“I have come for Hope.”
Ivy clutched her daughter defensively, fearful of losing her forever. She was stabbed by Mutt’s eyes so justified was his anger. She released her grasp. “Darling, your father is here. Go to him.” She could not drive a wedge between her child and her husband. Hope ran to Mutt and he picked her up by the armpits and rested her on a forearm. He wanted to take Hope and disappear into the shadows without a word, leaving Ivy with the wrenching sensation she may never see her daughter again. But he lacked that level of depravity. Whatever she had done, the mother and child needed one another dearly and it was a bond he could not sever.
“I will return her tomorrow.” He left.
Ivy sat on the floor, her back against a large cushion, suffering an impenetrable blackness, oblivious to the tossing of the ball and the shrieks of the Ooson children. She was forsaken when she met Mutt. She was forsaken now. Only this was worse. The man she loved was here in Irla hating her passionately, for good reason, and she could not explain her actions. What she had done she would do again. It was the only way, their only chance at redemption, but there was no way he could understand. He was bound by conventional reality and could only see that the woman he loved, the woman for whom he had abandoned Shivaree, the woman for whom he had risked so much in Skava, had betrayed him mercilessly, had taken their magical love and trashed it for convenience, that he was not important to her, that everything she had ever done was a lie. She could not live with herself so horrific was the guilt, but if only he could understand … The thought trailed off. There was no way he could learn half the truth, the convenient half that justified her treachery. Once he knew her motivations, he would know the full story, he would learn who she was, and his love would be crushed for other reasons. Ivy was in a position as impossible as that day she sat forlornly on the Edge waiting for Mutt, only this time there was no Mutt to catch her. She decided he had to know. What he hated her for now he could be made to understand. What he might despise her for next, once all knowledge was revealed, was not her fault. If she must live with his rejection it should be for the truth. She held out hope he could love her again even with full knowledge. For all the evil she had committed she was convinced she was an innocent, that all of her actions were justified by extraordinary circumstances not of her making, that her decisions had been the right ones in extreme conditions.
When Arna returned, Ivy stole quietly through the encampment to the tent of Tobor Zranga, what was to have been the site of a black consummation of a black wedding, where she was to have violated her vows to Mutt for reasons he could not comprehend. She sat there silently staking it out. Was he inside? Tobor lived in a state of perpetual suspicion and heard the footsteps, and their cessation, outside the tent. He knew someone was watching and he knew who she was. He emerged from the tent drawing fully erect, his eyes boring on Ivy. She was momentarily startled then realized she was not surprised at all. He was a man to hear mice crawl on feathers.
“Have you reconsidered?” he asked.
“You know my destiny. It is only yours in doubt.”
“I cannot betray Mutt. I thought he was dead. I would rather die forever in his arms than cuckold him now.”
“He has abandoned you.”
“With good reason. And I can see in his heart that a fire still burns. He will love again.”
“Love is never true, Ivy. It is a lesson you best learn now rather than later. My offer still stands.”
“I cannot. This is a line I cannot cross regardless of consequence. I ask that you take pity on a young mother’s heart. Surely there is good in you.”
“I have all the pity you have shown.”
She knew what he meant. She replied hesitantly.
“There are some burdens I cannot carry. I would rather be haunted.”
“You will carry that burden. What is written cannot be unwritten. I am leaving now for an inscription. It will not go well for you. I would take pity on you if you took pity on me. You are not the only one with needs.”
“You are a sick man.”
“What good is power if you do not use it?”
“Have you never taken pleasure in the joy of another?”
“Have you?” he returned the question.
“Yes. That is the meaning of my family. It is why I cannot accept your offer.”
“Very well. You will have a final chance. And you will reconsider.”
“Why do you not take by force what you desire?”
“I doubt mine is the superior force.”
“Do not humor me. It is the spirit you long to crush, not the body.”
“It is a contest of wills. You are too defiant. It presents a challenge. And you know how I feel about challenges.”
“Must the world to you be all about conquest?”
“The alternative is bondage. There is no in between. It is a lesson the Hutmen have learned well.”
“I will never be slave to your will.”
“Search within yourself. It is your only choice.”
He retrieved a roll of papers from the tent.
“I have left behind some light reading. Feel free to enjoy it at your leisure. It is such a beautiful story.”
He shoved the papers into a coat pocket, then added reflectively, “It is almost as beautiful as The Sphere.”
Ivy felt her old paralysis returning in the face of trauma as Tobor strode briskly away toward the Church. She wanted to attack him physically, to throw a rock at his head, to lay a stick across his shins, to drive a dagger into his heart. But he was right. It would do no good. She could not escape her destiny.
Mutt had no tent. He had no haysack. He had no food or water for Hope. All he had was a pocketful of Skavian bills no longer accepted in Leland. Skava had closed the border to commerce and black marketeers insisted on Arland currency in anticipation of Muglair’s collapse. He found a bonfire and asked the family basking in its warmth if he could share a side. Hope restlessly ran a stick across the ground sketching a suckleworm while he sat watching the fire. He wanted so desperately for his feelings toward Ivy to congeal into hatred, a simple emotion grounded in righteous wrath that might give him solace, but all he could feel was hurt. He had been wronged, used under false pretenses and discarded for a better opportunity. He had been a fool for dreaming of their reunion with such joy. How happy she would be to see him! How grateful she would be to him for saving their child! The image of her in a wedding gown haunted his every moment. They never had a real wedding. She never dressed so finely for his love. They never had a real marriage, truly only a trading of sex for security, a convenient stop on her path to the dance hall of Irla. He remembered the pride with which he looked upon her pregnant belly, how gratified he was to call her his wife, his thrill in knowing she would have his child, the joy he took in building a nest for their chickadee. But her ruse ran so deep she bore Hope only to tether him like an umbilical cord until she could find a better mate.
He glimpsed his daughter trailing her stick across the dirt, her hair tied up in a fountainous stalk by Ivy, her intense face the picture of girlish cuteness, and realized her existence was a mistake. This beautiful child, so full of energy and vitality, should never have been born, for he would never had loved her mother had he known the callousness of her heart. He saw Ivy beaming radiantly in her wedding dress, dreaming of the lovemaking to follow with another man, when the canvas of a tent flapped in the wind, when a pod from a bergel bush drifted by, when sparks flew from a burning log, when he looked at his shoe, the sky, a pillbug, a lash dangling before his eye. He saw her on the inside of his eyelids, waking and sleeping and on the threshold in between. The waking moment was the cruelest when he would wonder if the horror were real, when he would hold out hope that she still loved him, that she was his wife, that their love had meaning, that his life had meaning, that she was lying in the fold of the angle beseeching his arms, before reality dug in its cruel claws. The heart was a useless organ! He no longer had need of it and wished to rip it out and throw it into the fire. He had never known such suffering. He was so bewitched by her beauty, the love she so bounteously bestowed upon him, the love he so plentifully returned, he could not imagine a more thorough annihilation than to learn it was a charade, no more real than a round of mimes in the angle. Oh God the angle! How wondrous that experience had been! But he was purging those joyous days from his memory, excising his heart through a thousand tiny cuts without anesthetic.
“Are you Mutt?” a stranger asked.
“I am Garan, Arna’s husband. I am sorry for what happened.”
Mutt teared up at this compassion shown by a stranger, as if it confirmed his status as pitiable victim. But he checked himself for he would never cry before another man.
“We did not know she had a husband.”
“Nor did I.”
“There is something wrong with her.”
Mutt remained silent.
“She did not want to marry that man. She said she had to or terrible things would happen. I do not know how her mind operates, but I think she believed she was saving your life, and your daughter’s.”
“She thought we were dead, Garan. She was moving on without a thought for us.”
“I have never seen a more wretched human being than that woman in the dance hall.” He paused. “There is something deeply wrong with her. She cries in her sleep. She talks of torture and the apocalypse. She says she read the Oopsah and we will all die. She has no recollection when she wakes up.” Garan began to tear up himself. “What is saddest is that she speaks of you, Mutt. She so longs for you to hold her. I hear her crying, beckoning your return. I do not know what is wrong with her. But I can tell you this. She is not a bad person. We trust her completely with our children. She has a heart of gold.”
Mutt cried openly and Garan embraced him. This was the Ivy he remembered, a woman of nurture and compassion, a woman who loved and needed him desperately.
“No woman has ever loved a man more than she loves you.”
Mutt could not betray his eyes. They had seen her in the dance hall in a wedding dress. Maybe she did not look so happy. Maybe the smile he imprinted in his memory was an accent to compound his pain. But did it matter? How could he rationalize such ultimate treachery? Their love was shattered and these memories, this visit from Garan, were just sticks poking around the dying embers of his heart to produce a final glow before extinction.
“I have to go. Arna will be missing me.”
Hope had wandered off. Mutt found her behind a tent using the bathroom. She had been afraid to ask her father to accompany her because he was crying. Mutt realized he could not abandon his child to the pain caused by Ivy. He could not ask her to share his grief. She was a small and perfect and innocent being. She was too young to understand, and the horror of his rupture with Ivy called her very existence into question. He had been thinking she was a mistake but how could he say that of his child? He had to separate her being, which he could never question, from the mistake he made in marrying her mother. They were logically connected but emotionally separate. That Ivy birthed his child was no warrant for treachery. He could love Hope and condemn Ivy. Hatred, he begged, please fill my heart. There was no other way he could cope.
He lifted Hope into the air. “Who’s my little angel?”
The little girl smiled weakly. “Me.”
“Does my little angel want to fly?”
Now she giggled in anticipation. He swung her around high above his head, legs flying outward from Mutt’s body while she laughed heartily. He grew dizzy and stopped but she asked for more, so he reversed direction trying to unwind before losing his balance and nearly dropping her. She took such delight in his attention if only he would bestow it. He decided they should kick around a tumblebrush which to her was an excellent idea. They stood with the sun to their side hovering eternally on the horizon of Leland so that no eyes were blinded and kicked the brush back and forth. It was an impossible task, too spongy were its branches, so Mutt decided to enter her world. She loved nothing more than bugs. They would find some and he would share her fascination. They pulled sticks and logs from woodpiles brushing whatever scurried out into the open, beetles and centipedes and pillbugs and leafrollers, building little stick corrals to contain them which were not effective but the joy was in the trying. This little girl could study bugs for hours such was their hypnotic effect, these tiny creatures darting about on missions to destinations unknown for purposes unfathomable. It occurred to him that she looked upon bugs as grownups looked upon children, sources of boundless energy to be treasured and monitored and occasionally restrained. Hope liked to place a stick before a beetle to see if it would crawl up, dropping it with a shriek if it got to her hand. She took great delight in flicking bugs onto her father which Mutt tried once on her before realizing from the decibel of her wail it was asymmetric warfare. He asked where the bugs go in the woodpile and she said they had a castle with a king and a queen and lots of baby bugs that ate moss for breakfast. He asked if they were a happy family and she said no because the daddy bug had gone away to a great war in the sky but they would be happy when he came home.
Garan returned to the bonfire carrying a haysack and quilt. They were homeless and he could not leave them to the cool air of Leland when the fire expired. Mutt thanked him profusely, touched by this basic act of human decency. The quilt would not cover them both so he wrapped up Hope determined to withstand whatever drafts the shadows blew his way. He was not prepared though for the storm that followed. Clouds blotted out the sun and almost instantly a downpour was upon them. Hope was miserable, Mutt less so having grown used to weather hardship over his years. But the rain increased in intensity snuffing out the fire and soaking the quilt. Hope began to shiver uncontrollably, and then Mutt. He had to find shelter. With foreboding he returned to the Ooson tent lugging the waterlogged bedding, his little girl drenched to the bone. He would have to spend the sleeping hour in the same tent with Ivy. Even with a family of five as buffer the thought of her beneath the same canvas was excruciating. Ivy began sobbing at the cruel and unnecessary distance between them. She whispered to him that she wanted to talk, he needed to understand, she was still his wife and would never love another, her sleep was full of terrors without him. He dismissed her and fell into a fit of shaking, snuggling with Hope to keep warm before realizing she was better off with her dry mother. He was so chilled he thought he might catch ague. He felt a presence along his back. Ivy embraced him saying she only wanted to help him warm up. She understood that he could not love her but he must accept this most basic of gifts, human warmth. That body! What pleasure it had given him! For all the joy he took in their sexual union he knew now that his greatest comfort had been in her love, in knowing that he completed another person as she completed him. He could not turn her away but oh God how he hated himself for accepting her embrace. He laid his head into the sack with tears rolling down his cheeks remembering how right this used to feel. Again the stick was poking about his heart stirring memories and desires for the sadistic pleasure of fate in watching a simple boy suffer. Ivy so desperately wanted him to turn and hold her frontally, so she could turn and spoon and enjoy the sweet release of undisturbed sleep she could find only in his arms. But he lay there paralyzed, as paralyzed as Ivy in the face of her traumas, not knowing how to handle the situation, not knowing how to forget her treachery. The Oosons slept through the entire episode and were stunned when they awoke to find Mutt sleeping peacefully, his back turned to Ivy reverse spooning, with Hope snuggled between their own children where Ivy had placed her for warmth.
When Mutt awoke he felt ashamed at his moment of weakness. His clothes were still damp but the body heat of the tent had stopped the chills. He undraped Ivy’s arm from his waist and sat up. She awoke alarmed that he was leaving. He pulled back the flap and stumbled into the blinding sun on the horizon. She followed him out of the tent unshod in a gown and sleeping shawl. He lumbered away hands in pockets trying to outpace her. Ivy could no longer stand the melodrama.
“You must stop,” she said firmly.
Mutt was surprised by the tone of her voice. Who was she to order him around? Between the two of them she was the adulterer. Nonetheless he stopped.
“Mutt, I cannot go on like this. You must speak to me, if only to confirm your hatred.”
He wanted to erupt in anger but could not. “I feel no hatred.”
She was not sure what he meant. He longed to run away to no destination in particular. But he needed answers. He could not live under this horrific cloud. He needed her treachery laid bear in all its painful detail so he could move on in his life. He had to open up one last time so he could close himself off to Ivy forever.
“I am incapable of feeling anything,” he muttered.
He needed to know something but was not sure why it mattered. He felt vulnerable in asking, unable to contemplate the horrible image that might follow. He realized it mattered because he was still as captivated by her beauty as the day she wore a dogwood blossom. He still clung to the pathetic hope they would love again.
“Did you sleep with him?”
“I was waiting for the wedding. That was the bargain.”
“But you meant it to be a real marriage.”
“If you are asking if I intended after the wedding to go back to his tent and have sex with him, the answer is yes.”
The dagger was in Mutt’s heart and she was twisting it.
“How could you do this to me?” he asked plaintively.
“You do not understand. What I was doing, I did for you.”
“You are crazy! Would you love a child by abandoning her? Would you love a man by sleeping with another?”
Ivy was flustered. “I thought you were dead. I thought Hope was dead.”
“You would mourn my passing in another man’s arms?” The dam was bursting for Mutt, all his wounded feelings pouring forth.
“You do not understand.”
“Why do you keep telling me that? I understand perfectly well. You needed a man at the Notches and I was convenient so you had Hope to trap me. You needed a man now and he was convenient so you agreed to marry him. All you do is use people. Maybe your new love was an honest exchange, one person using another, you give him sex and he protects you in a hostile land, and no one is deceived. But you tricked me into believing that you loved me, that I had found something special, that what we had could not be replaced by another. You should have been honest. I might have fucked you anyway, but without illusions. You were right, every girl does have a crack, and I was an idiot to think yours was special. Oh what a fool I was! Perhaps I should be thankful I had such a happy illusion, that for one brief moment in my life I believed in love, but I will never look back on the Notches with anything but shame. How could I be so stupid?” He began mumbling, so incredibly hurt he was, about how the next time he desired a woman he would pleasure himself and hope the feeling passed.
Ivy was crushed beyond belief. How could she explain to him how the world worked? How could she make him understand what she had done?
“Mutt, you must listen to me. What I did, what I was planning to do, I swear on all creation was for you and Hope. You do not understand how the world operates, and you will not understand until you read the Oopsah. It is nothing like what you think. I did what I did because I thought you were dead. I thought I had lost my family. There was nothing left for me in this life. But there was a way to get you back. Tobor Zranga is the chosen one. I know because I read it in the Oopsah. He has special powers.”
Mutt stared at her in utter amazement.
“I told him he could have me in this life,” she dropped her eyes haltingly, then raised them again. “If I could have you in the next.”
Mutt had believed she was no longer capable of shocking him. But he was wrong. In what had become a frequent occurrence, his brain could not process her words. She was dead serious. She was insane. She would trade her body for a promise of an afterlife? Was she so gullible or just so faithless? He searched his brain for an applicable emotion and could find none. He simply had no idea how to respond.
“Ivy,” he said. “You are ill.”
“I am not ill, Mutt,” she said softly. “The Oopsah is real.”
“I wanted to love you as a wife. Now I must pity you as a fool.”
“Mutt, the Oopsah is here, in Irla. I know where it is.”
He was again astonished.
“Tobor Zranga decoded the gibberish. He was shocked by what he read. I was destroyed. The translations are in his tent. He is away. You must read them. I can no longer carry this burden alone.”
Mutt was amazed at how quickly she could distract him from the matter at hand, her casual infidelity. But he could not deny his curiosity. She had spoken in such hushed tones about the power of this book it was time to put the matter to rest. If it was here and he could read it, he would learn the measure of her insanity. What in a book could justify her treachery? Nothing, that is what, other than delusional ranting like she was now spewing.
“I will read your precious book and I will spit upon it.”
“Mutt, I know you do not believe me. But I love you more than you will ever know, and everything I have done was for our family. If you read the Oopsah, you will understand. But what you learn, it cannot be unlearned. I need you on my side of reality. I am so afraid that I have lost your love, and I fear that with knowledge I will lose it forever. But there is no choice. We have been driven to this moment and you have to know what I know. I did not ask for this knowledge. It was given to me for evil purposes but I will share it with you in the hope, oh God I pray not a vain hope, that you can love me for who I am.”
Ivy’s words were a blur to Mutt. Her ability to wax dramatic paled in comparison to her act of betrayal. She had kept him in the dark about her great secrets since the day they met and now she was promising to reveal all. Whatever he learned, it could not make the situation worse. If she would grind his heart to meal he should know why, he should know why this crazy woman felt so justified in annihilating him, why his emotions were for her such amusing toys.
“Let us not waste time,” he declared.
She tried to take his hand but he would not touch her. They walked through the encampment on the outskirts of Irla to the tent of Tobor Zranga, which stood out for the elegant folds of its canvas, if tents can be elegant. It was unguarded which Mutt found strange for the repository of such an important work. If Zranga cared so little for protecting these secrets, was not that proof of their insignificance? Mutt could not know this but Zranga no longer cared because they no longer mattered. Nothing, Zranga thought, could be changed now, and anyone who wished to flip through the sacred pages could no longer usurp his powers. Mutt stood outside the tent while Ivy pulled the flaps back and tied them. She told him to wait outside while she entered and lit a lamp. She arranged papers on a desk then stepped outside and told him to enter. She pleaded with him for one kiss but he refused. He would never again fall for her wiles.
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