«Légendaire.»39 min read
Having seen the reggaezzi perform, the righteous of Sea-john shake their heads in wonder. They will then murmur severally or as one, «Légendaire.»
The cavalcade forms up. In beats, without words, the drummers argue a bass line. While higher registers wait in silence, contraltos and bassos scat and moan, improvising the tune (the lyrics never change). The soulful melodies these deeper voices come up with are much too cool, and none capture the hot quiddity of their subject. “Make dat shit bump, y’all,” a counter-tenor exhorts. “Put some stank on it!” So the music picks up funk and swing. A girl bounces and stretches with the other dancers. They have black skin, or brown, or golden; hers is gray, waxen, and flyblown. What ails this girl, her bones slipping so weirdly in raddled tissues? It’s death: she died three days ago. But so long as weary flesh lasts she has the right to choose it over imperishable spirit. Thus can her body rise again, and she dance tonight with living brethren. The boy she loved, dead these years, not days, reappears as another name among the beautiful lights, and plays guitarra with the same prodigy as before, when he lived. Dancers up front, players and singers trailing, they’ll process down Mevilla, the witches’ hill, and up and over the great breasts of the Mother, middle hill crowded with shanties of the poor, and onward to the furthest hill of Sea-john, Dolorosa, where rich families live in gardened houses and foreign powers keep grand embassies. A boy nicknamed El Supremo is about to join their host—he lies tossing in his bed, way over on that easternmost hill. No one will see this parade pass, few hear it. The performance is for that one boy alone, whom the reggaezzi will gather to their number at last, tonight.
From the roof you can see the world. Downhill, north: the Kingdom is dark, except where yellow licks the darkness. Some torch or lamp burns here and there as far as the horizon. The southern view is the ocean, entirely dark save for two moons out at sea: one true, clear and still in heaven’s vault; another false, dappled and shuddering on the vast black waters. The swelter lifts—a gust of sea breeze gives her goosebumps. But the filthy heat settles right back down. Some man is kissing her son under the archway of the house gate.
Is this how matters stand now, with tongue and teeth? In aid of asphyxiation, of cannibalism, more than love? All that biting! The moon’s so bright, she feels implicated in the sloppy grapple below. Why does the boy let that man grab and handle him so? When she lies down with her husband or with her wife, the love’s never harsh or ugly. Back when she and Jahs were as young and foolish as their son is today, even then, in the raw passion of first kisses, softness and respect were foremost. But now a caress and tenderness must be relics, not what youth want.
Night-bees flicker throughout the house garden. Below, the lime trees are all in flower, and green lights dim and kindle among the blossoms.
The boy utters little cries in his attacker’s arms, though hardly in distress. Dance usually does so much better by professional bodies: thickening the thighs, making the back and arms formidable. It’s just too bad la dança will whittle that rare body down, to all fine bones and no spare flesh. Her son—
“Ma’am?” Cook whispers from the stairwell to the roof. “Miss Savary? Duh baby just got in, safe. I wanted you to know. Dey out by the gate, him and his gentleman.”
“Yes, Cook. Thank you.” Savary sighs, and rolls the hulled berries from her skirts into the bowl. “Why don’t you go on to your room now, dear, and rest? We can finish up in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cook says. “Tank you, Miss.” And the stairs groan back downwards.
The lover has remounted his horse. He wears the fine black robe of a nobleman from the Kingdom; but also the cornrowed hair of a soldier, and one who’s seen action too, by those many bead-necklaces. He pats the hair of the boy clinging to his leg. (At last, a little tenderness!) They murmur intimacies Savary cannot make out from the roof, in accents of the language she forsook for this one spoken in the hills.
The lover rides away and the boy comes up the moonlit garden toward the house. Stumbling dreamily, still he cuts no figure but a dancer’s. Savary gets up, holding the bowl. The sons of other mothers are fumbling at first love, safely, with local boys and girls. Hers is virtuoso of the best troupe in Sea-john, and snaps brusque fingers at musicians twice his age during performance. He’s off giving shows, most nights, at some palace in the Kingdom. Savary makes her way downstairs into the candlelit interior.
Her wife and husband have long since gone to bed. They made their peace years ago in the household war; they came to terms. Not Savary! The young will post headlong down perilous roads, dreaming they’re on the way to adventure, en route to love: someone must tell them, “No, wait, you’ve turned wrong. Nothing lies down that way but heartbreak and disaster.” Jahs says But, my love, his new friends are those same fils-de-roi who buy a yacht from me. That boat, Savary—a whim of theirs!—keeps our family well for a year. If the boy runs away, he can go to the shelter of some palace. What can we offer a virtuoso? His family’s love, just our love, and a room in the house where he was born. Better not to fuss and fight, better to keep the boy near us, surely?
Well, yes, Savary agrees. But…
A son too talented and too headstrong isn’t a problem of temporal power, upon which her immortal husband could, perhaps, work an easy miracle. Rather it’s a problem of the sort all souls suffer passing through the vale of tears, before which Redamas is as helpless as any mortal. Still, Savary pleads to him: But, you, Redy—can’t you do something?
I’m just a god, Redamas says, not God.
Savary stows the berries in the cold cellar at the back of the pantry. By now, the boy is in the kitchen too, reaching down a cup from the shelves of fancy-glass. He looks over the table’s vast clutter, and underneath, searching for the palm wine jar. Which is right beside Savary in the pantry; she picks it up.
There’s almost nothing of his father in him, so much of her: brown and tender of skin too, and with his shirt gaping open beau-boy-style she sees a red-violet narrative of hands and teeth scrawled across his neck and torso. Not for the first time Savary thinks, my little boy’s the one they’re calling “El Supremo?” If only he were strapping like his sister, six-foot something. If only his papa’s divinity had come down to him too—no worries then! Somewhere abroad, his sister’s hunting a beast with the fell name Assassin of Cities. But Maman has no worries there. You’ve only once to see the god whom you birthed smack aside thunderbolts, and rout dragons, thereafter to save the worrying for your mortal child.
He looks his age: the baby softness long gone, no mannish thickening yet. Sixteen.
“Weren’t you supposed to give a show for some big muckety-muck tomorrow?” Savary steps from the pantry shadows, into the candle-bright kitchen. “Since when can you dance, all eaten up like that, in front of the Kingdom’s uptight nobility?” She gestures at the lewd bounty of his bruises.
“Oh, Maman!” The boy jumps and squeaks, a charming flutter. “You scared me.” He comes to hug her and Savary’s own arm takes him in tenderly, at once. How else? He smells of costly soap, sandalwood and rose attar; a light odor of horses, also expensive. He kisses her cheek and they part. Quick as crime, his hands do up his shirt laces, hiding the bulk of purple evidence. “Of course I’ll be in a robe and mask, Maman! We’re performing devotions to the Saints out-of-doors. Nothing hootchie en chambre.”
She offers; he takes the jar.
Savary follows him to the table where the cup waits—her eyes on the lovebites above his collar. It’s just too much! “But why would you want some awful man from over there? And worse, a kingson!”
“Oh, Maeqal’s not royal issue, Maman.” Complicated jewelry, some new thing, hangs about his neck. One chain, fingerthick, entwined by others, hairsbreadth fine. Not silver: the metal glints whiter and more matte.
“No?” Savary frowns. “I thought he was one of the Old Man’s half-thousand.”
The boy hums a negative. “And the King only ever had 114 sons, really. A good third of those”—speaking lightly, he jiggles loose the jar’s stopper—“were lost to the wars and fratricides. Maeqal’s neither son nor grandson. Exceedingly wonderful to me, of course: but he’s nobody up at Court.”
His eloquent hands, this temperate tone, the sheer mildness of him make it difficult for Savary to recall the conflict, to retain it. You can almost see how one small boy comes and goes in safety among absolute powers.
“Well, anyway,” Savary says, feeling obscurely finessed. “I thought we’d agreed on an early evening, just this once.” She strokes a hand across the blades of his back. “I thought you weren’t going over to the Kingdom tonight.” His shirt’s such fine stuff—light as linen, soft as silk.
“Oh …” He looks, surprised, over his shoulder. “I didn’t! The troupe only ran through a couple new songs, then we did the early show at Blue Moon. A short set. It was fun, just playing around for once, goofing off.” Nowadays the boy’s too brazen to bother about lying. He’ll commit his mischief upfront, and make nice apologies afterwards, as necessary. Even so, a staggering sum of hours remains unaccounted for, in this version of events. Late afternoon, all the evening, very deep into night; rose will tint the skies, soon enough.
Savary’s temper frays again. “Then how is it you’re falling up in here so long after midnight bells?”
He grins. To some less happily married woman, it would doubtless seem a smile of general joy, not specifically fucked-out bliss. “Maeqal showed up at the Blue Moon for the show,” the boy says. “And we … chilled for a while, afterwards.”
Savary’s not ready for such a smile on the face of her younger child, the baby. Bitterly she says, “Just how old is that kingson of yours, anyway?”
The boy grimaces. “Oh, Maman—Cook’s let the palm wine go again. You really ought to speak with him. This is almost vinegar!”
“Boy, I asked you a question.”
He gives her his full attention. “First cousin of the Royal Blood, Thrice-removed, Twice-returned on the Matrilineal Line, His Excellency, Maeqal son of Oaqim lacks something for thirty, I believe.” His left hand signs “approximately” while the right tips fancy-glass to his lips. “Twenty-eight years old?” The boy makes another face. “Twenty-nine? You’ll remember they count birthdays differently in the Kingdom, but one year more or less, I always forget.”
A year less. Savary stops herself from saying so, because of course he already knows. This is just more of that bafflement—decorative, feigned—lately adorning his speech.
She tries some rhetoric of her own. “Oh, the Saints must weep for his poor lady wife! What can she be thinking, I wonder, with her man creeping over here to Sea-john all the time, spending late-nights with scrumptious young virtuosi?” With a start, Savary realizes they’ve switched to the language of the Kingdom. After all this time, it trips off her son’s tongue with an ease surpassing her own, and she was born there, he up here, in the hills.
“Aréienne hasn’t danced in two years. She’s writing a song-cycle, her knees hurt, and very soon now she’ll have her baby. And La Pablo fell in love; he sailed away with the ambassador from Kidan. So if Maeqal wants a virtuoso, he must come to me. And scrumptious, Maman? Thank you! There’s no lady wife as yet, either. I wouldn’t have a married man. But you, Maeqal’s father, and all his clan patricians, are remarkably in accord—that noblemen his age should be married, that his run of freedom is getting long and needs to end. Before they muttered, but now his family is shouting: exile, disinheritance, excommunication, they say, if Maeqal fails to marry before the next Long Rains.”
“There! You see?” Savary cries. “That’s what they do over in the Kingdom. Up here, we Johnnys love who we want. Can’t you see what comes of messing around with some kingson?”
“Kingcousin only, Maman. A minor one.” He’s blasé, or just tired, but anyway deflects her every word with suave hands and chatter. “Now his children, they will be born ‘Full First,’ if Maeqal’s mother can fix a wife for him out of the daughters of the Royal Concubinage.” He sips, making faces.
Johnnys treat one another tenderly. But over in the Kingdom you went for blood in any conflict—more so with the ones you loved. After all this time in Sea-john, Savary still cannot pull her blows enough. “So will you be marrying him too, then?” She sneers. “You and this king’s-daughter?”
One day, maddened by remorse, she will rant at her wife, describing how the boy looks at her now, and Jahs will say, “No, my love, no. He wouldn’t want that …” but Savary never does forgive herself for the hurt she causes, his look of betrayal.
“If anyone, Maman, I thought you …” The boy stops. He begins again, without tremolo. “Can we not try to be kind to each other? You know perfectly well they marry one man, one woman, in the Kingdom.”
She wants to make her son see, to choose more wisely; not to hurt him. In a rush, Savary says, “Whatever happened to that wonderful Johnny boy you used to run around with? The carpenter from the boatyard? Oh, you two were lovely together! Kéké was his name, I think. Why not—”
She cuts herself off. For it seems her big mouth has hit on some name that had better been left unspoken. Her son’s face wrings with such suffering as who could want for her own child, and Savary’s at a loss to respond because she’s one of those who have only ever won in love, gained and gained, and never lost. She says, “Oh, sweetheart,” and repeats that as she strokes circles on his back.
“I can’t talk—” His voice clots with emotion. “—about Kéké. I really wish you wouldn’t, Maman, please.” He sets his cup on the table, and briskly recovers nonchalance—or its semblance. “Tomorrow’s a big day for us, and I’m very tired. It’s our first show for the Queen Mother herself, at the Royal Pavilion.” On his face, Savary sees resolve, finality. “So, if you’ll excuse me?” Not actually waiting on any sign from her, the boy gently brushes by to take the stairs to his room.
Savary watches him up. She suffers a strange, fey moment: catching a glimpse of the here-and-now as it shall one day be in memory, most details worn away, but a few deeply etched, suffused with the poignancy that accrues to long years of regret. A lifetime’s worth. Remember? He wore his shirt à la beaux boys. And the diamonds in his ears!—big as your thumbnail. The presentiment of loss goes swiftly as it came. The noisy old wood lies quiet under his feet: something in just where or how he knows to step. The little truant used to escape just so on nights past, out to forbidden busking on the waterfront.
Savary very nearly rushes upstairs to plead with him. We love you. Stay. But, no…he’ll sleep here, and they can talk later in the morning. That’s soon enough. She pinches dark the bank of candles, then goes to join her wife and man.
[So many nights]
Oh yeah. You all best watch out for that one there.
What mess you talking, old woman?
No, no, old mother. This here is the sweetest boy.
Yeah! He never give no trouble. Mind his maman real nice.
Keep your eye out is what I’m saying. Oh, all you are just stupid. Look at him. See? See there? The boy, so young, dancing like that! What age he got, three years? Not four yet, no. The reggaezzi coming forth to take this one away, sure ’nough. Sooner or later, wait and see.
Reggaezzi! Why even speak such?
Take back dat cuss, old witch!
Don’t you know this boy belong to Savary and Jahs? That the papa of him is the dark god from across-bayou, so tall, so black, so strong? Family live nice and proper on Dolorosa. You don’t want to be cursing this boy!
It’s no curse of mine, you idiots. A hand lay on him already, when he was born and the Song filled his heart—
Hurry, go and get Jahs. Run, quick inside. Tell her a witch come for her pickney!
Jahs Jahs Jahs! A witch in the yard! Come forth to snatch the baby!
Oh, come quick, Jahs! Hurry.
Among the workers of the boatyard were a very old man and his daughter, who was only old. One or the other of them sometimes made lunch and siesta stretch a long long time playing the drums. Those were the best days! He wriggled and squirmed until Jahs set him down, or he’d yank and beg until she said Well, go on then, letting him loose from her skirts to run out into the front yard and dance with the workers. Jahs always ate her lunch standing up, never lay out for a nap under the bearded cypress, and she rarely could be coaxed away to dance even for just a little while. But she would let him go.
He liked the old daughter on drums just fine. She had brilliant technique, and played hot exciting rhythms that hit the mas despacio with perfect timing to keep a dancer going fast, yet always able to catch breath too. He loved the old man’s touch! Deep sly tricks complicated the playing. Those beats evolved on the subtlest schedule, and no mind could anticipate them. To catch the old man’s riddims needed utter surrender to hips and feet and shoulders such that time and the world became sublime irrelevancies, and the only thing real was the rapturous pulse of the body thoughtless, just feeling, pure motion. The old man was very very old, though, and mustn’t be bothered, let him nap, boy; he’s earned a little rest, hasn’t he? Today, for once, the old man played.
Such a fearsome racket! Why all you in an uproar out here? What is going on?
Jahs, dis old woman right here, dis one. She said reggaezzi coming for yo little boy.
Yes. She said it would please her very well if they carried off your son to Mevilla right now, today, to live with witches and demons and flowers forever.
I heard her too. I heard everyting. Dat’s exactly what she said.
But, old mother, why would you say such a thing? The reggaezzi! Baby, come here now; that’s enough dancing. Come to Maman. Don’t you hear me calling? Come, boy. Come!
Fíjese. You see, Senyora Jahs? The boy is lost to the Song. He’s faraway where you cannot touch him. The place where reggaezzi go. You cut his hair nice and neat—it is not shaggy and long. You feed him; the boy is pretty and fat—not thin from always eating smoke. He looks like people, like us—not covered all over in green lights. But he is one of them already, almost. Um reggaezzo.
Stop your playing, old man! Are you stupid? A witch in the yard, reggaezzi, and my son—and you there are playing just like nothing. Stop I say! Stop!
Ah, but you see? The drummer stops and it makes no difference. Still the boy dances! How does he hear, how can he know? Where does the Song come from?
Please, cariño. Maman has you now. It’s all right; wake up. Please wake up.
Just before the Long Rains fall, some nights blow so cold no one dreams of going out without a poncho, but other nights the sea doesn’t breathe at all, and the heat is like standing before the oven open at full fire. This night is one of those latter, so nobody wants much dinner. Before going to bed, Cook sets out only a bowl of leaves, a plate of fruit. Batalha crosses her arms and lays her head on the table, after just two bites from her mango. The grownfolk hardly eat, they drink palm wine, and Savary and Redamas and Jahs begin to laugh. Savary complains, I’m just getting too stringy and tough, going up and down these hills. Soon there will be nothing tender and soft on me, and my loves won’t want me anymore. Papa says, Oh girl, please: you know you fat. But she jumps up from the table and lifts her thin cotton skirt a little, moving her foot, so the muscle jumps and bulges in her calf: There—you see? Ma Jahs leans far over and slaps Ma Savary on the bottom. Girl, you don’t see all that jiggle? That’s jelly! They laugh, and me too. Savary says You know, it’s so blazing hot tonight we ought to take up some long pillows and sleep on the roof. So that’s what we do.
Redamas carries up Batalha and lays her on a long pillow. Jahs whispers in Savary’s ear and makes her happy. She giggles. Nearby in the flower court of the Tswani embassy, the circle tonight is drumming some very strange rhythms, from a country I don’t know the name of. The beats make a big sound, powerful, they want nothing to do with fine dancing, they want jumps, cartwheels, flips—Boy! Savary shouts. How many times I told you! Do not be doing that tumbling on this roof! Come away from the edge there. Back away I say!
And so then it is only the fine dancing I can do after all, not the steps the drumming really calls for. Jahs wants to know why, lately, Batalha is so tired all the time that she falls asleep this early, when before you could hardly make her go to bed before the dawn comes. Savary and Redamas, they look at each other, and Papa says Batalha no longer is content to learn only the knife, that she wants more than to come every full and new moon to militia practice. What she wants is for Redamas to train her, too, with the six full-timers paid out the Johnny-fund. So everyday Batalha doesn’t go anymore to help manage the orphanage with Savary, but instead comes to train with Redamas and the soldiers: spear, archery, open hand, a hard run up the steepest slope of the Mother, and now they’ve just got some horses too, so …
“But the girl is only eleven years old!” Jahs says.
“Well, you can talk to her, then.” Savary throws up her hands. “But, me, I am all done arguing with Batalha. Anyway, she’s not like the baby there. This one is her Papa’s daughter—a giant like you, Redy. Bigger than some of those men-soldiers already. So I don’t see what harm it can do. Batalha was sending me mad with all that energy of hers; now she just sleeps. I say it’s good for her.”
Inside the air didn’t move, but up here, every now and then a breeze stirs off the ocean far downhill. Even so, the night is close and hot for so much dancing. I go back to where they are sitting and pour three thirsty cups of water from the jar. Redamas touches my head.
“Little man, you are all flat on one side. Didn’t Nurse pick out your hair this morning?”
“Oh, that one danced his heart away at lunchtime today!” Jahs says. “He danced so much, so hard, he fell asleep under the beards of the cypress, and just slept the whole afternoon through. That’s why his hair is ruint. We were loud loud loud, quartersawing the good mahogany into planks. But even that noise couldn’t wake him.”
Savary snuggles and whispers; Jahs calls to Redamas.
“Watch out, my baby doesn’t go dancing over the edge of this roof. Exca senyora éeu vamos abajo um ratinho.”
Redamas says, “Um ratao, mas bien,” and grins and winks at Jahs. Savary laughs out loud. He reaches and she reaches back to take his hand; their fingers squeeze, then let loose. Mamans go downstairs to the big bedroom to be alone together. Jahs never goes to be alone with Redamas, and Savary goes much more with Jahs than she does with Redamas.
“Papa?” I feel I shouldn’t ask, but I must know. “Would it make you sad if Ma Savary and Ma Jahs loved you only half as much as they love each other?”
“Oh, no. It would make me very happy. Half as much is a lot!” Redamas laughs. “You don’t understand, my son—everything here makes me happy. More than anything I wanted to have family. A daughter, a son: so it makes me feel up to the very top of happiness that two women chose me. I was just the loneliest across-bayou, you can’t even imagine. Do you know how lonely the gods are? We are so lonely, there are so few of us, that ghosts are our teachers. Ghosts are our friends. We…open a box, and ghosts come out to tell us the things we need to know. Where are the people? Where are they? Only ghosts!”
“DI. Discorporate Intelligences.”
Redamas smiles. “Yes, DIs, like you said. I shouldn’t call them ghosts. We know better, you and me.”
“Why are you laughing, Papa?”
“Your Johnny accent, it’s very funny. I really should speak more to you in the language of the gods. But it’s so sweet, it’s funny, the way you say that.”
“Do a trick for me now, Papa. I like it when you do magic.”
“What should I do?” Redamas lifts a hand, all conjure and flourish. “Maybe I will make you go to sleep.”
“No, don’t! I hate that one. Don’t make me sleep, Papa!”
“Are you sure?” Redamas twinkles his fingers. “My DI always said it’s my very best trick.”
“No. I hate it. Please!” I grab his hand tight and hold his fingers still. “Do another. Something else!”
“All right, all right.” Redamas shakes his hand free; he smiles. “How about this?” As glowing coals in a fire are steeped with richer color than the fire itself, so, pale as moonlight, a shine appears in the air around Papa’s head, and where his naps grow not black, but indigo-color, round the edges of his hairline, the widow’s peak, sideburns and kitchen: every curly strand fills with brilliance, the way hot coals do, but this light makes no heat, and it shimmers, blue as the sky at noon.
“More! Brighter! Like a strike of lightning. The way you did that other time!”
“Oh, I can’t, little man. Not tonight. All day long it was so cloudy, I hardly got a taste of sun.”
Because he’s sitting I can stand there and pat his hair while the blue light dims between my fingers and goes dark. When it’s gone, I ask another question.
“Now I want to know something important. Batalha has blue in her hair—”
“Your Papa never dreamed he’d burden any son or daughter with divinity, little man. But you are every bit as much my child as Batalha. Now I explained this to you: Ma Savary has a little divine inheritance, as it turns out. That’s why, with her recessive allele, only daughters and not sons…”
“Yes, yes, Papa. I know, I know. You said before. The thing I want to know is, when my hair is all white as sand, my face wrinkled-up like dry fruit, and I need two canes, one for my right hand, one for my left: will you, Papa—you and Batalha—still have all your strength and all your youth? Is that true?”
“Who said those words? Who? Where did you hear such things?”
“Kéké at the boatyard. He said when I am many many years drifting in the sea, just some old bones eaten up by fishes, even then you will be as young and fresh as you are today.”
“Well … we are all here now, little man. Ma Jahs, Ma Savary, Batalha, you and me. The night is good. Why should we worry so much about tomorrow? You are very young; we have a long, long time.”
“But is it true, Papa?”
“You mustn’t worry about such things. That Kéké is not a very nice boy. I’m going to go down to the boatyard and have a talk with him tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t, Papa! Kéké is very handsome.”
“But, little man, that’s not a good reason to let him say mean things to you.”
“I don’t mind, though. It’s all right, really. Don’t come down to the boatyard and scare him, Papa. Please!”
“Because you say so, I won’t make him scared. But I must go and say something to him, I must. I just don’t like what he said at all. Pass your Papa the palm wine jar there, will you?”
“Batalha! That short Johnny, the one who trains you miliciales with the spear, I heard him tell Papa you’re the best by far of the bunch. And Papa said to him, ‘Yes, but you must never say so to Batalha; her head’s that big already.’ Papa said the gods once all had such, such ‘mesomorphy and kinesthesia’ as you. He said that you’re a—what did he say?—‘throwback sport’ to those days before the gods intermarried so much. When Batalha grows up some, Papa said, and comes into her—he called it ‘perjuvenescence,’ then she will be a match even for the paladin of the Godspear.”
Batalha smiled down at him, and all her teeth showed. As if against a monster, she brandished some imaginary weapon: nor could the paladin himself, with his spear all ablaze with sun-stuff, have outmatched her gallantry. Batalha said, “You heard him? Papa said that?”
“Yes. But then Papa said, Oh, you’re a grief to him, and among all hardheaded daughters of the world, chief of them, because my Batalha just will not practice her psionics properly. Papa said you could be a great adept if only—”
Chaw! Batalha sucked her teeth, dismissing the rest with a turned-up palm. “I do not care about any damned psionics. Nothing in this world is more boring than sitting all day long, numb-assed, trying to think no thoughts at all. One-pointed concentration! O my brother, I sure hope you feel lucky, that Papa never bothers you about magic and stupidness!”
In fact, the least whiff of fatherly impatience or motherly frustration wafting his way tended to suffocate him like smoke, to choke off his capacity for disobedience or even dissent, until his own desires clogged in his throat, voiceless and caught. Batalha, though, argued for what she wanted. They could say No, You mustn’t, You’re too young, and all of it was like nothing to Batalha: just silliness, easily crushed with one hand. Her fierce words slapped parental “Nos” out of the air like gnats. Only train with the full-time miliciales? Ha! Batalha wanted to be a Johnny soldier! Her spear, her sash, her cuirass. And who of them rode better? Not even Papa! Yes, the big mean stallion: that one should be hers! Batalha had only to set her sights, and soon she would be getting her way. Now she wanted to drink the wine of Sea-john’s nights, and no little cup for her, and no watering, either. Just like the other miliciales she could walk the waterfront late late late through the drunken crush, in blackest night, and kick the ass of any bully hassling the sugar girls and beaux boys. Oh, he worshipped his sister; of course he did! Who else, so young, was more mighty, had more swagger? Pick anyone from the whole wide world: there was no one else, only Batalha! So much the warrior was she that her old name fell away for this nom de guerre.
“I don’t care, let them!”
“But my brother, you—”
“Stick a knife into somebody with blood and soul and dreams inside? No, Batalha! I will never never never do that. Some Maman loved them, some Papa picked them up and put them on his shoulders. So let them, whoever they are, go on living. I will die instead.”
“But don’t you understand the horrible things pirates do when they come to Sea-john? They are bad people, brother. No people are worse!”
“It makes no difference how bad they are, Batalha. They are just people to me. I couldn’t hurt them.”
“You are clever, ermano mio, and clever people won’t do something that seems wrong if they cannot understand why they must. So come. Come, sit down with me here. I will explain why Johnny mamans-and-papas want their boys and girls to learn the knife.
“It’s because the laws and taxes of the Kingdom don’t hold over here in Sea-john. It’s because we Johnnys are free—Jaúnedi mar libre!—and so we Johnnys are on our own. No armies of the Kingdom, no garrison at the citadel: nobody will ever lift a finger to help Sea-john. When the pirates raid us from the Gulf, when they loot and rape and murder and burn, what are the people doing over in the Kingdom? They’re yawning. They turn over. They go back to sleep. Ruff yoof come over here from the Kingdom, and what for? To beat up Johnnys. In every corner of the world, the people know us because we are so beautiful, because our music is the best, because quí e festa. They all want to come for a visit. And half the time, it’s true, those roadboys who guard caravans, saltdogs who guard ships, and soldiers from the Kingdom, come just for a good time, to have some fun. But then a penny drops: they turn into villains. They turn cruel and strange. I see them forcing kisses, grabbing breasts and ass, so you would think any pretty Johnny belonged to them.
“So you see, brother? That’s why you must learn the knife. All of us in the hills should carry one. Too many don’t. It’s such a good thing for you to know, ermano mio, so very good. I wish you would consider.”
For love of her, he did consider, and thought again: No.
But they forced him to learn to hold the knife, made him know where to stick it should pirates come again to Sea-john, should he get snatched up in the rape-and-loot. Papa took his hand and pulled him along to many tedious practices, where you must draw and stab and slash in the same way, over and over. They could make him do these things, but they couldn’t make him remember to carry the knife. Where is your knife? Redamas would shout. Listen to me, boy, listen. When the pirates come, they come all of a sudden. There will never be time to … Savary would shout: Go right back to the house and get it now! Every time I see you without your knife, Jahs would shout, I will always always always send you back again until you …
With mamans-and-papas, things must always end in tears, there could only be sobbing. Batalha would look down at his belt where the sheathe was meant to hang, and raise her eyebrow. It made him smile in a guilty way, sick in his belly. But then his sister would only cluck her tongue, shake her head, and let the matter drop. Somehow the fiercest Johnny of Sea-john was the only one who understood him, the softest.
Such a night in the house, sometimes, because of the boatyard, mad hours finishing a yacht for some fils-de-roi, or because of the orphanage, ten abandonini all come down with stomachache, fifteen boys and girls with grippe, or because of a fire in the hills, or for some bad ruckus on the waterfront, and Papa mustering the militia out. These moments, quick, ask whether you could go out nightwalking with Batalha, and more than likely some harried adult hand would wave you off: yes yes yes, boy, but you listen to your sister. On other nights Ma and Ma always said, Papa would say, your sister is thirteen and big and wears her knife, you are small and seven and won’t wear yours. No, you cannot go roaming in those rough nights on the waterfront, down under the Mother. Stay round here on Dolorosa.
Take my hand. The way down is dark here.
A slender moon, hardly giving them a candle’s light: it was the last moon, waning crescent before the new. Stars and planets, and the white parallels of waves breaking over the reefs, distinguished the blackness of sky from sea. So much going on over at the bottom of the Mother. Such lights, such crowds and music on the waterfront!
“I know the way here, Batalha! They let me go round on Dolorosa!”
“How many brothers do I have? Just one, only you! So if you won’t mind me, I’m taking you right back to the house. I must keep you safe.”
He took her hand.
On the waterfront were people too poor for soap, who washed only with water, stinky of armpit, ass. Caramel spirits and pineapple juice. The day’s catch grilled over the driftwood yield of shipwrecks. “Got that sweet fish, right here! Salt’ with sailors’ tears!”
Everybody not foreign was sugar or beau. Battle scars, sailors in breeches, and those black robes they wore in the Kingdom were mainstays. Johnny men glory-burned, Johnny women with art scars, some just boys and girls, metal hoops piercing their bodies and glinting, not so much older than himself on second look. Men and women of Sea-john dressed the same, in shirts and wraparounds, but here the shirts gaped from neck to navel, showing the soft swells of bosom and belly, smooth panes of chest and youthful abdomen. No need to guess, it showed plain: her waist so small and hips so wide, whose ass was big, some handsome man’s excitement. All these wraparounds were just that short and tight. Up and down the cobbles of the Board, out on the beach, down the docks, and all around the many fires, drummers and guitarristas and the world’s loveliest people dancing.
“When I’m big, I’m going to come down here every single night and dance. I’ll be a beau boy and strangers will give me money!”
“No, brother—not that! The best dancers, don’t you know they go into one of the top jukes and dance there? Sugarcane, Blue Moon, or the Tropica? Up front of everybody, and the crowd loves them so much that guards must keep them safe? And for the very best dancers? Some herald will come over from the Kingdom, all in silk and dripping jewels, to beg the virtuosi out of Sea-john, beg them to come over and dance in the Kingdom. Those dancers make shows for the Court, all the fils-de-roi and great ambassadors, the tycoons and courtesans. Johnnys stay up there at Court, sometimes, and take a lover, settling down rich. It’s true some boys and girls in the jukes sling booty; but others just dance. So a juke’s much better, you see. Ma Jahs knows everybody. Talk to her. She will know somebody to get you into the troupe at a juke.”
“Oh. Why didn’t I know these things? About jukes? About the Court?”
“You are young. Why should you know? I didn’t know myself at seven. Ask Ma Jahs to take you around the top jukes so you can see them all dance, then pick a troupe you like. The dancers in the jukes are very very good, ermano mio. Oh, they can dance! But many of the bailarines are not as good as you.”
“I will do it, Batalha. Just like you said! That sounds twice as good as beaux boying here on the waterfront. All I want is to be in a juke and go to Court!”
“Better that way, yes. Then you can dance all you like, they pay you for it, and you don’t have fuck some strange dude every night. I’m hungry, do you want one of these too?”
“Put two on for us,” Batalha said to the man squatting by his grill. She got coins of her own nowadays from Ma Savary, and so had one to give the Johnny fisherman. He ducked out shrimp from his bucket, stabbed them onto a sharp stick, and lay the skewers over golden coals. Turning them once, plucking them up: he dipped them through the bowl of lemony pepper, and passed the skewers to Batalha.
Angry thunder broke over the surf of merry noise. Harshly shouting, some Kingdom man, not far away, wanted to know how all this nasty Johnny sugar thought it could just wave up under a man’s nose and then get snatched away. He wasn’t having it—No!—so just bring that fat tricky ass here. Against the hard threats, there rose sweet screams of a pretty boy hindered from flight.
Batalha, already as tall as Papa, had a clear view over the heads of the crowd, to some sight that lit her up with rage. Her hair electrified, blue-white, in a momentary flash. “Fucking roadboys!” she said, handing the skewers to him. “Hold mine, brother, and stay right here. Stay put. I’ll be back in no time.”
Batalha thrust through the crowd and vanished. Someone thin, all musk and funk and black as Papa almost, passed by with a guitarra; and someone else too, more naked, with long, locked hair and skin no darker than palms and soles, like browning butter. Both young bodies tattooed, somehow, in phosphorescence.
Reggaezzi. He’d never seen any before, hardly heard of them. But he knew at once. A boy and a girl. The boy one sat in the sand and tuned his guitarra. The girl one touched her toes, no, she was laying her hands flat to the packed sand and going up in handstand, falling over in bridge, and coming up to stand again. One leg she lifted obtuse the standing, grasped that ankle, and brought up the shin to kiss. In the murk of night, the glowing curlicues on their skin pulsed marine green—not tattoos after all, but something—alive? Bright mites, infinitesimal, crept over their skin, either down in it, shining through, or glittering on top in some vexed way impossible to figure out.
“Oh, they’re young!” he said. “They don’t look much older than my sister.”
Some Johnny in the crowd forming up answered back, “How you don’t know, boy? Reggaezzi all die soon. Hardly none make twenty.”
Dressed badly for the brisk waterfront, they wore only shirts and loincloths. The reggaezza had torn off the sleeves of her shirt, and he knew why in the same way no one had ever taught him to breathe: so the line of her beautiful arms showed better.
The boy one began to play.
Strumming in rasjeo so fast and rich that a second player seemed to harmonize with him, even at times a third; and though there was none, a drummer seemed to keep the beat: the reggaezzo struck and tapped the guitarra’s inlay of clapwood while he played. He sang too.
The hoarse falsetto lacked the glories of his guitarrismo, but that voice was still a marvel of feeling. The song, in the language of the gods, was hard to follow. A mother, no, a great grandmother, had a new baby at her breast. This baby so precious so beautiful but sick and fragile with—time and space? The baby somehow growing older than the mother herself, a great grandmother to her own mother, the world upside down, reversed. What on earth? The lyrics fit together so strangely he couldn’t make sense of them. But the song was loving as a lullaby and yet triste, a lament. The reggaezza danced.
Oh, she danced.
He’d never thought to dance in such a way that a story was told, the lyrics incarnated in a sorrowful play-act that nevertheless rendered respect to every beat and evolution of the music. He could grasp the mothersong better, in heart if not mind, seeing the reggaezza’s dance. A small gathering hereabouts was silent, while further off the night disported in revelry and strife. He stood dumb, mouth hanging open, and watched with his whole self. Nothing lasts, and the best must be briefest: so too with this. When the performance ended, the gathering of Johnnys murmured the same word of appreciation. Never more in agreement, he softly chimed in too. For a moment more palm fronds rustled overhead, and breakers rolled, the gulls calling. Then the quiet smaller crowd spoke, laughed, and began dispersing into the greater. The reggaezza, thirsty, plucked a jar of Sea-john free right out of the hands of some passerby. Rude!—but the passing Johnny made neither mention nor moan.
The boy one walked up and pointed, saying, “Gimme dat.”
He passed over one of the skewers. The reggaezzo put half the length, three shrimp, into his mouth and drew the stick forth clean, crunching and chewing hungrily. The reggaezzo stank of old sweat and something herbal. He was as crushingly beautiful as Kéké, almost. Green constellations crept across the black sky of him. The reggaezzo spat some shelly wreckage and gobbled the other three shrimp.
“Dat one too!”
“I’m very sorry; I can’t. It’s my sister’s, not mine. Batalha asked me to hold it for her.”
“Aw, ain’t you just too posh?” The reggaezzo turned and called the girl. “Hey! Quick, come listen at dis idjit here. Sound straight off Dolorosa, dis one!”
The reggaezza came over, thin as a finger and yet strong. Hunger had melted all fat from her, the daily hours of dance showing in the ripple of her thighs and veiny strength of arm.
“Now just tell huh what you come dare said to me!”
“Only that I must hold these shrimp for my sister—”
The reggaezza threw back her head, whooping laughter. She said to him, “Little prince-boy, don’t you know we could lay duh worse cuss on any Johnny won’t give food, won’t give clothes, or turn away help from us reggaezzi? So you not Johnny den, ti prince?”
“I am Johnny.” His lips trembled, eyes close to tears, for there was great hot power in her, like the burning sureties of Batalha, like the bright god in Papa.
“Zas!” said the reggaezza, snapping her fingers. “I could go like dat and yo Mamans fall out duh fishing boat tomorrow and shark eat dem up screaming. Zas! and yo Papas slip from high cutting coconut, crack dere heads wide-open so dey drooling stupid forever! Or maybe you hate yo Mamans and yo Papas, and you love yo ownself much better? Den zas!, ti prince, and you—”
“Here! I didn’t know. They never want to tell me anything about reggaezzi. Please, won’t you take it now? I love them and Batalha best, but don’t curse them. Curse me.”
“See? You just too mean sometime. Duh little boy didn’t even know. Now you got him crying and I feel all bad. Johnny boy, you could keep dat fuh y’sistah. Salright, salright—don’t cry. Nobody ain’t cussing nobody tonight.”
“I thought duh boy was talking back smart. You know I can’t stand dat. Some posh asshole. Anyway it’s two whole days and no Ladder-to-Heaven. I need some smoke bad. I hate dis hunger. I hate how cold duh night feel. Gimme dat—I’ll eat it!”
He handed over the skewer and the reggaezza crouched down on her haunches, making the same short work of six big shrimp as the boy had. He lifted off his poncho and tucked it warmly round the girl’s shoulders, just as though the reggaezza were in creaky old age, not the veriest youth. The boy one squatted down beside and stroked her long-matted hair; he said, “Couple more days, duh leaves be all brown and good, and we climb right back up duh Ladder to Heaven. I hate deese days too, but gotta eat some time, don’t we?”
She looked at the reggaezzo. “You don’t hear dat? You don’t hear Song?”
“No. Where?—Yeah! But where it come from, so soft? I never heard Song dat soft!”
“Him! Duh boy here, dis boy. It’s you.”
“Yeah, yeah! Because you still too young. But some day you gon’ come along with us!”
“I’ll come now.”
“Not yet,” said the reggaezza. “Grow some. Get in some trouble. Look at dose legs you got!—dancer, ain’t you? Well, baby brudder, yull dance much better with yo heart broke bad.”
“The best dancers need a broken heart?”
“Is your heart broken?”
“Oh, sure. And fresh everyday. Yull see.” The reggaezza lay her head on the boy one’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
The reggaezzo said, “I member how bad it was, Johnny boy, but you just got to stay patient. By and by some night you gon’ hear all ten, twelve living come up duh road, and a tousand ghosts. Duh sweetest Song you ever heard by far. Duh singers all singing, some with carry-drum playing, and I be dere with duh guitarristas. You come on down dancing and join us. Climb high up duh Ladder-to-Heaven. We’ll take you over Mevilla. Get you some lights like dese.”
A galaxy spiraled on the reggaezzo’s cheek, clotted at the center with stars algae-colored and luminous—he reached to touch one. And felt nothing but hot human skin, though his fingertips came away flickering green. He brought up the glimmers to his face, wanting to see them better, but the bright motes suddenly winged off his hand, back to the reggaezzo’s cheek where they’d been. The shock of it was like a roach scuttling away, then abruptly bursting into flight back towards your head. With a squeak and jump, he stumbled over some hairy half of broken coconut, and fell in the sand. The pretty reggaezzo laughed, showing bright teeth. “Scared you, huh?”
As a keepsake of this night, he wanted know: “What is your name?”
“Ain’t got one. Soon as you one of us, yo name just wash away out of duh world forever.”
“But what was it before? Your name back when you lived with your Mamans and your Papas?”
“I told you: I don’t know. The name missing and won’t be found. Like a wave come to duh beach last year, where dat wave now? If God know all things, She forgot my name. It’s just gone. Call me reggaezzo, call her reggaezza, if you want. We nothing else.”
The reggaezza leapt up, the poncho falling away, and she cried out, “I feel good! I feel good! Let’s go way over dere where it’s more room and brudder you just play me a fast song, a wild song, duh strongest song you got! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
She tore away through the crowd and the reggaezzo snatched up his guitarra and ran away after her. Stay put, Batalha had said, and those words pulled him back down, chained to that spot in the sand, or he’d surely have followed. He reckoned it was all right to reach over and gather back his poncho just lying there abandoned. So he did. Then a new thing stirred in him and the chains broke. Get in some trouble, she had said. He stood up.
“O ermano mio.” O my brother!
He looked back towards the cry and there came his sister staggering. She was bloodsoaked, awash in gore, the knife hanging from her grip and dripping, it was that wet.
“Batalha! They cut you? Where are you hurt?”
“Me? No. I’m fine.” Seeing the condition of her knife, she stropped off the wet black shine onto her ruined poncho, and slid the blade back in its sheath. “That other time I stuck the saltdog just a little and it was enough to scare him off.” Batalha sounded very sad, nothing like herself. “This dude though—he just wouldn’t quit. He wouldn’t go away. I had to cut him down stone dead.”
[Todas las noches]
Xxxxxx saw the reggaezzi once before. He was too young to remember.
As a baby, at the Festival of San Maurizio: when the reggaezzi come down in force to give a show on the seafront Board. Then, Johnnys bring out their ailing loved ones, their sick of heart, their babies and any family grown elderly or close to passing. Great blessing will visit whosoever attends San Maurizio. No reggaezzi miss who yet live. If all are there, then surely those bereft parents in the crowd need only crane their heads, and blink away the tears, to catch a glimpse of their doomed youth, their child. Which one? What was his or her name? They no longer know—but perhaps the one on drums, or that other one there, dancing, had been theirs.
Savary takes him off the breast and turns him round. She sits him up on the shelf of a forearm. “There, Xxxxxx! You see them?”
He cannot see much. Why won’t they let him down and free, to wriggle forward through the crowd as Batalha had? They’re all crushed among jostling hundreds back here, though nobody is frightened, so he’s not either. Certainly Xxxxxx can hear the song. Sweet and powerful, a choir delves deep and soars high, all to the greater glory of one soloist, some apocalyptic soprano. Drumbeats, wild and precise, overwhelm the rhythms of his own heart and breath; in time, ecstatic, Xxxxxx shudders, held perched to Savary’s breasts. But glimpses are few and far between, as are the gaps among arms and backs and shoulders of the crowd. There’s nothing much to see, really, save occasional flashes of green light.
“Mamita, really now! How’s the baby supposed to see from way down there? Give me him.” Jahs lifts him away and up, a full foot higher to her shoulders where at last there’s some bit of view. Those gorgeous lights belong to people. Green glow freckles their skin, and some great master, perhaps the music itself, exerts sublime puppetry on the abandoned leaping of their bodies. Still, he can only see top halves, only torsos.
“More, more!” Xxxxxx beats fists atop the head against his belly, punishing its offensive and inadequate height.
“Baby, stop. What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?”
Jahs’s chief attributes are goodness, clarity, and strength. The thing called for now, however, is stature.
“Papa, up up!” he shouts, stretching his hands toward Redamas: much the tallest being in the crowd, and from whose shoulders, once Xxxxxx’s hefted there on high, the vantage is astounding.
Grace is down here, available to the flesh for embodiment at every single moment. These wonderful creatures are showing him how to do it! Wildly Xxxxxx sobs, shaking his head, wrapping his arms tight about Redamas’s brow, when Jahs reaches to lift him down for mothercomfort. “No no no,” he screams. I want to “see!” I want to “see!” Beauty’s only ever a soft thing? It never harrows?
“Woman—ow. Why are you hitting me, Jahs? Don’t hit! You see the boy is holding on for dear life. He wants to watch.”
“Man, my baby is crying! You hand him down to me, Redy, or I will cut you like a pirate right here in the streets!”