The Porcelain Doll
The Tribe journeyed through the flatlands, a small procession of lingering humanity and one very special artifact moving slowly over the rocky earth, beneath unpredictable skies, headed for a place some of them only knew from children's tales. They passed through barren plains, skirting the areas where rising water levels made travel impossible, then over the shoulders of the foothills and into the cold Highlands.
The weather was in their favor, though there were nights when ice fell, and they had to seek refuge in whatever old buildings they might chance upon. But the higher they rose, the less they found shelter from the sudden storms. Fortunately, those nights were few.
During the first week of their quest, Daniel had been prone to whining and throwing tantrums during the days' weary travel. The ceaseless walking and climbing had taken its toll on his small body and, more than once, the Tribe had waited as Rosa or Malin tended to his complaints. They would massage his swollen feet and re-stuff his oversized boots. When this did not work, the men would take turns carrying the boy on their backs.
But as the journey went on, Daniel's complaints diminished and he needed less coddling. Their path was still difficult, the earth was as rocky as ever, and cold breezes still whipped at them as they traveled. But this was all new to Daniel and even in this difficulty he became entranced by the world around him.
As they rose into the mountains, the boy was exposed to so vast an expanse of land beneath him that he was in constant awe of the simple breadth of the horizon; the hills that rolled out behind them, the massive peaks before, their snowy white heads barely discernable in the distance. Even the fresh smell of the air suggested unknown vistas. It seemed inconceivable to him that the land could continue for so far. Uncle had never explained this. Indeed, the farther they traveled, the more it seemed that Uncle had explained very little. This thought disturbed Daniel, so he pushed it aside.
In time his legs became sturdy and, although some of the men had grown to enjoy the task of carrying the precocious scamp, this duty was no longer necessary. Daniel's body grew strong, and his skin tanned during those days when the weather allowed the Tribe to travel uncloaked. His whining ceased and he acclimated to life on the path, although no one could ever grow fully accustomed to it.
In the night the Tribe would huddle around the fire, sharing tales of the road and of their plights in the South Cities. They spoke of fights and hunts and there seemed to be a more than sufficient supply of wild characters in their past to keep their stories fresh. And, when mere history was not sufficiently entertaining, embellishments were always in order. More than once the Tribe had laughed with incredulity while Parker or Mak embarked on some improbable story. Tomas, also a senior man, had his own versions of their tales, but tended to keep his silence, smiling knowingly and shaking his head when something the other men said amused him.
On warm nights when some of the sweet ferment had been ingested, the women would dance for the men. Their sweaty bodies glistened in the firelight as they slowly disrobed. The men hooted and competed for the women's attention. Sometimes they would fight one another, although these fights were mostly drunken posturing and no one was hurt. On other nights they would dance alongside the disrobing women, singing strange rhythmic chants deep into the night.
Daniel didn't understand these dances at first, but as the night grew and the Tribe began to huddle with one another, the significance of the women's gyrating movements became clear. At these times Daniel would wrap himself in a fur and cuddle with Doll, whose body was as warm and soft as any real woman, but could never be used for those purposes. Uncle had explained that long ago.
She can see easily across that invisible gulf called 'time' by these mortals who struggle along the path with her. Across this gulf she can see a history that they will never know, a history that words are insufficient to express. The darkened ruins they pass during the day, the withered remains of civilization, are shadowed by the grim sky and the age that rests upon their faces. They were once aglow, teeming with the mass of humanity. Long ago she had been housed in such buildings, long before the wane of civilization, long before her new family had even been born.
She resides in these recollections as she walks. She does not feel the chill of the world, nor has the ceaseless travel taken a toll on her. One step or a million is the same, as long as there is sufficient light from which she can take nourishment. She has followed along with the group of struggling Humans, immune to the aches and pains that all but Daniel have learned to tolerate. She is oblivious to the anxiety that grows on them as they observe the grey storm heads looming on the horizon beyond. She is not oblivious, however, to the looks she receives, those seemingly casual glances that communicate the resentment called 'jealousy'.
In the night, as they take refuge from the cold in their fires and furs, and refuge from their insecurities in banter, she is not invited among them. She sits at the edge of the firelight and observes their camaraderie and bickering, forever alien to these matters. It is only Daniel who comes to sit by her, to check her for any sign of damage or malfunction. There has never been any, and the boy does not find any now. But this routine has been established since he was a small child and will most likely continue until she is passed into another's concern.
Another night is passing into gloom. The child sleeps fitfully beside her as the others find comfort and warmth in each other's bodies. Doll cannot sleep, and instead gazes out into the darkness. Her hands are doing a continual dance as she plays back images of special gatherings, some of them centuries past, where she was the center of warmth for the crowd.
The sound flowed out from her mind, onto the keys and over the throng beyond the lights of the stage, from where the love of the audience flowed back to her. The sound of their adoration is recorded forever in particles of her memory smaller than the space between the countless moments she has lived through. Such is the genius of her design; that no conscious moment passed could ever fade in time, even if she should wish it so.
A distant flash of light and the eventual rumble it spawned, break her from this reverie. But it interests her for only a fraction of time, nanoseconds, as she assesses any potential threat it may contain. She can find none in her database, so she ignores any further sounds from the sky and returns again to moments encoded in a virtual world where only she can dwell.
Parker did not ignore the distant crack of thunder, or the low groan of the sky. He gave the flashes of light his rapt attention as he sat in his fur, wrapped tightly against the night. The storm was some ways off, yet he could feel its chilled breath faintly on his face. It did not seem headed in their direction, but still he listened patiently as the others slept or shared their bodies. There was an occasional groan from those who had paired off for the night, but otherwise it was only the crackle of flame and the rumble from the horizon that kept him company.
He watched as the threat moved slowly to the west and then south, its huge lumbering head sparking intermittently to life on the horizon, then to darkness again. Soon it was quiet. He breathed easier and relaxed against a rock. Chance had smiled on them again, at least for the time being.
"Parker?" came a light voice from behind him.
The man turned to see Daniel standing nearby. The boy was wrapped in his furry blanket, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
"Daniel, why are you awake?" he asked. "You need sleep or you will slow us again."
Daniel made a pained expression, the one that children intuitively know adults cannot refuse. Parker was defenseless against it.
"Damn to you, boy," he whispered with a chuckle. "Come here" he said in surrender, opening his blanket for the boy to sit. Daniel slipped beside the man, in between the folds of the heavy animal hide. "What is it?" Parker grumbled.
Daniel took a moment to respond. "What do you think happened to the people who lived in the old buildings?" he said. "Why is everybody dead now?"
Parker shifted uncomfortably. Things were dark enough as it was without going into the story of the Big Fight and the shadow that had filled the sky.
"Can't this wait until tomorrow?" he asked.
The boy said nothing. Together they looked up at the stars that were finally breaking from behind the opaque haze. In time, a vast panorama of sparkling points of light filled the heavens.
Eventually Parker took a deep breath, pronouncing his surrender. "Men have good and bad sides, Daniel," he explained. "It has always been that way. Sometimes when men do good, they do bad at the same time. Sometimes they don't even know it.
"They have been fighting since before they built the big cities. Sometimes fights are good… I mean, fights can be for a good reason. But mostly fights are for nothing but to fight. Just to make your mark." Parker shifted so that he was looking at the boy. Deep within his suppressed memories, another set of innocent eyes gazed up at him. He fought back an undesired emotion and continued.
"My father told me that, a long time ago, people built great torches to shoot at each other. The torches could destroy entire cities and fill the sky with fire. At first men only used them to scare one another, but…" he looked back out on the vista above "but one day something happened, an accident. Someone shot one of the torches, and then…" He shrugged. "It went crazy. There was fire everywhere…so many places. And a shadow came into the sky. It was there a long time. I think it made the freeze." Parker fell quiet his face pensive. Daniel waited patiently.
"I don't know why they did it, Daniel," Parker continued. "I cannot tell you these things. It was long, long ago. Before my father's, father's father. There are those who can read the letters. They can tell you about these things. But not me."
Daniel nodded. "Uncle knew about it, I think. He once said something about 'armed conflicts'," the boy offered, in his serious fashion. "He said there was a 'volley of warheads' and it 'wreaked havoc on society'. I heard him talking to the empty room at night, before he… before he went to the Shadows."
Parker shrugged. "Conflict? Havoc? Very small words when you think of what happened to the world."
Daniel pinched his chin, nodding slowly. Parker chuckled at the strangely adult gesture. "So, are you finished with your questions now?" he asked.
Daniel looked up at the man. "Have you always been this way?"
Parker curled an eyebrow at the boy. "What way?"
"You know… on the road. Walking all the time."
Parker shrugged. "Not always," he answered, smiling, remembering easier times. "When I was a boy we stayed in the east by the big waters called Atlantic. We kept animals and I had a dog back then." His face brightened in the recollection, and he smiled down at Daniel. "You know dogs?"
Daniel shook his head.
Parker grunted. "Too bad. They are good friends. We even had an old wagon that worked. But that was so long ago." The man stopped a moment, letting the memory play inside his mind's eye. "Then the water started to rise again and the big ice wall was getting closer. Our animals ate from bad grasses and caught the rot. Their meat was no good anymore. So we went to the South Cities and…" he stopped and tossed a scrap of wood in the fire. "…and we stayed there. We had to learn a new way. We made a place in one of the old towers and Mother made medicines from plants. She traded them for coins and meat. Father learned the hunt and joined some trappers. When I was past my bloom he showed me the hunt too." Parker stopped then Daniel looked up at him.
Parker glanced at the boy impatiently. But the innocent curiosity he saw in the young face made him pause. He sighed and tossed another scrap of wood on the fire.
"And then Father was made leader, and when he got too old, I took over the crew. There were twenty and seven of us then." Parker smiled at the memory. "We did the good hunt. There were pigs and horses and bears. Lots of game!" he laughed. Then his face grew serious. "But the freeze came and then raiders came with it, desperate men who have no rule to live by. You can see they were never shown their 'propers'. They have no respect and deserve none.
"They took over the tower towns and made taxes on everybody. They tried to tell us where to hunt and make us give them coin for trading our meat and furs." Parker grimaced as he spoke "But we fought them and…" he stopped himself with a laugh. "Well, you've heard all those stories by now!"
Daniel smiled. Yes, various versions of the raider fights had already been repeated a few times around the fires at night.
Parker continued. "But finally it was too much. We had to fight all the time and the bad men just got badder. And there were more of them. Some of them knew how to fix the old weapons and it got too dangerous. So we left." A frown crossed his dark features. "Well, some of us left. Ten and two stayed in the south." He shook his head sadly. "Good men. We could use them now."
Daniel counted in his head. "That's not right," he said. Parker looked at him curiously.
"I mean the numbers don't match," Daniel explained. "You said there was twenty seven in the south and only twelve stayed. Where are the…" Daniel stopped when he saw the sudden shadow that crept into Parker's face.
The man's temper flared suddenly. With one strong arm he pushed Daniel up and slapped him soundly across the rear.
"Ow!" Daniel yelled, puzzled at the man's sudden anger.
"It's time for you to sleep, boy!" Parker scolded, "Go on now. We have far to travel tomorrow!"
The slap had been more insulting than painful, but Daniel's temper rose just the same. He knew better than to say anything, however. He glared at the man a moment and then rushed back to his place near Rosa. He slid between the warm blankets where he lay awake for a time, staring up at the sparkling sky. It took some time, but sleep finally stole him away from the concerns of the world, into a realm of restless dreams.
Parker's anger abated slowly. He forced away the images: the memories of still bodies under a calloused sky, of little frozen mounds of earth. These unwanted recollections had been sparked to life by the boy's inquiries, and Parker pressed them back, fighting the emotion that threatened to build inside. There was no time for these thoughts. There was duty. There was the path. He had responsibilities. He wiped a guilty tear from his face as he hummed a low chant his father had taught him. It was a warrior's song.
I am mud and earth, wind and sky
My bones are rock and wood,
and you can never break me
I will shake the ground where you sleep,
if you should ever try
I am hard as earth, free as sky
And I will reap from the flesh of the world
what my honor has bestowed me
In time Tomas came to take the watch, and Parker left to share the rest of the night with Ish. He rolled into the fur beside her, into the place where Tomas had just left. She responded sleepily at first, rolling away from his cautious probing. But soon her passions were re-ignited and they shared a precious moment of sensation. Afterwards they both fell into deep sleep, and dreams of warmer times and places.