Story no. 11.
The train ride to Disreka’s village was a long one. Agbet’s face assumed the expression of grave contentment that so enraged Cemberin when he saw it on his father’s face. It was a Cathdari mannerism that he had never been able to master, this ability to keep every thought he had from running across his cheek muscles in spasms.
They sat across from each other in second class. Or what would be second class if they were in Europe, he thought grumpily. North Cathdar had first-class cars running between Caillon and Enriskell, but throughout most of the country the choices were uncushioned benches or freight cars.
“How’s the job?” she asked after they had been sitting for an hour.
“It was a sort of an . . . internship,” Cemberin said stiffly. “It’s done now. That’s why Baba could – why I could come to get you.”
“Oh. Well, how was it then?”
He talked for a while about construction drawings and schematic design and site management. The firm was in Eriskell. He wasn’t going to be hired back because he didn’t speak Eudaric and the other architects got tired of translating for him. He had only gotten the position at all because the head of the project team was the cousin of one of his university friends, who could explain that no, he really hadn’t done what the university disciplinary committee had accused him of, he was a pretty decent sort of fellow really, he’d put all that youthful idiocy behind him. There was still some muttering about Maman, because everyone knew that Tedasch Baradom counted a crazy Frenchwoman among his lovers, but they didn’t know that she was Cemberin’s mother.
He didn’t speak about any of this to Agbet, though he wondered if he ought to. She had been sent to live with Disreka the day after she turned three years old. Baba had walked into Maman’s rooms just as she was taking a bit of pistachio nougat from her daughter and saying, Darling, you don’t want to get fat, do you?
Cemberin had already fallen out of favor with Baba at that point. He was not diligent like Jadif’s sons or well-mannered like Ughar’s daughter or sweet-natured like Yerizik’s children; he, alone among Baba’s progeny, was short-tempered, selfish, impulsive, and occasionally vicious. Agbet had disappeared from Maman’s care immediately following the nougat incident. Cemberin was away at school, so he could not comfort her.
He didn’t know how much Agbet knew about Maman. His sister spoke little English and no French at all. Maman, despite having lived in North Cathdar for thirty years of her adult life, had never learned Cathdari. Mother and daughter saw each other on King’s Day and at the Holiest of Holies every four years, but he did not think they had ever had a proper conversation.
Agbet abruptly leaned forward and tugged a curl of his hair. “What are you thinking about, brother?”
“Lots of things, love,” he said. “I haven’t even asked you how school is yet.”
“Do you like your courses?”
She laughed. “I like some of them.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She grinned hugely. “Lots of them. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Lots of them,” he echoed. Agbet looked steadily at his face. Without speaking, she rose from the opposite seat, deposited herself next to him, and wrapped her arms around him.
Cemberin couldn’t remember the last time he had been held with such easy surety. Since the university incident, Baba could not tolerate touching him. Maman did not hold, she clutched, with the desperation of a starving animal. He supposed he most easily found women whose touch reminded him of hers.
But Agbet had been raised in Disreka’s house, and Disreka was not a woman who made herself smaller for anyone. She filled up every corner of every room she entered and every soul she loved, and Agbet had learned tenderness and graciousness from her.
He shifted and rested his cheek on his sister’s shaved head.
Disreka lived two hours by car to the east of Baba’s estate. She was a true golden Cathdari, with flashing streaks in her long dark hair and rings of yellow encircling her pupils. The two times Maman had tried before had been after Baba had introduced her to Disreka, his then-newest lover, when Cemberin was seven, and after Baba had taken Agbet away.
It was almost unutterably cruel, he thought dully, as they walked up the hill from the train station to Disreka’s tall, ancient house. For Maman to have to sleep under the same roof as the woman she believed with all her heart to have displaced her in her beloved’s affections was a sort of torture; but Baba did not want her on the estate. And Disreka had none of Maman’s animosity for Baba’s other women; she had had other lovers before him, and would have other lovers after.
It was Disreka who threw the door open and stared at the two of them with pity in her eyes.
The pity was short-lived; Agbet started forward with a cry of joy and wrapped her foster mother (her adoptive mother? what was Disreka to Agbet?) in a tight hug. They had not expected to see each other for another two months. She had so much to tell her.
Disreka disentangled herself from Agbet’s embrace and planted a firm kiss on her head. “Dear one, I’m glad you’re all right. I was worried, once you knew – “
Cemberin closed his eyes. It wasn’t really fair, was it? “Disreka, I didn’t tell her. I didn’t know how,” he added helplessly.
“Tell me what?” Agbet said, then, “Is this about la Mère?”
“Maman,” Cemberin corrected. He felt his eye twitch and rubbed the inside corners of his eyelids.
“Come in,” Disreka said.
She ushered them into her second-floor sitting room. A pair of children Cemberin did not recognize were playing on the rug in the corner, making cat’s cradles with a bit of string and their hands. “You explain,” she said to Cemberin, as she swept up the two small children, one balanced on her hip and the other tugged along by his small hand. “She’s in the upstairs bedroom when you finish.”
“All right,” he said stiffly, and, “Thank you,” though he couldn’t say what he was thanking her for. Disreka pursed her lips and swept out of the room.
He found he couldn’t look at Agbet. “Look, I’m very sorry,” he said, pressing his palms flat against his face. He was so tired.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said, a small laugh in her voice. “And – well – if it weren’t about la Mère – Maman – Baba would have come himself.” He felt her hand on his shoulder. “Is she all right?”
Cemberin let his hands drop and looked her in the face. They both had Maman’s eyes, pale green, with Baba’s lancets of gold. “No, she’s really not. She has – she had – “ A deep breath steadied him. “She’s always had trouble sleeping. Of course,” and now he was speaking quickly, to the mantlepiece, to get it out, “she’s always had trouble – and the doctor gave her a prescription, a while ago, for sleeping pills – but I don’t understand why, with her history, why he would do that – “
“She tried to kill herself again,” Agbet said, without a trace of emotion in her voice.
“She overdosed,” Cemberin said, as though he could make it a different thing than it was with that word. “It might have been an accident. It was probably an accident. She’s not – she’s not a bad woman. She’s not a bad person.”
“I know,” Agbet said. To his surprise, she hugged him again. She was as tall as he was, and it was a bit like being embraced by an oak tree. “I wish someone was here with you.”
They went up the stairs together to the room where Maman was staying. Her bed was pushed up against a wall with a window, and someone had propped her up with pillows so she could look out. Her hair, the red hair that showed through on both of her children’s scalps, was beginning to go silvery at the roots.
Disreka was already there. A tray with plain biscuits and weak-looking tea in a cup sat on the table next to the bed. She was asking Maman, in halting English, if she had owned a dog as a child, when they walked inside.
Cemberin pulled two chairs up to the side of the bed. Agbet squeezed his hand and started speaking in Cathdari; after a moment, he understood and translated to French for Maman. How was she? Did she need anything? Was she comfortable?
But Maman did not want to talk about being alone and empty on the top floor of another woman’s house, so just as quickly she was asking Agbet-by-way-of-Cemberin: How did she like school? What was she studying? Was she able to pick out nice clothes, or did she have to wear a uniform? Did they have any courses in French literature?
Disreka did not leave, but stood watching by the door. She was there to protect Agbet, he realized. She might pity Maman, but she did not know her; and Agbet was her child.
The light streamed gold in the window, and all the planes of his mother’s face became more pronounced, both harsher and more beautiful. He was translating almost without understanding what he was saying now, but only watching the two faces beside him. Agbet was explaining how to play haransa with broad gestures and diagrams painted into the air, and Maman wanted to know if that was anything like rugby.
“I will take you to Paris to shop for new clothes, when I am better,” Maman said warmly. “It is the most beautiful of cities. The museums – you will love the museums – and walking on the river. There is not enough water in Caillon.”
Agbet laughed and promised to do something she would never do, and made Maman follow her by swearing she would attend a haransa match.
When they stood together by the gravediggers, carefully turning over scoops of earth onto the coffin Baba had had to import from Europe (he and Cemberin had fought again about this; Baba couldn’t understand why Maman should not be cremated and put in an urn beneath the temple, alongside all his relatives and his oldest son; but Maman had been Catholic, Cemberin said, even if she wasn’t religious; she would not have wanted to be burned) it was the light on Maman’s face that he remembered. Agbet had missed her graduation ceremony for the funeral. It was always not so terrible, he thought, to be neither one thing nor another, because as the gravediggers worked a priest spoke from behind the authority of the red robe, a woman with ship-prow shoulders and a gravelly voice. Maman would be at peace, she said. We do not pity those who make this choice: for they fall without fear into the embrace of the Holy God.