Maps in a mirror, p.67

Maps in a Mirror, page 67


Maps in a Mirror

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  And suddenly through her fear the Queen saw a pattern of furniture, a lintel, a carpet, a window, and she knew where she was. She had accidently stumbled upon a familiar wing of the palace, and now she had purpose, she had direction, she would go where help and strength were waiting. To the throne room, to her husband, where the king was surely holding his Invocation. The servants caught up with her at last; now they bore her up. “To my husband,” she said, and they assured her and petted her and carried her. The thing within her leapt for joy: its time was coming quickly.

  Amasa could not watch the ceremonies. From the moment he entered the Hall of Heaven all he could see were the butterflies. They hovered in the dome that was painted like the midsummernight sky, blotting out the tiny stars with their wings; they rested high on painted pillars, camouflaged except when they fanned their graceful wings. He saw them where to others they were far too peripheral to be seen, for in the base of his brain the gates opened and closed, the poles reversed, always in the same rhythm that drove the butterflies’ flight and rest. Save the Queen, they said. We brought you here to save the Queen. It throbbed behind his eyes, and he could hardly see.

  Could hardly see, until the Queen came into the room, and then he could see all too clearly. There was a hush, the ceremonies stopped, and all gazes were drawn to the door where she stood, an undulant mass of flesh with a woman’s face, her eyes vulnerable and wide with fright and trust. The servants’ arms reached far into the folds of skin, finding God-knew-what grip there: Amasa only knew that her face was exquisite. Hers was the face of all women, the hope in her eyes the answer to the hope of all men. “My husband!” she cried out, but at the moment she called she was not looking at the King. She was looking at Amasa.

  She is looking at me, he thought in horror. She is all the beauty of Besara, she is the power of Kafr Katnei, she is the abyss of Ekdippa, she is all that I have loved and left behind. I do not want to desire them again.

  The King cried out impatiently, “Good God, woman!”

  And the Queen reached out her arms toward the man on the throne, gurgled in agony and surprise, and then shuddered like a wood fence in a wind.

  What is it, asked a thousand whispers. What’s wrong with the Queen?

  She stepped backward.

  There on the floor lay a baby, a little gray baby, naked and wrinkled and spotted with blood. Her eyes were open. She sat up and looked around, reached down and took the placenta in her hands and bit the cord, severing it.

  The butterflies swarmed around her, and Amasa knew what he was meant to do. As you snapped the butterfly, they said to him, you must break this child. We are Hierusalem, and we were built for this epiphany, to greet this child and slay her at her birth. For this we found the man most holy in the world, for this we brought him here, for you alone have power over her.

  I cannot kill a child, Amasa thought. Or did not think, for it was not said in words but in a shudder of revulsion in him, a resistance at the core of what in him was most himself.

  This is no child, the city said. Do you think the dragons have surrendered just because we stole their trees? The dragons have simply changed to fit a new mate; they mean to rule the world again. And the gates and poles of the city impelled him, and Amasa decided a thousand times to obey, to step a dozen paces forward and take the child in his arms and break it. And as many times he heard himself cry out, I cannot kill a child! And the cry was echoed by his voice as he whispered, “No.”

  Why am I standing in the middle of the Hall of Heaven, he asked himself. Why is the Queen staring at me with horror in her eyes? Does she recognize me? Yes, she does, and she is afraid of me. Because I mean to kill her child. Because I cannot kill her child.

  As Amasa hesitated, tearing himself, the gray infant looked at the King. “Daddy,” she said, and then she stood and walked with gathering certainty toward the throne. With such dextrous fingers the child picked at her ear. Now. Now, said the butterflies.

  Yes, said Amasa. No.

  “My daughter!” the King cried out. “At last an heir! The answer to my Invocation before the prayer was done—and such a brilliant child!”

  The King stepped down from his throne, reached to the child and tossed her high into the air. The girl laughed and tumbled down again. Once more the King tossed her in delight. This time, however, she did not come down.

  She hovered in the air over the King’s head, and everyone gasped. The child fixed her gaze on her mother, the mountainous body from which she had been disgorged, and she spat. The spittle shone in the air like a diamond, then sailed across the room and struck the Queen on her breast, where it sizzled. The butterflies suddenly turned black in midair, shriveled, dropped to the ground with infinitesimal thumps that only Amasa could hear. The gates all closed within his mind, and he was all himself again; but too late, the moment was passed, the child had come into her power, and the Queen could not be saved.

  The King shouted, “Kill the monster!” But the words still hung in the air when the child urinated on the King from above. He erupted in flame, and there was no doubt now who ruled in the palace. The gray shadow had come in from the walls.

  She looked at Amasa, and smiled. “Because you were the holiest,” she said, “I brought you here.”

  Amasa tried to flee the city. He did not know the way. He passed a palmer who knelt at a fountain that flowed from virgin stone, and asked, “How can I leave Hierusalem?”

  “No one leaves,” the palmer said in surprise. As Amasa went on, he saw the palmer bend to continue scrubbing at a baby’s hands. Amasa tried to steer by the patterns of the stars, but no matter which direction he ran, the roads all bent toward one road, and that road led to a single gate. And in the gate the child waited for him. Only she was no longer a child. Her slate-gray body was heavy-breasted now, and she smiled at Amasa and took him in her arms, refused to be denied. “I am Dalmanutha,” she whispered, “and you are following my road. I am Acrasia, and I will teach you joy.”

  She took him to a bower on the palace grounds, and taught him the agony of bliss. Every time she mated with him, she conceived, and in hours a child was born. He watched each one come to adulthood in hours, watched them go out into the city and afix themselves each to a human, some man, some woman, or some child. “Where one forest is gone,” Dalmanutha whispered to him, “another will rise to take its place.”

  In vain he looked for butterflies.

  “Gone, all gone, Amasa,” Acrasia said. “They were all the wisdom that you learned from my ancestors, but they were not enough, for you hadn’t the heart to kill a dragon that was as beautiful as man.” And she was beautiful, and every day and every night she came to him and conceived again and again, telling him of the day not long from now when she would unlock the seals of the gates of Hierusalem and send her bright angels out into the forest of man to dwell in the trees and mate with them again.

  More than once he tried to kill himself. But she only laughed at him as he lay with bloodless gashes in his neck, with lungs collapsed, with poison foul-tasting in his mouth. “You can’t die, my Saint Amasa,” she said, “Father of Angels, you can’t die. For you broke a wise, a cruel, a kind and gentle butterfly.”



  “Take her,” Agnes’s father said, his dry eyes pleading. Agnes’s mother stood just behind him, wringing the towel she held in her hand. “I can’t,” Brian Howarth said, embarrassed that he had to say that, ashamed that he actually could say it. The death of the nation of Biafra was a matter of days now, not weeks, and he and his wife were some of the last to go. Brian had come to love the Ibo people, and Agnes’s father and mother had long since ceased to be servants—they were friends. Agnes herself, a bright five-year-old, had been a delight, learning English even before she learned her native tongue, constantly playing hide-and-seek in the house. A bright child, a hopeful child, and from all that Brian had heard (and he believed it, even though he was a correspondent a
nd knew the exaggerations that wartime news always had to endure), from all he had heard the Nigerian Army would not stop to ask anyone “Is this child bright? Is this child beautiful? Does this child have a sense of humor as keen as any adult’s?” Instead she would be gutted with a bayonet as quickly as her parents, because she was an Ibo, and the Ibos had done what the Japanese did a half-century before: they had become westernized before any of their neighbors, and profited from it. The Japanese had been on an island, and they had survived. The Ibos were not on an island, and Biafra was destroyed by Nigerian numbers and British and Russian weapons and a blockade that no nation on earth made any effort to relieve, not on a scale that could save anyone.

  “I can’t,” Brian Howarth said again, and then he heard his wife behind him (her name was also Agnes, for the little girl’s parents had named their first and only child after her) whisper, “By God you can or I’m not going.”

  “Please,” Agnes’s father said, his eyes still dry, his voice still level. He was begging, but his body said I am still proud and will not weep and kneel and subjugate myself to you. Equal to equal, his body said, I ask you to take my treasure, for I will die and cannot keep it anyway.

  “How can I?” Brian asked helplessly, knowing that the space on the airplane was limited and the correspondents were forbidden to take any Biafrans with them.

  “We can,” his wife whispered again, and so Brian reached out his arms and took Agnes and held her. Agnes’s father nodded. “Thank you, Brian,” he said, and Brian was the one who wept and said, “I’m sorry, if any people in the world deserve to be free—”

  But Agnes’s parents were already gone, heading for the forest before the Nigerian Army could get into town.

  Brian and his wife took little Agnes to the stretch of abandoned highway that served as the last airport in free Biafra and took off in an airplane crammed with correspondents and luggage and more than one Biafran child sitting in the darkest corners of what was never meant to be a passenger plane. Agnes’s eyes were wide all through the flight. She did not cry. She had never cried much as an infant. She just held tightly to Brian Howarth’s hand.

  When the airplane landed in the Azores, where they would change to a flight to America, Agnes finally asked, “What about my parents?”

  “They can’t come,” Brian said.

  “Why not?”

  “There wasn’t room.”

  And Agnes looked at the many places where another couple of human beings could sit or stand or lie, and she knew that there were other, far worse reasons why her parents couldn’t be with her.

  “You’ll be living with us in America now,” Mrs. Howarth said.

  “I want to live in Biafra,” Agnes said. Her voice was so loud that it could be heard throughout the airplane.

  “Don’t we all,” said the woman farther to the front. “Don’t we all.”

  The rest of the flight Agnes passed in silence, unimpressed by the clouds and the ocean below her. They landed in New York, changed planes again, and at last reached Chicago. Home.

  “Home?” Agnes echoed, looking at the two-story brick house that loomed out of the trees and lawn and seemed to hang brightly over the street, “This isn’t home.”

  Brian couldn’t argue with her. For Agnes was a Biafran, and there would never be home for her again.

  Years later, Agnes would remember little about her escape from Africa. She would remember being hungry, and how Brian gave her two oranges when they landed at the Azores. She would remember the sound of antiaircraft fire, and the rocking of the plane when one shell exploded dangerously near. Most of all, however, she remembered the white man sitting across from her in the dark airplane. He kept looking at her, then at Brian and Agnes Howarth. Brian and his wife were black, but their blackness had been diluted by frequent infusions of white blood in past generations; little Agnes was much, much darker, and the white man finally said. “Little girl. You Biafran?”

  “Yes,” Agnes said softly.

  The white man looked angrily at Brian. “That’s against the regulations.”

  Brian calmly answered, “The world will not shift on its axis because a regulation was broken.”

  “You shouldn’t have brought her,” the white man insisted, as if she were breathing up his air, taking up his space.

  Brian didn’t answer. Mrs. Howarth did. “You’re only angry,” she said. “because your Biafran friends asked you to take their children, and you refused.”

  The man looked angry, then hurt, then ashamed. “I couldn’t. They had three children. How could I claim they were mine? I couldn’t do it!”

  “There are white people on this airplane with Biafran children,” Mrs. Howarth said.

  Angry, the white man stood. “I followed the regulations! I did the right thing!”

  “So relax,” Brian said, quietly but with a command in his voice. “Sit down. Shut up. Console yourself that you obeyed the regulations. And think of those children with a bayonet slicing—”

  “Sh,” Mrs. Howarth said. The white man sat back down. The argument was over. But Agnes always remembered that afterward, the man had wept bitterly, for what seemed hours, sobbing almost silently, his back heaving. “I couldn’t do a thing,” she heard him say. “A whole nation dying, and I couldn’t do a thing.”

  Agnes remembered those words. “I couldn’t do a thing,” she sometimes said to herself. At first she believed it, and wept for her parents in the silence in her home on the outskirts of Chicago. But gradually, as she forced her way past the barriers society placed before her sex and her race and her foreign background, she learned to say something different:

  “I can do something.”

  She went back to Nigeria with her adopted parents, the Howarths, ten years later. Her passport showed her to be an American citizen. They returned to her city and asked her real family where her parents were.

  “Dead,” she was told, not unkindly. No relative closer than a second cousin was left alive.

  “I was too young,” she said to her parents. “I couldn’t do a thing.”

  “Me too,” Brian said. “We were all too young.”

  “But I’ll do something someday,” Agnes said. “I’ll make up for this.”

  Brian thought she meant revenge, and spent many hours trying to dissuade her. But Agnes did not mean revenge.


  Hector felt large when he saw the light, large, and full and bright and vigorous, and the light was the right color and the right brightness and so Hector gathered himselves and followed the light and drank in deep.

  And because Hector loved to dance, he found the right place and began to bow, and spin, and arch, and crest, and be a thing of great dark beauty.

  “Why are we dancing?” the Hectors asked themself.

  And Hector told himselves, “Because we are happy,”


  Agnes was already known as one of the two or three best skipship pilots when the Trojan Object was discovered. She had made two Mars trips and dozens of journeys to the moon, many of them solo, just her and the computer, others of them with valuable cargos—famous people, vital medicines, important secret information—the kind of thing valuable enough to make it worth the price of sending a skipship from the ground out into space.

  Agnes was a pilot for IBM-ITT, the largest of the companies that had invested in space; and it was partly because IBM-ITT promised that she would be pilot on the expedition that the corporation won the lucrative government contract to investigate the Trojan Object.

  “We got the contract,” Sherman Riggs told her, and she had been so involved in updating the equipment of her skipship that she didn’t know what he meant.

  “The contract,” he said. The contract. To go to the Trojan Object. And you’re the pilot.”

  It was not Agnes’s habit to show emotion, whether negative or positive. The Trojan Object was the most important thing in space right now, a large, completely light-absorbent object in Earth’s leading
trojan point. One day it had not been there. The next day it had, blotting out the stars beyond it and causing more of a stir in the space-watching world than a new comet or a new planet. After all, new objects should not suddenly appear a third of the way around Earth’s orbit. And now it would be Agnes who would pilot the craft that would first view the Trojan Object up close.

  “Danny,” she said, naming her Leaner, the lover/engineer who always teamed with her on two-person assignments. On a long trip like this, no pilot could stand to be without his Leaner.

  “Of course,” Sherman answered. “And two more. Roger and Rosalind Thorne. Doctor and astronomer.”

  “I know them.”

  “Good or bad?”

  “Good enough. Good. If we can’t get Sly and Frieda.”

  Sherman rolled his eyes. “Sly and Frieda and GM-Texaco, and there isn’t a chance in hell—”

  “I hate it when you roll your eyes, Sherman. It makes me think you’re having a fit. I know Sly and Frieda are hopeless, but I had to ask, didn’t I?”

  “Roj and Roz.”


  “How much do you know about the Trojan Object?”

  “More than you do and less than I’ll need to.”

  Sherman tapped his pencil on his desk. “All right, I’ll send you straight to the experts.”

  And a week later, Agnes and Danny and Roj and Roz were ensconced in Agnes’s skipship, sweeping down the runway at Clovis, New Mexico. The acceleration was frightful, particularly after they were vertical, but it was not long before they were in a high orbit, and not much longer than that before they were free of the Earth’s gravity, making the three-month trip to Earth’s leading trojan point, where something waited for them.

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