In a Safe Country V
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....
"I have a new address."
The letter with a subject line in Hebrew appeared in my email late at night on October 20, 2083. If people still received a lot of unwanted online advertisements, this letter would have been what was once called spam, a kind of treif meat in a can, but spam email no longer exists. It is something I read about in a book on the history of technology.
I opened the email. My brother, Shmuel, had an email address and access to the internet! I was thrilled! Not only that, he had sent me a very long letter. It was all text, paragraph after paragraph of the holy tongue. This was just what I needed. I began reading:
I have a new address:
I also have a new email address: email@example.com
Here is how I got these new addresses. Just after Simchat Torah, a group of the older boys got the younger boys together late at night and took us down to the kitchen. I went with them because I was hungry. They never really gave us enough supper at Yeshiva Barzillai, so boys always snuck downstairs into the kitchen to eat bread or cake if they could find it or cold cuts or even gefilte fish. I did it too. Sometimes it was fun, but tonight, the Rosh Yeshiva was waiting in the dining hall and we boys came out afraid he would punish us.
Instead he asked us to sit and listen. He wanted us to do our part to help bring moshiach and that meant to rid the world of idolatry. There was a new "temple" (He spat when he said it and then rubbed his foot on the spittle) in town. The Arabs were running it, but Jews and Christians visited it and there were klans associated with it. We had to stop this temple by burning it down. We would take a chemical drum full of fertilizer and other chemicals and a detonator and put it back behind the temple's kitchen. Yonatan, who was eighteen would drive us in to town. Soon, there would be no more temple.
At first I thought this was a great idea. Then I thought of what you said about idolators versus polytheists. It is wrong to ask Jews to worship other gods, but Jews do not have to say yes. We can persuade them to say "no." If we blow them up, we lose our chance to persaude anybody. Also, there were innocent little children sleeping with their mothers in the temple which was a klan house. Klan houses frequently have people of all ages inside them. We don't teach people to worship HaShem by killing them as infants or when they are too young to know.
I thought about all of this as I went outside to help fill the big metal drum. Someone must have known someone high up, because we had real kerosene made from petroleum, not cheesey bio-di or ethanol. That meant our big bomb would really kill people. That meant I was going to commit murder. That was getting perilously close to a chilul HaShem. I thought of what you would do. I know how girls handle these things. I said I had to use the toilet. I walked away. No one suspected it was a lie.
I just kept walking until I found the IDF detatchment and then I told them about the bomb. I wasn't sure they'd believe me. I was sure some of them would be happy to see us blow up the polytheists' so-called temple, but the officers did listen and an officer with a big beard, a religious Jew like me, told me that I did the right thing. "We don't yet live in the time of Moshiach. We are under the laws of the State of Israel and out here some of the laws of the West Bank Palestinian Authority." Then he told his higher up and I rode out with the convoy that intercepted the truck from our Yeshiva.
They found the bomb and later that night they took over Yeshiva Barzillai. Then they sent for the Palestinian Security Forces and the Priests who had shaven heads and wore dresses like girls. It was humiliating. It was even more humiliating when the police arrested the Rosh Yeshiva and the Rav. For two days the lower teachers ran the place. Then they flew out new rabboim from New York. They talked to all the boys and several of them said I had run away while they were making the bomb. I did not run away. I walked. I did not need to run.
I told the Rabbonim that I had gone to the IDF because I did not want to see mothers and babies killed. I did not care if they were polytheists. Yes, I used your word because I think you were right and are right. The Rabbonim expelled me from the Yeshiva. They left me at the bus stop wtih a suitcase and the clothes on my back and no money to buy a bus ticket. I knew I probably should find the US Consolate, but Kiryat Arba is not Jerusalem. It is certainly not Tel Aviv. I was afraid to go to the Palestinian authorities. I just sat at the bus stop until it got dark. Then they closed the store behind the bus stop. The Arab woman who runs the store noticed I had been there all day. She asked if I needed help. I was afraid to talk to her.
I told her I was an American. I told her that I had been kicked out of my school, but I was afraid to go home. What had the Rabbonim told our parents? What had they told people in the community. I dreaded never being able to learn again. The Arab storekeeper asked why I had not taken a bus back to Jerusalem. I said I had no money. "I need to get you help," the storekeeper said. She took me to the Priests. I said I could not worship idols.
The Priests laughed. They took me to their office and had me fill out piles of forms. They gave me tea with sugar to drink and cookies to eat. Then a female priest in a greenish robe with no sleeves interviewed me. I remember she had very fat arms. I kept telling her that I was a Jew and wanted to learn Torah and Talmud. The message got through. She drove me into Jerusalem and put me on the last bus for Haifa. In Haifa a man with a crew cut and a beard picked me up. I am now "trialing" at my new klan. I can go to dati leumi schools. These are religious day schools with general studies for half the day. This is not that bad.
I also get plenty to eat and internet access. I think Dov might like it here, but they emphasize academics a bit too much for him. The boys and girls here are quite serious. That suits me fine. A big piece of me is very happy even though I am no longer in Yeshiva. As a Torah-true Jew, I should be in mourning and crying to go back to Yeshiva, but I'm not. I loved Yeshiva, but I could not kill mothers and babies. I could not kill people if there was a chance that they might believe in God divided into many gods or God mixed with other things. As you told me, that is NOT idolatry. I believe you, and I also believe in doing what is right. Perhaps I am happy here in Haifa because my conscience can rest easy. I may not be a snitch and a rat in the eyes of those back in Kiryat Arba, but in my own mind, heart, and soul I am a hero. Perhaps my soul is stuffed with treats, the way I used to stuff my body with cake. If she is happy, then I will be happy too. I hope you are also happy. Seeing all those small children cry for their parents while they stayed in the "Garbage Dump" must have been tough. I am glad you have a respite from that sort of work.
I tell myself that I am not responsible for Shlomo-Yitzakh's moral decision. It was a great decision, but I did not make it. Maybe I did influence it. Comparative religions is good for something after all, but in the end my brother took my idea and made it his own. The Twelfth Century commentator and grammarian, Rashi, said that Christians were not idolators. His reasoning was similar to mine on polytheists, but not completely the same. Rashi, is a contraction for Rabbi Shlomo-Yitzakh, which was my brother's new name. He had taken my idea, but he was the one who had spread his wings and flown with it. "Fly, high Shlomo-Yitzahk," I thought. "You deserve your new name and will give it the honor it deserves. I love you!"
The next day I received a box from Hobart, Tasmania. I opened it to find several paper cranes, a paper rose, a paper box folded of soft patterned paper that had once been a perfect square, a paper falcon, and several species of paper fish. There was a letter explaining about origami and how some people found it nearly impossible to follow the paper folding directions. All one had to do, according to Chevie, was be patient, and yes, Chevie had wished that someone had taught the kids paper folding at Torah Day School. "I'll get you a picture of my collages when I have three of them," Chevie's letter promised. Someone had cut Chevie loose to do what she wanted. I stared at the intricate and perfect paper folds. Sometimes all intelligence and enterprise needs is a square sheet and visual step-by-step diagrams. I wondered what deeper things Chevie saw in her origami. I resolved to ask her via email. Meanwhile I cleared a space on the shelf over my bed for my marvellous new keepsakes.
We had a fine party and open house for Harvest Festival. There was a buffet that was in our cleaned up living room. We brought in the folding table and added the extra leaf. We had candied almonds, apples with honey (The treat had caught on since the Jewish New Year), spiced cookies and chocolate chip ones, a cake with orange icing and a carrot cake and a pumpkin cheese cake. At other houses there were similar treats. America's Clan played silly songs about monsters. One of the Christian clans sang touching hymns about Thanksgiving for the harvest's bounty. At the Rabba's, the buffet included gefilte fish. We walked and ate and were glad there was no taking with home sick children uncertain of their futures.
After Harvest Festival, Aurora and I got out the insulated grocery cart and boxed up all the pumpkins people had offered to give us rather than to leave outside and rot. We took only uncut specimens and only edible varieties. We brought them to the commercial kitchen at the SCAS refectory, cut and seeded them, and then the fun began as we removed their peels and cooked the chunks of orange, melon colored, and creamy yellow flesh. We made pumpkin butter and sealed it in jelly jars. A commercial cook supervised us to make sure we did not poison Sussex County. We ended up with eight boxes of paraffin (Yes made from real petroleum) sealed jelly jars. Odem took comm phone and real electronic camera pictures of the 4-H pumpkin salvage. We'd probably have a booth to display this project at the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show next summer, in the week or two before school started next August. I felt good, tired, and of course behind on my work, when the project was over. I stayed to clean up, and then stayed up even later studying in the fourth floor computer lounge.
Two days into the exhausted blur of the first week of November, when I was so tired I did not notice the cold which was now a part of every day life, the siren went off, this time sounding like a deep trombone before I felt it rather than heard it. "Oh shit!" was all I could think. Odem remembered to open the bus window. "You're letting all the cold air in," Xannika complained as the driver made his path of least resistance U-turn. "I can't believe this," sighed Jewels. "There was a taking two weeks ago." "Two and a half weeks," Odem corrected him. I leaned out the window and lost my breakfast. I did not want to go in to see the taking which had a Medieveal theme.
After school, I stood in the buffet at the Garbage Dump while I watched sickly and disoriented kids stagger in. We had Holland rusks, also just called rusks, Rye Vita crackers, salt crackers, and other mild crackers, honey, jam, and even pumpkin butter. We also had assorted sodas and teas for settling queasey stomachs and making them to move in the right direction again. A small girl with a high cheeked boned, sun tanned Asian complexion and jet black hair that got in her eyes asked: "What are those?" she pointed to the rusks, which are round, slightly sweet, toast like crackers. New York City Ed Branch used to believe they were the sovereign cure for stick sickness. In Atlanta Rye Vita were the best post stick sickness food. None of this is an exact science.
"Rusks," Amaryllis answered.
Kohana Pascal, my Placement Specialist was also hanging out behind the counter.
"How do you spell rusk?" asked the child who swayed on her feet.
"R U S K," Kohana traced the letters with her fingers.
"Your letters are backwards," the small child taunted her.
"You're right,&quiot; Kohana half laughed and got an unopened package of Rye Vita from the shelf. "That better?" she asked.
"Rye Vita," the girl read.
Kohana searched for an unopened back fo Holland Rusks with the label still intact, when in walked several priests in long white robles with pale and with dome-like shaven heads and mouths taut with displeasure. I wanted to duck. Kohana stopped digging around for a rusk bag.
"Why do you scholars run the infirmary?" asked a male priest.
"Children arrive sick," answered Kohana. "Thsee are hard takings."
"Our Scholars Union is concerned with their intellect," the priest responded.
"We're not engaging anybody's intellect until their stomach stops complaining," Kohana did not miss a beat.
"I guess there are differences," sighed a female priest. She stared at the kid who asked for the names of crackers. "Why aren't you oustide at play?" she asked.
"My stomach is queasey," the child replied. "I came all the way from beyond Barrow."
"Was that Barrow County, Georgia?" I wondered.
"This is my second time here. This is where you get the crackers when you get sick."
"Here we go," Kohana intervened. "Read this:"
"Holland Rusks. Old Dutch Holland Rusks." The child smiled. The sound of her words pleased her and then her eyes took on a far away look. She said something that made no sense. I could pick up the Holland and Rusk part but the other words made little sense. She tried another string of nonsense syllables. "What do you think?" she asked.
"Is that a new kind of Pig Latin?" asked Amaryllis.
"It's not pig talk!" snapped a suddenly angry small child. "It's Inupiat."
"Oh wow!" groaned Kohana. "Can you cover for me while I make a comm phone call. Also if you have any blank paper and a pencil, bring it. You..."
"I'm Ellen," the child told us. "Ellen," ordered my Placement Specialist. "I want you to write down what you were saying in Inupiat. Can you write the language?"
"Of course," Ellen told us. "It's easy."
I smiled and felt warm and sad. "Where do they speak Inupiat?" I wondered aloud.
"I'm from Nah'aquit, Alaska," the child told us. "It's seventy miles west of Barrow."
Amaryllis returned with paper and pencil and Ellen got to work. Later she went with Kohana to be profiled. "That kid is bilingual," I said aloud and to noone. I too had been bilingual and the member of a minority. Ellen from Nah'aquit, made Kohana very happy. "She definitely deserves an encouragement, but it's going to be hard to get her parents to agree to let her be placed in the Lower Forty-Eight. There's a big distrust of sending Native American kids to boarding school, and people think clans are boarding schools," Kohana explained.
"There's not that much difference," I said thinking of my brother, Shlomo-Yitzakh.
Ellen from Nah'aquit became a good friend of mine, a kind of pseudo sibling. She had instruction over long distance video hookup in the afternoon so she could practice her Inupiat. She asked about all our food, which was utterly different from the diet on which she had been raised. Everyone worried she might become sick. She stayed healthy. She enjoyed night hiking especially. I just wished the kuba had been taken, but her state was not included in this fairly random bunch of taken children.
Several days into the November taking, the older children asked if they would be allowed to go home for Thankgiving. We had no answers for them. The taking in early November lasted twelve days. The Priests sent Ellen back to the dark and cold north of the Brooks Range, and the other kids back to their parents, four days before Thanksgiving. I considered the children lucky, and the Priests wise not to keep the children in the Garbage Dump through an important, American holiday.
Of course once the children left, we scrambled to put our own feast together. "What happens around Christmas time?" Aurora asked. We all knew what she meant by "what happens." No one had any answers. The trees in the mountains and the valley had long ago lost their leaves. Some mornings there were snow flurries, and I could always see my breath. I was glad when we turned out the lights in the Garbage Dump. Hopefully, there would be no children staying there before the first of the year. Chevie sent pictures of her collages and I added them to my wall. I asked Shlomo-Yitzakh to send a picture of himself and he obliged. I was now a kid with two siblings instead of a kid with no family.
The night before the November children were due to leave, both Odem and Aurora bled. This was both their second time, and I had not even had a first time. I did not want to watch Odem write her name. She couldn't because her body did not make enough blood. She tried several times and threw her attempts in the trash. "It will happen soon enough," Xannika consoled her. "Your body is just settling in. You could still be growing too." Maybe I was growing, though I no longer thought so.
I tried not to think of Aurora or Odem's good fortune as I stripped beds and washed sheets once again at the Garbage Dump, a ritual that had become familiar. Monday night, nearly half way into November, the Priests drove up to Grandview Circle in a truck. They removed several cages, which they set on a wooden table, and they attached a rope to a metal pole that the Vulcani Clan had sunk into the ground. The rope went through a pulley. At the end of the rope was a hook. The hook banged against the pole. Then handlers with leather gauntlets on their arms extracted small hooded birds from special boxes, put them in the cages, and removed their hoods. The handlers looked like falconcers, and the birds they put in the cages reminded me of falcons, but they were far too small to be hawks.
"Thsee are bug hawks," a handler announced. "We need to settle them where they can look for a mate and begin nesting in the spring. We'll feed them until they have a population of prey."
"What sort of prey?" I asked. Even in the night light, the bug hawks were fantasic creatures. They were dark, slate grey with bright turquoise and scarlet trim on their wings and green bills like neon and green wattles. Clearly they were not designed to be camouflaged or look like any other hawks or many other kinds of birds.
"Isn't it obvious. You currently have an introduced pest with no natural enemies that is destroying your deciduous trees. These birds have been genetically created to hold down the populations of the caterpillars that have entered our own world through the portals."
It was obvious, but all the gypsy moth caterpillars were overwintering. "You picked the wrong season to fight gypsy moths," I said.
"No," the priest explained. "The hawks need to create their territory in winter. We feed them until the first caterpillars hatch and supplement them when the population gets low. Without us, the hawks die, which is a good thing. Do you want another introduced species that invades and becomes destructive?"
I had not thought about that. I also had not thought that it was possible to kill gypsy moth caterpillars except with either poison to which they were now resistant, or cultural control, as in derbies. Neither of these methods were particularly successful. In their cages, the hawks cheaped. The handlers fed them bits of raw beef and suet.
I thought of how a year from now everyone would credit the priests with destroying the Gypsy moth caterpillar menace, putting demoralized adults back to work, opening fine new schools, and well the kids.... Perhaps Ellen from Nah'aquit would have a better education than she ever could get back in her tiny village. The priests had saved Shlomo-Yitzakh from humiliation and ostracism back in Atlanta. Chevie now attended a school she loved. It is hard to beat a good track record. "Beautiful birds," I answered. I had to admit, I would not mind not having to sweep the back deck or balcony every day.
I started getting cramps while I was peeling rutabega for Thanksgiving dinner. We were gonig to have roast rutabega, carrots, and brussels sprouts. This was as dish Xannika had inspired and that I now knew how to make. Artemis made a face at me as I worked. I made one back at her, the pain reflecting in my eyes and burning cheeks. Finally, I gave up and went upstairs to sit on the toilet. I was sure, I had some sort of stomach something, and was going to miss Thankgiving being sick, or worse, infect the whole house. I cursed my luck, peed, and wiped. The bright red on the toilet paper was unmistakeable. I stared at it stunned. I was placed. I had settled. Chevie and Shlomo-Yitzakh were OK, and now I could bleed.
Frozen Lake and Stormy Seas
December was the hardest month in Burden of Dreams. I had been winter camping and to Nationals in winter, but living with snow and cold on a day to day basis was new to me. The outdoor weather was not so bad. Walking in it, especially on Shabbos mornings was extremely pleasant, but the snow made any outdooor eating or other leisure atcivity unbearable. Our living room grew cluttered, and the Burden of Dreams town house sealed against the cold smelled of adolescents living in close quarters.
Several Sundays we had mass cleanup days because some lazy clan member left dishes or glasses in the sink. I tried to imagine eleven or twelve year olds added to our house and cringed. Our living room became a pit of clutter, no matter how many times the leaders made us clean it. Even the beautiful white room with red cherry trim stank of unwashed sheets and sweaty boots. There were two names on the door of our room now, Aurora's and my own name in both Hebrew and English. My name was red. Aurora's name had turned brown, but I could ahve started bleeding a year ago. I always felt behind on my schooling, and in the morning, I was tense and exhausted. Worse still, the sun rose late, and we went to school in the dark.
Then in mid-December our house grew yet more crowded. Pedra, Quetzalli, MaryAnn, Helena, and Dante returned for winter break. Odette arrived the week before Christmas and left two days after New Year's. Dartmouth did not have the long winter break of most other colleges and universities. The founding sisters and the eighteens did not have school. They took over the kitchen, Quetzalli challenged MaryAnn to make Christmas cookies, saying that MaryAnn could not bake to save her skin. This was true, but I just wanted the cooking lessons. Odem photographed everything, which meant I could send copies to Chevie and Shlomo-Yitzakh. That was the saving grace. Otherwise, our house was even more crowded, and when you crowd kids together they think of new ways to aggravate and insult each other. It's like a game. At least that is how Odem would explain it. She enjoyed the sniping. Aurora waited for the excrement to crash against the proverbial blowing machine.
It didn't. On December twenty-third, school let out for a ten day break. Clans did not traditionally send children home at Christmas time. Aurora took this hard. It was hard to see Aurora close to tears. Odem also missed her family. I was the one who could have cared less. I'd helped light candles at the Rabba's public menorah and kept the kitchen menorah lit every night. I did not need material gifts. I had a warm coat, a nice bedroom, good friends, and excellent food. I had learned to cook and now had a week to catch up on my studies. I felt grateful, as I walked back from the Rabba's synagogue Christmas Day in the afternon. Odem had gone to services with me to "kil time."
We walked down the trail to Upper Highland Lakes Drive and then past the beach at Lake Five. Someone had opened the door to the chain link fence. No one could swim any more. The lake had finally frozen hard enough to walk upon or even to hold a truck. The Vulcani were ploughing away the snow and using another vehicle called a zambonee to smooth and polish the ice for skating. Someone had pulled an industrial drum on to the beach and filled it with wood drenched in bio-d for a fire. Footprints pock marked the sand.
On the other side of the road, the Garbage Dump had two new stories. They had been quickly, stick built. "Oh shit," sighed Odem.
"Merry Christmas," I replied.
"You don't think they're going to hold off until New Year's?" Odem asked.
I was no optimist when it came to the priests. That night, I saw Sophia Loren. She was walking across the beach in a sable coat and a matching hat from beneath which her long, black hair flowed. The sky overhead was grey with dawn instead of black with night. I did not see her car with the New Mexico plates. "You like that new house?" she asked.
"What's not to like?" I answered.
"You know what's not to like. That house is going to keep growing and swallow up the whole world. The adults are not going to protect you. The adults have surrendered. You're fourteen. You don't have to surrender."
"I want an education. Off the grid you starve. How do I know to trust you?"
"Are you out of cliches yet?" Sophia asked me.
"I'd know where to go if I wanted what you had," I said. "You don't have to come after me."
Just then the sky turned magenta. This was a cheap stick trick and I knew it, but still I listened for the sound. Takings always begin with the summoning sound. I imagined Ulysses tied to the mast. I imagined his crew with wax in their ears. I put my fingers in my ears and sat looking at the snow covered sand. I heard laughing mixed in with what I was sure was the horn. Blow, blow your horn!
I looked up very slowly to see two priests robed in white satin and wearing sandals. That's all they wore despite the winter cold. The bald headed priests laughed. "Now there is one we can't impress with the sky," they said. "How much longer before we really impress you?"
"Never," I said through clenched teeth. "NEVER!" I screamed and woke up. I could hear my teeth chatter. I blinked back tears. Like my mother, I cry, but I just do it for myself. Maybe it is OK. I buried my face in the pillow. "Have you lost it yet?" Odem asked me.
"I've only lost the quiet," I responded. "And we are all losing sleep."
"Don't worry about it," my roommate from Statesboro consoled me. "Sleep EXPLETIVE DELETEDs anyway."
The day after Christmas, we helped clean the house which was was disgusting. We agreed to go out to dinner and buy food. We ate in one of the big buffets at the mall. I saw lots of priests esating in the buffet, but this was the Interior. I also thought I saw Sophia Loren, but it was probably just someone who looked just like her. "I know where to go," I told myself. Then I realized I was in the North Jersey Mall and not heading down a lonely country road in winter. How many months, not weeks, had it been since I had visited the Farmer? I knew I needed to get back there, but what would I tell him and his companion? What could they do? In the end they were just characters in my mind like Sophia Loren and Hanna, the doppelganger from Texarkana.
Still, I could feel dinner stick to my throat. The next morning the siren awoke me. It was playing some sort of a repetitive tune. By the time I made the tune out, I felt the tight, tension in my muscles and the jumpiness of a stomach that knew from my brain that reality was warped and altered. I thought of Ulysses again. I wondered if there was a way to get to the Farmer through all that noise. I wondered what the Farmer did. Of course I knew. I dressed quickly. The other kids were dressing. The bathroom, even on our floor was crowded, and once again messy because we could never keep it clean.
I put on my coat and hat. Again this attracted no notice. Odem had all ready left. There were buses parked outside Grandview Circle to take everyone to the Taking. When one bus left, another arrived. The priests made it easy to follow the path of least resistance. I walked around to the side of the house. My keys would open the padlock to the basement. A faded sign on the door warned. "Gross and Snmelly Basement. Don't Store Stuff Here. It will be Ruined." "Passive voice," I thought and let myself in the basement. I locked the door from the inside and turned on the light. I crouched near the furnace and sat on the dirty cement floor. I did not have wax for my hears, and the walls seemed to reverberate with sound. I gagged and retched with longing that made me sweat. I threw nothing up, because my body had nothing to vomit. I closed my eyes which burned with tears. I tried to imagine a ship and the perilous waters filled with rocks at the island of the beautiful singing women. The beautiful singing women had fangs, a thirst for human blood, and a hunger for their flesh. They did not bother turning shipwreacked sailors into pigs. They just killed them with sharp spears and roasted them. Human flesh is long pig. "You are not going to devour me," I shouted from the deck of my imaginary ship.
"But skipper," my imaginary first mate asked me. "We're all out of wax."
&qut;We don't need wax. It's just a prop and it doesn't work anyway," I spat back. I hung on to the wheel of my craft. My crew stood transfixed. "Man your EXPLETIVE DELETEDing stations!" I bellowed. One small girl began to climb the rigging to the crow's nest. The transfixed adults watched. Then slowly it sunk in. Slowly they stopped listening to the sirens' song and went back to helping the ship not end up on the rocks. After many hours, my imaginary craft reached calm seas. The sun shown, turning the waves the color of painted mesas. "I need a break," I told my crew. My first mate relieved me, and I went down to the galley for a glass of cold lemonade and a look at the two week old newspaper from Israel. Hey, this was my ship after all.
Suddenly, someone pounded on the galley door. I sat dazed and soaked with sweat and stinking of fear and something else, I could not place. "She locked herself in the basement, the idiot," said a disdainful female voice. "Ahava," called a voice that sounded like Amaryllis' "You can come out now. They're going to need you down at the Garbage Dump."
I struggled to my feet. The basement swam. I decided I was just hungry. I also needed to pee. I undid the basement lock. Bright winter sun reflected off the snow. "I'm sorry," I stammered. "You didn't miss anything," Amaryllis reassured me. "You feel all right?"
"I just need to use the bathroom," I confessed. "I'll get something to eat at the Garbage Dump." Let's just say I was in a Holland Rusk kind of mood. No, I was in a better mood than that. I thought of my imaginary ship once again, and realized that I had resisted a Taking by pure force of will. I did not need the Farmer. I did not need Sophia Loren, and now those who were swept into the gyre, needed me.
The taking of December 27, 2083 was the first national taking probably ever. The sick kid buffet was crowded. I glanced around for Ellen from Nah'aquit and found her. I did not find the kuba. I saw her later that night, showing a younger kid how to make up a bed. We had triples in the EBA/SU section of the Garbage Dump. I glanced at the faces, faces of kids who had been promised Nationals. There weren't going to be any more Nationals. This taking could even go two weeks. I thought of our own crowded house. Somewhere in the back of my mind the sirens with the sharp teeth were still singing away and now laughter mixed with their music.
"It tastes like Vaseline!"
As it turned out, I was not particularly useful during the first two week taking. Most of the big tasks, making sure the little kids went to school, and that those who needed encouragements received them fell to the Scholars Union and Ed Branch Atlanta, whose Specialists and Representatives quarreled with eachother in a way that made kid quarreling look tame. We did get to go ice skating, something I did poorly, but was going to learn to do better, and cross country skiing which I could do half way proficiently, and would get to practice. I took lessons with the little kids, and was something between a buffoon and an inspiration. A question that hung over the creche was what to do with six to nine year olds on a two week taking. They did not have Nationals. The older kids had their own special projects. Some of them built spahgetti bridges or learned how to make potato batteries. Several worked on reading Hebrew. I remember teaching the aleph-bais to kids who could barely sound it out. The Rabba even gave me Hebrew flash cards.
Our bus ran straight to Newton and it was a long bus. In fact it was two long buses, which meant that on one bus, I got to lead the singing. I don't know what happened on the other bus. The kuba was thrilled that I had remembered her songs. I also added one of mey own. Actually, it was Theadora from Nationals' song. It was the song about the comet that tastes like vaseline and makes you vomit. It has a lot of other verses, nearly all of them about excrement.
Horse shit, it makes the flowers grow
The poor kuba did not like all the verses about excrement. Most of the other kids enjoyed them though. "Just don't sing Barnacle Bill," the kuba told me. The kuba was safe. I didn't know a song called Barnacle Bill.
Odem and Aurora proved themselves far more useful than I. Aurora helped run the Basic Studies classes for the younger kids. She taught letter writing. Odem helped set up computers with special large keyboards. Most very young Ed Branch kids can't type, but they know how to write letters if you teach them. This meant they could email their parents, or their Placement Specialists who could pass the letters on to their parents, or the local Priesthood, clan leaders, etc... In short, Odem and Aurora kept legions of small children from falling down a black hole.
This meant that five or six days into the new year, parents' began to appear from near and far. Sometimes they came from as far away as Florida or Ohio. A few took their kids home. We couldn't stop them. Most hugged their kids, ate a few meals with them and left. Then the children cried. Still, some tears are good tears. At least Odem thought so. Quite a few of the youngest children had stuffed animals to help them sleep. Aurora taught proper bed making so that they could use the animals to decorate and personalize their beds during the day.
The Scholars Union Rep suggested giving a prize for the cleanest dormitory room. That made me laugh. I put up a sign on the bathroom door on third floor (my floor) at Burden of Dreams: "CONDEMNED by the Sussex County Board of Health." The children in the Garbage Dump did not have to clean their bathrooms. A work clan called the Purple Coyotes had that job. Other clans did the catering. More than once I heard one of the adult employees call children "Little Princes." It was an ugly name.
Of course Aurora, who had the utter gift of usefulness, remembered a book called The Little Prince. It was a strange story. I even looked up information on who would write such a story about a little prince who falls to Earth, and can't return unless he is bitten by a snake that kills him. The snake in the story reminded me of Sophia Loren. The planet was freedom, except the Little Prince also needed sheep to kill his baobob trees or at least keep them from taking over his tiny world. Maybe the Little Prince's world wasn't freedom after all.
A color reporduction of the cover of The Little Prince soon appeared on the door to the EBA/SU section of the Garbage Dump. The maintenance employee who always cleaned the bathrooms in that section looked at it and said "Isn't that sweet?" Some people are just clueless.
The children stayed in the Garbage dump until January sixteenth. Then they went home, often on buses to take them to Warwick and then to New York for direct stick transport if they needed it, and often by more direct stick transport if they had other sorts of encouragements. Representatives of all sorts of clans came by to look over the children and select a few of the older ones for trialing. I remembered the way that children had began to look at eachother strangely in the dining hall by the time the taking neared its end. Many of the children involved with fantasy encouragements, had special, extra warm, skin tight, lycra or other fiber knit clothing. Some practiced martial arts moves. A semi-professional ice hockey team wanted to hog the ice where Ed Branch kids went night skating. Another group spent its days at the school gymnasium practicing basketball. The most disturbing group was a bunch of girls given sticks they did not understand, preset things that made flashing of light and other cute effects. I suspected they were candidates for some sort of priestly encouragement, but the future acolytes irritated me. Quetzalli suspected that most of them were dumb as a noisey box of rocks. I just wanted them to stay out of the way.
And then of course the Garbage Dump stood empty. We helped the maintenance clans clean it. I felt a grey, ugly, let down inside me that matched the sky. I did not want another taking again, but I missed the mornings singing o nthe bus and the night skating. I could finally push off with the side of my foot and glide. I could even skate backwards a little bit. That wasn't much. And of course, I had to menstruate again. Odem got her period too and finally made a blot instead of writing her name. She cursed her stingey body.
In late January the eighteens and the two Founding Sisters with long breaks went back to school. Odette with her Dartmouth quarters was all ready long gone. The house felt close and stale. I stayed up late studying and slept on the short bus. I was no longer hungry in the mornings. I no longer got to walk to middle school. I was actually home sick for the first time since July and that was weird!
One lunch period toward the end of January, I received a call from Chevie. This happened a couple of times a week, and Chevie's voice usually snapped me out of my peevish winter funk. This time though, Chevie had an odd request. "I need you to write to Dov and Kayla," she told me.
"Why?" I asked. I should not have asked it, but I did.
"They're your brother and sister." It was obvious of course, but not that obvious. Dov spent his time playing sports. We had nothing in common, and I was not sure Kayla could read. I told this to Chevie.
"Kayla can read. She's very smart," Chevie informed me.
"Yes, but will Mom let them have my letters?quot; Ah, this was the perfect argument. I was gonig to win this one hands down.
&quiot;Mom, let Shlomo-Yitzakh read your letters."
I wanted to argue back that that was before my parents learned that even favored boys can think for themselves, but something stopped me, well not entirely. "Chevie," I asked. "Has either Kayla or Dove written you back?"
"Kayla did," Chevie replied.
"How did she get the postage?" I was no fool.
"I think one of her teachers or a friend's parents helped her. You turned your back on your friends when you were ten."
"I did not!" I all but howled. "I saw them every week in synagogue."
"But you were too busy with your new school, to try to reach them on weekdays."
"They were in school too," I protested, but there was something to what Chevie said. Actually, I had been preoccupied with both making a success of Druid Hills Magnet Academy, which dazzled me (I have very good middle school memories.), and making sure I could continue to learn Judaics and keep a tie to my faith. Spending time at friends houses instead of staying for evening program at school, was just not on my list of priorities. I was not sure my friends' parents would want me around, and I was not going to risk finding out. Dov and Kayla were different. Chevie was also different, but I had never figured her out except I knew she was safe, and I did not want Mom to hurt her the way she had hurt me.
"My school day went until seven pm, and then I had Summer Activities," I kept up the argument, but it was futile. Kayla had written. Dov and Kayla could receive mail. Neither knew Hebrew. Neither had email access. I promised Chevie I would write to my two other siblings. I should have thanked Chevie. I wondered why she wanted me to have relations with all the siblings who could send and read letters. I realized that I knew next to nothing about my younger sister. I knew she had thought me selfish and in another life time I considered her a dirty rat, and I was jealous of her for having things easy with Mom. That was of course another life time, and my ideas had perhaps blinded me to what might have been going on in Chevie's head. I'd also been so busy taking care of myself in the only way I could figure out that I had no idea about any of my other siblings except Shlomo-Yitzakh and I only knew about him because we shared a passion for Judaics.
I did promise to write to Dov and Kayla. I told Kayla about my cooking and my studies. I asked Dov about the Atlanta Eagles, our basketaball team, and the Panthers, our ice hockey team. I was not sure if Dov followed either of those sports. I just knew Dov would rather be out on the playing field than in the classroom, but that was common for a lot of boys. With the right encouragement and a taking, Dov would be hogging the gym. I know that sounds stereotyped, but that shows you how little I knew.
For Chevie, however, I had a longer letter.
My Dear Sister,
I guess the time has come to ask you a lot of questions. Perhaps it is due to the unfortunate events that got me expelled from Torah Day School, when I was ten, but I hardly know any of my siblings except for Shlomo-Yitzakh. I only know him because we both shared a love of religion and religious study.
I do not even know you. We shared a room, but we hardly spoke. I know you did not like school as much as I had. I know you were Mom's favorite and that you were very fond of the babies who were born after my expulsion. Beyond that, I know nothing, except for your stroke of brilliance in contacting me during a taking when most kids would have gone along like sheep. Now I really want to know who is the person who slept only a few feet away from me?
Maybe I can ask these questions now that I have a place of my own and don't have to worry about running off to school to eat breakfast. An empty belly blinds you to others' thoughts, hopes, and dreams. I want to know the following:
How did you keep Mom from crying and get her to listen to you?
I know these are painful questions. They are painful even if you grew up relatively unscathed and on everybody's good side. It can hurt to be a good kid too. I think it hurts more. A bad kid at least has someone convenient to blame. I look forward to hearing your reply.
It was not waiting for a reply from Chevie, or even one from Dov or Kayla that kept me from taking the bus and then walking or skiing up the road to find the Farmer and his companion. It was not even having too much work to do at school, though I was up to my eyeballs in academics. Catch up among scholars quickly gives way to excel and push until you drop and need to go out on the ice late at night to skate where the work clans have smoothed it with a zambonee or go skiing on the fields below Conway. The dark and the cold of mid January 2084 fast became my friends. I ate sandwiches and the occasional salad for dinner. Working in the kitchen could give me as much solace as studying and often, when I was too strung out with exhaustion or keyed up from study to sleep and exercise did not cure me, making cole slaw, sweet potato biscuits, carrot, or potato salad relaxed me. Amaryllis sat with me in the kitchen at one in the morning watching me cook and "making sure I was OK."
Sometimes I realized that she was trying to be my mother. I wasn't sure what my friends' mothers would have done. Parents like to lord it over kids and order them off to bed, but maybe Amaryllis knew it would be futile in my case. I did not talk much to her. I was not much of a talker. Maybe it was the way I was raised. Xannika thanked me for the food the next day. I'd give Amaryllis a taste out of courtesy. She said it was good that I learned to cook.
Yet, none of this kept me from striking out and looking for the Farmer. I told myself I just wanted to talk to his companion. I told myself, and of course did nothing. What happened had to do with boys. Quetzalli of course was right about boys. There are not that many scholar boys and most, unlike Dante, are heterosexual, meaning they prefer the opposite gender for romance. Most boys whether hetero or homosexual have an odd propensity to reckless behavior. That was how Ondina politely described it. Tweetie said it was that males had something to prove and didn't tolerate disrespect. "We don't put up with bullshit like you girls." This explanation in itself was utter bullshit, since kids of both genders inhabit a world filled with bullshit. Bullshit is a fact of life.
A few days after the last of the Founding Sisters and Eighteens returned to college, I chaired the 4-H meeting to discuss the Community Gardens. I was quite adamant about NOT micromanaging the gardens. Any one who wanted a plot could grow what they liked. Different and interesting crops were welcome since most of us weren't going to have access to livestock except maybe rabbits or guinea fowl. The problem was having enough land and compost piles and kids to turn those piles and transport to haul...well you know what goes into a compost heap.
While we were discussing all this, a female voice several rooms away shouted out a long, angry stream of profanity that would have made my doppelganger, Hanna in Texarkana, blush. In fact, the poor doppelganger would have turned scarlet. The one who spewed all that foul language in a voice loud enough to disturb our "faculty advisor" and any other nearby "faculty advisors" as well as sundry teachers grading papers was Odem, self proclaimed bad kid, but Odem usually did not engage in gratuitious stupidity. Odem believed badness stemmed from self interest. What could make my roommate act so foolish?
Our meeting now hopelessly disrupted drifted toward the classroom door, and several students poked their heads out. Odem stood in the hallway confronting not only a perplexed math teacher, whom she and Aurora liked, but also a Scholars Union Representative. Scholars Union Representatives deserved the bad reputation people gave to priests, but even portal priests were not as bad as Scholars Union Reps. Quite frankly, Scholars Union Reps did not like American high school students, even those like us who were scholars. They did not think we were dumb. They thought we were weird, and they did not understand our need for a wide variety of extracurriculars and all the trappings and trimmings of a high school. They patrolled the hall during after school activities to "learn about our culture." Well, Odem had given the poor Rep a real lesson.
"Your'e a real bad kid now," I thought and did not envy my poor roommate one bit. Odem meanwhile was in tears, her face swollen. I realized I had never seen her like that before. Even my mother did not cry with so much raw emotion. Of course mom cried early and often, and had to save her energy. "If you're going to yell at someone, go yell at Atilla. He's the one who provoked the DNS. Now we're all going to suffer. I had a right to be angry and curse him out. You'd do worse to him than that, but I don't have your power. All I have is cuss words."
DNS stood for denial of service. Odem was upset because a stupid boy had screwed up the computers, by playing a stupid game of using them to attack a network at a rival school. Odem had been putting together old machines with spare parts, so we could expand the computer facility at the Garbage Dump for the next wave of little kids. This was a constructive use of computer knowledge. What Atilla Saprophyte had done...as I said before boys are stupid. They are stupid even when they whale on the math team and suddenly start wanting to eat lunch with your clan because Aurora is a math team star and the other two fourteens "pull their EXPLETIVE DELETEDing weight" in geometry, and actually enjoy French and literature as well. They are stupid, even if the boy and his clan buddies are polite, and when they bathe every day so they don't get all stinky, and remember to wear clean shirts most of the time.
The Saprophyte boys in particular (They're clan was nearly all male) had a funny kind of stupid that made them want to have something to prove, even when they clearly had the gooods. The Saprophytes daily ate flaming hot chili or curry and added extra hot sauce and hot peppers, just to show they were tough. Their informal leader was a high school senior called Elohim. Elohim was really a runt. He stood 5'4" the same height as Aurora, but he was twice as wide as she, with lank hair hanging to his shoulders and parted in the middle and a face with no color. Even his zits were colorless. Uh, they do sell acne medicine at the drug store. Elohim had also never learned to wash his glasses in the sink. Xannika taught this technique to little kids at the Garbage Dump. Elohim's dirty glasses were usually part way down his bulbous nose.
"He's in there!" Odem told the Rep and the faculty. "Come out Atilla and I hope you're real EXPLETIVE DELETEDing proud of what you did! You EXLETIVE DELETEDing EXPLETIVE DELETEDed it up for every body here. Now they're going to EXLETIVE DELETEDing watch us like EXPLETIVE DELETEDing hawks because of you! A*S*S*H*O*L*E!" Atilla walked passed Odem. Shambled was more like it. He always shambled. He too was a runt, though not a fat one. His white dress shirt turned oatmeal begige from not being a professional launderer, stuck out like a dissheveled tail from the behind of his worn, brown, courderoy pants. For some reason, Atilla liked to wear shoes to school. His long reddish brown hair fell in a shock over one eye. He pushed it away, and blinked as if he had come out into the light. Much to Odem's chagrin he was utterly unfazed by the trouble that surrounded him.
The Rep looked over Atilla with a mild sort of curiosity and then said in a soft, serious voice. "Atilla Saprophyte, this is not the way a scholar should behave. Odem Koch-Burden, this is not the way a scholar should behave. I am going to need to speak with the leaders of both your clans."
"We don't deserve to be shit canned!" Odem protested. Atilla Saprophyte just smiled. The Scholars Union held their meeting over the comm phone via conference call. At least they did not waste time. Amaryllis did not defend Odem. She was guity of losing her cool. Actually, she was guilty of totally losing it. She was head of the Computer Club, and she "needed to improve her leadership skills." Coming from Ondina, you could take this at face value. As for Atilla, he was the Saprophytes problem, and the incident was both clans problems. Clearly, both the Burden of Dreams and Saprophyte fourteens lacked discipline, and had too much time on their hands. Both clans had also dishonored one another. The cure was a mathematical challenge between both clans groups of fourteens. Since there were three fourteens in each clan, you can guess who challenged whom.
This meant, I ate slept, and breathed geometry, since I was surely the weakest link in a strong chain, but the Saprophyte fourteens were scholars too. Suddenly, both our clans were bound by our mutual punishment. We ate lunch together. The Saprophytes were shocked we got nothing hot and did not have milk to drink. Scholars need strength. Aurora declared the Saphrophyte lunches too hot and spicey to be edible. Xannika ate a hot pepper just to prove she could. Then said it was too much for her.
The challenge was held at 5pm on the first Friday afternoon of February. We brought our clan banner to school. It was white with a steam boat and a huge scarlet hibiscus on it. The Saprophyte's banner was black with a scull over white slime green fungus grew and the clan name in white gothic letters. The Saprophytes dressed all in black. We just wore our scarlet clan sweat shirts. It was after all a "shirt day" if ever there was one. The school banner and Scholar's Union banner hung on the classroom wall too. We met in a room with multiple white boards and a data projector which focused on a huge screen. We were going to work with the stylus and projector on a smooth pad for easy writing. The six of us came down to the front of the room where three Representatives from the Scholars Union were the judges. Our clan leaders were there sitting on opposite sides along with the older kids from each clan who made up the audience. The Reps went over the rules with us. The audience had to be quiet. They could not give hints or indicate an answer was incorrect. Each kid soliving his/her proof was on her own. If they did not do it correctly it went to the next kid and would be erased so that each kid had to start from scratch. All that was fair enough as long as it was fairly enforced for both sides.
The challenge lasted two and a half hours with the proofs getting harder and harder. It was a non-elimination challenge, though each proof finished correctly counted for a certain number of points. The more proofs solved, the more points. I tried not to be afraid at the front of the room. I ignored my fear. Aurora explained what she was doing as she solved problems. I got tongue tied. Odem also got tongue tied. We werent' used to this even though Aurora was on the math team, and a real pro, and Odem was usually full of bluster. She may have liked the idea of fear, but it dumb founded her as she struggled to keep a clear mind.
In the end, the Reps declared the challenge a "dead heat and statistical tie." We lost by one point, but that was close enough for there to be "no clear winner." We, both our clans, were "scholars in the true sense," and the Rep who awarded us both honors, told us "I hope you remember this challenge and who you really are, and live up to your abilities. You may have been told that high school is a time for silly gams, but it is not. It is your proving ground."
Sussex County Academy for Scholars was only our proving ground for academics. Our proving ground for our moral selves was the Garbage Dump. The night after the challenge I dreamed that I went to find the Farmer. I went on cross country skis, crossing endless fields of snow; for his house and farm had vanished or I had lost the way to find him. The siren sounded while I was in syangogue. Services stopped. Adults stood stricken, feeling the longing and attraction against their will. I thought of Ulysses on the deck of his ship listening to the sirens. "Pretend you are tied to the mast," I told the Rabba, her husband, and the other congregants. Only Odem who had come with me to pray a prayer of thanks got it. "You're not leaving. Those are the sirens. They are going to eat you alive. They love ship wreacked sailors. Think of the story. Pretend you are in the story and you have wax in your ears. That's what I do when there is a taking."
"You can do that because you are all ready taken," Odem made a joke of me.
"I am placed not taken, but now I am strong. You can be strong if you think of Ulysses."
"Ulysses is a Greek story," answered the Rabba's husband.
"There isn't a Jewish story like it," I answered and I sat down on the ground. I sat as if I were tied to the mast. Odem sat next to me. If I was going to be tough, so was she. The Saprophytes were probably heading to the taking but not us. We waited to see what the adults would do. Some had all ready drifted outside. The Rabba went with them, and so did her husband, but several adults sat next to us. The sticking made me nauseous. I had to get up once and vomit in the sink. Last night's dinner came up in case you are curious. Then I went back to my imaginary mast. Sitting next to one another we gave each other strength, until the siren stopped. Then I washed my face and drank some water. It would stay down now. My legs felt rubbery, but I could walk if I walked slowly. Besides, I knew what I would find at the Garbage Dump.
The Silly Season
The February 5, 2084 taking was not fully national because it did not fill the Garbage Dump. It took a Portal Priest to explain -- and it was no state secret when you really thought about it -- that children from the even numbered states on an alphabetical list had been taken. That meant that both Ellen from Na'haquit and the kuba had returned. Saturday night we did a brisk business in Holland rusks, Rye Vita, and other stick sick friendly foods. Several six year olds needed encouragements nad uniforms. Aurora said the door to the EBA/SU area needed more pictures of the Little Prince. He should become our unofficial mascot. Somehow that thought left me very sad.
I thought about Antoine St. Expury who wrote The Little Prince, and many other stories of his life as a pilot. He is long dead and not buried anywhere. His plane was "lost" for many years, and they found his body or rather his plane (His body was gone by then. Skeletons disintegrate and animals break the bones even in the desert) about eighty years ago, long before there was even a company. Saturday night, we went skating. America's Clan ran their zambonee over the ice. Tweetie and Jewels gave lessons in ice fishing which required sitting quietly on the frigid ice, waiting for fish to bite on rotten hot dogs, canned corn, or doughballs, impaled on hooks and weighted with split shot. Oddly enough there were boys nad even some girls interested in ice fishing. The Purple Coyotes had made a deal to clean, and cook anything the kids caught that was large enough to eat. Fish don't hybernate in the winter, and Jewels and Tweetie's blood sport club was bound to catch something edible sooner or later.
Meanwhile, the ice became crowded. The hockey players from their sports clan wanted to monopolize it. Why this clan did not operate out of a creche near a real rink was beyond me. The players were a rough sort. They also had a very ugly sense of entitlement. More than once, Aurora or Xannika spoke to their kid in charge or adult in charge and explained that the ice was for everybody and were here first. Their game did not take priority, and if they did not see reason, we would take our grievances to the Priests. The hockey coach laughed at us. "Don't leave," Auror instructed our intrepid band of mostly younger girls. "What are they going to do, knock pucks at us? They do that, they're committing assault." "They do that and some little kids get hurt," I thought, but I liked the idea of just toughing it out. I hated the stupid, arrogant, laughing coach.
Perhaps we could have taught him a lesson, but one of the hockey players went off to persue an easier target. Several hockey players skated right through the ice fishers, disturbing and frightening the younger kids and knocking over bait buckets and tackel boxes. Jewels and Tweetie kept their tackle kits perfectly organized, and the sight of lewers, split shot, hook cans, leaders, and other odds and ends scattered all over the moonlit ice, was too much for testosterone fueld pride. Are you so unfamiliar with the ways of boys, that I have to explain what happened next. At least the hockey players threw down their sticks and pulled off their gloves. This was a bare knuckle brawl. The little kids got to watch until a seven year old girl had the good sense to run and fetch the Priests. These were the Portal Priests, but no adult likes to see boys fight.
At least Jewels and Tweetie got all their tackle back. Not much of it was destroyed. They had black eyes and bloody noses. They also got shitcanned. The Scholars Union Rep interrogated them. Amaryllis and Ondina wrung their hands. Of course, our fighting boys who did not start the brawl were just a side show. When I arrived at school on Monday, I saw the Scholars Union Reps taking aside a swollen headed twelve year old girl. I knew the girl vaguely. She went by the name Orra which is Hebrew. She came from New York City's East Side. She wore lime green or hot pink courderoy pants and a puffy, pink, down ski jacket. She had olive skin and straight black hair, sharp black eyes, and she liked to eat quiche and omelettes and egg salad sandwiches. She walked with the swagger of a kid who has a rump but no breasts. She walked with the swagger that if she were a boy would earn her a broken nose, but girls don't fight physically. Orra for some reason never rode on my long bus.
I watched Orra lost in the circle formed by broad shouldered Scholars Union Reps. I pretended to be Odem as I watched; for she enjoyed this kind of thing. I just knew I had to be wary. Orra and all the younger kids on the long buses bound for SCAS and other schools were being taken much too frequently, too randomly, too brutally. The Scholars Union was an Interior organization. It really had no business messing with the younger kids, even arrogant brats like Orra. That was what I was thinking as a tall Scholars Union Rep with a long blond braid and a pink face of weathered skin walked straight toward me. "Sorry," I thought. "I'm not even on Orra's bus. I saw nothing. I was not involved."
"Ahava," the Union Rep got my name right. Score one! "We need to ask a favor of you," went the royal we.
"Sure," I stammered. What did these goons want?
"We need you to ride home on Bus Number Two." That sounded easy enough, but I didn't know the buses had numbers. "I take it that's the bus I don't usually ride," I tried to sound confident.
"Yes," the Scholars Union Rep replied. "You are going to be leading the singing."
"Well," I thought. "Maybe I received a promotion. I'm sure the kuba taught me some good group songs in English." I smiled. Then I remembered Orra. "What's happening with Orra?" I made my question sound real casual. "You're taking over from her," the Union Rep replied.
At 5:30pm on Wednesday, I took home a different long bus than the usual one. I needed to eat supper, study, and then go night skating. Thankfully we could still night skate despite the stupid hockey players. I had no love for them since they trashed Jewels and Tweetie's tackle for no good reason except stupid, boy spite. I pulled myself on to my new bus. Orra looked daggers at me. Two blonde girls smiled a greeting. Girls don't fight physically, but I could feel something was very wrong. I searhced my head for my bus songs.
"OK," I announced. "We're singing the Scholars' Hymn." This is one Kohana hated. She had written a paper on it in college. She said it was actually a song that others could use to make fun of scholars. At Druid Hills Magnet Academy though we sang an upgraded and sanitized version of it.
We are special
"Do you have any EXPLETIVE DELETEDing idea what's going on?" Orra led with a rhetorical question.
"Not really," I replied.
"OK, I used to ride the subways to school."
"And did you sing dirty songs on the subway?" This was a wild guess but I suspected that there were nastier songs than the one about the comet that makes you vomit.
"We sung 'em in the basement down near the water pipes and sometimes in the locker room before gym and sometimes when they made us take turns around the track. That was boring. Well riding a tin can for an hour every day is EXPLETIVE DELETEDing boring and being stuck in the boonies because the Priests decided to kidnap all the kids sucks big time. We have to have a way to let off steam, so there's songs, and yeah they're nasty and have dirty words in them, but not even the six year olds have virgin ears or if they did, I took care of it. Ignorance is not really bliss, you know."
I tried not to look at Orra. She was about to cry. "Are you really that homesick?" I asked.
"I'd just like my family and me to be in charge of what happens to me," Orra glanced at me with eyes starting to shed tears.
I took a deep breath. My own throat felt tight. I knew what I could suggest. It was not that hard to simply resist a taking, except... "Off the grid you starve," a familiar cliche ricocheted through my head. Well, it was partly true. Orra's family were city people. They'd lose their jobs if their kids and they hid. It was that simple. Orra had siblings. The siblings would starve too.
"What do your parents do?" I felt my way along.
"My mother's a hospital administrator and my dad is a college professor."
That meant neither of them was even semi-independent. "Do you have brothers and sisters?" I inquired.
"I'm the oldest of three," Orra answered.
"If you resist takings, you can cost your parents their job and your brothers and sisters will go hungry,&quoit; I explained. "Your parents have to be willing to make the sacrifice too."
"Are you saying this is my parents fault?" Orra's face was beginning to swell and redden.
"Yes, your parents are complicit." That was a great word when you thought about it.
"You're probably right, but this isn't the way it's supposed to be. Takings are supposed to be twice a year. I'm supposed to be old enough for Nationals, but there's no more Nationals and the EXPLETIVE DELETEDing Priests take us whenever they feel like it and they do the same to my sisters who are eight and six. We all get taken and taken again. This isn't fair. They changed the rules."
I had nothing to say. Actually, I had something to offer Orra, but was she old enough to understand the price she might pay. "How badly do you want an education?" I asked the kid.
"I want it...I mean, I like school, but I like free reading better, and I like French. French blows."
"OK, would you give up French and access to a library to be free?"
"What about my parents' jobs."
"They may or may not lose them, but if we do something here in New Jersey, chances are the Priests will know it's your fault and your parents won't get blamed."
"What can I do?"
"Figure it out."
"You know people off the grid?"
I nodded. "Shit," sighed Orra. "What are you still doing here?"
"I have two younger siblings that I really care about. I need to stay in touch with them. One is in Israel and one is in Tasmania, near Australia."
"So you stay for phone and email."
"I stay because I like school and learning Judaics. I also stay for my Chevie and Shlomo-Yitzhak."
"Shit," sighed Orra. "You don't EXPLETIVE DELETED around do you?"
"It's different for everybody," I told Orra. "I want you to think it over for forty-eight hours. Then if you still want to do it, we'll go Sunday afternoon."
"OK," Orra answered.
"Think about it," I warned her. "Long and hard. Think of the consequences for you and your family. Then if you still want to do it, I'll help you."
Orra nodded and then she sobbed quietly.
After dinner, I was in no mood to work, so I went ice skating. America's Clan had cleared a path around the lake and small spots for kids to practice their figure skating moves. This meant we could avoid the hockey players. The ice fising area was separated by a fence to keep marauding hockey players out as well. The stars were bright and the sky above black as jet. I could feel God in the cold stars and in the way my skates ate up the ice and my body glided. My legs hurt, but it was the pain that would make muscles grow stronger. I could feel God in my warm red blood. Sometimes prayers have no words. I had learned that in middle school. I have good middle school memories.
I found the enail after I got back to Burden of Dreams House, and after I had studied for several hours. I was the only kid still up and in the fourth floor computer lounge. I stared at the words on the screen.
Rosa and the rest of my Nurturing Team said I should write this down as much for me as for you. You asked, and so it was time you knew. imma [Hebrew word for mother] did not always feed me, just as she often did not feed you. I had to live by my wits. For a long time I thought you were too dumb to survive, but then I realized you had money so you didn't have to live by your wits. Also you cared about religion and religious learning in a way I did not understand. You were like Shmuel in that way, but you also had a passion for pain. I think it's called masochism. I remember when you tore up your hand on that stupid rope. You acted like it was a badge of honor. You'd climbed a rope and hurt yourself. Big, EXPLETIVE DELETEDing deal! And yeah, I know the words. I like cussing.
I don't really like stealing, though I stole. When I was hungry, I'd shoplift at Publix. Sometimes I took Dov with me. I taught him how, but he always took candy. It was extra food. That's what he called it. Dov ate with the men at shal shudis or when they had snacks at kollel and also with his friends, the way you used to before you were kicked out. Dov tried to eat with his friends all the time. I was afraid of doing that too much though my friends' mothers were sympathetic. I did not want to become too big a mooch, and I liked being able to pick out what I got.
My favorite item to steal was teriyaki beef jerky. You can live on that, you know. Dov used to complain that it was not kosher. I told him that we were stealing anyway so what difference did it EXPLETIVE DELETEDing make? Religion was all bullshit to me anyway.
Well now that I'm in Tasmania all that is behind me. Imma and abba [Hebrew word for father] don't answer my email or return my calls. They've stopped picking up when I phone them. They also won't pick up for any one on my Nurturing Team. This means no visits back to Atlanta. Yes, that hurts.
My Nurturing Team also gave me a card with money on it and said I could buy whatever I liked. I don't spend it all. I have a thing about not wanting to mooch, but I don't steal either. I think the card is to keep me from stealing. I really want my Nurturing Team to like me. In many ways, they are like my friends' mothers, but they also really care about me. They ask me 'What do you want? What would you like? What do you think?' I have to answer 'I don't know' a lot of the time. Sometimes I have to think real hard to come up with an answer, but they really care about the answer. That's why I won't steal here in Hobart like I did in Atlanta. Do you understand?
And you wanted to know about abba. Well everyone thinks he is a scholar and an EXLETIVE DELETEDing tsaddik [Hebrew for saint]. That's EXPLETIVE DELETEDing bullshit! He just wants to sit and read and have nobody bother him except Shlomo-Yitzakh who worshipped him and probably still does. You know abba broke Shlomo-Yitzakh's heart. He also doesn't care about Dov except to get angry at him when he won't sit on his butt all day and read. He wants to play ball with his friends. OK, I don't think much of team sports, but I think Dov does that to be social. Abba never once tried to be social with Dov. Do you understand? And no, we girls didn't count with abba. I knew that even before you were kicked out. Well I decided not to waste my time if you know what I mean. If we girls meant nothing to abba then abba meant nothing to me, understand?
Well that's our family. It's the only one we got. I'm sure there are plenty of others just as bad. I just hope that Dov and Kayla are all right. The very little kids, Yitzy and Yoni are still young enough that imma will look after them so I don't worry about them as much. Of course imma could always get pregnant again. That means that the babies will soon have to learn to fend for themselves. I hope that Dov and Kayla can teach them because I'm not there, and you were a really bad example.
Can you talk to your Placement Specialist and see if there's a way we both could get back to Atlanta for a visit. We need to check on the other four kids in our family. This is important and I'll pay you back for the favor big time, and I'm not a kid who likes to lie.
Now I had one more reason to stay firmly on the grid. The Priests or Nurturing Team or whoever they were, had saved Chevie from moral perdition. Of course, I had no idea who Nurturing Team was. I guessed I needed to talk to Kohana. I also thought it might be possible to arrange a few days in Atlanta either at the Dorm House or at Kohana's apartment for Chevie and me. Somehow I felt indebted to my younger sister, both for her sharp honesty and for her taking care of Dov. I had indeed been too busy with my own pain to be much of a big sister during middle school. Chevie had filled the vaccum. Still I had made a promise to Orra, and I might have to make good on that too. Well, a winter visit to the Farmer would not hurt. With luck, Orra would see the way people lived off the grid, know it was there, and then walk back to the bus stop. Sometimes knowing you have a real choice is enough. I hoped that it would be enough for Orra.
Orra and I did it. Now you know. I wheedled, pleaded, begged, and owed favors to my roommates and Xannika to get out of Sunday shopping. I spent all Sunday studying and even revised a paper for my history course. I let Amaryllis read it over. She said, I was a passionate writer and someone easy to understand. My guess is that this was high praise.
It put me in a good mood for what I was going to do. First, Orra's and my journey to the Farmer was nothing illegal. We were going to barter for veal. We had five pounds of sugar, several bottles of aspirin and tubes of cortisone cream, and bottles of Pepto Bismol and half a dozen candy bars in our packs. This would, we reasoned, all be stuff that was hard to get if you were living off the grid. Any information from the Farmer and his companion required some form of payment. There was no point in our travelling empty handed.
The weather had turned fiercely cold even for highland lakes. I wore pajama bottoms along with my long johns and a pajama top under my sweater as well as a winter coat. I had learned this trick winter camping in Ithaca. The cold held no fear for me. The sunless sky (Three days without decent light) was depressing. I wondered how Ellen from Na'haquit survived the winters. Darkness must be hard on a little kid. As far as Ondina and Amaryllis was concerned my trip to the Farmer was a way to work off cabin fever. I would return happier and more productive.
I walked down to the Garbage Dump and found Orra who had made up her own dodge to avoid afternoon activities. She was concerned because it was all ready four pm. She had been waiting two hours. I said I hoped she'd been studying. She said she had been reading. I explained that my school work came first. Besides, star light reflected off the snow. Orra had the right clothes. She was glad to get outside. I was glad the neighborhood was peaceful and that it was an ordinary Sunday as we walked up the salted and sanded, but still frozen morass of Upper Highland Lakes Drive toward Seckler Center.
We waited on the porch for the local tram. There were no checkpoints at the Transfer Center in downtown Vernon. I was glad of thhat. I did not want to explain about our trip to nosey Priests. Only the bus driver was concerned when we alighted in the middle of nowhere. I told him we had friends on a farm that we were going to see. That was actually true. It was nice having an adventure and not really having to lie. We trcked down the road. The whole landscape was monochrome fast fading to black in the dying light. The snow did glow under the stars. The road after a short distance was no longer ploughed. We walked throgh soft snow atop packed snow. It must have snowed an inch or two during the week. Yes, it had snowed Thursday night, but not enough and not at the wrong time of day to disrupt school. I remembered. It was no big deal.
Orra stuck to me like glue. The open gray, black, and white landscape frightened her. I could see the top of the farm fence, wires, and weathered wood. We followed it when the road vanished. Our tracks would lead us home. The broken milk machine was still where the Farmer had left it in early September. It's lettering had begun to flake away. Other parts of its lettering were encased in ice. Someone or something had pried the front off the machin and left its innards exposed to rust or freeze. There was no evidence that the ants had taken over this vending machine.
Next to the milk machine was a fairly fresh plywood board that was either treated or which had not yet had time to weather to gray. On the board were dead birds. I counted three of them. They had charcoal gray feathers decorated with electric blue and scarlet. Their black beaks were open in a permanent soundless scream. Their wings were spread wide and nailed to the board. Yes, someone had crucified the gypsy moth hawks. Yes, this could be protest against the Priests' birds. Yes, this was asking for trouble, and yes, the birds were innocent victims, not because they were just dumb animals, but because they promised to rid this area of a scourge.
"These are gypsy moth hawks," I explained to Orra. "The priests introduced them to control the caterpillars that destroy the trees here. You came after the leaves were gone, but if you are here in the spring and summer I can show you. Every day we had to sweep gypsy moth caterpillar turds from our porches and decks. Gypsy moths are also an invasive species." I was out of words. I knew we had to find the hosue, but I was not sure I wanted to go further.
I was angry at the Farmer both for shooting beneficial birds and for displaying them. He and his companion were playing a foolish game. The priests had security forces with sophisticated weaponry. I did not want the Farmer to be hurt. I did not want the Farmer to be a fool. There needed to be a Farmer. And anyway, the birds were not shot. I saw no bullet holes unless the feathers hid them. I saw no blood, even where the nails and bolts held the crucified birds to the board.
"I guess we need to see this through," I said. We had come all this way. I did not want to go leaving qusetion marks behind. Orra and I walked toward the farm buildings, and someone had burned them down. The barn was a mass of blackened wood covered with snow. The house was a crater. Someone had not just burned it down but had covered it up. Over the house, birds wheeled in the air, screeching and cawing. They had dark feathers. On the snow near the crater that held the house, several birds lay dead in the snow. I walked over to one. It was a crow. I checked a second. It was also a crow. I counted three crows, four sparrows, one grey bird, and one gypsy moth hawk. "Shit," all I could say.
"What's happening?" asked Orra.
"I'm not sure," I answered. I watched as a bird dipped down out of the sky and into the crater. It hopped out and perched on the scorched, show covered debris, something pink in its beak. I shook my head. "I want to leave now," I told Orra. She went with me. There were no tracks so we had no idea where the Farmer had gone. Was he further back on his own property? Was he living with friends? He was probably still in Sussex County because someone had to find the dead gypsy moth hawks and nail them to that board. That meant the Farmer was probably still alive. I was relieved not to have to say kaddish for him or his companion.
Needless to say, we had a very long wait for the bus. Orra did not say what she thought of the dead birds. I was glad to still see gypsy moth hawks at our feeding station on Grandview Circle. Orra returned to New York City on Thursday after our trip to the farm. I paid back Odem, Aurora, and Xannika by making roasted beets and carrot money salad with black olives on the side. Aurora thought olives were gross. Wednesday evening after night skating, the Portal Priests called all the "Teen Assistants" for a mandatory meeting. We filled a dining hall with the smell of wet coats, boots, stale buildings, and snow. I thought I smelled cabin fever in the air. I hardly heard the head Portal Priest explain that his group was "repurposing" the Garbage Dump for one to two months. Slowly my brain realized there would be no more takings that would house kids in our facility. There could still be takings, I reasoned. I thought of the dead hawks. I felt angry and tired. I wanted to go skating, go home and read, go anywhere, but Hamida DeLang wanted all the EBA/SU kids to meet with her. We needed to take all the things that belonged to us out of our section, all the banners, sheets, blankets, extra uniforms, toys, games, books etc... We had extra, empty, bedrooms at Burden of Dreams House, so we would not have to stow anything in the disgusting basement. We used our grocery carts for transport. We made three trips in the cold, black, night. When I came inside, I could see that the temperature was negative teens celsisus, positive single degrees farehneit.
My teeth chattered as I drank peppermint tea in the kitchen. I was past the point of tears. Maybe I was too tired to cry. I thought of my mother crying instead. I thought of the kids back in Texarkana, the ones who at least discussed their fate in the abandoned high school. I could hear them talking about staying in clans all their lives. I thought about Orra's articulate complaints. Then I thought of the dead birds. Had the farmer left foot or vehicle tracks, I would have followed them. I can cut sign. I might have found the Farmer. He might have given me an explanation, but I did not need an explanation. The Priests were fixing the ecosystem, and you can only fix something you own. The priests owned Orra. The priests owned this house, and the paved roads, and the soon-to-be-built sewage treatment plant, and SCAS. The Priests owned Chevie, Shlomo-Yitzakh, and me. Being owned sucked in the abstract, and it did not only suck it was absolutely evil. In real life, of course sometimes being owned was the best deal you could have. Sometimes the people who owned you did stupid angry things. Sometimes the people fighting for freedom did stupid angry things. And after all that, I still could not cry.
At the Edge of the Abyss and Looking Down of Course
There was no taking in Sussex County, and no taken children brought to the Garbage Dump for the next two weeks. I tried to forget about what I had seen at the Farmer's and throw myself into my studies. I was actually busy enough to do this, and when studying, cooking, or running the SCAS 4-H Club or Lowered Wings as we called it, was too much, I took a late night skating break usually with Xannika. The cold weather kept the ice thick, and the the Vulcani and America's Clan kept the trail around the lake zamboneed and ice free. We avoided the local hockey teams who also claimed the night ice. The sky was blue from moon light, and the ice was silver. I would return to Burden of Dreams House more warm then cold, and tired enough to sleep easily.
I would often wonder in the morning, why I awoke so sore and rancid and yes, even hating the world. I gulped down bread with raspberry jam and a cup of hot raspberry flavored tea, and then squeezed into the fetid, and overheated short bus for the long ride to Newton. I could have slept more on the bus, but there my mind wandered and spun. I thought of Orra. I had no idea what she thought of the Farmer's. Did she tell of being on the edge of the grid and seeing that you fall off. Did she tell about the gross and disgusting dead birds, or the cruel people who poisoned them. Perhaps she never spoke of the trip to her parents because she feared we had broken some rule. Perhaps she believed the Farmer gone or that the Priests had burned down his house and farm. I sometimes thought that myself, except someone near or on that farm was poisoning the birds, and the act was about as deliberate as sabotage could get.
My studies and school activities decided for me that I would not get another chance to try and track down the Farmer. There are downsides to not being bored. The last Saturday of February as I walked down the trail that leads to where Upper Highland Lakes Drive snakes along the less populated side of Lake Five (Odem had not gone to services.), I saw that the Garbage Dump was very busy. My heart sank. My guts tightened with the memory of stick sickness. I looked to see if the gate to the beach was open, and saw it hanging by one hinge. I glanced back toward the Garbage Dump. The lawn, now a mass of packed and frozen snow and dirt, was full of cars and light trucks of every description. Most though were old, rusty, salt eaten, in need of a washing, and reeking of whatever fuels they burned. Had the Garbage Dump become the end of the road?
I walked up to the Garbage Dump's front door and let myself inside. A grown man was cussing endlessly. I dodged him and headed toward the rusk room where a plump woman tried to calm an infant having a melt down, while a toddler with a long, green, string of snot coming out of her turned up nose stood at her mother's side and stared blankly into space. I glanced around for a familiar face, but then I began to hope that Ellen from Nah'aquit and the kuba were no where to be found. Despite the heat in the building, my teeth chattered. Then I saw a familiar face at the counter. Standing among the priests was Kohana Pascal, my placement specialist. She saw me first and edged out from behind the counter. Then she bounded past the room full of unhappy adults, and touched me on the shoulder. The touch became almost a grab.
"Follow me," she hissed.
I followed Kohana back into the kitchen. I had a feeling I would spend my Saturday afternoon passing out Holland Rusks and Rye Vita. I needed the time to study. I wished it was night and I could go skating. "Ahava," my Placement Specialist began. "This building is an off limits area."
"Then what are you doing here?" I inquired before I could stop myself.
"Working. There are probably some adults here who were in Ed-Branch houses in their youth."
This made sense, but the rest of it did not fall together. It took until I had told the story several times before I could piece it together. The adults, some of whom had families or unencouraged children, at the Garbage Dump were all former company employees, semi-independents, full independents, or those who had tried to live off the grid. Somewhere the job had ended and the money dried up. They had gone as far as they could go. Now they were here. I doubted they were happy. Reaching the end of the line and finding oneself in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere can't be a fun experience. I was lucky to be fourteen and placed. "Off the grid you starve," sing-songed an old cliche in my head. I corrected the cliche: "Off the grid you starve, unless you have a special talent or have land and and buildings and animals, and as long as someone doesn't burn those buildings down."
Saturday night, Amaryllis and Ondina laid down the law. "The Garbage Dump is no longer safe and is off limits," they explained. What they did not say because they were in their twenties and that made them adults was that unhappy adults are dangerous adults. I thought of the dead birds. That was adult all over, only instead of having the imagination to poison birds, the unhappy adults in the Garbage Dump would neglect their kids, fight "like teenagers," drink, vandalize, live like pigs, and perhaps even have and use weapons. Suffice it to say, we were just too good for this kind of party.
I wish I could say that I gave the Garbage Dump a wide berth. I didn't, not because I wanted to skate on the lake. Since the beach was the way to the ice, and it belonged to the Garbage Dump, the Lake Five beach was....off limits. Still I had to pass the beach on the way to services on Saturday which was how I saw the remains of multiple bonfires, rubbish fires, and assorted beer and liquor bottles scattered on the snow along with stubbed out and half finished cigarette butts. The old cars rusted quietly on what had once been a lawn for children. I gawked and then I walked, fast.
I remembered my promise to Chevie and about Chevie when I passed the Garbage Dump, but I still would not reenter that building until its disgusting inhabitants and their clunkers moved on, and I hoped they moved on far away, well into the interior or out of state. I called Kohana Pascal on the house phone, and she agreed to come over on February 27th to show me Chevie's profile. As for having a place to go during Passover, which would be a good time to visit the family if that was what I really wanted, Kohana suggested that Chevie and I contact Bonnie Sorensen, my middle school principal. Bonnie, had had me put in therapy and made sure I ate, even though the middle school food was not kosher. Being able to eat school food, made the difference between eating enough to succeed and starving during the week. On Shabbos, I often ate out since I had a stipend. Bonnie made sure things could work themsleves out if you know what I mean.
I remembered that Bonnie was not Ed-Branch but something called Creative or C-Branch, which was a small boutiquey branch for those who were brilliant and original, as opposed to just being academically bright. It's fun to come in second place sometimes. Bonnie was a smart adult, but so too were many of my teachers. Bonnie sometimes said her studentrs were predicatble, and used the word like an epithet. She did not want us to be hot house flowers, hence she emphasized gym and maturing the whole person. I had a whole person who needed to mature and also some serious nurture. Bonnie, gave that to me, though she was also a tough one. I wasn't sure Bonnie would want Chevie and me as house guests. Koahana, however, said to ask Bonnie first.
Then Kohana showed me Chevie's profile. We sat by ourselves in the Clan Office as Amaryllis and Ondina called the computer room just off the kitchen. Our other computer room was on the fourth floor. "Wow!" she said as she read and then she pushed the screen in my direction. She pointed with a tapering fingernail. I read: The child showed unusual courage, amazing initiative, and uncommonly agile thinking in finding the administrative office and then calling an older sister, Ahava, in New Jersey. Ahava and the child were speaking when the priests and I found them. Had I not been there, I am not sure what would have happened. Perhaps after some pain, she would have had another opportunity, but opportunity found Elasheva. I knew instantly that the child was one of us and acted accordingly.
I spoke with the older sibling, Ahava, and the older girl made an unsusual request. She asked someone with clearance to view her own profile. I requested clearance and what I saw shocked me. Ed-Branch has a different philosophy and a different infrastructure. They have long school days and give their encouraged children a stipend in cash which they teach them how to manage. This meant that Ahava could live with gross parental neglect until she was fourteen.
Our organization can not provide the rudimentary safety net that held Ahava Burden, and even if we could we feel it is nowhere near enough to adequately nurture one of our own. As is standard practice in these situations, the Nurturing Team took custody of Elasheva and assigned three members as her primary carers. We also sent her to the nurturing center at Hobart. The distance would be beneficial and prevent a parental kidnapping.
....The one week trial in Elasheva's case was just a formality. She will take the initiative when challenged or frightened. She will express herself freely in art but not as much in writing. Her academic tests are strong, and will improve with time. She also has many skills to learn, but she was clearly a member of the Creative Team. I feel bad that she had to wait until she was ten years old to join.
"That's C-Branch isn't it?" I asked. I all ready knew. I felt a warm kind of relief flush my face as Kohana nodded. C-Branch (Creative Branch) or Creative Team or The Creators as they call themselves, is one of the rarest encouragements. That said, I know three C-Branch individuals, Bonnie Sorensen, Kohana's brother-in-law Jimmy Smith, and now my sister Chevie. Who would have believed that? I can't suppress the excrement eating grin on my face. I will call Bonnie and ask her to shelter two of her own, though I am only Bonnie's own because I attended D-Mag (Druid Hills Magnet Academy) for middle school and a month of fourth grade.
Of course Amaryllis and Ondina would have to give their permission for the visit, but this time two sets of placement specialists were ready to sit on them. Kohana was happy to see me have a relationship with my sister. The trip would be for her, not my mother, and Rosa and the other two Nurturers from C-Branch also wanted Shevie, who had been cut off, to have some family contact. It took several comm phone calls to Kohana, Tasmania, Chevie, and Bonnie in Atlanta to set up the visit for March 10th through the 12th. We'd be on the ground for Shabbos. I would go to services in Beth Jacob Village. I would see some of my schoolmates. I realized the atmosphere could be tense, and that was an understatement.
I tried not to thik about any of this on Leap Day as I walked from school to the county buildings to talk with a 4-H Master Gardener to request his assistance when we set up our community gardens in the spring. The Master Gardener was an old woman with weathered skin and silvery hair. She had a degree in horticulture from the New York State College of Ag and Life Science at Cornell. She too was Ed-Branch. She said working for the Priests was no different than working for the Company and in some ways it was better. She laughed when I told her we would be planting some of everything, but why not. It's interesting to see and learn about all different sorts of plants. She asked why we weren't growing mushrooms. I told her about the pointsettias we had rescued and were growing out in the school green house. Some of the kids talked about blooming them for Easter. I wanted to bloom them for graduation which falls in June in New Jersey. Then we'd give the pointsettias some time to grow bigger, grow a few from cuttings or split root stock, and have them ready for loan at Christmas time. I might not be C-Branch, but I could be creative and enterprising when it came down to it.
I took transport home Leap Day night and arrived in time to see two strangers sitting in our kitchen. They were both older ladies. No, I take that back, they were old ladies. I wondered if any one's grandmother was visiting. One lady was pale, flabby, and freckeled. She has sand colored hair that was probably dyed and breasts that sagged unless she wore a very tight bra. She also had a saggy belly, probably from having kids. How can people like that look at themselves in the mirror? The other old lady wasn't much better. She was a runt like Odem, with light African American skin, and greying wooly hair pulled back into a small, phallic looking bun. She wore a torn black sweater with a blouse benath it that had a huge freyed collar. The only reason her tits didn't sag was that they were too small. Her belly was also a bit less paunchy since she hadn't had any children. She was the one with the wrinkles though, forehead furoughs and crows feet stamped by her black eyes and around her lips which were dry, colorless, and crakced in at least one place. The cracked place had bled and scabbed. Old ladies are really gross when you think about it.
I knew I had to be polite because we had guests. I was hungry. Xannika's dinner was in the refridgerator. We had frozen and cooked from dry green and kidney bean salad with cheese chunks and bread and butter. The bread was 100% whole wheat and there were plenty of apples or dried prunse for dessert. That was when I noticed the old ladies eating Xannika's salad and slices of buttered bread. I knew Aurora was not a great fan of marinated salads, but Odem and she had eaten all ready. I looked in the sink. The salad bowl was empty. I got out the peanut butter jar and started to fix myself a sandwich. I hated to come home and find nothing for me. I put the peanut butter jar away and decided to make myself something better. We had lima beans left and some frozen mixed vegetables. That made a good salad with cabbage or celery or anise. We had raddichio. That would be fine. Aurora wouldn't eat it, but our guests had all ready eaten. "Who taught you to cook?" asked the smaller old lady. I told her about Livia and Xannika and just all the practice I had.
The woman introduced herself. She was Zabiba and she would soon be working on a research project as a chemical engineer. As a teenager she had lived in an Ed-Branch mentoring house. The plump sandy haired (fake sandy haired) lady was Elizabeth, yes a namesake after a fashion for Chevie which is short for Elasheva. Elizabeth had been a high school English teacher, but now she was semi-out of work. She would substitute teach and tutor she explained. I was glad both old ladies had jobs. You can be old but not old enough to retire. I then asked Elizabeth if she was here to tutor any one tonight. "Would you like me to tutor you?" she asked.
"I do OK in English," I answered.
"Good, because I could use a night off. I just moved in here. I'm trialing."
Elizabeth smiled as she dropped that bomb, but in desperation, I asked Zabiba if she was trialing too. She indeed was. "I'm glad you're out of the Garbage Dump," I told both old ladies and I meant it, as far as it went. I knew that one day our clan would take middle schoolers. I knew it had to, but I had never thought we would take adults, and certainly not old ones. What would happen if these old ladies decided they were our mothera and bossed the kids who had been here a long time or even Aurora, Odem, and me around? What if they asked for all kinds of stuff we kids couldn't have? What if they tried to take over from Amaryllis, Ondiana, and the Founding Sisters? Had any one even thought of this stuff?
Aurora for her part pitied the old women as she called them. "Imagine being fifty years old, divorced, and out of work. It must be so sad. I mean your life is almost over and there you are, having to start over with the kids."
"There are those who succeed and those who don't," Odem answered me as we sat on our beds. "That's what you have to remember. My parents kept their jobs and so too did yours."
"They ate up all Xannika's salad," I complained about the old women.
"Yeah, but Elizabeth didn't like it," sneered Odem.
"I think Elizabeth eats normal food," Aurora protested.
&"Zabiba really liked Xannika's salad," Odem continued. "She may be old, but she's got taste and she's conscious about being healthy."
"Did you see her sweater though?" asked Aurora.
"Yeah, I saw it. Is that the only sweater she's got?" I asked.
"Probably is," Odem quipped. "Just what this house needs a pair of losers, old washed up. God, I hope I never get like that."
"Me neither," I replied. I wondered how Amaryllis and Ondina could have made such a dumb decision as take two old women into our clan.
After even a short time I did not despise or feel sorry for the old ladies as much as I did when I first laid eyes on them. There were reasons for all of this. First, Elizabeth spoke French fluently and was just a whizz at conjugation. Linguistics was one of her interests. She said as a tutor it helped her imrpove younger kids' reading skills. "Not everybody figures out the linguistic tricks in English on their own as you did," she explained while making chicken cutlet roll ups for the boys and Aurora, who had started eating with Jewels and Tweetie. If Aurora had a good opinion of someone, generally that person deserved it, especially where academics were concerned.
I liked the fact that Elizabeth and Zabiba did not cry. They could and should have cried a river. Both women had lost their jobs and been out of work for nearly all the time since the riots. Zabiba was even divorced. Elizabeth's husband and children were all scattered in nearby clan houses. She had visitation and I did get to meet her kids who were an advertisement for why it was better to take old ladies into your clan house than little kids, but they were Elizabeth's kids and she loved them. Elizabeth also went out with her husband twice a week. He had a car. That was presumably where the two of them had their social life. I eventually did catch Elizabeth coming in at two in the morning with her clothes and hair dissheveled after her husband dropped her behind the cement porch. Elizabeth could not wipe the shit eating grin off her face.
I liked Zabiba who had a PhD in organic chemistry and an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and who soemtimes slipped away to Princeton to meet with her research group. She slipped away when she had been with us for three days, and when she returned from Princeton, she carried with her a data crystal as long as a man's middle finger. The crystal was transparent as a diamond and required a reader which Zabiba had in her things. All these electronics, the reader more than the crystal, impressed Odem. What impressed me about Zabiba was all the equations and arcane calculations she drew on a screen extension she put on a bare space of wall of the fourth floor computer room. Zabiba did not like doing her work (and it was work. She only needed to go to the lab in Princeton one to two times a week, though that would change.) in the Clan office. She was a scientist, not an administrator, she explained.
She was also a good cook. She taught me how to peel beets and made shredded beet salad, fridge pickled beets, roast beets and carrots etc... Aurora would not go near beets which she proclaimed were not the color of food and taste like dirt. Zabiba told us the chemical name for the red color in beets and cabbage. Zabiba made many other kinds of salads. She out-Xannikaed Xannika in the kitchen so to speak. That was fine with me. It meant something with our sandwiches and sometimes a pasta or ice casserole full of healthy veggies at supper. Zabiba did not believe in desserts other than fresh fruit. Zabiba humped her share of groceries, and she did all her work, both for her job and for the house cheerfully. She clearly counted her blessings as did Elizabeth, and I don't think either of them had ever had therapy though I could have been wrong.
The only problem with Zabiba was her clothes. Even when she went to Princeton she wore her old, torn sweaters, and pants that were frayed at the cuffs. She did not smell bad. Everything got washed, and she bathed, but she was in a clan now and Amaryllis and/or Ondina would have gladly given her a chit to outfit herself properly at the North Jersey Mall. When I confronted Zabiba about her grubby clothes, she told me she was too busy to shop and hated shopping. "Yes, but you're not dressing respectfully!" I protested.
"Isn't that respectably?" asked Elizabeth who was rolling out dough for pie crust for an ice cream pie she was making on a dare that Esperenza, also called Ruth, had given her.
"No, it's respectfully," I answered. "When you dress well, you show the world that you respect yourself. When you respect yourself, others respect you."
"So when I go to a conference or have to deliver a lecture I put on a suit or a very nice skirt and sweater," Zabiba replied, probably hoping to shut down the conversation.
"Yes, but people see you every day!" I responded. "Don't you want people to respect you and don't you want to respect myself."
"I don't need clothes to respect myself."
"Yes, but other people don't know that and they won't respect you." I was quite serious about this. I remember when Kohana gave me money for clothes back in Atlanta, so I could have a variety of blouses and skirts to wear to school and services. Yes, it was important. Yes, people noticed when I wore the same two shirts even if I alternated them. Ed Branch girls are not particularly vain about their looks, but we do need to be decently dressed.
"And did you dress nicely when you went on survival training?" Zabiba asked a dumb question and she was going to get an equally dumb answer.
"I brought a skirt and blouse with me for the dance and party on the last night," I replied. Last July the skirt was for my pre-inititation feast which never happened, but that is another story.
"Who taught you that clothes were so important?" "Great move, Zabiba," I thought.
"My peers." There she wasn't expecting that. "Adults call that peer pressure when your friends and classmates want to do things differently from what the adults want to do."
Zabiba grinned broadly and continued to dress disrespectfully.
I did not know the old ladies all that well when I had to take a power stick from Warwick all the way to Atlanta to meet Bonnie and my sister Chevie, and then go to visit Dov, Kayla, the babies, and my parents. I did make sure all my clothes were clean and that I had something nice to wear to synagogue. I wondered what my old school mates from Torah Day School would think of me. The kids from D-Mag were scattered to the four winds by the Priests, the Scholars Unions, and their placements.
I brought my duffle bag to school and took transit all the way from Newton, New Jersey to Warwick, New York, where there was a stick car waiting for me. The driver told me to get in. I was the only rider. I closed my eyes and tried to put my head on my knees. I did not want to arrive in Atlanta needing to vomit as if I'd eaten the vasiline coated comet. I thanked the driver and swaggered out into the walk way where lots of stick taxis were parked. I walked toward the terminal building with my duffle slung over my shoulder as if I was a high status female employee who traveled regularly on business every day of the week.
Then I saw Bonnie and Chevie, though I hardly recognized Chevie. She looked taller. Had she grown in so short a time? She wore a navy chino-cloth, wrap skirt, thich tan socks and brown leather sandals. Her sweat shirt was the color of white sand and on it was a diagram of how to fold a paper crane. My sister's medium brown hair fell in loose ringlets to her shoulders and was held in place by a tortoise shell plastic hair band. Something about Chevie reminded me of an unclenched fist. That made me hurt in my chest and throat.
Bonnie, my middle school principal, kept me from crying. "Ahava, you look fantastic!" she greeted me. "So where are we going ladies?" Bonnie asked.
The "Ladies" was of course playful. Bonnie would have been utterly accepting of Zabiba's slovenliness. I glanced at my watch. We still had a couple of hours before Shabbos. The house would be chaos. Dov would be with his friends since he was a boy. Shlomo-Yitzakh was in Israel. That meant Kayla was getting stuck with chores, not that she was old enough to do very much. "Do you care if Mom puts us to work?" I asked.
"It's up to you. I'll pitch in. You realize I'm going to be the adult who supervises visitation."
C-Branch meant what it said when it came to protecting my younger sister. I felt a twinge of envy. "Mom can still cry," I warned my former principal.
"Why should I care about your mother's tears?" Bonnie asked me. "You know half of them are fake and manipulative."
"Chevie," asked Bonnie."Do you want to help your mother and sister prepare for the Sabbath?"
Chevie shrugged. "Chevie, pretend this is Hobart."
My hounger sister sucked on her lips. "I don't want to scrub floors," Chevie told us. "And I'm going to have to change into something that isn't good clothes."
"Is that a problem?" asked Bonnie.
My younger sister shook her head. With that, we were on the ARTA train to Lynnberg and from there on the Chenille down LaVista to Briarcliff. We walked the rest of the way to the house where I grew up.
I realized I was hungry, but there wasn't going to be dinner for a while. There might be no dinner at all. I tried not to think about the last Shabbos dinner I had eaten back in July. We had too many guests. The guests got the chairs. Chevie, some women from the local high school, and I had stood in the rear gallery along with a mother who was too busy playing with her baby to eat. Chevie slipped into the kitchen where I was sure she had a plate of food set aside. I know now she had nothing and just wanted to rest her butt and her feet. She'd go out later and get what she needed, actually steal it. This was one of her stealing Shabbos'.
Dov was not at the table and Schmuel had a seat of honor and got fed. Dov was at a friend's house. I don't remember where Kayla was, but she was too young for me to know her really well, and that was the sad truth.
I spent most of Shabbos afternoon reading. It was hot. I liked it better that way. Motzei Shabbos (right after Shabbos), I gathered up my dirties and took them to the laundromat in the shopping center. I went to the sub store and bought a veggie-patty sub and ate it, while I did my clothes. I came home and wrote my parents a note about Nationals and who to contact should they need me etc... I had written notes like this before, but this one was different. I left the address and number of the house in Stony Brook, New York as well. I was going to be trialing for the rest of the summer. I was leaving and it was as close to permanent as I could really imagine. This was it, and I felt nothing. I did look forward to travelling light and sleeping on the ground under the stars. I looked forward to the nature study and life science classes. I imagined that one did not need lashon chodesh (The Hebrew language also called the Holy Tongue) to hear God's word. I imagined I'd be in the belly of the cosmic beast for a week, so I was looking forward to that and not much past that, except that I'd be able to continue my Judaics in Stony Brook and it would be a fresh start with no more Shabbos as awkward as that Saturday afternoon. Still, I was not yet ready to feel relief.
I found my house key. I still had that, and mom and dad had not bothered to change the locks on the door. Outright pissy anger was not really part of their repetoire when I thought about it. The house felt empty. It was also way too messy for a Friday afternoon. I stared at the clutter in the living room. It reminded me of Burden of Dreams house on a Tuesday or Wednesday before the clan leaders realized our living room had "gotten away from us" again, as they said. Several dirty glasses with the remains of milk or juice in them looked ready to begin a social life on the coffee table. A half done puzzle was fast becoming a rubble of smooshed fragments ground into the teal colored shag throw rug that needed someone to vacuum it really badly.
I walked into the kitchen. The sink was full of dishes. A copy of the Jerusalem Post in English sat open on the table sharing space with the Jewish Georgian. I smelled no food. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a child's tuneless singing. It was not a particularly unhappy noise. "Well at least someone is home," answered Bonnie. Meanwhile, Chevie had disappeared.
We heard footsteps on the stairs. It was Chevie. "Yitzi and Yoni are playing upstairs," she replied. She was smiling. The filth and lack of food did not faze her one bit. "I think everybody's going to eat out for Shabbos," Chevie explained. That would explain the lack of cooking, but not the lack of cleaning.
"Where's Mom?" I asked.
"In the bedroom. I think she's sick. There's someone with her."
&quiot;Is it Dad?" I asked.
"It's another woman."
"Well let's go have a look," Bonnie encouraged us. I was not sure I wanted a look. Part of me wanted to go right back to Highland Lakes. If my parents could not bother to tell me that something bad was happening, they had no business getting my help or Chevie's help once we discovered it.
"I want to eat out tonight," I spoke.
"I thought you kept Shabbos," Bonnie needled me.
"We're going to need to eat, and we can either go out or eat at your house."
"I see what you're saying. We'll take care of it. Now let's go see your mother."
Up the stairs I went. My parents' bedroom door was cracked open. I could see the light and hear the voices in English, a woman telling a story about a woman whose trunk show business selling Shabbos robes had failed and who had swindled half a dozen customers. It was a nice tale, and I kind of liked it. If Mom was dying, she at least was being entertained in her last days. I pushed open the bedroom door. Chevie was leaving me the tough job, but I didn't care. "Good afternoon Mom!" I called out. My mother lay in bed propped up by pillows. She had one knee flexed. Her hair was mussed up. "I'm sorry to hear you're ill." My words sounded forced and overly formal, but I really DID NOT want to be here.
The woman whose tale I interrupted was Mrs. Stone (not Ms.). I recognized her from synagogue where I saw her occasionally and our Shabbos table where I often saw her. She had on a brown wig, brown skirt, and brown nubbly sweater. She had painted her nails brownish pink. She reminded me of a turd, and that made me smile. "Your mother's on bedrest," Mrs. Stone told me. Well that was news, and it was all the news I needed to know. Chevie, meanwhile had slipped out of the bedroom to go spend time with Yitzi and Yoni. Those babies had no idea what was coming.
"Where are Dov and Kayla?" I asked. "Dov is at the Rappaports," Ms. Stone gave me the news. That was again all the news I needed to knkow. "And I don't know where Kayla is."
"Is she with Dad?" I asked.
"Why don't you call your father Abba?"
"Because there is no need to use a Hebrew word when I'm speaking English."
Ms. Stone sniffed and shook her head. "Why did you come back when your mother was so sick?"
"Nobody told me Mom was pregnant and having a bad time of it," I answered.
"Listen to her talk," my mother sighed.
"I haven't said anything bad yet," I told the women.
"Just listen. And look at you Chanie. You could put somebody's eye out with that outfit you've got on. Didn't you learn anything about tsnius. " For the record, I had on an orange tye dye turtle neck, a brown vest, and a matching brown ultra suede skirt, orange tights, and brown slides. "Do you know how it tears a mother's heart out to have a daughter like this," my mom continued. "I endure twelve hours in pain to bring her into the world. The doctors wanted to drug me, but no I wouldn't let them, and then all the nights I stayed up with her because only putting her on the washing machine calmed her down. You can only do so many loads of laundry." Mom sighed. "Then when she's ten, she goes over to the other side, betrays the whole community, makes the family look bad, and now look what she's brought into the house."
Bonnie smiled. "Your younger daughter, Elasheva, is under supervised visitation. Under orders of Creative Team, I have to be here or she can't be in this house."
"You think you're the police!" my mother cried at Bonnie. "You think you're the goddamn Gestapo. Heil Hitler may he rot in gehinom."
By now mom was starting to cry. "I think you had better leave," Mrs. Stone explained. "This isn't good for the baby."
Bonnie shrugged. I stepped out. Bonnie followed. We found Chevie straightening up Yoni and Yitzi's room. "We still haven't found Kayla," I explained to my sister. "Dov is eating at the Rappoports. Dad is in parts unknown."
"I know where Abba is," Chevie replied. "You kids take care of yourselves," Chevie answered. "Let me just get Missus Stone." Chevie knocked on the parents' bedroom door. "Mrs. Stone..." she called out. "Nu?" a voice answered. "You need to change Yoni's diaper."
"Let's get out of here," Chevie stage whispered to all of us. "We need to make sure Kayla gets something to eat for Shabbos."
"What about the babies?" asked Bonnie.
"Missus Stone will probably feed them," answered Chevie.
Bonnie trusted Chevie and we were off once again, this time walking toward Beth Jacob Village.