Mary

Tonight he finds her in his living room, seated in her favorite chair, gazing out at the view of the city beyond their window.  “Mary?”

“Who else?”  She turns to greet him.

“It is you, Mary!  It really is you!    Why here, of all places?”

“Oh, Richard, come on, you’ve been here before – often.  You are always dreaming of us together, in this room, but tonight I thought I would join you.  I want to be part of your dream. Why should the geography matter?”

“No, but you are different somehow; as if you were really, really here!  I mean – you seem so young!  You look no older than the day we met, all those years ago.  And isn’t that the dress…?”

“…I wore on our first day together?  You remembered.”

“Dearest, I’ll always remember.  Twenty-four years, and every detail of that day is as vivid now as then, but this – this is special:  I want…I want so much to touch you, to hold you…”  The regrets – the regrets come flooding in again, the sorrow for the wrongs, the penitence he may not serve.  It is all too late – too late for that.

“Richard, you are sleeping – this is a dream.  In your dream you can do many things.  You can touch me, hold me, love me if you like.”

“Please, don’t torment me, Mary.”

“A little, maybe.  Should I not?  Don’t I have cause, Richard?  Or reason to tease you, or fear you?  I have been, you see, very afraid. I‘ve many good reasons to curse my fate, because I have the misfortune to be a memory of yours. Yet this night is a special night, and I will make it your own.  Tonight I am a ghost to do with as you will, I will not leave you until dawn.”

“Is this forgiveness at last?  Can you forgive me?”

“For pushing me from the balcony that lies behind those windows?  For insisting I was suicidal?  For telling the world that I leapt to my own destruction?   My forgiveness is what your conscience craves?”

The ghost revives the memory again, and often as he has relived the betrayal, the jealousy, the fury of that night, it can still bring tears.  “It was an accident,” he weeps. “I didn’t mean it to happen.  You must know that.”

“No, of course you didn’t.  Nobody means to kill.  Anger takes over and you find strength you did not know you possessed.  You can look for excuses, for justification; as you have upon so many nights – it is not the issue here, not the reason I have come to you – not my cause to hope this will be a unique night for you.  This morning is a very special morning, is it not?  Christopher is twenty-one, Richard.  Our son is twenty-one today.  Or have you entirely forgotten that?”

“No.  No, of course not!  How would I forget my own son?”

“Well, let us see.  You sent him away to live with your parents in England when he was five years old, sent him to boarding school when he was eight.  This was his home, Richard, but you swept it from under his feet, uprooted him from his little universe and despatched him to the other side of the world while you stayed here.  He lives in England, you in L.A. How many chances have you taken to refresh your memory since?”

“That isn’t fair!  After…after us, I couldn’t bear to be near him.  I tried, I did honestly, but his every look reminded me of you, my darling.  So what I did was for him, as much as for myself.”

“His every look reminded you of your guilt, you mean, don’t you?  Is that why you never so much as visited – sent a card at Christmas, or a telephone call on his birthday, congratulated him at his graduation?  Richard, he is your son – your son and mine!”

“He never knew what really happened.  I’ve done my best.  I left him a gift, a special coming-of- age gift.”

“Ah yes, the gift.  Remind me of your gift…”

“But you are Mary; you have been watching; you already know.  This morning, when he wakes for his twenty-first birthday, Christopher will receive the key to a safety deposit box I placed with my bank’s London office sixteen years ago.   When he opens it, he will find bonds and share certificates inside – enough to make him financially secure for the rest of his life.  He will never have to work, or worry.  That is my gift to him, Mary.”

“How good it must make you feel – to be able to trade all that for a childhood!”

Richard smiles because he has often congratulated himself for this rich gesture.  Yes, his benevolence must do more than compensate for Christopher’s lack of a father.  “It is generous, isn’t it?  Few children can ever hope to receive such a gift: and it is not that I don’t love him – in some measure.  I said so on a tape I placed within the box – a tape I made the day after we laid you to rest.”

“And the day before your parents took him away.  What did you say on this tape of yours?  How you adore him, how you repent?  ‘Grow strong, my son, and learn from the failings of your father’.  Does it say that?”

“You’re judging me unfairly.”

“Am I?  In this respect, at least, you are wrong: I was not ‘laid to rest’ – could not rest while my philandering, guilty assassin walked free. Yet in all the generosity of my heart I wanted to be with you in these small hours. I offered you anything you wanted, a last gift. You should have taken it. Dawn is almost upon us; it is too late, now.”

“I don’t follow you. How is it too late? Why the finality?” He genuinely does not wish to lose the spectre that he has kept secretly in his thoughts for so many years. “Are you leaving me?”

“I left you, as you put it, out there on that balcony, a long time ago. But I can answer you: with the dawn, yes.

“Richard, my dear, you didn’t even press playback, when you prattled into that little recorder of yours.  You just offered excuses, dismissed your love in a few sentences and you tossed the tape into the safe deposit box.  Such a shame, Richard.  Such a shame.”

He frowns, suspicious at last.  “What are you keeping from me….”

“I?  I would keep nothing from you.  Tonight I came to give you peace.” Mary’s smile is chill enough to freeze the marrow of his bones. “Come close to me, Richard; come close and I will whisper to you – such sweet words.  I will tell you – no, come closer – I will tell you of a woman in fear for her life, in this room, sixteen years ago.  I will tell you how, after you had telephoned her in your rage she knew you were coming to her with murder on your mind, so she took your little tape recorder from its drawer and switched it on.  And I will tell you that tape was never erased, and how that woman’s every cry of terror and despair, and every word and blow of yours was etched upon it.  And then I will tell you that is the tape you sealed in Christopher’s safe deposit box.”

“No!  That isn’t possible!  I recorded on a clean tape!”

“You believed the tape was clear, because before I switched the recorder on, it was.  But your fingers shook as you pressed the ‘on’ button.  You didn’t record.  You should have replayed the tape, Richard.  You should at least have taken some of your precious time to do that.”

Panic overtakes him, a fear as debilitating as the moment when Mary, overbalanced, slipped from his grasp, all those years ago.  Can he think back so far?  Did he check the red recording light had responded to his finger on the button?  “I can telephone him!”  He cries.  “I can tell him there’s a mistake, that I’ve sent him the wrong key.  I can stop him opening the box!”

“Oh, my darling Richard, you have forgotten, haven’t you?  It is early morning here in LA, but the sun is high over London.  Our son has already opened the box; the tape is already played.  It is time to wake up, beloved murderer because your dream is over.  Any second now the telephone will ring.”

© 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: Feature photo: Free-photos from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Four Altered Circumstances

 

The story so far:

Alanee’s transportation in the aerotran has reached a conclusion.  She faces the immediate prospect of landing she knows not where.  Dag, her pilot, although kind and understanding, can offer no information about her future.

Alanee stirs blearily back to wakefulness, admitting to herself that the stresses of the day must have told upon her.  Far from refreshed by slumber, she feels exhausted.

The eyes in the mirror watch her:  “Now there’s a real morning person!”  Dag says.

The aerotran’s engines are different, they run in surges of sound.  Alanee feels that they are descending but by stages, as though dropping over a series of downward sills.  Dag is talking to someone on a communicator, being given instructions, she thinks.  Below the window and rushing past there is a bright tapestry, an almost distinguishable pattern although she cannot discern details; houses, maybe: or larger buildings – factories or offices.  Then suddenly all this is lost in darkness, and the sound of the engines is an echo, while the aerotran tracks a line of red lights which pass beneath it one by one.  It is difficult to guess its speed, but the nose is up and in another second there is light ahead, bright blue light that grows from distant dot to shining arc.  Almost immediately the aerotran is in the midst of that light, and forward motion has ceased.

“There we go!”  Dag says cheerfully.  “We’ve arrived!”

Arrived where?  From the window, Alanee sees only a solid grey wall.

“We’re on a lift-deck.”  Her young pilot explains.  “It’s a sort of elevator.  You are bound for…”  He glances at his console “….My, level five!  You must be quite important!”

Dumbstruck, Alanee stares at the grim, uncompromising wall as the aerotran ascends.  For a brief while she actually entertains an idea of diving back into the rest-place and locking herself inside.  Within this aerotran, this womb, within the care of the gentle Dag with his soft, deep voice she has gained solace to such a degree she now fears what may happen when she steps outside it:  after all, she has only the pilot’s opinion that she is not to face some form of punishment for being who she is. What if he is wrong?

Dag explains:  “The docks are all inside the hill.  The place they serve is built on the plateau above. So the lift-deck is taking us up to it.  We’re just about there now.”

As if at his prompting, a black number ‘one’ scribed on the wall slips into Alanee’s view, then passes beneath them, swiftly followed by numbers in sequence.  At ‘five’ the lift-deck’s upward motion stops.  There is a sensation of moving rearwards, a sudden emerge from entombment into soft ambiance.  She finds herself looking at a chamber as large, though more sumptuous by far than the ‘best room’ of her own house, with foam-carpeted floor, couches upholstered in red satin, a table and flowers.

A wood-panelled door on the further side of this space opens.  A woman of near her own age or a little older steps into view, a woman whose poise and elegance takes her breath away.

“Time for us to part,” Dag rises easily from his cockpit seat.  “Alanee-mer, can I say it has been a privilege to have met you?”

He is tall, so very, very tall.  She feels intense regret.  “Shall I not see you again?”  She asks.

He shrugs.  “If you need a pilot you might get me.  You might even ask for me.  If I am available I’m sure I would be permitted to fly you.”

Wondering at these words (why would she need a pilot?) Alanee nonetheless has presence of mind to say:  “You may be sure I shall.  Dag-meh, would you take your helmet off for me?”

Dag’s eyes give that smile again.  He removes the golden dome that has concealed his face, and what she sees makes Alanee’s heart shine.  Yes, she will remember this man.

“Thank you, Dag-meh, for looking after me.”  She leans forward on an impulse to kiss his cheek.

Dag slides back the door and the aerotran depressurizes noisily.  “Thank you for being such an unusually lovely passenger.  Be lucky, Alanee-mer.”

With reluctance Alanee steps out of the aerotran, leaving Dag behind in the cocoon that has been her sanctuary for a few precious hours.  Her feet are greeted by the soft warmth of deep carpet, and there is a scent of roses.  What sort of a world is she entering?

“You find all this awfully confusing, don’t you?”  The woman, a slender, dark-haired creature with large green eyes and the bronze pallor of a Mansuvine, a race of seafaring people from Eastern Oceana,  steps forward to greet her.  Her resplendent gold and burgundy tunic drapes over her body so perfectly it must surely have been made especially for her, and she moves languidly within it as only one with the absolute confidence of privilege can move.  The ring upon her finger bears a large emerald that speaks of wealth, yet her smile is open, her greeting sincere. She clasps Alanee’s hands in hers.

“Come!  You are Alanee, are you not; from Balkinvel on the Hakaan?  Is it very hot there at this time of year?  My name is Sala, Alanee my dear.  We are to be companions, you and I.”

Alanee does not answer, fearing any reply she makes to that kindly smile will reduce her to tears.  Behind her, the aerotran has slipped quietly away, taking Dag and her last contact with any part of a world she knows with it.  Sala understands at once.

“You must be so tired!  Come, we can talk tomorrow.”

She leads Alanee through that paneled door into a brightly lit passage lined by graphics of aerotrans along each wall; then beyond that to join a wide, green-carpeted walkway with high walls of waxen cream bathed by concealed, gentle light.  They are amongst people now, some introspective and hurried, some entering or leaving doors of richly polished wood which are the only features of this thoroughfare, others idling or talking among themselves, men and women in equal measure.  Sala exchanges casual greetings with some as they pass.

“Good even, Sala-mer!”

“Greet-you, Fra Perris.”

Alanee is used to walking amongst Hakaani, but there are all races here, light-framed, bird-like Oceanics, swarthy Braillecci, taciturn Proteians, dark mysterious Mansuvene.  All, or nearly all, are richly dressed, and many wear Sala’s colour scheme of burgundy and gold.  The exceptions, dressed in fatigues of grey drab, seem subservient and rarely speak other than among themselves.  Alanee, feeling shoddily-dressed and unkempt, aligns herself with the grey ‘drabs’.

They walk a long way for weary legs, passing row after row of doors and arches for the most part in silence because Alanee is intimidated by Sala’s splendour, and overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of this place.  She has simply never imagined anything like it could exist.  What is waiting for her at the end of this walk?

“Where are we?  What is this place?”  She ventures at last.

“Oh Habmena!  Of course, they haven’t told you!  They couldn’t.  No-one may speak the name of the City outside its walls.  Such a stupid conceit!”  Sala chuckles sympathetically.  “My dear, this is the Consensual City, the seat of the High Council!  Not far now – see?  This is our door.”

At another anonymous doorway (Alanee is sure they must have passed a hundred), Sala touches a circular plate that exactly matches the size of her hand.  The door opens instantly, sliding back into a recess in the wall.

“Come!  You’ll be able to rest now, I promise.”

They enter a lobby area about ten feet square, impersonally decorated and furnished with full-length closets, a small table.  To their left a further door stands open, and beyond it a large room sumptuous in the extreme, high-ceilinged, its three inner walls hung with brightly-coloured tapestries and silks.    The fourth wall is wholly dominated by a vast, undraped window overlooking a courtyard some sixty feet below, and faces the front elevation of a great building which, lit by blue iridescence, seems to float in the darkness.

“Don’t be concerned,”  Sala reassures;  “It is one-way glass.  You can see out, but…”

Alanee feels her feet cosseted by thick floor-foam and her weary limbs tempted by long, low couches of soft hide.  A central table, edged by an ebony rail, is a fish tank filled with illuminated blue liquid.  Brightly colored Dap fish swim in the soft light that precisely reflects that of the stately mansion across the courtyard.   Alanee is dumbstruck at such opulence.   All this:  is this how people live in the Consensual City?

“This must belong to someone very important!”

Laughing, Sala acknowledges:  “Yes, I suppose one would think that.”  Then quickly sees how Alanee is overcome.  “Let me show you somewhere you can sleep.”

By another door then, to a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed, which by now is all Alanee can or would wish to see.  She is too tired to take in any more of her surroundings.  It is a wide bed – very wide – and comfortable enough: Sala leaves her to stretch upon it with the briefest of instructions:  “There’s a summoner” (a touch-panel on the wall) “if you need anything.  Call me on it tomorrow, when you’re ready.  There is no rush.  And that…”  She points to a pen-sized object which lies on a table beside the bed; “Is a homer.  If you go out exploring and are lost, activate this and it will guide you back here.  The door will know you, so never worry about getting locked out.  Sleep well and long, my dear.”

“I may go outside?”

“Of course; if your legs will carry you.  But first you should sleep, Alanee-mer.  You look completely worn out!”

So Alanee sleeps. And deep in dreams she is flying once more with Dag strong and safe at her side.  Below is the sun-mist on the Hakaan, and the plains stretch away on every side forever.  Together with the wild birds they swoop, hover, turn, climb and dive, companions upon the long, long journey into the mountains of morning.

When she opens her eyes again there is music somewhere, honey-sweet music.  Though she has slept fully clothed she cannot recall a time when sleep has been sweeter, or when she has felt more refreshed.  Poised on the edge of slumber she almost believes everything was a dream, that she will find herself back home again and making ready for work, in her own village, among the people she has known since she was born.

But no.

The air is sweet and vital.  She has woken in a bedroom with no windows to an outer world, that is yet filled with mellow daylight:  the décor that surrounds her is intensely feminine; smooth curves of furniture, tints of apple and white.  Her feet find soft rugs, that same deep floor-foam.  She is shocked that the rest-place, beyond an elliptical arch, is otherwise unprotected by any door – what if someone should see? She uses it quickly, shy of discovery; but then spies the pressure bath with its scents and toiletries, whereupon she reasons with herself that people rich enough to own a bedroom like this would not be so crass as to spy upon her, would they?  So she bathes for almost an hour, much longer than she intends, seduced by that unobtrusive music, drifting close to sleep.

At last she must rise from the water, throw a robe about her and venture out.  She puts a head shyly around the bedroom door: “Greet you?”

No-one answers.  She is alone.  Assuming her host must be otherwise employed, she slips hesitantly from the bedroom into the living area’s sumptuous space.    Here she must pause, losing all sense of herself, for the view through that transparent wall is beyond believing.  The mansion which was bathed last night in phantom blue is, by the light of day, an ornate building of great and blackened age with doors and walkways between forests of pillars at its lowest level. Two further storeys are punctuated by high, arched windows, balconies and statues of dignified pedagogues who pose in alcoves, impervious to the snow.  One of these (she cannot tear her eyes away) glares censoriously back at her, as though she was his reluctant pupil.  He carries a book beneath his arm and where his fingers clasp around it huddles a bird, tiny and forlorn, sheltering from the winter chill.  Alanee’s heart goes out to this little creature.  For all her uncertainty about her own future, his is no more certain.

Courtyard and walkways are busy with hurrying figures, clad in the same dark red robes so much in evidence last night.  Although Alanee can see that greetings are being exchanged no-one dallies, everyone has a purpose.  They move with an air of business to be done, importance, almost arrogance.

She has heard of The City, of course.  Throughout her growing up it has been the stuff of legend and in her dreaming it has always featured as a faery castle somewhere on high, frozen in a land of ice.

“It is a city where the sun never shines, Alanee–tes!”  Her mother had said.  “There live the Wise Ones who rule us, and keep us from harm.”

“Can we go there, Mummy?”

“No.  Neither you nor I will ever see it.  Few people even know exactly where it is, it is so closely guarded.  Those who dwell there are apart from us.  Their emissaries visit us from time to time, and you may see one.  That is as close as you can hope to get.” 

Oh mother, remember your daughter?  I am here!  I am inside the Consensual City! 

When Alanee has had her fill of the ancient building’s glory there are more discoveries to be made: across the living space and through a portal at its further end she discovers another rest-place (this time dignified by a door) and opposite, joy of joys, a kitchen!  But such a kitchen!  Gleaming cabinets, basins and faucets, spicers and mixers all in matching metal, all spotlessly kept.  The opulence of this alone should sap her credulity, were it not for a single touch: neatly set out on a counter adjacent to the hot plate are a tube of tsakal leaf crystals, a drinks-maker, and a mug.  Next to these, a packet of xuss mix is propped against a pat of Hakaani sil butter.

At first she does not consider this too deeply, beyond gratitude for Sala’s thoughtfulness in providing her favourite breakfast.  But after baking a pancake, idling as her tsakal brews Alanee begins to wonder.  Her morning meal is not typical of all Hakaanis:  these provisions cannot have been selected by accident or good fortune; does Sala perhaps share her taste, or is that too great a stretch of coincidence?  And where in this lavishly appointed space is the chill room, or a slot that might accept a Mak-card?  That or any other sign of the world she has left?

Plate in hand she completes her exploration by returning to the lobby, where the small bag of her possessions that she packed so hurriedly the previous afternoon sits as she left it.  Unaccountably, the sight of it makes her burst into tears.

“You haven’t unpacked.”  The apartment door hisses and Sala enters, responding to Alanee’s call on the summoner.  Alanee expects her to be dressed differently but no, she still wears the same coloured tunic.

“I didn’t think it worthwhile,”  Alanee responds.  “Not until I know where I’m going to end up, at least.”

Sala’s laugh is musical, as much a delight as her speaking voice.  “Oh, come; don’t be so tragic!  There are drinks in this cabinet, have you found them yet?”    A disguised cupboard in a side unit opens.  Arrays of glasses and decanters wait inside.

“I’ve just had tsakal!”  Alanee protests.

“Not tsakal.  I mean drinks.  Try one of these.”  Sala pours two measures of a yellow liquid.  “Come, we have nothing to do today, either of us.  And I’m here to answer your questions.”

She sits opposite Alanee, surveying her approvingly.  “Isn’t it so refreshing to see someone dressed differently?  (Alanee has donned clothes from her bag;  a tabard, calf-laced sandals, a bangle she likes)  Have you ever considered laskali at all, my dear?”

“What is laskali?”

Sala smiles.  It is more than a smile; it is at once mysterious and a confidence, an intimation of friendship.  “No matter.  You will find out in time.  Now, questions!”

The sweet and instantly warming drink dispels some of that latent dread, even inspiring a certain bravado.

“All right.  I was tired yesterday and very frightened.  Now I’ve recovered, where am I to be taken?”

“Alanee-mer, I’m sure I told you!  Maybe you were too overcome to listen.  You are going nowhere.”

“Nowhere?”  The word’s sinister implications  bring an onset of trembling.

“My dear, dear Alanee, you have nothing to fear.”

“I fear a lack of answers…”

Sala bites her lip and nods.  “I tend to be indirect, sometimes.  I admit I like the drama.  It is, shall we say, to my taste?  I am being obtuse.  Console yourself, Alanee-mer, you are not here to be punished, at least as far as I know.  This is your new home.  This is your apartment.”

Alanee is incredulous.  “I stay – here?”

“Indeed.  Make it your own.  There are merchants, traders, vendors who will supply you with any little favours you like.  Re-furbish it completely if you wish, within your means of course.”

“But I have no means?  At home, at my village I had work: I have nothing here unless there is work for me.  Am I to work here?  What would they have me do?”

“Tomorrow you will learn more.  I cannot tell you I’m afraid, that is not for me to discuss.  You will have means, Alanee-mer.”

Alanee has the feeling of being surrounded by doors:  each time she opens one, she discovers two more inside.  “Why me?  Why have I been selected to do this – this work?”

“Nor can I answer that question.  I simply do not know.”  Sala sees the despondency return to Alanee’s face. She stretches forth a cool hand to cover Alanee’s own. “Let me see, what can I tell you?  Well, Alanee-mer, you must have been brought here for a reason.  Rarely are new people brought to the Consensual City.  Those who are usually come in grey drabs (that is the uniform of the court servants); only a very few are accorded the robe.”

“The robe?”

“The robe of court, like mine.  You will be a member of the Sanctum.  Your work will take you within the Palace, I understand, so you must wear one.”

“What Palace?”

Sala waves airily at the window.  “Over there.  That is the Palace.”

Alanee follows her gesture, to be transfixed by the sightless eyes of the stone pedagogue, whose scornful expression withers her inside.  She feels instant dread.  What could she possibly offer within those walls?

The little bird has gone.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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:  Aaron Munoz on Unsplash

 

Continuum -Episode Two Aerotrans

The Story so Far:

In his eyrie high above the City, the young Hasuga begins a snowy morning by building a snowman, while his mother bakes some honey cakes, while in the watchtower that is even higher than Hasuga’s home Soothsayer Cassix watches a threatening sky with grave concern.  His colleague and friend Ellar discovers him there and gives him the news that Hasuga, already tired of his outdoor pursuits, wishes everyone to join him in a game of war.

Entering the Great Hall, Ellar brushes white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe, clothing she must wear as one who attends the Inner Sanctum.  Hasuga is waiting for her.  It amazes her how tall he has grown.  His shoulders are wider, there is determination in his face, yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice, his words still those of the little boy he has left behind.  And in his haunted eyes the same frailty that is window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.

“Ellar!  Ellar-mer, we are going to play a war game!  Hurry up!”  Hasuga skips ahead of her to the elevators.  “We are going to attack a fortress!  Come on!”

The elevator rushes them skywards.  Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip, the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control.  She is becoming enthused – yes!  A fortress!  That would be so much fun!  A battle at the walls, siege engines, storming the gates!  Kill them all!

No!

Hasuga’s games have consequences: such are his psychokinetic powers the game he plays here, in the safety of the city, will be reflected in reality somewhere else.

“Which fortress shall it be, Hasuga?”  Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.

“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!”  Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask.  “The Proteians are going to attack them!”

Ellar thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three, four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, medieval walls.   And Hasuga is taking possession of her mind so swiftly she will be powerless to stop it happening.

#

Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes.  Soon after the Makar’s departure, she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to The Terminal at the hub of their community.  As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden, and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.

“Fine work, Malfis.  Always the craftsman!”

Alanee struggles:  “What is it?”

Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain.  “Of course, you not having a man…”

“I may not have a man but I do have a memory.  There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man.  It’s a lump of mud!”

And Merra replies:  “Now remember my husband….”

Alanee giggles,  “That’s so unfair!  Where are the men?  Did they start work early today?”

“Arms training!”  Merra makes a face.  “It’s long spears this time, apparently.   Habbach knows where we are going to keep that!”

The Terminal is busy.  There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work.  She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young.  Paaitas the village Domo is watching her progress with interest.  It was he who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities.  Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity.  She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.

“They are wonderful, Alanee!”  Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village.  “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”

From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.

“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.”  Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers).  “She seems distracted today.”

“I should not tell you this, perhaps.”  Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder:  “She has had her proc request turned down again.  The word came this morning.  She was in tears earlier. I think she despairs of ever having a child.”

“How so?   In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles.  If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.”  Alanee shakes her head.  “It seems so cruel!”

Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.

And so the morning passes.

At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together.  The five children of the village pass them by.  After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.

“Good day, Widow Kalna!”  They greet Alanee with respect.  She tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.

“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?”  Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.

In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.

“It is a man!”  Shellan crows her delight.  “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”

In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door.  There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan.  Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.

These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard.  Her father’s walk; the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it, his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure.  Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair; and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.

Although every childhood has its joys they were not such happy days, in those growing years.  And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment: yes, that may well have engendered her rebellious spark.  So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back.  She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love, not then.  Love came later, love grew.

Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once.  Her thoughts drift to a memory of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too.  Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening:  ‘Foot-player fatally injured.  Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.

One chance, one man, and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another.  Three years ago.  Three lonely years.

Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the aerotran at first.  Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colors of black and gold striping its sides.  Even then it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo.  The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun.  Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.

On the street all talk is of the visit from the aerotran, which is now perched on the landing pad atop The Terminal like a watchful hawk.  The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.

Who can this be?  Why is Domo Paaitas here?

“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!”  Shellan shouts above the whistle of the aerotran’s engines.  It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside.  Has the Makar reported her?

Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal.  Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office.  Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.

“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?”  Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile.  She knows something, Alanee thinks!  What is going on?

At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door.  This rewards her with a pause, while male voices from within confer in subdued tones.  If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now.  Carla, her face serious, opens the door.

“Come in Alanee-mer.  These people wish to speak to you.”

There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognizes; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the aerotran.  But what could they possibly want with her?

Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder – must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes.  She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scribing talents.  His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste.  To his right a thin figure with a raptor’s nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man whose eyes are young: they glint like wet steel.  Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose.  She is overawed.

“Alanee-mer, come, sit down,”  Paaitas mumbles, by way of introduction.  He waves at a chair.  “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.”  He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.

A Proctor and a High Councillor?  To see her?

“You have snow in the north, Sires.” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How was your journey?”

The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged:  they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head.  “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.”  His tone is rich but stops just short of familiarity.  “You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”

She nods, dumbly.  Her knees are shaking.

“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty.  Will you do that?”

“Of course, sir.”

The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife.  “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”

His words fall like blows from a hammer.  Now Alanee’s heart really sinks!  Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements, most of whom are never heard from again.

“No, sir – Sire.  I did order it, though, when the Makar reminded me.”

“Will you use it?”

“Yes Sire.”  She answers without thinking – a reflex.

“You were warned of the necessity to be truthful, Alanee-mer.”  Remis clips his words.  “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month.  I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein.  You have the largest mand stock in the whole region. I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”

So that is it!  The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right.  Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip.  “What should I do, Sire?”

“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.”  The Proctor replies.  “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer?  Are you not tempted by today’s honey?”

“No Sire.  I don’t understand.  I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.”  Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself, her eyes are filling.

Cassix cuts in.  “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”

So they found that out, too, did they?  Oh, Habbach!  “I was forgetful.”

Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.

“You had to remember?”  Cassix asks.  “Nothing…inspired you to go?”

Alanee is mystified.  “No sir – I mean Sire!”

For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says:  “Very well, Alanee-mer that will be all.  Thank you for your honesty.”

She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears.  What should she be feeling – relief?  The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a thunder flash.

“Go to your home, Alanee-mer.  Namma will take your responsibilities.  You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs.  Leave by the cargo door.  Speak to no-one.”  His voice is lowered, severe.

She knows now.

Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch.  There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears:  “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”

The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her.  His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile.  “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons.  Go now.”

Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council is waiting to takes her arm.  The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors.  Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.

As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.

“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”

The village Domo nods.  “Every month, Sire, according to law.  We have a very good inspectorate.”

“And they found nothing wrong?”

“Nothing.  Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood.  The censors described the usual features.  She is an exemplary worker, extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting.  I just don’t understand.”

The walk; how she will always remember this walk!  The silent street, everyone at their work, the guard at her shoulder, the desire to run – run anywhere, get away!  She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes…but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.

It is late afternoon.  Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her.  Then she has waited.  No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions.  Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return.  She stands at her kitchen door  (that favourite place)  for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.

“Your view is exquisite.”  The voice surprises her.  She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered.    He says gently.  “You must be sorry to leave it.”

“I am to be taken away, then?”  Alanee is no longer afraid of him.  Acceptance has come.

“Yes.”

“Where?”  She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.

“That I cannot say.”

All at once she feels like crying again.

“We are waiting for an aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon.  We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here.  We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”

As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second aerotran’s coming.  Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this.  The aircraft which stoops earthwards to the street shares the  livery of the High Council.  It is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.

“Time to go.” Cassix says.  “I will escort you.”

He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life.  At her street door she pauses, resisting him, overcome by the enormity of the moment.  The aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum.  To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast.  A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know.  Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost.  Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.

“Come,” Cassix prompts;  “This is best done quickly.”

Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward.  “I should lock my door.”

“No.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.