Wednesday, July 21, 2004
In This One Wall (part 4) -- by Elliot Bougis
* * *
If you had the eyes of a wallal bird, keen as binoculars and shiny as diamonds, you could have seen the nebulous, granite-colored smudge creeping across the Geveldar sands. And if you had been watching a while, you would have seen this rough-edged smudge coalesce out of the Stro sands like frail iron flakes moved by a careful magnet. And if – while gliding a little lower, the winds dancing merrily under your papery yellow wings, and then leisurely soaring back into the air, occassionally diving down and snatching up a mangy sand rat to devour – you kept your eye on the boring smudge, you would see this strange little smudge start to split up. All of a sudden, a gray or black dot would split from the bigger smudge and freeze on the black desert below. If the winds were right, you might hear a faint moaning sound rise up from this single speck. You might hear the smudge yelp and then grumble faintly. Either way, your small, flinty eyes would see the clump of iron chips would keep trudging through the sand, leaving a black speck behind.
But, let’s say you didn’t have such good eyes. Perhaps, instead, you had the eyes of a juufas, your skin leathery, dull and red like a faded jacket. Then – as you slithered blindly through the sands, your wafer-thin dorsal fin occasionally spitting up sand, your wedge-shaped eel’s head sometimes ramming into a buried rock, your flat teeth grinding sand – you’d have to wiggle right up close to the tattered smudge. But then, so close, your opaque green, marble, pea-sized eyes would dimly recognize that the smudge is no smudge at all. It is a group of glugs. Sand crunches minutely in your jaws. Your smoky eyes don’t shift. These glugs are staggering someplace under the brutal brick red sun. One of them yelps and points at you. The others make loud noises; some fall down. One of them doesn’t get back up. You hear a wallal screech far above you.
But regardless how keen or dull your eyes are, the glug smudge bores you. The winds swirl around and under you. You grind sand in your teeth, or munch on a fragile bone. It is hot, and so you move on. Wherever your eyes rove next, it is at least past the glugs. Soon you forget about them as you slither or glide past the Huyi caves, which stick out of the sands like orange-brown rainbows. To some glugs, the caves you just passed look like giants’ hollow eyelids, stuck in the sand, staring into the sun. But they need not stare much longer. The sun is setting. The sand is softening. The giants fall asleep and their eyes fill with darkness as the sun fades. The empty eyes did not see all of the glugs leave the distant Stro caves this morning, and they will not see all of them reach the Huyi caves tonight.
* * *
Kasex felt his back trembling in protest. The sun struck him maroon and heavy. He was dragging three full truvets behind him; Giti’s orders. When they had left the Stro caverns that morning, Kasex was leading the group. He’d been edgy and ready to leave any second. He’d had the same feelings as a man who must decide between running from a slowly burning house – only to escape onto a long, rickety bridge over a bottomless cavern. To stay is to die. To leave is to die – probably. Eyes closed, he was whispering to himself, “It’s not mud. It’s sand. It’s not mud. It’s sand …”. He hadn’t opened his eyes for an hour, and he didn’t care either. Somehow, he was sure they were headed in the right direction. But he was not so sure they would get to the Huyi caves before the – well, before nighttime.
Memories of the day tumbled languorously through his mind. The faces of those who had fallen behind – Dyup, Lealli, Vytro – flipped through his tired mind like subliminal ads on a movie screen. They had stumbled, moaned a little, insisted they could make it on their own, but never rejoined the group. A few had stayed behind with the fallen, but the others had to keep moving.
Kasex wondered if those who had stayed behind weren’t right. Maybe this trek was suicide. Maybe the Stro caverns would be fine. Maybe the shiny tar would stop. But Kasex instantly remembered watching the slime the night before they left. It had moved so fluidly all night. He was certain it would reach camp.
In fact, Kasex was right. The Stro caverns were not safe. When they decided to stay, none of the stowaways had known that the goo had already half-filled the trench, rolling over the futile blockade as mercilessly as a tank tread. Neither did they realize that during the night, the honeytar had spread its narrow fingers closer into camp. By the time the group had left, one long stream of honeytar had passed Kasex’s empty cave. Neither were the stubborn glugs aware that the honeytar had swallowed Masu. So, in the predawn darkness, when Giti and Kasex and others had pleaded with these stubborn glugs to escape with them, they had refused. We’re fine here, they insisted, ignorantly. The Huyi caves were too far away, they protested. Die if you want to, some had whispered from their caves.
Kasex’s eyes snapped open when his foot made a faint splash. His other foot made the same mushy sound. He stopped abruptly and dropped the truvet sacks. “It’s coming,” Kasex moaned to himself.
“The mositening!” a strident voice called out.
“We have to hurry. Pick up your legs!” Vollo commanded.
In the mad dash, Wafpu fell down. A few nearby glugs stopped to pick him up. Vesa shrieked when he saw a juufas pop up from the sand. It clicked its teeth and submerged. Gudry strained his neck up to see the wallali shrieking high overhead. Mud spattered on the glugs’ faces as they sprinted. Drops of gritty mud blinded a few of the weary glugs. They staggered aimlessly, but stumbled into rapidly softening desert, never to rise again. The brick red sun sank frighteningly quickly. Thin green mist was hovering on the horizon.
“I see a cave,” squeaked Vesa.
His strained shout spurred the glugs on. But then Vollo, poor old glug, fell behind. He moaned sadly, too exhausted to move. No one noticed him as they trampled headlong toward the cave. Giti dropped her pack and hoisted Vesa onto her shoulders. Everyone was jogging now, some supporting the weak.
Kasex sprinted in front of the others, but accidentally dropped his truvet pack. Buudi tripped over the bag, and was trampled in the shin deep swamp by the other glugs, who were sprinting blindly now. Just as he heard Buudi scream and trip, Kasex clumsily dove into the nearest cave. The exhausted and terrified mob of glugs tumbled on top of him. They were all huffing and weeping in the dark on the cave floor. The only other sounds across the desert were those of the other glugs drowning outside, in the distance. Pathetic moans, mixed with faint gurgling, slapping noises of hopeless escape, echoed into the cave.
* * *
A hollow moan howled across the Nevada desert. Tibbon jerked awake. Disoriented, he heard faint gurgling, slapping noises outside his tent. His eyes bugged in horror. It sounded like death laughing. Tibbon rubbed his eyes roughly and embarassedly realized where he was. The gurgling was just Hunt snoring contentedly. The slapping noises were just loose pebbles skipping along the plains, occasionally scraping against his tent.
He plopped back down on his sleeping back, but was too wired to sleep again for a while. So he wriggled over to his tent door and unzipped it. He rested his head outside the tent on the sea of sand beneath to gaze at the sea of stars above. His mind wandered aimlessly. He wondered if life was going on up there, too. Were “they” watching TV up there? Was it dinner time?
Tibbon’s grin evaporated when he realized something. Many of those stars were already exploded. He was watching balls of fire that just hadn’t faded out yet. They didn’t realize they were dead. All of those lives vaporized in one spectacular nuclear belch from the star’s core. He remembered Superman with a little hope. His planet had exploded, after all, and he had escaped. Had anybody made it off of those planets? No, thought Tibbon, the Jetsons, the Robinson family, the Enterprise, anyone else – all of them up there were weightless cinders frozen forever in the cosmic holocaust exploding around him. How soon until our sun burps, he wondered. When will we be embers?
The enormity of his thoughts struck him. He exhaled sharply. He didn’t like thinking about that. So instead he poked his index finger out of the top of his sleeping bag, and began haphazardly connecting the dots. What do they spell, he wondered. Finding no clear pattern, he then tried naming the stars. Mickey Mouse glowed next to Donald Duck, and Spider Man dangled above them both.
Tibbon paused again. It dawned on him that he’d never be on this same patch of sand on this same night to see these silently blazing stars. He wondered if the people, or rather, proto-people, who painted the cave drawings in W-23 had once stood where he now slept to look at these stars. Had the short figure hunched in the drawing seen that one, Tibbon asked himself. Or, had the spear-brandishing figure ever pointed to that tiny, flickering aqua star, over there? Had the thin, beautiful woman in the center ever smiled at the star that now brought a childish smile to Tibbon’s face?
The wind kicked dust into his eyes, and he cried a little. The tears and brown dust made the stars look like amber drops of rain spattering against a dark rock face. He blinked again but now the stars became a dusty ruby-red haze, like blood swirling in water. Tibbon blinked hard once more and the sky became a flat, honey-colored canvas, frozen in time. There were no stars, Tibbon realized groggily. There was only the yellow. Tibbon slept fitfully that night.
* * *
The exhausted clump of glugs didn’t move for nearly a day. Their bodies had settled into relatively comfortable positions and shut down, hibernated, for through the next day.
Gradually, the next night, they woke. Thick eyelids blinked in the dark. Flat arms stretched out in the darkness. Narrow feet scraped along the cave. Truvet shirts creaked and thoughts spun. None of them knew where they were, but that was irrelevant. They were alive. Yet, even that fact had a hollowness to it the glugs had never known. They were alive, but that was a mere consolation to what they were feeling. Exhausted, bruised, hungry. Lost home, lost friends, disorientation.
As yet, the glugs weren’t suffering the deep depression that followed in the next few days. In those next few days, the reality of their near-death and their total loss struck them at different levels. For now though, they were emotionally numb.
“Who … who made it,” Giti asked hoarsely. “Who’s here?”
Sore groans and shuffling was the response. Some glugs, Kasex among them, crouched at the cave mouth, scouting for other caves. The rest of the glugs migrated near the cave mouth, which let in faint blue light from the moon. Friends clumped together. Families, or what remained of them, found each other. Some glugs stepped through the group, looking for a friend or a neighbor or a relative. But the friends and neighbors and relatives weren’t in the crowd; they were in the desert. At final count, there were about thirty glugs left.
“Where are we?” whispered Vesa. He hovered around Giti’s legs like a cat purring against a woman’s legs.
“These must be the Huyi caves,” answered Avret, one of the oldest Stro glugs to make it. “There aren’t any other cave camps before them.”
“But we must be on the outskirts. I saw a couple other caves father south,” added Kasex. He didn’t look up when he spoke. He was filled an aching shame. During the long sleep, he had woken up several times to count the glugs around and on him. He always got the same number, and then inevitably listed to himself which glugs had died in the desert. Many times he couldn’t get past the first name on his list: Buudi. Guilt made his eyes squint and his lips purse and his stomach clench. He knew, he knew, his truvet bag had tripped and killed him. Every time he woke up, he was still mumbling the words he mouthed in his sleep: “My brother … brother … Bu … Buudi…”. Each time he awoke, while the sun beat down outside, he stood up and strained his eyes trying to find both of them, his brother and Buudi, in the jumble of glugs.
While in his nightmarish nostalgia, staring across the moonlit swamp, hearing his brother’s long ago cries rolling over the landscape, Kasex didn’t hear the other glugs talking.
“The sun’s almost up, so we can find the rest of the Huyi caves,” advised Avret.
“They’re south,” chimed in Foog.
“Wait, though, we need food,” reminded Sonop.
They debated and haggled for a few more minutes. Then, as soon as the sun rose and the sands firmed, ten glugs were sent out to gather any food they could find. Another ten glugs were to guard the cave while the last ten headed toward the other Huyi caves. By midday, these tattered diplomats reached the Huyi camp center and told the Huyi chief their plight. Meanwhile, pickings were scarce for the scavenger glugs: a few cacti, two dead sandy truvets, and a withered wallal carcass. Fortunately, though, the Huyi chief had plenty of food and shelter to spare. Within an hour after regrouping, the glugs left their abandoned cave and headed for the Huyi camp. For the first time in the last few days, the glugs smiled and chatted lightly. They left their cares and mediocre food behind. Not one of them thought of the golden tide of honeytar that still inexorably devoured the world behind them and crept its way toward them.
Only Vesa lagged behind. When she turned around to make sure all the glugs were coming, she saw him slowly, resolutely, mechanically thrusting his arms up and down over his shoulder. Small clouds of dark sand landed flatly behind him like graphite trout leaping against a violent river, straining forward for life. She approached him from behind and grabbed his small flat arm when it rose above his shoulder. In his hand, he held his spoon. He was digging. He stared coldly up at Giti, and yanked his arm from her.
“I need to dig,” he droned lifelessly.
“But why, Vesa? We’ve got to go stay at the Huyi caves,” Giti consoled him warmly.
“It’s still coming. I need to dig, a trench,” he answered bluntly.
“No, we made it here. We’re safe,” she answered, now a little nervous.
Vesa didn’t answer. He dug mechanically.
“Come on, now,” chided Giti.
She tugged at his shoulder but he bent deeper into his work. Frustrated, and getting more nervous with every dry slap of his spoon, Giti bodily yanked him away from the shallow hole between his legs. He hung limply as she carried him on her hip to the Huyi caves. His empty gaze never left the pale green horizon to the north. It’s coming, he whispered to himself, as he waved his spoon threateningly at the uncaring desert behind him.
* * *
For a few days, life in the Huyi camp was wonderful. As soon as the tattered Stro glugs were safe inside the Huyi caves, their worries melted away. The terrible memory of the honeytar left them. Surely, the desert buried it. Certainly, it must have run out. Besides, the sun was unusually mild during those first few days, and the air was moist and breezy. Having lost everything when they left Stro, the Stro glugs thrived on the endless novelties of the Huyi camp. The more sheltered Stro glugs marveled at the bustling cave life of the Huyi camp. The Huyi caves, so much larger than what the Stro glugs were used to, were populated with attractions of all kinds – shops, puppet shows, storytellers – like a subterranean downtown. Plus, the Huyi caves were near enough that narrow rope bridges arced between them so Huyi glugs could move from cave to cave, even at night. Also, because the Huyi glugs lived near the magnificent Qwuadril courts even farther to the south, their fine food and clothing dazzled the more primitive Stro cavers. Some Stro glugs traded goods for exquisitely crafted Huyi clothes, while others learned delicious new recipes from the savvy Huyi glugs.
Admittedly, the Stro glugs did briefly brushed against what we might call the dark side of the Huyi camp. Despite their amazing marvels and foods, the Huyi glugs were noticeably more belligerent than the simple Stro glugs. The reason for this unsettling discovery was that the Huyi camp was located near several competing cave cities. These cities formed a rough circle around the hub that was Qwuadril. Usually, these cave cities traded peaceably in the Qwuadril markets. Depending on the item and the season, however, the camps ran into fierce competition. There had been wars before, and the Huyi cavers knew there could be wars again. Hence they were well-trained and well-armed just in case. A number of times, a Stro glug would grimace watching the Huyi spar each other and sharpen their brutal weapons. But, their grimaces were short-lived compared to the charming sedative of Huyi life. The Stro glugs were too happily immersed in marvel and market to dwell on the unpleasant, brutal side of Huyi life.
Only Vesa seemed uncomfortable in the Huyi oasis. The morning after the Stro glugs had slept in the Huyi camp, Vesa woke up early, and tramped directly to the outskirts of the Huyi camp. The young glug had planned ahead: he was wearing a large truvet shirt to protect him from the sun and carried a full flask of moisture. He would need both. For the sun beat down on his puny frame while he crouched stoically in the sand and dug. And dug. All day. By midday, he had carved a three-foot deep trench ten feet long in the hot sands. At times during the day, he would stand tense like a bloodhound on a hunt. His speckled gray eyes scanned the horizon a few moments until he dropped again and calmly began flinging sand behind him. Not even Giti realized Vesa was missing the whole day; her eyes were filled with too many Huyi delights to notice. When the sun began to set, Vesa stood up, gave the horizon one more stern gaze, and trodded mutely back to the distractions of the Huyi camp. By sundown, he was asleep, unconscious to the reverie in the caves around him. He was also unaware that the moisture had melted his puny trench almost as soon as his eyes closed. When he returned to the outskirts the next day, he saw where his trench should have been. Numbly, he tapped his spoon in his hand, looked back at the Huyi camp, looked at the silent green horizon, thought of Giti, and began digging again. Vesa was the unnoticed exception to the rule. The rest of the Stro glugs were indescribably happy. Yes, for a few days, life in the Huyi camp was wonderful.
But that was only for a few days.
One day, the last of those wonderful days in Huyi, Vesa stood to inspect the horizon as he often did. The sands shimmered under the sun like caviar in firelight. A gust of wind swept around Vesa, flicking dust into his eyes. He blinked and wiped his eyes. When he looked at the opalescent sands this time, he noticed a razor-thin slit of gold sandwiched between the ebony sands and emerald sky that hadn’t been there before. His spoon dropped to the sands. Slowly, he turned toward the Huyi camp. Then he turned back to the shiny slit of honeytar cresting the horizon. Giti’s delicate eyes floated in his mind, and he sprinted back to the camp to find her.
Vesa tore through the noisy markets, pushing glugs from behind, shouting Giti’s name. When he finally found her, he clung to her waist like a drowning man. A number of annoyed and curious Huyi glugs converged on the trembling little glug. Giti bent down, trying to get Vesa to tell her what had happened. While she stroked his cheeks and whispered to him, the burly Huyi chief stomped through the onlookers. He had heard the ruckus, and was expecting to find a testy wandering glug, eager for a fight. But there was only Vesa cowering on the sand in Giti’s arms.
“What’s the meaning of all this trouble?” the chief shouted.
“He’s scared. Something happened to him,” answered Giti, defensively.
“If that glug twerp thinks he can disturb our markets and push our glugs, he’s got another thing coming,” exclaimed the chief, pointing his sausage finger at Vesa.
Vesa’s eyes, dully out of focus, stared at the ground. He began mouthing something. His words became louder as he churned his lips.
“What’s the glug saying?” demanded the chief.
“…kly … ansorm … sarkly sandsorm … sparkly sandstorm,” Vesa chattered.
Once he was chattering loudly enough for the chief to hear him, he stalked over to Vesa and bent down to look in his eyes. He shook Vesa until his eyes focused again on his.
“What are you saying?” he asked belligerently.
Vesa paused a second, and then whispered in chief’s lined face, “The sparkly sandstorm’s coming. It’s coming again.”
The chief, completely mystified, stood up to ask Giti what Vesa meant, but she had sprinted to the outskirts as soon as Vesa had spoken to the chief. She came to Vesa’s little trench and stopped at the edge. On the horizon, she too saw the gleaming line of honeytar. Already it appeared millimeters thicker on the horizon. Giti covered her open mouth quickly. Tears filled the rim of her thick eyelids. She hopped backwards a few steps, but soon sprinted back the camp.
She ran in shouting. “Chief Mojed, Vesa is right! The shiny – it – but we left it behind…”. Giti choked on her words.
Nonplussed, chief Mojed put his blocky hands on his hips and spit at Giti’s feet.
“What are you talking about now? First this boy terrorizes my glugs, and now you’re screeching like a wallal! I demand an answer,” roared the chief. One of his guards yanked Giti by her arm to the chief. She was still unable to speak clearly, and could only look at the chief, weeping, her head rolling left and right. Vesa darted to her side. Out of the stunned crowd, Kasex also ran to her and grabbed her face in his hands.
“Do you mean…? Did you see it again? Is it still coming? Please, tell me, Giti,” grumbled Kasex.
“Yes, it’s there. I saw it. It shined,” Giti trailed off.
Kasex turned to Mojed to explain.
“Chief Mojed, we have to leave now. We left the Stro caves because some sort of sticky ooze was coming into our camp. It killed one of our glugs. We were sure we had left it behind. But it’s here again! We have to leave!” Kasex shouted, partially speaking to the chief, partially to his fellow Stro neighbors.
The other Stro glugs walked out of the crowd, some silently, others talking loudly. They grouped together and debated frantically. Weeps and shouts and the stamping of feet spilled from the jumble of Stro glugs. They grew louder as they began shouting at the shocked Huyi glugs. To the Huyi glugs, they were a frightening, incomprehensible mob of prophets and poets.
“It’s coming! … it killed Kirt Lo! … escape! … help us! … we will die, we have to move!” the tangle of glugs exclaimed.
The outraged Huyi glugs shouted back at them to be quiet. The chief clapped violently, silencing the Stro glugs with a furious roar.
“Silence! Shut your mouths! You are all insane. You are all disgusting to me and my glugs! If, I say, if, there is anything to your pathetic rambling, we will stop it,” shouted chief Mojed.
Proud Huyi glugs clenched their jaws and pounded their fists like spectators. These Stro glugs were weak-necked simpletons. The Huyi ruled the Qwuadril desert. They feared nothing. To prove it, chief Mojed regally summoned his greatest warrior, Gossa. Gossa’s skin was as dark as the sands. He was a head taller than most glugs, and his muscles were knotted dangerously like grenades. Knives and other deadly weapons dangled from his truvet shirt like rubber dock-bumpers on the hard face of a boat. He beamed before his neighbors like an Olympian.
“Gossa is as fast as the winds. As strong as a deklar. As ruthless as a hungry juufas. He will face your chimerical terror. He is Huyi,” boasted Mojed.
The glugs reverentially followed Gossa to the outskirts like ducklings. The Stro glugs broke into moans and choppy shouts when they saw the strip of honeytar cresting the horizon. Huyi glugs, as well, when they saw the shiny line of honeytar, lying on the sand like a giant plastic noose, stopped short in instinctual fear. To rebuild the quickly draining morale, Mojed clapped above his head and cheered, “Gossa will face these weak glugs’ fear. He will prevail. Huyi reigns!” Glugs echoed their chief excitedly, “Gossa will face the fear … Gossa will prevail …”. Spurred on by their cheers, Gossa deftly vaulted Vesa’s little trench. His sharp figure receded into the horizon as he trotted bravely to the honeytar. After an hour of resting under the scorching sun, the glugs returned to their camp to wait in the shade for Gossa’s return. Meanwhile, the Stro glugs packed their meager belongings. Another hour passed.
Then, suddenly, a screech cut through the camp. The glugs hopped to their feet and began running to the outskirts. Shocked gasps shot from the group of glugs when they looked at the horizon. Gossa had faced the Stro glugs’ fear, indeed. And now he was pinned to it like a fly on sticky tape. He was stuck on his knees like a pauper. Next to him, his spear stood askew. He jerked angrily and shouted a warrior’s curses at the flat wave of honeytar. Then, Gossa shouted so violently that he fell on his side. He must have landed on his mouth too, for the last noise the glugs heard from him were his weapons jangling beneath him. If he was alive, though, that was a moot point. The sun was setting.
Mojed’s face flushed a deep purple and he pounded his wrists on his chubby thighs. The Huyi glugs instantly surrounded the stern-looking Stro glugs. They circled slowly like hunting dogs. Mojed unexpectedly bellowed something unclear and terrible. Instantly, the rest of the Huyi glugs dove upon the Stro glugs. Sharp daggers hacked at powerless limbs, spears drove into mottled brown flesh, Stro blood splashed onto the sands. And in the distance, already sealing away Gossa forever, the honeytar inched forward eagerly. It was as if it fed off the spilled blood and the leapt forward at the savage shrieks of battle. It oozed covetously, as if it was desperate to get to the glugs before they could get rid of each other. Which would be worse, I wonder, honeytar or a dagger?
“Enough!” screamed Mojed, his face streaked with blood. “We have avenged Gossa! Seize the survivors.”
Only three Stro glugs, Giti, Kasex, and Vesa, rose from the carnage. Their hands were quickly lashed behind them. The three survivors were pushed in front of the angry Huyi cavers as they hurried back home, aware of the setting sun. Once inside the main camp, Mojed decided to spare their lives by selling them into the slave markets in the Qwuadril courts. They would be sold tomorrow to the first bidder. Mojed pompously ignored Kasex’s admonitions to escape. The Huyi would never leave. They would reign forever. Mojed’s shouts still ringing in their ears, the three survivors fell into fitful sleeps. It was the last time they would be the Huyi caves. Then again, it was the last time any wandering glug would be in the Huyi camp.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]