Here is chapter three of the saga The Courtesans of God.
Chapters one and two can be found in “Departments, Thorn’s Blog”
Sarafina rocked slowly and deliberately in the shade of the zinc roof that flared over the veranda. She fanned herself, and stared at the open gate half hidden by the huge miranti tree that was somehow an accomplice to her many misfortunes, when the out-of-breath messenger arrived, and stuttered the news that Catherine had found her way into the center of things again. He handed Sarafina the note, which she did not open.
“The high priestess herself comes to barter for the girl’s future!” he concluded, and he was suddenly embarrassed by his own unshared enthusiasm. Kamille offered him water, thanked him on behalf of Sarafina, and suggested that he leave. Sarafina had not said a word through all of this, but continued to rock. When the coolie was gone, Sarafina stood and leaned on the banister. She muttered a few things to Kamille, orders. Kamille took the rocking chair into the house, and un-scrolled finely woven mats in its place. That tree has got to come down, and soon, thought Sarafina to herself. She tossed the letter into the bin to the side of the door.
Kamille brought out a low serving table on which she centered a bowl of rose water and a tray of beetle nuts. “Will there be anything else, puan?”
“No.” She didn’t bother to turn and face her servant. “Just see that Beni and Fin stay in their room…Put them down for their afternoon nap.” Beni and Fin, unlike their sister,Catherine, were too young to have a will of their own and were no threat to Sarafina.
“Those two, at least, you should be able to manage,” she said, taking a quick slice at Kamille for letting Catherine stray that morning. Kamille lowered her head and disappeared into the house, taking the bin with her without being told.
Sarafina sat down on the mats and helped herself to some beetle-nuts. She leaned against the side of the house, and folded her legs beneath her, lotus-style. The heat had made even the air lethargic, like a snake that had just fed, and it crawled into the shade of the veranda where Sarafina fanned herself and waited. Time itself stepped more slowly than usual in deference to the heat, and then it stopped altogether, stirring again only when the first few members of Che’ Wan’s delegation made their way through the gate. Sarafina watched as Che’ Wan instructed her people to wait in the grove between the house and the gate before proceeding to the veranda. Sarafina revealed no expression when she saw the hand of her insolent granddaughter in that of the priestess. As Che’ Wan approached, Sarafina got to her feet, making it appear to be an effort, as if her joints ached, and she bowed more deeply than a woman of her status might be expected to do in the presence of her guest.
“Welcome! Welcome!” she said, bowing again as she spoke. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last. A pleasure!” and she gestured for Che’ Wan to join her on the veranda. The priestess was taken aback—Sarafina’s mouth was bright red, and Che’ Wan thought the woman was bleeding from within. Che’ Wan glanced at the table, at the shelled beetle-nuts, and quickly understood. Years of chewing the beetle-nut had permanently stained Sarafina’s mouth, and left her looking carnivorous. Che’ Wan could feel a slight shudder in the young girl whose hand she still held.
Che’ Wan nodded and stepped up on the porch. As Sarafina bowed one last time Che’ Wan got a good look at her shoulders. They seemed too powerful for a woman whose station in life made heavy labor an option rather than a necessity, and a crucifix dangled from a rather muscular neck. Her black hair, beginning to streak with the white mutiny of aging, was gathered behind her head in a loose bun, and held in place with a modest silver pin, like a slender, curved dagger. When she lifted her head, even her smile was muscular. Sarafina directed her guest to a cushion, and she herself, with embarrassing modesty, sat opposite her on no cushion at all.
“The pleasure is mine to be here, puan,” said Che’ Wan, without passion.
“Have you had your tea, my dear?”
“Oh, no, I haven’t. That would be fine, thank you.”
“Kamille? Would you please?” She called over her shoulder. She knew Kamille would be just inside the door.
As tea brewed Che’ Wan inquired about the harvest, and about the children, and made the customary remarks about the small rose garden to the left and right of the steps to the veranda. It was only when tea was set before them that Che’ Wan got to the heart of the matter. “Madam D’Cruz, I have come to ask your consent to take Catherine back with me today, to live in the temple.”
Sarafina feigned surprise. “My granddaughter?”
“Yes. Your granddaughter.” Che’ Wan stopped herself from reaching for her teacup, angered at Sarafina’s pretended humility. Catherine wanted to speak, wanted to warn Che’ Wan, but knew she could say nothing.
“Madam D’Cruz,” continued Che’ Wan, “if you let me have Catherine, and let me take her with me to our temple, I can do things for her that this village never can. What is there for her here? And with no mother?”
“I do more for the girl than the mother ever could,” said Sarafina, abrasively.
“Indeed, you do,” replied Che’ Wan, seizing the initiative. “And here is a chance to do even more.”
Sarafina hid her mouth behind her teacup.
“Puan,” continued Che’ Wan, “if you allow me to take her, I will love her as I would my own daughter. I will be her ibu, her mother. I will teach her not only our ways, but the ways of the West, as well. I will have her reading English, and Sanskrit, if you like. I will teach her the ways of the dancer, and of the healer. I will bri…”
“I myself am a healer! Ask anyone. Ask them all. It is me they come to, when they are sick, or their bones are broke. Ask them! I can teach her these things.”
But will you? thought Che’ Wan. There is deceit here.
But this much was true. Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz was the bomoh, the medicine woman for Sentul. Pak Sarkia had told Che’ Wan stories about her before she left the tent that afternoon. When herbs and ointment failed, Sarafina would invoke the darker spirits, bargaining with them on behalf of those she would heal. Those she succeeded in curing were as intimidated by Sarafina as they were by the spirits she claimed had caused their illness, but they spread word of her power, and became indebted, indentured to her. She accumulated their souls, and kept them in a vial.
Sarafina noticed that the priestess had yet to sip her tea, the gesture of acceptance. She decided to call her on it. “Your tea, my dear?”
“It’s still quite hot.” Che’ Wan felt no obligation to be sincere.
Sarafina stared past Che’ Wan’s shoulder. The entourage that had accompanied her to the house sat beneath the rambutan and mango trees, and that damned miranti tree in the island made by the circular drive. “Tell me,” she said. “Who’s the boy? Your son?”
“That is Zainudin. No. I am not his birth mother, but I am like an ibu to him.”
“Really? And what sort of things do you teach him to do in the temple?”
“I teach him to do nothing. I teach him to be everything.” Che’ Wan would not be baited. “He’s very special, like your granddaughter.”
Sarafina took another sip from her tea. Too hot indeed! she said to herself. “And what about …the church.” Sarafina, in the tradition of the Madrigals, was Catholic, and even gave money when Sister Masselin would come from the convent to visit from time to time.
“If she is meant to be Catholic, if she is meant to be as…you are… it will reveal itself, over time. I won’t interfere with that.”
Sarafina fondled the crucifix that dangled from her neck. What a blasphemous notion, she thought, but of no importance. “My dear, I don’t think Catholic girls are meant to do all the things you intend to teach her. I’ve heard what goes on in your…temple.”
Catherine had maneuvered to the relative obscurity of the doorway, behind Kamille, who had quietly returned from the nursery. How many times Catherine recalled her grandmother threatening to get rid of her! Now if only she would! Che’ Wan could feel the girl pleading.
“I am only thinking of the girl, you see,” said Madam D’Cruz. “I only want what is best for her.”
You have never wanted what was best for the girl. This Che’ Wan said to Sarafina without moving her lips or making a sound, and Sarafina heard each word.
“But tell me this, would you?” asked Sarafina politely. “Is it true the King actually sends a tithe each month, to the mothers of the children you take with you?”
Very cautiously, Che’ Wan asked, “Would you expect a tithe from the King?”
“The girl is very special, very dear to me.”
Not once have you referred to Catherine by name, thought Che’ Wan. Why is she only ‘the girl’? No wonder Catherine had been so insistent back in the tent that she be called by her true name.
Sarafina looked behind Kamille’s shoulder and motioned Catherine to approach. She took her by the elbow and pulled her down to sit in her lap. “She is not like the other girls,” she explained, “the ones in the kampong, poor things. She is worth…so much more.”
Che’ Wan understood, and looked sadly at Catherine. Her grandmother would never give her consent to leave. She merely wanted to see what the royal temple would offer for her. “Madam D’Cruz, it is true that a tithe is given, but it is a very small sum, certainly to a woman with your means. And it is freely given, as the children are freely given. We do not buy children.” She paused, further angered that Catherine’s welfare had very little to do with Sarafina’s motives, Sarafina, who sipped genteelly from her tea cup and waited for her guest to continue. “And, yes, I agree. She is very, very special, more than either of us may know. I can understand why you would not want to part with her.”
Suddenly Catherine interrupted. “Gran’ma, let me go with her!”
“I only want what is best for you.” Rage tightened the muscles of Sarafina’s face, and her nails dug ever so slightly into Catherine’s forearm.
“Please! Let her take me!”
“It all right, Catherine,” said Che’ Wan, who did not want to antagonize Sarafina at Catherine’s expense. Sarafina stiffened as she felt her façade being undermined by the child on her lap.
“Come, daughter,” said Che’ Wan quietly, as she stood. “Walk me to the gate.”
Catherine freed herself from her grandmother, and clung to Che’ Wan the way a child awakening from a bad dream clings to a pillow in the dark.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” said Che’ Wan. “Please consider my proposal for Catherine.” She stepped down from the veranda and began walking the long drive with Catherine’s hand in her own. Her people in the grove had already headed off when they sensed the meanness in the air.
“I…shall think on it,” said Sarafina, who watched them go, who saw the teacup remain untouched.
Halfway to the gate and without breaking stride, Che’ Wan spoke. “Don’t cry, Catherine. Be strong. It is your first lesson. Be strong!”
Yes, thought Catherine. I can be strong. I can be strong for Che’ Wan. Still, she felt all hope vanishing as they approached the gate. They stopped, and Che’ Wan watched for a moment as Sarafina turned into smoke and flame on the veranda and smiled politely.
“Catherine. This much I promise you. I will see you again.” She bent down and wrapped her arms around the girl who was already so adoring of her. Catherine’s memories of her real mother were vague but somehow awakened, memories so different from what her grandmother told her was true. “In seven years time, you will find your way to the temple, and I will see you again.”
Che’ Wan stood. “Be strong!” she said, but this time empathetically. She closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of the fragile little girl who still clung to her. The essence of that breath she would not expel until she was within the temple, transporting the seed of Catherine’s spirit to safety. She peeled the child away from her, and held her at arm’s length and memorized the face. “Good-bye, Catherine. I will see you again!” She passed through the gate without looking back, having done what she could to empower Catherine to fend for herself.
Catherine turned to see her grandmother leaning over the rail of the veranda, posing, but she could hear even from fifty yards the old woman’s teeth grinding together. She dashed out the gate before she could be called, and ran to the pineapple fields where her grandmother would never follow.
That girl! thought Sarafina. She is just like her mother, that jungle woman!…
Kamille knew enough to remove the mats at once and return the rocker. Her matron no longer needed the pretense of humility. Sarafina let her weight drop in the chair. “Kamille!” she barked. “Bring me my cigars!”
In a moment Kamille produced the humidor and matches, and set them on the low table. From years of service she knew that this was to be a private moment, and she disappeared to the kitchen.
Sarafina opened the humidor, and made her selection. She sucked in the first few drafts of gray smoke, and in a few moments all seemed to be right with the world again. Rocking and smoking, she persuaded herself that she had gotten the better of the encounter with the priestess. Healer indeed! She would deal with her granddaughter’s insolence, in time. The girl had to come home, eventually. There was always the tree, though from years of crippling her own children she knew threat of punishment was often more tortuous and of more value than the punishment itself.
This cigar, she thought. This fine cigar! What a pleasure it is. A pleasure!
Her composure had returned.
She was noticing that the guavas in the small grove in front of the house were overly ripe, and either rotting on the tree or on the ground. She could not remember which of her servants to berate for this neglect, but any servant would do, really, a quick expression of authority. That tall coolie under the straw hat now entering the gate. He…but it was no coolie, evident only as he lifted his hat and waved towards the house.
It was William, her husband, returned early from the fields.
And now Sarafina smiled in earnest. William she truly loved, and felt almost girlish in his presence. He was the one man that she truly respected. The only person with whom she could enjoy a good smoke! She inhaled once more as he approached. She held her breath, and in the smoke dungeon of her lungs she suffocated all thoughts of Che’ Wan and Catherine…and that despicable mother of Catherine’s—that jungle woman!