THE HOUSE OF THE MIDWIFE
I didn’t feel like traipsing through the rain forest in velvet, so I asked the Señor whether I might have something to wear more appropriate to the task. Which, I kept to myself, was probably getting murdered. He promised to have something folded in front of my door by morning.
“You will join us for breakfast.” He drained his glass and set it on the mantle for someone else to gather up. Some habits never die.
“All of us?”
“Just you three,” he said. “The Arabs seem too raw. And the two pirates, I’m not sure I trust them.”
I did not know how to react to that. The Señor seemed to have some racial, and perhaps sexual, biases that confounded my 21st century sensibilities. Karím and Ahmad grew up in a war zone, for Alláh’s sake.
“You seem pensive, Engineer. Don’t worry, breakfast will be very early.”
That didn’t make it better. He was clueless. A body wants a good night’s sleep before getting murdered. I nodded him good night and walked off.
I slogged my way up the stairs, thinking thoughts. Sirhan and Kinsey were silent on my shoulders. I might as well torture them with what was torturing me.
“I have no idea how I did all that.”
Sirhan pecked at my eyebrow. I brushed him off.
“Did all what?” Kinsey asked.
I emptied my lungs as we reached the second/first floor. “Bob, and Q Bone, and Yellowbeard.”
Kinsey yanked my other eyebrow.
“Okay then,” she said. “Heat of the moment, right?”
Sirhan flapped his wings and started singing. “It was the heeeat of the moment!”
I shushed him. “People are getting ready for bed.”
He settled his wings.
“This isn’t a frat house,” I whispered sharply. “It’s the goddamn Renaissance or some shit. Only— a stifled Renaissance. I have no place here. I can’t do anything without fucking everything up.” I was in a downward spiral.
“John,” Kinsey said.
I stopped halfway up to our floor. I let myself breathe for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m going to die tomorrow. I can’t shoot anyone.”
“You shot Yellowbeard,” Sirhan growled quietly. “Took his leg and put him on a crutch.”
I chuckled sheepishly. “That was in the heat of the moment.”
“You like funny?” he said. “I can make it funny.”
That knocked me out of my funk. “What?”
His feet shuffled on my shoulder, clearly eager to spill something. Kinsey bounced in anticipation. I put a hand on the wooden rail. This was a truly weird moment.
“I’ve been thinking about it all day!”
“Okay. Tonight, I’ll go talk to the other ravens.”
I liked having more conspirators. I liked the animal connection to Hiral. The way I missed her tentacles around my ankle made the moment even weirder. “I’m gonna need more information,” I said.
Sirhan was in a state, feathers fluffing, head bobbing up and down in a distinctly avian way. “Kinsey heard about you from me, I heard about you from a parrot, who heard about you from a dolphin, who heard about you from the octopus. The word’s out.”
Kinsey’s tail was slapping the back of my neck like a frantic cat.
“So,” Sirhan said, “I will have a parrot sent to Yellowbeard, to run interference.”
I laughed out loud at that. Then I shushed myself. My feet started up the stairs again.
Sirhan went on. “I’ll tell the ravens to have him, or her—the parrot—promise to help the captain bring you back into his service.”
“I got it,” I said. I tried to resists grinning. I failed. “Good plan. Dig him deeper in the story he hates. Maybe we can bury a treasure for him to search for.”
“Ooh,” Sirhan said. “That’s good. I’ll try to work that in.”
We reached the door. I cranked the knob, recognized its squeak, and stepped inside, kicking off my fancy leather shoes.
“John,” Kinsey said. Sirhan pushed off my shoulder and swooped onto his pillow. I walked to the foot of the bed and sat on it.
As I shoved off the velvet pants and cotton stockings, Kinsey put a furry hand on my cheek. “The abbot.”
I put my hands on my bare knees. “The abbot?”
“That wasn’t in the heat of the moment,” she said. “You knew he was going to lead Q Bone and Yellowbeard to us. Put Amy and the others back into slavery. Put you back into Yellowbeard’s service. But, he wasn’t an immediate threat. And yet you did what you had to do.”
“I did what I had to do,” I repeated. It was a cliché. It made casual an act of violence I couldn’t have conceived in the World of Things. Where slavery was a BBC bulletin from some half-acknowledged backwater. Where piracy was a Tom Hanks movie. Where gun-play was a cynical news flash from the inner city, a viral story from the Middle East, a dramatic gimmick used to push up box office numbers. Death as a marketing device.
I lifted my shoulder and Kinsey dropped to scramble up the bed to her pillow. I peeled off the jacket and the shirt.
“She’s right, you know.” Sirhan was tamping the pillow down with his feet. I wondered if it was, itself, full of feathers.
“I am?” the monkey asked.
“You are,” he said, settling in. “That sneaky asshole needed to get put down. I didn’t think John would do it.”
I put my hands on the bed and slid back against the headboard. Between the two of them.
“But you did it. Dirty Harry style.”
“Yeah, I did it.” I tucked my feet and shoved them under the covers.
“Keep my place,” Sirhan said. Kinsey took the cue, jumped over me, and bounded from the bed to the floor. She leaped onto the balcony door, turned the knob, and kicked it open. The raven swooped out into the darkening sky.
I was awake before the sun came up. I just lay there, staring at the peach tiles on the ceiling in the half-light, tracing their plaster flowers with my eyes. They were admirably uniform, clearly pressed from a single form. I was thinking about the morning ahead, the hunt, the rain forest. The pirates. Yellowbeard, Danny, Várion. I could smell the raven and monkey beside me. Sirhan had come back sometime during the night.
There was a shuffling sound outside my door. My new clothes. Time for breakfast. I sat up. Sirhan and Kinsey shifted in their dreams, but did not wake up.
Bob’s gun vest and my cutlass were in a pile at the foot of the bed. I stared back at them as I opened the door. There, on the carpeted floor, was a stack of cloth. I brought it into the room.
A loose cotton shirt, under which were a folded pair of soft, leather boots. Below that, a woven cloth belt with a wooden buckle. Finally, a loose pair of cotton pants. I got dressed, the cutlass hung on my belt and the gun vest over my shoulders.
“Come,” I heard Kinsey’s voice from the bed. She and Sirhan were awake. I noticed then that the balcony door was closed. The light through the wavy glass was growing green. I walked over, feeling out the new boots, and sat on the bed. The two of them set to fastening the buckles.
“You think they’ll have bacon at breakfast?” Sirhan asked.
“I hope so,” squeaked Kinsey.
“Wait,” I said, standing. The two of them took their places on my shoulders. My hand reached up to stroke my beard. “How did it go last night?”
Sirhan ruffled his feathers.
“I talked to the other ravens, who led me to the parrots. They agreed to the plan.”
“How much of the plan?”
He ruffled his feathers again. “The treasure will take some work.” His eyes, meaning his head, darted around the room. “A lot of work. But, Yellowbeard will be let in on a supposed conspiracy among the animals to get the pirates rifling so they can take out the company men. Control of the seas of the World Facing.”
“Sounds good,” I said. It did. Almost chuckle-worthy. “Well then, let’s get breakfast.”
Breakfast was quiet and savory, served in the ballroom at a long table. The Señor and his Señora sat at opposite ends, with Gulick’s men along one side and Foster’s men along the other. I sat beside Foster. Karím and Ahmad were across from me, decked out in trail clothes like mine. They had hangers and dragons on their belts.
The staff of Casa Relajada put ceramic plates on the table, decorated in green and blue vines, covered in bacon, pulled chicken, eggs, potatoes, chips of steak. There were bottles of milk here and there. I wondered how, or if, they had been chilled without Ford’s technology, assuming it had relied on the water supply.
“Good to see you,” I said to the Arab brothers.
The Señor lifted his glass of milk. “They gave me a good story about their life before. I reconsidered.” He grinned at his lady and she lifted her milk to clink his.
“Karím has promised to follow your lead,” Ahmad said to me.
“Don’t talk for me,” Karím said. He shook his head in a combination of annoyance and, gratefully, amusement. “I was moved by your dispatch of the abbot. And Q Bone.”
Kinsey pinched my eyebrow. I lifted a slice of bacon to her furry hand.
The milk was cold. I guessed there were ice-houses still holding stores when the water tower fell. I noticed that Foster was watching me drink milk, his eyes intense. I had no idea why. Had he resisted the Señor in putting me on this detail? I needed to know.
“Mr. Foster,” I said. “You have a plan for our incursion?”
He smiled that comforting Foster smile at me, but I could sense that it was the morale-building of a seasoned leader. I had known managers like that in the World of Things. Just lift spirits to get the task done.
“I do,” Foster said. He turned to the Señor. “Is it appropriate for the breakfast table, sir?”
Abarca-Abaroa nodded while shoveling egg into his mouth.
Foster set his glass of milk on the table. “We know where the pirates and slave hunters are holed up, in the monastery called the House of the Midwife.”
I glanced at Karím, whose mouth was tense. I remembered his reaction to the abbot’s claim that the wife of God was on the summit of the Right Breast.
“My men, and you three,” Foster said. We were an intrusive entity. I nodded. “We will descend by way of a hidden gully, past a few forgotten and vine-eaten shrines, to the bushes outside the monastery where the captain has set up a camp to keep his counsel outside the monk’s ears.”
“To gather intelligence,” I said, “or to take the captain and his men unawares?”
Foster scooped up his glass of milk. “We’ve taken enough intelligence.” He drew a swig from the glass.
I felt unsure. If Várion were there, I did not want to see him dead. He had given me my life on the trail. Danny, maybe I could shoot. Yellowbeard, probably. Part of me wanted to watch him transformed against his will into Long John Silver. But, I couldn’t say anything of that. To make Foster happy, I needed to be a good employee. Agree to my shift and carry on.
I let my head nod sideways and lifted my milk. “Sounds good.”
The first shrine was indeed vine-eaten. It was a statue of a woman holding a baby, awfully Madonna-like, except for the bird head on the infant. Foster’s men had cut down the weeds around it, and along the paths leading in and out. There was a pile of black detritus in front of the statue, a testament to forgotten offerings of food.
“She’s got nice tits,” said Karím.
She did. All of the monks’ statues seemed to have nice breasts, which was ironic I thought. What an odd way to celebrate a disciplined life. The statue had nice hips, as well, and a serenely beautiful face with large eyes and full lips. Maybe it was a test, a temptation to resist, in stone.
“There are three more,” Foster said. “Let’s try to remember what’s at the end of that.”
“The pirate camp,” I said.
“Your guns are all loaded,” he said. His comforting smile was nowhere to be seen.
I frowned. “Of course, they are. Why would they not be?”
He let his hands settle on his cutlass and pistol. “Have you checked them?”
I had not. But I remembered reloading them in my room. “Of course I did. Why wouldn’t I?”
He lowered his eyes on me, then nodded his men on down the trail. They drew their cutlasses, as if they had to cut a path, even though they didn’t.
The next shrine was another woman, with a swollen belly and a bird head. We passed it without comment. Unless you consider it a comment that Sirhan flapped his way onto the avian head of the statue before swooping back to my shoulder.
“What the fuck was that about?” I whispered.
Sirhan leaned his beak toward my ear. “I said a short prayer that we would succeed.”
I felt my face scrunch. “Aren’t you a Muslim?”
“Aren’t you a Christian?” he asked. “I’m hedging my bets.”
I smiled at that and let Foster’s men lead us on down the trail.
The next shrine was a couple, the man standing straight as a post with the woman held up in his hands, her thick thighs wrapped around his waist and arms wrapped over his shoulders. There was a theme developing.
Foster stomped accidentally on the black pile of archaic food offerings as he made his way toward the path ahead. I felt a weird sense of offense at this, bad karma or something, but I could only keep following the Casa’s men down the trail. Toward the final shrine, and Yellowbeard’s encampment.