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Relative Level


Despite the town's declaration of neutrality, I have been assigned two guards. In respect to my position, they are both female.

I am the General's prize cartographer. I have a special skill. Some people can visualise a two dimensional map in three dimensions, take a drawing of lines and colours and know, generally, what terrain lies ahead. I can do the opposite. I look at the land lying before me, as far as my eye and see and further, and I transcribe this to a form impeccable in communication, clarity and quality, I read the highs and lows, and from this, I know the true length of terrain to pass. I am never wrong, and armies march to the push of my pencil. This is my gift, for so long as I walked this earth; I am a benchmark, altitude and latitude judged with respect to myself.

I was born on a farm, where we dug in dirt and slept on blankets folded over three times. The thickness of three folds of rather threadbare material proved an incremental addition to my ground plane, marginal enough that I could ignore it. Likewise, as the youngest, thinnest, weakest and least useful of eight children, I had no shoes. This suited me. As long as my feet touched the ground, I could hear it. Highs, lows, the song, all waiting for transcription, for those days of schooling from my eldest sister, cherished charcoal in my fingers, when I learned to write.

Vaguely, I remember causing some concern to my family as a child, my head full of the sound. The earth sang to me; those rises, the falls, I knew my place, and so knowing, I knew all other places as well.

Now the General is so pleased with me. His forces have taken the town. I am being brought to his chambers for my reward. With some discomfort I mount the single step to the verandah surrounding the town hall he has claimed as HQ. His eyes are awash with pride as he looks at me. He tells me, there is no better reward he can offer me than what he offers me. I am a child of the dirt, peasant, farmer, he says. Due a death in childbirth sometime over the next seven years. He would raise me above all of that.

Despite his declaration of intent, I still have been assigned two guards.

The General marries me in an open field. The celebration is reasonably well attended. He leaves early while the women and wives of his captains and commanders monopolise my attention. The idea of a woman on the field is not a new one: since the great war, those years before my birth, numbers have been so scarce, and women — the unfertile, the old, the already-made mothers — will fight alongside the men. But these women are not fighters, they are the prizes, bluff and blind.

What does surprise these pregnant and ripe women is the extent of my usefulness.

For I have risen to a position unprecedented amongst the General's forces, without raising a weapon or wedding a man. I am no mindless pair of hands to hold another gun. I have a special skill.

Midnight comes and goes, and still I am in the company of women, but my guards have been given their orders. I mount that step to the new HQ's verandah, and I shiver.

'He won't hurt you,' one guard says, quietly. 'There's always that.'

'Don't try to run,' says the other. 'I'm sorry.'

The General makes his bed on the second floor.

For the first time in my life, I ascend. My bare foot, the filth only recognisable as I rise, rise, rising above the level of this earth of mine. The song stretches, thins, connection lost, dead wood to my soles and wind in my ears, hollow, roaring, dull. Despite my skill, I have been assigned two guards, and they are ushering me higher, their hands at my back.

Silent, I step into the General's bedroom, and I do not hear my own footsteps. His lips move as he looks at me; he smiles.

I am deaf. I am useless. I am the General's wife.

July 2011


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