chapter 1: The Land, part III
by Tala Bar
Installment 6 appears in this issue.
“This must be Nim’s particular luck,” Dar thought with uncharacteristic irrationality, when she eyed the little stream in wonder. Before the last rains, she had never in her life seen clear, naturally running water...
They washed their faces, then took off their newly acquired walking shoes and dipped their feet in the water. Though Dar’s soles had hardened to leather, Nim’s feet were still soft enough to get sore.
The water felt fresh and cool, sending a shiver down Dar’s spine. “Come, let me wash your hair,” she invited.
“This is lovely,” Nim sighed. She had taken off her new jeans and blouse, having left on only her underpants. Braless, she lay in the shallow water; her young breasts shrunk back into her emaciated body, and Dar looked at her with a pinched heart.
Having produced a tube of shampoo she had salvaged from the fallen house, Dar applied it to the tangle that had crested the girl’s head. She looked in wonder as Nim’s hair was unfolding in the water. It surrounded the girl’s thin face as a halo of pure, silky gold, its length reaching her waist, its waves mingling with the ripple. The girl’s clear eyes shone bright green, looking huge over the sharp, protruding cheekbones; her lips had assumed their former pinky hue, not yet full enough but certainly promising. “She would be a real beauty when she fills up a little,” Dar thought. Nim seemed unaware of her looks. Her conduct was simple, rather childish for her age, as she surrendered to the woman’s loving, caressing ministration.
“I am happy to see you look healthy enough, in spite of everything,” Dar said after they had dried themselves with the one towel Dar had decided they should take with them. Having helped Nim to tie her hair on top of her head, she sat in the stream and gave herself a similar treatment. Her usually short grey curls had grown around her ears nearly reaching her neck; she combed it loose and shook her head to let it dry. When they were all ready to go on, she said, “I think we’d best follow the stream down; it will give us a certain direction while supplying us with fresh water on our walk.”
They picked up their load and started down stream, soon leaving the devastated neighborhood behind them. Beyond it stretched farming fields, which had undergone a similar upheaval to town. Still, without the masonry strewn about, it was easier on eye and foot. It did look, though, as if the deepest plow had passed through the fields, turning the soil with its very rocky foundation on top. Hills sprouted here and there in what used to be a level ground, some of them as large as small mountains. The travellers took their time, walking at leisure. Dar had decided they had nothing to hurry for, so they might as well save their strength.
On the second day of following the brook, they had arrived at a place where the hills gradually turned more steep and ragged; the bed of the little stream had sunk between too tops, becoming a canyon. The terrain had turned even more uneven, the women began finding walking along the stream a real hardship, in places even dangerous. At last they arrived at a spot where the river bed dropped abruptly, and the stream plunged into the deep new ravine in the manner of a waterfall.
Nim looked around her in astonishment. “What’s happened here?” she whispered in awe; “it looks so different from what it used to be.” “Yes,” Dar thought, not answering, “like everywhere else; you’re lucky you haven’t seen the City and its surroundings.”
Not being able to follow the waterfall, Dar led their way upward, leaving the stream behind. They climbed a newly formed mountain, and paused close to its top to look at the new countryside around them. The fall glittered like a necklace of diamonds. Beyond it, the slopes softened as the canyon widened, and the brook turned into a small river. After Nim’s initial cry of wonder, there was nothing more they could say. Dar let the girl get used to the changes in her own pace.
At midday, they reached the mountain’s peak, and sat down for a snack of dried fruit.
“Look,” Nim called suddenly, pausing in her munching, pointing, “there is someone there.”
Raising her eyes, Dar saw in the distance black dots in the sky. ‘There are those ravens again,’ she mused. “These crows have led me to you, you know,” she commented.
“No,” said Nim,” below those black dots. There’s a woman there, sitting on that protruding cliff over the river. I don’t know how she manages not to fall.”
Dar looked hard. “I don’t see any woman,” she said at last.
“There, you see that cliff? Don’t you see that woman sitting on it, combing her hair?”
Dar looked at the cliff, then back at Nim.
“There’s nobody sitting there, Nim,” she said slowly, “it’s just the shape of the rock.”
She examined the girl’s face closely.
“Oh, she’s gone now,” Nim cried, looking at her companion with supplication in her eyes. “Do you think she’s fallen off the cliff? I saw her so clearly!”
“No, don’t worry yourself about it,” Dar said, hugging the girl to reassure her; “she’s probably gone on her way.” Thinking, “Whatever’s possessed the girl?” She was absolutely certain there had been no one sitting on the cliff. But what about those crows? She had no answer, so she kept silent.
They continued on their way. For a couple more days they went down one hill to climb another, all the time having the river in sight below. There was evidence of the area having been built up, but nothing much was left of any living signs. They spent the night sleeping in sheltered crevasses, thanking their luck for the dry weather.
On the evening of the second day the travellers found themselves in a gulley between two peaks. They lay side by side on the one blanket they had carried from the villa estate. The sky being cloudy, the night was soft and warm and Dar slept soundly. She rose at dawn, driving any memory of her dreams from her mind. She was still seeing snatches from her life before the Catastrophe, but refused to dwell on them. Looking at Nim, Dar noticed traces of tears on the girl’s cheeks.
“Did you have a bad dream last night?” Dar asked when Nim woke up.
“Oh, it was awful!” The girl burst out, sobbing. The woman took her in her arms, rocking her in a pacifying, rhythmical way.” Did you dream about your family?” She ventured a guess.
“They were terrible, as they were just before the Catastrophe!”
“Come on, tell me while we are having breakfast.”
“Orn had had enough of it, you see, and she wanted to go away again,” Nim cried, agitated. “I heard them arguing, shouting. Everything was breaking up, and they wanted to separate us, Col and me! They were fighting when all this happened, and they never had a chance to make up...”
“You did not want to leave your father?” Asked Dar, encouraging her to talk.
“He was not my father! And my mother was never married to Jimo! But Col had been like the first brother I’d ever had, I’d been looking after him since the beginning; and now they were going to separate us! I couldn’t take it! I couldn’t take it...” She gasped, her speech braking up. Dar stroked her head, patting her back. Nim breathed deeply. “That’s why I left the house, went to sit on the steps. That’s how I was saved when the house fell on top of them...”
Dar finally heard Nim’s story. The girl’s passionate heart broke while she was telling it, when the full meaning of disaster had dawned on her. She finally realized everything that had compiled her previous life had gone forever, and this realization pierced her heart like a sharp dagger. The shock that had acted as an anesthetic smothering all pain, deadening all her emotions, had now dissipated. Telling all that had happened to her to Dar reawakened her feelings. A mixture of distress at her loss, and a deep gratitude to the woman, who had saved her, filled her heart. All her deprived love was now turned toward the physician, together with a sense of both devotion and dependence. Dar was her new parent, one she could rely on much more than on the one that had gone forever. Nim found comfort in Dar’s company, emotional support and rational guidance that she had never had before in her life.
“Is it better to have the memory of a good life destroyed, like I had, or a bad one, like Nim’s,” Dar asked herself, not knowing the answer. “We don’t have to think about it any more,” she whispered. “It is all gone now. They are all gone, your family and mine. Maybe they are happier at the place they have gone to, but we are here, and we have to go on living the best way we can.”
She was not sure how much of what she had said Nim assimilated, but the girl’s weeping had assuaged at last. The sun was rising, the world, in spite of its sombre landscape, looked cheerful enough. Nim and Dar shrugged on their backpacks, picked up the carrier bags, then started to climb up the next peak. It was going to be another nice day, and they had better take advantage of the weather as long as it was holding fair.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar