Someone you love has to die to save the island of Shard.
|The Last Days of Hazel Beirut
Derek Berry Thorpe
(The Character Charon is pronounced with a hard 'C' as in Karon)
The Ceiling over my island of Shard is the shade of a bruised eggplant, rotting from the inside.
It reminds me of the swollen right eye of the Asian man I'd punched seconds after he insulted my mother. Bar fights in Saigon in the '70s, working as a merchant marine were common, but up until that time, I had never been a part of any. Then again, no soul had ever spoken ill of my mother Sarafina Vertice and gotten away with it either.
These clouds sag as if they carry rocks in their pockets, yet still, they keep their precious stones and stumble over the hills, drunk on their own moisture, without ever leaking a single drop.
I sit on the porch of my cottage in my father's rocking chair that has ceased to rock for the past decade. It does not matter much, as I am in the middle of my second marijuana joint. It originated on the southern slopes of Costa Rica and the Sativa blend makes up for the lack of motion in his rocking chair.
Genoah Thune makes her way up the rocky pathway. She is carrying some size on her and I see her propping between a tree and her umbrella, trying to catch her breath. She is the district nurse and midwife and her ever-present dog, Truce waits by her side until she composes herself. Truce is a boxer-type dog. Not the most attractive canine I've ever seen. Genoah has had an identical dog named Truce for the last 40 years. She keeps the one ugly female that looks most like her mother and waits until mama Truce dies. I've lost count being away at sea, but this has got to be the fifth or sixth Truce that I know about.
I know where Genoah is going and she does not have to come this way to get to Hazel Beirut's cottage. I throw away the rest of my joint and watch her navigate the tricky pathway. She walks this way only to pass in front of my cottage to gaze in the hopes I'm on my porch like today. She's had a crush on me since I was in my teens even though she's maybe 15 years older than I am.
Listen, Genoah is okay, she's a good woman. Hell, she's practically delivered more than half of the men and women of Shard alone. It's just that I am not attracted to fat women and especially fat women with a large space between their front teeth.
"Oh, Crenam-buyuu, Charon. How are you? I almost did not see you sitting there," she shouts from the picket fence with a flourish of sweeping her ponytail to the opposite shoulder.
"Crenam-byuu, Genoah. I am well. No need for your umbrella today the heavy clouds have passed over the hills." She is dressed in her pink V-neck cotton dress. The seams of her uniform are screaming in agony as she must have put on an additional 20 pounds since summer last year. One of the pickets in my gate is missing and Truce pokes her ugly head through its space and growls in my direction.
"You are looking very handsome today, Charon."
"Thank you, Genoah." I show her respect as she is my elder but I feel my breakfast threatening to rush up my gullet and spew out of my mouth. I have tried for many years to ignore the large space between her front teeth but I fail each time.
Truce barks from her equally unattractive mouth. It sounds like the upstroke of a handsaw going through oak wood. Her lips and gums are mottled pink and black and a mixture of drool and mucus hang like heavy fishing nylon from her teeth.
"On your way to see Hazel again? How is she going?" Genoah is just standing there smiling so I figured I'd break the silence, even though I could predict this entire conversation.
"Oh, she's not going so well, Charon. Her eyes are more yellow than ever and It's getting difficult for her to breathe now. Pray for her." She put her right hand atop her large bosom where her heart lay below.
"Still can't convince her to go to the hospital on Quillion?"
"No, she says it's too far. She wants to be able to witness Augie's guitar recital on stage next week but I don't think she's going to make it."
I almost swore out loud but I remembered Genoah detests cuss words almost as much as smoking weed.
"You should come to visit her, Charon. She does not have too many days left," Genoah said, shifting to move away from the gate.
She raised her palm to her mouth and blew me a kiss. "Aduwela, Charon. I don't want to be late."
She leaves going Eastwood up the hardened trail towards Hazel Beirut's cottage but her dog lingers with her ugly head poking through my gate, staring.
Only one of Genoah's Truce dogs over the years has ever taken a liking to me. I can't explain it but that's fine by me as I am not a dog person either.
A Shaman, near the port of Santa Marta, Columbia, a decade or so ago, taught me a breathing technique to calm stressful periods. As I follow the technique, I produce a high-pitched noise in my voice box which drives Genoah's dog crazy and I confess to a little malice towards Truce as I make the noise now in my throat. She barks and howls uncontrollably at me through the gate.
Perhaps someday I will grow up, but not today.
Early the next morning I think I'm dreaming about playing drums at my favourite café in downtown Casablanca, Morocco but the percussion is actually someone knocking at my own door. It's too early. Jesus!
I wrap a towel around my waist and realize there's only one person who could be banging on my door this early in the morning and not expect to get a brick thrown at them. It's Polli... Pollux Beirut. Hazel's son and I have a feeling I know what he wants.
"Who is it, is that you, Polli?"
The rapping stops and I hear his voice on the other side of the door.
"Crenam-byuu, Charon. Morning!"
I open the door and Polli is standing in his striped, long-sleeved pajama shirt with church pants and sockless leather shoes, arms outstretched to hug me.
"Crenam-byuu, Polli. Let me guess… Broken string again, right?"
"Yes, 'E' string. And mamma thick," he said, draping over my shoulder.
I have to peel him off after a minute or so because Polli is a serious hugger.
"Yes, I know, Polli, mamma is sick. I am hurting just like you."
He wears his sad face which is more appropriate than his beige dress pants.
"It's going to be okay, Polli." I hold his face and make him engage me with his eyes. He hates when I do it but it is necessary for him to see how sincere I am.
"Which 'E' string is it, big or little?"
"Little 'E' string." He holds his thumb and index finger slightly apart in front of his eyeballs.
"You have to stop plucking that little one so hard, Baba." He grins as wide as the universe and rocks inside his personal space.
"Why didn't you bring the guitar at the same time so I can change and tune it for you? You know you stink at changing strings." I tease him trying to change his mood.
"Ukandye Prizeord!" He turns to run back to the cottage and fetch his guitar.
"No, Polli, don't bother. I'll get the string for you and we can talk for a bit." I hold him back from leaving and walk him over to the wooden box by the window where I keep the strings. He rocks in place and his smile practically encircles his head.
I bought his guitar four years ago while I was passing through Panama Canal in a containership. It was a gift for his 40th birthday. It would be difficult for me to forget his birthday as mine is the day after his. I was born in the Quillion hospital over on the mainland and Hazel gave birth to him here in Shard.
The guitar gift was the best thing I ever did for Polli. The only thing it looks like he can do well is to play that guitar because he is autistic. A high functioning one – but autistic nonetheless. He is not too bad at English and our native dialect but the language of music came far easier for him and over the four years he has done reasonably well.
"You come to the party, watch me play, Charon?"
"I would not miss it for all the cocoa in the Ivory Coast."
"Yes, yes, Polli. I will be there ."
"Mamma thick, but she come see me."
"Yes, I am sure she will come too."
"Promise… Hug. Promise, Charon."
He hugs me again and I can feel his chest wall just barely able to hold back his encaged heart from bursting through. We hug for a little while because I know he is scared about the possibility of losing Hazel. I could be wrong but I think his concept of death is similar to a long vacation in another country or even like what I do when I am at sea for up to six or seven months at a time.
When I lost my mother, Sarafina, at nine years old I felt so angry and abandoned. For a long time, I blamed her for leaving me alone with my idiot father but I suppose she didn't intend to choke to death. The village raised me until I was 16 until I began sailing around the world.
Hazel played a large role in my upbringing during that time. I owe her so much. In fact, she was there in our kitchen trying to save my mother from choking on the cube of meat. I watched her wail and sob that she could not save her best friend from death.
I remember that difficult time for me. I recall the sister-like bond between Sarafina and Hazel and I watch Polli now on the verge of tears. I am determined to guarantee that Hazel Beirut dies naturally only after she attends her son's first guitar recital. I am a crazy son-of-a-bishop to even consider doing what I plan to do, but Polli has gotten the short end of the spaghetti for his whole life so this gift should be even better than my guitar present four years ago.
There were times in my life when I've been plain up to no good. Running rocket launchers and guns from the port city in Niger up to the Democratic Republic of Congo is a perfect example. In Santa Marta, Columbia, during the session where the Shaman detoxified my liver and taught me the breathing techniques for a calmer spirit, he was called away for an emergency. Bored, I started rummaging through his books and files and came across his manuscript for life extension. I couldn't believe my eyes. I'd heard of the Mercaba Vida before, but never really believed it was real. So as any red-blooded opportunistic sailor would do I copied the ingredients and procedure with haste before my Shaman re-entered the room.
Done properly, the technique would give a dying man about a week extension, give or take a day or so. I have to do this for Polli. I have to do this for Hazel Beirut. I know Sarafina would have approved.
I watch Polli leave through the picket fence gate with the one wooden slab missing and I'm having this intense internal debate over whether I should tell him the crazy shit I'm going to do for him or just keep him in the dark. I decide I'm not going to say anything but more debate is likely in the future.
My next issue is where to find that piece of paper I copied the Shaman's procedure on. I look in the same wooden box by the window where I keep extra guitar strings and whatnots. It's not in there. I remember it was circular and jade-green in colour. I had folded it over twice so it looked like a pizza slice. There is only one other place else it could be…
I keep an old mayonnaise jar under my bed with the coins of all the countries I've ever visited and I empty it out on the floor. Sure enough, the pie-shaped now faded green piece of paper spills out between the coins. I unfold it and for some reason, the paper sticks near the center, and some of the fibers shred away into two spots.
It should be okay though, I can still read most of it. No problem.
By 1:30 in the afternoon, I am just entering Hazel Beirut's cottage. I pass Truce lying on the Veranda but I don't have time to mess with her. Genoah Thune is at her bedside sitting on a flimsy stool, the type women use to sit and apply their makeup before a vanity mirror. The bony metal legs strain to keep her supported.
"Crenam-byuu, Hazel. Crenam-byuu, Genoah."
Genoah nods, but Hazel can barely muster a grimace. Her eyes are as yellow as lemon peel and her lips are dry and cracked with deep red furrows.
I stoop bedside and kiss Hazel's wet, matted hair. I am unsure what to say. Her breathing is shallow and erratic. Rising up, I tap Genoah on the knee and motion for her to meet me in the kitchen.
"I have something that will help Hazel."
"What is it?" She knots the area between her eyebrows. "It's too late for any treatment now."
"I learned this remedy from a wise man. It is a sort of pasty ointment that is stuck up the nose. What do you have to lose at this point? She may die at any moment."
"Sharon, is it something illegal that you brought back from some unheard-of city?"
"No, trust me. Let me put this paste, up her nose and maybe she can watch Polli play next week on stage."
"If I let you do this, you will be in my debt, Charon. I know, however, that it is too late for any improvement now that her liver and kidneys have shut down."
I give her a brief hug which she seems to enjoy, although my arms can't even meet each other around her back.
Back in the room, Hazel Beirut begins to knock on death's door so loudly, it rattles across her chest. I uncover the cardboard vial holding this thick blue ointment I concocted earlier and smear two healthy gobs up Hazel's nostrils. She attempts to squirm away but she obviously has very little strength for resistance. Genoah puts her hand over her own nose, as the paste is very pungent.
"You're going to kill her. She won't be able to breathe."
"She can breathe through her mouth when she needs to. She'll be okay, I hope. Maybe in a few days, she will have her appetite back. Hopefully."
"Ukandye Prizeord. What you doing to mamma? She thick." Polli sticks his head in the doorway.
We both are surprised to hear him and usher him back to the living room. We don't want him to witness any ugly side-effects from what I just did for Hazel. His guitar is not perfectly tuned from the new string change, so I spend some time with him getting it right. Genoah makes a cup of lavender green tea in the kitchen to calm her nerves. She makes a comment about Polli's singing ability improving.
"Charon, what do you think he means by those two words he keeps saying?" She says to me under her breath.
"You mean the 'prizeord' thing? I have given up trying to figure that out a long time ago, Genoah."
"Is there any water around here? I am very thirsty." Hazel Beirut is out of her bed leaning on her doorframe and asking for hydration.
Genoah squeals and runs to assist Hazel in case she falls, but she seems fairly steady. For my part, I am floored, but I try to disguise my shock. There is no way I could have predicted this shaman's gift could have worked so fast. She turns Hazel around leading her back to bed but finds the time to mouth words of amazement over Hazel's shoulder in my direction.
Polli seems to have guessed that Hazel is going to attend his show now and a new wave of practice play begins. He closes his eyes and his smile wraps around his skull and infects mine to do the same.
The next morning Genoah rattles my front door. She looks tired and out of breath. Truce jumps and takes a seat on my father's old rocking chair and scratches herself.
How did she know that would bother me?
"I'm not staying long, I just want to know what was in that paste you put up Hazel's nose yesterday."
She stands square with her hands clasped into each waist, leaning forward, and staring directly into my eyes.
"Why, what happened? Did something happen to Hazel?"
"Well, yes. I left her cottage after 9 pm last night as she sat listening to the radio and tapping her feet. Where did you get that thing?" she gasps between breaths.
"Genoah, it's from a secret we sailors pass down to each other. I can't tell you what's in it but I'm glad to see she's feeling better… You said she was doing what?"
"She was at the kitchen table listening to her British comedy on the radio. She didn't laugh but that doesn't matter. A few hours earlier she was walking through death's door. Every once in a while she says something odd but Polli is very happy. Thank you, Charon."
"No problem, but listen..." I am searching for the words to break it to her gently. "This improvement might just be temporary, she may decline again fairly soon."
"It is fine. Gahweh above will bless you. If she gets to see her sons for a few more days, especially seeing Polli on stage, then it will be worth it."
She turns to leave and whistles for Truce to follow. The space between her teeth makes this easy for her. Truce does not move and I rattle the back of my father's old rocking chair to scare her out of my space. I make that noise with my voice box and she scampers away, tail between her legs and howling for good measure.
Yes… No love is lost between us.
April is always a strange month in Shard. The winds sometimes come up off the coast instead of the usual criss-cross down the mountains. When that happens the wind wedges the surf between the craggy cliffs and the sea spray hisses through the fissures in the rocks like it's coming from the blowhole of a whale. I can taste the brine in the air tonight as I enter the primary school assembly hall for the annual Shard variety concert.
The sky is cloudless tonight.
The north star, Sirius, and Venus are clearly visible above the roof. I have not been this happy in years.
Hazel stands ahead in the third row near the aisle, waiting for her autistic son to perform in front of a live audience. Many of my wise and seasoned merchant marine friends are here too, but yet there is something that is not quite right. When I try my best to zero in on what it might be, the closest I get is that it was something Genoah said a few days ago, but I can't remember exactly what it is.
I enter the small school auditorium and stand at the back with a gaggle of my peers looking at the amateur concert get going. Polli is actually third up on the program and Hazel has refused to take her seat. Genoah Thune is sitting next to her but everyone is glad to see Hazel is able to make it, whether she's sitting or standing. A friend jabs me in the ribs with his elbow because I am not clapping enthusiastically enough for his daughter's poetry reading, but I am nervous for Augie.
His name is announced by the MC holding a microphone and Polli comes on stage cradling his guitar like it's a sacred lamb. The microphone squelches feedback and he promptly turns about-face and heads back off stage. It's an awkward period for the MC as he also seems anxious about his new assignment. After an uncomfortable 90 seconds or so he strides behind the curtain area and drags Augie by the arm to the chair set out for him.
Polli's first three notes of like a rhinestone cowboy, are completely off but then he settles into a nice rhythm. Hazel is still standing but she extends her arms outwards like if she wants to go airborne and I swear there is a strange glow about her. Polli passes the most difficult section of his song and it looks like he will finish without a major hic-up when Hazel's hair stands up straight on end and everyone can see she's glowing orange-yellow now. She lets out a chirping sound then bolts out of the hall right past me. She moves at an unbelievable speed for someone who was near death only a few days earlier.
Polli gets spooked by this and stops playing in the middle of the last verse and slinks offstage. I can't make up my mind who needs me more, but Genoah makes up my mind for me and canters after Hazel. With a gesture of her neck, I understand she wants me to see after Augie's needs offstage. I get to him while he still rocks in his space and he hugs me in a vice grip.
"Wow, that was so good, Polli. I'm so proud of you."
"Ukandye Prizeord. Mamma thick," he sobs.
"No, she is okay, Baba. She is happy for you so she ran off to shout out loud for you."
"Mamma hair stand up. Mamma thick."
There's quite a bit of buzz and murmur in the school hall. I take Polli's guitar from him and lead him to the front courtyard to keep him stable. Truce did not bother to follow Genoah and she moves closer to us and sits at Polli's feet. She certainly wasn't coming to be closer to me.
Someone approaches me from behind and grips my shoulder. It startles me a bit but I relax immediately when I see who it is.
"Charon Vertis. Crenam-byuu, son."
"Crenam-byuu, Fadon. Good to see you, Captain."
He does not look at me directly but he raps my shoe with the tip of his cane and hobbles forward to the edge of the courtyard overlooking the lush valley below. Fadon Catechin III is a respected elder of Shard. He captained a merchant vessel through the straits of Gibraltar for eight hours nearly 15 years ago, while his senior officers were incapacitated. On special occasions he wears his nautical epaulets on his shoulders and out of respect we call him 'Captain'.
"You stole something, didn't you?" His voice is low and gravelly. He draws his fingers across a large burn scar on his right cheek.
"No, Captain. I have not stolen anything."
"We both know we have been around the world many times. They are things I know that are not worth denying."
I am silent. I wait for him to continue.
"You stole the Merkaba Vida formula from Shaman Guatajuelpa in Columbia. I'm not asking you, Charon, I'm telling you. You did a very dangerous thing." He shifted to ease the stiffness in his right knee.
"But that was many years…"
"Shush…" He interrupts my protest. He clearly had something important to say.
"I can understand why you chose Hazel to use it on, but you have made a very large mistake. Why did you not follow the directions exactly as he set out? I know what happens when you get the ratio incorrect. Did you see the electric charge that Hazel generates now?"
"I tried the best I could to follow, but the paper got stuck in the middle and I must have read the numbers wrong."
"In his early days, even Guatajuelpa got it wrong. The old man he first tried to save lived for eight months longer. He roamed the countryside shocking livestock and people too. Many died.
"Oh, oh… Noooo." I could feel the blood drain from my face.
"Do you know how the man died, Charon? Guatajuelpa had to hunt him down and murder him. I hear it was not an easy undertaking."
"What? What will happen if I do nothing? "
"She will get stronger every day. She may never die now because you were careless. You must kill Hazel Beirut."
"No! I… I could not do that. I am not going to do that!"
"If you don't, many of your loved ones in this country of Shard will die or be in grave harm… Beginning with Pollux right over there."
The captain has never betrayed or misled any of his sailors before. It is unlikely he would begin doing this now. This news hits me like a harpoon to my chest. I look over at Polli stooping and stroking Truce while I am still holding his guitar.
Fadon Catechin III looks me square in the eyes then prepares to hobble back into the concert hall.
"Wait… How do I kill her… I mean, what would I do?"
"She is an electrical being now. You must find a way to have her discharge into herself, self electrocute. I don't know, but you must make sure she can't discharge into the Earth. She has to be wet and insulated and I suppose she has to be holding a metal rod of some sort with both hands. You have always thought you were smarter than everyone else, so you figure it out. Fix the problem you created."
His epaulets flutter in the night breeze and he shuffles back into the school hall.
Just then Genoah appears at the top of the steps leading to the courtyard. She pauses and props onto her knees, completely out of breath. She is alone and I approach.
"Genoah, are you alright?"
She takes a second to reply. The whistle through the space between her teeth is audible.
"I am… I'm here, Charon, but I could not catch up to Hazel and I don't know where she is. I came back to get Polli and Truce."
Gradually, she stands erect. "Plus Maeve Elvi is now in labour so I must leave to deliver her baby. "
She motion's for Polli and her dog to come and I pat him on the back and return his guitar.
There is no opportunity to speak with her about what the Captain has told me.
The events of this evening have nearly overwhelmed me. I, a seasoned shipman, who has battled more storms than I have had birthdays. I know I'm going to have trouble getting to sleep tonight so I make myself a cup of chamomile tea in my kitchen, turn out the light and retire to my sleeping area. I drift into a recurring loop of Polli on stage, Hazel with her hair standing on end and the captain telling me bluntly what I have to do to save the island of Shard, and I'm still trying to remember the phrase which Genoah had said to me earlier. It continues to bother me still.
As I predicted, sleep is a reluctant companion. I am almost certain I shut the kitchen light off. Getting up to switch it off properly will only energize me more.
I round the corner to the kitchen and Hazel Beirut is standing in the middle of the floor, glowing, looking through the window over the sink. Her back facing me.
A noise escapes my lips that could be mistaken for an excited teenage girl, but my bladder remains continent, and all-in-all, I believe I stay relatively composed.
"Hazel! How did you get inside my house?" She moves very little if at all. Her hair rises and falls as if it breathes with her lungs.
"I don't know. Locks don't seem to be a problem for me anymore."
"What do you want? Why – why are you here?"
"I was drawn here. I felt like I needed to speak to someone close to me. This was the last place I saw my friend Sarafina alive."
"Yes, you remembered. Right where you're standing. I remember you wailing about not being able to save her life."
She finds what I said funny as she titters under her breath and rocks her head to the ceiling.
"You thought I was saving her life, son? No. I had just strangled Sarafina. I was screaming at her because she had something of mine and refused to give it back."
This woman who has broken into my kitchen is admitting to murdering my mother.
I'm upset with myself for having misinterpreted what I had witnessed many years ago. I feel my breathing become severely twisted going into and out of my lungs, like if I'm generating a vortex in my respiration. I have no hesitation now for carrying out my task of separating her soul from her body. I scan my kitchen for an appropriate weapon to slay the murderer of my dear mother, Sarafina Vertice.
Hazel Beirut, with her back still facing me, says, "Captain Fadon Catechin was a nice old man but he did not like me."
"Why are you bringing him up? What do you mean?"
"He was afraid of me. Now he's not afraid of me anymore."
I'm trying to buy time and keep her calm at the same time a thick-bladed butcher's knife lies on the counter just mere feet away. The room is lit entirely by Hazel's glow but I am wondering if she can see my reflection in the windowpane she looks through.
This is perfect.
I don't have to bother hunting her down. She admits she murdered my mother over some petty trinket and now it looks like she's done something terrible to the captain. He was right. I created this version of Hazel and it's my responsibility to neutralize this threat right now.
With stealthy nonchalance, I grip the butcher's knife handle. It feels perfect in my palm. No adjustment is necessary.
"What did you do to Captain Fadon? You better not have hurt him."
Well, whatever I did to him, he's not feeling any pain now."
With a burst of speed, I bring the heavy knife down hard in the middle of her back.
Almost immediately, there is a flash and a jolt of electricity through the knife and I am thrown backward out of the kitchen. My entire body is arched in agony but my knife arm has no feeling except a rancid numbness.
"Do you feel better now, Charon? I don't want to hurt you but the next time you try that, it will be the last time you try anything. Aduwela for now."
She jumps through the pane of glass she's been looking through the whole time. The butcher's knife lodged firmly between her shoulder blades.
The kitchen is dark once again.
I must see Genoah Thune right away. She has to be informed about how dangerous Hazel Beirut has become.
Dressing myself is a problem. I can't put my right arm through the sleeve of my button shirt. I have no feeling or strength in this limb. I am barely able to get pants on.
I scramble through the night, down the mossy slopes towards the cliffs then around the foothills into the village towards Genoah's cottage near the Bay of Styx. All the while my arm swings as if I am not its owner. As I travel through the village I remember the sentence she said to me that's been bothering me over the past few days.
It's about 1:30 in the morning but her bedroom light is still on. I rattle the half-grass, half-bamboo front door, and wait.
"Who is it?"
"Crenam-byuu, Genoah. It is Charon – open up!"
"I have waited for this knock for so many years," she says as she opens the front door. She is wearing loose shorts and a stringy halter top. There is a lot of flesh exposed I had not anticipated, but this is my fault for barging into her chambers at this time of night.
"No, Genoah, It is not that type of visit. This is an emergency."
"What? Who is in labour now? I just got home from delivering Maeve Elvi's daughter."
"No, it's nothing like that. It's worse."
Truce waddles over and stands directly between us. Her ugly pink and black mouth drooling spittle all over the floor.
"Have you seen Hazel since the recital?" I say to her.
"Oh no, but I'm very worried."
"You should be worried, she's not normal anymore."
She sees my now swollen right arm lying outside of the sleeve of my button shirt and cocks her neck.
"What happened to your arm?"
"I'll tell you in a second, listen, did you know that Hazel choked my mother Sarafina to death in our kitchen?"
"No, she did not. No, she was trying to save her. Who told you that?"
"What? You saw her?"
"She broke into my house. She said she and Mother were arguing about something Hazel wanted back. Do you know anything about that? A piece of jewelry or a dress or something?"
Genoah's eyes drop to the floor and her jaw muscles ripple. She also swore...Genoah never swears. Never in my life did I even hear her say anything worse than 'damn', and even then, that was a big event.
"You know something. Genoah you know something. Tell me!"
She hugs her own shoulders right after she shivers and turns away. I hold her with my good arm. My useless right arm only makes it halfway up to her shoulder.
"Hazel killed Sarafina? She lied to me."
I swear a string of expletives out of frustration. Genoah does not even flinch. Truce barks and bares her teeth.
"What do you know?"
I was sworn to secrecy, I was young…"
"Sarafina is not your birth mother. Hazel is."
"Hazel and Sarafina were the closest two people could get without being the same person. Hazel knew Sarafina was barren. Hazel was having twins so she offered to give one of them to her. This story about you being born on Quillion is a lie. Sarafina went ahead to the mainland but you were taken by boat over there that same night."
"How in the hell do you know all of this, Genoah?"
"Because I was there, Charon. On a wretched stormy night, I delivered you and Pollux. You were the first child I ever delivered at 14 years of age and I have been in love with you ever since."
She sobs just as the floor collides with the seat of my pants.
"My payment for that night's work was a puppy from a litter. A puppy named Truce. Hazel wanted you back when she realized that Pollux was never going to be normal. Hazel hoped Sarafina would voluntarily offer you back but the offer never came. Sarafina was preparing to move away to the mainland and Hazel got desperate I suppose."
I look at my swollen but ever-improving right arm and gaze at the hand I used to stab my supposed mother with.
I tried to kill her not half an hour ago. I sank a meat clever deep into her back. My mother's back... And she never flinched."
"You try to save her and now you try to kill her? Charon, all this makes no sense…"
"Yes, this explains your slip up. Just before the concert, you said Hazel would be happy seeing her two sons together. Listen I made a mistake I read the formula wrong. Captain Fadon says she will become close to immortal if I don't kill her in the early. But I know she is my mother now, Genoah."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know… I honestly don't know. Perhaps I can contain her… defang her… house her away from people...I don't know. But I really don't know if I can kill my own mother now."
Without warning Truce springs to attention and swivels her head about the room. She is in predator mode and bares her teeth once again. She approaches one window then scampers to the front door. She growls and lowers her jaw to floor level.
"What's the matter, Trucy? Here… Come here," Genoah says, patting her exposed thighs.
"Do you hear that? Hazel is outside," I say to her.
Truce continues barking and scratching at the space under the door. She stops abruptly and peers up to the roof at the same instant something or someone lands and moves across it. It is after midnight but the yard glows molten orange
"Charon, I am… I'm not far from being very scared."
I honestly don't want to, but I sense a pressure of gaze from both of them to go outside and investigate.
I open the door with false bravado and walk around her cottage with a stick in my hand knowing full well that it counts as no defense at all. Her roof is low and at the back corner, a patch of bamboo is glowing and just starting to smoke. I am tall enough to rip out the leafy struts with my left hand and stamp out the incubating fire.
No sign of Hazel.
Hazel my mother.
"Your roof started to burn, Genoah. I put it out. Don't worry." I have to tell her something now I am back inside.
"She set my roof on fire, Charon? This cottage is all I have. You have to kill that Pedunculo!"
This stalking by Hazel, my own blood, is bad enough, but to hear Genoah use that word against another woman, her elder, causes my nostrils to flare. Call a sailor that word and see what happens. I decide then, for the sake of Shard.
I have to kill Hazel Beirut... again.
"Captain Fadon said I had to make her self-electrocute and not let her 'ground back' through the Earth. How am I going to get her to hold a piece of metal with both hands and insulate her feet at the same time?" In less than three seconds Genoah has a stupendous idea.
"Why don't you see if you can get her to climb a metal ladder but have the legs encased in Styrofoam or something to stop the grounding?"
"Oh wow. That actually might work."
"It might, but that means she would have to be chasing you or something like that. Are you sure you want to be in that position, Charon? That would be so brave of you.
"Yes, it would." I note my soaring stress level and try to adopt the technique of the Shaman to calm me, but Genoah interrupts my quiet time.
"Perhaps there is another way to defeat Hazel. You say you mixed the formula wrong. Well maybe if you do a little more or less alchemy you can reverse some effects, then just put more back up her nose."
I am indeed impressed by Genoah's ability to problem-solve. She might make a good companion for someone. It's just that she is so fat and that tooth gap... More than half of her ample bosom is spilling out from her flimsy halter top and it is just not attractive at all.
"Do you have any more of that ointment leftover from a few nights ago? I know my way around the pharmacy a little bit."
Yes, but I left it in the pocket of the pants I wore over to Hazel's cottage that evening."
"Charon… These are the trousers you wore that evening. Check the pockets."
My left pocket has a receipt in it from a week ago but I am not able to search the pocket on my right side. There is still very little movement and no sensation in my right arm. I explain to her the problem and invite her to search my pocket with her own hand. I think she spends a lot more time than is necessary, rummaging about in my pocket, but soon she grasps and pulls out the cardboard vile containing the oily paste and rests it on the counter.
It is a little after 3 am when I leave Genoah's cottage and she gives me one of her marshmallow hugs. She shared more about why she could not tell me the truth and I sort of understand. I feel a little awkward knowing she was the midwife and witness to my birth, but there is little I can do about that now.
I walk back through the village then along the grassy bluffs of the Bay of Styx. It is a beautiful night. The dirty moon is at half staff, setting in the South-West. Venus is almost out of view but the tide is at near maximum. The path beneath shudders as large waves collide with the cliff face and the blowholes syringe sea-spray like an injection of wonderment. Ascending the rising towards my cottage I am stuck within my own footprints. Not from some malignant force of nature but by a realization about my existence and my order in this universe.
So Sarafina is not my birth mother. Hazel is. But who is my damn father? Was it Sarafina's partner, who I barely knew, or was it Hazel's husband? I am paralyzed in my familiar narrow gorge for the silliest of conundrums.
Whose broken-down rocking chair have I been sitting in all these years while I am not at sea? I realize now how fond I have been of referring to that piece of furniture as my father's broken rocking chair. I had a relationship with that chair I had not admitted because it was my father's. The fact it was broken and somewhat useless...just like him, means something to me. Whoever he is.
But what I may have lost in the fog of fatherhood I have gained in the brilliance of brotherhood. Pollux Beirut is my full fraternal sibling and I am filled with joy.
It's late but I still cannot sleep. A lot has happened in the last 16 hours so I try not to stress about it. Plotting to assassinate your own mother brings along a unique set of emotions with it. It hits me that although Genoah's idea is a good one, why would Hazel need a ladder to move to higher ground. I've seen her jump out of windows into uneven rocky ravines and climb walls without the aid of any tool. She's not going to follow me up any metal ladder.
I do not want to do this.
Just before I drift off I stumble on the perfect plan. I hope I remember it in the morning when I wake.
If I wake.
In the morning, I wake to music. Not from the AM station broadcasting from Quillion, but from the guitar strumming of my twin brother. He is practicing the chords to The dock of the bay by Otis Redding but he keeps getting stuck at the same place each time and starts over.
"Crenam-Byuu, Charon. Ukandye Prizeord."
"Where are Mamma gone?"
"I don't know, Baba. But Mamma Hazel may not come back." I hug him with my right arm as it's back to normal now.
"Are you hungry? Did you eat any food this morning?"
"Had food yes, from the trees. Sugar apples. Why are you so smiling?" He asks.
"Because you are my special brother now, more than ever."
"Ukandye Prizeord." He smiles like an eclipse of the moon moving across its lunar surface. A mirror of my own expression.
He rests his head on my shoulder. "It was happy to play at the party."
"I know. You are very very good. Keep practicing, alright. Where are you going today?"
"Going to Miss Genoah cottage. She help me to read books." He points at me in a gesture to ask me the same question.
"I'm going to see an old ferryman friend down in the market. I need to ask him to build me something only he can do. I hope he is still alive."
He lifts his head from my shoulder and continues to strum. "Will you wait half an hour for me to get ready? I will walk down the hills with you and drop you off at Miss Genoah."
As I walk down the ravine with my twin brother, my thoughts drift to the instructions I will give to Rhonin Ferryman. I knew him growing up. He was always kind to me, giving me a small token on or around my birthday. He must be in his late 80s and I worry that he may not be up to the task. If he can't do what I need from him, then I will have to come up with another plan to put down Hazel because he is a master at his craft of net weaving.
In the narrow streets of the Shard fishing village, a woman in a multicoloured, full-length skirt with white ruffles at her ankles sits in the shade of the Bansacho tree selling fruit. She points down an alley when I mention Rhonin's name.
This is good. He is still alive.
The alley ends abruptly around the bend, leading to an unpainted collection of rotting boards, held together by the adhesive of prayer, as far as I can see. There is enough fishing debris in front of the shack that I am convinced this is Rhonin's place. I knock with the knuckle of my middle finger, and that entire side of the house moves. By the fourth knock the door swings open but no one is standing in the doorway. I put one foot inside the musty room and call his name.
"Come in, Crenam-byuu." A weak voice beckons from behind the door. Rhonin is sitting on the floor propped up by oversized pillows and holding a length of rope attached to the door handle.
I am saddened when I see him as there is no way this man could construct what I want from him.
"Crenam-byuu, Rhonin Ferryman. I am sorry to call on you this day."
Rhonin is thin, almost emaciated. His fingers are gnarled like the roots of the same Bansacho tree and his eyes are sunken beneath his brow. One does not have to be trained in medicine to see he is dehydrated. I fill a cup on a table with water from a jug and allow him time to sip a few mouthfuls.
"Thank you, Charon. I was beginning to think that I would pass before you came to see me."
"What do you mean?"
He does not answer, rather he takes another sip of water.
"I was hoping to find you in better health because I had a job only you could do."
He grimaces and digs his twisted fingers into my forearm. I presume he is in severe pain but no noise escapes his parched mouth.
"It is hard to swallow sometimes. Forgive me."
"It is fine, Rhonin. What else can I get you?"
"Tell me what you wanted from me."
"It does not matter at this time. No point in saying my request."
"I'm a dying man. Grant me my last request."
"I needed an expertly woven fishnet made from steel coil." He grimaces once more but then it changes to a smile. Why is this man smiling?
He motions for me to lean closer. He has not had a bath in many days.
"I have made this item for you already."
I hear the words clearly but my eyes squint in a fugue of disbelief.
"In fact, this item has been ready for you for nearly two years."
He extends a shaky hand. Pointing to a curtain, he motions for me to reveal what's behind.
When I draw the blind, there is a neatly folded but browning net made of steel sitting in a pushcart.
Rhonin says from across the room. "I know you have questions. Many I am sure I cannot answer. I don't know why I made it for you but I was compelled to. Also, I could not get word to you because the timing had to be right. You had to come to me." His words are weak and halting but there seems an edge of joy for him to speak them.
"Rhonin this is better than I dreamed."
"Listen, son of Sarafina. I have known you all of your life. This net is heavy so take the cart. But be careful. It has begun to rust in parts. I tried to keep it oiled and protected, but the salt air is powerful."
Rhonin, I don't understand any of this. Please tell me something... How could you predict this request?"
"Time is short. Mistakes are made every day. You made a mistake. It is right for you to correct that mistake. I made a mistake a long time ago that nearly cost you your life. I did my part, so now you do yours."
I thank Rhonin again and again and prepare to leave with the pushcart. There is a photograph of a small ferry above the door and I am struck by the name on the vessel.
"Is this your vessel?"
"Was. It was damaged in the storm."
"Why did you call it that name? What does it mean?"
"I honestly don't know. It just came to me."
You bought another Ferry, didn't you?"
"Yes, I had to."
"Prizeord. You named the other vessel, 'Prizeord', didn't you?"
"Yes, how did you…"
I interrupt this dying man because I feel certain of my next words;
"You are the Ferryman who took me across the Bay of Styx to Quillion on the night of my birth."
A gasp escapes his open mouth and he shuts his eyes.
"Who brought me? A man. Who brought me to the boat?"
"A man, yes. I never knew his name."
"Was he my father? Where is he? Tell me, Rhonin."
"Please… I am an old man… I thought it was just a run for marijuana to the mainland and back. Instead, this man shows up with a baby and paid me tokens.
"Where is this man now?"
"Somewhere at the bottom of the ocean between here and Quillion. It was a night of angry seas. A very bad storm. I should have waited until it was over but I was brash at that age. He was swept overboard by a wave with you in his arms. I circled back, I don't know how you didn't drown too but he kept you aloft and tossed you back to me... He went under after that. I handed you to someone waiting at the docks in Quillion. You were thoroughly baptized in the Bay of Styx."
I look at Rhonin Ferryman from the door. I place my right palm over my heart as a gesture of gratitude and respect and bow my head.
The steel net is indeed heavy and transport would have been impossible without the pushcart. The woman with the colourful skirt in the shade of the Bansacho tree watches me and the cart with her unblinking eyes. I draw close to her fruit tray.
"How much for a bag of donks?"
"He will die soon," I say.
She fills a paper bag to the brim without ever taking her eyes off me and I pay her the money.
"He has died already. He was just waiting for you," she says with a slow blink and never reopens her lids.
It is two days after I met with Rhonin ferryman. This morning I borrowed my brother's button-up shirt and his guitar knowing he might never get them back again. It is the most serene setting; mother sun dipping ever lower to its finish line… sitting under a tree looking out over the nearby cliffs. I should be as calm as a fatted sloth, but I am so not calm.
My plan is simple; pose as Polli in the twilight and play her favourite song on his guitar.
Plotting my mother's assassination is easier than I thought. It turns out that there are some emotional channels that can be dammed up. So far so good I just hope any one of those dams doesn't burst at the wrong time.
I am sitting under the leafy protection of a bearded fig tree, with ropey vines that trellis from its branches. In between two of its roots on neon-green mossy soil, I look out past the hazy cliffs at the sun setting with reluctance. It seems she hardly wants to part with the pretty day she created. I strum the guitar to one of Hazel's favourite tunes while wearing Polli's shirt and my anxiety ramps up. I feel I need to calm myself before Hazel's showing.
If it even works.
The shaman's de-stressing method is beginning to work. I strum away breathing deeply through my windpipe when from above, the sound of twigs and small branches breaking is unmistakable.
Hazel lands, crouched like a crustacean, not ten feet away from me. I didn't think the lure would have worked this quickly. I have no idea how she could have gotten into the tree without me seeing.
"So it's you and not Pollux. What are you going to try and kill me with today, his guitar?"
"I'm sorry about that, mother. Yes, I know the truth now."
"I wanted you back as my own, but I don't anymore."
"Can we just make up and be like a mother and son again?"
"The Captain Fadon knew what you did to me. I have never felt so powerful or alive before. You will not take this from me."
"I was wrong to listen to him. I apologize, mother. I just wanted you to hear this from my mouth. No son should ever raise a hand against his blood." The tension in her neck muscles softens and she stands erect from her crouch.
"Your… Your father, on the night you were both conceived, told me I would have twins and one of you would be extraordinary and the other evil. So I gave the evil one to Sarafina…
"My father? Who is that…Where is he?"
"That is not important now. Too many years have passed.
"No, tell me… I need to know…" I rise to my feet with the intent of approaching her. I am still clutching the guitar by the neck and she crouches again. I pause and stare at the instrument and understand she sees it as a threat so I turn my back to lean it against the tree trunk out of sight.
It is easier than I thought.
I step off the concealed steel net and flip the catch lever and Hazel is whipped off her feet with the net closing tightly above her body.
No longer grounded and gripping the netting she arcs electricity in an ugly emotional display of writhing anguish.
She swears words I don't understand. It's hard to see your mother die before you, knowing you are the architect of her demise. I struggle to keep from releasing her, but I hold firm.
Without warning, the steel cage trapping my mother in her web begins to fray and wither at one of the rusty weak patches. I had hoped the brittle areas would have contained her, yet she falls limp to the ground.
Weekend and smoking, she gathers herself and I realize I don't have a plan for this option other than running away.
I don't expect to get more than 20 strides in before she catches up to me. By my 23rd stride, I can smell the charred, burning velocity of my mother in pursuit. She pounces and we both collapse to the mossy mud and roll together very close to the cliff edge. I feel the Earth shudder underneath my shoulders and the ocean jets through a crevice, spraying us both.
Hazel Beirut sits astride my chest. I swear this 78-year-old woman is coiled tighter than a boa constrictor.
"I don't believe I let my guard down with you. Very clever trick. You are the evil one indeed. You almost had me there."
She hits me hard across the face and I feel blood flow freely from my nose. I don't see many options open for me seeing my next birthday. She presses both palms against my shoulders and I receive a jolt of electricity of uncommon charge. Hazel crackles with luminance.
There is not much left to do but enter the transition in the calmest mood possible.
The revenge of the Shaman is at hand. I am surely being punished for the theft of his secret. So in a meager apology, I use his calming technique for the final time. My throat muscles are loose from Hazel's shock and the high-pitched song from my mouth distracts me enough.
"Not enough room on his island of Shard for the two of us, Charon Beirut. Your end is beckoning, but you can't die and surprise the Lord, right?"
I hear the howl of a hound. I'm sure of it.
Now Hazel's weight is off my chest and she struggles with someone. I can just about twist my neck in their direction and I see Truce snarling and ripping at Hazel's clothing.
Is she rescuing me? No, it can't be. Truce hates me.
They wrestle like prizefighters. Truce yelps as Hazel discharges the unnatural energy into her. It's not as powerful as the one she gave me seconds earlier and the dog pivots on her hind legs and lunges at her chest.
Hazel is surprised by the force and she stumbles backward, losing her footing, only to plunge over the cliff's edge and into the angry ocean below.
"You can't die and surprise the Lord!" she yells on her way down.
Truce lays limp and mewls in distress. She tries to get up but her hind legs are unresponsive. I pick her up and cradle that ugly drooling face against my shoulder. I have never seen a more beautiful dog in my existence.
A small crowd gathers in an arc around us as there has been much shouting and commotion. Polli and Genoah push through the throng and approach.
There is something different about Polli. I can't put my finger on it with certainty. Perhaps in his posture… the length of his stride maybe, but something is definitely different.
"Charon… Charon, are you alright? Your nose is bleeding. Thank the lord you are still alive!" Genoah hugs me and Truce at the same time. She twitches her hind legs to show Genoah that she will be alright. Then out of the blue, Truce licks my face with her pink and black slobbery tongue.
Wonders are infinite.
Genoah hands me a colourful cloth, almost identical to the pattern of the skirt of the fruit seller under the tree in front of the late Rhonin Ferryman's shack.
"Is mamma dead?" Asks Polli looking over the edge of the bluff.
"I think so, Polli. I hope so for the sake of this little island."
He purses his lips like he's sucking on candy. He seems unsure of the proper emotion to show.
"I know this… You can't die and surprise the Lord," he announces with a confident cadence.
"Genoah, is this what he's been saying since he was 16? Those were Hazel's last words also. Did you ever hear her speak them?
"No, never." Genoah's face is pinched with relief.
"How in the world is he speaking so clearly? He is even walking differently… like a man."
"I told you I have some alchemy talents. I added some things to the ointment you made and gave it to Polli yesterday.
"This is amazing. You are very skillful. Look at my brother now."
I put Truce down and pat Polli on his back.
"Charon, your nose is still bleeding. Use the handkerchief I gave you," insists Genoah. She watches me dab at the blood but then she snatches it from me and forcefully mops up the flow, holding it tight against my nostrils. It hurts, and it smells very pungent, but I let her take control, and the bleeding stops quickly.
It is eight days now since I killed my own mother near the Bay of Styx on the tiny island of Shard. Well, myself and my new best friend, Truce.
It is remarkable how Pollux has been rescued from his autistic fugue. He asks that we call him that now rather than Polli. His guitar-playing skills have accelerated beyond anything I could have imagined.
Genoah and I are having fun watching his improvement. We talk about him over the meals she's been cooking for me every day. We are spending much more time together now. As I have been saying... she's a good, smart woman but since the last day of Hazel Beirut, I cannot explain why her soft curves and her tooth space have become so attractive to me. I'm not sure what has brought on this unexpected about-face, but today I believe I will hold her hand when we take a walk through the village of Shard.