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.
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."
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.
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.
stalk, or burned wood," she suggested, her eyes on his face.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
will you do, Linder?"
me with the cargo." She pointed to Durn's body. "And give
our thanks to the traveller who kept me from harm."
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.
He looked at the young woman.
him. "You best be grabbing a shoulder. It wouldn't do for
you to be handling the feet."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
follow the path of the moving star," he explained tentatively.
"I'm not meant to stop for any time."
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."
stay the night," the woman said, and Blier nodded. He could
do that much for a woman when he'd killed the husband.
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."
against rules." Linder had returned and stood in the doorway,
the light from the back room spilling around her.
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.
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
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.
met someone who moves like you before." Blier thought saying
it aloud might jog his memory.
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.
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.
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
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?"
shook his head. "Jealousy?" he suggested.
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.
not bother you again." He was hesitant. He was making a promise
he wasn't sure he could fulfil.
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?"
to take the arrow."
collector. Putting together some pieces and taking them back--"
Blier faltered as the words moved beyond reach. "I follow
the moving star."
heard that." Linder's eyes grew bleak and her shoulders sagged.
"You should be sucking the coin a bit more."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
remember." She sounded disappointed.
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.
be sucking on your coin," she said, lifting her metal disk
from where it hung between her breasts.
the time?" Blier asked as she pressed against him. "You'll
be making someone wave a knife."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
could hear it in his voice. "You don't remember, do you?"
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.
come in." The mother stood in the doorway. "We'll make a pot."
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.
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.
from Shipton." The mother had seen his face. "From the early
wondered what the early days were, but he said nothing. "Saves
on sucking the coin," the daughter added. Blier kept his thoughts
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."
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.
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.
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.
is the cord that ties us to memory," her mother began, her
voice chanting as the sun went down and the moon came out.
to the coin," her daughter said blandly as if after long recitation.
like the splash." The mother looked at him expectantly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
quick for a village," she said. "Do you have another?" Her
voice was tense with doubt.
was fraught with concern for Blier. "None that I recall,"
he said, trying for nonchalance in a situation that demanded
be sucking the coin," Linder said, pressing her coin into
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
but her back tensed as he stroked her. He whispered, "Are
you sure it's your time?"
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.
be on top," he whispered, conscious of the mother in the house.
"You can move as you wish, and it'll not hurt."
work?" A chuckle lurked behind her whisper.
say. But you take it slow, and from below I'll not be pushy."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.