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Xenolith, Page 31

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 23: Liberation Day

  Frank sipped from a small bowl of something slightly sweet and alcoholic, thankful to Mer for leaving a pitcherful behind. As eerily still as the city Tezhay called Ubabaor could feel in the daytime, at night it achieved a silence sepulchral in its depth. The oil lamp on the table flickered and threatened to blink out. Shadows encroached and receded but a dim glow held on as Frank sat in bed knotting together bits of string. Drapery pulls, fence lashings, threads ripped from carpets. He tested each length with a tug before winding it onto an accumulating wad.

  Footsteps echoed in the corridor. He tucked the string under his blanket and hustled to the window to shove his day pack behind the draperies. The latch slid open. The door opened slightly. Tezhay leaned in.

  “I come to say goodbye. In the morning, I go,” Tezhay said, eyes distant, already departed. “They may send other tutor to you. I hope so, they can. I be back, maybe two week, three,” said Tezhay.”

  No news here. Tezhay had been talking about leaving for days. Frank didn’t know what to say. Asked repeatedly about his destination, Tezhay always dodged, saying: “My usual work. Checking xenolith. Courier.” Begging to be released was also futile, and at this point, moot.

  “Send me a postcard,” he said wearily.

  “I’m sorry that we must keep you here. Is difficult to find you a better place right now.

  I will have Mer bring you some things I have. Some English books. Some things for writing. Keep you busy.”

  “I look forward to it,” he said flatly, smirking. The one book Tezhay had shared so far was a warped, water-damaged copy of “Blueberries for Sal,” a sixty page children’s story. He wondered what other fine literature graced Tezhay’s library.

  Tezhay forced a smile and nodded as he leaned back out of the room. When the latch slid closed Frank got off the bed and slipped his pack back out from behind the drapes and finished packing, zipping his passport into the outside flap of his day pack, stuffing a water bottle in a side compartment. The main compartment already held a thin blanket, the cotton chambray shirt and nylon cargo pants and he had worn on the day of his abduction and a half-dozen hard biscuits salvaged from breakfast.

  Frank slept fitfully that night, awakening several times with cold sweats and palpitations. He got up before the sun, and sat in a chair by the window to wait for the sky to lighten. He had slept in his traveling clothes – taupe trousers and a dark blue tunic with ribbon ties – so he had no need to dress. He hoped it would help him blend in better with the locals. He would use the floppy straw hat that Mer had given him to hide his pasty features. It hung on a wire hook in the wall, edges frayed and unsprung as if it had weathered an attack from a goat.

  When the sun’s oblique and golden rays finally washed the stucco facade across the road, he heard Mer come humming down the hall. A kettle clanked down in the corridor. Knuckles rapped on the heavy wooden door.

  “Hoat watah! Brefess!” He had been giving the boy a crash course in English in the long hours between Tezhay’s visits.

  Mer fiddled with the latch, struggling to undo it. The door pushed open and he bustled in, kettle in one hand, a pair of inverted bowls balanced in the other.

  “Thanks Mer,” Frank took the kettle. “And how are you today?”

  “Ah em gud. Ha waryoo, dooktor frenk? Hayoo sleep?” Mer put the bowls on the table and pulled a spoon from his waist band.

  “Slept great. What’s for breakfast?” Mer just blinked at him, placing the bowls on the table by the window. But he knew the answer: biscuits and porridge. The menu had yet to vary, though to be fair; the porridge did shift in viscosity and meat particle content. He poured some hot water into a glazed terra cotta basin and washed his face as Mer watched cross legged on the floor. Frank made the mistake of trying to drink some of the kettle water the day before. It tasted like burnt bacon, ashy with an aftertaste of tin. He was glad to have filled the bottle in his pack with the cool, sweet water from the well in the courtyard, though its proximity to the latrines out back did worry him.

  Frank smoothed his greasy hair back and rubbed the lengthening stubble on his face. Tezhay hadn’t let him anywhere near a blade. He dried his hands on the drapery, peering out the window to see the road empty as usual, but for a trio of homeless orphans huddled near an intersection with a larger street. Not a single internal combustion engine disturbed the peace.

  Frank was relieved to see a pair of scrawny legs protruding from beneath the arbor-like awning two floors below. The old guard, Elkaton, had returned. The day before, an aggressive and vigilant young man, disturbingly fond of blade-throwing, had replaced Elkaton. Frank worried the change might be permanent. Maybe it had simply been the old man’s day off.

  Frank sat and ate what he could of the gruel. Dipping the biscuits barely softened them. It was like dunking stones. At least he could be assured that the ones he had packed away would keep well.

  When Mer left with the dirty bowls, he went back to the window. Elkaton had already left his post to come up and escort him to the latrines. Frank quickly slipped his pack from behind the drapes and stuffed it out the window, lowering it slowly on the knotted cord. Knots loosened and slipped as he fed it down the wall. Elkaton appeared at the door like an apparition, much quicker than Frank expected. Frank let go of the cord. He heard the pack bounce off the awning and onto the street. Frank tossed the end out the window casually, as if he were discarding a piece of trash. Elkaton’s dyspeptic face gave no sign of suspicion.

  The old man led him down the wide staircase into the courtyard and out the back of the building. He entered a latrine stall with Elkaton staring after him, drew the curtain and paused, listening carefully. The halberd clanked against stone. He waited a couple of seconds and slipped out. Elkaton stood leaning with his halberd propped against a wall, but he popped upright and gripped the weapon in both hands when he saw Frank emerge.

  Flustered, Frank shook his head and went back into the stall. On all prior potty runs, Elkaton had never failed to use the second latrine after Frank had entered the first. He drained his bladder struggling to formulate an alternative plan. It wouldn’t take much to overpower the old man. Close in, the halberd would be useless.

  Frank burst out of the latrine to find Elkaton in a fighting stance with the halberd crossed in front of his body, his robe drawn back to provide access to a long dagger sheathed on his hip. Frank chickened out, nodding meekly to the old man, whose one good eye pinned him with a murderous gaze.

  Elkaton jerked his chin towards the building, urging Frank back in. He complied, head down, his spirits sinking below the paving stones, wondering how he was going to explain his pack on the awning. Excited voices drew their attention to the alley. Two boys stood fighting over his cargo pants.

  “Hey! They’ve got my stuff!”

  Elkaton took a second to process the scene, then charged down the alley halberd first, his face fixed in a rictus of outrage. The boys separated in a panic, leaving the pants behind as Elkaton chased them out onto the street. There, a girl knelt by the pack, pulling out biscuits one by one. She screamed and ran off juggling biscuits when she saw Elkaton. One of the boys slipped trying to climb a fence and got hung up on a splinter. Elkaton hobbled after him, roaring.

  Frank, standing by the alley, saw his pack lying in the street. He grabbed it ran. As he turned the corner onto the next street he heard Elkaton roar as if his lungs were on fire. He ducked into the doorway of an abandoned structure and found his way into a garden. Elkaton’s halberd came bouncing along the top of a stone wall. He heard the old man’s raspy breath. Frank ducked under an arch and ran the opposite way, past the street of his detention, down the next road beyond.

  Frank ran himself dizzy and slowed to a shuffle choosing paths randomly through the city’s dense warrens and snaking alleys. When he caught himself backtracking, he used a bank of hills to guide his flight in a consistent direction. He hoped to find a populated area, and then, ideally, a te
lephone or internet café. He knew the State Department’s travelers’ hotline by heart: (202) 647-5225 and had a card with all the local AT&T access numbers. He just needed to know what country this was.

  Frank passed block after block of empty buildings, but not a single car or truck or motorcycle. Windrows of dust and leaves covered the cobbled streets in herringbones. Goats browsed freely in untended gardens. The few people he came upon withdrew shyly when they saw him. They all seemed elderly or maimed.

  Frank found a marketplace, deserted but for a few stalls selling beans and grain. There was no trace of any of the cheap consumer detritus from China normally so ubiquitous in such places. No Coca-Cola logos or corporate insignia of any sort. A few signs bore the indecipherable script that Tezhay had attempted to teach him: wedge shapes and curlicues, circles with tails.

  An alley spilled him into an oblong plaza where the wind had sorted bits of debris into piles. A fountain at the center trickled into a stagnant pool, spoiled with algae. He kicked at a pile and it flew apart into scattered dun strips of cloth, stained dark. Bandages. Pits and crevices in the cobbles also bore remnants of blood.

  Across the plaza, a flock of birds settled onto a picked-over garbage heap. They were pretty for scavengers, with blue faces and golden crests. They used their wings oddly to pull at bits of trash. Closer, he could make out bat-like thumbs on their leading edge, like young hoatzins. The sight made him dizzy for a moment and pushed the oddity of his situation beyond the threshold of deniability.

  Frank pushed on, vigor dampened, feeling less confident in his salvation. That clean bed, those hot meals twice a day beckoned him back. He considered returning to the house, reconciling with Elkaton and retreating back to his room to wait for Tezhay, who would find him a more willing student when he returned.

  But stubbornness won. Frank jammed his inner motor into gear and kept plodding onward, drawing curious glances from the smattering of people he encountered, mostly elderly or amputees. Frank set his chin firmly, eyes forward, like someone important late for a critical appointment; a man not to be messed with. He strode with purpose, as if zipping on a beeline to a familiar destination. In Nairobi and Mogadishu, this old method of navigating dodgy urban wastelands had helped him evade hassles from bad boys and street hustlers. Here, in Ubabaor, the residents barely noticed him. In truth, he had no goal. He walked in ever-widening circles. But the act helped calm his apprehensions.

  Frank’s persistence was rewarded several streets on when he reached a broad avenue running beside a wall several stories tall, where he finally found activity worthy of a city: carts loaded with baskets of grain, goats threading through a breach in the wall, workers mixing mortar and hauling stone to repair it. Soldiers milled about, many bearing crossbows, none carrying guns of any sort.

  The road led to a gate that opened onto an expanse of fields. Mirrors flashed from a watchtower beside it, responding to flashes from another tower far down the road. The soldiers manning the gate seemed oblivious to his presence and he walked right by. They seemed quite young and the women seemed about as numerous as the men.

  The land immediately beyond the wall was heavily trampled and littered with broken wagons. A few patches of broad-leafed crops struggled to grow in places where someone seemed to have taken the trouble to weed them. Some fields displayed rows of bright, almost fluorescent, green grass that reminded him of Ethiopian tef.

  An outer, lower wall lay several kilometers out from the gate. Between the walls lay a barrier constructed of uprooted tree trunks, roots entangled and facing outward. Many were charred or destroyed by flames. Clusters of little round shelters sprouted like puffball mushrooms throughout the fields.

  Frank caught up with a train of empty wagons. The farmers who drove the wagons snuck furtive glances at him, but their gazes never lingered. A group of goat herders heading towards the city tossed him a greeting, as they did to all they passed. Behind them came a wagon bearing blocks of peat.

  As Frank approached the lumpy outer wall, he could see that it had once been an orderly and orthogonal assemblage of stone and brick, but had been shattered into rubble throughout its length. Gaps had been repaired with simple heaps of earth. Sharp, fire-hardened wooden pikes studded the trenches behind them, angling outward.

  The road intersected another inside and paralleling the city side of the wall. The sparse traffic coming from Ubabaor seemed to separate here, turning mostly left, sometimes to the right onto a lesser road that paralleled the wall. Only a sinewy, older man carrying a plow hitch over his shoulder headed for a gate manned by a pair of sentries.

  Frank plodded onward, leery of what lay ahead, but reluctant to turn onto the other road or turn around. In spite of all the oddities he had witnessed, he was not quite ready to topple the rickety mental construct he had erected to explain his fate. He could only hope that if he walked far enough he would eventually come across a place he recognized, or could at least identify.

  As Frank walked on and his freedom become ever more apparent, a sprig of optimism re-sprouted in him. Maybe getting home wouldn’t be as simple as booking a flight, but at least his fate rested in his own hands once more, or rather, in his feet. His feet would have to get him where he needed to go. He had already done the hard part – extricating himself from captivity.

  Frank looked back at the foothills that rose in tiers behind Ubabaor, clouds hinting of a larger range looming beyond them. Spurs of uplands embraced the city on either side. Passing through the second gate would take him into a broad savannah where arrays of broad mesas plied the sea of grass like convoys of aircraft carriers.

  Frank caught up with the man carrying the plowshare to make it seem like they were traveling together, perhaps to plow the fields beyond the gate. The soldiers at the second gate looked on lackadaisically, and let them pass without challenge.

  The man with the plowshare gave him a wary look as he veered off the road a short ways beyond the wall, heading down a footpath to a half-collapsed shed. Frank just smiled at him and nodded. He glanced back at the wall and its string of sentries standing every hundred meters or so. Worried, he looked about for signs of threat worthy of such defenses. A few structures stood scattered in the fields that he had initially mistaken for barns, but now he noticed the large wheels taller than a man’s height, and massive rams mounted in front. Down the road, there seemed to be a watchtower by the road looming over a shallow valley that nestled a small river, with a mesa rising off the gentle slope beyond.

  He continued on to the watchtower; a heavy wooden shack with slanting walls mounted on pilings ten meters tall. On its roof stood a large round mirror, ensconced within a dark cowling to disguise flashes from those not intended to see. A collection of boulders and uprooted tree trunks blocked the roadway beside it. A system of trenches flanked the tower, forming a chevron that angled back about fifty meters on either side. The road detoured along a crude track that swept along the back of the trenches.

  As he approached he could see that this would be the final obstacle between him and the valley. The valley itself looked inviting, with round, yurt-like farmhouses dotting the landscape and grain fields rippling in the wind. He stepped up his pace, feeling compelled to put Ubabaor behind him no matter what lay ahead on the road.

  The soldiers at the watch tower seemed much more alert and heavily armed than those back at the city wall. Several watched him approach, crossbows at the ready, but pointing at the earth. Frank passed the detour by, heading for a gap in the barricade that looked wide enough to thread his way through. As he came up behind the last row of boulders a sentry stepped out to confront him.

  One clucked rapidly at Frank in a scolding tone, his phrasing distinctly lacking the polite pronouns that Tezhay had attempted to teach him and well stocked with the adjectives for “stupid” and “old” and “foreigner.” Frank just nodded back and smiled.

  “Why, thank you, and fuck you too, for that matter.”

  He walked straight ahea
d, barely glancing at him, pretending that he had pressing business in the valley, matters beyond his station. The sentries made no attempt to physically bar him and he squeezed through the narrow space between the tangled roots of the massive stumps and the base of the tower, he could hear them laughing at him. Another descended the tower and engaged the others heatedly in an argument that faded with every step he took beyond the road block.

  Now he walked free and clear, with nothing but sprawling sky and open road ahead. Nothing stood between him and the truth. He would learn firsthand what this world was about, unfiltered by those who might wish to delude him. But he couldn’t decide if his pulse raced more from fright or exhilaration.

  The landscape bore many signs of war, but no evidence of any recent fighting. He passed un-threshed grain fields still bearing the remnants of a prior season’s un-harvested crop. Farmhouses abandoned, some burnt, some destroyed. The remains of cattle and dogs, some skeletal, some mummified.

  The land lay so open that he could spot any threats that approached from kilometers away. Who would bother with a lone and pudgy wanderer?