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Xenolith, Page 88

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 73: Sweet Peas

  Bullet-shredded leaf bits tumbled down like green snow as Tezhay strode towards the cliff, hands splayed wide from his sides. The cliff top swarmed with movement and voices. Pebbles clattered down its face.

  “Get back! He’s got a gun!” called Frank, hunkered behind a tree.

  “Ah, he just try to scare,” said Tezhay, continuing across a graveled glade that joined several trails, before stopping to wave Frank on. “Come. This is the place you want.” He stepped up onto a set of wide, crude stairs organized out of the blocks of a natural talus slope.

  “Stop it right there!” Atop a heap of broken slabs, a head poked up through a cleft – sandy, brown hair tied up in a bandanna. The barrel of an assault rifle pointed down at Tezhay.

  Tezhay walked to the base of a sheer wall, past ropes coiled on the talus and leading up to a platform dangling from pulleys. A path veered left up a wide crevice between a collapsed slab and the solid cliff.

  “I said stop!” said the young man, voice quavering.

  Frank equivocated, and then burst out onto the open gravel after Tezhay.

  “What is he worry?” said Tezhay throwing up his hands. “He sees we not Crasac. We got no weapon.”

  “You two really, really need to stop or I’ll aim lower next time. You’re coming way too fast!”

  Finally, Tezhay finally halted and stood, arms apart like Jesus slumping on the cross. Frank stopped beside a set of ropes coiled on the talus stairs. A faint scent, something familiar, hung in the air, too subtle to define.

  “Okay. Who are you guys?” said the kid, with a tremolo trapped in his voice as if he had swallowed a moth. “What is it you want?”

  “My name’s Frank. I’m an exile. Like you.”

  “Exile? Hell no. I may be stuck here, but I ain’t no exile.”

  “And I am just Traveler,” said Tezhay. “But who are you? And what do you want?”

  “What do I want? Never mind what I want. Listen, if you’re looking for shelter, we can’t take any more refugees. We’re having trouble feeding everyone that’s up here as it is.”

  “We just want visit,” said Tezhay. “Bring news. Get advice. You know, palaver.”

  “Sorry, but I’m not supposed to let anyone else up here. I’m supposed to tell you to go to Maora, wherever the hell that is.”

  “Dumbass,” grumbled Frank in a low voice. “Do we really look like refugees?”

  “What was that?”

  “My friend says it is a good idea you let us visit,” said Tezhay, speaking up. “We bring important news.”

  “Oh yeah? Like what?”

  “Let us up and we share,” said Tezhay, winking at Frank.

  The young man stared at them for a moment, and then lowered the barrel of his gun.

  “Fine. Let someone else sort you out. The only reason I’m here is because I know which end to point and I don’t run away whimpering when the bloody thing goes off. None of the locals wanted to touch it when they saw what it did.” He stepped out from a massive flake of stone that had split from the cliff face in an ancient collapse. His assault rifle had a worm-eaten stock and a pitted and crusted barrel like some artifact exhumed from the earth. “Okay. Come on up. Slowly. And keep your hands up front.”

  “Can you please point your shooter someplace else?” said Tezhay, proceeding up the slanting path.

  The young man fumbled with and finally flipped with some difficulty, a safety lever above the trigger, and tilted the barrel down till it pointed at the ground. He looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, about the right age to be his son, thought Frank. Several days of scraggly beard scruffed his face. His bandanna barely contained a torrent of brown curls. Frank studied his face carefully. He thought he saw a hint of Liz in the point of his chin and the height of his cheekbones.

  “What’s your name?” said Frank.

  “Why do you care?”

  “Because I think … you might be my son,” said Frank, choking.

  “What?” The young man looked startled, then repulsed. “Fucking hell. My dad lives in Providence.”

  “Ah, but maybe your mother is this woman name Lizbet?” said Tezhay.

  “Liz?” The young man looked even more aghast. “God no! She ain’t my mother, thank God.”

  An electric jolt not unlike sciatica zipped down Frank’s spine. His heart fluttered anew. Every third beat rebounded off his rib cage.

  “So, a Lizbet does live here?” said Tezhay.

  “This is her farm,” said the young man. “She took me in after I got shanghaied by some freaks in a parking lot.”

  Tezhay turned to Frank and tried to catch his eye. “So, are you going ask?”

  Frank’s gaze was affixed to his feet. “Ask what?”

  “If she the one you think she is.”

  Frank struggled to form words. His heart labored. Sweat beaded on his forehead and dampened his neck. “Let me … let me catch my breath.”

  “You okay?” said Tezhay. “Is your heart again?”

  “I’m fine,” said Frank.

  “Then ask him!” Tezhay urged.

  Frank exhaled deeply. His tremors started up again. “I don’t know how.”

  “Listen, if you’re gonna go, go!” said the young man.

  “Come,” said Tezhay, pulling Frank around a switchback that led up a diagonal fracture in the cliff face. “Let’s go up then, and you will see with your own eyes,” said Tezhay.

  Frank kept his eyes trained upward at the lip of stone atop the path. He saw bright sky and faces looking down; men and women bearing long bows and pikes and crossbows of the type wielded by Cuasars.

  The familiar scent – notes of cinnamon over something round and fruity – intensified as they climbed. Frank strode up the last slant of ledge, heart pumping fast and hard, fingers tingling, face flushed. Tezhay kept glancing back, and tripped on a stone.

  “Watch where you’re going,” said Frank.

  Tezhay let Frank overtake him, watching him pass with the studious curiosity of an anthropologist. The cliff's defenders – men and women, battered, smeared with mud and blood – also watched him warily.

  Even fifty meters up, the crowns of trees rooted below the cliff overhung the rim. They emerged from an awning of branches into the base of a narrow valley, gashed on one side by a stream dashing through a deep cleft, treeless but for a few copses, huddled as if herded on the valley’s margins. Upslope, a series of terraces stepped up to a village-sized collection of huts, grain cribs and animal shelters surrounding a cobbled yard.

  The rain had ceased, though it happened so gradually, Frank didn’t notice. The clouds pulled thin like taffy and let a soft light sift through, washing the landscape in a shadow-less glow. Another charred and curdled mass of cloud churned across the mountains like a pyroclastic flow, promising their respite would be brief and paid for with a dark deluge.

  A meadow tilted gently before them, the lowest of a set of tiers plowed and planted with newly sprouted grain in alternating swaths, some chartreuse, some bluish like rye, Each terrace was separated from the next by stone walls and beds of thick, finned vines bearing copious, orchid-like blooms. They grew in every corner and crevice that couldn’t be plowed.

  Their essence carried down on a wind funneling between through a pair of chalky bluffs that bracketed the pocket valley and hemmed it with ledges. They opened like a gate onto broader meadows, splotched and speckled with goats and sheep. Beyond them rose a vast and shaggy moor that stretched to the barren roots of a mountain range, their peaks obscured by the boiling clouds. Their massive buttresses, like large paws on puppy dogs, conjured impossible heights in Frank’s imaginings.

  “Go on. Go,” said Tezhay. “This is what you wanted.”

  Frank remained rooted on the cliff top, his whole body quivering in time with his heart, girding himself for extremes: crushing disappointment or the unimaginable consummation of a long surrendered hope.

bove the planted fields, a woman emerged from a barn, her hair in a pony-tail, her stride confident, despite a pronounced limp. She threaded through a gaggle of milling refugees, stopped in the lane and stared at the unwelcome visitors standing at the head of the cliff. The geometry of her waist and hip had changed, but Frank knew. Even from that distance he knew, before his vision dissolved into a flurry of phosphenes. He begged for his heart to resume beating.