The Isle of Blood
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It was time to confess. Were not my actions that day the indispensable proof that his faith in me was not misplaced? I tried. My mouth came open, but, like with Rurick’s before I killed him, no sound came out. Though I had most likely saved both our lives, though I had chosen the only door through which our salvation lay, I remembered his quiet despair on the beach at Dover. The very strange and ironic thing is that I left you behind so you wouldn’t have to live on that plate with them. If I confessed, there would be no absolution; I would still be nasu.
And so would he. He would be made unclean by my touch. My “success” at the Tower of Silence would be his failure, the fulfillment of his deepest fears. He would know beyond all doubt that by my saving him he had lost me forever.
Chapter Thirty-Four: “The Best Stories Are Better Left Untold”
Captain Julius Russell, owner of the cargo clipper Dagmar, was a tall, flush-faced, one-eyed expatriate, a former officer in the British cavalry who’d retired from the army following the second Afghan campaign. He’d come to Aden in ’84 to make his fortune in the coffee trade, plunking down his life savings on a retired packet steamer that in its day had been the fastest vessel of its class in the British fleet. He’d had trouble finding contracts, though—most of the coffee exporters used their own ships to transport their goods to Europe—and his hopes to undersell them by buying directly from the growers, thus cutting out the middlemen, had been dashed by the near monopoly held by companies like the one Rimbaud used to work for in Aden.
“It’s the bloody heat,” Russell told my master. “It melts the honor right out of a man. The customs officers are so corrupt they’d sell their mums for a sixpence and a bottle of araq.”
Bankrupt and desperate, Russell turned to trading in a decidedly more lucrative commodity—diamonds. Twice a month he sailed the Dagmar down the African coast to Sofala, where he picked up the contraband from a corrupt Portuguese official for transport to brokers based in Port Said. The diamonds were hidden in coffee bags, not so much to fo customs officials as to provide reasonable cover for the inevitable raid of Somali and Egyptian pirates who prowled along the glittering corridor between Mozambique and the Bab-el-Mandab Strait, the Gate of Tears, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, and where the poet in Arthur Rimbaud had died.
We met the captain and his first mate, a Somali of gargantuan proportions named Awaale, in the hotel dining hall for breakfast. Awaale took an immediate fancy to me, his landlubbing equivalent.
“What does your name mean?” He spoke perfect English.
“What does it mean?”
“Yes. I am Awaale; it means ‘lucky’ in my language. What does your name mean?”
“I don’t know that it means anything.”
“Oh, all names mean something. Why did your parents name you William?”
“I never asked them.”
“But now you will, I think.” His eyes danced and he broke into a wide smile.
I looked away. The doctor and Captain Russell were engaged in a rather heated conversation about the portage fee, the continuation of an argument that had taken up the majority of Warthrop’s visit the day before. Russell wanted the entire amount up front, and the doctor, as tightfisted as ever, would agree to only half, with the remainder to be paid upon our safe return.
“What happened to your parents?” asked Awaale. He had read my reaction correctly.
“They were killed in a fire,” I answered.
“Mine are gone too.” He laid his huge hand over mine. “I was just a boy, like you. You are walaalo, little Will. Brother.”
He glanced at Russell, whose naturally rosy countenance now burned a deep crimson, and smiled. “Do you know how Captain Julius lost his eye? He fell off his horse at Kandahar, and his gun misfired when he hit the ground. He missed the entire battle. He tells people he was wounded in a charge, which like many stories of war is true but also not quite!”
“I must cover my risk, Warthrop,” Russell was insisting vehemently. “I’ve told you, no one attempts Socotra this time of year. The British won’t bring even their biggest frigate within a hundred miles of the place until October. They shut down Hadibu during the monsoon, and Hadibu is the only decent deepwater port on the whole bloody island.”
“Then, we make landing at Gishub or Steroh in the south.”
“You can attempt a landing there. The currents in the south are treacherous, especially this time of year. I will remind you, Doctor, I did not promise you a stroll from deck onto shore.”
Awaale leaned close to me and asked in a quiet voice, “Why do you go to Socotra, walaalo? That place is xumaato, evil… cursed.”
“The doctor has important business there,” I whispered back.
“He is a dhaktar? They say there are many strange plants there. He is going to collect herbs for his medicines, then?”
“He is a dhaktar,” I said.
We boarded the Dagmar at a quarter past eight, and for once I could not wait to put out to sea. The quay was swarming with British military police and soldiers; I expected to be pulled aside for questioning about the two bodies left for the carrion birds on the front porch of the world, for I was certain they had been discovered by now.
We would make excellent time, Russell promised my anxious master; our journey should take no more than five and a half days. The Dagmar had been recently refitted with new boilers (a wise investment if you are running diamonds), and her holds would be empty, which would nearly double her speed.
“That is the last thing I wanted to confirm with you,” Warthrop said, casting his eyes about for eavesdroppers. “We are agreed as to the particulars for our return to Brindisi?”
Russell nodded. “I’ll take you all the way to Brindisi, Doctor. And port your special cargo for you, though it goes against my better judgment. I would hope we could trust each other, like gentlemen.”
“Like yours, Captain Russell, my business is fraught more with scoundrels than gentlemen. You’ll know soon enough the nature of my special cargo and will be well compensated for the risk of its transport, I promise you.”
The monstrumologist and I walked forward as the Dagmar chugged through the harbor for the open sea. To our left were the towering rust-colored mountains of Aden, the roiling black dust of the coal depot, the graceful sweep of the Prince of Wales Crescent, and the tired-looking facade of the Grand Hotel De L’Univers, where I spied a man in a white suit sitting on the veranda, caressing a tumbler filled with a vile green liquid. Did I see him raise his glass in a mock toast?
“So, Will Henry,” said the doctor, “what did you learn from the great Arthur Rimbaud?” He must have seen the same man.
There is nothing left when you reach the center of everything, just the pit of bones inside the innermost circle.
“What did I learn, sir?” The breeze was delicious upon my face. I could smell the sea. “I learned a poet doesn’t stop being a poet simply because he stops writing poetry.”
He thought that was very clever of me, for very complicated reasons. The monstrumologist clapped me on the back, and laughed.
First there was the land receding behind us, until the horizon overcame the land. Then a bevy of ships, packets and cargo steamers, light passenger crafts filled with colonists escaping the heat, and Arab fishing dhows, their great triangular sails snapping angrily in the wind, until the horizon rose up to swallow them. The terns and gulls followed us for a while, until they gave up the chase and returned to their hunting grounds off Flint Island. Then it was the Dagmar and the sea beneath a cloudless sky and the sun that hurled her shaow upon the churning wake, and the empty horizon in all directions. There was the great rumbling of the ship’s engines and the faint singing below of the coal-heavers and the laughter of the indolent crew lounging topside. Somalis all, and none who spoke a word of English, with the exception of Awaale. They had been told nothing about our mission and did not seem in the least curious. They were grateful for the respite from pirates and nosy customs officials; they laughed and joked like a group of schoolboys on holiday.
There were only two cabins on board. One was the captain’s, of course, and the other belonged to Awaale, who cheerfully gave it up for the doctor, though there was room for only one.
“You shall sleep with me and my crew,” Awaale informed me. “It will be grand! We’ll swap stories of our adventures. I would know what you have seen of the world.”
The doctor took me aside and cautioned, “I would be judicious in describing the parts I had seen, Will Henry. Sometimes the best stories are better left untold.”
Situated near the boiler room, the crew’s quarters was small, noisy, constantly hot, and therefore nearly always deserted in the summer months, when those not on the night watch slept on deck in a row of hammocks suspended midship. I did not get much sleep our first two nights at sea. I could not relax with the incessant sway and counter-sway of the hammock beneath me and the naked night sky refusing to stay still above me. Closing my eyes only made it worse. But by the third night I actually started to find it pleasant, swinging back and forth while the warm salty air caressed my cheeks and the dancing stars sang down from the inky firmament. I listened to Awaale beside me, weaving tall tales as intricate as a nidus ex magnificum.
On the third night he said to me, “Do you know why Captain Julius hired me to be his mate? Because I used to be a pirate and I knew their ways. It is true, walaalo. For six years I was a pirate, sailing up and down the coast. From the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar, I was the scourge of the seven seas! Diamonds, gold, silks, mail packets, sometimes people… Yes, I even trucked in people. After my parents died, I signed on to a pirate ship, and when I had learned all I could from the captain of that ship, I snuck into his cabin one night and slit his throat. I killed him, and then I gathered the crew together and said, ‘The captain is dead; all hail the new captain!’ And the first thing I did as captain? Put a heavy lock upon the cabin door!” He chuckled. “I was all of seventeen. And in two years I was the most feared pirate on the Indian Ocean; Awaale the Terrible, they called me. Awaale the Devil.
“And I was a devil. The only ones who feared me more than my victims were my crew. I would shoot a man for hiccupping in my direction. I had everything, walaalo. Money, power, respect. Now all that is gone.”
“What happened?” I asked.
He sighed, his spirit troubled by the memory. “My first mate brought a boy to me—a boy he vouched for, who wanted a berth—and like a fool I agreed. He was about the age I was when I began, also an orphan like me, and I took pity on him. He was very bright and very strong and very fearless—is trueanother boy who decided he wanted to be a pirate. We became quite close. He was devoted to me, and I to him. I even started to think, if I ever became tired of it, I would quit the pirate’s life and give the ship to him as my heir.”
Then one day a member of the crew brought to Awaale troubling news. He had overheard the boy and the first mate, the man who had vouched for him, whispering one night about their captain’s tyrannical rule and, most damning of all, his refusal to share fairly the ill-gotten spoils of their labors.