Some of them bore wooden yokes across their shoulders, from which bottles hung, to Dismé's bewilderment, chiming with each step. Bottling was among the most sacred rites of the Spared, and demons were forbidden, unwholesome beings whom only the diseased and deceased had any reason to encounter. Yet here they were, lugging their loads into the daylight, invisible to the guards at the nearby gate who were looking in the opposite direction, unchallenged by the sentries on the towers, their averted faces silhouetted against the sky. Why was no one paying attention?
The grassy commons between wall and forests was wide, with nothing intruding upon it but the road to the west and the low bottle wall that ran alongside it halfway to the trees, so Dismé had plenty of time to observe demonic audacity, arrogant lack of stealth, insolently workaday strides, prosaic as any ploughman's. Some of them pulled a cart heaped with straw mats, and not even they had the sensibility to skulk.
As if mere demons were not enough, an even stranger thing rose into the morning, a roiling fog that flowed invisibly up from somewhere, coalescing at the wall's further end. Something or somethings, faceless and ghostly, limp ashen cerements covering their forms, their hands, their feet, the thick brims of their odd headdresses thrusting out like platters around their heads - if they were heads - strange and stranger yet.
Ouphs, Dismé thought, almost at once. Her mother had spoken to her of ouphs, in a whisper, in that particular tone that meant "This is a secret. This will cause trouble if you mention it, and we do not wish to cause trouble." She watched intently as they split to flow around the demons, like water around a stone, flowing together again once the demons had moved on. Why was it Dismé could see them but the demons could not? True Mother had said those who couldn't see chose not to. Perhaps the demons just chose not to.
The ouphs coalesced into a fog which approached, gliding along the bottle wall toward the dark door from which the demons had emerged, roiling there momentarily before flowing swiftly upward, like smoke up a chimney, giving Dismé no time to escape before they were all around her. She could not apprehend them in any physical sense, and yet her mind was full of feelings, voices, smells:
Sorrow. " searching searching searching " The odor of ashes, as though dreamed.
Loss. " where where where " Cold rain on skin. Dust.
Pain. " beg, beg, beg " An ache in the bones, a scent of mold, leaf smoke, wet earth.
Regret. " no no no no never " Rose petals, drying on something.
Dismé almost caught the scent
Imprisonment. Captivity. Enslavement. " let go "
Oh, so sad, so sad, with only this nebulous linking of words and impressions, so fragile, so frail that the moment she clutched at them they were gone. Dreams did that, when she tried to hold on to them, evaporating like mist in the wind. So, too the ouphs were driven out into the gulf of air where they whirled, slowly at first, then more quickly, keening an immeasurable sorrow that was sucked into the vortex and away.
The demons had neither seen nor heard. They were building a new section of the wall with various snippers and twisters, hoses, connectors and gadgets. They had buckets of half-solid stuff that they troweled between the bottles to hold them fast, and they worked with deliberate speed and no wasted motions. Soon, the job was done, the bottles were embedded and labeled, the tools and empty yoked were gathered, and the demons strode off toward the crow-wing shadow of the trees as the ouph-fog slowly faded into nothingness behind them,
When the last of the fog went, a chill finger touched the back of Dismé's head, a wave of coldness crept down her neck onto her back, as though someone had reached beneath her clothing to stroke her with ice. She shivered and recoiled. The chill had been there for a while, but her concentration on the ouphs had kept her from attending to it. Now it was imminent and intent, watching her. She spun about, searching, seeing nothing, but knowing still that something was watching. She ducked under the cover of tilted slabs and stayed there, trembling, pressing her hands to her head where the thing was still present, as though looking from the inside out!
Copyright 2002 Sherri S Tepper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher HarperCollins.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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