02 - 07

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 19

02 - 07

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  • زمان مطالعه 15 دقیقه
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7

SOME DAYS the wind hissed across the icefields, the snow blowing in sideways. Mister Peter carved his way out of the camp every morning and returned at nightfall. I imagined it was to the outpost that he was going, but I was not wholly certain. Watching him, I understood him to be a sensitive and intelligent man, quietly pragmatic in his solutions. I could not fathom why he’d elected to surrender his life to the unpredictable whims of Mister Wilde.

Also in the mornings Titch’s father worked at his experiments in the fourth igloo, a space he had devoted to the microscopic study of various kinds of ice. He spoke at length of the tiny creatures he found in the icy waters, and he showed a carefully tagged box of loose bones, describing the monster they had been taken from. A walrus, he called it. He showed me a long, spiralled horn and said it came from a sleek white whale that lived beneath the ice.

One day I sat sketching a specimen. And though I had made many a sketch before, I was suddenly astonished at myself—at what I could create with these thin, tremulous fingers with their nail beds lined always in dirt. The image seemed less a drawing than a haunting, a vision of the specimen’s afterlife, set down in a ghostly lustre of ink. How far I had come these long months; how much I had grown in both art and life.

I sensed a breath at my neck, and turned to find Mister Wilde peering unexpectedly over my shoulder. I jolted, then turned to face the small man, surprised as always to find his face nearly eye to eye with mine, his fish-scented breath rasping in his throat. He bore the same bright green eyes as Titch, but his were smaller, flintier, with odd pinpoints of light in the irises. He stared down at my hands and paper, and it was as though his eyes were finely dissecting every stroke of my sketch.

“Hm,” he said, sounding both surprised and unimpressed. “There is talent there.”

Then he smiled at me, and it was like a flash of violence, all wooden teeth and gums. Seeing it, something shrank in me. I felt both his intense awe and his mockery, as if he were watching some insensible creature perform an unnatural act, as if a hothouse plant had learned to speak.

I left off drawing in the afternoons, and instead would walk with Titch and his father, checking the various small cages and traps Mister Wilde had set around the perimeter. They were, without fail, always empty. One afternoon we came across the deep-set tracks of a polar bear. We followed them for several hours, and when we reached open ice, the trail vanished. Mister Wilde came to himself then; he glanced at the darkening sky and his eyes filled with alarm. We hurried for miles back to the camp, arriving just as everything went black on the horizon.

All this I observed with real interest. But my true study remained, I understand now, the curious person of Titch. He was, I feared, becoming increasingly lost within himself. I suppose there must have been a deep love between him and his father, a love I could get no sense for because of its reticence. But as with most loves, it was shadowy, and painful, and confusing, and Titch seemed to me overly eager and too often hurt.

I could see a sadness coming over him, a kind of slow despair. I understood he was anguished over his father—over his failure to ever impress the man, over how to explain that Philip had killed himself and that we were now in hiding. Each night, as we lay in our furs in the close darkness of that igloo, I listened to Titch breathing, and felt the increasing dread in him, like a heat. I was worried.

Finally I could no longer hold my tongue. “You must tell him, Titch,” I said into the darkness. “He has to know what has happened.”

“Do you suppose it was a trap, all this? That Erasmus and Philip concocted the falsehood of my father’s death so that Erasmus could get away from Faith and trap me there?”

“But that is madness. Consider that your father was aware of the rumour also. No, I do not think it likely.”

“Yes, you are right,” he muttered.

“Please do tell him everything, Titch.”

He lay there breathing heavily in the dark, and did not speak.

— THAT NIGHT I dreamed, for the first time in months, of Big Kit. We were standing at the edge of the cane at sunset and there were tiny flecks of insects feeding in the darkening air. A haze of pale light was furred around Kit’s head, like a halo, and I could not make out her face. She reached forward and held my hand, and her touch was terribly cold. I gave her a pair of thick fur-lined mittens. Then somehow we were standing in the snow, the world so white around us. Kit’s face looked wondrous to me, dark, sombre, beautiful. I studied it.

“You be my eyes, Wash,” she said to me.

And reaching up and with her fingers, she forcibly pressed her own eyes in. A wide blue light shone out from the sockets.

I felt—and this is the peculiar truth—a sense of peace and well-being come over me. I understood a great gift of trust was being extended to me.

When I awoke in the darkness, I was crying.

— I DID NOT accompany Titch the next morning when he went with his father to the camp’s perimeter to inspect the cages. Rather, I walked to the edge of the encampment, the eyes of the men there trailing me, and I made vivid, detailed sketches of the igloos.

When at last Titch returned that afternoon from his father’s observation igloo, he sat a long time in the dim light of our shelter, staring at his mittens, not troubling to remove his heavy clothes. I too was dressed for the outdoors, for I could not get warm enough, and I had been fumbling with a needle and thread trying to sew up a small hole in the thumb of my mitten. I glanced across at Titch, but did not speak. For a long time we sat, unmoving, while the weather blew past outside.

At last Titch stirred, rubbing at his reddened face. “Do you know what a family is?” he said bitterly. He turned and met my eye, studying me some moments. “You do not know what a family is, because you have never had one. That is why you think it matters.” He shifted on his knees and, pulling his pack from beside the low ice shelf, began filling it with provisions.

“You have told him, then?” I said nervously.

Titch continued to stuff our provisions into his pack.

“What did he say? Titch?”

Still he did not speak, only shifted on his creaking knees in the dim light.

“Surely he is not casting us out? I hope you did emphasize it to him that I was nothing to do with it, the death. And that Mister Willard—”

I let my voice falter and drift off.

Titch had paused, was leaning back on his haunches, measuring me. “Do you know what he said, when he learned of Philip’s death? Do you know what his words were? ‘The boy was too thoughtful for his own good.’ ” Titch laughed in misery. “That is who we are dealing with, Wash. That is the man who is my father.”

I hesitated. “Does he understand about Mister Willard? Does he understand what he means to do?”

“He seemed reluctant to inform either Erasmus or my mother of his being still alive. He keeps saying he would not like to startle them. I believe he sees some advantage in their ignorance. If they believe him dead, he does not have to be troubled by them just yet—he can simply continue on with his research, with his life here with Peter.” He moistened his cracked lips, frowned. “I have explained that Erasmus cannot be pressed to remain at Faith without proof of his still being alive. I have explained how my word alone will carry no weight. He pretends not to understand. ‘Far be it from me to interfere in your brother’s business dealings.’ This he actually said. He is fully aware of where the resources funding his research originate.” Titch spat angrily at his boots. “This is who my family is, Wash. This is my blood.” He shook his head. “It would not surprise me at all to learn that he is the very source of the falsehood.”

I stared at him only half-comprehending, my heart shunting in my chest.

“I am not staying in any place,” he said bitterly. “Do you understand me? I am not staying in England, I am not staying in America, I am not staying in the Indies, and I am certainly not staying here.”

A dread came over me then. We had reached, it seemed, the very summit of the earth; there would be no better place to hide. I tried to smile. “There is nothing in any of those places for me either. Where shall we go, then?”

But Titch had turned away from me again and was silent. I felt a sudden misgiving. I studied the jagged outline of his profile, saw in the dim light the white line of his scar trailing like a fine hair from the side of his mouth. I felt there was more he was not saying, something that had driven him beyond anger, caused him to despair. Whatever else they had discussed, it had raised in him a deep anguish.

“Titch,” I said gently. “I will go wherever you wish.”

When he looked at me, his eyes were red.

“I will go wherever.”

“You are steadfast, Wash.” His expression was unreadable. He clasped my hands in his heavy mittens, the two of us kneeling in the small igloo, the smoky residue of the seal fat in the lamp darkening the air. “No matter how changed I am,” he said at last, “I know that you will know me.”

I stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Your life is not my own. Do you understand me? I did not ask you to accompany me here.” He cleared his throat. “What I am saying is, we are north, Wash. It is not Upper Canada, but you will be safe here.” He turned to me, and I saw the anguish in his eyes. “I have made arrangements with Peter. He will see to your safety. I have left you money, provisions.”

“What are you saying, Titch?”

He crawled from me then, taking up his pack of supplies. Shoving it ahead of him and out of the entrance, he wriggled out after it, into the blistering cold of the day.

— THE SNOW WAS BLOWING in at a sharp angle; the wind forced me sideways when I too crawled out of the igloo. All was very white, dazzling. There was a barrenness to the odd light coming down through the snow. I hunched my shoulders, squinted into the white. I could see Titch’s crooked silhouette leaning to one side to counterbalance the weight of his pack as he started south. His boot prints were already filling with new snow. I did not hesitate; I drew my hood tight around my face, clenched my teeth and floundered after him.

Here again, as in Virginia with the s@xton Mister Edgar Farrow, I felt Titch was trying to liberate himself from me. And again he would do it under the guise of granting me safety.

How terrifying, to think of having to make my way alone here. Look at the white wastes. The impossible cold. I was thirteen years old, with no one at all in the world. And so I crunched stubbornly after him through the deep snow, my legs stiff in their heavy hides. I did not hurry; I struggled only to keep him in view. After a time he paused, clapping his mittens together and looking all around him as the snow came down harder. I stood some paces away, panting.

“You are like a ghost,” Titch hollered to me. “Go back.”

The roar of the wind and snow was increasing. It would be sometime past mid-afternoon by now, but the light had not dimmed, only shifted. We stood in that obliterating whiteness, as though the world had vanished.

“You will not leave me, Wash,” he shouted. “Even when I am gone. That is what breaks my heart.”

I did not understand. Yet it seemed to me he meant to kill himself by going into the snow. “Let us both turn back,” I called out helplessly. “At least until this weather has passed. Then we can make our way to the trading post together. To go further in this is madness.”

I could not see his face, only the fur rippling at his hood. He shouted, “Go back, Wash.”

I turned, pausing. I could not see our footsteps in the snow—everything was white, raging.

“If you cannot find the path,” he shouted, “stay where you are. You will be found.”

“We should both wait here,” I shouted. “We should wait out this weather.”

Titch slung his pack down into the snow between us.

“Yes,” he cried.

He was facing me, but took several steps backwards into the storm.

I struggled with the pack, swung it awkwardly up, stumbling back into the snow. “Wait,” I shouted. “It is too heavy.”

“Yes,” he cried again. But he had turned his face into the wind, as if listening. He started to walk out into the whiteness.

“Titch,” I shouted at him.

He entered a white void, and the roaring oblivion of that place closed around him, ate him whole. And so it was that he walked calmly out of his life, and was lost.

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