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art by Alan Bao

Don Sebastian's Treasure

"There are no railways on Ceftanaloña," Isabella the tour guide insisted, cutting the conversation dead.
Rob wondered why her sullen monotone had suddenly erupted into vehemence. "This area is for Transport Museum staff only." She motioned him away from the workshop full of agricultural machinery, a lorry chassis, half-complete cars, even a ship's propeller. A mechanic looked up from the engine he was working on. She pointed to a sign saying "No visitors beyond this point" in English, Spanish, and local dialect.
"I'm sorry, I didn't notice it," Rob said. She couldn't prove otherwise, but the glare she gave him left him in no doubt what she thought of that excuse. "So you're saying that there is no railway locomotive?"
"There is no railway on Ceftanaloña," Isabella said, "so it makes no sense for there to be a locomotive. Surely you can see that?"
He wondered why she didn't say even you. "But there is a locomotive. I've seen the records on a previous visit." A lie: but she had no way of knowing that.
"There may be records," she conceded. "What they say may or may not be true. Nothing is as it seems on Ceftanaloña. Now, we must not run late." Her teeth flashed a white, patently insincere smile. "We want our visitors to experience all that Ceftanaloña has to offer."
On his return the rest of the group gazed at Rob. "Got lost looking for the wc," he whispered to the man nearest him, who stared at him blankly. Rob sighed. If there's no locomotive, he thought, it's going to be a very long day.
They emerged from the petrol-perfumed halls into Iraklades' main street. Several of them retreated a step, as if the fierce, dry heat physically pushed them backwards. One of the Americans muttered, "Sooner we get back to the ship, the better." Baked in the noonday summer sun, draped in a riot of red hibiscus, the white houses' plaster was blinding.
Isabella slipped back into tour guide mode. "Ceftanaloña lies halfway between Gibraltar and Atlantis. After lunch we visit Natural History Museum, where you will see many of the unique natural flora and fauna of the island. During the last ice age, elephants the size of cattle, and deer the size of elephants climbed like cats." She smiled. "We believe this because we found their fossilized bones in the cliffs."
Rob asked, "Why do you say 'believe'?"
A big American with a baseball cap moved between them, cutting off Isabella's reply. "Why can't we have lunch now? Why do we have to wait?" He asked querulously in a nasal whine.
"You must take this up with the tour company," Isabella said. "I do not set the times. They say we must be here now, and there then, so that is what we do." She said loudly, "Before lunch, we go to Main Square, the seat of Revolution of 1894. Careful, please." Rob liked the way she pronounced it "pliz." She admonished a small boy who put out a hand to touch a mirror glinting in the sunlight, "Metal is hot at this time of day. Should be siesta-time. Small boys then not touch mirrors."
Perhaps that's why she sounds so grumpy, Rob thought. Maybe she should be siesta-ing. He smiled at the thought.
"What is joke?" Isabella snapped.
"I was thinking…" Rob said, extemporizing, "that the island is a strange, almost magical place. I can see why people say time flows at different speeds here--sometimes slow, sometimes quick."
Isabella half-smiled, for the first time her eyes showing something other than scorn, as if he'd passed an exam. "Exactly." She turned her attention back to the group. "Follow, please."
She led the gaggle of tourists across the street. Rob glanced up at the distant mountains of the interior, shimmering in the haze. The land was as bleak as the old woman they passed; she was wrapped from head to foot in black, except for one dash of red, a scarf wrapped over her mouth. Her ice-blue eyes looked as old as the Jurassic. The lines on her forehead reminded him of the canyons cut into the foothills they'd passed, on the way from the harbor on the island's Eastern side. As they passed her, Rob caught a waft of garlic, and the rank smell of sweat and incontinence. Like Grandpa. He felt ashamed at thinking of the old man so, and irritated with himself. He's dead. You can't bring him back. Just get on with it. Enjoy the day, as he did.
Just before the siesta, an hour or so earlier, the tree-lined square of Plaza Major had been jammed. Scooters weaved in and out of honking cars and buses, their riders helmetless, women's hair billowing in the slipstream. Now the Square was empty but for the armed guards outside Congress House.
"This," Rob loved the way Isabella said it as "thees", "is Main Square, where Don Sebastian de Calderon died during the April 19th protests against increased taxes. His death, by a bullet through the heart from a Spanish rifleman, lit the fuse of the Revolution. This," she pointed to a bronze statue of a mounted man pointing a sword, "is Don Sebastian."
"How old was he?" An American matron asked. "Ah've heard that he lived a heckuva a long time."
Isabella waggled her head, as if unsure quite how to answer. "There are many legends about Don Sebastian. Some of us believe the name was passed down from father to son."
"So he wasn't immortal?" Another woman, this one British asked.
Isabella laughed contemptuously. "Next you'll ask if he actually found the Fountain of Youth?" She shook her head, her eyes flashing angrily. "You think us all superstitious fools?"
"So I guess there's no curse on his descendants, either," sighed another American.
"He had no children," Isabella said. "At least, no legitimate ones." Signaling that the conversation was closed, she continued, "So, here is our protest, this is where Don Sebastian is shot, for even the supposed," she snorted the word, "immortal cannot survive a bullet through the heart. The Ceftanaloñan Resistance declares him a martyr, and thousands take to the streets. The Spanish send reinforcements, and as the Resistance arm themselves, an armada sails from Spain. Imagine, hundreds and hundreds of boats set off from the Spanish ports, their engines chugging, smoke belching from their funnels, while the iron sidings that had been delivered to Cartanova were melted down to make guns."
"But--" Rob said as she shot him an amused glance, as if to say, that's why there's no railroad, dummy.
"Yes?" She asked.
"Nothing," Rob said, turning away.
A bandy-legged old woman lurched across the square. She must be at least seventy, Rob thought. She wore black widow's weeds, and her eyes were rheumy. Several of the tourists edged away from her, as she began singing in pidgin Ceftanaloñian and Spanish, to an odd, discordant tune, her voice cracked and reedy.
Isabella hissed, and gabbled in patois too fast for Rob to follow, even the Spanish parts. Her tone was both hectoring and anxious, and she licked her lips, and looked around, like a small animal trapped in a corner.
He hesitated. What if she snaps my head off? But he interrupted. "Can I do anything to help?" He said, so quietly that no one else should hear.
"No, is okay," Isabella murmured, looking sheepish and sick with worry. "She's my Mama." She added, "She's not been well. She has the forgetting sickness."
He didn't understand at first. "Oh, you mean Alzheimer's."
"Si. Today was to have been her day at el clinico, but I had to cancel when that Pedro rang in about his chest. Always it is 'heh-heh,'" she mimicked a feeble cough. "So we will take her next week. I had to leave her. She must have got out somehow." She gripped her hair, as if wanting to tear handfuls of it out. "If I leave the tour, I lose my job. But if I let her wander loose…"
"I'll sit with her in the shade for a few minutes, if that will help," he offered. "While you run the group round the square."
"You would?" She stared at him in amazement, which darkened to suspicion. "Why? You have a… thing for old women?"
His laugh was stained with shock. "Never offer help," he said bitterly. "That's the British way. Maybe we're right not to."
She reached out and put a hand on his forearm, and he felt a tiny, pleasant little shock. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not used to the kindness of strangers."
"I'm surprised," he said. "A friendly girl like you."
She clearly didn't understand sarcasm. "Men, they want one thing, to add you to their list of conquests. Those who stay around, they soon run away, when they find out about Mama." Then she added contritely, "Thank you."
Rob said nothing, abashed by her gratitude. "It's hard to look after a parent alone." She must have had you late, he thought, but didn't say it. He stared at the old woman who avoided Isabella's gaze, but wandered round her, an old moon orbiting the earth. Mama crooned, and mumbled to herself, then caught Rob's eye, and smiled shyly.
"My brothers are all married with families," Isabella said. "Their wives want no part of looking after Mama, especially as she may live for years and years yet." She noticed his look of surprise. "She's only forty-eight." She lowered her gaze, "Just twice my age."
His shock must have shown. Isabella laughed. "Creation myth says that women are created from metamorphic rock to keep men, who are created from volcanic rock, company; metamorphic rock ages very quickly. So do women on Ceftanaloña. Or maybe," she said, "it's the gods punishing Don Sebastian for stealing the Water of Life--if you believe such tales."
"You don't?"
"The islanders like stories," Isabella said. She sounded disinterested; then he realized that she was distracted, was watching the group scatter, boredom eroding their valence. She's probably been anxious all morning, he thought. What you thought was surliness was probably near-panic.
"Look," he said. "I'll sit here with her in plain sight. Si, senora?" He asked Mama. "You sit here with me?"
"Oh, Paco," Mama said in Spanish. "You are such a fast boy. You'll want a kiss next."
"Paco was my Papa," Isabella explained. "She sometimes thinks I'm her Mother, sometimes that I'm her neighbor from many years ago." She pondered, caution clearly at war with desperation. "She seems to like you." She switched to conventional Spanish, speaking slowly for Rob's benefit. "You will sit here with the nice man? Watch los touristis walk round the Square?" Rob took the old lady's other arm, and they led her to a seat.
"Why are you doing this?" Isabella asked Rob, but smiling now.
"Atonement." He turned to Mama, who watched the world with bird-bright eyes which held no spark of recognition of her surroundings.
He inhaled the sweet smell of the honeysuckle hedge, and tried to empty his mind. Sitting beside Mama required him to sit in a zen-like state, neither awake nor asleep, allowing her endless chatter to wash over him like the tide. It was best not to answer, he'd found when his mother was in the end-state of the disease. Just let her hold up both ends of the conversation.
He watched Isabella round up her scattered flock. Watched the sway of her hips, the slim legs, her elegant hand waving. Occasionally, she would look his way, and nod slightly, as if he'd passed another test. When Mama's torrent of speech slowed to a mere babble, he even caught fragments of Isabella's monologue.
"…Don Sebastian supposedly found gold in the mountains, and wanted to build a railway to bring it down. Iron was imported from Great Britain…" The breeze swung round, carrying her spiel away. She lapped the square with the group, before coming back into range. "…You can take pictures, or you can visit one of the many cafes on the side streets around the Square."
She stood in front of Rob and Mama and asked, "She has been okay? No problems?"
"No, none." Rob smiled up at her. "What are you going to do now?" She shrugged, looking desolate. "Do you want me to sit with her while you show them around the Natural History Museum?"
"That would be unfair on you."
He shrugged. "I only came to see the locomotive that you tell me doesn't exist."
"Go, have some lunch," she said, pressing his shoulder. "I'll sit with her here in the shade. Think of what I'm going to do."
"I have a better idea," he said, grinning.
Ten minutes later he returned with a paper bag. He swung it triumphantly. "Lunch."
They ate in companionable near-silence only broken by Mama, plucking anxiously at her wristwatch with thick sausage-like fingers, and muttering to herself.
"What do you need to atone for?" Isabella asked.
He said, "Atonement was probably too strong a word. A little melodramatic."
Isabella mumbled around a mouthful of baguette. She swallowed. "You don't like melodrama?" The corner of her mouth twitched.
He wondered how he looked to her. Thirty-five going on fifty, he thought. He knew he was no oil painting. Nose too big and fleshy, lips too thin, ears mismatched. "We accountants distrust it," he said, smiling back, wiping his receding hairline. "Atonement for… well, my grandfather brought me up. Dad died when I was young. Mum had Alzheimer's." He tried to shut out memories of her sudden furies, the Christmas Day she brandished a kitchen knife at him, screaming for him to get out. What twelve-year old could understand that? Even now, the memory knotted his gut.
"Ow," Isabella said. "Is bad. I'm sorry." She reached out and touched his arm, and he stopped breathing for a moment.
"I was brought up by my Grandpa," he said. "But I moved away when I went to Uni… I didn't go back often enough when he was alive."
"You're married?"
He shook his head. "I'm never quite right for the women I like, or they're never quite right for me."
She smiled, and said teasingly, "I guess you distrust passion, too?" He couldn't meet her smile. It was too strong. She frightened him with the ferocity of her emotions. "So," Isabella said, practical again. "I must meet the group, at the Natural History Museum." It could have been the shadows, but she seemed to have aged since that morning--crow's feet suddenly seemed to line her eyes.
"I'll stay here," Rob insisted.
"You don't have to." She rummaged through her purse.
He guessed she was looking for money for lunch. A proud woman, he thought. "My treat," he said.
"Gracias," she said, walking away.
Throughout lunch Mama had kept up an incessant torrent of chatter, but when the ground trembled, she stopped in mid-sentence.
"Que tal, Mama?" He asked.
"Si, si, Papa," Mama answered, and he wondered who she thought he was now.
She blurted, "Some of the natural laws work all of the time on Ceftanaloña." That was how he translated it, but her speech included a lot of patois, so he wasn't sure. "And all of the natural laws work some of the time. But not all of the natural laws work all of the time."
"Is an eighteenth century Ceftanaloñaian proverb in response to," she sneered, "the Age of Reason. Stolen and changed by your President Abraham Lincoln."
The ground trembled again. Not my president, Rob corrected her silently. Unable to keep up with her sudden changes of subject, he gazed at Mama, who looked at him with clear comprehension. "Who are you?" She asked.
"Just a tourist."
"That's your occupation? A tourist? You must be very rich." She snorted, and he realized she was laughing.
"Not rich," he said. "Grandpa's will contained a clause that I had to visit the island within a year. So I spent a week on the Costa de la Luz on holiday, windsurfing, and…" he shrugged and half-laughed, "…here I am."
"You can't have children without money," Mama said. "Isabella's not rich."
"No," he admitted. "I don't suppose she is." As she seemed suddenly lucid, he thought he ought to try to make conversation. "Did you feel that earthquake?"
"That wasn't an earthquake," Mama said. "That was just a shiver--the earth settling on its haunches. It'll shiver again, and things will return to as they were before. We only get real earthquakes two or three times a year, but these little twitches sometimes happen several times a day. Other times we don't get them for weeks. Then things change again. Perhaps that's why Don Sebastian never found his treasure again. It simply moved."
"Is that a fact?" He asked, interested despite himself, even though he had all but given up on Grandpa's bloody train. "Is that why Don Sebastian wanted the railway built? To carry his gold down from the interior?"
"People present their opinions as facts," she said gnomically. "They think that Don Sebastian's Curse is the same as the forgetting sickness, but they're completely different."
"The Curse?"
"According to legend, Don Sebastian found the Fountain of Youth," she said. "After he stole some of the water from it, it was destroyed by an earthquake. The Gods took their revenge. His descendants are doomed to age quickly. The forgetting sickness comes and goes, but the Curse remains."
"What happened to the train?"
He held his breath. Mama watched him carefully. "I don't know where it is. They say it's destroyed. That those who touched it sickened and died, and they crushed it. So they say."
The ground trembled again, and Mama looked down, and started to gently weep.
Rob fished in his pocket, and found a piece of tissue.
When he pressed it into Mama's hands, she stopped crying and smiled at him. "Are you going to walk me home now, Paco?"
A few minutes later, Mama's chatter washing over him, Rob looked up.
Isabella strode toward them, swinging a canvas carry-bag. "Pedro--the guide I'm covering for--has dragged himself into work." She smiled. "Which means I can take Mama home. You can catch the rest of the tour."
Rob shrugged, "I'm not really that interested."
"No, you should! I feel bad if you miss so much. Vale! Vale! " She laughed, and said, "Muchas, muchas gracias, senor. " She squeezed his arm.
He offered his hand, which she took shyly. "De nada," he said.
When she led Mama away, Rob felt a sudden pang of loss, but also a sense of impatience as he remembered Mama's last three words, before she wept, as she fought to hang on to her wits. He realized now why she wept. She knew what was coming. He thought, Does it help to know that your brief interlude of lucidity will soon pass?
The Natural History Museum was nearly closed by the time he ambled to the ticket kiosk. A uniformed guard with a bushy black moustache was standing nearby, and when the man heard Rob speak in English, ambled over. "Are you the Englishman who looked after Isabella's Mama?"
"Si," Rob replied. They shook hands. "She asked me to remind you not to mention el tren to the others."
"Does she think we're stupid?" The guard waggled his head. "Of course not. Enough people have the curse as it is. Not that we admit to such superstitions," he added quickly.
"What if the tourists persist?" Rob asked. "Mama said that sometimes people let things slip." He held his breath, never expecting the man to believe Mama could be lucid.
To his surprise the man said, "We tell them it was melted down for scrap." He nodded his head. "You want a quick look around the museum?"
Rob shook his head. He remembered Grandpa had said they were moving the locomotive. "Are they moving it again?"
Moustache shook his head. "It's still down in the Penolo District."
Rob nodded, keeping his features impassive. Gotcha! "I'm going back to the ship," he said. "I've got two hours before it sails, but I walk slowly."
Penolo was a labyrinth of narrow side streets. Groups of children played football on an open patch of waste ground. Beyond it was a high grey concrete wall, over the top of which poked the chimneys of an industrial estate.
The wall was covered with graffiti. "Los del Real son los reyes de Europa," proclaimed a football fan, while another told in Spanish how "Maria loves Jesus." Rob suspected her love was physical, and Jesus was probably a local lad, rather than the son of God, but he'd come to expect almost anything on this island. Another caught his eye. "¿Si el tiempo es como un río, qué sucede cuando viene la marea a contracorriente?"
"If time is like a river, what happens when the tide comes in?" Rob translated, shaking his head in bewilderment. Then he saw a mention of Don Sebastian.
"La maldición sobre la descendencia bastarda de Don Sebastian," he read. "The curse on Don Sebastian's bastard offspring," he said slowly, unsure if he'd understood it correctly. "Se puede levantar solamente," he mouthed. "Can only be lifted." He said, "can only be lifted--por el beso de un hombre penitente--by the kiss of a penitent man." Rob wandered up to the nearest child, who stood isolated from the game.
The child shook his head when Rob asked him about el tren, but at the third attempt, one of the boys pointed to a side street, and Rob entered a labyrinth of narrow streets.
Rob passed several groups of adolescents furtively exchanging small packets for money, and felt his shoulder blades itch when one of them made a gesture, and called out to one of the groups behind him.
At the first opportunity, he glanced over his shoulder, but while two youths drifted aimlessly in his general direction, they were a reasonable distance behind him.
Many of the shops were boarded up, but others were still open, and the smell of garlic and ham wafted out to assault his nose, and his stomach growled. One shop seemed to sell only chess sets, of every size and style, from tiny pocket-sized boards, to pieces half Rob's height. The pieces of this largest set had human heads for the king, queen and knight, and the king caught Rob's eye. My word, he thought. That looks like Grandpa, and the queen looks like Grandma. The black king and queen seemed to wear his parents' faces.
Shouts distracted him, and when he looked again, the resemblance had gone. They were just ordinary faces. Your imagination's working overtime, he thought.
At the end of the street, he stopped at one of the open shops, and bought a portion of ham, and another of cheese, which he ate with his fingers. The shop owner sold him a bottle of juice as well, which Rob downed in one.
When he asked the shop owner about the train, the man said, "No se." But though he said, "I don't know," he pointed to a street running at right angles to the one the shop was on.
"De nada," he said to Rob's thanks.
At the junction of the two streets, the unbroken ranks upon rank of tenements were interrupted by a high spiral tower. When a clock chimed three in the distance, a huge flock of doves flew from the tower in a huge cloud that obscured the sun for several seconds. Rob shivered. When they'd flown clear, the light seemed somehow softer, as if the world had passed suddenly from summer to autumn. The ground trembled, and the light became harsh and bright again. He checked his watch: ten minutes to three.
As Rob walked down streets that seemed to grow ever narrower and twisted and turned more and more, he passed several old people chatting.
He was soon completely lost, and the half-derelict walls seemed to loom threateningly. His enquiries about El Tren met with indifference, scowls, or even what sounded like threats, although it was hard to tell, so thick was their patois.
He passed a church, or perhaps a clock tower on a corner. It chimed once, and from each side of the clock, a figure emerged, in time to the chime. On one side was a man carrying a carpenter's tools. On the other, a woman carrying an infant. Joseph and Mary and Jesus, he supposed.
A quarter to three, the clock said. He looked at his watch. It said the same time. "No," he whispered. "I must have misread it before."
Now the figurine pointed with a sword, and looked like the statue of Don Sebastian in Plaza Major. The woman no longer carried an infant, but instead guided an old woman, just as Isabella had guided Mama.
In the distance, he heard ship's klaxons sounding, and cursed. Just over an hour, and he had to be aboard the cruise ship. He heard a low whistle and a woman's voice: "Eh, touristi!"
He spun round. Isabella stood grinning uncertainly, hand on hip. She'd changed into a short red dress that ended at mid-thigh. It was all he could do to drag his eyes up to her face. She'd let her hair down, and it cascaded down over her shoulders.
"You'll get in trouble," she said, her grin fading in the face of his stony silence.
"Where's Mama?"
"I went back to the Museum to see you, and that fool Rubens told me how you tricked him. Very clever," she said sardonically. "I had to pay a neighbour's daughter a fortune to look after Mama. I guessed where you'd be."
"So why are you here?"
"I wanted to know." She gazed at him, measuring, weighing him up. "Why are you so desperate to see La Loco? Locomotive, you call it, yes?"
"Why are you so desperate to stop me?"
She bit her lip. Finally she said, "It's dangerous." He laughed, and she insisted, "No seriously, bad things happen to those who touch it. When the authorities finally accepted that, and tried to destroy it, it rolled over onto one of the men, who were trying to break pieces off with a hammer. When they tried to crush it, the crusher exploded. No man has ever survived its touch. I like you, touristi. I wouldn't want for bad things to happen to you."
She looked at him. "You behave like an old man in a young man's body, but then I see that look. I usually only see it in…" she waved her hand, "…a man's eyes when he sees a fortune on the blackjack table, or a fat old fool who thinks that he will have me. But not for a piece of old iron."
"You wouldn't understand." He looked down at his camera.
"You want to sell its picture? Like your Loch Ness Monster, or Titanic?"
"No!" He was so shocked that she laughed. "No one else will probably ever see it."
"So why?"
"Grandpa," he said. Her eyebrow lifted. He explained, "When I was a teenager, he would tell us stories. In front of one of my friends, he told me about the train. Said how beautiful it looked. Magical, even." He twisted his fingers around one another. "Next day it was all around school: Rob White's Grandpa had a magic train. I laughed it off. Disowned him, said he was a batty old man. Soon I even convinced myself of it." He gave her a sad little smile. "Almost his last words before he died, were 'Find that train. Prove that I wasn't deluded.' It preyed on his mind toward the end, that maybe he'd spent so much time thinking about his dream, that he'd neglected his family. He was convinced he'd wasted his life."
"I know that feeling well," she said.
"You?" He asked incredulously.
"Every day I look in the mirror, and think that life is too short," she said. "How did your Grandpapa know of La Loco?"
"Ever heard of HMS Minotaur?" She shook her head, and he explained, "A British frigate. In early 1947, she ran aground on a reef. Had to put into Cartanova for repairs. They were there long enough for the captain to agree to shore leave for the crew."
They'd started to stroll, drifting, and she fell into step beside him. "Imagine," he said, Grandpa's tales to him bubbling up from childhood, and with them grief and guilt. "Grandpa was eighteen, just married, called up for National Service--a little too late to serve in the War--and away from home and the railway yards at Swindon, away from his new, now-pregnant bride."
"Must have been strange," Isabella said.
"Oh yes," he said, still lost in a distant land. "The first part of 1947 was the harshest winter on record. Weeks of freezing weather, pipes bursting, no heat, coal in short supply, food rationed--and suddenly he's strolling down the street in sunshine, pretty girls flirting with the young men in uniform, oleander scent drifting on the breeze. He's there, walking down the street, and what does he see?"
"Go on," Isabella said, leading him across a busy road, holding him back between the opposing streams of traffic.
"He saw this battered old railway locomotive on the back of a lorry at the other end of the street. Only for a minute or five, and then the lorry was gone, turned around a corner, and by the time he reached the street where he'd seen it, it had gone into a maze of streets."
She quickened her stride, and he matched her. "Did he find it?"
"You know he didn't," he said, shooting her a sidelong glare. "There was no locomotive. Everyone--you, said so." Looking round, he returned to the here and now. They were in a maze of alleyways.
"So why are you here?"
"Except," he said, "Grandpa knew what he'd seen. He'd seen enough to guess it's age from the design. Built in the 1880's, or thereabouts."
"Except?" She prompted.
"Except that when he returned to the railway yards, he spent the rest of his career hunting the records. By then, your provincial assembly had upset Franco, and Cephtanluna was closed to outside visitors. Except that he'd found records of a railway locomotive, built in 1883, sold to Josiah Westcott, who in turn sold it to--" he paused.
"--Don Sebastian."
"The same." He sighed. "Grandpa never got to come back and hunt his loco. Too busy bringing me up. Dad dead, Mum stricken early by Alzheimer's. By the time I was old enough to come, he was in a home too. I was too busy enjoying myself." There: he'd admitted it. "I read all his diaries. Don't know why. He doted on me, and from the time I was a teenager, I ignored him. He was boring, he banged on about the old days, and his bloody trains, and I wanted to study, and travel. Whenever he rang, I was too busy to visit, or too… something."
She reached up and wiped his face. "You've earned this, touristi. Come."
Weeds grew out of every square foot of ground, even the road. Cars were piled high atop one another, spreading over hundreds of square metres. She led him through a gap in the wire fence, saying, "Careful, don't tear your clothes. Hurry now, if you miss the boat, the authorities do not like people with only day-permits to be here beyond the day…"
He didn't want to think about having to try and find a room for the night in a strange city with his passport on the boat, and almost no money.
And there it was, surrounded by junk, half-hidden by buddleia that poked its purple heads through every gap. Beneath a dull, overcast sky, painted a dull brown, spattered with rust, it was squat, stocky, and ugly as sin.
The ground trembled, worse than any before, but the sun came out, and suddenly he saw what he hadn't seen before. Even in ugliness, there is beauty, if the eye can find the right angle to look from.
It shone, and he stepped toward it, a roaring in his ears.
"Come on!" Isabella urged. "Now you've seen it--take a picture, and let's go."
Instead, he stepped closer. He couldn't believe it was real. If I shut my eyes, he thought, when I open them will it still be there?
"No, don't go too close!"
He ignored her, feeling it pulling him slowly, inexorably toward it. As soon as he touched it, he knew that if it wasn't supernatural, there was something magical about it.
He felt a searing pain run through him, as if he'd plunged his hands into a vat of acid; it burnt, it seared, it reared up through his arms and jolted his whole body. He shut his eyes--it hurt too much to look at the sky.
"Rob! Stop!" Isabella screamed. "It will kill you!"
He ignored her, felt a breath of air that he knew was her reaching for him, and retreating at the last minute. Eventually, he pulled his hands away, as slowly as if they were encased in toffee.
He opened his eyes. Everything was glowing eerily. Isabella's eyes shone like jewels. "It's the paint, isn't it?" He whispered, amazed. "They've watered it down with Don Sebastian's water of life."
"What have you done, you fool?" Isabella took his hands, which were now lobster red. "You've burnt them," she said.
"They don't feel burnt." He laughed, maniacal with joy. "Everything's so clear, so bright, so new! This is what it's like to be truly alive! Not the half-life of sitting in metal and concrete boxes from cradle grave." Almost overwhelmed, he hurled his arms around her and held her tight.
"You're squashing my ribs!" She said, but laughed.
"I don't know my own strength," he said, and kissed her. She pulled away at first, then kissed him back, with ever-increasing passion.
They separated. "I hardly know you," she said. "You know what my curse is? Not even a half-life." She smiled sadly.
"Well then," he said. "I'll come back to help you live the other half. Someone needs to care for Mama while you work."
"Oh yes." She snorted. "This is the sort of fairy story that men say when they want to lie with me; they say, 'Of course I'll love you, respect you in the morning.'"
"It seems to me," he said carefully, "that you risk your cynicism eating you from within, if you don't try to restrain it. So you've had some bad experiences?"
She nodded.
He continued, "I don't know how long it would take me to get a job here. That's why I suggested I would look after Mama while you work. It will take me a little time to settle things up at home, but I want to come back."
"You'll feel differently when you get home," she said. "This will be a beautiful dream, but nothing more."
"What do I have to go home for?" He said. "I have a job which is okay, but no family, no lover. Here is… everything." He laughed. "Warm weather and you. What more could a man want?" He kissed her again.
"You mean this?" She swallowed. "Please don't be raise my hopes." Her laugh was almost a sob. "The penitent man," she whispered. "The curse would be lifted by a man prepared to sacrifice himself. I think I've found Don Sebastian's Treasure."
"Oh no," he said, in a low voice. "I'm the lucky one." He kissed her again.
In the distance, a ship's horn sounded. "Come," she said. "Maybe you will come back. Maybe you won't. Whichever it is, you must be on the ship, or the tour-company, it makes much trouble for me."
He nodded. "I'll be back soon."
They walked toward the docks, hand in hand.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 23rd, 2011
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