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Chap 7 The Follower

by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 20 May 2006
Word Count: 2386
Summary: I hope I'm not posting too often here! It is just very useful to get the feedback, it really helps with revision. In this chapter, Mariposa gets some new information, and it changes her attitude (and hopefully makes her less passive!)

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She began by taking up the cloths. A cloud of dust so fine and heavy that it was almost solid spilled into the air, nosing down into her lungs. She broke out into a coughing fit almost as bad as the old man’s, and retreated into the kitchen, glad he was not there to laugh at her. When the dust had settled, she went back in with a wet broom, and swept most of it out of the front door into the yard. Then she began dismantling the walls of junk. She rubbed and scrubbed and cleaned and washed. She dug away at dirt with her nails, she clotted thick spider webs and flung them out of the door into the yard. As she worked her heart lightened and she began whistling a tune she did not know the name of. She was amazed and entranced by the things she found. Lifting each object into the light and cleaning it, its name came back to her, sometimes slowly, sometimes at once, but always, at last, allowing itself to be named. She pounced on the new-remembered words with delight.
“That’s a - a mangle! You use it for drying clothes. And that’s a canoe. And this weird thing’s a bicycle, but it’s broken.”
She took everything out in the yard to clean it. Some things she came across had no names, or none that she knew. Chief among these was something she thought might be a musical instrument. It consisted of two wide, shallow bowls of dull reddish metal, that fitted together to make a hollow whole. It rang like a bell when she tapped it.

The old man came home in the dog cart, and stared at the pile of objects in the yard. Mariposa watched him nervously. He said nothing, just put the dog back in the kennel, and said “Get me some tea.” She hurried to put the kettle on. When she came back outside he was staring at the thing she had thought was a musical instrument. He kicked it with his foot. It rang heavily.
“What is that?” she asked.
“A salamander. You put hot stones in the bottom, screw the lid on and it heats the room. You can have it in the kitchen if you like. Going to clear up all this mess, are you?”
Mariposa stared at the salamander.
Why would she dream of seeing those in the fire? she thought. And the fire’s in it, anyway. She could not work it out.
Perhaps, she thought later, sleepy and warmed by the salamander, it’s like the breath, the person following me. I feel like a shell with the sea trapped in me. Except the shell is in the sea. It’s always the other way round.
Clearing the front room took, she estimated, days. In the process she found a rocking horse, a diamond necklace, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a fish slice, some shelves, a leather library chair, a string of paper butterflies, a Christmas tree, a couple of paintings, one of a storm at sea and one of a bowl of fruit, a bag of kitchen sponges, and a potato.
She looked at the potato thoughtfully, then took it outside, dug a hole and planted it. The old man sneered at her.
“It won’t come to anything.”
“It might,” said Mariposa. She watered it every day, but there was no sign of life, and in the end she had to conclude that the old man was right.

As she was clearing out the last of the junk, she came across something the size of a big teapot, heavy and squarish- round, wedged into the drawer of a broken commode, and wrapped in brown paper. She unwrapped the paper.
“A telephone,” she said, surprised. It was the kind with circular holes to stick your finger in and dial the number, and a heavy receiver that dinged faintly when you shook it. She took it outside and dusted it off. It was automatic to lift the receiver to her ear. She sat on the hard dust ground, the wires of the phone hanging free, and listened to her own breathing, and to the other breathing that accompanied it.
“Hello,” she said. “Hello. I’m Mariposa.”
There was no reply, except for the echo of her own breathing, or someone’s distant breathing, as soft as the wind racing over the wings of wild birds in the cold sky, heading north.
“I hate housework,” she said, and giggled. “I don’t know who I am. If I find out I’ll have to stop being Mariposa.” This thought had never struck her before, and she was silent for a moment, trying to imagine not being Mariposa. “I’ll be that other person I was before, I suppose. I wonder if I’ll miss being Mariposa when I’m not - when I’m me?”
The dog was watching her intently, and, on a sudden, silly impulse, she waved to it. It pricked its ears, but otherwise gave no sign of acknowledgement.
I’m talking rubbish, she thought, but I don’t care, no one can hear me.
“I want to know why nothing works here. I want to know who’s following me. I want to know who I am. I want to get to the City.”
She put the receiver down, feeling foolish. But it was good to talk to someone, even herself. It felt as if she had unlocked something inside herself, a casket from which, suddenly, bright unexpected desires and curiosities came tumbling out.

Over the next few days, or weeks, she got into the habit of lifting the receiver now and then, dialling a few numbers at random, and listening to the nothing for a moment. Sometimes, she said “Hello,” and sometimes. “Hello. I’m Mariposa. Who are you?” Then she quickly put the phone down in case someone answered.

One day she went to throw the dirty water out in the yard and paused in astonishment. The potato she had planted had sprouted. There was a tough green shoot poking up through the dry earth,
“It’s growing!” she shouted, and stopped, shocked at herself, her hand over her mouth. The shout seemed to echo off the clouds.
The old man came over at a swift trot. When he saw the shoot he stopped and stared.
“Huh,” he said at last. “The burglars’ll get it.”
“There aren’t any burglars,” said Mariposa delightedly. “I haven’t seen a single one. They don’t exist.“ She thought: this feeling is called happy.
The old man’s mouth pulled a sour, slant, unforgiving line.
“I never could grow anything,” he said at last. Then he turned away and went back into the house.
Mariposa felt sorry for him, but she was too glad of the change to feel very guilty.

That night, she was woken unexpectedly from a dreamless sleep. She lay quietly, trying to work out what had woken her. There was a sound outside, the crunch of a shoe scraping the earth.
Burglars at last, she thought, and sat up quickly. But no-one tried the door.
Mariposa went to the window and looked through cautiously, careful not to be seen. The thought that there might be burglars after all was a little frightening. But anyway, she reminded herself, nothing works here. So they probably won’t get far.
But there were no burglars. Outside, the old man was grinding the side of his shoe into the little potato shoot. Then he bent down and viciously grubbed at the earth with his nails, raking up the plant. Finally he spat on it. She could see him breathing heavily, containing the coughs that threatened to burst out. He looked sharply up at the kitchen window, but by then she was already back under the sink, sitting silently, hugging her knees. She heard him tiptoe inside, closing the door cautiously behind him, then the creak of the floorboards as he crawled back under the table.
What did he do that for? she asked herself. She felt as bruised as if it had been her who had been torn up and ground down. Things were just starting to work. Anything could have happened, and now it won’t. Why does he have to spoil everything good? “That’s all he knows how to do,” she whispered to herself. “I hate him. I hate him.”

That evening, he set the table with more than usual care.
“There were burglars last night - see what they did to your plant,” he told her. She refused to look at him. “There’s one fellow in particular - a nasty, big, ugly brute. He likes breaking things. Maybe we’ll trap some tonight, don’t you think? Hey?” He waited for her to answer, and as she did not, said crossly “Cat got your tongue?”
“What do you think you’re going to do with burglars, once you’ve got them?” she asked, her patience running out.
“Teach ‘em the error of their ways. They can’t go on mocking me. Sneering and flouting!” He hammered the handle of the whip on the side of the sink. In her mind, she rehearsed, the edge of the cloth, a jerk of the wrist, the cloth flying like soft snow, the explosion of crystal shattering on the cold floor.

After they had set the table, she sat on the floor, watching the edge of the lace cloth, light and floating in the shadowy room. Upon it the crystal glowed like a net of stars, so clear and bright and clean and pure that even to look at it hurt her heart. She raised her hand and let it fall. White stars exploded in her head, glass scattered like water on the floor, diamonds disintegrated, a smash of light.
But if I break this, she thought, then there’ll be nothing good left at all. She felt so sad and angry that she nearly pulled the tablecloth after all.
But instead, she reached over to the telephone, put away in the dark corner. As the old man read and mumbled, she lifted the receiver, and dialled numbers she could not see in the dark. She listened to her own breathing, and to the other breathing, the breathing of the thing lifting away from her, pulling away from her, distant, breath waxing and waning like a swift moon, and the continuing pulse of its heart, beating like a star. And then, over the breath, over the unconnected receiver came a faint, distant voice. It was like the voice of the wind or granite. It said her name, twice: Mariposa Mariposa. Then it said: Come home.
“Home,” she said aloud. It tasted like a drink of water in a desert.
She had a brief, sharp vision of a place. A little white shack, in the middle of dry fields, by a dusty road. In the distance were mountains. The crops were shrivelled in the furrows. In the yard, behind wire, a few thin hens scratched. A red and white bicycle, held together with string, laced with rust, leaned against the wire fence.
She let the receiver slip from her ear.
There’s a place somewhere, she thought, that’s called home, and it looks like that. I’m sick for it. When I get there I’ll know who I am. It feels like someone’s dropped a heavy stone into me, and it’s sinking and sinking and the ripples are spreading and spreading. I must go home. I must go right now. She jumped to her feet. The old man woke with a snore and a cough, as she headed to the door. He scrambled out from under the table, dropping the poetry book, and hobbled after her.
“Where d’you think you’re off to?” he shouted.
“Home,” said Mariposa. She was already half-way across the yard. There was nothing to take with her, nothing she owned. As the darkness enclosed her she felt fear flick up like a flame, but she crushed it, and kept walking. She had somewhere to go now.
“Oh no you’re not! You’re my housekeeper! You’re staying here!” He shook the whip at her.
“You can’t stop me,” she told him. “I’m sorry, but I have to go home.”
“Have to go! Have to! I’ve lived here forever and I’ve never gone anywhere. You don’t even know where your home is! Maybe you don’t even have one.“
“I know I have a home,” she said angrily. “I’m going to look for it. I’m going to start in the City.”
“What do you want from the City? Angels, I suppose - that’s all you think about! Don’t I heat you with a salamander? What more do you want?”
“You were never even nice to me!” she shouted back at him.
“Nice! Hah! Nice! Nice doesn‘t wash yer curtains!”
“It’s better than being sour and miserable and small and lonely and scared,” she said angrily.
“Scared? Who’s scared?” he asked indignantly.
“You are,” she said, realising as she said it that it was true. “I don’t know why, but you’re scared. You break things because you’re scared. Maybe you’re scared because you break things. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m not going to be scared any more. I’m going to the City on the Deep River and I’m going to find my way home.” She carried on walking towards the road, half-flinching, expecting the blow of the whip on the back of her neck. The old man did not reply, and she thought that he had given up, but then he said, more quietly: “City on the Deep River? There’s no such place. You must mean the City of Unfinished Towers. And you’re just going to walk, are you? All the way to the City? Know how far it is?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she called back without turning. “It’s better than staying here.”
“You’ll get nowhere. You’d better take the dog cart.”
“I’m not coming back!”
“I know.”
She stopped walking and turned and stared at him.
“But you won’t be able to get anywhere,” she said at last. “You’ll be stuck.”
“I can walk when I have to.”
“I can’t take it.”
“You leave in that cart or you don’t leave at all,” he snarled at her.
She realised that this was the kind of gift that could not be refused.
“Alright,” she said.

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Comments by other Members

tiger_bright at 15:31 on 20 May 2006  Report this post
I'm coming to this blind, which is probably not terribly helpful to you(!) but I've decided it's better to start diving in and commenting on newly posted chapters than to keep telling myself I don't have time to go back to chapter 1 of everything and read from scratch, so here goes...

I really liked this. I liked Mariposa and the tension between her and the old man. I loved the potato planting and its destruction. But most of all I loved the telephone. It was such a clever and subtle device for exposing her emotions and inner voice:

She put the receiver down, feeling foolish. But it was good to talk to someone, even herself. It felt as if she had unlocked something inside herself, a casket from which, suddenly, bright unexpected desires and curiosities came tumbling out.

It had the feeling of a classic (almost gothic) tale but I'm guessing it's set sometime in the future. There was a flavour of Margaret Atwood here, but you have a strong and unique voice which marries a beguilingly traditional narrative with a surprising sense of a world gone wrong, or simply out of step with itself. I found myself wanting to travel with Mariposa and find out what was going on. Great stuff.


Issy at 15:35 on 20 May 2006  Report this post
This continues the strangeness of before yet it develops into something else. The items in the room seem to relate to ordinary things which would be in an ordinary house, but all broken or disused and I have the feeling that they are things in Mariposa's own home.

Even, is the house she is staying in her own home in some strange way, I wondered. That she is starting to name some things seems a breakthrough point.

How the telephone is used is superb. I feel it is a line of communication to someone, somewhere. I do get the impression that someone is calling her, but whether this is the outside world, (of normality?) or her own inner self, I don't know. Maybe the other heartbeat?

I am beginning to wonder if this is a near-death experience, or if Mariposa is in a coma, but that in some nightmarish way, that all these images and events refelect her life in some way.

I have no criticisms to offer, (other than maybe can dust be fine and heavy - although in this story I should think it could be anything) This is both well written and gives a fascinating story which will keep the readers guessing.

Its fine to be uploading as far as I'm concerned.

Steerpike`s sister at 08:41 on 21 May 2006  Report this post
I thought I put a response up here yesterday but it seems to have disappeared. It was just to say thanks for commenting so quickly. Issy - good guess about the coma/ near death experience! Tiger - I know what you mean, it's hard to keep up but definitely thanks for commenting, it was useful.
a world gone wrong, or simply out of step with itself.
is exactly what I was aiming for, and what a good way of putting it.

MF at 13:23 on 18 July 2006  Report this post
Brilliant writing, Leila - I'm sorry that I've come to this chapter so late, but I've been skiving at work, and couldn't resist when I spotted this on the Random Read!

Loved the use of the telephone - very clever, and a great inspiration to get us, as writers, thinking about various "devices" that our characters might use to talk to themselves...

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