IN AND OUT OF THE STORY
The next day, after a nice breakfast of pork-and-pineapple skewers thanks to the gastronomically apostate Ahmad, we followed the wooded trail downhill toward the fan of the watershed, but then found a fork in the trail. One way led up toward the mountain, the other down more sharply toward the plantation fields below.
“Well,” I said, stopping in the trail with Sirhan and Kinsey on my shoulders, ahead of the others. I turned to face them. “This is certainly a quandary.”
I turned to look at the fork over my shoulder, and over Sirhan’s shoulder. The sun was in my eyes, shimmering off the far sea. The mountain to my left ear was shrouded in milky clouds. The crops and slave shacks and plantation house below cast long shadows toward the west.
“There is no choice,” Ahmad said. “We go up.”
I looked back. Karím stood solidly beside his brother. “We cannot go near the slavers.”
My hands rested on the lowest pistols on the vest. Not an argument, just another piece of information to weigh.
“Their slave hunters can be managed.”
Mei stepped up behind Ahmad and put her hand on his shoulder. Keiki took her place beside Karím and let her elbow brush his. Sexual solidarity. More than I’d had with Lorie in the World of Things.
“No,” Karím said predictably, “It is too much to risk.”
I felt heat in my gut, spreading through my arms and legs. I did not like the dissent in my new crew. I had assured them I would take care of the slavers. They doubted my resolve?
“The path down leads us closer to the next gorges, toward monasteries where we might find refuge.”
“The monks don’t protect slaves,” Karím said.
“They never give anyone sanctuary,” Keiki said.
Amy walked around the others to stand between me and them. She looked sad, like she didn’t want to tell me what she was about to tell me.
“We tried the monasteries when we first escaped. They rejected us. They care only about themselves.”
Karím nodded and stomped past me, glaring defiantly into my face, moving up the left-hand path.
There was a crackling, rustling sound. As Karím walked, vines reached across the path like tentacles. Karím drew his knife and stumbled to a stop. The girls squealed, except Kinsey, who just grabbed the hair on the back of my head. The vines wove together, forming a green and brown wall. Sirhan shuffled his feet on my left shoulder.
“Maybe,” I said, “that’s a sign?”
Karím growled at me, tightened his fingers around the knife, and stomped toward the vines. “Alláhu Akbar!”
“Ah-ah-ah,” came a calm, scolding voice.
Everything went silent. Karím turned to glare over his shoulder. I took his cue and looked. Beyond us, beyond Keiki and Mei and Ahmad and Amy, stood the abbot from the monastery.
“Ah-ah-Alláhu Akbar. If you believe in that doxology, Karím, you will heed God’s will and leave those vines unmolested.”
Karím’s sandals pattered in my ear until he was standing beside me. He thrust the knife toward the abbot.
“How do you know my name?” he barked. “We will not go back to the slavers.”
The abbot was calm, aged beyond his physical years. “You need not go back to your old master. But, you will not ascend to the Right Breast.”
There was a brisk trade in glances as we all took that in. The Arab brothers, the raven and the monkey, the girls. Myself. As if to punctuate the abbot’s words, the vines tightened their weave with woody squeaks and groans.
There was a distant thunder of musket fire. Behind us on the trail. The escaped were suddenly shivering. Sirhan and Kinsey remained admirably still on my shoulders. The abbot himself was physically disheartened by the echo of the thunder. His shoulders sagged, but then he gathered himself.
“The forest will block you, defeat you, obstruct you as enemies to God’s will.”
My engineer’s mind did not see God’s will. It saw only an obstacle to be worked around.
“What lies up that slope?”
The abbot’s serene gaze was moved only to sympathize with my struggle against the unknown.
“A disregarded goddess,” he said. “God’s wife.”
I heard rage in Karím’s exhalation. A huff of hot air as fiery as the voice of a dragon. I was less angry, more curious.
“Your ancient cult,” I said to the abbot. “Another set of fake rules that won’t stand up to scrutiny.”
The abbot let the left corner of his mouth raise a centimeter. “Scrutiny is not my concern. The World speaks its own truth.”
I felt heat rising through my body. I felt my hands settling on the lowest pistols on Bob’s gun vest. I felt the weight of my growing beard tugging at my chin.
My mouth moved: “I speak questions that rewrite that truth.”
There was a deeper silence then. Deeper than the clip-clop of Yellowbeard’s boots. Deeper than the silence of the forest. Another distant round of musket shot rang out to the west, breaking that silence. Kinsey’s hand let go of my hair and rested gently on the back of my head.
“Engineer,” the abbot said. “Your victim Robert is on your trail.”
“My victim!” I laughed. I repeated Várion’s last words to me: “Bob had it coming.”
He was unfazed. “The pirates and the slavers are on your trail. The other escapees are running and hungry.”
“The other escapees are dying, from the sound of it.”
“The consequences of your meddling are coming home.”
I drew a pistol and let it rest near my thigh. The girls and Ahmad backed away from the abbot to stand beside myself and Karím. A new solidarity.
“The conflicts of the World Facing,” the abbot said, “are a distraction. The consequences are inexcusable.”
I glanced over the upland forest to the fields on my left. The yellow-green crops, the slave shacks, the far gleaming plantation house. I drew a second pistol.
“I have surfed the waves of consequence.” My eyelids had dropped to the trail. I saw the dead face of Juan de la Hoz. I saw the bloody gash I had dug in Bob’s stomach. I was staring at Amy’s sandals. The consequences of my uncomfortable shoes had set this all off. “I didn’t sequester myself away from those consequences in some fucking monastery. Like an old man.”
I raised the pistols in my hands and leveled them on the abbot. His face did not react. The others were breathing hard. In the corner of my eye, I saw Karím stuff his knife back into his belt.
“The girl was quite right,” the abbot said. “The monks do not allow sanctuary.”
Keiki took a deep breath at the repetition of her words. How long had he been there, silently following us?
The abbot’s eyes were beyond calm. “The conflicts of the World Facing are a distraction.”
“For fuck’s sake,” I said. I was tired of the banter. “The conflicts are what makes the worlds work. The company men are constantly shipping more of them from on high. Anomalies, exceptions, random incidents to muck up the works. Your escape is an illusion.”
The abbot straightened his spine. “The forest will not let you pass upland. You must go down.”
Ahmad leaned toward me.
“We will go down,” I said. “But not with you leading the pirates and slave hunters behind us.”
The abbot’s flinch told me what I had already suspected. A compromise had been made to keep the monasteries neutral. To prevent a repeat of Yellowbeard’s slaughter of monks. A betrayal in the name of an impotent, spiritual neutrality. The abbot had sacrificed Naoki and the others. I could see the other beside me, exchanging glances in the corners of my vision.
I rubbed my facial scruff with one of the pistols. I fought anger, sought an engineer’s rationality. A calm plan. The musket fire rang out a third time, too close, punctuating my resolve.
“I want everyone to understand this.” I spoke loudly in an imitation of Yellowbeard’s mode of public address. “I aimed to keep us all safe from the pirates and from the slavers. I aimed toward our freedom, in Calvary or Jissamán. I will defend that aim with every resource within my grasp.”
“And now,” I clicked the hammers of my pistols and steadied them on the abbot. “There is one avenue of consequence standing between us and my aims.”
“Do it,” Ahmad said. “He’ll lead them to us.”
“Wait,” said Karím. “We are not Q Bone.”
“Q Bone,” I said, “wanted you a slave. I want you a free man. Free of this asshole’s conspiracy with the pirates and slavers.”
“John,” Amy said, “we might find other escaped slaves in the fields.”
Kinsey’s hand gripped my hair and pressed against the back of my skull. I felt Sirhan’s beak tap against my cheek.
“The votes are in,” I said. My feet stood bare on stone and dirt, but they felt like they were armored by leather boots. “Any dissenters?”
My arms were more still than I ever remembered them. I could feel the hair growing on my chin, brown and stiff and bristly. Keiki and Mei moved beside their boyfriends. Ahmad and Karím were silent. Kinsey’s furry tail was wrapped around my neck.
The abbot nodded, with a touch of sadness and resignation. “I did leave traces for Yellowbeard’s and Q Bone’s men. Your analysis is accurate.”
I regarded his neutral features. His bent posture in spite of youthful looks, like Naoki’s old man stance. His steady, matured eyes.
His perspective was easy to figure. “The world wants a change,” I said.
“The world often does,” he said.
I wondered whether I could do this. I had shoved a hanger into Bob’s gut in a moment of abandon. Could I pull triggers on the abbot in a moment of inescapable consciousness? I felt a growing tremor in my hands. I remembered the musket shots, proving that death was chasing us. Yellowbeard and the slavers and Bob were closing in on us.
I saw Bob’s maniacal smile pressed against my face, mocking Prince’s lyrics.
“Life is just a party,” I sang. “And parties aren’t meant to last.”
My fingers squeezed. The pistols popped in my hands, pushing against the flesh between my thumbs and pointer fingers. My blood kept running. My eyes kept seeing. My beard kept growing.
After an eternity of ear-ringing, Karím wondered aloud if we should bury the abbot’s body. His brother insisted on expediency. The others agreed with Ahmad. I abstained, staring up the mountain with the spent pistols tugging on my arms. I holstered them to relieve my arms of their weight.
We descended into the fields quietly. The sooner we made our way past the slavers fields to the gorges, the better. Unfortunately, just as the path uphill had a different plan, so did the path downhill.
We were making our way, comfortably, the yellow fields on our right coming to their corner with the green creases of the gorges ahead. It was little more than geometric shapes to me, a vague yellow rectangle, a green triangle, the green arc of the mountain top under our feet, all rotating and coming into alignment.
Then, a volley of clicks in the bushes around us.
We all came to a standstill. I felt my tongue against my upper teeth, my fingers spreading, my hands reaching out to my sides. Away from the pistols.
A dozen men stepped from the bushes, holding muskets on us. Black men, white men, Asian men. Dressed in simple clothes, yet not rags. Hangers and dragons on nice, leather belts. And feet covered in nice, leather shoes.
One of the men, a black man with a shaved head and thick jawline, stepped in front of me with a comforting smile.
“You’re in charge,” I said. A recognition and a reassurance.
“I am Foster. I tend the fields for the lord below, Señor Abarca-Abaroa.”
“He wants Q Bone’s property?”
Foster shook his head. His face was remarkably calming. “He just wants to talk,” he said. “He has plenty of property of his own.”
I was a bit alarmed to find my hands resting on the dragons on my hips. I thought I had held them out.
“You have six pistols,” Foster nodded. “Loaded I’m guessing.”
“We have twelve muskets, also loaded.” He grinned. Not in a threatening way. In that disconcertingly comforting way his face had. Like a lawyer or social worker. Letting me know I didn’t have to fight. “We’ve been waiting for you. The parrots carry word of your flight.”
“Fucking green-feathers,” Sirhan croaked into my left ear.
“Our master, Señor Abarca-Abaroa is eager to meet you.”
“Me? Or us?”
“He is eager to meet Mecánico Jack,” he said, “the man who has the pirate lords in such a state of agitation.”
“I never agreed to that name.”
“It stuck,” he shrugged. Almost apologetically. “It’s carved into the tales of Yellowbeard and Whitebeard now.”
I gritted my teeth. I didn’t like being penned in by other people’s words. I needed a win. “And, Bluebeard?”
“Ha!” Foster glanced around at his men. So did I. They didn’t share his amusement. Neither did my allies. “That motherfucker Bluebeard has taken himself out of the story.”
Again, I was being penned in by other people’s words. I let my hands let go of the pistols and rest on my hips.
“I decide the story.” I let my eyes say what my gun hands couldn’t. Foster frowned in understanding and nodded, letting me go on. “Bluebeard and Jissamán might still be in it.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, “but, not this chapter. Right now, your story comes to Casa Relajada, and Señor Abarca-Abaroa.”