Daily Science Fiction have been publishing my novelette, Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat as a serial over a week through their e-mail list, but the story is now available in its entirety online.
This story has a curious origin. It is the last note of an unpublished novel about World War 2 in the South Pacific, a novel about Vanuatu mixing non-fiction, autobiography, and the story of a pilot arriving in the New Hebrides in the middle of that war. You won’t see that novel, but here, in lieu of an introduction to the story, a short exclusive extract explaining where Henry first came from.
Introduction to Henry, Caesar of the Air
I woke up in the night with Henry’s name beating like blood in my head. Vanua Lava, our second night there. Thunder covered the bay like a military blanket. A war was going on, the sound of explosions echoing and multiplying in the bay, from Sola to Port Patteson and back, and for a moment it was as if time had turned and it was the war again, Americans and Japanese fighting in the sky above.
Darkness, the mattress wet with our shared humidity. My throat was dry. On my skin, bites from the mosquitoes and fire ants. In the coming months we will learn that wounds don’t heal, collect upon ourselves a map of tiny, permanent scars. I lifted the edge of the mosquito net and slithered out. Darkness, rain slamming into the natangura roof, the wind blowing through the bamboo walls. A concrete floor, Henry in my head. I opened the door that separated our little cubicle of a bedroom from the rest of the hut. Lightning flashed outside. The waves of the South Pacific crashed against the shore, almost drowning the sound of thunder. I never knew the sea could be so loud. Trying to find a torch, matches, the hurricane lamp hanging from a crooked nail. Thinking, What the hell am I doing here? and not finding an answer, only Henry, still echoing in my head, demanding to be let out. Had he been trapped here as effectively as us? There is no way to get off an island. The nights on Vanua Lava are filled with ghosts, the vui, and they are restless. I must have used the torch. On the desk a paperback book and my pen and I wrote on the title page, the words from the dream: Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times. Dreams are as real as the waking hours, here. Sorcerous battles are fought in dreams: a bad dream means someone hemi spoilem yu, they put a curse on you. The vui, too, come in dreams: just as Henry did.
The smell of rain and ozone pushed in by the wind, through the weave of the walls and the windows torn into the hut. The wind shook the natangura roof and dropped fire-ants down like parachutists. I closed the book and edged my way back to bed, the sound of mortar fire all around me. You were there, sleeping but restless, and I lifted the net and climbed back into the small space, the old spongy wedge of a mattress, the bed of uneven planks hammered together in an afternoon, the pillows that smelled of fungus, the kind of humidity in the air that never goes away, where nothing ever properly dries.
Your skin was slicked with sweat. We slept. Who was Henry? And where does his story begin? In the morning the sun rose and as I stepped outside the clouds parted and the volcano appeared on the opposite side of the bay. The smoke of cooking fires was rising from the other end of Sola. Was I beginning to understand time as it passes here – low-tide, high-tide, full-moon, no-moon, the time the white fish come and the people of Sola line up on the broken jetty with bamboo rods, the time of planting pineapples, time as it is counted by the gathering of wild yams in the bush, by the movement of fish, by the light of the moon? I doubt I did, and I am not sure I understand it now, though I lived it. I wonder if Henry did. I think he might have, in the end.
You were boiling water for tea. In the night the rats had gotten into our food closet, though they could not get into the tins. I said, ‘We need a cat.’ You shook your head.
I know you were wondering what the hell we were doing there.
Bishop Patteson’s Crocodiles
by Lavie Tidhar
Taem we bubu blong mi I yangfala, he was a foreman on the coconut plantation here in Sola. At that time the land was further out and where there is now sea used to be a road, and my bubu could travel on it with the truck and carry copra. When my bubu was younger Sola was a plantation, not a town, and the master’s house was where is now the wharf and there was a large ice-box powered by an engine and it could store two buluk. It is still there, standing next to the province’s workshop, and my bubu says it was brought by the Americans in Wol Wo Tu. He told me how it was brought on the big copra ship to Sola and he and the others unloaded it from the ship, and after that the master stored meat inside it but bubu and the others could keep water in there, and drink it cold. The master was a French man.
My bubu was born in Port Vila, on the island of Efate, and his great-grandfather was a French man too, who had a plantation, and his wife was from Malekulah. My bubu remembers when the Americans came; he was seven. He told me the skies were full of planes, flying and flying overhead like sheets of rain driven by the wind when the clouds turn the skies dark.
Before my bubu was a foreman he was a teacher in Port Patteson, on the other side of the bay from Sola. It was named after Bishop Patteson, who was the first bishop of the church of Melanesia. He travelled in a ship called the Southern Cross and he died in the Solomon Islands; he was a martyr.
One time when Bishop Patteson visited Vanua Lava he brought with him two tiny crocodiles. They were from the Solomons, where people eat crocodiles. I never tasted it, but bubu says it’s white meat; like chicken, or a shark or an eel. I like it when mama makes shark curry.
Bishop Patteson let the crocodiles come down from the ship with the rest of the mission, and as the women washed the Bishop’s clothes in the mouth of the river the two crocodiles played in the water. But when everyone got ready to get back to the ship, the crocodiles were gone.
I think a lot of people were scared then. But the Bishop was very powerful, and he put a tambou on the crocodiles. He said, ‘As long as these crocodiles are in Vanua Lava they will not attack man.’
After that people were no longer afraid, and the crocodiles lived in Silver River, where the water comes down from the volcano and stains wood yellow and where no fish live, and they laid their eggs antap, where Silver River meets Alligator River, though I don’t know why it’s called that because alligators and crocodiles are different, bubu says. Alligator River is full of fishes, and when I went there in the boat with my dadi I saw a stingray at the bottom, like the one that killed Steve.
One time when my bubu was a teacher in Port Patteson a French man came in a ship from the Solomons, and he wanted to hunt crocodiles. He and his men went out to Silver River and bubu could hear shots in the distance, and when the men came back they carried a big crocodile between them, and it was dead. They took it to their ship and skinned it and then gave the meat to bubu, and he and the students made a big fire on the beach and made soup from the crocodile. The French man only wanted the skin. After that he left. And when my bubu was a foreman there was another French man and he was a friend of the master and he brought him two small crocodiles, I think because the master asked him for them. He was like Bishop Patteson. Bubu says the crocodiles were very small and you could play with them, and the men put them into a big drum, like the one we use to collect rainwater in, and there they lived.
Then there was a hurricane. And rain fell and fell and fell. And when it passed the men went to look for the crocodiles and couldn’t find them, because their tank overflowed. And so they were gone. And the master was very worried, and he said, ‘These are not like the other crocodiles. These are man-eaters.’ And as these were new crocodiles Bishop Patteson’s tambou didn’t hold and the crocodiles started to attack people. There is no bridge over the rivers, so when you want to go from Port Patteson to Sola or bakegen, you have to cross on foot, and when the tide is high and solwota I kam antap you sometimes have to swim, even if you carry kava. I’m not old enough to drink kava yet, but dadi blong mi I likem hem tumas, he drinks almost every night, and then he goes to sleep on the mat outside. Kava looks like a great grey beard and the men come from Port Patteson every day with kava hanging from a stick on their shoulders, and so they always have to watch out for the crocodiles. One of them attacked Irene once, she’s the secretary-typist for the province. She went to get in a canoe to cross Silver River and there was a crocodile inside and she already had one leg in when she noticed, and then she screamed, and her brother came down and he shot the crocodile with an iron spear, and the crocodile left. But in the morning dadi blong hem went down to the river and saw the crocodile bakegen, it was lying in the sun. I know this is true because she was even in the Torba Times, which is this newspaper blong yumi long Torba, hemi wan newspaper wan waetman I mekem long Province. I guess it’s not really a newspaper, it’s just one sheet of paper folded over, but he makes enough money from it to drink kava wetem dadi blong mi. And this was in the first issue and before that mitrifala went to Silver River, me and dadi and the man blong newspaper ia, but we couldn’t go in with the boat because a tree fell down on the mouth of the river, but dadi and me had our picture in the newspaper. My dadi is the captain of the Province’s boat. He once drove a crocodile in his boat, and that’s something even my bubu never did, and it was all because of Steve, but I was there too and I saw everything, even though I was a little small then.
You see, the people on Maewo found a crocodile there and they were very scared of it, and they said, ‘This isn’t our crocodile. The only crocodiles in Vanuatu come from Vanua Lava. It must have floated here on a log.’ It was a big crocodile. They said, ‘It must go back to Vanua Lava.’
I once asked olfala William from the co-op store why we took it back. My bubu was his teacher once, in Port Patteson, though he looks older than my bubu. I think maybe he was born old.
He said, ‘For the tourists.’ I said, ‘But we have no tourists,’ and he shrugged. Then he said, ‘No one asked us.’
I remember when the crocodile came. It came in an Air Vanuatu plane that landed over the grassy runway and when the door opened Steve came out. He wore khaki shorts and a khaki shirt and he smiled at everyone and he said, ‘Crikey!’ and all the kids tried to say it the same way, after. He was wan man Ostrelia and he knew a lot about crocodiles, and he went and caught the crocodile on Maewo and brought it back for us, and when the crocodile came off the plane it had a sort of fishing net on, and its mouth was tied shut, and everyone could come and touch it, even mama did. But all this time dadi was waiting in the boat, and when Steve saw him he came and he shook his hand, and they spoke very seriously, and then Steve and four other men carried the crocodile on their shoulders and put it in the boat, and dadi and Steve and the crocodile went to Silver River.
Steve is dead now, and everyone in Vanua Lava is sorry. And dadi told me that all the time he was driving the boat he was thinking, ‘If this crocodile just moves I am going to jump out of this boat.’ But he didn’t, and when he and Steve got to the mouth of the river they pulled the crocodile out and put it on the sand. Steve took off the net and the thing around its mouth but it just sat there, and Steve had to give it a prod with a stick and then, with one quick movement, it was gone. I think it was glad to be back home.
First published in Serendipity, 2007, edited by Neil Ayres
I have a guest-post over at SF Signal, where I discuss living in Vanuatu and the writing of Cloud Permutations:
I wrote Cloud Permutations on the island of Vanua Lava, in Vanuatu, in view of the volcano, wreathed in clouds. There are always clouds. They are attracted to islands, the land formations jutting out of the surface of the ocean help them coalesce and form.
Cloud Permutations is a story of islands, and clouds, and in a way, I think, it’s a story not just of escapism, but of escape.
You cannot get off an island. There is nowhere else to go.
I wrote the book in a bamboo hut on the shore of the South Pacific ocean. I could see the volcano from my window. I had no electricity and no clean water. At night rats broke into the food cupboard and ate everything. Fire ants dropped through the tiny holes of the mosquito net and bit us in our sleep. The mosquitoes carried malaria, but that was ok – I had malaria several times before.
Always shake your underwear before putting them on, because a fire ant often offends.
At night, sometimes, I would go out for kava. Kava is a drink made from the roots of a plant native to the islands of Vanuatu. The roots are chopped up and mixed with water and produce a dark, dank brown drink that produces relaxation. It makes your sight and hearing sensitive, so the nakamals – the kava-bars – are dark and quiet places, illuminated by a single candle or hurricane lamp, and the stars.
What if the people I lived with and drank with and laughed with and had fights with were to go into space? – read the rest of the post.
More photos from Vanuatu, to celebrate the release of Cloud Permutations, my Vanuatu-inspired planetary romance from PS Publishing!
Reggie and I after climbing up to the Gaua Volcano – Lake Letes behind us is the lake is the largest volcanic lake in the Southern hemisphere. As can clearly be seen, neither Reggie nor me had the required stamina for the journey…
Women performing water music, Gaua:
Snake dance, Gaua:
This is where I lived on Vanua Lava (and where I wrote the bulk of both Cloud Permutations, out now, as well as my forthcoming novel Martian Sands):
And this is the hammock outside the hut, with me and some of the gang:
I’ve got a guest-post up on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog, Letter from Jakarta & Cloud Permutations Release, where I talk about the book situation in Jakarta, e-book readers, the release of Cloud Permutations, bilingual jokes and some of the difficulties of defining an Other in Bislama.
I’m late to the guest-blogging season this time around, but I have an excuse – I’m currently writing two novels and a novella back-to-back, which gives you an idea of how absent my social life is at the moment. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m spending a couple of months in Jakarta – if you haven’t been, don’t. Someone should probably write a paper on The City as One Giant Traffic Jam, or maybe that’s China’s sequel to The City and the City. In any case, here I am. The question is, will I ever be able to get out?
It’s kind of a depressing city, book-wise. The few bookstores have a remarkable lack of novels, in either English or Bahasa. There arebooks – technical manuals, self-help guides, that sort of thing. Young adult fantasy seems to be the only type of novel widely available, though that appears to be mainly translations from English.
To find real Indonesian books one has to go to one of the second hand book markets – the bursa buku – where you’d find some wonderful Indonesian pulp novels (at least, they have wonderful pulp covers) and a lot of comics, but where the English novels seem to be composed entirely of ex-pat reading material, which is in turn made up pretty much by Jackie Collins’ back-catalogue.
I knew I should have bought that e-book reader before I left. – continue reading.
Adventuring means being cold – and hungry – and tired – and scared. I once climbed the volcano on the island of Gaua in the South Pacific – a semi-active volcano surrounded by the southern hemisphere’s largest volcanic lake, Lake Letes. Very few people ever get to go there – the Banks islands of Vanuatu, where I lived, are some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world. And the volcano was beautiful. Giant eels lived in the sulphuric lake, and giant prawns, and nothing else. There were no people there, no lights, nothing but the smoke rising from the volcano and the sun setting in the distance.
And we ate instant noodles mixed with tinned fish. I urge you to try it.
And it rained that night.
And trying to go and relieve myself, I instead fell in the mud.
Incidentally, if you were wondering what the banner image above is, it’s a Vanua Lava snake dance (or snek danis, in Bislama). Vanua Lava is the island I lived on.
It’s been in the works for a while, but it’s only now official to announce: my story, “The Solnet Ascendancy” will appear in Jetse de Vries’ forthcoming anthology of optimistic SF, Shine, coming April 2010 from Solaris Books.
“The Solnet Ascendancy” is one of my Vanuatu stories, set on Vanua Lava (the island I lived on for a year) and charting, tongue somewhat in cheek, the rapid rise of a technological revolution, South Pacific style…
And here is Vanua Lava from the air:
I am sitting in a typical Lao Internet cafe – that is to say, a baby is crying somewhere, construction workers are drilling into the walls, and someone’s eating a fried chicken. I’m here to put the finishing touches to the new website/blog on wordpress – what do you think?
The masthead is a picture of a Vanua Lava snake dance, Vanua Lava being the island I lived on for a year in the Republic of Vanuatu. Not too many people get to see those…
I’m hoping to blog more with this new site, as well as offer more up-to-date information on forthcoming books and stories and everything else. I have a lot coming out in the next couple of years! Not all of which I can mention yet.
In January 2010 – just around the corner – my first novel is coming out from Angry Robot. The Bookman is my love letter to steampunk, and the first in a series for AR. It will be followed by Camera Obscura later in 2010, which I am busy finishing at the moment, and which is even more fun to write!
There is one other novel coming out in 2010, and two novellas, more short stories and at least a couple of comic strips. And 2011 is looking to be equally busy…
So, having more or less finished the site (for now), and written this short introductory post, I will shortly be heading off to the Mekong, to watch the sunset and drink beer. Sometimes it’s not too bad, being a writer!