The Isle of Blood Page 49


“He trusts you,” the first mate told the boy. “He will not suspect the knife until the knife strikes home!”

Awaale did not hesitate. He seized the alleged conspirators immediately and confronted them. Both denied the plot and accused their accuser of scheming against them in order to curry favor and increase his share of the booty. Awaale’s judgment was swift and ruthless: He killed all three of them, accuser and accused, including the boy he loved, though he admitted that had been hard—very hard. Then he decapitated them with his own hand, and hung their heads from the mizzenmast as a reminder to his crew that he was their lord and master.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “If the first man was telling the truth, why did you kill him? He warned you about the mutiny.”

“I did not know if he was telling the truth, walaalo. I did not know who to believe.”

“Then, you killed at least one innocent man.”

“I had no choice,” he cried in a voice broken with despair. “If I let the wrong one live, then I would die! Spill the blood of the innocent or have the guilty spill my own! You do not know, walaalo. You are a boy. You’ve never faced the faceless one.”

“The faceless one?”

“That is my name for it. I wept when I plunged the dagger into his heart; I cried bitter tears for the boy whom I loved, while his blood, scalding hot, poured through my fingers. And crying, I laughed with a fierce, unconquerable joy! I laughed because I was free of something; I cried because I was bound to something. I was saved; I was damned. Bless you, walaalo, you have never had to face the faceless one; you do not know.”

Freed and enslaved, Awaale did not remain a pirate long after his impossible choice. He abandoned his ship at Dar es Salaam, whose name is a mangling of the Arabic andar as-salām, the “harbor of peace.” Penniless and friendless in a foreign land, he wandered deep into the African interior until he reached Buganda, where he was taken in by a group of Anglican missionaries who taught him how to read and write English and prayed daily for his immortal soul. He prayed with them, for it seemed to him he shared a special kinship with their God.

“The spilling of innocent blood is nothing new to him—no, not to him!” said Awaale. “His own son he suffered to die a bloody death that I might live to worship him. This God I think understands the space between ‘may’ and ‘must’; he’s seen the face of the faceless one!”

I did not speak for some time. I watthe stars swing back and forth, left and right and back again; I listened to the slap of the sea against the clipper’s bow; I felt the beat of my heart.

“I saw it too,” I said finally. “I know that space.” It existed between Warthrop and Kendall in the bedroom at Harrington Lane, between Torrance and Arkwright in the Monstrumarium, between Rurick and me in the place of silence at the center of the world.

“Where, walaalo?” He sounded incredulous. “Where did you see it?”

“It’s here,” I said, and pressed my hand to my chest.

Chapter Thirty-Five: “The Fury of a Merciful God”

On the fourth day the horizon before us turned black and the seas rose, driven by a stiff wind that pushed against the Dagmar like a giant hand pressing upon her chest. Captain Russell turned the ship southward to skirt the worst of the storm, a decision that did not sit well with the monstrumolo-gist, who ground his teeth and tugged on his bottom lip and paced the foredeck while the gale bent him nearly double and whipped his hair into a cyclonic confusion. I braved the elements to urge him inside, convinced he would be swept overboard at any moment by the tempestuous waves crashing furiously across the bow.

“You know what von Helrung would say!” he shouted above the whipping wind and pounding sea. “The fury of a merciful God! Well, I say let him loose his signs and wonders! Array the powers of heaven against me, and I will contend against them with every fiber of my being!”

The deck shuddered violently and then bounced upward, throwing me off my feet. The monstrumologist’s hand shot out and grabbed my arm, yanking me back from the edge.

“You shouldn’t be out here!” he screamed.

“Neither should you!” I hollered back.

“I will never sound the retreat! Never!”

He shoved me toward the stern and turned his back upon me, planting his legs wide for balance and spreading his arms as if inviting the fullness of God’s wrath upon his head. A burst of lightning flashed, thunder shook the planks, and Warthrop laughed. The monstrumologist laughed, and his laughter overtook the wind and the lashing rain and the thunder itself, trampling the maelstrom under its unconquerable heels. Is it any wonder the power this man held over me—this man who did not run from his demons like most of us do, but embraced them as his own, clutching them to his heart in a choke hold grip. He did not try to escape them by denying them or drugging them or bargaining with them. He met them where they lived, in the secret place most of us keep hidden. Warthrop was Warthrop down to the marrow of his bones, for his demons defined him; they breathed the breath of life into him; and, without them, he would go down, as most of us do, into that purgatorial fog of a life unrealized.

You may call him mad. You may judge him vain and selfish and arrogant and bereft of all normal human sentiment. You may dismiss him entirely as a fool blinded by his own ambition and pride. But you cannot say Pellinore Warthrop was not finally, fully, furiously alive. height="1em" width="0em">I retreated to the safety of the bridge, where I could at least keep an eye on him, though the water splattering and streaming down the glass obscured my view, turning him into a maddened, wraithlike shadow against the lighter gray of the white-capped sea. As it happened, Awaale had taken the helm. His massive arms flexed and stiffened as he fought the wheel.

“What is he doing?” he wondered. “Does he wish to be blown out to sea?”

“He is anxious,” I answered.

“Anxious for what?”

I said nothing. To face the Faceless One, I might have answered, but said naught.

The storm chased us well past nightfall, forcing the Dagmar miles off course, far south of the island, and putting her directly in the path of the monsoon winds driving down from the north. When the weather cleared, Russell planned a heading to bring us back to the west of Socotra; it was, he told the doctor, the only prudent course.

“We can’t approach from the south, not with winds like these,” he said.

“That would cost us at least a day,” the monstrumologist pointed out, his jaw tightening with barely suppressed ire.

“More than that,” answered Russell grimly.

“How much more?”

“Two days, two and a half.”

Warthrop slammed his hand down hard on the table. “Unacceptable!”

“No, Dr. Warthrop, unavoidable. I tried to tell you back in Aden. No one goes to Socotra this time of—”

“Then, why in God’s name did you agree to it?” the doctor snarled.

Russell called upon all his English fortitude and said, in the calmest manner he could muster, “Coming from the west is our only hope of getting you close enough for a landing. Forcing our way north against this wind could take just as long and entail twice the risk.”

Warthrop drew a deep breath to collect himself. “Of course I will defer to your judgment, Captain. But I hope you can understand the urgency of my mission.”

“Well, I do not understand it. You’ve been marvelously obtuse about your purpose, Dr. Warthrop. Perhaps you could realize your hope by telling me what the bloody hell is so important on that desolate rock that you’re willing to risk life and limb—my life and limb—for it.”

The doctor said nothing for a moment. He stared at the floor, weighing something in his mind. Then he looked up and said, “I am not a botanist.”

“I have seen some strange things in this dark part of the world,” the captain confided at the conclusion of the doctor’s confession. “But none as strange as those you describe, Warthrop. I’d heard of—what did you call it?—that foul jelly tht brings madness and death, but never thought it to be real. I’ve also heard men speak of the so-called red rain, blood pouring from the sky like some biblical scourge, but I never put much stock in sailors’ tales. You could very well be mad, which is of no concern to me, except when that madness threatens my ship and the safety of my crew.”

“I assure you, Captain Russell, I am neither mad nor naïve. The stories are true, and I intend to show you the proof when you return for us. If, that is, we ever manage to get there!”

“I will get you there, Warthrop, but I must ask how you plan to prevail over a squadron of Russians and capture this monster of yours, both intent on killing you, with nothing more than this boy by your side and a revolver in your pocket.”

Both Russell and I waited for his answer. I did not think he’d give the one he gave to me in Aden—this is what will save us—and he didn’t.

“I will leave all things nautical to you, Captain Russell,” he said. “If you will leave all things monstrumological to me.”

“Did you hear, walaalo?” Awaale asked me later that night as we lay in our hammocks belowdecks. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the thrumming of the engines. “I am going with you.”

I was stunned. “What do you mean?”

“Captain Julius asked me tonight what I thought about it. ‘This damn Yank may be the biggest fool I’ve ever met,’ he told me. ‘He could very well be mad as a hatter, but I can’t just drop him on the beach and be done with it.’ He offered to double my pay and I said yes, but not for the money. I said yes for you, walaalo. I said yes for you and for the one whose life I took all those years ago. I think God has sent you to me that I might save my soul.”

“I don’t understand, Awaale.”

“You are my redemption, the key to the prison of my sin. By saving you, I will save myself from judgment.”

He stroked my arm in the dark. “You are his gift to me, my walaalo.”

There are spirits in the deep. On this night, the last night in the long march of nights, you can hear their voices on the open water, in the sea spray and the wind and the slap, slap of the water breaking across the bow. Voices of the quick and the dead, like the sirens calling you to your doom. As you face that spot where the sea meets the sky, you hear their portentous lamentations. And then, before your startled eyes, the horizon breaks apart, thrusting up jagged shards of itself to blot out the stars.

And the voices speak to you.

Nullité! Nullité! Nullité! That is all it is!

In Sanskrit it is called Dvipa Sukhadhara, the Isle of Bliss.

This night is the last in the long march of nights. The night Mr. Kendall appeared at our door. The night the monstrumologist bound himself to me and cried, I will not suffer you to die! The night he abandoned me. The night I ran upon a river of fire and blood to save him. The night Jacob Torrance showed Thomas Arkwright two doors. The night of my master’s despair—You have given yourself in service to ha-Mashchit, the angel of death—and the night of my own despair at the center of the world.

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