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A Forgotten Secret
LA OF OPAR
DAVID BRUCE BOZARTH
Copyright © 2002
When Elmo visited the vaults of Opar and took the Gold and Jewels, he took much more than the glittering wealth of the ancient city ... and the savage-born woman he wronged never forgave the ape-man!
Illustrated by Tangor
I was raised by the hand maidens of the High Priestess, my mother. My father was a brutish lout my mother sacrificed on the Altar of Opar when I was eight. He was a terrible father but as a High Priest of the Atlantean men he was a horror not to be endured. My mother suffered from his insane rages and had been beaten and forced against her will more times than I wish to remember. When Cadj, the father of Cadj and grandfather of Cadj berserked not even the strongest of the Fifty Frightful Men would oppose him. Too often he killed one or more!
The Fifty Frightful Men were the men of Opar. They were the men who walked the streets of the once glorious city of stone and terrace and waterfalls. They were the men who would, without warning, take any woman of Opar as she walked the streets, or tended the fields, or prepared meals. They were hairy men with arms longer than their legs with heads misshapen by a brow of bone over their dark, glistening eyes. They were bow-legged, yet massive of chest and strength and feared no creature of the dark jungle outside our city walls. We dined on Bolgani the greatest of the apes, we wore the skins of the large cats Numa and Sheeta, we felt no fear from the gomangani who were tall black men without hair on their bodies who had invaded our land the year I was born.
Mother sacrificed father and I was there to witness his passage to the Sun. How rapidly my heart beat when the heart of Cadj was lifted aloft to be held beside the bronze and jeweled sacrificial knife! His final scream soothed my memories of his ugliness and my fear that he might not wait until I was older before he...
But that did not happen! When Cadj passed to the Sun which protected Opar and was the home of all souls the son of Cadj became the next high priest and because he was not the get of Cadj and my mother, he could make no claim on her bed. By law only the son may take his mother or sisters or daughters. Though mother ruled Opar and spoke as the Daughter of the Sun, it was the Fifty Frightful who ruled the women.
When I was sixteen Mother drew me away from the chamber where the hand maidens watched the children. "Alone..." she told Ione, my most constant care giver. She was old and crippled, her arm once broken and poorly set after a man had asserted his need during her youth. She walked with a limp, her left foot crushed by a heavy club when she was a woman of middle age. Ione arched her brow, which made the wrinkles of her sun-bronzed face writhe like a suddenly disturbed nest of serpents.
Mother's grim expression softened. She leaned forward and caressed Ione's face with the back of her hand. "It is time for The Truth," she said. Ione gladly gripped mother's hand for a moment, then turned away.
Down into the depths of the tunnels and caverns beneath Opar I was led. There were many passages where there was no light at all, yet Mother seemed to know the way because we traveled at a swift pace. The air grew chill, the stones damp, and beneath my bare feet I sometimes slipped on a thin ooze coating the floor. Yet the air was always fresh in fact a breeze blew against my face and I could smell the scent of flowers and grass and orchards.
In one dark tunnel Mother paused. She lifted my hand to feel some carvings on the wall. "This is the treasury, La. Herein lies the wealth of Opar. Guard it well."
I summoned my courage, for Mother had largely ignored me after Cadj had been sacrificed. "Is this The Truth?"
Her hand propelled me forward and I hurried to match her step. I lost count of the turns we took, though I was sometimes astonished at some of the chambers we entered: large natural caverns dimly lit by overhead clefts in the stone ceiling which let in the light of the Sun. After entering a short winding tunnel of utter blackness, we suddenly emerged into a natural amphitheater of large proportions. Along the towering cliff walls stood a band of trees and in the center was a lake wide enough to tax even the strongest swimmer from one shore to the next. A wide expanse of grass surrounded the lake and half of that was cultivated. I saw figures working the fields but they were strangely formed, they did not look like women, though their naked bodies were white like...
All my life I had hear rumors, tales of fantasy, and now fantasy met with reality! "Men!"
Mother stood for a moment, her long hair lifted by the breeze as she raised her face to the Sun. "This is The Truth, La. This is the secret you must keep when you become High Priestess. The Fifty Frightful Men rule everyday life in Opar, but we control the future of Opar. Have you never wondered why there are no more than Fifty Frightful Men? Have you never wondered why so many of their get are born with no breath of life? Have you never wondered why your skin is smooth and you stand tall on legs longer than your arms?"
I was sixteen, I was still a child, but I was not a stupid child. "Yes," I admitted. "Even as a child I looked upon Cadj and wondered how such a hideous man could have been my father."
"He wasn't your father," Mother said as she removed her jewels and trappings. She placed them on a rock near the entrance of the tunnelwhich was guarded by six armed women I had never seen in Opar! Mother touched my arm and pointed to a tall bronzed figure in the cultivated fields below. "He is your father."
Mother gestured for me to remove my jewels and trappings. I placed mine next to hers, puzzled but trusting her always for she had protected me from Cadj and the other Frightful Men all of my life. As I stood there, skin bare to the life-giving Sun, two women of Opar emerged from the tunnel. They quickly shed their trappings then, after bowing to Mother, ran down to the lake where two men were fishing. The women met the men in a rush, then moments later were happily engaged in a joining that no woman of Opar ever enjoyed with any of the Frightful Fifty Men.
"This is The Truth, dear La," Mother said. She took my elbow and we walked toward a small group of thatched huts. "The Atlanteans who founded Opar were lost when Atlantis sank. Their laws of marriage doomed them to become the hideous creatures who walk our ruined city. The Truth is that the women of Atlantis who helped found Opar learned early such was not right because our children were deformed and ugly, and prone to fiendish rages."
Mother led me to a specific hut. The straw over the roof was not so dense to keep out the brilliance of the Sun. Inside were six men...or six who would soon become men for they were not as tall or as broad as the men I had seen in the fields. They were comely in appearance, a few with beards beginning to show. All were naked.
"Pick one," Mother said.
I whispered in her ear. "I do not understand."
"It is your time, La. The women of Opar survive because we kill as many babies the Frightful Fifty produce as we create with these men captured two hundred years ago. These slaves and their children with the women of Opar have been our salvation. We keep the girl babiesand we women are three hundred strong! Pick one, or two, or three of these young men. I will show you how to make babies."
I did as asked because Mother would not accept anything else, but I chose only one. He was taller than me with a touch of beard on his face. His legs were long and sturdy. He followed us out of the hut into the Sunlight. Mother took us down to the fields where the man she named as my father worked. He looked up and smiled. Mother smiled it was the first time I had ever seen her smile! The four of us went to the lake. There we bathed and sported and there I became interested in the glistening curves of the muscular young man. Then, under the shade of banana trees near the northeast cliff, Mother showed me and Father showed himand we learned!
My lover Darian died within a week of Mother's death. He perished in a rock slide from the amphitheater wall. Mother was killed by a Sheeta which entered Opar in the dead of night. I was eighteen when I became High Priestess of Opar.
Mother had been my best friend for two years. She and I spoke constantly and always found time to experience The Truth. She showed me all of Opar's secrets: the treasure rooms, the hidden ways beneath the city, the secrets of love, for I had learned that love could exist but never with one of the Fifty Frightful. During those two years twelve Frightful conceptions were secretly strangled by the mid-wives while thirty tarmangani births were delivered. If they were female we raised them in Opar. If they were male they were raised in the amphitheater.
I tried several of the youths and a few of the men after Darian died but I found no comfort in their embraces. I fully understood the way of things which had been handed down from High Priestess to High Priestess and to all of the women of Opar. It was my duty to produce a tarmangani child, yet Cadj, the son of Cadj and father of Cadj was persistent!
In two years he had risen high in the ranks of his fellow Fifty Frightful Men. He had become the High Priest in their eyes. Because we had suffered a drought and a period of poor hunting, Cadj had suggested that all might improve if he, who was not my full brother, but a half-brother, take me. Having witnessed his father's brutality on my mother I had no desire to experience that ugliness. For several moons I kept Cadj from my bed, but I knew I could not do so forever. I did not think I could replicate my Mother's maneuverings to put the son of Cadj and father of Cadj on the Altar where I might cut out his heart.
My days grew more desperate, I prayed to the Sun each time I eviscerated a sacrifice. My knife was as often wet with blood as it was dry. I spoke the High Words Mother had taught me and as convincingly as she had, though she had revealed our religion was as hollow an ant-cleaned skull. Meanwhile, Cadj of the hungry eyes lusted after me, nor did he flinch when I threw the beating hearts of animals and gomangani into the gathered Fifty Frightful at each sacrifice, nor did he watch his lesser brethren squabbling over the sweet meat. His eyes devoured me. My skin crawled whenever he looked at me.
Cadj wanted me. I did not want him. How much longer could I keep Cadj at bay?
Opar tumbled twice in the ancient past. Years beyond our memory an earthquake destroyed the city. We lived among the ruins of that event. Perhaps at the same time of that earthquake which tumbled Opar the mother country of Atlantis descended beneath the waves of the Ocean to the West. But the second tumbling was the most important.
The Frightful delegated work to the women. The women worked in places as far removed from Opar as the Ocean to the West. The first La, the one who became the High Priestess of Opar, discovered a man cast upon the shore. There were others from his ship, but there were many women in her command and they overcame the men and brought them to the amphitheater. Before the first La was with child the women fishing the Ocean to the West had captured more than 100 men.
La the First created the religion the Frightful observe. Better to kill than be killed is what the women of Opar knew, but the Frightful, who diminished with each passing year until there were only Fifty when I was born, enjoyed the letting of blood and the "high words" the High Priestess uttered.
Opar tumbled a third time. Into my city came a tarmangani. He was named Elmo. He killed Cadj.
He was a man like none I had known. His form was tall, his muscles supple, his skin scarred by battles with the beasts of the jungle. We could only speak as the mangani because that was the language we had in common. We met twice over the years, and once I had my way with him repeatedly until I was exhausted. He had been bound and protesting, and my ministrations made his protests come to naught, but he escaped. Elmo was clever, strong, and violent. He escaped and twice robbed the treasury of Opar.
As my belly swelled in the months following the Fifty Frightful became Thirty during a thunderstorm. When I gave birth to a perfect daughter the Thirty had fought among themselves until there were Twenty-Two. When my dear La was two I convinced the women of Opar we should be free. In one night the Twenty-Two were murdered in their sleep, at their walks, or as they savaged a woman. That year I ordered the amphitheater vacated. These men who had been the slaves of the Oparian women were brought to the city and, among the ruins of stone and brick, we made a good life!
Among the slaves was Claude Earl, a curious man in that he was not a survivor of a ship wreck on the coast of the Atlantic side of Africa. He had been alone climbing the hills near Opar. He was also strange in that he was a large man, even larger than Elmo, smiled often and was gentle unless provoked, then fought like a demon. Like Elmo he, too, had scars of battle on his body that San Juan gave him. I did not know what manner of beast was a San Juan, but it must be terrible indeed. He was an American. When I became High Priestess I followed all that my mother had taught with one exception. Instead of forcing the slaves to speak our language or the language of the mangani I decreed we learn their languages, which were many! During my reign as High Priestess of Opar many things were learned, among which I learned to speak English. I learned about Civilization and I also learned how small was our world.
After the passing of the Frightful I educated the daughters of Opar as best I might. It was the counsel of Claude Earl who I had claimed for my bed because he was the most powerful of the males and the most recent and most wise and most opposite of Elmo who provided the final instruction I should make.
"Opar is no more," he told me one night as we clutched each other in a sweat. "You have saved your people by giving them an education. Now let them go free. Too soon will there be no lost cities."
"What do you mean?" I asked, happily remembering the physical pleasure of his embrace. He was unlike any man I had known, save one.
"Africa will be known, dear La. This land is filled with mineral and agricultural wealth. Soon there will be hordes of peopleboth black and whitedestroying the forests, planting fields, building towns and cities. Remember why I came to Africa: I came in search of oil. There is oil here and industry needs it; yet there is something more important you should know."
"What?" I asked, placing a trembling leg over his waist, kissing his cheek.
"Your valley is one of several under consideration for flood control and hydro-electricity. The surveyors will soon come. Even if they do not discover Opar during the survey they might build that dam and your valley will be flooded forever. Get your people out before they are overrun or become curiosities for the Darwin bunch. But you must promise one thing."
I did not know about electricity, but I did understand flooding of lands. Keeping my concerns in check I asked: "What promise do you request?"
Claude Earl replied with no hesitation. "Dear La, I must be your slave for all the years that remain in my life."
I used Claude as much as he used me with my joyful permission. I learned more from this gentle man than he learned from me because Claude Earl did not know me as the High Priestess of Opar the woman who routinely eviscerated animals, Bolgani, or gomangani with her centuries old bronze knife to keep safe from the lusts of the son of Cadj and the father of Cadj, or the woman who had become the embarrassed pleading and desperate girl who could not forget the sensuality of Elmo of the Apes. When the Fifty Frightful men were no more, I did not again raise the sacrificial knife. Claude did not know that La, and after I entered America through the Port of Galveston, I was glad.
His world was very different than mine! Machines that traveled on roads faster than Bara could run, or pulled many houses on metal tracks, or crossed waters so vast that many days passed before land was again seen. Machines that talked in your ear!
I did not like clothing. Rather, I did not like some of the clothing I had to wear. Claude's tribe did not view nudity as a virtue yet some of the clothing, that which was worn nearest the skin, did excite Claude in a way that made our frequent joining more pleasurable. I wore the least amount of clothing appropriate for "public" and Claude helped me in those decisions. He once confided that he thought clothing was a bother but when in Rome one must do as the Romans. Even years later I did not understand what he meant because he took me to Rome and they wore the same clothes we did in Texas.
Claude treated my daughter with great tenderness and care. Each time he picked her up, fed her, gave her a bath, his face was serene. They often laughed together over silly things. La loved Claude and because of that, I saw him in a different light.
My slavewho was more than a slave and who had become my mentor and friend took me home "to meet Mama."
Mama was a feisty "old girl" a head shorter than me and as fragile as a bird's wing, but whose heart and spirit could humble even the strongest man. I saw my mother's will in Mama Earl and for the first time in my life I blinked back tears. Only when my mother diedand when Elmo had spurned me had I wept but Fannie Mae Earl touched my heart when she opened the door, looked me up and down and turned to her son saying: "She'll do."
I was welcomed into the large house built on a rise in the Big Thicketthat large expanse of forest in East Texasbut I was not allowed to share Claude's bed. La and I were given a sunny room on the south side of the two story house. The bed was largeI liked beds!and Claude's sisters came often to "chat" and play with my daughter. I reserved judgment on "chatting" because these women were of Claude's family. I had learned the difference between family and tribe but sometimes the chats were tedious or lacking interest, and part of that was because La, High Priestess of Opar, did not know or understand everything that was said. That Jimmy Gary was dating Prissy June and Hank Howard killed a hog and Dad'ums finally killed that mangy fox were facts of shared information for which I had no foundation. Though the sisters of Claude chatted incessantly their hearts were good and their friendship and affection for me and La were genuine.
Claude greeted me with a kiss and hug at breakfast and took turns feeding my plump daughter while the rest of the family laughed and talked and asked "When are you two gonna get hitched?" or "Set a date, damn ya!"
A handful of days had passed before I finally had time with Claude alone as we walked through the trees west of the house. "I need you," I said, ducking under some bushes and lifting my skirt. I had deliberately left off the under garment women wore.
Claude reached down and lifted me as effortlessly as I picked up La. "We can't. This isn't Africa. This isn'tLa, you can be whatever you want to be in America. You don't keep a man with sex. You have so much to learn."
Never had I felt anger rise so quicklywith the exception of Elmothat I wished the bronze knife in my suitcase was in my hand! I had been spurned once, I would not be spurned again!
Claude saw that instant rage and knew, better than me, what it meant. He shook me with a gentleness that stilled the hot retort on my lips. "I love you, La. I love you more than life itself. I know you have some feelings for me. I also know that your life has been so very different than mine. I will never ask, but do not dare to deny that you love another. It is because of that that I have not done right by you. What I mean, darlin' is that in America it is not seemly for a man and woman to live together without the bonds of matrimony."
His voice was so earnest that I set aside the anger. "What is matrimony?"
"A pledging between a man and a woman to be exclusive and true to one another forever."
"How does one matrimony?"
Claude tenderly smiled. I sensed I had once again used English incorrectly. "Matrimony is the result, 'marry' is how it is achieved."
I nodded, understanding. "Marry me."
For a moment he appeared both stunned and elated. "La, it's not that easy."
"Why not? I want you. You want me. You are good to La. Marry me."
Claude linked my hand through his arm and walked me back toward the house. We sat on a hammock strung between two lob-lolly pines. He took my hands in his and leaned close. "La, marriage is forever. It means that I will love only you and will never make love to another woman. It means that you will love only me and never make love to another man. It means that we will make our lives together. Our happiness and our sorrows are jointly embraced until we die."
"If we marry and I make love to another man what would happen?"
"You would break my heart and I would divorce you."
"What is divorce?"
"Divorce is admitting a mistake has been made and that I would never wish to see you again."
"What if you made love to another woman?"
"Then you could kill me, for if that should ever happen then the love for you I feelhave felt since I first laid eyes on youwould have been a lie."
"So women can kill the marry men but marry women do not get killed."
Claude's laughter was so instant and loud I flushed with embarrassment. I looked toward the house to see if any faces were at the windows observing us. Almost petulantly I slapped Claude's wrist. "What did I say?"
A moment later Claude explained the difference between "marry" and "merry" and divorce and cases of dead wives and dead husbands and how insane the conversation was because he did want to marry me. "I want to be your husband and take care of you for the rest of your life. I love you, La. Do you love me?"
I glanced down to the earnest grip he had on my hands, then looked into his eyes. I was not sure of myself and that upset meyet, Claude had always been kind. I had questions and there was no one else to ask, nor anyone else that I would trust in their answer. Humbled, uncertain, I asked: "What is love?" but I would not let him release my hands when he straightened.
"Answer me, Claude Earl. If love means you value a person and want them in your life and rise each morning thinking of them, then I love you. If love means putting your future in the hands of a person you trust with all your heart, then I love you. If love means wanting to make babies, then I love you. If"
"Shut up, La."
Claude kissed me. He had kissed me many times, but this time it was different. When he pulled his face away he made a promise. "You will never want for anything. Your daughter is my daughter. I already love her as if she were my own. My future, my fortune, my every act will be in your behalf. I believe you do love me, now and at this time, and that is more than I could have hoped for."
Claude then did a strange thing. He shifted from the hammock, still holding my hands, and knelt on one knee in the grass. Gazing up he said, "La, High Priestess of Opar, will you marry me?"
The way he spoke, the way he held my hands and looked into my eyes was so extraordinary! The man who looked at me would willing rip his own heart out with his bare hands in my honor! I felt a sudden gladness. "Yes, Claude Earl, I will marry you and be true to only you and"
His lips smothered mine and I returned the embrace with a heat greater than any previous. "La," he whispered as the sound of cheering from the house and doors slamming open was heard, "best we do not speak of the High Priestess of Opar until..."
Paul's work-calloused hand dragged his older brother off the ground then pumped Claude's hand with enthusiasm. The sisters hugged me as the "hands"who were not warriors or slavesgathered around. Dad'ums and Mama approached.
Dad'ums scowled at his son. "About time, brat!"
"Back at ya, Dad'ums!"
Mama raised a hand, which silenced the curious happy celebration. "La, when do you want to get married?"
Looking at the eager faces who had welcomed me into their tribefamilyI said: "Today?"
As they began to laugh Mama linked my arm through hers. "Next Sunday, girl. We have to have a little time to put on a soiree! I like your spunk! Now, you come with me. Skedaddle! Out of our way!"
I glanced over my shoulder where the men had surrounded Claude and his smile gave me the strength to enter the house with Mama and the girls.
Claude gave me every chance to back out of the marriage. He went out of his way for six days to tell me everything that could go wrong and all the reasons why I should not marry him, but for every reason or explanation he made I became more determined that I would marry this man. No other man, other than that thief who had robbed the vaults of Opar and given me La, had ever stirred my heart. Claude Earl was a giant among men and he worshiped me.
I was also not so stupid as to realize that a woman in civilization was only as good as her man. I had a good man, a respected man, a man who had some wealth and power among his people. He loved me and I was beginning to understand what love meant.
I did love Claude Earl.
I lusted for Elmo.
During one of the chats with Claude's sisters I learned the difference between love and lust. When I learned the difference I was quiet for a day and would not speak to anyone, which the family chalked up to "the jitters." In that span from morning to night and morning again I came to terms with my lust and anger for Elmo. I had chosen Claude from the amphitheater because he was the opposite of Elmo. He had pleasured me in Opar. He had treasured me always. I was his treasure and knowing that gave me a sense of peace. That day I also learned what marriage meant and Claude's statements of true to one another forever meant. I could be true to Claude because none of the men of his family or Texas or America excited me as he did.
I put Elmo from my mind. My joining with Elmo had given me La. My joining with Elmo had given me an awareness of the passion of men and women. I put Elmo out of my mind!
"I love you, Claude," I whispered in his ear on our wedding night.
He held me tight, our bodies slick with our recent experience. He held me so tightly that I sensed a desperation. "I love you, La. I am grateful you have any affection for me." Then he said, "He must have hurt you deeply. I will never do that."
After Claude went to sleep I slipped out of bed and went to the veranda. I did not care if anyone saw me standing nude under the light of the same Goro I had I seen above Opar. But I hoped that no one saw me weep for having uttered Elmo's name when Claude made love to me!
Claude gently brought me into the Twentieth Century. He was a patient teacher, friend, and lover who sired three children with me. Darian and Claude Jr, boys of a twin birth a year after we married, and little Fannie, who was born a few days before Mama died.
My husband worked hard. He worked in the Oil Patch during the day, and then came home to work hard over Books and Learning, and Business. Five years he worked, five years he came home with a smile and embrace, five years he worshiped me, five years of forgiveness of speaking aloud a name in passion I should never have said. Five years of angst wondering if the man I had chosen would leave me, five years of feeling stupid, five years of walking on egg shells.
One morning he returned to the house barely an hour after he had left. Claude kissed Fannie, who was in my arms at the time, grinned at the boys who were building an impossible structure of wood blocks, and accepted La's exuberant embrace about his leg with a laugh.
"Something wrong?" I asked. This was not Claude's schedule.
"Not a thing, darlin'. Pack your bags. Effie! Effie!" Claude's voice rose to a thunder that shook the house. "Get down here!"
Effie, the maid, was in the kitchen just a few feet away. "Master Claude! What's de matter?"
"La and I are going to Europe. You tell my no-good sisters they are in charge of the kids, and you are in charge of them!" Claude took Fannie out of my arms and gave the two year old a kiss. At the same time he dragged me out of the chair. "Upstairs, six weeks, pack light." There was such an air of animation about Claude that I laughed as he swatted my backside.
"Get a move on, La! We have a train to catch if we are to make the next boat to London."
"I am not going anywhere until you tell me"
"I'll tell you on the train. Quick march! Go!"
Effie helped me pack two trunks, one for me and one for Claude, though I packed more of my things in his trunk as well. At one time I had disliked clothing, but years among my husband's people had well educated me in the value of clothing. Effie frowned as I placed the bronze dagger in my trunk.
"Why you takin' dat, Missy La?" the woman asked.
I had learned something of my husband's culture. "A good luck charm, Effie. Get my black gown and the blue. Oh!" I saw out the window Claude and the children and his partners and their wives were gathered beside a large sedan. "Hurry, Effie! This must be something important!"
Twenty minutes later we breathlessly arrived at the station only moments before the train departed. I did not know if our trunks had loaded. In the parlor car, as the train pulled away from the station, I took the hatpin out and placed the bonnet in my lap. At that moment Claude and I were alone. "Will you please tell me the urgency?"
I knew what he had to say was important because he did not lean close, nor did he touch me. "There's a good chance that Ithe companycan make it possible for me to give you more wealth than ever lay in the vaults of Opar. Every oil interested nation in Europe wants to know how we find oil. And for a price, a VERY steep price, we will tell them. La, my promise to you the day I asked you to marry me is about to come true. I need you to be there with me when it happens."
During that train ride and the boat to Europe I had much to think about. Claude had kept all of his promises to me. I had kept all but one promise to him and he had forgiven that unintended and unconscious breech. I truly did not think of Elmo, though I never ceased to think of how Elmo had intruded on my life with Claude.
In Paris, after our visits to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome, Claude drew me aside from the glittering ballroom and the hundreds of guests to a quiet garden outside the villa. "Time for a new start, old girl," he said. "I waited for you to come to me, but I'm tired of waiting. I'm not giving up on you. I know you love me in your way. I want you to know I love you no matter what. You come to me in fear of saying something when we make love. I want my High Priestess back. You can utter any name in the universe in the heat of passion because I know that YOU are with ME, loving me."
His hand gripped my arm so tightly it hurt. Claude towered over me, his eyes dark and insistent. "I don't care who he was. I don't care! He hurt you and broke your heart and a part of you cannot let him go. Fine. Good. Do not let him go. Hate him, lust for him, yearn for him, but damn it, girl, I am here and I know you feel something for me and our children. I will not speak of this again."
If only Elmo hadbut Elmo had not! I reached up and twisted my fingers in Claude's hair and drew him into the manicured bushes of the garden. I pushed him down into the shadows, opened his trousers, and let him know in no uncertain terms that his demands were not only reasonable they were my heart's choice.
A week later Claude's partners and their chattering wives departed to America on schedule, but my husband gave me the honeymoon we never had by extending our trip to include two weeks in Cairo. We climbed the Pyramids, entered the Sphinx, and sailed up the Nile. We made love in the desert sands and visited the bazaars. We had a wonderful time! While in Cairo I overheard conversations among Arabs and Egyptians of the lost treasure of Opar. I hid my laughter behind a white glove whenever I heard these comments. In the hotel room I told Claude what I had heard and he also laughed.
"Damn idiots!" he chuckled. "There's seventeen bars of Opar gold left and we have them back home in Texas!"
"Don't forget the Jewels," I giggled, feeling girlish since Paris. "They were stolen by He We Will Not Name and have been lost thenceforth."
Claude grabbed me in an amorous embrace. "He We Will Not Name can have the damn loot. I have the only real treasure of Opar in my arms. Kiss me, or I'll go downstairs for coffee."
I kissed him, and more, then we went downstairs for coffee.
Effie and the kids were on the porch when we arrived. Darian, Junior, and Lawho had matured most extraordinarily raced across the grass to embrace us. Claude scooped up all three in a hearty embrace. Mounting the steps to the veranda I picked up little Fannie and hugged her. She was fat!
"What have you been feeding her?" I asked Effie.
"Corn pone and whatever else I could get down her. Welcome back, Missy La. You do sure look lovely!"
I hugged Effie and kissed her dark cheek. "We had a wonderful trip. Thank you for looking after the children."
"Like they was my own," Effie said. With a booming laugh she added, "Best I finds me a man to make bootiful babies. Lawd sakes! What's that comin' outta de car?"
"We brought a few gifts. Sorry," I laughed, "we did not find a man for you, but I hope the bolt of blue silk will be apology enough."
Effie wrung her hands in the apron about her waist. "You din't hafta do that, Missy La."
Her eyes were as bright as the children's. I kissed her cheek once again, for she had always been a good and loyal member of the family, regardless of her color and education. I had learned much about color and education during our trip to Europe and North Africa. "We did not have to," I said, "but we wanted to. Will you supervise the children for a while longer? We brought chocolates from Switzerland and Germany and I do not want to spoil their dinner."
Effie continued to manage the children, except for Fannie who was still in my arms. "Lawdy." She said it again. "Lawdy, Missy La! Lawdy!"
Claude stopped the woman before she descended the steps. "What do you mean by that, Effie?"
"Master Claude, you married a GOOD woman! I always knew it. Yes, sir, I always knew it." Effie ran down to the car with as much enthusiasm as the children.
Claude put his arm about my waist. "Yes sir," he mimicked Effie. "I always knew it!"
My sister-in-laws were nice, though frivolous and undirected. Week after week they prattled. They went on supervised dates, never made commitments, never ceased to chatter. Though I felt affection for these gentle hearts they irritated me. No woman of Opar would be so undirected. In Opar women had one purpose: to control the Fifty Frightful! Their second purpose was to survive.
La was nine when I discovered the way to bring harmony into my house, for I had become the matriarch of the Earl household by default. The harmony needed was to get the sisters out of the houseleeches on their brother's good fortune and hard work.
The first step was one that gave me benefit. Though I spoke English I had trouble reading. I started a book club with the sisters and their friends. I learned to read and in the process of a year passing saw one sister married to a thin, sallow-faced accountant. My boys were active and a handful. Claude helped me establish a small league of footballers. I knew nothing about football when I started. Two years later, while Claude was on a trip to California, Darian and Junior helped win the Divisional. I consoled them with vanilla ice cream and strawberries when their team lost the championship. In the meantime another sister was married to a competing coach, a round-bellied butcher who always delivered a prime roast for Sunday dinner at the house.
The last sister was the most difficult to remove. Janis was the eldest of the sisters. She was the first born, then Claude, then Paul. Janis was also the most difficult to deal with because she "believed in God."
Having some experience in religionthe religion that my mother and her mothers before them had createdI looked for a preacher for Janis. Claude had repeatedly warned me not to meddle with his sisters' lives, but I had been so successful that I did not doubt I could match Janis with a man. In Opar there was no discussion. I pointed to a group of males and gave the woman her choice of which to pick, but pick one or more of them she would. I let my old life intrude into my new life and I directed Janis toward a reverend recently moved into our community who appeared to be suitable. I urged dinners at the homestead, I created opportunities to date.
One Christmas Eve the reverend murdered Janis. He dismembered her and placed body parts all over East Texas. She had never been more than a vocal distraction to me. I had never wished Janis harm!
Claude did not speak to me for two days because I did not leave my room for two days. At the end of the two days my husband entered the bedroom I had chosen to be away from the family and the pain. He stood over my bed for a moment, then deliberately and most gently slapped me.
"Wake up, La." Claude sat on the bedside and pulled me into his arms. "You did not kill Janis."
I was angry! I sat up and slapped Claude. "I know I did not kill her! But I did want her out of the house and I made the arrangements, so I DID kill her. Nothing you can say will change that." I got out of the bed. "If you ever strike me again I will kill you. Get out."
Claude exited the bedroom. I dressed then descended the stairs to the kitchen where Effie and the children were having lunch.
I held my children.
Effie continued to stir gravy in the iron skillet. She said the one thing that made sense. "Missy La, you got money. Make it work for you. Glad to see you up'n about."
I made Claude's money work. We moved to Dallas for three years while relocating the company to Houston. When the relocation was complete I moved us to Houston. La and the boys had the best of private schools. When Fannie was five we moved into River Oaks, a high class ritzy neighborhood. I learned to walk the walk and to talk the talk. Three months after our move to Houston I was on the Board of Directors for the Houston Symphony. Music gives me a headache because I do not understand it, most especially the music of composers so long dead and gone as to be not a speck of dust in the wind. The Garden Club was my next conquest. We established Memorial Park and the Arboretum.
I wore stylish clothes and had an agenda completely different from Claude's. I made our name shine like burnished bronze in the newspapers while he dug in the earth for oil. As High Priestess I knew where fame and fortune lies and we became the Couple of the Year in the local newspapers.
We had sex once a month if our schedules coincided. I was busy, he was busy. He wrote love letters. I would send a card in reply if I remembered. I was angry with modern life! I could not sacrifice a rat without being in breech of an American Law. I had been the law of Opar all my life and now my hands were tied!
Whenever Janis' face appeared in my dreams I would walk. I would get out of the separate bed in our home and walk. I might walk until dawn. I suppressed the desire to run.
We always breakfasted together. Effie, still in our employ and enjoying the little five room cottage on the back of the five acre lot, cooked whatever was in the larderand it was a larder very complete! One morning my husband said: "It's war with the Kaiser. Kiss me goodbye if you will. I won't be back for months. La is coming with me and don't you dare forbid."
My daughter and I had not been on good terms for the last few years. She had grown up faster and more knowledgeable than I wished. Claude had loved her first of all my children and he showered her with the best of education and his timeto this day I believe he loved La more than Darian, Claude Jr, and Fannie. I did not kiss Claude.
"Take her. She's a brat."
I almost said she was Elmo's get and how dare he betray me with affection for the daughter of another manbecause I never forgot that distinction. I forked scrambled eggs into my mouth. Claude did not finish his breakfast.
"I'll call you from Washington," he said, gathering jacket and briefcase.
After he left the kitchen I heard him call for La. Then the front door swung shut.
Effie placed five rashers of burned bacon on my plate. "Eat hearty, girl."
I looked at the unpalatable bacon. "Do you want to be fired?" I raised my voice.
"Yes'am I do longs you acts the way you do." Effie began to undo her apron.
I reached out and stopped her. "I can't do this, Effie!" The woman put her arms about me as I sobbed over my plate of scrambled eggs and deliberately burned bacon.
The war changed everything. Claude was needed in Washington and his company was instrumental in dealing with the war effort. Janis became less of a nightmare because Effie was always at hand when I woke with nightmares.
I learned to curse in English, and I did curse. Effie helped me curse by providing new words and definitions. I relied on her more than I had relied on any woman of Opar during the days that I had control of my life. Effie rose early, as did I. We greeted the Sun together over a cup of bitter coffee before the children woke.
"Missy La, it's been a year to remember."
"Yes it has, Effie. Why don't you go back to bed. I'll fix the children's breakfast."
"I been thinkin' 'bout all those boys fightin' the Hun. I been thinkin' about your boys so eager to get in the fray." Effie sipped her coffee then pressed her right hand to her left arm. "Those are good boys. Man-sized. You know they want to join up."
"I do," I replied. Effie did not look well. I went to her. "Come to bed," I asked. A moment later I tried to raise Effie from the chair. "Effie? Effie!"
I wrote a letter to Claude.
Effie died peacefully. Buried in Park Lawn.
Used funds from private account.
La, my eldest daughter, had always disappointed me. She talked to Claude but never had time for me. I was too busy being the "wife" of Claude Earl. When I learned that La had been wooed and eloped with the son of a rival oil entrepreneur during her time at her father's side in Washington I was enraged. I had met the father of La's husband and found him to be insensitive and abusive and felt that what the father did was something the son had learned. Six months later I received a telephone call from La.
"Mother! He will kill me. I don't know what to do!" The phone went dead and I could not get an answer when I tried to reconnect.
I did get through to Claude. I do not remember what I said, but I blamed him for everything.
I flew to New York as baggage in a Mail Plane. The pilot was a sympathetic fellow. "Ninety-one pounds," he said as I stepped off the scale. "If it were my daughter you'd fly free. Fifty bucks for the gasoline and putting my hide on the line."
I gave him a hundred dollars.
We landed at the secondary airport at New York. Claude was on the tarmac and he had a swift vehicle.
"I should have known when La didn't call," Claude grimly said as he drove through the November snow. "I'll kill the bastard!"
"You will have to stand in line," I said, revealing the bronze knife.
Claude drove directly to the address, a walled mansion where the pup of industry ruled. I had learned the value of money and had made it work for me, but I had never considered that money could make wrongs a right simply because of money! We parked the car and went over the wall. I broke the glass on the French doors. Claude raced ahead, scanning the rooms, then shouted, "Here!"
When I entered the room Claude had gripped both hands about the throat of La's husband. He shook the bastard.
"Do not kill him!" I screamed. At the same time I covered my bruised and battered daughter with the bed sheet. "Claude! We'll make him pay!"
"My daughter! My..."
I slapped Claude. "If you kill him we have a problem. Strangle him, hurt him, but do not kill him. La! Can you walk?"
I took my daughter out of her horror to the car. Claude would do whatever he would do. Five minutes later Claude returned the car. "I didn't kill him, but I was sorely tempted!" Claude turned his face to my daughter with anger. "Why didn't you tell me? Why did you put up with his crap?"
We skidded through several icy intersections before La answered. "I thought that those who loved each other enjoyed pain. He said that. I tried to endure, mother, but he hurt me."
"Pull over, Claude."
He did, immediately. As he got out of the car Claude placed a blanket over La. "We won't be long, darlin'," he said. "Wait here. We'll be back in a moment."
I could not walk fast enough in the calf-length skirt. Claude was not willing to wait for me. My husband picked me up and trotted toward the walled enclave.
We entered the same way, with the same ease. I found the bastard first. He was in a bath of hot water and I made it even hotter when I pressed the exceedingly sharp point of my bronze knife against his throat.
"You will grant a divorce to my daughter. You will be generous in your settlement."
Claude loomed large. His massive hands writhed with anticipation. "I'll hold him down. You carve out his guts."
"Wait a moment," I said. I leaned close to the snake who mislead La and made sure the tip of the dagger drew a drop of blood from his throat. "If I am not happy with the divorce settlement, which will be immediate and without contest, I will return."
Claude gripped the young man's hair and made him look up. "You pissed me off, son. You lied, you beat my daughter, and I ought to snuff you. If you want to make a my dog is bigger than your dog out of this remember my dog is bigger than your daddy's dog. Treat my daughter right and you live. Got that?"
We took La to the hospital. She was well, other than bruises and a lifetime memory of horror. We could deal with one but not the other.
Later, much later, Claude and I battled in a hotel room.
"You led La to this!"
He replied, "Maybe, but you told La to make her own choices!"
We sat on opposite sides of the bed.
Claude spoke first,. "It was an innocent beginning. I was so caught up in the meetings with the government I failed to protect our daughter." He lowered his head and began to weep. "Kill me, La, for I have failed you!"
The knife was at hand. For a moment I gripped the hilt, angry at the world, angry with Claude and angry with myselfbut I was equally responsible. I put the knife aside, hugging myself because I was not yet ready to hug my husband. "What has happened to us?" I asked.
Claude leaned on his knees, twisting his hands together. "I don't know, darlin'. It's the war."
"Whose war?" I asked.
Claude looked up when I spoke.
Brushing moisture from my eyes I asked, "The one across the Atlantic or the one we have been fighting?"
"Darian? Junior?" Claude's voice boomed in the entryway when we arrived home. "Come kiss your mother and sister!" When the expected stampede did not occur Claude frowned. "I'll see if they are out back."
"I'll take La upstairs " then paused when the new maid came to the front door. She looked very worried and a little afraid. "What's the matter, Mrs. Scott? Is there anything wrong with Fannie?"
"The baby is just fine, Mrs. Earl. It's the boys. They've gone and done something terrible! I tried to stop them. I tried to call you in New York but you had already left. They wouldn't listen to me."
Claude took the distraught woman's elbow and led her to the divan. "Take a deep breath and tell us what happened."
Mrs. Scott almost sobbed. "They enlisted in the Army! They're going to fight in that war that killed my son."
Claude looked up with grim expression. "When it rains, it pours. Take La up to her room, I'll look after Mrs. Scott and Fannie."
A month later the boys were back home, grumbling. "It's not fair!" Junior said. "Three days after we enlist they sign the Armistice. Just bad luck!"
Darian agreed. "We were all set to kick someoh, sorry, Mother. I mean, we waited all this time and now there is no war."
Claude slowly placed his coffee cup on the kitchen table. He rose to his feet and he was not very pleased. He undid the leather belt at his waist and pulled it out of the trouser loops. I sent La out of the kitchen with Fannie. Oh, I wanted to take a strap to those boys!
My husband then did a curious thing. He rolled the belt then placed it in the center of the table. He touched my shoulder and turned toward the door. "They're too young to know better, and too old to punish." At the door Claude looked at his sons, who were nearly as tall as their father. "Think about what you've done. Think about serving in the Army instead of going to college, because you will serve in the Army. Never make a rash decision, boys, you might have to live with it. Just because the Armistice has been signed does not mean the war, or the fighting, is over. If either one of you breaks your mother's heart by getting killedwell I couldn't kill you myself, but I sure could be disappointed in your memory."
The phone rang in the hallway. I heard Mrs. Scott answer it as we left the kitchen, then heard a whistle and pop followed a moment later by another whistle and pop. My boys came out of the kitchen and the first thing I noticed was their facesmy boys were men!
Darian bent down to kiss me. "Sorry, Mom. Dad's right. We did something stupid."
Junior handed the belt to Claude. "You can use it on me. I deserve it."
Mrs. Scott knocked on the archway between the living room and the entryway. "Telephone, Mr. Earl." She waited until Claude left the room then spoke to me. "Are you done with these two?"
"For the moment."
"Good!" Mrs. Scott reached up and pinched Junior's left ear then grabbed Darian's right ear and marched them back into the kitchen. She closed the door, and though I could not make out the words I understood the tone of voice. My little warriors would not fair so well in this battle of wills.
I turned away from the kitchen with a slight smile, which faded the instant I saw Claude's face. "You have to leave."
"Sorry, darlin'. I have to go to Washington. Might be gone a month or two. Will you and the children be all right?"
I embraced Claude with a sigh. "I suppose we can get along without you." I kissed him. "Remember what we promised? That we will not fight with each other?"
"I rememberbut not quite like that. I remember we agreed that we would never allow fights and disagreements to come between us. I know you, you like to fight!"
"Yes!" I laughed. "And I will beat you soundly if you do not carry me upstairs right now."
Claude ran his hand down my hip, caressing my thigh. "You have legs. You can walk."
"Oh! I feel faint!" I tried to imitate the actress of the New York movie we took La to see, to help the girl escape even the least amount of the abuse she had endured. I let my knees go weak and, just before I actually would have fallen I noticed Claude had not moved a muscle, and was in fact grinning at me.
"That was very good!" he clapped his hands together. "If you are looking for a new thing to conquer you might try acting! Bravo!"
Claude went upstairs and I followed, stamping my feet on each riser. Just as I exited the top stair Claude swept me into his arms and spun me around until I was dizzy and laughing. I put my arms around his neck and kissed him.
The door to La's room opened. It would be weeks before the bruises disappeared from her face. She looked at us for a moment, then smiled. "So that's what love is about."
I blew my daughter a kiss as she quietly closed the door. I hugged Claude. "Do you mind?"
He kissed my forehead and set me on my feet. "I'd be very disappointed if you didn't. I'll go pack."
Taking a deep breath, I knocked on La's door, entered, and shut it behind me.
The newspaper, dated January 1, 1920, lay across my lap. The headlines of the war's end pleased me. I had worried about Darian and Junior, though both were tall, strong, and capable like their father. Yet, the relief and happiness I had read in the headlines instantly evaporated when I glanced at the third story, with photograph, regarding the exploits of a British spy, a lord no less!, behind the German lines in East Africa. His name was Greystoke. His face was Elmo's.
Every uncertainty, every hot desire, all my yearning and thoughts of revenge rushed forth. I trembled in the upholstered chair as I recalled the jungle man's rejection and his thefts and how he spurned the love of La. I
"Darlin'? Are you all right? You don't look well."
Claude put his suitcase down and knelt beside the chair. For a moment the floral wall paper of the parlor looked like my jungle and for a moment he looked like Elmo wearing a battered fedora. He reached for my hands, but I pushed him away, not trusting my voice at the moment.
Frowning, Claude took the newspaper and scanned the front page. For a long moment he stared at the photograph in the lower left section. He slowly folded the paper until that photograph was isolated. Some expression must have crossed my face, though I did not wish it.
"Honey, I've known his name for years. There were a few times in the past when you spoke a name while we made love. Handsome devil. British lord. You can pick 'em. Surprised you put up with hamburger when you could have steak."
Claude did not move or say anything further, but the pain in his voice and what I saw on his face made the walls of Opar tremble! This tarmanganithis Elmohad destroyed Opar once and he was about to do it again! Oh! What a revelation was wrought in an instant! I, the High Priestess of Opar, knelt before the only man who loved ME. I bowed my head over his hands, which I gripped fiercely. I wept as I told him all that I had withheldthe haughtiness and power I once believed was mine in Opar and my lust and anger and pain at Elmo's rejection. I held nothing back, for I now knew that Elmo was someone I could never have and Claude was someone who was all I ever wantedand NEEDED.
Claude tried to stop the flow of words, but I refused to listen until every ache, every yearning, every happiness I had known since he had come into my life had been said. The parlor was dark when I allowed him to hold me. The tweed of his overcoat was damp with my tears as I pressed my face onto his breast. I smelled the tobacco, his after shave, his wonderful male scent.
"How can you love me?" I asked. His thumb and index finger lifted my chin. I could not look at him. I closed my eyes. His warm lips on mine startled me. His arms crushed the breath from my body. And when he was through I felt giddy.
"Look at me, La. I was raised to believe a person is not who they were, but who they ARE. You are my wife. I love you. I would love you even if you did not love me or you were not my wife. Because I love you the way I do I know how you might possibly love another." He paused for a long moment. "I won't stand in your way now that I understand you never knew who this fellow was or how to find him. I "
I slapped him! Then I beat on his chest with clenched fists. "Don't you EVER talk like that again, Claude Earl! You are mine, mine, mine! And," I kissed him so fiercely we fell to the floor, "I am yours, yours, yours!" Claude suddenly laughed. Unconsciously displaying the enormous strength of his body, Claude tucked me under one arm across a muscular hip. He reached down and picked up his suitcase. He carried me kicking and screaming all the way upstairs to the bedroom. I did not kick or scream very hard.
Darian came home for Christmas in 1926. He was taller than his father, though not as broad. How handsome he was in his Army Air Corps uniform! I saw that he had been promotedbut the girl on his arm, a tiny thing with short brown hair, lips too red, and reeling a little from too much drink, held my attention. My son introduced her as Mrs. Darian Earl. I blinked, repressed the urge to scratch out her eyes, then led her into the parlor where the holiday party was well begun.
"Mrs. Earl," I asked, "may I get you something to drink?"
She did not let go of my elbow. Leaning close, she whispered, "I'm feeling a little sick. Where is the bathroom?"
The girl did look queasy. I thought of the Persian Rug underfoot that Claude had brought back from Saudi Arabia last month. Rather than give directions I took Mrs. Earl to the requested destination myself. No sooner had the door closed than I heard her retching. The High Priestess felt a sudden empathy quite opposite to her recent inclination. A moment later I pressed a cool cloth over the girl's forehead as she emptied the contents of her stomach. What came up was ordinarymeaning it did not reek of alcohol.
"Are you feeling better?" I asked.
She nodded, flushed, then lowered the seat to sit on the toilet holding her head with both hands. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Earl. II don't know what's the matter with me."
I washed her face. With the too red lipstick gone she was a very cute little girl. "What is your name, dear?"
"Lara Dean, uh, Lara Earl, Mrs. Earl."
"Call me La, or Mother. How long have you been pregnant?"
A look of horror crossed the girl's face. "I can't be! We just got married!"
But I saw the truth and her misery and shame. "Yes, of course," I patted her hand. "And if anyone ever questions the dates, you send them to me."
Lara clung to me and I let her weep with relief for a few moments then put a stop to it. We talked as Lara repaired her face. When she drew out the lipstick and saw my slight frown in the mirror she capped the lipstick then tossed it into the wastebasket.
"You are much too pretty to need anything like that, Lara. Now, tell me how you met my son and..."
There was a knock on the door. "Lara? Are you okay?"
I opened the door, bunched my fist into Darian's collar and yanked him inside. Shutting the door, I leaned against it. "Lara was about to tell me how she met my son, who has been taught better but who, despite having apparently ignored that upbringing, brought home a delightful lovely girl he probably does not deserve."
Darian looked so downcast that Lara laughed and came to his rescue. Lara wrapped her tiny arms about Darian's waist. "Mother La, Darian didn't do this all by himself," she exclaimed.
"I see. Well. I suppose I shall have to consider you my wayward children. Like all my children I give you my blessing, my wishes for long and happy lives, and a demand to see you as often as possible. Am I understood?"
Darian grinned, pecked my cheek, then lifted me off my feet with a tender hug. "Lara was supposed to be the surprise. Thank you, Mother."
What I said next may have shocked my daughter-in-law, but it did so much to put her at ease. "I am not so pure in that regard as you well know, son. Now, take your wife to the parlor. Nothing rich, no alcohol, and nothing fried." Then, smiling, I added, "If your father offers Lara any candy take her to the front door and run as fast as you can."
We followed the orderly down the polished terrazo-floored hallway. The transparent veil of the small hat brushed against my cheek. Claude's thick arm lay across my back and his massive hand rested on my hip. I tried not to look into the hospital rooms we passed. The orderly slowed and we almost overran him. With professional respect the orderly indicated the room to the left. He waited outside. A young nurse looked up as we entered the room. "He's comfortable. The morphine seems to be working," she said, leaving the room.
Claude stepped forward, leaving me behind. "Dear God, son!" My husband gripped the guard rail on the hospital bed and wept.
The doctor had already told us Junior's parachute failed to open on a training jump. He told us Junior fell 5,000 feet. He told us Junior had not initially perished and his injuries were very severe. He told us there was little hope because of cranial, spinal, and internal trauma. But what he did not tell us was that Junior would not look like Junior.
My son looked as if Tantor had repeatedly trampled him. Though wrapped in bandages into a semblance of human form Junior's arms and legs were at odd angles and his skull was misshapen and twice normal size. There were tubes in his chest filled with a dark liquid. I recognized that liquid. I had seen it often in my youth as a naked savage in a lost city that believed in sacrifices. That old blood had never touched me like the blood I now saw. I walked to the other side of the bed. Claude's eyes were bright, but the tears had stopped. He looked toward me and I shared my pain with him.
"Mom?" The voice was so quiet to almost non-existent, but I heard it!
"Junior!" I leaned close, pulling aside the veil and tossing the latest fashion hat to one side. "I'm here!"
"I don't know how!" I kept control of my voice, though my heart was breaking. "Tell me how to help!"
Claude had created a sanitized version of the High Priestess of Opar story for the children when they were young. They found the bed time story amusing and interesting, and something unique for the family. The children had been raised Baptist like their father, yet dearly loved thinking their mother was a High Priestess of a lost civilization. High Priestess La sent butterflies and grasshoppers and bon bons to the Sun where they lived in happy warmth forever.
"Dark," Junior's smashed lips shaped. "O-ar. ease"
Please or Ease? Junior could not see me. His eyes were swollen shut. The dark bruises and swelling made my handsome son a horror to behold. I begged Claude with my eyes. "Talk to him. Tell him I cannot do this. I cannot..."
"La." Claude simply said my name, nothing else. He looked at our son.
The High Priestess of Opar knows her "religion" was a fiction created to keep safe the women of Opar from the Fifty Frightful. Mrs. Claude Earl had learned long ago that she did not believe in any religion, not even the one her husband of thirty years embraced. La had also learned there were many things unexplained in human history and that belief alone might create wonders. But what had her son asked of her!
"I can't do this, Claude! He's my son!"
"Yes, I know." Claude swallowed a sob. "I'll sit with him for a while if you like."
I could not leave Junior. At the moment I also realized I could not leave Junior as he was! There was no place for me to kiss him as I bent low and let him feel my breath on his cheek. "Junior," I wept, "I will take your heart with me. You will go to the Sun. Be happy."
I lay my hand upon his breast and before it ceased to beat he said: "Love...you...aye."
"Goodbye, Claude," I sobbed. I grabbed my purse. Running to the door I said, "Goodbye, Claude."
By the time my husband realized the second goodbye was intended for him, I was on a Pan Am Clipper en route to Portugal.
Obtaining a vessel south was a little difficult. The Spanish Civil War had just begun and many of the ship captains were wary of sailing from Lisbon and rounding the Iberian Peninsula. I eventually acquired transportation and in Freetown I hired six sturdy blacks who were surprised that a white woman, whose dark hair was beginning to streak with gray, spoke their language as one born to it. I had no fear of venturing into the interior with these men because I had years earlier learned about firearms, riding on horseback, and had my own native skills with a knife.
Ten days out of Freetown I killed a sheetaa leopardwith a single shot from the Express that never left my side, though either of the two .45 automatics I wore on each hip could have accomplished the same. A week later I spoke to a mangy Bolgani cowering in a copse of forest surrounded by recently cut and burned land destined for cultivation by the local people.
"Where is your tribe?"
"Bund," the morose and sullen creature replied.
His tribe was dead. "Go to the mountains. If you stay the gomangani will kill you."
"Food good," the ape replied. "Soon more food."
"The food is the gomangani's. They kill if you eat their food. Go to the mountains."
"You are a bad she. I take you."
"Do not try. I will kill you."
He tried, and died. I had not wished to kill the stupid beast, but the creature's death did elevate me even more in the eyes of my bearers.
So much of the western land had been cleared! Mounted on the sturdy horse I could see for miles where the forest had been cut down and the land burned. Orderly furrows of crops had been planted and there were dirt roads were no roads had ever existed. At one point we caught a ride with an empty banana truck heading into the interior. The road was good, but not so good that my horse could not follow tied by a hackmore to the tailgate. We made twenty miles that day.
A few days later at a night camp I lay restless under my awning. I did not use a tent because I slept light and wanted to see what, or who, might approach me as I rested. I fought the thoughts which had driven me so far away from the only real family I had ever known. What did Claude think? I hoped that Darian did not let my disappearance interfere with his work on Billy Mitchell's staff. Lara and the babiesdid they worry too much? Oh, how I missed my grandbabies!
I thought of my daughter La and that horrible scene with the get of a wealthy bastardwho made good in the divorce settlement because of my bronze knife. My daughter ran away the moment the several millions in proceeds of the settlement was available. Eight years passed before Claude found her and Tom in Montana. They owned a highly respected horse ranch. They were doing well and had three children. Beneath Goro's yellow light I smiled with happy memory remembering when Claude brought Tom, La, Laja, Lincoln, and Lawton home for an early Thanksgiving. That was when La and La were truly ready to speak to each otherand once we started we did not stop until New Years!
A harsh whisper broke my thoughts. "Bwana!" My bearers called me Bwana though that term is usually reserved for men.
Umbanje did not say "Arabs." He said "men in tents" but that did not change or diminish the immediate concern. "Stay alert, but do not move!"
We had no fire or lights and were close to the shadow line of the forest under the moon's glow. We watched near a dozen Arabs riding hard to the south in the darkness. They did not see our camp. I did not sleep the few remaining hours before dawn because I remembered things my mother had told me about the Arabs who raided south of their desert lands to obtain slaves and women, and other things she had said about rape and murder. I still felt no fear because I was La, High Priestess of Opar, and a thoroughly Modern Woman, but I would have been a complete idiot like those Flapper Girls if I was not fully alert and wary!
Umbanje organized the march a half hour before dawn. I walked the horse, not because the horse needed the rest but to present as small a profile across the barren strip of land we must traverse before reaching the jungle shrouded hills and the valley approach to Opar. The Express was heavy in my hands by the time we crossed the scar of rock. One of the bearers killed a baboon just before we reached the forest. We would have a good lunch.
Then the Arabs boiled out of the trees! I killed one with the Express. I drew a .45 and fired blindly, hitting a horse which threw his rider. An instant later I fired point-blank at a dark-faced man in flying robes. I saw him jerk out of the saddle then was kicked in the face by his companion and lost consciousness.
When I awoke I was naked, bound, and aching in areas more than my face. My tongue explored several loose teeth and I knew without looking that my thighs and pelvis were bruised. It hurt to turn my head under the hot sun. There was nothing to the left but more barren rock. To the right I saw Umbanje bound. His body was cut in many places. Beyond him lay the dead bodies of my other bearers. A dozen yards beyond were the eight remaining Arabs laughing around a fire as they ate our provisions. Every pack had been opened and the contents strewn about. Whatever they thought valuable was already in their packs.
A droning sound from the north caused everyone to raise their eyes to the sky. A monoplane passed overhead. The Arabs reached for their weapons. The aircraft continued on its course without deviation, and when it disappeared over the hills the Arabs relaxed.
Flies and other flying pests irritated my cuts and abrasions. I did not move because I did not wish to draw attention to myself, though Umbanje and I had exchanged eye blinks. Umbanje and his men had served me with loyaltynow five were dead and the sixth nearly so. Their deaths did not make my mission easier, and now it appeared my mission was over before it started!
The La I had been as a girl had no regrets because life was cheap. The La I was now realized that all life is to be treasured. As I turned slitted eyes toward my captors, I determined that some lives were to be treasured LESS.
Near sundown a wine skin was produced and the Arabs passed it amongst themselves. At full dark one of the Arabs kicked me in the ribs. He kicked me three times to let me know I could not pretend to be unconscious without risking severe injury. He straddled me when I opened my eyes and gripped my hair, jerking my face toward his.
"Where is Opar?"
"I don't know what you mean, son of a camel," I replied in perfect Arabic.
Using his grip in my hair he bounced my skull against the hard rock. Black and red flashes burst in my sight. An ache at the back of my head which started numb soon became intense pain. The Arab leaned close as he raised his robes to his hips. "I will not ask the La very many times. Where is Opar? Where is the gold?"
"Why do you need gold? Do you need to purchase a new camel because your wife has left you?"
He was less gentle than before. The back of my head met the barren stone and one more hit like that would split my skull. I did not wish to die before I could kill my attackersthough how I might do that, bound and defiled, I did not know.
"I will tell you what you wish to know. You remain camel dung and if you crack my head again, you will never know. Leave!"
The man grinned as he released my hair. His hand traveled the bruise of my cheek, my neck, to my breasts. "I will leave after"
For a dozen heartbeats he did nothing, yet he hovered over me. The longer he did nothing the more strained were my nerves. I could bear it no longer. "After?"
"Shut up, La!"
I kept my voice low, though I could not contain my relief. "Darling!"
"Shut up!" he said. "Damn heavy bastard. Don't move."
The bonds at my ankles were cut. The rush of returning blood gave me pain in my feet. A moment later my hands were free and I tried to rub circulation back into my fingers. As I did that a long length of cold metal was laid between my bruised breasts. One touch with my fingers revealed the object I had carried from Africa years earlier. Claude, concealed behind the dead Arab bleeding profusely onto my stomach from a knife wound into his heart, gave me instructions. He also gave me a .45. I detected a slight movement to the right. Umbanje was free and another lay low next to my bearer. He was naked except for a loin cloth but he was armed with a Garand, a .45, and had given Umbanje a revolver and machete.
"What now, love?" I whispered.
"We wait until they are drunk or they get curious. When either happens, we kill them."
"Shut up. I know why you left. Damn it, La! Are you hurt?"
La the High Priestess might have lied. "I will live. Do you forgive me?"
"For what these bastards have done? With all my heart!" A moment later he said, "If I do not survive what we must do, know that I have always loved you without reservation. NothingNOTHINGcan change that. Now shut up, girl. We've got some killing to do."
Claude eventually let the Arab's body drop to the ground next to mine as the hours passed. The Arabs continued to produce wine flasks and what I heard of their loud conversation was how rich they would be when they found the treasure of Opar. How I longed to correct their delusions! Elmo had taken the vast majority of the treasure in two raids. I had distributed the remaining treasure a bar or two to each departing family when I sent my people into the greater world. All that was left of the treasure of Opar was in the familyMY FAMILYvault in Texas.
Just before dawn I asked Claude, "Who is the other?"
"Later. Hands and feet okay?" I said I was ready. Claude gripped my shoulder. I knew my husband. He was keyed to the absolute edge. I heard his voice, husky and commanding. "Korak, now!"
Claude and the other man rose in an instant. The thunder of their weapons echoed from the hills. I was only a few seconds following with loyal Umbanje at my heels. Umbanje's war cry froze the drunken Arabs. Then we were among them. Three rounds into the chest of one, two into another and...it was over because Claude, Korak and Umbanje had been equally effective.
The sunlight came quickly since there was no forest to the east. One of the Arabs, seriously wounded, screamed his agony. Raising my bronze sacrificial knife in my right hand I knelt over the writhing Arab. "Why did you attack me? Why did you rape me? There is no Opar! There is no treasure!"
Claude stood over the man. His voice was hard. "Send him to the Sun, La. Send him to hell."
I felt the weight of the centuries old knife in my hand. I looked at the man on the blood-stained rock. I knew he had raped me. I knew he intended to kill me. I felt the rage rising.
I threw the knife aside. I rose and walked to Claude's side. I leaned into his strength, though I spat upon the dying man. "I am your La, Claude, the La who sacrifices butterflies and grasshoppers and bon bons. I will never again be that other La."
"What about the knife?" Claude watched without emotion as the Arab drowned in his own blood from the bullets that had pieced his lungs. Not quite an afterthought, Claude held me tight and stated, "I know how much you treasured the knife. That's why I brought it."
"I am not the La of the old days. Leave it. It belongs to a different person and a different time."
The other man, Korak, stood with his back to me, gazing down at the Arab until he died. He kicked the body twice to make sure he was dead, then turned to greet me. My knees gave out and I would have fallen if Claude's massive arm had not caught me.
"His son, La!" Claude cried. "I had to find you. Greystoke could not personally help but he sent his son in his place. You and I now have something in common," Claude wept as he crushed me in his embrace, "we both love him. Thank you, Korak. Thank you and your father!"
Korak waited for a time until we were composed.
"Elmo sends his best wishes and his regrets, Mrs. Earl. He has never spoken clearly of his encounters with you, but as his son and as a man I can surmise much. My father is a hard man, yet he is dedicated to his family and his tribe and his people. He has never named you, though he has stated that he once met the High Priestess of Opar. I regret that my father did not say how beautiful you are."
"I am old," I replied and at that moment I truly felt old and USED. Too long in my youth had I lived with the rapes of the Fifty Frightful to give this incident much thought, but I worried how my husband might deal with the fact.
"Nay, La," Korak replied. "You are not old and in his eyes," Elmo's son gestured to Claude, "you will never age."
I pushed away from Claude and approached the tall young man. "Meanwhile, I hope I am not so hideous you will refuse an embrace."
I hugged the son of Elmo, not caring that I was naked or that I was bruised and battered and bleeding from the recent events and the activity of killing my captors. His heartbeat was strong in my ear. "Tell your father he has a daughter. Tell him I forgive him, love him, and that we can never be friends. To you I give my thanks for risking your life to save me. Under different circumstances you might have been my son." I attempted to kiss Korak's cheek, but my battered lips and loose teeth prevented the action.
Korak did not quite release me. "When Claude approached father for help, some past events became known. I was there the night your husband came to Greystoke. Two bulls in the jungle and thank God they did not battle! I learned that father has never forgotten you. I also learned more than I wished to know. I learned that as much as Elmo resented his captivity he truly admired you. The only thing that I now ask, Mrs. Earlsince I have the knowledge it is sois the opportunity to meet my sister someday. Will you grant permission?"
He smelled like his father. I embraced Korak. "I will call La as soon as we return to America. Claude will give you addresses and..."
"Bwana," Umbanje politely interrupted, "I go now."
"No!" I left Korak and took the black man's hand in mine. "You come with us. You have no family, you have no wife. You will like Texas and..."
Claude interjected. "What's wrong with you, La? Umbanje, will you come to America and serve La? I would be grateful if you would consider the possibility. Korak, please tell him what I said, I fear I may not have spoken the language correctly."
Claude went to collect a blouse, pants, and boots for me as Korak spoke to the black. Korak used more words than Claude Earl had said, and I understood all the words Korak uttered. "To be chief protector of the bomba, serve the lady and her children, to be high in the house of Earl and respected as a warrior."
"Yes, Bwana," Umbanje said to Claude. "My honor to serve."
We set free the horses and walked away from the camp of death toward a low rise to the south. We passed through a rank of trees between barren rock areas and advanced toward a modern monoplane lashed down near the far forest. I learned that Korak was a pilot. Before we entered the aircraft Claude drew me aside and asked the one question I had dreaded.
How much had I changed over the years! "There is no High Priestess of Opar, Claude. I may have held that title among my people but there is no religion, there is no afterlife in the Sun, there is..."
Claude took me under the shadow of the plane's wing while Korak and Umbanje found other things to occupy their time. "Listen to me, Darlin'! There's God in everything. Sometimes God moves in mysterious ways. Now tell me why the hell you ran from Junior's bed all the way to Africa!"
"I had to bring his heart," I touched my breast, wilting, "to the Altar of Opar. He must be with the butterflies, grasshoppers and bon bons."
At Claude's direction Korak flew over the area where Opar lay. Nothing but a large body of water was found. Umbanje controlled his terror of flight because of his dedication to me. We never found Opar. All of the landmarks were gone. "Land there," Claude instructed Korak, "that pasture or whatever it is."
When we landed my husband bade the others to wait with the aircraft. We walked a hundred yards away toward a clump of flowering bush. Claude, the modern man, showed how intimately he knew the primitive heart and the soul of humanity. "Send him off, darlin'. I gave him to Jesus, but I'd like to think he can also be one with the Sun."
I spoke the words and made the gesturesthen I spoke the words again and made the gestures with the passion which had brought me to this terrible place. I sent the heart of my son, which was in MY heart, to the Sun. I prayed he would have a happy life. I remembered the words my mother once said: "Belief can be comfort, and belief might also be fact." Together, we sent Junior's heart to the Sun.
And from that moment on I ceased to believe I had killed my son.
There were times I wished the world was as simple as my early life in Opar. How rapidly did the world change these days!
Three years after Claude and I returned from Africa we took the family to New York for the World's Fair because Darian had thirty days leave and Lara and the kids were thrilled to have time with their father. Our trip began on Fannie's 24th birthday and La and Tom felt confident enough to leave their ranch in the children's hands. Umbanje had never been any place in America beside Texas and our trip would end on my birthdayor the day we celebrated as my birthday because there were no calendars in Opar and I did not know for sure when I was born, other than sometime in 1893. I chose a date 11 months before our wedding because it was 11 months before I was presented to Mama to be my birthday. I was officially 46 and Claude just turned 51, and we never felt more alive!
I was not a vain woman in Oparbeauty meant nothing to the Fifty Frightful. But I did learn that in America, Europe, and the Caribbean nations I was beautiful not merely in Claude's eyes but in the eyes of others. I had learned quickly to use that beauty and to acquire charm and how to be coylearned from Claude's sistersto improve my husband's position. I had been tall among the women of Opar but in America I was "dainty" compared to the women who lived in Texas and elsewhere.
Each time I had to look up into the face of another woman I remembered the day I stood before Mama Earl a head shorter than me. I drew strength from my memory of how she faced the world and how my mother had faced the worldand that was how I faced the world. Men had always been giants to meeven in Opar. And my husband Claude was a giant among men in a world of big men. The disparity in our sizes was never obvious to me until that dinner party Claude and I attended for the Oil Coalition Convention scheduled in New Yorkwhich convention was the cost basis for taking the family to the World's Fair. I dutifully stood at Claude's side as deals and concessions and possibilities of exploration were discussed with presidents of other American oil producers. I stood at his side until the coffee and champagne made a visit to the ladies room necessary.
When I exited the stall and went to the basin to wash, a tall overly-developed red head with milk white skin and filled with too much drink giggled with her girl friends. "You're Claude's wife?"
"Yes, I am." I checked my make upof which I used very littlethen closed my purse.
The woman laughed, attempting to light a cigarette but was unable to hold the match steady. I hoped she would set her hair on fire. Then she said: "Tiny thing like you and a god like him Where do you put it?"
I checked my hair in the mirror, tucked my purse under my arm while I contemplated the bitch. Yes I had learned the words and when to apply them. "Honey, you're not woman enough, even if he'd glance in your direction."
I walked out, and as I passed the red head I swept my ankle through hers, sending her tumbling to the mosaic tiles. "Well," I commented as I stood at the door looking at the woman sprawled on the floor, "you at least know how to assume the position." I walked out as the screaming woman's embarrassed friends knelt down to help her off the floor.
Wringing my hands, I went straight to Claude. "I need to speak to you," I whispered.
"Pardon me, gentleman," Claude said to the men from Standard Oil.
We walked a few feet away. I reached up and drew Claude's ear to my lips. "I blew it, darling." I told him what happened in the hotel's bathroom. "I'm so sorry if"
He said the words I so wanted to hear: "Shut up, La. You did good. What say you we blow this popsicle stand? The arcade at Coney Island is still open. Let's get some hot dogs and waste some nickels."
We were a little over dressed for Coney Island, Claude in his tails and me in my white gown, but we had such fun that night!
We returned to the hotel at dawn and roused the clan for breakfast then went to the Fair. I did not like the television. "Makes me look fat!" But many of the exhibits took my breath away. I was as modern a woman as any, but I was also that little savage of Opar. Some of the things we saw took my breath away! Darian once caught me staring slack-jawed at an exhibit. He sneaked up behind me then threw his arms about me.
"Close your mouth, Mom. You're embarrassing me."
I drew his face down for a kiss on the cheek. "The world is changing too fast for me, dear."
"Me, too," he replied. There was a regretful grim tone creeping into his voice. "I got called up. I have to cut this short. The unit is forming up."
I turned in his arms and would not let my son release me. "War? Don't you dare lie to me, Darian."
He led me to a bench and we sat, his arm about my shoulder. "Probably, but not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. That little bastard is flexing his muscles. The Pill Deuce tearing up AfricaMom, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we'll soon be caught up in it."
I firmed my lips and tried to remain calm. My son sensed my distress and laughed. "Damn it, Mom, I'll tell you when you can start worrying." He squeezed me with the same disregard as his father. My husband and my son can always rearrange my bones anytime they like!
I touched his face bent over mine. I kissed Darian. "You best go. I'll tell Lara and kids."
Darian grinned. "I'm not going to give you the opportunity to be the bearer of bad news, Mom." He kissed me again. "You tell Dad. You guys have fun because I'm sure Lara will want to go back to the hotel with me."
He rose. I reached out quickly and stopped him. "Where are you going? Can you tell me that?"
Darian patted my head. He knew how much that irritated me! "If I tell you I'd have to kill you."
I kicked him in the shins. "Oh, get out of here. And before you go," I said with every intent of having the last word, "you make sure your wife is well and truly pleasured."
My son blushed. "Mother!" He stood there chagrined, so handsome in his uniform. Darian bent low and whispered, "As always, you're right! If I get a chance I'll call you and Dad before I leave. Now behave yourself!"
I watched the tall figure of my son part the crowd in search of his wife and children. I sat on the bench, occasionally daubing my eyes. Unlike most Americans I knew we were heading into war and my son would be among the warriors. I knew this because Claude shared everything with me and I had, over the years, truly become a modern womanthough one who had access to information that other modern women did not have. In Opar there had been Fifty Frightful Men. In the world I now lived in there were Two Frightful Men and each appeared determined to wage war on the world!
The High Priestess felt like an idiot holding a tissue to her eyes and nose. The High Priestess was embarrassed that her daughter was the one to next sit beside her on the concrete bench. "I'm alright," I told Fannie. "Silly of me. Darian has to cut his vacation short."
"Oh." Fannie took my hand in hers. "I guess I should give you the rest of the bad news."
"What bad news?" I wiped the last stupid sniffle away and frowned at my daughter.
Fannie giggled. "You're too easy, Ma. Everything is a dire event for you. When are you ever going to take life as it comes?"
"When life comes in less than dire events. Give, girl. What's up?"
"You know I've been working with the company for the last four years. Daddy just told me I could head up the Sumatra project." In a rush she continued. "I'm my own boss and I can pick my crews and"
I cut off the rest of Fannie's words with an instant hug. I did not tell her that I had convinced Claude to give her a chance. I wanted her to believe her father had selected her for the overseas projectand he had though he needed a little nudge. "I'm so happy for you! Now, Fannie, my darling daughter, I don't care how good they look all sweaty and dark and handsome, you do not"
"Mother! I'm not interested in menyet. I won't be interested in men until I find one like Daddy, and don't try to babble that Freud stuff you think you understand. Well, truthfully, I don't understand it either, but any man who will catch my eye will have to be at least half the man Daddy is. I have high standards."
"Good for you. I'm so distraught right now I need to kill something. Go find your father and let's sacrifice a steak or two and celebrate your promotion." The three of us spent another hour at the World's Fair then took a cab across the bridge and had dinner at a busy night club with a good band. The steaks were delicious and the dancing superb. Claude alternately danced with me and his daughter and was the envy of every man there.
Lara's eyes were a bit red at breakfast the next morning, but La and Tom soon had her laughing. "We're going to the race track, Lara. Two of our horses are running today. Why don't you and the boys and Anita come with us?" Anita, all of five years old was busy with her scrambled eggs and paid no attention to the conversation.
What about mom and dad?" Lara looked interested, but she also realized who paid the fare.
Claude gulped half his coffee. "Sounds like a plan to me." He reached into his inside suit pocket and drew out the wallet I had given him last year for his birthday. Removing four dollar bills, Claude shoved them across the starched white table cloth to Tom. "I'm not a betting man. I only believe in sure things like my family. Two bucks each for a win. And if they win, Lara will leave the kids with us tonight and you take those girls out to dinner."
Tom solemnly folded the bills and stuffed them in his shirt pocket. "I only believe in sure things. You will likely lose your bets. But you will be saddled with the kids in any event because I'd be most honored to squire these girls around."
Claude winked at me. "Well, grandma, looks like we'll have a quiet evening in the hotel tonight."
Lara almost choked on her grapefruit. "Dad! The boys and Anita will wear you and mom out! Thanks for the offer but"
I nudged Lara's knee under the table.
"but I can see we can't convince you otherwise." Lara's eyes misted. I gripped her hand for a moment, then changed the subject.
"Where is Fannie?"
Almost instantly my youngest daughter appeared, dressed in blouse and slacks, her hair tied back with a white scarf and positively beaming. She sat down then grabbed a waiter passing by and ordered an impossibly large breakfast. A moment later she commenced speaking to her father. "Joe Orville and Sam Hastings signed on as foreman and master driller. Jack Starling, Jose Rodriguez, Stanton Hopehill and Frank Westfall as crew chiefs. I'm stealing Tiffanyand no arguments. Her husband is in Manila and this job is a lot closer than Houston. Oh, Rig 10 and 33 are coming up from refurbishing. I'd like one or both, but I'll take one and Rig 45 and make it work. Brownie is looking up all the maps and tests and will have the charts together before we return. If we can tranship within three weeks we can hire either the Baltimore or Anniston out of San Diego. Otherwise we'll have to wait two more weeks for the next ship. And"
Fannie's breakfast, on three plates, arrived. Claude reached over, picked up a piece of sausage, and stuffed it into her mouth. "Slow down. I suppose this will cost me a fortune. Meanwhile, there will be order at this table during my vacation."
"Yes, daddy," Fannie pouted. "Eighty-four-thousand-five-hundred-forty-seven dollars to be exact." She picked up her fork and attacked her food, not the least intimidated by her father.
Claude glanced in my direction. "Are you done, mother?" When I nodded Claude rose and stood behind my chair. We had tried to teach civilities and I had come to expect them. Linking my arm through his, Claude patted my hand. "These brats are incorrigible. What say we leave them alone in the big city and take in the sights?"
It was a wonderful day. We went to the Metropolitan, which was displaying a traveling exhibit of African art, saw a dreadful production at Radio City Music Hall, then dinned early at an out of the way Italian bistro with a wandering violinist. We returned in time to take the kids off Lara's hands.
Gene groused. At twelve he considered himself a man. "Mom! Why can't I go?" Roy, one year younger, was just as disappointed. Lara wavered for an instant.
Claude filled his pipe. "Well, if you want to miss the dance and the girls, that's up to you."
For an instant Lara almost objected, then realized who would have care of her children. She said: "Boys, if that's the way you'd like it, you can tag along with us."
"Mom!" Roy said. He punched his older brother in the arm. "Have a good time with Uncle Tom and Aunt La!"
Claude sucked on his pipe several times, creating a cloud of blue smoke. "Make up your mind, boys. Grandma and I have things to do."
Gene kissed his mother goodbye, Roy hugged her. We stood in the lobby until the trio caught a cab. "I hope you weren't foolin' us, Grandpa," Gene jammed his hands into his pockets.
Claude looked at his watch. "You have fifteen minutes to be down here freshly scrubbed and in suit and tie."
Gene and Roy stumbled over each other racing for the elevator. I giggled as I wiped Anita's little nose. "What do you have planned? I hope you will not disappoint those boys."
"Not at all, dear La. I will take them to an amphitheater and point out one, two, or three girls for each of them."
Opar seemed so far away, but at that moment it was only yesterday. "Claude! You're not talking about," I covered Anita's ears, "prostitutes are you?"
He grinned. "Not at all. There's a dance at a nearby prep school and we have an invitation. I can do a little business because the fathers of some of the sons and daughters attending are..."
My husband is a good man, a smart man, a man who continually surprised me. The boys had a wonderful time and Claude made a few business deals. Me? When I wasn't dancing with Claude I was dancing with someone elsein the oil businessand watching the male grandchildren discover girls while my granddaughter charmed everyone.
Our last night in New York as a family we celebrated my birthday over cheese cake and brandy. Lara and the children went home to Florida the next morning. La and Tom declared they would stay another week to sell horses to interested buyers since both of their horses had done well.
The only thing that irritated me about our visit to New York was the difficulty of being able to take Umbanje to the same places with us. The night before we left for Houston, Claude and Tom took Umbanje to Harlem and visited a dozen swing clubsUmbanje was now a very great fan of American music since he took service to La. That night I lay in bed hoping to finish reading Shape of Things to Come, which was so different from the movie Claude and I saw the week before.
Mrs. Scott continued to manage my house. After her husband died we were her only family. Claude gently managed her affairs and we moved her into the cottage behind the house and moved Umbanje into the guest bedroom in the main house. Umbanje's English was near perfect and he took pride in wearing the suits I had purchased at Claude's suggestion.
I had made sure he learned to read and write and that he understood the value of money. I had regretfully explained color of skin in American society, especially in Texas. After we returned from New York I suggested he allow us to relocate him to our Washington office where blacks were treated differently.
"I do not wish to go there, bwana."
I smiled, for Umbanje had never ceased addressing me with that title of respect.
The black continued: "I can deal with nigger-baiters and nigger haters. I know my place when in public. I know my life would not be so grand if I had not heard the words of Master Claude and Korak as truly as I did. Do not send me away."
"I will not send you away if that is not your wish. I value your loyalty and service. I just regret that Fannie will go to Sumatra without Umbanje looking out for her in the jungles of Sumatra."
Umbanje was as wise as he was loyal. "The daughter of La, High Priestess of Opar and wife of Master Claude will never lack the protection of Umbanje because to serve Miss Fannie is to serve La." Then he smiled. "To be in the jungle again!"
I saw the happy moisture in his eyes. "It is not the same jungle, Umbanje, but it is very like the one we knew before it was cut down and burned and turned into farmland. I would be eternally grateful if you watch over my daughter and serve her as faithfully as you have served me."
"Miss Fannie leaves tomorrow. I should pack." Umbanje lowered his woolly head for a moment, then looked up. "Thank you for showing the greater world. Thank you for education. Thank you for being color-blind."
I started weeping. "Just go pack!" I held his hand for a long moment. "Thank you!"
I did not tell him why I wept. As the High Priestess of Opar I had cut the hearts from many gomanganiblack menwithout a thought. When I was young I had no conscience, only a desperate desire to avoid the Fifty Frightful. Now that my world had enlarged and I had learned that there was more to life than mere survival I suddenly regretted all those acts of sacrifice! I truly was color-blindI had known the beasts of Opar, the men of the amphitheater, Claude, his family, my sons and their children, the hands on the old homestead, the men who worked for Claudebut until I heard those words from Umbanje I had not realized how my perceptions of the world had changed.
Twelve days after Fannie's crew left San Diego the "little bastard," as Claude called the dictator of Germany, invaded Poland. Claude was down at Corpus Christi with a team looking at the possibility of off-shore drilling when the news came over the radio. Within the hour of the announcement he called home. I was relieved to hear his voice, even though I knew he was an ocean and half a continent away from the battles.
"Are you all right, darlin'?" he asked after Mrs. Scott handed the phone to me.
"Yes." I was not all right. I was thinking of Darian and Fannie, but at least they were in the Pacific.
"Liar," Claude replied. "I'm scared spitless. You have to be at least a little worried."
I cupped the receiver close with both hands and turned slightly. Mrs. Scott immediately understood, touched my shoulder, and went to the kitchen. "Claude, I have a bad feeling about this war. I thought I hated the last one, but this time..."
"Shut up, La."
Oh! Those glorious words! I would never shut up. He knew that but when he said those words he always had an answer. Before I could say as much Claude continued.
"This one will be worse, La. Everythingeven the USAis on the line. We're not in the war now but we will be. Have you heard from Fannie?" A moment later he said, "La?"
I took a deep breath and calmed the sense of unknown panic. If Claude felt the same then there was indeed something to be worried about. "Sorry. I haven't, but I'll call the office as soon as we hang up."
Claude's voice remained calm and smooth. "You do that, but I'll bet that girl's asleep right now and hasn't heard the news. I need to know if you need me to come home. If you do I'll be there as fast as I can drive back."
"That's silly," I said though I wanted him to be here. "That little bastard can't make that much trouble with England backing their treaties. Finish your job then come straight home and bring two quarts of shrimp and four dozen oysters just as we planned for dinner with the Wilsons. Love you, bye."
I hung up the phone before he could respond. If he called back he would be a lesser man that I knew him to be. Claude knew I was strong, but he also knew all my weaknesses. Right now I needed him to be stronger than me. I waited a few moments until I collected my thoughts then called the office. The place was buzzing over the war news and one of the people who spoke to me over the phone was excited.
"Do you know how much money we'll make pumping oil, Mrs. Earl? Millions! Here's Dennis."
"Mrs. Earl, Fannie's not due to check in until four this afternoon. I can send a radiogram."
"That's not necessary, Mr. Dennis. Call it a old woman's worry. But do keep me advised."
"You bet." Lowering his voice, the office manager said, "I never thought Hitler would continue his expansions. He's got to know the English will kick his butt from here to Sunday."
"I hope so, Mr. Dennis. Claude and I met him in 1934 after he became Chancellor, and I do not mind telling you I found him to be a very frightful man. Please let me know when Fannie checks in. Thank you, Mr. Dennis."
"Ma'am," he said before I could disconnect, "if you're scared then by God we all should be. You're the bravest woman I know and you've never been wrong before."
"I hope you're wrong, Sean. I truly hope you're wrong. Goodbye."
Mrs. Scott stood at the end of the hallway leading to the kitchen. She held a cloth-wrapped object in her hands. "Umbanje said I should give this to you if there was trouble."
I felt the weight and shape of the object and knew what it was before I removed the cloth. The hilt of the bronze dagger fit my right hand and felt as it if had never been gone. Would that I had had with me in Germany in 1934!
Trans-Pacific telephone calls were difficult to arrange with any real regularity. We did hear from Lara and Fannie at least twice a month, Fannie more regularly because of the company business.
Darian, Lara, and the boys lived in a little cottage on the heights above Honolulu. My son's duty base was Hickman Field where he flew land-based bombers on sea patrol. Gene and Roy always had to talk to Grandpa and Grandma (Oh! How I hated that name!) and when Lara or Darian managed to wrestle the phone back we could hear the boys arguing in the background as to who had talked longer. Anita was at the monosyllabic age"yes," "no," and "I don't know."
My son, of course, could not speak of what he did, other than commenting on how great was the weather and what a pleasure it was to fly around the islands. Lara spoke of the weather and how nice were the prevailing breezes. Every time we hung up I would glare at Claude. "They won't tell us anything. The only way we'll know how they are doing is if we go to Hawaii."
Claude always agreed, but ceased to promise to arrange a trip after Dunkirk and the fall of France. The only arrangement he made was to relocate us to Washington, D. C. to work out of his company's office thereto be nearer to the government which was beginning to make more demands on his time. I recalled how it had been during the Great War and saw the same thing happening again.
Fannie's phone calls were more informative, usually remarks on the success or failures of the crews. The phone call I needed most desperately was near midnight the 23rd of September after news the Japanese had entered French Indochina.
"We're all right, Ma. That's an ocean away from where we are."
"Your father is not so sure, dear. The Japanese are desperate for oil since the United States ordered the embargo. French Indochina is not enough for their needs and they will look to Indonesia..."
There was a happy, yet anxious tone in her voice that put all of my concerns aside. I gripped Mrs. Scott's hand. "Did you do something stupid, Fannie?"
"Yes," she instantly admitted. "I fell in love and chased a man until he could run no longer and we made a baby."
Mrs. Scott grimaced when I gripped too hard. I let go and drew her close and shared the telephone receiver with her. "A baby? I mean, who is he, darling?"
Fannie lowered her voice. "Is Mrs. Scott listening? I don't want to upset her..."
I warned Mrs. Scott with my eyes, but continued to share the call with her. "She's in the kitchen. What are you saying?"
"I always knew he was the man of my dreamsthe man I told you I must find. He's good to me and I love him. I almost had to hog-tie him. He loves me. I don't know how"
"Fannie Mae, you are my love and I almost trust your heart."
"Almost? Mother, you told me about the monkey man who stole yours. You and daddy trusted your heart and" there was a pause. "I won't keep you in suspense since I'm four months away from the truth. I love Umbanje and I don't care if he's fifteen years older and Negro or"
I took my cue from Claude's repertoire of comforting words. "Shut up, Fannie. I almost trust your heart to understand that your father and I support you all the way. When is the baby due? I need some ammunition to move your father to make a commitment to tell the bureaucrats to go to hell for a few weeks so we can plan a trip. I want to be there when my grandchild is born. This call is costing us a fortune, so you tell this to Umbanje," I spoke a phrase in his native language and made Fannie repeat it. "I'll tell your father. Keep safe, dear."
Mrs. Scott struggled with the information learned: white girl, black man, baby; yet she smiled as happily as I did. With tears in her eyes Mrs. Scott sadly observed: "They will have a difficult life, but I must admit," she blushed, speaking her heart, "that if I had been younger, or he older, or we lived somewhere else, I might have been tempted."
"I know their life will be difficult, but may it be as happy as we have known!" I embraced Mrs. Scott and we both shed happy tears in the hallway next to the telephone.
That evening I sent Mrs. Scott to her cottage and prepared dinner myself. I had learned how to cook and accurately charred the Porterhouse steaks, blanched the green beans, and whipped up the mashed potatoes. Claude entered the house at his usual time, bellowing as always, "Hello the house!"
"In the kitchen!" I replied.
I trembled for many reasons as he entered the swinging door. The meal was on the table, the port wine poured, the coffee hot, and me attired as I had been in the jungle, though less soall I wore was the turquoise necklace Claude had purchased for me in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Claude put down his briefcase and began to undo his tie. "Don't speak, La. I will have you, then dinner, then you can tell me what you want me to know."
And he did have me. He ate everything prepared. Then we washed the dishes and straightened the kitchen furniture and padded upstairs to the master bedroom. He still would not allow me to speak, nor did he ask questions until the cast iron tub was filled with hot water.
We sat at opposite ends of the tub, he on the faucet side and having to lean forward. Claude raised his finger several times when I started to speak, so I remained silent, still feeling the happiness of our joining.
"La," Claude said, lifting my right foot from the tub to rub a bar of soap across my lower leg, "I have something to tell you. Your youngest daughter is having a baby by a black man I happen to admire. This will be a difficult thing for..."
I explodedsplashing water all over the bathroom as I pounced on Claude's chest, fists raised. He caught both of my hands and drew me close. "Bastard! You knew all along and..."
"...and I love you. Umbanje is a good man. I respect him and know he will treat Fannie right. And I was a bastard when I came home because Fannie called me after she talked to you. I'm okay with itbut you naked in the kitchen and all your wiles offered to soften me up was too much to resist." He kissed my throat, gently, then released my wrists which I placed about his neck.
We cuddled until the water in the tub was cool. We almost found enough fire in our tender caresses to join again, then laughed because the flesh was not as willing. We toweled dry and then mopped up the splash from the tub. Since it was near morning Claude shaved so he would not have to after too few hours sleep.
Claude said, "Get a date from Fannie. We will be there. It is about time I took a look at our South Seas enterprise."
"Anything else, my lord and sometimes master?" I smiled.
"See if Mrs. Scott would like to go along. Meanwhile, you should tell Darian and Lara we're going to be in their neighborhood in a few months."
I embraced Claude, getting between him and the basin and wishing that even on tip-toe I might place my ear against his heart. "You are a brute and I love you."
The heat and humidity when we disembarked the steamer at Medam, Sumatura was barely worse than we had suffered during the final portion of the voyage. Claude and I had learned something of the sailors' language during the two week trip, but the intense wharf-side babble of voices and frenetic activity made any comprehension impossible as our luggage was unloaded. Mrs. Scott and I waited with the luggage under the shade of a palm-thatched veranda while Claude supervised the cargo master's unloading of the replacement parts Fannie had ordered.
Mrs. Scott wilted under the heat. Houston was hot during the summer, but this heat was so much more oppressive. The jungle surrounding the port was like a green wall of vegetation and a fetid stench of rotting leaves and mold assaulted our senses. To me, it was like coming home. To Mrs. Scott it was something she was determined to assimilate into her ordinary experiences.
A flatbed truck, flecked heavily with mud and rust, came to a stop outside the building. Behind the wheel was a grinning face I instantly recognized. "Umbanje!"
"Hello, Mrs. Earl! Mrs. Scott!" The black's voice boomed above the din. He came up the steps in a single bound and shook my hand. I was not satisfied with that gesture and hugged Umbanje.
"Is Fannie with you?" I asked, attempting to look inside the truck's cabin.
"No, she's back at the boat. It is cooler there, or it is a little cooler. And you, Mrs. Scott. I am happy to see you again."
"My word," Mrs. Scott laughed. "Can you not afford clothes?"
Umbanje wore work boots and a native wrap about his hips, but otherwise was naked. Umbanje laughed, not insulted the least bit. "After you have been here a few days you will consider dressing as the natives do."
Mrs. Scott laughed again, embracing Umbanje. "If I had a figure like Mrs. Earl's I might be tempted. How is Fannie?"
"She is doing well. I think she complains about her feet and back because it is expected that pregnant women complain about their feet and back. I have to make her go to bed at night and speak very sternly when she rises before dawn. She ignores me."
Claude walked up toward the end of Umbanje's words. "Somehow I doubt that, old friend, else we would not have a new member coming into the family." Claude held out his hand, "And you, too, of course!"
Umbanje's relief was tempered by his guilt. "I truly tried to ignore her, Bwana. I"
My husband put his arm around the black man's shoulder. "Once my daughter makes up her mind about something, she will not cease until it is accomplished. Umbanje, once Fannie set her mind on you, you were a goner. Bring the truck up, let's get the supplies loaded."
An hour later Umbanje was behind the wheel with me and Mrs. Scott inside the cab. Claude rode in back on top of the pipe and supplies. The dirt road was rutted. Puddles of recent rain water splashed from the tires to stain the jungle growth crowding the road. Monkeys shrieked as we disturbed them in the trees. Brilliantly colored birds took flight and their voices added to the constant sound coming from the jungle.
Claude and Umbanje carried on a shouted conversation above the throaty sound of the rusted muffler. Mrs. Scott and I clung to the dashboard to keep from being thrown around where the road was especially rough. I learned by listening that the camp was fifteen miles south of the port and three miles up a river which had no name among the natives. The second rig was eight miles further upstream. A forty-foot boat kept the two camps supplied. There was a group of huts for the native workers and tents for the drilling crews.
When we arrived at the base camp I was neither surprised or disappointed. A flat river of sluggish flow perhaps 100 feet wide lay between banks of reddish mud and tough grasses. Giant trees rose on both sides, many choked with massive lianas hundreds of feet long. The camp had been carved out by felling a half dozen trees and clearing the underbrush and in the shadow of the jungle canopy were the huts. Anchored slightly above the cleared area, under the shade of the trees except at midday, was the boat where Fannie, Umbanje, and a grizzly-bearded Australian skipper resided.
Jack Starling and Jose Rodriguez approached the truck, one opening the passenger door to assist me and Mrs. Scott from the cab, the other pounding Claude's back with hearty welcome. "'Bout time you came to see how your money's being spent!" Starling grinned.
"Jack," Claude gripped Starling's hand, "I don't mind spending money, but I do expect to get something back in return."
Starling laughedhe had worked with Claude for twenty years and knew my husband's wry sense of humor. "Damn it, boss, we drill and get promise. It's there. Meanwhile you get a grandbaby for your dollars."
For a long silent moment both men maintained their grip. Jose, Mrs. Scott and I watched as we rounded the truck. Claude held that grip because he was happy for the baby, and Jack maintained his because he wasregardless how happy he was to see my husbandworried that he had failed to protect Fannie from herself.
"Jack, have you ever been able to say no to Fannie?"
"Uh," the man blushed. "No, sir."
"Me, either. Damn girl's got a mind of her own and we all best get out of the way."
"I heard that, Daddy," Fannie said. She had exited the boat minutes after we arrived. "If you do not stop torturing poor Jack I will not give you a hug."
For a moment I was jealous of my daughter whose waist was expanded and blatantly displayed between a clean, though discolored bra and cut-off shorts. She was barefoot and unmindful of the mud oozing between her sun-browned toes or the sweat-limp ponytail that adhered to her neck. In that instant I saw what I might have looked like carrying Elmo's child in the jungles of Africa.
"Daughter, you will hug your fatherafter you hug your mother and Mrs. Scott. In the meanwhile I will decide whether we dock Jack for not striking oil, or give him a raise for keeping you safe."
Claude was, of course, hugged first.
Stanton Hopehill and Frank Westfall entered the base camp near sundown. They had walked down from the upper site. Stanton, a slim man with white hair and a dark beard, had worked with Dad'ums since the first days the Earls entered the oil business.
"For you, Mrs. Earl." Stanton Hopehill offered me a leaf wrapped package which I opened as we sat on the boat railing. Inside was a small jar containing a black substance.
Mrs. Scott frowned. "What is that, Mrs. Earl?"
"Oil bearing rock, dear." To Stanton Hopehill I said, "Claude should receive this. I have no use for oilonly the money that it generates."
Claude's laugh startled birds, monkeys, and dozens of other denizens in the jungle on both sides of the river. "How well I know that!"
Stanton grinned, his little joke complete, then offered me a feather of extraordinary beauty. "There are birds on this island which few humans have seen. I thought you might like this, Mrs. Earl."
It was a beautiful feather! I kissed his cheek. "Stanton, we have known each other for decades. Will you never call me La?"
There was a silence on the boat as the darkness gathered. On shore the fire outside the huts under the trees sent a small column of smoke into the humid sky. Overhead stars shimmered in the slowly cooling heat. Stanton Hopehill rose to his full height, which was not all that greater than mine, then said: "No ma'am. Though I have known you since you were a young bride to that ugly fellow you decided to have there is something about you that demands respectperhaps even awe. I will call you La if you command it, but I hope that you will not."
Brill, the middle-aged Australian boat captain already deep into his apparently nightly whiskey spoke up. "As fine a lady as she is," he said, tipping a battered cap toward Claude, "you make her sound like royalty, Hopehill."
I clutched Claude's arm as he started to rise. Hopehill, Rodriguez, Westfall, and Starling rose to their feet. Fannie sent Umbanje to stand between the grim faced men and the boat's captain.
"What did I say?" Brill suddenly sobered.
Umbanje spoke before the others could utter a word. "Mrs. Earl is the High Priestess of Opar. She is royalty. She is the Mother. She is deserving of respect."
Rodriguez and Westfall frowned, though remained silent. They were not privy to my African origin, though that did not change their anger toward the Australian. I begged them with my eyes to remain still.
Brill rose, watching the men on the boat. He offered an apologetic bow. "Mrs. Earl, I meant no disrespect. My ancestors were English debtors sentenced to penal colonies in Australia, apparently I inherited some of their faults. I spoke as a joke, but a poor joke it was."
Claude nodded. "No harm donesit down boys. I'll tell you a story that will curdle your hair and give you nightmares and wishful dreams for the rest of your life."
Fannie came to sit beside me and Mrs. Scott as my husband told the facts of his time in Africa, meeting me, and what had happened thereafter. Hopehill knew part of it, Fannie knew a different part of it, Umbanje knew yet a different aspect. When Claude finishedand did so after several whiskeys that the enthralled Brill freely offered from his stashmy life and his had been told more completely than anyone previous ever knew.
"Damn, boss!" Westfall cried. "A jungle princess! You lucky son-of-a-uh, sorry, Mrs. Earl!"
Brill relocated his sleeping quarters to the huts on the shore of the river. I shared the boat with Fannie and Mrs. Scott. We hovered over Fannie, which irritated her no end. Claude worked the drilling crews and came back to the camp each night black with dirt and muck. He bathed in the river, turned more brown under the equatorial sun. He was having more fun doing the work he loved and had not done since becoming president of the company. Sometimes we made love in the jungle, sometimes we just held each other after dinner with a bit of brandy at hand.
Fannie's belly continued to expand. She was in her ninth month. My daughter was as stubborn as me. I could not get her to leave the drilling sites to have her baby in a modern hospitalone of which was only 100 miles away. "Mother," she said to me one night as we shared the same bed under the mosquito netting," you had a baby in the jungle with no doctors or fancy medicine. I want to do the same."
I did not have the heart to tell her how many of the jungle births had gone wrong and how the women of Opar had frequently lost the child, mother, or both. "I can only ask, dear heart. I wish you would reconsider." Gentle remonstrances, always supportive, eventually took hold. Fannie finally said she'd go to the hospital after Tiffany went to Manila to visit her husband.
Eight hours later the Japanese attacked. This was the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For a week we had news of attacks by the Japanese in many areas of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. We saw large numbers of aircraft flying over the island. Radio transmissions regarding the war were chaotic, then we had a battle with Dutch settlers who wanted our boat to escape.
There were twenty in the attack. Brill was the first to give the alarm and his sidearm spoke the loudest. At his side was Umbanje and Claude. Westfall and Rodriguez were killed. Brill had a shoulder wound. We did not count the attackers who died, or the survivors of that battle, though we did have one captive who revealed that the upper camp had been decimated. That night as Umbanje took the boat down river to the coast Fannie's child was born.
In the morning, as the boat hugged the coastline, I asked where the Dutchman was. Claude glanced toward Umbanje. The black, who held the tiller under Brill's watchful eye said, "He fell overboard."
When I looked at Claude I knew that more than one pair of hands had assisted the Dutchman into the ocean. Claude took my arm and led me to the bow of the boat. "Things will get ugly from here on out," he whispered. "I wanted to kill the bastard, but I did not. I told him he could swim for the shore or die for having murdered my friends. He and his people tried to kill you and Fannie to take this boat. I'm not having that, La. Nobody will ever hurt"
"Oh, shut up, Claude!" I kissed him. Later I asked, "Are we at war with the Dutch?"
"No!" he assured me. "We are only at war with the stupid, the desperate, and the Japanese!"
Fannie had an easy birth and by the next day she was up and about with a perfect little boy sucking her breast. The boy was mulatto, a term I had learned in Texas which is "high yellow" and was the meaning behind the popular song "Yellow Rose of Texas" and the mulatto woman who distracted Santa Anna in his tent when the Texicans attacked at San Jacinto and won independence from Mexico. The child was more white than black and was well-formed in all regards. Umbanje was not displeased with the child's color, in fact he was overjoyed. He kissed the girl he had not married but had wholly and totally given his heart. "He has a chance!"
I heard that statement because the confines of the boat were so limited, and bit back the response I wished to utter. I had lived in Claude's world longer than that I lived in Opar. I had seen the wondrous possibilities of America. Even in the South where Negroes did not have the same advantages as whites they could excel and make something of their lives. Fannie's child could accomplish the sameyet I must admit I was glad that perhaps he might have a better chance because of his skin color.
Was I prejudiced?
Yes. I had lived in Africa. As the High Priestess of Opar I had given no consideration of the sacrifices the Fifty Frightful brought to the altar of the Sun. Animals, Apes, Gomangani...I shuddered to think how harsh was my Opar world and my personal desperation at the time. And yet it seemed fitting that my daughter had found love in the arms of a Gomangani she had chosen for her mate and created such a lovely child!
We worked our way down the coast, always running toward the shore when aircraft were heard. Our radio, when it worked, buzzed with reports of Japanese attacks from India to Indonesia. I thought of all the little babies and their fathers and mothers who were being slaughtered. Every time we hid from the Japanese airplanes I hugged Fannie and Umbanje, trying to shelter them with my body. Claude understood my mood. I had told him years before how I had used the bronze knife for selfish reasons. Oh! How much had I changed!
Only five of us survived the first year of the war. Claude, Umbanje, Fannie, Fannie's child Edgar, and the High Priestess of the insincere religion instigated half a world away from where the horror of our reality existed. Mrs. Scott died of malaria or some other kind of fever. Brill sacrificed himself to give us enough time to get to our boat when a Japanese gun boat came upon one of our shore side camps. Both of the natives who had hired on as drillers and come south with us vanished one night, obviously trusting their chances among their own kind than staying with the Americans. Hopehill was bitten by a large venomous snake and died within five minutes. Rodriguez, who was more Comanche Indian than Mexican and had hunted with bow and arrow in loincloth for months, simply did not return one daywe waited three, then continued south.
We lived on the steam powered boat, collecting wood and water as needed, and hid in river mouths or close anchored to jungle shorelines. We always stayed in sight of each other, collecting food at the edge of the jungle along the coastline. We were determined to lose no other in our party.
Edgar was a good baby. He rarely cried.
To the east, in the waters between Sumatra and New Guinea we sometimes heard explosions as ships and airplanes battled. Our radio was deadthere were no more parts to replace those which failed. We sailed mostly at night, trusting the sound of surf to the right to keep our course straight. On moonlight nights we lay low under the trees overlapping some streamif we were lucky enough to find oneor imitating yet another craft sunk by Japanese bombs. And showing no lights for the enemy ships that churned the waters.
"Australia," Claude continually reassured me. "As soon as we make Australia we'll be safe."
"I hope so, darling."
We did not have enough time to get down the coast of Sumatra. Edgar was one year and two months old when we were shelled by a Japanese destroyer.
Claude's knife was not sharp enough to trim his beard but was sharp enough to kill the occasional animal for food and the more than occasional Japanese soldier.
I kept my bronze knife always at hand though I wore a revolver about my nearly naked waist. After we lost the boat we had fled twenty or more miles inland as the Japanese extended their invasion. We moved from place to place because we, more than the natives who had generally accepted the invaders as their masters, had inflicted death upon the Japanese soldiers and there was a price on our heads. We only wished to survive and protect the baby, but when we started to run out of ammunition for the weapons our only choice was to run and hide. La of Opar hated that choice, but La the mother and wife of Claude Earlour grim protectorran as swiftly as her husband and Umbanje decreed.
Ever higher into the mountains we ran, some days going without food because there was no time to hunt because the pursuit was so determined. Yet, we finally eluded the Japanese and found a safe haven in a cave high in the mountains where we found our first moments of peace since the war began. There was a stream nearby, there was food and good hunting in the jungle. We were beyond the usual domains of the natives and well beyond the control of the Japanese. Edgar was walking, giggling, and hugging his mother and grandmother.
Perhaps we became complacent during three months of peace, though we were always watching. Perhaps the natives we had befriended where pressured to reveal us to the Japanese, perhaps we were careless and the Japanese found our abode, but whatever the reason, the day I went hunting alone I returned to the cave to find a scene of horror.
My daughter lay on the ground outside the cave. One of her legs was broken. She was naked and bruised, defiledand decapitated. Umbanje was nearby, bound and decapitatedhis skull still etched with an expression of rage. Dear Edgar was a poor bloody blot near his mother's body. I could not count the footprints because there were so many, but my grandchild had been stomped to death.
Claude's body was not found, though I looked everywhere!
I slept in a tree that night, weeping and cursing, then cursing and weeping. I had nightmares.
I trusted no one as I followed the trail of the Japanese soldiers down to the coast. I avoided every native, though I was not so stupid to avoid stealing food at night. My bronze knife, a revolver with three rounds, a Japanese rifle with five rounds and bayonet, a length of rope, and my rage were the weapons I carried. I slept in trees and sometimes conversed with the long-armed apes I encountered. I always asked if they had seen the goro-mangani (moon-faced) and if they had seen a tall tarmangani (white) among them. Many of the orangutans had nothing to offer, but one had seen what I asked! The ape could not tell me Claude's condition, but knowing that Claude was alive was hope!
I eventually reached the coast. The Japanese had taken control of the half-dozen buildings near the wooden pier of the small port. There was a gunboat moored and a dozen or more Japanese sat on the dock to take advantage of the onshore breeze. Using every cover possible I avoided the rude shelters set up by the natives who had not fled when the Japanese occupied their village.
Waiting out the remainder of the day I watched the activity about each of the buildings and noted the sentry paths. There was no moon after dusk and I quietly approached the building which had been the focus of prisoners entering...with most of them not exiting alive. The wooden structure was two stories in height and was very close to the jungle trees. I climbed through the trees until I could look into the windows.
I did not like what I saw. In one room several men were engaged with a young native woman against her will. I had witnessed the same behavior from the Fifty Frightful in Opar and knew there was nothing I could do for her. Another window revealed a painful interrogation of a man, whose face and skin were so bloody I could not determine his race, but he was a smaller man than my husband.
The branch I stood upon was nearly over the roof of the building. I leaped and landed as silently as possible, yet there was enough noise that a shadow I had not seen rose not more than ten feet from me. I bruised my arm batting the rifle aside and my bronze knife stilled the warning shout as it slashed through the soldier's throat. I took his rifle and ammunition, revolver and knife then made my way around the rooftop. I slit the throat of a second soldier, who was asleep instead of alert. I took his ammunition, knife, and canteen.
Once I knew the rooftop was cleared of enemies I made my way around the building, hanging head down from the eaves to look through the open windows. One was an empty bathroom. Another appeared to be a bedroom. A store room. Then a room with no lights though I could hear labored breathing within.
Trusting to the darkness to conceal me, I entered the room. With the bronze knife in hand I felt my way into the interior. I touched a steel cot and sensed the warmth of a body. Moving to the head of the cot I raised the dagger, then in the softest voice I could make, since I had heard the occupant holding their breath, I said, "Claude?"
"Shut up, La!" came the whisper.
In a nearly insane flurry of relief I kissed him, cut him free, and ran my hands over his body to discover his woundswhich were many. "Can you walk?" I asked.
Claude's heart broke. "They raped Fannie. They killed Edgar. They killed Umbanje. I killed three of them but I couldn't"
I pressed my lips to his and was startled to taste blood. "I buried them. We need to get out of here. Can you walk?" His arm about my waist leading me to the window was sufficient answer. He was not strong. I could sense that in the trembling of Claude's limbs. "I'll go first, "I said lengthening the strap on the second rifle to put it over his shoulder. I put a revolver in his hand. Claude was naked, he had to hold the revolver.
"I should go first," he began.
Caressing his battered face I said, "Shut up, Claude."
I stood at the window for a few moments. The darkness was nearly compete because there was a slight cloud cover which hid the stars. I sensed nothing moving below then dangled from fingertips on the window sill. The drop to the ground was less than seven feet and I rose with the bronze knife in one hand and the revolver in the other.
There was laughter coming from that room with the poor woman, there was conversation coming from a room to the left, but I sensed nothing moving nearby. "Claude!" I hissed.
Almost instantly he was at my side. "Show me the way, darlin', I'll keep up."
I hooked Claude's free hand to the back of my shorts and moved away from the building. We had to get away quickly, but how? How long before the Japanese checked on their prisoner? How"
"Trucks!" Claude drew me up short by his grip on my garment. "Got any matches?"
"Blazing inferno. I want the gunboat. Best way to get away." Claude explained his plan.
"Are you nuts?" I clung to his bent body.
Claude put his arm around me, and because he did not try to kiss me I knew how serious he was. "Have I ever let you down, La? You have the dangerous partyou and that bronze knife. Can you do it?"
I knew he was lying to save me. I would only have to slit a few throats. He would have to battle the entire garrison. I grabbed him where it hurt and I was not gentle. "You fail, Claude, and I will come back and cut these off."
Claude grabbed me and he was not gentle. "As you wish," he breathed into my ear. "I'd swat your butt if it wouldn't alarm the Nips. Go do you killing and cut the lines. I'll come running and you better have the engines warmed up."
I left him, my hands still remembering the cuts and scabs of dried blood on his back and ribs. It was not difficult to get to the beach, nor difficult to swim to the side of the gunboat opposite the pier. The anchor rope was nothing more than a liana I had climbed as a young girl. One sleeping sailor was nothing for the sacrificial knife, a second was no greater thought. The boat was no longer than our old vessel and had no second deck. There were nine Japanese sailors asleep on the dock. I laid the rifle and revolver on the hood over the helm. I had eight rounds in the rifle and six in the revolver. I used the Japanese steel knife to sever the mooring ropes fore and aft then return to the helm. My thumb poised over the ignition.
My heart thundered in my breast. Where was Claude? Every instant I expected one of the Japanese sailors to awake and see me bent over the gun boat's controls. Every instant I expected that Claude would be discovered and I knew I would run to his side and both of us die. Every instant I
Two! Three! Four! Gasoline tanks in trucks suddenly exploded from the strips of cloth Claude had torn from my shorts, dipped into the fuel, and ignited with the six matches I had given him. Through that sudden hell of fire and smoke he came running like a back-lit giant. As the flames blossomed I hit the ignition switch then fired the revolver into the startled Japanese sailors until it was empty. I missed two, who dived into the water. The rifle spoke next and some where hit but by that time Claude's weapon had cleared the pier and he was aboard.
"Aft! Aft! Back! Reverse! Move it, La!" Claude cried as he lay flat on the fore deck and fired at the Japanese racing toward the gunboat.
I had driven cars. I had piloted our boat. I knew what to do even if I could not read the markings on the instrument panel. The gunboat raced in reverse away from the pier and as the boat backed I fired my remaining rounds then reloaded and killed some more. Claude took over the controls. "See that?" he asked, nodding toward a mounted machine gun. I did not need a second invitation as my husband turned the vessel south at all possible speed. I fired the gun into the diminishing speck of fire until the ammunition was gone.
Though I wanted to fling myself at him, I stood at Claude's side. "We did it."
"Yes, we did. We'll ride this tub south as fast as she will go until just before dawn, then we'll swim ashore. Look for anything we might need. Should be a raft, food, ammunition..."
All of the things I had tried to avoid or forget during my search for Claude came over me. "I killed her. I killed my baby girl, Umbanje, and Edgar."
The night was so dark that his voice came from nothing. "Crap."
The motors thundered as we raced south. After a time I said, "I did kill her and the baby and our friends. I convinced you to give Fannie the job and I"
"Shut up, La. You're so full of crap I" His anger and anguish was obvious, but he remained under control. "Darlin', you did not do this. Months before you confirmed it with pillow talk I had decided Fannie should spread her wings, but it was ME not you that sent Fannie to Indonesia to search for oil. Later, like any father of a lovely daughter I was dismayed when she became a woman, and was secondly dismayed at her choice because I could see all the difficulties she and her chosen would face. But it was ME, dear La, that put Fannie, Umbanje, the baby and Mrs. Scott, and our friends in this place which turned into a horror. Don't you dare try to trump guilt on me!"
I knew my husband. I also knew I was no longer the imperious High Priestess of Opar. I was a mother who had lost a child, a grandchild, a son-in-law who had been my friend, a housekeeper, employees loyal to the company and to Claude and myself. I knew this was not the time to discuss our tragedies because we were not yet safe to conduct such discussion. I had much to say, but this was not the time.
I left Claude at the helm and searched for provisions and ammunition for the weapons we had. I found three Japanese swords, a lantern and fuel, three lengths of rope, books and paper, flashlights, blankets and clothing, two more rifles, and several bottles of sake which I tossed into the raft I tied to the rear of the boat. I strapped everything down and was drenched multiple times before I finished.
"It is done," I told Claude. "But why do we leave the boat? It is fast and we can travel farther..."
"The Americans are shelling, bombing and strafing every Japanese vessel they sight. I do not wish to die from friendly fire. Another thirty minutes, La. Take the helm. I know you found all we should take, but do you mind if I take a look?"
We had an early moon rise. I could see the shore and maintain the distance Claude desired. I held the course as Claude limped about the boat. He collected a few items, tossed them into the raft, then returned. He put his arm about me.
"Remind me to never make you angry with me."
I laughed. The statement was absurd because I could never be angry with Claude more than five minutes. "What are you talking about?" I asked.
Claude, as the eastern sky was beginning to glow, looked down upon me. "You cut throats good. Time to go, darlin'. Get on the raft. Cut loose when I say. I'll swim to you." This time he did swat my behind and it was a command.
Watching the sky, my husband ran south as long as possible. I did not see the specks at first, but when Claude suddenly turned the helm to open sea and ran aft I understood. The sharp Japanese knife severed the tow rope as soon as Claude tumbled into the raft. The gunboat raced away toward the open sea from our position. I was handed an oar and pulled as mightily as Claude toward the shore. Barely five minutes later we heard machine gun fire from airplanes. Then several concussions as bombs were dropped. Minutes later the gunboat exploded. We were ten yards from the shoreline. We were lucky to be near a stream. Claude and I jumped out and grabbed the raft to drag it under the over hanging foliage while the American fighters buzzed over the thick cloud of smoke where the gun boat had gone down. I did not know I had held my breath watching the sky until Claude gripped my shoulder.
"They're off to find bigger fish to fry," he said.
In the dawn light I saw my husband for the first time in days. He was bruised and battered. His left little finger was broken at an odd angle. Dozens of knife cuts scored his skin, some bleeding again because of our recent activity. His privates had been burned (how I regretted my earlier action!). His lower lip was splittornand if it was not closed he would drool forever. I waited until we were ashore and the raft secured before forcing him to accept my first aid.
Claude bravely endured my jungle medicine that stitched together his lip and set his broken finger. But he eventually pushed me away. "That hurts! Leave me alone!" Claude lay on the coarse sand and closed his eyes.
I wept silently as I held the Japanese rifle in my hands. I watched over my husband.
The ocean had never seemed so large, the sky so dangerous, or the jungle so terrifying. Where was the high-and-mighty La, High Priestess of Opar? Where was that little girl with the bronze knife and no conscience? Where was the girl who had not yet learned to love, or have a family, or lose so much? I needed her! I looked upon the battered giant whose head rested on the raft. I needed him!
I wanted to touch Claude's face and knew I should not. He needed to sleep. I listened to the crabs scuttling along the beach and the wind through the branches above. I watched the sun turn from red to gold to white light. My stomach cramped. I had not eaten in more than two days. Something large went through the jungle and I turned, holding the rifle steady, but it moved away. I kept thinking of Fannie and Edgar and Umbanje. I did not quite go insane, but I was not myself.
Near sundown I relaxed the white-knuckled grip on the rifle. Nature and reality eventually subdued my tortured thoughts and nerves. I moved away from the raft by a little to squat and relieve myself. I returned to the raft and opened some tins. I could not read the labels but my nose told me the contents was food. I shook Claude by the shoulder.
"You need to eat."
Dipping fingers into the cans we ate, he more painfully. I wanted to brush away the flies which gathered on every cut on his body.
After he ate Claude walked to the beach and stretched out in the gentle surf in water no more than a foot deep. There was no moon. His voice came to me.
"Heard it somewhere that sea water was good for wounds. Don't let me go to sleep and drown."
I had the rifle again in one hand. With the other I twisted my fingers in his overlong hair and held Claude's head above the water. Biting my lip I paused, kneeling in the water nearly naked and filled with remorse. "I should have listened to you. We should have kept moving south before..."
Claude sat up, though I could see the effort upset his dwindling reserves. "Fannie made the choice. Umbanje agreed. You and I had little voice in the matter. The only thing I can say is..."
He did not speak further. When my gentle, "What?" went unanswered I became more insistent. "What would you say?"
Claude put an arm around my waist and pressed his cheek against my belly. "I have no regrets for our daughter's life. We made no mistakes. She made no mistakes. She knew the love of a good man. Mrs. Scott was grateful for the experience up to the end. Our friends were good men all, even that courageous rascal Brill."
I bent low and touched cheeks with my husband, his lips unable to accept a kiss. "I hear a 'but'."
"I'll make the bastards pay. We're near friendly ports, La. As soon as you're on the way to Aussie Land I'll even the score."
"Not without me," I replied. I lay against his scarred body and repeated, "Not without me."
For two years Claude and I hunted as would Numa and his mate. We had a particular prey. We roamed the jungles the prey preferred and thinned the invaders' herd at every opportunity. The rest of the time we avoided determined pursuit. Though we had learned hate because of what happened to our family and friends, we also learned respect. Some of those we hunted were not taken as prey because we saw they were not like the others.
Claude explained it to me. "Men are beasts," he said one night as we huddled under the fronds of a giant fern as the heavens dropped buckets of rain. "All men. Including me."
I understood in an instant. "But not all men are complete beasts. Some know what is right or wrong for mankind, no matter what kind of men they are."
It was an isolated area, the rain was heavy. It was unlikely any prey was about. Claude hugged me, embraced me, and I allowed him to open me. After a half-century of life I was astonished we could still find such joy between us and find it under such difficult and infrequent circumstance. The pleasure I felt was not the intense passion of my youth or the deliberately seductive passion of my prime, it was the passion of my life given freely after I gave up the obsession of Elmoand never have I regretted that decision!
I would not let Claude leave my body. I held his weight and strength with arms and legs locked tight. Kissing his scarred lip I breathed into his ear. "We have to save Ito. He did good."
Claude let his muscles go limp, crushing the breath from my body. "Are you sure, La?" He instantly relented, rising to pull me into his arms. "I am tried of killing for the sake of killing, love. Let's make them crazy by making them look stupid or stealing their secrets or..."
"Rescuing Ito for Etami's sake?"
For a week we had watched a minor port village of south Sumatra for the opportunity to steal a boat to make for Australia. We had apparently watched too regularly or too prominently because a young girl about Fannie's age brought us food and water. I almost shot her. Claude had knocked my weapon aside as the terrified girl knelt and said, "American?"
Claude looked at the girl with narrowed eyes. "Do you speak English?" When she did not respond he asked, "Parlez-vous français?"
A floodgate opened. We learned that her lover Ito, a lieutenant in the Japanese army was to be executed for having killed a superior officer in public and could we help? Claude stilled the girl's words by extending his hand to gently touch hers. My French was poor, but I did understand that we would help and that Etami would have to help us to make it work. Claude made our promise because we had earlier witnessed Etami's man kill a superior officer who was about to behead captured Allied aviators. The girl helped. She brought us a handful of all the ammunition she could steal. She listened to Claude's plan and made the arrangements on her side. A day later Etmai returned near nightfall.
"Ils tueront mon homme le matin. Le bateau est en place."
Claude translated. "Ito is to be executed in the morning. The boat is in place. We go tonight, La."
Etami listened to Claude's reply, then bowed over his hand. I needed no translation to understand the words the girl uttered. Then she gripped my hand. "La princesse de guerrier! Merci!"
"Go," Claude said. "Wait for us at the boat."
At midnight we moved into the village, but there was some activity near our destination that kept us in the shadows until just before dawn. We moved toward the muddy center of the port. At the large warehouse Claude and I split to approach the small three room shack near the water's edge. There were five guards on duty. I had sent two to the Sun with my bronze knife when a garbled gasp alerted my next target.
Either Claude's knife had been clumsy, or the man he strangled gave warning. The man I approached turned, saw me, and raised his rifle. The bronze knife broke as I struck the weapon aside but the remaining portion of my mother's blade was more than sufficient to raggedly slit the man's throat.
Throwing the bronze knife aside I drew one of the Japanese blades from the belt about my waist and continued to move toward the building's entrance with revolver in hand. By his size and build I knew the shadow before me was Claude.
Etami ran forward with a crowbar which Claude used to silently wreck the lock and door jam. "Hurry!" Etami pleaded. "I go to boat!"
"Smart girl," Claude said as I watched his back. "Pretty damn stupid to come to a break-in without the proper tools." Then, "I'm in! Watch the door!"
There were five men inside the building. Four American aviators and Ito. The Americans had been mistreated but all of them could walk and were glad to see us. Like Claude they were big and grim. I led the Americans to the door and pointed the path to the boat where Etmai waited.
As the men raced toward the beach I felt both excited and weaka curious sensation! "Claude," I hissed. "Hurry!"
My husband came from the most distant room bearing a tragic burden in his arms. "He's alive, La, though by God I do not understand how or why!"
I followed Claude to the boat, which was a twenty-two foot sailing vessel with one mast. Etami had issued oars to the Americans as she anxiously awaited our arrival. The girl sighed as we boarded, then a look of horror crossed her brown face. "Que les diables ont-ils fait? Cher Ito, mon amour!"
I gripped Etami's hand as Claude gently lay the disfigured Japanese officer to the deck. A crude bandage covered the stump of his right arm. His head had received so many blows that his scalp was in tatters and the bone beneath was exposed.
"Keep her quiet," Claude told me. In a slightly stronger whisper he gave commands to the Americans who silently dipped their oars and moved the boat beyond the breakwater. Still in darkness, the mainsail was raised and the boat picked up speed. Claude passed out the weapons we had brought as trophies from our hunting expedition.
One of the men said, "God hear my prayers. Captain, I'll follow you and the lady to the ends of the earth."
Another man said, "She killed two of the bastards neat and tidy. Saw it from the window. I'd like to shake your hand, ma'am."
The sea breeze seemed too cold. I shivered. I glanced to the sky expecting to see some glimmer of dawn but the night seemed more dark than before. My stomach felt queasy, my limbs began to shake. "ClaudeI do not feel well."
Just before I blacked out I felt Claude's arms around me and his sudden concern. "You better not die on me, La."
"What do you mean? I'm not"
"One of those bastards got you. Looks like a bayonet through the hip. La? Wake up, La!"
"La? Wake up, darlin'. Breakfast."
Sunlight filtered through the overhanging trees. The boat was anchored in a stream. Fifty yards or so away I heard the ocean against the land. Sitting up was painful and the bit of canvas over my body was too hot. Claude gently prevented me from tossing the covering aside and, as my senses returned and I felt the splinters of the boat's deck on my naked backside I understood why.
"Claude," I looked into my husband's eyes with the same surprise and joy I had felt each day of our marriage and especially since this nightmare of war began, "where are my shorts?"
"Sorry, Mrs. Earl," one of the aviators said. "They were already cut up and..."
Claude laughed, which did much to tell me the world was okay for this day. "Doc did the honors and patched you up."
A sandy haired man with a scrubby black beard was quick to correct the statement. "I was in Medical School when the war started. I'm not a doctor. The guys just kid me that way. My name is Tony Nelson, Virginia, navigator."
I looked to the rest of the men on the boat.
"Josh Johnson. Missouri. Tail gunner."
"Artie Simms. Iowa. Fighter pilot."
"Chuck Popper. Georgia. Bomber pilot. We didn't look."
Josh slammed a hard fist into Chuck's sunburned shoulder.
"What'd I say?" Chuck massaged his bruised muscle.
I was about to make a clever comment regarding nudity but stilled the words as I scanned the length of the vessel a second time. "Where's Etami and Ito?"
Five faces turned away from my question. Claude returned in an instant. "The poor bastard was near dead when we got to him, La. Limbs amputated or broken. He had been severely beaten. Ito did not have long to live. Etami was frantic. The girl truly loved Itothe same way I love you," Claude said in our private voice.
I gripped my husband's arm. I had learned that same depth of love, though I had been occasionally distracted from what my heart truly desired by memories of Elmo when I was a snot-nosed girl. I spared Claude from relating the details. Blinking tears from my eyes I said, "Etami gave Ito peace then joined him."
The silence on the boat spoke volumes. Looking at their faces I saw something else. "How long have I been unconscious?"
Claude said, "Three days."
The air did not move and the heat was sultry. The biting insects came and went in cycles as the hours passed. The men made sure I had the best shadow of the lowered sail as the sun crossed through the sky, but my discomfort continued to rise.
"Doc?" Claude broke the human silencebecause the jungle coast of Sumatra is never silent.
"I told you not to call me that!"
"Okay, Mr. Earl. You're not a commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States of America but you are the best man to lead the mission and thereby deserve the title. I'm about fed up with this bullsh"
Claude's sudden laugh was genuine. Stroking his beard my husband shook his head. "You embarrass me and confer respect at the same time. You boys have been doing the hard work."
Artie Simms quietly spoke as he gutted a fish caught by hand-line. "Mr. Earl, how many Japs have you killed?"
My husband stiffened. "More than I care to remember."
Simms tossed the entrails over the boat's side. "Sounds like a few more than me. I've killed two that I know of, two Zeros."
Popper leaned forward to fluff the slack in the sail for more shadow. "My boys and me may have killed more during bombing runs, but none of us ever met the enemy first hand." Deliberately spitting over the side of the boat he added, "Until recently."
Before Claude responded to the men's comments I threw aside the cloth covering me. I was slightly unsteady as I used Tony's shoulder to stand. There was significant pain from the wound on my hip, but it was bearable. "Captain Claude I have to pee. Captain Claude I have to bathe."
There was a stunned moment of silence as I stood in bra and bandage. Claude happily grinned because he remembered La of Oparthe little naked savage High Priestess who had no tabu regarding nudity. The aviators looked, blushed, then looked againand they were all gentlemen. We all laughed when Chuck said, "We've been out-generaled, Captain Earl. When a girl has to pee she has to pee."
Though the boat was a wretched transport barely able to make six knots at full sail under the best conditions we continued south each night. I healed quickly. During that three week convalescence I came to enjoy the company of my husband and four "big brothers" who would every once in a while be away from the boat searching for food. During those times that Claude and I were alone we reaffirmed our love. When I finally realized some of the hunting trips were contrived I was both angry and happy that these men would have such consideration for La and Claude.
We became a family. I did not worry about being nude from time to time, nor did they. "Three sisters," Josh said one morning as he handed me out of the water from my bath and into the boat, "and all of them a damn sight better looking than youbut not by much." His gentle smile made me hug him.
We lived in crazy times. Death marches, ships and airplanes in combat, soldiers in jungles.
Claude woke me one night as the moon at zenith shone most bright. He kissed me and I responded, not caring if others might witness what we enjoyed together. "Happy New Year," Claude whispered in my ear as I lay exhausted upon his too lean body. I ignored the mosquitoes on my naked skin.
"Has it been another year?" I had not counted days. I had counted the soldiers we killed. Claude held me tight.
"Edgar would have been three. Fannie"
My heart broke instantly. I slapped his shoulder, then hugged him, then kissed him with desperation. "Do not make my cry, love. We cannot mourn yet."
"We're going home, La."
"What?" I processed the words a second time. "What?"
"British sub. Tonight. Josh made contact with a coast watcher three days ago. We're in for removal. Why could this not have happened three years ago?"
Fannie, Umbanje and baby Eddie, Mrs. Scott, Hopehill and the others "I do not believe in your God any more than I believe in the Sun of my mother's religion, yet I believe there is a primal force that guides us. I refuse to believe there is nothing beyond this ugly life we have led."
Claude returned my kisses and embraces. "God, or your Force, had reason we should endure all we have endured. We might ask the reason but we can never know."
The boat rocked slightly. Startled, I reached for my Japanese knife. Claude gripped my wrist. "The boys are back." He kissed me again, then whispered, "I don't mind making them envious of your sweaty beauty, dear La, but perhaps it is time to dress?"
Popper deliberately stumbled coming on board to make noise. "Captain?"
"We're confirmed. Two miles out at 0200 and two lights every two minutes."
"Make ready to sail."
We connected with the submarine with no difficulty, though I gasped when the ship surfaced less than thirty feet away from our tiny boat. We left everything behind and swam to the submarine where deck hands hoisted us aboard. I stood on the steel deck and looked back toward the little boat which had been our home. A bare-chested bearded sailor with an intense Cockney accent touched my elbow> "Need to go below, ma'am!"
I did not like the confining compartments of the submarine. I liked even less understanding that submarines descended into the deep waters of the ocean. I fought my general panic which Doc described as claustrophobia. Artie got my mind off the pressing depths by playing Acey-Deucy, Poker, and betting on cockroach races.
Days laterstill in Indonesian watersthere was a battle between the submarine and a Japanese warship. We in the wardroom had no information regarding the battle. We shuddered as the hull of the submarine was assaulted by depth charges.
When the short battle was over the sub surfaced. Minutes later the vessel submerged and news came that we had new passengers aboard. A Dutch girl and her American lover, a young Italian from Chicago and his older bride of Eurasian descent, and other Americans and an Englishman.
Claude, who had been on the combat deck, drew me aside. "He's on board."
My husband placed a hand on my shoulder. "He-We-Will-Not-Name. He wants to see you."
"Elmo?" After nearly forty years his name continued to excite and shame me.
Claude's expression was neutral. "He's in the officer's mess."
"I don't want to see him," I replied, flushed with embarrassment because of how breathlessly I responded.
Claude held me for a moment, kissed my forehead, then pushed me to the hatchway. "I know you love me, dear heart. I also know you have never forgotten. See him."
At that moment I felt the terror that the sentient sacrifices to the Altar of Opar must have felt. "I don't want to see him, Claude!"
"You must, La. It is time to resolve this. I'll wait for you here. Go."
I clutched the ill-fitting shirt a British sailor had given me. Claude was adamant in gaze, so I stepped through the narrow corridor and made my way to the officer's mess.
Elmo sat at the steel table with a cup of coffee before him. He greeted me. "Hello, La."
He rose. Elmo of the Apes was not as tall, or as immense, or as savage as I remembered, though he was a magnificent specimen of man. His first words disarmed me. "How is Claude? Please, sit. Coffee?"
Elmo waited until I stepped over the bench bolted to the deck and sat down. He poured coffee from a carafe and pushed the mug without a handle toward me. I picked it up and stared at the brown liquid. "Claude is well. Did you get my letter?"
The Englishman grunted a short laugh. "Yes! I would have replied if Korak had not threatened my life. 'Don't hurt her,' he said." Elmo sipped his coffee then placed the cup on the table, cradling it between his large hands, which were covered with scars. "I have never forgotten you, La. You are in my thoughts almost as often as I think of my wife."
"Me? An ignorant girl from a savage land?" Then, being equally honest, I said, "When you killed Cadj you freed me. When you said no I took what I" I covered my face. "I have not forgotten you. You have made my life miserable and joyous at the same time. You stole from me and"
Elmo's hand gently pulled my hands down to the table and held them with a tenderness I never knew he possessed. "LaLa, look at me."
I trembled, not because of his touch, but because of all my fantasies and secret yearnings and guilt for having those thoughts even as I loved my husband so intently. He gripped my hands tightly.
"Jane nearly left me because I once spoke your name one night. You and I both know we were meant to be but never meant to be forever. Both of us had to embrace civilization before we could understand that whatever attraction there is between us would be our doom if pursued. I love my wife. You love your husband. All in all, La, we have been well blessed with happiness."
"If you make me weep I will kill you." Tears coursed down my cheeks. I lifted his hands to my lips and kissed them. "My life has been a little insane as well. Claude admires you, you do know that."
"Yes, and I am most jealous he is married to you."
We smiled. We held hands for a moment longer, then I withdrew to pick up the coffee and drink. "So, when will I meet Jane?"
Elmo grinned. "Someplace other than Opar."
I laughed. "Please," I touched his forearm, "wait here." I ran through the submarine's corridor to Claude. He looked up, puzzled by my smile. "Come with me."
I tugged his borrowed shirt and pushed my husband through the corridor, dodging sailors about their business. Elmo had waited. The English lord rose when we entered. Though Elmo did not look a day older than when I first met him, my husband was taller and, even after our years on Sumatra and malnutrition, out-massed the Englishman. Elmo and Claude narrowed their eyes, both perplexed by my action.
"Claude,"I said, "this is the man I once had sex with. He's the father of your eldest daughter. Turns out he's a pretty good Joe."
"We've met," Claude replied, instantly startled by my candid statement.
I grabbed Claude by the hair behind his ear and made him sit. "You may have met, but you haven't talked. Elmo: this is the man who has known the charms of La more intimately than your wildest dreams for more than thirty years. He is my husband."
The Englishman blinked.
Claude laughed. "We've been had, Elmo. This girl is smarter than both of us." Claude Earl extended his hand. Greystoke immediately replied with equal embrace.
"Earl, there is one thing we must get out of the way."
"What is that?"
"You will come visit us at home as soon as the war is over."
"The invitation is returned. Tell me, sir, will the vision of Jane make me as nuts?"
Elmo smiled, and it was a handsome smile. "Probably. Touch her and I will have to kill you."
"Same back at you, old man," Claude chuckled, though the man he spoke to looked like he was only thirty years of age.
Elmo reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Call this a belated wedding present. Claude, this is for you both. La and I were never meant to be and while I have never forgotten her, I do not truly love her the way I love Jane. Does this make sense?"
"Yes." Claude replied. He refrained from speaking since Elmo obviously had more to say.
"A daughter." Elmo glanced at me. I saw that Elmo was envious. "Korak speaks highly of young La. I wish I had been there for her life."
Elmo handed Claude the scrap of paper. "These are directions to a witch doctor in Africa. I visited with him a month before I was shot down over Sumatra. If he is still there after these few years tell him that Elmo begs his consideration."
Claude looked at the directions and rough map. "What is this?"
"Eternal life, or what passes for that." Elmo paused. "Some of the treatment is painful, but it apparently works. Look at me. I was born in 1889. I can think of no others who deserve the promise of life beyond our normal span than you and La."
My husband looked at the paper with greater intensity. "If true, why would you share this secret?"
"Because I do love your wife without desire and I admire you. I remember when you came to Greystoke in 1936 and your passion to find your wife. Thank God Korak was there because one or the other of us would now be dead. La can tell you that I have no fear of death, but I can tell you that I never faced death more certainly when you demanded... Suffice it to say I am glad we did not fight. I will say that La is the reason why my marriage remains strong with Jane because I bend every effort to assure my wife that she is the one that I love. I give you and La this information because you have been the man in La's life all these years. Do I have to be more specific?"
Claude engaged the Englishman with a stern eye. "Yes, you do."
Elmo blushed. For a moment I saw the rage I had seen as Elmo fought the Fifty Frightful. The scar above his temple flamed scarlet. Then I saw the civilized man he had become and the painful admission he made: "Claude Earl, your wife is the only woman who ever raped Elmo of the Apes."
Claude relaxed. He stuffed the paper into his pocket then extended his hand. "You weren't the only one La raped, old man."
Elmo looked at Claude's hand, his eyes, then suddenly laughed. Gripping my husband's hand with a hearty shake the ape-man said, "Better you than me! Cigarette?"
Claude and Elmo turned the wardroom blue with tobacco smoke.
We landed at Brisbane, Australia. The wharf was alive with military units loading onto ships. Nearby were families bidding goodbye to those departing and those waiting with anxious looks for the arrivals.
My four younger "brothers" were swept away by American officers who stormed the submarine's deck, but not before each of them had embraced and kissed me and gave promises or issued demands to meet again when the war was over. Claude ignored the moisture in my eyes, just as I ignored the same in his. We had left Sumatra in the company of good and strong men.
The gangplank was short. We departed the sub and stood on land for the first time in eighteen days. The sun was bright. There was a band playing. Strangely, there were children running through the crowd, mischievous and full of laughter. In the sky above a flight of American bombers passed, accompanied by fighter aircraft.
Elmo turned his head just as a tall blonde woman with a small child in tow entered his arms. The woman wore khaki pants and a white blouse. She kissed him repeatedly. The child, a girl perhaps three years of age, frowned as her mother was spun about by Elmo. The flurry of happy kisses diminished then Elmo held the woman tight. Looking toward the little girl, Elmo asked, "Who is this?"
"Your daughter!" Jane Clayton said with a bright smile. Extending her hand, Lady Greystoke drew the child close. "Claudia, this is your father."
Elmo looked at Jane, then my husband, then knelt down, obviously moved. "Hello, Claudia."
"Father?" Claudia looked to her mother who nodded. "Father!" She ran forward to be swept up in Elmo's embrace.
Claude and I stepped back to give as much privacy as the activity on the wharf would allow. I had never seen Elmo weep. I wept, too. I had lost a daughter, her man, and a grandchild. Claude held me most tenderly.
Greystoke rose, holding the little girl in his arms.
Jane asked, "Who are your friends?"
Elmo spoke to his wife in a whisper. Jane's face hardened as she looked at me, softened as she looked at Claude, then broke with sorrow as he said something more. Jane Clayton moved away from her husband and took me away from Claude.
Linking arms with me Jane Clayton began a brisk walk. She said, "I know a little restaurant not far from here. The steaks are good, the beer is tart, and you and I can figure out how to keep these hooligans we have married in line."
Claude, Elmo, and little Claudia in the ape-man's arms, hurried to catch up.
My mother is the High Priestess of Opar. When I was a little girl she and father told me stories of her life in the African jungle which seemed both magic and fairy tale. My fathermy adoptive fathertold me how magnificent was my mother in Opar and that I had all of my mother's beauty. I loved Claude Earl. He was the only father I knew. For some reason, which I learned much later in life, mother and I did not have a close relationship, yet for all the arguments and tension between us, I always knew mother loved me.
I lived with father in Washington D.C. during World War I while he worked closely with the government because La and I could not get along. Mother stayed in Houston with my step-brothers Darian, Claude Junior and step-sister little Fannie Mae. Mother and I had always fought, but I did not know why. I always felt like I was outside the family but Father always treated me like a princess. Father worked terribly long hours during the war. He tried to make time for me, but when he wasn't looking my head was turned by a fast-talking son of an East Coast oil tycoon who talked me into an elopement marriage. I was ready to be free of mother's constraints! What was meant to be an escape and freedom ended up a horrible nightmare of abuse and confinement because my husband attempted to convince me that pain and bondage and abuse was married life! I made a desperate phone call to mother in Texasand was severely beaten by my husband.
Mother and Claude rescued mesaved me!and made the bastard promise a divorce. He did, because mother or Claude would have come back to kill him. A week later at our home in Houston I saw Claude and La in joyous embrace on the landing of the second story of the River Oaks house and realized my husband had told me lies as to the "affections" between men and women. Mother came to my room that night, caressing my bruised face and gently hugged me, even as her husband packed to leave the house to return to Washington to fight the Huns with all the resources of his oil company. I sensed her yearning to be with father, yet she gave her heart to me!
"Stupid girl! No man may harm you! No man may direct you! No man may degrade you!"
I wept. I treasured her arms about my body and ignored the aches and pains from the beatings and abuse of my husband had enthusiastically provided. "I didn't know," I sobbed. "I only wanted to be loved."
"What made you think abuse was love?" mother asked.
I cringed. "I thought love was what I had from you, only stronger."
La of Opar, High Priestess, wailed. "Have Ihave I"
Mother was so distressed I brushed aside my tears and took her into my arms. She was such a tiny woman. I let her cry for a while then whispered in her ear, "What is it, Mother? You have done nothing wrong. I'm the one who made"
Mother reached up and grabbed my hair, gently. "Mistakes? You made no mistakes, La. Your mother made the mistake of yearning and lusting and hating the man who created you in my womb. Your mother is the one who looked upon your wondrous beauty as a child and always remembered your true father with anger. In all these years I have not treated you fairly, but pleasePLEASE!know that I truly love you!"
Mother clutched my waist, her face buried in my lap as she confessed her encounter with Elmo of the Apes in a primitive venue where she was the High Priestess of Opar. She confessed the fallacy of the religion, her fears of the Fifty Frightful, her distress and anger that I had come into the hands of a Frightful who was not one of the Fifty but who was as despicable and her remorse for having treated me differently than Darian, Claude Jr and Fannie Mae. "I do love you, La," she sobbed.
I heard Father leave the house just after midnight. The doors of an automobile closed then drove away. I did not remark on this knowledge because Mother held me more tightly than I ever recalled in all my life. I was torn with emotion. My father, the father I knew and loved, was leaving to fight the Germans in the ways that an industrialist might do; yet I learned that my true father was a monkey man of the savage African jungle. Startling information! But more importantly, I learned that my mother loved me as desperately as the breath of life and I understood and forgave all the conflicts which had driven her life, for she could not have been a happy woman all these years.
There was a more than generous divorce settlement from my ex-husband. Dad was still in Washington when the funds were transferred to my private account when the final papers arrived. Mother was redecorating the room where I resided; yet always listening intently to the radio regarding the war events.
Darian and Claude Jr were plotting to be soldiers, little Fannie Mae presided over her collection of dolls, and one afternoon when mother was not watching, I packed a small bag, went to the bank and withdrew all the funds in the largest bills possible for the second valise I carried, then boarded a bus.
At Oklahoma City I had a choice of destinations. I chose northwest. I spent a week in Denver, Colorado to get my bearings and to fight down the urge to call home. In a coffee shop I heard some women talking about Montana. I bought a ticket.
I rode a train, then a bus, then hitched a ride until I arrived at Helena, Montana. I got a job as a waitress as a short-order diner and roomed upstairs at Mr. Barclay's. He was sixty and asthmatic and sweet. He couldn't work any longer and spent most of his days reading pulp magazines the local boys fought to bring him for the price of a quarter and to get a nickel for the service.
Every morning as I went out Mr. Barclay would say: "You be careful, La. Be home before 9 o'clock. Those cowboys'll be liquored up by then and you're just gosh darn too pretty." I would kiss him on the forehead and made sure he had his breakfast. "I'll be fine, Pops," I said. He wasn't family. He wasn't Claude, but he was parental and I needed that stability.
I met a gawky cowboy who stole my heart over a six month period because of his consideration of my conversation and refusals to date, and who was a man horribly determined in his work ethic. We spoke of his dreams of a horse ranch and his abilities, which I learned through several rodeos and comments from those wealthy ranchers who had employed Tom over the years. We eventually married and had a child. Tom worked hard and took a loan on a better piece of land, and after having a second child with him I knew Tom really was the true man of my heart. I said that wrong. I knew Tom was the man of my heart the first time I saw him but I was not certain because I had come from a bad marriage filled with abuse. I half-expected every man to treat me badly. Tom never treated me other than as a queen.
My our sons were still mewling brats when I told Tom I was rich. I was rich from the divorce settlement. "Let's buy that ranch, Tom," I said one evening when the wind whispered through the open windows of our four room cabin two miles outside of Helena.
Tom scowled at me as we sat on the front porch at day's end. He held Lincoln while I suckled Lawton. "I didn't marry you for money, La. I make a good living. We'll do all right. I don't want your money. I work hard and we've done okay. We'll be alright."
"You're every bit of that, Tom Langstrom. Were I barefoot and dirt-poor I would never fear for my future or our sons because you are a man to treasure. However, why should we start poor?" I told him how much money I had in the bank.
For a long moment Tom looked toward the fence line we managed at small wages for a big ranch.
Tom scowled. "I need a smart woman at my side, La. I need a woman who loves the risk and uncertainty of making a life together. I'm damn grateful you said 'yes' when I asked."
Tom rose, cradling one of his sons and sat on the porch railing. "On the other hand, I ain't so stupid proud to not understand what money might accomplish." Tom lowered his head for an instant, then looked at the moon. "All I know is horses and cows. The money you're talking about can get us a real ranch. I never had more than a hundred dollars at once in my life, but there's no quit in me, La. If you make this happen, I'll make it blossom."
Tom and I bought land 60 miles southwest of Helena and by 1936 the boys and the ranch were a handful. Two years later we had a daughter I named Laja. She was two years old the afternoon I put her down for a nap and there was a knock at the front door.
An immense man stood there, hat in hand. "How's my baby girl?"
I sagged against the door frame, startled! I had not expected to see Claude Earl! "Uh, fine! Hello, daddy!"
He stood in the shadow of the veranda outside the door and spread his arms. "Don't I get a hug?"
He made me cry with happiness and shame and remorse and guilt and happiness! "Daddy!"
Claude hugged me as tightly as I remembered in my dreams. He made me feel safe. Tom made me feel safe but not the same way as daddy, and that made me weep even more. Because daddy would not let me go to pieces I loved him more intensely. He thumbed my chin for a kiss then said: "Buck up, La. Coffee. Need some. Got any?"
I brushed moisture from my eyes, laughed, then slapped his shoulder. "You could have warned me!"
"Show me the kitchen, girl," Claude stepped inside and closed the front door. He tossed his hat on the side table, finding the kitchen with his nose. Once seated at the table with a cup of coffee in hand, daddy said: "We've been looking for you, but we have not been looking for you. Your mother and I both know why you ran."
I worked at the stove over a large kettle and several skilletsthere where hands to feed and... "How did you find me?"
"Accident, or Providence, however you'd like to state it. I was in Denver to make arrangements for direct beef provisions for the company and came across the TomLa name. Intrigued me. Here I am. I hear you're an old married woman with three kids. Gosh, I remember when I bounced you on my knee in the African jungle." Putting the coffee down, daddy said, "You're every bit as beautiful as your mother."
"Not me!" I laughed, wringing hands red from work and washing. "She's so small and delicate and..."
"Shut up, La." There was a smile on his face which became guarded as Tom swiftly entered the kitchen.
Tom's Colt rested heavy on his lean hip and his hand was not far from the grip. "Heard we had company, dear. This man bothering you?"
"Yes," I said, rushing forward to put my arms about Tom's. "He's reminded me I have family. Tom. This is my father Claude Earl. Daddy, this is my husband, Tom Langstrom, who really has better manners."
Claude Earl unfolded his great height from the table. "Hello, Son." Daddy extended his hand.
Tom was a tall man, but he had never before had to look up into the eyes of man taller. I nudged him with a gentle elbow. "He doesn't bite," I laughed.
After dinner, after the kids were in bed, after we three were alone, daddy gave me the news of Claude Jr's passing. Daddy spoke gently as I sniffled. "This is just what has happened. He went the way he would have liked, serving his country." Then he said. "We miss you, La. We want you to be part of our lives, but darlin', I fully understand if you want to be on your own. You and your mother never seemed to see eye to eye and..."
"Daddy!" I struggled between covering my face and gripping his hands. I chose to do neither. "I love you both! I needed time to find myself. I...I found Tom and I am most happy."
"Best news I know. I'll tell your mother." He yawned, and it wasn't a fake. "Mind if I stretch out on the divan in the parlor?"
Claude Earl raised a finger to his lips. "Your choice from here on out." Extending his hand to Tom daddy said, "You seem like a good man. Thank you for loving my daughter. Beautiful children. Keep them safe. Goodnight."
As Tom and I dressed in the morning, before the sun rose, I heard giggles downstairs. I quickly brushed my hair, tied it back with a bit of leather, then ran down to find Lincoln and Lawton digging through the pockets of daddy's jacket. Judging from the fistful of candy each held Claude Earl must have bought an entire candy store. Lincoln saw me first.
"Look what Grandpa brought!"
"I see. Don't eat it all at once. Upstairs, get dressed. The chickens are waiting."
"Aw, Ma!" Lawton scowled.
Daddy smiled, sitting on the divan, his shirt collar undone and in sock feet. "Good boys. Don't make them suffer because I indulged their sweet tooth."
I walked across the room and sat on his lap, pouting. "I remember when you used to bring me candy."
"You didn't think I would forget, did you?" Daddy reached inside his valise and brought out a small package wrapped in pink paper and tied with a scrap of blue ribbon. Inside the package six French chocolates sat on a generous slice of fudge. "Can't vouch for the fudge being as good as your mother's but..." Daddy frowned when I threw my arms about his neck and wept, then jumped when my husband's amused voice boomed.
"Damn, Mr. Earl, if that's all it takes to get a hug from that little filly, then I'll bring candy home anytime I go into town."
Tom knew exactly the right thing to say. He made me just angry enough to stop sobbing and make me laugh at the same time. I clutched the candy to my breast, jumped up, and headed for the kitchen.
I was well into the second dozen eggs and third skillet of bacon, three hands fed and out the door and three more at the table, when daddy came into the kitchen. He popped two biscuits into his mouth without butter or jam, then leaned over to kiss my cheek. "Tom's taking me for a ride. Won't be gone long."
I looked out the kitchen window as my husband and father rode east on two fine horses. By the time the hands and the boys were fedand latter sent off to wait for the school busTom and Claude reined in at the water tank. They stood there for some time, smoking cigarettes, talking. Laja needed my attention. I checked the two plates of eggs and bacon on the warmer, then took care of my daughter. When I returned, neither of the men in my life were to be seen.
I started a load of wash on the back porch, fed the dogs, then checked the hen house to make sure the boys had done their chores. Lincoln and Lawton usually did a good job, but I found three missed eggs and carried them into the kitchen. Tom and daddy sat at the table forking food into their mouths and drinking coffee.
"Where'd you boys go?" I asked, for they truly looked like a pair of youths at the moment.
Tom grinned. "To another world and beyond! Even if half of what your father has told me is a lie, the other half is extraordinary!"
"And what lies have you been telling, Tom Langstrom?" I asked.
"Only that we have the best racing horses around and we'll eventually make our fortune breeding them for those fancy pants Easterners."
"That's not a lie, Tom. Really, didn't you tell him about that indian who claims he walks between worlds, or that ghost coyote and his pot of gold?"
Tom chased the last bit of egg with his biscuit. "Nah, those are fables. What I hope won't be a lie is the promise I made to take you and the kids down to Houston. Is that okay with you, La?"
I firmed my lips and blinked back moisture. Turning to the stove I picked up the skillet and ladle. "I've got some gravy left. Finish those biscuits."
Daddy gathered his things about nine in the morning, even though it seemed as if a whole day's worth of revelations and activity had occurred. "I have to get back, darlin'," he said, one foot on the porch and the other two steps down so he did not tower over me. "Tom gave me your address. Expect a letter from your mother."
"Oh! Yes! Please! Tell mother I miss her and I never wanted to fight and..."
"I'll tell her. She loves you, too. Tom is a fine man. You listen to him. Give me a hug."
I hugged him and kissed him, and hugged him again. "We'll come visit. I promise!"
I kept my promise and had a great time in New York for the 1939 World's Fair. I won't remark here of that visit, for I have mother's journal which she started in 1911 and maintained and completed up to her and daddy's return to the United States in 1946 after extreme adventures during World War II. I cannot speak with any greater clarity of the World's Fair trip, or of their lives after because I have no frame of reference for the horrors they endured.
Your father and I are off on vacation to Africa. We might be gone a year.
Darian is father's voice in the company. I am so proud of him! After losing a leg in 1943 and surviving, he returned home with more fire and steel in his heart than before! He has taken the challenge of the oil industry in stride and deserves the vice-presidency he holds. Lara is fine, as well as Gene, Roy, and Anita.
I'll send a postcard whenever I can. Hug my grandbabies!
Mother and Dad looked wonderful when they spent six weeks with us in the spring of 1951. Mother rode horses. Father sat on the porch with his pipe or fished the river to the west of the house. Mother made dinner each night. Tom and daddy often went hunting during the day. Late nights mother told me all her secrets, most of them anyway. Father told me I was his favorite brat and that pleased me immensely.
"So," I drew mother aside the morning they prepared to depart, "why did you come and stay so long and say so much and yet say nothing at all? Not that I mind, but this is not like you."
Mother took me by the arm and led me away from the house. "I miss my world, La. Savage as was my childhood it was a better world than we live in now and I fear... Oh, that's not true, just chalk this up as an old woman's fears and memories. Forgive me, dear."
Those were the words, but her touch, her expression, the sadness in her eyes spoke so much more.
"Where do you go next, mother?"
I received a letter from mother in June of 1954, postmarked London, England. It was very short: "Your father has impregnated me. I'm having a baby. Inconvenient as it is this late in life I will love it and raise itbut I am angry I am a mother again! When do I have a life of my own? Does that make sense, La? Summer at Greystoke is less intense than Houston. Jane and Elmo are perfect hosts. I will stay until the baby is delivered but I want to come home to America. May I stay with you and Tom?"
Of course she could!
Mother and Steven Ainsworth Earl arrived at the ranch winter of 1956. Steven was a big, bold, and overly healthy baby. Mother was as dainty and fine as everand younger in appearance than I remembered.
"You have to tell me your secret," I begged, a week after mother arrived and we washed our little ones in the laundry sink. I had recently delivered a little girl who had nearly killed me at birth, but who was my heart and joy.
"What secret?" mother giggled as the tots splashed water on both of us.
"How do you stay so young?"
Mother jerked erect, worried. "Can you take care of the kids? I'm not feeling well."
Before I could reply mother left the room in a rush. I washed the babies and carried them upstairs, dressed them for bed, then sat in the room as darkness settled on the ranch. Emma squirmed a little and I patted her bottom. Steven snored as only an infant can.
I stayed longer with the children than normal. I did not fix dinner. Tom looked in and I knew the hour was late. "I'm okay," I said.
I nodded. "Love you."
"You, too," he replied. "Don't be too late."
I can't say what love is for others. I can only say what is love for me. My cowboy of the rough riding and bronc breaking and horse breeding was my love. He knew all my faults and forgave them.
I was not all right.
Near midnight the babies cried. I had two breasts heavy with milk and two mouths hungry. My arms and my breasts ached when mother came into the room.
"You poor thing!" she said,. taking the babies from me. Nipples were presented and sucking mouths were filled.
Looking over the heads of our children mother glared at me. "What do you want to know?"
She was half my size, trim yet full figured. Her hair was shiny. Perfect ankles. Perfect breasts, even more perfect while nursing babies. I sagged and drooped, my hair graying, my feet hurt continually. "You'll live forever," I said. "I mean, you'll have a bang up life. Right?"
The way I asked mother knew better than to lie. "Yes."
I waited. I waited with pain and anguish. I waited with angst. Then I waited with touch of wonder and happiness. I waited until I could truthfully say: "Good for you, mom!"
"La, I am fifty-six years old -or a touch more. I popped out a kid with the same ease as I did when I was a teen. Is this not a bit strange?"
I was way ahead, or at least I thought I was. "Babies are wonders. Babies at your age are miracles. But this miracle I think is even more miraculous. What did you and daddy do?"
La massaged her breasts as she put the babies to bed. "I will tell you, then deny it if you speak of it again. Your father and I visited a witch doctor in the not so dark heart of Africa. The treatment is supposed to give us eternal life."
Mother glared at me with a stern eye. "How wonderful is it to watch your children age? If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't. Youold woman!"
I heard the anger and unhappiness in her voice. I heard it, understood, and instantly laughed it aside. "I expect you to suckle my grand babies, mother." I captured her in my arms and she was too small and delicate to avoid the embrace. I nuzzled her neck and kissed her. "I want you to live forever, mother!"
Mother wept. "Oh, La! Whatever did I do to deserve you?"
I held her tightly as the babies slept.
Lawton took over the foreman job when he turned twenty. He was very good at managing the ranch. Lincoln was into his second year of college, Business Administration as his major. Laja had discovered boys, which gave her father gray hairs faster than last year's drought. I sat beside the grave of my littlest who died at the age of 22 months from complications from influenza. It was pleasant under the shade of the scrub oak as I pulled weeds and watered the small bed of flowers.
I glanced toward the house below the small hill as a late model car pulled up. The convertible top was down and two women got out. One of the hands pointed to the hill after a question was asked. I knew by her stature and imperious walk the smaller of the two women was mother. The other woman was quite tall and well-formed in that manner that all men think of as sensual beauty. Taking off the red scarf, blonde hair was exposed to the sun.
I rose, dusting the seat of my britches and leaned against the tree. "Been a while, mother. You look well."
"You look worn out, dear heart." Mother hugged me. She sighed, holding my hand. "This is a pleasant place. Are you well?"
I shrugged. "The surgeons think they got the cancer in time. We'll know in a few months. Otherwise I just tire out a little earlier than I used to. Hello, I'm La Langstrom, her daughter." I half expected the woman to frown, because I looked twenty years older than mother. The woman took my hand.
"I'm so glad to finally meet you, Mrs. Langstrom. Your mother has told me so much about you."
I suddenly put two and two together. "You're Jane, the wife of my real father. I thought I would never meet youI mean, I thought you'd never want to meet me."
Jane looked startled. "Whatever gave you that idea? Korak speaks highly of you. We have brought a dozen or more of your famous horses and transported them to England. Elmo always asks about you. Your father and mother...oh, dear! As Claude might say, shut up, La! Give me hug!"
Her arms were strong and she smelled good and when she pulled away, there was moisture in her eyes as she gently touched my cheek. "We've come to take you away for a vacation."
I smiled at her sincere expression, and shook my head. "I have too much to do around here. I can't leave Tom and the kids. I"
Mother put her arm through mine and started walking toward the house. Jane walked at my other side. Mother squeezed my hand. "It was Tom's idea and you will not say 'no.' I won't accept anything but 'yes.'"
Just as we reached the house a tall figure dressed in faded jeans, worn boots, and a red flannel shirt stepped out. Lawton was almost as tall as my father, and was a good six inches taller than Tom. He took off the Stetson and ran a hand through his black hair. "We expected you earlier, Grandmother." He bent down and kissed mother's cheek.
"We had a flat. If it wasn't for Her Ladyship we'd still be stuck on the side of the road. Lawton, this is Lady Jane Clayton. She is married to your mother's biological father so I guess that makes her" La paused, looking impish.
Jane's eyes widened and she started with a rush, "Don't you dare say..."
"Grandma Clayton!" Mother giggled
"Oh dear!" Jane laughed. "Grandma Jane! Well, I've been called worse! How good to meet you, Lawton. This is a lovely ranch. Jack tells me there is a lake somewhere over there one can reach by horseback."
"Indeed there is, Grandmother Jane. I'll take you over after supper, if you like."
"Lawton! You're just as perverse now as when you were a child!" Mother's attempt to scowl was ruined by her smile. "You do that. I need time to work on your mother."
I wasn't about to be "worked on" and said as much. Mother merely grinned. "We'll see, darling. When's lunch? We're famished. I never knew changing a tire could make one so hungry."
Jane chuckled, "As I recall, you sat in the car listening to that dreadful music while I did all the work."
"Well, somebody had to stay out of your way..."
There was more happy chatter between the two women as mother took Lady Clayton into the house. I started to follow, but Lawton touched my elbow. He was always so serious, but there was something more in his eyes. "We want you to go, ma. Dad, me, Lincoln and Laja. All of us. You need time for yourself." He leaned down and kissed my forehead. "You need to quit working so hard." His voice caught for a moment, then he said it, what we had all not been saying since I came home from the hospital. "You'll live longer. Laja did a couple of chickens fried just right, like you taught her. Mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, hot bread, and apple pie. I've got ride out to the west tank, but I'll be home for supper. Love you."
My son jammed his Stetson on his head and turned. I put my arms about Lawton and leaned into him. Though he could tame a horse or charm a rraccoonfrom a tree, Lawton was never comfortable with displays of affection. And I did not overly embarrass my son. I made sure I wasn't weeping when I drew away and patted his face, which already needed a shave.
"Your father coached you, right?"
Lawton scuffed the toe of his boot on the porch then looked me in the eye. "Dad, your mother and father by telephone, Lincoln and Laja. And me. Grandmother wants to take you to London so other specialists can look you over. We all want to know you're going to be all right. Now, you will go," he started out determined and speaking earnestly, then my big brave boy who feared no man or horse, blinked back his emotion. "Please?"
"I'll think about it. Tell Red his extra shirt is repaired. You best git."
Lawton suddenly grinned with relief. He swept me off my feet and hugged me hard. Putting me down he kissed me. "Laja will help you pack. Oh," Lawton said as he stopped halfway to his horse, "just in case you're thinking about changing your mind, Laja promised she'd stay at the house and do the chores. You know what that means."
"No time for boys. One of these days, Lawton, you and father will have to look the other way. That girl's marrying age and if you both keep saying no, one of these days she'll take off with someone we haven't had a chance to look over."
"I'll keep that in mind, ma." Lawton stepped into the saddle and kicked the stallion into a run.
Mother and Jane Clayton were at the table. Laja dished out generous portions then joined us. Coffee was poured, fingers were used to eat fried chicken the way it was intended to be consumed. Mother, with a cleaned drumstick in hand, jabbed the bone in my direction.
"Now, La, there will be no nonsense about taking a vacation. You will be coming with us and..."
Mother's mouth was half-open and whatever words she intended to say came out as a sigh. "Okay. This is good. Very good. Oh! Lunch, too, Laja!"
Tom, Lawton, Laja, and half the ranch turned out a few days later when Jane Clayton took the wheel of the Chevrolet convertible. I sat in the back seat, mother in the front. The trunk was filled with suitcases, a cooler, and a picnic basket sat beside me on the back seat. Tom leaned over and kissed me, then my son and daughter. Red, who had been with us the longest, handed me a rose.
The goodbyes might have lasted longer if mother hand not punched Her Ladyship in the shoulder. Jane put the car in gear and floored it. I waved until I couldn't see through the dust.
"Where are we headed?" I asked. Jane was a competent driver, though mother had to remind her once on which side of the road to the drive.
"St. Louis, by way of Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri."
"What? You plan to drive all the way? Wouldn't a train be faster?"
Mother turned to look over the seat. "Are we in a hurry, dear?"
When mother smiled I suddenly laughed. "I guess not!" I threw my arms up into the breeze created by the speeding automobile and let the sun shine on my face.
We were three girls. We ate when we were hungry, stopped when we felt like it (or had to), slept beside the road once and the rest of the time in motor inns. Part of me had fun, but another part was not happy.
In too many diners or roadside cafes I could see my reflection in the glass or mirrors and I did not like what I saw. Two young women with an old woman. Damn it! I did not feel old. And I was strong. I felt well, but I did not look as I felt and I knew Mother and Jane might have done other things if they weren't so concerned.
At Pierre, as we waited at a stop light in the middle of town, I jumped out of the car. Mother almost jumped three feet. "La! What are you doing?"
"Something I should have done months ago. Jane, pull in there." I pointed to a parking spot in front of a brown brick store two stories in height, which made it one of the taller buildings. I didn't wait to see if Jane parked the car. I had a destination and made my way into the place of business.
Mother and Jane arrived at the same time I was asking if they took walk in trade. There were three chairs, one occupied. The woman, large and cheerful, rose from the desk at the front with a laugh. "Darn right we do! What can I do for you, honey?"
I looked at the pictures on the wall behind the desk. "Can you make me look like that?"
The hairdresser glanced at the Joan Crawford picture, the dark hair, the short cut. She looked at me, gray-haired, but still handsome, tall and thin. "I could, but you wouldn't like it. Sit down and let Alice do her magic. If you don't like it, you don't have to pay."
Jane smiled. "What a grand idea! I could use a shampoo!"
We two hours later we were three girls who looked like girls. Alice had done her magic. My hair was again dark, cut and tapered, still shoulder-length. Jane had her hair bobbed and it looked good. Mother liked long hair, but for the first time in my memory she had bangs. We stood arm in arm in front of the mirror. I was still the same woman, but at that moment I had the illusion that things were better, and I certainly did not look any older than Jane or...or I did not look that much older. I gladly paid Alice and gave her an extravagant tip.
Linking arms with Jane and mother I asked: "What do we do next?"
"Lead on, Porthos! All for one and one for all!"
At St. Louis we caught a flight to New York City. I had many happy memories of our road trip and the silly things we did along the way. It was amusing for the three of us to draw attention whenever we stopped for a meal, or overnight, and that was only intensified when we boarded the steamer for Europe. We sat at the captain's table and were regular dance partners with the ship's officers. Jane played poker, and did very well. Mother and I tried our hands at deck games, but we were not very good, though we never lacked for male instructors ready to remedy our expertise.
We took the train north after landing at England, and within 12 hours were greeted by a chauffeur who piloted a long, black vehicle down winding roads to Greystoke. It was not a castle, though I had somehow thought my real father's house was a castle. It was, however, a very large mansion with a garden drive, manicured lawn, and acres and acres of grounds. I did not see much of that because it was near sundown when we arrived.
The vestibule had a rather shabby suit of armor on one side and a beautiful, dainty table with fragile legs, and a butler. "Your coats, miladies. Master Clayton and guest is in the den."
"Thank you, James. It's good to be home," Jane Clayton removed her hat. "Come along, girls."
We were "dressed" for dinner, having changed on the train. Jane wore a long gown of white silk, bare shoulders, and having the cleavage to support such a flimsy creation. Mother wore something black and Spanish which fit like a glove. I felt stupid in the blue lame sheathe Jane and mother insisted I get while on board ship. The way it was cut I could not wear a bra, and that meant I sagged even more. "But you sag so beautifully!" mother had said.
The "den" was nearly the size of our barn. Several seating areas of divans and couches, wing-back chairs, and wooden chairs both massive and delicate. At the far side of the room was a tremendous desk and two men were there. Both rose the instant we appeared.
One I knew because of his great size and loving face. The other, who was immediately riveting, though not as tall as father, had a head of thick back hair and gray eyes. Father moved forward. "La!" he cried.
Father walked right past mother with a wink and embraced me. Holding me at arms length he said, "You are more beautiful every day."
"You will go to hell for lying, daddy, but thank you."
Daddy put his arm about my shoulder and turned to face the man who approached. "La, this is your father."
From the shelter of my daddy's arm I looked John Clayton up and down, narrowed my eyes, and remembered something daddy had told me of our family history and said the same thing that Mama Earl had said to my mother. "You'll do."
Clayton abruptly smiled. He offered his hand. I took it, then surprised the both of us by embracing him. "So," I said, drawing back, "you're the monkey man mother loved."
The Lord of Greystoke barked a laugh. "Mangani! Monkeys are a different species." Looking to mother, Clayton said, "She's extraordinary."
"Your son has been telling you that all along. When's supper? I'm famished."
Jane grinned, breaking the tension. "Don't go into that routine again, La. It grows weary." Whereupon Jane had to explain the joke as we moved into the dining hall.
The food was excellent. The company lighthearted and interesting. Though I was feeling a little tired I was not willing to miss a moment of this meeting. I did drink a little more wine than I should have, but not enough to cloud my mind or reduce my resolve. I do not know what the hour was when we rose. At the top of the stairs I was kissed by all then led to a cozy bedroom by a very proper maid dressed in gray with white apron.
Away from the others I did feel the strain and though it irked me, I did need the girl's help getting undressed and in bed. I thanked her as she turned out the lights.
"Wake up, sleepy head."
I stretched on the sheets before opening my eyes because I knew that voice. "Go away, daddy. I'm sleeping."
"You've been asleep two days, La. We let you sleep because the doctor said you needed rest."
My eyes snapped open. "Two days?" I saw in his concerned look that it was the truth. Sitting up, I propped the pillows at my back. "Well, it has been an exciting three weeks for me."
"You do look better."
I lowered my voice, hoping it was cheerfully conspiratorial. "For an old woman."
Claude Earl almost smiled. "Don't break my heart, child. Your mother and I have many regrets these days."
I was instantly angry, and felt not a bit of weariness. "You shouldn't! Do you know how much comfort I have knowing you will be there for my children and Tom? Do you know what peace that gives me?"
Daddy looked as if he'd been hit by a two by four of revelation. "I never looked at it that way before," he said.
"You should! Don't go feeling sorry for yourself watching your children die while you and mother remain young. You gave us life and there's no one more dedicated to the safety of our family and my children...oh, don't be a bad sport, daddy!"
Daddy took me into his arms. "You were the first of your mother's children I loved. You better be here when I get back."
I wiped my eyes and gripped my father's arms. "Back?"
"Elmo and I have to make a trip to Russia. Meanwhile, you and La and Jane have an appointment with a battery of doctors. You will go and be a good girl, right?"
"I want to live as much as the next girl. I'll go, but I won't promise to be good, or even lady-like."
Claude Earl engulfed me again with his arms. "That works for me, darlin'!"
When I tried to push free he would not let go. I felt his tears on my shoulder, and the shudders wracking his gigantic frame, and that made me weep. "Stop it, daddy!" I made the best promise I could. "I feel fine. And I'll go be poked and examined and humiliated. And I'll do it for me, not you. Okay?"
Daddy released, though his hands cupped my face. He kissed me on the forehead, eyes, and nose. "You're a brat like your mother. There's no give in you, La. Remember that."
Taking a deep breath, daddy rose. One of his hands wiped his eyes, the other still holding mine. "There's somebody waiting to see you."
"I will see him. But you are my father. Understood?" There was no give in me and my words were harsh.
"Yes ma'am," Claude Earl said with happiness.
"Give me a few minutes. I have to...well, you know. And I want to be dressed."
"I'll tell him. Twenty minutes?"
"I could do it in ten, but thank you!"
"I'll see you later. We don't leave until four."
The maid from last night came in a few minutes after daddy left the room. I don't know whether he sent her in or these old English mansions have eyes in the walls. She ran the bath and laid out my clothes as I bathed. I dressed myself, looked in the mirror at the girl with the artificially dark hair, the body lean by an active life, and perhaps a touch more lean because of the cancer, and saw that I was still here.
There was a knock at the door. I had no doubt that precisely twenty minutes had passed. "Come in."
John Clayton entered. He wore American jeans, white sox, loafers, and a white t-shirt. Bulging with muscles. He moved like a catI had noticed that last night even as he wore black tie and tails.
He seemed uncertain. At that moment I never felt more certain. "Was it love or lust?" I asked.
"Me. Was it love or lust?"
"What do you know?"
"Mother took advantage of you when you were bound and helpless."
Clayton sat on the chair near the fireplace. He leaned forward, holding something between his hands. "I will be truthful and say that an involuntary biological reaction caused the insemination. That said, your mother haunted my dreams for many years. We have a very checkered past, your mother and I. Is it important, La? I need to know. When I learned from my son in 1936 that I had a daughter by La I was tortured for many years. Jack is a wonderful son, but I had always wanted a daughter who would grow up to be as beautiful as her mother. To know that you existed and that I might never see you...then came the war."
"You have Claudia. You have the daughter who will grow up to be as beautiful as her mother."
"Just as you have. You have your mother's eyes, her mouth, her imperious mien. Do you not know how much like your mother you are?"
"I know that I disappointed her, that she could never look at me without remembering you. Were it not for Claude Earl I..." I saw the flicker of pain on the English lord's face. "I did not mean that the way it came out. Mother and I havehadissues. But we resolved those years ago. Mother told me how it was with you and her and how she took what she wanted and you later came and took what you wanted from the treasure vaults of Opar. Yes, your seed created me. Yes, mother participated in that creation. But I do not know you. You do not know me. I have a father. I do not wish to have another." Oh! How I wished I had not said those words, though they were words in my heart. "Lord Clayton, I'm so embarrassed!"
Clayton rose and walked to the bedroom window. He looked upon the gardens and servants about their duties. For a long time he stood with his back to me. Then I heard his voice echo from the window glass. "I am not here to claim something which is not mine. I am not here to be your father. Claude Earl is my friend and he is one of the few good men in this world. My wife loves you as a free spirit, as a woman who has come into the world, endured, and made a place for herself and her family. I come to you as the man who is glad to know that beauty came from something that was ugly and that whatever I might do now would be accepted. I make no claims, daughter of La. I cannot. I was not there."
Greystoke turned and walked toward the door. I don't know why, but I intercepted him, standing between his great frame and the doorway. "You came here for a purpose. What?"
Clayton looked down to his hand which cradled a gold chain and locket. "I wanted to give you something. It was my mother's. It is what I treasure most in the world." His head bowed, I saw tears on his cheeks as he gripped the necklace.
"Sir," I begged. "May I see it?"
"Of course," he replied, taking a grip on his emotions, which I knew without knowing why he was not accustomed to having, much less showing.
It was a simple piece, hardly fine at all. The locket was rough. I did not try to open it. He watched me, and I him. "It is a lovely thing," I said as I pressed it into his scarred hands and curled his fingers around the necklace. "This is not for me," I lowered my voice. "It is for your daughter. It is your family. It is your heart. I could never accept this."
"What would you accept?" he asked.
I hugged him. Like my father and husband, Lord Greystoke was hard muscle and sinew. "This I will accept."
John Clayton, Elmo of the Apes, my father, returned the embrace.
The treatments by the British doctors seemed to be working. After five months I was more like my old self. I enjoyed working the garden, though the gardener on staff frowned disapprovingly as I put tulips next to roses or caladiums next to mums.
Daddy was back home because the change in presidents meant a change in energy policies. Mother and Jane were who knew where on the Continent. Lawton wrote a letter every week. It as never more than a page long, but it kept me touch with the ranch. Tom I had to put on a transatlantic call once a week because for a week he called every other day. I admonished him for the excess of cost.
"I'm fine! I'm actually better than fine! And when I get home you better be ready for you know what. I've been saving it up."
"Me, too, La. Big time."
Mary, the little maid I had met the first night at Greystoke, assigned herself as my personal servantsomething I did not want but she was such a good heart! With her help, dressed down to "ordinary" we went to the local markets, we saw movies and drank an occasional ale in the pubs, the ladies side of course!
She was also a font of information. Each morning cheerful Mary delivered a breakfast tray with food for one and coffee for two and we read the early paper. The Cold War was getting hotter and America was flexing more muscles than the Russians and the Russians flexed back. My life in Montana now looked so insignificant in view of world events.
Mary accompanied me to the hospital once a week. I endured a few needles, invasive and embarrassing examinations (vaginal cancer) and every other poke and prod the doctors could think of. Then we'd market, or movie, or see a concert.
The maid was not my only companion at Greystoke. Elmo, for we had decided I could not call him father and "John" was not appropriate, was my companion at every dinner he was home. We rode horsesTom's horses!on the estate or he commanded my arm to the opera or theatre. At a Wagner opera in town Elmo leaned close. "Are you entertained?"
"I don't understand it, and no, I am not."
"Good, let us leave."
The car was brought around. Elmo waved it aside. "Do you mind a little walk?" he asked. When I assented he said, "We'll make our way home, James."
We were less than ten miles from Greystoke. I had walked our ranch twenty or more miles. I felt good. It was also a bit chilly. Elmo shed his jacket and placed it about my shoulders.
"I grew up in the jungle," he said, holding my arm and directing me. "But I have learned to love this land of my father and mother who I never knew. Look! A deer!"
"If you had a knife would you kill it and we eat its meat raw?"
Elmo laughed. "Yes! I have a pen knife. I could kill it. But that's against the law." Elmo walked in silence for a while. "The doctors say they have done all they can do. They appear to have done wonders."
I held his arm, enjoying the brisk evening and the stars overhead. "Yes. I feel alive again. And I have to thank you and all your grubby money you stole from mother and turned into a fortune for this. Thank you, Elmo."
"What is that phrase Claude loves? You are a brat. Yes, I think that is correct. Brat."
"What was it like?" I asked. "I mean, mother told me about her life in Opar and the jungle. What do you remember?"
Elmo frowned, and I saw that frown in the starlight. "It is a memory," he said. "That world is gone, but when it was real..."
The miles passed and I felt nothing to the effort. The stories Elmo told put images in my mind that were fantastic and exciting. He talked, almost as one possessed and I understood that his enthusiasm was a deep regret that a life he once knew and loved had disappeared. By the time we reached the steps of Greystoke I had a whole set of new memories to treasure.
James awaited at the top step. Elmo scowled, then chuckled. "Two brandies, one and two."
"Yes, your lordship."
James returned with two glasses. The one and two I discovered was how much was in one and not the other. I got the short one. We sat on the steps, sipping brandy and did not speak. Elmo's arm and his warmth sheltered me from the chill. I do not remember how I got to bed. Somebody must have carried me. James wasn't big enough to accomplish the task.
"Tom?" the phone line had static. "Can you hear me?"
"La! How you doin', gal?"
"Did I wake you?"
"You know me, up before the crack of dawn. Red had to come get me. Are you okay?"
"Doing fine. I don't know where mother is. She and Jane are in Europe somewhere. Have you heard from daddy?"
"Back in Houston. Big todo of some kind. When are you coming home?"
"Two weeks, I hope. Medical treatment all done. What happens happens. How are the kids?"
"Laja went off and got married to the Smith boy."
"No, the other one. Little bastard I'll..."
"I like Bobby. Hold your horses until I get home. And don't you do anything except welcome that boy."
"Tom? I mean it."
"Yes, La." There was more static. "I miss you, girl."
"I miss you, too. Now you go find Bobby and make him welcome to the family, but you work his butt hard. That five hundred acres at White Creek ought to be nice."
"That pup," Tom sputtered, "Lay off Lawton, I'm talking to your mother!"
"Put him on the line."
"Don't make me repeat it, Tom."
"Did Bobby do it right?"
"Yes'am. Preacher and everything. Two counties away."
"Good enough. When I get home we'll do it again with you as best man."
"That little twerp? Why"
"Lawton, your sister chose him. Do I need to horsewhip you?"
"Well, he does work hard."
"And we'll see he does. What else is new?"
"Red finally married that girl of his."
"Forty years later? Got to be record! Put your father back on."
"Tom, that's over. It's done. As her mother I always knew Laja would never do better than a bronc buster. She took after me because the only man I ever loved was a bronc buster. Are we done?"
"White Creek works for me," Tom replied.
I never thought about writing my life until the cancer. Mother gave a copy of her journal to me and Darian after the war. I learned a lot reading that, but it wasn't until I had cancer that I thought I should do the same for my children. My journal is not as complete as mother's. I was never one to waste time, not that mother ever wasted time but I always had more things to do, more things to forget, and more things to wish. For some strange reason, as I jot these thoughts at Greystoke, I have a premonition and perhaps part of that is knowing Elmo is currently held by the Russians. I'm not clear why this state of "state affairs" as come about but I will do something about it. He is my father and the British Government appears powerless to intercede. He is not my daddy but, oh damn!, what can I say? He has been wonderful and that means something!
La Langstrom, daughter of the High Priestess of Opar and wife of American rancher Tom, mother of Lawton, Lincoln and Laja, was brought to my office by a man I knew well. She was nearly as tall as Lord Clayton's son. She was very striking in appearance with sun-browned skinthe kind of skin that one only develops living an outdoor life. Her age I could not quite place but because of her carriage and mien I knew she was well past the blush of youth and first maturity and had not yet begun to experience the ravages of old age.
"Jack!" I rose from my desk with extended hand. We shook. I turned to the woman. "Mrs. Langstrom, I am pleased to meet you."
Jack Clayton seated the woman in one of the chairs before my desk and said: "Mrs. Langstrom, may I present Stanley Greenwood? A good man, though he doesn't look like much."
I laughed, as did Jack whenever that old joke was uttered. He was taller than his father and built like an Olympic god. I was well under six feet, weighed half as much- and knew more ways to kill a human being bare-handed than Jack ever learned during his early years in the jungle or after he joined the military. I wore glasses I did not need, dressed ordinary, and cultivated a rumpled look. In my business it pays to be ordinary and inconspicuous. Jack was in the same business, but on the celebrity sidemeaning he was show and sometimes go but when the trash needed to taken out
One of the office girls entered to pour tea. All served, Denise then closed the door to my office. When my guests were settled I patiently waited, that is, as patiently as I could having already had a call from the M.I. head to provide all assistance. I watched as Jack stirred sugar into his tea. He then ignored the cup in his hands.
Clayton said: "My father is detained by the Russians."
"This is old news, Jack. You have my utmost concern and sympathy. We are doing all we can to..."
Mrs. Langstrom almost chipped the saucer on her tea cup as she put it down. "You aren't doing enough. I can get in where all you spies and agents can't. I'm going to save Elmo. Now, tell me if you can help. Or get out of my way."
"Do you know where he is being held?" I asked, not surprised at all by the American woman's direct manner. "We do not even know the exact charges on which he is being held. All we get from the Russians is 'actions taken against the state.'"
"I know why he was in Russia twice before in the company of my father. Do you know why they went to Russia twice in the last year?"
I looked at Jack, scratching the back of my hand. He shrugged. Facing Mrs. Langstrom I replied, "I will answer your question since your question is an answer to mine. No, we do not know why Clayton and Earl went to Russia. That has been very perplexing."
Mrs. Langstrom blushed. "Forgive me," she said. "I am here to request help and have acted poorly. I will do what I must do, you understand, but it would be better if it can be done with the help of the British government. If we are to save John Clayton..."
"That is our wish," I replied. "M.I. has cleared my office for all assistance. You apparently have friends in high places."
Mrs. Langstrom lowered her eyes for an instant. "Yes. You have no idea. But that is beside the point. I must enter Russia. I have a list of contacts and names. Some of the names and contacts are ordinary, some are not. It is the 'not ordinary' where I need help."
Jack Clayton suddenly drained his tea. Rising, he bent low to kiss the woman's cheek. I rose. Jack gripped my hand with sharp intensity. "Take care of my sister, Stanley," he begged sincerely. His eyes extracted a promise from me. Clayton's grip strengthened in response, then abruptly relaxed. His voice softened. "I suppose the less I know from here on out is for the better. Be well, dear La." The son of Elmo gripped the woman's shoulder then turned away.
I walked Jack to the door. He gripped my hand again but this time he crunched bones with a dire warning. "Protect her!" he whispered. Clayton exited swiftly and for a long moment I stared at the polished grain of the wood door. Clayton was my friend. We both entered and graduated M.I. at the same time. Because he was my friend I was not happy with the charge he placed upon me.
Returning to my desk, I let my hands adjust two slips of paper on my desk as I gazed into Mrs. Langstrom's eyes. "So, what are we to do?" I asked.
"First," the woman replied, "you must call me 'La' and no argument. I will call you 'Stan' and if that irritates so be it. Second, we must save my father. My other father. My"
"La, I am aware of the family history. You may call me 'Stan' at your own peril. Now, dear girl, what do you have and let me see if we can make it work."
La's plan was simple and straightforward. Nothing like the convoluted projects M.I. or the U.S. CIA might produce. It was free of politics or cipher and could not possible raise a red flag with the KGB: An American woman representing her husband's horse ranch to export prime stock to agricultural concerns in the Soviet Union. For a price. No different than Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Business.
Over the next 36 hours the cover story was massaged, that is to say a leak to the papers resulted in several articles about a wealthy American rancher's wife seeking to sell horses to Russia. Meanwhile, my staff set about creating a more solid cover story, including a TomLa office in London.
I listened into the telephone conversationwhich we assured Mrs. Langstrom would be privatewherein Tom Langstrom was helpful in providing two stallions and six mares for immediate shipment for display.
"Whatever you want, La," Langstrom said. "What time is it over there?"
"Six-eight hours, hell, I don't know. You know what is important."
There was a slight pause then, "Yeah. You feeling okay?"
"Fit as a fiddle!"
"There's no quit in me. You know that."
"Sure do. Scares the hell out of me even after all these years. Lincoln took a job with Hughes. Didn't come home."
"Expected as much," La replied. "Good for him. If he didn't go to work for daddy in oil then working for Howard is the next best thing. Lincoln still courting Sally?"
"He's off women these days. Long story, amusing, but long. Will tell you when you get home. Lincoln might even tell it to you and it is more amusing coming directly from the source. Billy dug in at White Creek. He works harder than any man twice his size. Half-pint that he is he's grown on me a bit. I think he's goin' be all right. Laja ain't complain'."
"Stay out of their lives, Tom. Mommies and Daddies complicate. Kiddies can be confused if hearts must chose one or the other."
Even I could read between the lines. I flushed unhappily as I looked at the engineer operating the tape recorder. Tom's reply made me realize she had married someone extraordinary. It was not what he said, but how he said it.
"Sure, darlin'. Bobby is okay. He's anxious to put his hat at your feet, and I'll make damn sure he continues to feel that way and stay out of the way at the same time. I'll ship the horses next train to Boston and next flight to London. Hang on, we woke the house."
The phone was transferred to another voice, also male. "Doing okay, kitten?"
"Oh! Yes, daddy! I thought you were in Houston!"
"Trip from Texas to California. Took an overnight at your place to see the grandkids. Mother is either behaving herself or inciting riots in Venezuela. Hugs and kisses, darlin.' Your Uncle Sam is watching over you."
"Give Tom and the kids a hug, will you? Tell mother I love her. Uncle Sam shouldn't worry. I am having a wonderful time."
"...ve me the phone! Ma!" a female voice shouted. "Go away, grandpa! Ma! I'm pregnant! What do you think of that?"
I smiled as I considered what Mrs. Langstrom thought.
"Do not say a word, Laja. All that matters is whether you had fun and love making that baby and you and your husband are going to raise it. Life is short, girl. I know. You and Lincoln and Lawton and..." There were two sobs.
Mrs. Langstrom's dossier reported she had lost her youngest child, but to have two sobs in my ears made those dry words on paper utterly trivial.
"I remember, mother," Laja sniffled. "I'll convey your love."
"Back at you, baby girl. Put your father back on the line."
"What do you need, La?"
"I need your arms about me," the woman replied, "but until then remember to send the registry papers with the horses. Let me talk to daddy."
"Love you, La. Claude she..."
"Hey! When are you coming home?" Claude Earl asked.
There was a pause as Mrs. Langstrom composed her answer. "As soon as I canafter the sire stallion is settled. This is important. Tell mother."
Earl took a deep breath. "I know the stallion, one of the best. Your concern is understood."
Claude Earl replied: "Shut up, La" More gently he said, "I'd help you if I could but Uncle Sam has need of me. You know how overbearing he can be."
"Yes, I do," La responded. "He's a big bad old man who rules the family with too much on his mind."
Earl's voice was strained. "You got that right, baby girl! One of these days..."
"Uncle Sam means well, daddy. Really."
"I know that. That's why we put up with his eccentric behavior. Best luck, kitten. Find a home for that stallion we all like. I love you, kitten. Take care. Talk to Tom..."
"I love you, daddy!"
I reached over and stopped the tape recorder before Tom Langstrom took the remainder of the call. "Technical error if you are asked," I told the engineer.
At five-seventeen Mrs. Langstrom met me at the hotel restaurant for a five-thirty dinner. She was elegant in blue dress and white shoes and collected me from the bar with a sweep of her arm. The waiter led us to a table. La giggled girlishly as a napkin was placed across her lap by the waiter. She drew a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from her hand-sized bag and ignited the tobacco-filled cylinder with a match from the complementary match folder on the table. La said nothing as menus were provided. Wait staff brought water and I gave an order to the wine steward.
When we were alone in the crowded restaurant La leaned forward. "Did I do well?"
"I'm sorry? What do you mean?"
"Don't take me for a fool, Stan. I've read Ian Fleming and all that rot in the newspapers about U.S., British, and Russian espionage. Half of that is bull and the other half is imaginary, but there's also a half that is probably trueand yes, I know I have one too many halfs. I remember World War I, II, and Korea. And the Cuban Missile Crisis. I know where I was when JFK was assassinated. I don't want harm to come to my family!"
The salad course arrived. I waited until dressings had been provided and the young waitress went to her next table assignment. Taking bread from the bowl between us, I crumbled it between my fingers over my salad. I glared at the American who looked far younger than her history just expressed. "I would have told you if you compromised the mission."
La arched an eyebrow.
"Actually," I attempted a smile, "I would have killed you first, then told you. Don't be difficult, La. I'm on your side."
"I" La did smile, then applied her fork and attention to the salad. She said nothing as her prime rib and my lobster arrived. We ate in silence. I appreciate good food but I have never cleaned a plate as expertly as Mrs. Langstrom.
"That was good," she said, blotting her mouth. The napkin was stained with more than good graces at the dinner tablethe too red lipstick had been subdued and she was exotic!
Mrs. Langstrom rose and came to my chair. She gently removed the napkin tucked into my collar. "May I have this dance?"
"What are you doing?" I tried to whisper into her ear, but she was nearly a head taller and was long and lovely and draped all over me. I felt like an idiot with two left feet. I had never learned to dance but Mrs. Langstrom made me look like Fred Astaire.
"Our cover, Stan. You are coming to Russia with me. My secretary cum confidant cum lover. The Russians expect depraved Americans, especially American wives. Grab my ass."
I did. Painfully. She jumped, maintaining her smile as she leaned against me. "La, it's time we had a real talk, I mean it. I'll play along, but do not leave me in the dark. I can't help you if we do not have a plan."
"YOU BRUTE!" Langstrom breathlessly giggled, attracting the attention of several tables near the dance floor. "Pay the bill. My room key."
She left. I paid. The key dangled on my fingers. Only 275 people witnessed the exchange. As I left the restaurant I noticed two faces known to the M.I. as KGB. I did not have profile with the KGB because no KGB agent had ever survived my previous excursions in the field. Their interest could only be in Mrs. Langstrom. And now me because of her public display.
I did not knock, using the key instead. Almost immediately La drew me to the bed, turned out the lights, and snuggled close. "I won't have sex, but make it look like it," she whispered as she kissed my face and neck. "Tolovich was in the restaurant. Take off your clothes."
Mrs. Langstrom knelt on the bed and undressed. I debated the wisdom of the actionnot quite believing the KGB could have bugged the room on something this innocuous or so soon, but La tugged at my tie, nearly tore my shirt buttons. "Damn you, Stan! They might be watching!" she said softly as she kissed me.
Beneath the sheets she positioned me properly and reacted appropriately. I also reacted appropriately as this wonderful woman writhed beneath me. The wife of another. The sister of my friend. My state of arousal was both embarrassing and painful and unfulfilled. After a suitable time passage I collapsed on Mrs. Langstrom's naked body and whispered into sweaty hair.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Seeing Tolovich scared me," she kissed me soundly. "He doesn't know about me personally," her tongue explored my tonsils, "but he knows Dad and Elmo," her hand gripped me all too familiarly, "and the latter is jailed. If he thinks me another capitalistic bitch having hanky panky with a European secretary that's okay." In a much softer voice Mrs. Langstrom shuddered: "This is all so strange and wicked and insane. My fears of what I know. What you do not know. Do you need manual stimulation?"
The question startled me equally as much as her simulated sex. "La," I hoped it was a whisper," you are the mother of three and married. I can handle this myself."
"That will take both hands." La kissed my cheek.
There was a moment of silence, then we both laughed and embraced and tumbled about. Later, with La spooned against my back and asleep, I thought again about Mrs. Langstrom's worry. Tolovich was known to us and he was a bad character. Perhaps the American woman's instincts were on target. I did not sleep.
At dawn La kicked me out of her room as she went to shower. I went to my room, bathed, shaved, and donned another rumpled suit. We met downstairs for breakfast. There was fifteen minutes of wait and five minutes of eatand all of it mutual guilt and embarrassment that neither of us should be feeling because nothing happened. Kisses on breasts and hands on an erection, requirements to play a role on the off-chance the Russians were monitoring were logical. I kept that in mind as I undressed her with my eyes across the table. She was not immune in that regard if the flush on her cheek was an indication. But something else happened in the course of that twenty minutes.
When we rose from the table and caught a cab to the TomLa office, La Langstrom was focused. Last night never happened. She was again on her path, the path I had not yet been invited to walk. Thirty minutes later we arrived at the TomLa office, an enterprise which appeared to have been in existence for three months because of a cover established nearly overnight by M.I.
The girl at the front desk was the girl from my office. She worked the phone at TomLa. Dressed more trendy than I would have liked, Denise ingnored me while answering the telephone as we walked in. "TomLa Enterprises. How may I help you?"
The girl waved a halt. We did. I frowned.
"One moment please," she said, placing the call on hold. The girl produced several slips of paper. "Your calls, Mrs. Langstrom. Mr. Henry is on the line. Should I take a message or can you take the call?"
La blinked, then removed her gloves and collected the messages. This was the real thing and she did what was necessary. "I'll take the call."
I directed La to the back office.
She gripped my arm and whispered, "Secure?"
I nodded. "Coffee?"
"How much is real?" La settled behind the desk and reached for the telephone. Before picking up she asked, "What's her name?"
I replied in reverse. "Denise. We're in it now, La. And yes. This your last chance to back out."
"I don't quit, Stan," La replied. She took a seat behind the desk I had indicated, an inner office. La picked up the telephone handset. "Mr. Henry! Sorry for the wait. I just arrived in the office. How wonderful you remember our run at the World's Fair! Yes, brood mares are available, excuse me a moment." La cupped the handset and said: "Coffee. Black. Lots." An instant later she was back on the telephone. "We are particular, Mr. Henry. Our mares are as important as the studs. Do you know what I mean?"
The innuendo and girlish giggle La produced echoed as legitimate as any Soho stumpet, with the same effect.
I located the office service area. The coffee was hot, tea as well. Scones and crumpets in little pink boxes. A glance through the door to the front desk indicated I should be grateful that Denise had prepared coffee, tea, and picked up the nibbles. I poured three cups and gave one to the receptionist. I whispered. "Good girl!" as I put coffee on the girl's desk.
"All in a days's work, sir," she cheerfully replied.
I took the remaining cups into La's office and remainded there taking notes as necessary. Though the hour was early La traded several horses to UK buyersall legitimate. She made followup calls to the family ranch to fill the orders. There were other calls from interested parties, sparked by the newspaper stories. La did not have to play a role, she was what the Americans call "hard ball." Her family's horses were high grade stock and did not sell cheap, nor did she negotiate easily.
I acted as secretary, organizing her notes and processing telephone and Telex messages. I did not know much about horses, but I did know when callers were interested in something other than buying horses. Those callers were put on call-back. We were busy that morning, but when things slowed down at lunch Denise was sent out for take out Beef Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Shrimp, Beef and Snow Peas.
Denise returned and we sat at the utility table for lunch. Chinese mustard I have tried. La tipped her tongue and passed. Denise dipped everything she ate in it. I expressed a concern. "What, sir? I like it!" Denise replied.
"I guess some of us have cast iron stomachs."
Denise, a two-handed eater, spoke without thinking. "The man who can make me hotter than this is..."
La gripped the girl's wrist. "More than we want to know. Idea right, strategy wrong. They should love you first. Then the heat."
Denise blushed. I had not seen Denise blush during seven years of working with her. I also saw that any comment from me was not needed. I rose and made use of the building's facilities. When I returned the office was back in order.
Mid-afternoon there was a walk-up to the office. I was armed. A glance to Denise confirmed that she was armed. I greeted the fellow, who did not look dangerous at all. Pushing sixty, bearded, not quite in fighting trim, he was still in fit condition.
He presented his card which read "Harry S Trueman."
"Please spare me the jokes," the man said. "I was born in Scotland. I am in London for the day and read the article in the daily. I would have made an appointment but my time is short before my return. I took a chance."
"What brought you here, Mr. Trueman?" I asked.
"Please have a seat. I'll see if Mrs. Langstrom can see you."
She could. He did. He brought on approval two wagon-stock stallions and eight mares. I had no idea what that meant but did accept his cheque for £9,000. Mr. Trueman left a happy man.
Mail was delivered. Denise took care of that. I made busy work in the office next to La's, the door open between both of our offices. I noted that she checked the watch on her wrist every few minutes.
"Well," La remarked at the end of the day, "eight sales. Not bad. Go home, Denise. Thank you."
La waited until the girl had left. She turned toward me. "Take me to dinner," she commanded. "Some place American."
"I'm afraid there are no burger joints. Would a steak do?"
"Grilled and juicy. Baked potato would be nice."
"I think that can be arranged." I turned off the lights and locked the door as we left the office. Two flights down we exited the building. I handed La into the "company" car. "James is out of town. Family emergency. I will drive tonight. He will be back as driver tomorrow."
La frowned, confused. I did not illuminate because some of the woman's paranoia had infected me. La, however, responded appropriately. "I hope it is nothing serious." She folded long legs into the seat. I shut the door, rounded the vehicle, and entered the driver seat. The engine roared and moments later we exited the building.
We dined on Angus beef while listening to a quartet playing very unacceptable American and English rhythym and blues. We returned to the hotel. I walked Mrs. Langstrom to her hotel room and said good night. "See you in the morning, eight o'clock?"
"I'll be ready." La closed the door.
We spent two more days doing the same, though not quite as profitably for the TomLa ranch. James arrived as the driveran agent just off assignment and transferred to our cover.
La grew impatient. "When can I talk to the Russians?" she asked sotto voice over dinner at a German restaurant.
"Give it time, La," I said. "They need to come to us."
"My father Sorry. You're right. What is this?" she asked, pointing with a fork.
"You don't want to know," I replied with a smile. "That would destroy the taste. Eat first. Then I'll tell you."
The next day we had a call from the Russians. La took the call before Denise could, totally screwing up all our protocol filters. "Yes," La said as I hovered over her desk. "Tomorrow. Of course. Thank you."
La saw I was agitated. It did not phase her one bit. "Noon. Russian Consulate. Don't say a word, Stan." She picked up her purse and left her office. "Denise, I'll be out the rest of the day. I'll return calls"
La raised her hand as I approached. "Don't manage me."
Langstrom ducked me then ducked James downstairs. Where she went I did not know. She did not go to her hotel room because I checked after midnight, at 2 am and again at 4 am. She was in the shower when I entered her room at 5 am. I waited until she emerged from the bath in a terry cloth robe.
"Stan!" La gasped.
"Want to tell me anything?"
La picked up a hair brush and attacked her wet hair. "One of the 'not ordinary' names called. The one I hoped. Be on your best behavior. Get out."
I rose from the bed and gripped her arm. "That's unacceptable, Mrs. Langstrom. Where have you been?"
La's hand gripped my wrist with suprising strength. She removed my hand from her arm. "Putting my mind in order if you must know! I took a walk. Things get serious from here on out, Mr. Greenwood. Can I count on you?"
Her tone of voice and assurance gave me pause. "For now," I replied. "But step out of line again I'll recommend we give no more support, no matter how high your connections. Am I understood?"
She pointed to the door. As I gripped the door knob La said: "I understand. Good night."
At noon we visited the Russian consulate with me as her secretary and she as the American rancher's wife. Tele Hasek the sub-ambassadorThe Flunky in Chargegreeted La with a bow and kiss of the hand. Hasek's attempt to draw La into the office alone was thwarted by Mrs. Langstrom's beautiful smile. "You won't mind if Tom Little sits in, Mr. Hasek? He manages all my records."
Hasek, a large man who might have been impressive thirty years prior but was primarily impressive for having let his waist expand these days had a choice: speak to the woman with me present or not at all. I was directed to the chair most distant from the desk as Hasek closed the door and seated La. The Russian spoke first.
"We are interested in your horses."
La expertly and immediately disarmed the man. "Of course you are! We offer the best in thoroughbreds, quarter horses, and farm stock. My husband has said that it takes more than one kind of horse to make the world go round. We have been selling in England and Europe, and now that our governments have relaxed some trade restrictions, I'd like to sell to your country. Is that your wife?"
La picked up a photograph in a silver frame on Hasek's desk. "She's lovely!" The sturdy looking woman in the picture appeared to be a dour-faced hag to me, but at the moment I was the silent partner and remained silent. "Is she here with you now?" La asked.
Hasek went through a frown, a scowl, then surprise. "No, she is back home."
"I am sure you miss her as much as I miss my husband," La replied.
I do not know she accomplished it, but La Langstrom's remark offered both sympathy and promise! I sat on the edge of my seat because of the heat the American woman exuded.
Tele Hasek drew his handkerchief from his suit pocket and mopped his brow. "Unseasonable warm weather," he said. "Our air-conditioning is not fully operative." Hasek replaced the bit of cloth then gestured to La. "Your proposal. May I see it?"
La turned over the bound prospectus then rose to examine the few pictures on the office walls and the view from the window, which was only as entertaining as factory buildings in summer might be. Her grey skirt was not quite as mini as the girls were wearing these days, but was short enough to expose her long legs clad in elegant open-mesh stockings. The white blouse with long sleeves was traditional in cut. The only hint of Gear was the narrow purple leather belt about her slim waist.
I had been tortured by this womanin the line of duty, of courseand envied the man she loved. Yet at the same time I perhaps knew her almost as well as her husband because I had held her naked length in my arms. I knew she was true only to her Tom but at this moment she was a magnet for men. Hasek was not immune.
The Russian's examination of the prospectus took only moments, most of those were occupied by frequent glances at La's figure as she walked about the office. Five minutes passed, then seven more. Hasek finally said, as ingraciously as possible, "I will forward this to Agricultural with my highest recommendation. I believe we can do business, Mrs. Langstrom."
La smiled and returned to her chair and sat down in such a way that she briefly exposed her undergarments to Hasek. "I am so pleased to hear this, Mr. Hasek! There is a slight provision, however."
"What is that?" Hasek reached for his handkerchiefthen stopped himself.
"I must inspect the area where the horses will be sent. If our research is correct that will be somewhere near Odessa in the Ukraine. Our horses are sturdy and fine but need time to adapt to the country. This area would be, we think, the best place."
"That is out of the question," Hasek said.
La's charm vanished as quickly as switching off a lightbulb. She expressed an immediate regret.
"Oh! I don't understand why but if we cannot have a meeting of the minds then... Mr. Little, we should leave."
Mrs. Langstrom bent to retrieve her purse, a movement that was extremely calculated to display her slim buttocks encased in the short skirt to Hasek's gaze. La came to her feet and looked at me. "Who is next on our list?"
I quickly flipped through the date minder in handwhich contained nothingand said, "South Africa at 2:00 pm, France at 4:00 pm, and the West Germans at 6:00 pm," I improvised.
La met Hasek as he hurriedly rose from his desk. The Russian effusively expressed his distress at the woman's decision. La was not deterred. She shook his hand.
"Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Hasek. I regret that we apparently cannot do business." The handshake included a body rub and near embrace.
"My husband and I worry about our horses, you see. We need to know where the animals go because our warranty is based on the best possible locations and conditions. Thank you for your time," she rubbed herself against Hasek one more time then turned away. "Come, Mr. Little, we must go."
"Mrs. Langstrom!" Hasek cried. "Can we not negotiate?"
"A trip to the Odessa area? Perhaps you could be my guide?"
"That area is" Hasek stopped himself. "I cannot promise."
"Goodbye, Mr. Hasek. I appreciate your consideration but we have inflexible terms. Our reputation depends on buyer satisfaction and that satisfaction is based on best conditions."
Hasek almost followed us out of his office. Glancing over my shoulder I saw his distress and thinly disguised lust. La strode out of the Consulate. I almost had to trot to keep up with her. Outside, in our car, the woman wept.
"I failed! Damn it!"
James put the car in gear and drove east. I restrained an urge to slap Clayton's sister because I was angry. "I wish you'd tell me what you intend, O Daughter of La the High Priestess and Rancher's Wife!"
"Don't" La scowled. Her expression was instant anger, angst, and apology.
I was instantly a cada friend who wanted to helpbut a cad nonetheless. Gazing out the side window I said: "That was unfair, Mrs. Langstrom. I apologize. M.I. has instructed me to do what you say, and I will, but damn it, La, you make me nuts! How can I help if you won't tell me your plans?"
Remembering necessaries just improvised, I instructed the driver to head for the South African Consulate. I had provided that information to Hasek and there needed to be follow through, but we had time enough for lunch so I gave directions to a restaurant nearby.
"I can't," La said, getting a grip. "Something simple, no tables. I need a few moments."
"Curb side lunch," I told James Bond, which was his real name but for years now we only called him James at his expressed wish.
The operative nodded. He located one of the parks along our impromptu itinerary through the Thames District which catered to street vendors. James parked the sedan. "Anything special?" he asked. I waved him aside. James exited the vehicle then brought back four packetstwo for himself.
Mrs. Langstrom opened the newspaper wraps and suddenly laughed. "Finch and Chimps! How perfect!" Then proceeded to cry her eyes out.
"Sir?" James asked.
"Eat your fish and chips and mind the perimeter."
"Yes, sir." James ignored, as best he could, the conversation I had with Mrs. Langstrom.
"Finch and Chimps?"
La blotted her eyes with a tissue from her purse. "Silly. Old joke. Elmo, you know. Jane sending him out to hunt for dinner and bringing back a song bird and a pair of lesser primates. Finch and Chimps. Do I need to laugh now to make the pun work? Damn it, Stan!"
"Lady Clayton in the jungle. Elmo hunting. Finch and Chimps. That is amusing. You have a way with words. Your 'two hands,' for example. Flattery or understatement?"
James quickly picked up his fish and chips and exited the car. "I'll do my patrol exterior," he said. "There's some things I do not need to hear."
Damn it! My attempt to lift Mrs. Langstrom's spirits resulted in a possible embarrassment. "Sorry, Mrs. Langstrom," I said. "I erred most dreadfully."
She said nothing as she finished the fish and chips. "Take it as you wish."
"La, forget that. I'm comfortable one way or the other, but if you won't tell me your plan I can't help you! Let me help." The woman remained stubbornly silent. "Will you at least tell me why you introduced me as Tom Little to the Russian Consulate?"
The woman flushed with embarrassment. "We should have talked and I know you told me as much as we talked under the sheetsforget that!" she trembled. "We walked into the Russian Consulate and you needed to be somebody other than Stanley Greenwood. I couldn't think of anything other than that Dickens characterthe little boy, Tom Little."
I suddenly smiled and embraced La with a brief kiss to the cheek. "That's Tiny Tim," I said, "A Christmas Carol."
La giggled with embarrassment. I continued to make her laugh at my expense. "I am tiny but functional. But Tom Little?"
"As a friend you are very large." Her return embrace was sincere. She placed her cheek against mine. "You are otherwise more than adequate and your girl friends should be happy!" Then, more sincerely, she begged, "I know what I am doing. Hasek will fold. It is Odessa, Stan. That's where we need to go with as little fanfare as possible."
"What are you afraid of, La? We want Lord Greystoke back home as much as you do!"
"I knowand your government and the CIA would be tempted to help. And draw attention and perhaps cause the Russians to kill my father. I need your help, Stan. I do not need the help of your government or mine. May I depend on you?"
There was a great deal of truth in Mrs. Langstrom's words. I made the kind of decision I am paid to make. "Keep me in the dark, La, but be careful. I can only help if I am forewarned."
La put her arms around my neck and kissed me. It was not a sexual kiss. It was the kiss of a friend and thatdear Godmade it extremely sexual. She lay her head on my chest and relaxed.
I glanced through the wind screen of the vehicle where James leaned against the fender finishing his second portion. The afternoon sun was bright. Children played in the park and nannies scolded occasionally. I began to wonder if this marvelous creature had made me stupid, for the promise I had just made I intended to keepand keeping it might result in my discharge from the service.
We spoke to the South African consulate because I had made it part of the charade and also because I had a friend there. He showed no surprise that "Tom Little" was the secretary of Mrs. Langstrom. We were given the opportunity to make a legitimate presentation for a half-hour, but the South African government was not interested at the present time.
While we were in the South African consulate James called M.I. but was not able arrange a visit to the French consulate. But well before the hour we were due to the French embassy to keep the story "true" the Russians contacted Mrs. Langstrom's office by courier. "ODESSA POSSIBLE. HASEK. DINNER AT 8:30." James brought that information back after checking in while the car was being refueled at a petrol station.
Because the Russians made the effort by courier I directed James to find a quiet spot on the Thames. La called her office and instructed Denise to cancel her appointments with the French and West German consulates and that she would be shopping for the rest of the afternoon.
La and I walked through the business district, occasionally entering store fronts. I played the secretaryboredas Mrs. Langstrom looked at and tried on dresses in several boutiques. She bought one, an A-line dress with a mid-thigh hem that was utterly ugly in my opinion though La wore it well. I have never liked pink.
"James, " I said as the shopping tour ended, "the Russian consulate. Armed and ready?"
Tom Little and La Langstrom entered the Russian compound. Despite Mrs. Langstrom's best efforts I was separated from her. She went to dinner with Hasek alone and there was nothing I could do about it. Two hours later La returned.
She did not speak until we entered the car. "Home, James," she said.
I did not question the woman until after James dropped us off at the hotel and we were in the elevator. "What happened?"
"I need a shower," the woman replied. Outside her room La suddenly kissed me. "Tom" She handed me the key to her room. I unlocked the door.
Mrs. Langstrom dragged me into the shower, which she made too hot and too steamy, and a constant noise. She clung to me under the spray and whispered, "We have passage. Hasek will take us there."
La Langstrom was a tall woman. She bent low to embrace mebut it was not sex she had in mind as the roar of the shower surrounded us. "I know where he is! He spoke love nothings he thought unsaid and...damn it, Stan!" La grabbed the soap and lathered. I could not tell if she was weeping, but her whole stance and the attention she took to a portion of her anatomy almost broke my heart.
I soaped her back and drew a wash cloth over La's skin. I said the only thing I knew I could say. "You must love your father very much."
"Like my mother I will do things I" La turned in my arms to face me. "My Tom would like you. Like my Tom you are a good man, I know this. Tomorrow we go to Russia."
"Well!" I tried a smile. "Thanks for letting me know."
La did not kiss me, but she embraced me. "I may be acting like an idiot right now but I am determined, Stan."
"I know you are." I held her because she needed the comfort.
"I don't want to be alone tonight," La trembled.
Having seen the pain and anguish on the woman's face I would not have left her alone. "I'll stay, La." I cupped her face between both hands and said, "Don't try to do this by yourself!"
Her fingers dug into my back as she embraced me. "Thank you!"
"Don't thank me, La," I replied. "Trust me. Okay?"
That night as I lay next to La Langstrom I fought my personal aches. Her husband was a lucky man and Lord Greystoke had a treasure for a daughter. Meanwhile, I plotted a dozen different ways to make Hasek pay for what she never truly said he did to her.
The flight to Moscow was ordinary, though Hasek was all over La. I broke in as necessary to interrupt his advances. In Moscow there were visits to the Agricultural Commissar and other adjuncts which kept Hasek at bay. After five days of consultations an agreement on terms of delivery, pending Mrs. Langstrom's examination of the Odessa area, was reached. Hasek and his aides put together a rail and motorcade south to Odessa. During that trip it became increasingly more difficult for me to intercept Hasek's advances on Mrs. Langstrom.
I did save her from a half dozen "private meetings" with Hasek, who I would kill first before he ever touched her againand struggled with the knowledge that killing the bastard would not get her out of Russia nor get us to Lord Greystoke. La, however, was not without her personal abilities. During the trip to Odessa Hasek's only intercourse with La was dinner and nothing more. The American woman had seemingly learned overnight the seductive expertise required to elevate and deflate advances.
We were two days in Odessa visiting some of the areas nearby. La draped herself across Hasek's arm as we toured farm locations. "This is nice," she said each time, "but not quite right. Can we see something more west of Odessa? Pasture and..."
La knew something she had not told me and that was obvious because of the way she manipulated Hasek. I could not keep track of her every minute. As the days progressed I felt more out of the loop. We were more exposed because we were two alone in Russia and Hasek's party of five was seemingly everywhere.
By the third afternoon in Odessa I was ready to strangle La, but I had not seen her all day. When she returned to the hotel at twilight La took me again into a shower. I had not seen her all afternoon. I was worried. Angry. I was not gentle in simulating sex as I pinned her against the shower wall. She did not complain. She broke my heart instead.
"There are times I hate being female."
I eased up but held La tight. I had been near out of my mind. "If he hurt you I'll kill him." My voice could not be heard above the shower spray, but she heard it. La clung to me.
"I'll deal with Hasek."
Her tone of voice and determination made the hair on the back of my neck rise. Mrs. Langstrom kissed me hard then raised her mouth to catch her breath. Nuzzling my neck La said: "I know where Elmo is!" She kissed me again, locking a lean leg over my hip. In between kisses La gave me the building's location. "You are forewarned, Stan. Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow"
La's brave facade suddenly crumbled and she clutched me desperately. "How can I? How? All I have to fight with is my vagina!"
"Shut up, La!" I wrestled with the woman under the shower spray.
"Dear God!" she wept and kissed me. "You could not have said anything more perfect!"
At that moment she would have, willingly. I could have, eagerly. I did not because she was too fragile. My reluctance to engage was consideration for the woman who risked all for her father, a woman who had a husband and family. I had other reasons why I did notreasons which I did not wish to consider.
"When?" I asked. In Russia the likelihood of cameras was very real. I caressed her body as we convincingly continued to simulate sex.
"Tomorrow at four." La locked both legs about my waist and wept in my ear. "Thank you for being stronger than..."
"Shut up, La!"
Hasek, and three stooges who were too large and wore lumpy jackets, took us to a farm 60 kilometers west of Odessathe area that La Langstrom had frequently expressed as the best place for her husband's horses. There were two farms separated by a fence. We turned into the drive leading to the one not described by La, though the one she described was three hundred yards to the west. We exited the car.
Linking her arm through Hasek's, the American looked about. "This is wonderful, Mr. Hasek! Pasture and streams, Mr. Hasek! And, oh, what is that, Mr. Hasek? Payback?"
La Langstrom dropped the little bottle of Russian soda water and swiftly produced an American .45 caliber automatic pistol from beneath the hem of her pink skirt. She pressed the muzzle against Hasek's breast and shot him though the heart. Turning, La raised the weapon and shot the nearest man in the face, which became a red ruin in an instant. The next man was mine, taken out by a reflexive karate blow that drove his nose cartilage into his brain. Langstrom shot the third goon in the upper torso then through the throat.
"Bring up the car!" La cried as she ran across the field. She jumped the wooden fence into the neighboring property and entered the main building.
I had to find the car keys first. I dug through the dead driver's pockets, located the keys, then drove the car though the fence to skid to a halt before the entrance to the second house. I heard three shots insidetwo quick, one a second or two later. I wondered if I should rush in or wait, then the exterior situation changed. My Beretta spoke twice as armed men came around the side of the building.
"La!" I shouted.
I watched the out-buildings and worried about the woman. I was still in the dark and not liking that. We were both on the edge of death. I fired twice at shadows running between the more distant out-buildings. One screamed.
La Langstrom suddenly emerged from the farm house with Lord Greystoke leaning on her shoulder. I wanted to shout "Hurry, you bitch!" Perhaps I didthen Clayton, half-naked, bruised, battered, and barely walking, lay sprawled across the vehicle's back seat.
"Go! Go! Go!" La screamed. "West! Damn it!"
Gravel rattled against the wheel wells as I drove the down the drive. Five seconds later we were on the road at 60 kilometers per hour. The road was rough, which meant that ruts were frequent. I focused 99 percent of my attention to driving, trusting the woman who watched our rear. La leaned out the passenger window and, when pursuit boiled out from that enclave a few minutes later and came too close, she expended all her rounds.
Bullets peppered our car, shattering glass front and rear. La desperately reached for my weapon as I drove the car at madcap pace.
"Elmo!" she cried as La took my Beretta. "Are you okay?"
"Okay..." he groaned. "Daughter..."
"Keep your head down!" La shouted. Mrs. Langstrom leaned out the window and unleashed a burst on the nearest vehicle.
I was three kilometers from a border the pursuers could not cross. Our speed was 90 kilometers per hour. The pursuit had been persistent but we were close to havenminutes, seconds away.
La again leaned out the window and responded to projectiles sent in our direction. "Reload!" La commanded.
The dirt road took all my attention but I managed to give her my last clip. La loaded the Beretta. She gripped my arm. I saw in her eyes for a brief instant all the regrets of opportunity lostand her gratitude and promise. A rut in the road demanded my attention as I wondered what promise had been given.
She reached back to touch John Clayton's bruised face. The man was badly injured. How La Langstrom carried Lord Greystoke out of the building I could not imagine. Her father groaned in response to her caress. The woman wept. "I love you, daddy!"
La turned to the window and kicked my leg. "You now know my stupid plan! Step on it, Stan!"
I needed no such prompting, because stupid plan or not I could see the border gates!
We all ducked as bullets hit the car again.
"Go, Stan!" La cried.
La leaned half out the window and used both hands on the weapon. She took out the driver of the second car and the vehicle careened over a ditch and rolled into a field, bursting into flames. La gave a triumphant yell.
Someone in the first car blew her brains out as we crossed the border.
Borders. Political niceties. Demarcation
Once we crossed the border the Russians lost interest. As the French say Cest la vie. We had killed many of them. They killed the only decent person I have ever known. I banged my head on the steering wheel and wept. Clayton's anguish rose in a primal scream.
Lord Greystoke, seriously dehydrated and suffering from physical torture, was delivered to Britain by NATO evac, which happened to be an American unit. La's body accompanied Clayton to England and was then transhipped directly to the United States. There had been no room for me on that extraction flight. I went home by a different route, arriving 12 hours later. I was debriefed by my government and the Americans. Both were pleased with the result: "Greystoke home. Good job."
I was accurate in my report. Just the facts. The facts that needed to be told. I included my observations of Mrs. Langstrom's emotional state and did not spare myself in that regard. Hours later I was allowed to go back to my flat. I needed a bath. I stood in the tub and reached for the shower diverterand got the shakes. I wondered if I could ever take a shower again. I filled the tub instead.
My superior spoke to me a week later. "Take a few days off, Greenwood. You're still scheduled for special assignments, but nothing in Russia. You know why. That woman put your face on every KGB bulletin."
"Sir," I said with all the calm I could muster, "speak ill of 'that woman' again you and I have a problem."
The sharp look I expected did not come. A sigh was the reply. "Greenwood, each of us at one time or another gets emotionally involved. You are not the first, nor the last, nor will this be your last. Give it time, son." He removed his glasses and massaged his eyes.
"My first was 1944," he said. "My last was 1964the abduction, rape, murder, and dismemberment of my daughter who was the most innocent person I have ever known. This world is ugly, Greenwood, but it is the only world we have. It is up to us to make it less ugly."
I took the days off and spent hours in bookstores. I bought and read everything I could about horses and the American West. During my excursions girls in pink dresses on the streets drew my attention. I called my ex-wife, but that was a mistake.
I returned to work. My desk became cluttered because I was assigned to the office and not the field. Sometimes I felt suicidal until I remembered La's determination to fight to the end and her sacrifice.
I avoided all calls from Jack Clayton because I could not face my friend. Denise, who took the calls, always delivered the messages with a scowl of disdain. After a few days her disapproval was so obvious I suggested she change offices.
Denise came around the desk and stood beside my chair. She was undecided whether to kiss me or beat me. "Jack Clayton is your friend, sir," she said. "He deserves more. I'll take it to my grave, sir, but the second to last thing that La Langstrom said in life was your name. I did all the transcripts of your report and if that is the reason why you..."
She accomplished in an instant a resolution that all the threats from my supervisor and help from the psyche department could not. "Shut up, Denise."
She took it exactly the same way it was intendedan absurd affection some very special Americans used to express their emotions. "Right away, sir! Where and when?"
"Miesner's at four. Denise," I abruptly asked as she turned to the door because there seemed to be more to the "Where and when," statement. "Don't mean to pry. Are you making babies and a life with someone special yet?"
Denise kept her hand on the door knob. She looked over her shoulder for a long moment. "Haven't found the right man yet, sir. The right man." Denise opened the door, but before the girl left my office she said: "My phone number is in the files. I'll call Mr. Clayton."
I looked at the door for long moments. I stared at that door as I often had whenever Denise left my officeand had done so years before La Langstrom came into my life. I had much to think about.
Jack Clayton got my message. We spent the night drinking ale at Miesner's Pub, a quiet little place with booths in north London. After our third round I asked, and I don't know why I did: "She was your older sister. Why do you look so much youngernot that she was old."
Jack angrily stubbed out his cigar. "She was 56 years of age going on 20. There was no give in that woman. Tom often said that. My sister never looked her age or you wouldn't have..."
My glass hit the table, a warning. Clayton looked into my eyes. We both struggled with emotions. My original question had been bypassed; yet, Jack also remembered our friendship and held his tongue. I blushed over my memory of La, who had been Jack Clayton's half-sister, daughter of La and Elmo, step-daughter of Claude Earl, wife of Tom Langstrom, and mother of three.
I made the most logical reply: "You've read my report."
Clayton produced another cigar and took time lighting it. "Yes," he said. A cloud of white smoke rose between us. "Extraordinary circumstances, old man."
As that cloud of smoke dissipated I saw Clayton's understanding, or at least his willingness to understand. "Jack," I said, "La was an extraordinary woman."
Jack lowered his head for an instant. When he looked up with sympathetic gaze I was astonished. "Stan, my friend, I prefer to believe you had extraordinary resolve."
I lifted my glass. "Do not credit me overmuch, Jack, but I will not allow any slander toward your sister. But yes," I admitted, "you do not know how extraordinary was that resolve." I looked across the table. I hoped my expression was calm. "If that is not sufficient then I demand Pez dispensers at dawn, my friendwhich gives us time for a few more glasses. Unless, of course, you want something more deadly."
Jack scrubbed his chin with an angry hand then offered a smile, a sad smile. He raised his glass. "To La!"
"To La," I replied.
I drained my glass and pinched the bottom of a waitress passing our table. "Keep us supplied, dear girl." My little insult to her person was mitigated by boldly tucking a twenty pound note in her bodice.
Jack produced another twenty, less flamboyantly. "And keep it so until closing."
"Yes, sirs!" The girl smiled. She picked up Jack's money and put it where I had put it. She gathered our empty glasses. "Made my rent, sirs! Thank you!"
While we waited for fresh glasses I said to Jack: "Could life be that simple and as complex? A working girl. Probably with babies to feed. Working where most women would not. Like a rancher's wife in America. And willing to do whatever is necessary? Yes, it is all extraordinary."
Clayton's eye agreed as he observed the nearby patrons for a moment. Jack expressed his thoughts. "Mother and Father. Grateful and confused. How could this child of Elmo's he never knew be so determined?"
"I've had reports from Mr. and Mrs. Earl about their confusion why a daughter would be so determined to save a father she never knew. All we have, Jack, are the facts."
Clayton scowled. He cradled his head between both hands for a long time, reviving only when the girl brought ales to the table. She hurried off to deliver other orders. Jack took a long pull from his glass before continuing. "I'm not surprised. La always had a mind of her own."
"I experienced that. I know your family and hers must feel the loss, especially La's children."
Clayton scowled. "And you capitalized on the situation."
I reined in my angry response with every effort. "La Langstrom was not a situation, Mr. Clayton! She was a phenomenon! I warned you, do no slander her name!" In a softer voice, because heads had turned at nearby tables, I pleaded, "Do not slander me!"
The son of Lord Greystoke, my friend, lowered his head. "I'm angry, Stan. I'm angry with all of itfrom father's capture to La's death. Forgive me, I spoke out of turn. I know you. I hope that I knew my sister as well. Whatever happened between you, and I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW, is none of my business. That said, I trust you. I trusttrusted, La."
Clayton's broad shoulders moved as if he shrugged off a great weight. "Barmaid! Here!" he cried, ignoring me. "Another round!" When the girl arrived he tucked a twenty pound note inside her cleavage. Before she turned away Jack touched her hand. "My sister was a barmaid when that was all she had. She did better in the long run. So can you."
The startled girl looked at me. "He's not drunk," I said. "He merely speaks the truth. There's more to life. That's all he meant."
The girl smiled without expression, certain we were both insane. She did; however, keep the rounds flowing as Jack and I explored speculations and recriminations; memories and what ifs such as Jack's first meet with his sister and my first meet with his sister, and what we knew about La's American family. Whatever Jack wondered beyond that he did not say and I would not have answered if questioned. We closed the pub.
I was pulled over driving Jack home because he was in a more sorry state than I was, but I was also drunk. We got a break when Jack's ID was verified. I tossed the keys to the constable and we walked the rest of the way. Lady Greystoke and Meriem were awake when we arrived. Meriem checked her husband for injuries, then scolded me full voice before she took Jack upstairs.
Jane Clayton was not too happy with me either.
"I should go, Lady Clayton. I apologize for the..."
"Yes, your Ladyship?"
"Your butt. In that chair. Now!"
"I have erred, your Ladyship. Your son and I over-indulged, of course. My most sincere regrets. It is best that I go."
"Two-hands, put your butt in the chair."
I was still under the influence of the drink and said what came to mind. "That was..." I scowled. "You don't know..." I turned away. "Well," I stupidly continued, "there's apparently one more American bitch in the equation. Your Ladyship. Goodbye."
I headed for the door. Jane Clayton touched my arm, just a touch, but it immobilized me. "Please sit down, Mr. Greenwood. Have some coffee, perhaps some breakfast? I did not mean to be thoughtless. Please?"
I rubbed my eyes because my vision was not clear. I might have been crying. Jack and I had already done too much of that at Miesner's. Jane Clayton's face was sympathetic and sincere. I followed her hand on my arm to the kitchen.
"A coffee would be nice. Thank you."
Lady Greystoke sat me at the table and prepared the coffee herself, the hour too early for the wait staff to be on duty. A half hour later the servants arrived and breakfast was started. Meanwhile we talked about her niece. I spared the details because she already knew the two-hands comment. She was worldly enough to fill in the deliberate blanks that were truly blank.
"La needed a friend," Lady Greystoke said. She gripped my hand. "I am glad she had one."
I drank coffee and ate a nice breakfast. She updated me on Elmo's condition. I was uncomfortable as I sobered. I did not want to think about La Langstrom anymore. "Thank you for your hospitality, your ladyship. I need to go."
I rose, desperately denying the need to find a restroom to let the ale and coffee residue become one again with the environmentand feeling a bit mean at the same time. "I've tried to be nice. I can't. I failed in all objectives, Mrs. Clayton. It was La all the way. I failed my country in letting her set the agenda. If she had not been so head strong she might be alive today. I"
Jane Clayton linked her arm through mine and led me to the nearest exit. "You didn't fail, Stanley Greenwood," she said as she gripped my chin between thumb and forefinger. Lady Greystoke kissed my cheek. "Thank you."
"For what?" I blinked. "She's dead!"
Lady Greystoke's hand shoved me toward the gate. "Go home, Stan. Think about it."
I walked down the tree-lined drive lost in my thoughts. I even thought I heard Jane Clayton say something as I left that sounded something like "you should have."
The supervisor walked into my office and shut the door. "Stanley, you have a field assignment. Bodyguard. Are you up to it?"
He thinned his lips before responding. "Last chance, Greenwood. Fail this and you are retired."
"You're marking time, Greenwood. Your heart is not in the job."
At that instant everything became crystal. "I love my country, sir!"
"I know," he said. He wanted to say more and did not. I respected that. "Here's your orders."
When I was alone in the office I looked inside the envelope and felt the blood drain from my face. I was assigned to accompany Greystoke to America after he came out of Hospital. His wife Jane and daughter Claudia and her boyfriend were included in the party.
Flight to New York. Flight to Denver for some Greystoke business. Rail to Helena, Montana. Two vehicle motorcade to the Langstrom Ranch. All normal and without difficulty. Without difficulty? Greystoke engaged me several times in conversation of events leading to his daughter's successful rescue of himself from the Russians. I answered all of his questions truthfully. With the same omission I had given his wife.
When we arrived at the Langstrom Ranch Greystoke drew me aside as the crowd gathered. "I knew my daughter such a short time, Greenwood, but she would not..."
I had to look up because of his stature, but I replied without hesitation. "Your lordship, you did not know your daughter."
Greystoke's powerful hand gripped my upper arm. "What happened?"
"My report is on record. You read it and your wife has read it. There is nothing else to be learned. I will remind you that the last thing your daughter did as we raced to the border was to tell you she loved you and then killed a driver. She uttered a victory yell and seconds later was killed. Anything else you want to know is insignificant."
I was angry. I was angry and weary of all the questions and innuendoes. But I saw at that moment in his eyes a need to know. Gently, politely, I removed his hand from my arm.
"She loved you, sir. She was pure of heartand you can construe that however you like. I was there, Lord Greystoke. In Russia La Langstrom was a warrior. She was not a mother, wife, or daughtera warrior!"
My career, as John Clayton glared at me, appeared to be over. He had the voice high in government but at that moment I no longer cared. He saw that resignation in my eyes. A battle of wills commenced that was terminated only by the arrival of a many months pregnant girl who came from the ranch house to embrace Lord Greystoke.
We both saw the face of La in her features. She was not as tiny as La, or as tall as La. She had hair between dark and light. She was plump from the waist down and filled with sunshine. The girl babbled wonderfully, familiarly.
"What are you doing over here, Grandpa John? Hello! I'm Laja."
I shook hands with the girl and gave her my name, grateful she sidetracked Clayton. "Is Red about?" I asked.
"Over there," the girl pointed to the barn as she dragged Greystoke in her wake. Clayton looked over his shoulder then turned his attention to La's daughter.
I walked to the barn. Red was easy to locate. His red shirt was a beacon beside the barn. As I approached I remembered La telling me she had once asked Red how got his name since he was listed on the U.S. Census as Billy Jenks. "Got it because I was clumsy as a tenderfoot on a trail ride. I bled a lot. The boys called me 'Red.' Liked it. Kept it." The closer to the barn I walked the more I recalled all the chatter La had revealed between her unspoken plans. I had learned more about La's life in just twenty-two days than I ever learned about my wife of 12 years.
Red, heavy set and white-haired, sat on a hay bale carving an apple. His girth was nearly as large as the chest on the horse dipping its neck over the corral rail, sniffing the apple.
"Howdy!" Red said as I walked up.
I came too close. The horse's snout gently nudged me.
Red chuckled. "Pay Dingaling no mind. I don't." Red palmed a piece of the fruit to the horse to exhibit how much he ignored the animal. "What can I do for you?"
"Where is Mrs. Langstrom buried?"
"You family, son? I don't recollect ever seeing you before."
"Just a friend."
"That La! Oh, she had lots of friends. At one time or another she raised most of the kids in the... Sorry." The man's knife stopped carving. "Up on the hill, son. Can't miss it. The only damn tree up there." The horse nudged Red again. "Damn you, Dingaling! I can only cut so fast!"
I looked. Saw the tree. And then promptly failed my duties as bodyguard as I walked to the family plot. I spent my first afternoon in Montana on the hill above the ranch under the oak where La had buried her infant daughterwhere La was now buried. I knelt beside the grave, which was as long as she had been tall in life. "You have made my life nuts, La!"
With head bowed I remembered. I remembered the pushy, uncertain, domineering, frightened woman. The same woman who out-smarted a foreign government, dealt with men as necessaryme includedand who loved only one man in all the universe and
"Not much of a double-oh-seven are you?"
The voice startled me. I had been preoccupied with my thoughts. Tom Langstrom gripped my shoulder. Before I could reply he said, "That was a joke, Mr. Greenwood."
"You Yanks have a peculiar sense of humor. And for a big man you move very quietly."
"Learned that step to keep horses calm." Langstrom said. "I don't understand British humor, so let's not tell jokes." I waited as the man took a breath and took off his wide brimmed hat. Langstrom ran a hand through greying hair then put the hat back on. "I noticed how you avoided me today."
I felt a flush on my face. "Unintended, sir. I wanted to pay my respects." Then: "You read my report?"
"Yes, sir," he replied. "Damn complete. Must have got good grades in school." Tom Langstrom's grip increased as he bent a knee beside La's grave. "I know...knew...my wife."
I watched his body language. He was charged up though his voice was calm. I understood. "You know she loved only you," I said.
Langstrom's hand and superior weight suggested we sit at the foot of La's grave. "I repeat, Mr. Greenwood...Stan...I know my wife. I know you tried to avoidavoideddamn, Stan, here it is straight up and no bull. La gave you a few stiff dicks to save her father. Elmo's home. That's what she wanted. I'm comfortable in that."
I pushed Tom's hand aside. "You want it ugly or neat? No, I can see you want it ugly. Yes, La was desirable, and yes, I was interested, and yes she did things that broke her heart, but she was true to only you! And yes," I blinked with emotion, "I was damn tempted and wish I had!" I lowered my head, expecting anything except what Langstrom said next.
"I suspect those last days where extreme. La was a tough old gal and never did things the easy way." Langstrom paused for a moment, gazing toward the sunset. "I'm glad she had a friend with her at the end. That means an awful lot to me. Thanks."
"You're thanking me? I'll never understand Yanks!"
Langstrom placed a sun-browned hand on the small mound of dirt where grass was just beginning to grow. "I don't know about that, Stan. I don't think we're all that different. We both love peace, despise repression, and loved La. Come on, let's get a beer. Almost time for supper."
Langstrom got to his feet, looked at the grave marker for a moment with sad eyes. "As I said, Stan, I knew my wife. She never made bad decisions." Then he walked down the hill.
I rose, the twilight gathering. The wind danced through the leaves and became quite musical. Dancing...the Fred and Ginger not Hollywoodthe might have been and never could be. Dancing... I looked down at the marker turned pink by the light of the setting sun and suddenly laughed for the first time in weeks.
"I never had the chance to tell you that pink dress was ugly." I backed a step, dealing with my riotous thoughts. "I never had the chance to ask how you concealed that pistol between your thighs!" In a softer voice I almost said "I never knew how to tell you I"
The leaves rustled. Bugscrickets?began their song. The temperature dropped as the sun hit the horizon. There was no answer. I had not expected one. I said what I might have said if La was present: "A beer sounds good. Even one of those weak American brews. Cheers, old girl!"
I watched La's husband walk down the hill Tom. Tom! Tom Little. Tom Langstrom. Was this error or inspiration on La's part? Was I ever Stanley Greenwood or merely a personification of her husband? Having met the man I was not unhappy to have been measured favorably in his light because I knew La had measured me favorably.
At a different time, circumstance, or location the daughter of the High Priestess of Opar might have made other choicesbut that was a fantasy of no possibility. La had truly loved only one man in her lifeno matter how many men might have amused or abused her over the years. The wind song in the leaves over La's grave sang a chorus of why I was never Mrs. Langstrom's vision of "Tom." How could I be? A short-stature, non-descript male, and generally rumpled. A government agent.
Yet, I had been La's best friend in her most trying time. I will remember that. Always. I believe she reciprocated. There had been a bond between us a bit more than friendshipbut I'll never know that for a certainty, but I cannot forget that last glance of promise from her eyes before Mrs. Langstrom was killed.
I placed the hotel room key I had carried since Odessa on top of the headstone. Down below the silent grave lights were coming on all around the ranch house. The breeze carried the scent of food. I was hungry.
My mother was the daughter of La of Opar. She died in Russia rescuing my step-grandfather. My father struggled through that period of time which included my first pregnancy. He died a year after Mother was killed. My husband said my father#151;who had repeatedly expressed his unhappiness that Bobby had married me and spoiled my life foreverz, and we all knew that was a liesimply did not wish to live without his La.
Lawton continued to manage the TomLa Ranch. He was good with the day-to-day workings of the ranch but had no vision. Lincoln, my brother, opted for a life on Wall Street rather than the family business. My husband stepped up to the plate to manage the ranch, always apologetic for every suggestion because he had always been bottom tier during his early years. Even Lawton had faulted him in the early days, but TomLa and White Creek prospered under my husband's guidance.
Lincoln never married in thirty years. He died of cocaine overdose. I missed Lincoln of the five and six year old age when I was a wee girl when he was fun, but as soon as he started school Lincoln was intrigued by learning and perverted all learning to his selfish benefit. I did not weep that March afternoon when Lincoln passed. He had attempted to learn about sex with me as the prime object at nine yearsmy yearsof age. I had trusted my older brother and his words of wisdom until it began to hurt and felt wrong. I kicked and scratched and bit. Lincoln never spoke to me again and that was okay with me. I did not weep in March.
When I lost my heart to Bobby and he hurt me the same way Lincoln attempted I did not kick and scratch, even though I bled a bit. In that pain was something like pleasure. I made him do it for six days in a row. Each time was better than the last. That was the summer mother went to England with Grandmother and Jane. Like yesterday I remember when Lawton entered the chicken shack one morning and gripped my hair. "You're getting married."
"Mother's time is short. You've made your decision. Not the best pick of the litter but he will do."
Lawton dragged me out of the shack and upstairs to my room. "You can dress nice or go as you are."
"What if I don't want to get married?" I cried.
"No worry from me, baby sister. Red'll plug him. They are waiting at the court house."
Bobby and I married. And we did it without telling father. One of these days I will kick Lawton in the balls then kiss him because there have been no regrets!
Bobby and I created a horde of wonderful children. White Creek was our home. Bobby made it work for bison restoration, with help from the feel good idiots in the government. The rest of the time he managed TomLa, which was more than animal stock. We had metals and timber and other endangered species. Bobby and I watched the news each evening, a time of coffee and relaxation. The local news often mentioned White Creek because we had expanded the ranch operations and, by inheritance, assumed much of the TomLa range. Lawton was a stanch partner who managed the horse side of the enterprise. He also never married, though he dated many women, usually between one or two beers once a month. As an old married woman I was happy to see dullard Lawton experiencing some of the joy of the flesh from time to time. I was also pleased that he had his head screwed on right. None of the dalliances matured. Lawton never appeared interested in a lengthy dalliance. Then one night in 1989, in a rumpled bed in a motor inn on the outskirts of Helena he was head shot like mother by a husband the woman had not mentioned.
Stan and Denise Greenwood had always been welcome at our house at White Creek. He would not visit us at TomLa. Stan had become a friend because he had wept over mother's grave above the family ranch and, later, my affection was because Stan and Denise were just good people. Denise gave me all the latest fashion info and Stan disagreed with Bobby on everything. They were so opposite it became a solid. Something we could count on. Then it was gone. We were saddened to learn our English friends perished in 1990 during a dive in the Red Sea.
Bobby and I experienced several bitter years of argument and fighting We fought to the point that he moved out.. He stayed with another woman who did not attempt to conceal her score of my man, and worse he did not attempt to conceal it in the local venue. In reply I picked out my own fellow and wasted no time taking him to bed on Christmas Eve in our house while Bobby was on business in Denver. He was large and strong, tender and complete, he filled me, pleasured me, and was nothing I wanted! I used the stupid bastard as many times as Bobby took his relief with his bitch, and woke one morning to look upon the face of my cowboy god, realized what a fool I had been, and kicked him out.
January 1, 1992 I entered Bobby's office at TomLa. I grabbed him by the ear and drew him into the bathroom. Under my jacket I was dressed in thigh-high hose and nothing else. "Our last chance, Bobby. Is that gorgeous woman with the huge breasts what you want?" I opened his trousers and gripped his attention. "I know the man with the huge I've been screwing is not what I want."
Bobby did not struggle. He helped me shed my coat. "Sounds like you've made up your mind."
"I have," I replied, offering myself. "You. I feel stupid speaking truths. I fear I will lose you. Bobby, I am your lover, your girl, your slut. I don't have big breasts or"
"Shut up, Laja!" Bobby stuttered. "I'm more stupid than you. And stupid in love with you." He shut me up most throughly!
At home we lit a candle and said a prayer. The evening news on Friday was a regular before sex and dang little changed that routine until February of 1997 when photos of Grandmother La were televised. Grandmother was displayed topless while on vacation in Bermuda. The pictures hit the tabloids around the world. American papers black boxed grandmother's nipples but all the others were explicit. I called her. When I finally got grandmother on the phone I said, "We have a problem. What are you and granddad going to do?"
"Nothing much, Laja," she replied with a laugh. "I'm heading back to the States. Can you and Bobby put up with an old woman for a few days?"
"You know you are always welcome!'
Grandmother arrived the last week of February. She was tan and comely. I knew why she was both because mother had told me about grandmother's treatment before she went to Russia. The visits over the years had confirmed it: Grandmother would live forever. Grandmother looked a few years younger than my daughtera daughter who was giving me and Bobby fits. Erin at college in California had reported to her father an unexpected pregnancy out of wedlock and damn little else.
Our boys worked the ranch, which was beginning to struggle because family run agricultural concerns did not have governmental backing. Fred, the youngest, had developed a drinking problem because of the lack of support, and his wife's infidelity, but whether his drink was due to a bad marriage or economics we could not tell. His marriage failed and his wife got full custody of the children. There seemed to be nothing we could do and Fred would not accept our help. Mark was still single and was the owner of the largest used car lot southwest of Helena. The only time we saw or spoke to Mark was on Thanksgiving and he never brought the same girl twice.
When Grandmother arrived she entered the house like a whirlwind. "Bobby!" La kissed my husband. She placed her tiny hands on his face. "You are more handsome than ever!"
Daddy and Lawton and Lincoln had never given Bobby credit for smarts, but he showed how wrong they were. "Granny La, get out of our lives. You and Claude will make us subject of a 20/20 broadcast. Reporters are already commenting that you both looked so young at Darian's funeral. Grandmother, I love you, but if I had not already married the most perfect girl in the world I'd be after you." Then he said: "You are more lovely than ever. The tabloid picture did you no justice. Nice breasts."
Grandmother smiled. "Thank you!"
Bobby scowled. "Die, you old hag, or I'll kill you and Claude Earl."
"Bob!" I slapped him about the head and shoulders. "You bastard!"
"Simmer down, Laja!" Bobby caught my wrists and kissed my fingers. "Your grandmother knows what I mean."
Grandmother lowered her eyes for a moment, then looked up. She gripped my arms, pulling me away from my husband. "He's right, you know."
"What are you talking about?" I cried. "I don't want either of you to die!"
La looked into my eyes then embraced me. "We aren't going to die. But we are an embarrassment for the family. So" she shook me gently "we should die to protect the family. You and Bobby are both of age to have had a fling and produced an of age daughter, or son. Me or Claude, or one or the other of us can be Darian's late seed, though Lara does not have the same understanding and we have not spoken to her about this."
"What are you saying?"
"The family must continue. My daughter recognized character in men. Your husband...well...he's a damn sight smarter than we all gave him credit and my daughter knew that, and he figured out in a minute what your grandfather and I have been planning for months."
My husband took my hand and explained. "Eternal life will ruin our family, Laja, and don't dare pretend you do not know." His arms surrounded me, his lips were near my ear. "Your mother gave me a chance. Your father gave me a chance because she asked. I have never failed you. I love this family and our family. What do you say? Do you want to have a grown daughter named La who was conceived out of wedlock some, uh" he looked at Grandmother, "twenty-two years ago, or should I make that claim and never name the woman? Your grandparents are going to perish in some kind of accident shortly, they must!" In a softer voice Bobby said, "I wouldn't mind having another daughter, but questions about the mother would complicate our lives. I'm okay with the media that you gave her birth after an extramarital affair and we have reconciled. I can tell them to piss off. Might make the news for a bit, but news is always today, rarely yesterday, and generally forgotten tomorrow."
Grandmother, who looked like anything but a grandmother, kissed Bobby then me. "Let me know whose daughter I am, and bless you! If you agree, of course!"
La split us apart and embraced me. "Laja, dear," she said, "Claude and I are on the verge of doing this charade. We both have to 'die' because we must. People are beginning to talk. If your marriage can stand the notoriety..."
I hugged my grandmother. Kissed her. We wept. Brushing tears from my eyes I said: "Go clean your room, young lady!"
Grandmother's eyes were moist. "I will," she replied, "just as soon as I kill off your grandfather and we can court again."
Bobby chuckled. "We'll discuss that when it is necessary."
La replied with a smile that was not a smile. "We'll chat, but get in my way and..."
The threat in her voice caused my response: "If you are perverse then..."
La suddenly grinned. "Claude is my husband, Laja! But I promise that as long as I live under your roof as a daughter I'll be goodas long as you're looking."
"Works for me," Bobby said. His grip on my hand was a punctuation, an end.
"Okay," I said. "How do we kill off grandmother and grandfather?"
La giggled. "Easy to kill Claude. Me, I want to go out in a blaze of glory."
Bobby chuckled. "In the company of one, two..."
"At least five young studs when our sailboat heading for Galveston from the Yucatan Peninsula and I am lost at sea. Claude dies in an oil well fire in Venezuela with six senoritas weeping at the report."
Bobby grinned. "A little overstatement on both accounts?"
"Not really," La giggled. "Claude would not know what to do with six and five would not be enough..."
I stepped close and stopped the giggle by gripping my ancestor's upper arm. "Grandmother, before I end up calling you daughter, how overstated is that? Mother told me you knew more than one man before grandfather and..."
My hand covered my mouth too late! Bobby looked at me, his blue eyes moist, his gray hair, too long, lay about his shoulders. He did not withdraw, but he also did not know what to do.
La did not flinch. "In my younger days I was a slut. In those days my promiscuity had a purpose in that time and place. When Claude came into my life that purpose disappeared. There has been no other in my heart since." Grandmother looked at me. "Perhaps this arrangement is not going to work, Laja. I would never want to cause you worry or pain." Grandmother shook free and headed toward the door. "It was a nice idea and thanks for considering it," she said at the entrance. "Be good to each other and"
"MISSY!" Bobby roared no louder than he had ever raised his voice at our own children. "Get your butt back here and sit down. Now!"
We could not have stopped her if La chose to leave.
La of Opar, the High Priestess who truly looked as young as her photos in the tabloids, did not act as young. "I am an old bitch, Bobby. You cannot tell me what"
"I can tell my daughter to do damn well what I please as long as she is my daughter. And Laja, you owe your grandmother an apology. Neither one of us are pure."
La stood at the door, speaking to herself. "If Claude and I could live again. But I will not be..."
Bobby said, "Shut up, La. You will do as you are told as long as you live in my house. You can date any buck you like as long as you appear at breakfast every morning. Fail that and..."
Grandmother ran from the door and embraced my husband. She kissed him a dozen times. Bobby looked over her shoulder for guidance. I made a gesture which he understood. Bobby hugged grandmother until her ribs creaked and she gasped for breath and she did not hide her tears of happiness.
My new adult daughter, as local news would soon discover, was a pistol. The tabloids picked up the story and some creative reporter determined that Lizzie Smith, Bobby adopted her, was the product of a long summer I had spent in Houston at my grandmother's home twenty-three years earlier. The tabloids also speculated for months that La Earl had been the victim of pirates in the Gulf of Mexico as she sailed the family's single mast yacht to Galveston. Lizzie and I laughed over that for the first few weeks, all those reports of her rape and slavery and eventual death.
Lizzie made a splash in the local environs, drove fast cars, rode fast horses. Caught the eye of every young buck. And was glad her "daddy" dumped buckets of parental water on all of them. She was there for every breakfast. She often rose before me and made breakfast. Those mornings we both were in the kitchen before Bobby rose LaLizziewas most vulnerable.
"I want my man, Laja!" Lizzie stamped her foot with a scowl. "More coffee?"
I nodded. "Did you ever come close to losing your man?" I asked. "I sure screwed up my life."
Lizzie's smile was bittersweet. "More times than I care to remember. I was so stupid in my youth. You see, I thought I loved another man." Lizzie went to the refrigerator and produced eggs, bacon, cheese and canned biscuits. "Your mother was the daughter of that man. My obsession with Elmo nearly undid us. May I ask you a question?"
"Sure. I'll decide if I want to give an honest answer."
"Why did you and Bobby split and act out?"
I remembered those bitter years with regret. I answered truthfully. "Bobby wanted more children. I told him I was not a baby factory and three was enough."
Lizzie paused as she peeled bacon from the package. She looked out the window and her shoulder shook. She turned away from me, wrapping her arms about herself, head bowed. I thought she was crying. I rose to comfort her but as soon as I turned the slim girl about I saw Lizzie was laughing so hard tears ran down her beautiful face. "You failed, mother. Here I am!"
I opened the drawer and took out the box of aluminum foil and covered the toaster oven's tray. I began placing biscuits on the sheet. "And you're a brat. Living proof I was right. Imp." I attempted a half dozen scowls and none of them phased Lizzie.
It was a small joke hardly worth the giggles that followed as we prepared breakfast. Giggles that subsided. Giggles that became quiet tears. A little jungle girl had lost part of her life. A rancher's wife had lost part of her life. When Bobby came to the kitchen he found two pairs of red eyes.
My husband poured himself a cup of coffee and sipped it, watching us at the table where we sat in our robes and pajamas. He began opening and closing drawers, cabinets, and that cabinet over the refrigerator.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Cartridges for my Colt. Your dogs need to be shot just to cheer you up."
It really wasn't difficult to watch Lizzie pitch a giggle fit and embrace Bobby. "Daddy!"
I looked at the pair of them as grandmother who was not grandmother fiercely hugged Bobby. He leaned against the kitchen counter and hugged back, tenderly stroking her hair. My world was upside down and somehow right.
"Bobby," I said, filling plates. "We don't have any dogs." I said what I should have said years before. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too," he said over Lizzie's head. "All of it."
Lizzie looked at both of us for a long moment and she shed happy tears. "I can keep breakfast warm if you...
Bobby slapped her little behind. "Promise me something, Lizzie."
"What?" she pouted, rubbing her bottom.
"Don't ever grow old. Ever."
Lizzie said the one thing we did not expect. "I never had a mother and a father before!" She ran from the room and the door to her bedroom slammed shut. I rose. Bobby stopped me.
"Trust me," he begged softly. I nodded. Bobby's voice rose to a gentle roar. "Lizzie! Front and center!"
Lizzie eventually appeared, eyes red. "Yes, sir?"
"What did I say?"
"I don't remember. I'm confused. I'm not me anymore."
"Breakfast. What did I say?"
Lizzie thought for a moment, then brightened. "At the table. Every morning! Yes, sir!" She kissed Bobby on the cheek and sat down. He did as well. I was the last one standing and because of that Bobby asked, "Where's the orange juice?"
We had not yet figured out how to kill Claude Earl, who had thrown himself into his work after the "death" of his wife. Then in October there was a real oil well fire in Venezuela and Claude Earl was reported to be among the injured. Lizzie saw that on the late night Friday news and entered our bedroom in a panic. "Mother, we have to go!"
Bobby stayed in bed, the sheets covering him. I put on my robe and then held the sobbing woman. "Be La right now. I need you to be grandmother and not Lizzie with new hormones. Is he dead?"
"They don't say. Help me, mother!"
I shook La by the shoulders. "I am not your mother. You didn't embark on this change without backup. Who do you call? Where do we go? Make that 100 year old brain work!"
She made the effort. "Hormones. Yes. And a fantasy." With a trembling sigh Lizzie ran her hand over her eyes. When she lowered it she said: "It is time to be the bitch again. I apologize for interrupting Friday night. That said, Laja, you and I are going to Washington. Bobby, can you drive us to town?"
"Am I invited?"
"Good. More beer for me. Run along and get dressed. I'll get the truck."
At the airport Bobby squeezed us both, Lizzie more than me. "Never had a 100 year old daughter before. Never was a smart man, except for one time," he gripped my hand. "Anything you need that I can give, just ask," then he embraced me. "You girls be good. Laja," Bobby's voice whispered in my ear, "something's going on with her. I'm not smart enough to figure out what, but she needs your help and you are the smartest of us both."
Lizzie and I caught the short commuter jump to Denver then a jet to Washington D.C. We spent some time at a Federal building where most were turned away. La's temper became short and she spoke some words that ushered us into the highest offices. I sat outside that office, feeling a bit frumpy as long-legged girls and handsome men in black suits walked the halls. I checked my watch when she entered. Checked it again when she emerged with several men escorting her. Twenty minutes had passed, though it seemed like a year.
"Come with us, mother," she said.
There was a motorcade outside and we entered a limousine. The men were large. Several had ear pieces and talked into their sleeves. I wanted to ask what was going on. Meanwhile, the senior man was speaking into a car phone. "Wyoming. Third generation."
He spoke so softly I could not understand all said, but through it all Lizzie held my hand. When we arrived at our destination she gripped my fingers tightly. "Can you do this, mother?"
I looked at the military jets on the airfield. Drawing her face to mine, I whispered: "Are we going after him?"
I wasn't dressed for an F-15 flight suit. Nor was La. We were issued appropriate apparel, stuffed in flight suits, and rocketed off the runway. I could not help myself. "Wahoo!" I shouted as one long scream as the jet roared to altitude.
"Ma'am? Are you alright?" the pilot asked.
"Better than, sonny boy! Make this pony run!"
The pilot laughed. "Ma'am I've flown senators and house skirtser, ladies before. None of them ever liked the ride."
"Private channel, Lieutenant?"
"On board only, Mrs. Smith."
"I like it so much I need to pee!
"Yes ma'am," he laughed. "Broadcast ma'am. Blue Leader to Blue Two. How are you doing?" There was an affirmative reply. "The old lady says go. Mission, this is Blue Leader. Request high cruise."
I didn't understand all that was said but when the pilot suggested I grip my panties I did as the jet accelerated. "Wahoo!"
We landed at an airfield at St. Thomas two and some hours later. As I exited the aircraft I asked the pilot, "Can we land here?"
"Yes ma'am. Sorry I could not fly you all the way. Good luck onwhatever."
I gripped his hand. "Thanks for a ride I won't forget." I proceeded to embarrass the officer. "Take your girl for such a ride!" I made it worse by saying, "or your mother. Thank you, sir. God be with you."
Passenger jets and other aircraft made the area a cacophony of sound. The young man leaned close. "Do you mind if I hug you? Wish my mother was as..."
I slapped his shoulder and put my arms around his lean body. "She is. Strong. Mothers are."
We picked up an island flight from St. Thomas and two bully boys. One spoke English but did not speak. Lizzie and I chatted with the other fellow and figured out one word in five before we landed at Caracas. We were handled by both to the hospital where grandfather lay injured with a broken leg. Like grandmother he looked young. A full head of black hair, a robust body. I turned away as they desperately embraced. Checking with the medical staff the patient was a man with no name and he appeared amnesiac. I stood in the hallway. The non-English-speaking escort we understood one word in five moved ahead to pass a thick packet to a doctor. He waited until he had a sheet of paper in hand then draped his arm about the doctor's shoulder. The promise of menace in his demeanor made me turn away.
I caught up with Lizzie. "What name?" I asked in a whisper as nurses moved through the hospital.
Lizzie begged me to provide one. "We have a death certificate for Claude Earl and I need to claim... We"
Lizzie's eyes begged me. "Keith Roberts," I said off the top of my head, two boys that had held my interest as a little girl. "Can suggest another..."
"Works for me, mother! A rose by another name is still a rose or something like that. You be the grieving granddaughter and I'll be the good girl worried about her boyfriend on the rig. And don't run your mouth, we aren't out of this yet."
Six weeks later Bobby hired Keith Roberts as a ranch hand at TomLa and put him to work for three months. Bobby turned a blind eye to Roberts dating his adopted daughter. Me? I never said anything the tabloids could use. I had fun suing one that was too creative to the tune of $4 million dollars. Success in that regard meant the Smith family, owners of the Langstrom ranch created by Tom and La Langstrom made telling lies gosh darn expensive. Of course, by the time the appeal was completed, we netted $200,000, which helped since the ranch was not doing as well as the old days.
Bobby was consistent with his promise. Lizzie and Keith could date. They could be together. We even turned a blind eye to him staying very late from time to time. But Lizzie had to be at the breakfast table each morning. The one time she stayed out all night with Keith her father read both of them the riot act, which looked a little funny as Keith towered over Bobby.
A month later, just before dawn, Lizzie threw ham steaks in a skillet while I made coffee. When Bobby entered she said, "Don't be mad, daddy, Keith stayed over..." She turned the ham steaks with practiced care and checked the hash browns in the other skillet. "I want to..."
Keith entered the kitchen, barefoot, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. His hair was mussed. Lizzie didn't see him until Keith said: "Your permission to marry the woman I love. Sir." But as soon as he said it she was over him like white on rice.
Bobby chuckled as he swayed in his chair. His voice was strong but his hands suddenly shook with a strange violence. "How do we get you back to oil and off the pony farm? My daughter deserves more than I can give."
Bobby slipped from the chair. Lizzie and Keith caught him. I dropped my spatula and ran to embrace his legs. We put him right and when he tried to touch my face and couldn't I quietly wept. "Laja, we did good! That girl reminds me of your grandmother. I"
We held the services at the ranch a few weeks before foreclosure. Bobby had done all he could to keep the family ranch alive. In the long run we could not win against government and subsidies lost which destroyed forever the family enterprise. In liquidation the land I loved went for a mere $677 an acre and the stock we held was barely worth $500,000 in the depressed market. The money earned did not clear the outstanding $1.1 million dollar debt. After bankruptcy (I would not let Lizzie bail me out!) I lost my house. Worse, over the years had I lost nearly all of my friends by out-living them.
But there was happiness. My daughter who was not my daughter married. My grandmother on a honeymoon. Surreal. I worked as a waitress at the local greasy spoon and lived in a small apartment not far from the library. Finally got around to reading all those books I meant to read but never had the time. In between, I remembered the ranch and Bobby, the kids. I remembered but no one else did. They don't remember my mother with her head shot out. They only remember her name and daddy's and my grandfather and grandmother's name. They all had a few good years before things got hard. That was wonderful!
"Mother, have a bite."
"Lizzie! Were you at breakfast? You know your father. Dear girl, vinegar and oil and you and I have been out of sorts. The doctors think me crazy."
"I know that, mother. They are wrong." Lizzie was as gorgeous as a magnolia blossom. "It is breakfast. I've been here every day, just as I promised."
"Do you know where Bobby is? They won't tell me. He must be off on a trip or seeing that hag girlfriend big breasts. I never had them. We can't meet the subsidy requirements, Lizzie. We'll be okay. How is that young fellow?"
Lizzie uttered a little laugh which was both happy and sad. "I married him again and made more babies. You remember that, don't you, mother? You're not going to let a little stroke get the best of you, are you?" The warmth of her body over mine was comfort.
I relaxed, my hand on her lustrous hair. She was my living history of my mothera patch-work history I had demanded filled because there was so much I did not know about my mother! My mother, the daughter of La, High Priestess of Opar. I closed my eyes.
"There's no give in you, mother!" Lizzie exclaimed.
I suddenly smiled, completely at peace since Bobby died. I was lucid for the first time in I could not recall how many days. "Yes, there is, Lizzie. I miss Bobby. I love you, grandmother bitch girlfriend daughter."
"I love you, too!"