Friday, January 16, 2009

The Settled Dust, Part Twenty-Three

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

No wheel may hold true when its hub is blasted away. The shattered ends of spokes grind together like white and visible shin bones, sundered parts where a whole thing once existed. The hub, unsupported, sags and wanders a moment before succumbing to the pull of the dust.

In this way, the fortress failed. Panic turned to anger, anger to distrust. Petty disputes and unspoken ambitions kindled aflame without the benefit of leadership. Soon, the shouting from the compound grew into a roaring, and what blood had been spared the previous night was spilled in the haze of afternoon. In the muddy aftermath of the deluge, the streets were scattered with dead warriors, badly planted crops doomed to never grow.

Haike peered down from the peak of the fortress roof as all hands turned against all others. Only now did he understand how deep their cut went, how utter their destruction of the warlord's realm had been. He would not forget this wisdom. In true works of carnage, the bloodletting did not cease with the initial act, but persisted, every wound festered, everyone nearby consumed in the agony of the deed.

He lay back, the uneven tiles below him, the cold dampness of his clothes hanging against his tortured skin, a pit of hunger and thirst blooming like wild roses at his midsection. One after another, he flexed his muscles, moved his joints, tested his energy. Weak, still in great discomfort, he was not dead, not doomed. He had allowed himself to be swept away on the currents of despair before. That would stop. Though he was bereft now, he would live somehow. Perhaps Mima, the scullery woman, was still within his reach. If not, he would go on alone.

On one rough, ill-layed course of stonework, Haike placed his hopes. His body had only just the reserves of energy to try such a decent, his fingers and feet still torn. As he climbed down the low corner of the fortress, blood seeped from beneath his blackened fingernails, and he could feel the last of the skin peel away from the inside of his feet. His jaw clenched so hard that his face peeled in a rictus of pain. The climb seemed to take an eternity, a whole lifetime of difficulty.

The foot that finally touched the ground was like an old man's foot, the slow trudge Haike was capable of, an old man's step. In a city with its heart cut away, no one cared to notice one dishevelled and bruised boy. They didn't look into the uncanny iron of his eyes, didn't examine the slow drip of blood from his tortured fingers.

All the solid things had become permeable, all surety turned to doubt. Perhaps some other group of thugs and warriors would take over where the warlord's men had been. Perhaps the place would be lawless and wild, falling prey to bandits and other hazards. Without the brutal core of hatred and steel, the city could simply fade, becoming a ruin.

Haike, barely able to supress a groan with each footfall, knew that he would not be here to witness what came next. None would know his hand in things. He stopped, holding himself up only by leaning a shoulder against a rough wall. An ox cart came by, splashing mud on him. He was all but invisible, and that...was good. Knowing his own story was enough.

Perhaps he had once hoped for wide-flung glory, but that was before wisdom had arrived. Glory is an obstacle, a difficulty to be avoided. Only the quick and unknown hand can write such terrible verses in the book of years. The full weight of what it meant to be of the Ghost Society now came to rest upon him, a dark bird with a great beak and silent wings.

"Close now. Not far," he told himself. A hurried merchant bumped into him and nearly knocked him down. Haike didn't feel confident that he could have pried himself from the earth. He walked on, ignoring the merchant's fevered spate of insults and rude gestures. He was frightened, and frightened dogs bark. Even out of the corner of his eye, Haike knew he wouldn't act.

Close now.

A whole town may die
curled around deepened wounds
all backbones broken

The awful courage
of the living, this burden
this road of cinders

I renounce glory
given instead the power
of silent doom
*****

Haike stood before the door, just breathing, trying not to think of anything. Had the crushing fatigue not hung on his neck like a ship's anchor, the worry would likely have been a greater, stronger thing. As it was, he sighed, pushing in.

Mima. She sat on the low sleeping mat, her head cradled on her chest. She blinked at him, shaking herself.

"You...you're..." She leapt to him, gathering him in her arms, lifting his feet clear of the floor. "You lived. You lived." She said this many times, as if she couldn't believe it.

Mima sat him down in the single chair, kneeling at his side. She took stock of his condition, cataloging all his hurts and gently squeezing his limbs to search for those she couldn't see. For a moment, this brought a pang of rembrance for his own mother, long since slain and gone to the Coriyat.

"Do I dare ask you what you did up there, how you contrived to escape, what horrors you've seen?"

He shook his head. Her dark eyes couldn't hold his gaze. "If only my mistress could have lived," he mused.

"Oh, but...she did!"

"She..." Haike tried to rise, but once seated, his legs wouldn't hold him. He nearly toppled to the uneven floor.

Mima caught him, helping him back down. "She's resting in the next room, hurt but alive. She found me, and I brought her here."

"I have to go to her." Haike's small chin grew obdurate, his pale eyes flashing out of his exhausted, filthy brow.

"You have to get out of these muddy clothes, get a hot bath and a meal in your stomach. There are hurts that need binding. Let me help you, Haike. Your mistress is resting. If the sun falls a bit further toward the horizon, it will make no difference."

A knot within his chest that he hadn't been aware of suddenly loosened, the last strength of his limbs ebbing away. The room pinwheeled around him, and Haike could only sit very still, holding tight to the chair. For a time, he was only dimly aware of his surroundings, only half alive.

From within a world of shadows, he could hardly feel his body move. Mima coaxed his ruined clothes from him, scrubbed the worst of the soot from his body, helped him eat a small dish of cold gruel.

"I...want to be with...my mistress," he whispered.

Witness my return
delivered out of Hades
torn but unbroken

Debts I paid in blood
hopes once renounced now kindle
a light in the dim
*****

Valila floated in the deep, cold water, and there was no direction upward, no surface to swim toward. Something held her, something made of many slim arms, some great, warm mouth against her back, and she felt herself go limp, pulled ever further from the light. She let her air go, and drowning was a comfort. In death, the mouth of the leviathan felt like a warm body, embracing her gently. Its breath touched her neck, and the unanswerable questions were revealed to her. Through the darkness, the cargo of her soul rode into the Coriyat in the teeth of the great dragon.

She didn't know what to make of this knowledge. It changed nothing. Perhaps there were no answers that would act as panacea to the woe of the living world, only going into the tornado of souls and becoming nothing. In the end, realizing that there was no great wisdom to be learned--that lesson was all she had really taken away from her life.

But why did she feel warm? Why did relief come like a clean wind from off a mountain lake, seeping into her as if she were a wide leaf with raindrops still lingering from the morning rain? Why, alone with the leviathan and hurtling across the unknown void between flesh and spirit, did she feel as if he was with her again?

Her eyes opened, and she returned from the deeps, from death, from the in-between numbness of dreams. A real hand against her hip, a real body against her back, a real face tucked against her neck and breathing steadily in slumber.

He lived. She lived. They were together after all, and against all reason. Those tears she had long scorned returned again, this time in joy.

In the dragon's teeth
I go to become nothing
having never learned

I am born once more
the daylight world returning
at his small hand's touch

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

WoW! This is good. The poetry is very strong:

"The awful courage
of the living, this burden
this road of cinders"

This has been quite a resolution. Does the story end or continue on?

Swiftboat

Anonymous said...

ANOTHER GREAT INSTALLMENT WITH HAIKE AND VALILA BOTH STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE LONG ENOUGH TO BE TOGETHER AGAIN. SHOWS WHAT A STRONG BOND THEY HAVE FOR EACH OTHER.

SANDY

Anonymous said...

WHEW!! That'was powerful! They've quite an ally in Mima. Now..Recovery..Rehabilitation, perhaps a long vacation.
Bobby-T

Anonymous said...

Very moving. You've given these characters such dignity. With this kind of writing, I'll follow you anywhere. M

Patrick M. Tracy said...

Swiftboat,

Glad you liked it. I think the story could stand with this as the end, but I'm compelled to write one last segment, which is now up and ready to read. It's better to have a falling action segment and not need it than the reverse. I can always omit part 24 in the final version of the manuscript, if it doesn't prove necessary.

Sandy,

Glad you've been able to keep up with the story. I hope that this segment and the last one (part 24) will wrap up the story in a satisfying way.

Bobby,

Long vacation, indeed. There's healing to be done.

M,

Thanks. Blushing!

Hope you folks have enjoyed The Settled Dust. It's taken far longer than I ever thought, and gone places I never imagined it would. From the first humble thoughts of having it be three or four parts to having it reach nearly book-like proportions, I thank you for your patience when it sometimes took me a long time to post the next installment.

Part 24, which is the next post, will be "it" for this project insofar as Hawk Circle goes. I will keep you in the loop if anything happens to the manuscript it's about to become, however.

Peace,

Patrick