As he pondered this, he edged cautiously around the cleared area, staying well hidden in the trees of Aokigahara. He was surprised by a sight both familiar and unfamiliar. One of the fields had been deliberately flooded! It was almost like the Nile's annual deluge – but this had been caused by diverting the stream's course; there was little mud delivered that he could see. Around the rectangular edge of this shallow pond a heaped ridge of dirt hemmed in the water to maximize the effect. A figure moved in the submerged field, bending and straightening. Intrigued, he moved closer.
The figure wore a gown, as the women of Khem did. But this was no slim and form-fitting sheath such as they wore. It was wide and loose, with wide sleeves, designed to cover but not enhance the human form. It was secured with a slim cord about the waist of its wearer, who was topped by one of the conical straw hats.
But what was this person doing out there in the water? In Khem, the Akhet, the Season of the Inundation, followed the Season of Harvest. It was a slack time for farmers – and not a good time to be in the fields on either side of the great river, since crocodiles could and did wander further inland at that time. Planting was something to do when the waters receded, in the Season of the Emergence, when the farmlands reappeared as the flood waters abated.
But this person (she, he realized, after looking more closely) was planting something. In one hand she was holding a thick bunch of stems with single leaves; she was inching sideways across the submerged field, in water up past her ankles, every foot or so she bent over and pushed one of the plants down into the water-covered earth. The line was almost perfectly straight; the spacing was just as uniform. As he watched, she reached the end of a row, where a bucket filled with more plants awaited her. It was almost as if she were weaving the field from water and seedlings.
Remarkable as the sight was, what he saw next dumbfounded him. When she reached the end of the row, and exhausted her supply of plants, she groped for the bucket without looking at it, found it, pulled out another bundle of seedlings, and reversed direction, beginning another row parallel to the one just completed. It was the groping that clued him in, even before she straightened at her closest point and he saw the cloth tied across her eyes: she was doing all this blindfolded, creating straight lines she could not see.
Am-heh forgot his hunger, forgot his impatience, forgot the other Immortal he was hunting, so entranced was he in watching this woman stitch her way across this square puddle, dotting lines without seeing. He was in awe of her patience and the serenity she seemed to radiate, the sheer simple elegance with which she performed this incomprehensible task of drowning her seedlings with mathematical precision.
He decided immediately that he would rather meet than eat her.
He was some distance from the odd-but-beautiful tent-like buildings now: he could barely make out the people near them. Perhaps he could approach her without raising a general alarm.
Bending over a little, so that his silhouette would resemble hers from a distance, he crept closer to this strange and wonderful artist. His feet entered the water, which was warm to his skin. He was careful to make no sound that might frighten her.
He came to within a few feet of her, when she abruptly stood, turned towards him, and spoke. “How long have you been watching me, and who are you?”
Am-heh was taken unawares, and shocked. She spoke the same 'English' that he had heard from Howard and Victor, and the other couples he had eaten in Khem. In this strange place. Was this where they all hailed from?
“How did you know I was watching?” he said, amazed. “I was quiet and my shadow is behind me.”
“The sounds of a person walking are not random,” she informed him. “Even in water, they stand out like a sore thumb. Especially to me. I do not need to see your shadow, and I have been blind for many years, anyway.”
Astounding! “Then why do you wear cloth across your eyes?”
“To remind the others, who might forget and expect me to walk around them. I do it out of courtesy, as I answer your questions,” she said. “But you have not answered mine.”
Am-heh was impressed. She neither insulted nor evaded. More than before, he was convinced that she was exceptional among her kind.
“My name is Am-heh,” he told her. “I was watching you for a couple of hours, as your people reckon time.”
“My people?” Her mouth smiled a little. She seemed amused. “Are you, then, from a different people? I am called Kemushi here.”
“From farther away than you can imagine,” he said.
The sightless band of cloth around her head appeared to study him. “You know nothing of my imagination,” she said, evenly. “I was a physicist once; we imagine seven impossible things before breakfast. Humor me. Let me try to imagine it.”
Am-heh found her manner disarming. On a whim he decided to answer her. “I was not born on this world,” he informed her.
She did not laugh. “Are you saying you're an alien? That's an interesting back story, but it won't fit in with the therapeutic roleplay of the other patients.”
“I know nothing of roleplay or therapeutic or patients,” he said. “Tell me, why do you do this ritual drowning of plants? Does it have some religious significance? A sacrifice, perhaps?”
She tilted her head. “Your voice is strange,” she remarked. “I am not drowning anything. I am planting rice. It can live with its roots submerged, so the field is flooded to prevent weeds and vermin from hindering the early growth.”
“A clever idea,” he remarked. “Did you invent this practice?”
She shook her head. “No, it has been done for thousands of years. You must not be from here, or you would know that. I wish I could see your face.”
“It's not really my face,” he told her. “I was given this form when I arrived here. My original form, before I Transcended, was very different from those of this planet. But that was very long ago.”
“Your answers only lead to more questions,” she remarked. “Is there any proof you can offer of your origin, something you can do that I can't?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “But I don't think you would like it.” Truly, he had no wish to end this conversation so abruptly. The woman was a fascinating mystery.
As they spoke, she stepped out of the square puddle of a field and slipped her feet into a pair of sandals. They were fashioned of wood, thicker than one of Am-heh's fingers, and had two thick sideways wooden ridges on their bottoms. Gazing at them, he finally realized that this seemingly clumsy design was a functional one: her feet would be elevated from puddles and snow as she walked.
“Tell me more,” she said. “Tell me of your home world. I know a little about planets.”
“It doesn't exist any more. Our sun, Aton, was large and blue. We were fortunate to arise on its fourth planet and Transcend before he exploded with remarkable violence.”
“That is consistent,” she mused. “Blue giants burn through their fuel quickly and go supernova in less than a billion years. You must have evolved quickly, from the extra radiation. How did you survive? Had you already colonized another star system?”
“No,” he said. “We had left our bodies behind by then.” He was enjoying this conversation, he discovered. She was only a mortal, but better educated than most. Her questions were as interesting as her answers.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Your story is interesting, but I've the feeling that you haven't come to join our community.”
“No, I won't be staying long. I'm on a mission. There is another intruder here, of different origin. “I am hunting him, but he is somewhere else.”
“Ah so desu ka,” she remarked cryptically. “I see, metaphorically speaking. The game's in play, with Earth the prize for which you contend. Is this not so?”
The hairs rose on Am-heh's neck. “How could you possible know that?” he demanded, a little more forcefully than he intended.
“Something a friend told me,” she replied. “Apparently, I have been waiting for you to bring me out of my shell. Or so he believed.”
What was this? Had she met his quarry? “I do not understand,” he told her. “I see no shell. Why should I bring you out, and to where?”
“Oh, I'll take care of that,” she said. “If you are who you say you are, you know little of this place. You need a guide, and I need to go forth in search of my family, who he says still live. We are apparently destined to help each other. The sound of one hand clapping.”
“The sound of what?” What was she talking about?
“Here,” she said. “Give me your hand.”
Mystified, Am-heh reached out and gingerly took her hand in his.
The woman positioned his hand straight out from his body, palm facing to the side. “It's an old riddle, asked to help students gain insight. There is no one answer, just various versions.” She struck her own palms together. “That is the sound of two hands clapping,” she said.
Then she held out one of her hands and struck it lightly against his, making a similar sound. “And that,” she said, “is my version of the sound of one hand clapping.”
“But that was two hands,” he protested.
“Yes,” she agreed. “But only one of mine...and one of yours. Each of us made the sound with one hand.”
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