Chapter 1: The Land
by Tala Bar
Installment 3 appeared in issue 91.
The sound of crows called to Dar in her sleep. She opened her eyes and found herself drenched. A drop of water hit her face, and when she instinctively licked it, it was fresh and sweet like nothing she had ever tasted before. Amazed, Dar opened her eyes on a transformed world.
The rain, so different from her earlier experience, had driven the haze away, had cleaned and cleared the air in a way she had not known in her life. The haze, such a constant factor of everyday life before the catastrophe, was gone, and the sun shone from a clear sky. Dar could not remember ever having seen such blue sky, such cheerful yellow sun rays; she could not remember when the air had not been so hazy it obscured these natural phenomena. She rose and stretched her cramped limbs. For the first time since the upheaval she was both feeling her aching body and happy to have some feeling at all. She was happy to notice that the pain in her over-beaten body was becoming dull, barely discernible.
A flicker of light blinded her eyes for a moment, and Dar looked at the drops collected in a cranny on the leaning wall; they reflected the sun rays in myriad diamond-like colors. She stretched a lean, dirty hand to catch the clear drops; she licked the water thirstily off her palm, finding it not only refreshing but also as pure and sweet as honey. She had never drunk water that had not come from a bottle or a container.
She stepped away from her provisional shelter, looking around her in amazement. Was the planet recovering its clean atmosphere after centuries of accumulated pollution? She did not know the answer to that. Better enjoy the moment, that was what she had learned in her long, lonely, purposeless wanderings.
It seemed the purification of the world had also clarified Dar’s mind. Something of her old curious nature had reawakened, and for the first time in many days she looked around, trying to find out some facts about the place where she had landed. She knew she had never been there before, never having any rich acquaintances or a reason to come there. Surveying her surroundings, a slight movement was caught in the corner of her eye. She turned quickly. Could anything have survived that devastation? She had hoped so much for it at the beginning of her wanderings, wanting so much to have someone, anyone, as a companion in survival, perhaps someone she would be able to help in trouble, as had been her calling in life... She had given up that hope some time ago, had lost all expectations for a companion to her travail.
The crows called again. Dar looked up and saw the birds circling in one particular place. Casually, she counted them: seven, hovering leisurely, not moving away. As if marking the place for her. She held her breath. She did not fear danger as much as disappointment. She had been on her own now more than she had ever thought possible, having been used all her life to be surrounded by family, by patients, by crowds of unknown people...
At last, she moved in the direction of the crows. As the birds lifted and vanished in the air, she saw there was somebody sitting below the point of their hovering. It was a teen-age girl, and she was sitting on what seemed to have been a step, leading up to the porch of what used to be a house. Its demolition had been complete, it was now nothing but a shapeless heap of rubbish. Something more frightening appeared before Dar’s eyes. Two bodies flanked the girl on both sides. They looked so dry the flies had long lost interest in them. The girl’s head was lying on her knees, drawn close to her body and encircled by her arms. It was those arms that had particularly attracted Dar’s attention, her heart filling with heart-rending compassion. They were almost as emaciated as the girl’s two gruesome companions.
She must have heard Dar’s steps as the woman approached, for she raised her head and opened eyes so dimmed there was no telling their color.
“They are dead,” she murmured, a questioning complaint in her voice.
“Yes,” Dar agreed, “and they should be buried. Come, I’ll help you,” she said with a strange reasoning; the idea of burying all the million bodies she had encountered on her travels had not crossed her mind for a moment. Meeting a live human being seemed to have awakened a forgotten need for ritual.
A look of astonishment crept into the girl’s eyes, making them more alive. She rose, only to totter and fall into Dar’s arms.
“You’ve been sitting here too long,” the physician pronounced, “here, have some water.”
With cupped hands she scooped the precious liquid from a cavity in a fallen wall, virtually forcing the girl to lick it. Then she found a couple of nuts in one of her pockets, cracked them between her teeth and put the crumbs in the girl’s mouth. Instinctively, the girl munched at them weakly, managing to swallow some of the crumbs. She then looked at her saviour, with what seemed to Dar like the look of a thankful dog.
“We’ll find a place to bury them,” Dar said decisively, her eyes filling with tears. She wiped them angrily. What! Whom was she crying for, in a world that had crumbled at her feet?
There was no way they could actually dig the earth, even if any clear patch of earth could be seen through the debris. Dar made the girl help her clear some rubble from a hole that had opened in the ground; they put the bodies in it and placed some masonry back on top of them. Then she took the girl’s arm, pulling her away from the ruined house.
She noticed a small area clear of buildings, which seemed to have been a tiny park. “The rich must have paid the earth for this privilege,” she thought, her face twisting wryly at the pun. Miraculously, a plastic bench had survived the upheaval, standing crookedly on its own among the upturned shrubs and minuscule beds of flowers; the roots of these plants were sticking out naked among the piles of soil, pitiably symbolizing the overall disaster.
Dar gently pushed the girl down to sit on the bench, before taking a seat beside her. Her bony limbs lay slack and lifeless, and she kept her eyes low. She showed no interest, either in the woman who was her saviour, or in what had been happening around her. Dar found herself forced to hold the girl’s body to prevent it from sliding off the bench; then, a little more relaxed, she looked curiously at the landscape that opened before her.
The villa neighbourhood had been built on a slightly elevated ground and, and for the first time since the catastrophe, Dar was able to see the larger picture. What she saw was a barren, strange landscape, where mountains had been cleaved, and parts of them turned upside down. She saw wide valleys, whose centres rose to create new hills, and where she thought should be bright-colored built-up areas, the grey-brown tint of soil prevailed, in some places still smoldering with red fires and grey black smoke rising and spreading. The atmosphere of devastation pervaded, death haunted the world with its heavy mantle. Dar sighed. There was nothing she could do about the world, so she turned her attention to the girl.
“Would you like to talk about it?” She asked, using her most kindly, doctor’s voice.
The girl took a moment, then whispered so low Dar could barely hear her words. “I was sitting on the steps, and they were just coming out. The house fell right on top of them. It was like all hell breaking loose. And I don’t know what happened to my brother, Col. I’ve been waiting for him, but he never came back from school...”
Her voice, beginning low and monotonous, was suddenly raised in a hysterical whine. The last sentence was said quickly, between gasps for breath. “I don’t know how and why I stayed alive. The earth was shaking, there were things flying about. Orn was hit on the head. She died immediately. Jimo was hit in the stomach. He lay there for such a long time, days and nights passed... He was talking faintly at first, then he fell silent. I didn’t know what to do. There was no water, and the house was gone. I didn’t want to leave him and go for help. And there was no one I could ask for help. Everyone seemed to be dead... I wanted to die myself, I prayed for death but it didn’t come...”
As if she was finally grasping her loss, the tears started streaming from her burning eyes, making farrows in the dust on her face. Dar took hold of her, rocking the girl in her arms like a baby. She felt the tears bursting from her own eyes, tears she had been unable to shed before because of the terrible shock. At last she could weep for her own dead, and for all the dead of the world. The girl clung to her, and Dar thought, “You need another human being to cry with.”
Feeling grateful for the occasion, they sobbed together, their tears intermingling, their arms holding at each other’s body. At last, the torrent subsided. They separated, breathing deeply, hiccupping and wiping their faces; each of them pushed her long, dishevelled hair from her eyes, for the first time they were able to take a proper look of each other.
“I am Dar,” the physician smiled sadly for the occasion of their meeting. The sadness might never leave her grey eyes, but her face had relaxed as she looked at the young thing before her. This occasion might never have happened without the catastrophe.
“I am Nim,” whispered the girl, a hesitating smile hovering on her parched lips. She might have pretty underneath the smudges of tears and dirt, Dar thought, with that nicely curved mouth and straight nose; but the color of her hair was uncertain, looking as it was like a dark, tangled mess, and her eyes were dimmed from trouble and tears.
“What did your parents do for a living?” Dar asked.
“My mother was sometimes a secretary, but she did not do anything since we came to live with Jimo,” Nim said, simply.
“Jimo was not your father?” Asked Dar, for the purpose of conversation.
“No. He owned everything around here, I think,” she added by way of an explanation.
“Yes. The houses, and the farms beyond, and I don’t know what else. I heard them talking. That was one of the things...” She stopped, the tears beginning to flow again, as she was recalling the moment of upheaval.
“Shush, shush. Don’t grieve for that, Nim... You know we’ll have to get away from all that; we’ll have to forget the past and look for some future in which we can go on living. And to find somewhere more suitable to stay,” Dar said.
Nim looked at her, amazed at such enterprise. “I’ll do anything you say, Dar. You are my family now,” she said, clinging to the woman again. It was obvious clinging was what she badly needed, and Dar did not hesitate to supply Nim with what she needed.
They did not move anywhere that day, though. The girl was definitely too weak, both from starvation and from nervous exhaustion. Dar stayed with her the whole day, feeding her slowly and looking after her well-being. Nim had not been hurt in any way, and she seemed a strong, healthy girl. Dar hoped her recovery would be quick.
The day was growing hot, and they crawled under the bench to keep in the shade. The seat was latticed, the sun rays penetrating through the holes and playing on their bodies, giving Dar a strange sense of being alive. They stayed, lying under the bench the rest of the day, evening and night, barely moving.
That night, instead of dreaming again of the Catastrophe, out of the fresh air and her cleared mind, Dar’s memory had pushed back in time. For the first time since the upheaval, she dreamed about the happier parts of her life.
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar