When the war was over the true terror began. It was the time of the Servants. It was hard for those of us who had been child soldiers. The Servants sent us to re-education camps to learn what service means. We learnt the tea ceremony and how to fellate our teachers. We spent dawn hours in the fields and afternoons doing data entry. In the evening we had group sessions to confess our service failures. Then we poured more tea.
I enjoyed the war. I lived in the hills, sometimes with other child soldiers, sometimes alone. When my home was first burned – when my family was burned – I escaped into the forest and lived alone for months. Mostly on raw bats. Bats taste foul but they’re easy to catch. Beetles are OK. You have to find big ones to get any juice, but the crunchy thing satisfies. I dreamt of pumpkin soup.
But I enjoyed it. The war. The way the sky lit up. So frequent and yet so unpredictable. I loved those huge chutes of purple and pink. And yellow. And peach. I wanted weapons of my own, but all I had then was a knife. It wasn’t till I met Chapin that I held my first gun. As soon as I had it I wanted to find Servants so I could try it out.
Finding Servants is even easier than catching bats. They don’t take a lot care to cover their tracks. They’d say they do. They’d say they wear black and observe vows of silence to be unobtrusive. To be self-effacing. But except during the hours of the Silent Vow they talk all the time. They yell, they shout, they gossip, they grumble. They’re men. They even piss loudly.
That’s how I’d take down my first kills. They were outliers, men who’d left the group to piss or wank or just be alone. Me, I like being alone, but for a Servant it’s a vulnerable place. If you come up with a knife, unobtrusive, you can angle it upwards under their lower ribs and slash the vital organs. Lots of juice there. They generally die silent.
Sometimes they grunt, and once in a while they roar. If they make too much noise other men come running. That’s when it pays to be self-effacing, and it isn’t something I’ve needed to practice. Though as it happens I’ve accumulated experience.
Chapin taught me a lot. I don’t know how he learned, I think it just came naturally. He told me that when he was small his older sister said he’d be a good person to have around in a war zone. And that was before the war. I don’t know if she saw the war coming then – if anyone did – but that’s what she said. It didn’t help her any. He couldn’t help her. When war arrived she died just like the others, all the others in his family and all the others in mine.
A war arrives like an unwanted guest. You’re going about your business – working or playing, quarrelling or hugging – and suddenly there’s this presence that interrupts everything. War is a bully. Suddenly everything, everyone, is enforced into its servitude.
I served the war for countless months and I mean that. I lost count. I have no idea how long the war went on. It just went on. Raw bats and blood and beetles and knives. Guns of various kinds and smashed up entrails. Smashed in heads. Shattered hips and crushed legs. Smears of blood with just traces of bodies. It was good up in the hills where it was green and not red, and where the sky lit up like a pageant nightly. Sometimes there were other kids to talk to, and other kids to fight alongside. Sometimes there was food.
In the tea ceremony, we have to pour just so. The tea must reach a certain depth of colour – not lighter, not darker. We use a certain quantity of tea powder and whisk just so. The texture must be entirely light. We pour precisely to a certain level. We serve with a smile.
The re-education camps are brothels and I don’t know what end purpose we serve here for. When we reach a certain level we are disappeared. The Servants tell us if we fulfil our potential we will be permitted into their community to represent redemption and model service values. I think they kill us.
The thing is, the Servants have always killed us, and it’s not like they’re dependent on us to serve them tea. The tea service is symbolic. They could do their own tea if the tea was what mattered. What matters is the service, which is what they’ve always been about. Once we erase ourselves and are effaced into pure service they’ve made their point; they might as well kill us. Or not. We’ve ceased to exist at that point. But they like to kill, so I think that’s how it ends.
But then again, I like to kill too, and I know who I am. I am a soldier. The more I meditate on serving the more I want to serve, just not quite the way the Servants have in mind. So maybe it’s not over. Did I say the war was over?
The tea ceremony? I could perform the tea ceremony with my eyes put out. Maybe some day I will.
These are the elements for the tea ceremony: tea, a small knife, a small mortar and pestle, a tea bowl, a bowl stand, tea cups, a whisk, a low table, a kettle, a kettle stand, a stove (with charcoal), a trainee, a Servant (or several). The teacake is pre-prepared. It’s imported from somewhere, I don’t know where. I believe it grows wild on forested cliffs. It’s white tea, rare and precious. Only the new shoots are picked, when they’re whitish, almost translucent. The shoots are picked at dawn, plump with dew. I’m told they must be picked by long fingernails; finger pads would bruise them.
Who told me this? A girl in the camp. She was a bit older than I am. I only talked with her once, after that she disappeared. I would have liked to ask her more.
The tea leaves are steamed, then crushed, then shaped by a mould into the form of an egg. Why an egg? I don’t know. I think it’s just aesthetically pleasing. Then the tea-egg is dried. It’s wrapped in a very fine tissue, each tea-egg stored in its individual container. The containers are carved from fragrant wood but unembellished. The tea-egg and the containers are smooth.
When I am called to perform the tea ceremony I am required to be washed first. I report to the cleansing studio. In the cleansing studio I am entirely passive: everything is done on my behalf. I am stripped of clothing and my intimate parts are scrubbed using sponges soaked in tepid water. By “my intimate parts”, I mean everywhere there is a hinge joint: between and under my toes, around my ankles, behind my knees, in my groin and where thigh meets hip, under my arms, under my chin, in my elbows, around my wrists, between and around my fingers. Also anywhere they are flesh flaps: my genitals, where my breasts would be (if I had breasts, they wash there anyway), around my lips, my nostrils, my earlobes, around the top cartilage of my ears, my eyelids.
My scalp is washed. If hair has sprouted, it’s shaved again. It’s important that no blood be spilt so they’re careful not to cut me. The women who prepare me are expert. They do this fast and silently, never making eye contact. When they’re done they step me into a simple undergarment and wrap a large shawl around me. The shawl is fine cotton and feels not unpleasant. The women tuck and fold so the shawl covers me entirely. There’s no risk of it coming undone. I can move my arms and my torso without fearing cloth will fall into the tea bowl.
When I am clad the women paint a single spot on my face, a red dot just below my lower lip. I don’t know what it symbolises but I’m guessing it means something.
The oldest of the women then presents me with a tea-egg container. I am escorted out of the cleansing studio and guided to the tea house. As if I don’t know where it’s located. Tea is only ever served in the tea house. Everything is already set up there. The Servants are waiting.
So when I enter the tea house I see the Servants, sitting cross-legged on cushions alongside a low table. The table is plain and utterly smooth. The Servants wear black, as they always do. For the tea ceremony they wear their indoor robes. The fabrics are fine textured and deepest dark black, but devoid of ornamentation. The Servants’ Silent Vow applies during the tea ceremony, so they do not speak. I keep my eyes down and kneel before the table with the tea-egg container held in front in both hands. I place the tea-egg container on the table, pause, than prostate myself, forehead to floor. Then I sit back on my heels and pause again.
I open the tea-egg container and lift out the tea-egg in its tissue wrapping. Very gently, I unfold the wrapping so the egg is exposed in my hands. I take the small knife from the table and here I always falter. I am expert with a knife. I can kill with a knife. If I smashed it into an eyeball, or up under a jaw, through the soft part, I could kill at least one Servant. Or through the base of the throat, I’m spoiled for choice. I always look too long at the knife. Then I take it – it’s very small – and ever so carefully shave a tiny piece of tea from the tea-egg. I do this as carefully, as expertly, as the women shaving my body.
Because I shave the tea-egg so carefully the fragment I shave does not break up. I place it in the pestle and crush it with the mortar. I grind for just a moment or two and it becomes fine powder. A kettle has been brewing on the small stove to the side of the room, which is fuelled by charcoal and stoked by the women before I arrived. The kettle is a metal ewer worked in a cylindrical shape – tall, flaring out from a flat small base then narrowing to a small, mouth-like opening. Ovoid, like an elongated egg. The water is boiling now. The water is pure. It’s been sourced from a stream or lake, or so I am told. The higher in the hills the better. I could take the boiling water and fling it in a Servant’s face. There isn’t a large volume of water, just enough for a few tea cups, but hot water stings and I could use that moment to knife a Servant or simply run.
I don’t do that today. Instead I use a section of shawl to wrap my hand and lift the hot kettle from the stove. I pour a small amount into the tea bowl then place the metal ewer back on the stove. Very carefully, I smooth the fine tea powder into the tea bowl with its shallow portion of hot water. This creates a paste. Then I retrieve the kettle with my left hand, wrapped in its shawl, and pick up the wooden whisk with my right hand. I pour and whisk simultaneously, ensuring the paste is diluted only gradually, so that it retains a milky white colour. I rotate the kettle as I pour. As I whisk, using a circular motion, a light head of foam develops. This is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight. It is very important that the Milky Way be frothy yet quite firm, so that it remains in place even as I pour the tea into cups.
The utensils matter. The tea bowl must be thick ceramic, pale duck egg blue. It must be deep, to get a good head of foam, and wide so I can whisk without spillage. The upper lip opens outwards, the texture is entirely smooth. The tea cups are the same duck egg blue, the same smoothness, but thin to the point that to pick them up by hand appears unseemly, even brutal. They look fragile. But so far I have never seen one break, so there must be something in the way they are fired that results in unexpected strength.
I don’t touch them myself. They are arranged on the table and my task is to pour tea. I place the kettle in the kettle stand and the tea bowl in the bowl stand. I bow lightly towards the Servant furthest from me. I say
“May you live in peace.
May you live in harmony.
May the universe shape itself for your comfort.
This is what it is to serve.
You do me honour.”
When the words are said I pour tea for that Servant. He then reaches out and takes his tea cup. The tea should look like cloud against a pale blue sky. Then I turn to the next furthest Servant from me, bow, say the words and pour his tea. Then the next, till however many Servants are present are served.
When the Servants have been served tea they drink in silence. They drink slowly, as tea cannot be rushed. During this time I kneel with my head bent. I do not move until I hear knuckles rapped on the table. This signals that the Servants have completed drinking tea. Now it is time for me to sing. It is always the same song:
“For as long as worlds suffer
I will serve.
For as long as chaos threatens
I will serve.
For as long as darkness rends daylight
I will serve.
For as long as time continues and change holds reign
I live only to serve.
O teach me to serve.
Let me honour you with service.”
Then the Servant closest to me lifts his tunic and I am required to kneel over his crotch. I am required to serve. I serve each of the Servants in turn, in silence. When each Servant has been served, the final Servant, the one furthest from where I started, raps the table to signal me to leave.
I return unescorted to the cleansing studio where the women await me. The roster of women changes from visit to visit but the women who prepare me are always the same team who debrief me afterwards. First they use a sponge to wipe off the red dot beneath my lower lip, assuming it’s survived. They wipe my lower lip regardless. Then they unrobe me. Naked, I kneel then prostrate myself. Three times I say “I have served. I have served. I have served.” Then I extend myself fully like a snake, belly to ground, face to ground, and I say “I live to serve.” The women pick me up by reaching under my armpits and hauling me to my feet. They hand me back my regular coarse clothes and turn their backs on me. I walk to the door and exit, returning to the afternoon’s data entry, if this had been an afternoon session, or retiring to barracks if an evening session.
Generally I do two sessions a day. Some of us are seldom called but I have much to learn about service. Since I would seem to be a slow learner I’m not afraid I’ll be disappeared soon, but eventually I’ll be deemed proficient in the tea ceremony and then my ultimate self-effacement will be imminent. I am planning. I pride myself on being canny at planning, even if my service failures are gross, so with luck I will have a plan that works before I graduate as a tea ceremony adept.
I don’t know what you look like but I know one day we’ll meet. There will be an investigator and there will be a witness. I will be that witness. You’ll ask me about the Servants, and I’ll tell you there’s a lot I don’t understand, but this is what I know:
In our society there are divisions. The First Division is the lawmakers, military, law enforcement and spiritual guides. The Second Division is the traders. The Third Division is the producers: manufacturers, farmers and artisans. The Fourth Division is the Unclean, those who touch the abject. Outside of the Divisions are the Storytellers. These are singers, dancers, visual artists, writers and anyone who imagines the unknown. That is, anyone born different.
The Divisions are hereditary. You cannot marry into a different Division, or buy your way into a different Division. The exception is the Storytellers, as ever. For example, I am a Storyteller because my grandmother was born without arms. Before that my family was military. Chapin is – or was – a Storyteller because his father had visions. His family was military too. A child, or even an adult, may be taken from their family of origin and re-designated as a Storyteller if the governing committee of their Division determines there is no longer a fit with their birth community.
Each of the Divisions, except the Storytellers, has a governing committee. Theoretically members of each committee are rotated every three years. But some members are requested by their community to continue serving for additional terms. Sometimes they serve life-long. How long an individual might serve is influenced by factors like force of personality, financial clout, family influence and prestige, and sometimes even wisdom.
The First Division has a governing committee headed by a single individual. This is unique. In the other Divisions members of the committees have an equal voice and are expected to reach decisions by consensus. In the First Division, it used to be that the ruler had a time limited term, with a maximum of 12 years. But in recent generations two rulers died in unclear circumstances and factionalism spilled into violence. It was agreed the First Division was in crisis. In times of crisis, strong leadership is needed. Stable leadership. So the committee chose a Ruler for Life.
You can see our problem? The tendency of the First Division is to get smaller: soldiers die young, spiritual guides are celibate. The tendency of the Storytellers is to expand: no family is immune from the advent of a child who needs to dance, or to make images, or born physically different, or who moves in this world in an other-worldly way.
And because the Divisions are hereditary, there are many within the Storyteller families who have no particular gift and no marked difference from their First or Second or Third Division peers. These people are not telling stories, but nor are they ruling or trading or producing. There starts to be an alignment between the ‘silent’ Storytellers and the Unclean. The Unclean touch the abject, which covers all killing professions (except the military, who kill humans), all cleaning professions (all waste disposal, whether garbage, sewage or corpses), and all healing professions (anyone who deals with illness and injury). The medicos have psychotropic drugs. The ‘silent’ Storytellers seek out the Unclean for their drugs, as a way to access visions, or find their voice, and in that way to claim their birthright.
In recent times, the crisis times, the higher Divisions came to see the Storytellers as a source of instability. Education and special employment programs were designed to manage the problem. To manage us. Governing committees debated the issue in censorious terms. Radio broadcasts railed against us. There were too many Storytellers. Storytelling had become Unclean. More and more people within the Divisions believed it was time for a clean up.
Then the Ruler for Life was killed.
I truly do not know how it happened. My family were at home watching TV when a newscast came on to say the Ruler for Life had been in a military plane which exploded over the hills. The Storytellers live separate from other Divisions, in villages clustered in the foothills. The Unclean live in villages in the plains between the foothills and the towns. Somewhere mid-air between take-off from the airport outside the city and the hilltops near our home, the Ruler for Life had been assassinated.
That’s when war broke out. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to the newscast. We stayed by our TVs and radios to listen for updates. We logged on to the internet to find out the facts. But no facts ever emerged. Instead, within hours we were dragged from our homes and slaughtered, our houses set ablaze. The roads were cordoned off and anyone caught trying to escape was killed. I was lucky. I wasn’t caught.
This is when the Servants came into their own. The Servants started as the Ruler for Life’s bodyguards. After the Ruler for Life was killed, their numbers swelled. The Servants became those who serve the memory of the ruler. The killing was an unspeakable act, so the Servants take a vow of silence. They don’t speak between nightfall and breakfast, nor for an hour either side of meals, and they don’t speak during the tea ceremony. They are required to take part in a tea ceremony daily. The Servants take a celibacy vow. That’s OK. What they do in the tea ceremony isn’t sex. It can’t be sex, because it involves young boys as much as young girls, and the Servants are not homosexual. (To be homosexual is to be a Storyteller and Unclean.) The tea ceremony is about service, and oral service is not sex. Anyone can tell you that.
Service is the Servants’ highest value. Art is ostentation, is ornamentation, is embellishment, elaboration, lying. Art is self assertion. To be a Servant is the opposite of being a Story Teller. The mission of the Servants is to stamp out Story Telling.
That is why I am in a re-education camp. I am being trained in service. I am being given a new voice to displace my Story Teller tales. I might not like the means by which I am being retrained, the medium by which my voice is altered, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. I am irrelevant. That is why once I fully understand, I will be killed.
My mission is to find you, the investigator, and tell my stories before I am killed.
Strange things are happening.
Last week I was standing in the cleansing studio, being prepared for the tea ceremony, watching the women who never make eye contact. The woman preparing to paint the red dot under my lip was young, maybe twenty. She was dark and fluid, poised for a moment with the pigment box held in one hand, a fine brush in the other. She leaned in to paint the red dot, deftly; then, close to my face, she raised her eyes to mine. She made eye contact. So close to my face I could feel her breath.
My own breath caught.
“What is your talent?” I heard her ask.
I didn’t know how to respond. “I kill.”
She paused, her face still intimately close. “I mean your art.”
She had huge dark eyes, deep set. The texture of her skin was imperfect, the curve of her face voluptuous. “I tell stories.”
She dropped her gaze, then drew back to a less confronting distance. She nodded. Everything continued as before, except that I felt dazed. I kept staring at the woman. The other women proceeded as if nothing had happened. As if they noticed nothing.
When I entered the tea house I had to take particular care not to fumble or drop anything, not to let anything spill. My hands didn’t feel as if they belonged to me. Nothing about me belonged in that space.
When the time came to serve, I bowed to the Servant furthest from me, as I should, and I said the words:
“May you live in peace.
May you live in harmony.
May the universe shape itself for your comfort.
This is what it is to serve.
You do me honour.”
And as I said that final word, “honour”, I raised my eyes. I looked him in the face. It was involuntary, nothing planned. For a moment time stopped. I heard the hiss of breath intake and time restarted. The Servant was staring at me. I couldn’t drop my gaze. He looked bewildered, more so than angry. I kept staring at him. He was a large man, strong coloring. His eyes were completely round. He held up his hand, fingers pointing up, palm facing out, as if to fend me off.
I lowered my gaze and moved to pour the tea, but the Servant stood up. He motioned to the other Servants. One still sat there, the others made to stand. There was a flurry of confused movement. When I looked up again I was alone in the tea house. I was guessing I won’t be graduating soon.
I stood alone in the tea house for a few minutes, studying each item on the table. The tea bowl, the bowl stand, the tea cups, the whisk. The small knife. The kettle in the kettle stand. I reached out for the small knife and tucked it under my right armpit. I am left handed. I wondered for the first time who cleans up after a tea ceremony, but I think I already knew. The women do. The same women who clean up me.
The tea was still in the tea bowl. The Star Flight, its crown of froth, had not subsided. It had endurance, for something so light. I studied the tea cups. There was a luminosity to the empty tea cups. Light played in rings within their emptiness. The tea cups were filled with light. Not empty at all.
Now might be the time to leave. The camp is a grid of corrugated iron barracks. There are shadows and angles. I am small. The tea house is the sole point of beauty. It is elegant and sparse, isolated, surrounded by a moat of fine white pebbles, smooth and perfect as the Milky Way. There is a small plum tree near its entrance. It would be difficult to leave unobserved, and I can’t imagine I am unobserved. I count the tea cups – four, tonight – bow my head, and turn. I leave the way I arrived, heading back on foot, unescorted, to the cleansing studio.
When I take my place in the centre of the room, as I always do, the women gather round me. The girl with dark eyes raises them to mine again.
“Will they kill me?” I ask.
“No,” she whispers. “I don’t think they will.”
“What will happen?”
She smiles. “How should I know? Am I a story teller? You’ll likely do double sessions of data entry this week.”
“Who are you?” I plead.
She smiles again. As the women strip my robe they touch my skin. I don’t recall they’ve ever done that before. Perhaps I’ve never felt it. I feel it now. I can feel that luminous light that lit up the tea cups, coursing through my skin, pulsing through my veins. My body feels warm, even though only a light undergarment covers my torso and thighs. I still have the small knife under my right armpit. None of the women acknowledge it or attempt to raise that arm. They slide the fabric out from between my right arm and my rib-cage as if that’s how it’s always done, as if there’s always a knife.
I wonder why I’ve never asked myself who these women are. Can they be Unclean?
In the barracks I worry about the knife. Its absence must be noticed. There is no-one I can talk to. No-one talks to me. We are under surveillance by barracks guards. We sleep in bunks, but no-one talks. The woman with big eyes is the first person who has spoken to me in weeks, other than to issue orders.
The next time I’m called, it’s a different team. I am undressed, I am washed, I am shaved. There is no chance hair might grow. I am shaved every day. The woman who leans in to paint the red spot is tiny, she is shorter than me, and I’m only fourteen. She looks to be in her thirties. Curly hair. As she delicately dabs her brush in the pigment box she cocks her head to one side and studies my lower lip. Suddenly it happens again. She looks me straight into the eyes. Her mouth breaks into a crooked smile and her eyelids crease, narrowing her eyes into two young moons. She holds her arms out, one with the pigment box, one with the brush, and leans in so close her lips almost touch mine. I am startled.
Then she draws back slightly and in eyeblink, she’s painted the red dot.
“What is it?” I ask, and my voice sounds like a bleat. “What does the red dot mean?”
She leans in again and moves her mouth close to my ear.
“It’s a bullet hole.”
“Will they kill me?” I ask again.
“Maybe,” she says. “There are worse futures.”
“Who are you?” I ask again. “You are not Storytellers?”
She draws herself back and speaks at a volume I used to consider normal.
“Who made the tea cups? Who made the tea bowl? Who can make a knife?”
I am dumbstruck.
I enter the tea room and there, on the table, is my knife. Only it’s not my knife, I still have that. I have it hidden in the lining of my mattress. It is a knife identical to the knife I stole, lying there, innocent, giving the lie. I have that feeling again, as if I am not here. As if my hands are independent of my body. As if my mouth is independent of my soul. I perform the tea ceremony, and this time I perform almost flawlessly. Almost.
As I pour the last tea cup – there are five, tonight – my hands waver slightly, as if nudged, and I spill a fine trickle. It leaks from under the canopy of the Milky Way, so little it could almost go unnoticed, but nothing goes unnoticed. The rim of the tea cup is wettened, there is fine white tea dribbling down the tea cup’s outer surface. I complete my tasks but I know I am no closer to graduation. My service values are not as they should be. My service failings are gross.
It must be a trap. I don’t know what to make of these women. How can I tell the truth to the Investigator if I’m so confused?
I examine each proposition presented to me. First, the women believe they can speak unguardedly. Is that true? Not necessarily. There is nothing they’ve said so far that could not be said in front of the Servants. It’s just that I’m amazed it would be. I cannot believe we can speak unmonitored.
Second, the women speak as if they understand more than I do. Or am I assuming that? Is there anything they have stated as fact? What the big eyed woman said was hedged in speculation. The second woman, the one with the crinkled features, made two statements. She told me my red dot is a bullet hole, and she told me there are worse futures than being killed. Or is that an opinion? Maybe the bullet hole line was a joke. Maybe they’re mouthing a script designed to scare me.
I think about the bullet hole. I mean the red painted dot. I think about that image, “mouthing a script.” There are similar images in our language. Shooting your mouth off. Getting mouthy. Giving lip. Giving head. A girl can’t say no with a cock in her mouth. Put a lid on it. It takes a Storyteller to think this way.
I think of the Servants who brought us in from the hills. They told us to kneel. Most of us did. A few of us were too far gone to comprehend, or too physically destroyed to comply at once. One boy just said no. A Servant sprang forward and pushed that child soldier down on his knees. He rammed his gun butt into the boy’s back. The boy fell forward. The Servant grabbed him by his hair and pulled the kid back up into a kneeling position. He twisted the kid’s neck as he stepped in front. Other Servants had their guns trained on the boy. The first Servant tried to prise the boy’s mouth open with the muzzle of his gun. The boy – his name was Ciel – jammed his jaw shut and would not part his lips. The Servant had the gun rammed hard against his mouth when he pulled the trigger. I remember the back of the skull exploding. I remember fragments of teeth flew.
That’s what you get for talking back. For talking out of turn. For talking.
Yet these women talk. How can they do that? Are they mad?
They had questions of their own. Who made the tea bowl? Who made the tea set? Who can make a knife?
I thought they were Fourth Division, Unclean, but are they trying to tell me they’re Third Division? Can they be artisans? And how would that ally them with us, with me? An artist is different from an artisan; every child learns that. An artisan is a producer. Artisans make utensils, products with use value. Artisans make things that are useful. Artisans are useful.
Artists, everyone knows, are not useful. Artists are an extravagance. We produce fantasies and distractions. The other divisions pay good money to be beguiled. They yearn for magic: they lust for glamour, for something spell-binding. But once that lust is slaked they’re somehow ashamed. As if they had been conned. Some artists do become rich. Rich and famous. But the other divisions, while lauding those artists for a time, at heart despise them, and resent them. Art is a sleight of hand – insubstantial, meaningless, fundamentally immoral.
There is another possibility. I am puzzled, but I’m prepared to ask the question.
I am summoned to the cleansing unit. When I arrive there are Servants at the door. They don’t go inside. I wonder if it might be unclean for them to enter? Could that be why the women think they can talk? Surely it is unclean for Servants to observe a young person being washed and shaved? That doesn’t take account of electronic devices. Bugs. A room can always be bugged.
The Servants don’t allow me to enter. Instead, a Servant grabs my arms and forces my wrists behind me. There are three of them. One of them is the tall man who halted the tea ceremony when my eyes met his. He is the leader. One of his underlings keeps a firm grip on my wrists. The other keeps his gun trained on my back. They frogmarch me at gun-point through the alleys between the barracks, to an open space near the camp gates. There is a utility truck there with an open tray. In the tray, the woman with big eyes and the woman with the crinkly face and two other women are bound to the railings by nylon cords. The cords are wrapped many times around their wrists and ankles, and upper arms and shoulders. They are lashed to the railings by cords around their waists. I can see how tight the cords are. The women’s flesh is bright red and mottled in the area immediately around the cords. Their hands are white. There is no possibility the women can move.
I am forced into the truck cabin, not into the tray. The big man gets into the driver’s seat and the other two fall back. The big man starts the truck’s engine, disengages the handbrake and as the truck moves forward the camp gates open.
I know where the camp is situated. It’s on the plains, near the Fourth Division villages. If the cleansing studio women are Fourth Division, I imagine they go home when their tasks in the camp are done. I don’t think these four women will get to go home. It’s a good road leading from the camp to the hills, a bitumen road, but I can hear something sliding around in the tray. It makes a raspy sound, a scraping sound on the metal base. I don’t have to see it to know it’s a shovel. I’ve seen this before, in other contexts, in other times. I have a fair idea what happens next.
It’s a long drive to the hills but the big man says nothing. He doesn’t look at me. I don’t look at him. I have my knife. A knife like this, crafted for trimming tea-eggs, might not be effective against a man this big. I’m wondering about the shovel’s potential.
I don’t look behind me but I can see in the rear view mirror. I can see the women’s backs, and parts of the cords that bind them. They are not gagged, but they were beaten up. Their faces are swollen and bruised, and they are bleeding. I’m wondering if they’ll have a chance to speak before they die. I’m wondering if they’re still able to speak. I’m wondering why they spoke in the first place. I keep coming back to the one thought: these women were mad.
What would make them mad? What could drive them mad? I imagine the woman with the big eyes making her case. I am artist, she is saying. I make fine ceramics, lustrewear. How could I ever be anything but an artist? Kill my cousins and you kill me. Kill me, she is saying. Her voice is husky. Her voice is breathy. Her voice is dead sexy. Soon she’ll be dead.
I imagine the woman with the crinkled face. She is crying. She is answering that question I never got to ask. You took my children, she yells. You stole my babies. You stole my babies then you killed them. When you stole my babies you took out my heart. Kill me, she challenges. Kill me now. I am walking dead.
If I tell this to the Investigator, am I telling the truth? Or am I a storyteller, making these things up? What if these women never get to say their truth? Am I empowered to speak on their behalf? When will I find the Investigator, where, and in what circumstances? What action can an Investigator take? Can I trust an Investigator?
We have reached the foothills, not far from where I’d find the ruins of my home village, if there are ruins to find. The big man stops the truck. He turns the engine off and sits still for a minute. Then he opens the truck door, and steps out without looking at me. Now is a moment when I could run. I don’t do that. I am here as a witness. Besides, he’d shoot me before I made it to the trees. As well as a shovel, there’s a rifle been rattling around in the tray. Within seconds of getting out of the truck he’s reclaimed his rifle and closed its breech, readying it for action. I note it’s bolt action – can’t get as many rounds off as a lever or pump action, but a classic sniper’s weapon. It’s light enough that I could use it, even though it’s set up right-handed.
I stay seated in the car. The man will come and get me when I’m needed. I can hear him clambering about in the tray, cutting first one woman then the next from the railings, throwing them over the tray sides to the ground. They thud heavily onto the turf. I remember the crinkly woman as so tiny, I can’t believe she’d land that heavily.
When the Servant opens the car door I step out voluntarily and look around. The Servant pointedly does not look at me. He doesn’t need to. The woman are still tightly bound, cords wrapped around their wrists and shoulders. They’re barely conscious. They’re not going anywhere. There is no-one here to witness, except me, and no-one who can help. It’s been raining. The ground is sodden. The grass grows virulent green and long, except in an area about the size of the ute’s tray. Here, the turf has already been dug out. A hole has been dug to a depth of a bit more than a metre. It’s rich soil round here, dark and crumbly, and it’s seeped into the water so I can’t see the bottom of the grave. The sludge might be several inches deep. There are two bodies lying beside the hole. These are children. The bodies are naked and I can see they’ve been there for at least a night. The uppermost parts are eerily white and the lower parts are black with accumulated blood. The bodies are wet with rain but I think these children were killed before the rain began. There’s no mud on them. One of them is facing to the sky, his eyes wide open. His earlobes are grey and blue.
I don’t recognise these children and for that I am grateful. It’s too much to expect they might be from my home village, or from a neighbouring village. The war went on for a long while, and the villages hereabouts have been ghost-towns all that time.
The Servant doesn’t waste time. He kicks the children’s bodies into the grave then without hesitation picks up the first of the bound women and tosses her in too. She lands face down. She will drown within minutes. He’s slung his weapon behind his shoulder, and I see he’s moved the rifle safety to ‘Safe’. So he can’t fire, for now. I’m not sure how to make use of this: he’s in-scale with the truck, and he’s angry, while I am small, and I’m terribly afraid. One of the women tries to struggle when he lifts her, she can’t do more than writhe. She doesn’t scream. When he throws her down she lands on her fellow, and I wonder if they were friends, and how far back. He’s picked up the fourth woman now. She makes feeble sounds. I realise her teeth have been knocked out.
Once he’s flung the fourth woman into the pit he gestures to me to pick up the shovel. He’s looking me square in the face now. I can see anger welling in him, and anger arises in answer within me. It rises in a shock of emotion. I can feel the blood drain from my face. I swear I feel blood surge into my limbs. If I stripped off my sleeves my arms would be red. So I roll up my sleeves, and there they are, red forearms. My forearms and hands are pulsing red. Can the Servant not see it? I pick up the shovel and I advance towards him. He flicks the right-side handle so the bolt is unlocked. I know how this works: the breech is opened, the firing pin is cocked, a new cartridge slots in place in the breech as the bolt closes. He could kill me now.
I halt, he pauses. He inclines his head to where loose turf is piled up in a mound, just at the lip of the grave. He is staring at me now. His eyes are round, as they were at the tea ceremony. He looms enormous. I stare back in anger and he raises his rifle again. I know my face is utterly white. I take a step towards him and as I move I hear a gunshot. The Servant throws his arms out. I see a red dot precisely above his eyes. It’s a bullet hole, I recognise it at once. It takes a sharp shooter to aim that well. I don’t turn around. I hear voices behind me – two? three? – and I sink to my knees.
Then I hear further gun shots. They’ve shot the women. I shut my eyes and I hear a familiar voice.
“Get up”, the voice says. It’s Chapin. He’s alive.
“Lenny,” Chapin says. Once my name was Lenora. His face his filthy. He’s emaciated.
“I see they’ve taken care of your head lice.”
Chapin strides across to where the big man lies. He pats down the big man’s clothing and extracts a revolver. He picks up the rifle, flicks the safety, then tosses the rifle to me.
“For you. You need a gun.”
Many months ago, somewhere in these hills, Chapin handed me my first firearms. He’s taller now, but he’s so thin. It’s hard to believe he’s younger than me.
I gesture at the pit. “Why did you kill them? They were my friends.”
Chapin is squatting, squinting up at me. “What makes you think that?”
“That you killed them?”
“No. That they were you friends?”
“The Servants wanted them dead. The Servants intended to bury them alive.”
“Lenny,” says Chapin, in that slow careful tone we use with idiots. “Lenny. Listen. You have no friends. And we have no food. What use could we make of housewives?”
“You could have returned them to their homes. You could have let them take the truck and drive back to their homes.”
Chapin doesn’t respond. One of the boys with him kneels beside the big man, pulls a knife from his belt, and slashes off one of the big man’s fingers. Then another. And another.
“What is he doing?” I ask, alarmed.
“We have no food,” says Chapin absently. “Fingers are tasty, roasted in charcoal. He’s meaty. He has potential.”
“How many soldiers do we need to feed?”
“Soldiers? There are no soldiers now. Soldiers only make sense as part of an army. The armed resistance was wiped out months back. What we are now is bandits.”
I notice for the first time that Chapin’s eyes are all iris. He has no pupils. He must have a source for the drugs he’s taking.
“Come,” he says, after the longest time. “We have business to finish here. Then we can go home.”
The other boys have shovelled some soil on top of the bodies in the grave – not enough to cover them, more a token gesture. The body of the big man is missing some figures and an ear but is otherwise intact. He lies spread-eagled atop the other bodies. The colours are arresting: emerald, pale blue sky, rich loam, black, white and, uppermost, in a broad white forehead, a perfect red dot.
I lay down the rifle and step into the grave. I have business of my own to complete. I kneel astride the big man’s body and reach under his tunic. I place one hand on the base of his prick and use my left hand, the hand holding my knife, to flick up his balls, slicing swiftly as I left. In my right hand I’m now clutching a wretched entrail-like fistful. Chapin is watching as I stuff the shredded flesh down the big man’s throat.
I climb out of the grave.
“Are we taking the truck?” I ask.
“No,” says Chapin. “We’ve left enough of a trail. From here we’ll walk.”
We walk into the woods. I love the silver birch woods. They’re infinitely elegant, and easier to navigate than deep forest. I love the slender white and grey trunks, the thin arms and fingers, the sparse leaves. I love the way our path is strewn with fallen leaves, whispering and ssshushing us as we tread our way. We’re easier to spot in here than in deep forest. We’re easier to track. But I can see the pale sky and I can still hear birds, and I realise Chapin is right: I am going home.
No-one is talking and it makes me smile: no-one converses anymore. No-one talked to me in the camp, no-one talked to me in that truck, and no-one talks now. Of course, I’ve seen what happens when someone speaks out of turn. Chapin has often been right, it’s that intuitive talent he has; he might be stating the obvious when he tells me I have no friends. I have no friends. I turn that thought over in my mind. I have no family, and I have no friends. I am walking in the direction of home, but I have no friends and I have no home.
It must have been mid-afternoon when I got out of that truck and now the sky is starting to turn a bruised colour. It’s been a pallid blue since the rain stopped, the blue seeping out and emptying into pale grey, with smudges of white, and now there are flushes of pink, like blood diluted by rain, and darker greys with intimations of violet and mauve. The mauves will deepen into that colour of pooling blood, a kind of prune. The greys will mottle and darker blue tones will emerge. On the edge of a barely visible light cloud bank is a corona of palest yellow. That must be where the sun hides. As the sun dips an aureole of peach will fringe the horizon.
It takes me back to those long nights of exploding skies. Is it possible to be nostalgic for violence? I chew on that a bit. I conclude it’s not possible to be nostalgic for something that hasn’t past. I don’t think the past ever goes away, anyway.
Just as I think that thought, there is the past, looming solid in front of me. I am so shocked I can’t move. We have stepped out of the cover of trees onto a stretch of open ground. The foreground is threaded with tree roots and moss but some way ahead the green and dead leaves give way to dun and ochre coloured dirt, lightly strewn with fine sandy pebbles. Some way ahead of that a walking track emerges. And some way further again is a village. A village where there should only be rubble.
I am beyond astonished. I turn to Chapin with my mouth and eyes round as coins.
“Welcome home,” he says. There’s a slight dilation of his pupils. It’s mostly him there now, the drugs are wearing off.
The village is perfect. It’s not quite my village, not quite as I remember. It’s been rebuilt, with the foundations of burnt-out houses forming a guide, but no attempt has been made to replicate the way it looked before. I walk down streets laid out as they once were, and on every side I see structures set on the base of structures that are no more, new structures intact and entire, painted, blinds open, houses semi-furnished, unstocked shops. It’s a whole new town, built as if in homage to what went before, waiting to be repopulated.
They must be kidding.
“What is this?” I ask Chapin.
“This is a Storyteller village. Minus the Storytellers. Except for us.” He isn’t smiling.
“What does it mean?” I hiss. I’m asking this question a lot, these days.
He purses his lips and twists them to one side.
“I’m not sure. It was left in ruins, even after you and the others were taken, then construction workers came and rebuilt it. It was a fast rebuild, swarms of workers. The Servants supervised. It’s not just this village. Last we checked they were working on another two.”
“Do they mean to repopulate?” I fret. “Who would they bring here? The re-educated ones? Or another division?”
“I don’t know,” says Chapin. I’m used to him knowing, it throws me that he doesn’t. “There’s a man we see sometimes who I’m hoping can tell us.”
The other two boys are kicking at the gutter. I can’t believe the roads are repaved in the side streets, the older streets rebuilt in the old style. The main roads are bitumen, macadamised, modern.
“Do you stay in these houses?”
“Not usually,” Chapin answers. “It’s too dangerous. Servants come here often. They keep an eye on the buildings. They’re not going to let them deteriorate. Would you like to see your house?”
I can see my house, in my mind’s eye. I live, in my mind, in a large family home. I had a large family. I had two sisters and three brothers. I had a mother and father and four aunts and seven uncles. I had a gang of cousins. I had any number of friends. I had a dog and a cat and a pet goat. My cousins had horses. I had two grandmothers and a grandfather. I went to school. At school I learned Civics and International Politics. And art and history and dancing, singing and oral tradition.
My house – the family home – had a big garden. In our garden there was an almond tree, a cherry tree, a willow, a tree we called a liquid amber, a peach tree, flower beds tangled with white and violet stars, a retaining wall my parents built themselves, and a row of poplar trees demarcating the property’s edge. As you approach my house you duck under a canopy of wisteria. There is an entrance way, an entertaining area, for visitors, a large family enclosure adjacent to the kitchen, a flight of stairs along the left hand wall, and a landing upstairs, with bedrooms and bathrooms leading off the landing. There’s another stairway out the back, leading to an attic with a huge skylight we children would lie beneath to watch the moon in its passage across the night sky. The sky at night was filled with uncountable stars. The Star Flight.
I don’t want to see what the Servants have built. They’ve built a tombstone over my family.
Night has fallen and we haven’t eaten. Right on cue the smaller of the boys pulls a severed finger from his belt and starts to absently suck on it.
“Roman,” says Chapin, indicating the small boy. The child smiles up at me, the severed finger in his hand hovering a short way from his mouth. “Roman can’t speak. He was born deaf. And Roberto.”
The rangy boy with a prominent adam’s apple nods.
“Roberto doesn’t speak either. He’s gone to Jupiter.”
I know just what he means. I went to Jupiter once myself, briefly.
“Are they all there is?” I ask.
“No,” Chapin tells me. “There are others, mostly children. We don’t hang together. We use signs and signals if we want to meet up. The Servants do a semi-regular patrol through the woods and the edges of the forest. Mostly we live in the woods and drop back into the forest when we must. Sometimes we spend more time in the rebuilt villages, and once in a while I travel to the Fourth Division villages on the plains.”
“Are the Fourth Division people our friends?”
“We have no friends. But some of the Fourth Division people help us. We have no food. The children eat bark and leaves. There are streams nearby and the lakes not far from here, so we catch fish when we can and we trap small animals. Tinned food appears in the forest sometimes, sometimes packaged food, flat bread, even biscuits. We come into this village and there’s food left on the tables. Dried meats. Salami. Dried fruits. Sometimes something fresh. If we’re lucky it’s still edible when we find it.”
“They’re taking a risk coming out here, aren’t they?” I don’t need to say it. “If they drive across the plains to the foothills they could run into Servants, or be spotted from the air. Are there many who do this?”
“Some of them I know, at least by sight. Some I get to talk with. I can’t say how many. Not many, I think. And they do it by night. Most of them go into the city by day and work in the hospital. The ones I’ve met are medicos and psych workers.”
“Are they your drugs source?”
“Of course,” Chapin says. “You think I know what leaves to boil?”
He’s laughing, silently.
“We can’t stand around here.” And now he’s all action. “We need to be under cover.”
The modern streets are lined with streetlights, but it’s dark now and the streetlights have not lit up. It’s eerie in the village in the dark. In the older style streets most of the houses are in the traditional style, built primarily of wood, steep sloping rooftops with turquoise tiles. In the main strip, the buildings have wood trim, a nod to tradition, but the structures are mostly slab concrete. Some facades have been overlaid with small glossy tiles, in a milky translucent shade a bit like the foam that tops fine tea. A very few have more complex tessellations. It takes time to install a traditional tile façade, and it does not appear the Servants invested time in these rebuilds.
Roman leads the way, still sucking on a finger. He clearly knows where we’re headed. Down the main strip, to the town square. There’s a fountain and stele, an engraved upright stone, located in the heart of this village, just as there was in its predecessor, my village, and in the other Storyteller villages. The stele looks to be a salvaged original but when I come close I see it’s a crude reconstruction. A true stele is sacred to the memory of our forebears. Our steles are deliberately rough hewn, with a subtle kind of sparkle – marcasite or pyrite crystals embedded in the rock. Both marcasite and pyrite occur in the hills. Marcasite is brittle and breaks down in humidity. The foothills, where the Storytellers live – lived – are a temperate zone, so in the absence of catastrophic fire our stele can last many generations. The pyrite is a mainstay of the Third Division jewellers – they set tiny pieces of pyrite splinters into silver, creating a miniature mosaic that glitters and winks and sets off dark eyes. True pyrite pieces can be costly but the jewellers also offer false pyrite items made using shavings of cut steel.
I turn 360 degrees, spinning slowly as I take in the full panorama of the town square. There is the community hall, except that it isn’t quite as it was; there is the courthouse, not looking at all like the courthouse I knew; there is the open air café, tables and chairs stacked up indoors, table shades furled; there is the bus station, without buses; and there is the arts complex: the visual arts gallery, the large theatre house with its specialised theatres for dance, music and drama. At once it hits me what’s missing from this square. Our public art. Where are the sculptures, the light shows, the video strips? This square was once ablaze with light and images. Not advertising. We had conceptual art, and dancers and musicians. We had mimes. We had people singing. People ran across this square holding hands, people kissed. People talked passionately and argued. We did all this in full public view. We were citizens and artists, and we were unashamed.
And now it’s dark. It’s a sparse graveyard, a gesture to what was. I am cold in the night, and I shiver.
Roman has gone to side of the arts complex and disappeared behind a buttress. Roberto follows him. Chapin grabs my hand, as if he’s read my mind, and pulls me towards the building. Behind a courtyard wall, just out of sight of the square, there’s a door that’s unlocked, leading into the arts centre. Roman and Roberto enter the building.
Chapin and I follow and emerge in a storage area just off the main foyer. The internal doors are not locked. We walk into the foyer, which seems enormous empty. The Servants have skimped: where there should be a massive decorative light fitting overhead, there is an empty socket. The fittings in the arts complex were works of art in their own right. It’s hard to know how they could be replaced. Craftsmen can construct them, but it takes a Storyteller to design these pieces. The Servants have not attempted to address their absence. We walk through the foyer, bypassing doors that lead into theatres. There are short flights of steps interspersed with expansive landings. The landings are trapezoid in shape, narrowing at each successive stage towards an apex at the farthest reach. I know the layout of this building, as every Storyteller school-child does. The Servants have stuck pretty close to what once was. I know that at the farthest, topmost corner there’s a final door, opening wide into a large green-room. This is the area where the performers relax. It can be reached more easily from the other direction. The other side of the complex, furthest from the town square, is blunt-faced with multiple street level entrances. Artists can reach the main green-room via a stairwell or a private lift.
The main green-room was always luxurious. Around performance times it was a private sanctuary, but school tours meant every Storyteller citizen was familiar with the green-rooms from a young age. After all, this was our promised future. The green-rooms, the theatre spaces, the stages. All the backstage areas, where the mechanics of performance takes place. I can’t see that Servants could reconstruct any of this. I doubt they will have tried.
The main green-room is a ghost of its former self. It is green – green carpets, cheap green lampshades, the Servants’ idea of humour – with two or three large black lounge couches. A coffee table. A bar, with no alcohol or glasses. A large area pregnant with space. A long, narrow, external window, a slit the length of the blunt-side façade. If the streetlights were on, that slit would be illumined by the lights below and the lights in the living-rooms of town-houses opposite. Except the town-houses opposite are unoccupied, and there are no lights.
“Here is where we’ll sleep tonight,” says Chapin, indicating the couches. “If the Servants come, we’ll know.”
I’m uneasy. I expect the Servants to come. I still have my knife, and now I have a rifle. I have Chapin, and the boys, and they are armed too. We have no food, except for Roman, who has his fingers, and I think Roberto has the ear, for what it’s worth.
Roman takes a couch. Roberto takes its opposite. That leaves a couch for Chapin and me. Instead I sit on the floor, leaning my back against the couch, which is well upholstered. I don’t want to sleep. Chapin sits beside me.
They come, as I expected. We don’t have to wait long. I hear a chopper first, then I see its light, a swooping red arc that probes the window slit, backs off, disappears, then feints again. The chopper comes in close, several times, but not so close I can see anything but that sweep of intrusive red light. It doesn’t see us.
I can hear voices. They’re in the street, not in the building. The sound rises up to us, the sound of doors slamming, men stomping, shouted orders. I am terrified.
“Where you there when they took me?” I murmur to Chapin.
His neck is slumped into clavicle, his shoulders are hunched. He looks at me through slit-like eyes.
“No,” he tells me. I don’t believe him. “I ran. I wasn’t there.”
I remember how they came at night. The chopper overhead, the trucks pulling up, the squeal of breaks. We had sheltered in a house by the lake, someone’s weekender. It was cold that night, the kind of cold you can’t survive outdoors. There were maybe eight of us, clustered in the living room. I remember the fireplace. We hadn’t lit a fire. I remember it for the stonework – a dry-stone wall of pale beige, coarse to the touch, three-dimensional in texture. I remember the Servants bursting into the room, their torches flooding its space, a Servant shoving me up against that wall, bruising my back, banging my head. I collapsed to the floor but he lifted me up and beat me, smashing his fist across my face, again, then again, dropping me, twisting my arms behind my back. My arms were pinioned as I fell to the floor, the Servant astride my lower back.
There were five of us left, taken alive. Three were young boys, one was a girl about eight years old. I remember their names. There was Lenny, Ciel, Ramon, Trajan and Polixeni. I never saw what happened to Polixeni. I didn’t see because the Servants were on top of me, thrusting their rifle barrels up my arse. I was screaming and crying and desperately struggling. The Servants are celibate, of course, but when the first Servant raped me the others soon followed. Anal sex doesn’t count as sex. That’s when I went to Jupiter.
It’s an odd sensation, going to Jupiter. You disappear totally. You retract in an instant and in that instant you’re light years away. So far away you wonder how you’ll ever get back. It’s far far far and deep into space. It’s dark out there, dark and cold. There’s a hollowness to far space, there at the outermost edge of the galaxy. The sun is unimaginably far. The rest of the cosmos is barely a concept. Where is the Milky Way from here? It took me a long time to find my way back.
When I did return to my body, Ciel was dead. Polixeni was gone. Trajan and Ramon and the other kids the Servants had rounded up, in different raids, were taken to the camp with me but incarcerated in other barracks. I wonder what happened to them next?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m talking to myself. But then I know I’m not. What I’m doing is remembering: I am committing to memory, like a burning brand scorching my mind. The memory will stay, fixed, until the time comes when I can tell the Story. Until I meet the Investigator.
All of us are alert, Chapin and me sitting up, the boys laying low on couches. The commotion in the street and overhead goes on for what seems like endless time. At one point I’m sure I hear thudding boots echo through the building. But no-one enters the green-room.
When silence comes, we can’t relax. I see Roman’s eyes gleam like marcasite chips, Roberto’s adam’s apple bobs. Chapin and I are seated with our tailbones on the floor, our backs pushed against the couch, our knees drawn up, soles of feet flat on the carpet. He turns his head to look at me. Our faces are close. He moves his right knee slightly so it touches my left knee. His right hand takes my left hand, our fingers interlocked.
I breathe in as I turn to face forwards once more, then exhale as I tip my neck back. I study the ceiling. The shadows are dark grey, black and malachite green. I shudder.
“We can’t know they’ve gone,” I whisper. “How long must we wait before we know they’ve gone?”
Chapin says nothing.
“How can you take any food left in this town when you can’t be certain who has left it? Why wouldn’t the Servants use food as a lure? Why wouldn’t it be poisoned?”
Roberto looks glum. I notice he has long, straight eyelashes.
“What makes you think the Fourth Division people you think are helping are not spies for the Servants?”
Roman has curled up now. He has an absent smile on his face and I remember, he cannot hear.
Chapin’s hand is still holding mine.
“We won’t know they’ve gone. We’ll have to take a guess. It’s all one big guess. It’s all risk.”
I curl my lips over my teeth and bite down.
“Listen,” says Chapin. “We could be dead, many times over. We should be dead. We could die any minute. We take what we can. If we get it wrong, game over.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Fine. Don’t throw up in the toilets. The plumbing isn’t connected.”
I have to laugh.
“Lenny,” says Chapin, with urgency. “Remember we have no friends. We kill or be killed, any one, any time.”
“I have to pee.” I walk behind the bar and piss on the vinyl floor. My urine spreads like spilt wine. Then I stalk back and lie down on the couch. Chapin stays seated, his head leaning back against my hip.
I’m certain I won’t sleep but almost at once I’m boating on a lake, in a small row boat, with my younger brothers, laughing. Overhead the sun smiles down.
When I wake up I wake from deep emptiness, the blackness of no dreams. Chapin is standing with Roman and Roberto a short way across the room. He is glancing my way as I open my eyes.
“We’ve been out,” he says. “There’s no sign of Servants. There’s no food either. But there’s a signal telling us to meet a man I know.”
I have no confidence in this. I feel tired and sore and terribly heavy. Also hungry.
“What kind of a signal?” I glare.
“A dead bird. By the fountain in the square. It means we should meet at the old well.”
I am unenthused.
“You go,” I say.
“I want you to meet him. He can help. I’ll go ahead.”
Suddenly I want to hug him. I want to thrust my fingers between his fingers like we did last night.
“Chapin,” I ask. “Is anyone coming? Can anyone outside help?”
“I don’t know.” He keeps saying that. “I think this man can tell us things we need to know.”
So we pick up our weapons and leave the building, using the back stairwell, exiting into the street our window looked out onto across that infernal, eternal night. The old well is fairly close, near the traditional town centre. Chapin gestures to the three of us to stay behind as he steps from the shelter of town-house walls, into the clear space around the well.
He stands there alone, such an easy target. I am uneasy.
The well is hand-dug, in the ancient style. There is a structure built of heavy, flattish stones, flatter and wider than they are thick. The stones were a lightish brown shade, with red-brown streaks, but now they are charcoal-singed, since the fires. The structure extends down to a depth of about forty metres. Back when it was a water source in daily use you couldn’t see the bottom. I can’t say whether there’s water in it these days, or whether it’s clogged up with half-burnt lumber, maybe human remains, but it does it appear to be the original. This is not some simulacrum created by the Servants.
Chapin picks up a pebble and tosses it over the well lip. He must be reading my mind. I don’t hear any sound from within the well.
We Storytellers believe there are water spirits in a well. The water spirits are benevolent. We talk to them when we need soothing. When their babies are due expectant mothers spend time by the well, hoping for an easy labour. The water spirits guide us through life’s difficult passages. I’m hoping this well’s water spirit is still in residence, and not too pissed off.
As I conjure up the image of a water spirit – a beautiful woman with a snake wrapped round her waist – I hear a pebble strike the pavement in front of Chapin’s feet. He turns towards the laneway it seems to have been thrown from. He steps out of the full light that surrounds the well and walks, unhesitatingly, into the laneway. A moment later he steps back and motions us to follow.
Almost as soon as we enter the laneway an open door appears on our right. It’s the second town-house in the row. There is a narrow hallway leading from the door, which doubles back to become a wooden stairwell. Eighteen steps up is a small landing, with a sliding door leading to the left, another to the right. We turn right and enter a wood-panelled room, in single file: Chapin, Roberto, myself and Roman. There are no chairs, no tables, no cushions. There is nothing in the room except a short, nervous man, who is seated.
The short man nods to Chapin, then to the three of us who stand behind him. He motions for us to sit. We do, our rifles propped up pointing at the ceiling, the boys cross-legged, me on folded knees. The short man nods to each of us in turn.
There’s a silence while the short man observes us and we observe him.
“Have you got what I need?” Chapin asks. The short man nods.
“Who is the girl?” he questions. “Has she come from a re-education camp?”
“Of course I have,” I answer. “I wouldn’t shave my own head. I wouldn’t dress like this. Who are you?”
“I am Milos,” he tells me. “I work at the state psychiatric hospital. Chapin knows me.”
“Are you a friend?” I ask.
Milos looks at Chapin. “Storytellers have no friends,” he says gently. “I try to help you.”
“Is anyone coming?” I need to know. “Is anyone coming who can really help?”
Milos looks thoughtful. “What kind of help do you have in mind?”
“Is there an investigation? Does anyone in the world outside know what has happened? Does anyone outside know what is going on?”
“Is anyone asking questions?” I persist. “Is there someone I can talk to? An investigator? I have a story to tell. I have stories that must be told.”
I hear my own voice and I sound quite mad. For a moment I feel ashamed. Then I draw up my spine. I am unashamed. Shame is a weapon of the Servants.
“I can ask questions, if you want to talk.”
Here is someone who says he wants to hear my story, but I don’t trust him. I decide I’ll be the one who asks the questions here.
“What do you do in the psychiatric hospital?”
Milos barely hesitates. He no longer seems nervous. “I ask people questions. Mostly Storytellers. Many of the people who are brought to us for help come from other divisions. It used to be that if their condition was intractable they were redesignated as Storytellers, and then we brought them to your villages and helped them transition. I’ve been visiting your villages for many years. I know my way around.”
“And now? What becomes of the people who cannot be cured?”
That prompts a soft laugh. “Fewer people are brought in by their families now. Mostly we diagnose transient mood disturbance, or transient behavioural disturbance. We’re slow to diagnose conditions as chronic. We medicate where we can. Where we are left with no other options, we take them to the re-education camps.”
“Do you understand what happens in those camps?” I am brutal. I am irritable.
“I understand in the camps they are re-educated. Fourth Division specialists helped design the programs.”
“I beg your pardon?” I struggle to manage my irritable urges.
“The young people in the camps are re-trained to provide support services for First and Second Divisions. We designed a program to inculcate service values. Some of our staff monitor for quality control. The fugitives from the hills are quarantined, washed, re-clothed, provided with adequate nutrition and exercise, taught to work in teams, trained in impulse control and encouraged to participate in group therapy. The program is highly successful.”
Chapin is focusing on the floorboards. I’d like him to look up at me but he doesn’t.
Milos continues, as if to convince me. “Our program promotes traditional values. Without the Storytelling.”
“Damn right,” I laugh. “There’s not a lot of Storytelling in the camps.”
“So what’s your version?” challenges Milos. He’s starting to look irritable himself.
“I can tell you the truth of what takes place in the camps. Hard labour, sexual exploitation, sometimes torture, and crude attempts at brainwashing or re-programming. Those who don’t conform are murdered.”
“Have you seen this?” says Milos, cautiously.
“Seen it? I’ve done it. I’ve had it done to me.”
“I see,” says Milos. He considers.
“You know,” he says. “Lenora? May I call you Lenora? I’ve worked with all kinds. Some of the people I’ve tried to help are not very sympathetic. It’s sometimes hard to like them. But I do what I can, because I care for them. How many people have you killed?”
He’s got me there. I really don’t know.
“A few,” I glare.
“A few.” Milos nods. “Wouldn’t it be better it you found another way? Why keep killing? What’s so wrong with admin support? What’s wrong with a smile and a soft word?”
I’m bereft of words, soft or hard.
“I don’t think you’re fully familiar with the programs as they are practiced in the camps. I sometimes find it hard to like people, too.”
Milos tilts his head very slightly to one side. He’s smiling, slightly, and speaking softly.
“The work in the camps is highly sensitive. Fourth Division health-care representatives do go in, by invitation, to observe and record outcomes. We’re satisfied that what’s being done is a humane response to a difficult situation. Everyone wants reconciliation. Reports are made public and footage has been screened on TV-1. It’s a most encouraging process. Once we gain the trust of leaders like Chapin, I have high hopes we can persuade the hold-outs in the hills to allow us to help them reintegrate into society.”
“There.” I am angry at Chapin. How could he be so stupid? Chapin is still looking at the floor.
“And has this TV footage been shown internationally? Have these reports been offered to international bodies?” I am so angry I could spit. “Is there a plan approved by the international community? What did you tell them about the war? How did First Division explain that to their counterparts abroad?”
“Please be calm, Lenora. I am not your enemy, there’s no need to be hostile.” Milos looks pained but sympathetic. “The war was caused by disruptive elements. It was an internal matter, regrettable and damaging for everyone involved. It was discussed at length at the Pan-National Forum. First Division remains in constant communication with Forum representatives to ensure we’re in compliance with international law. And besides, we are now rebuilding.”
“The villages? You mean the villages are being rebuilt?”
“Nooo,” says Milos. “Although I believe they are. That will take time. This village is a test case. We are rebuilding our society, with some modifications. First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions are working together to find ways to make best use of human resources following restructuring of the Storyteller class.”
I turn on Chapin. “We don’t have to listen to this. This man cannot help us. It’s time for us to go.”
Milos shakes his head, a slight motion, sad.
“If you go, you will die. There’s nothing for you out there. There’s nothing left for any of your kind. The fugitives will die if they don’t come in.”
“Why are the villages being rebuilt?” I demand.
“That, I can’t say. But it isn’t for you. Storytellers will never inhabit these villages again.”
“Can I kill him?” I plead with Chapin. He looks up at me as I unlock the rifle’s safety.
“Have you got what I came for?” he asks the man who calls himself Milos. Milos nods. Chapin rises and holds out his hand.
Milos remains seated but reaches into his tunic and pulls out a medical hygiene bag. He holds up his hand, offering the bag to Chapin. Chapin takes it.
“You will stay here,” says Chapin, speaking to the man. “We will leave the way we came, and you will not follow.”
Milos seems entirely calm as he smiles and nods, again. He is utterly still.
The boys stand up, rifles in hand, and Chapin ushers them out to the stairwell first, then me. He follows last. Milos is still seated. Instead of heading down the stairs the boys slide open the door to the second room, the one that was on the left, leading off the small landing. The second room has a narrow balcony. Chapin slings his rifle across his back, sticks his handgun in his belt, and places one foot on the balcony rail. He swings himself up, then hauls himself onto a gable on the roof. The boys and I follow. We are on the turquoise enamelled tiles before Milos has reached the bottom of the stairs. We are moving across the rooftops before Milos is in the laneway.
“Are we going to let him go?” I ask, touching my knife. It’s too light for throwing, and the rooftop is too steep for me to stand and steady myself to fire the rifle.
Chapin doesn’t look back at me. We keep moving, scrambling across the tiling. Scrabbling like crabs beached by a sudden low tide.
There was once a great lady who was beautiful beyond telling. She had sleek black hair, perfect skin, and almond-shaped amber eyes. Her lips were cherry blossoms. She was born into a very great family, and married into another. Both families were thrilled when the lady conceived.
The great lady, whose name was Milk, was very happy for her families. Everything about her had so far pleased them. She hoped her child would not disappoint.
When her time came near, she took to spending hours by the water well in her husband’s family’s private gardens. There she would sit, surrounded by her maid servants, staring into the well and wishing.
“I wish,” thought the lady, “I wish with all my heart that my child is special.”
As soon as the thought occurred she felt abashed. After all, was she not already so blessed? Was she not privileged? She looked into the depths of the mossy green well and saw the surface break up. Bubbles of air clustered on the surface. The water spirit must be laughing.
“I mean it,” she said fiercely, to the water spirit. “I really mean it. I want my daughter to be different. And by the way, I do want a daughter.”
The bubbles clambered one above the next, creating a crystalline froth. The lady saw it as the head of froth that forms on finest quality whipped tea, the Milky Way, and she dedicated it to her daughter.
The birth was easy. It was almost too smooth. There was no screaming, no remonstrations or urgent pleading. Instead the great lady delivered with the slightest singing sigh. No one at the birthside spoke, and no cry was heard from the child.
“What is it?” asked the lady, as her maid servants drew her up to the squat position.
“It’s an egg,” said the doctor.
“An egg?” gasped the lady.
“My lady, you have given birth to an egg. It is soft blue-green, and appears to be fragile. I might need to assist its contents into the world.”
“You mean my baby?” said the lady.
“I mean whatever is inside that egg.” The doctor looked extremely apprehensive.
The lady was standing, supported by her maids. She looked down between her legs as the doctor lifted a medium-sized egg, using both his hands, and raised it to chest level. The doctor and the lady and the maid servants all looked at the egg. The doctor snuck a glance towards the silk curtains, hoping no reports had yet been conveyed to the families. All he had in his favour was that the birth had been so quick, no-one would yet be expecting an outcome.
The silk curtain was drawn aside abruptly as the father’s father intruded. Close behind him was the lady’s husband, followed by senior advisers, with the grandmothers and sisters and their ladies’ maids crushing towards the fragile egg.
“My baby is different,” faltered Milk. Then she gathered her courage. “My baby is special.”
As she spoke the words, the egg-shell began to crack. First the finest fault-lines, then the smooth carapace fell apart. The shards dropped to the floor, leaving the doctor enfolding in his hands the tiniest child the world has ever seen, a perfect female child, with wings instead of arms.
“My baby,” breathed its mother.
Her husband looked at her helplessly and turned to his father.
“My wife has given birth to a wonder.”
The father’s father was astonished. He stared at his son, then frowned, then laughed.
“It is indeed an age of miracles. My youngest heir is a song-bird.”
So that is what they named her: Song Bird.
Song Bird grew up enclosed in the father’s family home. She never saw beyond its walls, and the people beyond its walls never saw her. But word spread fast about this magic creature, this tiny female with translucent skin, amber-bead eyes, and soft feathered limbs.
She had the range of the gardens and her mother’s apartments. Her mother loved her. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to walk, as her toes were bent double, like small talons, but she fluttered her tiny wings and stroked the air for momentum. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to speak. When she opened her mouth, high trills emerged. She loved to explore her vocal range, and the sounds were melodic, but what came out of her mouth did not resemble human speech. Her tiny pursed lips were not formed for that purpose.
Her father worried.
“Song Bird is special, in fact miraculous. But she’s different. You do agree, my dear, she is tremendously odd.”
Milk smiled sweetly. In her heart she thought “Yes! My baby is different.”
The father grew anxious.
“What is the difference between unique and odd? Between magic and monstrous? What will people think? What must they be thinking?”
Milk bent her head meekly. In her heart she thought, “My baby is the gift of the water spirits. She is air and water. She is wondrous beyond words.”
The father grew fearful, and lost patience.
“This cannot continue,” he told his wife. “The doctor advises there are strangers, magic people, who can help us with this problem.”
Milk thought, “What problem? Magic made my baby. Magic is her friend.”
So the families called in the magicians from abroad.
There were three magicians, a woman and two men. They approached the father’s father’s divan and bowed.
“What is it needs doing?” the woman asked, her voice low and resonant.
“I have a grandchild who is different,” the father’s father pronounced. The assembled courtiers stayed deeply prostrate. “She is different in ways that cannot continue. She has wings. She cannot walk but flutters. She cannot talk but sings. She is tinier than ever a girl should be. We need this fixed.”
“In what ways does the great lord wish his grand-child fixed?”
“We wanted her to be just like her mother,” the patriarch continued, and Milk blushed. “We want her perfect.”
The female magician took a long look at Milk. She stared at her so long the courtiers bent limbs ached.
“As you say, great lord,” the female magi replied. “We shall make it so.”
The father’s father clapped his hands. “Bring the child,” he commanded his senior adviser.
“It is not necessary,” the second magician spoke. “We see the child, and we know its nature.”
“When nightfall comes,” the third magi said, “The child will transform.”
Then the three turned to leave, turning their backs on the great lord, his families and retinues, and made their way out of the audience hall. No-one made to stop them.
The great lord turned to his senior adviser and his son.
“What just happened there?” he asked. But no-one could say.
As twilight drew near, Milk sat in her rooms with her maids and Song Bird. Her husband and his father’s senior adviser sat opposite. The doctor stood to one side.
Song Bird had been chirping all day, but now she fell silent. The tiny creature shivered. She shivered and shook. She seemed to shrink.
Her mother touched the child softly, then picked her up in the palm of her hand. She stroked the child’s wings and sang to her, under her breath. She enclosed Song Bird in her hands and bent in close over her, so that Milk’s fine shawl fell across the child, caressing her and shielding her.
As twilight became dusk, Milk sat there with Song Bird. The others in attendance were mute. Finally shades of purple gave way to darkest blue, and the moon could be seen through the window, rising.
“Night has come,” the child’s father said. “Where is my true child?”
Milk said nothing, but lifted the edge of her shawl. In her lap sat a golden eagle.
“What’s that?” the father squawked.
“It’s a raptor!” exclaimed the doctor, then wished he’d held his tongue.
“A raptor?” said the father.
“A hunting bird. A bird of prey.” The senior adviser was on his feet. Within moments the father’s father would be told.
“She’s an eagle,” said Milk, mildly. “She was born to fly.”
And at that, the great bird winked an amber eye at its mother, and took off, spreading powerful wings. It flew straight out the window, towards the moon. It could not sing – it never sang again – but it flew straight as an arrow, up and up and up, through the night-sky to the heavens. As it flew the moon shuddered, a pearl pendant on a woman’s breast. As the great bird flew, the Milky Way shattered, scattering diamonds across the cosmos. This is why the foam on the highest class of white tea is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight.
On and on the great bird flew. It flew on endlessly on powerful wings, into darkness, and beyond.
They had silenced a fragile song-bird. But what had they let loose?
“That’s a Storyteller’s story,” says Chapin admiringly. “Is it yours?”
“Thank you. My mother’s,” I respond.
“You know,” Chapin says, “I don’t think Milos set a trap. I don’t think there are Servants near. I’ve visited him in Fourth Division villages and if that was his plan he could have had Servants take me then.”
“There are four of us now.”
“Yes, but he couldn’t have known that. He only expected me. And the Servants last night had a chopper. If there was still a chopper in the area it’d be on top of us by now.”
We are crouched alongside a rooftop gable, wedged into the cornice, clutching the decorative tiling that lines the gable’s dorsal fin. Roberto and Romano are metres away, pressing back into the elbow of a parallel gable. It’s precarious, but thanks to the tiling being newly installed, and the structures newly built, I’m confident it’ll hold. That might be the only thing I’m confident about.
“Milos is right though. If we go, we’ll die. There’s nothing for us out there.”
Chapin narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively.
“Why are buying into what Milos says? You say I was naïve, but there you go buying a story from an amateur. He wants us to believe we have no options.”
“So what are our options now?”
Roberto is listening to every word. Roman is scanning the skies. I note that: not the streets, the skies. Chapin notices too.
“I say we pause here for a short while. Milos wanted to demoralise us. I say we tell stories till we remember who we are.”
“You know, that thing we’ve been doing since before we could crawl? I say we sit here on this roof, with nothing but birds between us and the clouds, and tell stories to the open sky. It’s been years of deep forest and grey woods. I want to tell a story to the sun.”
Roberto breaks into a beaming smile. It’s crazy, but it’s true to us. I like the plan.
“What will your story be about?”
Chapin is smiling too, now. He looks remarkably relaxed. We’re mad, us Storytellers. Mad and dangerous.
“Well, you told a story of water and air. How about my story be fire and earth?”
I nod. “How about it? Go right ahead.”
A warlord had a mighty host. His hall was the biggest hall ever known. The main table on the dais seated one hundred warriors, with one hundred maids in attendance. The length of the hall was filled with tables, and every table was filled with warriors, with a maid to attend each warrior individually. The warlord was wealthy and known to be generous; his fame had drawn warriors from every corner of the world, from the tiger lands to the south, to the dragon lands in the west, the turtle lands to the north and the snake lands in the east.
Their armours were of every type: some were lacquered leather, some buffalo or rhinoceros hide, some were disks of bronze stitched together with leather thongs, and some were made of multiple fine layers of paper, capable of stopping arrows. Each warrior had a weapon of choice. Most had a halberd, a long staff with a spear-tip at one end, a hatchet to one side – a hook on the back of the axe-blade could be used to unseat horsemen. Some had a sabre mounted on a long staff, or simply a sabre. There were longbow archers and crossbow archers and cavalry archers. There were broadswords and the finest weapon of all, the long silky blade forged by the great masters, two softer layers of steel surrounding a hard inner core. The softer outer steel makes for resilience, while the hardness at the centre keeps the edge sharp. All of these weapons were murderous, and all of these warriors deadly.
Every night the warlord and his warriors feasted on game in the great hall. Every day they hunted or played war-games. Other lords petitioned the warlord for the use of his men as mercenaries, so always contingents were coming and going, making war, bringing back the spoils.
One day a man came from the west requesting an audience. He was tall and thin, and around his head, shoulders and upper torso was wrapped a red scarf that covered all his face, except his eyes, which were burnished bronze. The man had no weapon except a knife. His knife attracted great interest: it was long, with a single-edged blade that curved forward, the opposite of a scythe. Like the swords of the masters, it was forged ingeniously, softer steel on its back, for resilience, hard steel on the cutting edge. The hilt was slimmer than the blade and was covered in gold embossed designs, which might have been writing.
“It’s a magi,” the men muttered, but the warlord granted an audience.
“What is it you want?” the warlord asked the magi.
The magi bowed low.
“Great lord,” he said. “I come from a land a long way to the west, but even in our territories your armies are harassing peoples who are under our protection. I ask you to stop.”
“To stop?” said the warlord. He didn’t know which territories the man could mean, or which peoples, but the possibility of simply stopping an offensive action, just for the asking, had never occurred to him.
“Stop,” repeated the magi.
“Why would I do that?” the warlord asked, his combative instincts rising.
“To stop would further your prosperity. To continue will bring you ruin.”
“I cannot believe you are making threats.” The warlord really meant this. “Do you have no understanding of protocol? Do you have no common sense?”
“I understand the protocol of civilised lands. Here, to you, I must speak direct.”
The warlord was incensed. “Seize him!” he yelled to the men nearest the guest.
The men made to rise but as they did, they burst into flame. A roar went up across the hall, but no-one moved. No-one except the human torches, staggering into each other as they burned.
“I will return tomorrow,” the magi said. “Think on my request, and come up with a better answer.”
Then he turned and walked out of the hall, each foot-step marked by a burst of flame.
The hall was in uproar. It took many minutes to restore sufficient order for the warlord to be heard.
“This is outrageous!” he shouted. “Tomorrow when this Fire Steps charlatan returns, we will receive him in the manner he deserves!”
So the warlord and his council made plans for Fire Steps’ return.
Sure enough, part-way through the feast a tall figure stepped through the great double doors. As instructed, the men let him pass.
“Are you ready to accede to my request?” the magi asked. “Will you stop harassing the plains peoples of the west?”
“Absolutely not!” screamed the warlord, and on the word “not” a bank of archers with curved horn-bows amassed to the right of the dais let fly their arrows. But as the arrows reached the peak of their arc they burst into flame, just as the men had. The flaming arrows fell on tables throughout the hall, setting multiple small fires the warriors attempted to douse. Sounds of shouting mixed with maids screaming.
The magi stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the warlord.
“Bring back your hosts from the plains to the west,” he ordered, and everyone present heard it as an order. “I will return tomorrow to hear your answer.”
This time as Fire Steps wheeled around towards the doors, warriors fell upon him, but every weapon turned on Fire Steps burst into flame, causing the warriors to drop their swords and halberds, their sabres and daggers, frantically beating out the fires instead.
‘This has to stop,” the warlord growled. The warlord and his generals conferred.
On the third night, the warlord’s warriors had drawn up in battle-lines. The tables – those still intact – had been pushed back against the walls. The women were expelled to the smaller dormitory halls.
“I don’t think this will work,” said a young boy helping fasten the clasps on the warlord’s armour.
“You don’t?” said the warlord. The boy was his grandson, and he liked the lad.
“No,” said the child. “He’s already shown twice over that anything you throw at him will just burst into flames. If we launch a full military action against this man the whole hall will go up.”
“I’ve thought of that,” his grandfather replied, indeed, thoughtfully. “But we can’t let him get away with insulting us – insulting me – in the great hall of power. He must be punished.”
“One thing at a time,” said the boy. “If he can’t be punished, he must at least be stopped.”
“Do you have any better ideas?” his grandfather asked.
“Let me try,” said the child. “Before you let loose your armies, let me give it a go.”
So that night when Fire Steps pushed through the great double doors, in front of him he saw the entire forces of the warlord, arrayed as if for battle, and at the very front, standing alone, a boy, unarmed.
“Stop!” said the boy.
The magi stopped.
“That’s a good start,” he conceded, going down on one knee in front of the child. “You have made a reasonable request. Now I make my request of you.”
Turning to where the warlord stood, he asked again, “Will you stop harassing my people?”
“I speak for my lord,” the child said quickly.
“That’s an even better step,” Fire Steps said, approvingly. “Two sensible responses. I am encouraged. But I thought weapons speak for the great lord?”
“Weapons only speak the language of war. It takes a man or a woman to speak words of peace.”
“You are a remarkably wise child,” the magi smiled. “Are you born into the wrong tribe?”
“What will happen if we do not stop?”
The magi barely paused. “I told you. To continue to kill the plains people will bring you only ruin. To attempt to harm me will bring this hall down on your heads.”
The boy turned towards his grandfather. “I think we have no choice but to stop.”
The warlord suppressed a groan. “We cannot stop. We are born to kill. If you don’t understand that, the magi is right: you are no child of mine.”
With that, he motioned to his banner men. “Kill them!” he said.
As he said the words, the arrows flew, the men fell forwards, and the magi scooped the child into his arms. As he did so a halo of fire rose around them. The headscarf unfurled and extended into the long ridged back of a copper-coloured dragon. The magi became a great serpent, its long tail fanning flames that incinerated warriors in its sweep.
“Climb on my back,” the magi instructed the boy. “You won’t be scorched.”
The child climbed onto the dragon’s back and wedged himself between where the ridge of spines started and the base of the serpent’s neck, clutching its flaming mane. As the boy looked at his hands he saw he was glowing like an ember.
The dragon beat its wings and a hundred warriors fell. It threw back its head and breathed fire at the rafters. The great beams collapsed, crushing burning men who milled about below. The dragon rose onto its hind legs and took off through the roof. The sound of fire roared in the boy’s ears. As the dragon took flight the great hall fell, a heap of smouldering charcoal.
“Where are we headed?” the boy yelled into the dragon’s tufted ears.
“Home. The end is always home,” the dragon replied, its great voice husky. “You were born out of place. I came to fetch you.”
“Am I a dragon?” the boy screamed.
“Not yet,” the dragon answered. “But in time you will be. You have good genes, and the capacity to learn. Hold tight now!”
And with that, he wheeled towards the west and burst through the sunset.
“That has to be traditional,” I tell Chapin, laughing. “Or was it your father’s?”
“As a matter of fact,” Chapin grins, “It was. What we need now is a golden eagle or a flaming dragon to lift us from this roof!”
“My turn.” I’m shocked at the sound of Roberto’s voice. Chapin is too. Even Roman, who is deaf, turns in amazement.
“Let me tell my story,” says Roberto, voice husky as a dragon’s, but much softer. “When the fires tore through our home the roof made a sound like breaking ice and I grew deathly cold. The flames lit up the sky, my sisters were ablaze, but I plunged into darkness. The Servants in black were flame illuminated while I receded. I fell through time, through dark and cold and space. I screamed but my voice rang hollow, then silent. I screamed but nothing came out of my mouth. All around me people were killing, dying, running, falling. I ran and ran and I know I was on fire, but the deep chill had me.
“I ran into the deep forest, where no light penetrates and everything is dark. The deep forest is so thick I couldn’t run further. I couldn’t stand up. I fell to a floor of pine needles and I didn’t move. It was so cold I didn’t think I could live, but I have, and I am here. On a rooftop, telling stories. Truly, I am a magi. I am a Storyteller, and I’m still alive.”
The three of us stare at Roberto in wonderment. Here we are telling myths and fables and in front of us sits Roberto, clutching the corrugated tiles that are a dragon’s mane, pressed close against the serpentine line of the gable. He is transformed, and he’s right: we’re still alive.
“Are we ready to continue?” Chapin asks, directly facing Roman.
Roman, who cannot hear, understands at once. He scrambles to his feet and leads the way onwards.
It’s hard going trying to move along the roof-tops. The tiles are slippery, and the angle is too steep. We make very little headway but we make a lot of noise. Roman is the best of us. Me, I’m afraid of falling.
“Stop!” gasps Chapin, when we are only two town-houses farther along.
“Stop?” I ask.
“Yes,” he grunts, clinging to another gable. “It’s like the boy in the Fire Steps story. I’ve been fretting about how to get off this roof, and it’s as simple as ‘Stop!’ All we need to do is, get off the roof.”
“Why are we up here?”
“To evade Servants. And I’ve already said, I don’t think there are Servants near. I also said I don’t think Milos is right. He’s wrong.”
I’m hugging tiles. “How so?”
“Let’s get off the roof and I’ll explain.”
I let go and immediately slide towards the gutter above a small balcony. It’s a balcony much like the one we used to access the roofs. Beneath it is the lower floor of the building, not the street side, facing onto what would normally be a small enclosed garden. Except that the Servants have not planted gardens.
From the gutter I swing down the balcony supports onto its railings. From the railings I swing down towards the garden, then drop. The impact hurts. The others are falling alongside me, thudding pine-cones from a tree. In our legends there are stealth warriors who climb, who jump, who drop, always silently, always landing on their feet. That isn’t us.
Everywhere in this town the imaginary rises up before us, fleshing what the Servants have omitted. Here, in this small enclosed space, dry and brown, we see the garden in memory: a small maple tree, an ornamental brook, a pond, a wooden shelter with a seat. Mosses and leaves. Textured stones. This is the space we inhabit as we stand in a circle.
“Okay,” says Chapin. “Here’s the thing. Milos told us there’s nothing for us out there. He said there’s nothing left, and we’ll die if we don’t come in. What he means is we have no food or shelter, no friends, no home, and we are being hunted.”
“And he’s wrong?” Roberto asks.
“He’s not wrong about that. But he doesn’t see what we see. He does not live in our world. He doesn’t begin to know who we are.”
“I’m not following,” I say, looking quickly across at Roberto.
“Look around you,” says Chapin. “Do you see what I see?”
“You mean the garden?” says Roberto, slowly.
“A garden which isn’t here. There’s nothing left,” nods Chapin. “Yet we all see it, right?”
I see the garden. I know we all do.
“And these houses, what do you see? I know they’re shoddy re-builds, but what do you see?”
I see a dragon lying across the length of the rooftops. I see turquoise tiles on the roof and my mind’s eye fills in the more complex tile mosaics that gird these houses’ outer walls. I see finely carved woodwork in place of what is there, which is utilitarian. I see a small child peep out from over the balcony rail. I know she’s not there, but at the same time, she is.
“I see history,” I say. “I see life.”
“You see life.” Chapin steps very close to me. He’s shorter than I am, but somehow hyper-real. I have a momentary impression of Chapin as a flame-red dragon. He blazes.
Chapin turns to Roberto and Roman. “We have no future, we are told. We have no way forward. What we have is a very rich past, and I think all us Storytellers know the past is never past. It lives. What is remembered and what is imagined has untold energy. That’s where we will find our resources.”
“But what about food?” Roberto looks pained.
“Am I alive now?” demands Chapin. “Was I alive last night?”
“Yes,” stammers Roberto.
“Have I lived so far? How many months in the forests? Why would I permit myself to die now?” He’s agitated. “If I survived on nothing for such a long time, why would I roll over now?”
He sighs. “It’s not like suddenly, we have nothing. We’ve had nothing for so long. Who are they to tell us it’s over? I swear it’s only just begun.”
He stops, then repeats himself. “No food, no shelter, no friends, no home, and all the time hunted. This is new? This is our life. But still we live.”
“What do we live for?” I step forward now. “This is how it is, but this is not enough. We need a purpose. And Chapin is right, we’ve always had a purpose: we live to tell stories. We live to keep alive the stories of the past and the imagined stories that might have been.
“I believe,” I state. “I believe there is an Investigator coming. I believe we will be called on to tell our stories. And even if the Investigator never finds us, our stories still matter. Even if no-one cares, our stories matter, and as long as we live, our stories live with us.”
“If the Investigator never finds us, we’ll need to find the Investigator.” Roberto is thinking. “Our stories matter, but are they enough? If our purpose is to keep our stories alive, do we not need to collect other people’s stories too? Do we have that responsibility, to the others?”
The four of us are standing close together, almost shoulder to shoulder, height differences allowing.
Chapin is resolved. “We do. That makes our plan simple. We can’t go back to the forest. We need to move outwards. We need to take our stories out there and trawl for other stories as we go.”
I’m troubled. “There are loose ends even in my own story so far. I still need to know, who were those women? Why did they help me? Were they trying to help me? What was happening there that I don’t understand?
“And you,” I lock eyes with Chapin. “Was it chance you were at the grave? Did you know I would there? How could you know?”
“I didn’t know you’d be at that grave,” says Chapin. “I thought you’d be at or in a grave somewhere, but I didn’t know we’d meet there.
“What I knew was that the Servants were coming back. They’d killed two of ours and the grave they forced Robin and Stavros to dig was sized for more. So I knew they’d be back.
“It was luck that it was you, and luck that only one Servant brought you. Usually they never work alone. I don’t know why he did that. I call it luck.”
“So we’re lucky?” I like the sound of this. So far I haven’t thought of us that way.
Roman is smiling up at me. All of a sudden I’m certain it’s him. It’s Roman – Roman is our luck.
“We need food first,” I say. “Come on, let’s find some.”
The vizier’s son was an enigma. He didn’t like to fight up close but he was lethal with a horn-bow. He disdained knives but was an artist with the long blade sword. He designed gardens, and wrote poetry, but was not interested in participating in the lord’s council. In short, he was not rounded. He was, in truth, not balanced – ludicrously skilled in some respects, he abdicated other key tasks.
“What will we do with him?” worried his father. “He’s not suited to service, and he isn’t a conqueror. Poetry is not a way of life.”
“Perhaps an architect?” wondered his mother. “I don’t mean a workman. I mean a master.”
“Does he draw?” asked his father, gloomily.
“’Fraid so,” his mother admitted. “He’s really rather good.”
Her husband glared at her.
“He’s good at lots of things, but that’s no good at all. I need him to be good at what is required of him, to the degree required. No more, no less.”
His wife shrugged sympathetically, and went back to her embroidery.
The boy took to staying out all night, attending long sessions of theatre and dance under the moonlight in the company of expensive women.
“Is he any good at that?” his father snapped.
“Singing? Sings like a bird,” the mother confessed. “The women adore him.”
The boy became a wine connoisseur. The finest foods were prepared for him by the most ambitious chefs, eager for the style-maker to become their patron. He had a palate, but food was not his passion.
“Could he be an orator or a judge?” mused his father.
“They’re rather different functions,” his wife murmured.
“Either. Any. As long as it’s recognised as useful. I can’t have my son spend his life being elegant.”
One day the young man showed up for formal audience with his father.
“I have an announcement,” he said (his name was Caspar). “With all deference due a son to his father, in all humility, I must inform you I have taken a wife.”
“A wife?!” shrilled the vizier. “How dare you? You must realise the son of someone with my prominence is a marketable asset. You don’t dare marry without my permission. You must marry my choice.”
“I’ve married already,” said Caspar, bowing.
“I’ll have her killed!” his father snorted.
“I don’t think so,” Caspar answered, without raising his head.
As he spoke, a young woman slid through the crowd (there was always a crowd for the vizier’s public audiences). She was tall and slim, and wrapped from head to toe in dark green fine fabric.
“I am Serpa,” she said, addressing the vizier. “Caspar has married me.”
The vizier looked her over. His heart was suddenly heavy.
“What are you?” he asked. “Are you a magi? A serpent? A water-dragon?”
“That’s right,” smiled Serpa, her green eyes gleaming through the fine veil.
“That’s right which? All of the above?”
She nodded, and bent to one knee. “All of the above, my lord.”
The vizier stared glumly. Then he motioned to one of his aide’s to come close. The aide left the room and returned moments later with a good sized gold casket, inlaid with jade.
“Here,” said the vizier. “You see something in him. You’re smarter than I am. Take him as my gift, and take this gift too. See what you can make of him.”
The aide presented the casket to Serpa, who turned her head demurely to the side, a traditional indication of acceptance. The aide raised the casket’s lid.
Inside the golden box was a necklace and earring set. The necklace had multiple strands, the earrings had loops and long dangles. All was green: malachite, jade, emerald, tourmaline. The stones covered every filament of gold.
“Thank you,” said Serpa. “I will treasure your gifts.”
And with that, Caspar and Serpa departed his father’s house.
In a fortress to the east, they set up home in the highest turret. The fortress was home to the snake clan. Here, elegance was a way of life. The snake clan had mastery of long thin blades and poisons, but also poetry, drawing, garden design and calligraphy. They sang epics which lasted nights, sometimes weeks, stories with sinuous plots and exquisite verse structures. The songs of the snake people had multiple voices, some singing harmonies, some singing narrative, some singing wondrous emotional effects. The songs of the snake clan entered the body, infused the bloodstream, pierced the heart.
To experience the song fully, the snake folk nurtured all their senses. Prior to an epic song event, they bathed, for hours, in perfumed waters. They engaged in ceremonial massage. They opened their voices, practising wailing chromatic scales. They performed traditional exercises that lubricated every joint within the body, working sequentially from the toes to the neck. They nibbled at blind-tasting smorgasbords, to tantalise the tongue.
And there were drugs. The snake clan had the most amazing chemistry. They were alchemists who transformed what is outer – what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste out there – into a wealth of inner astonishment. Their drugs created refinements of experience – and elaborations – beyond the imaginings of those who’d never partaken.
“I live life so much more fully now,” sighed Caspar. “My life has expanded.”
One day as Caspar and Serpa walked hand in hand in their garden he looked up into a tree, and saw himself. There he was, a bird sitting on a bough. The bird was red, white and black, with blue eyes. It cocked its head and acknowledged him.
“See that?” said Caspar, speaking as the bird, looking down at his wife in the garden.
His wife Serpa swayed her head slightly, and would have smiled, except that she was a long green snake. Her scales glistened, like cut emerald.
Caspar, back in his human body, was surprised, but not disconcerted. Life with the snake clan was never dull.
From that time, more and more often he looked out at the world through the coloured bird’s eyes. Of course, he was the bird. There was no disjunction. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. One minute he was a young man, the next a flash of red feather on the underside of a wing. More and more often, Serpa elongated and extended, sliding through their quarters as a glorious green snake.
“Are we suited?” he asked her.
“Of course, my love. Bird and snake. We were made for each other.” He had to laugh.
Then she started playing her game. It was fun at first. He’d be in the tree, she’d be kneeling underneath. She would sway and sing, and he’d sing with her. As he sang he’d get drowsy. Eventually he’d slip off his bough, and as he flapped his wings to regain height (that flurry of red as the wings beat upwards), her long neck would strike towards him. Her green eyes would snap and then there she’d be, his Serpa, his beautiful wife, smiling coyly, smiling seductively, her green gems winking in the light.
It happened too often. The thrill was intense, but that moment when snake lashed out at bird had a definite edge. It scared him.
“What kind of child would we have?” he asked Serpa.
“A poet. A singer. A storyteller,” she told him. “Not someone you could trust.”
Caspar remembered how he’d betrayed his father and his blood ran cold. Cold like a snake.
“My father is an administrator,” he said. “Perhaps our child might be a genetic throw-back.”
“Not with the drugs,” Serpa drawled. “The drugs change everything.”
“Drugs are not a way of life,” Caspar frowned.
“No?” said Serpa.
Caspar began to think.
In the fortress of the snake clan, there was little room to move. He and Serpa lived in the highest turret. His way was blocked on every side. There was no way out, if he wanted out. Except above. As a bird, he could fly. Did he want to fly?
“My love,” said Serpa, “You do understand? You are our nourishment. I need you to bring forth what comes next. You are the father of something great, but you won’t survive fatherhood. It’s always that way.”
“Always?” asked Caspar. He wished now he had studied logic.
“Always. For a new story to come forth, we need nutrition. You’re it. You are spectacular, my darling. You are your father’s gift, and you will not be wasted.”
“What will become of me?” Caspar whispered.
“I’ll eat you,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel much. It’ll be an adventure. Then I’ll send our offspring back to your father in the gold casket. It will be a boy, and he will spawn countless generations of Storytellers. Your people won’t trust them, but they’ll be fascinated. They’ll pay gold and precious jewels, they’ll stay spell-bound for hours and days, and they’ll make celebrities of our descendents. But you won’t know, my darling, because you’ll be gone.”
As she said “gone”, she licked a few red feathers off her jaw. There was no sign of a bird, no sign of Caspar.
Serpa slid across to a pile of silk cushions and lay on their cool surface. She admired her reflection in the gold casket’s lid. Wide face, narrow chin. Green eyes. Soon she’d send a gift to her father-in-law.
“We have drugs,” says Roberto, brightly.
Chapin reaches into his belt, where the medical hygiene bag is wedged. He pulls it out, unseals it, and passes the bag to Roman. Roman takes a pinch of white powder between thumb and forefinger, and snorts it. Roberto follows. Then Chapin. I look at Chapin and I see Caspar, a red, white and black bird with blue eyes, his head cocked to one side. I do as he did.
“Now,” says Chapin. “Not hungry any more. But let’s find food for later.”
This time finding food is simple. We move out of the back streets towards the town square. We almost glide, and all around is silent. With each breath I feel myself expand, contract. Breathe out, breathe in. I feel powerful. I feel as if with each step I could leap leagues. I feel as if I elevate towards the clouds. Chapin and Roberto, Roman and I are one. There is an eye in the sky and we are it.
I’ve heard it told that way. That’s how it is today.
As we walk into the square Chapin raises his rifle and fires once, twice, three times. Three Servants drop. They’re in full daylight, where the outdoor coffee shop is. There are three others there, but these are not Servants.
“Who are you?” Chapin yells.
The three throw themselves down on the paving stones.
“Fourth Division!” one screams.
“Third Division!” screams another.
“What are you doing here?” Chapin shouts.
“The Servants made us do it!” the third person says. We’re right on top of them now. He’s not yelling but croaking.
We stop and take in what we can see. There are two boxes of food: flat breads, fermented bean paste, pickled vegetables. Salted fish. Dried persimmons. Wine. A feast.
“How many of us do they think are here?” I ask.
“They don’t know. We brought food to flush you out.” The person who spoke second, the Third Division person, is a woman.
“Are there more of them about?” Roberto asks.
The three look at each other.
“Not right now,” says the woman. “We left two trucks in the main outbound street. There are others coming but I don’t know how many or when.”
“Kill them?” asks Roberto, gesturing with his rifle towards our captives.
“No,” Chapin says. “Not yet. I need to question them.”
To the captives he commands, “Pick up the boxes and come with us.”
He tilts his head to indicate the arts centre, and we herd our captives towards its foyer. We enter but only go as far as the first tier level. Then Chapin sits down. Roberto pushes the Fourth Division man down to his knees, and the others voluntarily kneel.
“What is your trade?” Chapin asks the Third Division woman.
“I prepare food,” she whispers. Tears are forming. Marcasite eyes.
“And you?” Chapin nods at the man who spoke third.
“Fourth Division. I dispose of bodies.”
The man who screamed first says, “I’m a medic.”
Chapin considers. “All useful functions.”
He reaches into the box, feels around with his fingers, and finds some roasted chestnuts.
“Mmm,” he says, stuffing a handful into his mouth.
“There are boiled chestnut balls there too,” the woman tells him. She seems eager to please. “I make them with honey and sesame and pinenuts. They keep quite well.”
Roman starts to forage in the boxes. I know he can’t hear. Perhaps he can smell sesame.
“Thank you,” I say. I sound foreign to myself.
The woman bows. “You’re welcome.”
“Yes,” says Chapin. “Thank you. Thank you for the feast.”
He studies his feet. The shoes are worn out, held together with filthy strips of plaited fabric.
“Get out of your clothes.”
The woman starts to cry in earnest now. She bows over, very low. With her head against her knees, her private parts are covered: we can’t see her breasts, can’t see her pubic mound or where her groin meets thigh, or the soft flesh inside her elbows, behind her knees, at her waist and at the base of her throat. The back of her neck is exposed.
“Just do it,” Chapin says, evenly but firmly. “I apologise. If this was a real theatre there’d be a wardrobe department. We’d have clothes to change into. I checked where our heritage museum should be and there are no costumed dummies there either. We need your clothes. If you want, you can have ours.”
I can tell they don’t want. Why would they? The boys’ clothes are crawling with vermin. I’m in the robe of a re-education camp inmate, and there’s blood on my sleeves. Also, now I notice, on the robe tie. I stink of piss.
“We’re one short,” says Roberto.
“We’ll share what we can. Roman is smaller in any case, this stuff won’t fit him.” As our captives disrobe, I pick up each item and distribute it to whichever of us I think it will best serve.
It’s late afternoon now and it’s getting cold. The man who buries bodies has tattoos. They’re symbolic, and I can’t read what they mean. Within minutes his symbols are hidden beneath the rags Roberto wore.
“You should go now,” says Chapin, neutrally. “Go to the trucks. Wait there for the Servants. Don’t try to find us.”
“Wait!” I say abruptly. The woman shudders. “There are Third Division women in the camps. They prepare us for the tea ceremony.”
“Third Division?” asks the medic. “Are you sure you don’t mean Fourth Division?”
“Yes,” says the man with tatts. “Fourth Division women, who prepare the dead?”
I’m confused. “I don’t think so. I think they made ceramics.”
The woman who prepares food is too scared to meet my eyes.
“That’s a higher calling,” she tells me. “The artists don’t mix much with us, except sometimes to design wares for ceremonial feasts. Artists stick with artists.”
“They’re not artists,” I correct her. “They’re artisans. Everybody understands that difference.”
“Sorry to offend,” the cook murmurs. “I’m not sure all of us do.”
I think I’m beginning to understand. I feel sad for her, my re-education camp robe wrapped around her body.
“Do you have drugs?” Chapin asks the medic. The medic reaches into a bag hung round his neck and hands over another sealed hygiene bag.
“That’s good,” Chapin grunts. He pushes the man towards the foyer door. We exit back into the square.
“Go,” directs Chapin. We watch them as they stumble, then run, towards the main through-road.
“We should have killed them,” says Roberto. I’m thinking the same thing.
Chapin ignores this. “Now we have food,” says Chapin, “and we have Servants coming down on us any time now. Where do we go?”
Roman has already started to walk. I can tell where he’s headed. We’re going back to where the water well is, where the heritage museum once was. The old heritage museum was once a castle keep. It isn’t there now. There are remnants of burnt walls, or rather, singed foundation stones. Huge square stones burnt black. I can’t see how stones can provide us with shelter. It gets so cold at night we’d freeze, and the Servants have search lights.
When we reach the well Roman doesn’t hesitate. The well is on a rise, with a large flat area of higher ground beyond it, the area where the castle keep stood. Roman clambers over the blackened stones and disappears from view. We follow, Roberto and me carrying the food boxes, together with our rifles. Past the first ring of shaped stones. Past a few loose stones strewn at random. On the other side of a massive stone is a hollow. I gasp as Roman slips into the shadow at its base and disappears.
“There’s an entry way,” Chapin marvels. “It’s a tunnel under the stone.”
“Our food boxes can’t fit through,” I respond, with a groan. “Will we have to leave them?”
“That’s not happening,” says Roberto. “You go through. I’ll stay here and feed through the food items one by one. We can wrap them in our outer robes and carry them as bundles.”
He means the loose sheets that wrap around our under-garments. Everyone has an outer robe that can double as a sheet or blanket, or a funeral shroud. Everyone except half-clad renegades and prisoners. We’re properly covered now, like regular citizens.
I slide through the lips of the tunnel and sink down a little over a metre. If I stand on my toes, I can pull myself up and lever myself back outside. The tunnel continues on in darkness. Roberto passes the food and drink through to me and I place it aside, in the semi-darkness, till everything edible is with the three of us: Roman, Chapin and I, under cover. Roberto’s feet appear first, then his legs, which are long like a mantis. His feet are encased in leather slippers, not durable, but better than what he had. He slides his torso and his head through, and here we all are. Safe, for the moment.
The tunnel is wide enough that we’re not forced into single file. We do have to bend, or crawl. It’s toughest on Roberto. But Roman isn’t stopping. We follow him past a bend in the tunnel and light starts to filter through. This tunnel is not long. It’s just long enough to take us under the stone, doubling back towards the water well, then sideways some distance towards another entrance. Beneath the hole where the light penetrates is a space larger than where we gathered at the point we first came in. Here, we seat ourselves again. We start to unpack the food knotted in the bundles we made from our outer robes.
“We could probably make a fire here,” says Chapin, appraising the earth chamber. “There’s ventilation.”
“But then there’d be smoke,” I point out. “We don’t want the Servants to see our smoke.”
“What do we need a fire for?” says Roberto. “We have food. We have clothes.”
He reaches for some flat bread and tears at it with his teeth. His teeth are jagged. Somewhere, sometime, they’ve been stoved in.
“Can we do this the traditional way?” asks Chapin. Roberto stops.
Chapin stands up and turns a full circle.
“We have food. We are nourished on stories. We have clothes. We are clad in tradition. Storytellers live through all generations. We honour each meal by starting with a story. Roberto, do us honour. It is your turn.”
He does a half-bow towards Roberto and resumes his seat.
Roberto puts down the torn strip of flat bread and swallows. He returns the half-bow: to Chapin, to me, to Roman. We all know how this plays. This is Storytelling. This is how we live.
The turtle swam lazily up the river. He was in no hurry. He had a mission to accomplish, but there was time. He took his time.
The river was wide, with enormous meanders. In its centre it ran deep. Some of the meanders created shallows. There were mud flats stretching out from the shallows. Where there were villages near by, people worked and played in the shallows: cleaning clothes, washing themselves, swimming for the joy of swimming, trapping fish. On the mud flats in these areas, people appeared to be planting. Canoes shaped like thin fish manoeuvred through the shallows and channels in the mud flats. Slightly bigger canoes ventured farther towards the depths. Away from the villages, tall reeds grew up all along the river’s edge.
The further up the river he swam, the deeper it became. Its colour changed from muddy brown to a mix of brown and blue, with shades of green and yellow. The reeds along its banks were no longer dry brown-green and instead grew a deeper, stronger green. Set back from the river, behind a stretch of plains, mountains could be seen.
As the turtle progressed further up the river, the mountains closed in. At some places they squeezed the river, forming rapids. The turtle was strong and persistent and negotiated the rapids. He was practiced at negotiation. He focused on his mission.
Canyons rose either side of the river. The mountains were so high their tops disappeared into mist. But the turtle knew exactly where to come ashore. He found the place were rocks gave way to man-made moorings. He admired the streaked orange, white and yellow of these rocks. Very laboriously, he made his way up the long flight of steps that led from the moorings to a flat open space above. This was the common-ground where people in this community met. He knew if he placed himself in the middle of the open-air landing, people would congregate.
And they did.
First just a few people came, and stared. Then some darted off and came back with friends. Before long a large number of people had gathered. They pointed at the turtle, and talked a lot about him, but no-one addressed him. They waited for their leaders.
Before long a small group of men and women arrived accompanied by attendants holding parasols above their heads. It was not particularly hot, but the turtle understood these people’s ways. The parasols indicated status.
The men and women in this small party were dressed in loose robes in shades of red, yellow and orange. The others in the community wore similar robes in shades of blue, violet, mauve and green. The robes were held fast with wide sashes in colour contrasts: a woman in intense orange might sport a dark blue belt; a man in green might wear a belt in pink.
“We welcome you,” said one woman solemnly, addressing the giant turtle. She wore a dark red robe with a vibrant green sash.
“And I greet you,” replied the turtle courteously. “I am the turtle who carries the weight of the cosmos.”
“That’s a tortoise,” a man in sage (mauve sash) retorted without pause.
The turtle fixed his pale yellow eyes on the man. “I am a turtle,” he stated. “I have always been a turtle, and I have always been. I swam in the sea of consciousness before any other creature existed. I was there before God recognised herself as God. I know all things that have ever been, and all things that will be.”
“I stand corrected,” the man murmured, as the woman alongside him (pale blue and flesh) cuffed his shoulder.
The party of leaders bowed deeply.
“It is our custom that guests in our land must earn their safe passage by telling us a story. We grant you safe passage, but please, we beg of you a story.” The man who spoke wore marigold and white, with gold embroidered trim.
“I can tell you a story of the future,” the turtle proclaimed, adopting a Storyteller voice. It echoed off the carved rock plateau and carried up the mountain sides.
“It’s a short story. A long way ahead, in a time far away, men and women came to loathe Storytellers. The balance had shifted from fascination to fear. Other folk mistrusted the Storytellers, who they saw as manipulators, tricksters and exploiters, fluid with the truth.”
“Fluent with the truth?” asked a girl in the crowd.
“Fluid. Fluid like water. It leaks everywhere.” The turtle was patient.
“Where’s the problem with that?” asked a teenager.
“Storytellers could not be believed. They could not be counted on. Their intentions were unpredictable. A long way ahead, in the future, loyalty came to be seen as essential for stability. Conformity was valued. Storytellers did not conform.”
“Why are you speaking as if this is in the past, when you say it’s in the future?” An older woman wanted to know.
The turtle turned his great neck towards her. “Because the past is never past. You of all peoples must know that. What has not yet been is still to come but exists already. I have swum the endless seas for all time, and I know everything time and space can contain.”
“What happened?” breathed a small child.
“The people who mistrusted Storytellers decided the Story must end. They conspired to kill the Storytellers. They killed almost all of them.”
“How could that happen?” asked a man in his prime. “We’d tell each other, wouldn’t we?”
“The Storytellers were wiped out in simultaneous attacks. No-one who was found was spared. The only survivors were children.”
“But they survived?” a nursing mother squeaked.
“They still survive. But their survival is not guaranteed.”
The first woman, the leader robed in red and green, frowned. “O cosmic turtle, you who know everything, do you not know what happened?”
“O lady, great seer and wise word-smith, it is still happening. The story never ends.”
“I thought you said it was a very short story,” the lady smiled weakly.
“You people are picky!” the turtle fussed. “Everybody’s a critic. I said the story was short. Time began and time continues. The Storytellers came into being and the Story must be told. That is the beginning and the end of it. There is no beginning and there is no end.”
“What should we do?” spoke another woman from the leadership group. “Is there something we can do?”
“It’s your responsibility,” the turtle told them. “It is your fate. You must tell the Story, and keep the Story going. That is your mission.”
The people fell to talking amongst themselves. Their voices were excited and incoherent.
“Great turtle,” said the red and green lady. “Thank you for being our guest, and thank you for your gift of this story. We thank you, too, for holding up the cosmos. It must be a burden, but it is your mission.”
The turtle swayed his neck back and forth, his pale eyes studying her. “We understand each other, then.”
With that, he used his flippers to manoeuvre his great bulk around, to face down the stairway, then pushed off with his flippers and skidded all the way back down to the mooring. He flipped himself into the river and submerged.
“Farewell,” said the lady, softly. To her people, she said in a loud voice: “This story must be told!”
“Are you an actor?” I ask Roberto. He smiles.
“I’m sad there are no costumes in the theatre’s costume department,” Chapin says. “If we are the future of the Storytellers’ memory, we should be properly dressed.”
“We can be,” says Roberto. He places his palms together, raises his hands, and then – as if holding something precious before him – he turns to Chapin. He opens his palms and mimes picking up something from his left palm with his right fingers. He holds the something up and gazes at it admiringly.
“Chapin,” Roberto says. “As our leader, you need marcasite earrings.”
Very carefully, Roberto attaches the unseen earrings to the cartilage at the outer edge of Chapin’s left ear.
“As our leader, you need a leader’s markings.” Roberto places his forefinger on the point on Chapin’s forehead midway between his eyebrows. He draws his forefinger slowly down the length of Chapin’s nose. At the tip of the nose, he raises his forefinger then places it, so deliberately, in the centre of Chapin’s chin.
“Lenny,” says Roberto. I present my face to him. “As a high lady, you should have a pearl pendant. I should draw a teal-coloured line in a bow-shaped curve beneath your lower lashes.”
He lifts the pendant over my bowed head and hangs it gently around my neck. He draws the line under my eyes that mark me as a lady.
“I should also loop my hair up so the nape of my neck is exposed and then drape a fine shawl or veil over my head,” I protest. “I’m not a lady, Roberto. I’m bald. I’ve been whored. If I’m anything, other than a Storyteller, I’m some kind of mutant warrior.”
Chapin is listening. “Lenny, you are a great lady, like the great lady in the turtle tale. You are wise and you see things. You’re also a truly awesome killer. What I’m thinking is this: we are all we have. We are like time – we are separate and we are one, all at once. So it makes no sense to say ‘Chapin is the leader’, or ‘Lenny is the lady’, or ‘Roman is luck’ or ‘Roberto is an actor.’ We are each of us everything. I am a leader, yes, and I am also a lady, an actor and our luck. So are you. Each of you.
“Roberto,” continues Chapin. “May I have a pearl pendant too? Can I wear the teal eye-line and also the leader’s markings?”
“Me too!” I butt in. “Can I wear leader’s markings and a marcasite earring? And can Roman?”
Roberto takes his time, as the turtle taught him. He draws, exquisitely, markings and eye-lines on the three of us. He affixes the marcasite drop-earrings and loops pearl pendants over our heads. And when he’s done, Chapin returns the gift.
“Are our robes correctly draped?” Chapin asks. Roberto considers each of us, then solemnly nods.
“Now we are ready,” says Chapin. “Now we are properly prepared to eat; and when we’ve eaten, we’ll continue the Story.”
When we walked to this village we walked in silence. In the re-education camp, the silence made me ache. No-one talked to me. Now, all I want to do is talk. I love the sound of Roberto’s voice.
“Roberto,” I ask, smearing bean paste on a slab of flat bread, “What does the white mark on a leader’s chin represent?”
Roberto barely pauses. “It’s a full moon. The same as the pearl pendant a lady wears.”
“The same? How can a leader’s marks mean the same thing as a lady’s pearl?”
Roberto squints at me. “The moon is the woman. It gets bigger and smaller. The full moon is a pregnant moon. The moon represents the female side.”
“So traditionally, leaders have a pregnant moon on their chin?” I digest this. “Are you making this up?”
“No, really,” Roberto protests. “The white stripe painted from the forehead down the nose is the male side.”
“Um, yes. The male and the female together make energy. The two signs together represent power.”
“And the teal line under a lady’s eye? Is that for beauty, or does it mean something?”
“It’s beautiful, we think, but it’s also for Serpa. In every division, from First to Fourth, pearl pendant signifies ‘lady,’ but it’s a Storyteller thing – a traditional stage thing – for women to draw the teal line beneath their lower lids. Snake eyes.”
“I thought Chapin made that story up? Because his dad saw visions?”
“No,” says Chapin, “That story is very old. There are variations, but I didn’t make it up.”
I turn to Chapin. “Do you prefer handing on old stories or making up your own? Do you make them up as you go along?”
“Lenny,” says Chapin, “You know our tradition. You know there are the five classes of story: the old tales we hand on; the tales we embroider; the ones we make up as we go along; the ones we plot; and the ones we report, what the others call ‘factual.’ You know we are charged with preserving the old tales and a responsibility to keep them fresh. That’s the first two classes. The highest form of creativity is making tales up as we go along. That’s what I like best.
“The ones we plot are learning exercises. And the factual reports are the lowest form of story.”
“But the other divisions don’t see it that way, do they?” I’m stating the obvious. “They think factual reports are the only stories that should count.”
I consider this as I roll some flat bread round pickled cabbage. The other divisions believe that meal times should be silent. When you place food in your mouth, you should keep your mouth shut and complete the eating process – all that chewing, all the swallowing – then pick up another piece of food and do it all again. All the time in silence. Drinking tea in silence.
“So when we meet the Investigator, will we be believed? Won’t the Investigator think we are making things up?”
“Yes,” says Chapin. “That’s what they’ll think. And the other divisions will tell them to ignore anything we say. Never believe a Storyteller, my dad always said.”
“And you believed him?” We laugh. It’s an old joke.
“What difference does it make, then?” It bothers me. It’s been bothering me for as long as I can remember.
“Lenny,” says Chapin. “We can’t predict what will happen. All we know is this is our purpose. Our mission is to tell. And you know, factual reports might be the lowest form of story, but they’re still stories, they’re still part of our brief. I’d rather sit around telling stories I make up, about magical creatures and transformations, but we have a duty to tell these other stories. About what happened to us, what happened to the people we loved.”
I’d rather tell stories about transformations too.
“Chapin, do you think sitting around telling stories about magical creatures is our way of avoiding telling the stories that need telling?”
He puts down a drink bottle. “No. No, Lenny, I do not. I think they have their place and are just as needed.”
“But we’ve been telling stories from every point of the compass, about snakes and dragons and turtles, but we’ve left silences between each other. I haven’t told you what happened in the camps, you haven’t told me what’s happened since I was taken.”
Roberto says, “I told you what happened to me.”
“Everything?” I sound accusing.
Chapin looks at me. “We don’t need to tell everything at once. There are stories within the snakes and dragons tales. We’ll get to the tiger tales.”
I am relentless. “In the camp, the Third Division women – the ones in the grave – prepared me every day for the camp version of a tea ceremony. They painted a red spot just under my lower lip. They told me it represented a bullet hole. I think it was another woman symbol, a parody of the full moon pearl.”
Chapin is looking directly at my face. He says nothing.
“Roberto,” I ask after another moment’s silence. “Roberto, an actor is a kind of interpreter? Would that be true?”
“That would be true,” Roberto says.
“Could you read the tattoos on that man who buries bodies? Did you understand his symbols?”
“He disposes of bodies,” Roberto repeats. “He is afraid of the dead. He’s afraid they’ll come back. He has tattooed messages on his skin in case they come for him. He thinks those symbols will keep the dead away.”
“He must have been terrified of us, then.”
“I hope so,” replies Roberto, softly. “We should have killed them.”
“No,” snaps Chapin. “They gave us food. Don’t tell me it was a trap or ill-intentioned. The bottom-line is they prepared food for us. We are their guests” – he gestures at our meal – “and we are grateful.”
Chapin is a traditionalist. I admire him for that.
The pit where we’re eating smells earthy and moist. I look across at Chapin, in the semi-darkness, with his invisible pearl pendant and his invisible leader marks. I like his male-female fusion. I like his power. It astonishes me he’s only thirteen. I find myself silently reaching out across time to the Cosmic Turtle:
O turtle, thank you for holding up the cosmos. Please, keep Chapin alive.
When did death enter Lenny’s life? When did she slide from the domain of fruit trees and storytelling into the sphere of silence? Did it happen all at once, the night of the killings? Of did death enter stealthily, sliding like a serpent from some moss-covered well, grey and white tessellations camouflaged against the smooth pebbles of the formal rock garden?
Lenny had known death. She’d loitered by death’s door, then crept forward quietly and sat by its bedside. It looked out at her through her grandfather’s eyes, and it fixed her in its gaze. She recognized death for what it was: finality. Death, somehow, misidentified Lenny.
“Edie,” said Death, speaking through her grandfather’s thin, scaly lips.
“I’m here,” she replied, taking Death’s hand. Her grandfather’s fingers were mottled flesh and bone.
“Edie,” the ventriloquist voice of death repeated. “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here,” said Lenny, holding Death’s gaze, holding her grandfather’s fingers. “Where else would I be?”
“I thought you were gone and now you’re here. I still have you.” Death smiled at Lenny.
“I’m always yours,” said Lenny, and now her voice was not her own. “I’m always here.”
The body on the bed was long and lean. If it raised itself up, it could run marathons.
“You’ll never escape me,” it whispered.
“I’ll come to meet you,” Lenny said. Silence smothered the room.
Silence filled the space and squeezed out the air. Lenny couldn’t speak. There was nothing she could say.
“I met you under a plum tree,” the living corpse said suddenly. “You were maybe thirteen. You look just the same.”
The death’s head turned towards her. Its face flushed pink and her grandfather’s eyes animated its eye sockets.
“You are unchanged, Edie,” her grandfather said. “You will always live.”
“Tell me the story, grandfather,” Lenny pleaded. Time stretched forever on that bed but now she felt urgency. Her grandfather was with her.
“You were just thirteen,” he smiled. His tongue moistened his lips. It was not quite blue.
“You stood beneath the plum tree and the petals showered down. You were laughing. You were beautiful and I knew you were the one. The one who would live. The one who would live always.”
“What was I doing, under the plum tree?” Lenny asked.
“Doing? You were being. You were being the eternal one. The one who cannot die.”
“But grandfather,” she said. “I know I must die. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed. We will all die. Buildings will burn and my family will be torched. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”
“Petals were falling. Stars burned in the sky.” Her grandfather’s words were suspended in air. His mouth hung open. Lenny was afraid the silence would return.
“You were standing in the moonlight. You shook that tree and its blossoms fell. You laughed at the sky and then you saw me. You put your fingers to your lips and told me ‘Shhh. Don’t tell.’”
“I said that?” Lenny laughed. “A storyteller telling a storyteller to hush? What was I thinking?”
“I have no idea,” her grandfather smiled. “I never understood your stories, Edie. But here’s what I think. I think you knew the end was coming. I think you had dreams. You woke up screaming. But I know you always laughed at death.”
Lenny felt abrupt grief. Her voice fell flat. “How can I laugh, when I’m not allowed to speak? How can I live, when the silence rules?”
The bones entwined in her fingers squeezed lightly. The bones were lightly padded and lightly veined. She could feel their faint warmth, feel their faint pulse.
“You will climb to the heights and hide in the depths. You will cloak yourself in silence. You will learn to use the silence to punctuate your tales. You will bury yourself in your heritage and live forever through it. You know who you are.”
“The one who cannot die.” Lenny breathed the words.
“The one who will not die. The one who refuses.”
“How can you know this?” Lenny demanded. “How can I know who I am? Even you don’t know me, grandfather!”
“Of course I know you, Lenny.” It closed its eyes. “You are the one who evades and confronts. The one who lives.”
Lenny stared at the death’s head and knew her grandfather had gone. Where had he gone, her grandfather and Edie? To what night-land of star-lit plum blossom had their spirits flown?
She let go of the bony hand.
“Grandfather,” she said softly. “Can you hear me? Is it silent where you are?
She paused, and listened. She thought she heard voices, soft murmured voices. She thought she heard laughing.
And she knew. She knew who she was.
“I am a story teller,” she said to the silent room. “I am the one who will not die. I am the one who tells.”
She woke up, screaming. Not a memory, then; a dream. Or a memory embedded in dream.
Here, in this hole in the ground, she lay in damp mud, a fugitive curled up alongside three survivor comrades.
“Chapin,” She said, grabbing Chapin’s arm. “I’ve dreamed. I know what I need to do now. We need to get out of here.”
Chapin, half asleep, nodded.
“We need to get back into the light to tell our stories. Not the mythic ones. The stories about what happened to us, about the killings, and after.”
She pressed her face close to his. “We’ve been in a hole. We’ve evaded and hidden. Now we need to confront.”
Chapin, now awake, rolled towards his rifle and rose to his knees.
Tonight, the moon is full. It glows like a bronze disk, like polished amber, like a memory of fire. The night is warm. I am seated on the lip of the water well. In my hands I toy with a small ornamental knife. It’s the same well I knew growing up, the same well where Chapin and I waited, exposed and vulnerable, for a signal to meet with the man with drugs.
I am ten years older now. Still alive. So much has changed.
It was Roman. Our luck was Roman. We emerged by night from the mud-hole, shy and skulking, and shadowed birch trees through woods that seemed endless. At the edge of the woods, there was open land. It was grasslands that stretched towards a wide river. The river was flat and still but with strong currents visible like molten folds of metal within an iron sword. On the far side of the river was a symmetry of grasslands, and beyond that, birch woods again. Past the birch, we could see violet mountains.
The skies were pale grey with primrose streaks. There was wispy cloud cover, and emerging from the clouds we saw choppers, again. These choppers were giant silver dragonflies. Or maybe silver dragons. They grew bigger, flashed like lightning, their sound a disturbance in the natural order.
I was afraid. I could not contain more terror. But Roman stepped from the cloak of trees and walked forward into the pale grasslands. He didn’t hesitate, just kept walking. The choppers flew over the river and kept coming. Their bellies loomed above us, like luminous, aerial fish. They hovered overhead, conversing in a high, hysterical language I could not translate.
Roman raised his arms and waved. Big windmill arm waves, rhythmic, constant. The choppers dipped their noses towards him. They paused, dropped, and settled, bowing to the boy. They landed not far in front of him.
Roman ran towards the grounded choppers. I wanted to cry out, to yell to him to stop, but I was mute. Roman ran and waved, a tumble of arms, a lash of feet.
A short distance from where they sat, dragon-sized and silver, he stopped. A door opened from a dragon’s side, and a woman paused momentarily before stepping out. She was dressed head to toe in pale beige, a grey scarf wrapped around her head.
Roman ran again, and threw himself at her. Her arms opened wide. He disappeared within them. She knelt, holding Roman close, and rocked gently, side to side. She knelt there, rocking him, a long, long time. The helicopters remained stationary. It was just that woman.
Eventually we saw Roman reappear from within her mass. He held her hand and stayed pressed close between her legs. He pointed towards the woods, towards us.
I shrank back. I could barely breathe. I looked to Chapin, but Chapin was looking towards Roman.
“We have no friends,” I said.
Chapin’s eyes turned a wash of silver. I recognised tears, and I remembered: he’s a child.
Roberto, gazing at the woman with Roman, said, “If we’re to tell our stories, we must tell them to someone. To tell them to someone, we must trust, sometime.”
Chapin stood for a moment. He turned to me again, dropped his rifle.
This is Death, I thought.
Then I thought, this is the afterlife. These are the fields of the dead. There, the river of the dead.
“We can only die once,” I said. Then I thought, I am the one who cannot die.
I took Chapin’s hand. Chapin reached for Roberto’s. The three of us stepped out of the forest shade. We stood, exposed, vulnerable, by the fringe of trees.
Ahead, the woman looked up. She saw us. She was motionless for a moment then turned to her dragon steed, her chopper, and waved, windmilling, as Roman had. From the hole in its side, two figures emerged. Like her, wholly covered in beige fatigues. The three, with Roman, walked towards us.
I have been afraid, and I have gone to Jupiter. I didn’t now. Now, I thought of the turtle who outlived time. Who was here before the beginning, and will be after the end. I thought of the golden eagle with its golden eye. I thought of the green snake woman, and the water spirit woman with a snake around her waist. I thought, I am the blossom bloom, and I am the stars. I am ephemeral, and I am eternal. I waited.
When the three adults reached us, the woman knelt before me. She stretched out her arms. And I, god help me – I stepped into her warmth. I laid my head against her breasts. I cried.
And here I am ten years later, still alive. I was warmed, I was held, I was fed. I was transported on a dragon’s back, back across the river, to the place beyond. I was cared for and tended. Eventually, I was questioned. They questioned me as if I were blossom, as if I might scatter, might fall apart. I didn’t.
I told my story. I stood witness. When the silver helicopters flew en masse across the river, towards our lands, I watched them on banks of monitors from safety far away.
I thought, it was never down to me. Never down to us. Me, Chapin, Roberto, Roman – we were children. How could children be the sole hope for the future? Where were the adults? Where were the others, the outsiders, the onlookers? Surely someone knew, someone would come?
I can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those river crossings. Should the outsiders have remained onlookers? Could they, if they knew?
I can’t speak to that. On that, I am mute.
What I know is I am alive, I had the chance to grow up. Now I am an adult. There are now others counting on me. I know now that children, while not the sole hope, are the best hope for the future, because children, with luck, grow up, and transit past to future. They tell stories of what has been, to the children yet to come.
Now, I sit by the well where a water spirit dwells, watching over our times of transition. My job is to travel my homeland, my damaged homelands, where order has collapsed, where our institutions are now rubble, and to find the ones who can share the stories of change.
I know who I am. I am the one who cannot die.
I am the Investigator.
When you’re in a hole, stop digging (2 June 2014)