Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Quay

“Prudence,” Jacques called above the wind, “would you like some help?”  He stood on the quay with Kurga, Ch’Voga and Ketra the former slave girl.  They watched as Prudence prepped the boat alone.  An only mildly interested, crippled old harbor pilot, who quite fortunately, had been paid in advance, sat with his daughter on their sledge in the shelter of a parasol and waited for the order to have his team of donkeys haul her back out into the wind.  A wind which had been gaining strength with each passing hour.

“Prudy,” Jacques tried again, “There is a rock formation west of here, il ya de l'espoir.  A smuggler’s cave.  No water but it should shelter you in the storm.  You can just make it but you must leave now!”

Prudence did not act as if she heard.  She tightened a rope she had tightened earlier and rearranged some baggage for the third time in an hour.  She had said nothing since ‘Scravo had banished them.  Jacques had begged her to take the matter up with the innkeepers and the elder merchants.  She had ignored him so he did it on her behalf but no one had been willing to go against the slave trader.  Maybe it was economic, maybe it was the threat of violence, but ‘Scravo’s power over them was absolute.  He had had no more luck with them than he was having assailing Prudence’s fortress of pride.  “Prudy?  Are you listening?  You have to go!”  She twanged a bowline.  “Image Porc-tête d'une femme!” he shouted at last and threw himself onto a crate, crammed a briar pipe full of tobacco and the two of them sat and smoldered.  A crowd gathered on the wall overlooking the quay.

He had reloaded the pipe three times when she announced her preparations complete by saying, “You, rat,” pointing to Ketra trying to hide amongst Ch’Voga’s robes.  “Come here.  Sit there.  Touch nothing!”  The girl seemed shocked to be chosen first.  Her walleyed face beseeched the missionary, “go child, it’ll be alright.  Do as she says.”   She crept on board, careful to keep as far from the captain as the tiny boat allowed.

“Merchant,” Prudence said next, “take your seat.”  Kurga too, stole a glance at Ch’Voga before scurrying onto the boat.

Ch’Voga seemed alone on the quay, the fuming Jacques behind him as much a part of the scenery as the ropes, timbers and cargo laying about.  Seconds passed.  Prudence would not look at him.  He stared right at her.  No gleam of pride but no shade of pleading either.  He looked as if all he was missing was a blindfold and a cigarette.

She signaled the pilot.  He shrugged, turned on his perch and whipped his burros to life.  They leaned into the traces and the boat began to slide away from the dock.  It took a long time to reach the crest where the pilot unhooked and drove his team back.  Ch’Voga watched it the whole way.  If she had hoped for him to make a scene, she was disappointed.  He remained as resolute as one of the pylons.  She in turn, made no move to raise her sail.  She climbed the mast and waited.

The pilot and his team made its slow return. Then his daughter climbed down and untied one shaggy, little burro from the traces and brought it to the missionary.  “The angry lady says you can catch up on this.”  A laugh came from high above them on the caravanserai wall.  It was followed by someone shouting.  “Look!  An ass upon an ass!”  Jeers and mocking crow-like laughter proceeded.  Some spoiled fruit was thrown.  Ch’Voga thanked the girl and mounted the donkey with as much dignity as the creature, which was obviously not used to being ridden, would allow.  It made the scene all the more hilarious to the murder on the wall.  Much to their disappointment, he did not fall off, but he was not able to gain his seat on the first try either.  Jacques came and held the reins to the jeers of the mockers.  Ch’Voga thanked him.  “Sauvegardez vos remerciements.  You can thank me by convincing her to head for those rocks.”
“Why would she not?”
“You have not much experience with the fairer sex, do you mon ami?  Convince her, any way you can.”  He let go the reins and stepped back.  When he did, the animal refused to move until the pilot's daughter kicked it.  The crows were delighted.  More laughter.  More rotten fruit.  Resigned to its fate, the hapless animal trotted out into the sand, trudging up the rise, to deliver its passenger to where Prudence waited, her robes and veils pulled tight in the howling wind.

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