Sunday, December 16, 2007

Excerpt: On the Levee

This scene is why "On the Levee" will never be published as a short story.

The sky was leaden grey, heavy and hot as a pot lid. There was no breeze. The surface of the Snake lay flat under the weight of the air. Our boats' wakes spread behind us, interlocking and tangling. Glantrim and Nitsur played a work rhythm, helping Shelani'aï's guards pace themselves; we'd agreed the added speed was worth the risk of attracting attention from the shore, as long as we kept to midstream.

We'd passed several open irrigation gates. Shelani'aï's people had done their best. Of course the water level now, at the very end of the dry season, was well below the level of the gates, so no water was escaping the Snake. We meant to change that. The plan was to breach the east bank levees in at least two places; Shelani'aï' thought that would be enough, but any damage we could do to the levees should ease the flooding in the Delta.

"Here," said Shelani'aï. She and the other guard turned their boat towards the east bank. The second boat followed. The remains of an abandoned village came into view beyond the levee. It was a good place to have chosen; the plain was level and water let out of the Snake here would spread a long, long way. There was another abandoned village in the distance. I averted my eyes from the weed-choked fields and tumbledown houses. Once, people had lived here. This might even have been the village where I was born.

There was no joking or teasing among us or the guards. We were here to do a work of destruction, and though we had all agreed it was necessary, it went against the grain for us Ta'arane. Glantrim and Nitsur sympathized, and so the mood was somber.

"Do you want to wait for morning?" Nitsur asked me. It was late in the day already.

"No. I want to be back in the boats before dark and heading downstream to our second site."

"I think that's wise," said Shelani'aï'. She was scanning the plain watchfully. From the top of the levee we could see no sign of human activity, but we knew how fast horsemen could move.

"You'll want to be careful," said Fera'animo, one of the guards. "Once the levee's breached, water will pour out through here and tear big chunks out of it. We may need to get back in the boats in a hurry."

Shelani'aï gave orders. The guards beached the boats against the levee and took their places, paddles ready. It had been a long hard day for them, but there was an island not far downstream where we planned to tie up for the night.

Che'atamaï and I were ready. I nodded to Nitsur. In the past months, other drumspeakers had learned to initiate the pattern-trance with other dancers, but they all still looked to the two of us to lead when we were trying something new.

The earth-breaking rhythm had seemed so appropriate when we cleared the marsh around the Woneiyal camp: a new beginning dedicated to the Mother in Potential. Now, we were ending something, not beginning something. Nitsur led Glantrim into the death music. I began with a wide homage gesture, stooping to press both palms to the earth. Mother, forgive us. Che'atamaï followed.

I had thought about it all afternoon, in a light trance, watching the water ripple against the sides of the levees. The Snake would be our ally here. I showed Che'atamaï how the water pressed against the walls of earth. Yes. We had only to find the weak points and weaken them further.

Water began to push through the dirt. A dark stain appeared on the face of the levee below us, spreading rapidly. Not just a stain; a bulge. Beads of water oozed out. The levee sweated like a fever patient. The packed earth shook under our feet, cracks appearing as the levee began to collapse. Enough, enough! The drummers dropped their rhythm in the middle and we all scrambled for the boats.

"Cast off!" shouted Shelani'aï, dragging Nitsur bodily over the side of the boat. The other boat was away already and fighting its way out into the middle of the water. I risked a glance over my shoulder; where we had danced was empty air, brown water pouring over a lip of earth that sank away as I watched. Then I was in the boat and we were all paddling furiously as the water sucked us backward toward the breach, toward the empty plain beyond.

It was long, tense minutes before we were out of danger. Slowly the water flowing out of the breach lost its hold, relinquishing us to the main flow of the Snake. We shipped our paddles and breathed. "Mother, that was close..."

"Next time," said Shelani'aï crossly, "try not making the breach right under where you're standing!"

"Uh, that would have been a good idea," I said feebly.

"Oh, no," said Fera'animo. He was staring toward the levee. No, beyond it; there was a figure struggling through the rising water, waving wildly. A faint cry sounded over the water noises.

"Turn in!" shouted Shelani'aï, seizing her paddle. We were well downstream of the breach; there was no danger of our boats being sucked out of the Snake. It was only a few moments before the boats grounded against the levee. Fera'animo and Taölaheli leaped out of the boats, ran down the eastward face and plunged into the water. It was already deep enough to swim in.

"Mother keep them safe," Che'atamaï gasped.

"Now that is something I have never seen," said Nitsur in amazement.

"What, swimming? We used to do it at Alati'enoaë. When there weren't crocodiles."

The two guards had reached the struggling figure. It was a woman, I thought. They were towing her back towards the levee. We scrambled down to meet them and helped pull them out of the water. The woman was Ta'arane; she was coughing and gasping, and it wasn't until we had all climbed back up to the top of the levee and she had sunk to her knees, panting with exhaustion, that I recognized Ajalēmona.

1 comment:

tumblewords said...

I'm not sure I understand your comment...
I enjoyed the read, characters were true, dialogue was good, action was vivid. And the breaching of the levee is a duty for some!