Call of the Queen
In the East, the African night broke into pink and gold streaks. Suitcase in hand, backpack strapped on, Garcia sprang out his apartment door. Fresh dawn breezes filled the sails of his spirits.
He told his driver in broken Saburian, “I’m going to see boy in the States, feel like boy myself, like I fly in airplane first time.”
He added, “Much excited! Do you understand me?”
“Your Saburian is excellent sir,” the driver responded in crisp English.
Filled with anticipation for more tech-talk with Campbell, how Campbell’s phone lost and found three minutes, then to tell his friend a TickleClock physics joke George had shared, he practiced his Saburian on a few more surprised locals.
After boarding the Saburian Air Force jet, he saw that the front section was curtained off for Queen Noru and her retinue. Hearing the familiar bark of her dog, he hoped it wouldn’t be a noisy ride.
He had a frightening encounter with the queen’s dog one night on the coastal base. Bred to guard — like the lean German Shepherd “Alsatians” on the coastal base — the Anatolian Shepherd was a working animal with an exotic-sounding name.
“Kalrissian, that’s his name from Turkey,” said the trainer.
But “Hound” stuck as the dog’s English name when Garcia dubbed it “Hound of the Baskervilles” after the murderous dog of the Sherlock mystery.
Thankfully, a partition separated the section where he sat in the back of the plane. He hoped it would muffle the noise Then he heard the wail of a baby.
George’s Argentinian pediatrician used to prescribe a drug to help him sleep on trips as a child. Sheraton had criticized that medical practice as outdated.
“They only do that to animals anymore,” she said.
Apparently not — even to sedate Hound. He heard more barking and more wailing. Then the airplane engines whirred on their white noise.
Hugging Aisha before boarding the plane, Noru said, “It’ll only be four months then I’ll be back,” She buried her face and sobs in the other woman’s embrace.
“Be brave and strong,” Aisha said. “You’re a wife of Pharaohs. Anything, everything in this world is your servant.”
On the plane, Noru pressed her hand against the vibrating glass and waved goodbye to Aisha who stood unmoving on the tarmac. Willing her eyes to stay dry, she pulled her baby to her chest wanting him to feel the same comfort that Aisha always gave her as a child, then gave him the bottle of formula for takeoff so that his ears would not pop.
As on the India trip, Noru had a bilingual retinue: two maids, a bodyguard and the dog handler. At least they had obtained travel clearances for Kalrissian. He usually appeared to be sleeping. Yet, in no time, if the mastiff perceived a threat, he morphed into a monstrous beast of bark and menace, baring his inch-long canines. The door to his crate was always open.
Before leaving, Noru had visited a childhood friend from her hometown. Holding infants, holding hands, they sat in her friend’s visiting room. Tearfully, Noru asked her friend, “Did you hear about my brother?”
“I’m so grieved,” her friend said.
A slow ceiling fan stirred the still warm air.
After some time, her friend gently continued, “So many people are still missing. I hope some of them turn up even as prisoners. Or in the hospital.”
Reciting names, she then pleaded, “Queen, I have family in jail. Now it’s becoming a political problem for my husband. But our loyalty to the new king is unquestionable.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
They embraced goodbye. Her friend whispered into her ear, “You should know: Queen Salma delayed her son’s return until after your husband’s death. She sent him shopping in Dubai. She must have known what was going to happen.”
Noru told Aisha this news. They were walking in the garden with the dog. Noru commanded Kalrissian to bark to frustrate eavesdroppers.
Then she said, “How can Salma let that happen to the father of her son?”
Aisha nodded. “Queen Salma, Prince Abdul: their family holds on to power while others are defeated.”
The quiet evening, only the distant call of crows, settled back around them. The dog turned around, puzzled to see no threat.
“You approve?” asked Noru furiously.
“My queen, I only observe. You mustn’t let emotions get in the way of taking care of yourself and your baby.”
LIke Garcia, George too was on a plane now returning to Pandolf for the start of his junior year in high school. During his weeklong visit to Chicago, he had missed his friends. His crush on Carrie Mather continued unabated.
Taking him out for walks and lunches, AnnaMaria reminded him often to “disconnect” from his phone.
Dropping him off at O’Hare, she said, “Have a great visit with your dad. Text me when you land. It’s so nice when you visit, and we speak Spanish.”
“You could have married one of us. A LatinX.”
She looked hurt.
He asked, “Why don’t you care about the ‘double-trouble boil and bubble’ — breaking into jumbled Shakespeare in English — here in Chicago, it’s people on all bands of the spectrum, race, religion, sexuality, class … you should care more about the social injustice we’re mired in.”
“I love Max,” she chided. “That was unkind.”
“I meant,” he argued, “that being with Uncle Max, many of the people you spend time with don’t speak our language — not well at least — and they also look down on us.”
“Jorge, that’s not my problem. In the United States, I’m just as good as anyone. Your dad says that in Saburia, he’s in the minority tribe there too, and it doesn’t make him any less of a person.
“Besides,” she added, patting her Empire waisted dress where it flowed out — over a bump he hadn’t noticed before — “You’ll have a cousin soon. Your dad knows.”
George’s eyes widened. “Wait, what happened to Uncle Max not wanting more children?”
“He changed his mind.”
“You changed his mind.” George laughed, getting ready to playfully push her. Then he stopped.
“Can’t do that any more. Oh my,” he said in English, mimicking his uncle. “Congrats!”
She squeezed him in an uncomfortable too-tight too-warm goodbye hug. She even smelled different. He picked up his suitcase — side-pocket still unzipped from when he had removed the Pandolf map for the officers — and walked into the airport.
He texted Charlie: “They’ll tell my baby cousin that Big Cousin George is visiting.”
He pictured future dinners in Chicago, more of AnnaMaria’s home cooked Latin-Italian-French fusion-style meals. Max would describe his complicated world of painting, exhibits, sales and the antics of various players in the Chicago art universe who intertwined in complicated boring relationships that formed an unspoken language between his aunt and uncle.
Uncle Max could now afford his own studio which he rented in the same building as his art dealer, Nick. A few days ago, they had invited him to another exhibit, this time at Nick’s gallery. Three years had passed since George had attended his last art exhibit. The Pierre Building gallery had since closed.
His uncle grumbled, “I liked the Pierre location better. But after taking over management, Jim turned the gallery into a penthouse suite. So much for actually caring about art.”
“A suite for Jim and..?” AnnaMaria started and checked herself..
George wished they wouldn’t censor themselves around him. He was sixteen years old now and it was old news that Mr. Sichet had girlfriends although he was married.
AnnaMaria had then added, “I hope Jim’s not there today at the exhibit; he gives me a strange feeling.”
“He’s still buying my work and having me critique his …ummm paintings,” Max said with a wink at his wife. “George, you remember Jim from the last exhibit?”
“Yes, that gallery had beautiful views.”
“Indeed,” his uncle said, “The Pierre is classic Chicago architecture — not like the big ugly box that Nick’s ego came in where he has his studio. Nothing to miss today, George — it’s OK that you don’t want to go — no gourmet food, just art, more art and schmoozing and boozing grownups.”
“I won’t be drinking,” said AnnaMaria.
Now George understood why.
Uncle Max had been dressed in a tux, and AnnaMaria had spent most of the day at the salon, getting hair, nails and skin buffed. She gave George a light, perfumed hug, speaking in English as she generally did when Max was there.
“Don’t want to mess up my face and do,” she said, and “Wish you’d come but understand. There’s no one your age there.”
Then they were gone.
Sticking on earbuds, George had decided to go for a musical walk in the park. Someone was waving to him from the outdoor cafe. He hadn’t seen Callie for over a year. She was sitting alone with a glass of wine and a mug of coffee.
“I’ve been calling your name. I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said. “You’ve grown up so much.”
It’s what adults said a lot. George politely smiled.
She asked him the usual questions, “How’s school?” “What are you doing for fun? Dating anyone?”
Feeling his face heat up, he shook his head, disappointed that Callie was behaving like another annoying grownup.
“How are your uncle and aunt?”
“I forgot, yes, they must be at the exhibit with my husband. That’s why I’m here by myself.”
“You didn’t want to go?”
She waved a hand. “No, thank you,” she said emphatically. “But if you aren’t doing anything this evening, you should come to my house and have Chinese for dinner. It’s just a short walk from here.”
“I eat a lot.”
She laughed happily as if he had said something hilarious. “We’ll manage.” Watching her smile, he remembered a sublime Spanish phrase of poetry about dawn …or was it a lullaby his mother had sung — nothing, he thought, could be more delightful than spending the evening with her.
He wished Callie hadn’t cut her hair, which used to be long enough to pin up in a bun. Her choppy cut resembled Carrie’s new style. Stray tendrils which used to float down the sides of their faces were just tender memories.
They had walked, her skirt blowing in the breeze, her hair glistening with flashes of the late afternoon sun and her face shadowed with rippling shades of pink and brown as overhanging leafy trees cast shadows.
Too soon, their walk was over. Callie had tapped the dinner order into the phone,
“We usually get the same thing: potstickers, crab rangoon, cashew chicken, orange chicken, hot and sour soup…
“George…?” he heard her ask. “What do you think?”
“But you haven’t been listening.”
George was staring at a man sitting on the steps of the front porch of the house she was turning into. He had seen him before.
“Oh, George, this is Mr. Michael Kochanski. He’ll also be joining us.”
George didn’t really want anyone to be “joining” them.
“Hi, George,” Kochanski said. “You don’t remember me do you? We met at an art exhibit in my building some time back. Callie, I decided to just wait outside until you came.”
At least, this man with an accent did not go on about how “You’ve grown, you’re a man now, heh heh,” and other nonsense that came out of decomposing bodies like his.
There were even more people inside the cluttered home, an energetic young woman named Marcella and two children, Sarah and Richard. Another kid emerged, a blob from somewhere in the layers of books, papers, mail, toys, artwork and photos littering every surface like the leaves that the trees would be shedding in a few weeks.
“Sit down anywhere,” Callie instructed. “Just move stuff to make room. We’ll eat in the kitchen. The food will be here soon.”
Sighing, she added, “I’d better go clear the table.”
Kochanski said, “I’ll come help you.”
George heard their voices fade away. “Sure, I’ll open it,” he heard Kochanski say.
He heard a drawer opening.
“Where’s the corkscrew? It’s usually here.”
More grownup mumbling followed.
He was left with Marcella and the children in the living room. They wanted to play “Apocalypse 2050.”
“It’s a game where we have to survive after major disasters,” said Richard. Then he ticked off a list: plagues, deadly flooding, toxic fires, drought, starvation, radioactivity, but ‘people are our smartest and most lethal enemy.'”
“I know,” said George.
Marcella shook her head. “I wish your mom didn’t let you play awful games with such a despairing view of our future. I’m grateful I have faith…”
They ignored her, their eyes on George.
“I bet I can beat all of you.” George grinned proudly. “I’m a Leader Level 8 in A’50 so let me show you some things.”
The children’s eyes widened. He scratched his bristly chin and sat down on a sagging couch in front of the game screen.
In the kitchen, Kochanski asked Callie, “How’re things going?”
“Same,” she said, sighing. “Just the daily routine: kids, housework, kids …and did I mention the children?”
From the small kitchen table, Kochanski removed the clutter of books and photographs of various people whose portraits Alex was painting and precariously stacked them on other stacks.
Carefully watching her, he said, “Callie, you could go back to school or get a hobby or something else that’s a break from the housework routine.”
She looked at him and then away.
“Has Jim wrapped it up with his painting of you?” he asked. “Then you’ll have time to do other things.”
She had her back to him as she searched inside an open cabinet.
“Hmmm, here you go.” She turned around to hand him a corkscrew.
Her wide eyes now appeared to see right through him.
“Michael, you’re right, Alex and I want so much more than this.” She waved her hand around the old kitchen. “I notice you did not suggest getting a ‘real job’ or becoming a better housekeeper. Thank you.”
Max Herman had painted that enigmatic smile, he thought. Irreverent masters painted earthly models like her — who changed smiles like clothes — even as ethereal saints and angels.
“Yes, the artwork with Jim is not steady,” said Callie. “But he is training me for other jobs. When foreign families come into town to visit, I’ll help them to adjust to Chicago, get out — or in cold weather, stay in. I’ll take them to private rooms in our world-class restaurants, guide ordering food or take them to shows, jazz bars, museums and shopping appointments…
“It’ll mean looking good. My job now pays for that as a work expense. Just think, I can go to one of those boutiques in the Gold Coast and actually buy something for me too.”
She touched her multi-colored hair proudly. “Did you notice?”
He drained his first glass of wine, missing his Dew. “That you’re like me, a migrant to a big city with low expectations of the world and hungry for everything on its menu.”
Like Oscar, Callie loved to chat, confess, spin stories and she would tell him everything and nothing. He would be left to sift fact from fiction.
Saturday evening ended with Kochanski giving George a ride back home.
“If I could live in Callie’s home, I would be so happy,” George said, “Richard and Sarah don’t know how lucky they are.”
The following week, Kochanski, Beth and Jim Sichet descended into the basement of the Pierre. Sichet proposed moving Beth’s office into the basement to free up even more rental space above ground. If Beth was unhappy about it, she was too professional to show it.
Now Kochanski wondered how much Sichet might know about the Purple project and the biological specimens he and Garcia had stored in the Pierre building’s basement freezers.
Sichet had told him that his friendship with King Mohammed dated back to their old boarding school. After the king’s fatal crash, the lawyer only said, “My friend just died unexpectedly, Michael. It’s too painful to talk about right now.”
Did the police tell Sichet that he was the Vermeer’s owner, actually his used-to-be-mine painting, now cloaked in anonymity somewhere in Saburia and lost again to the centuries.
When the appraiser in New York City had “discovered” the authenticity of his Vermeer, the brief splash of publicity had terrified Kochanski — even though his identity was kept “private?” What if his lies about the art “being in his family” were discovered. Or his enemies back home in Poland found out that he still lived?
At that time, he had not answered emails, or responded to requests for interviews and for a while, he even dodged detectives and supposed “relatives.”
Beth talked numbers and gestured with French-tipped fingernails at the basement’s cement walls, describing the transformation to come.
“Beth,” Kochanski said, “you are amazing, the chapel is now a restaurant, the art gallery a luxury suite, and the Pierre Building has become a cash cow for all of us.”
She gave him a stony look.
He didn’t mind because what he wanted to say to her, would find another way to do it, was: Thank you, Beth, Katya’s bills for graduate school, a condo in London and therapy are all being paid for now.
So at the end of her dull and detailed monologue, he said, “I meant to say thank you, Beth, that’s all.”
He decided he would have to get her a gift, the Old World way, Americans liked that. But there would be a condition she would need to understand.
So he added gravely, “I still need reassurances that the construction won’t disturb the refrigerators and freezers. Soria Medical monitors them remotely. Their scientist, Dr. Garcia, will be here to inspect them soon and says that any temperature fluctuations will damage the biological specimens inside.”
“Of course. Soria Clinics is a paying customer too Michael.” she said smiling, flashing her whiter-than-natural teeth.
She walked away, fleshy feet squeezed into high heels, a tall and large suited woman with a brassy red haircut helmet who had given the Pierre property her Midas touch.
Sichet then surprised him. “Let’s get lunch. There’s a game on.”
Along with a sandwich, Kochanski ordered himself a house vodka — his Dew— which now came in a designer monogrammed keepsake tumbler “DEW” with ice.
“Huh?” said Sichet, looking at it. “Like the CocaCola monogram, good idea.”
Sichet’s eyes then riveted to the wall screen — a Chicago Cubs game — and asked for mineral water to go with his salmon.
Kochanski looked up. Only people who had grown up in America, he thought, found baseball exciting: players standing around waiting for their turn at bat, or for a ball to randomly bullet in their direction — on a waste-of-good-green- field.
He said, “Jim, business is good … even if that wasn’t my original vision for my building. Money is the world’s common denominator.”
“Yeah,” Sichet muttered absently, his eyes on the game. “Beth managing the property has saved you financially.”
“Yes,” Kochanski agreed. As Sichet’s business arm — the smile to her boss’s fist — Beth now sent him a hefty monthly payment, his main source of income.
After the third replay of a Cubs player striking out, Kochanski interrupted the announcer’s manic commentary. “So Jim, question, the penthouse suite renovations will be finished soon and then what?”
“I’ve got a potential renter for that suite,” replied Sichet, “don’t worry. Uggh, this season has not gone well.
“I know that you can’t afford to move into your own building,” Sichet finished.
“Easy come, easy go,” Kochansk muttered. “I don’t want to move into my building.”
Still Kochanski now admitted to himself he felt let down. His art gallery had become a penthouse suite. The chapel was now a bar and restaurant — that served food and drink he usually did not pick — and played a channel with few sports that he enjoyed.
The Cubs lost. Sichet looked dispirited.
“Jim,” he said, “sorry they lost. But there’s something else I really want to talk about?”
“I figured you were needing help with something — again?”
“What happened to Oscar Sanchez?”
“I can’t say I know who he is. But I know that you were a painting’s owner before King Mohammed. Poor pretty art thing.
Kochanski looked at him blankly.
“That’s a drum sound, Michael.”
Sichet continued, “The art came in an unmarked package to my house. My wife was annoyed. Frances doesn’t like surprise deliveries given the type of people I work with sometimes.
“We just turned it over to the police. I took a photo and looked it up online and discovered it was “The Window” or “Dream-catcher” or whatever else the media called it. I casually mentioned it to King Mohammed.
“He told me that he was going to buy it from you. Surprise! So I guess you had socked the art away and it had been under the radar since then — except for the insurance company’s record.
“As for someone not even legally in this country, the police can’t be investigating every Chicago murder.
“Why would I kill anyone, Michael? I don’t have your painting, and there’s nothing in it for me. So tell me, Michael, why were you having a copy made? Insurance fraud?
“You know, I was so disappointed to see Callie involved. Beauty’s not moral. She’s no angel — instead quite the actress.
“I just enjoy her — as an art model I mean — and suggest that you don’t become an infatuated idiot.”
Kochanski stared at the icy slush at the bottom of his glass. Sichet did not know what it was like to grow up poor — and drunk — in Polish winters. Vodka-tuned perception now active, he heard a rare edge of emotion in Sichet’s voice.
Strange for a lawyer, he thought, Sichet now appeared to be searching for words.
“Michael,” Sichet asked, “are you suggesting that I have a role in a murder? Are you problem-drinking again?
“After everything I have done to help you. Maybe you heard something slanderous about me? If anything happens to Callie, it would be her jealous husband…or you.”
Looking back up at commercials on the television screen, Sichet abruptly got up. “I just can’t watch this anymore.
“Just speculating here, Michael, but maybe the king ordered Oscar’s execution because he also suspected you were plotting insurance fraud and didn’t want to get mixed up in it.”
Kochanski kept his eyes on his now empty tumbler, waiting for Sichet to leave . Who had once advised him, “Humiliation is a teacher?”
As bitter and icy as his next shot, his new life in America was that of an outsider Pole with an accent who had just escaped bankruptcy, given up his painting and almost lost his prize property —on Sichet’s home turf of Chicago.
Oil over troubled water, the vodka soothed the waves of anger rolling over him. Sichet must have been the snitch, he concluded, who told the king about his forgery plot, discovering it while he was stalking Callie, getting to know everything about her and finding out that Oscar was a regular night-time visitor to her home.
Someone grazed his shoulder forcefully. He turned to his right and was surprised that Sichet was still standing next to him.
“I cared about Oscar…the same way I care about Callie.”
“Of course. And Saburia? Are you doing any work for the new regime?”
“When you were in Saburia, did you meet any other members of the royal family?”
“Just King Mohammed,” Kochanski replied. “Only twice, once about the painting and the second time after the construction of the clinic on the military base.”
Sichet nodded thoughtfully. “King Mohammed and I knew each other at boarding school. My father knew his father from years before. They did business together. There was an older brother named Bassam who also went to our school. Did you hear anything about him?”
“Just rumors, why?” Kochanski asked. “They say he was exiled for partying too much, others say it was because he’s handicapped.”
Sichet examined his manicured nails. “Bassam has always used a wheelchair. He was in a school club back then that King Mohammed and I also belonged to, just a few kids in every class. But our organization longer exists, a good thing too, because it excluded people and even blackballed them unfairly.
“Now, what about those biological specimens in the basement of the Pierre? I think you shouldn’t have any more secrets from me. Finish that drink — and let’s talk in the lobby. Remember your daughter and don’t waste my time.”
In a quiet corner of the lobby, Kochanski warily disclosed details about the Purple project.
“So one of the twins survived,” said Sichet. “Which one: the Genghis Khan or the other?”
“That I honestly don’t know, Jim.”
Sichet changed the subject. “OK, Beth says you’re going to the Ozarks to visit a doctor friend, a woman hmmm? That’s good. You need a woman in your life, Michael, besides your needy daughter.”
Kochanski smiled. “Dr. Elise Sheraton is just a friend who worked with us in Saburia on the initial phase of our cancer trials. She’s now in Missouri, setting up a rural clinic for the regional hospital.
“But she doesn’t know anything about the Purple project, just that the Queen was pregnant and had the baby.”
“Where does Dr. Sheraton live?” asked Sichet.
“Don’t know the address yet.”
Sichet’s eyes told him he knew Kochanski was lying, ocean blues that signalled dominance, awakening memories of power hierarchies of gangs in the Old World.
“I remember now,” Kochanski conceded. “It’s a town called Endon.”
“Have you ever been to the Ozarks?”
Sichet said, “I have, it’s a great getaway from the tensions here in Chicago and from the wife. I fly to St. Louis, rent a car and then just drive for hours. Some of the prettiest country in the world. I could give you some pointers.
“Do you have the phone app ‘Show-Me?’ It’s new for navigating the rural areas in Missouri where there are no lights and no satellite signal. Also, that part of our country is reverting to lawlessness. Let me install it for you.”
Kochanski hesitated, then spoke into his phone to open it.
Later, he would ask the Saburian techie at the embassy to double-check his phone for spyware. With Chicago’s high cost-of-living, the young man appreciated the side-jobs Kochanski gave him.
Thin hair transparent over chrome scalp, Sichet bent over the phone and loaded the app.
Near the aptly named Endon within the ancient Ozark Mountains, Elise Sheraton fell asleep to the hoot-hoot of an owl in her dark cabin. When she awoke, it was not yet dawn. A chorus of birds —she only recognized the call of a cardinal — now punctuated the silence in the surrounding woods.
She pulled the comforter over her chin and closed her eyes, then slowly rose and blindly pushed feet into slippers. It was time to get to work.
Brushing her teeth, she grimaced at her face in the mirror, then went to the kitchen to fix oatmeal and coffee. The window above the sink faced east. The pink gold of sunrise now spilled on the horizon and ripples of the lake.
The coffee pot bubbled and dripped.Facing the expanse of water through the picture window, she sat in her robe at the kitchen table, scrolling on her computer for news, mail and the day’s chores.
Adam and Debbie, her city children, were coming for Thanksgiving. She would pick them up from the nearest airport four hours away.
They wondered why she had taken this job and did not live within Endon.
“Mom, you’re five miles away from the town. Are they really paying you so little that you need free housing?”
“It saves money. Your fancy schools are expensive,” she said laughing, “and they are paying me very well. It’s gorgeously wild up here in the old mountains. You’ll see. The main reason I’m here is that the town vibes are weird.”
Sometimes, she attended Endon town meetings where she heard about things that had never occurred to her, like the calving season for beef cows. At her first one, she felt general unease in the little hall. People were respectful, “we are so happy to have you, Dr. Sheraton,” but distant.
But when she watched the news, she felt optimistic.The latest numbers for the country looked good after the last downturn from a pandemic: low unemployment, stable economy and a bullish stock market. Her own children were happily plugged into their matrix of colleges and internships to prepare for well-paying jobs.
Endon was a different world. Most kids were home-schooled, mirroring the polite reserve of their parents toward her. Because even the Darwinian theory of evolution was suspect among many local families, her discussions of science were circumspect and focused on practical knowledge like anatomy.
Mainly, she focused on the community’s physical health like Dr. B did in Saburia, encouraging vaccinations and dental care. Health problems here were different than Saburia, obesity and drugs leading the list.
For her children’s Thanksgiving visit, the local satellite system would access the indispensable Internet. She mostly used Endon’s powerful communications network, for setting up the clinic, developing scientific projects for the local children and updating her new home.
Grateful for the deep financial pockets of the Endon family, she regularly updated her satellite network. There, she detected waves from distant parts of the planet, electromagnetic signals where exotic languages and unfamiliar faces streamed into her computer after passing a firewall that secured the Endon network from any unauthorized monitoring and screened what she could send out.
At Endon, she had discovered a puzzling disconnect between what she heard about Saburia in the American press and the vibrations of distant transmitters: foggy pictures of Saburia, Saburians and the static-filled audio of their stories which her translation software clumsily converted into English.
This morning — again — she couldn’t find any news about the widowed Queen Noru or her baby.
She had felt adrift since leaving Saburia and focused on work. Most days, she left the house early in the morning and returned late at night. Powerful headlights blazed her path when overcast skies blotted out all light except one point of reference, the fierce bulb on her front porch.
Her new home was a survivalist cabin at the end of a dirt trail off a gravel road. The big wheels of her truck brought her miles from the nearest highway where she stewarded this property and surrounding forest for the Endon family.
She had once run a sophisticated lab and now was setting up a medical clinic. At home, she faced a new technical challenge, to manage a self-sufficient dwelling that was built by a prepper, someone preparing for survival in case of a catastrophic disaster.
In addition to its out-of-the-way location, there was an empty weapons bunker that now only contained food and generator fuel among empty chicken coops. A shed had beat-up dirt bikes, an ATV and boat. She had solar heat and had to maintain a well and sewage system.
In his pickup, Wayne Endon promptly delivered packages mailed to a PO box in town. She had first met him in person at a local diner after she arrived, along with his older brother who was a board member at the county hospital, and Wayne’s wife, Terri.
After her stint in Saburia with marriages within families, Elise could not help wondering if Brad and Terri, who looked so alike, might be related. But at least she could tell them apart. In Saburia, she had struggled with being able to tell Saburians apart. It had been embarrassing.
“My brain is programmed to best differentiate between faces in my own tribe,” she had told Dr. B.
“Me too,” he had admitted.
At the diner, Wayne said, “Dr. Sheraton has won national science awards. It’ll be a twofer: she can live at the cabin and easily learn to take care of it. We’ve been talking about alternative energy options for our town, Dr. Sheraton. Endon has plenty of sunshine, wind and a running stream for hydropower, possibly.”
“Oh, please call me Elise.”
Brad and Terri nodded politely. The third rail of their conversation was why she was here in the first place? Where was her husband? She looked at the brothers’ hands, the identical pattern of long salt and pepper hairs.
“Life gives second acts,” she said. “I’m so excited to be here.”
Her cabin and office in the clinic now strategically boasted several pictures of her children to advertise her as a “family” woman, the same framed photos that served that purpose in her office in Saburia.
Unlike in Saburia, polygamy was serial here. Brad said he “understood” how divorces like hers happened and that her husband had moved on to a second wife. Both Brad and Terri had been married before and had no children together. Wayne had kids with a former girlfriend and with an ex-wife. He had adopted another relative.
Elise soon lost track of the sprawling complicated Endon family tree — which blended into the local community — but learned the names of some of Wayne, Terri and Brad’s grandchildren.
When Terri described a grandson from her first marriage who lived in St. Louis, Wayne said,”It’s important that Ben visits more often. He has to learn to fish, hunt, camp, build and repair things. They don’t teach that anymore in the cities.
Elise reassured them that growing up, she had spent her summers on her grandparents’ farm and so had acquired some of those skills. “Still, plumbing and electrical repairs are not in my skill set,” she admitted.
They looked at her sadly.
She had come a long way in the brief time since then.
This morning, for example, she had boat maintenance on her to-do list. The stocked lake was another reservoir for food set up by the prepper for the end. Looking up internet postings and videos on water purification, she had studied that topic before going to bed last night.
She changed into a shirt and jeans, then returned to sipping coffee in her kitchen, reading and journaling, delaying putting on her heavy boots to go outdoors.
In her journal, she wondered if she was becoming the “witch in the woods,” or the old woman in Queen Noru’s story of the House of the Children. Losing track of time, she pulled up the file on her computer.
To practice her English, Noru had written a memory about her childhood in her hometown. They had worked together to translate it into English, struggling with some problematic Saburian words.
Noru had written: “When I was a child, my friends and I played in the forest around our village. It was dangerous to go far into the woods, wild dogs and hyenas especially, but I told my friends I was a Princess. They would have to do what they were told. We smelled the flowers, gathered herbs, played by the river, chased big birds and explored paths. But there was a place they refused to go.
“It was a small hut inside an impenetrable weave of small trees, just one little path through shrubs and sand. Most of the girls had duties at home, said they could not stay out as long as I could and left.
“So just my servant and I went to the house by the stream. There was smoke from a fire, fragrant cooking smells and bright flowers in the pot outside. Then we heard the long wail of a child. Now that I am a mother, I shiver when I remember that.
“It was getting late and dark. My frightened servant sat with me. An ancient woman came out and emptied dirty water into the stream. She looked toward us like she knew we were there. I remember her sad, old and wise eyes, like they were right in front of me. Then she went inside.
“Night fell. Our African nights are so black, yet the stars can fill the skies with their nets. I then saw a lamp in the window, making the hut glow in the dark. My heart thumped like a trapped bird, scared, also excited, wanting to go inside to the light.
“But my girl was sobbing in fright, warning me not to fall under the spell of the magic woman, and so we walked home by the light of a moon-sliver. I told the girl and my nanny, Aisha, not to tell anyone about my adventure.”
She asked Noru, “ Why did the house exist, so remote from the village?”
Noru shook her head, regal and aloof. “It’s for the children.”
Who was that hag in the Saburian nowhere, she now wondered? Sitting alone in her isolated cabin, she again wondered what people in Endon thought about her?
Humans were somewhat alike, whether it was a small town in Saburia or in Missouri, or even Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch-hunts, when an older woman living alone might be victimized as an outsider — used for midwifery, magical and medicinal skills.
As a scientist, she was not afraid of human ignorance like she did not fear the night outside. For protection, her home here also had two Anatolian shepherd dogs, just not as big as Noru’s Turkish purebred. Like America’s people, this property’s dogs were likely part mutt. The prepper had bought them here to guard goats and chickens against coyotes and other predators.
What had happened to the prepper, anyway?
She heard barking. The monitor showed Wayne’s truck crawling up the brown dirt road, reddish in the dawn light. She was glad she already had on her work clothes. They were both single, but she didn’t like the way he sometimes looked at her. Maybe she was just paranoid, she wondered.
She put on more coffee and hurried to the front porch in her socks when she heard ear-splitting barking.
“Fumble, Tiger!” She called for the dogs in the direction of the barn, where only two cats loitered in the morning blaze on its sun face, fat from mousing.
“Treat!” she yelled loudly and the barking stopped.
Wayne strode up, laughing and playing with the frenetic dogs who knew him well and let him through. She dug into a bin next to the door for the dogs’ dried meat rewards.
Wayne handed Elise an envelope and walked in.
The heavy envelope had Saburian royal letterhead and Elise’s name and address in careful English print, Queen Noru’s handwriting.
Wayne stood, appearing curious about its contents. But she put the letter away.
He had coffee, they caught up on the “latest tech” cabin upgrades and then repaired a light fixture together.
After he left, she slit the letter open, her chest tight with fear.
In a newspaper font and through a translator’s voice, the note spoke of King Mohammed’s “tragic death”.
Queen Noru said she was spending her traditional mourning period at Pandolf Medical Center with her baby, Prince Ahmat, and they were both doing “well.” She would “love” to have Elise come to visit her. Noru had printed her name at the bottom in English.
She remembered Noru’s story of the hut in the woods. With her retinue, an adult Noru would have walked in to command her subject.
The queen now summoned Elise.
“Heck yeah, I’ll visit,” she yelled into nothingness.