Fancygoods Over the Mountains

Book Cover: Fancygoods Over the Mountains

A novella, set in central New Guinea.

EVERYBODY, everybody who gives it a thought, is puzzled by the way the emissaries of the Almighty, the Holy Spirit and the Angel of Death among others, so amiably appoint the fortunes of the world, treating the saintly and the unrighteous equally, so that there doesn't seem to be much advantage in going to church any more often than anyone else, which is why Brodie can bother with it only at Christmastime, and even then if he doesn't have anywhere better to go, but here he is on his flushed knees in the third pew of Corpus Christi in Port Moresby, where there are more black faces than white in the choirstalls and the minister offering the sacraments is an islander from the Solomons, this second Sunday after Epiphany.

The communicants line the sacrarium step and kneel, all of them adults except Brodie's daughter, Meg, who has aligned her firm calves and erect heels behind her but is having trouble keeping her school-shoes on in this position. An organist, out of sight behind a white pillar, plays the slow, bass-hand only, notes of a hymn. The minister's voice is rich and grave. 'This Is My Body,' he says, holding aloft unleavened wafers on a silver plate as if they were messages written on squares of vellum for the eyes of the Lord of Hosts. Much of his profile, or at any rate the strong black temples and helmet of short-cropped hair, is repeated in scenes from biblical stories which hang around the walls. There he is, or it is some close kinsman from Bouganville? rolling aside the rock at the sepulchre in Jerusalem and, with wide eyes, finding it empty. Elsewhere on show, any four of the twelve apostles could have come from the Highlands, and the brawny Magdalene, stooping to wash the Son of God's feet with her grainy hair, looks to Brodie more like his house-girl, Guluweia. The disciples, hauling nets behind the cloister, are as sunburned as fishermen anywhere, but whatever that is, trussed about each of their loins, might easily be the phallic sheath which men from the Sepik are proud of, and the Sea of Galilee around them is rimmed with mudflats and mangroves.

Brodie, after pause enough to be taken for serious prayer, slides back onto the seat. Although he wears shorts and no tie, his shirt is sticky, and he eases his waistband with a discreet thumb. From where he sits, he can see Meg's hands, held at slim chest height, crossed right above left to make a cruciform dish for the wafer. It seems to Brodie that this supplicant gesture is, more than the usual escutcheon and Latin motto, truly the emblem of a School for Anglican girls. Meg is twelve. It is at St Hilda's in Sydney, to which Brodie sends two thousand dollars south by international bank-draft every school term, that Meg is a seventh-grader. She wears, right now, a buttercup cotton frock, but her long brown hair is tied with an orderly ribbon at the nape and the frock is cut like a tunic.

"Stap bilong oltaim," says the minister. The Life Everlasting. The goblet he holds is carved from a gourd. He wipes the rim, with a napkin, for the lips of the next communicant, saying, "This is my blood." A drop of holy wine has run the hem of his bright chasuble. His tone is intimate but his step along the line, as Brodie judges it, is less priestly than it is the thoughtful stride of an inspecting warrior. For Meg, who takes a modest and reverent draught, he says, "Hia blut bilong mi," and Brodie watches to see how the child takes this deviation from the Eucharists she must be used to, but when she genuflects and makes back for the pew her mouth is placid, her gaze serene.

Here is Brodie, an expatriate trader in New Guinea, whose understanding of the sorceries and rituals he now lives with is moving close to respect and wonderment. He watches his visiting daughter, a twelve year old, being captivated by this culture of theatre.

The place was packed. Tiptoe, over the matt-black heads of the crowd, he could see the performers. He edged closer, but so rapt was everyone that none of them looked around. The figure who held their attention was not from anywhere Brodie could place, and indeed, more than anywhere else, he might have come from the grave. His eyesockets were painted with sulphur, enlarged to include much of the temples and the cheekbones, so bright a yellow that the eyes behind seemed empty. His skull was shaved and rubbed with ashes, and whatever hank remained of the hair was evidently the support for the plumes which pealed upward like golden-throated trumpets and for the crimson lances which entered the head, one on either side, which spoke of the fierce manner of his death. The ears were now black-hearted peonies, his lips the tusks of pigs, his teeth long and wasted. Limp birds hung, throttled, in the raffia skirt as if entangled in dainty flight, and from a waist-band swung cowrie shells with dismal mouths. The thongs which tightly bound the chest seemed designed to keep a cadaver together, and all this was eloquent enough, even to Brodie, of the terrible encroachment of the netherworld, of the power of the risen dead, but confused by the fact that this horrifying necromancer was also wearing a single-breasted evening jacket, decently pressed.

And with him was Meg. Brodie's throat pulsed and his ears hummed, but what stopped him from bursting through to gather the child up and away, was his sudden understanding that she was having a good time. For some reason she was balancing a live pigeon on a deliberate finger, but this, and the function of the evening jacket, came clearer with the appearance of another fluttering bird. Evidently this sorcerer was also in the entertainment business. Instead of twisting their necks he slipped them into a sack. Meg was delighted when he teased from her empty pocket more silken scarves than there was possibly room for, and when her hair yielded a string of fat wrist-watches. She laughed and clapped as she must have done at children’s' parties for years now, but the crowd was in silent and respectful thrall. All good theatre has its affecting metaphor, as we all know, and what unsettled Brodie right now was the implication that the desirable things of the modern world could be charmed out by some secret and superior power. Politicians had long ago banned witch-doctors and mesmerists from politics, and broke up meetings with riot wagons, but it occurred to Brodie that they might have done better to fear magic-stores and mail-order catalogues.

The sorcerer extended a skeletal arm, and Brodie thought Moses might have made a gesture of comparable imperiousness to part the waters. The crowd divided to make a path, at the end of which Brodie stubbornly stood his ground, waiting to be discovered, and as Meg happily tripped along toward him he might have felt something like triumph, had not sighs of wonder and approval made it clear that everyone thought this magician had now capped off a fine performance by conjuring Brodie.

When daughter Meg falls suddenly ill, Brodie fears she will be relying more on a matrix of magic rather than the sterile planes and inoculant infusions he would better trust.

This novella was first published in Antipodes Journal, Austin, Texas.