PodCastle 560: Suddenwall
By Sara Saab
In the amnesty-city of Vannat, Aln Panette has let guilt go.
The city of Vannat is a strict and inscrutable rulemaster, so Panette doesn’t question the rules. She lives a plain, clean life. Keeps her recollections as free of the war as she can.
Panette figures she has earned an indulgence or two for her decade as a soldier. Memories of Odarr Harvei are one indulgence. Harvei’s smile of fifteen years ago flashing in the light of the war caravan’s lanterns, her easy company, their mild one-upmanship. The unbroken sky above them.
Other small indulgences Panette allows herself:
Leading the stallions at Vannat’s racecourse stables through their daily exercises.
A now-and-then treat of salted fish in tart molasses that reminds her painfully of Camillon, her home.
And in this city of unremarkable languages passed naturally from parent to child, not a drop of magic in the syllables, not the barest trace of rebellion or fury, Panette indulges in the knowledge that — at least in Vannat — the killing has stopped.
Seven years after Panette’s last encounter with Harvei, accidental, fraught, a neighbor appears at her door. He’s here to tell her that a veteran from Panette’s war caravan (“Harway? Halveigh? Not so easy to hear through stone — ”) has been trapped by a suddenwall. Panette jogs a long time down dusty side streets, her throat hot and tight and dry. The morning is dull as pewter. Commotion in the city’s Southern Quarter winds her nerves tight.
The suddenwall’s appeared inside a house that smells exactly like Harvei, bark and new-woven muslin. A crowd’s concentrated at it: a seamless floor-to-ceiling curve of ochre stone that isolates a corner of the starkly furnished bedroom. There’s a cocksure ruckus, as if every ex-tactician and ex-armorer in Vannat has gathered here. Fists against arcane masonry. Voices pitched to carry through stone. Battering poles hoisted, crowbars hefted.
“We’ll get you out.”
“How many behind there?”
Panette hears an answer hop from tongue to tongue: three. There are three of them walled off by the vigilante immune response of the city.
Three that Vannat has judged? Or two, or one, plus collateral? (Three people — in what must be Harvei’s bedroom. That, Panette does not unpack.)
Panette pushes to the front, shouldering other veterans aside. Rests fingertips against the suddenwall.
“Harvei!” she shouts.
The rescue party is so loud. Panette hears nothing from the other side. Questions she would ask, given time and privacy: What did you do, Harvei? How did you make Vannat so mad? Where have you been, these years?
Question she does ask, again and again: “Harvei, it’s Panette, can you hear me?”
And finally, from the other side, a voice she’d never forget in a thousand years: “Panette? I’m — ”, and something obscured, and “Help.”
Panette would have helped her anyway. She can’t turn away. But everyone gathered here knows that whomever Vannat meant to hold here, meant to extrude — there’s no way to stand Vannat down. Not really.
Three the city has judged; or two, or one, and collateral.
A long time ago, Aln Panette is sixteen years old. She’s still living in Camillon, still growing up. She’s a devoted stablehand. In exchange for riding lessons, Panette tends the beautiful purebred mares, would do it even if there were nothing offered in return. Now that she’s finished with school, she’d like to spend the rest of her life in the service of horses.
She’s never heard of the Ruumari, only vaguely knows what The Pockets are. (In that invincible, unthreatened way of the young.)
Then Camillon’s godkeep comes down. The bomb’s vibrations shake the whole city. Panette doesn’t see it but is caught in the ensuing stampede of bloodied worshippers. Moments later she smells the destruction — sour, smoky, ancient. The greatest city in the world becomes a fragile thing.
Much later, during their years side by side in the war caravan, Panette asks Harvei about the day the Ruumari bomb went off.
“Were you close enough? To feel the blast?”
Harvei’s brushing her horse’s flank with an oiled comb. Next to her, Panette wraps preserved rations for the next campaign.
“A few streets away. Saw the dome shatter.” Harvei stares unfocused into the now-glossy chestnut coat. “Over the tops of the buildings. The shockwave rattled my jaw.”
“That was the day I enlisted,” Panette says. It’s an oddly private secret, hard to share.
Harvei watches Panette in her unreadable way. “The same day?”
“Yes.” Panette laughs. “Hot blood.” She passes a handful of pitted dates up to Harvei. “When did you sign up?”
Harvei doesn’t laugh. “Camillon, those days? There was nothing else for someone like me to get good at. I was headed for this war before anyone had thought of it.”
Panette’s quiet. She wants to say it isn’t true. That this war is just a detour for them both. But the moment hangs silent, until Harvei stands, clucking, to lead her horse away.
During the Extinction, the Camillonese war machine is a hundred thousand strong, a sledgehammer bearing down on the brittle defenses of The Pockets and the Ruumari militias cowering inside. In the early days of the war, Panette’s survival and safety aren’t at stake. Even guilt is more a nuisance than a scourge.
Panette has imagined her earliest encounter with Harvei a hundred different ways. She is sure in hindsight that they’d been in the same war caravan from the start, but can’t decide on the first time she noticed her. Was it a glimpse here, a quick, terse instruction there? The slope of shoulders from behind, a hypnotic rhythm during a hypnotic march?
A fact she keeps snagging on: Harvei somehow avoids shaving her hair as a cadet, wears heavy black curls braided under a helmet until the day she gets a direct order to comply with regulations.
Panette would have given that order if she’d noticed. A privilege of rank. A smudge of guilt absorbed easily into the bigger body of what they’d been sent to do.
The first conversation between them that she distinctly remembers:
“He’s only ten years old, Captain.”
“Does he speak Ruumari?” Panette asks.
“He won’t speak at all.”
Panette begins to saddle her horse. Annoyance gives her clumsy fingers. “Make him speak and find out. Is this your first day in the caravan, Officer?”
“With respect, Captain. He’s ten,” says Odarr Harvei. Her buzzed black hair hasn’t settled on how it’s supposed to sit.
Panette rankles at the way this upstart’s insubordination courses through her chest. “That’s enough. Go do it. Go.”
She loathes it, but Panette notices Harvei after that, watches her out of the side of her eye. After a while, she still watches but no longer thinks of the Ruumari boy by association.
Much later, when she dares shoulder a fraction of the crippling guilt that Vannat’s built to carry (brief, rare instants), Aln Panette sees the Extinction for what it is.
Ruumari is a lean language. In Camillon the prevailing anecdote is that Ruumari has a single noun for males, females, children, and no grammar to differentiate acting, possessing, or being moved.
The language is a miracle tongue: never taught, never written down. Spontaneously, children come to speak it. Youngsters too old to babble are caught mouthing gibberish into their palms. Words slip out in the solitary dark of sleep. Panette sees a boy separated from his family on the cobbled street leading to the horse market. He catches her eye, face wide and pleading, lips working in a way that pebbles her skin.
It’s unsurprising that as adults these Ruumari speakers, mistrusted and persecuted from childhood, would seek out others like them. And in the lead-up to Camillon’s godkeep coming down, they do. They organize; they pray in simple, overdetermined words for a homeland — for Ruumari to ring loud when they haggle over the price of flour, for its marching songs, unbearable noise cutting through Panette’s home, to be their nightly entertainment.
The Ruumari annex fragmented lands on the frontiers beyond Camillon. They call these lands Anachbatarr — heart-homes. The Camillonese call them The Pockets.
Then the godkeep explodes. The Ruumari insurgency has struck too close to Camillon’s core. Panette’s not the only Camillonese with hot blood. In the logic of devastation, every Ruumari speaker is equally to blame.
The Extinction: genocide, for speaking a language.
That is why Panette’s guilt is too big to bear.
It’s fifteen years prior to the suddenwall in Harvei’s bedroom. Panette and Harvei arrive in Vannat, part of two disbanded war caravans. The Extinction is over. The Pockets are a deadland. The war is won.
Camillon is safe, but its soldiers are unsalvageable.
Panette and Harvei whisper about Vannat throughout the final wet season of the war, an amnesty-city being constructed at tremendous expense, product of collective remorse. There are nearly a million Camillonese veterans after ten years of the Extinction. One day history begins to shift and the realization spreads — fast as the fires that razed The Pockets — that they have done something terribly wrong.
How could we?
Genocide, for speaking a language.
Guilt that could crush a heart, crush a people. Vannat is the best salve Camillon’s alkemists can muster.
Panette, to her troop, in various debriefing tents on the journey from Camillon to Vannat:
“This has always been about duty. Camillon called, and we answered.”
And: “You’ll be able to rest your conscience. You’ll be able to let the city decide what’s moral, what’s good. What justice is.”
And, forcing herself not to look for Harvei in the humid tent as thumb-thick horseflies drone against canvas: “We’ve given a lot of ourselves for this war. Vannat will accept what we are.”
Except for the trade-off that the alkemists of this miracle couldn’t avoid. “As one of its inhabitants, you’re within Vannat’s purview. You live there, purified, but you live by new rules. If you act in a way the city deems immoral, it’ll act. Protectively. It will eliminate you from itself.”
Exile. Camillon too scarred to take them back. Vannat too righteous.
Maybe it’s this threat that forces Panette and Harvei apart just inside the gates of the amnesty-city after their war is over. They study discharge orders to avoid looking at each other.
“Where are you staying?” asks Harvei.
“The Hall of Breath.”
“I’m in the Hall of Joy. I’ll find you after we’ve gotten settled,” says Harvei.
In Harvei’s eyes, Panette sees every order she’s given, the Ruumari lives she’s commanded to an end. Panette looks away first.
She doesn’t see Harvei again for three years.
It’s early in the war. Panette’s a junior officer. She’s only just qualified for her first warhorse, a grey gelding she’ll call Agha. A year later he’ll be put down after breaking a foreleg during a tricky river crossing just a morning’s journey from the northernmost of The Pockets.
A few days before she swaps the sluggish packhorse she’s ridden from Camillon for loyal, spirited Agha, Panette makes her first kill.
The Ruumari’s firing a repeating crossbow from a defensive outpost equidistant between two Pockets. The squat bolts ping into the winter-hard arid soil of this plain. Clods of soil flip into the air twenty breadths from Panette, then ten, then five. It’s madness: a single Ruumari fighter, the Camillonese force a thick glinting sea, pennants slack in the still morning. The war caravan extends indefinitely east from the hill Panette’s been caught on.
Panette’s mounted; she grips her saddle painfully hard. It’s the first time in the war that she fears for her life. The whiff of death is exciting and strangely illicit. (Later, she’ll begin to suspect that the gravest risk to her safety is ambient — the accumulation of small, self-inflicted incisions to the heart.)
Two bolts ping. Then no more. The Ruumari topples from the rampart, downed by the arrows of at least two Camillonese archers. Panette is the first to ride over, shield braced above her head. He’s still alive, legs at wrong angles, hands clawing at the wounds in his torso.
He shouts. He flaunts the language. Impossible syllables. Consonant-rich sounds that heat Panette’s ears beneath her helmet.
She hitches her weight and stabs down one-handed through his leather mantle with her pike, through the ribs. Bone and flesh resist, but the shouting cuts short.
The risk to her safety is gone, replaced with an oilier deposit in the base of her stomach.
She flicks the reins and rejoins the caravan.
They pull Harvei and two others — a man and a woman — through the suddenwall after dark. They’re shaken and thirsty, arms covered in pulverized stone to the elbows.
Panette hasn’t had water or food either. She took a single break from the rescue effort to relieve herself hours ago and tried not to pore over every clue about Harvei’s life on the table in the house’s latrine.
The rescue party begins to disperse, but the mood is solemn. Any reprieve from Vannat’s devices is temporary.
Harvei looks so deflated, nothing of the soldier in her. Her eyes are downcast. Then they’re searching, dancing from face to face, and then they’re downcast again. At Harvei’s left, as yet unnoticed, Panette puts a hand out to touch Harvei’s shoulder, remembering many a steadying hand as they rode in the war caravan. Back then, muscle beneath soft armor. Now, beneath fabric, mostly the sharpness of bone.
Harvei turns. Sees her. A slight recoil beneath Panette’s palm. “Captain Panette.”
Panette flinches. “No titles here.” A convention among veterans, not Vannat’s own rule. It is still odd to hear it broken.
They drift towards the back of the crowd. “Where will you go tonight? Stay with me.”
“I need to stay with Ammar and Lei,” says Harvei. She finds the newly rescued pair in the crowd as she names them.
“You three can’t be in the same place tonight, after what’s happened.” Unsaid: that by separating Harvei from the others, they would soon divine which of them Vannat was targeting. Unasked: who are they to you?
Harvei lets Panette take her home. She feeds her, gives her anise spirits to calm her nerves. After dinner they walk to the racecourse and Panette takes her to see the stabled stallions.
Harvei is subdued. Every now and then, through the fog of what Vannat’s decided, Panette catches something: the hunch of Harvei’s shoulders when she wants to be alone, or how she still favors her left leg after that long-ago fall from horseback during an ambush. The old tilt of Harvei’s chin when she’s shaking off a thought.
Those old incisions to the heart. Panette discovers they never healed through.
When the war is over and Camillon is thrashing in its own guilt, there are no informant reports of Ruumari speakers for many months. This is when the war becomes known as the Extinction.
But the miracle tongue is a hardy thing, and after some years, there are rumors again. Then firsthand accounts. Of children afflicted with the language across the frontierlands, and eventually, within Camillon itself. The numbers are not large. It’s as if the sturdy trunk is broken and now only yellow shoots push through.
Camillon begins work assimilating the few Ruumari who come to the city’s attention. They’re taught suppression techniques — counting, deep breathing — to still their tongues. They’re partnered early in adolescence to Camillon’s most loyal bloodlines.
In the shadow of the Extinction, some Ruumari are not so eager for assimilation.
Panette remembers this: it’s soon after they’ve taken the northernmost of The Pockets, hard years after that first conversation with Harvei. Panette and Harvei have not spoken words beyond commands and acknowledgements in as long as Panette can remember.
At first, she thinks it’s exhaustion. Morale is low. The horses are sickly and their riders too. Rasping coughs have punctuated the rattle-clomp of the war caravan’s progress the last few nights. Panette cannot stomach elaborate conversation either. But after weeks of this, she wonders if Harvei’s okay. She watches her twice as closely, hates herself for the accounting she does of Harvei’s every action. She wants to ask outright what the matter is. Her pride won’t let her.
Then they find a Ruumari child in an abandoned home, maybe five. She’s underfed and alone, mumbling in the tongue, so scared that she’s soiled herself. Panette is outraged that they cannot find the parents. The idea of executing the girl alone is an inexplicable step further than doing by rote: mother, father, child.
So Panette takes the Ruumari by the hand, away from the troop. Harvei follows, her gaze locked on Panette in a way she’s never experienced before. Panette is thrilled by the attention — and also ashamed. That oily feeling in her stomach again.
The child is in a housedress, shoeless. Flies hound her. Her wails stutter in a dried-out throat. Panette washes her from the pail in her own tent. When she is no longer repulsed by the stink of filth, Panette raises a finger to silence the unsettling cries and wraps a matted old fur around the child’s thin neck.
She glances at Harvei. “Take her away. Far as you can get before the sun goes down.” She pins the fur at either shoulder. “Find a village that’ll take her. Tell them — ” Panette straps the child’s hair back. “Tell them orders of the Camillonese army. To keep the child safe.”
“Yes, Captain.” Harvei looks at her in a brand new way. This is Panette’s reward. She soaks it in like sunlight.
Then she pushes the little Ruumari in Harvei’s direction and goes back to the head of the troop.
Three years after they first arrive in Vannat, Panette encounters Harvei on the grand steps leading down to Corner Avenue. Panette’s in a hurry, rushing to the track to watch Udu race. The young bay stallion is her favorite. He’s so responsive when she gallops him; stops as soon as he’s sure of the tug on his reins.
She and Harvei almost collide. (Vannat? A taste for whimsy?) Harvei’s arms are heaped with fabrics. Bolts go tumbling and unfurling down the steps: tangerine, white, olive. Panette scoops up three rolls of silk from the roadside before she sees who is carrying them.
Harvei’s smiling, and then Panette’s smiling too. She wants to orient this moment inside the years she’s lived in Vannat, three years the whole time wondering, feelings a bit ripe, a bit bruised. But she can only think in the register of the jubilation that springs awake in her chest.
Panette has never heard her given name in Harvei’s voice before.
“What — where are you going with all that?” Panette asks.
Harvei’s smile widens. “The tailor.”
“I’m going that way,” Panette lies. “Shall I walk with you?”
Udu wins the race comfortably; Panette’s on the other side of the city when he crosses the line. The tailor is across Vannat’s huge central square. They walk in silence for a time, then it rekindles: the easy company, the mild one-upmanship.
“Surprised you thought you could carry all this alone,” Panette says as Harvei struggles.
“Strong shoulders from carrying your second quiver for a decade,” Harvei says. “And your shield. And your mud boots.”
“No, no. I travel light,” Panette counters, smirking at the clear sky. “You insisted on having a whole armory to hand.”
Panette stops with Harvei at the door to the tailor’s. She can’t bring herself to ask for more of Harvei’s time. Too proud. Too ashamed. So she doesn’t, and Harvei doesn’t volunteer it.
Panette strides across the road and raises an arm in goodbye. Cutting her eyes away is like smashing a latch.
The next time they see each other is the day the suddenwall appears.
Harvei spends the night after the rescue in Panette’s home. The hardness about her barely softens. The only familiar cues are the involuntary tells of her body.
They set a mat down in the spare room, and Panette gets a single impassioned reaction — when Harvei won’t let Panette make a bed for her.
“Everything I learned in the war caravan counts for nothing,” Harvei says, “unless you give those sheets to me. Captain.”
The next morning Panette heads down to the spare room with a glass of orange blossom. Waking up, she remembered the way Harvei would tease her about how she sat a horse. She’d exaggerate a lean to the left — you sit off-balance, Captain — until her horse whinnied nervously and other soldiers began to stare.
Panette has her line ready when she rounds the hall towards Harvei’s room — since you envied my horsemanship during the war, shall we ride today? She stops short.
Even if she wanted to go further, she can’t.
A suddenwall is in the way.
This time, there is no doubt. There are no associates of Harvei’s to share the enclosure Vannat has built for her. The amnesty-city is pushing her out.
Given enough time and fodder, even yellow shoots grow into trees.
After a long lull, in the wake of the Extinction, rumors of Ruumari speakers turn into rumors of Ruumari agitators.
On the face of it, Camillon has been rehabilitated. Pacifist approaches prevail: a Minister for the Ruumari, ambassadors, receptions to celebrate cultural exchange. Theories appear about how the Ruumari language is acquired, rekindling speculation about whether it’s teachable. Scholars read treatises aloud to captive audiences gathered for horse races and concertos. There’s such a glut of new studies that crowds learn to arrive later and later for public events.
The assimilation isn’t enough. Attacks by Ruumari fighters are sporadic but on the increase. Nothing as dramatic as the day the godkeep came down — nothing will ever sear into Panette’s memory that way — but there are Camillonese victims. A Ruumari swordsman breaks into the stalls at Panette’s childhood stables, kills jockeys, kills horses.
Like all veterans of the Extinction, Panette pays attention to the disturbing news from Camillon and the frontiers. Although not too much attention. Vannat is always passing judgment, and all of them worry. No one is sure what raises the city’s ire.
Aln Panette sounds the alarm throughout the neighborhood — a suddenwall, a suddenwall here. Her door stays open for a stream of volunteers.
The suddenwall in Panette’s house is thicker than yesterday’s. Vannat has redoubled efforts, as she knew it would.
They excavate until dark, until Panette is blinking ochre dust from her bloodshot eyes, and though she can hear Harvei’s voice on the other side, they still do not break through.
Panette’s hands don’t falter, but she mouths no no no no without pause. A string of words like a defensive stream of arrows, because otherwise she will have to accept what this means.
If Harvei stays? If Harvei stays, a suddenwall will spring up too close and crush her, or entomb her in an unbreachable thickness of miracle stone. These deaths happen. They are not as rare as they should be. Camillon’s veterans have become dependent on a city that lightens burdens, antidote city to every sediment that’s ever settled inside a heart. To bear its rejection is almost inconceivable.
After midnight Harvei scrambles out from behind the suddenwall. She’s ashen wherever she’s not covered in dust. She’s barely standing.
“I was asleep,” she tells Panette. “The head of my mat began to lift. I rolled away. Woke. Saw this.” Tips her face at the suddenwall.
“Why is this happening?” Panette whispers as she wipes Harvei’s face with a cool cloth in the latrine. It reminds her of dressing injuries in the war caravan, even Harvei’s own once or twice. All of the rescuers have gone home to tell cautionary tales of the woman Vannat has condemned.
Harvei’s face is set, chiseled. When Panette scoops dust from the corners of Harvei’s eyes, from the hollows of her cheeks, there’s not a hint of emotion, not even this close up. Panette half-imagines clay, not flesh, beneath the track of cloth. The only thing to indicate life is the wild black hair that’s come free at Harvei’s temples.
“I eliminate suspected Ruumari speakers,” Harvei says. “For money. That’s how I survive.”
Panette stops, the cloth midway between them.
“Ammar and Lei are my clients,” she adds. “They work for interested parties in Camillon.”
Panette puts the cloth down.
“All ages,” Harvei says finally. “Even children. A lot of children.”
There’s something terrible shackled behind the control of her features, the untouchable focus of her eyes. It never undams. There’s only the cutting wound to Panette’s heart, incision overlaid on old incisions.
Panette never moves away from Vannat. When on occasion she takes the stallions out beyond the city’s walls, the sky’s oppressive, the ground too red-rich with the minerals left behind by the Extinction’s shallow-buried dead. She forces herself to ride Vannat’s circumference every so often. A reminder, she supposes, of how tattered her heart would be without the balm of the amnesty-city.
Harvei survives Vannat’s extrusion, leaving on a packhorse not unlike Panette’s first mount of the war effort. Panette sees her off.
Nights, Panette dreams of Harvei being crushed. The suddenwalls in these dreams are not stone but walls of sound, walls of syllables that scald Harvei’s skin as they close in on her.
Waking up from these dreams, Panette recalls more and more from her years with Harvei. In the war caravan. During the Extinction. These memories she sifts, on her back with her eyes closed, fists knotted in her blanket. She’s searching for the most untarnished of them to keep. Does Vannat know these too? Do the memories count in her favor or incriminate her?
Panette only wonders briefly, and only privately, by first light.
When she hears about a new suddenwall, she tilts her chin to shake the thought away.
About the Author
Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.
About the Narrator
C. L. Clark
Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her debut novel, The Unbroken, came out at Orbit last year, and her work has also appeared in FIYAH and Uncanny.