Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Steel Dog-42

At Last, Something True

Food was the focus.  Quentin was hungry, and every nearby mouth acted famished.  Nobody spoke while the collective famine was blunted, and when conversations resumed, people used clipped sentences wrapped around simple subjects, giving them more time to master the feast.  There were words about the quality of the meat, which was high, and the water in their glasses, which was the usual Ponca chlorine and aftertaste.  Levi didn’t return to old subjects, and Quentin’s few attempts at prying into a Sahul life were gently ignored.  The Persian sitting beside his right elbow had a few important words for his friends, and a fellow across the table—tall and possibly Slavic—responded with what sounded like awful Farsi.  That generated a brief pause, as if someone had been insulted.  But no, his language was so poor or the joke so magnificent that it took a few moments to decipher what had been said.  Then the table was laughing heartily, including the white man busy wiping lamb juice off his shaggy beard.

A Mongol appeared, one of the small group of dark Asian folk sporting bright silks, arrogant grins, and gorgeous long black hair.  Three decades of peace had brought only a trickle of emigrants from the enemy’s camp, and all were converted Christians, wronged females, or traitors to their people.  But even failed Mongols didn’t surrender any of their appealing arrogance.  This character walked as if riding a war pony, looking down at the backs of heads and then at Quentin, never smiling but conveying a sense of considerable satisfaction.  He enjoyed status.  In whatever little world he inhabited, he wielded power.  His eyes and Quentin’s linked until the stranger found what he wanted.  Then he approached the table, touching the tall Slav’s back, whispering a word or two before riding his imaginary pony down the aisle, out of sight.

In various tongues, the Slav addressed his neighbors, including Levi and the Persian contingent.

What happened next happened slowly.  Quentin was stripping the last of the lamb off its cool bone when the Slav rose.  The final boiled potato was sliding down his throat when Levi suddenly stood, giving his new friend a meaningful touch on the shoulder before walking away.  Quentin was draining his glass of its chemically infused water when all the Persians but one rose together.  What was this?  What custom was being observed now?  Farah was facing him, and Quentin thought she was watching him, except she turned away when he sought her out.  He watched her smiling mouth moving as she touched the hand of the woman beside her.  Then the two women laughed amiably and without haste, and putting down his empty glass, Quentin decided it was time to stand and stretch.

A big hand dropped on his thigh, and the Persian sitting on his right said, “No, Quentin.  No.”

His Brit wasn’t just convincing.  It was the clipped, pleasant accent common to New London—an urban voice that intimidated backwoods boys.

“Let’s talk for a moment,” he said. 

Quentin took a breath, held it.

And the Persian laughed graciously, patiently.  “No need to worry,” he promised.  Yet in the next moment he gestured toward the neighboring table, saying, “Women can be conundrums, but that one is exceptionally complicated.  If I found myself married to her, I’d be strongly tempted to beat her.  Because how can you trust anything about her?”


“Your wife.”  The hand patted his thigh fondly.  “What do you know about her?”

Seeing no escape, Quentin tried to devise a suitably vague response.

But no genuine question had been asked.  His companion was only providing the category for whatever answer he wished to supply.

Quentin said nothing.

The man had a handsome face and Farah’s nose and smooth skin, except around the eyes.  He was thirty or a young forty, prosperous or willing to dress that way.  Patient hands had folded his tie into an elaborate, beautiful knot, and the gold ring on his right hand showed a small, unmistakable Shield of David.

“You know nothing about the woman,” said the Persian Jew.  “She was a mystery when you met her, and the longer you’re married, the more perplexing she becomes.”

“What do you want?” Quentin asked.  Then with better aim, he added, “Do you know my wife?”

“The question is:  Does Farah know Farah?”  The man removed his hand from Quentin’s leg.  “I’ll share one item.  Maybe you’ve pieced together the clues.  But at least I can give you confidence in your assessment.”

Quentin looked at his empty plate.

“Farah and her family have troubles, and as often happens with an only child, her demanding father loves her too much.  That’s the burden.  Too much affection, too much hope.  Too many aspirations carried on those shoulders, and a woman’s shoulders at that.  Which is why you can be forgiven for feeling sorry for her.  As we say, ‘Empathy is the first choice for any good soul.’”

Farah was watching the two men.

“Her soul is less than good,” his companion continued.  “How bad it is has been debated among our little community.  We try to love her, but she lies.  We respect her situation, but her character makes us wonder what her true motives might be.  The gossip about her never ends.  Reality is mangled, and who can say what’s true?  I could ask what you know.  As fact, as seen by your own eyes.  But nothing would be won.  There’s never enough clues to an infinite creature.  And where’s the gain in wandering through your imagination?”

The Persian paused, and the topic shifted.

“Maybe we should focus on a smaller, more manageable element in her life,” he said.  “The father.”

“Yes,” said Quentin, in relief.

“I never imagined that I would miss my birthplace.  Isn’t that peculiar?  But I miss Shiraz.”  The Persian tried to laugh and fell short.  Then he pushed aside his empty plate and picked up Quentin’s knife, studying serrated steel and bright grease.

Quentin said, “You were born in the same city as Farah.”

“As it happens, yes.”

“What about her father?”

“Tell me about the man.  Please, Quentin.  Try.”

Quentin shrugged, admitting, “I don’t know much.  He’s a petroleum engineer, travels in the desert. and Farah made a few trips with him when she was—“

“An engineer?”

Quentin shut his mouth, waiting.

“That’s how she described her father?  As an engineer?”

Quentin wasn’t sure what she had said or when, but he wasn’t lying when he said, “Yeah, and he works in the Arab lands.”

The man was smiling, relishing some part of this.

“I saw a photograph in a magazine," Quentin reported.  "A man who looked like the father in her picture.  But he had a different name.”

“Because Farah took her mother’s name,” said the Persian, neatly answering one tiny mystery.

“So her father isn’t an engineer?”

“Yes, that description is accurate.  At least when the man was young.  But he developed several systems of pumping oil from underground, and the drill bit used across the East is his design, and his company developed many of the best fields as well as laying down pipelines and building refineries.  Farah’s father is probably among the ten richest men in Asia, and as his sole child, your incomprehensible wife happens to be an heir to a substantial portion of that empire.”

Quentin’s eyes lost their focus, his body its substance.

And then the Persian touched him again.  He picked up Quentin’s hand and held it, and this man who would never have a name added, “But of course Farah is a woman.  Heir to a fortune, but she exists only as the wife of a man.  And according to the customs of my left-behind land, it’s the husband who holds control over all of that astonishing wealth.”

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