A steep pyramid in darkness and mist, seen from below.

Marks (Part 2)

by

To Marks (Part 1)

To Out (Part 1) — the first story in this series.

To Kiss (Part 1) — the second story in this series.

She was very humble to me in the days and weeks after that, but there could be no doubt how things had changed.

She had been, for a long time, a memory of my youth; then a vision I pursued; then the last piece of life that I might hope to grasp before the machineries of honor and duty delivered me to the Land. And then, giving herself, a loving friend, a wife who came to me like two drops of water coming together, full of joy and pleasure. And then, easily, naturally, she had become something of a baby to my adult. Playing, I realise now, and building a house inside the circle of my arms, and preparing for the next stage of her life, which would be motherhood.

Then suddenly all smashed and gone, taken.

Now, returned to me.

But different. Now she was greater than me, when we had been equals or she slightly the inferior. And since in fact she is neither a memory nor a vision nor a dream nor a prize nor a baby-child, but simply herself, she is by absolute nature my equal, and it is only her body that is smaller and weaker. I still do not know if the violence that I offered her was out of fear that she might be going mad again, or, as I sometimes wonder, simple resentment at being supplanted, for this turn, for this part of our time together. But if that is so, then on the deepest, most childish, most shameful and truest level of our being, we have Fought. We have Fought, she has won. So there is peace between us.


Now, more women started to visit in the afternoons, after I got back from wrestling with the power lines or trying to reweave the slip-net. Mostly young single women, with chaperones in attendance. I strove not to shame them, and to let them know by my manner that this was something permitted and proper, however unusual. And often older women came, married women and older single women who looked very awkward and very embarrassed like our first guest. Old or young, many of them were quite pretty, despite my angry assertion. I don't know but that beauty is as much a burden as a blessing to women.

A ritual developed: we would greet them and put them at ease, just being, I saw, a loving couple, married, happy, at one. That was what Cahaire needed to show them. And when they had seen us and our mutual being, there would be time for me to retire. And then, she told me freely, she would talk to them formally for a while, and then embrace them, and talk for a while longer, gently whispering into their ears and listening, and talking and listening, and holding them, and nearly always they would start to weep. She would talk yet a little while longer and always, always, kiss them on the lips. Then they would leave, very changed. Sometimes they came back once or twice, but never a third time.

After a while, the women started to bring gifts.


"I remember yesterday, seeing a woman. Down by the bakeries, where—"

"Yes."

"She was about three months. Just showing. And it had just commenced to cry. You could hier it, if you were close. She must have gotten caught."

"Not very polite."

"No. And everyone was saying, as you will imagine, 'Bad girl, improper.'"

"So they should. Bad, bad, bad girl."

"And they all desired to kiss her and hug her, you could see. She was proud."

"She should have been at her home, safe, before it started."

"Oh, but it was sweet, Bann." She pursed her mouth, smiling. "'I, I, I, I.' Not the proper Word, but it was there. The little one, in the dark."

"Yes. Well, she will be passed with no trouble."

"And her husband came, and took her home."

"Yes. Now, you come over here."

She sat in my lap, carefully folding herself because of the hurt places, and she put my hand on her soft belly. "But not yet, Bann. We will have our first next year. When all this is complete."

"After what? What is needed now? Why should we wait for anything at all, Cahaire?"

"Next year." Deep, deep, in my arms, cradled there like a baby herself.

"Very well. Next year."


She was not the only one, it seemed. From time to time she went to visit the others, herself veiled and dressed in white-silver-grey, as She had been, and gently and shyly requiring me to escort her. I walked in her train, my empty hands unconsciously shaping to hold the diskos, but people's eyes followed her only, and I felt proud of my wife but rather neglected. There was a woman over in the fourth secant, a mother of three, older than us and very wealthy but really not at all special in any other way, whom we visited frequently. When we went there there were always several of them meeting at once, and they banished us men to other rooms and put their heads together for hours while we sat and tried to puzzle it all out. I compared notes with this woman's husband, a nice fellow but a bit of a fop, and found he had a story as strange as mine, telling us of data flows on the slipnet and the emergent structures that had formed in there at the height of the Scream. He was of the opinion that these changes would take about a year to settle down to a new stability: and he had reasons that seemed convincing in his mouth but dissolve when I try to lay hold on them again now. So much to know.

There were at least two others we met frequently, folk very cheerful but much poorer than us, who sometimes came to our house alone and took our hospitality. Cahaire was a sort of subChief to these two girls, smiling girls but utterly tongue-tied in my presence. I got on better with their menfolk by the simple process of forgetting rank and drinking them under the table (or getting y-drunken there, as the dice fell) but I learned very little from them either.

In summary, Cahaire was one of a handful of women in this City, of a few thousand throughout the whole Redoubt, who had been deeply changed. But how organised, how threaded, I never will know.

All of the other women had marks, like Cahaire's, now healing. All of them had been taken. All had been rescued, by one means or another. All had been Kissed.


Work became easier. The frantic struggle against cascading breakdown that had marked our earlier efforts was past: we could get power everywhere, and with power came the ability to drain the flooded conduits and clean the clogged tracheae and channel more power, bringing light and the whirr of pumps and drills and more power, and so on in a cycle of improvement that was only limited by our working numbers. A lot of what we were doing was shifting the unsalvageable debris from here to there and from there to elsewhere until there could at last be time to recycle them. To tidy the house, and clean. But we had help, and a plan, and a target, and the places which would not be sorted out for years were at least sealed off until we could turn to them.

Now I rarely worked with the children. That had become quite painful for me, through some mismanagement. But Sseun had quietly shifted me to other areas, reprogramming, network balancing, emergent analysis and the heavier and more vital efforts of the belayers, where sheer strength counted. Every adult worked there at least one day in four, booted and gloved. I humped and shifted rubble and got spilled shit on my feet, but I was also learning, every day. Now I could see the shape of our local Spaces and how they had been damaged, and how they should be corrected. I saw the interpenetrating nets in my head, green sinuosities for water, angular white lines for the Earth-current, fat blue tubes of ventilation, yellow of sewerage, and the occasional red of the heat pipes. That they should be warped, clogged, crushed, became an itch, a cramping, intolerable to my sense. I dreampt the nets at night, tracing them again and again, rebuilding another city, repairing and healing it, inside my head.


"It was like a garment, Bann. Like clothing. I mean all the laws, and the deeper things, that cover and support us. You can't live naked. It was a beautiful dress, and we lived in peace and comfort wearing it. But now we are wounded. And you can't just sew up your torn clothes and limp on. You have to take off, and wash the wounds, and bind up the wounds, and re-weave the garment. It has to be taken off, for a while.

"Speaking of which" — she stretched— "I would like a bath."

There was a big bath in the central room of our current apartments. Not the usual five-pointed affair meant to save water, but a real round floor-sunken tub in which we could wallow, if we (I computed our domestic economy) stretched our ration and forgot prudence for a week.

Typical woman, wasteful and luxurious. But who had been more wounded than she?

I had long planned and plotted to have her in that very bath. There were flanges, lodgings for hand and foot; I don't know how many children that bath has surrounded in their begetting or their birth. But alas, we could not work them out, for we were not used to the trappings of this sort of wealth. She got the giggles every time we tried it and one or other's head went under water: most deflating. So in the end I just gave up and washed her. She had put on weight and was blooming, full-fleshed and glowing. The scars were healing and they looked irrelevant to her body now. None of them were bleeding, and in fact most were totally closed. I went over the ones on her back, one at a time, checking each mark and gently cleaning it while she drowsed in the suds. At the end she turned round and kissed me deeply, with her eyes closed and her hands drawing me to her, saying, "Oh, how you care for me." And in a little while I was braced across the bath while she straddled over me and took me inside her, rocking gently with the waves in the water, and bending to kiss me and press her breasts against me from time to time.

When we'd finished we lay there for a while. Wet floor trickling cold water back in, neither of us wanted to get up, but at last she did and padded off for a towel. And without her it was just a tepid bath, so I got up too, let the water out—aware, as I did, of the exact channels that it flushed into and their interaction with everything else in the nets around us: a strange touch from the other world—and cleaned up.

I had not properly finished when a chime sounded: the first of the afternoon's visitors.


Old Vhasti shines with gland-secreted wax. He has become as fat as I fear I am becoming, though it is shown in the rich texture of his chitin rather than a guilty thickening of the waist. He sits twiddling his forelegs on his perch, grooming his antennae, with violet-jale moire patterns running across his handsome compound eye globes.

Once I went down to the Fields, to the fifteenth Echelon. I remember the long journey, repressurisations, the endless tube stretching above us as we dropped. And when we finally arrived there, the strangest things: the great Field, open, like a City hundreds of feet high, like the Land, but full of light. Growing plants everywhere. You could see only so far, because the segments left to support the Sky, and the vertical pillars of the Light wells. I must have been very young, I recall only snatches. In one place great spaces full of flowers, and the drone of bees like the Earth-current. And in another, trees of spices, taller than my father's head, making the air as thick as syrup. I did not like it much: it was not a happy holiday, my parents were in their last bitter conflict, and I remember a fight with some of the local boys, and such things. But among all that time I remember one vision: a pair of butterflies, flying together in perfect synchrony, above the ranked dice-bushes, then dancing round and round each other, round and round, swirling, then flying on again, and stopping to dance once more, ignoring anything else.

Even the butterflies and moths know love, or something like it in their scale of being. These pets come up from the Fields metabolically frozen and will last a few years, perhaps. Down there they run wild, so I am told, and die in a single season, but up here they have a longer space of life, and second or third chances. And so now I have a joke to mock her: a little flaw to point out to her: for she who has made everyone she knows love each other, put everyone hand in hand, has wickedly forgotten one very dear to her, one who needs his proper mate. And there are plenty of people living near us with Moths as pets: some female, I think.


"One more month. Now, Bann, you must go see the Windmasters, they will need to know. Here." Standing quite formally, she gives me a dataslip with the Blanche seal on it.

"When?"

"One more month. We are nearly ready. I have talked to Katyn-Blanche, she knows, and Harre and Fven will take the lead from me. It will be everyone's Time soon, of course, and you men must not touch us for a few days. But after that, we are ready. There are still just a few people, though, to bring together."

"Ready for what thing, respected wife? One more month: and may I now be told?"

"Do you remember, respected husband: what you told me once, long ago, in the Library, as we walked: 'What if they joined? Really joined, really became one?'"

"How can I forget?"

"It went so deep into me, when you said that, that I have never forgotten. And let me explain. You know of the spirit-glass? The instrument that they use to watch the pneuma, within the body?"

"Yes. But that's..."

"Shhhh. And if two kiss, really kiss with desire, and lips touch, do you know that it gathers there? Where the skin is thinnest, on the lips? Trying to join?"

"Yes. I know. But it's hardly a proper study, even for Doctors, gazing on others' loving."

"No. But lovers who were both Doctors have used a glass to look at themselves, and it's quite proper for them to tell if they do not show. And, if two lie together and they know each other in the body it is even closer, even thinner, there: in fact even the cells fuse. And the pneumae must fuse too. Or there can be no child. If either flesh or spirit fail to mix, no child. I did not realise what you meant."

"That wasn't quite what I meant."

"It was, though. And if you think it's an embrace forever in some eternity out of time, you are right and wrong at the same time. For why? Because there is no Eternity, Bann, there is only Now. Eternity is not given to us. It is made by us. That is what you always say, is not it so? Trying to tie me up with words? And now you have the real thing. Real. Of the body. Here. Now. And you are all puzzled, man.

"Anyhow. There is one more month." She hummed Once, There Was a Moon. "Just that long. And then. So you must talk to the Windmasters and explain and give them this, for after this month there will be no more Times, not for another nine months or so."

"Everyone?"

"Yes. And for why? Because She is coming back, Bann. And She will not be veiled or dressed or covered or hidden at all, when She returns, next month. That is why we must be ready, and no one must be hurt or offended, and no one must be left out. Everyone. Everyone. All the women."


Little girls in the streets, very sober and serious. The darling-trees have been replanted, there are white blossoms and the small figures guarding them with puff-wands. We should have done that first not last. Why do we always do things backward? But we have power, and water, and air, and the net to weave us together, and all the really bad damage from the Scream is repaired, the evil men are dead as is right, and my job is more or less over for this day. Now I have my real task, to go and explain to the Windmasters, who will not understand, how the whole economy and calender of the Redoubt is going to be disrupted yet again, but in a very pleasant way this time, and what they must do to keep things working.

But I suppose a few thousand other men are doing this now, obediently, in every City in the Redoubt. And no doubt other guilds are being instructed as well. One deluded idiot is a detail but an army of us is a religious movement, which must be noticed.

The children know. I wonder what is spreading there, moving through the net of tales and legends and dreams that only children tap into. Do you remember when you were young? And all those old stories? And how real it was? How you feared that the Masquers might come and take you, the grey People-no-one-sees? The little ones know this will be a very special month. They look as they do when a holyday is coming. They won't be part of what happens between men and women, of course, but they will be very safe and loved. Will they guard their trees and try and take care of the Redoubt for a month, while we lie in each others' arms? And what fay stories will they tell each other to explain their parents' and their elder siblings' strange foolishness? I could ask Kefy. But they will never tell us stupid old folk the truth, only polite lies, and so they will manage. See, the gods live in their tales, as well as in the slipnet, and in our seed, and I suppose in other places.

The world is turned upside down. A month of misrule. Children will care for their elders, who are more foolish than them: and husbands will obey their wives, who are stronger than them. Folly is wisdom, and weakness is strength.

But it will be well. There is nothing that dares approach us, after the Scream. The Land is cowed and broken into shards and dust. And the cunning machines we have made and love so and now have healed can be trusted for a month to give us air and water and light.

The mantle of assistant prophet does not fit me well, but what can I do? Actually, no, it fits well. but it seems silly and foolish to wear. But it sits on me, and here I am. She was mad, in a bad way. Now she is mad in a very good way. Touched, as she verily was. Kissed, in fact. And it is all only a game, after all.


"Bann, ex Rhiannian."

"Dorian, ex Voyact." This office spirals round one of the Valves that pinches the major Artery through this city. To enter it is to see a world turned inside out: the Spaces between the cities become the main thing that is, and the cities themselves are reduced to flat slabs of needy life fed and drained by the nets that burrow through the monochalkon. All this is diagrammed on the walls. Nothing is straight or flat here, and the sighing of the Artery overlies the normal background life-noise.

"Respected Windmaster, I am here as a messenger. I think you know from whom."

"Well, so I do." He takes the message slip, inserts it in the desk. Information floods through the slipnet and more lights and patterns spin across the wall-screens, showing a four-dimensional model of airflows for the next year. The rhythm of the Redoubt's life is projected over a twelve month, and the way its circulatory system must adjust is explained.

"We can do this."

"This compliance astonishes me, respected Windmaster."

"What point in complaining? All our service is for Her."

"The Redoubt."

He smiles. "Yes. Just so. And if this follows the pattern of previous requests—not only from you, Sir—there will be twenty or thirty other people passing this information to Windmasters in other cities now. Almost the same, but not exactly the same: it comes from many sources and drains back to us." He reruns the sequence in higher definition, a meaningless beauty to my eyes. "We shall have to talk to the Master. But he is no Fool, and there is no doubt of his understanding."

"If you understand, Windmaster, you understand more than me."

"Yes. We see part of it. Perhaps if the part I saw, and the part you see, and the part the others see, could be put together, we would see the whole thing. But that won't happen."

"During the Scream..."

"Respected Sir?"

"We were fighting, all along by the Library, and near here. We were losing. I could fight them, but almost no one else could touch them. We used diskoi, power tools, electrified streams of water, anything, but they just used their hands. When the Scream hit, we bled, and some of us were sick: but it absolutely pulverised the areas they had taken. It was the turning point. I pulled my wife out of a nest where everyone was stunned and half-dead. How? Was this a coincidence?"

"Nothing about the Scream was a coincidence." He settles back. "To begin with, it was impossible: it could not happen. The air system of the Redoubt and the upper Fields, what we call the First Cell, holds more energy than a year of the Earth-current, as hot air and damp air. The Spaces are shaped to make its uncontrolled release impossible. Yet about a third of that energy came out in the Scream, as kinetic energy. The Underground Countries were ravaged by storm and snow: the air flow through this Artery and others reached Mach point-eight-two. And almost all of the energy was vented out, on the Land, as infrasound. "

"There is nothing left alive out there, nothing closer than the Watchers."

"No. Good. But how did it happen? All our skill was to prevent it. I was here, trying...and they were outside, crying, 'In, in, in.' The apprentices held the doors against them. I thought the Fall had come." Silence for a second. "There were secondary resonances inside, and, yes, they hit the areas where the Brothers had achieved dominance. I don't know why. But then I cannot explain the Scream itself.

"I, at least, can explain nothing, nothing whatever."

"I will speak to Sseun. Your Senior, no? You must be properly Assumed, and given Rank: then some small things at least may be told to you, out of our ignorance: things that we do not tell outsiders."

"Sir...I am astonished. In truth, I have no idea what I will do, now. I had hoped to be one of the Mattrosses, and manage the Current Cannon below the Dead Cities, that were to be revived: but all that is lost now. So I have a little work here, and the charity of my father-in-law, who despises anyone who is poor or weak, never thinking of circumstance or guilt, and that is all."

"Bann ex Rhiannon: Do you wish to be Assumed into our Guild?"

"I..."

"Think on it. The Windmasters and the Netgangers are one. We do not look Out, but inward, to the Spaces. It will be a different world from the one you are used to: and a different mystery."

"I will think on it."

"The offer is made." He smiles again. "In any case, on this matter, we had best obey. The real problem will be resynchronsing after all the children are born."

"It would be a confused world if all the women menstruated at different times of the month." I am chattering like a girl, and talking of quite improper things.

"Yes. But actually all that is harder to arrange than you may think, young man. We have to keep the circulation in the Cell quite distinct for a day or two, to get pheromone levels high enough. Then it starts and we go back to saltday, jasminejday, roseday...Well, never mind." Another smile. "My daughter Aaell sends her thanks to your wife, and her love, as do I. She will be married, and then she will send more than thanks, with my approval."

"Thank you. But no more cakes and confections, please. There is no room."

He laughs. "I will be a grandfather at last."

"Yes. But I must get back, now. And my answer to your valued offer shall be made, swiftly. And it has been a pleasure, truly, to meet you, Respected Windmaster. When this is done, we shall invite you to our home."

"Respected Sir, brother, our children shall be friends."


"Stop, Monster!"

Dreaming and thinking, I have crossed the Circle. One challenges me with weapon raised. A dark-haired dancing-eyed slip, maybe seven, not yet grown to her whitecap or troubled by love.

"I surrender! Do not kill me, I am only a poor hungry monster!"

"Flee away, monster! Run, or I shall Scream!" She flourishes her wand, and I skip away from the girls and their darling-tree, laughing fit to burst behind a play-frightened face, but not spared a puff of powder on my back. And I am a child again, trying to steal a blossom from old gnarled Fallow to ransom a kiss from Cahaire and her girl-band. I will demand a kiss from every one of them, but never from haughty Cahaire, who is so rude to me. Anyway, she is too short and plump, she talks too much, and she is always telling the others what to do, and trying to tell me what to do.

Will my daughters stand guard round their tree, one day? It is strange to think that soon I may hier one crying in my wife's womb: crying out the half-shaped Word. And if our first child is passed as human, how strange to think, that in a year, we two will be three.


When I got home she smiled on me, and embraced me as tenderly as she ever had.

She had let her hair loose, and combed it out. She was wearing white for me, like a bride again, and she was more beautiful than a dream. And she served me humbly, doing all the things one normally does for oneself, making a ceremony of washing my feet for the evening and taking my coat, and leading me to the dining room to eat our simple meal together, with a kiss between every bite, there in our favorite place where Vhasti and his mate fluttered peacefully over head. And when we were done with our meal we tided, and we went to our bed, without any rush or haste.


Now she is healed. No more pain, anywhere. The marks remain, and will always be there, unbalanced both in their shape and their placing, but every one is closed and unhurting. I had thought to kiss each one, reverently: but then I had thought better, for doing that by rote lacked the spark that brings pleasure, however right it might seem. But she gently let me know that this was indeed the salutation that would best please her, as we began.

Yet, now I think back, I do not know exactly how she told me that.

I can not tell how she speaks to me and tells me these things, though I am moving closer and closer to her.

I see her with more and more clarity. I think that I shall vanish into her.


Is this the true Night-Speech?

Is this how, and why, our folk first began to talk with their souls, as well as their mouths?

Was it in its beginning a night-speech, a speech of lovers? A new thing we learned gazing at each other in awe: and only later turned to the lesser and smaller uses of war, of survival, of knowledge?


With my eyes I measure the length of her fingers and the shape of her hands. Very small hands, if held in mine. The little finger is rather short, and the nails are thin and oval, yet they are beautifully proportioned. Vinafer hands, the hands of her family.

I trace the threading of her hair, in its every complexity, tumbling and tangling and troubling. Why did I not properly realise the pain and the time she spent making it beautiful for me? The endless, uncomplaining labour, only to give me joy.

I watch the tension in each sinew of her ankles and each muscle in her back as she squats up on the bed to stretch her shoulders. In the humble regions of her flesh is another beauty, that she never notes or thinks of.

She is after all not quite perfect. Some of her teeth are uneven; her body is just a little out of proportion for a small woman like her, the trunk of her body a very little longer than it might be, her thighs heavy. If she was a dream, she would be utterly perfect, not what she is. But she is real. She is mine. I want, desire, need, reality, not dream.

All her tasks are done now, and her burdens are laid down. There is nothing special to say now. Even our kisses are not to be greedy or hurried. Every folly is forgiven, by love. There is no need to perform prodigies for each other, because of love. And if we made any special thing of this, if we remarked upon any thing, it would mean that to lie so, and make love, and to sleep and wake and love and sleep, and love, was something special. It would be blasphemy to confess that, for it is not special: it is only the ground of being, the default state of humanity. It is how we should be always and forever. It is not usual, it is not frequent, but it is after all only our normal, our ordinary state.

How could I sin so, being angry, because she tried to join others together in this bliss? How could I be so selfish? She was only doing her duty, and what was right. For a time, this part of poor suffering mankind is as it should be, and it lies together at peace, one body, and healed. Let as many as possible be so.


One more day now, then she will turn away for a few days privacy from me while her womb refreshes itself. Then the pills are put aside, and to Hel with the white-robed ones' censure and advice. She will be fertile.

Then what? A month of this? Or some great ceremony of the flesh, surrounding the promised return of that One who Kissed her and healed her?

That may happen, but I think we two at least will be very quiet. We will stay here in our home, for I do not desire to see the face of the goddess. Or rather, I do not need to. It would be a waste of my time, because this is better. The real goddess is here, and She gives herself to me alone, out of all the millions of the Redoubt, so what more do I need? And what could be better for me?


You are all puzzled, man. Ah, but now I understand some things.

Here is truth. That we two were children once, fighting and playing. We are still two children, but now hand in hand before the stranger horrors and labours of eternity, with only each other for paradise. Truth, truth: tell me all. Tell me all. The aeons will pass, and one day the Redoubt will Fall and the true Night will come, but our souls will endure. So there is no other hope for us: not the gods, not the Redoubt, but only each other and our love, somehow, however we must fight, wherever we must flee.

Eternity, in this Night Land, is not won by easy pleasure, but by real love, which is shared agony and struggle. But it can be won. Though we are as small as the ants, as fragile as the butterflies, as foolish as the moths, we can still love. We can win each other. And brutal, stupid, weak, I am, yet I won her back, and she came back, however that must be qualified. From the environs of the gods, from That Place, from the shadow of the Land, she returned to me, saying, This is better. She returned, and she remains, and she speaks no more the red language of the Brothers but that other speech that only we lovers know.

So, in this Night Land, am I really so powerless? Have I not some cause for hope?

When we are separated again, and pain comes after this joy, ten for one as is the rule, I will submit to it. I will submit, though I die: because I know that when we part we will find each other again, in this life or another. We will meet again, and again, and again, somewhere in the Night.


© 2003 by Andy Robertson.

Artwork © 2003 by Martin Isitt.