Castle Roland

The Translator

by David McLeod


Chapter 1

Posted: 8 Jan 15

The Translator

by David McLeod

State Police Post, Christmas Eve

Phillip tried to appear confident as he approached the desk sergeant. The woman sat behind bulletproof glass. Her spectacles were nearly as thick as the window. Together, the two layers of glass completely obscured her eyes.

"Well, speak up," she said. Her voice came from a speaker in the ceiling above the glass. Phillip looked up involuntarily. "The microphone's here," the woman continued, pointing to a chrome box on the ledge directly in front of Phillip. The face of the box was perforated. "Talk to it."

"Someone wanted a translator," Phillip said. "They sent me. From the college, I mean."

"Need more than a translator," the woman grumbled. "Didn't they tell you? We don't even know what language this kid speaks. And you're just a kid yourself. Don't they have a linguist?"

"I'm the closest thing to a linguist the Community College has," Phillip said. "I speak Athabascan, Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, A'shiwi, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, German, Spanish–I said that–, Latin, Mandarin, and some Japanese."

"Okay, okay," the policewoman said. "Let's see some ID . . . and what's in the bag?"

Philip glanced at his book bag as he pulled out his wallet. "Notebooks, protein-bars," he listed. "Bottles of water, school books."

"Weapons?" the woman asked as she glanced at the international driver's license Phillip had pressed against the glass.

"No, ma'am" Phillip said. "They're pretty strict about that at school." He grinned.

Phillip's grin was infectious. The woman grinned back. "Yeah." She chuckled. "Probably more strict than we are. Come on through that door." She gestured. A lock buzzed, and Phillip entered the secure area of the State Police post.

"He looks about 15," the State Trooper, said. The man's brass nametag read, MacComb. "A rancher called us. Kid knocked on his door, begging it looked like. Rancher couldn't understand a word he said, and it looked like the kid couldn't understand him, either. He was barefoot, wearing homespun: no labels, no identification, no tattoos, nothing. Family Services sent someone from Gallup. They got him some regular clothes. Said they can't arrange foster care until Tuesday. Or too lazy to–" the Trooper paused as if unwilling to criticize another government employee.

"The lady at the desk said he didn't speak English?" Phillip made the statement into a question.

"We couldn't get anything from him," the Trooper said. "He talks, constantly. But no one understands what he says. Family Services tried Athabascan, Spanish, Hopi, and A'shiwi. And English, of course. He gestures a lot, too, but the gestures don't make sense. The Captain knows the Provost at the college. Called him. He sent you?"

"Yes, sir," Phillip said. "I told the woman at the desk I spoke Arabic, Russian–"

"Yeah," the Trooper interrupted. "That's what the Captain said. Sorry to interrupt, but I'm in a hurry. I've got things to do before Christmas."

The man hesitated. "Um, that was pretty unkind. I guess we're messing up your Christmas Eve."

"Not really," Phillip said with a wry smile. "We don't do Christmas on my part of the Res."

"Res . . . reservation? You're Indian?" MacComb asked. He'd assumed Phillip was Hispanglo. The boy had dark hair, but it was curly, unlike the typically straight hair of the Athabascans and other First Peoples. His skin was fair, his nose was thin and straight, and his eyes were blue. Who ever heard of a blue-eyed Indian? flashed across the Trooper's mind.

"That's what they tell me," Phillip answered. He grinned at the Trooper to take the sting from his statement. "My mother is Athabascan; my father was Hispanglo. A soldier." He didn't add that he hadn't seen his mother in more than five years and that his father was dead. Phillip lived in a trailer, one of the hundreds that pocked the reservation. He did not know who owned it, but then, neither did anyone else. He attended the community college on a lottery-sponsored scholarship. After school and on weekends he worked in the Athabascan Nation's silver craft co-operative, making "Indian jewelry" for tourists, and listening to language tapes from the library on an antique Walkman.

Phillip and Trooper MacComb looked through a wall of one-way glass. In the brightly lit room on the other side a boy sat in a plain chair at a plain table. His blonde hair–bleached nearly white by sunlight–curled around his ears and hung over his forehead. The hair was longer than usual for boys his age; otherwise, he was unremarkable. He wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt, white socks and cheap tennis shoes–the uniform of the foster child. His hands, clasped in front of him, rested on the table. As Phillip and the Trooper watched, the boy unfolded his hands and made grasping motions, and then clenched them again. It looked as if the boy wanted to fidget, but was trying to restrain himself.

"He's not dangerous, and there are no charges against him, so far. We've sent his prints on the wire to New York, but we'll not hear back from them for a couple of days. I want to be in the room–" the Trooper began.

"No, sir," Phillip said, firmly. "If I'm going to talk with him, maybe learn a new language, I need his trust and total attention." He looked at the Trooper. "I can take care of myself. Growing up half-breed on the Res? I learned to fight when I was real young. After a couple of beatings, I got pretty good at it. And, I'm black belt in taekwondo."

The Trooper looked at Phillip. He saw the self-confidence in Phillip's eyes. Besides, he was at least a foot taller than the boy and, despite a thin built, probably 30 pounds heavier. "Sure," the Trooper said. "See the button on your side of the table? It's a panic button. Slap it if anything, and I mean anything, happens. Press the green one beside the door when you're ready to leave or if you need anything. I'll be up front."

"What about your Christmas Eve?" Phillip asked.

"It can wait, son," MacComb said.

The boy looked up as the door opened. Phillip stepped in and pulled the door shut. Walking toward the boy's side of the table, Phillip held out his hand. "My name is Phillip," he said, enunciating clearly but not exaggerating. And not yelling, either, he smiled to himself, remembering the old adage: Anyone can understand your language if you speak it loudly and slowly.

The boy's eyes seemed to light up as he stood and extended his hand. Phillip mentally registered the boy's green eyes and a dusting of freckles across his nose. The trooper thought I wasn't Indian because of my appearance. Don't fall into the same trap. I haven't seen many blonde, green-eyed Indians with freckles, but I know at least one. Billy Gleaner's mother has so many children by so many fathers, when the kids get together it looks like an ad for UNICEF.

"My name is Argon," the boy said, although Phillip understood not a word. The boys shook hands.

Was that a Builders Lodge handshake? Phillip wondered briefly. He'd joined his uncle's Lodge on his 18th birthday, and was currently working toward his Fourth Degree. Couldn't have been. He can't be more than 15. Phillip dismissed the thought.

"The chairs are bolted to the floor," Phillip said, pulling on the back of the second chair as he spoke. "I have to sit on the opposite side." He sat, and pulled a yellow, ruled tablet and a ballpoint pen from his book bag. He didn't see the boy's eyes widen when he caught site of the paper.

"My name is Phillip," that boy said again, pointing to himself. "Phillip."

"Argon," that boy said, pointing to himself. "Argon."

A chemical element, but not a common name, Phillip thought. And then, What the heck?

The boy had folded his arms in a way Phillip recognized: the Builders Lodge Hailing Sign! Does he know what it means?

Phillip wrote on the paper: PHILLIP and below that, ARGON

Beside his own name, Phillip sketched an open draftsman's compass. He pointed to himself, and to the word PHILLIP. He pointed to the other boy and to the word ARGON. Then he handed the pen to the other boy.

Argon's eyes widened. Taking the pen, he sketched a draftsman's compass beside his name. Below it, he added a builder's square. Between them, rather than the thunderbird Phillip expected to see, the central symbol Argon drew was clearly a flame.

He may be fifteen, but he knows the symbols of the Builders Lodge, Phillip thought. We replaced the Hispanglo's central symbol with the thunderbird; his lodge uses a flame. Wonder what the symbolism means.

Phillip began in Athabascan, asking the first question in the litany of the First Degree of the Builders Lodge. When Argon showed no comprehension, Phillip pointed to the symbols Argon had drawn, and asked the question again. Argon shook his head and shrugged. At least his body language seems to be standard, Phillip thought. He didn't want to ask in Spanish or English, lest the state trooper be listening. He asked the same question in Arabic. Still no response from Argon. Mandarin followed Hopi and A'shiwi. Phillip tried broken Japanese with no better results. A Japanese lodge brother probably wouldn't have recognized that one, Phillip thought. He asked the language in German. Argon's eyes flickered. The boy furrowed his brow. Phillip asked the question again. The boy's eyes lit up, and he responded.

The accent was strange to Phillip, but the words–many of them anyway–were understandable. Phillip asked the second question. Argon replied instantly. Again, Phillip only partly understood. Nevertheless, within minutes the two boys had established the cadence of question and answer. The both smiled brightly when they finished in the same breath.

Using the Builders Lodge ritual as a basis, Phillip and Argon talked, wrote, mimed, and sketched for more than an hour before Phillip had an epiphany. That's the problem! He's using at least three different languages! No wonder it's been so weird. One's a lot like German. That works for the Lodge stuff, but the vocabulary is very small. He may know only the words used in the ritual. One is almost Latin. He doesn't know a lot of it; but he does know more Latin than German. One of the languages I haven't a clue about–but it seems to be Argon's mother tongue. Put it all together and it's like Lorem Ipsum, the fake Latin printers use for testing page layouts. If we stick to Latin, maybe I can figure out who he is and where he's from. Then, I can try to learn Argon's mother tongue.

"Nunc est bibendum!" Phillip said, pulling the water bottle from his pack. He unscrewed the cap and offered the bottle to Argon. The boy looked puzzled. Philip sipped from the bottle and offered it again. "Nunc est bibendum, comprendant?"(Now it is time to drink, do you understand?)

Comprendamo(I understand), Argon said, excitement lighting his face. He drank from the bottle. Before returning the bottle to Phillip, he looked at it curiously, squeezing it, turning it to examine the label, and holding it up to look through it at the ceiling lights.

Phillip was exhausted. Another hour had passed, and Phillip's understanding of Argon's version of Latin had grown. Phillip had learned that the boy was not a runaway. He was not a criminal. He had come here against his will. Phillip didn't understand how or why: the words weren't there, yet. Every time Argon tried to explain, he would lapse back into his mother tongue, and Phillip would signal non-comprehension.

Phillip had also learned that despite Argon's appearance, he was 18 years old. Moreover, he was definitely a lodge brother, although he didn't seem to understand degrees. As near as Phillip could determine, Argon was an Apprentice. He did not respond to any of the Second and Third Degree questions Phillip asked. However, when Phillip drew parts of the symbols from the Fourth Degree, Argon filled in the missing pieces.

Phillip pressed the green button beside the door. A progress report, so that he'll let me keep working with Argon, he thought. And some food. It's getting late, and I missed lunch. Don't think Argon's eaten, either. The Trooper responded, but not quickly. It's likely he wasn't watching, but I have to be convincing, in case he was.

"We're communicating, although at only 1% efficiency. That's why we're talking so much. We keep trying words until we hit one that we both understand. His name is Argon; no last name I can understand, yet. As far as I can tell, he's from some kind of religious commune. Maybe Anabaptist–Moravian or Amish or Mennonite–or something like that," Phillip told the Trooper. "Not from around here. Snow on the mountains all the time. Colorado, maybe, although he doesn't seem to recognize the names of the states."

"One of those polygamous Mormon settlements, maybe?" MacComb asked. "They're pretty reclusive."

"I don't think so. I tried to get his parents' names. However, Mother and Father was all I could get. I'll check if he has more than one mother." Phillip made a note. "I'd like to keep talking with him before he changes his mind about confiding in me. May we have some food?"

The Trooper nodded. "The only place open is the diner–and the Chinese place."

"Chinese, I think," Phillip said, pulling out his wallet.

"State will pay," the Trooper said. "Any special requests?"

The Desk Sergeant delivered the bags of Chinese take-out. "You boys don't mess up the interrogation room," she said as she left the room.

Phillip opened the bags and began to apportion the food. Argon chattered as he examined each item, pointing and asking in words that were too fast for Phillip to follow, what they were. The boy turned up his nose at the soy sauce and tried to eat one of the plastic containers of mustard. He did not eat any of the rice, until he saw Phillip do so, and then gobbled it down, holding out his paper plate for more. He did not try to use the chopsticks, as Phillip did, but ate only with a spoon, ignoring the fork.

When Argon's eating slowed, Phillip continued the language lesson, pointing to each item of food, and writing the names Argon gave them. Odd, Phillip thought. He has no word for rice, and insists on calling the pork and chicken by the same name. He doesn't know what a fork is, but he has words (in two languages!) for spoon and knife. He doesn't know water chestnuts, but does know peanuts. And mustard. Once I opened the packet for him.

"I called Family Services again. Lucky I know the emergency number or I'd never have raised anyone," Trooper MacComb explained. "Since Christmas is on a Saturday, Monday will be a holiday–not that they didn't take most of today off, as well. Anyway, the boy–Argon–will have to stay here until at least Tuesday.

"You know we can't pay you for your services. I will put in a request, but I can't guarantee . . ."

"Not a problem, sir," Phillip said when the trooper paused. "I'll just ask for extra credit when school starts back up in January." He grinned.

The trooper grinned back. "You're okay, son. My Captain, he'll have a word with the Provost, too. I know I can speak for him on this; he's a good man. But, wait until you hear what I'm asking."

Phillip nodded.

"I've got to keep the boy here, overnight. I can't put him in the county lockup; it'll be full of drunk In–" The man caught himself.

"It's okay, sir," Phillip said. "It'll be full of drunken Indians. Most of us don't have the gene that makes it easier for Anglos and Europeans to break down alcohol in the blood. It hits us harder."

"Yeah, I've heard that," MacComb said. "Still, I ought to know better than to stereotype. Anyway, that's no place for the boy. We've got a holding cell here. It's not been used since they built the new county jail. It has a couple of bunks, a shower, and a toilet.

"The desk sergeant will be the only person on duty, tonight, and I don't like the idea of leaving the boy alone. Can't even monitor the cell. They stripped the place to equip the new jail: took the closed-circuit TV and all the electronic locks. I've got to get back on the road. We're short-staffed for the holidays. Anyway, what I want to know is would you stay overnight?"

Phillip did not hesitate. Argon was a lodge brother, and he was in trouble. "Of course I'll stay. Uh," he paused. "Any chance of getting a toothbrush?"

The trooper laughed. "Yeah. We still have supplies, bedding, soap, towels, stuff like that. And toothbrushes. The desk sergeant who was on when you came in will be here at 0600. She'll bring breakfast.

"I'll be on the highways until about 0100 and then get a few hours sleep. I'll watch my kids open their presents, and then–unless something comes up–I'll see you mid-morning, okay?"

"Yes, sir," Phillip replied.

Phillip tried to explain to Argon what was going to happen. They hadn't gotten to the words he needed. It didn't go well until Phillip explained that he would sleep with Argon. The boy smiled and said something that Phillip couldn't understand. I guess that means "okay," Phillip thought. The trooper led them through the halls of the empty building. Phillip had put his book bag over one shoulder. He was startled, but did not resist, when Argon took his hand.

"I've got to shower," Phillip said, in his best mix of Latin and German. He reached into the alcove housing the shower and turned on the water to show Argon. He turned the water off, and said, "shower."

Argon nodded and began stripping off his clothes. In an instant, he was standing in the middle of the cell, naked. Oh, well, Phillip thought. At least MacComb said they couldn't monitor the cell. More slowly than had Argon, Phillip pulled off his own clothes.

Argon insisted that they shower together, even though the alcove was small. It was impossible to stand in it without touching, and impossible to wash one's self without bumping into the other. Phillip quickly found it wasn't necessary to wash himself. Argon began to wash Phillip, running his soapy hands up and down the taller boy's body. Oh shit, if he hadn't touched me I could have controlled it, but I'm going to get an erection! Phillip thought. And he did.

Phillip's breathing slowed to normal just as the hot water ran out. He'd been helpless, as Argon had knelt before him. (No, admit it, Phillip thought. You could have stopped him. You didn't want to. And he said he was 18.) Phillip rubbed the smaller boy dry with the rough towel, and then gently touched Argon's cheek. He looked into the boy's eyes and raised his eyebrows. Argon nodded and smiled.

Argon had one hell of an orgasm, Phillip thought. The jolt he'd received from the smaller boy was different from any other time or any other boy. Almost like the time I hit a live wire with a screwdriver, Phillip thought.

To Be Continued...

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