Art Pact 67

If there were full baskets at the end of the day the old man was pleased, if any of us were carrying light loads you'd have thought we'd peed in his bed. He had no middle state, happiness sublimating directly into rage without going through any intermediate stage of neutral feeling. It was like living with a volcano - one day a picturesque mountain, the next a raging torrent of fire. We learnt a few tricks to deal with this.

First of all, we discovered that although he could judge the weight of a basket to within a couple of berries while blindfolded, he had nothing in the way of peripheral vision. If we were half a basket short we would line up and present our baskets for inspection, the last of us carrying the partial load. When the first load had been judged acceptable, whoever was up there would carry it behind the old man - ostensibly to pour it into the tank. Before doing that, though, we would use the contents to top up the final basket while he judged the weight of the second one, quickly pouring out half of the berries he'd already weighed. He was consistently fooled by this subterfuge, and therefore (unless we could actually fill all the baskets, which was rare but not unheard of), consistently about five-percent down on the take he thought he was getting.

Our next trick was the Miranda ploy. Quite early on we noticed the uncanny physical resemblance between Vey and the old pictures of Miranda that covered the walls of the old man's "study" (he refused to call it that, or to hear us use the word, presumably because he did not want to think of himself as the kind of person who had a study). The coincidence was not lost on the old man either - at least in some part of his brain - because in the early days of our time there, before he learnt to refer to us only by grunts or the phrases "you", "that one", and "that other one" - he quite often addressed her as "Mir.. I mean you, Vey." When we learnt that Miranda had been the old man's wife, and that (according to the shopkeeper of the local store) he had until her disappearance been a much mellower person, we realised that his subconscious confusion might prevent the worst of his anger from surfacing.

Consequently we relied on Vey to deliver any bad news, and indeed our intuition turned out to be correct in this matter. He still got angry, of course, it wasn't that successful, but it seemed that his anger was ameliorated to some degree when Vey was the messenger instead of one of the rest of us. So successful was the ploy that the old man appeared to have figured it out himself to some degree, and after the first month he went out of his way to ensure that the rest of us were forced to take our turns getting chewed out. When we did, he blew up like a bomb, all the repressed rage that we'd avoided by means of Vey getting let out in one fiery explosion that usually left the unfortunate in front of him singed for the whole day. As a means of reducing the damage to us it was a failure, but it would allow us to tune when and where his most spectacular explosions occurred. We went back to taking turns, but on days that we knew there would be particular problems we would use Vey and her stupefying powers to mollify the complaints.

The work itself was tolerable, I'll say that. There was fresh air, and plenty to eat (as long as we were prepared to accept that for each berry that went into our mouths we had to pick another to take their place in the old man's baskets), and the companionship of ten people who'd been brought together by the hardship of the march first, of the camp second, and of our placement here third and finally.

Of course, even that couldn't last. The first thing we knew about it was a week after it happened - the old man didn't keep up on the news when he went into town, and whatever gossip he had accidentally heard he was unwilling to pass on to us. Vey and I were sent down to pick up grey-salt to make fertiliser with one morning, only to find the place in utter disarray.

"They're coming," the shopkeeper told us, struggling to load an iron-bound chest onto the back of her cart. "They've crossed."

She didn't have to tell us who, or what.


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