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 It is the last note of an unpublished novel about World War 2 in the South Pacific, a novel about Vanuatu mixing non-fiction, autobiography, and the story of a pilot arriving in the New Hebrides in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.