The Road to Rowe

The professors’ caravan stayed on the hardroad and their progress was swift. A few hours after she had watched the last white wall of the last familiar house in Orloton disappear into the trees, Reyan was already further from home than she had ever been.

The horses’ iron shoes ticked and scraped, and the steel tyres rumbled against the surface of the hardroad. There were periodic pops and clicks as ejected pebbles shot off into the undergrowth. Soon Reyan began to sway and roll in time to the steady lurch and relax of the horses pulling their truck.

The hardroad had always fascinated Reyan. It was almost alive. Once, Rolf had told her that, if she could find a sharp enough tool and muster enough strength, she could cut into it, but by the next morning the wound would be healed. That’s what kept it so strong and smooth. Rolf used to say that, if she stuck to the hardroad, she would always end up someplace.

While the hardroad kept mostly straight given the contours of the pass, the river followed its own random winding course. It advanced and retreated and the forest waxed and waned. The daylight cycled between the piercing brilliance at the river’s perigee, to the soft dull green light at its apogee.

Reyan looked out the windscreen. She watched as everything slowly rolled up and drifted past her. The sight was hypnotic and calming. But whenever her eyes would drift to the dark brooding man shifting uncomfortably on the wooden drivers bench next to her, she was reminded of her situation. Parr breathed heavily through his nose, but did not speak. She wanted to ask him for clarity about her future. But her questions rumbled vaguely in the distance like a waterfall or landslide but remained unformed and indistinct. Even if she could come up with a question to ask, why would this man have any answers? Well, he was a professor. There was that. And being a professor mattered for some reason. But he already seemed annoyed, and she would probably just annoy him further. That was no way to start her new life.

Eventually, it was Parr who broke the silence, obviously trying to make his deep voice optimistic and conversational. “Just a few more miles and things are going to start to look quite different.”

“Everything is already different.”

“Of course. You’ve never been here, have you?”

“I didn’t say unfamiliar, I said different. Look.” She pointed at the trees that lined the hardroad. “We have the same trees back in Orloton. The bark and the spread of the needles are the same. But here, the trees grow thinner. They look less strong. And they don’t seem to like each other much, or maybe they whisper to each other through their roots underground instead of tapping out messages on each other’s limbs. And over there. I’ve never seen a tree like that before. Most of the trees around Orloton are pole-straight, but that one’s trunk forks up like moss-covered lightning from the ground.”

There were other differences too, obvious ones. For instance, back home, the ferns stretched out like an unending carpet beneath the thick canopy. But here, they huddled in tight dry clumps, their fronds curling under to shield their copper underbellies from the sunlight that stabbed all the way down to the ground. She didn’t point out any of these other differences. She’d already said too much. Parr was looking at her sideways, and for an unguarded second his mouth hung open. Besides, there was nothing about trees and ferns anyone else found interesting.

They came to a place where the hardroad skirted a deep pool in the river. A furious waterfall poured in at one end, churning the pool to a boil. The froth and foam quickly settled into creamy lines of bubbles, and the water became the smooth ice blue common to the deepest parts of the river.

There was a long thin boat in the middle of the river with its prow pointing upstream. The boat was held in place by two tethers lashed to anchor points driven into the steep-walled canyon on either side of the boat. Nets drooped into the water from poles that jutted out from the gunwales. They looked like the outstretched wings of an enormous insect newly emerged from the river and poised for flight.

“Are they fishing?”

“They are, but watch.”

An otter hopped onto the front of the boat and chirped excitedly. The fisherman retrieved a fish from a basket, held it against the deck with his boot, and cut off its head. He tossed the head into the river. The otter slipped into the water and vanished. A few seconds later, a black head bobbed to the surface ten yards upstream. The otter held the fish head in its paws and happily munched at the skull.

“Why would he feed the otters? Won’t they stick around and eat all the fish?”

“That fish head was payment for the dozens of fish the otter’s chased into the nets. They’re all part of a team.”

“If they’re part of a team, why do they need to keep the otters tethered?”

“Perhaps symbiont is a better word.”

She didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded a little more needy and a little more permanent than being members on a team.

As a rule, conversations with adults—and most kids if she thought about it—made Reyan wary as a rabbit. She was used to being lectured or yelled at which felt a lot like being chased off. The objective was obvious, the other simply wanted her gone. But this sort of talking—which was open-ended, seemed about nothing much, and had no particular point—felt unfamiliar, and that felt dangerous. Still, she found she wanted to trust Parr, at least a little. She decided he wasn’t baiting some terrible snare. She decided to risk a real question.



“I want to understand what has happened to me, but I don’t want to bother you with my questions or say something stupid and make you hate me.”

“I see.” For the first time there was a smile in his eyes. “What is it that you wish to know?”

“I understand that Lyssa has asked for you and Professor Sevv to take over responsibility for me. I know that we are headed to my new home at the University. I know that, really this all has to do with Lyssa, and Orloton not wanting me around.” She turned and found Parr looking at her expectantly. “What I want to know is why?”

“Perhaps they saw an opportunity for you. The chance to give a child a systemic education is rare.”

She didn’t believe that. She didn’t think Parr believed it, either. Also, she didn’t think Parr was trying to convince her of it. It was more like an idea he was offering up just to see if she was interested in it. “More like an opportunity to get rid of me, I think. They would have handed me off to an itinerant fish monger if there was room for me in the back of her cart.

Parr took a while to respond. He didn’t argue, instead he said. “Grief and sorrow can make people do odd things.” He paused a moment, then continued. “But there was no excuse for this. Leonid should have brought some structure to the moment. That’s what keepers are for. That is what the System is for. Perhaps Leonid was aggrieved too. Perhaps he was scared. Whatever the reason, Rolf would have been ashamed.” He looked over to ensure this got her attention.

“You knew Rolf?”

He didn’t answer her. Instead he said, “He had many good things to say about you.”

“Rolf had many good things to say about everyone.”

Parr smiled sadly. “The man had an old soul, a dozen lives worth of wisdom, and he used his gifts for good. He was a truly systemic man.”

About a mile past the pool with the otters, Sevv’s truck began to slow in front of them. Parr pulled up on the reins and their horses slowed to a stop, their noses a few feet from the back of Sevv’s truck.

“Why are we stopping?”

“We’ll have to go see.” Parr opened his door and climb down from the cab.

The open door let in a whip of cold air from outside. Reyan was warm and tired and wanted to stay in the cab. But it did not take long for her curiosity to get the better of her and she followed him.

She walked past Parr’s horses, past the vacant cab of Sevv’s truck and found Parr squatting down a few yards in front of Sevv’s horses inspecting a crumbling section of the hardroad. Sevv stood next to him, tapping the toe of his boot against the waist-high tree that had grown up through a crack. Nearby, there were also two large potholes and a bite-shaped section were the hill had slid down into the river, taking a bit of hardroad with it.

Soon, Kavi arrived from the rear of the caravan and stood beside Reyan. Sevv noticed him standing idle and scowled. “Kavianhar, go fetch your tools. Come on. Be quick.”

Kavi made eye contact with Reyan and jerked his head toward his truck and she followed him. There were all manner of things tethered to or tucked through the rack. A bucket, an ax, a spare wheel; anything useful or necessary that could weather the elements. Attached to the rack near the rear was a tall wooden box, open at the top, and bristling with long-handled tools. Kavi lifted out two of the tools. The first Reyan recognized as a spade, the other she had never seen. Its long wooden handle was thicker and stouter than the spade’s. There was an iron mechanism at the bottom consisting of a thick cross bar, a couple of bolts, and a sliding piston that ended in a claw. She couldn’t begin to guess it’s use. Kavi saw her staring at it. “The puller,” he explained, “one of my personal creations.” He grinned and handed her the spade. He kept the puller for himself.

By the time they returned to the front of the caravan, Parr was already transporting a bucket full of gravel from the side of the road. He emptied it into one of the holes, and Sevv began smashing it into place with a heavy-looking tool which was nothing more than a wooden pole attached to a broad flat cast-iron disk. Reyan whispered to Kavi, “What are we doing?”

“Repairing the hardroad.”

“Why would the hardroad need to be repaired?”

“Up around Orloton, the hardroad stays in pretty good shape. But out here, it’s not much better than a normal road or trail.”

“He’s exaggerating,” Sevv grunted as he continued pounding down the gravel.

Kavi carried his puller over to the small tree that Sevv had been kicking at. “On stretches like this—where the surface is exposed to direct sun and the elements—the hardroad gets damaged more easily and heals more slowly. Roots buckle it, springs undermine it, little trees pop up through cracks.” He set the claw of the device around the base of the sapling, then rocked the handle away from the tree. The claw slid closed around the base of the young tree. When Kavi levered the handle toward himself, the claw gripped the sapling so tightly that juices ran down the sides of the mechanism. Kavi gave a final pull, and the tree was free. “And if something larger than bird droppings or pine needles fall on the hardroad someone has to deal with it.” Kavi untangled the little tree from the puller and tossed it to the side of the road. “Go get some gravel to pack in there,” he said to Reyan.

She went to the side of the road, collected a spade full of gravel, and ported it into the crack. Kavi, apparently pleased with the performance of his invention, began scouting around for other plants that were damaging the hardroad. Finding none, he satisfied himself by uprooting a sapling and a blackberry shoot near enough to the shoulder that they might someday pose a threat.

Sevv brought his smasher over to Reyan’s small pile of gravel.

“But why do we have to repair it,” she asked the old professor. “Why not whoever made it in the first place?”

“It may not look it, but the hardroad is ancient,” Sevv explained. “It’s been generations upon generations since whatever machine or process laid it down. If any human ever understood its manufacture or maintenance, that knowledge was lost long ago.” Sevv pounded the mound flat, then continued. “Near the nodes, the locals do a pretty good job of keeping the hardroad clean and clear. It’s important to them. It carries all the inter-village trade, brings in emissaries for potlatch…”

“And professors,” Kavi chimed in from where he was now inspecting the bite the river had taken out of the side of the hardroad.

“And us of course. If we had to travel normal roads or trails, we wouldn’t get further than Rowe in a season. So, since we’re the ones using the hardroad, it falls on us to maintain it.” He lightly tapped the edges of the hole they had just filled ensuring it was flush with the surface, then he wiped his hands on his dirt-brown robe.

“Have you tried making your visitations important enough that the people in the towns would do this for you?” This suggestion made Sevv look flustered and Parr’s eyes smile though he did not let it infect his mouth.

While they were returning the tools to the racks on the sides of the trucks, Kavi asked if she wanted to ride with him. She shrugged and the two young people climbed into Kavi’s cab. Reyan heard the hollow clop of Sevv’s horses, and a few moments later Parr’s truck began to pull away from them. Kavi jiggled the reins and said “y-hup,” and his horses began to pull.

They stopped twice more that day to repair the hardroad. Once to pull another large sapling which they probably should have seen and removed the previous season, and once to repair a crack which Reyan thought could have waited until next year, given the cold soaking shower that started the moment they had begun the repairs, and let up the moment they climbed, dripping, back into their trucks.

Soon, the hardroad left the forest and the sharp dramatic walls of the pass began to spread out and mellow. They came to a steep hill and the horses strained to climb it. Once they had crested, they could see a few miles distant to where the pass gave way to a broad valley. The valley floor was segmented into square farm plots periodically accented by rows of trees. Some of the squares were green, but most were the various khaki shades of the stubble left after harvest, or the black of dirt recently turned for winter.

The truck rocked and swayed as the horses strained on the back side of the hill. Kavi worked a hand break to help lessen their effort. The boy grew quiet with concentration and stayed that way for the five minutes it took for the hill to level out. Once the road flattened, he loosened his grip on the break and the reins and stopped taking deep nasally breaths.

They had come to a long straight stretch of hardroad flanked on either side by low swampy ground and dense patches of low trees. Hundreds of enormous white birds gathered into several patches, and periodically took flight. They swirled low like blowing snow and landed back in the same spot they had left.

Out in the distance there were fires burning. Their steady plumes of smoke rising only a few dozen feet before the cold drizzle and rain hammered them into a flat fog that pool below the low clouds. There was a cluster of dirty gray canvas tents but no true structures she could see. “Is that a town?”

Kavi squinted like he was having trouble making them out. “No. Not really. Its certainly not a node. They’re people who’ve decided to live outside of the system.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“They have all sorts of reasons. They want to have as many children as they like. Also, they worry a lot about diseases, so they like to keep isolated. All sorts of reasons. But I think they just don’t trust things they don’t understand. The System is complicated, so they don’t trust it, which means they don’t trust professors, which means we aren’t welcome, which means they live in tents and barely have enough to feed all their starving kids.” He shrugged. “That’s their right.”

Kavi was quiet for a while. Soon he began shifting on his bench and glancing around. Eventually, he said, “You don’t need to answer this if you don’t want to.”

Reyan already knew she didn’t want to. She didn’t know what the boy was going to ask, but as a rule, she found answering questions never improved a situation.

Kavi mistook her silence as permission. “What was going on between you and Lyssa?”

Now she knew she didn’t want to answer. She rested her forehead against the side window and watched an endless blackberry bramble scroll past. “Lyssa’s not my mom. She’s just our leader. I was her ward.”

“Sure. I know. But…” he trailed off.

“She doesn’t like me.”

After a moment of mulling something over Kavi said, “I’ve met a lot of people out on circuit, and that woman might be the worst. She can sound honeysuckle sweet, but you can tell she’s rattlesnake vicious.” Reyan felt heat spread from her cheeks past her ears and down her back. Lyssa was Orloton’s leader and had been the wife of the most respected leader in generations. Reyan had never allowed herself to complete a bad thought about the woman. That probably wasn’t entirely true, but she’d certainly never uttered a disrespectful word aloud. To hear Kavi speak so openly was shocking and—now that she allowed herself to feel it—a release. A tight little muscle behind her right ear, which she’d never even known was there, suddenly relaxed.

“What about your real mom,” Kavi asked tentatively. “What was she like?”

The little muscle tightened again. She set each of her hands to picking at the other’s scars and scabs. “She didn’t like me either.”

Kavi sucked air through his teeth and made a sound like he had touched a hot pan. “I bet that’s not true.”

“It is true. No one likes me. Except for Tom. He likes me. But he’s the only one.”

“You seem likable enough.”

Reyan let this pass. It was just one of those things people say when they can’t think of anything else. Not exactly nice, but not worth getting angry about either. “Some of them try not to show it, but I can always tell.”

“What about your dad?”

Reyan narrowed her eyes at him. “I don’t want to talk about dad.” She turned away from Kavi and faced the window again burying her mouth and chin in the crook of her elbow.

Kavi fell into a long wordless spell. He appeared to be looking toward some non-point out past his horses’ noses, past Parr’s truck, past Sevv’s, out where the hardroad disappeared over the crest of some distant hill. “I’m a ward too, you know?” he finally offered. She turned away from the window and stared at him. His eyes were fixed forward. She waited for more, but now that he had her full attention, he didn’t seem interested in revealing anything else. She wondered if he’d even said it.

“Sorry,” she tried.

“Oh, it’s okay. My story is pretty normal and boring. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want me. It was just that they couldn’t abstain, then they couldn’t handle having a second. They tried to hold out for a while. I was pretty young, just a couple years named really, but I still remember them crying when they handed me over. Every now and again, they still send a little money.”

“Well then, it’s not the same.”

After several more miles of gradual but steady downhill progress, and of looking at nothing else but the back of Parr’s truck, the hardroad suddenly sloped up. The surrounding land fell away and Reyan realized they were going over a bridge.

Halfway up the bridge’s approach, the hardroad ended abruptly. Everything beyond that point had been repaired or replaced. The posts and struts were made of rough-hewn wood and the cross-bracing was lashed bamboo so that they seemed to be driving into a cage for a giant wild animal. Even the deck was made of wood, split logs lain sideways across the bridge smooth-side-up so that the clumping of the horse’s hooves and the thump of the wheels as they rolled from board to board to board set up a steady syncopated rhythm. The contrast between the hardroad’s precision and the bridge’s helter-skelter construction was so stark it was almost comical, like a child in her father’s jacket and boots with a chicken feather mustache held to her lip trying to sneak off to work with the lumbermen.

Once they were over the wooden section of the bridge, the hardroad began again. The caravan rounded a bramble-covered slope and the town of Rowe came into view.

She was surprised to find a town so suddenly near. Until this moment, Reyan assumed towns were like dogs or fish or trees, they might be different in size or color but they had roughly the same ways about them. When you approached Orloton, you were on by a long straight stretch of hardroad. A few whitewashed homes would appear through the trees, small as baby’s teeth at first, then grow steadily as you drew near. She’d assumed all towns were like that. She realized it was a foolish thing to think, and it reminded her how truly stupid she was. She wondered what other ignorant ideas were hiding in her overcrowded head.

The first thing she noticed about this new town was a tall object like the trunk of a limbless tree rising up from its center. It was perfectly straight and round and taller than anything she’d ever seen aside from the mountains. The top ended in a jagged crumbly mess so it had to have been made of shapestone or maybe even stacked brick. It was weathered and stained and streaked with black. Around its base, a dozen or so feet above the tops of the surrounding buildings, the townspeople had painted a broad white stripe and written the word “Rowe” in tall blocky black letters.

“Your mouth is hanging open, Reyan,” Kavi laughed.

She gathered herself, settled and explained, “I’ve never seen any town other than home. I didn’t know they could be so big. How does the butcher feed them all?”

Kavi snorted, and she knew it had been a dumb question, and she resolved to not ask any more. She was just deciding how to apologize when he smiled, “They probably have two butchers.”

Reyan’s head made a little jerk as this new possibility opened up for her. Seeing this reaction, Kavi laughed again. He looked pleased with himself, worldly, like someone who knew of a hidden fishing hole, or where their parents stashed their liquor. “Just wait until you see the University. Wait till you see Seal Tooth. It’s like a hundred Rowes laid out side-by-side and stacked atop one another.”

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