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Chapter 8 The Follower

by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 15 June 2006
Word Count: 3074
Summary: It would be great to have some more of your helpful comments on this. Thanks!
Related Works: Chap 7 The Follower • Chapter 1 of the Follower - re-written • chapter 5 The follower • Chapter 6 The Follower • Chapters 4 & 5 of The Follower (Revised) • Fiction YA -chapter 1 of a novel: The Follower. • 

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The yellow dog stood quietly in the traces, showing no surprise that it was the girl and not the old man who was holding the reins. The old man handed her the whip.
“I won’t use that,” she said, pushing it away.
“You think you won’t but you will.” He threw it into the cart. As he let it go, he seemed to lighten, stand taller, look younger, as if he had been relieved of some heavy burden.
He sighed, and looked at his own fingers, wrinkled skin around narrow bones. His hand had frozen into a clench around the handle of the whip. He flexed his fingers, and smiled.
“Good,” he said softly.
Then he slapped the dog’s rump with the flat of his hand. The dog went into a quick trot, shoulders pulling, ears flat, muzzle pointing forward along the road. Mariposa was taken by surprise. The cart bumped and jostled along the paving stones, shaking her as she tried to keep her seat. She turned to wave but the old man was not there. She frowned.
He must have gone inside the house, she thought. If so, he had moved quickly. She turned round, to concentrate on the reins. But the dog seemed to know exactly where he was going.
“I’m really going,” she exclaimed aloud, and then was quiet, because all around her was a terrible hush. It was too empty to be loud. She was delighted that she had left, but at the same time terrified.
She thought again and again of the voice on the phone. She knew it belonged to the person whose breathing and heart-beat she still heard. Someone who could follow inside you, who could whisper in your ear the things you needed to know. Maybe there was someone looking after her, helping her get home. It made her feel braver.
“Thank you,” she said, quietly, to nobody. Prince pricked his ears as he trotted along.
She made herself keep remembering the image of home, the little house, the dry road. She searched for other memories, trying to recall the smell of the chickens, the dust on her skin, trying to remember what was inside the little shack. And as she looked down at the road below and ahead of her, she suddenly remembered the smell of hot tarmac, and dust. A road you went along to get to a city. There was a large, blue, metal thing, full of people, with baskets full of hens and vegetables and eggs. Sometimes they passed around a flask of tea, as the metal thing went fast and bumpy along the road, and the fields to either side wanted rain.
It’s not the same place as the hospital, she thought. It’s warmer. When I see it I’ll know it. Like the back of my hand.
She looked down at the back of her right hand; the freckle on her brown knuckle, the smooth oval nails. She was getting to know it. It no longer looked as strange as it had when she had seen her own reflection, transparent and frightened in the glass door. That seemed a long time ago.
The sad skies above her cloaked themselves. The long grass whispered at the dead road. The wheels bumped and creaked over the uneven stones. The pad-pad of the dog’s paws on the road fell in with the steady rhythm of her breathing and of the other breathing. Along the side of the road she thought she saw a figure, cloaked, hooded, keeping pace with her. But when she looked, quickly, it was only the shadows in the grass.
But where am I going? she wondered. The City on the Deep River or the City of Unfinished Towers? Wherever I get first, I suppose. I hope the angels will help me…I wonder if it’s an angel following me?She remembered a dusty road, and the bicycle she used to ride every morning: white and red with rust eating at the frame. It was a very old bicycle, and it squeaked and whined as she rode it down the road. She felt the ache in her leg as she pressed down on the pedal. She was going somewhere, but hard as she tried she could not remember where.
She travelled for a long time in the cart, straining her eyes through the dim light. No other building came to light. And she began to think strange thoughts: she thought that perhaps the old man had ceased to exist when she left him. Perhaps there was no black forest from where she had come. Perhaps Jack and Gaby did not exist. Perhaps there would never be anything else, but the scarred sky and the miserable clouds and the bumping of the wheels and the squeaking of the cart, and her own cold hands on the reins and the yellow dog pad-padding on through the darkness on the broken road.
Just as she thought that, the dog began to slow its pace. In a few moments it had come to a complete standstill. It stood staring out into the darkness, away from the road, its ears alert, its head raised as if it awaited some signal.
“Come on, Prince,” said Mariposa. The dog neither moved nor gave any sign that it had heard. She looked out into the darkness where it was staring, but she could see nothing. Remembering the terrible cry she had heard before, she felt anxious and cross. “I’ve got to get to the City. Let’s go.”
The dog ignored her. She wondered what it could hear or see that she could not.
“Get on with it!” She shook the reins. The dog gave a casual, low growl, which hardly seemed to vibrate his throat. He did not look towards her.
Mariposa looked down at the whip. She did not want to touch it, but there it lay, black and heavy. It could not be ignored.
“You’ll make me use the whip,” she said pleadingly, “and I don’t want to.” She knew this was a poor thing to say, and the dog seemed to think so too. Her knowledge of her own weakness made her angry. She reached down and let her hand close over the butt of the whip. She had expected to find it heavy and hard to manage, but it almost seemed to lift itself. She had only intended to shake it a little, but the cord slung out like a biting snake, and the air snapped like a fire-cracker.
The dog yelped, snarled, and bolted - off the road, into the grass. Mariposa clung onto the cart, as it was dragged over stones at speed, pitching and scraping and creaking. The yellow grass thrashed her skin. A wheel hit a stone and the cart went flying, sending her over the side, into the grass. Something struck her head, there was roaring darkness, then nothing.

When she opened her eyes, she knew at once she was not alone. There were bodies all around her, watching her. When she moved, she heard a faint growl, a shift of breath, and she smelled dog. She lay still. Her head ached.
A wet, toothy muzzle pressed into her face, and rank dog breath choked her. There was another growl, menacing, and then sharp teeth nipped her shin. She squealed and sat up.
A circle of ten dogs surrounded her. Some sat, some crouched as if ready to spring, others stood and watched her carefully, without fear. The splintered remains of the cart lay scattered in the grass. Prince was nowhere to be seen. These dogs were patchwork, a jigsaw of tan and dun and black and brown and grey. When she stood up, the growling was suddenly louder, and suddenly all the dogs were on their feet and showing pale, pointed teeth and long red tongues.
Distantly she heard ough-ough-ough, and a long keening howl. After a pause it was repeated, further away. The dogs behind her began to move in, pressing towards her. She stepped away from them, and the dogs in front too began to move, away from her, but keeping the circle tight. As they began to trot, she increased her speed, trying to get away from them, but as they broke into a run, she realised, stumbling into a run herself, that she was being herded, driven through the grass. The dogs kept easy pace beside her, loping dark shapes in the darkness.
She tried to veer to the side, to escape them, but as soon as she did so the dogs closed in again. Wherever she turned, harsh growls echoed at her and jaws snapped close to her ankles. If she slowed down, they were at her heels, snapping and biting. If she increased her pace they matched it at once, with ease.
“Stop, please, stop,” she gasped aloud. But there was no answer, only the quick pad of running paws on the ground, the hissing of wind in the grass.

They ran until her breath hurt her sides, and she was stumbling more than she was running. Every time she fell, the dogs closed in with grim teeth, forcing her to her feet with fear. Finally they slowed their pace. She came to a halt, gasping for breath. When she could look up, she saw the first trees she had seen since she had left the forest. They grew along the edge of a shallow cliff: tall, dry as scaffolding, bare save for huge clusters of leaves growing in the forks. There was buzzing in her ears, a mist of noise that she could not understand. Then the leaves rippled and the buzzing intensified, and she realised she was looking not at leaves, but at swarms of bees high in the trees. They glittered like black gold.
The dogs were sitting round, panting with their tongues out, but their eyes were lit and alert. She thought they could still run a long way if they had to. She sat down carefully, not wanting to alarm them. But as soon as she sat down a big dog was at her, snapping and growling. She stood up again hastily.
The dog drove her over to the trees, looked up into the branches, then back at her. He barked, a single, clear bark that felt flat into the unwalled air.
“What do you want me to do?”
The dog looked at her as if she were stupid. She felt stupid. He looked up into the branches again, and bared his teeth. Then he snapped savagely at her ankle. She jumped back. The other dogs leapt to their feet, their jaws bared, growling as they watched her, their long taut limbs ready to spring. They closed in on her, snapping silently. She gasped, and thought: they’re going to attack me! She grabbed a branch of the tree and swung herself up into it. The bees’ note rose and the swarm glistened and quivered, hanging fragile above her.
The dogs had backed away. They looked up at her, as she sat in the lowest branches of the tree. One licked its chops deliberately.
Honey, she thought.
She began climbing, cautiously, up towards the swarm. Bees sting, she thought. They’ll sting me to death. A few stray bees circled down around her. She shook her head, trying to shake them off as they crawled on her skin, dry and itchy. Her hands were sweaty and trembled as they gripped the branches. I can’t, she thought. I can’t. The fear was like grey clammy clay, smeared inside her. If she tried to climb any higher she would lose her grip and fall. The bees were a storm caught above her, brittle with lightning stings, buzzing like unconsciousness.
She leaned her head against the trunk of the tree. I can do this, she thought. I can. I have to. She reached up and slid her hand into the swarm of bees. They buzzed anxiously and settled on her arm, a scratchy tickle. When she pulled out the honey-comb, bees were glued in it and glued to her arms, but they did not sting her.
She let go of the comb and it splattered on the ground below. The dogs jumped forward and began to nose into it. She was glad to see that a couple of them got stung, and jumped away yelping, on stiff legs.

After they had eaten the honey, they looked up at her, growling.
I could just stay up here, she thought. They can’t get me. But she was tired, and she did not know how long she could hold on. She scrambled down out of the tree. The dogs surrounded her at once, the pack tight about her. They drove her before them, towards the edge of the cliff.
It was not steep, and she could climb down it almost as quickly as the dogs. At the foot of the cliff was a flat, dust plain. Far in the distance she could see the opposite cliff.
The dogs went slowly now, trotting along as if they knew they were nearly home. She looked around her. Rocks punctuated the shallow dust depression between the two cliffs. No, not rocks, she thought. There were too many straight lines, smoothed out by the wind, and once her foot rang on marble slabs.
She heard the lonely calling of dogs in the distance, and pale shapes headed towards her through the gloom: young puppies and bitches with heavy teats or bellies, older dogs with scarred legs and torn ears. They ran to the dogs who had just returned, whimpering and sniffing and licking, tails thrashing with delight. She sat down, unnoticed, as the dogs leapt on the ruined walls, and nuzzled their families, and the puppies nipped ears and were growled at. For a moment, she felt jealous. They were home and she was not. The City was getting further and further away, and with it, her chance of finding home.

In the time that followed, Mariposa was allowed to wander freely within what she thought of as the camp, but if she tried to leave the dogs turned on her and snarled and growled. Once or twice she tried to run. They brought her down with no effort at all, even with a long grin that suggested they liked the game, flowing close to her legs and felling her with a single snap to her ankle that was shallow and well-judged enough not to cause permanent damage. She still had to be able to climb the trees.
Every morning she was taken by the dogs, out to the honey trees. The glassy swarms moved and hummed like deep voices, like voices made visible and hung in trees. The bees crawled in her hair and on her lips and her skin, but she was never afraid of them again.
The dogs seemed to love the taste of honey. Once she licked it from her hand - still not hungry - and it was bitter, salt, not like honey at all. Perhaps they’re not really bees, she thought.
The low ruined walls provided some shelter from the constant needling of the cold wind, but not enough, and the dogs took the best shelter.
This was a city once, she thought, running a hand over the worn shape of a wall. It had fallen into utter ruin. Buildings had been flattened, even the rubble had unshaped itself to formless boulders, angles weathered to the smoothness of tree boles. The cliffs had no end that she could see. They stretched on and lost themselves in the dim light. Bending down, she ran dust through her fingers and found it was layered with the slightest of bones: shells, thousands of them, mostly crushed to powder. She realised it was a dry riverbed. The cliffs were not cliffs, but banks.
How can a city be built in a river? she wondered. Unless it dried up long before people arrived here. But where did they go? Why did this place get broken? When she lay down to sleep, she heard the breathing in her ear. But it sounded like the breathing of a dog, she heard whimpers and whickers in the sound, the exhalation of air over sharp teeth in a cold night. The heart ran like paws treading the hunting grounds. She dreamed like a dog, of long nights and long running, silent hunting and the grip of jaws in warm flesh. At times, she thought she was a dog.

Once she was woken by the same awful cry she had heard before. It burned through the night, mad and gleeful and full of deep horror. She sat up, tense and cold, smelling it at once: like cold, old sweat. The dogs were listening, their eyes bright and their pale fur shining in the darkness. Then she saw it, on the edge of the ruined city. It was tall as a horse and had hooves of bone, a long narrow head and slit, yellow eyes. Its hide was covered in pale gold, thin hair. But its single horn was made of cloud, of darkness and fire. The cloud was turning in a cyclone, and lightning floated in it. A devil, she thought. She felt as if she had become part of the earth, trapped, terrified, pinned down.
The dogs leapt to their feet, silently watching the devil as it watched them back, its long head turned a little to one side, its teeth like human teeth, its meaningless smile just the lips grinned back from the scissor-jaws, the horn a cold silent light-storm. The dogs circled it, closing in, silent. The devil faded from view in the darkness. She saw the dogs crouch, leap onto darkness, others hanging on its legs, tearing at its flanks with their jaws. The devil’s cry rang out again, and she cowered and covered her ears. She heard splintering bone and yelps of pain. Then there was the sound of hooves fading swiftly into the night, and after a while some, but not all, of the dogs, came trotting back into the camp, some with limbs dragging, or jaw hanging loose. In the morning the ground was stained with dark blood. She was filled with horror and pity, without knowing what for: the dogs that would not run again, or the lonely, terrible howl and the thing behind it.

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Comments by other Members

Issy at 16:59 on 17 June 2006  Report this post
The mystery continues! I may have no real idea what is happening or what this is about, but I just love reading on. It is tantalising. I thought I had a few clues in Chapter 7 but now I am lost again -unless the bicycle is a clue.

This episode makes me think of "The box of delights" with its weird and changing images. I couldn't work out why the bees only stung the dogs, but wasn't put out as in this disorientated world anything can happen or be different.

Despite not understanding the images, I am convinced that there is an explanation for everything which ties together in some way.

Very powerfully written, with some superb lines that jump out and emphasise the strange semi-real world: cord slung out like a biting snake; The long grass whispered to the dead road to mention a couple.

Steerpike`s sister at 17:13 on 17 June 2006  Report this post
Thank you Issy, the bicycle is definitely important, and the idea is to keep feeding in these images and half-memories that eventually come together and make sense in the end. She does get to the city in the next chapter. If the strangeness/ mystery isn't putting you off reading on, that's good.
The box of delights is one of my favourite books of all time!

MF at 10:46 on 19 June 2006  Report this post

There's something almost cinematic about the writing; even without much description, I can 'see' the action unfolding, and I want to read more.

This might be the animal lover in me speaking now - but I'm particularly interested in the relationship with the dogs. There's a tension that comes from the fact that they're animals, and wild ones at that, and yet I get a sense that their companionship almost outweighs their ferocity (does this make any sense? a bit like the tiger in Life of Pi...)

nr at 17:35 on 25 June 2006  Report this post
Hi Leila
I'm just dipping in (still not finished draft 3 and getting frighteningly close to deadline). I've read both Chs 7 and 8 and I'm enjoying the book enormously. Loved the telephone in 7 and intrigued by the change in the old man here. I was sceptical about the ease with which Mariposa got the honey comb without being stung and then you wrote
Perhaps they’re not really bees
. Neat.

The descent of the cliff felt too hurried in comparison with the paced of the rest and I felt there was something a bit cursory about 'In the time that followed,Mariposa was allowed to wander freely...' and 'Every morning she was taken by the dogs...' I think it's because you usually build up a sense of the setting/experience at a more meditative pace. Could be I've read the chapters too fast and carelessly so don't take what I say too seriously.

I like the way bits of memory are coming back to her. And as Issy says lots of powerful lines. I too was very struck by 'The long grass whispered to the dead road.'

Sorry to be so brief. I'll come back to comment in detail soon I hope.

Keep going - it's great.


Steerpike`s sister at 17:45 on 25 June 2006  Report this post
Thanks for reading & encouragement, Naomi, and good luck with the draft! You are probably right about those bits being rushed. I was trying not to make it even slower paced than it is, but may have to do smthg different there - will think on.

Smilingrightatyou at 22:28 on 03 August 2006  Report this post

Being new to this site I haven't read any of the previous chapters so I'm not in a position to comment on plot development. However, as someone dipping into this mid-story, I just thought I'd say that I found your writing very evocative and almost poetic at times.

The sad skies above her cloaked themselves.
I may be being dense here but this description failed to conjure any image in my mind. I'm not entirely sure what is being described here.

In the time that followed
This phrase seemed to jolt slightly. Seems too vague and slows down the pace of the chapter; loses some of the immediacy that you've captured in the previous section.

This is great though and I look forward to having a look at the rest.

Best wishes

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