and The Pirates of the Mystic Caravan.
Chapter 6 - Surban's mission
The first two months back at Hopewell Hall were uneventful, with perhaps the exception of Henry Black who was carpeted for several class-room and school-ground antics that earned him an instant reputation as clown, rabble-rouser and adult-baiter. His 1D Form-Master Peter Brooks, the science teacher, was confronted with a rotten-egg gas concoction in his class storeroom cupboard not too long after the initial experiments. Then a rather large lump of dry ice found its way into the staff toilets with dramatic effect, followed two weeks later by the skull and crossbones wafting on the autumn breeze in the quadrangle amongst all the international standards. This had somehow been mysteriously substituted for the French tricolour, which was carefully folded and stowed in a plastic container at the base of the flag-pole. No finger-prints were required to make an educated guess at who the culprit might be. Henry Black was already well documented as a known Pirates of the Caribbean fan.
Yet in each case, Henry's silky, evasive skills created an element of doubt. With his impish twist of the mouth he managed to evade walking the plank in Miss Poe's office and instead sauntered free to wreck further havoc in the coming term, giving Lyn Reynard a cheeky wink as he passed by.
'He's a carry-bag full of mischief,' she remarked when Sonia Poe emerged from her inner office, looking somewhat exhausted. 'But it's all good natured devilry. There's no malice in him. Young Master Black just likes grave-digging. I think he's a bit of an exhibitionist seeking recognition.'
'Quite so, and he's making his mark early. There's certainly a great deal of difference between the three Black children: Louis, who can hardly be called a kid anymore, is a responsible ninth-year student with the makings of Prefect material, Priscilla is slightly puzzling; she seems outwardly rough about the edges, but I sense in her some innate, deeper abilities that need to be nurtured if they are to surface. She might be someone suited to caring for others, although I believe there are further traits hidden beneath her outer persona... '
Lyn Reynard smiled. 'Miss Poe, you have an afternoon full of gripes and problems: from the watering of school ovals to the repainting of South-Wing and this stack of parent mail. Now is not your best time to reflect on a single family.'
Head Mistress Poe took the paperwork and turned toward her office. 'I know, I know,' she said thoughtfully. Then, uncharacteristically, she added, 'That little smarty-arse Henry Black will meet his match somewhere through the journey at Hopewell Hall... I'm telling you.'
Miss Reynard laughed softly. 'I'll make you a pot of Earl Grey tea Sonia. And be sure not to let Mister Mitikovski hear you mimicking him, I'm telling you!'
'Priscilla! Can you guess?'
Surban's face was glowing with excitement. 'I go in two weeks, in Hopewell School term holy days, to Canberra Temple of Zoroaster, to see Priests. We have spoken by telephone which Miss Poe arranged for call. High Priest and others there will see me. So I take my small offering of coals from far away to unite them with new living fire. It is such good thing for me. My parents would be so... proud... if they... ' Surban faltered, and Priscilla grasped her hand. 'You will come with me and Miss Reynard? Please say you will?' said Surban, blinking away her tears.
'Miss Reynard? Our Miss Reynard?' asked Priscilla, surprised.
'Yes, yes, Head Mistress Poe says that Miss Reynard is happy to take us both, if you will go, because she has some family there and we can be staying with them for a few days. Please, say you will come?'
'Well, yeah, sure. That is if I'm allowed to. I'll have to check with my folks first,' said Priscilla, somewhat overwhelmed. 'And what about Monique, or say, Narenda?'
'I think that would be good if all could come, yet Miss Reynard can only manage Surban and one friend on plane. When we get there we must sleep in same bed also. It will be a... squash?'
'Squeeze, probably,' Priscilla said, smiling. 'O.K. Just you and me and Miss Reynard. I'll talk to Dad and Granny Black. I'm not sure if Mum will be back from wherever she is by then. But I don't think my Dad or Granny will object, since it's Miss Reynard taking us.'
Lyn Reynard's Uncle, Kenny, met the trio at Canberra airport, and after packing their suitcases, whisked them off in his station-waggon to a leafy home on the outskirts of Australia's Capital City. His wife Rose welcomed them all at the front door with a big-hearted hug. 'So lovely to see you again Lynie,' she said, ushering them into the living room. 'Lots to tell and show. We'll have a slide-night while you're here. Ken and I went to Fiji last year and you just have to see us and what we did there. And I'm sure these two lovely girls will be interested too.'
'Miss Reynard's face positively curdled when her aunt called her Lynie,' said Priscilla piling into bed with Surban later that night.
'What is curneld?' asked Surban, her eyelids already drooping as she snuggled beneath the covers.
'No, curdled, you know? Like, went sour.'
'Oh, milk and cream do this and make you screw up nose.'
'Exactly. Looking forward to visiting the priests at the temple tomorrow?' asked Priscilla, yawning and pulling the blankets up around her ears.
'Of course. It is so exciting, but I am sorry you and Miss Reynard will not be able to enter inside the Agiaris, that is House of Fire, when I go to purify myself before the meeting. I am very... very... '
'Nervous?' offered Priscilla, turning on her side in the cramped space.
'Yes, that is word in English... I pray I will do everything in honourable manner for memory of Mother and Father, so that they would be proud of daughter.'
'Curl up behind me. You'll be awesome, a legend.'
'I do not understand what it is you say,' Surban yawned and snuggled down, 'but is comforting... '
Uncle Kenny had organised a rental car for his niece and in the morning drove Lyn and the two girls down to pick it up. 'Now you've got wheels to get you going. There's lots to see in Canberra and I'm sorry I can't show you young girls around,' he said, his big, round face beaming. Priscilla thought the bright colour of his face might have something to do with all the red wine he consumed at dinner the previous night, and probably over many nights in the past. 'But I'll have to leave that to Lynie.'
Lyn Reynard winced as he handed the car keys over whilst saying, 'Don't bend it my dear. You shouldn't have any problems with driving around here, we're all pretty civilised. Got to get back to servicing my vending machines. See you all tonight for dinner.'
'I really hate it when they call me Lynie,' Lyn Reynard confided as they motored along the orderly streets of outer Canberra toward their destination in Torrens.
'Kind of guessed that, Miss Reynard,' said Priscilla, grinning and feeling very adult at this personal disclosure.
'It is just way of keeping you in their hearts as child,' said Surban absently, staring with wide eyes at the clean, sweeping lines of the carefully laid-out roads, and cradling her little bundle close to her. 'This would be what Surban should like if she had family.' She sighed. 'Yet now we go to Priests, may they welcome Surban into their family.'
A little before mid-day, Miss Reynard brought the car to a halt outside a rather nondescript building in Mawden Drive.
'Well, here we are, this is definitely it. That sign says Parsi Temple for Zoroastrian Worship, Canberra. Doesn't look like much from the outside, but I suppose they haven't been established here for very long.'
'That is so,' said Surban, gathering her bundle and a second package in her arms as she climbed out of the car. 'The High Priest, Dastur Hordad wrote in his letters to me at Hopewell school of this new temple when he discovered where I had been placed. And now I have honour to enter and present my gift to newest Fire of Zoroaster here in Australia. Please, Miss Reynard and Priscilla, come, see me to doors of Temple.'
Priscilla and Lyn Reynard followed as Surban hurried up the gravel pathway and knocked upon an ornate timber entrance door.
They waited for some time, and eventually the door opened and a man, clad in white tunic and trousers, emerged. The extraordinary thing to Priscilla was that his lower face was covered in a white mask that reached down to his chest.
'Yes? May I ask who is calling upon the step of Our Most Holy Temple?' he asked, his hands formed together in prayer position.
'I come to you at request of Dastur Hordad, bearing sacred gift for fire ritual from over sea, in the name of my Father and Mother, who die to bring this offering. I am named Surban Anahita'
'Ah, your name is so. I have been told of your coming. The High Priest will accept you to an audience within and these?' he indicated with a motion toward Lyn and Priscilla.
'This is carer, Miss Reynard, from Hopewell school in Melbourne where I have been sheltered, and this is friend Priscilla Black,' said Surban, with a hint of pride in her voice.
'Ah yes, of course, that was mentioned in correspondence. I am Dastur Navsari and I should like to welcome you both as well. Do not be disturbed by the cloth covering my face. This padan is to prevent impure breath defiling holy fire, which is my attending duty. Please to enter outer hall, remove footwear first, and be seated here. I shall escort Surban Anahita to next room where she can dress in sacred garments. You have sudre and kusti Surban?'
'I have these from initiation time in... ' her voice faltered.
'Yes, I understand,' said Navsari, sympathetically, 'we have been made aware of your circumstances and the loss of your parents. You have been very brave all through those times, and now you have a chance to fulfil your Mother and Father's wishes.' Turning to Priscilla and Miss Reynard he said, 'If you would be so kind as to wait here, I shall return after doing my duty. Surban will be guided and protected by myself to High Priest Dastur Hordad. Water is available for your convenience in a pitcher on the table there, and of course you may wish to enlighten yourselves by gazing upon the pictures of distinguished Zoroastrians and of the great Prophet. This audience is somewhat unusual because of the gift Surban bears and so I cannot tell how long it might take. I ask your patience and serenity here, and do be aware that you are especial guests. Rarely are those who are not of our religion permitted to enter even this far of our Temple.'
'Phew! Like it's some big deal?' Priscilla muttered, after the inner door had closed behind Surban and Navsari.
'Yes, I think it is some big deal, to those who are believers,' answered Miss Reynard, peering closely at the framed photographs and art-works that were the only decorations in an otherwise sparse room.
'Yeah,' Priscilla sighed, slumping into a rigid, dark-stained wooden chair and pouring a half glass of water from a jug. 'I suppose it will all be worth it when Surban comes out with brownie points for getting her little pot of goodies here. Hope it doesn't take too long.'
It took over an hour, and by that time even Lyn Reynard was feeling somewhat wrung-out. The inner door opened soundlessly and Surban emerged with a rustling of her garments, alerting both Priscilla and Miss Reynard, although both were somewhat taken aback when they saw her.
Surban seemed somehow altered: her expression was joyous, almost as if she was in some kind of rapture, and her movements too, seemed lightened. In her hands she bore another container, slightly larger than her own pot and also sealed with a waxy substance.
'She will recover in a short time,' said Navsari, guiding her toward them. 'Her audience went well, and her gift has been accepted. Dastur Kaddar has proposed his willingness in the venture to follow. On behalf of High Priest Dastur Hordad, I give you thanks and benevolence in this matter. We shall of course make contact with your Hopewell school and all necessary arrangements will follow over the coming weeks. Surban will explain to you personally what has transpired and we trust that you will understand how important it is that she be kept safely in the school's care, and especially, how important it is that her gift be protected until the time comes to see it to its destination of return and renewal.'
'What was all that about?' asked Priscilla from the rear as Miss Reynard drove slowly away, thoughtfully casting an eye toward Surban, sitting alongside her in the front seat.
'I haven't the faintest idea, Miss Black. I'm as confused as you. Though not as mystified as Surban seems, and I don't mean 'mystified' as in puzzled. I mean, as in some kind of trance. If she doesn't come out of it by the time we get back to Uncle Kenny and Auntie Rose I shall have to take further action.'
'That will not be needful Miss Reynard,' said Surban, so unexpectedly and clearly that Priscilla winced. 'All will become clear to you soon. As it has become to Surban now that she has her rightful path to follow.'
Priscilla and Lyn Reynard's gaze met in the rear-vision mirror, both completely baffled and yet somehow, uneasy.
'Yes Lyn, I have already received information by way of phone conversation from the High Priest in Canberra. It all seems rather irregular, quite astounding in truth, but apparently everything is in order. Surban has given her consent, and even though she is a minor and technically, until late, a State Ward, she has no family here except for the Zoroastrian priests, and the Government department responsible has given its blessing. She is allowed to leave the country on her mission, accompanied by a suitable guardian from the priesthood, a Dastur Kaddar.'
'But that can't be right surely!' protested Lyn Reynard. 'She's barely fourteen. And they want to take her overseas to deliver a pot of coals to some God forsaken...'
'I know, I know Lyn! I understand your concern, and your exasperation. However, the matter lies not now in our hands. I have been directed by a government Spokesperson to allow these proceedings to begin. Enjoy tomorrow with your relatives and see the sights, but keep a close watch on the girls and then get them back safely. I'll have a school vehicle waiting for you at the airport as prearranged. Take care. Bye for now.'
Lyn Reynard clicked off her mobile and shrugged the blankets over her shoulders as she settled down to an early night's sleep. It proved to be fitful and fraught with many disturbing thoughts and visions.
'So O.K. Just tell me again about what happened when you were in the Temple,' said Priscilla, after watching Surban reverently folding and packing her sacred garments into a clear plastic bag before settling into bed alongside her.
'It is as I told you and Miss Reynard, just so. I am to return to Hopewell school until time to leave Australia with Priest of Zoroaster. We are to go by plane across the sea to Old Land. There, we will take re-newed fire coals to ancient fire and make a consecration. This will be way of uniting Old Country with New Fire of Canberra.'
'Yeah, yeah, you said that. And it sure sounds like a big adventure. But where exactly do they want you to go in the Old Land? You haven't told us that.'
Surban snuggled down, saying smugly, 'They, Priests of Temple here, do not know. Only Surban knows. That is why I am to go.'
'You kidding me?'
'What is kidding?'
'Ohh! You know. I've told you about that before. Anyway, forget that. Are you telling me that only you know where you have to go to take your new fire back to where it began. Like, not even the High Priest's know where that is?'
'That is what I am telling. No more.'
'Have you told anybody, anyone else?'
'I tell no other. On honour of Mother and Father. Is secret passed to me by them.'
'Did the Priests ask you to tell them?'
'High Priest ask only if I know place to go where First Holy Fire of Zoroaster burns. I say yes. I am asked how I know. I say from Mother, Father. I am asked to say that place. I say I cannot. Can only show where it is if I can go there.'
'My good friend Priscilla, I tell this not even to you. I die, before I tell to any one.'
'How do you know where to go?'
'Is all in head. And with numbers on my arms. These together make the co-ordinates of mapping for place to begin search. I can tell by signs the final place.'
'Wow! That's really cool,' said Priscilla. 'Just that easy. Right. Better try to sleep now. We'll need to be up early. Still got a day of sight-seeing with Miss Reynard's folks before we head home.'
As Surban began a slow, rhythmic drone, which may have been some kind of mantra that soon drifted her off into sleep, Priscilla remained awake, spooned about the other girl's body.
Don't get it, she thought. This all sounds kind of great for Surban, but also kind of wrong somehow. Don't know why? Maybe I should... She found herself yawning... talk to Moni and Harry and the... others when... we get...
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