The Key in the Closed-off Town
The child is the first person Ming meets in the closed-off town. She has barely crossed the gates, massive bronze arches that keep the desert at bay, and there are no houses yet, nor busy stalls nor chariots nor all the commotion that Ming is learning to associate with mankind.
The child is not afraid to stare.
“You there. New lady. I am Queen of this place, you know? You've got to pay respect.”
Ming is no expert in towns and realms, but she has learned enough to make an educated guess and she shrugs off the claim with a warm smile: the child is too young, too ragged to be a Queen.
She does, however, look like she is telling some sort of truth.
Ming travels to understand. She does not leave her mark on the places she visits, but she lets them touch her. She takes their spaces with her. Space and colour. She feels that she is still looking for both, as an answer, albeit limited, to the beauty of that world. 'The' world, but there ought to be worse ones out there, among the stars. The one she walks in simply looks 'more' beautiful.
There is so much colour in the child: she is dark and blooming. Amidst her town's bronzes and golden browns, she stands like a young chestnut tree – a sapling getting ready for a storm, Ming notices.
“Ming. Nice to meet you.” She bows. “How are you Queen, Daira?”
“Oh thank you! I thought nobody'd ever ask – I'm Queen 'cause I'm the one with the key. The key said so. I guess it's got to be true then.”
Again, Ming recognizes a seed of truth: beyond the desert, people tell that those who trespass the gleaming walls of the town of Catris can never go back. It would only stand to reason that there be a lock to the town, yet Ming has seen none. She is learning the meaning of “city”, of “community”, of “society” and none of those words, nor their underlying ideas, seem to possess such power. The gates are always open. Yet she remembers a flash under her skin as she walked under the town's bare smooth arch.
“I beg your pardon, young Queen. I am a stranger here and have never heard of keys to an entire town.”
“I am not young”, the child answers and sticks out her tongue. She shakes her short curls and runs off.
Ming will have to work for her answers, she thinks.
Her answers await her in the outskirts of Catris, under a thirsty tree's spiked shade, on the bustling benches that surround the town's precious well. Indeed, she learns, those who enter cannot leave: while peoples and countries wage wars outside, there is a distinct, inevitable conclusiveness in the decision to wind up at Catris. It is a choice of peace.
Trespassing is only tragic when it happens by accident. Those desperate souls cry at the gates, but those who consider Catris their home look untroubled. Ming has learned not to rely on the word “happy” when describing mankind.
Ming should count herself among the town's unfortunate captives, but she feels above imprisonment: she could, after all, lay her back on the walls and dream, think and wait until they crumble. No place is truly immortal.
She meets Daira again near a dry well. The child does not pay attention to her at first: she paces around the hole in the ground, trying to gather up courage from the dust and the twigs. She does not look scared, but Ming has seen grown men show anger instead of fear before. Never younglings.
“I found the key, you know. Me. I did it. It's mine.”
“Hello again. I am sure you did, Queen”, Ming humors her, but she is careful not to call her 'young'.
“Course I did. Someone dropped it once, but mother was too serious and grandmother too vague and grand-grandmother too stupid to go look for it. No idea what stopped the others. I think it was the first Queen who dropped it. Not totally sure.” She stops to stare at her and she still feels like a dark tree, fixed and intense, with roots deeper than Ming had imagined. She starts to believe her now when she says she is Queen, in a childish, immovable sense. Mortal lives change fast on the surface and there is some enigma to blood and legacies that Ming has not figured out yet.
“Dropped it where?”
“In dreams. That's where all important happens.”
“Importancy. Like keys. And I dove and grabbed it and it is mine.”
“You do not have to fear me, Daira. I respect your treasure.” Ming kneels and sits, offering her an even ground to talk face to face. She knows that one such as Daira would not be won over with a smile and an open hand. But a tiny smile surfaces on her lips all the same.
“Town does not, though. Wants it back.”
“Will you give it back?”
“I have to. Through here, down to the knot that's never undone, it says. Except it will of course. Doesn't matter that I don't want to.”
She does not stop to wonder if and how doing so will open the town: in this world, some things just happen. It is a key, after all. Instead she asks: “Why?”
“Because it makes me special.” She frowns.
Ming knows that Daira had meant that she is special as long as she has that key within her, whatever form it may take inside her very important dreams, but she is tempted to disagree: despite the frown (which looks like an overly serious pout on her round face) and the pacing (an anxious cat couldn't do better) and the looks and winces and head scratches (she is facing an enemy she does not know), there is a rough composure in her willingness to accept what she acknowledges to be a greater good.
She would like to tell her that she is special because she decided to return what had been lost, to her own loss, and that is most brave, but one such as Daira would not appreciate the thought at the moment. Instead, since she has estabilished herself as an equal, she offers an open hand and smiles as that gift of friendship is accepted.
Ming makes a note to tell her of sacrifices on their next meeting.
When they do meet again, Ming feels that she is watching a clash of statues. Daira's stance is charged, ready to dash, yet she faces the dry well as still as a rock – one that is teeming with magnetism. There is a playfulness in her defiant bearing that oversteps her years.
“Not sure if I'm Queen.” She relaxes.
“What do I call you, then?”
“Girl with a key, who's free.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Do you always ask questions, new lady? Ming person? Other lady's not like that.”
“What oth- sorry”, she laughs. “I don't seem to be able to quit, do I? I just want to understand, you see, and in order to understand, I need to learn how to observe. Observing with my ears as well as with my eyes is easier, so when I am allowed to ask questions, such as with friends, I do ask them. It is, I believe, a most practical approach. What is it that you want, maybe-Queen, on the other hand? You sure seem determined this morning.”
“A thing I've understood – that is, that I want to be free. It's what I want. I want to understand too, but not people, people's boring, I want to understand the town, 'cause I'm special, you see? I can observe the voices, no that's hear the voices, lady Ming person, you do strange things with your ears, anyway I can hear the voices in the stones and in the bricks, their voices, and I'm hearing always the cogs of this earth down our feet. This I like. Other lady came and went and says it's cool.”
There seems to be a newfound bitterness at the base of her resolution, like an ideal that has gone adrift, but Ming wonders how much of her behaviour must be read through a child's eyes and how different those are from her own.
She does know that Daira is less conflicted than mere days before and that is good. Cool, even, although that is not Ming's usual way to consider things. She smiles, thankful to 'Other Lady'.
The next time she comes to the dry well, Ming finds it deserted and closed. Three planks have been nailed to its mouth, rudimentally barring the entrance. Ming wonders whether that rude greeting means that nobody has to get in or that nobody wants to get in, but most of all she is saddened at the thought of leaving without seeing her friend. She does not know where Daira spends her days, apart from that deserted corner beyond the oldest buildings, but she feels that she has to leave soon else the town suffocates her. Too much earth, too many browns, not a gust of wind and every corner filled with so much dust. So she leaves.
She is confident in her magic. If the walls oppose her, she will oppose them.
But the walls yield no resistance: there is, once again, that remote feeling of an intangible spark happening to someone else, on another level, and Ming is drifting through that world once more.
Eight months later, the walls have not lost their power.
Daira is swinging a sabre near the spot where they met for the first time, but she is not the same child Ming remembers. She has grown, as kids her age are wont to do, she is twiggy and agile and must subdue her ruff of dark curly hair with a headband.
She knows how to wear her confidence now.
“What about freedom?”, Ming asks.
“This is freedom, Ming person! G'day. I got out of bed wanting to practice my swordmanship and slashing and thrusting is what I've been doing since morning. Nothing else to it.”
“I'm its confidant. Only one. We're special, Catris and I.”
Are you happy?, Ming means to ask, but she refrains from piling question upon question when words are not needed. She can see that a flat felicity has grown on her like a hide. She is not happy, but close enough.
Ming leaves the closed-off town of Catris, never to return. She takes its circular spaces with her, circular logics, more browns than she will ever ponder in her immortal life and a couple of new thoughts.
She tries, at first, to tell herself that there is no foundation for her sadness: Catris remains untroubled, even content, when the days are cloudy and there is a promise for rain. No great mass of evil shall slip through and lock itself behind its gates. But the reason why that knot remains, that is what nags at her conscience with every step of the way. She saw and said little and she drifted through.
She owns no keys, but her own life is a responsibility she might come to shoulder.
She takes her freedom in her hands and chooses to offer it to mortal mankind. Through that giving, she thinks, some good may yet be accomplished. Ming swears that she may come to regret her captivity, but never her choice.
She sets out and looks for blue.
(On the northern shore of Ipsilon, Seth sees a key lying abandoned at the entrance of a small cave. That night, she dreams of freedom longed for and taught and misguided and of that child whose roots she did not mean to cut.)