Cyclopaedia Chapter Twenty-Eight: Cliffs Of Forever
The man standing between Hedvin and the village seemed to be expecting him. The man was wearing a bird mask. Hedvin had spent an extra week in the woods, lost. He was cold, thin, half starved. He had trouble thinking. The clarity of thought that he started the journey with was now gone, expended through cold nights and exhausted supplies. This man must be expecting him, why else would he be standing there on the path between the forest and the village? Behind the mask he could barely see a set of eyes.
— Fox, the man said.
He held the fox mask in his hands, upended, like a bowl. Hedvin noticed it now. Hedvin stepped closer. He could see the fox mask was filled with Vermilion. He didn't know how long it was since he dosed. There were a few awkward attempts on the trail, but with the bad weather and his exhaustion he wasn't sure how successfully. He saw the mask handed to him and the yearning for it was viciously palpable.
But what did the man want? Hedvin hesitated. Did it matter who he was, it probably didn't matter who he was. He was Bird. He remembered now the strange mythical consumption of the village, this is how they behave. They dosed constantly. They were out of their heads. They lived inside this construction, this story, where everyone took shape as visible representations.
It will rejuvenate me, he thought, after being on the trail. It didn't matter who this person was. Was he from the village? He was tall. Was he familiar? No, it was Bird, that must be why. Bird gestured again for him to take the fox mask. Hedvin stepped forward and took the mask from him. He felt a blooming anxiety he couldn't understand, but then he'd wandered in the cold for a long time, days? He remembered trying to gather food, miserable berries and terrible tasting leaves. He'd been sick. Water wasn't a problem, there were plenty of streams and springs. But the cold tore him down—it was becoming winter and the nights were terrible. He wanted a fire and he wanted something to eat. The Vermilion would help, he thought.
Hedvin took the mask and placed it front of his face. Bird grabbed his head and the mask, pressing them together hard, then momentarily lifted his own mask to blow into it, forcefully. A large amount of Vermilion was made into a thick red cloud. Hedvin breathed in. When the dust settled Hedvin lowered the mask. He considered the face he'd seen briefly of the man known as Bird. A man from the city, definitely, he wasn't a villager.
— Who are you? Hedvin asked. His head swam, he wondered about his own physical weakness and about the strength of the dose he was given.
— Bird, the man said.
Did Hedvin know him? Hedvin wondered. The effects were coming on fast, much heavier than he expected. Maybe this batch was very fresh. He smacked his lips and he could taste the grubs. Very fresh.
— What's your name, I mean, what's your person name? Hedvin asked.
— Eirik, the man said. Hedvin didn't recognize it. Wait, no, he did recognize it. He knew who this was.
— You're a Compiler? Hedvin said.
— Follow me, Bird said.
Hedvin couldn't claim to know every Compiler, there were too many. But he was certain this man was one of them. Not by name, the name was common enough. It was the movement, the subtle qualities of physiognomy, the features of the face he momentarily saw, a face that had been preoccupied by the structure of the world, and had gained that distinctness. As for the name, he recalled a Compiler named Eirik noted for remote expeditions. He was a Compiler and he'd found the village, and he knew about Vermilion. How long had he been taking it?
Ah, it's too late, he realized. It doesn't matter anymore. How big was that dose? The man, Bird, Compiler Eirik, walked ahead of him down the forking path, away from the village. Not towards the woods Hedvin had emerged from, but upwards. Hedvin held the fox mask in his hands, it was light, like it was made of the visions of green leaves and the sound of rabbits. Bird flew. He had trouble keeping up. The path zigzagged around outcrops of rock, trees becoming sparse. Hedvin was worn out. He begged Bird to wait, while he caught his breath. Bird waited motionless while Hedvin sat, breathing hard, staring at the mask in his hands.
— How long have you been here? How long have you been taking it? Hedvin asked.
Bird said nothing.
— Where are we going? Hedvin asked.
— We need to get there before dark, there isn't much time, Bird said.
Hedvin stood, following Bird. This was wrong, he thought, I need food and warmth I need to be wrapped up comfortably. Instead of the rush he'd expected from his dose he felt the reverse, as if everything was being sucked out of him. Decoherence. Instead of the expected congealing of concepts, he was being dragged along a rocky bottom, a wilderness path by a man wearing a bird mask. He felt powerless to stop it. Regret prickled. How had he ended up here? He asked to stop again. The ground felt moist and soft, as if he could sink into it, as if he would sink down into the center of the world. And what was the world made of if not the same malleable substance, the same temporary fluids he was made from. He was scared of dissolving.
— You gave me an overdose, didn't you. Hedvin said.
— It's important we keep moving.
— Where are we going?
— You'll see. It's important.
— I want to go to the village.
— Not yet. Afterwards. Come on, let's go.
Hedvin didn't know why he followed Bird. There was a logic to it, although no logic really was necessary. There was a rightness to it, although right and wrong were temporary conditions. He was losing himself. He held up the fox mask and looked through it, through the holes that were eyes. He reached behind it and pulled the leather strap around, securing it. His thoughts and worries faded into movement, on the path, trying to catch Bird, the trees thining as they climbed higher, the rocky terrain a game. He could go like this forever, he thought, until he collapsed maybe.
They came to a plateau, wide, relatively barren, covered in short, tough grass. He had never been here before. It smelled like dirt, and there were strong winds nearby. Bird seemed to know where he was going. It would be dark soon, he could feel this in his gut, a tugging sensation, to get close to the ground, to be in the safety of the trees, to watch out for things above in the sky, to be warm.
He wanted water, he was panting, he was so thirsty and there was a terrible taste in his mouth. Like decay. Like carrion.
— Water, Fox said.
— Soon, said bird, a little longer.
Bird moved lightly. They ascended again, then the world in front of them dropped off with a sudden descent. They were on the edge of a cliff. He could see the valley below, mountains in the distance. The cliff stretched far in both directions. The fading light of day caught along the mountains, streaming rays across the edges, but the valley was already dark.
Fox backed away, the proximity to the chasm was uncomfortable. Bird, though, hovered.
— Come here, you can see them just starting to light up, Bird said. He turned and was looking down, over the edge of the cliff.
Fox moved forward, hesitatingly, looking outwards then looking down where he saw faint points of light. The points were birds, whose crests glowed, growing stronger as the light of the day faded. He waited—knowing that the birds too understood the end of the day, becoming excited, each point contributing to a cloud of light that ebbed and swelled. And the longer he looked the more sure he was that the birds knew Fox and Bird were there, near them.
— They know we're here, Fox said to Bird.
Bird said nothing. The daylight was gone. Fox could still see, in an impression, the white edges of Bird's mask, the short sharp beak, the prominent delineation of color. Behind this he saw the dim glow of the birds as they swirled above the valley. They flew, they reached up. The pattern was familiar to Fox, he tried to place it—as a sequence, a natural relay, like the blinking lights on that mechanical console, indicating a cognition that was made of a million parts. It was a scattered realization. The sensation was fleeting.
— Do you see? Bird said.
The cloud of birds had risen up in front of them. They pulsated. It was obvious what they were saying. This is us, they said.
— Yes, Fox replied.
The cloud of birds rose, flying up above them, then slowly sinking back downwards, closer to them. Fox could see individuals now, their eyes and beaks, the movement of wings and their efforts. And they became closer still, he felt the wind from their feathers, he felt the air of their breath. Then around him, their claws were clutching his jacket. Tugging. The lights from their crests illuminated him. He was flying. He could see Bird standing there, under him. And then he could see the valley below.