“How far do you think we’ve gone?” she asked. “Halfway?”
Mutt stared at her incredulously. “If three is half of seventy-five, yes.”
She looked pitiful. For the first time in days pain was not her dominant sensation. She realized the absurdity of her situation, stuck on the side of a tree in Arland trusting for her survival in a total stranger. She had believed intuitively that he of all people would be the one to save her from the hell of Harmour. But she was helpless and would not be surprised to find herself abandoned to die on this trunk. Her life had been defined by painful loss and there was no reason for her losing streak to stop. Mutt could not fathom her expression but she could fathom his even less. He was living out a chivalric fantasy. This completely helpless woman had literally fallen into his arms from another world and it was now his sacred duty to rescue her. He imagined the reward she might be willing to offer for his sacrifice and completely swore it off in his mind, for to seek favors for rescue was to sully the purity of intent. He unconditionally had to save this girl with no regard to his own interest or he had failed as a man. His mother had taught him no less. But looking at her, as the glow of her face was returning with her health, he wanted to kiss her. He lowered his gaze and resolved to suppress any further desire.
“I have to go,” he said.
Her eyes became pained, her worst fears realized.
“We are in no condition to travel. There are villages around here and I am going to see what I can scrounge up.” He started to tell her not to go anywhere but realized it was pointless.
Half a mile inland he began to see signs of habitation, mostly rubbish and well-worn footpaths. He could not shake the image of Ivy from his mind, seated forlornly on that tree beseeching his return. Something caught his eye in the distance, flowing and brightly colored, strangely out of place. He approached and found a green and white sundress hanging from a clothesline spanning a small clearing. The dress billowed in the breeze and he stood there mesmerized, imagining Ivy’s body filling it out. Her arms and legs emerged from the openings with straps flowing over her bare shoulders. She looked at him and swayed as if wanting to dance. Mutt shook his head to dispel the image. He approached and removed the dress from its pins, folding it over his arm. He turned to leave before realizing he was stealing. He took his only bill from his pocket and clipped it in place where the dress had been. He started back on the trail but heard footsteps behind him. He turned and saw a rifle leveled at his face. Behind it a Hutman stood staring through the finder with one eye.
“Sir, this is not what it appears,” Mutt pleaded.
“Well then tell me what it is.” The man kept the gun leveled.
“I paid for the dress.” He pointed to the note he had hung from the clothesline.
“The dress wasn’t for sale.”
“Sir, it’s an emergency.”
The man squinted at him. “Do you like women’s clothes?”
For a second Mutt did not understand the question.
“Yes,” he answered indignantly, “on women.”
The man relaxed a bit and lowered the gun toward the ground.
“Sir, if you can surmise, I am with a woman. She needs clothing. I cannot leave her in the wilderness in her current state. I mean no harm. I have no weapon. If you cannot provide clothing, then please let me go. I did not mean to steal. It was an emergency.”
The man dropped his gun to his side. “Come inside.”
Mutt had been so transfixed by the dress he had not noticed the dwelling only steps way. It was a round hut, a cylinder of hardened mud and moss with a conical thatch roof supported by a central pole, a classic hut from which the Hutmen drew their name. There were no internal walls. Several children crawled, toddled, and ran about. Mutt counted six. He could not imagine how they managed to have so many with the lack of privacy. Then it occurred to him that nothing in this hut happened in private.
“Son, you’ve gotten yourself into a pickle, have you not?”
“You could say so sir.”
“What do you need?”
“I need a dress. I can pay for it.”
“We needn’t take your money. How else can we help?”
“Well sir, your hospitality is appreciated. If it’s not a burden, I would like bread. We have only rotten angoos.”
“So no clothes and no food. You weren’t prepared for this, were you son?”
“No sir I was not.”
“Where are you from?”
“Shivaree.” He paused. “There is one more thing you could do, if you would be so kind. My mother needs a message. I cannot bear for her to think I am missing.”
“So you’ve run off with a girl and momma needs to know.”
“I guess you could say that.” Mutt laughed. It was quite funny when he thought about it.
The stranger poured him a glass of mead. He drank quickly while composing his message then made his excuses, not wanting to leave the girl alone. On the trail from the hut he passed the now empty clothesline. He glanced back toward the hut and, not seeing anyone, untied the line and took it. He pinned his bill conspicuously to a small branch.
Ivy remained perched on the tree trunk where he had left her. She looked at him relieved as he traipsed through the forest. “You came back.” He was surprised she thought he might not.
“I found something for you.” He handed her the dress. She had never seen a Hutwoman dress up close. It was plain fare but her only option. She looked at Mutt. He looked at her. She continued looking. Suddenly he understood she needed privacy.
“Be careful,” he said, disappearing to the other side of the trunk. It was no small feat changing clothes on the side of a tree. He wished he had a mirror on his shoe so he could watch the show. He imagined her naked, sitting sideways on the trunk slipping into the new dress. Again he had to shake his head to dispel an image. He felt dirty thinking of her that way when she was in distress. She called him and he rounded the tree. There on the sycamore trunk, seated sideways with legs dangling, was a Hutwoman. Ivy grinned. It was the first sign of life he had seen in her since she tumbled from the Edge. She remembered her fantasy of being his Hutwoman girlfriend. Now Mutt fantasized she was his Hutwoman wife. He could not believe the completeness of her transformation. And all it took was a simple sundress.
Up the trail they heard footsteps. They were in no position to run and remained perfectly still. The Hutman who had just aided Mutt was approaching holding the bill in one hand, the gun in the other. Mutt sensed he was in trouble. The man approached silently, menacingly, and rounded the tree. There he saw Ivy seated sideways on the trunk wearing his wife’s dress.
“I can see now why you are eloping.” He handed the bill back to Mutt.
“Sir, I cannot repay you for your kindness. But I can undertake to help a stranger in need in your stead when my turn arrives.”
When they were alone again, Ivy asked, “Why did you tell him we were eloping?”
“I didn’t. He just figured it out.”
Mutt blushed. Ivy laughed.
“I mean, I’m not saying he was right, I just ...”
“Yes, I know what you meant.”
She rolled backwards into his arm from the tree and he began carrying her toward the Edge. It was easiest to walk against her weight. At the tree line he sat her on a trunk and pulled out the clothesline.
“What are you doing?” she asked, alarmed.
“Here, let me tie this around your waist. We are never going to get to the Notches with me carrying you. We can walk along the Edge each on our own side and if you feel the need to jump we’ll have the rope as a tether.”
She was confused by the idea as he sat her down in Skava, their bodies connected by the waist. She walked along the Edge surveying the new arrangement when Mutt inadvertently yanked the rope trying to adjust his knot. He was facing the tree line and did not know what had happened until she fell past him, her cry registering only later. He instinctively lurched backwards and dug in just in time to handle the sudden jerk of her weight. The rope slid up to her armpits as she swung back and forth over the Arland grass. She was in shock from the fall but burst into laughter when she saw the panic on his face. There was no way he could pull her up by the thin rope so he stepped backward over the Edge and rappelled into Skava until she reached the Edge.
“Do not, I repeat, do not step over.”
She was no longer laughing, the rope having burned into her armpits with incredible pain. While she lay braced on the Arland side of the Edge he climbed up the rope until he could place a hand over. They managed to leverage one another’s bodies on the Edge and flip back over to the lands of their natural gravity in a single motion. He was embarrassed by his clumsiness in yanking her over but she still thought it was funny. This was not how heroic rescues were supposed to play out. He adjusted the length of the rope for their southward journey so they could remain safely inland from the Edge without dragging the rope too much. They had to hold it aloft to keep it off the Edge but grew tired and let it drag, occasionally snagging roots. They walked for hours, Mutt intensely wanting to make progress. He never liked having large tasks ahead of him and would push and push until only a small task remained at which point he would procrastinate for fear of getting a new large task if he finished. He was surprised at the lack of patrols along the Edge. The area was officially demilitarized but he figured with the declaration of war the patrol would move in. And where were Ivy’s pursuers? Was this not an obvious place to search? He wanted to know more and decided she was sufficiently recovered to talk.
“What happened in Harmour?”
“I cannot talk about it.”
“Have I not earned an explanation?”
“I worked for a powerful man, a Minister. I learned things I should not have known. He will kill me to stop me from talking.”
“Why is no one chasing us?”
“I do not know.” She could not tell him her suspicion. “But the men chasing us were not his men. They were Muglair’s.”
“So you have a Minister and the Great Man himself trying to capture you?”
“Those must be some excellent secrets.”
“These are things you do not want to know.”
“Try me. I can keep a secret.”
“The things I know could be tortured out of you.”
“Then I will stay away from Skavians.”
“It’s not just Skava,” she said. “There are many things Arland finds more valuable than your life.”
“I have secrets too.”
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
“I’m not interested in who the baker is sleeping with.”
He had been planning to tell her about the cobbler but concluded it was pointless. She decided to confide a little.
“They think I killed somebody.” She could not bring herself to say four somebodies, two of them her parents.
Mutt was startled. “Did you?”
“I did not do what I am accused of. Muglair did it.”
He found her phrasing awkward.
“Interior wants me for murder,” she continued. “The Minister does not want them to capture me. He is afraid I will spill his secrets to them. I believe he is obstructing the investigation.”
“Then why is he not pursuing you with his own men?”
This was the subject that made her suspicious.
“Something is afoot. If he wanted me dead, I would be dead.”
Mutt was unsettled by her words. He wanted high drama with a woman in dire straits but perhaps not this dire. He untied the tether and walked to the tree line, plucking clusters of loosestrife, bishop’s lace, and foxglove. He returned to the Edge and retied the line. He handed her the clusters. Ivy found his fondness for flowers touching. She weaved the stems through her hair into a side arrangement tucked against her ear. Mutt wanted to recreate the dogwood moment and his expectations were surpassed. He was smitten, this angel before him with eyes set deep from pain and the crooked smile of a young child seeking acceptance. If he was going to save her from so much evil, he figured, he wanted her to look the part. He saw in her a woodland princess, or Moonflower, or perhaps just Ivy; she did not need adornment to be worthy of rescue.
While he was admiring the wildflowers the sky clouded over. Warm winds from Skava blew underneath the air of Arland and hit a wall of high pressure, rising to produce violent thermals. As soon as he noticed the clouds, the sky burst with lightning strikes all around. Ivy wanted to take shelter under the trees but Mutt kept her in the open where the bolts were less likely to find targets. Whirligigs generated by wind shear swirled around, one passing right over and sucking Ivy’s flowers into its cone. She was terrified of the bolts and funnels but Mutt just laughed it off having suffered numerous Edge storms in his younger days roaming the fold. When the sun emerged they were drenched and covered in loose blades of grass as if pheasants herbed for roasting. Mutt loved the smells whipped up by the winds and Ivy found the earthy fragrances redolent of her subsistence garden in Harmour. The grass was soggy and their progress impeded by pools of water and pockets of muck. Eventually they were not only soaked from the downpour but covered in flecks of mud. In the distance Mutt saw the shine of a sheet of water, an Edge pool. These were magnificent works of nature, a pool right on the lip of the world where one could soak in the water while leaning over a natural berm to peer into sideland. He stopped before the pool because the tether was not long enough to permit passage around.
“Have you ever seen anything so magical?” he asked.
Ivy agreed but he noticed she was not even looking at the pool. He leaned over the Edge and saw she had her own pool in Skava. A double Edge pool, what a treat! Ivy announced she would take a bath and wash off her sundress and sandals. They detethered and slipped into their respective pools, Mutt resisting his urges to peek. He crept up on the shallow incline and took hold of the Edge pulling himself forward to gaze into Skava. Ivy was immersed up to her neck and asked him to close his eyes while she pulled herself forward to peer into Arland. She pressed herself as far as she could into the clay to conceal her nakedness which for Mutt was all the more stimulating. She covered the Mutt side of her chest with a hand but kept sliding backwards and had to kick the water furiously to maintain position. He splashed her and she guarded her face with the hand that should have been grasping the Edge, sliding backwards into the pool streaked in gooey clay. They soaked in their respective pools while clothes dried on the grass nearby, talking aimlessly about Shivaree with Ivy dropping hints of her life in Harmour. Eventually they emerged from the pools naked, out of view of the other, to dry on the grass along with their clothes. Ivy crept up to the Edge on her stomach until she could see the crown of Mutt’s head. He mimicked her position and brought his face close to hers.
“Are you still naked?” he asked.
“Yes,” she began laughing. “Don’t look.”
“Well at least describe it to me.”
She rolled onto her back and propped herself on her elbows, her wet hair falling across her shoulders. “It is the most beautiful body you will never see. There are lovely curves, and nipples, and intimate hair, and not a shred of cloth to cover it.”
“Don’t stop now,” he pleaded, envisioning her words.
She rolled back onto her stomach laughing.
He scooted forward on his elbows and kissed her. She put her hand behind his head. She was not sure how to do this and let him take the lead. They lay like that for minutes exploring one another’s mouth, their bodies at right angles, their faces turned to the side to lock over the Edge.
“So if I did leap over to ravish you,” he asked, “would you catch me?”
“No,” she replied. “My virtue would not permit it.”
Mutt sighed, pretending to be crestfallen. They lay in the sun for hours waiting for the clothes to dry, napping occasionally, creeping to the Edge to kiss as the mood hit.
They dressed and had a quick meal of fresh angoo Ivy plucked from behind the tree line.
“Could you do me a favor?” she asked.
“I would like you to hold me on the Edge.”
He thought this risky but was happy to oblige. He kneeled at the Edge. She lay down crosswise and rolled into his arms. He picked her up and held her, one arm supporting her back, the other underneath her knees. She placed her arm behind his back and peered down the cliff of Arland. He leaned forward to counterbalance her weight and stepped directly onto the Edge, tilting precariously into Skava. They were perfectly balanced so that without the other each would fall to their death in a foreign land.
“It feels like we just got married,” she said.
He was not sure how to respond
“Shall I cross the threshold?” he asked.
She laughed. “It’s a long way down.”
They stood for a few minutes in the warm breeze bathed in sunlight and the scent of angoo rinds, before he deposited her across the threshold onto the grass of Skava and fell backwards into Arland.
“What do you plan to do in the Notches?”
“I don’t know.” Ivy had not given it any thought.
“Do you know people there?
“Do you have money in your satchel?”
Mutt pondered her situation. She was completely helpless.
“I will have to return to Shivaree.”
“I must make things right with the military. And I’ve had almost no contact with my mother since I disappeared.”
She stopped walking.
“Have you had any contact at all?”
“Yes, I asked the Hutman who gave me the dress to send a short note. I could not leave her thinking I was missing.”
Ivy was distraught.
“I should have told you. You cannot send messages.”
“They will be monitored.”
“If no one is looking for us why does it matter?”
“If the Minister thinks I am communicating with Arland he will care.” She paused to collect her thoughts. “I cannot describe for you the danger we are in.”
Shivaree was looking more and more attractive to Mutt. He thought of chickens and hammocks and fire pits and breezeways and family dogs and, after a while, even family. That bit about murder was gnawing at him. Something was askew, traveling along the Edge tied by the waist to an exotic Skavian wanted by Interior for murder and by a Minister for secrets so terrible he could be killed for writing his own mother. He was reminded of a comment from the Hutman.
“You’ve gotten yourself into a pickle, have you not?”
“Mutt, you must trust me. I swear on all that is holy I am not the cause of my distress.”
Six days were gone and they had covered most of the trek to the Notches. Ivy grew remote over the remaining day. Mutt thought he had offended her by asking too many questions but he misinterpreted. She had been crushed by his promise to return to Shivaree. This was not how she envisioned her salvation. The prospect of entering a strange new world alone filled her with despair. She had always been unloved and this one brief moment of companionship would be nothing more than relief against which to compare the starkness of her solitude. She wanted to drop to her knees and beg him to stay but she could not. How could she plead for him to abandon the only life he knew? He was a stranger, a gentle soul who had saved her when all hope was lost, but his path must lead him home. She had no home and could seek only refuge in a barren land dependent on the kindness of other Mutts.
In the distance she saw a phenomenal sight, the edge of the Edge, a majestic dip in the fold where the land fell away to the cross-member of the planet, the forty-five degree plane of the Notches. Too far away to read she saw a small weathered sign marking the dip. She could not bear to travel farther.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I wish to savor this moment.”
He did not understand.
“For seven days I have known your friendship. I will miss you when you go.”
Mutt detethered, headed for the tree line, and returned with a handful of daisies.
“I hope you do not mind me giving you so many flowers.” Presenting flowers to girls in emotionally charged moments was proper etiquette in Shivaree.
She threaded the stems to form a garland. He took it from her hands and crowned her ceremoniously as she leaned over the Edge. She could not have known this, but on that exact day fifteen years earlier at a dimly lit kitchen table covered with spice jars in the hamlet of Gulet in southern Skava, a tiny girl in a bright sundress sat on the lap of her weeping mother waiting for a fatal knock on the door. Atop her mother’s charcoal hair rested a daisy chain they had lovingly crafted from flowers plucked from her grandmother’s garden. The little girl had insisted her mother wear it. It was to be their last day together.
“I do not know what you have suffered,” he said. “But the pain has deepened your beauty.”
“I wish I had a mirror,” she replied. “May I look at the reflection in your eyes?”
He posed before her as she stared into the wells of his eyes. She could see no image in the harsh sunlight but did not avert her gaze. He wore an expression more befitting a puppy, eager, expectant, faithful, three parts handsome and one part goofy. She drew a deep breath and kneeled while he detethered her and tossed the clothesline aside. They now had only a short walk to her new life. She walked slowly like the condemned not wanting to witness the spectacle of the Notches and the abandonment to follow. She could not purge from her mind the horrors of Harmour, and oh those last few days had seen a descent into hell like no person on earth had ever experienced. She had learned from the Oopsah what could not be unlearned, and she now longed to unshatter the illusions. For one brief week in the strangest of settings on the corner of the world fleeing fate, she had found what felt like normalcy in the company of a man with transverse gravity, a person capable of caring, a charitable reality not based on illusions, an antidote to hell.
They reached the weathered sign, a faded plank from an old outhouse routed with the words “The Notches,” and gazed upon a sight neither could have properly imagined. Here the Edge simply stopped, falling away on a steep incline spreading out triangularly until reaching a narrow plane set at a forty-five degree angle to Arland and Skava, a perfect union of the two nations. The plane extended nearly a mile southward before sloping upwards in a symmetrical incline to the reformed Edge. The plane was dotted with a bizarre assortment of huts, cottages, angle houses, rounders, halls, spas, spires, towers, tents, parks, gardens, fountains, orchards, apiaries, corrals, sheds, and monuments. On the near end an object resembling a giant hammer one hundred feet high emerged from a fountain swinging slowly back and forth. Mutt guessed that the contraption filled alternatingly with streams from Arland and Skava, the water source switching automatically at each extreme of the oscillation, its payload of sidewater dumped from the head of the hammer as a trap opened upon hitting a boulder, allowing transverse sidewater collecting in a pool at the base to exert enough pressure to start pushing the hammer back. When the hammer was pushed far enough the new sidewater would flow with gravity up a channel on the handle until reaching the head, dumping toward the opposite sideland at the far point when the trap released on the boulder, the cycle then repeating. Various columns of earth protruded from the plane with ladders leading to hermit huts, remnants of a bygone era that survived the deepening of the plane. A tramline suspended on several squat towers crossed the plane diagonally from the north Skava to south Arland sides, powered by sidewater channeled by aqueducts leading from the respective edges. From the central green a large sculpture of a cube balanced with opposing sidematter to achieve near buoyancy rested symmetrically on a vertical axis, spinning in the breeze or from the tugs of parkgoers on rope handles suspended from its midway corners. Stucco buildings painted in bright pastels with arresting patterns and tessellations surrounded the green. Viewing platforms supported on piers projected over the lands of Arland and Skava on opposite sides of the plane. An orchard of angoo and trape trees with alternating rows oriented to Arland and Skava spread upward like disorderly eyelashes. Grass of varying thickness covered most of the terrain cultivated with deep roots to keep the earth from separating into its constituent gravities. Lattices of chicken wire kept erosion in check where the grass was inadequate. A hermit flew threw the air in a neutrally buoyed flight suit manipulating arm webbing to catch air currents. People milled around the gardens and pathways stepping aside for the occasional bounder. Ivy could not spot a single child, the few who lived there currently attending class in an old maintenance barn.
To Ivy the Notches was breathtakingly gorgeous, a welcome contrast to the studied drabness of Harmour. Mutt had no point of comparison other than the annual village fair with its skyways and leaping cords which frankly paled. Steps descended from the sign a short distance to a half-pipe depression gouged into the incline, this u-shaped path leading to the plane and running circuitously past the spires of the church, the central green with its orderly trees and marquee monument, and all the way to the southern terminus. Newcomers to the Notches with the orientation of Arland, Skava, and any direction in between could walk along the half-pipe at the angle of their current gravity without need of weight suits. Ivy disappeared behind the Edge for a few seconds and re-emerged wearing a nubility drop, a coming of age adornment for girls in Skava. It did not match the sundress or daisy chain but it was the only jewelry she had. She had received it under traumatic circumstances in Harmour, thrown it into a puddle, then retrieved it as a lure for an imagined future husband who would some day whisk her away. Mutt did not know the symbolism of the drop but sensed from her pose she wanted him to appreciate her as a woman. She felt foolish for so obviously trying to attract him, for laying before him her vulnerability and beseeching his acceptance, for appealing nakedly to his physical desire in a final desperate overture. But was it not written in the parts of the Oopsah that were not evil, the parts they had both grown up with, that a man shall leave his home, and a woman shall leave hers, and together form a new union? Mutt understood now that Ivy’s aloofness had been a reaction to his plans to return to Shivaree. As they began their descent he reached across the half-pipe to take her hand, to comfort her with his presence, and felt a familiar rush from its delicate warmth. Perhaps he should not be leaving so soon. There was a reason he could not abandon a woman in distress to the vagaries of a bizarre new land before she had properly acclimated. His mother would not approve.
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