Tourmaline (part three)
“Where the adjectival phrase takes the place of a noun, where we grammarians employ the hyphenated construction…which is, of course, a bit of shorthand for us…I mean for us alone. They, while officially, the nomads use our own alphabet…”
Professor Swisshelm removed his plug of tobacco and placed it, to be used again, on a glass saucer, the sealing cap of a canning jar. Where had he got tobacco? His daughter had served a surprising omelet, made from real egg. She had given her guest a cup of cocoa, thin and watery…and rather shame-making, as they’d all sat watching Anton drink it.
“In fact, generally they use no written means of communication at all, the Hidtha. Most are illiterate. Ah! I was going to say…it is all in the context. The curious aspect is that the noun, rather than the adjective, changes case depending upon the actor.”
“So, they are natural philosophers. A thing has only those properties it takes from its observer. Please, professor, will you write some of these phrases down, that you think I ought to know?”
It approached the blatant. Anton had been suffering through this lecture, weighing possibilities. Most obvious, that Swisshelm was nattering, because today he had an audience…and one bound in duty. In all cases of tourmaline, Anton must listen with the closest attention. It was a luxury to have anything on paper, and Swisshelm might refuse.
“I will do you one better,” he said.
Some lightening in the lowering damp of the coastland suggested spring. Anton’s mood was not lifted. It made sense, he was telling himself, to study the book in depth.
Peculiarities in the Hidtha: the Autochthonous Speech of Our Eastern Peninsula.
“Yes, keep that. I have three or four.”
These interactions with the Swisshelms had continued spoiled by a mordant undercurrent of humor. But Anton had nothing to do in the evenings. He might learn one or two phrases.
The Hidtha, when one saw them, seemed all to have become militarized and modern. They wore green fatigues, black berets with the yellow insignia. They were frightening people. And nominally, allies.
She caught him up, trotting to the top of the hill, with a face so familial that he knew, however humiliating, the foolishness must end. No, this was not humiliation. It was another thing, and deeper. Palma had never liked him. In a moment, he would insult this woman, asking her to tell him who she was, and that welcome he saw in her eyes would fade.
“I have never managed to get your name.” He tried a bit of a smile.
She laughed. And then said, “That book of Dad’s. Since the G.R.A. have come here, you know, they’ve never lost a battle. It’s true. I say it on the street.”
She made a performer’s gesture, sweeping an open hand in a half-circle. The humor, he thought.
“The glossary might be helpful to you. Just to get started. A lot of the book is taken up with interviews Dad conducted. With some of the old herdsmen who are dead now.”
This spotty chit-chat had got him to the door of his building.
He tried to get at it early in the morning, the tedious reading, after she’d gone home. He found himself distracted by a number of worries, by a ringing in the ears, by the fresh-air smell that pulsed with the wind through the closed window. He opened this…the day was not warm. He lay on the bed, let a hand drop to the floor. Some object moved as his finger struck it, and he heard the dismaying sound of a tiny thing tinkling off to a dark corner. The corners of this house were gnawed by rats, their holes an oblivion between walls. He’d managed, groping after his camera’s focusing knob, that he’d tightened the wrong direction—it had arced away suddenly—to lose a needed thing, an irreplaceable thing. He could guess what she’d left him.
On his stomach he hovered a reaching hand just above the fringe where the rug ended. At the second pass he got it…and with it, a tangle of hempen string, a clot of greasy dust.
He would walk out to look at the sea. Unless he found there was a patrol today, blocking the causeway. From time to time, for reasons of their own, they did. The ring fit his third finger; and so for safety, he wore it.
Three or four vocabulary words, used in a sentence, enough to go on with. Dd was the sound of a rolled r. Feidda. Ei: ay. Feidda. I am going on a journey.
ehca bei feidda djoui-acht
At present, should he encounter one of the Hidtha, he would make a ponderous speaker—and they would be patient men if they bothered listening. But one saw them at dawn, moving under cover of the seaside’s climbing fogs.
This morning’s had yet to burn off.
Anton found it difficult to dress for the weather. Having so little heat in the house, he wore his coat and cap most of the time; and feeling chilled to begin with, could detect, coming outdoors, not much difference…other than an increase in damp. But when he had walked to the shore, then along it, the sun began to penetrate, and he thought he would carry his coat over his arm.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)