Never Trust Silence
It's time to hear from another point of view, so let us set the scene in Atlanta. The narrator goes by several names, but remember, Dibri is an ugly name. Brunei is the name people use when they want to pretend she is part of the tribe (You'll find out which tribe). She doesn't use the name her parents gave her, and her real name is Anotnia. She is a complex person with a complex history. Life is never simple, and in any time or place, you have to be suspicious of the sounds you don't hear and the secrets you don't see. Never trust silence!
To return to QC-L, please click here.
"When Will it Start Hurting?"
Alfred asked me: "When will it start hurting?" We were parked behind one of my favorite convenience stores, just beyond the bridge over the highway, near the border with Doraville and some other town which has been gobbled up by the megalopolis of Atlanta. I was using up ethanol tonight to run an errand. It was an easy errand. Tomorow would be Shabbos. Tomorrow tensions would ease. Tonight, law enforcement would come for all the kids who were not yet taken or encouraged and who were old enough, and who did not have the protection of a religious house, or whose parents, like me, could not afford that protection.
All of the kids, or those with clueless parents were hiding together for the third night running in the beginners' sanctuary and social hall of Beth Jacob Village. One could have stuck a neon sign over the place and advertised their whereabouts. That was why my son, Alfred, was with me and not there. He had turned nine a few weeks ago. He was a big, fleshy boy with striking blue eyes and dark brown hair, my hair before grey streaked it and faded it out, but his father's amazing eyes, no better than his father's eyes, brighter, prettier.
"It's not going to hurt. It's not a taking. That's tomorrow...This is why tonight is the last night we'll have to hide."
"If there's going to be a taking, we better get some air freshner," commented Alfred.
I smiled. "Where do you want to go?" I asked. Running an errand sounded like a superb idea. It was better than floating away on drinking cups full of soft drink for want of anything better to do. Treats get old, and a taking did a job on stomachs, especially if you resisted the sirens. I have told my son that only animals blindly flee pain, but that doesn't stop either of us from losing our lunch. It happens more times than not twice a year, and we had no air fresheners for the car.
"There has to be a supermarket around here somewhere," Alfred looked out the window and when he did not see enough, opened the car door and walked across the parking lot. Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods, and we were in terra incognita. "Not so bad," I thought. We'd drive around until we found a store,I told my son. There are Kroger, Publix, Mayfields, Wayfields, and High-Flyers everywhere. People are afraid to shop in Moqui or Moquias if you want to pretend you still live in the Civil War. Has Atlanta always been two parallel cities? No, Moqui came with the company, yet it has always been here.
I pull off the road that feeds the highway and on to a main drag. A lot of the stores have names in Korean. Another turn brings a Kroger. Our adventure is over all too soon. "Well we didn't waste too much fuel," I smile at my son who looks worried. He wants the siren to start ringing and get it over with, to throw up and be purged of his burden. I can understand that. "We're going to have enough fuel left to go to Dahlonega. Want to go to the mountains on Sunday?" I ask my son as we wander through the aisles of the Kroger's cool air conditioned atmosphere. I'm in no hurry, but things are happening too fast this night.
I reach for a For Value air freshener. Alfred stops me. "Do we always have to buy cheap garbage?"
"What do you suggest?"
My son pulls an extra strength fresh pine product off the shelf. I can see what he wants. I want to laugh. For fifty cents extra, I can laugh. We don't buy treats, just what we came for.
We don't pull out to drive. I want the gas for Dahlonega. We don't play the radio or start the engine to spare the battery. I could always pinch pennies. I remembered my financial management class, but the trick to hanging on to money was to always think of the future. The future that night was one day beyond the taking, one day beyond the aches in the bones and longing in the belly, one day beyond instinct. The future was a trip north, outside the sad stories and gossip.
Sitting with my son in the Kroger parking lot far north of Atlanta or far enough north of my neighborhood, I asked myself if law enforcement would really come. There had been rumors that Solange, the fat pig who worked for the Company as "Barn Boss" would crack down on all the kids who did not give her bribes for local placement, throw them blindly to the company, or pay tuition for religious houses. I could barely afford Day School with my job in the Contingent Female Employee Pool as it was known. I had to do a good job of hiding my son, a better job than the rest of the parents did. I really believed the rumors. The Company was and still is powerful in Atlanta, though less so these days. I needed to hide my boy and do a bang up job of it. Someone would have to really trace us hard to find us at Kroger.
In the quiet car that night, Alfred, my son, slept. I brought him home about 2am. He slept almost the whole way into the neighborhood. La Vista Road was quiet with just the blue pale greens of streetlights. Alfred yawned groggily. He peered out the window which was open so I would not have to spend extra fuel for air conditioning. "Think Dahlonega," I told myself. "Eyes on the prize." We deserve a trip to the mountains.
EXPLETIVE DELETED! There was no car behind me as I stopped in front of Beth Jacob Village and saw the round hole left by a clever and destructive stick in the brick wall of the Beginners' Sanctuary. The raid had really happened. "They got 'em," sighed Alfred. I put my foot on the gas pedal and did not answer.
I did not want to think of all the children "they got." These were the ones parents' least wanted. Alfred told me his young friend, Dov, the boy he mentored in sports and reading, since we had lots of boy-appealing fiction in our apartment, and boy games in general, was safe. His parents paid his tuition. Shmuel, Dov's older brother was a star and if his parents hadn't paid tuition, Torah Day Academy would have done so. That left one other child, the one my son did not mention, because he did not like her. I don't think many people liked Chanie. She was intelligent and zealous in the way of a girl with a religious education who takes it to heart. She was also without her parents' protection. They had hidden her. She said that tefilah (the Hebrew word for prayers) would keep her safe. This was something somebody told her. She was good at repeating that stuff in a way that made adults uneasy and satisfied at the same time. Given a chance to play house, she would be the mother though she preferred school where she could be the no-nonsense teacher, and if there had been courtroom, she would have been the hanging judge.
Chanie had eaten in my house, because I could not see leaving her out of the invitation for Shmuel and Dov. I in fact told Shmuel, who was a responsible boy, to bring his sister. There are ways to handle a Chanie Weisman. A few questions and the armor did not come off but slid back. I knew the kind of questions to ask. At Rosh Hashannah I had asked Chanie what HaShem had done in the Western Hemisphere or at the Arctic Circle. Chanie had told me that there was all kinds of information left out of the Torah. None of the girl babies that Adam and Eve produced had names. Sweet corn probably did not grow in the Garden of Eden since that is a western crop. Penguins probably did not drown in the flood because they lived where there were no people so how could they be made corrupt by Azazael and a nasty human race. I even gave her a geography quiz to see if she could pick out locations from the Torah.
Handled the right way, Chanie could be a great kid, a bright one hungry for just about any kind of knowledge, with religion being just one more item on a full plate. Novels didn ot interest Chanie, but my atlas and anthropology for middle schooler series did, and even some of my anthro books from college. I let her take them home. "Someone needs to teach you science," I told Chanie. "You mean evolution?" Chanie slipped into defensive mode.
"Botany and maybe some systematics to go with it..."
"You mean plants..."
"Yeah..." Chanie blinked. Then she smiled. Of all the Weisman children, this curious and reflective oldest child, was probably the smartest. Now she was the sacrifice because some day she was destined either to be somebody's wife, a female employee, or both. It was that simple. It was a wrong-headed decision. If I had had to sacrifice among the three oldest Weisman children, my choice would have been Dov and I would have then hidden him well. Dov had the least interest in studies, though he liked to read and could perform passably at math. I would have hidden him well out of love and paid religiious house tuition for the two who excelled best at religious learning, but I have only one child.
Screw being nonjudgemental! Chanie Weisman was screwed. Now she would spend a night with the Company. She would be shown bright lights, amusements, asked what she wanted and returned feeling guilty and defiled and.... I did not want to see the end of it, but Alfred did not want to go to Dahlonega. He needed to know that Dov and Shmuel were all right. I sent him to the Weismans. Some time on Sunday afternoon he got sent back. Shimon dropped him off as if he could not walk. He said nothing.
The news leaked out little by little, in distorted stories by Dov and Shmuel. The defiled children recieved profiles at the Ed-Branch Dorm House for some reason. Ed-Branch believes in tame takings and when Chanie had refused nonkosher food and put up resistance by speaking Hebrew, a clever move, the Specialist who profiled her was impressed instead of angry. She gave Chanie pre-packaged orange juice to drink during Saturday's Taking, and dropped her off for a meal motzi Shabbos so she could have food inside her during the educational tests that were part of her profile. Somehow, Chanie agreed to go back to the dorm house and take those tests.
I could picture the rest. I remembered Chanie pouring over an atlas and marveling at the bigness of the world. I remember Chanie wondering about the innocent children of those who did not paint their doors with the pascal lamb's blood out of faithlessness or perhaps a lack of belief in prophesy. It was after all possible to ignore a prophesy and still believe in God. Chanie was no fool, and the way to crack Chanie's armor was to appreciate her intellect and engage it. In twenty-four short hours the weekend I hid my son from a taking when he was nine, Chanie Weisman had shed her shell before Ed-Branch, and it was too late.
Chanie believed in doing battle. Now she did it for the Specialist who had treated her kindly, who had listened, and who had tried to accomodate her religious views. Chanie's god was the God of Justice. What happened next was ugly. Chanie refused to recant her testimony. Chanie found herself expelled from community institutions. She was a bad example, and also if adults saw that she had been kindly treated and believed her, they might choose to let their children be taken rather than pay religious house tuition. Adults do what they do to preserve their institutions. A nearly ten year old girl, can twist in the wind.
And none of this would have happened if the Weisman's had paid Chanie's religious house tuition in the first place. Two weeks after the taking with law enforcement, I found Shmuel watching Dov who played with my son. He resented this job because he preferred religious learning. "Shmuel I want you to bring your brother and sister for Shabbos," I said. "Chevie is too young," Shmuel replied.
"I mean Chanie."
Shmuel blinked. Then he egreed. Chanie had a bandage on her hand. She talked about her new school, climbing ropes, going to therapy, having a new Hebrew teacher. We had question and answer learning after lunch, and a long discussion of polytheism versus idolatry and where Christianity might fit in. Social studies according to Chanie was a great subject for sorting all this out. Chanie did not ask whether secular education could serve religious ends. She had all ready made up her mind that for her it would. Maybe it always had.
Chanie was now an Ed-Branch child, with money to spend, newish clothes, and a desire for a kind of discipline and pain that she believed built strength and went with learning. In the summer, she crossed the entire city on foot. More than once she showered at my house before Shabbos. More than once, I found her eating in restauarnts alone on Saturday afternoon. She was not in my boys' orbit, but in the orbit of Ed-Branch girls, much as I had been. She was not lost because she was far too easy to find. There was no need to ask too many questions, except the usual kind when she took my hospitality.
As for Alfred, we resisted each taking as it came...Saturday morning's twice per year and the one crazy weekday afternoon on late September at 2pm, but by then he was thirteen, and another taking right before his bar mitzvah. My son's bar mitzvah was in the spring, about ten days before Lag B'omer. Ahava (formerly Chanie), Shmuel, Dov, Chevie, and the rest of the Weisman children attended along with their parents. I could always take care of my own son. In nearly fourteen years, I had gotten good at it. I could not care for Shlomo-Yitzakh who still hid in his armor. I did not have to care for Chanie. Ed-Branch would succor her. Dov, sometimes worried me, but being male had its advantages in my milieu, but even being male had its limits, and even being reasonably religious at least on the surface, had its limits. I had been working full time for the Company since Dov was six. My language skills came in handy. Document adjustment needed someone fluent enough in Portuguese, Spanish, and French to pick up several dialects of those languages as well as what I came to think of as Creole. This paid well enough to take care of rent, food, and two part time minders, a loose ends Ed-branch not-quite-intern whom I often simply boarded, and a part time au pair from New York City, Toronto, or Jerusalem whom someone in the community wanted to settle. That was why we had a three bedroom apartment at the Oakes, and not a two bedroom in a fancier building.
Alfred's grandparents on his father's side never forgot him. They had five other grandchildren, but he was the firstborn male, and if not the favorite, then high enough on the list. They paid a portion of his day school tuition. I came through with the rest, and escaped the odious, volunteer requirement. I spent a lot of time to thinking of Alfred's future. Had I had acted sooner instead of thought, I might have acted differently, but one can not undo what is done. And you are probably going to want to know more of the story anyway.
"Where did the baby come from?"
You are probably asking the same questions that most people in this community, Toco Hills Atlanta, ask. The answer is simple to the point of stupidity. My son, whose clan mame is Moses and whom my husband and I named Alfred, was born to my husband and I when I was twenty-five years old. I conceived him within the bonds of wedlock. My husband and I were both garduate students at Emory, and I finished my PhD when Alfred was two.
You probably want more. Here is what I give the inquisitive, especially the young girls who have a native honesty within them. Over my mantle piece in my new house and in a prominent place in the various apartment buildings I have occupied is the wedding picture of Corliss and me. We were married in a civil ceremony at the Fulton County Court House and celebrated at a meal with friends from our departments, mentoring houses, and a few family members at a room rented in a hotel restaurant. I have a whole wedding album full of photos, but the outdoor shot taken in natural light is the best of the bunch and the one I've had reproduced as a large picture. I am in a white suit with a green blouse and green picture hat. The skirt comes below the knees because I am a shortie. I am not a runt in the slang today's adolescents use, but I could not shorten anything I bought. A bride in American culture should be modest. A suit is appropriate for a day time civil ceremony. In addition to my suit and hat, I had a bouquet of green flowers, and Corliss wore a charcoal suit, white shirt, and co-ordinating green tie. I even had shoes dyed green for the occasion.
The wedding picture catches young girls' eyeballs. They ask if it was really me. They ask if that was really my husband, and then they say how handsome we looked. We look more elegant and drop dead gorgeous than ninty percent of the other mothers' wedding pictures. The wedding picture made an unimpeachable case that I am a divorced lady and not a harlot.
Of course Corliss, my exhusband, was the handsomer of the two of us. He was a head taller than I am and then some, five feet ten in his stocking feet, and blonde haired with eyes that were sometimes blue and sometimes green, a staright nose, broad shoulders, narrow hips. He was smart, the fair haired boy in more ways than one of the philosophy department, while I worked in Romance languages, holding my own, but feeling the competition that said I should be teaching school and that I was taking a male's place Women after all got married and....
At the time I married Corliss, I felt optimistic about my future anyway and optimistic in general. I did what most optimistic newlyweds do. Less than six months into my marriage, I found myself pregnant. Student Health gave me a referral to the Female Employee's Center in South Atlanta. My garduate assistantship made me a female employee, and the Center employed midwives to look after female employees who were pregnant. They signed the papers that I could still work. They also monitored my health, and sent Corliss and me to expectant parenting classes to learn about how to survive labor without fear and with the minimum of pain.
I worked until the day before Alfred was born. On my last visit, the midwife had been concerned, because my son had not yet turned himself head first to be born. She said he might turn on his own. He didn't turn. I remember showing up at Grady, to give birth, and the midwife handing me off to a pair of doctors whom I'd never met before. They consulted and found my son still presenting butt first. The first doctor had brought the second because he, and it was a he, was an expert at turning breach babies. The doctors said that since I was a married lady, I would be likely to have another child to go with this one, and turning the baby would damage my womb less than a caesarian which leaves an incission. I listened. The worst part was the needle stuck in my spine to block all sensation below the waist. Turning a baby is painful. I ached for several weeks afterwards, but there was no incision save for an episiotomy which is just sensitive skin. My uterus remained intact and the baby was fine.
The happiest moment of my life came a couple of weeks after his birth when I would put his porta-crib in the study while I graded papers and I watched him sleep. He was a beautiful child. There was a special light in his blue eyes. It was there because they DID NOT turn brown or even hazel. They were a fine clear China blue. The child's hair was the color of black coffee. Alfred was handsomer than either of his parents.
Like the wedding picture, Alfred is proof, but proof against a far uglier charge. It is usually a question asked by adolescent girls who put one another up for it. They have heard the gossip at home. Yes, there are campaigns against lashon hara, but as with breaking wind, she who smelt it dealt it, or if you prefer, it takes one to know one. The girls asked if Corliss was Jewish. I had a stock answer: "He is Italian American. He's a lapsed Catholic."
This being Toco Hills, it gave rise to more questions, especially once I showed I was willing to answer. "Did Alfred have a bris?" Bril milah is a ritual circumcision at eight days of age. The answer to this is technically "no." Corliss and I discussed the matter, and while neither of us had anything against cicumcision, which on the east coast is fashionable even for nonJewish male babies, we both knew that newborns feel pain. Doctors in the hospital would circumcize Alfred with local anesthesia and after coming into the world purple and bruised in a somewhat traumatic birth, Alfred deserved painless cosmetic surgery. "We had him circumcized in the hospital and had a naming cermony for him in the synagogue."
Question number three was whether Alfred had a Hebrew name. Alfred's full name is/was Alfred Tobit Mandel DePalma. Tobit, the first of his two middle names was Hebrew. Question number four was why he was not Tobit at Torah Day Academy. The answer was that he was not even Alfie at home. He had always been Alfred from the day he was born. I pointed out to the school authorities that one could spell Alfred aleph-lamed-fei-raich-daled in the alelph-bais from right to left. There was no heavenly or earthlty reason to ditch a perfectly good first name. There was no religious reason for it either.
This brought us to quesetion number five. Was Alfred....and the girls usually stopped here for fear of mentioning the word. "Was my son baptized?" I had no fear of the word and finished the question. The direct answer was yes. His grandmother had asked for the ceremony, and since it did not involve surgery without anaesthesia, I had agreed, and yes it had been done in a Catholic church with statues of the saints and a crucifix. We traveled by stick transport to western Massachussetts for the ceremony. What I remember of it was the cramped bedroom and the uncomfortable bassinet in which my son had to sleep. Corliss said something about it belonging to his sister. As far as I knew Corliss had no sister. There are some stories I know that I will not tell the prying girls and ladies. I told Corliss I was not superstitious and then sniffed the sheets to make sure they had been washed.
The next question was whether Alfred and I are really Jewish. The answer is an unequivocal yed. Judaism inherits through the mother. My mother is Jewish. End of story. Yes, I am Ed-Branch, but I found religion in college, and Ed-Branch houses permit freedom of religion. All the apartments in which I lived in Atlanta and Ithaca, and this house on Christmas Lane have had kosher kitchens. I never got to Israel, but I did get on the derech. I went to graduate school, met Corliss, and.... A woman can fall in love with a handsome, brilliant, man, can she not?
This brings us to question number seven. Was I or had I done tsuva for my relationship with Corliss. The answer was NO. I did not regret marrying Corliss. He was the pick of the litter. We had not divorced over religion, but over the two body problem and my failure to find academic work and my getting shit listed in my department. I was allowed to finish my degree without a recommendation. I could have done more school and gone on to teach high school as my parents did. I could have gone into the rabbinate even. I read and speak Hebrew fairly fluently along with my other languages. I ended up doing none of those things. Call me stubborn. I ended up in the contingent employee pool with child support from Corliss' parents.
Most of that support went for childcare for Alfred, and moving expenses away from the butt end of Houston Mill Road to the Oakes. Later it went for Torah Day Academy tuition. I knew I could never afford religious house tuition, and Alfred even with the clouds hanging over his head about his father and our relationship, was simply a bad match for such a house. Judaics did not interest him. He was bright enough, but what some teachers call a "reluctant reader." I talked to professors in the school of pedagogy at Emory and they suggested lists of books for reluctant reading boys. My houses and apartments have a huge library of such classics and newer titles. I cured Alfred of his reluctant reading.
I am not sure why I did not let him get taken and become Ed-Branch. Perhaps I knew he would lose what little religious instruction stuck to him. He also would not have been an admin, military, or technical boy. Fantasy for Alfred lived on paper. His soul once satisfied with comfortable pursuits was quiet. He solved brain bashers and made geometric figures carefully measuring and adding and learning the lessons during the summer. I tried to run a math camp but failed when I did not get enough kids, so I gave Alfred solo lessons when he was eight. A life for an Ed-Branch boy can be a lonely one. I was not sure Alfred would be happy in a house full of girls who did not share his interests. I pictured him feeling smothered. He was better off in classes with a higher male percentage, though he clearly was not cut out for Yeshiva. Do I regret not letting Alfred be taken? That is a question no one asks and I have asked myself. Given what has happened in the last fifteen months, the answer is a resounding no.
But first let me tell you what I do regret. I regret that I did not become a high school teacher, even with the parents treating you like a servant or the kids treating you like dirt and cheating, it would have been stable employment, and given me the independence to move to a larger community. One can not see the future, and what is done is done. My second regret is not having the persuasive skills and influence to get Corliss to spend more time with his son. My exhusband married a rich dilettant as blond as he was within a year of our divorce. She has given him five children whom he clearly prefers to his handsome and intelligent first born.
This particularly irritated me when Corliss got back from his honeymoon. Alfred was close to three, and fully toilet trained, except, he had learned to urinate from the minders and me. The minders, an Ed-branch college graduate at loose ends who did the cooking, and a young former seminary student also at loose ends who did the actual minding, were always female. You can guess what Alfred could not do.
I phoned Corliss who had missed the last several visitations. He pleaded he had been away and chuckled the excuse which we both knew. I said I didn't care if he had a hundred wives like King Solomon. He owed his boy a crucial life lesson. Clueless, my exhusband asked what this lesson could be. "You need to teach him to pee standing up."
"Oh shit," answered Corliss.
"No, pee!" I replied. "He shits sitting down quite well."
"When do you want me to give Alfred a peeing lesson?"
"As soon as possible. I don't want the boys in his nursery school class laughing at him."
I could hear Corliss laugh. I felt my face redden with rage. Didn't my ex realize that as the father of a son, it was his job to teach him to use his equipment in the proper way? "What happens when you have sons by your new wife?" I wondered.
Corliss arrived at my apartment in the Oakes, and after telling me what I dump I still lived in, took my son in the bathroom. I had plied Alfred with coca-Cola to give him a full tank and plenty of inspiration. That night I was greeted by a mess. Actually one of the minders found it, and the Ed-Branch cook who nearly defiled herself, let my whole apartment and possibly the whole complex know how gross it was. I entered the bathroom and got a sponge to clean it up, but before cleaning it I woke my son and gave him a stern lecture:
"From now on, when you go like a big boy, you are to lift the seat and hit the water, and only the water. Nobody likes to sit in your pee. Do you want all the girls and women to be angry at you?" Alfred, who knew he lived in a universe of women, understood and thereafter complied. I was glad he did not need another peeing lesson from a very, incompetent instructor.
...And You Wanted to Know the Rest
If you live in Toco Hills, please excuse the length of this tale and all the explanations so far. If you don't, you may still want to know the rest of this story, and there's a big question you are all asking. By the way, if you want to blame me, go for it, but I ask what you would have done in my situation.
Around the time Alfred was bar mitzvahed, I realized there was a target on his back. It was not personal, but that made me feel no better. I knew because of what I saw at work that April, document after document in a peculiar dialect of Portuguese that I recognized because it came from within the Interior's version of Brazil/Brasil. Spellings vary. Sometimes it is even Brazille or Brasyl. Thankfully, every document I saw used the Roman alphabet though there were some strange accent marks on the letters. Most of the documents were altered placements. For those of you who have only received a general placement or been placed by your parents with the help of tuition (aka a bribe), the branches that require a lot of high school and middle school training usually place their children en masse at the end of either sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. A few place children as young as age ten, but even then they use the end of the school year as the time to do it. In Brasil the school year ends in April. Put simply, kids with settled placements and tamed takings were suddenly going elsewhere, and the Priests from the Interior were to thank.
At first I felt extremely smug about all of this. Call it schadenfreude. My son was thirteen and had NEVER been taken. Twice a year our car smelled like....You can guess, but he had attended Torah Day Academy. He knew his tradition and had some religious training, that would act as a bullwark against any garbage the fantasy folks from the Interior might use to entice other children. He had nearly independent grandparents who were going to help me send him to one of those boarding schools where the richest send their children when a mentoring house is "not appropriate."
Then in July of 2083, Ahava (formerly Chanie) Weisman had a "diverted placement." Shmuel and Chevie brought word of it, because Ahava wrote home regularly and wrote to Shmuel as well. Ahava was somewhere in rural New Jersey. The house was Ed-Branch New York City instead of Ed-Branch Atlanta. It was five years old. It was in the middle of nowhere, but Ahava liked the northeastern wilderness, so it was not a terrible match. I would not have wanted something like this to happen to my son, but for girls Ed-Branch offers many choices. One is probably as decent as another. I reasoned that Ahava had landed on her feet.
Then on the night of July 21, 2083 the lights went out. They stayed out until well into the next day. The siren made Alfred sick. He missed the toilet. I cleaned up. He asked if we had any air fresheners. Our current boarder lost her dinner in the sink and had an attack of dry heaves on the lawn. Even the street lights and traffic signals were down. Stalled cars blocked the streets. The home computer survived because I took it offline and powered it down. There was no phone communication for nearly a week.
When I returned to week after eight days, the place was buzzing with tales of riots and the brave exploits of both our military and Security from the Interior. We also speculated of the politics behind the Riots and their aftermath. Beyond the larger cities, the Company controlled nothing. The population was poor. The Company gave them meager handouts. Many were unemployed. You can guess the rest. The Priests had saved the Company's rear. No, that is not what happened. The paperwork I had seen all spring told the true story. The Priests had pushed the Company out. They did not have to make a big show of it, though no doubt it was noticeable at the periphery and invisible in the big cities. They just did it because they could and because beyond a small reach, the Company was not competent. The Company did not have the male equipment to fully reach into lives and assert itself. I knew enough about the Interior, about Brasyl etc..., to know that the Priests had a totalitarian outlook.
I could still however, send my son to prep school when he finished eighth grade with his grandparents help. All we'd have to do is last out one more year. I'm not sure why that seemed like such a short time. Call it hubris. Alfred and I were champions at resisting takings. We even resisted the one at two o'clock in the afternoon between Selichot and Rosh HaShannah. Alfred herded as many younger kids as he could find into the synaoguge at Torah Day Academy and when the girls wanted in, he let them in too over some of the boys' objections. He asked kids to bring in waste baskets. Later I donated a case of Extra Pine air freshening sticks. You can guess what went on in the synagogue that afternoon. Alfred jokingly declared it a holy odor and a "sweet savor" as in Temple times.
Of course the Selichot taking claimed Chevie Weisman. She had been trying to get home and decided to board a chenille instead. She resurfaced quickly though as far away as you can go and still speak English. The neighborhood quickly learned, however, that she was never coming home again. Her small branch wanted her permanently.
Chevie was not my concern. Two days after the Selichot taking, the Division Chief put all the employees into a room. You can guess what happened next. The men who "had families to feed," were spared. I was unemployed. I could make one to two month's rent and then.... Suddenly the long year that would lead easily to prep school for Alfred became a great, yawning abyss. The Priests had taken my job. The Priests threatened my future. No way, would I let them have my son! I was angry. I was willing to do anything in my anger.
And it was not hard to figure out what to do. I had overheard way too much at Shabbos tables when parents were absent. For some reason, I was invisible because many of the boys thought... Well you know what some people call me. I gathered Alfred and his friends together, including Dov who was wise to the ways of small time crime. "Do you all know how to get extra food?" I asked. I knew the euphemism too well. I was sure Alfred had learned the trick from Dov who learned it from other children. Kids did it for fun. Kids did it because they were hungry. Kids just did it. Shmuel walked too much of the straight and narrow to do it. Chanie (now Ahava) had fallen into Ed-Branch's hands and had money so did not do it, but the urchins who played dumb that Saturday weren't as dumb as they looked.
"I want to make a business, and I need your help," I continued. "This will make things easier for your families." The time, I explained had come to move up from candy, beef jerky, and forbidden treats without a hecscher to valuable items, kosher meat and cheese. Our kosher butcher was expensive. Hy-Flier, Publix, and Kroger were not cheap. We could obtain the goods for free and resell them for a reasonable price. Then I could pay my son's helpers in either meat or money. I would sell the rest of the goods, for which there would be a hungry and happy clientele. In short, this was a business opportunity waiting to happen. It was a win-win for everyone except the price gouging supermarkets and local kosher butcher.
Alfred who had read a lot of crime fiction, was a sneaky, quiet, and clever boy. He was not aethleticc because he had no need to be. He was not light fingered so much as good at evading store security. He staked out the mirrors and cameras. He taught other boys to work as lookouts and distractions. He borrowed his grandfather's old coat which was huge on him. It was easy to attach inside compartments. I soon had a refridgerator that was well stocked, and a ready clientele, including Shimon Weisman if you must know. I paid the rent, the housekeeper, the utilities, and my share of the tuition.
In March, just before Purim, there was another taking. This time, Alfred was nearly sucked in but managed to hide Kayla and Dov Weisman, along with several other children in a bathroom. He called the hosuekeeper whom Chevie's branch had sent to the Weisman's and she came and got the children. I was proud of my son. We threw a great party in his honor that Shabbos. Then before Passover, we traveled to Massachussets for his interview at Choate. He was all but accepted. We were nearly done with the last school year and had only the summer between freedom and us.
Passover came and went, may I add profitably. Then in May, the police arrested Alfred. Yes, you knew this was coming. Choate rescinded its acceptance. The money for his tuition had to go for legal fees. I sat in the judges chambers. Now ask me what goes through a person's mind in a situation like this. I'll tell you I was glad it was my son who was caught and not me. He was a juvenile, a first time offender, and stealing meat is a nonviolent offense. Justice would be lighter on him than it would have been on me.
Still, a year in the juvenile justice system under the state of Georgia's starved out government was something to dread. Worse yet, the judge was no fool. Kids steal candy and even electronics for fun. Teenagers may steal sweet cereal or boxes of cookies or large bags of chips, but stealing meat is business. He knew my son had not acted alone. He threatened to give a warrant to law enforcement to search the apartment if I did not come clean about my involvement.
"I'm not afraid of you," I told the judge. He looked hard at me. He was trying to figure me out. I glanced back at him. He was an old man, used to believing that the old ways survived, but long ago, the Company ate out the government of Georgia leaving a hollow shell. Now the Priests had eaten out the Company. There was nothing behind the judge even if the police made a mess and turned my apartment inside out. Yes, they could arrest me, but they would not intimidate me. They would have to prove the meat in my refridgerator, most of which was now safely sold off or given away, had gotten there through an act of crime. That was not going to be easy. I kept no computer files or paperwork. If I did not open my mouth in fear, the judge had no case. "Let him spin his wheels," I thought.
The neighborhood gathered to watch the police search my apartment. They confiscated one turkey, two roasts, and several pounds of hamburger, and one pound of lamb patties. I missed the lamb patties. It was over. At my next appointment with the judge in his chambers, he asked me just to talk "off the record." "There is no off the record," I told him.
"Hard ball is not going to work Mrs. Mandel," he said brusquely. "Either your boy ends up in juvenile detention or with the Priests. No amount of hardball is going to prevent that. Your son and you can try to talk your way to a more lenient sentence. Your lawyers may be telling you, that you can beat this charge by silence, but it doesn't work that way. They want a win. They go home to sleep in soft beds even if they lose. For you and Alfred it is going to be different."
I still said nothing. Then the judge tried a different tack. He took Alfred into chambers without me. I protested against this. My lawyer told me there was nothing we could do. Then it was my turn to go back in chambers. The judge's face was red. He looked tired. "How did you raise that boy?" he asked me. I could feel the accusation.
"Well, I hope," I smiled. I was not afraid. I was not going to let myself be afraid. My courage was my greatest weapon. Maybe, I hoped, Alfred too was not fearful or did not let his fear get the best of him.
"You know he shows no remorse for what he did. I won't be able to help him in our juvenile justice system. In fact, he may end up being the fly that rules all the little flies on the manure heep." This was an odd sort of literary compliment that made me smile.
"Does that really please you?" The judge's eyes widened.
"It is far better than being the excrement on which the flies feed," I answered.
"Don't you have any regrets?" The judge tried to make eye contact. I smiled. Then I told him.
"For eight months, we were able to pay the rent and hold up our heads. That was a good run. It ended badly, but it was good for us while it lasted. No regrets."
"You are a hard woman, Ms. Mandel," the judge responded. "Someone is going to have to show you mercy, and I guess it is going to be me, and you can tell that expensive lawyer to go home and sleep in his soft bed, because he doesn't know thing one about the way things work in 2084. I do. I'm sending both of you to the Priests. You'll take a huge status drop, but if you find that preferable to crawling, that is fine. You'll have a place to live and enough to eat. The boy will suffer, but you expect that. You will suffer, but you are prepared for it, but both of you will suffer less."
That was how Alfred ended up in a house far in the Interior, far beyond the reach of his grandparents money. It was a house that took those with black cards, criminal status. It was not prison. There was work for those who were capable. My son missed the last six weeks of eighth grade. He later began to make up the work, but I'll get to that. The judge was right. We were proud, strong, brave, and hard. Hard people do not break.
The hardest part of my son's sentence was that I was not sent to the same clan. Joyce Hill, one of the leaders of North Hill Clan, which accepted Alfred (soon to be Moses), did not want me. She sent me back to the Priests who sent me to the Wounded Crane Priests who ran a caring order. They needed a teacher, and were happy to have one that spoke several languages. More often than not, their acolytes and children needed more education than that with which they often arrived. I got to keep the apartment and commute though I sometimes slept on the train. I kept my name; for it was the one under which I won my PhD. When you think about it, I had my first academic post. I was full time employed again. My black card; for the Priests knew I was more guilty than my son, still gave me supermarket access and a lot of mall access. The Priests were happy to pay my rent. I had no more tuition. A hard woman and her hard son do not break, and no, I have no regrets about stealing the meat. People do what they do to survive. We only hurt the greedy stores.
Bear with the Hebrew title. You'll understand it in a bit. The hardest time after the Judge turned us over to the Priests was the first four or five days. I remember when Jeff who ran North Hill Clan (What an unimaginitive name) turned me over without due ceremony to the Wounded Crane Priests. I felt a bit like a pingpong ball. I steeled myself, shouldered my duffle with two nights of clothes and toiletries, and walked down the road. My card would not let me take the fancier bubble car transits taht operated this deep in the interior. If I cut behind North Hill House through the third growth forests with sunlight dappling the trees and unfamiliar, wiry grass growing in hummocks, I would reach the service road and a bus that could take me for free to The Crossing, as the sad but busy neighborhood at the train hub was called. Moqui, the Interior version of the Atlanta area had its own, very sophisticated public transit system.
Transit was always free, but my black card kept me out of the fancier places. I did not care. I was beyond caring. I just hoped I was not carrying the proverbial mark of cane on my forehead. I worried about my son alone in a far-interior clan house. I did not know the house was low status and that there are many mildly and not so mildly derogatory names for such clans. All I knew was that my son and I would not spend much time under the same roof, and I grieved that new insult.
I walked through the hot sun toward the Wounded Crane Temple at the top of an upgrade that was not much of a hill, beacuse hills in both Atlanta and Moqui are gentle things. I grew up in Westchester county where hills feel vertical. Atlanta and Moqui hills are nothing.
The temple also was utterly unimpresive. Yes, it was large, but it could have been a prison. It lacked the dignity of a fortress, just a faceless ten foot high grey wall of matte stone with no windows or decorations and several doors or gates. The gate that was left partly open enough to admit curious pedestrians was black iron with the design of a crane pulling feathers out of her breast. The crane was painted white and the place where she had plucked out her feathers and the base of the feathers she held in her beek were red like blood. I gasped.
I am an educated enough woman to know the difference between idol worship and sincere polytheism, but this symbol gave me pause. "Who were these people?" I wondered. I told myself not to be afraid. I walked into the courtyard and found it full of teens, a few children, and some young adults. A few people hurried to the main temple hall with some kind of private worship or religious anguish, but most of the young ones hung around.
I could hear their conversation. Like those who call a place home, they had no fear of talking loud. It was their language that stopped me. It was Portuguese. I could recognize that much, but not the standard Luso (Brazilian) Portuguese I could speak like second nature. This was a dialect I had heard only in my head. It was familiar enough, especially as the language of personal statements often hand written with strange accent marks. It had sharp clicks not present in the mother tongue and a few odd sounds. The sounds and clicks drew me in, and the words fell together. I smiled with a pecuilar triumph. Then I walked toward the knots of confident kids. I thought of my son, and suppressed the thought. I know I'd make a fool of myself with the dialect I understood. The tongue often takes longer than the ears to learn a lanaguage, and my ears even lagged behind my eyes.
&quiot;Bom dia acolitos!" I called out. Then I asked for directions to the office in Luso Portugese. The teens looked up. They did not direct me to the office right away. Instead, they asked where I was from, what city? They asked how I spelled Brazil/Brasil. I told them I was from Atlanta, Georgia in the USA. I was a student of Romance languages, and a specialist at translating documents. I did not notice the cadre of adult priests who had ventured out of the temple to watch and listen to the conversation.
"Are you Antonia Mandel?" asked a male priest in a sarong. Wounded crane priests DID NOT shave their heads, but wore their hair just below the nape of their neck and parted on the right side. The priest had a sallow face, green eyes, and brown hair. He was a bit overweight. His sarong and cumerbund along with his scrub shirt made him look a bit fat. His hands were very large.
"Yes," I flipped back into English. I felt sad to leave Portuguese and all its fascinating dialects. The sadness wiped away my grief and fear. Languages do that to me.
"Come with us please," the Priest ordered. I followed. We walked into the main temple. I tried not to look at the lurid three dimensional representation of the crane mutilating herself on the alter though it appeared now she was trying to use her feathers to make something on a frame. "I will tell you the story of the Wounded Crane some time. It has a philosophy that pervades all we do," my tour guide explained.
We turned right at the altar, went up a flight of old wooden stairs taht smelled of dust and stale building and into a hallway of unpretentious but spacious offices. The offices had anti rooms with stiff plastic chairs, often mismatched and comforted by a few multi color woven, rag strip, cushions. There were paintings of Japanese art of cranes on the walls. The paintings were framed in cheap plastic that glared slightly under harsh fluorescent lights. There were also rag rugs on the tile floor that was chipped in some places.
My guide knocked on the double doors that separated the waiting room from a smaller main office. He then opened the wooden doors to reveal an office with an old, wooden desk, a rag woven rug. and a picture of the wounded crane hard at work weaving something with her bloody feathers. The high priest with her white streaked hair sat on a hard chair. She was nearly six feet tall, and blue eyed like Corliss. Oh why did she have to look like Corliss? I greeted her with a smile that was anything but joy.
"Andrew tells me you speak Portuguese and even understand our newer students?" the High Priest began.
I told the High Priest of my education and work history. She brought up my profile. "Would you like to be a teacher here. We need another one to teach English to the children we bring in from the jungles and mountains. You seem to enjoy their company."
What could I answer to a question like this except....Well there was one small problem. "I believe in one HaShem, the one God who made Heaven and Earth. I have absolutely no intention of proselytizing but I can not bow down to your statue of a crane. It is just a myth to me though I would love to learn that myth. If you respect my faith, I will be happy to teach for you, and I hope you will be happy to have me teach for you."
"I think we can be very happy together," the High Priest replied. And thus, I had a job, a job I had not had since I was in grad school. True my students were much younger, but they were interesting, and for the most part serious, and I knew how to make language fun for undergrads. I could make it fun for high school pupils. We had competitions. We made collages. We talked about differences in spelling for variations of their mother tongue. We talked about how English, at least around Moqui was a far more standardized language and all the craziness of irregular verbs, and the lack of a formal "You."
We did not discuss the story of the crane for several weeks which was fine. I was glad to learn it eventually, and I will retell it eventually. I was happy enough with my job, not to grieve or worry very much for my son.
He resurfaced in four days anyway, first with a letter that appeared on my second day of employment, and then with one each day after. I am not sure where he got the postage. I asked and he said a woman named Bee in the office supplied him whenever he asked.
Alfred, now Moses; for that was the clan name he chose, had truely hit bottom, and it was not a question of doing tshuva (practicing repentance) so much as being left at utterly loose ends and learning the limits of his black ID card. The lonely trail to the service road, however, was freedom for my son. The choice of jobs, cooking in the kitchen, taking care of old people, changing babies diapers, etc... repelled him. The lack of school bored him. He walked a lot. He walked to the road. He walked to town. He took the bus to town. He took a few trains. He stopped in the train station and less fancy mall restaurants and grocery stores for his extra food and a meal out that was better than the food which "sucked," at home "and I know you don't like curse words imma, but they're appropriate." Somehow my son had learned to write eloquent letters.
As I mentioned above, he met Bee, "the office lady" by asking for postage. She began to look for him when he returned late at night, but she had not yet discovered him, when Moses found me. He entered the open gate. The image of the bird as he called it did not trouble him. An open gate screamed "YES" He had heard enough "no" to be grateful for "YES" in four days.
I found Moses, formerly Alfred. waiting for me outside the staff room where I was correcting assignments and catching my breath before the long commute back to Atlanta. He slouched against the wall in kahki scrub pants, and a scrub shirt with a pattern of polo players on it. In his hair, he had pinned a black velvet kipah. "He still has his kipah?" (also called a yarmulke) I asked myself in surprise.
"Moses," I used his clan name which I liked especially since he chose the English version which like Alfred and Corliss sounded utterly dignified. "You look terrific," and I meant every word I said. "How's the teaching job?" my son asked me. "Fantastic," I replied. It was great not to have to lie. I gave Moses a big, adolescent embarassing hug.
Moses then asked if I was keeping the apartment. The answer was yes. Ed-Branch had put two borders in their. The Wounded Crane priests had installed a young woman whom they wanted to learn about Atlanta. She agreed to do laundry and light housekeeping. Orphia who had experience with kosher kitchens, and who was finished with college, and utterly at loose ends, ran my kosher kitchen with Akiba (named after a part of Tokyo) as her sidekick and trouble maker. The three women kept the place occupied, and orderly. I suspect there would be a clan, not a house, in the making soon. Someone would go back to school for an Ed degree to give them the required mastsrs. Someone would meet three or four girls needing a leader they trusted and with a pioneering spirit. Well, this is how clans are born, but it would be a while.
The apartment was not falling apart, and there were always leftovers for a late dinner. Moses could sleep on the couch when he returned home for visits. Meanwhile, there were still "issues in the neighborhood." Akiba had a good ear for gossip and Ki, the Priest, had a bigger ear for this sort of thing.
Alfred/Moses' arrest had spurred a massive campaign against shoplifting, even though most kids' shoplifting for "extra food" was very different from stealing meat as a business. C-Branch was right. You can stop this kind of thing by giving kids a choice of food and enough to eat and some attention and autonomy. The meat business fed off hunger and poverty, pure and simple. Those are harder problems to fix or maybe they're easier to ignore. It is more fun to punish powerless kids.
Dov Weisman appeared on my doorstep at the Oakes around eleven pm right after Shabbos during the first week of my new life with the Wounded Crane Priests. He asked if was going to stay in the community. I told him I'd be home most nights, but late. Orphia and Akiba would feed him and his sister whenver they asked, day or night. I'd give them orders. I was not thinking of Yitzi at the time, but he came along to be fed as well.
I asked how he and his sister, Kayla, were doing. He said it had been awful. Imma had found Kayla's colletion of hair ornaments that she prized and then she had cut the child's hair as badly as any one can cut a head of hair. When I saw Kayla that Sunday before leaving for the Temple, all I could think of was Rapunzel after the witch found out about the prince, only it was Rapunzel herself who was wounded, her beautiful, nearly blond locks butchered, a warning to all kids who steal to do tshuva. Yeah sure!
In addition, I learned Dov had an Iraeli tutor to help him study to win a scholarship to Torah Day Academy. I knew that Dov like Moses (formerly Alfred) had very little interest in religious learning beyond what parents and teachers forced on him. The daily study sessions that started when school ended could not have been pleasant. Still Dov put in his time at the Kollel, the study hall for married men and men in the community (and also for women brave enough to enter its sanctum since it was also a library) in Beth Jacov Village. Kayla's future was a blank.
Dov did not complain. Near the end of June, Ahava came to Atlanta to set up a system to divert her entire stipend to her two siblings in need. At this point, they were not getting fed at home. Orphia broke the news to me, because Dov or Kayla came by asking for food whenever they could get here. Ki put the pieces together and sent the story home. She asked why the Jewish Priests did nothing to prevent Dov, Kayla, and Yitizi's parents from neglecting them. I said that C-Branch had sent a housekeeper for a while, but that Leigh Weisman had fired her when she came home from the hospital with a new baby named Hulda.
That was not much of an answer. Ki still wanted to know why no one tried to stop things. I explained that other parents fed the children. Ki worried whether this was enough. I said that once Ahava gave Dov and Kayla aytiem cards, that the children would survive the summer. Maybe Dov would really win a scholarship and Kayla would stay in Torah Day Academy on a sibling discount. Her mother was "too busy" to homeschool her. What, after all, could go wrong in a few months.
Now there were regularly, or more regularly than not, four dinner guests at my apartment, and the food was Ed-Branch girl food, bowls of marinated vegetables, roast vegetables, all sorts of cole slaw and pasta salads and papaya or scalloped rhubarb when Orphia obtained this out of season delicacy. This she did, primarily for Yitzi who also loved peaches and plums. The three year old was now one of the big boys and had to scramble for a meal. He came bobbing along with Kayla. Dov's tutor Yaakov also came. The children brought me foods they enjoyed. I had Orphia bake them bread and cookies.
The arrangement seemed stable, except for Yaakov, the tutor. He was an awkward, eighteen year old, young man who had attended only all male relgious schools in New York and Israel. He felt uncomfortable in my "house full of women." Ki frightened him. He called her an idolator. She laughed at him.
Orphia and Akiba frightened him even more so, because both were clearly female and not one bit deferent, and not one bit interested in Yaakov sexually, not even for flirting except to tease him in a mild sort of way. Yaakov smelled. He needed to use deoderant and do something about his acne, and even more about his manners. He'd complain about the fine cheese we got through our secret connection (It was actually Orphia's connection) and pass up most of the fruit. He wanted pastries. He wanted Chinese dinners from the supermarket. He wanted the conversation of men in religious disputation to make him feel safe and secure.
Perhaps the job with Dov bored him. Such things happen. He was broke too which could not have made him happy. None of this excuses what happened one summer afternoon in midJuly. I was teaching about how to ride a bus in Atlanta as an English lesson when it must have happened. Dov took Yaakov and Kayla shopping. Yitzi was thankfully with a minder.
Yaakov, the tutor, asked for Chinese dinner. Dov refused to buy it. Yaakov complained about the food that Orphia had sent him to buy. He called Orphia and me thieves. Then he called me a whore and said that I had grown to old to be a prostitute so I now ran a hosue of ill repute with an idolatrous priest and two wayward women like Gomer's wife in the book of Hosea in the Tanach. Well Dov did not need to hear this shit. Dov did not need to lose his summer to studying he felt pointless. Dov did not want to become someone he was not, but the insults and ingratitude probably made him the angriest of all.
None of the above excuses what happened next. Dov lost his temper and beat up on Yaakov. A crowd gathered. Then Shimon Weisman, Dov's father, and Rabbi Fleishman who had taken on Shimon as a chavrusa (study buddy) and gabbai, and several others in the entourage, arrived. They all ready had a rope with them. I don't know what they planned or how they thought it out. They tied up Dov and took him away.
Once either out of sight of the shopping center or in the car, they beat him savagely about the face and broke two of his ribs and shattered at least one of his teeth. His nose was broken. He could hardly see, but he could still walk.
Like Rueben in the book of Genesis, they did not plan to commit murder. They were too cold blooded in their violence for that. Murder requires disposing of a body. Dov could be made to disappear legally and easily. Again, I do not know who thought of the plan. Quil/Dov does not know these days either. He does not think his father thought this up, but that is scant comfort.
The conspirators walked Dov into the new mall. They traveled deep into the Interior looking for the level with the temples. They chose the Mithraic Priests because their bull resembled the fabled Golden Calf from Exodus. They dropped Dov there and said he was all theirs. The Mithraic priests did not want Dov, but they did document his injuries. They did not just, however, take kids just because they had suffered. They instead found the Portal Priests. These are the top of the heap of the Interior, though they will deny it because that is the way Moqui politics works.
They did not want Dov either but they did some placement. Dov confessed his part in the crime to them, and they sent him to Quercus House. Quercus House unlike North Hill is not a house of last resort (Boy that is a euphemism!). The Portal Priests and the Mithraic Priests were both impressed that Dov had fought for my honor and the honor of the scholars who fed him and his sister and brother. They were impressed that Dov was sorry, not for the violence itself which he felt had good reason, but for losing his temper. Yaakov was "a bum who was not worth it," Dov told the Portal priests. Dov had no fear of getting in trouble. He had sustained a beating and refused to apologize. He as too tough just to be dumped. That Moses was too tough to be dumped also crossed my mind, but Moses and I had entered the Interior through the Judicial System, so our story is different.
Quil (Dov's clan name) did eventually write a letter of apology for his loss of temper and beating up Yaakov. Two wrongs after all do not make a right. He underwent "ethics training." Quil shed his kipah. So it goes.
I continued to feed Kayla and Yitzi. Kayla now just gave Orphia and Akiba cash. They provided the food. The family moved to the Oakes in Late July, and that meant the two remaining "older children" were there every night. I had no problem having my boarders feed them. Usually we did not eat together. I made sure to gather and collect Quil's mail and bring it back to Kayla and his parents. His clan and his ethics instructor asked him to write his parents. It was important that Kayla who could read beautifullly, know that her brother was physically and probably morally OK. He needed to do teshuva and the ethics training helped or seemed to help. He talked a lot about it in his letters.
Quil was lucky. I was lucky to be full time employed. Even Moses became lucky mid summer. Bee often found him eating a sandwich he had bought elsewhere late at night in a corner of the dining hall. Moses quickly discovered he was not the kind of kid who liked to spend his night stretched out before the entertainment center on a habitual basis. It was better to stay out late roaming around and coming back whenever to eat, wash up, and get ready for another day of the same. He could post his letters and even write them as he roamed. He was not in jail. He was overjoyed at that. He had the postage to stay in touch. This also made him happy. He said he did not care about the apartment.
Bee saw Moses several times before she spoke to him. It was casual conversation. She asked where he had been. He told her. She did not yell at him. She asked him more questions, mostly about bus and train routes. She looked to see if he wore a watch. He did. She then asked if he would run errands for her. She sent him on a few test runs, and then put him to work as a regular runner.
Soon Moses asked what it would take to work in the clan office. Bee said he needed to be enrolled in the local comprehensive high school that taught business/admin. Bee also said he could not attend such a school with a black card, but she could get him upgraded to a red card if he could do well enough to pass such a high school's entrance exam. Moses asked if he could have a tutor. Bee said he could study on his own and gave him some books and told him where to get others. Now Moses only roamed on errands though he often stopped to buy pastry or some sort of food. He could have this for free as many things are free in the Interior.
Moses was a boy with a future again. I could have kissed Bee for her mercy or as they say in Hebrew rachmones. By the first of August, I believed that Quil and his brother and sister, Moses, and even I would be all right. We had things arranged in the best way for which we could hope. We were landing on our feet. The system worked for us instead of against us, which is the kindnest rachmones of all.
Crime of Passion
If you wanted to examine it carefully, the Weisman family's economic and moral situation deteriorated slowly over five years, from the time that the Rabbinate at Beth Jacob Village made an example of Chanie who became Ahava to the summer at the Oakes when Kayla and Yitzi ate habitually at my apartment. Neither Ahava nor Shlomo-Yitzakh ever shoplifted more than a few times to feed themselves. Neither of the older children admit to it these days. Shlomo-Yitzakh's father and his friend could have fed him well enough to make it unnecessary, and the oldest son had no psychological need. Ahava was a star student. The lunch ladies at school slipped her extra food. She relied on neighbors and her own moral code would have made extra food beneath her tough coat of dignity.
Quil was another matter. He ran with his peers. He played sports, and Moses mentored him. He had his own set of values, being dependent on, and looking out for those around him. Extra food was part of his world. I think without it he might have fallen through the adult cracks that fed him. Chevie will not talk about "obtaining extra food." She says that shoplifting serves a psychological need as well as physical hunger: security, independence, empowerment. She, Moses, and Quil have had insightful talks about this.
Kayla stole not only food but hair ornaments. She wanted beauty more than she cared about a full belly. She had fairly good connections at school.
And what were the Weisman parents doing? I guess that is what you want to ask. At first they fed Ahava, Shlomo-Yitzakh, and Quil, though maybe not all that well. There might only be leftovers in the kitchen, no place to sit on Shabbos due to more important guests, or simply a very long wait while imma fed the babies. But for a while there was food. This is why the eldest two children did not shoplift and why for Quil it was mostly a game played with friends. I get this last information from Moses.
The Weisman's financial situation was probably never particularly good. The children were clothed from the gemach, community chest of used clothing. A bill went unpaid from time to time. Shimon Weisman was a computer engineer, but was also semi-independent. He worked part time for the company, and consulted. Business was sometimes good and sometimes not. Then fourteen months ago, the company cut him loose and private business dried up. Leigh meanwhile did not work outside the home. She was busy with a new baby every two years. Say what you want, Corliss and I refused (Actually I refused) to have another child after Moses (born Alfred) because I did not have an academic job. The first child was for fun, but we needed to be able to support our children as a couple of semi-independents. The Weismans really believed that the Lord provided for each child. Shimon Weisman never thought of "what if?"
"What if" turned out to be brutal. I learned from Kayla that the family lost its telephone service and internet. They sold furniture to pay bills. They fell behind on their mortgage, and gave their house to the bank. In the middle of all this Leigh ended up on bed rest and then hospitalized with a bad pregnancy. The food for the older children disappeared. Also Torah Day Academy cut back on free breakfast.
Abishag, a housekeeper sent by the Creators, and Ahava's stipend held off starvation for a while. The whole community was getting poorer and poorer, and the safety net that might have carried Kayla and Yitzi, and Quil as well had he not beaten up on Yaakov, was frayed. In early August of 2084, the Weisman's gave their house back to the bank. I'm not sure if it was a short sale or a foreclosure. Kayla does not know, and neither do the older children. I had Kayla and Yitzi close by. I fed them. It would only be a few more weeks until there would be some kind of free breakfast for them at school. Yitzi would be in nursery school. The school would take him for free or on a sibling discount. Shimon and Leigh no longer had to pay for Quil's education.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised at what happened next. I came home around 9pm with the sky all ready a rich, saphire blue and still stinking of air pollution and the faint smoke of wildfires that way Atlanta summer skies stink. I let myself into my apartment Ki informed me: "Shimon Weisman is looking for you."
I wondered what he could want. I did not bother getting undressed but let myself out and walked four doors down to the Weisman's apartment. I knocked. Leigh answered. She looked tired and stretched out like old time, Silly Putty. She was living on liquid nutriments to try to regain her youthful figure which eight pregnancies had ravaged. She had on her sheitel, her wig. She stared enviously at my long, iron grey hair, and then she called for Shimon. She stayed to listen as Shimon laid down the law.
"I don't want my children visiting your apartment," he began.
"May I ask why?" I inquired. I was a neighbor. I was Jewish. My kitchen was kosher. Besides his two older, remaining children were hungry.
"You don't know?" Shimon raised his eyebrows as if there was an inside joke I had failed to comprehend.
"Not really. Clue me in."
"You are an evil example. You are a rasha and so is your son. You run a house of prostitution and have an idolator with an alter to her crane god there. Yitzi told me. I can't have my children at your apartment."
"I see, well may I bring food here for them? I can send Orphia. She's Jweish."
"Leigh and I take care of our own children."
Any where else, I would have laughed, but Shimon Weisman was an irresponsible bastard who had brought far more children into the world than he could support. Even without knowing the story, I knew that much. "How are the children going to eat?" I asked.
"That's our business."
"No, it's the community's business. I'm part of the community. You let me children have meals at my apartment or you're going to be sorry, understand."
"Are you threatening us?" This time it was Leigh who spoke up.
"Yes," I replied. "Let me feed your children or you are going to be sorry, sorrier than you have been in your entire lives, understand? Now are you going to let Kayla and Yitzi visit for meals?"
"Get out of my apartment," snarled Shimon.
I left. What followed was simple. I called Bonnie Sorensen, the only Creator I knew, who referred me to Oiling Marthaschild, one of Chevie's nurturing team. I called Hamida deLang, the head of Ed-Branch Atlanta and asked her if she would turn over Ahava and Quil's profiles to law enforcement. Then I called DFACS, DeKalb Family and Children's Services, and reported Shimom and Leigh Weisman for neglect. The wheels of justice turned painfully slowly.
Two police found Kayla and Yitzi outside of Publix eating fruit on the sidewalk. They found out the fruit was honestly purchased thanks to Ahava, but then they took the children home. The Weismans made no attempt to hide their neglect, and it was glaring. There was nothing in the house but baby formula, liquid nutramnt, and a very freezer burned chicken. What Yoni ate when he did not have a bottle was a mystery. He was probably the one suffering the most. Hulda was on the tit and getting adequate food while her mother tried to restore her womanly beauty. The place was not a mess because someone took out the trash, and because it was new enough not to sport piles of clutter.
DFACS took all four remaning Weisman children into custody: Kayla, Yitzi, Yoni (age 2), and Hulda (age three months). It separated the children. It turned Kayla over to the priests who turned her over to the Scholars Union who sent her to Ed Branch Atlanta. She made her first visit to a creche down on Ponce. She was safe. Yitzi was sent to a foster home in Scottdale. Yoni and Hulda were sent to a home in Avondale estates where Kisha, a specialty foster parent, fostered a fifteen year old with a three month old infant and plenty of milk. This way, Hulda had a wet nurse, and Yoni received the attention a very young child needs.
With Reunion looming in late August, Ed-Branch and the Creators cleaned up the mess. Since they had three out of four of the Weisman's placed or children, or children with encouragements, they agreed to provide a "branch foster parent" and since I had an Ed-Branch encouragement, I was the obvious choice. The children knew me. My boarders could do a good job of feeding a large family. Even Ki was surprizingly useful. All I needed was a larger house, which was how I ended up moving into the former parsonage on Christmas Lane.
This will probably be a hotel/boarding house most of the year, but for now it was a foster home. I got Yitzi back immediately, even before I had all the furniture. Orphia served him "papaya fruit" and promised him rhubarb. I took him to the new mall for polo shirts and new, clean pants. I got him a hair cut, a trim to keep his lovely little kid curls. I even obtained several kipot for him.
With reunion the other children arrived. Ed-Branch Atlanta and Ahava's clan did not want her returning to her parents' house. She also did not want to go. Shlomo-Yitzakh was estranged from his father due to events that had happened in Israel. He had no where else to go. Quil was not going back to his parents. His clan and the Portal Priests feared for his safety, and rightly so. Moses was my son so he came back to me for two weeks. Ed-Branch Atlanta and DFACS did not want Kayla going home due to neglect. There was also a seven year old girl from Alaska named Ellen Charlotte Savina who was a close friend of Ahava who had had family issues, and possibly came out of a somewhat neglectful situation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not supply a lot of details. Ellen told her story again and again because she needed to talk about it. She had a sister the same age as Hulda Weisman, but while Hulda was alive and well in Avondale Estates, Charlotte Savina was dead and buried on a beach north of the Brooks Range. The child had died of a new straing of measels.
I have the same kind of shot button on my arm that Ellen wears, but in my case it is to help provide herd immunity for children from the jungles of Brasil, the Andes, the Carribbean etc... who have little immunity to Old World diseases. Like the Scholars Union in Alaska, the Wounded Crane Priests are very strict about vaccinations. I would not want to make my students sick like Charlotte Savina.
And so in an odd way I profited from my phone call to DFACS, though that was not my intention. My intention was to punish a fool, to hit him over the head hard, to make him beg "no," and apologize and scream for mercy. He did none of those things, and has now lost custody of his last four children. It is possible he and his wife may get the younger ones back. It depends on whether the community hires them a pro-bono lawyer and takes them through the labyrinth of court hearings and administrative proceedings, and parenting education that await. Leigh could always get pregnant again. DFACS is underbudgeted and short staffed enough not to go after the Weisman's for another child without another complaint. I suspect strongly that this is the path my foster children's parents will take.
Think of it what you want. Think of me what you want. I am not a person of high moral standing in many people's eyes. I was a fence of stolen meat. I married outside my faith. I am not perfect, but I always supported my children, and would not let Kayla and Yitzi starve. I did what I could long before I went to the authorities. I did it only when I was angry enough. I don't think I did it as a last resort. Accuse me of having a hot head. Try doing what I did with a cool head.
And yes, I have the Weisman children living under my roof for Reunion. Yes, I like that. Yes, it feels great to know they are safe and I can keep them safe. And yes, Shimon and Leigh Weisman are deserving of pity in my eyes, only because they are beneath contempt. As I told the judge. I paid my bills. I paid my portion of my son's day school tuition. I bought him clothes, put fuel in the car. I was a responsible parent. Call me anything else you wish, but you can not deny that.
The Morning After
The morning after I called DFACS about the Weisman children, I awoke at three fifteen am. That is not unusual for me when I work deep inside the Interior. I have a long commute, and I like to eat breakfast at work. There are my boarders to look after young children so I don't have to wait for them to get up.
I was not the only one awake, which was oddly reassuring and utterly normal. Akiba was in the kitchen, video fantasy music playing softly on a cd box, and her hands immersed in yellowish dough which she weas kneeding. Akiba was always making bread. She made bread with spinach in it, bread with olives, bread with cheese, multigrain loaves, braided loaves, pumpernickel loaves, sourdough loaves. She worked the dough by hand on a board.
In summer she wore her nigh shirt which was sleeveless, revealing muscular, but skinny arms. Akiba's skin was pale and her hair, sandy brown and very curly. She had turned twenty some time in the spring. She needed to go back to college. She did not want to go back to her mentoring house for which she was too old. Besides they were sick of her.
"I thought we had bread," I asked Akiba. Bread baking for Akiba was a kind of useful compulsion. She earned her keep as my baker and my jack of all trades. Orphia was the lunch and dinner cook, and head steward. Ki used my house as a base of operations, ran errands, took messages, and was a kind of secretary who divided herself between what her Temple asked and what I asked which was fine. At eighteen, she was my youngest boarder, but you would have thought her the oldest.
"We do have bread. This is going to be kuchen," Akiba answered. Kuchen was yeast coffee cake. OK, Akiba was branching out. "Why are you making kuchen?" I was fool enough to ask. "Ms. Silverman gave birth three days ago, and they can use contributions. Orphia is making an extra pan of roast beets and an extra pan of stuffed eggplant. We're going to send Ki over to collect the containers."
"How did you find out about Mrs. Silverman?" I asked. I did not know, but I am gone most of the day. The boarders are around.
"Kayla Weisman plays with Kinneret Silverman." That made sense. That made too much sense. I wondered if the Silvermans would receive my baked goods. There were a few families that would not eat from my kitchen. Every community has its zealots. I did not think the Silverman were that particular.
Akiba did not ask me if I wanted breakfast. She knew I'd say "no." Orphia had all ready packed my lunch and washed out my thermos and drinking cup. I packed these in my backpack along with my tablet computer, a nice collection of used parts that held my grading spread sheets and a few dictionaries of assorted Portuguese and Spanish dialects, and two e-books on indigenous parallel earth creoles and pidgins, which were insulting names for a language when you thought about it. The Native Tongue people could be wonderful.
I left the house on foot and traveled one short block down Druid Hills Road to the yawning entrance of the New Mall. It was not new. Just the entrance and maybe the stores within a football field of its entrance were new or remade to please local tastes. I passed a Judaica shop and a kosher butcher who sold mostly canned ethnic treats since kosher meat was rare as hens' teeth in the Interior.
I walked down a long hall and around a corner. The triple escalators and absence of windows were the first indication that this was no ordinary mall, and that one was in Moqui not Atlanta. That I walked from one parallel world to another inside a rather banal looking retail building was something I always remembered, as I got on the downward triple escalator. The escalator went up, I was not sure how many floors. The downward escalators went down eight stories. I only had to go down six.
A sign marked the way to the subway or Underground Transit System as it was called here. The stores were also different. There was one advertising everything for the Working Man, hard hats, jeans so stiff I could not imagine any one wearing them, big boots, an assortment of tools with bright plastic handles that made them look like toys.
Another shop sold assorted scrub shirts and draw string pants, almost like medical uniforms. This was the clothing of many of the more pragmatic priests and workers whose trades were too light for the board-stiff jeans. I wore long skirts to work, and there were better places to obtain scrub shirts, places that let you pick a custom pattern and choose from twenty-five templates. I had a whole wardrobe of those shirts, since I was not expected to wear a uniform.
The subway looked dirty and tired, but the train cars themselves were clean. By Level Minus Six, shop keepers and very visible security (Since this was close to the Outside), came out to give me the once over. They did not greet me. They stared. The skirt and backpack and my sandals and hose were a tip-off that I was an Outsider as they called it here.
Once on board the train, the atmosphere became less suspicious. By the time I changed trains in the central station, changed from an underground tram to a "real train," no one gave me a second glance. It was nine stops to The Crossing or Le Cruz as the neighborhood was variously known. Laugh if you want. It's ironic.
I walked eight blocks to the high granite walls faceless as those of a jail. I knew the small side opening and swiped at the red door with my card. I climbed the back stairs and pushed open a door into a blind tunnel that led into the central courtyard. At 5:30am Eastern time the sun was not up, but the courtyard was full of students, acolytes, and combinations thereof, with a few more senior priests and some lay worshippers who had come at dawn or who had been around all night on some private vigil.
The students were wide awake and boisterous, almost rowdy. They stood in groups chit chatting in their native tongue. After several weeks of courtyard mornings, I understood most of what they said, though I would have had trouble imitating it. Most of the students understood Luso Portuguese or fairly standard Spanish or French. English was harder.
Many of my students were as diverse from eachother as I was different from them. About a quarter of them, both male and female preferred to go topless. They hung their shirts over their shoulders like scarves or tied them around their wastes as belts. Yes, they were "wearing" their shirts. No, they were NOT immodest. Back home, women and men only covered their fig leaf.
Of course when the students entered the dining hall, they would have to put the shirts on. The same was true of the classroom. The Priests said it was a matter of decorum. In the courtyard, though, they were on their own time.
The morning after I called DFACS about the Weisman children, Rejane sauntered up to me. She was about my own height, well built, and probably as old as Orphia who was twenty-two or twenty-three. She had golden brown skin, straight black hair that was almost blue, and high cheekbones. She was nearly hairless beneath her arms and anywhere else accept her head. She had her shirt tied around her stomach which was still not flat. Her breasts were engorged as my own had been when I had Moses. She wore a sling in which slept a tiny baby.
"I did not expect you to be back. It's Reunion in ten days," I greeted my student. Rejane was an apprentice lay midwife who wanted to become a nurse midwife. The Wounded Crane order would train her, but first she had to be able to speak both standard Portuguese and English.
"Half my stuff is here, and it's the half I care about," Rejane replied. "I spoke to Ku-Raa and she said she'd send someone with me to get it all back up-river since I have my hands full." Rejane smiled showing asymetrical but healthy teeth.
"What's the baby's name?" I asked.
"She doesn't have a name yet," my student said. "She's a girl and my grandfather [Really father-in-law, but he was also a shahman with powers. Men in Rejane's society spent a lot of time getting stoned and having visions.] hasn't gotten around to naming her. Girl children often don't have names. I did not have one until I joined a clan. I was just Little Daughter."
"Is it possible for you to name the baby?" I asked. I did not like a child going nameless for more than a week. Even that had made me nervous which is why I filled out Alfred (now Moses') birth certificate in the hospital.
"Yes," Rejane smiled. "I'm going to do it. There's too many Little Daughters and Big Daughters back home, and there's something way too plain and ordinary about Midwife's Daughter." I waited for Rejane to ask me to suggest a name, but her face clouded.
"Actually my grandfather did have a dream when the baby was born. He dreamed of a little girl falling in the river and drowning. He said it was better not to name the child. He told me, he might dream something else up or maybe I would have a son."
"Bastard," I said before I could stop myself.
"It's not the end of the world," Rejane responded. "I'm going to name my daughter help her out."
"What are you going to call her?" I asked.
"I thought of naming her for a mermaid, Ariel, but that's not the real story. I've read it in translation, and in the real story she almost dies. Melusine is another mermaid name, but I don't want my daughter to have a tail."
"So what did you decide?" I asked.
"Jeanne D'Arc," replied Rejane. "She's a saint who wore armor and fought the British like a man when women didn't do those things. I figure if Jeanne D'Arc fell in the river, she'd know how to swim."
"You have a point," I replied. "She'll even have her very own Saint's Day."
"We can go downriver to celebrate," commented Rejane.
Just then the breakfast bell rang. I held Jeanne D'Arc while Rejane removed her sling and threw on her shirt, and then her sling. She took back the baby, who seemed utterly content in the way of a child on the tit.
There was no real line for breakfast. Students here did not form lines even at the hot counter. They fetched their food, left, and let the next person do the same. A tall boy handed me the basket of toasted mate tea bags. I was trying to wean myself of trimate before Reunion since the product is illegal in Atlanta.
"I'm stuck with mate too," sighed Rejane. "Been stuck with it for nine months. I watched my health. That's why my grandfather's dream makes me angry."
"I understand," I answered.
I got out my lunch bag and extracted an olive roll and unsweetened peanut butter, Orphia's idea of a good breakfast, and we had to use up the olive rolls. This was one of the last ones, but it was still fresh. No one asked why I brought my own food. They all knew my religion required it.
Class passed quickly and productively. If the students were going home in ten short days, they did not act like it. My class was their first ticket to their next ticket out. I was Madame Antonia the Teacher, not Dr. Mandel, but the students were more motivated than the section of undergrads I had beaten and prodded along when Alfred (now Moses) was a few months old. Like Rejane, I too had returned to public life within ten days of the birth and would have returned sooner, had my son not have to be turned.
Rejane must have had an uncomplicated birth. I envied her. I had planned to birth on a plastic stool. I had practiced the position which is really quite comfortable, but Alfred was in the wrong position.
Rejane's birth had been attended by a trained nurse midwifea at a "birthing house," a clinic down river a half hour from her village in a somewhat larger town. Before the birthing house, women went off in the jungle to birth alone, even if they were first time mothers. The "birthing house" was much better, Rejane explained, because some women labored for a long time, and it was very frightening. The midwife would sit and talk with them to pass the time, and there was a clean mat on the floor if a woman with a long labor needed to sleep between contractions. There was a stool for the actual birthing, and the place had screened windows to let in the fresh air for that outdoor feel minus the insects.
Rejane's labor had been nine hours start to finish which she considered too long, but which according to the nurse midwife who sat with her was quite normal, especially for a first time mother. Rejane had been glad for the mat and pillow. She said she had read her school books to amuse the midwife and they had even played cards. All this had made bearing the final pains and getting on the stool for the big push a lot easier.
Rejane was glad her baby looked beautiful. The midwife had called her Pretty Daughter. Rejane said that was not a proper name. Rejane came up with her daughter's name as she waited for her husband's brother to pick her up in a motor launch and take her back to her home village.
Thinking of Rejane made me think of Leigh Weisman who had finally birthed her eight child after three months bed rest at the start of the summer. I try not to think of Leigh. She is two years younger than I am. I wish I knew more about her, but she's someone hidden like one of those Pakistani women in purdah. The community in Toco Hills speaks highly of her, though that doesn't say much consdiering what they say about me. You always had to have the right credentials to eat Shabbos meals at the Weismans. The night I called DFACS was my first trip inside the Weisman residence.
Moses has been inside quite a few times, because Dov invited him to eat there, and after Abishag was running the show, he visited the house the family gave back to the bank nearly every weekend. Now both Dov and Moses are in the Interior, and both are placed.
Leigh is of course still a blank, but there she was with three of her children running around unfed except for a older sibling's stipend. Did she have dreams of her children drowning in the river or want to take away their names? The upper reaches of Brasyl's (spelling intentional) Amazonia are not that far from Toco Hills.
Afternoon classes were largely adults. I got to see Rejane conjugate verbs. She said she could study while Jeanne D'Arc slept. She said she did not know what pregnancy or baby brain was. It did not exist in her part of the world. A woman had to go back to work as soon as she was able and work until the baby was born. Rejane's work was going to school.
After my last class, I needed a cup of trimate even if I didn't want to bring the stuff home. I had a long train ride. I needed to pick up the exterior mail for the Portal Priests and Scholars' Union, and from the high Priest Nadine's office. My commute meant I always took a package of letters and small parcels went with me. I was faster than the official post.
I walked down to the refectory and filled my cup with hot water. My thermos full of mate was in the refridgerator waiting for me. Mate was my "train drink." Long days require lots of stimulant. I realized that what I really needed was time to think, relax, fight down the panic. I couldn't block out Shimon Weisman's face any longer. I had threatened him. I had carried out the threat, and now what? Kayla and Yitzi had been coming for lunch and dinner at my apartment nearly every day. Orphia reported it to me. I had tried not to think about what that meant, yet I knew. The threat had come so easily because I knew. If any thing I had acted too late and waited too long.
I had waited until I was angry so I would not have to think about it because I could not. I tried to make myself think about Leigh now and only got that infuriating blank, and there was Nadine, the High Priest of the Wounded Crane Temple International Center at The Crossing. Yes, that's her full title. She stood, all six feet of her looking down at me taking an unauthorized trimate break. Hey this stuff was good enough for Sigmund Freud though he sniffed a much purer form of the same chemicals.
I was late to Nadine's office and she wanted deference. Be careful, Nadine, I'm in no mood for deference. Part of me is still too angry to think straight. Part of me has to correct papers and teach. I'm saving the calm part of me for that, and if you come too close you'll get the angry part. Five minutes is trivial, Nadine, got that, trivial. Delivering the mail is extra. I'm here to teach. I've spent a whole day at it and will spend tonight in my "office" grading papers. True, it's a home office, but it is still my office.
"Would you like to talk to me?" Nadine began.
What a lovely way to begin chewing out a subordinate. You're supposed to take her in your office and close the door and then start with courtesies before you deliver the blow. Go for it. You're a great target.
"I just needed a break today. I'm sorry I didn't come up for the mail sooner." There, I know enough not to bite the hand that feeds me.
"Rejane and Ku-Raa said you looked awful. Is something going on back in Atlanta. I know Moses is doing quite well. Ki is satisfied and even the two bumbles whom you keep on staff are earning their keep."
My boarders were not bumbles. Akiba needed to figure out what to do with her life before going back to school, and Orphia was not cut out to be an Ed-Branch worker. She'd need to go to grad school, teach for a year or two, and run a house. Either that or she would become a female employee, and that meant working for the Priests most likely.
"Ku-Raa said you looked like you were hurting. I need to know because it could effect us here."
"It won't hurt you," I replied.
"It's gone to the top of your Company Branch's hierarchy in Atlanta,&quiot; Nadine handed me an comm mail printout. I read the dancing letters. They danced because I wanted them to squirm away. They were not going to cooperate though.
...At 2pm this afternoon, law enforcement along with DFACS, seized the four Weisman children who were not encouraged or placed, and put them in emergency foster care....They are not together. The two youngest are with a woman who succors a wet nurse. The oldest has been taken by the Priests. Yitzi is in Scottdale. I was able to get that much information, and though I've never had children, I know this is very wrong. There are also four older Weisman children returning for Reunion. Ed-Branch with help from Creative-Branch needs to take over foster care, at least for the children who are not infants, plus there is a child in Alaska who has a strong friendship with the oldest Weisman girl and who is in need of foster care until she can return to her creche in Highland Lakes, New Jersey.... That means these children need a branch foster home with a parent who has lived in one of our mentoring houses...Antonia Mandel is an ideal candidate because she is NOT a stranger to the older children or the younger ones....I would like to request her services on a long-term emergency basis....
"Hamida and I are of equal rank," Nadine explained. "I have to let you go. I don't want to lose you, but for the law to seize suckling infants, that is bad and if you can heal a bad situation like this, what choice have I? It's in our credo." Nadine sighed.
"They really did it," was all I could reply.
"Who really did what?" Nadine didn't realize how far gone I was.
"Dekalb County Family and Children's Services. They intervened. They took away the children. I'm the one who made the call. People are going to say horrible things about me."
"Why?" Nadine asked. "Those children were starving. I saw the law enforcement report appended to Kayla's profile. You did nothing wrong. That's why you're getting the children."
I laughed. "That's why my neighbors will hate me."
"I'll put in a request for Security then. You live close to a portal."
I laughed some more. I was just as bad as my neighbors. I had only called when my ego and pride went down on the line. I only called because Shimon had pissed me off, yet there I was.
"Leave the students' papers here," Nadine ordered. "Take everything that's yours. I want you back when Reunion is over if you can arrange care for Yitzi. That's short for Isaac isn't it?"
"Yitzakh," I answered. "Hebrew names are very popular in Toco Hills."
"You didn't give your son one. He told me you named him Alfred."
"Easy to pronounce, easy to spell, you can make a Hebrew name out of it. I was bringing him up in the religion, but he'd have to live in the world that speaks English. I even sent him to day school. His grandparents on my exhusband's side of the family paid for part of his tuition. I made him able to live in many worlds."
"You're a good mother, Antonia. You're going to be an excellent foster parent. I know you cling very deeply to your faith even if you married outside your..."
"We say faith, not clan. There were no clans in my world until August, or almost none."
"OK, people sometimes marry out. You met Corliss when you were both in graduate school. Reason enough, and I've seen the wedding picture. Very understandable. But what I guess I want to know, and it's a hard question so you don't have to answer it is, where are the caring orders among your Priests?"
Nadine is not a high priest for nothing. "People are very good at turning a blind eye. I'm as guilty as the next."
"You're not. You need to realize that. Ki reports back to me on how you run your household. Even your Branch must know. They are the ones to whom you really belong, though this is your clan. I'm going to loan you out to Hamida. Maybe I'll get you back. Maybe you'll figure out a way to help your priests start a caring order. I'm ready to cut you loose with my blessing if that's what you end up doing, understand? And in ten days, you're welcome back."
"How am I going to start a caring order when I have a four hour commute?" I asked.
"You will figure it out. Hamida saw it and I'd be a fool not to see it too. Right now you believe it was an evil impulse that forced you to make a phone call. You also believe you are powerless. I can't convince you that you're wrong on both counts, but you are. You're going to have to learn that."
Nadine got up. I got up too. "Stay and finish your tea," the High Priest commanded. "I'll send Luanna down with the mail. Let's talk again after Reunion."
By the time I finished my trimate, there was a bundle of letters and one small box addressed to someone with the last name, Crane, in Connecticut. I put the bundles in my backpack. I washed out my drinking cup and removed my thermos from the fridge. I left a note thanking Angel, the head steward for letting me eat breakfast with the kids. I never stayed to dinner.
I always had errands to run and an early sort of train to catch. Today was no different. At the supermarket, I picked up a three watermelon radishes for Orphia who had asked me to bring her some if I ran across them. The Portal Priests had two huge envelopes that weighed a ton. The Scholars Union office at the mall had a box of envelopes that were sealed.
I had a bulging backpack by the time I walked home under a darkening sky. I was hungry. I knew that normally, Orphia would have fed any children who came by for supper, but tonight wasn't ordinary. The curtains at my apartment in the Oakes were drawn. A DeKalb County Sherriff's Patrol car sat parked outside with a deputy in grey fatigues keeping guard. Someone had thrown a few eggs at my living room window. I was glad it wasn't a rock. Someone could have eaten those eggs, I reflexively thought.
The deputy made me show ID. He asked why I came home so late. I told him where I worked and then how long I had been awake. He apologized and watched me let myself in. "Orphia, I've got something for you!" I called out.
"It's been crazy, but Hamida thinks the neighboorhood will quiet down," Orphia explained.
"You are meeting with Hamida deLang tomorrow. She left a phone message," Ki reported. I started unpacking the mail. "I've got a night off from grading," I replied.
Akiba who sat watching a cartoon with earphones so as not to disturb the others, glanced up at me. This was her recreation time. She was pretending not to notice the chaos. I sat down in front of her, blocking the set.
She blinked. Then she removed her earphones. "The cops are still here," she complained.
"Thank God," I answered. "Akiba," I told her. "Tomorrow you commandeer a cart and go get moving boxes. We're moving to larger quarters. We are going to be fostering, seven children and Moses is coming to live with us for two weeks as well. After that, who knows what we'll do."
"You go back to work don't you?" asked the girl who seemed lost in her world of ear phones and cartoons and bread making.
"Probably for a while, but we're going to have a lot of space and....This neighborhood is a mess." I sighed and sat down next to my most lost soul of a boarder. She was not a bumble. She pulled her weight, but she, very much like me, was out of her mentoring house and lost in the wide world too soon. I'd turned to religion, dabbling in it freshman year, and returning to my Jewish roots as a sophomore. I am a bal tshuva whose jumped on and off the derech at least twice. Akiba was covered in arcane tattoos, in love with anime, and she'd quit school. She wasn't crazy. The world was.
"The whole EXPLETIVE DELETEDing world is a mess, and I'm too old to curse, but I don't care."
"I'm the one who's too old to curse, but I still do it," Orphia interrupted.
Then I remembered the watermelon radishes. I fished them out of my backpack and gave them to my fearless steward.
"I guess I'm going to have to start getting up at a decent hour in the morning," sighed Akiba. "I'm on day shift now."
The House of Dreams
"Please don't be afraid, Antonia," pleaded Nino, the Portal Priest. Nino told me when I met her that her rank was equivalent to that of an Ed-Branch Placement Specialist or a Scholars Union Local Rep, but not a Head Rep. Rank is important to those from the Interior.
I don't bite hands that feed me, and Nino's long fingered, well manicured, olive skinned hands which went with her long, blue-eyed, olive skinned face with a very long nose, and shiney, shaven head were about to stuff me, but first came the ride in the bubble car.
"I'll drive slowly. We won't cross any barriers," Nino tried to calm me. She wore a robe the color of watermelon flesh with white trim. It shimmered. Her legs were bare except for white sandals with barely visible bands like threads. I thought they were interesting shoes. I did not remember much of the Portal Priests from the days after my son and I were sentenced. I had more luxury to look over Nino as our bubble car rose over the street level traffic and skirted the tops of the trees.
There were not many people in Toco Hills to look up and see us, but a few were gathered outside the Oakes, keeping vigil, fended off by Sherrif's deputies and emerald green, skin tight, jumpsuited and helmeted security armed with very large weapons. One of the onlookers wore a streimel. I explained to Nino that the large hat was made of sable fur and that it might fade in the sun. The streimel wearer also had on black knickers, white trouser socks, and a black caftan or long suit jacket. His face was sweaty above his reddish brown beard. His eyes looked watery. I felt sorry for him in the heat. He said something ugly to me in Yiddish.
I stared at the streimel-wearer's entourage, younger rabbonim and a few mature hangers on, all bearded and in dark suits. There were also some teenage girls as well in long black jumpers with long-sleeved white shirts, opaque white tights, and shiney black oxfords. The temperature was pushing ninty fahrenheit. I smiled at the protesters, one of whom, a girl this time, called me a moser, which means informant in Hebrew.
I translated for Nino's benefit as she pulled the bubble car up close to the front window of my apartment. Someone had opened the curtains and cleaned the egg off the window which sparkled. I tried to remember when any of my crew had last cleaned a window. I did not employ them for meticulous housekeeping, but the clean window was an excellent sign.
Nino shrugged. "You realize," I told her "that the gentleman in the fur hat and knickers and some of his older friends probably shares your rank or outranks you."
"We don't recognize his order," Nino curtly replied. Then she turned to the crowd as she pulled back the bubble car's hood. She stepped between the car and the crowd. We still had our security personel between the crowd and us. They were the reason Ki, Orphia, or Akiba had been able to the window this morning.
"You want us to practice avodah zarah," cried a tall girl in a black jumper. Avodah zarah meant idol worship, which was a crass insult. Polytheists worshipped multiple deities or aspects of a single god. Either way they did not worship inanimate objects. Nobody did that unless they were deluded.
"That's a lie," responded Nino. "We never ask any one to follow a specific creed. We ask that you run your clans competently, care for all you accept, and let other clans care for those you don't take as members. It is that simple."
"Nobody wants you here," a man with a black fedora, black suit, and grey beard stated.
"You don't get a choice," Nino retorted. " Your choice is run your clans competently or face the consequences." Nino done laying down the law stepped past our security. I saw three ghostly faces appear at the window. The girls in jumpers tittered among themselves. I knew what they wanted to see. I did not think they were going to see it.
I stood by Nino's bubble car. I did not want to desert this foolish Priest. Desperate people commit violence. Nino was today's easy target. I waited for one of the streimel-wearer's entourage to slug Nino. Instead, she approached the wearer of the streimel himself. "Excuse me," she said. "I need a rabbi to supervise the kashering of a kitchen this afternoon. Are you available?"
"Why do you want a kosher kitchen?" streimel wearer tried to avoid Nino's eyes as he answered.
"I don't, but Antonia Mandel keeps kosher. We're moving her to new quarters, and I am sure the kitchen there is not consecrated."
"Where is the house?" streimel-wearer asked.
"1278 Christmas Lane."
"That was Rabbi Nochum's house," said a man with a blond beard that divided into two forks.
"Until he moved out and the landlord rented it to college students," Nino stated. "Then the landlord gave the house back to the Company who gave it to us."
"We will not let you move into this neighborhood!" streimel-wearer informed Nino.
"That's not your decision," Nino responded. "And it will be Antonia Mandel who will live there."
Streimel-wearer turned to me. "Why?" he asked me.
I was darned if I was going to tell him. "You'll find out soon enough," I found the words. I went inside and got Ki, Orphia, and Akiba. Akiba had on only shorts and a tank top. Several of the girls put their hands to their mouths as my most lost soul emerged. Orphia followed dressed in leggings and a big t-shirt. She grinned and waved. Ki was in uniform this morning. She dropped to her knees and made obeisance before the rabbis even though they officially had no rank. As a child of the Interior, she was utterly sensitive to the dignity and status of Priests of any faith and never lost her good manners.
One of the men spat at Ki and called her a filthy idol worshipper. I translated for Ki's benefit, and told him that he had left his manners at home. "Ask him if he knows the story of the Wounded Crane," Ki asked.
"I don't want to know it," spitter answered. "I've got something better for this crowd," announced Akiba. "OK, ladies and gentlemen, fresh and rotting fruits and vegetables vegetating and cooking in the Hot 'Lanta sun. We all know what you came to see. You've heard about it in rumor and inuendo, now feast your eyes. Of course it's really nothing special. Yes, it hurt. Yes, any licensed body art parlor will do the same work on your flesh if you so desire it. You get to pick the designs and where they go, and no you won't see the ones on my breasts and buttocks. This is strictly an educational exhibition. A one and a two and a three...."
Two of the entourage covered their eyes. One girl looked away, but the rest stared as Orphia sung the strip-tese burlesque tune and Akiba did an impromptu strut. Akiba then slowly rolled up her tank top to just below her breasts. One of the Sheriff's deputies whistled. Akiba adored anime monsters. There was a mummy, a cyclopse, a dragon, and a tricerotop on her back and belly. They were dark, strong, assertive tattoos. A camisole beneath a blouse, or a reasonably thick knit shirt hid them when she dressed up.
Akiba smoothed down her shirt. "Come on," Nino urged her along with Orphia, Ki, and me. "The show's over. We have work to do."
Nino of course asked Akiba about her tattoos. My lost soul said she treated herself to body art on special occasions, birthdays, finishing finals. She had started four years ago when she was almost sixteen. She liked the monsters because of their strength, and the fact that people considered them nonpeople yet the monsters kept fighting and never gave up.
"Excellent story," Nino answered. "There are temples for those creatures you know. You sound like a first class devotee."
"I'm not ready to worship them," Akiba confessed. "I'm Jewish. The monsters are just ideas."
"Do you believe that you draw your strength from just ideas?" Nino was relentless.
"Yes," Akiba shut down the argument. I was not sure if this was the proper answer, the answer she felt pressured to make in Toco Hills, or a real answer. In a way it didn't matter.
Nino landed the bubble car in front of the former parsonage. The place was in disrepair. binders of kitchen appliances and furniture as well as swaths of counter chips sat in the center of the living room, along with a fairly new-looking tablet computer that was probably no more powerful than my bucket of bolts. All rennovations would be done by stick which meant that within twenty-four hours this place would not only look better. It would be mine. It would also be the first house in which I had ever lived and the most luxurious place I had ever lived. Still I demanded to keep most of my old furniture, and suggested a trip to the bone yard for items such as book shelves, bed frames (The mattresses and box springs would be brand new), chests of drawers, and desks for offices and bedrooms. Nino talked me into ordering a new couch and chairs as well as a dining room set. We would put the old couch in the office/study/playroom.
Of course what really intrested me were the walls and the outside trim which needed a paint job. I wanted to change color from the tan that blended in with the tan faux stone facade, but what color would do? I asked Orphia. She said she wanted to paint the trim on the tan stone house the color of the flesh of a santa rose plum. She matched the right paint chip with unerring eyes. I found a wallpaper for the kitchen that showed whole and halved prune plums, some with stones and some without. Yitzi loved all sorts of plums, so this made sense.
From the kitchen wall paper, I could match a blue-grey counter and blue wood cabinets. Our living room would have cheerful teal walls walls, pale teal trim, darker teal couch, striped chairs in teal, burgundy, and burnt orange, and a large occasional table. There would be a large dining room set with burgundy painted chairs and a blue, green, and burgundy, spherical chandelier that looked like it was covered in patches of translucent paper. I also ordered striped throws for the living room furniture that matched the chairs, since our living room was going to take a beating, and a sea grass throw rug with dark teal and burgundy trim for the living room floor.
Next, I commissioned my crew who were also my boarders to order art for the walls, and forbade them to purchase nudes or graphic comic book images of violence. I ended up with some very interesting art for the hallways that way. Who knew an eggplant could look that sexy. The main bathroom wall paper was jungle green and the bathroom plumbing also a nice shade of jade green. The other bathroom had gold and black bamboo wall paper and black plumbing. Both bath tubs featured hot water massage and massaging shower heads. Why not...
Last but not least, I had my crew each order five different sets of cotton or flanel sheets for the beds all twin size. This meant two sets of sheets per bed with each child choosing one matching set. If each set were a different color, it would be easy to keep all its pieces together. I also my aides order an assortment of blankets. The children would choose their own bedspreads and/or duvets at a later date.
That said, the job was done, but not done. Nino sent for several laborers to help my assistants gather and pack boxes. We were to begin moving once. I wanted all my sticks of furniture, all my books, and even all perishable and nonperishable food to make the trip to our new quarters.
And somewhere in the middle of all this chaos came the blessing, as Nino called it. Streimel-wearer came by the house as laborers unloaded the first vanload of my goods I kept all food, pots, and pans out of the kitchen. It was our new kitchen, slate blue counters, blue cabinets, and ochre wallpaper on which prune plums danced. I thought of Yitzi eating a plate of fruit that Akiba or Orphia served him. I hadn't seen it but my imagination filled in the details. Streimel-wearer examined the cupboards. He was checking for hidden treif. Next he recited a blessing to drive out evil spirits. Then we kashered the kitchen together, running the oven on self clean, heating the burners to glowing red etc... All the while, streimel-wearer said nothing.
It was only as we began unpacking the dishes that I asked his name. He said it was Manasseh Goldberg. I thought that might be a joke, since the name, Manasseh, means to forget. I asked him for a business card, and he had one written in both Hebrew and English. There was a quote about having your right hand wither if you forget Jerusalem on it. The card made me sad.
"You have been very helpful this afternoon Rabbi Goldberg," I told him. "It's no problem," he replied nonchalantly. "Some day you're going to come back to the derech," he told me. "It has a strong pull on you. I can see it."
"Right now my job is tikkun olam," I told the rabbi. Tikkun olam is Hebrew for fixing the world.
"How can you say that?" Rabbi Goldberg asked.
"I'm becoming a foster mother for Reunion and after," I replied.
"This house is in Jewish hands again," mused Rabbi Goldberg, then he noticed Nino. He gave her an ugly stare. She stared right back. Rabbi Goldberg left. We unpacked the pots and pans, the plates, and I left Ki and Akiba to the food. I recruited Orphia.
"Your Reverence," I addressed Nino. "Can I oblige you to take me on an errand?" Nino did not mind taking us by bubble car to the New Mall. It was not hard to find the monster flower market four escalator flights up. Orphia had been there before and I let her go hogwild choosing her favorite colors and blooms including anthuria the color of dried blood, magenta hydrangia, and raspberry sunflowers among others. She brought these home to 1278 Christmas, and in the middle of the newly consecreated table, trimmed and arranged the blooms into a huge bouquet. She unpacked one of our vases and added water.
While Orphia cleaned up her mess, Nino and I made a delivery. I had Rabbi Goldberg's address on his card. He was in Calibre woods in a three bedroom with five children, a harried, wife, and one baby. He ate soup at a table while the wife chased a toddler. I introduced Nino to the rebbitzen, and then I gave Rabbi Goldberg my thanks and the huge flower arrangement. His wife, who was colorless with a round face, and who was also probably younger than me stood baffled and then transfixed.
"Thankyou for the gift. I didn't expect this," sighed Rabbi Goldberg. "You deserve it."
"I also want to thank you," added Nino, " if that is not too impertinent on my part. If the priests, I mean the rabbis in this neighborhood behaved like you, perhaps we could recognize your order and we would not have to intervene."
Rabbi Goldberg said nothing. We took our leave. "It gets harder from here, you know," Nino told me.
"They'll probably all follow me here. What happened to the Weismans is big news even though everybody pretended not to see it coming," I explained.
"No," answered Nino. "Your next job once the beds are in place and the kitchen is set up is for you to go and fetch Yitzi from Scottdale. He is not happy there from what I have heard. You may also want to visit Kayla and the two younger children. Once you pick up Yitzi, I'm going to tell the Scholars Union in Fairbanks to send Ellen Charlotte Savina to the stickport, and you're going to pick her up. This is all going to happen in forty-eight hours. Are you ready?"
I did not answer. Instead I thought of Orphia arranging flowers. I thought of Akiba doing burlesque outside the Oakes, and then I thought of Rejane with her baby whom she had named Jeanne D'Arc to save her from the river and a tactless prophesy. It was Rejane who held out the lesson. "When the time comes, I am ready," I told Nino. "What choice do I have?"
Who is Abishag Intaronto?
Forty-eight hours stretched out like an eternity. I asked Nino for fuel chits. Altnata is an ethanol only city, and even ethanol made from cellulose is expensive. Ethanol in this part of the United States is made mainly from cottonseeds and cotton waste.
I drove toward Scottdale while my two right hand women, Akiba and Orphia, set up the beds, peeled papaya, something Orphia said was a must, and pushed the boxes around enough to make the rest of the house barely functional.
Clouds gathered as I drove into Decatur and up North Decatur where Decatur turned into what was long ago a little rural town now swallowed up by the city. The houses were still one story. Many of them were shot-gun style bungaloes. Some were shot-gun style bungaloes with additions on the side or an extra story. The house where Yitzi had spent two nights was one of this last group. It was painted unimaginitive white and looked almost grey. The lawn was worn down from small feet and lack of watering. Water could be scarce in the summer in Atlanta, and watering bans in DeKalb County were common. Growing where the grass would not sprout and even weeds avoided the ground were bits and pieces of intact and broken plastic toys in colors brighter than most flowers.
I passed through this garden and knocked on the screen porch door. An inside door opened and a broad shouldered, African American woman, with olive skin and straightened wiry, jet black hair, let me in. The screen porch had a plastic slide on it and several folding chairs pushed together to make a fort that was now abandoned.
"This place looks crazy sometimes," my guide explained, "but that's the way it is when you got kids."
"How many kids do you have here?" I asked. "Four right now, but it'll be three soon since your taking Yitzy. I'm getting three to four more for Reunion. That's when this house really gets turned upside down, but kids have energy. As long as their letting it out in a positive way, I'm not going to stop 'em."
I had only had one child and his friends as guests, but that is not the same as having custody of an entire brood. Soon I would have eight, each of whom would arrive wit a lot of baggage. We entered the kitchen. The sink was free of dishes, the drainer was full, the dish washer waiting for a load, and a few crumbs made their home on the table near a jar of peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly, and a pan of what I recognized as corn bread that never made it to be put away. Next to these, was a bowl of peaches, nectarines, and two kinds of plums.
The foster mother who introduced herself as Gwenna, lifted a plastic bag out of a bread bag stuffed with used plastic bags, and began emptying the fruit bowl into supermarket bags. "Yitzy is the only one who eats this fruit so I'm going to send it with him. It's about the only thing he eats....At least he's eating."
"Where is Yitzi?" I asked.
"In the play room. At least he can keep himself occupied, and he's totally trained. Sometimes boys that young start going in their pants after DFACS takes 'em, not Yitzy."
Gwenna continued to load fruit. "Does he...hit the target or spray it all around?" I asked.
"Hits the target," Gwenna answered. "He even tried to teach Martin to go standing up. It was real funny 'Don't go on the seat,' he said. 'You can't ever pee on the seat. It's against the rules. It makes the ladies very mad at you.'" Anywhere else I would have laughed, but the laughter ended up as a lump on my throat, and I did not want to cry. I sat down. My head spun.
"'And when you're done, you gotta lift the seat. Always lift the seat or the ladies will have no place to go and they'll hate you?' Who taught him that?" I said I did not know. "He wanted to be a big boy very badly, and that's a big part of it." "It is indeed," answered Gwenna. She loaded the last of the fruit. There were three grocery bags full.
"Did he eat any?" I asked. "Four pieces in two days. That's a lot for a little kid. He really likes his fruit. He kept asking me for a fruit plate."
"He learned that from Orphia. She's one of my boarders. She fixed him that for lunch or supper." "It's healthy. I'll say that much." Gwenna sighed. "I'd give him every fruit in the world if..." Gwenna looked down. She too did not want to cry. "You understand what happens when kids get in the system. And just because a boy can pee in the toilet and asks for a fruit plate doesn't make him all right. You understand?"
I stared at the table. The part of me that had wanted to cry now wanted to scream: "Where is he!" I stayed silent. "Come on. I'll let him know you're here. Let's leave the fruits in the kitchen. Does he know you?" asked Gwenna.
"He knows my boarders better. I've been working in the Interior and it was a long commute."
Gwenna pushed open the play room door. I forced myself to rise and follow her. There were two boys and two girls scattered among piles of battered toys and games. A girl and a boy played a board game arguing over the rules. Another girl was trying to color at a play table. Yitzi was playing with a plastic comm phone and having a loud conversation:
"Hello Abishag in Toronto," he began. "I miss you so much. How are you? I'm not so fine. I'm in foster care. I miss you. I miss Kayla. I miss Imma and Abba, but not that much. I'm scaird about the baby. Imma was nursing her. Now she's got nothing to eat.
"Abishag can you come and get me? Yes, I know it's far away. I know it's cold. Please come and get me...Oh...OK....Goodbye." Yitzi smiled. He stared past Gwenna and slowly realized I was there. "Missus Mandel," he said. Then he walked toward me. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm going to be your foster mother," I said. "You were just staying with Gwenna until the Priests could get you a place with people you knew."
"What about Kayla!" Yitzi did not miss a trick.
"She'll be joining us at Reunion in eight days. She's in the creche off of Ponce. We'll be able to visit her before she comes to stay. Does that sound good? She asked to stay in Atlanta because she was thinking about all her brothers and sisters." Yitzi did not reply.
Instead he showed me the plastic cell phone. "I can talk to Abishag with this!"
"I'm glad you can talk to Abishag," I told the little boy who was going to be my foster son. "It's very good to talk to friends you miss, but how would you like to talk to Abishag on a real phone instead of a toy phone?"
Gwenna grunted and shook her head. Yitzi rocked on his heels. "I know people who know Abishag. They'll know where she is and give me her number. We'll be able to call her on a real phone and you can talk to her....probably tonight or tomorrow evening." There, I was speaking the truth. I hoped Yitzi could hear my absolute sincerity. Still Gwenna let Yitzi keep his toy phone as well as a white plastic bag with mostly white shirts and two pairs of blue jeans. The polo shirts in handsome tertiary hues that Abishag had bought Yitzi had vanished, yet nobody had cut his hair. it had grown long enough that it stayed out of his eyes if parted. I had never had the patience to grow out a small boy's bangs.
I had put the child seat in the front so Yitzi and I could talk and bond on the trip to Atlanta's intown district. Let the police come after me. "Want to see me calll Abishag?" Yitzi asked. "As long as you don't do it when you're talking to Kayla." Yitzi squeezed his toy comm phone with both hands.
"We're going to find out when we can see Kayla. She has activities at the Creche, so she's not always home. The grownups who run the Creche are going to know when she can see visitors. Then you can go and see her."
Yitzi did not answer. He stared straight ahead. "Too much too fast," I thought, but things were really happening way too slowly. My legs felt like rubber when I got out of the car in front of the Ed Branch dorm house. This was not the Creche I explained. Kayla was probably out with her age group doing activities so there was no point in going to the Creche to see her if she wasn't there, I explained.
"Doesn't she miss me?" Yitzi asked. I could see he was starting to cry. "She misses you, but she has to do things during the day, just like you don't sit around all day crying."
"I cry at night," Yitzi told me. "The sheets smelled bad at Gwenna's."
I was not sure I believed that. "You know Yitzi," I told my foster son. "It's perfectly normal to be homesick."
Yitzi did not reply. I unstrapped him. I told him he could come in with me and he could even bring his cell phone. I wanted him to see I meant business. Yitzi had a right to distrust every adult in the world given what had happened to him in the last few days.
We passed through the downstairs foyer and up to the second floor where the offices were. An intern, an unlucky intern with tan skin and straight black hair acted as sentry and receptionist. She looked us over. Small children were a novelty in the Dorm House. The sentry asked if I was an alum. I told her that I indeed was and then I asked if I could speak to Hamida deLang or one of her assistants. I was trying to track down Kayla Weisman's Placement Specialist.
"Why do you need to find Kayla Weisman's Placement Specialist?" asked the sentry/receptionist. "I am going to be Kayla's foster mother during her Reunions, and this is Kayla's younger brother Yitzi. DFACS seized him for parental neglect and threat of physical abuse two days ago. He'd like to see his sister and I'm sure she'd like to see him." I handed the sentry the papers showing my approval as a branch foster parent. Ed Branch was my branch, so this carried weight.
The sentry/recptionsit whistled softly. She took the paper and headed through a small door that led to the inner sanctum where ordinary mortals were not allowed. She emerged a moment later with a long faced woman with pale skin and black braids, a kind of reformed Orphia who looked a lot like Nadine the High Priest at the Wounded Crane International Center at the Crossing. Maybe it's a look that all officials get. Maybe it comes from power.
"Good afternoon Ms. Mandel." The official laid on the honorific with her fingertips. I explained that I was looking for a good time for Yitzi to see his sister Kayla.
"You don't need a Placement Specialist for that, but I think it would be good if you did meet with Athalie. She's Kayla's Specialist. You can do that when you bring the little boy for a visit.
"When can I see Kayla!" Yitzi blurted out.
"I'm getting to that." The official clearly did not like to be rushed. "You need to go the Creche. On the first floor is an office with schedules. People come and go all day. If any one asks your business, show them your papers. Kayla is in the First-Second-Thirds. That's the group for younger kids or those who haven't had many takings. They have all the schedules up on the wall. You'll see when she has downtime and can visit her then."
What could I say but Thank you. Yitzi looked tired. He didn't like the administrator. He said she was mean. "Yitzi," I tried to explain. "Some administrators are our friends. That lady was very good to us. She just helped you see your sister. Are you up for a walk?"
Yitzi shrugged. He tucked his cell phone under his arm. He had spent the whole summer free ranging with Kayla and had walked the six, good size blocks between the Oakes and Publix to obtain food and then walked six blocks back. The Creche was closer than that. It was on a side street in what had once been a large apartment complex, now retrofitted as an even larger dormitory, complete with a dining hall on the first floor.
I could smell the beginnings of something being boiled for dinner. I suspected the food here was probably decent even if it was scholar house food. I tried to listen for the squabbly talk of the interns assigned to cooking. It came through as a soft buzz. The office was not hard to find. I pushed open a door that said "Kids keep out!" on a posterboard. The sign was carefully lettered in orange paint.
I was glad that Yitzi could not read. I pushed open the door. Several women and one man sat around a table with piles of paperwork on it, and a fan adding to the heat of the stifling former living room of a converted apartment.
"Can I help you," asked a woman with feathered, impossibly blond short hair and a bronzed tan.
I handed the stranger Kayla's paperwork. The woman gasped. "OK, I can help you." She forced a smile and led me to the wall. "Here is where we keep the master schedules. We don't have them on computer because there's no point in making a print off. These things change at a moment's notice, usually due to bad weather. Sometimes due to sickness. "
"Kids get sick here?" Yitzi's eyes widened as he asked.
"It happens all the time," sighed the blonde woman. "It's just like a school. One kid sneezes and the whole building gets a cold. We have an infirmary upstairs for the really bad cases. Everyone else we treat or take to the doctor."
The blonde woman turned her attention back to me. "OK, you want to find Kayla. Here she is." Blondie pointed to one of the white boards over which the words First-Second-Thirds -- Swallotails were written along with a picture of a dark brown butterfly taped to the board. "That's her group. We have a lot of First-Second-Thirds, so we split them into groups of about a dozen. Her placement specialist is Athalie Stonecrock."
I stared at the schedule that showed various activities. There were usually two going on at once, a swimming lesson and a lesson in basic computer skills, and the inevitable blocks of time for testing and something called "Material Need." The day ran until ten pm for the little kids and started again with breakfast at 7:15am. None of this surprised me. I remembered sleeping for days after my first takings and for a week after Nationals. Busy kids were less homesick and unhappy. I scanned the schedule for downtime. There were two hours of free recreation from 8pm to 10pm every night except the weekends.
"How do I make an appointment with Athalie to see my daughter, I mean Kayla?"
"When do you want to meet?"
"This evening during free recreation."
"OK, I'll let Athalie know you are coming by."
"Can you let Kayla know as well?" I begged.
"Athalie will probably let her know."
"Thank you very much," I answered. I walked Yitzi outside. He looked spent. The sky was cloudy. The first drops of rain fell before we reached my car. "Missus Mandel," Yitzi asked me. Yes, he called me that. "Why are you smiling?"
"Because you're going to get to see your sister a bit after eight o'clock tonight," I replied "And you're going to visit her regularly. How's that?"
Yitzi took the cell phone on his lap and put it to his ear. "Hello Abishag...I'm going to get to see Kayla. Missus Mandel is taking me. She's in a big building downtown. They're keeping her there and won't let her out. Missus Mandel didn't even try to get her out. She just smiled. She thinks it's fine." Yitzi ran out of imaginary conversation. He let the toy cell phone rest in his lap. His face was flushed and twitching, a prelude to tears. I decided to watch the road. At least my foster son did not notice that I was not heading directly back to Toco Hills.
Big Girls for Now
By the time we reached the Atlanta Stick Transport Center, Yitzi was in the midst of a full-blown meltdown, though not a tantrum. He was just crying, not screaming. I pretended not to listen. There was traffic, and I needed to make sure I made the right entrance to the guest parking area and did not get us into an accident. Besides, Yitzi was just tired, overloaded, etc... and there was not much I was going to be able to do about it.
One thing I COULD NOT do was leave him in the car. He was too young. Had he been asleep I might have tried it, but Yitzi was wide awake and sobbing noisily. I undid the straps on the booster seat. "Take your phone into the Stick Port," I said. Yitzi looked up at me. He stared through red eyes a long time. He blinked back more tears and stared some more. "Yitzi," I told my foster son. "We need to pick up Ellen. She's a friend of your sister's. She's going to be living with us."
"She's not my friend!" Yitzi snarled.
"Of course not," I tried to smile and was sure I failed miserably. "You don't know her yet. How can she be your friend if you never met her?"
Yitzi rubbed his eyes with the balled fist of his free hand. Then he wiped his runny nose for good measure. I had gotten through. Yitzi could not yet read or write, but at least he was verbal. I took Yitzi by the arm since he refused to take my hand and escorted him across the parking lot. When the escort turned into a drag, I turned to him.
"You either walk or I'm carrying you!" I laid down the law. I waited. Yitzi had strong legs. He picked up the pace and switchd to holding my hand. By the time we entered the Stick Port arrivals area, Yitzi was no longer crying. He instead was having a conversation on his cell phone. "Missus Mandel is bringing a strange kid into the house. I'm supposed to like her, but I never met her. I'm going to hate her. I'm going to beat her up...."
"Oh shit," I thought. Then I realized I had to find Ellen Charlotte Savina who had come by herself all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska where Ed-Branch San Francisco maintained a small creche. There was no room for her. They did not want a bereaved Inuit kid, whose history was with Ed-Branch Atlanta and Highland Lakes, and who had a fifteen year old mentor who could have been her sister, a first born lonely for the siblings for whom she could not care.
Sending Ellen to Atlanta and to me was on one level a very sensible move. Stick transport meant that a six hour flight with a change of aeroplanes was now thirty minutes if one counted procssing at each end, but of course it left a seven year old who might not be in her right mind wandering around one the United States' busiest stick ports, and it left me with the task of finding her.
I glanced at the baggage retrieval tables. I did not see any younger children. I did not see what might have been a little girl's duffle or suitcase either. "One down," I thought "or else I don't know what I'm doing." Ed-Branch kids usually have some cash. Perhaps Ellen went to buy a snack, just to prove she could. I walked toward the snack stands which were near the entry point where the tunnel from the stick transport landing area attached to the main hall. This was where passengers actually came out.
I saw no kids buying snacks except two blonde cherubs with a plump, frazzled mother who held each child firmly by the hands until small wrists turned red. All ready being taken I no longer had these worries. As a taken parent of a taken son, I was on the inside looking out. I felt relieved.
I held up my sign and looked around. Yitzi was at least not begging for food. Instead he had a new cell phone conversation going: "It's very scarey here. I don't want to get on a stick and go far away..." "How about Israel?" I asked Yitzi. "Even Israel," the boy confessed not minding a third party horning in on his and Abishag's imagined conversations.
There were kids standing near where the tunnel disgorged, three of them. The first was a boy close to adolescence. He looked bored. The second was a girl who stared at the ground, her face hidden by ash brown hair, but her posture giving off waves of sullenness that was perfectly reasonable in a child left to wait in a place where there was nothing to do. The third child stood against the wall as if she had grown out of the bio-vinyl covered concrete. She carried a homespun shoulder bag that was slightly too large for her and wore a dirty white t-shirt, grimey blue jeans that had been cuffed rather than shortened, and sneakers that were more holes and stains than decent canvas. She wore no socks. She stood beside a small, newish looking, navy blue backpack with white straps and trim. Her hair was jet black and parted in the mniddle. It was such a dark black, it had blue highlights. Her eyes were jet black to match the hair and her skin a golden tan with a faint reddish glow. She had high cheekbones, a flat nose, and a mouth wearing a calm expression. Though she wore a wrist watch with a blue denim band, she did not constantly look at it in irritation.
When she noticed my sign she picked up her small backpack by one of its straps and walked toward me. She was in no hurry. "Are you Ms. Mandel?" she asked.
"I indeed am," I gave Ellen a more genuine smile than I gave Yitzi. "Welcome to Atlanta."
"Thank you very much," The girl replied.
"Do you have more luggage?" I inquired.
Ellen shook her head.
"Are they shipping your things behind you?" I asked.
"These are all my things," Ellen informed me, giving the backpack a shake for emphasis. Then I caught a whiff of Ellen. She did not really stink, not in the way of a kid who is dirty, but she smelled not exactly of fish or fine ocean air, but of something similar but ranker, meatier. I tried to get closer to parse out the smell, but all my brain said was that it was new, weird, and not particularly pleasant.
I wondered how I could cajole Ellen into taking a bath. I wondered how long it had been since she had bathed. I craked open the car window. The rain felt like it was trying to start again. Ellen stared into the greyness of early evening. I had two hours to get Yitzi fed and get us down to the Creche to see Kayla. That came first. Ellen could stink for most of the evening or into tomorrow morning if she fell asleep. She was here in one piece. That is what mattered.
"Can I have what I want for supper?" Ellen asked me. I thought that a rude question.
"You can have what you want from among what we serve," I was getting very tired of being reasonable. At least no one was crying. I pulled into the parsonage driveway.
Orphia had papaya cut up and other fruit sliced for fruit plates. She also had Holland Rusks, New York Ed-Branch's sovereign cure for stick sickness. There was honey and prune butter on the table, and sunflower butter and woven wheats. Yitzi's fruit plate with crackers and sunflower butter was ready to go. He had to get his protein somewhere.
"Oh rusks!" Ellen exclaimed. I felt relieved though I was not sure why. "What's that?" Ellen asked about the prune butter. Orphia handled the explanations. Ellen squinted and said something in a language we did not understand. Then she went to her backpack and got out a notebook and wrote something down.
"What the...." commented Akiba.
"I want to know the Inupiat word for prune butter. I'm bi-lingual."
Well that explained it. "Is there an Inupiat word for prune butter?" I asked.
"There's going to have to be one," Ellen replied.
"Would you like to try some?" asked Orphia.
"Yes please. One of the good things about the lower forty-eight is the food. They have all kinds of fruits and vegetables and thousands of dishes. We don't have that back in Alaska. When I was in Fairbanks, they were afraid I'd get sick because I'd eaten a lot of seal all summer. My family are very good hunters. We got seal, muskox, caribou, but mostly seal. Seal is the best. We sold some of it. It can get up to fourteen dollars a pound in Fairbanks. In Barrow it gets twelve dollars a pound. People will sell their souls for seal, and I was eating it most nights of the week.
"Well the San Francisco people and the Bee-Eye-Aye, were all afraid I'd get sick because I'd eaten so much seal. They went and got seal for me and gave it to me, just the meaty part, no kidney or tongue or brains." Akiba rolled her eyes. "And no fat either. I missed the fat.
"You can mix seal fat with berries and eat it like ice cream. It's better if you have some sugar though. But Fairbanks is a city, and now that I was in a city, I wanted to eat other things. They wouldn't let me. They said it might make me sick. When I went to the creche in Highland Lakes I could eat what I pleased. Of course I wasn't eating as much seal then."
I glanced at the seven year old happily slathering prune butter on her rusk and then taking a big cheerful bite. The last thing I needed was a sick kid. "Timeout!" I announced. "I'm going to show you where the bathroom is. If you have any issues, do your business in the toilet. If you can't reach the toilet, get a waste basket or run to a sink. We have Diaraid pills if it gets really bad."
"OK," answered Ellen who went on eating her lower forty-eight food with enthusiasm. That Ellen stank of what she had been eating made me feel a little better, but not much. Face it nobody ships a child thousands of miles to near strangers to avoid putting her with total strangers if something bad hasn't happened. Family issues could mean anything. I did not want to think about them as I drove back toward Intown and the Ed-Branch Creche.
At least Yitzi was not crying as we made our way back into Atlanta. He wasn't using his cell phone either. Seeing Orphia and Akiba's familiar faces and receiving his favorite fruit plate for supper had raised his spirits. We parked two blocks from the Creche. The night was cool, and the air still smelled of fresh rain.
The First-Second-Thirds were on the Creche's third floor, and the Swallowtails had their "area" at the south end of the building. Free Activity wasn't really free time. Kids could read or sleep or take showers. They could phone home or get a pass to use the crowded computer room if they had passed their "basics." Kayla for some reason, had not passed her basics yet, so her letters home were hand written. Free Activity was also a good time for writing home or talking on a comm phone. Kayla did not have a comm phone either.
For the kids who did not want to read, write home, sleep, bathe, or play on the computers there were informal activities: Twister, signs, crafts, limbo. Interns and Specialists could be quite inventive. Busy kids were easier to handle than bored ones.
That was why I found Kayla Weisman sitting at a table stringing dried colored pasta beads to make a little kid's necklace. She wore a yellow skirt and a paler yellow blouse with a design of leaves and berries on it. She had good color in her cheeks and her near blond hair seemed to glow despite the fact that Leigh Weisman had butchered it this spring. Someone had bought Leigh new clothes. That made me feel both sweet and sad.
Leigh stared at her younger brother with eyes agape. "Oh Yitzi!" she finally cried out and leaped from her chair to hug him in a sqat. "Poor little Yitzi baby boy. I missed you oh so much!" Then she switched from English to Hebrew and covered her younger brother with kisses.
"When are you coming home?" Yitzi finally asked.
"In a week," Kayla answered. "But it's not really home.&quto; Kayla looked passed me. "I'm sorry Dibri."
"It's Missus Mandel," corrected a woman who supervised the bead table. She had long nails painted three colors and cinamon brown skin. Her wiry black hair was in pony tails each held with a different color ornament. "I'm Athalie Stonecrock," the bead table supervisor introduced herself.
"Dibri's not a bad word. It's just a name. Missus Mandel doesn't mind," Kayla insisted.
"Nobody ever asked me if I minded," I told Kayla. Kayla gulped. "Athalie says I can come to Beth Jacob Village for services on Shabbos," Kayla announced.
"Then I'll bring Yitzi," I chimed in.
"They say I can still go to Torah Day Academy in the fall. Want to see my keepsakes?"
I stared at the Siddur made easy for kids, an easy-to-follow Jewish prayer book in both English and Hebrew, and there was also a book of children's Torah stories in English. Someone had met Kayla half way. Someone had given her decent clothes, and probably let her choose them. Kayla when she stood walked far taller than her actual height.
"You are going to knock your old friends dead when you show up in schul," I boasted to Kayla.
On the way home from the Ed-Branch class, Yitzi dozed off in the car. I woke him up, got his grogginess inside the house and managed to get him into old pajamas that fit but were falling to pieces. Both Yitzi and Ellen needed a lot of clothes. "Material Need" I thought remembering the white boards in the Creche office. I sighed. I wanted a cup of Tri-Mate in the worst way, but there was none in the house for obvious reasons. I settled for putting on mate to brew instead.
Then I realized Ellen was missing. I bolted back toward the bedrooms and found the one reserved for Ahava and Ellen. The door was partly open and the light was on. I thought Ellen was reading, but she sat on the bed rocking, the burlap purse on her lap. She spoke softly, and it was not in English anyway. It was a sing-song language, I could not place.
I froze clinging to the door jam. There was something sad and tender in Ellen's singing/monologue, something that shouted out don't disturb me. Then suddenly Ellen looked up. She realized I had been watching. She gasped.
"I won't tell anyone," I told the child. "I'm sorry I barged in on something...private."
"It's OK to pray in any way you want," I added feeling my face flush with embarassment.
"I wasn't praying," Ellen answered.
"Find then singing..."
"I was talking."
"Who were you talking to?" I asked the quintessentially dumb question.
"Promise not to tell anybody..."
I nodded. "My baby sister, Charlotte, is in this purse." Ellen held up her homespun shoulder bag.
"I don't see any baby in there," I told Ellen.
"It's a spirit baby. My sister, baby Charlotte, died of the new measels because the grownups wouldn't take her to a doctor. She screamed for a whole week. She turned purple at the end. She got hoarse from breathing hard and gasping like a fish in the bottom of a boat."
I slumped against the door frame. I struggled for words. "Shouldn't your baby sister be in Heaven."
"She's not ready to go to Heaven yet," Ellen answered.
"When will she be ready?" I asked.
"Probably never. She wanted to be alive. She wants to be alive now, but she'll have to get born again for that to happen. That's why it's going to take a while. It took me a while too. I found out from my mother."
"Your mother knows who you were in a past life?" I asked.
"No but the Elder does. He says I was Tricia who went to Anchorage and drank herself to death. That happens to Inuit in cities, especially if they are by themselves and don't have a good education. I guess I wanted to try again. I asked my mother when Tricia died and it was thirty years before I was born."
"So did you live in somebody's purse all that time?" I asked Ellen. "No, but there are worse places than a purse, and I wasn't a baby when I died. A purse is a good place for a spirit baby."
I couldn't really argue with that. I could ask more questions, but I wasn't sure it was a good idea to encourage the child's fantasies, except they probably weren't fantasies. Judaism has its gilgalim, who are reincarnated spirits. If Inuit also believe in reincarnation, and talking to spirits, Ellen had a right to her beliefs if they brought her comfort.
"I guess. Do you know who Baby Charlotte was in a past life?" I asked.
"It's a secret," Ellen replied.
"Well don't talk about it then where other people can hear," I advised.
"That's why we talk in the Old Tongue. That's Inupiat. You don't speak that do you?"
"No," I answered. I realized Ellen had me beat but not for long. "Ellen," I asked. "Can I look to see if you need a bath?"
"I don't need a bath," the child retorted. "I had a shower last night."
I drew close. "I'm just going to check behind your ears." I lifted up Ellen's soft, black hair. It did not feel at all greasey. Ellen's neck and even the skin behind her ears was good and clean. I sniffed. I smelled seal meat oozing through her pores, but only the faintest whiff of sebum. Yes, she was clean, but those clothes might be part of the problem. I snatched a bit of Ellen's shirt and sniffed it.
"What are you doing?" complained Ellen.
"I'm trying to figure out why you smell so strange."
"It's the seal meat."
"It's the dirty clothes. Do you have anything else to wear?"
"I don't want anything else to wear!" Ellen clutched her shoulder bag to her stomach, a fake womb. I sat on the floor so I could look up at my foster daughter. "Would you mind if I washed your clothes?" I asked. "I won't wash your sneakers. I don't think they'd survive. We can leave those on the doorstep and you'll wash your feet in the sink."
"What'll I wear?" Ellen asked. "There's a boy in the house."
"How about a night shirt. I'll give you one of Moses' old t-shirts. They're nearly man size and will make a good night gown."
"I don't feel like going to bed," Ellen told me. Given the difference in time zones, this made weird sense. I got Ellen to change and wash her feet. She had a few pairs of panties in her backpack, very new from the looks of them, one pair of jeans, and one t-shirt, and an old sweater and a jacket. I threw all the outer clothes into the washing machine along with half a box of baking soda.
Ellen sat in her makeshift nightie at one of the tables in my makeshift study, reading from one of several loose leafs she had brought. Ellen was practicing the Old Tongue. She'd need a computer hook up with a teacher back in Barrow. There just weren't any Inupiat speakers this far south. I watched Ellen's lips sometimes move as she read. I decided that I preferred this to the sad song she sang to her dead baby sister.
Ellen wore her shoulder bag while she worked. I wasn't sure if she smelled less rank or whether it was my imagination. I made up my mind to try to get Ahava to convince her to obtain new clothes. Material Need, I thought and then decided the needs of soul and spirit come before those of the body, except maybe in Kayla's case. Despite my musings, I was out of things to say to Ellen and glad she could amuse herself. It was close to midnight when we went to bed. Akiba, who was nowon the "day shift" was all ready asleep as was Orphia. Yitzi snored softly.
"My two brothers are both in Barrow. The Bee-eye-aye put them in the hospital because they had the measels. They'll get better though. They're much older than I am. They're very different from me. I have the Old Tongue. They never learned it. If you have the Old Tongue, you can understand things."
I nodded. "I'm going to pray you stay safe tonight and I'll even pray for Baby Charlotte. You don't mind do you?"
"Thankyou," Ellen Charlotte Savina answered.