The Country/The Country

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19. Mrs. Nathan

He has seen Mrs. Nathan only twice. In the hospital she looked small in the bed, but hospital beds did that to you. If you were healthy and strapping, full of vital spirits, you wouldn’t be there. If you were lying, head barely raised, not much of you actually propped up against the two pillows and the metal bars, you were probably some poor creature experiencing difficulty over getting more than a few drops of water down the gullet. Was that how she had looked ? A poor creature?

Except for the eyes, maybe. He had barely been able to look at her eyes. Were they gray or black? They were magnets, he thought. Everything in their purview was attracted to them. His evasion of those eyes was the defense of a an ordinary fellow who did not wish to become imprisoned by those eyes. Could he be sure they would release them?

Keel shook his head. He had felt comfortable in her presence, more comfortable than he expected, but he had asked her only a single question, hadn’t he? What should he do? What should anyone do?

He could not recall her answer precisely, but his sense was that it was no answer. She had answered him with a dismissal. I’ve told you all I mean to. I’ve told you that I know what you’re seeing, in dreams or wherever, because I’m seeing it to.

But she did not tell him what to do. Had he not asked the question properly?

Nathan was a common name. Even if he assumed she lived somewhere in the city proper, and that was a reasonable assumption -- certainly she knew Green Hills Park intimately -- he would find numerous Nathans in the book, but perhaps no “Mrs. Eleni Nathan.”

He doubted that she gave out her name widely. ‘They used to call us witches.’

He doubted she was searchable on the think-machines. He would find other Mrs. Nathans, but not the one who had run away from the Rehab facility and buried herself in a bunker in the woods -- to ‘be alone,’ she had indicated. Someone who took pains of that sort to be alone would probably not invite casual attention from the general public. Would tend to hide herself away; perhaps had always done so.

He tried calling Monro Physical Rehabilitation.

No; no patient by that name. His query was answered with such fervid certainty that it appeared to him the facility’s staff and volunteers were being instructed to erase all memory of her stay. He called the police and asked for the sergeant he had led to her bunker in Green Hills Park. The sergeant was not in; he left a voice message at his extension.

What if he was going about this the wrong way? Keel asked himself.

What if he didn’t use the phone or any communication device to send his message? What if he just sent it with his mind?

The answer came late in the day, when he was about to gather himself for the daily trek down Pike Street to the square. He had his left arm thrust into his dark green winter jacket. But he stopped with that one arm in a sleeve, and listened.

Then after closing his front door firmly behind him, he turned right instead of left and got into his old, little-used foreign-made sedan.

Third time this week. He would have to start thinking of himself as a busy man.

He checked the gas gauge; still mostly full.

The call, the sensation at the back of his head, right below the knot at the top of the vertebrae, had come from the west. It tingled, occasionally rising to the recollection of a bee sting, the bass note you got after the initial pain had worn off. As if some distant presence was putting a fingertip on a nerve, squeezing a string of tiny neurons, causing some new signal or interrupting the flow of known impressions.

The signal guided him, told him which way to go.

He started west, of course, taking the state road out of the city limits, and through the suburban towns, past the shopping centers that hugged the outskirts of Monro, and when the turn-off to Star*Route 22 appeared, the sensation told him to take it and follow it north along a swooping uphill climb, where signs warned yahoo motorists to slow down for the upcoming turns.

This was the country, Keen thought.

The place where he lived, the places most people lived their whole lives, packed people close together. But much of the country, the Commonhope of UZ, remained like this. Unsuitable for development, in real estate terms. Semi-cleared hillsides with a lonely farmhouse halfway up the slope. Pastures. Fence lines. The route gentled down again and he drove along a flatter strip, valley land, where stubble fields from last year’s corn crops covered both roadsides, visible throughout a largely snow-less winter.

Other hillsides were wholly treed. When he came to the intersections of paved, two-way roads, the places where the storefronts and the churches gathered, he realized that you could not call such places towns, they were “corners,” truly. The ‘four-corners’ where the spirits store was located, and had always been.

The ‘corners’ with no gas station; have to drive another ten miles north.

People who lived out here, away from the big cities, and the smaller cities like Monro, and the towns that surrounded them, relied on the denser population centers for anything more than the most basic needs. The corner stores kept bread and milk, coffee, alcohol (some of them), ciggos, sugar-sources, frozen-dins, gambling cards. They relied on the bigger people-centers for the rest: produce beyond what they could grow themselves. Cash input from travelers passing through, stopping for gas for snacks or someplace to sit down and grab a bite. Customer for the local craft goods shops. They were forced to go elsewhere for stores that sold insurance or hardware, or cut hair, or offered ‘financial services,’ or something different for breakfast from what their own kitchens or the local diner served up.

All the tiny ‘corners’ gathering-spots did offer breakfast, Keel noticed with an outsider’s curiosity about the ‘new’ or ‘different,’ but their menus were pretty much all the same.

Keel ate breakfast alone at his kitchen table staring at a nooz-sheet. He could not imagine what attraction the breakfast spots exerted that would take him out of his own house, his familiar routine, to rub elbows with strangers.

Well, maybe these folks weren’t truly strangers to one another. Maybe people were friendlier out here. Maybe that was the attraction.

Whenever he came to the next intersection, or traffic light, or warning sign for some new numbered route, his own interior signal kept him going on Star*Route 22. He passed the last of the places likely to have animal shelters; they have barns now.

Did the people living out here, he asked himself, feel the lure of the Pigglies? Were they likely to vote for Mr. Pig?

Or did they share his own unease? Keel did not know these people.

He drove past a dense settlement of identical structures with a big sign announcing “Mobile Metropolis.” He was gazing at the long array of low, ranked, rectangular dwellings that seemed to him not ‘mobile,’ but stranded -- when the ‘call’ sent him down a two-lane road with nothing but bare fields on one side and a fair-sized river winding companionably on the other.

What did all that water think about what was going on in the country?

Were its atoms in an uproar? Were its particles divided between positive and negative charges? Or did they sigh and say, ‘The animals come, the animals go, but there will always be water flowing down this time-smoothed bottom, this comfortable trough in the Great Mother’s rutted face’?

Speeding and slowing.

Leaping in storms, lapping at the banks in spring, waning slow and thirsty in summer.

Keen hoped the water was right. It took the long view.

He wished that view was available for him as well, but human beings were short-lived and understandably focused on the now, the Biblical three-score and ten -- too skimpy a number by a long shot (as, increasingly these days, he began to realize). Human beings were less likely to be complacent about the arrival of the next ice age, or the rise of the oceans. How would water feel if its bed dried up? Would it shrug and think, ‘There’s still plenty of me left elsewhere’?

When the neural-urge came again, guiding him to turn at the next bridge crossing so that (if his internal compass was correct) he was heading east, Keel began to grow concerned, because now he was driving back in the direction from which he had come, though it would be many slow miles on roads like these before he reached Monro.

But the prompting, the signal, swiftly directed him off to a dirt lane, which soon transformed, as his modest vehicle began to nose its way up, into a winding narrow track that guided him uphill within view of a house-sized building of conical, uncommon design, closely hemmed by tall pines. He caught glimpses of a bare, peaked roof, as if the builders had neglected to finish it off with shingles, or roofing of any material, or assumed that the incline was steep enough that no water would work its way through the roofing wood, which from a distance looked to be a composite like plywood.

The structure was short on windows as well, as if throwing up a wooden skin to serve as a kind of curtain wall to keep the elements out was as far as the builder felt he needed to go. And that all the usual refinements, such as windows, roof coverings, and exterior wall facades were frills he could do without in his hurry to move on to some greater purpose.

What could that purpose be?

Keel was happy (and rather surprised) when he left his car, approached the trees, and discovered the existence of a door, deeply shadowed by two effusive pines that between them managed to block any view of the door from the drive, along with much of the building’s blockish exterior. The ‘house’ was actually a bunker, Keel decided, now that he was close enough to size it up, topped off with that oddly steep dome-like roof. It was as if the building’s shape were molded to the need to keep some towering object-- another pointy tree? a rocket-shaped vessel? was anything truly impossible here? -- concealed within.

Had the place initially been designed as a missile silo? Such things had existed, he knew, during the old wars.

The door had no window in it, either, but he was certain that whoever was inside was watching his approach from somewhere.

They were probably all Kevvens, he was thinking, when the door opened inward with no visible human assistance. Someone passed across his view of the interior, and an instant later another someone else emerged from behind the thick wooden door and looked at him appraisingly.

Men of a certain age, he judged, but able; still strong, active, long-legged creatures.

Unlike himself, Keel thought. He was too short, and always a little too soft; no one called him an ‘active’ man. He was more like a ‘sitting’ man.

A third ‘Kevven’ appeared. A little older, a little grayer; closer in age to Keel, but in better shape. His features had laugh lines, but the eyes were heavy lidded. Perhaps, Keel thought, from the weight they were carrying. He nodded an ‘all right’ nod to the colleague, or perhaps ‘comrade’ holding the door, and then greeted Keel with the ironical expression of the shared sufferer. Prisoners of destiny.

“Got here all right, I see.”

“You people are well hidden up this way,” Keel replied.

The gray-haired man shrugged. “They won’t find us easily... But they will, eventually.”

Keel wondered what would happen before that ‘eventually.’

“Are they looking?”

“All I mean is no one’s safe. Nowhere’s safe.”

Was this fellow having dreams as well? Maybe that accounted for the darkness around his eyes. We’re all seeing a lot of darkness these days, Keel thought. When was the last time he took a good look in the mirror?

There seemed to be no reason to beat around the bush.

“What do we do then?”

“You mean here? Not much to do. This place will go up like a chimney. It’s built around a chimney. And,” he twisted his head in a quick scan of the interior, “as you can see, not a lot of ways in or out.”

“The place is a pillbox.”

Keel realized this truth only as he spoke it. “It’s built like a fort.”

“Windows reflect light,” the man said in a tone of weary acknowledgment. “And after dark? Lights in a window? You might as well put a sign on the roof saying, ‘Target lives here.’”

Curious, Keel wanted a tour (where did people sleep? how many were they?), but all that was up to the other man. He wondered what name they used for themselves here. Were they all Kevvens to one another?

“Well,” his Kevven said, “I’ll bring you to her.”

Keel followed.

The house was circular, like an oversized yurt, built around that central chimney chute -- how many separate fires did it exhaust? -- with thin room-dividers separating spaces. The dividers were short walls, like fins or curtailed spokes, radiating from the center, with passage spaces at both their interior and exterior. One could move quickly enough inside the place. A ladder led up to the loft-style second story. Beams would be exposed up there, he supposed. And hidden windows.

One of the rooms they passed through served as a kitchen. A hot plate, microwave, sink, refrigerator. A square table behind which a woman sat, though not the ‘her’ he had come to see. Someone much younger who sat looking down at a handful of papers and turned her face away as they passed.

Keel caught a glimpse of silver ear-stud within a scallop of short dark hair. An acolyte, he thought, on first impression. Apprentice spy: all eyes and ears.

On the other side of the kitchen, the divider closed off both passages. A real wall, with a slider.

When his gray-haired guide slid it open, Keel saw a bed and the lower half of a human form profiled beneath a quilt.
The two men entered. His guide Kevven slid the entryway shut behind them.

“Mrs. Nathan,” Keel said to the form reclining in the darkness.

It would be polite, he thought, conventional at least, to say something more such as “You’re looking better,” but in fact he did not see any difference in the woman he saw now from the recovering “Mrs. Nathan” he had visited in the hospital.

Nor, for that matter, from the woman he had led the police to in the cement bunker in Green Hills Park.

He wondered now if she had been looking for some place to hide her signal from those she didn’t wish to find her. Now that he knew how strong it was.

Lying on her back in a darkened room, with head and shoulders pillowed, her face looked silent to Keel, the features clouded. Her expression worn, inward.

Just as she had looked in the Monro hospital when the young, professionally dressed woman of unknown affiliation had sat by her bed, minding her, as if the authorities feared she would mysteriously slip away once more.

Until -- once again, as on the previous occasion -- her eyes opened and blazed, and the rest of her features came alive as well.

“You must think,” she said to Keel, “that I am a terribly lazy person...”

Not knowing how to reply, he was silent.

“Here I am again... Always in bed.”

“Maybe,” he offered, “you will be getting up soon.”

“Yes, maybe. But that won’t necessarily be a good thing.”

She chuckled drily, in a low, precise voice.

She lifted a hand to the gray-haired man, who turned and departed, leaving them alone.

“His name is Marvin,” she remarked.

“Not Kevven?”

She laughed softly. “That can get confusing up here.”

The room felt claustrophobic. Keel could not imagine what it would be like to lie here in bed, in the semi-dark. No windows anywhere below the structure’s upper level.

He broke the silence. “May I tell you why I’ve come? Why I wanted to see you.”

She eyed him.

“You want to know what to do.”

Of course. She knew things; she had already told him that. She was a seer. He had no need to tell her what she already knew.

She had guided him here. Her touch a precisely perceptible sensation in some part of the brain from which his own thoughts and words did not originate; and which told him which way to go and when to turn. How else would he have found the place?

“Yes. You’re right. And you don’t have to tell me, ‘everyone wants to know that.’”

“Oh,” spoken with the same faint, humorous superiority, “some people already do know. They do.”

She didn’t have to name them.

“What will ‘they’ do?” he asked. “Will they break the law? Ignore it?”

“I don’t think ‘laws’ will matter much any more. Some people will just sort of take what they want. His people will.”

The lack of emotion with which she spoke this dark prophecy unsettled him. It was too

much like his own vision. And it scared the hell out of him.

What did it mean to live calmly with such knowledge?

“What will the other people do then?” he demanded. “People like you?”

What he really meant, he realized, was ‘people like me.’

“Try to run away, I guess. Hide. Maybe look for other countries.” She gazed at him, but made her gaze soft. “I don’t see everything, of course.”

“Where will they go?”

“Places like this?” Each phrase sounded like a question. “Remote places... Places nobody else wants.”

“Then they’d better bring a lot of food with them,” Keel responded, thinking of his drive through the hills and valleys of rural Platow. “And coffee.”

She laughed a kind of cackle. “Yes, that’s the first thing they’ll miss. I know that already.”

“I’ll bring some next time.”

She laughed again. “The old witch misses her morning coffee.”

Note to self: Go to different markets to stock up on cans of coffee. Don’t start a panic by clearing out one market.

But he was glad to hear the possessor of the voice that summoned him laugh at herself.

“Seriously,” he said. “What do you think they will do?”

She eyed him, hands folded on her stomach, as if it sitting on a throne; or lying in her grave. “What do you think they’ll do?”

“They will find someone to pick on,” he replied, “to be the problem. Flexibles -- everyone picks on them. Dissidents. People who complain. They’ll come up with a word for them. The ‘rejectors.’ Anyone who rejects the rule of the new order. People who are trying to block this wonderful ‘change’ we hear about... The ‘jams,’ maybe. Or the ‘jammers.’”

He was thinking out loud, when he heard himself and thought he might have stumbled on something. Was that what the Kevvens up here were doing already -- jamming? Employing a wooden box, a pillar, to turn back what came through the air. While no physical barrier blocks a different kind of power -- your own ‘seeing,’ and sending -- because that power is not wholly physical.

“Are you jamming their brain-washing?”

She tilted her head. “Oh no. Quite the opposite. I want everyone to hear their signals. I want everyone to have those dreams.”

He was silent.

She looked at him carefully. “You know what I mean. The kind of dreams you’ve been having. I want as many people in the country as possible to know what’s coming.”

“The dreams....,” he said. “Are terrible.”

Keel wondered what she saw when she looked at him now. Confessing his fear.

“I know.”

“You want people -- people like me... to be frightened?”

“I want them to be afraid.” She spoke decisively.

“I’m afraid.”

“I know. I can feel it.”

She spoke with a note of finality that disappointed him. Was this what she was doing? Warning people? Was that all?

Her expression seemed to say that she knew what he was thinking. But why wouldn’t she?

He tried to find words to say this, to beg her to tell him what he desired to hear. How to stop ‘them’... He was a dreamer, yes. But she, disguised as the fragile old Mrs. Nathan, was a seer. A prophet. A spiritual force. Did she not have further powers to bring to bear?

He was staring at a blank wall, unpainted plywood, a few feet above the woman’s deceptively gray head, avoiding her eyes.

“Maybe,” Mrs. Nathan said, interrupting Keel’s inward flight, “you can find someone else... To help.”

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