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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

The Visitor

BOOK: The Visitor
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Sheri S. Tepper
The Visitor

We'll turnaway, oh, we'll turnaway

from god who failed our trust

We'll turnaway, oh, we'll turnaway

and tread his name in dust.

We'll come adore, oh we'll come adore

that Rebel Angel band,

who spared us forevermore,

and gave us Bastion land.

Chorus: Praise oh praise the Rebel Angels

their story we must tell,

that none forget the Rebel Angels,

who raised the Spared from hell.

Hymn number 108

Bastion Dicta Hymnal

Contents

 

1

Dismé the Child

2

Nell Latimer's Book

3

General Gregor Gowl Turnaway

4

The Cooper

5

The Latimer Book

6

Nell Latimer's Book

7

Dismé the Maiden

8

A Disappearance

9

Nell Latimer's Book

10

At Faience

11

Colonel Doctor Jens Ladislav

12

Nell Latimer's Book

13

The Fortress at Strong Hold

14

Nell Latimer's Book

15

Exploring High Places

16

Faience: The Whipping Boy

17

The Advent of Tamlar

18

Hetman Gone

19

Nell Latimer's Book

20

Sorcery

21

Omega site

22

Officers and Gentlemen

23

Another Exploration

24

Nell Latimer: Sleepers' Business

25

The Fate of an Inclusionist

26

Another Disappearance

27

Questions Concerning Faience

28

The Seeress

29

The Spelunker

30

Dismé and the Doctor

31

A Visit to Hetman Gone

32

Dismé in Hold

33

Dezmai of the Drums

34

The Doctor Does More Than Intended

35

Wife and Children

36

Rashel Rages

37

Leaving Bastion

38

Anglers and Border Guards

39

Laying a False Trail

40

At Ogre's Gap

41

A Seeress Sees

42

The Ogre's Army

43

Various Pursuits

44

The Visitor

45

Not in Conclusion

46

Nell Latimer's Journal

 

P
icture this:

A mountain splintering the sky like a broken bone, its western precipice plummeting onto jumbled scree. Below the sheer wall, sparse grasses, growing thicker as the slope gentles through dark groves to a spread of plush pasture. Centered there, much embellished, a building white as sugar, its bizarre central tower crowned by a cupola. Like a priapic wedding cake, it poses amid a garniture of gardens, groves, mazes, all halved—west from east—by the slither of a glassy wall, while from north to south the tamed terrain is cracked by little rivers bounding from the snowy heights toward the canyons farther down.

Picture this:

Inside the towered building, galleries crammed with diagrams and devices; atria packed with idols, images, icons; libraries stacked with reference works; studios strewn with chalk-dust, marble-dust, sawdust, aromatic with incense—cedar and pine and sweet oil of lavender, yes, but more mephitic scents as well; cellar vaults hung with cobweb, strewn with parchment fragments, moldering cases stacked high in shadowed corners. All this has been culled from prior centuries, from wizards now dead, sorcerers now destroyed, mysterious places no longer recognized by name or
location, people and places that once were but are no longer, or at least can no longer be found.

Even the man who built the place is no longer. He was Caigo Faience of Turnaway (ca 701–775 ATHCAW—After The Happening Came And Went), once selected by the Regime as Protector of the Spared Ones, Warden of Wizardry, but now well over a century gone. Upon his death the books were audited. When the results were known, the office of Protector was abolished and the function of Warden was transferred to the College of Sorcery under the supervision of the Department of Inexplicable Arts. DIA has taken control of the place: the building, the walls, the mazes, the warden's house (now called the Conservator's House), the whole of Faience's Folly together with all its very expensive conceits. It is now a center for preservation and restoration, a repository for the arcana of history. When The Art is recovered, Faience will become a mecca for aspiring mages under the watchful eye of the Bureau of Happiness and Enlightenment, yet another brilliant in the pavé crown of the Regime.

Picture this.

A Comador woman, her hazelnut hair drawn sleekly back into a thick, single plait, her oval face expressionless, dressed usually in a shapeless shift worn more as a lair than a garment, a shell into which she may at any moment withdraw like a turtle. She is recently come to womanhood, beautiful as only Comadors can be beautiful, but she is too diffident to let her beauty show. Possibly she could be sagacious, some Comadors are, but her green eyes betray an intellect largely unexplored. Still, she is graceful as she slips through the maze to its center, like a fish through eddies. She is agile as she climbs the tallest trees in the park in search of birds' nests. She is quiet, her green eyes ingenuous but speculative as she lurks among shadows, watching, or stands behind doors, listening, the only watcher and listener among a gaggle of egos busy with sayings and doings.

Picture her on a narrow bed in the smallest bedroom of the Conservator's House, struggling moistly out of tangle-haired, grit-eyed sleep, lost in what she calls
the mistaken
moment
when her heart flutters darkly like an attic-trapped bird and she cannot remember what or where she is. This confusion comes always at the edge between sleep and waking, between being here now, at Caigo Faience, and being…other, another, who survives the dawn only in echoes of voices:

“Has she come? Has she brought all her children? Then let her daughter stand upon the battle drum and let war begin…”

“Can you smell that? The stink wafts among the very stars; the spoor of the race that moves in the direction of darkness! Look at this trail I have followed! This is the way it was, see why I have come…”

“Ah, see there in the shadows! This is a creature mankind has made. See how he watches you!”

“A chance yet. Still a chance you may bring them into the light…”

And herself whispering, “How?…why?…what is it? What can I do?…”

Waking, she clings to that other existence as a furry infant to an arboreal mother, dizzied but determined. She is unwilling to let go the mystery until she has unraveled it, and she tries to go back, back into dream, but it is to no purpose. With sunlight the voices vanish, along with the images and intentions she is so desperate to recover. Though they are at the brink of her consciousness, they might as well be hidden in the depths of the earth, for she is now only daylight Dismé, blinking, stretching, scratching at the insistent itch on her forehead as she wakens to the tardy sun that is just now heaving itself over the sky-blocking peak of Mt. P'Jardas to the east.

“I am Dismé,” she says aloud, in a slightly quavering voice. Dismé, she thinks, who sees things that are not there. Dismé who does not believe in the Dicta. Dismé who believes this life is, perhaps, the dream and that other life the reality.

Dismé, she tries not to think, whose not-sister, Rashel Deshôll, is Conservator of the Faience Museum, tenant of the Conservator's House, and something else, far more dreadful, as well.

1
dismé the child

D
eep in the night, a squall of strangled brass, a muted trumpet bray of panic: Aunt Gayla Latimer, wailing in the grip of nightmare—followed shortly by footsteps.

“Papa?” Dismé peered sleepily at her door, opened only a crack to admit her father's nose, chin, one set of bare toes.

“It's Aunt Gayla having the Terrors, Dismé. Just go back to sleep.” He turned and shuffled up the attic stairs to be greeted by Roger, Dismé's older brother. Mumble, mumble.

“Val?” A petulant whine from Father's room.

Voice from upstairs. “Go back to sleep, Cora.”

Corable the Horrible, said a voice in Dismé's head. Cora Call-Her-Mother.

“But she's not my mother,” Dismé had said a thousand times.

“Of course not. But you call her mother anyhow. All little girls need a mother.” Papa, over and over.

Fresh howls of horror from Aunt Gayla's room.

“Can't anybody shut that old bitch up?” A slightly shriller whine, from the room that had once been Dismé's and now belonged to Rashel, Call-Her-Mother's daughter, already growing into a faithful copy of her mother.

Dismé pulled the blanket around her ears and rolled an imaginary pair of dice. Odds or evens: go back to sleep or wait to see what happened. Gayla's affliction had developed
into an every-third-night ordeal. Her nephew and great nephew, Val and Roger Latimer, provided solace while Call-Her-Mother and Rashel offered commentary. Dismé had no part in the ritual. If she got involved, it would only make it worse.

The clock in the hallway cleared its throat and donged, three, four, five…Dismé emerged from the blanket, eyes relentlessly opened by the scuffle-shuffle overhead as Roger went from Aunt Gayla's attic room to his own, and father came down the stairs, back to bed.

If everyone else was asleep, Dismé would stay up! She dressed herself in the dark, went furtively down the stairs and into the back hall, past the pre-dawn black of the gurgling, tweeping bottle room, out along the tool shed, and through the gate into a twisty adit between blank-walled tenements. Aunt Gayla wasn't the only one with night terrors, for the night was full of howls, each one bringing a suitable though impotent gesture of aversion from Dismé. She was only practicing. Everyone knew sorcerous gesticulation had no power left in it. All magic had been lost during the Happening, and no amount of arm waving or chanting would do any good until The Art was regained. Which meant no surcease for Aunt Gayla, though Dismé daren't show she cared.

“We wouldn't want the Regime to punish Gayla for your behavior, would we, Dismé?” Cora the Horrible.

“Why would the Regime do that?” Dismé, outraged.

“Those who have the night terrors are more likely to get the Disease,” said Call-Her-Mother.

“Those who have the Disease affect others around them, they get un-Regimic,” echoed Rashel. “Dismé, you're un-Regimic!”

“Since children do not become un-Regimic by themselves, they will search for the person who influenced you. Since Rashel is Regimic, they will not blame me,” so Call-Her-Mother summed it up with a superior smile. “They will blame Aunt Gayla!”

Or Father. Or Roger. If the Regime was going to blame
people she loved just because Dismé couldn't figure things out, better keep love a secret. It was hard to do, even though True Mother used to say making the best of a bad situation was a secret way of getting even.

“Secret pleasures,” True Mother had whispered, “can be compensation for a good many quotidian tribulations!” True Mother had loved words like that, long ones that rolled around in your mouth like half dissolved honey-drops, oozing flavor. It was True Mother who had introduced Dismé to the secret pleasure of early mornings as seen from the ruined tower on the western wall, where a fragment of floor and a bit of curved wall made an aerie open to the air.

On her way to the wall, Dismé made up an enchantment:

“Old wall, old wall
,

defender of the Spared

lift me up into your tower
,

and let me see the morning
.”

In the solitude of the alley no one could hear her, so she sang the words, a whisper that barely broke the hush. All the schoolchildren in Bastion were taught the elements of sorcery, and Dismé often imagined what might happen if she suddenly got The Art and said some marvelous enchantment by accident!

She began to embellish the tune, only to be stopped by a sound like a tough fingernail flicking against a wineglass. Only a ping, but pings did not stay only! Dismé turned her face away and hurried, pretending she had not heard it. No use. Before her eyes, the dark air spun into a steely vortex of whirling light with a vacancy at the center which was the ping itself. It made her head hurt to look at it, and she averted her eyes as a voice from nowhere asked, “What are you thinking?”

If she lied, it would ask again, more loudly, and then more loudly yet until she answered truthfully or someone came to fetch her. Since being out alone in the dark was forbidden, being fetched by anyone was a bad idea. She had to tell the truth. If she could decide what it was!

“I was thinking about my father…” she ventured. She thought she had been thinking of him, though the ping had driven all thoughts away for the moment.

“What about him?”

“About…about his book.” It was true! She had thought of it, not long ago.

“What book is that?” asked the ping.

“One written by his ancestor.”

“What does it say?”

“I don't know. I haven't read it.”

A long pause while the air swirled and the ping regarded her. “Did your father say anything about it?”

Dismé dug into her memory. “He said his ancestress wrote about the time before the Happening and the voice from the sky smelled like something…I forget. But the prayers smelled purple, going up.”

The ping said, “Thank you,” in an ungrateful voice, pulled its continuing resonance into the hole after it, and vanished.

Nobody could explain pings, and Dismé didn't like them poking at her. Now all her pleasure was sullied! She tramped on, pouting, until she reached the wall where she could fulfill her own magic: arms reaching precisely, fingers gripping just so into this crack, around that protruding knob, feet finding the right niches between the stones. Up she went, clambering a stair of fractured blocks into her own high place, her only inheritance from True Mother.

The ping forgotten, she crouched quiet. The dawn was pecking away at its egg in the east and night's skirts were withdrawing westward, dark hems snagging at the roots of trees to leave draggled shreds of shadow striping the morning meadows. The air was a clear pool of expectation into which, inevitably, one bird dropped a single, seed-crystal note. Growing like frost, this note begot two, ten, a thousand, to become a dawn chorus of ice-gemmed sound, a crystalline tree thrusting upward to touch a lone high-hawk, hovering upon the forehead of the morning.

Birds were everywhere: forest birds on the hills, field birds in the furrows, water birds among the reeds around
Lake Forget—a thirsty throat that sucked the little rivers down from the heights and spewed them into a thousand wandering ditches among the fields. White skeletons of drowned trees surveyed the marshes; hunched hills approached the banks to toe the lapping wavelets. Adrift in music, Dismé watched herons unfolding from bony branches, covens of crows convening amid the stubble, bright flocks volleying from dry woods to the water's edge. In that moment, her private world was unaccountably joyous, infinitely comforting.

This morning, however, the world's wake-song was marred by a discordant and unfamiliar shriek, a protest from below her, metal against wood against stone. Dismé leaned forward, peering down the outside of the wall into a well of shadow where a barely discernable darkness gaped. A door? Yes, people emerging. No! People didn't have horns like that! They had to be demons: ten, a dozen of them, shoulders blanket-cloaked against the early chill (demons were used to hotter realms), head cloths wrapped into tall turbans halfway up their lyre-curved horns.

Some of them bore wooden yokes across their shoulders, from which bottles hung, to Dismé's bewilderment, chiming with each step. Bottling was among the most sacred rites of the Spared, and demons were forbidden, unwholesome beings whom only the diseased and deceased had any reason to encounter. Yet here they were, lugging their loads into the daylight, invisible to the guards at the nearby gate who were looking in the opposite direction, unchallenged by the sentries on the towers, their averted faces silhouetted against the sky. Why was no one paying attention?

The grassy commons between wall and forest was wide, with nothing intruding upon it but the road to the west and the low bottle wall that ran alongside it halfway to the trees, so Dismé had plenty of time to observe demonic audacity, arrogant lack of stealth, insolently workaday strides, prosaic as any ploughman's. Some of them pulled a cart heaped with straw mats, and not even they had the sensibility to skulk.

As if mere demons were not enough, an even stranger
thing rose into the morning, a roiling fog that flowed invisibly up from somewhere, coalescing at the wall's farther end. Something or somethings, faceless and ghostly, limp ashen cerements covering their forms, their hands, their feet, the thick brims of their odd headdresses thrusting out like platters around their heads—if they were heads—strange and stranger yet.

Ouphs, Dismé thought, almost at once. Her mother had spoken to her of ouphs, in a whisper, in that particular tone that meant “This is a secret. This will cause trouble if you mention it, and we do not wish to cause trouble.” She watched intently as they split to flow around the demons, like water around a stone, flowing together again once the demons had moved on. Why was it Dismé could see them but the demons could not? True Mother had said those who couldn't see chose not to. Perhaps the demons just chose not to.

The ouphs coalesced into a fog which approached, gliding along the bottle wall toward the dark door from which the demons had emerged, roiling there momentarily before flowing swiftly upward, like smoke up a chimney, giving Dismé no time to escape before they were all around her. She could not apprehend them in any physical sense, and yet her mind was full of feelings, voices, smells:

Sorrow. “
…searching searching searching…
” The odor of ashes, as though dreamed.

Loss. “…
where where where
…” Cold rain on skin. Dust.

Pain. “…
beg, beg, beg
…” An ache in the bones, a scent of mold, leaf smoke, wet earth.

Regret. “…
no no no no never
…” Rose petals, drying on…something. Dismé almost caught the scent…

Imprisonment. Captivity. Enslavement. “…
let go
…”

Oh, so sad, so sad, with only this nebulous linking of words and impressions, so fragile, so frail that the moment she clutched at them they were gone. Dreams did that, when she tried to hold on to them, evaporating like mist in the wind. So, too, the ouphs were driven out into the gulf of air
where they whirled, slowly at first, then more quickly, keening an immeasurable sorrow that was sucked into the vortex and away.

The demons had neither seen nor heard. They were building a new section of the wall with various snippers and twisters, hoses, connectors and gadgets. They had buckets of half-solid stuff that they troweled between the bottles to hold them fast, and they worked with deliberate speed and no wasted motions. Soon, the job was done, the bottles were embedded and labeled, the tools and empty yokes were gathered, and the demons strode off toward the crow-wing shadow of the trees as the ouph-fog slowly faded into nothingness behind them,

When the last of the fog went, a chill finger touched the back of Dismé's head, a wave of coldness crept down her neck onto her back, as though someone had reached beneath her clothing to stroke her with ice. She shivered and recoiled. The chill had been there for a while, but her concentration on the ouphs had kept her from attending to it. Now it was imminent and intent, watching her. She spun about, searching, seeing nothing, but knowing still that something was watching. She ducked under the cover of tilted slabs and stayed there, trembling, pressing her hands to her head where the thing was still present, as though looking from the inside out!

In the darkness behind her eyelids a green shadow bloomed, a voice whispered. “Gone the demons and ouphs, but not gone that other thing. You must stop thinking…”

The suggestion was familiar. She stopped thinking. The green shade expanded to contain her as she retreated to a central fastness she was seldom able to find. Bird song wove a crystal cage. The sun pulled itself another rung into the sky. When its rays struck her full upon her head, she looked up without thinking anything and saw before her a looped line of light.

“What is that?” she asked in a whisper.

“The Guardian's sign,” the voice murmured. “Go home now.”

The darkness inside her gave way to a rush of scintillant sparks, edged light, pricking fire, sticking burs of brilliance creating an instant's perfect illumination. No voice. No demons. No ouphs. No ping, no thing, only the prickling star-burn, an itch of the intellect and the memory of a familiar but unplaceable voice.

So many sharp-bright questions! So many mystery-marvels that cried out for explanation! Thousands of things she wanted to know, and among them all, not one, not a single one that she, who yesterday had celebrated her eighth birthday, was still naive enough to ask.

 

Among the trees, the demons met others of their fellows. From the wagon, straw mats were thrown aside to disclose a pile of bodies to be unloaded and laid on the grass. Wolf, the demon in charge, went down the line, checking off each one as they came to it.

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