Bewildering Stories

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chapter 7, The Range
part II

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 7, part I concluded in issue 111.


Nobody was having sex that night. The four wanderers huddled close together on their blankets, sleeping the non-dream slumber of the weary and spent. They woke up shivering. Winter was there, at last, they realized, coming at them with its full gust.

They did not have enough provisions of food and heating to sustain them for long; on that open beach, they were unable to maintain a good fire for long without proper fuel, and there was no shelter anywhere they could spot. As on the evening before, they sat around a very small fire, sipping of what had been left of the rich soup. Afterwards, they spread out to relieve themselves.

As he returned, Zik remarked, “Have you noticed the type of ground we are sitting on?”

Nim and Dar looked a question, while Nunez rubbed it a little, and said, “It looks like pressed ashes.”

“So it is,” the young man said, smugly.

“Could it have been carried from the volcano?” Dar said, her interest awakening.

She used her spoon to dig at it a little, and the ashes came off easily, flying around brittle and powdery.

“Please, don’t!” Nim cried, pushing the minute particles away from her face. “This bloody weather is enough without choking it with black dust.”

“I wonder what’s underneath that thick coat of ashes,” Zik said, ponderously. In his geological investigations, he had seen enough treasures covered by layers of soils of all kinds.

“Hello,” a strange, deep, vibrating voice said pleasantly. “I’m glad you’ve come at last.”

The travellers, astounded, turned to look at the newcomer. She was a small person of an uncertain age. The skin on her face and hands was stretched tight, not wrinkled, but it did not look as supple as a young person’s skin. Her deep, black eyes slanted in an oriental fashion, shining with such lively sparkle that confused the physician in trying to estimate the stranger’s age. Her body was covered with some undefined clothing, part sari part loose scarves of blue to mauve colors, all made up of a thin, silky, simmering material, quite incongruous with the cold weather. Her head was wrapped with a kerchief, whose purple hue echoed the depths of her eyes. Strangest of all were the purple sandals, which served as the only footwear on her bare, tiny feet.

Nim was the one who expressed her companions’ astonishment, with a simple question uttered fiercely, “Who are you?”

A very light hint of a smile hovered on the woman’s thin lips as she said in her amazing voice, “I am Lilit. I’ve been waiting for you for quite a while.”

“Have you been told about us?” Nunez asked in his quiet, restrained voice. Nim’s direct opening helped the others collect their wits and return to their natural senses.

“I’ve been told someone would be coming, but not who you were going to be. I’m very happy to see you all.” Her eyes swept around, as if to familiarize themselves with the four strangers, giving each of them the expression he or she seemed to need at the time. It was a comradely appreciation for Dar, a friendly challenge for Nim, loving care for Zik, and a distant acknowledgment for Nunez.

As if drawn by an invisible string, Dar came forward to present her companions, “I am Dar, this is Nim, that’s Zik, and Nunez. We are all refugees of the catastrophe that had overtaken the Earth. Do you know anything about it? There are not many signs of the upheaval here.” She was doubtful, looking around her with a searching gaze.

“Yes, it happened here as well,” Lilit said quietly, her deep voice vibrating vast sadness.

“But when?” Zik burst with a question. “These ashes seem ages old!”

“You’re knowledgeable, aren’t you?” Lilit turned to the young man, not unkindly. He reddened, opened his mouth then closed it again. “It’s true. But Time doesn’t have much meaning here...”

Dar, instinctively, sensed that Time did not have much meaning for Lilit herself, but she said nothing.

“But where have you come from? How did you get here?” Zik insisted.

“I’ve always been here,” the woman answered quietly.

As she was speaking, the four refugees looking at her saw an astounding vision. Their surroundings were changing, shifting shapes in succession. First, they were standing in the middle of an ancient village compound of round, earthen huts. These slipped into the shape of a high-walled medieval town. That town changed its form to a bunch of Far-Eastern pagodas, which, in turn, took the look of a peaceful European country town. After that the buildings grew into tall skyscrapers, the area became dense and grimy and the atmosphere murky. That last picture was pierced with a volcanic outburst which flooded the astonished onlookers with the burning heat of fire and and the choking cover of smoke.

In the end, a soft blanket of ashes landed on their heads, and as they were shaking themselves to get rid of it, the vision disappeared as if nothing had happened. The area between the range and the lake was as deserted as it had been when they landed on it, the ashes forming a layer of soil hardened years earlier under the topsoil and rocks. Lilit was still standing before the four destitutes, her eyes as deep as the abyss.

They stirred, and looked at each other, questioningly. “What was all that about?” Zik demanded at last. His companions, shaking their heads, turned to Lilit with the same question etched on their faces. The little old woman shrugged. “It all happened, as you must know,” she stated.

“And you were there?” Nunez asked quietly, neither believing nor disbelieving.

“I’ve always been there...” She stirred. “Still, it’s time now to leave it all behind and go forward.”

“Forward where?” Dar asked. She was still shaking slightly from the effect of the vision, feeling the urge to get away from the strange site of its occurrence.

“As I understood from what I was told,” Lilit replied, “we’ll have to climb this range of mountain and cross to the other side.”

“But who told you that?” Nim asked, the fierce suspicion still sounding in her voice.

At the same time Dar, continuing with her questioning of Lilit, asked, “and what’s on the other side of the mountain?”

Lilit looked at them from the one to the other. “We’ll have to wait till we get there, won’t we?” she answered Dar first. Then she turned to Nim, gazing into her eyes for a moment. “I have an idea you have met her already.”

“The witch!” Nim exclaimed. “She’s been helping us on the way! I should have known she’d be the one who would lead us here as well. But who is she?” she was eager to know and it seemed that Lilit knew about it more than anyone else among them did.

“I am not absolutely sure,” the woman replied with some hesitation, “but in my opinion, she must be Gaia.”

“And who is that Gaia who’s been leading our lives, I’d like to know,” demanded Nunez with some fierceness. Dar suspected that her own familiarity with ancient myths was not shared by her companions.

“Earth itself,” Lilit whispered. The others stared at her with wonder, but there was something in her attitude, which prevented them from asking further questions. Nim turned away from the old woman, trying to find solace among her old companions; here, at least, she was sure of real comfort, both physical and mental.

* * *

The gloomy weather had deepened. The clouds cluttering in the sky threatened with rain, the wind was blowing cold and oppressive. The four companions stood close together to preserve their body heat, but their basic confusion did not help to relieve the momentary dejection.

“We’d better start on our way toward the mountain,” Lilit said quietly, authoritatively; “we may find better shelter at its base than out here, in the open.”

Without a better idea, all four wanderers picked up their baggage and prepared to go. They were all wearing their warmest clothes now, and Zik looked at Lilit as if noticing her clothing for the first time. “Aren’t you cold in these things you’re wearing?” he asked directly.

“I’m fine,” her faint smile had returned. “I don’t feel the cold.” He shook his head but said nothing more.

Silently, they started on their way toward the actual range. It was difficult to tell the time under the overcast sky, but Dar assumed the day had been well advanced. The foot of the range did not look very far away from the lake shore, but it did not seem to get much closer when evening came and they had to stop and stay the night. They had been walking continually on a rising land, and all felt grateful enough to pause for rest and nourishment. Only, they were using up their provisions. That night they finished the last carbohydrate bars, leaving the last protein bars for the morning. They found a boulder jutting out of the ground, and managed to make a small fire with the last fire pack.

“Do you have any idea how far we are from the mountain?” Nunez asked Lilit.

“I’m sure we can make it by tomorrow noontime,” she answered.

As Dar looked at her from behind the fire, the still expression on the woman’s face seemed as changeable as the flames. Dar shook herself and said, “This area, then, with the hardened ashes, couldn’t have been affected by the latest upheaval, could it?”

She saw Zik sieve the dark soil through his sensitive fingers. “It doesn’t look like a result of recent events,” he said. “I would say this area is ’as old as the hills, as I heard someone say once...”

“But, in that case, that whole area had also escaped being settled, or at least visited and polluted, by Man!” Nunez pointed out. “How is that possible? I didn’t think there was any such place on Earth.”

A strange, rolling sound seemed to answer his question. The wanderers looked around, as if looking for the source of thunder; it did not sound as if it was coming from the cloudy sky. Then, remembering Lilit, they realized that she was laughing. It sounded an eerie, vanishing noise, which was actually echoed by an ordinary prelude to a rainstorm.

“Yes,” she said, her voice deeper than ever, “there are some remote areas like that left on Earth; very few indeed, only two or three, and this is one of them.”

Dar wondered. For a moment, sadness gripped her heart, thinking about Bard and her children who were prevented from taking part in this miracle. She shook herself, pondering on the idea that it would take her longer than she had thought to accept the fact that she would never see them again.

“It’s shifting,” Lilit explained, mysteriously.

“What is shifting?” asked the geologist in Zik, his interest reawakening.

“Places on Earth,” she answered, not elaborating.

“But the vision we saw?” Nim cried out. “Hasn’t it all happened here?”

Lilit looked at her kindly. “Not exactly,” she said softly. “At that moment, the whole Earth had folded up into this particular place, for you to see and maybe understand some of what’s been happening to you and to the whole human race. It happened everywhere, not just anywhere in particular.”

They fell silent, trying to absorb and digest Lilit’s words.

That night, Dar found herself in some strange way sharing a sleeping bag with Nim, while Zik shared his with Nunez. It was the first time they used the geologists’ sleeping bags; it was too warm for that inside the cave, while they were not being able to do it on their way from the Volcano Island. Lilit, who seemed to have no baggage at all, was given the third bag; but the others were surprised to see her spread it out and lie on top of it, instead of getting into it on that cold night. None of the travellers, however, said anything.

It started raining at night, a cold, thin rain that felt like ice on any patch of skin that happened to be outside the bag. The rain continued into the morning, and when they started on their way, the refugees used the sleeping bags as wraps against the weather instead of rolling them up for carrying. They changed partners again. Nunez took Nim under his cover, walking ahead; Dar came after them, alternating with Zik in sheltering Lilit from the icy rain. The old woman, however, occasionally slipped from under the cover, bringing up the rear and basking in the chilly rain as if it were a warm sun. They hadn’t had any breakfast that morning, with no way of making fire and saving their dwindling provisions as much as they could.

The ground was rising more noticeably, with loose stones strewn among the boulders scattered around. Wherever the ground was clear of pebbles, the soil had turned to mud sticking to the soles of their boots. Walking had become harsh, sometimes even dangerous, the ground feeling shaky under the travellers’ feet. They kept trudging on with very little break; Dar, Nim and Nunez had resumed their previous routine of fasting, Zik being forced to get used to it. Lilit paid very little attention to physical discomfort, including eating and drinking.

Proceed to part III...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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