Dawn comes through the little window. I am tired in a distant way. I am not hungry, could not eat if I tried. I am alone with my knowledge.
There was another who joined the three explorers at Mount Navassa. The fourth man in the photo at its base. Hired as an assistant on the journey, he fancied himself an excavationist, having some little experience running one of his father’s jet mines in the west. He became convinced that the mountain held a gem of similar worth. Something valuable. His name: J. G. Le Jeune.
Le Jeune: And now I’ve found him, searched again the indexes. His fellow explorers were deaf to his ideas, not particularly impressed with his background and driven more to capitalize on the public’s hunger for travelogues than to set up a mining operation. His father and former colleagues from the jet mines were likewise dead ends, unwilling to trust someone who had disappeared so suddenly to go on holiday, as they saw it, with the adventuring set.
What happened next, I have to piece together from the man’s own documents, folios left in the drawers of his desk, tucked between volumes on the bookshelves. Le Jeune drew together a small crew of unlucky, out-of-work individuals brave enough to mount the trip to the foot of the mountain and gamble on his promise of eventual wealth. He married, as well—forty years ago. There are love letters. Like the others, his wife was lured by his charisma, by his certainty, and by the not insubstantial fortune he had to back it up. With this woman, he fathered a daughter.
And he had a house built where they could oversee the work on the mountain.
Years passed as Le Jeune tried riskier and riskier methods to prove his hypothesis true, his crewmen dwindling: suffocated on bad air, crushed by tunnel collapse, or dangerously lost—never found. This bad news was often revealed to him by his wife, in his absence. Postcards attest to his constant travel and unpredictable whereabouts. He sends telegrams to his wife, tells her when to expect new workers, tells her the workers aren’t coming after all, tells her that the big mining corporations are slow to get behind his plans, that he is still optimistic, that he will win over others. He tells her he will be busy traveling, courting them. He tells her not to expect him for a while. He says to give a kiss and a chocolate pudding to Faina, for her birthday.
His correspondence stops. This is thirty-five years ago.
Le Jeune’s wife and daughter are left in the big house and their big, empty town, alone. Everything is built, so she invites those left, the widows, the mine-sick, the maimed, to stay, to hunt and raise animals, to grow what crops they can, to make their own way. For some, having a house built and paid for is a life better than they could have achieved at home. For others, is it impossible to risk the trip back.
The town grows—slowly. Unremarkably. Unknown to everyone else in the world. Except Le Jeune, who, for one reason or another, does not tell.
The sun is bright, insistent through the window. I wonder dimly how I’m going to tell Gen. The secret daughter of fortune is not her, after all.
It is my mother.
I trudge home feeling dim-witted, feeling itchy and covered in dust from spending so much time with cobwebs and old paper. I want nothing more than a sleep and a change of clothes.
My mother meets me at the back stoop. Livid. She says nothing and neither do I. She holds the door for me to enter.
I ditch my shoes, my socks right at the doorway. There is a pile of dishes unwashed on the kitchen counter. Stuck all over with egg custard, with bits of onion, with old rice. I know my mother is waiting for me to promise I will take care of them.
“I’m going to go take a bath,” I say instead, beginning already to unbutton my shirt.
“You are not,” she says. “You are going to do your work, and if there’s water left after, you can wash.”
Something burns in my stomach. An ember lit. But I do as she says.
Beside me as I work, she stands making the sauce that goes on my least favorite meal she makes, and I scrape at crusts, deliberately ignoring her wince as I scour the plates too deep, probably taking off what’s left of the finish.
“I don’t know who you’ve got to be angry with but yourself,” she says. “Not like you don’t know all it is we have to do in a day.”
“I know,” I say.
“They came last night and I had to cook the meal and give it to them, and get their drinks. They were not mean, but you know their moods, how they can get.”
“I count on you to help me, Pari.”
“I know,” I shout. “Why do you think I don’t know things? I’m not dumb. I know what the men are doing here. I know who brought them and when. I know his name.”
“You’ve always been smart,” she murmurs, stirring the sauce. “I never said you weren’t.”
“I know he was your father. You were born in the mansion.”
She is quiet a moment. “I would have told you that,” she says, “sooner or later.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t think it mattered very much.”
“It does matter,” I shout. “He built this town that can’t take care of people. He stranded them here in this place that isn’t even a place. He ruined people’s lives.”
“The people who came here didn’t see him that way.”
“That’s even worse,” I say. “He fooled them. He’s still fooling them. And you’re helping.”
“Pari,” she says, warningly.
“They’re not going to find anything in the mountain. No one ever has. So why do you keep care of the men? Why do we bother staying here?”
“This is where we live,” she says, voice rising, “and the inn is my job.”
“Who pays you,” I say.
She stands over the sauce with her fists balled. The stir spoon sits boiling in the pot.
“If nobody pays you, and you could take your father’s money, or sell off his claim, and go anywhere else,” I say, “then this is not a job, and you are doing it because you want to. Well, I don’t want to anymore.” I tear my apron off, hang it on its hook.
My mother stares at the stove. She will not meet my eyes. Hanging solemnly in the doorway as I wait for her to give me a response, I realize I am taller than her now, I have finally grown enough to look down at her. “I bet you stay because one of them was my father, and you think he’ll come back. Who was he? Where did he go?” I ask.
“You’ve never made me talk about this before,” she says.
“Where?” I demand. “I’m his son. I get to know.”
Her eyes grow hard as stone. “No one gets to know. It is mine,” she intones. Her whole face is red as I’ve ever seen it. “Get away from me. Go to your room. Don’t you dare leave it unless it’s me that tells you to.”
I don’t understand her at first. She has never sent me away from her. She has never made a threat.
She says it again, as I stand there panicking, out of words. “Go away. I don’t want to see you.”