art by Alan Bao
Don Sebastian's Treasure
by Colin Harvey
"There are no railways on Ceftanaloña," Isabella the tour guide insisted, cutting the conversation dead.
Rob wondered why her sullen monotone had suddenly erupted into vehemence. "This area is for Transport Museum staff only." She motioned him away from the workshop full of agricultural machinery, a lorry chassis, half-complete cars, even a ship's propeller. A mechanic looked up from the engine he was working on. She pointed to a sign saying "No visitors beyond this point" in English, Spanish, and local dialect.
"I'm sorry, I didn't notice it," Rob said. She couldn't prove otherwise, but the glare she gave him left him in no doubt what she thought of that excuse. "So you're saying that there is no railway locomotive?"
"There is no railway on Ceftanaloña," Isabella said, "so it makes no sense for there to be a locomotive. Surely you can see that?"
He wondered why she didn't say even you. "But there is a locomotive. I've seen the records on a previous visit." A lie: but she had no way of knowing that.
"There may be records," she conceded. "What they say may or may not be true. Nothing is as it seems on Ceftanaloña. Now, we must not run late." Her teeth flashed a white, patently insincere smile. "We want our visitors to experience all that Ceftanaloña has to offer."
On his return the rest of the group gazed at Rob. "Got lost looking for the wc," he whispered to the man nearest him, who stared at him blankly. Rob sighed. If there's no locomotive, he thought, it's going to be a very long day.
They emerged from the petrol-perfumed halls into Iraklades' main street. Several of them retreated a step, as if the fierce, dry heat physically pushed them backwards. One of the Americans muttered, "Sooner we get back to the ship, the better." Baked in the noonday summer sun, draped in a riot of red hibiscus, the white houses' plaster was blinding.
Isabella slipped back into tour guide mode. "Ceftanaloña lies halfway between Gibraltar and Atlantis. After lunch we visit Natural History Museum, where you will see many of the unique natural flora and fauna of the island. During the last ice age, elephants the size of cattle, and deer the size of elephants climbed like cats." She smiled. "We believe this because we found their fossilized bones in the cliffs."
Rob asked, "Why do you say 'believe'?"
A big American with a baseball cap moved between them, cutting off Isabella's reply. "Why can't we have lunch now? Why do we have to wait?" He asked querulously in a nasal whine.
"You must take this up with the tour company," Isabella said. "I do not set the times. They say we must be here now, and there then, so that is what we do." She said loudly, "Before lunch, we go to Main Square, the seat of Revolution of 1894. Careful, please." Rob liked the way she pronounced it "pliz." She admonished a small boy who put out a hand to touch a mirror glinting in the sunlight, "Metal is hot at this time of day. Should be siesta-time. Small boys then not touch mirrors."
Perhaps that's why she sounds so grumpy, Rob thought. Maybe she should be siesta-ing. He smiled at the thought.
"What is joke?" Isabella snapped.
"I was thinking…" Rob said, extemporizing, "that the island is a strange, almost magical place. I can see why people say time flows at different speeds here--sometimes slow, sometimes quick."
Isabella half-smiled, for the first time her eyes showing something other than scorn, as if he'd passed an exam. "Exactly." She turned her attention back to the group. "Follow, please."
She led the gaggle of tourists across the street. Rob glanced up at the distant mountains of the interior, shimmering in the haze. The land was as bleak as the old woman they passed; she was wrapped from head to foot in black, except for one dash of red, a scarf wrapped over her mouth. Her ice-blue eyes looked as old as the Jurassic. The lines on her forehead reminded him of the canyons cut into the foothills they'd passed, on the way from the harbor on the island's Eastern side. As they passed her, Rob caught a waft of garlic, and the rank smell of sweat and incontinence. Like Grandpa. He felt ashamed at thinking of the old man so, and irritated with himself. He's dead. You can't bring him back. Just get on with it. Enjoy the day, as he did.
Just before the siesta, an hour or so earlier, the tree-lined square of Plaza Major had been jammed. Scooters weaved in and out of honking cars and buses, their riders helmetless, women's hair billowing in the slipstream. Now the Square was empty but for the armed guards outside Congress House.
"This," Rob loved the way Isabella said it as "thees", "is Main Square, where Don Sebastian de Calderon died during the April 19th protests against increased taxes. His death, by a bullet through the heart from a Spanish rifleman, lit the fuse of the Revolution. This," she pointed to a bronze statue of a mounted man pointing a sword, "is Don Sebastian."
"How old was he?" An American matron asked. "Ah've heard that he lived a heckuva a long time."
Isabella waggled her head, as if unsure quite how to answer. "There are many legends about Don Sebastian. Some of us believe the name was passed down from father to son."
"So he wasn't immortal?" Another woman, this one British asked.
Isabella laughed contemptuously. "Next you'll ask if he actually found the Fountain of Youth?" She shook her head, her eyes flashing angrily. "You think us all superstitious fools?"
"So I guess there's no curse on his descendants, either," sighed another American.
"He had no children," Isabella said. "At least, no legitimate ones." Signaling that the conversation was closed, she continued, "So, here is our protest, this is where Don Sebastian is shot, for even the supposed," she snorted the word, "immortal cannot survive a bullet through the heart. The Ceftanaloñan Resistance declares him a martyr, and thousands take to the streets. The Spanish send reinforcements, and as the Resistance arm themselves, an armada sails from Spain. Imagine, hundreds and hundreds of boats set off from the Spanish ports, their engines chugging, smoke belching from their funnels, while the iron sidings that had been delivered to Cartanova were melted down to make guns."
"But--" Rob said as she shot him an amused glance, as if to say, that's why there's no railroad, dummy.
"Yes?" She asked.
"Nothing," Rob said, turning away.
A bandy-legged old woman lurched across the square. She must be at least seventy, Rob thought. She wore black widow's weeds, and her eyes were rheumy. Several of the tourists edged away from her, as she began singing in pidgin Ceftanaloñian and Spanish, to an odd, discordant tune, her voice cracked and reedy.
Isabella hissed, and gabbled in patois too fast for Rob to follow, even the Spanish parts. Her tone was both hectoring and anxious, and she licked her lips, and looked around, like a small animal trapped in a corner.
He hesitated. What if she snaps my head off? But he interrupted. "Can I do anything to help?" He said, so quietly that no one else should hear.
"No, is okay," Isabella murmured, looking sheepish and sick with worry. "She's my Mama." She added, "She's not been well. She has the forgetting sickness."
He didn't understand at first. "Oh, you mean Alzheimer's."
"Si. Today was to have been her day at el clinico, but I had to cancel when that Pedro rang in about his chest. Always it is 'heh-heh,'" she mimicked a feeble cough. "So we will take her next week. I had to leave her. She must have got out somehow." She gripped her hair, as if wanting to tear handfuls of it out. "If I leave the tour, I lose my job. But if I let her wander loose…"
"I'll sit with her in the shade for a few minutes, if that will help," he offered. "While you run the group round the square."
"You would?" She stared at him in amazement, which darkened to suspicion. "Why? You have a… thing for old women?"
His laugh was stained with shock. "Never offer help," he said bitterly. "That's the British way. Maybe we're right not to."
She reached out and put a hand on his forearm, and he felt a tiny, pleasant little shock. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not used to the kindness of strangers."
"I'm surprised," he said. "A friendly girl like you."
She clearly didn't understand sarcasm. "Men, they want one thing, to add you to their list of conquests. Those who stay around, they soon run away, when they find out about Mama." Then she added contritely, "Thank you."
Rob said nothing, abashed by her gratitude. "It's hard to look after a parent alone." She must have had you late, he thought, but didn't say it. He stared at the old woman who avoided Isabella's gaze, but wandered round her, an old moon orbiting the earth. Mama crooned, and mumbled to herself, then caught Rob's eye, and smiled shyly.
"My brothers are all married with families," Isabella said. "Their wives want no part of looking after Mama, especially as she may live for years and years yet." She noticed his look of surprise. "She's only forty-eight." She lowered her gaze, "Just twice my age."
His shock must have shown. Isabella laughed. "Creation myth says that women are created from metamorphic rock to keep men, who are created from volcanic rock, company; metamorphic rock ages very quickly. So do women on Ceftanaloña. Or maybe," she said, "it's the gods punishing Don Sebastian for stealing the Water of Life--if you believe such tales."
"The islanders like stories," Isabella said. She sounded disinterested; then he realized that she was distracted, was watching the group scatter, boredom eroding their valence. She's probably been anxious all morning, he thought. What you thought was surliness was probably near-panic.
"Look," he said. "I'll sit here with her in plain sight. Si, senora?" He asked Mama. "You sit here with me?"
"Oh, Paco," Mama said in Spanish. "You are such a fast boy. You'll want a kiss next."
"Paco was my Papa," Isabella explained. "She sometimes thinks I'm her Mother, sometimes that I'm her neighbor from many years ago." She pondered, caution clearly at war with desperation. "She seems to like you." She switched to conventional Spanish, speaking slowly for Rob's benefit. "You will sit here with the nice man? Watch los touristis walk round the Square?" Rob took the old lady's other arm, and they led her to a seat.
"Why are you doing this?" Isabella asked Rob, but smiling now.
"Atonement." He turned to Mama, who watched the world with bird-bright eyes which held no spark of recognition of her surroundings.
He inhaled the sweet smell of the honeysuckle hedge, and tried to empty his mind. Sitting beside Mama required him to sit in a zen-like state, neither awake nor asleep, allowing her endless chatter to wash over him like the tide. It was best not to answer, he'd found when his mother was in the end-state of the disease. Just let her hold up both ends of the conversation.
He watched Isabella round up her scattered flock. Watched the sway of her hips, the slim legs, her elegant hand waving. Occasionally, she would look his way, and nod slightly, as if he'd passed another test. When Mama's torrent of speech slowed to a mere babble, he even caught fragments of Isabella's monologue.
"…Don Sebastian supposedly found gold in the mountains, and wanted to build a railway to bring it down. Iron was imported from Great Britain…" The breeze swung round, carrying her spiel away. She lapped the square with the group, before coming back into range. "…You can take pictures, or you can visit one of the many cafes on the side streets around the Square."
She stood in front of Rob and Mama and asked, "She has been okay? No problems?"
"No, none." Rob smiled up at her. "What are you going to do now?" She shrugged, looking desolate. "Do you want me to sit with her while you show them around the Natural History Museum?"
"That would be unfair on you."
He shrugged. "I only came to see the locomotive that you tell me doesn't exist."
"Go, have some lunch," she said, pressing his shoulder. "I'll sit with her here in the shade. Think of what I'm going to do."
"I have a better idea," he said, grinning.
Ten minutes later he returned with a paper bag. He swung it triumphantly. "Lunch."
They ate in companionable near-silence only broken by Mama, plucking anxiously at her wristwatch with thick sausage-like fingers, and muttering to herself.
"What do you need to atone for?" Isabella asked.
He said, "Atonement was probably too strong a word. A little melodramatic."
Isabella mumbled around a mouthful of baguette. She swallowed. "You don't like melodrama?" The corner of her mouth twitched.
He wondered how he looked to her. Thirty-five going on fifty, he thought. He knew he was no oil painting. Nose too big and fleshy, lips too thin, ears mismatched. "We accountants distrust it," he said, smiling back, wiping his receding hairline. "Atonement for… well, my grandfather brought me up. Dad died when I was young. Mum had Alzheimer's." He tried to shut out memories of her sudden furies, the Christmas Day she brandished a kitchen knife at him, screaming for him to get out. What twelve-year old could understand that? Even now, the memory knotted his gut.
"Ow," Isabella said. "Is bad. I'm sorry." She reached out and touched his arm, and he stopped breathing for a moment.
"I was brought up by my Grandpa," he said. "But I moved away when I went to Uni… I didn't go back often enough when he was alive."
He shook his head. "I'm never quite right for the women I like, or they're never quite right for me."
She smiled, and said teasingly, "I guess you distrust passion, too?" He couldn't meet her smile. It was too strong. She frightened him with the ferocity of her emotions. "So," Isabella said, practical again. "I must meet the group, at the Natural History Museum." It could have been the shadows, but she seemed to have aged since that morning--crow's feet suddenly seemed to line her eyes.
"I'll stay here," Rob insisted.