The Porcelain Doll
The winds rose and fell during the night. Within its unrelenting cry, the Tribe thought they heard desperate voices calling for help. It was only the wind, they assured themselves, but the sounds were no less haunting.
Ish was huddled in a tent with Rosa and Daniel, cupping her ears against the ghost voices. But she could not hide from the images in her memory. Rosa did her best to comfort the woman, but her own heart was broken and she eventually withdrew into herself, hugging her legs and rocking back and forth like a child.
Daniel had never seen the women like this. He could not stand to watch. Silently he slipped from their tent and into the heavy canvass with the men. They looked up as he entered, their faces grim and pondering. The change of command was official. But there was tension between the younger and older men. They sat together in silence, eyes cast down at a small flame.
Emre' shot a dark look at Daniel, as if he was about to object to the boy's presence. But he finally waved his hand, permitting the boy to sit. Daniel snuggled in between Mak and Parker. The men parted, to make room for him. But neither spoke.
The dark mood troubled Daniel, but he was encouraged to see Nayar sitting with the others. The old man's face was as drawn and as pensive as the rest. But when he looked at Daniel, a strange expression broke on his features. It was a look that that Daniel could not read but, as the man's gaze lingered, it seemed to the boy that there was a new light in the old eyes. Daniel smiled back at his friend. Nayar winked, and turned to eye the brooding men around him.
"You know, I never had any folks like you," he said, breaking the silence. The Tribesmen fixed their eyes on the old man. "I was always on the outside," he continued, fixing each one of their gazes for a moment. "You folks got a good thing here. You got family, and…" he looked hard at Parker, "That's something worth fighting for, even when it feels like the wrong thing to do." Parker said nothing, but something warm crossed his face.
Nayar looked at Emre' then, his face twisted and his eyes brimming with aged regret. "You was right about me, young man. I been running from something… running for a long time." His voice hitched in the depth of an emotion. "I let some people down a long time ago. That is to say, I let 'em … die."
No one said anything. They waited until Nayar was ready to continue. After a dark introspection, the old man spoke.
"I came up to the towers when I was just a young man. I had been living with my folks in some old ruins in the hills. But I hooked up with some roamers headed west. Said there was good salvaging on the coast. My people was on the verge, anyway. Getting old. Nothing was growing anymore. So I tagged along, thinking these folks might be on to some treasure.
"We roamed for a year or so, hunting, hooking up with different folk. But we never quite made it to the coast. Then we found this place, and the old hoarders stash, and figured to hang out a spell. There was only about 5 of us left. The others had already went their own way. Never seen 'em since." He dropped his head.
"Well, one day we was diggin' around in one of the old towers, thinking we might find something we could use. That's when the floor fell through. Everybody went … 'cept me. I was…" He stopped again and wiped a tear from his face.
"You don't have to tell this," Parker said.
"Yes I do," Nayar countered quickly. "I was outside when it happened. The floor gave and they all got buried under wood and steel. There was old machines too, fell on top of 'em. I could hear their screams. … I could hear 'em calling out to me.
"But I was afraid to get near the place. So I ran." The men gazed on him through hard, unsympathetic eyes. But Nayar did not flinch from their judgments. His gaze was distant as he continued.
"I used to see this... thing. It was like a cloud or a mist, would come around and hang over my building whenever I took sick. Wasn't quite sure what it was, or if it was even there, but I called it Dark Horse. I figured it was death coming to take me for that last ride. But for some reason, it never did." He looked at the silent accusing eyes, as if asking for an explanation.
"I can still hear them screamin'," he said. "Every night when I lay my head down, I hear 'em. I know I deserve those nightmares, even if they last for the rest of my life.
"But you folks gave me another chance when I really didn't really deserve none."
He looked directly at Emre', locking his eyes. "I can never undo what's done, but I tell you now, I'll never let you folks down, never again." He smiled then, as the weight of his guilt was lifted by the confession. "And when that ol' Dark Horse finally comes for me, I will ride with no regrets, grateful to have spent my last days in the company of people so decent and strong as you all."
The strength of Nayar's emotion was contagious, and Emre's hard expression broke. The men looked around self-consciously, unsure which of them might be deserving of such compliments. But they all eventually nodded to accept the old man's words.
"And I am gonna get me a woman, too! Because it has been too damned long since I had me some lovin'!" Nayar slapped his knee and donned a broken toothed smile that made the older men laugh. "And I am gonna find me a nice little place where I can relax and get away from all these noisy young-un's with their damned stories!" he said, and reached across to ruffle Daniel's hair. The boy feigned insult and pushed Nayar's hand away. All of the men laughed. Even Emre' let a snicker pass his lips.
Mak's face brightened. "And I will hunt some real food for a change!" he said.
"And I am going for a swim!" Otter added, laughing, "Do you remember the last time you went for a swim?"
"And we'll be able to plant crops," Parker said, his face full of fond memories. "Grow food and herbs."
Soon they were all fighting to tell their plans for the future. One by one they fantasized aloud about the life that lay ahead. Their spirits grew stronger, their voices louder as their plans unfolded. Quickly they began to sound like all those nights along the trail so long ago.
Daniel slipped out of the tent while the men were loudly debating whose story would be next. None of them noticed him leaving. He was back in moments, and he was not alone.
The men stopped talking as the women entered the tent with the boy. The women's tears had dried and the warmth of their smiles was something the men hadn't seen for a long time. Ish and Rosa slipped in among their men and the Tribe sat together, sharing improbable tales of yesterday and dreams of things yet to come.
The cries on the night air were something out of their control. They were soon forgotten as the Roamers fell into sleep, huddled together against the cold darkness of the world outside.
The dawn broke. The Tribe rose to the sound of a restless young leader barking commands. They packed the tents and furs, harnessed the sled to the stronger men, and were quickly moving up into the pass that led through the mountains. They had a long way to go and their resources had been plundered. It would take all their efforts to get the piano up the hill and down the other side in good time.
It was midday when the sun finally broke through the clouds, warming the world and lighting the path ahead. They had finally come to the point in the hills where the road began to decline. The men grunted as they tugged with Doll's piano, grateful that they would soon be traveling downhill. As their descent became more pronounced, their spirits lifted and Parker started singing again. The others joined in, and the cheerful tune bounced off the hills around them.
Ish grew excited at the sight of a parting in the rocks ahead. She was sure that she knew this spot. The Basin was just over the hill she assured the rest. It was only be a single days' travel, and it would be over warmer lands, lands where game and other people roamed. Lands where they could sleep on the earth, with grass under their heads and blue skies overhead.
"Look!" Daniel cried. They all stopped and followed the boy's excited gesture. Before them, in the space between two shelves of rock, they could see into the valley beyond. The nomads dropped their packs, un-harnessed themselves from the piano, and ran laughing to the point in the road where the distant land was visible.
They gazed out over the grand vista before them, silently, not understanding at first what they saw. Lights danced across the length of the valley, a shimmering rainbow of colors that moved over the ground and off into the horizon.
It was the Basin.
Ish moaned and averted her eyes. Parker dropped to his knees. The others wobbled on weary legs, or plopped onto the snow-covered ground, moaning. Emre's face twisted into a grimace as the fire inside him was renewed.
Where there should have been a horizon of greens and browns, where the snows should have relented and allowed the life-giving earth to bare her face from beneath its icy mask, lay a sheet of featureless white for as far as the eye could see. The ice reflected back the sunlight, creating a shimmering dance of light over its surface.
The Basin was dead.
Ish could not look again. 'Let it be wrong!' her heart begged, 'Let it be a trick of light!' But after a time, she did look, and then closed her eyes against the sight. She reached forward to embrace Daniel, but he loosed himself from her grasp and walked to the lip of the road, gazing out over the spectacle of light and ice.
"It's beautiful," he said, reverently. The dancing light was something he had never seen. He stood in awe of the sight while the quiet Tribesmen gazed at their feet or wept openly into their hands.
Nayar came to Daniel's side and wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulder. "Yeah," he said with a forced chuckle, "What a sight, eh?" The boy smiled up at his weary friend.
"I never knew there was such a place in the world," he said. "Uncle never told me. He never said anything…" the boy trailed off as he gazed on the beauty of the frozen plains. "So many places," he whispered. He had never known.
Emre's anger burned in his veins and his face contorted with uncontrollable tears of rage. "Why!" he yelled, brandishing his machete' and moving towards Parker.
Parker saw the blade in the young Chief's hand, but he was beyond fighting now. He did not move to defend himself and the distraught Tribe did not move to intervene. Nayar pulled Daniel away; shielding the boy's eyes against what he knew was coming.
Ish rose as Emre' raised his blade for the strike, but she knew she could not reach him in time.
Parker closed his eyes and prepared himself, knowing that it was his pride that had killed them all. This was justice. But the strike did not come. He opened his eyes to see the young man standing before him, his face washed in tears, his body trembling uncontrollably.
"I want to live!" Emre' screamed, though his tears. "It was my time! My time!" he cried, as his rage gave way to other emotions.
Parker's tears fell too, and he leaned forward to embrace Emre', the young Chief who had no place left to lead his people. He hugged Emre' like he was the son whom he'd lain in the ice years ago; the son that Ish had born him, and who had died as all the children of the Tribe had, when the seasons went insane.
"I'm sorry," was all he could say. After a moment the young man returned the embrace and they stood that way while the others looked on.
Bosche' and Otter said nothing. Their faces held no expression, as if they did not understand the meaning of the dead valley beyond. But they did. They waited for their Chief's command. After their moment was over, Emre' and Parker unlocked and the two eyed each other quietly.
"I know you did what you thought was right," Emre' said, wiping tears away. Then he turned to the young men and motioned for them to stand by him. They did so without hesitation. He glanced at the women, and Rosa understood. She turned to Ish and the two held each other tightly, sharing a last embrace. Then Rosa stood, quietly, and walked to where Daniel was standing with Nayar. She knelt before the boy and kissed him firmly on his cheek.
When she had said goodbye to Daniel she gazed into Nayar's face. After a moment's indecision, she planted a peck on his wrinkled forehead and walked to where Parker stood. He wrapped her in his huge arms and they stood that way for some time before Rosa freed herself and went to stand at her Chief's side. There was a final knowing exchange of looks. Then, as a group, the young people continued down the road. The rest were silent, watching as their shapes shrank into small points in the distance.
Time passed in silence. The wind kicked up and fell again. Eventually Tomas rose from the place he had been kneeling in the road. His face was expressionless and he said nothing as he took his bag and hoisted it onto his back. He stood before Parker, saying nothing for minutes. Their feelings passed between them in a language that needed no sound to be expressed. Then he turned and hugged the others tightly, gripping each for a long moment. When he had said his goodbyes, he began walking down the road after the young people. Mak stood quickly and embraced his friends before turning to cast a strange long look on Daniel. He placed his hand on the boy's innocent face, just for a moment, and then ran to catch Tomas.
Neither had taken any food.
There was no need.
Daniel didn't understand the silence. "Where are they going?" he asked as the two old warriors disappeared into the growing dusk. "What do we do now?" he asked when no one responded.
Ish came to him then, and hugged him tightly. Daniel felt her trembling as her warm lips pressed against his face. She gazed at him for a long moment. But no words escaped her mouth. She cast a warm look at Nayar and something passed between them that Daniel could not understand. Then Ish rose slowly, and went to sit on a snowy ledge with Parker. There they cuddled together silently.
By now the sky was growing dark. The air was still and the clouds had dispersed to allow a glimpse of the crystalline stars above. Daniel saw to Doll, as he had always done, and then stood by, feeling confused and helpless in the midst of the quiet adults around him.
"Why don't you sit over here with me, Daniel?" Nayar said. "It's getting a little chilly. Maybe you can warm me up with a tale or two about your Machine lady, eh?" the old man chuckled.
Daniel went and sat in Nayar's lap, wondering why they didn't break camp, or put the tents up to stay warm. The old man bundled the boy into his jacket and wrapped him tightly in his weary old arms. He suppressed a tear as he cradled the innocent against him.
"Tell me some more about her Daniel," he said, doing his best to keep the sorrow from his voice. He was tired. Very tired. "Tell me some stories about your Doll."
"Ok…" Daniel replied, his voice shaking in the growing cold.
And Daniel did tell his stories. He had plenty to share. He had heard them himself time and time again.
As he talked it grew very, very cold, and soon he was shivering so badly that he couldn't finish his tale. So he stopped talking and pressed tighter against the old man, who seemed to have gone to sleep. Daniel gazed up at the sparkling sky and wondered at the magnitude of the space above. After a time it started to grow warm and he began to feel comfortable.
Gradually he slipped into a warm dream of places he'd never been, or even known about.
The sun rose over the quiet earth. Doll watched its slow progress as she had done for longer than any human had ever known. She did not concern herself with the passage of time. It was a concern only for those whose lives were limited by its coarse regulations. But when Daniel did not come see to her, as was his routine, she stood and walked to the boy, who was still sleeping, bundled up snugly in the old man's lap.
"Time to wake," she said to Daniel.
He did not respond.
"Daniel," she beckoned.
But the boy just sat, his silent white face staring up, unseeing, at the featureless sky.
Across the road Ish and Parker sat quietly in each other's embrace. Doll stood unmoving for some time as she pondered the situation. The sun moved into the sky slowly, and she fed from its rays as she considered the strange behavior of the people around her.
Finally, she understood.
She was still for some time with this realization, not really knowing what must be done. Eventually she did the only thing that she knew.
She took the bindings off her treasure carefully, grateful that the weather was calm and falling ice, or rocks thrown by frenzied winds, would not damage it. When it was unwrapped, she sat at the keys and lifted her hands to play.
But she paused.
Something was missing, she realized, some element that she didn't, at first, understand. She sat for another indistinguishable length of time, and finally this realization came to her also.
There was no one left to play for.
And with this thought a new feeling filled her mind. Images came with that feeling. Faces. The happy faces of the singing tribe and the laughing eyes of the boy when he had been small; the weeping faces of the audiences who had been gathered in quiet rooms in the early years of her flight; the hateful, desperate faces of the man who had tried to force himself on her and the mad children that had caused her such pains; the distressed faces of Uncle and the young man who had fought with Parker; the solemn gray faces of the Tribe before they had quietly walked out of her life and into the shadows beyond.
And the soft, doll-like face of the sleeping boy, Daniel, who had loved her.
All these faces spoke of feelings that she had never been able to share, that had always remained outside her field of comprehension.
But there was always the sound.
She recalled the day when magic had been performed on her; when her creator had played the 12 tones of the scale of her awakening into sentience, and then cried openly as she performed with a new emotion. She remembered the day when she had been imprinted with a love for the very element of sound that drove her: the sound of the instrument itself.
Now she played with a new understanding of this sacred language. Slowly, the notes moved upon the frozen air. It was the piece that her creator had left for her to shape; the soft Sonata that the man's wife had loved. It was the piece that Doll had played then, as she did now, as a soft lament over a quiet grave.
The sound flowed from her heart, onto the keys, and over the face of the sleeping world…