Wednesday, July 21, 2004
In This One Wall (part 5, THE END) -- by Elliot Bougis
* * *
Early the next morning, Giti and the other two were led the few miles across the desert into the bustling Qwuadril courts. Life churned in the courts from dawn to dusk. Because the whole city rested on a massive, relatively flat bedrock, the moistening had no effect on life inside Qwuadril’s sturdy boulder walls. But the Stro survivors didn’t even notice the exotic markets and clothes and customs swirling around them. Their taste for extravagance had died in Huyi. Likewise, they were unaware of how much or to whom they were sold. Freedom, bondage, all that mattered was that the honeytar was coming.
The new slaves were herded into a rickety. Inside, the other glug slaves stared at them listlessly. Vesa wrapped his arms around Giti’s arm as he stared through the gaps in the rocky cell.
“I don’t see the sparkly sandstorm yet,” he whispered back to Giti.
“Don’t look out there, Vesa. Sleep,” she answered.
Vesa did lie down, but kept his eyes open for a while, repeatedly mouthing “sparkling sandstorm”.
One of the slaves, Vaziti, spoke from a dark corner. “What’s the young glug talking about?”
Kasex looked over to Giti, unsure how to answer. It was hard for Giti to get her words out, but she eventually explained their story to Vaziti.
“You mean it’s coming now? We can’t do anything?” Vaziti asked, a little condescendingly.
“Not here, in this cage. Our only hope is to keep moving,” added Kasex.
“I’d leave with you if I could. Rather die a fugitive than a slave. Fat chance, though” retorted Vaziti.
Actually, though, he and the three Stro glugs would get their chance to escape. For that night, while they slept, miles to the north, the honeytar was encroaching and the Huyi glugs were panicking. By the morning they were sold, the honeytar had reached the Huyi outskirts. Now, as they slept, the honeytar was inexorably seeping into the border Huyi caves. Later, when they awoke from their first night as slaves, the honeytar was at the Huyi camp center, and the remaining Huyi glugs were now running to Qwuadril.
Giti heard shouts at the city gate. She recognized Mojed, the Huyi chief, and a few of the other Huyi glugs. They were all shouting at the dazed Qwuadril glugs as madly as the Stro glugs had before Gossa died. She caught only snatches of what Mojed was shouting.
“...coming ... saw it kill my best ... a trench, build ... have to stop it!” Mojed led his frenzied Huyi chorus.
Other slaves were watching through the rocks too. Abruptly, a soldier swung the heavy door open and called them out.
“Slaves! You’re building a trench, move! Dig!” the guard barked.
When Mojed saw Giti and the slaves being led outside the city, he stopped speaking, and coughed roughly. “There, she knows it’s coming. And those two,” he shouted, pointing at Giti, Kasex, and Vesa.
Soon after the Giti and the three dozen other slaves began digging, Mojed called out, “It’ll take more hands than that! We all have to dig. Hurry!”
So the Qwuadril glugs shuffled confusedly out of their city, down the sloping bedrock onto the sands, and began digging, in their own way. Many tripped over their beautiful robes, while others halfheartedly lifted handfuls of dirt and flung them to their sides. Fortunately, the Huyi’s frantic warnings motivated the inept glugs. By midday, with so many glugs digging, there was an impressive eight-foot deep trench girding the Qwuadril bedrock. Glugs were taking their homes apart and putting the wooden boards into the trench like mine struts. The Qwuadril leaders, Mojed and other nosy glugs were assured this measure would prevent the moistening from completely erasing their trench in the night. Soon all the glugs – all but the three Stro glugs, that is – anxiously perched on the city walls waiting for the sun to set and the desert to liquefy. Would the trench hold? The question was answered when a victorious shout burst from the city. The boards were holding! Glugs across the city – excepting three, of course – slept happily that night. Mojed and the Huyi glugs had made everything sound so terrible, but now there was nothing to fear. The trench was holding against the moisture!
But it wouldn’t hold against the honeytar.
Life would have gone on happily that next morning, but instead the Qwuadril glugs were awakened by a deep bellow from the top of the city wall. It was Mojed. The trench was still intact, but the honeytar was moving closer. While glugs scrambled to the top of the city wall, Vesa and the other slaves sat staring out pensively at the horizon, all of which now gleamed yellow. A soldier opened the door to the slaves’ quarters. “You can go watch from the wall,” he said sheepishly.
The honeytar tide was only a couple of miles away. It was easily a mile wide. And it was coming. Panicked shouts rose from the Qwuadril glugs. They argued and ran along the wall and return to their dismantled homes, trying to decide on their own what to do. Some said the trench would hold; if it could stop the moisture, it could stop this shiny mess. Others knew the knots in their stomachs meant they were doomed.
The glugs could argue only so long. Within a few hours, the edge of the honeytar had reached the upper lip of the trench, which was studded with regularly fastened boards. It tumbled slowly over the sands like spit in the dust. Glugs bit their lips, squinted their eyes, and wrung their hands. Would the trench hold?
As the honeytar crept forward and pressed against the trench struts, a dull creaking emanated from the trench. A few nervous shouts broke out. Then, once over the top boards, the mass of honeytar avalanched into the trench and visibly spread laterally, filling the once-sturdy trench. Because so much more honeytar was now rushing into the trench, it spilled over the ends of trench like soda fizzing out of a glass. The honeytar was already oozing left and right to encircle the bedrock. Glugs scrambled down from the wall. They ran through the rubbish of their homes, gathering what they could, throwing thick robes on their shoulders. It was only a matter of time before the honeytar tide rose and the city was swallowed.
That time, however, Giti had decided to use. “Kasex, we have to leave now.”
He nodded solemnly, and then asked Vaziti, “Vaziti, are you coming?”
“Of course! A fugitive, not a slave!” he answered.
Giti fought against the rush of glugs running down as she climbed the steps to the top of the wall. Vesa, Kasex, Vaziti, and a handful of other slaves and observant free glugs followed her. They all ran to the back of the city wall. It was a long way down, Vesa thought to himself. He wasn’t the only glug who worried. It was an eighty-foot drop to the sands. Giti swallowed hard, and then began climbing down the wall. Vaziti followed fearlessly, but the others needed a few moments to gather the courage. Loose rocks tumbled down as they descended, but in a few minutes they were safe, on the sands.
Kasex was the first to remind them that they needed to find a cave, soon. The slaves, unused to such freedom, began running away from the city, their arms stretched out at their sides, like children running into an amusement park. Fortunately, the troupe found an abandoned cave within a few hours. They all scrounged for food before the sun set. The food was flavorless, and words were few. The slaves fell asleep – while back in Qwuadril, glugs could do anything but sleep.
At sunset, there was already a deadly ring of honeytar around the city. Qwuadril’s front gates were creaking slowly inward as honeytar quickly built up and strained against them. Flat tongues of honeytar seeped under the doors and spread over the pocked bedrock. The sweet smell of the honeytar drenched the city. It’s saccharine stench swirled in the glugs’ lungs, in their blood, in their brains. Throughout the city, glugs – some from hunger, others from a blinding frenzy to survive, and still others from the maddening sweetness of the honeytar – began massacring one another. The honeytar slithered over the nearest corpses and homes and rubbish, locking them all forever in their places of pain and disarray and loss. Blood and honeytar mixed sinuously. In the pale blue moonlight, you couldn’t have told them apart: colorless, shiny, cold to the touch. Within weeks, the honeytar had happily swallowed Qwuadril, the great city, the great city of violence.
* * *
Giti and the dozen other slaves could run no longer. They had run from one cave to another for the last three weeks. The glugs with whom they stayed each night were friendly enough, but none of them heeded their warnings. They simply avoided eye contact with the ragged glugs, and gave them directions to the next nearest cave they knew.
None of the former slaves had spotted the honeytar for weeks. They were travelling so quickly that they had in fact made ground on the honeytar. Day by day, seeing no sign of the shiny serpent, a desperate feeling of hope grew among the slaves. Eventually, they became so confident (not to mention exhausted and hungry) that they settled in the largest Pinjani cave they could find.
The atmosphere was much gentler here in the south, in the Pinjani cave region. The glugs, for the first time in weeks, began to enjoy life again. They slept and ate. They talked. They laughed. And they all gradually forgot about the honeytar, which was, unbeknownst to them, sweeping over the planet like a titanic wave of syrup over a gigantic scoop of ice cream. But for now at least, they lived comfortably, peacefully.
Reality, though, came back to them abruptly one morning. As he’d had done every morning for the last week in their new Pinjani home, Kerfa, a young former slave, woke up early to gather yeed cactus. He loved munching on the fresh yeed cactus leaves in the morning, the sweet moisture dew nestling on them. Kerfa thought about this as he hopped out of the cave onto the sands. But he didn’t land in sand. His feet were stuck in a thin puddle of honeytar. Speechless, he shook his knees desperately, which only made him fall over. When he felt the coldness of the honeytar, he gasped. Terror squeezed his heart mercilessly, and Kerfa died whispering how cold it was, so cold, s-s-so c-c-cold.
Giti awoke when she heard Kerfa gasp and went to see if he was all right. She screeched dumbly as soon as she saw the honeytar winking up at her in the rising sun. She realized only dimly that the honeytar had already spread past their cave mouth. The other glugs, too, understood quickly enough what that meant. They were trapped.
By the end of the day, Kerfa’s corpse was fully submerged. While the other glugs sat mournfully in various shadows of the cave, Vesa perched at the cave mouth, watching Kerfa neutrally. He furrowed his brow a little when he noticed the dark ribbon that had formed in the last few hours and trailed from behind Kerfa. Although he didn’t know it, the dark ribbon forming behind Kerfa (and behind every trapped glug across the planet) was a hybrid of a reversed umbilical cord and an embarrassing tail. Within the amber, these streaks were hollowing out, and becoming a highway for, and of, nutrients. The honeytar weaved nearby glugs into a symbiotic labyrinth, in which each glug provided the other with essential nutrients. In addition, deep below the planet surface, the honeytar IV’s dredged buried nutrients up into the surface bound glugs. Until the honeytar suffocated them, glugs could stay alive while never eating any solid food.
Vesa left the entrance disinterestedly. He had never seen a body inside the honeytar, but his curiosity, like his smile, had died somehwere between Stro and Qwuadril.
* * *
The night after Kerfa’s death, the honeytar had poured into the cave and, rolled over the cave floor. The glugs met the honeytar standing so they would have the longest time to live. Their cozy Pinjani cave was filling up quickly like a bathtub. Within two days, Golphez, another former slave, sat hunched up to his nipples, trapped in the amber-colored cement. Just yesterday he had been able to scratch his belly. And only two days ago, Golphez had been sane. Now, he looked like some kind of unshaven, hastily crafted bust in a dimly lit museum. Now, he was insane.
For the last week Golphez had been sculpting tiny amber figurines from the sticky film of honeytar that condensed and hardened every day. Like a doting baker, Golphez rolled his hands over the slowly rising surface to form thin, soft snakes of amber glue. Making sure to vigorously rub off any excess tar from his callused fingers, he then molded the quickly hardening balls, lightly squeezing their bulbous heads and limbs into shape.
On many nights, other glugs would be awoken from their immobile sleep by Golphez’s rasping laughter as he gently poked and smoothed each figurine into a new friend. Each figurine he gave a name. By now he had an entire colony of faceless, plump dolls scattered around him. Sometimes in fits of giddy hysteria, Golphez would fling one of his unwitting tar subjects at a nearby glug trapped in the tar.
This situation was particularly uncomfortable for Doot. On more than one occasion, the unmentionably old and pitifully short and terribly fat Doot, who was already trapped up to his neck in the golden cement, squealed painfully as a zooming honeytar baby struck him in the face. Inexplicably, Golphez had chosen Doot as his main target. Nicks and scrapes speckled Doot’s wide forehead. Dried rivulets of blood streaked down his face, caking his eyebrows and darkening his nose.
The other glugs pleaded tonelessly with Golphez to stop hurting them and Doot. Doot, who was timid, and completely paralyzed in honeytar on top of that, could do nothing to stop Golphez’s insane capriciousness. Vaziti, on the other hand, was determined to do something. He repeatedly screamed at Golphez to stop. Most of the time, Golphez replied by flinging a honeytar baby at Vaziti. But Vaziti was determined to stop Golphez.
Seething in immobile rage, Desakop began crafting a spear out of the honeytar. He gingerly rolled his hands over the smooth honeytar surface at his waist, like a child rolling a clay snake on a table. Every time Golphez cackled, Vaziti inhaled sharply. With every breath, the rich sweet, smell of the honeytar drove him into a keener madness, closer to violence. At last, unable to restrain himself any longer, Vaziti hefted his hard arm-length spear above his head.
He shouted in Golphez’s direction. “Golphez, you wallal dropping, just remember, I killed you first, not this sticky tar. I did.”
On the word “did” Vaziti hurledhis spear at Golphez, who held his arms in front of him like a feeble shield. A mushy thunk! echoed in the cave and was followed by a plastic clatter. The spear went clean through Golphez and struck the wall behind him. Although no one noticed, a brittle shower of rocks rattled onto the honeytar. When they fell,they uncovered a tiny, blood-covered hole in the wall, precisely where Vaziti’s spear had struck. Golphez gargled and died.
Vaziti’s hoarse guffaw rumbled inside the cave. While he laughed, Giti wept thinly. She rested her elbows – forever – on the honeytar and buried her face hopelessly in her hands. There was nothing she could do to stop Vaziti. There was nothing she could do to stop the honeytar. There was nothing to do but weep.
Vesa gazed at her through the night. As the sun rose, so did the honeytar, quickly sealing over his small mouth and nose. Darkness swallowed him as he wondered which would be worse, the honeytar or a spear.
* * *
After two days of careful sketching and lively discussion, the archaeologists were ready to pack up. Wells had decided to take one more brief tour of the whole cave, in order to gain perspective on the cave as a whole site.
Tibbon, as usual, trailed behind the others. And, as usual, he didn’t listen to a word Wells said. In fact, he stopped once he came to the wall painting, while the other three went on to the back. The wall was all he had looked at for the last two days. He was always drawn to the thin, beautiful figure. And a chill always crawled his neck when he saw the brutal spear-brandishing figure. And he always smiled briefly at the tiny figure who seemed to be staring at the beautiful woman figure. Tears filled his eyes and, for a moment, the figures shimmered with life, a life long gone.
Suddenly, in the back of the cavern, a sudden shower of small rocks rattling down the wall startled the archaeologists.
“Bloody hell!” shouted Givmore.
All heads whipped left, sending a pack of orange flashlight beams cutting through the dusty air to the source of the noise. Someone dropped his clipboard, sending a plastic twang! through the cave.
Hunt tried to calm everyone down as Wells investigated in the back of the cave. “Don’t worry, everyone! It’s just some loose rocks. But don’t move, this cave might be less secure than we thought,” called Hunt
“Some rocks must have jarred loose somehow. It looks all right,” added Wells.
“Bloody hell,” murmured Givmore again as he wiped sweat from his forehead. Everyone’s nerves were already tense, so it was tacitly decided the day was over.
A few pebbles and a torrent of dust had rolled toward their feet, followed by a single larger rock that bumped against Tibbon’s boot. Tibbon couldn’t help but notice how the rock made an almost hollow, fragile sound as it rolled. It sounded more like hard wood or bone than rock. The shape of the rock as well caught Tibbon’s eye. It didn’t seem natural, natural for a rock at least. For one thing, it was perfectly symmetrical, and oblong. The stone also had shallow grooves running along it, like deep seams on a rugby ball, or channels carved in a coconut. It looked almost as if it had not been molded by time, but rather by a more careful hand. The two shallow divots at the front of the rock stared right up at Tibbon’s face, almost pleading with him.
Tibbon didn’t hear the tired shuffling of his partners leaving the cave. He was jarred from his macabre daze when Hunt called back, “Come on, Tibbon. We’ve had a full day. Let’s eat. I bet your cot’s more comfortable than this place anyway.”
Tibbon absentmindedly mumbled a “Right” back at Hunt. He had to strain his head away from the mutely insistent divots in the rock nesting at his trembling foot. As he staggered away from the cave painting, glancing at the sketches of a hunt, of a tribal dance, of a meeting, he realized all of it was gone. These cavemen were trapped forever on a cave wall. Their dreams frozen in time. Their injustices forever forgotten. Their triumphs buried under the weight of progress. And the spear-brandishing figure’s stark act of violence immortalized in this one wall. Tibbon’s eyes watered. And just then, through the blur of tears, Tibbon noticed two small dots on one of the inken faces, mutely pleading with him...
He scrambled toward the light at the cave entrance. He ran out into the light, frantically huffing and puffing. For one terrifying instant, Tibbon looked over the desert, orange in the setting sunlight, and was sure he was the only human left alive.
Devastated, he feebly moaned, “They’re all gone. We’re all gone.”
Givmore’s whiny tenor, however, proved him wrong.
“Hurry up, chap! Some of us know when to call it quits and eat. Follow our lead, old boy.”
Tibbon hopped down the rocks and trotted to the Hummer like a worn out child. He had the weight of a distant world hanging from his eyes, on his shoulders, around his ankles.
Inside the jeep, on the way back to camp, Tibbon looked at every face in the jeep. He darted from face to face, more sure with each glance that their heads were shriveling up into the bony permanence of skulls.
And during the whole ride to camp, as Tibbon was slowly unraveling, Wells absentmindedly picked at the curious drops of hard shiny plastic that had gotten stuck to his boot when he had inspected the tumble of rocks in the cavern. It’s like amber or petrified honey, Wells distractedly thought to himself, too intent on the marvelous sunset to care what was on his boot.
“One of a kind. Never again...” he murmured admiringly.