Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.
― Stanisław Lem
It’s time you know another of your kind. ~Ynadin
There are no maps, no more creeds or philosophies.
From here on in,
the directions come straight from the Divine.
* * *
Do not approach without consent. Do not stare; eye contact at her discretion only. Do not speak her name unless and until she has offered it to you. Do not touch unless invited. Small thoughtful gifts are welcome; extravagant gestures made at your own risk. Wit is appreciated. Small talk is not.
Do not sing unless circumstances require it.
August 11, 201_
Coëtivy, Indian Ocean
Vessel: मैगलन की पत्नी Magellan’s Wife — Reg.: Madagascar
Uncharted waters. Lat/long 7°7’60” S and 56°16’0″ E. But for him— uncharted.
It was time.
After days, (weeks?) of wandering the ship alone except for the efficient, cheerful staff and crew, he’d been informed this morning that she was coming back, she would soon be aboard, She, the reclusive aristocrat who had sent for him, sent for him a boat, a ship, a ship without her on it, a fully staffed and outfitted ship to bring him to her, in her own country, or countries, or close enough, but still so far that when he gathered himself to inquire of whomever next approached him— with food, or with wine, or flowers or linens or simply with earnest inquiries as to his comfort, needs, whims, health, or simply his general state of mind and spirit— when he successfully cornered any member of the staff or crew to inquire, politely but with increasing concern, when, exactly he might look forward to the pleasure of her arrival, Vincent was informed, as always, in great earnest, always, that it would surely be very soon, Monsieur, and did he need anything, anything at all, nothing was too much, please not to hesitate, the chef would be gratified to discuss possible menu adjustments…. at least, these were what seemed to be the matters under discussion, as he spoke no Malagasy, and the fragments of French slipped into the conversation were so heavily accented with Malay inflections he could only make out a word here and there.
Unable to imagine a way to prepare for a meeting with someone he’d never dreamed existed, he had not been able to shake the feeling that the entire experience was simply a dream, and therefore, he might as well do as he liked before he woke up.
There were several other staterooms nearly as luxurious as his own, all absolutely empty, and Vincent had finally begun to relax and accept that it was true, that he was the only passenger, there was no need to hide, no reason to cover his face to any degree. He had been assured that the Magellan’s Wife staff and crew would find nothing remarkable in his appearance and, as unlikely, even inconceivable as this claim had sounded at the time, that too had turned out to be true, giving him a freedom that only intensified his sense of unreality; so, emboldened, he began to explore the ship.
He had found his tour of the wine cellar enjoyable with several surprises; he had exhausted the English language books in the library and had made modest inroads into those in Russian, most of which seemed to be old navigational tables collected across several centuries; he had spent a little time in the kitchen, no, galley, and would have liked to have spent more time there. It was charming and inviting— ingeniously laid out, stocked with an astonishing variety of delicacies— and it was unmistakably the hub of the social activities to which he, as a passenger, was distinctly not invited.
When they mistakenly believed themselves to be out of their unusual guest’s sight and hearing the staff abruptly changed demeanor, which only heightened his curiosity. They were a fairly multinational contingent as far as he could tell, scolding and instructing one another in a variety of languages and dialects, and, late in the evenings, believing Vincent to be safely abed, and after a staggering volume of palm wine had been imbibed, they invariably held what seemed to be lively storytelling contests with what he decided must be a “can-you-top-this” theme. Tucked away out of the storytellers’ sight he would lean his back against the curiously patterned and fragrant old wood that made up the exterior wall of the galley, his legs stretched out in front of him, and stare up at the constellations above him, and listen, fascinated, sometimes for hours, trying to guess what kind of outrageous exploits were being invented and acted out only a few meters away.
Vincent would have preferred to engage them directly and had on several occasions attempted to join the party, adopting as casual a stance as his imposing size would allow, but for some reason his presence immediately reduced them all to beaming silence, punctuated with encouraging nods, and friendly pats on the arm that he understood were meant as signs of both respect and reassurance. One evening, on a hunch, he said “as you were,” several times very firmly while indicating as best he could that they should return to whatever they had been doing just moments before. As always, they indulged him good-naturedly, and waited until he gave up and returned to his hidden perch before resuming their activities.
Vincent found her, at last, in her tent on the forward deck. He could not immediately see her through the wide fluttering panels of striped silk that shielded her as much from casual view as from the late afternoon sun, but the hair stood up on the back of his neck at this strange new presence, simultaneously alien and familiar, gliding sinuously across his own at his approach— and then serenely away again, as if a decision had been made not to intrude on his privacy.
Do not approach without consent.
Vincent hesitated, adjusting his balance as the ship rode out a swell, and considered whether he had interpreted her correctly, but he sensed nothing indicating that he was not welcome, and took another step into the scented air toward her, only to stop again, distracted by a startling sensation.
The same subtle breeze floating his hair strand by strand across his cheek had unexpectedly lifted the open-weave gauze of his galabeyah out and away from his body, only to fall back against the fine fur, then away, then back once more against him in a playful, insistent caress he found almost disturbingly intimate. Even as he stood completely still the fabric continued to lap at him with the lightest of touches as if curious to discover him for itself, stippling his back and shoulders, down his neck and chest and arms and belly; it snaked along and between the length of his legs— bringing an exquisite, almost maddening sensation Vincent could not remember ever having experienced before as every hair on his entire body stiffened to attention under the tantalizing new feeling.
Vincent suddenly understood that this was what it felt like to be light.
As if his powerful body, resigned unquestioningly to gravity for so long, had never been a solid thing at all but merely an idea of solidity, an idea that had served him well in a different life, in a different place and time, for many years as needed, but all the while waiting for this moment, here and now, to reclaim its true nature: a very different idea, not of weight and mass and form, not of muscle and bone and hair; but instead, of infinite light and motion and expanse, as if he and the sea beneath him and the air around him, all subject to the same forces of time and tide, were not separate entities at all, but only points on the same continuum; and he knew that even yesterday in his old life he would surely have wondered what is happening to me?— but not now.
There is no going back from this moment, he knew, only forward. I accept the terms.
This mix of exhilaration and anticipation and utter disbelief at his new circumstances made him lightheaded and he reached to steady himself against the carved wood of the rail behind him. He had only a moment to wonder whether this odd combination of liberation and disorientation was in any part due to the rolling of the Indian Ocean under him and of his simply not entirely having his sea legs yet, when the next thought hit him.
This tug at his senses had a name. It was, Vincent realized with a shock, pleasure. There was no other word for it.
This is what I wanted.
I accept, thought Vincent again. This is what I wanted, what I asked for, to know— to live— to reach for possibilities others take for granted—
To be allowed to be human.
And this— this feeling— was one of them: sensual pleasure.
I am ready, he thought. I wanted to come alive again.
A gift that would, he knew, require a disarming; a dismantling of the reflexive self-denial long since frozen into habit, a habit demanded and upheld by rage and loneliness and near-paralyzing grief. I have tasted heaven and lost it. I have been a loving father. I have been a loving son. I have lived for others and told myself it was enough, it must be enough; that to want happiness would be to diminish– to dishonor– the love, and the lover, I lost. But something inside me, something I cannot name, must break free now or die forever.
Catherine would never have wanted such a fate for me– this living death.
It is time.
Bracing himself, he tightened his hold on the railing under his fingers but, unable to find purchase on the satiny iron surface of the ancient teak, his claws slipped a little, causing him to fumble, briefly, for balance and dignity.
At this a tendril of curiosity mixed with amusement pierced his awareness and he realized with dismay that all of this soul searching had been duly noted by the woman he had crossed half the world to meet.
Uncharted waters but not unobserved ones, she was thinking, and in spite of himself Vincent blushed.
That did not escape her notice either. So very human, he heard her thinking.
Her tone was at once provocative and tender, and even in his embarrassment Vincent understood that her humor was steeped in kindness. I accept, he repeated in his mind. There was simply no way to prepare himself for what was to happen next, and for reasons beyond his understanding, this brought him no anxiety, only a sense of limitless…
Resolved, Vincent stepped forward again onto the polished inlay of the deck and in a heartbeat that had taken a lifetime, closed the distance between himself and the mystery at hand: another of his kind.
Do not speak her name until she has offered it to you.
For that was her name, or rather, the closest approximation of it that he (as he had been informed) with his “limited linguistic apparatus,” could be expected to manage.
Vincent mentally reviewed the rules of etiquette he’d been given. Do not approach without consent. Do not stare; eye contact at her discretion only. Do not speak her name until she has offered it to you. Do not touch unless invited. Small thoughtful gifts are welcome; extravagant gestures are made at your own risk. Wit is appreciated. Small talk is not.
Do not sing unless circumstances require it.
I accept, he thought once more.
It was time.
Taking care not to snag his claws he slid his hands through the swaying curtain of beads, old coins, and spiral shells. It fell together again behind him as if marking out the fluid threshold where his past was ending so that his future might begin.
Do not stare.
She’d had a long swim from the shore and was resting now, draped along the semi-circle of tufted ottomans that rimmed the alcove she had designated as her garden while on board. Another breeze, and an unfamiliar perfume reached him from the baskets of frangipani piled in front of her. Several completed leis lay already in her lap, with still more strings of blossoms spilling onto the deck, which was glistening with seawater.
As was his hostess.
Do not stare…..
Little Brother, she greeted him silently. Enfin. At last.
As advised Vincent did not look directly at her but instead lowered his gaze and leaned forward from the waist in a slight bow.
“Highness,” he answered her aloud, with what struck her as a courtly ease. The multiphonic array of his vocal register resonated musically across and beyond the limits of normal human hearing and she closed her eyes the better to count the thrilling progression.
They were all there. All 26.
Although she had noted a significant jump in his heart rate in her proximity, he radiated grace and a mixture of humility and self-assurance, resulting in a kind of earthy but undeniably aristocratic dignity— very unexpected in an American, she mused— but quite unmistakable and she recognized it immediately. As he straightened himself again, however, another breeze, bolder than before, caught his galabeyah and it billowed out wildly to one side of him, momentarily snapping the linen in close along his starboard side, cleanly outlining his massive contours so different from her own and whose mixture of familiarity and strangeness she found very pleasing. Vincent pretended not to notice the serene scrutiny he felt from her as he attempted to retrieve the many folds of the garment as gracefully as possible with one hand, but the open weave caught in his claws, effectively immobilizing his arm.
Very dramatic entrance, observed Ynadin as he struggled to disentangle himself; and then she laughed, only a small laugh, but enough.
The gorgeous cataract of sound struck Vincent with the force of a tidal wave, knocking him backward through the tinkling curtain, and might have sent him spinning across the deck and over the other side of the boat still wrapped in it if not for the combination of his own force of sheer will combined with an urgent need to hear that sound again, at all costs. This is why ancient sailors willingly dashed their vessels on the rocks, he realized. They went mad. They went mad for this unearthly…. this sound. They went mad with fear, that it might ever cease.
Ynadin stopped him then, her tone crisp and edged with humor. We are both of us long past the age for fairy tales, Little Brother.
As suddenly as it had come, the symphonic tumult ended, breaking over him like a wave that has spent its fury on the shore leaving behind only a whisper of harmless foam. Released from the siren spell, Vincent clung desperately, helplessly, to the last echoes of that supernatural sound as they retreated, leaving in their absence not a restorative silence but one so empty it seemed the very breath of the Abyss.
But Ynadin reached again for his attention. Do not fear; you will not go mad. Remember who and what you are. You are not like other men.
Vincent did not share her confidence, so Ynadin waited while her guest undertook a quick inventory of his faculties.
You possess unusual strength, she approved silently.
Perhaps not enough, thought Vincent, still dazed.
I apologize, she offered. Perhaps it might get easier in time.
“Or perhaps I can learn to avoid giving you cause for laughter,” answered Vincent aloud.
At the ripple of merriment from her Vincent braced himself, but Ynadin made no sound, this time, apart from a faint tinkling of tiny shells that told him she was shaking her head.
Never, she told him silently.
Overcome by the suddenly overwhelming desire to see her face, he quickly bowed again to stop himself. Do not stare.
I wish for this too, Little Brother, answered Ynadin, reading him. To freely look into your eyes. But today is not the day. You are not ready.
Still dizzy, Vincent did not argue, instead searching for something, anything, to focus on to avoid meeting her eyes as she studied him. Ynadin was taking an inventory of her own, but for the first time in his life he felt neither fear nor shame, beginning, almost, to welcome her gaze; but abruptly she stopped her inspection and looked toward the coral sky that Vincent had come to associate with this hour of the afternoon.
Later we will swim, she told him, but for now you should sit.
Do not approach without consent.
He hesitated, confused. Sit where? With her? How close? He felt more than heard a tiny hum of impatience from her at his hesitation, and realized that she was accustomed to being immediately obeyed; and, equally, that she found his resistance, however slight, a little exhilarating.
But before he could fully process the implications of this, she added sharply, at once, before you fall; and with a graceful sweep of her tail she cleared a path through the baskets for him to approach, a slight motion of her hand inviting him to occupy the space beside her.
I think tomorrow might be the day, she offered. She let the overture hang silently between them, her palm open to him, her face turned toward the sea.