River Gum - Chapter NinePosted by omnipredation on 2007.11.18 at 11:59
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No comment. Really. What a mess.
Previous Chapter NINE. The day after his grand exposition, Teddy made himself scarce, leaving Nat to watch whatever he could find on the satellite channels. There was quite a lot to watch, but unfortunately, most of his thoughts turned inward and he tuned out the television as a result. Several times he missed Malina Campbell, and, in an excess of guilt, forced himself to focus until she reappeared after prime-time news to give her report again. Sunny skies, low humidity – possible rain showers overnight and on the morrow, with temperatures remaining pleasant and steady around 23ºC; overnight lows expected to fall below 20ºC to about 19.8. The air would be mainly calm, with winds from the northwest, speeds ranging from 5 to 10kph. It was fine weather for early autumn, declared a climate expert, who supported the belief that the brief drought had met its end before water shortages grew noticeable. Nat tried to sit through a few more snippets about pollution and climate change, but the advert about a program to air later focusing on super storms was the only thing worth noting. The rest of the news was simply depressing, but Nat had never been especially fond of cartoons or films with real people in them. He tried to sit through an animated film and found himself wishing for the depressing news. After changing channels lazily for the better part of an hour without managing to find even a single documentary that looked even remotely interesting, he conceded defeat and switched off the set. Perhaps I need something to eat, he thought, working his way to the kitchen. There was a series of brightly coloured sticky notes on the refrigerator in Teddy’s handwriting. The first one read, “Fresh sandwiches inside!” with an arrow pointing at the refrigerator handle. The second said “Please be careful if you choose to go out.” The final one was an afterthought: “And don’t cross the river.” “Be careful,” muttered Nat to himself. “Sure. But ‘don’t cross the river’?” Isn’t that kind of a given in my condition anyway?” He looked at his legs in disgust and wondered when the casts would come off. Then there would probably be a great deal of painful and grueling (and probably costly) physical therapy. Wish I could mount an umbrella on this, he thought as he examined his chair critically. It was probably possible, though not while sitting in the wheelchair itself. Thankfully there was no chance of rain, but what worried Nat was the fact that the radar seemed increasingly unreliable insofar as the sorcerous storms were concerned, as were most of the forecasts. It alarmed Nat to think these things could simply appear, but the alarm was quiet and vague now. He was getting used to it. He pulled open the refrigerator and took out the plate of sandwiches, peeling back the plastic wrap and helping himself to three of them. They were perfectly snack-sized, and it was a wonder there were any left if they tasted as good as they looked. Nat sniffed one. Tuna. He shrugged and bit one in half to chew on. The plate was returned to the fridge and Nat got himself a paper towel to hold the other two as he finished the first. Having set them on his right cast for a whole of thirty seconds in order to free his hands, he hoped that they wouldn’t taste like plaster or anything nasty. “Time to go.” Fishing his house key out from under his shirt, he made sure the sandwiches were securely folded in the paper towel and let himself out the kitchen door, locking up after. He coasted down the ramp and through the garden to what seemed like a safe space – safe because there was distance all around, no plants or trees encroaching or pressing in on all sides. Nat wanted to try deliberately evoking his “second sight.” A few deep breaths later, he was no closer to seeing anything. He had to calm himself, for he was feeling a combination of fear and giddy anxiety. The sandwiches were forgotten on his lap as he closed his eyes and thought about the colours he had seen in the garden before and elsewhere in times past, willing them to appear when he opened his eyes. Nat opened his eyes and was instantly disappointed: nothing had changed at all in his surroundings. It was still a typical, tranquil, well-tended garden, rendered in average colours. There wasn’t even a hint of violet in the sky, and he looked long and hard, rather desperately, even. A lot of effort went into maintaining his resolve to experiment. It wouldn’t help to get angry and quit so soon. Sure, it would be frustrating to try and then fail repeatedly. But if I don’t try, then I’ve already failed, Nat scolded himself. So, after another bite of one of the small sandwiches, he shut his eyes again and waited to feel some change. He wondered if visualizing the colours of Terra Immaniter might help, so he tried to remember details without expecting them, so that when he opened his eyes again he wouldn’t be seeing only the illusion of his hopes. He felt a shift in the breeze around him, and it carried the smell of the river. There was nothing to point to and say “This is different.” The air wasn’t any hotter or colder, and it had not become any sweeter, nor had it become sour. Instead Nat felt a slight pressure on his eyelids, as if the air was curious. His ears rang briefly. Now or never, he thought, and he cracked open his left eye. It appeared he had been successful. The lavender sky was brilliant overhead. The path beneath him was black, as was most of the plant life. Strange wisps of cloud moved sedately across the sky, all of them a paler shade of purple, or perhaps they were white and it was the background over which they traveled that tinted them; Nat had no idea which. He opened his right eye to get a better look. The strangeness of it was almost appealing when he was seeing it by his own choice, on his own terms. It was exotic and refreshingly austere in many ways, and in other respects it resembled its name – wondrous and savage. “Terra Immaniter,” said Nat softly to himself. He smiled and finished his second sandwich, dusting his fingers off onto the paper towel before gripping his wheels and proceeding down the cracked black pathway, which was now and then bordered by greyish sand glittering with specks of pinkish mica. It took some skill to avoid the thorny creepers and long wild branches that crawled from their beds and mounds, reaching out to ensnare his chair’s tyres at every curve. Gradually Nat felt the ground begin to slope. He checked his progress frequently as he approached the river, and he rolled abreast of it a ways until he reached what he thought was the best vantage point from which to gawk like a tourist; in order that he obey his uncle’s advice, he angled sideways to keep himself from sliding further than what might be considered “safe” and locked his anchors. Nat wanted to devour all the sights with his eyes. He had no idea if he could preserve this vision in his mind like a photograph, but he tried. He would never forgive himself if this was the last time he saw this place and he neglected to commit every possible detail to memory. Vague recollections from films and dreams collided and presented themselves back-to-back with the rolls of mental snapshots he captured. Snaking sedately below, the glowing pink River Gum washed up and over the white stones that lay disarranged in its path. Nat thought some of them looked like columns, and others like floor slabs or steps made for giants. He began to create a story about a fallen temple, and it was such an entrancing fancy that he became distracted by the questions he raised… as always, there were more questions than answers. What would a temple be doing in the middle of a river? Maybe, Nat postulated for his own entertainment, the temple was built long before geology routed a river here, or in a time of remote antiquity the river may have been a small stream that passed by or near the structure, originally only a trickle – now a placid pink flood. Nat thought his thoughts sounded somewhat educated, and he thanked the many hours he had spent watching history and learning channels in between the interesting weather programmes. He scanned up and down, wondering if there was anything else interesting floating upon or sunken in the river that he could find and examine from his distant seat. There, lying sprawled on the opposite bank, was a spindly black-clad person, nigh invisible on the bruise-coloured grass and dirt. Nat was fairly sure it was her: the girl with no name. “Oy!” Nat called out, waving energetically at her from across the river. She jolted upright as if from a doze and shaded her eyes, casting about for the speaker. When she found Nat, she waved back. “Hullo! You stay there, I’ll come across,” she shouted, patting grass from her person and bounding down the slope. She approached the half-sunken rocks and nimbly mounted the column closest to her side of the river. The column acted as a sort of bridge onto the larger slabs that stuck up like square teeth from the water. She navigated the stones with the grace of an acrobat, her feet hardly touching one section of exposed marble before she vaulted onto the next. If it weren’t for the fact that dry places were designated as anything not pink, Nat thought the feat might have been impossible. “I’m not eager to roll away,” said Nat, mostly to himself. The girl was climbing the softer slope up to Nat’s position on the hill, and she reached him quickly and grinned before bending to rest her hands on her knees to catch her breath. After her skilled display of river-rock jumping, Nat hadn’t really expected her to be winded. She seemed too spry for that. “It’s about time you came back,” she said breathlessly. “Sorry to have kept you waiting?” said Nat. “Glad to see we both enjoy our morning exercise.” “I have been waiting. I suppose that uncle of yours kept you? And how can you be exercising when you’re sitting down?” She straightened up and looked at him pointedly. “Now I remember why I don’t much like you,” said Nat, but he was too glad to see her to find himself truly cross with her innocent remarks about his (currently handicapped) state. “It exercises my arms.” “Oh. I’m sorry if I offended you again so soon,” she said, raising a lock of her black hair and playing with it instead of looking at Nat. It was a deep true black with blue-violet highlights that reflected the strange light from the sky, and today she had woven beads, a few gold feathers, and handful of dead flowers into some of the thin braids that tangled in her otherwise straight hair. She was really very pretty, Nat realised. “Um, I guess it’s alright. I guess you don’t see a lot of wheelchairs rolling around here, or wherever you come from,” Nat remarked. “I was born and raised in Terra,” she said defensively, planting one hand on her hip and cocking an eyebrow in contest. “Which one?” Nat countered, and this response caused the girl to break out in merry laughter. “Immaniter, of course! Terra Immaniter. It seems like your uncle’s been talking. About time!” she added gleefully. “Based on the assumption that everyone knows quite a lot more than I do about all of it, I s’pose I should be glad some knowledge finally rubbed off,” said Nat wryly, smiling despite the mild resentment he still felt. “Ahhh. So everybody’s been keeping secrets from you, have they?” Her merriment doused itself and became an expression of sympathy. “I don’t hold much with all that mysterious secret-y business, myself. ’S a bit rude, I believe,” she said thoughtfully. It was Nat’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Does that mean if I ask you a simple question, you’ll give me a straight and simple answer?” “Yes.” She spoke plainly and promptly. Nat approved. “That’s a bloody relief by now to be sure,” said Nat. He double-checked his brakes and clasped his hands in his lap. There were too many questions all queued up in his mind, tumbling over each other in a melee effort to be first, or to make their escape as one hive-minded organism of confusion. “But,” added the girl as she held up a finger to forestall any immediate questioning, “I have to warn you that I don’t know everything. I might not even know anything you’d consider worth knowing, but I can promise you right now that if you want to know something that I do know, I’ll tell you all I can.” She smiled and put down her index finger. “Is that alright?” “Let me ask this way, just to clarify – suppose I ask you a question and you’ve no idea at all; you’ll tell me you’ve got no idea?” A small gust of wind covered his face with his hair. He brushed it back and resumed trying to fix the nameless girl with what he hoped was a respectably stern look. “I do so swear,” she replied, and Nat had the feeling she was only half-joking. “And furthermore, I swear if I possess pertinent information, upon request I shall dispense it in its fullest form, uncondensed, and illustrated in encyclopaedic detail where applicable.” “Er,” said Nat, fighting the urge to laugh, “I think an old-fashioned straight answer will suffice.” “Where applicable,” insisted the girl. “I want to be sure you know you can trust me.” “My uncle intimated it’s unwise to trust anyone in Immaniter,” said Nat sadly, as though it pained him to mention it at all. He was feigning, hoping the girl would offer him more than an insubstantial promise. Teddy would be proud of my paranoia, he mused. “What? He knows he can trust me,” she snapped. “After all, someone without a name is put at a distinct disadvantage among the rest of you!” “I’m sure he just meant, um, everybody else,” said Nat guiltily. “He didn’t say anything about trusting or distrusting you specifically.” “I’ve always said we should worry more about the Venustas! If you want to know who never to trust, look right up at them!” The dark-haired girl had worked herself into a fine fury at this point. “From what I hear, that’s probably right. But I’m not there, I’m here, and I need to know if I can trust you,” Nat replied, making his voice as soothing as he could. “I don’t know if you want me to take some kind of oath or – since when is a person’s word not good enough?” she asked. I suppose it will just have to be enough for now, Nat told himself. He was giving his reply careful consideration, knowing he should be as honest with her as she had promised to be with him. He nodded and said, “It’s good enough. Thank you. I’m sorry if I seem suspicious or whatever, but I’ve had a bit of a rough time. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s not your problem.” That said, Nat chewed on his lip and gazed at the nameless girl from the corner of his eye, watching her watch him with her arms stubbornly crossed, her own gaze finally swerving away to examine the river instead. “Is it anything I can help you with? I’ve got… contacts, you might say. I can find things out, often as not in less than a week,” she offered after the awkward silence had stretched taut. “I’m afraid not, actually. My dad’s already dead –” “Oh no!” She clapped her hands over her mouth in horror. “Oh yes. He’s quite dead. It was an auto accident that might actually have been murder, if one believes my uncle, and that’s what happened to earn me these handsome ‘boots,’” said Nat as he rapped a fingernail against his left cast. “But they’re not really boots, you said so yourself. They’re because you were hurt when your father was attacked and killed. I told you I know some good healers –” Nat snorted. She made a face at him. “They’re most of them nontraditional. You might like them better than those physician-sorts who put your legs in ugly boots and tie you to a chair!” “I don’t know about that. I’d have to be very thoroughly convinced they weren’t charlatans,” said Nat. He had almost said “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but had thankfully thought before he spoke in order to continue impressing upon himself the new habit of trusting more and doubting less. “Oh, then I know just the one. The only hard part will be getting him to cross the river,” said the girl. Wheels were clearly turning in her head. “You crossed the river without any problem. Is it a mystical barrier or something to keep the worlds apart?” Nat enquired. “Not mystical at all. It’s only a natural barrier. The problem is that he hates water. But it’s not such a large river, so he could easily fly over it…” she tapped her lips with her fingertips and frowned. “I’ll ask him anyhow. You might get on. Um, well, at least as much as he gets on with anyone.” “Who is this person?” “His name is Tielhard. We go back a long way. He’s very good at what he does,” said the girl defensively. “What does he do?” “Nontraditional healing!” answered the girl brightly. “Oh.” Nat still felt rather sceptical about it. “To be honest, well, I don’t know how he does what he does. Tielhard doesn’t really specialise in human medicine, but I know how to get him to take a look at you!” The nameless girl was positively bubbling over with enthusiasm. “Bribery?” said Nat. “No, no. Well maybe a little. I’ve just got to remind him that curiosity killed the cat. He rises to the bait every time,” the girl replied with a mischievous grin. She clapped her hands together once as though to clarify a point. “Guess I”ll have to rely on your judgement then. Just out of – heh, curiosity – would my uncle approve of this if he knew about it?” Nat asked hopefully. The last thing he wanted to do was get off on the wrong foot and break some Immaniterian or custodial taboo by accepting aid; provided, of course, this Tielhard fellow felt like bestowing his “nontraditional” assistance on a human like Nat. “He’s bound to object on some level or other, but he’d eventually see it was for the best. Your normal physicians can’t be helping much at all if you still look so miserable!” the girl declared with absolute certainty. Nat wasn’t sure he could tell her that the real reason he looked so miserable wasn’t a physical one, or one that could be cured by a physician or healer. It was an internal affliction now – though his legs still needed a bit of work, too. He forced a smile anyhow and shrugged. “Well hopefully I’ll be looking less miserable soon. Believe me, it’s not like I’m enjoying myself like this.” “I wouldn’t think so. Just let me talk to Tielhard and I’m sure I’ll be able to convince him to help you,” she assured him. “I hope so,” said Nat. He wasn’t going to hope too hard. He was leery of the whole thing, but he promised himself he would not completely discredit the idea until he met this healer person, whoever he may be. “So what are you up to besides morning exercise?” the girl asked, folding her legs and sitting daintily on the dark turf. She began playing with her hair again. “Sightseeing, mostly. I had thought maybe I would look for you, but you weren’t exactly hard to find. Hard to spot, maybe, cause you sort of blend in with the grass…” Nat chuckled, and the girl grinned and plucked at the end of one of her ornamented braids. “I do it on purpose. If you’re hard to spot then you aren’t an easy target,” she said. “What’s that on your lap? It smells good.” “Oh. Um, it s a sandwich. You can have it,” he said as he handed over the paper towel with the third small sandwich. “Do you get targeted a lot?” Nat watched the river and listened to its quiet sounds while the girl pondered her answer. “I suppose so. It’d odd how having no name can make you so popular,” she observed, sniffing the sandwich before taking a bite out of it. Finding it agreeable, she ate the other half and wadded the paper towel between her hands, rolling it in slow circles while gazing off into the hilly distance. Nat wasn’t entirely sure, but it seemed like the geography of Terra Immaniter was somewhat different from the place he had left. He could not be sure without more thorough scouting of the land. For now he would just have to take not of what he could and compare and contrast later. “Speaking of that, what do I call you?” Nat had been referring to her mentally as just “the girl,” but that couldn’t go on. “You can’t call me anything,” she said. “I really have no name, and the curse was such a good one that I can’t be called anything at all. Really. I’ve tried all sorts of nouns and proper nouns, but if it refers to me, then it just vanishes. It’s sort of like trying to – oh, um, hammer a nail into water, or fix wet paper together with tape. It just doesn’t work! I’m not allowed to have another name as long as I live. Frustrating, but it is my fault for losing it, after all,” she finished, tugging at the grass and flinging bits of it about. “Are you sure you’ve tried everything?” This was quite a curious problem, and Nat decided impulsively that he would solve it even if it took the rest of his natural life. “My uncle tried to say your name but it came out like his voice had been somehow edited. There was a blank.” “Because my name doesn’t exist any more. It’s really truly gone,” she sighed. “Has anyone tried to rename you?” asked Nat. “Of course, but it slides right off. There’s some sort of catch to it, there’s got to be. Magic users are always terribly fond of that sort of thing. I’d have to get a new name put on me magically, and that sort of working doesn’t come cheap. It osts a lot more than I’ll ever have,” she explained sadly, pulling up more grass and shredding an exceptionally fat blade that caught her eye. “So it won’t work if I think you look like a… Diana? And I call you Diana?” The potential Diana made a face. “I don’t like it, so if you get it to stick to me, I won’t like you any more. At all!” “I understand completely, ___,” Nat said. He thought perhaps he had stammered, so he tried saying Diana again. “Diana!” The girl shrugged. “You weren’t referring to me that time. You were just trying to say Diana. That’s why you could say it. If you ever do manage to rename me, please make it something nicer than ‘Diana.’” She gave Nat a wistful look. “Sure. If I can’t figure out how to get you your old one back, I’ll make sure our new one is very pretty,” said Nat, hoping to get another smile from her. Wait, he thought, her. He latched onto the idea forming in his head and clung to it determinedly. “That’s very kind of you Nathaniel, but I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to break my curse,” she said. “Hold up, hold up. I’m thinking,” Nat said softly. “Oh,” remarked the girl. Nat thought and let his idea crystallise for a moment, then he said, “How’s it so different from your ‘nontraditional healing,’ anyway? If – ” “That’s physical healing. I have a curse. You can’t cure a curse with a potion and a bandage,” she interjected furiously. “Don’t you think I haven’t tried that?” More grass was uprooted and went flying over her shoulder. A light breeze lifted and carried some of it onto Nat’s lap, and he brushed it off his casts. “Let me finish next time. I was going to say that if you’d give me a chance, it’d be like me giving your friend Tielhard a chance. So do you want me to try it or not? Cause you look pretty miserable, too,” Nat said, dredging up her remark from earlier in their conversation. She sulked for a moment, but nodded her agreement, as he knew she would. Like him, she was too desperate not to accept help wherever it might be offered. “Fine,” she said. “You can try.” “Alright then,” said Nat eagerly, “I was just noticing that referring to you directly by a name doesn’t work because of your curse, but it’s easy enough to refer to you in passing as ‘the girl with no name.’ Has that been done before?” “It’s a title, so it doesn’t work if you actually try to call me that, like in a big rush of ‘hey- you-girl-with-no-name’ or whatever. They’ve tried before with words like ‘nameless’ and just ‘girl.’ None of them work.” “They’re directly addressing you. With nouns. Have you tried pronouns?” he asked, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Of course. Everything. All the nouns!” “But people can refer to you by nouns, just not call you by them – and by pronouns too. So what if someone called you by a pronoun instead of a noun?” asked Nat. The girl frowned at him, but she had finally stopped mutilating the grass in order to think. “I s’pose nobody’s ever tried that before. I mean, really, who goes round calling people by pronouns?” she demanded, but she continued to consider the prospect. “I would if I thought it would work. If you can find one way around a problem, there’s probably another waiting to be found too. So let’s try it. I’ll call you her,” said Nat. “Is that alright with you, her?” To his delight, the word stuck – but his delight was pale in comparison to hers. “Oh! Oh, do that again!” she crowed as she tipped over on her back and laughed uproariously, kicking her booted feet in the air. “I bet you’ll have to be careful how you use it, though. You can’t go and say ‘My name is Her’ or any sort of silly thing like that, even though you are her, and technically a her. Aren’t you, her?” Nat said playfully, finding her mirth infectious. “But that makes such a funny sense though, doesn’t it? And maybe it really is a loophole in the curse, and someday I’ll have a real name again before I die!” her said happily. “Glad I could help. Sorry it’s not much nicer than Diana,” Nat apologized. “I can keep working on it.” “Oh no, it’s fine. It’s far better than nothing. It’s so confusing, it will be a lot of fun,” said her. Nat carefully tried to refer to her as “her” in his mind, and found that it fit alright, and still stuck even when he experimentally added a capital letter and thought of her as “Her.” “Speaking of nothing, has anyone ever called you that?” “Tielhard tried. He’s almost as clever as you. He thought that since the curse says I cannot be called ‘anything,’ perhaps being called ‘nothing’ rather than something may be the answer to it. It didn’t work, though,” her added unnecessarily. “That’s a pity. I think it would be sort of fun to have a name like Nothing. I’d be Nathaniel Nothing,” he said. “That sounds rather dashing, doesn’t it? Sort of like a villain off of a television drama. Except you’re not really very villainous-looking.” She laughed, but sat up quickly and made a token effort at covering her mouth. “I’m sorry, unless you wanted to look that way?” “I’ll pass on being a villain. I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes to be any good at it. The whole criminal mastermind thing would work better for my uncle,” Nat joked, though he really couldn’t picture Teddy doing anything more sinister than eating the last piece of sponge cake. “So you’re more of a hero sort then?” asked her. “To be honest, no. I don’t think I’d make it as a hero,” Nat admitted. “You mean not just on account of having broken legs, right?” “Right.” “D’you think you’ve got some sort of flaw? All the best heroes have at least one or two flaws to keep them from being too perfect. So don’t let a flaw stop you,” said her, and she was adamant about it, her keen dark eyes fixed on Nat and daring him to declare himself unfit for heroism. He looked away and blushed. “Ah, well, of course I’ve got flaws. But I don’t think they’re very interesting ones. Or not interesting enough to make me a very cool hero.” Her shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just for fun. You can be Nathaniel Nothing, and I can be – ” she stopped abruptly, then said simply, “her. I guess it has a bit of mystique, doesn’t it?” She looked hopeful. “Sure it does,” Nat answered readily. “I don’t think anybody else out there’s ever named a hero Her before.” “Well now I wish we really were heroes. Or at least wizards or workers or something a bit more exciting.” “How can you say that when you’ve seen on TV and in comics how being heroic always makes you late for supper?” “Oh no!” the girl cried out and leapt to her feet. “I just remembered that I – oh dear, this is trouble. I’ve gotta run. See you tomorrow? About lunch time?” “Er, that’s fine…” “Good! I’ll bring Tielhard if I can find him. Maybe you could bring some more of those little sandwiches – got to fly now! Goodbye, and thanks!” She threw a messy sort of one-armed hug upon Nat, who blushed again. “Yeah, see you tomorrow,” he managed to say, but he never knew if her heard it. She was already down the slope and scrambling over the rocks. When she was across the river, she stopped and waved, then dashed off over the brow of the hill that seemed to mark the beginning of the deeper holdings of the Immaniter, or the end of the official border as demarcated by the River Gum. Nat had hardly raised his hand to return the farewell wave before the girl vanished out of sight. He put his hand down and felt a little foolish, but soon enough his mind was otherwise occupied with thoughts of borders, names, and random acts of heroism; he mulled all this over with the thoughts of strange encounters yet to come, and, since his snack now seemed days ago, he also had a space in his thoughts wherein he actively wondered what his own supper would be.