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Xenolith, Page 75

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 63: Shingles

  Frank leaned heavily on the hearth. Keeping his head up and every breath took concerted effort. He tossed shingles into the fire pit, not giving a damn what was written on any of them: whether they were Kovalev’s memoirs, his life’s work or shopping lists. They all burned the same. The fire glow raised the steam from his clothes, reviving yet again the smell of the zombie, marsh mud.

  Raacevo was a shit-hole town. He had seen plenty of shit holes in his career, but Raacevo was one of the worst order – a shit-hole town in a war zone. It already contained enough fear and violence to rival the northern Congo or southern Sudan. The only things needed to complete the ambiance were some bullet-ridden minibuses, vendors selling bush meat and cheesy, Chinese house wares. If Tezhay expected him to eke out his days here, he would do his best to ensure those days were few.

  The commotion in Frank’s chest felt like an Anglo middle school rhythm section botching a salsa tune. Ventricular congas, lost in syncopation, searched hopelessly for a groove. Random bass kicks leaped in, obliterating all, resetting the beat. Above the chaos floated delicate, atrial bongos, pitter-pattering, oblivious to any other beat. Combined with Tezhay’s atonal meanderings on guitar, it made a music fit for demons.

  Two ways, his heart could kill him: cardiac arrest and stroke. Either suited him fine. If his fibrillation was truly atrial, cardiac arrest was a long shot, but would bring the quickest and cleanest end. It would begin with a quiver. His ventricles would beat out of sync, causing his circulation to slosh ineffectively and his pulse to disappear. For a few seconds his cells would scavenge what oxygen they could from his blood, but then there would be no more to garner. Beginning with his brain, his organs would shut down, one by one, and he would have his escape. Bring it on, he thought. Let this crummy world blink out. He sure wouldn’t miss it.

  But ectopic beats kept salvaging his circulation. Sets of early and ineffective spasms were followed by emphatic, galumphing beats that slapped his heart against his sternum and sent rushes of oxygenated blood through his lungs then out to the tips of his fingers and toes. These kept the dizziness at bay, circling like hyenas on the fringes of his visual field.

  Stroke was his next best, though messy, hope. His quivering atria clung to pools of sloshing blood cells. Blood cells forced together tend to clump. All he needed was one great glob to break loose and glide up his carotids to lodge in an artery large enough to shut everything down. But a lesser clot might only destroy his ability to speak, cripple him with flaccid paralysis and redouble his misery.

  Tezhay bent a double stop and wiggled it until it faded. “I am shame for you,” he said. “After all this trouble, you finally get meet exile. And you no ask him nothing. No hello. You no even look at him.”

  “I don’t feel well,” said Frank. He glanced over Sibara, who rocked on his stool beside Harm, cradling his mug of tea in his palms. The man was barely larger than Tezhay. His air and features were Amerindian, but he had unusually dark skin, like a Zambo or Miskito.

  “Where’s he from?” said Frank.

  “I don’t think he know this,” said Tezhay.

  Frank caught Sibara’s eye. “Habla Español?” Sibara stared back at him, but did not respond.

  “He no speak this,” said Tezhay.

  “Why the hell not? He looks like he’s from that part of the world.”

  “He come to Gi as small boy,” said Tezhay.

  “Hablu un poco,” said Sibara. “Buonas noches.”

  Frank grabbed another stack of shingles. These looked different from the batch he had tossed in the fire before. Blocky, Cyrillic characters filled both sides, instead of the graceful swirls and loops of Giep’o script. The markings were aligned in a tabular format, and one column included Arabic numerals. Gloppy inks of varying tint and cross outs indicated revisions and updates. Some of the numbers appeared to be dates.

  Frank resisted the urge to toss them in the flames. He noticed one just like it amongst the embers, and plucked it out, blowing out the yellow flame flaring along one blackened edge. The waxy ink beaded and ran.

  “What do you suppose is written on these?” Frank asked Tezhay, who resumed his picking, droning one string of Kovalev’s guitar, while playing a maddeningly repetitive melody over it on the second, higher string.

  Tezhay glanced over without interrupting his picking. “I no can read this. Is some kind of Urep’o.”

  “Yeah, I know. It’s Russian, but—”

  “Give to Sibara,” said Tezhay, shrugging.

  Frank held the pair of shingles up to Sibara and pantomimed a query. Sibara took them in hand and began reciting, what sounded to Frank like, perfect Russian. He then turned to Tezhay and translated into Giep’o.

  “Is poem … about some persons,” said Tezhay.

  “What about the numbers?”

  “Is dates,” said Tezhay. “Either when people come to Gi or Raacevo, or when Kovalev meet them, he is not sure.”

  “Dates? Really?” Frank dove into the pile of shingles. Some were tucked neatly in boxes. Others, in stacks tied up with twine. Where the twine had burst that fanned out like playing cards, spilling out into the pile that they were using to feed the fire. Frank pulled aside anything that had Cyrillic characters or numbers and studied them.

  When Sibara reached down for some to add to the flames, Frank stopped his hand.

  “Not these, okay?” He steered Sibara’s hand to a batch covered with Giep’o scrawl.

  Most of the dates seemed relatively recent. One entire, thick stack had 2007 inked onto each. He found some older bundles buried in the pile and tucked away in some of the boxes. Frank tore into these, expanding the chaos on the floor until he found some entries labeled in the 1990s: 1997, 1994. Liz had disappeared in early May, 1991.

  He pulled a shingle from an older box, glossy with wear and covered with multiple strikeouts and haphazard annotations. A smudge of pine resin had been used to repair a crack along the grain. Its date read: 27 MAЯ 1991. March. Close, but two months too early. He tossed it aside and looked through the rest of the box, finding some from 1988, 1990, 1995. Nothing else from 1991.

  But perhaps it had taken Kovalev some time to find these exiles, and the dates indicated their first meetings with the Russian, not their arrivals in Gi. Frank selected a shingle with a 1993 entry and handed it to Sibara for interpretation.

  Sibara sighed, looking none too thrilled. He recited slowly in Giep’o, pausing frequently to allow Tezhay to retranslate into English.

  “5 of May 1992,” said Tezhay. “Hey, is Cinco de Mayo! And this next part, is poem. Kovalev write small poem for to remember peoples. This one says …” Tezhay cued Sibara and repeated each line in translation.

  “A rising wind gives flesh

  To the sky’s bones,

  Reborn from womb of storm,

  Earth swept bare of all man’s

  Traces and ambitions.”

  “That’s supposed to be a poem?” said Frank. “Sounds more like a weather report.”

  “Be kind,” said Tezhay. “Is two translation remove from his art.”

  “Is there a person’s name on that card anywhere?”

  Tezhay conferred with Sibara. “The name is Arcadio. It tells the people he knows. Where he stays. Things like this.”

  “Just Arcadio?”

  “Arcadio Tomas Hernando Valenzuela,” said Sibara, trailing off with something Frank didn’t understand.

  “Born, Chetumal, Mexico. Aged 79,” Tezhay added.

  “он мертво,” said Sibara.

  “What’s that? Mertvo? What?”

  “Dead,” said Tezhay. “Sibara say, he is dead.”

  Frank glanced at the shingle as Sibara passed it back to him. “5 MAЯ 1992,” it read.

  “Wait a minute. You said he met Kovalev on Cinco de Mayo, but this here says March.”

  Tezhay passed on his inquiry. Sibara shook his head. “No. Mai,” he said, emphatically, pointing to the shin
gle and lecturing Tezhay.

  “Is not March, is May,” said Tezhay. “He say Kovalev write this very clear.” Tezhay turned to Sibara. “How you say March?”

  “Mapтa,” said Sibara.

  “Wait a minute …” said Frank. “That means this other one …” A cluster of clashing beats brought a fleeting spell of dizziness. He shook his head to clear it and spread the pile out with the flat of his palm. He clicked and clattered through the stacks, pushing the irrelevant ones off to one side. “What happened to it? I just had it.” He flipped over yet another shingle and there it was, with its cracks and smudges suggestive of frequent consultation. He handed it to Tezhay to translate.

  “Cold fire spill down hill browse bare

  Flow like river, never find sea

  Pool so deep, trap all light

  She keep on for wanderer.”

  “Hmm. So the date on that is May 27 not March?”

  “Yes,” said Tezhay.

  “Who’s this one for?”

  “Person name is Lizbeta or Lizbet,” said Tezhay.

  A shudder rumbled through Frank.

  “What’s wrong?” said Tezhay.

  Frank’s heart, which had been like a truck on the rumble strip, veering towards the curb, suddenly righted its course, pulsing smoothly like tires clicking over the seams in smooth pavement. Or had it stopped? His head filled with helium. He gasped for breath.