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Grandfather was a tree.
Father grew trux, in fifteen colours.
Mother could sing the double-helix song, sing it right into the hearts of living things and change them. Around we go, and round ...
A house ran amok in Fifteenth Street the day the soldiers of the Emperor Across the River came to Mathembe's township. The sound of the armoured carriers in the streets of Chepsenyt frightened it. Split into its components it was a thing of little intelligence, easily frightened. One of the big, dazzle-painted metal machines had lurched to a halt across the end of Fifteenth Street and the house had panicked. Civilians and soldiers and house units like long hexagonal centipedes, or wheels, or domes on soft-running plastic treads, or concertinas with legs; all running around in the street, the civilians trying to round up the house units, the soldiers trying to round up the civilians.
The Rajavs had wanted to have the house reassembled by night. Now it did not look like they would ever find all the components of their home again. Mathembe shooed away a big, skittering thing like a walking umbrella that was making a dash for the trux pens. It would have alarmed the young organicals, sent them careering into each other, wheels spinning. The Rajavs were moving up to the Proclaimer end of town. Twelve generations had lived and died on Fifteenth Street, now they had packed their lives into five trux and disassembled their house into its components. They had been working since before the edge of the world dipped beneath the sun. Mathembe had been fascinated. She had never seen a house come apart before. Twelve generations, and now they were going. They did not care who knew the reason for their going. Intimidated out of their own homes: Mr Rajav shouted it in the streets for all to hear. Threatening letters, obscene notes, attempts to burn law-abiding citizens out of their own homes. The Ghost Boys. That was who were behind it. The Ghost Boys. Thugs, the lot of them. Louts.
It had not been much of a fire. A half-hearted bomb attack that had left a few scorch marks on the walls, soon cleaned off. Not even worth troubling the police in Timboroa over. Mathembe suspected her younger brother Hradu's involvement. He and Kajree Rajav had been friends until the Word of God had come from the tabernacle and Mr Rajav had forbidden his son to keep company with idolatrous Confessors.
They would go to their own kind, the Rajavs, they would stay not one moment longer among those they had always thought of as friends, always treated as good neighbours, and who all along had wanted them out, wanted their home burned and them dead, wanted the skins of every Proclaimer in Chepsenyt flayed and nailed to their front doors.
And now they were dashing about trying to round up the fleeing, panicked sections of their house.
The armoured carrier turned. Its metal tracks squealed dreadfully on the ceramic cobbles. It came down Fifteenth Street. Mr Rajav shouted at it to go back, go away, but the machine came on, so hard and pressing that the soft contours of the street barely seemed capable of containing it. Standing half out of a hatchway was a soldier in the black uniform of the Emperor Across the River. He was shouting but no one could hear what he was saying because of the people's voices shouting and the din of the engine. No soldier likes to go unnoticed. He swung the big black heavy machine gun on its mount so that it pointed upwards, fired. Five, ten, twenty shots. At the sound of the shots tearing the air apart the people fell silent and still. The pieces of dismembered house ran where they willed while the people listened to what the soldier had to say to them.
The Emperor Across the River required that all citizens of Chepsenyt township in the Prefecture of Timboroa present themselves at the town centre. Forthwith.
All citizens. Forthwith.
The soldier was very young. He had the pale hair and skin of the people from across the river. The long pale hair was tied back in the military fashion and fastened with a clasp bearing the symbol of the Emperor: a hand with a heart in its palm. He spoke the Old Speech grammatically enough for one not born to it, though his 'cross-river accent sent the inflections staggering hither and yon. The hands that rested on the black heavy machine gun seemed to Mathembe too young and soft for such devices. Tinny trebly music came from the open cockpit.
Mr Rajav, small and very very angry, stood before the hard metal face of the troop carrier and the soldier with the pale, soft hands.
'I am a loyal Proclaimer, a true subject of the Emperor, you cannot mean me, you cannot include me and my family with those of questionable loyalty.' He licked his lips with a tiny dart of the tongue, left and right, so; looked from side to side, so, as he said the words 'those of questionable loyalty'.
'All citizens,' the carrier commander said in his grammatically correct Old Speech. The carrier's engines blared into life. Black smoke puffed from exhaust ports. The vehicle came slowly down Fifteenth Street. Its squeaking tracks left ugly, regular scratches on the glass cobbles. Mr Rajav stood before it, small and very very angry. So angry and proud he could not see what Mathembe could see: that the carrier was not going to stop. Ten metres five metres three metres, then it was as if Mr Rajav had been touched with the illuminating wand of one of the Ykondé Saints. He saw the advancing carrier for what it was, an unstoppable irresistible wall of metal. He jumped to one side as the machine brushed past him. The soldiers of the Emperor Across the River within laughed. Mathembe could hear their laughter, and the loud dance music from their cockpit radio.
Mr Rajav was white and trembling. The street value of his loyalty had shocked him. The house units ran wild and capering down Fifteenth Street toward the paddies and orchards.
The people gathered at the Founding Tree; Confessors, and loyal Proclaimers. The Founding Tree was the heart and root of Chepsenyt township. From it had grown every house and garden and paddy, every shit beetle and glo-globe and ceramic cobble scratched by the tracks of the war machines of the Emperor Across the River. The tree had been planted uncounted thousands of years of dreaming ago when the Green Wave broke across the barren land and the Ahleles had gone striding out, covering whole prefectures in a single stride, calling out the heart-names, the cell-names of every living thing and binding them to their service. The Founding Tree stood, as befitted its legendary stature (though there was nothing much to look at, you had to see it with the eyes of faith) in a large, glass-cobbled square surrounded by half-dead half-bankrupt shops that sold nothing of any significance and cafés where the old people played their endless games of fili and got drunk and garrulous on bad wine.
Five armoured carriers were parked around the edge of the square. A young trux nuzzled up to one mistaking it for a syrup digester. Laughing, the soldiers drove the little mound of blue synthetic flesh away but it kept nuzzling back again. It was only content when one of the soldiers fed it a stick of chocolate. When all the people were gathered, Confessor and Proclaimer, an officer stepped forward. He was dressed in the black combat uniform of the Emperor's army. Beside him was a tall metal pole topped with a cross-bar. The cross-bar was wrapped in a cloth. When he was certain, quite certain, that every eye was fixed on him, the officer in black pulled a release cord. The wrapping came undone and fell to the ground.
A cry went up from the people in the porcelain square.
Fixed to a rack at the top of the pole were five heads.
They were long dead, those heads. Lips had shrunk away from gums. Eyes, hair had fallen out, the skin was shrivelled and leathery. Long dead, but still alive. The organicals clutching greedily to their severed necks maintained them. They were alive though dead, and they would speak.
This is what the heads said.
The heads said that they had been foolish and vain and proud in raising their hands against the righteous, fair and good government of the Emperor Across the River. They said that an eternity would not hold enough sorrow for how they had misled young men and women and incited them to insurrection against the Radiant Personage of the Emperor. They said forever would not be long enough to live out the guilt they felt for having caused the deaths of these fine young men and women. They asked the forgiveness of the people of Chepsenyt township. They begged the forgiveness of the Emperor Across the River. Most of all, they craved the forgiveness of those they had so vilely misled under the banner of the Warriors of Destiny.
When the heads had spoken, the officer in black took down the pole and wrapped the heads in their cloth. The soldiers woke themselves, woke the engines of their carriers and one after the other drove away through the narrow streets and closes of Chepsenyt, tapping their fingers to the music on the cockpit radios.
'My God,' Mathembe's Father said at the table when the world had risen above the sun and the glo-globes hovering in the corner of the room had stirred and turned on their cool yellow light. 'My God, it would almost make you want to join the Warriors of Destiny, it would.'
Mathembe's Mother gave her husband a look that warned against saying such things in front of Hradu. It was the impressionability of the young that had led so many into the Warriors of Destiny and to eternity as heads on poles. Impressionability, and the idealism of youth.
'Still,' Mathembe's Mother said, 'they did not have to do that; not that with the heads, that was barbaric. Inhuman. They try to teach us that the way of the empire is more civilised than the ways we have lived for four thousand years, and they put heads on poles. They did not have to do that. They were wicked and stupid people,' (this, for Hradu, chewing his food absently, round-eyed with fascination: his parents talking sedition) 'but they did not have to do that. It would have been enough to have sentenced them to servitude. Maybe for a long time, maybe twenty, maybe fifty years, but not to do that.'
Mathembe rapped the back of Hradu's hand with her spoon for he had grown so enrapt in the conversation that he had forgotten to chew and the food was dribbling from his mouth. She remembered the time when there had been a public absolving in Founding Tree Square. Her parents had not thought it a suitable spectacle for a young girl—it had been years before puberty—but she had taken herself surreptitiously along and lost herself in the crowd. There had been the Town Procurator in his sash of office, and a State Executor who had come down from Timboroa on a government traix. It was clearly an event of some import: Chepsenyt's snack vendors and tea sellers had left their established pitches to patrol the edge of the crowd. There were scuffles between them as they vied for customers.
A reverent hush fell as the victim and convict entered the square. The case was a celebrated one. The convict had been found guilty of rape and had been sentenced by the court at Timboroa to the organical service of his victim until such time as she forgave him. Mathembe's Father remembered the case. He had been of the same generation as victim and culprit when the crime had taken place. He had known them both. Now, after fifteen years serving the woman he had raped, fifteen years working in her plantations and paddies as a gardener-organical, the rapist was to be forgiven.
The Procurator read aloud the declaration of forgiveness. The woman assented. The State Executor went to the tall, spindly gardener-organical, all legs and arms and fingers and eyes and did something that Mathembe could not quite see because the crowd all pushed forward for a better look. She had tried to press through, press through the tight-pressed bodies and the craning necks and the voices asking What's going on what's happening can you see? and when she pressed to the front she saw a ball of tangled floss, like a silken cocoon within which a dark, not-quite-human shape moved. The sun had crossed the sky, the vendors had traded their teas and wines and snacks. When Mathembe was quite sure that nothing was going to happen and was about to go home, the silk cocoon had torn, ripped, from top to bottom, and a man tumbled out onto the glass cobbles, naked and wrinkled and far, far more than fifteen years older than when he had been changed in that same square into an organical.
She remembered the way he had looked at his hands, as if they were friends he had not seen for many many years.
'Pray God you never get sentenced to serve a Proclaimer,' the voice on her right hand had said. 'They never forgive.'
She thought about that naked man kneeling dumbfounded on the cobbles as her parents hid away the true extent of their outrage at the speaking heads for fear that their children might see it. He might have been her father, that naked, kneeling man.
After the meal she went to visit her Grandfather. He had been dead almost a year but still was not fully absorbed into the Ancestor Tree. Her Grandmother (little more than a single, sunlit memory of an old woman shaping birds from plasm and setting them humming and flapping around the conservatory), had been drawn into the Dreaming in less than a half-year, so Mathembe's Mother said. The old Grandfather had always been a bad-tempered, stubborn, feisty spirit.
His death was widely believed to have been an act of political defiance when the New Namers came to Chepsenyt township in the early spring of the previous year. You would not have thought such grey, drab little people capable of the disruption they were to unleash upon Chepsenyt. You would not have thought as you saw them walking from street to street, house to house, pointing and writing things down in their recorders that they would take away the names of everything, the ancient names, warm and familiar from hundreds of generations of usage, from the people's mouths and give them dry, lifeless streams of meaningless syllables in their place.
As part of the ongoing process of the cultural assimilation of Mathembe's land into the wider civilisation of the Empire, New Speech, the language that the Emperor in his Jade City used for his love-making and his law-giving, was to be given equal status with Old Speech. It was intended that, through proper education, Old Speech would become obsolete and be replaced by New Speech, thus tying the Transfluvial provinces indissolubly into the greater life of the Empire. To this end, Inspectors, trained linguists all, were despatched the length and breadth of the land to change the cumbersome phonemes of Old Speech into syllables that sat comfortably on the tongue of the Emperor and his governors.
The New Namers, those grey men and grey women, had come in their soft, grey mechanical car with its Imperial crest and its pall of choking vapours and would hardly have been noticed in Chepsenyt save that where it went spreading its black foul-smelling fumes the names of the houses and gardens and closes changed, only by a vowel here, a consonant there, a diphthong elsewhere, a glide vowel shifted, a glottal stop modulated to make them pronounceable to tongues conditioned to New Speech until in the end, when the grey car drove away up the road to Timboroa, there was no township of Chepsenyt, no closes or gardens or streets or houses, only a pile of names that sounded like the names they had worn since the Green Wave broke across the land but which were totally without meaning. Nonsense names. Babblings.
The coming and going of the New Namers was one of the few events that united Confessors and Proclaimers. The new name-plates in curvilinear Imperial that went up on the road into Chepsenyt vanished the same night they were erected: the work, so the township gossips had it, of an unholy and unique alliance between the Confessor Ghost Boys and the junior members of the Proclaimer Spirit Lodges. Advocate Kalimuni, the Filelis' neighbour and prominent in the Proclaimer community, wrote in his official capacity to the Prefect of Timboroa protesting on behalf of the loyal Proclaimers of Chepsenyt whose rights and cultural heritage as a distinct and unique grouping were being eroded without regard for one thousand years of history. Though fluent in both tongues—New Speech was the language of the law and the courts—Dr Kalimuni wrote the letter in Old Speech. It was a very beautiful letter. Dr Kalimuni was considered one of Chepsenyt's finest ideographers.
Excerpted from The Broken Land by Ian McDonald. Copyright © 1992 Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 31, 2012
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