Twenty-Four: The City of Mounds

The door that covered the entrance to the dugout creaked cautiously open. Its misshapen wooden boards scraped the dirt floor as a sneaky shaft of daylight slipped past. From the narrow earthen passageway beyond, the light pushed eagerly through the widening doorway, growing bit by bit.

Instinctively, Laura and Ma both looked to Mary. They studied her face, trying to judge her reaction to the daylight seeping in, creeping its way up the eight walls of log and mud that formed their little house under the ground.

The house belonged to a great uncle of Janice and Oprah Khan. Or perhaps he was a second cousin. No one seemed sure exactly. In any case, the man had recently left on convoy, upriver to Wolf Point in the Northlands. He would be grateful for someone to look after the place while he was away, the Khans had assured Pa.

Like most of the houses in Lildaka, it was hidden beneath the earth, burrowed into the gentle bluffs that rose and fell above the Suri River floodplain. All that dirt hugging tight around its walls and packed atop its roof kept the house warm in winter and cool in summer, Laura knew. And they weren’t like to topple over in the harsh winds that were said to sometimes blow in from the Wastes.

The only problem with underground houses was they were so dark, Laura thought. Some of Lildaka’s more elaborate structures had a window cut into the mound, sometimes two or three or more. Not Mr. Khan’s little dugout.

But, of course, darkness had been just what Mary needed these past months. That morning, when the first sliver of sunlight reached her bedside, Mary winced and rolled her head to the side, but she did not cry out as she once had. Laura sighed in relief.

Mary no longer struggled or thrashed about. She recognized them now and could speak when she wasn’t feeling too tired. She had begun to spoon her own porridge, and, yesterday, she had eaten a whole biscuit with apple butter.

Laura hadn’t been allowed to see Mary during the worst of it. Those first few days after they had arrived in Lildaka, Laura had been sent to stay with the Khan cousins on their compound on the outskirts of town while Ma and Pa sought a doctor for Mary. But the parts she had seen had been dreadful enough. When Laura was permitted at Mary’s bedside at last, the person she’d seen lying there had not been her sister. Gentle Mary, the most mild mannered of little girls, had wailed angrily and bucked against her restraints.

She had been tied down to the bed, her wrists bound together with strips of cloth. It had frightened Laura to her very core. But when Pa asked her if she wanted to stay, she nodded without hesitation.

Mary’s arms and legs were free now. To Laura’s great relief, the worst of her illness seemed to be well past.

A face peeked around the corner of the dugout door. It was the doctor. Laura was disappointed. When she had heard the footsteps approaching, she had thought it might be Pa.

Pa had been gone for days. Mary’s sickness had put pause to their journey to the Wastes. Soon after arriving in Lildaka, Pa had found work in town. He spent his mornings helping the owner of the metalworks, a man named Mr. Hasan, pound out nails and brackets. He took odd jobs mending fences and digging irrigation ditches. And, whenever a river convoy arrived, Pa would join the men down at the docks to haul goods up to the marketplace. In between, he never left Mary’s side.

Even so, Pa never stopped thinking about the Wastes and talking about claiming a homestead. As the weeks went by, he grew more restless. It was already late in the planting season. If they didn’t get seeds in the ground soon, there was little chance of a harvest that would see them through their first winter.

Ma said that perhaps it was for the best, that they could settle there in Lildaka for a time and set out for the Wastes the following spring, but this idea did not seem to suit Pa at all.

“Do you expect to keep on living in this dugout?” he’d said. “You know how uncomfortable this charity makes me, Caroline. For Mary’s sake, I accepted, but I don’t want to linger under the Khans’ roof a day longer than we have to. Besides, we can’t count on the work here in town keeping steady. We can’t rely on Hasan to feed us. We need something dependable. The only thing a body can depend on is what he can grow and make and scav himself.”

Thus, as soon as it became clear that Mary would recover, Pa set out into the Wastes to scout for a suitable plot of land to stake out their claim. He promised he would be gone no more than ten days. Today was the tenth day.

“Good afternoon, Doctor Eagleshadow,” said Ma, beckoning the doctor inside. “It’s alright. Mary’s not as sensitive to the light as she has been.”

Doctor Eagleshadow smiled at them and pushed the door open a little wider. He was young for a doctor, bare-faced, with wavy black hair tied up in a neat bun atop his head. He was apprenticed to an older doctor, but Laura had never seen her. It had been Doctor Eagleshadow who had cared for Mary since they had arrived in Lildaka, coming to check on her nearly every day.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” replied the doctor. “If Mary can tolerate it, I’ll leave this open for now. Gradual exposure may do her good.”

He sat down beside Mary to examine her energies. Nodding to himself, he pulled a bundle of needles from his bag and began to insert them along the outsides of Mary’s ears. The sight of the needles pricking into the skin made Laura flinch, but they seemed to have a calming effect on Mary. Almost immediately, the tension seemed to leave her body, and her breathing became deeper and more regular. After a while, Doctor Eagleshadow began asking her questions in a soothing voice. When he asked her if she felt she could sit up, Mary nodded and said she could.

Mary sat up and scooted around to face the doctor. One leg swung off the bed and dangled above the floor.

“Let’s just see how your bandages are holding up,” said Doctor Eagleshadow.

Gently, he pushed Mary’s blanket aside. There it was. The stump where Mary’s other leg should have been. It had been cut off above the knee, above the spot where Devonte had bitten her on that terrible night all those weeks ago.

The memory of it was still raw. That was the night that Pa had set out, carrying Mary in his arms, racing ahead of the convoy, through day and night as fast as he could, to reach town before the infection spread.

Bill Keo had gone with him. Pa and Ma were grateful for that. Later, though, it occurred to Laura that the man might have had his own reasons for departing the company of the convoy. No one knew it at the time, but Devonte Aguilar would not recover from the blow he had taken from Bill Keo’s ax. Bill Keo might well have sensed that it would be best if he put some distance between himself and the Aguilars.

Mary scooted further towards the edge of the bed. As much as Ma and Pa had tried to prepare her for it, the sight of Mary’s missing leg had still come as a shock the first time Laura laid eyes upon it. The two of them had slept side by side their entire lives, spent nearly every moment of every day together. Laura knew every part of her sister as well as she knew herself. And now one of those parts was missing. It would never be back.

That morning, however, when Doctor Eagleshadow pushed aside Mary’s blanket, Laura’s sense of loss was tempered by hopefulness. The strips of cloth that wound around the blunt stub of Mary’s thigh were dry and clean. When Doctor Eagleshadow looked beneath the bandages, he said the wound was healing nicely. He told Ma to keep using the ointment he had given her and to start leaving the leg uncovered for a few hours in the evening. Finally, he stood and smiled down at Mary.

“I brought something for you,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how you’d be feeling, and I didn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves. But you’re coming along so quickly. I think it’s time.”

He went to fetch something he’d left outside the entry to the dugout and returned with what looked to be a pair of wooden shafts, joined at the top and middle by short cross-pieces and bound together at the bottom to form a skinny triangle. Doctor Eagleshadow gripped the top cross-piece and tapped soundly against the dugout’s dirt floor with the pointy tip. The object seemed sturdy.

“Have you ever seen someone use a crutch?” he asked Mary. “If you’re feeling strong enough, I can show you how it works.”

With Ma and the doctor’s help, Mary rose from the bed. She wobbled there on one leg at first, supported by Ma, but after Doctor Eagleshadow tucked the crutch beneath Mary’s arm, Ma was able to let go and step back. To Laura’s delight, Mary was standing, all on her own. Her leg continued to shake. She swayed a little, leaning against the crutch. But when Laura looked into her sister’s eyes, there was no sign of unsteadiness. What she saw there was determination and resilience.

Without warning, Mary lifted the crutch and took a stumbling step. Ma and Doctor Eagleshadow both lunged forward to catch her, but Mary regained her balance before they reached her. The doctor laughed.

“Whoa now,” he told her. “Take it slow. Gothim wasn’t built in a day after all.”

He told Ma to call on him if Mary’s condition worsened but said he reckoned that the Ague was now well and truly beaten back. Now it was up to Mary to get strong again. He handed Ma some powder, folded up in a sheet of hemp paper, and explained how to brew it into a tea that would help rebalance Mary’s energies.

Ma thanked him and told Laura to fetch her buckskin purse, the one with the pretty buttons made of vibrant blue-green hardmold. Laura knew right where it was, hidden at the bottom of a clay jar beneath a layer of smooth round soy seeds. Ma dug out a silver piece and handed it to the doctor.

Doctor Eagleshadow bowed and wished them good fortune. Then he left them, leaving the door ajar to welcome in the daylight. Mary lay back on the bed, and Ma resumed her sewing. After a time, though, Mary spoke again.

“May I go outside, Ma? Just for a moment?”

Ma’s needle paused.

“Oh, Mary. I don’t know. Do you think you can manage?”

“I just want to see.”

Ma nodded. Laura felt a little thrill.

They helped Mary pull a loose-fitting tunic over her head and tie a patchwork skirt of lectric fabrics around her waist. Then they helped her up onto her crutch.

With Ma and Laura at her sides to steady her, Mary began to hobble experimentally around the dugout. She visited every one of its eight corners in turn.

Finally, she approached the doorway, planting her crutch into the pool of light that spilled across the dirt floor. Baby Grace chose that moment to awake, sitting up in her basket beside the bed and demanding attention. Ma turned to her, telling Laura and Mary to go ahead.

“Watch her, Laura,” she said. “And stay beside the house.”

Laura took Mary’s arm, sharing some of her sister’s weight. Together, they stepped past the wooden door, between the narrow earthen walls that flanked the entrance to the dugout and towards the bright world beyond.

Mary grunted when the sunlight fell upon her, closing her eyes and turning her face towards the entryway’s sloping dirt wall. But when Laura asked her if she wanted to go back inside, Mary shook her head.

“I’ll be alright, Laura,” she said softly. “My eyes just need a moment.”

Finally, squinting, she turned back and continued to hobble forward. The dugout walls fell away, and Laura and Mary were enveloped by blue sky and green grass. Mary stopped. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes and looked around. She breathed deep.

Lildaka’s smell was not pleasant. There were too many people. It smelled of drying fish and human waste and who-knew-what burning from a hundred stoves and hearths. But today the wind was blowing in the right direction, and here on the far edge of town the air was crisp and fresh.

Laura felt something nudge against her leg. It was Jack. The brindled pigdog tilted his head back and forth, pointing his one big round eye at Mary then Laura. He looked concerned. But when Mary smiled at him and told him what a good boy he was, Jack’s tongue fell happily out of his mouth. He spun in a circle and gave a yip.

Shuffling in place, Mary turned to look back at the dugout.

“Oh my,” she said. “Is that what I’ve been sleeping under this whole time?

Laura smiled. Apart from a slice that had been taken out to make way for its wooden door, the dugout could have been any other little hill. Grass covered its sides, decorated with streaks of red and yellow flowers that had only just blossomed. There was even a small patch of shrubs, sinking their roots right into the dugout’s roof.

“Come on,” said Laura, taking Mary’s arm and leading her up the side of the mound. She watched Mary’s expression, remembering how strange it had felt the first time she had walked across the top of the dugout, knowing that Ma and her sisters were down there right beneath her feet.

Mary struggled up the hill. Grunting, she would pivot on her crutch and leap one-legged towards uncharted ground, climbing imperceptibly higher with each effort. Gasping, she would land and fight to win her balance. In between, she would need to stop and catch her breath. Several times, she nearly fell, but Laura was always there to catch her. Together, they made it all the way to the top.

There, Mary turned, looking exhausted but happy. Laura ducked beneath her sister’s arm and helped her down to the ground. They sat there in the grass, side by side, on the little hill that was also their little house. Jack lay down beside them.

Mary was squinting less now. Laura could barely contain herself. It felt so good to have Mary back. There were so many things she had wanted to share with her these last few months.

From their seats atop the dugout, the City of Mounds stretched out before them. There were few trees in Lildaka, apart from the long straight row to the south that the townsfolk called the Windbreak, and so their view was unobstructed. It was an astonishing sight, and Laura felt another tingle of jubilation watching Mary take it in for the first time.

On its own, perhaps their dugout might be mistaken for an ordinary hill. Seeing so many buried houses all together was something different. Pa liked to compare the landscape to a toad’s back, green and brown and warty. Yet, that wasn’t quite right. The mounds were like nothing natural. Orderly and symmetrical, they bubbled from the earth in purposeful bursts, gathering more densely together as they approached the center of town.

Smoke spires rose from the mounds, escaping from chimneys hidden in their otherwise featureless slopes. A few peaks away, a group of children ran up one hillside and down the other. Further off, other figures could be seen, like ants on their anthills going about their ant business.

Laura pointed out the long mound in the distance where the smoke was thickest. It was a good deal taller than the ones around it. That was where the town’s central committee gathered, she told Mary. There lived Marius Ortega, the one they called the Wolfdog, supervisor of the Clan Ortega’s westernmost territory.

Laura’s finger leapt excitedly onward. She pointed to the swath of white on the far side of the town, out beyond the green and brown ripples of the dugouts. That was the Lildaka Market. It was so much bigger than the Laketown Market, Laura told Mary. There were so many tents you couldn’t count them all, with all manner of trade goods and people speaking in all sorts of strange accents.

And somewhere out there, across the Suri River, was the Ghost City of Oma. They couldn’t see the ruins from the dugout’s roof, Laura explained. Laura had seen them, though, when she visited the market with Pa. On the other side of the river, directly across from the docks where Pa hauled cargo, there was the most splendid dome, rising up through a thicket of trees to loom high above their canopy. It was made of iron bars woven together like lace.

“It all sounds so incredible,” said Mary. Her voice sounded tired and distant.

Laura stopped talking. She and Mary sat quietly, looking out upon the wide open outside and breathing it in. After some time, they heard Ma calling to them. Laura called back, and soon Ma was climbing up the side of the dugout with Baby Grace in her arms. They sat beside Laura and Mary and Jack. Laura squeezed Mary’s hand with one hand and squeezed Ma’s with the other. It felt good to be here, up above the dark, stifling walls of their little underground house. All together. Or almost.

No sooner had she thought this thought, something made Laura turn her head, away from the town and its market and towards the plains to the south where the Windbreak stood. Off in the distance, she saw a lone figure emerge from behind a gap in the long wall of trees and continue up the dirt path towards the town.

Laura leapt to her feet.

It was Pa.

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