02 - 06

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 18

02 - 06

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6

AH, BUT THE COLD. I dreamed about that cold for years after. It had a colour, a taste—it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze. My healed ribs started to ache. I could not catch my breath.

We journeyed in a strange sled-like contraption drawn by a team of wet-jawed dogs. Titch, Mister Peter and I sat in the bed of the sled; the guide stood behind us, crying out hoarsely to his creatures. The long blades of the sled jounced and bumped across the packed snow. I listened to the runners scrape and hiss as we went. We were wrapped and blanketed until we could not move. In all my life I had not dreamed such a place possible, had not thought snow could be so solid, so vast. The knifing winds carved it into towers, sharpened it to precipices and chasms. And all this, I thought, squinting through raw, frozen eyelids—all this is only water, nothing more.

I had been warned by Mister Ibel that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold—it was the devouring of heat, a complete sucking of warmth from the blood until what remained was the absence of heat. When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping.

North we went, north and then west, and then north again. We stopped to rest the dogs; our guide tethered them to stakes he had driven into the ice, to keep them from attacking each other. They sat, hunched white mounds of fur ruffling in the wind, their eyes slivered shut. I made a quick, vivid sketch in pencil, wondering at their ferocity. Our guide passed us a small cube of what Titch explained must be blubber. It tasted rank, oily, but I did not complain.

And all the while we spoke very little about what we were venturing towards, or what we were leaving behind. I thought of my life at Faith and it all seemed a figment, a distant, vicious dream.

— WE HAD LEFT in the dark hour of the morning, and we rode swiftly all day, stopping on occasion to rest. We finally arrived very late in the afternoon, as the darkness was descending again. I had observed an increasing uneasiness in Titch as we travelled, as though he were not yet ready to meet with his whole and living father. I understood we had arrived when our guide drew the dogs to a halt at the centre of five large snowdrifts, the blades of his sled hissing to a stop. Mister Peter stepped down from the hold, his beard full of ice, and began unpacking the wooden crates that made up our backrest. Titch and I shifted uncomfortably, not speaking as the sled was gradually disassembled.

My tongue felt huge and cold in my mouth. My voice creaked after the long, frozen silence of the sled. “Are we here?” I asked Titch hoarsely. “Is this your father’s camp?”

For I saw now they were not snowdrifts at all, but domes of ice, five of them, arranged in a rough pattern. I was astonished to see these habitats; fear cut through me, as though I was gazing upon the site of a resurrection. As we slid down from the sled, struggling to our feet, I glimpsed hides draped over the entrances. Mister Peter made rapid gestures with his fingers, then pointed to the third dome.

“They are called igloos, Wash,” Titch said through his oiled sealskin, his voice wavering, nervous. “The ice acts as an insulator. It keeps the inside perfectly warm.”

I doubted this very much. But I had seen enough strangeness to understand the world was unfathomable. Titch, I knew, would find such a notion unscientific, but it mattered very little to me from where I stood, a child of the tropics, half-obliterated by a cold that made my mended ribs ache. I turned and studied the darkening snowfields around us. Mister Willard felt like a haunting from another life entirely. Truly, we were at the ends of the earth.

Titch was already crunching through the snow towards the third dome. He paused at the entrance, and as he glanced back to Peter, I glimpsed the uncertainty in his face. But Mister Peter and the Esquimau were already disentangling the dogs from the harnesses, staking them in a row.

Titch hesitated a moment longer, then squatted down on his hands and knees to draw the hide curtain to one side and crawl through.

I ran over the snow, slipping, and slid to a stop abruptly at the entrance. My heart clapping in my chest, I drew a breath and went in too.

The inside was bright but smoky, a stink of burning fat in the air.

“Hello?” I heard Titch murmur. There was a clatter from within, and then stillness. “Is anyone here?”

I remained crouched on my hands in the entrance, straining to see past Titch.

And then I glimpsed him, a man rising from the shadows: like a figure from myth, the great patriarch of the Wildes, Fellow of the Royal Society, recipient of the Copley Medal and the Bakerian lectureship, the man whose learning had kindled his son’s mind and never burned down, the man who had drawn us north through icefield and hazard, against what odds, oh, that man, whose very treatise on the icy nature of comets once left the Sorbonne in chaos, whose learning could be expressed in twelve languages, who admired the jokes of the Tartars and the salads of the Inca, who had instructed his three-year-old son to scoop when his hand held a knife and to cut when it held a spoon, for no person ought to assume a tool’s use is determined by the tool, the man of a thousand lifetimes, who had set his heavy English leather boots on the soil of five continents, and collected the mud from each—I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.

He peered out at us, a light frown on his hard, round face. I saw he had his four front teeth out, upper and lower, and in their place were wooden ones.

— I COULD NOT SHAKE the sense that we had come to meet our own deaths.

Titch was in a paralysis of astonishment. He hugged his father, held on with a kind of anguish, while Mister Wilde patted at his back, openly embarrassed by his son’s affections. Then, swiftly disentangling himself, Mister Wilde gestured for us to follow; sparing me no glance, he slipped gracefully out through the igloo’s entrance. I trailed after Titch, and Titch followed his father, his steps ambling, sloppy, like those of a drunk. More than once he almost slipped, so numb with shock was he. How I felt for him, in his state. To actually witness his father alive, after months of believing him dead—I could hardly fathom the distress of it.

We were led back outside to the fifth igloo, where inside we found a group of Esquimaux eating some pale, whitish repast. They raised their faces to us, their eyes gliding past Titch to fix on me. What an improbable creature I must have seemed to them, a boy black as the winter sea and ruinously burnt. They followed me with quiet eyes, chewing.

Only when we’d settled in amongst the men did Titch attempt to speak.

Mister Wilde raised a sharp hand. “I know why you are come.”

Titch hesitated, glancing at the other men there. “I do not think you do, Father.”

“You are come,” said Mister Wilde, his bright eyes wide and light-filled, “because you believed me dead.”

Titch and I glanced quietly at each other. The days of nervous anticipation had exhausted us both, and in the flickering brown light of these cramped quarters Titch appeared haggard, used up. The heat in here was most oppressive, smelling blackly of animal fat, the main sound that of the other men’s jaws working moistly. The men were part of Mister Wilde’s small encampment here, for though he and Mister Peter craved isolation, it was impossible for two white men to live alone in these plains. Mister Peter came and went with his Esquimau comrade, and together they supplied Mister Wilde with all the goods and tools he needed from the outposts. One sensed Mister Wilde had little to no communion with the Esquimaux himself—they were a necessity only, insurance against death. Mister Peter was his intermediary, and indeed the only man with whom he seemed to converse. They sat in the near silence of the igloo, their active hands casting shadows in the warm orange light. With Mister Peter he was affectionate and even tender. He touched him a great deal, even once tugging the greying hair at his nape softly. Titch often looked at his own hands as they spoke. He grew flustered and appeared flushed in the unnatural light. Mister Peter stayed but a short while, then left again with one of the Esquimaux on an errand.

“I knew there was much rumour,” Mister Wilde said when Titch attempted once again to explain the full impact of the fraud. “I was first made aware of it when Peter received a letter from a colleague in Mexico asking after my death. We did not think much of it until a second letter arrived from Germany—a friend in Heidelberg lamenting my passing. But I had no notion of the rumour reaching you and your mother. It seems I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity. I am horrified. If I’d anticipated how widely it would spread, I would of course have sent word dispelling the falsehood. In fact I will need to post a note to your mother at once.”

“But who concocted the lie? How did it reach us?”

“Has the altitude impaired your hearing, boy? I have just said I do not know.”

Titch was silent.

His father’s top lip twitched painfully over his wooden teeth, and I realized he was attempting to smile. “I do thank you, Christopher, for the sentiment you have shown in coming all this way, though you see now it is a fool’s errand.”

Titch stared down at his hands, and for some moments the only sound was of the men shifting in their thick clothes.

Then Titch said, “Please do not mention I have come here, when you do write to her.”

“Stolen off again, have you?” Mister Wilde chuckled, scratching at his chin. “Ah, Christopher.”

I listened sleepily to their halting voices, and it was as though both belonged to ghosts, so gauzy and hollow were they.

Abruptly I was awoken, and Titch and I were given heavy furs for sleeping and a small dish with a seal-fat candle for light. The floor was laid with furs and wooden planks underneath, though I could not imagine where wood had been procured in this wasteland. Perhaps from a trading vessel at the outpost.

Stacked against the far walls were wooden crates with numbers burned into them; these we did not disturb. I lay down, and almost at once felt a wash of exhaustion come over me.

“Titch,” I mumbled. “What did you think when first you laid eyes on him? You must have been very shocked, and very happy.”

“Rather more shocked than happy, I think. Indeed, it is difficult to get beyond the shock. And being again in his presence, I am reminded of how—well, how complex he can be.” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I did not think his camp would be so big.”

“Yes.”

“He has been here a long time, hasn’t he?”

“A lifetime, I think. Even before he came here, he was here.”

“What will we do now, Titch? Will he hide us here? For how long?”

“Sleep, Wash,” Titch murmured. “There will be time enough to discuss it.”

“Mm,” said I, and wrapped myself deeper in the furs.

“Go to sleep,” he said again.

And I did.

— THAT IGLOO, that house of ice, proved indeed a warm and inviting refuge. I awoke cozy and satisfied, and in the easy blue warmth could not wager how late I had slept. Titch was already awake and gone, his furs neatly rolled and set at the foot of his sleeping pallet.

It had snowed in the night, lightly, and I saw where Titch had brushed the sleet from the entrance of our igloo. I could make out the trace of his boot prints leading to the second igloo. I discovered him sitting cross-legged inside with his father, the two of them eating some grey, rubbery breakfast.

“Wash,” Titch said with a cautious smile. “Come in, do. The repast is nourishing, though bitter. Take it in your fingers, like so.”

I watched him eat and smile, but I caught a slight shudder as he swallowed.

“Is there nothing else?” I said.

“It is not fancy, boy,” said Mister Wilde, “but it is enough to keep you alive in a place that wants to kill you. Eat it and keep your wits.”

I glanced at the old, unkempt scientist, but I could not determine if he was joking.

The grey substance had been cut roughly into cubes. I stuck out a tongue, licked at it nervously.

“Do not taste it, Wash,” laughed Titch. “Two quick chews and a swallow and there you have it.”

“The taste grows on you, boy. I did not care for it either at first. But after all this time I do not mind it so.” Mister Wilde chuckled.

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man?”

“Peter?”

“Your Esquimau, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant.” The smile eased from Mister Wilde’s face, and he gave Titch a strange, disapproving glance. I was beginning to recognize the sudden shifts in his temperament and to dread their swiftness. “I should think you of all men would understand that, Christopher.”

Titch flushed. “Hesiod is not in the employ of you and Peter?”

“He comes and he goes at his choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue. The idea would not make any sense to him.” Mister Wilde frowned and tapped some yellow powder into the ice in front of him. I watched as the yellow seeped through the surface, blooming. “Hesiod is not of the local tribes, Christopher. His people are much further west. He finds our company more agreeable to the degenerates at the trading post.”

“Why degenerates, Mister Wilde?” I asked quietly.

He belched quietly. “Eh?”

“Why do you call them degenerates?” I said again.

“Because they are. They are drunks and petty schemers and they whore out their women to the sailors.” He said this brusquely. I had seen the men in their kayaks during the off-loading of the Calliope and I was not so convinced. Aside from the trader, no man I had yet encountered here seemed anything but dutiful and industrious. But I kept my thoughts to myself.

“Hesiod is a curious name,” I said instead.

“It is not his name. We call him Hesiod because some of the men here consider him a great poet. His true name is unpronounceable.” Mister Wilde stretched his mouth into a grimace and, baring his wooden teeth, uttered a long string of guttural grunts and squawks. “That is the closest I can get to it.”

“Fascinating,” said Titch. “It rather resembles the language of the natives of Borneo.”

“Ha!” said his father in disgust. “Listen to the glottal stops and tell me that again. The Borneo tongue! You have no ear for philology, Christopher.”

“I should stick to aeronautical studies,” Titch said, his cheeks colouring.

“Is that what you were pursuing in Barbados? Lighter-than-air constructions?”

Titch looked somewhat startled. “Erasmus wrote it to you?”

His father shrugged. “He only said you were there wasting his resources. He did not tell me the nature of that wastage.” He chuckled. “Ah, you boys. Always chafing at each other. Now we are speaking of it, I haven’t had a letter from your brother in months.”

Titch frowned. “He thinks you are dead, Father.”

“Ah, that he does. Right.”

I watched Titch shift, clear his throat as he prepared to describe his work, our work. But before he could speak, his father was talking again.

“Peter is my true assistant, not Hesiod,” Mister Wilde said to me, as if he would have the truth acknowledged. “Been with me these, oh, twenty-two years now. It is he who sorts out the particulars of our experiments. Transports the apparatuses, collects specimens, keeps us from walking into the northern wastes and never coming out. He has been for years my truest companion.” As he spoke, I saw a look of mortification pass over Titch’s face; only when his father paused did he glance up.

Mister Wilde gestured a thick, leathery hand in my direction. “Much like what you have with your boy here. Companionship.”

“I should think not,” said Titch archly. He glanced outside at the men passing silently by. “It seems a waste, does it not, to be unable to communicate with all these men, to learn their stories, their histories? You are a man of languages, Father. Why have you not attempted to learn theirs?”

But Titch’s father had already turned and was rummaging through a low stack of leather-bound books, their paper warped.

Now Titch cleared his throat, and spoke to his father’s back. “Father, you will not believe how it was we managed to arrive here. Do you remember when I improved upon your sketches of a cutter tethered to an aerostat? Some three, four years ago?”

“Where did I put it?” Mister Wilde muttered, still sorting through his books.

Titch gave me a quick, uneasy smile, looked again to his father’s back. “My Cloud-cutter, I called it. Do you recall?”

His father rummaged and rummaged, muttering. “Oh. Right—that damnable craft. I remember it. Do not tell me you have actually attempted its construction?”

“Better than attempted, Father—Washington and I completed it. We built it, and launched it from a hilltop at Faith.”

His father turned sharply, his eyes wide and critical. “And where is it, then?”

Titch’s eyes flickered to his lap, and he gave a series of fleeting, tremulous smiles. “At the bottom of the sea, I am afraid.”

“But we should have remained airborne had there not been a storm,” I broke in, shyly. “It was circumstance only, sir. She was as sound and viable a craft as any. You would have been proud to see her, sir.”

Mister Wilde glanced from me to Titch, chuckling into the scraggly black tangle of hairs at his chin. “Well, I do hope you are better haulers than aeronauts. Peter left early this morning. I will need you to carry my instruments.”

— THE DAYS PASSED. The hours were short and dark and fleeting, with nightfall coming swiftly. Titch did not mention the Cloud-cutter again, and his father did not ask after it. Instead, they spoke of their family life with a curious detached air. There was a distance, a wryness, in Titch’s manner that did not resemble the man who had grieved at the news of the death on Faith Plantation. I understood this to be his father’s doing—that Mister Wilde was a man with a broken apparatus in place of a heart. It was not, I came to believe, that he did not love; only that he loved intermittently.

They spoke for hours. I listened. I learned of a life and a world I would never have imagined for Titch. I heard stories of his mother, accounts of their travels to Paris. I heard tales of a greenhouse on their estate in England filled with poisonous flowers. And I heard, most strangely, about Erasmus Wilde as a boy, how Titch and his brother would swim naked in the lake on their property and then run through the halls of their house still without clothes, startling the servants. I heard about the night when Erasmus and Titch painted their bodies with the notion of being African priests and made a bonfire in the courtyard out of the dining room furniture, chanting and singing in the firelight until their mother threw buckets of water on both boys in horror. I heard how Mister Wilde had taken Titch to witness an aerial ascent in Norwich from Ranelagh Gardens, the balloon a perfect incandescent orb in the sky before its slow plummet into the sea. I heard how Mister Wilde stood explaining the idea of gases even as the balloonist drowned in the waters, how Titch had begun trembling at the sight of the accident and was not able to stop until halfway back to Granbourne. I heard also of Titch’s tenth year, how he had been ill and frail and lost half his body weight, of how in these bleak days his brother had nicknamed him “Titch,” on account of how tiny he had become. I heard how the doctors had insisted on bloodletting but his mother had prevented them.

“She saved your life, son,” said Mister Wilde, suddenly tender. “A brilliant woman.”

I looked at him curiously, trying to imagine this stout, unwashed, ugly man with his wife. I could not. He had begun to reminisce now of his wife, Abigail Wilde, remembering her youth in Liverpool and how, when they had first met, at a ball, they had spoken until sunrise about the complicated imprecisions in hand-copied maps and the lack of standard Continental measures. He had known from that moment that the solitude he had lived inside for his entire youth might not be his fate. Titch said nothing to this, I noticed. He said only, “Erasmus and I used to watch her as she sat for her Italian lessons in the afternoons. She was the most beautiful creature we knew.”

“You were children,” his father said. “You knew nothing of beauty.”

“Children know everything about beauty,” Titch countered softly. “It is adults who have forgotten.”

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