I awoke with the woman's scent on my lips. My insides ached.
"Breathe," she commanded. "Just breathe, okay?"
I wanted to ask her how a man could do other than breathe but my voice would not come. Tears ran from my nose. I started to shiver. At last I managed to croak, "What happened?"
"You fell," she said. "I pulled you out."
"Of the afterlife?"
"Of the water."
I raised myself on my elbows. She was hunkered over me in the narrow alley between two giant cisterns. The baby lay in its swaddling, alone and fussing. She turned to it now, mewling to quiet it. I realized that she had put her baby aside in order to rescue me. "How is it possible that water could engulf a man in this way?" I rasped.
"These cisterns are deep."
I shook my head. Depth was not a quality of water, but of holes. While I could accept that the overworlders in their multitudes kept hundreds of trays of water in this vault for some reason, I would not consent to imagine the cisterns' entire volume was filled by water. That would be absurd. "You could have let me pass on," I said next.
She looked away. "I'm not like that."
"You let your whale kill the shouting man," I pointed out.
Her expression darkened briefly. "That's different."
I reflected her old smirk back to her. "So you do have rules."
She allowed herself a small smile, a genuine one. "Yeah," she admitted. "Maybe."
We climbed again. She soothed my unease by explaining to me that the cisterns did not change size -- it was simply that the furthest of them were so distant that they appeared smaller within my vision. Though I could grasp her idea my eyes remained bewildered. I focused only on the rungs before me, slick and green. I concentrated on aligning myself to catch her if she fell.
"It's called perspective," she said.
"Perspective is the apparent bending of rectilinearity," I contributed. "We have this word, too, but I had never mixed it with far."
"Maybe you'll have to make a new rule."
I snorted. "Don't be stupid. Rules are bigger than men."
This time I took the final transition from the vault of lakes to the brightness with my forearm blocking my sight. I allowed my prey to lead me through the portal and into a land of noise and colour. By degrees I widened my fingers to expose my squinting eyes.
We crouched in a sewer, a shallow trough with a ceiling of metal grating. Beyond the grating were gathered unfathomably tall fingers, like roots stood on end, their skins glittering with thousands of tiny eyes; and between the fingers were bridges that swarmed with miniscule human beings the size of bugs; and everywhere streamed lines of flies whose paths were straight instead of meandering; and between it all were squares of coloured lights whose faces swept and crawled with ordered marks and captured ghosts; and an army of overworld people with their false feet tromped over our heads, back and forth, dodging one another, spilling like a liquid, the flow and stutter of their shadows flashing over us, the clanging of their hard heels against the metal in a senseless rhythm.
"This is a mad place," I hissed, but then furrowed my brow when I saw that the baby was at peace, looking around at every line and smear with open curiosity, his fruity cheeks shining. "But your baby -- he likes it."
"It probably looks grand to you," she said, "but it's a slum. It's the sunless bottom of the city. He doesn't know it yet, either. He has no idea what he's been born into."
"Forgetting is natural," I assured her. "Your baby will recover his knowledge in time." I showed her my teeth in a friendly way and then unhitched my spear and checked its keen edge. "You will watch over him from the afterlife, of course."
"I thought we were starting to be friends."
I hefted the spear. "Are you ready?"
She kissed the baby. She looked up at me. Her chin was quivering. "Please," she said. "I'm a human being, just like you. I don't deserve this. You may not believe it seeing what you've seen, but you don't know. You don't know any of it. You don't know what this planet is like. I'm a good person. You've got to believe that. I just want to raise my child. There's no one else to protect him. Please."
I tilted my head at her as I leveled my weapon. "Your customs are weird," I remarked, taking aim.
"Please," she said again.
I frowned, spear drooping. "You keep talking. Are you prepared for your passage or not?"
"No!" she cried, then covered her face and wept.
I did not know where to look. I was ashamed for both of us. I hoped the spirits of her ancestors were busy elsewhere, and not watching her now to see such disgrace. I hoped the spirits of my own ancestors were occupied elsewhere, too. My cheeks burned.
I did not know why she would show such contempt for my hungry kin who only needed to eat as any living thing does. I had honoured my side of the agreement -- why would she renege now? How could she spit in my face in this way?
"You have to understand, overworlder," I said, spreading my arms in appeal; "I cannot return to my clan empty-handed."
"Please don't kill me," she begged. "I don't deserve to die!"
I blinked. I shook my head. "Your notions are silly. How can a human being deserve death or not deserve it? Death comes to each of us. Do not fight fate. Find your peace. Show me your neck." I raised my spear and prepared to thrust.
"I saved your life! You owe me!"
The baby began to cry.
I sighed. I let my spear dip. Though there was no rule to describe it, I felt a compulsion to seek a compromise rather than be subjected to further infantile pleading. This wretched thing, so helpless and wrong, so alone without clan or rules or spirits -- I felt that it was as if she were a baby, too. I felt that I could stretch the seventh rule, to include her within its reach. I believed this is what the ghosts of my ancestors were trying to say when they spoke through the baby's wails. It is said that sometimes wisdom comes to men in this way.
I made my proposition and she accepted it, eyes filling with tears. "I'm scared," she said. "Will it hurt?"
She was brave. She locked her gaze on her baby beside her while I worked, neck flexing as she fought to control her breath. Though her flesh was supple beyond imagining I restrained myself from greed, and took only the legs.
Now I walk with a song in my heart, plying familiar pipes and nearing the nest where the Twentymen and our brides build our tents. I carry fresh meat and have a story for the ventside -- a wondrous quest to the overworld where puddles are bottomless, distance confounds scale, lost souls flounder in solitude, and the spirit of kindness and generosity can alight inside a young hunter. I work out the verses, bouncing as I step.
I salivate to imagine the meal to come. Such plump calves!
The roots are deep. I love my clan. Our lives are rich, and correct. Nature whispers to us with sharp lines and sure corners, and helps us stay on the path. Whales and mammoths are plentiful. Water comes to us beaded on the sweaty pipes, providing each day each man's allowance of wet tongue and sweet life.
Who could ask for anything more?
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.