Mother of the Moon
by V. J. Banis

an excerpt



Chapter One

Ay, now I am in Arden; the more fool I. When I was at home, I was in a better place; but travelers must be content.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

 

"Let me tell you," the woman on the boat told Elizabeth Parker, "the first time you wake up and find a snake in your bed, you'll wish you were home."

Elizabeth thought, I wish I were home already. But close on the heels of that thought came another, one that caused a brief flickering of pain within her: I have no home.

"It looks lovely," she said aloud. They were standing at the railing of a boat, The Fair Lady. Beneath them the brown water of the Amazon River rolled out and back as the boat parted it. The distant shore, astonishingly far away, was lush and green, flecked with bright bits of scarlet and lavender and pink that were probably some sort of tropical blossom, but from this distance appeared only as bits of confetti scattered over the lush growth of the trees.

"Yes, it's lovely all right," the woman beside her agreed. "From here, at least." She cast an unappreciative eye on the variegated green of the shore. "Anything can look pretty, of course, if you get far enough away from it so it's only colors. As we used to say, distance lends enchantment."

These words were delivered in a quiet enough way, but there was an edge to them that made them sound very bitter. Elizabeth could not help wondering why this woman, only a stranger who had struck up a conversation at the boat's railing, should be journeying into this jungle land if she hated it so. But she thought it would be rude to ask that aloud, and she said instead, "I'm going up to Manalos. I've heard it's a charming city."

To her surprise and even her dismay, the woman beside her threw back her head and laughed heartily.

"Charming?" she said, dabbing at her perspiring face with a frilly handkerchief. "Forty years ago I suppose it was, maybe. Or more like fifty."

"But I understood Manalos was a very nice city. I was told it was very cultured, with an opera house and several fine hotels, and..."

"It was like that," her companion said, "a long time ago. Manalos and Manaus were twin boomtowns. Brazil is full of them. Have you ever heard of Ouro Preto? It was a gold town at one time, and they used to call Diamantina the diamond center of the world, before the Kimberly lodes were discovered. I'll bet you've never heard of either of them, have you?" Elizabeth shook her head.

"Hardly anyone these days has. Well, Manaus and Manalos were rubber towns and at one time they must have been quite the cultural centers, all those rubber barons with more money than they could spend. But it didn't last."

"What happened to them?"

"The market began to collapse decades ago, when the plantations in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies started to outproduce and undersell Brazil, and then the synthetics came along and all of the boomtowns slipped into oblivion. These days, Brazil has to import millions of dollars of rubber, synthetic or real, and the rubber colonies are either dead or dying. Same in Malaya and the Indies, of course. Their great plantations are ghost towns too. Manaus was the better, known but Manalos, was the grandest of the boomtowns once. Those days have long since passed. It's a crumbling graveyard now. They all are."

Her eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Say, did some man tell you that nonsense, to get you to come here?"

Elizabeth smiled at the implication. She had long since grown accustomed to thinking of herself as plain. She had no outstanding features other than her eyes, and they were so large and dark in contrast to her pale skin that her father had always said she looked like a frightened doe. She had hair of an ashy blonde color, which she kept primly pulled back from her face, and for this trip upriver she had worn a simple cotton blouse and a denim skirt-quite functional, and anything but glamorous. She was hardly the sort, in short, to cause men to spin such elaborate webs of seduction.

"Actually," she said, "I was given a job in Manalos, as a schoolteacher."

The woman's manner underwent a subtle change. She had been open and frank, and now she seemed guarded.

"Were you hired by Kitty Drayton?" she asked.

"Why yes, as a matter of fact, I was," Elizabeth said, surprised. "Do you know her?"

"Everyone in this part of the world knows her. Tell me, are you an old friend of Kitty's?"

"I only met her when she interviewed me for the job."

Her companion seemed to relax a bit. She did not say it in so many words but her manner implied, "Oh, that's all right, then."

Aloud, she asked, "Have you got a place to stay in Manalos?"

"Mrs. Drayton arranged rooms for me at a hotel called the El Dorado, I understand, until I find something to my liking."

"I doubt that you ever will, in Manalos, not if you have an iota of taste, which I can see you do. But I ask because I have a room that I sometimes rent out. You might be comfortable in it. It's nothing fancy, but it's a lot nicer than that hotel, I promise you that. Anyway, why don't you come look at it when you get in and see what you think? My name is Edwards, Ruth Edwards. My husband has a store in town, a sort of general emporium, which is why I stay. A woman's place, as they say..."

"I'm Elizabeth Parker." They shook hands and Elizabeth said, "I'm pleased to meet you."

She was pleased, too. Although she would never have shown it, she could not help but be frightened by this journey she was taking. She had never traveled to speak of, and this was such a long trip. It was some comfort to have one friend at her destination, however casual their acquaintance was at this point in time.

Mrs. Edwards said, "If you don't mind my saying so, there are a lot of places that I would think would be more suitable for a young lady like yourself than Manalos."

"I don't mind your saying so," Elizabeth said with a little laugh in which there was not much humor. "But if you don't mind my being frank, none of them offered me a job, and Mrs. Drayton did. I don't have a degree, you see, which is a problem in the States, but Mrs. Drayton seemed to think she could make that all right with the school board in Manalos, and..."

"She owns the school board," Mrs. Edwards interrupted her, "so I don't think you have to worry about that. Well, there, I suppose I've taken all the excitement out of the trip for you, and I didn't mean to spoil it. Heaven knows, it's a bad enough place without having your enthusiasm dampened. I guess I'd better look now and see if they've got my room anywhere near right, which I seriously doubt. Mind you, look your bed over carefully at night before you get into it. You just never know what might be crawling around on these old riverboats."

With that ominous piece of advice and a bright, "Be seeing you," Mrs. Edwards took her leave.

Elizabeth remained at the rail, gazing at the green in the distance. Mrs. Edwards need not have worried about dampening her enthusiasm for this trip, as she had none. This otherworldly river with its jungled shore that looked lifeless was now her world. She could see nothing anywhere but the brown water and the green forests and this boat moving through them. Since they had left Belem some time earlier she had seen no sign of life but an occasional cluster of huts along the river, unoccupied for all she could tell. Before her, somewhere beyond these jungles, lay Manalos. And behind her...

"I won't think of the past," she had promised herself often, but how could she help thinking of it, when the future seemed unreal and the present nonexistent?

Not that the past was any haven of fond memories for her. There had been a great deal that had not been pleasant-most of the previous two years, in fact. But even in the bitterest times there had been a few moments of brightness, occasioned chiefly by her father.

How she had adored him. It was inevitable, no doubt, being raised by him as she had been after her mother's death. Their lives had kept them so occupied that there had been no close ties with other adults, and aside from her father nearly all the friendships she'd had over the past ten years had been with children. Unattached children, as her father would have put it.

"I don't like the word orphan," he had said over and over. "Makes a child sound like something other than a child."

So when he began their little enterprise, it had not been an orphanage but the Parker Home for Unattached Children. And in starting it, he had grossly overestimated their slim capabilities, or underestimated what it would take for such a project-or both, which was more likely.

In fact, it had taken all they had and then some. It had devoured his savings greedily, and all their time and their energies. She had taught the younger children, and cooked, and he had done nearly everything else.

"Eventually," he insisted all the while, "we'll be able to hire some help." That "eventually," however, had never come.

Her eyes misted and the river scene before her faded. She looked with her mind's eye into the past and saw her father as he had been in those ten years. Of course, she did an injustice to think of those years as nothing but bitterness and work and hardship. For all it had taken from them, the home had given them so much in return. What a harvest of love and goodness they had reaped. Mostly it had been through his efforts, but she had been happy and proud to help.

It all ended so very suddenly, in a fire that destroyed virtually everything. None of the children were harmed, and for that they thanked God over and over, but the home had gone completely, and every nonliving thing in it, and the insurance money was just too little to enable them to start again. Indeed, there had been a positive wealth of debts that seemed endless. The children had to be placed elsewhere, in local orphanages. The dream was dead. It had to be buried.

Her father died just a few months later. "Natural causes," the doctor said. Perhaps. If heartbreak was considered a "natural cause."

She was left with nothing. His insurance paid off most of the remaining bills, but just barely. She had a tiny furnished apartment with enough money on hand to see her through a month, maybe two if she were really careful. She had no family and no friends who were older than eleven years.

There had been a man, a brief fling that afforded her less pleasure than apparently he found in it, but he had gone when the money went. She hadn't loved him, fortunately, and now that he wasn't there she wondered why she had ever been so agreeable to his seduction of her. Loneliness, she supposed, and probably no small measure of curiosity. She'd lived such a sheltered life, in one sense. Her introduction to man-woman romance had not left her eager for another. In any event, with her father's death and the loss of the school, she had far more pressing concerns.

She was qualified to do very little that could earn her a living. She hadn't the credentials to teach in a public school. The woman at the employment agency she went to had been completely frank when she took the application: "I don't see much here that is encouraging."

At this critical moment, Kitty Drayton had appeared, looking for a schoolteacher. Someone who needn't have teaching credentials per se, depending upon her experience, but she must be free to travel to South America, to a city called Manalos, in the Amazon jungle.

"Right now," Elizabeth said when the phone call came, "I'd travel to hell and back if I had to for a job."

"And here I am," she said aloud, coming back to the present moment.

"Yes, here you are," Mrs. Drayton's high, rather self-consciously musical voice said from behind her.

Elizabeth turned. She had not heard the other woman approach. She had the odd impression that Mrs. Drayton had not just come up on deck but had been there for a moment or so.

"Hello," Elizabeth said, "I didn't hear you."

"My husband Karl says I move on little cat's feet," Mrs. Drayton said with a dazzling smile. "Isn't that poetic? You looked like you were daydreaming."

"I was." Elizabeth had tried to warm to Mrs. Drayton's obvious efforts to be friendly but it was difficult. She was pretty, in a delicate, almost childlike way, with white skin that seemed never to have been touched by a sunbeam and glossy black hair. But Elizabeth found her too sweet, too gay, the smile too dazzling and too ready. She personally had always preferred someone who smiled a bit less often but with more sincerity than she thought Mrs. Drayton showed.

She chided herself at once for being unjust. There was something actually sad about this too-bright woman. Kitty Drayton seemed so determined to be happy that you couldn't help thinking she must be sad.

She could not think how many times, since their first meeting, Mrs. Drayton had insisted, "We're going to be the best of friends." Or, "You'll be the prettiest schoolteacher they've ever had in Manalos, I know the local women will just despise me for hiring anyone so pretty that she'll steal all their men's eyes. But you won't be with us for long as a schoolteacher, I'll wager. I give you six months before one of the local beaux makes off with you and marries you."

Mrs. Drayton was forty-five.  That information had come as a shock to Elizabeth, because at a glance she had taken her to be twenty-five at the most. It was not only that she looked young and dressed young-she acted young. Her voice was high and girlish, her gestures those of a coquette. Elizabeth could not quite rid herself of the feeling that Kitty ought not to be out by herself, and although she seemed to manage quite well, it was with exactly that manner of a young girl on her first trip alone.

"Well, we can't have you looking off into the distance like that, like you were already homesick," Mrs. Drayton said now. "You come along with me and I'll introduce you to my husband."

Elizabeth was not entirely sure she wanted to meet Mr. Drayton. She had not yet been able to accustom herself to Mrs. Drayton and she could not even guess what the woman's husband must be like. She could hardly refuse so insistent a thoughtfulness, however, and she came along with only a faint objection that went unnoticed.

They went up the stairs to what Mrs. Drayton informed her was the hurricane deck. There was a long narrow cabin above that.

"That's where the officers have their quarters," she told Elizabeth, "And that's the pilothouse above it. We'll go up."

A sign at the foot of the stairs said, plainly, "No passengers permitted beyond this point." Elizabeth made a gesture in the direction of the sign. "Do you think we should?"

"Heavens, why on earth not?" Mrs. Drayton said, but despite her little laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand, Elizabeth thought she did not sound entirely sure of herself. She clutched Elizabeth's arm with her long, elegant fingers.

"We're going to be the best of friends, I just know it," she said, "and I'm going to start by calling you Liz. Is that all right?"

"If you like," said Elizabeth, who had never been anything less than Elizabeth, even to her father.

They went up the stairs. Elizabeth had met the boat's Captain Warren, when he came by Mrs. Drayton's hotel suite on some errand the day Mrs. Drayton interviewed her for the job. She remembered him as a tall, thin man, fiftyish, with a ready smile, who seemed very sure of himself. When he told Elizabeth he was glad Mrs. Drayton had hired such a pretty schoolteacher, he looked like he had just knocked out a world champion boxer with one hand tied behind his back. Oddly, though Elizabeth had found him easy to like, she saw at once that Mrs. Drayton was not comfortable in his presence.

"Captain Warren is an awful flatterer, you know," she chirped after he left. "You mustn't take anything he says seriously." Elizabeth hadn't taken him seriously, in fact, but she wondered that Kitty thought it necessary to say so.

It was apparent as they approached the pilothouse that Captain Warren was berating his cabin boy, a native in a white coat who looked apologetic and upset. Elizabeth would have thought it more tactful not to interrupt, but when they reached the top step, Mrs. Drayton turned the doorknob without pausing. When the door did not open, she rattled it for attention.

At once the cabin boy came over to open it, and when the women stepped inside, he flew out and down the stairs, obviously grateful for the opportunity to escape.

"I'm afraid your husband isn't here just now," the Captain said, his face noncommittal. "We had a little problem with a boiler. He's below seeing to that."

"Oh, well, never mind," Mrs. Drayton said gaily. "I've brought Miss Parker up to see the pilothouse, not my husband." Despite the cheerfulness of her voice, her fingers nervously raked the skin at Elizabeth's elbow.

Elizabeth felt they ought not to have come up. Certainly they had interrupted the cabin boy's tongue-lashing, but Captain Warren kept his face impassive while Mrs. Drayton moved around the pilothouse. She had relinquished her hold on Elizabeth's arm and was busy explaining the big pilot wheel and the braided bell cords used to signal the engineer below.

"It's a very old fashioned boat," she said, as if the admission embarrassed her.

"The Fair Lady is a direct descendant of your American riverboats," the Captain said with a note of pride and affection in his voice.

"I'm afraid ours are pretty much a thing of the past," Elizabeth said. "One or two of them still go up and down the Mississippi, more pleasure boats than functional."

There were footsteps on the stairs. Elizabeth turned as a tall man of thirty of so came in. "It's fixed now," he said before he saw the two women. "But it was like an inferno down there."

His white shirt and white trousers were drenched with sweat and clung to his body. At first glance he might as well have been naked. Though Elizabeth had lost her virginity to that would be suitor some time back, she had done so in darkness, and she had never so much as seen a man's private parts.  It would have been hard not to notice this man's, outlined as they were by the white cotton of his trousers. Her eyes went there of their own accord and she quickly looked away, blushing.

"Sorry," he said, his expression blank. "I've been down in the boiler room." Whether he had noticed that quick, embarrassed glance of hers was impossible to say. He wiped some sweat from his brow and leaned over to take his jacket off a hook on the wall. Elizabeth allowed herself just the briefest glance at his well-outlined buttocks. She'd never thought of a man's bottom as being attractive, but this man's certainly was, well rounded and firm. She had a brief but almost irresistible urge to run her hand over one sculpted mound. Buns, she'd once heard someone call them, and hadn't understood the expression until now, but these did indeed look like something she could take a bite of. And where, she wondered, shocked at herself, had these lascivious thoughts come from?

She got only a fleeting glimpse of those "buns" however, before he slipped into a jacket that fell down to his hips and restored his modesty. He slapped a cap on his head and turned back to them.

There was an awkward silence. Captain Warren had suddenly become fascinated by the sinking of the sun below the line of trees to the west. Kitty Drayton looked embarrassed and even guilty.

"Oh, Karl, darling," she said, "I was just showing Miss Parker the boat. She's our new schoolteacher, and I just know she and I are going to be the best of friends. Liz, honey, this is my husband, Karl Drayton. Captain Drayton, I should say."

Elizabeth had already surmised who he must be and had gotten over the surprise of discovering that he was easily ten years his wife's junior, perhaps more. Unrestrained by the cap he'd donned, his thick brown hair tumbled in damp waves over a deeply tanned brow. He was not really handsome. His face was rather broad over high cheekbones, his mouth wide and sensuous. He stood quite still and his piercing blue eyes regarded Elizabeth with an almost frightening intensity. She had the impression that his self-control was only a net of delicate threads that held in uneasy check a wild and savage nature.

"How do you do," she said aloud, embarrassed both by her instinctive reaction to his physicality and by the situation in which she had been placed. It was crystal clear, to her at least, that Mr. Drayton was not pleased to find them here. "It's a very lovely boat. We were just leaving."

She moved toward the door. He smiled and she was rather more surprised by that than she had been by his age-which on reflection, did not seem so very important. Whatever her years, Kitty Drayton was hardly more than a child, and she had heard men liked that in a woman.

He said, with an utter lack of conviction, "I'm pleased to meet you."

"Thank you. I'm sure you gentlemen must be busy." Elizabeth tried to open the door, but it had stuck again and to her further embarrassment, although she tugged at it, it would not open for her. She had to look around at Captain Warren, who at once jumped to her side and opened it for her.

Mrs. Drayton, meanwhile, their exit delayed, had launched upon an animated monologue directed at her husband and concerned primarily with her "little girl." Since he did not encourage her by answering, she tossed phrases over her shoulder in Elizabeth's direction without waiting for replies to any of them.

"I found the most darling outfit for her," she prattled, "it's pink and has this vast bow right here, like an old-timey bustle. Liz, you'll just love my little Caroline, she's the prettiest child I've ever laid eyes upon, even if I do say so myself. Karl, sweetheart, I hope you won't scold me, I did spend a lot of money, but dresses cost so very much these days, and you do want your ladies to look pretty, don't you?"

When she paused for breath, he said flatly, "It is your money."

Even she had no answer for that. Another silence fell. Elizabeth stood at the open door, her back to them, looking out over the railing. Since they'd been inside, the jungle had moved closer to the side of the ship and now she could make out the foliage distinctly. A monkey swung high on a bough and macaws and parrots hovered nearby, seeking perches for the approaching night. The trees had begun to darken and the brown river water turned yellow in the reflection of the sinking sun. The evening air smelled dank and sweetly rotten.

After a moment, Mrs. Drayton said brightly, "Well, we'll see you at dinner. We have to hurry along now. You've kept us here too long as it is, and I don't fool myself that it was because of my charms, you naughty boys."

She followed Elizabeth down the stairs. Elizabeth was angry with her for having taken them up there in the first place, where they obviously should not have been. When she happened to glance back, however, she saw Mrs. Drayton biting her trembling lip and staring off toward the setting sun. Elizabeth's anger melted. She could not help feeling sorry for the older woman, as she would have felt sorry for a child who had done something that was forbidden but not really so very wrong after all, and had been punished for it rather more severely than was warranted.

"Isn't my Karl the handsomest man you've ever seen?" Mrs. Drayton asked with great enthusiasm.

"Is he?" Elizabeth said. "Yes, of course, I suppose he is good looking. I hadn't really thought about it." She wondered if the lie sounded as obvious to her companion's ears as it did to her own, but Mrs. Drayton seemed not to notice.

To change the subject, Elizabeth asked, "Why does the boat have two captains?"

Mrs. Drayton took a deep breath. "Oh, Karl isn't on the boat as captain. He's the owner. That is, we own the lines. And he is a captain, of course, but here, Captain Warren is in charge, actually. Karl just came along because he said he had some business to attend to, but if you want the truth, I think he just meant to keep an eye on me to see that I didn't get into any mischief. He's so worrisome about me, he treats me just like his little girl. How he does fuss over me, but I can't say I mind. It's always been like that for me. I was my father's darling, too, and Walter-that was my first husband, oh you should have seen how he fretted over me, you'd have thought I just came down from Heaven to pay him a visit."

Her voice was nearly normal by this time. They went to the guardrail together and watched the river for a time. It looked as if they and the boat were motionless and the shore was moving slowly along past them. It gave Elizabeth a queer feeling, as if her world were slipping away, leaving her only the deck of this boat and the muddy water and the green jungle in the near distance, where she could see it but not so near that it could ever touch her or have meaning for her.

As they stood there the throb of the engines ceased. The boat slowed and then stopped.

"We're anchoring at the entrance to the Narrows," Kitty explained. "Manalos sits on the bank of the Rio Negro, but we have to wait for daybreak before we dare pass through to the tiny channel that takes us there."

Elizabeth had a feeling of impatience. She suddenly wanted to be done with the boat. She felt stifled on it, and wanted the feel of solid earth beneath her feet, and room in which to move about.

As if sensing her thoughts, Kitty said, almost defensively, "It means we'll have a nice, quiet night to sleep. Those engines are the noisiest things in Christendom, don't you agree?"

The sun set, and as suddenly as if a curtain had fallen, it was dusk, time to go below for dinner. Elizabeth thought the sunset on the river was beautiful and she would have preferred to remain on deck to watch it to its conclusion, but she did not want to abandon Mrs. Drayton, who still looked a bit anxious, for whatever reason.

Karl Drayton did not join them for dinner. Mrs. Drayton said she was disappointed.