Bewildering Stories

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Chapter 5, “The Island,” part II

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 5, part I appeared in issue 105.

For a while, they walked in silence. Dar felt again the new rapport between the two lost souls in her company; for the first time since she had found Nim the girl had someone else to lean on. She was not quite sure how to react, how to take the situation; she was still very concerned about Nim, not being sure how far she could trust Nunez. The man was still very much an unknown factor. He was an adult, formerly married and father to grown children, obviously not as young as Nim even if not much older than herself. He had a history, which Nim very evidently lacked; and there was no telling what might come out of such a liaison. Still, for the time being, Dar had decided the best thing for her to do was to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself. For the time being, there was also no telling what could be the reaction to her interference, either from Nunez’s side, or, for that matter, from Nim’s.

“But,” she asked instead as they continued on their way, “what about this message which told you to get us here? Who gave it to you and in what way did you receive it, if there’s no one else on the island?”

“I have an idea I got it, actually, during the upheaval,” Nunez said quietly, as if reluctant to remember.

“What do you mean, you have an idea? Don’t you know?”

“Actually, no, I don’t know exactly when it happened. You see, I was not home at the time; I was here, and there were very few signs of it at the time. I’d been rowing toward this part of the lake when a storm rose. Not as bad as the one we’ve experienced together; as least, the boat remained whole. But it was something I had never experienced before on the lake. The waves reached the height of tall buildings, frothy and full of debris from the bottom. There was nothing I could do to save myself. The boat was pushed up and down on top of the billows, and all I could do was to hang on to it, not to be thrown off. Once, resting for a second on top of the swell, I got a very clear picture of the chaotic devastation around me; the next, the boat, with me inside it, were thrown clear onto the island’s shore... I suppose I lost consciousness, because I came to after a while, noticing an astonishing sight: the water around the island was unbelievably, completely quiet and peaceful, as if nothing had ever happened. I had a feeling as if this part of country was holding its breath, while the world beyond raged and stormed... The strangest thing was that I and my boat were completely unharmed, lying on a dry, peaceful land, right outside the turmoil around us.”

As he paused, they walked on in silence.

“What happened afterward?” Nim asked after a while.

“That was before I had established my camping site inland. Up till then, I used to stay just for a night on the shore, and row back in the morning, or at noon at the latest. This time, as the lake beyond the area nearest the island was still raging, I did not want to risk it. So I took the provisions I had in the boat and went exploring inland... That’s when I found that place...”

“What place is that?” Dar asked.

“Where I am taking you to now.”

“But what is it?”

“You’ll see.”

“So, what did you do then?” Nim prodded him on.

“I had enough provisions for two days. I fished — I could do it with my hands, having lost the rod during the storm — and I found some edible plants around the area to add to it. On the morning of the third day I saw the lake had calmed down. I pushed the boat in and rowed back to town. Only, it was no longer there...” His eyes clouded, and he shut them tight, as if refusing to recall what he had found.

The women nodded silently, and after a while Nunez resumed his story. “I found no one alive in town, bodies strewn everywhere, squashed beyond recognition. Not one communication instrument or device was left whole, so I could not call up my girls to find out what had happened to them. I walked amongst the ruins, dazed.

“There was nothing left for me there, so I went back to the island. I managed to gather more provisions, went back to where I had left the boat and rowed back to the island. I was not sure I would be able to live through my misery this time... The first time I went rowing was when my wife died, but now, what was there more to live for?” He stopped again, and again they went on in silence.

“Do you think we could rest for a while?” Dar asked, thinking all that reminiscing might be hard on him and he should take a respite.

“No, we are nearly there,” the man replied, drily. They went on, then, and after about half an hour, he stopped.

“Here!” He pointed, ”that’s the place.”

The two women stopped by his side, looking at the direction Nunez had pointed. Before them, partially hidden, inconspicuous among fallen boulders and sparse vegetation, they saw some ruins. Even from that short distance Dar could see they were old ruins, nothing like what she had seen on her long trek. Drawing near, she realized these ruins must have belonged to another, long lost, period of time, one she had only viewed on cultural programs. It had been built in stone, for one thing, and their structure was quite different from anything she had known. For another, the ruins were covered with green moss, and wild plants grew everywhere among the cracks and crannies, with tiny blossoms — the same blue and yellow stars she had seen on the lake shore — bringing the ancient site to life.

Full of wonder, the travelers dropped their packs and went walking among the fallen remains. Their ancient style was obvious; Dar had never seen such classical lines outside the media or archeological museums she had visited. Long, rounded columns, once made in shiny marble, lay along and across fallen walls, made of large, hewn stones, which were strewn around. In some areas, which were permanently shaded from the sun, they could even discern traces of colored paintings. Some remnants of the floor were made of fantastic mosaic; other parts had been paved with large, smooth slabs, showing signs of footwear. At a central position on the floor, still standing erect, was a short, square column, with a four-cornered receptacle on its top. Although empty, the bottom of this receptacle looked much darker than the other parts of the stones.

“Something must have been burned in it at some time,” Dar murmured in a way of a comment. “It must have been an altar...”

Intense quiet prevailed in the place. “It gives me the creeps,” Nim whispered.

“Do you think it was a temple of some sort?” Dar asked Nunez after a pause.

“Yes,” he answered. “That’s the place where I spent my time during the upheaval — for some reason I felt more sheltered here, though, as you see, as a physical shelter it’s very scant.” He took them to a nook between two pillars — one half-standing half-reclining on a partially standing wall, while the other had fallen, blocking an area where a sleeping bag and a few odds and ends were scattered on the ground. “I slept here at night, and sometimes sat in the shade during the day,” he said, simply.

“You were quite alone here, on this Island,” Dar said quietly; ”weren’t you?”

“Yes,” he answered, meditatingly. “Strangely enough, I found here that peace of mind I had not been able to get for a long time, if not exactly happiness...

“Who, then, told you to bring us here?”

He was silent for a while. “I heard it in my dream,” he said at last.

“You believe in dreams?”

“No. I never had before that. And even then. Not after it had appeared a few times...”

There was a pause again. Nim came up to him, leaning against his long body as if in support. Dar did not think he needed support, he seemed such a strong person. But Nim must have thought differently. Nunez, however, encircled his long arm around the girl’s curvaceous body, kissing her on the top of her head. Dar watched them in silence.

“There was a woman in my dream, or so I thought,” he said at last. “She seemed a strange person, and sometimes I thought she was not only in my dream, but also existed here when I was awake. It was all very strange.”

“What was she like?” Nim asked, quietly, lifting her face up to him, bearing a strange expression. Dar remembered the strange apparition that had led them on their way through the river. “Did you see her closely?” the girl asked.

“Yes, quite close,” the man answered. “She was looking both old and young at the same time. It’s hard to explain. She was sitting on a rock off shore, combing her hair — it had a bright, blue-green tint, shimmering like the lake water when it’s calm...”

“It’s the witch!” Nim interrupted him in a fearful whisper.

“She may have been a witch, I don’t know. Have you seen her?”

“We saw something that could have been a kind of woman combing her hair, when you looked at her at a certain angle,” Dar explained, reluctantly. “But it was from a great distance and we could never be sure. Did you see her in more detail?”

“Yes,” Nunez answered, his quiet voice a little agitated. “Her eyes were deep blue and the color of her face and bare arms was yellowish brown; she had a hooked nose, sharp and strong, but what she wore was very vague and undetermined. When I looked at her, she seemed mouthing with her red lips — they looked like a strange blossom — as if saying some words. But I couldn’t understand them at first. A few nights running she appeared, when I was somewhere between sleep and wakening.

“Gradually, I began to decipher the words she was mouthing, and I decided she was telling me to go to the other side of the lake, to where the river fell into it, and to fetch the two persons I met there. It took me some time to take all this in, and to make up my mind to go.”

“It must have been the witch!” Nim determined. “What does she want with us? I’m afraid of her even though she did help us on the river!”

“I don’t think you have anything to fear of her,” Nunez commented. “And anyway, you needn’t be afraid any more, with me here to protect you.”

He pulled her tight to him and she clung to him, holding on to his body, her arms twisted round his neck as if not letting him go.

“Do you have any idea what she wants with us?” Dar asked. The whole situation looked very doubtful to her, too full of fantasy to her liking. Even the memory of what had happened on the river seemed vague and unreal.

“No,” he said to her over Nim’s head, which he had been caressing softly. Then he pushed the girl gently away. “Let’s sit down, this place is not too bad to stay at.”

As they sat, Nim close to Nunez, Dar at a slight distance, facing them, he continued. “I don’t think that person, whoever she is, means you any harm. That is not the feeling I got from her. When she persisted in my dreams, I saw no way of getting rid of the apparition until I went and fetched you. So I did, and I am very glad for it.” He turned his deep blue eyes at Dar, and the woman nodded slightly.

“Well,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, “we are here, safe and sound. For the time being, we have no choice but to stay put until we find either a way of subsistence — which, I must say, looks rather doubtful. Or a way of getting away from here by any means we can find.”

There was nothing else to be done, so they arranged themselves as comfortably as possible around the temple area. Nunez gave up his nook to Dar, erecting the boat’s planks as a separate shelter for him and Nim. For the time being, they were relatively protected against the still mild weather. And, for the time being, Dar avoided bothering herself about the problem of winter, with its cold and rains and maybe snow.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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