The Story so Far:
While the High Council’s misgivings concerning Alanee’s relationship with Hasuga grow, Alanee is beginning to realise their worst fears as she finds the embyo of a friendship with him. She joins Hasuga in his ‘games’, blissfully unaware of the mayhem they can cause.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilderness, Dag Swenner, her aerotrans pilot friend, is injured and close to death. Ripero, the Dometian who saved him from the wreckage of his aerotrans has left him, hoping to find help but only to be killed in a bizarre confrontation with a lone soldier…
After her morning encounter with Hasuga, Alanee’s day has been spent idly, wandering through the gardens and bazaars of the City. Affairs of the last two days have relieved many of her worst fears: whatever the City wants from her, she no longer believes she will be punished for her misdemeanours in the years at home in Balkinvel. Although she remains the little girl in wonderland, she is gaining some grasp of the realities around her. She is free to notice the brightly-coloured birds that flit between the trees in the Grand Park, the way the illumination from hidden places in the roof above the park ‘travels’ across its firmament in imitation of a real sun, and how the tiny mechanical mice that scuttle about the paving, gathering up rubbish then vanishing with it into carefully disguised slots at the grass’s edge even squeak like real mice. She sees that those who attend the Palace do not always wear those dreadful, formal robes. A woman whose face she recognises from the courtyard passes her, clad in a lemon halter dress of fine chiffon. Men commune in togas around the drinking house doors – other women walk about in elegant slacks, light blousons, skirts and dresses of different hues. There are still robes of course – they are everywhere – but there is room for variety, too.
With this in mind Alanee seeks out a little dress-maker’s emporium among the fashionable shops on the East side of the Grand Park where she commissions three outfits in her choice of fabrics and designs; then, with her shopping hat jammed firmly over her ears, she launches into a minor frenzy of purchasing. She is not without a plan – everything she orders will go towards the remodelling of her apartment – but it is the thrill of spending in a volume she could never have dreamed of, of running her fingers through soft silks, abundant satins, rich woollens, that enthuses her. It is an orgy that continues long into the evening, and when she finally returns home she is exhausted by it. Scarcely troubling to eat, she falls into a deep sleep.
She is dreaming of a jungle, thick undergrowth tangled around her arms and legs: she launches forward, striving against her bonds. Birds screech in the canopy, snakes hiss and slither about her feet, great bugs squat, shiny black, upon the trunk of every tree. An odour of decay, a sweet death-smell clings to her throat and clogs her breathing. She must go on, she must never turn because what follows her, she knows, is worse than in front. It is dark, becoming darker. Tired, so tired. The light is dying in her soul.
She will not hear the cougar: suddenly it is there! It crouches on a tree bough within a leap of her head; long teeth yellow and dripping, crimson hate-eyes glowering. It wants her, it will spring!
A bow is in her hands. An arrow is drawn. Pull! Pull until the string hums, until her arms have no strength left to pull. Let it snap! Hear the hiss of the flight, the spit of death! See it, the hate-thing, as it springs, see its claws flash towards her face: hear her arrow’s cleaving thud – the gasp of failing breath, the bubbling black blood from a ruptured heart – and see it fall.
Alanee awakes in her own echo, knowing she has screamed. Perspiration drenches her, hair wet, clinging to her scalp, the silk of her shift clammy on her skin. Why is Dag’s image in her head? She must pause to grieve for him, though she did not know him well. Someone has to be there to remember, her mother had told her, the week after Kalna-meh, her man, was taken from the earth. That is what death really is; the journey from life into memory.
Her summoner tells her it is two in the morning. Reminding herself that she has no way of knowing what family Dag might have to mourn him, she rises, throws the sweat-laden shift from her, and goes to her rest-place to bathe.
A time-zone away Alanee’s home village, Balkinvel, is waking. Shellan, her friend of many years, rises from her bed, shaking her husband’s shoulder into the world while she prepares for the Makar’s call. She stands, as Alanee once did, on her back porch, tsakal between her palms to warm them, watching the hot sun rise over the Southern Hills. The front door will slam as her man goes for his work – he is an agrarian, a worker of the land, and it is the time of sowing – when he has left, she will dress for work at the Terminal.
And all seems well – except that it is not.
As she dresses, Shellan avoids her mirror, for she knows what she would see. Old Malfis, the bell-ringer; what hidden talents did he display, when he made the iron masks for all the village? The village men queuing up to take one, and her man, Shellan-meh, among the first. She probes her face with reluctant finger-tips for wounds that have not healed, places where the spikes pressed home: at least her eyes were spared. Shellan knows how they must look.
The Makar’s call draws her to her door, Mak-card in hand. The little man does not meet her stare, has no remark, no word. He takes her card in silence, withdraws. In the street, the migration to work has begun; the lame, wounded, disfigured women, making their way to the Terminal. Shellan, as one of the few with sight, leads a train of those less fortunate than she. Malfis, a man with agony inside, watches as they pass. How could he have done all this, yet still suffer the appetites he has?
They are fewer, these women. They limp with damaged ankles and they massage livid, itching wrists compulsively as they walk. They do not speak, either to old Malfis or among themselves – they dare not, lest they share the thoughts that ferment inside their heads. A sharp breeze finds its way through the gap in the street where Alanee’s house once stood, ruffling unkempt hair, scratching unhealed skin with the Hakaan Plain’s red, unforgiving dust. Here, where Carla walked, there will be a new manager now. Here was Merra’s sister’s place before her man drove a spike through her brain. They, with a dozen more, were buried in the dead-field last night-fall. Namma alone lies unburied. When her body was examined she was found to be pregnant, and that is a damning sin. She will be exposed for the crows on the Terminal roof come evening.
This breeze can never again freshen heads clouded by fear, hearts besieged by doubt. No-one who returns to their home tonight will go without turning to listen or watch as a little party of elders bear Namma to her rest, and no-one goes through their door to face their man without some measure of dread. There will be no honey-cakes for tea.
Dag’s mind is wandering now, his pain dulled by the narcosis of hunger, he hovers in time. Is it day or night? There are raindrops on his lips which he drinks, though not knowingly. He can then feel the roughness of the tree-bough upon which he lies, the stub of a minor branch in his back, probably impaling him, certainly keeping him from the terminal agony of a fall. He can remember that somehow he hauled himself here, driven by a survival instinct he did not know he possessed, in the belief that the tree would keep him safe through the night.
His music. He is dancing. It is Celebration Dawn and he is dancing. And she – the woman – what was her name? She is opposite him, and she is going through her moves, following the choreography of attraction – hair about her shoulders, slow undulation of hips, arched back, fluid beneath a shift of thin, clinging blue; but she is bored, disinterested….at any moment she will move away, find another partner…
His eyes open sharply. Dag is back, the pain is back, the present is back. The memories are back.
Last night, when he thought to have been safe; after the anguish of labouring for an hour against his failing strength and the fire inside him; lying exhausted here, still no more than two metres above the ground, he had dropped into unconsciousness or sleep.
What slight movement, then, had stirred him? When did he know he was not alone on that bough, that something large and heavy, with flaring red eyes and hot scentless breath shared it with him?
Wood is a tensile, living thing. He can feel it flex and bend beneath another’s weight. He felt it then, knew the creature behind those eyes was coiled to spring. Moving his head he saw it, too, saw the fangs in the light of an unkind moon. Fumbling for his knife: wet cloth of his pocket clinging to him, stopping him from drawing it cleanly, and the creature back on its haunches, front paws with their raking talons raised. The bouncing release of the branch as it leapt – the end?
The merciful, the inevitable end?
A hiss and a thud: reverberation of a taut string. A great bestial yowl as an arrow took the life from the monster so powerfully and decisively it twisted back upon itself in mid-flight, then the brush of its flank as it crashed past him into the undergrowth below: sounds of brief convulsive moments on the journey to an afterlife, then stillness.
Trapped by his pain, Dag could only move his head enough to catch a glimpse of his saviour, the incongruous soldier figure at the foot of the tree. By moonlight it was only possible to see an outline; epaulettes of a uniform, the bow that had delivered the arrow. He had no voice for his gratitude and it seemed his saviour wanted none, for he turned and marched away with the stumbling ungainliness of a string puppet, the sounds of his blundering and crashing progress diminishing into the night.
And now it is morning. He cannot move, or clamber from the tree: he cannot eat. All Dag can do is stare up into the canopy and the grey skies beyond, listening to the roar of the river, the songs of the birds. Everything around him is eternal. Soon he too, will be a part of that eternity.
Alanee’s summoner drags her from a fitful sleep. It is Sala.
“Alanee-ba. Come and watch the Spring Rising!”
Still little more than half awake, she greets Sala at her door.
“Come on, ba, get dressed,” Sala gives her a perfunctory hug, kisses her cheek. “We must hurry, or someone will pinch our place at Toccata’s.”
Despite the hour (the sun has not yet risen) the corridors, the avenues, the squares of the City all seethe with a sort of industrial hum as people bustle to and fro in determined mood, their faces set between purpose and joy. Passing couples fizz with expectant dialogue, muttered, earnest words which betray serious concerns. In the Grand Park a screen has been raised, and comic short films are being shown to entertain a gathering crowd.
Sala explains: “This is a very important time for the City. The sunrise this morning is considered a prophecy for the year to come: all the younger ones will turn out to watch. It’s quite an event, if only because we never know when to expect it! It is really early this year, Alanee-bah. I’m not sure if that is a good sign or a bad one.”
“How do you know when it’s coming?”
“The temperature. Last night the land did not freeze – the snow began to melt. The Balna is almost in flood, apparently. Oh, don’t worry!” Sala says when she sees Alanee’s look of concern: “It’s the same every year!”
They discover Toccata amidst a small riot of importunate clients. He is beside himself and looking almost dishevelled: “Oh darlings, you’re here! Such relief! I am being mobbed, my dears; mobbed! At this Habbach-forsaken hour – I ask you! Come quickly now – I kept you your seats, aren’t I a sweetie?”
They follow as he minces at speed among the curtained booths: this place is as wired as anywhere in the City – there are burbling conversations from every direction and Alanee wonders how many covers Toccata can cram in.
“It’s much larger than it looks.” Sala confides as they settle themselves before their window. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Tsakal arrives, with perl chasers (Alanee’s tastes are growing in their sophistication), as promptly as ever. Beyond the window the world is still in darkness, though a ribbon of blue lies across the distant mountains, harbinger of a rising sun.
Alanee tells of her nightmare. “Really strange. That terrible creature! Somehow I know it had something to do with this aerotran pilot – the one who brought me here? Dag his name was. I don’t know why I dreamed of him, I really don’t know him very well at all.”
Sala looks grave. “Dreams at a time of prophecy have great meanings, ba. Dag Svenner, would it have been? He’s missing, you know. His aerotran crashed somewhere in Dometia.”
“Oh, he’s dead, I know. I was sorry when I was told. How did you hear about him?”
“The whole of the lower city is a-buzz with the story. Something very odd is going on in Dometia, though nobody will say what it is. I think I met Dag Svenner once at a party on the West Side. Very handsome – a nice man. You have good tastes, my ba.”
There is a reproachful note to Sala’s voice Alanee cannot miss. She sips tsakal from her cup for a moment, then says, half to herself: “It isn’t you, Sala-ba. It honestly is not. You are my friend, maybe the best friend I have had in all my life. But I think I know now what laskali is, and I don’t think it is for me.”
Sala reaches over to clasp her hand. “I do see that, Alanee. I do. Please, don’t be afraid of hurting me? Love doesn’t always travel the same road.” She pauses, unless a catch in her throat should give her away. “Anyway, Dag is quite exceptional. He would make a good coupling for you.”
“Well, he would.” Alanee allows herself a cynical laugh: “Being dead is a bit of a problem, though.”
“If he is.”
“If?” Alanee’s heart misses several beats.
“He’s listed missing, not dead. They discovered the wreck of his aerotran in a ravine, but he wasn’t inside it. They’ve been looking for him – quite hard, as it happens: unusually hard. Some ration wrappers were found, but then the trail went cold. How do I know that? Well, yesterday I was in the company of another rather nice man, the aerotran controller for the eastern sector. I’m not a complete laskal, you see!”
“He’s alive!” Alanee does not mean to let her face light up so obviously.
Sala laughs. “So you are just a tiny bit interested? I didn’t say he was alive, only that he wasn’t killed by the crash. That was three days ago now, nearly four. He could have been injured badly, in which case he wouldn’t survive long out there. The place isn’t exactly hospitable. This guy doesn’t hold out much hope.”
“Just how well do you know this aerotran controller?
“Somewhat better after last night – that’s all I’m prepared to say.” Sala grins conspiratorially: “Except perhaps that his areas of expertise are not entirely confined to aerotrans.”
“Can you find out more for me, I mean, like where he crashed? I would like to know.”
“Darling, you’re asking me to lengthen what ought to be a blissful but brief relationship. I’ll do what I can. Still, now! Dawn is coming!”
Both women direct their attention to the glass and the drama that lies beyond. For between two eastern mountain peaks the sun’s livid hemisphere is creeping into view, scoring its first rays with a draughtsman’s certainty straight to the windows of the Consensual City. In minutes a dawn mist cloaking the Balna valley is painted scarlet, within which the spectral silhouettes of treetops amid and beyond the gardens; elegantly dressed spruce, naked elm, plane, lime, slivers of acer and rowan spell out a message of Cyrillic mystery. Finally the sun, fully risen, draws aside the curtains of mist to find the virgin snow of the meadows, painting them with a delicate blush. The message here is brilliant and unmistakeable, for all who wait for new birth. As it climbs higher above the mountains this bold sun declares its colours, shines through melting sheaths of ice that case each branch and twig, wakens the sap in everything that has hope enough to grow. The sky is clear and, as yet, remains the ice-blue of winter. But a warm prescription for the coming day is written upon it, and – not for the first time this morning – Alanee’s heart is filled with optimism.
Together the friends watch the coming; they do not speak. They do not speak until the sun is too bright for their eyes, until their faces feel its touch upon them. Then a consensual murmur of mutual relief rises among all of Toccata’s clients, and at last Sala can trust herself to pronounce the prophecy; “It is a good year. Oh, Alanee-ba, it will be a wonderful summer!” Her face is almost as radiant as the light itself. “Celebrations! Come on!”
“Yes, yes, yes! Drink up now and hurry, the party will be starting already!”
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Photo credit: Janosch Diggelman on Unsplash