Chapter 16: Julian

Chapter 16: Julian

I pulled the door shut behind me, and the fear that it would squeak made my toes curl. If it did squeak, though, nobody heard.

The church was dark and cool and quiet. The noises from outside only barely made it through the thick stone walls and registered in my ears as a low hum. The fires on the hilltop and on the torches were just flickers in the stained glass. Our footsteps made little echoes, except for Isabelle and her bare feet.

She was imploring Asa to go home. “This isn’t safe for you.” She crossed the sanctuary and looked out through the windows to the east, towards where Asa lived, but I doubt she saw much through the stained glass.

I hoped that Mother was safe. I looked up at the big wooden cross and thought about praying but somehow I didn’t think that whispering to a block of wood was going to help much, especially since the people who were trying to kill us had whispered to the same block only earlier today.

Black Shuck had helped us, but he was dead now. “He protects the innocent,” the bishop had said. That he existed at all, a spirit dog who haunted the Broads, I could accept only after having seen Tantibus up close.

Mr. Percy was dead. He had been dead for hundreds of years, perhaps. Lord Edmonstone. My own father? I shuddered to think that we were alone, Isabelle and I.

“Asa,” Isabelle commanded in her firmest voice, “don’t make me scold you. I am going to open the door and I need you to run home. Stay in the shadows, and go home as fast as you can.”

“No,” he said stubbornly. “I won’t go.” And he stomped away from her.

His stomps echoed. I could hear Isabelle’s feet shuffle on the stone ground. And I could hear something else.

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I resolve to be more resolute

I resolve to be more resolute

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, because when I was young somebody told me that they never work, and when you’re young you’re very impressionable. For example, I once heard one of the robots on Mystery Science Theater declare, “No matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid,” and that has been my attitude to that ever since.

I do periodically challenge/force myself to improve myself, or at least address some of my shortcomings. Like one time I resolved to turn myself into a Roxy Music fan. Another time I took up yoga. Because I can now touch my toes and sing all the words to “All I Want is You,” I would say that these challenges I give myself are generally worth the effort.

But they aren’t new year’s resolutions, because I learned when I was six that those never work. It just so happens that when I looked in the mirror and decided that I needed to fix some issues, it was New Year’s Eve. Totally unrelated, though. I would have made these resolutions in October if I’d felt lousy enough then.

First and foremost, I need to read something. After getting off to a great start in January (Moby Dick and The Goldfinch—loved the first, gradually came to hate the second) I didn’t really do much over the rest of the year. A few short novels, mostly read during the summer, and none of them especially memorable; two books on Russian history (a package deal on eBay); and some Shakespeare that I really should have read a long time ago: that was it. Oh, and I only made it through one of those Russian books because I was the only person in the office and there was literally nothing else to do.

So I need to fix that.

I also need to write more. I was doing an amazing (for me) job at the start of the year (that whole a-short-story-and-a personal-essay-every-week thing), but then work—my actual job, that is—finally got going and I didn’t have time to spend twenty hours a week writing. I understand that there are limits, of course, but the fact is that I could do a lot more than I’ve been doing. I could spend less time on Reddit, for example, or just staring at my chickens. Sometimes I just walk around in circles thinking about how I don’t have time to do anything except walk around in circles.

Oh, and in the fall I developed a weird obsession with a game called Fire Emblem, because it let me send a bunch of warriors into battle, and they could fall in love and have children, and those children were also warriors, and so I could send a whole warrior family into battle, which was violent but still kind of sweet. Somehow this was appealing to me, and consumed most of my evenings. And no, it doesn’t make any more sense if you actually play it. It’s just weird. And time-consuming. (And, yes, fun, but whatever.)

So I’ve put away Fire Emblem and taken books off my shelf and put them in a neat little stack so they can taunt me whenever I’m in my living room, and I’ve ordered a bunch of fresh books so I can have something new to look forward to. I can’t tell you what they are, because I’ve already forgotten, but tonight I’m going to start reading either a book of Chinese poetry that I found at a book market in Amsterdam, or a history of Mediterranean pirates that I’ve been lugging around for way too long. I’ll decide over a glass of wine.

And this morning I woke up at three-thirty for reasons that I cannot understand, and instead of poking around on the Internet until sunrise I poured myself some coffee and did a bit of writing. Only three hundred words, but three hundred good ones, I think. I am pleased.

Of course I should also work on being healthier, kinder and more generous, and maybe getting my car’s oil changed more regularly. But right now, learning again how to read and write seem like admirable enough goals, new year be damned.

Nile sunrise

Nile sunrise

I woke up in time to catch the sun rise. All was silent except for the quiet chatter of unseen birds and the steady murmur of the river rapids. A handful of fishermen glided back and forth on the calmer stretches of water. Eventually I sat in the restaurant with a coffee and a book, until the sun woke everyone else up and they joined me. Not a bad start to the day.

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Happy New Year from the source of the Nile

Happy New Year from the source of the Nile

I returned from the relative cold of Amsterdam to find Kampala gripped by an unpleasant heat wave. I guess it didn’t rain while I was gone, and without me to water them my poor plants have suffered. To think I was only gone four days!

The warm weather, especially after that little taste of cold, has switched my mind into a summer’s-almost-here mode, as if I were twelve years old and it was the last week of May and I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I was driving around town yesterday with my iPod on shuffle, and it seems my iPod agreed, because the playlist was all summer music, offering up reggae, some salsa, classic R&B, and a bunch of uptempo pop hits (a little Leonard Cohen snuck in, too, but it worked.) If Lake Victoria wasn’t infested with hippos and parasites, I would have made a beeline for the beach.

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Chapter 15: Isabelle

Chapter 15: Isabelle

My lungs burned and my feet stung and my head reeled and my heart ached. The tall grass at least hid his shadow from us, and hopefully hid us from him as well. Julian kept pulling at me, forcing me to keep running even though my body at times felt ready to quit. Not that I wanted to die, I just wanted to stop and to make everything go away, make the whole world and everything in it—good bad natural unnatural—disappear.

The treasure pulsed with Julian’s heartbeat. Some treasure. Not rubies or diamonds or gold like in the books. A worthless piece of wood on a leather strap. He said there were things we couldn’t understand, and so I told myself that there must be more to it and I kept running even as the grass cut my face and the stones on the path cut into my feet.

The ground shook as though thunder had clapped here on the earth itself. It could have been the sound of a thousand cannons firing at once. It was the sound of Tantibus bellowing with rage. He had lost us, at least temporarily. I kept my head down and let Julian lead me further.

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A little more Amsterdam

A little more Amsterdam

At a cafe I am reminded that there are many Amsterdams. Beside me are a couple of young men with bright red eyes. I am having breakfast but they are having a meal at the end of a long night, and even though neither of them are saying much they cannot stop giggling. Theirs is not the Amsterdam I am here for, but I remember my younger days when it might have been.

At a park I am momentarily mesmerized by a young girl spinning around on playground equipment. She is sitting on a chin-up bar and after taking a deep breath she drops, quickly and dramatically, and spins completely around three or four times before stopping at the top for another breath. Beside her a group of boys take turns jumping off of swings, and in a weird little playground cage a postcard-perfect group of multicultural mixed gender preteens play something that looks like dodgeball soccer. It is not clear if they are being watched by any adults; in any event, the children definitely don’t see any of the grown-ups walking past them. The spinning girl doesn’t even seem to notice that every time she whips around her ponytail drags through the dirt. Theirs is an altogether different Amsterdam, too.

A girl with pink hair and a ring in her nose; a jowly man in a very expensive coat; a baker who apologizes to his Dutch customer that he only speaks English. I love cities. I can appreciate the charms of the rural life for a weekend at most. I don’t look down on it, and respect that others can’t stand all the sounds and smells of urban spaces. But I love it. I love letting myself through these overlapping worlds. Funny then how in all my pictures there are no people present. I guess I feel the need to respect their worlds, and I only take pictures of mine.

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