A tangle of gold, p.14
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       A Tangle of Gold, p.14

           Jaclyn Moriarty
 

  She’d joined the school’s history club the week before. Today was her turn to present. The meeting was at 6 pm. That’s half an hour still, she told herself. Crazy to waste thirty minutes of your life feeling scared.

  ‘Who wants to join my new history club?’ the teacher, Mr Guthrie, had asked, and her arm had flung itself in the air. Unexpected. Afterwards she told herself she’d done it because she still found that arm-raising thing hilarious. Seriously, what was with kids pointing at the ceiling when they wanted a teacher’s attention? What did the ceiling have to do with anything? She’d taken ages to stop looking up to see what the issue was up there, like mould in the cornices or what?

  She told Gabe and the others that she’d joined the club so she could seem like a genuine participant in the community. (‘Soph! Good for you!’)

  But the real reason was, she loved Mr Guthrie’s classes. It wasn’t just that he made history into stories so vibrant she could’ve sworn he was piping pictures into her brain. It was also the way questions rose from his tales, and how he’d take these questions and turn them upside down. Tap on them gently to see what might fall out, or spin them sideways so they met other questions. It sort of reminded Keira of the music that played constantly at home—the soundtrack of her life—melodies rising in spirals from the drumbeat, twisting on themselves, diving back inside the song or melting like false starts.

  So, she’d joined the club. And Mr Guthrie had assigned her the first presentation.

  *

  The nerves were in her shoulderblades and temples. Sharp, little aches.

  It’s okay, she told herself, I’ve got palm cards.

  Gabe had suggested the palm cards. He’d seen her practising her speech at the kitchen table the night before, reading from a typed sheet of paper, and he’d opened a drawer and pulled out the stack of cards. ‘Check this out,’ he’d said, placing the cards in the palm of his hand, straightening his shoulders and staring ahead. ‘Blahdy, blahdy,’ he’d said solemnly, and then, without looking down, he’d lifted up the top card and slid it to the bottom of the pile.

  ‘Unbelievable,’ she’d breathed.

  He had placed the cards on the table with the slightest smile. ‘Up to you.’

  But actually it was a good idea, so she’d come here after school today and transferred her speech to the cards.

  It was about relations between Cello and its neighbour, the Kingdom of Aldhibah. At first, she’d thought she’d do one of the usual—the Battle of Faber-Regis; the Shadow Years; the Massacre in Olde Quainte; the Lamplight War—but then she’d decided to focus on small incidents instead.

  Now she chose a random card to practise.

  The Turnkey Crisis

  This event followed a period of relative peace between the Kingdoms of Cello and Aldhibah. The doors in the great wall stood open, and citizens of both Kingdoms had been making their way easily back and forth. Then, after a perceived slight from the then Queen of Cello at a banquet, a decision was made in Aldhibah. At precisely 3 pm, there was a simultaneous turning of keys: all along the wall, the Aldhians closed and locked the doors. The gesture was meant as a snub: designed to symbolise an entire Kingdom turning its back on its neighbour. It is true that the doors were opened again in the following weeks, but to this day, an Aldhian need only mime the turn of a key in the air, for a Cellian to feel the sting.

  Keira replaced the card uncertainly. She chose another.

  But her scarf was suffocating her. She pulled it off and draped it over the other chair. Her neck felt relieved.

  The Sleight of Hand

  This took place so long ago as to be almost the stuff of legend. The story goes that, in a time of great, mutual need, the two Kingdoms entered a bilateral treaty whereby they agreed to share their natural resources for a time. Specifically, they agreed that ‘all resources in all named provinces shall forthwith and for one score years be equally divided’.

  However, at the precise moment that the then Cellian King was signing this treaty, his council back home was officially ‘unnaming’ one of Cello’s provinces. All records of that province were erased, and reference thereto was strictly forbidden (so much so that the name itself has vanished from memory). The province, of course, has since become known as our Undisclosed Province, and the reason for this technical masterstroke—this sleight of hand—was that the region is the source of Cello’s Wind. Of course, the Cello Wind is our most valuable resource, and the Aldhians were outraged to have been tricked out of their share in this way.

  Incidentally, this episode raises many questions. What does a name mean? Can you truly be stripped of your identity in this way? And, once the province became known as the Undisclosed Province, did it then take on the characteristics of that name? These days the region is well known as a place of mystery, secret and shadows, and very few venture there. Was it always this way or did the dark curtain drawn across its existence so transform it?

  It was a bit much, she saw suddenly. She was trying to draw out questions the way Mr Guthrie did, but her points were totally obvious. Or totally obscure. Or forced. Mr Guthrie would bite his lower lip with sympathetic amusement. The other kids would wince in their Farms way.

  Now her coat was suffocating her. She pulled this off, along with her woollen hat.

  Why was she so hot? Did she maybe have a fever? She should cancel her presentation! It would only be fair! What if she was contagious? What a shame! Oh well. Never mind. But then she looked around and saw that, all across the square, people were shedding overcoats and gloves, and fanning themselves with menus. The temperature must have shot right up.

  At Le Petit Restaurant, the manager was snuffing out the oil-burning heaters. Abel and Petra had stopped chatting to watch him do this. Now that neither was smiling, Keira thought they both seemed older and heavier somehow. Petra’s lipstick was smudged and there were shadows and sags beneath her eyes. A woman approached their table—it was the pharmacist who always wore violet nail polish—and Keira could hear her exclaiming, welcoming Abel back and asking after his health. Both Abel and Petra beamed up, and then, as Abel engaged in chat, Petra’s smile faded and she gazed into space, lines running down her cheeks.

  Keira returned to her palm cards. She took the final card.

  These events may seem trivial but in a way, the small and the large, the micro and the macro, are one and the same. Words are altered on documents and a province disappears. An error is made by a Cellian pianist at an inter-Kingdom contest: an Aldhian singer, unnerved, misses out on a place. The Lamplight War begins a month later. A Cellian prince disappears, when he’s about to be crowned King, and, years later, his mandolin turns up in an Aldhian junkyard. The Shadow Years commence. A Queen fails to recognise a Princess and thus does not offer the appropriate greeting. Keys are turned in a wall. The Battle of Faber-Regis takes place just six months later. Are each of these minor events unrelated to the major ones that followed them? Are each isolated and insignificant? Or does each contain thousands of years worth of bloodshed and mistrust? Does each stretch back as far as memory can take us, and canter forward into the unknowable future?

  Again, Keira felt doubts circling. Canter. That was what horses did, not moments. She must have had Sergio-the-stableboy on her mind. And what was she thinking, announcing that the micro and the macro were one and the same? No, they weren’t. One was small. One was big. She reached for a pen to strike out ‘canter’, as well as the micro/macro line, and as she did a splat of water hit the card.

  Two or three others joined it quickly. The ink began to run.

  She gathered the cards together, rain peppering her bare head. Around the square, umbrellas were popping open, people were running for shelter and vendors were hurrying to cover their stock.

  This was spring rain, she realised suddenly. Winter was over. Spring had come to town.

  That was when the clock tower began to strike.

  She looked up, amazed.

  It was six o’clock already! Now
what had she done?

  Her heart thudded madly as she threw her things into her backpack. She couldn’t find the rubber band for the palm cards so she put them in her coat pocket instead. She pulled her hat onto her head as somewhere to put it. The clock was still chiming. It was only five minutes to the school if she ran—people would still be arriving and settling in at the history club. She’d be fine, she wasn’t too late, she’d make it.

  Then the chimes seemed to expand, rising above the clock tower, cloaking it, and she looked up, confused.

  It was the warning bells.

  The entire square paused, decoding the bells, and then someone laughed, and several people shouted, ‘Level four Blue!’ or ‘It’s just a Sky Blue!’

  There was a rush for shops and pubs. Keira hesitated.

  ‘You’d better come in here.’ Her friend, the waitress, was standing at the open café door, while other customers filed past, some annoyed but most resigned and cheerful.

  ‘I can’t,’ Keira said. ‘I’ve got to get to the school.’ She swung her backpack onto her shoulder, draping her coat and scarf on the crook of the other arm.

  The waitress’s eyes widened. ‘Heck, school’s finished for the day, isn’t it? Sky Blue’s are pretty harmless, sure, but I wouldn’t want to be caught outside in one!’

  Keira pivoted on her heel. ‘I won’t be,’ she called, ‘I’ve got time,’ and she started running.

  The square was already empty of people so her running feet echoed like a drumbeat. Distantly, she heard the waitress’s voice sing: ‘Get back here, you’re crazy!’

  Streets were empty too. Cars had pulled over to kerbs. It was almost dark and the streetlights bowed in the rain. She turned onto Broad Street. People stared at her from behind shop windows and from inside houses. A teenage boy hurdled a fence, ran up a garden path and into a house. She could hear a mother’s voice scolding. At another house, a woman hurried out, scooped up a dog and ran back inside, slamming the door behind her.

  Rain fell harder. Snow was melting, and puddles formed, expanding fast. She leapt over one, skidded, caught herself and kept running. The air was grey with rain, but the Blue haze was approaching now. On a sunny day, it could be tricky to see a Sky Blue’s approach, but today it was vibrant up there. Shouldering its way in, tearing through cloud, pressing its immense, vacant face into the sky.

  She jogged steadily. She was almost at the school.

  Up ahead, she saw a man darting out of the school gates. It was Jimmy, she realised. He’d been at the high school often lately: she kept seeing him disappear into the staff room or the office. Now he crossed the road at a sprint, ran up the stairs and into the Sheriff’s Station. The door thudded behind him, rattling.

  She was going to make it.

  She was almost at the gate.

  She was at the gate. She turned and the Blue was everywhere.

  Cylinders of Blue, some as small as trash cans, some as large as stormwater drains, rolled up and down the street and path at speed. The school grounds were awash with them. They tumbled and turned in there, high-spirited and hilarious. She sidled in through the gate and right away a Blue knocked her back outside again.

  She tried again and a second Blue knocked her to the ground. She landed in a sprawl, water seeping cold into the seat of her jeans.

  She stood up, ran at the gate once more and this time found herself tripping back a few steps before she fell to her hands and knees. The Blues seemed to grin, waiting on her next move. Rain blurred her vision. She got back to her feet, three Blues hurtled towards her, so she ran.

  They were chasing her along the middle of the street. For a moment she thought she could outrun them, but another swiped at her from her right. She darted to avoid it and collided with a parked car. She was on the ground again. She was up and running. The Blues prodded her from behind. She was down again. Each time it was just a little push, gentle but firm: palms against your back, an elbow in your side.

  Her backpack slid from her shoulder and splashed to the road. She tried to reach for it but was shoved away. She gave up and continued stumbling along.

  She was passing houses. People pressed to the glass and stared out at her. She was falling, weaving, ducking, tripping, falling. Some of the people laughed, and she tried to smile back at them. It was pretty funny. Like a game. The Blues were winning, sure, but she could be a good sport.

  Her scarf slithered from her arm and sank into a puddle.

  Behind a window, the local vet beckoned her, mouthing, ‘Get in here! Come inside!’

  She took a run at the shop, but the Blue was onto her, surrounding her so she felt herself lifted from the ground for a few steps before she fell. She tried again, but the same thing happened, and quickly the shop receded as she was buffeted along the road.

  The Blue was like a fast-moving river that was swelling out through the town. It scooted around trees and slid past buildings. She was caught in its rapids, bubbling along. She was breathless and exhausted. Her knees and elbows throbbed from hitting ground.

  She passed more shops, more staring faces, more smiles, some sympathetic, more people urging her to come inside. But each time she was swept from doorways in the giddy rush.

  ‘Stop it!’ she heard herself shouting.

  It was like a crowd of kids, she thought, or puppies, who don’t understand that the game is done. The more you press them away from you the more they leap.

  Each time she fell, it hurt a little more. Each time she got to her feet there was another flying shove.

  ‘Stop it!’

  A couple of them barged at her shoulderblades and she crashed into a snowbank, face-first. Her coat was wrenched from her arm and flung to the road, the palm cards skidding from the pocket and forming a trail. She grabbed at them, but the Blue urged her on, relentless.

  It was night-dark now so the Blue had an eerie glow.

  She realised she was outside the downtown area. No more houses edging the road, just fields and occasional letterboxes, hulking shapes of farm buildings in the distance.

  There was a rhythm now to the Blue. It pummelled, waited, let her take three steps, and pummelled again. It was silent but she could almost hear it shriek with laughter at each push.

  Fall, stagger, fall, stagger, fall, stagger, fall.

  Her body ached. Dimly, she wondered where she was going.

  She fell. Her palms were grazed.

  She fell. Sharp pain in her knees.

  She fell. Her shoulder was wrenched.

  It was tireless, this Blue. Indefatigable.

  She tried to admire its determined good cheer.

  ‘Leave me alone!’ she roared. Her woollen hat clung sodden to her head.

  ‘Stop it!’

  Crash.

  ‘Stop it!’

  Crash.

  She gave up shouting, and the rhythm carried on until there was nothing much going on in the universe but falling and standing and falling. The tubes of Blue ran skittishly ahead, behind and around her, prodding and rollicking. A vision sprang up before her: the word ‘FUN!’ lit up and flashing, rolling back and forth, another word, a tiny word, following.

  Then it stopped.

  As one, every cylinder lifted and soared into the darkness.

  She stood and watched the sky.

  The Blue faded into the distance. She could hear her own breathing.

  She kept walking. Shivers ran through her body.

  With vague surprise she realised that this was Foxall Road, and that the crossroad approaching was Carsons. She was almost at Gabe’s farm.

  The rain fell on, unperturbed, as if nothing had happened.

  She reached the farm and turned up the driveway.

  *

  Gabe was opening the door of his pick-up truck as she arrived. He wore his raincoat, the hood casting a shadow over his face.

  He looked at her curiously.

  ‘I was just coming to fetch you,’ he said. ‘From the library. Wasn’t that the plan? That
I’d meet you there after your history thing?’

  Keira stood in the rain. Wet hands seemed to be massaging her head through her woollen hat.

  ‘Well, seeing you’re here, can you help me out with something?’ He closed the truck door with his knee and headed out across the yard, away from the house. As he walked, he drew a flashlight from his jacket pocket and switched it on. He swung the light back over his shoulder.

  She followed.

  The ground was slick and noisy with rivulets of melting snow. Each step was a squelch and the water lapped over the sides of her boots. They crossed the first paddock, and the second, then he opened a gate into a smaller field.

  Snow still iced this field although its edges ran with mud. Poking through the white were rows of tiny shoots, each no bigger than a hand. The rows stretched into the distance.

  Gabe crunched towards the first row, and turned back to Keira, holding out the flashlight. ‘Hold this for me?’

  She took a step, hit a slippery patch and landed on her back in ice-mud-snow.

  Gabe chuckled. ‘Watch your step there, Soph.’

  She screamed without making the decision to scream. She was lying on her back and she could feel it, the scream, in her chin and chest and down her spine. She was horrified but also strangely euphoric, and when it stopped she took a breath and screamed again. Abruptly, Gabe was standing over her, his face anxious, his mouth moving, but she couldn’t hear his words behind the scream. The scream was harsh like chainsaws, and piercing like hot water pipes in panic. It was like music gone rogue, turned murderous, escaping.

  She clambered onto her hands and knees, and turned the scream into words. ‘Would you all just stop with your Soph! Soph! like you want to bury me in Soph! Soph! You’re all just one big monster made of Soph! And they never look at me, or listen, and it’s not my fault my mother’s a Hostile, and it’s not my fault my mother killed people, and you didn’t tell me why I had to take that route! How was I to know it was going to get bogged! And then you had to point out how bad my skin is when I didn’t say a word about—’

 
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