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Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #sf

The Crystal World (16 page)

BOOK: The Crystal World
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His new suit had been the property of a Belgian engineer at one of the mines. The man, roughly his own age, he assumed from the cut of the trousers and jacket, had died some weeks earlier of pneumonia. In the pockets of the jacket Sanders found small pieces of bark and a few dried leaves. Sanders speculated whether the man had caught his final chill while gathering these once-crystallized objects from the forest.
Suzanne Clair did not appear at breakfast. When Sanders arrived at the Clairs' bungalow and was shown into the dining-room by the houseboy, Max Clair greeted him with a raised forefinger.
"Suzanne is sleeping," he told Sanders. "She had quite a night, poor dear-a lot of natives are hanging around in the bush, hoping to reap themselves a harvest of diamonds, I suppose. They've brought their sick with them, incurables for the most part. What about you, Edward? How do you feel this morning?"
"Well enough," Sanders said. "Thanks for the suit, by the way."
"Your own is dry now," Max said. "One of the boys pressed it earlier this morning. If you want to change-?"
"That's all right. This one is warmer, anyway." Sanders felt the blue serge fabric. The darker material in some way seemed more appropriate to his present meeting with Suzanne than his cotton tropical suit, a fitting disguise for this nether world where she slept by day and appeared only at night.
Max ate his breakfast with relish, working with both hands at his grapefruit. Since their meeting the previous night he had relaxed completely, almost as if Suzanne's absence gave him his first chance to lower his guard with Sanders. At the same time, Sanders guessed that he had been deliberately allowed his few minutes alone with Suzanne, to make his own brief judgment, if any, on why she and Max had come to Mont Royal.
"Edward, you haven't told me yet about your visit to the site yesterday. What exactly happened?"
Sanders glanced across the table, puzzled by Max's air of detachment. "You've probably seen as much as I have-the whole forest is vitrifying. By the way, do you know Thorensen at all?"
"Our telephone line goes through his mine office. I've met him a few times-that suit belonged to one of his engineers. He's always up to some private game of his own."
"What about this woman living with him-Serena Ventress? I take it their affair is common gossip here?"
"Not at all-Ventress, you say her name is? Probably some cocotte he picked up in a Libreville dance-hall."
"Not exactly." Sanders decided to say no more. As they finished breakfast he described his arrival at Port Matarre and the journey to Mont Royal, concluding with his visit to the inspection site. At the end, as they walked out past the empty wards on either side of the courtyard, he hinted at Professor Tatlin's explanation of the Hubble Effect and what he himself felt to be its real significance.
Max, however, seemed to have little interest in all this. Obviously he regarded the crystallizing forest as a freak of nature that would soon exhaust itself and let him get on with the job of nursing Suzanne. Sanders's oblique references to her he sidestepped deftly. With some pride he showed Sanders around the hospital, pointing out the additional wards and X-ray facilities which he and Suzanne had introduced during their short stay.
"Believe me, Edward, it's been quite a job, though I wouldn't take too much credit for ourselves. The mine companies provide most of the patients and consequently most of the money."
They were walking along the perimeter fence on the eastern side of the hospital. In the distance, beyond the single-story buildings, they could see the full extent of the forest, its soft light shining like a stained-glass canopy in the morning sun. Although still held back by the perimeter road near the Bourbon Hotel, the affected zone seemed to have spread several miles down-river, extending itself through the forested areas along the banks. Two hundred feet above the jungle the air seemed to glitter continuously, as if the crystallizing atoms were deliquescing in the wind and being replaced by those rising from the forest below.
The sounds of shouting and the thwacks of bamboo canes distracted Sanders. Fifty yards away a group of hospital porters were moving through the trees on the other side of the fence. They were driving back a throng of natives that Sanders noticed sitting in the shadows under the branches. In what seemed to be a show of strength, the porters blew their whistles and beat the ground around the natives' feet.
Looking beneath the trees, Sanders realized that there were at least two hundred of the natives, hunched together in small groups around their bundles and sticks, gazing out at the distant forest with dead eyes. All of them appeared to be crippled or diseased, with deformed faces and skeleton-like shoulders and arms. Those driven back retreated a few yards into the trees, dragging their sick with them, but the others sat their ground. They seemed unaware of the sticks and whistles. Sanders guessed that they were not drawn to the hospital by any hopes of help and attention, but regarded it merely as a temporary shield between the forest and themselves.
"Max, who the devil-?" Sanders stepped over the wire fence. The nearest group was twenty yards from him, the dark bodies almost invisible in the refuse and undergrowth below the trees.
"Some mendicant tribe," Max explained, following Sanders over the fence. He acknowledged the salute of one of the porters. "Don't worry about them, they move around here all the time. Believe me, they don't really want help."
"But, Max-" Sanders walked a few paces across the clearing. The natives had so far watched him without expression, but now, as he approached them, they at last showed some reaction. An old man with a puffy head crouched down as if to shrink from Sanders's gaze. Another with mutilated hands hid them between his knees. There seemed to be no children, but here and there Sanders saw a small bundle strapped to the back of a crippled woman. Everywhere there was the same stirring movement as they shifted slowly in their places, little more than their shoulders moving as if aware that there was no possibility of hiding themselves.
"Max, these are-"
Clair took his arm. He started to pull Sanders back to the fence. "Yes, Edward, they are. They're lepers. They follow you across the world, don't they? I'm sorry we can't do anything for them."
"But Max-!" Sanders swung round. He pointed to the deserted wards within the compound. "The hospital's empty! Why have you turned them out?"
"We haven't." Clair looked away from the trees. "They come from a small camp-hardly a _leproserie_- which one of the Catholic fathers kept going. When he left they just drifted off into the bush. It was badly run, anyway, all he did for them was say a few prayers, and not many of those, if what I've heard is true. Now they've come back-it's the light from the forest, I suppose-"
"But why not take some of them in? You've got enough room for a few dozen cases."
"Edward, we're not equipped to deal with them. Even if we wanted to, it wouldn't work. Believe me, I've got to think of Suzanne. We all have our difficulties, you know."
"Of course." Sanders collected himself. "I understand, Max. You've both done more than your share."
Max climbed the fence into the compound. The porters had moved along the trees and were now driving back the last of the lepers, rapping the older ones and cripples over their legs when they were slow to move.
"I'll be in my surgery, Edward. Perhaps we can have a drink at eleven. Let one of the porters know if you go out."
Sanders waved to him, then walked away along the clearing. The porters had completed their job and were going back to the gatehouse, canes over their shoulders. The lepers had retreated into the deep shadows, almost out of sight, but Sanders could feel their eyes staring through him at the forest beyond, the one link between this barely recognizable residue of humanity and the world around it.
"Doctor! Dr. Sanders!"
Sanders turned to see Louise Peret coming toward him from an army staff car parked by the entrance. She waved to the French lieutenant watching from the driving window. He saluted her with a flourish and drove off.
"Louise- Aragon said you were coming this morning."
Louise reached him. Smiling broadly, she took his arm. "I almost didn't recognize you, Edward. This suit, it's like a disguise."
"I feel I need it now." With a half-laugh Sanders pointed to the trees twenty yards from them, but Louise failed to notice the lepers sitting in the shadows.
" Aragon told me you'd been caught in the forest," she went on, glancing critically at Sanders. "But you seem all in one piece. I've been talking to Dr. Tatlin, the physicist, he's explained all his theories about the forest-very complicated, believe me, all about the stars and time, you'll be amazed when I tell you."
"I'm sure I will." Happy to listen to her blithe chatter, Sanders slipped his arm through hers and steered her along the clearing toward the group of chalets at the rear of the hospital. After the antiseptic odors and the atmosphere of illness and compromise with life, Louise's brisk stride and fresh body seemed to come from a forgotten world. Her white skirt and blouse shone against the dust and the somber trees with their hidden audience. Feeling her hips against his own, Sanders almost believed for a moment that he was walking away with her for ever from Mont Royal, the hospital and the forest.
"Louise!" With a laugh he broke into her rapid resume of her evening at the army base. "For God's sake, shut up. You may not realize it, but you're giving me a catalogue of all the exchange officers at the camp!"
"I'm not! What do you mean? Hey, where are you taking me?"
"Coffee-for you. A drink for me. We'll go to my chalet, Max's houseboy will bring some over for us."
Louise hesitated. "All right. But what about-?"
"Suzanne?" Sanders shrugged. "She's asleep."
"What? Now?"
"She always sleeps during the day-at night she has to run the dispensary. To tell the truth, I've hardly seen her." He added hastily, aware that this was not necessarily the answer Louise wanted to hear: "It was pointless coming here-the whole thing has been a complete anti-climax."
Louise nodded at this. "Good," she said, as if only halfconvinced. "Perhaps that's as it should be. And your friend-the husband?"
Before Sanders could reply Louise had stopped and taken his arm. Startled, she pointed under the trees. Here, away from the road and the gatehouse, the lepers had been driven back only a few yards, and their watching faces were plainly visible. "Edward! There, those people! What are they?"
"They're human," Sanders said evenly. With faint sarcasm he added: "Don't be frightened."
"I'm not. But what are they doing? My God, there are hundreds of them! They were here all the time we were talking."
"I don't suppose they bothered to listen." Sanders motioned Louise through a gap in the fence. "Poor devils, they're just sitting there spellbound."
"How do you mean? By me?"
Sanders laughed aloud at this. Taking Louise's arm again, he held it tightly. "My dear, what have those Frenchmen been doing to you? _I'm_ spellbound by you, but I'm afraid those people are only interested in the forest."
They walked across the small courtyard and entered Sanders's chalet. He rang the bell for the Clairs' houseboy and then ordered some coffee for Louise and whisky and soda for himself. When these arrived they settled themselves in the lounge. Sanders switched on the overhead fan and removed his jacket.
"Taking off your disguise now?" Louise asked.
"You're right." Sanders pulled up the footstool and sat down in front of the settee. "I'm glad you're here, Louise. You make the place seem less like an unmade grave."
He reached forward and took the coffee cup and saucer from her hands. He rose to sit down beside her and then walked over to the window which looked out on to the Clairs' bungalow. He lowered the plastic blind.
"Edward, for a man so uncertain of his real nature you can be very calculating." Louise watched him with amusement as he sat down on the settee beside her. Pretending to hold off his arm, she asked: "Are you still testing yourself, my dear? A woman likes to know her proper role at all times, this one most of all." When Sanders said nothing she pointed to the blind. "I thought you said she was asleep. Or do the vampires here fly by day?"
As she laughed Sanders put his hand firmly on her chin. "Day and night-do they mean much any longer?"

 

They ate lunch together in the chalet. Afterwards, Sanders described his experiences in the forest.
"I remember, Louise, when I first arrived in Port Matarre you told me it was the day of the spring equinox. Of course, it hadn't occurred to me before, but I realize now just how far everything in the world outside the forest was being divided into light and dark-you could see it perfectly in Port Matarre, that strange light in the arcades and in the jungle around the town, and even in the people there, dark and light twins of each other. Looking back, they all seem to pair off-Ventress with his white suit and the mine-owner Thorensen with his black gang. They're fighting each other now over this dying woman somewhere in the forest. Then there are Suzanne and yourself-you haven't met her but she's your exact opposite, very elusive and shadowy. When _you_ arrived this morning, Louise, it was as if you'd stepped out of the sun. Again, there's Balthus, that priest, with his death-mask face, though God alone knows who his twin is."
"Perhaps you, Edward."
"You may be right-I suppose he's trying to free himself from what's left of his faith, just as I'm trying to escape from Fort Isabelle and the _leproserie_-Radek pointed that out to me, poor fellow."
"But this division, Edward, into black and white- why? They're what you care to make them."
"Are they? I suspect it goes deeper than that. There may well be some fundamental distinction between light and dark that we inherit from the earliest living creatures. After all, the response to light is a response to all the possibilities of life itself. For all we know, this division is the strongest one there is-perhaps even the _only_ one-reinforced everyday for hundreds of millions of years. In its simplest sense time keeps this going, and now that time is withdrawing we're beginning to see the contrasts in everything more clearly. It's not a matter of identifying any moral notions with light and dark-I don't take sides between Ventress and Thorensen. Isolated now they're both grotesques, but perhaps the forest will bring them together. There, in that place of rainbows, nothing is distinguished from anything else."
BOOK: The Crystal World
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