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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 7

by David Carroll, 1994

There was a lot of room on a orchard twelve hundred hectares in size. Enough room for almost two hundred thousand trees, all lined up in neat little rows. Enough room for streams and banks and tiny waterfalls, hedges overgrown with vine and little gullies full of shade and oak and fern. Disease could live here too, and exist for weeks without discovery, if the season was right. And animals of course, plenty of those.

There was a family tradition of an old red fox with a touch of grey at the ears and white along the tail, one that came as he pleased, and suffered the humans on his land, and who would never be impaled on a hunting arrow.

The fruit bats were more corporeal, and while many trees had thin bags tied to the upper branches to dissuade the beasts, it had never been the most effective of solutions.

Some years ago [S]olto Tanio had offered half a day's salary for every carcass of a little winged glutton brought in front of him. It had been a pitiful sight, the pile that built itself up over the course of the next week on the lawn beside the house. Crushed bodies and broken wings and thickening liquid glue, food for the flies and the dogs and the foxes, perhaps even the one with the grey ears and white-striped tail.

[S]olto had sickened at the sight, and his only daughter had cried bitter tears and said she heard them, heard the bodies at night, crawling towards the house on snapped limbs. The boys and their mother had not admitted such a fear, but their eyes had been sad, and haunted.

So [S]olto had stopped, and sold the lot to a man who had shovelled the carcasses onto a cart and took them off to [C]inujo for some unimaginable purpose.

Of course he didn't make one twentieth of the value given out for the sport, but he had reduced the population of fruit bats in his orchid. For a time.

Now [S]olto Tanio walked along in the shade between his trees and thought of little corpses and his only daughter. [G]esemio had been twelve back then, a wild little thing, always ready to explode into tears or laughter, always willing to explore the far corners of the twelve hundred hectares of her world.

He had watched her grow with delight, and as she had entered her teens the two had moved slowly apart, and he had taken this as natural and begrudged her none of it.

Sometimes he wondered if she ever considered that he had swum in the very streams she discovered as new.

Sometimes he thought she disappeared into the wilderness (and an orchard can certainly be wilderness, if you are of the right age) in shame and confusion about the changes in herself as she became a woman. But these thoughts troubled him as improper, his own imaginings, and he steeled himself against thinking of his daughter so.

And now the paths he strode were well-ordered, a certain length, a certain pattern. No labyrinth, just a convenient way to spread the pickers that had to descend like a horde once a year, simply to reach every tree on the estate.

Patterns troubled him sometimes, and he wondered if he was getting old. But he told himself and others that he was a realist (which simply meant he believed in what he believed), and he knew a dead daughter would trouble him a great deal more.

The note in his hand was succinct and badly-scrawled. It said:

Am just south of Afgato, miserable place. Met gov messager so sending you this. Lost her, but found trail. I'll get her.

His daughter was being got. He had sent an assassin after his daughter, because he had panicked and he had been so angry that she had run away. An assassin, the first man he had found.

'Return my daughter to me, unharmed,' he had told the man, 'and you will be well paid for the effort'. You didn't pay this man's sort in beer and food and trinkets, but [S]olto knew many people, was a man of influence in [C]inujo, and could pay what he offered.

Only now he knew he had made a terrible mistake, and he wondered what weight that one little word, "unharmed", would carry in the action down south.

[S]olto was a man used to telling other people what to do, but by the end of his walk, its course bringing him inexorably back to the house, he had had a different idea. He called one servant to prepare food, another to ready the fittest horse in his stable.

He explained as little to his wife as he could get away with, and the next morning saw him ride out of the plantation at a fast and steady canter.

He may have been, probably was, far too late, but he vowed to do what he could.

* * *

'Oh bugger', said [G]esemio miserably, and she kicked fitfully at a blackened support beam, no more than a stump. The beam obviously still has some strength in it and didn't bend under her provocation, but a shower of ash rose and fell, lazily.

That's all there was, ash. The theatre had been completely destroyed, the three buildings behind it likewise. The planks and scaffolding that made up the rough seating had fared better, the fire gutting itself with a semblance of structure left standing.

Impossible to touch, let alone sit on.

There were ten of them out here among the ruins, all members of the theatre company that had performed three nights ago, and, of course, her. Andreo was shifting fine particles of soot any which way, also simply looking around him.

A girl called out something, simply a cry of attention, in a subdued voice. She had found the knife blades in what remained of the props hut. Another boy was scrambling on his knees and started pulling charred blankets from the mess.

Some of the others went to help, some simply stood and looked around with the hint of tears in their eyes. A pair had been consigned to search the remains of the seating to look for anything which had been dropped in the confusion. [G]esemio and Andreo were tackling the stage area itself, and together they started pulling free ropes and shifting boards and retrieving any scrap of bone or material or even wood not wholly consumed.

Sometimes the embers would still be hot, a dull orange heat that had somehow sustained itself until a booted foot scattered and stamped it out.

It was not an easy job this one, and [G]esemio felt the sweat start on her arms and face, and allowed herself some small pleasure in the physical work, the actual activity, pulling down unstable beams, shifting the remains of boards to see what hid beneath them.

'What are you going to do?' she asked the boy when he called a break, organised someone to fetch the chilled fruit juice waiting in the village.

Andreo just shrugged and looked again at the twenty metre circle of devastation. For all their work it didn't look any different, just dead and black and somehow lonely.

'We'll keep performing,' he said at last. 'Of course we will, though for a while it will be on a grass stage with grass seats for those whose joints can take the damp.'

He smiled a little, and [G]esemio finally realised that she was somewhat entranced by his little smiles, the serious set of his eyes that could dissolve into knowing humour or simple and heart-breaking sorrow.

There had been a lot of sorrow in there, since the night of the fire, in the eyes of Andreo and many of the other inhabitants of this village she had stumbled over one darkening afternoon. Three funerals had been held here recently. Two for the village's own, one for a stranger. The last had been hurried, held with more ritual than care, but she had seen true mourning and loss during the services of the first two.

And she had mourned with these people. She mourned the boy that she had spoken to so briefly, the one that thought she had a pretty name. Natalo Te[u]kro had been found the day after the fire some way from the village, partly buried in an overgrown patch of grass and wild flowers. It had been many hours since his throat had been cut, and his body was stiff and wet with dew, but his eyes still looked betrayed, still carried the message of panic and lack of understanding that he had died with.

And yes, as she had found, she could also mourn for Vil[c]jo Trasto, and look upon the blackened mess he had become with pity.

Tears had come to her in the last couple of days, just springing to her eyes without invitation, but not necessarily without welcome. She cried for the dead and the injured, for the things she had done, for her home so far away. And she cried in wonder that she was still alive, as if that was the strangest thing.

But Andreo never cried, not that she had seen. He carried his sorrow in his expression, his stance, in those wonderful blue-green eyes. Even in his bitterness, as he looked now around the remains of a theatre he had loved, he was still strong.

He had explained much about the theatre to her, in the nights when he wasn't at the doctor's house, before they dared or had time to survey the damage here for themselves. He told her anecdotes, and of performances given and the modifications he had made in his few years as principal director. He had made her laugh, and made her feel something for this building she had only looked on with indifference and as a temporary shelter.

And yes, she now admitted, as she looked not at the wreckage but at him, the feelings may have run deeper than she thought.

She shivered a little, in fear and excitement and anticipation, and then Andreo turned, and called them back to work.

* * *

The afternoon wore on. It was a warm day, full of Light. But it was time to rest now, and Erico, Marko and Ranjo sat in the shade of the Hot Spot's stable, the long dry grass stiff and itching and somehow comfortable against their backs. The four horses currently residing therein moved a little further into their cubicles, a little further away from the three boys, but otherwise ignored them. One of the horses was the one at the boat-yard a couple of days ago, its owner's business transactions delayed by recent events.

Erico neither knew this, nor would have cared if he had. He sat opposite the other two, watching them at times, mostly gazing into the deeper shadows of the corners, simply listening.

The three had run to the River and back, they had climbed the trees overlooking the tannery, though nothing interesting had been happening today. Ranjo had a knife, a small blade, properly stained and sharp. By an undefined local agreement among the local children, a certain branch at the top of a certain tree was fair game. Each of the three had sawed into the wood with the knife, into the constantly violated wound that only bled sap. The branch was thick, the cut less than a quarter of the diameter. How long the operation would take, months or seasons, was part of the undercurrent of local gossip most adults didn't hear. Children have their own concerns.

Erico listened to the theories offered by the other two and didn't care much about that either.

He had run, had played, but was now content to lie back and only observe. His dialogue, sparse all day, had faded to silence.

Ranjo was supposed to be learning to write, and the two talked about their studies. They talked about the girls in the village, in stock words and phrases that were half violent, half painfully bewildered. And of course they talked about the fire at the theatre, and the three funerals, and how the whole village had been there. About Vil[c]jo Trasto and his vicious tongue and promises of beating to any kid he could catch. They recounted their own plans for revenge on the man, and reiterated the half-possible stories of others. They were sad when they spoke of Vil[c]jo, wistful, perhaps wondering if they would ever be old. They spoke briefly of Natalo, and dying young, but they didn't know either subject very well.

And after an hour or two the conversation faltered. They perhaps realised that Erico wasn't a silent partner in the discussion but a separate entity, studying them dispassionately.

'Hey,' Marko called across the faintly humid room. 'You said you could get some sake out of your dad's store.' Ranjo looked interested.

'Yeah,' Erico replied, lazily. He didn't move, his gaze drifted, not meeting the eyes of either of them.

'Erico?' Ranjo said, a minute or two later.

The room wasn't silent, the subdued noise from the tavern had already begun, and the crackle of the Fire that had seemed so much louder recently. But the question, asked with real worry behind the voice, sounded like it broke silence.

Erico's gaze drifted in the near-darkness, finding the horses, the matted and beaten hay, the saddles and harnesses, the cloths and stiff brushes that he had neglected since the night of the fire.

After a while Marko and Ranjo simply got up and walked away. Erico didn't care. He sat and thought about the conversation of that day, running phrases through his mind, wondering what they meant.

He sat there till hunger called him to a lonely supper, and fatigue called him to a somehow lonely bed.

* * *

Elizabeto Trasto lay awake that night, listening to the very real silence around her little hut. Nobody had called on her tonight, for the first time that she could remember she had been left in peace. Her body wouldn't sleep, of course, and all of its sundry aches seemed to be more insistent then ever.

Of the recent funerals she had only visited her father's, to play-act in front of five hundred people the goodbyes she had already said to him by flickering torch-light in the Cold Spot. [G]ako Mendelo had been there to say some words, and had clasped her hands afterwards and said he was very sorry. Elizabeto wasn't sure. In the days after she had stood up from the damp grass and realised that being sorry for oneself didn't change a thing, she had looked around her and seen that the Malvarmo itself had suffered recently. And [G]ako, senior member of the village council, seemed to be wearing the same smile that he always had, and kept saying to people that he was sorry.

It didn't take long for this brief conversation to get round to her future plans. 'All very well,' he had said, and 'I congratulate you on your decision', not saying which decision, of course, Malvarmo being a Nice Little Town.

'But what are you going to do?' he then asked.

'I don't know,' she said, looking at him steadily. 'I'll do something.'

'Good,' he said, and the smile was back. He turned away.

Elizabeto lay awake and really wondered what she would do, what she could do.

Nothing came to her, no ideas at all, and when sleep came, it was dreamless.

* * *

Ace dreams.

It was an animated dream, because she was watching TV. The Addams Family, she thought. Or some superhero show, but probably The Addams Family. But Ace wasn't animated, because she was watching the show, she was part of the audience. And when Ange turned up (and later Ace wouldn't remember why Ange had been in her dream -- she hadn't thought of the girl for years) Ace couldn't tell if she were animated or not. It never really occurred to her to look.

The dream started at a party, or maybe that was the first scene she would later remember. But it was a fun party, and lots of people were there. Friends of hers, members of gangs, a unicorn she had once vowed never to forget.

And that was years ago too, wasn't it?

No members of the family that was kooky, spooky and ooky.

But there was a villain, a bad-guy. Downright hissable. An animated cowboy, tall and lean, with flat brown clothes and cartoon stubble. This wasn't state-of-the-art animation you understand, even for 1987. This was old Hanna-Barbera stuff.

And Ace felt a dull ache in her belly and fell to the neat cut lawn gasping, and Ange took her hand and everyone asked if she was alright. No, thought Ace, not really. But she nodded, then doubled up again with sudden pain.

It was the cowboy you see. Ange explained all about it. He was made of spirit, fire and water, and he was mean. And he was the bad guy for this episode, a one off, unless some eager young writer stuck for ideas wants to bring him back sometime next season.

He had been shot to death, the cowboy had (and he wasn't called 'the cowboy', that's how she thought of him later. He was only tall and thin and mostly brown). Shot in the stomach he was, and how do you think that would feel, boys and girls?

The pain in Ace's belly throbbed and pulsed and the cowboy laughed at her, laughed and tittered. They shot it again, and it didn't die. They ran, but it was always there, tormenting them. And the pain only got worse.

She was in the cowboy's arms, sometime later, as dream logic goes. And he was so gentle and they swayed together, she leaning back into his warmth. And while he wasn't looking she used his own fingernail to pierce the skin of her arm and transfer little drops of blood into his own arm. And it itched him, he muttered and scratched and exploded in a self-absorbing column of fire.

But it didn't kill him. He came back again, right smart, like all villains do, and the pain in her belly didn't go away.

It was some new process, to let members of the public experience what those on screen did. And she wasn't the only one who felt the pain, others in the cast did too, but afterwards she couldn't say who they were.

They trapped the cowboy and he escaped.

They stabbed him and he wouldn't die.

And then, right near the end of the half-hour allotted to this little gem of prime-time escapism, they met in a big room with a big table. Someone laughed and put a book on the table. Ace picked it up and read a spell and the cowboy howled and disappeared.

Right, said Ange, animated or not. That's it then. The pain should stop gradually.

The pain didn't stop at all.

Ace and Ange ran into the next room, a big room with a big table. Someone laughed and put a book on the table. Ace picked it up and read a spell and the cowboy howled and disappeared.

Right, said Ange, animated or not. That's it then. The pain should stop gradually.

The pain didn't stop at all.

Ace and Ange ran into the next room, a big room with a big table. Someone laughed and put a book on the table. Ace picked it up and it was really a fork. The cowboy had a scalpel, short with a funny wooden bulb as the handle, but also stainless-steel and razor-sharp.

Only now he had the fork and they had scalpels, and the little implements turned in their hands, towards their wrists.

And Ace woke up.

Hunched over in some unfamiliar bed, in a darkened room, hands pressed against her stomach, covered in a sheen of sweat. She waited a while in the darkness for something to happen, but nothing did. She knew it had been a dream, and she wasn't afraid of the dark. But she didn't know where she was and the pain still pushed at her, her stomach muscles contracted tightly upon themselves.

She just lay there in the dark, not wanting to go back to sleep.

She thought about a mission on a ship named 'Tf Lawen' -- Vagabond. There were ten of them on board, and one day they were challenged by a Dalek shuttle. The two ships had danced for a while, but docking was inevitable.

The casualty count was four Daleks and seven humans. And sometime in the melée Ace had been shot in the foot by a soon-to-be unlucky Dalek, and the flesh inside her rearranged itself, and her nervous system tried to cope, and the pain was exquisite. She had screamed, and two days later, when the pain-killers wore off for the first time, she was begging them, the two other survivors of the crew, to take the foot off, the whole leg if needed, pleading, and then they got to a Terran medical centre and her foot took an oblivious six hours to heal.

Ace lay in the dark and let the memory of that pain tease at the real pain in her guts, trivialising it. Her muscles relaxed, her body straightened.

She closed her eyes again and went back to sleep.

* * *

[G]esemio slipped out of the house and walked restless through the streets of the village. The warmth of the day was still present, to an extent, and her breath was not quite white fog.

She wasn't going anywhere, she just walked, by the faint Light that never left the sky, by the little candles and fires that cast crazy shadows through amber.

She was staying in a room at the Hot Spot till she worked out what she wanted to do, but she had a good idea what that decision was going to be.

'Making yourself at home?' said a dark voice from behind her, and she jumped. She turned. A figure stood there, not moving, silhouetted so no features were visible. [G]esemio took a step backward, and the figure took a step forward.

[G]esemio was aware her breathing had changed, become heavier. She put a hand out beside her, trying to find something to steady herself with. It was all so slow, the figure took another step and she thought she could have run ten metres in that time, except she didn't.

Her body tensed then, ready to fight, except the figure spoke again. 'We should go to the Fire,' it said, its voice low and intense but the manner, if anything, friendly. There was almost an undercurrent of amusement. But [G]esemio shuddered, and licked her dry lips. 'It would be warmer, and we could talk.'

The figure turned, presenting a profile, and the voice and the manner and the face clicked all at once in the girl's mind, and she relaxed slightly. 'Kuracisto,' she said in greeting. 'I like walking out here, it gives me the chance to think.'

He nodded, and she started walking again. He fell in beside her, half a pace behind. She realised she had no clues he was there, no sound of footfall or breathing, no sense of movement in the air. She just knew that he was there.

'How is Aso?' she asked.

'As well as can be expected,' the strange man said, and now his voice sounded human again, compassionate and thoughtful. 'She will recover, though it will take some time.'

[G]esemio nodded, and they fell into silence again. She didn't know where they were going, but she lead him anyway, between houses, out onto the network of walk-ways of the farms themselves.

'There are no street names,' she said eventually. 'Even in the village centre. The houses are just placed where someone decided to put them. No real order. I think I like it here.'

'The fair-haired man, as you called him, he was sent here to find you. He caused no small amount of trouble to this village you now seem rather attached to.'

[G]esemio had flinched at the mention of the man, now she turned angrily to la Kuracisto, just standing there and watching her.

'You...' she said, and her fury rose at his lack of reaction. 'You cannot say that to me. I knew he was on my trail, though I thought I had lost him. And it was not my fault.' She shouted it. After patient explanations to town officials and Andreo and anybody else, she had to.

'I did not ask that some man follow me and bring death with him,' she said quietly, 'I did not ask for anything.'

'The fire at the theatre, of course,' la Kuracisto continued, unabashed, 'he started that because he knew you were trapped in one of the huts behind it and, I think, he wanted to have some fun.'

[G]esemio started walking again, not wanting to hear this, not wanting to look at this man whose gaze was so powerful, even when she couldn't see his eyes. But the voice kept steady with her, relentless.

'And Natalo Te[u]kro, he was killed because he knew where you were, he told this fair-haired man where you were, and he died for his trouble.'

'Stop it,' she said, trying to keep her voice steady. 'Get away from me, don't do this to me.'

And then he was in front of her, and she almost had to jump to stop herself walking into the impassive figure. She took a step backwards, he a step forwards.

'But Vil[c]jo Trasto, what of him?' la Kuracisto said in the same tone, now with gentle enquiry. 'Surely his death cannot be unrelated, so close to the other... incidents.'

And finally [G]esemio realised what this was about, and she felt so sick, and she tried to keep the tears from her voice.

'The man...' she said. 'The man must have killed him, put him in the Fire... he-'

'But the man was an assassin, trained in his art. Vil[c]jo was killed in the most clumsy way, a wooden beam across the head. He was struck more than once. I know, I found the weapon.'

'Stop it,' she said again, 'stop it stop it stop it' and now she was crying, and she sank into the wet grass and tried to huddle away from her accuser.

The village wasn't there any more, not really, there was only herself, and the man above her, and her guilt.

But even as she lay there she knew this guilt was something she could handle, and she let her cries rack her body so that she'd look more pathetic, even as the tears dried on her cheek.

'He tried to hit me,' she said, 'tried to... touch me when I got here. I ran and found Andreo, who said he'd look after me. Except I think Vil,' she stumbled over the name, 'Vil[c]jo saw, he saw where I was going. He was a stinking, filthy old man.'

La Kuracisto didn't say anything, once again she only knew he was crouched over her, no other clues.

'I went back to the tavern later, and I saw the man and Vil[c]jo talking. Vil[c]jo wouldn't say where I was, he wanted anything and everything the man could give him. They argued. The man left, promising he would return for the information. When Vil[c]jo left I followed him.'

'And you killed him,' la Kuracisto said softly.

'Yes,' [G]esemio said. 'I confronted him, and he said terrible things, trying to grab me. And I killed him.'

The man above her stood up. She could picture his face so clearly, the creases, the eyes that faded from blue to grey and back again, the set of the mouth when he was sad, or determined, or relaxed. He had a memorable face, this man had, not like the man that had followed her over three hundred and fifty kilometres across the world. She had seen so many places in her weeks on the road, but all so briefly. Her horse, now brought into the village and stabled properly, had carried her fast. To this place, she thought. To Malvarmo.

And she would like to stay here now, and if she owed anything to this village she would like to repay it, in her own time.

'You cannot accuse me,' she said, choosing her words carefully. 'After what you did to the man who shot your friend.'

La Kuracisto stood, watching the sky. 'I do not accuse you, and I didn't do anything to the assassin,' he said. 'I knocked him unconscious while he was still looking for something to shoot. When I took Aso back to the village he must have recovered enough to move. He managed to crawl a metre or two and fell into the opposite paddy. He drowned. That is what I told the council, and that is what happened. None of your petty deceptions.'

'I don't...' [G]esemio said tightly, ready to be angry again. Except it wouldn't help her, and she quietened.

'What are you going to do?' she said meekly.

'Nothing,' the man replied, sounding almost surprised by the question. 'I am no travelling court system, and if this world discovers and punishes you for your crime then that is its own business.' He reached down and offered her his hand. She grabbed it, and pulled herself up and they faced each other again. 'Only remember that I know,' la Kuracisto continued, 'and know that I will stop any further harm you try to do. Shall I escort you back to the inn?' And with that last sentence he was the perfect gentleman again, nothing remaining of the dark stranger who had confronted her and pushed her so cruelly.

'No,' she replied, trying to be as civil. 'I will walk some more, and retire later.'

He nodded and melted back into the night and was gone.

[G]esemio shuddered, and suddenly felt very thirsty and very cold.

She would walk back and go to sleep after all.


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