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A bright violet mask against the amber air

from 8. The Historian by Disparition



Whether Marisol or Fremont was responsible for the destruction of Sacramento was a topic of daily discourse, with opinions tending to follow pre-established ideological leanings more than anything to do with the fire itself. The old nets were dying out by then, and news was slow and fractured. On the day that rider came, Fremont was still considered missing. Most people in the village at that time were socialists, happy to see Fremont gone if perhaps uncomfortable with how it had happened, admiring but intimidated by Marisol and the circle of constant change around her.

Lorr explained nothing. They were overtaken with a solemnity none had seen before. Whether they explained anything to Ant in private, still no one knows. Lorr was still friendly, but distant, and hurried, preparing for departure with none of the usual excitement they displayed before their expeditions.

Even more striking was the change in Xavier. On the morning they left, the trucks lined up in the lot, he stood atop the cabin of the band’s flatbed, upright and still as stone. His constant wide grin and Napoleonic uniform were gone, replaced by a rough gray robe and a hood drawn over his eyes, holding a wooden staff, wearing such a grim expression he was barely recognizable. Behind him on the flatbed, the band stood in neat rows, still in uniform. Lorr emerged from the library, the blue helmet we had not seen in years now joined by a greatcoat of the same color, with a scarf of bright violet wrapped around their face. The band took up a solemn march and the column moved out. Somehow Xavier kept his balance atop the cab, seemed almost as though he was floating just above it. That’s when we should have known. Isobel stopped and fixed me with a look again. That’s when we should have known.

The air was heavy with ash that day, and as the trucks moved off towards the column of smoke to the north, a subtle glow of separation could be seen around them, a small space where the ash wasn’t, and brightest in a sphere around the tall figure of Xavier, still just barely visible even as they cresting the horizon. On the roof of the library, the lone figure of Ant, wearing a bright violet mask against the amber air.

With both Lorr and Xavier gone at the same time, it felt like all the lights had gone out in the village. And eventually, the lights really did go out. Lorr had left ten of the blue helmets behind for security and helping out with maintenance and other work, but with no one in charge, most drifted off, though two were still around, currently off on a supply run just now, and there was Isobel and Elena, and a handful of others from the old days and new. But most of the machines fell into disrepair and the lights went out. Visitors had stopped coming after Sacramento. Another time of chaos had come to the valley, Second California was shattered. Marisol’s war moved to the south. The foothills of the Sierra and the valley filled with wanderers and bandits, but somehow none of them found the village even though the buildings were filled with valuable supplies and objects, and the gardens gave substantial yield, in those days they almost glowed and pulsed with life. This was Xavier’s doing, Elena was certain. Right before they left, she had seen him circling the garden beds and the perimeter of the village itself.

And so, hidden from the world, forgotten by history, the dark village slept on and those who remained grew old together in unspoken sadness.

And then I had come. Did I know why, on this day of days, I had been able to find this forgotten place, break the lines of Xavier, and cross the threshold?

All this time, Isobel had held her bamboo spear in the fire. The marshmallow had disappeared, and now the tip of the spear was glowing dull blue. It was not damaged in any way by the fire. She pulled it out and the glow remained. Then pointed the unlit end toward me and gestured for me to take it. I was surprised by its weight and cold touch. Then I realized it was not made of bamboo at all, but carved stone.

* * *

Do you life under a sky crossed by lines and falling droplets that bind and bring you down? Do you feel watchers on the sides of your ways and through your windows? Does chatter hang in invisible lines between the objects in your room? Do you mind your words and movements at all times, lest you by tracked by eyes of glass and ears of wire?

Such was the world of my birth. By the time I had crossed the continent, the old nets were cut into regional pieces, then rolled up and tucked away into places like the Bubble and its exclaves. The age of paper was unfurling. And as it did it cracked and peeled and blew away.

* * *

That night I slept by the fire, wrapped in blankets Isobel found in the library, and dreamed of standing in that same place where I slept, unmoving under bright sun, surrounded by seas of grass, I held out my hands and a bee the size of a cat descended from the sky and landed on them, I drew the bee to my chest and was filled with the warmth of its motion.

I awoke just before down. The door to the library sill propped open. When I entered I heard Ant storing, saw the shape of him on the chair where I’d sat last night. Quietly, in near darkness I made my way to the other side of the large chamber and began gathering books. It was too dark to see the titles so I separated book from non-book until I had two neat rows of book stacks lining one of the walls.

After an hour of this, I went back to the stove by the door. Ant was still asleep. I dug around in the cabinets, chests of drawers, and junk piles. In a burlap sack there were coffee beans, dark and shining with oil. In a velvet covered jewelry box I found fresh green pods of cardamom that peeled open to reveal pitch black seeds whose scent can unlock oceans of memory. A rolltop desk revealed a mortar and pestle, sieves, a set of metal pots, a porcelain jar full of sugar. In an ancient tin bearing the word “ALTOIDS” I found fresh peppercorns, still wrapped in fragile pink shells. I ground up five of these in the mortar and pestle along with one pod of cardamom and a large handful of the coffee and pinch of sugar. All of this went into one of the metal pots. A row of glass jugs full of water stood near the stacked kerosene tanks, barely out of view of the door. I filled the pot and set it on the stove. I took it off about thirty seconds before the water boiled, then ran it through a sieve into another metal pot. On the chair, Ant was beginning to stir. Through the door, I saw the figures of Isobel and Selena crossing the lot. As they approached, I looked at the ground under their feet, at the asphalt, and saw right through it into the dark rich soil below. In the rolltop desk I found a set of small porcelain bowls. I poured out the coffee into four of them, left three on the table in a row, and took the last out the door, silently nodding at Isobel as we passed each other. I walked the edge of the lot drinking my coffee and then found a place where the asphalt had cracked and reeds were growing through. I wedged my fingertips into the crack and felt the source run up through me and down again through my fingers and down, down into the rich deep earth as, piece by broken piece, the asphalt began to rise.

Two weeks later the first postcard arrived. An elder mariachi, long ago acquainted with Isobel and Elena, had stopped by to visit and rest and sing for us. As he was leaving, almost as an afterthought, he pulled a crumpled oily postcard out of his waistband and passed it to Ant. It was from Lorr.

From this postcard we learned of the D____ collapse, as well as the beginnings of the Grapevine Wall. The postcard also said that Xavier was on his way back north and that we should keep an eye out. There was no mention of Lorr’s own plans.

Two weeks later, as we sat around the fire in the evening, our spell was broken by a column of trucks, technicals, and vans that tore in from the eastern horizon in a cloud of dust and circled around perimeter, then stopped once they had surrounded the entire lot. Figures on top of the vehicles wore thick armor and faceshielded helmets. A voice came from one of the vehicles but we couldn’t tell from which, announcing that they were looking for “the witch Xavier Sissoko”. Then they fired up their engines, made their noisesome circle once more, and continued on to the west.

They returned that same night, just a few hours before dawn. They made no announcements and did not stop, they circled the lot over and over, shining bright lights into lot and windows, revving their engines, circling and circling. After what seemed like an hour the left, back to the east again.

In the morning we saw that they had come no closer to the buildings but had torn up some of the new plantings in the outer fields and one of the wooden beds was partially smashed, as through whatever hit it had been slowed before impact. The next night they came again, but still came no closer. The night after we did not see them – instead mysterious deep explosions shook the air all night long, but we could not see any flash or fire in the dark sky.

The next morning as I opened the rolltop desk and picked up the porcelain bowls there was a tiny figure, one inch high, sitting crosslegged underneath them, wearing the uniform of a Napoleonic grenadier and smoking a tiny joint. Rising quickly to his full height of two inches, he took a deep sweeping bow. “I”, he announced, “am Xavier.”. Little puffs of smoke emerged as he spoke. I remembered a draw in which I’d seen a set of thimbles, and served him one full of coffee.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I will get bigger. But it will take ten years, and in the meantime I cannot protect, my workings will not hold, and Elena is too old to fight. You’re going to have to make a deal. Don’t worry, I’ve already made the arrangements.” Then he turned abruptly and in an odd sort of march approached the edge of the desk and lept off. When I looked at the floor there was no trace of him, nor his thimble of coffee.

That afternoon we received the first emissary of the Barón. She rode into the courtyard on a chestnut mare, wearing a robe of glittering silver, as it caught the sun it was a shifting sea of stars. She was Milena Born Free, of the Free City of Fresno, arrow of the Barón Cuesta, here under writ and right, in ofference of Deal between parties not present but bound unto this place. Ant stood in the doorway of the library, the closest I’d ever seen him come to the outside world. It was he that Milena approached and before him she unrolled a long scroll of paper that ran from where she sat up on her horse down to the ground and through the door into the building. He slowly knelt and picked it up in bunches. Most of it was covered in miniature, inscrutable script. At the bottom the largescript signature of “Leonardo Riggio” could be made out as well as a curiously twisted thick dark line with arrows on either end. For some reason it made me think of Xavier. Ant gathered up the paper and disappeared with it into the murk of the library.

Milena dismounted, removed her shining cape – underneath she wore a plain jumpsuit – and tucked it into a sack that seemed far too small to hold it. From this same sack she produced a large and fluffy blanket which she laid out by the fire, lay down on it and fell into a deep sleep. Hours later she awoke and stared into the fire as Isobel and Elena and I ate – and then, for the first time since I arrived, Ant came out and sat down with us.

I’d heard him speak by now of course, the odd word or phrase, but it was rare. It was even more odd now to hear him speak at length, explaining the scroll and what it meant. His voice was soft and rolled smoothly up and down like the gentle hills on the western side of the valley.

Several months ago far to the south, a rich man named Rafael Hernan Cuesta had come into possession, through intrigue and maneuver, of the deed and title for every Barnes & Noble in the Second Republic of California, of which there were supposedly seventeen. Antonio Suarez was to take up again the mantle of CRM. This man Cuesta was aware of the village that had grown here and would arrange for its security as well as for expansion of the fields. Builders would come from the south with truckloads of supplies. The main building was to be cleared of “detritus” and proper living quarters installed there as well as in the outer arms of the mall. The scroll went into some detail about the fortifications a proposed irrigation system connecting with other settlements under control of Cuesta and his local allies. There was no mention of the library, or even of books other than a line about “orderly arrangements of traditional stock”. This I had already accomplished. All of these terms and arrangements had been made in the latter days of Second California. The world had changed, but the Deal would still be honored.


from 8. The Historian, released February 11, 2022
Written by Jon Bernstein
Narrated by Valerie Monique Evering
Music composed and performed by Jon Bernstein


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Disparition Los Angeles, California

Electronic, ambient, industrial, found sounds, beats, piano.

Inspired by history, geography, travel, occult, fiction.

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