Low chicago, p.42
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       Low Chicago, p.42

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
 

  Set up for the fall, Ali got life in prison.

  Weeks passed. The moon grew full and died and grew full again. The People—Ali came to learn that that was what they called themselves—came every so often and left Ali food and little gifts. Eventually they came whether Ali was there or not. Each time they left, Ali followed them a bit farther.

  All the while, Ali watched them. He watched how they ate, watched how they fished, watched how they used their tools. He learned their method of making fire with wood and stone.

  But mostly Ali listened, trying to learn their words. What they called fire, what they called meat, what they called snow. The words one of them used to let the others know he was going to take a shit. The words one used when she looked tired. He learned the most from listening to the children. It wasn’t so different from teaching himself Spanish, really.

  Ali finally decided to try to talk to a group of his visitors. Two lanky young men that might have been brothers and a gruff-looking young woman. They’d caught several animals that looked like giant gophers and were cooking them when Ali approached.

  “H-hello,” Ali tried to say in their language.

  The three of them stood stock-still, staring at Ali. One of the brothers dropped his utensil and spit out what sounded like a curse.

  “Hello,” the young woman said back. Her voice was gravelly, like an old woman’s.

  “You … hunt?” Ali thought he said.

  One of the young men screamed. The trio turned and ran.

  “Wait!” Ali shouted in English but it was no use. And if he chased them he would only frighten them more.

  It was three days before he had another visitor. Ali counted them.

  This time, though, his visitor was different. It was the squat old woman who had marked him all those weeks ago. The beads and shells in her hair clicked as she approached him, and she smelled strongly of some sort of flower or herb. A young hunter accompanied her, clearly there to protect her and carry her things. She waved him off to the cook-fire and shuffled confidently into the shelter, gesturing for Ali to follow. For a moment she didn’t look at him, just traced her big hard finger along the carvings on the cave wall. They’d started to fade, and Ali had realized that the People probably tended to them somehow. He felt vaguely embarrassed.

  “You talk!” the old woman said, turning toward him suddenly. Then she looked him in the eye and talked on and on, her gaze locked on him. Ali understood only a few of her words. “Meat.” “Shelter.” “The People.” He thought she might be reciting something.

  Ali noticed that over and over again in her monologue she repeated the word “sleep.” Except it wasn’t “sleep,” exactly. More like “talking sleep.” Dreams? Is she talking about dreams?

  The old woman—Red Herb Woman, as he learned her name was—spent weeks with him, teaching him the language of the People. Ali tried in exchange to teach her English or Arabic but, convinced that Ali was some sort of spirit, she refused. “Spirit words are for spirits,” she insisted.

  Day in and day out she taught him the words and ways of the People. Numbers and animals and colors and moods. Actions and plants and sizes. For a full month, she taught him. Ali had mostly hated school as a kid, but this was about as different as different got. Red Herb Woman showed no sign of pleasure or displeasure at Ali’s progress or lack of it, responding to success and failure alike by sitting there smoking something sour-smelling from a little clay pipe.

  One day, without warning, as the smoke plumed and writhed around her, Red Herb Woman pulled out her little pouch of purple dye and put another thumbprint on Ali’s chest.

  “Yeah,” she said. “You ready.”

  “Ready for what?”

  “To see the People’s Camp. To meet Biggest Woman.”

  In prison, Ali found God. Or God found him. Prison gives you a lot of time to think. Sometimes it gives you nothing to do but think. And Ali thought. A tiny child—the boy’s name was Christopher, Ali later learned—had been murdered. And while Ali hadn’t killed the boy, neither were his monstrous hands clean. He was shaken. Shunned as a babykiller by everyone except the Muslim brothers who believed his story, Ali began really reading the Qur’an for the first time in his life, and attending Friday prayers with other prisoners.

  Friday was the only day of the week that Ali had been allowed in gen pop. As one of the prison’s half-dozen wild card inmates, he had spent most of his time in EnhanceMax. It took him two run-ins with the power-armored guards and their shock cannons there for Ali to figure out that he couldn’t punch his way out of this one.

  In the camp—a bustling collection of lean-tos and hill caves built among three hillocks—the People, perhaps a hundred of them, surrounded Ali, chanting. He’d learned a lot of their language over the past few months, but he had no idea what they were saying now.

  The ring of people parted and a huge figure wearing beaded suede and carrying a massive spear strode forth. She was taller than the tallest man there, well over six feet. Her long, matted black hair was tied back with a series of leather bands. No one he knew would’ve called that rough, scarred face pretty, but her eyes were like dark lightning and she smelled like a river and fresh sweat, and Ali was hypnotized.

  Good enforcers develop an intuitive sense of pecking order. Knowing who can be fucked with and who can’t be fucked with had been an important part of Ali’s trade. In all of his dealings with the People so far, Ali knew he was being deferred to, whether out of fear or respect. He could practically smell it in the air when he walked among the People.

  With this woman there wasn’t even a hint of that.

  Biggest Woman looked him in the eye, then she looked him up and down and snorted a half laugh to herself, though Ali had no idea why.

  “What word for you?” she asked.

  It took Ali a moment to understand. She wants to know my name. “Ali,” he said. The word felt weird in his mouth, as if he’d never introduced himself to another person before.

  “Ah-lee,” she repeated. She pronounced it just as he had, the Arabic way. The right way. His pulse raced faster. “What you, Ah-lee?”

  “Huh?”

  “You spirit?” Biggest Woman looked skeptical.

  “No! No spirit. Me no spirit.” It had taken Red Herb Woman days to teach Ali this word, but it had been an important one to her.

  “You man?”

  “Yes. Man. Me man. Me a man.”

  Biggest Woman nodded to herself, as if confirming something. “You help the People? Kill bear? Break wood? Move big stones?”

  Over the past few months, Ali had, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, done these things for the People. “Yes. Bear. Trees. Big stone,” he said.

  This time Biggest Woman smiled, and Ali felt like a schoolkid who’d never kissed a girl. “Ah-lee,” she said again. “You good. We talk.”

  He never returned to the hunters’ shelter after that. The People fashioned him a new shelter, dug out of a hillock that sat a few hundred yards from the edge of their camp. Ali learned that they had several of these semi-permanent camps that they migrated between, depending on the season and the movements of the deer.

  Over time he learned more and more of the People. Their ways, their rules, their foods, their songs. The seasons changed and the tasks he did for the People changed. He was hired muscle again. But everything Ali did here brought life, not death. That was something, he figured. Maybe something big.

  And then one night he was called to join the People.

  Red Herb Woman spoke at the ceremony, and Ali could actually make out most of her words now. “He came when rainbow light shone in sky. He was sent by the People Who Were Here Before to help us. He is Strong Scarred One, who was seen in the Dream. My father gave me the Dream, and his mother gave him the Dream, and her father gave her the Dream. The Dream has been told to the People. The People know the Dream.”

  “The People know the Dream,” everyone but Ali said.

  Rainbow light.
Ali’s mind went back to the card game in Chicago. It had been more than a year ago, he realized with a shock. When everything went to shit at the game, reality seeming to warp around him, he had seen a flash of rainbow light before blacking out. She’s talking about whatever weird shit brought me here, Ali realized. They saw the rainbow light when it happened.

  Then Red Herb Woman stepped aside and Biggest Woman stepped into the circle. She gestured to Ali and it took him a moment to realize she wanted him to kneel.

  He knelt, and she produced a pale stone knife. Its blade was caked with dried blood. Ali had stayed alive for years only by reacting very quickly when anyone pointed a weapon at him, and he had to smother his instincts as Biggest Woman brought the knife-tip to his forehead. Slowly, deliberately, she cut three short vertical lines in his skin. As she did so, she chanted. “You are not a child,” she intoned, “and you are not an enemy. We name you Meat-Man. We name you the Strongest of the People.”

  Wait. What? They … they want me to lead them? Ali had to stop this before it started. “Me not good for Chieftain…” he started to say.

  Biggest Woman lost her ceremoniousness and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. Then she cut him off with a loud, derisive laugh. Ali thought the sound was beautiful. “Chieftain? Chieftain? You not be Chieftain!” She laughed again “Me Chieftain. You Strongest, not Chieftain. Stronger than a man. Know less than a child.” She laughed again, and the People laughed with her.

  For a moment Ali felt his old, easy anger. He looked at the faces around him and saw mirth, not mockery. He began to laugh louder than any of them.

  “Yeah,” he said in English, “fair enough.” As a kid he’d seen some movie where this brainy white guy woke in the ancient past and taught the people about all sorts of modern inventions. Ali wished he could do that. He didn’t know how to make gunpowder or penicillin. But he knew how to pick up heavy shit and how to hit things. Hard. And these people needed that.

  The People needed him.

  Ali spent six long years in prison. He got an hour of yard time every day unless some shithead CO arbitrarily decided to deny it. He prayed five times a day and paced his cell and read year-old magazines with holes cut in them. More than once Ali listened to one man cry while being raped by another man. Prison nearly killed him.

  Then a federal organized crime case brought to light the fact that Ali hadn’t killed that little boy. He was cleared of the murder. His remaining charges were chalked up to time served.

  When Ali got out of prison, they put him on a bus and dumped him onto Michigan Avenue like an unwanted dog left in the woods. He avoided his old crowd, using his meat-and-metal to work construction or security or whatever he could find. Since getting out of prison he’d been a bouncer, a builder, even a motherfucking stock boy. None of it had stuck. Ali stopped praying regularly. Turned out it was a lot harder to talk to God on the outside than it was in prison.

  Warm water flowed down Ali’s back, and he felt himself relax. The Bathing Place was a few hours’ walk from the main camp, a huge pool of melting snow heated by some sort of underground … hot spring? Geyser? Ali didn’t know what to call the Bathing Place. Even after a few years here among the People, he was still a city boy.

  The People had taught him to wash himself off every day as they did—water from a jug, big flat leaves, rough yarn cloth. But this was different. At the Bathing Place you got clean. Ali stood waist-deep in the warm, frothy water and focused on his breathing. He felt long-knotted muscles unkink.

  The place was normally more crowded, a handful of the People there at any given time. But Ali found himself alone now, as the sun began to sink in the sky. He dunked his head and felt the warm water run through his shaggy hair and his beard.

  Then someone burst through the reeds and made their way to the edge of the water. It was Biggest Woman. All of Ali’s tension returned.

  Ali had grown used to being naked more often among the People, who didn’t always wear a lot of clothes. But that didn’t stop him from being mortifyingly aware that his dick was hanging out in the water.

  “I sorry. I am sorry,” Ali said. “I not know you be coming here.” Ali had gotten better at the language, but he still had a ways to go. “I not know you be coming here,” he said again. “I go.” He had learned enough of the People’s ways and their pecking order to know that this was what he was supposed to do. I think.

  “You didn’t know I would be here,” Biggest Woman said, “but I knew you would be here.” She set her spear by the edge of the pool, took off her suedes and woven things, and joined him in the water.

  Even in this warm water, Ali felt his face flush with heat. He hoped to God that the frothy water hid the fact that he had a boner. He’d been bad at talking to women even as a teenager. Then his card had turned and … well, he’d spent a lot of years alone.

  “Did you have children in your Other Land, Ah-lee?” The others all called him Meat-Man or Strongest. Biggest Woman was the only one who called him by his old name. It seemed to amuse her.

  “I … ah. Other Land,” he stammered. He stopped listening to his body and focused on her words. More than once, he’d tried to explain to the People how he’d gotten there, when and where he came from. But though he blamed someone at the card game he’d been working, he himself didn’t know exactly how he’d ended up there. He’d settled on saying he came from a faraway Other Land, and gave up on trying to describe it. “No small people,” he said at last. “Er, no children.”

  She looked surprised. “You are strong and you are good,” Biggest Woman said, striding closer to him in the water. “Not so smart, but not all of the People can be smart.”

  “I—”

  “You should make children, Ah-lee Meat-Man.”

  “I—” Ratcatcher and Basket Weaver and some of the other men had been teasing Ali for weeks that Biggest Woman, whose son had died last year, had her eye on him to father her next child. But Ali hadn’t believed it for a second. Until now.

  “You should make children with me, Ah-lee,” she said matter-of-factly. Biggest Woman stared at him with those black, electric eyes and Ali felt like someone had thrown a switch within him. She drew herself up and now her tone was almost ceremonial. “I am Biggest Woman, Chieftain. Do you choose to make children with me, Meat-Man Strongest Man?”

  Ali looked at his big meat-block hands, then looked up at her. “Yes.” The word hung in the damp, florid air, the answer to a question Ali felt had been asked years before this day.

  He started to say more, but then Biggest Woman kissed him. She nuzzled her face into his neck and he felt her scars and pockmarks scratch his skin. She took hold of his dick beneath the warm water and they both laughed happily. He smelled her sweat and he put his mouth on her. They pressed their bodies together. Birds screamed in the trees and the setting sun painted the sky with fire.

  After months of drifting broke and half-broken through the minefield of ex-con life, Ali got a job offer through an old crony. The guy was shady, turned straight only because he could make more money off casinos than he could off running numbers, but the money was good. A high-stakes card game was in the works and one of the players wanted a big guy to stand behind him and look ugly. And holy shit it turned out the player was none other than “Hustlin’” Charlie Flowers.

  Ali could admit to himself, if he wouldn’t to anyone else, that he had been excited. Charlie Fucking Flowers! But the guy had turned out to be exactly as sleazy and pathetic as the TV jokes made him out to be. And once again Ali found himself standing there using his big, scary-looking fists to make money for a boss who didn’t deserve it.

  Such tiny hands. It should be impossible.

  It was a warm evening but blissfully few insects were out. The air was sweet and the moon shone above like the radiant face of God. Ali looked down at his daughter, only an hour old, nestled in the thick warm meat of his massive palm.

  They’d tried. For three cycles of seasons he and Biggest Woman had tr
ied to make a baby. Fucking when Red Herb Woman told them the time was right. Fucking in the positions she dictated. Eating fish livers. Drinking bark teas. But no baby had come. Biggest Woman had told him that she’d had another child years ago, a boy who’d died before he’d learned to walk. So Ali figured the problem had to be with his own junk. Was it just bad luck? Was his wild card to blame? Had time travel fried his sperm?

  He began praying again.

  And then, a few months ago, Biggest Woman had told him that she was pregnant. With, according to Red Herb Woman, a girl. Ali wasn’t stupid enough to think his prayers had done this, but he thanked God all the same. Ali had wanted to name the child Wafa, after his sister. But Biggest Woman, scandalized, had informed him that Biggest Woman’s Second was the only acceptable name for her second child. Ali hadn’t argued.

  Now Ali was holding her—holding Second—in his hands, and looking down into her tiny eyes he could feel God’s presence for the first time in years.

  Behind him, someone was approaching. Ali’s neck muscles tensed the way they had back when he was an enforcer and something was about to pop off.

  He smelled the smoke from Red Herb Woman’s pipe before he heard her reedy voice.

  “Strongest!”

  Ali turned slowly, still cradling Biggest Woman’s Second.

  “Biggest Woman—she is well?” he asked. “Can I speak to her?”

  Red Herb Woman’s face was grim. “The child didn’t come into the world easily. Biggest Woman lost much blood. She can barely speak right now. In time she will heal. But the People have a bigger problem. Come.”

  An hour later Ali was on the hunters’ path a few miles outside the camp, standing over the bloody bodies of Basket Weaver and five more of the People. Each of them had had his right hand chopped off. Messily.

  It wasn’t the worst hit job Ali had ever seen. But it was a scene from a life he’d thought was over. A life he’d thanked God was over. I shoulda fucking known better.

 

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