Maps in a mirror, p.65

Maps in a Mirror, page 65

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Her daughters and daughters-in-law tried to care for her, but if they took her to their homes, she’d just walk around as if she were still in her own little cottage, bumping into walls, cutting those infernal carrots, saying those words till they were all out of their minds. Finally they took her back to her own home and paid a woman to cook and clean for her, and she went on that way, all alone in that cabin, happy as a duck in a puddle until at last the floor of her cabin caved in and she fell in and broke her hip. They figure she never even felt the pain, and when she died she was still laughing and smiling and saying idiotic things, and never even saw one of her grandchildren, never even wept at her husband’s grave, and some folks said she was probably happier, but not a one said they were eager to change places with her. And it happened that a mean-looking old peddler came by and watched as they let her into her grave, and up rode a medicine man yelling at his horse, and he pulled up next to the peddler.

  “So she bought from you,” the peddler said.

  And the medicine man said, “If you’d just paint things up a little, add a bit of color here and there, you’d sell more, friend.”

  But the peddler only shook his head. “If they’d ever let me finish telling them, they’d not be taken in by you, old liar. But they always send me packing before I’m through. I never get to tell them.”

  “If you’d begin with the pleasant things, they’d listen.”

  “But if I began with the pleasant things, it wouldn’t be true.”

  “Fine with me. You keep me in business.” And the medicine man patted a trunk filled with gold and silver and bronze and iron hairs. It was the wealth of all the world, and the medicine man rode off with it, to go back home and count it all, so fine and cold.

  And the peddler, he just rode home to his family, his great-great-great-grandchildren, his gray-haired wife who nagged, the children who complained about the way he was always off on business when he should be home, and always hanging about the house when he ought to be away; he rode home to the leaves that turned every year, and the rats that ate the apples in the cellar, and the folks that kept dying on him, and the little ones that kept on being born.

  A PLAGUE OF BUTTERFLIES

  The butterflies awoke him. Amasa felt them before he saw them, the faint pressure of hundreds of half-dozens of feet, weighting his rough wool sheet so that he dreamed of a shower of warm snow. Then opened his eyes and there they were, in the shaft of sunlight like a hundred stained-glass windows, on the floor like a carpet woven by an inspired lunatic, delicately in the air like leaves falling upward in a wind.

  At last, he said silently.

  He watched them awhile, then gently lifted his covers. The butterflies arose with the blanket. Carefully he swung his feet to the floor; they eddied away from his footfall, then swarmed back to cover him. He waded through them like the shallow water on the edge of the sea, endlessly charging and then retreating quickly. He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. You have come to me at last, he said, and then he shuddered, for this was the change in his life that he had waited for, and now he wasn’t sure he wanted it after all.

  They swarmed around him all morning as he prepared for his journey. His last journey, he knew, the last of many. He had begun his life in wealth, on the verge of power, in Sennabris, the greatest of the oil-burning cities of the coast. He had grown up watching the vast ships slide into and out of the quays to void their bowels into the sink of the city. When his first journey began, he did not follow the tankers out to sea. Instead, he took what seemed the cleaner way, inland.

  He lived in splendor in the hanging city of Besara on the cliffs of Carmel; he worked for a time as a governor in Kafr Katnei on the plain of Esdraelon until the Megiddo War; he built the Ladder of Ekdippa through solid rock, where a thousand men died in the building and it was considered a cheap price.

  And in every journey he mislaid something. His taste for luxury stayed in Besara; his love of power was sated and forgotten in Kafr Katnei; his desire to build for the ages was shed like a cloak in Ekdippa; and at last he had found himself here, in a desperately poor dirt farm on the edge of the Desert of Machaerus, with a tractor that had to be bribed to work and harvests barely large enough to pay for food for himself and petrol for the machines. He hadn’t even enough to pay for light in the darkness, and sunset ended every day with imperturbable night. Yet even here, he knew that there was one more journey, for he had not yet lost everything: still when he worked in the fields he would reach down and press his fingers into the soil; still he would bathe his feet in the rush of water from the muddy ditch; still he would sit for hours in the heat of the afternoon and watch the grain standing bright gold and motionless as rock, drinking sun and expelling it as dry, hard grain. This last love, the love of life itself—it, too, would have to leave, Amasa knew, before his life would have completed its course and he would have consent to die.

  The butterflies, they called him.

  He carefully oiled the tractor and put it into its shed.

  He closed the headgate of the ditch and shoveled earth into place behind it, so that in the spring the water would not flow onto his fallow fields and be wasted.

  He filled a bottle with water and put it into his scrip, which he slung over his shoulder. This is all I take, he said. And even that felt like more of a burden than he wanted to bear.

  The butterflies swarmed around him, and tried to draw him off toward the road into the desert, but he did not go at once. He looked at his fields, stubbled after the harvest. Just beyond them was the tumble of weeds that throve in the dregs of water that his grain had not used. And beyond the weeds was the Desert of Machaerus, the place where those who love water die. The ground was stone: rocky outcroppings, gravel; even the soil was sand. And yet there were ruins there. Wooden skeletons of buildings that had once housed farmers. Some people thought that this was a sign that the desert was growing, pushing in to take over formerly habitable land, but Amasa knew better. Rather the wooden ruins were the last remnants of the woeful Sebasti, those wandering people who, like the weeds at the end of the field, lived on the dregs of life. Once there had been a slight surplus of water flowing down the canals. The Sebasti heard about it in hours; in days they had come in their ramshackle trucks; in weeks they had built their scrappy buildings and plowed their stony fields, and for that year they had a harvest because the ditches ran a few inches deeper than usual. The next year the ditches were back to normal, and in a few hours one night the houses were stripped, the trucks were loaded, and the Sebasti were gone.

  I am a Sebastit, too, Amasa thought. I have taken my life from an unwilling desert; I give it back to the sand when I am through.

  Come, said the butterflies alighting on his face. Come, they said, fanning him and fluttering off toward the Hierusalem road.

  Don’t get pushy, Amasa answered, feeling stubborn. But all the same he surrendered, and followed them out into the land of the dead.

  The only breeze was the wind on his face as he walked, and the heat drew water from him as if from a copious well. He took water from his bottle only a mouthful at a time, but it was going too quickly even at that rate.

  Worse, though: his guides were leaving him. Now that he was on the road to Hierusalem, they apparently had other errands to run. He first noticed their numbers diminishing about noon, and by three there were only a few hundred butterflies left. As long as he watched a particular butterfly, it stayed; but when he looked away for a moment, it was gone. At last he set his gaze on one butterfly and did not look away at all, just watched and watched. Soon it was the last one left, and he knew that it, too, wanted to leave. But Amasa would have none of that. If I can come at your bidding, he said silently, you can stay at mine. And so he walked until the sun was ruddy in the west. He did not drink; he did not study his road; and the butterfly stayed. It was a little victory. I rule you with my eyes.

  “You might as well stop here, friend.”

  Startled to hea
r a human voice on this desolate road, Amasa looked up, knowing in that moment that his last butterfly was lost. He was ready to hate the man who spoke.

  “I say, friend, since you’re going nowhere anyway, you might as well stop.”

  It was an old-looking man, black from sunlight and naked. He sat in the lee of a large stone, where the sun’s northern tilt would keep him in shadow all day.

  “If I wanted conversation,” Amasa said, “I would have brought a friend.”

  “If you think those butterflies are your friends, you’re an ass.”

  Amasa was surprised that the man knew about the butterflies.

  “Oh, I know more than you think,” said the man. “I lived at Hierusalem, you know. And now I’m the sentinel of the Hierusalem Road.”

  “No one leaves Hierusalem,” said Amasa.

  “I did,” the old man said. “And now I sit on the road and teach travelers the keys that will let them in. Few of them pay me much attention, but if you don’t do as I say, you’ll never reach Hierusalem, and your bones will join a very large collection that the sun and wind gradually turn back into sand.”

  “I’ll follow the road where it leads,” Amasa said. “I don’t need any directions.”

  “Oh, yes, you’d rather follow the dead guidance of the makers of the road than trust a living man.”

  Amasa regarded him for a moment. “Tell me, then.”

  “Give me all your water.”

  Amasa laughed—a feeble enough sound, coming through splitting lips that he dared not move more than necessary.

  “It’s the first key to entering Hierusalem.” The old man shrugged. “I see that you don’t believe me. But it’s true. A man with water or food can’t get into the city. You see, the city is hidden. If you had miraculous eyes, stranger, you could see the city even now. It’s not far off. But the city is forever hidden from a man who is not desperate. The city can only be found by those who are very near to death. Unfortunately, if you once pass the entrance to the city without seeing it because you had water with you, then you can wander on as long as you like, you can run out of water and cry out in a whisper for the city to unveil itself to you, but it will avail you nothing. The entrance, once passed, can never be found again. You see, you have to know the taste of death in your mouth before Hierusalem will open to you.”

  “It sounds,” Amasa said, “like religion. I’ve done religion.”

  “Religion? What is religion in a world with a dragon at its heart?”

  Amasa hesitated. A part of him, the rational part, told him to ignore the man and pass on. But the rational part of him had long since become weak. In his definition of man, “featherless biped” held more truth than “rational animal.” Besides, his head ached, his feet throbbed, his lips stung. He handed his bottle of water to the old man, and then for good measure gave him his scrip as well.

  “Nothing in there you want to keep?” asked the old man, surprised.

  “I’ll spend the night.”

  The old man nodded.

  They slept in the darkness until the moon rose in the east, bright with its thin promise of a sunrise only a few hours away. It was Amasa who awoke. His stirring roused the old man.

  “Already?” he asked. “In such a hurry?”

  “Tell me about Hierusalem.”

  “What do you want, friend? History? Myth? Current events? The price of public transportation?”

  “Why is the city hidden?”

  “So it can’t be found.”

  “Then why is there a key for some to enter?”

  “So it can be found. Must you ask such puerile questions?”

  “Who built the city?”

  “Men.”

  “Why did they build it?”

  “To keep man alive on this world.”

  Amasa nodded at the first answer that hinted at significance. “And what enemy is it, then, that Hierusalem means to keep out?”

  “Oh, my friend, you don’t understand. Hierusalem was built to keep the enemy in. The old Hierusalem, the new Hierusalem, built to contain the dragon at the heart of the world.”

  A story-telling voice was on the old man now, and Amasa lay back on the sand and listened as the moon rose higher at his left hand.

  “Men came here in ships across the void of the night,” the old man said.

  Amasa sighed.

  “Oh, you know all that?”

  “Don’t be an ass. Tell me about Hierusalem.”

  “Did your books or your teachers tell you that this world was not unpopulated when our forefathers came?”

  “Tell me your story, old man, but tell it plain. No myth, no magic. The truth.”

  “What a simple faith you have,” the old man said. “The truth. Here’s the truth, much good may it do you. This world was filled with forest, and in the forest were beings who mated with the trees, and drew their strength from the trees. They became very treelike.”

  “One would suppose.”

  “Our forefathers came, and the beings who dwelt among the trees smelt death in the fires of the ships. They did things—things that looked like magic to our ancestors, things that looked like miracles. These beings, these dragons who hid among the leaves of the trees, they had science we know little of. But one science we had that they had never learned, for they had no use for it. We knew how to defoliate a forest.”

  “So the trees were killed.”

  “All the forests of the world now have grown up since that time. Some places, where the forest had not been lush, were able to recover, and we live in those lands now. But here, in the Desert of Machaera—this was climax forest, trees so tall and dense that no underbrush could grow at all. When the leaves died, there was nothing to hold the soil, and it was washed onto the plain of Esdraelon. Which is why that plain is so fertile, and why nothing but sand survives here.”

  “Hierusalem.”

  “At first Hierusalem was built as an outpost for students to learn about the dragons, pathetic little brown woody creatures who knew death when they saw it, and died of despair by the thousands. Only a few survived among the rocks, where we couldn’t reach them. Then Hierusalem became a city of pleasure, far from any other place, where sins could be committed that God could not see.”

  “I said truth.”

  “I say listen. One day the few remaining students of the science of the dragons wandered among the rocks, and there found that the dragons were not all dead. One was left, a tough little creature that lived among the gray rocks. But it had changed. It was not woody brown now. It was gray as stone, with stony outcroppings. They brought it back to study it. And in only a few hours it escaped. They never recaptured it. But the murders began, every night a murder. And every murder was of a couple who were coupling, neatly vivisected in the act. Within a year the pleasure seekers were gone, and Hierusalem had changed again.”

  “To what it is now.”

  “What little of the science of the dragons they had learned, they used to seal the city as it is now sealed. They devoted it to holiness, to beauty, to faith—and the murders stopped. Yet the dragon was not gone. It was glimpsed now and then, gray on the stone buildings of the city, like a moving gargoyle. So they kept their city closed to keep the dragon from escaping to the rest of the world, where men were not holy and would compel the dragon to kill again.”

  “So Hierusalem is dedicated to keeping the world safe for sin.”

  “Safe from retribution. Giving the world time to repent.”

  “The world is doing little in that direction.”

  “But some are. And the butterflies are calling the repentant out of the world, and bringing them to me.”

  Amasa sat in silence as the sun rose behind his back. It had not fully passed the mountains of the east before it started to burn him.

  “Here,” said the old man, “are the laws of Hierusalem:

  “Once you see the city, don’t step back or you will lose it.

  “Don’t look down into holes that gl
ow red in the streets, or your eyes will fall out and your skin will slide off you as you walk along, and your bones will crumble into dust before you fully die.

  “The man who breaks a butterfly will live forever.

  “Do not stare at a small gray shadow that moves along the granite walls of the palace of the King and Queen, or he will learn the way to your bed.

  “The Road to Dalmanutha leads to the sign you seek. Never find it.”

  Then the old man smiled.

  “Why are you smiling?” asked Amasa.

  “Because you’re such a holy man, Saint Amasa, and Hierusalem is waiting for you to come.”

  “What’s your name, old man?”

  The old man cocked his head. “Contemplation.”

  “That’s not a name.”

  He smiled again. “I’m not a man.”

  For a moment Amasa believed him, and reached out to see if he was real. But his finger met the old man’s flesh, and it did not crumble.

  “You have so much faith,” said the old man again. “You cast away your scrip because you valued nothing that it contained. What do you value?”

  In answer, Amasa removed all his clothing and cast it at the old man’s feet.

  He remembers that once he had another name, but he cannot remember what it was. His name now is Gray, and he lives among the stones, which are also gray. Sometimes he forgets where stone leaves off and he begins. Sometimes, when he has been motionless for hours, he has to search for his toes that spread in a fan, each holding to stone so firmly that when at last he moves them, he is surprised at where they were. Gray is motionless all day, and motionless all night. But in the hours before and after the sun, then he moves, skittering sure and rapid as a spider among the hewn stones of the palace walls, stopping only to drink in the fly-strewn standing water that remains from the last storm.

 
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