Bewildering Stories

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Chapter 3: The River

part 2, installment 1

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 3, part 1 appeared in issue 98.

It was late afternoon when they reached the bottom of the hill. Dar felt lucky when she realized they had come out safe and sound from that adventure, except for a few bruises and scratches. She missed her medicine case, which must have been destroyed at the clinic. There was a minimal first aid kit in the ruined house on the estate, which would not answer any severe injury.

The wanderers had to stop at the foot of the hill, their way to the river being blocked by the upturned ground. Though flattened, it was filled with marks of chaos: huge, hard blocks strewn everywhere, gaping pits open between them, making the way not only difficult but dangerous. The river, which had been in plain sight from high on the slope, was hidden now behind enormous piles of debris. Dar thought this debris looked more like the remains of the City than those of the fields or deserted hills.

They were plainly made of masonry rather than natural rocks. The blocks were definitely concrete, pierced by iron bars sticking dangerously out of them; slivers of glass mixed with plastic and long metal tubes were scattered between them.

“It must have been an industrial zone rather than a residential area,” she announced with dismay and thought, ‘We had it too good in the old wooded hill, I’m afraid.’ She put down her burden. “We’d better find a comfortable place to camp tonight. It’s too late to try and find our way through this devastation.”

They had had the forethought to carry with them some dry twigs from the receding wood but, as far as Dar could see, it was going to be their last fire for some time. The sun had gone behind a hill, and in the lengthening shadows a slight chill filled the air. Nim, having put on a warm sweater, was happy to sit on a rock close to the fire, sipping the hot soup. Autumn was approaching, and Dar shuddered to think what they would do if they did not find shelter for the winter.

Sleep was hard to get that night. They had tried to clear as much space as possible, but the slabs of concrete and pieces of metal were just too big and heavy for them to move. Stretching on the bumpy ground, they had to lay their heads and feet on hard lumps, with endless sharp edges poking everywhere in their bodies. It was impossible to spread the blanket for both of them to sleep on, and Dar let Nim use it alone. In the middle of the night she got up and sat by the dying fire, thinking she would rather try to sleep in a sitting position than struggle among the boulders. Some time later Nim came and sat by her side. They huddled together wrapped in the blanket, half dozing, half musing until dawn.

At dawn, Nim said, for the first time in their trip initiating a suggestion, “Come on, Dar, I’m fed up with this place. Let’s go down to the river.”

“We’d better,” Dar agreed, rising and stretching her aching limbs. It took them a great part of the morning, skipping and crawling through the debris, to reach the stretch of water. From near by, it did not look as enchanting as it had done from the mountain slope. The ruins stretched up and into the marshy area, which Dar assumed had been the old riverbed. She and Nim had to wade across a channel or two, until they found a raised, level land between the various watercourses.

They stopped for breakfast, Dar feeling glad to give rest to what she called ‘her elderly bones’. It was the first time she had thought in such terms, after a night that seemed to have been the worst she had had since running away from the city. She must have gotten too soft in their relatively easy trip up till then, she thought.

She gazed at the river, wondering vaguely. Its course was uneven, meandering among a mixture of ruins and boulders. It created raised islands of debris, at which it sometimes raged and frothed, its color becoming brownish from the dirt swept by the water. Closer to the other side, away from the devastated area, it seemed to be flowing lazily, letting the dirt sink to the bottom; there, the water reflected the blue sky, with the few white feathery clouds sailing in it. Flickers of gold returned the rays of the rising sun, blinding her eyes. Black spots appeared before her in the blue sky, and it took her some time to realize they were the flock of crows again. She had not seen them all through their stay at the jungle.

“Look,” she heard Nim cry suddenly, “there’s that witch again!” She was pointing to a spot right underneath the hovering birds.

“What witch?” Dar turned to her; “what’re you talking about?”

“Like the one I’ve seen before! There, she’s sitting on that rock in the middle of those rapids, not far from the hills. Look at her hair… She looks like a fairy!”

“A fairy! Don’t tell me you believe in those, Nim!” Still, Dar looked, and to her great surprise, she could see her now; or, at least, she saw what she thought Nim had meant. A large, black rock protruded high up from among the white rapids boiling at the far side of the river.

On it… Dar was not sure what she was seeing. It was a vague, almost transparent shape, changing its form from one minute to the next.

“Does it look like the shape of a woman to you?” She asked curiously. She thought, ‘would the crows fly over a woman sitting on a rock?’ The idea sounded preposterous. To her, it looked like a strange plant whose long, hairy fronds touched the stormy water.

“But… don’t you see? She is combing her hair! It’s so long; it flows with the water. And it’s all blue and white, just like the rapids! Ah!” Nim cried suddenly, “now it’s gone.” She sounded wistful. At the same time, the crows were gone as well, and Dar thought they were both dreaming, as they were on the wooded hill.

“Never mind, Nim;” Dar used her best comforting voice. “You can’t really be sure it was a woman, at that distance.”

“I am sure, too! And I think she was telling us something,” the girl insisted, tears sounding in her voice; “I think she meant us to go on the river.”

“How can we go on the river?” Asked Dar, reasonably, not quite certain how she should deal with the girl’s fantasy. It must have been a kind of compensation for the troubles she had gone through. “We have no boat, for a start,” she argued, “and it may be too dangerous. Look at these rapids. And do you have an idea how to steer a boat, if we had one?”

Nim seemed confused, tears streaming down her cheeks. Dar rose and sat by the girl, hugging her shoulders, letting her cry as much as she needed. Absent-mindedly, she looked at the river again, sending her gaze toward that black rock far away. It seemed bare now, neither human figure nor any kind of plant lying on its top.

“What is it?” Nim asked, drying her tears.

The physician stroked the girl’s hair, then let her loose and rose on her feet. “Come on; we’ll follow the course of the river as much as we can, see where it would lead us.”

They could not go straight. The dry strip of land they had been sitting on soon vanished under the water of one of the channels, and they had to wade back to the upturned shore. Walking among the industrial ruins was hard and slow, involving climbing over some dangerous debris, sinking their feet in pools of water, trekking through sticky mud and making all effort to avoid the pits. Dar had decided not to go a long way before resting, but have many short stops on the way; she actually remembered the way the Amazon people went about their trip through the forest. As they had no more means for fire, the women munched some dried food on their way.

From time to time they moved nearer the river’s course to get water for drinking, not thinking too much about a possible pollution. They had filled their bottle, but avoided using it as long as water was available. They traveled in this way for a few days. Dar thought the industrial zone must have been attached to some residential area, which she hoped to arrive at on their trip. But the zone seemed to stretch over many miles, and they walked on for all that time without seeing anything else. The hilly country had been left far behind them, the area they were going through must have been quite flat before the upheaval. They had lost all track of time; their thoughts had turned sluggish, their conversation non-existent.

They did not try to cross the channel they were walking by, for fear of being trapped by the changeable course, so they stopped every evening for the night without bothering to look for a suitable place to lie down; they had long since realized there was none. Dar was surprised to discover that they had actually got used to sleeping in this uncomfortable way, although she was not sure how many hours of sleep she had actually got each night. Every morning they would get up at sunrise and be on their way without stopping for breakfast. Both felt the urge to get away from that horrible place as soon as they possibly could.

They did not talk much in those days, as they drudged on, reserving their energy for their toil. Only once, as they settled for the night, Nim asked, “Where are we going, Dar?”

Dar looked at her curiously then answered with half a smile, “Eastward, where hope is.”

“Why should hope lie in the east?” Nim asked, innocently.

“Because that’s where the sun rises from,” Dar said, as enigmatically for herself as for her companion.

Later that day they arrived at a kind of factory they had never seen before. In place of the great slabs of concrete and protuberances of glass and iron, a sickening combination of olive green and gaudy orange stuff was lying about, sparkling in the shining sun.

“Look!” Cried Nim. “How beautiful!”

“Ye-e-s,” Dar answered, a doubt in her voice. For some reason, derived, perhaps, from the color mist in the valleys, she had come to distrust any colorful stuff.

“What do you think it is?”

“Some kind of plastic, I’d say,” Dar replied.

“I suppose, if it’s plastic it should be rigid, shouldn’t it?” Nim said carelessly. “We must be able to walk on top of it.”

“I suppose…” Dar agreed, half-heartedly. Ignoring a sense of inner warning, she put her foot on it. There was a sound of ‘plonk’, and the physician’s foot was swallowed in the stuff up to her ankle.

“I suppose it had no time to harden up before the catastrophe,” she said, seemingly nonchalant, as she tried to release her leg.

“Dar!” Nim cried out. “What’s happening! Let me pull you out!” Before she made a move toward her friend, Dar called to her, “No! Stay put! Don’t come any nearer, you could also be caught.”

“But how can I help you?”

“I’ll try to release myself.” The older woman forced herself into a calm she did not feel. She looked for a foothold for the other foot, which would look safe; then she pushed. The foot slipped into another florid puddle, sinking right into it. ‘Now we’re in a pickle,’ Dar thought, twisting her face at the unfunny pun; ‘that’s the worst we’ve been at since the catastrophe, and how we’re going to get out of this, I’d like to know.’

She was feeling the pull of the gaudy stuff, and only hoped the puddles were not deep enough to drown her. But staying stuck in them with no visible way of getting out was still a very unpleasant situation.

“What shall we do, Dar?” Nim moaned. Having got used to rely on the woman, she now had to do something, without knowing what that can be.

“I don’t know, Nim,” Dar answered candidly; “we’ll have to think of something.”

“I’m not going to let you sink in that horrible goo!” Nim exclaimed vehemently, and Dar was glad to hear her vehemence. It was much better than a quiet desperation, and more apt to lead to some profitable action. Nim’s attitude toward her touched her heart, though it was quite possible the girl was just frightened at the thought of being left alone again.

Proceed to installment 2.

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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