The Isle of Blood
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Beside me the monstrumologist murmured, “‘I believe I am in hell, therefore I am there.’” He was tapping an envelope against his thigh as he walked, keeping time with the tambourine players, who used the thigh bones of calves to make their music. The envelope contained Fadil’s letter of introduction to our contact in Aden. The monstrumolo-gist had become very excited when Fadil had mentioned the man’s name.
“I’d no idea he was back in Yemen,” he’d exclaimed. “I thought he was running guns in Ethiopia.”
“That did not work out so well for him,” Fadil had replied. “In fact, it was terrible! He says King Menelik cheated him, left him with only six thousand francs to show for his trouble. He returned to Yemen—to Harad for the coffee and ivory trade. Though he makes frequent trips back and forth to Crater, where he should be now. If so, I’m certain you’ll find him at the Grand Hotel De L’Univers. He always stays there when he is in town.”
“I sincerely hope you’re right, Fadil,” my master had responded. “Besides needing his aid in a rather desperate humanitarian circumstance, it would give me enormous personal satisfaction to meet him.”
The hotel was a long, low structure with stone archways and patios and lattice shutters on the windows, a common architectural style here and in India. We stepped inside, where the temperature dropped a minuscule two or three degrees. On our left ;lihe hotel shop displaying exotic wares, animal furs from Africa and Asia, silk from Bombay, Arabic swords and daggers, as well as more mundane fare, postcards and stationery, pith sun hats and white cotton suits, the unofficial uniform of the colonist. The lobby itself had been designed to reflect its owners’ pride in empire, all dark woods and rich velvet, but the heat and the humidity had warped and cracked the wood and eaten holes in the velvet, a portent of things to come.
“I have come to see Monsieur Arthur Rimbaud,” the monstrumologist informed the desk clerk, an Arab whose white shirt had probably started out the day crisply starched but now had wilted in the heat, like the Queen of the Night desert flower. “Is he here?”
“Monsieur Rimbaud is staying with us,” acknowledged the clerk. “May I tell him who is calling?”
“Dr. Pellinore Warthrop. I have a letter of introduction…”
The clerk held out his hand, but the doctor did not give him the letter. He insisted upon delivering it to Mr. Rimbaud personally. The clerk shrugged—it was too hot to make an issue of anything—and handed us off to a small boy who led us into the dining hall across the way from the gift shop. The room opened onto a terrace that overlooked the ocean; in the distance I could see Flint Island, a large, bare rock that the British used as a quarantine station during the frequent outbreaks of cholera.
Seated alone at one table was a slender man around Warthrop’s age. His hair was dark, turning gray at the temples, and cut very short. He was wearing the ubiquitous white cotton suit. When he swung his head in our direction, I was immediately struck, as most who knew him were, by his eyes. At first I thought they were gray, but on further inspection determined they were the palest blue, like the color of moonstones, the gems that Indians called “dream stones,” believing they produced beautiful night visions. His gaze was direct and disconcerting, like everything else about Jean Nicholas Arthur Rimbaud.
“Yes?” he asked. There was nothing pleasant in that “yes.”
The doctor introduced himself quickly, and a touch breathlessly, the lowly peasant who suddenly finds himself in the company of royalty. He handed Fadil’s letter to Rimbaud. We did not sit. We waited for Rimbaud to read the letter. It was not a long letter, but it seemed to take a good long while for the man to read it, as I stood there in the blistering Arabian heat with the sparkling ocean a tantalizing few hundred yards away. Rimbaud picked up a crystalline goblet filled with a liquid the color of green algae and sipped delicately.
“Fadil,” he said softly. “I haven’t seen Fadil in eight years or more. I am surprised he is not dead.” He glanced up from the paper, perhaps expecting the doctor to do something interesting, make a witty retort, laugh at the joke (if it was a joke), tell him something he didn’t know about Fadil. The doctor said nothing. Rimbaud flicked his free hand toward a chair, and we gratefully joined him at the table. He ordered another absinthe from the little Arab boy, who had been standing obediently out of the way, and asked the doctor if he wanted anything.
“Some tea would be wonderful.”
“And for the boy?” Rimbaud inquired.
“Just some water, please,” Ioaked. My throat burned with every dry swallow.
“You don’t want water,” Rimbaud cautioned me. “They say they boil it, but…” He shrugged and ordered a ginger ale for me.
“Monsieur Rimbaud,” Warthrop began, sitting forward in his chair and resting his forearms on his knees. “I must tell you what a pleasure it is to meet you, sir. Having dabbled in the craft in my youth, I—”
“Dabbled in what craft? The coffee business?”
“No, I mean—”
“For that is my craft, Dr. Warthrop, my raison d’être. I am a businessman.”
“Just so!” cried the doctor, as if the Frenchman had pointed out another similarity. “That is how it played out for me. I abandoned poetry too, though it was for a very different sort of craft than yours.”
“Oh? And what would be that very different sort of craft, Dr. Warthrop?”
“I am a scientist.”
Rimbaud was lifting the glass to his lips. He froze at the word “scientist,” and then slowly set the glass back down, the absinthe untouched.
“Fadil did not mention in his letter that you were a scientific sort of doctor. I had hoped you could have a look at my leg; it has been bothering me, and the doctors at Camp Aden… Well, they are all very British, if you do not mind my saying so.”
Warthrop, who had just spent several months under the exclusive care of very British doctors, nodded emphatically, and said, “I understand completely, Monsieur Rimbaud.”
The boy came back with our drinks. Rimbaud gulped the remainder of his first absinthe—if it was his first; I suspected it was not—before accepting the fresh one from the boy, as if Rimbaud were hurrying to catch up with the doctor, who had not even begun. Show me a man who cannot control his appetites, the monstrumologist had said, and I will show a man living under a death sentence.
Rimbaud sipped his new drink, decided he liked it better than the old one, and took another sip. His moonstone gaze fell upon my hand.
“What happened to your finger?”
I glanced at the doctor, who said, “An accident.”
“See this? This is my ‘accident.’” Rimbaud held out his wrist, displaying a bright red, puckered area of damaged flesh. “Shot by a dear friend. Also by ‘accident.’ My dear friend is in Europe. I am in Aden. And my wound is right here.”
“I think my favorite line is from Illuminations,” said my master, pressing on. He seemed annoyed by something. “‘Et j’ai senti un peu son immense corps.’ The juxtaposition of ‘peu’ and ‘immense’… simply wonderful.8221;
“I do not talk of my poetry, Dr. Warthrop.”
“Really?” The doctor was stunned. “But…”
“It is… what? What are my poems? Rinçures—leavings, the dregs. The poet is dead. He died many years ago—drowned, at Bab-el-Mandeb, the Gate of Tears—and I took his body up into those mountains behind us, to the Tower of Silence in Crater, where I left it for the carrion, lest his corruption poison what little was left of my soul.”
He smiled tightly, quite pleased with himself. Poets never die, I thought. They just fail in the end.
“Now what is this business that brings you to Aden?” demanded Rimbaud brusquely. “I am a very busy man, as you can see.”
The doctor, his high spirits dampened by Rimbaud’s dismissive attitude—the shoe being on the other foot, for once—explained our purpose in disturbing Rimbaud’s important midmorning absinthian chore.
“I am sorry,” Rimbaud interrupted him. “But you say you are desiring to go where?”
“Socotra! Oh, you can’t go to Socotra now.”
“Why can’t I?”
“Well, you could, but it would be the last place you’d want to go.”
“And why is that, if I may ask, Monsieur Rimbaud?” The doctor waited nervously for the reply. Had word of the magnificum reached Aden?
“Because the monsoons have come. No sane person tries it now. You must wait till October.”
“October!” The monstrumologist shook his head sharply, as if he were trying to clear his ears. “That is unacceptable, Monsieur Rimbaud.”
Rimbaud shrugged. “I do not control the weather, Dr. Warthrop. Bring your complaint up with God.”
Of course the monstrumologist, like the monster Rurick, was not one to give up so easily. He pressed Rimbaud. He pleaded with Rimbaud. He came just short of threatening Rimbaud. Rimbaud absorbed it all with a bemused expression. Perhaps he was thinking, This Warthrop, he is so very American! In the end, and after two more absinthes, the poet relented, saying, “Oh, very well. I can’t stop you from committing suicide any more than I could stop you from writing poetry. Here.” He scribbled an address on the back of his business card. “Give this to a gharry-wallah; he will know where it is. Ask for Monsieur Bardey. Tell him what you have told me, and if he doesn’t laugh you out the door, you may get lucky.”
Warthrop thanked him, rose, and beckoned me to rise, and then Rimbaud stood up and said, “But where are you going?”
“To see Monsieur Bardey,” the doctor replied, puzzled.
“But it is not even ten thirty. He wo. I c7;t be in yet. Sit. You haven’t finished your tea.”
“The address is in Crater, yes? By the time I get there…”
“Oh, very well, but don’t expect to be back anytime soon.” He looked at me. “And you should not take the boy.”
Warthrop stiffened and then told a lie—perhaps an inadvertent one, but it was still a lie. “I always take the boy.”
“It is not a good part of town. There are men in Crater who would kill him for his fine shoes alone—or that very nice jacket, which is very fashionable but not very practical here in Aden. You should leave him with me.”
“With you?” The doctor was thinking it over; I was shocked.
“I want to come with you, sir,” I said.
“I would not advise it,” Rimbaud cautioned. “But what business is it of mine? Do what you wish.”
“Dr. Warthrop…,” I began. And finished weakly: “Please, sir.”
“Rimbaud is right. You should stay here,” the doctor decided. He drew me to one side and whispered, “It will be all right, Will Henry. I should be back well before sunset, and you will be safer here at the hotel. I don’t know what I will find in town, and we still do not know the final disposition of Rurick and Plešec.”