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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 2

by David Carroll, 1994

Breakfast was subdued.

The house they had spent the previous day in seemed to consist of five equally-sized rooms surrounding an area with smooth wooden floors and open to the deepening sky. It was here they ate, sitting on finely carved wooden stools, sitting around a circular -- and wooden -- table.

At least the cutlery isn't made of wood, thought Ace as she stared in disbelief at the knife and fork provided by their hostess. Each was made from a single piece of bone -- as carefully carved as the chairs and, Ace discovered whilst attacking a sausage, very sharp.

It was only after the third sausage that she sat back and thought a little, trying to take it all in.

According to the further discussions the Doctor and their hostess had undertaken, they were in the house of the local medics. Their host was introduced as Evo Lenkso, who along with her husband Johano (not at the table, but apparently already in the village) cared medically for the little community. She seemed friendly enough to Ace, and smiled often and convincingly. Even after the Doctor had persuaded her they were quite well enough to eat outdoors she fussed around them, chatting constantly in a soft voice and indecipherable tongue.

Ace ignored it. She was not going to be put out by a trivial matter. There were more important things to worry about.

For a start, while initially amused at the fact that everyone's name seemed to end in an "O", she had drawn the line when the Doctor introduced themselves as, if Ace got this bit right, "la Kuracisto kaj mia amiko Aso". 'Just Ace', she told the bemused woman. She pointed to herself. 'Not Aso, Ace'.

The woman had laughed, but seemed to understand.

The other person at the table was introduced to her, through the Doctor, as Helano Lenkso, a girl a bit younger than Ace and apparently as sullen as her mother was out-going. She had hardly looked at the two new-comers and only spoke a few brief words to Evo. Ace had tried to smile at her between sausages, but had been ignored. It didn't bother Ace much, and she shrugged it off.

She finished the sausages, and started on the eggs, fried to perfection. With the wooden mug of orange juice to finish with it seemed to be exactly the sort of breakfast everyone expected back in England, but hardly ever got.

The sausages had been mixed with some unknown spice, and the orange juice tasted a little funny, but there you had it. Ace already knew they weren't back in England, and had to remind herself to stop reminding herself of the fact.

The conversation between the Doctor and Evo was a dead giveaway, and the house itself was simply bizarre. There weren't any windows, for a start. Or at least, none made from glass, for the two rooms in the corner of the house that didn't open into the central area had holes in the walls. If that meant there was no glass to be had round here there were a couple of other significant absences as well. Metal for a start -- for why else the bone cutlery, and why else was breakfast cooked on a thin wooden plate that didn't blacken when placed over the small camp-fire out the front of the house? Ace wondered how they cooked anything when it rained, but as the Doctor was already in constant conversation with the hovering woman, she couldn't ask.

'Hey,' she butted in again once she had satisfied her stomach. 'Anything I should know about?'

The Doctor waved her off impatiently (he was getting good at that) and so she just sat, pouring herself some more orange juice. When the other girl (Ace had to think rapidly to remember the name Helano) moved away from the table without ceremony Ace figured it was safe for her to do so as well. Helano had moved back into the house, into the door opposite the one to their own sleeping quarters, but Ace wanted a bit more of a look-see at where they were. She climbed down the three wooden steps from the wooden "courtyard" and took her first long look at the village of Notwarm, apparently somewhere in Hell.

It didn't look like Hell. But the Doctor had been right about one thing at least. They were indeed surrounded by rice paddies, right up to this very building, and for at least as far as the eye could make out detail, and in every direction but one.

Between the paddies ran raised walk-ways and squares of grass and packed dirt, one of which she now stood on, and dotted about the landscape were numerous cottages, most about half the size of the Lenkso's house, and several with little wisps of smoke rising from nearby. Men and women moved in undetermined patterns along the walk-ways and stood bent in the small flooded fields, the occasional dog running on the bank, and the occasional cow wading knee deep in water. A big white bird flew overhead, slowly and gracefully.

It was too green, too green to be England, for the paddies to just be unkempt fields. Ace realised it looked a little like the open areas in Vietnam that you saw in movies, just before the Americans came to blow the native population into little bits of tomato sauce. But the farmers weren't wearing wide-brimmed hats, and Ace knew she wasn't in Vietnam.

Hell, she thought to herself, and laughed a little, strangely. Hell and damnation.

In the direction in which the paddies didn't go forever lay what had to be the village proper. Perhaps ten or so larger buildings huddled together, too far away to discern function, and the watery ground seemed to be built up into a large area of grass and solid earth.

By the smoke (she remembered the plume she'd seen the day before) there seemed to be a fairly large fire among the central buildings. Ace assumed from the lack of general reaction that it was a controlled one. In this climate she guessed it was hard enough to make a fire light in the first place.

Coming towards them from the village were two people, farmers by their dress, a middle-aged man and a boy in his late teens. They strode purposefully, and it was obvious that their destination was the house outside which she stood.

Before they arrived she glanced around once more, trying to see if she'd missed anything in her overview.

Oh yeah, she thought, there isn't a sun. Nor clouds for that matter. The only break against the blue above her was the winged wildlife, and there weren't even any mountain ranges or similar she could see at the horizons around her. The tallest objects in sight were the trees that dotted the landscape at odd places.

Anything else?

Just one more thing. It was cold.

Not the sort of cool brought by the wind. Not the chill of objects placed outside the sun's range (and indeed, Ace could feel the warmth of the no-sun upon her face and arms). It was a cold from the ground, something that emanated, and came in waves.

She began to understand why the village had received its name.

But then the two she had seen earlier arrived and she lost the train of thought.

'Saluton! Kiel vi fartas?' the man called to her once they were at comfortable range. She didn't react, but once they'd come closer she raised her hands in resignation. 'Non-speaka de Spanish,' she said in her best mock-accent.

'Kio estis tio?' the man replied, sounding puzzled. She indicated quiet, and bade them follow her back to the house.

The man, of largeish build and virile black beard, fell slightly in front of Ace, leaving her to walk beside the boy. He was tall enough, and also with dark hair and pale skin.

'Spanish?' he said to her, tasting the word.

'Esperanto, Spanish, whatever,' she retorted, half to herself. 'It doesn't matter, you still can't understand what I'm saying.'

'But I do,' the boy said. And he laughed at the surprised expression on her face.

* * *

Elizabeto groaned, just to check she was really awake, and, groping on the floor for her warm gown and fur slippers, got out of bed.

She didn't feel too good, but it was nothing she wasn't used to, and when she opened the door to let some proper Light into the luke-dark room she blinked a little and felt better.

She sat back on the bed, and wondered what to have for breakfast.

Not fish, she decided. Not this morning.

Last night she had dreamed about fish. Thousands of them, millions. All swimming against a current, all alike, packed tightly together, swimming together. They were swimming upstream, though maybe the sheer force of numbers was forcing the current backwards. It was hard to tell. But as they swam the water began to foul. Invisible draughts wove around the little swimmers, and they began to die. But their motions of swimming went unchecked, and as fish-flesh softened and loosened and fell off fish-bones it became an army of little spiky skeletons, wiggling up-river. But then even the skeletons broke apart, individual bones floating backward, and then more bones, and more, and then the river was clear. The water was pure, and beautiful, and sparkled, and if she had then dreamed of stranger things, they were lost to her.

Not, Elizabeto decided, fish for breakfast.

She opened up the little trapdoor under her living-room floor and stuck her head down to see what she had.

The water half a meter below her flowed sluggishly, and hanging off the roof of her larder were a couple of sausages, some dried fish, and a chicken which should still be edible. And, of course, rice. She contemplated in the faint light filtering in from the open sides, then choose two eggs (already boiled), a slice of thick grainy bread and the wooden container of milk (she was pretty sure she got that the day before yesterday. Wouldn't be off yet).

Elizabeto ate the sparse meal at a table on the grassy area outside her three-room house, and so saw the small party of men coming towards her long before they arrived.

It was not an easy place, Malvarmo, to move round undetected by daylight.

She nodded to the four of them when they got close enough, and gestured for them to sit. They were all members of the village council, and by their expressions she knew this visit was neither work nor pleasure.

'What's wrong?' she asked them when they didn't sit down.

The four of them looked at her for a while, and though she was used to being looked at by men, it made her uncomfortable. She took another sip of milk and asked her question again. This time she appealed directly to Petro [S]afisto, the only one of the four she had met.

He coloured slightly, embarrassed, and it was [G]ako Mendelo, the senior member, who answered. 'It is your father...' he said.

'What? Don't tell me he's trying a Expulsion Ruling?'

'No. Sinjorino Trasto, your father... he died last night. He fell into the Fire sometime after the tavern closed, and wasn't found till this morning.'

Elizabeto looked at the four of them in disbelief, stunned. 'What,' she said, because it was the only thing she could think of. She looked towards the village centre. The smoke from the Fire floated above it, ever-present, as thin as usual. Wouldn't there be some sign, she thought. Some sign that he... he...

But his body would have been found long ago, at least an hour. There would be no signs for her.

She stood up, feeling exposed before these men in her gown and slippers. 'What,' she said again, then she staggered over to kneel at the bank where the grass met the water, and threw up two eggs, a slice of bread and some milk into the cool field.

She knelt there for some time, feeling sick, feeling ashamed. Wanting to be alone.

But when she looked up she saw that the four men had already left her, were an impossible distance away. She wanted to run after them, demand to know what was really going on. She didn't, and falling full onto the wet grass, between the warmth from above and the cold from below, she started to cry.

* * *

'Hey, you boy. Yes, you.' Erico looked up as the fair-haired man walked over to him, calling him. The man was still shivering, rubbing his hands to counteract the sharp chill of the cavern where they had placed old Vil[c]jo's body.

'What's your name, boy?' he said, his breathing and voice seemingly unaffected by the temperatures that still left his skin blue-purple.

'Erico Sanktemo, Sinjoro,' the boy replied politely. 'I work at the Hot Spot.'

'Yes, I saw you there last night. Now you seem to be a perceptive young lad. I'm passing through the village and apparently a young friend of mine is also in town. Would you have seen her? She looks like this. Auburn hair, brown eyes.'

Erico studied the folded sheet of paper he was given carefully. The sketch was well done, but hurried, and Erico guessed from the girl's pose it had been copied off a properly framed portrait. 'No, I haven't seen her,' he lied, still polite. 'I think I would remember her if I had. She's pretty, isn't she?'

'Yes', said the man. 'Yes she is.' And he retrieved his paper, refolded it, and put it back in his pocket.

As he started to walk away again, Erico called after him. 'Wait, Sinjoro. What is your name?'

The man turned and looked at him, surprised.

'Just in case,' the boy went on. 'In case I see your friend, and I can tell her you're looking for her.'

The man considered this for a short while. 'Good thinking, boy. You can tell her that [S]olto Tanio would be pleased to see her. And if you do find her, you can tell me as well.'

He turned abruptly, and Erico watched him leave. Suddenly a thought came to the boy, giving him a little shudder of fear. He hoped the man had believed his lie. He had called Erico perceptive, and no-one had ever done that before. Erico thought the man would be very hard to fool.

But the lie had been a good one, well told, and he had had no negative feelings from it.

He remembered the girl from the sketch, for she had been fairly pretty (though perhaps not as much as the sketch had made out), and she had been in the tavern last night. He had found her whilst climbing the stairs, whilst she was watching the ground floor from a natural vantage point at the top of them.

She had risen quickly, not acknowledging she had been caught spying, and strolled down the hall-way. Disappearing into one of the rooms Erico knew should be locked was the last he saw of her.

He had followed, but the room was empty and nothing had been visible out the window.

Erico ran out of the large market square and south to the proper countryside beyond the rice paddies. He had already checked the three horses in his care, and he knew most of the adults would be annoyed by his presence.

He didn't run because he was afraid of strange things, or to get away from the village. He ran because he was a fourteen-year old boy, and it pleased him to do so.

* * *

'Um, could you say that again?' said Ace, feeling almost as disorientated by the boy's words in English as she had by her first encounter with Esperanto.

'I understand what you're speaking. It's English, one of the old languages.' His accent was strange, and he spoke a little hesitantly, as if unused to the words.

'How old? And how did you learn it?'

The two had stopped, and faced each other some fifteen feet from the table where the man with the beard was being introduced to the Doctor.

'Hey, slow down. Introductions first. My name is Andreo Akvisto, though in English I believe you'd say Andrew. You are...?'

'Ace, and my friend still at the table is the Doctor, though he introduced himself as something else earlier.'

'La Kuracisto?'

'Yeah, something like that. I suppose it simply means "Doctor".'

'Yes, or healer. Is that all the names you have?'

'That's all he ever tells anyone.'

A short silence fell between them, though they could hear the Doctor and Andreo's companion talking clearly enough. They just looked at each other, wondering.

'Where do you come from?' Andreo eventually asked.

'I asked the first question. How did you learn English?'

'My grandfather taught it to me, when I was little. He sat me on his lap one day and said any and all knowledge would be useful in the end, then spent seven years teaching me English. It seems he may have been right.'

'He taught you English so you could talk to any visitors who just happened to pop by that didn't speak Esperanto?'

'No. I think he taught me English because it was the only thing he knew. His father had taught him.'

'Is he your father?' She indicated the man with the beard.

'Yes, though he doesn't speak the language. This grandfather only had daughters, and Petro married one of them.'

Ace looked at the boy suspiciously. 'Did he teach any of his daughters English?'

'I don't think so, not Mother anyway.'

'Typical, bloody typical,' muttered Ace under her breath, suddenly too caught up in the issue of sexist grandparents to remember what they were actually talking about.

But the boy seemed to agree. 'Yes, he was a strange old man,' and there was sadness in his voice, and she left the issue alone.

'My turn,' said the boy after another short silence. 'Where are you from?'

'Oh, around. The Doctor and I travel together.'

'Around Harriso?'

'Ah, no. We haven't been there,' Ace said, cautiously, knowing she was probably making a big mistake.

And maybe she did, because there was no answer from Andrew, and she couldn't think of anything else that wouldn't add to any general suspicions he had.

Hey, she thought. I don't speak the language that everyone else does. How suspicious can you get?

She thought of asking him if they were in Hell, and decided against it. She didn't think it would come out in quite the right way.

* * *

[G]esemio Tanio was quite aware that she didn't have the pristine beauty that the portraits around her father's house might show, and most of the time it didn't worry her in the slightest.

But as she lay huddled in a shawl and under a rough blanket and wondered where she was and what she was doing and listened to silence, she wished suddenly that she was the girl her father thought she was. It was a traitorous thought, and she tried to reject it, push it from her.

But somehow the thought comforted her, and she closed her eyes and pretended for a while that she was beautiful and the envy of the town and that she would go out with all the boys and do what they told her to do.

No need to think about anything, no need to decide about what she really wanted, because it wouldn't really matter.

She shuddered violently, and pushed herself fully awake, sitting up. She discovered she had been sleeping on some old sacks, now empty, and it felt like the rough material had marked her skin with its pattern even through the travelling clothes she was wearing. She wasn't sure what else was in the room; the only illumination was the soft Light filtering through the resin-filled gaps that were there for this very purpose, while keeping the room water-tight and insect-proof.

She made out a large assortment of clothing standing against one wall, apparently held on pegs, and a jumble of boxes and chests and sacks against another.

In a corner were perhaps several dozen longbows and spears, and with sudden inspiration she hurried to that corner to see if there was anything else of interest. Feeling the weapons, she discovered that they would be next to useless. The spears were blunt, and the bows were crudely made, looking as if they'd crack if any real pressure had been applied on the rough string. Not that she could have hit much with them if they had been real, she reflected.

She kept searching, and found two sacks lying behind the bows. One was filled with coarse arrows, perhaps thirty of them, all with wooden heads. The other was more interesting, containing several daggers. Most were simple mock-weapons, but some were proper bone. She grabbed one, and held it to herself, feeling better.

She was up again, and half-way to the door before, with a sudden thought, she tested the weapon. The blade disappeared into the wooden hilt, and she laughed at the sudden picture she got of the embarrassment of stabbing somebody with it. 'Sorry,' she would say. 'My mistake.'

It felt good to laugh a little, after what had happened last night.

Then she stopped laughing, and remembered last night fully. Her throat suddenly went dry, and she crouched defensively, listening for noise, anything. There was nothing, and after a while she started to loosen up a little.

Recent events crowded against the walls of her brain, trying to overwhelm her, but she pushed them aside. She was nowhere near safe enough to relax, but this was also no time to panic.

She controlled her breathing, and looked at the "weapon" in her hand. She reflected it would only be useful to stab someone in the eye with. She shuddered, and threw it back with its kin.

With another quick look around to see if she'd missed anything else potentially useful, she walked over to the door, unlocked it, and went outside.

Someone grabbed her, spinning her off balance and threw her roughly against the outside of the building.

She cried out in anger, and tried to twist away. But the unseen assailant grabbed her round the neck with his arm, his legs resisting her frantic kicks with ease.

I got this far, [G]esemio thought, desperately and sadly. I got further than I thought I would. And feeling the strength of the man behind her, she knew that this was as far as she would get.

* * *

'You seemed disappointed when you saw me,' said Ace. It seemed as good a conversational tack as any.

'Did I?' Andreo said, sounding a little surprised. 'I actually thought you might have been somebody else. No-one important.'

'Hey, that's me to a tee,' the girl grinned. 'Though the Doctor does all right for himself. Gets around.'

'It must be great to travel,' Andreo said, suddenly looking away from her. 'Visit Centrejo, the wheat farms, the Forest... Everything flows south, and yet we don't get any of it. We're just the dumping ground here, despite the rousing speeches of the council.'

He sounded sad again, and Ace had no idea what he was talking about. 'Yes,' she said, matching his tone.

'Where's Centrayo?' she continued, after a pause.

'Rejo, spelt with a "J", though it sounds like the English "Y". Centrejo. Don't you know?'

Another mistake, though she reckoned she'd walked into this one. 'Obviously not, or I wouldn't ask.' A little tetchily.

'Yes,' he smiled, still friendly. 'It's in the centre of Harriso, where they have the cotton farms and the Government sits. Which is about all they do do, come to think of it.'

'And Harriso is...?' asked Ace, giving up any pretence of knowledge.

'Why, the world, the circle. Everything is in Harriso. I suppose you must forget that, coming from the realm of the dead.' He looked at her evenly, almost daring her to contradict him.

'Yes,' said Ace. 'I suppose I must have.'

'Come on, Ace. Stop chatting, there's work to be done,' the Doctor said, breezing by.

'Got to go. I'll see you later maybe,' the girl, caught up in the flow, called back to Andreo.

'Wait,' he cried, looking somewhat startled at the sudden movement. Ace looked back, still trailing behind her companion. 'We've got a play on tonight, at the theatre just north-east of the village. You've got to come and see it.'

The strange girl grinned, and waved consent, and turned away.

Petro walked over to the boy. 'Did you find out anything?' he asked his son.


'No. Neither did I, really. What's this thing called "English"?' Andreo didn't answer, and the two of them watched the strange pair disappear into the village proper.

* * *

Erico ran, and felt the wind and the grass and the dew slip behind him, to be eternally renewed in front of him. He wasn't a great runner, didn't have quite the natural stride needed for speed, but he ran well enough not to mind.

He saw four men talking to Elizabeto Trasto on the way near her house, and he knew why they were there. He got strange thoughts at times, about Elizabeto, emptying thoughts, formless. He had only discovered what she was this year. 'A whore,' Marko had told him, scornfully. They had been fishing for eels in the streams north of Malvarmo, an overnight trip and exciting. But he had somehow sensed at the time this wasn't the facts of life, just reiteration of village gossip. 'A dirty whore. My mum reckons she should be expelled, but she's known too many people. If you know what I mean.' Erico did, in a vague sort of way.

He felt sorrow for her now, but it was tinged with the older thoughts, and he kept on running, feeling the wind and grass and dew.

But even for teenage boys eternity comes to an end, and when he reached the banks of the River he fell on the ground and panted, happy enough with the world, if not all that went on in it.

The water rushed by, reflecting the blue of the sky, but otherwise empty. He could see a group of men and women some distance to the East, too far for identification, and he knew that after the news had become public last night just about everyone would come down sooner or later. To look across the water and wonder about the other side.

And, of course, in case anyone else should happen to reveal themselves and fall into instantly famous arms.

The villagers were taking it quietly, as they took just about everything, and with the overnight death and the early morning ritual of the farmer, the banks weren't exactly crowded. But they would come, maybe today, maybe tomorrow.

Erico gazed across the currents, as he had done before. No feelings, no hunches, just a lot of water.

He wondered what the connection was between the overnight death and the man and woman who had come a-visiting. He didn't think the fair-haired man who had talked to Vil[c]jo was the same as the one washed up, and the two were supposed to be still at the Lenkso's, recovering. But the girl he had seen, what of her?

Something caught his eye, tangled in the long grass below him and to the right. It was a glint of light, but not like that off water. Duller, somehow.

He crawled the three metres and reached for the object, picking it up in wonder. It was a little square, five centimetres wide, of some material he had never seen before, hard and bright and cold. Across one entire face were tiny lines and circles, intricate in detail. And roughly, seemingly hewn out of the centre of the square, was a figure, seeming to mock his earlier questions. He traced it with one finger, knowing that even treated bone probably wouldn't scratch this material. And while Erico had great difficulty reading, he knew a question mark when he saw one.

He looked across the River, searching for answers. And the River flowed by.


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