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The Follower Chap 3

by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 16 February 2006
Word Count: 2425
Summary: I thought I'd post chapter 3 as one tends to send 3 chaps. plus synopsis to agents/ editors, so it's useful to know how the first 3 chapters grab people as a whole. As usual, any comments are welcome, anything I've missed or could improve - etc. Previous chapters are in the archive for anyone who wants them.

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“I see salamanders in the fire.”
Mariposa sat quite still as the bronze ladle was lifted and scorching water poured over her back. She sat in a hip bath in front of a thumping, singing fire, the flames bickering and jabbering over the wood. Steam thickened the air to soup, through which she could dimly make out the shapes of a dresser, a sink, a broad table, objects hanging from meat hooks driven into the ceiling. Her hands were fat with heat and her feet felt like two roasting birds. The girl emptied the remainder of the hot water over her back, and put a full pan onto the hob to heat. She was older than Mariposa, strong and muscular, with a face like a clenched fist: closed and broad and red. She wore a white dress, bunched at the waist and a dirty apron. An old cloth kept back her hair.
The girl picked up a little white bundle, using the fire tongs, and thrust it into the fire. Mariposa realised it was her pyjamas and dressing gown.
“No one here would believe me,” the girl said, pushing the clothes into the fire, with a look of disgust, “but I can tell you, because you’re a stupid dumb girl from nothing.”
Mariposa had woken up in this room, with the policeman leaving, and the pans of water on the hob almost boiling. She had to be cleaned, she had been told. Devils could have slid under her skin, in through a cut or a graze. If she felt an extra bone, where one should not have been, if there was a swelling in her throat, that could be a devil. Then she should tell them at once. It would have to be removed.
“What are salamanders?” she asked.
“Oh, you speak, do you?” The girl hitched up her sleeves and bent to scrub Mariposa’s back with a brick of bone-coloured soap. “You’d better not have any devils on you. I had one once. It was right here.” She laid a finger on a white scar on the inside of her left wrist. “It hurts, you know. Cutting them out.”
Mariposa did not say anything. Beneath the thunder of the fire and the splash of the water, beneath the girl’s angry chatter, she could hear something, something she had been hearing ever since, it seemed, she had left the forest. A heart-beat, just out of step with her own, so close it was almost her own. Almost. Thump, went her heart, and - bump, answered the other beat, almost in step, following her, a fraction of a beat behind. She breathed out, and just behind the breath, she heard another breath exhale in reply. It was as if there was someone following her. Someone inside her, almost the same as her. Almost, but not quite.
“What are salamanders?” she asked again.
“There aren’t really any, stupid. I just dream them.” She began scrubbing Mariposa’s feet so hard that she squealed in pain. “You should be grateful. It hurts more if they get under the skin. You know they can slide under your tongue and make you say things?”
“What about in your ears?” whispered Mariposa.
“In your ears, of course. You hear voices.” She rammed a soapy finger into Mariposa’s ear, and scrubbed it around. But when she had pulled it out again Mariposa still heard thump - bump, thump - bump. The close heart-beat.
“Where do devils come from?” she asked.
“Nothing. Outside.”
“Outside what?”
“Here.” She grabbed Mariposa’s arm and pulled her up. Painfully, on sore feet, Mariposa hopped out of the bath. The girl handed her a bundle of clean-smelling clothes. Mariposa unfolded them. A boy’s suit jacket. Brown woollen trousers, like the men’s. A T-shirt, with a picture of a ship on it. She looked at the picture, and for some reason her heart began to beat quickly. The other heart-beat speeded up in step, two running feet following each other in her blood.
“Put them on and come and see Father.”

Father turned out to be the leader of the policemen. He sat in a small bare room, at a desk made of an old door laid across two barrels. His helmet was put aside on a high shelf. There was a large stack of papers to his right. As Mariposa watched, he removed one and wrote something on it with a long feather pen. Then he took a heavy stamp from an ink tray in front of him, stamped the paper, leaving a red seal, and added the paper to the pile on his left. The pen scratched at the paper and the stamp hit it with a bang. This he did over and over. Scritch-scratch bang. Scritch-scratch bang. Thump-bump, thump-bump.
Mariposa stood at the door waiting for him to notice her. Her head felt light and strange, without its hair. It doesn’t feel like a devil, she thought. It doesn’t hurt, and it’s not making me do things. I don’t want them to cut me open. Then she thought: would I know if it was a devil? How do I know it’s not the devil thinking and not me? After all, I don’t even know who I am. She nearly opened her mouth and confessed to having a devil, but then she thought. I do know who I am. I’m Mariposa. I decided on that.
The policeman looked up and smiled distantly, as if he were thinking about something else.
“Mariposa - I hope your bath wasn’t too unpleasant.”
She shook her head.
“Am I going to the city now?”
“Not just yet. Soon. I have some work to finish, first.”
She craned her head to see the documents. He pushed them abruptly to one side.
“Administration. Tax collection. Surveys. Nothing very interesting.” He left the desk and came over to her, putting his hand on her shoulder, and walked with her down the narrow wood-walled corridor, past the kitchen, through a large room where the men she had met earlier sat, playing a game with red and brown counters. They nodded at her politely. She barely smiled. Added to the heart-beat and the breath were light footsteps that were always almost in step with her own.
Outside there was a fine rain. In the distance she saw a black shadow that might have been the forest, or might have been simply shadow. There was a well some distance from the house. The bucket creaked in the wind. Beyond that she saw the shape of another house. The clouds above turned and turned as if threshed by a monstrous wheel. Behind them, a yellowish light oozed through cracks.
“What is that?” She pointed at the sky, meaning the dying, violent light.
“The sky.” He frowned, and said, as if repeating a lesson: “I know it is hard when you’ve come from nothing. But this is it. This is all there is. There is nothing outside. ”
“But you said there was a border,” she said. “There has to be something else, if there’s a border. What’s on the other side of the border?”
“Nothing. Do you see?”
No, thought Mariposa. But she nodded.
“Who lives there?” She pointed at the other house.
“That is the forge.” He seemed glad to have the subject changed. “The smith works there.”
He turned back into the house.
“At the City they will be able to help you find out all the things you need to know,” he told her. “We are just the border police. We pass people on.”

There didn’t seem to be anything she was expected to do. The game the policemen played was too complicated for her to join in. Just as she thought she begun to understand one rule, there turned out to be exceptions.
“It takes a long time to learn,” the police chief said kindly. “Years.”
In the end she wandered outside. The rain had stopped, and she could see the distant forge. For want of anything else to do, she began to walk over there. The grass was dry despite the recent rain.

Inside the forge was dim and smelled of hot metal, leather and ash. She looked around curiously. In the centre was a pit where hot stones throbbed. By the walls grey nuggets of rock were stacked. Tongs and bellows lay on a long wooden table. Against the walls leaned long spears, with handles of pale wood, and heads of iron. She shyly tried to pick one up. It was much heavier than she had expected. The only thing that looked out of place was a wooden box on little wheels. The seat was worn smooth, sloped and shiny, as if it had been much used. It looked like a child’s toy.
“So you’re the girl from Nothing.”
She jumped, dropped the spear and turned round. The voice came from her height, but it was a man’s voice, not a boy’s or a child’s. She was looking directly into the face of a man in his twenties, with broad, muscular shoulders, intelligent blue eyes, and a thin, wispy blond beard. She looked down, thinking he was kneeling. He was not kneeling. His legs were shrunken, thin and crooked.
He smiled at her astonishment.
“I’m Jack. Small but perfectly formed.” He grabbed the box and shoved it, rattling on its wheels, across to the table. Following it, with a, quick, limping walk, he hoisted himself up onto it and leaned over the table, sorting through some pieces of metal. “Well, small, anyway.” He grinned to himself. “So, what’s it like in nothing?”
“There’s more light,” said Mariposa.
“Ah, light.” He sighed, and stopped what he was doing, gazing into mid-air thoughtfully. “That’s a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing, they say. I can’t remember.”
“I don’t really know where I am - or - or who I am.”
“They told me you were Mariposa. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes - but -”
“That’ll do. Have you been cleaned?”
“I couldn’t get any more clean,” said Mariposa. “Are there really devils everywhere?”
“Look.” He held out his hand to her. There was a crescent-shaped, puckered scar across the base of his thumb, as if someone had bitten him. “They took me out to the forest once. I saw an apple hanging on a tree and I went to pick it. It bit me. Half of it was red and half of it was mouth.” He turned back to his work.
Mariposa stared at the scar. The breath that followed hers quickened as her own did. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw someone standing next to her. She turned and stared into the dark corners of the forge.
“And what’s going to happen to you?” he asked.
“I’m going to the city,” she told him. “The City on the Deep River.”
“That’s lucky for you. They say things work in the city. It‘s guarded by great men with wings, angels, who make sure things happen. Everything goes right there, they say. When are you going?”
“As soon as the chief finishes his work.”
“His work!” Jack threw down his tools and laughed a violent, humourless laugh. “Did you see him stamping papers?”
“Yes. Tax collections, and surveys, and…”
Jack jumped down and grabbed her arm and marched her to the door of the forge. A third set of footsteps, heard by her alone, followed them. They stood and looked out into the shadowed distance, the ominous sky with its load of clouds, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but never lifting beyond a scorched dimness. The long yellow grass rustled like ghosts under the wind.
“Look at it, Mariposa. Do you see anything to tax? Anything to survey?”
She shook her head, nervously.
“There isn’t anything. Every year, he takes a census of the Borders. Seven people live here. Seven people have always lived here. Know what he does with the returned forms?”
She shook her head again, hearing the secret breathing, the secret heart-beat.
“Files them,” he said with a certain vicious satisfaction. “Files them, and never looks at them again.”
He let go her arm and walked back into the forge as if he were disgusted with what he saw.
“You mean he was lying? He won’t really take me to the city?” She was suddenly terribly afraid of being stuck out there, out on the empty borders with nothing around her and nothing to listen to but her double heart-beat.
“Oh no,” he said, surprised. “He’s a good man, the chief. He will take you. But that’s his work, don’t you see? Levying taxes that are never paid, on buildings that fell down centuries ago. He makes out the forms every month, and sends them away to the City to be validated. Sometimes one or two come back, with the stamp of the wrong department on it, or no stamp, or an unreadable signature, or no signature. Sometimes they don’t come back for years. Mostly they don’t come back at all.” He laughed again, more softly this time. “He’s very meticulous about it. After a month or so, he stamps another piece of paper and files it. No one has ever come to ask for the taxes that haven’t been paid by the people who don’t live in the houses that don’t exist. Nobody pays him for his meaningless work. And this has been going on for ever.”
Mariposa thought of the man, carefully, uselessly, meaninglessly, stamping those pieces of paper, signing them, piling them, filing them… The thought made her dizzy. So much paper, for nothing.
“But why?” She added. “He must be mad!”
“Mad?” He shrugged, bending over the table, his hands rubbing at a piece of metal as if, she thought, polished well enough it would shine out the answer. “I don’t know. What should he do? What should any of us do? I used to think he was mad, but now I don‘t know any more…” He paused, and then suddenly threw down the piece of metal with a clang. “Look at me,” he said, his voice low with shock. “I’m polishing a piece of scrap metal.”
Mariposa left the door and went and looked at the piece of metal. It was a jagged lump, no good for anything except melting down and re-using. He had polished it to a dull shine.
“This is a terrible place, Mariposa,” he said, under his breath. “Perhaps it’s different in the city. But this land has a broken back.”

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Comments by other Members

shepline at 19:30 on 17 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I think I preferred this chapter to chapter two - it harks back (in some sense) to the first one. I am left wondering whether the city that she is heading to is the same as the one in chapter two (don't worry I have gone back and read the synopis!!) and I don't think this is any bad thing.

I'm still very much interested in this, and it still has very much a William Nicholson feel to it - not that it's in any way a copy but I can see it appealing to the same audience... :)


nr at 20:41 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
I really thought this was great. I haven't read the earlier chapters but this had me totally gripped. The strangeness of the story and the richness of the description both appealed very much. I've dived over in the middle of struggling with a chapter of my own so I won't do detailed comments now but I wanted to say how vivid and engaging I thought the writing was. I'll go and read Chapters one and two in the next couple of days.


nr at 16:53 on 08 March 2006  Report this post
I've now read Chapters 1 and 2 and I really like your style and the strangeness of it. I almost wish I hadn't read the synopsis so that I could read have read the book chapter by chapter and discovered the mystery that way. I can't wait to read more. It's totally compelling.

The first chapter with its eerie empty hospital is wonderful. I don't agree with Terry about there being too much description, at least in the hospital section. I very much liked the material about the peeling paint and the coffee cups. (By the way - is she unable to distinguish between green and blue or did you mean that the beds had once been painted in one of these colours but that it was no longer possible to tell which?). I was happy to wait for emotional involvement with the character. In fact I think giving those visual facts and nothing else helps to place the reader in the same position as the narrator who has nothing to go do except observe since her memory provides her with no identity.

I did find the mobile phones and digital cameras a bit incongruously precise in terms of period but that's perhaps just because I liked the mysteriously unlocated quality of hospital. The shift to the forest works beautifully.

Like someone else, I liked chapters 1 and 3 best - not sure why which isn't helpful. Perhaps because the forest seemed more familiar (someone mentioned Narnia) than the city.

Minor point - there's a line in chapter 2 (I can't go back to it without losing this post) about the fine gold hair and the stink where 'it' meaning the hair, is dropped but ' it'meaning the stink remains on Mariposa's hand. There's a syntactical ambiguity here. Sorry not to be more precise.

Anyway, terrific stuff. Well done.


steve_laycock at 19:07 on 13 March 2006  Report this post
like the others i really like this chapter and can feel the story gathering pace here.

The first chapter had wonderful descriptions and a really mystical tone to it, and in this one i really feel like I'm in the world. I wondered whether you could try going straight from chapter 1 to chapter 3, maybe using 1 as a prologue.

still loving it, though

Steerpike`s sister at 14:17 on 17 March 2006  Report this post
hi, and thanks for all your very useful feedback.
Naomi, you said:

(By the way - is she unable to distinguish between green and blue or did you mean that the beds had once been painted in one of these colours but that it was no longer possible to tell which?).

I meant that it was no longer possible to tell which - that it was an ambiguous turquoise colour. I wanted it to add to the sense of uncertainty, the feeling of being out of place (she’s in a world where even the colours evade identity).
&you continued:

I was happy to wait for emotional involvement with the character. In fact I think giving those visual facts and nothing else helps to place the reader in the same position as the narrator who has nothing to go do except observe since her memory provides her with no identity.

You’ve got it - that’s exactly what I was aiming for - to make the reader feel how it would be to wake up as a baby might, with everything absolutely new and strange. Of course, she has language - green/ blue, for example - so she isn’t precisely in the situation of a baby, but I wanted something approaching that. I wanted the feeling that she has to begin all over again, interpret the world from the beginning - which is emotionally what she has to do when adjusting to the loss of her parents.

I wanted her story to feel as if it’s taking place in a dream - you know how in dreams everything is at the same time strange and inexplicable and yet you’re not terrified, you find yourself able to move through it with a certain detached purpose. That might be why she seems to feel confident (something Steve mentioned, I think).

Thanks again for the feedback,

Issy at 18:56 on 17 March 2006  Report this post
With apologies for taking so long to catch up with this story, have now reread Chapter one, together with chaps 2 and 3 but haven't found the synopsis referred to which is good as I can take it as it comes.

Returning to Chaper 2, I accepted immediately that the main character had moved (in the mysterious way set up in chapter one,) to somewhere else, so the reference to whispering people below was confusing and made me think I had got it wrong. I then went back and reread before reading on.

There is a reference to "Towns don't just disappear" but in fact I was prepared to believe that they did, after all her memory has disappeared and she has now moved from a silent empty hospital to a buzzy normal town and into a forest. Am happy to suspend belief.

I did think the walk through the forest was too long and needed a bit of cutting to get to the action at the end of the chapter a little quicker.

I noted the three references to beasts in various ways and have stored this up as this is a clue to something.

Chapter 3. I liked the heartbeat very much - how wonderfully original! A heartbeat away.

There is a hand on the shoulder. I think because we have so little to go on in this mysterious world that any repetitions are grasped eagerly as they may lead us to make sense of it. I therefore, rightly or wrongly, connected the man's hand on the shoulder to the sensation that had been referred to several times before.

Just as she though she learnt one rule... turned out to be an exception. This so sums up the scenario so far, not only for the main character but for the reader to. The game is complicated! Really liked that touch.

Are there only seven people there? It "felt" like more in some mysterious way. I like the strange meaningless stamping and sending of forms, sort of Kafka. They use spears, believe in devils and have no internal plumbing yet have a lot of forms - there is something satisfying about this. To my mind this suggests that for some reason a more advanced society has gone into decline. Just my rambling of course.

All good and intriguing writing in my view. Maybe in thenext chapter it is time to give the reader some small insight as to what is going on.

Look forward to the next installment and good luck with your submission.

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