Art Pact 56

One day up on the rope came a child. About three years old, a boy - light but healthy, tousled black hair and light skin. He was chatty, babbling away to us in some language that none of us could understand. We set him aside to continue hauling on the winding wheel, but there was no way we could just leave him, not like the other debris. He toddled back to us every time we put him at a safe distance, pulling at our robes and demanding attention. He was smiling, too, and strange though he looked we could not help but be charmed by his odd language and cheerful demeanour.

We'd pulled people up on the rope before, of course - people came up all the time, in all sorts of states - but the dead ones were more common than the live, and even the live ones were usually fractious or terrified. When one of the hooks gets in you, pulls you out of your place, for most people it's just too traumatic. But the boy was happy, and we discussed what it might be.

"Too young to understand death," opined Kordon. "I doubt the hook rescued him from some disaster. Or if it did, he didn't know what it was."

We'd seen people rescued by the hook before, rescued right from the moment before death. It wasn't that uncommon. Wherever the rope was hanging, it was hanging in some places that were pretty dangerous, we all agreed. When we pulled people out who were on the brink of death they didn't seem happy. Maybe afterwards, but at the moment of rescue it was far too shocking for them. They came out screaming, hysterical, shocked, yes. Happy, no.

"What can we feed him?" asked Tramp, projecting his own urges onto the boy. But he was right - the boy wasn't like the others, he wasn't just going to wander off and solve himself. The boy took one of the winding wheel's unmanned spokes and mimed pushing at it in time with us, as if he were one of the crew.

"Perhaps we should keep him," Rayle suggested. She stopped the wheel and pulled a piece of furniture off the hook - a chair of strange design, plain legs and seat, but with arm-rests carved and painted like bones. Detaching it carefully she placed it at a safe distance from the apparatus and caught the boy up by his armpits, placed him in the chair. He laughed. "A new recruit might be a good idea."

"Crazy talk," Kordon said. It had always just been the three of us, ever since we could remember. But there was a lingering suspicion, and Rayle's idea brought it to the surface again.

"Why? We must have come here sometime, why not him too?"

We'd discussed our place on the winding wheel before, at great length. We could not remember a time before we'd worked the ropes, cleared off the hooks, but there must have been such a time. Kordon was particularly sensitive to his body's degeneration, and knowing that he was aging we all knew that once upon a time we must have been younger.

"Work would be easier," Tramp said. "Only needs the three of us to wind the wheel, if there were four we could take turns to sit out. Shifts."

"How would you measure a shift?" One of the things we'd noticed - whatever else we pulled up on the wheel, we never pulled up a clock. But the answer we knew already. The wheel was a clock, as long as we kept turning it. We could measure out our lives in trips around the circumference of the apparatus, or by the appearance and reappearance of the one hook that was attached to the rope backwards, than grabbed at our robes because it was the wrong way round. It irritated us, but at the same time we were never tempted to fix it in case we lost our grip on time's arrow.

"Do you think he'll be able to learn our language?" Kordon asked.

"I don't see why not. He's little. Can't little children learn languages? I seem to remember that's how it works. Hey, boy!"--she waved at the child on his little throne, and he waved back--"come over here!"

He did not, of course, understand her request. But when she beckoned as well, he carefully turned round and lowered himself down from the chair, then ran over to her.

"Rayle," she said, pointing at herself.

"Ray-ul." said the boy.


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