It had been a long, hot day. Polly had attended an excellent meeting at the Bronx Zoological Society to discuss the latest developments in wild animal husbandry. She plotted with Katherine and Douglas on how to raise monies for their planned expedition to Indonesia to document reports by Dutch sailors of very large lizards that swam in the archipelago. Veritable dragons, it was said, though that might have been sailors' tall tales and too much rum. Richard had been rummaging about in rocks at the Natural History Museum and was on fire about the upper Carboniferous period, which for some reason, the Americans all called the Pennsylvanian. It was America's ghastly Fourth of July weekend and the Yankees were so terrible, she'd only been to three games.
Now, Polly wished to return to their hotel room, draw a bath, have a stiff gin and tonic, and seduce Richard into massaging her feet.
But no, instead, they were trudging steadily, in the muggy heat, down from the Park, through Midtown and the Village, to the Lower East Side and Little India. All because of a book. A very particular book. Richard, lovely man that he was, was being an absolute pest and her patience and shoe leather had worn thin around the Bowery.
"This looks promising, Bird!" Richard said, indefatigable. He charged into the curio shop. The bell on the door clanged noisily and Polly's nostrils were assailed with the scents of curries and incense.
What a lot of bother.
Her Hindi was embarrassing; Richard's was marginally better and he was already in an animated conversation with the shop owner. They disappeared into the back rooms.
Polly fanned herself with a smudged map of Manhattan, sat on a pouf, leaned carefully against a rolled up carpet, and hoisted her feet up on to a bag of Jasmine rice, propriety be damned. Richard could sweet talk her with "Bird" all he wished, but she was not going another step and the old Goat could carry her back to the Waldorf-Astoria.
There was some clattering and the sound of an alarmed cat being trod upon.
"Eureka!" Richard shouted from the back room. He had not sounded that animated since they found their way out of the Okavango Delta two years ago. That had been a miserable detour. No gin for the quinine and enough mosquito netting for only one bedroll.
"What have you found?" Polly asked, simply to humour him.
Richard strode out of the back room, brandishing a book. "Finally! The 1883 Burton translation of the Kama Sutra!"
"You can put that right back!" Polly retorted. He'd been trying to find that translation for ages and what was the point when the censors always excised out all the good parts and what was left was just forcing the issue Richard would not leave off of?
"Richard, if all you are going to do is lecture to me on the verses about acquiring a wife, the conduct of wives, and behavior in the harem, you can just leave the book here. I told you, I'm not interested."
He tried the hang dog hurt look which the manipulative Goat knew could move her, especially if accompanied by a massage. His voice turned seductively softer. "All this effort, my Bird, and you still will not be my wife? Not even the prospect of the Burton translation can sway you?"
"You already have a wife, Goat. I like her very much and we are terrific friends, even if her judgement is suspect in marrying you."
"Wangari will share! There is a whole section here on management of the First Wife and second wives..." Richard was rapidly turning the pages, paused, and whistled. "Hullo!"
Curiosity prevailed over judgment, always a hazard with Richard, and Polly craned her neck for a look. "The second section? Is it complete?"
He held the book tantalizingly out of reach. "And now you are interested, Bird?"
"In a complete version of the book! Not marriage!" she snapped.
"They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are each better if undertaken in tandem." Richard glanced down again at the book and began paging through it, muttering, "Sixty one, sixty two, sixty three, sixty four..."
"All ten chapters?" Polly asked, hopefully, weakly.
Richard nodded. "And all sixty-four positions." He dropped his hand down to caress the back of her damp neck. Polly shivered in spite of the heat. "And I'm certain I can modify one so that it begins with a thorough massage of your weary feet." His fingertip moved down her neck to her collarbone. "I saw something in the back room I think you will like and promise your legs shall be but the beginning."
By the time they boarded the ferry to Halifax in search of Pennsylvanian fossils – in Nova Scotia of all places – Polly was in such a fog, she was starting to think marrying Richard might not be a bad idea. It was probably because the Yankees' abysmal performance wasn't sufficient to divert her from the pleasure of Richard's strong, calloused hands rubbing scented oils into her body every night. Dealing with the contraceptives was wearying, even more so with Richard whigning about condoms. And, really, what was he complaining about? At this point the only time she took out the diaphragm was to put it back in. The Kama Sutra, fortunately, gave them numerous, safer, and very creative alternatives and Richard hadn't managed yet to befuddle her so completely that she would take the risk, though it was not for lack of effort on his part.
Canada was cool and breathtakingly beautiful, the biting flies were worse than the mosquitoes, and it took a very long time to get to Joggins.
They disembarked from the ferry in Halifax, which was a noisy mess of construction and had the feel of a rougher western city than Polly expected. Given all that had been rebuilt in Halifax, it was hard to believe that the explosion had leveled the city barely ten years earlier. It was not, however, a place to tarry. They quickly caught a train to Amherst which would be their starting point for exploration of the famous fossils found in Joggins on the Bay of Fundy. In Amherst, they found an outfitter who could provision them, get them the 20 miles south to Joggins, and re-supply their camp for the 2-week stay.
In addition to the camping equipment and provisions, the outfitter had climbing gear so that Richard could scale down from the tops of the cliffs to the beach during low tide to search for the Carboniferous fossils that reportedly were thicker on the ground than at Lyme Regis. To that end, they were both provided with a tidal calendar for the Bay of Fundy and grilled on its use.
"Get caught on the rocks when the tide comes in and you'll drown," Joe, their outfitter, sternly warned. "You'll find some of the most extreme tides in the whole world here and I don't want to send boats out to find whatever is left of your body."
He was difficult to classify – the name Joe could have been anyone, the last name, LeBlanc, was surely French-Acadian, and his colouring, features, and bit of decorative beading on his shirt indicated he was probably also native Mi'kmaq.
Richard's perpetual luggage woes delayed their journey to Joggins another day as he now added North America to the continents where his inability to judge weight, volume, and load bearing capacity resulted in a broken truck axle. At least this time, it was only Richard's books that were the problem and not massive dinosaur vertebra from the Jurassic. Richard insisted that, in addition to the Kama Sutra – what else were they going to do on the long Northern days into short nights beneath mosquito netting? – his pilgrimage to the most famous Coal Age geological site in the world had to include Lyell's Principles of Geology, the Lowell lectures, The Origin of Species (of course), and Dawson's report on the discovery of Hylonomus lyelli in the trunk of a fossilized Joggins tree. Polly did question the inclusion of Logan's1843 survey of the site but Richard insisted it was the best for all that it had been done over 80 years earlier and Joe agreed it was worth the broken axle and delay.
The roads to the site were rough enough that, though she and Richard had borrowed a car from Joe, their young guide – Joe's daughter, Rita – had no difficulty directing them from horseback. Her steady, stable pace undoubtedly kept Richard from roaring ahead to get to the Joggins cliffs before the tide rolled in.
"She is thwarting me on purpose," Richard grumbled, hand gripped on the steering wheel.
"Stop complaining, Goat, and downshift, or I'll drive."
By the second day, Polly was bored. While she, intellectually, appreciated the importance of snails and millipedes to the fossil record, she'd never been that interested in invertebrates nor things entombed in rock. During the day, Richard was engrossed in the fossils washed up on the beach, coal seams in the cliffs, and the fauna in the fossilized tree stumps. In the evening, he was engrossed in her seduction. His energy was, as always, impressive, but Polly didn't much like the feeling that her patience for keeping camp during the day was being rewarded with sex at night.
She had tramped about Joggins and seen sandpipers, plovers, and falcons and added two new species to her bird book. After catching an impossibly plump raccoon trying to break into the car to get at the bacon, she opted for stringing their food up in a bear bag. If a raccoon could get into a car, she thought it could work out a bag hanging from a tree limb but she'd rather deal with a raccoon in their camp than explain to Joe the damage to the car.
As she contemplated the ordered camp on their third morning, with ten still to go, Polly decided to pursue the options available to her other than being Richard's campsite wife. The car gave her mobility so it was time to use it. She was studying the local map when she heard and then saw Rita trotting up the path from the road on her sturdy, shaggy pony.
"Hullo Miss Plummer!" Rita called. "I have the extra sugar and coffee you wanted."
"Thank you, Rita! Though I could have come in to town to get it myself."
Rita turned around in her saddle, drew a squashy white package from her bag, and tossed it down. Catching it released the strong scent of coffee. "I was glad to come. It's a fair day and Gopit needed the exercise."
"Gopit?" Polly immediately put the package into the hanging bear bag – a raccoon consuming coffee and sugar would be an absolute menace.
Rita patted the pony's neck. "He eats wood, so I called him Beaver in Mi'kmaq." She rose in her stirrups and eyed the table on which Polly had spread out her map, weighted down with rocks. "Are you planning to go somewhere?"
"I am. I know I shouldn't venture out in an unfamiliar place without a guide or alone, but I didn't think there was anything in southern Nova Scotia that would try to eat me other than the mosquitoes."
"The ocean is the most dangerous thing here," Rita said. "And moose."
"I wasn't going to put out to sea or go that far north, to be sure."
"Do you like canoeing? We aren't far from the River Herbert and some other paddling trails."
"I paddle quite well and that's a splendid idea! I suppose I could get a boat from an outfitter."
"No need for that." Rita vaulted out of her saddle and landed lightly on the ground. "We can hobble Gopit and drive to one of the farms I know along the Herbert. They'll let us borrow a canoe."
"Us?" Polly repeated, smiling at the girl.
Rita's face fell. "I thought you'd…"
"Want charming company, an adventuring companion, and a local guide? Absolutely!"
Before they left, Polly shouted down to Richard where they were going. High tide had come and gone so he'd be out combing the site until dusk. Polly made sure the climbing anchors were secure so he could scale back up the cliffs. He paused in his intent analysis of a tree stump to cheerfully wave good-bye and she scolded herself for thinking that Richard wanted her to stay behind, wait for him, and keep their house. Not that she would care if that was what he wanted, but it wasn't.
Rita was as efficient as any experienced guide and within minutes, they had water and food for the day, and were bouncing down the road in the car toward the River Herbert.
"Are we there yet?" Polly asked, again.
Rita laughed and they both bent to their paddles and the canoe glided smoothly through the still, dark water with their perfectly synchronized strokes. "Soon."
In the last week of canoeing the waterways around the Bay of Fundy, Polly had developed callouses on top blisters, her neck was ferociously peeling from sunburn, and she was covered in bug bites. It had been glorious.
"And, besides, you are behaving like an American with your impatience," Rita scolded.
From her position at the bow, Polly redoubled her efforts. Rita's surprise, whatever it was, was on the lake, just around a jutting point of rock they had nearly cleared. The lake was calm but large and it had taken sweating effort to cross it.
"I think I need a story to distract me," Polly said, self-mockingly plaintive.
"But if we're going to get there, we have to paddle, and that means I can't tell a story properly and you can't write it down!" Rita protested with another laugh.
The Mi'kmaq and Acadian stories Rita knew were fascinating and Polly had kept careful notes to share with Digory. She knew enough of her Greek myths to recognize Orpheus and Eurydice in the story of the Weasel Women Who Married Star Husbands with injunctions about not looking back and the too-curious person who always did. Glooskap, part god, part giant, part mythic hero of the Mi'kmaq, seemed positively Norse in his complex family relations. Kipling could have taken Jungle Book straight from the story of Mooin, the she-bear's son. When she'd told Richard about Ableegumooch, he'd thought the Rabbit god a classic trickster. She knew Digory would be especially interested in Glooskap's origin from the breath of the creator and would ponder whether the Mi'kmaq or the Jesuit missionaries' stories came first and who appropriated whom.
With Rita's strong paddling and steering, they cleared the rock. Polly was so startled at what appeared, she nearly dropped her paddle into the water.
An enormous mound of sticks and branches rose like an island out of the lake. It was a beaver lodge.
Rita pulled her dripping paddle into the canoe and set it across her knees; Polly did the same and they bobbed gently on the water. "Do you like the surprise?"
"I do! The lodge is occupied?"
"Yes. It's an effort to get here but beavers aren't going to settle in the middle of Amherst. Not without someone maybe killing them, at least. I remembered you saying you liked them."
"I do. Richard is absolutely mad about them. I think this is the only thing that would lure him away from the cliffs. And I've never seen Castor canadensis in the wild. Thank you, Rita, this is extraordinary."
Polly pushed her hat over her eyes and began searching the area with her binoculars.
"That's a big lodge. How long have they been here?"
"We noticed them about five years ago," Rita replied. "The male came first and started building and the female joined him. She's probably older than he is. They overwintered here and there was a kit in the spring. The older kit is still with them and helping them raise the two new kits who were born this year."
"A whole family group," Polly marveled, still scanning the water.
"Look on the right, under those trees. You'll see them there, usually, this time of day. The parents leave small branches floating in the water for the kits to chew on."
Through the binoculars, Polly saw brown shapes splashing at the water's edge. She adjusted the dial and three beavers came into wonderful focus. She handed Rita the binoculars. "Does that look like the two young kits and their older sibling?"
Rita looked through the binoculars. "Oh yes, that's them." She swiveled on her seat and peered about the lakeside and into the woods. "And there." She pointed. "The parents are pulling a branch into the water. It's hard to tell but the female is the larger one; the male has a notch in his tail."
Polly took the binoculars back and watched, enthralled, as to the two adults methodically worked together to strip an enormous branch. The beavers were nearly identical with no obvious way to distinguish them. The sounds of their gnawing and splashing traveled across the water. The larger beaver grasped a smaller, leafy piece of the branch firmly in her mouth and began swimming toward the lodge, then disappeared.
"There are at least two underwater entrances," Rita said. "She'll be back in a few minutes."
Hearing an odd sound, Polly turned the binoculars back to the juveniles. "Are the kits making that noise?"
"It sounds like a crying baby, doesn't it?" Rita said. "They make it when they want attention, usually. And look, there goes Papa."
The male adult left his branch and swam to the kits. The grunts and mewling increased in volume and the kits all splashed about him.
"If we wait long enough, we might see one of the kits riding on the parent."
"Oh, I can wait," Polly said, enthralled at the family tableau swimming but a few yards away. Rita indulged her all afternoon until the sun dropped behind the trees and mosquitoes drove them off the water.
Richard nearly dropped the coprolite he was studying when Polly told him.
"Beavers! Here?!" He bolted up from his camp stool and knocked it to the ground.
"I told you he'd be excited, Rita," Polly said, righting the stool and dusting it off.
"Can we go see them? Now?"
"In the dark?!" Rita exclaimed, gesturing at the setting sun.
"Richard, it's an hour's drive to the closest put-in, and another hour of paddling and portage to get there."
He sighed, visibly deflated. "Rita, could we impose upon you tomorrow, first thing, to guide us back? I simply cannot leave this beautiful country knowing that C. canadensis is so close and not taking the opportunity to observe them."
"Of course, Professor."
"Thank you, my dear."
Polly went to help Rita saddle Gopit. The pony had lost some of his shaggy coat and was looking a little more like a horse and a little less like a sheep dog. "You're welcome to stay here for the night," Polly said, "though I can't promise supper better than biscuit and bacon." They'd been able to follow the scent of cooking rashers from the road all the way to the campsite.
"With the same for breakfast, too," Rita replied, smiling. She thwacked Gopit who had sucked in a deep breath to avoid the tightening girth on the saddle. "I'll just go down the road to my aunt's for better food and a bed." She slipped the bridle over Gopit's head and eased the bit into his mouth, then grabbed the pony's ear and whispered loudly, "And you know the way straight to the bag of oats waiting for you, don't you, Gopit?"
The pony's ears pricked and he stepped forward, just as Rita was putting a foot in the stirrup to swing up. Polly held onto the rein so that Rita could mount without hopping one-legged alongside the eager pony.
Once she settled into the saddle, Polly squeezed Rita's foot. "We'll just pick you up there in the morning. With Richard setting the schedule, it shall surely be too early."
"That's fine. I am glad that you both will be able to see something so important to you before you leave." She rose in her stirrups and Gopit was already trotting away to his waiting oats. "Good-bye!" Rita called with a wave. "I'll see you tomorrow!"
The camp was redolent with smoke and bacon.
Richard handed her a tin plate with the meat, biscuit, and the last of the local blueberries. "We do manage to time our departures to the day before another meal of the same becomes unbearable."
They retreated behind a mosquito screen to chew on dinner and enjoy the last of the late sunset.
Richard pulled his chair next to hers. "So, a whole family of five?"
"Yes. Male and female. Their older kit cares for the two younger kits. I didn't know they did that."
"I have heard it reported in our European C. fiber but never observed it before. It is very rare behavior in other species." Richard sighed. "Ten days here and we just learn of the beavers three days before our ship sails."
Polly knew the source of his grumbling. "So you are still arguing with Forsythe about whether C. canadensis and C. fiber are the same species?"
"I've got an editorial to his latest," Richard said. "The man can't tell the difference between a woodchuck and a ground sloth, much less two obviously different species of Castor. At least we can record some observations tomorrow and make the best of the day we do have."
He stirred her gin and tonic with a finger and handed it to her. The drink smelled of straight gin and Polly was very thirsty.
"I should have made the connection sooner. Rita's pony's name means beaver in Mi'kmaq." Polly stretched out her legs and took a deep sip of the drink. It was definitely stronger than usual. She prised her boots off and nudged his leg with a stocking foot. "Richard, you don't need to ply me with liquor to assure a successful seduction."
"The pleasure is all mine, Bird, in gratitude for the opportunity to see C. canadensis tomorrow. The gin should loosen your … tongue."
Polly snorted into her drink. "Digory says gin makes me silly."
"Not the adjective I would use though we must make allowances for Kirke's sensibilities. But enough about other men."
Richard leaned forward on his stool, clasped her hand, and kissed her wrist, so very gently.
With her mouth suddenly dry and heart pounding, Polly drained the dizzying drink as Richard drew her sleeve aside and, undaunted by the bug bites, continued the kisses up her arm.
Polly heaved herself up, already unsteady on her feet, and stumbled into their tent, girding for the battle between the slippery diaphragm and too much gin.
"Are you sure you need to do that?" Richard asked, following behind her.
She backed up against him and drew his arms about her. "You have something else in mind for expressing your gratitude?"
"Only that I've seen how you are with Rita." Richard kissed her neck. "She's the daughter you could have. She's the daughter we could have."
Polly stiffened and tried to draw away, horrified at the prospect, thrilled, and suddenly a little sick. "I'm not…I don't…"
"No? What if you marry me? Your goat of a lover?"
She shook her head and braced herself against him. Damned gin. "No, not… Richard, I…"
Words were too hard to find and too thick to say. She managed to nod.
"Then we shall make do until then." Richard pulled her close, pressing his body to hers; she yanked his circling hand tighter, sliding it under her shirt to cover her breast as his clever, manipulative fingers slipped down between her legs.
She stretched to his touch, moving in time with the perfect rhythm Richard found so easily. The night was noisy, her gasps drowned out by the hum of insects and the roar of the waves against the ancient cliffs.
"That's it, Bird. Sing for me."
Polly could forgive and even enjoyed Richard's immense excitement. Despite Rita's warning, he insisted upon taking measurements of the lodge and then waded ashore to examine the beavers' scat and teeth markings on the trees.
Rita wasn't happy with his intrusions and so Polly elected to stay with her in the canoe.
"It's because we hunted them to extinction in England," Polly explained, feeling a little defensive on behalf of Richard's enthusiasm. "He wants to see beavers re-introduced but not if it's the wrong species."
"Well, I could have told him which trees they preferred for building and for eating if he'd bothered to ask." Rita rolled her eyes. "And I know I said the sea is the only thing that is dangerous around here but if he keeps wandering about where the parents are working, he's going to be swimming back here in a hurry. And they swim faster than he does."
Polly nodded and returned to staring at the shoreline. Richard was measuring the chewed up tree limbs near the kits' nursery and frantically scribbling in his field book. She was watching Richard more than the beavers and was trying to sort through how she felt about that.
"You are quiet today, Polly," Rita said suddenly. "Are you well?"
Polly shifted carefully in the canoe and set down her binoculars. "I am preoccupied."
"About Professor Russell?"
"It's that obvious?"
Rita nodded. "You wish to marry him?"
"I don't know. He wants me to marry him."
With Rita's sudden, startled expression, Polly asked, "Why does that surprise you?"
"I am surprised that the Professor wishes to marry one woman when he admires so many."
"That's very astute, Rita."
"It's very obvious. He was very interested in the pretty women in Amherst."
Polly laughed, though it felt a little false. "He always does that."
"Some women do not mind sharing their man, and that is fine for them. I know I would not like that in my husband."
Polly didn't feel that Rita was being judgmental. The embarrassment she nursed was entirely her own.
"Do the Mi'kmaq people have any tradition of polygamy?"
"Not really. The Saqamaw – the leader – maybe. But the Jesuits put a stop to all that a long time ago." Her look turned shrewd. "But that is the Professor's tradition?"
"Of a sort."
It would be a good time for the beavers to do something distracting. Though there was no escape there, either;the rodents Richard so very much admired were monogamous.
Rita deftly put her paddle into the water and, with a few strokes, pushed them back out into the lake, away from the muck they had been drifting into.
"Have I told you the story of the Star Husband and his wife?"
"No, not that one."
"It is very short but I think on it often when I consider the man I might marry. Perhaps it might be of use to you, too."
Rita pulled her dripping paddle into the canoe, rested it across her legs, and composed herself. She closed her eyes and began the sing-song.
"Once, a young woman fell in love with a young man. Sadly, the man died and became a star in the heavens. But the woman's love for her husband was so strong, it remained even onto his death. Every night she would longingly gaze up at the sky so that she could look upon her husband, even though they were apart."
"Now it also happened that there was a Mikmuesu, that is, a wicked wizard, and he also fell in love with the widow. He blew up a storm cloud to block her view of her star husband and she was sad and longed to again see her husband."
The Putuwatkw Melkiknaq Wjusunn, that is, the One Who Blows Strong Winds, saw the wicked doings of the Mi'kmuesu and tried to clear the sky with his breath. But, the Mi'kmuesu was too powerful and the young woman could still not see her star husband. So, the Kaqtukwowiskw, that is the Thunder Goddess, formed a thunderstorm to open the heavens. Again, the Mi'kmuesu magic was stronger and the woman could not see her star husband.
So moved by the woman's love, the Putuwatkw Melkiknaq Wjusunn and the Kaqtukwowiskw created The Great Blue Heron to carry the young woman to her husband in the sky. The couple now shines brightly for all to see their love."
Rita's chanting stopped. Polly found her eyes were moist and she roughly wiped her nose on the back of her hand. As if summoned, a great blue heron flapped to the pond's edge, settled its wings upon its back, and began picking its way carefully through the shallows.
"Thank you, Rita," she said gruffly. "That was lovely."
"The man I marry shall be one who loves me so that a wizard's magic will not keep him from my side."
"That's not Richard," Polly finally replied.
"No, it is not."
If the Magician had been a sorceress, Richard would have left with her, or even the Thunder Goddess, and left Polly alone, shining and undiminished, but alone until he returned, at his own leisure.
Rita shifted suddenly in the canoe and pushed her paddle into the water. "Sorry, but we need to go."
Polly looked around, a little dazed. "Is something wrong?"
"Professor Russell has gotten too close to the kits. Better lean into it, Polly, because…"
A moment later the loud slap of a beaver's tail hitting the water echoed across the pond followed by a big splash and angry, chittering noises.
Richard floundered toward them, shouting and waving, and it did seem that a beaver might swim faster than he did. Fortunately, Rita was quicker and able effectuate a daring rescue of an esteemed naturalist from the jaws of an irate she-beaver. Whether C. canadensis or C. fiber was faster was an inquiry that would have to be answered another day.
She and Richard broke camp the next morning. Rita had somehow surmised the situation and before Richard managed to damage the car they came in, Joe appeared with a truck and a trunk to carry Richard's new fossil findings from the cliffs. He did make Richard ride in the truck's back for the dusty 20 mile ride to Amherst.
Polly give Rita a final lift in the car and they enjoyed the spectacle of Richard clinging to the truck's boards with one hand and trying to keep his precious crate from bouncing right off the bed and on to the road.
"I hope you'll write to me, Rita," Polly said. She was finding this a difficult good-bye.
"I will and hope you do the same, Polly. I have really enjoyed our time together and I look forward to meeting your other friends."
"I'm not sure Professor Kirke would ever make it here, Rita, but I know he'll be grateful when I tell him the stories you've told me."
"I didn't mean Professor Kirke."
"Who did you mean then?" Polly didn't think she'd spoken much of others.
"I don't know. Not yet. Neither do you. But ahead there are guiding stars and bright light and a woman who burns like the sun. And then there's awful darkness, but that's a long way off."
Polly glanced, askance, at Rita, who had taken their final mile together to become oddly obscure. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean, Rita."
Rita smiled. "You will, Polly. And when you do, send them to me. I'll be waiting for them."
Then they were pulling into the Amherst railway station and the train was arriving and getting Richard's trunks aboard required all their attention, energy, a fortune in baggage fees, three extra pairs of hands from the platform, and a ten dollar bribe to the porters. Showing she had obviously spent too much time on that side of the Atlantic, Polly impulsively hugged Rita, rather than settling for the more civilised handshake.
"I know you'll find again what you're looking for," Rita whispered in her ear.
"Crying?" Richard asked as they settled into their seats and the train pulled away, leaving Rita and Joe waving good-bye on the platform.
She leaned against him, inhaling the tang of the Bay of Fundy that clung to his dusty field jacket. His handkerchief found its way into her hands.
"It is sad when we leave special people," Richard said and kissed her forehead. "But you can write; you can see each other again. We could come back. Would you like that, Bird?"
She nodded. What did I lose that I'm trying to find again? Polly thought she knew. But was being with Richard the way to find it?
Richard didn't explicitly discuss his marriage proposal the rest of the long trip home. The train took them to Halifax, and from there it was by ship to Liverpool. With the other women on board, and sharing meals and entertainment with the other passengers, Polly thought Richard would not have been able to restrain himself. But he was very attentive as to her, and even more solicitous. She never saw his eye wander, and she could almost believe his hands were for her alone. In lovemaking, he was generous. He ceased complaining about the condoms and no longer cajoled her to skip her diaphragm. It was his more subtle play and was, perhaps, even more effective.
Polly knew she needed relief, reality, and two consecutive nights without the best sex of her life.
As soon as the ship hit the dock, she kissed Richard good-bye and left him at the port to figure out how to get his trunks to his house in Combe. She fired off a wire to Digory. Then it was more train and finally, Polly was blessedly home.
Digory showed up at her doorstep the following evening with a bottle of scotch, a tin of biscuits, and a cigar for each of them.
They sat together on her back stoop and watched the stars come out. Polly wondered where the Star Husband and his bride might be.
"What's this about then?" Digory asked, lighting her cigar and handing it over. "From your letters, it seemed you had a very good, productive trip."
Polly stretched out her legs and leaned back against the stair. "It was a splendid time. I saw the Yankees play at home three times through the worst season they've had in years and the Bronx Zoological Society people were wonderful. It's Richard that was the problem."
"Baseball is deplorable," Digory said, just for the sake of annoying her. He tilted his head up and blew out his cigar. "As for Richard, in close quarters for that long a period of time, he would slide from entertainingly good company to overbearingly insufferable."
"He has asked me to marry him," Polly said heavily.
Digory did not help the situation. He guffawed and blew smoke out his nose. Polly hit him in the arm. "Don't mock me! This is serious!"
"Richard is already married," Digory said, stating the obvious.
"Under English law, probably not." Polly sighed and took a deep, smoky puff on the mellow cigar. "Richard made a point of lecturing me about the conduct of First and Second wives. And Wangari wouldn't mind."
Digory laughed again, but she did not hit him this time. "Wangari undoubtedly sees it as a way to better manage her husband."
Polly nodded. "There were times it seemed very appealing," she admitted reluctantly, though she'd spare Digory the details of how and when.
"I'm sure it was," Digory said quietly. "Richard is a persuasive man, tenacious, and makes himself very attractive to women. However…"
"Yes?" she finally prompted, unsure if it was Digory's own sensibility or his concern for her own that was making him hesitate.
"You need to ask yourself, how you will feel the first time he does not come home from a meeting, the second time you wipe lipstick from his collar, and the third time you find a love letter in his pocket in a hand you don't recognize."
She looked up at the stars. "Do I sound foolish in saying maybe it would be different?"
Digory put his hand over hers. "Yes, Polly, I'm afraid it not only sounds foolish, but it is foolish."
Polly nodded and took a deep drink of the smoky scotch. "He tried a new tactic. There was a girl…"
"There's always a girl."
She gave him shove. "Not like that. A local girl, a Mi'kmaw, not more than fourteen. She told wonderful stories and was our guide. I spent quite a lot of time with her. We got on very well. Richard taunted me that with marriage I could have a daughter like Rita."
"Richard never does play fair when pursuing something he wants." Digory sighed heavily. "Leaving aside his presumption when it could easily be a platoon of little boys or none at all."
She leaned her head against his shoulder and sniffed a little. Digory set down his glass, moved the cigar to his other hand, and put his arm around her. It wasn't like Richard at all, and that was very good indeed.
"Do you think we're missing out on anything living as we do, Digory?"
"My life is entirely too full of eager, fresh-faced, striving students. If you find yourself missing Rita, a day at my College, or a weekend trying to locate Miss Mary Wallace and return her to her governess will cure that impulse and make you long for bachelor solitude again."
She laughed. "Perhaps I can place an advertisement for a temporary Aunt position until Stephen or Elizabeth oblige." Her younger brother and sister were both more traditional in that regard. "Do you suppose Narnia is to blame for how queer we both turned out?"
Digory tilted his head and blew out a passable smoke ring; with a deep puff and puckered lip, Polly managed to almost match his – a rare feat.
"Undoubtedly," Digory replied, smiling. "For which I thank the Lion daily."
She laughed, snuffed out her cigar so she could enjoy the rest of it after supper, and downed the last of her drink. "Let's go to the pub. I need to tell you the stories Rita told me of Glooskap, the Mi'kmaq creator."
Digory helped her rise and she found herself cradled against his chest. The rough tweed of his jacket scratched her cheek and she nestled closer and he kissed the top of her head.
"I am sorry, Polly."
Polly thought for a moment of asking Digory what he would do if she was a star in the sky and a wicked magician tried to keep them apart. But she already knew the answer.
I recently visited the astonishing Joggins where, even today, you can pick up fossils on the beach at low tide. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs are a Unesco World Heritage site and utterly unique. The Carboniferous fossils were investigated by Lyell, Dawson, and Darwin, and found their way into mentions in the Great Oxford Debate on Evolution in 1860 pitting Bishop Samuel Wilberforce against Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, all referenced previously in TSG Part 1.
I saw a presentation on the Star Husband at the Halifax Museum of Natural History and repeat here the story I read there. I am not sure if the translations are at all accurate, though they are taken nearly verbatim from the source that was in the Museum.
Yes, I know, Richard is an ass. He gets away with it because he's so smart and charming. I also found it fascinating that Margaret Sanger's second husband bankrolled the formation of the first diaphragm manufacturer in the U.S. in 1925.
I've written before, a long time ago, about Douglas and Katherine Burden's expedition with the Bronx Zoological Society to Indonesia to document the Komodo Dragon in 1926. Mary Russell rants about how Katherine's bravery was reduced to King Kong in Part 1 of TSG. I found video of the expedition here. Caution with the last few seconds as a magnificent, drooling lizard is shot.
Chapter 2 to follow after the Narnia Fic Exchange, with Mary, Peter, Lucy, and Asim making a pilgrimage to Joggins where the tale of the Star Husband is again told. The story ends with Eustace and Jill, again visiting Joggins.