“Shibboleth” – Second Part

July 5, 2008 at 12:44 pm (Ríta) (, )

Occasionally, we would receive dispatches – news, personal letters, bills, fliers – wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, the seal of Maraña’s personal staff affixed to the top of the package in dark blue wax, where the string crossed itself, to show that it had not been opened. A boy on a dapple horse, wearing sandals and white cotton, would ride up to the side of the river and call to the boat, whereupon Maraña would direct it to the nearest shallows; the package would be produced from one of the brown leather saddlebags, swiftly followed by the boy’s lunch, which he would take with us on deck whilst on the riverbank the horse watched its feet for snakes. We would feed him diabolos of cloudy lemonade and mint syrup and query him closely about the goings-on of the Maraña household in Cairo: who was ill, who was conscientious, who was slack, who whistled in the hallways, who snuck pinches of chicken breast from under the wing before serving it to Señora Olmedo, blind and submissive in her old age, who took breaks during deathly inactive night shifts for steamy trysts behind the rosebed. Maraña was an experienced gossip, and in absentia could quite deftly construct a psychological model of his staff; he would wait until we were in a frenzy of speculation before remarking, “Ah, hm, it is true that poor Javi cannot bear the mid-afternoon sun and must nap after lunch,” or some other remark that showed us our place ab extra. The boy, more often than not, would nod and gesture towards Maraña, to say, Yes that is right; he has it exactly, and we would sit back in our chairs, defeated.

The boy brought letters every week for Chema, which he always answered at length, and immediately, scraping his chair back and hurrying to his room, often with his drink or cigar in his hand. Chema was fond of martinis, and Maraña had an icebox in the base of the boat: at least a bottle of good gin was spilt over the course of the trip, the victim of impractical glassware and haste.

Sitting in this night, hearing the tick of the typewriter keys, my beer warm and flat and abandoned, I still wonder what sort of hold Elisabeta had on her son. He was not a mother’s pet, and yet would implore the post-boy to wait with us until he finished his response, so that it could be sent back immediately. His notes rushed headlong across the Atlantic, but Elisabeta could not have received them until after she sent her next letter; they spoke to each other as might radios on a table: each following a thread of thought that the other could not hear. This is not reminiscent of a true conversation; it reminds one more of military dispatches, which must be sent no matter what messages or replies are in transit. I cannot but conclude, for myself alone, that Elisabeta had sent her son, in part, to spy on her uncle.

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