The Porcelain Doll
Doll didn't know pain. Not in the same way as the organic people around her. She did not flinch as Ish forced the brush through the tangles of black hair that cascaded down the length of her body. Although Doll was not used to such attentions from these people, she was not afraid. She knew the 'dangerous' faces; she had seen them before and recorded their parameters. These women's faces didn't hold that danger. Nor did they express the suspicions they had during the journey over the mountain paths. The faces of Ish and the two women who sat nearby and eyed her curiously, held something she had not seen for ages, not since the time the multitude had admired her from beyond the lights at the foot of the stage She saw admiration in their eyes. Reverence.
"You must be with us in the Basin, when the season changes," Ish said to Doll as she brushed tangles from the Machine's hair. With Rosa and Malin's help, she had cleaned the Machine. They had wrapped her in a fur while they took her flowing white dress into the snow and washed the grit of the path from it. Somewhow an extra coat had been found where none could be found before, and it was wrapped over Doll's shoulders to keep her inner mechanisms warm. Gloves had been found for her hands, which the Tribe now saw as precious.
"In the Basin you can perform on your box, and make coin for the Tribe," Ish said. She paused a moment. "You are part of the Tribe now, right?" she asked. Rosa and Malin nodded their heads in unison.
Doll considered this question. She cared only for her device. It was the music alone that was her reason for being. "I wish only to play," she responded. Her words were not as programmed as the women assumed.
Ish smiled and resumed combing. "That's good, then. You play. We eat. No problems."
Daniel did not like the tone of this conversation. He was standing outside the circle of women, watching as they fussed over Doll. These were the same people that had ignored Doll all along the snowy paths they had traveled to get here. He frowned as they spoke of their plans for his rare and precious Machine.
"How will you get the 'box' to the Basin?" he asked, not bothering to mask the sarcasm in his voice. Ish looked over her shoulder at the boy. She recognized the expression in his face and winked at Rosa and Malin, who glanced at Daniel and chuckled.
"You are maybe upset now that your 'Doll' is not for you alone, little one?" Ish asked as she struggled with a matt in the Machine's hair.
"My name is Daniel," he reminded her through clenched teeth.
"You are yet a little one among us, Daniel," she explained, not looking at him. "There are responsibilities we all have to each other. When you understand the responsibility, then you are closer to being a man."
Daniel's would not tolerate this woman's presumptions. "What do you know about me?" he said, his face reddening. "I have been with her since I was little! You think now, because she's here, you own her? You don't own her!"
Ish smiled patiently at the obstinate child, but her eyes expressed authority. She set the comb down and gestured to him. "Sit," she said, patting the floor next to her. But Daniel just glared at her. His chest heaved. He did not move. Ish patted the floor so hard that the sound reverberated in the room. "Come and sit. We will talk," she repeated in a stern voice. But Daniel just thrust his chin up and put his hands on his hips.
Rosa and Malin snickered, eyeing the boy with something between amusement and admiration.
"So you are 'Daniel', not a baby, but you act like one?" Ish asked. "If you want I can come over there and make you sit," she said. Her eyes told Daniel that she was not making this statement lightly. He stepped forward, reluctantly, and sat down heavily beside the big woman. He rolled his eyes and tilted his head impatiently to the side. The other women shook their heads, no longer amused by his behavior.
Unconcerned with the boy's attitude, Ish wrapped her arm around his small shoulders and pulled him close. Daniel wasn't in the mood for this intimacy, but was too intimidated to object. He also had Parker to consider. The man had warned him before.
"When I was a girl, my big brother fell into the ice when we crossed the Great North River," Ish said. "Then I was expected to be master of the other children and responsible for them." Her face grew pensive in the reminiscing. "We took a day to cry for my brother and feast to his name. But after we crossed the river, I could cry no more. We had a long way to go.
"This was when the seasons had just begun to go wrong. Every year it would be worse; the winds would come earlier than before, and the snows, too. Soon the animals were dying and we had nothing to eat." She looked away, a gentle sadness on her face. "We ate the dogs then. It was not easy. They were our friends."
Ish smiled as she spoke, but there was a sigh behind her eyes, a moan from childhood wounds that had never really healed.
"We had a Machine man. Nothing at all like your beautiful lady here. . I think he had been made to load things onto the transports before the Big Fight when so many Machines got destroyed. One of his legs was not working right and he was made noises when he moved… and his head was broken open like that old Machine from the show house.
"His brain worked ok, but there was so much he didn't know. Ah!" she laughed. "And we could never teach him anything. So we used him to carry packs and pull the sleds. I think we traded him for meat after we got to the Great South River where it was warmer. I don't know what they did with him. They had big auctions back then, where they traded the old Machines they caught in the forests. Some people used them for mining or digging up the old buildings from the ice to see what they could find. Maybe he was bought by one of them, I don't know.
"But I do know he never cried for my brother. He never felt cold or pain or hunger. He never had to hide when ice fell. And I know he never wondered what happened to the world. He only did what he was told, or he would just sit and stare at nothing."
She fixed Daniel's eyes. "You don't like the way I think of her, little one, no? You don't like that I will use her to bring money and food to the Tribe?"
Daniel did not reply, he was still angry. But he was listening now. This was the first time Ish had talked of her past and he was intrigued in spite of himself.
"In the old building where we found you, there was nothing," Ish continued, "If we had not seen you, you would have joined Uncle, in the Shadows, and your machine lady would just sit in the dark until someone else came and took her. Maybe she would be digging in the ground now, with the other old Machines. Or maybe, if her skin did not crack in the cold, or her beautiful hair fall out, she would be just a toy for the humping. She looks very good for that, no?" The other women snickered at this, but Ish silenced them.
"You know nothing of this, I can see," Ish said. "Maybe your Uncle did not show you enough of the world?"
"Uncle was good to me!" Daniel objected, his anger rising again. Rosa and Malin glanced at each other and wordlessly decided that this was a matter for Ish and the boy to work out. The two rose silently and went to other tasks. Ish waited for them to depart, then she turned her attention to the boy.
"'Uncle' hid you away in an abandoned building full of useless things and told you nothing of the world!" she corrected. "You didn't even know enough to care for yourself when he died! You had good fate with you when we came there, boy. We might have been crazy men, the kind of people who make slaves of little boys… or worse." She stared hard at Daniel. The boy returned the stare defiantly. But after a moment, he looked away.
Ish pulled Daniel's chin and forced him to face her. He struggled for a moment before the look in her eyes froze him.
"My Papa told me all about the Machine people," she said. "They were built for us to use, to make our life better."
"But Doll was not designed like that," Daniel insisted. He was on the verge of tears, but he refused to let her see that. "Doll is not a worker or a toy. She was not designed for common tasks. She is a work of art!"
"Can you eat art?" Ish shot back.
Daniel was undaunted. "She was made for more important things!" he cried.
"And what is more important than staying alive?" Ish yelled, angered at the boy's refusal to understand. Daniel's face reddened and a tear of frustration crawled into his eye. Once again Ish stared him down. She understood the boy had been isolated from the world and so never understood what survival was all about. He'd grown in his short time with them, yes, but not yet enough. She let go of his face and he turned away to wipe his eyes. The two sat quietly while their tempers calmed.
"We are not many, anymore," Ish continued, her eyes fixed on some point on the snowy horizon outside the window. "The seasons are gone now. Everywhere there is cold and snow. The animals die. The old storage tanks, like the one we eat from now, are few. The old man says there are more but I think maybe this is the last. Maybe… maybe soon, there is no food anymore."
She pulled her arm from Daniel's shoulders and resumed stroking the tangles from Doll's fine black hair.
"We will go to the Basin where there is still some warmth and people. Doll will play on her box and we will let people listen to her in exchange for food or coins or whatever they have to trade. This way we will build our new home and when that is done she will be yours alone."
Daniel's ire was rising again. He wanted to tell Ish that it wasn't her place to make the rules, that she couldn't decide the fate of he and Doll just because the Tribe had found him and fed him and….
In his anger he tried to reject the thought, but he couldn't. If they hadn't found him, what would he have done? Hadn't the Tribe accepted him without condition? Hadn't they looked out for him and made sure he was fed even when food was scarce? And what had they asked of him? To help build the fires and dig the squatting pits, to behave and follow his propers? Was that really so much?
He looked at Doll who sat quietly, letting the woman groom her. She hadn't cried when Uncle had died, had she? Uncle had never mentioned if she could cry or not. Did she know what was happening to the world? Did she know how many people had sacrificed so that she would endure through all these years?
For the first time in his short life Daniel questioned his feelings about Doll, and his feelings about Uncle. The sadness of the man's loss touched his heart, but he instantly pushed it away. Uncle had told him that it was no longer safe to be a child. That he had to 'tough up'. Uncle had made everything seem clear and simple. Taking care of Doll was what life was about.
But maybe, just maybe, the old man had left something out of his instructions.
Daniel looked curiously at Ish, this woman who had been the focus of his anger just moments before. She was like Uncle, in a way. She was sure of herself. She knew what to do at any given moment. How had she survived all these years of traveling?
"How come you don't have any other little ones with you?" he asked suddenly. He didn't know where the question came from, or why asking it made him feel grey inside.
Ish was quiet. She raised her head to look out at the snow-lined horizon, the blank expanse of lifeless white beyond the windows of their makeshift home.
"We had little ones," she said finally, and a shadow crossed her face, just like the shadow he'd seen in Parker's eyes that night on the path. When she spoke again her voice was full of sorrow.
"Maybe, Daniel …there is no warm season anymore. No cities. No pigs or even dogs to hunt. Maybe soon, there are no people anymore."
Parker kicked a pile of debris from the walkway of another futile excavation, and worked his way back towards the light. Outside, his men waited anxiously. In between gusts of wind, they could hear things falling and being broken inside the dilapidated structure, as Parker cleared the path to the exit.
"We cannot stay here," Parker yelled as he neared the door.
Coco screwed up his face. "What? What's he saying?"
Emre' shrugged. "He's mad about something." He leaned toward the door. "Are you OK in there?"
"We'll never find anything here," Parker elaborated as he neared the door.
Since the first grey glow had broken the horizon, the men of the Tribe had been wandering the ruins of the city, seeking whatever nourishments may yet be found. But the journey had, so far, been fruitless.
"We've only been a few places, Parker," Emre' said, when he could see the man working his way from the darkness beyond the weather-worn entrance.
"We've seen enough," Parker replied as he struggled over the wreckage piled at the door of the building. When the old rusted door wouldn't give way, Parker thrust the bulk of his weight against it, breaking the door from its hinges to clattering onto the icy street. The men watched their Chief's frustration uneasily.
Emre' approached the man and started beating the dirt from his coat. "Why rush? We have plenty of food left. Enough to make it through the cold season, anyway. We can leave when the skies clear."
Parker huffed and waved Emre's hands away. He scanned the grey skies worriedly. "Yes, maybe, if we eat light, but it can't last forever. And there's no hunting here."
Tomas rolled his beard in his hand as he thought. "We don't know what kind of buildings these are, Parker. Maybe we are looking in the wrong places," he said.
Parker gestured to Emre'. "He read the signs. These were the food places, right?" He turned to the younger man.
Emre' nodded his head slowly, reluctant to concede the point. "But there are more, I am sure of it," he said. "We just have to keep looking." The other men agreed with this reasoning.
Parker looked away from them. Deep inside he knew there would be no more warm seasons. He knew that the older men, Tomas and Mak, must sense it too. But he was sure that the younger men would side with Emre'. He had to continue carefully.
"Ish wants to go to the Basin," he said finally. "I think it is the best way too. But that is a long road. And we have to bring the Machine's music box! That will take much time." Parker fixed the others with a serious look. "The pass may be blocked. There is too much snow! Too many storms!" He knew that he shouldn't let them see him this way, that he should always present a confident façade. But his uncertainty was growing, even in this time of relative prosperity. They had food and shelter. They had heat. But did they have a future?
"The snows will pass, Parker," Emre' said. "They always do, right? We can go to the Basin when the snows stop." The younger men nodded, confident with Emre's reasoning.
Parker forced a calm on himself. It was time to talk straight. "Yes. They always have, Emre'," he replied after a moment. "But things are changing." He looked to Tomas, Mak and Coco. They returned his grim expression. "You can feel it, you men. You know!"
Coco shrugged the point off. Mak looked away, crossing his arms as if to protect himself from this truth. Tomas started to respond, but in the end kept his mouth closed. He knew that this was really between Emre' and Parker. It had been coming for a long time now and he hoped it would not escalate here.
"You make things worse with this talk, " Emre' said. "The winds will die soon, and it will grow warm. In time we can-"
"We should leave and take the synthetics with us," Parker interrupted. "If the pass is frozen we will not have to hunt. There is probably nothing to hunt anyway."
Otter guffawed. "Those boxes are huge! How are we gonna take all that with us and the Machine woman's music box? You must think we are Machines, Parker!"
Mak waved his hand to silence the youth, who obviously didn't understand what was happening. He knew that this could turn into a challenge, and that was the last thing they needed. Rennie and Bosche' sensed the tension building beneath the debate, but didn't fully understand it. They stood quietly, watching.
Parker dismissed Otter's complaint. "We can use that Machine, the one we found in the theater. It was very strong. It pulled the piano almost by itself,"
"I remember, Parker. I was there!" Emre' responded quickly. "But that Machine is old and broken. What if it dies out there? Then what? We will be stuck with that stupid toy on the open plain. All that work for nothing?"
Parker's frustration rose to the surface, and he kicked a piece of rubble that broke against the wall of the building "What if this? What if that?" he bellowed. "It don't matter, boy! Can't you see? If we stay here too long, we are trapped!"
"This is a big place!" Emre' challenged, sweeping his arm at the multitude of quiet, grey towers all around them. "There are supplies somewhere! There have to be!"
"Why? Because you say so?" Parker replied angrily.
"Don't be a stupid old man!" Emre' said, too quickly and too angrily. "You'll get us all killed out there!"
Tomas was too late to intercept Parker as he moved on Emre'. In a flash, Parker was standing over Emre' like an angry bear, their faces just breaths away. The young warrior did not flinch at this intimidation, but neither did he rise to meet it. The others backed away anxiously. The younger men were surprised by the sudden severity of the confrontation. But the older ones had seen challenges erupt like this before.
Had the moment finally arrived?
"I am stupid now?" Parker hissed, jaws clenched jaws and eyes tight. "I have led this Tribe since before you were dug out of the snow, brat! You want to lead now? Then you learn to follow. You learn to think of the future!"
Emre' was smart enough not to respond when Parker got this way. But he kept the man's gaze, defiantly.
"What if we go through all the food while we are looking here?" Parker raged. "What if we find nothing? Did you think of that? What if the winds do not die and the snow does not stop and the plains are dead and we cannot find something to keep us going?"
Emre' finally looked away, fighting the urge to respond. It would do no good right now.
"Are you hearing me yet?" Parker yelled, raising his hand as if to strike the younger man's hooded head. But he stopped, his fist clenched and shaking. He let his hand fall and took a deep breath. "We cannot stay," he said. "The risk is too much. If you understood that then you might be ready to lead!"
Emre' let the anger roll off him, like so many times before. He could not challenge Parker this way. He knew that his own plan was the more logical. But he was still unsure of himself. He glanced at Otter, Rennie and Bosche', the future of their clan. Otter looked back, his chin up and an unspoken statement in his eyes. 'I'll back you' was the unspoken statement behind his eyes. Rennie and Bosche' seemed uncertain at first, but their faces hardened under Emre's gaze, and they stepped close to Otter who folded his arms defiantly.
But Emre' decided he could not force this issue.
He stepped away to show his acquiescence. The other young men dropped their heads silently.
Parker turned away, feeling the icy wind bite at his face. He breathed deeply, relaxing himself. This was his decision. He was responsible for all of their well-being. In his heart he knew Emre' was not yet ready for this duty.
"Nayar might not make it to the Basin," he said. "The old man has been hiding here too long. Maybe he is in bad health." The others did not contest this. "The boy, Daniel, he is young. He'll be ok. And his Machine listens to him. Without him… maybe she will not play." He turned and eyed them all sternly.
"We will start for the Basin as soon as the winds die and there is sunlight in the hills. We must protect the boy no matter what! If the machine will not play, dragging the music box will have been a useless task." He glanced at Emre'. "And I will hear no further argument on the matter."
Mak and Tomas glanced at each other, but said nothing. Emre' grumbled an objection, but only under his breath. The other young men cast their eyes downward. They had been ready to back Emre if he had made a challenge, but they too were uncertain. The older men knew the land. They had traveled the paths before. It was safer to trust to their lead, no matter how poor their choices seemed.
In the end no argument was offered. The challenge had been put down without a fight. Parker had claimed the responsibility of leadership and would be given his due.
"Let's get back to camp," Parker said and started walking away. He did not look to see if the others followed. He didn't have to. They fell in line quietly, their questions and doubts tucked away for the time being. The wind howled and blew an icy haze over the procession as they made their way through the dead streets.
But they were not alone. Their departure was observed from a distance. A thin, sneering man stood in the shadows of a ruin, quietly considering his options. Behind him, his men waited anxiously for the order to attack. Beside him a dangerous Machine stood patiently. Simulated sinew lined its thick arms. Its jaw was firm; its fists ready to inflict violence; its brain, always faithful to the one who commanded it.
"Not yet," Prescott said as he watched the men of the Tribe fade into the snowy gloom. "It will be easier when they are all together."