In a Safe Country
To return to the main Tacheiru page, click here. To return to QC-L forever, click here. This is the second page of a long, never ending story for Ghostletters The Next Generation. Ask me about them. Here we go....
Almost Under New Colors
How did I walk down those roads after a night of fighting and not feel fear? Well, I am not a stone of course, so I was a bit scaird, but there are ways to put fear aside just like there are ways to keep oneself from being bored. In my case, I just looked around and let my five senses and imagination do the work together. This wasn't that hard. The woods in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey are similar enough to the forests cut by the logging trails of the Arnot Nature Preserve if one did not look too closely. The main difference is decades of gypsy moth damage.
Before we left, Ondina and Amaryllis had been emphatic. If any of us saw, heard, or smelled anything threatening or "untoward," we were to show the others and then the party was to turn back immediately. Run if we had too, but hopefully we would see the problem soon enough that walking was the solution. That was why my five senses were important and why I was sort of in charge of getting Charles and Brandi safely home. With me were my two roommates, Aurora and Odem. That made five sets of five senses. Odem said aloud that thing which worried her most was that the priests might have a checkpoint and inspect bags. A checkpoint would indeed be a threat given that Charles and Brandi had their weapons and ammo stowed in borrowed duffle bags. Amaryllis and Ondina wanted rid of both the clueless pair of fifteen year olds and their weapons.
"If we see a checkpoint, we leave," Aurora reiterated. Every problem has a simple solution. I asked everyone to be quiet and observant. I think Charles and Brandi didn't get it. Odem smiled as she imagined herself in the IDF, CIA, or as a freelance soldier of fortune or independent adventurer out doing reconnaisance. Aurora looked at her feet, afraid that the occasional piece of gravel she kicked up made too much noise. As for me, I just relaxed and observed. I listened for the sounds of birds and insects. They sounded as they had the day before the battle. I kept my eyes on both sides of the road and saw forest and the occasional house that looked asleep. In one driveawy, several women tried to jump start a paralyzed car. I also kept my nose open for the smell of carrion. Carrion could well be a dead human being. In the end, we are all carrion.
I did not smell carrion, but the imaginary Arnot dissolved when we hit the top of Old Homestead Road. There were more houses here and women and children sat or stood in unhappy clumps in their front yard. I could not overheard their conversations. They paid no attention to us. Odem elbowed me. "Hey Ahava, wake up." she teased.
"What's your problem?" I asked.
"Where are the men and boys?" asked Odem. She was right. I felt embarassed. There was no direct threat, but the missing men were certainly odd.
"They may have been arrested," Brandi said at last.
I thought about checkpoints again. We turned left on Upper Highland Lakes Drive and began the long pull toward Seckler Center. As we cleared the first rise, a woman who was sitting with several others in white, resin chairs got up out of her seat and accosted us in the middle of the road. Charles and Brandi looked at eachother nervously and then looked to their duffles.
"Hello there," called out a plump woman with black ringlets and a ruddy complexion. "Where are you going?"
"We're going to see if the local trams are still running," answered Aurora. Thankyou Aurora; for I was tongue-tied.
"And where will you go then?" The woman looked frightened and probably smelled that way. I thought she should go back inside and get a shower, but scaird grownups are a threat. I glanced back up the road.
"We have a small errand to run," Aurora kept up the glib patter. What we were doing was nobody's business when you really thought about it.
"Good luck," the woman bade us. "When you come back, let us know what you saw."
Aurora agreed though I knew if we had to make a retreat, we wouldn't be stopping to spread the bad news. At a mentoring house, kids raked the yard and others swept porches. Kids were always sweeping porches in Highland Lakes. We pushed on past Breakneck Road and then toward Seckler Center. There were no more trucks of scarlet spandex clad troops, but there was blood in the street. No one had hosed it off yet. It did not stink, but it was there, drying reddish brown on the worn, oil and gravel pavement.
"Shit,&quit; sighed Odem in wonder.
Charles and Brandi looked at eachother. "Keep going," I ordered. A blood stain was not a threat, though the thought that people might have been killed or wounded last night was a bit unsettling.
We reached the porch on the side of Seckler Center. That was where we saw the priests. They were from different orders, because they wore different uniforms, mostly robes or tunics and pants and sarongs, and most had their heads all or partially shaven. They stood in a clump just as if it were gypsy moth derby day. "You stay here," I told my friends, but Aurora came with me. I knew whom she wanted to see, but there were no Hello Kitty priests in this group. Still Aurora smiled at the priests who as far as she was concerned were her friends. I was flad for Aurora's smile.
"Excuse me," I addressed the priests. It took a moment too long to get their attention.
"Is the local tram running today? We need to get to Miller Street down past the ski areas." I let it out in one frightened breath.
A very tall priest in a grey burlap cassock and with a shaven head like a brown egg told me that I could take a tram, but I would have to transfer in downtown Vernon, and yes, the trams were running.
They even ran on time and we had no checkpoints. Of course Odem kept Charles and Brandi down by the basketball courts and walked them through the bushes to get them to the porch where people commonly waited for the tram. We were the only passengers. The driver looked us over, but did not ask Charles or Brandi to open their bags. I realized he could have done that easily. My armpits burnt with fear sweat as I sat by the window. The tram did not have its skylight open and the windows had been sealed and no one bothered with air conditioning. Odem pried open a window. The wind and rattle of the road drowned out conversation. Besides none of us had much to say.
We had to wait half an hour in downtown Vernon, and there were more priests there. Odem announced quite loudly that she wanted a soda. There were several drink machines. She took Charles and Brandi to the machines to treat them which meant she took them away from the priests. Having "our bags inspected" this far from home with no comm phone connections due to the electromagnetic pulse last night would be very dangerous. Of course neither Charles nor Brandi had any money on them. As Ed-Branch kids we had cash, but no one had bothered to unplug the machine before the electromagnetic pulse or maybe it had never been stocked or never worked. Some soda machines are like that. Odem kicked the machine.
I walked over to her and the kids. "I need to pee!" I announced. Brandi winced at my lack of politeness, but at least I caught her attention.
"The government offices are closed,"Charles advised me.
"Well where can I use a bathroom?" I asked. By now we had attracted the attention of the priests. That was fine, I had a question for them.
I watched as a priest in what looked like a furr vest and leather skirt trotted over to us. "Excuse me," she looked us over gingerly. "Can I help you?" Kids travelling alone on the first day after a riot, stick out like sore thumbs, but that was fine with me.
"Yes," I smiled. "Where is the nearest public restroom?"
The priest looked perplexed. She hadn't expected this. She pursed her lips. Apparently, she didn't want us to use the facilities that were provided for the priests in whatever office they were occupying. "There are some bushes behind the drug store if you're desperate," she told us, and she said it with a straight face. I could have kissed this priest, but I didn't. Instead, I asked if any one wanted to come with me.
Odem decided to come, and Aurora did not want to be left alone. Brandi got the drift. She said Charles could stand charge while those who did not know enough to go before they left the house did their unfortunate business. We trudged up the road and cut behind the drug store. There was one of those vacant lots where people throw all kinds of junk, milk crates, old washing machines, plastic bags that became feasts for flies and maggots. I smelled carrion and excrement. This was a great place. I checked to see if the priests had followed us. Then I turned to Charles and Brandi.
"Leave the duffles here," I ordered.
"The priests will notice,&quiot; Odem objected. She was right. In the end, Charles and Brandi went behind a bush and emptied their duffles, while Auorar and I found a few rocks to stick and weeds to stick inside them.
Then we walked back. We could get in trouble for rocks and weeds but it was far less likely than being in trouble for weapons. We stood at the tram stop, and I really did wish the soda machine worked, and the world was open for business again. I even thought about my family back in Atlanta. I did not want to think about them, but I did. Then I saw several priests walking towards us. The leader wore an orange robe trimmed in bright yellow. She looked us over. Brandi hugged her duffle defensively. Charles stared at the ground. Aurora made a similar gesture. Odem smiled as if someone had just told an off color joke. There are few sights in the world as sickening as kids confronted with authority, because authority is often not rational.
"Yes Ma'am," Aurora found her tongue first, and her "Ma'am," did not even sound sarcastic.
"What are you doing here?" asked the priest in orange in a voice borrowed from all adults in positions of authority.
"Waiting to take the tram," I answered. "We're going to Miller Street out past the ski areas. We're taking our friends home. Our mentors sent us." I got ready to present papers. I handed my brand new Mentoring Services ID card to the priest who sighed. We all presented papers.
"Stand up," a gruff mail priest in black pants and a matching tunic that stretched his bull shoulders ordered Charles and Brandi. He took out a wand like instrument and inspected them. Then he inspected the rest of us. Then he asked to see the duffles. "Oh boy..." he groaned when he found the rocks and grass. He emptied out each duffle and gave it back. "Where were you last night?" the priest asked Charles and Brandi.
"They were hiding in Burden of Dreams house," I spoke up. I was glad I did not have to lie. The priests glanced at eachother.
"You can ask my mentors if you don't believe me," I pleaded.
The priests glanced at each other. Then the female priest in orage folded her arms and stared hard and angrily at Charles and Brandi. "You're unarmed. You're young, and you're travelling with clan members. We're going to let you go home. Perhaps you learned something from last night," the priest added.
Charles and Brandi clutched their now empty duffles as they boarded the tram. We were again the only passengers. We sat way in the back like rowdy teenagers did in another place and time, though none of us felt rowdy any more. I just felt tired. Only being in a new place kept me from sleeping. We walked eight blocks through large, suburban houses in varying states of disrepair when we got off the tram. I did not think much of Charles and Brandi's neighborhood. It had not even been built to look cute. There were a few sad, scruffy trees on lawns kept green due to a fairly hot and humid climate, and some red and white flowers in a few of the gardens. In one or two driveways women stood or sat in clumps.
Then the clumps of tired women at the ends of driveways coalesced and entered the street. I realized we were facing a mob with no comm phone and miles from home. I felt sick. I knew walking or running away weren't going to work. I glanced behind me and then glanced at the mob. "Who are you?" An angry blonde woman with streaks of brown in her lank hair and blotches on her pale skin asked us."What do you want!"
"They have Chuckie and Brandi with them!" shouted another woman.
"We're here to bring Charles and Brandi home," I found the words. "Our mentors ordered us to take them home on the tram. They spent the night in our house."
"Why?" a woman with grey curls asked.
"They needed a place to hide," I explained. "Didn't you hear the siren?"
Charles smiled. Brandi also looked relieved. The grey haired woman introduced herself as Helen. She said she was Charles' mother and she brought us into her house where the air conditioning and cleaning fluids put a funny smell in the air. On the kitchen table was a photo of an adult man and several older boys. The kitchen table reminded me of a shrine. Aurora made the small talk. Yes, Helen had lost power. No she didn't lose any food, though some ice cream had melted. Ice cream would refreeze, Odem quipped.
Then Helen told us that she had not heard from her husband or her three older boys since five pm yesterday when they had "gone into the woods." That they had gone into the woods with automatic weapons and instructions to kill teenagers living in clan houses was something she conveniently left out.
"Why not ask the priests?" Aurora suggested. Helen just shook her head. She hugged her son. We got out of the strange smelling, suburban haven as fast as we could. There were just three of us now. We waited for the tram. No one offered us a ride. I was glad when the bus came even though it was past sunset and the air was hot and stil and Odem had to open the window because the bus was stifling. Odem said she really wanted a soda when we reached the downtown Vernon transfer point. There was no soda to be had. Besides, all our guests had drunk up Dante's soda. Sunday Dante would take the cleaned empties back to the mall and return wtih a dozen full bottles of sweet drink. Sunday was still going to be grocery day.
The priest in orange robes came to sit with us on the tram bench. She just invited herself, and none of us could tell her to leave. She asked if we were afraid to be out after dark. Odem shrugged. I remembered night walks in Arnot. Soon, I'd be walking in peaceful woods again just like Arnot. That was a comforting thought. From inside her shirt, Aurora extracted a Hello Kitty amulet. She showed the back side of it to the priest who smiled. "All three of you are part of the future you know," the priest told Aurora and the rest of us.
We weren't part of any future except in the way that all kids are. We were accidentally on the side that won because it had bigger weapons and had known that the other side set a date for some kind of mass uprising. The uprising was over now. Most of the community's men were taken captive. The women were bereft. The children cried. Two fifteen year olds had slipped through the cracks, and we had helped them. We had also come within inches of facing arrest. I shivered as the bus back to Highland Lakes took us up Breakneck Road and let us off at the corner of Upper Highland Lakes Drive. There was no point in riding all the way back to Seckler Center. We walked home in tired silence. We had lost two duffles. The women who had sat on lawns bemoaning their loss were now inside. Golden lights shown from the houses.
I realized that in Atlanta it was Shabbos. I prayed in Hebrew running the words through my head. "Blessed art thou Lord of the Universe who frees the bound." This is true even when the bound deserve to be bound, and even when the bound had been unbearably stupid. Of course I also asked myself how many had been wounded or killed. I wondered if we would ever learn that.
Inside our the kitchen, Zalli and Odem had made, baked zuccini with carrots, tomatoes, and onions and hard boiled egg and wholw wheat macaraoni salad with vegetables. "Hard boiled eggs are disgusting," commented a less than tactful Aurora. Maybe she had used up her store of tact and good sense.
"Well what do you eat?" asked Odette.
"Normal food," answered my roommate who went looking to see if there was any deli roast chicken left to make herself a nice, safe sandwich.
"Don't you worry about Omega sixes?" Odem asked.
"We're giving all the Omegas a holiday. They went out dancing with the alphas," Odette quipped.
Aurora laughed and looked up from her sandwich making. Out on the back deck, swept reasonably clean of gypsy moth turds, punk and citronella burned brightly. I had forgotten to light Shabbos candles and had none with me. "I'm going to services tomorrow morning," I told everyone and no one.
Flying Under New Colors for Real
I did not go to synaoguge on Saturday morning because Amaryllis and Ondina did not let me. They wanted everyone in the living room which we seldom used when the weather was good for a nine am meeting. Someone had cleaned the room up and put away the air mattresses, vacuumed, the carpet and put away all the odds and ends a half used room accumulates. I could not guess who did the good deed. My good deed had been to see that Charles and Brandi got home in one piece and then to be debriefed in the office off the kitchen. Nobody felt sorry for me for having to ask Charles and Brandi to ditch their weapons. They probably should have done it in Highland Lakes, but they got home in one piece. I was glad no one felt sorry for me or was angry at me. Some people like to use life's excitement as a way to generate their own. Neither Amaryllis nor Ondina fit this description. They wanted to know what Odem, Aurora, and I had seen.
"Apparently, the priests are taking control of everything," Amaryllis stated. Given how many priests we saw Friday evening, this statement was not an exageration. It was a fact. I liked facts.
After I ate, I slept for ten hours and then I dressed hurridly and found myself roped into the meeting. I was one of the last kids downstairs, but Odem saved me a seat near the front. This meeting was going to be "interesting," and if it was boring, Odem was going to get excited about it any way. Ondina and Amaryllis counted and recounted us and then went back upstairs to fetch Jewels and Tweetie who had just gotten back from fishing and were arguing about how to best untangle a piece of fishing line that had ensnared their best lure, an improbably pink repalla. They brought the poor repalla to the meeting. It looked like a small, metallic pink, minnow embedded with lethal looking barbs.
"Not enough gypsy moth caterpillars for bait?" I asked Tweetie.
"Not enough time to find them. We've been up since before dawn," the boy replied, and then Ondina asked for quiet.
"Mentoring Services has abandoned Sussex County, New Jersey," Ondina explained. "And since we no longer have a Mentoring Services office in this county, New York City Ed Branch has cut its ties with the house. They offered to relocate us. I don't think we want to go that route. I don't know how long we have to decide, but I think it is possible to affiliate with Ed Branch in some other city. I'd like to keep our affiliation."
Several of the kids sighed. Others uttered soft expletives. Ondina continued: "The best choice would be an Ed Branch Center that serves at least one of you and is in the Eastern Time Zone in case we have to make emergency comm phone calls. Who is still under eighteen and placed through an Ed Branch Office other than New York City?"
Odem raised her hand and then rose. "Excuse me, but the priests placed us," she reminded the mentors.
"Yes, but who sent you to Nationals?" Ondina handled Odem adroitly.
"OK hands up if your Ed Branch Dorm House is NOT New York City and you are under eighteen."
Eight hands went up. Amaryllis got the white board. Helena and Esperenza had been placed by Ed Branch in San Fransisco. Tweetie's Ed Branch Center was in Chicago, and Aurora's was in Kansas City, Missouri. That left four of us. Jewel's Ed Branch Center was Boston. Artemis' dorm house was in Cincinnati, Ohio. Odem and I had been placed through Atlanta of course.
"Well that leaves three choices. Boston is the closest," Amaryllis went over the details. "Atlanta is the farthest, but they have two fourteens who will be with us for a while."
Amaryllis finished reasoning aloud. She asked Odette to fetch her the phone speakers and hook them to the house phone in her office. Amaryllis sounded like she was in a tin can as a female voice picked up in Atlanta. "Ed Branch Services, Li-Av speaking!" I knew Li-Av and remembered her as a perky, young woman, with a passion for old cartoons, who believed videos in the evening could be good for visiting children and teens.
Amaryllis explained that she had two placements through Atlanta, well sort of and that her house had been cut off by Mentoring Services and Ed Branch. It was a sad explanation.
Li-Av explained she could not do anything because she did not have the rank.
"Can you put your supervisor on. This is an emergency," Amaryllis argued from inside the tin can.
There was a long silence and then an older female voice belonging to a Margaux came on the line. Margaux got past the tin can which made me feel confident. I knew Margaux as well. She was a woman with her brown hair streaked in white and tied into a bun from which strands escaped in the afternoon. She liked to wear overalls like a little kid even though she was really quite old.
Margaux listened patiently as Amaryllis relayed her tale of woe. "This is happening to rural houses all over the country. Apparently there was some kind of uprising a day or two ago. We have a lot of houses now in areas with no Barn Boss. Oconee County is the big worry. There's a university there, a huge cluster of houses, and now no Mentoring Services. Oconee County is Athens, Georgia home of the University of Georgia," Margaux explained.
"Now you're a bit far, but if New York City has just cut you off without even reassigning you to a neighboring county, or finding some kind of solution, that's not fair. I have no problem offering your house a Mentoring Service Credential. I'll even have the specialists consider you as an out of state placement if it works out well with the two members you have through us now, but most of your placements are going to need to come through the priests. Do you have a temple through which you can work?"
"Wow!" I thought. "What a great and complicated way to refuse somebody!" I had never thought of Margaux as devious, but boy was she subtle.
"I belive we do. I'm planning to affiliate the house with the San Rio Temple in the North Jersey Mall," Amaryllis replied. The tin can was gone. Aurora gasped, but on a practical level, what Amaryllis said made utter sense. Aurora was fourteen. Aurora worshipped at San Rio. This meant our house had a connection there, albeit tenuous.
"Good, then you'll affiliate through Atlanta to stay in Ed Branch and arrange for placement through San Rio. I'll send the paperwork as soon as we have a working comm net or if the net doesn't come back, I'll send it via Express Mail early in the week. Hang in there."
With that the meeting broke up. It took a while for the unspoken facts to sink in. "They lost power in Atlanta," I said to Odem. "Not surprised," She answered. "Think Effing Ham County." Rural Georgia was half wild and mostly off the grid. The Company and Mentoring Services only reached so far, and apparently it was giving up.
"Aurora!" Ondina found my other roommate. "I need you." Ondina, Amaryllis, and Aurora headed into the office. Odem stationed herself at the kitchen table to catch the news when they emerged. The meeting was a short one. "The mentors want me to introduce them to the San Rio priests," announced Aurora. Having such a responsible job made her proud. That was fine with me. Kids should be given responsibility. Kids sometimes have good judgement. Sometimes our judgement is better than adults if it is something about which we have learned. The only reason that we kids lack adult judgement is that there is a lot about which we just don't know, but that makes sense since we have lived fewer years. In the case of San Rio, Aurora knew more than the whole house combined.
She also did not want to go to the mall with just the mentors. That meant that Aurora, Odem, and I had a new adventure. By noon in the hot Saturday in July after the riots, the benches outside the Highland Lakes Urgent Care were half filled. On the way there we saw that someone had set fire to the Priest House. It was a burnt hulk. "Had any one died?" I wondered. The acrid smell of smoke still clung to the air. The old women shriveled or bloated, pastey or wisened sat at respectful distances from them. The few women with young children stood dazed while the children whined and cried. People still needed food and sundries and there probably wasn't much commerce down in Vernon. Probably half the cars were still paralyzed due to Thursday's electromagnetic pulse.
We had our own car on the tram. Aurora used me as a guide to get the mentors, Odem, and her from the yellow and black checked tent to the San Rio Temple. There Odem and I watched while the mentors went off with a bevy of priests, each with a different color shock of hair on his or her otherwise bald scalp. They were gone a while. After a time, a priest with a shocking pink shock and a pink skirt and white Tabbi Kitty tunic came out of the office. She said she was going to come home with us and inspect our house. I winced. The place was not all that clean. No one was debriefed or ready. Amaryllis and Ondina did not object. What fools they were! What if the priests with their funky hair and cartoon worship said "NO!" Why should such priests say yes. Even if Hello Kitty was not intrinsically dumb, it was just culturaly a bad fit for scholars. Aurora was an exception that proved the rule. That was all.
Still we boarded the tram and walked back through the woods. The priest whose name was Melanie, did not complain one bit about the smell of the burnt priest house or the condition of the road. She bore the heat in admirable silence. Once we reached our townhouse, Amaryllis offered Priestess Melanie some iced tea. She sat at a hastily wiped kitchen table. She was welcome to stay for dinner, but at this point she was all business. The mentors and the priest spent a lot of time in the office. They came out talking animatedly. This was the first time a "scholar house" had ever been interested in Hello Kitty. Melanie felt honored. We were not one bit stuck up.
Meanwhile, the mentors began ordering the kids around. We had to get the extra table from the mouldy basement and wipe it down and clean it up. Those who cooked made extra dishes. Quetzalli got to fix cole slaw and also string bean salad, and also macaroni and edamamme salad. Tweetie and Jewels grilled hamburgers and hot dogs of various types. They bought a variety of hot dogs just for fun because there was "nothing gross about them and all hotdogs were gross anyway." Maryanne and Helena made chicken cutlets, and Artemis offered a chocolate cream pie she was hoarding in the freezer. All in all we had a huge feast on the back porch under the citronella candles, oil lanterns, and punk lights. Priestess Melanie sat at the head of the table. Everyone was on a reasonable sort of company behavior, and the kids did not curse or trash eachother in front of the important guest.
Melanie talked mainly about food and cooking and we kids answered her, especially the ninteens and eighteens who did most of the cooking. We talked about chores and gypsy moth derbies and days of service. We talked about the subjects we enjoyed in school and the kinds of classes and programs we had taken at Nationals. That was mostly the younger kids like my roommates and me who talked that talk.
Melanie especially liked the story of how our house got its name. Burden of Dreams is a movie about a movie director named Herzog who made a movie called Fitzcaraldo about a man who wanted to build an opera house in Iquitos and who needed to make a widened channel in the Amazon by bringing two rivers together. He does not succeed, and Herzog nearly did not make his movie due to all the fierce dangers and troubles of working in the remote Amazon rain forest. Still Herzog made his movie and another director made a movie about the movie which is Burden of Dreams which is the name of our house. Burden of Dreams means that with hard work, your dreams can come true. It is a very optimistic name.
After dinner and dessert, a huge bunch of us walked Melanie to the tram stop. We could still smell the burnt, priest house and the odor of burnt wood made me sick. I blinked back tears as my stomach clenched. The priest said nothing but good things about us. We were fine people, "not stuck up the way most scholars were." We seemed like a place where even a young kid who liked school could be happy, and yes sometimes young kids liked school, not all of them, but we did not have room for all of them. Still Priestess Melanie could give us no decision on whether the San Rio would let Burden of Dreams affiliate with them.
I lay down when we got home and fell asleep until the sun shown bright and hot through the triple bedroom windows. Aurora and Odem had all ready wakened, dressed, made their beds, and gone downstairs. I pulled myself slowly together. I needed a swim. I felt awful and empty. I had dreamed of the end of program feast in the great dining hall at Arnot Nature Center that I would never eat. The priests had intercepted us on the way back to Arnot one week ago and one world ago. Yes, it was only seven days. The dream which was a good dream had enough longing in it to be a nightmare.
I dressed and slipped downstairs. I had a feeling I was on my own for breakfast. Today was shopping day. I put on water for tea and prepared to fix myself a bread and butter sandwich when a stranger at the table stopped me. She was a kid about my own age, shaven except for a shock of turquoise hair. She sat at the table drinking tea with sugar and milk from a large mug. She had an olive skinned face and sweetly animated, brown eyes. I was not ready for another house guest. I checked our fruit bowl. I took my bread and began to butter it.
Ondina poked her head out of the office. "You missed all the excitement," she greeted me. I am not a big fan of excitement, so it didn't reall matter.
"San Rio Temple has accepted our house!" Ondina finished telling me the news. "This is Chrysti who delivered the message since we have no mail or working comm net," Ondina kept up the explanation. She liked the story because it meant a house she had worked for for five years was still in business. I could sympathize. I could even realize this meant I was still going to have a home.
"That is great new," I managed to say. What I really needed was a swim. What I really needed was to sort out a bunch of crazy thoughts that made no sense. First, the Hello Kitty followers were not idolators. Everyone who worships something you don't understand and think is worthless is an idolator. "Idolator" is an insult because it means you worship something stupid and worthless rather than God. The Hello Kitty worshipers were polytheists. They believed in more than one God. They made graphic representations of that God, but that was not the God. Many "enlightened" polytheists believed their pantheon was a variety of manifestations of a single deity. Others believed the gods were agents of a higher single God. Some just liked the idea of being able to pick and choose. Polytheists were not bad people, if they behaved morally. Monotheists could be bad people if they acted immorally. I had to sort all this out because my upbringing and my early education still lived in my head. That was why I needed a swim.
I stuffed my mouth full of bread and butter, and let Ondina do all the talking to Chrysti. One of the older girls offered to walk Chrysti back to the tram. That meant I got to make my way down to the beach and join Pedra, Zalli, Odem, and Odette. The chill water washed me cleaner than any shower. I swam half a dozen laps and sat on the raft a bit. The house had survived. Mentoring Services left Sussex County. The priests took over, and we could pick and choose whom we would serve. I had come within inches of losing my second best house or maybe my only house. I was glad Ondina and Amaryllis had saved Burden of Dreams and doubly glad that they had done it without screaming or crying.
"I Don't Want to Explain Things"
"Wake up, Ahava! Come on, wake up!" The voice sounded distant, but the hand on my shoulder which burned weirdly belonged to my mother. I must have been four or five years old again. Some time before my second little brother was born, and my Mom was put on bed rest for a difficult pregnancy, she used to wake me. After she went on bed rest, my dad taught me to use an alarm. No one has wakened me in a long time. I am too old for it now. I wondered how I could explain this to Mom and I was afraid to tell her, because she had actually bothered. I opened my eyes and realized I was on a sandy towel on a beach, by a lake, that had once been a swamp, at the top of a mountain, in Sussex County, New Jersey. Quetzalli looked down at me.
"I'm sorry," I told her.
"Your back is a mess," Pedra commented. Apparently all the Founding Sisters had been watching me sleep. I felt like they had invaded my privacy even though we were on a public beach. My back and shoulders did hurt. It hurt to wear my t-shirt. I walked down the road into the woods, wearing just shorts over my bathingsuit, my burnt and itchy back exposed to the air. "We have to do something about Ahava," Aurora tried to be solitious.
"I may have something," Zalli explained. "She's all bitten up too!" Ahava was utterly fascinated with my poor back and shoulders. "Doesn't anybody spray to get rid of those mosquitoes?"
":It's not mosquitoes," I reminded my roommate. "It's horse flies."
I did see my back in the bathroom mirror. Pink welts grew on a bed of reddish brown sunburnt flesh. I put on a terry cloth t-shirt. It felt like burlap, but my softest shirts were back in Atlanta. Now that we had trialled for a week, and our house had firm ties to both Mentoring Services and the Priests, it was time to send for the rest of our stuff which was packed in boxes and duffles awaiting our big moves. I realized upacking those boxes was going to make me feel as if I was moving in all over again.
"We need to do something about this table," Aurora complained while we got dressed.
"What's wrong with the table?" asked Odem.
"They didn't even sand it before putting it together," Aurora glanced at me as if to hurry me up. We were going shopping and out to dinner in no particular order. I had a feeling that this was a "regular Sunday night," which meant that after the riots and their aftermath that had taken up most of the weekend, we were back to "normal," though we could still smell the burnt priest house as we walked to the benches by the Highland Lakes Urgent Care to wait for the open tram.
There was the usual assortment of old women and young women and tired looking children assembled in front of the Urgent Care except the pickup trucks were gone. Were most of them still not jumped, and what about the men who drove them. Despite the warm early evening, I shivered on my bench. The priests were also present, including one with a shiney scalp and a white robe with a scarlet sash. She was a hot item, Reverend Shiney Head. The tired older people gathered around her. The children clung to their mothers' pant legs. They feared her. She had long aristocratic fingers which flew like birds when she gestured with her hands as she talked. She handed out slips and credentials (chits?) from the pockets of her robe. She squatted down on long agile legs to write directions on small pieces of paper, using her knee as a desk.
Then she walked over to our bench and asked what we were doing there. "Going grocery shopping," answered a confident Odette, whom I now realized was way too confident.
"Wait on the left side. Shoppers on the left. Detention visitation on the right!" the priest called out in a melodic but loud voice that reminded me of a great bell.
This night shoppers were a minority. We got the cars in the back of the tram. I always rode with my eyes closed. I was tense enough to get sick at the transition. I kept thinking about checkpoints as we alighted at the yellow and black checked tent which was our boarding area. The priest with the scarlet sash led her charges away between the buildings. "Now we know where the men are," Pedra filled in what many of us thought.
"I hate to say this but they deserved it," Odem told the rest of us.
"How can you say that?" answered Aurora.
"They gave orders to shoot us!" Odem all but screamed.
None of us said anything. The priests had won. The priests might be able to keep order. If the priests could keep order, we should be grateful. That said, I just couldn't bring myself to sit in a food court and eat. "Can we go back to that Italian bakery where the man plays the accordion?" I begged.
"They don't serve supper there," Odette shot me down.
"Tell you what," the founding sister mused. "If you're willing to push one of the carts for a ways, we can eat in the Parthenon. That's casual enough and there's a huge menu." Odette smiled.
"Is it Greek food?" asked Odem.
"It's a Greek diner, lots of choices."
Needless to say, I pushd the cart. I had a whole can of sardine sandwich and potato salad for supper washed down with a Dr. Pepper. Aurora made a face at my food. She had a chicken filet on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and mayonaise, but no onions. "What's your problem?" asked Odette who had ordered a hot meatloaf sandwich and broccoli. You going to ewww my food too?"
"No but..." Aurora stammered. "What do you like to eat?" Coming from Zalli the question was almost an accusation.
"Burgers, chicken, bar-b-que, chili, but not the kind that's all beans and tomatoes. Corn on the cob. Ice cream, cheese cake, normal food," Aurora looked around herself unsure of her defense.
"I like Middle Eastern food," answered Odem.
"And what do you like to eat?" Odette asked me. Apparently this was some kind of round robin. I would pretty much eat anything as long as it was not obvious treif. Other than that I had no particular favorites except maybe fruit and soda, but didn't everyone like those?
"I eat almost everything," I confessed. "The liver you made right before the riots was very good." That was true. I had no need to lie.
"Yes, but what kinds of foods really excite you?" Odette's question made it interesting, but my answer was just too weird to discuss at the table. I did not want to say I liked nothing in particular, because that was not true. I could enjoy a good meal just like anybody else. I did not want to say that I enjoyed fruit as a snack, bread and butter for breakfast, and was still getting used to strong and sharp cheeses, or that I enjoyed canned fish that tasted like fish and was not feh. It sounded too sad and it was not complete.
I stared down at the table and wondered if I could confess. "Hot rice with milk and sugar," I blurted out.
This caught the Founding Sisters and my roommates unaware. "How'd you start eating that?" asked Zalli. "She had to ask," I thought.
I no longer enjoyed the taste of my sardines, onion, and mustard on rye bread, which was a shame. My stomach hurt with an old, remembered, and shameful hunger. "They used to serve it for breakfast at my middle school," I began. "Most kids who ate breakfast at school were either disorganized or greedy. They ate at home and ate again as a social thing or they didn't get themselves out in time. I was really hungry."
"A lot of people get hungry in the morning," Pedra comforted me. "That's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Yeah, but there's more than that. I needed to be at school early, and my Mom would be feeding the babies. I'd come in the kitchen and try to take my own breakfast, something simple, bread and butter, cereal and milk, and Mom would say 'Stop!' She said I could wait until she was ready to feed me. Of course I had to get out the door and walk up Druid Hills Road and I didn't have time to wait, so I'd leave home hungry. I was really hungry last year in eighth grade. We had a bad cold spell. You're from up north so you don't think it can get cold in Atlanta, but I'd show up at school and they'd have the big pot of rice. It was soft, sticky rice. Then they'd have milk, regular, skim, chocolate, strawberry, and sometimes other kinds and extra sugar and honey and even Angel Flake Cocanut. There was a girl Monique who always put big handfuls of cocanut on her rice and milk. Me I just liked rice and milk with sugar if it was unsweetened or with one of the flavors, but it hurt to be that hungry. I was sure I was the hungriest kid at the social table. I wished I could just be there for a good time, you know."
"I know," Quetzalli answered. "Parents can be very selfish sometimes." She reached her hand and put it across the table, fingers touching my wrist. "Are you up to finishing your sandwich?" she asked me. I said I was. I also said that talking never unburdened me. It only drove me deeper into a problem that could not be fixed or solved. All I could do was move away from it. That's why I asked for an out of state placement.
"I'm going to teach you to cook so that when I go back to school, you can help Xannika. Would you like that?" Quetzalli asked. Quetzalli would not my mother. She wasn't old enough, but I'd never had an older sister. Now I kind of had one.
I nodded. "We'll make sure to pick up rice tonight. You find the kind they served you in school, OK?" I was not sure what to answer to that. Part of me was hurting and part of me was really, glad of the offer. Hunger, even terrible embarassing hunger, is not quite so embarassing if someone else thinks it's OK. Part of me wanted Zalli to stay out of my private business.
"You're not going to believe this, but my parents are worse than yours," Zalli told all of us. We let it go at that. Confessions take too much energy, and I didn't blame Zalli for keeping it to herself. She did help me pick out the right kind of rice in the bulkerie. We got some short grain brown and some sweet brown. My school had served either of these. I was not sure because I had never wanted to know. Rice was just hot and filling. That was what had mattered at the time.
Monday morning, our entire clan made another trip to the North Jersey Mall. This time it was to get our ID's and arrange for Aurora's, Odem's, and my stuff to be shipped from our families to the Burden of Dreams House. Our new ID's were red instead of white. They were a nice, darkish, Chinese sort of red. They included our photos. The priest who handed them to us said she was glad we liked them. She felt a bit bad that these were red ID's since that meant our house did not have a high rank. "Considering that Mentoring Services in New York nearly wiped us off the map this weekend, I'll take whatever rank we can get," Amaryllis laughed.
By Tuesday there were road crews with machines all around Grandview Circle and in between the townhouses. I was helping Zalli make Spanish rice in the kitchen and the mechanical noises played over the radio. The crews were chopping down trees. We were going to get real paved roads and real lawns and gardens. While the rice was simmering away, a priest in a white burlap tunic and skirt pounded on the back door and wanted to come in. I found Ondina in the office, and she gave the priests, who was a male, a tour of Burden of Dreams. On a typical summer weekday morning, Burden of Dreams has the messy look of any place where a lot of people live crowded together. The priest came back downstairs shaking his head. "You're full up," he said.
"We use some of the bedrooms as study lounges," explained Ondina. "This is an Ed Branch house."
"I know you are scholars," the priest replied, "but you have members sleeping three to a room in some places, and no spare bedrooms for new members. You need more house."
"We'd prefer not to move right now. We're trialling three girls," Ondina put her hands on her hips.
"You wouldn't move. We'd enlarge your house. You're going to need more space."
Ondina reached into her pocket and fished out her clan ID. "You think we still need more space?" she asked as if smiling from a guilty joke.
"Yes," the priest answered. "Your cards won't be red forever. Let's set up an appointment at Public Works where you can look over floor plans."
"I need to consult with my coMentor," Ondina told the priest.
The priest left his card. Meanwhile, a large, half eaten, scrubby looking pine tree bit the dust. Several workers began sawing it into logs to take to where people had fire places. We did not have fireplaces in the townhouses.
"We're going to get a big garden and a yard too," Ondina told those of us who were her audience in the kitchen. "Start thinking about what you want to grow."
"Lots of funny looking tomatoes," I jested. "Why not?" answered Zalli.
"The only problem," Zalli continued "is that summer is half over and we are heading into winter."
"There's always next year," Ondina did not let anything shake her optimism.
"We could plant tulips," Zalli figured. Then she went back to showing me how to safely cut up a hot chili pepper. She really was determined to teach me to cook.
Wednesday afternoon, Odem's and Aurora's stuff arrived. Mine did not. I kind of expected this. I called Kohana Pascal, my Placement Specialist, at her personal number. I remember sneaking around to the side of the porch at the Seckler Center so no one could see me place a call that no other kid needed to place. Kohana's voice was jovial. She asked how I was doing and how I survived the riots. I told her I was fine. I really was fine, except for my missing stuff which my mother neglected to send. She didn't forget. She would plead that she had different priorities rather than admit to malice. Maybe there was no malice. Maybe she lied to herself. I was not going to figure it out.
"I'll get your stuff sent," Kohana assured me and she asked if there was anything else she could do. There really wasn't, so I thanked her and signed off. As I put my working comm phone away in my pocket, I saw that Quetzalli had come around to the side of the porch and had probably stared at me throughout the entire conversation. I wanted to fling msyelf at her. "You know that was private," I told her.
"If your parents wanted to keep what they do to you secret, your mother should have sent your stuff," Zalli told me.
"Mind your own EXPLETIVE DELETEDING business," I told Zalli.
"Does it make you feel any better?" Zalli asked.
"Does what make me feel better?" I asked. "What?"
"Yelling at me as if I were your Mom."
"No, but this is my problem. It's my family."
"And when they screw you over in a way everyone can see, we're all supposed to look away and pretend it's not happening. At least you let your Placement Specialist take care of you. At least someone at your school stepped in, and at least they've kept their hands off you."
"What am I supposed to do about it?" I stammered. "What can any one do about it?"
"Not much but admit the truth and go on from there," Zalli replied.
"Been there done that. I even have a therapist instead of a t-shirt."
"Well you have an out of state placement now. Is it safe for you to go home and visit your parents the end of August? School here doesn't start until after Labor Day."
"They don't hit me," I replied.
"They starved you instead," Zalli replied. "That's a lot more subtle."
I did not answer. Zalli owed me a story I was not sure I wanted to hear. Just then Amaryllis found us. She asked if I had talked to my parents about sending my things. I told her I had talked to my Placement Specialist. Amaryllis raised her eyebrows. "It's worked out," Zalli informed her. "It's not the worst thing having your stuff be a day or two late."
"What happened to your stuff when you moved into this house?" I asked Zalli.
"I drove over to get it. Zalli was in foster care at the time and her foster parents had everything. Everything else had been lost."
I stared down at the pavement. I felt dizzy and sick. I imagined Zalli's story as a great pit down which I too would fall. I skirted enough pits throughout middle school. "You're here now and it's going to get better," Zalli told me.
"What makes you so sure?"
"Been there and done that," she said with a smugness that made me want to smack her.
"We are going to have a very long talk before I let you go back to Atlanta," Amaryllis told me. I guess it was pretty obvious that my parents mistreated me in a fairly public way, especially when the public was people outside the community of Toco Hills. It was a very good thing indeed that there were sane and sensible adults who would take my side.
My things arrived eruv Shabbat on a rainy Friday morning that turned the digging in the oil and gravel road that is Grandview Circle to puke brown colored mud, and which confined all but the food hardiest of us indoors. The fool hardiest of us were Tweetie and Jewels who went fishing because they said that the mythical bass bite when it rains. They returned with three good size bream instead that they caught before dawn in Lake Two. Odette gave them the beat up pans and knives used for gutting and cleaning fish which they did by the outside faucet. They threw the entrails far into the woods where there were plenty of hungry animals in line for a gourmet treat. Since Jewels and Tweetie had more than enough bream for themselves, they shared out small pieces of their prize with the rest of us. The fresh fish was excellent with bread, butter, and Cinamon Stick tea.
While we were eating our fish feast, the priests arrived. They were San Rio priests with scarlet, magenta, and cobalt blue hair tufts. All of them wore Tabbi Kitty shirts. Tabbi Kitty is a relatively new San Rio character, a kitty thrown out of the garden for too much bravado and an angry attitude, but not outright meanness. Tabbi Kitty wanders the world, goes to school, and comes back better and finer. He is a scholars' kitty according to Irina who was the priest in charge of the triad who delivered my neatly packed boxes and duffles. I knew the boxes and duffles were neatly packed because Kohana Pascal and I had done it together. Do you think my mother could be bothered to do the job completely or at all? She had cried plenty when I let in Kohana to help me pack. I reminded Mom that we had an appointment and that Kohana was invited in. She was not invading the house not by any stretch. We put on music so as not to listen to Mom. I thought of the music now. It was a folk CD I had downloaded at school. I have good taste sometimes.
I knew I needed music to unpack. I knew I also wanted the priests out of my way. There was no need for them to be there, but there they were, and there also was Amaryllis who wanted to watch the priests watch me unpack. Well, first I had the right amount of stuff. Priestess Irina explained that scholars were "on austerities" so no one should expect wall mount televisions and fancy video toys in my boxes. Amaryllis looked to see if I had a winter coat, and if I had books and room decorations. She was pleased to see I had my own bedding including flannel sheets. She was glad I had school supplies. The priests glanced at one another quite amused and then they shook their heads. "Sorry, I'm not a poster child for an abused kid," I thought. "And I'm not a poster child for a neglected one because my school and my placement specialist saw that I had what I needed. I went to my initiation in good shape."
I put the last of my books on my shelf and the poster board with the Canada geese on it (We have lots of those in Atlanta) and my name in art deco writing in gold and black on the door. Odem and Auorar also had door posters with their names and something they liked Even the nineteens on the fourth floor still had their door posters up along with their in and out wheels. "See it's all there," I felt like announcing. Then Priestess Irina closed the bedroom door. I looked around for my roommates, but somehow they were elsewhere and shut out. I wondered how to ask the Priest to open the door again. I glanced around.
"I want to ask you a few questions," Priestess Irina began. That is always how adults begin when prying into a kid's business.
I shrugged and tried staring past the blue haired woman with the tabbi cat on her tunic and the blue and gold flowered sarong below. Her toe nails were dirty. Why couldn't they send a decent priest? Why this one? Boy, you really rank, just like our red cards.
"Where are your keepsakes Ahava?" The priestess at least had my name pronounced the right way.
"I never got any," I explained. &qout;My first taking was at age ten. I was too old for keepsakes. Read my profile."
"Keepsakes don't just come from takings. What about an old, precious toy or a piece of clothing you can't part with."
"My old clothes are worn out and..." I stopped. I wanted to tell the priests to EXPLETIVE DELETED themselves and mind their own business. They had no business prying. Well, maybe they did. Our house needed them. I couldn't blow up all over them, and it would have been stupid besides. I don't like anger in adults, and I don't like it any better in me.
"I didn't have many dolls and I gave Yiscah to my sister, Chevie. She's the only other girl in my family." Chevie is also a flaming female dog, but despite the ugly mouth she has, she doesn't have any more than I got. Girls don't get much in my family, so I gave Chevie my dolls when I started going to Druid Hills Magnet academy. I gave her more of my old stuff before I got initiated since I was getting new clothes for Nationals and new school supplies, so she got the easel and the stuffed Torah and a few other odds and ends. I had my books and my drawings and my decorations that were all made at school so I'd have something to put on my walls. I'd been wating a long time to be initiated and placed. Now I had a place and the right stuff for it. What more did any body need?
I tried to explain all of this. I sputtered on and on while Priestess Irina nodded. Then she asked me another question. "Ahava," she addressed me. "What did you eat for lunch the day before you went off to Nationals."
We had left for Nationals on a Sunday evening so...Why should I remember what I had for lunch. It would be easy to just say it was nothing special and that I had forgotten it. It wasn't Irina's business anyway. Instead I answered: "Pizza."
"What kind of pizza?" Priestess Irina asked.
"A personal pie with whole wheat crust, green olives, and onions. I'm not afraid of dragon's breath."
I was not lying by the way. The story was true. One of the nice things about being a scholar was that I had a stipend and could buy a meal in a restaurant from time to time. Sunday afternoon before I left for Nationals Mom had been busy feeding the babies and I was left with no access to the kitchen. This sometimes happened especially if Dad was not home, and Dad was down at the Kollel at Beth Jacob Villeage learning with my two younger brothers. Girls were not welcome to learn at the Kollel, a big study hall for married men in the community.
"Where were your parents?" Irina continued the interrogation. "Did they eat pizza with you?"
"B-I-N-G-O!" I thought.
"No," I replied. Let Priestess Irina deal with a single word answer.
"Where were they?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"You are in a house under our supervision. That means your welfare matters to us."
"You can read my profile," I replied.
"That does tell a big part of the story, but I'd like the rest."
"My Mom was at home and my dad was at the Kollel. That's a place where married men can hang out and study Jewish religious subjects," I explained. "Now pry the rest out of me," I thought.
"Did your parents know you were leaving that night and then would be gone for a month?" Priestess Irina switched tacks.
"Yes," I continued.
"Why didn't they have a last meal with you?"
"They were too busy. I'm not that important because I go to a public school. The boys are in religious houses. Chevie is still a little kid, but they'll raise her religious, and the babies just get priority."
"How many of you are there?" Priestess Irina asked.
"Six of us. I'm the oldest."
Priestess Irina shook her head. "Do you believe what happens in your family is your fault?" she asked.
"Some of it is," I told her. "But most of it isn't. I told the truth to the rabbis about the taking, but my parents....did a lot of dumb stuff in anger. My Mom did most of it, and Dad just let it happen. There...It's in my profile anyway."
"What's in your profile is that people, well meaning people, have been trying to cover it up and patch it over so that you could live something resembling a normal life at leat to those on the oustide looking in. That's going to stop now. You should have had better than what you were given."
"And what can you do for me?" I asked. I all ready knew the alternatives, but now that I was placed....
"Give you somewhere better to go home to, whether it's a relative or someone here in Highland Lakes or even in the Interior as people call it."
"You mean foster care," I felt like crying.
"Yes, it's not your fault, but your parents have had four years to stop neglecting you. Don't you think that's enough time?"
I shrugged. "You'll do this to me whether I want it or not," I answered.
"I think in good conscience we can't do otherwise," Priestess Irina did try to sound conciliatory. "Now I'm going to give you an assignment, I want you to write to your parents."
I blinked. I'd had no contact with my parents for two weeks. Good weather, chores, anything I could use kept me from being asked. Odem I knew sent regular emails and recieved them. Aurora talked to her parents on her comm phone. I wondered if any one else had noticed that I only called Kohana Pascal rather than my real family. I guess in the words of Quetzalli, I had been screwed in a very public way.
"All right," I agreed to the assignment though the thought of throwing letters or comm letters down a black hole scared me and made me feel rotten inside. I agreed in spite of all the rotten feelings.
I was just glad nobody was putting me in a foster home right away.
"You shouldn't feel so bad about being put in foster care," Quetzalli consoled me as we walked to services Friday night. Quetzalli, it turned out was Jewish. She was even Jewish by the Halachi definition since her mother and her mother's mother were Jews. Odem was also Jewish, but she did not want to go to services. We walked through the mud, temporarily ruining our cloth, summer shoes and soaking through our skirts. "We really were due for this rain," Quetzalli's talk went like the pitter patter of the falling drops.
"You know I was in foster care from the time I was thirteen. Actually it was the end of seveth grade," Quetzalli's words continued to fall. "My parents work for the Company, but they are Subcontractors. You understand. They have special houses, selective ones, and my mother used to threaten that if I did not shape up I would end up in a regular house of last resort. I don't know if this was true or if it would have been that bad, but for whatever reason I did not live up to expectations. I wasn't born normal. I have eye issues. I can't drive. I have other issues. My parents really don't like my brother any better. I think she should have had a child genetically engineered. They talked about it, but my mom didn't want a third. Yes, there are just two of us. Remember my parents are Subcontractors, and they did not want my brother or me anywhere near a regular mentoring house, and since the houses they thought acceptible would not take me in Manhattan, they moved to Highland Lakes when I was seven. My Monm later sent my brother to one of those fancy, rich person's houses near San Francisco and he had a failed placement, but that's another story.
"I hated it here. My Mom hated it too because she couldn't work. She was used to being a female Subcontractor. That's NOT a female employee. She was bored. She saw too much of Dad even with the long commute into the city, and even with driving him to Warwick every day to catch the bus. Mom said the schools here sucked. Mom worried my brother hung out with a bad crowd, and then Dad who got to go down to the city every day started not coming home a few nights, and you know the rest. Well maybe you don't. The divorce rate for regular Company employees is a lot lower than it is for Subcontractors like my parents.
"My Mom had to keep her dignity, and so she moved out and took my brother and me with her when I was ten. My parents' instinct is to flee to the ends of the earth. For my mother, that was the Sierra Mountains in California. We'd been there on a lovely family trip a few months before, and my parents joked about living there. So much for my going to an Ivy League college in the east. I wondered if there would be any kids my own age. I thought of how tiny and miserable the school would be. If I was miserable in New Jersey...well now I didn't have to imagine it. Let's just say the remote mountain community where my mother still lives exceded my worst expectations. I was wretched. I made others miserable around me.
"Finally, my Mom reminds me that I can always go back to my Dad. This was around the time my brother's first placement failed. He was back home, and this was all Mom could handle. She put me on a cross country bus and told me to sit way in the back and tell the driver I was sixteen. It's a wonder I didn't get sent back home by the police. Dad's secretary picked me up in Port Authority. I started middle school here in Vernon. Dad was away a lot. I spent a lot of time in the library and reading and being left alone. Sometimes Dad brought a girlfriend home and you could hear them. Sometimes they drank or did drugs, but it was like two kids being busy with eachother.
"Then a few months into seventh grade, my brother's second placement out in California failed, and Dad stepped in and said he would try to fix something up for Aiden. Meanwhile, Aiden came to live with us and the girls didn't like it and it became the two men and me. Aiden was younger than I was, but he was bigger. Dad was older and he was bigger. Dad also missed the girlfriends and was drinking alone. It didn't take much. Sometimes if I had an injury on my face, I stayed home and Dad wrote a note saying I'd had a sore throat or a cold. Other times, I went back to school the next day because there really wasn't anywhere to go. And no, nobody made me lie about the fat lip or black eye. Most of the time, nobody paid attention, except my math teacher who replaced a math teacher who got himself really badly hurt in a dirt bike accident. She was always on my case, but it was good in a way, since I pretty much refused to do any work unless someobdy sat on me, and I had the potential to be very good in math. She was young, idealistic, and a local who lived with her mother in Barry Lakes."
"Sounds like Amaryllis," I broke the suspense and finished the story.
"That's who it was. She saw me with a fresh injury and marched me down to the nurse one February morning. She also asked who did it to me. Everybody else had let me lie, but she knew. She said she knew people didn't give themselves black eyes by falling and knocking into doors. I had bruises on my ribs and stuff too. The nurse took pictures. I told the truth. I knew terrible things would happen, but terrible things were going to keep happening and I was no good. I was going to end up in a house of last resort anyway, and a house of last resort was better than being beaten on. I was going to hit bottom any way so why the EXPLETIVE DELETED not now.
"Mentoring Services took care of things. The Scanlons were decent folks, though a lot of my foster siblings were handicapped, so it confirmed my parents' prophesy, except Pedra came over to visit. We both had extra enrichment math assignments. Also my foster mom taught me to cook. Then I went to my first Nationals in June. My parents got it WRONG. Ed Branch takes any one who can do the work, and I was someone who could do the work. I'm nineteen now, I've survived a year at my parents' alma mater. My mom still writes me from nowheresville California. They placed my brother somewhere in New England, and on the third try it took. Dad sold the house on Lake Five and moved back to Manhattan. He has remarried and the young woman wants a genetically modified and enhanced offspring. Good luck to both of them."
We were nearly at the makeshift synagogue. The Rabba made sad clucking motherly sounds because we arrived soaking wet. She asked if I was still up to leading services. I thought of my Dad and my brothers in the Kollel back near Beth Jacob Village and then the night the police had cut a perfectly circular hole in the wall of our hiding place just to prove that they could do such a thing. I was glad my father had never bothered to hit me, and maybe Chevie would be all right without me. I hadn't been much of a big sister to her anyway. I couldn't very well ask her to follow my example or pay its price.
I was the only one who went back to synagogue on Saturday morning. I was glad there was a synagogue. I did not think about being at the lectern again. We did not really have a proper bimah, but there were Torah scrolls. I am not enough of an expert to know if they were scribally or halachicly correct. It did not matter. People of either gender who were fluent in Hebrew were in short supply, and the Rabba needed my help. This was the end of the earth as far as Judaism was concerned. I led both the schacarit and musaf shimoneh esre. These are the long prayer first said silently and then repeated by the chazzanne during the first and second part of a two hour service. Even in an "egalitarian schul" the service lasts two hours.
If you ask what kind of people went to the Rabba's synagogue, my answer would be "all kinds." There were couples who sat together. There were couples who sat separately. There were older kids. There were gerim (converts) in training and probably plenty of balae tsuvim though the Orthodox establishment would not have considered them thus. Where else had balae tsuvim to go, and they like me had probably walked to services in the rain. A bal tsuva is a person who becomes an observant Jew by choice as an adult.
There were probably people for whom the Rabba's synaoguge was "too traditional," and there were definitely those who wished we had a mechitzah, a barrier separating the men and the women. I fell into that last group, but I was glad there was a synagogue at all. I had no fear of performing in front of a general audience. I had been in plays in middle school and we performed for the public. As my former principal at Druid Hills Magnet Academy told me: "You have to be a very sick puppy to find even eighth grade girls sexually attractive. What most grownups see when they see a teenage child of either gender on stage is themselves in him or her and their memories. It's an empathy thing. They remember having to peform." I thought about that as I stepped down from the lectern for the last time.
The Rabba and her husband served lunch to all those who had helped read from the lectern during the service. The Rabba's husband was a circuit riding rabbi whose car burned ethanol rather than bio-D. Synaogues in the area, which did not have rabbis of their own, paid him in fuel vouchers as well as money so he could get around. He even had one synagogue in the interior that he visited every other weekend. We sat in the Rabba's dining room while rain lashed the windows and debated about whether the sky had been stuck for the riot and its aftermath. Both the Rabba and her husband had helped bury the dead. They talked about it in a matter of fact way. There were nineteen casualties, nine locals, two men from out of town whose bodies had to be identified, and seven priests.
"Were any kids killed?" I asked.
"Yes," the Rabba's husband replied.
"Who were they?" I asked.
"There was a seven year old badly burned in the house of 'priests' by the Urgent Care Clinic," the Rabba told me.
I stared down at my food. I remembered the smell of smoke and what Charles and Brandi had said about orders to shoot other teens. "What was a seven year old doing in a mentoring house?" The words came out before I could stop them.
"That is the way it's done in the interior." the Rabba's husband seemed unfazed."This part of the world has stronger ties to the Interior than it does to Mentoring Services."
"Mentoring Services pulled out," I corrected the Rabba and her husband.
"The 'priests' drove out the Company," the Rabba's husband corrected me. "It doesn't matter much," one of the guests broke into the conversation. "The Company never did much for the people up here anyway. Of course, I'm no longer a Subcontractor. The Priests offered me a job and since my kids and wife are settled here, I'm going to take it."
"The Priests are used to toally ruling people's lives," a female guest spoke up. "That makes them very confident. Confidence goes a long way but..."
"But what?" the former Subcontractor asked.
"Do we want to live the way they do in the Interior?" The woman dropped what was supposed to be a bombshell. I was just a kid. I wanted to go to high school. I wanted to go to college. The rest really didn't matter, as long as no one made me eat treif and I could learn Judaica and daven which means pray with a group. "Do the Priests believe in freedom of religion?" I asked.
"Yes!" the Rabba's husband replied. "Otherwise, there would be no synagogues in the Interior. The Priests consider me one of my own. All I lack are admin and placement powers. The Interior is a world without the separation of church and state if you want to think of it that way, but it's not a theocracy. There's no one creed. They worship anything and everything publicly, and I think they worship power privately."
"Not so different from this world," laughed an older woman.
"Well, you have to spend some time there," the Rabba's husband corrected her. "There's a social safety net that makes ours look frayed, but on the other hand, your life really is not your own. Your clan is your life. You never leave it from the time you're six years old."
I stared at the table. I thought of the seven year old burnt in the fire. Outside the rain came down harder than ever. Thunder boomed, and the lights went out. One of the women got up to check the phone and reported that it still worked. A man who was also a physician, checked his comm phone. It still worked. It was not another electromagnetic pulse. It was probably just a fried transformer or a downed power line. We sat in the dim light finishing the remains of our meal and then some people played scrabble while other dozed in chairs.
When the rain turned to mist, I made my way back over the muddy roads. Candles burned in the kitchen at Burden of Dreams House. On the back porch I caught angry adult words: "You have to change the water for your pet fish every two hours it will die of suffocation and we can't have that. Do you understand me?" The voice was Ondina's. I let myself out on to the rear deck where the rain had turned the gypsy moth caterpillar turds into spots of mud. The bucket sat in a corner of the porch. It was a big wash pail. In the wash pail's yellowish (iron stained) water swam a huge, black fish with ugly and fierce looking whiskers. "Some catfish huh?" Jewels pronounced. "Tweetie caught it on rotten hotdogs. We were out on the Lake Five dam. No one bothered us. All the wimps stay in in the rain." Jewels smiled. His wet, golden hair was plastered to his long head. He had a bump on his nose, the scar from a fight or boyhood accident. "What d'yah think?"
The catfish was impressive in an odd way. "It's beautiful," I said.
"I don't know how to clean it," Odette told us.
"I think it would be gross to eat," Aurora offered.
"What do you mean. Catfish taste great!" Odem responded.
"Yeah if they're farmed," Aurora responded. "Who knows what this one ate. They're bottom feeders."
Catfish was treif due to its lack of scales. I knew that much, but thinking of the poor creature in a bucket made me sad. The bucket was too small for it. It was a wild thing not meant to provide amusement.
"Lake Five is clean," Tweetie offered. "It'll probably taste real good."
"Nothing like fresh caught," sighed Odette. "Now if we can find someone to help get it cleaned." Odette folded her arms. "I bet Amaryllis' mother knows how to clean catfish." Odette disappeared back inside. It looked like the poor fish' fate was sealed. I stared at the fish as it turned itself lazily in the bucket. It had big eyes and it felt the edge of the yellow pail with its whiskers which were poisonous according to Jewels. There was still a bit of line hanging from its mouth, because no one had bothered to remove the hook. Even a relatively small creature, a five pound fish, could inspire fear. No wonder the writers of the Torah considered catfish a creeping thing and an abomination, but it was just a dumb, five pound fish who was probably quite old. It was also a sad, unlucky fish whose luck and time had run out. I squatted beside the pail.
Amaryllis walked out on to the back porch. She asked me to move aside and squatted next to me. "How long has the fish been here?" she asked the boys.
"We just got home half an hour ago," Jewels said. "Ondina says we have to change the water every two hours until we can get someone to help us clean it."
"This is a very old fish," Amaryllis commented. "OK, I need you boys to change the water, NOW!"
Jewels and Tweetie looked at each other."You heard me." With that Amaryllis plunged her hands into the pail and grabbed the fish far away enough from its head do that it could not reach her with the whiskers. She held the fish up while Tweetie took the bucket and poured it out over the back of the porch. "OK, she should have passed out by now," Amaryllis explained. "I'll just have to be careful and take something if I get stung." Amaryllis carefully held the fish with one hand and with the other removed the hook from her lip. "This hook is yours." She handed it to Tweetie. Meanwhile Jewels refilled the pail with fresh water. Amaryllis put the catfish back in the pail. "I'll need someone to hold the pail steady while we drive."
"Are you taking the fish to your mother's?" asked a hopeful Jewels.
"Do you really want this fish to die?" Amaryllis asked.
"How else are we going to eat it?" asked Jewels.
"Zalli can make fish chowder for you. This fish may be an old female. Do you know how long it's taken her to get this big."
The boys looked at eachother. "Five, ten years..." Jewels ventured a guess.
"And you want to end that so you can have a meal for yourselves?" Amaryllis replied.
"We caught her," Tweetie replied.
"You can buy fish at the store," Zalli said.
"It's not the same."
"Don't you think a fish that has struggled this hard to live this long is special?" Amaryllis drove home her point.
"You want to give her a second chance to be caught," Tweetie declared.
"Or maybe not be caught," Amaryllis suggested.
The boys looked at eachother. "I guess she really is special," Tweetie slowly came around. "What do you think Jewels."
"I can't feel bad for a fish but..." Jewels knelt beside the pail. "Thanks for taking the hook out of her mouth," he found the words. "Let's put her back."
Jewels carefully carried the bucket with the large catfish in it to the house van. He and Tweetie sat in the back hanging on to the bucket to keep it from sliding or tipping. Zalli, Aurora, Odem, Odette, Dante, and I all sat with Amaryllis crowded into the bio-D burning van. We rode to the Lake Five beach. Jewels used his card to swipe us in through the chain link gate that was locked due to the rain. There were no lights on anywhere around the lake due to the blackout, and the grey sky had turned the landscape to soft shades of oil paint and a perpetual twilight. Tweetie brought the pail through the gate. We all walked on to the wet sand and down to the water's edge.
"Do you want to say a prayer?" I realized Amaryllis was asking me.
I said a prayer. I said it first in Hebrew and translated it into English. Blessed art Thou, Lord of the Universe who teaches us mercy and frees the bound. Let a small act of mercy teach us to remember mercy every day and let those in power show mercy toward all of us.
"That's impressive," commented Tweetie. I shrugged. Jewels and Tweetie who were both wearing shorts and who were all ready soaked walked into the water until it was up to their thighs. Then they upended the bucket and released the catfish.
We rode home saying nothing. The kitchen was full of wet clothes. Late in the day power returned and we ran the washer and drier constantly, but the smell of wet things wouldn't leave. The catfish which was live had left no fishy smell. She was clean because Lake Five was clean enough for human swimming and drinking. There was just a bit of iron in the water. That's the way it was in this corner of New Jersey. Tweetiea nd Jewels examined several melted half gallons of ice cream. "Put them back in the freezer. They'll freeze again," Maryanne told them. She too had melted ice cream.
"You know there was a kid killed in the rioting," I told my two roomates as we read in bed before a cold, late, supper. "Huh?" asked Odem. "Who shot a kid?"
"It was a kid from the Interior. He lived in the Priest House. He was seven years old. He died in the fire."
"No shit!" answered Odem.
"Lord have mercy," sighed Aurora. "You eat fish chowder?" Aurora asked. "If it's made with fins and scales I will," I answered. Silently I prayed that no jealous, angry adults leading impressionable teens would burn down this house. Maybe those who set fire to the Priest House were in jail and would never emerge. Then I thought about the catfish in its yellow, plastic pail. I wished I could write about all of this to my parents and that they could understand. Could anybody understand?
On the Edge of a Big Hole
Sunday night as I walked to get groceries with the three Founding Sisters, I realized something was missing. I realized it as I heard the gypsy moth caterpillars who had survived our depradations eating away. Every day is a parade of breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you are a gypsy moth caterpillar. I realized it long before I came to the sodden and burnt out shell that had been the "Priest House," down near the Urgent Care. I did not know the name of the boy who died. I wanted his name. I wanted to say kaddish for him. Part of me even wanted to see his grave. The riots had a victim who deserved nothing but tears. That somehow made things easier. This wasn't drama. Part of me just wanted to cry, and the boy killed in the fire made that crying worthwhile.
"What do you feel like cooking or eating this week?" Zalli asked me as we sat on the rough-hewn benches. Shopping trips were always fun for her. I envied her, her joy. I still owed a letter to my parents. Maybe bitterness runs in families. I did not want all that bitterness going home to them as a comm letter or on paper. My comm phone by the way was permanently dead. It's carrier had pulled out of Sussex County along with the Company. Aurora had also lost her comm phone. Odem's still worked. I could hear her chatting with her parents nearly every night in addition to the emails she sent them.
"What else can we make with rice?" I asked. I felt distracted. There was more to the food and the world than rice, though there was something soothing about a pot of freshly made rice with the little pock mark holes made by the last of the water boiling out.
"Do you like rice pudding?" Zalli never missed a beat.
"The Mexicans eat that," I commented. "It's good."
"OK, you like the kind with lots of cinamon and raisins."
"I even like rice pudding ice cream." I thought back to finding my way to Plaza Fiesta as part of an Intensive Hike as part of Summer Session in middle school. I have lots of good middle school memories. I am very lucky that way.
We had our deal, and I had my cooking lesson, plus I would learn to make fish chowder. Yes, you can make chowder with clams instead of fish. Yes, it is a red soup. Zalli came from New York so chowder is Manhattan style, ALWAYS.
"It's good to see new kids settling in to the house," Odette remarked. "This has been a rough summer." She did not elaborate.
There was a priest at the Urgent Care giving out slips to those going to see their incarcerated husbands, fathers, brothers, and boyfriends, and probably sons too. Maybe there were women in detention as well. The crowd was no smaller, probably because even if the Priests let people go, the word of visitation had spread, and Sunday evening was a good time to make the journey into the Interior which began withe the tram to North Jersey Mall.
Monday, Aurora announced that she wanted to go to the library. She wanted to go despite a bright sun that was shining for the second day in a row. The mud dried in the street the color of pale clay. Construction workers were out, but instead of paving our road, they dug a big hole in it with a specialized ditch creating vehicle that roared unpleasantly. While the vehicle gouged the mountain's clay undersoil, a crowd of motley adults stood around and watched the operators. Most of those doing the truely skilled work, wore dark shirts and had beards and well nourished, muscular bodies. The women had their hair in snoods. Yes, there were female employees doing this heavy, dirty work. True they did not stand in a crew and wield shovels. Instead, they measured and ran one of the ditch diggers. They wore hard hats with the same log of a single wing that the men wore.
I was surprised somehow there were no priests around, but there were plenty of spectators. These were the locals, tired looking men who liked to spit tobacco juice out of smelly pickup windows, skinny youths just out of high school with few job prospects now that the company had flown, a few young girls with their shirts tied in knots under their breasts, and somewhat older girls who were either pregnant or nursing mothers. I wondered if any of these younger people had been in detention. You had to wonder, and you could not ask. How could you ask?
I asked Aurora why she wanted to go to the library instead. Aurora usually had good reason for her wants. "I want to get books on woodworking. I want to refinish all our furniture so it matches, and redecorate our room."
This was not a bad project. I did not have to cook until well into the afternoon so I rounded up Odem and the three of us set off for Seckler Center. We left early enough that I had time to visit the Rabba. She knew the name of the boy who had died. "You know you can say Kaddish for him if that's what you want to do." She was gentle about it. I said I knew how to edit the Kaddish prayer so it worked for nonJews. I had no problem with mourning the boy who had died in the fire. His name was Earl. It was the name his mother gave him; for he was too young to have a clan name yet. His last name was Jovi as in Jove as in Jupiter. The Greek pantheon was very popular within the Interior. I thought of the story of Hannaukah but there was no Antiochus, just people who lived in a different world, nonJews worshipping Greek Gods and running clans of priests that both worshipped and served. None of that was particularly awful, and the boy was innocent. I hoped and prayed the guilty were still locked up "in detention."
I thanked the Rabba and made it back to Seckler Center just in time to catch the tram. We switched trams in downtown Vernon. I tried the soda machines for the heck of it, but they were still out of commission. Like my comm phone, the soda machines would probably never work again. I gave the errant soda machine a fierce kick and rejoined my friends. We got back from Newton in time for me to start cooking. We had to cross Grandview Circle on a temporary bridge made of warped boards. The ditch where the road had been was a good twelve feet deep. Several adults in plain hard hats that were dented and scraped stood looking into the ditch. They were armed with shovels to clean up the rough work made by the machine. Over their shirts were mesh pinnies on which the words Vulcan House Trial Member were stenciled.
There was no question that these folks were joining a clan to replace their Company Jobs. "Did adults belong in mentoring houses?" No, but somehow they could join clans, and construction and public works were good jobs if you could have them.
"They're digging a hole for the sewer lines," Ondina explained while Zalli wrapped fish heads and tails in cheese cloth and hung them in a pot of boiling water and vegetables to make part of the stock for the chowder. There was no use in wasting anything. I tried not to look at the fish head which of course meant I stared. It was silvery and the eye obviously unseeing. It was an ocean fish or a farmed fish, a sea bass or a sea perch or maybe a tilapia fish. "We need an upgraded sewage system," Ondina went on. "A lot of the houses here are over a century old and many have septic systems built on the cheap or not always maintained. That's why they test the wells here every three months." I did not want to think about contaminated water, but like the fish head, some things you don't get rid of by flicking off the mental switch. Sewer lines would be good news to tell my family. I laughed.
"What's so funny?" asked Zalli.
"You wouldn't understand," I thought, but I kept thinking. I thought of what would happen if my parents, not my brothers and sisters or the babies, had to join a clan to make a living. I imagined the police shining blue lights and fear sticks at Beth Jacob village and the whole congregation dressed in their Shabbos best piled into school buses to be taken off, profiled, and then sent to dig ditches. I blinked back tears that had come unbidden. My throat hurt.
"What happens after they get done with the hole?" I asked everyone and no one.
"Construction starts expanding these townhouses," Ondina replied. "We get new stairs and a fifth and maybe a sixth floor, a regular castle huh?"
I did not reply. Ondina seemed happy wtih all the bustle. Amaryllis called it development. Quetzalli said we deserved this good fortune, and good jobs for the adults would end the fighting and the revolts and riots and terrorism better than locking adults up in detention. Maybe she was right.
Tuesday, Odem, Aurora, and I got the winch and plastic sheeting out of the disgusting and mouldy basement. That is its true name. On the door is a sign that waarnd. DISGUSTING AND MOULDY BASEMENT. -- PUT NOTHING IN HERE BECAUSE IT WILL ROT. The winch smelled but it was not too rotten to use, and plastic drop cloths would improve their scent in the sun. We had no where else for them. Burden of Dreams house this early August of 2083 is tightly packed as eggs in a carton or peas on a pod. How is that for a cliche.
A team from Vulcani house, a male and a female worker, put the winch in place above the fourth floor balcony and outside a window. They hooked its pulley and weighted down one end of the rope leaving the end dangling outside the third floor window. Aurora helped Odem and me unbolt the table in our bedroom so we could bring the pieces out into the hall. Odem swung the winch hook in through the third floor window that the Vulcani had carefully removed from its frame. Everyone watched as Aurora clipped on the large piece of the table. We did that one first, turned it perpendicular to the wall with the window, and slid it outside so it swayed in the air. Downstairs, the Vulcani pulled the winch rope while we ran upstairs and swung the table pieces on to the fourth floor balcony. Then with the Vulcani's help, we made a tent out of the plastic sheeting. Because it was a sunny day we left the tent open for ventillation. When it rained, the tent would keep the table pieces dry, but it would be stuffy. It did not look like rain so we left the tent open. We all ready had drop cloths, kept in the linen closet on the fourth floor, and NOT in the DISGUSTING AND MOULDY BASEMENT. We put them in a pile. We would not need them to sand.
All three of us had brought home the supplies that one of Aurora's wood finishing books suggested. We had boxes of sand paper, special auburn colored cherry stain, and polyurethane of vegetable origin with which to cover the whole business. The work table after all would be our desk until we went away to college. We squatted down and began sanding. We had Odem's boom box playing her favorite music files. We took turns listening, but mostly we talked while the Vulcani watched us and commented on our lack of power tools.
Aurora was clearly in charge of the decorating. "I want a beautiful room so I can take pictures and show my family," she began. "My Dad will be really proud of me."
"Is your Dad a painter?" Odem asked.
"No he runs oil drilling rigs, when they do exploration. He's a driller. He's the foreman on most crews or the second guy."
"Do they still have oil in Oklahoma?" It was my turn to ask. There was a lot less petroleum, natural gas, and even coal buried under the ground than there was a hundred years ago. Everybody learned this in general science or earth science in school, or so I thought.
"There's still some there, but it's very, very far under ground. Ever hear of the Deep Hot Earth Theory?" Aurora was a sharp one. I had to grant her that.
"The problem with oil and gas," she continued. "Is carbon footprint, not scarcity. Of course the deep drilling we have to do, amkes oil more expensive, but people still pay because we can't get totally free of the stuff.Anyway, I used to go with my Dad and sleep on a roll away in motels when I didn't have school. Everyone thought it was good for me, especially when I was a bit older and my little sister was going to be the little mama in the family. That's what she is, Melinda.
"It's good though, because I never wanted to do it. When I got taken on my first taking, and they asked me what I wanted because they always ask you something. I told them I wanted to be a female employee when I grew up. I always wanted that. My Mom has lots of kids, but I wanted to work like my Dad, not that I'm a tomboy. I just liked the idea of going to work better, but a female employee has to be educated. A man works with his brawn. A woman works with her brains."
"What about the Vulcani who are digging those ditches and recruiting like crazy?" Odem asked. She could have asked about the IDF or the Israeli army which sometimes sent women into combat, but Aurora was from Oklahoma not Israel.
"That's the interior, not Oklahoma. In Paris the only women who worked for the company had fancy, office jobs. That was going to be me, so I got an Ed Branch encouragement, and my keepsakes were always school things, books, pencils, pens, a couple of University of Kansas or University of Oklahoma T-shirts. This was before Nationals. My parents said 'Fine. Let's see how far she goes with it.' They liked the tame takings. They liked the fact I stayed out of trouble. They even liked that I did well at that school at the end of a long bus ride and long days.
"I was in middle school by then and it was clear I was real serious about "this whole school thing," so my parents took me to Norman and to Lawrenceville. They did not want me going east, and there were no 'scholar clans' in Paris. That's my home town. Lawrenceville looked like the best choice."
"You're not in Lawrenceville," I reminded my roommate.
"It doesn't matter. I'm going to have a nicer room. I want to show my parents that."
"Will that be OK with them?" I worried. I really worried. I knew about parents.
"Yes!" Aurora acted like I'd asked her the dumbest question in the world. "It's not like they don't know where I am. I write them twice a week. They asked if I still went to church. They knew someone would take me to church in Lawrenceville."
"You don't go to church here," Odem commented.
"I go to San Rio Temple twice a week," Aurora answered.
"I bet you didn't tell your parents that," I commented.
"I told them I go to church. I didn't say what kind," Aurora confessed. "There's stuff that's hard to explain through email. I mean I liked church well enough. I even got saved, but it's not that I don't believe in God or even that there was a Jesus and he died on the cross. The church doesn't give a lick for female employees. The pastors are still only all male. Even you Jews and you Orth-o-dox Jews have female rabbis. Just look at your Rabba. We don't sit separately for services but we might as well.
"It's a woman's job to get married and not sleep with boys before that. Then she's supposed to have lots of kids and bring them to church to keep the church full. There's nothing about being a female employee, and cities are places of sin even though Christianity is still a very popular religion and there are Christians in cities like anywhere else. The pastors have an interest in keeping people in small towns where they have no choices.
"San Rio is all about choice. It's not just Hello Kitty. There's Badz Maru and Choco Fan and of course Tabbi Kitty for the scholars like us, though I still love Hello Kitty, because she's the original. And there are female San Rio priests, and the San Rio priests don't expect everyone to get married and have lots of kids if they are female, and if they stray because they don't want to get married at eighteen but they are otherwise good people, they are still good people. I know about contraception, not that I have a boyfriend and I'm not even sure I like boys."
"Do you prefer girls?" I asked.
"I prefer them as friends. I don't know who I have crushes on. I never had a crush, but the county academic program was mostly girls, so I didn't get much choice. The tech program had all the boys in it and the military program. Some girls would stand at the fence and watch the boys at lunch. I just couldn't get into that, but no, I don't think of girls that way, at leat that I know about."
For a while, none of us said anything. I pictured the big fight over religion that Aurora would have with her parents when she came home to Oklahoma. I felt bad for her. Still, I knew the rest of the conversation and knew I couldn't do anything to save my roommate.
"So what about the rest of your family. How many brothers and sisters do you have?" I asked.
"Six," Aurora answered. "Mom just had her seventh a month before I went to Nationals. He's my newest little brother. There are two girls and five boys in my family."
"We have three girls and four boys including me," I told Aurora. "The youngest is nine months old."
"I just have a younger sister named Ursala," Odem stopped the show.
"How come your mom has only two kids?" Aurora did not miss a beat. "She's a college professor. She's Semi-Independent. That's like being a Subcontractor. My Dad is a professor too," Odem told us. "They teach at Georgia Southern in Statesboro. They didn't want a big family, and maybe that's good. Some kids turn out bad."
"You didn't, " I defended my roommate.
"The EXPLETIVE DELETED I didn't," Odem countered. "I the original rotten child, spoilt, and malicious. I hacked my first computer filter when I was ten. I hacked a few more, and downloaded some great stuff and learned some cool tricks, and then got banned from computers for a year. Then I put my tablet together and well, I'm back in the game, but with a bit more caution. I had to find other things to do, but I always broke curfew. I would stay up until 2am and then walk to the convenience store out by the highway and get a Pepsi. I'd drink it walking home. I had a closet shelf full of empties. My Mom asked me about them, and I did not even bother to lie. Now that's a bad kid."
"So did your parents whup you?" asked Aurora.
"EXPLETIVE DELETED no! I'm too big to hit and if they locked the door, I just climbed out the window. Sometimes my Dad would pick me up at the convenience store. We only had one that was open late and within walking distance. Our neighborhood is safe, and I usually went out on soda runs on a Saturday night."
"I bet your Mom cried," I told Odem.
"Why would she do something that dumb?" Odem just did not get it. "I mean I stayed out late and went to a convenience store to spend my stipend on soda. She said we had soda at home, but she knew I just liked to go out late at night because I thought it was cool. Maybe it was rebellion but I wasn't committing a crime. My grades were good. I wrote stories about joining the CIA and IDF and stuff like that. My parents hated that because they were liberal in their politics. They also worried I'd really do something like that. It used to worry them when I bought Soldier of Fortune at the mall and read it, but they never took it away because they believed that reading was good for me, and they never cried because that really would be silly.
"They talked to me, because that is what college professors do. They asked me why I liked those magazines. They asked me why I liked going out at night. Then they made me do volunteer projects. It was kind of like forced labor but it was better than being hit, classier anyway, and people even thanked me because I knew I kind of had to pay back being a bad kid.
"The way I think of it and the way my parents think of it I think, is that every family has to have its bad kid in it and I got the role. I wasn't really bad in school or a criminal, but I still was bad or tried to be.
"And my parents loved me anyway, because I was smart and because I really wasn't going to get in serious trouble except to crawl under their skin and they liked me there. I am blood of their blood and flesh of their flesh. If you have to have someone under your skin, who is better there but your own child?"
"My mother wouldn't want me under her skin!" I answered. "Not in a million EXPLETIVE DELETEDING years."
"What about your Dad?" asked Odem before Aurora could say she was "sorry" and cut off the conversation. Sooner or later, just the way it was at school, everyone would "know about my family." Then they would try to forget it so I could be like every body else. True, the adults were talking about putting me in foster care, but as far as I was concerned it was just talk. In two weeks, I'd be going home to Atlanta because that would be easier on everybody.
"My Mom runs the show and my Dad doesn't care. He goes to the Kollel with the boys. Girls don't count for him. He's like Aurora's pastor who doesn't believe in female employees." "There, that should end it," I thought. I could feel my face growing hot. I was not sure I envied Odem or hated her for bragging about hurting parents who still paid attention to her. I was not sure I envied or hated Aurora or whether she was telling the truth. When there are seven kids, there just isn't much room for a first born girl who doesn't like babies. The world is as it is, or is it?
"Didn't somebody call the police or Child Protective?" Odem would not let my story die. "Odem," I thought. "Please walk away. It's better for all of us, including me!"
"No, Toco Hills is a tight knit community. Even Ed-Branch didn't take me out of my home. That would have been like punishing me for my parents' sins. That's not fair. I had school until seven pm most nights and we had summer project. My Placement Specialist bought me clothes. They had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school, so I stayed fed. I had my Ed-Branch stipend so I could eat on weekends if my parents didn't feed me. I got lonely at times, but I had Kohana Pascal's personal number and I could talk to Margaux, Li-Av, or Hamida down at the Dorm House. I could even stay there if my parents locked me out, but my parents never did that. They also never hit me. I had the therapist and school principal to talk to too. I wasn't without adults who could help me even if I did not have them around at night so I was kind of OK."
At this point, even Odem shut up. I was very grateful for the awkward silence. Then Aurora spoke. "I want to take you home with me for the visiting break," she volunteered. I wanted to laugh.
"Do you think your Mom wants a guest?" I asked.
"I can write to her and see," Aurora really meant what she said. That felt scarey.
"You've got your own troubles," I told Aurora.
"I can talk to my parents. They love me even if I'm different from my sisters and brothers. You can't have seven kids and expect them to turn out all the same. My parents aren't that stupid."
"Normal parents even love their bad kids," Odem piled it on.
I did not have normal parents. I'd known that since that night when they threw me out of religious school and I started going to Druid Hills Magnet Academy. I'd known that because I had a therapist. I knew that because I was hungry when I arrived at school, not disorganized or greedy, but hungry deep down inside. You can't deny hunger, but you don't have to put it in people's faces and if you don't talk about it, they will forget. That was how I got along.
"If you want my honest opinion," Odem continued. "Your parents are two pieces of shit, and they deserve to have you gone. Don't you understand that?"
I did not answer. "They want to throw me out," I told my roommates. "Do you think I should let them."
"I think they're going to disown you anywy when you are eighteen. They can do that legally then. No police no Child Protective." For a bad kid, Odem was savvy enough to find the place where it hurt.
"I'll be in college by the time I'm eighteen." I had an answer for this.
"Yeah, but are you going to let them treat you like garbage for four more years?" This time it was Aurora who asked.
"Do you think your parents will want me around?" I asked back.
"I'm going to ask them. Can I ask them? It will be better than foster care. You didn't do anything to deserve to be put in care. I think my Mom will say yes. What do you say?"
I agreed to be Aurora's house guest for two weeks before the late start of school in New Jersey. By now we had the table parts sanded and it was time to attack the mouldings in our bedroom. We pushed the bed away from the walls and opened the windows for ventillation. We'd strip and stain the mouldings and then we'd paint the walls a lovely fresh, egg shell white. Everything would be satin finish or semi gloss. Everything would be bright, shiney, and new, and Aurora's parents in Paris, Oklahoma would see the beautiful room and love their female employee daughter even more, and Odem's parents would hear of our gorgeous new room, and they would love their bad daughter even more, and my parents... I wondered what it would be like if I never saw them again.
Then I thought of my siblings. Part of them wondered if they would be better off without me. After all, I was a reminder of what their parents could do to them. Then I wondered if another of my siblings would be the next bad kid, and in my family, nobody loved a bad kid.
Bits and Pieces
Of course, my email to my parents bounced. Ondina and Pedra both said that this was not due to malice on my parents' parts. Odem's email went through, but Aurora's bounced. She got on the house phone and called her parents who gave her more news than any of us wanted to hear. First, they had moved to another state. They were no longer in Paris, Oklahoma which they and the younger children all missed. They were now in Texarkanna, Texas. I had to look that up on a map but it has a much larger population, and country people don't like larger towns and are utterly allergic to cities.
Still, according to what Aurora's parents told her the move was a good thing. The Company got out of the minerals exploration business in the rural Western United States, and the Priests moved in. Actually, it was not the priests but something called a "work clan." Aurora's parents both joined it, but the clan had "no housing in Paris." Aurora's parents moved to the closest clan house which was in Texarkana. The house had some insiders in it and "people from all over." It was a big compound. Aurora's mom bemoaned the lack of privacy, but her dad "was in really good work," and for the first time they had really good health insurance which was important, especially for the newest baby. Babies always get priority over everything.
The move meant, Aurora's parents had to ask their clan leaders if I could come as a guest. They asked and got told "yes." In a compound with fifty to a hundred odd souls, what is one more mouth to feed, or set of sheets to wash. I guess that was how they looked at it. I was not sure I wanted to spend my visitation weeks in a dorm house on the Texas/Arkansas border, but Aurora's parents' clan dorm house was still somehow better than foster care.
Now, you are wondering about the bouncing email to my parents. Pedra said the answer was quite simple. A lot of the internet had died. Providers just like big oil and gas drillers or New York City Ed Branch had abandoned large swaths of the country. Aurora's parents had a new provider to give them access. My parents of course could have cared less, or maybe a rabbi was talking about the net being evil again. The net is just a conduit to send comm letters or put up comm boards. It isn't good or bad, but the rabbis like Aurora's pastors want to keep a measure of control. So it goes.
Amaryllis and Ondina asked me to write a paper letter to my parents. I could write it on the computer so as to make it very legible and keep a copy for myself. I was to send the letter registered return receipt. This was to make sure my parents got it. This way my parents could not accuse Burden of Dreams House or the Priets or anybody else of kidnapping me. They would also know what was going on with me, since we were almost not communicating at all. "It's not good to be estranged from your family," Amaryllis told me. Yes, there is a word from it. My therapist had used the word before. It is a very polite word.
Writing the letter was arduous, because I knew I would never receive a reply. My mother doesn't do the crying thing very well on paper though she could always add drops of water to look like tear stains. She wouldn't even have to cry real tears. Dad would never bother to write me. I am after all, just a girl, and boys are worth more than girls, as far as Dad is concerned. Yes, there is a hole in my like the hole that the rain fills where there used to be a street.
When it rained I did not go fishing like the boys. The boys are a bit crazy, but fishing for the two heterosexual boys, gives them a chance to get away from a mostly female house and talk male talk. It's also their private world. Our world was the furniture which we could not stain in the rain. We kept the plastic tent closed and sat on the fourth floor balcony anyway. Below us there were survey poles all around the house. They were going to expand the third and fourth floors and add a fifth. The floor plan was on the kitchen wall. Every year we would receive two to four more initiates. Burden of Dreams would grow until it was the size of Aurora's parents' clan house in Texarkanna.
Right now though, we had our plastic tent which was stuffy, but dry. We sat on the wooden porch that was mercifully gypsy moth caterpillar turd free. We were not a happy group because we could not stain furniture, go swimming, and my Judaica lessons were only twice a week, and I can only study the parsha with commentary so much. Studying the parsha made me think of Atlanta. I was not homesick exactly. My situation when I thought of it was an old one, one third of my life or a bit less.
It was Aurora and Odem who had true troubles at home. Aurora as I said above had a whole family who relocated. We'd both be going back to a new place in a week and a half. Odem, on the other hand, had a complicated and fraught situation. Both her parents worked at Georgia Southern as Semi-Independents which is the typical status for college faculty. Normally, that would make them like Subcontractors and Independent Contractors, on the grid, but in a kind of exalted position. With the Riots, that began to change. Unlike in Highland Lakes, Atlanta Ed-Branch, DID NOT abandon its houses around Athens, Statesboro, and the other universities in the South.
Ed-Branch, however, did not control the universities themselves. The colleges and universities outside the big cities, now fell under the jurisdiction not of their states but of an organization called the Scholars Union. The Scholars Union was the Priests' equivalent of Ed-Branch but it was smaller and far more elite. To be a Scholars Union Clan, your leader had to have at least a bachelor's degree and preferably a graduate degree. Ondina and Amaryllis with their Masters in Secondary education would qualify, but the Scholars Union had never thought to visit Sussex County. We were too far off the map, but Statesboro, Georgia was another story.
The Scholars Union was attracted to Georgia Southern like flies to a freshly crapped turd. Unfortunately, the Scholars Union had "standards." Students in college had to have done well in high school and mastered certain subjects. They insisted on testing the students in the fall and sending away those who did not make the grade. This meant that Georgia Southern was going to shrink and that there would be less need for faculty. Odem's parents were facing unemployment. Kohana Pascal, who is my Placement Specialist with Ed-Branch, said that Ed-Branch (Most faculty in higher education spent their high school years in an Tech-Branch or Ed-Branch house) was trying to find housing and if necessary work for all its unemployed or soon-to-be unemployed adults. Kohana had no good words for the Scholars Union.
I guess you can say, Odem was returning home to turmoil. I was the only one not going home. I knew the bare outlines of what went on in Atlanta, but Toco Hills had vanished behind me in the mist, especially if I was not returning and would be unable to have a look around in my two, very dead weeks. I thought of this as the rain pelted the plastic over my head. "My Dad says he might move to the Interior and start an alternative Ed-Branch mentoring house. Mom thinks she'll probably keep her job. It's English professors they'll need. English and mathematics."
"Basic academics," sighed Aurora.
"Yeah, but this is college," Odem answered. I said nothing. There was nothing I could contribute to the conversation. I said I was going inside. I was tired of listening to those who had news that I would never hear. Probably everyone in Toco Hills was OK. There were lots of people who were nearly off the grid. Atlanta was also a Company Town like most big cities. I got out paper and pen. I dared not write to Chevie. My only female sibling would likely share her letter with Mom who would not let her write back. Chevie was the professional good kid these days.
Shmuel, my oldest younger brother was a different story. Yes, he sat in Kollel with Dad, and he went to Yeshiva school in a white shirt and black pants and shined black shoes every day, but he was protected and just stayed in his place. He did not have to prove he was a good kid. He was twelve, and twelve year olds think for themselves. He could say he was too busy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah to write, but then again, he might welcome a break. As a favored kid, he had more freedom than his sister, and Dov, our next younger brother was still too young to have a lot of independent thoughts besides wanting to play sports instead of sit in school. After Dov came Chevie, and behind Chevie the kids were all too young to understand much except that I had done something horrible and really wasn't home most of the time as a result.
"Are you OK?" Odem opened the bedroom door and asked me.
"Yeah, I just wanted to come inside to write," I told her.
Odem glanced down at the letter I was working on and gasped. "You're just writing in Hebrew!"
"I'm bilingual," I told my roommate. "I'm hoping to become trilingual in high school."
"Shit!" Odem declared. "Why don't you come out on the porch and write." Odem could be very sweet at times. I returned to the plastic tent and with my back to Burden of Dream's house fourth story continued my letter. It flowed for three pages. I told Shmuel all about Nationals and Higland Lakes. I told him about the night of the riots. I told him about the Rabba and swimming in Lake Five. I told him about the boys who fished and played basketball. I told him about learning to cook. I told him about the farmer who sold us buttermilk and gave us fancy tomatoes. I told him about the abandoned ski area, the horse flies, and the gypsy moth caterpillars.
I did not have a copy of this letter to keep. I sent it registered return receipt along with another letter to my parents that was in English and typed on the computer. By the time I sent my letter, the sun was shining. We did our coat of polyurethane early in the day, and then I went with Pedra to "babysit" Jewels and Tweetie at the basketball court up at Lake One. As usual, Odem came with us, and Aurora did not want to play left out. I mailed the letter and sat down by the court. Pedra and a gentleman in blue swim trunks were talking about the disappearance of a lot of internet providers and the slow response on what was left of the backbone. Odem listened with rapt attention. Aurora said Lake One was too cold for swimming. So much for going to the beach, I thought.
"The problem is," the man in blue swim trunks continued, "that the Priests are taking over the television. Up here everything has to be cable, and we don't have ESPN or the local station from Newark any more. We don't get Fox from New York either. My wife complains there's no more Cooking Channel. The Priests have their own TV channels mixed in."
We did not have television at Burden of Dreams and I did not have it at home in Toco Hills, which is part of Atlanta. We watched video on demand on the computers if we wanted that kind of thing, or we got movies on DVD or download. There was a big screen we could use for playback. Still, it was kind of interesting what had happened to the television stations. "No question, the Priests are taking over everything," blue swim trunks declared.
I decided it was time for a swim. I did not mind being on the beach by myself. I had a book of commentary that I read sitting on a towel. In my world religious learning had long ago fused with leisuire reading. I remembered that Shmuel would never read his commentary or Talmud this way, and might even consider it disrepectful. To me the beach was a perfectly respectful place for any kind of serious reading.
"Look, she reads Hebrew!" I looked up at whoever was staring over my shoulders. I could feel my face flush with anger. It was the man in blue swim trunks accompanied by a woman in a blue and white coverup. Aurora had brought them to meet me. "See, they taught her in school when she was small," Aurora explained. Aurora meant no harm in showing off my talents.
"The priests may leave you be then. They're going to mess with the schools this fall. I've heard stories of what they might do to the high schools."
I realized I'd have to call my Placement Specialist who probably knew something about what to expect from the Scholars Union. "Look I need to get this done," I said as politely as I could to the spectators. I had a meeting with the Rabba before Shabbos. I also had a brother with whom I shared Judaics in common. I was hoping and praying that Shmuel would find a way to write back to me.
I thought of Shmuel as we walked back down Upper Highland Lakes Drive toward Old Homestead and the back way to Grandview Circle. In Toco Hills, the adults would consider a walk like this arduous, though boys and some girls might take such walks. Even they eventually would absorb the adults' attitudes. Here, we walked, we worked, we swam, we read, and sometimes we speculated about what had happened to us after the Riots in the bigger picture of all things. Parents got relocated. Parents had jobs pulled out from under them. Some parents said nothing.
A huge truck full of cement pipes wide enough for a child or small adult to walk through stood blocking the way to Grandview Circle. New members of the Vulcani Clan and several other work clans along with older members were trying to put the big cement pieces in the hole they had dug where our street once was. We crossed the foot bridge of planks, now turned grey brown and watched the workers from our side of the road. The cement pipes were going to be a new sewer line. The workers would also dig up the nonfunctioning septic tanks. This would keep our water purer. That meant there would either be a sewage treatment plant somewhere or the sewer line would connect with other lines that would go to a different plant. Behind our house, a grading machine flattened the land where workers had cut down trees two weeks ago.
I hadn't told Shmuel about all the construction yet. "Want to go on a buttermilk run?" asked Odette as I passed through the kitchen. This afternoon I would help her cook, and clean up. I did not mind. I wished my mother had taught me cooking, but there were four blank years as far as the two of us were concerned.
"We have cooking to do don't we?" I asked.
"Yeah, but we can catch a local bus tomorrow," Odette sounded bored.
"I have to meet and learn with the Rabba, Judaics remember?"
"What time is that over?" Odette was not going to let this go.
"About three pm." I let out an exasperated breath. My bathing suit felt sticky and itchy against my skin. I wanted to go upstairs and take a shower in the worst way.
"OK, then can you meet me at four pm Seckler Center. That's close by. Zalli is going to handle the cooking."
I glanced down at the table. The farmer who sold us buttermilk was nearly off the grid. I wondered if the Priests, or a Farmer's Union, or anything else had messed with her. I wondered if she knew people who had given the orders to shoot kids.
"Does Pedra know about the trip?" I asked.
"She knows and so does Zalli," Odette answered.
"What about Ondina and Amaryllis?" I asked.
"They know too," Odette reassured me. "All we know about what's happened is bits and pieces. The media is keeping quiet. It never handled the Interior well. We need to learn whatever we can."
"What are we going to do when the Scholars Union gets here?" I asked no one and everyone.
Amaryllis who was in the office poked out her head. "We're going to join the Scholars Union," she announced. "This house qualifies. The relevant question is to ask how much of your high school is going to be in Newton. They want you to get a really good education."
Needless to say, I did not look foward to a long daily bus ride. I was used to walking to school, even in the freezing winter. Still we weren't relocating and no one was losing their job. I even had my Judaics and a place to go to services. I was better off than a lot of people, and I even had a place to go for visitation. I wondered what, if anything, Shmuel would think of Texarkana, Texas.
Serving the Powers
"You realize we could get shot," I said matter of factly to Odette as I bounced across the green lawn and over to Seckler Center. Odette looked me up and down. It was not like she'd never seen me in a skirt and hose. I think she had, a couple of times before, and even if she hadn't it was not like she hadn't seen a fourteen dressed that way. Still she asked: "What's the occasion, Ahava?"
"I was learning with the Rabba. It's respect to dresss modestly," I explained, and it was also respect to use the English words, "respect" and "modesty" rather than the Hebrew, kavod and tznius. Using English told the world that what I did was what others could do and that I was not superior or putting myself in an exalted position. I had learned about semantics from my principal and my therapist back in Atlanta. The lessons had stuck.
Still Odette blinked. "Dressing in ordinary clothes is not going to protect you if the farmer has guns," I warned Odette.
"Do you want to go back home?" she asked me.
"No, we need stuff and two pairs of eyes and ears is safer than one," I reminded the Founding Sister whom I somteimes helped in the kitchen.
"Only if they're attached to two brains," Odette quipped back.
We caught the downtown bus as if for a routine errand. At the transfer point I tested the soda machines. Odette winced. I told her it did no harm. Anyway, the machines were still dead and likely never to be revived. "Some day we ought to open those machines up before the syrup goes bad," I told Odette.
"I thought you were the one who was scaird of the priests," Odette answered.
"Priests don't scare me. Others do." I did not want to say terrorists, but that was what they were. I remembered the ones who instructed Charles and Brandi to shoot their classmates. Luckily, Charles and Brandi had the wisdom to refuse.
We got off at a lonely stop in the country. Odette had printed the bus schedule off the internet and we knew when to be back. We took turns carrying the glass bottles. Six empty bottles are heavy, and there is no reward in carrying them. Six full bottles would be heavier but at least there would be buttermilk in them. There might also be fresh vegetables in Odette's and my empty backpacks. Carrying the empties though, just seemed pointless.
We were very hot and tired by the time we reached the farmer's house. Someone had broken open the milk machine. It's door swung wide in the wind and its empty innards gaped. It smelled faintly or strongly of sour milk depending on whether we stood up or down wind from it and how hard the wind blew.
The farm seemed peaceful enough, so we headed up the path to the Italinate farm house. "You knock on the door," Odette volunteered me. I was not sure if I wanted any one to answer. I wished Odette would go hide, not that I wanted to sacrifice myself. I knocked. Nothing happened. I knocked again, louder, and this time after a while, a man with weather beaten skin answered. He glanced at our six empties. Odette seeing the man was unarmed came up on the porch. The farmer shook his head. "We don't sell milk any more," he replied.
"What do you mean?" Odette wasted no time in confronting him.
"You heard me young lady. We don't sell milk."
"What do you do with it?" Odette asked. "Pour it in the street?"
"It's none of your business what we do with it. Now go back where you came from."
"We're scholars. We pay cash. You need cash." Odette would not let us be turned away.
Then a woman's voice called out: "There's no more buttermilk! We're not making it any more."
"What happened?" Odette was relentless. I was not sure I wanted to slap her or hug her.
"What do you think happened?" asked the woman who had now come to stand behind her husband or brother or maybe just boyfriend.
"You are feeding the milk to the calves and producing meat," I guessed. The farmer and his female companion glanced at one another.
"What's your name?" the female companion asked me.
"Ahava Burden," I replied.
"That's not what your mother named you," she responded.
"My mother named me Chanie Weisman, but I prefer Ahava Burden."
"Come in Ahava and you too, Odette. You girls mean no harm. Bring the bottles. We don't waste glass."
We brought the empties inside. "I'm sorry we've stopped milk production, but the Priests control the dairies. How did you know about the calves?"
"I pay attention in school and I read," I said. That was the truth. Nature fascinated me and it was part of a secular education.
"That's good as far as it goes," sighed the Farmer's compaion looking at Odette. "After a time though you're not just a school girl. You have to know better."
"Tell your generals not to give orders to shoot kids," I told the Farmer's companion.
"Those were agent provocateurs," said the Farmer who watched us through the kitchen door as his companion put the empties away. She opened a large refridgerator and gave us a variety of multi colored tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. When our backpacks were full, she filled paper bags.
"You tell your leaders who will tell others that we are not entirely defeated, no matter what those priests tell you. It's not in their interest to tell the truth, you know." The Farmer's companion looked us over. "How're you getting back to town?" she asked.
"Six pm bus," answered Odette.
"What happens when the buses stop running?" asked the Farmer.
"What happens when there is no fuel or insurance to train sixteens to drive?" Odette asked back. Odette did not add that in New Jersey, with its sstrict, graduated licensing, one might as well have a driving age of eighteen. There was no point in any one driving if they could not give their younger companions rides.
"You're just not going to go anywhere which'll mean the Priests have you where they want you," the Farmer's compaion declared.
"Off the grid you starve," Odette responded.
"Only if you don't use what God gave you," the Farmer's companion replied. "You girls have enough brains to make a go of it.It's not easy or always comfortable, but you can do it. People can't walk away unless there's a place for them to come to. We need people to make this place."
"I think it's too late for that," Odette explained.
"Only if you believe it's too late," the Farmer's compaion replied.
"May we come back?" I asked.
"Sure," the Farmer said. "Maybe you'll really learn something."
Odette reached into her wallet to hand the Farmer's companion a twenty dollar bill, but the woman shook her head. "Those are barter for the glass. You pay cash next time or maybe you do us a favor."
With that we said goodbye. I wasn't sure we would ever go back to the Farmer. I wasn't even sure I liked the Farmer. Where had the resistance been after all when religious parents in Toco Hills wanted to avoid sending their children to takings and secular clans? Where had they been when I had no where to go, and where were they when the agent provocateurs, whatever they were, suggested murder of innocent kids? One had to think about terrorists from different angles.
The next morning, was eruv Shabbat of my last weekend in New Jersey before going to Texarkanna with Aurora. Our table was due to go back into our bedroom via the winch that was still in place. It was a sunny day with rain predicted for late in the afternoon. It rained a lot in the mountains of New Jersey. I helped Quetzalli and Xannika fix dinner. I'd be cooking with Xannika once Odette left for school. Her college did not start until well into September. "Dartmouth has its own schedule," she explained. I remembered hearing about this from Kohana who had also gone to Dartmouth. I did not feel ready to cook even half a dinner by myself, though I could be a competent pair of hands doing the easier chores, and I could make rice and rice pudding.
I was cutting and washing lucullus chard at the kitchen sink when the dignitaries arrived. They wlreloose fitting pants and tunics in pale and muted tones. The man had close cropped salt and pepper hair, mustache, and beard, and a smooth, pink face where the hair did not grow. The woman had raven colored hair that was straight and straw-like and gathered into a bun. Her skin was the color of turbindo sugar. They stepped right into the kitchen, introduced themselves to Quetzalli, and Xannika (and me), and then asked to see our leaders. Amaryllis poked out of the office and said Ondina was upstairs taking a shower. The dignitaries waited in the living room which no one bothered to clean up from the kind of mess that twenty souls living in close quarters bestow on a room through every day use. The dignitaries seemed not to mind the clutter. At least there was room for them on the old, large couch.
They asked Amaryllis and Ondina to fetch everyone, so the living room soon became crowded with bodies as well as with mess. The Fouding Sisters stood near the back but then moved foward beause the eighteens and seveteens were taller. The boys, Tweetie and Jewels sat on the floor because the did not want to stop working on cleaning and restoring various pieces of fishing tackle, they each kept in a large plastic box. Quetzalli sat down beside the boys. Odem joined them, and then I sat and so did Aurora. Xannika stood over us along with Dante who had somehow gotten to the front. Next to him were the sixteens and seventeens, tough assertive girls I had seen only in passing. They ate mainly ready made food and had never offered to share it. I much prefered food that could be cooked to my preferences anyway. One of the sixteens had hair dyed jet black and wore lots of mascara. I did not know Ed-Branch kids wore makeup. It was not a common thing at Druid Hills Magnet Academy.
The dignitaries looked us over and then the woman began to speak. "First, I would like to congratulate your leaders. Your clan, Burden of Dreams, is ninty percent qualified to be in the Scholars Union. We could not say that about the other house we saw in Vernon, and the third hosue has fled to Greenwood Lakes, New York."
"What happened to the other ten percent?" I wondered. I looked for a way to get up and leave. I wasn't going to sit and let dignitaries talk down my house.
"As for you members, we checked your profiles," the female dignitary continued. "Atlanta Ed-Branch was quite forthcoming in giving everything to us. You are a very impressive bunch. Thissue," the dignitary paused. "Is the program at the local, public high school. The Ed-Branch Curriculum which all of you have taken or are taking is excellent in math, science, and foreign language. It kind of considers English, history, and social science to be generic. We don't. Since the full Scholars Union Program is offered county-wide at Newton, those of you who are in high school are going to need to go there."
Winona raised her hand. She was a tall sixteen with blond hair and hazel eyes. She looked like a more expanded and confident version of Aurora who sat hunched over trying to make herself invisible as if she'd done something.
"Excuse me," Winona feighed politeness. "How are we going to get to Newton?"
"We'll have a bus come and pick you up," the male dignitary answered.
"Where do we wait for the bus?" Winona had a topic with which she could run.
"It will be door-to-door service."
Winona and several of the other kids sniffed. Then Esperenza (also called Ruth) spoke. "What about our social lives as students?"
"Vernon High School should burn to the ground," answered Xannika half under her breath.
"What do you mean?" the female dignitary asked and she asked Winona. Xannika's meaning was plain enough.
"I mean I'm in the Spanish Honor Society and Celeste is in the National Honor Society and so was Helena last year."
"The National Honor Society is not really academic," the male dignitary laid one myth to rest. "Anything else."
"I'm the drama critic for the Viking. I'm also in the Spanish Honor Society," explained Esperenza also called Ruth. "I'm going to graduate this year.... You can't just uproot me in my senior year."
"What is the Viking?" the female dignitary asked, her voice just a little bit angry.
"It's the school newspaper," Winona relished having the dignitary dead to rights.
"Do you want to be a journalist or a reporter?
"I'm a film and drama critic," Esperenza replied.
"What if you start a newspaper at Sussex County Academy for Scholars?" the female dignitary still looked off balance.
Esperenza looked around her. "Those kinds of things have to get approval," Winona tag teamed her housemate.
"There might be a way to get approval if you really can do what you say you can, and I believe you can." The male dignitary smiled.
"And what about homecoming, and the Senior Prom?" asked Artemis, a beefy girl with thick glasses and girly brown hair worn in a round pony tail on a round head.
"You got a date for the prom?" Dante asked her.
Tweetie and Jewels started to laugh. Artemis glared at them. "May is a long time away, and someone could ask me. It's a big night."
"Maybe you can start a prom," the male dignitary suggested.
Several of the older kids laughed, but Dante glared at them. "Look," he said. "Two weeks from now you'll be a member of Burden of Dreams, not Fruits and Nuts. You leave all the dumb, hay seed, twits behind in Vernon, and it's all serious kids, individuals, who accept difference. We start clean. We make the rules. Isn't that worth something?"
"You're going away to college," Artemis reminded him.
"Do we get to vote on this?" asked Winona.
"No," replied Amaryllis. "This is your access to decent high school courses. You don't get a choice."
"It's your access to future members!" cried a skinny and very tan seventeen year old.
"That too, and funding," Amaryllis was unshaken. Then she turend to the unhappy high school juniors and seniors. She said: "Look do you want to finish high school with a quality education and do you want to be scholars?"
"I just don't want all academics and no social life," Artemis spoke up.
"We'll build a social life," Xannika answered.
"You're a fine one to talk!" said an Afrian American girl whose name I later learned aws Kaylanna. "Look what kind of social life you have!"
"I'm on the math team, the French Honor Society, and in the Model UN," answered Xannika.
"I stand corrected," Kaylanna snorted. "You just almost bombed out of this house last year."
"Yeah, well I had roommate troubles," Xannika snorted back.
"I say we go to the new school! We'll make it the best and most fun high school in New Jersey. We'll run all the activities."
"Even 4-H?" asked Esperenza.
"I don't know about 4-H," Xannika answered. As Amaryllis said, we did not vote but we accepted the dignitaries' decree. It was not much of a burden on my roommates and me, since we hadn't started high school yet. I did not think I would enjoy the long ride in the morning, though Aurora said it would be just fine since we'd have our own private bus. True, it would be a short bus, but for twelve of us, it made sense.
"You know who you should make the head of 4-H?" Odette said over lunch after the dignitaries left.
"Who?" asked Esperenza. "You know that was a joke don't you?"
"Well, I'm being serious. Ahava loves plants and animals and insects, even insects. She said something really intelligent to a dairy farmer yesterday which is why you have that great tomato on your sandwich."
"He's not a dairy farmer any more," I replied.
"What is he?" asked Odette.
"He's raising veal and beef. They're letting the calves drink the milk."
&quoit;See what I mean and since we're getting a garden. Let's have Ahava start the 4-H chapter."
I was ashamed to say it, but I did not know what 4-H was. I finally asked Aurora after lunch as I was getting ready for a fast, pre-schul swim. "It's a farm kids organization. They have competitions in gardening, home economics, raising livestock. Well I guess we could do gardening," Aurora sniffed. 4-H did not interest her in the least. Me, I'd rather be head of a naturalist club. Of course every other Ed-Branch house in Sussex County was also planning to take over the new Academy for Scholars. It had to be that way when you really thought about it.