Friday, 13 September 2013

Excerpt: MANscapes Chapter 12

She followed her nose and her ears to the very end, where a door led to a large parlour that unfolded into a broad veranda. A myriad cages housing a babble of birds hung amongst the grasping arms of the bougainvillea. Brilliantly coloured bits of bright feathers hopped and fluttered, screamed and uttered.

A round table was set with a linen table cloth. A gigantic black tea-pot, with the sheen of hard wear, presided over a pile of steaming scones and what looked to be a honey-dark teacake frosted with a satiny-white glace.

At the table sat her hostess, her silvery hair upswept from her imperious face, her strong hands holding a tiny porcelain cup poised delicately on her finger-tips.

“Clara! Sit, have some tea!” She reached over to a trolley filled with tableware, cutlery and mysterious jars and boxes, and brought out a lovely opalescent tea-cup and a matching saucer.

She nodded invitingly to the chair next to her and proceeded to pour a thin aromatic stream into the shimmering porcelain cup.

“Would you like some cake, or a scone? Do you like my friends?” she waved up at the bird-cages, “Aren’t they pretty? The boys bring them to me from all over. South China, India, Australia…My little bits of joy!”

She cut Clara a generous slice of the dark, moist looking cake. “Eat, girl, you need your strength.”

Clara found herself chatting calmly to Sylvine, hopping from subject to subject as lightly as any of the tiny frail-boned exotics in the cages.

“Are you French, Sylvine? You have such an unusual accent…”

Sylvine laughed, displaying small white teeth, clearly her own.

“That, my dearest Clara is not a question you should ask anyone outside that damn resort! And never here, at The Retreat.” She set down her cup “But, in this case, it is not a secret. I’m not French. I am Japanese, Ainu.”

“I got the name from my first owner, Yves-Marie Devereux.” She giggled girlishly, “Poor man was a fool. A Hokkaido Madam sold me to him for a fortune, telling him I was an Ama - I was useless to her, fought and spat like a cornered wolverine. So he brought me out here and sold me to John Benedict. To dive, for the pearls you see. Ama girls were famous for that. I, off course had never done any such thing. I could swim, yes, but diving for pearls…”

Her lips tightened in remembrance.

“I’d learned a smattering of French on the voyage out. There I was, 15 years old, Benedict took me out to sea and told me to dive. He kept saying: perle, huîtres, plongée, plongée…He threw me into the water. I kept trying to climb back into the boat, and he kept pushing me off. I was terrified. He took me home that night and he raped me. The next day he took me back and tied a cord to my ankle. He showed me an oyster. He threw me off again and again. The next day he put a stone in my hands. I finally realized what he wanted me to do: dive, get oysters. So I did. I held that rock and followed it down. I had never held my breath that long, not even as a child playing games with my sisters, it hurt. After a while my throat burned, the air burned my lungs. I saw no oysters - later, I realized, even if I had seen one, I couldn’t have pried it off without a knife. I gripped a piece of coral in my hand and turned up. It was so bright. A shimmering silver lid on the world, and that silver was bleeding out of me too, bubbles bursting from my mouth and nostrils. I followed them up, and out. That piece of coral saved me. He realized: if I could bring that up, I could bring up pearls. I dived every day, going deeper, staying longer. Once I found three pearls, and he kept me diving that day, until he had to haul me up on the cord and pump the water out of my lungs.”

“How did you…You were freed?”

“I dived for him for three years. One day I simply refused to board the boat. I was six months pregnant. He beat me on the quay, and a man interfered. He killed that man. The authorities arrested him. He was sent away in chains. I never learned what happened to him after that. All that was his: the boat and this house became mine.”

Clara stared intently into her eyes.

“You kept the child.” It was not a question.

“Yes. Surprising, isn’t it, you can love a child of rape, but yes. I had my son, and I loved him dearly. You are not surprised.” Sylvine stared back, “You know how it is.”

Clara nodded. “Yes, I do know. Did you have…another life, after?”

Sylvine laughed, “You mean, did I have men after, did I have sex? I did better, my dear, I fell in love.” She patted Clara’s hand, “And so will you, if you want to be whole, if you want to survive.”

Manuela Cardiga

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