In a Safe Country VIII
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....
Cornell on a Soft Bed
Odd as it may sound, I never slept indoors at any Cornell National gathering and I had been to four of them. When Nationals met at Stanford, I spent one night in the dorms a couple of times before we left at dawn for the Sierras or the Desert. Usually, the college campus at Nationals was just a jumping off place for me. I always signed up for the adventure and outdoor eduaction options. I chose them in a heart beat because they reminded me of climbing the rope the first day I went to Druid Hills Magnet Academy. I tore my hand, but could climb again when the nures patched it up. I liked that attitude. I also liked feeling my own strength. I wanted to be strong. I was sure it would stop me from hurting, and no one likes to hurt. Urban hiking, rope climbing, nature study, camping, all did help in their turn. They gave me a new way to feel strong and renwed my relationship with HaShem. It is surprizingly easy to feel God in nature. A lot of kids who do outdoor education have transcendent moments, which makes me not one bit unusual, though one is always unusual to oneself.
This summer though, there was no escape to Arnot, Danby, the Adirondacks, no sleeping on sand, snow, or rough ground. Instead, I followed a hot, tired, but still excited group of mostly girls as we walked from the circle in front of The Old Union as the old hands called Robert Purcell towards The Star and the Star Halls. We passed the Rises built over a hundred years ago. They were not even putting the babies in the rises, one girl proclaimed. To me it was all asphalt, hot grass, and brick. There were trees, and somewhere nearby a lake and a Plantation, a kind of exhibition garden, or so I'd been told by Quetzalli who was a student here during the year.
The star halls were made of ceramic brick painted in a variety of colors which decorated white or cream backgrounds. Each Star Hall shown a different color, and no the Star Halls did not have numbers. Cornell had learned not to repeat that mistake which it had made twice, first with demolished dormitories on West Campus, and then with the ill-fated Rises on North Campus, and finally with two buildings on the Ag Quad which still bore the ungainly names: Academic Five and Academic Four. The Star Halls had names. Mine was Lomperis Hall. It was white trimmed with royal blue tile in string courses. It was five stories tall, and the elevator inside was only for the crippled or for freight. We could carry our duffles up the stairs. The Hebrew and Arabic students (Near Eastern Studies in Cornellese) occupied the fifth floor. One girl complained as we climbed the stairs. I turned down to see it was a younger kid unused to the sheer size of Cornell and its buildings which were still smaller than the woods or the desert. The girl next to me on the stairs snorted at the complaining middle schooler. Then she called out: "Hey stupid, what do you think those things hanging below your butt are for?" I knew the joke. Those were legs. We, the placed, did not want to share our building with whiney babies. That there were middle schoolers in our program or might be was a source of gossip and talk, half in Hebrew, half in various dialects of Arabic, and about a third in English. We partially or fully bilingual speakers of Near Eastern tongues had the uncleanest lips at Nationals. I was sure of that.
I got my key from a team of Resident Advisors who looked bored because they were faculty used to teaching adults. Now they were scholars in residence, and we were babies. I felt humbled. I opened my room only to find the door unlocked and a girl with honey blond hair and light brown eyes, unpacking a red duffle. She greeted me with a smile. "Someone opened the sewers of Jerusalem and look what ran out," my roommate greeted me in Hebrew. "I am not taking that personally,"I reminded her still sticking to lashon chodesh (That is Hebrew for the Holy Tongue). "It's probably not you. I don't know you at all, which is good. They put us together alphabetically in English. I'm Edina Buffo."
"I'm Ahava Burden," I introduced myself back. We fit perfectly, at least we were at the right part of the alphabet. "You have to watch the donkeys' and camels' rears from New York City," Edina clued me in. "Some of them have their noses stuck so far in the air they'll break off if they look down." I tried to imagine skyhook noses. I reminded myself that Hebrew makes for far more imaginitive insults than does English. Arabic by the way is also a language that is good for creative insults. "It's all new to me," I explained, still sticking to Hebrew. "I always did outdoor education before. This is my first time sleeping in a dorm at Cornell."
"Why?" Edina dropped abruptly from Hebrew back into English.
"Strength, transcendence, and an appreciation for God's creation," I answered. I smiled. Edina shook her head. "Well I hope you like snakes, the kind that bite," she added slipping back into Hebrew. "I'll introduce you to the crew."
"You've been here before?" I asked.
"When I wasn't doing modern languages or math catch up when I was ten. I wanted to try being an engineer, but languages are a lot more interesting."
I shrugged. People needed to talk. People sometimes wrote beautiful things. Language was a tool. Some tools could be beautiful in and of themselves, but it all depended on how you used the tool in the end.
I followed Edina out into the hall and down to the lounge which was peppered with Hebrew and Arabic signs. Most of them were about the location of dining halls. Cornell had five of these running in the summer. The Hebrew contingent was supposed to meet for lunch and supper at the kosher dining hall in Hughes which was the law school at the opposite end of the campus, not that we were talking about distances of more than three miles. From Rockefeller Hall where we had our classes, the distance was even less. Of course if we wanted to eat elsewhere which we could (There was no rule against this), we were free to do so. We were placed now, with loyalties that middle schoolers did not have. I thought about this as a small girl who walked tall with shiney raven hair and perfect olive skin strode across the lounge and looked me over as if I was a piece of dirt that did not belong there.
The girl turned to me, looked away, and addressed her friend who had lustrous dark brown curls and a lovely tanned face shaped like a heart. The girl with the heart shaped face shook her head. "I did not know they let people start the program in ninth grade," said the tall walking girl. I did not know that they did not let placed people into the program who had done other things when they were younger. Then I felt my throat tighten. I glanced at the tall walking girl again. Something about her long, serious face and beautiful hair was familiar. I remembered her from a packet of photographs which included my own, photos sent out by Golden Olive House, which was going to be my house, before the Priests took over my intitation nearly a year ago. Had it really been that long? I wanted to laugh. I managed to smile.
"What's your problem?" asked the tall walker in fluent Hebrew.
"I'm Ahava Burden. I almost joined your house. My picture was in the packet. Remember?"
"Kind of." My words caught tall walker off guard.
"What happened to you?" Tall walker never lost her Hebrew. I realized that in another place and time we would have been friends. Now I did not know what we were. I hoped we could still be friends. That would feel so good.
"The Priests initiated me and I got placed in Burden of Dreams. That's why my last name is Burden."
Curly friend with the heart shaped face made a grunt that was almost a laugh. Tall walker raised her hand to her mouth. Then she sighed. "You go to Sussex County Academy for Scholars don't you?" The words still in Hebrew came out almost as an accusation.
Fortunately, I was guilty of nothing. "Yes," I responded and I smiled, my coolest smile. Tall walker let her shoulders droop. She bent her knees into a slightly bow legged stance, she let her left hand dangle, and used her right hand to muss up her perfect black hair so it fell partially into her eyes. She seemed to lose several inches. It was a neat trick, except I recognized a very good impersonation of Atilla Saprophyte. I dug my fingernails into my palms. As tall walker swaggered across the room. "Oh he was brilliant wasn't he. The star of the math team," Tall Walker told us all in Hebrew, "and that senior boy, Lord Elohim. Yeah, sure! There's a reason they stick kids in the country."
"I take it someone else in your clan got shitcanned for that bulletin board post," I said matter of factly in English.
"What post?" asked Curly Brains.
"The one that said scholars in the country are stupid. Watch whom you call stupid in the future." That needed to be said in English. Hebrew after all was our second language.
"Don't you think there's a reason they stuck you in Sus-sex Coun-tie New Jer-sie?" asked tall walk.
"So I could run my high school's 4-H. We established a new high school last year." There asshole!
Tall walker and her companion turned away. "Welcome to the Serpentarium," said Edina Buffo under her breath. We had orientation that afternoon and dinner at Hughes. No one, not even the few middle schoolers who were part of the program and who ate with us but who slept in their own special area for "language kids" on the fifth floor of Sienko Hall, two buildings down, complained about the walk there or the walk back. Besides, if you could walk, you could talk. I learned that Tall Walker's name was Illana, and her curly haired side kick who could have been me was Zahava. I learned Edina's clan was the Poisoned Arrow Toads of Tarrant County. Tarrant County was Fort Worth, Texas. She had joined the clan after she threw herself on the mercy of the Scholars Union. Her parents had wanted her to go to Israel but the Dati Leumi clan with which they made arrangements aws not DL/SU. Edina knew that only Scholars Union was accepted by Ed Branch as equivalent and she wanted a Scholars Union clan so she could study anywhere in the world and have her credits count.
She ended up with the leavings, except she liked the Poisoned Arrow Toads. Buffo is Latin for toad in case you are wondering. "It really turned out great. All the kids there are self starters. We each have our own thing. Take La Runta. She's here studying classics. Her real name is Oneiro which means dreams in Greek. How cool is that."
"Is La Runta runtie?" I inquired as we lay in our soft beds, a bit of moon creeping through the window.
"Yeah. The poor kid stands four foot seven on a good day." Edina sighed. She had been speaking in English. "I think it's malnutrition or something. She's from Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side of the border." I thought of Aurora's brother, Charlie's international house in Mexico. La Runta seemed somehow to be Charlie in reverse. "I'll take you to meet La Runta. She draws these great comics. She's sharper than all those New York City kids put together."
"That means we eat lunch out," I commented.
"I think that's going to be a good idea some of the time," Edina confided back in Hebrew again.
"If we eat lunch out, there's someone I want you to meet. She's a middle schooler here for intensive Japanese."
"Is your house thinking of trialling her?" Edina was back in English again.
"Maybe," I answered. I did not like to think about trialling middle schoolers. I fell asleep and dreamed I had gone to the Arctic for a special program. I had a backpack, and special glasses to keep me from going snow blind even though there was no snow. There were endless rolling hills of flowers leading to a beach with sand the color of bleached asphalt and many boulders and pebbles and occasional bones of sea creatures, and amid those bones a human skull. I had on a nylon suit and fleecey things beneath it. Nights could be cold even if the sun did not set. I looked among the human bones. I was afraid, I'd find flesh, hair, and clothes that would...I did not want to think of it.
High on the beach was a pile of stones, a cairn. I knew what that was from middle school social studies. I have very good middle school memories. A cairn hides a freshly dead body to protect it from animals. The cairn flew colored flags, blue and white for Lomperis House, olive green and cream for Sienko House, purple and white for Bethe House where the Japanese and Chinese language students had their program if they had been placed. I did not know where the classics students lived. Maybe La Runta laid buried in the cairn. Maybe...No! No! No!
I cried out her name: "Elll-llllle-ennnnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!" My voice echoed back to me. I screamed and screamed. I screamed until my voice disappeared. Illana, the tall walker, grabbed me. "Don't they teach you kids to use a GPS. This one picks up warm bodies. That one has been dead for a while." I started to cry. My cries became sobs that woke both Edina and me. I had to explain that there was a friend I missed who was living off the grid, a very young and defenseless friend.
"I hope they find her soon," Edina tried to calm me. Clearly I could not find Ellen of Na'haquit in my dreams.
Outside our window, the sun did not rise. Instead, the day dawned grey, and the rain began without ceremony. Ithaca, New York is much wetter than either Palo Alto or Atlanta. One of the things I liked about winter camping was that it did not rain. In Ithaca when there was no snow, there was rain every two to three days, and those in power left the sky unstuck so it could "Ithacate." I remembered one session of Nationals the summer I was twelve where everything I had soaked through. The counselors told us to keep our writing materials and electronics wrapped and safe. As for us, it was not cold enough for frost bite or warm enough to grow mould on our skin. Hot tea stopped shivering teeth, but we really weren't that cold except in the early mornings. When we returned to campus before going home, the counselors got someone to let us into the laundry room in one of the dormitories and we washed and dried our clothes, bed rolls, etc... Then we got passes to eat in The Star which is a huge dining hall. I remember they had ratatouille as one of the entrees, and there were fancy Spanish olives on the salad bar. I returned home perky, dry, and weirdly triumphant. My future back then had of course been different.
My present wasn't all that different than that of the kid who would not freeze or grow green peach fuzz. I got my raincoat after I dressed and headed out to get breakfast at the Oaks rather than the Star. We had a choice, and I was more likely to see more kids at the Oaks. Edina wanted to meet up with La Runta. I wanted to find Qimat. Edina got her wish. La Runta was filling a glass with Dr. Pepper on the beverage bar. Soda was available all day long on Cornell Dining so why not. Good nutrition had gotten La Runta (aka Oneiro Buffo) nowhere fast. She stood all of four foot eight, and at fifteen that was going to be as tall as she would ever get. "Buenos dias amiga Runta!" Edina called out and then she descended into rapid fire Spanish. La Runta laughed. We made a table of three, where the conversation slowly drifted back to English. La Runta commented that I was eating prunes. They had pitted prunes out next to the nectarines on the cold bar. Prunes and raisin bread make a great breakfast. Trust me on this, especially since I could wash them down with Constant Comment tea, the real stuff, since Qimat wasn't around to see me imbibe the poison.
La Runta said that some of the girls in her class drank tea in the morning. There were several from New England, one from Arizona, a boy from California whom the other kids though preferred his own gender for romance. "It's not big deal except it's a waste of a cute boy," sighed La Runta. "As long as we don't fight over boys, I'll be happy," sighed Edina.
I thought of Jules and Tweetie and couldn't imagine any body fighting over them. I pitied the girl who liked them. On the other hand Potter who was probably at some sort of specialty program if he was lucky or Atilla with his foul mouth, pretty hair, and excellent work ethic wasn't really that bad. I thought of tall walking Illana imitating Atilla and felt my face grow hot with anger. How dare she!
"We have the usual snobs and assholes on my floor," Edina continued the lashon hara (Strictly translated this means unclean lips. It also means gossip. The Hebrew word is just much more poetic.) "The usual idiots from New York City and Boston are there, and then we have the Golden Corral. That's a cafeteria we have back home in Texas. It's what we call the Golden Olives," she explained. "It's cause they ought to be working in the Golden Corral," La Runta elaborated. I shrugged. I had almost been a Golden Olive, but that was not my future.
Edina had been hoping to get me a good table so I could see Lake Cayuga. The Straight (Willard Straight Hall) which houses The Oaks on its lower floors is built into the side of the hill with a huge view of the town of Ithaca and beyond out its back windows. I remembered hiking through Ithaca when I was ten. I was in the beginning outdoor education course. I was scaird I wouldn't be strong enough. Two months ago, I'd been expelled from Torah Day School, and nearly excommunicated, as I saw it now. Kohana intervened to keep me in religious education which was why I was sitting in the Oaks contemplating a day of learning that would rival that in any yeshiva, seminary, or kollel. Unfortunately, all I could see out of the window was my memories. The rain came down in sheets. "They don't worry about flash floods here," explained La Runta.
"It has to rain for a few days for that to happen. This is just heavy rain," I answered. It had been sunny that first day I crossed through Ithaca, a heavy napsack weighing me down, a bed roll bouncing against my butt. We made it to the buses that were parked by the old Farmer's Market near the Octopus where Buffalo Street joins Route 13 and other major roads at the bridge across the Inlet near West Hill. I was hot and sweaty. My canteen water tasted warm as piss. I rode on the bus, feeling my stomach leap with fear. It would take two nights for the fear to go away. I remember when it lifted. I awoke near the crack of dawn, sore but unharmed and ready for a day and realizing that I was going to be fine. It was like climbing the rope that second time. There was a new, extra piece of me, that I was only slowly getting to know. It was a gift from HaShem. It had to be.
The rain was all ready letting up by the time we had to walk to Rockefeller Hall for our classes. Rockefeller is red brick both outside and inside. Cornell intentionallhy left the building unfinished so it could get more square footage for Rockefller's donation, and the Rockefellers, disliking the intentionally unfinished building, swore never to give money to Cornell again. They haven't in over a century. I'm not sure there are even any Rockefeller descendents around any more. We did Biblical Hebrew (Tanach) translation and then commentaries. We got to write out our commentaries on computers in a little workshop with Hebrew and Arabic keyboards. You signed out a keyboard and plugged it in to one of several desk top machines sitting on the table.
I was glad when the long morning was over. I felt brain cheesed as if from studying, tired, and restless. The rain had stopped leaving a steamy fog in its place. This is how you think you can grow green peach fuzz. La Runta complained of the heat in Spanish. The Oaks were crowded. There was a long line of Chinese and Japanese kids at the Asian station and someone was passing out special box lunches. I looked at the menu posted near the door and got on the regular entree line. There was also a deli line for sandwiches, but one line seemed as good as another. A few faces ahead of me in a parallel line I saw Qimat. She is hard not to recognize. For one thing, she never gets out from being dissheveled. Second She wears flip flops and cotton pants that are a bit too short and sweat shirts to hide her skinny arms. Since her arms are also short, she rolls up the sweat shirts. Qimat must have seen me first, because she turned around. I gasped. On her right cheek was a huge open sore. "EXPLETIVE DELETED!" I greeted her. "What happened to you?"
"I was reading on the beach, and a horesfly bit me. I wanted to get ready for Nationals....It's still Nationals even if they don't call it that."
"It's a horse fly bite OK!"
"You lay on the beach and let a horse fly walk on your face."
"It didn't hurt until he or she bit me, and if even if you brush them away then, the damage is done. Didn't you tell me they scratch you up instead of suck your blood?"
Qimat had a way of always sounding like she made sense accept...."Did you scratch that thing?" I asked.
"I was half asleep when I did it. You're not responsible for what you do when you're not awake you know. It's not infected. I put Neosporin on it. It will fade out. I'm still young enough for the scars to fade," and Qimat was an expert on scars I realized.
You can cry. You can laugh. You can feel sorry for a kid who talks this way. Qimat, though was my friend. I had missed her all through Atlanta and mostlly in the serpentarium on the fifth floor of Lomperis, so instead, I put my arms around her and kissed her on both cheeks. Yes, I kissed her bite. She hugged me back. She must have been very lonely. If you will let a horsefly walk on your face, you have to know there is much worse pain than a bug bite.
Qimat got fish for lunch along with peas and carrots which she liked. She then walked over to the salad bar where a skinny, African American middle schooler in golden yellow pants and a white blouse with a very interesting sunflower on it, gave her a smiling glance. "Ahava, I want you to meet Ezrina. We ate supper together last night. She's in the engineering program."
I greeted Ezrina. "Is this your first time at Nationals?" I asked.
"It's my second," the girl answered. "I've done Regionals and STEM Conference other years." I realized Ezrina was older than she looked. Could she be another runt, I wondered. She was flat as a board and barely four and a half feet tall. She had irregular white teeth, no beast teeth, and a thin scar on one side of her wide, brown nose. Her hair was braided and a bit frizzy. She had yellow ornaments in it that coordinated perfectly with her pants. They were kid's ornaments but she wore them so well, it was a joy to see. We walked to the salad bar together where Ezrina tried to name most of the items. There were a few she didn't recognize and Qimat taught her the names. I wondered where Ezrina came from that she did not know this stuff. I tried to imagine Ezrina in Brinjins in Moqui, the amazing all you can eat palace of food.
"I take it you've never been to Brinjins," I started the conversation.
"Yes, I have. I'm from the Outer Banks, just north of Savannah. That's Ed Branch Atlanta country. I just have to ask a lot of questions." Ezrina spoke with an accent that was southern but did not sound like either the rural Georgia I knew or Atlanta.
"Do you like to try new foods?" I asked and only realized how stupid it sounded after the words left my mouth.
"Yes. We don't get a lot of different things back home."
"This kid has problems," I thought, but of course I had been a kid with problems, or maybe issues as well. Didn't we all have issues when you thought about it. I invited both Qimat and Ezrina to Edina and La Runta's table. Around and around went the introductions. That was how I learned that Ezrina was thirteen, the same age as Qimat. She just wasn't developing for some reaosn. She was straight hipped and flat as a board on top. She might not even bleed when settled. I tried not to think about that. Qimat talked about how here she received her medication once a day from the RA in a three pill dispenser. This way she could take it before meals which was much better. I noticed Ezrina drank Coca-Cola and La Runta favored Dr. Pepper. I wondered how to explain to them that Qimat could not have caffeine due to her nervous disorder.
I didn't explain. Qimat drank Tropical Island Treat which came whipped and pale orange. She had broiled fish, green peas and carrots, and a salad of raw zucchini with Italian dressing and onions. Ezrina had zucchini pizza, no hot vegetable, potato salad and radishes and raw cauliflower with ranch dressing. She said her favorite breakfast were the corn muffins even though they tasted like cake. She showed us her lab notebooks and her colored pencils and markers. I thought of a little kid playing with toys except these were serious tools for making lab reports. Oddly enough Qimat did not have a straight edge or a compass. She had a piece of cardboard cut from an old shoebox and a cleaned out tin can, and an empty round medicine vial. She carried these tools in a sack made from what looked like white burlap. She said it was old rice sack. You could get old rice sacks for nothing at the plant. They gave them away Friday afternoons and some of the kids from school would get them for projects, and haul them in on the long bus ride. Ezrina's ride to school during the year was close to an hour each way. She was going to school inland, because there was no high school with the Scholars Union/Ed Branch curriculum in her town. She told us all this matter of factly.
I thought of Ezrina as I straggled back to class. I wondered if she was really as self reliant and resourceful as she made out. Did she really come from almost nothing, a poor area, largely outside the Company? I wondered how she kept safe. I wondered if she was lying. If she was telling the truth...I felt oddly impressed.
Edina and LaRunta wanted to eat at the Star, so I went with them which also meant that Ezrina and Qimat were part of our dinner. Qimat said she had to exercise and thought Newman pool was open. "Won't you get sick swimming on a full stomach?" asked the thoughtful Ezrina who somehow reminded me of Aurora. Qimat shrugged. She'd be sicker if she didn't exercise. The swimming was a good study break. I sat on my bed struggling with the next day's texts. I pretended I was studying for end of the year exams but wound up feeling like I was missing my garden. Then my garden disappeared and I fell into commentary on the Song of Songs and then the text itself. The two never matched. I don't think like the rabbis did hundreds of years ago. Modern scholars are better or at least I could find them in the Gardner, the Graduate Library. Olin had been repurposed as a computer building. I might find Ezrina there.
My second night the rain returned and with it thunder. I was looking for Ezrina in Olin Computer Center but found Ellen instead. She was covered with sores and scrapes. Her seal skin clothes were torn and ratty. She stank. She asked me to buy her a Coke. She said she was hiding. She did not say who was after her. We drank the Coke and I wanted to laugh, to laugh at La Runta and Ezrina and even at Qimat with the horsefly bite on her face and at Yaakov, the tutor who grubbed pastries from my father and stole snacks from the bar at the kollel. I had it all down pat and had totally lost my sense of perspective. That is why I stopped laughing and started crying, and before it was light, my tears awakened me.
Several more days passed like this. We ate breakfast at the Oaks and returned there for lunch and had dinner at the Star so we could keep an eye on our friends. Our work was hard. It filled conversation now that we knew everyone's back story or what they were willing to tell of it. Qimat wrote original and poetic commentary in Japanese for her literature class. Her teacher thought she had a good head and an inventive one, an American head, but that was fine. This was after all the USA. Ezrina was the writer of lab reports. "I keep telling those dumb boys, they can't lie. When we make a mistake we have to write about it, not forget about it. What if we really make a big mistake? We won't know what to do if we don't practice on the little ones." No one gave Ezrina any argument. As for me, I slogged through the Tanach. The modern commentators got lost in linguistics. Others got lost in literature. Some talked about historical background. I liked that a lot better. This was serious and secular learning, but it was religious learning all the same. I needed this.
Sometimes I dreamed I was giving sermons and laining. I did not really want to be a rabba, which is a female rabbi. I was just a pinch hitter because I made sure I stayed learned, or what passed for learned in a high school kid. Sometimes I dreamed I was on or near the tundra in the land of the midnight sun. Once I dreamed I was a mermaid with a tail. I took Qimat and Ezrina for walks to see the suicide bridge and the top floor of Academic Eight. Yes, there was one more building like that. I had to sign both girls out, but that was fine. Qimat had a medical excuse.
The first week came and went. I tried not to think that I would be going home soon. I tried not to think about America's Clan and the fact that no one had found Ellen who had now been gone for six months. Poor Ellen of Na'haquit. She had replaced Sophia Loren in my mind as a child of the rebellion. I could send Kayla money (and Dov money too), but Ellen was way too far beyond my reach.
Then three days into my second week at Nationals, I received a letter from Kayla. I had left her this address. I do not have to tell you that letters from Kayla are never good news.
My sister, Kayla's, letter began:
Something terrible has happened. It happened because we had to share the money you gave us. Dov and I both shared with Yaakov. If we didn't share, he would have told abba, and even if he didn't tell abba, abba wasn't feeding him enough so we had to share. I had to share some of my money with Yitzi. Now that he eats like a big boy, imma doesn't give him enough to eat. You know that. Abishag taught Yitzi all about fruits and he asks for them. He asked for apricots, and nectarines, fresh ones. We hid them in the closet in a small box. Then he alawys wants prunes. Yaakov, wanted Chinese dinners. He wanted to eat up all our money. Yitzi wasn't like that.
Then Dov shared some of his money with Dibri. You remember Ben Dibri who got arrested for stealing meat. It was kosher meat too. He had two roasts under his jacket. Well, Dibri did not have work, and Ben Dibri saved our lives and kept us from being taken in April. Dov did not want Dibri to starve so we both got food for Dibir. She asked for flour, kosher balogna, yeast, sugar, and sometimes fruits. She made us cookies and sandwiches. We ate at her house three times a week. Yaakov even ate there, but he did not like the food. It was not as good as what he could have if Dov bought him a Chinese restaurant meal.
Two days ago, Dov, Yaakov, Yitzi, and me all went to Publix to buy food. Thanks for the money. Dov bought balogna and flour for Dibri. Yaakov complained. He said "You shouldn't spend money on that..." and I won't print the word because it is a bad one, and I know you hate bad language.
Dov put his bag of groceries down on the sidewalk and turned to Yaakov.
"What did you call my friend's mother?" he asked.
Yaakov said he called her what she was and repeated the insult. It means whore in English in case you want to know.
"You owe both of us an apology," Dov told Yaakov.
"Dibri is a....." Yaakov teased Dov.
"You take it back," Dov snarled. "You take it back and say you're sorry now!"
Yaakov laughed. Dov jumped at his tutor and kneed him in the private parts. The tutor doubled over and Dov slugged him hard enough to make him lose his balance and crash into some garden chairs. Dov kept punching Yaakov. It took three or four punches to give him a broken and bloody nose and a split lip. I think he may have spat out two or three teeth. At least I hope he did.
Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people had gathered to watch the fight. I think adults like to watch fights. None of them did anything, until abba and his friends from the kollel arrived. They parked near the sidewalk and walked through the crowd as if they were just saying "hi" to Dov and Yaakov. They weren't saying "hi." One of the rabbis, a big man with a white beard, had a rope.'
Abba, the rabbi, and two other men grabbed Dov. They pulled him off of Yaakov and tied his arms behind his back. Then they shoved him into the car and drove off. I have not seen my brother since. Abba says not to talk about him because it hurts imma. Imma of course cried. Yaakov is going to stay with us until he can find another tutoring job. Abba took Yaakov to the emergency room. Dov hadn't knocked out any of his teeth, but he did give him a nose bleed and a split lip. I didn't know a nose could bleed so much. I wish Dov had broken Yaakov's nose and knocked out all of his teeth.
Ahava, I think abba and his friends did something terrible to Dov, and that is why they don't want to talk about him. Tonight, abba's friends are going to put my brother's stuff out for the trash. They are upstairs putting it in big bags. I hope nobody sees me sneak out and put this letter in the mailbox. One of the things I do buy with your money is stamps.
I wish you were down in Atlanta now, though I don't know what you can do. I know you are Jewish. I khow you would help me and Yitzi. Please can you come and stay with us? We need you very badly.
"Ahava, what are you doing down here?" asked Nicola, our Scholar in Residence who had come down to the lobby in Lomperis Hall where I had gone to read Kayla's letter in privacy. I guess I had lost track of time. I tried to open my mouth, but I knew any words come out as a sob or maybe a scream. I knew by the pain my throat. I am very emotional. Instead, I handed the letter to Nicola or rather Dr. Schmidt. I realized I had crumpled the paper holding on to it so hard.
Dov did not deserve to die. I don't have to tell you that. Dov may not have wanted to be a scholar or been interested in religious learning, but he was a decent kid like millions of others. Where had Dad found it in him to make him disappear? Usually it was Mom who carried the evil, but maybe Dad was an accomplice, at least by looking the other way. I stared at the floor trying to make my mind go blank. I knew once I started crying, I would never stop.
My tears surprised me. I blinked the back and let them flow down my cheeks. I scarcely felt Dr. Schmidt's hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ahava," she said in a soft enough voice to make me want to scream and tear my clothes. "He's dead!" I howled as a wave of choking sobs engulfed me. At least Dr. Schmidt did not tell me to get a hold of myself. I was too far gone.
"We don't know that," her stern voice answered. "We need to verify it."
"I can't," I begged.
"Who is your Placement Specialist?"
"Do you know her comm phone number?"
"It must be close to eleven," I sputtered.
"It's after eleven, but this is an emergency, go that?"
I had it and I had Kohana's personal number too. I gave it to Dr. Nicola Schmidt. My hand shook as I wrote it. I sobbed curled in a ball on the Scholar in Residence' narrow twin bed that she covered with a fake floral chenille throw. I got the throw wet with my tears.
I hardly heard the conversation until Dr. Schmidt shook me. "Ahava, Kohana's going to check for your brother with the database. We're on hold. Here take my comm phone." I held the phone in a shaking hand. Soon I'd have the bad news, and I'd have no more tears left to cry. I felt empty and cold. I wanted hot tea or a hot shower. I wanted this night to end, but it would never end. "I'm hooking this phone to speaker and putting it on soft volume. I'm going to close the door," Dr. Nicola ran the show. I closed my eyes and tried to drop into brown silence.
Koahana's voice coming out of a tin can woke me. "I have some very good news. You need some very good news. Your brother is alive."
"That's the bad news," Kohana continued. "The Three Acorns Clan where he is trialling, insisted on the security pictures from the mall. They act as mitigating evidence."
"The New Mall," I said to no one, the forbidden mall, the portal to the interior.
"What happened?" I asked again.
"Your father and his friends gave Dov some serious physical discipline. They aimed at the face because they wanted him to be able to walk. The pictures are awful. They kept him tied up when they brought him to the New Mall, and they walked him inside. The rabbi with the white hair took your brother by the arm. Your father held the loose end of the rope like a leash. That way they walked him into the New Mall.
"When they got inside, they just kept going, deeper and deeper. They did not know how to find a portal, but they asked for directions to the temples. They found the most pagan one at least in their eyes, Mithras the Bull, though to them it was probably the golden calf. There they gave your brother to one of the priests.
"Quil was clearly not Mithras material, just not the type. Not many kids are. The Mihraic Priests turned him over to the Portal Priests and admins who gave him an ID card and a clan for trialling. He picked a new name, Quil instead of Dov and his last name is Quercus."
"Double Q" I said. "What kind of clan is it?"
"A good one. They made your brother write a letter of apology to Yaakov, the tutor. They also asked him to write to Kayla, but the mail may not have reached the outside yet. We pick up mail from the Scholars Union office once a week. Quil has a comm mail address and priviledges. He has a brown card, but that is only for three to six months. He'll graduate to a red card and beyond after that. The clan also documented the physical discipline and humiliation. Between that and the letter, your brother has been punished enough.
"That is why Three Acorns accepted him. The clan's specialty is Community Administration. They've all ready done an academic test on your brother. You know Quil is very smart."
"At general studies maybe," I commented.
"Yes," replied my Placement Specialist, "but that is generally what they test. Somehow Quil kept up with his studies and he now has a shot to make something of himself."
"Better than a scholarship," I found the words.
"Yes, since he'll be doing what interests him, including refereeing and playing sports. Mind, body, and spirit. I think you understand."
I understood, but would Kayla. "She needs to hear this stuff. She thinks...I'm sure she thinks the worst," I sputtered. Kohanna said that Bonnie Sorensen, Chevie, and Chevie's Nurturing Team were arranging a visit to Quil for Kayla and Chevie. As for me, there was nothing I could do but send comm letters. I had obligations to my clan and no money for bus fare to Atlanta. My money belonged to Quil (formerly Dov) and to Kayla now. That was fine. I'd get paid again August first, in time for the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, as the county fair was called. "Write to your brother. I'll give you his email address," Kohana ordered me. No order has ever sounded so sweet, and yes, I cried some more when I got off the phone. Dr. Nicola Schmidt went outside with me and walked me all the way to Newman Gym and back. I nearly overslept the next morning.
I had written to Dov before, but writing to Quil, might be different, I told myself. I suspected for one thing, that his clan would write me back. I could tell him how I hoped his wounds would heal soon. I could ask what sports he refereed and if he missed Dibri or heard what had happened to Ben Dibri. Quil was not lost to me. I would not find him or fail to find him on the tundra of my dreams. He was over th e horizon but he had a safe harbor. Kayla would know her brother lived as well. Probably some time during the school year, Kayla might let herself be taken, or would she.
She was feeding Yitzi with my stipend. Of all of us, it was Kayla who had become the real oldest sibling. The rest of us had been driven from the nest on Biltmore or fled it. I tried not to think of Kayla standing helplessly on the sidewalk witnessing Dov lash out against a life he did not want to lead, and the defaming of a friend's mother. Dov with his own code of honor that no amount of extra food could kill. Dov now Quil deserved the best, but Kayla??? At least she was on the grid and had enough to eat.
The First Leg
Writing Dov, now Quil, was not easy. He was just someone with whom I had about zero in common, even if I did not really believe he was dumb. Interests in common are what united and divide siblings, and even if Mom had fed us adequately, and Dad had lavished love and positive attention on all the siblings, Dov and I would not have had much about which to talk.
Now, of course Quil needed me. He needed a lot more than me. He needed two decent parents which he was not going to get, interesting school, decent clan leaders.... and maybe a way to absolve any guilt he felt. He had after all lost his temper and slugged Yaakov. That meant that even Yitzi and Kayla were alone or almost alone.
Still, I sat myself in the computer room and typed in my network password, brought up my comm mail, and began to write.
I really like your new name. You have one incredible set of initials. I thought only scholars did things like that. I forget all too easily that we scholars DO NOT have a monopoly on brains. I could ask you something really dumb like "how are you?" We both know why that's dumb. I know it sounds really obvious, but our lives both have some terrific things and some very awful things all going on at the same time, and there is no way to get rid of the rotten things, and the good things don't blot them out either.
I hope that your physical wounds are healing. I hope you did not lose any teeth or suffer any broken bones. I did not see pictures of the beating that Dad and his friends gave you, but the image in my mind's eye is utterly horrific. Dad, has never beaten any of us before. You were the first. I think he caved under peer pressure, not that that helps you, and it surely doesn't excuse him. To put it tritely, he owes you the same kind of apology you gave to Yaakov, not that you are going to get it any time soon.
Mom owes us all more than an apology. She and Dad let all the older kids go hungry so you either had to beg, scrounge, or steal. My money didn't help because there was not enough of it, and too many other hungry, greedy people around. Yes, I think Yaakov would be better off working for the Company or even the Priests. I think our family would be better off if our parents worked for the Company or the Priests. It is not right to go independent if you can't support yourself. It is even more evil to go independent if you have many children to feed.
I guess the question for both of us is: "What's next?" My clan, Burden of Dreams, will be trialling three new kids or maybe more. I hope we can trial Qimat who is thirteen and who was also my study buddy (chavrusa) for End of Year Exams. She is taking Intensive Japanese here at Special Programs at Cornell. I am taking Intensive Hebrew. Learning about topics related to my faith is a part of me, just as writing Chinese pictograms to write correct Japanese is a part of Qimat. Qimat is from California. She suffers from a nervous disorder, but the doctors can treat it with medication. She is a hard worker and has a generally decent attitude where academics are involved. That is very important for a scholar.
I also hope we can trial Ezrina who has stuck to Qimat like glue throughout the program, though they are not in class together or even in the same dormitory. Ezrina is doing an introduction to engineering type program. She gets to write lab reports and hand draw and scan multicolor diagrams and make designs. She can draw beautiful mechanical diagrams, but it is her writing and her explanations for why things go wrong that make her a star. It's nice to meet a kid who is good at a lot of different things, but again it is her attitude that makes her a smart kid. Ezrina is from an isolated rural area in the Carolinas. There is a lot she just doesn't know. That is not a problem. When Ezrina doesn't know something, she asks. Most people don't do this, so most people don't learn. Ezrina could drive the wrong people nuts. She could make snot headed, snobby kids laugh at her. I don't laugh. Kids like Ezrina may have trouble choosing a path for themeslves at eighteen, but in high school, she will run rings around even kids from New York City.
My guess is you are trialling with a group. Many clans trial middle schoolers. Can you tell me about your roommates. Also please tell me about anything you are learning either by watching sports or on the playing field. I am not a big fan of sports except hiking, swimming, skating, and cross country skiing, but I respect that this is to you what religious learning is for Shlomo-Yitzakh and me. Let's show the world that we can communicate. Let's be exemplary siblings. Do you want to give it a try?
Of course I noticed new comm letters in my box. There was the usual from Kohana and Amaryllis. Odem wrote to me fairly frequently from Princeton where she was doing a military history class. She always had good things to say. She even said a few good things about the boys. There were lots of boys in the class and one slutty girl who was out to catch one. The boys, however, formed a unit against the few girls because it was rare that boys were ever in the majority in scholarly circles, except engineering. Then they did "dumb things" and did not know how to admit their mistakes and learn from them, as Ezrina explained and complained.
There was also a letter from Ora Abelove. Yes, Ora, is her clan name. She has no clan, but she has a clan name. This has become a fairly common state of affairs. Ezrina also uses her clan name. Why not? Ora had written me once a week or so all summer. She was spending the summer living with her parents. She said she was "mending fences" with them. After April, she really "had no choice in the matter." She was also in a music history program at Columbia, so she was doing a kind of Regionals while living at home. I was not sure something like that would have appealed to me last year, or ever, but Ora was making an investment of sorts.
To put it bluntly, she was trying to sell herself. Ora's project this summer was the study of the history of camp songs, and other children's songs. Now remember the long bus. We were in desperate need for clean, secular songs to sing on the way to school. There are few things prettier than young girls raising their voices in unison, and few things more disconcerting to proper Scholar's Union Reps and prudish priests than kids singing about the comet that makes you vomit, Mary who wants to bang something other than pots and pans, and Barnacle Bill the sailor who, well you know what he does, even if you pretend you don't.
As a result, Ora had a head full of kiddy songs, several data sticks full of hundred to two hundred year old music, and a twelve page paper which she had to proof read and revise endlessly. Here is her letter.
I finally finished the Albatross and printed out three copies. One I am keeping as a souvenir. The other, I gave to my professors. The third, I sent to Amaryllis and Ondina. I also sent a formal request seeking admission into their house. This will be a final trial. My Placement Specialist thought it was a good idea for me to ask written permission, given the fact that I not only failed a trial this spring, I walked out of it, even though I did so with good reason. I am now undependable and have a big, black mark on my record. Also my fondness for bawdy songs is on my record. I wake up every morning and roundly curse out the beaurocracy that invented and keeps profiles. Kids grow up. Kids change. Kids work hard. Can't adults see that?
Well last night, while I was enjoying some of my songs for our time of purgatory in the tin can of a long bus, I received a call on my comm phone. It was Amaryllis. She wasn't sure when I'd be checking my comm mail so she wanted to give me the good news personally. I'm going to be trialling at Burden of Dreams! How does Ora Burden sound? It sounds EXPLETIVE DELETEDing good if you ask me. I surely worked hard enough for it.
And speaking of working, who is taking care of that fantastic garden you have while you are relaxing at Camp Cornell? You love to dig dirt. I love to sing dirt, though I can sing the clean stuff too. Some of it has very interesting histories. A lot of it comes out of the military. The soldiers used to be a lot less brain dead, kind of like kids are today. I wonder why they stopped making up songs. I couldn't find any answers in "the literature." Well, I'll see you back in New Jersey. I'm looking forward to the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show like an opening night on Broadway.
I thought of what Aurora said when we first got to Burden of Dreams nearly a year ago. "When one door closes, another door opens." Would that this were true. When one door opens and another door closes, lots of people get slammed in the rear if they don't get a black eye from all those swinging doors.Ahava Burden
Ithaca, NY 14853
Olives Taste Like Tears
We had our feast at the end of our two week Special Programs (Nationals for the younger kids when you thought about it). We had it in The Star, which has the full and formal name of North Star Dining Hall. They had twice the number of normal stations out. I remembered eating something like this the summer that one of my younger brothers, Yoni, was born and I camped out in the woods and got all wet. We washed our laundry and then got sent to the Star to warm ourselves with full bellies. That was the memory that came to me as I entered the dining hall where I had waited on a long line with a nervous Qimat and a pensive Ezrina. Edina was with La Runta. Tall walking Ilana was with her clan-mates. Not all of them had taken Intensive Hebrew. "No bento boxes tonight. We have a full fledged sushi bar. You like raw fish?" asked Qimat to no one and everyone. "Raw oysters are OK," Ezrina did not miss a beat. She flashed Qimat a you're-not-under-my-skin-one-bit smile. It was Ezrina's place to crawl under others' skins, not the other way around. It was that simple.
I remembered the whirring of the washing machines. The smell of sneakers starting to grow green, black, and red mould, the odor of forest decay that even industrial laundry under Newman Gym could not obliterate. I kept my memories in my nose until I saw the priests with their shiney, white robes and equally shiney, shaven skulls. Then my face flushed. I remembered those same priests standing with their bubble car in the center of the old logging road. It was the long walk back to the final feast at Arnot about a year ago this day. Only there would be no final feast. Theodora asked if she could lead the sining. We sounded off to the song about the comet that makes you vomit, and then we fell silent when we met the priests. Our counselors were in on the deal. They negotiated to let us walk back to Arnot before we received no feast and placements different than the ones we had arranged. When one door opens....Well you know what happens when doors open and close, but it wasn't fair to do this to thirteens!
"May I have your attention!" boomed a female tenor voice belonging to a Scholars Union Representative of indeterminate age. She had shoulders like a football player and wore the burlap tunic and pants of her order. She had a short, lifeless bob of pure white hair that bounced as she raised and lowered her head with an animated face, a face that was nothing but muscles, sinews, and old lady wrinkles. "I need all the kids who have been placed to go through the west door! All the kids who have been placed go through the rest door?"
"What about the rest of the kids?" I wondered. I looked to see how fast the crowd was moving. I was going to go last. That meant I did not move at first. "Now I need all the kids who have arranged trials to go in the north door. Arranged trials only go in the north door!" Qimat and Ezrina looked at one another and then Ezrina whispered something to her. Qimat started to move, and that meant I had to move too, but slowly. I wanted to see the end of this. I had to see. "Now kids with no trials, you go in the south door." Ezrina, her face expressionless started following the order, but a Portal Priest grabbed her. "North door!" he all but shouted at her. "What gave?" I wondered. I liked Ezrina and I relized I probably would never see her again, just like Ellen of Na'haquit.
I had to get moving now. I joined the food line that swiped our cards and let us through the west door. Someone had spent good money decorating the dining hall with bouquets of fresh cut zinnias in evrey color of the rainbow including rust, green, and blue, and fresh cult soldagio in gold, orange, green, and rust in mass produced, glass vases. I stared at the flowers and then Edina caught me in the arm. "Time to land, Ahava," she told me harshly and dragged me near the entrance to the north door, where the kids entered slowly each reciving an envelope. "This is it for these kids," commented La Runta. "And it's happening a year early."
"They won't miss eighth grade at home with their families. It's an impatient year," another girl said. When it came to be Qimat's turn in the line, she received two envelopes, the small one everyon got and a larger one, regular business size and not made of fancy paper. Ezrina got the same two kinds of envelope. She opened the larger one first and fell to her knees. "THANK YOU JESUSS!" she cried out loudly enough to make some of the adults stifle uneasy laughs and every head in the large dining hall turn. Qimat who examined her large envelope's contents more quietly, jammed it into her pocket and embraced her friend. I broke ranks and joined them. Qimat showed me her letter. It was from Amaryllis. Ezrina's letter was from Amaryllis too. Someone had noticed Qimat's work ethic, and Ezrina's ambition, and I put my arms around my younger sisters to whom I now had a bond deeper than blood. I tried to congratulate them, but you know what I did instead. I blinked back tears.
Qimat got Ezrina to try the raw fish that night. She told her each kind by its English and Japanese name. She and Ezrina sat wtih several Japanese-American kids who whispered to themselves. One of them asked if Ezrina really liked sushi. She said she did if she didn't use too much wasabi. "People used to dig oysters and clams where I grew up," Ezrina explained. "Go look at a map. The Outer Banks is a coastal area just like Japan." I got out my comm phone which had a map application and showed the Japanese American kids where Ezrina's family lived. They looked vaguely embarassed.
I had olive pizza, and salad with more olives, and shriveled black olives for supper. I am not sure why. I think I needed to remind myself of the last meal I ate before going to Nationals when I was just fourteen, my Last Nationals before my intitiation. My real initiation feast had of course been the fritatta Ondina made after a frightening night, but I wanted to think of myself sitting alone in Maddeo's Pizza Parlor where one could indulge in half disguised sin and the salty sweat of tastey toppings on hot bread and tomato.
Edina, La Runta and several other kids crowded up to our tables at dessert and we had a competition to offer toasts. What can you toast to but the future? Perhaps one can toast to escape from another dull year. You can toast to not having to sweet gypsy moth turds off the decks and porches several times a day or go to gypsy moth derbies. One can toast to the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. One can toast to...I stopped. I thought of Ellen of Na'haquit and of my younger sister Kayla. I thought of Chevie calling me right after she was taken, her first and only taking. I thought of the Kuba learning about a more cosmopolitan world and singing Christian hymns. I thought of Attila and Elohim, and of Odem, Xannika, Aurora, Pedra, Quietzalli, Odette, Zabiba, Elizabeth, Ondina, and Amaryllis. "To good friends and surprises, you need both for a full life," I toasted, and then I cried again. Olives when you think about it, taste like tears.
After the feast, we returned to our dormitories and packed whatever of our things, we had left out, and then we began a long walk to downtown Ithaca. The younger kids with no placements were gone. They were going to a creche or to early triallings, most likely to creches. I tried not to think about that. Most scholar clans did not want to place or even trial ten-year-olds. Ten-year-olds belonged in a creche. Ten-year-olds belonged at home. I was pleased that neither Qimat nor Ezrina complained as we made the long walk down Buffalo Street, through downtown, through hundred plus year old neighborhoods nervously awake under a saphire sky, to the bus station on Rt. 13. There we divided up. Edina, LaRunta, and the others with far to go, got on the bus to the stick port. Those of us with eight or fewer hours to travel, rode regular overland buses.
Ezrina recited her itinerary which was also our itinerary: "First we travel to Mont-ic-ell-o. Then we change buses for Warwick. Then we change buses for Vernon in New Jersey. Then we take a local bus to the Seckler Center." The names could not have meant much. She did not really know the Northeast, though I showed her our route on a cell phone. She said she was sorry we were traveling at night and couldn't see the scenery. Qimat said it was all forest. She was half right. We made our transfer at Monticello. Qimat dozed part of the way to Warwick, then when we got off at Warwick, we saw a whole crowd of kids destined for houses in Sussex, Orange, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties. Suessex was the only New Jersey county in the mix. I herded my charges over to the local bus area, just in time to bump into Ora.
"A-hav-a!" she screamed. We embraced. I garbled the introductions. I realized I was going to cry again. I realized I had my mother to thank. On the bus from Warwick, Ora wanted to sing. She led off with "This land is your land. This land is my land, from Cal-if-orn-ia, to the New York Islands." The song did not include the Interior because it was a big secret back then. It was a very old song, but scholar kids came from all over so maybe the land was made for us and maybe traveling was really a very good thing.
At Seckler Center, Ondina had the van. Elizabeth and Joseph had come along for the ride. Joseph asked me why I had been crying. Elizabeth told her son to leave me alone. "You made it," Ondina greeted the three thirteens. They were this year's kids. We had come full circle, but the circle was bent out of shape. These kids at least had had a feast, and a long walk in the night, and two letters to guarantee where they were going. I was not jealous. I was secretly glad to have spent an extra year in Atlanta. I slipped Kayla cookies and fruit. I sometimes talked religion with Shlomo-Yitzakh. I did not really notice or care that Mom would get pregnant again. We always seemed to have a house full of babies, and Mom liked babies better.
Now clan houses took thirteens and adults who were down on their luck. Kayla was the oldest child left at home in Atlanta. Quil, formerly Dov, was doing tshuva,, making amends for having lost his temper and probably also for having shoplifted. Shlomo-Yitzakh was in Israel and Chevie was in Tasmania. Our three newest girls seemed happy enough though. They even started talking almost immediately about fixing up their two room suite on the fifth floor.
The next morning, Aurora got the paointing supplies out of the Smelly and Disgusting Basement and showed the girls how to maintain them and keep them clean. If they stayed clean, they would last. These were still good because we had taken care of them. Next year's kids would probably get to paint their room with them etc.... All three girls listened. Ora might have been a bit bored, but she knew she needed painting supplies. The girls then discussed how they wanted to paint the room. Ora liked pink. Ezrina said pink was too girlish. Qimat wanted nothing dull or neutral. That was for parents back in California and timid folks. She did not thin kher roommates were one bit timid. The girls settled on green, but of course green comes in many shades. They would need paint chips, and Aurora suggested books on decorating and paint effects. She took the girls shopping for the chip samples and a computer program that would show rooms predecorated and to the library for books on decorating.
I returned to the garden. I spent the morning pulling weeds. Zabiba had been good enough to do the watering at night. She was due to go to Princeton at noon. She watched me at work. "What do you think?" she asked.
"I hope the three of them get along. Ezrina and Qimat met at Nationals, but Ora is a stranger to them."
"Did you know either of your roommates before you lived here?" Zabiba asked me. I shook my head.
I told Zabiba I'd walk her to Seckler Center to catch the bus to Vernon. She did not complain as she slung her duffle and carried her data crystals in a safe place. In a few weeks, they would begin construction of a satellite lab here in Vernon. That would be the start of the milk to plastic processing plant. "Nice, huh...The chemical engineers are all excited." Zabiba did not sound excited. "In a year or so, I'm going to need a new research project. Not sure what I want to do..." I realized Zabiba was talking to me almost like another adult. Well we were both scholars, even if I was only fifteen.
On my way back from Seckler Center, I stopped at the Garbage Dump. It was on my way of course. That was the excuse. I found the Kuba settling in. She was too young for Nationals, but not too young for a taking. She'd drifted away from her parents at a county fair that had just opened up, and now she had needed to get in touch with them and let them know she was "all right." This was not the biggest problem in the world. "This is my second home," the blonde cherub of a nine year old told me. I wondered how the kuba would do at Nationals. Well, that was at least a year away.
I walked down to the Rusk Room and found Kohana Pascal, my Placement Specialist. "You OK?" she asked me. I was a person with a very full plate when you thought about it. "I'm fine," I asked. I really was fine for now. "I'm wondering if Ellen from Na'haquit is here."
"No," Kohana mouthed the words and she could have screamed them.
"Does anybody know where she is?" I was surprised at the frantic tone in my voice.
Kohana again mouthed a single syllable negative word. I reminded myself that some people could survive off the grid. Perhaps there were enough people in Ellen's village that had remmebered their survival skills. After all there had been Inuit north of the Brooks Range in Alaska for centuries. If any one had a chance to make it off the grid, it really was Ellen, or was it? Maybe the Ellen who haunted my dreams and the one who existed in real life were not one and the same after all. Why didn't I believe that?
What Color is your Avacado?
Any fears I might have had about Ora not getting along with Qimat and Ezrina evaporated within hours. For one thing, all three thirteens were so happy to no longer be living at home that their enthusiasm drowned out their rancor. Second, they realized as Aurora, Odem, and I had done, that their room and furniture both needed painting. There is nothing like a group project to unite three near-strangers. Of course this does not mean that the three thirteens were quiet or trouble free. In fact, they discussed and argued and planned incessantly, though they were very good at taking directions. Aurora and I gave them our painting supplies from last year. They were still good enough to use, and probably to use several more times, because we kept them clean. We taught the girls how to clean brushes and explained that latex painting was not a good idea when the humidity shot up. Highland Lakes resembled Ithaca, New York in climate far more than it did Atlanta or the Outer Banks. One had to work around the stickiness in the air. The girls appeared to understand everything and even repaired the yarn loops for the brushes, so that they could hang them on the drying line. Jewels and Tweetie set up the porch tarp on the fifth floor balcony and got the work table from their study outside so that they could begin hand sanding it. Ora had a music player, and all three girls enjoyed old time camp music and kiddie songs even if these annoyed some of the seventeens and eighteens. In fact, the girls annoyed a lot of people.
It all started with the paint chips. Any job begins with piles of sample chips. The more you have, the more fun it is. You can even plan imaginary paint jobs with them later. Trust me. This is a lot of fun. The girls had all agreed: no timid neutrals in their room, and no pink. Pink was for princesses, and they were serious students. Neutrals were for parents. Green was a great color, and the best green was avacado. There was only one problem: What color was avacado?
Ora came up with the first solution. She found a paint chip with that name. "That's not the color of avacados!" Ezrina protested. "What do you know about avacados?" Ora asked back. "I saw them cut them up in Atlanta." "That's sea foam green or mint green," commented Qimat as she looked at the misnamed paint chip that was displayed on the kitchen table. The thirteens did not care where they carried their roving argument. "It looks more like pea green to me, now that you think about it," commented Ora. "Split peas and English peas aren't that color!" Ezrina explained in a way that said her observations should be obvious. "Yes, but it's from a song," answered Ora. "'The owl and the pussy cat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat.' This is the color of their boat. I saw it in a book I had when I was little."
Zabiba overhearing the discussion from the office computer room which had its door propped open for cross ventillation stuck her head out. I winced. I really did not want to see the thirteens shitcanned for what was actually a fairly interesting conversation. Zabiba had just gotten back from Princeton late that night. She was not in a good mood because she had a two week vacation and was at loose ends. She had to wait until the surveyors found a good level spot for the temporary modular lab down in the valley. Zabiba, like many kids and also many adults, hated being bored.
"'They took along honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note,'" Zabiba continued the poem. "'The owl looked up to the stars above as he sang to a small guitar. &quiot;Pussy my love. Lovely pussy, what a wonderful pussy you are."' You want more?" asked Zabiba. "It's one of my favorite poems," replied Ora.
"We were talking about paint colors," Ezrina tried to explain that Zabiba had derailed the argument, albeit cleverly.
"So I heard," Zabiba approached the table. "You know there's a way to settle this argument."
"I hope you don't suggest throwing the paint chips on the stairs. Kaylanna told us to do that last night, and I wanted to scratch her eyes out," confessed Qimat.
"I thought you'd prefer slapping her face," Zabiba did not miss a beat.
"Nah, I prefer scratching,&quiot; Qimat answered.
"OK, I have a real suggestion," Zabiba knew she'd never win an argument about scratching versus slapping. "Why don't we get an avacado and see which paint chip matches."
"Which kind of avacado do we get?" asked Ezrina. "There are two kinds. I learned that in Atlanta."
"Both if we can find them and then we'll cut them open and you can decide."
"Can we grow the stones to make plants?" asked an excited Ezrina.
"Sure thing," replied Zabiba, who was glad to have a project. Soon she and the thirteen year old threesome were on their way to the Urgent Care to catch the tram to the Old Mall. The New Mall was located where the once mighty, Fart Box, had been. Lunch today was going to be avacado and tomato salad, but I would probably be eating down at the Garbage Dump. I went swimming that morning, studied Tanach, and then walked back to the house to change before my shift at the Garbage Dump. The litle kids needed older kids to help them with their games and supervise them. Yes, I was working as a minder. I'd work by spotlight in the garden. I had several fine gourds that would be ready for the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. I also had my Hopi Blue Indian corn which the crows only partially decimated. The crows preferred America's Clan's super sweet stuff. It was nice to know we were not even competing against eachother.
I came in through the kitchen in time to see two avacados split open and partially peeled on the table. There was one with a shiney green rind and less seed and more and better meat, and a nubbly, nearly black kind which some people say tasted better. The trouble was apparent even to my jaded fifteen-year-old eyes. Avacados are several colors. They are of course various shades of dark green on the outside, and almost yellow way inside, and near the peel and core, they are a green that is almost the beautiful pea green of the owl and the pussy cat's boat. Ezrina, Qimat, and Ora stood around matching paint chips to moist avacado flesh while Kaylanna and Fujiko stood in the doorway wiggling their fingers in circles beside their heads and rolling their eyes. "Idiots!" I thought and I don't mean the thirteen year olds. In the end, the outside flesh of the avacadoes win, but the color of this flesh was still several shades yellower than the misnamed avacado paint chip. The wall color was easy. It was from the same series and several shades lighter. "Puke green," commented Kaylanna.
"Go EXPLETIVE DELETED yourself." answered Ora.
"You got a foul mouth for a little kid," Kaylanna replied.
"I'm not a little kid any more," Ora laughed.
"Poor Kaylanna," Qimat piled on. "We offended her virgin ears."
There is something wonderfully satisfying about seeing younger kids wield their own cudgels against idiots in a clan. I kept the thirteens in mind as I walked down to the Garbage Dump for late lunch and afternoon activities. Twister was good. The rusk room was good. Sand darts were good. Even a swim to the raft with the medium swimmers was good. I got bit by a horsefly on top of my scalp, but horsefly bites are part of life around Lake Five. Perhaps I had absorbed Qimat's nonchalant attitude.
Meanwhile, the thirteens did not quiet down. Painting for them was a noisey affair. Mornings began with: "Can we paint latex today....Go fill the brush bucket.... Got any more songs, Ora?.... That table needs a fourth coat....Use that quarter inch brush on the mouldings....Yes we got the right tape. If we don't splatter it, we don't have to clean it up later." It was hot under the porch tarp. It was hot in the bedroom despite open windows, and the girls did not take time to swim. They often did not take time to bathe. They soon earned the name, The Three Stinkies. Artemis asked Amaryllis and Ondina to order the girls to shower. I became shower warden.
The showers were a heroic thing, even though the girls more than once succeeded in stopping up the fifth floor shower drain. It was not their fault. The contruction up there wasn't that perfect, and a couple of communal showers were test runs. We got a hair trap for the drain and kept the plunger near the shower. Ondina called the Vulcani Clan who did construction to try and get someone to fix the stupid drain. Even with the unhappy drain, The Three Stinkies, stank no more, and that was a good thing; for two days before the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, Qimat's parents arrived.
I remembered when Odem's parents had visited. Theirs had been a pleasant trip to see "settled daughters." Qimat's parents were visiting a daughter in prison, even though exile would have been a more accurate description. It did not matter that Qimat was an excellent student, and our clan was a full and upstanding affiliate of the Scholars Union. It was not Delta House in San Jose, California. It was choice number two. It was second best. It was garbage.
And what made it worse was that Qimat's mother did not cry. She looked like a cat whose fur had been petted in the wrong direction, unhappy in all sorts of silent little nervous ways. She was a stiff woman in a tight, pencil skirt and matching jacket, her hair coifed and dyed. I realized she had had her daughter late in life which made her old and fragile while her girl was young and tough, despite her nervous disorder. Qimat's father was a male version of her mother. He wore dark colored golf shirts and dress pants. His hair was slicked down and combed over a bald spot. He never took off his square, black rimmed glasses. He shook his poor head and sighed a lot. Both parents picked at the fish filets with tomato pepper sauce served over rice that Xannika and Zabiba made for them. They inspected the kitchen like the health department, and probably found hundreds of violations. I was glad to get upstairs and pack for the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. Because I was an exhibitor and in 4-H I would be living on the fair grounds for a week. The fair had set up a special building for those 4-H kids who did not have livestock and thus no place to camp out. We had mattresses, but had to bring our own bedding and a few pots and pans and food to cook. It would get too expensive to live on fair food, but we'd have cash for food and the midway anyway.
The last thing I packed for the fair was my produce samples in a special styrofoam box that went inside the sample cart. Everyone walked me to Seckler Center to see me off for the long trip to Sparta, New Jersey where the fair grounds were. There was even a special bus into the fair. The City Slicker Building was behind and above (The top two floors) of the Home Economics pavillion. There were half a dozen of us in the Lowered Wings section. That was our 4-H Chapter's official name, since our shirts showed our schools' mascot with its wings demurely lowered to hide the part some males wished they had. The fair had 4-H Day and we'd all wear our shirts then. The fair also had Clan Day. I liked the idea of all this showing off. I put my produce samples in the refridgerator in our kitchen area to keep them fresh. Other kids did thes ame. Ojasvi had worked hard to keep her red deer tongue lettuce from bolting. She even had some in a pot so it would stay fresh and alive until it was time to exhibit it. Boy, that was a clever move. We had a joint exhibit on our pointsettia rescue project, and another joint exhibit on controlling slugs without poisons. Ojasvi was our shining light when it came to this last project.
In addition we had all sorts of other demonstration exhibits and horticulture entries. There were even cut flower arrangements that some of the male-preferring senior boys had done that were exotic and wonderful. I watched them put them together on the kitchen table and then carefully clean up their messes. I don't have to tell you that I was glad to be at the fair, glad to be away from Qimat's parents, though I missed the thirteen year olds. Odem and Aurora said they would visit me in my "captivity."
I saw them on the first day of the fair. Joseph, Elizabeth's son, had given them the tour and explained how some of the rides that involved illusions worked. He was too young to know any esoteric secrets, but all explanations were magical at his age. I saw my roommates again numerous times. They toured the horticulture halls with fascination. They chatted with local politicians, and stopped at local business exhibits. They found hundreds of free and cheap things to do. They explored endlessly. I realized that this was their first ever county fair, just as it was my own.
What I did not count on was the three thirteen year olds daily attendance at the fair. They arrived early and made their way to where the 4-H kids hung out. They toured every hall. They paraded through every animal tent, asking to pet the cows and the sheep. Ezrina wondered aloud why there were so few pigs. The northeastern US is not pig country. She helped milk a goat. She helped brush a goat. She even got to stand next to the bull who was exhibited in a huge, sturdy wooden crate to protect spectators from his foul temper. Ora for her part said the rabbits made her sad, though she got to pick up one of the tamer ones and pet him/her. She said that rex rabbit fur "felt like heaven."
Of course Qimat's parents followed their daughter to the fair. They were sure that the cows, sheep, and goats in their tents were going to give everyone plague, and that the horses who jumped and carried their owners through dressage competitions carried encephalitis. Qimat's father was a physician, though I sure would NOT have wanted to be one of his patients.
Then one day, Qimat's parents came into the horticulture pavillion. It was judging day and we kids with exhibits were all sitting about nervously. Ojasvi had all ready taken first prize for her presentation on slug control and the pointsettia rescue presentation had won honorable mention. Lowered Wings was proving they had what it took, and I would have enjoyed the calm of watching bored spectators which the three thirteens were not ever, pass by, when in came Qimat's parents. Qimat's mother looked downcast. Qimat's father looked as if someone had turned his face to stone, except stone did not twitch and tremble. "Our daughter is lost!" they complained as if it was my fault and they expected an apology.
They weren't getting an apology. Qimat was not lost. Qimat might have snuck a Coca-cola, but Qimat preferred limeade as did I. She got one for each of us every afternoon, but it was too early for drink break. I checked my watch. That meant, Qimat was probably in the Co-operative Extension pavillion where the really exciting educational presentations happened. Qimat could watch those things forever. She liked the butter sculptor, and the posters on goat genetics and breeds, and the exhibit with the skeletons of various invasive species and native ones, but her favorite exhibit was the exhibition bee hive where she could see the bees parading around behind glass. Bees were utterly intricate and wonderful creatures. They had left her smitten. I had a feeling that she might want her own hive. What a grand 4-H project that would be, Lowered Wings' first livestock. To put it another way, Qimat, was definitely neither lost nor in trouble.
I asked Ojasvi to keep my seat warm and led Qimat's benighted parents to the Cooperative Extension building and toward the bee exhibit. It was time for the removal of honey, and a crowd had gathered, but in its faces, I saw no Qimat. I looked toward the butter sculpture which by now was nearly complete, and the sculptor no where to be found. I then noticed that the bee keeper had an assistant. I had seen honey gathering earlier in the week, and then the bee keeper had been alone, but now the bee keeper looked like he brought his son...wait....There was no way of telling if the assistant was the beekeeper's son or daughter was with him today. I could not tell if the assistant was a he or a she because he or she was covered in protective jumpsuit, hat, gloves, and veil. "Just keep quiet," I told Qimat's parents. I watched as the clumsy assistant doing as she was bid, shaking off the bees and placing the honey combs in a wrack where the keeper would melt away the wax and do the processing. Then the keper and his assistant replaced fresh, empty combs.
When the hive was secured, the keeper removed his hat and veil. He was hot and sweaty but smiling. The assistant more slowly removed her hat and veil. It had mussed up her jet black hair. I could still make out the faint scar of a horsefly bite on her left cheek. "I'd like to thank my assistant, Kee-mat," the beekeeper told the crowd who applauded, except for Qimat's parents who broke through the barriers and all but grabbed their daughter. It took several seconds for them to realize they were making a really stupid scene. Rapid fire dialog flew back and forth in Japanese. I was ready to see Qimat's mother break down in noisey tears, but somehow that didn't happen.
We ended up back in the City Slicker quarters over the Home Economics building. By now Qimat could translate. Qimat's parents had not expected a daughter to want to play with stinging bugs. It was not serious. It was not seemly. Qimat had explained that beekeeping and entomology were honorable professions and fields of study, and certainly wholesome interests. I intervened and told Qimat I was thirsty and maybe her parents would like drinks also. I gave her cash and sent her off on an errand. Qimat's parents, deflated in sad sighs. "These are not the kind of houses our friends children join," Qimat's father tried to explain. "We have friends. What do we tell them?"
"Tell them your daughter is going to keep the first livestock for Lowered Wings 4-H Middle School Division or High School Division. It's an honor. She can win prizes. She can do demonstrations. She can talk at conferences. She has excellent grades too. She speaks fluent Japanese. There are parents who would line up for such a kid."
"Not our friends."
"Can you forget your daughter had a failed taking last spring?" I could feel my face flush hot with anger as the rhetorical question escaped my lips. Just then I heard footsteps on the stairs. Amaryllis came into our section. "Where's Qimat?" she asked.
"I sent her to buy drinks," I answered.
"Good," answered Amaryllis. "She doesn't need to hear what I'm going to tell you. Ever since you got here, you've done nothing but complain, and you've had no cause. Your daughter is a fantastic student. She learns even when she is not in school. She works so hard we had to remind her to shower. She stays on her medical regimen."
"And you say those pills work," sighed Qimat's mother.
"Yes," Amaryllis replied.
"Then why has my daughter gained no weight?" asked Qimat's father.
"Look at her pants and shirts," Amaryllis smiled. "She grew an inch and a half. She's going to be healthy and successful."
"She spends her time with bugs!" Qimat's mother could be more articulate than her nervous father.
"You mean the beekeeper. He asked her to assist this morning. I had to give my permission. That is a healthy interest for an adolsecent. The world needs bees, and those who can keep them."
"This is not why we have children," Qimat's father explained.
"There are other professions besides doctor and lawyer and semi-independent. Your daughter is only thirteen. It is a good age to try things out, and certainly she has constructive interests."
"There is nothing we can do," sighed Qimat's father. "We are going to leave...to go back to California."
"Maybe it's better that you do," replied Amaryllis. "I'll see your daughter stays in touch with you. Please don't make her life too miserable when she comes home for reunion."
Just then Qimat came up the stairs. She carried two drink racks. In one was hot tea. A woman who sold fancy teas brewed two good size styrofoam cups of bancha for Qimat's parents. There was Hawaiian punch for Ezrina, and limade for Qimat and me."
It looked like Qimat's parents would have to stay for a drink and say goodbye to their daughter in a courteous and tactful way whether they liked it or not. I felt vaguely pleased with all that.
A Blue Ribbon is not Worth it!
And that was how Qimat's parents got to stay to see the horticulture judging. The judgeing team walked around the hall handing out awards. The youth competition went first. It was divided into classes and divisions. This made life complicated. I made life even more complicated by growing an "unusual" type of corn, even for an ornamental. All ornamental corn was considered unusual, though the judge commented that it was strangely popular this year. My Hopi blue corn competed as corn, plain and simple, but it also competed as a traditional crop, because it was not a genetically modified variety. That was how it won a small blue ribbon with no rosette. It won only an honorable mention in the corn department which the judge bestowed for presentation of an "unusual variety" and plenty of research on making things grow.
My bird house gourd did somewhat better. Like ornamental corn, gourds were unusual squash, but there was a gourd division, all gourds all the time. Still, bird house gourds were not considered "usual." Don't you love this? Anything interesting is weird. The judge ran his hands over my specimen. He then said into his mic, that my gourd was a large fruited specimen in prime condition. He wished more people attempted large fruited gourds. I got a real blue ribbon with a rosette for my trouble. Ojasvi got a red ribbon with a rosette for her red, deer tongue lettuce and a special mention for her presentation. Several other kids in Lowered Wings also took prizes, mostly for unusual varieties and heritage crops, which were kind of a Lowered Wings specialty.
I stood hugging Ojasvi, Adrionne, and several other 4-H kids in the horticulture hall when in came Ondina who had missed all the excitement. She'd been out to pick up the mail and she had a letter for me. I recognized the handwriting on the return address, but not the address itself. My parents lived on Biltmore not at the Oakes, a low budget apartment complex behind the Supermaxi Drug on LaVista in Toco Hills. I felt dizzy and scaird. I wondered how I could escape to the City Slicker dorm, and then I realized Qimat's parents were still there chewing out their daughter. I put the letter into my pocket.
I walked toward the Cooperative Extension building. The butter sculptor was back at work. I stood with a handful of spectators pretending to watch him while I opened the letter.
Abba and imma had to give the house back to the Company. That meant they had to sell most of the furniture. They sold my bed. I sleep on the living room couch at the Oakes because our apartment only has two bedrooms. Hulda sleeps with imma and abba, and I am now too big to sleep in the same room as Yaakov who sleeps with Yitzi and Yoni. None of this is as bad as it sounds. Yaakov has work tutoring two kids, and abba is a gabbai to Rabbi Fleishman. This means we can eat at Rabbi Fleischman's house some of the time. Also, Dibri is working for the Company. She said since her son was placed, there is no reason for her to be independent any longer. This means she can afford to feed Yitzi and me. Her door is always open. I sometimes give her money, because it is not good to take charity all the time. She actually asks us what we want. This is very fortunate, because I no longer have any place to hide food. I hope things are working out well with you and your corn and gourds win lots of blue ribbons at the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. Tell me, do horses really jump over hurdles?
I felt profoundly relieved. I did not look to see that the letter was dated from the day the fair started. Letters were usually four to six days old when they reached me. This meant that Kayla was in my family's new digs for about ten days now, and hopefully she had her arrangement with Dibri. Boy was that a good thing! Ben Dibri would even be back in Atlanta over Reunion along with Dov. I realized that I probably needed to arrange to stay with Kohana so I could make sure everything was OK with my family, but Kayla and Yitzi had nearly made it through the summer. Dov was placed, but no one was going to touch him like my father and his friends had done ever again. No doubt his encouragement would not let him live home. Still, he might have some place to go home to. I felt relieved and almost light headed as I helped pack up on the last night of the fair. I spent twellve dollars on the midway to go on rides with Joseph and Odem who said she was afraid of nothing including a roller coaster that turned upside down. We watched high divers go off a fifty foot tower into a tiny pool, and we met several of the ride operators.
I got home at close to midnight and made my way to the laundry room to get rid of my dirties. My prize winning specimens sat on the kitchen table where everyone who didn't have their nose stuck up their butt could admire them. At first I did not want to see Kohana Pascal in the laundry room door. It was one in the morning. If she was anywhere in Highland Lakes she belonged at the Garbage Dump, but there she was, big as life. "A lot of things have happened, Ahava," she began. "And I have to tell you about them, so I can know what you will do."
"What things?" At least one door was not closing and another opening, though I felt distinctly smacked in the posterior.
"This concerns your siblings."
"You can say that again."
"I've been working on this for the past five hours and most of this morning as well."
"What happened!" I cried out. I did not want to even imagine it. "Kayla just sent me a letter that said everything was all right."
"Written letters take almost a week to make it here from Atlanta," Koahana reminded me. "The letter was old. A lot has happened since then. Brunei Mandel received a housing voucher from the Priests. She doesn't work for the Company. The Priests have the jobs. They gave her a large house so she can house her son and his friends during Reunion. Now she'll be doing foster care."
"OK," I answered. "I hope it pays well."
"People don't go into foster care for the money, not if they're any good. They do it because it needs to be done. Families don't always hold together well."
"OK, it couldn't happen to a nicer woman. She's also called Dibri, and she's feeding my siblings."
"That's what I need to tell you about. Your father and mother finally figured out where Kayla and Yitzi were going to eat and they forbade them to visit Ms. Mandel. Dibri is an ugly name."
"It's what we call her."
"That meant they had to go to Publix and eat their food before they went home. There weren't enough chiars at Rabbi Fleishman's and the children did not go there often enough. Children need to eat a lot. Anyway, your father gave Ms. Mandel a royal chewing out. He called her all sorts of vile names in Hebrew and Yiddish. She told him that if he kept his children from visiting her, that he would be sorry, sorrier than he would ever be in his entire life. Do you understand, Ahava?"
"What did she do?" I asked. Nothing feels worse than betrayal.
"She knew that Clairemont Road is the border between Fulton and DeKalb Counties and she called DFACS, DeKalb Division of Family and Children's Services and made a complaint against your parents. She told the County the way all siblings who could feed themselves got treated and the lack of food, attention, clothing, space, and all the rest. Law enforcement found Kayla and Yitzi in front of Publix eating fruit. They took them home with a social worker and gave the place a surprise inspection.
"There was one chicken in the freezer and it was badly burnt. It clearly was NOT 'for tonight's supper,' as your mother told them. They seized all the children, even Hulda. The Priests got Kayla since she was old enough. When the Priests asked her what she wanted, she told them she wanted to stay in Atlanta nad learn to read and write Hebrew. She got sent to the Dorm House and this morning I profiled her. She's staying in the Atlanta creche. The other children are in emegency foster care all over DeKalb County."
I leaned against the washing machine, feeling its soft contented thrum and whirr. I had nothing to say. I could not even cry. How had I become a stone!
"Is there more?" I finally asked.
"C-Branch and Ed-Branch both want all the siblings together for Reunion. DFACS aggreed to a placement within a branch foster parent, but finding one who can take seven children is tricky."
"There are eight of us."
"Yoni and Hulda are going to stay with a woman in Avondale whose specialty is infants. That will be close enough for Kayla and Yitzi to visit. You'll be the escort."
"It's the least I can do. I wish...."
"This is not your fault Ahava. Quil is going to be thrilled with the new foster mother." Koahana smiled, and I wanted to slap the smile off her face. I was not Qimat who scratched out eyes. "She's Brunei Mandel."
"DIBRI," I sighed. "Quil deserves something good." It would not be a bad arrangement for Yitzi and Kayla either. As for Shlomo Yitzakh, Chevie, and me, perhaps only my oldest brother would find it objectionable, and being within walking distance to Jewish institutions, he probably would not complain."
"Are the children at Dibri's yet?" I asked.
"Ms. Mandel will be picking up Yitzi tomorrow morning. He's spent three days in Scottdale, but he didn't eat for two of them, poor kid. He kept asking for all kinds of fruit. The police found him eating plums with Kayla, so the fruit makes sense."
"Abishag...taught him about fruit," I remembered an eternity ago.
"What about everyone else?" I asked.
"Kayla will remain in the Atlanta Creche until Reunion. You'll go home for Reunion like normal. This will give Ms. Mandel time to get furniture. You may want to write to her and tell her what you like to eat. Also, it might be a good idea to get your shopping and wardrobe repair done before you go home. You'll probably be helping with your siblings quite a bit. You're the oldest."
"I don't think of myself as a big sister?"
"Is that Kayla's job?"
"She took it when the rest of us left," I answered.
"Well you're going to be back for two weeks," Koahana told me. I stared at the floor. I still could not cry, though I really wanted to howl and scream. My throat hurt too and my eyes burned, but no tears came. I should have been grateful for the dry eyes and the calm even if it was being stunned by the news. "I am grateful no one was beaten like Dad's friends did to Quil. I am glad Kayla and Yitzi have enough to eat. I don't really care about the babies, but I'll see Kayla gets to see them." Still no tears. "I'm sorry I don't feel anything."
"You're overwhelemed," answered Koahana. "Would it help if I said I was sorry?"
"Maybe," I replied. "I don't know." The washing machine switched to the spin cycle. "You know," I told Kohana. "I'm going to give my county fair specimens to Di... I mean Ms. Mandel."
"That's a great idea,&qut; Koahana replied and she put her arms around me. I rested my head against her cotton clad chest. It felt warm there. I thought of last year. This year there would be no flight to Texarkana. I thought of sitting alone eating olive pizza before my last round of Nationals. That had been a different kid. I was too old to escape now, and yes, life was worse even if it might get better. When one door opens...Isn't it time to stop that stupid cliche?
Clueless and Unprepared
I traveled to Atlanta heavy-laden. I carried my prize winning, bird house gourd. I carried six ears of Hopi blue corn for two door decorations for Ms. Mandel along with the gourd which was also a gift. I carried a round trip stick-transport ticket. My gifts and I would not have to spend thirty-six hours on a very comfortable, overland bus with barriers to protect me from free lancers and three latrines. I traveled with my roommates and the thirteens who were now official members in good standing, and with Jewels, Tweetie, and Xannika as far as Warwick, and with Odem, Xannika, Ora, and Ezrina as far as New York City. At Warwick, the boys, Aurora, and Qimat went on another local bus to Newburgh, New York where there was a stick port. There was no point in sending them overland to New York City if they were going west. New York City was the terminal destination for both Ora and Xannika. Yes, Xannika was going home to her parents. The rest of us: Ezrina, Odem, and I were going south of course.
We had the usual layover in New York City and the train ride from Port Authority to the stick port in a borough called Queens. That meant I got to shop, and I knew what I wanted. It is not that hard to find stores that sell dried fruits by the pound. Yitzi is not the only person who adores the stuff. I bought several pounds of prunes, apricots, nectarines, and pears. Now my shoulders ached, but I knew I had done the right thing. The lady who looked at my stick ticket also inspected my backpack which was bursting at the seams and opened the styrofoam carrying box, inside a cloth bag with handles to make it easier to carry, and there was also my duffle. "Wow what are you doing, moving a whole household?" she asked.
"Yeah," I thought. "It's one that sits around and eats prunes and reads all day." I did not say that. I just said I owed a lot of people gifts, and that was true. I owed Ms. Mandel more than could ever be repaid. I owed Yitzi for utter and complete neglect and selfishness. I owed Dov for not appreciating him. I was not sure what I owed Chevie because she had called me on the dept all ready. Chevie could at times be brilliant enough to astonish everyone. I owed Kayla more hair decorations since Mom (THANKS FOR NOTHING!) had stolen her carefully assembled horde. I tried to consider what else I owed whom. Kohana Pascal and Bonnie Sorensen topped the list, for bringing me to my senses and realizing what I owed and for trying to bring together my scattered siblings who were old enough to know what was happening. The babies, as far as I was concerned, were a lost cause.
I guessed that I could not cry because I owed everybody far too much for everything. That was sad, but it was a heavy sadness beyond tears or drama. I thought of this as I closed my eyes for the stick transport and buried my face in my bundles, some of which I kept on my lap. Since last year, I am prone to stick sickness, and I suspect it is worse under stress. I felt light headed but not nauseous as I walked out of the stick transport tube at the Atlanta stick port at the Southern end of the ARTA (old MARTA) train line. I bought a one week transit card at the kiosk. I am glad I carry some cash for purchases like this. I gathered up my bundles and walked into the lobby.
I did not think about who would be waiting for me. I knew my way to Ms. Mandel's new house. I should have just gone, but it was worth a try to scan the hall for Kohana or Ms. Sorensen or.... Shlomo-Yitzakh's pale green shirt and darker green pants were unmistakeable. He had a kipa with some kind fo an animal embroidered on it. He stood a bit stoop shouldered like my father, his hands on his hips. His face slightly red as he argued with a girl child in a navy blue t-shirt with a white diagram of some sort of pully on it. The girl wore kahki pants with lots of pockets. Her hair was bobbed to just above shoulder length. She carried many bundles because she was deathly afraid of becoming bored, and wanted to be able to amuse herself solidly for two weeks. I did not blame Chevie for this. Chevie was the most amazingly resourceful person I knew. That she was only nine years old didn't matter.
I approached my siblings and Chevie interrupted the argument she was having with her brother to ask: "What the EXPLETIVE DELETED are you smiling about?" I realized that a shit eating grin caressed my face. In fact, my poor face was frozen that way. I felt my cheeks color. "I'm just really glad to see you," I sputtered. "I'd forgotten all about this. I didn't think we'd meet here."
"There's just one arrivals hall," Chevie replied rather peevishly.
"We didn't make arrangements to meet eachother,&quiot; I explained.
"Do we need arrangements?" Shlomo-Yitzakh asked. "We're family."
I had nothing to answer to this. We rode ARTA together. Shlomo-Yitzakh asked why I had so much stuff. I told him a lot of it was gifts. Chevie shook her head. "At least you thought of someone other than yourself," Shlomo-Yitzakh told me in Hebrew.
"There's nothing wrong with bringing art supplies," I told my brother switching back to English intentionally.
Shlomo-Yitzakh shook his head and then said. "She's fallen off the derech." He was back in Hebrew again and derech translates literally into English as path. Shlomo-Yitzakh had told me what I all ready knew. As far as being an observant Jew was concerned, Chevie had turned her back on religion.
"I think we should speak a language that all of us understand when we're together," I told my brother. Thankyou Bonnie for teaching me about semantics and language as a barrier and code words.
Shlomo-Yitzakh sucked his lip. "I live in Eretz-Yisrael," he told Chevie and me.
"You'll get to speak plenty of Hebrew when you go back there," I retorted.
"It's lashon chodesh" which means holy tongue in English.
"Yes, but it's also lingua franca, a device for keeping secrets, a device for asserting superiority, a device for making insults. It's only holy if you use it that way."
Shlomo-Yitzakh stared out the train window. We were past Five Points now. We rode all the way to Lindberg Center, where I led my younger siblings into the bus yard. I still knew the transit system better than they did. I had seen more of the city in my fourteen years here, than any of my siblings. I was glad Ed-Branch had kept me at home, even if I often ate on my stipend and was gone most of the day. on weekdays.
We had a tense ten minute wait for a chenille. It was painted a deep crimson red, a color that Chevie adored. Shlomo-Yitzakh said it looked like rotten meat. I thought he might have said it looked like something else, but Shlomo-Yitzakh probably probably has no words for safely describing and thinking about female anantomy. Girls in secular clans have a more frank upbringing and attitude. There is nothing wrong by the way with a bus the color of a mouth.
We were out of words, hot and tired, and rode in silence all the way to the corner of LaVista and Christmas. "How appropriate," sniffed Shlomo-Yitzakh. "I always wondered why the local government didn't rename these streets," I finished the thought. "Too much beaurocracy," chirped Chevie who was probably right.
Ms. Mandel's house had once been a parsonage. It was a huge place. It made Shlomo-Yitzakh shake his head. He was not smiling. He looked red faced and perturbed as he rang the bell and stood at stiff attention. "Coming!" a loud, female voice yelled. A cool breath of air conditioning hit us in the face as we entered a newly furnished, and fairly clean house. I did not smell food. I sniffed for it. Call it instinct.
"What did you bring?" Ms. Mandel eyed Chevie's and my bundles inquisitively. "Art supplies, a lab kit for chemistry, and a kit for making bath bombs," explained Chevie.
"Gifts," I said solemnly.
"Any gifts for me?" asked a male voice. Quil, formerly Dov, poked his head out of the kitchen. He wore the pants from his clan uniform, grey with a burgundy stripe down the side, and an old white, dress shirt. His hair had grown out. He had shed his kipah. The bruises on his face were nearly healed, but his nose was badly out of joint. One of Dad's friends had broken it. I would also find he was missing two teeth. I could see that when he smiled which he did unselfconsciously.
"They're for Yitzi and Ms. Mandel," I explained. I began unveiling Ms. Mandel's gifts first. By now I was in the kitchen where Yitzi sat at the table in a white polo shirt from the gemach, the community's bank of used clothes and elastic waste faux blue jeans. He swung his legs and blinked as Ms. Mandel examined the gourd and the corn. She was a short woman, though shorties (not runts!) are common in Toco Hills. She had hair that had turned iron grey which she wore uncovered and pinned with a large barette. I realized I did not have to worry about buying Kayla hair ornaments. Besides, Kayla's hair was still too short for them. Ms. Mandel's face was pale and slightly wrinkled. Still she smiled and pursed her lips as she examined the gifts with a pleasant kind of joy mixed with what felt like real curiosity. I felt warm from her gratitude.
I hardly noticed Kayla slip into the room. Her hair still looked butchered, though if you did not know her, you would think she had a touseled feathered style. Her dress was one I remembered from a year ago, but it now had a new sash made from a piece of coordinating cloth, and the child wore coordinating colored socks under new white sandals. Someone had taken care of my little sister's wardrobe. "There's so much I haven't been able to do," I thought.
I began taking out my gifts for Yitzi. He said "Thankyou Ahava!" in a loud voice and leaped from his chair to examine the offerings. Dov cut his joy short with a curt question: "Why does only the little kid get gifts?" I had never thought of that. "He's the baby here," I answered.
"That's the way it is in this family. Babies are the favorites," Chevie explained. Mom, I realized, had taught me very well. "I'm going to be taking care of all of you while you're here, or I'm going to try at least," I tried to apologize. I sat down and felt Ms. Mandel pat me on the shoulder. "Nobody knows what they're doing in a situation like this," I began to explain. "Even Koahana couldn't get the number of siblings right. There are eight of us, but the two youngest are at a different fosterhome over in Avondale Estates. That means there are six of us here, plus..." I realized that I could not call him Ben Dibri any longer. That name was an insult. No more insults. "What's his clan name?" I asked.
"Moses," replied Ms. Mandel. "It's a good name don't you think?"
"It's the best," I answered. "But there are six of us here, not counting Moses, and two in Avondale. Kohana said there would be seven. That's how much this even shakes up the adults. You see..."
"Kohana forgot to tell you something," Ms. Mandel answered. "There are seven foster children here. One of them is close enough to you to be a sibling though. She's out in the yard practicing her silent reading. I wanted to give her some quiet time. Let me get her." Ms. Mandel slipped out the kitchen door. "Just what we need," grumbled Shlomo-Yitzakh. "What if the child is a THREE LETTER EPITHET."
"Uh oh...." said Kayla.
"Please don't use that word. It does not mean nations when you use it in English. It means someone who is an outsider and inferior."
"What should I call this..."
"How about foster sibling," I suggested as Ms. Mandel returned through the screen door with a small, skinny girl in a torn t-shirt, worn blue jeans, and sneakers that were more holes and dirt than shoes. Her face was clean. Her shiney, jet black hair was combed. She had a reddish brown complexion with high cheek bones and jet black eyes, and a nose flattened out to resist frostbite. All I could think was that the distance Ellen of Na'haquit had come was farther than the distance from Hobart, Tasmania or Haifa, Israel. It was farther than the Outer Banks of South Carolina which were an hour's bus ride from decent schools. It was farther than the depths of the Interior, or the sanctums of the Illusion Priests or little Zell Junior's fantasy house.
"Baruch Ha'Shem," I greeted my small friend, the child of my dreams, with a blessing. Ellen blinked. She took a seat at Ms. Mandel's table as if she had always belonged there. I told myself that was a good thing. She asked about the gourd and the corn. I told her about the 4-H contests and the county fair she had missed.
Ellen did not answer. Ellen picked up her feet in their filthy sneakers and put them on the edge of the kitchen chair seat and drew her denim clad knees close to her chest. She wiped black locks out of her eyes. She rested her elbows on her knees. "You have such a nice big family. You are so lucky, Ahava."
"There's even more family in Avondale Estates," I said. "My mom had her eighth child in June."
"That's when my mom had a baby too. She called her Charlotte."
"My baby sister's name is Hulda."
"What kind of name is that?"
"It comes from out of the Bible."
"What happened to Hulda?" Ellen leaned forward.
"She's in Avondale Estates. DFACS took her away from my parents on neglect charges. She's with a foster mother who can give her bottles and change her diapers. My youngest brother, Yoni, is there too."
"I only have two brothers and a sister. The brothers are much older. One of them is in the hospital with measels."
"I hope the other one does not get sick but..."
"Would you like a glass of water?" Ms. Mandel asked Ellen. The child shook her head.
"How about your sister?" I asked.
"Charlotte died," Ellen answered. "She caught the measels. It's one of the new measels." Ellen stretched out her right arm. She pushed back her raggedy t-shirt to show a raised scar, several times the size and shape of a very large grain of rice and colored the shade of coffee with just a small bit of milk in it. "That's my shots. When I first got taken in the winter, Ed Branch said I had to have vaccinations and go in the quarentine because I'm Inuit. We don't have ree-zis-tance to a lot of diseases that white people have. This is true for the new strains too, so they gave me lots of shots, and then they took my blood every day until they were sure the vaccines worked. There were six kids in the hospital in the quarentine. They brought us fancy things to eat. They played board games with us and read to us and let us read to them. It wasn't that bad except for the needles." Ellen shook her head.
"Dad and the Elders said that we could live forever in the bush as long as we could hunt. If we could hunt, we could take the extra meat to town and get bullets and gas-o-leen. It's not bio-d or ethanol in Alaska. It's gas-o-leen, the stuff Comet tastes like. Seal sells for twelve dollars a pound and it's hard to find. Dad and Uncle Frank were great seal hunters. Frank and Leon could even hunt with a kayak. We had two kayaks, four snow mobiles, tents, skin huts, everything. We didn't go hungry. We stayed off the roads. You could only find us with a plane and a heat seeker. We sold six seals. I practiced my Inupiat with the Elder. He was a healer and a priest. He also got whiskey every time the men went to town. They gave it to him as pay. Whiskey and beer. Yuck, I never want to drink. Alchohol is like white man's diseases for Inuit.
"Then Leon and Frank took the sixth seal into town and when they came back, they had bullets, and fuel and a new stove, and then Leon got sick with the measels. It was the new measels even though he had shots a long time ago. Those kind of measels aren't covered by the old shot. Then other people in our camp got sick. My two older brothers got sick.
"Then Baby Charlotte got sick. She had no shots. Mom had her in June. The healer and a midwife delivered her. She was red and wrinkly, but she cried very loud."
I did not ask Charlotte's birthday, but she was born within a few days to weeks of Hulda. I felt dizzy. "Baby Charlotte broke out in red spots all over which she scratched open before Mom could cut her nails. She screamed and screamed, and then she coughed and gasped. I got to sit up with her because I have the shot button. Sometimes she would just lie there and gasp. Sometimes she turned purple. That's why mean adults said when she died it was a good thing. Mom held her a long time. I got to hold her too. We buried her on the beach and put a big pile of rocks on her grave."
I thought of my dream of the cairn I'd had at Cornell. My mind can think of all sorts of disgusting nightmares. "Then the elder sang his spirit song. He said he did not know Baby Charlotte's name because she never had a name, not a real spirit name. I have one but I think it's an insult. We said lots of insults. I said that Baby Charlotte had a name. I took a stick and wrote on the beach in Inupiat: 'We miss you Baby Charlotte. We will always love you Baby Charlotte.' I wrote it every day, over and over again. This made the Elder mad. He argued that Inupiat was not made to be written down. I argued that you could write it with the same alphabet as English. He said the baby had no name. I said Charlotte was a good enough name. It is a popular name, but she'd never go to school and be in a class with four other Charlottes. I loved her. Her mommy loved her. We all loved her, and so we had named her.
"The Elder said I was ignorant of the spirits and poisoned by the white man. I told him that he was poisoned by drink and too big a fool not to see the obvious. I also said we needed to go to town and get the rest of the children shots so they would not die. He said we had left town because we did not want to be taken or live in false clans. The Elder said that was a Tricia, a woman who had left the village and gone to Anchorage and died in the gutter of drinking. I hate alcohol in this life, so maybe he's right. Maybe I learned my lesson which is why I don't have a problem living in the Garbage Dump or in the Lower 48, but the Elder was worse. I told him that he had the Spirit of Confusion within him. The Spirit of Confusion lives in the fog and them mist and on the bright snow that can blind people. He makes sure hunters never get home and whole villages get lost and die. That was who the Elder was. He was the Spirit of Confusion born as a man.
"My mom and dad told me to stop arguing with the Elder. I did not listen to them. I was too angry. The grownups had been too stupid to get us shots, and the Elder had killed my baby sister. He cursed me as Tricia, and I cursed him as the Spirit of Confusion. He sung songs to keep others from listening to me. I wrote nasty insults about the Elder with a stick in the sand. I wrote them in Inupiat too. The Native Tongue people are very proud of me. I covered the beach with my curses. The elders, Frank, Dad, but not Leon because he was in the tent sick, threw me out of the camp. They did not really throw me out, but made me take my bedroll and a leanto and sleep on the other side of my writings down on the beach. I could come back to eat or Mom brought me food. I slept next to Baby Charlotte's grave.
"Then the boats and helicopters came. I did not call them. They used heat sensors. They were from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. They came looking for us because of the new measels epidemic. They put me on a boat with the sick kids. The Elder asked them to take me away. I did not want to leave Baby Charlotte. I wrote a goodbye to her on the sand, and got on the boat. I just had the clothes on my back. No one got my stuff. I don't care. I have Baby Charlotte with me."
Shlomo-Yitzakh gasped. "In my heart and in my head. Spirits can go anywhere," Ellen explained to my benighted older brother. "I take Baby Charlotte with me wherever she goes. She can't die again of measels and no more stupid adults will neglect her."
"Do you talk to Baby Charlotte?" Shlomo-Yitzakh looked concerned.
"Of course, you have to talk to a baby."
"What does she say back?" asked Shlomo-Yitzakh.
"Nothing, she's a baby, stupid!" Ellen ended the exchange. Despite his clueless questioning, Shlomo-Yitzakh realized that a grieving sibling's semi-private rituals were not idol worship. I was still digesting the fact that Ellen and I had been blessed wtih new siblings around the same time, and that my littlest sister was still alive. I walked around the table and put my arms around Ellen. She hugged me back. "They sent me here," Ellen explained "because they said I'd do better in a family where I knew somebody."
"You know me and I never forgot about you," I answered. "Can you tell Baby Charlotte that she's going to be all right and safe here in Atlanta."
"I told her that all ready. I think she might miss the beach. It is beautiful in the summer back home. The ground is all flowers. They just bloom for a short while. Then there are cloud berries. She'll never see that. Atlanta and even New Jersey aren't as good as that. We'll always miss home. I hope Baby Charlotte learns the old tongue from me."
"She will," I told Ellen. "Maybe we can teach her Hebrew too." There are worse things in the world than a trilingual dead baby, though not very many.
I did not ask that night, maybe because I could not handle the answer, but I had a feeling (later confirmed) that Ellen would probably not see her parents for many years if ever again. Ellen of Na'haquit was Ellen Charlotte Savina. She'd added the middle name in honor of her dead baby sister who accompanied her everywhere. I tried to imagine what it was like to be left wtih nothing but anger and curses to throw. I had always had someone, Ed-Branch, my teachers, my clan leaders looking out for me, and yes, I had very good middle school memories. Ellen had had no one. And now, here she was. This was it, Atlanta, New Jersey, and a friend become an older sibling with more siblings, all healthy and partially, naturally immune. At night, Ellen would cry and talk in her sleep. She spoke in Inupiat. She sometimes screamed or sang in that language. Sometimes she said she dreamed she was a grown up woman working in an office or drinking in a bar or dancing on a stage. She even acted out the dances.
"Tricia's not so bad," I told her. "She was very talented," approved Chevie. "I'm not sure I'd like to be a dancer," commented Kayla. "It's not...modest." Kayla was learning to use English words when speaking English. "Maybe Tricia just needs another chance," Ellen explained. "Maybe Tricia was smart enough to get angry. You can be right and still get sent away." I had no answer. On Ellen and my door, a piece of construction paper bore the words: "We will always miss you Baby Charlotte. We will always love you Baby Charlotte, and In Memoriam Baby Charlotte in Inupiat, English, and yes, Hebrew." I gave Ellen the Hebrew to copy. She wrote it carefully right to left.
In the room we shared, I too had nightmares or maybe nightmares are dreams that try to tell you something. I was on the tundra. I was not a mermade. There were the remains of a house, half built, fresh, sweet smelling plywood. Summer was ending. Out on the ocean, bits of ice floated to shore. The sun hung low most of the afternoon, foreshadowing the long, dark winter. The house had a long wall with six or seven doors. All of them were open. Beyond the doors stretched the tundra and the beach. The sand on the beach was grey. Up away from the high tide line was a pile of rocks to which was fixed the Burden of Dreams Flag, the US Flag, the State of Alaska flag, and the flag of Eretz Yisrael. I ran through a random door brandishing a stick. Ellen was all ready on the beach. I stood my bare feet sinking into the cold, oily sand.
We had to write fast because winter was coming, and it would be cold soon. "You should have worn shoes," Ellen told me as a car smashed the delicate tundra vegitation. It was a black pick up truck with a club cab driven by a woman with cats' eyes, leather pants, and long, shiney black hair. She wore cowboy boots and walked with a swagger. "You're just here to write in the sand, how dumb is that?" Sofia Loren asked.
"It's the only place to write," answered Ellen. "Start writing," Ellen told me, but I could not find the words. Then they came just as I awakened.
When one door opens