Gis misim uaikona, zabamia kona uandou.To feel warmer, love the cold more.—Mesdu proverb
We spent several hours with Kemma the next day, learning more about the Mesdu culture and language in preparation for the meeting with the Queen. I wanted to cram in as much as I could. Showing the Queen we were working hard to understand her culture could loosen her up for further ethnographic discussion, and she would obviously provide a useful perspective as the leader of the Mesdu. I was still abysmally frustrated that we couldn’t find any of Tom and Virgil’s documentation about the language, but I convinced Nigel to at least print out a small dictionary the British team had been using. I made a huge set of flash cards based on those and practiced them any chance I got. I’d even take them into the bathroom with me.
As we got into the technical details of the language, Jacky made a valiant effort to stay with us, as she’d mentioned wanting to do, but eventually she seemed satisfied that our conversations were generally harmless, or even downright juvenile, since Kemma believed that ridiculous or bawdy language examples were the best way to learn. Most of her practice sentences were about seal feces, accidentally eating vomit, fornicating siblings, or the ancient Dasa king who couldn’t stop farting. And I couldn’t deny the effectiveness of her methods, since I was absorbing the language even faster than I’d anticipated. Jacky got her fill of our antics and eventually wandered to the sofa in the nearby TV room with her mission notes, getting up only to check on us occasionally. I assumed because she had me and Kemma available to translate, she wasn’t exactly motivated to learn the language herself.
By the third day, the others were getting a little annoyed with me taking up so much of Kemma’s time. They’d generously referred to her as a translator when first introducing us, but in practice it seemed it was hard to resist having someone who would cheerfully do anything you asked. She said she had to obey their wishes over mine because they had seniority, so I followed her around, continuing my research while she went about scrubbing, folding, repairing, and organizing. She never complained about the long hours we spent together, although she also said not complaining was an additional responsibility as a slave. I asked her to tell me if she wanted to stop, but she said it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to tell me even if she did, and that I should simply keep going.
The most difficult sentence she quizzed me on was a line from a Mesdu children’s folktale: “I saw the albatross that ate the fish you cooked.” I knew the words, but the sentence structure perplexed me because Mesdu nested the clauses instead of chaining them as English did. I asked her to give me hints, but she refused. She simply said that I already knew everything, and I just had to think about it. I wrestled with that sentence for half an hour while she finished cleaning the large shared bathroom. Then we moved to the kitchen, and I made us a lunch of dried fruit and dense bagels from the freezer while she mopped the floor.
I finally worked it out while sitting at the table chewing on a prune. I swallowed and said it quickly before I lost it: “Liraku ramva uo a seleku sounou uo o astoku su o a.”
“Nemi!” Kemma whooped, jumping in her seat. She leaned over and hugged me. Her warm check brushing against my neck sent a shock through my body, and I instinctively put my arms around her to reciprocate her embrace. She smelled…human. A little dirty, a little salty, but definitely human. Having spent my own life washing that scent away and hiding it with deodorants, the scent seemed strangely intimate. There wasn’t any of the olfactory distance that I was used to having with civilized people. She was just there.
I quickly released the embrace, and she did as well.
She leaned back into her seat. “I’m sorry. I was too happy.”
I smiled. “I’m just glad I don’t have to worry about that albatross eating my fish anymore.”
“In the story, the boy learns to stop crying about his fish,” she said leaning forward seriously. “He catches and eats the albatross instead.”
“E jama ramvan…muzi ziduia?” I asked. (Is albatross beautiful to the tongue?)
“Lijina tai mossa. Desmen. Jama bului suo tomo.” (I prefer penguin. The chest. The belly is too stiff.)
“E jama…bului jas?” (Why is it stiff?)
“Ësiura bosacie tomon.” (They swim with their belly muscles.)
One of the unexpected byproducts of working with the Mesdu was that I was learning as much about seabirds and marine life as I was about the actual people.
Kemma also said it was time for me to find my real name, which would of course be in Mesdu. We started with my surname, Moro, which would serve as my clan name. It was surprisingly hard to translate, though. I tried to explain to Kemma that it’s a Spanish name that refers to the Moors, but obviously the Mesdu had no word for Moors. I asked if it could just be “Moro,” but she said the Mesdu believe every name must have a meaning. Eventually we settled on generalizing the Moors—who came from North Africa— to simply “African,” whom the Mesdu called “The People of the Dawn.” So, she said my new clan name would be Namsu, or “Dawn.”
She also mentioned that the People of the Dawn were one of the ancient ancestors of the Mesdu—the others being the People of the Dusk, who came from west of the island, probably South America. Apparently, groups from both had settled on the island and had eventually blended together. I was eager to dig deeper into the language to try to tease out its specific origins. I knew there were ancient seafarers in both Western Africa and along the coast of Brazil and wondered if I could connect the language back to those roots. She explained that mesdu was an ancient word for “lost,” a reference to the fact that both the People of the Dawn and the People of the Dusk had been lost at sea when they’d found the island. The Mesdu were “the lost people.”
My first name, Matthew, was easy enough to translate because I knew it meant “gift from God.” The Mesdu revered Nadu Kai, or Nadu the 1st—the first of the Sanju queens—as a god. That was the closest equivalent in their language, so my birth name became Olika-Nadun, or “thing that was given by Nadu.”
“And now you need your chosen name,” Kemma said, her eyes revealing her excitement. “You’re too old to be using your birth name. It makes me feel silly to say, like I’m talking to a child.”
I shrugged. “I’ll need to think about it. I don’t know what to pick.”
“No, no, no,” she said, “Thinking makes it worse. Just choose any word in your mind. When it was my turn, I chose the bird kemma because I had seen one before the name ritual and I remembered it when they asked me for my name.”
“Uhhh…I’m honestly drawing a blank. Just pick one for me. I don’t want to pick something that sounds stupid.”
“The real meaning of a name isn’t in the waves, it’s deep under the water. It will take you years to learn what your name means and why you chose it. It might take your whole life. Don’t worry about the meaning on top of the water. Nobody cares about that.”
“I know, but I just—”
“Pick a name, stupid!” she snapped. “You think too much!”
I shrugged and looked around the room to think of words. “Okay, fine…uh…saka. That’s, ‘book,’ right? Saka. That work?”
She leaned back and gave a big grin. “You have a name! This is a great day. Are you ready for me to tie your name to you?”
“Sure,” I said. “I guess. What does that mean?”
She grabbed my ears and pulled me close to her face until we were touching noses.
“Namsu Olika-Nadun Saka,” she said solemnly, then began reciting in Mesdu, “This is your true name forever. You understand the words of your name, but you don’t understand their meaning yet. When you discover it, you’ll see with Nadu’s eyes, and you’ll be a great man until the day you sink into the ocean. You will look for the meaning of your name every day, forever. Is this all true?”
Catching my cue, I said formally, “Yes, it is true.”
Then she pushed her finger in my mouth and reverently pressed down on my tongue, and I could taste the Pringles she’d been snacking on earlier in the kitchen. This apparently ended the ceremony. And just like that, I had a new name.
• • • •
I tapped twice on the bedroom door, then opened it. Inside, Jacky slouched at our little desk with her head propped up on her arm. She gazed at the computer monitor.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
She didn’t move. “Back so soon? It’s only nine o’clock.”
I flopped onto the bottom bunk and kicked my shoes off. “Yeah, my brain is full. I’ve never tried to learn a language this fast, but I’m getting the—”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“I’m glad you had a good time with your gal pal, but we’ve got some other things to deal with here.”
“What do you mean?”
She turned and glared at me for a moment, then nodded toward the door. She wanted us to talk somewhere else.
We left the bedroom and she locked it behind us. She led me down the hallway, around the corner, and into the large pantry near the kitchen.
She pulled the lightbulb chain to turn it on.
“Well, I can tell you’re pissed,” I said, closing the door behind us. “What’d I do?”
She crossed her arms. “This is real, Matt. If Virgil and Tom didn’t do what they’re accused of, then for all we know they could have been shot and tossed over the cliff into the ocean. I know a cover story when I see one, and this is looking like a cover story. Have you looked at Liam and Noah? Do they look like diplomats to you? Liam’s built like a rugby player, and Noah looks like he’s killed people with his bare hands.”
“To be fair, we don’t exactly fit the profile either.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re missing the point.”
“Did you contact our people? How do they want us to handle this?”
“Our connection is probably being watched as well, so I filed a bogus report. I didn’t see any other choice. We’re using a modem on a satellite phone, so it’s not exactly the world’s most secure connection.”
I shrugged. “Jacky, I honestly don’t care who gets the bigger share of the diamonds. All this conspiracy stuff is on your side of this operation, not mine. I don’t want to get into all this drama over a couple of percentage points.”
“Don’t forget who paid for you to be here, Matt. You dance with the one who brought you. You still have a responsibility to do the job you were hired for.”
I felt myself getting tense and flexed my hands to try to release it before I started saying stupid things. “Jacky, I’m learning as fast as I can so I can get you the information you need to negotiate. What the hell else am I supposed to be doing? I’m giving this everything I’ve got.”
“And all these hours you’re putting in doesn’t have anything to do with the cute native girl?”
I sighed. “You know, a former classmate of mine just published a paper about the subculture of one particular nightclub in San Francisco. A nightclub. I didn’t graduate from college so I could hang out in irrelevant little places and come up with irrelevant little conclusions nobody cares about. This, this, is why I went to college. The rest of the world doesn’t even know these people exist. I want to know their story so I can explain it to everyone else. We’re on one of the last cultural frontiers on this planet, but the rest of you are so wrapped up in your own agendas you can’t even think straight. If I get all involved in your drama, I stop being a scientist and start being a puppet.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh, I’m a puppet now?”
I thought about it for a moment. “More or less. You don’t see that?”
“Everyone has an agenda, Matt. Even the self-righteous anthropologist standing in front of me has an agenda. You’re here to impress someone, to prove a point, to make something happen that benefits your career. You want to write a big paper about the Mesdu so other anthropologists can validate your existence.”
“We’re both here to do a job, Jacky. I just want to do mine.”
“Do you realize that I’m all alone here?”
“I had nobody back home after I got divorced. All ‘our’ friends were actually his friends. I took the first travel assignment they offered me after the divorce so I could get some new people in my life. Make new friends. I only found out later it was in the middle of the damn ocean, and it seems like I’ve got more enemies than friends here. I can’t even talk through all this stuff with you because you spend every waking moment with that damned girl.”
“Talking to her is literally the job I came halfway around the world to do. I can’t believe you’re jealous about this. This is insane.”
She frowned dismissively. “Please. I’m not jealous. I’m just saying you’re spending all your time with her when I need you too.”
“Yeah…there’s a word for that.”
“Can you even see how I might be going a little crazy here?”
“Kemma’s our best opportunity to learn how to succeed at this mission.”
“Right, but we’re a team. We need to work together, not apart.”
“When people talk about teamwork, it’s always because they want me to do what they want. Seems like it’s never the other way around.”
She crossed her arms. “So, I’m on my own here?”
I sighed. “I just don’t want to talk a big story about how ‘we’re all in it together here’ when I’m honestly just here for the field research. And if you’re being honest, you don’t care about the research at all. If it came down to anthropology or diamonds, you’re picking the diamonds. People are loyal to their team as long as it suits their personal goals. When it doesn’t, it’s always every man for himself. I’d rather just acknowledge that up front so we’re not lying to each other.”
“Sounds like you’re basically abandoning me before I have a chance to abandon you. Really healthy approach to life. How’s that working out for you?”
“Is this how the CIA taught you to negotiate? Sarcasm and guilt trips?”
She’d grabbed a can of green beans off the shelf and hurled it at me. I dodged out of the way, and it clanged against the metal shelf behind me before clattering to the concrete floor.
“Asshole!” she yelled.
She probably wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t about to admit that, so I turned around and left.
• • • •
Even before opening my eyes, I could tell the room was too bright. I pulled the thin quilt closer around me.
Kemma nudged me. “Saka, kaumia. Didoma rasla.”
I rolled over and reluctantly opened my eyes.
Kemma stood over me wearing a loose, dark red robe made from some kind of thick woven material. It was partially open in the middle and she plainly wasn’t wearing anything underneath. She wasn’t being suggestive, the Mesdu just weren’t as prudish as we kanzazac were.
She pushed her hair back behind her ear as she bent down to look at me. “Wake up.”
“Where’s Jacky?” I asked.
She said something in Mesdu.
“Sorry, what?” I looked around. I was on the sofa in the TV room. Orange sunlight streamed up through the windows and stretched across the ceiling.
“Tos teniima. Maybe she sleeps. You remember we talked about tos yesterday?”
I sat up and rubbed my face. “Yeah, I remember, I just…why’d you wake me up?”
“Why do you sleep here and not in your room? You’re angry with her?”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
She looked at me admonishingly. “Anger is a child’s emotion.”
I nodded, still trying to shake off the grogginess. “Fine, okay. What’s going on?”
“Take your jacket. We’re going to talk with people at the border for practice.”
“It’s in my room. I don’t want to go back there right now.”
She lifted up a corner of the blue quilt on my lap. “This is like a dabusu. Wear this instead of a jacket. I’ll dress myself now. Meet at the first door in ten minutes.”
She searched for the word. “Vaaa…the front door. Of this house.”
“Oh, got it.”
She stepped on the sofa beside me, leaped over the back of it, and scurried out of the room.
I went to the shared bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I wondered if I was really up for this assignment. After years of complaining to myself about how the system back home was hindering me, I was now way outside the safety of its reach. If anything went wrong here—and it was starting to look like it already was—it could take weeks for anyone to respond if anyone did at all. We really were on our own here.
And I had just pissed off the one person here who was actually on my side. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing I could have done.
The morning sun sat low on the horizon as Kemma met me outside a few minutes later. She wore a sealskin shawl and feather-lined skirt, and had put her hair back up into large knots.
“You’re ready?” she asked.
A chilly wind rushed over us, and I realized I really should have just gone back to the room to get my jacket. “Yep, let’s go.”
We went down the front steps and onto the grass, and I watched her bare feet expertly scamper across the muddy terrain, seeking out stony areas and thick grassy patches, and avoiding the deep mud from last night’s rain. I tried to follow in her footsteps, but twice missed and sunk my foot into the sloppy earth.
“Don’t your feet get cold?” I asked while kicking my sneakers into a nearby rock to knock the mud off my shoes.
She paused on a flat stone slab several feet ahead of me, wiggling her toes in a puddle that had gathered on top of it. Her feet were tough and calloused. “Zama uandou,” she said with a casual smile.
“Well, I sure don’t like it,” I said, and tightened the blue quilt around my shoulders.
After a few minutes of walking, we reached the cylindrical stone pillars that marked the border of our allowed area, and I bent down to get a closer look. Stylized images of people and events were carved into relief on the cylinders, divided into scenes almost like a comic book. Beneath each was a set of angular symbols that looked like a decorative border.
“What is this here?” I asked, pointing at the symbols. “Is this writing?”
Kemma took a deep breath, cupped her hands toward the other side of the border, and yelled a long “Laaalaaa…!” Then she turned to me and leaned back to see where I was pointing. “These are the rismac. They say what happens in the pictures.”
I was astonished that the Mesdu actually had a writing system. I looked again at the images carved into the stone and could make out a large sailing ship and a land mass. There were several abstract figures of people on the ship.
“Do you know how to read it?” I asked.
“Of course. This says, ‘Antoni tries to return home after a long journey, but he is lost by the wind and sails to Ao instead.’ Year 19, cycle 9 of this last era. That’s…about 340 years ago. Antoni was the first outsider. See, they have no eyes. We always make kanzazac without eyes.”
“He was an outsider? Like me?”
“Yes, he was the first outsider to come here. After the Mesdu, of course.”
“Wow, okay. And where’s Ao?”
She looked confused for a moment, then tapped her foot on the grass. “Here. All of this is Ao. It’s the old word for island. You call it ‘Gough Island.’”
A voice called from the other side of the border. “E maiama mo kanzazac kerva?”
Two figures approached: a young man in a heavy green poncho, and a woman wrapped in a tan blanket. Seeing her made me feel a little less awkward about the quilt around my own shoulders. I took a moment to translate their question in my head. They were asking if I was the new outsider.
Kemma started to respond, but I jumped in first to tell them I wanted to attempt to speak with them. “Nemi, taziama duam dilim.”
The couple was happy to oblige my request in return for the entertainment of listening to me stumble through their language. We sat down on the grass on opposite sides of the imaginary line marked by the ruda stones. I started by asking about food, which seemed easy enough, but then Kemma struggled to translate the dishes because she didn’t know the English names for the various fishes, seabirds, and plants.
At one point, the couple ran back to their home and returned a few minutes later with brined penguin, half-dollar-sized root flour cakes, and a cup of potato alcohol, so I’d know what they were talking about. They passed them over the imaginary borderline between the carved pillars, and I took them carefully. I tasted each of them, and they laughed at the expressions I made. The brined penguin in particular was way nasty. A few times they caught themselves laughing too loudly, and they glanced over their shoulders and lowered their voices.
The conversation then turned to skin colors, and they asked why the outsiders had so many different colors. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain well, so I simply told them people from different places have different colors and they laughed at that, asking if there were green and blue and gray people. They were interested that my skin and eyes were so similar to their own compared to the white people they’d seen before, and they asked if my parents were Mesdu. I explained that they weren’t but had trouble explaining where they were from because they weren’t familiar with any locations outside of the island.
It occurred to me that I probably did have at least somewhat similar genetics to them. I had some indigenous Central American ancestors on my mother’s side, and my father was black. If the Mesdu really had a mix of African and indigenous South American ancestry, that would be a pretty close match. If I got proficient enough with the language and stopped showering for a while, I might be able to pass for Mesdu myself.
An old woman hollered at us from a distance and the young couple stood up, made a gesture with their hands, then took off running the other direction.
“That’s the wife of Dashus,” Kemma said, rising to her feet. “Their punishment will be soft. It’s okay. We’ll come back and do this again soon. It’s good practice.”
“They’re not supposed to talk to us?”
“No. It’s good we stop now anyway. Noah feels angry when I don’t make breakfast.”
“What was that gesture they made when they left?” I imitated the motion with my hand, cupping it in front of my face and moving it closer.
“Ah, that’s a…small making of a big sign. It’s for hello and goodbye.”
“Can you show me the big sign?”
“It’s for equal people. It’s not right for me.”
“You know I don’t believe in slavery,” I said. “Just show me.”
She sighed, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then stood in front of me. She slid her cold hand around the back of my neck, and pulled my face toward hers, pressing her nose alongside mine.
“Push out all your air,” she whispered. Her lips almost brushed mine as she spoke.
I exhaled deeply, and she closed her eyes and did the same. I was surprised at the herbal scent of her breath. I wondered if that was because of something she’d eaten for breakfast or if it was part of her hygiene routine. I’d have to ask about it later.
“Now pull in,” she said.
Her right nostril flared against mine as we inhaled together. It had been a long time since I’d been this close to a woman’s face, and I had to consciously remind myself not to kiss her out of pure reflex.
She slid her hand off the back of my neck. “This is the jano-sauki. It means shared wind. Does it make sense to you?”
“Yes,” I said, “perfect sense.”
• • • •
I opened the bedroom door quietly, but Jacky was already awake, standing at the dresser in her pajamas. Her hair was rumpled, clinging fast to one side of her head and sticking out on the other.
“Hey,” she said without looking at me.
“I’m sorry about last night,” I said.
She turned and gave a mock-innocent expression. “What do you mean?”
“You know, what we talked about.”
“Refresh my memory. What was it, exactly?”
“Give me a break. I’m trying to apologize here.”
“You don’t even know what you’re apologizing for.”
“Is this how you’re going to negotiate with the Mesdu, too?”
She handed me a notepad on which she’d written, I’m going to play sick. Go with the others to meet queen. I’ll search rooms while you’re gone.
I sat on the lower bunk and looked at the words again. “What?”
“I’m sick of your ridiculous attitude,” she continued, then leaned toward one of the listening devices and let out a phlegmy-sounding cough.
I grabbed the notepad and pen from her. Can’t by myself. Need you there.
She scoffed and took the notepad back. Meet & greet. Charm w/ language skills.
NO, I wrote, then underlined it several times.
She shrugged. Only chance. Okay to screw up with the Queen. I’ll clean it up later.
You can’t break into their room. I wrote. That’s espionage.
She thought about this for a moment, then wrote: Technically just corporate espionage, not international.
I emphatically mouthed the word “no” and wrote, You’re the negotiator. Not me.
I’m trained for covert work, she wrote in reply. More important right now. They could kill us.
She coughed loudly again, her disheveled hair falling across her forehead. “I came down with something this morning. Maybe it’s the weather.”
I glared at her.
She tilted her head and blinked pitifully. “Sore throat, too. Get me some tea? You owe me at least that much after that terrible apology.”
I’m not going to do this, I wrote.
We have to take the shot, she wrote. Then she tore the paper off the pad, crumpled it up, and tossed it at me.
“To be continued,” I said.
She shrugged. “Get off my bunk.”
I sighed. “I really should have stayed in D.C.”
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