art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat: Part 3
by Lavie Tidhar
There came a time when memory was subsumed by happiness.
She tasted of the sea, and fire. Her lips had the taste of coal.
This is how it happened: sleeping, he dreamed, and in the dream he was flying. A metal bird soared through the heavens and he was piloting it, and there were lights below. A great monster rose out of the sea and he, the bird, attacked it.
He woke up in semi-darkness, coated in sweat. Rolling over, he reached for her, but she was gone.
He rose to his feet and staggered through the trees. When he came to the shore he saw birds, small dark birds circling in the skies. As he watched they came closer.
Iro Lei stood on the waves, her hands by her sides. The dark birds came closer, and he saw that they were not birds at all. They were women, small-boned and with bat-like wings. They flew at Iro Lei and croaked. He knew they were called Banewono-wono--the flying women. They croaked, "Qat! Qat!"
Iro Lei spoke calmly. Her voice carried on the wind. She said, "He is not here."
"He will come!" the flying women said. "For you, he will come! He will follow!"
The flying women circled Iro Lei and lifted her up into the air. She did not struggle. "Qasavara!" they crowed. "Qasavara has taken Iro Lei!"
They flew away, and the figure of Iro Lei grew smaller and smaller in the distance until it disappeared behind the volcano, and Henry was left alone on the shore.
A shark rose out of the shallows then. As it came towards Henry its shape changed, and he saw without surprise that it was a man coming towards him across the sand. Some men could change their shape at will. The man-shark said, "Will you seek out the man-eater, Qasavara?"
"I donít know where he can be found," Henry said. The shark-man grinned and his teeth were sharp. "Beyond the volcano," he said, "on the other side of the island, where the vui roam."
"Then I shall go beyond the volcano," Henry said, "and find Qasavara and fight him, and save the woman I love."
But the shark-man only laughed at that, and said, "Love is like a water, in that it can drown you, and it is like a flame, in that it can burn you, and it is like--"
But Henry had no mind for advice from a fish, and he silenced him with a wave of his hand, and the shark-man grinned again and said nothing.
"Iíll go," Henry said at last. He stared towards the volcano. It was belching fire in great gusts, and a sudden shiver of fear ran down Henry's spine. He felt uneasy, still thick with remembrance of his dream. He did not fear Qasavara, the man-eater. But he did fear what he might find at the top of the mountain.
When the white man disappeared into the trees the shark grinned again and became a bird. Another man was in his tale now, and Qat wanted to know how it would turn out. The man did not belong in this place. This was Qat's world. He screeched in amusement and flapped his wings, and flew above the canopy of the trees, following his quarry.
"To go to the west," the chief of the uturgurgur said uneasily, "you must go up, to the great lake surrounding the volcano. And there we cannot go with you, for Wurisris lives in the water and the flames."
"You have shown me much kindness," Henry said. "I do not ask that you follow me to danger."
The chief nodded, and scratched himself. "We will take you as far as we can," he said at last, "yet no farther."
And so it was that Henry, accompanied by the little people of the forest, began the arduous climb through forest-trails, up and up and up--towards the great volcano rising high above the island.
Manlepei had come with him, grumbling all the way about the trouble he was going to. They climbed slowly, holding on to roots and creepers, pushing up with their staffs. Manlepei had plucked wood-mushrooms and they both attached them to their nambas, and the mushrooms gave out a faint light, just enough to mark their passage to each other. The others had followed them a short way from the village but at the place where the banyan tree roots ended and forest began they would go no farther, and so there were only the two of them, Henry and Manlepei.
They walked slowly and circumvented the villages of the big people. At times they came through a coconut plantation or a field of yams, and at times they climbed atop a crag and caught sudden sight of the ocean and the islands in the distance, and heard the distant call of gulls. Day changed to night, and still they went, and the stars were numerous in the sky.
"Beware the snakes," Manlepei told him.
They walked and the forest was very still. Occasionally they saw the busy black ants crossing the forest-roads on their silent business. They drank sparingly, of coconuts. Once, a bird called, overhead.
They came to a clearing. They were high up above the sea. In the clearing stood a beautiful woman.
For just a moment he thought she must be Iro Lei.
She was bedecked with flowers, and otherwise naked. A triangle of black hair shone wet below her smooth black belly. There was the same air of enchantment about her that there always was about Iro Lei. He took a step towards her and her eyes turned and gazed upon him lazily and she hissed, and Manlepei grabbed him by the arm and said, "Mai Tiratira!"
"Little man," the woman said, and smiled, and her tongue flicked out. "And big man, together in the foresssst...."
Her joints, Henry saw, were reversed, both arms and legs. Her eyes were cold with amusement. "Come with me and we shall make love," she told him. She was Mai Tiratira, the black-and-white snake, and now he saw clearly the reptilian skin around her neck, the one part of her that she couldnít change. But she was very alluring.
"Begone," Manlepei said--but he sounded hesitant, suddenly, and the snake-woman smiled. "I heard tell stories of a white man and was curioussss...." she said.
"He's not much to look at," Manlepei said gruffly.
The woman dropped to all fours, and suddenly, quickly, she changed. She became a large snake, striped in black and white. She was a sea snake and the white in her was the foam of the sea, and the black was the absence of colors in the depths where only the drowned men go. She crawled towards them, her tongue hissing out.
Henry stood very still and when she came to him she stopped. When she rose she was again a woman, and still beautiful. She reached out for him.
"We must be on our way," he told her.
"Where do you go?"
"Beyond the lake, and the volcano, and to the other side of Gaua, where fearsome Qasavara roams."
At that her face changed and became thoughtful. "I do not fear the man-eater," she said. "You have a woman?"
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"But she is not here now."
He nodded again.
"The price of your going unharmed from this place," she said, and then smiled, and her tongue flicked out. "Is a kiss." And she bent her head towards him and her cold dry lips touched his and her tongue slipped into his mouth.
In his mind a cold flame began to flicker and burn.
Her taste was the taste of the snake and the woman both. When she bit his lips his blood was hot and her tongue licked it clean. Her hands were on him and his hands reached for her and found her scales and he thought her beautiful.
He sank to the ground. Writhing above him was a giant snake. From a distance he could hear Manlepei, shouting, but he couldnít make out the words, and didnít care.
Her cold tongue was in his mouth, and then it penetrated into his mind and he screamed.
An alien name came floating like a piece of debris falling through clouds, and the name was Henry Sleazar.
Her voice was in his mind. She sounded amused.
I donít know.
Despair threatened to drown him. The snake was a flame across the darkness of his mind, and he followed it.
Caesar of the Air.
A metal bird, flying, Henry piloting it over islands like green-backed turtles floating sedately in a warm sea....
The other world, she whispered, and suddenly drew back. Her breath hissed in his throat. Manlepei's shouting was somewhere in the distance, far away.
I donít know. I donít know!
Then I will show you. Come.
He followed her and bright vistas opened and he saw faces, giant ghost-ships where the white-faced vui stood in strange clothes the color of the vegetation, metal tubes in their hands. Giant birds circled overhead. Almost he could sense their closeness, could reach out and--
His eyes opened. Manlepei was standing above him holding a large leaf, mumbling words of enchantment in an angry voice. In Henry's arms the snake writhed and whispered and moaned. Manlepei hit the snake with the leaf.
Henry cried out. The leaf cut through the body of the snake, severing it, and as he watched, the snake in his arms changed yet again and became a creeper vine and fell from him, lying limply on the floor. Shaken, Henry pushed himself up. He had been so close....
"What did you do?" he said, despairingly, to Manlepei.
The uturgurgur grinned up at him and said, "I told you, big man. Beware the snakes!"
The aura of enchantment was dissipating. Henry brushed himself of earth and looked this way and that with unseen eyes. Then the image of Iro Lei came back into his mind and drove away the unwanted memories. Not looking back at the fallen Mai Tiratira he continued their climb; and Manlepei followed.
They had risen as high as they could rise and now were descending. They had climbed all the way up the mountain, passing at last through a level field overgrown with weeds and wild yams and it was raining, heavily. They walked barefoot, feet sinking in mud, the water rising to Henry's ankles and reaching the uturgurgur's waist. The mountain was like a bowl and they had reached its rim and now had to descend towards the lake and the fire-mountain rising within it. And as they did they began to hear the sounds.
It was a sound like the wind howling mournfully through a valley of bones. There was more than one voice but they were all one, and they were crying and laughing and their chatter was the chatter of the dead, endless and beyond comprehension. They climbed down through the steep harsh slope and the trees were everywhere and it was dark and wet. "We are not far now," Manlepei said. They trod cautiously, one step at a time. In the darkness all Henry could see was the faint glow of the mushrooms attached to Manlepei's nambas. The rain fell down in great heaving gusts and it was warm on Henry's skin. The voices of the dead were many and they spoke in many languages and once he thought he heard his own name called, but wasnít certain. They passed through a last row of trees and found the lake before them.
Lake Letas shimmered in the moonlight. From a height they could see the giant shapes moving slowly below the surface. Rising beyond the water was Mount Garat. Its sides were burned smooth. Sparks flew from its mouth and drifted on the currents of the air. Flames hissed up and licked the stars. The surface of the water was very still, a dark mirror showing stars. It was very quiet. No human lights, no human habitation disturbed that place.
They descended further and came to a large rock. When Henry put his hand against the stone it was warm, pulsating almost as if it were alive. There was old power in the stone and old power in the water and the night was filled with fleeing shadows and unreal echoes.
"Here I must leave you," Manlepei said, speaking softly, and Henry nodded.
They embraced, the small man and the big one.
"How will I cross the lake?" Henry said. Manlepei shook his head. "You must build a canoe," he said. "Unless you can walk on water."
They parted there, above the shores of Lake Letas. Manlepei disappeared into the trees and did not look back, and Henry was left alone. He sat with his back to the warm, breathing rock, and closed his eyes. He was very tired. He slept, and in his sleep he dreamed.
He dreamed he was a man called Henry, from a land called America, and that he could fly. The magic--the mana--of his people was so strong that it could lift both men and goods into the air. They had awesome weapons, barking fire and smoke. There was a war, and the other people also had the magic of flying and the magic of fire and so they used it against each other. A dark magic, nakaimas, death magic of the worst kind.
But he could fly. As he dreamed he was aware of lying on the hard ground above Lake Letas, the fire of Mount Garat illuminating the dark sky beyond his closed eyelids. He was aware of being bound to the ground, of being nothing more nor less than a man--and suddenly he craved flight, a glorious feeling as he sped along the ground and rose into the air, his wings spread out, lifting him high on currents of air....
He tossed and turned and moaned softly. Soft rain was falling and the ground felt muddy and soft and cool against his skin. He was flying inside the bird but something had gone wrong. The volcano rose before him and he lost control and the ground sped up towards him--
There had been a ball of fire erupting between the trees--
A man could not survive such a thing.
Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. The taste in his mouth was the taste of rain. He opened his eyes.
He was sitting propped up against the ancient rock. Lake Letas shimmered before him. He began to discern shapes across the water, as light as air. Insubstantial and indistinct, they had the vague shapes of humanity. They drifted across the water like flying lanterns and rose, slowly, gradually, towards Mount Garat, until they had become one with the volcano's flames.
Rain cooled on his skin. The dead drifted on the water, whispering their tales. He felt as heavy as a rock, as motionless as a tree. A pain erupted in his chest. His breathing was labored. He watched the lake and saw the giant eels swim underneath the surface like dark bullet shapes. Rising from the depths was a figure dwarfing them all.
He could not, later, give it shape. It rose from the lake like an eel; like a whale; like a squid; like a man. It rose like a storm, emerging out of the water and continuing upwards, at home amongst the spirits of the dead. It was enormous and insubstantial at once. It spoke. It said, "I am Wurisris."
Flames burst out of the mouth of Mount Garat and the spirit swelled, becoming a being part water, part flame. It hovered in the air between Henry and the volcano, as large as the lake, the dead drifting through it. "I am the spirit of this island, the guardian of the gate."
"Where do they go?" Henry said. It was hard to even move his lips. It was as if a heavy load was pressing down on him, making any physical action an impossible task. "The dead."
"Some go beyond," Wurisris said. "Some stay behind." Rainbows danced in the air before Henry, the merging of light and of water. "And some hover on the borderline, between one world and the next, lost, not knowing where they belong."
"And me?" Henry said--whispered. "Where do I belong?"
"Wurisris seemed to laugh. Prawns as large as coconuts scuttled on the rocks down below. "That is something only you can answer," he said.
Henry said, "This is the place where the world of the dead meets the world of the living, where the border is thinnest. Will you let me cross it, if I asked?"
"Would you ask?"
He thought of Iro Lei. His memories of the time before were dim. Were they important? He had dreamed he was a man named Henry Sleazar, of a land called America, but it was far away, and hidden behind clouds. What was there for him there, but flying?
"No," he said. And Wurisris laughed.
It danced across the surface of the lake, then split in two. Flame on one side. Water on the other. "Love is the weakest of human bonds," Wurisris said. "And yet..."
Lovers, Henry noticed, were all about him. The dead whispered of their still-living loved ones, or cried in startled joy as they were reunited with long lost loves. Fire and water, Letas and Garat. "Go beyond," Wurisris said. "You may pass the lake and not be harmed, but you may do so only once. This place is for the living, or the dead, and you are neither."
"Wait!" Henry said, but Wurisris only laughed. "If you have doubts seek out Surevuvu," it said.
The pressure eased at once off Henry's chest. The great shape rose into the sky, merged again into one, and poured down into the volcano, disappearing in the flames. The dead faded, slowly, gradually, until none were left and the surface of the water was serene and quiet. When Henry slept again he did not dream, and when he woke the sun had risen.
For three days and three nights he built a canoe.
In the pools of boiling mud on the side of the volcano he bathed, and in the waters of Letas. He ate the prawns that lived in the shallows, though he built no fire. The axe he used was the one the stranger had given him. It seemed to almost have its own mind. The canoe fashioned itself.
Each night he spoke with Wurisris.
Each night he listened to the stories of the dead.
Their voices never lasted past sunrise. Their meaning, once so full of thought, faded from his mind with the morning dew. Alone he was on the shores of Lake Letas, alone in all those miles of silence. When it rained he knelt in the mud and raised his arms high, above his head, letting the rain wash his naked body, watching all the while the dancing flames of Mount Garat.
On the fourth day he climbed inside the canoe and rowed across the lake, circumventing the volcano until he reached the other side. As he came to the shore he abandoned the canoe, and watched it sink, slowly, into the sulphur water of the volcanic lake. Dark shapes darted below....
He turned his back on lake and fire both and began to climb, heading to the west side of the island. Heading for the dread man-eater, Qasavara, and Iro Lei his lost love.
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012