The Porcelain Doll
The Tribe gathered somberly beneath the cold sky, encircling mounds of earth where the fallen members of their small clan had been laid to eternal sleep. The earth was their home, their mother and father. From it they had come and into it they were laid, into the Shadows, away from the troubles of the world. There was no question of life beyond that sleep. It was assumed that all beings, even those that did not deserve it, lived on in the safety of the Shadows. Either way, it was no concern of the living. It was enough to survive each day, without being worried about the nature of that final sleep.
The raiders had shown no honor so none had been afforded them. The bodies of their dead had been collected and scattered about the empty city, left to feed whatever crawling things would take nourishment from their sour flesh.
The mounds of the Tribe's fallen, four by number, had been dug deep into the earth, a short distance from the building in which they had died. The earth around that structure had been covered in a hard cement shell centuries ago, so the Tribe had had to search out more pliable ground.
Now it was time to say goodbye.
Daniel stood before the Tribe, hesitant as he began his salutation. He had watched the others make their displays and knew what was expected of him, but still he glanced nervously at Ish, searching for her approval. The bandaged woman kept her expression serious, as was due the occasion, but she nodded and winked to let him know he was doing fine.
Daniel turned back to the silent mounds and fell to his knees. He lay aground then, and feigned unconsciousness. He felt silly doing this, but Ish had explained why it was important. After a moment he reached up quickly, pretended to grasp something, and fell back cradling his bandaged arm. In dong this he had enacted his role in the taking of the raiders' leader. Afterwards he rose, as instructed, and knelt at the mound to conclude the salutations.
He thought of Uncle as he knelt and his heart filled with mourning. He thought of the world he had left behind, or rather the one that had abandoned him and left him in this frozen, chaotic realm. He could barley remember the way he had lived then. It seemed now that the path had always been his home.
He remembered the ones who now lay beneath the earth, those who had taken him under their wing, pampered and scolded him. Loved him. He was truly a Roamer, now. He had fought beside them and earned his place, and now he learned to observe their rituals. He cried then, earnest tears that dropped on the grave to let the fallen know that he would continue in their stead.
When his tears subsided, Daniel rose and walked away from the mound, careful to keep his head respectfully lowered and to not look back until he had left the circle.
Emre' was next to approach the wailing point. He walked slowly to the burial mound, his back erect, his chin held high, in the fashion of a leader. His wounds were few and small, but he displayed them proudly as he turned, gesturing to the four corners of the world, the four points of the horizon that disappeared in a haze of white for as far as the eye could see. Then he expressed his respect in a series of gestures that represented his last moments of battle, the turning of the tides as the Machine soldier had been taken away, and the fight with the ragged man whose treachery had sent the raiders' captain to the Shadows.
When Emre' was finished, he cupped his hand over his heart and fell to his knees before the frozen graves. His tears fell to the mound, and froze quickly on the ice. The strength of his emotion, and that of the others who had preceded his salutation, would ever be written into the earth of this monument. But unlike them, he did not utter his loss aloud. He was next in line to lead them and he would be expected to be as strong as Parker, as resolute and courageous, if indeed that was possible.
When his salutation was finished, Emre' turned his back on the grave and walked away. It was the last that the dead would be spoken of by name. To speak their name was to draw their spirit back from the Shadows and into the world of ice and rock, where they would suffer more. Now they were free.
But the Tribe's tribulations were just beginning.
Ish eyed Emre' cautiously as he finished his wailing. He was brave and strong. He fought well and was not afraid to speak his heart. He could read the letters on the old signs and knew much about the old ways. But was he ready to lead?
Young men always considered authority in such casual terms. In the innocent arrogance of youth, they knew little on the matter of consequences. The hunt and battle taught them much as they grew. But to hold the fate of others in your hands, this was another matter. Parker had tried to show Emre' these things. He had challenged Emre', pushed him to be more concerned of the future and the ramifications of his decisions. Perhaps he had been too rough at times, but it was his way. It was the way he expressed his love and she knew it was the best he could do. Parker had made the hard decisions and bore the brunt of his failures and successes. Ish wondered if Emre' and those that remained of the tribe, were ready for the trials that lay ahead.
Bosche' had wept like a child during his salutation. Ish knew he had wept for all of his lost family, but especially for Rennie, his friend, his confidant and lover. His death was a tragedy for them all, but young Bosche would mourn stronger during his long nights alone.
Otter had been stoic. His lips had curled as he held back the rage he must have been feeling, that Malin would never laugh or tease, or bed with him again. It had not been easy for him on those nights when she had shared herself with the other men, as was their custom. Now none of them would hear her carefree laughter, or share her body, again.
Mak and Tomas were old warriors, men of the hunt and fight. They had lost friends before. But when they had knelt to the graves, their stoic masks had broken and their mourning hearts revealed. Coco had been at their side since they had first started hunting in the southern regions, and they grieved openly for him. But Ish knew the loss of the youngsters tore at their warriors' hearts as well. It was always the young who suffered the most in these matters. It had always been so and it was never easy to accept.
Rosa's heart was strong, she was a proud descendant of peoples from the north, but she had trembled with the depths of loss she felt. Her wounds stood out against the soft hues of her flesh. But it was the wounds in her heart that made her cry as she knelt over the mound. Her tears had flowed without restraint as she whispered her goodbyes to her loved ones.
Ish finally broke from her reverie and noticed Emre looking at her. She was next. She walked into the circle and re-enacted her part in the defeating of the invaders. It was she who had taken the leader of the raiders, although he had been finished by the stroke of one of his own men. When she enacted her final strike, she did so with all the passion and hatred she had felt when her blade had slid between Prescott's ribs. In spite of her desire to remain strong, a cry erupted from her as she knelt, and tears washed over her face, onto the earth, leaving another part of her heart behind.
Malin's dead eyes would always be in her memory. But the girl was at rest now, safe in the Shadows.
Ish rose at last, and walked from the grave, leaving the fallen to rest, never to speak their names again.
Doll knew these expressions. They were the same as those she had seen written on the faces of people who had hidden with her in the grim years of her flight from the battles that raged all around. She had taken sanctuary in dark halls, in damp, dirty rooms, surrounded by people who had taken an oath to protect her. She had seen their weariness from the stage, as she played for them. In her own way she had begun to ponder them. She had wondered at the longing in their eyes, and what it was they sought as they gazed upon her.
Slowly something was taking shape out of her long and troubled past; a new thought, forming in the digital recesses of her mind. It was something she had not experienced before. It had an unfamiliar dimension that perplexed her as she gazed on the nomads' grim faces and observed their strange, tearful rituals.
She watched intently as the Tribe turned to face the building, from where a limping, bent shape had suddenly emerged.
There was one last salutation to be made. All turned to see the man who walked from the building and approached the graves. His body was weak, and he was stooped in pain as he walked. But his face was set and determined. He fought his way painfully over the snow and ice, refusing to show weakness or the depths of his sadness.
Parker stood, finally, at the wailing point. Bent in pain, it was only his determination that the Tribe should leave this place as soon as possible that forced him past the agony of his wounds. The man did his best not to cry out as he danced the last moments of his battle. The older men wanted to rush to his side, to tell him this wasn't necessary, but they knew he would hear nothing of it. Ish's heart burnt for him, but she kept her ground and watched the man she loved fight against his own torment and uncertainty in order to show the Tribe his resolve.
They understood that he could not execute the roll with which he had attempted to escape the killer machine's fists. He simulated this instead by moving in a circle. He lifted his arm painfully at last, and cried out in defiance of the wounds that hampered him. Then he fell to his salutation. Beneath his wraps and liquor-soaked bandages, he could feel his wound burning like blades of fire. But he kept his face and only let a single tear fall. The rest would wait for those moments of solitude when he allowed himself to feel such things.
He had to remain strong. He was still their leader and he would remain so until he felt Emre' was ready for the task.
His wailing done, Parker rose slowly and turned to face the Tribe. They were only nine now. Among them were a boy, initiated to battle but fragile yet, and a Machine that could not run or fight. These two would have to be cared for, watched over while on the path. The others were wounded, but not badly. Not enough to keep them from the journey to the Basin. His good friend Coco, the young brave Rennie, and sweet, beautiful Malin would follow only in their memories and dreams.
But there was another he had yet to acknowledge.
Parker walked slowly to the fourth mound and placed his hand over his heart. The Tribe nodded their approval of this gesture. It was the first time that such a thing had been done. Within this grave lay the dead metallic-fiber body of the Usher they had awoken in the ancient theater; the Machine that had captured the Smart Soldier in its grasp and carried it out of the battle, only to be destroyed by the act. With its heroism, the Usher had turned the tide of the battle and effectively saved the Tribe. It had been decided that the Machine should be honored in a manner befitting such a sacrifice.
Now the last of the Tribe looked on Parker, expectantly. He returned their gaze. Could he still lead them? They would follow, he was sure, but was he up to the task? He straightened his back, straining to ascend to his full height, and addressed them as forcefully as he could.
"We cannot make their lives meaningless by allowing ourselves to fall into the Shadows," he said. His voice was weak. His side burned with every word. But he continued. "We cannot stay in this place. It is a trap. It will make us feel comfortable and warm and then one day we will find that there is no more food and the snows have just grown deeper and deeper, until we are be stuck here to die.
"We will take what remains of the food supply and go to the Basin. There we will let the Machine woman play on her box and we will take food and coin in exchange for listening to her, until we can make a claim to land of our own."
Emre' stepped forward but Parker raised his hand. "Let me finish," he said without addressing the man directly. He knew he would have to handle this situation, eventually.
"Nayar will come with us," he said, his eyes scanning the group for protest. "We will not leave him here to starve. He has been a friend to us and…" Parker coughed then, and pain exploded in his side. Tears filled his eyes as he fought to maintain his composure.
"But he flew from the attack!" Emre' objected angrily, stepping before the group to press his point. "He hid like a child in the walls of the building. He has no salutation to display but that of a coward! Even the boy has shown more courage!"
There were grumbles of agreement from the rest. Ish said nothing, but she did not like the fact that Emre' had chosen Parker's moment of weakness to challenge his pronouncement. She kept her tongue, but watched, carefully, the conflict between Parker and the young man who would eventually make a bid for leadership.
Parker did not address Emre's objection. He forced his pain back and stood tall. His voice was clear and final on the subject.
"We will not leave him here to die! We are taking the food that he would use to stay alive and we will not act like the raiders that killed our beloved!" He locked Emre's gaze as he spoke these words. There was visible tension between them, but after a moment the younger man looked away, his eyes scanning the snowy ground. Parker's eyes roamed over their faces, asserting his will with the sheer strength of his gaze.
"I don't say it's OK, what the old man did," he said finally. "But he is not one of us. He is not bound by the rule of the Tribe." Then he fixed Emre's eyes once more. "And the Basin is a far country. I am sure there will be challenges along the way. The old man might prove himself yet."
Grumbling broke out among them. They were not exactly happy with this pronouncement. But Parker had proven himself heroic in battle. He had taken a great chance by engaging the killer Machine, a gamble that could have easily cost his life. And, once again, he had survived. Even in his diminished condition he stood tall and fearless.
"We will leave as the sun rises, in the passing of five days, " Parker commanded. "Let us take this time to heal and prepare." Then he moved from the graves and made his way slowly back towards the building.
Emre' stood his ground, watching the wounded man pass by. Ish waited to see what the younger man would do, concerned that he would take advantage of Parker's weakness to make his bid. If he did, and was successful, she would not respect his office. None of them would.
But Emre' simply followed the rest of the mourning Tribe into the building, where they'd enjoy the last warmth they would feel for a long time.
Ish sighed, relieved. The challenge was put off for now, but she knew their final confrontation was on the way. Hopefully it would wait until they got to the Basin. As much as she fought the idea, if Emre' made his bid on the road, and it was a fair challenge, she wasn't sure what side she would take.
It was all getting very complicated.
Nayar watched the burial ceremony from the sanctuary of one of the back rooms. The young angry one, Emre', had tried to kill him, or at least that is how he had interpreted the man's aggressive behavior, his shouting and pushing. If it had not been for the older men, Mak and Tomas, it might have gotten worse.
The men had calmed Emre' and led him away. But Nayar had no illusions about their feelings toward him. They had protected him from Emre's attack, but they would not speak to him after. Nor would they accept his help in tended to the wounded.
In his forgiving innocence, Daniel was the only one among them who seemed concerned. He asked the old man if he was all right, and tried to console him after Emre's angry assault. But Ish had quietly bid Daniel away, sending the boy on some poorly defined errand.
"Shit on it all!" Nayar swore and stood away from the window. It wasn't fair. He was just trying to stay alive out here. He didn't need to fight someone else's battles! But even as this thought crossed his mind, he imagined what might have happened if the Tribe had not been here when Raiders had come. The pirates would have had no reason to tolerate an old man, when everything they needed was free for the taking.
"I didn't ask for this!" he yelled into the still air of the room, trying again to quash the shame that was blooming inside. Immediately, the ghost voices came back to him; scared and angry, raised thinly over the howling of a furious storm that raged in a pit of dark memories.
"No!" he yelled, cupping his ears against the screams from his past. "It wasn't my fault! I didn't ask for this!" In time the memories dissipated and he was left alone and grey, a lonely old man feeling the weight of his failures pressing down on his heart.
He cried then, feeling shame for the self-pity he could not escape; guilt for his cowardly actions of the night before, and those from a time past, when he might have actually made a difference.
"I ain't like that anymore" he said. But he knew it was a lie. He was 'like that' then, and he was still, and there was perhaps nothing that would change it.
Outside, the Tribe was finishing their ceremony and heading back towards the building. Nayar watched their approach through tear-streaked vision. They knew, too. They knew he was a coward and that, should they put their faith in him, he would let them down.
It had happened before.
Stinging from the wounds of an old regret, the weary old man moved across the room and locked the door. Then he curled into a ball and cried himself to sleep.
The days passed quickly as the Tribe prepared to complete their journey to The Basin. They had to find creative methods to handle their new burden. The women struggled with ways to pack and carry containers of food while the men mulled over a method to get Doll's piano over miles of rock and ice without killing themselves.
A couple of times during the day, Daniel had been frustrated in his attempts to keep Doll away from the device as the men puzzled over the problem of transporting it. There was a new nervousness in the Machine. She fidgeted visibly and increasingly disobeyed the boy when he told to her to wait until the men were finished before she could play.
New thoughts were taking shape in Doll's head, pushing her to higher levels of defiance. She could not be without her music, any longer. It had been too short a time that she had been rescued from the silence, only to be cast once more into that dismal realm.
When the boy came to her, to pull her away from her playing, something red and sizzling erupted in her head, and she ignored him until the men came and lifted her away. She smiled, as always, and accepted this discipline, for she knew no other way. But her new mind, the one that was growing into unfamiliar and uncomfortable dimensions, was no longer content to let others decide her course through the world.
Emre' suggested taking the piano apart, carrying it in sections and then putting it together when they got to the basin. But one look at the complexity of its design made them forget that plan.
Mak thought they could fit it into one of the big wheels they had seen on the large dead machines at the outskirts of the city. Perhaps they could roll it that way, he suggested. The young men broke into laughter, but Tomas took the time to explain that it would still be as heavy, and if the thing rolled away from them there would be no way to stop it.
Otter thought they could build a sled and push the thing, but realized quickly how silly an idea that was. He fell into a squat, cupping his head in his hands. It was a position he adopted often since the loss of his love.
But Bosche was not so quick to dismiss Otter's idea. He rose from where he had been watching and walked around the piano, pinching his chin as he considered something. "We could build a harness," he said, after a moment of pondering. "We could have all the men pull it at once."
The others applauded the idea. Mak stepped up to land a congratulatory slap on the young man's back. Bosche' smiled in response, but grimaced in pain when Mak turned away.
"We'll need to build a sled," Otter said, his spirits renewed.
"A damned big one!" Emre' agreed.
"I know where there might be somethin' you can use."
They all turned to see Nayar standing at the edge of the shadows in the hall. His eyes darted nervously between the men of the Tribe.
Emre bristled at the sight of the hermit. "What are you doing here, old man?" he spat. "Why don't you practice your disappearing trick again? " Otter and Bosche' muttered angry agreements. But the older men had learned that patience was often the best way.
"Wait!" Tomas protested diplomatically, waving his arms for peace. "It won't hurt to listen, Emre'. Maybe he does know something we can use."
The young man scowled, but after a tense moment, crossed his arms and glared at Nayar impatiently. "What is it?" he asked, "What do you know?"
Nayar stepped forward hesitantly, his hands out to plea for patience. "Well, you know that ol' theater place? Well… that usher thing talked about a 'loading dock', didn't he?"
Emre' raised his chin, his eyes leveled suspiciously on the hermit. Then his expression relaxed. "Ok. What's that?" he asked.
They hadn't been in the old theater since wresting the piano from its depths. Now Emre', Mak and Tomas entered the place again, cautiously winding through the hallway and over the dance floor. The Usher was gone for good and they did not know what dangers might still lurk in the belly of the place.
They worked their way carefully beyond the wreckage of what had once been the stage, and into the darkness near the backdoors from where the Usher had emerged when they'd first met it. Like in the old museum, where they had found the boy and his Machine, there were piles of incomprehensible devices lying all about. They rummaged through this debris, hoping find something useful, but they could make no sense of most of it.
Emre' found a series of levers that he though might have triggered the device that changed the floor design, but the others pushed him away before he could test his theory. None of them wanted to experience that again.
They approached a pitch-dark area near the back of the building. Slivers of light broke through the corners of large metallic doors that that were blocked from the outside. It was here that they found something that they could indeed use.
"Damn to the old bastard," Emre' swore, scratching his head at the find. "Why didn't he think of this before?"
Mak glanced at Tomas and shook his head. Tomas shrugged back. Neither pointed out that Parker would have simply been grateful.
"It's a sled," Emre' explained to the Tribesmen who gathered outside the building to see what had been found. "Well, it's not really a sled but it'll act like one, and… " he reached onto the large lever that protruded like a tongue from the front of the thing, and flicked a switch. The large, flat metal surface of the sled began to hum. "It's got a motor, and batteries that still work," he said.
The others studied the sled and noticed that it hovered a few inches above the ground.
"How does it work?" came a gruff voice.
They all turned to see Parker leaning against the wall of the building, his eyebrows raised as he gazed on the device.
Emre' shrugged. "It sits on the air. I don't know how. You can carry things on it. I pulled Mak and Tomas all the way over here." The two men nodded to acknowledge this. "But it fails over bumps. We will have to stick to the old roads. The shortcuts will be no good to us."
Parker grunted in satisfaction. The roads might take a bit longer, but they would eventually lead the tribe to their destination. "And how long will the battery last?" he queried.
Emre' pursed his lips. "It's a sun battery," he said, "But it's old and probably won't last forever. Either way, we don't really have any choice, do we? Not if you insist on taking the music box."
Parker wasn't in the mood to volley. He conceded this point by not responding. He scrutinized the floating device. "Ok," he said nodding, "Good thinking."
A thin shape was standing in the doorway to the building. Emre' nodded his head in the man's direction. "It was his idea," he admitted quickly, before turning to pull the humming lift into the lobby.
Parker turned to see Nayar. "Good thinking, Nayar," he said, and made his way back into the lobby to lie down. The old man smiled a weak acknowledgement and stepped out of Emre's path.
During the remaining days, Nayar tried to assist as the piano was being wrapped in blankets and furs and secured onto the improvised sled. But the men shrugged off his help. He tried again, as the last tanks of synthetics were emptied and their contents bagged, to be pulled on the sled with the piano. But the women eyed him coolly and gestured for him to go away.
Mak and Tomas had at least acknowledged his attempts with an appreciative wink. But it was only Daniel who seemed receptive to his presence. When Nayar had attempted to talk to him, however, Ish had intervened.
So Nayar sat on the periphery, taking refuge in his doubt and self-pity. Parker was making his rounds. He was still weak from his wound, but his chin was held high and his eyes analyzed everything. When he saw Nayar pouting against the wall, he walked to the man and plopped down heavily beside him.
"You've got your things ready?" he asked.
The hermit shrugged. "I can't go if it's gonna be this way," he said after a moment. "They hate me, and… and I don't blame 'em."
"You can't stay here, Nayar," Parker said. "You will die."
The old hermit looked up through overgrown grey brows and sighed. "I'm gonna die soon enough anyway, and maybe that's not so bad a thing… maybe I been livin' way past my due."
Parker would have none of this talk. He slapped his hand against the hermit's leg. "Stop crying and hold your face up, old man. To have survived this long, alone, is a feat to be proud of. But, you are going to have to leave with us. This place is dead. In the Basin we will find warmth and we can hunt again. There will be real food, fresh off the bone!" He shot a conspiratorial wink at the man. "There may even be a woman for you," he said
But Parker's attempt was futile. Nayar just looked away.
Parker reconsidered his approach. He leaned close to the hermit and spoke softly. "I know how they feel about you. Yes. But I know how you feel, too. You have shame because you were afraid, and maybe there are other things in your heart that you are too shamed to speak.
"But I don't see it their way, Nayar. You are not a hunter. You are not a fighter. We are. You have no use of weapons. We do. I don't know how you came to this place, and it is not really my concern. But I can tell that you did not roam as us.
"We will show you how to survive in the world. If the boy can learn to roam, than so can an old bear like yourself." Parker stood, clutching at his side to contain the pain in his ribs, "Now, pack what you need, and only what you need. Get some rest. Tomorrow we are gone from this place."
The next morning arrived in a drizzle of wet snow. It stopped when the light of the sun broke through the clouds and turned the worried expressions of the tribe into smiles. It was quickly turning into a good day for traveling.
The morning was still young when they set off from the dead city, making their way between the silent looming towers, down the ice-encrusted roadways where, centuries before, vehicles had rolled quickly over the pavement. Now the rugged descendants of that lost civilization made slow progress with their special cargo in tow.
Otter and Mak were the first in line to pull the sled. Though they occasionally needed help pulling it over huge clumps of debris, or up steep inclines, it turned out to be easier than they had thought. As the journey progressed, this duty would be passed along until all had shared the responsibility.
Silent as always, Doll walked between Ish and Rosa, the last women of the Tribe. They had wrapped her in thick furs, and gloves to protect her irreplaceable hands. Her eyes glanced repeatedly at the heavily wrapped piano on the hovering sled, while Ish and Rosa kept their eyes on her.
Daniel walked on the outside of the group, with the men. Parker said that he was expected to act as one of them now. His arm was healing quickly. The bleeding had stopped long ago, and only a dull throb remained of the pain he had felt.
Nayar walked with Parker, near the front of the procession. Parker had insisted on this arrangement, for he was afraid the hermit would fall behind and get lost in the snow. Perhaps, intentionally. But Nayar wanted to stay close to the Chief, anyway. If anything happened to Parker, he felt sure the rest of the Tribe would abandon him to the frozen wastes. In spite of what Parker assumed, he did not want to die out here.
As the sun reached its zenith, they came to the place where the large buildings began to diminish. They paused to take in the site of the grey towers one last time before they made their way into the mountain roads.
"Look!" Daniel said, pointing to a dark shape lain in the snow at the edge of the roadway ahead. They followed the boy's gesture and saw a man lying on his back. The men took their weapons in hand and approached the still form.
"It's him," Emre' said, as he gazed on the dead man. "It's the one who turned on their Chief." The others came to look down on Paul's body. His thick beard was matted with ice; the snow was black where the blood from the wound Emre' had inflicted, had puddled and dried. His frozen eyes peered up at the nomads, unseeing
"He must have tried to make it to the Basin alone," Mak suggested.
"I don't think he was going anywhere," Ish said, recalling the vacant look on the man's face. "There are plenty of places to take shelter from the cold, if he had wanted to." They all understood. The man must have desired the Shadows.
"They'll be no problem to us again," Parker said, interrupting the spectacle. "Let us go now."
Emre' stood a moment longer as the others began to make their way up the slow incline of the road. What was it the man had said when he had dropped his weapon; that he was more an ass than their leader… more of an ass because he followed?
Emre' turned to look back on the city they were leaving behind. How did Parker know they wouldn't find something to sustain them in one of those silent buildings? There were so many they hadn't tried.
But it was too late now. He turned, finally, and caught up with the Tribe. Quietly, the grim travelers made their way over the frozen road, towards an unpredictable future.