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Deep in the night, a squall of strangled brass, a muted trumpet bray of panic: Aunt Gayla Latimer, wailing in the grip of nightmare followed shortly by footsteps.
"Papa?" Dismé peered sleepily at her door, opened only a crack to admit her father's nose, chin, one set of bare toes.
"It's Aunt Gayla having the Terrors, Dismé. Just go back to sleep." He turned and shuffled up the attic stairs to be greeted by Roger, Dismé's older brother. Mumble, mumble.
"Val?" A petulant whine from Father's room.
Voice from upstairs. "Go back to sleep, Cora."
Corable the Horrible, said a voice in Dismé's head. Cora Call-Her-Mother.
"But she's not my mother," Dismé had said a thousand times.
"Of course not. But you call her mother anyhow. All little girls need a mother." Papa, over and over.
Fresh howls of horror from Aunt Gayla's room.
"Can't anybody shut that old bitch up?" A slightly shriller whine, from the room that had once been Dismé's and now belonged to Rashel, Call-Her-Mother's daughter, already growing into a faithful copy of her mother.
Dismé pulled the blanket around her ears and rolled an imaginary pair of dice. Odds or evens: go back to sleep or wait to see what happened. Gayla's affliction had developed into an every-third-night ordeal. Her nephew and great nephew, Val and Roger Latimer, provided solace whileCall-Her-Mother and Rashel offered commentary. Dismé had no part in the ritual. If she got involved, it would only make it worse.
The clock in the hallway cleared its throat and donged, three, four, five...Dismé emerged from the blanket, eyes relentlessly opened by the scuffle-shuffle overhead as Roger went from Aunt Gayla's attic room to his own, and father came down the stairs, back to bed.
If everyone else was asleep, Dismé would stay up! She dressed herself in the dark, went furtively down the stairs and into the back hall, past the pre-dawn black of the gurgling, tweeping bottle room, out along the tool shed, and through the gate into a twisty adit between blank-walled tenements. Aunt Gayla wasn't the only one with night terrors, for the night was full of howls, each one bringing a suitable though impotent gesture of aversion from Dismé. She was only practicing. Everyone knew sorcerous gesticulation had no power left in it. All magic had been lost during the Happening, and no amount of arm waving or chanting would do any good until The Art was regained. Which meant no surcease for Aunt Gayla, though Dismé daren't show she cared.
"We wouldn't want the Regime to punish Gayla for your behavior, would we, Dismé?" Cora the Horrible.
"Why would the Regime do that?" Dismé, outraged.
"Those who have the night terrors are more likely to get the Disease," said Call-Her-Mother.
"Those who have the Disease affect others around them, they get un-Regimic," echoed Rashel. "Dismé, you're un-Regimic!"
"Since children do not become un-Regimic by themselves, they will search for the person who influenced you. Since Rashel is Regimic, they will not blame me," so Call-Her-Mother summed it up with a superior smile. "They will blame Aunt Gayla!"
Or Father. Or Roger. If the Regime was going to blame people she loved just because Dismé couldn't figure things out, better keep love a secret. It was hard to do, even though True Mother used to say making the best of a bad situation was a secret way of getting even.
"Secret pleasures," True Mother had whispered, "can be compensation for a good many quotidian tribulations!" True Mother had loved words like that, long ones that rolled around in your mouth like half dissolved honey-drops, oozing flavor. It was True Mother who had introduced Dismé to the secret pleasure of early mornings as seen from the ruined tower on the western wall, where a fragment of floor and a bit of curved wall made an aerie open to the air.
On her way to the wall, Dismé made up an enchantment:
"Old wall, old wall,
defender of the Spared
lift me up into your tower,
and let me see the morning."
In the solitude of the alley no one could hear her, so she sang the words, a whisper that barely broke the hush. All the schoolchildren in Bastion were taught the elements of sorcery, and Dismé often imagined what might happen if she suddenly got The Art and said some marvelous enchantment by accident!
She began to embellish the tune, only to be stopped by a sound like a tough fingernail flicking against a wineglass. Only a ping, but pings did not stay only! Dismé turned her face away and hurried, pretending she had not heard it. No use. Before her eyes, the dark air spun into a steely vortex of whirling light with a vacancy at the center which was the ping itself. It made her head hurt to look at it, and she averted her eyes as a voice from nowhere asked, "What are you thinking?"
If she lied, it would ask again, more loudly, and then more loudly yet until she answered truthfully or someone came to fetch her. Since being out alone in the dark was forbidden, being fetched by anyone was a bad idea. She had to tell the truth. If she could decide what it was!
"I was thinking about my father..." she ventured. She thought she had been thinking of him, though the ping had driven all thoughts away for the moment.
"What about him?"
"About...about his book." It was true! She had thought of it, not long ago.
"What book is that?" asked the ping.
"One written by his ancestor."
"What does it..."
Excerpted from The Visitor by Sheri S. Tepper. Copyright © 2002 by Sheri S. Tepper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.