Authors: Maurice Gee
Tags: #JUV000000, #JUV037000
‘What’s happening?’ Duro cried.
She’s dying, Danatok said.
Danatok made no reply. He withdrew from the shield and Duro lurched after him. Xantee stepped out too and let the shield fall. She could not speak, could not explain, but sank to her knees and hugged her arms across her chest, trying to keep her own warmth in as the gool died. She had killed this creature, although it trembled and loosened still. Killed it without meaning to, by striking pity into it like a knife. She did not want to understand; but watched the gool, feeling its agony and trying to hasten its end.
The gool died, with a final shudder and a childlike sob. At once its skin began to curl and flake. A foul smell drove Duro and Danatok backwards, and Danatok pulled Xantee to her feet as he went. He pushed her, stumbling, to the door. They ran from the room. The smell followed, enfolding them and wetting their faces. They reached the steps, stumbled up, and burst from the ruined mansion into the air – where a breeze from the sea turned the stench away and carried it over the city. They ran past the fountain to the cage where Tarl lay and the dogs watched, and the open space with the dead men sleeping in a row, and Sal lying beside her cousin on the grass.
What happened? Duro said again.
I think she died because I pitied her, Xantee said.
Duro shook his head. He did not understand.
Does it mean the other gools are dead?
I don’t know. Let’s talk to the twins.
They were still trembling with horror, and trying to wipe the smell of the gool off themselves, so reaching the farm was harder. But they steadied their minds and found Blossom and Hubert waiting.
Hari? Is Hari all right? Xantee said.
Yes. The thing’s gone from his neck. It gave a squeak like a mouse and rolled over, and then it melted – but the stink! We’ve carried Hari out of there. Pearl and Tealeaf are washing him in the tub. What happened, Xantee?
The gool’s dead. The mother’s dead. And I think all the others, everywhere, must be dying.
She did not know how the mother had kept them alive; but threads, perhaps no more than threads of thought, perhaps of a strange kind of love, went out from her to her offspring and her death flowed along them to wherever the children were. Her pain was theirs and her dying theirs.
Karl and some of the others are taking the schooner, the twins said. They’ll see if the gool Sal and Mond found is dead. Xantee, there’s so much going on here –
Yes, here too. Tell Hari we love him. Tell Pearl.
And tell my ma, Duro said.
They gathered dry timber from the house and built a pyre. Xantee controlled the dogs while Duro and Danatok carried Tarl from the cage and laid him on it. Duro placed Tarl’s knife on his chest. They broke Mond’s hand from Sal’s, tearing the skin, and laid her beside Tarl. When the fire was blazing, Xantee woke Sal and held her lightly, but released her when she saw Sal understood. The dogs howled. Sal sang a dirge in a tongue only she understood. The pyre collapsed and when the bodies were reduced to charred bones in the embers, the dogs turned and ran soundlessly. They vanished round the fountain.
Where are they going? Duro said.
Back to the forest.
Sal sat by the embers and bowed her head.
They left her there and dragged the Clerk and Keech into the mansion and laid them side by side in the room with the fallen chandeliers. Then they dragged the dead men in and put them in a row, burrows men with city men. Duro and Danatok circled the outside walls, setting fires, and soon the mansion was ablaze. They did not stay to see it fall, but raised Sal to her feet and set off for Port.
The gool smell, turning in the smoke, faded away.
They reached Port at midday the next day. Behind them, the burrows were quiet. A haze of smoke drifted over the city from Mansion Hill but the air was fresh beside the water. They swam in the sea, washing the last smell of the gool out of their clothes, but Xantee could not wash the creature out of her mind.
She’s left some of herself in me, she thought.
Danatok rowed them to his stilt house and they rested for three days. On the second they concentrated their minds and spoke with the twins. Hari was growing stronger, Blossom and Hubert said. He was able to whisper a few words.
Don’t tell him Tarl’s dead, Xantee said.
Karl had not reached the place where Sal and Mond had found their gool, but Xantee was not interested. She knew all the gools were dead. Whatever flowed to them from their mother was cut off. Like her they would fall shapeless and rot away.
On the third day they prepared to leave. Danatok was staying. Although he did not say so, he needed to be alone. He scouted the shoreline and found a canoe he could patch. It was enough. Xantee and Duro could take his boat.
They fitted it with a mast and sail, loaded it with provisions and water, enough for two days, and set off on the fourth morning, with Danatok beside them until they were out of the harbour. They called goodbye and he turned the canoe away.
The boat was heavy and the sail small, but Duro and Xantee were good sailors. They took turns at the tiller. Sal sat in the bow, taking no part. She had not spoken a word since singing her dirge for Mond. The bleeding on her palm had stopped but the flesh was raw. She hid her hand in her armpit whenever Xantee tried to bandage it.
They sailed for fourteen days, sleeping on beaches, foraging for food and taking water from streams.
Saltport slid past. Its buildings were empty and the dead hill behind it wore a scar. Xantee scarcely looked. The place was in Pearl’s and Hari’s life, not in hers.
Dwellers had gathered on the beach at Stone Creek. They welcomed and fed the travellers, and gave them news: Karl had found the gool. It had fallen to a puddle of sludge, turning to dust at the edges. And Dwellers in touch with the people with no name made the same report: the gools were dead.
Good, Duro said.
Xantee nodded. It was good. And Hari grew stronger, the Dwellers reported. That was good too. But she could not be happy. She was pining for her brother, Lo. There was no news of him.
Dwellers guided them eastwards through the forests. The people with no name kept them safe in the jungle. When Xantee asked about Lo they retreated. She stopped using his name and asked about the human boy with the shattered leg. The people said they had no knowledge of him.
Tealeaf and Karl met them at the Inland Sea. They were full of praise and bursting with talk of Hari and Pearl and Tilly and the village. Tealeaf took Sal under her care but could not penetrate her trance or make her speak.
They sailed home. Hari and Pearl and the twins were waiting on the beach. Tilly was there. Xantee felt something like happiness at last. There was embracing, and talk, and rejoicing late into the night, and food and drink, and village folk coming until midnight to welcome the travellers and praise them – and yes, Xantee was happy. Her father was recovered. There was a white scar round his neck and his steps were slower and his hair had turned grey, and there was a quietness in his mind, a place of sorrow for his father. Pearl was blooming, she was beautiful, but the same sorrow lived in her. They had lost their son.
Xantee thought of all she had done – she and Duro. She tried not to be too pleased with herself, but could not stop it – she was pleased, she overflowed with amazement now and then. But two things always halted her: Lo gone. And her love for Duro, which on the journey home had seemed to fade away, then grow and fade again, and never settle. The pain it caused him had been her pain too.
So it went on. The summer went on. The farm and village flourished. Hari grew stronger, Pearl sang and played her flute, and Tealeaf came and went like a protective spirit. But Sal stayed silent; and Xantee and Duro could be no more than friends.
Then, one sunny morning, a boy walked out of the forest and through the village, a boy with a limp. His hair was shaggy, he wore no clothes, he carried nothing. There was a smile on his lips.
‘Lo?’ said the villagers.
He made no answer but walked to the farm.
Pearl saw him from the porch. Her cry brought Xantee running from the gardens at the back.
Lo, she cried.
Pearl ran down the steps and caught the boy in her arms. Xantee hugged him, tears running down her cheeks. Hari came and took his son in his arms. The boy hugged them back, but it was as if he had learned how to do it. He stood away.
Lo, they said.
He smiled. I have no name.
But you’ve come back. You’ve come home to stay with us? Pearl cried.
My home is the jungle, the boy said. I’ve come because of your sorrow. I’ve come because you mustn’t be unhappy.
Hari was the first to understand.
You live with the people? he said.
Yes, said the boy.
And you’re one of them?
I’m one of them.
No, Pearl cried.
Yes, he said.
Are you happy with them? Xantee said.
I’m happy with them.
And you’re going back?
The boy nodded. He stepped further away, as though to let them see it was true – he was happy and would go back. Pearl ran at him with her arms out. He stopped her by raising his hand – but touched her palm with his for a moment. Then he smiled again.
I’ll take her with me. The one who is broken in half.
He found Sal standing at the edge of the sea. Xantee did not hear what he said – perhaps it was nothing. He put out his hand. Sal raised her eyes and looked at him. She took her scarred hand out of her armpit, studied it a moment, laid it on her cheek as though to cool it, then quietly placed it in his.
They walked up past the farmhouse and through the fields and into the forest, not looking back.
Oh, Pearl wept. Hari held her in his arms.
After that Xantee found she could love Duro. Their wedding was held in the farmhouse. In the morning they chose a boat from the shore and sailed away on their nuptial voyage.
The seasons went on. There were children. There was much happiness.
No new gool has found its way into their world.