Continuum – Episode Sixteen: Pale Knight

The story so far:

Alanee continues to revel in the luxury of her City wonderland, unaware how her interactions with Hasuga, or even her dreams can have consequences in other parts of the country. 

This morning, Sala has woken her with news of the first sunrise of Spring, and in their favorite haunt, Toccata’s, suggested there is a possibility that Dag, the aerotran pilot, may still be alive.  Now, Sala further suggests, might be a time to celebrate the portentous dawn.

Alanee cannot quite see what all the fuss is about.  She has seen the sun rise; not a sight she has too often greeted before, but just a sunrise, nonetheless.  But then, she reasons with herself, she is used to Hakaani summers, long hot days when often she might wish for snow; a change of colour; relief from the breath-sapping heat. Snow never comes to the Hakaan.  Winter is grey, winter is wet with monsoon rains that turn streets to rivers, every open space into a lake.  Those rains drive life into shelter, create their own kind of hibernation.  Yet winter is also short, so when spring emerges it is not so great an event: here though, in the Consensual City, she can see how they might welcome release from the bonds of snow.

She might also attune to a sense of gratitude, for this dawn has been a harp-string of superstition so taut the air itself twanged in its thrall.  And that has snapped now.

 Sala leads her along avenues lit by smiling faces, through tumults of greeting and exchange, past a rowdy queue of fur-swaddled young adventurers by the express elevator.  Their humour is infectious.  Alanee begins to join in.

The Grand Park bustles with people of all ages; more frivolous adults, in spite of the hour, gathered in groups around bars that have been set up on the pathways and already drinking freely.  And yes, there are children here too – the first she has seen in the city – maybe a hundred, boys and girls alike, parties of them dressed in yellow uniform  jackets and pants that finish just below their knees, singing and dancing in an area to the west side of the park.  Leaders in blue cat-suits watch them, accepting the admiring glances of the adults, but fending off any closer attention.  Clearly, there are boundaries.

“We would ask you not to speak to the children, Lady.”  An official-looking woman in blue steps deliberately between Alanee and a fair-headed boy who has strayed too close.

Alanee is struck by a sensation of wrongness; a hollow place behind the child’s eyes evincing not infancy but great age.  As he watches her, and he does, avidly, as though she has some special meaning for him, his face does not change expression.  He begins to join in with the words of a song struck up by some of his near neighbours, but even that fails to dispel the sense of utter void.

“Move along, Lady.”

The blue woman’s voice bears an authoritative edge.  Sala grabs Alanee’s hand.  “We’re not allowed to communicate with them, ba.  Come on, she’ll get upset.”

At the far end of the water that runs the length of the Grand Park the drabs have erected a structure like a great honeycomb resting on its edge.  It towers perhaps a hundred feet into the roof of the city.  If Alanee wonders at its purpose she is not kept waiting long.  While Sala gets drinks from a nearby bar she watches a young man emerge above the throng, stripping off his white toga as he begins to climb the symmetrical staircase of cells.  When he has reached about half-way he throws himself backward –  to loud cheers from a certain section of the crowd – probably his friends – and plummets, legs waving inexpertly, into the lake.  No sooner has he splashed from view than others take up his challenge, half-a-dozen naked forms both male and female, shinning like monkeys up the frame to dive, with greater or lesser grace.  The cheering becomes widespread.

“They’re mad!”  Sala shouts above the clamour as she hands Alanee a glass of green liquid. “Someone will get hurt – it always happens! This way!” 

Jostling and jostled, the friends push through the throng and out into the South Avenue, away from the Park.  Alanee is inclined to protest, but mollifies almost instantly when she hears music.

South Avenue, the communicating link between the higher level apartments of the residential city and the commercial area, is the conduit Alanee took the first time she ventured out alone.  Here she met the Music Man, and fears she might meet him again: the embarrassment of his intimate approach remains with her.  It is a highway with many tributaries, a maze of side alleys and twisting lanes that contain mysterious, un-coloured doors, blanked windows and precarious ladders.  Sala tows her into one of these alleys where the music – ribald, raucous, Mansuvene dance music – beckons loudest.

Carousing in this narrow passage is at its most advanced: Alanee suspects that for many citizens the dawn celebration started rather earlier than warranted.  Yet there is no disapprobation evident in the steady trickle of humanity moving through, over, and around various acts of debauchery that obstruct the length of this confined space.  All propriety is suspended.  Everyone, it seems, is enthralled by the music, in volume so intense it is almost physical.  Beyond a final corner they are confronted by an open square some fifty yards wide.  It is filled with people; young people, dancing people, people given over to rhythm.  On a dais at the centre of the square, beneath a small pavilion, a group of musicians are playing for all their worth.

“Dance, Alanee-ba!  Dance!”  Sala is already swaying to their fast, pulsating beat.  Glass in hand, Alanee joins her; hips bucking, head and soul surrendering to sound.  Around them are men and women, Mansuvene, Dometian, Proteian, Hakaani and many other races Alanee does not recognise, all on one mission of unselfconscious joy.

A hand from the crowd reaches out, takes Sala’s arm.  She turns and squeals a delighted greeting:  “Rabba!  Darling!”  to a slender Mansuvene man whose embrace is already too close for dancing.  “Alanee ba, this is Rabba!”

Alanee waves her glass, spilling most of its contents:  “Greet, Rabba!”  She drinks the rest.

Fingers close around her own forearm. She turns to find herself looking straight into the eyes of a tall, broad-shouldered Hakaani man with a smiling, strong face and body to match.  She allows her eyes to scan his full length.  “Wow!”

“Greet, Lady – dance?”

“Greet, …whoever you are.”   She dances.

He is Delfio, he is from the plains, he shouts above the din.

“Alanee – Balkinvel!”  She shouts back.

“Greet you, Alanee!”

“Greets you too, Delfio!”

He has a sense of rhythm – his body interprets the music.  His eyes are brilliant and kind.  She does not know him – she does not need to.  Everything about him calls to her and she is content to be within the moment, to indulge in the ritual.  Two people tugged by a single wire for a time – they dance on.

#

“It’s you.  I should have known it would be you.  You found me here.”

Lady Ellar looks down into Cassix’s eyes and smiles.  “You are the Seer.  Where else would the Seer be but in the Watchtower on such a morning?”

She kneels so her lap may support his head, cradling him.  She did, indeed, find Cassix here, but not leaning upon the sill of the great window gazing out into the firmament as she had expected.  No, she found him prostrate upon the cold flagstones of the floor with his face ashen and no sign of movement, none at all.

“Are you ill, my Cassix?  Is there a wound we may heal?  What is wrong?”  She cannot betray all the care she feels for the man:  it would be inappropriate, not only because of their high position in the State, but also because she is fairly sure he feels nothing in return.  He is a Seer, and that is all one human frame can absorb.  He has no space for the other things, the vin ordinaire of life.

He struggles to sit.  “No.  No, I have a thirst, no more than that.  I will recover in a moment.”  Yet so simple a struggle is almost too much for him; air comes to his lungs in gasps, veins throb in his temples.

Ellar sees how his eyes avoid the window; how he stares at the floor, or down into his own lap.  “The Continuum?”  She asks quietly.

He meets her look.  “Yes.”

“But it is a good spring dawn.  This will be a wonderful year, will it not?”

Cassix does not reply.

#

“Another drink?  Yours was Cassene, wasn’t it?”

They are edging towards the bar.  There have been several ‘another drinks’ and Alanee’s head is hazed with the alcohol.  She and Delfio have become much better acquainted.  He knows she was married once, a widow now – she, that he is a materials technician who works in the bowels of the City – one of those unseen protectors who keep wheels turning, cold from the door, light in the world.  He believes he once lived in Parnisfae, a village on the Plains some hundred miles from Balkinvel.   No, he has never seen her village.

When Alanee asked it he requested the band play the Talleh, national folk-dance of the Hakaan.  Its steady sledgehammer beat threw the whole crowd into a frenzy, not least Alanee herself, for whom the memory of the tune was so poignant she danced her heart out, and cried too – unashamed:  why not?  The words spoke of her home, the music the same she once danced to with Kalna-meh, on the night of their coupling.

Now, with another drink of impish green liquid in her hand, she is tired of Delfio.  She does not know why.  He is warm, and caring, and quite funny in his way.  She has kissed him three times; drunken, hungry kisses.  He realises, because she told him, that she can never re-marry (‘that’s the law, isn’t it?) so there can only be one course for their encounter to take.  In a way, a very present way, she wants that.  Her body is awake: her skin is moist with a heat she recognises, not just part of the effort of dancing.  But she is tired, and inebriated, and in another way she would be rescued, taken somewhere else.  Sala has passed her a few times, each time with a wave and a knowing look, each time in someone’s arms (not Rabba – he has been superseded not once, but twice to Alanee’s knowledge) and anyway she would not interrupt her friend.  With increasing desperation she casts about her – and sees him.

Like a pale cloud, Celeris moves through the thick of the revelry unsullied, apparently untouched:  white robe, white face, that astonishing albino hair.  He passes easily within her vision, so she could not miss him if she tried.

“Excuse me!  Someone I know!”  Alanee shouts – Delfio raises an eyebrow, though he recognised the signs some while ago.  “I’ll be right back!”  She lies.

He walks quickly:  the crowd divides for him, she struggles to make a path.  Before she can finally catch him he has left the square, striding down a side alley different to that which brought her here.

“Sire Celeris!”

He turns, his dark, dark eyes light up to see her,  “My Lady Alanee!  This is an unexpected delight!”

“Yes,” She says, “It is.”   Then, with humility:  “Sire Celeris, would you very kindly rescue me?”

He switches on his mischievous smile.  “Rescue you?”

Alanee shrugs:  “A true Lady should not admit that she is a little the worse for wear?”

“Ah!”  Celeris strokes his chin with long fingers.  “Tsakal, I think.  I know the very place.”

“You’re not in too much of a hurry?”

“For you, my Lady?  And on such a day?  Never!”

He comes to her, feeds a supporting arm around her waist and she, giggling at the difference in their heights, rests a hand on his shoulder, which, however poor in flesh is rich in understanding.  There is comfort there.

They find a café on the South Side, not far from Alanee’s apartment:  “It is a short distance to run, should the need arise.”

They sit on firm, Spartan seats.  The café is quiet, almost deserted, because everyone is out in the yards and squares of the City drinking.  He buys tsakal, placing a small shot-glass of perl beside Alanee’s cup.  Alanee looks at it doubtfully.

“A parachute, a soft landing.  I would not want you to feel miserable or ill.  Drink it slowly, take the tsakal at the same time.”

Conversation flows easily.  He had some business in the financial quarter, it could wait:  was she enjoying the Dawn Celebration?

“Yes, I am.  Parts of it I don’t understand, though.  Why does everyone seem so feverish?  It is only another spring:  it comes every year?”  She thinks she has explained herself badly:  “I mean, they act as if it was their last spring ever.  Or is it just me?”

“Parts of our history have been swathed in darkness.”  Celeris says mysteriously:  “There have been dark ages in our time when the sun never rose.  Although they were long ago, the mark of those times remains upon my people.  They never wake expecting a day, they are just grateful when it comes.”

Alanee shakes her head, sips at her tsakal.  The café overlooks South Avenue, with its constant movement of people:  people who are less purposeful now, stopping to hug one another and to renew acquaintanceships.  From above, this too is a form of dance, a passing of hands, a dignified, slow gavotte.

“Do you like it here?”

She has drifted away in her mind:  “Sorry?”

“Last time we met you were waiting to know your fate.  Do you know it now – is it a good fate?”

“I think so.  I really have no idea.”  She feels she is in a dream; a place from which she cannot return.  His presence is bewitching her somehow, she feels sure.  “Why are you so kind to me?” 

His laughter is sweet, a music in itself.  “How would I not be ‘kind’, as you put it?  Lady Alanee, surely you must comprehend – you are a very pleasing, very attractive woman.  All the world, I’m sure, would have you as their friend if they could!”

So flattered, she should blush, yet doesn’t.  “I don’t know anything about you!  Who are you?  What do you do?  Why do so few people know you?”

“Who am I?  I am Celeris.  You can call me Sire Celeris, if you wish, though I don’t wear my titles on my sleeve as some would.  What do I do?  Well, I suppose the answer must be nothing.  I conduct a little business to pass the time, though I do not need to; I read, I become very learned and I pass my days convincing myself I have a role to play in the City – which may or may not be true.  Why am I so little known?”  He pauses to breathe at this answer.  “Could it be I am not worth knowing?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean….!”

Celeris holds up a hand.  “I’m very sure you didn’t.  Believe me, Lady Alanee, I have a realistic view of my place in this world.”

“Call me ‘ba’.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All this ‘Lady Alanee’ stuff.  I don’t want to be ‘Lady Alanee’.  Call me ‘ba’.”

He laughs, but he colours, too.  “All the drink….”

“Yes, and it may be I am a little the worse.  But I am never uncertain about these things.  Celeris, you are ‘ba’ to me.”

What does she see in his coal-black eyes then – amazement, puzzlement, wonder?  Her next words are quite deliberate.  “When I needed you, you came to my side.  When I think of you, I think of all that is good in a man.  I am tired now, Celeris my ba.  Take me home.”

Obediently, this pale young man guides her from the tsakal-house and along the avenue to her apartment.  They walk slowly, he supporting her waist, she with her arm about his shoulder as before.  At her door he would turn away but she restrains him with a persuasive hand.

“Don’t leave me here.”

“You live here.”

“Don’t leave me, ba.”

She draws him inside, leading him with her hands about his wrists.  She leads him thus through the inner door to her living room.  As the door slips closed behind them her arms encircle him, inviting him to kiss her but he does not respond, so she goes to him, taking those cool, thin lips in hers and making them open to her, and now he does respond, but clumsily, like a child.  Like the child in his face.

“Lady!”

“I’m sorry.  You must forgive me.”  She steps back, confused, embarrassed.  “I’m drunk.  I said that already, didn’t I?.”

Celeris’s hand detains her.  It is thin yet surprisingly strong.  “Please, do not apologise.  I am curious.  Would you….do that again?”

Curious?  Alanee returns to the kiss, this time with hands behind his head, draping the length of her body against his own spare frame.  And this time he responds willingly, almost expertly.  His kiss is as powerful as hers is compliant.

She draws back, a dark chuckle rising in her throat.  “Curious now?”

Her own boldness surprises her, and without the confidence of liquor she is sure she would not, should not be doing this, yet she needs him with every fibre of her being.  She scatters her message in kisses over his sallow cheeks, his brow, his eyes – returns to his lips, plying them, nipping, gently biting.   His breath is hot.  The arousal she seeks in him is beginning, begins.

Celeris’s hands grab her arms.  He wrestles her away – pushes so hard she almost falls.

“No!  NO!”  His face, normally so pale, is red as damask; his expression one of pure, open-mouthed horror.  He stares down at himself, sees Alanee’s eyes follow his, and turns quickly away.

The mood is shattered to a thousand shards and lies unswept.  Habbach!  Has he never…?  She wants to go to him, to explain something he clearly does not understand.  He will not afford her that chance.

“Lady, I have to leave!”

“Celeris….”

He is gone, through her door at almost a run.  Disarranged, she may not follow him.  Instead she can only stare at the empty space he has left.

Amazed, confounded, Alanee storms to her room and throws herself onto her bed where she pounds her pillow and kicks her mattress in frustration, then bursts into cynical laughter at the thought of Celeris racing through the City in so obvious a condition;  then screams and bites the pillow in fury once more.  Her teeth close upon something small that yields with a faint crunching sound.  She spins into sleep.

© 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: Levi Guzman on Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Fifteen: The Spring Rising.

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.

He drifts.

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!”

“The what?”

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!”

“Celebrations?”

“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

20/20 Vision

 

There are bound to be a few contenders for this title, so I might as well make my pitch early.

Well, New Year is with us.  The air smells of cordite, my shirt smells of whiskey, and the house smells like…maybe just open a few windows?

The first thing, I guess, is to christen the decade – like we had the Roaring Twenties last century; how about the Scorching Twenties this time around?  Then we should maybe give a title to the era – the nineteen-twenties absolutely owned prohibition, will the twenty-twenties be remembered for degradation?

I have no personal experience to offer:  contrary to suggestions by certain people, I was not around in the Roaring Twenties; but history suggests that was a time of liberation, a carefree release from the strictures of the corseted Edwardians and their predilection for war and power.  Will this new decade have the same signature of freedom and tolerance?  I wonder.

But setting all that aside, New Year to most of us is a personal thing:   even for cynical old duffers like myself, to whom it should be no more than a flip of a sheet on the calendar by now.   I still sit up and wait dutifully for midnight, listen to an hour of painful contemporary music after the bell has gone, before creeping off to bed.  In spite of my bold comments above, in truth, the memsahib and I rarely party through the night these days. At Christmas mayhap we will – at New Year, no.  It’s such a fuss getting hold of the extra oxygen; I’m not sure which deserted us first – the stamina or the motivation.

The same is not true of everybody.  Witness our neighbors, for whom the clock was clearly an invention too late.  The fireworks start at eight o’clock, conspicuously ignore the witching hour, and splutter to a damp pulp at around two-thirty a.m.  I don’t mind – I just wonder if they’re partying through the night, or…oh, they wouldn’t be, would they?  Well, these days – so many things, darlings, you know? You can’t tell what they’re getting up to.

So here we all are, groggily awake, ready to embark upon our brave new adventure.  I have my kitbag of ‘resolutions’ pruned to one.  I am determined to lose sufficient weight so when I am cremated I can go through a standard-size furnace door.   In which cause all Christmas food still remaining has been banished to the patio.  It is the turn of the birds, now.   Mince pies seem particularly popular – the memsahib informs me it has to do with the alcohol content in the mince:  Rocky Robin has suddenly acquired a much more interesting meaning.

I have tried playing them some music to get a party going but their little hearts aren’t in it.  They are just birds, after all.  Winter is hard for them in our garden – what will they do when the stollen runs out?   The RSPB wants us to do a survey of our garden birds later this month – I hope they will be sober by then.

Aye me!   Another utterly commercial and brazenly damaging annual festival is over and we can all get back to being rude to each other for another year.  I am about to put down this ingeniously sequestered piece of Christmas cake and go to weigh myself for the day.

Wish me luck!