Chapter 2:


Shokrypt: Between Memory and Dream

Rusted ol’ car really got some heat in it now, sending the sun ‘cross my spine. Not much car left in it, all twisted up against the fountain like it is. Like the bones a’ some animal been crawling all night for water, then finds town fountain all dried up and just sets itself down right there. That’s what happens see, when things get a sight a’ something in the distance, give ‘em a bit a hope. They crawl ten times farer ‘n they could a’ done otherwise, pull ‘emselves over all kinds a’ rocks and stone, but when they get there, find their fountain’s running dry, all the strength just falls out of them, straight out’a their bones like it’s never there in the first place. That works for people too.

Back in South, one a’ the few things my head won’t let go of, is that barefoot prince. There were all sorts there, mostly brak a’course, but they had Shama, cribs, even a few islanders there all working the same rooms. But this ‘un, he was a regular Eastern prince see, that’s why he stuck in my head. Never knew his name - that was part a’ the promise I made myself about not making any friends - but I knew he was different to the rest of us, higher, higher even than most a’ the Uncles and Aunts. Something in the way a person goes about his things, the slope in his back when he walks or how quick he is to smile, lets you know where you stand with him. Most a’ the other kids, they just learnt to whisper quiet, quiet as the nights they let us sleep, so as they could talk an’ learn more about each other. That’s the fountain they had in the distance see, learning ‘bout each other, ‘bout where we’d all come from, sort a’ takes your mind off where you might be going. But me I didn’t say nothing, even when they spoke to me, even when they asked ‘bout my real uncle, and my head’d be busting with all these pictures, pictures that most kids’d try to hold onto, but I tried to forget ‘cause they always ended with the same one. The last page a’ that picturebook in my head never changed, so I just kept my mouth shut, let my head fill with all them thoughts and memories, all them real uncles turning into Southern ones in the morning.

I’d want to tell ‘em so bad, ‘bout how we’d been happy in the hills, how uncle’d gotten the new wall up just in time ‘fore the rains came so as the stalk’d be ok, and how he’d had to carry each a’ them big stones up one by one from the river, and I’d tried to help wi’ my brothers only I was too small and they’d laughed at me trying to lift up the big ‘uns, getting my hands all wet in the water, but uncle he’d just smiled and sent me after some little rocks further from the bank. My brothers said they’d be no use for anything, too small for wall building, but next day when I come up from the house all shaking in the wind, wrapped up in my bed covers, I seen he’d piled ‘em up in the cracks between where my brothers stones rested up against each other. He picked me up an’ told me you need the little ‘uns to fill in all the gaps, keeps the rain out, no good just surrounding yourself wi’ great boulders. Water’s clever see, that’s what uncle said, always looking for ways to sneak in, but it’s blind too, feeling its way up against rocks and stones, and it’s not really looking for ways to get you, just looking for someone to help it on its way, so we got to lend it a hand, show it on its way wi’ stones as best we can.

Used to upset me thinking ‘bout how my brothers laughed at me, just like I’d gotten upset when it was happening, but after a time it made me smile to think of them laughing faces all dirtied up wi’ mud and water, even if it was me they laughing at. Then after another while it started to make me sad, but a different kind of sad than at first, not upset, but the kind a’ sad that knows happiness, knows how its hands feel holding it up through bedcovers and wind, all rough and soft and gone. So I’d kept quiet, and I’d held that picturebook shut in my head as much as I could. But the wind from that day came back at me when I slipped off at night, gently at first, sitting on my eyes till the lids fell shut, then creeping in, finding ways past all the stones I’d put up to hold the pages shut, and when I’d fallen back into dreaming, whispers a’ South’s boys all around me, that wind suddenly rose, like a snake, whipped open the picturebook, flicked through its pages so I’d have to look at them, go back to where I knew I’d never go back. That wind never died, a bit of it must a’ crept into my head while it was blowing, got through the bedcovers and stayed wi’ me. I’d be smiling in my sleep for a while, ‘cause dreaming got that way of making you forget you’re dreaming, but that picturebook always came to the last page, the last picture and that’s the one stayed fixed in my eyes when they got to opening and letting in the hot Southern sun. The rest of it faded away then, the laughing a’ my brothers and uncle’s hands, all died or scattered like our wall when the South came, sun rising behind ‘em over the hills.

This Eastern prince, with a face richer an’ even our new Aunts’ and Uncles’ were behind them breathing masks they wore, he didn’t whisper neither. Me an’ him just laid there like little stones, while whispers poured and washed all round us, blind in the dark. Only I don’t think he made any promises wi’ himself like me, don’t think he thought much about friends and how it’d be to leave ‘em. He had his mind set on one thing since he’d arrived see, had his own little picturebook fixed open in his head, maybe ‘cause he weren’t used to carrying stones so he’d had nothing to weigh it down with, or maybe ‘cause the pictures were prettier than in mine, either way it weren’t much of a surprise to me when we got up that morning and seen his bed empty.

The other kids see, they got their hopes all set in the distance. In their heads an’ their whispers, their time ‘fore South swimming around getting mixed up in the night air, brak and Shama and the islands floating round that bunk room, but me and the prince, our distance laid ahead not behind, our hopes fixed up outside a’ that sleeping room, somewhere ‘cross the field and beyond the trees at the end of it.

Was in the morning after freeschool he ran. It’d been hard that week, even harder ‘n the week before. We were getting bigger see, our bodies and the feelings inside ‘em, an’ the classroom seemed like it was getting smaller, till I could barely keep mine in that room all full wi’ boys and machines and smoke, Aunts’ eyes staring through them yellow screens in their masks, and breathing like machines behind. A few of us had disappeared in the first weeks of it, the skinny kids, the lame ‘uns, I reckon most a’ them Aunts ‘spected me to drop too, what wi’ my smallness and all, but smoke and machines never gave me too much concern. They said them lame kids or the ones who couldn’t stand it’d been moved, there was other buildings see, other classes, out’a what little windows there were most of all we could see was different coloured smoke and little metal chimneys, just like the one sticking out the top of our room.

That morning though, when the prince disappeared, the others, the ones who whispered to each other, got braver ‘n usual, like people do when they in groups, got to talking louder ‘n whispers and plotting. I just carried on wi’ my thoughts - they never bothered me anymore - all the while when they climbed up on each other’s backs, piling up against the beds and the wall so as one of ‘em, like I said I don’t know any a’ their names, was up where the roof window let the sun in every morning, his chin stuck up over the bottom of the glass. I was taking an interest, ‘cause that prince, well, I’d never met anyone from East a’fore, and I’d gotten to wondering ‘bout how he’d ended up there, with us. I mean, I could see how a brak kid wouldn’t be missed, no one paid us much attention up there in the hills, think that’s why uncle liked it there. He used to dwell in the city, further down river, but after it took aunt from him, and most a’ us ‘cept me an’ my brothers he’d taken his’self right up there into the hills for keeps. Didn’t talk much about it, only when one of us asked or got restless for friends see, ‘cause we knew we’d been there too, but couldn’t remember much of it, ‘specially me being the youngest.

I never seen anything as shaky as that big pile a’ braks and Shama and islanders, all standing up on top a’ each other and the beds, little skinny arms and legs barely strong enough to hold themselves together let alone anyone else, but still they did it, must a’ been same thing that got ‘em plotting holding them together there long enough for one of ‘em to get a good look out’a the window, something in that potion a’ whispers they’d been brewing every night since I been there. But it came falling down almost as soon as it’d been built, ten or twenty of ‘em all rolling around on the floor, cursing and then cursing at each other for cursing, trying not to break ‘emselves too loud in case one a’ the Uncles heard.

Most a’ the cursing was going in the direction a’ the islander boy they got to stand at the top, more ‘n likely on account a’ his being the tallest of us all - I’d ‘a never been much use anyway, even if they had ‘a asked me to help.

He’d taken one look through that window ‘fore he turned and started back down the rest of ‘em that was holding him up. They was fixing him down and cursing and hitting as quiet as they could, but then they stopped, an’ I could see something weren’t right with him. First I thought maybe he’d fell bad, hit his head or maybe one of ‘em had hit him too hard, but then I heard the noise he was making.

He was the only islander I’d really met, his skin all dark and his eyes small and black. They were sunk a bit back in his skull too, so as it was hard to tell if he was looking at you or not. I’d wondered whether all them islanders were like that or f’it was just him - maybe the other islanders couldn’t tell, neither. I never spoke to him just like I never spoke to the others, but I knew one thing, he never got scared. It wasn’t just his being tallest that sent him up that pile a’ bodies see, he was always the voice at the middle a’ the whispers, it was always his sharp little words, cut up by them warm island winds, that sent out waves in the talk a’ the other kids. An’ so I weren’t ‘specting ever to hear that noise out a’ him, an’ neither were the rest of us. Was the kind a’ noise that stopped people hitting you. One a’ the others, another brak like me, looked at me then, and it was the first time I’d really spoken to any of ‘em, only I didn’t say a word see, we just both got the same feeling from that islander kid’s wailing. It weren’t loud, no one was having to put their hand over his mouth, just soft, quiet, so as you listened more carefully. It weren’t meant for anything, to call anyone, it was just coming out’a him, like something had cut a hole in him somewhere so as all the feeling just came bleeding out, soft and slow.

They’d got him to talk in the end. Gotten his voice back for him, scooped it off the floor when they lifted him up onto the bed they’d been standing on. We was all one then, even I’d come over with ‘em to help, to make him feel better, but most of all we were all wanting to know what he saw. An’ he knew, he just needed time to lay and let that little hole inside a’ him close up. An’ when he said what he’d seen, ‘bout how there was more houses below the smoke and chimeys, not like on the side a’ South we’d seen when Uncles had taken us to Aunts or Aunts to Uncles, not just a few, but hundreds he’d said, hundreds an’ more ‘cause he didn’t know no numbers high enough, an’ I’d not even heard a’ Camp yet, let alone learnt that type a’ counting so hundreds was good enough for me to picture it in my head. I could see how many hundreds was in his eyes when he was speaking, just laying and staring up into the ceiling, away from the window. When he’d said that, we’d all gotten round him closer so as we’d get to hear it all, even though it’d cut a hole in the tallest of us we’d all got to hear it. He went through everything he’d seen in that moment before he fell, every detail he could remember ‘bout the smoke, how all the colours mixed up in the air and drifted down between the buildings, and how it must a’ been heavy ‘cause the smoke we’d seen never went anywhere ‘cept up in the sky, ‘bout the little black rivers that ran down the walls a’ the houses out’a cracks in the roof, and how the ground was metal and moved round just like the machines they got us hooked up to in class. An’ all the while he was talking we waited, the empty bed on the other side of the room getting emptier and emptier till all anyone could feel was that space where one of us should a’ been, and finally there was nothing for the islander boy to do but fill the hole and he told us he’d seen the prince.

He was barefoot, that was what made him notice see, two bare feet poking up from the metal ground. And that was it. The boys who’d got in a circle closest round him looked at each other like they’s checking they weren’t the only ones who’d missed a joke. But when they asked him again he just said the same thing, that that was it, that was all he saw, bare feet. And they started on him again then, louder ‘n before, thinking more about what they’d been struggling to lift him up to that window for, an’ even though I’d just been watching I started feeling the bruises they’d got when they fallen, an’ got to thinking that if that islander boy didn’t start talking I’d maybe speak to him after all, tallest or not.

But there was no need. He looked away from the ceiling, an’ I remember that look in his eyes, ‘cause I only ever seen that look once since an’ I never want to see it again. I’d come over a bit closer see, so that when he turned his head he was looking right at me. Only he wasn’t looking at me, his eyes were just pointed at me an’ he wasn’t in ‘em anymore. I never known where he was. He just said that that’s all there was. Two bare feet sticking up out’a the ground. Said he could see ‘em so clear he didn’t understand what they were at first. An’ the ground that looked like a machine was a machine he said, ‘cause the last thing he saw ‘fore he fell was them two prince’s feet going underneath it, through a crack opened up in the metal. An’ the little rivers that ran down from cracks in the roofs beneath all that smoke, like the smoke we been breathing every day in class, they were black he said, an’ he was looking at me see, only not looking at me, like the black water all round them two feet ‘fore the ground swallowed ‘em up. An’ I realised he weren’t looking at me, he was looking at them feet.

After the day the prince disappeared, that islander didn’t speak much no more. I didn’t hear him in the whispers and I got to reckoning he spent a lot a’ time seeing them feet, trying to weigh down a new page in his picturebook at night, an’ keeping quiet while the rest were talking. So the prince may have gone see, but there was another little stone in the night, silent as whispers washed around him, just like me. An’ I realised something ‘bout when people disappear, just like my first uncle and brothers, and the others ‘fore ‘em I don’t remember, the whole city at the foot of the river even, and me too one day. I seen that they weren’t my real uncle and brothers, that they was just my first, and that the next time I see ‘em I might not even know it, might a’ been in that water at my back when I’s laying next to the apex staring up at stars, or might a’ been something in Sizzen that night he found me and let his gun down, or in the little brown tree that got me with its berries, or maybe, might a’ been in the sixteen somewhere, could a’ been a little bit a’ uncles and brothers and princes in each one of ‘em and every star above ‘em, ‘cause I’s looking at ‘em just as I looked at my uncle when he picked me up all shaking in bed covers, shooting out starlight from his smile, an’ it’s like the Doc had it wrong again, like he did about the sixteen, time’s motion don’t change anything see, we just looking the wrong way. People go looking for their dead ‘uns and planting stones for ‘em, when really they still here.

Being the sort a’ person gets to thinking quicker ‘n most, I’s gonn’a ask how that islander knew it was the prince, if n’ he only seen them feet, but then I seen that empty bed again out the corner a’ my eye and I held my quiet. And I just kept holding it till it was my turn to run, all the while thanking the prince for teaching me which way to run.

So this old bones of a car that’s burning up my back, I sort’a like laying in it ‘cause it could’a been me once, or maybe I’m it in sometime still to come, searching out the fountain and finding it dry, but either way, it feels like a friend.

Was one a’ the first things I seen when I got to town, great tall stone fountainhead, wi’ the twisted up car bones at its feet. I walked straight past it first night I got here, would never even have stopped to look f’it weren’t for the sky all flashing and booming, lit it up like South would a’ done to me if they’d caught me. But I didn’t dare get any closer ‘n that, looked like one a’ them symbols to me, lit up wi the sky, and not a good ‘un. I just kept walking till I ended up in old Sizzen’s barn. Now look at me, all spread out like a goose in the sun.

When I first come here, I’s too scared even to lift my head out’a Sizzen’s during daylight, now here I is all laid up on my back in middle a’ town, people walking by me - I can hear ‘em, ladies’ voices and men’s breath. Was a time they’d stay clear, talk like they breathing. They good people, just about as good as you get in towns, but they not so much for getting close when they don’t know you. An’ I understand that, see, didn’t make it to town by upping and wrapping words with every stranger I seen on the road.

I can feel ‘em looking at me, only it’s different to when they first put their eyes on me, they was heavy then, heavy looks like someone pulling at your clothes. Now it’s like they looking at the fountain when they look at me, like I’m part a’ the old statue wi’ its dried up mouth spitting nothing. Can almost feel the shade in my skin coming back again, but now it protects me - no one looks long at stone an’ if they do its ‘cause it calms them, sets their waters running the right way. Fountain’s my favourite place, shops all round me, kids running to and from with hot bread or when that gold bell rings outside a’ chapel. Feels like I got the whole a’ town about me, even though we don’t talk, they know I’m here, just like they know fountain. Feels like I got my bedcovers back again and hands holding on the other side. There’s hands in this town, hands you can’t see. Sort a’ like the kind you feel when you get to dwelling.

Down South, just after I left, I saw some things I don’t care to remember, turned my back on ‘em just like I did on South, but one thing I don’t mind telling you.

Was a storm that night, all flashes and thunder, part a’ why I chose to run I s’pose, though I never really thought about it. Harder to catch a boy got loose when there’s a hundred little ‘uns all crying and screaming around you. Anyway, I’s only been running a few minutes when I tripped, think I’s trying to run faster ‘n myself ‘cause I always been a good runner see, wouldn’t be telling you this if I weren’t. Could see the edge of the forest, and my head’s already there - always could run faster in my head than wi’ my legs. So I fell - can’t keep balanced when you running with your head stuck out in front a’ your legs - and I’s not even fully out’a the first field yet. Rain all splashing round me filling up the ground, I’s pulling myself up again, when I seen the black all spilling out a’ me, just where my ankles were. Must’a cut ‘em up on some blade a’ rock or something, still got the marks now though my skin’s ‘most forgotten ‘em, but I couldn’t feel a thing, no pain, just that rain washing all over me and sky screaming out wi’ flashes and sound. An’ I thought a’ the prince an’ I rubbed my feet jus’ to check they’s still on, an’ when I put my hand down, in amongst all that rain and mud and black, all mixed up so as I couldn’t tell what was coming out a’ me and was coming out the ground, I felt something soft. Was some kind a’ scitter, some furry little rat got all caught up in the rains and flashing and thunder, just laid up on its back so as it looked like it was dead. I remember scitters like that, not the same but not too far different from when South was still south, an’ I always got on ok wi’ them. Not like my brothers, they chased ‘em up out in the trees and rivers, shouting and shaking sticks at ‘em, an’ it used to upset me ‘cause I’d be thinking how they never done anything ‘cept what they meant to, an’ how they so much smaller than my brothers it di’n’t seem right to be chasing ‘em about like that waving sticks.

So I’s just moving my legs up underneath me, getting ready to run again, when I felt this little scitter moving against me, its fur brushing me, just a little, soft against my skin where the black was getting hard and sticky. An’ I turned it over an’ looked in those black little eyes, black as what ran out’a my leg an’ into the earth, an’ I knew straight away, I recognised them eyes see. I seen ‘em before in that islander, when he came falling and moaning his soft moan, and I knew where he went then, when he was looking only not looking and he weren’t in his eyes no more. He got in this here scitter somehow, maybe slipped out through that hole he got cut in himself, the one that was letting out his sound, anyway, somehow he got himself in this scitter. An’ I seen that it weren’t hurt, all the black round it was mine see, it was just scared, so scared it didn’t know what to do no more, like that islander when he saw the prince without his feet, an’ like me in that field, waiting for Uncles to come stepping out’a the trees I’s running for just as I got to ‘em, breathing like machines behind their masks an’ knocking me down.

I know what you thinking, ‘cause I know how you boys think, I already told you I met princes and ladies from North, but that scitter’s eyes ain’t the second time I seen that look. ‘Cause it was the same look, it was still the first, still the islander, see. An’ I set him back, all the while he’s looking at me, this scitter, like he’s waiting for me to knock him down or chase him, only he’s got no running left, an’ scitters, like I said, I seen ‘em before an’ they weren’t for staying long when they seen you, but this one wi’ little black eyes straight out’a the islands, he jus’ looked right at me while I set him back on his feet, an’ I could feel him still looking when I got up and looked back one last time wi’ light all flashing round the Southhouses and shapes moving somewhere below the smoke, an’ thunder sounding out around us. Only it wasn’t a heavy look, it di’n’t pull me back down, it just talked to me somewhere, told me to keep running, to get to them trees at the end of the field, cause it was raining and if I went now I’d disappear ‘mongst all that water an’ they never catch me. An’ so that’s what I did, see. I just kept running an’ hiding, till I got here.

First place Sizzen took me after he ‘cided to take me in was this ol’ fountain. Thought for sure I’s leaving wi’ my hands locked in South iron when he found me. But old Sizzen, he just put his gun down, stuck his hand wi’ that lamp right out under me, so close I could’a bit it, when he saw my face. I never spoke a word that night, just opened my mouth to eat what he gave me. An’ he took me here to fountain an’ car bones, ‘cause it meant something to him see, something he never told me an’ I never asked, but something that filled up that empty house he lived in an’ put life in them dresses he stitched. Sun’s burning me now, gonn’a get blisters on my back. I know I should move but sometimes heat’s just too good, when all you used to is cold.

Xan Ti