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Fiction

Beyond the High Altar

A note to the reader:

I purchased these letters at the bazaar outside the gates of the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2006. I was working that winter for a humanitarian organization in Kabul. The bazaar was a row of shipping containers and battered tarpaulins along the road to the base’s fortified gates. Military vehicles rumbled past, splattering sleet and mud. Inside the containers, merchants warmed their chapped hands before makeshift propane heaters and haggled over cold piles of misappropriated objects: Enfield rifles abandoned by fleeing British armies, Soviet tank helmets abandoned by fleeing Soviet armies, the military surplus contraband which surfaces in the markets of any country where America is fighting a war, and many stranger curiosities. In those piles, I found hundred-year-old pocket watches engraved to long-dead sweethearts, and even a water-damaged copy of Where the Wild Things Are—which I thought might be the strangest thing anyone had ever discovered at a roadside bazaar during a war, until I came across these letters.

The letters were in a leather portfolio, itself enclosed in a weathered oilcloth bag. The letters are undated, though paper, ink, and contents indicate they are from the late nineteenth century. They are signed only “M.”

Enclosed along with the letters is a page of rough pencil sketches of a geared object which bears, I believe, similarity to the Antikythera mechanism—though I am a layman, and the sketches are hurried and incomplete. Perhaps the device referenced by M will surface from among the flotsam of human conflict in some other war bazaar someday. Until then, we have only speculation.

Based upon the scant geographical details provided, I believe the area referred to in the letters is the Afghan side of the Wakhan corridor.

The nomad guides referred to in the letters are most certainly from a Kyrgyz tribe, though they appear to be a splinter group, long isolated from their fellow Kyrgyz.

I have failed to turn up any reliable clue as to the identity of M, or of her husband Richard, or any record of the expedition described. Perhaps publishing the letters will bring someone forward who can establish to whom the correspondence belongs.

Or perhaps, by sharing them, I simply hope to rid myself of the power they have held over me since I first read them, lying awake by electric lantern in my narrow cot in Kabul, accompanied only by the hiss of my propane heater and the purr of snow against the windowpanes.

• • • •

Dearest Emily,

After months of travel (by turns a fascinating adventure and a miserable slog) we are here.

By “here,” I mean the middle of nowhere, in the loneliest place imaginable. For weeks now I have been surrounded by people with whom I can hardly communicate. I can say “Ova” and “Jok” (yes and no) and a smattering of other things; but mostly I just flail my hands about like an idiot while the women of the tribe make signs until I understand they want me to drink a cup of horrible butter, salt and flour-laden tea or eat yet more mutton.

Richard, at least, is pleased. As our guides promised (lured by a few crowns, and the promise of more once we return to Qabul) they have led us to The High Altar. This is where all the threads have led to, beginning with Richard’s purchase at auction of a traveler’s unpublished manuscript, and winding through Paris, Istanbul, Qabul, and over the mountain passes.

I, however, am worried: lately our guides have been demanding more money. Even now, as I write, there is an argument going on outside the iurt between Jyrgal and Richard.

The place: we are high up in a small mountain valley. We reached it last morning, by ascending from a larger valley through a narrow canyon mouth, almost like a gate between two cliffs. The defile beyond was narrow, with black, wet stone on all sides, running for miles with barely enough room for the horses and carts between. Then suddenly it opened up to this magical place—a diamond-shaped field of mountain grass, flanked by cliffs on all sides, with a waterfall sliding thinly down the stones behind the altar.

We have pitched three iurts here—the one they have lent to Richard and myself, and the two iurts of our “guides”—one for Taalai and his wife and two sons, and one for Jyrgal. Jyrgal is the younger brother of Taalai, Richard tells me Jyrgal’s wife died last year, and left him grieving, with no children. Perhaps this is why he is causing so much trouble for us.

The High Altar is a chunk of white marble, run through with veins of crimson. It was hewn from its place, dragged here at heaven knows what effort, and chiseled into its current rough rectangular shape. A gnarled evergreen, stunted by altitude, overhangs it. The tree’s branches are knotted with fragments of cloth tied to it as offerings. Some are bright and recent, others faded by the seasons.

Most extraordinary, though, are the skulls; piled around the altar are hundreds of Marco Polo ram skulls with their great, occult yards of spiraling horn. The skulls are stacked in pyramids taller than a person. Their empty eye sockets stare south over the green diamond of the valley.

The altar is no unused artifact. The path leading to it across the grass is well worn. Beyond, another path—so dreadfully faint it almost seems an illusion—leads further into the mountains.

Tomorrow they will make their offering.

Richard is coming into the iurt. I will break off here. I love you dearly. There is nowhere I would rather be than with you on your picket lines. When I return to England, I am going to stand beside you on those lines. I know this will surprise you. I will explain in my next letter. For now I remain

your devoted sister M

• • • •

Dearest Emily,

Our guides are abandoning us. They tell us they will go down the mountain after making their offering. Richard is in a cold fury at their broken promises. The faint trace of a trail leading beyond the altar has convinced him we are near our goal. After the argument, he came into the iurt, loaded both his Webley revolvers, and sat on the trunk, mumbling “damn it all” over and over again. For a moment I thought he was going to walk out and gun them all down—starting with Jyrgal, who has been a continual thorn in his side.

After sitting there for some time, however, he holstered the two guns, wrapped them in their oilcloths, and put them in his satchel. He got a fire lit and tea going, bringing me mine in the enameled cup you gave to me. Watching him, I was again struck by the fact that here, lighting fires and making tea in the least comfortable of conditions, he is in his element. Gone is clumsy, shy Richard—the Richard that avoids dancing like the plague and will turn his horse off the road into the forest if he sees an acquaintance riding toward him. He is no longer the office-bound academic scribbler either, with his piles of papers, his reading glasses, and his stuffed marmot with its fur singed from when he dropped it in the fireplace trying to get a better look at the structure of its forepaws.

There is something rather heroic about him, here. That is, if you put aside the fact that, in order to make tea for me, he put his reading glasses on again, and is measuring the tea with a tiny scale and the water in the kettle with a thermometer. Even in this, however, there is an adventurer’s logic: from the boiling point of the water he has been determining our altitude.

Sister, this trip has finally brought me round to your position on the state of women in this world. I promised I will try to explain, so here it is, as well as I can put it:

Richard is an ideal husband for a woman who wants to be treated as an equal. He is kind, and takes me seriously. After all, he agreed (with some convincing) to take me on this difficult trip with him. He encourages my writing. He listens to me when I speak. He tries to include me in his work . . .

But I am not his equal. Richard is an ethnographer, an archaeologist, and a linguist. He has sharpened his intelligence until it was a finely bladed instrument he may use for most anything. He is brilliant, yes. But who should be surprised? He always had the encouragement of his parents. He had money, schooling, and a tweedy assurance of success—even if he was a bit odd, and a disappointment on the cricket pitch.

Since he set out in life, he has had clouds of pipe-smoking men at his back delivering the right impressed grunts and back-slaps and handshakes, nudging him along to his rightful slot in society and their clubs.

And as for me? Every time I expressed interest in something scientific, I was guided away from it. I remember so many instances. Taken all together, what they amount to is a pruning, just as Mrs. Wollstonecraft described: every time an unruly branch emerged on the rosebush of my self, it was clipped away. And so I was made ornamental: a superfluous person—a thing for admiring china patterns and playing the pianoforte.

I had been looking for a man who was an oppressor: a beast I thought your viewpoint demanded. If I found one, I thought, I would be convinced things were as dreadful as you said. Instead, men just seemed to plod along, generally affable, sometimes boorish, but always ignorant of the damage their behavior was doing. In fact, it was often women who were the enforcers of the rules. For example, I think father would have liked me to be a scientist or an explorer: he would have found it all rather scandalous and amusing. It was mother who energetically labored to shape me into a lady.

Our world has made me a know-nothing who soaks her hands in bowls of milk, and it has made Richard lonelier than he deserves to be. It has denied us the equal partnership we deserve. But I see now that there is no man who is the oppressor. No. What stamps us out into these prisons is our quiet, green-lawned little world. It is a machine. Set running long ago, it needs no constant master. People are its automatons: they do the work of shaping others unknowingly.

In our family only you have had the courage to resist this machine. Well, no longer. When I return I will devote myself, as you have, to the cause.

After the tea, Richard went out again. There was another terrible row. When he returned, he told me he had purchased the two horses we have been riding, as well as use of the iurt. Our guides, in turn, have agreed to meet us in the lower valley in a week’s time—and to wait for us there for one month in case of delay. This service has cost us another crown.

Their thinking is alien to me, as closed a mechanism as one could imagine. I know we are alien to them as well: I see it in the eyes of the women every time they come in to bring wood for the fire, staring at me as if I might vanish into smoke. But we must rely on them. We have no choice: if they do not wait for us in the lower valley, I fear we may not survive the hard road back to Qabul alone.

There has been a general commotion all morning, with the women shouting at the men, and the men at one another. They killed the sheep and boiled it in a great pot. Then Richard and I watched as they presented parts of the boiled sheep at the altar, as well as a good deal of rice in sheep stomach bags, a large sheepskin robe made by turning the fur inward, and two more horned ram skulls to add to the great piles.

After all of this, done with a minimum of ceremony, Jyrgal put his fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly, directing the sound into the mountains beyond the altar, where it echoed for what seemed like minutes. Then they turned and, with many a remorseful backward look from the women, went back through the canyon gates with the skeletons of their dismantled iurts piled high on their carts, and left us alone.

This evening it is very cold. For the first time I saw my own breath inside our lone iurt. I write by oil lamp. Richard is outside, where I can hear him speaking gently to the horses. He has a blackout lantern with him, and one of the Webley revolvers. He will wait for the spirit of the mountain to come and claim its offering.

Will I have the strength to wait with him? I have had a headache now for three days, and am weak. I have come all this way, but now I want nothing more than to sleep.

Is this all nonsense? The infectious superstition of a people we do not understand, and our own need to believe in something strange beyond our neat, dull world?

I suppose we shall soon see.

Your M

• • • •

Dear Emily,

What seemed like light-headedness due to the altitude has turned to fever. I write this with a weak hand, propped up under a mass of sheepskin blankets, chilled to the marrow. You will therefore please excuse the rather slurred handwriting.

I am awake in the early dawn. Richard has returned, having been gone the entire night, and sleeps soundly under his own great pile of skins. Before he collapsed, he told me the most incredible of stories, which I must recount to you here.

As I was feeling ill, I retired to the iurt and, taking some of the aspirin we brought with us, collapsed into a fitful and feverish sleep. Richard maintained his vigil at a distance from the altar. However, after hours with no sign of the supernatural or anything else, Richard too fell asleep.

When he awoke, it was near midnight. Approaching the altar, he found the offering gone—not torn by animals or scattered, but neatly removed. In a sliver of light from his blackout lantern, Richard saw a footprint—of a leather-soled shoe like those worn by our guides. There were a few further prints leading away from the stone.

Here, then, was our answer. Casting aside earlier hopes of discovery, Richard decided we were the victims of a hoax. Our hosts had left us earlier in the day, then returned by some circuitous route to remove the offering themselves.

Angry at having been fooled, Richard followed the faint trail as it climbed beyond the black trickle of falls into a narrow cleft of gnarled scrub and stunted trees deformed by weather and altitude. It is good I was asleep, as I would have attempted to convince him to turn back and wait until dawn—and he might have, and then never have forgiven me.

As it was, I tossed with fever here, unknowing, while he climbed that scar in darkness toward he knew not what. It was a perfect demonstration of the courage expected of him: he could have acted in no other way. Keeping the lantern covered as much as possible, only lighting his way with the thinnest blade of light when absolutely necessary, he ascended.

After a long scramble, he glimpsed a light; a flicker high up in the face of a steep granite incline.

He worked his way up the incline toward the light. Reaching it, he discovered a lintel and frame cut into the stone of the mountain, and a thick wooden door hung in the rock. From cracks between the planks bled the dim orange flicker Richard had spotted from below. Thinking to surprise our guides hidden inside, Richard pushed through the door almost without hesitation.

What he describes to me next I can scarce believe, though it comes from a man I love and trust.

Inside was a small room, not much larger than our iurt. There was a narrow entry space near the door, holding a few pairs of boots, and a dark wooden chest which doubled as a sort of seat. Beyond, the main space looked to have been a natural cave once, but it had been cut further into the rock, roughly square, with a sleeping niche high in one wall, to which a ladder led. The floor had been leveled, and a fire pit constructed in the room’s center. Here a low fire burned, the smoke drawn upward through a natural vent in the stone.

The room was warm despite the cold night. The walls were hung with rugs and tapestries, darkened by smoke and age. Around the room were more trunks, of varying make, two long jezail rifles leaned against the wall, and a number of other objects Richard did not immediately identify, as he was distracted by the man sitting alone by the fire.

The man appeared to be roughly Richard’s age—thirty-five to forty-five, in the time of life when it is difficult to identify age with exactness. He was pale, with dark hair and a scarred face. He was dressed much like our guides, but by his European features he was clearly of a different people—and the room, while it contained much from the culture of the nomads who led us here, had much else in it as well, including a number of leather-bound books. The man was calmly eating the mutton which had been left on the altar. The sheepskin robe from the sacrifice was folded in a corner, along with the bags of rice.

Richard tried to communicate to me the strangeness of the moment: meeting, in this place high above human habitation, at the close of summer, this lone man who appeared to live there permanently, far from all civilized contact, eating food which had been left upon a sacrificial altar.

The man looked up from his meal with a perfect calm, and gestured for Richard to seat himself beside the fire. Richard noticed then that the man was missing two fingers on his right hand.

Richard sat down. The man continued eating for a minute or so more, finishing what was on his plate and setting it to one side. Then he spoke, using the language of our guides; but with an accent, and in a strange version Richard could follow only with difficulty. There were many words, Richard said, not from that language, but from Persian or other tongues Richard did not immediately recognize.

“I have not seen,” the man said calmly, “a person clothed quite like you before. Where did you come from?”

“From England,” Richard replied. “It is . . .”

“It is a very long way away,” the man stated. “I have not been there, though in older times I think some ships did travel there. Pytheas wrote of it, though some did not believe his stories. Later the Romans ruled it. I hear soldiers have come from there to here, in recent times.”

This much confused Richard, but before he could ask more, the man continued. “Do you seek something here?”

“I had heard,” Richard said, “Of a group of nomads in these mountains who had broken from the religion of their fathers and ceased to worship Allah. Because of this they were shunned by the nomads who used to be their brothers. I had heard that they had turned to the worship of another being. That they had raised an altar to a being who lived deep in the mountains, where none were permitted to go. That they monthly went to this altar, even in the dead of winter, to make offerings of food and clothing. I had heard—most recently from a drunk man in Qabul who claimed to have accompanied them to a sacrifice—that this being had the form of a man, and the offerings were always taken. And this being, though a man in shape, did not die. The worship of him began ten generations ago, and has continued to this day.”

“I do not think,” the man said, “it has been so long. Though it has been a long time.”

I had to break off my narrative to you here, sister. There was a commotion outside. Jyrgal had returned, demanding Richard and I leave this place immediately and return to the lower valley. He had a rifle with him, and began waving it about when Richard refused. I watched from the tent flap with the Webley in hand while Richard argued calmly with him (sister, I am frightened—I am so weak I can barely stand. What is happening to me?) I think I could have shot Jyrgal, though, weak as I am. I do. Luckily, I was not forced to find out.

Finally Richard agreed we will not stay a week, but will leave in two days. I do not know if this satisfied Jyrgal, who seemed angry and frightened as he mounted his horse and rode off again through the stone gate.

Afterwards (how shameful!) I fainted. I came to with Richard nursing me, a cool cloth on my forehead. He says it is the altitude. He says it is no matter about Jyrgal—we must descend anyway, tomorrow, and get me to safety.

Briefly, holding that Webley, I felt something heroic rise in me. But no. I am every inch the weak creature I feared I was. I wonder sometimes what the world has lost in me—and in all the souls it has crippled. How much heroism died among us women, told to keep our delicate faces hidden from the sun?

I can barely lift the pen, and must rest.

Yours in sisterhood,

M.

• • • •

Emily dearest,

Richard went up the path again last night. He took one of the Webleys, leaving the other here with me, loaded, with strict instructions I was to fire upon anyone who attempted the iurt’s door (roped firmly shut) without previously giving an owl call.

I am a coward. In England it gave one a little thrill to imagine wolves in the dark. Here we have heard the wolves lift their voices in the night. It is not at all romantic. It is dreadful. We have seen their paw prints at the springs, and the animals they have torn.

Richard took a copy of Darwin, of his Pali Dhammapada, and of Homer in the original. He also brought some of the tinned food, the compass we purchased from the outfitters in London, and his clever sword stick. Quite a selection of objects, indeed.

And so I write to you, feverish in the flickering light of the lamp. Where, dearest, did I break off my narrative when Jyrgal interrupted, waving his rifle? Ah, yes—“I do not think it has been so long,” the man said, “Though it has been a long time. And profitable to me—previously, it was much harder, here in the mountains, and I was afraid I would starve.”

“Afraid you would starve?” Richard cried. “What can you mean?”

“It was more than two hundred years ago when I first came to this place.” Here the man stood, and went to a trunk in the corner, from where he withdrew a scroll, and began to read from it. He did not read in the language he had been speaking to Richard before, but in Greek. And Richard said the Greek was very strange, using some words not used for a thousand or more years, but also words from periods long after. It was a patchwork Greek, a chaotic mosaic of the Greek of Byzantium, Bactria, and Trebizond, and of some sort of—Richard insisted—Western colony of the ancient Greeks. And Richard would know: his love of all things Hellene is what carried him through the dark days of Eton, when the boys half-drowned him in dirty bathwater, and he was once hit in the face with a cricket bat while he slept.

“Yes, here,” said the man, pointing at the scroll. “It was in the summer of 1655. Skirmishes with a neighboring tribe had driven us off our land. Then the plague took my wife and my sons. I had thought it would take me as well. I lay for days in my own sweat. When I finally crawled, half dead, from the iurt, I gathered what I could, and I went into the mountains.”

He was speaking to himself, but here Richard replied, in the Homeric, quoting from the Odyssey: “Of all creatures which breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred which is weaker than man.”

The man looked up, and something new came into his eyes. “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” (This also was from the Odyssey, though Richard says the quote was corrupted, like something half-remembered, and the dialect was wrong). The man re-rolled the scroll, and replaced it in the trunk. “Come again tomorrow night. We will talk of many things. You will tell me of your England. But I am tired now.”

Richard slept much of the next day. When he was not sleeping, he was nursemaid to me. Now, with Richard gone again in the night, my very life seems to dangle from this thread of connection to you. And there is darkness, sister, all around.

M

• • • •

My dearest Emily,

Surely if there can be proof of a thing, this device is proof. I know Richard is deeply disappointed, as any man of science would be. He spent hours attempting to convince the man to descend with us to Qabul, to return with us to England—to no avail. But Richard has made a trade, and has obtained, I think, an object which will, if it does not silence all doubters, suffice to further his career beyond even his expectations.

Again he climbed in the dark, this time finding a red-stained lantern at the door to mark its location. The man was by the fire, as Richard reports, “calmly waiting for me, with his scrolls next to him.” And what followed, Richard feels, was what he can only call proof. For hours they sat and talked, in Greek, about what the man could remember of his life. The man referred constantly to the scrolls, recounting from them the wonders of Trebizond, of Bactria, of Merv and Samarqand. They spoke not only in Greek, but in the Chagatai language of the Central Asian Khans, and in the Pali and Sanskrit of the Buddhists with whom, Richard insists, this man himself conversed. Gently, Richard probed the man’s story, looking for fraud. He found none. Richard tells me the man remembers little himself from more than a few hundred years ago: his memory fades beyond a dark horizon. This rings true: think of how our own memories become ever more flawed as they bend toward childhood. How much do we even remember of our days a decade ago?

But the scrolls the man carries are the treasure house of his memory: a record of his life and travels, winding back to Trebizond. Trebizond is where the record begins, though those early scrolls suggest the man has lived even longer, and that the earliest records of his life are lost.

Perhaps it is the fever, but I believe it. I believe we have found a man who somehow defies death—whose life is a thread leading through time’s labyrinth, back to the very early days of civilization.

Richard marvels at the wisdom the man must have: a man who was decades at a monastery in Bactria among Buddhist monks, who was in Merv and Koyne-Urgench with the Muslim astronomers, mathematicians and poets. Richard examined the scrolls closely, and found there a mixture of Greek, Chagatai, Arabic and Persian. All of it was consistent with what must be the most extraordinary tale ever told—a tale which will change everything when we tell it back in England.

The man gave Richard the object in trade for the Homer, the Pali Dhamaphadda, the Darwin, and the sword stick which he very much admired. Richard pled with him to come with us, but he would not go. “I have lived, Richard, among men for too long to love them anymore.”

“Surely they have changed.”

“I am tired,” the man replied. “Tired of wandering through the delusions and failures of mankind.” Then, in good Pali, he said: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.”

Pressing the object into Richard’s hands, he bid him farewell.

We sat for at least an hour after Richard’s return, admiring the object in its wooden box of polished walnut, the finely cut and polished bronze gears and dials which, Richard explains, were filed eight hundred years ago by this man, and whose dozens of tiny, hand-cut gears will predict lunar and solar eclipses and the movements of the planets for yet another hundred years. It contains a knowledge of the movements of the planets equaling our own. It is, quite simply, the most marvelous object I have ever seen. Richard has been seated by the door, sketching the object. I feel myself a simpleton even pondering its complexity. Even if the man has refused to return with us, this mechanism must convince the doubters.

I am glad to have the mechanism for proof, and I admit I am glad the man will not accompany us: I fear him. He has seen cities burned, caravans destroyed, those dearest to him dying by inches. He has seen plague, superstition, terrible cruelty. He has seen the armies of Genghis Khan, and many khans before and after him. What has he done to survive? I do not share Richard’s opinion of his wisdom. No. I do not think he is wise, in the way Richard does. I think he must be ruthless and cruel in order to match the cruelty of the world. I think his knowledge is of a kind we should be happy to escape from with our lives. I imagine what this world has done to me and the people I know, over their short lives—and then I imagine the damage it could do to us in a thousand years, or two thousand. And I shudder. How long would it take for this world to make a monster of someone?

Our guides must fear him as well. Why else would they abandon us? Why return and tell us we must also leave?

We will take this instrument down with us to civilization, but I think it is too stupendous a thing for our nation’s narrow minds. I fear the arguments and attacks Richard will endure. But Richard already schemes at mounting another expedition, bringing other scientists here. I am not so sure this is a good idea. Is it what the man would want? I will work to convince him that would not be wise. There is time

always

Your loving sister

M

• • • •

Richard is dead.

When we reached the lower valley, our guides were gone. Behind them, they left cooking implements and housewares, one burned yurt and the raw mound of a grave—the older brother Taalai’s, as we deduced from his bloodied shirt wrapped around its marker.

As if on cue, the snow began out of a darkening sky. I despaired of finding our way down from this place alone. Richard began to strip all unnecessary things from our horses’ backs, throwing away even his precious tea scale. We kept our rations, our bed rolls, the smallest tent, the precious mechanism, Richard’s papers, my letters, and the revolvers. Richard moved with an efficiency I had rarely seen in him.

“They have had some family argument,” Richard said. “I knew Jyrgal was dangerous. Now he has murdered his brother, and left us.”

I turned to look at Richard then. Richard, with his face like a painting of a doomed English hero—just as soulful, and naïve. “No, my love. I do not think that is what happened.” I took the Webleys from their oilcloth bags, pressing one into his hand. “We must move quickly, and far.”

We were fording a stream a few miles below the valley when it happened.

Richard was dead before I heard the crack of the rifle—dead and falling already from his horse, his face destroyed. What was left of him crashed into the rocky stream. Above us, among the stones, I saw a thread of smoke, and a man in a niche between boulders, the barrel of his long jezail catching the light as he raised it once more. And I swear that his skin was pale, and his right hand mutilated.

Driven by pure anger and reflex, I drew the revolver from my belt and fired at the man three times. One of the bullets appeared to strike him, and he fell backwards out of sight.

Then my horse bolted, following Richard’s riderless stallion down the valley as I held on for dear life. The horses plunged ahead in terror for what seemed like hours as I clung, weak from fever but strong from fear, to my stallion’s back.

Finally the horses came to rest in a narrow defile, miles away, where grass clings to the canyon walls, and the river runs slower.

Here, they drank and ate themselves calm. Here, numb and calm as the horses, I made a fire. Numbly, I made tea, numbly cut open a can. Numbly ate what was inside.

I slept for perhaps an hour, lying on the grass in the cold. I feel as if I never had a fever: all of this has pushed it away.

I write you now because I must write. I must not keep these things inside. What a hateful mechanism the human brain is: it will not stop to grieve when threat looms. I cannot yet mourn for Richard, but I already feel pride. I took action. I struck back when threatened. That ability to strike back is something I will carry with me forever—carry with me back to England. I suppose I am a hero, after all. There is a hardness at the core of me, a will that the machine of our time and traditions cannot crush.

As I write this, some part of my brain begins to plan. If the man is badly wounded or killed and was alone, I am safe. If he is not wounded, but does not have a horse, I will be safe at least for a while. The horses took me far from the threat. I have time.

I will take the letters and the mechanism to Qabul. Richard will not have died for nothing. This is what I must do.

I must simply follow the stream, and hope when I reach my fellow man, he will do what is right, and protect me.

Yours in love and sisterhood,

M

Ray Nayler

Ray has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus for well over a decade. He is a Foreign Service Officer, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. He speaks Russian, Albanian, and Azerbaijani Turkish. Ray’s most recent foreign assignment was as Press Attaché in Baku, Azerbaijan, and he is currently headed to Pristina, Kosovo, where he will manage Cultural Affairs for the U.S. Embassy. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Cemetery Dance, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Crimewave, The Beloit Poetry Review, and many other journals and collections. His story “Winter Timeshare” was recently included in The Very Best of The Best: 35 years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. You can follow him at raynayler.net.