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Sandi Hall
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Sandi HallBEGINNING in our South Pacific future and stretching back to a mediterranean past, Sandi Hall’s new and startling novel explores a friendship that could affect the history
of the world.

Living in 2002, Stella Mante can remember back two thousand years, when she was a ten

-year-old girlnamed Mary whose best friend is a boy she nicknames Santer.

An orphan herself, the young Mary is intrigued by Santer’s mother, whose name is also Mary. Her interest deepens when, as teenagers, Santer’s mother helps them both secretly flee, to Alexandria, the dazzling city of Cleopatra’s snowy palace, and the greatest
university in the known world.

As Santer fights against his destiny, Mary is drawn more and more into mysterious
events that threaten both their lives, and trigger her own life quest.

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        I awake knowing I have had the strangest dream but all that remains of it is a sense of sunlight whiter and dryer than here, and hills that were brown with dying grass.

        There was a woman too, someone familiar but also someone I cannot identify with my wakeful mind. Freudians and Jungians alike would say it is a nascent memory of my mother, or of being in the womb, and New Agers would say it is my spirit guide or higher self. If only I could believe in such easy and comforting philosophies but my life refutes their tenets, and I have been plagued with questions to myself for as long as the skein of my memory measures on its spindle.

        Rose jumps onto my feet and makes her way up my leg onto my bottom, then walks my spine like some miniature, four-handed masseuse, exotic with knowledge and knowing just where to press. At my shoulders, she peers under my hair to see if my eyes are open, as she intends they should be. Her old-bronze eyes are stippled with flecks of black, black as her small wet nose, and from such closeness, I see right inside the glistening oysterish landscape of her ears.

        She purrs her approval of my opened eyes and walks back down my body to knead my calf, an encouragement to me to leave the bed and move to the kitchen. There, she will accolade by means of hip sinuosity and tail curvaceousness my abilities as a food provider, almost the highest rung on her laddery list of attributes desirable in large warm beasts like me.

        I am not sure which rung has primacy, warmth or love...

        I do know that when I danced with her at the beginning of her pregnancy, her love for me flowed into mine for her and made an audible click in my psyche. When all of her kittens proved to be female, and unusual enough happening in itself, instinct told me that their chromosomes firmed and remained Xs at that moment; but rationality, so hard to avoid with its lean muscular appeal, said it couldn’t possibly be so.

        Even if I should wish to, I would not know who to consult about such a phenomena; to qualify in the field, such a person would first of all have to think dancing with cats a perfectly natural thing to do. And second, to believe that Rose really loves me, no anthropomorphising here. The kind of blood-and-mind love that comes only from an entwined ancestry in which our screaming limbs burned together in the wicker cages of fury. Rose remembers, as I do, how centuries before, when the molten flow of persecutions snaked through Spain and France, we escaped northwards to the lands of ice, where we ate milk shards from yellow bowls and learned to draw the chariot of the moon.

        My name now is Stella Mante and Rose and I now live on this north island of double-island Aotearoa, an island of hills with trees at their feet, surrounded by an apple-green sea. According to the new government of this country, as a foreigner, an alien who has not lived within its control, and who has not recognised numbers, I should not be living in thie four-tiered house, each level a single room (with a curl of stairs) and open to the sea.

        According to the new government, I should be living in a holding house in Manukau City, where old buildings are meek under the stern shadows of new ones, and dignity is not the order of the day. But fortunately, we have a friend, Sabe, who chooses to live in Auckland, its mother city, and who with ease has taken on two more duties, as paperworker and sentinel. Through her kind efficiency, Rose and I are safe.

        I get up and stand naked in the warm sunlight pouring through the long window by my bed. I stretch hard, coming into my body. On the horizon are thrusts of black kite-shaped sails, just a handspan from the blocky trudging boats of the fishing fleet. Rose sits half turned away, and begins to busy herself about her person. Her right leg could give lessons to flagpoles. But her left ear swivels and flutters and I know she is only marking time until a change in my energy tells her that I am going to the kitchen, in the right direction at last.

        I have only recently come to this island with its story-book hills between which the kaleidoscopic eyes of the sea peep – eyes which are sometimes slits of wrinkled silver, sometimes rounds of cobalt, sometimes scrutinies of jade. I came here in an ancient coach whose lines still proclaimed its royal lineage, even though the dust of decades had dulled its scarlet paint and wheels of black. I came with my boxes and my bags of carpet, my small but perfect library, my stones of glory, my vases and pails and my three essential spectrum finders, each for use at specific lights and times.

        I have come because I am looking for a woman I knew long ago. Her first name is Mary, that most common of female names in the world according to Christianity, which itself has spread its viraginous tentacles into half the minds of humanity. I have no idea what other names she uses, or how she earns her keep, or why this is the island she now walks. But I do know that she is here, the signs are unmistakable: unusual weather patterns are often the beginning, followed by a heightened prominence in the world’s media of a place not often considered newsworthy. Then, over a period of months, sometimes turning to a year or so, the country’s people will become less tolerant of restrictions, often restive under taxations rules. It is in these times that new voices are heard through the land, that women cry out against traditions which hold them inexorably in an iron-maiden clasp, and that young men dream of dragons, of favours, and the sweet bliss of unacknowledged admiration.

        I must find her, for she holds the secret truth that could free millions, that would change the world. Long ago, we both lived in a land of fish and goats and the small-flowered almond tree. There, our lives merged inextricably before the pungent blood of woman-being streaked my thighs. My attention to life had been focused early and I was alert like the slipping vixen with a lair full of cubs.

        Onto a small plate I place some Thai rice that has been steeped in chicken stock, rise which is black before it gets into hot water, then swells to become the purple of Pekinese tongues. In the rice I hide squares of ham, then lay this meal at Rose’s feet. On another plate, I put slices of mango and the last of the cylindrical, sweet green grapes left by the man in the pirate shirt who, with his seashell wife, was my outrider and escort from Manaukau City to this headland. I add wholegrain toast skimmed with honey, pour a glass of the thick tangerine juice that has become my especial delight, then take my breakfast out to the bower, which is old and trellised and heavy with the fragrant lilac weight of wisteria.

        The bower also smells of wood-rot, and the faint wet scent of the emerald moss on its floor, these aromas melded with the wisteria’s fragrance into an exhilarating perfume by the bouquet of the sea. The view from the bower, foreground hills and an alluring expanse of ocean (this morning striving for an Illyrian shade of mauve) is only bettered by that from the top floor of the house.

        My search for the woman named Mary has been a long one, more than several centuries. I do not know if I am immortal, or whether it will be the finding of Mary which starts Age shaving my tree of life again. Certainly the blade was halted in that radiant moment when, with Santer in ecstasy beside me, I felt myself move into alignment with the magnetic tides of Earth; its currents have born me effortlessly ever since.

        Along those times, I have run with many, including Grace, who rescued me from the winter rains of England, giving me sanctuary in that green place of forest and intaglio’d stone. Grace was tall and moved gently, but these things I noticed only later, and with my forefront sensibilities. At that first moment, fevered though I was, what I saw was an invisible radiance, dark and vital as claret wine is when held against the light. And in the air, an echo of sound as if moments before, a sword had been drawn along castle stone. Her brown eyes regarded me gravely and behind her was deepest night, not a timbered wall where, in panels of oil, dolphins leapt beyond rocks on which Syrens sang. So again I knew I was where I should be, and that she was my next step.

        Rose arrives at my feet and stares up at my plate, nose investigating the air on which the aromas of my breakfast cling.

        “Perhaps it was Grace in my dream?” I ask her but she returns a contemptuous glance. After a moment, I nod in agreement. “You’re right, she’s not so intangible. So who then?”

        Rose crouches by my ankles and we both gaze out to sea. The whiff of the dream-woman strengthens and with it a clearer feel of her sunlight self and the shape of those hills on whose backs the grass was lying. Then I know: Damascus and the white head of Hermon lie to the north, the great cleft of Jericho nearby; and in the east is the boat in the sky, left by the force of the water, so like the force of woman, swirling and offering no resistance until it is dammed or damned.

        The woman in my dream was Szuzanna, who had captured my half-dead childself in her arms, nourished and claimed me, and given me the wisdom and strength necessary to stay alive.

        Who my parents were not even my dreams can tell me. Szuzanna said I was about three when she heard the bray of goats in the far pen and saw me trying to suck a nanny’s small dark teat. Even now the tang of their black shit is comforting to me, and I find elegance and beauty in their slim ankles and silken triangular chins.

        “Szuzanna,” I say aloud.

        Rose gives an acknowledging mew as she suddenly springs forward to leap at but miss one of the narrow-winged moths which come to feed from the clustered pistils of the yellow hibiscus. She sits down suddenly, rethinks her timing, then thoughtfully licks her paw. Exhilaration rises briefly, wrenching my gut and leaving me light-headed. Szusanna! Time stretched in the present becomes a little of the future, but most of all the past.

        Mary can’t be far.

        I feel again the circle of Santer’s arms, his head lying on my belly, the smell of him strong with nuts and sweat and meat. He is as thin as dry cornstalks, his elbows sharp against my flesh. In the cage of his ribs under my hands I can feel the beating of his confused heart, expanded as it is with fear and longing. He is a man moulded by lies and bigotry, who has drawn love from stones and wears his beliefs around him life a fading, tattered cloak.

        Clouds have thickened across the morning blue. The milky stretch of the sea has taken on the umbra of a bruise. I look for Rose, but she is nowhere to be seen. A summer shower breaks. Rain drips copiously through the wisteria and suddenly my feet are cold. Thinking of Mary, of the question I know she can answer, and of what is possible in a truth-leaked world, I pick up my plate and go through the wet, fat-dropped morning to my watchtower house.

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