Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 12

Dannam foma um sounou lau, dolosa vera foma du daba sanii.
A fish and bird can love each other but can’t build a home together.
—Mesdu proverb

I slept hard that night. The thick blankets, the rocking boat, and the tranquility of being guided to a safe location by two highly capable escort guards all added up to the best rest I’d had in a long time.

Our only interruption came sometime in the middle of the night, when the guards brought their boat alongside ours, and one of them stepped in to hoist our small sail. The wind was picking up and blowing toward Tristan, they said, so they could rest their arms and let the wind do the work for a while.

After he climbed back into the other boat and they drifted away a short distance, Kemma lay down beside me and fumbled around with our blankets until we were sharing them. Chilly air sneaked in occasionally, but her warm presence more than made up for it. I teased her for sleeping laying down like I was, instead of the usual Mesdu sitting position. We both quickly fell asleep again, trying to steal some more recuperation time before sunrise.

Later, as the stars faded from the gradually brightening sky, I opened my eyes to find Kemma staring at me from a few inches away. I began to sit up, but she pushed me back down.

“Marbim told them to lead the boats as long as we wanted to rest,” she whispered. “As soon as we sit up, they’ll want to sleep. Let’s be quiet.”

I smiled. “I like the way you think.”

“She’s getting dressed,” Kemma said, nodding toward the pink-orange horizon.

I paused. “Uh, what?”

She looked at me, then pointed toward where the sun was about to rise. “Nadu Kai. She lives on the sun. You know, we don’t even have a different word for sun. We just say nadu. She rides it from horizon to horizon every day, watching us to make sure we follow her teachings. But she’s not ready yet today. She’s still getting ready. Maybe she’ll eat some fried pumpkin cakes for breakfast before she comes out.”

I realized with shame that I’d never really asked her much about religious practices among the Mesdu. That was basic anthropological ground to cover, but we just hadn’t had a chance to get there yet. “Do you pray to Nadu Kai?”

Kemma bobbed her head from side to side. “I pray sometimes. Only when I have something important to ask her. She’s very busy.”

“Should we pray for her to help us get to Tristan da Cunha?” I asked.

Kemma shook her head. “We don’t pray for her to change things, just for her to help us understand them.”

That was better than nothing, I figured. “Well,” I asked. “Can we do that?”

She pointed to the horizon and looked at me like I was stupid. “I already said, she’s getting dressed. You can’t pray when the sun’s not out. That would just be talking to yourself. She can’t see or hear you yet.”

I smiled at the practicality of that mindset.

We lay together holding hands for several minutes, then she rolled over to look at me. “Where will we live after this?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re married. Where will we live together?”

I sighed. “We’re not really married, Kemma. We were under the influence of a very strong hallucinogenic.”

She paused. “I don’t know that word.”

“You went to Berkeley, and you don’t know that one? The drug you gave me. It made us see things. We weren’t in our right minds.”

“The tarsu let us see the whole truth. We had pure wisdom from Nadu Kai. This was the right thing. I don’t know why, but I know it was right.”

“I don’t believe that. I wouldn’t have—”

“Blood can’t be unmixed, Saka. We mated. You’re my husband and I’m your wife, even if we aren’t happy with it.”

“Well, after we get to Tristan and call for help, I have to go back home.”

“I’ll go with you. After this fight, we’ll travel there together. We can stay there some time before we come back.”

“I want to learn more about your people, Kemma, but I’m not getting in the middle of a civil war to do it. Nobody should have to go through what we’ve just been through. I’m going to have nightmares for the rest of my life. I can’t go back there. I’m an anthropologist. That’s basically the opposite of a soldier.”

She put her hand over her mouth, reminding me to lower my voice so the escort guards didn’t know we were awake yet. “So, what will you do?” she whispered. She didn’t sound happy.

“If we make it to Tristan da Cunha, I’m taking the first ship back to South Africa, then flying back to the United States.”

“We have to stop the Dasa. We can’t just leave.”

“I’ll call for help when we get to Tristan, but this isn’t my war. I have to go home.”

“It is your war,” she hissed. “You people started it.”

“What do you mean, ‘you people’?”

“You outsiders. I always believed it would be good for our people to connect more with outsiders, but then you start a war so you can have more diamonds. You prove that outsiders do corrupt our people.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that, Kemma. My country didn’t have anything to do with that. The company I’m supposedly working for didn’t have anything to do with that. It was the other guys. XCG. This whole thing is their mess, not mine.”

“You help them by not coming back to stop them. You’re letting them do it. You’re as bad as they are.”

I glanced up at the sails, which caught the wind squarely. I hoped we were making good time toward Tristan da Cunha. “I told you, I’ll call for help when we get there. The State Department will send people to retaliate and get things back to normal.”

“You’re a coward, Saka. Nadu Kai understands why we mated, but I don’t. It makes me sad to be married to a weak man.”

“I’d rather survive as a coward than die a hero.”

She glared at me with her lip curled in disgust, then shook her head in disappointment. She sat up decisively, ending our quiet time, since the guards would now know we were awake and would want to take their turn sleeping while we steered.

“Fine,” she said. “At least one of us will fight—”

Then she stopped.

Her body suddenly tensed. She turned and scanned the horizon quickly, squinting to see in the pre-dawn light. Then she turned to me with wide eyes, her mouth trying to form words.

I quickly sat up and looked around.

There was no other boat.

The guards were gone.

I crawled over to the bow and pulled on the towline until a frayed end came out of the water.  They’d cut the line and let the wind take us far in the wrong direction.

We were now utterly lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

• • • •

Kemma arranged dried berries on the bottom of the boat in a form roughly resembling an abacus, double-checking her navigational math. She’d noted the time by the stars when the guards had woken us up to set up our sail, and then approximated the distance travelled between then and now based on her experience with the wind currents. She figured the guards had taken us roughly north, to create the appearance to anyone watching from the island that they were headed for Tristan da Cunha. Then, once they were far enough along, they’d set up our sail to catch the full wind heading east and cut us loose after we’d fallen back asleep. Kemma estimated that we were more than a hundred miles off course.

She turned the sail to get us moving back toward where she thought Tristan might be, using the mast shadow as a navigation reference. We’d have to be within about fifty miles of the island to even notice its peak over the horizon and being just a few degrees off course could send us blindly past it. Given that our guess about our current location was based mostly on wild conjecture and calculations made with dried berries, I wasn’t optimistic about our chances.

I wanted to talk to my mother. As we rocked rhythmically in the middle of a featureless ocean, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to send her a message. I’d tell her I understood what she’d done for me over the years, and that I was grateful for it. My life hadn’t been an easy one, but she’d always tried to make it better than it was before, and she’d usually succeeded.

I’d spent years trying to prove to myself that I was better than my beginnings and could do better than she had. I’d always thought I was in competition with her, but I had come to realize I’d simply been building on the foundation she’d laid for me. She always knew I’d do better than she’d done. That was the plan all along. I wanted to tell her I understood, and was sorry, and was grateful.

We couldn’t plead with anyone for help. We couldn’t give anyone our last words. We couldn’t explain what had happened. We were isolated from every other human being on the planet. At some point we’d lose consciousness from hunger or thirst and our boat would eventually capsize. The last evidence of our existence would sink through dark water to the ocean floor miles beneath the surface. Nobody would ever look for us.

I asked Kemma why they’d done it, why the guards had deserted us. She said they were probably Dasa rebels. When she’d lived at the Royal House, there had always been rumors that some Dasa were actively conspiring against the Queen, but it was written off as gossip and politics, and the Queen had always surrounded herself with a mix of people from both Sanju and Dasa clans to avoid appearing preferential. Besides, the Dasa men were believed to be stronger and more aggressive, and therefore better bodyguards.

By way of explanation, Kemma told me the story of King Sasde and his children. When Sasde died suddenly around seven hundred years ago, he hadn’t yet indicated which of his heirs—his daughter Nadu or his son Volo—should rule in his place. Sasde was a weak leader and always thought a compromise was the right answer. Eventually the island was split between them into two nations, with Volo getting the eastern two thirds, and Nadu getting the western third. They simply called them “East” and “West”—or Dasa and Sanju.

As centuries passed, the two nations grew further apart, each developing their own traditions and cultures based around the differing original ideals and leadership styles of Nadu and Volo. The Dasa generally prioritized honor and strength, while the Sanju valued education and philosophy. They eventually came to view each other as enemies.

The Dasa kingdom withered and eventually crumbled due to internal power struggles. Around 1710—if my math was right—Nadu the 9th welcomed the fractured remains of the Dasa into the Sanju kingdom, and the island was reunited for the first time in almost four hundred years. By this time, Sasde’s daughter, the original Nadu, had been deified as Nadu Kai, the Queen of the Universe, and reverence for her ways was built into the people’s everyday activities. Incompatible Dasa ideals were declared blasphemous, and anyone promoting them was executed without hesitation.

A small band of Dasa met in secret, however, and took an oath to defend the original ideals of Volo and restore the former glory of the Dasa kingdom. From generation to generation, they supposedly grew in influence and power, although their surreptitious methods combined with the Dasa culture’s code of silence made them notoriously difficult to discover, and nobody really knew if they actually existed anymore outside of stories and songs where they were a common villain.

Well, now we knew they were still a thing.

There was a contemptuous sneer in Kemma’s voice as she spoke about the Dasa conspirators. She hated the fact that she’d been accused of being one herself after the Queen’s attempted assassination. If it weren't for them, she said, she'd still be welcome at the Royal House as one of the Queen’s children, and she would even have been a candidate to become a queen herself someday (although that honor would much more likely go to one of her older sisters).

Instead, she was now lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a disappointing husband, waiting to die at the hands of the people she hated the most.

• • • •

A day passed. We searched for any signs we could find but were rewarded with nothing but the uninterrupted horizon all around us.

We decided we should supplement our food stores by catching curious fish that ventured near our boat. It was a lot of work to grab them out of the water, but we didn't have much else to do, and we only needed a few small fish a day to help us stretch our supplies.

Kemma ate almost every part of the fish, and particularly enjoyed watching me squirm as she sucked the eyeballs out of their sockets. She encouraged me to try it, saying they were a good source of water, but I just wasn't up for it. Maybe I'd try it when things got desperate, but we still had several wooden water jars in the boat.

I wondered why the escort guards hadn’t taken our food and water, but Kemma reasoned that it was simply because they wanted us to drift as far as possible before realizing something was wrong. Easier to cut us loose and leave than to fight us and risk getting hurt themselves. It wouldn’t have mattered much either way, since being lost on the ocean was about as good as being dead.

We spent a lot of time talking over the next couple of days, since there wasn’t much else to do. She told me about the men who'd mated with the Queen over the years, and about the one most people believed to be Kemma’s father. Traditionally, the Queen mated with many great men in order to build a strong royal family. The men weren't considered part of the household, but the children would grow up in the Royal House, raised by the Queen's staff and taught a rigorous curriculum from the time they were a year old. In her free time growing up, Kemma would stay with the Pirgu, the clan of her apparent father, and they welcomed her warmly. They were a seaside clan known for fishing and ocean hunting, and that’s where she’d learned to sail.

When a queen neared the end of her life, Kemma explained, the Council would convene to recommend a successor from among her most capable and successful children. The queen would approve the selection, or select another child she preferred, and then the successor would cut the queen's throat in a public execution. This demonstrated the new queen’s ability to make difficult choices as she took over as the Queen of the World. It was considered a beautiful ceremony, allowing the queen to die with dignity, and Kemma had often fantasized about being the one chosen to cut her mother's throat. However, her older sisters were smarter, more charismatic, and more obedient than she was. She never had a real chance at being the queen, but it was hard not to play with the idea in her mind.

In return, I told her stories about my childhood growing up in the bad part of Washington D.C. The numbing despair of low-income city life took its toll on my community, and two of my childhood friends were killed in a drive-by shooting. My mother didn't let me out of the apartment much after that. She pulled me out of school and had me stay at home reading library books all day instead.

I got interested in anthropology after my mother purchased a case of old National Geographic magazines from a nearby thrift store. Being stuck in my apartment with relatively little contact with the outside world, I found myself fascinated with the expansiveness and diversity of humanity illustrated in the pages of those magazines. The occasional images of topless native women may also have had some small influence on my youthful decision that anthropology was the career for which I was destined. When I turned 18 and learned my anonymous father had arranged my college tuition, I didn’t know what else to major in, so I ended up becoming an anthropologist.

As we talked, Kemma’s feelings toward me seemed to soften a little. She still didn’t like that I had been planning to leave the island instead of staying to fight, but as we got to know each other better, she at least saw a glimpse of the rest of me, and that it wasn’t as simple as me being a coward and running away. I really did feel like the best thing I could do for her people was to go back and share what I’d learned so at least someone knew their story before there was no story left at all. That was my calling on this earth as an anthropologist. She didn’t agree with me, but she at least acknowledged that it made some kind of sense.

Between these various conversations, Kemma taught me some Mesdu games, including word games, hand games, guessing games, and board games using bits of food for pieces. I documented each of these in my notebooks, as games tended to hold up well over time and might give me clues as to their geographic origins. For example, I could swear I recognized one of them from a paper I’d read about ancient games in Western Africa.

We also had sex a few times during those days on the ocean. We started the first night alone when we snuggled under the blankets for warmth. Despite the relationship tension, the primal comfort of skin on skin and the intoxicating effect of sleepiness eventually resulted in some awkward caressing that gradually escalated. We were supposedly married, after all. And despite our differences, we did seem to have some kind of loose friendship forged by spending extended time together under these extreme circumstances. We were getting comfortable with each other, even when we disagreed.

Curiosity was a factor as well. She wanted to know what it had been like when we’d first mated under the influence of tarsu, since neither of us could remember that experience. For my part, I also wanted to know what sex was like outside the norms of my own culture. I knew American sex well enough, but I figured Mesdu sex would probably be different—and it was.

Unfortunately, I was probably the least romantic lover in history, asking questions about Mesdu sex norms and traditions while we were in the middle of the act itself. I’m ashamed to admit that not once but twice I paused to write something down in my notebook so I wouldn’t forget it. It became a running joke, and she teased me good-naturedly about it. When one of us had a positive reaction to something the other was doing, then she’d immediately yell, “Write it down, write it down!” We laughed a lot as we tried to figure it all out.

And then there was just the basic attraction, of course. She was a tough and confident and interesting woman. She was feminine—not in a girly-girly American sort of way, but in a primal, natural, expressive way. The cultural differences complicated things, but I liked her. A lot.

And when we did it, we went all the way. I started to pull out the first time, but she wouldn’t let me. She wanted to feel it, she said. I wasn’t generally prone to impulsiveness, but we were technically a husband and wife alone together at what would probably be the end of our lives. When the last person I might ever see held on tight and told me she wanted me to keep going, I had a hard time thinking of reasons not to. It felt like we were making one last stand for humanity before we were forgotten forever.

If there weren’t a brutal rebellion coming, I could have seen myself spending a lot of time on the island together with her. Things might have been different. We could have made something work.

But that rebellion was coming, at least from what we could tell from the little information we had. Not that it made much of a difference to us either way now that we were adrift somewhere in the middle of the ocean without a landmark in sight.

On the fifth day, we ate a light breakfast of dried fish chunks and strips of pumpkin. We had tried to make the food supply last as long as it could, but we were nearing the end of it. We’d have to work harder to catch fish if we were going to stay alive.

Kemma adjusted the sails repeatedly over the course of each day, compensating for wind changes. We occasionally had to travel directly into the wind, which I didn't realize was possible, but which she accomplished by zigzagging into it. I was certainly glad she was there, because otherwise I'd be drifting arbitrarily toward Africa and probably trying to survive by eating my own leg or something.

There were white clouds like spilled cotton balls across the western horizon, but over the course of the morning they gradually merged. Kemma worried they’d obscure our view of the sun, which we needed to navigate. If the wind changed, which it likely would, we could easily end up sailing entirely the wrong way—if we weren’t already, that is.

The clouds grew larger and darker, and by late morning they’d taken on the shape of a giant black anvil resting on a bed of slate. They blocked out the sun entirely. We were still able to navigate for much of the afternoon using the remaining blue sky in the west as a rough reference point, but the clouds were shifting and that was becoming an increasingly unreliable approach.

The rain started as a gray smudge underneath the cloudy anvil, far in the distance. We tried heading north to outrun it, but it expanded by around midday to obscure the entire horizon. There was no avoiding it. The wind got increasingly aggressive, and we struggled to hold our position by zigzagging into the gale as the thunderhead got closer. The once-gently rocking waves grew into a roller coaster of intimidating swells, and the temperature dropped to somewhere in the 30s.

There were plenty of things for us to worry about, including the increasing likelihood that we were hopelessly lost and would never find Tristan da Cunha, but the thought that preoccupied my mind was that my notebooks might get ruined. At this point, I was probably more concerned about preserving them than preserving myself. I wrote a note asking anyone who found it to return it immediately to Undersecretary Lehrman at the U.S. State Department, then rolled them up and stuck them inside one of the empty wooden drinking water vases and corked it tight.

Sometime in the late afternoon, the rain finally slammed into us with a thick, dark downpour. Our visibility was next to nothing, and we had no idea what direction we were going anymore.

We pulled the sail down and covered ourselves with it, trying to defend against the stinging barrage of thick drops. We got down low in the boat and held onto the hand-straps that had been mounted into the floor for such occasions. Chilled rainwater sloshed back and forth across us as we rode up and down the swells. There was nothing to do anymore except hang on.

Kemma yelled over the noise of the rain slapping against the sail. “We believe that when you die of drowning, you’re reborn into the future, not the past. But I don’t know how we would know that.”

I wasn’t really listening to her. “I have to get back home,” I said.

“You’ll tell our secret, won’t you? You’ll tell everyone about the Ao and the Mesdu.”

“If we survive this, yes, I absolutely will.”

“Maybe that’s why she sent this storm. So you couldn’t tell anyway.”

We slid down a massive swell, and I waited to speak until we started going up the other side. “They’ll win, Kemma. XCG and the Dasa. They’ll rule the island because they have the guns. They’re going to kill your mother and take her place. Secrecy doesn’t work. This is only happening because of the secrecy. If everyone knew about the Mesdu, they wouldn’t dare do something like this.”

She was quiet for a while. It was getting dark, and I could only barely see her face.

“I would have been a good queen,” she said.

“You’d have been a great queen.”

She shook her head. “You don’t even think I’m a good wife, or you’d stay with me.”

“That’s not fair. I—”

The bottom dropped out from under us, and everything went quiet. We were airborne for a moment, then underwater. I couldn’t breathe. The mast beam hit me in the head—or I hit it, I couldn’t tell which. When my head came up above water, I saw basket lids, fish, water vases, and our other scattered supplies rolling with the waves or slowly sinking below them.

I couldn’t find Kemma in the darkness. I frantically explored the dark water with my arms, trying to locate her. Many tense seconds passed, and I felt the dread throughout my body.

Eventually, I felt hair brush against my fingers under the water. I grabbed it, pulling toward me.

It was her.

When she was close enough, I reached down under her arm and pulled her up, so her head was mostly above water. I righted myself and took a deep breath as a large wave passed over us. Then we were in a trough and another large crest was approaching. I hoisted Kemma up further, putting my arm around her waist, struggling to keep her head above water. I swam with my free arm, kicking furiously, climbing up the crest as the water rose around us.

When it passed and we rode the wave back down, I glanced around for the boat. I caught a glimpse of it, a patch that was slightly different shade of black against the dark water, about twenty feet away. I turned and swam toward it. The cold water made my body tense and I felt like I could hardly move, but I just kept making one stroke after another and praying it was enough.

I struggled to keep her head above water, but she was dead weight and it was hard enough keeping my own head up. Our previous attempt at ocean swimming while trying to escape from Noah a few days ago had helped me know what to expect so I was at least able to control my body’s reaction better. Still, after the affairs of the last few days, I was in no shape for athletic swimming while trying to carry someone else at the same time.

It felt like an eternity had passed, but eventually I got us back to the capsized boat. I reached over and grabbed the centerboard, then pulled hard to flip the hull over. We rose the side of another swell. When we got to the top, I used the momentum to heave Kemma into the boat as we slid down the other side of the wave. On the next wave, I did the same to get myself into the boat.

I straightened Kemma’s body and lay on top of her. I put my arm behind her neck and grabbed a nearby hand strap. I tried to keep her nose and mouth above the water in the bottom of the boat while hanging on so we didn’t fall out.

She wasn’t breathing.

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