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Xenolith, Page 69

A. Sparrow


  The uplands proved farther away than they looked. It took another hour of walking for Frank and Tezhay to reach the edge. Hordes of blue wildflowers greeted them, swarming down a gentle grassy slope, petals uplifted like supplicants to a shrine.

  Leaving the reeds was like stepping into another world. Even the color of the soil changed, from blackish-brown to reddish-yellow. Though they left the marsh, it did not leave them. Drying mud caked them from foot to shoulder.

  As they climbed, they crossed another road skirting the edge of the marsh. This one seemed well- traveled, with deep ruts and desiccated hoof prints. Strands of cook smoke rose from farmhouses. Behind them spread fields of grain, their green heads beginning to burgeon.

  Tezhay led them off the main road, down a narrow side-track. “Teo tell me there is some people here, friendly to Nalki,” he explained.

  Beyond a forested hollow, the land rose and trees gave way to a field of dark green plants with spade-shaped leaves. They came upon a man, one-armed and veiled, weeding on his knees. He rose, regarding them cautiously, curved blade balanced in his hand. Tezhay greeted him, triggering no response until he mentioned Teo. The man warmed instantly. He nudged shoulders with Tezhay and called over two of his children: a boy and a girl in their mid-teens who had been weeding a plot closer to their house.

  “His wifes and one daughter go to Raacevo,” said Tezhay. “But he say we can stay, under his roof.”

  Tezhay opened his satchel and offered the man one of Eghazi’s small daggers. The two went through a little dance of offering and declination until the man reluctantly accepted the dagger, passing it on immediately to his thrilled daughter. Tezhay hesitated, before offering the second dagger directly to the son, who seemed surprised. They spoke some more. The farmer brought his son into the conversation.

  “This one name Harm,” said Tezhay. “He say Raacevo not so bad. They no take much slave anymore. They bring already from Venen some. But this one, he knows where Kovalev live. He can take us.”

  “Who’s Kovalev?” said Frank.

  “Exile,” said Tezhay. “He already here and well know when I first come. Very, very smart man. Already speak perfect Giep’o. He make poem, story. People love his storytell.”

  “Kovalev,” repeated Frank. “Is he Russian?”

  Tezhay squinted back. “I don’t know what you say.”

  “Just wondering where he’s from,” said Frank. “Hope he speaks English.”

  “Is good, yes?” said Tezhay. “You like to meet?”

  “Yeah. I guess so,” said Frank.

  The farmer led them to an empty and dim granary with circular walls of mud-daubed lathing. It smelled rancid inside. Moldy kernels of grain and mouse droppings littered the packed clay floor.

  “This where we sleep,” said Tezhay.

  The farmer whispered something and Harm ran off. He returned with a handcart loaded with straw.

  Frank kicked at the dust. “Do you suppose there’s a broom I could borrow?”

  Before Tezhay could translate, the boy dumped the straw and began spreading it. Frank sighed and went outside. He sat on a bench made from two stumps and a split log. It looked over a pepper field, out onto the great marsh. An armada of hummocks darkened amidst a sea of silver-tipped marsh grass. The setting sun silhouetted Idala’s distant pinnacles. Wisps of cloud or smoke hung near them.

  He fingered a curved groove in wood burnished glossy by wear. His finger met another, opposite curve that converged against the first and crossed it. Random whittling? Script? Even Gi, it seemed was stricken with graffiti.

  Coming back had been a terrible mistake. He could not get the image of Eghazi’s nearly detached head out of his mind. Even at its most stultifying and pedestrian, his life in Bethesda was infinitely preferable to this horror show.

  The hope that had driven him to return – the possibility of finding Liz across an almost inconceivable gulf of time and distance and grief – now seemed completely dead. He had little to look forward to except a cold bath and his next meal.

  Only the prospect of meeting someone, from his own world – even if he was an elderly Russian who might not even speak English –kept the bleakness from completely engulfing him.

  His fingers found again the groove in the bark-less wood and slid along its curves. The image they traced finally flashed into his mind. He looked down to confirm his suspicion. Yes. It was a stylized carving of a fish.

  Or, an icthys.