Authors: Maurice Gee
Tags: #JUV000000, #JUV037000
Four more days of sailing: the eastern hills came into sight.
Xantee, Lo, Pearl said, Tealeaf’s coming. I’ve told her about Hari. She doesn’t know what this thing is but she says there are legends.
There are always legends, Xantee said.
And we listen, Pearl said. Who knows where the answer lies?
Right. Meanwhile, this thing has got Hari in a vice. Maybe Tealeaf can tell us how to make it let go.
There might be some Dweller way, Pearl said.
And there mightn’t, Lo said.
Well, the twins . . .
The twins were the best chance. Karl plied on more sail in the morning breeze. All day the schooner sped towards the coast. As darkness fell the lights of the village pricked into life. Shyly, so as not to get in the way, the voices of children, two dozen or more, welcomed the travellers home – a chorus like birds waking in the dawn.
The schooner anchored at midnight. A dinghy was waiting. Karl and Duro lowered Hari into careful arms. The twins and Pearl were on the beach with a group of men holding lanterns. Others had a sprung cart to transport Hari to the farmhouse. Xantee and Lo felt the twins ease them aside from the task of keeping the creature on Hari’s throat immobile. They were able to relax.
Pearl knelt beside Hari as Karl and Duro laid him on the cart. She stroked his face and spoke to him but no one heard what she said. Then she stood up and folded Xantee and Lo in her arms.
Thank you. If Hari had died . . .
He won’t die, not now.
No. Go and sleep, Xantee. Sleep, Lo. We’ll wake you if we need you.
She felt their exhaustion and touched her forehead to each of theirs.
Hari is lucky in his children.
They found their beds and slept the rest of the night and half the next day. Bleary-eyed, they ran down to the sea and swam out to the schooner and back, refreshing themselves. Hubert and Blossom joined them in the kitchen for lunch.
We’ve got this thing shut down, Hubert said. We’ve got it so if it moves or tries to go in deeper it gets a shock – From us, Blossom said. Like from a battery. It just curls up.
It’s scared of us.
But we can’t make it let go. There’s something making it hold on.
Maybe Tealeaf will know. How far away is she?
Nearly across. Another two days. Dweller boats are fast.
Have you two been up all night? Go and have a rest. Lo and I can help Pearl.
Call us, Blossom said, yawning.
So serious, Xantee thought, and they were only children, only nine years old. Brown-skinned, brown-haired, blue-eyed – they were as beautiful as forest animals, and as quick and instinctive, and to Xantee almost as strange, because their minds went places hers could not. She was a little jealous. She wished she and Lo had been twins. On the other hand, being free to take her mind privately wherever it wanted to go without having to shift someone out of the way – that was something she would not willingly give up. She wondered how free of each other the twins really were.
She took Pearl’s place in the sickroom, made her rest, and felt the torc creature stir and then subside. She had been right, and the twins were right, it was afraid. And she had sensed fear in the beast in the jungle – the mother creature – when it felt Hari’s strength, and hers and Lo’s; yet it had only retreated as if to gather strength from a source behind it, in the rock wall, or perhaps deeper than that. She wondered if there were other creatures hidden there and they could unite the way she and Lo and the twins united. It was something she would ask Tealeaf when she came.
Xantee sponged Hari’s brow. She dribbled cold water between his lips. Scar-faced Hari, she thought, Blood Burrow boy, knife-thrower, rat-killer (he had told them the tales), returner of the poison salt (but that was a tale made to be forgotten; the fewer people who knew about the salt the better), then Hari the farmer, Pearl’s mate; and beautiful Pearl, Company woman, Radiant Pearl, Pearl Bowles – Xantee gave a little laugh. The tales led to her and Lo and Blossom and Hubert – and she wondered at the thousand chances of Hari and Pearl never meeting and there being no family on the farm by the Inland Sea; and, she thought, no one to fight this beast from outside nature living in our jungle, and living as a slimy band, sweating, pulsating, on Hari’s throat. She touched it with a fingertip and felt its coldness and filth. Sniffed her finger, recoiled, and brushed the moist fragment off with her mind, smelled it dissolve.
Hari, she said, we’ll make it let go. I promise we will.
Tealeaf and Pearl met on the beach and what they talked about nobody knew. Tealeaf, the Dweller, with her three-fingered hands and cat-pupilled eyes, had been Pearl’s maid in the city, in the days when Company had ruled. She had opened Pearl out like folded paper and allowed the child to become a woman, writing her own story on herself, instead of the pretty painted object the men of Company preferred. They had escaped from the city, meeting Hari in their flight. Pearl and Hari had discovered ways of ‘speaking’ still unknown to them. They had returned the poison salt to the mine and buried it forever, and fallen in love . . .
Watching the two women on the beach, Xantee sighed. What were they talking about as they strolled back and forth? And how could they laugh, with Hari dying? Except that he wasn’t dying, Tealeaf knew that, he was just trapped in the necklace and couldn’t get free, and maybe Tealeaf was teaching Pearl how they could help him and that was why they laughed. Some Dweller way, or secret learned from the people with no name . . .
Her real name is Xantee, Xantee thought. I’m named after her.
She was jealous. She should be walking with the pair on the beach and learning their secrets. Tealeaf and Pearl were sharing the intimacy of sound, of words spoken aloud and laughter released into the air.
Tealeaf, Pearl, she murmured to herself.
Hush, Xantee, we’re coming, Tealeaf said.
They walked up to the farmhouse and Xantee and Tealeaf hugged each other, and at once Xantee’s jealousy fled, like a sickroom smell when a nurse throws open a window. She and Tealeaf had not met for more than a year, and if Tealeaf was eager to meet the others, especially the twins, and see Hari, she hid it, concentrating on Xantee, learning how she had grown and letting her feel the contours of her Dweller mind. Xantee knew other Dwellers but not one who had widened out into the world as Tealeaf had done, and learned the things Tealeaf knew. She was fascinated by the glimpses Tealeaf allowed of quiet places, wide seas, sunny weather, of people living in deserts or in the mountains or on ice floes, and the creatures they hunted. But at the back of each memory Xantee felt a storm, and behind every kindness cruelty lurked. Tealeaf’s memories were a mixture of dark and light and the two would never be pulled apart. Xantee remembered her dream on the schooner and shivered, and Tealeaf said, speaking aloud, ‘Don’t try to know too much, Xantee. Wait and you’ll understand.’
‘But this thing,’ Xantee said, ‘that came out of the rock, it’s here, now. It’s got my father.’
‘Let’s go and see him,’ Tealeaf said.
They went into the sickroom, where Lo sat watching by the bed. Lo too knew Tealeaf’s story and her part in Pearl and Hari’s life. They met like old friends rather than woman and boy, but spent no time in greetings. The sight of Hari lying like a corpse on the bed was too much for Tealeaf. Tears sprang into her eyes.
‘Hari, Hari.’ She felt into his mind and found his will to stay alive, and wiped away her tears and said, This thing can’t harm him any more. But how can we make it let go?
It does harm him, Pearl said. We can’t feed him properly, he can’t swallow. Water and broth and honey are the only things we can get down his throat.
The twins are out collecting honey now, Xantee said.
Tealeaf touched the necklace with her finger and drew back.
This is like nothing, she said.
But nothing that’s just as real as what it feeds on, Pearl said.
It’s lost, Tealeaf said, and it’s alone. It wants to go back where it belongs.
Are you saying we should be sorry for it? Xantee said.
That would be pointless. This thing can only feed and destroy. And all we can do is destroy it in turn. There’s no other way when something comes from outside nature.
So I was right, Xantee said. Outside nature.
I can’t explain it any other way.
What do we do?
We keep him alive. Beyond that, I don’t know.
The twins arrived from the forest carrying buckets of honey. They put them in the kitchen and ran down to the beach to wash the stickiness off themselves.
They should have said hello to you, Xantee said.
Oh, I know the twins, Tealeaf said. We often talk.
Xantee felt foolish. Of course they did: the Dweller woman who was the strongest speaker of her kind, and the children who could work their speech past any barrier.
She took her turn sitting with Hari, while the others, Tealeaf and Pearl, and Lo and Blossom and Hubert, sat in the garden. If she wanted she could join her mind with theirs and hear what they said, but she preferred to be alone. She studied the necklace, the torc, on Hari’s throat. Its colour, she imagined, was that of the lead suits the men who handled the poison salt had worn all those years ago in Deep Salt – the men Hari’s father had called ghosts. Ghosts were outside nature too. Xantee shivered. She felt the cold radiating from the necklace, even as it slept. It had whitish veins in its flesh – if it was flesh – and they made little starts and jerks like her own pulse, sending some fluid perhaps, something that worked like blood, around the necklace keeping it nourished. When you looked at it like that, like an animal, it was almost possible to feel sorry for it, cut off from its mother and only wanting to stay alive. Was that what it wanted – to stay alive? Was it alive in any way she would recognise? And maybe life for it – and for its mother – meant simply destroying whatever it found on this side of the divide that kept it outside nature. Xantee was puzzled. I wish Tealeaf would explain, she thought.
She had a sudden longing not to be tangled in this way – not to be sewn into family but to roam free, the way Duro did. Since the age of fourteen, Duro had formed the habit of slipping away, of sometimes putting a whole mountain range between him and the village, so no one could call him – although, Xantee thought, the twins could make him hear if they tried, and I could too, because . . . She thought about it, as she had often done, enjoying the knowledge that he was open to her in a way he was not to anyone else, but asking now what that openness meant. And the access to her private thoughts she allowed him, was that any more than friendly trust?
I don’t want to know yet, she thought. She drew back a little, brightened herself, and let her mind find Duro, working in the gardens.
What are you doing?
Digging bloody potatoes, Duro said. It’s killing my back. How’s Hari?
The same. Who’s there?
Karl. I can’t keep up with him. Sal and Mond, working with one hand each. They’re going to be useless from now on.
Give them time.
I’d sooner give them a kick up the arse. What did they go close to that thing for?
They didn’t see it. Tealeaf’s here, Duro. Are you and Tilly coming to see her?
I don’t think Tealeaf knows what that thing in the jungle is.
She’s got to. Otherwise we can’t get Hari free.
We will. I know we will. Can you come swimming when I’m finished here?
If I get another row dug. Bloody potatoes.
She said goodbye and concentrated her attention on the necklace, trying to read it, trying to find if it had a brain. It must have – some fragment of the larger creature’s brain – to give it the cunning for its sudden attacks. It knew fear too, so it was more than a plant. What was it and where did it come from? Tealeaf must know.
She swam with Duro late in the afternoon. The twins and then Lo and Pearl sat with Hari, while Tealeaf visited Tilly, Duro’s mother, who had helped her and Pearl escape from the city in the time of Company.
That night, after a meal in the farmhouse kitchen, they sat on the porch overlooking the bay and Tealeaf told them what was happening out in the world – in the lands over the western ocean, in the southern lands and in the city. Most of it was an old story to Xantee and Lo. They knew there was no word from the west, that there had been no word for many years. No travellers came, no fugitives from the broken empire of Company. And south and east little kingdoms, no more than fortified villages, and little kings, no more than bandit chieftains, had sprung up. They fought, they raided, and some prospered for a while. No man or woman had appeared strong enough to unite them. As for the mass of the people, they lived from hand to mouth. They tilled a few sparse fields and brought in crops if the bandits allowed. They survived from season to season, or they died.
But the Clerk is really a king, isn’t he? Lo said. He’s got a proper army and he rules over City and the old factory towns.
He pretends to rule. But there’s no peace, always rebellion – and murder and starvation and slavery. He sits in Ceebeedee, what’s left of it, and tries to believe he’s in control.
But Keech won’t let him, Duro said.
No, Keech won’t. He’s buried as deep in the burrows as the Clerk is in Ceebeedee. They keep on making pacts and breaking them and murdering each other’s messengers. Keech goes out and raids the caravans bringing food to the city. The Clerk poisons the wells Keech gets his water from. Then they make another treaty, and break it. They say you can see hatred drifting back and forth like a mist, from the burrows into the city and from the city back into the burrows. Then Keech and the Clerk meet to talk terms – they meet on the hill, by Ottmar’s mansion – and they make a new agreement and you see their hands twitching with their eagerness to strangle each other.
But all this doesn’t matter, Pearl said.
It matters to the children who are starving and the people in the burrows dying every day – in the city too – while these tyrants swell and contract like sucker toads on a dead mudfish, Tealeaf said.
They had not often heard her speak so bitterly. Dwellers were calm by nature. Calmness was like a sense with them – but Tealeaf had seen too much pain and misery. She gave herself a shake – a mental shake – and settled down.
But I know what you mean, Pearl.
There’s this new thing now. It will kill us all, Pearl said.
Yes, it will.
And nobody knows what it is?
Nobody knows. The one Hari fought isn’t the first.
There are others? You’ve seen others?
No. I’ve heard of them.
She told them that the people with no name had found them first: tiny creatures, no bigger than slugs, oozing from damp crevices low on seamed hillsides, or surfacing in the red water of swamps. They hid in the roots of drowned trees and under slabs of moss in the mouths of caves, not many of them, twenty or thirty perhaps, in the hills and jungles east of City, but the people with no name, who knew everything old and everything new in their ancient lands, sensed them at once. They wove harmonies around them and held them like flies trapped in a web, so the creatures could neither retreat nor grow. They struggled, unable to live, unwilling to die, making a tiny mewling like starved cats, below the threshold of human hearing, almost below that of the people with no name. And those ones, the first, were still there.
The people – you call them Peeps, Tealeaf said, and I don’t think they’d like it if they found out – the people try to send them back where they came from, but they can’t, there’s no way back, just an immense will in these creatures to break free. To devour and grow.
When did it start? Duro said.
Seven or eight years ago.
And now . . . ?
The people can’t be everywhere. They’ve got these things – they call them gools in their language and gool means unbelonger – they’ve got these infant gools tied up –
The size of your fist. You’ve seen a larger one. How big?
It was invisible some of the time, or shimmering. But when we could see it – as big as a cave bear, Xantee said.
But there was more of it hidden in the rock, Duro said.
Yes, oozing through the rock, through veins and fissures and underground streams a mile deep, and joined to others, and all reaching back to the place where it began, where there’s something drinking up the life of the world. This creature has learned to find places where the people are not, where it won’t be found. It’s grown there patiently, in a dozen places, and now it’s ready to break out. Sal and Mond found one. Hari too.
What is it? Xantee breathed.
I don’t know. The people don’t know. Something that follows its own nature. Something that will turn the world inside out. It will suck it dry of all its life and be the only life the world knows.
You said, Xantee began. She was terrified and had to swallow before she could go on. You said ‘back to the place it began’. Do the Peeps know where that is?
They don’t leave the jungle so they can’t trace it further than the jungle’s edge. But they point – they point us with their minds – towards the city. They hear something there. They feel it and they’re afraid. In all the time Dwellers have known them, the people have never been afraid.
What do they hear?
They can’t say. It’s the sound of something growing. The sound of something sucking and getting stronger – but they’re confused because it doesn’t seem to fill any space. It always seems to be on the other side of what it’s feeding on.
In the city? Xantee said. Is it in the burrows or on the hill?
And what does it feed on? Duro said.
People. Animals. Trees. The stone itself. You find hillsides crumbled into dust, with all the things that held them together sucked out. But no sign of the creature.
We saw one, Xantee said. There’s part of it tied round Hari’s neck.
The one you found is the furthest from the city we’ve heard of. But somewhere in the city, or in the burrows, or on the hill, there’s the thing that breeds them. The mother of the thing that’s choking Hari.
So it’s there? Xantee whispered. In the city? Why doesn’t it swallow the city up?
Because we think somehow the city is its home. It’s the place where it was born. Or the gate it can come through. It’s where it rolls over and comes out of nothing into something.
And then it puts its arms out . . . Duro began.
Underground. Along the sunken rivers, until it finds a new place to break out . . .
Nobody spoke. They were too afraid. The sun was sinking like a stone, colouring the clouds blood red and deepening the Inland Sea until it seemed like a hole. The twins were sitting one on each side of Pearl. She put her arms around them.