… or I can pry out the one hundred and eighty cubes and build a staircase to the top of the door. It’s locked, of course. My target is further up.
I set to prying out a brick, stepping high impatiently when I need to straighten to take a breath, before bending again to the knee-high intake aperture. I pull, push to and fro, shift, and shove at the only stone that shifted when I tested them.
Then I’ve got it out. Hug it to myself. Forget my stepping. Balance myself on one foot on that one stone and wipe creep from my feet. The second stone is easier. I take out the third, then the fourth.
Blessed stones! I am off the ground! I rest, leaning against the wall. The creep does not follow me up the stones. I can plan standing still.
I imagine one foot planted on the door lintel and the other on the stair yet to be built. I wonder how the lintel gets its strength? Will it hold me? What holds it up apart from the two mud-brick door jambs? It feels to be made of a row of doubles glued together by their wide flat faces. Directly above it is another such row. This one reaching past the first rows ends. Its ends are puzzled into the wall either side.
Mm. I prefer not to trust the lintel.
And anyway, why would I want to? There is no bricked-up air intake above the lintel. The door’s surrounds are mud bricks and were added later, they’re obviously part of the repurposing to transform the villa into a prison. Both the sidewalls above lintel height will have bricked-in air intakes, I hope.
I’m sure. The prison is a made-over settler villa. Every house I once knew had air intakes down near the floor.
I build the beginning of my stair against the sundown sidewall. Never in my experience was there movement by the guards into that direction. I’m quite hopeful there is no cell there. Besides, Simmon’s cell lies beyond the wall on the sunrise side.
I try to run up the steps with me not touching the wall so much that the stones slip from under my feet, me with them. When I fall, I must straightaway get the creeping bloodsuckers off me. Flick flick. Finally, I squash the ones I can’t reach by rubbing my back up against the wall.
Next try I fall again. I jump straight back onto my little floor. But, flick flick by the time I have got rid of most of the velvety little finger-things, some of them are already burrowing into me?
Uuh-uu-huh! I nearly have the horrors.
I have to weave their bodies between my shuddering fingers and pull the ghastly things out of the holes they made in me.
Have I got them all? I know I’ll have scars.
I can’t forget that to survive herself, Soowei was forced to watch a Field of Dreams consume her whole age group—when she was fifteen—all the young people of eight villages.
Rebuilding two ten-cubes wide is the plan forged on the spot. Consequently I have to make each step four ten-cubes high to get the stair to the level of the door lintel. I teeter up there, while I feel along the wall beside me for the bricked-in air intake that must be there. I can’t afford to fall again.
There it is. It’s not safe to cheer. I have to make do with feeling satisfaction that I guessed right. Happy. Pick and pry at the stone sticking out the most. I break another fingernail getting the stone from its seating.
Is it a cell through there or is it an office room? I peer through the gap. Gape.
A dozen candle flames sift light from the dark. I dredge a word from my memory. It’s a chapel. An old word for what is a mud-brick extension in the blind spot of the prison.
A prison chapel where once upon a time the Earthborn celebrated their special days and then disappeared from settler histories. They went into the chapels and didn’t come out.
Or should I say the Earthborn who did not take to totems or Shamans. “Or so it is said,” I whisper. My Earthborn mother took a totem and married my settler father.
The dark behind me feels almost friendly compared to the dark beyond the candle flames. Who keeps these flames going? It looks like it has been years since anyone has prayed here, there’s such a layer of dust.
I close my eyes. I can’t let the old suspicions get to me. I let the stones that I pick out of the wall fall into the chapel.
They fall on a field of creep massing over the chapel floor. Below me, thick shaggy carpet-like finger-things stand to attention, so many that they are supported by each other. Can they smell me?
I feel sick and escape for a minute, imagining that I am already outside and walking. At night the desert is dark red with the red star’s light. Red sand as far as the eye can see. Who can I pretend to be for a single adventurous minute?
Stupid. What could be more adventurous than the place where I am right now, when adventure is what I’m always wanting? But why does adventure always have to equal to scrapes? No one else gets themselves into the kind of scrapes I manage. And if not scrapes, then flat lonely places.
I swallow all that down. I should be worrying about getting out. As usual I shudder at the responsibility. This time, as a result, I wobble on my stony stair to nowhere. Hole just isn’t big enough. Keep at it.
I lean side-wards loosening stones and pushing them through to fall into the chapel. The air intake aperture into this room is almost as wide as the room itself. Which in a special room, such as a chapel, was covered with a metal grill.
Very fortunately the grill is gone and the space is filled with ten-cubes about five rows high. I’m going to squeeze through. It’s a long narrow hole like a transverse-section of a coffin.
I could sleep here, between the two maws. The temptation blind-sides me and I relax without having to try. I sleep and dream. I’m walking, slip-sliding through the sand. There’s a platform ahead with people on it, waiting there for me. A Meerkat, a Mongoose and a Puma. The Puma is the smiling man, the one who seemed familiar. Then I remember him. The platform fades away and I wake in the slot.
The smiling man is my father’s younger brother! Very resentful at the time that I knew him. He’d expected to win the amulet. Had come especially. How will he be now, apart from smiling and trying to keep me young and dependent?
It’s still only a dream. I’m not there yet.
A whisper comes out of the dark beyond the candle flames. “My poor child.”
I teeter and roll out of the hole, feet first. Legs, hips slide down. I hang by my hands. Let go. Whip around to see. Who? What?
With my feet I search for the stones that I dropped this side. Balance up onto a couple.
I can’t see.
Then I can.
A bent figure shuffles forward. It’s wearing slippers and the creepy finger-things bend down for him to walk over them. “We should put those stones back,” it says.
It’s a very old man. “Stand on my back and I’ll hoist you up,” he says. “Climb into the hole and I’ll hand the stones back up to you. You’ll be safer in the prison than outside it.” He blinks and blinks.
Did I really hear an old Earthborn man telling me to get back into the prison? I decide that the wind from beyond the stars blew between my ears and I didn’t hear him. Stepping high, I sidle into the shadows.
I recall a floor plan I saw at Shaman School. At the back of a chapel, when sundown is at my left hand, there is often a foyer. There is, with a mountain more of slippers. I take two pairs, a smaller to fit into a larger. My feet, almost habitually in high-stepping mode, slide in gratefully.
There is a pile of hassocks as well, cushions to kneel on. Another of cassocks, gowns for a priest. Behind me the old man moans. I glance back. He’s lying on the creep. I ignore him. I have to ignore him. I take a dark robe to cover my father’s cloak.
I make for the back of the ventilation tower. I’m lucky again, there are no windows.