I woke up in time to catch the sun rise. All was silent except for the quiet chatter of unseen birds and the steady murmur of the river rapids. A handful of fishermen glided back and forth on the calmer stretches of water. Eventually I sat in the restaurant with a coffee and a book, until the sun woke everyone else up and they joined me. Not a bad start to the day.
Month: December 2017
Happy New Year from the source of the Nile
I returned from the relative cold of Amsterdam to find Kampala gripped by an unpleasant heat wave. I guess it didn’t rain while I was gone, and without me to water them my poor plants have suffered. To think I was only gone four days!
The warm weather, especially after that little taste of cold, has switched my mind into a summer’s-almost-here mode, as if I were twelve years old and it was the last week of May and I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I was driving around town yesterday with my iPod on shuffle, and it seems my iPod agreed, because the playlist was all summer music, offering up reggae, some salsa, classic R&B, and a bunch of uptempo pop hits (a little Leonard Cohen snuck in, too, but it worked.) If Lake Victoria wasn’t infested with hippos and parasites, I would have made a beeline for the beach.
Continue reading “Happy New Year from the source of the Nile”
Chapter 15: Isabelle
My lungs burned and my feet stung and my head reeled and my heart ached. The tall grass at least hid his shadow from us, and hopefully hid us from him as well. Julian kept pulling at me, forcing me to keep running even though my body at times felt ready to quit. Not that I wanted to die, I just wanted to stop and to make everything go away, make the whole world and everything in it—good bad natural unnatural—disappear.
The treasure pulsed with Julian’s heartbeat. Some treasure. Not rubies or diamonds or gold like in the books. A worthless piece of wood on a leather strap. He said there were things we couldn’t understand, and so I told myself that there must be more to it and I kept running even as the grass cut my face and the stones on the path cut into my feet.
The ground shook as though thunder had clapped here on the earth itself. It could have been the sound of a thousand cannons firing at once. It was the sound of Tantibus bellowing with rage. He had lost us, at least temporarily. I kept my head down and let Julian lead me further.
A little more Amsterdam
At a cafe I am reminded that there are many Amsterdams. Beside me are a couple of young men with bright red eyes. I am having breakfast but they are having a meal at the end of a long night, and even though neither of them are saying much they cannot stop giggling. Theirs is not the Amsterdam I am here for, but I remember my younger days when it might have been.
At a park I am momentarily mesmerized by a young girl spinning around on playground equipment. She is sitting on a chin-up bar and after taking a deep breath she drops, quickly and dramatically, and spins completely around three or four times before stopping at the top for another breath. Beside her a group of boys take turns jumping off of swings, and in a weird little playground cage a postcard-perfect group of multicultural mixed gender preteens play something that looks like dodgeball soccer. It is not clear if they are being watched by any adults; in any event, the children definitely don’t see any of the grown-ups walking past them. The spinning girl doesn’t even seem to notice that every time she whips around her ponytail drags through the dirt. Theirs is an altogether different Amsterdam, too.
A girl with pink hair and a ring in her nose; a jowly man in a very expensive coat; a baker who apologizes to his Dutch customer that he only speaks English. I love cities. I can appreciate the charms of the rural life for a weekend at most. I don’t look down on it, and respect that others can’t stand all the sounds and smells of urban spaces. But I love it. I love letting myself through these overlapping worlds. Funny then how in all my pictures there are no people present. I guess I feel the need to respect their worlds, and I only take pictures of mine.
Amsterdam, early evening
“Amsterdam is always good for grieving…”
Not that I’m actually grieving. It’s a lyric in a Steve Earle song that I’ve had in my head for the past few days.
I wanted to go somewhere cold for Christmas but I didn’t want to take too many days off or miss Christmas at home, and there are very few direct flights from Uganda to cold places, so here I am in Amsterdam, with Steve Earle in my head.
I’ve had my camera hanging around my neck this whole time, and I wish I was taking a bunch of beautiful pictures, but I guess that’s not the mode I’m in right now.
This city is beautiful, and obviously rich with culture, but except for a foray to the Rijksmuseum and a canal cruise to see the Festival of Lights, I haven’t done anything particularly touristy. I’ve walked around and looked at things; done some very boring (but satisfying) shopping at department stores; and done some more walking. Despite the multiple travel guides and apps I downloaded, I don’t feel any obligation to go see any museum, or venture out to funky neighborhood, or make reservations to one of Amsterdam’s finest restaurants.
I’m happy to just walk and watch the people. And if sometimes forget to take my camera, well, I guess I’ll have to trust my memory.
Chapter 14: Julian
Isabelle closed the door to the other room so she could change in privacy, and Mr. Percy sat me down. He knelt in front of me; it was as if a colossus from the Temple of Rhodes was kneeling before me.
“Julian,” he said in a very grave voice. “Lord Edmonstone gave you something. I know it is true. You, or perhaps Isabelle. You must give it to me. Do you understand me?”
I did not, to be honest. I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying at all. The men outside, my mother in the house without help, and the entire ordeal of the evening. Mother had begun to panic when she heard Isabelle sing the song and I couldn’t understand why but I tried to tell Isabelle to open her eyes and see what was happening and somehow she heard me but it didn’t matter. My mind kept returning, I don’t know why, to the chest of viols on Shandos Place, and the old scorch mark on the side. Could it be cleaned? Such a strange thing to think about.
“Listen to me!” he barked suddenly and grabbed my wrists. “You have it, I know you do. It isn’t yours, it wasn’t his to give. It is mine. These are things you do not understand. There are things in this world—real things, not stories, not myths—that you cannot even begin to see. Does Isabelle have it?”
He was hurting me. I could feel the bones in my wrist turning on themselves. If he squeezed harder he could snap them.
Chapter 13: Jane
I was born in the Cotswolds. My father had a mill and our house was beside it. We didn’t live in a village. The mill was on a stream and there were three villages nearby but none was ours. My father was old and my mother was his third wife. The first two had died. I had three brothers and four sisters from them but I almost never saw them. They were older. Some of them were older than my mother. She was young. People said she was simple. Father called her simple. She called herself simple. She bore five children and they all died except me. Everybody thought I would die, too. I didn’t have a name until I was old enough to crawl. I was baptized and named Jane then. Before then Mother had called me Baby, and Father called me Child. Even after I had a name they still called me that.
Every week Mother had took me to the church to pray. She said she was simple but she could still pray. She taught me to do the same. We prayed for forgiveness for our sins. She prayed that I wouldn’t be simple. I prayed that I wouldn’t be simple.
Mother died when I was twelve years old giving birth to a boy who only lived one day. Father died that winter and I was sent to the Home. Father had arranged it. The Home belonged to the church and the parson visited every day at breakfast. Mr. Garrity lived in the Home. His wife had started the Home years earlier. She was dead, though, by the time I came.
There were other children there but they were younger than me. I was to care for them. They were only small children but they were cruel to me. They hated me, Sarah and Philip and the one they called Pud and all the rest, too, and I came to hate them back.
Sometimes I pitied them, though. When they were sick or scared, and I could see how small and sad they were. Their parents were dead or gone. Mrs. Garrity had cared for them but since she died they had nobody really. Mr. Garrity did his best, I suppose. Sometimes I did, too, but it never seemed to matter.
I slept in the same room as the children. I cleaned the church and the house. I cooked for the children, too, and for the parson and Mr. Garrity. I liked cooking. The children were afraid of the stove because some of them had been burned before. When I cooked they left me alone. The parson taught me to read so I could follow recipes. He thought it would be difficult to teach me but I learned quickly. He said that I always could have learned if only my parents had known to teach me.
I lived there for two years. Sometimes Mr. Garrity beat me when I made mistakes but not as badly as Father had done. He reminded me every day to be grateful that I hadn’t been left to die alone in the mill. Mr. Garrity one day told me that he would marry me that day and I wouldn’t sleep in the children’s room anymore. The parson looked unhappy but agreed that my father had promised me to Mr. Garrity before he died. When the parson left I cried, and Mr. Garrity became angry. I ran into the kitchen and he chased me. He tripped and fell and he hit his face on the side of the stove. He landed on the ground and his legs kicked for a moment and then stopped. The children were playing outside and I knew that they would come in soon and find him and me. I ran. As fast as I could, as far as I could.
I was hungry and cold when I reached London. I slept on the grass in a field outside of town and when it rained I was wet. I stole food from markets and clothes from clotheslines in the fields. I met Mrs. Smith and told her I could cook and clean and she hired me to be her new scullery maid as her old one had left.
I believe she knew I was at the market to steal. I think she was trying to help me. I was always too afraid to ask. I was a murderer and a thief and a liar.
I learned that Lord Falmouth was very important and met with the King sometimes and I was afraid that I would be found out. I was afraid of everything. I am afraid still.
Then the Incident happened and everything was upside down. I was afraid of the countryside. The house in the field scared me. It all reminded me of the old mill. On the first night I curled up in a ball on my bed and cried.
And then he spoke to me. He told me right away that I wasn’t wrong. The Incident was real. I had seen something. And he told me a story. About knights and Saracens and about a great power that he could teach me. He showed me and I was amazed. I could have this power, he told me. If I would help him.
And if I had that power I would never be afraid again.
I learned quickly and I felt proud of myself. He gave me a mission and I did it. I did another one and succeeded. I could do this.
And then I saw the first crow, through the window, and it was time to do the things that he had planned. The men outside would provide the perfect opportunity. I thought of what was going to happen and a taste like cold metal filled my mouth. I couldn’t pray because I knew that I had forfeited Grace but I wished like a child that I had been born simple because I had made a mistake and now it was too late to stop it.
I followed Miss Annie and Lady Falmouth into the library. They began collecting Lady Falmouth’s books. There were many of them. I could read but I couldn’t read these. They were written in numbers, and in letters I didn’t recognize. They packed them hurriedly but carefully into the leather sacks they had come in.
“Mallory,” Lady Falmouth said. “It can’t be.”
“He knew the Shively girl,” Miss Annie said. “He visited her at home. And he was always very curious about us.”
“But a servant of Tantibus?” A shiver ran up my spine. “I can’t believe it.”
“I don’t want to either.”
“And Isabelle? Julian? They spent so much time there. Did he reach them?”
“He would have killed them.”
Lady Falmouth dismissed this with a quick shake off her head and a little shudder. “He wouldn’t. They don’t know anything.”
Miss Annie stopped. “They have the treasure.”
Now Lady Falmouth froze. I did, too. “They can’t.”
“They do. Isabelle has half. I saw it. I’m certain Julian has the other.”
It took Lady Falmouth a long time to think of what to say next. I think she held her breath. I know I held mine.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she finally exhaled.
“Because it is better if nobody knows.”
I opened my mouth to speak many times but no words came out. Another crow on the window. And the mob tearing down the door. And the children. They weren’t the children from the Home. I hated children but not them. I didn’t love them either but I didn’t hate them. I could have saved them and should have saved them but I couldn’t. It was too late now, and what burned my soul was that it was only a few moments too late, but it was done. I had played my part and I could do nothing now to change that.
“How do you know?” Lady Falmouth asked.
“I dare not say.”
“Do they know?”
“I hope not.”
Just a few moments. Maybe it wasn’t too late. If we hurried, if they knew maybe they could fix it.
He told me that I would never be afraid again, but I was afraid when I stood and faced them. “He only wants the treasure,” I said. “If they would only just give it to him. Nobody has to be hurt.”
They both looked at me with disbelieving eyes. “Please,” I said again, my voice cracking. “Just give it and he will go.”
They came closer to me. “Jane,” Lady Falmouth said quietly. “What do you know?”
I don’t know what I said. I cried. I told them everything I could. None of it made any sense. Lady Falmouth turned away from me. Miss Annie sighed.
“Dear child, what have you done?” she said.
The crow beat violently against the glass. I had been too afraid to let him finish, to turn me into one of them. I wished I had let him and I was relieved that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what to feel. I wanted to vanish completely from the earth now.
Miss Annie rushed up behind and pushed my head down. She pulled up my hair and ran her fingers along my neck. I knew what she was looking for. He had told me what would happen. “I will slip it in here,” putting his finger at the precise spot where my neck joined my head. “And you will die. And when I take it out you will live forever. You will be one of us.” He showed me his own scar. But I wasn’t ready.
“When did you see Tantibus?”
I told her I never saw him. Only heard his name.
“From whom? Father Mallory?”
Father Mallory would never. He was good. He wasn’t pretending.
“Then who, Child, tell me!”
“Mr. Percy.” I remembered how he flicked his fingers and a fire came from his fingertips, and he flicked them again and the flame became a small blue flower. He did that to show me his power. He told me that Tantibus was here to reclaim his treasure and that he would reward me when he had. I would succeed where Emily Shively had failed.
The horror on their faces. I felt the horror in my stomach. He would kill them. He would. Even if they told him where the treasure was. Mr. Percy would kill them, or Tantibus would. Of course. That was always the only way it could end. I had been lying to myself when I thought otherwise and I knew it.
We heard the front door crash open and the hall filled with voices. There must have been a hundred men then. I could hear the tapestries bursting into flame. Someone began to batter the library door. Miss Annie grabbed hold of the sack of precious books. There was a door behind the stairs that led to the orchard, and the horses. Two horses, one for each of them.
And then Lady Falmouth reached out and took my hand.
“Come,” she commanded. “It is not too late, for us, or them, or you. Come.”
I wished they would leave me there to die but they didn’t. Miss Annie grabbed my other hand and the two of them dragged me until I began to run on my own. The blade of an axe burst through the library door, and when it was pulled out it took a chunk of door with it. I could see the flames coming through. We ran.
Chapter 12: Isabelle
These old manor houses were meant to provide protection. Father once made me close my eyes and stand in the great hall of Ryne Hall and imagine how it must have felt. “None of these doors are here; none of the wings have been built yet,” he said, forcing me to shut out the obvious escape routes. Unlike Winston House, Ryne Hall had continued to live and grow, and there were many halls, each the center of a different wing of rooms and corridors. It was difficult then to imagine being isolated in the great hall. At Winston House I didn’t have to imagine so much.
“The sounds of arrows smacking against the windows,” he said to me. I thought they might sound like little clinks, metal arrow bouncing off stone, a little sound that masked a deadly danger.
“Where do you go?” he asked. I looked around. The great hall was filled with statuary and furniture, but I imagined that back then it would have been bare. All I could do was cower in a corner, so he took me there, and together we crouched. I put my back to the wall and tucked my knees up to my chin. He surrounded me with his bulk and lowered his head so his forehead touched the top of my head.
“We’d have to sit like this until the attack subsided,” he explained.
“How long would that take?”
“It depended. It could be a half hour, it could be all day. It depended on how well-supplied the attackers were, and how badly they wanted to get in.”
And we’d just sit there, waiting, trusting in the thick walls. There’d be shouting from outside, he’d said, and probably shouting from inside. Maybe some of the dogs would be inside with us as a last line of defense, and maybe some armed guards by the door. But the family would be here, in the corner, crouched in the darkness.