The Kingfisher

The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

 Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.  

And one final bend.

 As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete.    There was no sign:  the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this.  Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.

Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation.  The intoxication was not as it had been.  She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here?  Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness!  There was no other word to describe it, she thought.  What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill.  The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again?  Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement?  ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’  She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say.  She finished aloud:

 “I should never have left.” 

Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.  

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long.  In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.  But it did not stand alone.

So he had built it at last!  Her heart rejoiced!

The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek.  Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun.   It was not large, as houses go:  its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.

And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?  

Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.  Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past.  “You built the house,”  She said.

“Ten years.”  He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart.  Without so much as a glance, head  known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too? 

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?  Her imagination danced!  He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away.   And he had built the house!  In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed.  Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?

Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain..  She saw the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts, you see.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms? 

“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”  

“You never asked me to.  That was all you had to do – ask.  I would have stayed.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.  

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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

Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts

I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me.  It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!

(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)

It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery.  Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’).  Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.

The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across:  much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience.  Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts.  There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths.  He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.

At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures.  When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?

On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds.  Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this.  That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.

Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse.  She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice:  “Eur-eeee-ka!!  You-bloody reeka!”  It was more than a woman of principle could bear.

Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy.  The plate missed.  It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).

“Oh, good shot!”  Cried Freddy.  “Eureka, me little darlin’!  Get Julian!  Come and see what I’ve found!”

An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.

“On – off.  On – off!  It’s like a blasted stove, my loves!  Natural gas!  Find of the century, I’d say!”

At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco.  In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.

Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking.  By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.

Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.

“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.”  Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen.  “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?”  He topped up the good doctor’s glass.

“Aye, aye.”  Creggie affirmed.  “A great deal too much, ye ken?  All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?”  It was very good Scotch.  He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure.  At last he said:  “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide.  Where is the puir man?”

“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said.  “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”

“Ye ken?”  Rowena added helpfully.

“Cases like what?”  Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres:  it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.

“Spontaneous combustion:  our family is prone to it, unfortunately.  There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling?  Oh, and my niece Jasmine.  Went up like a torch, poor dear.”

Rowena chipped in:  “Didn’t your grandfather…?”

“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then.  They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”

Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred.  Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect:  “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat.  Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man.  He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame.  Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken.  Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”

Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.

Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed.  There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.

“Right,” said Julian.  “I have things to do.”

A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places:  one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past.  Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs:  “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men.  These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father.  Julian ‘phoned him.

“Julian, my darling!”  Mbabe was effusive:  “What do you have for me?”

A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat.  He brought a considerable amount of luggage.  One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.

“Will ye want me back this year?”  The boatman enquired:  “Or at all?  Are ye moving in?”

The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe.  His suitcases were stuffed with equipment.  He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.

After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge.  Mahadis was  impressed.

“I will check this out.”  He said.

For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments.  The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.

Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons.  On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts.  In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed.  Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.

“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena.  “Do you need more blankets?”

Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets.  Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise:  it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing.  He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.

Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.

“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.

Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript.  “Difficult to visualize.”  Was his verdict.  “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”

From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island.  To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea:  they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below.  To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually:  back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.

To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.

“Over there,”  Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction;  “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled.  I have put down markers.  Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”

Julian’s eyes had been widening with this:  he said:  “Really?  Six places.”

“Six.  From at least two separate subterranean sources.  You are rich, my friend.”

“Wow!”  Said Julian.

“So, my work is done.  Now I will leave.  There is the matter of my account?”

When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff.  The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.

As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think:  rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches.  No, there was more to be gained.

Indoors, he lost no time.

“Mwabe;”  He told the telephone:  “We need another partner.”

“Ah!”  Said Mwabe Mbabe,  “I knew you would say that.  I have just the fellow!”

This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.

“Mwabe.  You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”

“My dear chap!”

“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”

Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’.  Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate.  Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide.  The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.

“My dear sir!”  Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.

Satisfied, Julian rang off.

Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase:  Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.

“He’s taken none of his equipment.”  Rowena pointed out.

“He won’t be needing it.”

“I didn’t see the boat.”  Said Rowena.

“I didn’t say anything about a boat.”  Replied Julian.

“Bastard!”  Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat.  Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.

From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.

A small group  of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered.  They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.

Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel.  The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was.  Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water.  A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.

© 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.

Picture Credit: MW from Pixabay

Continuum – The Final Episode: The Valley of Carr-Villoise

Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse.  The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.

Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds.  With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.

Now read on:

  It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels.  It is first morning, and Alanee is there.  In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well.  Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours.  Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill.  An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever?  Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel.  Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.

Where was she when the darkness came?  When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die?  And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?

Deeper dreams, explanations:  ‘I am here.  I am always with you’.

Stirring.  A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another.  Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves.  Rest is all this heart can ask.

But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her.  She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.

Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.

Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle.  They speak to her of safety; they invite her in.  It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise.  They are there, and there is a world behind them.

She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala.  She is not human, in a way Alanee knows.  A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being.  A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding.  She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.

In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again.  Darkness and light, sadness and happiness.  A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them.  In the cradle of their care she sleeps.  And come the morning, wakes once more.

As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her.  The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress.  The same hempen substance covers her.  It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose.  A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall.  Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand.  The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door.  Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing.  She can see little against that strong, glaring light.

Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching.  Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair.  She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it.  Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened  knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting.  There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.

One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously.  Alanee is glad to drink.  Expectancy!  She feels its twang upon the air.

A shadow falls across the floor.  A dark being stands framed within the doorway.   “We thought we had lost you.”

That deep voice!  That is the voice!  Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!

“Dag?”

“None other.  You remember me, then?”

Remember!  Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want.  Oh, Dag!  He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.

“Of course I remember you!”  Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude.  “Let me look at you!”

He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart.  Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face;  featured with sufficient flint to make a man.  ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs:  ‘you are all I remember you to be.’

“Who designs your clothes?”  She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible.  He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool.  It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.

Dag grimaces.  “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation.  They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here.  They don’t see much sense in them.  I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though.  I’m boiling in this thing!”

“So normally you don’t wear anything?”

“Don’t look so worried!  They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”

“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”

“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’.  I wish I knew.   I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti.  It will do, anyway.  They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”

A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee:  her newly regained strength is ebbing.  She sinks back on the bed.  “Sala.”  She says:  “Is Sala here?”

Dag asks:  “Who is Sala?”

Sleep saves her.

When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed.  Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed.  It is clean and crisp:  it feels cool against her skin.

Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children.  They gather about her legs,  pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face.  Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge.  He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you.  I’m sorry.”

There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring.  Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.

“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”

“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs.  They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine.  Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”

“Not quite.”  Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her.  The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.

He covers her hand with his own.  “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear:  part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat.  We thought it was yours.  Maybe it wasn’t.”

She forces herself to breathe calmly.  Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself.  Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.

“What did happen, Alanee?”  Dag asks.

She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water.  He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide.  The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind.  Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males.  A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.

Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend.  It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power. 

When she is done, he says gravely:  “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more.  Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna.  You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more.  You can’t have come that way.”

The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.

“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”

Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict.  With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”

She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species.  “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”

Dag looks puzzled.  “Like a garden?”

“I believe so.  When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.”  Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water.  “And he was real.  Everything else…”

Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.

“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own.  He was lonely.  He wanted a mother so he created one.  Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.

“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real.  Oh, there were limits:  he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.

“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out.  So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him.  There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city:  I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones.  But there were successes too.”

“The Miroveti?”

“I guess so.  Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.”  She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”

“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans.  His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.”  She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see?  His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan.  Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”

  “Were you even real?”   Dag grins.  “You look pretty three-dimensional to me!  What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City?  So you can’t be real?”

“Let me explain.  He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete.  All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”

“Shut down – what, everything?”

“By gradual stages, yes.  We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum.  It was Hasuga throwing switches:  he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being.  He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”

“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this?  When does it happen?”

Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own.  “Dag, it already has.”

“Oh, for sure?  And how do either of us know the difference?”

“A secret that was kept by The Ancients.  The final key to my transition, if you like.  Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down.  A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”

Dag pales,  “But you didn’t…”

“Yes, I did.   Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually;  I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.” 

“|They brought you back from the dead?”

“So it seems.  They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like.  He modified me so I could survive without him.  I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”

For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered;  “What about me?  I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I?  Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”

 She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain.  Her words are carefully chosen.  “I know you did.”

He stares at her:  “My healing – was that you?”

Alanee does not answer.  She has said enough.

Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river.  She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.

For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone.  In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch.  He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence.  Yet he speaks to her still.

She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden.  And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.

“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”

In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:

“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we?  One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we?  Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”

And he will reply, inside her head.  ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’

Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play.  Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.

‘There is more for you to know.  Have faith in me.’

Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away:  for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river.  There is another.  It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago.  While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.

This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too.  Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.

After all, he is a man of  perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.

The End

© 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.