In a Safe Country VII
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....
"One must imagine even Sysiphus happy."
A week after Passover ended, Odem, Xannika, and I hauled fragments of concrete which were our rocks, from the construction site down an all ready dusty, dirt road below Conway back up to our half of the community garden at Grandview. We needed a wall, according to Xannika who regarded America's Clan as a bunch of "selfish p---s." They were going to put up a partial and porous portal to keep out the pollen from our heirloom tomatoes and more importantly our blue Hopi corn, to protect their ever-so-precious, important, and boring beefsteak tomatoes and sweet corn. We were going to build a wall around our garden and its beds. The porous portal could lie atop our dividing wall which might or might not have a gate in it to admit the curious and quite frankly the admiring.
This was back breaking, armpit sweating, work. Odem swore and cussed profusely, even by our standards, when she scraped up her ungloved hands. She just didn't have gloves, and if she had them, she would not have worn them. She just kept working though. She'd take care of the wounds when we got the job done. Besides, she said she'd rather hear of the adventures of Xannika's siblings than Aurora's. I had no news of my siblings yet. They were not taken. You can envy that if you like. Xannika had not just her two sisters but four cousins in the Carolinas and now two step siblings, about whom to talk. Xannika had noisey, contentious, but very much real relations with her extended broken, and remarried family. One younger sister was in Hawaii and not getting much of an education. This worried Xannika and her parents. A cousin was in one of several New York City Ed-Branch creches of all places. Xannika envied and looked down upon this cousin, but was glad to have another Ed-Branch kid in the family. Then there was the cousin learning entertainment administration with a clan in Orlando, Florida whom everybody envied, except Xannnika who envied the cousin sent to New York more.
Nobody envied Odem's siblings though the eldest had a fairly good admin placement in Vermont and the younger one proved to be Ed-Branch material. Odem's family was just too small and too well connected to arouse envy. It was Odem with her scrapes and prickly attitude who aroused envy for her escape from perdition, if any one felt like being jealous.
I was just glad I did not have to listen to Aurora. Now, Aurora was not being sanctimonious these days. I could have put up with that quite easily. Aurora had a simple and optimistic philosophy. She belived in Jesus, loved San Rio, and worshipped ambition. This made her fairly normal, which was not her fault, and she was honest about her beliefs and did not push any of us to adopt them.
This was a recipe for peace most days, but one of Aurora's siblings either had a bad encouragement and had run into real trouble with Aurora's parents. Zell, also called Junior because he shared his living father's name, had a fantasy/combat/superhero placement. He had learned fighting moves. He had practiced his fighting moves. He was never quiet. He got on adults nerves, and his lively presence defied adult authority. He got into trouble at school. Then he went back to his competitive creche, came home, and...
To say Aurora's parents were fed up with Junior was to put it mildly. They applied tough love. Now what sort of tough love does one give to a child who is in middle school? Well, tough love, as Aurora described it, and as she heard it from her parents, was not just neglect, but a fierce species of deprivation. Junior lost all his toys and most of his clothes. He found himself stuck in his parents' apartment and often sentenced to lie on his bed all afternoon once his homework was done if there was any bad report from school about him, and there was most days. Tough Love of this type was desighed to break a defiant child's spirit. The way it worked was that any child acting as badly as Junior, would not be able to arouse sympathy to withstand his punishment or end it if he told, and besides he would be too consumed with shame, since he had brought his misfortune on himself. The real sting of tough love was social and spiritual isolation. Alone and miserable, Junior was supposed to escape misery by improving his behavior.
In the days before the Passover Taking that was how tough love should have worked, but in the world after the Riots, something backfired. Junior told any one at school or at the clan house who would listen all about what his parents did to him. He repeated his tale of woe to any adult or child who would listen even when this redoubled his punishment, and someone, Aurora did not know who, informed those in charge of Junior's encouragement about Junior's plight. They sent representatives to Aurora's parents' clan brass, the ones who sat behind the kitchen, playing cards, and chewing tobbaco and the clan leaders spoke to Aurora's parents. After the conversation, Junior went to the mall every day and deep into the Interior to practice his fight moves with his fellow branch members. He returned home at night tired, seldom ate dinner, sometimes slept in his uniform, and sometimes worked maniacally to get it clean after he had probably earned demerits for using it as a nightie.
Now of course, Junior was taken at Passover, and Aurora's parents feared he would never come back. In addition, Lula, age six, had her first taking and was all but trialling in a Christian clan in Oklahoma. Aurora's parents were trying to make arrangements to go visit her. "This was like the way they would have visited me had I gone to Lawrenceville," Aurora sighed. The one door that had opened for her in New Jersey had slammed a very important one back in Texarkanna.
Lula was the favorite and good kid. Charley was lost in Mexico. Junior was on the enemy side. Aurora was too far away. I went over the litany in my mind as Xannika spoke of a male cousin whose branch had a heavy emphasis on team sports. He had asked every older boy in the neighborhood to play catch with him. Catch is a game using a baseball glove and it is really fielding practice. Jason had held his own with the high school boys from various local clans. "That boy is going to get a swelled head," Xannika sighed as she helped Odem place the concrete pieces in a well balanced dry wall. Somehow Odem had learned about and imitated dry walls that she saw all over the valley. Our dry wall, however, was white and pale grey from the concrete chunks. It was a pretty dry wall surrounding the dark earth. Overhead a gypsy moth hawk screeched defending its nest for a marauding crow. I thought of the dead hawks last winter and then of Ora. Suddenly I wanted to cry. "Ahava!" Odem cried out. &quor;Are you OK?"
"The hawks remind me of Ora. She and I saw some dead ones last winter. I think the Farmer was poisoning the hawks."
"I think the Farmer is gone," Xannika replied. "Wasn't that what you said."
"I said there was a crater where the farm house used to be, and there were dead hawks nailed to a board. Somebody had to still be on the land somewhere to poison the hawks, find them, and nail them to the board."
Odem shook her head and answered: "God talk about stupid!" sighed Odem. "Those birds are going to put the gypsy moth derbies out of business forever, and good riddance1 Go hawks go! We love you hawks!"
"Want to join the EXPLETIVE DELETEDING cheerleading squad?"Xannika asked my roommate.
Just then Aurora's voice broke up our small squabble. "Ahava, Ahava, you have mail!" Mail could be good. Mail could be bad. I told myself that if mom had gone into labor, I would hear about it on my comm phone because Abishag had the number, and she did not keep state secrets.
I came into the kitchen where Zabiba was in charge of late dinner and trying to fight for table space. Ondina handed me the letter. The return address was written in a child's shakey scrawl. I tore it open.
I am writing to let you know that I am fine, though some of my friends can't visit. I can visit them. This is not so bad.
We have stopped getting snacks in the morning at school. Only those kids who really need breakfast can have it, and it is only cereal, no more power bars.
Many of my friends don't get snacks after school either. If I bring them home, Abishag feeds everybody. Dov always has friends at the house now. We even have them for dinner some nights. Abba doesn't complain that much. Some nights he eats with friends from kollel, so he can't complain if Dov has friends over. Abishag says it makes no sense to invite people on Shabbos and then be in-hos-spitable during the rest of the week. I think she is right.
Two of my friends abbas lost their jobs. They are doing whatever people will pay them for. Dad is doing computer consulting and he is all freelance now, no more company.
I hope everything is OK for you. I know we are all OK. Even imma is OK though she is still in the hospital. In June she has the baby, and I know now it is going to be another girl. Isn't that good news?
Well now I had news that topped even Aurora's, except I did not want to enter a contest. "Are you OK, Ahava?" Ondina asked. "Yeah, they're just starving out the families in Toco Hills. Damn priests!" And then I added: "In the end, it's the kids who will really suffer. The kids always suffer."
I had my first practice End-of-Year Exam in mathematics during the first week of May. I had to run to the SCAS greenhouse right before the exam and put out the community garden plants on the hardening table. This was not my day for greenhouse duty, but Adrionne (Her name is a cross between Adrienne and Yvonne.), a middle schooler, had decided to take a mental health vacation from the last few days of her taking that had now stretched a bit beyond two weeks. She did not even have an excuse like a parent or sister going into labor. She just took the bus to Warwick, followed by another bus to Suffern, New York in Rockland County, and then another bus across the Tappan Zee Bridge into White Plains. Her family was in Westchester County, outside New York City. Unlike Georgia, New York has very big counties, but is also very urbanized. With good public transit, it was easy for the middle schooler to slip away, and while it might jeopardize her placement, it would not destroy her encouragement as long as she continued to go to school. That she would go to school with strangers (Kids taken from elsewhere) was just something with which she had to live. Meanwhile, someone had to put out the plants.
And after the exam, someone had to take the plants back inside, give them water (Because hardening seedlings always do way too much transpiration, which is why they need to be hardened in the first place. Ever hear the word "hot house flower?"), and check the pointsettia area to make sure the greenhouse shades had closed automatically or were set to do so at the proper time. Pointsettias need twelve hours of total darkness for one month to rebloom. Our rescued pointsettias were going to rebloom for graduation.
I was out by the hardening table behind the greenhouse when I noticed the kuba. She had missed her bus intentionally and hid reading in the library. Now she had that antsy look of a young kid cut loose. She brushed blond hair away from her pink face. She had long ago stopped missing her parents. She said she liked the food. She often led the bus, teaching me a whole boatload of Christian hymns which she had memorized. The kuba had a natural talent for memorizing poems, songs, and stories. The kuba needed to learn some clean, secular songs, but I did not know enough of them to teach them to her.
"How come you're moving plants again?" the kuba asked.
"Adrionne went back to Scarsdale," I answered.
"How could she do that?"
"Is she going to get in trouble?"
"Probably not. She is old enough to figure her way home, close enough to do it, and too immature to realize when she owes other kids favors."
The kuba shook her head. She did not like hearing kids older than she was called immature. I was sure of that. "I'm not going to run away when they trial me," the kuba told me. "You have to wait at least four years before any one will trial you. Besides, the Garbage Dump is not that bad."
"It's better than Atlanta. That big dorm down there is scarey," the kuba complained.
Just then Atilla Saprophyte came out the back door of the greenhouse. Whatever Atilla wanted was not good. Atilla had nothing but disdain for 4-H and &qut;all the pretty flowers and vegetables," as he called our community garden and pointsettia rescue projects.
"Atilla," I greeted the shambling boy with blond hair in his eyes and too-warm courderoy pants now cut off into too warm courderoy shorts that had not yet began to fray. "I thought the greenhouse gave you EXPLETIVE DELETEDing hives!"
"Don't cuss," pleaded the kuba. I ignored her. Sometimes you need a few choice words.
"They just put up the grades for the practice Exam. I thought you might still be interested." Atilla glanced at the hardening table as I loaded several flats on to the cart. I needed to make two more trips.
"I'm interested. How are the grades?"
"Our scores suck," Atilla answered matter of factly.
That was news. I had taken the test with good concentration, and it had not been any harder than I'd expected. I'd taken practice exams late at night and scored them. How could I have blown the in-school version of the test?
"Our scores EXPLETIVE DELETEDing suck!" Atilla repeated shifting from one leather clad shoe to another.
"Please don't cuss," pleaded the kuba.
"What's it to you little girl?" snarled Atilla. "Hey weren't you supposed to take the bus back to the Garbage Dump?"
"I missed the bus so I could see Ahava," the kuba showed her loyalty. Atilla shook his head.
"I have to help you with these EXPLETIVE DELETEDing plants or you'll never go see how bad your socre is," Atilla complained and then we pushed the cart with the flats back toward the greenhouse. I showed Atilla where to unload the plants. That was how I got a whiff of him. I expected him to smell like something rancid that had rotted under a bed for weeks or the stink bait that Jewels and Tweetie used when they went fishing in the winter or when they got too impatient to play with repallas or red devils. Instead, Atilla smelled like bitter sweat, a smell I sometimes had, and unscented, Ivory soap. His hair was even clean. I could smell undertones of clean hair, skin, and only midly dirty (fished from the hamper) clothes. This made Atilla smell more like a little kid than a boy my own age, but they say boys develop more slowly, and Atilla had really nice blond hair, with shades of red in it. It was a pity he did not do something to keep it out of his eyes and put medicine on his acne. A trip to the drug store, and he really would be quite attractive. He was also a smart kid, and his tough, mean talk was no worse than my roommate, Odem's.
We went outside again to gather more plants and take them in to safety. We didn't say much. We did not have much to say. I knew that Elohim, an eighteen from the Saprophytes, and Odem had had an ugly fight at lunch. There was an article on the scholars' comm message board written by a kid somewhere in New York City about how the scholars in the country were all a bunch of misfits and weirdoes who needed to get lives. Yes, this article was a rank insult. What was worse, was that it said that scholar kids at rural schools were not smart enough to really hold their own. This hurt the most of all.
Atilla, Elohim, Genghis, and the rest of the Saprophyte crew proposed fitting retaliation, or at least they thought it fit. They wanted to cripple the computers at Suffolk Prep High, where the author of this piece slamming country scholars went to school. "Let's teach those EXPLETIVE DELETEDing twits a lesson they'll never forget as long as they live, and their stupid teachers, and their EXPLETIVE DELETEDing stupid administrators," Elohim proposed.
"And what happens when they trace it back to this school or your house?" asked Odem somewhat peevishly. Clearly she did not enjoy fending off a retaliatory DNS attack or repairing damaged computer software as she had done last winter. "You assholes just want to have fun and leave me with all the pieces to clean up."
"Not this time young lady," sneered Elohim Saprophyte. "This time we make a botnet. I even know whose big, lovely, computers are going to be attacked. Their security wall has more holes than that swiss lace cheese you eat on your little sandwiches."
"You know we can go to the authorities," Aurora settled the argument. Aurora was a math team star. Aurora pulled her weight. Aurora did not believe in breaking the law, but it was Xannika who proposed the solution.
"Let's challenge those dumb EXPLETIVE DELETEDS on Long Island. Grade appropriate math. Math is the hardest subject. If we wipe up their asses like toilet paper after the trots, they owe us an apology on their precious little comm board. If they refuse to challenge us, we call them cowards and we won't have to do that because all the world will know."
"How are we getting transportation to a challenge?" asked Genghis Saprophyte.
"We can ask den mother," Elohim answered. As much as he relished computer warfare, he did not like the idea of getting shitcanned because deep down it is a nasty inconvenience. In a few months, Elohim was off for college and would probably never get shitcanned again unless he did something horribly wrong. Being older can make a kid cautious.
"OK, so the plants are inside. What do we do next?" asked an impatient Atilla. "Check them for dryness." I began carefully touching the soil in the flats. "See," I explained. "Just what I want to do," snarled Atilla. "Feel up a bunch of old plants."
"They're not old plants," the kuba corrected him. "They're babies."
"They're middle schoolers," I corrected the kuba. I filled the watering can and watered those plants that needed it. Then I checked the shade timer on the pointsettia area, and headed back into the main building with Atilla. The kuba followed. She considered entering the sanctum of the high school a big adventure. She even liked seeing all our grades posted on a big sheet on the wall. Our names were alphabetical by last name, so I had to stand on tip toes to see my own. I was actually curious about my grade. I was not quite ready for disapointment.
My grade was a ninty-two out of a hundred. Atilla also had a ninty-two. "That's not so bad," I told Atilla.
"It's fine if that's all you want," Atilla sneered.
"I've been behind. I've been travelling and a lot of my housemates have troubles."
"Always excuses," Atilla imitated an adult and did a great job of it.
"Atilla, we have time to get these better. We have four weeks and this is a solid start. Look, Odem got an eighty-three." That hurt, because Odem was a good math student, but she had been spending too much time in the Garbage Dump helping them get a computer lab off the ground and teaching kids skills besides playing games. No scholar kid could use the computer lab until they had mastered basic word processing, and one or two other pieces of software, mainly file management on portable drivs, crystals, or sticks. The other kids though were hogs and forces of destruction. Odem put herself on the side of order in a way that would have surprised her parents or teachers and in a way that hurt her grades, but even she had time to recover. The real winner was Aurora with a ninty-six.
"That kid wails, and she can even do some creative work," sighed Atilla. Aurora, my other roommate, was the one to beat. "Come on, I'll walk you out to the transport in town. You're so late you might get shitcanned."
"Not a chance," I answered. "School activities and a practice test. The late night snack pantry is always open at the Garbage Dump. I'll call from the office there."
"You're not that different from Adrionne," quipped Atilla.
"I make my own arrangements," I laughed. The road to downtown Newton should have been lonely, but in the nine months since the Riots, I had grown used to long stretches of country road, and so too had Atilla who talked of how Ed-Branch SanFrancisco had washed their hands of him and how the priests really understood male scholars better. I listened and imagined taking Atilla into a drug store and buying him nicely scented soap and bobby pins or barettes for the bangs he was trying to grow out and of course acne medine. The boy had potential. I wondered if he thought the same thing of me.
"We have to learn more music," I turned the conversation toward the kuba who was playing admiring left-out. She could only worship us big kids for so long.
"You have to study and study," the child answered.
"We'll find the time," I sighed.
"They say we're going home in two to three days," the kuba sighed. It was the being uprooted every two or three weeks, not the taking itself, that got to her. She had said as much. Because she could speak her mind, she did not cry, and got on with her life. She read. She drew. She learned math. She acquired general knowledge.
I did the math in my head. "You'll probably be back around the beginning of June. We'll almost be taking finals by then." It did not look good, but I was tired of the Christian music, though some of the hymns could almost be zmirot. We needed something secular for the schoolbus. We really did. On the short bus of course, we would not need any songs. I'd sleep, and somewhere on the other side of the haze of exhaustion, I'd awaken with better grades if I remembered to study while I was tired. That was the way it would go, and I'd forget about the right kind of songs. It was not my job to be big sister to every little kid forced to spend two weeks out of every month in a creche, even if the creche was our Garbage Dump.
I ate supper that night in the Garbage Dump. It was sandwiches and salads from the cold bar in the late night dining hall. I sat across the table from the kuba. One of the placement specialists found her and checked her in. She was not angry. I had been "supervising her." Instead the specialist, named Anina, asked the kuba what she had learned and the kuba talked about how different older kids feel about grades and about how you have to check the water on plants after you bring them in from hardening.
Then the kuba asked if she could take her library books back to North Dakota. Anina said she'd make sure they were renewed. It was smoothing small pieces of the burocracy like this that meant a lot to little kids and made their lives easier. I thought of Ellen of Na'haquit for a little and then felt empty and sad. I was shivering as I walked home from the Garbage Dump. I put it down to stress. I thought about a cup of hot tea, even though I had drank Dr. Pepper with dinner. I went up to the fourth floor to study, and heard a knock on the lounge door. It was Amaryllis.
"This is for you," she said and handed me a letter. The return address was Machias, Maine. "Oh shit," I thought. I did not need a middle schooler to betray me. I all ready had one "turkey out" on her assigned tasks for 4-H.
I opened the letter:
I am sorry I have not written you in a long while, but I hoped I would not have to do it. When the Garbage Dump was closed, Ed-Branch Atlanta sent me this smaller center in Maine. I guess it was just overflow, though I said I wanted to go out in the country where I could skate. Well, I not only skated, but I learned to cross country ski, and even some downhill skiing, which was fun. Maine was the place for me, so I thought.
This time I got sent to Maine again, but when the snow melts, you see a really grey and ugly place. I wish it weren't like that. I mean a place with great winter sports, has a very long, dead spring. Even New York City, my home, is like that. Of course I'm thirteen now, so that is now old enough to start trialling houses. I started with visits. You do visits before you commit to a trial. The idea was that I was going to be trialling in Maine this summer. Maine was going to be my home. That was fine with me. My parents and I both deserved a good, out of state placement for me. A parent that doesn't protect their kids deserves what they get. I still believe this.
Yes, I am still angry, but I am angry at a lot of things. Maine was not like it was in the winter. Maybe without all the winter sports, I noticed things. A taking with a trialling is not really a vacation. I should have known that. Sometimes I feel like a dumb kid. Sometimes I am just angry at myself, but I shouldn't be. This was not my fault.
In preparation for trialling in Maine this summer, I spent a lot of time with kids from the local clans. I went to school with them. I ate dinner with them. I studied with them. I talked with them. That was where the problems started. They said stuff about African American kids in Boston and Mexican kids and Somalis. I told them that the Latino kids in New York City were mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and some of those African American kids could really whip their asses. Of course, that was not why they talked their talk if you get what I mean. They wanted to say stupid, ugly, racist bullshit. I wondered what they thought about Jews. My grandparents used to say that people who don't like Blacks also hate Jews.
It wasn't hard to find out if this was true. I needed matzoh because it was still Passover when I was taken. I am not as religious as you are, but Passover is an IMPORTANT HOLIDAY. Well, I asked. I asked and I got it. They had it out. Thankyou! There are Jewish kids from Boston who make it all the way to Machias, but some placement specialist with shit for brains asked me what a Jewish kid like me was doing all the way up in Machias. Gee, do we Jews have travel restrictions?
Then when I had dinner at a house in town, I asked for matzoh instead of bread. "We didn't know you were Jewish," the clan leader told me, and then there was a talk about this not being New York City and more words about other minority groups. I never thought of Jews as a minority, but maybe we are a "model minority" like the Chinese or the Indians from India. Well, I heard more ugly stuff. I have had a belly full of it. Finally, last Thursday, I bought myself a bus ticket for New York and told my parents to come and get me at Port Authority. Most of my friends are still away, but this taking has to end.
New York City Ed-Branch came and talked to me at my parents' apartment. They said they were disappointed in my behavior. They haven't liked my behavior for years, but that is beside the point. They were washing their hands of me. Goodbye New York City. Hello Atlanta. Atlanta Ed-Branch takes anybody or so the joke goes. Danilla, is my new Placement Specialist. We had a long comm phone talk. The next taking, I'm going to be at the Garbage Dump. I have to face another round of trialling here in New Jersey. I have a year or so to get it right. People in Sussex County are a lot more cosmpolitan than they were in Maine. They won't talk trash about different groups, and yes you even have a synagogue. Maybe the religious part of Judaism is a good thing. I'd rather be religious than a prejudiced shit head. At least my parents understood why I ran away. Hello New Jersey. Goodbye Maine, and I'm sorry I haven't written you sooner.
I wish I could say I felt sorry for Ora. I was glad she had resurfaced. I knew she'd be trailing clouds of troubles and resentment. I wondered it if it would help her to be in therapy. That was going to be Ed-Branch Atlanta's call. Life sucks and therapy helps you deal with it, and sucks is not a curse word the way I use it.
Have we Settled Down?
Of course I wrote Ora back. What else could I do when you think about it.
It is FANTASTIC to hear from you, even if the news is not all good. Maybe it is good because you WOULD NOT have wanted to spend your high school years with those prejudiced shit heads in Machias, Maine. I'm glad you had the independence of spirit to take a bus back to New York. How long did it take by the way?
I am also glad your parents welcomed you with open arms. Of course I am glasdest of all that we will meet again in late May or early June. Even these more frequent takings have a schedule. I know you have time on your hands and that school for you must feel weird. Yes, that is an understatement. Still, I have a favor to ask of you. I need someone to help out with all the singing we do on the long, smelly, bus ride to school when you are here in New Jersey. Lulisa [whom I call the kuba] from North Dakota has been helping me with the songs, but most of the bus songs she knows are Christian hymns. As a nonChristian, I feel a bit uncomfortable singing them. I am hoping you can learn some secular but CLEAN songs and teach them to me. I'll be deep into studying for End of Year Exams during the taking, and as far as I know you are still in middle school so will have more time on your hands. I really need your help badly.
That said, you should have seen how the adults wreacked the Garbage Dump before Passover. They burned cars on the lawn and threw furniture out the windows. I swear, they call us kids dumb and ugly. Well, now we know how we got that way.
Several days after I sent this letter to Ora via snailmail (Nobody was letting her near a computer for comm mail. Yes, I think she got shitcanned which probably does not surprize you or any one else.) Elohim Saprophyte went to our principal Hyppolite Luciferi (Yes, he is from the Interior.), also known as Doctor Hyppolite or Doc Hyppolite and not always behind hsi back, and asked if our school could challenge the oh-so superior and swelled headed students at North Shore Traditional Academic to a mathematical dual in the hopes that they would give us a much deserved apology, preferably crawling on their bellies to eat dirt while doing so.
Doc Hyppolite thought the matter over and deciding we did not have the budget for the fleet of bio-D buses to take us all the way to Suffolk County on Long Island, decided to make it a math team competition, ours against theirs. That meant Aurora and Odem, who were both on the math team would get to go and I would be left turning compost. I know it sounds awful, but in a way it was sort of all for the best. I saw the ugly post to the Official Scholars Comm Board. I saw that the poster whose name I will not deign to mention signed her taunt as a member of the Golden Olive Clan in Stonybrook, New York.
Now if all of you can think back to late July when I did not get my end of Nationals feast at Arnot Forest in New York's Southern Tier, you can also remember that the house (It was not a clan in those days, and in those days kids got taken in December and June, not every month for two weeks, but the Priests think big, don't they?) that was going to take me was in Stonybrook, New York in Suffolk County on Long Island. Instead, the priests interfered with my placement. They invaded Nationals and took all of the outdoor education kids to their tile house and placed us all...somewhere else. In my case, I liked my placement at Burden of Dreams. I reasoned that you can not miss what you really never had, but what I never had would have been Golden Olive house in Stonybrook. You can see why I needed time to think this one out. Who would believe one could hear the slam of a door echoing ten months later.
I did wonder if the Priests had forever saved me from joining a band of hopeless snobs with their faces stuck up their buttocks. I also knew that on Long Island I never would have discovered 4-H. I would have gone to an all ready established academy with traditions of its own and less resemblance to a regular high school, because the stundents who set the initial tone and sort of created the place were many classes long gone.
Still a piece of me longed for the uneaten feast and the ceremony with the representatives from our soon-to-be houses standing on the lawn at Arnot between the bath house and the cabins and we walking toward them to be claimed, and then we would eat together, and someone would undoubtedly rig up a sound system for dancing and I would pose with my new house leaders for pictures to send to my parents so at least they would know that the journey that began with law enforcement cut a round hole in the wall of the social hall at Beth Jacob Village had ended in Arnot with me placed in a house in a Jewish area.
Instead, here I was nearly ten months later in the country, even if Amaryllis and Ondina insisted that Highland Lakes was exurbia. I sqatted in the dirt, planting fava bean and chard seeds. These cold hardy seeds needed to go out ahead of the corn and squash seeds. The tomatoes, everlastings (starflowers), flowering tobacco, and amaranth were living as seedlings in the SCAS greenhouse and now spent four hours a day hardening on a table behind the greenhouse. Those of us who worked the Grandview Community Garden (our half of it anyway. You know who had the other half.) would transplant them Memorial Day weekend when all danger of frost was passed. At an elevation of over 1,000 feet (300 meters) Higland Lakes had a climate similar to Upstate New York rather than New York City.
Joseph USA, who was home from his taking, watched me work. "Where is the rest of your 4-H?" he asked me. I explained that they were in their own community gardens. This one was mostly mine when it came down to it. Besides, my partner had done a whole bed of red deer tongue lettuce the other day, planting impossibly small seeds, with impossibly long finger nails. She too had members of her clan on the math team though she thought the Saprophytes, who had insisted upon the challenge were unmitigated jerks. I disagreed. The Saprophyte boys pulled their weight, but sometimes they were boys, with male bravado and all that entailed. "Well their male bravado is going get beaten to a bloody pulp. New York City, [Unlike Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Toronto, or any of the other Ed-Branches that had rushed to take houses in Sussex County after New York City pulled out last summer] is selective and those houses in the suburbs are tough."
"What makes you think we're any less smart?" I asked. After all we had the same curriculum at school, the same courses. The Scholars' Union had seen to that, and it was attitude, behavior, personality that decided which house was a good fit, not brains. Brains were kind of evenly distributed like butter on well spread bread.
"New York City loves the ones it loves," the kid from the Brown Dwarf clan intoned. She was probably a city girl far from home, even if she enjoyed agriculture. "They get the best teachers, extra stimulation. I went to middle school in Suffolk County," and no doubt Ojasvi; for that was the girl's name, had very good middle school memories.
"Our teachers are no slouches," I replied, but how was I to know. I did not tell Ojasvi I had come within inches of being a member of the Golden Olive clan. Instead I wondered how in the past (Ojasvi was fifteen), my partner of yesterday had been shitcanned. Undoubtedly she was and undoubtedly she regretted it. That was just the way it was though.
"We work when we can," I told Joseph who clearly thought this was inefficient and who wondered why we scholar kids had so little discipline.
"Don't you need to study?" Joseph needled me.
"After I wash my hands and get inside, and don't ask me when I'll sleep. I do that on the bus."
"You really do," Joseph realized.
"Sometimes. It's OK, Joseph, whatever gets the job done."
"What if your math team loses?" Joseph had heard about the challenge and it worried him which surprized me.
"Hopefully it won't be by much," I told the boy.
Then I added. "We're not getting shitcanned. It wouldn't be fair if they were much better than we are."
"Are they better?" Joseph asked.
I stared at the soil where I freshly buried seeds. My thoughts were ten months behind. I remembered the grainy comm phone images on a computer screen. "I almost joined the Golden Olive clan," I told Joseph.
"Why didn't you?" he asked.
"The Priests invaded Nationals and sent me to Burden of Dreams. It worked out. I would never have done 4-H otherwise.&qot; I glanced at Joseph. I wondered if he knew that while I was not exactly lying, I just wasn't telling the whole story. "They say you don't miss what you never had, but I miss it," I confessed. "I often think about what could have been. I don't know if the clans near New York City are smarter. Our math team and chess team usually don't play them. Suffolk County could be the dark side of the moon, Joseph."
"Are you worried you'll lose?" Joseph asked.
"I'm not on the math team."
"Yeah but your school. You're all so proud of nothing but that stupid horse with the stupid EXPLETIVE FOR MALE ORGAN."
"It's a pegasus," I corrected the boy, "And we have to see who has the better team. They called us dumb for no reason, got that. That's an insult. We had to do something. However it goes, it goes."
"But if you lose..."
"If it's a fair challenge, we lose. We tried. We did the right thing. That's what important."
"What'll you do if you find out your not even second best? What if you're like tenth best?"
"We can't all be Illusion Priests Joey?" I felt like saying, but I didn't. "Then that's what we are. We live with it." I was lying of course. It would hurt like hell if we got trounced.
Aurora and Odem returned from math team practice that Sunday utterly tired and irritable. Odem was just Odem. She ate what Xannika and I had made. Zaibiba was down in Princeton again and none of the over-eighteens were home from college yet. Aurora looked for food in the fridge and found that everyone had eaten Elizabeth's cooking. She made herself a cooked, sliced, chicken sandwich which she ate morosely. Seeing Aurora put out was a new experience. It took a lot to sink that kid's optimism. Even Zell's tough love had not done with this impending math team match was doing to her.
I told myself, I would be glad when it was over, and in a week it was. The math team left before dawn to arrive in Suffolk County at 9am sharp. North Shore Traditional had the home team advantage. They said they deserved it. We said we'd beat them anyway. And does it matter, how it came out? Do you want to know? It was not another tie. We won, by three points out of a hundred and eighty-six, and the match went two hours over time.
The bus stopped in Brooklyn on the way back for a shore dinner which Aurora did not eat. She only had the shrimp cocktail. She told tails of how gross calamari and scungili were and of that awful red fish soup (Manhattan style) which she had first seen in this house but never thought in her wildest dreams that any restaurant would serve. Aurora also told us all how glad she was that the Priests had NOT placed her in New York City. Odem for her part was more subdued. She talked of the prowess of the Saprophyte boys. She said she had held her own which surprised her. "We have our third practice exam on Wednesday. Maybe I'll break ninty."
"You have the goods, Odem. You just need to settle down," Aurora assured her. End-of-Year exams were more important than math team meets far away. Of course on Monday, the leader of the Golden Olive Clan, put her apology on the Comm Board. My guess is the girl who wrote the initial article was shitcanned, though I wonder if she needed it. Nobody knows who the smartest kid is. Maybe, or at least according to Aurora, it is all a matter of attitude anyway at our age. Maybe on Wednesday, Odem would finally "settle down." Her low scores on practice exams were really beginning to bother her.
The Rope Frays
Shimon sniffed as he entered the kitchen. It was midMay. The doctors said that Leah was thirty-five weeks along and the fetus was growing, but not yet positioned right. That was common this early and nothing about which to worry. Leah had many visitors at Emory Medical Center. Baumgarten catering had offered her kosher meals at a reduced price that Shimon paid. Other families contributed gifts. Children even visited her from the all girls religious high school and from the Torah Day School.
The kitchen did not smell right. It hadn't smelled right since the woman who ran that secular school his first daughter attended had meddled in his family's affairs and threatened to call the authorities if he did not hire a housekeeper. The housekeeper was a competent kosher cook. She did the laundry and light housekeeping and took care of the remaining older children. Yoni and Yitzi belonged to a string of minders who like those who visited Leah came as part of the community's outpouring of sympathy. Shimon liked that.
He, however, hated the way the kitchen smelled. Abishag refused to make Shimon coffee. She either forgot or refused on principal. Shinmon was a grown man and could make his own coffee. Abishag drank the same soft drinks she bought for the children. It was too hot for coffee. Abishag was from Canada. A picture of her husband and daughter adorned the refridgerator door. Shimon tried to avoid their photographic eyes. The kitchen smell was a pot of black beans cooking away on a back burner before the air became insufferably hot. Abishag rose early and got to work with her kosher cooking. Tonight was Shabbos. There would be guests both Friday and Saturday. Yesterday, Abishag made some sort of sugared fruit of which she had been proud. Shimon remembered her showing the red stems of this fruit that was really a vegeable to Yitzi who found them fascinating.
Yitzi was the one who really missed his imma, but lately he had nearly forgotten about her. Abishag lacked a mother's tenderness. This quiet time, when the kitchen was working like a well-oiled machine that would make its quota of edibles long before sundown, she was in her glory. She wore cotton gym pants and a short sleeved shirt to cook. the pants were medium blue and the shirt light orange with a pale blue applique of a flower with slightly bent and wilted petals. The shirt was a tight textured material. Abishag had thick, tanned arms, and large capable hands, but her face was pale and her features almost delicate. Her eyes were the amber of cat's eyes and her mouse brown hair sometimes fell as a stray strand across those eyes, a strand streaked with sweat if it was late in the day.
"No coffee," Shimon grumbled at Abishag.
"I bought coffee. You can make your own," she reminded him in a gentle voice.
"We have buchurim comimg," Shimon continued.
The words had no impact. "Both Friday and Saturday right?" Abishag asked as if she did not all ready know.
"Yes," a faint smile formed beneath Shimon's mustache but did not reach his eyes or even climb much above his still brown beard. Only the hair at his temples and sideburns and a few stray hairs on his butchered head were white. There were wrinkles on his face and the remains of what Abishag suspected was untreated or badly treated acne, now covered conveniently by facial hair.
"Is this what you plan to feed them?" Shimon moved in to deliver the blow that even coffee would not soothe. He moved over to the stove for emphasis and opened the top of the beans to let her know that these black things cooking away would not do.
"Yes," Abishag replied pretending not to feel the blow. "The menu for tonight and tomorrow is on the bulletin board by the old phone jack."
"Here Shimon," her voice was that of a gentle teacher. "Most of this stuff is made. The taco-roni salad is the last dish."
Shimon read the menu but its words were another language. Abishag and Leah cooked differently. Leah made the standard dishes so did not need to write them down and give them fancy names. Abishag, on the other hand, lived in a world of named foods and menu planning and a million fruit and vegetable flavors which she imposed on the children who took what they wanted and left the rest. He had bought or rather borrowed a light box for Abishag to keep insects out of the food supply. The vegetables kept coming and she thanked him for the light box. Needless to say, Shimon worried about contamination, light box or not.
Just then Yitzi appeared in the kitchen door. At three, Yitzi was on the verge of turning from toddler to preschooler. With Abishag he was a preschooler. He was toilet trained and could dress himself exept for his shoes most mornings. His hair which needed to be cut for his first introduction to the aleph-bais (the Hebrew alphabet) was a shaggy mess of curls to which Abishag or any one else often pinned a small head covering or kipah. This morning, Yitzi had his kipah in his hand. He had on a turquoise polo shirt turned backward and elastic waist denim jeans. The clothe were clean. Ths shirt on frontwards with the collar mangled. Abishag squatted down and set the collar right.
"I'm going to comb out this hair, Yitzi," she told the boy who submitted to these ministrations without complaint. That Abishag lacked Leah's tenderness, made Shimon sad. It made him sadder that Yitzi did not care. "Excuse me," Abishag slipped out of the kitchen and arrived a moment later with a comb and brush. She squatted in the kitchen doorway doing Shimon's second youngest child's hair, complete with round clips to hold it in place. "There," she said. "That feel OK?" Yitzi mumbled something, and Abishag attached the kiapah.
"Doesn't he look lovely?" Abishag asked Shimon.
Boys did not look "lovey," thought Shimon who remembered he had no coffee and an unfinished and meaningful argument. He remembered that Leah took Yitzi on her lap and fed him like a baby bird. She had done that with all her children, but Abishag had none of that. Yitzi had to eat at the table in his own place from his own dish. The boy did not care. He did not miss the materanal warmth. Shimon gave Yitzi and ugly look as he padded into the kitchen. He glanced up at the pot of beans as if there had always been beans on the stove early in the morning.
"Abbi is d'ere any pap-ay-a fruit?" he asked.
"Not yet," she answered. "But I can see if we have enough to have some now." The housekeeper's tone was serious. She checked a plastic basket of papaya kept on top of the refridgerator. Sunday these had started out as a box of seven or eight large mottled green and yellow fruits. They had money for this strange fruit, but not for meat. Yes, there was the argument.
"The buchurim are coming and there is no meat for Shabbos," Shimon found his opening. Abishag put a cutting board on the table. She tore extra plastic bags open to make a nest to cover the cutting board and began to remove the first papaya's skin with a carrot peeler. It fell away in slimey strips. There's no meat, but there's always plenty of fruit. There's no meat but there's always beans and macaroni or beans and rice or salad with cheese and dairy dressing, or loaf cake made with milk and eggs and dried fruits or fresh fruits.... The sing song of the kitchen tromped through Shimon's head.
"We're having dairy," Abishag countered.
"You're supposed to have meat and wine for Shabbos." Shimon realized he should have asserted his authority a long time ago, but the weird food onslaught had caught him off guard. Worse still, Yitzi was in league wtih the interloper who by now had the first papaya half peeled and was rotating it's slimey salmon colored bulk.
"Tell Baumgarten or Publix or Kroger to stock meats the community can afford. A merchant who performs a service has an obligation not to rip off the community they serve."
"The prices for kosher meat here are not much higher than New York. I spoke to my chavrusa [study partner] up there two nights ago."
"Publix and Kroger do not stock neck meat of any type and the last time I wanted some, I had to beg, plead, and explain. I sold half of it to neighbors for cost. It's gone now and I'm not twisting Baumgarten's arm again. The same is true if I want backs and necks or if I want wingettes or ground turkey. He only stocks the expensive, high profit margin stuff."
"He needs to make a living."
"People here are trying to make it without the Company." Abishag raised her voice. "Baumgarten needs to act responsibly. Since he's not, I'm not buying from him. It's all we can do. This community needs to pull together if it wants to live more independently."
"So you pull with those...&qut;
"Papayas..." Abishag finished the sentence.
"We're having roobarb too," Yitzi added.
Abishag did not answer the child. "I can get papayas for .59 a pound. I can get a whole box for ten dollars. That feeds everyone, you, the children, their friends, the guests. That's what's important and the trimmings make food interesting and don't break the bank, understand?"
"Yes, but the buchurim, know I have a traditional wife."
"The buchurim will have to make due with me. We are not rich. We need to have enough for them and the children, understand?"
Shimon shook his head. He watched the water heat up and pour through the coffee maker. Meanwhile, the doorbell rang. Shaina, whose turn it was to mind Yitzi and Yoni, when Abishag did not mind Yitzi, came in. She was fresh out of high school, rosey cheeked, and ready to go to Israel. Shimon's house was just a detour. She greeted Abishag looked around for coffee, and then headed upstairs. By now Abishag was deseeding the papays. Their seeds reminded Shimon of disgusting, crawling things. He looked away.
"Why don't you go play with Shaina?" Shimon asked Yitzi.
"I like Abi better," the boy replied.
"Why do you like Abishag?" asked Shimon sneaking a peek at the papaya seeds.
"I'm a big boy now," Yitzi rocked on his bare feet while Abishag gathered up the peels and seeds as a huge, slimey, plastic bundle and threw them in the garbage pail.
She began to cut the papaya into slices. "Would you care for a taste?" she asked Yitzi and Shimon. Yitzi bellied up for his advance slice. Shimon continued to watch the coffee. It was better coffee than they servedat kollel. Shimon told himself he would soon be learning the ancient rules about trading and animals damaging one another, the rules that made a civilization, the rules that a learned Jewish man was required to study, the rules of an orderly society with priests judges, and women who stayed in their places which was fine because women broke hearts and deceieved, and yes, this included even daughters and the well brought up minders when one really thought about it.
Going to the kollel also hid the fact that Shimon had not had work in a week, not even part time. At least, Shimon thought, he was not spending his days in a bar somewhere or worrying his wife who did not need to know how bad the family's finances were. C-Branch whoever they were paid Abishag. He gave her room, board, and a food allowance which she stayed within. She pinched pennies until they screamed.
Shimon tried not to think of the parents' meeting for the Day School. They were cutting the number of scholarships and worse yet, making them merit based. That meant Dov would need a tutor. Kayla might be able to get a scholarship on her own or he could pay one child's tuition if it came to that, or could he? This was not even local house tuition, just Day School. The next time that siren blew, his kids would just have to seek cover. They were in HaShem's hands, and for some reason, Shimon did not find that a comfort.
1238 Bramble Place
There was no taking on May 16th and none on May 23rd. In our half of the Grandview Community Garden, the red deer tongue lettuce, chard, and fava beans all sprouted and pushed their cotyledons through the straw and wood shavings we used as mulch, and then began to develop real leaves. Life is hard for small, young plants. By Memorial Day Weekend, we were faced with an attack of the slugs, and Ojasvi, Odem (who always pitched in), and I spent an afternoon making slug collars, little rings of paper, glued together with wheat paste, which is biodegradeable. We had to make over a hundred of these things and carefully glue them into place. If we did not collar our crops or obtain beer to put in jar tops, our first crops would fail.
Odem debated whether America's Clan had loosed the slugs on purpose. She suggested an excursion through our gate of boastfulness in the dividing wall to see if there were slugs eating their crops too. We found a few in their bed of romaine lettuce and some munching away on the Boston buttercrunch lettuce. Meanwhile, Joseph came out. He hardly glanced in America's Clan's half of the garden. After all, he had something a thousand times better than a bunch of plants. He was an acolyte to the worlds famous Illusion Priests. He followed us back to our work table and then to the beds where the plant saving operation went on with haste and good will. "You think we ought to warn the neighbors that they've got slugs?" asked Ojasvi.
Odem grinned ruefully. I was not sure. America's Clan were pains in the butt. They should have been watching their half of the garden as carefully as SCAS 4H watched theirs. "Do your clan masters know you are doing this?" Joseph asked. "You mean keeping quiet?" asked Odem. "They don't even know about the slugs."
"I mean this stuff with the papers. They must have a better way to get rid of insects." Joseph looked genuinely perplexed.
Slug collars were Odem's invention. "Do you want us to poison the whole EXPLETIVE DELETEDing garden?" Odem asked.
"Yes, but shouldn't you talk to your masters first?" Joseph looked genuinely puzzled.
"Why? My leader knows we're here. Joey, dear," Ojasvi waxed sarcastic. "We're big girls. We're supposed to take the initiative."
Just then Elizabeth barreled out of the house and into our garden. Her pale face looked shocked and unhappy. Had she lost her substitute teaching job? Last I heard she was going to have a permanent position teaching middle school French in the fall and.....
"Odem and Ahava, you're needed inside now. Hamida deLang wants to see you." Elizabeth sighed with relief after making that announcement.
"Why!" Odem all but screamed. She'd been caught off guard. "I've done nothing to be shitcanned. Nothing! Not this time!" It was one thing to be a professional bad kid. It was another to be shitcanned for crimes one did not commit. As for me, I wasn't sure what I'd done. I must have offended somebody, but mostly I slept on the bus and talked trash with Atilla Saphrophyte. Surely that was not the kind of badness that required the head of Ed Branch Atlanta's intervention.
I followed Odem back into the house. Hamida DeLang stood in the kitchen. Aurora was upstairs studying. Had I been Aurora or even my sister, Kayla, I would have apologized, instinctively, but I wasn't going to apologize when I had no idea what I'd done wrong, and niether thank God was Odem. "Your leaders tell me you're both working hard in the garden this afternoon," Hamida began.
I waited for the blow which by now I knew was a whopper because Hamida was ramping up to it with pleasantries. "We had an emergency," Odem explained. "The slugs are attacking the plants. I have to help my friends."
"You need to help yourself," Hamida cornered Odem.
"I'm trying as hard as I can," Odem wheedled. I couldn't believe that Hamida had come all this way to chew out my roommate for grades in the mid to high eighties on her End of Year Practice Math exams and grades in the low to mid eighties on her biology end of year. Her French hovered in the low ninties, but languages are fun in a way that other subjects are not.
"I think your grades will improve if you help another student," Hamida explained.
"You want me to be a tutor! Look, with all due respect, I'm in enough trouble with my grades right now. If you want a tutor, talk to Aurora. She gets close to a hundred on every exam. She's the one to beat."
"It's more a question of temperament than grades and what I need is not a tutor but a study buddy."
"That's a pillow," Odem did not meet a beat.
"Ahava knows the word for it in Hebrew."
"Chavrusa," I said to the air.
"That's what I need. We have a thirteen year old in the Garbage Dump. She's far and away the oldest kid in our section. The others all fell through porous barriers in malls around the country. We're running at a quarter capacity. Qimat needs the companionship and support of peers closer to her own age."
"How old is Kee-mat?" I asked. Now the recipient of our largesse had a name. That was progress of a sort.
"She turned thirteen three days ago. It's a hard age even when you are healthy, and Qimat is not entirely healthy. She's under a psychiatrist's care and she also has a behavioral contract. Having a chavrusa or two will help her study and stay with her contract. You just have to go down to the Garbage Dump and study with her and see she takes her exercise. She knows she needs her medications."
"Therapy is very helpful," I said remembering my own.
"Exactly, but Ed Branch San Francisco didn't see it that way, and her immigrant parents believed that mental illness was a stigma. San Francisco sent her home with a psychiatric referral on which her benighted parents never made good. She ran to one of the new malls and busted through the first portal hole left open and then told everyone she had an Ed-Branch encouragement and she needed to see a psychiatrist. San Francisco Ed Branch cut her loose. She went up for grabs. Thankyou San Francisco and I said: 'Fine, a kid that is sick and wants to be well and has a pretty good work ethic is our gain and your loss, bastards!' We're on moratorium for trialling due to End of Year Exams. Qimat even had sense to bring her books and clothes with her when she ran. She just needs some company to get her through this rough time."
"Our garden has been infested with slugs," Odem reminded Hamida. Boy could Odem skate on thin ice. I waited for the hole to open up.
"When did you find out?" asked Hamida.
"About ten this morning," I said.
"We need to finish putting slug collars on the plants. It's not fair to leave Ojasvi with all the work."
"All right, finish up in the garden, and then head straight down to the Garbage Dump. I'm leaving you a few menu cards since you'll probably be eating there a lot. I know you ladies shop for groceries on Sunday night, but someone here will have to cover for you." Someone would be Zabiba and Xannika most likely. Joseph who wondered about clan masters would have been utterly pleased with the outcome.
As it was, he was shocked that we had stood up to Hamida, but choice did we have? We could not lose the garden. Odem had not just been a professional bad kid, she had kept her eyes on the prize. Now if only she could do that where her End of Year Exams were concerned.
As we put the last of the slug collars on the fava beans (For some reason these went last. We did not fret over stuff like this. We just got the job done.), Ojasvi asked if we should tell America's Clan about the slug infestation. God, this thorny, ethical dilema would not go away. We were under orders from Hamida to procede directly to the Garbage Dump, but that was not really much of a reason for doing or not doing right.
"I guess we have to tell them," I sighed. Odem shrugged. Ojasvi agreed with me. "Two against one with one abstention," answered Ojasvi. Joseh shook his head. "We're going to do it OK,&quiot; Odem told the boy. "WE DECIDED."
That meant we, all four of us, crossed America's Clan's boring half of the garden and went up to their back door. Their house was quiet. I didn't even hear a disk or file player playing music which would have been kind of normal for a Sunday afternoon. We knocked on their back screen door. Their kitchen was empty, but the smell of dull food remained. Feed people dull food and it makes them dull, except for kids like Aurora who are just super all over.
A man in a shirt and tie and dress pants answered the door. He was very tall, and probably used to getting his way because he was very tall. Odem, however, doesn't let adults intimidate her. "Excuse me," she began. Oh she could be so polite. "We are your neighbors. May we speak to someone who is in charge of the garden."
"Why?" asked the tall man with a buzz cut.
"Your garden is infested with slugs." Odem kept a straight face, though I fought down the urge to smile. Damn it! This was such poetic justice!
The tall man scratched his head and disappeared into the shadows. Soon, another tall man, this one quite old with dark pink skin, plenty of wrinkles in his forehead, and white hair that was scraggly due to pattern baldness. He'd probably spent a life time getting his way and here were three, punky, adolescent girls in his doorway and one boy who had gotten away from everybody with a fantastic placement.
"What can I do for you?" the old, tall man attempted to be polite. I think he succeeded.
"Your garden is infested with slugs. They're on our side too. I checked your side and they're eating your lettuce."
"Well thankyou for telling me. What's your name?"
"And who sent you?"
"Nobody. We took a vote and decided we should tell you. I mean, if you found slugs in our half of the garden, we'd expect that you'd let us know, so we kind of had to do the same thing."
"Well, that's very ethical of you." The old man looked down at his hands which had short, bitten fingernails and one nail that was discolored a strange shade of purplish black.
"Thankyou," Odem did not miss a beat. Well, we'd done our job. We wished the tall, old man a nice day and then headed back to our garden. We still needed to wash out the wheat paste bowl, which was a good distraction. I wanted to laugh so hard, I nearly peed in my pants. "What a total walking piece of shit!" exclaimed Odem and we knew about whom she was speaking. "Better not call him that," I told Odem. "Shit makes a great addition to the compost pile."
"Are you saying the old fart is an insult to all shit everywhere?" asked Ojasvi.
"The head master is in the kitchen!" Joseph warned us.
"I've heard worse," Hamida deLang set the boy's fears at rest. "Who is this old fart by the way?" Hamida was an older lady herself, but not a fart by any means.
"The man in charge of the garden in America's Clan," it was Elizabeth who answered. "They've been giving this house and Ojasvi a very hard time about the garden out back. They are angry about our heritage crops and don't think we're serious. We think they're heavy handed because they're franchised. The politics ends up on the fourteens backs because Ahava is active in 4-H."
"I see, and were you polite to the 'old fart?'" Hamida asked us.
"Odem was very polite, Master," Joseph answered. "She was also eth-ick-al."
"Do you know what eth-ick-al means?" asked Hamida.
Joseph blinked. He did not want to say "no."
"Why don't you ask," Elizabeth coaxed her son.
"What does eth-ick-al mean?" Joseph said in a flat voice.
"It means moral," Odem answered. "It means doing the right thing, even to walking insults to all the turds in the world."
"Great definition," Hamida laughed.
Joseph looked perplexed. "You man," Hamida replied. "This is not a formal situation. Those girls have dirt under their finger nails until they scrub them. If their leaders or I spent all our time chasing down every use of a swear word or potty talk in informal situations we would have time for nothing else. Do you understand?"
"You let kids cuss,&quiot; Joseph caught on.
"Most of the time yes," answered Hamida. "I don't like it from my interns on the job, but these are fourteens not interns."
Joseph shook his head. "How do you keep discipline then?" Joseph had his eyes on the prize.
"That's mostly for their house leaders. You can call them clan masters. It means the same thing. What you have to realize is that Ed-Branch houses have historically taken kids at fourteen. That means there are no young children here. That also means you can expect kids to take the initiative and be responsible for their share of work. That's much more important than obeying orders or even needing them."
"Excuse me," Zabiba appeared in the kitchen doorway. She had been in the computer room on the fourth floors and come down to wash out a tea cup. "Did I miss something."
"We have to go down to the garbage dump and be study buddy to a thirteen year old named Keemat," Odem explained.
"We're going to miss tonight's grocery shopping," I added.
"Fine, I'll cover," Zabiba filled in. "Just write down any requests. Are you going to be eating at the Garbage Dump this week?"
"I think so," I confessed. "That means fewer requests," I answered. I realized getting down to the Garbage Dump was not as easy as it looked. I wrote down my requests. Odem wrote hers. We gathered our books. Ojasvi did not have hers with her and would continue on to Seckler Center to take a bus back to Vernon and then another bus back to MacAfee where her house was. How she ended up in our community garden was a mystery, but she was one of our group in class though not at lunch, because she loathed Saprophytes. So it went.
The Garbage Dump was quiet, too quiet. I climbed the stairs to the third floor on the east side of the building and entered the Ed-Branch Atlanta/Scholars Union section which flew its emerald green pennant with the diamond caligraph that meant nothing but a pretty symbol in white. Hamida had an Arabic name. Zabiba had an Arabic name. Qimat (Yes, that is how you spelled it) was also an Arabic name. Quimat, however, was not Arabic. She was Asian, either Chinese or Japanese. She was a tiny kid sitting at the middle table of the empty lounge with her books in front of her. Raven hair shielded a face that was mostly pale skin and shadows. She looked like she hadn't slept in a week. She wore an overize sweat shirt pushed up over thin wrists. The shirt had once been white, but none of us are professional launderers, and whites turn sort of oatmeal colored over time. This shirt was turned fuzzy side out to get more mileage. Under the shirt, Quimat wore fuschia colored cotton, exercise pants. Her feet were bare and the bottoms blackened by walking on indifferently clean floors. A pair of flip-flops with magenta, sequined, silk chrysanthemums on them rested under the study table.
"Hello there. We your study buddies. If you expected pillows, they were out of stock at the store or Hamida EXPLETIVE DELETED up the order," Odem announced.
Qimat gave us her full attention. Her pale face was not only greyish underneath its sallow complexion, it was covered with sores and scabs and the beginnings of scars. All I could think of when looking at the girl was, "Oh shit!" I realized that the sooner I got busy studying with Quimat the better. There wasn't much else we could do. I just hoped the crazy kid was really studying and not staring into space. She was really studying. We went for dinner at the end of the dinner shift. There was no late night cafe and the last dinner seating was six fifteen which was early by our standards.
I asked Qimat if she was still on West Coast time. She shrugged. She asked about the weather outside. She said she wanted to take a walk after supper. She had to walk two point five miles every day according to her behavioral contract. "I'm supposed to be better in time to take my finals," the girl confessed.
Qimat had berry and nut crunch cereal with soy milk for dinner along with a bowl of cooked peas and a tall glass of orange juice. The rest of us had sandwiches. Once our menu chits went through the food would be better. At least there was the salad bar and plenty of soda, though out of deference to Qimat we refrained from caffeinated drinks. Qimat's behavioral contract (Such scarey words!) was part of her "do-list." According to Atalaya, the intern who was serving as Resident Advisor in the EBA/SU section of the Garbage Dump, every child who was living there during this low intensity taking had a "do-list" posted on a magnetic white board.
Qimat's "do list" read as follows:
Study for exams.
The list made me feel vaguely relieved. Thinking of Qimat as someone recovering from a long illness made me feel warm and fuzzy, except the kid looked damaged in a way that was downright scarey. "How's your stomach tonight?" Atalaya asked Qimat. The Resident Advisor was playing Scrabble for Juniors with two younger kids. The computer room was probably full, Odem explained. Some of the younger kids still had to pass their proficiencies that Ed Branch required before they could play in the computer room.
"It's OK for now," Qimat replied. She pushed hair away from her damaged face.
"You're not scratching are you?" asked Atalaya.
"I'm not itching. Can I have my night dose now?" Qimat shifted from one bare foot to the other. She needed to cut her toe nails. I tried not to look at her feet.
Atalaya checked her watch, excused herself, and went behind the pantry counter where there was a box of medications. She gave Qimat a paper cup of water and a pill. "Thankyou," said a pinfully polite Qimat. "Your flip-flops are by your door," Atalaya told Qimat. The kid shrugged and retrieved her shoes.
A few moments later we were outside. The moon was just starting to rise over Lake Five. We walked to the beach fence which was closed for the night. Tomorrow was a day off due to Memorial Day. It might get warm enough for a swim. "How well do you swim?" I asked Qimat.
"I think I can get out to the raft," she answered. "I can swim in water over my head."
"Well, that was a start," I thought. I tried not to look at Quimat's face.
We walked along the back side of Lake Five rather than on Upper Highland Lakes Drive. When we reached the dam, at the far side of Lake Five, the road became a trail on the tall grass berm. Behind the berm was a wet land or swamp. Spring peppers and other frogs sang their night mating songs. Soon they would be making eggs that would hatch into tadpoles. Fish would eat some of the tadpoles. Overhead a gypsy moth hawk called out: "karu-karu!" It was heading home to a minder who was still feeding it suet. The new caterpillars had only begun to emerge to a world of hurt.
Qimat kicked off one flip flop so she could rub the toes of the foot still imprisoned in the other one with her overgrown nails.
"That's really gross!" complained Odem.
"I don't care," Qimat answered. "How would you like it if someone told you not to scratch your feet?"
"You want them to look like your face?" Odem asked.
"Feet are tougher than that. Besides, I've all ready got chicken pox scars on my feet too. Feet don't scar as badly."
"Is that what happened to your face?" I asked. I thought we were all vaccinated against chicken pox or at least some kids were. A lot of people got lax with vaccinations or sometimes they weren't available. Then there were terrible epidemics, but chicken pox was usually not a serious and disfiguring disease.
"I was vaccinated," Qimat gave up scratching her feet and explained. "There is a new strain of the virus in California and it breaks through the vaccine. That's what I got. I was the only kid who got it in my house."
I realized that "my house," was the clan that had expelled Qimat.
"They took me to the doctor and my regular doctor wasn't around. The new doctor had a nurse assistant weigh me. I'd been losing weight cause I didn't want to eat. I think there were pox in my stomach or maybe it was nerves. I lose my appetite very easily. I'm a nervous kid. Well she didn't like that I'd lost weight. We had a long talk and I told her that I'm not crazy about my body. I mean I know I'm skinny and all that, but I think black thoughts and they upset my stomach and I can't eat. I also get real cold sometimes. She asked about the black thoughts and I told her they were worries. They were my thoughts. No one puts thoughts in my head, though sometimes people give me ideas, but everybody gets ideas. You can't live without getting ideas.
"She also asked me why I scratched my pox open. I told her I just forgot and I was sick and tired and there's only so much a kid can remember. Those people who are all neat and pretty are lucky or don't have troubles. They are happier than me. They must be... Well, the doctor gave me a referral to a psychiatrist and my house sent me home to my parents to get well, but my parents were horrified. They did not think I was crazy. I wasn't crazy. I have a treatable mental illness, but they didn't see it like that. I knew I needed to see a psychiatrist. I was tired of the upset stomach, and normal people are happy enough to remember not to scratch their pox.
"I'm not normal. I was glad a doctor recognized it because now I could maybe get normal or close to it. I wish my parents saw it that way. They were very worried about me when I called them. Kohana had to keep speaking to them and tell them that I would be taking the same exams and everything with me was right on schedule and that I wasn't in any trouble. I'd just find a new house in the east. That's all that would happen. The medication works for me, so I'm lucky that way.
"I remember when Kohana came to see me after I ran away. She said I had done a very brave thing you know? I needed to see a psychiatrist and get on medication. The doctor doesn't think the scars from the chicken pox will be that bad once they really heal. I'm still young enough to fade most of them out. It will be just like I had a few zits."
That was Qimat's story. A story told can be a demon expiated, but Qimat was not fully redeemed. Her success on her finals, which would be the same examinations given in California would redeem her further. This was not a really awful way of thinking though some adults might pity Qimat for it. She was old enough that finals meant something. She was a scholar or an Ed-Branch kid. She was a decent student and was willing to study hard and learn to work smarter.
That she had something to prove was just one of those things that sometimes happens to people. In her case, she had to prove that she could do as well in New Jersey under a moratorium as she would have done in "her house" in San Jose. It was not San Francisco. She even spoke the name of "her house:&qut; Delta House. Qimat though was not Qimat Delta. She was Qimat Asuwa. Her explusion from Delta house had stripped off her last name. That was pretty cruel when you thought about it. In the speak of interns and placement specialists, Qimat had a "failed trial," and unlike Ora, she had not walked away on the moral and ethical high road.
I wondered if Ora and Qimat would get along if they met. Ora with her talk about letting off steam and being taken against her will, and Qimat who wanted so badly to be in and who was shut out through no fault of her own were opposites, though in an odd way not really. It is not Qimat's fault that she has her brain wiring. She can only make the best of who she is. A sick person takes medicine and tries to get well. Being sick is no shame.
Some time during the first week of studying with Qimat, I noticed a piece of red construction paper painted with either kanji script or Chinese characters in white paint. Qimat said she had made it in her art class. She translated it. "It is no shame to ask for help." I looked at it and wanted to cry. It sat on the door of her room.
It was the Tuesday after Memorial Day and we needed to rush to catch the six fifteen dinner seating. We had had practice exams after school. I scored a ninty-four on mathematics. Qimat had a ninty-one. This was five points better than her last performance. Odem had a ninty-five. "Come on, we have to celebrate before they close the dining hall," I urged. Besides, Aurora was waiting downstairs. She had a ninty-eight and wanted a hundred. Everything is relative.
"...And they took the cast off Charlie's arm last night." Aurora for some reason was not letting me sleep on the somewhat longer short bus I rode to school in late May. It was two days before the first weekend in June, the weekend where I planned to spend nearly all of Sunday hauling plants in the market cart from the greenhouse to our community garden and putting them in the ground and then gently watering them. After the planting would come time for either study if I was fast about things or a trip to the mall for the weekly shopping expedition. Having Qimat at our lunch table meant more bottles to fill. It also meant a perpetual struggle to keep Aurora from being a total asshole.
Now, I love Aurora. She is a good friend of mine, but Odem would say she is naturally a good kid by instinct. In some fantasy stories she would be what they call a paladin. She can't be anything but virtuous. She knows of nothing else, and thus doesn't really understand kids who are not naturally good through and through. Odem is a bad kid, but Odem likes order and seeing that the little person doesn't get hurt. This makes Odem acceptible. I am too emotional, but I carry a heavy burden. Qimat on the other hand, doesn't try hard enough.
For example, Aurora believes that Qimat should be drinking milk instead of the fruity soda drinks and tea drinks (We are using herbal ones in Qimat's honor. If I want a strong cup of tea with a kick, I drink it hot and keep the bags in my locker and do my drinking away from Qimat.) Milk is healthier. It will make Qimat healthier. Qimat is lactose intolerant. Qimat also loathes milk. Worse yet, no one told Qimat she has to drink milk or that every bite of food she takes has to be healthy. She could gorge herself on sweets, not that she does, though she is partial to rice crackers and to wasabi flavored peas. "Quit putting chumrot on Qimat!" I finally told Aurora. Aurora blinked at my use of Hebrew.
I explained that a chumra was an added stringency, extra rules to make things harder. That Qimat ate lunch like the rest of us was all she had to do. I often walked her to the nurse to get her midday meds after her meal. In a perfect world, Qimat would have had her meds before she ate. SCAS was not a perfect world. Aurora often came with us. That was when the unsolicited advice would start. "Qimat we need to do something about your nails. Qimat, when did you last do laundry? Qimat, did you scratch your bites open again?"
"EXPLETIVE DELETED YOU!" I screamed at my friend on Qimat's behalf. Qimat was an expert at handling Aurora's version of twenty questions. She had done her laundry last week. She'd take care of her nails when she had time. She had been asleep when she had scratched her bites or they really itched, and you would scratch open bites that itched like that too. Secretly, I admired Qimat's deadpan response, but she did not need an imitation of a concerned parent.
"Aurora," I had finally taken her aside yesterday. "You're doing more harm than good with Qimat."
"What do you mean?" Was my friend really this clueless.
"You are crawling under her skin and being way too critical."
"Can't you see she needs help?"
"Yes, and she's getting help. She's following her do-list. She's eating, exercising, taking her medication, and her grades on her practice exams are good."
"Yes, but...look at her."
"She's not out to win any beauty contests and neither are we. Look every time you help make up a full or bring one home, you help Qimat by making sure she has noncaffeinated drinks and by letting her have a say on the menu chits you help her. Let one of the adults do laundry inspection."
"And what if her bites get infected?"
"There's ointment for that. They sell it in the drug store. It's the same stuff you use for infected pierced ears."
"So she just rots."
&qut;She's not rotting. Kids who rot don't pull grades in the ninties on their Practice End of Year Exams. Kids who rot don't become trilingual, which is what Qimat's on the way to being, English-Japanese-French."
"OK, I'll lay off," Aurora answered grudgingly. I realized I was condemning Aurora to suffer, but in a way Qimat existed to tell all of us that you can't fix or redeem everything, at least not right away. That was why Aurora was back to describing her family's endless saga, and why I did not mind listening. Zell was taken again much to everyone's relief, including his own. He hadn't been thrown out of his encouragement which made Aurora more than secretly happy. Charlie on the other hand had returned two weeks late from an extended taking with his right arm in a cast. He had been kicked by a cow. His clan leaders got in touch with Aurora's parents and asked if they would be responsible for the child's physical therapy. Aurora's father had nearly cussed out the clan master over the comm phone, but somehow held his tongue. Charlie was home now for a one month break with his family. All the kids were home for a one month break since the cattle and sheep at the ranch where Charlie's clan was located were out at pasture in the mountains, and the masters did not want the children where they could not attend school at least part time.
With a broken arm Charlie had worked on extra studies, run errands in the kitchen and office and watched his fellow clan mates rope, ride, and do farm chores, that he missed terribly. Zell said that Charlie was lucky and no one threw him out for being useless. "Why should any encouragement throw out a kid for being useless. That is really evil."
"Ed Branch San Francisco did that to Qimat," I responded.
"And Atilla Saprophyte," I added.
"Well it sucks," answered Qimat. "Amen," replied Aurora. "Charlie's still in his clan. Now Leon who drives the truck into town and gets deliveries has to take Charlie to his physical therapy appointments. Apparently, it was a bad break and he lost a lot of strength in the bad arm. Poor kid. He's taking it all so well. At least he's ahead on school." When one door slams shut, another always opens. Aurora really believed that.
It was a tense, ugly week at school. I was glad to get to the greenhouse each day and bring in the plants that now went out before or during homeroom and came in when I got done with my practice exams or studying in the library. Yes I often showed up for homeroom late. Yes, I had an excuse so I was not officially tardy. My homeroom teacher wrote me a permanent pass for the week. The greenhouse was my refuge. I would miss it once the plants were in the garden where they belonged.
That was why seeing Atilla Saprohyte enter my domain which I shared with Qimat who loved to help out was an utter and complete irritant. "The scores are up!" was his greeting. I felt my stomach knot."Oh shit," sighed Qimat under her breath. "What's the baby doing in the greenhouse again? This is a high school." Atilla added. Qimat was the baby.
There was a proper response to a question like that "EXPLETIVE DELETED off, Atilla, you know that?"
"What's your problem?" asked my favorite Saprophyte.
"You're picking on Qimat because she's in seventh grade. Now EXPLETIVE DELETED up."
"Don't you want to see your scores?"
"You must be in a good mood. You're not saying they suck today," I commented.
"Mine don't." Atilla smiled, but gave Qimat a dirty look.
"I've been studying hard," I defended myself. "Qimat here is a good influence." The girl smiled. Then she looked down at the floor.
I watered the plants, checked the pointsettia area, and we were off for the wall to see our fate decided as percentages out of a hundred. I had a ninty-six. Atilla had a ninty-seven. I also had a ninty-six in biology. Atilla only had a ninty-two. We had had the biology practice exam in lieu of gym, health, and a free period. This way we could get through two practice exams in one day.
"We're running even," I told Atilla.
"Biology is not math."
"The French practice exam is tomorrow."
"Girls always wail at French."
"It's not that hard,&quiot; I cajoled Atilla. He shook his head.
"Come on, let's go see the scores at the middle school," I reminded him. Qimat had also had two practice exams today, though she had lost a gym and an art class and one free period to do that. She missed the art class since she liked to work on calligraphy. She wanted to silk screen her own t-shirts with a message in roughly painted Chinese characters.
I did not ask what message would be on the shirts. I just wanted one. The middle school was quiet. Half the kids were not allowed to stay late and ride home on the transport. Qimat just had to be home in time for her evening dose of medication. There were now enough kids in the Garbage Dump that there was a seven pm dinner seating. This meant Qimat could have her medication before supper if she could find the Resident Advisor.
We found our way into the math and science hallway and there were the scores. Qimat's mathenatics score was a respectable 94, and her general science score was a whopping 99. "Just one more point and it would be a hundred," sighed Atilla.
"Wow he can add!" cried Qimat. "Just why I want to go to high school!"
I could have hugged Qimat. You can see why Aurora had to lay off of her. "Are you going to trial this summer?" Atilla asked Qimat as we walked back toward downtown Newton. "Probably," Qimat answered. "Where do you want to go?" Atilla did not give up.
"If you trial with us," I began and I realized it was going to hurt, though a year ago I could never imagine an Ed-Branch house trialling thirteens, it really wouldn't be all that different than trialing fourteens. "Ondina and Amaryllis like to take kids in groups of three," I explained. "That means you may be part of a group of three or a group of six, three thirteens, and three fourteens. You'll sleep three to a room. It's not bad. The kids you trial with are like your sisters, but you won't be all alone like you are now."
Qimat didn't answer. Unlike what I had feared, Qimat had had no problem sleeping alone in one of the rooms at the emptied-out Garbage Dump. She still had a room to herself, and said she would feel sad "losing her privacy." That was how it came out that Qimat had no siblings. Only children are even stranger in many ways than children of divorce. Even children of semi-independent parents like Odem, usually had one or two siblings. The only other only child I knew well was Joseph, Elizabeth's son, and Abishag also had only a single child, but both these women led chaotic lives and had never had time to produce additional offspring. Those families that settled usually had at least two. Children needed siblings and families needed to be made up of more than three people. Qimat's family was different.
Sunday finally arrived, and Qimat was there to help move the plants along with Odem, Ojasvi, and even Aurora. We had two carts and made two bus trips instead of three as well as two round trip walks from Newton to SCAS and from Seckler Center to Grandview Circle at the Highland Lakes end of the journey, and oh yes, two buses from Newton to Vernon and from Vernon back to Highland Lakes. Still, by four pm we were done. Qimat took a shower with us and changed into clean clothes. We were disgusting from hot, sweaty work.
It had been three weeks since I'd been to the mall. The transport there, which always left my stomach unsettled if I did not close my eyes during the transition, seemed more crowded than usual. The yellow and black checkered tent was still there, marking our spot for the return trip. I don't have to tell you that something inside the mall was different. I knew this the minute we walked toward the canal. I wanted to take Qimat for an Italian soda drink and let her hear the man with the accordion while we sat sipping our beverages at a marble table, but the passage by the canal, that led to the tunnel that contained the fake Italian piazza was gone. In its place was a passage with a black and white tiled mosaic floor. The tiles lay in a serpentine pattern and silk ficus trees provided fake shade, while tiny lights in their branches glowed like stars.
The piazza was also gone. In its place was a large toy store, where several adults demonstrated toys the like of which no toy store in New Jersey stocked. There was a super hero suit that allowed its wearer to levitate and soar within a fixed area at low altitude as in a couple of feet off the ground. This was not really flying but amazing enough. There was a dinosaur robot which obeyed verbal commands and had sinuous and lifelike movements. There was a mechanical horse which came with goggles that simulated a real horseback ride. Several adults in skin tight white, shimmery suits with red trim stood talking to kids who sampled the toys. "Is this a store or a temple?" asked an astute Aurora.
"I think it's a bit of both,&quiot; Odem answered.
"I want to make my own stuff that I understand!" Qimat said loudly enough to attract the priests' attention. One shook her head and the other smiled indulgently.
"That's why we're scholars," I explained. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to salvage the evening. I walked up to one of the priests. I asked for the location of the nearest information booth.
"What is it you want?" the woman said in a cold voice. "I'm looking for a Japanese restaurant or supermarket, very, very authentic, preferably needing knowledge of the language," I smiled. The woman shook her head. "Do you speak Japanese?" her male companion asked.
"I don't but one of us does. She could use some practice."
"We don't know any place like that," answered a woman with long, wheat blond hair.
"Fine do you know where the info booth is?" I asked. I got a reasonable answer and after descending five levels and around several corners we found a whole neighborhood of Asian stores. Aurora worried about being lost. I said we would be fine if we retraced our steps. Ojasvi commented that I was fearless. Odem said I was just good at what I did. We made Qimat our translator and ate sushi, except for Aurora who had some kind of skewered meat on a stick. I avoided the shell fish if you are curious and went easy on the wasabi. Then we found a bakery and a snack store. Soon Qimat had several boxes of bean flavored cakes and rice balls and some umbioshi plums in a plastic container. She gave us each a salted, pickled plum to try. Poor Aurora nearly gagged on hers. Then we made the long trek back to the supermarket. We let Qimat put her boxes in the push cart. She would probably share all those snacks with her dorm mates.
Odem commented on how hard it must be for Asian kids to place with Ed Branch. A typical Ed Branch spread was crackers, cheese, cookies, and fruit. A typical dinner was some kind of pasta with red sauce in an Italian restaurant or sometimes a trip to Brinjin's, the world famous incredibly huge cafeteria which served any kind of food imaginable. An Asian kid at Brinjin's was a lucky kid indeed.
Then my comm phone rang. I did the math. It was about 3pm on a Monday afternoon in Tasmania, but it wasn't Chevie on the other end of the line. "Good evening," chirped Abishag in Atlanta.
"Hello," I answered.
"Where are you? Your connection is terrible."
"Deep in the North Jersey Mall. We took a friend to see the Asian groceries and restaurants. I just ate the best sushi dinner of my lifetime."
"Well that's good news. I have even better news. About an hour ago, your mother went into labor. It looks like they are not going to have to induce and she may or may not need a Caesarian. The baby never turned around. They are going to try to turn the baby without resorting to surgery. She's thirty-seven weeks and some days along. The baby should be close to full term."
My skin prickled all over. I thought of all my brothers and sisters. I thought of Shmuel (now Shlomo-Yitzakh's) bris. I thought of Dov's bris. I thought of Chevie's naming ceremony, and then Kayla's naming ceremony and when Yitzi was born. I even remembered going to the hospital directly from school to see Yoni when he was only a few hours old. He had been born in the early evening, a very convenient time. I tried to breathe, but my throat felt raw and tight.
"Ahava," Abishag asked. "Are you still there?"
I was there and desperately thinking of a way to get to Atlanta. I wondered if I had enough money saved up for a stick jump or failing that an overland ticket. I'd spend twenty four hours on a bus to see my new sister; for the child was to be female this time.
"Yeah, I'm there." My throat ached so badly I could hardly talk. "It's wonderful isn't it?" I croaked and then I cried, hot, bitter tears.
"I've all ready told Chevie. She's leaving on the midnight stick jump so I get to pick her up in Atlanta at about six am our time. She loses fifteen hours and it takes a while for her to clear customs.
"Who's paying for it?" I had to ask.
"We're Creators. We understand about family."
That should have been an insult, but I knew what would happen when I came home from shopping. "Absolutely, positively, no," Ondina laid down the law. "You can not go to Atlanta. You are under moratorium due to End of Year Exams. When your finals are over, we'll pay for half your bus fare if you want to spend time with your family. We'll even let you go for a whole week."
This should have been an excellent deal, but it sucked. I thumped upstairs. I threw myself on the bed and cried. Aurora told me to pull myself together. You can guess what I told Aurora. During breakfast the next morning, Abishag called to announce that I had a baby sister and that my mother was doing fine. The doctors had given my mother a partial aneasthetic (a spinal) and then turned the baby. Mom had an incision and stitches at the entrance to her vagina (This was to prevent tearing), and plenty of bruises in her birth canal, but these were minor injuries comparied to the insult of a Caesarian. Also, most of the damage that had been done to mom by this pregnancy was the result of prolonged bed rest. As a result, Abishag would probably be managing the household for several weeks until mom regained her strength.
I felt relieved. I did not even feel ruffled when Odem who should have known better, asked the baby's name. My new sister DID NOT had one and would not have a name until she was eight days old. "You mean her parents call her 'hey you!" exclaimed a horrified Odem. "You didn't have a name either, when you were born," I reminded Odem of Jewish custom.
"Oh yes I did!" Odem replied. "My mother called me Scarlet and put it on the birth certificate." Odem hummed the theme to an old movie called Gone with the Wind. "Scarlet's a lot better than 'Hey You!'"
I guess part of me agreed with Odem. After all what if the baby died without a name? This sometimes happened. At least an English name was better than no name at all. Of course "Hey You" did not die. Instead, I got a ninty-eight on my End of Year Practice Exam in math. Maybe sushi is good for your brain.
Life Under the Moratorium Continued
By a vote, we decided to defer my birthday celebration until after End of Year Exams. This was a group decision because I would have celebrated with: Xannika, Quetzalli, Zabiba, and Qimat, all of whom had birthdays within five days of my own. This is a common occurance when a lot of people live or go to school together. At Druid Hills Magnet Academy we celebrated all the birthdays in a given week or month as a single party, usually during evening activity. We had more time and more fun and bigger parties that way. The five of us, however, had a birthday that fell right at the start of the moratorium. Everyone, except Zabiba who was busy in her own right, and who along with Quetzalli carried us in the kitchen, had End of Year Practice Exams two or three times a week. These exams counted for twenty percent of our grade in each subject except English where we had a final project that counted for the twenty percent, and in history where we split our End of Year grade between an exam and project, both of which went on our transcript.
There was a reason behind the moratorium. Qimat had End of Year exams, but they were middle school level and did not go on her transcript. They, however, counted for the usual ten percent except where a project was involved. A party during the moratorium would have been a muted and strained celebration. Intensive and sometimes miserable studies, with and without Qimat were very good at pushing the rest of the world out of my mind. Only the garden brought it back. I watered plants by porch light using a mini hose and an extender rather than a sprinkler. I squatted to get the water on the soil, and then pushed back the mulch. This was to slow transpiration and retain water for as long as possible. Somebody, probably the Portal Priests had stuck the sky badly. We were close to a minidrought. Of course America's Clan had sprinklers that shot up water in great irridescent arcs during daylight hours. I got to see this once or twice during weekends in June. "EXPLETIVE DELETEDing wasteful!" complained Odem with righteous disgust.
Then the letter came. I saw Kayla's handwriting on the return address. Kayla always wrote. Kayla did not phone. That Kayla could write decent and articulate letters showed her academic smarts. That Kayla wrote me was usually not a good sign since she preferred Chevie, not that she cared much for either older sistere, but a letter to New Jersey took three or four days, and a letter to Hobart, Tasmania took two to three weeks. I found a kitchen chair and not caring who looked, opened the letter.
Imma fired Abishag. She did not pretend it was because we couldn't pay her. The Creators paid her. We just gave her room and board. Imma did not pretend she was strong enough to take care of the house. She's still in bed half the time. She just wanted Abishag out. She even called her a whole bunch of bad names, which I know you do not want me to write.
Abba has hired a tutor for Dov and also for me, but I don't really need one. Adina Brozman tutors me, and she says I am the best student she has ever had. Dov's tutor comes from Eretz Yisrael. I'm not sure why he is in Atlanta. He skinny, and he has a weird looking chin. His mouth hangs open, and I think he smells. Dov has to spend two hours with him after school. This is like your mora-toreum. (sic)
Abba spends all day in kollel where he can learn. That means he is not working. I'm not supposed to know this, but imma and abba don't make any scerets about it. Abba's computer is covered with dust. I'm not sure it can even get to the net. I know we don't have a working phone any more, just Abba's comm phone.
I get cereal at school in the morning now. The lunch ladies give it to me, but they don't have any more power bars or even cookies. Sometimes I eat Shabbos out or go to a friend's house for dinner. Abba buys pastries for the tutor and makes them both coffee. I don't like coffee.
Yitzi misses Abishag the most. He screams and cries when Imma wants to feed him. He stomps his feet and says he's a big boy. He asksy for papaya fruit and roobarb. We don't have that stuff any more. The basket on top of the fridge where Abishag put the papayas is empty. There are a few empty papaya boxes by the back door. When it rained they got all soggy, but they are still there, all bent out of shape. I look at the boxes and think of Abishag, but she is in Canada now.
Do any of you notice what is missing from the letter? Kayla did not mention her baby sister's name. As of June 10, 2084 she was still "Hey You!" Late at night, after Shabbos, I received a comm phone call from Chevie. "How are you doing?" she asked as if we were the best of friends instead of just allies who were trying to take care of our younger siblings long distance, and doing a pathetic job of it when you thought about it.
"As well as can be expected," I replied.
"How's the moratorium?"
"It EXPLETIVE DELETEDs. So what else is new?"
"Imma named the baby Hulda."
"Oh." Her name really did not make much difference to me, when I thought about it. The baby had the breast. The baby was warm and safe. The baby now that she was safely born would not starve or even worry about where her next meal was coming from. Though she could not sit, she would always have a seat in the form of a crib or set of arms to hold her. Always would not be forever, but always was now.
I no longer lived in Atlanta. I would never know the child this baby would become, except always went on beyond now, or maybe there was a time beyond always. I thought of Kayla's letter. "How are the older kids?" I dropped the bomb. Chevie had been to Atlanta. Chevie might still be in Atlanta. Chevie did not have a moratorium on her.
"Imma fired Abishag," my sister began.
"I know that. Kayla wrote me."
"She did it right after Hulda was born, before her naming ceremony. Abba is unemployed. They sold our beds and some of the furniture in the den to pay bills."
I thought of Matt's Pizzaria and sitting there nursing a personal green and black olive pizza with a whole wheat crust on a Saturday afternoon. My stipend had insulated me throughout middle school. I have very good middle school memories.
"Are Dov and Kayla getting enough to eat?" It was not as hard to ask the question as I thought.
"It's the usual bullshit," answered Chevie. "There were no chairs for us at the naming ceremony. They had it at the house, but everybody brought food, so there was some left over. I stayed at Bonnie's. She told me to tell you not to give Kayla any money."
"Why?" I asked. I hadn't thought of this yet, but now that Chevie mentioned this, it made utter sense. Kayla could buy food for herself and Dov, or Dov could buy food for Kayla, honestly, without depending on charity or resorting to theft. One could make an argument that the sooner this bad situation was over, the sooner both Dov and Kayla were taken, the better off both of them would be, but it was a strange argument, and both Dov and Kayla might fight a takin tooth and nail even if they starved, so why let them worry about being hungry?
"Bonnie says that you had a card and you got your stipend that way. You had finiancial management class to manage your card. Kayla doesn't have a card. You'd have to give her cash or a check and she can't cash a check, and she can cash a money order, but then she'd have cash."
"What's wrong with cash. I used to withdraw cash all the time, when I was in middle school?"
"Imma and abba can find it and they'll steal it," Chevie replied.
"What are we going to do then?" I asked my sister.
"You aren't going to do shit because you are on EXPLETIVE DELETEDing moratorium."
That was true but only for twelve more days. After that I was on my way to Atlanta. "I can figure out a way to get Dov and Kayla cards. That will keep the money out of our parents hands and keep the big kids honest."
"You don't understand," Chevie almost whined.
"What don't I understand? Dad is out of money. That's what happens when you go independent and don't have a way to make a living, and mom always favored the babies. She even favored us once."
"There's more. There's the new mall. Abishag said it was off limits. She said there were walls in it that could turn into portals. She said she used to build portals. She said she was an engineer, but she was not going to work for the Enemy. She hates the Priests. You know that? That's why she's back in Canada with her husband and not working right now. She doesn't care. She'll get another trouble shooting job. It's better than building \ things to trap kids.
"If you go to the new mall you can be taken just walking around. Is there a mall like that where you live?"
I thought for a moment and remembered the rebuilding at the North Jersey Mall. "There may be. I don't know. It's probably always been that way, but since I'm placed, I never noticed."
"Scholars miss a lot of stuff," quipped my sister. "Well the mall is off limits, but imma and abba go there sometimes. Dov even goes there even though he shouldn't. Kayla is afraid of the place. Kayla is very smart you know?"
"Kayla is going to end up Ed-Branch."
"There is no more Ed-Branch. She's going to be a Scholar. The Priests took over and The Company rolled over on its back and died, got that?"
"You hear this stuff in Tasmania."
"You don't hear shit because you are too busy studying!"
"I've got End of Year Exams. I'll fix up Kayla and Dov as soon as I can get to Atlanta. I'll make sure they don't go near that new mall. If they have enough to eat, they can make it through the summer until school starts. Hopefully Dov will win a scholarship and dad will pay Kayla's tuition or Kayla will get a scholarship and Dov will have a sibling discount. We just have to hold it together until Labor Day. That's until spring in your part of the world. I think we can do that."
"How do you get a kid a card?" asked Chevie.
"Find their ID number and take them to a bank. I'll get help from Kohana. Everyone knows our family is a mess, but we're going to fix it."
"You sound like a grownup."
"Well I should. I just turned fifteen ten days ago."
"Did you have a good birthday?"
"We're putting it off until after the moratorium."
"You scholars are crazy," my sister answered. We said goodbye soon after that. I hoped and prayed that Kayla and Dov could hold out for twelve more days. I did not think much of myself as a rescuer even though a trip to the bank and a few nice words to a teller and the right ID and some cash could fix everything, nothing fixes everything. That's just the way the world works. I had to know that. I did know that, and besides I had to think about my End of Year Exams.
Knife in the Ocean
I was probably better off very busy after finals ended. First, the 4-H group had to get the pointsettias out of the pointsettia room in the greenhouse, wrap them in either burgundy or white foil, and transport them to the high school and middle school auditoriums for middle school and high school graduation. Middle School graduation was Sunday afternoon. High school graduation was Saturday night. Middle school (eighth grade) graduation had traditionally been the more fraught ceremony. A year ago, everyone who knew anything about Ed-Branch kids knew that within days we'd be going to Nationals for the last time and then be placed at the end of Nationals. This was it, the time to stop living at home. The agony was over. The Priests had upset all of that, not that there were any eighth graders graduating at the Garbage Dump this year. There was one seventh grader going into eighth grade, and you know who she was. There was also an eighth grade graduate who had returned to her trialling house to make up for time she took a mental health break. We are not Illusion Priests. Adrionned had been forgiven and now she worked along side of the rest of us, wrapping, wheeling and arranging. "This is going to look better than most college graduations!" Adrionne exclaimed.
"It should," I said. "Eighth grade graduation is scarey. We carried lighted candles, and they made the auditorium all dark." My brother Shlomo-Yitzakh (Then called Shmuel) sat in the audience. His teacher had brought him and several of his classmates. This was not a religious ceremony, and the teacher reasoned, that there was nothing wrong with the boys witnessing it. Then we blew out our candles and the light went to black. A little kid screamed. Then the spotlight shown on Bonnie Sorensen who stood with just a microphone on a bare stage and welcomed everyone. She made a speech about graduation as an important rite of passage. She welcomed all the graduates to the world of initiated teens, and then on queue the school orchestra began to play. They did not play Pomp and Circumstance. They played a medely of songs that were nearly a hundred years old from an opera called Quadrophenia. They played the overture while different teachers took turns reading our names and we walked across the stage.
That was it. It was over. I wasn't going out anywhere to eat, even if the kosher restaurant had been open. No one had the money to take me. The teacher did not take me home or out to eat. Everyone went with their families for the last family night for a while. I did laundry when I got home. I'd be leaving Saturday night. I'd sleep in the forest. I wouldn't think much of the ceremony again which seemed dramatic at the time, but which faded quickly...well not really, as you can obviously see.
At home -- and Burden of Dreams House was home now! -- I found myself travelling to the store on Thursday, but not the North Jersey Mall. Some time between the Passover Taking and End of Year Exams, the Fart Box had died. It died as quietly and with as little fanfare as all of its predessors. Set up next to it was a huge cement maw. It wasn't really a maw, just a stubby end of a mall, that was so obbviously in the interior that no one bothered to hide it, least of all the Portal Priests. It was supposed to be bettere than the North Jersey Mall, and for us who were all ready placed, there was no risk in enjoying ourselves. Zabiba and Quetzalli especially were taken with the supermarket. We promised Qimat an authentic Japanese dinner. Aurora said that was fine with her as long as she did not have to eat raw fish. The boys, Jewels and Tweetie, got their bio-Pro for their grill so they could grill meats for the graduation party and Festival of Candles. The Festival of Candles was a joint birthday party where we would need to light over ninty extra skinny candles. Since we'd never have enough cake for all those candles, Pedra came up with the idea of making play dough cake from flour, water, and either dry mustard or annato seed.
What made Quetzalli so happy about the supermarket was that there were all sorts of out of season fruits for sale, including cranberries. "I've got a great idea,&quiot; she told us. "Cranberry bread?" asked Xannika who stole the twenty year old's fire. "Let's make cranberry orange bread for our birthday cakes. We could have several of them and more room for the candles." It didn't take much to convince Quetzalli.
That was how Zalli ended up grating orange peel while I chopped raw cranberries, and Aurora, who should have known better pulled a face. "Orange peel is nasty. Raw cranberries are nasty. Why can't you just have cake, like everybody else?" she asked.
"Because it's bakery cake," answered Zabiba.
"Everybody likes bakery cake,&quoit; Aurora struggled in deep water.
"If they don't know better," Xannika answered. "This has real fruit in it and real flavor from the orange peels."
Aurora pulled a face. Elizabeth gave her a job making fudge where she nearly collided with Odem who was watching a pan of beans cook on the stove for Tuscan bean and veggie salad. Odem was also in charge of the fake cakes. Thsee were square moulds of egg salad and salmon salad which was mixed with celery, grated, carrot, and other good things, so it would be worthy of the name of salad, and mayonaise and spices, and then covered with cucumber and tomato slices and pepper strips to look like cakes. In addition to fake cakes and marinated bean and vegetables salads, we had several regular salads, flat breads, and that was just our feast. The boys were cooking steaks, Elizabeth was in charge of teh steak fries, the mashed potatoes, and the salsa for the tortilla chips.
We had lots of tables on the patio, which this year was defiled with only a few gypsy moth caterpillar turds. The tables which came out of the gross and disgusting basement were... Let's just say Dante and Artemis rehabbed them. Now they wore red cloth covers with plastic sheeting on top and there were cookie sheet trays for all the play dough cakes, bakery cakes, fake cakes, and cranberry orange bread cakes. They were all stuck with candles so they looked like waxy porcupines. And we set some on the kitchen table, and put others in the refridgerator. We walked to Seckler Center in skirts and hose for the women and nice shirts and ties for the men. Our graduates, Artemis, Celeste, and Esperenza carried their caps and gowns over their arms. They were not going away. They'd come home to live with us during breaks. They would not leave a mentoring hosue, but stay in their clans all druing college. This had happened even before the Riots. It was no shock.
Graduation took two hours. Then we rode back on crowded transports, the graduates still in their regalia. At the house, Onyx and Amaryllis lit all ninty some candles. We snuffed out the citronella lights and punk that kept away the biting bugs. An innocent, white night moth flew towards us and our light. Across the garden, lights in America's Clan's townhouse also blazed. Did they have a graduate too? We sang happy birthday in English and French and then I got to extinguish the light and fade the scene to black. Somewhere in the distant night I could hear crickets, frogs, and maybe cicadas. Was this a year for cicadas? I did not think it was.
I was glad to see the citronella candles light up our porch and the porch light with its bug bulb make everything glow yellow again. "What'd you wish for?" Odem asked me. I told her the truth. I had wished for nothing.
"Why?" she asked me. I said I was not sure.
Qimat and I saw Adrionne graduate the next day. There were plenty of leftovers for me to pack for my trip and time to do laundry. There was even time for one of my first swims in the lake, though when I tried to lie easy on the raft in the late afternoon sun, one of the boys shouted "HORSEFLY!" I heard the splashing. Neither Qimat nor I moved. Qimat made it a policy not to let "stupid bugs" disturb her. I did not want to be disturbed either. As a result, I found myself covered with fiercely, itchy welts all over my back, arms, and legs. Horseflies do not just bite like mosquitoes because they lack sucking mouth parts. They scratch up your skin, lick, and drool all over you. Their irritating spittle and the scrapes and scratches make for the gigantic welts.
I took something for the itching. I rubbed myself with witch hazel and gave myself another witch hazel bath before I dressed. It was not hard to pack for Atlanta. I had my food in the fridge all ready. I had no bed on Biltmore, so I 'd be staying with Kohanna and travelling to Toco Hills via ARTA. None of this fazed me. I could teach financial management inside out. I had enough money. I had enough time. My journey and its success lay in HaShem's hands. Odem, Aurora, and Qimat came to see me off all the way to Warwick, New York. We did not say much as we rode from Seckler Center to the transfer point in downtown Vernon. The soda machine was still there. I looked for ants on the outside of it and found a few, meticulously following their trails back to a comfy nest. The soda machine may have taken cash, and there were going to be precious few of us with cash, only scholars mainly, and my brother and sister. The soda machine had gone the way of the Fart Box.
"I'm going to pray for you," Aurora told me as we rode from Vernon to Warwick in Orange County, over the New York border.
"Go for it," I answered.
"Don't be scaird," Odem advised me.
"I'm not scaird," I lied.
At three pm in the middle of a hot summer Monday under the longest days of the year, the overland bus for New York City left Warwick and made many stops. I watched blankly out the window, the rural northern countryside, always green, rich in decay, fertile for its short season before the frost and cold got to it. I was going to finish growing up up north. I was going to be a country girl. It was kind of something I always wanted, but Kayla was not like me or like Chevie, and Dov was not like Shlomo-Yitzakh. These kids I was going to help had their own priorities. That was, I told myself, why cash was a good idea. They could use it as they saw fit. I did not have to worry about them eating kosher or buying toys or anything else. It was going to be their money, their small bit of freedom. Everyone had to go in the way that was best for them anyway.
I reached New York City at 7pm and ate in a by the pound place. I enjoyed my snow peas and chick peas and marinated mushrooms and shriveled black olives. I bought several nectarines to go with my apricots. I fell asleep somewhere in New Jersey and awoke only when someone forced me off the bus in Washington DC. Below Washington, security became tighter for southbound passengers. They took us behind screens. They frisked us for weapons. They opened our bags, and then they divided us. Company ID holders to the left, freelancers to the middle, and those with ID cards given by the Priests to the right. My blood red card, which is not one bit fancy, was still a Priestly ID. I stood on the right. I got to board as part of the first group. The driver made all the elect sit up front. The freelancers got stuck in the back and the few company employees could sit where they pleased, and most sat up front.
I was glad for this arrangement. I did not want to hear garbage about how good it was to live off the grid and how it was still possible. My parents had sold my bed. My parents had sold my siblings bed. Ben Dibri got arrested stealing food for his mother. Do you want more? I did not have to dread a made up Sophia Loren with an evil laugh under a magenta sky. I had enough to dread.
Then I was with Aurora, Odem, Qimat, and Ojasvi. We walked along a beach that was coal grey with little white patches of snow that had not entirely melted or ice that had washed ashore. The sea was the color of slate. The sun never set. Beyond the ocean, the land sloped in undulating hills covered with a carpet of low growth, tiny plants, like a cross between weeds, grass, and moss. There were no bushes. There were no trees. The clouds in the sky were silvery white and pulled taught in a sky that never changed.
"In the daylight we can walk a long time," an older woman's voice explained. It was oddly accented with a sing-song that I found vaguely familiar. "We can walk and walk. This is the season for it, the season when the sun shines. The men can hunt. They can get seal and we will dry the meat. There are cloud berries and spice berries. We will dry them. Seal fat and berries makes ice cream, better than the ice cream you buy in town."
"This is our own space," answered a male voice. "This was always our place. The Creator gave it to us," except the old Priest did not say Creator. He said another word in another language, one with many tongue clicks, a host of q's and k's.
Slowly a group of figures separated itself from the hills of low growth. They were tiny under the wide spread of the arctic sky.
"EL-LLLL-EN!" I called out in a voice so hard it hurt my throat. "ELL-- LLLL -ENNN!"
"Wake up," I woman in the seat behind me called out. "You're disturbing the whole bus."
"It's all right," said another female passenger who in the dark of the late night long haul overland could have been Elizabeth or Zabiba's double. I am slowly learning to respect older ladies. "They're going to pull into Richmond any second."
Richmond. That meant we were all ready in Virginia. I sat shivering as the lights came on and the driver asked for our attention. He had a long announcement to make. We needed to get everything off this bus, that included any baggage in the hold underneath. Below Richmond we would be riding in a new, secure bus. It would be more comfortable and we were lucky. The driver laughed. He also told us to obtain food and water in the buffet. We had free vouchers for this. This was NEW. There would be no rest stops until we reached Charlotte, North Carolina, and then again no rest stops until we reached Atlanta, Georgia. The new bus would have three latrines but no place get anything to eat or drink. What did the driver think the bus was, an old time rail car? I tried not to think about that.
I stumbled into the Richmond Greyhound station. I filled my travel bottle with pineapple juice mixed with seltzer water and ate one of my nectarines as I sat on the ground by the security area. As in Washington DC, we passed through the frisk, search, and divide process. The new bus, however, had partitions and compartments. It was the largest bus on which I had ever ridden. It was squat enough to take up nearly two lanes and divided in the middle with a partition through which the up front passengers would have to pass to reach the latrines. The seats beyond the partition, were only one one side and screened off, as were the seats in the back. The front of the bus belonged by right to those with Priests' ID cards. The others were now screened off from us where they could plot without my hearing it.
I wondered if any of those plotting to move off the grid or at least boast of it, thought of moving to the Alaskan tundra. I thought about Ellen of Na'haquit. I missed her. I tried not to think about her, but she was here with me in the darkness all the way to Charlotte where I dozed off half an hour before the lights came on and several soft musical tones played. We could leave our stuff on our seats. The driver passed around the garbage receptical and gave me a broom to sweep out the bus. I got the honor because I was awake and did not have small kids to mind.
My child wandered where it was too far north for the sun to set in summer or trees to grow at any time of the year. Seal fat and berries tastes like ice cream. It's better than what you buy at the store. There are three latrines for your convenience but no where to buy ice cream, no where to talk to outsiders. They should be walking the tundra. No, it's not all ice bergs. This time of year, the sun never sets. You learn to sleep when it's light unless you walk all day.
I slept beyond Charlotte and dreamed I was on a ship. Once I dreamed I had had a fish' tail and had given it up with my tongue for a pair of feet. The beautiful prince would have left me tongue tied anyway. He thought I was too young to marry. I was his pet, his pet kid, while the beautiful girl from the convent captured his heart. If I couldn't marry him I would die. I sat on the ship's desk waiting to become foam at sunrise. Then up to the side of the ship swam my younger sister. Someone had cut off all her hair and really butchered her head. Without her hair, she was a long faced girl who liked to swim laps. She handed me a big knife. She told me the blade was poisoned. If I stabbed the prince, I could go back in the sea and swim for centuries. I'd even get my tail back. Of course there was one problem: You don't go around stabbing people if you have any human decency in you. Also my sister's tail was missing. Like me, she had legs and feet.
"Nobody's getting their tail back," I told her. "We never had tails. Haul yourself up on this deck and see for yourself."
My sister hauled herself on the deck. She stretched out her legs and wriggled her toes. "That's my tail," she told me.
"In your dreams, asshole!" I responded.
"You've got to do something about the prince. I went to the Sea Witch."
"And she made you look like an idiot with a bad hair cut. When this ship gets to land, we'll get you a decent bob. The show girls all wear their hair short. Maybe you could even learn to dance."
"I don't want to dance. Look you have to kill the prince and come back to the sea, understand? Here's the knife...Take it. There, that's better."
I held the knife in my small hands. Gee it was heavy, a regular cleaver for chopping up steaks. Jewels and Tweetie would have loved a knife like this, but there was a prince who was not a steak, and I was not going to disturb his wedding night. I took me sister's knife and threw it into the waves.
"No!!!!!!!!!!" my younger sister screamed.
"Shut the EXPLETIVE DELETED up!" called out a boy near my own age. I turned around and looked behind me. I apologized. The sky was greyish white like the sky over the Alaskan tundra of my previous dream but we were just outside Doraville. That meant we were coming into Atlanta. Kohana would meet me at the Greyhound Station. Then we'd go and find Kayla and Dov and then....
I climbed numbly down from the Greyhound and through the secure tube into the station. Atlanta, and much of Georgia were in Company hands and had passed easily to the Priests. We had been delivered securely. I was not hungry. I did not register that I needed a shower. It was late afternoon. I had lost time in a world of uncoscious pain and now everything would be much better. I stood under Kohana's shower not feeling fully in the real world, but that was fine. There was not that much difference between the real world and dreaming.
I rode in Kohana's car all the way to Toco Hills. I knew how to find Kayla. She was behind Beth Jacob Village playing in the monkey bars to which some older girl always managed to jimmy open the gate. A group of middle school aged minders huddled on a bench having a wonderful conversation. The younger kids played by themselves. I did not recognize Kayla. Her beautiful golden brown hair which she adorned with combs and ribbons and liked styled in various ways was gone. It was not just cut into a fashionable bob, but cut nearly as short as a boy, and the cut was uneven as if someone had taken vengence upon my poor sister's head with a scisors. I thought of the Sea Witch and the knife. I wanted to tell my younger sister that I had thrown the knife into the sea. It was gone. We were both human and going to be all right.
Instead I greeted her. I reached out and stroked her butchered locks. "I'm sorry," I told Kayla. "When did dad do this to you?" As a man, dad could never understand Kayla's hair.
"Imma did it," my sister told me.
"It's going to grow back," I assured Kayla. "Did she take your combs and ribbons too?" I thought of the plastic box with the horde, Kayla's prize posessions. I felt my face grow hot and the lump expand in my throat. There is a reason I am emotional.
I did not hear Kayla's reply. Instead, I concentrated on myself a few hours ago, sitting on the deck of the ship, holding a heavy knife, and then casting it into the sea.
Clearing Obstacles...Sort of...
Our next job was to find Dov. This was easy. He was either in kollel or at home and always studying. He had the scholarship exam. He needed to impress the board at the interview. He needed to be able to go to school with Dad only paying "fair share." Kayla was afraid of the kollel but it was closer than the house. I was not ready for the house. Men shouldn't hog study tables. I found a Tanach as we entered and walked by half a dozen tables. There was no sign of Dov and his tutor.
Then Kayla pointed them out. They had one of the glassed in areas all to themselves so their outloud study could not disturb the others or... I pushed the thought out of my head. Dov was not the academic type. That was not the same thing as being stupid. Yaakov, the tutor, was every bit as gross as Kayla had described him. My little sister was both bright and observant. I did not think a trip to the drug store to get some zit medicine would improve Yaakov's complexion or that improving his complexion would be enough. The poor tutor breathed through his mouth. His hair looked greasey. He and Dov became silent as we approached. I tried not to look at Dov. He resembles my mother, broadly built with somewhat lank dark brown hair and oddly blue-green eyes. Perpahs playing sports or relaxed in some way he was handsome. Imprisoned in the kollel, he was wretched.
"Girls aren't supposed to come in the kollel," Dov greeted us.
"That's not the law," I answered. "How's the studying going?"
"Baruch HaShem" answered Yaakov. Those two had it down to a science, I thought. My only problem was going to be how to get rid of Yaakov. I had an idea, and it wasn't going to be pretty. "What's the EPITHET DELETED doing here?" Yaakov asked me. Kohana pretended not to hear. I also pretended not to hear. Kohana by the way is Jewish, and Yaakov's epithet was meant to describe a gentile woman.
Yaakov was going to pay for that insult. "Kohana," I said. "Can you go outside the glass and say something very loud not a shout, but just a bit louder than normal conversation?"
"What do you want me to say?" Kohana asked.
"Something other than curse words," I answered.
"What are you doing?" asked Yaakov. He was not as dumb as he looked which was good. Dov was not as dumb as he looked either.
Kohana exited the enclosure and closed the door behind her. She stood looking at us. She opened her mouth and said something. I could not hear, but I saw male heads in the main study room turn and give her very ugly looks.
"What did she say?" a worried Yaakov asked.
"Why not ask her when she comes back in?" I smiled.
Yaakov stared at the floor. "Why are you doing this?" Dov inquired.
"You'll see," I smiled. "Why not ask Kohana what she said?"
"OK, what did you say?" asked Yaakov.
"I said 'The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out.'"
"That's just stupid!" sighed Yaakov. "We're trying to study."
"Then why don't you study in the open?" I asked Dov and Yaakov.
"Because we like it better in here," Yaakov answered.
"Yes, because you can talk about anything you want and it looks like you are studying. You can even spread the right books on the table and it looks just perfect. Great gig, huh. You get pastries and coffee."
"When Mr. Weisman eats with me," answered Yaakov.
"Abba went to lunch with his friends," Dov explained.
"Abba pays you in room and board to get Dov to win the scholarship, but of course Dov is no scholar. It's just not your thing and that's fine. It's not lots of kids things. Dov, you're normal. Shlomo-Yitzakh and I are the crazy ones. Still, Yaakov needs to eat and Dov needs to stay out of trouble, so you have a great arrangement. The question is though, is Dad giving you enough food."
"I don't want to answer that," Yaakov looked nervous.
"You don't have to. I all ready know how things work. That's why I am going to make both your lives easier. What I need from you though is your sworn silence. Dov will probably share his food with you, because he is going to have money enough to feed you. How does that sound?"
"Who's giving him the money?" asked Yaakov.
"I am," I answered. "Kayla's getting a share of my stipend too. No more having to get extra food, understand. No more risk of getting arrested like Ben Dibri, and if you try to steal my brother's money or go running to Dad and Mom," I told Yaakov, "I will tell him what you and Dov don't do most of the time. Got that."
Suffice it to say, the carrot and the stick worked. I got both my siblings cards and joint accounts. Kohana helped with the paper work. I taught financial management. Dov and Kayla knew Yaakov would be dependent on their largesse. Still that was a small price to pay to buy his silence. He did not strike me as the ungrateful type. He was trying to make an independent living, and Isreal was a company/priest town much like Atlanta. I taught my siblings how to keep their cards hidden and their PIN numbers private. I explained about the need to hide food well so as not to arouse suspicion. I also explained what to do if mom or dad found the cards. "Report them as stolen. The bank will make them worthless, so Mom and Dad can't get into the accounts. That's why cards are better than cash."
We also had a fun time at the Aytiem machine teaching my siblings how to draw cash. The less financial trail they left the better. They absorbed my lessons like a sponge. We even took them for kosher ice cream afterwards. Then I went to see my baby sister and my mother. She was not thrilled to see me. I had to remember how to hold a baby. It really had been that long. Hulda reminded me of a shapeless blob. She was safe for now. She was on the tit. She'd be safe or the next six months, and I could not think any further into the future than that.
Two days later I returned to New Jersey and learned that I had won a place at the intensive Hebrew instruction for two weeks at Cornell in Ithaca. Zabiba and Quetzalli volunteered to take care of my garden. I was grateful to them. I stood doing laundry in the laundry room off the kitchen while Odette made liver and rice for Odem and me. Qimat had gone back to California to spend some time with her parents before also travelling to Ithaca for intensive Japanese. I was glad no one asked me how it went in Atlanta. I had no letters yet. There was no land line. No news could be good news. At least I tried to tell myself this.