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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 9

by David Carroll, 1994

The man was tired, and he had walked like he was sore in too many places, and he now looked down at Erico with a clear air of impatience.

'It's about time,' the man said. 'some of us haven't eaten yet.' He passed the reins of the horse to the boy, and looked like he was about to give a lecture on some unknowable topic. Apparently changing his mind he turned to enter the tavern proper. 'I'm only staying the night,' he said, turning after a few steps. 'I want the horse rested, groomed and well-fed for tomorrow morning. What's your name, boy?'

Erico told him, his voice sullen.

'Well, my name's [S]olto Tanio, and you'll answer to me if the beast isn't ready.' The man turned away, anxious to get away from the cold, apparently not caring to see if his discipline was respected.

But the words had a greater effect on Erico than the man could have expected. The boy remembered the name, made the connection straight away.

You can tell her that [S]olto Tanio would be pleased to see her.

Erico looked after the man as he disappeared indoors, and he held onto the reins, pulling down on them, the horse lowering its head a distance till it silently protested, countering his pull. Erico wondered what to do, or if he should do anything at all.

* * *

Ace stuck her head around the Doctor's door.

'I'm going to be, ah, up at... What are you doing?'

The Doctor was sitting on his bed, in itself no mean feat with the amount of junk littering every available surface. He was hunched over one of his shirts, the one of white silk that Ace never quite believed he had managed to find. She picked her way gingerly towards him, and he looked up with a smile, his tools not breaking their rhythm. Needle and thread, through and over and through again.

He was sewing a question mark into his shirt collar, to match the one already present on the other side. Even the dye of the thread looked foreign, not the wan red of the local madder but something brighter, standing out against the white fabric.

'What was that?' he said.

'Nothing... I'm just going out.'

He nodded, and she left him, shaking her head. She only laughed when she was out of the room, but not quite out of earshot.

* * *

Somebody refilled [G]esemio's cup and she half-bobbed in acknowledgement and continued moving through the crowd. Orange juice, she tasted, with the unmistakable under-tang of sake.

It felt like picking time again, and there was even a barrel of proper beer next to the table, and over the talking and the faint singing was the sound of laughter. It wasn't a big crowd, perhaps thirty people squeezed into the light of the fire, seeping into the darkness. She didn't mind, she let herself slide into it, a transition into physical sensation of drinking and glancing contact and the movement of her body. She fumbled her shoes off and felt the damp grass and the drag of twigs across her soles with a kind of aching happiness. Someone else joined in the singing, and an instrument was brought out from somewhere, the high haunting tones of woodwind being played at breathless pace. The dancing was going to start any minute, and now there was only expectation, moving like wind under her skin.

She joined a group of three or four, laughing at Forester jokes at least a year old, trickled south by traders and messengers. She brought them up to date, laughing with them and swapping cups with a boy with brown hair and a dry voice and a nose that bent suddenly to the left. A stringed instrument joined the flute, and a space was cleared, and the dancing started.

She moved round the arena, watching some sort of local variation on the vicvalso, and somebody grabbed at her hand at looked at her with puppy eyes, but she pulled away and said 'thank you, later'. The boy blinked at her and was behind her and she kept moving, looked at the faces and the dance, felt her body, each step, the bending of each joint, with clarity and that same joy of being and belonging.

And the line was disintegrating now into individual dancers, and some girl that [G]esemio thought was called Krisenjo broke free of her partner, and as somebody started clapping the girl leapt from the ground and did something in mid-air, and when she landed she twisted and bent backwards and landed on her hands and kept on turning, back on her feet and round again.

'She's very good,' said [G]esemio, who had completed her circuit and was back where she started, where she wanted to be.

'Yes,' said Andreo, who was standing by the table, an uneaten biscuit topped with cheese in one hand. He was watching the party with a distracted, pleased look on his face, and [G]esemio realised that they and only two or three others were left to watch. Dancing obviously wasn't a spectator sport.

[G]esemio licked her lips and tensed her body and she grabbed Andreo's hand to drag him properly into the light, to show him some dance steps of her own. Except somehow she ended up holding only his biscuit, and not knowing quite what else to do she ate it, and they were still looking at the party from the edge. She sighed, and dipped her cup into the barrel of beer.

'Half of them won't stay,' said Andreo. 'They've done a bit of work for us, helped in the seating, been a guard or two. They're only here for the drink and the warmth. And some of the old gang haven't come, they can't stand to look at the bonfire, or they've got more important things to do, or maybe they've realised they're just a little too old for all this nonsense.

'But that leaves us with fifteen people, maybe twenty. We're not doing too badly, we'll last a while longer I imagine.'

[G]esemio sipped at her drink and remained silent and watched, not quite able to imagine the dancers as anything else, not able to imagine days ahead. She shook her head to clear the last of the mood that dipping into the celebration had brought on. She realised that it was a little cold here, away from the large and crackling fire she had helped assemble this afternoon. But she remained beside Andreo, who seemed perfectly content where he was.

'What about her,' she finally said, indicating one of the few others that were content to watch. 'Didn't you say she was Vil[c]jo's daughter?'

'Yes, that's Elizabeto Trasto, though she's never been part of the theatre before. I think she may want to join us, she's between jobs at the moment.'

'And is she this "ungrateful bitch" and "little slut" they keep muttering about at the tavern?'

'Yes,' said Andreo, still speaking in his usual satisfied, almost comfortable, tone. 'She used to be Malvarmo's prostitute, but she stopped when her father died.'

'And have you welcomed her here, or told her it was good to see her, stay round awhile?' [G]esemio was watching the girl in question, who by the occasional glance seemed to know she was under scrutiny. But her face was impassive, solemn, and she studied the dancers and the still-twirling Krisenjo with empty hands and in her own little empty space.

'No,' said Andreo carefully, 'not really. She must make her... own...' And he stopped, because [G]esemio had moved away from him, and he was standing alone.

'Hi,' said [G]esemio with a little smile, 'do you want something to drink?'

Elizabeto looked at her strangely, but when she spoke it was with a confidence not shown by her expression. 'Yes,' she said, 'I'd like that.'

The two worked their way back to the table, and [G]esemio wasn't quite sure what she was going to say to Andreo when she saw it didn't matter. He was in the centre now, and the dancing had stopped, and the party moved on to a new stage, unfamiliar to her. She and Elizabeto stood and watched it together.

* * *

And Ace also watched, from a distance outside the circle, with her sunglasses pushed up on her hair, unseen in the darkness.

* * *

Andreo had moved among the dancers, seeming to calm their movement by his presence, and finally everyone was at least looking in his direction. Even if, as in some cases, the lull in movement was simply a spur to grab another drink.

A space formed in the centre, perhaps seeming almost accidental, and it spread outwards until there was a rough but clearly defined arc around a space of loosely packed earth, the fire itself completing and illuminating the circle. Andreo still stood in the centre, still hadn't said anything, but he made a quick gesture and two others joined him. He surveyed the remaining crowd in a quick but measured spin, and with a hurried whisper and a grin to the two performers he joined the audience.

Soft music started, the flute player again, only now the notes were soft and slow, dragging sweetly against the night, seeming to melt into the whisper and crackle of the three-foot high blaze.

They were a little over a kilometre from the village centre, west of it, and south, near la Stikso. The air was still tonight, and fragrant with moisture and the scent of things growing and dead. No-one knew how much silver Light was coming down from the sky, their fire dazzled their vision, turning everything outside its boundaries into black.

Ace wondered if the fire on Horsenden Hill had looked so small against the black, the improbable warmth of stars lost in the interstellar reaches she might call home. She dismissed the thought, she was only watching.

[G]esemio had found a new type of order, a cohesion never found in all the revels she had known. Her eyes flicked from the two players to the boy who had orchestrated this solidarity and back again, not content with one target.

Elizabeto stood unsure of the bounds of the circle, only glad of the solidity of the table against the small of her back. She was sick of uncertainty, and the more she forced herself to choose between options, each became more critical, the consequences of any choice more alarming. Her eyes were on the two, almost by default.

And the two, Leo[c]jo Romano and Mario [J]udanto, stood in the centre of the circle, slightly awed by the moment, unnerved by the lilt of familiar music.

Leo[c]jo was the son of a rice farmer, a common enough description in this village, and he had no real other way of defining himself, part of the reason he was here tonight. Mario was a young wife, still untiring in her love of her husband, who wouldn't have been seen dead in this crowd. They waited a second or two, found the correct beat in the music, and started.

'Three days!' said Leo[c]jo, 'More like five.'

'The hunting has slowed us, rest waits over the rise and sweetmeats for our effort.'

And they walked around the ring, their voices heavy with their burden, but their eyes bright in anticipation of the coming feast. They described the feast, the preparation and the cooking and the eating, and the choicest cuts for the hunters who had provided the meal.

Leo[c]jo and Mario had hunger in their every word (and, indeed, perhaps a little more than was necessary). It was a deer they were carrying, one from the 'nether woods', young and succulent. And as they mounted the supposed rise to their home Mario's voice faltered, and Leo[c]jo cried out. They ran across the circle, knelt before the fire, and tremulously they described the slaughter to each other.

The slicing of weapons, the warm scent of fresh blood, the scatter of their village's possessions into a soup of disorder. And mostly the sharp smell of cooking flesh in the ashes of former houses.

They stood and looked round, unbelieving.

'Why?' said Leo[c]jo.

And behind him Mario made a gurgling sound, half surprise and pain, cut short. By the time the boy turned, Mario was somebody else, brandishing the long knife that had been on her belt.

'Because you have killed the deer which is mine,' said Mario, her voice now heavy with evil. 'And for that you family has suffered. But you, you who bent the bow,' and Mario traced with the knife the outline of a body lying at her feet, 'you get the sweetmeats for your effort.'

After almost twenty minutes of performance, another half a minute's silence...

which disintegrated into cheering, and cups were raised, and somebody ran in and offered the two cups of their own and the boy threw back the sake with a coughing gasp and asked for more and the girl just looked about her with an unrestrained grin of triumph.

Andreo walked into the centre again and had to shout for quiet to stop the party disintegrating into its previous state.

'Well,' he said, with his now radiant smile, 'I suppose that wasn't the most subtle of the Manlanco tales to choose for tonight, but I think we can thank our two friends for a wonderful effort.' And more applause, until Andreo waved for silence once again.

'It's been a couple of weeks since our last performance, and I don't think any of you has forgotten it. But I have assembled us here, by a bonfire and with... suitable entertainment, for a reason. To emphasise that we cannot forget, cannot gloss over, the fire that has left us without a stage for our presentations.'

He had them, [G]esemio realised, they were listening attentively, the party atmosphere that had remained low throughout the performance (play? she thought. Dialogue?) had now dissipated without regret. And he had her too. Though she recognised the essential rhetoric, the simplification in his words, they were no less powerful. She listened as a member of a group, this group, for whom the rhetoric held true. And though not all of them might return for the hard work to come, they would all remember this.

'In some respects,' Andreo went on, 'we have a special responsibility because of who we are and what we want to achieve. The telling of history, the continuation of myth, and the portrayal of more than events, but the characters and the reasons behind them. That is a good theory, in some abstract fashion it may even be true. But it doesn't matter, because we cannot deny what has shaped our own lives, our collective life, made us what we are, not necessarily what we should be. Any such denial is a betrayal of ourselves, and also a betrayal of the memory of Natalo Te[u]kro, our dear friend who lost his life as part of the same catastrophe that took away our stage.'

Did people look at her askance, resentful, now or any time, mutter about her leading death to their door. She didn't know, and she wanted to; like Elizabeto before her she was sick of not knowing. But Andreo had her, to turn her head would break the mood. Worse, it would set her apart, perhaps confirm what she was hoping to deny. Andreo had paused for effect, but he now continued, and [G]esemio only watched and listened.

'As some of you know the council has denied the request to rebuild the theatre. They have other priorities, so they say, and are already preparing for harvest. I'm not sure why they seemed to think that was an excuse, but it was one given. Even in the short-term this makes our work harder. We have to show that we deserve to have our theatre rebuilt, demonstrate what Malvarmo is missing, fight any stigma caused by the fire. We must show that as a group we have survived the fire and this latest set-back. We must show unity, because if we fall apart now we will never regroup.' Another pause, another chance for his words to settle. 'I want your action, but I also want to know what you think, your ideas and suggestions. Come to me and talk, come to our meetings and talk. Do something, if you think your expression and your talent are worth anything at all. But now...' he said, and his smile was back. 'Now I want you to enjoy yourself.' He nodded towards the man with the flute, and the music started again, and with it came the party.

[G]esemio and Elizabeto found themselves between the crowd and the food, and hurriedly got out of the way.

'So what do you think?' said [G]esemio as the found another island of calm in the firelight, its radius pushed outwards with more off the woodpile. 'Sound like a good cause in need of our attention?'

'I don't kn...' But she broke off, and looked around with the hint of a smile. 'Maybe,' said Elizabeto. 'Sweetmeats. I liked that. Have you ever heard anything like that before?'

The Manlanco tales were part of the small but wide-ranging library back on the plantation, with which she'd learnt to read. 'No, never,' she said. 'Wasn't it something?'

The two girls looked at each other, this time with a real smile, of shared experience.

'My name's [G]esemio,' she finally said, 'I suppose you know I'm from out of town.'

'Yes. Elizabeto.' She didn't offer anything else, but they nodded at each other solemnly.

'I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to excuse myself. I'm very tired.' And at the other girl's wave of assent [G]esemio moved again through the dancing crowd, managing to pick up her shoes without losing her purposeful expression.

'You were wrong about Elizabeto,' she said, when she'd found Andreo. 'You were wrong.'

She turned away and left the cheers and the dancing, and picked her way back to the village.

* * *

Like la Kuracisto and Aso, [G]esemio was staying at the inn, guests of the village until either they left, or something more permanent could be arranged. She returned there now, but her father had already gone to his room and, unknowing, they slept under the same roof for the first time in almost four months.

Erico had watched her enter the building from the vantage of a second-storey window. His room was beside his parents', above the main entrance and looking over the eternally burning bonfire. She had stopped beside the fire and looked at it, close to it, where the heat must have been uncomfortable. Then she had gone inside. Erico looked down at the ground beneath him, wondering. The he just sat and stared at the great darkness of the Sky.

Ace made her way into the circle as the last few people left it and the fire itself was about to die. Only Andreo was there to meet her, and he nodded at her. 'Thought you said you weren't coming,' he said, then repeated it slower in Esperanto, 'Penso vi diri vi ne veni'.

Ace shrugged. 'Wouldn't have mattered, didn't understand a word of it. I've been thinking. I don't think I'm cut out to be an actress, and the Doctor, la Kuracisto, says I should probably do something or they'll start asking me to farm rice.'

'It's been known. I wouldn't discount your acting ability, actora lerto, so fast, but what did you have in mind?'

'I was wondering if this so-called theatre-group of yours needed some protection.'

Andreo looked at her thoughtfully. 'It's not going to be easy to persuade certain people you're pulling your weight,' he said after a while. 'But, there's a precedent for needing a guard, I suppose. And there are others in the village who might like your help.'

'Maybe,' said Ace.

'I'll see what can be arranged. And everybody's going to be farming rice next week.'

Ace nodded and left him to his fire.

* * *

Hours later, and the dawn was still the dawn, even without a sun.

* * *

Erico sat at a table in a corner of the big room and considered. He didn't look at [S]olto Tanio, had only glanced once as he walked in quietly, not wanting to be seen.

The very fact that the man was still here, eating breakfast, was enough to tell Erico that he hadn't asked any questions yet. Just about anyone would tell him what he wanted to know, but nobody had, not yet.

They weren't the only two in the room, and Erico didn't know how much time he had to do what he wanted to. But he still sat there, not wanting to make the first step.

'Well ain't this nice?' somebody said. Erico looked up. He couldn't quite remember the man's name, but knew he was a local. A Sinjoro [G]isto, or something.

He was being served thick toast by Anabelo, the only waitress in at this hour, and as he talked his hand was wandering up behind her, resting on her backside, squeezing gently. 'Sure like to have breakfast with you more often,' he was saying, and Erico was just looking at that hand against the shape of her, the skirt fabric scrunched up beneath it. He had only ever seen Anabelo's knickers, nothing more, and he now imagined them scrunched up under that hand (his hand?) as well.

But the waitress knocked aside Sinjoro [G]isto's hand with a simple backwards swing of her tray, just an extension of movement, almost accidental it looked. 'You know what's on the menu, Kejlo. Stick to it,' she said, walking a little too quickly from the room.

Kejlo laughed good-naturedly, digging into his toast, but not before a quick instant of fury had passed over his face, leaving a memory of ugliness. He looked round to see if anyone had witnessed the scene, but Erico's eyes were averted.

Erico wondered if [S]olto Tanio had seen it.

He sighed, it was now or never.

Erico got up and walked across the room, standing in front of the man picking listlessly at the remains of his food.

'Sinjoro Tanio?' he said.

The man looked up, annoyed, staring at the boy in front of him uncomprehending. Again Erico was struck by how tired he looked. 'The horse,' [S]olto said. 'You were going to...'

'It's about your daughter,' said Erico.

The man stopped in mid-sentence, looked down at his food, hiding his face. He looked up again, expectant. 'Yes,' he said.

'At least, I think she was your daughter. You told me your name last night, and I thought I recognised it, though it took me a while to remember. You look a bit like her, in the face I mean.'

'What do you know about my daughter?' the man said.

'She was here, in the village, a couple of weeks ago. I work here, in the, I mean, you saw that, in the stables. She came in one evening, she looked like she was trying to hide from somebody.'

[S]olto's eyes narrowed, his attention absolute, but he didn't interrupt.

'I said she could stay here the night, even in the stables if she wanted, and she thanked me and told me her name, which is why I, you know. But this man came in, I don't know, tall maybe, with blonde hair, you don't see that very often down here, you know. I've heard it's more common up North. Your daughter's got sort of red hair, but...'

Erico's speech ran out under the gaze and he started again.

'Anyway, this man said he was taking [G]esemio away. And she said "All right," you know, like she wasn't very happy about it or something but she didn't want to fight him. I couldn't do anything, I don't think the man even looked at me, you know.

'And they left. He said he had his horse and they went out, and I never saw them again. You know, it was like they just came and went, and I asked around, and nobody else had seen them. Only me.

'And I wanted to do something for, for your daughter, because she looked like she was in trouble or something, but I couldn't, you know, I couldn't.'

Erico stood in front of the man, a worried expression on his face, wondering if he had done something wrong.

[S]olto Tanio laid his cutlery down neatly beside his plate, then pushed his plate away from him.

He still looked tired, only now he also looked sick, and old.

'I traced them,' he said hoarsely. 'Some people remembered Senisto, when he had asked them questions. Not many, he was, forgettable, I suppose,' the man grinned at that, like a grimace. 'Sometimes my daughter, when she had to come in from the night, didn't hide because she couldn't hide any longer. You hear me? People remembered them coming to this... place,' as if he couldn't think of a worse description of his surroundings. He shuddered.

'But nobody has seen them on the way back, nobody remembers them. What has he...'

The man stood up, pulled some sort of normalcy back into his face.

'You were a friend of my daughter's?' he said, looking down at Erico.

'I don't know, Sir. I wanted to help her, I still do if I can.'

[S]olto nodded, took out a scrap of paper and scribbled his name and an address on it.

'You should be able to get a message to me there. It'll reach me, though I don't know when.

'Any news of her, you hear, any news at all, you write to me. And if you see her, tell her I... I...'

'I know,' said Erico softly.

The man nodded, and walked out of the room.

Erico watched him go and had to sit down suddenly, his worried and self-conscious expression draining away from his face, leaving nothing behind. His horse wouldn't be as well-groomed as [S]olto Tanio may have ordered, but Erico didn't think that would stop him.

He wanted to feel happy about something. That had been as hard as he had thought it would be, harder, and he had done it. The man hadn't stopped to ask anybody else, confirm the story somehow, didn't stay round to find out anything different. The man had believed him.

'Oh, my head,' somebody groaned on the other side of the room. Erico looked up to see [G]esemio walk in from an interior door, shaking her head in the Light to dispel the effects of last night's party.

Erico couldn't stand it. He ran out of the room, out of the inn, and as far away from everything as he possibly could.


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