Bewildering Stories

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chapter 8: The Valley
part II

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 8, part I concluded in issue 115.

Nim was left to sleep off her ordeal under the charge of Dar with the help of Zik; Lilit and Nune went on a search for edibles and fire stuff. The physician looked at her charge with great concern. Under the blanket, the girl’s body was shivering from time to time, and Dar knew it was not from cold. The sun was high in the sky, the air was pleasantly warm, and actual balmy.

The word had popped into Dar’s mind though she could not say where and when she had ever experienced a balmy air – only in old stories of ancient times, long gone before she was born. She was not sure what the season was here, in this secluded valley. They had gone to sleep with snow lying above their heads on top of the mountain, but there was no trace of it here, and she did not know whether it was because the season had advanced into spring, or because they were much lower topographically. In any case, if that was what winter was like in the valley, it was as good as spring anywhere she could name.

Looking around her, she reflected how well Nim would like the place, which would allow her physical freedom she had not known anywhere else in her life. It was certainly the richest place Dar had ever seen in color and green vegetation, not only since she had left the devastated city but also in her whole life.

Presently, Lilit and Nune came back, with not only several kinds of greens for salad and soup, but also different kinds of nuts and roots to thicken that soup and fill their stomachs, which had been empty for such a long time. Dar had to warn them again about eating too much when trying to assuage the first pangs of hunger that had awakened with food in front of them.

They sat cozily around the small fire, some of them half-dozing, until the evening breeze rose to send a pleasant chill in their bodies. Clouds seemed to be gathering in the darkening sky and Nunez said, “We must find some shelter from the weather tomorrow; we can’t stay here for long like that, out in the open.”

The morning, indeed, broke with a heavy, threatening overcast. “Dar,” Lilit said, suggestively, “I’ll stay with Nim and Zik today, get Zik to help me prepare some herbs I found yesterday that will speed Nim’s recovery. Ask Nune about those caves we saw yesterday in the mountain slopes.”

Dar looked at her closely. For the first time she had the impression that the oriental-looking woman had taken leadership of the group in a definite and natural way. She did not begrudge it to her; her part as a healer and all-round experienced woman was important enough in itself, she had never had grand ideas of doing anything more than fulfilling her function to the best of her ability. She did not know about Nune, but as a former recluse, she did not think it would matter to him to be led rather than to lead; it may even relieve him to his own devices, as had been his inclination all along.

“What do you say, Nune?” The physician turned to the man, who was busy with the fire.

“We went too far inland yesterday, away from the mountains, so we couldn’t explore them properly,” he answered. “But it certainly seems like a good idea.”

Taking up the suggestion, the two older people packed their bags with whatever might be necessary for staying away a long time. It was the first chance in quite a long while for them to be alone together, and Dar was quite happy about it. There was plenty she would have liked to talk to Nune about.

It was also a chance for her to familiarize herself better with the place they had landed in. It was a pity, though, that the weather was not as nice as it had been the day before. The air felt close with the low clouds in the sky. The peaks of the looming range were also covered with clouds, making them vanish in the distant heights as one looked up from the valley’s floor.

Dar found the valley’s landscape not as flat it it had seemed from above. It was made up of small, rounded, undulating hills, and much of its view was blocked by dispersed shrubs and trees. Different kinds of birds flew among them, chirping and crowing...

‘Do those crows also live here?’ a thought flitted through her mind. That abundance of fresh, living vegetation growing around them, affected Dar in a way she was unable to describe. She inhaled the unfamiliar scents, listened to the unfamiliar sounds, with a growing sense of freedom she had never felt before in her life.

“How do you feel about this place, Nune?” she was driven to ask him, as if to share her very deep feelings of excitement. They had been walking a little while in silence and she could not tell what he was thinking.

Nune stopped and looked sideways and down at her; as tall as she was as a woman, he topped her by almost a head. He saw her gray eyes flooded with the fresh, green hue reflecting their surroundings, having an unusual brightness to them.

“You like it here, don’t you?” He said instead of answering.

“Don’t you?” Her question burst out before she had time to think about it.

He stopped for a moment, reflecting. He talked as he resumed his walking. “I... am not sure.”

She was not used to seeing him hesitate, so she did not answer, letting him enlarge on his feelings.

“It’s so different from anything I’ve been used to. I was a mechanic, a technocrat, you know; and then I became a fisherman... I can’t see any stretch of water here... I am not used to all that vegetation...” He paused. “And what are we going to do here? Farm?”

She could see his point although she had not thought of it before. It was her turn to reply obliquely. “I haven’t thought about it. But none of us could have been used to what we have here. It’s completely out of our own world!”

“Y-e-s-s...” Then, unexpectedly, he burst out, “I’m almost expecting a sudden assault of the proverbial snake in the grass!”

“Oh!” She had not expected that attitude. But his life had been very different from hers. A couple of drops hit her nose, and she looked upwards. “We must hurry and find a shelter.”

They continued in silence, walking along the foot of the range. Some of the trees grew right in their way, and they had to go round them or walk a little up above them. That’s where they found the opening on the low slope.

“We’d better use that now, at least provisionally,” Nune suggested. "If it’s not good enough, when Nim and Zik recover and the rain’s over, we can always look for something better.”

They marked the place, left their backpacks inside the cave, and hurried back to their friends. Luck held for them, and beside the few drops the rain held back for a while. They found Nim drowsily awake, and Zik standing on his feet.

“Zik!” Dar cried, hurrying toward the young man. “Doesn’t it hurt? I think it’s too early for you to step on your foot.”

“It’s Lilit,” he said, smiling sheepishly at the woman.

Dar stopped and looked at her. “What did you do?” she demanded, again assaulted by a mixed feeling of suspicion and gratitude, as she remembered the Healer in the jungle. How was it that these ‘primitives’ knew so much more about medicine than she did... Lilit, though, was far from primitive, only so different from anyone she had ever known.

The little old woman shrugged, smiling. “It’s just a mild, natural painkiller; the boy needs confidence more than anything else, so I’ve given it him.”

Dar pondered. She was well aware of the psychological aspect of healing, but was not at all sure how this kind of power worked.

“How is Nim?” She asked instead of continuing with her frustrating thought, as she crouched beside the girl.

“She’ll heal, but it will take some time,” Lilit replied. “I think you can help there more than I could; she was asking for you a moment ago.”

They fixed a stretcher from an open sleeping bag and two branches they tore off a tree, spreading another bag over the girl. Dar thought they were already beginning to destroy the same natural environment they had admired a little time ago, but she saw no help for it. Zik tried to take one side of the stretcher, but she gently pushed him away, telling him to fetch the rest of their equipment. She and Nune carried Nim, taking a shorter time to reach the cave than when they had been looking for it.

* * *

It was very dark inside. Dar and Nune lay Nim a little way from the entrance, off the cave’s center but not too close to the wall. “It may be damp,” the man said.

“Dar,” the physician heard Nim whisper, and she bent her head close to her mouth. “It’s so dark suddenly. Am I dying?”

The woman laughed quietly, laying her hand softly on the girl’s forehead. “No, no, you are getting better! But we’ve found a cave to shelter from the rain. In a moment we’ll light the fire and be able to see what’s in here.”

“I’m afraid,” Nim whispered, clutching at Dar’s arms.

“But it’s all right, there’s nothing dangerous here,” she assured her, hoping she was right.

They had had no chance to check the place properly. ‘What if some animal had made the cave its home?’ the thought passed through her mind. She decided to ignore it, as there was nothing they could do about it at the moment.

After settling their things in the cave, Nune and Zik went out and brought a few small rocks, which they used to build a safe fire. Lilit had accompanied them to gather twigs, and in a short time they had it going. It was laid a little distance from where Nim was lying, not far from the entrance, to allow the smoke to get out. As the light flickered over the cave’s dark walls, its reflection glittered in spots like black diamonds, creating a new magical world.

“I can’t see any spoor or other signs of animals living here,” Nune said.

Dar made a hot herb drink for Nim, and cooked a stew of nuts, seeds and greens for the rest of them. The weary travellers were happy to be indoors, not only because of the weather — which had turned very wet with dark clouds covering the sky and heavy rain beginning to fall — but also as a respite from their long living out of doors. Even if they were not going to stay permanently in the cave, they were quite certain now that the valley was going to be their last stop, at last. They passed a chilly but dry night, all four companions huddling together by the sick girl, who had been supplied with two of the three bag-blankets.

* * *

As violent as it was, the rain was short-lasting. The morning rose with sun rays penetrating the cave, falling on the far wall and breaking into a colorful spray. Dar woke up with the comfortable feeling that whatever she had to do that morning, it was not a plan to go on with the trip.

‘We’ve arrived’, she reflected, feeling no urgency to get up and move on.

“I had very strange dreams last night,” Zik said, getting up and stretching. “Didn’t you, Nune?”

“I never pay any attention to dreams,” the man muttered, and Dar remembered that it was a dream that had made him cross the lake to fetch herself and Nim to the island.

“I dreamed something,” she said, “but I was too tired to take much notice.”

She went over to Nim, and saw the girl lying quietly with her eyes open. “How’re you feeling?” She asked, checking her pulse and her temperature with the palm of her hand.

It was a new sensation for her, using her own limbs as instruments, and she thought she had better get used to using the most ‘primitive’ methods of diagnosis, without the technology and the computer programs she had been used to. Her mind was thrown back again to the Ancient One in the jungle, of whom she could think now as a sort of anticipatory preparation for her present situation. Would she be able to actually use what she had learned there? With the lack of any recording of what had happened there, she would have to make a special effort to recall the details. They would all have to resort to a verbal culture rather than a written one, she reflected.

The girl, anyway (reverting to that epithet in Dar’s mind after her miscarriage), she was happy to note, was recovering much more quickly that she thought possible; Lilit must have had her ‘hand’ in that. Dar was not too quick to believe in this kind of ‘mental’ power (the Jungle healer had used to chant some prayers, but always with the aids of some physical means). On the other hand, she would not be in a hurry to ignore any means she could use for healing, or the evidence of her own eyes.

Nim, at that moment, was talking to her. “Is it true, Dar?” Her voice was quivering with no relation to her physical condition. “Have I lost my baby?”

Dar sat down by her and took her in her arms, rocking her in a calming, rhythmic fashion. “I’m afraid we could not save it. It was far too young to be born, and we have no means of looking after such premature babies. But you’re healthy, you’ll have another, even more than one.”

“But that was my first, Dar! I failed to carry it properly! I can’t be much good at it!” The tears welled in her eyes and streamed down her cheeks.

“Now, now... You were probably too young to have a baby anyway. This is no failure, it’s only Nature’s way...”

“If that’s Nature’s way then I hate Her! She shouldn’t have done something so cruel...” She wailed.

But Nature was cruel, thought Dar, and we’d better get used to it, learn to go along with it.

The men came over to them. “What’s the matter?”

Dar shooed them away, and Lilit called out, “Come, Nune, Zik, let’s go and see what we can find in the valley in a way of sustenance.” She did not say they had better leave Dar with Nim alone to get over the trauma, but the physician knew it was part of her intention.

Gently, without making it too obvious to the girl, she helped her sit up. “If you need to go,” she suggested, “I’ll help you get out of the cave.”

Nim looked at her, questioning. Then, leaning heavily on the woman, she slowly rose. “It hurts,” she said simply.

“Is it terrible?”

“No, I can stand it.” With the woman’s arm around her waist, Nim walked slowly toward the entrance. She stopped. “Ahhh!” She uttered.

“You couldn’t have noticed it before,” Dar commented, satisfied with the girl’s expression. Below them, except on one side where the clump of trees blocked part of the view, the valley stretched glimmering in the fresh sun, sparkling with its variety of shining colors.

“Is that where we are going to stay from now on?”

“Yes!” Dar replied, triumphantly.

* * *

It took a little more time for the settlers to acquire a certain routine in their lives. Most of the days were clear to partially cloudy, darkening only occasionally and only rarely getting really wet. They spent their clear days outside, foraging for anything they could get from what Nature had in store. When the occasional rain caught them outside, they did not bother to rush back to the cave, unless they happened to be near it; they learned to go along with those natural events that, luckily, were not too severe. The nights were rather chilly, and they did not venture outside even when dry; they were able to make better fire than on the first night, having found heavier dry logs to be used for it.

When Nim had got better, she relinquished one of the sleeping bags for the use of others, and sleeping arrangements had become rather haphazard. If any two of them felt a sexual urge, there was no hindrance among them on grounds of shyness, or any other kind of inhibition. They had grown so intimate together, that there was no point in hiding anything from each other, and more than once they joined three or more of them in a shared experience. The four initial travellers found Lilit a willing and passionate partner, even if they still were unable to tell her definite age. Nim needed time to recover completely before she was fit for full intercourse, but it did not prevent her from joining in the fun. These acts worked well toward cementing the relationship among the five companions into a cohesive family group; they cooperated both in the demonstrations of affection and the little frictions that normally exist in any permanent family.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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