The Cube - Chapter 14 - The Dance Hall of Irla

Mutt understood how Ivy felt when she leapt into Arland. He sat on the side of a black maple protruding sideways from a perfectly vertical face. Down for him was not the ground of Leland. It was the direction across the surface. If he fell from his perch, or if Hope fell, they would bounce like coins in a sorter from tree to tree quickly perishing from multiple impacts, their bodies stopped by thickets or glancing clear of the canopy into space. Unlike the slanted forests of Arland and Skava, the trees in the rim forest grew straight, drinking sunlight from branches and leaves opening only toward the horizon, and were sometimes called half-trees from the lack of growth on the opposite side. Hope remained tied to his belt loop tugging at the uncomfortable cord attached to her waist. He could not give the mournful child freedom because death lay all around. She was hungry and he fed her a handful of crumbs from a disintegrated roll in his pocket. He looked around for any source of food – nuts, berries, fruit – and found none. At the base of the tree a tap dripped watery sap onto the ground, the collecting reservoir long gone. He had no container but they could wet their parched tongues directly from the infrequent drops. He tried sucking the tap to draw more sugary fluid with no success. His finger was swollen and discolored from the worm bite. Gripping with his left hand was excruciating and he worried the flesh would rot and gangrene spread up his arm. He needed a way out of this predicament, if not for himself then for his daughter. He had not lost sight of his ultimate goal, reuniting his family, seeing the joy on Ivy’s face at the miracle of her daughter’s return, her gratitude to him for his bravery, her sweet embrace.

He was not wholly unprepared. Hope’s bounder harness contained ringed sideweights through which he could thread the rope. By tying the rope to a weight and tossing it around the trunk of a nearby tree so that it fell back to him, it was possible to swing through the forest to another tree. The process was treacherous and laborious. Hope was terrified during swings and suffered rope burn and the crushing weight of her father on awkward landings. But they had to move somewhere, anywhere, because they would die if they remained still. He recalled the look of fear on Ivy’s face when he left her on the sycamore trunk to forage in Arland, when he found the sundress, and felt the same despair. Only no one was coming back to save him. He would have to rescue Hope, and himself, alone. They swung in the direction of a small dip in the terrain where there might be water. It took several hours to travel barely a hundred yards before establishing themselves on the side of a cottonwood near a tannic pool in a small stream. Mutt had previously seen a fishing lure in Ivy’s satchel – she was converting lures to earrings – attached to a short filament. The lure was oriented to Skava so he could throw it downstream and gravity would pull it back. After a hundred failed tosses he added a flake of bark to the hook and received a nibble. Odd, he thought, but if it worked, it worked. Eventually he landed a small looper, scaled it, and fed Hope chunks of raw meat on the edge of the knife. She was starved and willing to hold her nose for food.

Mutt threw the line continuously for over a day catching only three more fish but enough to return color to their faces. More than once he had to loop the rope across a trunk on the far side of the stream and haul himself midway to unsnag the lure from an underwater branch. He was afraid to yank the line for fear of losing his only lure. The stream was their sole source of water and they drank liberally despite the pool’s semi-stagnant reek, standing on the base of the trunk and leaning inward. They were not dressed for the cooler air of Leland which received only a fraction of Skava’s sunlight, and Mutt held his daughter close to conserve body heat. Warm fronts from the edge refreshed them but reverse currents from the tundra were bitingly cool. The sun hung low over the horizon shrouding the land in long distorted shadows. Mutt tied Hope’s cord around the trunk for safety and crawled through the branches to the crown of the tree. He scouted for signs of human habitation because they could not survive forever by the stream. Due west from their location, along the same stream in the direction opposite the edge, he saw plumes of campfire smoke. They would have to navigate to the site and pray the people were friendly.

Hope grew talkative and asked if she could see her mommy and daddy. She was not referring to her natural parents. Mutt was hurt by how quickly she had adjusted to her new life in Bortle’s Cork and wondered if he was selfish to steal her back. She was better cared for on the farm than on the side of a half-tree in Leland, and perhaps better than in the Notches. He himself had completely forgotten the first four years of his life and Hope had not yet reached that age. She could have started over with a more established family without realizing what she lost. He swallowed his pride and engaged her in conversation about her new family, reminding her of their life in the Notches when he could. He told her he was her real daddy and they were going to see her real mommy which confused the little girl. Her eyes lit up at the mention of Kippers, and he found that certain details from her old life – the tricycle, the rocking ox, poo gourds in the garden – triggered memories. The word “Ivy” meant little to her and the word “mommy” had been appropriated by another woman. But she remembered a mysterious face with dark hair who would kiss her on the nose and blow on her tummy. That was who daddy was taking her to, he explained. Mutt’s dream was to reunite mother and daughter in Irla by the little girl’s fourth birthday, three months away, if only Ivy would be there. His consolation for his grief at Hope’s forgetfulness was that she could just as easily forget her life in Skava. Indeed she was already learning that mommy was the person she was going to see, not the person she had left behind.

Mutt followed the stream as closely as he could for over a day, making little progress toward the campfires. Eventually he climbed a tree and goat whistled so shrilly Hope plugged her ears at the base of the trunk. After several attempts he heard a response. He whistled the distress call, long short short long, and exchanged messages in a broken whistle dialect. Eventually a party of four men approached looking suspiciously up the tree. Mutt greeted them and introduced his daughter. They asked if he were Hutman or Inta. He told them both. They asked what brought him to Leland. He said he was chased over the edge by Skavian security forces. They said they could not help and turned to go.

“Do you have a shovel?” Mutt pleaded.

A woman approached from the camp.

“For the love of God,” she said, “he has a child. Have we lost all decency?”

“Have we not lost enough of our own children?” a man asked. “We cannot feed them.”

She stepped forward and gathered Hope off the trunk as Mutt untied her.

“I will take what kindness you can spare.”

Two men carried Mutt back to the camp along with the woman holding Hope. He asked to be deposited with a shovel on the bank of the stream at a bend near the camp. Here the slope was steep enough for a Skavian to stand with effort. For hours he dug out a hollow creating a small strip of land on which they could move comfortably, enduring agonizing pain in his hands. An extensive root system made the digging more difficult but also more effective, stabilizing the new bank he was creating. Hope grew ill from the foul water in the stream and developed diarrhea. He had nothing to relieve her suffering. He removed his shirt and wrapped her shaking body as she fell asleep, content to shiver himself in the cool air. The bend was northwest of the sun which shone directly through an opening in the half-trees created by the stream, providing enough warmth to survive shirtless. He was deathly fatigued but could not yield to sleep in the extreme circumstances. He took the lure and continued tossing, enjoying more success in the current of the bend than in the placid pool. He landed four fish in the few hours before his daughter awoke. He suspected that the families in the camp were Skavian Inta fleeing Muglair’s persecution. The woman approached furtively to offer a jug of clean water and bilberry for Hope’s illness. Mutt thanked her profusely and gave her three of the fish. She declined at first but he insisted she share his bounty as he shared hers.

He continued fishing without rest, refusing to sleep, recognizing he could trade his haul for necessities. The men returned to fetch the shovel accompanied by a small boy. He jumped down into the hollow and hugged Hope who was crying from the pain. Mutt thanked him for his kindness and offered two additional fish he had caught to the men. They were distrustful but returned shortly with a tattered coat for Mutt. He continued fishing and nursing Hope back to health for two days before finally succumbing to sleep, by which time he had caught over twenty fish of all sizes, trading most of them for rags, a trowel, a small blanket, two angoos, unguent for his finger, and a girl’s tunic to replace Hope’s fouled dress. She was miserable, cold and damp, even as her pain subsided. The little boy returned unattended, the adults now trusting the strange pair from Skava, and the children entertained themselves catching minnows in a pot. Mutt continued fishing and eventually traded for the most precious gift of all, fire. The refugees brought kindling and twigs and a pail of hot coals, and he and Hope warmed up greedily by the flames in the steam from cooking fish. Hope smiled for perhaps the first time since Gulet, her misery allayed enough to laugh at the boy’s antics rolling down the bank.

Mutt befriended the boy’s father and learned his horrible story. The families in the camp fled from a small farming village in northern Skava only a few miles over the edge. Muglair confiscated all grain to starve the restive peasantry then sent goons from Interior to round up the Inta. They had heard stories of slaughter at the camps and resisted, ambushing agents and fleeing into the forest. They were chased over the edge where other refugees rescued them on sleds and brought them to this camp, one of many dotting the inland trail of Leland beyond the range of Skavian snipers and short-range artillery. His wife was murdered by sniper fire before his eyes at the edge and his older son fell to his death in the ensuing panic. He lost his older daughter in the confusion of their flight from the village and did not know if she survived. He still had his son, Hope’s friend, for whom he thanked God. He had a reason to live but had lost all faith in humanity. Mutt wanted to comfort him but could find no words. His loss for words was perhaps a better comfort than trying because nothing could assuage this man’s pain. Mutt told him he was attempting to reunite his family in Irla but did not know if his wife had survived. He said he wanted to have another child, to defy the evil gripping the world by creating new life, but his wife would say no, and she would be right. As soon as he spoke he feared he had been insensitive to a man whose wife, the mother of his children, had just been murdered, but the man appreciated his candor.

Father and daughter survived on that narrow ledge for ten weeks, Mutt digging to reorient every few days, eating fish and bartered treats. His finger healed partially but remained stiff and discolored; his knuckle appeared deformed but no longer hurt. Hope waited anxiously for her friend to provide entertainment and Mutt imagined them one day as a couple, ripened to perfection if only the world would let them. The children learned to cast a line with Mutt’s help and caught an occasional dinner. The refugees visited regularly to confide, finding in Mutt a willing ear, literally a captive audience on the narrow ledge with whom they could share their traumas without jeopardizing relationships. At ten weeks the two lacked only a fifth slope to full conversion and emerged from the hollow to navigate the treacherous tilt of the camp. At this angle they would fall frequently but not tumble. Their reorientation was achieved mostly through water displacement, with muscles still skewed and bones composed primarily of sidematter. The tugging of their body mass in different directions along with misaligned inner ears contributed to a permanent state of nausea to which they grew accustomed. Mutt decided they could leave the camp in time to reach Irla for Hope’s birthday. He still wanted to present Ivy with her daughter on a date she would be suffering her absence, the day of Hope’s arrival on the birthing board. He left his lure with Hope’s friend as they said farewells and struck out on the inland trail, staggering frequently on roots with their imperfect gravity. They had four days to cover forty miles. Hope whined and complained and grew cranky yet somehow managed to walk most of those miles, her father having to carry her only a few. Their food stores dwindled with little replenishment in the sparse vegetation along the trail, which hugged the inside edge of the rim forest where the vast tundra began. The trek was arduous with Mutt driven to reach Irla with the same urgency that compelled him from Shivaree to the Edge on the day of Ivy’s escape, as if a spirit were guiding him and time could not wait. They passed numerous camps alit with bonfires along the way, Mutt clutching his knife fearful of bandits and occasionally wandering in to seek food, water, and warmth. The refugees had little victuals to offer, usually barely digestible nuts more roughage than nutrient which the travelers gladly accepted. When it rained they had no choice but to press on, hoping the heat of exertion would cure the chill in their bones.

On the outskirts of Irla they consumed their last parcel of fish, well preserved in the cool air. If the Notches was a refuge of lost souls, Irla was a refuge of last resort. Here people fled whose only hope was that Skava was too preoccupied with war to track them down and shoot them. The town was bigger than Mutt expected, as large as Shivaree, with a main thoroughfare running parallel to the edge lined on either side by dwellings, shops, parks, a church, a governing directorate, and even a publishing authority, sunlight squeezing through gaps in the buildings to divide the street into dark and light patches. They were filthy refugees emerging from the wilderness unpresentable for the reunion he prayed for with his wife. He shaved with his knife and talked a shop owner out of a clean but plain child’s tunic in exchange for the more frilly but dirty one Hope was wearing. He bathed naked while washing his shirt in a stream in an edge park where they relaxed waiting for the fabric to dry. Skavian snipers left Irla alone for fear of retribution from Arland, and the many refugees, mainly Inta, bustled along the streets without fear. Several gathered outside a dance hall at the far end of the thoroughfare stirring within Mutt a fervent desire for an outing with his wife, to present her to the world again as his own, to renormalize their marriage. Inland from the town a tent city sprawled for over half a mile holding numerous refugees overwhelming the town’s resources. Somewhere in this encampment, Mutt hoped, he would find her. He kicked a desiccated poo gourd around the park with Hope then donned his shirt, damp but wearable, and embarked on the search. He grew frantic wandering the alleys of the tent city calling her name and hearing no reply, coming to grips with the frightening possibility he would not find her here, or anywhere else, ever again, and never learn her fate.

On a pile of cinderblocks he sat reduced to tears holding Hope on his lap. This lovely child could be his last connection to the woman he so dearly missed. He lacked even a photograph of Ivy, her only likeness the memories burnished in his brain and the features in his daughter’s face. As much as he enjoyed life in the Notches he never fully appreciated the miracle of his marriage until their separation. Here was a woman who was attractive, alluring, intense, passionate, brilliant, devoted, the girl he sacrificed all to rescue, his lover in the angle, the mother of his child, the living embodiment of his erotic fantasies in Shivaree. The longing to reunite, to be her husband again, was intense and he lifted Hope into his arms asking her to search the lanes and footpaths for mommy. Back on the main thoroughfare he stopped two adolescent boys and asked if they knew a woman named Ivy, charcoal hair, dark eyes, slender, height up to here – he pointed to his lips – a fondness for tunics and flowers. The boys were suspicious of strangers and asked why he was looking. He said she was his wife and this was their daughter, and one of the boys snickered. The other told him to shut up because it was not funny at all and directed Mutt to the dance hall. He had a sinking feeling but suppressed all doubt hurrying along the thoroughfare.

The doors to the hall were opened and inside a gathering sat respectfully watching a wedding. Mutt scanned the audience looking for his wife, face upon face over row upon row, but she was nowhere to be found. Then he saw her, her back to him, a comely bride in wedding raiment and veil, advancing in cadence toward the dais, a bouquet pressed across her chest, flower girl by her side, preparing to exchange vows with another man. It had never occurred to him such a thing was possible. His entire world ruptured violently before his eyes, a mask torn asunder to reveal his lover a corpse. His every thought since their forcible separation in the Skavian transport had been a presumption. He just assumed their love was real, that her desire to reunite was as intense as his, that she would share his bliss at their newfound embrace. He could not process his feelings but one was paramount. It was not anger, or despair, or humiliation, or vindictiveness, but a brutal reduction in his masculinity. He arrived in Irla the son of Outin and Paxa to reclaim his wife, the daughter of Yarly and Prudence, a courageous man who risked all to save Ivy from Dunder and their daughter from child thieves, who stared down the Great Man himself to reunite their family, a worthy mate for a worthy woman, a half of a noble whole. But in the dance hall of Irla he was a rural boy from Shivaree, a hayseed not in the league of an Ivy Morven, a man for whom the finery of her dress was not warranted, a cuckold destined to watch his wife fitted to a better man. The effect was emasculating, so much that he could not feel betrayed, only shriveled. Had they not been married? Was this child by his side not their daughter? It was all a charade. None of it had been real. He had never felt smaller in his life. He did not belong in this dance hall. It was his job to make a polite departure, not to make the guests uncomfortable, to go lick his wounds in private. He felt stupid and self-conscious, as if he had bombed at a talent show with everyone wondering why he thought he belonged on stage in the first place. What was he thinking rescuing their child from strangers in Skava, braving the suckleworm to bring her here, envisioning their reunion with such joy? Did he not have the decency to see she had moved on to better things, that their marriage of convenience was no longer convenient? Shriveled was the word that came to mind. He had never felt smaller as a man.

With delight Hope recognized her mother walking up the aisle. She had no inkling of the etiquette of a wedding. Her father stood in agony prepared to watch his wife exchange vows with another man but the little girl ran up the aisle, circled to the front of her mother, and held up her arms to be picked up, her face beaming with anticipation. Ivy dropped the bouquet and gasped. She had been crying, tears of joy Mutt assumed. She was so stunned, this angel returned from the dead disrupting this marriage of evil. She lifted her child rapturously forgetting the pageantry of the ceremony. She thought she would never see that precious face again. She thought Hope had been bayoneted, or launched to space on a daisy chain, or starved to death by monsters, or felled by the rampant disease in the camps. The father? Where was he? She turned and saw Mutt standing in the doorway. She had never seen such a look of destruction on a human being. She sat Hope down, kicked off her shoes, and ran to him holding her daughter’s hand. Mutt pulled away in horror as she grabbed his hands.

“You do not understand.”

“What I understand is not important,” he said pulling away. “It is what I see.”

She held his sleeve tightly.

“You cannot leave.”

“Ivy, I want desperately to tell you that I hate you. But I will always love you, or at least the memory of you.” He yanked his arm but she would not let go. “I know my place now. It is in a dark dank hole and I am going to go crawl into it.”

He wrested his arm from her grip and escaped onto the thoroughfare. She ran after him crying to stop but he quickened his pace and disappeared down an alley into the maze of tents. She paused, disoriented, then turned back to find Hope who was lost on the footpaths crying for her mother. She found the little girl and led her back into the dance hall, depositing her at the Oosons’ bench.

She rushed to the groom seething.

“You must leave. I do not care about the future. I must live with myself now.”

He stood motionless. He had not thought she would change her mind even after the scene.

“Leave!” she screamed, pushing him.

He looked at her startled.

“Very well, lady. I will leave you to your fate.” He exited the hall with a dignified gait.

Ivy surveyed the faces of the shocked guests.

“We will have a wedding yet,” she mumbled. She ripped her dress from her body furiously tearing it to shreds, reducing herself to an undergarment, and approached Hope with torn fabric. “My child, I am going to give you a special day. You will have what your mommy never had, a decent wedding.”

She wrapped a lacy swath around the whimpering child and knotted the front to make a cape. “Here, step into these,” she said, kicking her shoes across the aisle toward her. “Varun,” she called to the Oosons’ little boy. “I want you to stand for me. I want you to do me a favor.”

His mother stepped forward. “You cannot do this.”

“Arna, I beg of you, give me this moment. You do not know what I know, you do not know what I have been through, you do not know what I have lost. We have here a banquet prepared, we have here guests. Let us celebrate these young lives. Let us have now what we cannot have in the future.”

“I cannot,” said Arna. “He is my child and I must protect him.”

“There will be no harm, only joy. Allow me a mother’s final wish.” She kneeled before Hope and rested her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “My precious child, I love you more than life itself. I would never harm you. I will hold you, and caress you, with all of a mother’s love for as long as I live. I want now to live a dream. Do not be frightened. It will be fun.” She embraced the shaking child and rested her forehead on the girl’s. “Will you do this for mommy?”

“Yes mommy.” She managed a weak smile.

Ivy stood up, all eyes on her.

“I ask of everyone to grant me a wish. We have a wedding planned, and I wish to have a wedding. Not a real one, only a pretend one. I want to celebrate the lives of these precious children. Why should all this food go to waste? Why should we not savor this moment? Varun, will you step forward?” Arna was discombobulated. She sat helplessly as her son approached Ivy. “You are such a handsome boy. It will be Hope’s privilege to be your friend. Can you take her hand?” He reached out tentatively and Hope took his hand. He had danced before with little girls weaving streamers around festival poles and looked at Hope expecting to skip. Ivy guessed what he was thinking and suggested they skip to the dais, which they clumsily did. No one found it adorable so bizarre was the situation.

Ivy turned to the presiding father who had been trying to formulate an objection while she coached the children. “Father, I ask only that you bless their lives. I ask for nothing unholy. As a mother who will lose everything please grant me my wish.”

He looked around the room seeking guidance from people’s faces and finding none said to Ivy, “I will accede.”

He turned to his small charges.

“Children, it is with honor that I receive you here today before this gathering. It is a special day for we come to celebrate what beautiful children you are. Today you are the stars, and indeed you are the stars every day. Let us celebrate not your union, for you are only children, but the union of all people which finds its highest expression in your being. You are the fruit of your parents’ union” – Ivy winced – “and you are the future for all our hopes. And so by the power invested in me, it is with delight that I pronounce you,” he paused, “a boy, a girl, and a potential. May God bless you.”

They were still holding hands and Varun vaguely sensed he was supposed to do something.

“You may kiss her on the cheek.”

He did so, and the tiny couple turned to face the guests and walked dutifully down the aisle and out the door. Ivy stood for a moment in tears before realizing they were still walking. She ran outside after the children and gently corralled them back into the hall. She clapped for their pretend union with a few muted hands joining in.

She lifted Hope into her arms and approached Arna. “I am sorry, Arna, but I will thank you eternally. Please do not think me a bad person. I am not like this. I have suffered too much.”

Arna was moved and hugged her still wondering how unstable this woman in her undergarment might be. Ivy did not understand what had motivated her. She had acted out something deep within the well of her memory, a formative moment from her forgotten childhood. The banquet proceeded without incident and was oddly serene given the tumult of the service. Ivy covered herself with a borrowed coat and mingled with the guests making idle chitchat trying vainly to reverse the terrible impression she had made.

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