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Bewildering Stories

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chapter 1, The Land, part III

by Tala Bar

Installment 6
Installment 5 appeared in issue 92.

The night was dark but the sky was clear. Through the holes in the bench seat Dar could see the bright, shining stars; she did not recall when was the last time she saw the stars. There were no city lights or smog to blur them, no volcanic ash and smoke to hide them... For a long while she looked at these faraway blinking worlds, seeing some patterns in their arrangement without knowing any of the constellations by shape or name. Remembering they had various meanings in the old myths, Dar was suddenly aware of human continuity. “We are still here, despite everything,” she thought mysteriously. Then her eyelids grew heavy again, and she slept, dreamlessly.

It was sunrise when Dar woke, sunbeams playing on her face. Instinctively, she blocked any remembrance of her dreams, turning her mind to the present. The girl was lying very close to her, still asleep, and she thought that youth, typically, would turn a blind eye to sunrise; her own sons liked to sleep as late as possible.

Dar rose, shaking the dirt from her body. Having relieved herself among the ruins — all of a sudden so aware of her body — she washed her face in the scanty water still lingering in crevasses in the masonry. She felt her old practical attitude to life gradually returning after all those days of foggy despair. She had a young creature to look after now, another human being that needed her for guidance and assistance. A secret exhilaration mounted in her heart, diminishing the task in front of her to human dimensions. It would be a good idea, she thought, to search the fallen houses for some means of survival for herself and for Nim.

Climbing over the heaps of debris, she looked constantly around her, looking for a likely place where the destruction was not so complete. There did not seem much hope for that. In most houses, the walls had fallen at least partly into the house, burying inhabitants and everything else they contained. Luckily for Dar and Nim, the state of the dead was past the most horrible stage of decomposition: any body parts she could see were parched dry, both smell and flies gone. Dar sighed for them, then continued on with her search.

One thing she noticed: the crows had gone, as if they had never been there, as if they had done their duty by leading her to Nim. Silence prevailed again, and she walked on, passing more and more ruins on her way. After a while, she arrived at a house whose roof seemed to have flown away; a couple of walls remained standing while the others had fallen outward. Here, she thought, she might have a chance of finding something that might be of use to them. She stepped toward it with her bare feet; her shoes had long been gone, she no longer felt the sharp edges of broken glass or rough masonry.

She entered the site of the house, feeling strange to think about its interior with only two walls standing. She calculated what she and Nim might need most. It was also necessary to give thought to what, how, and how much they would be able to carry. The best thing would be to look first for some carrier bags or sacks. Perhaps the kitchen would be the best place to look in first, or any kind of storage room.

The kitchen was easy to find. Dar paused, wondering at its spaciousness and the various appliances it housed: some obviously necessary, others she would hardly find any use for. But she had always been modest in her needs and could not compare them to other people’s. And these people could certainly afford much more than she and Bard had ever been able to; there had never been as much money in professional work as there was in making money...

Almost all these appliances had been smashed and covered with dust and ashes, no use for anything even if she had had that fancy. Recalling her own tiny kitchen in their small flat in town, full of life, love, and sometimes even happiness...

Determinedly, she drove the thought out of her mind. “There should be some means of making fire,” Dar thought, “the best would be a sparklighter...” Being able to make fire would make their lives so much more pleasant, in many ways. She turned, and stumbled over a body with an open head, lying beneath some fallen equipment. Dar, used to seeing bodies all over the place by now, numbly stepped over it. Behind the open door of a tottering cupboard, she spied a couple of carrier bags. She lay them open on the floor, beginning, slowly and methodically, to look for things to put in them. Some drawers had sprung open during the earthquake, in which she indeed found a sparklighter. Amongst a mess of broken, twisted pottery, she found a small metal pot which she thought would be good to boil water in, and a couple of small plastic bowls which could serve either as dishes or cups, to which she added some cutlery. From the turned-over pantry she managed to extract some dry food products, carbohydrates, protein and fruit bars, which they could dissolve in hot water in the pot.

Having put all these inside the carrier bags, Dar left the kitchen and went to look through the rest of the house. Passing through a half destroyed hall, Dar caught a movement in the corner of her eye. She stopped, and so did the movement. Looking again, she saw a long mirror, miraculously whole, still hanging on one of the standing walls. Amazed, she looked at her reflection, remembering the last time she had looked in a mirror. It must have been the morning of the catastrophe, when she was getting ready to go to the clinic. Having done it endless times before, the picture had been etched in her mind. In her early forties, she had been a striking-looking woman, with short graying hair and finely chisled features; she had a high forehead, a generous mouth, and large, clear, grey eyes, which usually looked at the world with a lusty desire for life.

Staring at herself now, Dar could hardly believe the changes she had undergone, barely able to recognize the figure staring back at her from the mirror. She was nothing but a shadow of the Dar she had known. Her tall, lean stature had thinned to a mere skeleton, which was covered with grey tatters blackened by dust and dirt, stained with grime, dried mud and blood. Her long legs were bare from foot to thigh, the knees nothing but stark bones. The natural fair color of her skin was darkly hidden underneath the tan and dirt of long days spent under the bare elements. Her mouth was pinched dry, her eyes clouded, looking dark and muddy, haunted with doubts and uncertainty that had never formed part of her mind. Dar gazed at that figure, assimilating the new nature of her own self. Then she shrugged her bare, skeletal shoulders, and turned to continue with her task in hand.

She passed into what must have been a large closet. Both she and Nim needed change of clothes, and she stopped to take a closer look. Signs of burning marked the closet’s doors, a large hole took the place of the wall; the contents had spilled to the ground, mixed with the rubble and soiled by dust, soot and rain. She bent to search through the pile, looking for anything that was still in relatively reasonable condition. As she was lifting a pair of jeans that seemed whole, to examine their size, she heard Nim calling.

“Dar! Dar! Where are you?” There was a trace of panic in the girl’s voice, and Dar dropped the pants and hurried “outside” the house. Coming through a fallen wall and turning toward what used to be the park, she saw Nim, who had just risen from sleep, looking around in an agitated state.

“There, there, here I am, don’t be afraid,” she came up to the frightened girl, using her most calming tone of voice to sooth her.

“I am not afraid,” Nim protested sullenly, masking her feelings as if ashamed of her outburst. Twenty years experience as a family physician came in very handy for Dar to calm things down.

“Of course not,” she said, speaking reasonably, trying to get both of them as much as possible into a more natural state of mind; “I was searching for some things that could be of value to us. Have you washed?”

A girl of fifteen, she was sure, would be quite recovered from a momentary disorientation in the sight of some good clothes. She led the way back “into” the house, and they joined forces for the search of valuables. Nim was happy to see a couple of jeans and blouses she could wear instead of the worn clothes she had on, and some very necessary underwear. She got busy trying things on, discarding many as useless or torn beyond use, saving a few others. Dar picked up some warm clothes, foretelling colder times than the present hot summer. Then she went more deeply into the closet, which seemed to her as big as half her flat in town. After a few minutes of probing, she exclaimed, “That’s what we really need!” lifting two plastic, waterproof backpacks in her hands.

“Oh!” Nim cried, bursting with tears again.

“What is it?” Dar, dropping the sacks, hurried to her, taking the girl in her arms.

“They belonged to the Twins! I didn’t realise it was the Twins’ house, I didn’t recognized the area we were at... everything has been so completely destroyed...”

“The Twins?” Dar asked sympathetically, wiping the girl’s tears. She clung to the physician. “Were you friends with them?”

“They are also dead, aren’t they? Everyone is dead! I didn’t quite realise it before!” She gasped for breath, and Dar sat her down to relax. “We used to play together; they were never called by their separate names because they were always together... What shall we do, Dar, what shall we do? Everyone is dead!”

“We’ll go on living, Nim. We owe it to all these dead people. Come on, let’s fill the backpacks with what we’ve found and get out of here. We can’t stay here. We must find a place more comfortable for us to stay, to enable us to look for a certain kind of future. I’m afraid it may be a long trip we have to take.”

“You know,” Nim said when they were sitting down for a while, thinking things out loud, munching bits of food as a makeshift breakfast, “there used to be a stream running near by. We used to go play there, at the top of that...” Her voice died out, and Dar saw her staring. “It’s not there! Where has that hill gone? It used to be right there,” she pointed, “right beyond that house,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “which is not there any more, too...” Her eyes filled with tears. “Col and I used to go there often; its water was so unusually clear...” Her voice broke into a sob.

“Now, Nim,” Dar said after a short silence, “a lot of changes happened in the upheaval, and we’ll have to get used to them. Let’s go and see if we can find that stream,” she added. “If it’s still there, it may be very useful for us, even if the top of the hill has gone. As long as you know the general direction.” Not believing a word of it, Dar thought that at least it would give them some purpose and direction. She sounded to herself unnaturally cheerful, but knew there was nothing else she could do for the moment.

Proceed to installment 7.

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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