What It Points To
by Laura Fox
based on the anime
Allison & Lillia
Somehow only Treize had ended up returning in the train compartment with the professor, but as she sorted through materials from the trip and spread papers over the seats, there was hardly space for the two of them, let alone anyone else. She was perhaps sixty, with graying gold-blonde hair pinned up in a knot of braid and hard round calf muscles at odds with her soft, narrow shoulders. The two of them sat facing across the window, and she held strips of photo negatives up to it and wrote notations to file them with. Her absorbed gravity presented a barrier, but when Treize saw her looking at the strip with the group picture the students had had taken, he seized the moment.
“Could I have an extra print of that one?” he asked, pointing to it. “A friend wanted me to send her a picture.”
“Hm? Oh, of course... You won’t be the only one, either...” she replied half to herself; added to her blonde hair, her accent marked her as originally from Sou-Beil. She pulled the clipboard with the field trip’s roll sheet out from a stack, found a blank sheet of paper, and handed them to him. “Make a copy of the list and just write after your name how many you want.”
He wrote “Prints of Group Picture” across the top of the page and began copying names. Despite coming only second alphabetically, “Bain, Treize” was pencilled in at the very end, after the list of graduate students. A special allowance had been made for him again, and he felt that recurrent pang: he was just resting on privilege, falling further behind her...
“So how’s training?”
“Aaagh, they are so strict!” Lillia exclaimed, her voice tinny over the phone line. “The sergeant is always yelling at somebody and it’s just because they were the last one to snap into line or they didn’t iron their pants right or something. Tuesday he didn’t like the way I tied my boots.”
“Sounds rough,” Treize said; Lillia had always been so free-spirited...
“Yeah, sometimes I need Mama to tell me I’m doing all right... But I can see what it points to.”
“Well, my dream is to fly in the air shows. You have to prove you can have everything just so or no one will want to do close formations or opposing passes or things like that with you; it just makes sense,” she declared. “So what about you? How’s university?”
“Well, it’s a lot different from high school...” he said noncommittally. The whole thing still seemed like an accident; despite respectable marks, he had never been a serious student or felt that that was expected of him, and yet somehow he had landed here... “But, um, Lillia... Would it be okay if I couldn’t get together with you for Fall Break?”
“Huh? Well, I guess that would be okay, if something... Hey, wait a minute!” she suddenly growled. “This isn’t one of those questions where if I say ‘Yeah, that’s okay’ you go off and do something stupid, is it??”
“No, nothing like that!” he defended, embarrassingly unable to blame her for asking. “It’s just... Well, one of the Archaeology professors is going on a field trip and she said she could take me... They’re going to see the mural.”
“The one our parents found?”
Two beats of silence, and then Lillia squealed so loudly it made Treize jump, and he had to hold the receiver away from his ear. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH THAT IS SO GREAT YOU HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES—”
“Yeah, I think I’m supposed to; she asked if I could handle a camera, and Mom taught me that, so...”
“YOU HAVE TO SEND ME ONE!”
...So one for Lillia, one to keep... One for his parents would only be right. One for Mathilda? They were still exchanging friendly letters — this time it had been his turn to write “I’m so sorry my recklessness put you through that,” and she had been as unfairly gracious as ever — but that extra step would seem somehow awkward, and he didn’t want to ask for a presumptuous number. Treize wrote a “3” after his name.
“So what about you?” the professor asked him. “Do you think this might be your field?”
“Well, I don’t know...” There was a pull of temptation in the idea of spending his life doing things like this. Standing there in the cave had been awe-inspiring; few people were allowed in for fear of radical partisan attempts to destroy the paintings, but in a selfish way Treize was glad for it, that he had been left almost alone before a presence that the thousand books and photographs could never capture. The nearest thing he could think of was standing in an empty cathedral, feeling oneself under the eyes of something numinous and unspeaking, but here where you could see the lines left by its hands, the mystery was closer — close enough to be touched and taunted by just how impenetrably deep it was. But the reason he had asked her for that special allowance was humbler; “It was really just that... That I’m a family friend, you know.”
“Well, that’s not such a bad reason,” she said, still notating negatives. “Is there a subject that interests you especially?”
“Not yet,” he said. “I just didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lucky I got to come here to figure it out.” How much blame for that misconcieved wedding rested on his not knowing what else to do next? Why he wanted to admit the shame to a near-stranger, he didn’t know, but maybe being a near-stranger made the professor seem like a safe confidante. “My friend went into the army, but I didn’t want to...”
“Clever boy,” she said. “You do handle a camera pretty well; you might think about journalism.”
His experience with news cameras that summer pressed itself on his mind; it had not been pleasant. “I don’t know about that,” he said, this time with more conviction.
“You do like to play it safe, don’t you? Archaeology might not be your best choice then.”
“Well, it’s not as bad as it was,” the professor said, “but when people have killed each other for hundreds of years over where we came from and who was first... When I was your age, a scholar in Roxche questioned the way some ancient sites had been dated; he made a strong, careful argument, but it would have made the difference of whether his country could claim the oldest one. ‘Patriots’ protested his university and harrassed students who tried to go to his classes. To appease the trustees he offered a public lecture; maybe he was going to recant, or maybe he was going to try to explain it hoping people would understand, but before he could do either one, someone in the audience shot him dead.”
Treize stared in shock. “But that’s all done with now, isn’t it? Ever since... Ever since the mural.”
“Yes, thankfully.” Her gaze shifted to the side with her age-creased eyelids half-lowered. “But...”
“But?” He cocked his head.
She seemed to be considering something very slowly. Finally she pulled a textbook out from under some papers, leafed through it to the early page she wanted, and handed it to him. It was a photograph of the mural, prominently showing the two central figures with the spear and the saber. “Tell me, exactly how old is that, and how do you know?”
He opened his mouth to give the obvious answer, but what came out was unexpectedly slow and hesitant. “It’s... very old. From the beginning of civilization. Because... Because it’s in the front of the book...? Because everyone knows it is...?” He had to push each sentence out more lamely than the one before; even he knew that those reasons weren’t reasons at all, and it dawned on him that he didn’t really know anything about it.
The professor regarded the look on his face with a knowing smile.
Suddenly everything he knew seemed to be upended, even his father’s story, even Lillia’s parents... “You don’t think it’s new...?”
“Oh, it’s genuine; don’t worry about that,” she assured him; reality returned to shape just a little. “But is it the oldest thing we know of? If you turn a few more pages there, you’ll find other cave paintings, but they look very different; the images are scattered and jumbled, and surprisingly realistic. You might say the lower tier of the mural is like those, but above this level, where everyone looks, this kind of whole-space composition with very stylized figures and geometric lines, and these colors... We tend to see this kind of thing later on in tombs and palaces.
“And then, if we take the two central figures by themselves... Is this how ancient people depicted saying hello to the neighbors? The magnificence of it and the focus on those two could suggest that a meeting between them was seen as a major event at the time.”
Treize’s jaw dropped. “Then, everyone thinks this means we were together then... but...”
He couldn’t quite say it, so the professor said it for him. “It might actually mean that we were already separate.”
“But— But then—” He felt as if he should be saying “but then” a thousand things, but if he snatched at them to put them into words, he could only get hold of one weak straggler. “Who really did come first?”
“Does it matter?”
They both knew it was a loaded question. Treize had to dodge the explosive charge, but he decided he should try to do it without totally disavowing curiosity. “Well, not that much.”
She seemed to accept the effort. “I came to Roxche during the armistice. Before I could get a position in a university here, they asked me, ‘where do you think civilization began?’ You won’t believe what I said.”
“What was it?” Right now he was willing to consider anything.
“I told them, ‘Based on my research, I would say that the Ixtovans were first,’ and that was good enough because you were on their side.”
“Wha!?” Ixtova was a proud kingdom, but this was the first time he’d heard it called the birthplace of civilization.
“I’m afraid I’m teasing you,” she said. “‘My research’ was about a certain kind of ancient tool, and the earliest examples are from Ixtova. After that, they spread to the warmer regions — without much regard for the river.”
“Then that’s the same thing; we didn’t start out separate!” he realized. “You knew that before—? You knew that already??”
“I doubt I was the first, but either way, I was the wrong messenger, with the wrong evidence.” She pointed at the textbook still on his lap, open to the same page. “That makes a bigger impression than a collection of sticks with hooks on them.”
He stared curiously.
“For extra leverage throwing a spear; they would have made it easier to kill large game.”
“Oh!” Finally something made perfect sense, and Treize pounced on it. “And the people who couldn’t grow as much food in the cold had to hunt more, so they invented that!”
“So it would seem.”
“And what everyone thinks really is true, they just think it for the wrong reason...”
“It’s a funny thing,” the professor sighed, smiling. “’Did we come first?’ The further back you go, the stranger a question it is. Who do we mean by ‘we’? People we can trace bloodlines to? People we trace a history to? People who lived on the same land as us? People who spoke the same language? Those could all be different people. And what does it mean to come first? Just to have existed, or to have been civilized, and what do we mean by ‘civilized’? It could just mean who was first to use a certain tool, and so I could say what I did without feeling too dishonest.
“But wartime patriotism doesn’t deal in that kind of question. When that incident I told you about happened, and a professor was killed, I was still a student in Sou-Beil, and everyone at my school said ‘Look at Roxche; they say they’re a freer country than us, but look what they do.’ But then when I was a professor and suggested that the river wasn’t always a cultural boundary, I was voted out of the Royal Academy, which meant I couldn’t hold a post at a university. I didn’t leave because I wanted to, but when I had to choose between my country and my calling, well, it’s human nature, isn’t it, to turn on the one who made you choose?”
Treize nodded numbly. There was nothing to say to that. Maybe he had always known that the world was that crazy; it had always been part of the story that the old man who led Lillia’s parents to the mural had hidden it for years until the armistice made people ready for it, but hearing that wasn’t the same as sitting in a train compartment with someone who’d been punished for the very thing that had made his father a hero. But then, maybe his father shouldn’t feel like such a “fake;” if being the right messenger at the right time wasn’t enough, then maybe every hero was just a fake...
After several moments of silence, the professor shrugged. “To this day you see articles in the journals that lay out all the evidence for one conclusion, then walk away from it at the end and say something politically safe. But maybe it’s better that way. Asking too many questions about that mural might be asking ‘should we start shooting each other again?’ The truth about what people were doing thousands of years ago... It’s my calling to chase after it, but still, it hardly seems worth one person’s life now.
“Which means that what I’ve been telling you...” She paused and made certain to catch Treize’s eyes. “Well, if you’ll keep my secret, I’ll keep yours.”
That startled him to attention. “What— What do you mean??”
“You’re not just Princess Merielle’s ‘childhood playmate,’ are you?”
He hesitated for a moment, holding his breath, but the look in the professor’s eyes left him no hope that he could salvage the cover story, and he let his head fall with a hot sigh. “Is it that obvious?”
“Well, you look very much like her,” the professor said. “You told me your mother taught you to use a camera, and Queen Francesca is known for that hobby — and I’ve noticed that you hesitate whenever you mention the discovery of the mural. You have to make certain you don’t say ‘Father,’ don’t you?” she questioned.
“I should just ask Mama for my pendant back,” he said, admitting total defeat. “How many people have figured this out?”
“It doesn’t matter much, does it, as long as your family maintains the pretense?” the professor asked. “I can’t think anyone’s going to get rid of you now.”
He laughed once. “No, but my sister did scare me once when I was little.”
“Yeah, she told me what they were supposed to do with an extra like me; now the Guard would just take them away and hide them somewhere, but in the old days she said they’d take them through seven crossroads so they couldn’t find their way back and just leave them — and then Papa tried to cheer me up and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.”
“Oh my goodness! What did you do then?”
“I kept very still until I could get away and then hid in the attic until I got hungry. Mama finally had to sit me down and tell me they were keeping me.”
The professor laughed. “Well, you don’t make it seem like there’s any risk of a succession conflict. That was the original idea behind the law, wasn’t it? Especially four hundred years ago, Ixtova was such a difficult place to live, the danger of a civil war wasn’t just how many would be killed outright, but how many would freeze or starve.”
“That’s true...” he agreed. He couldn’t tell her the reason he had heard at the time of the New Years’ incident with Claire Nikhto, that it was to keep siblings from fighting over the “treasure” — although after the treasure turned out to be a passage through the mountains into Sou-Beil, that seemed like a strange thing to fight over. Now it occurred to him that it could be something to fight with, if one side offered it up in exchange for outside support, and if it had been exploited, Ixtova would have become a battlefield with the effects the professor suggested. Maybe it was all to prevent that by protecting the secret — but then, he realized, the ban on extra royal children wasn’t something openly announced, either. “How do you know about that law, anyway?”
“The results make it hard to keep too secret, and my sister back in Sou-Beil is a royalty fan.”
Treize regarded her with mingled confusion and horror. “A what?”
“Some people follow movie stars; she’s one who follows royalty. —Don’t worry, I won’t set her on you,” the professor assured him, with only limited benefit. “She thought your parents had gotten around it by having one of their Guard adopt you.”
“No, that was just a lie...”
“But if it makes you feel better, I probably wouldn’t have realized if I hadn’t been listening to her all summer.”
“I bet you did hear it all summer,” he lamented, sinking into his seat with embarrassment.
“She said it was the worst thing that had ever happened, although somehow she said it as if it were the best thing that had ever happened.”
Treize gave the professor a look that meant to say “You’re not helping.”
“Well,” she concluded, “you have enough to deal with without tormenting yourself over whether you’ve found your calling yet.”
Disarmed, he stared at her again. He really was an open book to everyone but Lillia, wasn’t he? “You’re probably right,” he admitted, but settled unsmiling into the corner. It was easy enough to say...
The professor seemed to notice him pulling inward, and she went back to sorting her papers.
Treize looked one more time at the textbook image of the mural in thin, flat reproduction, then closed the book and, seeing nowhere else to put it, wedged it beside his hip. He closed his eyes and tried to reconjure that moment of standing in front of the real thing; could it survive everything the professor had just shovelled onto it? Yes, there it was still, engulfingly present and at the same time gone forever. There were the lines left by their hands, but now, probably, “they” weren’t the abstracted, near-angelic “first people” he had imagined before. Supposing they were the kind of people who painted tombs and palaces, and maybe even fought with their neighbors across the river, then why this? Why here?
Closer still... Deeper still...
His mind spun possibilities he knew to be fanciful; maybe war had been raging, and the artists were making a secret tribute to a forbidden friendship or love; maybe the past was like the present in ways he had never imagined, and the people had been celebrating a declaration of peace after years of war; maybe a hero from each side had happened to meet in that cave and had found the lower tier of paintings there already, and maybe it had somehow meant to the creators of the upper tier what their own work meant to people now. More soberly, he realized for the first time that the painters would have needed something like a ladder. Painted as if if were a tomb or a palace, it was even possible that the cave had been used in those ways. Suddenly he wanted to turn around and go back and search it for clues as if it were a crime scene, and he realized that was what the graduate students had really been doing amidst the chat about love lives and sporting matches, and he had missed it.
More touching... More taunting...
He picked up the textbook again to at least make those comparisons himself, but he paused. “What’s it like?” he asked.
The professor was busy scanning through some papers. “Hm?”
“Other than the politics part, what’s it like?”
“Well,” she still didn’t look up, “you spend a little of your time digging through thousand-year-old trash heaps and a lot of your time slaving away at puzzles with no answers.”
‘Puzzles with no answers’ seemed right. Already every new clue felt like going down a blue spiral, closing in, but always in its center the black infinite never really knowing...
And how did it feel not to know? How had it felt when the professor asked one question and exploded the ground he stood on? It had felt like the world turned upside down — Treize thought that he really could say that, and he smiled. Every time his father offered it on the plane rides of his childhood, he would eagerly seize the chance for a barrel roll: that thrilling shift of gravity, those few seconds of everything familiar turning into an awe-striking mystery, looking at the world upside down... His father had gotten into the habit of making it the last maneuver before returning for a landing, because it left Treize in such rapturous detachment that his heart wouldn’t be in anything further. Somehow in all his own times piloting planes he had never felt ready to try it himself, but he had felt a tingle of envy when he read in a magazine about aerobatic planes that could sustain inverted flight. Maybe Lillia would have one of those...
No, if it could turn the world upside down, the temptation only pulled tighter, to see how far down that spiral would go, how close to the empty center. Even if part of the way had to be closed off because other people following could destroy it — but that only pulled it tighter again, with a noble “someone should know” not quite drowning out a more childish, selfish “I want to know”...
“Do you really want to know?” the professor asked.
“Wha??” Treize startled; had she been reading his mind?
“What it’s like. Do you really want to know?”
“Yeah,” he answered without hesitation. It echoed distantly off the memory, as if he’d been asked “shall we take it for a barrel roll?”
“Well, you still need an academic advisor, don’t you?” she said, knocking her papers even. “But with that kind of look on your face, I’m not going to go easy on you.”
His eyes perked innocently as he realized what fierce determination had seized them, but after only a moment, he embraced it with a smile. His answer was one brisk nod.
When Fall Break ended, the professor set Treize to work on the first, most basic thing that she said every archaeologist needed to know:
Keys clacking along in only a clumsy non-rhythm; typebars jamming, striking too softly or too hard; ill-smelling and barely effective correction tape... It was as menial and frustrating as the time his right arm had been broken and he had tried to write left-handed, but he attacked it unstintingly and without complaint. Of course keeping meticulous and legible records would be part of it. Of course professional-looking papers would be part of it.
He could see what it pointed to, and that was everything he needed.
** * FIN * **