Sara Phim - The most beautiful girl in the universe

In the year prior to his death, Sara’s grandfather built a mountain. The neighbours – watching speculatively as he hauled the rubblecart up the ever increasing mass of shale and scree – all agreed that it seemed a very impressive mountain, certainly the best the county had seen in at least a megade. Yet they wondered, too, at his motivations – for old Heth had never been one for religion, never been a church tied man. His life had been spent in the fields of the Long Fyl, amidst stretches of riser grain and stands of reaching willows – out in the open, away from the parhelion shade of the Mount.
“He’s making his peace,’ the neighbours finally declared, in their quiet, secret manner. “Working his way back toward the lord…”
It was a worthy mountain, they decided.
Sara’s grandfather died a week after the mountain was finished. They interred him at the summit, amongst the drifts of newborn snow, already curing, hardening toward glaciation. His skin was red against the ice – he was naked, curled onto his side, knees drawn up to his chest. Sara, glimpsing the proceedings through the massed ranks of sons and daughters, cousins, demi-cousins and grandchildren, thought he looked like nothing so much as a tight little seed, a little hermetic cell of life prior to the planting. She wondered whether he would be lonely when they all left, all alone in the icy sky. Then she wondered if he would, perhaps, be bored, and whether that was a worse ailment than loneliness. If he were bored perhaps he would never rise again.
She promised herself that she would return to the summit every month, to tell old red Heth about farm things – rot, yield and harvest – and to seek the greening shoots that signalled the cropper man’s return.
She broke the promise.
Her parents never returned to their farm, to their little cottage by the copse and the mile-made tenancy. Heth’s youngest brother, a moneyman from the city, inherited the Long Fyl, and he turned the land over to capecrown and the grazer beasts. Her parents moved to the city, where they took a room above a machinists shop in the eastern quarter. Heth’s mountain was just visible through the room’s sole, leaded window – growing white as winter descended and the overnight hoarfrost grew on the diamond panes. Every day for a month, while her parents went in search of work, she would sit there, staring off at Heth’s place, until the light drew in and the summit was swallowed up by the gloom and the rising fug of the city’s eventide fires. In her dreams, Sara saw him up there all alone, frozen into the earth, but she realised now that he would never be lonely, for he was near to the Long Fyl, near the farm, near the only place she could imagine weathering out the coming storm.
Then, at the end of that month – the darkest in Sara’s short life, with the clouds and the coalsmoke ringing in around the city, hemming her in – they moved once more and Heth was lost to view.
The farm was gone, her father said. She would have to accept that. In a way, he added, they had been lucky. There were opportunities here, chances apart from the village life. They could make something of this.
Something better than a mountain? Sara wondered.

It took her seven years to realise exactly how wrong her father was. The moment of understanding came as she was perched upon the parapet of the Acadamy’s cloister, silent and still, at one with the grime and the decrepitude. She was hiding from Hildegard, who, during a particularly boring fourth form, had idly declared that she was going to break both of Sara’s arms. It was just the sort of thing the girl could do – for she was an outlander, born off planet, back at Berkalaqe – the cluster’s capital. She was white while all the other girls were red – she had pale, straw-yellow hair done in the Berkalaque style, drawn away from her fringe into a dense net of plaits, while the other girls wore theirs long, in the manner prescribed by the Chapterhouse. She was short while they were tall, strong and thick of wrist and arm while they were lean and gracile and fragile. She was still ungainly in the quarter gravity, still ill adjusted, but she was stronger than any girl in the school, and perhaps – some whispered – than any planetsider in the city.
Hildegard hated it here, hated living on little green Falk. She hated the unfamiliar seasons, the too-hot twinned suns, the intense, medieval backwardness of the economy, so confronting after a privileged childhood in high-Berkalaque society. Most of all she hated the girls, for they were beautiful – limber, redskin angels – and chief amongst all that she hated was Sara, for she was the most beautiful of all.
This came as a shock to Sara, who had always thought of herself as thin limbed, sunburnt, gangly. Hildegard, however, was a sophisticate, and would brook no such self effacing gesture. She would destroy her – she would break her…
…If only she could find her.
Sara was the only one who knew about the space behind the cloister parapet – the safe little ledge shadowed by the mouldering sandstone. It was her space – she would come there in the afternoon, when classes semi-slumbered in a summery haze, and watch over the city. There was the machinists’ district, shrouded in smog, off to the east and, dead ahead, the ecclesial palace bestriding the river Tril. It was a purposeful, knife-edge tower of a building, its angular severity tempered by rampant overindulgence in gold leaf and a haphazard timber parastructure affixed to the cupola. It always reminded Sara of a galleon – topheavy, masts and yardarms pinioning the sky, the gold capped prow nosing its way through the morass of the city. She imagined white sails heaving and the building sailing away, the city submerged in its churning wake. Today, however, the flags and signal pennants – the bright yellows and reds and blues of the Chapterhouse sephamore – were stilled, transfigured by midsummer torpor. Beyond the palace a procession of pale white buildings – sepulchral granite, quarried in the northlands – marked the edge of the Ro Appellon, the triumphal avenue that bisected the southern quarter. If she shaded her eyes she could just make out the little café her parents worked; a tired, tumbledown creature wedged between the bulk of the Mercurial Temple and the faceted mass of the Genossenschaft.
What were they doing now, she wondered. What were they doing while she lay still – silent and hidden and hunted?
‘That’s not particularly fair,’ whispered a calmer voice within her. ‘They’re working for you, little Sara – working to furnish you with a future. That they’re absent while you hurt is far from their fault.’
‘They sent me to this stupid fucking school,’ high-order Sara shot back.
‘It’s a good school,’ the soft voice countered. ‘Do not waste the chances they’ve given you. Be no longer afraid – go down and confront this girl. Go now.’
Sara knelt forward and levered herself over the edge of the parapet – sepulchral fingers splayed across the sandstone hem as she pivoted and threw herself backwards. She was a dervish as she fell, whirling, arms outstretched, and then the flagstones hove into view and she landed in a dizzy heap. A shadow drew across her – she raised her head, marginally – biting down on that terrible urge to leap away, to flee.
‘Very pretty,’ Hildegard said, her words muzzled by an affected Teutonic inflexion. ‘Now, get up.’
Sara rose and wordlessly offered up her arms: ‘no matter what happens,’ she thought, ‘I will not cry out.’
She didn’t. Even as Hildegard’s pale hands wound their way around her forearm – thumb and index finger easily ensnaring the featherweight limb – Sara was silent. When the bone broke the only sound – bar the sickening, moist rapport of the fracture – was Hildegard’s indrawn breath. She’d frozen, transfixed by her handiwork – it had sheared just short of the wrist, revealing spears of bone against dark red skin, brilliant needles threaded with a seeping strand of blood. ‘Oh,’ she ventured, at last. Sara, sensing a shift in the nature of proceedings, patiently presented her remaining arm – palm open in a gesture of suppliance.
‘No,’ Hildegard said, eyes and mouth both perfect little ‘o’s of shock and surprise. The blood was flowing fast, now – the thin, orangehued blood of a falklander, seeping down her sleeve and into her linen shift – so Sara drew the wounded arm up, cradling it to her breast, tugging her sleeve down into a tight, makeshift tourniquet.
‘No,’ Hildegard, again – kneeling now, deathly pale and penitent.
‘Oh, shut up!’ Sara spat, but in the echoing silence of shock – with the pain, already familiar, rising to a crescendo – the words seemed hollow. ‘So this is victory?’ She thought, and then ‘I have to get away from here…’
She brushed past Hildegard with slow, measured steps – a triumphal procession down the cobbled way to the academy gates and the silent city beyond. As she passed beneath the portcullis Hildegard began moaning – a low keening, unearthly and unfamiliar. It was the most horrible sound Sara had ever heard. She quickened her step, nearly falling where the cobbles bled into the macadam, and then – as, behind her, the keening rose – her composure finally dissolved. There was a sudden wall of pain, now, drawn up before her eyes, and a fire in her shattered forearm, and she found herself running, running blind along the hot, empty streets.
She thought, for a moment, of running to her parents – of running to the little café and being swept up by their fathomless concern – but there was blood on her shift and blood on her skirt. She couldn’t face them like this. There was blood on her shift and blood on her skirt and it smelled of copper, and, in a curious way, of old Heth and his mountain and the little house besides the mile-made tenancy. She would go back, she decided, as she sprang past the sealed buds of all the night-time stores in the Easthill market. There was blood on her shift and blood on her skirt and it was calling out for home.

Sara Phim - The most beautiful girl in the universe


Joined January 2008

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