Mother holds his head high as the two men drag him to the leaving pole. Tegranock is grim-faced but the Nusman smiles wildly. Merock, standing by the sledge, tries to make eye contact with Mother as he passes. He wants Mother to see the dagger he’s slicing the cold air with. But Mother is too proud and too wise. He stares steadfastedly ahead. They’ve stripped him down to his waist and the skin on his enormous torso glistens with the sweat of fear. His skinscript is more deeply cut that I’d imagined. The deeper the cut, the stronger the heat, as they say here. Now, though, there’s no powder in the fine rivulets of his skinscript, except on his left hand where an orange glow tells of his first ceerin kill. That’ll be too little to keep him from the biting cold on the leaving pole.
A gust of snow hides the men for an instant. Even in midsummer snow clouds can form when a gust is strong. I wonder if the superstitious pilgrims will see these snow-whitened eddies as a sign of the Nacrescenti’s disapproval. I see Mother’s body lurch into view. He looks free, as though he might simply stride off north to seek his own death on the Urulivan Plain, but then Tegranock and the Nusman reappear at Mother’s sides, holding his muscular arms. The snow hid them for a moment only, as though the Nacrescenti were ashamed of what the men were about to do and sought to avert their eyes. Mother’s body is a therish ox’s body: thick muscle and a thin layer of fat that doesn’t sag but clings close to his torso, like it knows its role is to feed him in time of need. Mother turns to me as they pass. With his free hand Mother reaches out to my left hand to give me something. He sighs in dismay when he sees and remembers. He gives it to my right hand. The others grunt, unsure what to do, but let it go.
‘Your memory is written in ice’, I say to Mother, using the words from the Long Song, and the men carry him to the leaving pole. They shackle him. He can squat but not sit. The shackles holding his arms do not go far enough. It will be a painful death. At least Merock failed to persuade the priest to let him flay off his skinscripts. The priest fretted and rubbed his hands uncertainly. He’ll surely freeze anyway, without any furs or powder, he said. Merock glowered but stalked away.
And so we leave Mother.
We head back across the snow plains, our snowshoes thumping on the marked path. The redhead fiddles with the wet, electric brains in the marble statue head that they’ve hooked up to the sledge and somehow powers it along at walking speed. She catches up. I look down and see the painted bone that Mother pressed into my hand. Script and icons on his wife’s bone. Cranial I think. The icons are worn already. But the script is fresh. He’s added the symbols for sacrifice and betrayal. Script must be on skin or on bone among the Ceeral. The one for what comes and goes, the cold, the pain, the waning sun, the pangs of hunger, the thrill of the hunt. The other for what endures, like love, hate, anger and piety. Those are for ice and bone only.
The midsummer sun blares down on us and I do not know how long we have been trekking. The priest collapsed hours before and Merock and the Nusman threw him in protest on the sledge. He lay on his stomach atop all the gear so that he didn’t have to look up at the sun. The sun will bite your ass that way, Merock laughed. The priest is afraid all the time. He knows that only the fear of punishment from the Nacrescenti keeps the pilgrims from roughing him up or even killing him if the cause arose. One of the woman, a willowy girl name Misfanwel, backs up the priest in disputes and when decisions need to be made, like when to rest, how much to eat, but the other woman, the redhead, sides with the men and clearly loathes the priest.
We rest in the summer hut of an old tinkerer and scripter. Animal skins and gutted fish hang on wooden stands outside his door. Inside it’s dark but warm from a fire. Scripting tools litter a table. A glass jar holds more powder than I’ve seen in one place before. It stirs in greenish waves. The Nusman shakes his head and bellows out an enormous laugh when the old scripter suggests he get a skinscript.
‘Not for me, old man! You couldn’t see the script through all my hair anyway!’ The Nusman is unmoved by anything the Ceeral do. He thinks their habits and customs of no more merit than the rutting habits of tusked grorthas. They are just part of the natural world, not the Nusman’s world. He spreads himself into a corner and drifts into sleep. The scripter turns to one of the women, the tall redhead, who removes her clothes to her waist and lays down on her stomach. They exchange words too quickly for me to follow but the result is clear enough as the scripter takes out his powder pipe. He fills it gingerly with powder and holds it before an icon above his table. He mutters and bows and then turns to the woman. He kneels and starts blowing the powder into the rivulets of her skinscript. She gasps at the pain initially and settles into a contented frown as the scripter works his way over her back. The faint orange glow starts. Her torso is warming. It looks like a good dose. Perhaps as long as a week. Tomorrow she’ll need only a thin layer to keep out the midsummer sun bites. The scripter is bare except for a thick cloth around his waist. Their bodies are like a weathered pole sifting through a pan of white and sparkling salt.
‘This frighten you, little ceerin?’
Merock smiles at me. His ruthless hunger hangs on every word he speaks. He is a wanter. He covets everything he sees. He is just that type of man. He even covets me although my disfigurements must temper his desires. And yet all the same something new is here and he must show he can seize it. I smile back with a broad grin, letting his eyes linger on my missing teeth. Two. One on the upper right and another on the lower left.
‘I only fear that the Nusman will one day eat you, and then we’ll have no children on this little pilgrimage of ours.’
‘Ours? Ours, yes, but you are not among ours.’
‘The elders sent me on this pilgrimage for a reason, Merock, even if it’s beyond your understanding.’
‘Yeah, well, they also sent that excuse for a priest, and Mother, who turned out, well, not so . . .’
The priest noisily came into the hut, brandishing a pot of fish.
‘As for eating, little ceerin, if the Nusmen ever wanted soft man-flesh, they’d need only travel north to those green, warm and soft lands of yours.’
‘Lucky for me, I am not a man. And the lands north of the wall are anything but soft. If only you knew.’
‘I know you survive with your trinkets and toys, not with real work.’
With my one hand I shift wood onto the fire. Merock eyes my stump.
‘Here, we rely on ourselves. No room for weaknesses.’
It is a strange courtship. Merock slinks away, ruminating on how he’s let his passion run away from him and failed to secure my interest. He thinks: I want something, so I hurt it. Such is this type of man.
The morning is the night continuing here in midsummer. The one takes the day from the other, somewhere far away beyond our sights. The redhead bends over the sledge to tinker with its marble head. The brains spark and twitch. If it dies the priest must walk and the pilgrims will need to take turns dragging the gear to the Temple. Only one more day to the Smiling Icons but we are all weary. The redhead is wearing only a white tunic and through it the heat of her newly powdered skinscript glows a bright, fiery orange, like the sun at its death-dawn time. That is only one word in their language. The death-dawn sun, when the sun’s setting and rise are indistinguishable. She gets the brain started and bursts into a whoop of victory. Misfanwel lifts the priest onto the sledge. He has blisters he says and the Nusman laughs as though he’d said he’d seen all the ice melting.
‘Look carefully, carefully, and slowly, little ceerin.’
I endure Merock’s closeness and endearments for a chance to look deep with his icescope into a long patch of black ice we are crossing. It resists the sun in its utter darkness and we slide uncontrollable over its surface in our snowshoes. We take a rest.
‘I see something. I see wild waves of blue and green. What in the Beyond are they?’ I immediately regret my words. It gives Merock a chance to patronize me. It reveals my ignorance. One of my few strengths among these people is their belief in my knowledge, especially of the world north of the wall. But he doesn’t know either. He says they are the last remnants of the colored waves of some ancient civilization, arrested in place when the entire land froze, or maybe they’re the blood of a being from other world that transported itself by accident into the frozen ice.
‘You’re talking out your ass.’
‘Hah! And what if I am? It’s a warming tale.’ He stretches out his hand to show he wants his icescope back. Reluctantly I return it. I mean to take that from him at some point. It’s wasted on him. We pile onto the sledge but there are too many of us. It’ll burn up the brain which now sparks in showers but we’ve no choice. No one knows who is to blame for not thinking of this. We’re taking the same path the pilgrims take every midsummer. Perhaps this is just to see if we will break the rules and use the sledge.
The stairs are before us. A small hut is there. There’s a store of food and water. The redhead and the Nusman squabble over who is to light a fire. The Nusman tells her it’s not a Nusman’s job and there’s really no other kind of man worth mentioning. But at this Merock glowers at him and the redhead laughs. Misfanwel gets on with the fire. The priest sighs with relief. The pilgrimage is now at its mid-point he’s thinking. He’s telling himself he can survive the next half. But I can see he’s still nervous. He still has the ceremony deep in the Temple to peform. We pass a night sated with heat and food in the shelter. Tomorrow we will descend the stairs and I will see the Temple of Smiling Icons. The pilgrims only go in midsummer. In winter, it is too cold.
At death-dawn we begin to go down the stairs. We only see a few feet in front of us. Misfanwel holds up a lantern. At least here we can take off our snow goggles. Merock drags his dagger along the ice walls of the staircase until Tegranock barks at him to stop. I learn finally the redhead’s name. Amvirwel, which means the-blue-light-on-the-night-ice. She tends to the sledge like a mother over a child. I thought she looked dismayed and anxious to leave it on the surface. She slipped the marble head into her backpack.
We go down for hours. Our legs are wobbly and sore. There is a hollow pipe to hold as we descend. Otherwise there is nothing in the spiralling stairwell except roughly-hewn walls of ancient ice. All but the Nusman and I steal glimpses at the ice, untouched for millions of years, seeking some sign from the Nacrescenti, as though a message from them here would be more pure, less distilled by the sun, closer to their essence. The priest shudders often. Misfanwel passes the lantern around for each of us to take a turn holding it up. At last we come to a resting area carved out of the ice. It is a small room and it is extremely cold now. Amvirwel wears all her furs. We huddle together for warmth. We cannot light a fire here.
‘What about these hollow pipes? Aren’t they meant to carry out smoke? Is there no stove?’
‘Yes, at the next resting place. But not here.’ No one asks why. It is just the way it is. In an hour we continue down. The priest looks ashen with fear, exhaustion and cold. Even the Nusman looks distressed.
We sleep at the next resting station. The fire is lit and the smoke fills the hollow pipes. I imagine a thin stream of smoke coming out of the ice at the top of the stairs, visible for miles in the stillness. It’s hard to imagine the brightness of the world above us in the cold Earth. I drift to sleep, dreaming.
The stairs open into a small hallway that is part ice, part stone. We go through to its end where we find what looks like a semi-circular window that ought to be high up but instead is at our feet. I peer through it and sense an openness I’d not felt in our two-day descent. It’s dark and cold but some immense space is beyond the edge of the window ledge. The lantern light shows nothing but a glow of light in emptiness. Tegranock ties off a rope on an iron ring on the floor and casts it into the opening.
‘How will you manage that with only one hand?’
I ignore Merock. I will manage. Tegranock spits and glowers at him. He thinks Merock’s taunts impious in the Temple. I am the first to go down.
I stumble to the ground. My legs ache. The others follow and soon someone lights the stove in the corner and we hear the sing-song of steam rising through the hollow pipes. We huddle near it but it takes only a moment to regain enough strength to be awed by the Smiling Icons. The chamber is large, although perhaps not as large as I imagined standing at the window ledge. On two walls there is nothing but stone. A third is hidden behind a great block of ice and it’s impossible to see how far the chamber goes in that direction. On the fourth wall bulge the Smiling Icons. Each is at least twice the size of an average man. They protude into the space, as though they were trying to escape the confines of the stone. Their faces are leaner and sharper than a human’s. Their nostrils exposed. They wear elaborate headdress. Their paint, if that is what it is, is bright and fierce.
And they smile. The Ceeral don’t make smiling icons. It’s a stern and grave people, at least this clan. Their icons frown and glower. At best they look thoughtful and at peace. Their icons provide comfort in a dark and cold world where nothing matters and no one cares. But these icons are joyful. I peer up and can see into the mouth of the nearest as his lips open in a broad grin.
Again, I have let him get close. After we rest the Nusman and Amvirwel slip off into a corner. Misfanwel tends to the priest who smiles happily on his back beside the stove. Tegranock sits cross-leged in front of one of the Smiling Icons. I go to the block of ice on the wall opposite. Merock follows and offers me the icescope. I hold it in my hand, twisting the stiff dial to sharpen the focus. I feel his hot breath against my neck and cheek.
‘The colors have symbols floating in them, see?’
‘Yes, meaningless though.’
Inside each wave of frozen color, in a slightly darker tone, are the shapes of symbols. The meaning irretrievable, lost in the ages of millenia pased. Millionia past. They look pictographic, with repeating images of a cup with handles of some kind, and a flying bird with a spear-like protrusion coming out of his head. Some look the same as Ceeral script. One or two. A coincidence across millions of years. There are only so many symbols available. I look again more closely. I see I am wrong. They are all different. Perhaps.
Inside the ice block, among the twisting waves of color, I spot a man. Merock mutters that he is millions of years old but he is just guessing. He could be thousands or tens of millions of years old. How could we know? He wears a cloak that is open at his chest, around which is a tightly wrapped cloth of bright green. His trousers look like they’re made of a tough fabric I’ve not seen before, thick and coarse-fibered. The man stares at us. I can make out his motionless eyelashes and his dilated pupils amid a pool of fragmented blues.
‘If you shift the icescope a bit, you’ll see his eyes move! They follow you, I swear.’
‘If he were moving, he’d been decaying, and we wouldn’t see him here.’
‘Pah! More of your book-learning nonsense.’ Merock presses himself against me under the pretence of looking through the icescope.
The priest begins his ceremony. An ancient certainty, more enduring than ice, seizes him. He is ecstatic to be here. Even the Nusman is cowed by the Temple’s aura of sanctity. If it indeed is a temple. Merock stores away his taunts for once. We sit in a semi-circle facing the Smiling Icons. The priest begins to warble the Long Song. He stands and recites the verses while wooshing his lantern back and forth in front of the Smiling Icons so it looks as though they’re moving or changing their glances at us. I’ve written down the Long Song already, patiently writing it down in secret after listening to the elder of elders, weeks ago. Once he found my notebook. He winked at me mischievously when I found him.
‘Script is for skin or bone,’ he said but there was a slyness at the corner of his mouth and in his eyes. A gust of curiosity sweeping across a flat and changeless tundra. Still, I froze. My notebooks are everything. All my travels from Errid Kaloum. All the details of my harrowing . . . How much had he read? He laughed and thrust the book back at me and slipped out the door.
The priest intones….
‘Gentle lay the swordbearer wounded
The birthsong of his fame-hoard
The death-dawn for a deed-maker of old’
The Long Song has twenty-two words for warrior. I counted and listed them all. These were once a martial people.
The priest is perspiring now. He throws off one of his furs and then another. We see that his torso glows with the powdered skinscript. His skinscripts speak of the deeds of the ancient warriors, from when the Ceeral raided across the Clenched Passage, before they were reduced to tundra hunters. What wealth they found in the Aimless Lands I do not know. The women begin gently thrumming on the small drums they brought. Merock and Tegranock slap their thighs. The Nusman wavers between contemptuous bemusement and a creeping fear that there might be things greater in the world than Nusmen.
And what of I?
I finger Mother’s icon. I lean down to study it while all the others are transfixed by the priest’s recitation, by the suggestive flickerings of the Smiling Icons, by the heat they’re reveling in from the furs they’ve piled on themselves. We’ve been cold so long. Now there is hunger, bloodlust and desire filling the air. I miss Mother. It is true he betrayed the clan. And yet, they might have forgiven him. His motives were noble. Perhaps I ought to have spoken more in his defence.
Coincidence. The symbols are not the same as Ceeral script. The Smiling Icons are not the icons of Nacrescenti. The Long Song is not their song. The Smiling Icons hold scrolls in their hands. They’re laughing, delighting in something. Something written in bone, like love, or anger, or hate. I feel a slight tremor in the air or in my mind as though the Smiling Icons were speaking. Something written in bone, I think again. Requital perhaps.
Coincidence. Over millions of years a petitioner might come, from another world, but right in her cause. It’s nothing but a whisper in the stirring air, coming through when the priest pauses and gathers his breath, leaving room to hear those whispers of the Smiling Icons. Or whatever they might have been. Other words, not quite right, not quite wrong, slip and slither in my mind. Observers. Helpers. Judgers. Avengers. Is it they I hear? Or my imagination?
I hold Mother’s wife’s bone up to the Smiling Icons. I am in my world and time and perhaps they are in theirs. The Smiling Icons rustle and shift, slowly, like men roused from a long sleep. They turn and look at us, focusing their attention on me, keeping me in their sharp eyes, and their smiles turn wider and wider. They look around at all of us, at the bone in my hand, at the Nusman, at the Ceeral pilgrims. They laugh and exchange mad, piercing sounds. I feel a worming in my mind like someone seeking a stone in a leather satchel. I hear behind me the cries and ringing sounds of the priest panicking. Someone behind rushes toward me. Merock. He is moving too fast. He thinks I am a dim-witted ceerin. But I am a woman. I step neatly out of the way and study the surprised look on his face as my fist slams hard into his ribcage. I snatch the icescope. He writhes and tumbles to the ground, gasping and clutching himself. His spear clatters to the floor. The Smiling Icons open their mouths and start blowing their breath around the room. It’s like a tempest.
I throw myself on the floor. The others scramble for the rope. Misfanwel climbs first. Then the Nusman. Tagrenock leaps and grasps the rope end. He climbs with extraordinary rapidity. Amvirwel struggles to catch the end. She gets on it but her legs flail about. She curses. The Smiling Icon blows hard and the rope swings until she is bashed against the stone wall. She cries out. Another blow and the rope twists and turns violently. She is smashed again, and again, until a moaning and bloodied woman falls to the floor.
The wind swirls and swirls amid the laughter of the Smiling Icons until I pass out.
I wake huddled in a corner. I do not know how much time has passed. Not too long perhaps, or I’d be dead. Yet the room feels warm. The Smiling Icons left the heat of their righteous anger or whimsical madness or amused indifference. Who is to know what it was? Or where it coincided? I find my way in the dark to the stove and light a fire. The room is empty. I lay down and prepare myself for my alteration. This takes me time, longer than most I know who have this skill. When I rise I am a beautiful woman. Long, flowing auburn hair. I walk to the ice wall. Behind its dark glassiness I feel I can see the colors shifting. The swift red dash like paint that’s been thrown and then time-stopped. I approach and spread my arms wide. I am the tiniest sliver away from its skin-peeling surface. I press myself into the ice. There’s a sting of pure release of oblivating peacefulness. Through the icescope I look. There is the man. His eyes focus on me. I wait.
His eyes move, I am certain.
(Image Credit: CC by-nc 3.0 FPesantez)