Wall of Flowers
Never do this. I’m not the most outdoorsy person, but even I know that if you’re lost and alone in the woods, it’s a bad idea to scoff a bunch of unidentified mushrooms. The thing is, I just couldn’t help myself. The afternoon sun slanting through the trees was so golden, the colours of the autumn leaves so alluring, that I had wandered further and further from the trail; and when I came to a clearing filled with shifting, dappled light and saw the clump of small, pale blue mushrooms gleaming like strange gemstones, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to nibble one. It tasted so rich, so strange—like a taste half-remembered from a dream—that before I knew it I had wolfed down half-a-dozen. If this was my last meal, so be it. I could think of worse places to kick the bucket. So I sat down with my back against a tree and tried to prepare myself for whatever came next, be it killer stomach cramps or weird hallucinations. But the only thing I felt, after a few minutes, was a strange tingling like electricity all through my body.
Then the young woman in blue appeared. I didn’t see her coming: all of a sudden she was just there, as if someone had lifted up the forest floor and she’d stepped out. She had bronze skin, piercing blue eyes and long black hair that hung in a braid down her back. She was wearing a sky-blue felted jacket embroidered with ornate designs, flowers and birds and abstract patterns; dark blue trousers and leather moccasins. She looked at me with a gaze that was calm and composed, but at the same time, with a suppressed excitement. There was something very familiar about her, though I couldn’t place just where I’d seen her before.
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Do you have a telephone with you? I’m afraid I’m lost, and I’ve left mine in the car.”
She gave me a look of surprise, and said, “A tellphone? Whyever would I bring a tellphone to the woods? There’s one in the greathouse but I’ve never used it.” She went on, half to herself: “Of course. The Crisis Years! You were all so obsessed with tellphones and cars and what’s the other thing? Airy plains. Techno jelly.”
She wasn’t speaking English, or not exactly, but I found I could understand her fine as long as I glanced at her words out of the corner of my eye, so to speak; whereas if I looked at them directly they made no sense at all.
“Anyway,” she added, “you’re not lost. You just think you are. Really you’re just where you’re meant to be, where I called for you. The small blues and I, that is. And it worked! Though—Amama Lao said they almost always go through the motherline; and yet here YOU are.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but I don’t understand a thing you’re saying. Are you just a figment of my imagination?”
She laughed. “More likely YOU’re a fragment of MY imagination, isn’t it, as I’m the one called for YOU? But no, we’re both real. Me, I’m your alala, and you, you’re my apapa. But a long way off. The Crisis Times, that would be, what, seven apas.”
Suddenly a rush of cold went right through me, all the hairs on my arms stood straight up, and I stammered, “Do you mean to say—you’re my descendant, seven generations on?”
“What I said. Your seventh alala.”
“But—that’s incredible! You know what this means? It means we make it through! All the horror, the natural disasters, the famines, the pandemics, the economic collapse—it means that eventually, we survive. And, by looking at you, I’d say we thrive. You look so happy.”
“Hm. Maybe. I don’t know. Amama Lao says, nothing is fated. She says time is like a tree, where everyone thinks they’re standing on the main trunk, but in fact you might be on a branch that’s just about to break off.”
“I don’t understand that. But it doesn’t matter. I have so many questions. Like, for instance, do you still have electricity? Solar panels? Windmills?”
She snorted. “Honestly, is that all you’re interested in? Electrickery. Techno jelly.”
“You mean technology.”
“Yeah, techno jelly.”
“So what do you use for light at night?”
“Well, there are the firefly pods, in case we want to read a book after dark or find our way at newmoon. They make them in Havaly, but I’ve no idea how they work.”
“Is that where you live?”
“Havaly? No. I’m a healer. We live in Lallony. Though I’m not one yet, not till I finish my prenticing. Then I have to go Out and when I come back, after the three years, if I bring back my Finding and the Amamas accept it, I’ll be one. But of course, we all travel for work, anywhere we’re needed.”
“So is Lallony near here?”
“Not so far, just over there, on the inside.”
“The inside of what?”
“The Wall, of course.” Seeing my blank look, she clarified: “The Wall of Flowers.”
“What is that? Is it like a hedge?”
She made a scoffing noise. “A hedge? A hedge is something you use for keeping sheep or llamas out of your herb garden. This is the Wall of Flowers. People come from all over to see it. Three times the height of a man, and completely impenetrable. You should see it, smell it, on the day of the Progress, with the best flowers out—may, thorn and plum, sweet violet and bramble, honeysuckle, dogrose, elder and hoarwithy… And the birdsong on a spring morning! It’s the most magical thing in the world, the Wall in high spring. We all walk round inspecting and repairing it, all nine villages, even the littlest children, though only the fastest runners make it all the way round and win the garland. We check the nine gates and do a warding at each one. Then, at dusk, there’s the Great Dance—that’s the wildest time of all the year.”
“I wish I could see it. It must be amazing. So are your whole family healers, then?”
“No, of course not. My parents are book-makers, they live in Fireblane, where everyone works in wood. Chairs and cabinets and wheelbarrows. And books. Paper is like wood too, of course. But Ama came from Soar, where they mostly work with clay—pots and tiles and plasters. And Apa was from Cramurthy, where they make cloth. This jacket was made in Cramurthy by my apapa. It’s llama wool. Isn’t it lovely?”
“That’s the rule: you can’t marry, or prentice, or settle in your own village. Amama Lao says it’s to keep everyone mixing together, stop things getting stagnant. People stay in one place too long, they start to rot. So we all keep going round. Not everyone becomes a prentice, of course. Plenty of folk are happy just to do a bit of everything: tending the orchards and woods and gardens, mending the ways, keeping the houses, guarding the nine gates, making home-made stuff, like my trousers—apa made them, they’re just nettle, but so comfortable! But everyone still has to move. It’s the custom for the women to go sunwise and men against the sun—one, two, or even three villages, if they’re bold—when it’s time to look for a partner. Of course that’s just habit; and people can marry boyboy or girlgirl if they want to, or not at all; but the rule is, you have to move.”
“So who makes the rules?”
“Why, the Amamas, of course. Who did you think?”
“And doesn’t anybody complain?”
“Amama Lao said there was a group of people, three or four apas back, who tried to make a tenth village, right in the Heart, where we have the Great Dance. They said it would make everything quicker and easier, so everything could go through a central hub, like a wheel. But the Amamas put a stop to that quickly enough. They pulled it all down and sent the people back to their villages, and made a new law that nothing could ever be built at the Heart.”
“So the rules haven’t always been the same?”
“I guess not. It wasn’t that long ago that the Wall of Flowers was planted. Maybe four or five apas back, when things were still nearly as bad as the Crisis Years, with many, many people dying from plague, or hunger, or fire, or flood, or fighting. The first Amamas, they planted it. It wasn’t just to stop wars and bad people from coming in, Amama Lao says: it was to fill them with the scent of hope. And she said that if bad people outside really wanted to, they could break it down and kill us. But it’s not worth their while. We’re more use alive than dead. We make good things that everyone wants; and we send out our prentices to help people Outside, and teach them, and that way people like us, so we stay alive. I think it must be so sad to live Outside. Some people keep going Outside even after they’ve brought their Finding home, and they say there are wonderful places there, maybe even as wonderful as the Wall; but I know I’d never want to do that. I’d miss the Progress and the Great Dance and the smell of the Wall, and—oh, just everything. Like Amama Lao said to me the other day, ‘Liri,’ she said, ‘you’re—’ Suddenly she gasped and put her hand over her mouth.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Oh no! She told me, she did. She said, ‘Be careful, when you do the Calling. Don’t get talking too much. You never know’—what did she say—‘you never know what a name can do. Your name has the power to break the branch you stand on.’ And now I’ve done it. She’ll be furious, and—as for you—I haven’t a clue what it means for you. But it’s fading now. It’s going. The mist is rising.”
As she spoke those words, a mist did rise from the ground and covered the trees, the sun, and her; for a minute I was blind, and when it cleared again, there was nobody there; the forest floor had swallowed her up again. As I sat there, hot tears began to roll down my face, and I felt a great and terrible grief for Liri, my seventh alala. I felt like the rest of my life would be spent in the slowfast sticky time of the Crisis Years, caught like a fly in the technojelly, aching for the scent of hope, the Wall of Flowers.