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In Sight of Memory: The Legend of the Lost Colony

Chapter One

Blier didn't know he'd jumped from the cart until he was standing next to a thin young woman beside a fence. The breeze died and the grain field rippled in the heat. His hair hung in his eyes and he brushed it from his forehead with an abrupt swipe, his fingernail scraping his skin. He thought about a knife, or fire, and could smell the burning. She glanced at him, her brow creased as though she were about to speak, and before she could turn away he held out his hand for the arrow. She shrugged and gave it to him, her hands carefully on the shaft. "You have to be careful where you put it," she said, her eyes squinting as if at the sun or a joke.

"It's not from Numers." Blier held it away from his body. His hand was dark from the sun. "It's nearly the length of a man."

"Or a woman." Her grin was broader now and she took it from him tentatively and held it against her side. At first glance her clothes were simple village wear, more suitable for farming than for . . . They were cut differently, however; Blier shook his head back to the arrow.

"A tall woman," he agreed. Once he had it in his hands again he looked at it more carefully. It was nearly to his shoulder when its nock was planted in the ground, and the fabric was colourful, as if it had been torn from the coloured wallpaper of a dream. He wasn't sure what it was about the arrow that aroused his interest. He often wondered why he was drawn to some objects and not others, but the arrow was different. "It's the tip," he said finally.

"Some stalk, or burned wood," she suggested, her eyes on his face.

"I need it." Now began the difficult process of negotiation. He'd made the request a hundred times but for some reason it seemed to get harder as he followed the moving star.

The woman shrugged. She looked him up and down, taking in the worn jacket and boots, the thin bag over his shoulder. "You've little to offer, by the looks of you." Her gaze seemed to make another statement but his struggle for a witty reply was cut short when he turned to face an inarticulate howl.

Sputtering and crying aloud, a thick bodied man rushed at them from across the field where the woman had found the arrow. Blier held the arrow aloft, the universal sign that he would defend himself, and waited while the man approached, moving the arrow to his left hand. He watched the waving arms warily. Sweat trickled down his back. The air shimmered and the sun had burned a hole in the sky. He shifted from one foot to the other as his soles cringed at the thudding approach. Sometimes his clothes didn't seem to fit him, and he felt as if he were covered in dried mud.

As the woman ducked behind him, Blier understood he'd been talking to another man's woman. Although possessiveness was actively discouraged, jealousy was a driving force on Lotus just as much as he imagined it had been . . . everywhere. The man was bellowing now, his staff waving in the air, his eyes on Blier as though he recognized him. Blier had seen people who'd lost the ability to speak, but it always made him shudder. Usually it was older men, and he often wondered if they eventually became sires, the scaly-skinned beasts of burden in the villages. Perhaps the men slowed down, lost their minds at the same time as their speech, and stooped into the plaintive creatures that dug their fingers into the soil to pull the people's ploughs and carts.

In a moment the man was upon them, and although Blier had lowered his arms, he handed the arrow behind him to the woman and readied his hand on his knife. He expected the man to come to a halt, and once his bluster was over, they would trade speech that they could understand. Whatever the man had guessed would be cleared up and Blier could leave the village behind. Instead, the man leapt toward him, his staff descending to brain Blier as he ducked to one side. Aching from the unaccustomed movement, he slipped on the loose soil. His head seemed to move slower than his body, and he watched the ground approach as if he were floating.

As he turned back to deflect the next strike, he saw the man writhing on the end of the long arrow, still nonverbal in his gasping. The woman held on grimly, but her eye was on his knife, and at her gesture, Blier finished what she'd begun. He was better dead, he'd lost too much of his mind to converse. In a second it was over, and the woman pulled the arrow from the man's chest and wiped it methodically on the grasses along the road while blood bubbled from the now quiet corpse.

After the shout of violence, the air was suddenly still. The insects seemed to take a breath before they returned to the noises they'd been making, and from the distance, voices were rising in pitch. The blood darkened as soon as it touched the soil, and Blier remembered what he'd heard about purple flowers that grew over graves. Maybe the blood drew them. He thought about saying that to the woman, but he wasn't sure it was appropriate after they had killed a man.

The cart he'd arrived on had passed, but a few other farmers had heard the shouting and they gathered around them. With them, Blier looked on as the woman knelt, searched the man's clothing for something, and then cut a cord that looped around his neck. She held it towards Blier and he took it. It was a religious amulet, he'd seen a few of them on his travels, and even more in the last few days. It was shaped like a coin, and some he'd examined had the worn traces of what had been embossed letters at one time. Disgustingly, he'd seen people sucking on them as if they were candy, and before they'd pop it into their mouth they'd chant something he'd been too far away to catch. The whole idea repulsed him, but he took the coin and put it into his pocket as the others watched.

"Durn finally went too far," one of the men commented, his chest heaving from the run and the excitement. "Jumping a stranger. Gone away from the coin." At the statement the others in the growing crowd touched their chest where their coins dangled from their necks and a few even popped theirs into their mouths.

"What will you do, Linder?"

"Help me with the cargo." She pointed to Durn's body. "And give our thanks to the traveller who kept me from harm."

"I didn't--" Blier began. "The name's Blier." He held his hand to the men and they touched his knuckles gravely, as if greeting a guest to the village.

"Linder." He looked at the young woman.

She ignored him. "You best be grabbing a shoulder. It wouldn't do for you to be handling the feet."

Although Blier had seen the ritual before he didn't remember taking part himself. When a villager was killed, by whatever means, they carried him through the village centre to his own house. Then the body sat until the mate chose who would enter the house. The body would be left behind as the woman's choice made itself known, and by that point it was usually stripped of clothing that might prove of use to another. Blier often wondered if some village women planned ahead, women waiting for their man to die and thinking of others who would better fit their beds. It was an offense for them to kill their men, but he was sure, out of dissatisfaction, it happened just the same.

Tugging on Durn's shoulder as he moved the body, Blier didn't think anyone would miss the man. He was strong-looking, but somehow crude, as though unfinished. Trousers without pockets. A knife without a handle. He felt as though he should chant aloud. He started to say something that would alert the others to the man's appearance, but in the villages he'd learned to keep his thoughts to himself. Blier wondered how he could extricate himself from the death process. His schedule pressed him, a collection of days or weeks, and now that his broad loop was closing, he needed to get back to the source. He'd been away so long he was starting to wonder why he was returning.

The body was already stiffening when they tumbled it before a rough house. Blier stood awkwardly as the call went over the village. More people gathered while blood slowly congealed at his feet, gluing the dry dust of the road to the body. "Dust to dust," Blier said aloud, and when he looked up there were eyes on him.

"Ashes to ashes," said another, and the young woman shifted angrily when they all nodded. Blier fingered the coin in his pocket. It was shiny with wear, and he shuddered at the thought of it in the slack mouth at his feet.

An older woman came from behind a standing cart, her eyes speculative as she looked at Durn and then the crowd. Other women gathered. It was bad form to interfere with the ritual selection of a new mate, but Blier vaguely recalled villages erupting in violence as a woman chose a popular man who was already taken. The woman's eyes flickered over Blier, but to his surprise Linder moved in more closely and took his arm. The air stilled, and then a collective sigh breathed their approval. The people whose eyes were on the clothing paused a moment, while others suddenly remembered a task left undone.

The mother half-entered her house, standing on the threshold and holding the door for Blier and Linder. Somehow his hand was on the knob of another man's house, and all he had to blame was the arrow he was still holding, its point browning now that the blood was reacting to the air. He leaned it in the corner of the main room and sat at the table. When the mother took the chair opposite him with a cord in her hands, Blier wasn't quite resigned to his fate.

"I'm to follow the path of the moving star," he explained tentatively. "I'm not meant to stop for any time."

The woman said nothing, her eyes tracing her daughter who had disappeared into the back. A clatter of dishes indicated she was still within earshot. Feeling the ritualistic force of the moment on his back like a load of firewood, Blier continued. "I've a responsibility put upon me. I'm to collect and then return."

"You'll stay the night," the woman said, and Blier nodded. He could do that much for a woman when he'd killed the husband.

"He's done it before." She followed his gaze to the back room. "Lost to the coin, both of them, hacking like steers in a thicket. It's a wonder Durn survived the first fight."

"He went against rules." Linder had returned and stood in the doorway, the light from the back room spilling around her.

"Against," the mother said. She seemed to sag in the chair and the daughter went to stand behind her. Blier expected an awkward hug, some sharing of sympathy, but the woman kept plaiting the cord and the light flickered off its shiny surface. The daughter looked at his face, as though waiting for him to respond.

He didn't know what to say. He didn't remember the rules well enough to comment on whatever their situation was, and even if he did, they varied from village to village. "I'll help with moving the body," he said finally, and rose to look out the window.

"I'll come with." Linder moved past her mother's warning look and through the door with him. He turned to give her space when they came to the threshold and he was struck anew by her height. She was nearly as tall as him and reminded him of someone, the lightness of her feet, the quickness of her hands.

"I've met someone who moves like you before." Blier thought saying it aloud might jog his memory.

"You probably think there's one of me in every village." She seemed disgruntled at the prospect but not surprised. Blier found her hard to read. The mother's lack of grief was easy enough to understand in a farming village--her face was an oven baked brick for building a low wall. But the daughter's mood was conflicted, and her eyes were mobile with a flicker of emotions Blier didn't have the energy to follow, even if he had the inclination.

The sun seemed even brighter after the dark house, and Blier joined the others who'd assembled for the last part of the ritual. They stood a moment over the body, and the sun's shadow flickered in the street as others gathered. With some others he lifted and moved toward the river. Without clothes the stiffening body was slippery with death and suddenly heavier than it had been even though blood remained where it had been lying. As they passed the houses the day became silent, and some of those watching from their porches mumbled and put their coins in their mouths. The body grew heavier as he watched their fears come to life and he began to stumble as his arms felt the added weight.

The river was shallow but the current was deceptively fast. It harboured long eels and equally unappetizing fish, but as a sanitary apparatus they were unrivaled. Most yard waste was thrown in the river, if not to the dogs, but bodies were always buried along the bank. He'd heard that the clumps of purple flowers that grew above the graves indicated how long a village had existed. He'd always doubted the notion, although now he couldn't remember why. They left the graves unmarked, for gravestones played havoc with the memory. Instead they waited until the ground purpled, although by then most had forgotten who had been buried.

At their gesture Blier stood to one side and watched the others cut the sod with their shovels. The sun flashed on the blades and his head began to ache. Linder stood with him, her back stiff with impatience. "He wasn't my father." She seemed to want him to acknowledge that she had nothing in common with the body. Her arms were rigid by her side, her hands immobile with the declaration. The other people ignored her but Blier nodded. "He went for you directly. Do you know why?"

Blier shook his head. "Jealousy?" he suggested.

She kicked a piece of dirt toward the hole. "It was inevitable. Don't let it trouble you." He sensed another intention in her statement, words hovering just behind those she had uttered, as though she were speaking for an unseen audience.

"He'll not bother you again." He was hesitant. He was making a promise he wasn't sure he could fulfil.

Linder looked at him, her eyes on the bag that still hung over his shoulder even though he could have left it in the house. "You're already thinking of down the road?"

"I need to take the arrow."

"Why?"

"I'm a collector. Putting together some pieces and taking them back--" Blier faltered as the words moved beyond reach. "I follow the moving star."

"I've heard that." Linder's eyes grew bleak and her shoulders sagged. "You should be sucking the coin a bit more."

Blier was angered for a moment by her teasing tone, but cautioned himself that he'd just been party to a man's death, and likely had to get along with the villagers at least until he left in the morning. "I'm not one"--a few heads lifted at his statement--"to say what should and shouldn't be," he continued vaguely. "A man's dead and we're better with him in the ground." He took the shovel from one of the older women and pushed the dirt with the others until Durn was safely covered. He'd been in some villages where a man who wasn't buried quick enough was thought to infect the memory of others. Although he hated superstition, he agreed a body was better in the ground than attracting flies and contaminating the living.

After Durn was safely buried, the others pointed upriver and turned to leave as Linder took Blier's hand and led him away from the grave. The water was roiling with submerged rocks. Some said the eels sensed when a body was lost to them and they'd bite out of anger if any entered the water near where a corpse had been interred.

Once they came to a wide pool, they stood a moment on the shore, and then, as if impatient with his sudden shyness, Linder pulled off her top and trousers and plunged into the water. The glimpse he'd had of her body burning in his mind, Blier followed suit, carefully setting his bag on a pink-streaked boulder so that it wouldn't be lost if the water rose suddenly. He'd seen the river jump half a man's height in a few hours, presumably from heavy rain far away, and he didn't want to lose his artifacts to a flood. He'd chased his bag before and he recalled almost losing it.

Blier walked over the stones more carefully, feeling his way and avoiding the sand and soft mud. Linder watched him. "Where did you get scarred?" she asked, crouching so that only her head and shoulders were above the water.

Blier glanced down. In truth he often forgot about the parallel grooves that ran across half his chest and onto his side. "Here," he said, grinning, pointing to the scars.

"You don't remember." She sounded disappointed.

"It doesn't seem important now." Blier felt a momentary chill. He didn't remember, and he didn't even--he realized--know why he didn't remember. "It might have been there." Blier pointed to where the moving star drifted over them, contrary to reason, against the movement of both the sun and the moon now that it had grown later in the evening. It was a common expression. People always said something happened on the moving star if they didn't remember. It was a humourless joke suddenly, and Blier started as Linder moved toward him.

"You should be sucking on your coin," she said, lifting her metal disk from where it hung between her breasts.

"Is now the time?" Blier asked as she pressed against him. "You'll be making someone wave a knife."

"No one I've met lately." Linder blushed with more anger than shame, and then turned away to wash. Had he rejected her? He reached out, but after a few seconds she brushed his hand from her shoulder as if it were a fly.

"It comes," he said, uncomfortable now at the turn the conversation had taken. They were quiet for a few minutes, soaking in the water and in their own thoughts while the fish nibbled at the dead skin cells on their feet. Blier sighed. The water moved against him as though washing away his worries, and he looked into the sky. "There should be . . ." his finger traced the absence, but his tongue faltered to a stop. Linder was watching him, her eyes narrowed as if calculating his worth. Blier leaned back in the water and let the current carry him for a moment. Flying animals. He meant there should be flying animals.

The air was cooling toward evening and the moving star was descending. Some insects whirred on the bank, and Blier stood to see Linder farther upstream. He trudged over the rocks towards her, feeling that he should be bringing a gift, although he couldn't think of what that might be.

Once he was beside her, some children arrived, threw their clothes on the bank and joined them. Soon their splashing shifted the mood, and Blier and Linder were throwing them into the current where they swam back to be thrown again like the eels they were. The shrieks hurt Blier's ears, but even if they were muddy, their delight was infectious. He thought about telling Linder that a child doesn't have the worries of an adult, but for some reason he said nothing.

They were halfway to the house when Blier thought again about the coin cult. He didn't remember when he'd first noticed it, but now it was starting to become more than present. He felt in his pocket for the coin Linder had cut from Durn's waist. He was tempted to throw it away, but he stayed his hand. If he were hungry or looking for lodging, it might buy him a place for the night, at least from a coin cult fanatic.

"I'll strap it on you," Linder said, her eyes on his hand where he was fingering the coin in his pocket. "I'll weave a new strap and we'll make sure it's on you all the time."

Blier didn't want to argue with her, but he was more than ready to leave the village and their superstition behind. "If you want," he said, trying to sound accommodating. "It doesn't matter to me." He was tempted to tell her exactly what he thought of her village cult, but her body was luminescent in his mind and stilled his tongue.

Linder could hear it in his voice. "You don't remember, do you?"

"I remember everything." Blier controlled his voice, his back taut with sudden anger. He wondered if he'd been traveling too long. Or if it was the coin cult. He was irritated. A man had died, he reminded himself. There was no reason to be annoyed.

"You best come in." The mother stood in the doorway. "We'll make a pot."

Blier joined the family as they cut vegetables and placed them in layers in the pot. The root vegetables were first, those of the ground returning to the ground. Next they laid the fruit of vines and creeping plants, the active life above ground a row in the pot which would cook them food. The next layer was made up of nuts from trees, which represented the reaching for the sky that was in every person, and finally they sealed the contents with leafy greens, those that grew closest to the sun. They each used two hands to pick up the pot together and placed it on the charcoal fire the mother had built in the yard. They sat while the food bubbled away the death in the family and the fire spit sparks into the night. Blier didn't remember taking part in such a ritual before, although he'd somehow known what to do.

The pot was made of the same bright metal as the coin, and he suddenly wondered if it were an artifact he needed. He wasn't sure.

"It's from Shipton." The mother had seen his face. "From the early days."

Blier wondered what the early days were, but he said nothing. "Saves on sucking the coin," the daughter added. Blier kept his thoughts to himself.

After they had eaten of the symbolic body, they washed the pot together and the mother took the food that was leftover outside. "The Merners," the daughter explained. "They lost a field to flood and are friends of hers."

Blier nodded. His mind was already on his journey. "The moving star," he said, pointing. "I'm following that back to"--he hesitated--"back to centre," he said more positively.

"We'll braid you that strap," Linder said quietly. She pulled him into the house until they were both seated at the table and she beckoned for the coin.

Blier pulled it out of his pocket, suddenly feeling an irrational fear of its loss. Linder noted his expression with a nod, and then took it from him and delicately cut away the cord. Once it was freed, she threw the old strap into the charcoal where it steamed and then sluggishly burned. She washed the coin carefully, as if she were handling an idol. He watched her cut narrow strips of fibre and then twist them together until she had three cords for plaiting. Her mother entered the room and sat beside her, her eyes on Blier as her daughter passed one cord over another.

"This is the cord that ties us to memory," her mother began, her voice chanting as the sun went down and the moon came out.

"And memory to the coin," her daughter said blandly as if after long recitation.

"Oval like the splash." The mother looked at him expectantly.

He thought for a moment, and then opened his mouth as though the words would tumble out on their own. "A loop back to the centre," he said, finally remembering.

The mother's head bobbed as if she agreed, and then she helped Linder tie off the end so the strap wouldn't fray. Linder looked at her mother and Blier waited. Finally the mother passed the strap to Linder and went to stir the smouldering ashes outside. Blier stood as Linder lifted his shirt and waited until she warmed the coin in her mouth and then tied the strap around his neck so that the coin dangled until its flat side was pressed against his skin. He opened his mouth as she held the coin to him and he took it briefly between his lips. He should at least respect their rituals, he chastised himself. He wasn't so much a stranger in the villages he passed through that he couldn't behave in a civilized manner.

The mother pulled down some blankets and she and Linder made a pallet on the wide bed in the main room, then she went towards the back of the house. Blier lay down, tantalizing himself with the thought that Linder might join him, but she went with her mother and left him alone with his thoughts.

He wasn't sure how he'd fallen into the house of a dead man. He was a traveller, a collector, whose responsibility was to the centre. He was a collector of artifacts, although it hurt his head to remember why. He felt he could almost touch the words that explained what he'd been tasked to do, but when he reached toward the light of the big moon, his fingers found flesh. He moved over, the bed shifted under him, and someone lay beside him.

"It's quick for a village," she said. "Do you have another?" Her voice was tense with doubt.

The question was fraught with concern for Blier. "None that I recall," he said, trying for nonchalance in a situation that demanded solemnity.

"You should be sucking the coin," Linder said, pressing her coin into his mouth.

Blier kissed her hand and then the coin. "I'd rather suck on you." He pulled her to him and reached out in the dark to kiss her face.

She giggled, but her back tensed as he stroked her. He whispered, "Are you sure it's your time?"

She clambered on top of him in answer and he felt her pull away his shirt. When their skin touched, he was ready with his response. His hands on her body skated this way and that, her soft skin tugging at him in ways he barely remembered, but when she lay beside him and pulled him on top of her, he remembered her taut muscles. He lay beside her instead, and stroked her long body, her full breasts and muscular legs, smoothing out the tension of the moment. Her breathing was fast like a bird, and when he felt her she was wet with anticipation.

"You best be on top," he whispered, conscious of the mother in the house. "You can move as you wish, and it'll not hurt."

"That'll work?" A chuckle lurked behind her whisper.

"Some say. But you take it slow, and from below I'll not be pushy."

She was light on top of him, and when she inserted him, tentative, but soon she was more certain of what she wanted. They rocked together and she bit his shoulder to keep from crying out.

They were still joined when they heard the mother stir in the next room, and in the dim light he looked at her soft face. She had put her coin in her mouth and was sucking on it gently, but such was his mood that he kept his dismay to himself. Instead of beginning a religious discussion, he pulled her closer and they went to sleep, sticky together in the hot night.

He didn't wake until the early predawn, when the big moon was just beginning to fade and the small moon was barely visible. The smaller of the two satellites was on a different path, but its timing was such that it was in the sky only during the day and early dawn. Blier had heard the moons used to shine together, but he didn't remember how that might have changed.

Pulling the blanket over them, careful not to disturb Linder at his side still sucking on her coin, he ducked under the warmth and thought about what he didn't know. He felt as though he'd had a tooth removed; he could feel its absence but not what had been there before. He'd known something once about the small moon, but when he reached for it the gap gnawed at him. Groaning from the effort, he started to turn on his side, remembered Linder, and then lay still.

He suddenly recalled seeing whole villages where people had lost the ability to speak. He'd seen it many times when he was collecting. Collecting. For what? He was bringing to the centre. Something about a . . . sickness, he decided. A silent plague.


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