Maps in a mirror, p.86

Maps in a Mirror, page 86


Maps in a Mirror

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  “Dixie Instruments?” Heather asked.


  “That’s not high technology,” she said, and they all laughed. Then they fell silent, and Elouise wondered whether they were all thinking the same thing: that jokes about brand names would be dead within a generation, if they were not already dead. They watched the Rectifier in silence, waiting for the timer to finish its delay. Suddenly there was a shining in the air, a dazzling not-light that made them squint. They had seen this many times before, from the air and from the ground, but this was the last time, and so they saw it as if it were the first.

  The airplane corroded as if a thousand years were passing in seconds. But it wasn’t a true corrosion. There was no rust—only dissolution as molecules separated and seeped down into the loosened earth, Glass became sand; plastic corrupted to oil; the metal also drifted down into the ground and came to rest in a vein at the bottom of the Rectifier field. Whatever else the metal might look like to a future geologist, it wouldn’t look like an artifact. It would look like iron. And with so many similar pockets of iron and copper and aluminum and tin spread all over the once-civilized world, it was not likely that they would suspect human interference. Elouise was amused, thinking of the treatises that would someday be written, about the two states of workable metals—the ore state and the pure-metal vein. She hoped it would retard their progress a little.

  The airplane shivered into nothing, and the Rectifier also died in the field. A few minutes after the Rectifier disappeared, the field also faded.

  “Amen and amen,” said Bill, maudlin again. “All clean now.”

  Elouise only smiled. She said nothing of the other Rectifier, which was in her knapsack. Let the others think all the work was done.

  Amy poked her finger in Charlie’s eye. Charlie swore and set her down. Amy started to cry, and Charlie knelt by her and hugged her. Amy’s arms went tightly around his neck. “Give Daddy a kiss,” Elouise said.

  “Well, time to go,” Ugly-Bugly’s voice rasped. “Why the hell did you pick this particular spot?”

  Elouise cocked her head. “Ask Charlie.”

  Charlie flushed. Elouise watched him grimly. “Elouise and I once came here,” he said. “Before Rectification began. Nostalgia, you know.” He smiled shyly, and the others laughed. Except Elouise. She was helping Amy to urinate. She felt the weight of the small Rectifier in her knapsack and did not tell anyone the truth: that she had never been in Virginia before in her life.

  “Good a spot as any,” Heather said. “Well, bye.”

  Well, bye. That was all, that was the end of it, and Heather walked away to the west, toward the Shenandoah Valley.

  “See ya,” Bill said.

  “Like hell,” Ugly-Bugly added.

  Impulsively Ugly-Bugly hugged Elouise, and Bill cried, and then they took off northeast, toward the Potomac, where they would doubtlessly find a community growing up along the clean and fish-filled river.

  Just Charlie, Amy, and Elouise left in the empty, blackened field where the airplane had died. Elouise tried to feel some great pain at the separation from the others, but she could not. They had been together every day for years now, going from supply dump to supply dump, wrecking cities and towns, destroying and using up the artificial world. But had they been friends? If it had not been for their task, they would never have been friends. They were not the same kind of people.

  And then Elouise was ashamed of her feelings. Not her kind of people? Because Heather liked what grass did to her and had never owned a car or had a driver’s license in her life? Because Ugly-Bugly had a face hideously deformed by cancer surgery? Because Bill always worked Jesus into the conversation, even though half the time he was an atheist? Because they just weren’t in the same social circles? There were no social circles now. Just people trying to survive in a bitter world they weren’t bred for. There were only two classes now: those who would make it and those who wouldn’t.

  Which class am I? thought Elouise.

  “Where should we go?” Charlie asked.

  Elouise picked Amy up and handed her to Charlie. “Where’s the capsule, Charlie?”

  Charlie took Amy and said, “Hey, Amy, baby, I’ll bet we find some farming community between here and the Rappahannock.”

  “Doesn’t matter if you tell me, Charlie. The instruments found it before we landed. You did a damn good job on the computer program.” She didn’t have to say, Not good enough.

  Charlie only smiled crookedly. “Here I was hoping you were forgetful.” He reached out to touch her knapsack. She pulled abruptly away. He lost his smile. “Don’t you know me?” he asked softly.

  He would never try to take the Rectifier from her by force. But still. This was the last of the artifacts they were talking about. Was anyone really predictable at such a time? Elouise was not sure. She had thought she knew him well before, yet the time capsule existed to prove that her understanding of Charlie was far from complete.

  “I know you, Charlie,” she said, “but not as well as I thought. Does it matter? Don’t try to stop me.”

  “I hope you’re not too angry,” he said.

  Elouise couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Anyone could be fooled by a traitor, but only I am fool enough to marry one. She turned from him and walked into the forest. He took Amy and followed.

  All the way through the underbrush Elouise kept expecting him to say something. A threat, for instance: You’ll have to kill me to destroy that time capsule. Or a plea: You have to leave it, Elouise, please, please. Or reason, or argument, or anger, or something.

  But instead it was just his silent footfalls behind her. Just his occasional playtalk with Amy. Just his singing as he put Amy to sleep on his shoulder.

  The capsule had been hidden well. There was no surface sign that men had ever been here. Yet, from the Rectifier’s emphatic response, it was obvious that the time capsule was quite large. There must have been heavy, earthmoving equipment. Or was it all done by hand?

  “When did you ever find the time?” Elouise asked when they reached the spot.

  “Long lunch hours,” he said.

  She set down her knapsack and then stood there, looking at him.

  Like a condemned man who insists on keeping his composure, Charlie smiled wryly and said, “Get on with it, please.”

  After Father Charlie died, Mother Elouise brought me here to Richmond. She didn’t tell anyone that she was a Wrecker. The angel had already left her, and she wanted to blend into the town, be an ordinary person in the world she and her fellow angels had created.

  Yet she was incapable of blending in. Once the angel touches you, you cannot go back, even when the angel’s work is done. She first attracted attention by talking against the stockade. There was once a stockade around the town of Richmond, when there were only a thousand people here. The reason was simple: People still weren’t used to the hard way life was without the old machines. They had not yet learned to depend on the miracle of Christ. They still trusted in their hands, yet their hands could work no more magic. So there were tribes in the winter that didn’t know how to find game, that had no reserves of grain, that had no shelter adequate to hold the head of a fire.

  “Bring them all in,” said Mother Elouise. “There’s room for all. There’s food for all. Teach them how to build ships and make tools and sail and farm, and we’ll all be richer for it.”

  But Father Michael and Uncle Avram knew more than Mother Elouise. Father Michael had been a Catholic priest before the destruction, and Uncle Avram had been a professor at a university. They had been nobody. But when the angels of destruction finished their work, the angels of life began to work in the hearts of men. Father Michael threw off his old allegiance to Rome and taught Christ simple, from his memory of the Holy Book. Uncle Avram plunged into his memory of ancient metallurgy and taught the people who gathered at Richmond how to make iron hard enough to use for tools. And weapons.

  Father Michael forbade the maki
ng of guns and forbade that anyone teach children what guns were. But for hunting there had to be arrows, and what will kill a deer will also kill a man.

  Many people agreed with Mother Elouise about the stockade. But then in the worst of winter a tribe came from the mountains and threw fire against the stockade and against the ships that kept trade alive along the whole coast. The archers of Richmond killed most of them, and people said to Mother Elouise, “Now you must agree we need the stockade.”

  Mother Elouise said, “Would they have come with fire if there had been no wall?”

  How can anyone judge the greatest need? Just as the angel of death had come to plant the seeds of a better life, so that angel of life had to be hard and endure death so the many could live. Father Michael and Uncle Avram held to the laws of Christ simple, for did not the Holy Book say, “Love your enemies, and smite them only when they attack you; chase them not out into the forest, but let them live as long as they leave you alone”?

  I remember that winter. I remember watching while they buried the dead tribesmen. Their bodies had stiffened quickly, but Mother Elouise brought me to see them and said, “This is death, remember it, remember it.” What did Mother Elouise know? Death is our passage from flesh into the living wind, until Christ brings us forth into flesh again. Mother Elouise will find Father Charlie again, and every wound will be made whole.

  Elouise knelt by the Rectifier and carefully set it to go off in half an hour, destroying itself and the time capsule buried thirty meters under the ground. Charlie stood near her, watching, his face nearly expressionless; only a faint smile broke his perfect repose. Amy was in his arms, laughing and trying to reach up to pinch his nose.

  “This Rectifier responds only to me,” Elouise said quietly. “Alive. If you try to move it, it will go off early and kill us all.”

  “I won’t move it,” Charlie said.

  And Elouise was finished. She stood up and reached for Amy. Amy reached back, holding out her arms to her mother. “Mommy,” she said.

  Because I couldn’t remember Father Charlie’s face, Mother Elouise thought I had forgotten everything about him, but that is not true. I remember very clearly one picture of him, but he is not in the picture.

  This is very hard for me to explain. I see a small clearing in the trees, with Mother Elouise standing in front of me. I see her at my eye level, which tells me that I am being held. I cannot see Father Charlie, but I know that he is holding me. I can feel his arms around me, but I cannot see his face.

  This vision has come to me often. It is not like other dreams. It is very clear, and I am always very afraid, and I don’t know why. They are talking, but I do not understand their words. Mother Elouise reaches for me, but Father Charlie will not let me go. I feel afraid that Father Charlie will not let me go with Mother Elouise. But why should I be afraid? I love Father Charlie, and I never want to leave him. Still I reach out, reach out, reach out, and still the arms hold me and I cannot go.

  Mother Elouise is crying. I see her face twisted in pain. I want to comfort her. “Mommy is hurt,” I say again and again.

  And then, suddenly, at the end of this vision I am in my mother’s arms and we are running, running up a hill, into the trees. I am looking back over her shoulder. I see Father Charlie then. I see him, but I do not see him. I know exactly where he is, in my vision. I could tell you his height. I could tell you where his left foot is and where his right foot is, but still I can’t see him. He has no face, no color; he is just a man-shaped emptiness in the clearing, and then the trees are in the way and he is gone.

  Elouise stopped only a little way into the woods. She turned around, as if to go back to Charlie. But she would not go back. If she returned to him, it would be to disconnect the Rectifier. There would be no other reason to do it.

  “Charlie, you son of a bitch!” she shouted.

  There was no answer. She stood, waiting. Surely he could come to her. He would see that she would never go back, never turn off the machine. Once he realized it was inevitable, he would come running from the machine, into the forest, back to the clearing where the 787 had landed. Why would he want to give his life so meaninglessly? What was in the time capsule, after all? Just history—that’s what he said, wasn’t it? Just history, just films and metal plates engraved with words and microdots and other ways of preserving the story of mankind. “How can they learn from our mistakes, unless we tell them what they were?” Charlie had asked.

  Sweet, simple, naive Charlie. It is one thing to preserve a hatred for the killing machines and the soul-destroying machines and the garbage-making machines. It was another to leave behind detailed, accurate, unquestionable descriptions. History was not a way of preventing the repetition of mistakes. It was a way of guaranteeing them. Wasn’t it?

  She turned and walked on, not very quickly, out of the range of the Rectifier, carrying Amy and listening, all the way, for the sound of Charlie running after her.

  What was Mother Elouise like? She was a woman of contradictions. Even with me, she would work for hours teaching me to read, helping me make tablets out of river clay and write on them with a shaped stick. And then, when I had written the words she taught me, she would weep and say, “Lies, all lies,” Sometimes she would break the tablets I had made. But whenever part of her words was broken, she would make me write it again.

  She called the collection of words The Book of the Golden Age. I have named it The Book of the Lies of the Angel Elouise, for it is important for us to know that the greatest truths we have seem like lies to those who have been touched by the angel.

  She told many stories to me, and often I asked her why they must be written down. “For Father Charlie,” she would always say.

  “Is he coming back, then?” I would ask.

  But she shook her head, and finally one time she said, “It is not for Father Charlie to read. It is because Father Charlie wanted it written.”

  “Then why didn’t he write it himself?” I asked.

  And Mother Elouise grew very cold with me, and all she would say was, “Father Charlie bought these stories. He paid more for them than I am willing to pay to have them left unwritten.” I wondered then whether Father Charlie was rich, but other things she said told me that he wasn’t. So I do not understand except that Mother Elouise did not want to tell the stories, and Father Charlie, though he was not there, constrained her to tell them.

  There are many of Mother Elouise’s lies that I love, but I will say now which of them she said were most important:

  In the Golden Age for ten times a thousand years men lived in peace and love and joy, and no one did evil one to another. They shared all things in common, and no man was hungry while another was full, and no man had a home while another stood in the rain, and no wife wept for her husband, killed before his time.

  The great serpent seems to come with great power. He has many names: Satan, Hitler, Lucifer, Nimrod, Napoleon. He seems to be beautiful, and he promises power to his friends and death to his enemies. He says he will right all wrongs. But really he is weak, until people believe in him and give him the power of their bodies. If you refuse to believe in the serpent, if no one serves him, he will go away.

  There are many cycles of the world. In every cycle the great serpent has arisen and the world has been destroyed to make way for the return of the Golden Age. Christ comes again in every cycle, also. One day when He comes men will believe in Christ and doubt the great serpent, and that time the Golden Age will never end, and God will dwell among men forever. And all the angels will say. “Come not to heaven but to Earth, for Earth is heaven now.”

  These are the most important lies of Mother Elouise. Believe them all, and remember them, for they are true.

  All the way to the airplane clearing, Elouise deliberately broke branches and let them dangle so that Charlie would have no trouble finding a straight path out of the range of the Rectifier, even if he left his flight to the last second. She was sure Charlie would follow her.
Charlie would bend to her as he had always bent, resilient and accommodating. He loved Elouise, and Amy he loved even more. What was in the metal under his feet that would weigh in the balance against his love for them?

  So Elouise broke the last branch and stepped into the clearing and then sat down and let Amy play in the unburnt grass at the edge while she waited. It is Charlie who will bend, she said to herself, for I will never bend on this. Later I will make it up to him, but he must know that on this I will never bend.

  The cold place in her grew larger and colder until she burned inside, waiting for the sound of feet crashing through the underbrush. The damnable birds kept singing, so that she could not hear the footsteps.

  Mother Elouise never hit me, or anyone else so far as I knew. She fought only with her words and silent acts, though she could have killed easily with her hands. I saw her physical power only once. We were in the forest, to gather firewood. We stumbled upon a wild hog. Apparently it felt cornered, though we were weaponless; perhaps it was just mean. I have not studied the ways of wild hogs. It charged, not Mother Elouise, but me. I was five at the time, and terrified, I ran to Mother Elouise, tried to cling to her, but she threw me out of the way and went into a crouch. I was screaming. She paid no attention to me. The hog continued rushing, but seeing I was down and Mother Elouise erect, it changed its path. When it came near, she leaped to the side. It was not nimble enough to turn to face her. As it lumbered past, Mother Elouise kicked it just behind the head. The kick broke the hog’s neck so violently that its head dropped and the hog rolled over and over, and when it was through rolling, it was already dead.

  Mother Elouise did not have to die.

  She died in the winter when I was seven. I should tell you how life was then, in Richmond. We were only two thousand souls by then, not the large city of ten thousand we are now. We had only six finished ships trading the coast, and they had not yet gone so far north as Manhattan, though we had run one voyage all the way to Savannah in the south. Richmond already ruled and protected from the Potomac to Dismal Swamp. But it was a very hard winter, and the town’s leaders insisted on hoarding all the stored grain and fruits and vegetables and meat for our protected towns, and let the distant tribes trade or travel where they would, they would get no food from Richmond.

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