The Fire-Dwellers (22 page)

Timber Lake sixteen years ago had hardly any cottages. Jungles of blackberry bushes and salmonberry. Spruce trees darkly still in the sun, and the water so clear you could see
the grey-gold minnows flickering. You know something, Mac?
What? I
like everything about you.
That’s good, honey. I like everything about you, too
.

Stacey reaches out and touches the sleeve of Luke’s Indian sweater.

Luke – that’s not true. Janus didn’t have anything to do with the way I felt about Mac.

Mm? Janus, the two-faced god. Uranus, the frozen planet, farthest from our sun. Combined with the recurrence
of anus
in each word. He sounds a great guy. Do you reckon he’s still alive?

Stacey withdraws her hand.

  — He collects people, maybe? Sure, Stacey – fine collector’s piece you’d make. Still, he didn’t hear what I said this time. Idiot child, why should he want to discuss Mac? I don’t want to, either. That’s just who I don’t want. So okay – don’t, then.

I wouldn’t know if he’s still there or not. It wasn’t quite a century ago.

Luke turns to her in amazement.

Hey – that supersensitivity. It’s too much. You waiting for the verbal cracks, or what? It wasn’t meant

I’m sorry

Don’t be sorry, Stacey. People should never be sorry – it’s a waste of time.

Aren’t you, ever?

Nope. You keep on communicating your own awfulness to yourself, and nothing changes. You just go on in the same old groove.

How old are you, Luke?

He takes the cigarette packet from her outheld fingers and lights one for each of them. He hands hers to her, and looks at her, directly, as though purposely not evading her eyes.

How old? What’s that got to do with anything?

I was just curious

Well, to be precise, I was twenty-nine on my last birthday. But being Cancer I’m due to age another year soon. You seem to be waiting for me to ask you how old you are. Okay. How old are you, Stacey?

I wasn’t I didn’t mean well, I’m thirty-five, actually.

  — My kingdom it extendeth from lie to shining lie. I was the one who nearly flipped when Mac pared off a few years from himself with Thor. Well, I only took off four. Luke’s nearly thirty. Nine years younger. So what? I’m only talking to him.

Thirty-five. You make it sound like about eighty. Does it bug you?

No, not really. Only I guess I’ve changed somehow without realizing it. I worry more. I scare easier.

What scares you, merwoman?

You don’t want to be bored with hearing that kind of thing.

Hey, don’t be coy, Stacey, or I may just throw you back on the beach. It’s okay. Don’t worry. If I get bored, I’ll let you know. The things that scare people are hardly ever boring. You could be an exception, of course.

It’s about the kids mostly, I guess. What’ll become of them? How’ll they end up? I can’t face the thought of anything awful happening to them. But I can’t do anything to prevent it happening, either. Everybody’s living dangerously – that’s how I see it. What if they got hurt, killed even? That seems the one thing I couldn’t bear. But everybody feels that way, or nearly everybody, and that doesn’t stop it happening. There was this newspaper picture of this boy some city in the States kid about twelve Negro kid you know shot by accident it said by the police in a riot and he was just lying there not dead but
lying with his arm cradled up in a dark pool his blood and his eyes were wide open and you wondered what he was seeing. His parents cared about him as much as I do about my kids, no doubt, and worried about what might happen to him, but that didn’t stop it happening. You think I’m silly to think about I can’t help it.

Luke refills her coffee mug and comes down from his perch on the canvas chair to sit cross-legged beside her on the rough wool rug.

No.
Silly
isn’t the exact word I would have chosen.

A strange thing happened seven years ago – that was the last time I went back home I mean to my home town Manawaka. My mother and sister live there. My sister hasn’t got any use for going through all the old rubbish in trunks in the attic, but I kind of get a bang out of it and so does my mother and I never got on well with her when I was a kid but after I had my own kids I felt different I guess I could see more why she used to fuss – it was mainly because she was scared about us. So we went up to the attic this day, my mother and I, and among the junk I found a revolver which used to be my dad’s – he died some time before this – and I said to my mother
I’ll have this as a souvenir
. She didn’t know there were any bullets for it, but there were. When I got back home I mean my home here I hid it in the basement on a little shelf under one of the rafters.

Yeh? What did you plan to do with it? Or rather, whom? Yourself, when the Goths’ chariots and the final bill came in, or when some evangelist corporal decided this is the way the world ends not with a whimper but a bang?

I didn’t – I wasn’t thinking of it exactly like that. I didn’t have all that wide a view, to tell you the truth. It was at that time – remember – when people from California and around
there were saying they planned to come up here for safety and I had to laugh, living here, because it didn’t feel that much better here to me. It sounds crazy, even to me, now. I’ve never told anyone. I thought –
if anything happened –
that’s the way I always thought of it –
if anything happened
– that phrase only, just like my mother could never bring herself to say anyone had died – they had always passed on – anyway, if anything did, and the kids got – you know – damaged or like burned so they couldn’t recover and I didn’t know where to take them and there was no place to go anyway, then I’d

Luke puts a hand over hers to steady it.

Sh. It’s all right. It didn’t happen. Hush, Stacey. Have you still got it?

No. I thought about it and thought what it would be like to have to do a thing like that and after a while I realized that I couldn’t not even if they were even if I couldn’t do anything except wait I’d just have to do that and look at them and hold them whatever they were like or I was like because I couldn’t do anything else. Maybe I’d have to keep telling them everything would be all right. We went to Timber Lake that summer with the kids. I took the revolver along and went out one night by myself and threw it in the lake. I never told Mac. He always used to say I shouldn’t worry – that it was useless, and of course that was right. Maybe he worried, too, for all I know. But he never said.

That’s not good.

No. But it
is
useless to worry. What can you do?

Luke shrugs.

I don’t know, baby. I always walk along in the right-intentioned marches, but I don’t tell myself that the face of the world is going to be altered that way. My mother believes in the power of corporate prayer. She’s still an Italian farmwoman
at heart. She was blessed once by the Pope – it was just before she and my dad came over to this country and I was about two months old – she had me when she was fifteen, great for her, eh? Anyway, it was in the big square of St. Peter’s, and the Holy Father stood on the balcony and lifted his arms and there was this huge crowd milling around. To hear her tell it, you could feel the radiance as though there were hosts of angels swooping around like so many pigeons. I never bought that, but then again, there could be something in it. So I plod along. It makes as much sense as anything else.

You know something, Luke? The other thing worries me just about as much. I sometimes think in the end it’s me who’s hurting them the most, after all.

You could be right. You probably are. I’m not much of an authority on the subject.

Stacey eyes him alertly, hearing the faint drawl of boredom only just now in his voice.

  — Enough, doll. Enough about the kids. They’re not real to him. Why should they be?

Luke – I should be going. Did I interrupt your work?

My work? Well, not exactly. I don’t work that hard. I was put off it as a kid by having parents who never quit working.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I putter, sort of. Look

He jumps to his feet and pulls Stacey by the wrist, taking her to the far side of the room, cluttered with books and pieces of driftwood.

I did these this morning – bookshelves. The old brick and plank method. These friends who own this place won’t ever get around to making any for themselves, but they could sure do with some. Other times I go fishing. I’m no hell of a fisherman, but it makes me feel good if I can catch something
I can live off. Frustrated pioneer instincts, too well known to be detailed here. We’ve got a boat. It’s a terrible boat – leaks like a senile gent, but we patch it up. Only a rowboat, not one of those fiber-glass speedboat jobs that all the salesmen have.

Not all the salesmen

What?

Not all the salesmen, I said. My husband is a salesman.

Yeh?

He used to sell encyclopedias. Then he sold essences. Now he sells – never mind. He’s doing well at it very well really

Look out there, Stacey, eh? I like going out when the Sound isn’t all that quiet, when it’s talking to itself, and the water goes slap-crash against this feeble little boat and you wonder who is down there like that prehistoric undersea creature in that story and after ten million years or something it rose up to answer the mating call only sad to tell what it actually heard was the foghorn from a lighthouse

I got married sixteen years ago and I thought he was like Agamemnon King of Men except I’d never heard of Agamemnon then only later when I took all those goddam night courses like in Ancient Greek Drama but that was how I thought of him only of course that view couldn’t last all that long how could it if you are with somebody all the time and see how they go to sleep with their mouth open or something and I wouldn’t have minded about that except he doesn’t talk any more hardly at all can you imagine what it’s like to live in the same house with somebody who doesn’t talk or who can’t or else won’t and I don’t know which reason it could be.

I go out there in the boat and I don’t mind being absolutely and utterly alone in fact I like it that’s when I get ideas for whatever it is I’m going to write and when I was kid it was impossible ever to be alone.

Stacey all at once recognizes the parallel lines which if they go on being parallel cannot ever meet.

Why couldn’t you be alone when you were a kid, Luke?

Because after me came my five sisters and the house was also always full of cousins and aunts or somebody. Funny thing – I liked them all, and yet I used to wish they’d all get the hell out sometimes so things could be a trifle peaceful. Our house was the noisiest for miles around. Still is. You should’ve been there the night of my sister Angela’s wedding about six months ago. My dad and two of my uncles set up an orchestra in the kitchen – an accordion, a guitar, and my dad on drums, actually a well-chosen selection of frying pans and soup kettles. Everybody dancing all over the house. At about four in the morning, people bawling their eyes out over great classical airs like “Santa Lucia.” It was murder. The police finally arrived, and my dad offered them some of his homemade wine. I thought I’d rupture myself laughing.

Stacey gazes at him enviously.

I wish I wish

What? You wish what, merwoman?

I wish I’d had that kind of family

Luke smiles.

Everything looks both better and worse from the outside, I guess. You think –
How lucky they are or How in hell can they stand it?
Maybe they’re not so lucky, but they can stand it. Want some of my dad’s wine?

He really makes his own?

Of course. I would not say he was the most skilled wine-maker in North Vancouver, but he must be in the top brackets. None of this chemical slop for him, he says. He gets half a truck-load of California grapes every year. Then the crusher comes in. You ever seen a grape crusher? You hire it by the hour. Nothing
unprofessional for my old man. He puts the brew down in oak barrels in which whiskey has been made. Fermentation – and then you rack it and bottle it and six months later you got a good rough red, like Chianti.

What’s he do, your dad?

People always want to know what a guy does. I wonder why is that?

I take it back.

No, don’t. He works for a building contractor. He believes you have to work very hard in this life, just to keep your head above water, or to escape whatever it is that’s waiting to crush you like a grape. And even then you may lose at any moment. Like
Christ in Concrete
. Only he couldn’t visualize himself in a star role. One of the lesser apostles, you might say. I’m not sorry he hasn’t got anywhere. Where is there to get, that you would all that much want to be? I’m only sorry he doesn’t see it that way. He thinks he’s a failure. How much better, I think he tells himself, if he owned four apartment blocks like my mother’s brother. Here – try the wine.

It’s good.

Not bad, is it? I’ll put the bottle between us. Help yourself.

Thanks. I mustn’t stay much longer

Sure.

Tell me about your SF stories.

Luke pulls his Indian sweater down around his wrists and leans back, propping himself on an elbow.

I’ve written mostly short stories, but the one I’m trying to do now is longer, like maybe novel-length. I won’t talk about it – it’ll go away if I do. Superstition. Sometimes I think it’s great – or, well, let’s say not bad, anyway. Other times I think it’s pure crap. It’s called
The Greyfolk
. Takes place some
thousand or so years hence, when this continent is all desert and the few remaining people are governed by African administrators who followed the First Expedition which was sent from Africa centuries after the Cataclysm here, when the radiation danger had finally disappeared, to see if there were any survivors. There were. A few small creatures looking almost human crawled out of their hidey holes in the dunes. They’d evolved over the years into wizened grey-scaled folk who lived on sand lizards and water from dew ponds. They’d lost their language and all knowledge of their past, although they had a few dim racial memories and some bizarre quasi-religious cults. The Administration taught them basic Bantu, and after a hundred or so years, the greyfolk are producing some brilliant students, but none of them will do anything except invent gimmicks like the Cacophonoscope, which gives out with lamenting green-songs in color, or the Ululator, which is the sob machine, and you take your pick for whatever variety gives you your kicks. Story really concerns the dilemma of Kwaame Acquaah, the Chief Administrator, who is deeply against Africa having colonies and who wants the greyfolk themselves to discover how to restore their soil et cetera, but who can’t think how to overcome the mental block that obviously exists among them. The educated greyfolk have developed the belief that their ancestral culture was harmonious, agrarian and ideal until the disaster, which some believe to have been an act of nature such as multitudinous volcanic eruptions and others believe to have been an outside attack by unnamed destroyers. Acquaah’s problem is whether to let them continue in these comforting beliefs or to tell them what really happened. In the end, they have to know, of course. Trouble is, I’m not sure what happens when they find out.

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