A/N: A weird old work of mine that was inspired by a particularly vivid dream.
She wasn't sure when she had first arrived in the country. She only knew for certain that she had been there for quite a long time, and that she had once lived somewhere else. Some place where there had been great congregations of buildings, masses of people with faces she knew, and shining machines that thundered down infinite roads. There had been another sky, one that changed in color from bright blue to deepest black, and not always an eternal foggy grey. But that other place that had once been home became more and more distant over every unmeasured day, more like a dream from another life.
Much more real was the endless dirt path, bordered by expanses of rolling hills and dry grass, without even a rock to break the monotony. More immediate were the occasional piles of two-dimensional, tangled grey limbs on the side of the path, always avoided and never explained. And far more believable than faded half-remembered smiles of recognition were the hopeless, empty faces of the pilgrims she passed, shrouded in dull rags, seeming not even to see the road beneath their feet. Men and women, of all ages, and in tight herds, they always had slightly different faces, and she was certain that she never saw the same pilgrim twice. She would try to talk with them, sometimes, out of pure boredom and loneliness, but they never had much to say.
There were other people, too, but she didn't want to speak to them. Appearing sometimes alone, sometimes in loose groups, they were wrapped tightly in ribbons of rough beige cloth that was always stained with a crusty brownish red. They walked with purpose over the same dusty roads as the pilgrims, but seemed a completely different animal, lean and strong. Only their eyes showed anything of their common humanity. "Bedouins," whispered an old woman who still had a visage of life in her eyes. "Oh lord protect me." Once, when she was alone, a Bedouin looked at her, and froze her with the intensity of his gaze.
"Do you know your father?"
Father? The absurdity of the question stopped her in her tracks. Who was Father? Some being with strong arms and stronger mind with hands both rough and soft. Maybe someone from a dream.
The Bedouin turned away as if he had never spoken. Suddenly panicked, desperate for someone to talk to who could answer back, she called out, "Wait! Don't go! Who is Father?"
The Bedouin glanced at her, with a look that was almost pity. "Don't follow, and don't speak to me." And like that he was gone, taking long strides over the crest of the hill, walking as always towards nothing.
Every other Bedouin she met gave her the same two sentences, sometimes in a soft female croon, sometimes in a low male growl, but always the same words. But something in the glint of their eyes was different enough from the glassy gaze of the pilgrims that she felt that they held the answers to the questions that were still forming in her mind. So she pursued them, trying to avert her gaze from the strange reddish stains (blood came that word from the dreams, and sent her spine creeping) to ask them who Father was. They never answered.
"Have you ever spoken to a Bedouin?" she asked a pilgrim, a young man staring at the air over her left shoulder.
He smiled vacantly. "Who?" His voice was as soft as an owl's wings, and she found she had to strain to hear it.
"The Bedouins! Please, the people in the wraps, with the eyes…" How could she possibly describe them to this shade of a man?
"Oh." The pilgrim's eyes seemed to focus for a moment on her face. "I wouldn't. They make you still…" He turned his head and sighed, and she realized that he was not going to say any more.
It was then that she decided to violate the Bedouins' command, and follow them. She chose to follow an individual, instead of a group, to lessen the chance that they would notice her. The trouble was that there was nowhere to hide, not even one of the piles of still flat bodies that littered some paths like heaps of wet paper. There was only the inherent limits to vision that came with the roundness of the hills, and she had to be careful and quiet to see where her chosen Bedouin went when he passed a fork in the road. She was most surprised when she saw another Bedouin, shorter and stockier, approaching from the other direction. She was just beginning to panic, when the two faced each other.
"Do you know your Father?" asked the taller one.
"Yes, indeed." murmured the other, and she crouched lower on the ground, hoping that they would not see her.
Suddenly there was a barb of bright light, playing along the gleaming swords that they both withdrew from somewhere within their wrappings. They attacked each other with such violence that every clash of metal sounded like the ground was ripping in two, and she could not bite back her scream when one sword went straight into the head of the shorter Bedouin. She fully expected him to crumple to the ground like a dropped rag, but almost before the blade was removed the terrible wound had healed. The second Bedouin then whirled around and sliced off the other's arm, but it reattached before it could even hit the ground, leaving only a thin red line on the arm's wrappings. They both stopped fighting, and looked, unmistakably, at her.
"Did you know we had an audience?"
"Not at all."
"Well, stand up."
She couldn't move. These people possessed secrets and power that she could not even comprehend. Were they gods, or ghosts, reenacting their deaths?
"Get up, girl."
Somehow, she was on her feet.
"Do you know what you just saw?"
"Yes, I think so." Her voice was hoarse, barely there. "You are immortal, somehow. Wait, no, no I don't understand." She looked at them, and could feel herself trembling. "Are you going to kill me, now?"
She shorter Bedouin pulled down the wrappings covering his mouth, revealing a surprisingly friendly and human face. He laughed. "We don't have to. We're no more immortal than you, girl. But she doesn't look lost yet, does she?"
The taller one narrowed his eyes. "How long have you been here?"
How could she answer that? There was no way of telling time. "More than a second, I guess," she murmured. "But not forever. I think I used to be someplace else."
"Good. Then there's still hope for you." He sighed, and leaned on his sword as a third leg. "It is the nature of this place to make you fade away, to devour your memories, your thoughts, your self. It is worse than death. You become flat and soulless, and when there is nothing left you collapse and fold like a paper cutout."
She felt sick. The tangled limbs, each one perfect except for that they were perfectly flat. "So you do kill people, and pile them on the road…"
"No, we don't have to. I just told you. The paper people fade away on their own. They don't need any help from us."
She knew, in her heart, that the paper people and the pilgrims were one and the same. After a long moment, she grew the courage to speak again.
"Then why don't you… fade?"
"You just saw," spoke up the shorter Bedouin. He grinned. "There is no death here, unless you allow it. The paper people give up their lives, but we force ourselves to live. And when we defy death, we remember ourselves."
"I don't… I can't forget." She met the Bedouin's gaze. "Please, I don't want to fade away."
The Bedouin smiled. "Then remember. Everything is in your head."
She didn't feel any pain when the sword drove into her neck, only a moment of dizziness, as though she had been lifted off her feet. But she'd seen them do it. It could be done, and a moment later she was again in the country, on a hill in front of two Bedouins.
The taller one smiled gently. "Can you remember your father now?"
The woman named Tracy Norrin blinked through her tears.