Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 2

Gurum isima sapac banu uvi gis maiam ama sapac ro liti.
Some people must get dirty so others stay clean.
—Mesdu proverb

My mother was sitting on the sofa when I returned to the apartment that evening, but she wasn’t watching TV like she usually was. Instead, she sat with the old laptop I’d given her.

“Hey, baby, how was work?” she asked a little too casually.

I walked over to the sofa and sat beside her.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

I put my satchel on my lap. “Mom, I’m not good at conversations like this.”

“Like what?”

“The one we’re about to have.”

She nodded. “It’s okay, I know how you are.”

I leaned over and looked at the laptop screen. “Is that a resume?”

“I’m looking for a job. You know, so I can be independent.”

My muscles tensed. “It had to come out sometime, Mom. You said you’d only be here a couple of weeks.”

She pretended to type something but kept backspacing it. “I’ll get a job and pay my fair share of the rent. Or I’ll go get my own place if you want. Whatever’s good for you, you know? I can take care of myself.”

I took a deep breath and steadied myself. “I need to tell you something.”

I recounted the meeting I’d had with Lehrman that morning. She listened quietly with an expression that fluctuated between concern and confusion, broken up by occasional nodding.

After I explained the assignment, she finally spoke up.

“That’s crazy. They can’t ask you to leave for a whole year.”

“Yeah, it’s a long time, but….”

“Are you worried they’ll be upset?”

“What do you mean?”

She looked puzzled. “When you tell them you can’t go.”

I looked at the floor and opened my mouth but couldn’t think of what to say.

She paused. “You didn't.

I said nothing.

“Matt, tell me you didn't.”

“I have to do it. I can’t pass this up.”

She froze, glaring at me.

I kept talking, throwing out phrases like “the country needs me” and “big career move.” I thought they might help her feel better. They didn't. The truth was that anthropology was the most important thing in my life, and this was my opportunity to finally do it right, but I didn’t think that would make any sense to her. She always said that family came first, and that I should be willing to sacrifice anything for my family.

I glanced up and saw fat tears welling up in her eyes. One rolled down her cheek, then another. She still didn’t move.

“You’re my only good man, Matty. Why would you do this?”

I opened the satchel on my lap and pulled out two stacks of fifty-dollar bills. “I’ve paid the rent here for the next twelve months, and this is ten thousand dollars to help while I’m gone. I know you prefer cash, so I got it out at the bank on the way home. It was the most I could get without them reporting it.”

Her eyes were wide as she sniffled and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “What the hell is this?”

“They gave me a cash bonus. And a raise. And they’re paying all my expenses for this trip. I guess they want to make sure I stay quiet, which is fine by me. I don’t have anyone to tell, anyway.”

“What the hell kind of assignment is this? You’re not doing anything bad, are you?”

I handed her the stacks of bills. “I want you to find a good job, okay? You don’t need anyone else. You can only rely on yourself in this world, remember? You always told me that.”

She held the stacks of bills in her hands, turning them over and flipping through them. She shook her head and looked up at me with wet eyes. “Why does it have to be like this, Matty?” she asked. “Why can’t we be a normal family?”

“We were never going to be a normal family, Mom.”

• • • •

The next several days were a whirlwind of training, paperwork, immunizations, medical exams, psychological exams, security briefings, protocol briefings, and more paperwork.

I was ordered to fly to Cape Town, South Africa to meet up with a State Department foreign service officer named Jacqueline Fox. She’d take lead on the mission while I focused on researching the indigenous people and providing cultural insights to her. Sounded easy enough. I’d been dreading the idea of getting involved in any high-stakes diplomatic situations, but she’d be covering that whole side of things, freeing me to do what I did best: straight-up research.

A pair of investigators came to my apartment for additional background interviews. They were especially curious about my father, Thomas, but they didn’t get many answers from us. All I or my mother could tell them was that he was a married black man from London—originally born in Nigeria—who’d attended an engineering conference in 1989. He’d stayed a few days in the hotel in Virginia where my mother had worked as a maid after moving to the United States. At the time, he was intelligent and attractive, and she was young and liberated. She hadn’t seen him since that one encounter, although she’d searched for years, writing dozens of letters to English engineers named Thomas before finally giving up. The only physical evidence he left behind for us, besides my existence, was a single letter that had arrived when I was 18 years old. In it, he thanked my mother for raising me and indicated that he had called in a favor and arranged for me to receive a scholarship to Duke. It had no return address and was signed with his first name only. We never did find him.

My mother and I argued during the last few days before I left for South Africa. She’d put all her hopes in me and my career and was proud to see me making money and being given an important assignment, but I was also now the latest in a long line of men who’d abandoned her. She’d been trying to find a man to share her life with since that encounter with Thomas one morning a quarter century ago, but everyone she’d allowed herself to hope in had let her down. I’d been her only constant, and now I was leaving, too.

I hated to see her going through this. She was a good woman and deserved more than she had, but I also knew pandering to insecurities to keep someone happy was a losing battle. She needed to get by on her own, without having me around to support her.

With each day that passed, the idea of entirely leaving the society I knew became increasingly appealing. It would be nice to focus on some basic human needs instead of dealing with the first-world problems all around me. Food. Shelter. Warmth. I’d take those challenges over egos and politics any day.

The day of my flight, I packed a duffel bag and my satchel with clothes, books, and some of my fieldwork supplies. I was told not to bring a phone or camera, which would hinder my ability to document what I found there, but I was pretty good at drawing, so I wasn’t too worried about it. They also said I didn’t need a laptop because they had computers there already. All my remaining personal possessions either went into a single cardboard box in the bedroom closet or into the dumpster behind the apartment building.

My mother drove me to Dulles airport that morning, sobbing much of the way. At the drop-off zone, I pulled my bags out of the trunk, then came around and said goodbye to her through the car window. She held my hand until someone on the airport staff yelled at her to get moving. Her grip slipped away from mine as she reluctantly eased the car forward. She called my name out the window one last time, mostly drowned out by cars honking at her.

I picked up my bags and went inside the terminal. The surge of freedom in my gut was tempered by the gradual realization that this wouldn’t be just a weekend trip.

• • • •

I was still in a semi-hallucinatory state between being awake and asleep when the other passengers started opening their window shades during the final descent into Cape Town. My body expected it to be sometime in the late evening, but the sunrise punching sideways through the windows proved me wrong.

I felt nasty as I stumbled off the plane, my skin greasy with a layer of sweat and oil, my eyes bloodshot, my mouth tasting like lunch from the day before. I was sure I was coming down with something from having shared the plane with hundreds of international travelers. I desperately wanted a hot shower.

Hardly awake enough to read signs, I simply followed the crowd of passengers to the baggage claim. It was nice being outside the country again. Different accents, different languages, different customs and conventions. It reminded me how much I wanted to get back in the field with a pen and notebook, instead of seeing the world through a computer monitor.

I stood near a baggage carousel and wiped my face on the back of my sleeve, trying to make myself presentable again. The carousel eventually jerked into motion, and after what felt like an hour, my duffel bag finally tumbled down onto the conveyor belt. I grabbed it and hoisted it over my shoulder.

“Matt Moro?”

I turned around to see a middle-aged blonde in jeans and a leather jacket. She held out her hand and I shook it. “Yeah. You must be…I can’t remember your name, sorry.”

 “Jacky Fox. I was going to apologize for being late, but I guess I nailed the timing. It takes them forever to get the luggage out here. You ready to go?”

I nodded, then followed her out of the terminal and toward the parking lot.

As we walked, she talked at length about her own journey to Cape Town. She’d arrived two days earlier and had been sightseeing before we left for our final destination. She chattered about what she’d seen so far, but my half-asleep brain had trouble keeping up with her. Mountains, restaurants, beaches, new purse, penguins…I heard the words but couldn’t piece it all together. I just nodded as we made our way to the parking garage, then wandered around until we found her rental car.

She opened the rear hatch so I could throw my bag in, and I saw her own luggage there, exploding with bright pinks and yellows.

“Those are pretty bold for—you’re a CIA agent, right?”

“I’m a foreign service officer, Matt. You know, from the State Department? I have my ID and everything. Totally legit.” She closed the hatch. “And by the way, it’s ‘officer,’ not ‘agent.’ The FBI has agents. The CIA has officers. Or that’s what I’m told anyway. I wouldn’t know because I’m a foreign service officer from the State Department with an ID and everything. You do believe me, right?”

I shook my head. “Can’t say that I do.”

“That’s probably best. Anyway, my divorce was finalized a few weeks ago, so I celebrated by splurging on some luggage. Not much else I could take with me on our little adventure, right?”

We climbed into the car. She started the engine, threw it into gear, and took us out of the parking garage, down a short airport road, and onto the freeway. She took corners at an uncomfortably high speed, often while talking and looking another direction. I found myself searching around for something to hold onto.

“Where are we headed?” I asked. “And how long will it take us to get there?”

“Waterfront. A ship, a big icebreaker. We’re going to Gough Island, smack in the middle of the South Atlantic.”

“‘Cough Island’? What the hell kind of name is that?”

Gough Island, with a G. The ship’s actually going to Tristan da Cunha, which is a couple hundred miles northwest-ish of our destination, but they’ll drop us off on the way. You don’t get seasick, do you? We’re sharing a cabin, so you’d better not.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t actually know.”

“I used to go on long assignments like this before I got married. You get really, really close to the people you’re with. You either love them or want to kill them. There’s no way to tell in the beginning which way it’ll go. It’s exciting to find out.”

Based on my experience with her so far, I was willing to bet that we’d want to kill each other before this was over.

She changed lanes, eliciting a horn blast from the taxi behind us, which she entirely ignored. “Okay, I’m going to brief you on the mission now, so listen up.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said. I was probably going to forget everything she said and make her repeat it later, but I was tired of being in the dark and wanted some details.

“Okay, so, Gough is a volcanic island. It has some of the most productive diamond mines in the world. I guess the geological pressures and stuff…I don’t know. Lots of diamonds. But the locals are pretty reclusive. They don’t like foreigners coming and messing things up. So, they basically trade diamonds for their privacy.”

“Who are they?”

“They’re called Mesdu. Nobody really knows where they’re from originally, but the prevailing theory seems to be that they’re a mix of South American and African heritage. I don’t think it’s really been researched, though. We should grab some DNA to bring back for testing while we’re there, right? Do anthropologists even do that kind of thing?”

“Why are they so reclusive?” I asked.

She glanced back over her shoulder, then merged vigorously onto the freeway. “I think it’s a religious thing, maybe? That’s the kind of stuff you’re here to figure out for us. Anyway, they kept making deals and treaties to avoid more people showing up at their island, but it was hard for everyone to manage things because the place is so remote, and it’s not like they have phones or anything. In the fifties, the various parties got together and agreed to form three proxy corporations to consolidate and represent their interests with the Mesdu. They were based in London, New York, and Johannesburg. It worked out because the proxy corporations could handle moving, cutting, and selling the diamonds so the individual shareholder parties didn’t have to do it. With me so far?”

“Not really,” I said. “What does this have to do with us?”

“Well, think about who’d even be aware of the Mesdu in the first place. Governments, militaries, research institutions…the kind of people who could actually get to a remote island. These were high-level deals, so a lot of big names are involved. The CIA is a shareholder. The State Department is a shareholder. The Office of the President is a shareholder. Lots of shareholders. So, it’s a complicated situation that requires some discretion.”

I thought about that for a moment. “The government’s laundering money is basically what you’re telling me.”

She snorted and shook her head. “We’re just keeping our end of the deal. It’s a bunch of old treaties we inherited and have to make good on. We agreed to preserve their secrecy out of respect for their beliefs and wishes, but yeah, we have to run stuff through certain channels to make it less noticeable, or the whole thing stops being secret. We can't just put 'Diamonds from Gough Island’ in the congressional budget report.”

I stared at her. “Yeah, this sounds super unethical.”

She shot me a patronizing glance. “Matt, this kind of stuff is going on all the time. This is how the world works. This is all chump change compared to assignments I’ve had in the Middle East. After working with oil, diamonds are nothing. Like, literally nothing. That’s why they’re only sending two of us. This is like a vacation for me. And these deals were made hundreds of years ago. Gough diamonds helped pay for the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812. Lots of other things. It’s not a huge amount in the grand scheme of government budgets, but it helps. Let’s say we’re doing this to reduce everyone’s taxes. I think we can all get behind that, am I right?”

I crossed my arms. “I didn’t take this assignment to help a bunch of politicians exploit indigenous peoples and launder money. I came here to do research.”

She nodded. “And bless your little heart for that. You are here to research. I need you. We all need you. Nobody’s ever sent an anthropologist before, and it’s high time we did some proper research. I can do all the negotiating. You just do your thing.”

I sighed and shook my head as the realization hit me. “They’re never going to declassify this, are they? All my work is going to disappear in some top-secret file cabinet somewhere, and I’ll have just wasted a year of my life.”

She turned her head to glare at me. “Seriously?”

“Hey, watch the road.”

She stayed on me. “There’s an entire culture that’s been isolated from the rest of the world for the last four thousand-something years, and you’re telling me you’d rather go back to your dead-end desk job than spend the next year having the adventure of a lifetime and experiencing every anthropologist’s dream?”

I didn’t respond because I was busy watching as the car drift into the shoulder. Bits of gravel pinged off the undercarriage.

“You’re going to crash,” I said through a tense jaw.

“Everything you do is at the mercy of someone else’s selfish goals, Matt. You think academia is any different?”

I raised my voice. “Will you watch the damn road, please?”

Jacky paused, then smirked and guided the car back into the lane. “Relax, I just wanted to know what kind of guy they sent me.”

“The kind of guy who doesn’t want to get killed.”

“Boring. But still, I do hope we do better than our predecessors.”

“Why, what happened to them?”

Her face took on a cautious expression. “What have you been told so far?”

I shrugged and said Lehrman had mentioned they’d lost two diplomats, but I didn’t recall hearing much else about them.

Jacky took a deep breath. “Well, I hope this doesn’t affect your feelings about going.”

“Why? What happened?”

“The Mesdu executed them.”

I paused. “What!?”

“Apparently they abused and killed a young native woman. They were executed for it.”

“Was…did they…was there at least a trial or something?”

“I’m not going to do anything like that. You’re not going to do anything like that. We should be fine.”

• • • •

The S.A. Agulhas II was a massive, stout vessel, a football field and a half in length with a bright red hull and a five-story white superstructure the size of a small office building. Jacky explained it was a polar supply and research ship owned by the South African Department of Environment Affairs. I vaguely understood the physics involved in a ship this size, but it still seemed miraculous for that much steel to just sit there and float in the water.

Jacky explained that the three diplomatic teams on the island—representing the three proxy corporations—met with the Mesdu regularly to discuss affairs related to the mining operation. Our job was simply to get up to speed so we could represent our side’s interests and avoid the other two groups gaining too much advantage in our absence. There’d recently been an explosives accident in the mine which had significantly slowed operations, and it brought up questions of who was going to pay for repairs and new equipment and what we might do to get the mine back up and running quickly. With our diplomatic team having been temporarily out of commission, the others would have seized the opportunity to argue that we should receive a larger portion of the bill and a smaller piece of the output when the mines came back online. Jacky’s goal was to unwind whatever they’d done, then turn around and try to do the same to them.

I hated the idea of taking an assignment that had such crude financial motivations behind it, but I also felt a deep responsibility to study and understand the isolated indigenous population because nobody else apparently ever had. I figured it could only be in their best interests to have a proper researcher there, trying to really understand them for who they were, even if most of my findings just went into a top-secret file somewhere. I actively tried to ignore the fact everything I learned would probably be used to manipulate them in one way or another. I had to hope there was a greater purpose being served overall.

We climbed the metal staircase that stood alongside the ship, but I hesitated at the top as anxiety seeped into my stomach. If I took another step, that was it. We wouldn’t set foot on a regular continent again until this assignment was completed a year from now. I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake.

“Move your ass!” Jacky snapped from behind me. “This bag is heavy.”

With no more ceremony than that, I stepped over the threshold onto the green steel deck. We were actually doing this.

Jacky showed our paperwork and explained to the crew that we were meteorologists. I let her do the talking, since she was obviously more familiar with the cover story. I was simultaneously impressed and a little concerned about how effortlessly she lied to them. I caught myself wondering if she actually was a meteorologist.

We eventually found our cabin, a compact room furnished with two twin beds, a small wooden desk between them, and a simple chair. Over the far bed, a porthole gave us a view of the water on the starboard side. I was still disappointed not to have my own room, but relieved to see there were at least privacy curtains for the beds.

“Most of the rooms are for four people, but I got us a smaller one,” Jacky said, dropping her bags and falling down onto the far bed. She rolled over and leaned up on her elbow. “There’s less chit-chat if we don’t have to share a room with other passengers. Easier to stay undercover that way.”

I pointed to the bed farthest from the door, on which she was currently reclined. “I’d prefer that one, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sorry, I’m taking this one,” she said, smiling playfully. “Unless you want to come and take it from me. We’re going to be roommates for a year in one of the most remote locations on earth. We might as well break the ice now…while we’re literally on an icebreaker, right?” She flashed her eyebrows, soliciting appreciation of her joke.

“I’ll be honest,” I said, tossing my bags at the foot of the remaining bed, “my brain’s in no condition to deal with whatever this is you’re doing right now. When do we actually leave port?”

“This afternoon.”

“Great,” I said, pulling the privacy curtain closed. “I really need to sleep.”

“Oh, I forgot!” She pulled an envelope out of her luggage. “A colleague of mine asked me to give you this. She said you’d want to see it.”

I climbed under the covers, still fully dressed, and felt my body shutting down almost immediately. “Put it on the desk,” I mumbled. “I’ll look at it later.”

• • • •

The room was completely dark when I woke up. I felt around to find the edge of the bed, then fumbled through my duffel bag until I found a pen flashlight I’d brought. I turned it on and checked my watch. It was 8:46pm South Africa time—although I guessed we weren’t in that time zone anymore.

I got to my feet and pulled upon the privacy curtain around my bed. The little flashlight barely illuminated the cabin enough to see. Jacky was curled up on her bed in silk pajamas, partially covered by a thin blanket. She hadn’t bothered with her own privacy curtain. Her mouth hung open, and the light from my flashlight reflected off a metal filling in one of her lower teeth. Her chest rose and fell with her deep, unhurried breathing.

I knew it was creepy to stand there and watch her, though, so I turned off the flashlight and leaned over her bed to look out the porthole on her wall. Reflections of the ship’s lights glimmered off the ripples nearby, but with no moon out the surrounding water was as black as the sky.

I sat back down on the edge of my bed, now wide awake after a profound hibernation. I turned the flashlight back on and reached over to the desk, grabbing the envelope Jacky had left there. I slid my finger in the corner and tore into it quietly. There was a single sheet of paper inside. I pulled it out and unfolded it.

There were five columns on the page, each row of which contained a word: tai, su, mo, taic, suc, moc, sia, ba, oa, bua, and so on. A few entries had two different words separated by slashes, probably indicating alternatives. I didn’t recognize the language, so I assumed it was whatever the Mesdu spoke. I figured I could probably work out at least what language family it came from if I knew what the words meant. That would give me a good jumpstart toward learning it.

But there were no translations, just the words themselves.

It reminded me of word lists I had assembled for a paper I’d written at Duke, which had proposed that glottochronology could challenge some widely held assumptions about how the Athabaskan languages had evolved. I’d used the Swadesh List, which was a collection of 100 basic words that could be found in almost any culture, used by linguists to evaluate the genealogical interrelatedness of different languages.

I started counting this list. Two hundred and fifteen words. So, it wasn’t that, but I could swear I'd seen that number before.

I rolled over the other side of the bed and opened my duffel bag. I’d brought several books with me, including a linguistics fieldwork textbook to help with the process of documenting the Mesdu language. I pulled it out and opened it up, flipping through the pages. Near the middle of the book, I found a chart with English words on one side and Tamil on the other.

Each word was numbered, 1 through 215. It was an earlier version of the Swadesh List, before it had been refined down to 100 words. Someone had at least made an initial attempt to do some comparative linguistic analysis of the Mesdu language, but it had apparently never gone further than that.

I grabbed a pen off the desk and began writing the English translations next to the words in the same order as they were in the textbook: I, you (sing.), he, we, you (plu.), they, this, that, here, there….

I was ecstatic. I didn’t recognize its place in the family tree of human languages yet, but I’d work it out eventually. I wanted to wake Jacky up and tell her, but then thought better of it. She didn’t seem like the sort of woman to get jazzed about linguistic victories.

I pulled some pages out of my notebook and tore them into strips, writing English on one side and Mesdu on the other. There weren’t going to be any neatly packaged lessons for this language, so I had to start with homemade flashcards. I began by memorizing a few words at first, then added a new one each time I went through them.

Sometime after midnight, the room fell back into darkness. My flashlight battery had died, and I swore under my breath as I realized I hadn’t brought replacement batteries. I’d have to stay in the dark until the sun came up.

There was nothing else I could do, so I lay back in bed and tried to continue practicing what I’d memorized so far, mumbling as many words as I could remember, barely audible above the hum of the ship’s engines and Jacky’s occasional snoring.

Bassi. Sea.

Daio. Star.

Vaisou. Man.

Dimra. Woman.

Taśun. To think.

Deum. To know.

Gulum. To die.

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