The Deadlands Trilogy
Part 1: Golak, Høst & Søn, 2008
Part 2: Resurrection, Høst & Søn, 2009
Part 3: Godless, Høst & Søn, 2011
Part 1: GolakIt is a time after the Apocalypse. Jonah is a young
boy living and growing up in an isolated mountain village. He’s intelligent and
inquisitive, two traits the little society shuns as it endeavours to construct
a new order based only on the fear of God and hard physical toil. The villagers
hail from all corners of the globe, traumatised each in their own way by the
Great Collapse that has all but laid waste to the planet. The past is not an
issue to be dwelt upon, a fact that serves only to further stimulate Jonah’s
curiosity. He discovers he was a foundling child and that somewhere in his past
resides a terrible secret no one is willing to reveal. The village is
beleaguered by golaks – hideous, deformed creatures born of failed genetic
experiments. Jonah begins to understand that he may not be entirely human
himself, that he too may have assumed form in a laboratory. He tries as best he
can to adapt and fit in, to play by the rules that are so imperative to the
village and of which he consistently falls foul. His father and older brother
impress upon him the necessity of toeing the line, guiding him and defending
him whenever he fails, but it is a task that becomes increasingly difficult. In
his eagerness to gain knowledge, Jonah teaches himself to read and lays his
hands on an old notebook in which one of the founding fathers, later expelled
from the village, has detailed the time of the Collapse. He is permitted by the
elders to reconstruct a derelict pipe organ whose remains he discovers piled up
in the village foundry. For a while, music affords him peace. He takes up an
apprenticeship with the local smith and starts a home of his own with Elsa, a
frightened young girl selected for him by the council of elders. But when he
begins to explore and develop the
Link to The Deadlands website (in Danish)
Synopsis, part 2, Resurrection
Synopsis, part 3, Godless
Extract from part 1: Golak
familiar melodies the council has permitted him to play at prayer, and then to create new works of his own that awaken pent-up emotions of grief, fear and impotence, the elders see no other way than to order the destruction of the organ. The task of dismantling the great instrument and bringing it to the pyre is given to Jonah’s assimilated brother, and in blind desperation Jonah kills him.
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Part 2: Resurrection
In this second volume, Jonah flees distraught from
the village. The murder he has committed against his brother weighs heavily as
he strikes out into the wastelands of which until now he has only heard tell in
fragments. What lies ahead is horrific, and he proceeds in constant mortal
danger, yet before long he becomes attuned to the struggle for survival and
discovers his intelligence allows him to get by. He lands among feuding
warlords, who moreover constantly assail The Three Cities, a fortified closed
society that has managed to survive the Collapse with its technology intact. In
the society of the warlords and inside The Three Cities, various species of
golaks live and toil for food, eking out an existence performing heavy-duty
labour. Some seem almost human; others are more unequivocally beasts. The
warlord whose service Jonah has entered falls foul of treachery and suffers
severe losses in an attack launched with advanced weaponry by The Three Cities.
Jonah is captured, but escapes being enslaved like the other prisoners when a
gene test declares him to be clean. This, finally, is proof that he is human.
He is put to work at one of the so-called intermediate levels, yet soon proves
to be such an intellectual capacity that he quickly advances to performing highly
specialised research work in the city’s science park. Jonah is enraptured by
this opportunity of gaining new insights and demonstrating his own knowledge,
and to begin with life in The Three Cities seems almost ambrosial. Gradually,
however, he begins to realise that this society, too, has its winners and
losers, and that all-out control of the individual is a high price to pay for a
life. He becomes attached to his teacher, Raquel, but finds her ideas about
human relationships to be governed rationally rather than emotionally. As part
of his final assessment before being accepted as a qualified genetic scientist
he is required to monitor a gifted child to whom he becomes emotionally
attached. The boy, whose name is Tao, exhibits many of the same qualities as
and the realisation awakens a whole new sense of responsibility in Jonah. Eventually, he discovers the boy is a clone of The Three Cities’ charismatic leader, Nathan Esposito, whose life, like everyone else’s in this privileged society, has already spanned several generations thanks to the advances of biogenetic science. Resurrection closes as it dawns on Jonah that Nathan is his biological father.
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Part 3: Godless
Jonah finds himself with a glorious career ahead of
him. Moreover, he has established close contact with his newfound father,
though Nathan refuses to openly acknowledge their relationship in a society in
which the family has officially been abolished and replaced by strictly
scientific reproduction. Yet his encounter with Jonah has given Nathan new hope
that the world outside the cities may be repopulated, and he has selected Jonah
to father a strong and vigorous new race of humans. Nathan, however, is not the
only one with a child to keep secret: Jonah’s former teacher, Raquel, too, has
her own secret to hide. In a grotesque power struggle, Raquel, in an attempt to
protect her child, orders that Tao, the difficult little boy Jonah looks upon
as his brother, be dismantled. Nathan accepts the dismantling of his own clone
on the premise that any individual who causes inconvenience to the society thereby
forfeits the right to life. Horrified by his father’s cynicism, Jonah flees the
city through its wide-reaching underground refuse disposal system where golaks
toil recycling all reusable materials.
With a scavenging dog for company, Jonah
strikes out for the village of his childhood, but learns that it is now in
ruins. At the same time, it becomes clear to him that Nathan’s men are out
looking for him and that he therefore presents a danger to anyone whose help he
seeks. He joins a trading convoy, holding his own on account of his technical
skills. Along the way he encounters Kath, who at journey’s end is to be sold
for organ transplants. He buys her free, but soon becomes aware that she can
never replace Tao, whom he so desperately misses.
By the time the convoy reaches the market
settlement alongside a river, Jonah wants only to die, yet is thwarted even in
such simple despair. Once again, music becomes his solace. In the night he
listens to the music played by the scrap merchants who each year come sailing
in from the Deadlands, and he watches them, mesmerised, as they dance. A young
woman, Lilli, enthrals him, yet he is all too aware that outsiders can never be
admitted to her society.
Jonah takes on work as a helper at a
primitive clinic that performs organ transplants, more often than not resulting
in the demise of the donor. The clinic’s physician wants to teach him to
perform the surgery so that he might give her a new heart. In return she will
allow him to clone Tao on the basis of a lock of the boy’s hair he has kept as
a treasured memento. Jonah meets secretly with Lilli, only for her to shy away
from his pessimism and incessant preoccupation with death and destruction.
Lilli is in love with life, no matter how fraught with danger it may be, and
she wishes only to live it to the full.
The time comes for the scrap merchants to return to the Deadlands. Jonah is convinced he will never see Lilli again, but as he prepares to perform the heart transplant on his employer, the female doctor, he discovers that the donor lying kidnapped and anaesthetised on the operating table is Lilli.
His choice is an easy one: he flees with Lilli still unconscious to the last remaining barge where Lilli’s father Stan is waiting. Jonah must help sail the boat down the raging river, and so it is he is led into the Deadlands, which turn out to be not only dangerous, but breathtakingly beautiful. Jonah learns that Stan once worked closely with some of the founding fathers of the village in which he grew up and is thereby able to piece together a more complete picture of his own background. By the time they reach the scrap merchants’ settlement, however, Jonah has become disillusioned. Disconsolate, he wishes only to journey on down the river alone. But an important new insight makes him realise that the will to live is forever stronger than the fear of lurking death in the desolate world around him. The little society has need of his knowledge and skills. Lilli loves him, and he is the father of the child she is now expecting.
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As the mother of a young man who has been very preoccupied with death metal music for several years, I have, along with many other parents, struggled with an aversion and an anxiety towards this dark universe and its pictorial manifestation in the form of CD covers, internet sites, bandtags, patches and T-shirts showing death, cruelty and mutilation. The music is violent and aggressive and the human voice is reduced to a grotesque, animalistic growling.
Fortunately my son has had enough trust in me to allow me into this universe and explain to me what the fascination was and where its power lay. This has been an incredibly exciting journey for me. I've realised that the heavy music and the rough lyrics conceal and release more or less the same sort of fear of the future that I recognise from my own youth, even though it’s in a different wrapping – there’s a long way from Bob Dylan to Black Dahlia Murder.
The first time I admitted this to myself, I became more open to some of the music, but at the same time, I noticed my anxiety stirring again. Maybe it had been forgotten and hidden away since I was young, but it didn’t need much oxygen in the form of lyrics and furious music before it was swaying in front of me like a cobra ready to strike. One had only to open a newspaper or turn on the TV, and there it was: the poles are melting; the rain forest is being chopped down; the deserts are spreading; billions and billions are spent trying to re-enact Big Bang, while billions of others are starving; war, famine and misery are everywhere and science is totally out of control. My oh my, there’s certainly enough there to induce black thoughts.
And there is only one way for me to go when I get like that: I have to dive into it and write my way through it.
I got the chance to work for a fortnight in a house that lay on a mountainside in the Peloponnese. There was a view from the balcony over swaying olive groves and the azure Mediterranean and while I was writing, I had the music of System Of A Down, Black Dahlia Murder, Slipknot, Nile, Finntroll etc. in my ears. It turned into a chilling, scary inner journey into anxiety about the future while I sat in the middle of this starting point for our culture.
The result was “Golak”, the first volume in the trilogy, The Deadlands.
The trilogy about The Deadlands began its life as a book for young adults, but has also been a great success with a more mature readership.
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Extract from part 1: Golak
The clash of metal against metal resounded in the air. Now and again, echoes collided harmoniously. Mostly, a jarring dissonance grated against the ear.
Jonah sighed with annoyance and pushed his plate away.
“Does Ben really have to hammer away at those pipes all day?” he muttered to himself.
“It’s only to help us all remember the time,” his mother answered patiently. Looking up, he caught the exchange of a meaningful glance between his parents.
He got up. “Well, he’s not giving us any chance to forget it the way he’s doing his job. What a racket.” Jonah sounded more negative than he’d intended, and as usual his elder brother, Mik, stepped in to make light.
“Don’t get so worked up, Jonah. You don’t have to pray every time Ben sounds off. It’s up to you.” Mik put his fork down neatly next to his bowl, which had been scraped so clean it hardly needed washing.
His mother had got to her feet. She put a hand on his arm. It felt as light as a butterfly settling. “Ben wants you to be his helper,” she said gently. “You know that. He says you’ve an ear for music.” Jonah turned to face her. She was so slight. The years of strife and being on the run were clearly visible in the lines of her face. But she wasn’t all frailty. There was a light that shone in her too, a light that never failed to soften his heart.
“Leave him be, Lea. No sense in putting ideas in his head,” his father muttered, scraping the last of his porridge from his plate.
His mother raised her eyebrows ever so slightly and Jonah smiled at her. “I’m sure I can tune those pipes better than Ben at any rate.”
His sister, Maddie, had finished eating too and leaned back wearily on the rickety bench. “I’m praying twice a day, morning and night, and that’s it. How are you supposed to get things done if you’re having to get down on your knees all the time and thank the Almighty?” She stretched and pulled the band from her straight hair. A single shaft of sunlight dissected the clouded sky, found its way through the open shutter and briefly illuminated her face. The bright light made the line of freckles across her nose more noticeable against the paleness of her skin. Sated, she ran her fingers through her lustrous chestnut hair, lifting the thick mane and shaking it from side to side before gathering it again in a tight ponytail and getting to her feet. The thought had never occurred to Jonah before that she looked like the tough little ponies she had been entrusted with looking after. Although they wouldn’t be ridden, they were strong and resilient, sure on their feet in the steep, mountainous terrain. They were a blessing when there were chestnuts to be gathered, rocks to be moved and timber collected to rebuild the ruins of the houses in the village.
“What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a golak.” Maddie gave Jonah a shove as she went by, dragging him from his thoughts. He shoved back at her teasingly and said: “That’s what I thought, only then I realized it was you. Easy mistake.”
Maddie swung round and put her hands against her hips. “Mum! Say something to him, will you. He’s calling me a monster.” She tried to look offended, but there was laughter in her voice. Mother shook her head slightly and turned back to the table to clear away the plates. The pot with its mealy contents of chestnut porridge was almost empty. She scraped the leftovers into the pig bucket.
Not much goes to waste here, Jonah thought to himself as he went out into the grey, windy afternoon. The sun had gone again, behind the thick layer of cloud. Ben was still hammering away at the rusty pipes that had been hung in a knocked-up wooden frame next to the prayer house. As with the rest of the buildings, only the solid granite walls remained of the original house. The window spaces were boarded up and the roof patched with rusty sheets of corrugated tin.
Most of the villagers were now on their way from their ramshackle homes, making their way up the steep alleys and stairs to afternoon prayer in the high-lying prayer house. Jonah put his hoe over his shoulder and called Vrads to heel. No one ventured beyond the walls without a dog. Though it had been a while since anyone had been attacked, there was no knowing when it would happen next. Jonah shuddered. He remembered the last time. They’d been bringing in the barley when a ragged flock had attacked. Luckily, the whole village had been out there helping with the harvest and they’d had no difficulty gaining the upper hand. Jonah hadn’t taken part in the fight. Together with the women and other children he’d been sent down into the crypt underneath the prayer house, but from what he heard the attackers had all been killed. Afterwards, the villagers had cleared away the bodies. All had deep, weeping wounds, some had parts of them missing. Those who helped get rid of them had been told to put on gloves and to cover their faces with cloth in case they were infected.
When Jonah had come up from the crypt, his father had called him over and said that he was as good as grown now and could take on his share of the work dragging the emaciated and disfigured bodies to the gorge where they were cast down. The black, scavenging birds had enjoyed good pickings.
For a long time after, he’d had dreams about the distorted faces of the attackers and in some of his dreams they turned into golaks with features unlike anything human. One night, Maddie woke him because he was yelling out. Confounded by sleep, he recounted to her what had happened. She had lain down beside him on the narrow bed and rocked him gently, all the while humming her solace. He had fallen asleep, but his dreams had become no less disturbing after that night. Now he dreamed not of the dead but of Maddie, as he had seen her when they were younger and had bathed together in the river.
That was before the unclean rain had, for a time, made the river and all surface water poisonous. Fortunately, the well had not been contaminated, their father said, having fastidiously investigated the quality of its water for a long time afterwards. How he knew, Jonah had no idea, assuming merely that something like that had been his father’s work before the Great Collapse, though the past was never discussed in the village.
The path to the fields ran alongside the river. Now, in the spring months, the water level was high but later, when spring became summer, the river became a stream. Jonah paused and scanned the stony path along the bank. It snaked its way through the narrow valley and disappeared along with the river beyond the foot of the next outcrop of mountain.
The village fields were laid out progressively at different levels, separated by low supporting walls of loosely stacked stones. These fragile buttresses required continual attendance and repair, and Jonah was careful not to set foot on the edge as he leaped from one terrace to the next. He could have used the steps they had made on the other side, but this way was quicker when working the lower fields. Further down the mountain he could see several walls collapsed. In previous times, more of the mountain had been cultivated, but now the neglected fields were long since overgrown.
Wherever he looked, towering mountains obliterated his view. Only above was there open space. He tilted his head back and allowed his gaze to roam over the grey dwellings of roughly hewn granite and on beyond the broad belt of cultivated chestnut trees above the village. As yet they were still without leaf, but before the change of the moon they would be green. Higher up, thickets of thorny, evergreen scrub extended over the steep slopes. Dense, grey clouds blotted out the peaks. Since the frost had lost hold there had been much rain, but for the last few days a cold, dry wind had cracked open the earth and made it hard to work. Jonah shuddered. Would it never be warm again? “Down, Vrads!” he commanded and showed the dog where to lie before swinging the hoe from his shoulder. He stood for a moment, considering the narrow field that was to be made ready for the seed potatoes. Once he’d decided where to start he let loose his thoughts. He’d discovered it was the only way to endure such monotonous work, though his father disapproved. For him, the opposite was true: the more you gathered yourself around the task at hand, the better. Jonah realized his father’s objection had to do with the time before the Collapse, but as with everything else about the past it was impossible to get any clear information. Nonetheless, he had gradually gained the impression that much had been easier then, which apparently had been a bad thing. Nothing was easy now, he thought to himself, remembering their prayers to the Almighty by which they gave thanks for the food they produced by their sweat and toil. He gave a sigh, raised the hoe over his head and released it down into the clods of soil. He drew it back and the earth was turned.
He wouldn’t have minded sweating rather less or eating something other than dry and shrivelled root crops, he thought to himself. But still it was better to live in the mountains, where life was all about hard work, than in the lowlands. There it was impossible to live in peace because of flocks of hungry vagrants and the armed gangs that were sent out from the heavily fortified cities to gather food. It was said they hardly ever paid for what they took. And in the great wastelands that were left after the Collapse, things were even worse. He had once heard his father refer to these areas as the Deadlands. The soil and the water were poisonous, and only such sinister creatures as the golaks could survive there.
He went quietly and steadily on with his work. When he got to the end of the field, he turned round and hacked his way through the next section until eventually he arrived back where he had started. At the other end of the plot he saw the silhouette of Mik, who had set to work there. He must have finished with afternoon prayers now, Jonah thought to himself, allowing his hoe to rest for a moment. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Although there was a chill in the spring air, his back was already soaked.
Mik worked quickly, bringing his hoe down rhythmically into the soil and jerking it back towards him. When they had been younger, Jonah had often been envious of his elder brother. Mik had had things easy, with his brown eyes and his shiny curls. When he smiled, one could only smile back.
Now Mik was a strapping young man, though his legs were perhaps rather on the short side. He was stronger than most, and so respected that Jonah had more than once heard it said that he was an obvious candidate for the council of elders as soon as he had started a family and a place became available.
Jonah lifted his hoe again and smiled wryly to himself. It was unlikely anyone would ever offer him a seat among the leaders of the village. He knew his parents were worried about him. He spent too much time thinking about himself, they said. When he asked them what they meant, he could never get a straight answer. Instead, his father began waffling about the importance of distinguishing between cold, calculating thought and the tender warmth of the heart. Jonah wrenched back his hoe. The council of elders did not care for the sharpness of his tongue. He knew that, and he knew why: they never uttered a word themselves without mulling things over first. To their minds, it was essential to live as simply as possible, to praise the Almighty and not to waste precious thought on things that could not be changed.
They always said there was room for everyone in the village, and yet he clearly sensed their disapproval on occasions when he happened to say something they found inappropriate. Other villagers often found his cutting remarks hurtful, but then again they were an odd bunch, he would tell himself in his own defence. Most of the inhabitants of the village had come on foot from distant regions and settled here, and he had no idea how they had managed to find their way to this isolated mountain village.
His father said that many had spent years on the outside having fled the carnage of the Collapse, and for that reason they were deserving of respect, not mockery. Still, it was hard not to laugh at some of them. Take old Ben, for example, always hammering away at his iron pipes, trying to find a tune. It was abysmal, but no one ever said anything to his face.
Jonah snorted in annoyance. No way was he going to have anything to do with that weird old man, who to make things worse had only one leg and had to limp around on a crutch. He had helped him once in sheer desperation at his awful racket. First, he had altered the length of some of the pipes so as to make them more in tune with each other, and then he had swapped them around. All Ben had to do was strike them in order and the sound he produced would be tolerable. But even that proved beyond him. “Thank you, my young friend. You’re always welcome to help me out,” he had said, and had placed his repulsive, gnarled hand on Jonah’s arm. Even the thought of the old man’s hard, twisted nails against his skin made Jonah shudder, and he had stayed well away from Ben ever since. “You’re daydreaming, Jonah,” said Mik when they met in the middle of the field.
Jonah straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow again with the back of his hand. Mik was hardly perspiring. It was as though he were always in a good mood, always at ease. Was Jonah still envious? Not really, he thought to himself, though he still couldn’t help comparing himself to his brother. He was taller and more slightly built than Mik. His eyes were as blue as water, and in the summer months his hair was bleached white. Even his skin was different from Mik’s, which tanned deeply. Jonah never tanned, only reddened, no matter how much he stayed in the sun. He always had to remember to keep his shirt on, though he often found it too hot under the baking sun. The consequences were immediate if he took it off. He remembered once his mother had to sit with him all night, making sure he had a cool, damp cloth on his sunburned shoulders the whole time. He had pretended to sleep so as not to worry her, but his sunburn had been so serious that even though it was like he was cooking inside he had felt so cold he had hardly been able to stop his teeth from chattering.
“All that thinking’s doing you no good,” said Mik. “Before you know it you’ll be carried away.” “You sound like you’re already on the council of elders.” Jonah’s tone was sharp. “I suppose you want a seat before you’re twenty. And what about getting married? I hear the council’s got an old widow lined up who could do with a young lad between the sheets.”
Mik lowered his gaze and took a deep breath. “You shouldn’t talk like that, Jonah. Sing-Lan is devastated at losing Karl Weber. Even though it’s three years ago now, she still mourns.”
“But you’re not sorry the cold and the mountains took Karl away, are you? Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been fetching water for her and helping with the goats.” Jonah sensed his brother’s anger. As always, it only made him want to carry on baiting him. “She is pretty, though. Just a shame she’s more than twice your age. On the other hand, there aren’t many young girls round here, and those there are are reserved for the horny old lechers. I wonder which one Pjotr Swakowski’s going to go for? It must be his turn for a bride next, and he’s not going to choose any of the old women his own age, is he?”
“Shut up, Jonah. Otherwise I’ll tell Dad what you’ve been saying. Pjotr’s one of the most esteemed men in the village. Without him, none of us would be here today. Even though he suffered enormous loss, he was still able to make this haven for all those who lost everything.”
Jonah clenched his teeth. Ever since he was small he had felt uneasy in the company of the village pastor and leader, but when he had ventured to mention it to his mother once she had given him a stern look and made him promise never to talk like that again.
Mik seemed not to notice Jonah’s reaction but went on talking about the elderly man, whom he obviously admired greatly: “Pjotr needs a wife to help him carry out his share of the work on the land. He’s an old man now. We could all see how he struggled to put his grief behind him when Olga died. He deserves something to make him happy, and it’s important for all of us that Pjotr is well. Who else is there to lead us and plead to the Almighty on our behalf? And what about the books in the crypt? Imagine if Pjotr wasn’t there to look after them and they fell into the wrong hands!”
Jonah snorted. “The only hands they’re going to fall into are Pjotr’s own. When was the last time anyone was allowed to learn to read, apart from the elders who learned when they were children? How come they won’t let us learn? Why does it have to be only for them? What knowledge are they keeping from us?”
Jonah had got going now. Being kept from learning to read was one of the things that annoyed him the most. He knew he would never be selected, for in the eyes of the elders he was unreliable and too headstrong by half.
He narrowed his eyes and fixed his gaze on his brother, who self-consciously nudged at the soil with the tip of his boot. “You’ve been promised you can learn to read, haven’t you?” It was more a statement than a question. “If you marry Sing-Lan, Pjotr’s going to take you with him into the crypt, isn’t he? Am I right?”
Mik glanced up at him. This time his dark eyes were pleading. “You’re not to tell anyone. It hasn’t been confirmed by the council yet.” Mik reached out to him. “Can’t you be happy for me, Jonah?”
Jonah recoiled. “Happy? Of course, I’m ecstatic! If anyone deserves to be the first of our generation to learn to read, it’s you. The way you always trust everything the elders say and would never dream of questioning anything at all.”
“Now you’re being unfair,” Mik muttered between his teeth. He raised his hoe as if to end the conversation and get on with his work, but Jonah used the shaft of his own to block the downward movement of Mik’s as he made to break the soil.
“What do you mean?” he hissed. “Don’t you care for the truth? You live like there’s neither past nor future. How can you not wonder why we’re living here in this wilderness? How come we toil day in and day out and still end up starving more than once every year? Don’t you ever wonder what the world’s like beyond these damn mountains? Don’t you ever think about anything?”
Mik pressed Jonah’s hoe towards the ground, but Jonah resisted with all his might. This time his elder brother wasn’t going to win. Jonah wasn’t going to give in.
For a while they stood there, unrelenting, their cheeks reddening under this trial of strength. With a suppressed grunt, Mik eventually managed to force Jonah’s hoe to the ground. It snapped immediately with a loud crack.
Vrads leaped to his feet and barked, but Jonah ordered the dog down before turning to Mik and letting out a quiet whistle. “Hakim’s not going to be pleased about that,” he said. “You know how hard it is to get hold of wood for the shafts.” He imitated Hakim’s fractured accent.
Mik glared at him angrily. Jonah went on regardless: “What’s up? Are you riled, brother? You shouldn’t be, you just won again. Isn’t that the way you want it? You’re the big, strong brother who knows it all, and I’m the stupid little kid with a thorn in his side whose backside you’re always having to save. But this time you’re going to take the blame when Dad blows his top. You broke it, not me. Or haven’t you got the guts to tell him? Maybe you’ll tell him a lie? Then again, you haven’t got the imagination. But let me help you, I’m really good at that sort of thing. You know that. You can say five golaks came charging out of the woods, knocked us flying and broke my hoe. Of course, you could always say it was me who did it, though I’m sure you wouldn’t stoop that low.” Jonah smiled, with gritted teeth. “Because then you’d have to think up a story about how it happened, and I wouldn’t be helping you there.”
“Words, words, words! That’s the only thing you’re good for!” Mik snorted. Jonah noted that his brother was shaking with pent-up aggression. “You think you’re so clever just because you’ve always got a snide remark to make and no one else can match you. Mum and Dad have got good reason to worry about how you’re going to get on in life. To be quite honest, I think they regret taking you in. All you ever give them is grief!” His face turned the colour of ash. “I’m sorry, Jonah, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just angry, that’s all. I didn’t mean it. Just forget I ever said it!”
Jonah remained silent. He stood for a moment, paralysed by what his brother had just said. In just a few seconds he had a new perspective in which to consider himself. Was he not the child of his parents? Had he been taken in? Many children had been orphaned by the Collapse, and those who arrived in the village alone were put up in the children’s house. Some remained there until they set up their own homes, others were taken in by families who felt able to cope with more children than just their own. It was not unusual, but normally everyone knew. If he was a foundling, why did it have to be a secret? Was that why he had always felt like a stranger? And now he could see he did not belong at all.
One stride and he was upon Mik, grabbing his collar with both hands. He pulled him up onto his toes until they were face to face.
“No, I’m not going to forget what you said. In fact, I’m going to ask you to tell me more. Details, please!” He tightened his grip until he heard Mik gasping for breath. Vrads growled but stayed put. “Let go, you’re strangling me,” Mik protested. Jonah loosened his grip slightly and returned his brother to the ground. At once, Mik kneed him hard in the groin. Jonah let go with a yelp and fell. Mik grabbed his hoe and held it up against Jonah’s face. “Just calm down, brother,” he hissed, still catching his breath. “Or else you’re really for it.”
Jonah said nothing. He lay there, curled into a ball and groaning. It took him a while to recover sufficiently to turn and fix his gaze on Mik, who had now retreated slightly, though he still had the hoe in his hand. Vrads had got to his feet and was sniffing him. The dog licked his face, but Jonah shoved it aside and pulled himself up onto his elbows. The pain exploded between his legs and he felt anger welling up inside him again, but knew he would be wise to keep it in check. As he lay there, taking deep breaths to ease his rage, he recalled all the times he had fought with Mik. It was always the same. Mik never seemed to do anything wrong, whereas Jonah was considered volatile and irresponsible. Jonah had long since given up on trying to explain things from his side whenever they were caught fighting, for he always got the blame and Mik always got off scot-free. The idea that he was not his parents’ child shed new light on these past episodes. Was that why Mik was always in the right? Jonah frowned as he struggled with the thoughts that now whirled in his mind. All of a sudden there were too many questions.
“Are you all right?” Mik squatted down beside him. “Do you want me to get help?”
Jonah shook his head. He tried to smile, but it was a battle. How could Mik act as if nothing was wrong?
“I’m fine.” He struggled to sound like he meant it, despite all the questions that were racing through his mind, but it was no use asking Mik about the details, he thought to himself bitterly. Hadn’t he just told him to forget all about it?
“Do we have to tell Dad about this?” Jonah gestured towards the broken hoe. Mik shook his head as Jonah turned to look at him. Though he was still wary, there was a look of sadness in his elder brother’s eyes. Jonah had not seen it before.
“How are you going to work?”
“I’ll borrow another from Hakim until he repairs it.” Jonah got to his feet with a grunt and put his hands to his aching groin. “You’ve got a good aim.”
Mik smiled wryly. “You were asking for it. What are you going to tell Hakim?”
“Don’t worry, brother, I’ll think of something.” He picked up the pieces of the broken hoe and started off up the steep steps.
Hakim lived and worked in an old barn on the outskirts of the village. The rear end of it had fallen down, but the other half was more than big enough for the man with the drooping moustache to keep his materials, tools and a forge. Metal was stacked against the walls, sorted according to size and shape, the piles as neat as could be, given the diversity of their component parts. The middle of the barn was still partly covered by the broken roof and here there was more junk, unsorted and piled up into a jumble of piping, old machine parts, rusty pieces of scrap in an assortment of sizes and twisted ends of unidentifiable clutter.
“I need a new shaft for my hoe,” said Jonah, handing the broken tool to the short, stocky man, who despite the cold always worked bare from the waist up. “Can I borrow another until you’ve repaired it?”
Hakim twirled his moustache. “Certainly not! You’re too hard on the tools. It’s not long since I gave you a new shaft. Why can’t you look after things more?”
Jonah shrugged. “I hit a rock. I hadn’t seen it. It was under the soil. Why can’t I borrow another until you’ve repaired it?”
Hakim did not reply but went over to an old, rusty drum out of which wooden shafts protruded. It looked like he was going to do the repair on the spot.
While the smith considered a suitable replacement, Jonah looked around him. He had always thought of Hakim’s workshop as one of the more exciting places in the village, but the smith never wanted children running around his domain. Jonah recalled how Hakim had once caught him sneaking into the workshop from the tumbledown rear of the barn, just as Jonah had spotted a machine that he would have loved to take apart to see what was inside. But the smith had seized him right then and dragged him off home with a vice-like grip on his arm. So sad was the look on his father’s face when Hakim presented him at the door that Jonah had almost burst into tears.
Immediately he recalled the look in Mik’s eyes when he had left him on the field. It was just like his dad’s. A sudden rage made him clench his jaw. What right did they have to look upon him as though he was a danger to himself and those around him? His anger straightened his back. He fixed his narrow gaze on the barrel-chested smith. He was in no doubt that Hakim knew how a lot of the broken objects he had collected had once worked.
“What were all those strange pipes down there used for?” Jonah flung his question out in such a way that the smith wheeled around and looked at him with suspicion.
“What gives you the right to ask?” Hakim replied, biting at the end of his moustache. Jonah had seen him do it before and he knew that Hakim was on edge. He smiled imperceptibly. “Why shouldn’t I? Perhaps the elders don’t want you talking to me?”
“No one here tells anyone else what they can and can’t do.” Hakim turned back to the business of finding a shaft for the hoe. “As long as it causes no harm to others, we can do what we want.”
“Apart from me.” Jonah sat down on a heap of metal. It wobbled slightly but stayed put. “You might as well tell the truth, Hakim. You’re a poor liar.” Jonah looked at him challengingly. “The council of elders have drawn up special rules for me. No one will take me on to teach me anything. Well, apart from old Ben. Every time I open my mouth, my words are weighed and measured.” He got to his feet with some difficulty. “And you refuse to answer a simple question. How can it harm me to know what those old pipes were for? They’re completely bent out of shape and dented. Whatever they once were, they’ll never be so again. That much is obvious, at least.”
He returned Hakim’s gaze and could sense the man’s discomfort. He went on, more gently: “And you would love to tell me, right? Because you’d love to be able to put all these pieces together again and make them into what they were before. But you don’t, do you? How come?”
Jonah knew Hakim was on the verge of dropping his guard and he found himself smiling with satisfaction. He sat down again so the smith wouldn’t feel small.
“Jonah, you must learn to curb your curiosity. Nothing good can come of it …”
Jonah placed a hand on Hakim’s arm and sought his gaze. “What are the pipes for, Hakim?” The smith gave a sigh. “Some kind of musical instrument. A pipe organ, Ben called it. It was he who found them at the back of the prayer house.” He shrugged. “They’re worthless. The metal is soft as butter.” He reached out to Jonah, who had got to his feet again to go over to the piles of scrap where the twisted pipes lay. “No, you’re not to touch them. Do you hear? If anyone finds out I told you about this, I’ll have to stand before the rest of the council. Do you hear? Let them be!”
Jonah ignored him. Carefully, he pulled one of the organ pipes from the heap and tapped on it. There wasn’t much sound in it. “How do they work?” he asked, oblivious to Hakim wringing his hands in despair.
“I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. Come here. Didn’t you want that hoe repairing?” Hakim pulled out what seemed to be the straightest of the lengths of wood in the drum and began replacing the broken shaft.
Jonah took no notice of him. He pulled the shortest of the pipes from the pile, turning it in his hands, then eventually putting it to his lips. For a brief second, a loud, crisp tone sounded through the barn until Hakim leaped forward and jerked the pipe from his hands.
“Here! Take this and get out of here,” the smith hissed, pressing a new hoe into Jonah’s hands.
Mik was almost finished by the time Jonah returned to the plot. “Hakim wasn’t going to lend me another to begin with. He was going to repair it on the spot, but then it seems he changed his mind,” he explained, out of breath, and raised the new hoe to resume his work.
The clanging of Ben’s pipes sounded from the prayer house and Mik stopped work. Tired, he leaned against the shaft of his hoe. “Time for evensong. We’ll finish up here tomorrow.”
“I’ll do it now. It won’t take long.”
Mik nodded. Jonah watched him for a moment as he started off up the narrow steps with the shaft of his hoe resting against his shoulder.
Jonah lifted his own hoe and began where Mik had left off. He brought the sharp edge down rhythmically into the soil, jerking it back and raising it again to repeat the movement in one smooth, circular motion: swing, hack, jerk, swing, hack, jerk. He found himself singing gently in time with his work. Melodies rose and subsided as he tried to establish a certain musical order, repeating some of the themes he found most pleasing.
Only when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder did he realize he was no longer alone. He looked up into his father’s brown eyes. “Mik should have brought you along to evensong,” he said. “When I realized he’d gone to the prayer house without you, I hurried down here to fetch you.”
Jonah turned to face the man he had always thought to be his father. His expression was warm and kind but he could not hide the worry that lay behind it. “No one should be outside the gate when darkness falls.”
“I just need to finish here. It won’t take long.”
His father nodded and remained standing there. Clearly, he intended to wait for him.
“I heard you singing,” Ezra said when Jonah had finished and swung the hoe onto his shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve heard that tune before.”
Jonah shrugged and began to walk in the direction of the gate. Vrads followed at his heel.
“You’ve a lovely voice, but it’s not good for you, singing alone, and certainly not new melodies. Believe me. I speak from experience.” Ezra smiled kindly. “Better to stick with what we know. And I know for a fact that Pjotr sets great store by you using that voice of yours to praise the Almighty along with the rest of us.” He had caught up with Jonah now and placed an arm around his shoulder. “How you’ve grown, Jonah. I do believe you’re taller than me.”
Jonah fixed him in his gaze. “Dad,” he began cautiously, unsure how to pick his words. “Mik said I’m not your son, that you took me in. Is that true?”
Ezra hesitated only briefly, but long enough for Jonah to notice.
“Nonsense,” he said. “Of course you’re my son. And not only mine either.” He chuckled. “You’re your mother’s too.” He stopped and gave Jonah a quizzical look.
“Have you two been fighting again? Was that why Mik put such nonsense in your head?” Jonah remained silent. Ezra’s voice was sharper now as he continued: “You’re both of you almost grown now. It’s time you stopped acting like children.” He raised his hand as if to parry Jonah’s objections. “No, I’ve no wish to hear his side or yours. But I will ask you again to keep in mind that words can hurt just as much as fists. I imagine you were baiting Mik more than he could stand. It wouldn’t be the first time!”
Jonah nodded and suppressed a sigh. Ezra gave his shoulder a loving squeeze. “And that’s all I have to say about it. Come on, let’s hurry along to evensong.”
His father’s reaction was the same as always, and he found reassurance in it. Ezra was probably right. He had been digging at Mik about Sing-Lan and his brother had tried to hurt him back. Nothing new about that, he thought to himself. He had always been getting himself into trouble and he had lost count of the times he had pushed his family’s patience to the limit with all his questions and funny ideas. Though he had sensed the disapproval of the other villagers, his family had never taken exception. They loved him. Of that he was in no doubt.
The metallic tones of the pipes sounded even louder as they walked through the gate in the wall that had been built up of flat slabs of granite stacked loosely between stabilizing poles of chestnut. It protected the side of the village that opened out from the natural buttress of steep rock faces and deep gorges.
As they walked on up the path to the prayer house, Ezra chattered about the weather, which was still cold, and about the next day, when they would be sowing barley. Jonah nodded and replied where expected.
“If only the weather would get a bit warmer,” his father went on, glancing up at the heavy, grey clouds drifting in over the valley. “We can sow the barley all right with this nip in the air, but it’s no use thinking about the potatoes before the soil’s just right. They’ll rot otherwise.”
At the prayer house the sound of Ben’s pipes was so ear-shattering that it was all Jonah could do to keep from putting his fingers in his ears. As soon as the crooked old man saw him and his father, he stopped his noise, pulled the filthy woollen hat from his bald pate and bowed his head respectfully. “That’ll do, Ben,” said Ezra, clearly uncomfortable with the gesture. “No one needs to bow here.” “Not for you, Ezra,” Ben shook his head and pointed a grubby finger at Jonah. “For him. That strapping lad of yours. A good ear, he has. Come and strike the pipes.”
Though Jonah tended to avoid Ben, today he felt a need to show not just Ben but also his father and all the other villagers that there was something he was good at. He took the hammer in his hands and stood for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He had hung the pipes up himself and had no trouble recalling the sound of each. He heard them in his inner ear, the notes they were tuned to, and when first he began to play, it was as though the songs he had heard all his life assumed form.
When finally he stopped, he discovered that a number of the villagers had gathered around to listen. At the front stood Maddie. Her brown eyes sparkled as she gazed at him, and then she leaped forward and threw her arms around him. “Jonah, that was so lovely,” she whispered in his ear before releasing him.
The first to regain composure was Pjotr Swakowski. He nodded kindly and said it was time for prayer. The others found their seats on the roughly constructed benches of the broken-down prayer house. Jonah, though, could not bring himself to step inside. The sun had broken through the clouds above the ridge. The light of evening was red as blood, the sky torn asunder with purple, red and orange. He noted that Ben saw it too. And though he did not care for the old cripple, he said: “We should play the sunset.”
“Oh, no, no, no! Thou shalt not take the creation of the Almighty in vain,” the old man croaked. “Only music we know.” He smiled toothlessly.
For once, Jonah went up close to Ben. “If only we had an organ, eh?”
Ben looked at him with what seemed to be a blend of astonishment and admiration. “An organ?” Jonah shrugged. “I saw the pipes in Hakim’s workshop and blew into one. It made a lovely note.” Ben almost crumpled up as he breathed: “Yes, the tone!” Tears welled up in his eyes and he flapped his crooked arms as though they were wings. “The grand organ in the Church of Kings. Marvellous!” The old man took hold of Jonah’s sleeve. At first he wanted to pull free, but then he allowed himself to hear what Ben had to say. “The notes!” the old man went on, rapt. He folded his arms around his chest, swaying gently back and forth. “Like the rush of the sea, like birdsong, like the howling of the wind. All the sounds of life.” Ben stared vacantly ahead, then picked up the thread once more. “Wept and laughed at once, we did. Heard it a hundred times, always different.”
All of a sudden he gave a start and shrank down between his scrawny shoulder blades. “Evensong!” With the crutch under his armpit, he scuttled quickly into the prayer house’s dark interior, illuminated only by a few flickering tallow candles.
Jonah sent Vrads home before following Ben inside and seating himself on a bench with the rest of his family. Ezra considered him for a moment, then returned to his mumbled prayer that rose and fell with the intoning voice of Pjotr.
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