I am up before the sun, chopping firewood and starting the oven, everything as normal. I make bread dough and, while it is rising, chop up onion and potato and salted pork into pieces for hash. Mother comes out from her room as I slide the bread into the oven. She says nothing, goes outside to collect the laundry, and I breathe again—she didn’t notice my sneaking out.
The men solemnly take their places at the breakfast table. Mornings, whatever fraternity they had is stripped away, and their slack cheeks and bleary eyes enforce a code of grim silence. They eat quickly and dutifully, with a focused lethargy, before filing out the front door. I have just stacked up their dishes when my mother enters, a delivery of milk in her hands. She stares at the dishes, gently repulsed. Like they are a fungus creeping at the foot of a tree.
“I’ll do them,” I say, sensing some unease, maneuvering around her.
“I know you will,” she says.
My fingers grip the plates by their edges.
“Pari,” she says, touching my arm. She chews her lip. “We’ve got to have a talk,” she says.
If I act busy. If I put on a mood. If I stay silent.
“Poor Lani just came to drop off today’s milk,” she says. “Gen didn’t show up this morning.”
I scrub at a stubborn bit of egg. “She didn’t?”
“I heard a noise last night. Late. The door opening.”
I release the dish, carefully, let it softly clatter down.
“I won’t scold you. I trust you both. I’m happy, really. You’ve cared for her a long time. I’m glad you got together finally, and I know that feeling is powerful, that it brings certain temptations.”
I realize, horrified. “No, Mom—”
“Let me get this out. You two have responsibilities. You can’t be staying up nights and not taking care of the day’s work. And, I need you to tell me if Gen is sleeping over.”
“Mom!” I cry. “I’m not—I wouldn’t do that.” She makes the most pitying look, and my cheeks flush hot. “We’re not like that.”
“Oh,” she says. “Oh, thank goodness,” and she hugs me around my neck. “I was afraid I’d have to give her the same talk.”
I fail to see how this would be worse than what has just happened. “Do you want me to go look for her, or—”
“Yes, do,” says Mom. “Lani’s not got the fortitude to run around town at her age.”
“Probably just somewhere goofing off,” I mutter, grabbing my hat from the door hook as if my search could take me anywhere, as if I have any question of where I’ll find her.
As I open the door: “I know you don’t want to hear it,” she says. “But it is okay, if you and her were to decide one of these days. Just talk to your mother.”
The brim of my hat squeezes my temples tight. It is wrong of her to give me these notions, to so easily permit me to imagine these things I don’t have.
When I come down the basement hallway and into the little room, Gen is bent over the glass case studying what’s inside, dragging the edge of the case with her finger, peering in, trying to discern the details.
“Work skipper,” I say over her shoulder.
“Mm,” she says. “Just one day.”
“Why didn’t you just wait till tonight?”
Gen says, a little hard, “I’ll go back in a minute.”
I watch with her in silence a while. When she starts looking at the same things over again, I wander a little away, feeling like a husband at Farm Day, milling to the side while the women browse the bulbs and seedlings. I remember one husband asking his wife, quietly, if they oughtn’t begin to think about going home, and the look that crossed her face, a shadow of some other fight. And yet if Gen were my wife. If I were her husband.
I distract myself by running my finger over the spines of some books. I read their titles: A Natural History of the Boar’s Head Valley, Boar’s Head Island Geology, Boar’s Head Island: A Land Out of Time. They are a set, their matching leather spines filling two shelves in the cabinet. One cabinet of two dozen. In my house, in the inn, we have five books, or six. Where did he get them? Who is there to write them all?
A Natural History. I am interested in history, I think. The teachers gave us tidbits when we were young and learning to read. I remember a little tract about a president of a foreign state and the good works he had done. There was another about explorers, bold and brilliant navigators who served their country by finding routes to distant shores, obtaining new goods for trade, making maps of the world.
I do not know what a “natural” history is. There is a chapter called “Formation,” a chapter called “Climate,” a chapter on geography, one on plants, one on birds and reptiles, one on beasts, one on man. There is a map pasted onto the back cover, peeling a little at the edge. In thin, wavering ink, features of the land are drawn, blue and red. Blue branching like the veins in the underside of my arm. Red in strange tight grids. There is a small set of labels in the corner of the map. Blue for waters. Red, roads. And black dots for cities and towns.
It is the first map I’ve seen that isn’t just a color blocked children’s puzzle, flat and featureless nonsense shapes that fit together to form the world. I know this continent must be ours, but I do not know where we would be situated in it. It is not long, though, before I spot our mountain, the familiar word “Navassa,” off in the northeast, the peak of a long, arced range. My thinking is painstaking and slow, from lectures I only half paid attention to, distracted by chores, by hunger, by Gen. But the sun rises over the mountain, and that must mean we are…But under my finger there is no name where Jeune should be. Just a shadow where the elevation of the mountain changes. Other names cluster some distance away. Names I haven’t heard of. Plainview. Lewis. Zock.
But this is probably a very old book.
I turn the pages back to the chapter on people. It was by the south sea that the first settlers arrived, a seafaring people from the Fondran Islands. Several civilizations flourished and fell on the coast; extensive road building in the thirteenth century allowed humans to migrate further from the major cities and establish independent towns. The largest population centers remain on the southern coast, with smaller populations in the west and central regions. Population dwindles the closer one comes to Mount Navassa, due to the geographical and climatic influence of the mountain range. North of Navassa is rocky coast, inaccessible by boat and unfarmable. South, in the cradle of the mountain, the rain shadow creates a dry pocket that has historically proven unsuitable for long-term settlement. Today, the whole of the range is considered nonecumene. Expeditions to the area have revealed a land rich in shale and guano deposits.
“Gen,” I ask aloud. “What’s guano?”
“Bat shit,” she says disinterestedly.
“What about non-ec-u-mene?”
She gives me a look of pure and incredulous disdain. And it was silly of me to ask. She has always hated vocabulary.
The book doesn’t have a lot more to say on the matter, delving deep now into the various types and qualities of rock found on the northern coast. I choose another book. This one has a gold mountain engraved into the dark leather. On the first page is a poorly inked drawing of three men in heavy clothing—the rightmost bears a pickax over his shoulder; the middle holds the reins of an overburdened donkey, and the leftmost points somewhere ahead, over the brim of his hat. In a dramatic and somewhat heavy-handed style, the introduction recounts the tale of three explorers who mounted the world’s first expedition in the Mount Navassa region. An expedition revealing a land of untouched forests, hidden waterfalls. A beauty that until this point, had gone unknown. Uninhabited.
“Should we go home?” Gen says, suddenly hovering over my shoulder.
I snap the book shut.
“What?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Nothing. I’ve been ready to go whenever you are.”
“It took me four tries to get your attention,” she says.
“Maybe you should have done something drastic to me,” I say.
Generous, she smirks at me but refuses the dare. I am grateful, not wanting this to be the moment she sees my feelings for her, not sure I could follow through on my poor attempt at swagger.
I don’t want her to know I am rattled over a book, a dumb book owned by a rich man we know nothing about.
That night, I dream that the man who owns the mansion has come to my house. In the dream, I am young enough to hide behind my mother. In the dream, he is the largest man I’ve ever seen, dressed in a long blue coat, unbuttoned at the top to show the starched white shirt underneath, buoyed up by the bigness of his chest. Like a jaybird.
How long have you lived here? he wants to know. You and your son?
All our lives, my mother says to him.
And the child’s father?
Away, says my mother.
You two were married, I’m sure? asks the man, rubbing clean his eyeglasses with the hem of his jacket.
My mother says nothing, and in fact, is gone from the dream, now.
I am alone with the rich man as he mounts our stoop and takes a look around at our house, at the uneven floor, at the splitting walls. To have an inn might be considered an unusual thing for a discarded people, he said. That was the word he used. But there will be people here one day, and they will need space. He circles the center room, spreads his arms wide, gesturing to each corner of the house. Four beds to a room. Four rooms upstairs, two down here for the mother and child. It will sleep two dozen a night, and more, if the men should agree to sleep on the floor. And as he moves, the things he speaks are loudly and violently built; the ceiling above me shakes, the walls are sledgehammered apart, and beyond them, more rooms than I can count, long rows of doors, hallways upon hallways.
I wake up. It is time to make breakfast.
All morning the dream embeds itself like a dark memory. I prepare the food and serve the men, all the time feeling unaccountably afraid. Not of the men, who I know will leave for work before long, and who are acting as they always act. I am afraid of the rooms the dream showed me—rooms I’d never known about, never visited, never seen.