03 - 06

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 25

03 - 06

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IWAS A COWARD; I admit it. But everything troubled me then, nothing was right.

Some days later, at Fummerton’s Dry Goods, I was handed a sack of flour, a bag of sugar and a bolt of lady’s fabric to deliver. It was a common-enough order, nothing remarkable. But the name on the package arrested my eye.

Mister Goff.

I realized I had never given any thought to her living situation. Mister Goff. I felt something dim in me, go dark. So there was, in the end, a husband.

It took me nearly an hour to reach the shack at the edge of the red dirt lane—twice the length of time it should have done. I took uncommon roads, always watchful, tense. I felt sick, and recognized it was as much from fear of who I would discover at this address as it was of Willard. Finally I reached a small saltbox house painted pale blue, surrounded by tall, wild grasses and bramble pulsing with purple chokecherries. Someone had flung a strange iron contraption on the porch, its front wheel tilted askew. I mounted the creaking steps, scraped my boots on the straw mat, which was fraying so badly that loose strands of it flitted across the worn porch boards.

I dropped the knocker, hearing a man’s muffled voice behind the door. Then, with a suddenness that caused me to step back, he answered, his pale face grimacing against the brightness. He was rather old, and short, and stocky, and as he peered up at me I saw his eyes were dark, unblinking and seemingly without pupils, the eyes of a fanatic.

“What, then?” he said, his teeth very small and false-looking. He was searching my face, and seemed now wary, nervous.

“Delivery, sir.” I glanced at the package, as though I had not memorized it already. “For a Mister Goff?”

He frowned down at my hands, then turned and barked into the darkness behind him, “Your parcels are come.” He grimaced in frustration. “Is this it? Is this all?” Before I could make any response, he had stepped back into the dark reception hall.

I felt a ghostly sense of recognition then, as though I had stood on this porch before, delivering just these items.

He waved a distracted hand, bidding me come in. I hesitated, then stepped into the modest hall, the air inside cool and smelling faintly of lemons. He had a funny little stride like a child’s, full of quick steps, and very swiftly he led me into a parlour full of old and desperate furniture: in one corner, under a grimy clerestory window, sat a chair with a broken leg glued back on in slightly the wrong spot; the red silk cushion on the threadbare settee was vomiting feathers. But it was the boxes strewn all about that I marvelled at: recklessly tossed there, they held dried starfish, large crabs, other sea fauna. On the pine desk tucked under the far window, a tiny, brown, desiccated seahorse was in the process of being pinned in a box.

He walked to the desk and, with his plump, coarse hands, shoved a stack of books onto the floor. They flew down in a clatter, their pages flapping open. A veil of dust radiated from the rug.

“Go on and set them there,” he said, gesturing at the now-cleared space. “Pantry’s a mess just now.”

I did as asked, and stooped to retrieve the books. I turned a spine to read the title. “Oh, but this one is wonderful, sir,” I said, forgetting myself. “You would do better than to treat it so.”

He eyed me sharply. “Like that one, do you?”

I had pored over many such books in the library at Faith, during those lazy days of healing from the blast. I peered up at him. “It is a favourite. Do you also know his Cnidaria and Cephalopoda Past and Present? It too is very fine. I confess I have not read it, only looked at the illustrations, but I found them mesmerizing. I do believe the author does his own sketches. He is frightfully talented—a fine, clear hand. I will say, though, that I do not believe he has ever outdone his watercolours in the Resplendence of Nudibranchia—”

My voice trailed off, seeing the old man’s face. I rose slowly.

“Why, you are that Goff,” said I, softly. “You are G. M. Goff. Is it not so?”

He stood grimacing, and it was some moments before he grunted his assent. For he was a greatly celebrated marine zoologist, a man whose books I had studied with a religiosity and fervour rarely given to anything. His shading was unconventional, so strange as to sometimes feel wrong, his oddly drawn observations made gorgeous by the threadlike clarity of his line.

“Take an interest in science, do you?” His voice had softened somewhat. “What is your area of study?”

“Marine life, sir, though I shrink to say it before a man of your accomplishment.”

“What a rare and fortunate meeting this is, then,” he said, and though he did not cease to frown, I understood some part of him was pleased. His eyes were so dark in his face they looked depthless, like night waters.

“But why are you here, sir? I rather pictured you in a manor house in England. You do not reside here?”

“Ah, research, my boy, research. I am collecting specimens. Then it is back to England. There are some fascinating crinoids to be found here.”

“Indeed,” said I, a little too forcefully. The light shifted in the room, grew sootier, as though a cloud had passed over the sun.

Goff wiped his ink-stained palms on the front of his black waistcoat. “Well. Well. You are an interesting and knowledgeable young man. Forgive me—your name?”

“George Washington Black.”

“George Washington,” said he.

“Black,” said I.

“Indeed,” said he.

“My acquaintances call me Wash.”

He paused, turning something over in his mind. “This will seem unorthodox. But my daughter and I, we do so suffer for kindred company. I have two delightful sisters, one in England, one in France, but here we find ourselves quite isolated and alone. In any case, Tanna and I were thinking of taking a boat out upon the sea tomorrow noon. It being a Saturday, perhaps you are free to accompany us? Nothing dangerous, of course, just a rowboat and a good lunch. We’re recording observations for my new book.” He grunted. “Perhaps you are otherwise engaged. So late an invitation.”

I had heard only one word: daughter. His daughter. I breathed out in relief. “There could be no finer way to pass an afternoon, sir.”

I watched a strange, crooked smile pass over his face.

“Ah, splendid, wonderful. Tomorrow, then, at the cove. Let us say twelve o’clock.” And then, frowning and mumbling to himself, he took his seat at his desk, as if I had already gone.

— I PAUSED IN the brisk sea air. At the water’s edge a small rowboat lay tilted deep in the sand, and I watched from a distance as two figures lumbered awkwardly with it, the woman attempting to guide the oars with a bandaged hand while the other—unmistakably Goff, in his dark suit of clothes—pushed against its side, trying to right it. Behind them the sea heaved in bright waves, the foam white and radiant.

I walked slowly towards them. It was a bitterly cold day, the sky very blue and clear. I listened to my boots sludge through the damp sand, the loose clasp on my portfolio clicking. The air stank of rotted sea tubers, sour and appalling. John Willard and his vengeance felt very far away.

I was still some way off when the woman raised her head, and even at that distance, even beneath the wide-brimmed bonnet, I could see her: the dark, freckled face with its faintly stained teeth. I stood there in the sand, my heart clapping in my chest. I could hear nothing, not even the sea.

Catching sight of me, she did not smile but only stared angrily, until I looked away. Goff’s face, though, brightened into his crooked smile. “What prodigious timing,” he said, offering his large, rough hand. He had on his face today a curious pair of spectacles, so that his already probing eyes seemed to pulse. “Come, Mister Black, do help us.”

“Good day,” I said to them both, awaiting some introduction. Tanna did not answer; Goff made no move to present her. I took my place at the side of the boat, began pushing.

“Brought some paints, have you?” said Goff, nodding at the portfolio I’d set down in the sand. “My daughter here will sketch on my behalf, though she is still a novice, and did indeed fracture her wrist some months ago. Until last week she had been coming down early mornings to attempt to paint the tide pools. She is a bold girl, my little Tanna. It was weeks before I even realized she’d been leaving the house early. When I did, I insisted upon accompanying her, for safety. And do you know what? She would rather stay at home than have her freedom compromised.”

I glanced at Tanna. She gripped her bandaged hand with the long, slender fingers of the other. She did not look at me.

I turned to Goff, expecting again some introduction.

He peered at me with his quiet black eyes, his irises swimming behind his finger-marked spectacles.

“Well, let’s get on with it,” he said.

Tanna spared me a glance by the side of her bonnet; she appeared irritated.

But to feel her eyes on me, even in annoyance, sent a pleasurable shiver through my body. I lowered my face.

What a strange journey we embarked upon that afternoon, full of anguish and desire and wonder. I took out my paints and papers and made sketches of passing fish, which Goff admired with surprised grunts. I had improved much these last months, so that I was drawing quite as well as my boyhood self. It was still strange to think of my complete proficiency at that age, the boy I’d been, the near man I was now. So much had shifted within me.

For lunch Tanna had brought along a late breakfast, and by the thin light of the overcast sun Tanna unwrapped it, wordlessly passing us boiled eggs and black bread and cold smoked salmon. Goff and I took turns paddling out, and then all at once we were floating on what seemed the heart of the sea, only water to be seen for miles, the reflection of the beach shacks on the surface long ago sunken away.

“You have no children, young man?” said Goff.

I paused; it seemed vaguely absurd, given my youth. “I do not.”

“Ah, well, children are a blessing, though I understand not everyone finds it so. My daughter here was born on my journey to the Solomon Islands when I travelled there to study Pterois some twenty-odd years ago. Her mother, oh, what a fine woman she was—fiery, strong-willed, a good thinker. Tanna here is just the same, takes after her soundly. I did not plan to bring her away with me from the island—as if I were collecting her along with the lionfish and such. I did not like that she should grow up so divorced from her society. But her mother had passed on, and it did not seem right to abandon her. In any case, she has been my salvation. You cannot imagine what tremendous help a daughter is. She is as passionate about marine life as her old father here, a true partner in my studies.”

All this Tanna listened to without betraying the slightest pleasure or distaste. I was aware of her soft breathing, the way her legs moved beneath the fabric of her skirts. Our knees scraped accidentally, and so fierce a heat rose up in me that I shamefully had to cover my lap with my hat until the urge passed. Her hair was pinned up as usual beneath her bonnet, and not for the first time I wondered that so free-spirited a soul would choose to wear her hair in so ugly and restrictive a fashion. I imagined her in a half-lit bedroom, night at the windows, unpinning it to fall in soft black strands at her shoulders. The wisps at her temples smelling of tobacco.

The conversation passed amiably enough, though only Goff and I spoke; Tanna sat chewing quietly, in silent profile to us. Goff seemed oblivious to his daughter’s mood. Licking his fingers, he spoke of the dorids of the Salish Sea, which had a striking ring of retractable gills on their backs; he mused over the muscular contractions of cuttlefish, which so impossibly shift their colour from yellow to red to black; he talked with sweet regret of having escaped the sting of the Irukandji in the green waters off Oahu, as if he had cheated himself out of an honourable, beautiful death.

“Death is a wildly differing event, dependent on the society,” he continued. “When first I arrived in the Islands, I was deep in mourning. My youngest sister, Miranda—there were three, you see, Henrietta, Judith and Miranda—well, she had just killed herself, swallowed some toxin or such, poisoned herself.” He shook his head, and I shuddered at this mention of suicide, thinking suddenly of Philip. “Telling a group of islanders of my life, I found myself speaking of her passing. Well, to my utter consternation, they all began to laugh—great, deep, racking peals of laughter. I was shocked. I thought they must have misunderstood me. And so I tried again to explain. This only made them laugh harder.

“It was I who had failed in my understanding, you see. Life holds a sanctity for them we can scarcely begin to imagine; it therefore struck them as absurd that someone would choose to end it. A great ludicrous act. In any case, it was then I recognized that my own values—the tenets I hold dear as an Englishman—they are not the only, nor the best, values in existence. I understood there were many ways of being in the world, that to privilege one rigid set of beliefs over another was to lose something. Everything is bizarre, and everything has value. Or if not value, at least merits investigation.”

I thought it wonderful for a man of science to speak so. Staring at his bright chewing face, I realized how profoundly I liked him.

Which is not to say that I liked his manner with his daughter, who all this time said nothing, and ended lunch by picking up her quill and papers to make notes of the observations he called out, his voice echoing off the flat waters.

“And so what do you work on now, sir, if you can tell me?” I asked, to dispel the awkwardness.

Goff was standing in the boat, a stunned crab turning in one hand like the innards of a clock, a mop of algae in the other. “I am exploring the discrepancy between the factual age of the earth and so-called evidence of His creation. It is more a philosophical investigation than one of strong conviction. I am simply curious to see if the evidence exists that would entirely dispute creationist theory.” He glanced distractedly down at me from behind his water-pocked spectacles. I waited for him to continue, but he only narrowed his eyes at the muck in his fist.

I paused, wondering at the contradiction with his earlier statement, that all beliefs had value. “It sounds an enormous endeavour, sir. What sort of evidence, in particular, are you gathering?”

Muttering to himself, Goff kneeled suddenly, tossing the winding gyre of the crab into his daughter’s lap.

She peered at it unsurprised, gathered it up in a soft fist.

“My father, you see,” said Tanna flatly, speaking for the first time that day, “is collecting New World specimens for a small exhibition in London.”

I stared at her, perhaps too intently, and she met my eye, and for the longest while we only looked at each other as the boat rocked softly beneath us. Her face was calm, placid even, but there was an air of irritation beneath the stillness. She sat holding the anxious crab in her good hand. I did not speak. Goff might have been an ocean away.

Finally Tanna frowned and, reaching her hand over the edge of the boat, gently deposited the little crab back into the sea.

— WE PASSED the next Saturday again in each other’s company. Little by little, as they began to bicker softly, regularly, I realized the Goffs’ intimacy was a complicated and uncommon affair.

She had softened a little, but only a little, and she would allow herself a dry joke every once in a while. These jokes went unremarked upon by her distracted father. What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.

Perhaps it was jealousy, I reasoned—perhaps all my dislike amounted to that. After all, she possessed a father as I myself never had, and whatever annoyances the bond caused her, its consolations would no doubt be the greater. And looking back now, I suppose jealousy did play its role. But he was also truly cold and abrupt with her, and in these moments I disliked him violently.

It did not help that I could sense old Goff’s disapproval of me. He liked me well enough as a dabbling scientist, but when he caught me looking in fascination at Tanna, a grimness came into his rough fanatic’s face and he’d take his seat heavily between us. I could not blame him; my desire was terribly plain, as, I imagined, were my origins as a slave. He was not a man of prejudices generally, but rather of this one prejudice in particular, as it related to protecting his blood. For though he was self-absorbed and grandstanding and took her for granted, Tanna was clearly his most meaningful tie to this world, and he would shelter that bond from all that might destroy it.

I respected him, I did. But I could do nothing to quell the desire I felt for her. I would stop constantly throughout my day, jolted from my work, to wonder at the cruelty of my attraction. It did not seem natural to me, to ache after someone I could never be with; that is how little I understood about the human heart. I did not want it; I could not stomach it. I was besieged by dreams erotic and terrible, dreams of damp flesh, and I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.

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