The Jungle Law
By Victoria Vinton
MacAdam/Cage Publishing ISBN: 1-59692-149-8
REMEMBER THE NIGHT IS FOR HUNTING
Three o'clock and all is not well. Sleep has abandoned him again. He sits bolt upright in his bed, panic rising from his stomach like bile. In the past eight months he has crossed two oceans and whole continents-from Bombay to London, New York, Vancouver, Yokohama, and halfway back-and now, dislocated by the darkness and the hour and the jumbled swirl of distances he's come, he does not know where he is.
He looks around but can make out nothing, not even the hump of a bedpost. This is not surprising since he's been all but blind since the age of twelve. That was when his eyes went wrong, as he likes to say, and his aunt, the Good Aunt, the Beloved Aunt Georgiana, found him pummeling a mulberry tree, thinking it was a monster.
"There, there," she'd said soothingly, guiding him back to the Grange with her hands on his shoulders. Then she set him up in the nursery with a pot of chamomile tea and proceeded to write two letters: one to a specialist she knew about in London who fitted him with glasses, the first of the wire-framed spectacles that he has worn ever since; and the second to his mother in India, urging her to return, thereby restoring to him both his vision and what had seemed the lost heart of his family.
He reaches for his spectacles now, his fingers routing over the bedclothes like the blunt snout of a mole. They sit on a nightstand next to the bed, where he fails to recall setting them. And as his fingers inch and grope and finally find and clutch them, he feels a grateful wave of relief, though the spectacles themselves have often been a source of shame. The Bad Aunt, Auntie Rosa, not really an aunt at all, saw them as an affectation, one more pretension of a spoiled, deceitful boy who was mocked and bullied and called Giglamps at school and made to sit in corners. And recently, with a pang of chagrin that he couldn't quite dispel, he has seen himself in the pages of newspapers portrayed by cartoonists and their lampooning pens with eyes as big as saucers, as mill wheels, like the dogs in the old fairy tale.
He shoos these thoughts and images away as he sets his spectacles over his nose, blinks, and blinks again. Now out of the darkness he identifies shapes. A pine commode with a chipped china basin. A maple rocking chair. The other bed, twin to the one where he sits, where his new bride, Carrie, lies sleeping. And as the room contracts into this dim but manageable focus, he is able at last to give it a name: Home. This is his home.
Of course, he sees the irony here. The whole notion of home is as exotic to him as the ports of call in his travels. And this home, in particular, is not much to speak of. A hired man's cottage rented out for the season with money borrowed from his wife's family, with skunks in the cellar and no water save that from a half-inch lead pipe connected to a spring. It is an uninspiring backdrop for a man with his ambitions, though the sparseness and simplicity appeal to part of him. And besides, as soon as his fortunes change, as he knows they will, he plans to build a great ark of a house on the crest of a neighboring hill. Naulakha, he will call it. Jewel beyond price. A home to call his own.
He thinks of the building plans for that house rolled up in a drawer of his desk, the pencil-thin arrows that mark elevations, the arcs denoting doorways, the breaks in the lines that indicate windows that will open onto grand vistas. All comforting thoughts, though unfortunately not ones that will lead him back to sleep. From experience he knows that even though he has now located himself, pinpointed his exact position, here, in a corner of southeastern Vermont, that knowledge will not buy him safe passage back to the realm of rest. No, now the true torment of wakefulness begins. He lies there deep in the summer night listening to the sounds around him. There are crickets in the woodshed, frogs in the old cedar swamp, a parlor clock on the mantle shelf, chipping away at the hour. To his wife, he imagines, these sounds are lulling, the familiar backdrop of her childhood. It is not her curse to hear things as he does, to imagine that every croak and chirp, each tick and chime of the clock, mocks him for some failure-to fall asleep, to make a home, to see with his own two eyes-and deeper still, for some more basic lack of character or worth, that he does not wish to pursue.
So he says to himself what he has said before: the night has gotten into his head. And the phrase takes some of the edge away, transforming the night from a nemesis into something more foolish, but finally benign, a schoolboy on a prank. That sly, devil night up to its old tricks. How well and long he has known them! He thinks of Lahore, when he worked for the papers and his parents went up to the Hills, when the heat had the grip of a stranglehold and the night seemed to last forever. He would carry a pallet from room to room in a futile search for fresh air, setting it finally up on the roof where he'd make the waterboy douse his parched skin with water from a cistern, willing to risk the threat of disease for a few brief moments of rest. Or he'd give up on sleep entirely and just walk his way to dawn, wandering through the narrow alleys beyond the Delhi Gate, the moon above him a scorch in the sky, as white as the shrouds of the dead by the river and the marble of the Wazir Khan Mosque.
And earlier still, on the Brompton Road: was that the first time sleep failed him? In the thick of the night, with the clock inching forward and even the crickets wearying, the question seems suddenly urgent to him, as if, should he settle the matter of onset, he might decree an end.
So the Brompton Road: he is twelve years old, an owl of a boy in his new spectacles with a pet toad in his pocket. He has just been liberated from the House of Desolation, though he hasn't yet dubbed it that. That will be later when he gains more mastery, when he knows how words can be a revenge, how a phrase can sum up and dismiss-in this case six years of scoldings and cuffs and banishments to basements under the tyranny of Auntie Rosa and her lout of a son, fiendish Harry. For now he is too deliriously happy and grateful to think of phrase-making. His mother has finally returned from Bombay, appearing out of nowhere on Auntie Rosa's doorstep in a broad-brimmed hat tied under her chin with a skein of white chiffon, looking for all the world like an angel or a fairy godmother in a tale. She has taken him and his sister, Trix, away from that horrid place and installed them here, in this rooming house on the Brompton Road, right across from the old South Kensington Museum. Here he should sleep in blissful peace, rescued at last from Auntie Rosa, reunited with his mother. But instead he finds himself wide awake, eyes open and ears alert.
At first it is thrilling to be up at this hour, the dark electrifying. He hears a stray cat caterwauling from a rooftop, the last omnibus bound for Knightsbridge, the deep and mysterious groaning of pipes from the walls of the water closet. He feels no fear, only a strange, exhilarating sense of power. He is a sahib, a sultan, a raja, and this is his domain, a world of flickering shadows and moonlight and at least one minion, the toad. It sits by his bedside in a specimen dish, as wide awake as he is: the wart-riddled back in dulled jewel colors-emerald, topaz, gold-the barreled chest with its palpitations; the filmy, bulbous eyes. He stares at it, in a contest of wills, to see who will blink first. Boy or toad, master or lackey, each hunkered down and glaring. But when a breeze blows in the window, he turns away, distracted, and watches as the bedroom curtain first lifts then undulates, seeming to him like the arm of a wraith that beckons him outside.
So he grabs the toad and stuffs it into the pocket of his nightshirt, sets his new specs on the bridge of his nose, wriggles his feet into slippers. And then he is off, on an adventure, past the room where his mother sleeps, past the door to the landlady's quarters, down the back stairs, through the kitchen, the scullery, past the black heap of the coal box, to the door that leads out to a small walled-in garden, magical in the moonlight.
Immediately he claims the place as his own, a part of his empire: from the ancient horse chestnut that stands in one corner to the ginkgo tree in the other, an old stone birdbath, the thick ivy vines, and-now what's this?-an invader. Climbing onto the lip of a toppled urn he sees a marmalade cat on the rooftop, the one he must have heard from his room with its miserable rutting cry. Spying him too, the cat arches its back, then sits and lashes its tail as he scrambles to the horse chestnut tree and gathers an armful of seeds. These are hard, spiked balls, like the spheres of maces he imagines crusaders once must have swung outside Jerusalem, and he chucks them up at the cat who attempts to hide in the gutter. But it is no use: the cat is doomed. He throws another barrage of seeds, this time hitting his mark, and the old Tom slinks away over the slates, quickly conceding defeat, as he throws his arms up victoriously-and almost dislodges the toad. But when the cat has finally vanished among the chimney pots, instead of feeling a swell of triumph at a battle well fought and won, he is seized by a sudden, lonely ache and an emptiness in his bones.
In the sky the moon still shines but its light seems cold and barren. He smells for the first time the seeds from the ginkgo, fetid as rancid butter. And when he wanders to the birdbath, thinking that his toad might like a swim, he finds the scalloped basin choked by a scrim of algae scum. So he goes inside, retracing his steps, back through the kitchen and scullery, back up the winding stairs. Though when he comes to his mother's room, he pauses before slipping in.
She lies in the bed, her hair strewn across the pillows, thick strands of twisted gold, her skin as white as alabaster and still as stone as well, except for a thin blue vein in her temple that quivers as he comes closer. He stands by the bedside, watching her sleep, studying her face. Her eyes betray no signs of dreams, her nose doesn't flare with breath, though her lips seem to curve round the edge of a secret that he cannot begin to guess.
Then he feels the toad squirm in his pocket and takes it out for air, holding it in his two cupped hands where its shape and weight and beating thump make him feel like he holds a live heart. He knows, of course, what happened when a princess kissed a frog, but what if a frog kissed a princess instead? Would she wake from her slumbers, startled or grateful? Sprout warts and turn into a hag? Then kneeling down by his mother's bed as if to say his prayers, he lifts his cupped hands to her face, makes a small opening at his thumbs, so that the toad pokes out its head, straining its thin reptilian lips toward his mother's smile. And he notes with a curious detachment, an almost clinical calm, how the pulsing cords in the toad's throat seem to keep time with the fluttering vein in his mother's forehead just before she opens her eyes and lets out a piercing scream.
But no, that is not the way it happened. Or so he thinks now from his vantage of years and several thousand miles. He had simply thought the toad was thirsty and had wanted to give it a drink. What happened next was a comedy of errors, not some woeful tale. The toad leaped away, too slippery to catch, and landed on the nightstand where it toppled over a water jug, which crashed and broke on the floor. The sound was what woke his mother and Trix, who appeared in the doorway in a rumpled nightgown, rubbing sleep from her eyes, and their landlady too, bundled up in her wrapper, fretting about prowlers and Peeping Toms and all things combustible, as he got on all fours and crawled under the bed to catch the errant toad, feeling in truth more pride than shame at all the commotion he'd caused.
No, the only damaged thing in that room was the water jug, which wasn't worth much anyway. As worthless, he thinks, still wide awake, as this whole train of thought. He is no closer to sleep than he was when he first stirred up the memory, and from the thick pitch of black at the window he seems no closer to dawn. What he needs now is a new strategy, something else to focus upon, so he moves in his mind from those lodging rooms to the museum across the street, thinking, perhaps, he will catalog wonders, conjure up marvels like counting sheep to lull himself back to sleep.
Then he sees again the boy he was with a season pass in his hand, trembling as he enters the hall and stands beneath the dome. Thin light pours through the clerestory windows filled with whole galaxies of motes, and the guard gives him a nod and salute and, if he is lucky, a toffee. Then he is in the galleries, chock-full of amazing things. Giltwood boxes, altarpieces, coffers, ewers, globes. Helmets, gameboards, ivory combs, daggers, goblets, lutes. There is a mountain of a clock, all weights and dials and wheels, that shows not just the time of day but the Zodiac signs and the phase of the moon and the tides at London Bridge. And a candlestick made of molten gold whose base is a column of goblins, scrambling up from the pit of hell, each climbing on top of another. He loves the grand, heroic sculptures-Samson Slaying a Philistine, Neptune Taming a Seahorse-along with the small, more intimate objects: the pendant made from a narwhal's tusk (could it be a unicorn's horn?), the salt cellar in the shape of a ship whose hull is a nautilus shell.
Such a stirring of tenderness he suddenly feels for his young, impressionable self! If only he could stay in those rooms, the air thick with dust and the piety of art, where everything was labeled and ordered with dates and provenance and he, himself, was in a state of pure and simple awe. But already his mind has wandered to another Wonder House: the Grange, the home of Aunt Georgiana and his Uncle Ned. He spent his Christmas holidays there, on leave from Auntie Rosa, playing charades and rounds of snapdragon-snatching plums from bowls of flaming brandy-dawdling, drawing, watching magic lantern shows: all rich, heady stuff for a boy whose usual diet was Proverbs and canings. And best of all there was Aunt Georgiana, reading the tales of Scheherazade in the nursery late at night, and Uncle Ned with his practical jokes and ventriloquist voices and paintings. He would hang his works-in-progress along the house's passageways, large canvases with figures sketched in charcoal and only the eyes painted in. There was Merlin and Nimue with her books of spells, Circe with her potions, knights and damsels, undines, gorgons, Briar Rose, and Galatea. He would pass them on his way to bed, each set of eyes marking his progress. Wistful, vacant, they haunt him still, staring out of the white void of canvas with their yearnings and their needs. He would scare himself by imagining that he was subject to the fates depicted in the paintings. He might be turned into a swine or a laurel tree, be drawn by a siren into dark, murky depths where he would flail and drown. And so he'd creep down the hallway cautiously, bolting the last stretch to the nursery door where Aunt Georgiana stood patiently waiting with Sinbad and Ali Baba in hand.
Now, as if there's no safety in distance and years, he feels those eyes upon him again, those baleful, longing glances. And amid that perilous sea of stares, he sees his great friend Wolcott, his wife's younger brother who died eight months ago in Dresden, felled by typhoid. There he is, miraculously risen from the dead and reinstalled in his old digs across from Westminster Abbey. The same old Wolcott, in his Inverness cape, poised on his balcony, waiting for him with the sherry decanter and a box of Indian cheroots, while beyond him a tottering gander of a bishop leads a gaggle of altar boys across the abbey yard.
Excerpted from The Jungle Law by Victoria Vinton Excerpted by permission.
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