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Chapter 9 The Follower

by  Steerpike`s sister

Posted: Sunday, October 1, 2006
Word Count: 2976
Summary: It's been a long gap between uploads - sorry about that! It is finished, and any day now I am planning to sit down, re-read, edit and do a big subs. push.
Related Works: Chap 7 The Follower • Chapter 1 of the Follower - re-written • chapter 5 The follower • Chapter 6 The Follower • Chapter 8 The Follower • Chapters 4 & 5 of The Follower (Revised) • Fiction YA -chapter 1 of a novel: The Follower. • 

One day, she heard thunder far away. The sky flashed with stuttering lightning, moving from cloud to cloud. By its light she saw the dogs standing alert, listening for something. The heat built but there was no rain. A lazy, dark wind began to whip the tops of the distant trees, and the bees lifted, and settled, and lifted again, circling and buzzing.
The dogs bounded from side to side, whimpering. She had never seen them frightened before, and it made her more afraid. They could drive off devils. She did not want to know what they could not face.
I might be able to get away now, she thought. She began to creep towards the cliffs. The dogs ignored her, and that made her even more afraid. She saw a bitch running to her puppies, still too young to walk, and nosing at them anxiously. Then the dog stopped, her ears pricked, looking up between the cliffs to where the wind was blowing from, and she growled. Other dogs had already broken from the pack and were running for the cliffs. They passed Mariposa, ignoring her, their ears flat, their tails between their legs, fleet shapes heading away from her fast as fire. Seeing them run, she began to panic, and started to run too, heading for the cliffs. No dog tried to stop her.
There was a distant rumble, but it did not sound like thunder. Too late, the rest of the dogs howled and bolted. A wall of wind, carrying trees, carrying earth and rocks and red sand, swept down towards them. The ground shook and the wind filled the world: a wall of churning dust. Mariposa stopped and stared. She could not run. Her legs became weak and useless as she saw the great darkness sweeping down on her. She was filled with a terrible fear for which she could find no matching memory. There was water. Not dust. Water. Her mouth opened in a soundless shape that was neither a cry nor a prayer. It hit her with the force of an earthquake. Dust packed her throat and her eyes and her ears. She was buried in the sandstorm, a great fist sweeping across the land, breaking everything.

She opened her eyes with her head still spinning. She lay under the bare trees. The bees were gone, but there was still a buzzing in her ears, or a rushing, or a whispering like many people in a stone building. Her lungs and her throat burned and her lips were cracked. There was red dust everywhere, in her throat, on her skin. Her chest was wrapped in bandages, and it felt sore and tight.
She remembered dreaming, of herself in a dress too large for her, laughing, running over winter-hard fields. She was much younger. The dress smelled of happiness, smelled of the person who was running after her, laughing too, unseen. A game of dress-up and chase.
Where was I when that happened? she wondered. Did it even happen? Or did I
just dream it?

She sat up. There was a woman looking at her. She was squatting on the ground. She was slim and tall, and she had beautiful dark eyes, eyes that shone the way stars would shine if they were made of shadows instead of light. She smiled at Mariposa.
“Hello,” said the woman. “Are you feeling better?”
It was a long time since Mariposa had seen anyone smile. The last she remembered was Jack.
“Yes,” she said, warily.
“You were lucky. The sandstorm killed many of the dogs.”
There was another sound in Mariposa’s head. A heart-beat. She jumped up, frightened, before she remembered what it was. The woman looked at her in surprise.
“Is something the matter?”
“Nothing. I thought I heard something.” There was no breathing any more. Just the heart-beat, tracking her own.
The woman shook her head.
“There‘s nothing here. Just us. No need to be afraid.” She smiled at her. “Where are you going? Or are you wandering, like me?”
“I’m going to the City. But I‘m not sure which one.”
“There’s only one City. The City of Blue Light and Thunder.”
Mariposa stared at her.
“But what about the City of Unfinished Towers and the City on the Deep River?”
“It’s all the same place. People call it different things.”
Mariposa shook her head in amazement.
“No one seems to talk to anyone else here,” she said angrily. “Everyone tells me different things, and they all seem to believe only themselves. It’s as if everyone lives in their own closed world. And they can’t find the way out, or they don’t even want to.”
She rubbed at the dust on her face and on her lips. When she breathed in there was a bright needle of pain in her side. She coughed.
“Are you sure you’re feeling better?” The woman sounded wistful. “I used to be able to cure people, you see. I’d have liked to have tried to cure you.”
Mariposa hurriedly stepped back. The woman laughed.
“Oh, I used to be a good doctor. My cures worked - they weren’t anything painful, just medicines made from the right kind of plant. But nowadays they don’t work very well. In fact, they don’t work at all.” She sighed. “Wounds just fester, and then heal, and after a while the illnesses leave, or people become so used to them they don’t notice they’re sick any more.”
“Isn’t that good?”
“Look.” Unexpectedly, she put her hand into the fire. Mariposa exclaimed, but when she brought her hand out, the flesh was darker, as if it had cooked, but it was not red, or bleeding. “We don’t bleed. There’s just dust, and grey flesh, and after a while it heals, always. It’s not life. It’s not health. It’s nothing.” She looked at her hand curiously.
“You don’t bleed?” Mariposa looked at her hand in fascination.
“But you do. You scraped yourself badly on the rocks. There was real blood. You can’t be from round here.”
“I’m not.”
“Then where are you from?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for it. I know it’s there somewhere, my home, but I don‘t know where it is.”
“What does it look like? I’ve been to so many places. I might recognise it.”
“It’s a little white house, and it’s by a dusty road, and there needs to be rain.” She paused, looking eagerly at the woman’s face, but she gave no sign of recognition. “There are some chickens, and a bicycle. And the fence is held together with wire. I think part of the roof is metal, like a sheet of tin. When it rains, it’s like being in a rattle.” Looking at the woman, she said suddenly, fiercely, “I just know I miss it and I have to find it again.”
The woman shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But you know, it’s funny. I know I lost something and I have to find it again. It’s the most precious and important thing in the world, but I don’t know what it is. I can’t remember. Isn‘t that stupid?”
“Not as stupid as not knowing where your home is or who you are,” said Mariposa.
“Everyone’s missing something here,” she answered. “Things are lost and broken. Even I’m broken. I used to be a good doctor, you know. Now – I’m useless.”
“Could you cure devils?” She wondered if the woman would say they did not exist. “Does it really hurt a lot to cut them out?”
“There’s only one cure for devils, and that’s growing them out.” She smiled. “Cutting doesn’t work. They come back eventually.” She stared into the fire. “I once saw a salamander,” she said, abruptly. “Before – long ago. But there’s nothing there now, nothing in the fire but fire and more fire.” The flames crackled as she spoke, burning sticks slid and ash collapsed upon the embers; sparks flew up, glittering.
“Yes - creatures made of fire. They come from tiny seeds like sparks but they grow into great, astonishing beasts like living stones with liquid rock for blood. They can travel through fire, at least they used to be able to, once, long ago, and they used to be able to fly. They tell secrets, and wisdom, to certain people. And devils were terrified of them; there were hardly any devils when the salamanders were here. It’s great good luck to see a salamander. But no one’s seen one for so long now. I suppose there’s no good luck left. Certainly,” she sighed, “there’s none for me.”
Mariposa remembered what Gaby had said to her, a long time ago now, it seemed. She wondered where Gaby was, what she was doing. Was she still sweeping the floor, still breaking things? Did she still see salamanders?
“We can’t get stuck,” she said quickly. “We’ve got to keep looking for what we’ve lost. I’m going to go to the City. They say there are angels there who can explain everything, and there aren’t any devils. Why don’t you come with me?”
But the woman shook her head.
“I’m saving it for last,” she said. “I promised myself I’d look all through the plains first. I decided that and I don’t want to change now. I’ll take you to the river and you can get a boat to the City from there. It’s not far.”
“But what about the road?” asked Mariposa.
“Road?” She laughed. “You won’t get anywhere on the road.”
“Why not? Is it too far?”
“That road doesn’t go anywhere. It was never finished.”
“But why not?”
The doctor shrugged. She began to cover over the fire, choking it with ashes and stones.
“I suppose they asked themselves: where is this road going to go? and came back with the answer: nowhere.”

They walked together for a long time without speaking, through the long grass. As they did so, Mariposa realised that she felt perfectly natural, and familiar with the doctor. It was as if she remembered walking with her before, a long time ago. The movement of her hips, the way that she paused upon the crest of a rise to wait for her, looking down calmly to check she was still following - all these were familiar. She knew the woman’s movements better than she did her own. And there was a smell about her that she recognised, something buried so deep in her that it was impossible to find.
“Tell me,” the woman said once, “shouldn’t you have more hair?”
Mariposa pulled off her fur cap and put her hand to her head. Her hair had grown slowly, to a slight fuzz.
“They cut it,” she said.
They walked on. Mariposa did not ask how the woman knew her hair used to be longer. Somehow it would have spoiled the way she felt, and she already knew, or guessed, the woman would not be able to answer her. It was as if the feeling of closeness was something light and tender, fragile, that could be frightened away with a quick movement or a thoughtless word.
They walked on across the plain, through the long grass. And someone else, someone whose heart beat in the same rhythm as her own, walked beside Mariposa. If she kept the figure in the corner of her eye, she could feel it walking alongside her, but it was not there, it was far away, across great distances and still getting further and further away from her, but always in step, always walking parallel as if they were joined like iron compasses at some point far beyond their bodies.
A hawk hovered above and ahead. Watching it, Mariposa was sure she heard it breathing, the rush of cold air through cartilage. She felt the round curve of the earth under her feet like prey and the shake of air as the bird dropped. Then it was gone, lost from sight in the dim air, and she could not pin the breathing to it any more.
Later as they walked she saw a low hill in the distance and on the hill a man on a horse, looking towards them. She saw the horse’s flank shiver with its heart-beat. The man and the horse were a single thing, like a candle and its flame. She lifted a hand above her head to wave, and the air shuddered and she could not see them any longer.
They passed a patch of yellow flowers. A yellow moth, a fleck of light in a world of light, moved and she knew that the flicker of its wings was the heart beat that echoed in her ear. She put down her hand to it, and it fluttered through her fingers and disappeared. When she looked up the darkness hurt her eyes.

“I think I came from somewhere else,” she told the woman. “But they say there’s nothing outside.”
“People tell me that, too. But I remember some things. A blue bus.”
“A bus!” exclaimed Mariposa. “Yes, that’s the word. A big metal thing that goes on roads -”
“ - a dusty road -”
“- and it was full of people who all smelled sweaty -”
“- it was so hot, and some of them had chickens in baskets-”
“- and it was a long, long, way to the city.”
They looked at each other, smiling, excited.
“Do you think we came from the same place once?” asked Mariposa.
“It could be.”
“Do you remember what girls like me are usually like?” she asked the doctor. “Only I can’t remember, you see. And I’d like to know.”
“I don’t know…” The woman frowned. “I’ve been here so long…I think,” she said uncertainly, “I think they like riding bicycles.”

“The thing I lost,” said the woman. “At first I thought it was a thing of great worth, like a diamond, or the key to a secret box. So I looked in shops and people’s houses, but I didn’t find it. Then I thought that perhaps it was a small thing, something that no-one else would care about, but that would mean everything, to me. Something like a pebble picked up on the road, or a piece of wind-carved wood. I looked at stones, I turned up things in ditches, I looked at trees, I looked for the wind, I looked into rivers to see if it was a fish or a piece of weed. Then I thought that maybe it could be a view, or a smell, or a sound, like the wind in the grass on the yellow plains. So I came here and started looking. Now I think it could be a single blade of grass on these plains. It could have lived and died before I reach it. It could be a colour I once saw in the sky. You could go mad thinking about it. Perhaps I won’t even recognise it when I see it at last.”
“But maybe it will recognise you,” said Mariposa.

After a long time walking, Mariposa saw something gathering on the horizon. Great pillars or towers the colour of black gold, with jagged tips, jutted from the plains. The tops of the towers flamed with a pale blue light. The light fluxed and waned. It was the only shining thing on the plains, a mine or sink of light. Around it, black shapes turned in the air, vast birds banking among the pillars, their broad wings using the air for balance. Thunder earthed itself among the high windows. She heard its ripple and crackle, and the air tautened as if it tensed itself to spring. Lightning raked out of the rainless sky and clambered down the buildings, leaving a burning after-glow in her vision. The great birds crawled like spiders: bright marks when she closed her eyes.
“That’s the City,” said the woman, pausing. “The river is just over there. Can you hear it? It runs quickly.”
As they walked forward, she not only heard it, a great whispering hurry, but saw it; a wide, black, fast-running river between low banks edged with black plants that grew neither fruit nor flowers, but lay withered and dank. Against the bank stood a long, flat-bottomed boat. Some people were already sitting in it, hooded and muffled in cloaks. A few whispered to each other, but most sat silent, looking at their feet or their hands. At the stern stood a tall man with a long pole. His face was covered in shadow. He wore what she thought was a long cloak, but when she looked again she saw it was great dark, dusty, grey wings that covered his whole body like a shroud
“Must you go?” asked the woman. She looked down at Mariposa, her eyes familiar and foreign, like a language learned and forgotten.
Mariposa looked at her and then at the boat.
“I have to get home,” she said.
The woman nodded, and touched her cheek softly.
“Don’t forget me,” she said.
“I won’t,” said Mariposa. She turned away, to the boat. The ferry-man looked down at her as she stepped aboard. His eyes were small and bright as stars.
“I haven’t any money,” said Mariposa.
“There is no fee,” he replied. “Not for going into the City.”
He pushed the boat away from the bank with the long pole. Mariposa looked at his shrivelled, claw-like hands on the pole. Can he be an angel? she wondered. She had been expecting something different. He did not look as if he would look after anyone. She wished she had asked the woman, but it was too late now.
She turned and waved. The woman raised a solemn hand. Mariposa watched her standing there, her figure growing smaller and smaller, until she was gone in the darkness.