Bewildering Stories

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Chapter 5, “The Island,” part I

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 4, “The Lake,” concluded in issue 104.

Dar was sitting inside the spongy rock — it seemed she had been sitting there forever, not getting particularly tired — when Timma told her it was time for her to go back to the island and her companions.

“But I have no idea how to get there,” Dar reminded her.

I’ll show you the way, Timma replied. But you’ll have to do it on your own because we can’t go that way; our bubbles cannot exist in free air.

She led Dar even deeper inside the rock. It was much darker there, no light had penetrated from the open body of water of the lake.

That’s as far as I can go, the creature said, stopping just behind Dar. A light breeze blew from the utter darkness beyond, causing a soft ripple to pass through the tiny air bubbles, from which the rock around her was made.

“It’s so absolutely dark here,” Dar said with some apprehension. “How can I go further if I can see nothing?”

You have to go up, was the answer in her mind, there is a way up, but I can’t tell you any more. I’ve never been there myself, of course, but I know this is the way creatures of the air come and go. I think the island where your friends are is up there, but you’ll have to find your way there by yourself.

Dar sighed. It seemed to be the only way for her, but she was not completely happy about it. ‘I’ve had it too easy up till now,’ she thought, chiding herself. ‘I’ve relied too much on these kind people. Now, I’m on my own again.’

Goodbye, Dar, Timma said, encircling the woman tenderly with her flexible arms. They felt very strong, and Dar wondered what the cephaloid were able to perform with them. The creature could have easily crushed her to death; instead, the arms’ touch felt kind and gentle and Dar let herself be embraced, unable to reciprocated a hug.

“Do you know I should be safe up there?” She asked.

We’ve been told by Gaia it’s safe for you, Timma answered. Farewell, she said abruptly, letting Dar loose and floating away toward the lake outside the spongy rock.

Dar looked long after the wake trailed behind the ghostly, color-dotted body, until it mingled with the misty water beyond the rock. Then she turned to face the darkness.

She advanced cautiously into it; the waft of cool, slightly moldy breeze caressed her face. For the first time in days she breathed real air, even though it was not as fresh as she could have hoped; she thought it must have passed through some cold, moist surface.

Groping her way, her eyes got gradually used to the darkness and she looked around her. She could see now she was inside a real cave; when she ventured to touch one of its walls, she found it was made up of real rock. Dar sighed. It was so good to be surrounded by solid earth as she had known it, and not by that spongy, fluid stuff which gave her such feeling of uncertainty. She was back in her own world, where solid was separate from liquid, and air was something she could breath. No longer she had to meander between substances with different definitions.

It was no longer pitch dark. Lifting her eyes to see how high the cave was, Dar could see a tiny bright dot shining above her head. Her heart skipped a beat. That must have been daylight, which she had not seen she could not tell for how long. Twinkling reflection of that light reflected from wet spots on the cave’s walls, diffused around her as a gray, translucent fog, causing the place to look mysterious, almost magical.

Dar walked slowly along the walls, trying to collect her thoughts and feelings while looking for a possible outlet. The ground was rather slippery, and she had to take care not to falter, leaning from time to time against a wall. She was glad of its solidity, which dispelled her experience of the spongy rock as a distant dream.

Having circled the cave along the walls for sometime, Dar at last reached the bottom of a staircase that must have been carved in the rock; the spot of light was shining right above the top of the stairs. Slowly, knowing there was nowhere else for her to go, she started climbing the stairs. They were rather high, as if built for bigger people than she was; although she was a tall woman, she still felt the need to lean on the walls as she was going up. But there was some blessing in that effort, because it prevented her from thinking too much ahead, about what she was going to find on the land above her.

Up and up she climbed, the bright spot above her head growing very gradually larger, pouring more and more light on her surroundings. It created mysteriously moving shadows, playing gleefully where before there had only been a dusky mist. After a while, the original, open-air rock, which formed the opening to the cave and from which the stairs had been carved, could be discerned. Its appearance was very different from the dark, shining way it had looked down at the bottom; the changing hues of the different layers it was made of were enhanced in places, where sun rays were falling on top of the rock.

Dar was filled with happiness to see obvious sunlight again, in which everything looked clear and definite, after the misty atmosphere of cloudy water full of transparent bodies and spongy material lit by tiny specks of light, which had never seen the sun. How wonderful! She quickened her climb as much as she could on the high steps, and at last she was standing on the last one, out in the open, looking around her with wonder mixed with apprehension.

* * *

“Dar! Dar! Dar!” Nim was running toward her, jumping at her like a puppy, hugging her, kissing her face, the tears pouring down her closed eyes on Dar’s bosom, getting choked by sobs. The older woman held the girl tightly in her arms, unthinking, stroking her head, removing hair from her face and caressing her cheeks.

“Now, now,” Dar murmured, unprepared for this unexpected outburst of welcome.

In a moment, Nim, embarrassed, recovered enough to separate from the woman; but, still holding her hand as if preventing her from vanishing again, cried, “Where’ve you been? We looked everywhere for you and could not find you! I thought,” strangled by the sob which stopped her from talking, “I thought you were lost for ever, we’ve been waiting for so many days...” she leaned her head on the physician’s shoulder.

“Come on, you can see now that I haven’t been lost,” Dar said, gently, “but I am tired. Let’s sit down.” She saw the fisherman, then, standing on the side as if allowing the women their moment of emotion.

“You’re both all right, then? And, do you mean I’ve been away for days? It didn’t seem so long...” She said. She realized that without the changes of day and night, she had been unable to calculate the passing of time. Still, it was more than that. As she recalled, she spent most of the time sitting inside the spongy rock, discussing different matters with Timma, Mont, and other cephaloids. She remembered no periods of sleep that would mark night for her, however artificial...

Dar gazed at Nim for a moment, then sent a questioning look at the man, who nodded with affirmation. There was something in his deep blue eyes that she could not fathom, but did not want to dwell on it right then. ‘It could wait for later,’ she thought. Nim led her to a small area partially sheltered by a protruding rock, where a small wooden hut had been hastily built.

“We found some of the boat’s fragments,” Nunez said pleasantly, by way of explanation, talking for the first time instead of greeting Dar. Dar remembered her first astonishment at the way his voice sounded, strangely young, under the gray thicket of growth on his face. “We’ve been waiting for you for nearly a week,” he confirmed Nim’s words.

“We’ve saved some of our clothes from the water,” Nim said, motioning toward the hut as if hinting at where Dar could change her own wet ones. She went in and changed, not thinking about Nunez witnessing her stripping; she then came out to stretch the discarded clothes on a rock in the sun. Its warmth was such a blessing, after all the time she had spent in the water. She noticed the change in the weather; autumn had established itself after the long, hot summer. Fire was burning in a shallow pit, inside a circle of stones erected against the wind; it reminded Dar of the jungle people, while filling her soul with the same happy awe the cave dwellers must have felt about it. She sat down on the soft grass, which looked newly sprouted, and Nunez put in front of her some roasted fish on top of wide seaweed leaves. Nim offered her warm, fragrant water in a mug.

“One of the backpacks had been thrown whole on the beach. It did leak somewhat, and we had to dry out its content, but were able to make fire with the spark lighter — Nune also has one, so there’s no problem there. And we used some of the dry food. We’ve been very lucky, Dar, especially now that we’ve found you again. I am so happy!”

The tears sprouted again in Nim’s eyes, but she wiped them away impatiently, as if not letting herself break down again. “But how have you been? Aren’t you hurt? I’ve been so worried!”

“I’ve been all right,” Dar hastened to say, her heart swelling by the girl’s emotional state. She had not seen her like that before. “I’ll tell you all about it later, but first let me hear how you were saved.”

“Nune saved me,” Nim said softly, and again Dar noticed her persistent nickname for the man. “I couldn’t swim properly, you know, not in that stormy water.” She suddenly looked shy, looking with eyes shining with admiration at the old man — was he an old man? Again, Dar was not at all sure of the fisherman’s age.

“Thank you, Nunez,” she said to him, offering her hand. He took it with his own, which did not look old at all. There was no trace of shyness in his own behavior.

“I was glad to be able to,” he said, “it would have been a shame to lose such a sparkly girl.” His eyes laughed in contrast to his severe expression.

“Oh, you!” The girl said, hiding her face behind her hair. She rose suddenly from beside the fire and went up to the man. He collected her in his arms and kissed the top of her head, and she passed her hand on his hairy face. “You’ll have to get rid of this fungus one day,” she said softly, affectionately, “so that I can see what you really look like.”

Dar looked on in silence. “Tell me how you were saved from the storm,” she pleaded.

“We were thrown away from the boat, weren’t in it when it blew up into the air,” Nim said. “Just when I thought I was going to drown, because you remember what a bad swimmer I was — I was caught by Nune,” again she turned at him her large, admiring eyes. “I don’t know how long it took us to reach the shore, it seemed ages and I was completely exhausted; but Nune kept on swimming for ever. Actually,” she hesitated, “I think the waves were pushing us toward the island...”

“Of course,” Nunez added calmly, expertly, “there is a push and pull action of the waves, and you have to know how to take advantage of that... I am used to being in the water, you know. But, if you are refreshed, we should start on our way now.”

“On our way?” Dar was surprised again, “where to?” she looked around her curiously. “I remember now, you said you were told to bring us here; so, what is this place, anyhow?”

The island looked very desolate, not just uninhabited but also nude of almost all vegetation beside some low growth of weeds and new grass.

“Have you ever been here before, Nunez?” She gave him a curious, understanding look.

“Yes,” he replied, quietly, as if reminiscing.

“How did you get here?” She was not sure whether he was willing or reluctant to talk about the past; it seemed as if there was a struggle going on inside him, but the willingness won in the end.

“I used to live in the town that stood on that shore where I met you,” he said quietly, his eyes getting misty as he stared briefly at it.

“We didn’t see any signs of town,” Dar said.

“No, it used to stand higher up, away from the shore. Where the river met the lake, the place I found you at, was not considered safe enough to build.”

“But that’s funny — it’s exactly the place we thought had been untouched by the upheaval! Remember, Dar?” Nim interfered.

“Yes,” Dar agreed, “it’s strange how things have come about...” She turned again to the man. ”But what did you do for a living? You couldn’t have been a fisherman then, could you, with all the pollution that must have been pouring into the lake.”

“No, I used to be a maintenance man for a robot factory. But afterwards...” he swallowed, continuing without explanation, ”I kept that small boat, and I used to go on the lake, all by myself, on my free days.” He pondered for a while, and Dar did not urge him on. “You know, even in those days, before the catastrophe, there was some clear water and live fish in this area, around this island, and from time to time I used to catch some there.”

He uttered a short laugh, which sounded too bitter to denote gaiety. “Mainly, I came here to get away...”

“Did you have a family?” Dar asked gently, after a short break in which she thought there was something too morbid to be healthy.

Nunez paused for a long time. “I had two grown daughters,” he said at last, “who had left home before the catastrophe.” He swallowed.

“And a wife?”

“I can’t talk about her...” suddenly his voice broke. Nim, sitting close to him, clung to him, encircling his body with her arms, and he lay his head on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Dar said, quietly.

“We are all sorry,” he straightened, hugging Nim tightly to him, then letting her go. “But now we have a new life to live, and there is no point in thinking too much about the past.”

Dar was silent for a time. With a new curiosity she looked at Nunez, at Nim, and back at the fisherman, noticing the new relationship between the older man and the young girl. Then, with a sudden insight, “You slept with her, didn’t you?” she said, searching his face with her gray, serious eyes.

“I slept with him, Dar!” Nim intercepted his answer.

“But he could be your father, maybe your grandfather!” Dar said, with no recrimination in her voice, just wondering at the plain fact.

“No!” Nim laughed, “nothing like a grandfather, he’s not that old. And I don’t mind that he could be my father; don’t forget I’ve never known my own. I know I’m like a daughter to him, but we are not really, so there is no harm in a bit of loving, is there?”

There was defiance in her attitude, and Dar smiled suddenly, one of her rare smiles in those days.

“No, Nim; there’s no harm in that if it makes you both happy.”

“We should really be going,” Nunez said, stirring himself by a sheer force of will.

“Go where?” Dar asked.

“To my original campsite,” he answered. “Nim and I couldn’t go there before, as we’ve been waiting for you to show up. But I only rarely stayed on the beach, once I settled on the Island; as you see, it’s rather barren and lacks shelter and minimal provisions.”

Dar indeed could see there was nothing on the lake shore. There was no point in their dallying in that deserted place, and if somewhere else there was better shelter, they’d better go there. So they collected what had remained of their things after the storm and stuffed them in the single backpack they had had left, which Nim put on. Dar carried her half-dried clothes, and Nunez had dismantled the hut and carried the planks. They started walking inland, away from the shore.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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