Chapter 3 — Through the looking glass

23 04 2009

Zabe and Ash are taken in moonlight from the helicopter and led through rustling meadow grasses to a large stone building.  From there the red-haired man and the woman in black take them on a baffling route through candlelit rooms and dark corridors until they come to a junction with only the options of going left, right, or back.  The red-haired man takes Ash to the left while the woman beckons Zabe to the right.

Zabe looks back quickly at Ash and the red-haired man says, “Don’t you worry, you’ll be seeing each other in a half hour in Lady Vallance’s study.”  Then the woman whisks Zabe through more doorways, down a steep flight of icy stone stairs – the cold rises even through the thick soles of Zabe’s sandals – and to a row of yet more doors.

Zabe’s trying to keep track of where they are and where they came from, but they’re moving so quickly…

“Here,” the woman says.  She opens one of the doors and Zabe sees a large, dark basin within.  It is full of liquid, more liquid than Zabe has ever seen in one place at a time.  “Now, there’s a clock in there,” the woman says.  “Can you tell time in the Standard way?”

“Yes.”

“You have half an hour to get washed and changed.  I think that some of the older girls have put new clothes in there for you.  They should be in the cupboard.  There’s a towel there as well.  Once you’ve finished, just go through the door at the back of the room.  Try not to be late.”

Zabe stands in the doorway.  She doesn’t know why the woman has suddenly become so kind, why no one has said a thing about Ash untying her.  She doesn’t think that he was lying to her, but she’s not used to kindness.  She wonders if it’s all a trick.

“Don’t worry, Izzabeth,” the woman says.  She crouches down so that she is at Zabe’s height and makes a point of looking into her eyes.  She has a slow, melodic voice.  “We never meant to scare you,” – Zabe narrows her eyes – “but I hope you’ll come to understand that we had to get you out of there to protect you.”

“Protect me from what?” Zabe demands.  “I was protecting myself fine when you came.”

“You were,” the woman agrees, like they all have, “but only from the dangers that you knew about.  There are some that you can’t even begin to guess.”  Zabe opens her mouth to argue, she wants to know what and why, but the woman shakes her head.  “You must get ready, Izzabeth.  Try not to worry.  Lady Vallance will explain everything.”  She straightens up and walks away, leaving Zabe to decide if she wants to go into the room or not.

Zabe stays put for a long time while frigid air comes off the wood floor and up into the soles of her feet.  She is very cold, despite all her calla and the abrazada.  Eventually the temperature decides it for her: she is so far from anything she knows that even if she did run, she would never make it back.  If what they say about her mother is true – and she thinks that even though they are probably lying in the details, it must be true in essence: she must be dead, and if she’s not, she’s gone someplace where Zabe can’t reach her – then there is no reason for her to go back anyway.  Zabe turns away from the corridor and goes into the room.

The liquid in the basin turns out to be water, enough of it for Zabe to submerge herself.  There are labeled bars of soap, all obviously handmade but not bad smelling, ranked around the edges of the tub.  A long mirror hangs from the cupboard beside the basin.  Zabe opens the cupboard door and finds a neatly folded stack of strange clothing.  She shuts the door again and stands looking at herself in the mirror: the thin calla twisted around all of her limbs, the sandals wrapped around the calla at her feet, and, around her head and torso, trailing in some places past her knees, is the dirty, torn brown abrazada that she stole out of a garbage heap.  White kaliche mud coats her feet as she takes off the sandals; when she reaches up and unwinds the abrazada from her head, a cloud of dust drifts away from her heavy black hair.  She unwraps the material entirely and rolls it into a ball.  She won’t need it to keep out the heat here.  From the long pocket beside her heart, she removes the envelope and places it on the shelf for safe keeping.  The rope goes onto the shelf as well.

Now only the calla remains.  In the Desert Lore, the calla is the “second skin”, analogous in poetic literature to a lifelong lover.  Its removal usually takes place in a ceremony, but now Zabe has no one to help her.  The unwinding process takes nearly five full minutes as she unweaves it, first from her fingers and toes, and then travelling in, towards the core of her body until it finally falls loose from around her shoulders.  She rolls this up too and stuffs it into a corner with the abrazada.  She is beyond the Waste now; the Desert is forever behind her.  Back in front of the mirror, she can see the lines of dirt where her skin has been uncovered at face, hands, and feet.  There are dark bruises where her wrists were tied.

The bath is also a challenge, as she has not washed since she last removed the calla.  The water is hot enough to burn but she forces herself into it anyway and scrubs vigorously with every kind of soap to hand.  The water turns dingy almost immediately, so she empties it and, after twisting all of the taps, fills it with scalding water again.  She is out of time but she is determined to do the thing right, to not come to an important meeting and be at a disadvantage just because she grew up in the Desert Lore.

Out of the bath, she dries off and turns her attention to the clothes in the cupboard.  They are unlike anything she has ever seen before, but from their shape and form she figures them out: white underwear and top, thick white things to cover her legs, a darker, thicker thing that is also the right shape and size for her legs, black boots, and a pale blue long-sleeved top with a difficult zip up the front.  A wide strip of dark blue ribbon remains on the shelf next to a very thick sweater, and Zabe is puzzling over these when someone knocks on the door.

Zabe opens it and an older girl with very dark skin enters and gives her a conspiratorial grin.  Zabe’s first reaction is dislike.

“Hi, you must be the new girl,” she says.  “I’m Vanessa.”

“My name is Zabe.”  Zabe uses the formal sentence construction because she is suspicious, but Vanessa appears not to notice.

“Here, I brought you this.”  Vanessa produces a hairbrush from a hidden pocket and then moves in and touches Zabe’s tangled hair.  “Ooh, you really need a hand with this.”

“No!” Zabe backs up and almost falls into the cupboard.  “I’ll do it.”  She’s not used to touching.

Vanessa seems not to have heard her; she has reached over Zabe’s head into the cupboard and pulled out the ribbon.

“Here, you get to work on that hair, and I’ll tie this on.”  She expertly folds it in half and loops it around Zabe’s waist, tying it so that it holds up the dark things.  “These pants are pretty big on you,” she says, “but I guess you’re pretty small for your age.”  Zabe glares at her and Vanessa stops moving so much and puts a hand on each of Zabe’s shoulders.  “Listen, Zabe, don’t be scared, ok?”

“That’s what everyone has been saying.”  Zabe is defiant.  She doesn’t want a friend sent to her by the adults.  “I wasn’t even thinking about it until you all started telling me not to be.”

To Zabe’s surprise, Vanessa laughs.  “Yeah, that’s a good point, I guess.  But it is pretty scary to be basically kidnapped and told your parents are dead and that people want to harm you.  I remember it really well, even though it was almost ten years ago.  And the school can be a scary place sometimes.  I always try to come in here and meet the new girls to see what they’re like and try to calm them down.  I mean, if you were in here crying or something, that would be more normal.  But I promise, Lady Vallance will explain stuff to you and then it won’t be so bad.  And after a while you won’t care very much about whatever you left behind.”

Zabe shrugs.  “I already don’t care,” she says.  “But I don’t trust any of you.”

“I guess that’s reasonable,” Vanessa says.  “But let me at least brush your hair, it’s a mess.  Don’t worry, you’re not gonna owe me.”

Zabe submits and they stand in silence as Vanessa carefully picks out the tangles.  When she finishes, she presses the brush into Zabe’s hand and says, “Keep it.  You’re going to need it with all that hair.”  Then she disappears back out the door and leaves Zabe standing in front of the mirror, staring at herself again.

Zabe is paralyzed by her reflection.  She has never seen her body like this, her face exposed to the elements and her hands sticking out of the sleeves freely.  She wants to cover herself up entirely and hide in a corner until she knows she’s alone.  She thinks it, and then hates herself, and tells herself to stop it, right now.

“This is my now,” she says aloud.  Her voice sounds shaky and alone even in this tiny room.  Taking a deep breath, she says, “I am of the Mountain now.  I am beyond the Waste.  I have turned my back on the Desert.”

Formal ties severed with this verbal contract, Zabe looks around.  The walls of the bathroom are made of narrow strips of pale wood, and there’s a small window up in the top corner of one wall.  She knows she’s really late already, but she steps up onto the side of the tub and peers out the window.  In the moonlight, she can see two bridges across the narrow river, and, on either side, the dark shapes of large buildings.  There are trees, pine trees and trees with small leaves and white trunks.  Zabe is enchanted by the meadow and even more so by the massive wrinkled mountainsides that she can see ringed around it.  The sight of them transmits a low rumble through her that makes the hairs on the back of her neck quiver.  In the coming years, when she’s scared that she isn’t even fully human, she will look back on this moment as the first shake of her timorous soul.

She hears a single knock, and then the woman in black opens the door.  “Put on your sweater,” she says.  “It’s cold outside.  But you’ve got to go, you’re late.”

Zabe nods and takes the heavy thing off the shelf, concealing the envelope inside of a sleeve.  She tries to put it on backwards but the woman steps forward, rights it, and then zips it up the front with a warm smile.  “These are all new things for you, aren’t they?” she asks gently.  “We’ve never had a child from… well, from where you’re from before.”

“Do most of them come from where Ash is from?” Zabe asks.

“Oh, no, you’re both very unique.  There are some densely populated areas where the children do tend to come from, but then there are the odd few who are the only ones from their home areas.  Still, where Ash is from is closer to what civilization used to be than where you’re from.”  They have walked out of the bathroom and into a hallway lined in the light wood.  The woman stops in front of a large door and crouches down again.  “Now, Zabe, it’s going to be tough on you here at first, because everything will be so different from what you’ve known.  It is easier for most of the others.  So if you need help, you can always come to me.  I’ll be one of your teachers when you get older.  My name is Dr. Levi and my office is in the Western Building.  Promise me that you’ll come if you need help.”  Zabe shrugs and Dr. Levi stands and opens the door.

“You had better be more polite to Lady Vallance than you have been to me,” she says, shaking her head.  “Good luck.”

Zabe ignores her, walks through the doorway, and lets the door shut behind her.

She’s standing in a round room. The walls seem to be made of books stacked atop shelves at haphazard angles, with timbers peeking out through the gaps in covers and pages.  There’s a table with high-backed chairs in one corner.  Candles are everywhere, so that the room is warm and full of soft light and shadows.  A small fireplace along one wall gives off a sharp, sweet scent.  Zabe steps towards it and stands with her feet as close as she dares to the stone hearth.

“Zabe?”

She turns and sees Ash standing by one of the glass shelves.  He has opened it and is holding a paperback book in both his hands.  “Hi Ash.”

“Are these like the books you read?” he asks.

“Toss it here,” she says, but he carries it to her, holding it in front of him like he’s in a church service.  “It’s not the Bible,” she says.

“The what?”

“Forget it.”  She takes it from him and flips it over to look at the cover.  “Organic chem-is-tree fourth edition,” she says.

“Don’t know what that means.  Though I think organic has something to with living stuff?  Maybe?”

She looks up and realizes that he’s staring at her.  She shrugs uncomfortably in the new clothes.  “I could be wrong.”

“You look really different,” he says.

“They gave me new stuff.  And I took a bath.”

“Yeah, me too.”  He indicates his dark sweater.  “Clothes for really cold weather.”

“We’re in the mountains,” she says.  “It makes sense.”

“Yeah.”

“Did someone come in and give you something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this girl called Vanessa – she looked a lot older than me – she came in and gave me a hairbrush and told me to keep it.  It was really nice but I wonder what she wanted.”

“Oh, no, no one did that for me,” he says.  “I’ve been waiting a really long time in here for you, actually.  I guess you were talking to that girl.”

“And I had to figure out the clothes,” she says.  “They’re really different.”

“Do you normally wear what you were wearing before?”

“Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t survive in the desert without it.”

“Wow,” he says.  He looks impressed.  “I wish I could see the desert.  It sounds really exciting.”

She makes a face.  “I think it’s going to be better here.”

“Maybe,” he agrees, but she thinks that he’s lying.  “Maybe we’ll get to go skiing.”

“What’s that?”

She doesn’t find out, because another door opens and an imposing woman comes into the room.  She doesn’t announce her presence, but Zabe and Ash turn as if she has.  She’s holding two plates full of strange looking food, which she sets down at two seats opposite each other at the table.  She takes another seat without speaking and waves a hand towards the food.  The message is clear: come and eat.

Zabe senses that Ash is hesitant, but she can’t refuse the food.  She sits and starts cramming it into her mouth with her hands.  There are thin strips of meat with a dark, sweet sauce on top of them, and the sauce is slippery on her fingers, but once the meat is gone it’s quickly soaked up by some unfamiliar vegetables and a thick slice of bread.  Zabe eats as if she hasn’t eaten in a week, which is more or less accurate, and by the time Ash has gone around to his side of the table and sat down she is half done.

The woman waits until they both have finished before she speaks.  This gives Zabe an excellent chance to observe, because Ash is a slow eater.  She licks her hands clean and then watches him pick at his food for a while.  He uses the metal things beside his plate and it looks incredibly inefficient.  She tries to observe the woman out of the corner of her eye but it gives her a headache so she gives in and turns her head.  The woman is staring back her.  Their gazes meet for a long moment and then the woman quirks her lips into half a smile and claps her hands once.  Zabe, startled, looks at Ash and sees that he has finished.  He pushes the plate to the side and Zabe does the same.  She’s trying to pick up on the eating conventions here.

“I suspect that you want to know where you are,” the woman says.  Zabe and Ash turn to look at her.

She begins to recite what is obviously a well-rehearsed speech.  “My name is Lady Vallance, and this is the school that I, with the help of a number of our teachers, have founded.  There are two criteria for being chosen to attend this school: first, you must be extremely gifted intellectually; and second, your parents must have died.  As a result, we keep an eye on a large number of potential pupils and, should something happen to their parents, we swoop in and take them here, to the school.  We do this for two reasons: first, there are many forces in this world who have a great desire to take the smartest and most promising young people and to mold them into their own image, for good or evil,” here she pauses her speech and offers, to no one in particular, a grim smile, “and, second, we only take in students who will demonstrate absolute loyalty to the school, without lingering over their pasts.”

“So what you’re saying,” Zabe interrupts – she wants to demonstrate that she’s quick – “is that your school is one of these groups who want to mold smart kids into whatever you want, but you think for whatever reason that you’re one of the good ones.”

“She never said good,” Ash says quietly.  He is suddenly extremely pale.  “Don’t you think it’s morbid to wait and see if someone’s parents are going to die before you intervene?  If you knew that something would happen…”

“Ash, we can’t prevent violence, not in this world.”  Lady Vallance gives them another one of those grim smiles.  “Believe me, it would be much easier if the world was not as violent as it is.  We wouldn’t have to train our smartest the way that we aim to at this school – that is, training you to be active participants in shaping the future world.  Instead, you could stay in the academy and do your research for the benefit of humanity.”  She looks at Ash as she says this last sentence and Zabe sees him frown.  “I think that we can agree, Ash, that the time has passed to stay safe inside of our libraries and laboratories.  Your mother said that once, I believe.”

Ash looks away, but the frown stays.  Zabe flicks her gaze back to Lady Vallance and says, “So you want to train us to be ‘active participants’ by kidnapping us and taking us far away from wherever we were before?”

“When you are children, you are particularly vulnerable,” Lady Vallance says.  “Zabe, you will have to learn more respect for your teachers if you are to succeed here.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you won’t stay long at the school.”

“Where will I go?  Back to the City?”

“Oh,” Lady Vallance says, “I very much doubt that.”

Zabe stares at her, waiting for the end of her thought, but it does not seem to be forthcoming.  Lady Vallance has that grim smile on again; it seems to be her default expression for dealing with children.  Zabe is preparing a response when Ash looks back at the table and says, “How long have you been watching me?”

“Your teachers have always given you very favorable reports, and your scores on the ETSH tests were high enough to draw our attention.  It is difficult for a truly brilliant student like yourself to not stand out.”

“And what about me?” Zabe asks.  “You’ve got nothing like that on me.”

“Indeed,” Lady Vallance says, “you are much more problematic, both in terms of being a potential student and, I suspect, in terms of your future success here.  You have never had any schooling, as far as I know, beyond the Church school.  And of course you didn’t learn any proper subjects there.  Still, if you know how to look, as I said, it is difficult for a truly brilliant student to not stand out.”  Lady Vallance pauses and Zabe’s mind works frantically over what that could mean.  Then Lady Vallance says, “I hope you will come to understand – both of you – that your talents were wasted where you were.  This school is designed to draw out your full potential and to turn it into something really capable of making change in the world.”

“What will the school be like?” Ash asks.  “Will there be classes?”

“Yes, for the first three years, your school days will be very much like at a normal school, with the exception of a few added subjects.  These are your years to adjust.  Most children have five or more of these years, but the two of you have come to us quite late.  Eleven is not an ideal age.”

“You’re eleven?” Ash says to Zabe.  “But you’re tiny!”

Zabe stares at him.  “I thought you were fourteen at least.”

“Yes,” Lady Vallance says, “here is the real problem with the two of you.”

They both turn to look at her.  Zabe is annoyed that she can’t seem to do anything but obey, but Lady Vallance’s voice compels her to listen.  “What problem?” she asks, trying to be annoying.

“You have come from a civilization far behind ours,” Lady Vallance says to her, “while you, Ash, are from one that is ahead.  The difference in your sizes is a result of the differences in your childhood nutrition.  This is the case for many children here – the separation of different areas of the globe with the collapse of the global information flow over thirty years ago, combined with the vast differences between degraded and successful landscapes – and the wealth associated with that – all of these things have led to a certain gap in technology – either in technology we have, or technology we do not – that must be overcome for all of the children here.  Ash, you will be unaccustomed to it, but all of our food is grown here, and all of you will learn husbandry of both animals and crops and be expected to help.  The growing season is very short here and so we have a series of greenhouses in the sunniest place in the valley.  We also make things like soap, furniture, small items, and everyday clothing.  Luckily we have a source for some of the more specialized goods, and all of you are issued with cold weather gear that has a high technological level.  Zabe, I suspect that you will understand the need to raise our own food much better than Ash does.  However, you won’t have to worry about water so much here.”

“I don’t understand,” Ash says.  “How can you have things like helicopters and cold weather gear, but then also have things like books?  I mean, I do understand the growing your own food bit… that’s important if you are cut off from other people no matter what… but I don’t understand why you have such a difference between… things.”

“Ah, your mother’s historical anthropology lessons.  If you’d gotten a bit further into her work – it’s forgivable that you haven’t, of course, given how young you are – but if you’d gotten a bit further, you would know that in places with differential infrastructure failure, some industries can collapse before others in a multi-technological state.”

Zabe has no idea what they are talking about, but she’s watching Ash, who biting his lip like he’s thinking very hard about what Lady Vallance has just said.

“Also,” Lady Vallance adds, “I think that current prevailing thought is that helicopters and books coexisted, though of course the dating evidence is poor.”

“Do you have boxes?” Zabe asks.  She wants to be in the conversation.

“We do, but they are very primitive compared to what Ash knows.  And the information network extends only as far as the school itself – there is nothing for over a thousand miles in any direction, many more miles than that in most – so we cannot connect to other locations.”

“A thousand miles?” Ash says.  “I can’t even guess where we are.”

“Can’t you?” Lady Vallance asks.  There’s the smile again.  It has a wicked edge.  “Take historical geography when you start the thirteen year-olds’ courses.  That should help.”

“We have to wait two years to find out?” Zabe asks.

“You’ll have to wait at least four,” Lady Vallance says.  “Classes here are extremely difficult and although we do try to get everyone into their correct age group, those who came later or who had very little schooling before are often placed into lower groups.”

Zabe is horrified.  “You’re going to put me two years below my age group?”

“That’s the youngest we have at the school,” Lady Vallance says. “I think you’ll find it extremely challenging.”  She stands and Zabe senses that the conversation is over.  “Enough questions.  It’s well past the students’ bedtime.”  She ushers them out the door, where they are met by two older students – Vanessa and a boy.

The boy takes Ash, who gives Zabe a timid wave goodnight, while Vanessa turns to Zabe and says, “How was it?”

Zabe ignores Ash, shrugs, and follows Vanessa to a large room full of sleeping girls.  Vanessa points her towards an empty bed, below two other girls in bunks.  Zabe finds the idea of sleeping in this room with these people distasteful, but she’s so exhausted and unhappy that she crawls into it.  She hangs her sheets into the mattress above so that they hang down and form what is hopefully an effective stop against flying insects and then lies, fully clothed, beneath the heavy blanket.  She is very, very cold.  She turns on her side and curls into a tight ball, her hands hooked into the soft fur lining of the boots.  Through the sheets and a window, she can see a pale aura of light that she guesses must be the moon.

She’s furious.  Anger fills the wide middle in the spectrum of Zabe’s emotions, and has done so for long enough that it’s the part of her that she knows best.  She can take her anger and hold it inside of her, nestling it like a candle in the dark.  She thinks that she’s biding her time for revenge but of the hundreds of things that have made her angry, she’s never once been able to reach the act of retribution.  She’s always been too small, too young, and so the desire for revenge has stacked up inside of her and filled in the spaces of her imagination that in normal children are occupied with nightmares and monsters in the closet.

Lady Vallance has humiliated her, and indirectly kidnapped her, and told her that she couldn’t take care of herself.  Zabe hunches further into a ball and adds another name to the long list in her head.

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