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Escapementby Jay Lake
P A O L I N A
The boats had been drawn up in the harbor at Praia Nova when the great waves came two years past. The men of the village generally thought this a blessing, for that circumstance had spared their lives. The women generally thought this a curse for much the same reason. A Muralha remained silent and unforgiving as ever, a massive rampart of stone, soil, and strangeness soaring 150 miles high to separate Northern Earth from Southern Earth. In the shadow of the Wall, there was less food than ever until boats could be rebuilt and nets rewoven, but no self- respecting man would go without dinner. So the women quietly starved themselves and their babies to keep the drunken beatings away.
No one starved Paolina Barthes, though. Demon- haunted or touched by God, in either case she had saved Praia Nova after the waves. Still, she was boy-thin and narrow- shouldered, not yet to her monthlies though she wore the black linen dress that all the grown women favored.
The fidalgos spent every Friday night in the great hall at the edge of Praia Nova. The building had been erected in an
absolute absence of architects orat least prior to Paolinaengineers, but instead with the dogged determination of the
fidalgos that they knew best. Generations of pigheadedness had raised a monstrosity of coral cut from the reefs at the foot of a Muralha, granite chipped with slow, steady pain from the bones of the Wall itself, marble salvaged in furtive, fearful expeditions to the cities of the enkidus higher up. This resulted in something like a cross between a cathedral and a
toolshed. Still, it had survived the quakes that came with the waves, where many of the traditional adôbe houses had not.
It was a harlequin of a building as well. The mix of materials and styles across the years made the thing a patchwork, a
Josephan coat to shelter the guiding lights of Praia Nova in their wise deliberations.
This night, they were drunk and afraid.
Paolina knew this the way she knew most things. It was obvious from the scents in the air, the rhythm of the glasses pounding the table, the fact that another of Fra Bellicos children had been buried that day in the hard, thin soil on which Praia Nova huddled, 317 steps above the coral jetty and the unforgiving sea.
She walked toward the great hall on the path they called Rua do Rei the Kings Street. In truth only four men and one woman in Praia Nova had ever seen a street, and they had no king save the Lord God Almighty. Rua do Rei was just wide enough for two goats to pass, and had a rope strung to provide a grip during one of the great Wall storms off the Atlantic. One side opened into a ravine where the villagers threw what little garbage they were not able to intensively and obsessively reuse. The other passed close to a knee of a Muralha.
Juan and Portis Mendes had found a boy, but no one had brought him to her. Instead the fools had taken their prize to the fidalgos.
He was English, shed heard, and had not come from the sea like every Praia Novado. Not from the sea at all, but down the eastern path through the countries and kingdoms of a Muralha toward mythic Africa.
Paolina hated, hated, hated being told things. All they had to do was let her see and she would find a way. When the
earthquakes dried the springs that watered Praia Nova, shed built the pedal- powered pump to raise water from the Westerly Creek down near sea level. When Jorg Penoyer got his leg trapped up on the coal face, shed figured out the pressure points in the rock and set rope-and-tackle rig to get him out without an amputation. She understood the world, and when the fidalgos managed to forget Paolina was a girl, they remembered that.
Even more she hated being told she was merely a girl. Not even a woman yet. God had not put her on this Northern Earth to squeeze out some louts get like a she- goat every nine months after being topped. Women lived only to serve, while the pilas of the men made them Lords of Creation.
To hell with that, Paolina thought.
She stopped outside the great hall and stared up at the sky. The earths track gleamed, tracing a brass- bright line across
the hemi sphere of the heavens, that barely bowed outward from a Muralha. The Wall itself remained mighty as ever, the
worlds stone muscle, greater than any imagination could encompass.
Paolina smiled in the evening darkness. God could set His little traps. She would find her way out.
The rising blare of voices called her onward. She marched toward the doors of the great hall, closed now against evenings chill and the untoward attentions of people like her.
Inside, the men did what they usually did, which was pretend not to notice her. Dom Alvaro, Dom Pietro, Fra Bellico, Benni Penoyer, and Dom Mendes were pulled close around a plank table in the main hall, a bottle of bagaceira between them drained down to eye- watering vapors and bubbled glass.
The English boya young man, reallysat on a bench against the west wall. Half a leering face, broken off some great enkidu carving, was jammed into the stone above him. He was sallow and burned by the sun, with greasy, pale hair and a tired look in his eyes. Their gazes met a moment. There was no spark of recognition, no sense of a kindred spirit close to hand.
Just another man, then, in love with his own pila, to whom she was nothing more than furniture.
Still, Paolina wished shed gotten to him first, before the stranger witnessed the drunken anger of the fidalgos. He would
think them nothing more than a village of fools. This boy, who must have seen London or Camelot once, now knew her people to be little more than asses braying in an unswept stable at the very edge of the world.
Paolina felt her anger rising again.
“We cannot afford him,” shouted Dom Mendes. He was haggard, dusty to the elbows with the work of building new boats. Oh, they had not liked her opinion of that effort. “That old fool who lived among us before the waves came was bad enough, and we dwelt amid plenty then. There are too many mouths now.”
“One less today,” blubbered Fra Bellico, who had not missed a meal yet though he kept his Bible always close to hand.
“My boys hunt,” Mendes hissed.
Penoyer snorted. “Yes, and bring back more mouths.” No fidalgo he, his grandfather having come off an English boat by way of unsuccessful mutiny. Only quality took the titles of respect in Praia Nova.
Caught between anger and embarrassment, Paolina finally stepped up to their table. She shoved herself between Mendes and Pietro. “Do you suppose he might understand Portuguese?”
Bellico waved a pudgy hand. “He is English. The roast beefs never speak anyone elses tongue, only their own barbarous barf.”
“Then I shall speak to him in English,” she announced. “Perhaps he brings knowledge or tools with which to feed himself and others.”
Penoyer, pale as a grub with hair the color of fireweed flowers, shot her a glare before answering in that language, “No good will come of it, girl.”
The boy perked up a bit, then slumped down as the words sank in.
“It cant possibly get any worse,” she snapped, also in English.
Let Penoyer explain it to the fidalgos.
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