Reunion in the Ruins

By Dolores J. Nurss

            I can do this.  I'm a big, bad agent, after all, exquisitely trained above and beyond the sacred powers that I stole from the Gates of Knowledge.  I'm Papa's Little Bad Girl.  I'm...I don't know what I am, anymore.

            I wear black.  It does not suit me, but it does suit the shadows in which I skulk, slipping into the ruins where no one ever goes, walking easily through illusory clouds of dullness, nothing to see, here.  Even my hair I've muffled in a long, black scarf, lest the moonlight betray those platinum locks that everybody in the village used to envy.  Oh but I was the princess, wasn't I?  Back in the day?

            No streetlights burn out here.  Of course not.  I didn't even know what a streetlight was till I left.  I find the stopped-up arch, with the hole high at the top where the cement has crumbled from the aggregate.  It looks like a great bother to climb up there.  I bother.  I wear tough yet stretchy clothing made for climbing, made for slipping into holes and out again to the other side.

            Yes.  There sits the old trolley, rusting right where we left it, but the moonlight makes it look like silver.  Should I crank it up, I wonder, and ride it home in style?  No, for it would clatter loudly on the tracks. It would draw attention.  For once in my life I do not want attention.  Except from one.

            I walk along the tracks in the dark, tense, in enemy territory, uneasy about the faint shush of the weeds that I wade through.  I am a criminal, here.  Oh why dodge the obvious?  I am a criminal everywhere; they just know about it here.  The Shaman's Wayward Daughter.  Do they make up tales about me?  Do they say that I came to a bad end?  Of course they do—how else to discourage the young and gullible from following my example?  And maybe I will, and maybe I won't.  I haven't finished writing my own story, yet.

            I probably waste my time.  Alroy said he'd died of a broken heart, that he had refused all food.  Alroy lied about many things, but he'd also said that his magic depended on this one thing being true.

            So?  Whose word do I have for that?  I don't know a thing about magic—and maybe he counted on that.

            I leave the tracks when I reach the boundaries of the village.  Only so far could we go.  I used to touch my toes to the very line, that crack in the pavement that every child understood defined the limits of our territory.  I used to laugh at my shocked playmates.  When nobody looked I even used to pass it, just a quick hop over, and quickly back again.

            But only for seconds.  I remember how my heart would thump for doing that.  The Bad People might get me.  The ones we opposed in the Full Moon Rebellion, it's all in the history books, they might catch me and perform hideous experiments upon my tender flesh. But I didn't need the villains in the history books—I did that to myself.

            So now I slink from shadow to shadow, edge of wall, bower of the olive tree, I know this territory like none I ever infiltrated before in my profession as an agent, for I lived here, I grew up here, I once thought it the entire world.

            Is that Kendra by the well, over there?  With a baby on her back?  It's been too long!  The last I knew of Kendra she still had not decided whether she would ever kiss a boy.  Well, she must have done something!  But my snickers die unborn as I cower in the silence, afraid that Kendra might call the angry villagers to apprehend me.  In their place a sudden well of grief threatens to overpower me, make me betray myself with a sob.  I can never know Kendra's story, how she fell in love, how she felt about becoming a mother, what latest antics of the baby most delight her to share with others.  I slammed the door to every single aspect of this life years ago, and cannot have it back.  I never thought I'd want it back; I tried to forget the good parts.

            I make my way through an alley as softly as I can, the soles of my shoes designed for quiet steps.  I don't run into anyone else.  It's not like the True Tili�n have what one might call a “night life”.  I never even heard the term before I emerged into the larger world, where I could laugh and drink and rollick with the Bad People.

            There.  Our home.  His home, not mine anymore.  The light still burns, candles flickering behind the goathair curtain.  Oh thanks be to Truth!  This is real!

            This might mean some altogether different truth.  Someone else might live there, now.

            But wait--I smell that abominably sweet bean dish that he used to love, baked in honey and bacon.  He can serve it any time he wants, now, no fear of displeasing his daughter's finicky palette.  He can eat it every night of the week if he desires.  Maybe he does, for all I know.

            Starved himself to death?  Ha!

            Now for it.  I take a deep breath.  I did not feel this much fear in Alroy's Isle of Curses.  He's just an old man.  I know all of his Shaman tricks, I have tapped into the same abilities that used to awe me so, and added to it the finest training that Til Institute has to offer.  Even if he raises the alarm against me, I can escape him as easily as I did the last time.  Easier.  I'm older and craftier these days.

            I have no reason to fear him, my shaman, my...father.

            I steal to the doorway.  I slip past the curtain, hardly stirring it.  I don't find him in this room.  Hardly daring to breathe, walking as softly as I can, I head towards the light in the back room.  Maybe all I need is a glimpse of him.  Maybe if I could just see him again, everything in me will resolve and I can go home, and he will never know.

            “Ah, Suzie!  About time you arrived.”

            I stop dead in my tracks, terrified and at the same time glad, so glad to hear his living voice.

            “Come in, come in, dear.  Don't fear me. Oh my love, I never meant you harm.”

            I pull aside the back room curtain and step in, and then I stand there, staring, feeling about five years old and in trouble, feeling old and tired, feeling most of all a yearning that overpowers my fear.  “Papa?”  Oh how some might laugh to hear my voice crack!  “Papa?  I've come home.”

            “Come in!  Oh my heart, come in!”  He lumbers up from the cushions by the table, seven years more arthritic than before, he limps over to me and gives me a crushing hug and I embarrass myself by crying and crying and crying, holding him so tight, so tight, smelling that ocean scent of him, remembering everything.

            “Here, here, sit down.  Have you eaten?  I have some bread and cheese, you don't have to eat my nasty old beans if you don't want to.”

            I gasp for air, then laugh, saying, “It's all right, Papa.  I've eaten.  I'm fine.  I haven't exactly starved in the wide world.”

            “I gather you haven't,” he says, and I blush, being just a tiny bit on the plump side, now.  But when I look at him he smiles warmly.  So I nestle down beside him and he puts an arm around me, just like old times, while his other hand pours wine for him and me, which is not like old times, but that's okay, this will go all right, everything surely must get better, now.  And he, too, feels a little softer, looks a little bit less lean.  Oh Alroy, you wretched liar!

            He releases me to hand me the glass, and to gently trace some lines upon my face.  “You look older.  Of course.  It's been years.  But...they've been hard years, haven't they?”

            I sip quickly and regain my composure, and make myself laugh.  “It's the black outfit.  Black is not my color.”

            He nods, but dubiously, his eyes watering.  “Oh Suzie...”  He gulps some wine and says, “Suzie, I am so, so glad that you found your way back to me!  After all these years.”

            “And I...I'm...Papa, I was scared to death you'd have me killed!”

            “For sacrilege?”  He smiles and gently shakes his head.  “The punishment is banishment, Sue.  You took care of that yourself.”

            “But I came back.  Just for this one night, I came back.”

            For a moment he looks on me so sadly that I might as well have shown up for my own funeral.  “You cannot spend the night.  You know that.  You must slink out the way you came before anybody ever finds out you've been here.”

            And the stupid tears begin to well up in my eyes again, but I forbid them; I hold my head up as haughtily as possible.  “It doesn't matter,” I say.  “The outside world is wonderful—amazing.  I have everything I want, and more than I'd imagined.”  Then my posture falters.  “Except for you.”

            He brushes an errant tear from my cheek, smiling sadly.  “My daughter, my jewel, all good fathers must let go of their daughters, let them find a new life elsewhere, with a new man in their lives.”  And he gives me a questioning look that needs no translation between us.

            I laugh through my tears.  “Yes, I married Merrill Ambrey, in front of witnesses and everything, all up-front and proper.”  I show him my wedding ring, a blue topaz like a piece of frozen sky, and then I bring out my wedding-picture from my pocket.  I show him how to activate it into three dimensions, and he turns it around and around in his hands with pleasure.

            “Ah, what a lovely bride you made!  I wish your mother could have seen this.”  Then he glances shyly over at me.  “Yet no children?”

            “How  I've been too busy for children.”  Of course.  He can put together a thousand clues—the same as I can.

            He shakes his head and hands the picture-cube back to me, and I flatten it again.  “That's too busy, Suzie.  Nobody should work too hard for family.  I never did.  Nobody here does.”

            “Well I don't live here anymore!” I snap, a little too testily, perhaps because a sudden longing wells up in me, for the simple life that used to bore me half to craziness.

            “Yes, yes, you live for adventure now, and glorious missions, and have acquitted yourself so well that Archives can't get enough of you.”  His face sours and he turns for a sip of wine, and the candlelight shows every wrinkle on him.  “But beware of her, Suzanne.  Her selflessness is more insatiable than the most selfish tyrant living.  She will use you up and fete your memory even as you rot, a living, burnt-out shell, in the hovels of Rhallunn.  I have seen it all, time and time again.”

            “Seen it?”

            He smiles wryly and blushes.  “Well, since you are an outlaw and cannot reveal your secrets to the village, I might as well let you know something.”  He hesitates, bites his lip, then stares far from me.  “The Shaman of the True Tili�n, you see, and he alone, has the password to the fullness of Archives.  We pass it on to our successors in the transition, deep within The Rock.”  He looks my way again and says, “I can override the information-screening programs that keep the rest of the community safely quarantined from the outside world.  I must.  For their safety, you see, I have to update my knowledge every so often.”  He smiles softly at me and refills the glass that I unaccountably seem to have gulped down in one shocked swallow.  “You have made quite a career for yourself, my dear.  I do respect you, you know.  You have put your crime to good use.”

            “I, I've done my best.”

            “And your young man, Merrill Ambrey, too.  And all of those he pulled into this affair, all of Fireheart Friendclan.  Except, of course, for Jesse.”

            “Jes...Wait a minute.  How much do you know?”

            He smiles cryptically, village shaman through and through.  “I could not resist,” he says.  “I had to follow the career of my daughter.”

            I stand up.  “How much do you know?”

            “Quiet!”  He grabs me by the wrist and drags me back down to the cushions.  “If anyone should hear you, they will come and drive you out, grabbing up whatever tools most look like weapons to them—the penalty may be banishment, but if you die in the process they won't care nearly as much as I would!”

            I hiss at him, “You sneak!  Nobody should read confidential journals until twenty-five years after a person dies—that's the law!”

            “Says the lawbreaker.  But the True Tili�n rebelled, remember?  We founded our community on breaking outside laws.  And so, in setting us up, here, our founders bypassed all the barriers in programming before they became too complicated for almost anyone to break through.”

            “You read my...almost?  Wait.  What do you mean by almost?”

            “Well, you helped take down the most notable exception.  Alroy Thrakiakis.”  His eyes grow dark.  “Oh yes, Suzie, I knew all about him, long before you did.  I, and the shamans before me, considered him part of the illness of the outside world.  We took steps to make sure that he overlooked us in his desire to take the Tili�n down.  But we had our mission, to preserve this oasis of innocence, and left it to the Other Tili�n to deal with their own.”  His hand grips the glass so hard that the wine inside it splashes.  “I never imagined that someday that would include you.”

            I free my hair from the scarf and fluff it into place, just to do something.  “Well, I didn't do too badly, you know.  We took him down—that's one less thing you and future shamans have to worry about.”

            “I rooted for you, Suzie, from the sidelines.”  He twists to face me.  “I didn't know how to help you, even if my own laws didn't forbid me from abandoning my post here.”


            “I didn't know how!”  He grips my arms.  “I would have broken every rule in the book had I known how!”  His eyes look wide in the candlelight mingled with the moonlight spilling through the window.  “Oh my Suzie, he could have killed you, or worse!  He had so many kinds of worse to inflict upon his enemies.”

            I smile at him, tipping up my chin.  “Well, I survived, didn't I?  Silly to worry about something that never happened.”  He lets go and I refill his glass for him, and take a long, cool sip from my own.  “Now, about the matter of you prying into my confidential journal...”

            “I knew you'd come here tonight, Zanne.  And I know why.”  He takes a sip of his own, then sets down his glass and gazes on me.  “You have doubts about your marriage.  You have accepted a mission without Merrill.  You wonder whether or not to go back to him when you finish.  Both of you have gotten too busy for family.”

            “It's not that,” I protest.  “It's...well, it's more me than him, really.”  I knot my fingers in my scarf, afraid of what I'll say next.  “I keep wanting to hurt him.  To punish him.”

            “Because he made your dreams come true?  Because they didn't turn out the way you thought?”

            “Oh, I know it sounds childish...”

            “It is childish.”

            “I should go away for good, protect him from me.”

            “Or,” he says, tracing a line in the condensation on the table where the glass had rested, “you could change yourself, become someone who doesn't need to torment your husband.”

            “Could I?” I find myself asking, faintly.  “I am Zanne.  I am...I have made what I am.  I don't know how to unmake it without destroying myself.”

            My father sighs, leaning back against the cushions.  “And there is the matter of the affairs.  All for the good of the mission.  At least that's what you told yourselves.”  I glare at him, but he calmly accepts my glare.  “Both of you.  But you first.”

            I shudder.  “You nosy, filthy sneak.”

            “Don't you realize the real reason that you both did this thing?  Each to punish the other for putting your work first.”

            I rise to my feet before I realize it.  “This was a mistake,” I say.  “I never should have come here.”

            “Sit back down, Suzie.”

            “Zanne!  My name is Zanne.”

            “Ah, the name he gave you.  You still love him, don't you?”

            I sit.  And I mutter, “I don't know what I feel.”  I don't expect him to hear me, but he does.

            “He loves you, too, you know.  It wouldn't have hurt him so much if he didn't.”

            “But what can I do?  I've signed up for the Vanikke mission already, and he's off for Holumbria.  We might not see each other again for years.”

            “Take him up on his offer.”

            “What, to pack me off to Darvinia to find his replacement?”  I toss my head, laughing at the thought.

            “To go with him to Darvinia. That's what he really wants.  And so, being him, he decided to mortify his own desire and offer it to you alone.”

            I smile, despite myself.  “Yes, that's Merrill all over.”

            “What is it, a three day train ride from Naugren station?  Some of your excursions take months just to get there.  You've earned this much vacation, haven't you?  Ah, but I forget.  The Other Tili�n frown on anybody actually collecting on their vacations.”

            “It's not that, Papa.”  I lean against his breast, just like I did as a little girl, except I'm sipping wine.  “Darvinia is such a silly place.  Goofy.  An entire economy built on staging romance for the tourist trade.”

            Juliar grins.  “And you don't think your mother and I ever got goofy together?  Silliness helps keep a marriage alive, Su...Zanne.  It's one of the essential nutrients.”

            “I didn't know.  How could I know?”

            “Poor little girl,” he says.  “It must have been horrible to grow up without a mother.”  He looks down at me, where I snuggle, wishing I could turn back the clock, really be the little girl whose Papa could solve everything.  “You really came back more for her than for me, didn't you?”

            “How do you mean?”

            “You wanted me to tell you about her.  About us.  About how to keep a marriage alive.”

            “It hardly seems possible.”  I roll my glass between my fingers, looking at it, not him.  “I...Papa, I know so many things that mystify other people, I travel all over the world to serve with my great, big, fat knowledge, but I don't know something that the simplest stone-age bride must know!”  I think of Kendra, who had looked so happy, drawing water for her family with her baby on her back.

            “How could you?  You never saw a marriage up close, with your mother passed and all.  And how could Merrill know, raised up in a comorran?  Oh, the marriage statistics in the rest of Til are not good, I'm afraid.”  He sits up and tweaks my nose, just as he used to do when I worried too much.  “But you know what?  You are a very, very clever young lady, Suzanne.  You can learn anything you put your mind to.”

            I sit up and can't help but grin, too.  Only he can make me grin like that, completely unabashed about appearing less than cool, around him alone.  “Maybe Darvinia won't be so bad.”

            “It will be wonderful, even at this time of year,” he says.

            “That's right—it's winter there.”  Then I look at him.  “I thought you never even knew about Darvinia—Papa, it's a scandalous place!”

            He laughs.  “I know!  Your mother would have loved it!”  Then he plays with a red and green earring that I forgot to take off.  “But it will also be Christmas.  I know how much you like that holiday, Christmas.  Only there they celebrate it as Lannat, and give the same motifs different meanings.”

            “You sneak!”  But this time I feel myself grin saying it, swatting him playfully.  “Well, then!  Since you seem to know every move I've made over the past seven years, you will just have to catch me up on your own doings.”  And I raise my glass as in a toast to him.

            “Oh, nothing much ever changes around here.  You know that.”  But he suddenly looks shy, toying with his own glass, trying for some reason to suppress a smile.

            “And yet...?” I prompt.

            He gulps wine and pours us both some more.  With a husky voice he says, “Machelle Constanzia has been a widow for five years, now...” and he stops, and his smile slips out of his control and spreads all over his face.

            “You're in love!”  I exclaim, laughing.

            He glances sidelong at me.  “You don't disapprove?”

            I hug him.  “Why should I disapprove?”

            “Well, your mother...yet I have hid too long from facing the truth of her death, Suzanne.  And, well, Machelle came to me, seeking wisdom, to help encompass the truth of her own husband's death, and in the year of her mourning I stayed strictly hands-off, as a shaman should,  make no mistake on that!  Yet the more we spoke, the more I realized how much my own words applied to me...and, well, it's been five years for her, now, and much longer than that for me, and...when we meet now, it's not for that, we've done with counseling long ago.”  He grinned suddenly.  “It's quite awhile since I knew the language of these things, Sue, but I think we are 'getting serious'.”

            “But this is wonderful!'  And I give him a big, sloppy hug again, and I think I might be just a little drunk, but that's okay, my father's happy, and has still more happiness ahead of him!  “Oh, Papa, I had so many fears!  I wondered if you'd died!  Alroy told me that you starved from grief for me!”  And all my laughter turns suddenly to tears, and I don't even try to hold them back.

            He laughs enough to dry my tears again, shaking his head.  “No, I am quite alive, I assure you, and all too far from starved.”  More seriously he says,  “I mourned you, Suzie, but my mourning had its day, and then I accepted the truth of your departure.”  Then he looks sadly on me, and brushes my hair out of my face.  “Oh, darling!  Have you lived so long with such a terrible untruth?  Oh, my poor, poor daughter!”  And he holds me close, rocking me a little, and I rest my head against his shoulder, and nothing has felt this safe, this cozy, for seven years.

            When he releases me at last I reach for more wine but he stays my hand.

            “No, Suzanne.  You must leave yourself capable of stealth.  Go now.  Return to your husband while you still have time together.”

            And just like that,  all my smiles flee.  He's right, of course.  In the long run he has always been right, even when he's been wrong.  So I nod, and rise, even as he does.  And then we hug for one last time, and I try to hold back the tears, but he sobs openly, so that it becomes impossible.

            “Thank you, Zanne,” he says. “ Thank you for the truth of this reunion.  I will treasure it for the rest of my life.”

            I can't speak.  I stand on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, then muffle my too-bright hair in its black confines once more, and slip out the door while the village still sleeps.


            [This is not so much a dream as a spin-off from one.  In the original dream, in the 2000’s, Don proudly offered me a ride by plane to Novo Durango, where I could then catch the shuttle to my next destination.  I felt so glad for him, that he had finally conquered his fear of flying and renewed his pilot’s license.  I felt conflicted about where to go, though; I hadn’t yet decided.  On the verge of waking, I felt an overwhelming grief, and a desire to see my father one last time.  As I opened my eyes I realized that I’d been Zanne.]


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