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tell us in our time

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“Sing in me, muse.” M’biya made a face at the book in her lap. “It’s getting light. My eyes hurt.”

“We can go inside soon. What next?” Kurtz pointed down at the page in case she had lost her place. Books were rare this far from civilization, but reading was the logical next step in her English lessons. He had borrowed the least boring of the ones left at the station.

She took a deep breath, and began the next sentence with relative ease. “And through me tell the story of what man-“

He interrupted. “That man.”

“Ah, shit. It is, isn’t it. Of that man.”

“I shouldn’t have taught you that word.” It was only in moments like these when he remembered how young she was. “Skilled in-“

“I remember this part! It’s just been a while since we did the beginning. Skilled in all ways of contending. The wanderer,” she read faster, one finger brushing along the lines to keep track of the words. “Harried for years after he plundered the stronghold at the proud heights of Troy.”

“Good.”

“He saw the townlands,” she smirked, “enlarged the minds of many distant men-“

“Learned the minds.”

“I prefer my version. I think you do, too.”

“My personal life is none of your business.” Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. He considered trying to fix the ancient locks on the station’s outer doors, but there were easier ways a persistent girl with taloned feet could get in if she so desired. Even so, the threat would still stand. “I’ll lock you out if you keep this up.”

“Shut up, Odysseus.” She looked back down to the page in front of her, unimpressed. “Weathered many bitter nights and days in his dark heart at sea, while he fought only to save his life and bring his shipmates home.”

“Your reading is getting better every day.” It really was, she had learned faster than any of the others he had tried to teach.

“I have a good teacher.” M’biya closed the book and turned to face him. “Why are you not a teacher of English children, living a peaceful life with your Penelope?” She struck a theatrical, seductive pose. “Am I your Calypso or Circe, keeping you chained to this place, and not by will nor valor can you escape?”

He recoiled. “You’re not my anything. You are simply M’biya. Your own. If this allusion must continue, you are Nausicaa, listening to my story and allowing me to rest here for a moment before I make my long journey home.”

“I like that. Nausicaa is kind. She is the daughter of a king, but she is allowed to be soft and playful.” A wistful expression played across her face, but vanished as quickly as the sun disappearing behind a cloud.

“You have been kind to me.”

“I try my best. It’s hard sometimes, when you act like a jackass.”

He ignored the curse and switched to Yoruba. “You taught me your language.”

She laughed at him until she nearly fell to the ground, copper bracelets rattling. “And you still have that piss-poor accent. You need another lesson soon, but you might have to leave before I get to teach you. That boat isn’t stopping.”

“Yes, I know. I’m not leaving. Your people are safe from them, it’s not a war party by any means.”

“They’re armed. Shit with their weapons, chickenshit every one of them as soon as we sent the first volley of arrows, but armed.”

“They’re afraid of you.”

“They’re afraid of the dark and the unknown. Like children. I don’t know why they haven’t turned back. Maybe the leader of them knows more about us than he’s letting on to the rest.” She hissed in frustration.

“Like Odysseus sailing his men past the cliffs of Scylla.”

She caught on, finishing the train of thought. They had read enough that she might have been able to recite the scene word for word. “Knowing that six of their number were doomed. Except I would kill more than six. We already got their helmsman, maybe-“

He broke in, remembering the other half of his allusion. “If you’re Scylla to him, who or what is Charybdis?”

“Now you’re the one chasing allusions! Hah!” She leapt up into the tree above them, then swung upside down, feet hooked over a branch. “Charybdis is the river herself.”

“How do you mean? He’s on the river, not avoiding it in favor of trekking through the jungle. You would have killed them all by now if he were.”

“On, yes. Not in. And always looking overboard. Some of these riverboat crews are always in, cooling their feet or other such foolishness, he knows better. He knows where Charybdis is, and he’s watching her more closely than he is us. The river is more deadly than anything we can think of on the land. That’s the way it has always been, here and everywhere else- all the worst devils come from the water. Good things too, mind you, but I pity any man who forgets that water can take life as easily as give it. You know this well, I imagine.” She looked out into the jungle, lost in thought, then back to him. “What’s the open sea like?”

“Beyond description.” For the tribes this deep in the interior, whose only experience of water was the river, it truly was. He settled for the philosophical angle. “Far from land, when water is all there is to be seen in any direction, you realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things. How truly enormous and incomprehensible the world really is. Now, with telescopes- there’s an old one at the station, it’s a tool to look at the night sky, I’ll show you later- we can see the surface of the moon and make better maps of it than we have of parts of the ocean.”

“It’s not so vast and mysterious that it will keep you away from your Penelope for long. When the boat arrives, go with them. You’ve been kept here for too long. Seen too much.” She stared at him, an intense, questioning gaze that bored into his soul, then switched to English. “Why don’t you wake up? You stay here, making things the others can’t see, and you’re going to lose your mind. You’re not just a sasabonsam, you were already something before I even met you, and you scare them. I shouldn’t have turned you, you’re something unnatural now.”

“I can’t leave.” Before that moment he had considered it, but the idea that M’biya might want him gone- that even in the jungle, free from the inhibitions of Europe, he might not belong- was distressing. “This place is more my home than anywhere else has come close to being, the stars-“

“You’re something bigger than the rest of us can comprehend. Like the sea, or the sky. That’s why you like the stars so much. This place is my home, and iron teeth or not, you’re not like me and you don’t really belong here. Go home, Odysseus. Find somewhere else where the stars sing to you. Wherever your Ithaca might be, it’s not here. Stop telling lies, before you start to believe them.” She took his hand, then slid the largest of her copper bracelets onto his wrist. “You can remember this place fondly, but now you really must wake up.”