Mideer is into another trance, set off by a puff of ‘dust’. But where is she, so soon delivered there? As she says, it’s not the same place as before. And what is her purpose? Hean has said something of gaining a wider perspective . . . Read on
This wasn’t the fertile plain I’d seen before. I was, instead, in a cave. And though I didn’t know how I knew it, yet I knew it the next cave along from where I had met Honapple. Along . . . behind . . . beyond . . . at the back of him. Or maybe beneath? But, undeniably, it was a cave. It was dark. And yet it was lit.
That cave was populated—by little people—little green people. But how so ‘green’? Was it their skin green, or their clothes, or was it this odd non-directional diffused light? I couldn’t discern. Yet Hean has since told me, he’s seen them green, too.
They were not frightening. Rather, they were excitedly welcoming. They made gifts for me from out of their bodies. I assume it was this, for the ribbons they gave me were pulled from their mouths. Were they a thousand fragments of Mother Sea? Were the ribbons they gave me threads of seaweed? But no, for seaweed has a base and a definite top. These ribbons had neither.
The Glyntlanders have a word for these ribbons. Non-orientable bands. They talk of them in their mathematically grounded philosophies that they brag are beyond our mentalities. But whatever you care to call these ribbons they were also the ‘song of the sea’ that the singers were singing. Moreover, as Mother Sea is the ‘end-and-the beginning’ of the Source, so too these ribbons. Thus they were the Abyss. But let me explain that.
Doubtless you think when I say ‘Sea-Mother’ and ‘Abyss’ that I mean that body of water that surrounds Madjaria, that separates us from Macara and the Glyntlanders, that holds our three lands apart. But no, these ribbons, that song, the Sea-Mother, all was that same abyss wherein I sat. The Abyss of the Cave of the Holy Land. For from that Abyss, in the form of the Sea-Mother, all was created, and all that was created is the Abyss: the Sea-Mother.
But you don’t understand what I mean. You’ve not been where I have been, not seen what I have seen. Yet this all is open to you. You merely need ask my holy men and they will take you.
My stay in the Holy Land was short, my return to Hean’s side as abrupt as my departure. I remember I giggled, my cheeks hurting with grinning. And yet I shivered. Such a momentous thing I had seen, and all so briefly, yet it had a profound effect—though, I confess, as yet I couldn’t comprehend it, not sufficient to put into words, as I now have done in the hope that you, my priests, might understand me.
It was late, the sun setting, and no one moving to return to their homes. Hean caught my hand. “Walk,” he said.
I looked at our hosts. He shook his head. “They will assume we seek a place for loving.”
We walked. He took me down to the shore, which here was a good way away from the river and the wharf and my boat with its crew and my corps. I knew before he asked what he would say, but I allowed him to ask it the same.
“Now tell me, how will you fulfill the prophesy?”
“I want those singers, and the dancers,” I said. “And I want Hensable. I want them to return to Madjaria with me. I want them to perform for my Landed-lords and my priests as they have now performed for me. I’d like use of your Holy Dust too.”
“You cannot dose your people with Holy Dust, unprepared,” he said. He laughed, “It will scramble their brains. But I think Hensable might be persuaded to bring some of his band to Madjaria for you. To perform, as they have this day. Now tell me your reasons for this.”
“As they have shown me so, too, I would show my people. Maybe they won’t understand,” I gave Hean no chance to say it. “Yet maybe in seeing, and hearing, some small part of it will seep through to the depths of them.” Besides, I had another reason. “And in their seeing me with these Macaran—accepting them, for why should I not—they too might begin to accept, and not be so blindly against them. And if I can do the same with the Glyntlanders . . . bring them together. Won’t that go some way to fulfilling the prophecy?”
He nodded—and I had expected him to object. “Then we must speak to Hensable. But, a word in your ear. He let slip to me, his interest in you is not what you’d say ‘honourable’.”
I was soon to discover the truth of that. Though it was not quite as Hean had said it.
It was the day after Hean’s next visit, when he had again left me in the care of his father and sister.
“The feast-berries are ripe,” Zean had enthused. “You must come help pick them.”
The berries—we have nothing to liken them to amongst our fruits—grow deep in a ravine edging the jungle. The Macaran girls use them, mixed with a white-clay, to paint their bodies for the big feast. Although Zean had already tempted me several times into the edge of the jungle when gathering foods, yet I still was hesitant of risking the dangerous animals there. She laughed at my fears.
“You walk the plain, you do not fear there.”
“I know the plain has predators hidden,” I said. “But I haven’t seen them. And no one speaks of them. Somehow that makes them less scary.”
Her eyes opened wide. “We do not speak of them for to speak their name is to call them! But they are there, as you say, hidden, And they are more dangerous than any found in our jungle. At least those you can see.”
I remember looking behind me and all around me, seeking these predators that nobody could see. So were they spirits, these invisible predators? Were they, perhaps, beings called from the Abyss and released to here? But, though I could imagine many amongst you, my priests, who might be tempted to do such a thing, I could not imagine it of the Macaran holy men.
Zean covered her ears when I asked her, “Is there such a thing as a bad holy man?” She said, “No-no-no-no,” repeatedly so she couldn’t hear me. “Come, we gather feast-berries,” she then said as if I’d said nothing.
We gathered feast-berries. But then with two brimming baskets she said of ‘scrumming-around’ for the clay. She knew of a place that the girls-now-women had barely touched. It was secret, she said, none others were to know of it.
“That is why I bring you and not Sheena and Schola.” She set off at a fast pace. “It’s in one of the caves along the Cave-Cliff.”
She didn’t tell me where the Cave-Cliff was. If she had said then what later happened might not have happened, for I would have known the way.
It was a single-footed track, so I’d no choice but to follow behind her. But I was happy with that. It meant she wouldn’t see how often I looked about me, watching for the unseen predators.
“How far?” I asked after a while, for it did seem to be a long way away.
“Not far. Up ahead,” she said. “But, oh . . .” she squealed and hopped from one foot to the other. “I urgently need to pass water . . .”
Now you might think in such a place we would do as the Land-labours do when they work in the fields and just squat wherever we are. But no. There are particular places where the Macaran go: places for men, places for women, places for boys—and particularly places for girls of our age. But that didn’t require her return to the village. There are many such places; it was just a matter of . . . She squealed and ran and left me standing.
But where did she go? I didn’t see. And I hadn’t been to this part of the plain before to know where the places were. So I waited for her to return. I didn’t dare move. What if I passed by her and didn’t see her? No, safer to wait for her return. But she didn’t return.
I waited, and I waited. Where was she? She couldn’t be much longer. After all, how long does it take to pass water? But standing there alone on the plain, after our talk of the hidden predators . . . I felt intensely vulnerable. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck beginning to rise. I scanned in every direction, pleading with her that she soon would return. What a relief it was when I finally saw her! I ran to meet her.
But . . what! She veered off the track, taking a turning I supposed would lead to the cliff. I wanted to call to her but, as with the thing of not naming the predators, she long ago had warned me not to call out a person’s name, not while out on the plain. So I called to her, “Oi!” But she neither looked my way nor stopped to wait for me. I wondered, maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe it was some other girl of our age. Yet there were no others in Hensit’s band, unless it was Schola or Sheena and I knew it wasn’t either of them. No, it was Zean’s height and Zean’s build and Zean’s hair and . . . it was Zean. I could even see the basket she carried. So why was she running in what seemed to me the wrong direction?
I tell you, though I had travelled the sea from Madjaria to Macara, and twice had travelled into the Holy Land, such travels were of no help when finding my way around that plain. Without a constant sighting of Zean I would have been lost. But why, why, why was she running away? For I now was convinced that’s what she was doing.
She came at last to a cliff, the Cave-Cliff, and now I recognised it. It was that same place where Holy Man Honapple had his cave, where I had first tasted his vile brew, from where he’d sent me reeling into the Holy Land. I wondered, was he there in his cave now? Would he help me?—if I lost sight of Zean which looked increasingly likely.
You wonder at this? That she should run so fast that I lost her? What, I cannot run like a Macaran runs? Here in Madjaria, yes I can. But not across that unfamiliar plain, where predators might lay in wait for an unheeding juicy morsel like me. For Zean, she knew where it was safe. Me, I must be ever alert and searching—and that delayed me. So too did my thoughts.
Endlessly over I asked and asked, why did she run? I tried to give her a reason. She had somehow received a message that she must return home. She had seen something when at the piss-place: a girl maybe, maybe even Schola or Sheena, but that girl was injured, so now Zean raced ahead to fetch some help. Or she had stumbled upon one of the unmentionable predators and now she fled from it, drawing it ever farther from me. And all these thoughts further slowed me. And if the latter . . . perhaps it wasn’t so wise to catch her?
I lost sight of her. That Cave-Cliff is aptly named. I didn’t notice the first time there—other matters filled my mind—but there must be ten, twelve, maybe more caves along that one rock-wall, all accessible from the plain as if the plain had been lifted up in one piece to be on a level with all the cave mouths. Or perhaps the caves weren’t naturally made?
“Oi!” I called again. And I stood still and I listened. But I could hear nothing beyond the natural sounds: the birds and the beasts of the plain which by now were familiar.
So where was she now? Disappeared into one of the caves? There could be no other answer. Which left me but one recourse: I must methodically check. I would investigate each and every one of them. One must yield her. Oh, I did so hope so. One look at the sky told me we soon must be starting home. Maybe that was the reason she ran? Maybe she intended to double back and collect me once she’d scrummed-up the clay?
I squeezed into the first cave—and quickly out again. That one was occupied by something ‘hissy’. At least it had warned me. I doubted Zean had gone in there. I moved along to the next—and disturbed a colony of birds. I almost fell back, such a volley of bodies came flying towards me. But that was another cave empty of Zean.
In the next cave my steps sounded hollow. I called out for Zean. My voice answered back. There was a smell, I couldn’t mistake it. It triggered a memory so strong I almost expected to find my mother beside me. She had taken me to the Queens Sepulchre to show me the coffin the men prepared for her though none expected her to die for many years yet. Indeed, since I couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time she still had eight or nine years left to live. But as she’d said, we none of us know the day so it is better to be prepared. I had asked her what that smell? And she had answered, “It is our Source.” Why have I not remembered till now? She said that deep down in the Sepulchre there was a passage that led to the sea. So in this cave too?
I found Zean in the seventh cave. She sat on the floor, her hands smeared in white. She shushed me as soon as I started to speak. She motioned me to sit.
I was brimming with things to say, bulging with questions if not rebukes. Yet again she held up a finger to quiet.
“Here,” she said. “You must be thirsty, all that running.” She offered me a cup.
A cup? That should have alerted me for she’d carried none with her. I should at least have been wary. But, oh, not me, for indeed I was thirsty.
As I brought the cup up to my lips I thought I saw an unnatural twinkle in her dark eyes. She tipped her head back, encouraging me to guzzle the drink. “All,” she said.
It was slithering down my gullet before I realised the change. That wasn’t Zean sitting naked-breasted before me. It was Hensable, with his naked sun-baked skin striped by a clay-based paint. He grinned.
“Have you not met a shape-shifter before? You have no such predators in Madjaria?”
I think what astounded me most in that moment was that he spoke the Madja-tongue.
Looking, now, at the truth of him, I belatedly wondered what he had given me. One thing for certain, it wasn’t the vile concoction Holy Man Honapple had given me. Indeed, I hadn’t discerned any definite taste, but neither was it water. Nor was it wine—at least not like our Madjarian wines—neither had it the bite and the lingering glow of the fermented juices served at the Macaran feast. Perhaps it was something harmless. But no. The way that shape-shifter now was looking at me—expectant—told me otherwise.
Then my tongue began to swell—the right side only. The left side was shrinking. The left side of my body, too, was drawing in tightly upon itself, shrivelling, while the right side swelled. And lights, again lights, but this time different. Iridescent, scintillating, colours so sharp they cut my eyes leaving voids in my vision.
Hensable, the shape-shifter, took the cup from me. I had a distant vague feeling of surprise that I still held it. My hands were numb. But, no, I realised they weren’t numb; they didn’t exist. My arms didn’t exist! And now where was Hensable? He was inside the cup looking up at me, a big grin on his face.
“Can you swim?” he asked. “The water’s lovely. Come on in.”
I drew back. “Ridiculous!” How could I swim in the cup? Yet there I was, treading water beside him—which was all very rum since never in my life had I done this before.
“Ah, but this isn’t your life,” he said.
The rim of the cup had become the shores of a lake. Trees grew there. Now I stood there. I was looking for something to wrap around me. Now I wore Hensable’s ‘all-the-world’ cloak. He held me close to him. Close and safe. We needed to be safe for all around us were snakes.
“They will not harm you,” he said, his voice swelling to fill the sky around us. “But that will.”
I turned in his arms to see what he was seeing. We were again in a cave.
“What . . .?” I could form no other words, at once terrified and puzzled by what I was facing. It filled the cave entrance—the cave exit?. And it wouldn’t be still, changing, always changing. Now some single beast of vast amorphous form. Now a squirming insectoidal colony. Now a growing structure, crystalline, branching, joining, maze-creating. A tree—that surprised me—a tree with feet that walked and hands that reached towards me.
After Hean had warned her of Hensable’s dubious motives, was Mideer wise to trust him? Yet he had tricked her to this. Of more concern is the ‘thing’ that’s blocking the cave and Mideer’s exit to safety. Is it all part of her trance? Next episode, 2nd August, And Every One Me