Chapter 5 — The wider world, Part 2

27 05 2009

Two weeks after the equinox
Ash and Zabe stand in Dr. Levi’s office, their hands behind their backs, their rifles slung over their left shoulders.  Dr. Levi is sitting in her desk chair, her legs up on her desk, muddy boots hung over the side and dripping into a bucket.  Zabe wonders where the mud came from; it was snowy, not muddy around the back of the water tank.

“Well?” Dr. Levi asks.  “You didn’t follow orders.  Explain yourselves.”

Zabe wishes she could talk to Ash alone about this.  She doesn’t know what to say.  She feels like a total failure.

It seems that Ash doesn’t.  “You ordered us to execute you,” Ash snaps.  “You ordered us to do something that was completely… completely… we weren’t ever going to do it!  You knew it before you even told us!”

“Are you accusing me of something, Ash?” Dr. Levi asks.

He rolls his eyes.  “I’m accusing you of lying to us.  As per usual.  You come up with orders that you know we won’t do and then you have a great time yelling at us for not doing them.”

“I didn’t come up with any orders,” Dr. Levi says.  “And contrary to popular belief among the students, I do not enjoy yelling at you – please note that I have not ever raised my voice to a student, not once – when you did not do them.  I am debriefing you about a situation that you created.  That is a pretty standard practice.”

“Standard where?” Ash demanded.  “Whose standard?  You and the other twenty adults who run this school?  Or standard somewhere else, in the outside world?”

Dr. Levi tilts back even further in her chair.  She’s the picture of relaxation.  “Standard in the practice of having a trained army, Ash.  You’ll read about it in a few years, when you begin to study various theories of war.”

Ash yanks his gloves off and stuffs them in his pockets.  “Oh right, and you guys, the last survivors of civilization for thousands of miles just feel the need to–”

“Ash,” Zabe says, “shut up.”  He’s talking to Dr. Levi about things that she thought were theirs: their ideas about what was going on, their years of speculation and piecing together facts, their secrets.  “Dr. Levi,” she says, feeling urgently that she needs to fix this by talking over him, “you’re right, we disobeyed direct orders.  I think I can speak for us both when I say that we were not prepared to execute you.”

Ash snorts.  “She knew that, or she never would have let it go ahead.”

Dr. Levi smiles, directly at Ash, and says, “I didn’t know that, because I didn’t give the order to do it, but I do know that we loaded your rifles with training rounds.  Drills will always be carried out with training rounds.”

“But you wanted us to make a moral choice,” Zabe says.  “And we did.  We couldn’t execute you.  You’re our teacher.”

“But someone else told you to kill me.  That someone gave you an order.  I didn’t want you to make a moral choice at all – I wanted you to make the right choice, which was to obey the orders you were given.”

“We don’t even know who gave us the orders!”  Ash looks ready to explode.  “Why would we obey them?”

“Who was speaking into your headpieces?”

Ash shrugs.  “Command station one.  Realistically?  A Year Sixteen.”

“And you don’t trust command station one?”

“I don’t know command station one!”

“But you know it was a Year Sixteen.”

Zabe interrupts.  “It was Dago.  I recognized his voice.”

“So you know it was Dago.  Yet you didn’t trust him enough to obey him?”

That, finally, shuts Ash up.  He stands there, arms at his sides, mouth half open.  “I do trust Dago,” he mutters, but it’s clear that Dr. Levi knows she’s won the point.

“Everyone else in the drill followed orders,” she says.  “Everyone else in Year Fourteen made the right choices.  Only you two decided that you weren’t ready to trust your fellows and follow their orders.  Now why was that?”

Zabe thinks she understands in a sudden flash.  “We didn’t believe in it enough,” she says.  “We didn’t think it could possibly be real.”

“And what if it had been real, Zabe?”

Ash makes a move beside her and starts to say something so she speaks quickly.

“We made the wrong choice.  It would have had terrible consequences.”

Dr. Levi nods.  “And?”

“And…” Zabe swallows before she says it, to make sure she means it.  “And it won’t happen again.”

Mr. Wu and the piano

The beginning of Year Fourteen is full of things that make Zabe think, but none more so than Ash’s strange relationship with Mr. Wu.

Off from the big room where everyone eats meals, there is a smaller room with a huge fireplace and lots of places to sit.

This is where the older students and some of the teachers tend to congregate after supper, where they drink bitter tea brewed from the small trees kept in the furthest corner of the greenhouses.  In one corner, there is a small piano and it is understood from the earliest days of Year Fourteen – when they are first allowed into this room, on one night of the week only – that this piano is not to be touched.  It is ancient, and fragile, and doesn’t like the dryness or the altitude.  It belongs, nominally, to the school, but Mr. Wu is the only one who touches it.

For Zabe, prior to Year Fourteen, Mr. Wu was just the math teacher.  She is completely indifferent to him; she enjoys math and he teaches it well, but he is a quiet man and does not fraternize with the students.  Sometimes he comes and plays the piano, usually melancholy, slow sounds, and everyone will stop talking and listen, because he is very good and they are unaccustomed to music.  Then he’ll close the lid and leave the room.

The second time that Zabe witnesses this – after three weeks of being in Year Fourteen – Ash leans towards her and whispers, “I wonder what happened to make him so sad.”

Zabe shakes her head.  She hasn’t really considered it.  “I wonder where he got the piano from,” she counters, but she can tell that Ash isn’t listening.  He has a look on his face suggesting that he is not interested in the mechanics of piano acquisition.  He’s watching Mr. Wu.  Then he stands and goes over to the piano.

Ash waits until Mr. Wu has finished playing and then asks, “May I play a little?”

Conversation has started up in the rest of the room, but Zabe is more interested in watching this.  She trails after Ash.

The question has clearly caught Mr. Wu off guard, but he stands and offers the stool to Ash.

What happens next is the talk of the school for the next week.  Ash sits down, apologizes to the room in general that he has not played in several years and will likely be very bad, and then proceeds to play something so beautiful that Zabe, standing with her arm lying along the piano’s wooden lid, can’t stop her heart contracting from the vibrations she feels moving up that attached limb and into the rest of her body.  The strangest part of the entire scenario is that Ash, who often gives the impression of having the weight of the world on his shoulders, plays such dancing music, full of deep sonic folds of incredible joy.

After that, Mr. Wu offers Ash lessons, to be given every morning before breakfast.  Zabe wants to tag along, because she has never experienced music before and secretly likes the way that it moves her into a different emotion every time she hears it.  Most of the time she’s monoemotional – one boring hum of mediocre feeling, with no recognizable highs or lows – but Ash’s music puts her into other spaces with little regard to her actual circumstances.  At first she simply ambushes him outside the boys’ room and tells him that she is coming, but then, when Ash tells her no, she pleads with him to let her come and just observe.

“I won’t bother you or anything,” she says.  “I can be really quiet when I need to be.”

“No,” Ash says firmly.  “Mr. Wu wouldn’t like it.”

Eventually Ash wins and Zabe storms down to the kitchen to help the rest of Year Fourteen prepare breakfast.  It is their turn on the cooking rota.  She doesn’t know why she’s upset about it, but she is upset about it and she wants to let the world know.  She chops up the last of the far-gone summer apples, excising the brown bits from under the skin with precise flicks of her wrist, and throws the slices one by one into a big metal pot.  Each one clangs with her anger but everyone studiously ignores her.  Typical, she thinks, and she slings them even harder.

Months pass.  Spring’s thaw rushes down the river, which floods the meadow for the first time in years, and Zabe finally realizes why the school is built on stilts.  She thinks about how spring comes on, the first few signs and then a rush and suddenly the snow is melting and the grass is green beneath it, ready to spring up and replace it.  Mr. Bernard has Year Fourteen out in the northern rim of the meadow every morning where he’s teaching them how to build shelters out of a variety of materials: rock, wood, sod, stone.  Their soggy snow huts, leftovers from their first assignment, subside into the ground.

Dr. Levi assigns them an essay titled, “Where I came from.”  In the library that night, Zabe sits at a desk surrounded by books about human origins, evolution, the first fragmentary bones jutting out of desert sands.  She writes a masterpiece, over one thousand words, a massive narrative told by a stern omniscient being detailing the rise and spread of humans across the globe.

She writes, “The first humans to come to the new land after the glaciers melted would have seen a big empty space.  There was nothing in it except a few animals and plants.  Then they would move across the land and plant things there and build new homes.  Then the new land would become home.”

Ash’s approach to the assignment is different, and, predictably where Ash and ideas are concerned, it makes Zabe want to tear up her own and throw it into the fire.  Ash draws a map of the world, draws a big question mark on it, and writes,

“I don’t know where I came from, because when I was younger somebody took me from there in a helicopter and he didn’t bother to tell me.”

Then one day in late spring, Ash stops going to music lessons with Mr. Wu.  He doesn’t say why – and it doesn’t inspire much comment from anyone else – but it haunts Zabe.
They have a class where they read books that are completely made up — they don’t tell any facts at all – about places and times and societies that Zabe never could have imagined before she read about them.  In a lot of these books the characters demonstrate something that their teacher, a happy older woman who insists that they call her Susie, describes as “introspection”.  In other words, they seem to spend page after page just thinking about what they themselves are thinking about.  Initially this habit baffled Zabe, but no one else in Year Fourteen seemed to find it strange at all.  Now it is a constant source of worry for her: she isn’t thinking enough about her own thoughts.  She’s lagging behind.  She has set aside a ten minute period before everyone else wakes up in the morning to try out this “introspection”.  Unfortunately for Zabe, it hasn’t been going well.

Zabe remembers her first year at the school vividly.  She remembers being wild and having a weird inherited religion that made her say and do and think strange alienating things.  She remembers not knowing how to use utensils or dress herself.  Most people avoided her and people like Barky and Holt and Vanessa took pity on her and tried to help her out but all she ever seemed to do was snap back at them.  She was so angry then.

Zabe thinks she remembers that year so well because she tries so hard not to.  She gets a horrible, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she remembers herself – not so much how she was, but how she must have appeared to other people.  She was completely exposed.  It’s terrifying to think that almost all of the people she knows now can remember it too, and yet, they still allow her to attend this school and, even more kindly, to sit beside them at lunch.  This is all she can think about: how terrible she was, how she stuck out outwardly, instead of just feeling alone inside of herself.  After weeks and weeks of thought, she thinks that this has something to do with the music, and Mr. Wu, and Ash.  Ash can say and do whatever he likes, like taking music lessons from Mr. Wu, but somehow he does it in such a way that it just brings him closer to other people.  Zabe starts to piece it together, but nothing matches up, she just has this feeling, so then she gives up, and goes to find Ash.

Their exercise this warm spring morning is a run around the northern perimeter.  Zabe knows that Ash hates running, so she stands beside him while they stretch to warm up and lets him complain at her.

“It’s just going to hurt my knees someday,” he groans.  He bends over and touches his toes, holding on for ten seconds.    “And my ankles.  And then what good will I be?”

Zabe makes commiserating noises.  She’s not used to doing this.  Normally she would already be off and running, loping over low hills and between trees.  She’s not really into doing things together, unless it’s just her and Ash and they are trying to figure out the school.

They start running.  She keeps up an easy pace, light enough that she can talk without being out of breath.

“Go on,” Ash says eventually.

“What?” Zabe asks.

“You obviously want to ask me something.”

Zabe is startled.  “How did you know?”

“You’re jogging beside me.”

“Yeah, true,” Zabe admits.  She doesn’t know how to begin, though.

“Got a new theory?” Ash asks.  “About what Dr. Levi said?”  They have been going over and over her words.

“No,” Zabe says, “but I still wish you hadn’t told her that you thought all that stuff.”

“Yeah,” Ash says, “you’re right about that. She’s watching me like a hawk right now.”

They stop at one of the streams coming down from higher slopes and Ash splashes water on his neck and hands while

Zabe jogs in place.  The moss is springy underfoot.  It’s fun to bounce on it.

“So Ash,” she says, bouncing up and down, “whatever happened with you and Mr. Wu?”

Ash splashes too much water on his face and stands up.

“Why?” he asks.  He doesn’t seem angry, just curious.  “And why should I tell you?”

“Um,” Zabe says.  “Is this what it feels like not to know the answer in class?”

Ash’s mouth twitches.  “Probably, yeah.  I wouldn’t know.”

“That’s not fair!”

“I just want to know why you want to know!”

“I’m interested in it!”  Zabe stops jogging.  “I think that if I knew more about the situation, I might know more about other things to.”

“Other things like what?”

Zabe shrugs.  “I don’t know.”


“It’s embarrassing.”

“So?” Ash asks.  “I’m not going to judge you.”

“Why not?”

“You’ve done plenty worse things before.”

She makes a frustrated noise.  “That’s exactly it!”

“What is?”

“How are you so good at being a person?”

Ash looks completely taken aback by this question.

“I mean,” Zabe says, trying to clarify, “what is the difference between you and me?  Why do people like you and avoid me?”

Ash is clearly flustered now.  “What does that have to do with Mr. Wu?”

“I don’t know!” Zabe says.  “But I think that if you told me what happened there, I might have more… I don’t know…”

“More data on the situation?”

“Well, it sounds awful when you say it that way, but yeah, more data.”

Ash sighs.  “What happened was really weird, and I don’t want to talk about it–”  Zabe starts to interrupt but he talks over her.  “—with anyone who isn’t you.  So don’t tell anyone, ok?”

“Ok,” Zabe says, chastened.  She wants to know why he wants to talk only to her about it but decides not to press her luck by asking.

“So I used to play piano when I was younger.  I don’t think I liked it very much then but now I do, because it reminds me of home.  So I guess I am pretty good at it, and Mr. Wu really liked the way I played.  He was very encouraging and made a lot of comments about how he wished there were more instruments so we could all learn them, but that he didn’t really have enough time for it.  Anyway, he had me start learning a pretty challenging piece, and I thought that to surprise him I would sneak out at night and learn it before our next lesson.  So I practiced a few hours each night and then in the lesson I played it for him, and, I don’t mean to brag, but I did a really good job.  He didn’t say anything for the entire piece, and when I finished, I looked over at him, and he was crying.  I mean, really, really crying, like, he had his face in his hands and he was just sobbing.”

Zabe wants to say that she thinks his music could do that to her too, but she doesn’t, because Ash seems to think that it was weird for it to affect Mr. Wu.  Instead, she says, “What was he crying about?”

Ash bites his lip.  “Well after that, things got even weirder.  He kept saying that I reminded him of his son and crying. And I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him who his son was, and he said that his son was dead, and then he got really mad at me and said I couldn’t talk about it to anyone and said there weren’t going to be any more lessons!  And then he practically threw me out!”  His eyes are wide.  “It was so incredibly weird.  I have no idea why it happened like that but I didn’t ever mean to make him upset.  I really like music lessons and I really like Mr. Wu…”

Zabe shakes her head.  This hasn’t been illuminating at all.




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