Xenolith, Page 72A. Sparrow
Chapter 60: Canu Takes the Watch
Acorns clattered like infrequent and erratic hail on the roof of the shed. Vul writhed on a pile of sacking and tarpaulins, dreaming out loud about his girl, Aret; speaking as if she and he were alone on his makeshift bed. His moaned intimacies burned Canu’s ears and made him feel like a voyeur.
Canu threaded his way through the clutter. Overdue to relieve Pari’s watch, he searched the work bench for something, anything he could use to defend himself. He ran his knuckles along one of the crude yet exquisite longbows that Ren and Pari had fashioned. Ren had threatened to break his fingers if he touched them before the glue binding their laminations had fully cured.
Canu sifted through a jumble of boxes and trays, all covered in years of accumulated dust. He found one pathetic knife with a rusted, retractable blade and stuck it in his pocket. He hemmed over the inadequacy of the other choices. Vul and the women had already taken the good stuff. On impulse, he plucked a small hammer from the toolbox and slipped its handle through his belt loop.
They were alone in the shed, the three of them: Canu, Vul and Aret’s dream ghost. Seor had gone off to forage for non-perishables with Ara and Ren. Optimist that she was, Seor was already preparing the logistics for their return to Gi. Pari sat out by the stream, watching over the xenolith, or rather the place where Seor hoped the convergence would reveal itself.
Canu’s comrades had not known what to make of Ara’s defection. Seor peppered her with inquiries about the plot and its actors that obviously went far behind her limited knowledge. Vul threatened to sever her tongue if she persisted in defending Baren’s actions. Even Pari had been unusually brusque in tending to Ara’s wound. Only Ren seemed thrilled; comforted that at least one Cadre officer saw fit to validate their cause.
Seor clearly didn’t trust Ara, and had brought her along on their foraging expedition more to keep her under surveillance than to gain from her experience in Ur. But Canu had faith. He had seen how Ara reacted to moral dilemmas. He had benefited from her sacrifices. He wished he could make his comrades see how much she was like them.
Canu stepped over Vul as he squirmed among the tarps. “I’m going out to relieve Pari,” said Canu. “Tell Aret I say hello.”
“Canu?” Vul bellowed, as if calling across a vast cavern. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t shout. You’ll wake Vul. He’s trying to sleep.”
“But …” Vul popped up, eyes flashing open. “Where … where did she go?” He looked confused, and frantic.
“Don’t worry. She’ll be back,” Canu assured him, pushing the half-rotted door swung open on its one intact hinge.
He looked out onto the unkempt yard, with its tree saplings poking up through the un-mown grass. Canu found it much more appealing than the uncanny lawns, sculpted bushes and stark, red substrate found in most other yards in Ur. Plant some beans out back, give the old man a couple of goats to keep the weeds at bay, and Canu would feel at home.
The old man had come out that morning to empty and freshen a saucer of milk by his front door, though no one yet seen a beast on the property that could be considered a pet. He had eased down the steps of his porch clinging to a framework of metal tubing, traversing the walk to the metal box mounted on a post by the road. He returned, slowly and precariously with a fistful of paper. It took all of Pari’s will to refrain from rushing out to assist him.
Canu circled around the back of the shed and plunged into the woodlot. He followed a path of trampled ferns to a large boulder, crusted with lichen, incongruous on the muddy flat as if it had been dropped from the sky. Pari sat cross-legged at its base, sealed from the damp ground by strips of bark. The reconfigured child’s bow lay on her lap, with an arrow improved with one of the metal blades Ara snagged from the hospital.
Pari’s head swiveled to meet him, her eyes bugged with irritation. “Do you have to snap every twig when you walk? Get down and keep quiet!”
“What’s wrong?” whispered Canu, dropping to one knee.
“Someone’s stalking about in the trees across the road.”
“Should I go see?” Canu said, rising to his feet.
“Don’t be foolish!” said Pari. “What is that, a hammer on your belt?”
Canu nodded, smiling sheepishly.
“Just keep watch. Retreat to the shed if need be. Is Seor back yet?”
Pari rose and brushed herself off. “I’m going to go find them. Don’t do anything stupid. I’ll tell Vul to come help.”
Pari slinked back to the shed, Canu admired her stealth. She kept low, crunching not a single leaf, rattling not a single bush. He closed his eyes and listened for whistles. A descending two-tone, like a child calling its mother, dominated the ambiance – a bird, local and ubiquitous.
He heard people talking nearby and opened his eyes. Men laughed and bantered behind the house at the corner, the vanguard in a string of similar homes descending to a lower terrace on this valley wall. Canu watched through the trees as they struggled to lift a white mass of fabric onto a metal frame. Strands of smoke drifted his way, bearing the scent of charcoal tainted with distillates. Preparations for some sort of celebration or ceremony?
Bushes parted. Small voices chimed. Snatches of primary color appeared in the undergrowth across the stream. A young woman in a long sleeved, white blouse led a parade of very small children to the stream bank. All carried buckets and jars and nets.
Canu hunkered in the shadow of the boulder, its dewy granite cool against his skin, confident the children and their escorts could not detect him. Though, he worried one might run over and climb the boulder and the way children do in any world, but for now the stream received their full attention. They splashed about in floppy sandals or boots much too large for short legs.
Two young women hovered behind the children, alternately slapping at gnats, peering and cooing into buckets, untangling nets from strands of bramble. A small boy waddled up, hovering patiently as the women conversed. Finally, he got their attention by tugging one’s belt loops. He pointed to a spot upstream out of Canu’s line of vision. The women took a few steps, then stopped, startled. They recoiled, one of them pulling the boy back by the hand. The over shouted to the others to get them out of the stream. They all hurried back towards the house, the women turning frequently to monitor whatever was happening in the stream. One held an oblong communicator to her ear.
Canu eased up on his haunches to peer over the boulder. At first he thought he saw smoke, but it was mist boiling out of the stream. The tree trunks on the other side wiggled as if a sheet of rippled glass stood before them.
Canu couldn’t help himself. He let out a wail loud enough to be heard across two portals.