Empire of Dirt: Chapter Three

The Mountains | Oil on Paper

The Mountains | 2014 | Oil on Paper

He had seen it carved into the stone rock face in the caves high in the mountains. ‘In the camps only are you free.’ It was hidden underneath a shelf of rock, deep within one of the smaller caves. Only somebody who knew where it was would be able to find it, and then only if the person had a light and slid on their back for several meters. Who had written it and indeed who had discovered it first was often talked about but never agreed on. When he had been up in the mountains, they had showed it to all of the new ones that came to join them. They showed it not as a method of conversion but in order to understand just what it might mean. Of course, some had seen that phrase before – he had once seen it as a child – but nobody had ever discussed it in confines of the Empire. There it was only ever kept amongst its denizens hidden deep within their thoughts.

Up in the mountains they gathered from all the various caves and encampments one night of every week under an overhang of rocks besides the small waterfall. It was a place that they used for meetings of over five people up in the mountains. The noise of the fall would, they knew, drown their talking from the hearing if it was there. There they could speak in New English without fear. Mostly they were there to talk of simple things like food and where it was best to organize the latrines for the month but often by the end of these gatherings they would begin speaking of these words.

‘It is deception, a kind of sanctioned antipropaganda,’ Indeema had said, ‘it’s an attempt to root out the counterrevolutionaries. Get people to believe it and they might expose themselves and be easier to track. It made some dissenters even willing to go.’ Others said it was the truth about the camps. People were not sent there to be free but the camps were self-governing. It was said they were democracies, properly so-called. A third group said they were hardly camps at all, merely other states which had survived the climate wars and which had placed sanctions on Kaapsdawn. The ‘camps,’ they said was a corruption of the word Cumpsbouy, which was a city-state far to the east across the deserts. What these states were like, however, it was impossible to say. There had been no news from or of anybody outside of the state in living memory. There were people that lived over the seas, there was proof of that. Occasionally foreign ships were seen and warded off by rocket fire. But across the deserts to the east nobody knew for certain.

There was a fourth option too, one that he was more inclined to believe.   The camps were places of death, places where the political prisoners were sent for hard labour. Where men, women and children were hardly fed and worked to their death. ‘Onlee in dethe iz dere fridom.’ He had read that gouged in the soil in the small forest above his parents’ chalet. Freedom was death, Apiwe had told him. ‘In the camps only are you dead.’ He had spoken up one night to tell them that freedom was only a reference to death.   That he had been told this. By who, they had asked him. By the son of a guardian, he had confessed. They had laughed at him. ‘Your thoughts are still clouded,’ Indeema and the others would laugh, ‘you can’t believe in those things that you have been told.’ He had felt helpless when they had said this to him. They had spoken to him like he was still a child who believed in the Ysterkind. But there were still certain things that he believed in from Kaapsdawn. Things that to him still made sense. Like that the camps were places of death. ‘Why don’t you all go then?’ he had rejoined. They had laughed for a bit and then changed the subject slowly back to schedules.

The truth was that there was no proof of any of the talk about the camps, all of it was mere conjecture. If the people in the camps were worked to death, what they worked on was never seen. There was never any proof of their workmanship on anything. No food was produce there, for food production occurred in the poly-tunnels in the valleys to the south-west. And the factories to the north produced everything from furniture, to soap to boiled sweets. This they all knew, because most of them, who were up there in the mountains, came from these factories.   They were the managers, the accountants, the health-and-safety officers of these plants and agricultural departments. They knew their output capacity better than they knew the language that they chose to speak in. What is more, nobody ever returned from the camps. People were taken there and were never seen again.

Early the next morning, after the night of the argument, he dressed in his ski pants and green marino polo neck and slipped his rope over his head onto his right shoulder. The day might be clear. He had hardly slept staring out at the peaks, willing that the weather would hold. It was rare to have such clear days. As he lay there watching the light the rushes, that still clung half dead to the mountains, seemed to rattle a little more pleasingly in the breeze, as if they too were anticipating the sun. He gazed out every time he woke from his disturbed sleep and he was acutely aware of his cheeks, using them as sensors to test the temperature of the night. He was determined to see if he could glimpse any evidence of the camps.

‘Michael, where are you going?’ Indeema said in a sleepy yet worried tone as she heard him slipping on his belt of hexes and nuts. He did not want to respond. He felt like a child in her presence even though she was not much older than him. But her husband was widely considered to be the leader of the resistance and he felt somehow cowed by this knowledge. He knew that she thought little of him, and his ideas. He knew that she thought he was really still too brainwashed to understand. ‘I am going to the top of Kailtu .’

‘For what?’

‘To look across the plains. It will be clear today.’

She sat up in her bed of river rushes and blankets and looked out. And then got up and searched through her bag of belongings and pulled out a set of binoculars. ‘Here take these. The one lens is broken but you can see perfectly clearly through the other.’

‘You don’t think that I am stupid doing this?’

‘No, if you are able to see anything it might help us. But you know that nobody has seen anything even from there.’

‘But was it a day like this?’

She looked out at the peaks which stood out with a painted sharpness against the red of the morning sky. ‘I don’t know,’ she said still looking. ‘I wasn’t here when Cteeba is said to have done it.’

He knew Cteeba. His father had worked in mountains with him. He was slightly younger than his father, and was full of anger. Everybody had known that he would end up in the camps. He had made it clear to almost everybody by the time the paladins came after him. But he had gone – no one knew where – and then come back and was then said to have been taken to the camps.

‘Cteeba?’ he said.

‘Cteeba, was a good climber and I think once he was a good man.’

‘No, I don’t believe he was.’

‘No, perhaps you are right. But he would not have lied to us. Not then.’

He shrugged and slipped the binoculars over his head, placed his ice pick in his belt and secured his blanket-roll around his left shoulder. He took a small rucksack of provisions that he had saved from the dinner the night before. He thought of saying that Cteeba may not have lied about not seeing the camps but he knew he had lied about climbing to the top. Cteeba wasn’t a bad climber but he was fast enough to have made it to the top and back in one day as he had reported. He knew this because even he was not confident then that he could do it and he was a better climber than Cteeba.

He slept there, at the top of Kailtu, that night. Freezing as it was, up on this the highest peak, he knew that it would be too dark by the time he got there to climb down the south face. The wind was biting and the salt crystals from the acrid clouds of pollution whipped about his face. The salt at least would melt the ice making his descent in parts a little easier, in others a little more dangerous.

He reached the top late that afternoon. He had, while he was climbing, been looking across the deserts to the east. He had on a few occasions taken the binoculars to his eye but he was never steady enough to see properly. It was only at the top that he had sat down and steadied his hands. There far in the distance he could make out the haze of the horizon. What moisture there was out there the sun baked off the white sands, remorselessly deadening the land with the reflected heat. The shimmer of the light was too intense to bear through the one lens and his eye began the burn as he looked out of the flat empty dessert.

He prepared his bed in a small hollow just on the west side of the peak. He made sure that the brush that he tore off to make a mattress was the driest that he could find, stamping it down into the hollow between the rocks. He made a small fire. They would not be able to see it up there where the helicopters could not fly. The winds and the altitude were too high for that. He sat at the top of the peak for a while watching the sun go down, staring at the horizon through the one lens of the binoculars. Perhaps there was, just there, far to the east, far beyond the horizon, a sign of smoke rising from the camps. He knew from his father, who had been a mathematician before he was sent down, that the horizon was some 260km away and that the smoke, if it was smoke, might be another 250km from that. But whether it was smoke or just a heat haze it was really impossible to say.

As he lay in his rocky cot, the fire long since burnt out, with the salt crystals whipping about his face he thought of what he would tell the others. ‘I have seen smoke.’ But the more and more he thought about it the less likely it seemed to him that it was smoke. No, by the end of the freezing night he had decided that he had not seen anything. He would tell them that there was no sign of the camps. But that maybe, if they did exist, then they were over 500km away.

Chapter One

Chapter Two