest of you drink to my immortality and resounding fame among the sea-kings of the realm!”
Modern Dixie, with the Laurentide glacier pack sprinting a mile a day and breathing down her neck, could be cruel to fantasies, however glittering and golden. Sleet from a passing stormcloud, flung in the daydreamer’s face, woke him from his romantic dreams of Makon’s past. Holding up his hand to shield his face, he climbed back down and gained the partial, welcome shelter of thick pine just as the bald crest of Infidel Head vanished in a swirling black cloud.
It was getting very cold, and he could feel it though dressed in thick, warm mackinaw, sweater, jeans and boots--his usual fall and winter garb. He walked faster. That would warm him up, he thought. Get his blood moving. The experience with the Gypsies in his childhood came back to mind. Blood, too, had a deep association with the past. He could almost smell the imaginary blood that gushed out when the man described how to slit a chicken’s neck and hold it while all the blood drained out, because they, the Romanichals, as they called themselves--could never let a fat gorgio chicken run and squawk until it dropped since some gorgio farmer or his missus would be sure to hear and come running with a shotgun.
This and other jokes and impersonations of local people struck Homer as even funnier. Though strangers, they seemed to know everyone in Makon, even the mullah who taught church school in the one-room school-house. That hour they had spent in the abandoned farmstead outside town, playing cards and drinking Makon lager, lying comfortably on an old mattress in the front parlor, had so thrilled him he was hoping at the time it would never end. They had treated him just like a grown-up, especially when he said he was the Judge’s son!
“Naw, it ain’t really stealin’, Effendi, ” the Gypsy blade said, smiling with all his gold teeth showing and bowing elaborately as before a Multanese nobleman. “Once we owned every inch of this country and there was thousands of us. Why, we traded everywhere we pleased, and people welcomed us and gave us the best they had! So a little red hen now and then--that’s not too much to ask for all we have given these people of yours--is it, boy? After all, we let them crop this land for free, and all what they got living on it is ours by right! So what’s a chicken for our pot now and then, Effendi?”
A few moments later Minny Higgins opened the door a crack against the blowing wind, thinking she must have heard a branch hit the porch. Her eyes bulged, and she screamed, “Oh, Lord, have mercy!” when she saw Homer lying outstretched, a gash spouting blood from his forehead.
“He’s not on your case,” Faye said, intercepting his line of thought. “I answer to Dr. Graham, and he’s not letting you up from this bed until the test results come back from Baton Roo--which should be coming any moment now with the White Angel..”
Homer groaned, and turned his face to the wall. A few moments later she came with a tray breakfast. He took an angry swipe at a pale, poached egg which broke and spattered his bed sheet.
Wiping up with a cloth, Faye stared at him but said nothing.
Homer attacked the muffin and the bacon, but wasn’t liking them. He swore under his breath as he kicked at the sheets for more foot room. The breakfast tray nearly fell to the floor, but Faye reached out and set it straight. When it got knocked again, she took it and set it on the cart by the bed.
“I feel just fine without breakfast,” he grumbled, thinking his loss of appetite over hospital food might cover most of his bad mood over not being let out when he wanted. She reached to tidy his bedspread, but this time he was not so preoccupied. He caught her wrist.
She wouldn’t give in, and he wouldn’t give up. Her wrist must have felt the squeeze, for her eyebrows began to pinch together in pain.
Letting her irony go over his head, it was his first real victory in bridging her inscrutable, Indian silence, so he let her go and could not help smiling. “That’s no way to talk to your superior, who shouldn’t, by rights, even look at your kind.”
There’d be another chance, he thought as he lay back on the pillow. It was, after all, his town, and he could do what he pleased there. Faye was now in his kingdom, within reach of his throne, and she had to give in to him. It took more than the usual to humble her sort, but she would be humbled if she knew what was good for her. Didn’t her whole wretched tribe depend on whatever money she sent home? That’s how poor and resourceless and bound in barbaric, old customs those people were!
Yet, even in anger, she was--he had nearly forgotten how desirable she was. He was amazed at himself! For an Indian and a Christian she was--could he use the word?--’beautiful’! Even the fire-breathing vamp from Baton Roo was eclipsed beside Faye’s fresh vitality. When she was gone the room seemed lifeless, a shell dry as dust and cobwebs at the bottom of an empty cracker barrel.
“Now Homer,” the Korinth doctor began amiably, still smoothing the invisible wrinkle. “I understand why an active young man like you don’t like having to stay so long in bed, but we had to make absolutely sure of any complications regarding this, ah, concussion, and since you’ve shown so much improvement you’ll only need to take something to thin the blood a little before you’re moved to Alantah for further diagnosis and treatment. Baton Roo thinks that would be sufficient, since their test shows--well--a stitch in time saves--”
Glancing quickly at Homer’s face, the doctor sprang up uncharacteristically fast and went to the window. He shut it so hard the glass nearly shattered.
Dismayed and angry at the news, Homer shut his eyes and lay back on the pillow since he couldn’t very well take out his frustration on the doctor. It was useless, he thought, to argue with Dr. Graham his family physician. His grandmother listened to Dr. Graham as though he were the Judge.
The moment the door closed, Homer’s eyes bolted open. His chest rose and fell, and his fists clenched on the bedspread. The door opened, and Homer threw himself on his side so Faye couldn’t see his rage.
Suddenly, an overwhelming reek of rancid possum fat, chewing tobacco, and flea-ridden animal air washed over Homer, and he turned quickly, discovering a long-haired stranger in a coonskin cap bending over him. A squirming, furry varmint was plopped on his chest, and Homer reared up.
“Hi yah, Effendi!” the woodsman roared, his mouth half full of teeth and a plug of tobacco. “I got ya a little present! Nobody else would take her at the Dawg. She needs a home--”
“I guess he meant it’s a gift?” Homer ventured, bewildered.
Doc Marshall strode toward the bed, his hand out. “Get that dirty thing out of here! I’ll dispose of it outside myself.” But Homer, now that he had a moment to recover from surprise, held the baby ferret
and knew that it was going to be a dead specimen in a few more moments, probably from a knock in the head by being swung against the building or the railing on the steps.
“No,” he said, wincing from the fresh memory of his own mishap. “Never mind, doc, it’s not going to hurt anything here. I’m keepin’ it for awhile.”
Faye gave the amazed physicians a look that she could handle this patient, and they went out, shaking there heads.
She stood, arms crossed, against the door and simply looked at him.
Homer, in turn, stroked the ferret possessively. “See how she likes me?” he laughed. The ferret was poking its nose into his hand, looking for something. He almost lost her, and put her down on his chest, and she kept poking away. Faye’s face broke, and she laughed. “She’s looking for her mother! She’s hungry!”
That done, Faye went out and left Homer lying back on his pillow, his face looking resigned and almost happy.
“He’ll be just fine now that he’s got a little friend to take his thoughts off himself,” she explained to the waiting doctors. “Those tests he hates--he’ll go along with them too--just to get this whole thing over with.”
Then she returned to Homer for some delayed procedures. He tried to catch her eyes when she began to rub his arm with a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton. But her glance when he caught it was again blankly inscrutable and Indian.
She said nothing. He noticed, however, how long she took with the need. He winced as she gave it an unnecessary turn in the wound. The reason, he realized was her hand. It was trembling. And her eyes were shut. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing! Suddenly, she awoke and pulled the needle out, dropped it, and began rubbing her wrists as they stared at each other, Homer with surprised, Faye with an emotion he could not interpret.
Faye swung away and laughed scornfully. “So what, you say?” she shook her head almost loose of its stiff, white cap, which held on to her with pins. She turned back and faced him, looking pityingly. “They’ve obviously kept the truth from you all these years, and you say, ‘So what?’!”
He turned his face to the window as she went out, trying to push back the questions that kept coming, while a heavy, dark, sleety rain slushed down outside the window.
“I’m the book restorer Mrs. Bean sent for,” she explained, eyeing him steadily through very thick lenses. “Is she in? I’m on my way to the hotel to find a room, but I thought I might let her know I am in town and can begin work as soon as she likes.”
“My grandmother’s out,” he replied, showing her in. “Excuse my robe, I had an accident, and I’ve got to rest a bit more. Doctors orders."
He led the visitor to the parlor. “Please sit here. My grandmother will be back in a few minutes. I can get you some coffee.”
The woman’s face brightened, for it looked pinched with cold. “Yes, I think I could use some--if it’s no trouble for you!”
A pot of coffee was always brewing in his grandmother’s kitchen. In a few moments, he had a tray prepared and was serving the book lady.
She removed her gloves, but left on her coat and hat. Sipping the coffee, she eyed Homer a moment, then glanced round. Her manner seemed to be all business.
“Now where are the books I’ll be working on?”
“Oh?” she murmured, drinking the last of her cup.
She stood before he could offer her another, her eye on his robe and then, just as quickly, at her man-sized watch.
“I must be going! Please inform Mrs. Bean I’ll be coming by again at 8 a.m. sharp. I have to start every day, wherever I am, in a businesslike way, you know, or my work suffers."
He shut the door, a frown on his face. Glancing upwards, he went to the stairs.
He stared at the elaborate, long-tailed coat. His best guess was it would be an an opera singer’s or even ambassador’s from some gala masque ball , by the elaborate gilding and flowery pattern laid over the brocade. No military man, or even a government official, would wear anything so ornate and gaudy as a coat of golden poppies.
His grandmother looked down. She let each word go as if it pained her greatly. “From his--Kal’s--trunk, which this is. Your grandfather wrote up a proper warrant and made a raid on Kal’s ranch, found the trunk just then being loaded by some men, and ordered it taken as evidence. Fortunately, they gave it up without a fight, or it would have gone badly for your grandfather was armed and would not have gone away empty-handed. He was always a good one for demanding proof, circumstantial evidence of wrong-doing.”
“I asked that too. But he could not hold them, having no warrant, and they guessed it and took off with what they had, what looked like some mining equipment and bags of ore. Your grandfather, after a quick look in the ranch house and at the other buildings rund the mine, raced back to town to the flying field, dropped off the trunk to be sent to the house, then flew off to see if he could follow them from the air. It was, he thought, the only way to catch them. Well, he never returned. Weeks later, I was informed by the state police and coast guard that a wreckage of a light plane of the type he flew was found scattered ont he shore. They could not be sure if it had been blown up or had simply run out of fuel and crashed. There was nothing left of your grandfather to identify. That left it all a mystery. But when he never returned, I realized this was how he must have ended, tracking the men.”
“Yes, that is so, I suppose. But maybe they weren’t driving all the way. Maybe there was another plane that met them. I don’t know! Please, no more questions. What difference does it make now, if they drove or flew?”
Homer stopped for the moment, his thoughts flying furiously but unable to find anything solid.
Wondering why her face had blanched white, he moved over to an antique mirror for a look, and he was rather pleased with the image. The coat fit him perfectly, only he looked like a royal Multanite prince or king. Did they have princes and kings anymore in Heruka-Ratna? He didn’t think so.
“What’s wrong?” he said, turning back to his grandmother with concern. Her reaction was beginning to worry him, making him think she was having trouble with her heart. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
She rose, half-crouched, from her chair. She pointed a finger at him, shaking like a leaf. "No, Take it off! Take it off!”
Homer, alarmed, swept off the coat and flung it away. “Grandmother! What did I do?”
She clutched at her mouth, and stumbled and tried to get away, and Homer had to follow, thinking she might fall down the steps in her condition.
He was going to help her, when he himself blacked out. When he opened his eyes, his grandmother was saying something, and tugging him. Slowly, he descended the steps, his feet moving strangely and drunkenly. He collapsed on a chair, and then Higgins came, and then the doctor came, and he was put to bed.
When the doctor had gone, she came to him, and gently broke the doctor’s plan.
“You need a change of scene, a rest somewhere south, and the doctor suggest a tour, which would take you from business here and give your mind and body time for restoration. How about a trip, dear? You’re not taken a real vacation for a long, long time. If that’s the only way to see you mend and be yourself again, then I guess I’ll have to let you go. Higgins and I will have to manage--”
His grandmother faced him. “What’s so wrong about a vacation and a trip to somewhere nice, such as Multain? It has the best hotels and there are beaches where you can lie in the sun and soak up the warmth. All my friends used to--”
She broke off abruptly. And Homer, used to her ways, understood. But because he resented being ordered about, he pressed her. “What friends? And where exactly did they go for the winter?”
His grandmother shook her head. “It’s all so long ago. I’ve forgotten it all!”
She went to the door, then paused to look back. “Please consider going. I will miss you terribly here, but you need to get your mind off things for a while. It’ll be the best way to mend, the doctor said.”
All he had known was Georgia, he considered. There was a larger world beyond Makon, he realized, and why shouldn’t he see if while he was young? He began to think more kindly of the doctor and his advice. When his grandmother sent in Higgins with some coffee and rolls, Homer treated her with unusual kindness. He even thanked her for the service, which really prevoked her.
“No, that’s not what I meant!” he protested. He waved the fares in his hand. “It’s just that I’ll be taking a long trip, and I want you to think kindly of me, and maybe even pray for me.”
Higgins exploded. “Now you are sick! Askin’ the likes of me for prayer! Well, I never!”
She went out, exclaiming the young master had really lost his head this time, and a moment later his grandmother hurried in, her eyes large with alarm.
When she saw his cheerful face, she sighed. “Oh, that Higgins! She’s always stirring me up about something or other. And I see you are much better today, thank God!”
Homer, about to say something, began to think more soberly. He had decided to go, and now the reality was setting in--the reality he had brushed against when he swung open the doors of the old, lacquered wardrobe and discovered a mystery that somehow connected, he sensed beyond doubt, with his own, a thick cloud of the Unknown that was both vast and painfully personal.
Despite that it was visible, the city took them days to reach. It lay many miles away on the waterfront, stretching along the coasts of a great river flowing down from the mountains to the southern sea, and the land between was difficult, even with roads, and the flocks and cattled had to graze along the way, and be watered and watched at night, and so the going was slow and only after a week did they reach the suburbs.
Mink stood, not knowing what to do without a horse. He looked around, noticing that people were staring at him, so he started walking. Very soon, by a gate, he came upon the most wretched poor and maimed men he had ever seen, and all were holding out their bowls, even the blind ones with the empty sockets. Mink put his week’s wages in the first bowl and passed on.
Mink had idea what was said, but he understood by the looks of the irate passers-by that he was in the people's way, and he tried to keep to the side of the buildings, but here the crowds of pedestrians were very thick, and they hated having to make way for his horse. And how strangely they treated each other--each man avoiding the eyes of the other man he passed! They pushed together but they refused to look at one another except with the most fleeing, cold glances. Despite how quickly they all moved, how dead, how inhuman they seemed compared to village people of his own country! He was amazed and intrigued. They did not see the sky, feel the winds, laugh--they merely pushed through the canyons of the city like big, muddy streams carrying all manner of trees and branches torn from the slopes. And the smells! Not the good smells of the earth and the trees and the grass--none of those. Foul clouds poured out from the big, black wagons, and some of the towers also belched smoke, and there remained no fresh air to breathe. He could smell the people, for their clothes were strange-smelling, and they carried small burning worm-like things in their mouths and fingers. Sweet smells of breads and cakes came to him too, but mostly the smells were very bad, making his eyes water and his nose burn.
He next passed through beautiful tipis, all silent, but then he came to a startling sight: a man and woman hanging up together, dead! What could be the reason? Who had killed them and left them like that?
That night he slept in the park like he saw others doing, but in the morning warriors came through and he was forced to get up and move back to the street. He wandered about, and eventually found himself down by the water, and was watching what men were doing there among the docks and big canoes, and he thought he could do what they were doing, so he went to join them. One man pushed him away, swearing something at him, and then he tried to join another group unloading a great canoe of heavy engine parts, though Mink had no idea what the cargo was. Here he was welcome, and a crushing load was put on his back, after a pad was put on his back tied to him with a strap. Following the other porters, he climbed up from the dock, and after nearly falling he reached the warehouse where the parts were unloaded. He went back to get his pay, but the man in charge swore him, and gestured toward the line making its way back into the canoe’s hold. Mink, not wanting to lose his wage, followed, and again he was made a beast of burden.
Going in one of the restaurants, he was laughed at when he showed his money. A man with a broom pushed him back into the street. Fortunately for him, there were many venders, selling all sorts of breads and seafood, and with his two coins he got himself a meal. This was enough to fill the gaping cavity inside, and he knew he could sleep. For water he drank from one of the many fountains in the public squares, and no one tried to stop him, since children were alway doing the same thing.
He climbed back to the great park and slept beneath the trees in the gardens, and again was driven out in early morning with the other homeless men, and he went immediately to the docks and by waiting around found his opportunity after a time to unload yet another iron-skinned canoe. The goods were always diferent, but no lighter. If the goods were light, the men in charge made sure he carried a mountain of them, stacked impossibly high on his back.
“This city’s heart is very hard and cruel, for the city devours men’s flesh and heart,” he realized. He tried to listen hard to the talk, so that he might learn it quickly. “I must find other work soon,” he vowed. But the long hours kept him from seeking other work. And afterwards he was so exhausted, all he could do was find something to eat and then he would go and sink down to rest and sleep, his back aching terribly.
By listening to the other porters, he learned several words, and kept adding to his stock by talking to the venders he met, as well as the homeless men in the parks. For long hours no one could sleep anyway, and the bored men were willing to talk to an inarticulate stranger who gestured at them so comically, pointing at this and that to get the word it was called.
But Mink’s soul grew restless as his circumstances improved. “I must find out who I am, and where I am,” he kept thinking during the long, hard days and even in the sleepless nights he often had. The old couple’s snores in the next room reminded him that he wasn’t in his own tent, or in his people’s lodges. Living in wooden houses didn’t suit him. The roofs shut out the sky, and the stars were hidden, and the air was foul. He wanted to leave the city and return to the open country. This was no proper life for a man, he felt. He couldn’t breathe the air, and it was so dirty it made his eyes sting. And how it hurt his ears--the ceaseless roaring! The tramp of millions of feet, the rolling of wheels on hard road, the horns, the clanging of bells, the screams of alarms--it went on day and night--and there could be no real rest. When he did sleep, he dreamed of a very strange youth, who was lying asleep, with five star-like glows in his long, thick hair.
Mink continued walking, hoping he was taking the right roads that would lead him back out of the city. His desire was next to impossible, however, to fulfill. The city was a gigantic maze, hills covered with uncountable buildings and squares, and roads, with waterways and bays, so that Mink found himself hopelessly lost once again. He couldn’t even find the docks where he had worked when he tried it. Finally, he stopped to rest where he found more cool, green, shading trees along the street, and was sitting by small, wooden gate in the wall where he saw people going through. It was, despite most narrow. Only one man could pass through it at a time. The crowds went by, to use other gates far broader and easier to pass through. One man dressed in white, shining blankets, turned and waved to him to follow him through the narrow gate. Tired of wandering, thinking he might find work and a place to sleep, he followed him in.