A masterly epic that weaves a contemporary search for a missing father with a vivid story from the heyday of the British Empire.
Liv, a Canadian filmmaker, is writing from a Tahitian jail, piecing together her troubled past and her family's buried history for the unknown daughter she gave up at birth. The search for her own father, a pilot missing since the Korean War, has brought her to the South Seas and landed her behind bars on a trumped-up murder charge. In the stillness of her cell, Liv ponders the secret journal of her ancestor Frank Henderson, who came to these same waters a century before on an extraordinary three-year voyage with Queen Victoria's grandsons--Prince George (later George V) and Prince Eddy, who would die young and disgraced, linked by the gutter press to the Ripper killings and many other scandals.
Through unforgettable characters and a mesmerizing story, Henderson's Spear traces two tales of obsession, intrigue, and loss--from the 1890s and the 1990s. These stories reach around the world from Africa, England, and North America to converge with compelling effect in the Polynesian islands.
With a deep understanding of the landscape and culture of the South Sea Islands, Ronald Wright's Henderson's Spear explores the patterns of history and the accidents of love.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
Ronald Wright's critically acclaimed first novel, A Scientific Romance, was a New York Times Notable Book. His nonfiction includes Stolen Continents, an award-winning history of the Americas, and Time Among the Maya. He lives in Port Hope, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
By Ronald Wright
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Ronald Wright
All rights reserved.
Women's Prison, Arue. April, 1990
A note is all I have from you. I think of it as yours despite the formal stationery and wary tone: We have recently been contacted by a young lady whose particulars appear to match your own. It found me here just before Christmas — a few weeks after my arrest.
I'd left my name with the contact agency several years ago, long enough to grow discouraged and then push discouragement to the back of my mind. So your note was a shock, though I'd invited it — a shock followed by relief and joy. You were alive! You wanted us to find each other. You weren't hiding, weren't exacting a sullen revenge that might last until I died.
Particulars. They mean dates, ages, numbers on certificates. These aren't always reliable in our family, as I shall tell. But there can be no mistake; only your particulars could possibly "appear" to match my own. This young lady is you. And this older one is me, who gave you life at sixteen, and gave you away.
* * *
Who are you now? And how and what and where? I'm brimming with questions. I'm ready for the best, the worst, the in-between. Like most of us you're probably in between. And twenty-two is so damn young, but for the first time in your life you're feeling old. You're thinking of endings and beginnings, which is why you've begun to look for me. But maybe you haven't yet made up your mind you'll even see me. So I'll go first: Olivia Wyvern, Cell 15. Your mother.
There's this tiresome obstacle to our reunion: I'm imprisoned on the far side of the world (assuming you're still in Britain). It's not a bad jail. How many have palm trees in the yard, French bread, an ocean view? And a good friend is moving heaven and earth to get me out of it. My government — I'm a Canadian now — is sympathetic. The consul here is on my side. Ottawa is asking questions about the charge, the so-called evidence. People are beginning to see that I've been framed.
It can't be easy finding your mother after all these years, only to learn she stands accused of murder — well, for complice, which means "accessory." But truly there was no murder. Or if there was it had nothing to do with me. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She would say that, wouldn't she? Will you allow me the presumption of innocence, which is more than I've had from the Napoleonic Code? (Tahiti's a French colony.) I am not guilty. But I do plead guilty to a charge concerning you: I threw away the life we might have lived together. No law sets penalties for that; it was a crime of the will and the heart. Both you the innocent and I the guilty have served over twenty years for it.
* * *
The people in London who matched our particulars have also offered advice on how to proceed. Phone calls out of the blue are not recommended. Start with a letter, they say — enclose photos, snippets of hair, take your time. Phone calls and meetings will come later. Phoning is difficult here, anyway, and a meeting out of the question. But I have plenty of time. So this is a long letter to prepare you for the next step, if and when.
Already I've a lot to thank you for. Without your note I might still be stewing in the bath of outrage, fear, and hate in which I fell at my arrest. You've kept me busy writing this since January. They let me spend four hours a day in the library. The light's good in the morning, a breeze comes through the bars, mynah birds squabble in the palms, and it's the only room without a reek of sewer. This place is so French: good food, bad drains. The washbasin in my cell is a mixed blessing — no plug or trap to keep down smells and cockroaches. Until Pua showed me the remedy (chewing gum and a coin), I thought I might be gassed in my sleep or nibbled raw. Tahitian roaches are as big as mice and they go for the dead skin on your feet.
I don't mean to make too much of these discomforts. My hotel in Papeete was much the same, at ninety dollars a night. In French Polynesia they know how to let off nuclear weapons but they've never grasped the rudiments of plumbing.
* * *
I know I should start with I love you. But how can I say that without it ringing false, the sudden intimacy of salesmen and seducers? We're strangers, you and I, despite our blood. I don't even know your name. And I may as well tell you straight that I've never been very good at love, though I am working on it. Often I think love stalled in me the day you went away.
So this won't be that kind of letter. What I can give you, for now, is my story. And in return I hope someday you'll give me yours. I'll try to stick to the point, though it doesn't come easily — my mind's a sackful of cats and they're all clawing their way out at once. Be patient while I let them go in an order that makes sense, at least to me. Mine isn't the usual tale of a girlish mistake with a pimply boy in the bicycle shed. This stretches across a hundred years and half the world. I'll start with me, but you must hear from Frank Henderson too. I'm enclosing copies of his papers. More than a century ago, when he was about your age, he sailed to the South Seas aboard a warship. It's ultimately because of him that I'm here now.
We seem to be a family of writers — diarists, memoirists — the kind with secrets to dribble onto paper and hoard away. For whom, I wonder. For posterity? Or as a form of exorcism? Of course you may decide, after reading what I have to say, that you want nothing to do with me. How far can we go with genes; do they call to one another like the deeps? Damn the genes, let me choose my friends, and to hell with blood relations. I can hear myself saying something like that in your position. That's your right, and if it's your choice I'll respect it. But if ever you change your mind, know that I'll never hide from you again.
I was kept in the dark all my life, until after my mother died. You mustn't wait that long. I thought I knew my past but didn't, and this ignorance is half to blame for many things. Hear me out and at least you'll be able to make an informed decision after learning what I've learnt, much of it just recently, about who we are. Knowing is in our power. And knowing may kindle love, which is not.
* * *
In the beginning we were four: my parents, my sister Lottie, and me. Soon we became three, when Jon, my father, failed to come home from the Korean War. He was a pilot in the RAF, until then a brave and lucky one who'd flown against Hitler long before Lottie and I were born. We've always called him Jon, perhaps because Mother did, or because Daddy wouldn't do for a father who was ... missing. We were a family of three women for so many years that it seemed to us (though never to our mother) the natural order of things, an order without men.
I didn't leave home until my twenties, but once I did I kept going — from England to Canada, a land where pasts are easily forgotten. I've settled in the west, on the coast of British Columbia, where I make a living making films. Nothing grand. You won't see my name in lights, though you might spot me now and then if you look at documentary credits. This too, for all its precariousness, had become an order of its own.
Then Mother died.
* * *
One day she'd been perfectly well, a sprightly sixty-seven who walked an hour in the park every day, rain or shine; the next she was dead. Cardiac arrest, possibly induced by chronic stress. Lottie's voice in tears from London, in the middle of a wet Vancouver night two years ago. I was in England the next day, the phone ringing with distant relations. And the worst of it was that we could hardly bring ourselves to tell anyone — except her closest friends, who knew how she lived — exactly what had killed her. How can you tell people that your mother died over a parrot?
Soon after I was born our father had brought home an African grey, rescued impulsively from a pet shop window, a "good talker" who uttered nothing but parrotish clicks, warbles, and rending shrieks. He named this bird Lord Jim, and told Mother it'd be no bother at all — it would learn to speak at the same time I did, and would keep her company whenever he was away.
Jim was a quick study. Soon he could chime like the doorbell and sing snatches of aria complete with the record's hiss. He did a faultless imitation of Mother's telephone hello, terrified the red setter next door by barking back verbatim, mastered the clank and whoosh of the downstairs loo. His command of the noises made by babies and toddlers in distress drove Mother up the wall. Many was the time she woke in panic, ran to Lottie or me, to find us blissfully sleeping and not a peep from the wily bird under his velvet cloth. Many was the time, she told us, that she sent Jon off to his squadron with Don't expect to find that bloody parrot here when you get back.
But Jim also learnt a great many things from our father, besides the usual jokes: Jon's catch of breath as he dozed off after lunch, his RAF expressions, the Lord! Who's that? he'd exclaim when someone knocked at the front door, and a squeak the stairs made under his weight only.
For all this Mother grew to love Lord Jim.
The bird was accustomed to our father's comings and goings, his long absences and sudden returns, but he knew something dreadful had happened when that telegram came in 1953. July 20th. One week before the Korean armistice.
Ministry of Defence
No details ever did.
The parrot went silent, refused food, began to moult. He plucked out his remaining feathers until he was bald everywhere except the back of his head — a revolting sight, raw and primaeval like an embryo dinosaur.
When we'd got over our own grief enough to deal with Jim's we tried tempting him with favourite morsels — pistachio nuts, dried apricots, brandy-soaked croutons (Jon used to get him sloshed). The parrot wouldn't even leave his cage, and when Lottie put her hand in he bit her finger so hard that she had to have stitches and a tiny cast. Had Mother been herself, Lord Jim might have met his end that day, but she said she couldn't face another loss. The bird was given one more chance, and seemed to understand he'd done something unforgivable but had been spared. Slowly he began to eat. A downy coat of grey sprouted on his nakedness. And a few weeks later she heard him say, Lord! Who's that?
Jim learnt nothing new after 1953. Television, when it came, made no impression. Other parrots picked up the I Love Lucy theme, or the William Tell overture (which only a true high-brow can hear without thinking of the Lone Ranger). But not Jim. In the sixties he ignored the Kinks, Janis Joplin, the Singing Nun — all the records Lottie and I played to destruction. But neither did he lose the things he had, especially our father's voice and personal sounds. More than thirty years after he'd last heard it, Lord Jim could reproduce Jon's sudden snore so faithfully that Mother, absorbed in knitting or a crossword, would start from her chair with a terrible little cry.
To Lottie and me the parrot was a veteran of the heroic age of our father's photos, his uniforms, his old motorbike outside. To Mother he was an archive of her husband, a medium who could raise his presence at the fireside, his tread on the stairs.
One May morning two years ago, Mother found Lord Jim dead among the nut shells on the floor of his cage. We'd known the day would come (the bird must have been at least forty, perhaps much more) but neither Lottie nor I had foreseen what his death might do to her. After we'd left home — Lottie at seventeen, to model and act in London; I for Canada — he was the only living creature who could bridge the years between Jon's life and Mother's. All the frail hopes that Jim's cracked incantatory voice had nourished for thirty-five years died with him. A tide of silence, swollen by the greater silence she'd denied, welled up in the house, drowning the past.
Our response as daughters was inadequate, and arguably fatal. I, finishing production of a CBC special, sent flowers. Lottie came down and stayed for a few nights, but had to go back to her Rosalind (a critical success) at the Haymarket.
Mother died ten days after Lord Jim.
The importance that had kept us away dissolved immediately in grief. I was on the next plane to London, walking in the front door, into Lottie's arms, to an island in time I had thought would last forever. Through all the years I'd lived in Canada, Mother had been kept from time and change, no matter what I saw on visits home. Whenever I came over for Christmas or a summer break I re-entered a childhood landscape, seeing her and her house not as they really were but as they'd always been.
Now that she was dead I felt her not as an external presence watching me or flitting from the corner of my eye — nor as an absence, like Jon — but within me, looking through my eyes, guiding my hands and footsteps, her words and intonation falling from my lips. I'd walk into the garden, feel sunlight on my face, and know that the dead don't go away, they live inside us. The dead make us alive. I rejoiced in being possessed by her, resolving not to let the texture of the world wear smooth again, or Mother's spirit separate from mine.
* * *
Tilehouse Street was the home of the Wyverns, and before them the Hendersons, for nearly two hundred years. For us it was a women's house full of men's things — things from a lost world of empire and unreconstructed manhood. A dinner-gong hung from a tusk mounted on the back of a wooden elephant with a missing ear. A forbidden cupboard under the stairs held shotguns, fishing rods, an array of lures and flies with faintly risqué names: Pink Ladies, Royal Coachmen, Woolly Buggers, a Nympho. Dragons guarded our underwear in Burmese lacquer chests. And in the drawing-room, ranged above the mantel mirror, was a great spear more than twice the length of a man.
"Oh that," Mother would say crisply to visitors. "That's an assegai, you know."
Sometimes she'd add that it had been there a century, ever since Henderson came back from Africa where he'd lost an eye in some native war and won a medal from Queen Victoria which was somewhere in a box. As a child I never wondered how she knew the thing was specifically an assegai, beyond asking what an "assy guy" might be. "That's what they call a spear in Africa, darling."
"Can we take it down so I can hold it?"
"No, Livvy. It's not a toy. Spears are dangerous. Anyway, it's much too heavy."
"Have you held it, Mum?"
"No, dear, I haven't. And I don't intend to."
"So how do you know it's too heavy?"
The spear was never taken down, not even when painters came to exorcise the ghosts imprinted by smoke and time on the plaster round the fireplace. They wrapped it in paper and dabbed their brushes expertly behind. I remember climbing their freckled ladder for a look (I must have been eleven or twelve), noticing for the first time that the blade, shaft, and a small pommel at the base were made from a single piece of wood. The spear seemed to belong to a place or time where metals were unknown. Yet there was nothing primitive about the thing; it was as finely worked and polished as a piece of furniture, the mere look of it conveying poise, authority.
The ghosts hid for a summer beneath pale green, resuming their haunts when winter rain trickled down the flue. My sister and I were glad to see them back. They had names: the Dark Lady, a triangular silhouette we knew to be a woman in a cloak; above her the Man in the Moon, a round stain the size of a dinner plate which, in the last of day, before curtains were drawn and lights switched on, was a mottled face. Lower down were two sinuous forms we named the Lizard Twins. Lottie, who is two years older, used to say the Lizard Twins were trying to scamper up the Lady's skirt. When she turned thirteen she got a knowing look and pointed at some small spots (hitherto identified as lizard turds) and said she thought they must be the Dark Lady's Curse. This was overheard by Mother, who called her out of the room. A day later, by the iron warmth of the kitchen stove with its smell of old roasts and fuel-oil, my mother appalled me with the facts of life.
* * *
The most recent male things, our father's, were mainly photographs he'd taken in two wars: young men on windscoured airfields, brave grins behind goggles and leather, white scarves flowing like contrails from their necks; the ruins of Berlin and Hamburg, smoking silhouettes at dawn; Oriental temples in strange gardens of raked gravel and big stones. He was good, very good — I can see that now — though as a child I merely gazed at these images for hours in fascination, absorbing something of him there. His ruins have a jagged grandeur, his airfields (always a difficult subject) are balanced foreground and horizon, detail and distance — a radial engine like a metal sunflower, a dark propeller against a mare's-tail sky, fatigue and fear behind brave smiles.
Excerpted from Henderson's Spear by Ronald Wright. Copyright © 2002 Ronald Wright. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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