Me Tanner, You Jane

Page 17

An hour before sundown Samuel Lonestar Bowman and I made our way over a stretch of reasonably clear ground to the site where Sheena’s tent was pitched. Two sentries crouched out in front. They reminded me of the lions at the New York Public Library. One of them was whittling a branch. His knife had a sharply curved blade, and looked menacing. The other also held a knife. The blade was longer and straighter, and he wasn’t carving anything with it. He was just holding it and looking dangerous.

Bowman spoke to the carver, reeling off several ornate sentences of gibberish. The sentry did not appear at first to have heard. He went on whittling for a few moments. Then he straightened up abruptly, put down the hunk of wood, and tucked a knife into the waistband of his trousers. He went into Sheena’s tent. The other sentry contrived to look twice as menacing as usual in order to take up the slack.

The carver reappeared wordlessly, dropped to a crouch, picked up the chunk of wood, and whipped out his knife. He resumed carving, ignoring us completely. This was evidently his way of approving our credentials. Alone I might have been a little diffident about brushing on past him, but Sam led the way and I only had to follow.

Inside, a candle glowed to illuminate the interior of the tent. It was more spacious than I would have guessed, and far more elaborately appointed. When you considered that the tent was a mobile unit, taken up when the troupe broke camp and pitched anew when the day’s march ended, it seemed surprisingly comfortable. It was light-tight, and it had room enough for a lush bed of straw and leaves on which our matriarch was doing her supine white goddess number. Her platinum-gold hair cascaded over bare shoulders. Animal skins covered her breasts and lower body. One leg was extended, the other doubled up, as in Italian paintings of orgiastic pagan deities.

Bowman said, “This be Tanner, who comes to be husband to Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and hope of heaven.” He bowed his head. “What God has laid together, let no man put asunder.” He said a few more words, bowed again, and backed out of the tent.

I had been well coached, and knew my part. I dropped to one knee beside her, genuflected, got to my feet. I shucked off the shapeless cotton shirt and trousers and stood naked for her inspection. We had renewed the body make-up with fresh roots and berries, and I had collected a handful of cochineal beetles which supplied the red dye. The candle provided imperfect light, and Sheena squinted to study me.

I felt my stomach muscles tighten, felt a pulse working in my throat. This was the crucial moment. Bowman was waiting outside, ready to spring into action if the thing blew up in our faces. With luck I might be able to cool Sheena before she sounded the alarm, and we might have a chance to make a desperate break. But if she didn’t tip now, our odds improved hearteningly.

“She’s right on top of things at the beginning,” Bowman had told me. “There’s a first-rate mind underneath all the flakiness, and now and then she can use it. But if she doesn’t make you as white right off the bat, you could be home free. Because after she performs the marriage ceremony, she gets involved in consummating it, and she’s got a real genius for consummation. She gets all involved in what she’s doing. Once she’s in the swing of things she wouldn’t know if she was being humped by a white man or a black man or a donkey. She works a man half to death, but you don’t want to think it’s all a burden. There are things about that woman I am going to miss a whole lot. But I don’t want to spoil it for you, Tanner cat. You just go and have yourself a time.”

The trouble was that I didn’t feel like having myself a time. If I had felt any less virile I would have sat down and written regional fiction for The New Yorker. It struck me that if I passed inspection I would just fail the road test anyway. And that would knock the props out from under our escape plan.

Sheena’s eyes scanned me. I waited, and she nodded slowly, and it seemed that I had passed inspection. She seemed neither wildly delighted with what she saw nor abysmally depressed. She motioned with one hand, and I sank again to my knees.

She said, “And thou shalt love the Goddess with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this evening shall guide thy spirit all the length of thy days. And thou shall write them upon the doorposts of thy house, and shall make them as a sign in blood upon thy loins. And thou shalt-”

It went on like this, the ceremony did, and while none of it made very much literal sense I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had heard it all before, part here and part there. Now and then I recognized a part from the standard marriage ritual, and ultimately we did reach the nitty-gritty:

“Do you, Tanner, take this woman, Sheena, as your bride and goddess, to love, honor, and obey, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, until death do you in?”

“ Katanga Salami Nokomis.”

“Then by the authority vested in me I do proclaim us woman and husband. Sticks and stones shall break thy bones but names shall never hurt thee.” She shrugged off the pelts, exposing her naked flesh. Her body was so flawlessly formed and so lushly designed it seemed incredible that she did not fold into three parts, that her navel was indeed unstapled. She was honestly too good to be true, and the effect was perversely anaphrodisiacal – that which was so perfectly designed to turn one on had the effect of turning one (more precisely, me) off.

This may reveal a tragic flaw in my own character. I’m not sure. I seem to be encumbered with an unwillingness to believe in the ideal when I encounter it. Spectacular scenery makes me feel that I am watching a film or examining a picture postcard. When I see an extraordinary hairdo I assume the lady is wearing a wig. Plants growing luxuriantly appear plastic. It has occurred to me that this inability to accept perfection may be a corollary to the idea of a man’s reach properly exceeding his grasp. And I would have liked to pursue the thought further, but I had other things to contend with.

Sheena, for example.

“Dearly beloved,” she was saying, “we have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Dust thou art, to dust returneth, and may God have mercy on your soul. You may fuck the bride.”

Outside, I knew, Plum and Bowman were getting ready to go into their acts. For simplicity’s sake, we had divided the task of escape into three parts, like Gaul. It was Plum ’s job to incapacitate about a dozen long dugout canoes, the entire navy of Sheena’s entire army. It was Bowman’s job to incapacitate somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty men, and it was my job to incapacitate Sheena herself. By any sort of logical analysis, my job was the easiest of the three.

I would have traded even with either of them.

I was still kneeling there, and thinking about this, when Sheena repeated her last sentence. There was a note of irritation in her tone. I had missed my cue, and she didn’t seem to like it. It seemed to me that this must happen rather often, since Bowman and I were alone among her husbands in being able to understand what she was saying. I guess the others were good at nonverbal communication and simply did what came naturally.

Time to go to work, I reminded myself. Nice work if you can get it, I told myself. Plenty of trouble if you can’t get it, I added. Up.

I reached for the bride.

Chapter 12

It was method acting, pure Stanislavski. The wish fathered the thought while necessity mothered invention, and I pressed buttons and flicked switches inside my head until I was what I seemed to be, an ignoble savage paying carnal homage to my white goddess. I lived the part and rose to the occasion, so to speak, and the lady was not displeased.

Her cries of passion would have been more inspiring had we not had a language in common. As she prepared to die the little death, she cried out in cadence and crescendo, and had I not understood the words I might have been moved. But what she cried out was the begat section of Genesis, singularly appropriate in a sense but hardly in line with my own mood.

We rested, and we resumed, and we rested once again. And then, while I lay with eyes lidded and chest heaving and mind wandering lonely as a cloud, I heard the voice of a child.

“Hello, Daddy. Hello, Mommy. May I go for a nice walk? May I play with my toys?”

I looked up to see who was addressing us as Daddy and Mommy. But there was no one in the room but me and the goddess, and I looked at her and away and back again in a rather clumsy double take. It was the goddess who was speaking, but in a distinctly ungoddessly voice.

“Mary had a little lamb,” she began, in a tinny tiny voice, and went on, reciting this and other Mother Gooseries. She made occasional mistakes – she had trouble, for example, in keeping Little Boy Blue and Little Bo-peep straight, but then they may have had that problem themselves. The little voice never faltered and was never at a loss for words. I reached out, tipped up her chin, looked into her eyes. There was nobody home.

According to the script, it was just about time for me to put Sheena temporarily out of commission. The precise mechanics of this were to be improvised on the spot, and would probably involve something like bopping her over the head and tying her up.

I hadn’t liked the idea then and I liked it less now. Some vestigial remnant of chivalry, anachronistic but undeniable for all that, made me less than enthusiastic about the prospect of treating any woman in this fashion. Women, after all, occupy a special niche in the great chain of being (if chains have niches). They stand (if one stands in niches) a little lower than the apes, a little higher than the angels. And they are to be approached courteously, and with respect, and not with a right to the jaw.

And if it is undecorous to knock a woman cold, it would seem just that much worse to do so after having shared a bed with her. I had taken this into consideration and had just about conquered my objections, and now yet another variable had been introduced. I had not merely shared a bed with Sheena. I had done so and had seen the bedding process induce a reversion to childhood. It was one thing to coldcock Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. It was another thing when Sheena had become Jane and when a child’s voice emerged from that unimpeachably mature body.

“My name is Jane and I am ten years old. Are you a stranger? My mommy says I am not to talk to strangers. Are you a nice man? My name is Jane-”

She’s a murderess, I told myself. A butcher. Next to her, Ilse Koch was just a life-of-the-party type with a lampshade on her head.

“My daddy is a man of God. He is tall and pretty. At night sometimes he sleeps with my mommy and they wrestle and call out God’s name. I have to wash my hands and face and eat all my vegetables and say my prayers or I will not go to heaven when I die. When my daddy goes away my uncle Bobby goes with my mommy and they say their prayers and wrestle. My daddy’s name is Mordecai. My mommy’s name is Prudence. My name is Jane.”

A cannibal, I thought. A butchering murdering cannibal. A menace.

“My name is Jane and I am ten years old-”

I swallowed. Whatever happened to Baby Jane, it had certainly left its mark on her. But underneath the animal skins and inside the lush flesh the innocent child lived on. It was all still there, trapped in a madwoman who roamed the jungle as if intent on having her life story serialized in the National Enquirer.

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