Authors: Colin Thubron
ou can never go back. Deep ranges of mountain isolate the town from the sea, and lift across half the skyline. From any rooftop you may see them rising, at once threatening and unreal. No road penetrates them, and the narrow-gauge railway is unsure and precipitous. But the people in this frontier town have become inured to where they are now. It consumes all their ambitions. Even its ugliness, they say, is compelling. Besides, they have no residence permit for anywhere but here.
In the town you often forget that other places exist. At night, especially, it glitters self-contained in the circle of its lights. On its perimeter the roads merge into scrubland so abruptly that you pass horses standing asleep on the tarmac, and under the last street lamps graze desert antelopes. Then the northern mountains are obscured in dark, and on the other side the wilderness spreads in a huge, lightless vacancy, and seems obscurely to breathe. All the absorbed vapors of the day are released back into the dark, so you imagine you can hear the whole desert sighing in a long, unbroken exhalation.
By daylight, Rayner noticed, the town seemed self-sufficient.
It was robust, dangerous even, steeped in an unholy vitality. Under the angry sun, its streets churned with traffic and the pavements brimmed with an appearance of business: men and women in styleless shirts and trousers, forcing transactions, chasing appointments, selling things. Its municipal buildings, conceived in a squat style of Doric Greek—the Court House, the Municipality—the Department of Transport and Works—might have been raised for a miniature nation. But around them the shops and offices elbowed one another in an earth-bound sprawl. They were built of concrete, or of the blood-colored local stone, and above their awnings the shopping malls belched up a mélange of thickset façades. There was nothing older than a century.
When Rayner first arrived from the capital fifteen years ago, sick with insomnia after two nights on the railway, he had passed under a makeshift arch of welcome blazoned
“We”ve got everything here.”
During the next few years he had heard the same expression often, spoken in the town”s clipped patter, but edged with an odd disillusion. Yet he had believed it then (he was only nineteen).
Even at that time it was called a “purpose town.” Nobody arrived for pleasure. They came—or were sent—to engage in industry or administration. The town became their pleasure incidentally. They made money. Their residence permit, the tyrannical blue booklet of government control, shackled them to the place for life, and to them the distant capital became more like a memory-trace than a real city. Even Rayner, who was angry and nostalgic, sometimes imagined that he had never been anywhere but here.
Yet there were days when he saw a different town. Avoiding the streets” crush at noon, he would sometimes go into one of the big, heavy-carpeted bars where people sat in near silence over their lagers or aquavit. Then he would sense the town”s desperation. He saw it in the people”s faces when they were alone. They looked haunted.
They belonged to no real community. They were a conflation of exiles. You only had to read the owners” names above the shops: Pacini, Ridderbusch, Smith, Seifert, Ling, Moreau … A superficial sameness of dress or manner might unite them, but if you looked or listened closer the town lost all identity. A murmur of unfamiliar accents and dialects undermined it: men and women with the faint idioms, the gestures and physiognomy, the memories, of somewhere else. In the privacy of their homes they clung to the flotsam of a lost security. The immigrant Lebanese and Syrians returned at night to neat bungalows, like other people, but once inside they sipped their coffee around trays of Damascus brass and sat on inlaid
The Cantonese hung their walls with reproduction scrolls, and on their Western tables sat little trays of Taoist water gardens. Latvians sang cold Nordic songs in the streets. A
of Filipinos imported their own mongo beans and noodles, and in the German Club the bar was carved with the heraldic arms of Hohenstaufen counts. Czechs, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians—they heard of their motherlands” betterment or sufferings only with a dimmed guilt or dissociation. They belonged here now, or nowhere.
As for the capital—the shimmering city on the coast which had first harbored them and where many had been born—they seemed purposely to exclude all mention of it from their talk.
Once it had accommodated everything meaningful in the colony: wealth, administration, political faith. But by the end of the nineteenth century the city had overflowed, and the drift of people south into the savage hinterland had begun. During the Great War the dictatorship had regulated all movement, resettling populations by financial inducement or brute force, and even now, far into the thirties, the economic pressures which push people to the frontier towns are hardened by government decree. Often the whole country seems immobilized, locked into self-contained
provinces, like a house without passageways.
Rayner”s medical partner, an elderly Pole, told him bitterly, “You overestimate the people in this town. They may look preoccupied, but they”re not
anything. They can”t afford to. They”re like animals. Sophisticated animals. They live day to day.” So perhaps they were not melancholy after all, Rayner thought, just inert. Above their beer mugs and whisky glasses their eyes seemed blank and undreaming. Then he thought, I”ve just read into them my own state.
He was less assimilated than anybody here. He had been assigned to the town”s medical school from the capital, then posted to a local practice; and nothing could bring about a reversal. The town needed doctors. In the capital his parents were both dead, and he could summon no compassionate grounds for his return there except:
over there is my home.
Which was not enough.
The children of his patients, watching him, would giggle uncomfortably and whisper, “Doctor Eagle!” (after a character in their comic books). He was a little awesome. You would not have thought that a man of thirty-four had had time to look like that—charged with such contradictory expression. The whole man gave out an exacting mixture of fierceness and sympathy. And he still looked young. But he walked with an angry, flamboyant limp from a leg shattered in a car crash. His right shoulder jerked upward as his right foot cleared the ground. To others he sometimes seemed to brandish this limp like a congenital injustice; but in fact he had almost forgotten it. Only occasionally he wondered if some bitterness had not seeped up from his foot into his brain.
But he liked to walk. He did most of his rounds on foot. In different humors he found different towns here: a place of crude vigor, a town of blinkered pragmatism, a city of pure loss. It was its isolation, he supposed, which made it seem so important. The wilderness pressed on it like a corset, crushing its energies inward. If it had any
unifying trait, it was that of an insidious unease, like a distant apprehension of peril. Extrovert but self-protective, it had turned its back on the wilderness around it and looked inward, instead, on its own broad streets and squares, its fever of getting and spending, on its own miraculous presence in the emptiness.
But of course you couldn”t exclude that wilderness. The vista at the end of most streets was closed by a low, unbreaking wave of violet hills. Blood-colored crags and ridges surged along the northern suburbs and burst up even in the town”s heart. On the outskirts, two-lane roads stopped dead, petering into tracks or stones. Between habitation and desert was only a step. All around the town”s north and west a maze of butchered hills marked the site of earlier mines and kilns, where the earth had turned sulphurous and shone with a matt glare. Their slopes rose in tiers of russet and white, twisted with dead trees where the rains had sieved down a scree powdered to dust.
But it was on the far side of the town that the real wilderness began. The houses turned their backs on it. It spread in a huge emptiness of plains, glazed only by saltbush and eucalyptus trees, and by the tarns where the natives watered their cattle. Everything out of its earth grew up bleached and ghostly; washed-out greys and silvers. Here and there a track moved into nowhere. It was a mysterious, uninscribed land, ancient and empty. It fascinated Rayner. On a clear morning, across the farthest savannah, he could make out knolls and dried rivers moving away to a level, violet horizon—the depthless violet of all this antique country, which seemed to promise nothing beyond itself.
Even the town”s river followed laws of its own. It was heavy and fast and malt-colored. Some boardwalks and jetties covered its fringe of green, and there were boats on it: a police launch and some pleasure dinghies with names like
Yet the river went nowhere. It
simply died in the wilderness three hundred kilometers to the south.
At first the owner of the
ignored the faint, regular thudding under his bows. It sounded like a rotted tree trunk: something soft and stiff. Then he went and peered over the side, and let out a breathy, high-pitched
Later Rayner recognized the day as a turning point, announced by the frightened tap of the messenger”s fingers on his clinic door. A big crowd had gathered on the riverbank. Two policemen had pulled the bodies into the shallows but now stood uncertain, as if afraid to lift them into the daylight. They deferred to him with relief. It seemed callous, for some reason, to remove his shoes and socks before entering the water, so he waded straight in to where the two corpses floated in one another”s arms. They drifted on their sides, swollen and blackened. The crowd hovered motionless. His hands started trembling. The corpses knocked against his shins. They were bound face to face, like lovers, and their heads had been axed in from behind. He circled one in his arms and closed his eyes, then pulled toward the bank. They came together.
On shore, the disintegrating hand of one corpse slipped its bonds, leaving part of itself behind like a glove, and released the bodies to lie side by side. Rayner had seen many dead, but none like these. Their bloated trunks had burst their clothes—the man”s trousers tangled round his ankles, the woman”s dress split top to bottom—and their faces were ebony balloons. He knelt by them helplessly, his revulsion stronger than his pity. Their eyes had sunk to milky slits. Their dilated tongues stuck out through their lips.
He did not know what to do. “Has anyone called an ambulance?”
He wiped the froth from their noses and mouths. Inspecting closer, he wondered if he might recognize one of them. But they were beyond recognition. Out of their
blackened skulls the hair flowed white and gold. It was the only natural thing left to them, yet it seemed more violent and artificial than the rest. It was the woman”s hair which filled him with new horror. He was sure he recognized it, its distinctive champagne color, even the way its damp folds settled round her head. But when he looked at what had once been her, nothing came to mind. Only long after did he realize of whom the hair had reminded him.
In the back of each head the axe blow had left a jagged trench. It was the traditional way by which the natives killed, and now a man edged forward from the crowd, stared into the dead faces and said, “That”s what the savages do! They hit you like that!”
The crowd loosened, then surged to look closer. A fat woman suddenly cried out, “God help me, I know them! It”s the Mordaunts from the farm up the railtrack!” She plucked her husband”s arm. “It”s the Mordaunts, Gyorgy. That”s her dress.”
The man stared stonily. “They”re burnt.” He demanded, “Why are they burnt like that? They”ve turned them black!”
Two small boys, jubilant and trembling, piped, “They”ve turned them black!”
People”s voices spurted and whispered. Someone said, “Corpses always go black.” But it was as if a blast of wind had hit them.
Rayner”s voice sounded too loud, and for some reason angry. “That”s blood pigment in the skin.” He felt he was quelling something monstrous. “That”s quite normal. The blood dries.”
But he knew how strange it seemed. The woman had floated uppermost, on her front, so that gravity had drawn the pigment dark over her breast and face and she gleamed like bronze. Whereas the man had lain face upwards, and the discoloration had spread only to his back, leaving his chest white and his face a soapy blur of decay.
One of the policemen said, “That”s the Mordaunts” farm was ransacked a week ago. We couldn”t find them. How long you reckon they”ve been in the water?”
Rayner said, “About a week.” They”d probably been killed a few hours before immersion, he thought; blackening and saponification were both far gone.
By the time an ambulance came, the crowd had swelled to hundreds. They stood tense and quiet as the bodies were taken away. Rayner did not know if the coldness opening in his stomach meant fear of the natives or something else. As the people began dispersing they became suddenly agitated, like bacilli hurrying the news down all the town”s arteries.