“Our greatest fault is that we cling to our heritage. The Sanju clans are too proud that they landed on the right side of history. The Dasa clans teach their children that they were cheated out of dominion over Ao. These ideas pass unwanted from generation to generation like an ugly nose. We all forget we’re the same person. I fear we’ll destroy ourselves before we remember.”—excerpt from the final words of Nadu the 14th before her ceremonial execution
Liam rose from his chair as we entered the dining hall. “I’m very sorry about earlier. Let’s try this again. I’m Liam Rhodes with XCG. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
Jacky flashed him a charming smile and shook his hand. “I would guess that catching each other in embarrassing situations is pretty normal in a place like this.”
He grinned and shrugged, then pulled out a chair for her next to his own. She nodded her thanks and sat down next to him.
I was impressed with how good she was at this. She’d instantly defused any embarrassment and awkwardness, and Liam obviously already liked her.
I was also a little concerned about it. Now that I could see what she was doing, watching her play him made me wonder how much she was playing me. She’d given me a good speech about how open and vulnerable she was, but for all I knew, that could have just been part of the show.
“Matt, sit anywhere you please,” Robert said. “Our seating arrangement hasn’t been disrupted since Noah and Liam got here seven months ago. I should think we’d welcome a change.”
“Sure,” I said, pulling out a plastic chair on an unoccupied side of the table. “This okay?”
“Ah, fate,” Robert said, “That was Virgil’s seat. You may have to take over his role as referee for our little group.”
I sat as Nigel walked in from the kitchen with a tray of crackers, salami, gherkins, and cheese. “Here we go then. Classic Gough House cuisine for the newcomers.”
“Do you guys always eat together?” Jacky asked.
Robert nodded. “It’s been a tradition here for many years. Although we’re all technically in competition, it’s thought that we’ll treat each other a little more civilly if we know we’ll be eating together later. Truth be told, though, some days we do eat in silence.”
I took some crackers and salami from the tray and put them on my plate. “Can you tell us anything about Virgil and Tom?”
“Well, we obviously didn’t know them like we thought we did,” Liam said.
Robert inhaled sharply. “I knew Virgil as a gentleman, through and through. He’d been a diplomat his entire life. He was always kind and fair with us. What happened, or what apparently happened, seemed very much out of character for him.”
“What about Tom?” I asked.
“Tom was…intense. Demanding. Even argumentative at times. He was a bit less mature, perhaps, but his passion was also his strength. I couldn’t imagine two more different people, but they complemented each other well and they looked out for each other. They were a good team.”
There was a crash from the kitchen, and a woman’s voice muttering. Jacky and I immediately looked at each other. There were only supposed to be six of us here.
“Ah, there’s still one you haven’t met yet,” Nigel said. He turned toward the kitchen. “Kemma, tolomia oa!”
The kitchen door opened, and a young woman walked out looking frustrated. As soon as I saw her, I knew she had to be Mesdu. Her skin was a medium-light almond color, similar to my own. She had a mess of dry, curly black hair, some parts tied into large knots while the rest spilled onto her shoulders. She wore a long, dark tunic that appeared to have been woven from plant fibers.
“I dropped the—” she said, stopping when she saw me and Jacky at the table. “Oh,” she said, “You’ve come today.”
“Jimia…miruo ës um Matt Jacky,” Nigel said. He seemed to be searching for the right words. “Bagma moc…es sutaiv oa.”
She bowed her head low in greeting. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Kanza Polla Kemma.”
“Kemma’s our translator,” Nigel explained. “She stays here at Gough House with us. The Mesdu assigned her to us a few weeks ago to help out.”
“Excuse me, please,” Kemma said, nodding politely toward us. “I dropped a plate. I have to clean it.”
Her English was accented but fast, which meant she knew the language well. We hadn’t heard anything about a translator, but I was excited to have such a great linguistic and cultural resource close at hand. It looked like Nigel had picked up some of the language as well, so I’d have to ask him about that later.
“Do you need some help?” I offered. My mind was already filling with questions for her. With all our predecessor’s notes apparently having been erased from the computer, I’d have my work cut out for me, and wanted to get started as soon as possible.
“No, you eat,” she said matter-of-factly and headed back into the kitchen.
Robert watched her, waiting for the door to the kitchen to close behind her, then looked at me. “You may want to give her a little space,” he said quietly. “The girl…the one Tom and Virgil…well, she was supposed to become Kemma’s sister-in-law.”
Jacky’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious? That’s awful.”
Robert nodded. “She’s quite polite with us, but I’m sure there’s some unspoken tension there. She may think of us as being guilty by association.”
“So how did she wind up here with you guys?” I asked.
“It seems she got into some trouble according to Mesdu law, and they gave her to us as part of her punishment. The details are a bit confusing to us still, but we welcomed the help, and she’s been wonderful. And it sounded like things could’ve been much worse for her had we not taken her in, so we were happy to do it.”
“I still think she’s a damn spy,” Noah muttered, offering his first words of the meal. He didn’t look up from the mangled piece of cheese he was idly poking with his knife.
I glanced over at Jacky and watched as she subtly adopted hints of Noah’s posture and demeanor. “I guess we have to be careful about that kind of thing around here, right? It’s a little weird to have someone from the party on the other side of the negotiating table living here with us.”
Noah nodded. Jacky had already pegged him and Liam as the tricky ones here, so she was actively trying to build rapport with them. She was good at this. It seemed effortless and natural to her.
It was quiet for a moment. Liam glanced around at our faces, then he slapped his partner on the back and smiled. “Relax, bru, everything’s hundreds.”
Noah let his knife fall to the table. “Yeah, we’ll find out.”
• • • •
Later that afternoon, I stood in the doorway of a storage room where Kemma sat cross-legged on the floor, untangling ropes. She didn’t notice me, so I knocked on the open door.
“Ah, hello,” she said, looking up. Her brown irises were so dark they could have almost been black, and her eyelids had a slight epicanthic fold to them. I also noticed several thin ridges running down the side of her cheek that appeared to be ritualistic scarring.
I took a deep breath. “Hi there. I, uh…I was wondering if I could ask you some questions. When you have time. I’d like to learn more about your people and your language.”
“Of course,” she said. She pushed the ropes aside and gestured to the floor in front of her. “I have time now.” Her vowels were clean and crisp, and I noticed she pronounced her v sound with both lips, instead of teeth-to-lip as in English, indicating that the Mesdu language probably used bilabial fricatives instead of labiodental. I’d have to remember that when practicing the vocabulary.
I got down to the floor, crossing my legs a little awkwardly. I opened my notebook in my lap. “So…your name is Kemma, right?”
“Yes, and you’re Matt. What are your other names?”
“Matt Moro. Moro is my family name.”
“Matt Moro,” she repeated. “Birth name is first, clan name is last.”
“What does your name mean?” I asked. It was one of my standard initial interview questions because it helped the subject open up and start sharing. Most people liked to talk about their name.
“Polla is my birth name, and it means ‘seal’. The animal.” She bobbed her head up and down like a seal. “And Kemma is my chosen name. It means…I don’t know the word in English. It’s a green bird. It’s a bird that brings good luck.”
I jotted down the words she’d mentioned, since I needed to get started on a dictionary anyway. “What do you mean by ‘chosen name?’” I asked.
“At fifteen years, we choose our own name. You’re American, so you keep your birth name forever, right?”
I nodded. “Yes, it’s from my mother. When you introduced yourself at lunch, I think I heard three names. Was there another one?”
She smiled. “You have good ears! My clan name is Kanza, but my old clan name was Pirgu, which means circle. The Pirgu are a good clan. Others respect them.”
“Pirgu…circle,” I repeated as I scrawled the name in my notebook. “And what is Kanza? What does that mean?”
“It means ‘outside.’ Slaves are outsiders—kanzaza—so we take the clan name Kanza.”
“Were your ancestors slaves?”
“No, I am a slave.”
I stopped writing. “But not anymore, right? You’re here as a translator?”
She bobbed her head from side to side. “They gave me to your clan to punish me, but you don’t like slaves, so you call me a translator. That’s polite, but you can call me what I am. It doesn’t make me sad. I am your slave.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that my own cultural biases could be a significant hindrance to understanding another’s culture. I didn’t want to misstep by digging too deeply into that topic and getting judgmental until I understood her situation better. We’d get back around to it later. For now, I just needed to stay objective and learn as much as I could. I decided to change the subject and keep the conversation upbeat. “And so you were originally in the Pirgu clan, but now you’re in the Kanza clan?”
She waved her hand in a circle. “You are kanzaza, too. And the others here. We’re all outside the Mesdu. It’s one clan. Everyone who is not Mesdu is kanzaza.”
“And you’re here as…a punishment?”
She looked down at the knot she was working in her lap. “They say I broke a law, but someone else did it. I’ll explain to them someday. They’ll believe me.”
“You didn’t do it?”
“I didn't do it. My brother said he saw me, but he made a mistake.”
“So, you’re not even really supposed to even be here, are you?”
She gave a half-hearted smile, then looked down at the knot again and shook her head. “No.”
I was about to tell her I was glad she was there, but then wasn’t sure how it would come across, so I changed the subject again. “What did you do before you came here?”
“I teach children in my clan how to sail. My father was a sailor.”
“Kemma, your English is very good. How did you—?”
“Hey guys,” Jacky interrupted from the doorway behind me. She motioned for me to follow her. “Can I borrow you? We need to talk.”
• • • •
We walked down the front steps of the base and off the platform onto the wet grass. The sun had just dipped below the inland peaks, casting the base and surrounding area into a chilly shadow.
“I’m freezing, so this’ll have to be a fast conversation,” she said, rubbing her shoulders for warmth as we walked.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Our room could be bugged, and I don’t want them to know we’re onto them.”
“Whoever reformatted the computer.”
“We don’t actually know if that’s what happened,” I said.
She turned to face me. “Listen, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to be talking to that girl alone, Matt. We don’t know what’s going on here, and I’m concerned you might tip them off to something. You’re not trained for this kind of stuff.”
“We’re just talking about family names and stuff. It’s harmless.”
“I think I should be around when you meet with her, so at least I can hear what’s being said. It’s just safer that way.”
I shook my head. “It’s distracting to have more people. I do better on my own.”
“I’m the one negotiating, so I need to learn about this culture too, right?”
She had a point, so I held my tongue.
“We’re partners here, aren’t we?”
I nodded, begrudgingly.
“And you trust me, right?”
I hesitated. “Yeah.”
“What do you mean, ‘what’?”
I held my hand up.
She frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Shh.” I closed my eyes, trying to listen. I heard it again. It was a man’s voice from the distance. “Lalaaa….”
I pointed inland. “Over there, behind you.”
A figure in dark clothing stood about a hundred yards away, just beyond our helipad, waving an arm high in the air. “Lala!”
“Oh, hell,” Jacky said. “We’re not ready for this yet. What’s he saying?”
“I’m no expert yet, but I’m guessing that’s ‘hello.’”
Jacky threw her arm into the air. “Lala!” she yelled back.
“Didomia!” the man yelled.
“Didom means ‘come,’” I said. “I remember that one from the list.”
“Do you know enough to hold a conversation yet?”
I held my hands up. “Not even close.”
“Okay, go get the girl.”
“Her name’s Kemma.”
“Fine, go get Kemma. I’ll…wave my hands at this guy or something.”
I jogged back toward the base, wondering what I was going to do about Jacky in the long run. We’d spent a lot of time together over the last several days, and while she definitely came across as earnest and trustworthy, I’d also seen enough to make me a little skeptical about how authentic that actually was. I’d seen plenty of examples of how cleverly she handled others and wondered how much I was being handled as well. I wasn’t the most trusting person in the first place, and it seemed like every time I let myself do believe in someone wholeheartedly, I wound up regretting it. I didn’t want this to be yet another one of those situations. I had to treat her objectively, and the more she insisted I trust her the less I was going to do it.
I reached the front door of the base and entered, then walked down the corridor back to the storage room. I found Kemma right where I’d left her, cross-legged on the floor with a lap full of ropes.
She looked up and smiled. “Hello again, Matt.”
“Um…there’s a guy outside.” I stopped to catch my breath. “Can you come translate for us?”
She pushed the ropes off her lap and quickly got to her feet. “Yes.”
“Great, thanks. Grab your shoes and we’ll go meet them outside.”
“I don’t wear shoes.”
“Well…whatever, I guess. Let’s just go, then.”
When we got back outside, Jacky eagerly waved us over, but Kemma raised her arm casually and waved back, not changing her pace.
“I think she wants us to hurry,” I said.
“It’s okay. Mesdu don’t hurry.”
I slowed my pace to match hers as we walked along the path to the helipad, figuring I might as well start acclimating to their cultural norms. I nodded toward the mountain in front of us. “Fee-ZAHL?” I asked, recalling the word from the vocabulary list.
She raised her eyebrows and smiled, pleased to hear me trying to speak her language. “PHEE-zuhl,” she corrected me, pronouncing the initial consonant between both lips.
I repeated the word a few times. Fizal. Mountain. I tried a few other words, adjusting my pronunciation based on her feedback. The phonology started to fall into place in my mind: initial stress, bilabial fricative, dental lateral consonant…it all seemed straightforward enough.
I pointed to the man who’d called us over. “Do you know him?”
“This man is Dashus,” she said. “He’s a senior of the Laga clan. Their land is next to yours.”
“Is he a good man?”
“He’s an asshole.”
I laughed. Obviously, she knew all the important English words.
Dashus was a tall, heavyset man in dark brown robes, with curly gray hair and a wide nose. His skin was a little darker than Kemma’s.
“Yo, you getting paid by the hour?” Jacky asked as we approached.
She and Dashus stood next to a weather-worn stone cylinder, about two feet in diameter and waist-high. It was engraved with a variety of pictures and glyphs I didn’t recognize. I wondered if they were decorative, or if the Mesdu actually had a writing system. It seemed unlikely that they would, but not impossible. I really wanted to learn more about that later.
Kemma greeted Dashus, then said a few more sentences, to which he responded with a few of his own. I recognized a few scattered words from the Swadesh list but couldn’t get the gist of what they were saying.
When Dashus finished, Kemma pointed to the stone cylinder, then moved her finger to point out the others that encircled the base. “This is a ruda. It marks the border to Kozo Kanza, the land of the outsiders, our land. Always pay attention to them. On the other side is Kozo Laga, the land of the Laga clan.”
As she spoke, I glanced around at the grassy scene behind her and Dashus, just past the border she was talking about, and noticed some small stone buildings behind Dashus that I hadn’t seen before. They were covered in sod and blended into the hilly terrain. Now that I knew what they looked like from the ground, I could suddenly see dozens of them scattered around the area nearby. And people. Adults. Kids. It was a whole village, just a few hundred feet from the border, and I had totally missed it.
Kemma continued translating as Dashus spoke. “You may only cross the border with the permission of a senior from the Laga clan, or from one of the Queen’s officers. They will kill you if you cross without permission.”
That snapped my attention back to the conversation. I looked at Jacky, and she looked back at me with raised eyebrows.
“So, just to make sure I understand,” Jacky said, “we can only stay in this circle outlined by those columns? That’s like, what, fifteen, twenty acres? That’s it?”
Kemma nodded. “Yes. You can’t leave this area without permission and a guide.”
“Or they kill us?”
Kemma nodded again. “Correct. Don’t leave.”
“I will definitely not be doing that,” I said.
Kemma exchanged a few comments with Dashus, then translated for him as he spoke to us. He pointed at me and said something, and Kemma shook her head and said something back, and Dashus laughed.
“Sorry, excuse me,” I said, “What was that last question?”
Kemma turned to me, amused. “He asked if you were one of us, a Mesdu. You don’t have the pink skin most outsiders have. I told him you seemed as soft as any other outsider, so you couldn’t be one of us.”
Jacky laughed out loud at that one.
Dashus continued talking while Kemma translated. “Nadu Bos-Sioka, the Queen of the World, will meet the new outsiders…in the royal house, on the evening of day twelve…all the outsiders will attend, and also the slave…she hopes the new outsiders don’t have bad feelings because of the two men who died…they were killed by law, and she doesn’t feel sad for them…she hopes the new outsiders will not repeat their mistakes…she wishes the new outsiders health and peace.”
Well, that was interesting. Robert had said that they’d hadn’t actually had a chance to visit the royal house in the center of the island before, since the Queen typically arranged meetings for when she was visiting the area, and they were typically held in the Laga village. A visit like this would be unusual. Maybe she wanted to get to know me and Jacky but didn’t happen to have any other business nearby, so she was having us come to her.
That was a great opportunity, of course, because it would give me a chance to see a lot more of the island that we could see from our little spot here in the eastern lowlands.
Dashus held his chin up and peered at us, waiting to see how we’d respond.
“Slave? What slave?” Jacky whispered.
I nodded toward Kemma.
A puzzled look flickered across Jacky’s eyes, but she quickly dropped it and resumed her normal confident composure. “When is day twelve?” she asked.
“Today is day eight after the moon,” Kemma replied, “so the meeting would be four mornings from now.”
“Okay, I think we can do that. It’s not like we have anything else on our calendars. Please tell him we accept the meeting and are looking forward to speaking with the Queen.”
Kemma nodded upward at Dashus again, and he turned and walked away from the ruda stone.
Jacky raised an eyebrow. “Well, that didn’t take many words.”
“When the Queen of the World asks,” Kemma said, “we don’t need to accept, just obey. I only showed him that you understood.”
Dashus stopped and turned back, a curious look on his face. “E polom foma tai dimra jo?”
Kemma looked at Jacky. “He asks if you will do sex with him.”
Jacky paused. “Um…what?”
“Dashus. He asks if you—”
“Is that normal? Is it expected?”
“Then tell him hell no.”
“Polota du!” Kemma yelled back to Dashus.
Dashus shook his head and walked away.
Jacky folded her arms across her chest and rubbed her shoulders. “Okay, let’s get back inside and have a little chat about this.”
I realized I’d been holding my breath, and I exhaled slowly. “Kemma, I have a lot of questions.”
• • • •
The three of us spent the next few hours in the dining hall, where Kemma gave us a brief overview of her people’s history, which revolved around two rival cultural groups—the Dasa and the Sanju—and the not-always-stable truce that currently held them together.
Kemma explained that it hadn’t always been smooth sailing, though. There was a time when the kingdom was split between a brother and sister, each ruling different portions of the island (east and west, or dasa and sanju) with different laws and approaches. The rivalry between them remained and even grew even after they died, with the split kingdom not being reunified until centuries later, when the Dasa leadership structure finally crumbled. Even now, when the kingdom is theoretically completely unified, the old Dasa clans still taught their children to harbor quiet resentment toward the Sanju.
I scribbled page after page of notes and realized this was going to be one hell of an ethnography I’d be writing, given the different intertwined subcultures we were dealing with, let alone the history. The island had forty-eight clans, each with its own geographical region and traditions, and each seeing themselves as either culturally Dasa or Sanju to varying degrees.
The current “Queen of the World,” Nadu the 16th, was the latest in a line of monarchs who apparently went back to around 2103 B.C.E., which also marked the start of the Mesdu calendar. That meant the Mesdu kingdom had existed for more than four thousand years. As far as I knew, that would make it the longest-lived nation in the history of the world. I was sitting here interviewing a living member of a civilization that was older than the Babylonians, Olmecs, Phoenicians, and Romans. It’s apparently a little easier to maintain a stable civilization when you have no neighboring countries to fight with and nowhere else to go.
Facing that kind of cultural depth and history, it was obvious I would need significantly more time and access to do it right. This mission lasted just twelve months, during which it seemed that we’d apparently have little ability to explore the island and interact with its people. This kind of project would take years, maybe decades, even with complete access. I wondered if the State Department would let me stay longer. I felt exhilarated at the opportunity but already defeated by the constraints.
I did enjoy watching Kemma talk, though. She had an intense presence, speaking confidently and with unflinching eye contact. She also had lighthearted moments that put us at ease, making jokes and struggling to find words to express difficult concepts. I was fascinated by her distinctly foreign mannerisms, like the way she bobbed her head instead of shrugging, or the way she’d say “va…” as a filler word between thoughts.
I’d always felt a deep appreciation for the full spectrum of human culture, and after having felt stifled for so many years in such a narrow slice of that spectrum in D.C., it was liberating to find myself talking with someone so foreign and removed from my own experiences.
Now I just had to learn enough to be ready to meet with their queen in four days.
• • • •
Jacky and I hardly spoke as we finished sorting through Virgil and Tom’s possessions. The few times we did communicate, it was either by gesture or by notepad. We didn’t want to reveal anything, in case there actually were listening devices in the room—although I still told Jacky she was probably taking things a little too seriously.
We sorted through clothes, papers, trinkets, tools, and a variety of other personal items. Jacky skimmed through their books, looking for encoded messages, but couldn’t find anything, so we put them in a stack to move to the bookshelf in the TV room. A few of the handwritten papers referred to documents on the computer that we weren’t able to locate, providing more evidence that it had indeed been wiped. I set aside a pocketknife, a map, and a few other items I thought we could use, and everything else went into large garbage bags. We didn’t know if we were supposed to throw them away or eventually return them to Virgil and Tom’s families, but we could figure that out later. For now, all we needed was a clean room to sleep in.
When I came back from dropping off the last bag in the storage building near the base, Jacky was scouring the room for surveillance equipment. She’d pulled all the drawers out of the desk and had opened the wiring rail that ran along the top of the wall. She stood on a chair and removed the cover from the fluorescent light on the ceiling, which she handed to me. Her head bobbed around as she inspected the fixture from different angles.
Then she stopped and pointed toward the far end of the light fixture, where there was a small circuit board, about one inch square. She glared down at me and tapped her ear. She was pissed.
Not believing her, I motioned for her to get down off the chair, and I got up and looked at it myself. I didn’t know what I was looking at, but it did seem a little out of place.
She grabbed a notepad. Leave it, she wrote. We’ll use it to mislead them.
We kept searching and within an hour had found two more of the same devices. One was tucked far behind the control panel faceplate on the radiator, and another sewn into the bottom of the desk chair.
I was checking the edges of the carpet for signs of tampering—though I had no idea what “tampering” would look like—when Jacky tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a bundle of small papers she’d been going through. She pointed to the wall, where she’d removed an electrical outlet panel. There was a small gap next to the outlet box where she’d found them.
She pointed to the one on top. I unfolded it. It was a letter, handwritten in blue ink, and dirty at the edges as though it had been handled repeatedly. It started off My dearest Tom….
It was a Valentine’s Day letter. Lots of compliments and promises. Expressions of eternal adoration. I looked at Jacky and shrugged, not knowing what to make of it.
She turned the page over in my hand, then pointed at the signature at the bottom.
Love forever, your Virgil.
I flipped through the others. There are several letters, cards, notes, and poems, all between the two of them. They’d apparently hidden them by the electrical outlet box to avoid being found by the others. They wrote about how happy they were to be far away from their families back home who wouldn’t understand their relationship. Both of them apparently came from prominent families, and neither wanted to spark a scandal. Even here on Gough, they were still hiding from the others at the base, afraid that word might leak out even from here, but at least they weren’t constantly being asked about their love lives. In one letter, Tom said he wished they could stay together in that room forever, the one place they were free from the rest of the world.
Jacky stared at me, waiting for me to get it.
But I didn’t get it.
Until I got it.
Virgil and Tom had supposedly been executed for sexually abusing a young Mesdu woman, but that seemed way out of character for the two men who wrote these notes. Not impossible, of course, but highly improbable.
I didn’t like where any of this was going. Their documentation and language references had been destroyed. Their computer had been reformatted. The room had been bugged. They’d possibly been framed and executed in one of the most remote places on earth—all while on a mission so confidential that nobody would ever know their real story.
And now Jacky and I were here to take their place.
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