art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat: Part 5
by Lavie Tidhar
Fireflies gathered like stars over the dark water. Henry sat with his feet in the sea. A strange lethargy overwhelmed him. He felt listless and turbulent, like the sea as it recedes before the giant wave after an earthquake.
The day before he had gone to his nakamal, in the village of Alo Sephere. All was as it had always been, and his wife Iro Lei waited for him there. And yet she was not the same Iro Lei, and she did not know him. They had spoken and she had offered him roasted crab and a baked yam, but the offer was made to a stranger. At last he thanked her and left, not looking back.
Her story had ended, it seemed to him, or at least the part of the story that merged into his own. He was alone again, his brothers scattered back to their own nakamals, and he alone did not know where he belonged.
"Qat! Qat!" called a bird. Henry raised his head and saw it come flying down and settle on the sand beside him. Absentmindedly he picked at the coconut at his feet and fed the bird on the soft white meat inside. The bird pecked from his hand and swallowed greedily. When he next looked to his side the bird had gone and a man was in its place.
He squatted on the sand and grinned up at Henry and said, "You are caught between the one world and the other, vui."
"I am not a vui," Henry said. But he wondered if he was right.
The man's grin beside him only grew wider. "I will help you," he said.
"You cannot remain here," the man said. "For this is not your story. You must go to Surevuvu, the hill of the dead, and there seek your answers."
In Henry's mind there came the image of a hill shining a white light, and the roads of the spirits, of the vui, criss-crossing the sky as they merged into that hill. On that hill there was a door, and perhaps it could be opened--but he feared what lay beyond.
"How?" he said at last. He threw the remains of the coconut into the water, where they floated.
"You must find the great conch of Qat," the man told him. "And blow it three times, and a road will open."
"Where will I find it?" Henry said--but the man had disappeared, and a solitary bird flew high above the rocks and was then gone.
In the village of Mosina he asked where Qat's conch could be found, and received many answers. When he mentioned Surevuvu the men fell silent and the women looked at him disapprovingly. In the bay children played in the water, becoming fish then children back again. He walked along the shore then and the water was a brilliant green-blue expanse and the sands were white and hot under his feet. The sun beat down on his darkening skin.
At last he came to the small island that lies just beyond the point, an uninhabited speck of ground covered in a confusion of trees. He crossed the shallow water to the island and wandered deeper into the forest until he came to a clearing, and there he sat.
How long he sat there he didnít know. His mind emptied, became the sounds of the sea. When he opened his eyes again his name came floating up to the surface, like a corpse that had gone down to the bottom for too long.
He said, "My name is Henry."
From far away a whisper, accompanied by images--"Caesar of the Air..."--him in a metal bird, flying high above the islands, free, free as heíd never been before.
He felt at peace then, on that tiny island off the coast. "My name is Henry," he said again, but there was no conviction in his voice.
That night he slept on the small island with only the ants and the trees for company, and dreamed of flocks of shining birds engaging in a fight high in the sky. He dreamed of a metal monster rising from the waves and the birds flying down at it. He dreamed the smell of fire and of burning flesh and smoke and saltwater, of the birds circling in triumph, of the broken monster sinking back under the waves, of corpses washing on the shore, of men with sad, haunted slanted eyes....
When he woke up it was morning, and the air was cool, and he knew then what he must do.
He still had the axe and he set about building a canoe. He cut down a large tree and the work progressed well and at the end of the day the canoe was all but complete.
He slept, but when he woke the canoe was gone and the tree he had cut down was standing whole again, and again Henry cut it down, and again he built his canoe.
The next morning the canoe was gone and the tree stood whole again.
Henry laughed, and once again set to cut down the tree and build his canoe. But this time, when he was done, he kept one small shard from the side of the canoe. He kept it in his hand, and the canoe was incomplete. Then, rather than sleep, he lay in wait.
Marawa had seen the strange vui come to his island and had seen him cut down his tree and was not pleased, and so when the vui slept he had taken apart the canoe and reassembled the tree as it always stood. This night, however, one piece was still missing. He began to search for it, here, there, but wherever he looked he couldnít find it.
Frustrated, he became a man again, and at that moment felt a heavy weight fall down on him from above.
Henry had seen the giant spider crawl out, had seen him take apart the wood and make the tree, and watched as it became a small, white-haired man who gnawed his lips in frustration. He hid high above, in the branches of a burau tree. Now, sensing his opportunity, he jumped--
The scuffle was short and the old man gave in easily, winded by the impact. "Donít hurt me!" he said. As he spoke his shape shifted, spider to old man to spider. "And I will build your canoe for you."
"I wish to find the shell of Qat," Henry said, and Marawa smiled and said, "It is in Sanara."
"Help me build my canoe," Henry said, "and I wonít harm you."
And so it was, and the next day the canoe was ready to set sail--though the distance was not far.
"You must follow the coast for only a short while," Marawa the Spider told him. "With Vanua Lava on your left and the small island of Pakea on your right. Go almost to the point, where the black rocks hulk. There is a land there, a shallow bay of dazzling white sand, where the fish gather in the warmth of the rock pools to dream the day into night. It is a place of sweet coconuts and sweeter crab and lobster in the water. There you will find Qat's shell."
And so Henry set sail in the canoe, and the old spider scuttled back into the shelter of the trees, and Henry did not see him again.
He sailed with Vanua Lava on his left and the small island of Pakea on his right, and it was not long before he came to the place. He set the canoe adrift and it returned on the current to the small island beside Mosina but there it floundered, and changed, and became black rocks in the shape of a canoe, rising above the water.
Henry caught fish with his bare hands in the warm water of Sanara, and roasted them on a fire, and drank coconuts. And as the sun was setting he did indeed find the shell of Qat, a large conch as of some giant, unknown creature of the sea, long gone from it. He put the shell to his mouth and blew on it, once, twice, three times, and the sound was clear and pure and carried for a great distance.
The echoes of it traveled around the island stirring up restless ghosts.
When Henry laid down the conch it became a large rock. There was still a hole in it, and it was besides hollow, and when he put his lips to the hole and blew, a final note came out, and it was the strongest and purest of them all.
When he looked at the sky night had set, and the stars came out, and he could see more clearly than ever before the shining pathways of the spirits in the sky, and in the distance the hill of the dead, Surevuvu, beyond the peak of the Vanua Lava volcano.
A path, too, had opened before Henry. It was a path of light, narrow and twisting, and he followed it, up the steep hill above Sanara, through the forest where the uturgurgur dwelt, and up again--not to Surevuvu, but to the hill called Leserser.
It was very quiet and very dark up on Leserser and gloomy between the trees. They crowded close together, shutting out the sky, the stars, all sound and light gone in that hushed place. The spirit road terminated there, and Henry, weary after his journey, lay down on the ground and fell asleep.
A vui came and visited him in his sleep.
He dreamed he was a man called Hawthorn, a white man with a thick dark beard, who lived on the hill. Hawthorn lived on top of a giant tree and watched out to sea, always watching for ghost ships. There were two kinds of vui in the dream and they were fighting each other. He dreamed he was Hawthorn twisting and turning in his makeshift bed on top of the tree, twisting and turning as he, in turn, dreamed that he was awake, alone in the dark forest, and that he saw a ghost.
"Henry?" he whispered. "Is that you?"
He looked at his hands and they were very white. "Henry we heard you were lost over Gaua. Henry, they said there was a crash, a squadron returning from the attack on the Japanese submarine. Henry--"
He dreamed he was a man called Hawthorn, a white man with a thick beard, who was quite obviously mad. Hawthorn had lived in the forest for too long, been alone for too long, been watching the sea for too long and was no longer even sure he really was Hawthorn, Cpl. Edgar H., serial number 7086580. "Henry," he whispered. "Henry, how they torment me. Qat and Qasavara and the little people of the bush. The flying women and the snake-women and the wizards and all the rest of them. So many. I had not known there were so many. Henry is that really you?"
But he did not answer, and the ghost of Hawthorn sighed amidst the trees, a solitary pale-white shape, and after a while it disappeared amidst the trees and Henry turned over in his sleep and sank into a darker slumber into which neither dreams nor vui came.
"Husband," said Iro Lei, "your play has gone on for long enough."
Qat laughed and the fire danced higher, shooting sparks into the sky. "A ghost," he said, "from another time and place, and how could I resist?"
Iro Lei's eyes were soft and thoughtful, and she said, "He loved me. He loved me truly."
"As do I," Qat said.
She said, "This is no laughing matter!"
But Qat only laughed again, paying her no heed. Iro Lei said, "You have trapped him in a dream not of his own dreaming."
"His choice," Qat said. "Not mine."
By blowing on the ancient conch the white vui could only follow the ghost road laid down before him. "His story is bound into the story of the islands, now," Qat said. "He will never leave."
"The story of the islands is your story," she told him. "Our story. He has no place in it."
But Qat's face grew dark like the sky above a restless sea and he said, "His, too, is the story of the islands. The story of war, the story of conquest. Why should he be let off, wife? It cannot be that you--"
"That I, what?" she said, challenging him.
"That you have fallen for this pale ungainly ghost," he said.
She laughed then, but there was a hollow sound to her merriment.
Qat said, "I am going fishing," and rose and stretched. Iro Lei watched him go. Then, becoming an owl, she beat her wings and cried into the night and, having risen high, swooped down in an arc towards the hill Leserser.
How long he wandered through that dark forest he did not know. Time lost its meaning, as did light. He was caught in a dream that frightened him. Ghostly soldiers marched through the trees, and giant birds flew above and threw down eggs that exploded open with flame. He kept finding debris of a long-ago war. Curious glass bottles and rusted metal barrels and bullets in the earth. He did not know where the words came from. A part of him knew these things, even knew them well. Somewhere he had lost his way, had followed a false trail. He kept dreaming he was a man called Hawthorn who was mad, who dreamed he was a man called Henry Sleazar who had been lost over the sea, missing in action, presumed dead.
Dead, the voices whispered in the trees. Dead. Dead.
He cried out but none heard him. The trees became a twisting never-ending maze and he followed it blindly. The ghosts came out and danced around him, tamates hidden behind their masks. Black-and-white snakes came and watched him and became dark women who smiled and reached their hands to him, yet when he came closer they were gone.
A bird came sometimes and perched on a branch and crowed laughter at him. he tried throwing stones at it but it flew away and then came back, laughing all the while.
Iro Lei watched him from the shadow of the trees and her heart ached inside for him.
She carried with her a tamate tiqa, a ghost-shooter. It was a long straight bamboo rod, filled with magic. She watched Henry come near. She ached to reach out and touch him. Instead she threw the tamate tiqa at him.
She saw him catch it, looking bewildered.
For a moment he thought he saw the outline of a woman standing silently between the trees.
She crowed once, a choked sound as of a woman swallowing back tears.
But there was nothing there.
A bird flew away towards Ulo Sephere.
It was a gun, it seemed to him in his confused state. His mind supplied the details. An old, single-shot carbine, the metal rusted, the wood worn dark and smooth. He was a soldier. He must patrol. He must watch out to sea, and warn his people when the ghost-ships came from the land of the rising sun.
Unmeasured paces in the dark. The trees a maze, Henry wandering through it. Insects bit his arms, his feet, his chest. He was guarding--against whom, or what, he no longer knew.
Sun rise, sun set. San I go ap, san I go daon. The language came to him like a sing-song. Once, he could speak it.
But it belonged in the other world.
An explosion of laughter. A dark bird crowed at him from a branch. He stared at it. For just a moment it seemed to him a man was standing there, on the branch, looking down at him, laughing. Tears streamed out of his eyes. Henry raised the carbine. The tamate tiqa fired, just the once.
An explosion of feathers. Qat fell from the tree, the magic broken. He watched the vui just stand there, looking bewildered at the bamboo rod in his hands. Qat shook his head and spat out a feather. "Oh, wife," he said. Then he laughed and walked away from the strange vui. There were other adventures to be had, other practical jokes to pull. For he was Qat, and these were his islands, this was his world. And perhaps, he thought, it was time for the vui to depart from it after all.
Now that he could see he saw that he had merely been dreaming, a sad uncomfortable dream that had trapped him there on Leserser in the dark. He threw the bamboo rod on the ground and walked away from Leserser, dreams of men in trees and metal monsters in the sea forgotten. Beyond rose the volcano, belching steam, a more gentle source of fire than Mount Garat, and beyond the volcano itself lay the hill called Surevuvu, the hill of the dead, and so he made to go there.
He passed under sky a deep clear blue, under a hot yellow sun that banished shadows. He had never been able to see so clearly before. Every speck of foam upon the sea, every shark familiar swimming in the shallows. He saw a pod of dolphins and a single child pushing a canoe across the calm water of the bay. He saw two birds rise into the sky, where they met and circled and flew away together. He smelled the rich, dark earth and the sea in the distance, smelled the evergreen forest and the mulch and growth and rot within. He smelled men's sweat and the smoke from cooking fires, and crabs boiling in a pot on the fire. From far away he smelled oil upon metal, and a different kind of smoke, but that may have only belonged to the dream still.
At nightfall he came to Surevuvu.
He walked cautiously, hesitantly amidst the dead.
The hill shone a blinding white light and upon it the dead danced, women and men and children, all the spirits of the island, all those who had lived and died in this world of Qat, this world of endless ocean and evergreen forests, of islands as beautiful as beauty can only be in dreams. He picked his way amongst them.
He shied away from a group of the living who had come to Surevuvu. Here they joined the dance, men of flesh and men of spirit dancing with each other in the Rusrus DengŤ, where the departed can say their final goodbye to the living. He walked, not knowing what he sought, but knowing it was close--a door, a gate, an opening into--
Another place and time where he belonged.
He saw a group of short men with slanted eyes. They wore strange, faded uniforms. When he approached them they shied away from him, and one pointed an accusatory finger and said, "You killed us."
"You came with the others, swooping down low, twenty or thirty flyers in your shining metal birds. You dropped your loads on us. We were helpless in the water. We had come up for air in our vessel. We were lost. The war had already been lost, and no one told us. The explosions burst open our hull. Our bodies washed out to the beach at Sanara. We are the dead, your dead. You killed us."
But he passed them and said nothing, looking at them only sideways, with vague unease. In his dreams there had been a metal monster rising from the sea and he was flying high above it, and the scent of battle was on the wind, and he had felt--
He had been exhilarated. And when the monster was defeated he had turned his plane and flew back to base, passing the island of Gaua on the way--
There had been an explosion.
He had crashed--
"No," he said. "No."
His name was Henry Sleazar. They had called him Caesar. Caesar of the Air. He was a pilot, seconded to III Island Command. He remembered arriving from the war in Europe in that bright, dazzling bright archipelago, of white sand beaches and coconut trees. He had been wounded in Europe....
"No," he said. "No."
But the memories continued to come. The Japanese submarine, Hawthorn on Leserser watching out for the ships from his treetop hideaway. The uturgurgur...
"Yes," a voice said.
She stood there like a promise. The way she had stood and watched him every time he flew the small seaplane to Vanua Lava, bringing supplies for Hawthorn and his coast watchers. She had always watched him from a distance, a mysterious shape, always gone before he could come near.
"Iro Lei," he said.
"Henry," she said, and there was wonder in her voice.
"This is not my world," he said. Regret and sadness mingled in his mind. She nodded, slowly. "No," she agreed.
"I had thought you dead."
"And this is the place of the dead," she said, but she smiled as she said it. "I belong to ancient stories," she said. "And stories do not live or die the way people do. We are reborn with each telling, alive for as long as the people remember us, and tell of us around the fire."
"I am glad," he said, "that for a short time I was a part of yours."
"You have your own story," she told him, her eyes sad. "You must return to finish it."
"Go where?" he said. "A place and time of war I do not understand?"
And an image rose in his mind then, there on Surevuvu, on the hill of the dead. A vast and mammoth cloud rising, far away, over another island, a cloud mushroom-shaped and dark and evil, and he shuddered, and when he opened his eyes she was looking at him with concern.
Then it passed, and she smiled at him, in reassurance or compassion it was hard to tell. "You do not need to understand," she told him. "Merely live. Each life is its own story."
Perhaps she sounded sad. "Come," she said.
She reached for him, and took his hand. It was warm in his.
He followed her.
There was the sound of tam-tams, nearby, growing stronger, the beat of the drums mixing with the beat of the surf down the hill, with the pounding heart of the volcano and with the thunder in the sky.
Above their heads the rain clouds gathered. Lightning flickered like black-and-white snakes across the sky. A storm was coming, a tropical storm to wash away pain.
They stood at the top of Surevuvu and watched out, and he could see the islands, all the islands, Gaua with its rising volcano and Mota with its shape like a hat, sprawling Mota Lava and great Ureparapara far away.
He spread his arms out. The rain began to fall, touching his naked skin. It was a warm rain. "Fly," she told him.
He looked at her, mute, but already she was fading, and he was alone, and himself again.
He was Henry, Caesar of the Air. He closed his eyes and felt the warm winds lift him up, above Surevuvu, above Vanua Lava.
For the first time in his life, he truly flew.
This story was first published on Friday, July 27th, 2012