In a Safe Country IV
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....
The roasting, baby pig stank up the whole yard behind the center of the Nebular House horse shoe. I stood in the kitchen steaming the chard and then dotting it with butter. One of the assistants, a girl my own age, helped me put it in a steam ship tray so we could rewarm it late that afternoon. Juhmar, the Bengali cook, and her own assistants (They were not Pakistani, but Bengaladeshi or had been a generation ago), made their own ethnic specialties in addition to the fish and rice, giving the kitchen and enticing scent to compete with yard's odor.
There were no Activities for the children this Saturday. The convoy from the Western Wyoming Exploratory was due in at three pm Central Daylight time. Of course they were late, which meant that adults and kids stood around beside tables covered with red and white checked plastic coated table cloths and looked sullen and uncoformfatble in the ninty degree plus (Fahrenheit which is nearly forty celsius) degree heat. At least the yard did not have a single gypsy moth caterpillar turd to adorn it.
I stayed in the kitchen. The yelling and screaming told me the convoy had returned. Little kids danced for joy. Women wept at the return of their husbands and boyfriends. Aurora brought her father into the kitchen to meet me. Unlike Potter, Livia and Dru, did not turn him out although he was decidedly in the way. "You been working like this all Vis-it-a-tion?" Aurora's dad asked me. I told him I'd worked as much as I was allowed. I was going to make things easier for Xannika.
New Jersey was close now, and I was relieved. Soon, Hannah and Sophie would be far behind me. Soon, the nightmares would stop, though they had stopped all ready. I would be too busy to have more of them because there would be school. I stepped out into the yard for a breath of air. "You're going to meet your father wearing THAT?" Potter's mom asked an ugly rhetorical question. Potter stood in a black T-shirt with some kind of slogan on it and black jeans and a black belt. His hair was mussed, but that was the way he usually looked. Clearly Potter's mom did not approve of the shirt.
Potter, who was on somewhat good behavior, had the good sense not to reply. He walked into the crowd. I went back inside to help get the side dishes, plates, paper goods, and disposible silverware out for the feast. I knew all ready with whom I would eat. Potter's family and Aurora's shared a long table. "We were three out of three on the first wells," Aurora's dad proudly proclaimed. "Each well was a hit. The chemists now have to analyze the oil and the geologists want to do size-mic studies, so it's all small digs and lots of probes and fussy work." Aurora's dad shook his head with mock disgust.
"I don't mind probes that much," answered Potter's father who was very tall, lean, and pink skinned like his son, but his black hair was cut into a crew cut that stood up. He wore glasses with clear plastic frames. His skin shone with sweat.
"I wonder why we aren't saying grace," Potter's mother complained.
"This is not a Christian clan," I replied.
"What do you mean?" asked Potter's mom. "Most of us here are Christian?"
Aurora smiled. I thought of the Bengalis. "It's multicultural," I quipped back.
"Yeah, well I still think we should thank God for the safe return of our men!" Potter's mom rose. She had said the comment a little too loudly.
"Tell it to Randle," sighed Aurora's mother. Meanwhile she decided that since baby Stephen, whom she wore, was asleep, it was a good time to get in the food line. That meant, the younger kids went with her and I got behind her. Potter's mom was off talking to Randle about arranging some kind of public, Christian grace and Aurora and Liza were minding Charles and Junior. Aurora's mom got the little kids. Aurora and Liza were good at turnning a New York knot into a Texas line, nice and straight.
"Look if people want to say grace over their food no one's stopping them," I told Aurora.
"This wasn't my idea," Aurora responded. "Look Dad's going to be stuck here for a good ten days, and he doesn't like having that much time off, so let's be real gentle around him."
"I hope he's not sidelined like that," sighed Aurora's mom.
"I think it all ready happened," Aurora prophesied.
"The scientists may need him," Aurora's mom continued.
She did not ask if her daughter planned on becoming a scientist one day or if there were any female scientists at the Exploratory. I supposed Aurora could asked. Meanwhile, we approached the food. "What's that?" asked Sarah, Aurora's three year old sister. She was pointing at my creation.
"Oriental pasta salad with edamamme and snow peas," I named my creation. "What to try a little?"
"We don't eat like that," Aurora's mom intervened. "You probably won't like it."
"How will you know if you don't try?" I guess I was in one of my moods. I'd be gentle with Aurora's dad when I got back to the table.
"Go ahead then," Aurora's mother sighed. "I don't want to raise my kids to be vegetarian," she snapped at me and then she apologized. "You and Aurora are good kids," she said as she filled her plate with roast pig and corn on the cob and a roast potato. "I apologize. A woman like me should be counting her blessings. You see it right at our table."
"What I see at our table," I responded as I took some of the Oriental pasta salad, the tomato salad, a roast potato and some chard "is that the Company and the clan leaders at Spirit of Ogun messed up. Potter has medical issues and they failed to check them."
"Potter has attitude issues. He's been hanging out with a bad crowd for the last two weeks. It's a wonder he hasn't gotten in serious trouble. His mama hasn't slept a wink, Zell, you don't want that stuff. It's nasty. I'm sorry, Ahava. You didn't cook that did you?" Aurora's mother was discussing the steamed and buttered chard. The Bengali food was on its own table with its own line. The Bengalis did not want anything they made anywhere near a pork feast. We all had our own definitions about meeting others half way.
"I did cook it and I don't agree with your mother," I told Sarah. "You can try some if you're mother will let you."
Aurora's mom sniffed and gave Sarah a small portion. "Well, the girl will grow up eating healthy."
"Some of the older kids cook this all the time in New Jersey," Aurora spoke about chard, though mainly we had chard soup over pasta. It was kind of a staple.
"It's not bitter like collards or kale," I explained.
We found our way back to the table. Potter's mother was back. There was to be no house wide grace, probably due to the fact that some of the clan members were Moslem. Potter's dad held forth. "Ther-a-pist. They ought to have locked you away in the looney bin for being a danger to others and yourself. Of course you could always end up in jail. It's a wonder you haven't been arrested. You've done nothing to help your mother these last two weeks. What makes that Bozo the Clown clan think you are going to do any better there than you do here. Why would any clan take a piece of garbage like you. That's why I don't talk to you or even want you around..." All Potter's father needed was tears. Tears made the whole chewing out seen even more vicious and definitely more effective, but out here in Texarkana, Texas "crying was stupid."
"Potter," I said to my friend. "Let's find another place to eat. I don't think you're going to enjoy your food here." I picked up my plate and Potter followed me. I knew I might make Aurora's mother angry, but Potter did not need his father, whom he had nieither seen nor missed, to just let loose on him for being nothing more than a fourteen year old boy at loose ends. That really was Potter's only crime this break, unless you count spending time in the abandoned high school with the other unhappy kids a crime, and soon that unhappy crowd would be miles away.
Potter and I found a table where fast eaters had left a pile of greasey paper plates. I picked them up and tossed them in the trash. Potter and I sat down across from one another. Oddly enough we had nothing to say. I thought about what Randle, the Clan Leader, had asked me to do. If any one complained, I would invoke his name and he would say I carried out the letter of the law but had broken a few unwritten rules. It was the same everywhere. There had to be real bad kids, not professional ones like Odem, to take the blame for everything else. It was a side show to get around the fact that the adults were in this clan for life, and wouldn't have their own houses any more, and might have neighbors to which they were prejudiced like the Bengalis. I understood a bit of it now. That didn't mean I had to like it.
"Tomorrow we're out of here," I reminded Potter.
Potter did not feel like speaking. Then he glanced around. "I want to go for a walk after we eat," Potter told me. He nibbled on his food. I was not going to bolt mine. Potter suddenly got up and threw what was left of his food in the garbage. "This pig tastes like shit anyway," he said.
"I'm still eating, Potter. You're going to have to wait."
Just then Aurora came by. "My mom and dad want you back at our table," she announced sullenly.
"I don't want to leave Potter," I answered.
"Then he can come back too."
"Potter," I asked. "Can you plug your ears for ten minutes?"
Potter blinked. "There's a certain dog barking and it disturbs you very badly," I rose and began walking back to the table, hoping Potter would take the hint. He followed. He sat down tentatively.
"Where's your food?" Potter's mother asked.
"I ate it all ready," Potter replied.
I ate slowly. The talk was about the Exploratory and how the two "Pakistani" scientists wouldn't eat bacon with their scrambled eggs in the morning and how the Korean and Chinese scientist had to have a rice cooker in the kitchen and how the rice stuck together like a gloppy brick.
Aurora's dad talked about the saloon in town. Yes, there was a real saloon, and it was as ugly as in the old Westerns which was why it was off limits, because the locals who were partly or fully off the grid (not Semi-Independent) liked to knock heads with the visiting work crews just for fun of course.
My food stuck in my throat. I was glad when the meal was over. I said I'd eat dessert later. Potter and I got our walk. We headed out toward the highway. I knew where we were going, but we never made it all the way into town. "I know what happened to Zann," Potter told me as soon as we were well on the way into town and saw the first strip mall.
"What happened to him?" I asked.
"He's in Missouri with his grandmother."
"His parents were...like my parents and his clan well...some of them really EXPLETIVE DELETED. You know that, even if you and Aurora got lucky."
"No terrorists," I said.
"Only for you," sighed Potter, "And you don't want anything to do with them. I can't blame you. Wow, I never thought I'd meet any one so paranoid."
"I just really thought about it," I answered.
I made sure we got back to the house before we were really missed. I even made it up to Aurora's family by sitting through Family Night videos and later watching several older teens set up a sound system and lights for an adults only dance. We could hear the dance music in the leanto as we sat with the other fourteen year old girls for our last night together. Elena's clan offered her direct stick transport all the way to New York. Ed-Branch was more frugal. We'd be overland for five hours and then stick to New York and then overland again to Warwick where we'd reconnect with a local bus. I knew the way back home, and that at least felt good.
Aurora sorted through her clothing. "I'm going to go first," she told me "cause you are just sitting there."
I thought about taking another walk. Technically, I'd be going to look for Potter. I knew where to find him, so too did all the authorities, which meant the Terrorists would avoid the abandoned high school like the plague. Aurora carried her laundry off to the basement of the central building to snag a machine. She remembered the rule about not bringing home dirties. I imagined the laundry room was crowded with teens who were loyal to their clans.
I slipped down the back stairs past the kitchen that was a mess of dish washing. I had not been invited to help, although I could. I was not going to help. I stared out through a glass plate at the back door. The glass was frosted and the adults looked like they were dancing under water lit up by colored lights. Their music was a generation old. There was not a lot of new music any more, not that everybody liked.
I found my way to the road and walked toward town. I passed the deserted strip malls and the wreckage of downtown. A huge bon fire blazed in the school yard. Potter paced in the shadows. "So what do we do next. Our clans want us back?" complained Hannah.
I did not listen to Hannah. I walked up to Potter. "You need to go home and do laundry," I greeted him.
"What the EXPLETIVE DELETED?"
"You heard me. Your clan doesn't want you coming back with your dirties."
"My clan doesn't give a flying EXPLETIVE DELETED!"
"Well my clan does. Can you at least keep me company in the laundry room?" The request caught Potter off guard and he followed me home. Maybe he thought he owed me one. We headed upstairs to the leantos. Nobody saw us leave or come back. I felt relieved. I opened the door to the fourteen year old boys' leanto. It stank, not just of sweaty boy but of something that smelled like burnt rope. "Oh shit," sighed Potter under his breath. A boy with a shaven head, an acolyte to the Priesthood quietly took a drag on a hookah that he was sharing with several other boys.
"Let's get your dirties," I told Potter. Potter's dirties were a pile under the bed and several decorations adorning the bed. I slipped Potter's pillow out of its case, but a single pillow case did not make a big enough laundry bag. I asked Potter if he had his duffle. He didn't have a duffle. I went down to the kitchen and got several garbage bags. Potter would need one for his dirties tonight, and another to use as a makeshift suitcase to go back to Warwick.
Then I gathered my own dirties. Potter slipped into the fourteen year old female leanto while Susan, the blonde girl, was giving a lecture about menstruation to several other girls. Susan had started bleeding last spring. She glanced at Potter and continued her peroration. I decided the lecture was just so much bullshit. Some of us were lucky. Some were not. It was that simple.
The laundry room was half empty. I did not know where Aurora had gone. She was probably back with her family or minding the younger kids to make it easier for Liza. I realized I no longer had that kind of loyalty no matter what I dreamed at night. I showed Potter how to do single load laundry on cold cycle to keep clothes from running. This was a trick, Kohana Pascal's brother-in-law, Jimmy, had taught me. It was a good trick. It made the laundry go faster.
After we did the laundry, I brought mine upstairs to fold on the beds. The conversatin had shifted from menstruation to sex. A girl in Elena's clan was pregnant and the leaders were "taking shit fits" to find the father. They thought it was an older man from back home rather than one of the older boys. I tried not to listen. I thought of my own mother pregnant with Yoni, my youngest sibling. Yoni was eleven months old. I wondered reflexively when or if my mother would become pregnant again.
Since people were still awake, I covered my ears and read commentary. I don't know what time it was when I got to sleep. I know that I had no time for breakfast the next morning. Aurora wasn't mad at me for making myself scarce my last night of visitation. I left a note thanking her family for their hospitality and I managed to thank Livia and Dru in person. Potter was heading back to his clan via direct stick transport.
Aurora's dad and Potter's dad drove us to the Overland bus station and waited with us. "How long are you going to be staying at the hosue for?" Aurora asked her father as we drove through the pre-dawn darkness of a very, still Sunday morning. "Two weeks," Aurora's father replied. "They don't need a full crew for probes," Potter's father explained. "I'm going back though. I like probe work. Zell, doesn't, so we split it that way. Zell still gets paid though and soon there will be work digging the real well and capping the old one."
"It's good work working on deep wells," Potter's dad continued.
"Are there any female employee scientists?" Aurora asked. I was glad she asked. It made me feel better some how. It made me feel closer to New Jersey.
"Yeah, there were two of them, one Korean and one American. They stuck together like glue. They made me think of you." Aurora's dad smiled.
"It must feel real good to have a kid who might be a scientist," Potter's father answered. "None of mine much like school and Potter...."
"Please, he's not hear to defend himself," I wanted to cut the ugly short.
"Look you may think you're sweet on my son, but A-have-a, he's no EXPLETIVE DELETEDing good, and that's the God's honest truth."
"You can't say that about your own kid!" my face flushed red.
"Why can't I? I'm sick of fourteen years of bullshit."
"Because Potter just has a medical problem."
"Well it's a sick in the head medical problem. Hopefully when that kid goes back to whatever garbage pail clan took him, they won't send him back home. In fact, I'm going to tell them not to send him back home, cause my wife and the little ones don't need him around. No one needs him around, got that?"
I said nothing and stared at my lap. I was glad when we reached the Overland bus center. I watched Aurora say a tearful goodbye to her father. I thanked Aurora's father and told him to give my reguard to his wife and the siblings. Aurora's father said that Sarah wanted to thank me for the chard and the salad with the beans. "You got the makings of a real good cook," sighed Aurora's father. "Every house of any size needs democratic food, but not many people like it or cook it. You got a real talent." I smiled. I hoped I really could make Xannika's life easier. I also hoped Potter's new clan would do a better job by him than his old one.
On the bus to Memphis, I prayed the psalms. It was too early for lectures, perorations, or arguments. I sat up front with the other clan members. The freelancers and the few company types slept in the back. Aurora slept next to me. I looked up from my Tanach. Ahead of us, the sky was turning a flamnig scarlet amid a blue the color of the ocean. We were riding into the sunrise. We were heading home.
Drama from All Sides
"I want that porch swept and no more EXPLETIVE DELETDing bullshit, understand?" Esperenza, also called Ruth was now in charge, and she enjoyed giving orders. Of the Founding Sisters, only Odette remained. She was leaving for Dartmouth the week after Rosh HaShannah, when her college began. Dartmouth for whatever reason, had a strange year-around trimester schedule. I realized Odette would be doing a lot of overland travel to reach Hanover New Hampshire. In fact her trip which was short hops, would be entirely overland, no sticks involved. I wondered if there were any No-Go Zones in the Northeast and I tried not to think about that, as I pretended to sweep.
"Come on," Xannika urged me. "Let's sweep this EXPLETIVE DELETEDing porch and get it over with." Xannika slammed her broom into the cement, knocking up several fistfuls of gypsy moth caterpillar turds in her wake and sending them skittling along. "How was your break?" she asked me as she swept the offending excrement off of the porch and on to the ground where something would eat it or it could fertilize the soil. Above us gypsy moth caterpillars munched away, not that they had much to eat. All ready, the leaves had a faded look, and there were oranges and yellows among the greens. The trees in Highland Lakes turned early due to the stress of being constantly eaten by caterpillars.
Beyond us the Vulcani were paving the road and new adult members of America's Clan, our noxious neighbor were cutting down dead trees, of which we had far too many (Thankyou gypsy moth caterpillars) and carving them up into firewood. "My break wasn't that bad," Xannika began. "My mom and I had a real fight. All the crap that happened after the riots, did a job on a lot of the adults. My mom is semi-independent. She's not rich. She's a nurse, but she's still not a direct Company Employee. She doesn't want to live in a clan. She doesn't want her children living in a clan."
"Uh Xannika," I interrupted. "You are placed in a clan."
"Duh!!!! Ahava, but my mom says it doesn't count because it's also an Ed-Branch house. Parents are good at rationalizing. The rationalize, and then they still act like total assholes. Mom's idea to keep the clans away from all her kids, is to lock them up. I couldn't go anywhere, and I couldn't even do my own laundry. Mom was afraid, I'd break the washing machines in the basement. In other words, my mom was all over me, like a fly on ex-crem-ent.
"Of course you know I'm not ex-crem-ent, and I don't let people treat me like ex-crem-ent, so when my Mom's back was turned, I headed out to the nearest ATM and got some cash money. I bought a round trip ticket for Florence, South Carolina and went down the coast to stay with my Aunt who works for the Company, and now works for the Priests. It wasn't a bad break after that. Of course I got in touch with Li-Av from a cyber parlor in Manhattan before I got on the bus. I told her to get in touch with my mom. That's so no one could say I was kidnapped, and since I was staying with family, Mom really couldn't get me back even if she wanted to."
"Are you speaking to your Mom?" Somehow I know how to ask all the right questions.
"Li-Av made me write her,&qut; Xannika replied. She wrote back. "She says I'm a bad example for my sisters. She's probably right," Xanika laughed.
"I've been learning to cook to help you," I consoled the head of my cooking crew.
"I heard. You're not the bad kid here. Your roommate from Statesboro is. Of course she's getting hers upstairs right now."
"How come?" I asked. What did Xannika know that I had yet to learn?
"Panty inspection. It's a regular ritual here. Our clan leaders want to make sure we have nice underthings for other girls to see when we change for gym at school. Also we have to have warm clothes for the winter and a few new things so we don't look ill cared for. Right now either Ondian or Amaryllis is going through Odem's clothes. How embarassing!
"And you'll be next, or I'll be next. All the fourteens and fifteens will be next, including the boys. The boys better wipe by the way or Amaryllis or Ondina will yell at them for making skid marks." Xannika imitated a fart. It should have been funny, but I felt tired and hot and not fully recovered from my trip. I was also in a foul mood because I envied our bad girl in residence.
Odem told us the news on the evening of our return. It was fresh news, less than twenty-four hours old, but it still stung. Two days after arriving home at her parents' house, Odem had bled. Of course she had celebrated her triumph with a trip to her favorite convenience store at three in the morning. Her father had found her. Her mother waited up for her. They were ready to lecture her, when she confessed her newfound state. Well, what could they do? Odem, as bad as she was, was whole, and complete with a fine maturing body. Why are the worst of us the first rewarded?
Of course according to Xannika, Odem's triumph was no triumph at all. Her parents were older and did not know of the custom of making a name or even a blot with the first cycle. Odem of course had gone through her cycle, and dried up, so she would have to wait until next month to perform the appropriate ritual.
"You'll be luckier," Xannika counseled me "because you'll get it here."
"With my luck," I commented. "I won't make enough blood for a name."
"If that happens, you wait until you flow a bit more. I didn't have enough my first time. I chalked it up to stress. I had to be in Zalli's room before my body settled enough to really produce.&qut;
"Well my body doesn't do anything yet." There I said it. "It will," Xannika reassured me. "Give it time."
"Will you girls EXPLETIVE DELETEDing finish the EXPLETIVE DELETEDing porch!" screamed an exasperated Esperenza also known as Ruth.
"Patience asshole patience," Xannika sing-songed. Like Odem she loved drama.
I went back to sweeping. Since Esperenza and her crew monopolized the kitchen, Xannika did not want to start cooking right away. It was the boys' job to set up the table with the extra leaf. We were going to eat together a lot in this week before school started. I slipped upstairs to check out Odem and see if she or Aurora were suffering, and how embarassed they really were. I found Ondina opening dresser drawers and shaking laundry sacks and rifling the contents of all of the above. Odem sat on her bed. Aurora sat on hers. Aurora looked out the window as if watching the gypsy moth caterpillars eat leaves was the most fascinating sight in the world. "You're next," crowed Odem.
"It's like a game," she explained. "The winner gets a pat on the back and a gold medal for keeping her wardrobe in order. The loser gets a free chit and trip to the mall."
"That's fine with me if I get to eat out?" I replied.
"What's the matter?" Aurora asked me. "I thought you loved Xannika's cooking?"
"I do," I replied. "I'm just an optimist."
"Polly-Anna is more like it," growled Odem as Ondina went for my dresser. She checked my laundry bag first but that was only a formality. It was Odem who had returned home with two days of dirties. Ondina tossed the contents of my undreware drawer on the bed. She told me to pull my shirt tight. She shook her head. She checked my blouses and sweaters. "Well you want good news or bad news?" asked Ondina.
"Both," I replied.
"You need half a dozen new pairs of panties and five or six new camisoles, and two half slips since you wear skirts, some pairs of tights, and a few pairs of knee socks, several sweaters, two winter weight pairs of pants, three if you find some to your liking, boots, and a new bathing suit for the indoor pool. Your old one is going to give you a snapped strap any day of the week."
I smiled. "Ahava likes having her privacy violated," complained Odem.
"OK, Aurora, your turn since I don't think you went shopping in Texarkana. Pull your shirt tight."
"Why?" asked Aurora.
"You know why," Ondina answered. Aurora closed her eyes and tightened her shirt across her bust. Ondina smiled. Odem looked away. Aurora had the most upstairs of any of us in the room with the cherry wood trim. She was also the biggest and tallest. I thought of her mother who was built like a brick wall. "You need to wear a brazire (sic)" Ondina pronounced. "Amaryllis wears them sometimes so it's not so bad."
Aurora stared at the bed clothes as Ondina began going through her things. She too had a long list of clothing to buy. This meant that two days after our return we got a trip to North Jersey Mall and lunch out. We all went, the entire clan, all thirteen of us who were still in Highland Lakes. We had our own car on the tram. I got falafel for lunch as did Odem. It should have been a celebration lunch, but Odem's timing for her bleeding was awful. When we got back from the mall, Aurora told me quietly that she was glad she had brazires since her breasts hurt when she ran. "They really get sore from bouncing." I shrugged, glad my own chest was small and compact. Odem too would be small on top and small everywhere else. Girls usually are close to their full height and size when they start bleeding. This meant Odem was not just a bad girl but a runt.
After supper three days into the week before school, our clan leaders gathered us for a meeting in the living room. "Thursday will be a Day of Service. There is going to be a grand three county Gypsy Moth Derby."
Amaryllis waited for the groan. "It will be local and from nine to five. At seven pm or whenever we get there we will bring the cocoons we gather to Warwick, New York for weighing and crematino. Because nearly all the over-eighteens have gone, we'll be in the under fifteen clan division. That means we have a very good shot. I want you to do this clan proud."
It occured to me we'd all ready been fed our falafel reward. Wednesday night, I broke up chard for steamed chard with butter. This had been good in Texarkana and it would be good in Highland Lakes. Aurora watched me. She enjoyed hanging out with our kitchen crew even if she could not eat the food or would not. Xannika chopped cabbage for pea and cheese chunk cole slaw. "You know," she put forth the question as if it were an easy job. "It would be great to have you in our crew."
"I'd do it, but I think your food EXPLETIVE DELETEDS. I take that back. You're good cooks, but I don't eat like that." Aurora looked around. Odem was in the clan office trying to do some sort of computer magic. She poked her head out. "I like all of you...I mean..."
"Do you really want to eat with Kaylanna and Fujiko?" Odem could be good and blunt when she needed to be.
"You want me to pick a side," Aurora answered.
"Haven't you done that all ready?" I asked.
"Yeah, I mean. Look, it's just the food you guys eat. It's not you..." Aurora stared at the table feeling as if she wanted to squirm her way off the chair and into a nother dimension.
"Odem," Xannika gave an order. "Can you print off three copies of a marketing list, just a blank one."
"What'cha going to do?" asked Aurora.
"I need you to write down all the foods you like, and then all the ones you hate, and then anything you've never tried but which you've seen us eat."
"Oh shit," sighed Aurora.
"We're trying to meet you half way just like people do with my kosher," I explained. Aurora, though, had all ready gotten it. She sat at her corner of the table, glancing up at the outside door and the passageway from the living room, probably hoping that Esperenza also called Ruth, Fujiko, or Kaylana did not appear.
"You're one of us,"Xannika told Aurora. "You've got to eat with us." Aurora dutifully filled out the list. The last of her lists was the longest. I thought of Aurora's family back in Texarkana. Of all of us, I realized Aurora came from the farthest away. I wasn't sure I could feel anything for her at that moment except that she had to meet us half way as we met her half way and she had to learn about meeting half way and the fact that this house divided itself into factions. People could say all they liked about boys having to fight because they could not bleed, but we girls fought with words and snipes and bad politics rather than fists. And you can say that is sour grapes or anything else ugly you like because I did not bleed yet, but I was fourteen and that is old enough and sometimes I am no fool about the social situation.
Her Own Reward
We rose just before dawn on Thursday before the week school started. It was Odette's idea and it was a good one. Basically, if we got an early start scraping gypsy moth pupae off of buildings and trees, we'd get more of them without breaking our necks or resorting to "bizarre acrobatics." If you'll notice, I said "e;pupate," those turd colored and shaped cocoons, and not egg masses. This was the pupae that were destined to overwinter. There were no egg masses. If we could keep these pupate from becoming adults, there would be fewer egg masses in midMay when the adult moths emerged because there would be fewer adult moths. All this makes the tedious work of a gypsy moth derby sound efficient, useful, and heroic. To tell the truth, most of it was just tedious, except where drama intervened.
The rules of a proper and polite derby are first come first served. If you find cocoons they are yours, and no particular piece of property, no tree, no yard, no house, belongs to any one clan. Some clans forget this. Other clans make a loud stink about the simple act of scraping off cocoons and bagging them up. That was America's Clan, a franchise house that now had aboaut twenty adult members in addition to thirty kids. They did not force us out of our way, but they were a disturbance none the less. They got under my skin. Odem made faces at them. Xannika gave them her best fake farts. Aurora said all of this was very mature. Tweetie even gave them the two fisted curse finger, until Odette told him that was going too far. Besides, you can't scrape cocoons if you are giving the too fisted curse finger. Odette said she'd make it easier.
She went back to the house and got the solar battery powered boom box and put on Carmina Burrana, a nice sophisticated piece of classical music, way too classy for America's Clan. It also drowned them out. By Five pm the bags of cocoons on the porch made a handsome pile. We rode in the two clan vehicles with our load all the way to Warwick. We had to park in a distant lot, and most of us had to carry a bag of little brown cocoons to the shaking table. No one was going to cheat at the gypsy moth derby. The line for the small clan shaking table was long. The line for the small-medium size, sixteen to thirty member clan table, was even longer. An older woman kept a brood of tired looking adolescents in line as they stood with plastic bags full of brown loot.
The adolescents were nearly all male, and the leaders were a pair of females. I thought of the story of Hanna and her Seven Sons from the Book of Second Macabees which my English teacher made me read in sixth grade. I was glad I read it now. I noticed a familiar face among the adolescents in line. I nearly dropped my bag of cocoons as I saw Potter! I did not know Interior clans of last resort participated in Days of Service? Also, weren't most of the kids in Potter's clan handicapped? That was the way he had described it back in Texarkana. Maybe I was seeing things, but there he was, my Potter!
"Can you hold my place in line?" I asked Odem. She obliged. I stepped over to the other line. Yes, it was really Potter. Of course, now, I had no idea what to say. A boy in one's own clan is like a brother. A boy in another clan, well people would wonder, and I really didn't like Potter that way. I couldn't like a boy that way. My body didn't even bleed yet. I was only fourteen. Well fourteen was old enough to bleed, even if I hadn't started yet, but still.... "Potter," I stammered. "I'm so glad they let you out."
"We let everyone out," Potter's clan leader replied as she gave me the once-over several times. "This is a Day of Service."
"What about...the kids that drool," I had to ask. "They can't really serve or do they just watch?"
"We don't have any kids that drool," explained Potter's other clan leader. Had Potter been lying to me or were the clan leaders lying?
"This is a different clan," Potter explained. "My doctor, my therapist, got me a medical release from the Clown Masque clan and had me put in Bird Feeder. I'm Potter Oiseau now."
"How French," I replied.
"Yeah..." Potter sighed. "I'm doing academic track at the county high school. They asked my therapist to test me and she said I was smart enough and I knew enough. What do you think?"
"What do you wnat to do when you go to college?" I asked Potter. Academic track high school was a long distance away from welding or working as a construction laborer as Potter would have done with Spirit of Ogun, the fools who forgot to check Potter's medical records.
"We're an allied health professions clan," replied one of the clan leaders. "Some of our adult members do nursing. Others do physical therapy or occupational therapy. Most end up doing therapeutic recreation, medical social work, or health administration. Technicially we're an admin clan, but we're also very health focused."
"Congratulations!" I told Potter. I wanted to put my arms around him, but I had a bag of cocoons in my hands. I took the bag one handed and impulsively managed an awkward embrace. I could feel Potter against me. A boy is hard in all the places where girls are soft. I thought about that, because I am very tough for all my softness. It is my body, not Potter's, that has slept on the hard ground in the woods while mosquitoes feasted on it. It is my body that has slept under desert skies in California and 10,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada. Potter has not had any survival training or done endurance hiking as a Summer Activity, yet I am still soft and he is not.
I let go of Potter. No, I did not kiss him, though I confess, I thought about it for a few seconds and I thought about it a lot more when I returned to the line.
"Ahava!" exclaimed Xannika. "You're as red as a beet!"
I stared at the ground, my face glowing or maybe burning up. My throat was dry, and my stomach a tight knot in an unfamiliar place. I tried to imagine my embrace again and again. I tried to imagine kissing Potter or holding on to him forever. I just wanted Kaylana and her ugly talk to go away. I willed it to go away.
The line moved. Potter's line moved. "I feel like absolute garbage," sighed Aurora. "I think the heat's got to me."
"It was hotter in Texarkana," I told my roommate.
"Well maybe it's the humidity then, or the pollen, or something."
"You want to rest?" Esperenza, also called Ruth asked.
"Yeah, I need to sit down. I feel really sick." I took Aurora's bag of pupae and she went to sit on the grass at the edge of the parking lot. Our clan reached the shaking table without her. We placed sixteenth out of sixty clans which is not even the top twenty-five percent. America's Clan -- Highland Lakes (They have two other franchises in the five county region), placed first in the sixteen to thirty member division. The Full Bird Feeder Clan placed third. I would have embraced Potter again, but Ondina and Amaryllis did not give me time to find him. They wanted us all back at the vans, and yesterday. Aurora was on the back seat of one of the vans, curled up like a shrimp, desperately ill. she had thrown up on the pavement. She managed to sit up so half of us could fit in the van. I sat next to her. She had a bitter rank smell, the way one imagines a boy might smell, but boy smell is different. I tried to push thoughts of Potter out of my head.
When we made it home, Ondina put up tea, and Odem and Xannika went upstairs with Aurora. That left Odette and me to start dinner. For some reason thoughts of hunger pushed away thoughts of Potter. I hardly heard the whoops and cries of joy as Xannika and Odem came bouncing down the stairs, a still quite unwell Aurora bringing up the rear. "She'll feel better soon," Xannika quipped. "I just gave her two of my naproxen."
"Well do I offer my congratulations?" asked Odette.
"It hurts," complained Aurora.
"It's cramps," Xannika explained. "Your body has to learn how to bleed. It doesn't quite get it right the first year or two. You'll feel better in a bit."
And indeed the pain killer worked. Aurora could eat dinner. She even tried the steamed chard which she pronounced OK. She said hot food appealed to her, and that chard was not bitter like collards or mustard. Some time after supper, Xannika gave Aurora the kit. It had a paintbrush in it, and paper, and a pad to keep a chair clean in case my roommate was really messy. Aurora wanted privacy so she went into our study alone to try and write her name. She wrote not only her first and last name but also the date, all in neat block letters: "AURORA BURDEN 9/2/83" The writing started out as bright red, but in time it would turn brown. That was fine. You could still read it, and that was the important part.
Everyone crowded around as Amaryllis tacked Aurora's name to the door of our two room suite. Aurora was not the first, but the first in our house. That was what counted. In a way, Aurora deserved to be first. Somehow having that sign on the door made her suffering worth it. I thought of Aurora, the good big sister, the eldest of seven. Some day she would be a good wife and mother. She would know to do more than cry. I stared at the floor oddly glad that I did not bleed yet, soon maybe, but not yet. I would not know what to do with myeslf when I bled. I was sure of that.
"Let me get this straight," complained a peevish Odem. "You're going back to sin-a-gog, for the THIRD time this weekend."
"Yes," I responded. "It's selichot tonight."
"As if you won't get enough of prayers at Yom Kippur. Don't you know you can't repent just by reading formulas from a book. You have to feel it, and I think you're more like me than you admit. In other words, you aren't sorry for SHIT."
I shrugged. "I don't talk about what I'm sorry for," I replied. "Most of it is past the point where I can fix it."
"Ever hear of a land line or a stamp?"
"I've heard of lots of stamps. It takes between four and six to send a letter to Israel."
"How about to Atlanta."
"Amaryllis and Ondina make me write my parents. They NEVER respond. Shmuel does. It just takes a long time."
"So you think you're absolved."
"No, and what I'm guilty of you wouldn't understand."
"Because there's only two kids in your family, not seven."
"What difference does that make?"
"You don't have siblings you never got to know." Odem, who does listen, was caught dead in her tracks, but not for long. "And you think saying prayers from a book is going to make it better."
"I can't go back to Atlanta and get to know them. I lost that opportunity. It's gone, understand. That's why we have the High Holy Days. Sometimes you can't fix things any other way."
"It's a shitty fix."
"It's the only fix we've got." I hoped that would end the argument. I straightened my skirt. I was going to help lead services again. Throughout August this had become routine. As usual, I eschewed mosquito repellent which meant I collected more bites as I headed down newly paved roads that even at night smelled of tar and asphalt. Crickets or cicadas chirped in the forest. The gypsy moth caterpillars, those who had not yet formed pupae, were all sleeping. The ones in pupae were lucky to have escaped our depredations.
For those of you who don't know, selichot (That's a Hebrew feminine plural) are penitential prayers said to get you in the mood for Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. Face it, most of us have sinned. Very little that happens is not in some way one's own fault. I did NOT say one hundred percent. I can't do anything about the part that is someone else' fault though, so I take care of my end.
I was glad we were having selichot services. I remembered fraught landline phone calls with the Rabba and calling various congregation members and urging them to come. We would barely make a minyan. Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur would be better. The Rabba hoped to borrow half the big, common room at the Lake Two Clubhouse for services. The Rabba's synagoge (And yes, it is a real synagogue!) is the only one in a thirty mile radius. It is pretty much either her operation or Newburgh, New York if you are Jewish and want to attend some kind of a service.
It was the end of the lunar month, and the sky was dark. You could see the stars floating above Lake Five and reflecting on the black water below. I did not feel repentent. I felt glad to be out and moving in the woods at night, moving under my own power. This did not bother me. Odem would have laughed at it as a contradiction, but it was a part of me that was good and alive. It was a part of me that sustained me just as religion did. I count my blessings where I can.
At least Odem could not taunt me by asking me if I was better off going home for Rosh HaShannah or Yom Kippur. I was not going back to Atlanta. Amaryllis and Ondina said "NO!" They also forbade Odem to return to Stateboro, even though she had actually asked. There was not enough transit funding. It was also not worth it to make two short runs and a stick shot for just two days. It certainly was not worth it for a single day. There was a synagogue here in Highland Lakes. We could pray there.
Now ask me if I felt relieved. Of course I did. My parents frequently had guests during the High Holy Days. Once or twice they were families from Europe or from Greenville, Tennessee or Houston, Texas, but more often they were families from North Atlanta or Cobb County who wanted to be able to walk to services. My parents enjoyed having guests. Chevie and I usually had to give up our beds, and so too did Dov, Shmuel, and probably these days even Kayla. We slept on air mattresses, or foutons in the rumpus room or the basement or the dining room, depending on the year. Now ask if we got enough to eat? Sometimes mom underestimated. Sometimes all the food was brown and lost my appetite because there was nowhere to sit. Even if we had enough food, we never had enough chairs.
Still I missed not spending the High Holy Days with family. It felt strange. I knew it would be better this way. Xannika liked the idea of planning a big meal even though school would all ready have started. SCAS, Sussex County Academy for Scholars gave both days of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur as holidays to all students. SCAS was rumored to be twenty percent Jewish. This meant that a large percentage of the kids were girls from the New York metro area. Remember New York City Ed Branch used to have a presence in Sussex County, until the end of July this summer.
Selichot began with a lexture about faith by the Rabba, and then I got up to be the young chazzan for about half the service. A middle aged man with no voice, but some volume took the other half. No one asked me if I was safe walking home at night. No car followed me. The Priests had restored order up here in the mountains and in the woods. They paved the roads. They were putting in a sweage treatment plant. They made us check the wells. They helped us try to control the gypsy moth caterpillars. Carpenter ants were our own problem.
I was glad selichot was over because it meant it was time for school to begin. This had been a very long summer. Normally, I would be in middle school all ready, but the new school waited for the Wednesday after Labor Day which would now be a hard border at summer's end instead of a three day weekend that came before one really needed it. We were eating together for Labor Day, three feasts. Xannika lamented that there was no winter squash or rutabega. She made red pasta spirals and cheese with leeks. Aurora complained that it was "not real macaroni and cheese." "You like all types of onions and most tomato products," Xannika complained. "Therefore, you should be able to enjoy this."
"Can't you just stick to making stuff one way?" she asked our master cook.
"That would be boring," Xannika explained.
"So it's combination after combination," Aurora caught on.
Xannika smiled. I was making red cabbage cole slaw with red and yellow bell peppers, fresh ones. On the deck, which had been swept of gypsy moth caterpillar turds, Tweetie and Esperenza were having an argument about sausage. Tweetie had purchased several plump bratwurst, monstrous German hot dogs, that he was grilling on the cheap grill, which belonged to the boys. Esperenza and Kaylanna were making marinated chicken cutlets on the fancy grill. Esperenza was describing what went into sausage.
"They forget how chickens are raised and processed," sighed Xannika who did not usually indulge in euphemisms.
"Yeah, but otherwise you live on beans," sighed Aurora.
"What about cheese?" I asked.
"With vegetables and more vegetables," Aurora answered.
Down by the beach the sumac leaves had turned red, and the bushes hung with clumps of berries. "It's not poison sumac," I told Aurora. It was sunday afternoon. We had come down to Lake Five to swim. "You can eat the berries on those bushes," I explained.
"You serious?" Odem asked. "I dare you."
Sometimes people forget I've had survival training. Sumac berries are sour but not inedible. I ate a handful. "See, I survived. You know, you can make sumac aide from the berries. It's just like lemonade."
quot;You want to try it?" Xannika munched a sumac berry. "Dante sent us an email willing us four of of his empties for school. It would save us lugging full ones back from the mall."
"You serious?" Aurora looked worried. "Here eat the berries. They're not sweet, but the aide has sugar in it so it is."
Aurora munched a few sumac berries, eyes closed, and face fearful. Then she relaxed. "Free drink!" She caught on.
"It still costs, sugar, water, and labor," I said. That was how Tuesday night before Labor Day, I made six quart bottles of sumac aide. The extra two bottles came from Jewels who sold them to me for two dollars cash money, what fresh empties would have cost at the store. Yes, you pay for your empties, and then fill them at the fountain or you buy ready filled and get your empties that way. I have read about a time when all soda bottles were disposible and saw disposible soda bottles at that party back in July, but that is not how it works in New Jersey or even Atlanta, Georgia.
This meant our cooking crew travelled to SCAS on Wednesday each with a bottle of sweet red drink to place in the canteen fridge. The drink was labeled with the contents and our clan mame. We also had bag lunches, loose leafs, with fresh paper and clean clothes on our backs. The transport was a short bus, that burned bio-d with a rank smell, but we did not care. Everything in Highland Lakes burns bio-d.
We rode down into the valley and then out toward Newton, New Jersey the County Seat. Sussex County Academy for Scholars or SCAS was on the grounds of what had once been Newton Community College. Our school occupied several buildings. There was the commons for eating and relaxing. It had our canteen and refectory. Clans could arrange to have food delivered or pack food as we did. Then there were the classrooms and labs. The campus was green and the September sun warm. The first day at school will always be a blur, but by days' end, Esperenza had the forms filled out and a poster approved to start a Mascot Committee. My job was to call Co-operative Extension and see about setting up a 4-H Chapter. Odem was really going to be in charge of the computer club. "We need a regular high school," Winona explained to all of us in our private Highland Lakes short bus, coach on the way home.
I thought about Druid Hills Magnet Academy. I thought about Torah Day School. Torah Day School's colors were blue and white. It really did not have a mascot. It was Pre-K through 8. D-Mag, Druid Hills Magnet Aacademy was grades 1-8. It's mascot was the tresquille, just a symbol and the school's colors were magenta and pink. Yes, it was ninty percent female though the Principal was trying to change that. I did not know much about "regular schools," but schools did have mascots. They also needed colors, but I always thought someone just assigned those things. I had never thought I would go to a new school with no traditions.
I mused on this as the bus left the valley floor and took us back up to Highland Lakes. I was glad to be standing in the fresh air. It was warm enough to swim, but even on day one I had homework. Plus I needed to use the landline phone to call Co-operative Extension. That was how I found there was another call trying to get through while I asked the nice lady to send me 4-H chapter forms. She wanted to interview me. I wasn't sure what I had to tell her. I had never started a chapter of anything. I grew up in Toco Hills. Yes, Torah Day School had once had a garden. Someone pointed this out to me. I could not remember who it was any more.
I told the nice lady at Coopertive Extension that I needed to pick up the other call. I needed at least to see who it was. It was Chevie, my little sister. Had Mom put her up to this? What kind of a stunt was this? Why call me on my first day of school when I was not feeling all that secure? Why call me right after selichot? Did Mom feel some kind of remorse? Did she want me to feel some kind of remorse?
"Ahava," Chevie used my clan name, but she always did. "I'm so glad your home!" My little sister's voice sounded tiny and far away. "I got taken this morning." All I could think was "Holy shit!"
"Taken where?" I did not believe what I was hearing. This had to be some sort of a stunt.
"Taken by the Priests."
"That can't be!"
"Yes it can. Ima and abba did not pay all my tuition. They didn't have the money. All the kids who didn't pay tuition got taken."
I slumped down in Ondina's favorite office chair. HaShem (This is the Hebrew word for God. It literally translates as "the name") had had his revenge on my parents. Chevie, the favorite child, was in the Priests' clutches. Life couldn't be better. Of course Chevie could now lie about how she'd been kidnapped and tortured. She'd perform the script because she knew it cold.
"What happens to me next?" Chevie asked.
I was not prepared for this question. "You want the truth?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's why I called you. Your an expert on clans."
Well, my expertise is going to come with a price I thought. "Chevie," I said, I'll teach you about clans if you tell me how you found me and got to make this phone call."
"I knew your clan name," Chevie explained. "I saw it on the back of envelopes. You always put a return address. Your writing is hard to read."
"Penmanship is not my best subject."
"Well I asked four-one-one for the clan's number and then called and hoped you'd be home."
That was OK as far as it went. It was even clever. Chevie for all her faults was not a stupid kid. "OK, how did you get a comm phone?" I asked my younger sister.
"I don't have a comm phone! I saw an office down the hall and snuck in. All the other kids got on buses for Disney World and stuff like that but I knew I wanted to call somebody. I mean, I'm here all by myself and I don't know what comes next. I'm scaird."
"Don't be scaird," I advised my sister. Then I realized that my own experience with general taking was very brief. I had refused to cooperate and had gotten sent back to Kohana who had asked for me if I gave any trouble. I had an Ed-Branch encouragement pretty much from day one. I was also ten years old when I was taken for the first time. Chevie was eight. Still my advice would probably hold for most of Mentoring Services and even the Priests.
"Nobody is going to hurt you. The people who are going to look after you are going to try to make you as comfortable as possible. You can tell them you want to go home. You can tell them about your religion. They won't laugh at you. You can tell them that you won't eat certain foods. You can ask for a salad or a fruit plate or a bagel. They'll get stuff like that for you. OK...."
In the background I could hear something heavy. Then a muffled female voice. Then an adult cut into the coversation. "Good afternoon," the adult interrupted. "I'm Rosa."
"I'm Ahava Burden, can you please put my sister back on. She's very scaird, and you'll have an easier time with her if I talk to her first."
"It's OK," Rosa replied. "I'll let you guys talk in a moment. I just wanted you to know that Elasheva [My sister's full name.] is OK. She's going to be with us for a few days. Then she'll be back home in Atlanta. Is there anything special you'd like to tell me?"
I swallowed. My mind felt blank. All the usual precautions about not eating certain things and meeting people half way went through my mind. I thought about telling Rosa how Chevie was Mom's favorite and how she would be utterly homesick and lost and how she would think everyone was out to get her. Then something stopped me. In the middle of a taking, disoriented, and probably stick sick when most kids would have gone along because they were paralyzed with fear, my younger sister had thought of a plan, find an office, find a phone, and try to dial...but not home. Not Mom and Dad, but me, the sister to whom no one spoke, because I was a "clan expert." I was flattered, yes, but I also admired Chevie for putting this whole plan together and carrying it out. I'd have to do something just as good for her as she had done for herself, but what?
"Let me think for a moment," I said. I wanted that moment to stretch into eternity.
Emerald and White
Of course Elasheva deserved more than the usual advice on how to meet a religious child half way if only because that was simply not where any one should begin. "I'd like to know your last name," I addressed Rosa over the landline.
"I'm Rosa Debrasdottr. Is there anything else you'd like to know?"
Of course there was. "With what branch are you affiliated?" This was standard question and answer, but it was important to begin wtih the basics.
"I don't consider that I'm with any branch," Rosa seemed to smile down the phone lines. "I'm not a Priest though. I work for Mentoring Services."
"Company," I thought and for some reason that made no sense, I felt relieved. Now came the really hard part. "Rosa," I began. "can you do me a favor?"
"I'll try," was her honest answer. I liked that the answer sounded so honest.
"Can you look at my profile. My name is Ahava A-H-A-V-A B-U-R-D-E-N. I have had an encouragement with Ed Branch since I was ten years old."
"Why is your profile important?" Rosa was if anything persistent.
"It has my family history on it. Elasheva," which sounded so mubh better than Chevie, "is my sister, so we share a family history."
"OK, I'll have a look..." I noticed Amaryllis, Artemis, Tweetie, and several others standing in the kitchen or office door staring at me. I covered the land line's mouthpiece. "Excuse me," I told the crowd that was eying me like I needed to get off the phone and out of the office. "My little sister got taken!"
"Two of my siblings were taken," Tweetie anwered.
"I've had three sisters taken," Artemis replied. "Odem had a sister taken too."
It was not just revenge against Toco Hills, but how could there be a midweek taking in September. This is not when takings happened. They happened twice a year, June and December. For those with Ed Branch encouragements they became trips to Nationals at the half way point of fifth grade.
"Let me put Elasheva back on the phone," I heard Rosa's voice. "I'll be sending you her comm phone number and her physical address. I'll be letting her family know where she is as well most likely."
"Thankyou," I sputtered. I stared at the floor to avoid the staring eyes. I wanted these last moments with my sister to be ours alone. I blinked back tears. Yes, like Mom I was going to cry. I hated that. Still I was scaird for Chevie and scaird suddenly because I realized I did not know squat about what had happened today. How had it been so quiet at school when there was a taking? How could I have been so clueless?
"I love you Ahava," Chevie told me over the landline.
"I love you too." My voice came out as half a sob.
"I'm sorry I thought you were selfish. You were just taking care of yourself. Let's be friends." Wasn't it to late for that?
"I'm sorry I was jealous of you," I told Chevie. "Yes, we'll be friends. I love you," I repeated, an dthen I hung up the phone. "Don't look back," I told myself. "You've done what you could do." I sat shivering on a kitchen chair.
Odem shook my shoulder. "Meeting," she told me. "In the front room, now!"
I staggered into the front room and took my place on the floor with my roommates, Jules, Tweetie, and Xannika. Ondina began to tell a story. "This morning there was a surprise taking. The Priests organized it which explains why it was on a weekday in September. The areas effected were the Eastern half of the United States minus the New Your Metro area and New England, and South Florida. That means that four or five of you have had siblings taken. I'm going to say I'm sorry. I did not see any of your siblings today.
"In a way, that's a good thing. Around two pm, I received a call from Hamida DeLang, who is the head of placement for Ed Branch Atlanta. I joined her down at the Lake Two ClubHouse. The Priests had turned it into a makeshift dormitory for about three hundred children ages six to about twelve. Hamida was angry. The Priests did not say when they would let the children return. Hamida finally showed the Head Priest her credentials, and she got what amounted to a straight answer: two to ten days.
"Hamida then chewed the Head Portal Priest a new orifice. It was a pleasure to watch. Clearly the Lake Two Clubhouse is not adequate housing for keeping children more than a single night. Children need some degree of privacy, beds with sheets, adequate toilet facilities, showers, all of that. She demanded a proper dormitory, and she got one. It's at the Garbage Dump."
The Garbage Dump is a flat plain behind the Lake Five beach. It is called the Garbage Dump because a hundred years ago, that is indeed what it was. It has long since been filled in. There are a few townhouses there, and now there was a huge semi-permanent dormitory divded into sections for various encouragements and an area for the unencouraged six year olds.
Ed Branch Atlanta and the Scholars Union who by now had sent a rep had a section on the third floor. Hamida had chosen the colors emerald and white and a caligraphic four cornered filigris for the symbol The symbol was white on an emerald field and the children would have green and white polo shirts and emerald sweat shirts and t-shirts. The beds would have different colors of sheets and the towels would be different colors. The kids would eat in the largest and most unrestricted of the buffets. It would be our job to help with activities and pick what catering served. Ondina handed out chits. After supper tonight or when we felt like it, there would be a facility tour. We'd get our first early evening help session with the new kids.
Ondina's audience groaned. It wasn't really a groan, but a collection of soft, sad noises. "All this and we don't know where our brotheres and sisters are." It was Odem who found the words first. "They'll probably trial Ursala," Ondina told my roommate. "The priests wanted to place the six year olds. Hamida had to explain that we did not do that."
"Thank God for Ed Branch Atlanta," sighed Amaryllis. I stared at my catering chit. We had a rotation. One main dish, one side dish, one dessert, and we'd ultimately get a chance to be on each rotation as it moved through. If enough different kids ordered what they themselves would like to eat, there would be enough different and interesting food served to make sure that the kids could find something they enjoyed or maybe even something new.
"I think we should get our homework done," Aurora was all business. "We're going to have to go help tonight." We dragged ourselves to our white haven of a two room suite wtih the cherry wood trim. I tried to imagine Chevie painting a room, and remembered she was only eight. Life was not fair. Chevie did not deserve to be separated from Mom, and all Mom would do was cry and... I felt my throat go dry. I rested my face in my hands.
"Ahava, are you OK?" Aurora asked.
I shook my head. "I'm worried about Ursala too," Odem counseled me. I knew we had work to do even if it was only the first day of school. There was no sense falling behind.
We had a quick dinner of sandwiches since none of us had time to cook, and then we joined the others for the walk to the Garbage Dump. The sun was down. A tiny sliver of the last of the moon shown in the sky. Elul would soon turn to Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar, bringing with it a new year. That new year, was utterly wide open. Clearly no kid deserved what that new year would bring. I asked HaShem why he did not visit the parents' sins upon the parents. Let the adults suffer. Kids, even brilliant kids like Chevie, were too dump and too powerless to change things. What went wrong in the world was the adults' and to some extent the teens' fault. Why did God make the innocent suffer?
Lights were on in the Garbage Dump dormitory. It stood five stories high in a horse shoe shape with a pitched roof. Because it was dark, it was hard to tell what color the exterior was. Inside was a lobby that smelled faintly of very bad, food. I winced. The EBA/SU section was on the third floor on the building's left side. It had fifteen dormitory rooms, of which twelve were occupied. It was co-ed by room with two kids to a room. There was a large gang toilet with showers and one bath tub, a serving pantry with a slop sink for washing dishes and or other cleanup jobs, a serving counter and folding tables for a common room tiled in bio-noleum with a hempen rub covering a lot of the floor. An odd assortment of bolsters and bean bag chairs littere dthe room. An entertainment center sat shuttered. There was a debate about whether it was good to show videos during a taking.
Since mostly newly taken kids are too sick and nervous to sleep, activities at Takings go way into the night. I remembered my one taking, and kind of knew my job. Odem knew hers better as did Xannika nad Aurora. Aurora was surprised to see an entertainment center. I had to explain about classic movies and cartoons. We split up into three activity groups. Aurora and I coached Twister. This was to tire out the tense children. Odem and Tweetie ran the limbo bar outside on the lawn. Tweetie had brought his disk and file player and it was invaluable. This was for the unbearably tense kids.
Artemis got to coach Scrabble for Juniors, which was for the tiredest and most sedentary kids. We went home a bit before midnight, except for Odette, Esperenza, Artemis, and Amaryllis who volunteered to help with two Scholars' Union reps to put the kids to bed.
We left our catering chits at the cafeteria office. Running a dormitory in the Garbage Dump was a twenty-four/seven business. "Soon you'll be home," I thought abaout the kids whon I had distracted. Soon they would be tired enough to sleep a bit. Then I asked myself what happened when a seven or eight year old found themselves away from home for more than three days. I had no answer. No one had ever done that to me. I thought of Chevie. "I wonder what Ursala is doing right now," Odem mused. "She's such a good kid. It's not fair, you know?"
"Odem," I replied. "There are no bad kids. They're all good kids, even the one who cut fake farts."
"None of the kids who danced cut fake farts," Odem boasted. "Even when they fell on their asses," she added. "Those kids tried so hard. They're coast are covered wtih grass stains," Odem gave me a savage smile. "Tweetie is an EXPLETIVE DELETEDing genius when it comes to planning stuff."
"Nah, girls like to humiliate themselves," Tweetie explained.
"I got tired of the kid who whined 'is this a word?' during Scrabble," Jules sighed.
"If you don't like those disputes, don't help with Srabble. That's how the game is played," replied a peevish Esperenza who was no longer Ruth.
"We better check for email from school," Aurora cautioned Odem and me as we arrived home. We found empty spots in the fourth floor computer lounge and checked our comm mail...That was how I saw the letter marked: "ELASHEVA -- PLEASE READ." It came from email@example.com.
I opened it without thinking. I then told myself to be grateful. At least I knew where my sister was. I was one step ahead of all my other clan mates.
Here is a copy of the letter.
Thank you so much for mentioning your profile. It contained vital information for helping to keep your sister safe. After looking over your family history, Nurturing Group has decided to take emergency custody of Elasheva and offer your parents supervised visitation until they prove that they will not neglect her or harm her physically should she be sent back to them.
The members of Elasheva's Nurturing Team, of whom I am one, will purchase her a comm phone capable of international calls. She will be able to stay in touch with you. Be aware that Elasheva's timezone is fifteen hours ahead of you, and it will increase to a sixteen hour difference, when her city enters Summer Time.
Elasheva's physical address is:
Elasheva's email address (Paper mail takes at least two weeks to reach her from the United States) is:
Her account can handle attachments. You probably have the good manners to control your bandwidth. Elasheva, the other two members of her Nurturing Team, and I will give you news of her progress and status. Though you are only fourteen, you seem to be more or less on top of things, and we would like to keep you as a point of contact.
Right now your sister is at her first day of school. It should be interesting to see what she makes of herself when she is in charge of her own learning.
"I think I'm going to pass out," I told Aurora. Then I read her the letter. I read it sitting down.
&qupt;Oh shit!" my roommate sighed.
"Whoever that nurturing group is," I told everyone. "They did the right thing." Mom could have turned on Chevie. Mom might have turned on Chevie. Chevie did not really like Torah Day School. I knew that much from seeing her study and sometimes hearing her talk. She went through the motions. It would be good for her to go to a school she cared about. It would be good for her not to see how unhappy Dov was and how much Dad missed Shmuel, and yes, Mom could have turned on her the same way she turned on me.
"Don't you wish...
I was suddenly the luckiest kid in my clan. I now understood why the rabbis said that receiving rachmones, God's pity, was such a terrible thing. On the refridgerator door, in place of all our usual junk hung a large piece of easel paper on which was written the names of all the "lost siblings." There was a space for their physical locations and checked off columns to show whether they were trialed or placed. So far only Chevie had a physical location. Odem had lost her sister Ursala. Tweetie had lost a brother and a sister. Desdemona, one of the seventeens, had lost a brother, and Artemis, one of the other seventeens, had lost three sisters. This, by the way is a contest nobody wants to win, and unfortunately, Artemis was not a winner. Dante, who was away at the University of Pennsylvania Main Campus, let all of us know via email that he had lost four siblings.
I tried to eat my breakfast with my back turned to the poster. In that way I avoided Chevie's name. I told myself that when the others joined her I would turn around. Meanwhile at school, we began the activities we had discussed last summer. I got in touch with the woman in charge of 4-H and scheduled an interview for after Rosh HaShannah. That it fell during the Days of Awe did not matter. The secular world might give you days off for religious holidays, but it did not believe in auspicious and inauspicious days. In fact, I was not sure I believed in them either even if I understood the reasons behind them.
The Mascot Committee became the School Boosters. It met and organized an election. Those kids with the gift of drawing sketched out new mascots and slogans. We also had an election for school colors. My favorite mascot was the spiney ant eater. My second favorite was the crocodile. Neither came close to winning. The clear winner, drawn by a boy with rounded shoulders and a crew cut the color of dirty straw was a pegasus, but not just an ordinary pegasus, a muscular stallion of a pegasus with the appropriate genetalia. A stallion to be a stallion is after all hung like a horse. The slogan that went with this powerful beast was the ironic and iconic: "Don't you wish..." The you could be oneself, the other schools, the rest of the world etc... I was sure the headmaster of SCAS and the superintendant of both SCAS academies (There was also a grade one through eight school.) would shoot this idea down as "inappropriate." To my surprise, the powers that be accepted the mascot. Our new school's colors by the way were burgundy and white.
The election happened after Rosh HaShannah. I was not even thinking of the mascot or the colors or the motto during services. Instead, I thought about "our guests." The Rabba and the Scholars Union had worked together to obtain, easy, English language siddurim and had encouraged any Jewish kids, scholars or not, to attend services. They sat down near the front. They squirmed. I ended up coaching them and explaining about free style prayer, counting your blessings, the need to take a turn around the building if one absolutely could not engage with the service etc... Some of my advice sunk in. The sometimes used the kisd' siddur which I thought was cheesey, but it was her way of holding up her end. We had a communal kiddush, apples and honey and cookies, some of which the kids' took home to share after services. There was something sad and sweet about this. All meals at the Garbage Dump during Rosh HaShannah and the day after, included apples and honey and challah bread. I remember making hamotzee so as to teach the kids who were interested and also to make sure those Jewish kids exiled by this brutal taking still kept a connection to their faith.
And yes, I wrote all about what I did and what my school did in letters to Shmuel and Chevie. I was able to send Chevie's letters via email. I sent my letter to Shmuel through the school's outgoing mail. As long as it had the right stamps, the secretary would take it. That was a big relief. Wednesday night, we had to help clean out the Garbage Dump. The taking was over. The kids were back home. Gradually the poster chart on the refridgerator door filled in. Odem's sister, Ursala, who was now Chaia, was in a clan in Rutland, Vermont. She was eleven years old but trialling. This made senese since the priests wanted house leaders to take younger kids. In some parts of the Interior, they placed kids as young as six. This, however awas not the Interior. Odem's parents wanted to see their daughter, and planned a road trip, all overland, up the east coast. They would "make sure there daughter is all right," and then on the return trip spend a day or two as our guests for Yom Kippur.
I tried to suppress my envy. Odem and I were not the only "lucky kids" in the house by the time of the Days of Awe. Tweetie's brother was in Carbondale, Illinois in a sports oriented house. His sister was in the upper peninsula of Michigan which made me think of Chevie in Tasmania. Tasmania no longer looked like some place is better than no place when my fellow clan members began to learn where their siblings were or had been. Cities in the United States and one city in Canada began to fill the chart. That many of the middle schoolers were trialing and that one or two were placed did not seem to matter either, though it should have mattered. "Will our house take under fourteens?" asked Odem. I was glad she was the one to ask. Being a professional bad kid does have its advantages.
"Maybe," answered Ondina. Then she confessed: "We probably haven't decided yet." Aurora, Tweetie, Jewels, and I all helped Odem clean up the house in expectation of her parents' arrival. The hard work blunted the envy I felt in the pit of my gut. I even willingly swept the deck and balcony to get rid of both fallen leaves and gypsy moth caterpillar turds, of which there were surprizingly few. The caterpillars had run out of food and were paupating over the winter. There were also overwintering eggs, but a derby would get rid of those, or at least a lot of them. There was something very ironic about humans armed with scrapers fighting an insect scourge and never fully winning.
I tried to think of Odem explaining about the gypsy moth caterpillars to her parents. As it turned out, that would have been easy. Odem's parents were happy, talkative people. I had seen parents like that, but it had been ages since I had sat at their Shbbos tables, or been invited to their house. I no longer went to school with their children, even if their daughters would talk to me in the ladies' troom at Beth Jacob Village, the one near the sanctuary, or invite me to the secret warren of rooms in the basement. Odem's father was plump and had a salt and pepper beard, and a huge, tannish pink bald spot that shown with sweat in a comical way. Odem's mother was thin and wore her greying hair in a bunn. She should have had younger kids to bring lovingly along, but now she was bereft of all her daughters because they were either trialing or placed.
Odem's mother should have crying. She wasn't! She was happy to see her oldest daughter "well settled." They talked about her school work. She showed them what she was reading. They talked about the Computer Club which she indeed headed, and then they talked about 4-H, Boosters, and even the local synagogue. They seemed utterly enchanted with everything, though they were less impressed wtih the cherry wood furniture and trim in our freshly painted two room suite than they were with Odem's English and history work. I thought of my father with Shmuel and Dov, but had to add the big smiles and animated gestures. Odem's parents complimented Xannika on her cooking, especially her pre-Yom Kippur smoothies, to slake thirst for a whole day of fasting.
It was one of the last evenings warm enough to eat outside. We watched the sun begin to find its way to the horizon. Then we all walked to the Rabbaa's synaoguge, Odem, Aurora who was visiting, Odem's parents, and I. We walked back watching the first quarater of the moon shine down on Lake Five. "Beautiful country," Odem's parents said. There were a few lights on in the Garbage Dump, but there were always a few lights on there to discourage thieves and vandals. The sight of the Garbage Dump did not disturb Odem's parents. "There had to be places like that somewhere," Odem's mother explained to herself and us. "And it's good that there is a dormitory here, so little kids don't get placed because there is nowhere to put them. Chaia [formerly Ursala] saw them placing six year olds where she was."
Aurora shook her head. I tried to imagine middle school kids trialing in our house. Teenagers could look after themselves, but kids that needed some one to take care of them did not belong in an Ed-Branch House. Of course Burden of Dreams was also a clan. That was starting to make a big difference. I pushed the ideas out of my mind.
The Yom Kippur fast the next day was brutal. It was always brutal. At the afternoon break, Odem's parents who handled it better than either their daughter or I, asked if we would like to take a walk. We walked back down to Lake Five and that was how we saw that the Garbage Dump was full. We smelled the bio-d buses parked outside it and the chaos of kids being counted, registered, sorted, and signed in. We could smell the fear of a taking even though we never heard the horn. "It must have happened in another part of the country," Odem's father said. He was right. Aurora's sister, Liza, and her brothers Charlie and Junior had been taken. This taking was for states west of the Mississippi wtih the exception of the area west of the Sierra Nevadas. The kids at the Garbage Dump were not only taken but they had lost one to three hours. They were stick sick rather than "jet lagged."
"When they take them so far," Odem said at the break fast. "They can't try to run away back home."
"I'm sorry," I told Aurora. Liza, Junior, and Charles' places on the new poster were blank holes. I bit back tears. Where had I learned my mother's habit of crying?
Chevie, Aurora and the Kuba
Aurora did not cry. She had learned not to cry. I had learned to cry. I cried for Aurora. That was how Odem explained it, and to her my tears were perfectly rational. I was letting off steam. It was OK to let off steam. Odem was a friend to all emotions, including the painful ones. She especially liked the painful ones.
Starting with the Yom Kippur Taking, as I called it, we began to do things differently. We no longer shopped for dinner food. We did shop for lunch food and we bought extra empties for cold drinks. Xannika preferred to make aides or hibiscus tea at home rather than bring home fulls. We also made extra sandwiches. We made them late at night in a regular assembly line. We made them without Odette who was now at Dartmouth. I missed Odette, but I missed Zalli more, even though I missed both of them, and yes, I missed Pedra too, and Odem really missed her. Odem always got Pedra's emails. That was a fantastic thing.
We packed the sandwiches into a special vinyl poch that was green with the EBA/SU (Ed-Branch Atlanta/Scholars' Union) logo on it and labeled our bottles of drink with the EBA/SU label. A short bus no longer stopped at our house in the morning. Instead it was one of two long buses, that went to join its companion at the Garbage Dump. Artemis, Esperenza, and Desdemona liked to serve as monitors on the other bus. We younger kids were in charge of the vinyl sandwich boxes and fruit containers and on the days when we had refills, fulls. We did not need to bring paper cups: Ed-Branch Atlanta sent them along with paper-board plates.
At the Garbage Dump, the children on taking would board our bus. Some were EBA/SU. Others had different encouragements. Some got dropped in Vernon. Some went to MacAffee, others road all the way to Newton or Sparta. Some liked to sing on the bus. I expected they would sing dirty songs, but there was a monitor on our bus who thought that was bad behavior. Instead the kids sung Protestant hymns, and folk tunes, and even children's songs. Singing the Itsy Bitsy Spider and On Top of Spahgetti was weirdly nostalgic, though it was nostalgia for a past I did not have. Most of the little kid songs I knew were in Hebrew rather than English.
At SCAS the kids from the Middle and Lower Division and the High School kids all ate together in the huge common room. We had a whole hour and fifteen minutes for lunch. Different kids ate with different clans. Burden of Dreams cold sandwiches, fruit, and junk food were not a big draw even though we had soda and fruit drinks which did attract kids who were happy to have something sweet. I asked some of the younger kids to teach me their songs and would walk around their playground singing. I ended up teaching one little blonde haired, blue eyed cherub from North Dakota Hatikva and Adon Olam in exchange for Find a Wheel and Michael Row the Boat Ashore. When I thought of the lyrics of Michael Row the Boat, it made me cry. I stood there with the wind whipping my face and the tears getting cold and the poor kid who was my teacher, utterly perplexed. I told her I was very emotional. I told her my whole family was, and that where I came from it was considered normal.
"Does your mommy cry?" the poor cherub asked me.
"She's the one I learned it from," I confessed, as my face grew freshly moist.
"Why are you crying?" the little kuba [kuba is the Hebrew word for cherub and it is in the feminine for a female cherub] asked me.
"You're song is about someone dying and it says that the world is terrible but Paradise is beautiful. For some people there really is nothing good in the world, and that is very sad." Yes, this sounds crazy, because it is!
The poor kuba blinked. "That's not what the song is about!" she told me. "It's about going to Heaven!"
"It's also about leaving a very painful Earth," I argued back. "To go to one place, you have to leave another."
"Yes, but Jesus is in Heaven."
"I'm Jewish," I told kuba. I don't believe the messiah has come yet. I don't believe the New Testament is really part of the Bible.
"Are you the people building the house with the pine branches on the roof?" kuba didn't miss a beat.
"Yes," I explained. "After school, I'll show you why we build the houses wtih the branches. It's in your Bible."
Kuba nodded. Then she asked me if I wanted to sing again. I did, and this time I sung without sobbing. You can cry without sobbing.
Two days before Sukkot, my comm phone, a working phone capable of international calls went off at noon. I was walking kuba and two other kids back to Lower Division when I heard the ring tone that played "All the World's a Narrow Little Bridge" I dug out my comm phone which I always turned on after fourth period. Our school had no rules against comm phones but did not want them ringing in class. I needed my comm phone at lunch.
"Shalom!" cried Chevie's voice all the way from Hobart, Tasmania.
"Shalom," I replied. Our conversation than switched to English. Chevie was not Shmuel. "Ahava, can you help me with something?" my younger sister asked.
"Probably," I responded. I glanced at my two charges. I took a moment to apologize to them and explained to Chevie that I was taking care of younger kids. "I thought you hate little kids," she said. "These are Ed-Branch kids." I smiled. I got the kids safely to their playground and gave my little sister the all clear.
"The teachers have me on contract reading. I have to read three books a week on anything I want, but I don't know what to read?"
This I could solve. "What interests you?" I asked. I had loved myths and Bible stories, but I also loved reading Scripture. Chevie was not either Shmuel or me in this regard.
"I don't know?" Chevie replied. "That's why I called you."
I tried to remember what interested Chevie. She liked helping Mom and babysitting, and she was not fond of school except for.... Well most little girls loved to draw and do crafts. "How about a book about art or a famous artist. You love art."
"Do you know any artists?" I had hit paydirt with Chevie. I felt a warmth flush my face.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of artists extended only to Vincent VanGogh who had gone crazy and chopped off his ear and later committed suicide and John Audobon who painted wonderful pictures of birds, but had to shoot them first. I told myself that Chevie should have something more wholesome. "I know someone who knows all about art," I told my sister. "His name is Andreas. He drew our school mascot." I hoped Chevie would not mind speaking to a strange boy. Andreas after all had positively no interest in girls as objects of romance. This happens with Ed Branch boys sometimes. It happened with Dante. Jewels and Tweetie clearly thought about girls, but found themselves trapped by a matriarchy. Boys who preferred their own gender had an easier time of it in a majority female world.
Andreas wore his hair in a dull blonde crew cut. He sat with his clan who were lingering over the last of fettucine alfredo, green peas, bosc pears and some kind of sparking white grape juice drink that came in green fulls. I asked Andreas if he would like to speak to my sister in Hobart, Tasmania.
"Your sister where?" asked Andreas.
"Hobart, Tasmania. It's the capital of an island south of Australia."
Andreas smiled showing sharp teeth that were not Beast Teeth, and he grabbed my comm phone. He and Chevie had a fairly long conversation. At its conclusion she had obtained Andreas' email address and had decided to get two books, one on collages and another on how to make something. She could figure out her third book of the week later. I was glad I could help. Chevie told me I was quite smart and a real friend.
"I tried to call Imma [Chevie uses the Hebrew word for mother] and Abba [This is the Hebrew word for father]." I needed to get back to class. It was time to end this phone call. "Did you get through?" I thought of the words to Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
"I got through, but all Imma did was cry."
"Lot's of grownup women cry," I told Chevie. "It means we are sentimental and full of emotions..." Oh bullshit!
Mom's tears were not the same as my own. I only cried to let off steam or for catharsis. Mom cried so she didn't have to listen. I knew that. It was time Chevie learned that. What a way to have to learn. What a time to have to learn. Oh my poor sister! "What did you want to tell her?" I asked my sister. "I'll listen."
"I wanted her to arrange to visit me or have me visit her. They'll let me do it if one of my Nurturing Team comes with me. They said I can have as many visits as I want."
"Try emailing Dad," was my advice. "Are you writing to Shmuel."
"I don't think they let him write to me."
"They let him write to me," I answered. "The letters just take a while to get back. Look, I have to go to class. We can talk tomorrow or the day after, OK?"
"I love you, Ahava."
"I love you too, Chevie."
I felt dizzy and a bit sick as I walked into math class. I am good at getting focused. I am good at forgetting for just a little while. At least Chevie had her books and one more older person with whom to communicate, and she was trialing or placed or maybe neither. On the big poster on the refridgerator, Ondina marked her status as "Special." That was fine with me.
At night, we ate dinner at the Garbage Dump. We had a choice of six or seven entrees, fourteen sides, and countless desserts. The kids always asked lots of questions about the food. A few made disparaging remarks. Though most of us had no problem with fake farts and other silly sounds, talking down the food that some other big kid had chosen was ugly. We told the kisd not to "yuck someone else' yum," Refusing to eat something was perfectly fine. No one had to eat everything and we had enough variety so kids could choose what they liked, but giving any food a bad name, meant giving the kid who had selected it a bad name. We older kids stuck together. The kids learned manners quickly.
"What's that?" asked kuba. pointing to fish filets nicely broiled and arched over spinach with a bit of mozzerela cheese sticking out.
"Lake Perch Florentine," I replied. "Florentine means made with spinach."
"Who picked it out?" kuba rocked on her feet. She was skirting the yuck rule, but not breaking it. Odem would have admired her slyness which reminded me of Chevie's attitude I suddenly realized.
"I did," I said which was true.
"Are you going to eat it?" Kuba's eyes twinkled.
"Yes," I was determined not to make things easy for kuba and this time it was suprisingly easy.
"What's it taste like?" Kuba wanted to keep up the banter in the worst way.
"Fish is mild and not gristly like meat and you don't have to overcook it to get it moist. Spinach has lots of taste and it's a good contrast with the fish, like the white on green in our logo."
"What if I don't like it?" Kuba saw where this was going.
"Get rid of it ans ask for something else. If you're really uncertain, ask the server to give you a taste." This was standard procedure, and kuba lowered her dignity to taste the fish. She said it was fine and got some. "Why do we have so much weird food?" Kuba liked skating on metaphorical thin ice.
"We have a wide assortment because kids come from all over the country and have all different tastes," Xannika took over answering. "And younger kids have all different tastes too. We want to make sure there is something for everybody, and that kids get to try new foods."
"But I could try so many foods," kuba pushed. "Aren't you afraid someone will get sick?"
"We're more worried about kids being stick sick when they get here," I explained. This really was a no brainer.
Xannika, though, had a different spin. "No, we're more worried kids will get malnourished, so we have lots of fruits and vegetables, and make sure kids can have fish and beans. It's more fun to have lots of choices than force kids to eat something. Look, you tried fish Florentine tonight."
"I tried the orange squash last night. I could go home and ask my mom for these things and she's going to say 'Where'd you learn to eat that?'"
"Tell her it was at the world famous Garbage Dump," quipped Odem.
"Yeah, but she'll wonder."
"You should have been to New York City Takings," Odem laughed. "The interns would always serve stinky cheeses and crackers. Fortunately, they had other things too, but it was always, you really going to like this cheese and oh this cheese is so good." Xannika laughed. She said she still didn't get the stinky cheese thing, but deli salads and vegetables of all types were always fine with her.
I said I remembered stinky cheese too. "They serve it here sometimes too," Amaryllis replied. She had been sitting at the head of the table discussing the evening's activities, which included a Sukkah decorating party up at the Rabba's synaoguge and a Wednesday night Christian music and praise service, and also bell ringing lessons put on by another church. Having the churches and the synagogue on the Garbage Dump was good for the younger kids, but it was also good for our clan. Having Garbage Dump kids back in school was good for them, but it was also good for us. It made them part of the community here in New Jersey. We accepted that they would return. Also, with local adults in authority involved, the Priests could not place them at ages six, seven, and eight. That Burden of Dreams would someday get middle schoolers went without saying. Ondina when asked said "We are officially undecided." Anaryllis more honestly admitted, "We're trying to put it off."
I realized I would be sad to see kuba return to Pembina, North Dakota in a day or two. I made up my mind to get her email address or set her up with one. Like Chevie, my circle was expanding outside my family and clan. I told myself that was a good thing. Aurora, though, still did not know where her two brothers were. Her sister, Liza, had resurfaced in Lawrenceville, Kansas of all places, though not in the big scholar house where Aurora had once been destined. Instead, the proverbial house had opened to a house on the Admin and Leadership Track. The house was called Soaring Eagles, which was an awful cliche of a name. Burden of Dreams at least was original. A picture of Liza in a white shirt and navy blue pants, a typical Admin Clan uniform adorned our bedroom walls hanging over Aurora's bed like a talisman. It was just a matter of time until Aurora's brothers either returned home or resurfaced. "The hardest thing," Aurora told me, "is that Dad was in Wyoming on the Exploratory when this taking all happened. They were digging three more wells, big ones, and very deep."
What could I tell Aurora? At night I listened for her tears. They never came.
"You can not come back!"
Near the end of Sukkot, Aurora finally learned her brothers' locations. Charlie, age seven and a half was at a ranch in Mexico. It was an "international clan" and it had a real working ranch. Charlie was trialing, whether his parents liked it or not, and they had a real problem wtih his trialing in another country. Amaryllis and Ondina both said that he was trialing "too young" because wherever he had landed did not have adequate facilities to house unplaced or kids or those too young to trial for an extended period. The only choice was to get them into clans as soon as possible.
Junior, whose real name was Zell's, situation was far more problematic. For a long time the only information the San Rio Priests could find on him was that he was in the Interior. Then they supplied co-ordinates and a place name, but that name made no sense to Aurora, and it would make no sense to her family either. Eruv Simchas Torah, we cleaned out the Garbage Dump with a whole crew of kids and interns. Some of the interns had taken to calling the EBA/SU section of the Garbage Dump the Crche. A creche according to them was a place where unplaced and untrialed, younger kids could stay during an extended taking. Ed Branch Atlanta now had their own creche just a few blocks down Ponce de Leon from the Dorm House. I tried to envision the place. Somehow it made me feel calmer.
While we washing sheets in the laundry room in the Garbage Dump's basement, Sister Alexa, a San Rio priest with a big shock of scarlet hair on her otherwise bald, brown scalp came in without knocking. "Is Aurpra Burden here?" she asked. Aurora who was folding a sheet with Tweetie looked up. "I have news on your brother, Zell," the Priest informed us. What news this was, could not be good. It was also news that took a lot of explaining. Zell, it turned out was in a creche of sorts run by warrior clans with a fantasy component. There were creches in the interior which was why the priests respected the Garbage Dump with its multiple creches in one big building. In our case, the whole community supported a creche, so a creche we had. Zell's creche was different. It was run by a federation of fantasy warrior clans. It was also a competitive creche. The warrior clans would take only the best kids, or if one really thought about it, the kids they preferred. This was an ugly, high pressure environment. Sister Alexa clearly did not like it. "Your dorm house here is much gentler and you only play games for fun."
Actually with Ed Branch (or Scholars' Union) all our kids were all ready encouraged (accepted if you will). If they had trouble, we would help them. If they needed medical attention or therapy, they would get it. We might ground them or take away their computer use (Ask Odem!), but we would never reject them or turn them out unless they wanted out and asked for it, and few of them ever did. Ed Branch tamed takings, or at least we were trying to do that here in New Jersey.
"Poor Junior," sighed Aurora. Aurora decided not to come with us as a guest at Simchat Torah services. She needed to go back to our townhouse and write an email to her mother. Her father was away again, and let her know what she had learned. In addition to the words' "Interior" in the square next to Junior's name, was now his location and the words in red: "SPECIAL." Now, my sister, Chevie, was also a "SPECIAL" because she indeed lived in a creche, but it was more like an Ed Branch creche, at least from what I understood. Adults seemed to give my sister a lot of freedom. They seemed to trust her and want her to make her own choices. I liked Rosa, Oiling, and Bettinah, Chevie's Nurturing Team. I don't want to say what I thought of the adults who took care of Junior. Charlie and Liza (and also Chevie and Shmuel) were a lot luckier.
I could not take the day off from school for Simchat Torah. The school had given me two days off, and it just could not cope with a holiday every week in September. It had met me as much half way as any public school could. Still, I thought of Shmuel dancing with the Torah as I boarded what had again become a short bus to go to school that morning. The bus was somewhere in MacAffee when the siren went off. It was not a siren. It was a chime, but the sound penetrated into my very bones. Three times it sounded. The driver pulled over and said in a voice loud enough for all his passengers to hear: "SHIT!"
"Oooooooh!" groaned Odem; for the driver had told her not to use foul language on numerous occasions, and there is something quite delicious about adult hypocrisy. By the second time the chime sounded, my brain registered what was happening and I began to feel sick. I opened a bus window. I closed my eyes against my rising gorge. The bells began again. I leaned out the window of the bus and lost my breakfast.
Good, I thought, nothing more to vomit. I was covered with sweat. I sat with my eyes closed and felt the bus' engine restart. I imagined starting a normal school day once things got quiet. Things did not get quiet. I tried not to whimper as the bus rolled. I could feel it make a U-turn and then head down a different series of roads. A few years ago, the Company had bought the old Playboy Club resort on the other side of the valley from the abandoned ski areas abnd turned it into a kind of meeting center. Now it was the center for takings for five counties. Today was the day of a taking. That much I knew. Public buses and open trams dragging sick, disoriented, kids and adults were making their way to the site as a moth is drawn to a candle flame. The driver had just given in and followed the sound. "You should feel better now," the driver told me.
In the parking lot a woman with frizzled grey hair screamed. "No one is taking my children from me! No one is taking my children from me!" I tried to ignore her. I tried looking for Amaryllis or Ondina. I found Amaryllis with her mother and her younger sister who had children of her own. All her children were too young to be taken but, Amaryllis had a couple of younger siblings, not yet placed. This was it for them. They tried to delay going inside the main area. "It's all right," Amaryllis' mother told her two adolescent sons, Amaryllis' much younger brothers. "It has to happen sooner or later, so just get it over with."
Priests stood guarding the Taking Site. They let us in. Someone had created a lush garden wtih a huge cave at the end. That was the portal through which all the taken children would walk. There were concessions selling food for free, and there were amusement park rides, a fortune teller, a face painter, and a spin art booth, plus a mural on which anybody could write. I drew a picture of a Torah scroll and a frowning face with tears coming out of its eyes. That did make me feel better. This taking was over by noon. The chimes sounded and the children went in, like the children led by the Pied Piper in that famous fairy tale. One of my classmates back at Druid Hills Magnet Academy had made that comparison. I have very good and very useful middle school memories.
Of course it really was not over. It may have been Simchat Torah, but we needed to fill out catering chits, plan activities, and welcome the stick sick, shell shocked, and even a few unencouraged six year olds. This time though, this third taking which had involved the East and West Coasts, local parents mobbed the Garbage Dump. Several Priests sat outside with computers pressed into sheets (Sometimes Interior Technology could be utterly magical) and looked up childrens' names to let them know if they had "come home." The vast majority were somewhere else, in a community with or without a creche, or somewhere deep in the interior, or maybe in Canada, Mexico, or Europe. Perhaps they were even in Australia. Tasmania, after all was part of Australia. I doubted any of them were in Israel.
We put maps on the wall of the EBA/SU creche and let kids find where they came from and then we showed them where they were. We asked if any of them had missed out on a religious holiday. Even most Jewish kids said "no." In a way that was a big relief. In the buffet, Amaryllis saw to it that there were Holland Rusks and either honey or jam. There were also apples with honey. This was still the season of a new year. I cut up the apples and watched as several figures who looked like priests but who wore civilian clothes strode into the empty refectory like they owned it. Amaryllis shook her head and turned to me. She ordered me: "Go fetch a Placement Specialist or a Scholars Union Rep, Ahava...NOW!"
I slipped out through the kitchen into a service hallway and then back under the stairs to the front foyer. Hamida DeLang was helping the frightened parents and steering children toward different areas. "Yes," she said as I ran toward her. "My clan leader wants to see you in the buffet off Refectory C. I think it's urgent."
"Excuse me," Hamida told a waiting mother. Hamida had long, frizzled silvery hair, and light brown skin. She looked either Sephardic or Arab. I suspect she was and is neither. She had on a rose colored sweat shirt and loose fitting salt and pepper tweed pants and nice, rose colored loafers. She followed me back into the refectory through the front door and froze.
"We're here to supervise the taking," announced the leader of the well clad important looking party who had been chatting it up with Amaryllis.
"May I ask who you are?" Hamida turned to the trio. The male who stood a good six feet tall and had a smooth pale face and curly brown hair with hundred dollar body, handed her a business card.
"Oh....Reallly...." smiled Hamida. "Didn't you abandon Sussex County, New Jersey after the Riots this summer?" This was of course a rhetorical question.
"Our children are here," explained a female with sand colored hair.
"What about Burden of Dreams? That was your house."
"There were no Ed Branch houses here," answered the male.
"Excuse me," Amaryllis declared. "I can show you the paperwork. You cut us off without so much as a by your leave. We signed up with Ed Branch Atlanta nad that is our branch office. New York City Ed Branch doesn't exist up here."
"So you are telling me that Sussex County, New Jersey is now under Atlanta Ed Branch' jurisdiction?" asked the leader of what I had now figured out was New York City Ed Branch.
"Absolutely," Hamida responded and she handed the leader her business card.
"Well what are you going to do with this place so far from home?" asked the New York City Ed Branch leader.
"We established it. You are welcome to send Specialists and Interns. You are even welcome to recruit among the older children, but Atlanta runs things here. You've lost Sussex County and you can't come back and take control."
"You should have seen Hamida," I told Odem late that night. "She just old New York City Ed Branch to EXPLETIVE DELETED off!"
"I'm just glad Ursala, I mean Chaia, is in Vermont and going to be placed," Odem sighed.
"I hope Junior comes home soon. I think this is really hurting my mom," Aurora added. "And yeah, I'm glad we're under Ed Branch Atlanta and the Garbage Dump belongs to Ed Branch Atlanta too. New York City sounds like a bunch of spoiled losers if you ask me."
Winners and Losers
I watched Amaryllis put a piece of easel paper on a newly cleared fridge door. The older charts of siblings and there whereabouts were on the wall. Our kitchen was a belly full of children's fates. They chronicled takings out of time, takings that changed the rules in midgame. It was not so bad to think of adults in clans or people staying after they graduate from college, but placing eight year olds hundreds or thousands of miles from home... You can draw your own conclusions.
With the third taking out of time our house was a house of mourning that did not sit shivah except on the charts. Amaryllis who put up the chart went first, writing down her two, much younger brothers' names. Kaylanna went next. She too had two siblings pulled into the gyre. Fujiko had lost a sister. Esperenza had lost four siblings. This is a contest no one wanted to win. Xannika went last. She had lost her next youngest sibling, a ten year old and a pair of seven year old twins, three in all. Xannika was last but not least. Her loss was no less remarkable than when Chevie was taken on the first day of school.
"Can I put my cousins up too?" she asked. Kaylana made a fake fart in disgust. "I stayed with my aunt in Florence most of the break," she reminded us. Amaryllis agreed and Xannika added four more names, two boys and two girls, to the chart. All the blocks next to all of the names were blank. In a couple of days that would change. Amaryllis' brothers were among the first to resurface, one in Virginia and one in the interior. One of Xannika's cousins was in New York City. At night, kids crowded around the land line to console frightened parents.
I missed the kuba who was back in North Dakota. She sent me email. Her mother had been fine with her learning about new food. Her pastor wanted to "correct her strange new ideas about the Bible and religion." That made me want to laugh, but I couldn't laugh. I thought of the Rabba giving out prayer books and encouraging kids to come to services. Many of them did with their simplified siddurim in hand.
At night I dreamed of Sophia Loren, as Jimmy in my dreams called Sophie with the black car with New Mexico plates. She rode down the road to the Farmer who used to give us buttermilk. She was just a local transit ride away if I could take time away from the Garbage Dump, my studies, and establishing a 4-H chapter with its projects, one of which would be pumpkin rescue after Harvest Festival.
I found the time in my dreams. I found it at night. I walked along the lonely country road. The car picked me up and I got in. I did not say anything. I had nothing to say. I was too tired from everything, and now I was leaving everything. You can't say anything when you are leaving everything. I had no idea where I was going. I was leaving friends behind. I was leaving families behind.
I let Sophia Loren take me anywhere. Sometimes we went to the old Vernon Middle School. I did not even know if students went here any more during the day. During the night though, the place was silent as a tomb. It smelled of old chalk and the voices of rowdy students who could only make so much noise. I could hear their feet scuffling though the sound could have been mice eating the electrical wires or rats munching the insulation. Perhaps it was gypsy moth caterpillars that found a new diet. Perhaps there were giant pupae in the walls waiting to grow into great avenging moths.
There was still electricity in the old school. I sat at a rickety wooden desk with the desk part made out of the right arm of the seat. Sophia took out a pocket data projector and lowered a screen. I saw a picture of Beth Jacob Village. "Was this the right place to hide children?" she asked. "You realize everyone knew where you were. That's why the police found you so easily."
"Just because people do a bad job doesn't mean they do no job," I argued back, but I knew Sophia was right.
"Why didn't your mother pay Elasheva's full tuition?" asked Sophia.
"My mom didn't pay the house tuition. My dad did." This was a dodge and I knew it.
"Well Elasheva was a good girl. Why didn't your parents pay for her?"
"Because Dov was worth more. He was a boy." I blinked back tears. Often the dream ended at this point. Other times it took another turn. We drove into the deserts where the mesas were painted improbable colors of stone. This was not the California desert which was grey and tan and which I remembered. This was the desert of picture books and slide shows and data projectors. Somewhere here was a Pueblo Indian village or Bedouin tents or a kibbutz with rows of vegetables, a neat water tower, and improable, Holstein cattle. Sophia would have me strip naked and stand under the outdoor shower. In some versions of this dream I bled as the water poured over me. In other versions, the water was so cold I cried, my sobs sounding more animal than human. Then I wore coarse clothes, burlap tunic and pants like the Priests wore and hempen sneakers. I pulled weeds until my fingernails broke off. I shoveled excrement crawling with flies. I cried as a hot wind beat my face. I cried and no one told me to stop. I cried because I could not speak.
The dreams gave way to morning. Odem found their power to move me amazing. Odem liked emotion. The dreams left me dazed but grateful to awaken in the white, two room suite with cherry wood trim. I was glad to hurry before dawn to the Garbage Dump and join the little ones for breakfast. On the bus, I led the singing:
Find a wheel
In the daylight, there was no Sophie. That was probably not her real name. She was not looking for me. I was not important. I had lost my chance. We were all slowly losing our chances. We were too busy during the day to think about finding a way out, if there was a way out. It was easy to imagine there was no way off the grid. "Off the grid you starve."
Of course the farmer and his companion and whomever else they hid and succored were still there. If I would dig dirt, shovel excrement, keep my mouth shut, and follow orders, I could leave. It is also possible to hide children from takings. It is not that difficult either. I was hidden until I was ten. I remember the sickness and the longing and the locked door. Some of the adults wore ear plugs or silencer ear phones to block the sound. Some kids had them. Sometimes they handed out sedatives to blunt the effects of the siren song. I thought of Ulysses on the deck, tied to a pole to resist the sirens and yet hear them. I thought of his crew with wax in their ears.
Then I thought of the Rabba and the Christian clergy and the community leaders and the librarians and teachers all of whom had taken the kids from the Garbage Dump and tamed their taking. To help the kids meant to help the priests but somehow that didn't matter. I knew there was a word for it though, "Co-opted!" The Priests co-opted the company and everybody else, and the Priests were taking kids so hard, so fast, so young, and so out of time, that in a year or two this would be the new normal and everybody would forget that kids got taken twice a year for twenty-four hours, unless they had an encouragement and were going to some kind of regional or national conference.
Adults glad to have jobs through clans would be glad to live there and not mind their children placed. Did adult people really forget things so easily? I all ready had my answer. I had seen it with Aurora's family. I had seen it with my parents who sent Shmuel to Israel and with Amaryllis' mother who told her sons to go and get it over with. The fight was over. Maybe it had ended a long time ago, here in Sussex County. We belonged to Ed Branch Atlanta. At least I knew the Placement Specialists worked hard. You had to pick whom to trust. That was what it came down to in the end. What good were ideals if your leaders treated you like dirt? That was why my dreams always ended with blood or excrement.
And when the children from the third taking left, and indeed returned home to their families, we could feel a hole inside ourselves. I helped strip the beds and wash the sheets. We'd have more time to study. I told myself that was a relief. We had passed through Parshas Boreishit, the first chapter of Genesis, in synagogue. We had time for our studies again. I often stayed late on the SCAS campus to do research for papers I was writing, and taking transit home. Aurora or Odem were often with me. We ate dinner very late dinner, but we said little as we cooked with Xannika. She knew where her sisters were. She did not have nightmares. She slept on the short bus snoring contentedly. I wished I had her calm and unconcern. She said the bus was too warm. Like all of us, she wore a winter coat to school now, but often had it part way open and wore only the thinnest of gloves on her hands. Winters this far north were going to be very cold. I thought of winter camping outside of Ithaca. Once I had been a friend of the snow. I was not sure now why I dreaded it.
"You miss the little kids don't you," Xannika said to me one night in late October. I was shredding cabbage for cole slaw. I remembered Livia's cooking lessons well.
I told myself to think of Livia the cook, not Sophia Loren the wannabe rebel. I missed the siblings I would never know, but I also missed kuba and I sometimes cried a few tears when
reading Chevie's email because she was learning so much that was new, and enjoying it so much. I had won Chevie her freedom, real freedom. I told myself that, even if Chevie had to be
on the other side of the world to have that liberty. That was what was important. It was hard with all the confusing noise to keep your eyes on the prize. It was even hard to figure out the prize'
content. No, it was not Sophie, I told myself, but I still thought about the Farmer who would have spat at the Garbage Dump and all who created it and kept it going.
Though the kids at the Garbage Dump needed us and would be worse off without us, the Farmer was right.