Saturday, November 04, 2006

1932: 4. The Civilized Savage of Windham Hall

He was born at spearpoint in the morning after a storm, in the smashed-open wreck of a gondola, dangling from frayed ropes from a gashed-open gasbag that covered the canopy of ancient trees above. His father held his mother’s hand as she breathed through the contractions, squeezing a verse of the Lord’s Prayer in with every breath. The natives staring out at them behind thick crusts of paint and dyes and animal-bone war masks watched silently, and did not move for all the hours of her labor.

Simon Windham, the sixteenth Lord Havoc, used the proceeds from his landed estates to fund the feedings of his insatiable curiosity for the natural world. He had watched tigers prowl the shaded copses of India, and seen giraffes canter spindling across the African savannah against a gray-black canvas of coming storms. His wife Anna, at 23 four years his junior, was already a skilled draftswoman and accomplished linguist; she had presented no less than three monographs before the Royal Society, most recently on the tonal subtleties of the tribes out Outer Mongolia. Indeed, Simon and Anna had met at just such a meeting, and found their mutual love of learning kindled into something deeper indeed.

When Simon had charted the curious tides off the western coast of South America, and grown increasingly convinced that they suggest the presence of a body of land not yet marked on any map, he proposed a solo venture by lighter-than-air craft to make an aerial surveillance of the region. His wife, barely a month with child, would hear none of it unless he took her with him, and while Simon had the firmer voice, Anna, as ever, had the harder head.

They traveled by steamer across the Atlantic, around of the southernmost tip of the continent through the frigid waters that approached Antarctica, and up the coast to the western shore. There, to light applause from the fellow passengers, a champagne toast from all assembled, and a stirring rendition of “God Save the Queen” from the shipboard string quartet, Simon and a considerably round Anna filled the great balloon of the craft they had designed, and lifted from the aft decks on what was to be no more than seven days’ excursion.

The storm and Anna’s labor struck at nearly the same moment, on the second day of their voyage. As if in sympathy with the brave young mother-to-be’s endurance, the natural world raged and lashed, tossing the balloon about, as Simon and Anna clung to one another, praying for their survival, and more fervently, for that of their child to come.

And in the morning, as the sun steamed mist from the trees around them, they found themselves marrooned in the midst of a jungle of unknown dimensions, confronted by curious and stoic inhabitants. So it was that Harker Windham entered the world.

As soon as the mother could walk, Simon, Anna, and the child -- wrapped in a tattered fold of torn fabric from the ballon -- were prodded, not uncourteously, through long hours of mazelike jungle. They arrived at dusk, to their considerable shock, not to a crude assemblage of huts, but a vast city of stone and wood, spread out in the lush valley that sloped out before them. The inhabitants lined the wide stone streets as the skies grew darker, festooned in feathers and woven-reed garments and the skins of unknown beasts, peering at the newly arrived family with curious, alien faces. But Simon and Anna were all the more surprised -- for every house, every temple, even the ground along every stone-speckled avenue, glowed with a light too white and steady to come from any fire.

They were led to a vast central temple, strange-tongued gods leering in geometric anguish from the pillars that encircled it, and ushered to the chamber within. Simon’s breath caught in his throat as he spied the strange cylinder that rose from the heart of the temple through a gap in the roof, to the exposed night sky, and at the bright blue-and-red-painted man who looked up at them from what was unmistakably an eyepiece at the device’s base. It was a stone telescope.

The man at the telescope walked up to them carefully, taking in their tattered clothes and strange pale faces with a keen, detatched regard. Tiny Harker burbled and yawped, and Anna moved to hush him, but the strangely painted man reached out a hand, fingers banded in rings of hammered gold, to draw back the cloth from around the child’s face. Harker squeaked, stretched out an impossibly small hand, and wrapped his new fingers reflexively around one of the painted man’s outstretched fingers.

The painted man looked to Anna, and then to Simon, and smiled, some of his teeth gleaming crystal, and they saw in his eyes the mutual pride and love of a parent, and somehow knew they were safe.

He said something, all clicks and consonants. Anna remembered the sounds of it, and in six months, when she’d learned enough of their language, she knew what it meant. We thought we were the only ones left.

The painted man was Iqxtl, and his people were the Children of Silence. They had lived on the island for longer than anyone could remember, longer than any recorded history could trace. They had legends of another time, of a broad spreading continent rich in game, of an empire to make their own humble city seem crude and backward. It had left its remnants scattered and seeded through their culture, in the glowing crystal lights and the crisscrossing aqueducts, and the carved murals in the darkest depths of the temples, where tiny human figures contorted in angular terror before something so horrible it had been scraped clean from the face of the rock by later hands. A plague of emptiness.

Anna took to the language quickly, and taught it to Simon, and by the time young Harker took his first staggering steps across the floor of their stone chambers, they were as part of the community. The balloon was wrecked beyond repair, the ocean around wide and forbidding, the island ringed with jagged shoals of rock, like the teeth of some terrible beast. But the world into which Anna and Simon had fallen so enchanted them both that they grew to view their new lives less as a curse than a wondrous opportunity.

Iqxtl was a hearty, gentle man of middle years, and mere months after the deaths of his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter -- at the hands of something whose name even Anna could never entirely translate, leather-skin-claw-mouth, something of whom none of the Children of Silence would freely speak -- the miraculous appearance of these pale humans from the sky had soothed him. Simon discovered, to his considerable delight, that his new hosts were anything but backward savages; they had all the same concepts, gravity, magnetism, electricity, thinly cloaked under different names. Iqxtl shared Simon’s boundless curiosity, and the two men would talk long into the night in the upper rooms of the temple, Simon watching as Iqxtl ground fine crystal lenses for the telescope from chunks of quartz, scraped and shaped by a water-powered wheel of stone.

Harker Windham grew up with a foot in each of two civilizations, never questioning the strangeness of his life, nor indeed finding it strange to begin with. The mornings of his childhood were spent with his parents, his mother reading from the Bible or showing him sketches, assembled from her memory, of the wonders of distant England. From his father he learned the principles of science, the laws of the natural world, and the proper comportment of a true English gentleman. And from Iqxtl, in the afternoons and into the evenings, he learned the ways of adopted home. He planted wild corn in the rows of fields, and learned the routes of the irrigation channels. He gazed out at distant stars through the great stone looking-glass and learned them by two different names. And, with some trepidation from Anna, in his seventh year he began the training of the Children of Silence’s defensive arts, the graceful looping dance of death, the obsidian knives.

The rules that bound his life were few. The Ten Commandments, of course, and their rough equivalents among the natives, but beyond that, from the time he could speak, Harker knew only one other inviolable law: Never, ever cross the river.

It ran, wide and brown and turbulent, roughly across the center of the island. The banks were ten minutes’ walk from the city of stone, fringed with thick, heavy reeds and chunks of strange and porous rock. Far across the river, a dense stand of trees faded into shadow, and distantly beyond them rose a great rumbling volcanic peak, occasionally seen to belch sooty puffs of ash into the sky.

The other side of the river did not belong to the Children of Silence, it was said, and simply left at that. When his chores were done, before his mother or one of her friends called him back for supper, Harker would sit on the banks of the river at dusk and train his eyes on the distant shore, the dark silences among the trees. Sometimes, he thought, he could see glints of movement, stealthy and brief.

In his twelfth year, Iqxtl took him down to the depths of the temple, past the scoured-away carvings, and unlocked a foot-thick stone door with a crystal key.

“Don’t be afraid,” the old man smiled, and Harver followed him through a dripping humid maze of stone, lit at intervals by the crystal lights. They emerged, after more turns than Harker ever hoped to recall, in a vast and humming chamber somewhere deep beneath the city. In the center grew a crystal tree, fountaining in frozen spikes out from deep within the earth, glowing from within with an ethereal light. Its branches thinned and melted into the ceiling, becoming veins of pulsing light that spread through the whole of the stone metropolis.

“Do you know how it works?” Harker breathed, awestruck. Iqxtl shook his head, the bones and feathers of his chieftain’s headdress jingling in the vast, echoing deep.

“In all other things, I seek knowledge, understanding,” Iqxtl said. “In this one instance, I am content in ignorance, and wonder.”

By his twenty-first year, Harker Windham was the second-best hoopball player in the city league, the third fastest swimmer, and perhaps the best of his generation with the ways of the obsidian knife. (He was also, his mother noted with a certain wry pride, an arrogant pain in the arse, not unlike his father. Simon refused to deny this, and indeed took it as quite the compliment.) All that stood between himself and full adulthood in the eyes of the Children of Silence was the Waking Sleep, the vision ritual.

Iqxtl himself ground the paste of herbs and berries in his stone mortar, before wrapping it in a spreading green leaf and placing it in Harker’s waiting hands. His mother helped with the paint, supervising the application of the traditional designs on Harker’s chest and back, adding a few touches here and there as pleased her sense of color. She kissed her son’s bristly cheek and squeezed his hand, and told him to be careful. His father drew a medallion from beneath the wilting collar of his increasingly gray linen shirt and placed it around Harker’s neck. St. Christoper, patron saint of travelers, embossed on the gold in midstream with a pilgrim on his back. Safe passage.

He nodded to his parents, and to Iqxtl, and set out across the wide stone square of the city, the eyes of the Children of Silence upon him, and into the forest beyond.

Harker Windham walked all day and through the dusk, and when the last traces of light slipped out of the sky beyond the trees, he sat and lit a torch with shards of flint, and lapped the ritual paste off the green of the leaf, and waited with open eyes for the coming message of the night.

And far beyond his sight or hearing, on the distant bank of the river, shadows dressed for war slid rafts into the water, hacked-down trees tied together with bands of dried human skin, and stroked toward the glowing lights of the stone city with paddles made of bleached white femurs.

Sometime after moonrise, Harker opened his eyes and felt the slow respiration of the jungle all around him. A beetle crawled up his arm and across the back of his neck, and flitted away with a buzz. And from the shadows before him, yellow eyes dancing in the light of the fire, a panther emerged. It prowled back and forth, hipbones scissoring beneath black fur, and then it spoke to him.

Pledge me your service, and I will give you my cunning, Panther said.

Monkey appeared on a high branch, tail curling, wide eyes staring from beneath a fringe of fur.

Pledge me your service, and I will give you my speed, Monkey said.

Bird of the Air flapped down from nothingness, its wings a shifting tapestry of incandescent color, to land just outside Harker’s circle of firelight.

Pledge me your service, and I will give you my sight, Bird of the Air said.

And the trees bent, and the ground shook, and the air stank of thick breath and old prey, and a beast appeared from the heart of the night to tower over the rest. A lizard, tall as any of the stone buildings Harker had ever seen, with cruel glinting eyes, thick powerful haunches, and tiny grasping forearms. Leather-skin-claw-mouth. The Great Reptile. It spoke from a mouthful of knives in a voice like the volcano’s murmurs.

Pledge me your service, and I will give you my power, Great Reptile said.

“I so pledge,” Harker said, to Panther, and Monkey, and Bird of the Air, and Great Lizard, and bowed low until his forehead touched the earth. And Panther, and Monkey, and Bird of the Air, and Great Reptile bowed in return.

Well met, your lordship, Great Reptile said with his scavenger’s cave of a mouth.

And then it was morning, and Harker Windham started, covered in sweat, the torch burned down to ash and nothing. He spent a long minute passing his eyes across the empty cleaning, listening to the jungle. Then he rose on stiff and shaky legs and turned back for him, staggering, then walking, then jogging, then running, elated, through the mist-shrouded dawn, a man transformed.

He smelled the stink of the burnt city before he ever saw it, and his breath quickened, and his heart pounded, and the joy went out of his long and graceful strides. He burst from the edge of the jungle to see the field levels, corn stalks charred and crushed, the birds and the pigs and the capybaras butchered in their pens and left for offal. And beyond them, the city, black and ruined, parts still in flames.

He ran through streets scattered with bodies and attended by scavenger birds, necklace beads and bits of tile crunching beneath his steps, all the way to his parents’ rooms. His mother’s drawings lay scattered across the floor, the bedding torn, his father’s precious suriving instruments smashed -- and no sign of them.

The hoopball court was painted in blood, a woman’s head stuffed cruelly into one of the goals.

He found Iqxtl in the temple, at the base of the stone telescope, probing his own innards with stoic fascination as they spilled from the slit cut in his stomach.

“They broke the pact,” he said to Harker through bloodied teeth. “We always feared they would come.”

“Who?” Harker pleaded, eyes hot and stinging with tears.

“Across the river,” Iqxtl said slowly. “The Kingdom of Ragged Teeth. As a child I heard stories from one of our own... the last to cross the river, the only one ever known to escape alive. I heard them spooled from his madness in the hour before his death. He spoke of mines, of thousands kept in chains. Under the volcano, the Cavern of Ceaseless Day, where the light from the golden crystals severs men from their own minds...”

Iqxtl smiled, painfully, and looked down at the inside of himself. “We never think...” he began, as Harker squeezed his hand tightly and willed him, in vain, to somehow live, “that all we are is meat.”

And then he died, his eyes still open, the light in them snuffed to flatness, and Harker was alone.

Harker buried Iqxtr at the banks of the river, facing toward the far side. “So you will see my victory,” he swore. He washed off the paint of his vision quest, and dried his skin, and painted himself anew in the jagged green lines of war. He collected a pair of black stone knives from a fallen warrior with half a head, a man Harker only wished he recognized, and spent long hours at Iqxtl’s stone wheel, grinding them to sharpness until the slightest touch against their edges raised a line of blood on the skin of his thumb.

At dusk, he tucked the knives in his belt, and kissed the cold metal of the St. Christopher medal, and dove into the river.

In the deep waters at the river’s heart, large and hungry things stirred, and turned themselves toward his motion, and swished lazy trails toward him. There was a sudden splash, a thrashing just beneath the surface of the river. Air bubbles mushroomed and popped on the brown surface of the river.

Three minutes later, Harker Windham hauled himself dripping and unscathed onto the far bank of the river and set off into the trees. He did not look back. After a time, the large, scaly bodies rose by one to the surface of the river, unmoving, slit-open bellies facing the stars, and the current slowly bore them to the sea.

The Kingdom of Ragged Teeth slept fat and intoxicated in its nests of human bone, crude and reeking hovels slung with creeper vines and things less pleasant to imagine from the rock face of the volcano. Those of the new slaves not yet sent into the heart of the mountain, to the mines whose mouths cast a distant glow even now, in the heart of night, were kept in pens at the periphery of the camp, weeping, terrified, curled into themselves in the fear of what was to come. Harker Windham moved, a shadow among shadows, along the wooden pikes that made up the walls of the pen, and took off the sleeping guard’s head with one swift, remorseless movement of his blade.

He appeared in the opening gate of the slave pen with a blood-soaked finger to his lips, pleading silence, and sent the huddled women and children stumbling back toward the river, and freedom.

Up the jagged rock of the mountain he climbed, moving without noise from hut to hut among the Kingdom of Ragged Teeth, making quick wet noises with his knives in each, until his arms dripped red almost up to his shoulders. He spared none, and let himself feel no joy in it, and made himself stay human, stay rational, all the while.

And the Ragged-Toothed Emperor, Collector of Ears, awoke in his pile of furs to find the point of an obsidian blade at his throat.

“I will grant you one cut,” said Harker Windham, “just one, as a reminder of my sins. But I warn you now: That one cut will be the last blood you ever spill.” He handed the Emperor the royal Killing Spear, cruelly crafted crystal at its point, and stepped back from the bedding.

The Emperor laughed through filed, pointed teeth, for he did not understand the pale stranger, and believed him soon to die. And he sprang from his bed with the point of the spear leveled at Harker’s heart.

They fought for some minutes, all the way down the mountain, clinging to vines, scraping themselves on the unforgiving rock, dancing across roofs of bone. Again and again the crystal spear stabbed, but Harker wasn’t there. He moved with fluid grace, and saw the tiniest openings in the Emperor’s attacks, and struck back with the force of a clap of thunder.

At last, the Emperor’s spear found the slightest purchase, tracing a line of fire down Harker’s left cheek, and the young man staggered backward at the sudden sting of it.

“Thank you,” Harker said. And he dodged one final thrust of the Emperor’s spear and thrust his knives upward, and spilled his enemy’s steaming guts onto the soil below.

The whole of his body trembling as the adrenalin fled his blood, breathing in the short, ragged gasps of a race horse, Harker descended into the glowing mouth of the mine. The deeper he got, the more he saw them, glimmering in razored bursts through the walls of rock. Crystals, glowing soft and gold. Singing to him at the edges of his mind.

He began to whistle to himself: Rule, Brittania, Brittania rules the waves...

The caverns stretched an impossible distance, bright and hot as the most merciless summer’s day, endless fields of crystals. Ragged bundles of sticks that had once been people clawed blindly at the dirt, digging out the glowing mineral fragments, piling them in crude wooden carts for removal. He passed faces he had once known, their eyes now empty, moving like ghosts, breathing out the sickly golden light of the crystals. The singing in his mind grew louder, and Harker clenched his teeth, and switched to heavier weapons. Nearer my God to thee...

He found his parents ten minutes’ walk into the cave, matted in blood and dirt, digging slowly at a rich and glowing vein of crystal. He pulled them away, crying out, and held them tightly, but they stared back at him with faces with only the barest semblance of humanity. The song of the crystals had washed away their minds. His parents breathed, and moved, and were surely dead.

Harker ran all the way out of the mine, half-blind with tears, spitting rage. The mocking song the crystals followed him out, tempting him back to oblivion with every step, and only his anger kept him strong enough to refuse.

Some years later, the steamer Royal Highlands, carrying exotic spices and typewriter ribbons, found itself adrift somewhere several hundred miles distant from the Western coast of South America, its compasses demagnetized by the lashing lightning strikes of the previous night’s storm. While the captain paused to take readings by sextant, and the coal-shovelers rested in the Stygian heat of the boiler room, the first mate spotted land on the horizon, off to port.

The island was thick with woods, and promised fresh fruit and fresher water. And the spyglass showed some sort of motion on the beach. The captain nodded, and the first mate gathered four able men, armed them with rifles, and set out in a launch to the distant shore.

Navigating the rocky shoals was no picnic, but the men were seasoned sailors, handy with an oar, and the little boat made it safely to shore -- and to the most extraordinary sight the men would ever see. For there on the shore, tanned and painted natives had set up a cricket match, carved wickets and bats and all. Nothing could have amazed the first mate more, until the batsman saw them and jogged across the sand, smiling with neat white teeth, and enquired in perfect English as to the health of the Queen.

It was the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and twenty-seven. Had a certain Mr. Lindbergh’s safe landing in Paris not captured the world’s telegraph wires and front pages the day before the Royal Highlands put in at Liverpool, Harker Windham’s extraordinary return to his native land would have surely earned wider fame.

He was the seventeenth Lord Havoc, and at age 25, he took his place at the family seat of Windham Hall, where he sent for tailors, and newspapers. He immersed himself in learning those first few months, devouring a library’s worth of books and papers, soaking his brain in all the wonders his parents had not been around to pass on to him. There was little else to do; compared to the jungles into which he had been born, the land of his blood was flat and gray and decidedly dull.

In time, he mastered finance, and walked among the cities of civilized men, and quickly grew disgusted with them. Civilization, he found, had less to do with anything resembling honor, and more with the cut of one’s suitcoat. He would sit in boardrooms and clubs and expensive restaurants, and nod politely at the fat, smiling faces around him, and wonder why they bothered with the formality of walking on two legs at all.

He had headstones made for each of his parents, placed beneath a spreading oak tree on a hill his father had described to him many times, though for all he knew they still drew breath somewhere in the crystals’ terrible, sustaining golden light, beneath the mountain on the unnamed island. And on the afternoon before he quit England, he paused to see them there, taking an umbrella to ward off the rain.

“Here they would have called us savages,” he told them, “yet are no better themselves than any man. This I swear to you: Let me be better. Let me walk among savages, in any land, and be a truly civilized man.”

Six months later, in the summer of 1929, the steamers began to dock in New York Harbor, one after the other, carrying loads of brick and masonry. At the northern end of Manhattan, workers glad for the employment cleared four square blocks of ruined homes, recently gutted in a neighborhood fire, and fenced them all around in sturdy wrought iron. A flotilla of trucks rolled in, landscapers hauling huge and fantastical plants and pots of tall grasses, carpenters and bricklayers uncrating English stone, rebuilding Windham Hall brick by brick in the gateway city of the New World.

New York City was a wild place still, a place of life and wonders, and in the heart of those four blocks, something just as wild began to grow, taking seed in a tangle of fast-growing trees and spreading vines. And word began to spread, first through the neighborhood, and then the entire city: If you were desperate, afraid, in need of help, come to the gates of the forest house north of Central Park, and ring the bell, and speak your case into the polished brass tube. And if your need was sincere, and your cause was true, perhaps the gates would open to the long drive canopied with trees, and you would walk nervously in silence and shade to the front doors of the manor house, and the jungle man in the Saville Row suit would invite you in for tea.

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