“If, as it is stated in the Code of Padrel the Great, that eating is no crime, then it follows by corollary that neither is feeding a criminal offense.”
Six months of law school, and that was the way Zerna talked now? It rubbed Fonell the wrong way, like she was trying to show off. Come on, his friend Drau said. She’s learned some new words. What do you expect happens when you go to school? She’s still the same Zerna now that she’s always been.
She didn’t dress the same. Fonell didn’t figure scholarships covered trips to upmarket boutiques. A boyfriend?
A boyfriend would have given her jewelry, dumbass, Drau said. She probably got a job on campus and bought herself a couple of nice things. Big deal. Anyway, I don’t know why you’re getting your nutsack in a twist for. You two broke up before Zerna went away.
Fonell punched Drau in the arm. We were never together, asshole, he said. But she could’ve dressed down for a visit to the old neighborhood.
Especially when the visit was more in the nature of an emergency call.
“Is that all you have to say?” shouted someone who lived in the building behind which some kids had found the white strip in the dirt where the paving had been torn up and some earth removed to get to a sewage line that turned out not to be there. Of course they ran and told other kids, and a great swarm of youngsters had dug for hours, thinking they were going to find buried treasure, before some adult with a bit of brains had remembered what that shiny, white, plasticky-metallic-magical material had been used by the old emperors for, what they’d intended to seal up tight and forever.
A thousand years had passed since the time of the old emperors, and forever was apparently not as long as the emperors or their magicians had thought. The kids had managed not only to produce a truly impressive excavation, but also to break one edge of the white sealant and reveal the pit below it.
A thousand years, and the prisoners were still alive.
Damn the old emperors and damn their magicians, Fonell thought as he looked at Zerna, standing there in her nice boots and dove-gray cloak. Maybe he shouldn’t have called her. She looked a little sick, and she was standing way back from the pit.
Everybody could hear the prisoners’ cries. A thousand years, and languages changed as well as governments and systems of magic, the new superseding the old, but echoes remained. The word for food was not the same now as it had been in the time of the old emperors, but it was close enough that old canny Canly figured it out within minutes. Food, the people, or former people, in the pit called for, over and over. Only food, not water. Fonell found that strange. He also thought it was odd that no stench came from the pit. No smell at all, in fact.
Canly had argued from the start that they should put all the dirt back, bury the pit, and pave it over.
“And forget about them?” Drau had asked. “You can listen to that,” he pointed at the pit, “and say forget it?”
“We can’t help them.”
“The seal’s been broken. We could get them out.”
A neighborhood meeting, it was, held out in the open and on the spot in question, so that later nobody could say anything had been kept secret or any dealings had been done behind anybody else’s back. That was the tradition of their neighborhood.
Canly shouted, “Do you really think that would be a kindness? A thousand years or more, trapped in undying bodies–undying, hungering bodies. And I bet you anything that it is impossible for them to eat. Cruel bastards, those old emperors.”
“We don’t know if they can eat or not,” Vamma, who was almost as old as Canly, said. “We don’t know anything. What’s the law on this? Does this count as an archeological find?”
As soon as Vamma said ‘law’, most of the crowd groaned. That was the most ancient tradition of all–never involve the authorities. But then Vamma’s mother had married into the neighborhood, so she wasn’t really quite one of them.
The only time you saw municipal guards on these streets was when they were escorting an ambulance or a fire brigade–and it had to be one hell of an emergency for someone in the neighborhood to call for outside assistance. They were people who took care of each other; they had their own doctors, their own curers and menders, and if anyone called out, “Fire!” there’d be two dozen men and women converging with buckets and hoses to put it out faster than a bird could shit.
Vamma flapped her hands at the groaners. “The government should decide what to do. This is too big for just us to take responsibility for.”
“No, it isn’t,” Onjar, who ran the laundry down the block and a café outside of the neighborhood and a few other things besides. “It’s big, but it’s here. It’s here, so it’s ours. You want to call the bloody government in? What’ll they do? Cordon off the area, obstruct the streets, and disrupt our lives for months while they dither. Be serious.”
“They might know how to help.”
“There is no help,” Canly insisted.
“We have scientists as well as magicians now, you know,” Vamma said.
“And every single one of them will come to the same conclusion–after months of debating and dithering, like Onjar said. Let’s just get it over with now.”
“I’m sure there are laws about this.”
“And I’m sure you’re right. There are laws about everything.”
That got a smattering of laughs.
Vamma glared. “I think it would be nice to know what the laws are before we start breaking them willy-nilly.”
And Fonell, because the idea of burying the crying people made his stomach hurt, spoke up. “I know a lawyer. She can give us her legal opinion.”
Naturally everyone gathered around the pit understood he was talking about Zerna. They also knew that she had only just started law school and wasn’t actually a lawyer, and that she and Fonell used to see each other. However–a fact which carried great weight–they knew that Zerna was from an old neighborhood family, so even though she’d chosen to go to school in some snooty place all the way at the other end of the province, she could be trusted. Canly grumbled that it was a waste of time, but he went along with the suggestion to contact her.
Now here she was, standing too far from the pit, talking about the Code of Padrel the Great.
“Padrel the Great was a long time ago,” some idiot who didn’t even live on the block said.
“His Code still forms the foundation of our modern common law,” Zerna said.
Drau said, “That’s good to know. Zerna, we’re all glad you came.”
Asshole, Fonell thought, though he knew Drau was only trying to smooth things over.
Zerna hadn’t answered the phone the first couple of times Fonell had tried to call. When he finally heard a live Hello, he immediately said, “This is neighborhood business. Can we talk?”
“Let me call you back,” she said, and a few minutes later she had, from somewhere, Fonell assumed, more private. He’d explained, briefly, what the kids had found, and how the neighborhood folks weren’t sure what they should do.
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” she said, and hung up before Fonell could say, It’s good to hear your voice.
Despite that, on the phone she’d sounded like herself. Sharp, confident, and catching on quick. The old Zerna, the one whose brain would get her out of the neighborhood, but whose heart would bring her back.
She seemed so different now. It wasn’t just the clothes, or the way she’d braided her hair. Her demeanor was…off. She’d arrived on the train, but hadn’t alerted anyone to meet her, and she hadn’t brought any luggage. She’d come to the site on her own, on foot, and waited until the grapevine rustled up a crowd, which included Canly and Vamma, but no member of her own family. It had taken Fonell a while to realize that. Her parents were dead, but she had a buttload of aunts and uncles and several buttloads of cousins, and not one of them was here.
And she was looking ill, as if she didn’t want to be here herself.
“They want to be fed,” she said.
“We know that,” Canly said. He’d been standing back, but now he pushed forward. “And I say, as I’ve said from the beginning, that there’s nothing we can do to help them. They can’t be human anymore, not after all this time. There are no people in that pit, only appetites.”
Immediately, Vamma cut in. “What I want to know is the law about archeological finds. We’re supposed to report them, aren’t we? All antiquities belong to the state.”
“Do you expect to get a reward?” Canly sneered. “Do you hear this, Zerna? You hear this nonsense? Archeology and antiquities, for pity’s sake.”
“Pity,” Zerna said. She swayed a little, in her polished, high-heeled boots. “How many of them are there? Have you looked?”
Onjar, the businessman, said, “We sent someone down with a rope around his waist and a flashlight. He couldn’t see much. The kids broke the seal, but the opening isn’t much wider than your little finger. He said he saw figures, and he thought he saw eyes, reflecting the light from the flashlight, but not much else.”
“She’s shaking,” Drau whispered in Fonell’s ear. “Why is she shaking?”
“I don’t know.”
“None of her family is here. Did you notice?”
“Yes. Shut up.”
Old neighborhood family. Old lineage. How old?
A thousand years ago or more, what sort of place had this been? After the fall of the emperors, there had been much destruction, heaping loads of chaos. People fleeing in one direction, other people fleeing the opposite way. But some people always stayed put, didn’t they? Hunkered down and rode things out?
Until the kids had uncovered the punishment vault, Fonell would have sworn that no remnant of that ancient period remained anywhere in the neighborhood. Not a building stone, not a shard of pottery, not a dirt-encrusted bead from some high-born’s headdress. He had never even given a thought to genes.
“Archeological finds and antiquities do not include living beings,” Zerna said.
Canly glanced at Vamma with a ‘Satisfied, then?’ look. “So we bury this mess and that’s the end of it. Right?” People were nodding and voicing agreement when Zerna said something. Nobody heard.
She was trembling. She spoke again, and again nobody heard.
Fonell shouted, “Wait! What’s wrong with you idiots? Let her talk!”
Canly jerked his head around, then waved for silence. Old canny Canly, his eyes narrowed, but his smile pleasant enough. “Sorry, child. What is it you wanted to say?”
“What do you mean, no?”
Drau leaned closer to Fonell. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Shut up.” He kept his eyes on Zerna. She was breathing too fast. Something was definitely not right.
“No burying,” she said. “We dig more. We break the punishment vault, or pry a bigger hole in it. And we get them out.”
The neighborhood folks all started talking at once.
Zerna and Canly stared at each other.
“That is not mercy,” Canly said, after the crowd had quieted. “That is cruelty.”
“No. Leaving them there is cruelty. They are aware, and they are suffering.”
“They are aware only of their suffering, and their suffering will not be eased by releasing them. They will continue to suffer, and we will have to suffer with them. We can already hear them. How much worse will it be when we can see them, too? That is the cruelty I meant.”
Vamma stuck her oar in. “Canly, listen. I know we’d have to tend them, take care of them, forever. But like Onjar said, we don’t know how many poor creatures are in there. There might be only a few. People–families–could volunteer to take one each. If we bury them again, we’re no better than the old emperors and their tame magicians.”
Canly shook his head. “And would you volunteer? Volunteer yourself, and your children, and your grandchildren, on and on, generation after generation?”
Drau whispered, “Look at Zerna.”
Fonell had never stopped looking at her. She’d put her hands over her face.
Vamma drew herself up. “I do,” she said, firmly.
“More fool you,” said one of the idiots who didn’t live on the block. Canly said nothing.
Zerna dropped her hands. “No.”
That No, everybody heard. It was a No of authority. She walked to the edge of the pit and looked down, dread on her face, but also resignation.
To Drau, Fonell said, “You’re my best friend. But whatever happens next, stay out of it.”
“What are you going to do?”
But Fonell was already walking to the pit. When he stood next to Zerna, she did not glance at him.
The voices were much louder here. Food, food, food. How many different voices? He couldn’t tell. Ten? Twenty?
“Vamma,” Zerna said. “Your heart is kind. But it’s my family that needs to take care of this.”
“They’re not here,” Fonell said. “Not one of them.”
“I know,” she said. She looked at Canly. “Will you do what I asked? Will you accept my counsel?”
“As long as you accept responsibility.”
“Zerna, what are you doing?” Fonell asked.
Vamma asked, “Why your family?”
“Because the people inside the punishment vault are our kin.”
“I’m sorry I called you,” Fonell said. “I should have left you alone.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Zerna said. She looked down into the pit again. “Neither did they. One of them, maybe. But the old emperors punished the entire household for the transgression of one. We’ve made a lot of progress since then, haven’t we? At least we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”
“They’ll be insane,” Canly said. “If they have any minds left at all.”
“At best, they’ll be…worms in withered human bodies. No more brains than that. I hope so, anyway, for their sake.”
“Even worms feel pain,” Zerna said. “Are you going to get on with it?”
“Yes. I’ll send some people to fetch tools.”
“Can you feed them?” Vamma asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Why isn’t anybody from your family here?” Fonell asked. “Are they coming later, when the prisoners are freed?”
“No. Nobody’s coming.”
She still wasn’t looking at him. Fonell saw Drau in the crowd, shaking his head, but Drau didn’t understand. He thought Fonell was pining after a lost love or some stupid shit like that.
He and Zerna had never been in love, not romantically. They’d gone to the same day-care center when they were toddlers. They’d played together as children. When they were older, they’d had sex a couple of times, but it had been a casual thing, okay at best, never great, never spectacular.
He’d been delighted for her when she’d been accepted into law school. He’d wanted to celebrate, and she’d come over. Just the two of them, at his place, him pouring wine and burbling about how proud he was, until he finally noticed that she wasn’t saying anything, that all the time he’d been bustling around, she’d been sitting on his couch crying.
Her family hadn’t approved of her decision to go to law school. She hadn’t told any of them that she was applying. When she announced that she’d been admitted, a ruction of epic proportions had erupted. He’d comforted her as best he could, saying that they were ignorant and jealous and backwards, that she had no reason to feel guilty for using her brain. That was the last time they’d been alone together.
Her brain got her out, but it hadn’t been her heart that brought her back. It had been him.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “This is my fault.”
“Why won’t you look at me?”
He heard her sigh. “This is my responsibility. Go away before you get hurt.”
“Leaving you to stay and get hurt?”
“Can we feed them? I know you told Vamma you didn’t know, but what do you think? Is it possible?”
After a moment, Zerna said, “I think there is no way of feeding them. But I may be able to comfort them. Hungry and loved is better than hungry and abandoned.” She sighed again. “It has to be.”
“We may be able to comfort them,” Fonell said.
“No. Are you volunteering, too? No. What I told Vamma was true. My family are the only ones who have even a small hope of helping these people. That was woven into the magic that bound them.”
“But it doesn’t look like your aunts and uncles and cartloads of cousins give a shit about that.”
Zerna twitched one shoulder. “They are cowards. I’m glad they cast me out.”
“Cast you out?” Fonell hadn’t known it had gone that far.
“Informally. Doesn’t count legally. Or morally, if it comes to that. Which it does, here.”
Drau shouted, “The men with the tools are coming.”
“You could still run,” Fonell whispered.
“I love you,” Fonell said, and took her hand. She tried to pull away, but he held on tight. “We both know it. And we both know there are so many different kinds of love. You are going to love these famished, suffering creatures one way. I have loved you since we were both three years old, in another. And you love me…like a puppy. The stupid neighborhood boy with his cute little problems and insignificant life.”
“They’re doing what you said. They’re coming with tools to break open the punishment vault. And then what? Are you going to comfort all of them? Ten, twenty, however many of poor fuckers have been stuck in there for a thousand years?”
“Yes. It can only be done by family.”
“I understand that. But a person can marry into a family.”
She turned then, and for the first time in nearly a year, Fonell looked into Zerna’s eyes. “No.”
“I won’t let you. You have a life.”
“And you don’t? Marry me, Zerna, and we will share what is coming.”
“Get away from me.”
“No chance. I will hold your hand forever, if that’s what it takes. But it won’t, will it? I never went to law school–sorry–but I know the government recognizes common-law marriage after three years. So all I have to do is hold your hand for three years. You think I can’t manage that?”
“Or you could make it easier by saying Yes in front of two witnesses and that old canny Canly.”
“Why? You don’t need to do this.”
“Why? Because I do love you, in one of the seventeen or eighteen thousand ways that love can be defined. We really need more words for this, don’t you think? But don’t get a big head. It’s not only because of you. I was never on Canly’s side. Burying them and forgetting them? That’s horrible. If there is any way to help, then I want to help. Then my insignificant life might have some significance after all.”
“No life is insignificant.”
“Right. And that includes the people in the punishment vault.”
“My family won’t come. I tried calling my great-uncle. He hung up on me.”
“I will be your family.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Well, neither do you, do you? You didn’t even have to get on the train.”
Eyes locked, all through the arrival of the men and women with tools, through the expansion of the excavation, the two of them stood, hands clasped.
Canly ordered the diggers about. Vamma approached Fonell and Zerna once, looked at their faces, and retreated.
Drau came to stand just out of arm’s reach from them.
Finally, finally, after an eternity (food, food, food coming from the pit, men and women talking and cursing, the sounds of digging and battering and rending) Zerna nodded, once.
“You,” Fonell said, pointing at Drau. “And you,” he said, pointing at a random woman in the crowd. “Come here. Canly. Over here.”
“What is it?” Canly asked.
Drau said, “Fonell, what are you doing?”
The woman said nothing, but came to stand with them.
Fonell said, “Before these two witnesses, under the sky, our hands clasped, Zerna and I will marry.”
Canly rolled his eyes. “You’re a romantic fool,” he said. “And Zerna, you’re a bigger one.”
“We’re making a family,” Fonell said.
Canly said, “You’re making a mistake, but then there are a lot of mistakes being made today. What’s one more?”
“Do it seriously,” Zerna said. “You’re our binder. Perform the ceremony properly.”
“Of course I will. I take it this will be a life-marriage?”
“Yes,” Fonell said. Zerna nodded.
“Very well.” And as another crew of neighborhood men climbed down into the pit with shovels and crowbars, as Vamma was organizing a group of neighborhood folks to bring a variety of different food items to the site–“We don’t know if they can eat. But if they can, they might be able to eat some things and not others. So let’s get a little bit of everything we can think of, all right?”–Canly slowly, solemnly, and with impeccable enunciation, recited the words to bind two people in a life-marriage. At the end of it, he even intoned the traditional verse of congratulations.Then he went back to overseeing the diggers in the pit.
“When they come out,” Zerna said, “they’ll have to be taken somewhere. They won’t be able to walk, so they’ll need to be carried. Your place, all right?”
“Our place,” Fonell said, and that brought a tiny smile to her face.
Food, food, food. The voices were louder now; not even the sounds of digging and of the men swearing as they worked on the crack in the sealant of the punishment vault could muffle them.
“Are you ready for the first one?” Canly called.
Zerna took a deep breath. “Yes.”
Naked and withered, contracted into a fetal position, barely moving, except for its mouth, the first prisoner was passed up from the pit. Canly took it. He held it for a moment, looking into its face. “Bring scarves, hats, things like that,” he said to Vamma’s group. “We’ll have to protect their eyes. Light after so long in the dark will be painful.”
“My husband can do that,” Zerna said.
“What a great start to your honeymoon, boy.” Canly laughed softly. How could he laugh while he was holding that contorted, mewling creature that had once been a human being? Fonell thought.
Drau must have read the expression on Fonell’s face. He said, “He’s laughing because he won’t let himself cry. Look at the rest of them.”
Drau was right. Vamma was weeping; others were wiping their eyes and clearing their throats forcefully.
“Bring him to me,” Zerna said.
“I think this one is a she,” Canly said.
“Give her to me.”
“Only family, is it?” Canly said, walking toward her. “What a proud bunch of bastards you lot are. Or were, I should say. The rest of them are staying far away from this business, aren’t they?”
Zerna held out her arms. “She’s mine. Give her to me.”
“Only if you call me Uncle Canly.”
Canly shook his head. “I was against this from the first minute. But it’s done now. Once we’ve got everybody out–by the way, it looks there are about ten, so that’s not too bad, I guess–we’re going to break the vault into little pieces and then bury the pieces. So we can’t go back. Your boyfriend here–sorry, your husband–married into your family. Two people taking care of ten or so helpless, mindless–I hope–creatures is better than one doing it all by herself. But you’ll need help. Breaks once in a while. Babysitters. Respite caregivers. And if you will accept only members of your family as good enough to give you a hand, well then, there is more than one kind of family.” He passed the first freed prisoner to Zerna. She took the withered woman carefully, supporting her head, and knelt on the broken ground at the edge of the pit. Zerna stroked the woman’s face, murmured in her ear, rocked her.
“Another one’s almost ready to come out,” a digger shouted.
“I’ll take that one,” Fonell told Canly, who nodded.
Fonell crouched next to Zerna. “Canny old Canly, eh?”
Zerna shook her head. “Fonell.”
“I love you. I forgot to say that.”
Vamma and another woman came up to them, with old bath towels–probably the quickest thing they could grab–to cover the released prisoner, and a bowl full of bits of cut up fruit and another bowl with soup in it, and smaller bowl of soft cheese curds. Fonell took all these things and set them on the ground, except for one towel, which he draped over the woman Zerna was holding. “Thank you,” he said to Vamma and the other woman.
“We heard what you said about transportation,” Vamma said. “Don’t worry. My son has a van. Once they’re all out, we’ll drive them to your place.”
“Thank you.” He wanted to say Aunt Vamma, but he didn’t dare.
Canly brought Fonell the second released prisoner. This one was smaller than the first, and male. The whole household punished for the crime of one, everybody–adolescents, children, probably servants as well. Fonell sat down, cross-legged, and Canly laid the creature in his lap. He felt cold and hard, almost like a corpse in rigor, except that his mouth was moving. Canly picked up a towel from the pile on the ground and tossed it over what had probably once been a teenager. “It might be another hour or so before we get the rest out. The vault is deeper than we thought. But I hear a van’s on its way.”
“Yes,” Fonell said. “Vamma told us.”
Canly looked at the bowls of food. He sighed. “That’s not going to work.”
“Probably not,” Zerna said. “But there is more than one way of feeding.” She glanced up. “These two aren’t crying anymore.”
It was true. The ones that Zerna and Fonell were cradling had fallen silent. Their mouths moved, like lethargic fish smacking at air, but they no longer called for food.
“We’re still going to try,” Zerna continued. “We’ll run through the entire catalog of edibles in the world, to be absolutely certain. But this sort of feeding,” she stroked the woman’s face again, “might be enough to give them peace.”
“I hope you’re right. Still, it’s a lot of work for just two people.”
“Family of birth, family of marriage, family by adoption, which under the Code of Padrel the Great held the same status as family of birth, and family of choice.”
“We’d be going for that last one there, girl.”
“So I thought.”
“Glad to hear you’ve been thinking about it. Have you decided?”
“Why would you do this?”
“For the same reason as you. It has to be done.”
“Uncle Canly,” Zerna said, “I will agree, but only if you endow me with the right to terminate the fictive relationships unilaterally and without penalty to either party.”
“So many big words.”
“All of which you understand.”
“I do,” Canly said. “And I agree to your conditions. I’ll explain them to the others a little more simply.”
“Thank you, Uncle Canly.”
The neighborhood was the neighborhood. People took care of each other and looked after their own. Except when they didn’t. But this was going to be one of the times they did. Fonell felt humbled, and proud of his people.
“You were going to be a lawyer,” Fonell said, when Canly had gone back to the excavation.
“Maybe. Now I’m going to be something else. What about you?”
“Me? Nobody special. I’m still working at the warehouse. Probably I should say I was working at the warehouse. I suppose I’m going to be something else now, too.”
“We’re going to be something else together.”
“Together, and not alone,” Fonell said, gently. The curled-up creature on his lap stirred, and he stroked the boy’s head. “You have in-laws too, now, remember. In-laws count as family.”
“I was always going to come back. That was what my family–my birth family–didn’t understand.”
“I knew you would.”
“Do you think the gods play with us? That this is how they whittle away the boredom of eternity?”
“I think the gods don’t care. Sometimes people do, though.”
“Third one coming!” Canly called.
“I’ll take him,” Drau said, sitting down next to Fonell. “That is, if you don’t mind, Cousin Zerna.”
Laugh to stop yourself from crying. Fonell couldn’t laugh, but he forced himself to grin. Glancing at Zerna, he saw that she had gone him one better–she was smiling and weeping at the same time. “It’s going to be all right,” Fonell said.
“It’s going to be what we make of it.”
“And we’ll make it all right. Together, and not alone.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Drau said. He pulled the bowl full of cut-up bits of fruit closer to him. Fonell raised his eyebrows. Drau shrugged. “The seal was broken. Maybe the magic can be broken, too.”
“Don’t get your hopes up too high,” Zerna said.
“I won’t. Just high enough,” Drau said, and took another towel and spread it on his lap, ready to receive the third freed prisoner that Canly, shaking his head and laughing softly, was carrying toward them.