Category Archives: July 2013

Odysseus: The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi – Extract

Odysseus: The Oath

Prologue

How long have I been walking? I don’t remember any more, I can’t count days or months. Is that the moon, the sun? I can’t tell. The night star will sometimes light up the infinite fields of snow with an intensity like that of the sun, while the daytime star rises from the fog-shrouded horizon like a pale moon. The ice reflects the light like water does.

How long has it been since I’ve seen a man? How long since I’ve seen springtime, the sea, the holm oaks and myrtles that nestle between the crags of the mountainside? I have met wolves. Bears. They haven’t hurt me, haven’t attacked me. I haven’t laid a hand on my bow and I’ve survived all the same. I must; so that my journey may come to an end.

The last journey.

I’ve learned to talk with myself. It soothes me, and keeps my mind from evaporating. I miss my bride, her arms so soft and white. I miss her warm breasts and her black, black, black eyes. I miss my son, my boy, the only child I’ve fathered. When I left him he was still sleeping. Children sleep so soundly. He surely hates me: he had waited so long for me.

I miss my goddess with her green eyes, her perfect lips that have never given a kiss to a god nor to a mortal. She leaves no prints even if she walks at my side. Her breath won’t condense: cold, it is, like the snow. She loved me once. She would appear in disguise but I recognized her anyway, anywhere . . . Now she doesn’t speak to me any more, or is it I who cannot hear her?

Are you listening to me? Listening to me, son of a small island, son of a bitter fate? You incorrigible liar . . . How often have you plunged your bare hands in the snow to wash them of blood? But you’ve never succeeded.

You’re being watched, can you feel it? Walk, walk, journey on, on and on, as the horizon slips away, escapes you, and the land never ends. Vast, boundless, shapeless and sterile as the sea, flat as a dead calm.

And yet, although you may not believe me, I am a king. You, a king? Don’t make me laugh.

Laugh as long as you like, for I am a king. Without a kingdom, without subjects, without friends, without, without, without . . . but I am indeed a king. I carried out great endeavours, commanded a great number of ships . . . Warriors. Friends. Comrades. Dead. I’m cold. Can you hear me? I’m cold! Where are all of you? Near me, here? Beneath my feet? Under the ice? None of you can see your cold breath either. All invisible.

On, on and on. I don’t remember the last time I ate.

I don’t know why my fate cannot play itself out, why I can’t live like most men do, in a house, with a family, eating food prepared three times a day.

Athena. Do you still love me? Am I still your favourite? Perhaps this is my madness: my mind is connected to mysteries greater than I am, mysteries that I cannot fathom. The feet that go on and on, wrapped in the hides of rabbits that I have eaten, are my only way of seeing. There is no end to their journey, save the one prophesied by the seer who one moonless night I called up from the nether world. Where are they heading? A place like any other, but I will not know until I get there. I’ve lost count of the days and the nights. I never kept count, actually, and I don’t know how long I’ve been walking. I don’t even know how old I am. Certainly not young any more.

A mountain.

Rising alone like an island in the middle of the sea. And there’s a cave. Refuge from the wind cutting at my face, the sleet piercing my eyes.

A cave. It’s warm inside, on the bottom, where the wind has no room to move.

A rabbit is here. White on white. Hard to take aim, even harder to withstand hunger. How sweet would it be to give in to exhaustion, to let myself die slowly. Death, coming for me softly. Who would ever find me here?

Raw-boned, baring starved teeth . . .

Caught. Skinned. Devoured. Me, or the rabbit. What difference does it make? Since then, bones have piled up in front of my cave. And memories in my mind. Spring will return and I will meet a man who will ask me a question that I must answer. I’ll have to remember everything, then. Remember the screams and the groans, the echoes of agony. On the floor of this cave lies the oar I was carrying on my shoulder. I found it abandoned on the shore at Ithaca one morning after I had returned – wreckage from some old shipwreck. How long had it been floating on the sea? Years. I recognized it from the butterfly carved into the handle. A handle once gripped by a comrade of mine. The fourth oar on the right. Old friend, asleep now in the dark of the abyss . . . but you sent me a sign. Time to start out again.

My ship. I miss her. Curved flanks like a woman’s, soft and sensual. Like my green-eyed goddess. Lying broken in pieces on the bottom of the sea. My heart weeps. Stop weeping, heart of mine! You’ve been through much worse. Endless misfortunes, yes. Remember, try, at least, in your sleep. Remember it all. Memories are sweet: birth, life. The future is death, the death of a hero, the death of a rabbit. No difference, that is the awful truth.

The dim light is swallowed up by the night. The wind starts racing again over the plain, sighing in the darkness, rousing the long howl of the wolves, demanding snow, snow, snow. What long nights! The night will never end. Was there ever a sun that rose over mountains mantled with whispering oaks? My sun-kissed island, silent under the full moon, fragrant with rosemary and asphodel: did you ever really exist?

And yet one day long ago a baby was born on the island, in the palace on the mountain, an only son. He did not cry, but tried to talk at once, imitating the sounds he’d heard in his mother’s womb.

Me.

1

They called me Odysseus. It was my grandfather Autolykos, king of Acarnania, who gave me that name when he arrived at the palace a month after my birth. I soon realized that other children had fathers and I did not. At night, before going to sleep, I’d ask my nurse: ‘Mai, where is my father?’

‘He left with other kings and warriors to find a treasure in a faraway place.’

‘And when is he coming back?’

‘I don’t know. No one does. When you go to sea you never know when you’ll be back. There are storms, pirates, rocks. Your ship can even be destroyed, but maybe you manage to swim to shore, and survive. Then you have to wait until another ship comes by to save you and that may take months, or years. If a pirate vessel should stop instead, you’ll be snatched up and sold as a slave in the next port. It’s a risky life that sailors lead. The sea shelters any number of terrible monsters, mysterious creatures that live in her depths and rise to the surface on moonless nights . . . but now you must sleep, my little one.’

‘Why did he go to look for a treasure?’

‘Because all the most powerful warriors of Achaia were going. How could he not join them? One day the singers will tell of this tale and the names of those who took part will be remembered for all eternity.’

I nodded my head as if I approved but I really couldn’t understand why he had to leave. Why should you risk your life just so someone can sing about you one day and tell of how brave you’d been to leave home and risk your life?

‘Why do I have to sleep with you, mai? Why can’t I sleep with my mother?’

‘Because your mother is the queen and she can’t sleep with someone who wets the bed.’

‘I don’t wet the bed.’

‘Good,’ said the nurse, ‘so starting tomorrow you can sleep on your own.’ And that’s how it went. My mother, Queen Anticlea, had me moved to a room all my own with an oak bed decorated with inlaid bone. She had a fine woollen blanket embroidered with rich purple threads brought to me.

‘Why can’t I sleep with you?’

‘Because you’re not a baby any more and you are a prince. Princes are not afraid to sleep on their own. But for a little while I’ll tell Phemius to keep you company. He’s a fine young man. He knows lots of beautiful stories and he’ll sing them to you until you fall asleep.’

‘What stories?’

‘Whatever stories you like. Of how Perseus fought Medusa, of Theseus against the Minotaur and lots of others.’

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Certainly,’ my mother replied.

‘Tonight I’d like you to tell me a story, any story you like. Something that my father has done. Tell me about when you met him for the first time.’

She smiled and sat down on my bed next to me. ‘What happened was that my father invited him to a hunting party. Our kingdoms were next to each other; your father’s was west, on the islands, and my father’s was on the mainland. It was a way they could band together, join up against invaders. I was lucky. I could have been promised to marry a fat, bald old man! But your father Laertes was handsome and strong, and just eight years older than me. He didn’t know how to ride, though. So my father taught him and gave him a horse as a gift.’

‘That’s all?’ I asked her. I had imagined a fierce battle to free her from a monster or from a cruel tyrant who was keeping her prisoner.

‘No,’ she replied, ‘but that’s all I can tell you. One day, maybe. When you’re big enough to understand.’

‘I can already understand.’ ‘No. Not now.’

Another year passed with no news from the king, but at least now I had a teacher who knew all kinds of things and told me all about my father. Hunting adventures, booty raids, battles against pirates: much better stories than the ones my mother told me. He, the teacher, was called Mentor. He was young, with dark eyes and a black beard that made him seem older than he was. He had an answer for every question, except the only one I really cared about: ‘When will my father be back?’

‘So you remember your father?’ I nodded yes.

‘You do? Then what colour was his hair?’ ‘Black.’

‘Everyone has black hair on this island. What about his eyes?’ ‘Sharp. The colour of the sea.’

Mentor looked deep into my eyes: ‘Do you really remember or are you just trying to guess?’

I didn’t answer.

My father came back at the end of spring. The news reached the palace one day just before dawn and threw everyone into a real flurry. My nurse quickly had a bath prepared for the queen, then helped her to choose a gown and dress her hair. Her jewellery box was fetched so she could pick the pieces she fancied. Then nurse had me put on the long robe I wore when we had visitors, a red one with two golden bands. I liked it. I tried to catch a glimpse of myself in one of the mirrors in the women’s quarters.

‘Don’t get dirty, don’t play in the dust, don’t play with the dogs . . .’ nurse called after me.

‘Can I wait under the portico?’ ‘Yes, if you don’t get dirty.’

I sat down under the portico. At least from there I could watch people coming and going, like the servants who were preparing lunch for the king. The pig squealed under the knife and then they hung him by his back legs. The dogs licked the trickle of blood that was dripping onto the ground. The servants had collected most of it in jars to make blood sausage. That was one thing I didn’t like at all.

Mentor arrived just then, grabbed his staff and started off down the path that led to the port. I looked around to make sure no one was watching me and took off after him, catching him up near the fountain.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Mentor asked me. ‘With you. To meet my father.’

‘If Euriclea realizes you’re not there any more she’ll go crazy and then your mother will have her beaten; she’s only too happy to . . .’ Mentor stopped, realizing that what he was about to say wasn’t meant for a six-year-old’s ears.

‘My mother is jealous of Euriclea the nurse, isn’t she?’

Mentor couldn’t believe what he’d just heard: ‘Do you even know what the word “jealous” means?’

‘I do know but I don’t know how to explain it . . . I know, jealous is when you want something just for yourself.’

‘Right you are,’ replied Mentor, taking me by the hand. ‘Well, come along, then. Hold your robe up with your right hand so you won’t trip on it and get yourself punished.’

We started walking.

‘Why do you need a staff if you are young and a fast walker?’ ‘To scare off the vipers: if they bite you, you’re dead.’

‘It isn’t because you want to look wiser and more important?’

Mentor stopped short and gave me a stern look, pointing his index finger at me: ‘Don’t ask me any more questions that you already know the answer to.’

‘I was just trying to guess,’ I offered lamely.

The sun was already high when we arrived at the port. The royal ship had been sighted when it was still far from shore thanks to the standard waving at its stern. A great number of boats had gone out to escort it festively to land.

‘There he is,’ said Mentor, pointing a finger. ‘That man with the light blue cloak and the spear in his hand is King Laertes: your father.’

When I heard those words I wriggled my hand free and started running fast down the slope in the direction of the port. I ran like the wind until I found myself standing in front of the warrior with the sky-blue cloak. Then I stopped and looked at him, panting. Eyes the colour of the sea.

He recognized me and picked me up into his arms. ‘You’re my father, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, I am your father. Do you still remember me?’ ‘I do. You haven’t changed.’

‘Well you’ve changed quite a lot. Listen to you: you sound like a grown-up. And what a fast runner you’ve become! I was watching as you came down the mountain.’

A servant brought a horse, the only one on the island, for the king. Laertes mounted and pulled me up to sit in front of him. A whole procession followed us: my father’s friends, his bodyguards, the noblemen, the representatives of the people and the foremen in charge of the royal properties and livestock. As the procession advanced, people started pouring out along the path that snaked its way up to the palace. Mentor walked alongside the king’s horse, a position of respect that showed how highly he was thought of, but from my new perch I was seeing him from a completely new point of view, and that really made me feel like a prince.

The celebrations went on until late, but I had to go to bed right after dusk. I stayed awake a long time because of the din; all that laughing and loud talking coming from the banquet hall kept me from falling asleep. Raucous voices from the banquet hall . . .

Then  everything  was  quiet.  The  oil  lamps  cast  flickering shadows on the walls, doors were pulled open and slammed shut and bolts were drawn. Even though it was the middle of the night, I wasn’t really sound asleep, I was still too excited over all the singing and shouting. I was only in a half slumber when the sound of a door opening startled me awake. I slipped out into the hall in the dark and saw a man entering the room of Euriclea, my nurse. I got closer. I could hear strange noises coming from inside and I recognized my father’s voice. I understood deep down in my heart that what was happening in the room just then was not something a child could watch. I went back to bed and pulled the covers up completely over my head. My heart was beating so fast that it kept me awake a little longer but then finally it quietened and I fell asleep.

It was Mentor who woke me up the next day. Nurse must have been tired. ‘It’s morning! Go and wash up. We have a lot to do today and your father will be wanting to spend time with you.’

‘My father slept with my mother first and then with mai.’ ‘Mind your own business. Your father is the king and can do what he likes.’

‘I used to sleep with the nurse and now he does. I want to know why.’

‘You’ll know in time. Euriclea is his. He bought her and he can do what he pleases with her.’

I thought of the strange noises I’d heard during the night and maybe I understood.

‘I know what he did.’ ‘Did you spy on them?’

‘No. One day Eumeus, the swineherd, called me over when the boar was mounting the sow.’

‘Well he deserves a good smacking for that! Go and get washed,’ Mentor ordered me, pointing to the tub full of water taken from the spring that flowed from under the foundations of the palace.

I washed and then dressed myself. Mentor pointed to a boulder that overlooked the path about a hundred paces away. ‘Go and sit up there and wait. Your father went hunting before dawn. He’ll be coming back that way. When he sees you, he’ll stop to talk.’

I obeyed and started walking up the path alone. I watched the shepherds pushing the flocks out of the fold to take them out to pasture. The dogs followed, barking. I got to the boulder and climbed on top of it, and then I turned to wave at Mentor: I’m here! But he wasn’t there any more. He’d vanished.

I sat and watched the servants and farmers going about their business below me, the shepherds tending their sheep and goats. As one moment melted into the next, the sunlight seeped into all of the deepest valleys and lit up the crags that were most hidden. I started playing with some coloured stones I always kept in the pocket of my robe. I tossed them and picked them up, then tossed them out again to see if they’d fall differently. They were always different. I thought: how long would I have to keep tossing before the stones fell in exactly the same way as the time before? My whole life?

‘Are you playing by yourself?’ asked my father’s voice behind me.

‘There’s no one to play with.’

‘What do you expect to see when you toss your stones?’ ‘They predict the future.’

‘And what do they say?’

‘That I’ll make a long journey. Like you.’

‘That’s easy to predict. You live on an island that seems big to you now. In a little while it will seem small to you.’

‘I’ll go where no one else has ever gone.’ I looked into my father’s sea-green eyes. ‘How far have you gone?’

‘To where the sea breaks up against the mountains. They are very high, and always covered with snow. The snow melts into rivers that rush and tumble to the sea. The journey is so short that the water never has time to warm up even when the sun is out, and it stays icy cold until it joins the water of the sea.’

‘Is that where you found the treasure?’ ‘Who told you that?’

‘The nurse.’

My father lowered his head. He had some white strands in his black hair.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But do you want the real truth or the tale that the singers tell?’

That was hard to answer. Was I interested in the real truth? Why should I be? The truth isn’t something for children. Once you tell about something, it becomes true. Like: the king of a little island departs for a great adventure. All of the most powerful warriors of Achaia are going. Could he possibly stay behind? That was the truth. But then, I started thinking that . . . for real, there were only men, goats, sheep and pigs on my island. But if someone should venture far away, really really far away, who knows what he might find: monsters? Giants? Sea serpents? Why not? The gods? Why not?

‘Tell me everything,’ I said. ‘Father, tell me about your comrades: is it true they are the greatest heroes of Achaia?’

‘They are!’ he smiled. ‘Hercules . . .’ he opened his arms wide, ‘is the strongest man on earth. When he flexes his muscles it’s a fearsome sight indeed. I believe he could kill a lion with his bare hands. No one can win a fight with him. His favourite weapon is a club; he never uses weapons made of metal. But he can bring down a bull with that club. Sometimes he would pull our ship to shore all by himself, and tie the hawser to an olive tree . . . You know what? He was the one who cut down the pine tree that we made the ship out of. A trunk so gigantic that twelve men could not join hands around it! The last of its kind on Mount Pelion. Then the master carpenter crafted the vessel using his hatchet on the outside and an adz on the inside. It was Hercules who gave the ship her name: the Argo, because she is so swift.’

I don’t remember how long we sat on that stone watching the slow movement of shadow and light on the contours of our island. I listened intently, enchanted by my father’s voice, chewing on an oat stalk. The words poured from his mouth like flocks of birds from a cliff when the sun comes up. The sound was like a hunting horn when it rises in pitch. It would stay with me my whole life. I still wake at night to ‘Get up, we’re going hunting!’ Now that he’s no longer alive . . . Atta . . . my father . . . my king.

Who was the strongest after Hercules, then? Who was it?

2

I realized that my father enjoyed spending time with me. He took me into the forest with him and the dogs; when I was too tired he hoisted me onto his shoulders.

‘One on top of the other we’re a rather tall man,’ he would say, laughing. I liked watching him laugh: he bared a row of very white teeth, squeezed his eyes until they were just slits and the laughter burbled from his mouth.

‘When are we going to see grandfather on the mainland?’ I asked him once.

‘Soon. Your mother would like to visit as well and it’s been a long time since we saw him. When I was away she didn’t want to leave the palace and the kingdom. Three years . . . a long time indeed.’

Every now and then I returned to my favourite thought: ‘You’ve never told me about the treasure. What was it?’

‘Ask Phemius. He’s our poet, isn’t he? He’ll tell you a wonderful story.’

‘I want the true one.’

‘Are you sure? The truth isn’t so interesting . . .’ ‘For me it is.’

‘Well, then . . . There’s a river that runs into the second sea. It is called the Phasis and . . . it carries gold. Glittering specks just under the surface of the water, but you can’t catch them. The natives put sheepskins on the bottom where the river isn’t very deep and hold them still with rocks. The gold specks get stuck in the fleece and are captured that way. Every two days they set them out to dry and then they shake them onto a linen cloth to catch the gold. Lots of it.’

‘So that’s why you needed such a powerful ship and the proudest warriors of Achaia?’

My father laughed again: ‘Well said, little one. Who told you that?’

‘Mentor. And so?’

‘The place is full of fierce warriors. They hide under the sand along the banks and they jump out all at once as if the earth had just delivered them up. They let out terrible war cries and they don’t seem to feel pain. How can you bring down a man who feels no pain?’

‘Everyone feels pain.’

‘Not them. Maybe they have a secret: a herb, they say, some kind of poison. The gold from the fleeces is kept inland, in a cave, and is guarded day and night. So that was our problem: how to find the place, take the gold, get back to the coast and set sail. What would you have done?’ My father’s eyes shone, catching the sun for an instant.

‘I would have become friends with one of them.’

‘We did something like that: our leader, Jason, the prince of Iolcus, sent gifts to the princess, then asked to be received by King Aeetes, her father. Jason is as handsome as a god and the princess fell in love with him. They would meet up in secret in the forest . . .’

I thought of the night he returned when he went into  the nurse’s room and what I heard. It that what falling in love was?

Then he lowered his voice, as if he were talking to himself, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear: ‘. . . and they would make love, savagely, without saying a word.’ Then my father’s voice rose again: ‘Until one day Jason showed her a speck of gold in the palm of his hand and, using gestures, tried to explain what he wanted. Up until then, no one had attacked us: we were camped on the beach with the ship’s stern tied to an enormous olive tree and we spent our days fishing. Tunas as big as pigs would get entangled in our nets and we’d roast big pieces of them over the embers. Then one day Jason decided that the time had come. We set off at night with the girl as our guide, agile and silent as a fox! The sky was black and the clouds dropped down from the mountains almost all the way to the plain. It was like we were blind.

‘We were all armed: gigantic Hercules with his club, I with my sword and bow . . . we were joined by Tydeus and Amphiaraus from Argus, by Zetes and Calais, the so-called twin sons of the north wind – blond, their eyes icy and skin cold – and by Telamon of Salamis, tall and strongly built with his hair gathered at the nape of his neck in a bronze clasp . . . along with Iphitus of Mycenae and Oileus of Locris. Castor of Sparta, the wrestler, was with us, as was his twin brother Pollux, the boxer; they were very young, no more than boys . . . then there was Peleus of Phthia, home of the Myrmidons, as well as Admetus of Pherai, Meleager of Aetolia and so many others. Fifty of us in all. Twenty warriors remained with the ship, ready to man the lines and set sail at a moment’s notice. Amphiaraus stayed with them, sitting at the prow and staring into the darkness. Amphiaraus has big, dark eyes; they can delve into the mysteries of the past and the future, and his pupils dilate like a wolf’s at night. His deep, unblinking eyes followed us that night: we were invisible to all except him. He knew whether we would come back or whether we would all be annihilated. He was a seer . . .

Peirithous, the king of the Lapiths, the warrior who had battled the centaurs, stayed behind as well, close to the olive tree with his axe at the ready to cut the line as soon as we got back to the ship.’ I looked at King Laertes my father and I imagined him surging forward through the night, his sword in hand, with all the other champions: the strongest of Achaia, the mightiest of the world . . . I felt lucky. I looked at his arms, his bull’s neck, his wide shoulders, and I knew I was lucky. I was his son. His only son. His story enthralled me. I would have listened to him all day and all night. ‘Go on, atta, tell me more.’

The time had flown and the sun was high now on our right and it put sparkles in the water of the port, imprisoned by the green mountains sloping down between the light blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the sea. We sat in the shade of a fig tree, dappled by the light. The cicadas screeched. The dogs slumbered.

‘A steep, precarious path led us through the forest. We crossed a rocky gully so narrow that only one man could get by at a time, and then a swampy valley covered with tall grasses. We finally arrived at the site of the cave and the girl halted us. Fifty of their warriors were standing in the darkness, leaning on their spears. Shadows among the shadows. She had to point them out to us one by one. The tips of their spears reflected a dim light, but it was enough for us to make them out in the dark. The dying embers of a campfire. At the entrance to the cave was a very tall warrior covered with snake skins. His face was dark and his hand was closed around the haft of his spear.

‘Jason signalled for us to fan out into a semicircle and, at that instant, the girl shot an arrow into the nearly extinguished campfire and let out a shrill cry. The campfire blazed up with a blinding flash and lit up all the warriors on guard and the one standing at the entrance – he was covered with scales and looked like a dragon; his teeth had been filed to a point like the fangs of a beast. All at once we hurled our spears, all of us, then charged forward with our swords in hand. Jason took on the snake man and the night air rang with the din of their clashing. We fought like lions. Hercules’ legendary strength prevailed in an incredible show of force; Tydeus relentlessly dealt one blow after another without stopping for breath; Telamon had run out of weapons he could throw and began hurling rocks and boulders; Castor and Pollux landed stud-heavy punches and with every clout you could hear the sickening noise of bones shattering. There I was, panting and drenched with sweat, finally satisfied that no enemies were left standing, when I saw Hercules dragging two enormous slaughtered warriors by their feet. Dead meat. Jason had even managed to defeat the dragon man; he lit a torch then and we followed the girl into the cave. It was there that we all saw a glittering fleece hanging from the branches of a petrified oak. We were inside the cave of the treasure! Jason took it from the tree.’

My father stopped but I couldn’t break my open-mouthed stare. He was looking into my eyes to see the image already forming there of the treasure in the cave.

‘Dozens of jars, shiny copper jars filled to the brim with gold. We sank our hands into them and sparkles flew from the mouths of the jars, twinkling like a thousand little lightning flashes . . .’

‘Father,’ I said, ‘where is our share? Can I see it?’

He seemed not to hear my question. ‘We put sticks through the handles of the jars and carried them off like that to the sea; two of us had to struggle to lift a single one.’

I realized that I felt short of breath. I was panting as if it were me carrying that weight of copper and gold. My heart was beating in my throat and at my temples.

‘Before long the night resounded with an ominous rolling of drums, which soon became confused with the rumble of distant thunder. We crossed the forest, the swamp, sinking into the mud up to our knees, made our way down the steep, narrow path . . . The wild princess leading us seemed terror-stricken and was shouting out words that none of us could understand but she was certainly telling us to go faster, faster and faster, because the drums were getting closer, our enemies were almost upon us. Lightning flashed over the fog, beyond the threshold of the night, ghosts of pale light first and then the bolts of Zeus himself rent the earth and the sky, set fire to the fog . . .’

Atta,’ I said, ‘the words coming from your mouth are magic ones, like the words that Mentor and Phemius use. Do you even remember now what really happened?’

Once again my father hadn’t seemed to hear my question. The dogs lifted their snouts to sniff at something carried on the wings of the wind from far away . . .

‘They were upon us all at once and the wild princess shrieked like a falcon rushing at its prey. She let her arrows fly and many hit their mark. Our assailants twisted and turned, making weird noises, but they neither screamed nor groaned; some tried to pull the arrows from their flesh. Maybe it was true that they didn’t feel pain, or maybe they were accustomed to ignoring it. We fought back as best we could, but we were all nerves. All we could think of were the jars full of gold that might vanish while we fought in the dark . . .’

Atta, why do people want gold?’

This time my father interrupted his story to answer me. ‘I could say it’s because it is the most beautiful of all metals. It’s like the sun. Its colour never changes, it doesn’t spoil or rust and every precious thing is made from this metal. But perhaps the reason is that since many people desire it, everyone desires it. And if everyone desires it, that must mean it is the most that any man could desire. Gold is power. The diadems of kings and the gowns of gods are made of gold.

‘There was no time to lose,’ he said then, picking up his story where he had left off. ‘I recognized the voices of Zetes and Calais nearby and I called out to them: “Run, run like your father the wind, go and call your comrades from the ship!”

‘They heard me and they raced down the path leading to the sea so fast that it didn’t look as if they were touching the ground, and we began fighting our assailants in earnest, in single combat. The wild princess blazed with an energy like fire and storm, as if fatigue could not touch her limbs. She struck first with her axe and then with her dagger, and when for a moment I was near her, I saw – or smelled, I couldn’t say which – that she was covered with blood. Jason, at her side, was no less of a fury, and Hercules, our bastion, was roaring like a lion as he took on a swarm of enemies, who probably could never have imagined that so much strength could spring from a single body.

‘I don’t know how much time passed. I do know that some of us were wounded, others died, although we continued to fight with all our might. But why had Zetes and Calais not returned? How long could it possibly take for the sons of Boreas to cover the distance that separated us from the ship and return?

‘I turned to Tydeus then, and shouted: “The horn! Sound the horn, that they may hear you!”

‘Tydeus began to blow into the shiny horn and soon a cry was launched in response. The sons of the wind were on their way back, bringing with them almost all of the comrades who had been guarding the Argo. Even Amphiaraus was with them: clad in bronze, his eyes in the night reflecting the light of the torches like those of a wolf. Our enemies fled. Exhausted as they were, they could not take on our warriors.

‘We finally reached the ship as the sky began to lighten to the east. The wild princess stripped naked and washed in the sea and then climbed a rope up to the prow. We weighed anchor.’

The sun was just setting behind Mount Neritus and the shadow of the mountain already covered a quarter of the island although the night was still far off. The land wind rustled the leaves of the oaks around us. I couldn’t say a word because I could not return to reality. I was still with the warriors battling in the dark, or maybe I was already on the ship, watching as the shore became distant.

‘What are you thinking?’ asked my father, getting to his feet and taking my hand.

‘I’m thinking that’s the way a man should live. Like you. You sail the sea and fight battles and win treasures.’

‘Yes, maybe that’s how men like us must live our lives, but today I’ve spent the day with you talking while we’ve watched the light and shadows passing over our island. This is a good way to live too.’

‘So one day I will be able to sail the seas and I’ll meet up with wild peoples in faraway lands . . .’

‘You certainly will. But look over there . . . smoke is rising from the roof of the palace and that means dinner will be ready soon: meat and bread and good wine. The palace will one day be yours, son. And you, that day, will be king of Ithaca.’

3

My father left again and again for other exploits; he journeyed to meet other kings or princes, to establish alliances, to punish unruly subordinates or plunder the territories of tribes living in the north or in other places even further away.

Not everyone always came back. When the young warriors accompanying him lost their lives, they were buried far from home. Their parents would never have the consolation of a tomb on which to weep for them. Other times, if there had been the time to build a pyre, the king returned with their ashes inside an urn, a covered jar with two handles, which he would give to the family after paying last respects, as custom required. Others came back wounded or maimed. My father himself often returned showing the signs of bitter combat on his own body; days and days would pass in idleness while he regained the strength and the blood he had lost, like a lion that hides in the forest to lick its wounds after being attacked by a pack of fierce mastiffs.

I was thirteen years old the day he was brought back to the palace from his ship on a stretcher borne by four men. He was pale as death and his chest was bound with bloodstained bandages. When the women heard the news they pulled out their hair and wailed as if they were grieving for a dead man. I cried too, but I swallowed my tears so no one could hear, the way I had been taught.

When that happened no one was allowed to go into his room, not even my mother. Only Mentor was let in; perhaps he alone knew how to cure him. Mentor knew how to do everything; he surely must know which secret herbs and philtres could restore a gravely wounded man to health. The king was alive but wanted no one to see him in that condition. Once I even knocked on his door: ‘Father, atta, can I come in?’ I got no answer and didn’t dare open the latch. I walked back down the corridor trying to imagine what he was doing, what he was thinking and why he hadn’t answered me. Wasn’t I his only son? Hadn’t we spent long days together talking and dreaming up adventures, leaning against the parapet on the roof as the moon rose from the sea? Why wouldn’t he let me in?

One night strange noises shook me from my sleep and I got out of bed. I climbed the steps leading to the second floor, holding the handrail in the dark, and peered down into the courtyard. A man was speaking excitedly to my father, who looked like he could barely stand; he was using two forked sticks as crutches. What had happened? Had there been an alarm? Was someone stealing our livestock? Was it pirates, perhaps, already pouring out of their ships and scattering through the countryside in search of plunder? How would we defend ourselves if the king could not bear arms and lead his men into battle?

My father returned to the palace, followed by the man who had been speaking to him. He would certainly be invited to stay. I curled up in a corner and remained there listening to the night-time sounds of the forest because I didn’t feel like sleeping any more. Downstairs I could hear the swift steps of the servants preparing a room for our guest. Then I heard the sound of crutches tapping across the floor and up the steps until I finally saw the king’s black shape walking slowly towards the parapet. He leaned his elbows on it and looked like he was weeping. I got up slowly and without making the slightest noise, since I was barefoot, I walked up behind him so that when he turned to go back to his room, he found me standing in front of him. He didn’t speak or make a move but I could feel the deep anguish that seemed to be crushing him. It hadn’t been an attack then: no pirates had landed in our well-sheltered port and no marauders were raiding the countryside. It was something much worse, something terrible.

‘What did the messenger tell you, father?’

He did not answer, but began hobbling back to the steps that led downstairs. Was it that he didn’t want to talk to me or that he couldn’t?

Only when weariness overwhelmed me did I creep back to bed. I lay there listlessly, listening to the north wind that blew hoarsely through the oak branches.

Euriclea woke me.

‘What happened, mai? Who was that man last night?’

‘You have no business wandering around at night. You should have been sleeping. Now get up and get dressed: the sun is already up.’

I put on my clothes and went down to the big hall, where one of the servants had already lit a blazing fire. Euriclea brought me a piece of bread, hot milk and honey from the kitchen. It was a clear, cold day; from the window I could see the peaks on the mainland sprinkled with snow. ‘Mai, when are we going to see grandfather?’

‘When your father decides.’

A man appeared in the hall. It had to be the messenger from the night before. His hair was unkempt and his eyes narrow as slits. The king came in next and sat down opposite him. A pleasant warmth had spread through the room. The carver roasted meat on a spit and served it with bread and fragrant herbs. When would I be allowed to eat meat at breakfast? I hated having to eat sweet stuff, as if I were a baby.

My father’s head was low and he said nothing. The messenger was speaking in a quiet voice: I could only hear a few words here and there: ‘. . . a pool of blood . . . on the floor . . . walls . . . his wife, children . . . I’m sorry . . .’ He stopped, and then: ‘The sea . . . the tide.’ He rose to his feet, bowed deeply and took his leave. Euriclea filled his knapsack with freshly baked bread and added a blood sausage and a small skin of wine.

I came close and sat at my father’s feet. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

He sighed and lifted his head. His eyes were filled with tears. I’d never seen him this way.

‘Hercules: do you remember him?’

‘Of course I do. The giant who used a tree as a club, who was so incredibly strong. Your friend when you went seeking the golden fleece. Has he died?’

‘Worse. He slaughtered his family at Mycenae, three nights ago. They found him asleep, lying in a pool of their blood. He was snoring like someone who had drunk too much pure wine, while the limbs of his wife and children were splayed all around him, slain by the sword he still held in his hand.’

My father seemed delirious himself, and the images he described came alive in my head. I wasn’t seeing the big hall of our palace with the fire burning, baskets full of fruit and cheeses from the orchards and cattle stables, the dogs curled up half asleep by the hearth, but a dark room, hemmed in by forbidding walls, its floor slick with blood. I trembled at the sight and my teeth chattered like when the north wind comes bringing snow.

‘How could this have happened?’ my father kept saying. Tears welled under his eyelids, rolled down his cheeks.

I was terrified. So a father can kill his own child? Would King Laertes do the same to me if I made him angry? He looked up at me and he must have realized what I was thinking because he touched my cheek. ‘Hercules is quick-tempered and he attacks like a lion in battle but he has a good heart, I know him well. He would never hurt a disarmed man, or anyone who could not defend himself. How could he have raised his sword against his own blood? Perhaps he’s gone mad, understand? Or perhaps someone, envious of his glory, gave him a poison that made him lose his mind . . . the king of Mycenae . . . I’ve never liked that look in his eye, that sinister smirk on his face . . .’

‘What’s going to happen now?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. Whatever the reason for his crime, he will have to atone for it.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘He’ll have to pay for what he’s done, even if it was not his fault.’

I fell silent. The words were too heavy for my heart.

‘When are we going to visit grandfather?’ I don’t know why those words came to my mouth. Perhaps I was trying to escape from the fear of something too enormous for me to understand. But it was only natural for a boy to want to visit his grandfather: to receive presents, listen to some good stories, not to have to think about terrible things. I knew very little about my grandfather, apart from the gossip of the servants and my nurse. I’d never seen him. It was only natural for me to be curious, to want to meet the man who was my mother’s father, the king of a barren, mountainous land who lived in a palace of stone on top of a cliff.

‘It’s not time yet. You’ll go next year when you’ve become a man.’

The carver removed the leftovers from the table. Euriclea set fruit, hot milk, bread and honey on a tray and brought it to the queen’s quarters, making her way up the steps carved in the rock.

My father began speaking again: ‘Do you know how your grandfather got his name? Autolykos means “he  himself  is  a wolf ”. He’s called that because he’s a ruthless predator who has no consideration for anyone. He is hard and calculating; he cares nothing for rules or for respectable behaviour. He thinks nothing of breaking an oath. He lives in a steep-walled fortress, grey as iron, guarded by murderous cut-throats, on top of a cliff which is second in height only to Mount Parnassus itself, which looms behind it. He strikes fear into the hearts of all those living in a vast territory around him.’

I dropped my eyes, confused. My playmates had wise, loving grandfathers who took them out fishing on a boat or out to pasture with their flocks of sheep and loyal dogs.

‘The only time he came here to visit is when you were born. Your mother placed you on his knee and he gave you your name.’

‘Why him? Why not you, who are my father?’

‘Because he had waited so long for you. Even though we had assured him that if a boy were born he would be the first to know, he sent us messengers constantly to ask whether a son had been born in the palace. He seemed satisfied when he saw you. He furrowed his brow and said to us: “Daughter of mine, my son-in-law: give this child the name I will tell you now. I come here today nursing hatred in my heart for many a person, men and women alike. So the boy’s name shall be Odysseus.”’

Tears came to my eyes when I heard that story; the name I’d been given was cursed! My father said nothing. He watched me thoughtfully. But I could tell he was feeling the same dismay that had washed over me.

‘And thus it was. Once a name has crossed the threshold of the teeth, it cannot be taken back if the man pronouncing it has the child’s same blood, in a direct line of descent. And this is what happened.

‘But don’t be afraid. It will be you, by your actions and your deeds, the strength of your arms and your mind, who will give meaning to your name. Greatness can emerge from even the most bitter destiny. If your heart is strong and fearless, if you do not tremble in the face of any challenge, be it from man or god, you will have the life you deserve.’

I nodded to show that I understood even though the brief portrait of my grandfather that my father had sketched out had devastated me. He seemed to realize this: ‘In any event, before Autolykos left, setting sail on his big black ship, he turned back and said: “I’d like to invite my grandson to a hunting party.”

‘ “Now, wanax?” I asked him.

‘ “When the first hairs shadow his cheeks and his upper lip.”’ ‘How old was I when grandfather invited me?’ I asked.

‘Six months old. But that’s how he is.’

I was even more confused. Inviting a six-month-old baby to a hunting party must mean something that I couldn’t fathom. And I couldn’t stop thinking that a troubled fate was written in my name.

My father read the look in my eyes: ‘Even if there is a shadow in  the  name  you  bear,  no  omen  could  ever  darken  your  path because . . . because I love you, Odysseus, my son.’

That’s what he said and he hugged me tightly. I could feel the heat of the fire blazing in the hearth and the heat and smell of the big body of my father, the hero Laertes, king of Ithaca.


Excerpted from Odysseus: The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Copyright © 2012 by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Macmillan.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Kills by Richard House – Extract

The Kills

SUTLER

AMRAH CITY

1.1

John Jacob Ford’s morning began at 3:03 with a call from Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear.

Five hours before Geezler’s phone call, Kiprowski came to Ford’s cabin and presented him with a Mason jar. Stopped at his door, Ford lis­tened without much interest – until Kiprowski tilted the jar and what Ford had taken to be a nest of beetles unsnagged one from another, and he could see without trouble that these were scorpions, some ruddy-black, some amber, some semi-translucent. Most, except one, with bodies smaller than a quarter. The largest scorpion, black, brittle, almost engineered, took up the entire width of the container from claw-tip to tail.

Unwilling to touch the jar, Ford managed not to recoil. He asked Kiprowski what he wanted and Kiprowski said he didn’t rightly know. He’d found them under a tarpaulin close to Burn Pit 5, and while they were dead he didn’t trust the other men not to use them for some kind of a joke, Pakosta especially, and he didn’t want them winding up in food, in cots, on seats, in pockets – and besides, he said, I thought you’d be interested. They look like toys, he said. Like clockwork toys. And they light up under blacklight. They fluoresce, honest to god. They glow.

Throughout the conversation Kiprowski called Ford Sutler, a name still fresh to Ford’s ears. Strictly speaking Sutler didn’t exist. Stephen Lawrence Sutler, the name Ford assumed on his arrival at Camp Liberty, was an alias, an invention set up by his employer, Paul Geezler, to satisfy company policy. New contracts require new contractors. Ford understood Sutler to be a useful conceit for Geezler, certainly some­thing more valuable than a quick-fix solution to a sticky contractual arrangement. More useful and more complex than he wanted to know. On occasion Geezler asked for favours, ideas on this and that, news on what was happening at the burn pits or at the government offices.

His six weeks as Sutler were not without interest. While Sutler and Ford were one and the same person, he’d noticed a growing number of differences, most of them small. Sutler, for example, spoke his mind and honoured his word. Ford dissembled, avoided stating definite opinions. Sutler applied himself to his work. Ford just couldn’t focus. Sutler endured practical jokes, and given Kiprowski’s gift, appeared considerably less queasy about handling venomous insects. Ford was familiar with many small disappointments and failures, but Sutler had no such history and as a consequence felt competent and free.

Ford took the jar into his cabin but couldn’t bring himself to throw the contents out, and set it on the floor, far from the bed, shrouded with a T-shirt with a hardback book on top, although he knew the lid to be secure and the scorpions to be dead.

For an hour after Geezler’s call Ford sat on his cot while time slipped from him, head in hands as he attempted to reason through Geezler’s message.

Listen to me. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to dis­appear. Tomorrow, go to the regional government office as planned and submit the transfer requests as if everything is normal. I’ve set up four new operation accounts, and opened a junk account. Give the transfer requests and the account numbers for all of the accounts to Howell. Make sure he attaches the four operation accounts to the Massive, and make sure he completes all of the transactions by midday. Then leave. The money in the junk account is yours. Once it’s transferred no one but you can touch it. Do not inform Howell about your plans. Do not stay at Southern-CIPA. Do not return to Camp Liberty. If you return you will be arrested. Do not pack your belongings, you are being watched. Make no attempt to contact me. Disappear. Avoid military transport and per­sonnel. The warrant will be issued for you and Howell at noon: I can’t guarantee more time. You have nine hours.

Geezler read the numbers out twice, and Ford scribbled them on a sheet of paper rested on his knee: each number eight digits long, four prefaced with HOS/OA, one with HOS/JA. Geezler had him repeat the numbers back to him.

Under these instructions lay an understanding that Ford would follow precisely what was asked of him. This was their agreement. Geezler guaranteed employment under two qualifications, you go as Sutler; you leave when I say, and the money, a tidy two hundred thousand, was good enough for him to agree to these terms without question. The warning of arrest alarmed him, although the possibility had occurred to him many times. Geezler’s instructions were clear. Proceed as normal. Leave by midday. Tell no one. Make no contact. Go.

Ford kept his passport and credit cards (all under his own name) safe in a plastic bag in a slit cut into his mattress. He ran through the possibilities. He could do exactly as Geezler advised, meet with Howell then manufacture an excuse to leave before midday – or, simpler still, leave immediately, take one of the vehicles, fuel up, drive and not stop.

A series of scratches brought his attention back to the room. Tiny and complex, and without any particular location.

As soon as he lifted the T-shirt he could see movement inside the container as one by one the smaller ginger scorpions appeared to revive. With a certain horror he raised the glass to the light and noticed how the smaller scorpions struggled to burrow and hide under the larger bodies, and this seemed strange to him, how something natu­rally armoured would seek the security of cover.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disap­pear. You have nine hours.

1.2

20:30 at the regional government offices at Amrah City, the Deputy Administrator for Project Finance at Southern-CIPA, Paul Howell, walked through Accounts and told the last late workers to leave. Howell stood at the centre of the office and pointed at the computer screens and said there’s a deep-clean scheduled for tonight. Log out, and unplug the terminals. I know, he said, I know. I just heard myself. Tomorrow we’ll have an updated system, maybe even something that works. Tomorrow, when you come in, you’ll need to change your password.

Howell considered himself a smart and logical man, and he under­stood that if any of the officers paused to think through the situation it wouldn’t make sense. So he stood in the office, chivvied them along, and waited until the last of them were gone. This gesture would cause fresh trouble: a delay in payments to utility workers, a delay in pay­ments to the Oil Ministry, a delay in reports to Baghdad. But in one day, he could be certain, none of this would be his problem.

He sent his officers back to their quarters, knowing there were no bars or facilities within the compound, no place to relax, and that a night off work meant a night without air-con and a night without com­puters. While most worked late through necessity, others stayed by choice to contact their families back in the US.

Alone, Howell returned to his desk. He shut the blinds, he took out a bottle of malt and poured himself a generous measure. He settled behind his desk, drew a note from his pocket, placed it beside the phone and considered his options – he could shoot himself, he could attempt to disappear, he could destroy the records, he could burn down the office – but knew, in seriousness, that he didn’t have that kind of character or commitment. Instead, he waited until the time written down on the paper, then called Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.

‘I have your note.’ Howell spoke softly, as if this were an ordinary discussion. ‘There are rumours about who might be the new director. I’ve heard that David is interested?’

‘We need someone in post. He’s preparing his bid.’

‘You’d move with him?’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘Everyone knows he depends on you.’

‘I haven’t decided.’ Geezler drew in a long breath. ‘We need to speak frankly, Paul. About the border highway. About the transfers. I found the requests – and I wouldn’t have questioned them – but the money never arrived. Out of interest, Paul, why Al-Muthanna?’

‘Because it’s desert. Because no one goes there. There was a one­time project when I arrived, building roads. The project finished two years ago. Right now it looks active, but it’s only live on paper.’

Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Just out of interest, how close was my estimate?’

‘A little low. It’s closer to five, five and a half.’

‘All from the same accounts?’

‘About eighty-five, ninety per cent.’

‘And all of it money allocated for HOSCO projects?’

Howell said yes, if anyone was going to build highways through a stretch of desert, it would be HOSCO. ‘We had money ready for dis­bursement to HOSCO accounts sitting without movement. The figures were small in proportion to the overall budget.’ These reasons, he knew, came only after the fact. He hadn’t deliberately meant to take money, not at first. What started as a modest one-off loan to cover a shortfall quickly became a habit, and once he figured out a ruse, build­ing roads through deserts no one would use, he saw no reason to stop himself. Every day he handed backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, even brown-paper bags packed with cash to ministers, contractors, and project organizers, all of it a legitimate part of his work. Losing a little, allowing a little backward flow to smooth the edge off his own discom­fort, seemed natural, easily within bounds.

‘How much of this is refundable?’

‘None. How did you find out?’

‘The transfer requests. Eventually, they’re all tracked. There was movement where there shouldn’t be movement. Road building is smart. I looked right at it and thought it was ours.’

‘How did you know it was me?’

‘This could only come from a government office. Only you can authorize transfers over ten. Only you can attach accounts to projects.’

Howell pushed the note away. ‘You should know, I can’t pay it back.’

Geezler allowed a long pause. ‘I’m not looking for you to pay any­thing back, Paul.’ Sounding weary, Geezler said he needed time to think. He’d call back in twenty minutes and make only one offer. Did Howell understand?

Howell said he understood.

‘This isn’t a negotiation, Paul.’

Twenty minutes later, Paul Geezler called back. In the interim, Howell had attempted to total his spending, but overshot Geezler’s estimate and came up with a new and larger figure. He apologized for taking up Geezler’s time.

‘I’m interested in the Massive, Paul.’

‘What do you need to know?’

‘I take it the funds are still in place?’

‘Something in the region of fifty-plus – but it’s barely started. The money hasn’t been transferred. The project hasn’t moved beyond paper yet. Nothing has been spent. I’m seeing the budget holder in the morning.’

‘Stephen Sutler.’

‘That’s right. You know him?’

Once again Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Paul,’ he said, ‘have you heard the story about the gorilla and the basketball game?’

Howell said he hadn’t.

‘It’s all about a simple bluff. It’s from a test. A number of subjects are taken to a basketball game and asked to count the passes. An incentive is offered to sweeten the activity and make it competitive. Halfway through the game a man in a gorilla suit walks onto the court. There’s no explanation for this. He stops right in the middle of the court with the game going on around him, beats his chest, then he walks off. None of the players, none of the commentators, nobody in fact gives the gorilla any attention. Do you know how many of the people counting passes notice him?’

‘I can’t imagine.’

‘Less than fifty per cent, Paul. Less than fifty. And do you know how many people raise this in a discussion after the game? How many ask about the gorilla once everything’s settled?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘No one. Not one. Because they’re too busy trying to get something right. They’re anxious, Paul, they want to know if they’ve done every­thing they were supposed to. Because, if they can help it, nobody likes to get anything wrong.’

Howell struggled to see how the story applied to him.

‘We need to perform something a little different. We don’t want the auditors counting passes, we want them to look out for the gorilla. It’s very simple. If they look for one thing, if they focus on one task, they won’t see what matters. They won’t see things right. You understand?’ Geezler cleared his throat as he came to the point. ‘Does anyone else know about the highways?’

‘No.’

‘That’s how we’re going to keep it. Everyone is going to be looking for missing money, but no one is going to be looking at those high­ways. There’s no reason to. Now, Paul, I want you to do something very straightforward. Can you change the codes on those transfers you made? Can you make them look like cash payments?’

‘I’m not following you?’

‘Change your transfers to cash withdrawals against the Massive. Change the codes. Make it look like you supplied Sutler with cash. Can you do that?’

‘It’s possible, but why that account? This project has a high profile.’

‘Monkey, Paul. Think monkey. Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice. That’s the first step. Second and this is important I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra­curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts. Sutler has the details for the new accounts. He has it all worked out. Do exactly what he asks. Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings. Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts: one, two, three, four. Load them up. In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project. Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount. Show him the trans­fer. That’s five accounts, Paul. Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways. I want all five of them loaded. Do you understand me?’

Howell said he understood.

‘Attach Sutler’s junk account to the Saudi border project. Keep it buried. I don’t want it found. If you have to route it through other accounts then go ahead and do that. Don’t keep any record of these new accounts yourself. You understand? It’s important they can’t be found. Once this is done, after Sutler has gone, Central-CIPA will catch any irregularities with HOSCO’s holdings regarding the Massive. Leave everything to Baghdad.’

Howell said he didn’t understand.

‘It’s simple. All you have to do is delete Sutler’s records. Delete all of the information you have about him, and transfer the money into the new accounts. Tomorrow morning, when Sutler makes his visit, you’ll do exactly what he asks, which includes making a deposit to a junk account for his personal use. Hide that account with your road­way project. Once you’re done just let him leave.’

‘But I handle funding and disbursement, they’ll know I’ve had a hand in this. Sutler will tell them he has nothing to do with it.’

‘Paul.’ Geezler spoke carefully. ‘To my knowledge you’ve helped yourself to four hundred and fifty thousand dollars of HOSCO’s money. You’ve spent this on your family, on visits and vacations you did not need – and you tell me the money is gone. I also understand you have a considerable stockpile of equipment at Camp Liberty, which includes military vehicles and hardware. Whichever way you look at this your work with Southern-CIPA is over. Now, you can try to fix this by yourself, I don’t mind, it’s up to you. You can continue to move money from one place to another until someone else finds out what you’re doing. You can keep on going as you are, Paul, and dig yourself a little deeper. You can hope that no one else is going to check those fraudulent transfer requests or the empty accounts – or – you can let me help you. I’m not saying this won’t be painful, but I can offer you a respectable exit. I guarantee. No prosecution. You keep what you’ve taken, no one will be looking for it, and if everything goes well, you’ll see a future in the civil sector, which will keep you as comfortable as you could hope to be. That’s my offer. A solution. If you do exactly what I’ve asked, everyone will be looking for Sutler. You understand? Sutler. And Sutler is going to disappear and no one will find him. Sutler is the monkey in this scenario, Paul. So you need to think carefully about how you’re going to manage this. Like I told you, this isn’t a negotia­tion. But I can promise that nobody will see the game while they’re looking for Sutler.’

‘Does David know about this?’

‘Paul, we aren’t discussing what the division chief does and does not know. We’re discussing the decisions you need to make.’

Howell worked through the night, certain that Geezler was turning this to his advantage, although he couldn’t see how. For three hours he sought out and shredded documents and deleted files and correspon­dence from his computer. He drank while he worked, sensing the night about him and the limits of the compound. No stranger to revising the past, he collated HOSCO employment files, design-build bid sheets and qualfication statements, site-reports, and requisition sheets – every scrap relating to Sutler – and document by document he removed the staples, separated the pages, and fed them into the machine. The way the paper jerked into the wheels, the way the information could still be read along the cuts, until the strips started to curl, held his attention. The paper would need to be burned. There were people, in archives, in Europe, who spent their days reconstructing shredded doc­uments, undertaking a tedious archaeology of a culture, reconstituting petty deeds and business piece by piece. Everything here would be sent to the burn pits. Everything here would become smoke and ash.

Done, he called Paul Geezler. ‘He’s gone. Sutler doesn’t exist.’

Geezler’s voice sounded ghost-like, distant. ‘Did you change the codes?’

‘I have.’

‘Is there money for him?’

‘I’ll do that tomorrow.’

‘Make sure it happens.’

‘And you trust him?’

‘He carries no risk. Even if he’s caught.’

Howell emptied the waste into a sack marked ‘confidential: secure/ burn’. Tied the neck and took the sack to the outer office where it sat with other such sacks. All quiet, unusually so; he walked about the office with a kind of envy rising in him. Tomorrow, at midday, Sutler would walk out of the office and evaporate. It wasn’t often a man could make a clean start. Shortly after, Central-CIPA would raise the alarm about the misappropriated funds, and Howell would step back and watch everything unfurl. The next four weeks would be difficult. He would be suspended, without doubt, moved sideways, while every expenditure the authority had authorized would be inspected – but he wouldn’t have to pay back the money.

1.3

The first convoy arrived pre-dawn. A gut-rumble of thirteen trucks packed, brimful, with nine to eleven tons of industrial, medical, and military waste, alongside two supply trucks with food and equipment. The ruckus stirred Ford into action. Inside this early chaos he could distinguish the sing-song voices of the men, the hiss, crank, and slam of gears, of brakes and cab doors. The desert busy with industry as the trucks were dispersed to the burn pits: black rectangular craters into which the waste would be dumped and incinerated. The hot stink of aircraft fuel and scorched rubber overpowered the air and mingled with a deeper faecal stench. No more than four of the five pits burned at the same time, each sending up a roiling column, red at the base and bright with sparks, black fat-thighed legs stomping through a colourless sky. The smoke leaned first then flattened out as an alter­nate horizon, a skirt-line haze. Everything depended on the wind: the pits being set two to the west, three to the south-west, and two east of the living quarters, nothing more than a straight row of Portakabins that faced the machine shop, a grey-barrelled Quonset hut.

Ford had followed Paul Geezler’s advice and packed only two changes of clothes and what money he had into a black backpack. He changed his shoes for boots and left his room with laundry strewn over a chair, with three books and bottled water beside the bed, his papers and drafting equipment on a small table with rulers, pens, protractor, a long roll of paper, a manual of instructions from HOSCO – and on the floor a stack of toilet rolls and the sealed jar of scorpions. He began to consider excuses, reasons to leave: trouble at home, bad news, a fail­ing relative or business, but none seemed credible as everything about Ford spelled out his solitary nature. Ready at the door he watched Gunnersen and Kiprowski unload the two HOSCO supply trucks, which needed to be emptied before the sun hit the wagons and the containers became too hot to work inside. Gunnersen hauled packs of canned and boxed supplies to the tailgate then tossed them down to Kiprowski, his gestures glib and swift however heavy the package. He called out the items as he threw them, wiped his brow, and instructed Kiprowski on where they should go. Samuels, Clark, Pakosta, and Spider still worked the pits, and the trucks returned one at a time, motors droning as they climbed the hill.

Ford decided on Kiprowski as his escort to Southern-CIPA, this being necessary business and Kiprowski being the only man he could trust.

The sun hit at an angle, pink on the huts and the side of the truck, already severe, hot enough to sear, and not yet midsummer. With the vehicles unloaded the men returned from the pits. Clark ran ahead, shrieking with a hoarse cat-call, naked except for his boots, and shot into the sunlight, his thighs and backside covered with HOSCO stickers (Manufactured in Virginia with Pride). The men whooped and hollered as Clark, white and skinny with red hair, red arms and a red neck, ran in breakneck circles, kicked back dust, and punched his fists into the air.

With Kiprowski in the seat beside him, Clark and Pakosta in the bucket seats ahead, Ford worked hard to keep his thoughts ordered, but understood nothing more about why he needed to leave Camp Liberty than when Geezler had made the call – and suffered four long hours of if s and whats and counting down. The promise from Geezler of two hundred thousand, in sterling, seemed unimaginable. Two hundred thousand: enough to climb out of any trouble, enough to pay off a few debts, and then some, just as long as he did exactly what was asked. With this money Ford would settle his conscience and start over. He knew Geezler well, and trusted that some kind of clarity would come as soon as he arrived at the Regional Government Offices: Finance Division, Southern-CIPA. The craft rode up, steep and unsteady, broke through the grey smokeline and levelled out above the haze. Beneath him lay a last glimpse of the burn pits, five hard black oblongs with a sooty trails dusting the desert, the cabins and Quonset already lost to view.

He saw no chance of escape. As they approached Amrah City the craft dropped in stuttered steps to avoid attack – a message came to Ford via the pilot: business at Southern-CIPA would need to be brief. Howell had other appointments. He had time to make the transfers, just about, but any discussion of the project, that over-view he’d asked for, wasn’t going to happen today. Kiprowski and Pakosta bickered over a small backpack, some fresh awkwardness breaking between them. He regretted his decision to allow Pakosta and Clark along. He also regretted his decision that they should wear the uniforms Howell had provided. On landing, Kiprowski became so restless that Ford began to wonder if he was somehow involved.

The offices for Southern-CIPA sat in the grounds of a former school in the centre of Amrah City. A perimeter fence and blast wall followed the rough circumference of the playground and nominally protected the offices from the covered market and a row of businesses – although most were empty, the glass shot out of the fronts, the walls blackened in a recent attack, the owners returned to Kuwait and Saudi, some to Iran. The school itself was long gone, firebombed then blasted with rockets until nothing remained but a level lot. The painted outline for a mini-soccer pitch still visible on the concrete slabs.

HOSCO had provided the buildings, the same prefab units as the cabins at Camp Liberty, dropped onto blocks and welded one to the other. Ford didn’t like to think about the kind of people who would bomb a school. Burn it down then blow it away. The fact that the new regional government sited their offices on the very same spot seemed ironic and prescient. An invitation. A school smell haunted the new offices, a sourness, not quite the end-of-day musk of unfresh bodies, but some reedy tang that stuck with the place. In meetings he felt this odour creep up on him. The longer the meeting, the more he held his breath, the less he talked.

*****

Ford unravelled the plans across the Deputy Administrator’s desk and took care not to displace the many objects or damage the paper – Howell, with his practised mid-Atlantic accent, loved his tat: the glass pen-holder, the fountain pens, the name plate, the weathered base­ball, the photos of his wife, son, and daughter, and more framed on the wall behind the desk (Howell shaking hands with heads of state, Howell beside the few celebrities that paused on their way to Camp Anaconda or from Camp Navistar). Everything set just so. In all of his visits Ford had yet to see the Deputy Administrator sit at the desk. The man liked to pace. He’d heard stories about Howell at Camp Liberty from Pakosta, rumours that didn’t match what he knew.

The maps demonstrated Ford’s craft as a draughtsman and his serious approach to the project. Howell unrolled the sheets one by one, and muttered ‘Ah, our legacy,’ a little sarcastically. ‘The Massive.’

The plans sketched in soft blue pencil, a pleasing exactness to the lines. Layer one: the existing camp with the huts and burn pits. Layer two: the proposed work quarters and fabrication huts. Layer three: the burn pits dug out and in-filled. Layer four: the basic structures for water, power, sewage. Layer five: the airfield expansion. In a series of twelve overlapping sheets a small compound for remote waste dis­posal became the basic structure for a new military base and new city.

Howell, owlish, white hair and wire glasses; cool, disinterested, moved around the table and leafed slowly through the plans despite the earlier warning that he would be busy. He muttered a complaint that Ford should not have allowed his men to wear uniform. ‘Not here,’ he said, ‘they only wear these uniforms when they accompany me. They aren’t legitimate officers.’ Uninterested in a reply, Howell read then raised his hand, indicating that Sutler should wait as he left the office.

Ford waited, first he leaned against the table, then he stood upright with his arms folded. He took in the room. Two iron safes backed against the wall, designed to be built into vaults, they were set instead side by side and took up a quarter of the space. Beside them a row of glass cabinets of sport trophies and more framed photographs. A wall clock mounted opposite the desk. Already eleven o’clock, barely one hour left. He expected Howell to return with the military police. He wondered if they knew his name, and how they might have discovered him. The warrant will be issued at noon.

Ten minutes later, Howell came to the door alone and asked if Ford had set up a junk account. ‘You’ve done this already?’ The man could

not remember. ‘And the other accounts, is everything set up?’

‘Yes,’ Ford appeared surprised.

‘You have the details?’

Ford searched through his documents and found the handwritten list of numbers.

‘Have you spoken with Paul Geezler about the accounts? You know the restrictions on the operation accounts? I can make the trans­fers but anything above over twenty-five is automatically flagged to Central-CIPA. Payments or transfers.’

Ford nodded, although he appeared uncertain.

Howell held out his hand for the list of account numbers and transfer amounts. ‘One moment.’ His mouth tightened in thought. ‘Four operations, one junk. How much did Paul agree for the junk account? Two? Or two-five?’

Howell retreated back through the door saying he would make it two-five. Two, or two-five? All a little freakish to be speaking in single numbers and mean not two dollars, but two hundred thousand dollars; not two dollars and fifty cents, but two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A tidy two-five. Handsome payment for six weeks’ work.

Ten minutes later, at exactly eleven-fifteen, Howell returned smiling, pleased with himself. ‘I’ve written the default access codes next to the account numbers. Don’t keep the account numbers and the pass codes together. Have you set the security level before? Do you rotate your pass codes?’

Ford said he didn’t understand, and Howell winced.

‘Unless you set the security your accounts will be vulnerable. This is all the information you need to access them, unless you set an addi­tional line of security.’

Ford thought there was some mischief in Howell’s tone. He looked blankly at the numbers. Howell drew his laptop round to show him, and asked Ford to open the HOSCO website and sign in. ‘To stop anyone else from gaining access you need to set the security to an appropriate level.’

Ford opened the site, checked into Finance. Howell pointed at the screen.

‘Click there – Privacy. Enter. Type in the number that starts HOS/JA.

That’s your junk account. There at the top. Click Hide. Only you can see the account now. Click there for security.’

The screen turned black, then the account number reappeared, and then the balance.

‘See. In a minute that zero will change.’ They watched the screen, but the figure didn’t change. ‘Give it a moment.’

Howell checked the account number against Ford’s note. ‘While we’re waiting you can set the security level. You can set up to eight sets of codes to access the account, anything between four and twelve characters.’ Howell straightened up. ‘I’ll leave you to it. If you take too long it will lock you out.’

Ford stared at the screen. Kiprowski waited behind him, and he sensed a hostility toward Howell. At the bottom of the screen a clock ticked down from ninety. Anxious to complete this, Ford set the secur­ity at level four, which opened four screens, demanding one new code per screen. Struggling for an idea, Ford used the numbers for the new operational accounts.

Once the codes were entered the screen again turned black, and Ford closed the laptop.

While he waited for Howell, he began to wonder if the money was transferred. If Geezler was as good as his word. He opened the computer again, entered Finance, and checked the Accounts tab. He clicked on the junk account and the first screen appeared. 1 of 4. When he mistyped the site immediately shut down and the screen went blank.

Nervous now, he went to try again, but Howell returned.

‘Did you manage?’ Howell looked at the laptop screen. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I set the security level. I typed in a wrong number.’

‘How many times?’

‘Just the once.’

‘You only have three attempts before it locks you out.’ Howell straightened up. ‘They used to call these hostage accounts. They’re designed to be secure. If it locks you out you won’t have access. The transfer’s been made, so the money will show in the account soon. It’s supposed to be instant, but the connections aren’t as fast as we’d like – like everything else around here.’

Howell again excused himself and Ford shut the computer down, then folded the paper back into his pocket, aware that if he was going to leave the opportunity was right before him. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars came close to the fee that Geezler had promised. Dollars not sterling, but close enough to be good enough. He began to sense a design behind Geezler’s call, a design which looked to his best interests.

With no sign of Howell returning, Ford turned to Kiprowski and noticed that the boy was sweating, looked ill-at-ease, unwell, his hand to his stomach. Every occupant of Camp Liberty succumbed at some point to flu-like symptoms, chills and shivers and night-sweats, a stomach that cramped and couldn’t hold water. Each one of them suffered skin irritations and nose bleeds. Ford blamed the fumes from the burn pits. The men blamed toxic agents, biochemical compounds. He told Kiprowski to sit down, but the boy signalled that he wanted to remain standing, he just needed a moment.

The boy’s anxiety increased his own. Still, Howell did not return. Would they arrest him now? Was this all some elaborate delay? Howell appeared to have no awareness of the impending arrest.

Kiprowski leaned back against the second safe and clutched a kitbag to his stomach, his face white and damp.

Ford hooked his backpack over his shoulder – there would be no better opportunity – and walked to the door. A corridor cut between the offices, at one end a wall, at the other an emergency exit. He thought to say something to Kiprowski, but found himself walking before he’d properly considered what to do, knowing that if he used the door an alarm would sound. The pressure of time, a desire to be out, gone from Southern-CIPA, away from smarmy Howell, the baby-sick stink of the offices, from Kiprowski’s sweating – everything compounded the fact that he was running out of time. Thirty minutes, less perhaps, now twenty-eight minutes: no time at all. Almost at the door, ready to push the bar, he turned to see Kiprowski running toward him full-pelt, arms beginning to rise to shield his head. And then chaos.

The blast came as a pulse, a punch that knocked Ford off his feet and battered him through the door, throwing him out so fast that he did not know what this was: inside and upright one moment, and in another rolled and shoved, flung pell-mell – the air about him a soup, a welter of heat, of collapsing walls, of plasterboard and ceiling tiles, of powdered glass. The atmosphere, even as it blackened, sparked about him.

He landed on his back, his boots stripped from his feet, his hands and face bloody, his ears raw with shrieks, his body numb, clothes ripped and pecked. With chaos descending he scrambled out of the smoke, deaf to the rapid crack of gunfire.

Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved.

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Excerpted from The Kills by Richard House. Copyright © 2013 by Richard House. First published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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Traces of Absence by Susan Holoubek – Extract

Traces of Absence

2005

Prologue

When the alarm stabbed her into consciousness, Dee couldn’t for a moment remember where she was. She registered dread in the pit of her stomach – something to do with a bad dream – but any relief she felt at having escaped an imaginary terror sputtered out almost immediately when she remembered that she was in a hotel in Buenos Aires. The bedside clock read 8.22. The last time she had checked it was four am. She thrust aside the quilt and sat up with a giddy lurch. They were sending someone from the embassy at nine to take her to the police sta­tion so she could file a formal report about Corrie.

Dee got up, slid apart the heavy curtains, fumbled with the catch and pushed the window open. The streets were rain-glazed and the noise of traffic a welcome intrusion of normality. A faint flutter of hope rose within her. Everything was going to be OK. There would be a reassuring explanation for the sudden loss of communication with her backpacking daughter – some petty drama or exuberant youthful adventure – something that Corrie didn’t want over-exposed to parental scrutiny. The police would know what to do. They would have systems and processes. They would deliver Dee’s wayward daughter back to her with a whiff of annoyance at having their time wasted. Dee would turn the whole episode into an entertaining story for the future amuse­ment of her friends at dinner parties . . .

No, she wouldn’t.

‘Dee, it’s Marco Torres.’

When she’d received the call from her daughter’s Argentinean friend a week ago, the tone of those four words had been like bouncing pebbles ahead of a sliding slagheap of fear.

‘Marco? What’s wrong?’

‘I think maybe nothing. But my mother is a little worried. She wants to know if you have heard something from Corrie.’

Dee had hosted Marco as a Year-11 exchange student two years earlier. His family had been delighted to return the favour when Corrie decided to visit Buenos Aires.

‘From Corrie? Not recently. Why?’

Dee had begun to calculate the weight of sudden anxiety even as she tried to dismiss it. ‘Why is your mother worried?’

‘Corrie went to Posadas to see the falls. She planned to return last week, but she hasn’t come back.’

Words registering. Meaning at bay. Gut turning over.

‘She might have decided to stay longer.’

‘It’s possible.’

‘But you don’t think so?’

‘I tried to ring her, but she’s not answering her celular.’

‘Does it ring out or is it switched off? Maybe she lost it. Or the battery’s flat. Did she take her charger with her?’

‘I don’t know. She left most of her things here, but I’m pretty sure she took her charger.’

‘Knowing Corrie, she probably left her phone on a bus or dropped it down a toilet or something. She’s forever losing her damned phone.’ Dee knew even in that moment that the irrita­tion she felt was the soft edge of anger: a way of drawing down strength to keep the fear at bay.

‘It might not have been her fault. Maybe it was stolen.’

Stolen. Intimations of violence. Foul play. Headlines about missing backpackers in her own country had flashed through her mind . . .

‘What do you think I should do, Marco?’

‘I don’t know. Probably, she’s OK. But my mother thought I should call you.’

The Department of Foreign Affairs had been less dismissive than she anticipated. A young woman travelling alone in South America, without her luggage, who had not stuck to a pre-arranged plan and who was now uncontactable, seemed to tick the requi­site number of boxes for action. Dee had been worried that they would fob her off but felt even worse when they agreed there were serious grounds for concern. In a sick flurry she negotiated com­passionate leave with her school principal, made arrangements for her fourteen-year-old twins, Ben and Luke, to stay with her brother, and boarded the next available flight to Buenos Aires.

And so here she was. The opportunity, finally, to take practical action in response to Corrie’s disappearance focused the sickening surges of adrenaline but also sharpened her fears. The surreal had become real. In the shower, her knees nearly gave way beneath her. She slid down the wall and sat on the floor of the cubicle, staring at needles of water bouncing off the bone-coloured tiles.

Pull yourself together.

She rose shakily, turned off the hot tap and stood shivering and gasping under a surge of cold water.

Come on. Get a grip. for God’s sake. For Corrie’s sake.

After towelling herself dry with determined vigour she pad­ded back to the bedroom. The curtains billowed and her skin was prickled by a gust of cool air, scented with rain.

Her clothes, ironed the night before, hung in the open ward­robe. What does one wear to a police interview? It had been a distracting dilemma, seemingly trivial, but not something she wanted to risk getting wrong. She knew from experience that first impressions mattered. The appearance of wealth mattered. Especially in Latin countries, she thought, although she wasn’t quite sure how she knew this. Something to do with power and influence and the exchange of favours. It was an aspect of public life that had assumed increasing importance in her own coun­try in recent times, although she was old enough to remember when it was otherwise – when people deliberately dressed down to defy snobbery and demonstrate freedom from the need to conform. But that was a long time ago.

She recalled a passage from an Agatha Christie novel, in which Hercule Poirot had sniffed out the guilty party by observ­ing the suspect’s haggard appearance, the neglect of her toilette, her theatrical overplay of grief. Real grief in a woman, Poirot had argued, was always expressed in a dignified attempt to conceal the ravages of suffering, not the reverse. Dee must have read the story thirty years ago when she was still at high school, but it had left an impression. It resonated with a range of other influences that persuaded her to mistrust raw emotion, to defer instinctive reaction, to craft more considered responses to the vicissitudes of life. She wasn’t quite sure why she needed to convince the police of her grief – of what she might otherwise be suspected – but she attended with great care to making up her pale face, pinning back her thick hair, carefully knotting a peacock-blue scarf over her charcoal suit jacket, wiping the street soil from her matching blue pumps.

She knew she should eat something, but by the time she made it to the hotel foyer it was nearly nine and the consular official was already waiting for her. She saw him standing by the reception desk as she emerged from the lift: compact, neat and unmistakably Anglo. He was younger than she expected. Well, everyone was these days. Children she had taught were begin­ning to appear in various professional guises and it made her uneasy. She was too intimate with their essential weaknesses to believe in their authority.

‘Mrs Sutherland?’

‘Yes.’ She extended her hand.

He gripped it with a show of masculine assurance, his hand small and dry. There was a note of commiseration in his smile. ‘Andrew Flint. The car’s out the front.’

He made a sweeping gesture with his other arm and she turned obediently towards the gold-rimmed doors. It was grey and overcast outside and the air carried an indefinable smell of foreignness. She took in a fleeting impression of broken pave­ments, dripping trees and elegant, grey-stoned buildings before Andrew Flint stepped neatly around her to open the door of the Mercedes. He slid into the seat beside her and gave instructions to the driver.

‘What time did you get in yesterday?’ he asked.

‘Around four.’

‘How was the flight?’

‘Long.’

He made a sympathetic noise as the car nosed forward into the traffic.

‘How far is it to the—?’

‘Police station? Not far, ten minutes or so.’ He glanced down at her clasped hands, flexing compulsively in her lap.

‘Richard – the ambassador – wanted me to assure you that we’re here to provide full support.’

‘I know. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m a bit all over the place.’

‘Understandable.’

He pulled a briefcase onto his lap, flipped open the lid and withdrew a folder that contained a copy of Corrie’s passport, a slim compilation of papers and email printouts and the photo­graphs of Corrie that Dee had emailed to the embassy several days earlier. She glanced over at the school photo on top of the pile. It was not really representative of Corrie’s current style, but it was the most recent close-up shot that Dee had been able to find. Corrie was wearing that artless, dishabille look that Year 12s cultivated: her short, dark hair was chopped into thick slabs, streaked with blonde and caught at asymmetrical angles with a random collection of bobby pins; her blue eyes, languid and long-lashed like her father’s, gazed obliquely over the conces­sionary flicker of a smile.

‘How recently was this taken?’

‘Last year. March.’

‘It’s a nice photo.’

‘Yes.’

‘Did she have any photos taken while she was here in Buenos Aires?’

‘Her friend, Marco, has some.’

His family is meeting us at the police station, aren’t they?’

‘Yes.’ Dee stared out of the window at the stalled traffic.

‘It’s your worst fear – you know? From the moment they’re born. The fear of losing them. And you do lose them. Again and again. They’re late coming home from school and you’re immediately out in the car looking for them. Or they wander off in a shopping centre or go missing at the Royal Show. And for the five, ten, twenty minutes that it takes you to find them you’re just about dry-retching with terror. But then they turn up. Usually, they turn up. Don’t they? In these sorts of situa­tions? It’s usually just some sort of misunderstanding. Isn’t it?’

‘Nine times out of ten,’ he reassured her, but he didn’t meet her eye as he slipped the folder back into his briefcase and closed the lid. The car turned out of the heavy stream of traffic into a narrow side street, then on to another main road, similarly jammed with cars. Flint glanced at his watch.

‘Are we late?’ Dee asked.

‘Right on time.’

The driver eased into the kerb outside a three-storeyed build­ing with grilles on every ground floor window and bars on those above. Flint got out of the car and opened the door for Dee. He held out a hand and she took it in a daze as she levered herself from her seat.

Marco was waiting for them in the reception area. She clung to him when he stepped forward to greet her.

‘Dee, this is my mother, Alicia.’

The woman with him was slim and dark with long black hair pulled into a high ponytail. Marco moved aside to let his mother take both of Dee’s hands. Her dark eyes, laden with concern, claimed a connection with Dee’s before she embraced her tightly. The staff stepped in to direct them through a metal detector and accompany them down long corridors, into an elevator and up several floors where they were eventually shuffled into separate interview rooms. Flint pressed Dee’s shoulder reassuringly as she took a seat opposite a portly detective with a thick moustache. The detective reached over and poured her a glass of water from a jug that was already on the table. Dee was relieved when he addressed her in English.

‘Mrs Sutherland, this is very difficult for you, no?’

She reached for the glass with a trembling hand, sipped at the water, nodded her assent.

Flint’s folder was open on the table. The detective picked up Corrie’s photograph in his chubby hands and studied it.

‘Let us be positive for a moment. We have no evidence that anything bad has occurred. No accidents, no hospital presenta­tions – forgive me, Mrs Sutherland – no unidentified bodies.’ He put down the photograph, interlaced his fingers and rested them on the table.

‘In situations like this, it is necessary to explore many dif­ferent possibilities. It is important to know as much as we can about the person who is missing. It helps us to build up a picture of who they are, to develop ideas about where they might have gone or what they might have been doing.’

He picked up the photo of Corrie again.

‘We have the details about her appearance that you sent through.’ He raised the photo a little and scanned the sheet beneath it. ‘Height: 170 cm, build: slim, complexion: fair, hair colour: black, eye colour: blue.’ He looked at Dee quizzically.

‘Yes, that’s correct.’

She wanted to tell him that those bald facts did not evoke her daughter at all.

‘Anything else that might help us identify her?’

‘She has three piercings in her left ear. And one in her right ear and one here.’ She raised a hand to the crease of her right nostril. ‘And she has a brown mole, here, on the side of her neck.’

The detective jotted down notes as she spoke. There were other memories jostling for attention in Dee’s mind – the way Corrie walked with her feet turned outwards like a duck, images of her dreamy countenance suddenly transformed by intense delight or surprise, the halting cadences of her speech, her long-fingered hands tracing patterns in the air, illustrating intensities that she could not put into words. But how does one capture those kinds of details in identikit form?

‘She has a dimple in her right cheek when she smiles.’

The detective scribbled a few more comments, then put down his pen and read through what he had written. He looked up and stroked his chin with one hand, gazing thoughtfully at Dee.

‘Why did your daughter come to Argentina, Mrs Sutherland?’

Dee tried to gather her scattered thoughts, sift them for the relevant facts. ‘She wanted a break.’

The studiously blank expression on the detective’s face made her wonder if he was receiving this information in the right way.

‘She had started her university studies, but she was having problems—’ She immediately regretted the use of the word, ‘problems’. ‘Her father – I’d lost my husband a few months earlier. She was very close to him. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. She had a friend here in Argentina – Marco—’

He nodded his cognisance of this.

‘I suggested that she might like to take the second semester off and go travelling. Lots of young people in Australia do that,’ she added. ‘Take some time off after school. It’s not so unusual.’

‘How would you describe her state of mind when she left home?’ he asked. ‘Can you tell us how your daughter was feeling when you last saw her?’

It wasn’t an unreasonable question, but Dee felt a stirring of resistance to its implications.

‘She was OK. She was looking forward to her trip. She was sad about her father. That’s only normal. We were all sad. It was a very difficult time for our family.’

‘Maybe you could tell me a little about what happened with your husband, Mrs Sutherland?’

Dee sighed heavily. ‘He’d been having chest pains. I told him to go to the doctor, but he kept putting it off. He col­lapsed at home one evening. I wasn’t there. Corrie called the ambulance. They had to use those shock pad things. They thought they’d stabilised him, but he had another heart attack on the way to the hospital. By the time he arrived there wasn’t much they could do.’

‘That must have been very traumatic for your daughter?’

‘Yes.’

‘To be the only one there with your husband.’

Dee stared at him dully.

‘Sometimes, in such circumstances, people feel guilty that they were not able to save their loved one.’

Dee contemplated the man’s jowls, his multiple chins, the folds of flesh cinched by his shirt collar. She wondered if he had noted his own risk factors. If he believed his family should pick up the onus of guilt if he went into sudden cardiac arrest.

‘Of course Corrie was upset, but she has nothing to blame herself for. She rang the ambulance immediately. They were there within ten minutes.’

‘Where were you, Mrs Sutherland, while your daughter was dealing with this very difficult situation?’

Why did it always come back to this? The fact of her own absence? The implications of neglect? Years of diligent servi­tude counted for nothing in the face of this one bald fact: You weren’t there . . .

‘I was having dinner with a friend.’

The detective cocked his head quizzically.

‘The restaurant was very noisy. I didn’t hear my phone ringing.’

‘It happens, no? But perhaps your daughter felt a little angry that she couldn’t get in touch with you?’

Dee closed her eyes wearily. ‘Perhaps she did. But we’re talk­ing a year ago. I’m not sure that this is entirely relevant.’

‘Mrs Sutherland, how would you describe your relationship with your daughter?’

She had been anticipating the question. It was what they always asked in these sorts of cases, wasn’t it? What should she say? Normal? Was it normal? What is normal? She couldn’t claim that they had one of those cloyingly intense mother–daughter relationships, but they got along all right. Mostly. There was a degree of healthy distance. Children don’t want their parents spilling over into all the available space in their lives. Do they?

‘Pretty normal. Up and down. We had the odd argument. Nothing serious.’ She felt herself under steady scrutiny.

‘What sort of things did you argue about?’

‘Oh, the usual: not coming home at a reasonable hour, leav­ing mess all over the house, not helping out.’

Dee recalled Corrie packing the day before she left. She’d been out the previous night and was pale and sullen with lack of sleep. Her hair was flattened on one side and sticking up in spikes on the other. She was dressed in the black singlet top and track pants in which she’d slept, picking things at random from drawers and cupboards and tossing them distractedly into the open case. Dee had watched her from the doorway.

‘Can I iron anything for you? You’ll be able to fit more things in if they’re ironed and folded up properly.’

‘Just leave me alone, please.’

Corrie’s tone had been sharp-edged. Dee put it down to tiredness and travel anxiety and had withdrawn without another word.

At the airport she embraced her daughter with what she hoped was reassuring warmth, but Corrie had quickly disen­tangled herself and turned to say goodbye to the small group of friends who had gathered to see her off. Dee had tried not to be offended. She knew how it was with young people. Their friends were everything.

She looked up at the detective and smiled sadly. ‘She was looking forward to her adventure. I don’t think she was thinking much about me when she left. She couldn’t wait to experience a bit of adult independence.’

‘She was excited about her trip?’

‘Yes, she was.’

‘And maybe a little thoughtless about her mother’s feelings?’

Dee resented his sly tone and the imputation against Corrie, veiled as sympathy. ‘That’s normal, isn’t it? And besides, I didn’t want her to worry about me. That was the whole point of the holiday. To cheer her up – give her something to look forward to.’

‘So she seemed happy to you? The trip was helping to dis­tract her from the loss of her father? And she was not worrying about anything else?’

Dee hesitated, dropped her eyes and frowned slightly, gave the question due consideration before shaking her head. ‘No, No. She wasn’t worried about anything.’

The detective studied her face for some time, made a last brief note and closed the folder.

‘What happens now?’ Dee asked.

‘We’re going to send some officers back to the Torres’ house to go through your daughter’s things. It would be helpful if you could accompany them.’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘We will see if there is anything there that gives us some clues about her intentions. Then we’ll check with the bus company she used and the hotels in Posadas. We’ll circulate her picture, speak to everyone she knew here in Buenos Aires. The Torres family have prepared a list of names for us. We’ll contact the airlines and border control and try to trace any phone calls and credit-card usage. We will do everything we can, Mrs Sutherland. But, you know, if someone doesn’t want to be found, it is not so difficult to lose yourself in a country as large as ours.’

Dee looked at him sharply. ‘Why are you making that assumption?’

‘Calm yourself, Mrs Sutherland. We have no evidence to suggest anything else at this stage.’

‘But a young girl on her own? Anything could have hap­pened. People don’t just disappear. She could have been taken somewhere. It’s all jungle up there isn’t it? She could have been left . . . anywhere . . .’ She faltered.

‘It’s not the most likely scenario, Mrs Sutherland. Let us deal first with the more probable. Robbery, physical attack – it’s always messy – there are usually witnesses, trails of evidence. That will come to light very quickly.’

‘What about human trafficking?’ The pitch of Dee’s voice sounded shrill even to her own ears.

The detective blinked at her.

‘There are stories on the internet. Hundreds of women have gone missing—’

‘Poor women, Mrs Sutherland. Women whose disappear­ance will not draw attention. Women who can be manipulated into silence. Not foreign tourists.’

Dee closed her eyes, wanting to believe him but frightened that too easy an acquiescence would leave her daughter at greater risk. Who else would advocate for her? Who else would push the police into undertaking the things that needed to be done?

‘I’m sorry. I know you think I’m being hysterical.’

The detective stood then, folder in hand, signalling the end of the interview. ‘Please be assured that we are taking this matter very seriously, Mrs Sutherland. We will do everything possible to locate your daughter.’

Andrew Flint extended his hand to the detective. ‘We’re very grateful for your swift response. We’ll keep in touch.’

Dee picked up her handbag in a daze, allowed herself to be steered out of the room, into the lift, down the long corridor and back to the reception area, where she found Marco and Alicia waiting for her.

The confusion she was feeling must have shown on her face because Alicia moved over to her swiftly, put an arm around her shoulders and spoke in rapid Spanish to her son.

‘We live about an hour out of the city. My mother says that if you would rather stay with us than at the hotel tonight you are most welcome.’

Dee rubbed at her forehead with tense, probing fingers. ‘Thank you. I don’t know.’ She looked to Andrew Flint for guidance.

He responded to Alicia directly in Spanish and Alicia nod­ded her understanding.

A male and female officer had joined them and began to dis­cuss arrangements for the trip with Alicia and Marco. Flint rang his driver and instructed him to pick them up out the front. Dee allowed herself to be guided outside and into the car, sinking with some relief into the back seat. They drove for a long time down a series of freeways, flanked with sprawling shanty towns. When they left the freeway they were forced to negotiate roads pitted with potholes, passing dilapidated shops and high-walled housing estates until eventually they reached streets of well-maintained bungalows with pleasant gardens and shady trees. The driver slowed down, scanning house numbers, and pulled up outside a property with a tall hedge and wrought-iron gate.

‘We’re here.’

Dee was momentarily consoled by the affluent suburban comfort of the home to which her daughter had been welcomed and then remembered that it was no consolation at all anymore. She followed Flint along a winding, gravel path to the open front door. A housekeeper in a floral apron waved them into a sunken living area, all polished slate and tapestries, with floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto an expanse of green lawn.

Alicia, Marco and the detectives had arrived ahead of them. They stood up from their seats when Flint and Dee entered the room.

Alicia addressed a question to Dee, which Flint translated. ‘Would you like a drink of some kind? Water or coffee or Coca-Cola?’

Dee shook her head. ‘Can I see Corrie’s things, please?’

Alicia glanced at the detectives. They nodded. She took Dee’s arm and led her down the corridor, ahead of the rest of the group.

They formed quite a crowd in the small, blue-walled room that had once been Marco’s older sister’s. It was still decorated with photographs of her school friends and items of teenage memorabilia. Dee recognised Corrie’s suitcase immediately.

It was bright red and secured with a dark green strap, standing beside the dressing table.

The detectives lifted the case onto the bed and opened it. It was only three-quarters full. They removed the items one by one: coloured underwear and rolled-up socks, summer dresses and T-shirts, a pair of high-heeled shoes. Corrie’s toiletry bag was gone, as was the brown leather jacket she loved. Her hiking boots were not there, nor were the black flats she always wore. There were a few pairs of tights, a couple of colourful loose-weave jumpers, some scarves, her hairdryer. In a zip-up pocket they found AA camera batteries, photocopies of her travel docu­ments, insurance papers and a spare cash-card. The last item they removed was a photograph. They held it out to show Dee. It was Corrie with her father, taken down at Glenelg Beach several summers before. They were leaning against the jetty rail­ing, eating ice-cream cones. Corrie was looking up at Ross and laughing. It was a photo that Corrie had framed and kept on her desk at home. And now, here it was, abandoned in a foreign house in a foreign country, a terrible reminder of irrevocable loss. Dee experienced a wave of nausea before her head slumped onto her chest and she collapsed.

 


Excerpted from Traces of Absence by Susan Holoubek. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Holoubek.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Second Suns by David Oliver Relin – Extract

Second Suns

CHAPTER 2

 Wound Construction

When facing two paths, if you are strong enough, always choose the hardest one.
—Nepalese proverb, repeated to Sanduk Ruit by his father, Sonam

I woke, rubbed the dust out of my eyes, and studied the soldiers block­ing our way. Their Kalashnikovs were slung over their shoulders. They wore fatigue pants, blue windbreakers with red ironed-on ham­mers and sickles, and plastic shower sandals.

When Ruit rolled down the tinted window and showed his face, they stepped respectfully aside and opened an iron gate. After the soli­tude of the road, we pulled in to the courtyard of a concrete building where a crowd of expectant patients had gathered. Ruit said we had arrived in the village of Kalikasthan, at the heart of the Rasuwa Dis­trict. I saw no buildings other than the one in front of which we parked. Rutted dirt trails led away from it into sparse eucalyptus and pine for­est. The two-story cinder-block structure was a gift from Seventh-Day Adventists who had built it as a clinic, Ruit explained. The Maoists admired the solidity of the construction. They waited until the builders hung the fluorescent lights, bolted dentist’s chairs to the concrete floor, and installed Western toilets. Then they liberated the building by force and turned it into a makeshift military post.

“The Maoists have a bad reputation, yet they’re not so unreason­able,” Ruit said, climbing out of the Land Cruiser. “They don’t like religion. But they appreciate architecture.”

A few months earlier, being an American in Rasuwa might have been awkward, because the Bush administration had branded the Mao­ists terrorists after 9/11 and had supplied weapons to the government they were trying to overthrow. But while I was with Apa, Maoist can­didates had successfully appealed to the long-suffering majority of the Nepalese people and swept the national elections. They’d fanned out across the country, even appearing in the high villages of the Khumbu on foot, carrying microphones and speakers powered by car batteries, and had given fiery speeches promising the 81 percent of the country’s citizens who labored as subsistence farmers a better life if they were in charge. Though they’d yet to hammer out the fine points of gover­nance, the Maoists now ruled Nepal. What had started in the western district of Rolpa and had then spread to Rasuwa and other rural areas as an armed rebellion to free peasants from a powerful and wealthy Kathmandu elite now had to reinvent itself as a national party capable of improving the lives of the poor. Perhaps that’s one reason why they’d allowed Ruit to turn their military post into a temporary eye hospital.

Ruit left to scrub for surgery, and I picked my way through the crowd of women in red and orange saris and men in topis and turbans, gripping hand-carved canes. On the unlit second floor I found Ruit’s advance team hard at work processing a long line of patients, who shuf­fled forward with varying degrees of vision. I saw not only elderly peo­ple but children as young as five, their arms extended for balance, slowly groping their way along.

In wealthy countries, cataracts, the clouding of the clear lens of the eye, typically affect older people. But in the developing world, poor nutrition, exposure to unfiltered ultraviolet rays, and the numbing range of physical traumas afflicting those who live at the subsistence level, compounded by a lack of basic medical care, all combine to make cataracts the leading cause of preventable blindness among the world’s poor. That was who filled the second floor of this temporary hospital: the world’s poor. The line of patients inched politely onward, oblivious to any Western notion of personal space, the chest of one person press­ing into the bony shoulder blades of the next. The cloying smell of body odor and infection clung to many of the patients like the patched and sun-faded clothing most of them wore. Their battered hands and feet were maps of hardship. Though most had walked hours on rocky trails for the right to wait in this dank cement room, many were bare­foot.

As they cleared the line, Ruit’s staff prepped each patient for sur­gery. A female medical technician gently trimmed eyelashes with a pair of tapered scissors. Others simply scrubbed Rasuwa’s red dust from patients’ faces.

Beside a door leading to the operating room, a small video monitor sat on the floor. On the screen, with a clarity I hoped the visually im­paired patients couldn’t discern, a crescent-shaped blade pierced a large, unblinking eyeball.

The Nepalese waiting their turn beneath that blade stared calmly at the screen for a moment or two at a time, or chatted with their neigh­bors. Ruit told me that when he began working in rural Nepal, more than two decades earlier, rumors that he practiced enucleation— that is, removing the entire eyeball— had frightened prospective patients away. “I put the monitor there so my trainees can watch, but also be­cause it relaxes the patients,” Ruit explained. “They see that cataract surgery is in fact a very simple procedure, and they know what to ex­pect.”

I squatted next to two boys, nine and thirteen, who couldn’t be any­thing but brothers. They were both squinting at the monitor and lean­ing their heads together while the younger boy, whose cataracts were less mature, described the surgery. With Ruit’s daughter Serabla trans­lating, I asked them their names and ages. Birbahadur, the thirteen-year-old, interrupted to ask why we weren’t speaking Nepali.

“You see, his cataracts are so advanced he can’t tell you’re a for­eigner,” Serabla said.

Voices raised in alarm drew my eyes to a thin, stooped woman wear­ing a ginger-colored silk blouse and a long, pink floral guneo, clothes noticeably finer than most of her peers’, who stumbled as she was called to the eyelash station. She clutched at the air in front of her wildly and would have fallen if her husband hadn’t rushed to steady her and lead her carefully across the room. The woman walked with the painful, jackknifed posture of someone with osteoporosis and clutched his arm like a life preserver.

Her name was Patali Nepali, she said, inclining her head in the di­rection of my voice. Her hair was long and dark, silvered with age, and tied back neatly with a ribbon. I looked into her eyes. She would have been beautiful if not for the pale, milky orbs the size of marbles where her irises would have been. I could see myself reflected on the blank surfaces, squatting in front of her. She wore an orange tikka at the cen­ter of her forehead, which Hindus believe stimulates the growth of the third eye. Certainly, her other two weren’t doing her much good.

Wheezing asthmatically as she spoke, Patali said that she came from a village well over an hour’s walk away, in a range of hills visible to our west. I’d assumed she was elderly, but she told me she was fifty-six and had spent most of her life as a seamstress. She’d worked until a year earlier, she said, her skills steadily deteriorating, until she was forced to admit she could no longer see well enough to sew. With the family reduced to one income, they tried to live on her husband’s earnings as a woodcutter and hired laborer; they were Damai, members of one of the lowest, the untouchable castes, and owned no land themselves. They’d been forced to sell off many of their possessions, including their only cow, to feed their five children.

“This last year,” Patali said, “I can do nothing useful. My own chil­dren have to wash me like a child. So we have been hungry. I eat only in the morning, but still there is never enough for my family.”

A few weeks before our conversation, their eldest son, a seventeen-year-old on his way to Kathmandu to look for work, was injured in a bus accident. He’d been riding in the cheapest seat, on the roof, when the bus collided with a cement truck. Her son was more fortunate than some. He was thrown clear of the wreck but broke both his legs. “I was obliged to sell the last fine thing in my home to pay his medical bills,” Patali told me. “My sewing machine.”

I asked her husband how he had brought Patali to Rasuwa. “We took a taxi,” he said. I realized how few vehicles I’d seen on the climb to Rasuwa and wondered if a village tucked even farther into these hills was reachable by road. “Basket taxi,” he said, laughing, pointing to his strong woodcutter’s back. “I’m the taxi!”

Ruit’s team had done their best to turn a filthy military post into a ster­ile operating theater. They’d slit open black plastic trash bags and taped them over broken windows. Next to extinct fluorescent fixtures, bare lightbulbs hung over the two operating tables from extension cords cleverly taped to the ceiling. Cables snaked past medical equip­ment crowded into the room, toward a generator outdoors. The gen­erator also powered the most critical equipment, two Zeiss surgical microscopes that had been delicately transported from Kathmandu.

Behind a mask, in a green gown and white latex gloves, Ruit seemed even more intimidating. But when he saw me, he waved me over warmly. “Come here, stand beside me, David,” he said. “This is a rather challenging case.” I stepped over a tangle of cables and balanced behind Ruit’s left shoulder, my feet pressed together on a small patch of clear concrete, between a rusty fan plugged in to a power strip with bare wires and a bucket full of blood-soaked things I didn’t want to look at too carefully.

I tried to meet the one functioning eye of the elderly-looking man on the table, but he couldn’t see me. He was thin and grizzled and wore a necklace of heavy amber beads smoothed by time. In one socket, only a scarred blue-white mass remained from a youthful farming accident. The other eye was blinded by a large cataract. When I read his chart, I learned that Thulo Bahadur was fifty-two, another lesson in the way hardship can sculpt human features. Ruit asked me to remove the man’s orange-and-pink cotton topi. When I did I saw how rarely, except to sleep, he must have taken the cap off. The skin on Thulo’s forehead was several shades lighter than his browned and deeply lined face.

I’ve always loved watching any physical task performed flawlessly. I’m mesmerized by a gas station attendant who can clean a windshield with precise, confident strokes, or a woodsman capable of splitting fire-wood with a single clean blow. But Ruit was in another class altogether. He painted bright orange sterilizing solution briskly around the man’s right eye, propped the lids open with a wire speculum, and whipped a surgical drape over his head, leaving the large cataract exposed through a perfectly aligned hole. As he delicately lowered the lens of the Zeiss and picked up his crescent blade, I felt a shiver of appreciation for the grace and economy of his movements, the flawless choreography of his instruments in motion.

Ruit beckoned me forward and encouraged me to watch the surgery on a monitor connected to the microscope. I leaned forward to look. Through the high-powered Zeiss, the moon-bright cataract, orbited by a faint ring of translucent cornea, looked more like a planetary body than part of a human. “This is a very, very, very large cataract,” Ruit said. “This fellow would only perceive light and no light, but no forms. So we’ll just get it out of the way.”

Ruit urged the point of his blade gently upward into my field of view, piercing the outer surface of the eye, which flexed before tearing, and then carved slowly, from side to side, expanding his point of entry. “This is the wound construction,” Ruit murmured. “I’m actually mak­ing a tunnel. You must make the passageway large enough to deliver the nucleus. The nucleus is like the yellow of the boiled egg, you know?” When he was satisfied, he inserted a Simcoe cannula, a combi­nation probe, suction, and irrigating device. With the tip of the probe, he separated the spherical, cloudy lens of the eye from the filmy cap­sule that enclosed it. And using the cannula to direct a jet of sterile fluid at the orb, he succeeded in loosening the cataract until it spun in place, like a marble ball on a decorative water fountain. “This,” Ruit said, with the reverence of a Buddhist monk chanting morning pujas, “is the ‘hydro-dissection.’

“But now comes the little bit tricky part. Normally I would make a slightly smaller wound, but this fellow’s cataract is so . . . ” he trailed off in mid-sentence, concentrating. I would come to know these si­lences, and the difficult tasks they enveloped, intimately. Ruit fed the cannula back through the wound. It was scored with fine textural lines, like a file, allowing it to grip the cataract’s smooth surfaces. He worked it under the cataract in tiny increments that seemed too precise for human hands to direct. He was humming, something catchy and minor key, unmistakably a tune from the subcontinent, perhaps from a recent Bollywood film.

When he had caught the cataract with the probe, he drew it slowly into the wide end of the funnel-shaped wound. I saw the clear tissue along the pathway bulge as he urged the cataract through the narrow­ing tunnel he’d designed. Ruit stopped humming, and I could feel him holding his breath as he coaxed the cataract completely out of the wound, which puckered shut after delivering the hardened tissue into the humid air of the operating room. “Perfect,” Ruit said happily, gath­ering the cataract in a fold of gauze and flicking it toward the bucket at my feet. “But he won’t be able to see until we insert an artificial lens.”

While prepping patients for surgery, Ruit’s technicians had mea­sured the shape of each person’s eyes with a device called a keratome­ter, so he could insert a lens of the correct power, a lens that would ensure that the patient’s vision was as precise as possible after the cata­racts were removed. A nurse held out a small plastic tray, and Ruit plucked an intraocular lens about the size of a child’s fingernail from it with a miniature set of forceps. He slid it briskly through the wound until the lens was centered under his patient’s dilated pupil. When I leaned forward to look at Thulo Bahadur’s eye, it appeared clear and clean as a freshly washed window.

“So this is what we’re calling sutureless surgery,” Ruit said, the pride in his voice unmistakable. “The wound will seal itself and heal without stitches. And tomorrow the patient should see very, very well.”

As Ruit folded and discarded the surgical drape, and the nurse taped a plastic eyecup over Thulo Bahadur’s repaired eye, I glanced at my watch. The entire operation had taken seven minutes. For an unusually challenging cataract surgery. Seven minutes to restore a man’s sight. My spine tingled like it was connected to the generator.

I watched a dozen cases more, some lasting only four or five min­utes, until the patients were led away to a recovery room by Maoist soldiers who’d been assigned to help. Ruit handled his instruments with such ease and precision that the surgery began to seem simple, something that anyone, even I, could attempt. Then I stood behind the room’s second operating table, observing Dr. Kim and Dr. Kim, two North Korean surgeons Ruit was training to bring his method to their banished country. Their instruments jerked and sawed with such rela­tive violence that I could barely stand to watch. When they finally completed their single case, more than forty-five minutes after they’d started, I leapt at the chance to find a few breaths of fresh air.

By mistake I walked through a door that led not outside but into a room as hot and wet as a sauna. On a table cobbled together with two sheets of carpet-topped plywood and supported by cinder blocks, four patients were lying on their backs, receiving injections of local anesthe­sia, waiting for surgery. Along the opposite wall, two autoclaves, which I mistook at first for huge cooking pots, hissed and rattled over pro­pane rings of flame, sterilizing surgical equipment.

Into this steam room, an unsteady Patali was led by her husband. Patali’s thin legs were shaking, and I had Serabla ask him if he wanted me to find some food for his wife. “They already gave us dal and such,” he said cheerfully. “Today, she is not suffering hunger, only fear.”

Fortunately, Patali couldn’t see the anesthetist’s long needle as it approached her eye. After she felt the sting, her hands fluttered and twitched at her sides, like sparrows trapped inside the building. “I have to go!” she cried toward the spot where her husband had been stand­ing, but nurses had already shooed him back to the waiting room.

“I think you should stay,” I said, taking one of her hands. It felt tiny and cold despite the heat from the autoclaves. “Tell her Dr. Ruit is a good surgeon,” I said to Serabla. “Tell her that when the bandages come off, she’ll be able to see her children again.”

On the operating table, Patali clutched my hand throughout the surgery on her left eye. Five minutes later, when I helped her sit up and repositioned her so her right eye faced Dr. Ruit, she was calm enough to release my hand. I stepped behind him, skirting the bucket now brimming with medical waste. Ruit had removed his hiking shoes, and his wide, bare foot lay on the pedal of the microscope, controlling fine focus. As he set to work on Patali’s second eye, I leaned forward to watch, my fingers resting lightly on his shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” he barked.

I jumped back, accidentally kicking the microscope’s power cord out of the socket. “Daayviid,” Ruit said, his voice now low and sing­songy, the voice of someone calming a startled animal. “This lady would like to see out of both eyes, eventually. Do you think you might be good enough to plug my microscope back in?”

On the roof of the temporary hospital, Ruit’s team had set up camp. Six tents were duct-taped to the concrete, lines of drying surgical scrubs hanging between them. Exhausted nurses and technicians sprawled on sleeping bags or darted inside to change into jeans and T-shirts. The esprit de corps of Ruit’s team was obvious, and I was struck by the con­fidence of the professional women, compared with the meekness of most of the female patients I’d met. At dinner, one particularly sassy scrub nurse wore a tight T-shirt that declared, in bold letters: shut your mouth when you talk to me.

I sat inside a low, open-ended mess tent across a camp table from Ruit, beside three Chinese Australian donors who’d come to determine what sort of investment they were getting for their money. I mopped the last of my dal and aloo gobi from a metal plate with my second freshly baked chapatti. Ruit swallowed his last bite and sighed content­edly. “It’s important,” he said, “to feed your army really, really well.”

The crowns of eucalyptus trees rose just above the roofline of the building, stirring in the slight breeze. They flavored the dusk with herbal currents. Once it became fully dark, the cook’s assistant re­moved our plates and replaced them with candles, which lent the glow­ing interior of the tent substance, separated it from the dim evening air.

The two North Korean surgeons were both named Kim, but they couldn’t have been more different. One was small, shy, and bespecta­cled. The other was strapping, outgoing, and as handsome as a soldier on a Soviet-realist propaganda poster. When I was introduced as an American journalist, they found an excuse to slip out, and returned a few minutes later properly equipped. They had each fastened a pin depicting Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” to their shirts.

Ruit reviewed the day’s surgeries with them, drawing diagrams of the interior chamber of the eye on a page ripped from my notebook. He had performed forty-four perfect surgeries over the course of the afternoon. Between them, the Kims had struggled to complete seven. “The secret,” Ruit said, sketching the ideal wound construction, “is to go slowly, slowly, slowly until you’ve mastered the technique, you see. You’ll need to do about two hundred cases each before you really get the hang of it.”

“How many cases have you done?” I asked. “More than two hun­dred, I imagine?”

“Oh, a few more,” Ruit said, reaching for the bottle of rum he’d brought from Kathmandu.

“By his own hand, more than eighty thousand,” said Nanda, the keeper of her husband’s flame. The scale of what Ruit had achieved and what he was attempting struck me then, for the first time. One man had already restored sight to the equivalent of a football stadium’s worth of people. Yet more than one hundred million people around the world who needed an ophthalmologist’s services were still waiting. Beneath us, sleeping on mats in a recovery room, were fifty-one people who, if all went well, could no longer be counted among that number tomor­row. And when the Kims returned to North Korea, they would bring Ruit’s technique with them and pass it on to their colleagues in one of the world’s most isolated places. He was seeding not only Nepal and North Korea but much of the poorest ground in Asia with enthusiastic young surgeons like Kim and Kim. It was visionary.

Ruit poured a healthy splash of rum into each of our mugs, neatly quartered a bowl of limes with a sharp knife, and squeezed fresh juice into each of our drinks. Then he raised his mug. “What we do is hard,” he said, with something like glee. “If it was easy, someone else could do it.” Everyone sipped the citrusy rum, and we traded toasts in the half dozen languages of those assembled around the table. The Kims looked elated. The breeze picked up. Guttering candles threw sparks of light off our tin mugs, onto the canvas walls of the tent, and I felt something rare, something important, being kindled.

Early the next morning Ruit looked fresh in a crisply ironed white polo shirt and black trekking pants. Though we’d had only a few hours of sleep, he practically skipped, clear-eyed, toward another long day of surgery.

The fifty-one postoperative patients were gathered in a courtyard bordered by low stone walls, waiting with bandaged eyes, squatting on packed dirt with the same heartrending patience as the bus passengers stranded in the slow-moving Trishuli. Ruit conferred with his camp logistics manager, Khem Gurung, making sure the day’s new cases were properly organized. Khem was one of the dozens of younger, clean-cut medical technicians who cheerfully endured the hardships of traveling and working with Ruit.

“I have to eat something and scrub in,” Ruit told me. “Stay and see these bandages come off. You might find it interesting.”

The day had a peculiar yellow cast. Shafts of storm light broke through scudding clouds to pick out individual potato and turnip fields on the laboriously terraced hillsides, and made certain stands of scrub pine smolder like they were about to ignite.

Patali had dressed for the occasion in a style befitting a master seamstress. She wore a crimson-colored silk blouse of her own design, and she had brushed her long black hair so thoroughly before tying it back with a matching silk ribbon that her silvered strands looked like reflections rather than evidence of age. Her husband waited outside the courtyard with the other family members, leaning anxiously over the stone wall. He murmured something reassuring, and her head tilted toward his voice like a plant tracking the sun’s passage.

Ruit’s team didn’t wear uniforms. Most of the male staff favored polo shirts, like their leader. But what set them apart was their brisk efficiency, movements that must have been modeled on Ruit’s. Khem Gurung’s shirt was lime green, and his manner with patients mirrored Ruit’s almost exactly. Khem knelt to peel off the first patient’s ban­dages, then examined his eyes in the bright beam of a handheld slit lamp until he was satisfied the surgery had been a success. Thulo Baha­dur blinked in the sunlight. Then he began to laugh.

“How many fingers am I holding?” Khem asked.

“Two,” Thulo said, waggling his head dismissively, as if insulted to be asked such a simple question. “Two fingers. I can see that perfectly well.” He looked across the courtyard, past the fifty other bandaged patients, toward the stand of eucalyptus; then his eyes focused on the battered cane he held clutched in both hands. He pulled himself up by it until he was standing and dropped the stick in the dirt by his bare feet like something unclean.

Nurses followed Khem down the line of patients, handing out eye-drops and instructions for keeping the wounds clean until they healed. The two young brothers squatted, stunned and motionless, after their bandages came off. Then Birbahadur saw his mother, a worn-looking woman in a red head scarf and heavy brass earrings, waving outside the wall. He waved back at her shyly. She covered her mouth with both hands and burst into tears.

I squatted in front of Patali with Khem. Ruit’s initials had been neatly printed on her bandages with a felt marker. Khem peeled both bandages down until the blue plastic cups that had covered her eyes were dangling from her cheekbones. Patali blinked and blinked and didn’t react at all. Her eyes were deeply bloodshot, and I feared the surgery had been a failure. Then her mouth widened into a grin at the vision kneeling before her; a sweaty, unshaven foreign journalist point­ing a camera at you can’t be the most inspiring thing to see at the mo­ment you regain your sight. But she didn’t seem to mind.

“If you can see clearly, why don’t you touch his nose,” Khem said.

Patali reached out with her forefinger and placed it squarely on the tip of my nose. All three of us laughed when she found her mark. “Wait,” I said, scrambling over to her husband. I put out a hand and helped him over the wall. He squatted beside his wife and straightened his plain brown topi on his head. Patali studied his lined face.

“So, how does he look?” I asked.

“The same,” Patali said. “Still handsome.” Then she threw her thin arm over his solid shoulder. I watched Patali take in the world surgery had returned to her. I saw her gaze alight on a distant ridgeline, where a shaft of morning sun brushed the tips of terraced hills with a warm caramel color. They were only the dusty mid-hill ranges of Nepal, one of the poorest vistas the country could conjure, but she looked toward home as tenderly as Apa Sherpa had during our trek when we’d crested a ridge and he’d first sighted the distant summit of Everest. “Oh,” she said, leaning against her husband, smiling fully for the first time since the bandages came off, “Look at the hills! Do you see how they shine?”

I watched Ruit’s staff perform a few dozen small miracles more. The oldest patients seemed the most overwhelmed by the gift of sec­ond sight. Their joy was sudden and unfiltered. One elderly man, wearing a white turban and a shabby suit coat that hung to his knees, danced circles around his walking staff, singing to himself, drawing protests from patients whose feet he was too entranced to avoid.

All fifty-one of the previous afternoon’s surgeries had been success­ful, Khem explained when he finished his examinations. Kim and Kim’s patients had a bit more swelling and postoperative trauma, but for be­ginners their results were excellent, he said.

I watched 114 new patients being led into the hospital for the sec­ond day of surgery, many hunched over and staggering as unsteadily as Patali had the previous afternoon. Patients streamed past them out of the compound, dozens of the formerly blind hiking away toward their homes, navigating the uneven dirt trails that radiated out from the temporary hospital without the aid of the relatives who accompanied them.

Walking toward a rusted gate, I saw someone who looked like Pa-tali. But this woman was standing straight up and striding confidently beside her husband. Her back hadn’t been bent by osteoporosis at all, I realized, but by her sense of helplessness, by the weight of blindness. The transformation was startling, almost more than I could reasonably believe one day after seeing her squatting timidly on the concrete floor of the hospital, waiting for surgery.

I fumbled in my pockets for rupees, doing the math. Not enough. I scrounged through my camera bag, finding a thick wad of bills I’d saved for an emergency. I ran to the gate before she could begin the long walk home and pressed the money into her hands. “For a sewing machine,” I said, unable to meet Patali’s eyes.

On the roof of the building, leaning against a railing, Sanduk Ruit was watching his patients. He stood with one arm over the shoulder of Serabla, who looked on proudly at her father’s handiwork. I pointed Ruit out to Patali, told her that the man on the roof was the one who had restored her sight. She bent low toward him, her hands clasped together in gratitude. “Thank you, Doctor dai,” she said, even though we were much too far away for Ruit to hear. “Thank you.” Then she took her husband’s arm and they walked together up a dirt trail that led toward a pine grove, his basket immeasurably lighter. I watched until they entered the shade and were swallowed by shadows.

I looked up at the figure on top of the building, silhouetted against a borderless sky. Though his pitch had been full of self-promotion and bluster the night we’d had dinner, Tabin hadn’t overstated the impor­tance of his work with Ruit. The man on the roof was still a mystery to me, but I wondered if there was a single person on earth doing more measurable good for others.

The line had been cast in Salt Lake City and the hook set in the mid-hills. I had come to Nepal, lost one book on the trails of the Khumbu, and swerved, finding another. I felt the weight of the mostly empty notebook in my shirt pocket. “Well,” I thought, flipping it open to a clean, blank page, “well.”


Excerpted from Second Suns by David Oliver Relin. Copyright © 2013 by David Oliver Relin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier – Extract

Raven Flight

Chapter One

As the lone traveller approached, the five Enforcers spread out in a line across his path. They waited in silence, a team of dark-cloaked

warriors in full combat gear, astride their tall black horses. The fellow was roughly dressed – hooded cloak of grey felt, woollen leggings, battered old boots – and carried only a small pack and a staff. His gait was steady, though his head was bowed. He looked as if he’d been on the road a while.

‘Halt!’ called Rohan Death-Blade when the traveller had come within ten paces and showed no sign of stopping. ‘State your name and your business in these parts!’

The man raised his head. The lower part of his face was covered by a cloth, like a crude imitation of the mask Enforcers wore on duty to conceal their identity. Above this concealment a pair of clear grey eyes gazed calmly at the interrogator. The man straightened his shoulders. ‘Have I been gone so long that you’ve forgotten me, Rohan?’ Though harsh with exhaustion, the voice was unmistakable. They knew him before he peeled off the makeshift mask.

‘Owen! By all that’s holy!’ Rohan removed his own mask, swung down from his mount and strode forward to greet their long-absent commander. The others followed, gathering around Owen Swift-Sword. ‘Where’s the rest of Boar Troop? We expected you long ago. When will they be here?’

‘Not today.’ A long pause, as if the speaker had to dig deep for the strength to say more. ‘I must speak to the king. Straight away. Have you a spare mount?’

‘Take Fleet,’ said Rohan Death-Blade. ‘I’ll go up behind Tallis. You’d best get yourself cleaned up before you see the king; you stink like a midden. Don’t tell me you walked all the way from Summerfort.’

‘I have . . . ill news. Grave news. Keldec must hear it first.’

Something in his face and in his voice halted further questioning. They knew that look; they understood the sort of news that rendered a man so grim and taciturn.

The king’s men mounted their horses and turned for Winterfort. Their troop leader rode with them. Nobody spoke a word.

*

‘Up, girls!’ The sharp command from the doorway was familiar now. No matter how early we woke, Tali was always up before us. She stood waiting as the four of us struggled into our clothes, tied back our hair and straightened our bedding. When folk lived at such close quarters over a long winter, keeping everything in order became second nature.

‘Hurry up, Neryn.’ Regan’s second-in-command leaned against the door frame, her tattooed arms folded, observing me as if I were a tardy recruit. ‘I planned to put you on the Ladder later this morning, but two young fellows have turned up at the door – Black Crow only knows how they got here through the snow – and I’ll have to test them today. So you’ll be training before breakfast. It’s the only time I can fit it in.’

My heart sank. When I’d first reached the rebel base at Shadowfell, I’d been weak. Three years on the road, living rough, moving from one place of hiding to the next, had left me undernourished, sick and slow to trust. When I was on the run I had not understood why the king’s men were pursu­ing me, only that my canny gift was more curse than blessing. Indeed, I had hardly known what that gift was. It had taken a long journey and many strange meetings before I’d learned that I was a Caller, and that my gift might be key to ending King Keldec’s rule.

My first weeks at Shadowfell had been spent resting, eating what was set before me, and having occasional visits from my fey friends Sage and Red Cap, who were lodged somewhere out on the mountain. I had not been invited to join strategic discussions or to study the various maps and charts Regan kept in the chamber where he did his planning. Everyone at Shadowfell had daily work to do, but I had not been asked to do anything except recover my strength. Regan and his rebel band had treated me as they might a very special weapon – they had concentrated on returning me to top condition as swiftly as possible.

Of recent days I had insisted on helping Fingal in the infirmary, where I could make myself useful preparing salves and tinctures, rolling bandages and performing other routine tasks. That freed Shadowfell’s healer for other work. Tali’s tough winter training regime resulted in a steady stream of sprains, cuts and bruises for her brother to tend to.

And now, at last, I had been declared well enough to begin that training myself. For my canny gift, so valuable to the rebels, was not enough on its own; Regan would not allow me to work for the rebellion unless I had at least basic skills as a fighter. I would never be a warrior like Tali or Andra or the other women who shared the sleeping quarters. My years on the road had made me tough, but I was too small and slight to be much use in a fight. Still, I needed to be able to defend myself until someone could step in to help me. That was what Regan had said.

‘Good luck,’ muttered Sula, who had tied up her hair with practised efficiency and was heading for the door.

‘You’ll be fine, Neryn,’ murmured Dervla as she passed me. Finet thrust her feet into her boots and followed the others out while I was still pulling on my skirt. Andra had been on night guard and had not yet come in. Despite our remote location, Shadowfell’s entry was constantly patrolled.

‘You can’t wear that.’ Tali’s dark eyes were not hostile, exactly, but they were not friendly either. Even now, when I had been at Shadowfell long enough to be accepted by everyone else, it was plain she still had reservations about me. ‘Hasn’t Eva found you some trousers? Get them on, hurry up, and wear your boots, not those soft slippers, or you’ll end up injur­ing your ankles.’

I made myself breathe calmly as I changed skirt for trousers. Eva, who along with Milla was in charge of domestic matters at Shadowfell, had indeed made me the required garment, since all the female fighters wore male attire for active duty. I should have thought of this. Tackling the Ladder in a skirt would be impossible.

I put on my boots. I plaited my hair. I wondered if Tali would let me go to the privy before we began.

‘That was much too slow,’ she said now. ‘If we were sleeping in the open and there was an ambush, you’d be dead before you could pick up your weapon at that rate. We can’t afford any weak links.’

There were things I could have said about the numerous times Father and I had melted away into the woods when Enforcers came near. I could have mentioned that we had managed three years on the run without being caught, until the terrible night when the Cull came to Darkwater and my father perished. But I said nothing. Tali’s job was to keep us all fit enough to fight on, to survive, to spread the message of freedom out across Alban. For now, my job was to learn.

‘Go to the privy,’ Tali said, ‘then meet me at the Ladder. We’ve got it to ourselves until breakfast is over and I want to make the most of that. Don’t dawdle.’

*

‘Ready? Fifty steps this time, and I want it quicker. One, two, three, go!’

I climbed. Tali followed, apparently tireless, staying a few steps behind and keeping a rapid count. My thighs burned with pain. My chest ached. I hardly had the strength to hate her, only to keep on going.

‘. . . forty-nine, fifty!’

I bent over, hands on knees, chest heaving. Tali stepped up behind me, not in the least out of breath. Now I really did hate her.

‘Rest to the count of ten. One, two . . .’

The precipitous stone steps known as the Ladder lay at the end of a long winding passageway, part of the network of cave-like chambers that was Shadowfell. Who had made the place, nobody knew. It was old and uncanny. From time to time it changed its shape, forming new caverns or hallways, or opening new doors and windows to the outside. There was a clan of Good Folk here, the fey folk of Alban whom the king had decreed human men and woman should shun. They lived in the mountain beneath the rebel quarters, or so my small friend Sage believed. Without the useful gifts they left, the human folk of Shadowfell could not have survived the harsh highland winters. Firewood. Freshly killed livestock. Vegetables that could not grow here on the mountain. The Good Folk teased the rebels with their closeness, but never showed themselves. When I’d first come here, I’d thought it might be easy for me to find and befriend them. My gift as a Caller allowed me to see and speak to uncanny folk of every kind. Or so it had done in the past. But these particular folk were proving as hard to coax from their bolthole as a hazelnut is to prise from its shell.

The Ladder went up the wall of a high, narrow cavern. At the top, the steps opened out to a broad ledge. People said that on a good day the view from up there was breathtaking: a sweeping vista of snow-capped peaks, high fells and deep valleys. If you were lucky, you might see eagles soaring on the currents of air.

I had never been up before. Clearly the steps had been carved out of the rock by someone with a wicked desire to challenge folk to breaking point. Either that, or their creator had not imagined the use Tali might make of them.

‘. . . ten. Ready? One, two, three, go!’

I climbed. I might have been almost too tired to move, but I could still obey an order.

‘Good,’ Tali said as I reached the hundredth step and bent double, gasping for air.

‘Thanks,’ I wheezed. From her, this was extreme praise.

‘Don’t waste your breath talking. Rest for the count of fifteen. Then we’re heading for the top.’

She counted. I breathed. In the chill of the cavern, I was drenched with sweat.

‘Fourteen, fifteen. Ready? One, two, three, go! Pick up the pace, Neryn! Move those legs!’

There were one hundred and twenty-seven steps in all. By the time we reached the ledge at the top, every part of my aching body wanted to collapse. I held myself upright, leaning back on the rock wall, working to slow my breathing. If there was anything Tali despised, it was a lack of self-control. And she had a habit of springing surprises. It didn’t pay to lose concentration, even for a moment. She was perfectly capable of making me go all the way back to the bottom and start again.

‘You can sit,’ she said, moving out along the ledge and seating herself with her back against the rock wall and her long legs stretched toward the sheer drop. ‘You’re not a warrior; I do make allowances for that. And the way down is hard on the knees.’

Since she had given me permission, I sat down beside her. The air was icy. It was a still day, without the whipping northerly that so often came up in the mornings. Low cloud wrapped the mountain closely. No view today beyond a few rocks here, a patch of barren hillside there. Shadowfell sometimes felt like the end of the world.

‘What lies north of here?’ I asked when I had enough breath to speak. ‘Are there settlements beyond those mountains?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘It looks empty. Trackless.’ When I had discovered I was a Caller, with the ability to summon the Good Folk to the aid of humankind, I had also learned that I must seek guidance in my craft from the Guardians of Alban. These ancient beings of great power had retreated to places of hiding when Keldec came to the throne. They could not bear to see our peaceful realm turned into a place of fear and cruelty. If I could find them, their teaching would enable me to use my gift to the full, and wisely. I’d met one Guardian already. The Master of Shadows had found me and tested me, then told me in his cryptic way what I must do next. I had three journeys to make and three more Guardians to find: the Lord of the North, the Hag of the Isles, the White Lady. North, west, east. ‘The Lord of the North must live in those mountains, or beyond them, so when the winter is over I’ll have to go there.’

‘Without a guide, you could wander about in that area until you died of starvation,’ Tali said flatly.

‘I can forage. I can fish. I know how to make a snare.’

‘It’s not easy terrain. There are few settlements, few good tracks, few bridges. Even in summer, not much grows there.’

‘At least there will be no Cull and no king’s men to contend with, if the north is so empty.’

‘One thing’s certain,’ Tali said. ‘You can’t do the trip on your own, no matter how much of a warrior we make of you by springtime. Regan seldom sends people out alone anyway, Flint being the obvious exception. He’ll insist you take someone with you as path-finder and bodyguard.’ She stared out over the cloud-veiled mountains. ‘If I were you I’d go west first and seek out this Hag of the Isles,’ she said. ‘Save the north for summer. Or do you need to follow a particular order?’

‘The Master of Shadows didn’t say anything about that. I only know that I need to learn something different from each Guardian.’

‘Mm-hm.’ Tali was non-committal; I could not tell what she was thinking. She lifted an arm ringed with tattoos – spirals, swirls, flying birds to match the ones around her neck – and pushed a strand of her dark hair back behind her ear. ‘It’s a long way to travel, Neryn. Perhaps further than you realise. The north . . . it’s an unforgiving place. We’ve lost a lot of good comrades there.’

‘I suppose I could go west first.’ That would mean retracing the path I had taken to come to Shadowfell, a path full of difficult memories. Still, I had to do it sometime. If I went west, there was a possibility – slim but real – that I might see Flint. The thought of him was both joy and sorrow, for when he had left Shadowfell we had spoken sweet words of forgiveness and hope. We had not spoken of love, not in so many words, for soft feelings were forbidden among Regan’s rebels. But something deep and real had passed between us. Now Flint would be back at Winterfort and living his perilous life as Regan’s eyes at the heart of the king’s court. Keldec’s Enforcer; Keldec’s confidant; Keldec’s most trusted man. A rebel spy. Treading a very thin line, and in con­stant danger. I still dared to hope he might return to Shadowfell in time to travel with me in spring. But, knowing he would need to explain away the loss of an entire troop of Enforcers, I doubted the king would let him leave court again so soon.

‘Have you thought of asking your uncanny friends to go with you?’ Tali asked. ‘Or one of those folk who are supposed to be living downstairs?’

‘The Folk Below, Sage calls them. You sound as if you don’t believe in them.’

Tali gave me a sideways look.‘I’m not stupid, Neryn. I know there’s something in these caves apart from us. Especially now I’ve seen your unusual friends. We’d never have survived in this place without fey help. But they can’t be down that spiral stair. It leads nowhere. You’ve seen it for yourself. The passage­way at the bottom ends in a solid rock wall. Yet Sage insists that’s where they live.’

I had nothing to say to that. Not even Sage had been able to raise so much as a squeak from the Folk Below.

‘So why not ask them to go with you? Sage and the other one? Their magic could help protect you on the way, couldn’t it?’

‘I don’t want to ask them. One of their kind died protecting me, on the way up here. You know iron is a bane to the Good Folk, as deadly as poison. Sage’s dear friend died with a chain wrapped around his neck and an Enforcer holding it tight. It was hideous. Cruel. He was just a small being, a creature of the woodland, and he stood up to the king’s men so I could escape. Sage has given up a lot for me already. Red Cap has a little baby to look after. If I asked them to come with me and it happened again, I don’t think I could . . .’

I felt the weight of Tali’s gaze on me. ‘Believe me,’ she said, ‘I know how that feels. It’s something you learn to live with, because it’s the nature of what we do. This war won’t be won without losses. Regan will balance up the value of your gift against the risk of someone getting hurt protecting you, and he’ll insist you have a guard. If not one of the Good Folk, then one of us. You’ll have to swallow your scruples.’

When I said nothing, she went on. ‘The north isn’t entirely empty. There’s a regional chieftain there, Lannan, sometimes called Lannan Long-Arm, with a number of district chieftains answering to him. Lannan is kin to the leaders in the northern isles. We’ve been told his personal fighting force is substantial.’ She hesitated. ‘Our negotiations with Lannan are at a delicate stage. Of Alban’s eight regional chieftains, this is the most powerful. He hasn’t attended the Gathering for several years; his relationship with the king is less than cordial. Distance is his friend. Keldec’s unlikely to send a war-band rushing up there only to see them lost in the mountains.’

There was a pause.

‘You understand what I’m telling you, Neryn?’

‘That whoever wins Lannan over to their side has a big advantage. Yes?’

‘Mm-hm.’

‘Does that mean Regan is travelling north himself in spring?’

Tali shook her head. ‘No need. We’ve a team talking to Lannan already. There’s more to Regan’s rebels than this small band at Shadowfell, Neryn. This is the centre of the operation, yes; Regan is the beating heart of the rebellion. But we couldn’t do it with so few. We’re spread out in many parts of Alban, in places where a single dissenting voice has grown into a force for change. We do have to be careful. You know what happens when the king gets the merest whiff of disobedience.’

I knew all too well. I had seen villages burned, the innocent put to the sword, leaders who stood up for justice summarily executed. I had lost my entire family to the Cull, the seasonal sweep of Alban’s villages that weeded out the rebellious and those with canny gifts. Keldec feared magic above all else. And yet he used it for his own ends. His Enthrallers, of whom Flint was one, were able to work an enchantment to turn someone who had displeased the king into a flawlessly loyal subject. Sometimes, though, the charm went wrong, and the victim became a witless husk of his or her former self. That, too, I had seen. It had been the worst night of my life.

‘If Regan’s teams are spread out all over Alban,’ I asked,‘how do they communicate? How can you put a complete strategy in place when the time comes?’

‘We have folk here and there who carry messages. Trusted folk. Believe it or not, there are some of those in Alban still. But yes, it is a weakness. These things take time.’

I thought of the boy who had brought messages to Flint, when he and I had spent the long days and nights of my illness in a little hut halfway up the Rush Valley. I had wondered about that boy; wondered if he was like my brother, who had died with a spear through his chest when the Enforcers raided our home village, less than four years ago. Only a fool or a hero would dare carry messages for the rebels. Perhaps such folk were both heroes and fools.

‘It’s not a quick process,’ Tali said. ‘Winning the chieftains over, I mean. Those who are prepared to support a rebellion dare not be open about their intentions. In every stronghold there’s someone ready to slip word to the Enforcers for a few pieces of silver. And once they do that, whether their information is true or false, the king’s wrath comes down like an ill-aimed hammer, striking innocent and guilty alike. All of us want the rebellion to happen soon, as soon as possible, before people are too worn down to care anymore. But a word in the wrong ears could wreck the whole endeavour.’ She glanced at me sideways, her dark eyes narrowed. ‘That means no blundering into unknown parts and saying too much, whether it’s a chieftain’s hall or a cave housing an uncanny creature of some kind.’

‘I wasn’t intending to do any blundering. And I’ll be stay­ing away from chieftains’ halls. I’m hoping to avoid human settlements altogether, if I can. But I do need to go, and go as soon as the season allows. If Regan wants my gift as a tool for the rebellion, I must find the Guardians and complete the Caller’s training. Though by the time I get back down the Ladder I may not be able to walk to my bedchamber, let alone all the way to the western isles.’

‘By springtime,’ said Tali, standing and reaching out a strong hand to pull me to my feet, ‘you’ll be running up and down these steps without a second thought. You’re tougher than you look; must be those years on the road. If you’re heading west first, maybe we should be practising swimming.’

‘Wonderful,’ I said, not mentioning that I could not swim at all. ‘Where would we be doing that, in some ice-bound mountain tarn?’

‘Don’t put it past me.’ The merest trace of a smile touched Tali’s features. ‘Now we’re heading back down. Don’t be too cautious, keep the pace steady and lean back slightly as you go. I’d prefer not to have to catch you. I won’t count, but I want you to imagine there’s a big fellow with a big weapon right on your tail. Dawdle, and he’ll make sure you get to the bottom uncomfortably fast.’

*

Once I began training with Tali, my daily routine changed. The Ladder was in heavy use during the day, with everyone at Shadowfell bar Milla and Eva required to complete a certain number of ascents and descents to maintain their fitness. I took to rising early and going up and down while everything was quiet. The only ones on the Ladder before me were Tali and her brother Fingal, who fitted in the same combat training as everyone else. People said Shadowfell’s healer had a rare skill with the knife, and not only for surgery. As for Tali, she worked everyone hard, and herself hardest of all.

When the folk of Shadowfell were not on the Ladder or in the training yard, they were busy with other work: helping Milla and Eva maintain the household, keeping weaponry in top condition, fashioning maps, making plans for the spring’s trips out from Shadowfell. I wondered, sometimes, if Regan had established this routine so there would be less time for arguments. Disputes did tend to break out when a small community was cooped up in a confined space, as we were over the long highland winter. It was rare for anyone to venture outside, apart from when we undertook activities in the training yard with its sheltering stone walls. The fells were blanketed with snow; ice made the paths treacherous.

I learned new skills. Andra, a strapping red-haired fighter of one-and-twenty who could match the best of the men in hand-to-hand combat, trained me to use my staff as a weapon. Muscular, hard-faced Gort, who had once been a chieftain’s master-at-arms, taught me to wield short and long daggers in self-defence. I was not trained alongside the new recruits, who had been given a trial period over the winter to prove themselves. Regan had ordered that my lessons be conducted in private. Knowing how vital it was for me to be ready when spring came, I worked hard and asked no questions.

Every few days Sage came to the door of the rebel headquarters, and the door guards put away their iron weapons, respecting what she was. They would call me, and I would go to talk to my friend in a little chamber set aside for this purpose. Sometimes Red Cap came with her, but not often. His infant was still very small, and it was cold out in the snow, going to and fro. My fey friends did not like to come further inside our dwelling, for there was iron everywhere, not only weaponry but Milla’s kitchen ladles and tongs, the soup pot, the trivets and other paraphernalia.

Sage and Red Cap, with the babe, had followed me all the way from the forests by Silverwater in the west, where I had first encountered them. They had helped me, had stood up for me in the face of their clan’s doubts and convinced others of their kind to aid me on my journey. Indeed, I’d discovered that Sage had been keeping an eye on me since I was a child, suspecting my special ability went something beyond the canny gifts – unusually good sight or hearing, a particular talent at music, an exceptional knack with animals – that a scattering of human folk possessed.

So Sage and Red Cap were here on the mountain, not lodged with the rebels or with the mysterious Folk Below, but in some place unknown to me. Sage had been confident, at first, that the Good Folk of Shadowfell could be persuaded to come out and talk to us, but thus far our efforts to contact them had been fruitless. I had hoped to enlist their help; I had promised Regan I would do my best. Although the Good Folk in general were distrustful of humankind, the Folk Below, with their gifts of food and fuel, had shown goodwill toward the rebels since Regan and his band had first moved into Shadowfell. I had thought I could ask for their help in finding the Guardians – they should know, at least, where to start looking for the Lord of the North. More than that, I’d thought we could win them over to the cause. If the Good Folk could be persuaded to join the rebellion, we had a much better chance of removing Keldec from the throne. The most famous Caller of the past had united fey and human armies to defeat a common enemy.

All very well. Thus far I had not even persuaded these folk to open their door to me. And there lay the problem. My gift was powerful. I had used it to turn the tide of a battle last autumn; I had called out a rock being, a stanie mon, to fall on a party of Enforcers and crush them. That deed weighed heavily on my conscience, and not only because one of the rebels had been caught up in it and had sustained an injury from which he’d later died. Regan’s fighters had hailed me as a hero that day. But I did not feel like a hero. Wielding that kind of power horrified me. It made me determined not to use my special talent again until I knew how to use it wisely. I must reach the Folk Below without using my gift; I must not compel them to come out. Sage and her clan had befriended me without my needing to call. Why should not the Folk Below be the same?

*

My health improved. My strength increased, thanks to good food, enough rest and rigorous training. I became more used to living at close quarters with many folk. That had been hard at first, for it was years since I had lived in the village of Corbie’s Wood, with a family and a community. Father and I had been on our own a long while; after he died, it had been only me. And then Flint and me. I tried not to think too much of him, for my imagination was all too ready to paint me pictures of Flint at court, Flint in trouble, Flint under suspicion of spy­ing. I dreamed of him sometimes, confusing dreams that I could not interpret. I kept them to myself. He had been my compan­ion in times of trouble, sometimes trusted, sometimes doubted, in the end a friend above all friends. And now he was gone. I must not waste time regretting something that could not be.

I had not kept count of the days, but others had. It was close to midwinter, and even Ban and Kenal, the two lads most recently arrived at Shadowfell, were starting to look like warriors, thanks to Tali’s training and their own hard work. We sat in the dining chamber, the only place big enough to accommodate our whole community at once, working on various tasks by lamplight after supper had been cleared away. At one end of the chamber, Milla’s cooking fire burned on the broad hearth, filling the place with welcome warmth. Regan and Tali sat together, red head and dark bent over a map spread out on the table before them. They were arguing, though they kept their voices down. Tali had her arms tightly folded. Regan’s handsome features wore an uncharacteristic frown.

Eva and I were working our way through a basket of mending. Killen, Shadowfell’s most expert archer, had fletch­ing materials laid out on the table before him. Andra was sharpening my knife for me, her eyes narrowed as she worked it against the whetstone. The special sheath I had made, with its protective wards, lay close by. She had not asked me about it, and I had not volunteered any information. I had learned the making of such things from my grandmother, a wise woman. Grandmother’s story was too hard to tell, too raw and painful, even now. She had fallen victim to the Cull in the cruellest way, turned into a witless shell by an enthralment gone wrong. Destroyed before my twelve-year-old eyes, as I hid and watched. I had learned to set the memory away where it would not cripple me, and I did not bring it out for sharing.

When Flint had told me he was an Enthraller, one of those men who performed the same vile magic that had been worked on my grandmother, I had fled in revulsion. The news had made me physically sick. Mind-mending, Flint had called it, a fine old magic that had been warped and perverted under Keldec. In time I had come to accept the truth of this: that mind-mending had indeed once been a force for healing. Still, I did not speak of my grandmother: neither of the time of her wisdom and love, her strength and goodness, nor of the frail, lost thing she became. Her death had been a mercy.

Big Don was adjusting the binding on a spear. Little Don, a marginally shorter man, was plucking a tune on a three-stringed fiddle and humming under his breath. Others played games – stanies, hop-the-man or a form of skittles with an ela­borate scoring system that seemed to change from night to night. Running totals were marked up on the stone wall with charcoal, and friendly disputes as to their accuracy were common.

The games, I did not care for. No-one at Shadowfell knew I’d first met Flint when he’d beaten my father at stanies and won me as his prize. That night was etched on my memory forever. Not long after the game the Cull had swept down on Darkwater and my father had been burned to death. I had trained myself to be calm when folk brought out the board and pieces. I had taught myself not to start in fright every time they made the call: ‘Spear! Hound! Stag!’

‘You should go off to bed,’ Eva said, giving me a glance. ‘You look worn out. Been having bad dreams again?’

In a place like this, there was no avoiding scrutiny. ‘I’m all right. Let me finish darning these leggings, at least.’

‘Another pair of Tali’s,’ Eva commented. ‘She wears them out faster than anyone else, and since I’d rather not get my head snapped off, I don’t ask her to do her own mending. It’s not as if she’s ever idle. Does the work of four men, that girl.’

Plying my bone needle and hoping Tali would not complain about my uneven stitchery, I allowed my thoughts to wander back to Flint, for it was a dream of him that had disturbed my sleep last night. It was hard to say exactly what we were to each other. Not lovers. Not sweethearts. What lay between us was too deep and too complicated for such words. I feared for him. Despite what he was, despite what he did, I longed for his return. But only if coming back did not place him in still greater danger. I yearned for the time when we could be together in a world without fear. I hoped that time would come before we were too old and tired to care anymore.

‘What are you dreaming of, Neryn?’

I managed a smile.‘Better times. Opportunities. Good things.’

‘Ah, well. We all dream of those.’

‘Even Tali? I wonder what she would do if Alban were at peace.’

Tali’s dispute with Regan had intensified; she smacked her hand on the table for emphasis.

‘I don’t see peace coming in a hurry,’ Eva said. ‘Even if it does, folk will still need guards, protectors, sentries. There’s always work for fighters.’

‘Tali as a sentry? Give her a day or two and she’d be running the whole army.’ I realised halfway through this comment that the chamber had fallen quiet and my voice had carried clearly to both Tali and Regan. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said quickly, glancing over. ‘I meant no offence.’

‘A song!’ put in Big Don before Tali could say a word. ‘What better for a winter night? Who’ll oblige us? Brasal, how about you?’

Brasal was Fingal’s other infirmary assistant, a young man of brawny build who could lift a patient with ease. His strong hands were useful for bone-setting. He also had a deep, true singing voice.

‘Come on!’ Little Don plucked the start of a tune on his fiddle, then reached for the bow. ‘Something cheerful, none of those forlorn ballads of lost loves and misfortunes.’

‘I’ll sing if Regan sings with me. And the rest of you join in the refrain – even you, Tali.’

‘Me?’ Tali’s dark brows lifted. ‘You know I’ve got a singing voice like a crow’s, Brasal. I’ll leave it to the rest of you.’ After a moment she added, ‘Sing that thing about catching geese, I like that one.’

The goose song was lengthy and became sillier as it progressed. Regan added a higher counterpoint to Brasal’s melody and we all joined in the refrain with goodwill. This made a change from the pattern of hard work that filled our days, and it was good to see people smiling. Eva and I sewed as we sang, and Killen’s big hands stayed busy with his arrows. When the goose song was done, requests came from all over the room and the singers obliged. Regan’s singing voice was lighter than Brasal’s, clear and sweet in tone. The fiddle added an anchoring drone and sometimes inserted its own line of melody. The fire crackled; the mead jug was passed around; the mood was mellow.

‘Regan.’ Milla spoke into the silence after a song. ‘Do you remember that old tune for midwinter, “Out of darkness comes the light”? I’ve always loved that.’ She glanced at me. ‘My man used to sing it, back in the early days. Back when we needed every scrap of hope we could find.’

I nodded understanding. At two-and-thirty, Milla was the oldest person at Shadowfell. She and her husband had been with Regan from the first, along with Flint. Fingal and Tali had joined them not long after. Those six had been the sum of the rebellion then, the tiny flame from which a great fire of hope had flared. Milla’s man had died for the cause. Exactly how, I did not know and did not ask. Folk only shared their stories if they chose to; it was an unspoken rule that one did not pry. Likely every person at Shadowfell had a tale of loss and heart­break in their past, just as I did.

‘I remember it,’ Regan said. ‘Brasal?’

Brasal shook his head. ‘I don’t know it. You start, I’ll try to pick up the tune.’

Regan lifted his voice, unaccompanied in the quiet of the chamber. The firelight played on the strong bones of his face; his deep blue eyes shone with feeling. And while his singing voice was pleasant rather than exceptional, suddenly every­one’s gaze was on him. Fingers stilled in mid-stitch; playing pieces were set quietly down.

Out of darkness comes the light Out of night comes morning Out of sorrow rises joy In the new day’s dawning Courage, wanderer! May the sun Cast its light upon us Showing us the path ahead Into springtime’s promise. Rise up, weary traveller, rise! Hope’s bright beacon lights the skies.

The melody died away; this song had no refrain. For a count of ten nobody made a sound. I could swear not one of us took a breath. Then, into the quiet, there came a din of clashing metal and raised voices. Tali was on her feet in an eye-blink and in front of Regan, shielding him with a skill born of long practice. Andra and Killen were up a moment later, moving in on either side, she with her staff, he with an axe. Tali’s knife was at the ready; I had not even seen her draw it from the sheath. Brasal moved into position in front of me and Eva. Five people headed out toward the entry, drawing weapons as they went.

‘It’s the middle of winter,’ muttered Eva. ‘Who’d come knocking but an ice trow or a madman?’

I shivered, waiting. It was all very well to joke about trows. I had met a brollachan last autumn, and although the fear­some creature had proven to be a friend, that was only after he had dangled me by the ankle over an abyss and frightened me half out of my wits.

Shouts from the entry; someone exclaiming in astonish­ment, ‘Cian! By all that’s holy!’

Regan made toward the door; Tali halted him with a raised hand. She formed a word with her lips, making no sound. Wait.

We did not have to wait long. Big Don and Fingal came back into the chamber supporting a man between them. He was wrapped in thick woollen clothing, a cloak, a cloth around head and shoulders, mittens that looked heavy with damp. A dusting of snow lay on his head and shoulders. Within the shawl-like wrapping that swathed his head, his eyes were strangely bright against a death mask of a face, gaunt and pale with exhaustion. His boots were cracked and worn. The two brought him to the fireside and sat him down on a bench. All around the chamber, weapons were slid back into their sheaths.

‘On his own,’ said Big Don succinctly.

Regan crouched before the traveller, gazed up into the drained face. ‘By sun and moon, Cian, you look like a ghost! Welcome home. No, don’t try to speak. Let’s get you warm first. Milla –’

Milla was already ladling broth from a cook pot into a bowl, while one of the men poured mead into a cup and set it by Cian. Plainly this was neither madman nor ill-doer, but one of us.

‘Not too much,’ Fingal warned as Cian lifted the cup in shaking hands. ‘A sip at a time. That’s it. Get that cloak off, man. And the boots. Black Crow save us, look at the state you’re in. How far have you walked today?’

‘Save the questions for later.’ Regan gestured and folk moved back, giving the traveller room. Milla brought the broth; Brasal went out and came back with a blanket, which he wrapped around Cian in place of the cloak and shawl. Under Milla’s direction, Little Don carried in a tub of warm water for the traveller’s feet. Cian’s face regained some colour, but bouts of shivering still coursed through his body.

‘Who is he?’ I whispered to Eva.

‘One of ours,’ she murmured. ‘From the north. He’ll have news. He’d never have attempted the journey in winter other­wise. Just hope it’s not bad news.’

After some time Cian’s trembling lessened, though he still looked shattered and weary. Regan sat close by him, murmur­ing reassuring words, while Fingal checked the traveller’s pulse, looked in his eyes, then sent me to the infirmary to make up a restorative infusion.

‘Thank you,’ Cian said in a thread of a voice when I returned to set the cup before him. ‘Who . . . ?’

‘Neryn,’ Regan said. ‘A Caller.’

Cian’s eyes widened.

‘She came last autumn, with Flint. A long story, which can wait for tomorrow. As can yours, my friend – Fingal should take you off to the infirmary and get you to bed.’ Despite these words, there was a question in Regan’s voice.

‘No. I must tell you first.’ Cian made a visible effort to sit straighter, to gather himself. I did not like the look in his eye. All around us, folk were waiting in silence.

‘Good news or ill?’ Regan was calm, outwardly at least.

‘Both. It cannot wait for tomorrow.’ Cian glanced at me, then over toward the new lads, Ban and Kenal. ‘Is it safe to speak?’

‘It’s safe. Tell us. You come from Lannan Long-Arm. Does this concern the proposed alliance?’

‘I have news of that, yes. But . . . there is something else.’ Cian drew a deep breath; there was a rasping sound in his chest. ‘Three of us set out to bring word to you. Arden and Gova were with me. They are . . . they are both lost, Regan. We were caught in a storm, heading back over the pass north of the Race. Gova fell; we could not reach her. Arden perished from cold.’

A silence, then; heads were bowed all around the firelit chamber.

‘What news could be so urgent that it demanded the sacrifice of two of our finest?’ Tali’s voice was tight with what might have been grief or fury. ‘What news could not wait until the passes were safe to cross?’

‘Tali,’ said Regan in an undertone. It was a warning; Tali fell silent, though her anger was a presence in the room.

‘The news is this.’ Cian looked straight at his leader.‘Lannan Long-Arm will support the rebel cause. He has promised to bring a substantial force to Summerfort and to stand up beside us when we challenge Keldec.’ Then, as the rest of us were about to break out into a chorus of amazed congratulations, he added, ‘There’s a condition. Lannan believes that if our preparations draw out too long, the king will inevitably get word of what we plan. Should that happen, our cause is lost before we can put the final pieces in play. Our whole strategy depends on keeping the plan from Keldec’s knowledge.’

Regan was frowning. ‘I understand Lannan’s concerns. We’re working toward putting this in place as soon as we can. Did you offer him the incentives I suggested?’

‘That was discussed, yes. Should we succeed in removing Keldec, Lannan wants a position as regent, or co-regent, until the heir comes of age. If as co-regent, he wants the power to approve whoever shares the position. He suggested a couple of names.’

‘He knows, I assume, that Keldec is likely to bring magic into play in any confrontation with us?’

Cian nodded.‘He does; and suggested, almost as a joke, that we attempt to harness the support of the Good Folk in order to counter that. At the very least, he said, if our own folk possess canny gifts, we should make use of those. But . . .’ He looked at me.

‘But Lannan does not know – cannot know – that we now have a Caller,’ said Fingal. ‘A Caller gives us an immense advantage.’

I cleared my throat, not sure if I should speak. These people had just learned of the deaths of two of their own; it seemed no time for a strategic discussion. ‘But not yet,’ I said to Cian. ‘I have only recently discovered the nature of my canny gift. I need time to learn its wise use. Two years, maybe three – I won’t know how long until I find the people who can teach me. They are all in different parts of Alban.’

Cian said nothing.

‘Out with it.’ Regan fixed his gaze on the traveller. ‘Lannan has set a limit on how long we can rely on his help, yes? Tell us.’

‘He knows we plan to confront the king at one of the mid­summer Gatherings, when the clans are all together in the one place. His ultimatum is this: if we cannot do it by the summer after next, he’ll withdraw his support for the rebel­lion, and instead step away from both Keldec’s authority and any alliance with the other chieftains of Alban.’

Horror filled me. The summer after next? How could I possibly be ready in time? There were gasps and murmurs all around the chamber; Brasal uttered an oath.

‘You’re saying that if we can’t do this in a year and a half, the north will secede from the kingdom?’ Tali’s voice was hushed with shock.

‘That’s bold,’ said Big Don. ‘Some might say foolishly so.’

‘Lannan has kin in the northern isles,’ Milla said. ‘And his territories are guarded by the mountains; even Keldec’s Enforcers would have trouble sustaining an armed conflict in those parts. Provided his northern kin could supply him, Lannan and his folk could survive without Keldec’s support.’

‘Support!’ put in Big Don with a grim smile. ‘Not the word I’d have used.’

Nobody else was smiling.

‘The Gathering after next.’ Regan spoke calmly, but his face told another story. ‘I would say that was impossible. But here at Shadowfell we don’t use that word. Neryn, you understand how much this depends on you. Can you learn the skills you need by the summer after next? Will it be long enough?’

I bit back my first response. Three Guardians to find, all in different corners of Alban; three branches of knowledge to master; and then, the disparate talents of humankind and Good Folk to be brought into an alliance strong enough to stand up against the might of Keldec and his Enforcers . . . all that in a scant year and a half? When I had thus far failed to exchange even one word with the Folk Below? It was . . . I must not say impossible. I was one of Regan’s rebels now, and I must not even think it. ‘I’ll try my best,’ I said.


Excerpted from Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier. Copyright © 2013 by Juliet Marillier.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Lightning by Felicity Volk – Extract

Lightning

Prologue

It was a summer of mad winds.

They flapped through the city with dervish destruction, kick­ing up dirt, ripping washing from lines, scattering newspapers along the parkways, tugging at hair, leaving grit in the mouth and at the corners of eyes. The winds whistled to one another from each edge of the city, twisting, writhing, gusting, making dogs bay and snarl at undisclosed threats, cats flatten themselves to the ground and domesticated birds beat themselves against the wire of their cages. At night, people who had been caught on the streets during the fury would blow the brown dust of these gales into tissues.

Sirocco, Pampero, Barat, Ostria, Suestado, Lebeccio, Brubu, Chubasco, Cordonazo, Williwaw, Diablo, Haboob, Matanuska, Taku, Gregale. A wind by any other name will drive you just as crazy.

The Sirocco then. The Greek word for wind: σιρόκος — sirokos. The dry lungs of the Sahara blowing red dust towards the Mediterranean, reaching hurricane speeds in North Africa and southern Europe. Tuaregs tighten their indigo cloth around mouth and nose against the Qibli’s hot breath. Libyan Bedouin claim homicide is defensible if El-ghibli’s sandstorms last more than four days, and that camels can experience immaculate conception during the raging of the winds. The French smoke and drink with bored disdain in cafes in southern France, waiting for the Marin to tire of them as they have of it. Croatians shelter from the dirty rains of the Jugo in gloomy cathedrals, contemplating the rushing wind of the Spirit and its tongues of fire. And in Germany, the Sirocco is known as the wind of baby-craving madness, perhaps suggesting some cultural memory shared with the camels of Libya.

But by Scandinavia the Sirocco has run out of puff. Färdig. Bort. Gjort. Över.

In March 1922, the Sirocco rose from the Sahara with a ferocity and stamina that had no match in living memory. Its sandstorms reached Cairo within ten hours. Under the whirling red sky, with winds gusting violently through the city, the merchants at Khan el-Khalili helped each other to secure wood panelling to the fronts of their stalls.

Kasib, who had conducted a successful trade in beaded wedding chadors for more than forty years, looked heavenwards, running his hand down his long greying beard, a habitual gesture his wife gently teased him about when he balanced his books at the end of each day of trade. A few stray hairs came away in his hand and the wind whipped them from his palm and into the air. ‘Khamseen, rih al-khamseen,’ he muttered, calling the Sirocco by its Egyptian name as he borrowed a wooden bucket of mutton fat from his neigh­bour. He plastered the grey grease into cracks where the boards of the timber facade protecting his gossamer silks were warped or did not quite meet. The wind of fifty days. And indeed, to a day, that was how long the wind inflicted its mayhem on his city, his country and others far beyond the borders of Kasib’s imaginings.

Schwerbad, for example, Germany. Population thirteen thousand, founded in 1812. Renowned in the early days for its cobblers and the suppleness of their leathers. The unparalleled pliability of Schwerbad’s hides was ascribed to a rare species of grass, Pennisetum europaeus, found only in a thirty-mile radius of the city and consumed voraciously by local livestock. King Frederick William IV of Prussia, whose feet would only tolerate shodding by Schwerbad’s artisans, sought on several occa­sions to transplant the grass to his own estates. On the eighth failed attempt, and with six gardeners already sacked, Frederick consoled himself that the scarcity of the leather, more than its physical attributes, gave it its value. He promptly decreed the farmlands of Schwerbad to be state property in the interests of scientific research (and sartorial convenience).

By 1922, however, the Pennisetum had been eaten to extinc­tion by the larvae of an equally rare species of moth. With only a few cobblers left, bravely plying their trade for reasons of senti­ment rather than economics, Schwerbad was instead famous for its Prima Pretzels. These were baked to a closely guarded recipe by Ruben Mahler, a sixty-three-year-old bachelor, a single child in a lineage of one-child families who traced their genealogy and their culinary geography back to Alsace. Pretzel aficionados trav­elled from all over Germany for Herr Mahler’s crisp breads. His product enjoyed sufficient longevity and was held in such esteem that he was able to export it to Austria and Poland, and even to outposts of the German diaspora in the pretzel wastelands of Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Egypt. Business, in fact, was booming so extravagantly that the Prima Pretzel Boulangerie Patisserie now filled three shopfronts on the bottom floor of an apartment building on Hauptstrasse. It employed several of the building’s inhabitants, mostly youths whose parents could not afford their schooling.

An unremarkable girl not more than sixteen years old, Lauren was among Herr Mahler’s resident staff. She lived in a seventh-floor apartment with her parents: her father, Heinrich, who worked in Schwerbad’s tannery curing hides for sale to the shoe factory, and her exquisitely ankled mother, Renate, who modelled footwear at Schwerbad’s two annual trade fairs — the summer and the winter shoe collections. Local residents noted with some pride that Renate’s legs were so perfect in shape, tone and propor­tion, she could have stuck her feet in a rotting pig’s carcass and buyers from around the country would have fought each other to place their orders. Lauren’s mother did nothing much in between the two month-long fairs but passed many idle hours with her legs elevated on a leather ottoman (upholstered using off-cuts from the tannery) to avoid oedema.

Lauren had no brothers or sisters, an omission on the part of her parents which, as the years went by, conceived in Lauren a prema­ture yearning to have a child of her own. Her single-child status in a ghetto of large post-war families drew Lauren to Herr Mahler’s early attention, stirring in him ill-defined affinities, and even before she began working in his bakery he would slip her end-of-day pastries and cupcakes iced to resemble the faces of girls and boys.

On Lauren’s thirteenth birthday, Herr Mahler had knocked on her parents’ door and handed her mother a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so heavily soaked in cherry brandy that it announced itself well before it was handed over.

Lauren’s mother had never liked the look of the baker. He wore his sweat-slicked hair in a long greying ponytail and had no ankles to speak of — even for a man. Most of all, Renate could not abide Herr Mahler’s habit of chewing qat, an affectation he had acquired during a business trip to the Horn of Africa. Still, the brandy fumes and the miserly complaint of Renate’s pantry were overpowering. Herr Mahler looked less surprised than his hostess when, after only a moment’s aloof hesitation, she found herself inviting him in for a piece of cake and a cup of tea. (Had Renate realised that the cud in Herr Mahler’s cheek was a narcotic, not tobacco, the afternoon might have progressed differently.)

As her husband was not yet home, it was Renate who decided on Herr Mahler’s proposition — that Lauren come to work in his bakery as assistant pretzel chef. If a little less Schwarz wälder Kirschtorte had been consumed, Lauren’s mother would surely have deferred an answer till there was adequate opportunity to consult the head of the household. By the time Herr Mahler made his offer, however, half the cake was gone, Renate’s feet were resting comfortably on tapestry pillows collected by her guest from about the room, and an undertaking was given.

Lauren, who had also eaten a piece of her birthday cake, felt an unfamiliar warmth in the cavity of her chest and made the acquaint­ance for the first time of primitive, reassuring notions of destiny.

Her shifts began at six am. She left the house promptly at five minutes to the hour and clattered down the seven flights of cast-iron stairs that clung to the courtyard side of the apartment block. If it stormed she took more care on the stairwell, which was as slippery from use as from rain, and so arrived at the bakery wet. Herr Mahler would remove her coat as she came inside and make her a mug of hot chocolate with nutmeg. She drank this at the kneading table with Herr Mahler sitting opposite, saying nothing.

Her mother was still in bed at this time — the pillow under her feet higher and harder than the one she used for her head — but Lauren’s father would stand on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, shaving and watching his daughter’s descent. Herr Mahler opened the back door of the bakery to Lauren on the dot of six o’clock. Though he never looked up, he always sensed the paternal scrutiny and so avoided the solicitous gestures — a hand on the back, a palm under the elbow — with which he greeted his other female staff.

The pretzel mixture was prepared and waiting. Lauren’s job was to roll and cut and tie it into knots, to place these on baking trays and to baste the uncooked dough with egg white, sometimes sugared, or cinnamon butter or even some unidentified spice in a syrup which Herr Mahler would hand her with a wink, tapping the side of his nose and whistling gaily. Once she mastered the pretzels, Lauren graduated to sourdoughs, ryes and breads flavoured with caraway, olives, ripe cheeses and herbs and crusted with rock salt. As time went by, Herr Mahler introduced her to choux pastry, profiteroles, mille-feuilles, éclairs, ground almond biscuits, strudels, flans and tortes.

Lauren’s sixteenth birthday fell on a Sunday. Both parents were home when Herr Mahler arrived with a chocolate gateau, ten inches high and decorated with spiralled cylinders of pure Belgian couverture — white and dark.

‘I have an announcement,’ Herr Mahler said gravely once the family had settled around the dining table and the cake was cut. ‘I propose to teach Lauren how to make Prima Pretzels. Not just assemble them,’ he added hastily into the indifferent silence which greeted his offer, ‘but make them.’ He brushed chocolate crumbs from the white linen napkin tucked into his collar. ‘From scratch,’ he concluded, and then rested back in his chair with his arms crossed over a chest puffed with pride and magnanimity.

Father and mother murmured. Lauren smiled to herself and bit into her cake.

‘But she will have to start at three am.’

The following morning Lauren’s father watched his daughter tiptoe down the stairwell at two fifty-five am. It was too cold to shave so he simply stood there in his dressing-gown. He nodded when she turned around outside the bakery and waved to him as the door opened to her. The oven-warm air and all its secrets condensed as they collided with the night.

‘Didn’t he always say he’d only ever disclose his pretzel recipe if he married or adopted?’ Lauren’s father recalled on returning to the gloomy marital bedroom.

Lauren’s mother grunted and rolled onto her side. Her husband lay down next to her, contemplating myriad pretexts to visit the bakery. But, weighing carefully in the scales of parental responsibility the alternatives to the baker, he had to concede there was little, on balance, he could produce to compete with a world-renowned pretzel recipe or, for that matter, its ageing, rat-tailed, qat-chewing owner.

That year, autumn and winter were more brutal than ever. Lauren padded herself against their bite with warm custards, poached fruits and thick slices of brioche dipped in steaming cocoa from the kitchen of the Prima Pretzel Boulangerie Patisserie. She poured warm chocolate syrup over day-old Kartoffel-Kuchen which was destined for the scavengers’ bin outside the shop, and she was rarely found without a half-eaten pretzel in her apron pocket. She was rising like a well-leavened round of dough sitting in a warm and cosy corner of the bakery, but her mother, observing that Lauren’s ankles were still as dainty as her own, chose to pass no comment.

Spring came, but not an ordinary spring. The Sirocco, which had taken a mere half-day to find its way to Cairo, took only a few more days to cross the Mediterranean and travel the length of southern Europe. Its curtain of dirty rain closed over Schwerbad and for days on end there was no sign of the nourishing sun the city’s residents had been waiting for all winter.

The rain fell in sharp lacerating sheets. It devastated gardens and rotted bulbs. It stung cheeks. It turned umbrellas inside out then flipped them the right way round into the faces of their owners. An elderly woman lost an eye in such an accident but consoled herself, and the spinster daughter whose duty it was to look after her, that, Gott sei Dank, it was the eye already damaged from cataract that was taken. The rains pushed pedestrians blindly into each other, brought trains to a standstill, flooded streets and closed schools. And when they stopped, the hot Saharan winds howled like a banshee and tore what was left of Schwerbad’s sanity to shreds. And then it rained again.

On nights when the wind moaned in the courtyard beneath her apartment, smashing planter pots of spring blooms against the cobblestones, Lauren sat on her bed with her arms roped around her knees, rocking back and forth and singing lullabies to herself. Her parents urged her from her room but she seldom emerged other than to pick at her dinner or to make the perilous journey downstairs for her pretzel-making shift. She said the rains and the wind had driven her appetite from her, and indeed she was fast returning to her lithe frame. The nerves of most towns­folk were worn jagged by the weather and Lauren’s parents saw little to distinguish their daughter’s behaviour from the melan­choly madness on Schwerbad’s street corners. Certainly Renate, too, had taken to her daybed with more than her usual enthusi­asm throughout the Sirocco’s ministrations.

Hiding from the elements behind the drawn brocade curtains of her bedroom, and with her ears plugged against the whining of the wind, Renate didn’t hear her daughter leave the apartment late one afternoon. She was still draped across her bed, dozing, with her door firmly closed, when Lauren returned an hour or so later carrying a mewling bundle swaddled in her coat. Lauren had emancipated the three-month-old baby from its mother’s pram during a moment of maternal neglect. The frantic parent’s voice was one wail among many along Schwerbad’s footpaths and it was some time before her cries were heeded. The Sirocco was by then in its forty-second day.

The morning the wind began to die, day fifty, was the morning Lauren’s father heard a baby crying in his daughter’s room. In a box between Lauren’s bed and the window, the thing mewed and yawned from a gummy mouth. The stale milk air of the room so long closed, and probably the shock too, made Heinrich retch. He opened the window and looked more closely at the child. At that moment a final Sirocco gust blew into the room, dropping a hair from Kasib’s beard, blown all the way from Cairo (a stop-start journey of miraculous proportions), into the makeshift cradle. The long grey strand settled across the baby’s forehead and the child turned her head from side to side as if to release herself from the encumbrance.

Lauren’s father pinched the hair between his thumb and fore­finger. ‘The baker,’ he harrumphed, and left for the tannery.

In 1922, the Schwerbad tannery was not preoccupied with matters of occupational health and safety. Goggles and gloves were rarely seen in the tannery pits and the hides swam in pools of liquid that would be found on lists of banned substances in today’s laboratories. To hasten the shedding of hair from hide, tannery chemists used a concoction that was not toxic as such, at least not if consumed in modest quantities. It was assumed the human body’s response to the chemical — whether applied topi­cally or ingested — would replicate that of a cattle skin, suffering depilation, and tannery workers were encouraged to wash their hands at the end of their shifts.

The small volume of powdered depilatory agent which Lauren’s father had spooned into a glass jar bounced against his hip as he hurried home. The day’s baking at Prima Pretzels was finished. The ovens were cooling and the kitchen was silent. No one was present to witness Lauren’s father tip his powder into the hessian sack of dried plants which Heinrich thought was the baker’s supply of qat. At home, as yet undecided about how to approach the subject of his daughter’s baby with either his wife or his child, Heinrich chose to pretend it didn’t exist.

Unfortunately the qat that Herr Mahler stored at the bakery was not for personal consumption but for grinding; it was his secret ingredient — to be either mixed into his pretzel dough or spread across the knots in a simple sugar syrup. Shortly after three o’clock the following morning, Lauren dutifully measured the strict proportions of qat specified in Herr Mahler’s recipe, which she now knew by heart, and tipped the dried leaves into a grey marble mortar. She paid no attention to the traces of white powder sifting through the organic matter; the kitchen was a dimly lit affair until dawn and its surfaces rested under a peren­nial dusting of flour.

Many of the pretzels that came out of Mahler’s ovens the day after the Sirocco subsided travelled far. Glossy and brown, separated by layers of wax paper, in boxes stamped PPBP, some went by train across Europe. Some — more adventurous — crossed the Mediterranean by boat, southbound. A few even swayed over sand dunes atop Sirocco-impregnated camels. But one ended up in a pocket, climbed six flights of stairs, crossed a dining room, entered a nursery and soaked for a while in milk before its crumbs were pushed between the lips of a perpetually sedated baby.

Because Herr Mahler preferred his qat neat, he never partook of his famous, inexplicably addictive and, for one batch (and one batch only, but enough to put him out of business), baldness-inducing pretzels. Andreas Schiller, however, a German engineer living in Cairo, waited in a state of agitation each Sunday after­noon for Prima Pretzels to arrive at the souk of Khan el-Khalili. He bought three bags of the travel-weary bread from the far end of the souk at a small shop which imported foodstuffs from around the world. Seven pretzels in each paper bag. A week’s supply — one for morning, one for noon and one for night. His fiancée, a young Egyptian woman from Cairo’s Coptic commu­nity, found Andreas’s attachment to his cultural roots endearing. She looked down her nose at her countrymen milling around the markets, getting into fights in the hours before the qat merchants opened their shutters, but walked proudly behind her husband-to-be on the way to the souk, contemplating his fine European sensibilities.

Business had suffered throughout the wind of fifty days. Kasib’s pulling on his beard had become more fretful the longer the Khamseen’s gales blew and his wife no longer teased him about this habit. So in the week the winds died, when the bell on his counter tinkled and Kasib looked through the curtains to see the German standing expectantly and a young girl cooing over his most expensive chador, he said reverently, gratefully, ‘Allah Akbar, Allahu Akbar min kulli shay,’ and rolled up his prayer mat.

He was not a greedy man. He added only twenty percent or so for what he thought of as foreigner’s tax, and maybe another ten as Khamseen duty. The girl was too pleased with the look of herself in the fine red silk with its gold and pearl beads to quibble with his price on the foreigner’s behalf. Her doe eyes glittered with the abundance of the future and her long raven hair seemed spun from the same thread as Kasib’s cloth. So delighted was Yasmin with her wedding chador that Andreas refused the small amount of change he was due from the money he handed Kasib and he opened one of his bags of pretzels to celebrate the transaction. Kasib poured three glasses of coffee from the silver urn at the back of the shop.

Andreas, whose hairline was already receding, went bald within three days. Yasmin’s last locks had fallen out by the time the next batch of pretzels arrived at the souk (and were promptly destroyed). Kasib lost his hair in two stages. By Thursday there was not a hair to be found anywhere on his body except for his chin. His beard, which had resisted manual epilation for many years, took another three days to succumb to the chemical attack.

Andreas went back to Germany without hair or wife. Yasmin’s charms, he realised regretfully, had flourished in her appearance and in the happy exoticism of his life in Egypt. Tragedy, or even unkind happenstance, can sour the sweetest love. He assuaged his conscience by rereading the receipt for the wedding chador and ignoring the thought that his ex-fiancée would likely never have an opportunity to wear it.

On arrival home, Andreas was surprised to read in his local newspaper of the Sirocco’s devastation, as if a current of air would pay any more attention to borders than would a human being. Amid descriptions of physical destruction, damage to person and property, much was made of a curious report from Schwerbad. A young girl driven mad by the baby-craving winds had stolen and poisoned a three-month-old girl. Charged with murder in the first degree, she pleaded insanity. The pretzel-loving judge, the only woman in Germany’s judiciary to have reached such a senior position, was in a foul frame of mind having recently gone bald. It was insufficient consolation that in her professional life at least she was provided with a wig. Disinclined in such a state to tolerate either whimsy or superstition, she ruled against the girl’s plea and sent her to jail for twenty years.

By Lauren’s calculation, she would still be of child-bearing age when she was released.


Excerpted from Lightning by Felicity Volk. Copyright © 2013 by Felicity Volk.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Fukushima by Mark Willacy – Extract

Fukushima

1

SAN TEN ICHI ICHI

The land of Mutsuno-kuni trembled and greatly shook. People cried and screamed, unable to get up from the ground. And the violent waves and high tides arrived. The scene of the flood . . . was so vast you could not tell where the sea ended and the land started.

The True History of Three Reigns of Japan (Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku)

Friday 11 March 2011

Ittekimasu!’ yelled Koharu to her mother. ‘I am going.’

Naomi Hiratsuka only caught a glimpse of Koharu. There was just a flash of her green checked jacket in the hallway, a shouted goodbye, and she was gone. Naomi was busy in her bedroom with the two little ones.

Itterashai!’ shouted Naomi after her. ‘Have a good day and a safe return.’ But her eldest daughter was already out the door.

It was 7 am and Koharu had eaten breakfast, packed her bag and was on her way to school. There was no time to talk to her mother. The 12-year-old was bursting to tell her friends about her award. A teacher from Koharu’s school had phoned overnight with wonderful news. She had won a prefectural prize for her essay about Kazuko Tomiyama’s book The Sea is Alive. Koharu’s essay would now be published in a book of compositions.

Naomi was so proud of her daughter. Koharu had always been a bookworm. She loved anything by the popular mystery writer Keigo Higashino, and recently she had read a whole Harry Potter novel in a single night. Whenever her mother asked her what she wanted for a present, Koharu always told her ‘a book’. So what if she was no good at sports and struggled at arithmetic, thought Naomi. When Koharu grew up, she wanted to be a primary-school teacher, just like her mother.

Since the birth of her third child, Naomi had taken extended leave. It was not just the kids she had to take care of but also her husband’s parents, who lived with them. In addition, there was his 101-year-old bedridden grandmother in the semi-detached. Naomi spent a lot of her time cooking and cleaning. It was the 37-year-old’s duty to her family, and she shouldered it without complaint.

The Hiratsukas lived in the village of Yokokawa, just north of Ishinomaki City. On the Pacific coast, 340 kilometres north­east of Tokyo, Ishinomaki was founded in the fourth century. Home to 165,000 people, it was famous for its large milky oysters, its wakame seaweed and for deep-sea fishing. It was also a whaling town. Commercial Japanese whaling was born at the port of Ayukawa on the peninsula just east of the city, with the arrival of a catcher boat and a factory ship captured during the 1905 Russo–Japanese War.

But the Hiratsukas were neither farmers nor fishermen. Naomi and her husband, Shinichiro, were schoolteachers, living in a crowded household of four generations. And Yokokawa is not on the coast; it is about ten kilometres inland, on a straight stretch of the Kitakami River.

There was another reason why young Koharu Hiratsuka was excited this morning. Next week, she would graduate from the Okawa Primary School, and there would be a big send-off party. The school was up the road, along the Kitakami River, four kilometres from the coast. The stretch of river next to the school was 200 metres wide, and a steel-girder bridge spanned it. Adjoining the school playground is a steep wooded hill that the locals call Darumatsu. The arc-shaped school was sur­rounded by 240 homes, all densely packed together in a rabbit warren of narrow streets. Okawa was not a big school – just 108 students and 13 teachers and staff. But everyone knew each other, and Koharu and her classmates would be moving to the same junior high after the holiday. This was their last full week together as primary-school students, and this weekend Naomi and her daughter were going to talk about what type and colour hakama (traditional culotte-style trousers) Koharu would wear to her graduation party.

Naomi finished dressing and stared at the mirror. My eldest child will soon be in high school, she thought. Koharu is already so big, almost as tall as me. And so busy too. Not even time to stop and say goodbye.

*

Norio Kimura lifted the last of the pigs down from the truck. He pressed the palms of his hands into the small of his back and flexed backward. The pigs were just a couple of months old, but they weighed about 30 kilograms each. I’m getting too old for this, thought Kimura. Time to scrub out the bed of the truck. As soon as he did that, he might head home. Yuna and Mayu would be home from school soon. Kimura smiled to himself. His daughters were looking forward to the weekend, because they were competing in the end-of-season competition for their tennis team.

Norio Kimura and his family lived in the town of Okuma, on the Fukushima coast. As well as his wife and two daughters, Kimura shared his home with his parents. Their wooden two-storey house was just 100 metres from the beach. Every night, Kimura drifted off to sleep listening to the waves pounding the sand. The sound comforted him, even rejuvenated him. His home was also a stone’s throw from the Kuma River, which flowed through this town of 11,000 people. The Okuma district was renowned for its sticky rice, kiwi fruit and Nashi pears. But it was also known for the nuclear plant.

In 1961, the town voted unanimously to invite the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to build a nuclear power station on its coastline. Ten years later, the first reactor at Fukushima Dai-ichi (‘Dai-ichi’ means ‘number one’) began generating power, sending electricity into the world’s biggest market: the neon megacity of Tokyo, 250 kilometres to the south-west. Once part of a coal-mining district, Okuma was transformed from a cash-strapped speck into a thriving nuclear town, and over the years it would earn tens of millions of dollars in subsidies, grants and taxes for hosting Fukushima Dai-ichi.

‘TEPCO put lots of money into Okuma. They helped build the town hall, gyms, sports complexes, things like that,’ said Kimura. ‘The local tax rates are lower too, because we host the nuclear plant.’

Many of Kimura’s boyhood friends had gone on to work at Fukushima Dai-ichi. But the nuclear plant was not for him. He was a farmer. Together with his fellow workers, he had 15,000 pigs to take care of. When they reached six months old, they would be sold to processors across Japan. His wife, Miyuki, worked too, as a cook in a school cafeteria in Okuma. She was a lot more outgoing than Kimura, and, despite not being born or raised here, she was more accepted in the community. They had met through their aunts, who conspired to bring the two together.

‘It wasn’t an arranged marriage,’ Kimura was quick to assure me. ‘When we met, it took me a while to get talking to her. She lived in Osaka, and eventually I got to phoning her – over and over again.’ He laughed. The 47-year-old has a boyish face, accentuated by a mop-top haircut. He is small, but strong from years of heaving pigs about.

Norio and Miyuki’s girls, Mayu and Yuna, were ten and seven respectively. Little Yuna was the family clown, who would often perform her ad-lib comedy routines to the amusement of the household. She was certainly not shy and would offer help to people she didn’t know. Kimura was proud of Yuna. Recently, he had received a letter from a parent at the school, praising her for helping the woman’s daughter. Yuna had taken great care with her daughter, the letter revealed, by pushing the little girl’s wheelchair around the school. None of the other students had offered to help.

Yuna could blend in anywhere; not so Mayu. ‘Mayu isn’t good with people,’ said Kimura of his older daughter. ‘She has too much pride. She doesn’t mingle with people. She won’t try to make friends. Mayu never shows her feelings.’

Mayu hated going to school. As soon as the bell went, she was out the gate and into her grandfather’s car and off home. Yuna, though, went to the children’s hall after school to play with her friends. Her mother picked her up after she finished work.

But these sisters did have one thing in common: they loved Kara, an all-girl Korean pop group. Their music drove Kimura mad.

Kimura hauled himself up into the bed of the truck, clutch­ing the hose. Ah, pig shit, he thought. At least I’m not stuck working at the nuclear plant.

*

Takashi Sato tapped at the keyboard, one index finger at a time. He had been working on this Reactor 5 inspection report for weeks, and he was drowning in paper. The 33-year-old reac­tor at TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant was offline, although it still contained 548 fuel assemblies. It was a routine shutdown, required by law every 13 months so the reactor could be checked.

The day before, Sato had helped supervise a test of the reac­tor pressure vessel, to ensure it wasn’t leaking. ‘If there is a leak, the pressure will not go up,’ Sato explained. ‘That is checked along with the temperature. This test will help put the reactor back in operation mode.’

He had already finished supervising maintenance work on the drive that inserted the control rods into the central core of the reactor. The control rods were essential for keeping the nuclear reaction in check and could be used during an emergency to shut down the reactor. Now, Sato had to write everything up in a report for TEPCO.

It was Takashi Sato’s job – and that of other TEPCO inspectors – to ensure all six reactors at the facility were run­ning safely. His task was getting tougher, because some of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors were the oldest in Japan. Reactor 1 had started commercial electricity generation exactly 40 years earlier, in March 1971. The youngest reactor – Reactor 6 – had gone online in 1979.

The 3.5-square-kilometre Fukushima Dai-ichi site is posi­tioned next to the Pacific coast to ensure easy access to large quantities of vital cooling water in an emergency. The plant had been built on a bluff that was originally 35 metres above sea level. But during construction the bulldozers set to work, lowering the bluff by 25 metres.

With nearly 40,000 employees, 30 million customers, and annual revenues of $62 billion, TEPCO was one of the world’s biggest private power companies. Just like Japan’s nine other power utilities, TEPCO operated a virtual monopoly over power generation, distribution and sales in its very own fiefdom – in its case, Tokyo. The company had the world’s third-largest nuclear generation capacity, with 17 reactors at three plants across Japan. TEPCO was a state within a state, often accused of exerting powerful influence over Japanese policymaking.

In March 2011, Reactor 1 had reached the statutory limit of its design life – 40 years of service. To continue running, it needed an extension from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government regulator. In February 2011, NISA had approved another ten years of operation. That was despite findings by a committee set up to review the approval that ‘maintenance management was inadequate’ and that the ‘quality of inspection was insufficient’.1 TEPCO would later admit that, during the inspection process, it had not examined more than 30 pieces of equipment, including diesel generators and water pumps vital to the plant’s cooling system.

Takashi Sato had worked at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for 15 years. A slight man with high cheekbones and a wispy mous­tache, Sato was proud of his work, and he was a true believer in nuclear power. ‘The nuclear plant provides employment for the district,’ he said. ‘TEPCO offers lots of opportunities. Even people from outside Fukushima come here to work, meaning money for local hotels, shops and restaurants. We’ve prospered because of the nuclear plant.’

Sato lived right next door to the plant, in the town of Okuma. ‘We grew up being told nuclear power is safe and secure,’ he said. ‘It was good for me to have been involved with the plant.’ For Sato, living in this nuclear village offered the best of both worlds. During the week, he had a well-paying job only a couple of kilometres from his home. On the weekends, he had the beach just over the road, or the mountains a short drive inland. Sato, his wife, Tomoe, and their seven-year-old daughter, Nao, were happy here. ‘Okuma is a very comfortable place to live,’ he said. ‘We have a beautiful view of the ocean, as well as the mountains. It is cool in summer and doesn’t snow too much in winter.’

But with the clock ticking down to the weekend, he wanted to get as much done on this Reactor 5 inspection report as he could. He stabbed away at his keyboard.

Sato had been shunted into a small second-floor room in the main TEPCO office block, about a kilometre inland from the string of six reactors. His report outlined what was inspected, when, and who was present from TEPCO and NISA. He was ticking boxes, keeping the bureaucrats happy.

Sato looked at his watch.

2.35 pm. A couple of hours and I’m out of here, he thought.

*

‘Questions Over the Prime Minister Receiving Illegal Donation’.

Tetsuro Fukuyama had known it was coming, and he knew it would be bad. But a front-page splash? This was getting worse by the day.

The deputy chief Cabinet secretary shook his head and threw the Asahi Shimbun on the desk. First, the foreign min­ister Seiji Maehara had been forced to resign; now they were going after the prime minister. Fukuyama knew they were in deep trouble, because the law was clear – politicians are not allowed to accept donations from foreigners. The newspaper was alleging the prime minister, Naoto Kan, had received $12,000 from a South Korean resident of Japan. Maehara had fallen on his sword for way less than that – a $600 contribution. At least the Asahi Shimbun was running Kan’s defence – he simply hadn’t known the donor was a foreigner. He was promising to return the entire amount. He had no plans to resign. Fukuyama also knew that his boss was a brawler, a tenacious politician who had fought his way off the canvas more than once.

But the smart money was on Naoto Kan becoming the fifth Japanese prime minister in a row to last a year or less in office. As the old proverb goes, Japanese prime ministers are like tissues. Disposable. You plucked one out, and, once you were finished with him (they were always men), you chucked him away. There was always another in the box waiting to be pulled out.

In a few hours, Naoto Kan would be in the Diet (the Japanese parliament), the blowtorch back on his belly. Tetsuro Fukuyama had been in the prime minister’s office since 6.30 am, trying to thrash out a strategy to defuse this scandal before it got any worse.

Just 49 years of age, Fukuyama was one of the rising stars of the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Elected to the Upper House of the Diet in 1998, he had been chosen by Naoto Kan to be one of three deputy chief Cabinet secretaries. That put him under the chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano. That posi­tion was seen as a stepping stone into the top job itself.

With his boyish good looks, and a wave of thick hair parted luxuriantly to the right, the relatively young Fukuyama was regarded by some in the opposition as an arrogant novice. They had to be careful not to underestimate him. But on this day, 11 March, the opposition could smell blood – Naoto Kan’s blood, because he was leaking support with every opinion poll. And this donation scandal was certain to further loosen his grip on power. The latest poll gave Kan and his Cabinet an approval rating of just 20 per cent. If they slipped one more point, they would equal the record for the lowest support level of any Japanese administration.

The prime minister’s wife, Nobuko, did not share the deputy chief Cabinet secretary’s confidence that her husband could surpass the average political lifespan of a Japanese leader. When Kan had moved into the PM’s office in June, nine months earlier, she’d joked that she had packed only their summer clothes. Mrs Kan did not think they would be staying that long.

But in a revolving-door system that had produced identical tissue-paper politicians, Naoto Kan stood out. He was an out­sider, cut from a coarser cloth. Unlike many of his predecessors, he was not the scion of a blueblood political dynasty – an Aso, an Abe, a Koizumi or a Hatoyama. His five immediate prede­cessors were all the direct descendants of a Cabinet minister or a prime minister. Kan is the son of a salaryman from the prefec­ture of Yamaguchi in far western Japan. And, unlike many of his political colleagues, he is no graduate of the ultra-elite schools such as Tokyo University. He had gone to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, earning a physics degree and later working as a patent agent and attorney.

Kan was a quick-tempered maverick and a bit of a tinkerer. In the early seventies, he had developed and built an automatic calculator for the complicated point system in the traditional Chinese game of mah-jong. Then, after several years of social activism, he was elected to the Diet in 1980. But it was not until 1996 that he won national acclaim and respect. As health minister, he had forced reluctant bureaucrats to come clean and reveal the ministry’s use of HIV-tainted blood products. The terrible secret had long been hushed up by ministry bureaucrats and pharmaceutical-company officials – it was a cover-up that had left 1800 haemophiliacs infected with the virus. It was a stunning victory for Naoto Kan over Japan’s omnipotent bureaucracy, but one that deepened his distrust of the manda­rins and the big private conglomerates that he still regards as representing the most insidious form of collusion.

‘Each individual in the Japanese bureaucracy is a good, excellent person,’ said Naoto Kan. ‘But when they become part of an organisation they don’t admit their errors, they cover them up. This was the case with this HIV scandal. Although they knew the adverse effects of these [blood products], they said they didn’t. They didn’t admit responsibility for the dam­age. I thought it was inexcusable that the state would not admit its guilt when so many people were suffering.’

From political triumph, Naoto Kan was plunged into per­sonal scandal when it was alleged he was involved in an affair with a television presenter. Both parties denied the claims. But his image as a principled reformer who was above the murky liaisons of politics had taken a hit. Then, in 2004, he had resigned as the head of his party for failing to pay compulsory pension contributions. Unconventional to the end, Naoto Kan had donned a conical straw hat and the white robes of the penitent and set off on a pilgrimage of 88 Buddhist temples on Shikoku Island in western Japan to ‘search his soul’ and pray for political resurrection.

On the morning of 11 March 2011, Naoto Kan was nine months into the job as prime minister of Japan, although he was again doing some political soul-searching. He was facing the biggest threat to his premiership. For Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama and the rest of the inner circle, the pressure was immense. The prime minister’s quick temper was not helping. It was not for nothing that he was known as ‘Ira-Kan’, short for ‘Irritable Kan’.

‘Some people say he’s not suitable to be prime minister, because he is like a small shopkeeper, always getting involved in everything,’ said Toshiso Kosako, one of Japan’s leading experts on radiation safety, who would later be called in to advise Naoto Kan. ‘Frequently he got angry. It caused trouble inside the Cabinet.’

In the coming days, many people would be scorched by the prime minister’s blowtorch temper, as Naoto Kan struggled for answers about how to deal with the biggest crisis in Japan since the Second World War.

*

The snow was beginning to stick to Yoshiharu Yoshida’s wind­screen. The fisherman leant forward in his little white truck, straining to see the road winding its way through the mountains on Hirota Peninsula. To the left, through the pines, he could see the Pacific – a grey sea set against a white sky. Yoshida would be home in a couple of minutes and finally out of the bone-chilling cold. It was 2.39 in the afternoon. He had been up since before dawn, as usual chugging out into Hirota Bay by 4 am to tend to his oyster beds.

Yoshida was born a fisherman. His grandfather had been a fisherman, so too had his grandfather’s grandfather. But the Yoshida family hadn’t always been tied to the ebb and flow of the Pacific. It was said that Yoshiharu Yoshida’s ancestors had been nobles and samurai during the Ashikaga shogunate of the sixteenth century. However, sometime after the fifteenth and final shogun was exiled they had lain down their swords for the sea, becoming one of the first families to settle the craggy bays of the Hirota Peninsula. In the wilderness of the north-east, they became lords of the Pacific, well acquainted with the tsunamis that would flood Hirota Bay after each violent earthquake.

For 20 years, Yoshiharu Yoshida has been growing oysters. Before that, he had cruised the world seeking the most lucrative prize in the sea: bluefin tuna. But, when his father had grown old, Yoshida returned to Hirota Bay to take over the family’s oyster farm. The Sanriku coast of north-eastern Japan was celebrated and sought out for its oysters – creamy, palm-sized molluscs cultivated in floating rafts spread out across the calm flat of the bay. This giant species had been exported all over the world – to North America, Australia and Europe. Yoshida’s oysters had even graced the plates of some of France’s finest restaurants.

The fisherman was pleased. He had harvested part of a crop he’d been nurturing for nearly 18 months. The best specimens would end up in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, nearly 600 kilometres to the south-west. It was a labyrinthine hive of forklifts, jab­bering auctioneers and 700 species of marine life. The biggest wholesale market in the world, Tsukiji turned over more than five billion dollars a year. Yoshida had just sold his smaller oys­ters to a wholesaler in Ofunato, 20 minutes’ drive to the north. In a good year, he could get $185,000 for them – and this was shaping up as a bumper harvest.

Yoshida pulled down into his steep driveway. His home sat in a rocky cove, which was encased in concrete, like most along this coast. Many of these bays also had towering concrete walls to protect homes and lives from the tsunamis that had battered the Sanriku coast for as long as time itself – an arrogance that nature would soon expose with stunning contempt. Turning off his engine, Yoshida tipped back his cap, revealing a tanned face worn into smooth leather by sun, salt spray and sea squalls. There were cracks in his stout fingers from years of hauling lines, tying ropes and being soaked in the Pacific brine. But he was content. Whether tending his oyster rafts in Hirota Bay or fishing overnight on the open ocean, Yoshida relished the solitude and the vagaries of the deep. But he knew the seafar­ing life in his district was withering towards extinction, slowly dying with each elderly fisherman of his generation. He was one of the youngest left, and he was approaching 60. He shook his head. These young people were soft – they spurned their birth­right. They’d prefer the faraway drudgery of a Tokyo office and the suffocation of a boxy apartment to the open water and the roll of a boat.

Yoshiharu Yoshida’s secluded cove was just across the bay from the town of Rikuzentakata. His house was set back up the hill a couple of hundred metres from the water. ‘Emiko, I am home. Is the coffee on?’ he asked as he slipped off his rubber boots and bib pants in the genkan, or entrance porch. But his wife was not home; she was down in the shed next to the cove scrubbing out fishing pots. Sliding his feet into his slippers, Yoshida stepped up into the vast living room. Light streamed in through the sliding shoji doors of wood and thin paper. Yoshida’s life had the easy rhythm of boat, sea and home.

I had met Yoshiharu Yoshida the year before at a lavish Japanese feast at a celebrated seafood restaurant in central Rikuzentakata. The proprietor, Tomie Oikawa, had fussed over us, keen to show off her hospitality to this gaijin (foreign) guest. The dishes had kept coming: sashimi of tuna, mack­erel, salmon and squid lying on ribbons of daikon; shells of scallops; porcelain bowls brimming with fat sticky rice; and deep red slabs of minke whale. Mrs Oikawa would bustle in, clinking bottles of Rikuzentakata’s renowned Suisen sake. Dozens of Yoshida’s succulent off-white oysters, each wob­bling on its plate-sized shell, had rounded out the banquet. I had come to Rikuzentakata to do a story about this old whaling town and one of its favourite sons, who had risen up Japan’s bureaucratic ladder to lead the country’s delegation to the International Whaling Commission. Hiroyuki Komatsu had drawn international scorn once for describing minke whales as ‘cockroaches of the sea’, an abundant resource that Japan should be free to plunder from the North Pacific to the Antarctic. Now, here I was at a restaurant being goaded into trying some of this cetacean cockroach by Komatsu and some of his oldest friends – those who’d resisted the neon lights and packed subways of Tokyo for the simplicity and serenity of Rikuzentakata. Sitting opposite me on the tatami-mat floor had been Yoshiharu Yoshida.

‘You must eat more of my oysters. They are the best in the world. Not only do they taste good, but they will make you a man,’ Yoshida had said with a wink. He had then tilted his head back and drained his sake.

Lying next to him was one of his fellow fishermen, an old seadog whose piratical constitution had deserted him. He was so drunk he’d passed out in a crucifixion position, his mouth agape. Another of our party had simply slid into unconscious­ness, head in hands, elbows on the table. Drunkenness among friends wasn’t just accepted but encouraged.

I had let the sake trickle over my tongue and down my throat. Why not let my hair down? I would never see these people again, nor return to Rikuzentakata. But I would be wrong. I would be back. But I would be right too. Some at this table I would never see again.

*

No matter how fast he worked, the pile of paper in front of him kept getting bigger.

Yuichi Owada leant back in his chair and stretched. Time for a cigarette. March was the busiest month of the year – tax time. The accountant lit the cigarette and drew back. In a few hours, he could leave these tax returns behind, enjoy a sake and look forward to a weekend of fishing on Hirota Bay.

Owada’s family had lived in the Yonezaki district of Rikuzentakata for generations. Almost everywhere you turned in Yonezaki, you bumped into an Owada. An Owada ran the convenience store, half the fishermen were Owadas, and the vil­lage’s biggest employer, the sawmill, was owned and operated by an Owada. The family had settled next to Hirota Bay more than three hundred years ago, and here they’d stayed.

‘I can go fishing almost every day,’ Yuichi Owada told me. ‘Why would I want to live in the city? Why would I want to get up early, go to work in a train packed in like a sardine? Why would I want to get home late? To have no time to play with the kids? Here I can be home by five o’clock, play sport with my kids, have dinner with them, read books to them at bed time. Time moves slowly here, but that suits me.’

Owada looked at the dozens of tax returns in the pile on his desk. Yes, time did move too slowly sometimes. He stubbed out his cigarette. In a bit over two hours, I’m out of here, he thought.

Owada heard a creak, like a heavy door opening on rusty hinges. Then his swivel chair shook. A quake. There had been one two days earlier, the biggest in a few years. That one had rattled north-eastern Japan for 30 seconds and measured magni­tude 7.2. A 30-centimetre tsunami had burbled into Hirota Bay half an hour later, rocking the fishing boats and swamping part of the port. Nothing serious.

Owada sat back in his chair and waited for the tremor to shake itself out. But it got worse. Files started falling off shelves around him. The lateral movement built and then built some more, until it seemed as though he was in a giant washing machine. Everything was slapping, slamming and shaking in a perfect rhythm. The office secretaries dived under their desks. A steel locker next to Owada’s desk teetered. The accountant rolled his chair up to it and stopped it from toppling. This is big, he thought. A tsunami will come.

The 11 March earthquake was what seismologists and geophysicists call a classic tsunamigenic rupture. For tens of millions of years, the Pacific Plate and the continental plate under Japan’s main island of Honshu have been grinding against each other in a ferocious contest of power. Moving west at about nine centimetres a year, the Pacific Plate buckles and dips under the continental plate, accumulating massive amounts of energy.

‘Eventually that stress is overcome, and is released in a very big earthquake,’ explained Dr Gavin Hayes, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado. ‘The plate is thrust upwards and that moves the sea floor upwards, in this case a thrust of 50 metres. Some estimate it could have moved 80 to 90 metres upwards.’

A later study would reveal that the two plates slipped more than in any other earthquake in recorded history. During the largest earthquake on record, the magnitude-9.5 Chile tremor of 1960, the fault zone moved 20 metres.

The megathrust earthquake was felt as far away as China and eastern Russia. It had 500 times more force than the magnitude-7 earthquake that killed 316,000 people in Haiti in 2010. It would be ranked the fourth most violent earthquake in recorded history. This sudden vertical snap of one of the earth’s plates had thrust a seven-kilometre-high wall of seawater upwards, giving birth to a mega-tsunami.2

‘We haven’t seen anything like it off Japan in more than a thousand years,’ said Dr Hayes. ‘We equate it most closely with the Jogan Earthquake of 869.’ Named for the period in Japanese history, the Jogan Earthquake had sent a tsunami crashing into the Sanriku coast. Its impact was described in Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku (The True History of Three Reigns of Japan), an official history of Japan ordered by the Emperor Uda in 879 ce and completed 22 years later. It recorded how more than a thousand people perished:

In some instances, the houses fell on them and they died under the weight, and in other instances, the earth sheared open and some died buried alive under the earth and sand . . . The mouth of the sea howled, sounding like thunder. And the violent waves and high tides arrived, going upstream into rivers, continuing until, in the blink of an eye, they reached the wall of the Taga Castle. The scene of the flood that had extended several dozen li [about 500 metres] was so vast you could not tell where the sea ended and the land started . . . Nothing – prop­erty and fields – remained; everything was destroyed.3

‘The record described a strong quake and violent tsunami,’ recounted Dr Yukinobu Okamura, the director of Japan’s Active Fault and Earthquake Research Centre. ‘Although it doesn’t mention the word “tsunami”, it says seawater rushed in and almost everything was washed away along a broad area. It also mentions that more than a thousand people were killed.’

Dr Okamura’s researchers had already discovered four years earlier through sediment analysis that the Jogan tsunami had reached three to four kilometres inland at modern-day Sendai and nearly two kilometres inland at northern Fukushima. That finding would come back to haunt him, the Japanese Government and TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant.

After five minutes, the shaking began to subside. Things in Yuichi Owada’s office stopped falling. He could let go of the steel locker. The secretaries emerged from under their desks. ‘I’ve got to get down to the port,’ said Owada. Like tens of thousands of men and women in towns and villages across Japan, the accountant was a volunteer firefighter. The captain of Yonezaki’s Division One squad of 22 men, Owada was tasked with evacuating residents and shutting the eight steel gates in the seawall at Wakinosawa Port in the event of a tsunami warning. He had done it two days earlier after the magnitude-7.2 quake.

‘I thought this would also send a small tsunami to the port. I never imagined anything larger,’ Owada said later.

Speeding through the streets of Yonezaki, he switched on the radio. A tsunami was coming. It would be over three metres. The seawall at Wakinosawa Port that protects the vil­lage is five metres high, so we should be okay, thought Owada. He parked his car at the fire station and jumped into Division One’s fire truck.

He raced past the Owada Sawmill, over the train tracks, and parked behind the seawall. His men were already there, and all the gates had been shut. It was 3.10 pm.

‘Here it comes,’ said one of the firefighters minutes later. They were laughing with relief. The sea had risen over the lip of the dock. To the firefighters, it looked like another ankle-deep tsunami that would soon retreat – like the one a couple of days earlier. But the water kept rolling across the dock. Soon it was storming through a fishing shed and up the incline towards the seawall. Styrofoam boxes, floats, fishing nets had all been picked up and were being swept along. The laughter died away. Owada looked at the dock. It was submerged under half a metre of cold grey ocean. This was no training exercise.

‘Move! Get to higher ground!’

The men clambered up a ladder to the top of the seawall and slid down its sloped back. They could no longer see the water. But Owada heard a crash and looked up to see the wheelhouse of a fishing boat poking over the top of the wall. It was clear the water was rising fast.

‘We’ve got to warn people,’ he said to his men. ‘I’ll take the truck.’

Jamming the truck into gear, Owada switched on the loud-hailer and lurched over the railway track, and up Yonezaki’s main street. There were cars passing him, heading down to the port. He couldn’t believe it. Other people were walking towards the ocean, keen to see this unbridled force of nature.

‘The tsunami is crossing the bank. Evacuate to higher ground!’ he screamed over the loudhailer. His voice was shrill, his words clipped. ‘Run away. Hurry up, hurry up!’

Behind him, the fishing boat had been lifted over the seawall, and it rolled down the other side and landed upright five metres below. The ocean was now spilling over the wall into the town, and for the first time people could see the tsunami. The cars had stopped heading to the port; their drivers were now frantically trying to turn around. Those on foot were running up the hill. It was clear to Yuichi Owada that for many it was too late.

‘The problem was the elderly, the bedridden people, people who thought they were safe behind the seawall. We had no time to evacuate them, and we could not force them to evacuate. I live with that regret,’ he would tell me later.

The tsunami was picking up speed. Owada estimated it was moving at 50 kilometres an hour up Yonezaki’s main street. It had approached the coast travelling at 800 kilometres an hour, rapidly slowing and growing as it was squeezed against the shallow sea floor – ten billion tonnes of unstoppable salt water. One woman was standing on the footpath, staring at the roiling mass, frozen.

‘The tsunami is coming up the bank. Run away!’ screeched Owada through the loudhailer as he passed her. He couldn’t stop. He had to warn as many people as he could.

As it approached the railway line, the tsunami consumed its first home. The old wooden house didn’t so much collapse as implode. One second it was there, the next there was a puff of sea spray and it was gone, transformed into a swirling hurricane of splintered sticks as sharp as spears. With every building it destroyed, the tsunami created more mass, the debris forming an ever more powerful battering ram that it would use to obliterate everything in its path.

Yuichi Owada was now past the sawmill, 300 metres from the port. But he sensed that even here he was not safe from the tsunami. He looked out the driver’s window back down the hill. The fishing boat was on the move again, bashing into house after house like a pinball.

Towards the top of the hill, Owada stopped the truck and jumped out. Why weren’t these people moving fast enough? They seemed hypnotised by the tsunami. Like Lot’s wife, they couldn’t resist turning back to watch.

‘Keep moving! Go to the top of the hill,’ he yelled to some old people stumbling up the street.

But some had not moved fast enough. Down below, one man was being swept along, clinging to a sawmill log washed up from the port. But another log slammed into him, crushing his head and chest, and he slipped under the water. A small white car had been caught by the tsunami and was being pushed towards the sawmill. There was someone in it. Owada strained his eyes and saw an old woman, her mouth wide open. He could tell she was screaming but he couldn’t hear her. The car was slowly rolling, being sucked under by the tsunami into the black hole of debris it had harvested. Owada got one last glimpse of the woman before she disappeared. It was his neighbour Kazuko Abe. She taught Japanese dance to his two youngest daughters. And, though Owada didn’t see her, in the back seat of the car was Mrs Abe’s four-year-old granddaughter, Ayumi.

*

To Naomi Hiratsuka, it felt as if the house was jumping. She had been asleep holding her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sae, when the earthquake started.

‘Toma, are you all right?’ she yelled. Her six-year-old son was playing in Koharu’s room. Kohura was still at school down the river.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied in a tiny voice. It was clear he was petrified.

Naomi could hear things smashing throughout the house. A vase in her bedroom fell, as did several framed photo­graphs. A windowpane cracked and slid out, shattering on the floor. The earthquake was subsiding now, so she clutched Sae to her chest and stood up. I must be careful where I walk, she thought. There was glass everywhere.

She staggered out into the hallway to find Toma and real­ised she was trapped. The bookcases in the hallway had fallen against the opposite wall, leaving piles of books and CDs on the floor. Then the house began to shake ferociously again. Naomi squatted down, holding Sae under her. At least there was noth­ing left to fall on them, except the ceiling. When was it going to stop? Naomi was desperate to get to Toma, who was trapped in Koharu’s room.

‘Sae, sit here. Stay still,’ she told the toddler. Naomi started clearing away books from in front of Koharu’s door. The aftershocks sent her scrambling to Sae, interrupting her rescue mission. It took her 30 minutes to make a path to the door.

Inside Koharu’s room, the entire floor was covered with the contents of shelves and toppled wardrobes. Where was Toma? A little head poked out from underneath Koharu’s desk.

‘Here, Mum,’ he said.

Naomi grabbed her son by the arm, and they went downstairs.

It was nearly 3.30 pm. Naomi’s parents-in-law were down­stairs with her husband’s 101-year-old grandmother. ‘We have to go and get Koharu,’ said Naomi.

‘No, we can’t,’ replied her father-in-law. ‘You have to look after the two youngest kids. Besides, it’s impossible to drive on the roads.’ In this house, his word was law. He was not only the head of the household, he was also the leader of Yokokawa, their village.

But Naomi could hear cars roaring past, going in the direc­tion of the school. She couldn’t question her father-in-law, let alone disobey him, so she reassured herself. ‘Koharu will be safe at the school. She is with the teachers and all her friends,’ said Naomi, looking at her parents-in-law. They said nothing.

Her husband – also a teacher – worked at another school. It was high on a hill, unlike the Okawa school. He would be safe.

Naomi heard a voice in the distance – it was a loudspeaker from across the river. But she couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. ‘Why aren’t our loudspeakers working?’ she asked her father-in-law. Like all Japanese towns and villages, Yokokawa had loudspeakers that whined out a tune every day at 5 pm to remind children to go home. They were also used for public announcements and during emergencies.

But the earthquake had knocked out the electricity, and the back-up batteries for Yokokawa’s loudspeakers were dead.

Naomi’s father-in-law decided to go out to his vegetable field downriver to pick up a radio he kept in a hut there. He was the village leader – he must find out what was going on. All Naomi could do now was try to prepare some dinner and hope to see Koharu tomorrow. She was a teacher, someone taught to put the well-being of her students first. She knew the teachers at the Okawa Primary School would have taken the children to the high ground.

*

The four-tonne truck was bouncing. Pig farmer Norio Kimura crouched down in the cage on the back, careful not to sit in the dollops of shit. The hose in his hand was still spraying water everywhere. It was like the truck was moving over a road full of potholes. Kimura couldn’t believe how long this quake was shaking for. He decided it was easily the biggest he had ever experienced. Then he heard a horrible wailing. It was the old cook, who had come tearing out of the farm’s kitchen. The shaking was finally slowing. Kimura jumped down from the truck and headed around the back of the kitchen to check the gas cylinders. They were lying on the ground, and all four were leaking gas. He shut them off. Inside the kitchen, Kimura tried to call home, but the line was not working. I must check on the pigs, he thought.

As he headed towards the pig sheds, the first thing he noticed were the feed tanks – the three of them had toppled and spilt tonnes of feed. That could wait. The sheds themselves seemed fine, but once inside Kimura had a problem. The earthquake had jiggled the wooden slat floor, shifting the slats apart and causing hundreds of pigs to fall through into the waste drains a metre below. Should I haul them out or head home to check on the family, thought Kimura.

A colleague joined him inside the shed. ‘I just heard on the radio a three-metre-high tsunami is coming,’ he said.

Three metres. My house is at least five or six metres above sea level, calculated Kimura. ‘Help me pull these pigs out of the pits,’ he said. It was going to take hours.

*

In his cupboard-sized office inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, reactor inspector Takashi Sato had stopped watch­ing the clock and was determined to get more of his Reactor 5 safety report finished before the end of the day. He struck the keyboard with his index finger. The building shuddered. He knew immediately it was an earthquake. Not another one, he thought. There have been so many tremors in the past month or so – more than usual. Sato’s desk suddenly began to bounce like it was possessed. Files from a shelf above vibrated forward and then fell, nearly hitting him on the head. An entire shelf collapsed. This was no ordinary quake. Sato rolled back his chair and plunged under his desk. Luckily he did, because seconds later an entire ceiling panel split and crashed onto his seat. Then another panel fell, and another, until the entire ceil­ing was on the floor. Sato was in a crouch position under his desk. How long can this go on for, he wondered. It felt like it had been going for five minutes. Then the earthquake didn’t so much stop as slow down.

Sato’s director appeared at the door. ‘We’ve got to go imme­diately to the earthquake-proof building,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’

The earthquake-proof building, or seismic-isolation centre, was a two-storey white reinforced concrete bunker designed by TEPCO to act as a shelter and command centre in major emergencies such as this. It had two air filtration systems to keep out radiation and was built on dampers, or giant shock absorbers, so it could ride out even the biggest tremors. Sato waited outside as a roll call was taken. Inside, he joined hun­dreds of TEPCO employees and contractors, many of whom were transfixed by the images on a TV monitor on the wall. It showed the sea from above. A news helicopter was hovering over the coast near Sendai, waiting. Flashing across the screen in red letters was a message: a big tsunami is coming. The chop­per was waiting to catch the first wave and beam it into tens of millions of Japanese homes. It was the first in what is called the tsunami train, a series of waves generated by a massive offshore earthquake, like ripples on an enormous pond. The waves in the train can come in surges that are as little as five minutes, or as long as an hour, apart. And they can keep coming for hours.

This would be the first truly epic natural disaster to be broadcast as it happened, live around the world. Sato, too, was mesmerised. For him and the hundreds inside the bunker, the only visual link with the outside world was this giant monitor, now showing a long straight wave forming a few kilometres out to sea. It stretched far beyond the zoom of the camera’s lens. They didn’t know it yet, but these tsunamis were bearing down on a 700-kilometre expanse of north-eastern Japan.

Suddenly, the helicopter was behind the wave, following it in. The tsunami was growing as it neared land, its long white cap foaming and frothing. It was now less than a kilometre out and was thundering towards the coast. Sato could hear people in the bunker gasping as they watched the monster storm towards the shore. They didn’t realise the ocean surge was also bearing down on the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Sato tried to block out the din from his horrified colleagues so he could think. This can’t be real. Maybe the wave will wash over a dike and flood a few houses. That should be it. Sato heard a collec­tive gasp and looked back up at the monitor. A gurgling black mass was rolling over the coast.

*

The creak of the timber came first, then the languid side-to-side motion. But with each passing second the force of the earthquake grew. Oyster farmer Yoshiharu Yoshida caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A vase tipped and smashed onto the floor. A wooden statue of Daikokuten, the Japanese god of wealth and fortune, also teetered and fell. Everything was falling. The sound was deafening, as everything in his house was tossed about in a hellish cacophony. The fisherman was used to keeping his feet in the most terrible of storms, so he propped himself against the wall and managed to stand. He staggered out of the front door of his home and rolled onto his backside on the driveway. But, even here, in the open, it didn’t feel safe. His mouth fell open. The earth in his yard was cracking apart, creating deep gashes through the middle of his garden. Yoshida always imagined he would be swallowed by the sea, not the land. Eventually, the earth stopped shaking and he looked around for his wife of 31 years. Emiko was jogging towards him from the shed.

The fisherman knew what he had to do. ‘I’m going to save the boat. There’ll be a tsunami on its way for sure. You’ll be safe up in the house.’

Emiko nodded; she knew the drill. This was the second time in less than 50 hours that Yoshida was fleeing into the face of a potential tsunami. When the magnitude-7.2 quake had hit in the early afternoon of 9 March, he had left Emiko behind and taken the boat out, returning only when the tsunami warning had been lifted. But, this time, he knew some­thing terrible was coming.

Within five minutes, Yoshida was at Koeda Port, untying the Maru Yoshi Maru. Several other fishermen were there too, preparing to put to sea. But one was walking back to his car.

‘Kumagai-san, what are you doing?’ shouted Yoshida.

‘I just want to pop back to check on the house,’ replied Kumagai.

‘No, no, no. This one isn’t a joke. Come on, get on your boat and get out of here like the rest of us,’ said Yoshida.

Kumagai stopped and thought. He raised his hand to acknowledge his comrade’s greater wisdom and turned back towards his boat.

The engine of the Maru Yoshi Maru thundered into life, and Yoshida reversed the boat away from the dock. It was a minute or two past 3 pm. Yoshida reckoned the tsunami would hit within 30 minutes of the earthquake. That gave him 15 minutes at best to get to open water. Using his remote controls at the bow of the 12-metre boat, he opened the throttle and turned to port. The tsunami would come from the south-east through the chan­nel between the Tomari and Karakuwa peninsulas, and build in height on Hirota Bay before slamming into Rikuzentakata town at the head of the bay. Yoshida knew he must head for the channel, and for the heart of the tsunami. Behind him in the dis­tance was Rikuzentakata, hiding behind its 5.5-metre seawall and its forest of 70,000 pines – once declared by the national government to be one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful sites. Soon it would be one of the country’s most haunting, reminiscent of an atomised Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Yoshida wound his way through a maze of oyster beds, until he had nothing but clear water ahead of him. The boat was doing 12 knots – its top speed. In front of him were a few fishing boats also bolting port. He looked around and saw another dozen or so trailing behind him. After ten minutes, he was near the mouth of Hirota Bay, between the two pen­insulas. Then he saw it. It was perfect – a symmetrical grey line against the overcast horizon. The fishing boats in front rose and fell over the wave. Seconds later, Yoshida’s boat met it and climbed – one, two, three, four, five metres. The bow dipped, and he was over the tsunami. But it was still forming, still growing in its destructive power. It had seven kilometres to go until it reached Rikuzentakata at the top of the bay.

Yoshida shook his head. By then, it would be a monster. He picked up the radio.

‘Emiko, the tsunami is coming. It’s heading now towards Rikuzentakata. You’ll see it any second now. Be careful.’

There was no answer.

Yoshida wound back the throttle and turned to watch the collision. The tsunami was smashing into the sides of Hirota Bay as it approached Rikuzentakata. The wave was rising, rearing back like a snake about to strike. Yoshida strained his eyes and thought he saw white smoke drifting over the town. Except it was not smoke; it was an explosion of sea spray. Rikuzentakata was being consumed.

*

Forty-one minutes after the earthquake’s opening shudder, the first tsunami crashed over the front line of defence at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant: a 2.5-kilometre breakwater of 60,000 concrete blocks. Eight minutes later, an even larger wave surged over the second and last line of protection: the com­pound’s 5.7-metre seawall. TEPCO’s earthquake-proof bunker was just 400 metres from the seawall, but it sat on a raised area 35 metres above sea level. Inside it, on the monitor, the company’s employees watched a fast-moving wave the colour of oil roiling across the Sendai plain, further north up the coast. It was pushing fishing boats inland, exploding plastic greenhouses and picking up parked trucks. In the images taken from high in the sky, Sato could see the black wave tearing apart homes. As he watched, the tsunami seemed to transform from a liquid into a solid mass of timber, roofs and vehicles. Parts of it were even on fire.

The monster was travelling over the land at more than 60 kilometres an hour. The camera operator on the chopper zoomed out, revealing the brown plains of Sendai that were about to be inundated. There was another collective groan from inside the bunker. The vision now showed cars trying to outrun the surge. Some had stopped and were doing three-point turns, the drivers realising too late what was coming for them. Other cars were trapped on roads running along the face of the tsunami and were desperately trying to turn off and escape. One didn’t make it to a side road, and the little white car disappeared under the rolling wave.

‘The tsunami has hit the side of the turbine buildings.’ It was not the TV but a voice inside the bunker.

Sato was jolted away from the television monitor. What did they say? Only now did he realise that the same wave had hit the Fukushima coast too.

‘The tsunami alarm said the height would be about three metres,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. Yoshizawa was the director of reactors 5 and 6 at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and was outranked only by plant manager Masao Yoshida. A lithe, quietly spoken man with neatly parted salt and pepper hair, Yoshizawa was a 30-year TEPCO veteran. ‘I felt that the plant would not be affected by three metre waves,’ he recalled.

The earthquake had already knocked out power to the nuclear plant, triggering the automatic shutdown of Fukushima Dai-ichi’s only functioning reactors – units 1, 2, and 3. But the plant’s emergency defences appeared to be working. Thirteen diesel generators – each the size of a train locomotive – had kicked in, running the emergency pumps to cool the reactors.

Most of the generators were in the basement of the turbine building; others were on the ground floors of reactors 4 and 6. But suddenly there was panic inside the bunker.

‘I got some information from outside,’ said Yoshizawa. ‘One bit of information was that heavy oil tanks were being washed away by the waves. And then the pumps in the plant stopped and the power failed. That was when I realised a huge tsunami had come.’

The diesel back-up generators had been submerged by the seawater that had flooded the basements of the turbine buildings and other generator sites. Electrical circuits had been shorted and generator fuel tanks washed away. There was no power source cooling the reactors. All that was left to stop Fukushima Dai-ichi’s nuclear fuel from overheating and disgorging radiation were banks of what are called ‘coping’ batteries. They had enough charge to last just eight hours.

‘The power was failing, electricity was running short,’ said Yoshizawa. As a nuclear engineer and one of TEPCO’s most senior reactor managers, he knew they were in deep trouble, the worst type of trouble. ‘All power to the central control room was lost. There were batteries we could use immediately after the power failure at the plant, but batteries die and we must replace them. We needed new batteries. But how could we find them?’

Takashi Sato was no longer transfixed by the TV monitor on the wall of the bunker. The drama was playing out right here, and he knew the clock was ticking.

*

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama no longer had to worry about the prime minister’s political-donation scandal. The earthquake and tsunami had consumed it too. At

2.46 pm, Fukuyama had held on to his desk, watching on his office TV as the quake also rattled the hearing in the Upper House Diet committee room nearby. There was his boss, the prime minister Naoto Kan, sitting in the committee room, his mouth hanging open, gripping his chair as if he were riding a roller coaster. High above him, the chandeliers were swinging like pendulums, and the slapping of the blinds on the windows could be heard above the worried chatter and cries of MPs.

‘The hall has many chandeliers, and they were swaying madly,’ recalled Naoto Kan. ‘I was worried about those people directly under the chandeliers, so I was looking up at the lights from my chair. Some Diet officials were taking refuge under their chairs and desks.’

Tetsuro Fukuyama was the only senior government figure working on the fifth floor of the prime minister’s office when the earthquake hit. ‘Keep watching the TV. Call the emergency team to the crisis management centre,’ the deputy chief Cabinet secretary ordered his secretary. ‘I’m going there now.’

At the crisis management centre in the building’s basement, Tetsuro Fukuyama was joined by the prime minister and more than a hundred other ministers, ministerial officials, bureaucrats and staffers. Desks were arranged in a large oval formation, with the prime minister at the centre. About a dozen huge television monitors were lined around the walls, broadcasting live cover­age from all the TV networks and footage from Self-Defence Force helicopters. Telephones were ringing all over the place, and when a crucial message was received it was rebroadcast over a loudspeaker to everyone in the centre.

‘Every second we were getting reports. How many fires and where they were,’ Fukuyama recounted later. ‘Reports about road conditions, derailed trains, which rail lines had stopped, and also power failures. We also got a report about the emergency stop of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant. With an emergency stop, it meant it was under control. So for the moment we were not concerned with the plant.’

For the prime minister, the automatic shutdown, or SCRAM, at Fukushima Dai-ichi and other nuclear plants along the coast meant he had one less problem to worry about, in what was developing into the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history. ‘They were able to make an emergency stop [at Fukushima],’ Naoto Kan told me later. ‘A large diesel power generator for emergencies was functioning and the cooling sys­tem had not failed. The reactors were under control. So when I heard that I was relieved.’

Months later, serious questions would be asked about whether the magnitude-9 earthquake had wrenched important cooling pipes at Reactor 1 – the oldest and most seismically vulnerable at Fukushima – causing them to burst. If this was the case, and the reactor’s cooling system was already compro­mised, it would have major safety implications for all of Japan’s ageing nuclear power stations, raising more questions about their susceptibility to huge tremors. But TEPCO would insist that all the damage at Fukushima Dai-ichi was caused by the tsunami (see Chapter 3).

Then, at 3.40 pm, another announcement came through from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), one that chilled to the bone many of those in the crisis management centre.

‘It said, “All AC power has been lost at the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant, and all cooling functions have stopped,”’ recalled Tetsuro Fukuyama.

Fukuyama was a politician, not a nuclear engineer. What did this mean?

‘When will the power be restored?’ demanded someone in the crisis centre.

‘We are looking into it now,’ answered someone else.

The deputy chief Cabinet secretary could feel the tension in the room rise. I must start taking notes, he decided.

Naoto Kan talked to his defence minister and ordered Japan’s Self-Defence Force to be mobilised. Twenty thousand troops would head to the tsunami zone immediately, rising to 100,000 in the coming days. It would be the biggest deployment of Japanese soldiers since the end of the war. For now, he had no new information about what was happening in Fukushima. The silence from the operator TEPCO was worrying. ‘When I heard the cooling function had failed, it meant all power had been lost,’ said Kan. ‘I thought this would be truly dangerous. I knew that unless cooling continued, it would cause a meltdown.’

His deputy chief Cabinet secretary was only now realising what was at stake. ‘At the emergency headquarters, the prime minister mentioned the possibility of an extremely critical con­dition if cooling was not possible,’ said Tetsuro Fukuyama. ‘The general argument then was that if the cooling function could not be restored and the temperature of the core rose, meltdown could occur in about ten hours.’

Later, Fukuyama would open his notebook and scribble in an entry:

Declaration of Nuclear Emergency Situation [by] Prime Minister
Fukushima Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3
Not operating because of tsunami
Cooling by cooling system with battery [life of] 8 hours
Reactor core temperature up
10 hours meltdown will happen
Very anxious situation

But there would be a delay in declaring a nuclear emergency. In the early evening, the industry minister Banri Kaieda was briefed by TEPCO about the crisis engulfing Fukushima Dai-ichi. Kaieda immediately raced to the prime minister’s office, urging Naoto Kan to make the declaration and establish the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. Under law, the headquarters had to be chaired by the prime minister. But Kan appeared unmoved by his industry minister’s insistence, and unconvinced by his argument that a nuclear emergency needed to be declared right away.

‘On what grounds?’ demanded Kan.4

‘It took time to get the understanding of the prime minister,’ Kaieda said later.5

In fact, it would take at least another hour to bring Naoto Kan round. In the meantime, the prime minister had gone off to a meeting of opposition leaders and was attending to other business.

More than three hours after the tsunami had swamped Fukushima Dai-ichi, Kan finally declared a nuclear emergency. But the delay had held up efforts by local authorities in Fukushima to inform residents near the crippled plant about the unfolding crisis.6 After the declaration, the prime minister chaired the first meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. He had also summoned representatives from TEPCO, NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission. He wanted a full and frank briefing about what was going on at the nuclear plant.

It didn’t get off to a good start. ‘You say all power sources are down. Are you saying every single source?’ Kan asked the director-general of NISA, Nobuaki Terasaka.7

‘Yes, every single one,’ replied Terasaka.

‘But there must be back-up batteries,’ demanded the prime minister.

‘They are all useless,’ said Terasaka.

They were useless because they had been submerged by seawater. Kan’s short fuse ignited. ‘Do you understand anything technical?’ he snapped.

‘I am a graduate of the Faculty of Economics,’ explained Terasaka. ‘But I understand the basics of technology.’8

Naoto Kan was stunned. He was asking for detailed tech­nical advice about a developing nuclear crisis from his chief nuclear regulator. Instead, he had an economics graduate standing before him. ‘The director-general of NISA came to me and reported on conditions,’ Naoto Kan told me later. ‘But I couldn’t understand him very well. I felt his explanation was inadequate. So I asked him if he was a nuclear specialist. He said he had a degree in economics and he was not a nuclear specialist. So here is a person who isn’t a nuclear expert heading up the nuclear safety agency, who was to take direct responses to such accidents, coming to explain to me what was going on.’

Nobuaki Terasaka was a classic product of Japan’s bureau­cratic merry-go-round. He was no nuclear specialist; he was a graduate of the University of Tokyo’s School of Economics. But it was his turn for a top job. The top job on offer in July 2009 just happened to be that of Japan’s main nuclear safety agency. So it was his. ‘[Terasaka] did not understand what he was talk­ing about,’ Kan would tell me. ‘He had been assigned to his post under the assumption there would not be any [nuclear] accidents.’

This exchange deepened the prime minister’s inherent mis­trust of the bureaucracy. Naoto Kan now felt he had to take charge himself.

*

Norio Kimura was taking the inland route home to Okuma. The coast road the pig farmer usually travelled was near sea level, so if there had been a tsunami it would be flooded, he thought. It had taken him two hours to haul the pigs out of the waste drains – 300 of them. His body was aching and he was covered in shit. He smelt just like the pig farmer he was. Kimura had tried to call Miyuki’s mobile and the house phone a dozen times. But he couldn’t get through to his wife. The network was probably overloaded, he decided. He assumed that, after the earthquake, Miyuki had immediately left work and set out for home.

Kimura was just a few hundred metres from his house when he saw the mountain of debris. He felt the blood drain from his face. He could not drive any further – there was too much rub­bish strewn over the road. He saw a shattered desk, upturned chairs, futons, couches, photo albums, walls of houses, splin­tered timber and cars crushed like aluminium cans. Kimura picked his way past the detritus of his neighbours’ lives and was suddenly confused. Where is my home? Where is the garden? It should all be here, he thought. But all that was there was a concrete foundation. Kimura felt queasy. Where is my family? It is getting dark. He straightened up, shook himself. Got to think. Where could they be?

Okuma’s sports centre was a designated evacuation point in the event of a natural disaster. Kimura ran back to his car.

The sports centre was in a state of chaos. Hundreds of people were there; many were crying; most were confused. Some were on mobile phones, trying to contact the missing. After checking the car park for his wife’s hatchback, Kimura began weaving his way through the throng, searching for his family. Then he saw them. His mother and his eldest daughter, Mayu.

‘Are you okay? Where is everyone else?’ asked Kimura.

But his mother couldn’t answer; she was hysterical.

Kimura took Mayu gently by the shoulders. ‘Mayu, where is Mum, Grandad and Yuna?’

Mayu shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Grandad came to the school after the earthquake, but he told me to wait there. He was going back to check on Grandma.’

Kimura thought. ‘Mum, please calm down. I need to ask you something. Did Dad come back home after the school?’

Kimura’s mother shook her head. She had headed to high ground after the quake.

‘Mayu, I am going out to check some other places. You stay here and look after Grandma.’

Kimura checked two hospitals and three more shelters. There was no sign of Miyuki, or little Yuna, or his father. He tried his wife’s phone again. There was just silence – no ringing, not even a recorded message saying her phone was switched off or out of range.

By the time Kimura got back to where his home once stood, the sun had set, and it was pitch black. There were no street lights any more, no homes. There was no light at all except for the torch in his hand. There was no sound, apart from the rolling of waves on the beach and the sucking of mud with each step that Kimura took through this wasteland.

But then he heard something, and he saw it coming towards him. ‘Bell!’

The Doberman nuzzled against Kimura’s legs. He had thought their dog would have been washed away. Then his hand ran over something around Bell’s neck, and for the first time Kimura felt scared. The dog was wearing her leash. But when everyone had left home this morning, Bell had been in her cage, thought Kimura. Miyuki must have made it home, put on the dog’s leash and let her out. But where is my wife?

*

From the deck of his boat on Hirota Bay, Yoshiharu Yoshida could see Kesennuma burning. The oyster farmer couldn’t see the actual town – it was obscured by the Karakuwa Peninsula – but from the surface of the bay he watched the inferno light up the night sky.

‘I could see the fires leaping into the night from over the peninsula. The sky was scarlet. It illuminated the black smoke that was twisting into the air. Kesennuma burnt all night.’

Kesennuma would burn for four days. Just south of Rikuzentakata and Hirota Bay, the town was being shaken, swamped and scorched by earth, water and fire. Huge tuna ships moored in the harbour had been slammed into one another by the tsunami, igniting thousands of litres of heavy fuel. Like the old wooden fireships used by the English against the Spanish Armada in the sixteenth century, the blazing tuna boats had torched everything around them. Leaking burning fuel, they were driven into central Kesennuma by the waves, setting alight homes and buildings. They were creating a firestorm.

Yoshida and his fellow survivors on Hirota Bay had never seen anything like it. It was like watching hell. Turning west, the fisherman tried to make out Rikuzentakata at the head of the bay. Darkness. Yoshida knew there was nothing to burn there, because the town no longer existed.

He shivered and breathed into his clasped hands. Light snow was falling, and he was frozen to the bone. His stomach growled at him.

Even on his boat, Yoshida could feel the massive aftershocks. What he couldn’t feel were the tsunamis sucking him in, and then pushing him out. Yoshida would only realise later, when the dawn allowed him to see his position in relation to the bay, that the sea was still alive hours after the earthquake and was rolling his boat in and out, backward and forward. The tsunami train was still coming, its surges as powerful on the way out as they were on the way in.

‘There’s debris everywhere,’ echoed a voice from the dark. It was one of the other fishermen floating on the bay. They had kept close for hours, so close they could talk without radios.

Yoshida switched on his lights and saw what the tsunami had sucked back out to sea. Tatami mats, splintered timber, an entire house, plastic drums. He swung one of his spotlights about and counted six cars bobbing near his boat. Yoshida couldn’t believe how well they floated. This is dangerous, he thought. I have to move further out to sea. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to the flotilla. ‘Let’s move further out. It’s too risky here. All the wreckage is floating out towards us.’

Yoshida turned on the engine and heard a whining noise. There was something wrong. He moved to the stern and opened the hatch, and found a wicker chair caught around the propel­ler shaft. It took him a little while to saw it and cut it away. Only then could he escape this drifting field of debris, all that remained of Rikuzentakata. He wondered if his wife had sur­vived the tsunami and if his house was still standing. At least his beloved boat was safe.

*

‘Anyone who has a car here, go out and get the battery from it.’

The words washed over Takashi Sato as if he was in a dream. Slowly, it sank in. The people inside the earthquake-proof bunker were being asked to go and scavenge car batteries to power the nuclear plant’s control panels. Masao Yoshida and his deputy, Atsufumi Yoshizawa, couldn’t tell if the emergency cooling systems were working because their instruments and meters were dead.

‘For example, we didn’t know the pressure in the dry wells or the water levels,’ Yoshizawa would tell me later. ‘I was fight­ing with the fear of whether or not the plant conditions were safe, and whether the people there could take refuge safely.’

They did not know how much water was covering the fuel rods in reactors 1 and 2. (The batteries powering the instru­ments for Reactor 3 were still working but would soon fail.) The only thing that could help Japan know if it was facing a nuclear meltdown could be a handful of car batteries.

Like the hundreds of others in the earthquake-proof build­ing, Sato had been told to stay at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to help get the situation under control. More than 5000 other workers had been allowed to leave. Sato wished he could have joined them. What am I here for, he wondered. He was a reac­tor inspector, not an operator. So far, all he had been asked to do was go and pull the battery out of his car. But there was no way Sato was giving them his battery – he needed it to get out of Fukushima Dai-ichi, when they let him. He looked at his mobile phone – there was no signal inside the bunker. He couldn’t even tell his family he was safe. And what about them? Did they get away from the tsunami? Our house is just metres from the ocean, he thought. Did Nao get home safely from school? Is she with her mother? Sato rummaged through his bag and pulled out his diary. If I’m stuck in this bunker, I might as well jot down some notes, he decided. Sato wrote his first entry:

2.46 – Earthquake Plant – automatic shutdown of turbines and reactors

At about 9 pm, the car batteries were finally hooked up to the instrument panels using cables collected from storage rooms. There was good news. The water level inside Reactor 1 was about half a metre above the top of the fuel assemblies. It was below where it should have been, but it was enough to reassure the plant’s operators that no fuel had melted (although it would later be revealed that the gauges were wrong, and the superheated water had dropped below the fuel rods, exposing the reactor core). If there was a core meltdown, toxic radioactive substances such as caesium-137 and iodine-131 would seep into the contain­ment vessel of the reactor. And if that vessel was breached, huge amounts of radiation would leach out into the environment.

It could be like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Soviet Ukraine, when operator error and design flaws led to a com­plete meltdown. A series of explosions then scattered huge plumes of radiation into the atmosphere over Europe and the western Soviet Union, triggering the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Dozens of emergency workers battling the meltdown died of radiation sickness, and a report by a group of United Nations agencies called the Chernobyl Forum estimated that 4000 people who were exposed to large doses of contamination will die of radiation-induced cancers and leu­kaemia. The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in history, rating a seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale – the most serious ranking, meaning a ‘major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects’. Twenty-six years after the meltdown, there was still a 2600-square-kilometre exclusion zone around the deformed carcass of the Chernobyl plant.

Masao Yoshida knew all about Chernobyl, but, with the gauges showing the water level inside Reactor 1 above the fuel, he thought the situation was under control. But now the panel was showing there was a problem. A big problem.

‘In the case of Reactor 1, we could tell that the pressure in the dry well was rather high, so the only way was venting,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. ‘The pressure in the dry well was designed to withstand a certain level of pressure, but when the pressure exceeds that level it becomes impossible to contain it. The worst case was considerable destructive force destroying the container.’

In other words, an explosion. Pressure inside Reactor 1’s con­tainment vessel was rising – a sign that the core cooling system was not working. The pressure was being caused by the reactor’s residual ‘decay’ heat. Even after a reactor stops operating, the nuclear fuel inside will continue to radiate enormous amounts of heat. If there is no cooling to remove this decay heat from the reactor, the temperature will continue to rise, to the point where it could melt the nuclear fuel. And because the coolant inside Reactor 1 was not being circulated, it was evaporating.

‘We may have to vent the reactor,’ said Yoshida.

Yoshida’s bosses at TEPCO weren’t so sure about vent­ing. This emergency procedure had never been done before in Japan, and it was certain to sow further doubts in the public consciousness about the safety of nuclear power, an industry that had earned TEPCO tens of billions. It could also leave the company wide open to substantial damages for radioactive contamination.

But Yoshida was choosing the lesser of two evils.

‘This was the procedure in an emergency. So we followed the procedure,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. ‘There could be some kind of explosion so we had to [vent] to release the pressure.’

Yoshizawa knew this would release radioactive steam into the atmosphere. But, if they didn’t vent, pressure inside the reactor’s containment vessel would continue to build and it could explode. That would spew infinitely more radiation into the atmosphere and across Japan. Once the reactor was decompressed, they could start injecting water to cool it.

Heads started turning towards the TV monitor again. Something was flashing across the screens. An evacuation order for everyone living within three kilometres of the nuclear plant had been issued by the government in Tokyo. Takashi Sato couldn’t believe it. If his wife and daughter were alive, they now had to run. He returned to his notes and made one last entry for 11 March:

Reactor 1 – RPV [reactor pressure vessel] water level
down, fear of release of radioactive substances
Evacuation Order for radius of 3 kilometres
Order to stay indoors for radius 3–10 kilometres

The chaos soon to be generated by the evacuation order would also hold up emergency power vehicles sent by the government and TEPCO to help restore electricity to the site. The lead truck was stuck in a grinding traffic jam caused by thousands of panicked and fleeing residents. But then they got a break. A back-up generator truck from another power company arrived at 11 pm. Then their hope dissolved. The power cable it had brought was too short to hook up.9 They also had the wrong plugs.

Their other hope was that batteries TEPCO had asked to be brought to the plant would arrive, and they could use them to open safety relief (SR) valves to release steam from the over­heating reactors. Ten 12-volt batteries were enough to power an SR valve. So the company had ordered a senior official to get hundreds of them to the site pronto. But when the Self-Defence Force got to the plant, they had brought only two-volt batteries. TEPCO would eventually get hold of more than a thousand 12-volt batteries, which were being stored at a base 55 kilometres from Fukushima Dai-ichi. But by this time there was no one who was prepared to brave the fallout and drive them to the plant.

‘Things that we needed most didn’t come at all,’ recounted a TEPCO official who was at the site.10

In Japan, this terrible day would become known simply as san ten ichi ichi: 3/11.


Excerpted from Fukushima by Mark Willacy. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Willacy.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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