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Xenolith, Page 34

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 26: The Causeway

  Frank reached the valley bottom by midday, the watchtower a tiny protuberance on the rise behind him. The road ahead climbed a long, uninterrupted slope to the top of a broad mesa. Before tackling such a slog, Frank thought it wise to stop to rest and have some lunch. He sat in the soft grass growing beside a causeway that carried the road across a clear creek. Pale cobbles and pink sand lined its bed. Lush, green meadows dotted with cobalt-blue orchids rose filled the creek’s meanders, contrasting with the dry, brown uplands.

  Several biscuits remained from what the orphans had plundered from his pack. Despite their density he found them toothsome, and regretted not hanging onto more. Food would become an issue sooner than he had planned, but he had seen some weedy fields of potato-leafed plants that he thought he might be able to scrounge some tubers from. The abandoned farms so prevalent might provide forage as well, not to mention shelter.

  The mesa up ahead seemed to harbor a large village. Saw tooth roof lines interrupted its silhouette, and curls of smoke rose from many points. Perhaps that would be where he stopped for the night. If he was lucky, perhaps some signs of civilization, his civilization, would finally appear.

  Nothing he had seen during his flight from Ubabaor provided any connection with the world he knew. Nothing had conflicted with what Tezhay told him except his own prejudices. Yet he still could not disabuse himself of the notion that if we walked far enough away from Ubabaor, things would begin to make more sense.

  He dumped the contents of his water bottle, though it remained half full, and replenished it with cool water from the stream. His feet ached. He thought it might be nice to soak them. He poked a foot at a grey stick protruding from a sand bar, its end splintered and jagged, levering it out of the sand. The other end bulged round like a ball. If he knew anything he knew human anatomy. This was a humerus with a spiral torsion fracture just above the elbow joint. He glanced at his bottle, considered dumping the water out, but left it alone and walked back to the causeway.

  He gave up the idea of soaking his feet. The crystalline water did not seem so inviting anymore. He again entertained the possibility of returning to Ubabaor. To do so would be to surrender the idea that he still walked the earth he knew, that life as knew it could resume, that this was a predicament the U.S. State Department could help him with.

  Believing Tezhay, however, opened some interesting possibilities as well, particularly with regards to Liz. Wherever this place was, could this be where she ended up? The thought of it seemed absurd and dredged up pain buried under years of emotional sediment. But could it be? Might there truly be a place called Piliar where expatriates or exiles congregated? Was it possible he might find her there?

  Rekindling an extinguished hope seemed futile. So many years had passed. But the numerical reality did not conform to his perception of time passing. She remained part of him. Her voice still echoed in his ears.

  Piliar, then. Piliar would be his goal. If he was to grant Tezhay any mote of credibility he would begin with accepting the existence of Piliar, the place of exiles. Even if it didn’t turn out exactly as Tezhay portrayed it, maybe at least part of his description was true and he would find other foreigners there. If there were expats there, he could get the straight dope about this place. All he needed was to find another old fart like him who spoke English, Spanish or Portuguese, his fluent tongues.

  He lay back on the sun-warmed stone of the causeway and gazed up at the mesa. This green land reminded him of the wilder parts of Kansas, if Kansas had mesas. He wondered how Liz might have handled finding herself in this land with the big sky. He wondered if she might stand right now with him somewhere under this same sky.

  He wondered what it would be like to encounter Liz in Piliar. He imagined her having tea, she loved tea, at an outdoor café in a city resembling Ubabaor, but a living city, with more elegant architecture, thriving markets, fewer soldiers. She would be sitting there in a billowy seersucker dress, her hair drawn back in a French braid, its long honey tresses streaked only lightly with grey. He saw her face clearly now, because this wasn’t a dream. But since he only seen her in youth, he had trouble conjuring the creases and sags that she must have acquired. His mind refused to let her age, gracefully or not.

  He joined her at the table. She rocked back, startled, but composed herself in an instant the she always did no matter how ludicrous or startling an encounter.

  “Well, look who’s here,” she said. “What took you so long? I thought I was going to be stood up.”

  “I got here as soon as I could,” he would say, his heart thumping, panicked. “I didn’t know you would be here. I didn’t know this place existed.”

  She gazed into him, through him, coldly, her mouth set firmly without a trace of a smile. “You never came looking for me.”

  “But I did. I went up river. We retraced your steps. You weren’t there. There was no trace of you.”

  “But you never came here, Frank. Twenty years and you never came here. You never even tried to come here.”

  “But I didn’t know. How could I know? Some things are unknowable.”

  His eyes flicked open. A cold sweat drenched him. His heart pounded heavily. He took a deep breath and sighed, feeling all off-kilter after his backfired daydream.

  He waited for his heart to settle down, then rose and stretched, looking up at the mesa that would be his next destination. The road across the creek seemed weedy and disused, yet the meadows up above seemed more stubbled and barren than the area he had already passed through, as if hay had been harvested or the grasses had been grazed. That was a good sign, he thought, that the village up ahead thrived, that they had escaped whatever calamity had befallen the farmlands he had passed through. He looked forward to the cool breezes he’d likely find up above and the wider views of the landscape ahead.

  A row of dark specks, riders on horses appeared over the lip of the mesa. They trailed down the slope, diverging, the wind sweeping an arc of dust from their wakes. Several followed the road at the vertex of the formation. The others rode through the fields on each side, spreading like debris in an explosion.

  It almost looked like they were holding a race. They headed his way, so he stepped off the causeway and onto a sand bank, not wishing to impede them should they wish to pass. Or maybe they were just coming down to the creek to water their mounts. But why were they riding so fast?

  He noticed another tiny dust cloud coming down the road from the direction of the watchtower, a lone rider from Ubabaor. Perhaps this one was coming to meet the others? He decided he would just sit back and let them tend to their business. He would present himself as a disinterested and harmless spectator to whatever transaction was about to occur.

  The lone rider thundered to within shouting distance. A hail of English profanities assailed him. It was Tezhay. He was not pleased.