Freedom’s Mask – Chapter 1, Part 2

This week we continue our preview of the first chapter of Andrew’s new novel, Freedom’s Mask (© 2017, ISBN: 978-1-976-40079-7). The book will be available soon in both print and digital formats; look for the ebook next week and the paperback after that. But for now read it here first, only on DSB.

Chapter One, Part Two

Turning back she half-smiled at me again and said something that sounded like, “Yemoremileeytolportomorytolporbofin.” While she said that she pointed at herself, the remaining man, and the other woman, both of whom looked concerned and curious, but I also noticed a flash of worry on the man’s face. It’s very hard to describe the timbre of a person’s voice but if I had to I’d compare hers at the time to a long, low bird song, maybe like a Boreal Owl’s but with a tad more energy, a tad more pitch. I guessed that she was introducing herself and the others and so I tried to tell her that my name was Frank Tollman but my voice still wasn’t coming out right. Rasps and gurgles. She patted her own throat gently and smiled again by way of reply and so I quit my feeble attempt. I had always been good at taking hints to shut up.

The man came over to me, right hand extended and with his left making jabbing motions upwards. I gripped his mitt and he pulled me to my feet, keeping his hold with his right while his left reached out and cautiously supported my lower back. Once I was up and steady he let go and took a step away, though he kept his peepers on me as I winced at the thunderbolt that shot through my brain. It was simply too much. I bent forwards and pushed the base of my palm back against my eye; I didn’t care how it looked, and somehow I wasn’t surprised to feel a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I decided that the guy was all right, despite his hat. The other woman came over as well and kind of rubbed my back while pointing at some high-rises that were barely visible on the horizon, their shapes blurred by what seemed like heat haze, but even so looked to be apartment complexes of some sort. That must have been where we were going because the knock-out started walking and then the woman next to me followed suit with the guy signaling that I should go ahead and he’d take up the rear. Two steps in I realized why we were walking in single file: we were in a field of some kind with tall spiky green shoots coming up in long straight rows, the whole area submerged in that low bath of warm water. Whatever was being grown here wasn’t corn and it sure wasn’t wheat either. What did that leave?

Rice, it hit me. I spent far too much time in the city. They were fields of rice that I was seeing stretching out on all sides, each paddy separated by low dividing walls that no doubt carried some kind of irrigation works but also must have served as footpaths. Somehow I had managed to wind up in the middle of one of them and we were now heading towards a part of the dividing wall that ran along all four sides of the paddy we were in. The middle of a rice paddy! How did that happen? Not a road, not even an access path, but the middle of the darn thing. I thought back to that tunnel at the Metro station but my mind couldn’t get beyond the blackness of its dark before all memory went completely black and dark itself. Whatever happened I couldn’t recall – it was simply gone. Instead I focused on walking, and felt the damp soaking into my shoes as they sank in the mud, socks floating in their sponginess inside. I wished I had a pair of rubber boots. The momentum seemed to help with my head though, maybe it was just the need to get my blood flowing. A friend had always told me that the worst thing to do when you’re hungover is to lie about; getting active gets you over it sooner. That and oily, greasy food, I found. Was it a hangover? It might have been; all the symptoms were there. On the other hand, I hadn’t woken up in my own bed – or someone else’s – so it could’ve been something else as well. I tried taking my hand away from my eye to get a better look at where I was but soon discovered I wasn’t ready for that yet. Fine, I thought, so the cure I needed was activity plus constant pressure; and then later coffee and meds too, I hoped. I had never felt the need to wait a hangover out and spent a few moments trying to think of ways to communicate “headache pills” without talking.

As we arrived at the dividing wall the woman in front of me turned to give me a hand up. She was pretty too, but not quite as striking as the other woman. Her skin was a bit lighter, her eyes a deep black, her lips under a thinly arching nose less full but with a nice pink-red combination. She looked thin, or trim anyway, but then they all did. I recalled that even Moustache had had a svelteness to him as he ran off to wherever the bombshell boss had directed him. They were all tall too. As tall or taller than me, and I was no runt.

It was good to get out of the water, and as I stepped up onto the dividing wall I saw that it served not only as a footpath but also as a storage area for their farming tools, a miscellanea of which were spread out on the dirt in front of us. The guy, the worried but nice one, stepped up behind and then around me, and as I stood there on the narrow walkway the three of them gathered up their tools and put them into what looked like cloth sacks. My dream girl came over and pointed at the buildings in the distance. I still found them hard to make out through the haze, although we now had a slightly better vantage than before. She repeated a phrase a few times, maybe “Almsopopar” or something similar, and then started walking again. We shuffled along behind her – well, I shuffled while the others moved with the vibrancy of accustomed hikers – and as we wound our way through the warren of rice paddies, crossing from the top of one dividing wall to the next, I noted water spigots and drainage pipes sticking out here and there, making up a network feeding all of the fields their life-giving moisture.

I was naturally very curious about such details of the place that I inexplicably found myself in, but even if I weren’t I still would have walked in the head hung, slow and ground-obsessed manner that I was; the sun was so intense that any thought of holding my head upright struck me as completely out of the question. It was easier to keep one hand on my eye that way too. I did wonder why no one had offered me a funny hat, but then they probably didn’t have any extras. Too soon. Just as I thought that, and as if reading my mind, the woman in front of me suddenly stopped, turned around, and plopped her cone top on my head. The abrupt shade was so refreshing that a few sexual innuendos deducible from what she had just done even flashed through my mind. I smiled to myself, which she must have taken as thanks to her, because she smiled back and waved at me a little before carrying on. A gentleman I wasn’t, that was true, but then I was in pain, lost, and desperately perplexed by the entire scene and situation.

The system of retaining walls finally came to an end and we ascended a long ramp up onto what appeared to be a roadway, only rather than asphalt it was made of compacted dirt, dust, and gravel. It didn’t look wide enough for more than a single car to use at any one time. Our boss gathered everyone around and took some bottles out of her sack, distributing one to each of us. I must have gotten Moustache’s share because she only had four of them. They were all glass bottles with nice flipper-top stoppers on them, the kind that for me had a strong yesteryear connotation, but which you could still sometimes find on bottles of higher-end beers. I flipped the stopper up, swung it open, and then paused to sneak a peek at what the others were doing. Everyone was just drinking normally and so I quaffed mine down in a series of giant gulps. It was just plain water, but there on the dirt road under the blazing inferno above us it tasted like the purest mead to be had this side of Asgard. I was all ready to sit down and wait for our ride when the boss took the bottles back, nodded, and then said something cheerily and loudly at which the other two started walking again. Were they planning on walking all the way to those buildings? I couldn’t believe it; that must have been a good five kilometers off. I didn’t see anything for it though, and I certainly knew that remaining there by myself wasn’t an option, so I would just have to try and keep up. I trudged on stoically while the guy came up to walk beside me, the two women again taking the lead.

As hot as it was the walk wasn’t that bad. No, that needs some qualifiers; it wasn’t that bad considering the ringing pain in my head, the soggy condition of my shoes and socks, and the fact that I was somehow, by some bizarre twist of the universe, somewhere far from home and with people I had never met, who spoke a language I had never heard, and who looked like no one I had ever seen. Taking all that into account it was brutally tough going, but that one particular part of the day wasn’t that bad. It could have been worse, anyway, and the scenery was certainly nice. Fields of rice stretched out as far as the eye could see on both sides of the little road, straight lines of green sprouts sticking up out of sunken square ponds, each connected to each via a well-organized system of retaining walls and access paths; all very orderly and, by the look of things, very diligently taken care of. As we passed by other fields the two women in our group would call out greetings to those down doing the tending; it was quite comradely and I felt a bit sad to be so out of place, so out of my element, so foreign. And that even through the pain in my head and despite my long acquaintance with being the odd ball out; there was something terribly warm about the whole setting that struck an idyllic note with me.

The series of fields were only broken by the occasional grouping of trees, mostly of the tropical sort with great twisted roots peeking out above the surface and forming grey tubes that scrambled over one another on their journeys into the subterranean world. They reminded me of some pictures I had seen once of how Angkor Wat looked when it was first discovered, the jungle triumphant over massive blocks of stone. Only for us there was no stone – or at least, none that I could see from where I walked. I wondered if I hadn’t ended up somewhere in the far south. Could I have gotten on a night train or ferry somehow? Transferred off the Metro at Tokyo Station where all the subterranean and standard train lines met? If I had, where would that have put me? Takamatsu? Izumo? Those were the only south-bound night line destinations that I could recall, and neither ended up in a place as tropical as where I found myself. For that I would have needed to catch a train to Okinawa or something, and I knew that was impossible. But more than all that, no matter what train I got on I should still certainly have been able to recognize and understand the people around me when I got off. And since that was nowhere near the case I couldn’t help feeling like Alice. Dreadfully like Alice. Wherever I was there weren’t even any signs on the road or anything else that might signal location, nor the name of the place we were heading to. My mind kept going back to that tunnel.

For better or for worse, I didn’t have a lot of leeway to wonder about such things, as important as I knew them to be – as crucial as I knew them to be –, both because my aching skull wouldn’t let me think properly and because my walking companion was making great efforts to engage me. Annoyingly great efforts. He kept gesturing to himself and saying “Yemoretomor” and then just “tomor”, “tomor”. That was enough for me to learn two things: his name was evidently Tomor and Yemore must have been something like “My name is”. From his motioning here and there around us as he rattled on I also learned what I thought might be the terms for the funky jungle trees, palm trees – one of the few tree names that I did know in English –, road, rice, and either the sun or the sky, or possibly “It’s hot today!” I told myself that that wasn’t bad for the condition I was in; I had always been a good listener, and having achieved fluency in two other languages besides my native one I had picked up a few linguistic tricks along the way that had become quite natural coping methods when traveling and when surrounded by new sounds and new sequences. What was a damper on my self-congratulating was the thought that a set of nouns in isolation wasn’t going to help me explain where I needed to get back to very well, nor ask where I currently was, or any of the dozens of other questions that came to mind – requesting headache pills being foremost amongst them. I did not want to complain, exactly; I was happy to be safe and to be taken care of as well as I was, but the sheer disorientation was hitting me to such an extent that I couldn’t even adequately process it. I was operating in shock mode. And on reflection I suppose that’s probably why I handled it as well as I did; there was no option, I simply had to trust Tomor and the others and do what I could do, which right then was sadly little more than pressing my hand against my eye and placing one foot in front of the other.

The buildings gradually closed in on us – or us on the buildings – but there still seemed to be a heat haze hanging in front of them. That could have just been an effect of the horizon, maybe, as the road we were on appeared to go straight towards the town without any curves or bends between. I kept walking. Tomor chatted on but I tuned him out. He was really making a go of it; he must have been deathly curious. My mind turned back to our little group’s boss walking just a few paces ahead of us, the way she had looked at me, the deftness of her fingers as she examined my eye, head, chest. She had taken charge, made decisions, set us on our course, and with an efficiency and confidence that belied the massive question mark I must have represented to them. A stranger, unable to speak, dressed in his workaday costume of navy slacks, white shirt open at the collar, and coal grey sports jacket, lying there in the middle of their rice paddy like some piece of terrestrial flotsam. Women have often surprised me, in both positive and negative ways, and they have also amazed me, but the grace and self-assurance of that particular woman was almost astonishing. Of course I felt that I had to have her. Charging full-bore into that body would not only be a sexual treat, I told myself, it would prove my worth in some indefinable way: the indefinable way that drives men to chase their dicks. I had long since embraced my shallowness on that score. I reasoned too – perhaps trying to justify myself to myself – that it would also open up another side to the mind ticking away behind that picturesque face. Not that I felt a craving for pillow talk or anything, but she did strike me as the type that wouldn’t bore even once all the excitement had run its usual course. In truth I had no real reason for assuming that, or any of it really, considering the conditions under which we had just met and the thick wall of no language between us, but it fit my fantasy and I happily allowed myself to wallow in it. The other woman in our group, the one who had lent me her hat, I also would have happily done – and maybe a few times I mused – but afterwards I would immediately make my excuses and be on my way. The boss though; watch out. She was the kind a man obsessed over. Or so I enjoyed thinking anyway.

I could finally make out some details of the place we were slowly approaching. From the point we had reached, and through the remainder of that odd shimmering faux-mirage air, it appeared to be a fairly dense group of mid-sized to high-rise buildings, a good many of them apartment complexes by the look of things, and all of them a stark, sharp white. There were black figures shuffling about here and there, and it seemed that the area around and in front of the buildings was either concreted over or paved by some kind of off-whitish or cream-colored material; certainly the ground there wasn’t the plain old ground we had been treading on our dirt road. Over on my left side I could see a low round building with a cone-shaped roof; I thought of a joke connecting that cone head to the cone on my head, but it wasn’t worth sharing and anyway I could neither speak whatever it was the people with me bizarrely and inexplicably spoke nor even, given the condition of my throat, speak anything at all. So much for establishing my reputation as a funny man. Many of the buildings were connected by two or three elevated hallways at varying heights and each looked to be accessible via the ground floor through a series of alleys and walking paths. In seeing that I was reminded that in the whole time thus far not a single car or truck had passed us on the road. I couldn’t make out any vehicles in the town ahead either. That was very odd, I thought, for any sizeable dwelling at any time of day anywhere in the world. What time was it? I tried to crane my head up to see where the sun stood in the sky but instantly regretted that as the heat slapped my face from the outside and the dancing bayonet behind my right eye stabbed away from the inside. Whatever time it was, it was still hot. And painful. I returned my attention to my feet and was pleased to see that they remained in motion. We’d get there.

Part three next week!
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