Empire of Dirt: Chapter II

Image: Chad Rossouw The Mountains (2014) Oil on Paper


The heavy blankets of his bed were stiflingly hot but even so he shivered from the freezing tensions of his illness. He lay there, shaking and sweating, at times barely conscious of anything other than the pains that seemed to rip and tear their way through his body.  His parents watched on as he convulsed. Under the laws of The Empire they could not administer medicines to an illness that was self-inflicted. For those lacking in restraint, staying alive was of no profit either to that person or to anyone in The Empire, such people must be left untreated nor should a doctor’s skills be used in such a case.  The Doctor had come, drawing blood and testing its antibodies. His diagnosis was that the illness was chronic hepatitis – the results of eating infected shell fish.  There were, The Doctor reported, also several secondary infections both of the body and skin.

Under such conditions only water and bread could be given to the patient.  ‘Ou mayest swop da pasient wif waser,’ The Doctor said and pointed to salt on the table. ‘Bu ney labor mus bee taken af by wiff nore husban. Ent ney mas tyme spend wif patient dan ist nesesitate. Ney extro thyme spent wif im. Fa Mikhale’s hering tis hoil cin be oosed, f’dat ist da sickens af natur.’  Michael’s mother nodded to show that she understood that she should swab him, that she should add some salt to the water to disinfect the abrasions and that The Doctor was giving him medication for his ears.  Just what, however, this medication was really for she did not know, nor did she ask.  The Doctor took her hand and nodded in assurance.  There could be no doubt that The Hearing was turned on in the chalet and that The Leader Alrak would be monitoring what was being said and done in this small house high in the mountains.  Any sign or word that revealed that they were medically helping Michael would mean a semester at The School on Robbers Island.

And so Michael lay ill. When he was awake he was conscious that any spoken word would trigger The Hearing.  He knew that any call even for water would be monitored. In this state of fear even the groans he made seemed to resound off the rough whitewashed stone walls of his small room. He had, he was aware, been sent to his parents’ chalet to die.  If he survived The Empire would accept him back, but dying was what they had anticipated for him.  Just why they would do this he still could not quite understand.  Alrak and his Paladins would surely know that his Tablet had not been used for several months. Just how The Empire had, until now, not linked him to the bombing he did not know. Michael knew that Oliver would talk eventually. It was accepted by The Group that all those amongst them who were captured would speak eventually. They were of course ordered to keep silent for two days before beginning their confession, but even this was asking a lot. There was no death penalty in The Empire but torture to extract information from Dissenters was applied with impunity.

But with all of these ideas swirling and intersecting in his head, one overriding thought kept returning: his mother had spoken words in New English.  These were sounds that had been banned at the very founding of The Empire in Kaapsdawn. They were words and sounds punishable by multiple semesters at The School. Each time he opened his eyes after sleep, and realized where he was, the words she had whispered haunted him: ‘Don’t speak.’

They were sounds that came to him with such audible reality that he wanted to cry out each time they entered his head. And it took a force of will to hold back a scream of anxiety as the peculiar cadence of those words came to him in his thoughts.  Plunging is head deep into his bedclothes, trembling in the hot stale air, tears running down his scarred cheeks, he would breathe inaudibly into his sprung mattress: ‘Don’t speak, quiet mother.’

When his mother came into the room, he would look at her, searching the contours and structures of her face for any cipher that she might offer him to confirm that she was A Dissenter. But she showed none.  Instead, as The Doctor had allowed, she came to place wet towels on his body and forehead when the fever was at the point of breaking him, when the burning, deep inside of him, seemed to want to crack his body like a kiln too hot for the clay. At these times he would grab out for her hands, as the freezing cloths delivered to his skin what felt like burning arrows, like the arrows that pierced St Sebastian.

But while they clutched hands they would say nothing. The only movement, the only sign that there was any connection between these two people, was when he thought he could take the ravages of the illness no longer, when he believed he could vomit or expunge nothing more from his body, it was then that he felt the soft, almost imperceptible, pulsing of his mother’s middle finger and thumb on his hand. Four small pressures that showed that there was something between these two people. At times he doubted it was even there. At times he thought it might simply be the pulse in his hand. But no, he had felt it, and he had counted out the rhythm. Bim bim bimbim. Bim bim bimbim. We will be free, we will be free. This message he knew from those in the mountains.

Dressed on most days in her standard green merino polo neck and ski pants, she swabbed his body down before leaving for work. The salty moisture dried almost instantly on his scorching skin. The only words she offered were: ‘M’angkry wif ou. We wunt to ave u beater, bit if ou diest it be ou own falt, bee it on ou own velskin.’ She would say this staring at him with what looked like anger. He had been told a throughout his childhood that he could not be a swimmer. That he was born in the mountains. That he, like the cobbler, was adapted to his specialized job.  He was born as a Guardian in order to teach The Leader to ski and climb, not how to swim.  ‘Mi, ou ist a skyer and klimer, ney swimmer is ou.’   His mother had said to him a thousand times. And no doubt The Empire had heard it a thousand times through The Hearing.  This was perhaps the consistency that had saved him.  Perhaps The Empire truly believe that he had gone and lived at the sea for several months because of his love for swimming.  This was at least the story that he knew he must cling to.

His father too came into the room at times during the night, placing the cold icy cloths on him. But mostly it was his mother that he remembered. And mostly it was the words, ‘Don’t speak,’ that were in his thoughts.  But, however strong the urge was to communicate and no matter how the illness tore at the tender loose threads of his sanity, wrenching him into a diminished world where his will to keep from The Empire his thoughts and feelings was tested, he remained aware that any attempt at communication, while they were at home in the chalet, would mean The Camps. Even during his sleep his thoughts were focused on holding his mouth closed and keeping his tongue pressed against the top of his palate. He sometimes woke almost choking himself with his tongue as he pressed it far into the back of his throat.

For most of the time past in the dark during his illness there was only a fan heater in the room that he could look at.  He stared for long periods at its flickering light, an affect made to look like fire. The only sound he heard was that of the snow slapping against the window panes and the dull thuds above as it landed on the slate roof above him. He could see during the day the shadows of the snow swirls outside playing out on the white empty walls of his room. He watched their movement for days, as the replayed out the same patterns, like Chinese Shadows. And, as these acts of natural theatre began to bring him a sense of happiness, he knew then that he was growing stronger and that one day, soon, he would leave his room and enter into the sunlight of the mountains again.

Only one sign of the illness still remained. It was a dream. A dream that had been with him since his return.  He was in a village in a dry and arid flat land, a land without a horizon, a land that was unending, a land from which there was no escape. Here his figure cast a shadow that stretched interminably across the desert’s flatness.  He had woken regularly from this dream, only to close his eyes and return to it. In the continuing nightmare he was unable to escape because he was fixed in a vertical to the flat horizontal of the sands. Each time he began to run, fleeing across the desert, forcing his body through the resisting and burning heat, a bakkie would give chase. Then a group of large men carrying golf bags would encircle him. They would beat him and punch him as he scrambled along the burning sand.  Then the one, the largest of them all would bend down like a vampire and begin to tear at him with his teeth. And as the man ripped at his flesh Michael would look about him and discovered that he was in a room that was filled with bodies with gaping and bleeding wounds along their stomachs. At that moment he would begin to hear a sound so loud it seemed like the thundering of a waterfall. Then the floor of the room would begin to fill with blood. When he finally awoke he would be drenched in sweat with the feeling of the bites still smarting on his skin. Then he would look out at the snow falling outside and long to be free of the desert.

One night he had woken up to his father’s voice: ‘Mi, ou dremest?’

‘Yis fater. Cin ou stop thes min from beetin and teetin mee with he teef? Mi bodice ist panefol saw’.

‘Hiv sum waser.’

Michael drank and fell asleep again only to return to his village in the arid unending land.

On waking in the day he would always have the constant fear that he would perhaps speak New English words while in this terror. But one reassurance he furnished himself with was that it was not his mother tongue and he had, only recently, learnt its subtleties while he was up in the mountains with the others.

Once a day The Paladins would come to the chalet. They would enter his room with their bicorns stuffed under their arms and would ask him how he was feeling. After some weeks he could lift himself up onto his elbows. ‘Mooch goeder,’ he would reply to each of them as they stood there with their penetrating stares. His hearing, his mother had told them, was returning with the help of the oil the doctor had given him. ‘Mooch goeder. Gracsious t’ou,’ he would say and then lie back down again to rest.  The Paladin’s would then check under the bed and search the cupboards for signs of nutritional supplements.

Each time they entered his small room at the back of the chalet he feared that they had come to take him to The Camps. But they never did. At least one of them seemed to be staring at him, unblinkingly, every minute that they were in his room. Even as he was resting with his eyes closed he could feel their stare burrowing into him, searching for any outward sign of dissent. After a while they would leave his room but they would not leave the house immediately. He could hear them sitting in the kitchen for some while afterwards, his mother making them a hot drink of roasted chicory coffee.  There were no words spoken between them, there was only the movement of chairs on the terracotta tiles and the clinking of the spoons on the tin cups as they stirred.

When he was strong enough to get out of bed and to open the door for them, when they came during the day, he would make them coffee and they would sit in the kitchen together in silence.  He would sit looking out the small kitchen window while The Paladins monitored him.

Perhaps the only change Michael had ever seen around the chalet in his lifetime had recently occurred.  There were now large banners of The Leader of The Empire hanging off polls outside their kitchen.  It was these he and The Paladins would look at while they sat together.  The one image that hung in the middle was The Leader of the mountains.  She was a young woman, a woman Michael knew well, The Leader called Lydia. ‘Wez herd ou ist ayded The Leder Lydia t’sky.’ The Paladins said once while sitting waiting for their coffee to cool.

‘Ey, trufe.’ Michael replied.

‘Che ist most butifal cleva,’ said the one. And Michael was conscious that both men were no longer looking at the banner anymore but were scanning his face with their eyes.

‘Ey,’ he replied self-consciously.

He looked out at the banners of those of The Leader next to Lydia’s.  They had been manipulated to look like paintings and heavier, almost black, shadow was rendered under their chins, above their paisley cravats. Some smoked electric pipes while others simply smiled looking out over the photographer’s lens into an imagined distance.  How strange it was, he thought to himself, that these images, so familiar within The Empire, could reveal so little of what was in these people’s hearts. And just what was in their hearts could reflect so little of the ideals represented by the gold caste bracelets they wore on their wrists. His eyes returned to the image of Lydia.  Yes, she was certainly ‘most beautiful clever’, as The Paladin had said.

To be continued…Chapter 3 (Part 1)

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