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Exit

Reine de Mémoire
4. La Princesse de Vengeance

by

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

 

(Chapter 12, p. 121-129)

 

 

The weather seems to have cleared, but, towards the end of the morning, the ecclesiastics warn Riopès that things will take a turn for the worse faster than anticipated: a small typhoon is approaching from the northwest; they are headed towards the beach with the sailors and will go back with the third boat.
"How long do we have?" asks Haizelé.
"Three, four hours. And it shouldn't last more than half a day."
The sky still looks fair through the wind-tousled clouds, but that same wind is bringing the storm. You don't argue with the warnings of the mages: they should return to the ship and drop anchor somewhere more sheltered. They had not yet set out all the fishing nets, so they take up the poles of the ones that they have and which have not yet had time to fill up, and they store them all with the still empty barrels in the forest, where the waves won't reach them. By the time they have finished loading the full barrels, the sailors who went with the ecclesiastics come out of the forest, not as laden down with fruit as they would have hoped, but they will come back again once the bad weather has passed.
Pierrino takes his place on the rowing bench next to Martin Engel. In spite of the approaching storm, he is in an astonishingly good mood. The rhythmical movement of the oar, the obedient working of his muscles, the unison of the rowers, the powerful glide of the boat through the lapping waves, there is a simple, healthy harmony here that fills him with an innocent pleasure. He is admiring close to him on the oar, on the periphery of his field of vision, the sinewy, caramel-coloured hands and forearms of his neighbour, beautifully muscled and covered with light blond hair that shines like gold every time the clouds uncover the sun. In front of him, two rowing benches away, Haizelé has taken Rahyan's place at the helm, in the stern of the boat. Their eyes meet; she smiles at him and, once again, he has that impression of breathing more expansively, this sudden freedom - like when he threw the last notebook into the sea.
"Hey, there are the mermaids again. They're in love with you, I believe, Monsieur Pierrino," says Martin.
Over the shoulder of the young man, he can see beneath the surface two huge, dark silhouettes coming towards them.
"I thought rather that they are in love with one another," he said laughing.
The dugongs, in fact, seem to be chasing each other. They race towards the boat, dive at the last moment and reappear on the other side, resurface blowing in unison, slap the water with their tails raising sprays of water that splash the boat, then plunge again beneath the surface spiralling around each other. Seen from so close, they are like two mountains playing together, a game that, added to the waves, makes the boat pitch more than Pierrino's still uncertain stomach would like.
"They're too close," says Haizelé. "César, could you persuade them to go court and tussle somewhere else?"
Pierrino does not see the magician, who is rowing behind him, and he would not be able to turn around without breaking the rhythm of the stroke, but Riopès can apparently access his talent while continuing to row, because after a minute or two, the two enormous frolicking silhouettes disappear into the depths then come back up to breathe on the surface a half a cable from the boat.
"Well," says Martin, "let's hope that that we didn't disturb them too much, huh, Monsieur Pierrino."
"Stop calling me 'Monsieur,' Martin, you'll tie your tongue in knots if you keep it up."
Martin laughs. "You would be able to untie them, I hope, with everything I've taught you."
Pierrino gives him a sidelong glance. An unexpected wave of warmth runs through him when he meets the mischievous gaze of those blue eyes. He suddenly realizes, surprised and amused, that his own statement could have been ambiguous. Is this an overture from Martin? He does not know how to respond, so he just smiles and turns away, but not without pleasure.
A violent impact lifts the boat.
Pierrino falls back heavily onto his bench, clinging to the oar. Exclamations shoot back and forth in the boat. Another impact, on the side, that becomes a push and the boat begins to lift. Pierrino feels himself sliding towards Simard, his neighbour on the left, while Martin is thrown against him. He looks around, terrified, but sees nothing. The dugongs are still frolicking, even farther away than before, but the boat rolls as if on an enormous invisible back, in a chaos of half-raised, jumbled oars. Haizelé's voice shouts: "Row, Martin!" What the mages answers or does, he does not know. He is squeezed between Martin and Simard, and the boat continues to list. The push turns into stronger and stronger jolts, as if whatever was lifting them was shrugging its shoulders to shake off the weight.
And then, with a single heave, the boat is flipped over. The oar is torn from Pierrino's hands and slams painfully into his jaw. Dazzled, he is in the air and the frothing surface of the water comes up to meet him, a smack that knocks him half senseless. The briny water fills his nostrils and throat, and he spits and coughs, still conscious, frantically flailing his arms and legs. He sinks, resurfaces, long enough to take a gulp of air, to see the overturned boat, heads on the surface, arms clinging to oars, barrels, then he sinks again. He remembers his lessons from the past and, with hard kicks of his heels, he gets rid of his shoes and forces himself to open his eyes, in spite of the salt sting. He turns around, his teeth clenched on his breath, and looks for the shadow of the boat. Sees instead, about twenty metres away, the dugongs coming at full speed. He swims back to the surface and begins to paddle in quick, panicked strokes towards a barrel floating not far away, then suddenly feels himself sucked into a powerful vortex - the water displaced by the arrival of the enormous beasts. He struggles, but sinks again. A pearly flank moves past his nose, like a wall. He tries by reflex to move away, and then sees the fan-shaped tail, slapping powerfully, and the counter-shock throws him back. His head strikes something very hard and rings like a bell.
He is floating in a great teeming silence that slowly expands. He feels nothing. And then he feels again, his chest exploding, a big bubble of air bursting from his lips with a dull sound, the water that envelopes him, penetrates him. He has time to think, with a total absence of terror, I'm dead, and he sinks, eyes wide open.
It is his psyche now that is perceiving all this, because he is watching his soma caught in a slow vortex, arms and legs hanging limply like the limbs of a mutilated starfish. Terror now, despair, Jiliane, oh, Jiliane, oh, Senso! So the psyche is not serene at the moment when the thread stretches out to let it "ascend" to the World-Between?
Does not stretch out, or not enough, because it continues to follow its soma as it sinks into the darker and darker blue depths.
But those depths come alive with fleeting, sparkling glints. They change texture, as if the water were changing to jelly around the soma, which continues to sink without slowing down. Something swells, stretches, extends. Shapes, translucent and glassy, become visible, spirals, the curve of a gigantic bulging torso, the soft supple line of a long clawed paw, it is very strange, being both outside and inside... Less and less outside as the creature swells to finally engulf the psyche, which is a prisoner of its too short thread. A short, very short, instant of panic and curiosity as he feels that odd sensation, like missing a step in a dream, and then everything becomes very calm, huge, majestic liquid thoughts. Something has been awakened without warning, by a distant, terrified tingling, which repeats, insists, questions, pesters. It spreads farther in long quiet swells. The tingling stops. It stretches more, ready to dissolve again into sleep, but there is that strange little spark that refuses to disappear. Strange because familiar. For a long time there has not been spark. Other slow liquid thoughts arrange themselves around the small point of light. Not in its place, that spark. It should be elsewhere. There is another world, in the upper part of the sea, above, where sometimes innumerable little lights dance, and sometimes one huge, unique light, sometimes bright, sometimes soft, yes, and it danced with them, once, swimming in the air. Has the time come to return?
Not yet. It does not know where this cheerful certainty comes from, but not yet.
The little spark must be brought back to its element. Its fluid thoughts unwind the huge creature, make it turn slowly around to find the right direction, then send it with a powerful undulation towards the thin, supple membrane that separates it from the other sparkling, ethereal world where - the creature knows this now - it will soon return.

***

He is floating. In front of him, not very far off, alternately veiled and unveiled by the swell, a hazy shore. He hears behind him voices, a foreign language, but with a vaguely familiar sing-song accent. He turns around in the water: not far from him, a stubby boat, with bizarre, quilt-like sails. A junk. At the rail, silhouettes are gesturing and exchanging astounded words. He watches all this from very far, as if he were not floating in the sea, but in another element, more distant, calmer. They throw him a rope. They haul him on board. They speak to him. He gestures that he does not understand. They hand him a blanket, which he wraps himself in as he sits down on a coil of rope.
He observes, still serene, the confab of the very agitated fishermen. He looks around him, without managing to worry about his fate. The sea, as far as the eye can see. He is no longer in the islands of Hon Doÿ.
The name suddenly brings him back to the present, along with the firmness of the deck under his feet, the coarse feel of the rope. He thinks suddenly of the other sailors fallen into the sea, of Haizelé. He asks: "Hon Doÿ, Hon Doÿ?"
They turn towards him, at first perplexed, then they shake their heads and they say, pointing to the shore: "Nomghur."
He is stunned. This archipelago was close to a hundred and fifty nautical leagues from the Mynmaï coast. He looks up to the sky - but it is still the sky of monsoons at this latitude, clouds, vistas of blue sky, one storm going away, another coming. Was he caught up in a current that carried him northwest? But wasn't the storm predicted by the ecclesiastics coming from the northwest? Impossible to say how much time has passed. His inner clock tells him it's almost seven o'clock in the evening, but not which day. If he had floated for days, unconscious, shouldn't he have been burnt by the sun and salt? Shouldn't he be dying of hunger, exhausted, unable to stand? He is lucky in any case that these fishermen had gone out.
They busy themselves with the sails and the helm. The boat changes course and turns towards the coast.
They approach him, almost shyly. They bring a bowl of steaming soup, a familiar thick blue-mauve porcelain dish, a familiar taste too, from Grandmother, sweet-and-sour fish soup. He is hungry, in fact, but much less than he should be. He realizes they give a little bow when they give him the soup, and they avert their eyes. The other fishermen who are not busy with the sails glance at him surreptitiously, turning away as soon as they meet his gaze.
He finishes the bowl of soup, more and more worried now. Though Haizelé is involved in smuggling with Kôdinh in the northeast, no European has set foot in the south of the country nor elsewhere - she seemed very sure of that. He does not know the Mynmaï language, only a few words, mostly names from legend. He is not white like the Ghost of the Prophecy, certainly, but in spite of his features, which are relatively exotic in France, here he does not resemble those people enough. About sixty years have gone by since Kéraï, the siege of Garang Nomh and the flight of the Geminites who survived the general uprising; will that be enough? The fishermen did not abandon him to his sad fate, but that is not necessarily a good sign. Perhaps they are taking him to a prison, or worse yet.
A presence in front of him: someone is bending over to take back the empty bowl. He picks it up to hand it to the fishermen, searching the weathered face for any sign of animosity. The little man's almond eyes are riveted on his chest, which was uncovered by his movement. He automatically puts a hand on his pendant.
The man drops the bowl, which breaks on the deck with a clear ring, and falls to his knees to prostrate himself, his hands jointed at his forehead.
All movement has stopped on the boat. All eyes are staring at them. All faces express terror.
With slow movements, Pierrino lets go of the pendant. Still no one moves. The lapping of the waves resounds with increased strength. Hesitantly, he holds out a hand to help up the prostrated man, feels the fisherman's body stiffen and immediately lets him go. He looks around, uncertain. Then, still slowly, he drops the blanket, bends over to his side to pick up the blue shards of the bowl, and gathers them carefully in the rolled up hem of his singlet. He has to stand up to get the farthest pieces - he does so with the same deliberate slowness, and this is the right choice, because he can see them relaxing around him.
When he has finished picking up the pieces of the bowl, he turns towards the prostrate fisherman, who stands up looking more stunned than frightened now, thank the Divine. Holding his singlet in one hand, he shows the man the fragments, with gestures that he hopes are clearly inquiring.
The fisherman, still on his knees, his eyes wide, emerges from his immobility to point shyly at the rail.
Pierrino goes over to the gunwale and is about to throw all the debris at the same time into the water, but he stops himself, he does not know why. Instead he takes the biggest pieces, tosses them one by one, calmly, like an offering, then carefully shakes out his shirt to throw over the small bits.
The fishermen start moving again, with cautious gestures at first, then at a normal pace. The prostrate man stands up. Picks up the blanket and hands it to Pierrino again, who accepts it with a smile.
The man, hesitant, gives a little smile in return...

© 2006 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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