©2012 Hillsboro Writer, All Rights Reserved
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Episodes: One ♦ Two ♦ Three ♦ Four ♦ Five ♦ Six...
Luis rested in his ergonomic chair watching as the pro forma financial statements closed. His workspace was uncluttered even though he had three wall panels on which to display data. He thought, “NABCo System logoff Luis Antas.”
The North American Banking Company System returned the response thought, “NABCo System logging off Luis Antas at 17:07. Goodbye.” The panels of Luis’ workspace changed from his preferred Caribbean blue to black: the entrance to the smallish, door-less room illuminated.
Luis grabbed a lightweight, weatherproof jacket from a storage cupboard to the right of the entrance, slipped it on, and left only the chair in view of any passersby. He navigated a quiet corridor lined with similar workspaces, some still in use, before passing into the departmental lobby. Workers from higher floors and other companies made room in the elevator: they descended sixty-three floors and exited the building.
It was a pleasant walk though there was a bit of a chill in the air and the sky hung heavy with dark clouds. He joined the thousands of other office workers making their way to various transit stations. The Unity Plaza Station was a relaxed five minutes away. He elected to use the stairs to descend to the lower platform that served the northbound Flower Line.
The platform was bright, clean, and full of patient commuters. Luis examined the current mural of fresh winter snows giving way to the exuberant colors of springtime as it traveled the length of the station’s walls then turned white again. He thought, “Status Willem.”
His Informateur returned the thought, “Willem is at the Hartfield Central Library. His status is unavailable.”
“Leave message, ‘Lunch tomorrow? You set time.’ End.”
“Weather forecast for this evening in Roseville.”
“The weather report for Roseville is brought to you by McStarMart, your one-stop shop for anything you need, when you need it, made as you like it. McStarMart, now open in the Grand Concourse of Roseville Station.
“The weather in Roseville will be clear tonight with an occasional light breeze, south to southwest. Temperature at 1800 hours will be twenty degrees falling to an overnight low of fourteen. Sunset will be at 1806 and twenty-three seconds. Tomorrow…”
The message terminated when Luis thought, “Message stop. Play La damnation de Faust, first act, by the Lyric Opera, Letiffa Smithson conducting.”
A moment later the melody played by symphonic strings was joined by a melancholy tenor contemplating nature. The words might be incomprehensible, but even in the Perfect Age the emotion of the music stirred him.
As peasants began singing joyfully the “Ronde des paysans,” Luis felt the press of wind as the train glided into the station. The waiting crowd made room for those alighting to slip past before entering the open doors. Luis shuffled down the aisle, all the seats taken, and found a bit of wall to lean against. He closed his eyes and settled in for the twenty minute, 125 kilometer ride.
The music dimmed and he understood, “Approaching Roseville Station in one minute. Thirty-three credits will be deducted from your account when you leave the station.” The music returned.
Exiting the train, he opted for the nearest stairwell then strode down the Grand Concourse ignoring the shops and restaurants. Luis passed the Local Produce Market before he reached the station doors. Outside it seemed too dark and a gale blew rain sideways under the walkway lamps.
“Current conditions at the southeast entrance to Roseville Station Grand Concourse are clear skies, wind calm, temperature…”
Luis shook off the erroneous information, turned, and glanced at the beautiful local produce for sale. If only there was space to prepare food in his apartment!
He crossed the concourse, climbed another flight of stairs, and walked down the platform for trams to the southeast quadrant. The crowd was heavier than normal – no doubt owing to the weather. He had to queue for the third tram before he was able to board.
The tram whisked its passengers from the station to highrise to sports center to towerblock, each separated by wide expanses of meadows and parkland. Luis was unable to concentrate on the music as he stared out the window at the rain-battered ball fields and a wind-tossed faux Asiatic garden. How could the Informateur be so wrong?
Rolling along its elevated track, the tram slowed into the station in the second story lobby of his building. He crossed the platform to the lift and rode with a few other residents, exiting on the thirty-fifth floor. Turning left, he walked down the extended, immaculate, featureless corridor. On his right side a door slid open revealing his warm, lit room. He entered the space and the door slid shut. Outside the storm obscured the rays of a setting sun.
To his left along the eggshell-white wall was a single bed elevated above a turquoise sofa which opened into a full-sized futon. Both were well-lit. Between this unit and the glass wall that opposed the door was a two-meter-square space where an assortment of houseplants grew. Each container received water and nutrients from supply tubes that ran under the window and behind a large, wood-grained shelving unit and cabinet which took up the entire wall to his right.
“Set window to view out only.” The change was imperceptible where Luis stood, but he knew it was impossible for anyone to see inside his unit. Luis opened a cupboard door, undid his fly, and released the fruity, vitamin juice he drank that afternoon into the goblet-sized urinal. Thus relieved, he remained in position as soap dripped then water streamed from a nozzle just above the receptacle. He washed, rinsed, and a blast of warm air dried his various appendages.
Luis closed the door to the comfort closet as he took a step to the left and opened another. His clothing was neatly arranged: shirts and jackets hanging on top, pants and shorts neatly folded on the middle shelf, a drawer for socks and odds-and-ends, and below that a shelf for footwear. He removed his work clothes, dropped them into a chute at the very bottom of the wardrobe, and dressed in heavier, taupe, canvas slacks and one of his old, blue and white, rugby jerseys. A large, black number ‘five’ had been appliquéd on the back.
Closing that door, he examined the shelves to the left. Books were the one luxury he allowed himself in this impeccable, paperless world. Extremely rare and even more expensive, Luis enjoyed the sensation of turning well-used pages and the look of the black letters on the yellowing paper. Sure, he could interact with any existing piece of literature on the Informateur choosing from a wide assortment of synthesized voices to read to him or simply by sensing the words in his mind; but he preferred the shear pleasure of reading the way people did centuries ago.
Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – the corners were rounded, the grayish-brown cover was well-worn with only a touch of gilding left in the thinnest parts of the embossed letters – had cost him almost a week’s salary. He turned towards the door. A bookmark guided him to the eleventh stanza of chapter five. Luis read of Tatyana’s dream unphased by the door sliding open, the lights dimming, and the door slipping shut behind him. He read of snow and a great bear as he strolled down the corridor and waited for the elevator. Stepping inside and thinking “public dining room,” the doors closed. The elevator glided downward.
Luis did not look up as the doors opened and two other men his age entered the lift. Their privacy interrupted, the three rode silently to the floor above the tram station. “After you,” one of the strangers offered.
“No, please, after you.” Luis held out an open hand, smiled, but just glanced at them not wishing to lose his place. He followed them out of the elevator, finished the stanza, closed the book, and looked around the room. Unable to spot any familiar faces in the crowd, he approached an unoccupied food preparation window.
“Tuscan chicken,” he started thinking, “with spinach pasta, grilled vegetable anti-pasto, and a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.” This was a meal that Willem had prepared one summer evening in his little place in the city. While Luis knew tonight’s formatted dinner could never compare with the real thing, the nutritionally balanced, low-fat food product would remind him of that meal he had enjoyed with his best friend last year.
The window closed and a couple minutes later reopened to reveal a tray with a linen napkin, stainless flatware, the food served on china, and the wine in sommelier-style piece of stemware. “Seventeen credits will be deducted from your account. Buon appetito!”
He carried the tray across the room until he found an empty table with two chairs on either side. He removed his table setting and food from the tray, arranged it on the table with the book just above the plate, set the tray on one chair, and sat in the other. “Set noise level to low.” The numerous conversations surrounding him became imperceptible. He opened the book to where he had left off, took a sip of wine enjoying the dry, full-bodied taste, and started reading again. The poetry was more engaging than the food.
As he finished his meal, he understood, “Neighbor Nakajima Toshiro approaching.”
“Set noise level to conversation.”
He stood up, palm extended in greeting. “It’s been a while, how are you Nakajima-san?”
“Very well. Was away on business. Some of us are going to the comet viewing tonight, and since you seem to be on your own, I was wondering if you would like to join us.”
“With the weather what it is, I was thinking of going to the observation deck upstairs.”
“Yes. That would be pleasant, but local officials from De Authoriteit are hosting an invitation-only dinner. Do you know not any members of the building council?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“We are going to catch the tram in about fifteen minutes. Please to join us.”
“Let me clean up here and grab a jacket. I’ll see you on the platform.”
“Yes. See you shortly.”
Luis queried the Informateur, “Status Hale and Hearty Comet viewing in Roseville.”
“Hale and Hearty Comet viewing festival in Roseville Plaza to begin in twenty-five minutes. De Authoriteit encourages all able-bodied citizens to attend and reminds employers this is an officially sanctioned observance. Festivities include…”
“Weather forecast for Roseville Plaza in twenty-five minutes.”
“In twenty-five minutes the weather in Roseville Plaza will be: skies clear, temperature nineteen degrees, wind calm with slight occasional breeze from the southwest.”
Luis looked across the room and out a window. The rain beat against the panes of glass. He shook his head as he placed the dirty dishes on the tray. His book under his arm, he walked towards a cleaning station.
Without curtains on his bedroom windows, the bright light made it difficult for Willem van de Velde to continue sleeping. He always wished he had gone to bed a bit earlier but there was something invigorating about waking up to a glorious new day and he relished the cool air of early morning.
He sat up, planted his feet on the floor, and raised his arms towards the ceiling into an upper body stretch which ended with him standing. Swinging his pelvis to the left and his upraised hands to the right, he moved his hips in a circular motion. He lowered his arms to shoulder level – as if he planned to embrace someone much taller than himself – and twisted his torso to the left and right a few times before he raised his hands towards the ceiling again and bent side to side. A few deep knee bends and toe touches finished off his morning workout.
Through the window he watched his neighbor Avinashika step out of her back door with a mug in hand. Willem waved at her. She returned the friendly greeting then quickly turned away. He never understood if she was embarrassed by his nakedness or just polite.
Willem grabbed a raddled pair of shorts and sweatshirt off the clean pile of clothing. Both had seen better days. He shuffled two paces from studio-cum-bedroom to the bathroom, used the commode but only closed the lid, then continued the three further strides into the room which served as both kitchen and living area. He put some fresh water to boil, rinsed out the tea pot, and spooned in dry leaves from Assam – an expensive luxury for an artist. A long serrated knife coaxed two slices off the pale brown loaf of bread he purchased from a local baker. He spread on a bit of butter – from friends with cows on the edge of town – and topped it off with a couple generous dollops of blackberry jam he made last summer. A quarter teaspoon of sugar (one of those items it was hard to know the origin of) spooned into a ceramic mug thrown and fired at the commune and topped off with piping hot tea. He soaked in the aroma before taking a sip and eating the first slice of bread.
The second slice of bread hung from his mouth as he carried the mug in his right hand and pushed open the screen door with his left. Stepping into a pair of ancient sandals Willem squinted against the full force of the morning sun. He tried to imagine what this neighborhood had been like back before the war: when houses were ordered on streets, streets were made of petrochemicals mixed with gravel, and people traveled in personal vehicles fueled with another form of petrochemical. Back then the building he lived in had been home to just one family. Now a central wall marked his space from the couple on the other side.
Avinashika and Willem gardened the area from Willem’s front door to the cartroad, between their homes, and in back of her house. He strolled down the pathway through the garden to Avinashika’s doorway. “Morning,” he smiled in greeting.
“Another beautiful day,” she returned. “Everything is coming along nicely.”
“Yes, the garden’s doing very well this year. Looks like some peas are ready. Probably can pick some greens, radishes, herbs and make a salad. I can make something with the new potatoes as well.”
“What about the asparagus?”
“You wouldn’t mind if I harvest some? It does look really tempting – nice young asparagus with some fresh chicken.”
“No. Not at all. There will be plenty. There always is.”
“I’m going to the market. Do you need anything?” he offered.
“Let me check. When are you going?”
“Maybe in an hour or so. Luis is coming out for lunch. Would you like to join us?”
“Thanks but I’m actually going over to my sister’s to watch her kids.”
“Well, we’ve got to have dinner before I go.”
“I can’t believe your going to do it – leaving all this. We’ve worked hard to make this garden.”
“But I’m leaving it in your very capable hands and the new couple seems pretty excited about the garden and the house, even if it is small.”
“It’ll be nice to have a newborn around, but I just don’t know how they’ll manage when she starts to grow. Your side just seems so tiny.”
Willem pondered the wisteria flush with blossoms. “I’m really sorry about you and Mike. No chance he’ll come back?”
“No. It’s too important to him that he have kids the old-fashioned way. No techno-babies for him even if we ignore the genetic engineering. He just doesn’t trust that they won’t meddle with the fetus somehow.”
“Come with me. No one has to know. We can find a baby and raise it together.”
Leaning over to kiss him on the cheek she said, “Thank you Willem. I know you mean that. Really, you do, but it just wouldn’t work. I need something a bit more settled and I want a father who…”
“I know, who’ll always be there.”
“You’re a good friend, Willem.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The market was a jumble of stalls and semi-permanent shops in the center of the East Hartfield Free Settlement Area. At its heart were clustered the most successful merchants in the Free Settlement and they helped draw the customers along the corridors past the smaller, more transient sellers of everything from aubergines to wingtips.
Willem walked down the main corridor that roughly separated the grocery sector from the clothing and personal care quadrant carrying his tote filled with produce he knew had been grown within the Free Settlement. He stopped at a stall. “So, how is my favorite purveyor of potions this fine morning?”
“Willem! Is it true? You’re really leaving us?” The middle aged woman with long, luxurious, grey hair removed her reading glasses and emerged from behind the counter. “Who will I get to play Antony?”
So the rumors were true, he would get the part. “I guess you’ll just have to give it to Dionysus. It really isn’t meant for Teuton. And just think what you’ll save on makeup!”
“True, he does rather look the part but I fear he lives the part much too often. You I can keep sober!”
He raised his hand and looked at the gold and silver stars hanging from the ceiling of the booth, “If only the Bard had written about the heroic defeat of Chlodio at Vicus Helena… That is a part I was born to play!” She shared his laughter.
“We’ll miss you, but also wish you best of luck on your great adventure. Give us a hug!”
After hugging goodbye, Willem continued out of the market proper, through the outlying itinerant stalls, and across the tram tracks as passengers alighted.
“Hey! Willem!” came a voice.
Willem turned to see who had called him. He recognized his friend Luis less from his appearance – short-cropped, black hair; clean-shaven face with staid expression; white, cotton dress shirt with pale blue pin-stripes; navy, woolen slacks; and black, leather loafers – but by the way the corporate uniform of the satellite cities made his workaday friend remarkable in a community of farmers, craftspeople, and artists. Willem greeted his friend. “Good to see you! But aren’t you a bit early?”
“It’s 11:54. You said to arrive after noon.”
“Shit. I lost track of time, but that’s easy to do in the market. Always a lot of folks to talk to.”
“Lunch won’t be ready for a while yet, but I got some nice, fresh chicken for us.”
“Great. Work is quiet now. If anything comes up, I’ll deal with it on the way home.”
They walked together down the expansive concrete path that carried most traffic from the tram station and the market to the northern neighborhoods of the Free Settlement. After a couple minutes of walking the concrete came to an end. From here different paths of various composition branched out like the largest boughs of a great maple tree. Each had a designation like “Primrose Path” or “Red Brick Road.” Willem and Luis took “Sylvan Lane” as it wound through the urban village, under grand old oaks and noble sycamores, past houses both historical and ramshackle, around gardens and intensive farms to another branch, “Marigold Place.”
It was off “Marigold Place” where Willem had found half a house. There was no rent since no one owned land in the free settlements. Residents were squatters, but after De Authoriteit redeveloped the suburbs to the south as a giant industrial park, the populace had to go somewhere. At first the East Hartfield Free Settlement Area was tolerated assuming the inhabitants would relocate to new residential districts – like Roseville – and in time ancient neighborhoods would be revitalized under the new urban model. That was two generations ago.
Luis asked, “Did it rain here last night?”
“No. Actually there was some cloud cover earlier in the evening, but otherwise it was a nice enough night. Bit chilly, I guess.”
“Did you see the comet?”
“Did I see the comet or did I participate in the comet viewing?”
“Well, there is a difference. One is to merely step out your door and look up at the grandeur of the heavens. The other is our version of paying homage to the gods of the state.”
Luis found these discussions with Willem’s pedantic, organic side tedious. “Did you see the comet? It stormed in Roseville. I couldn’t see anything.”
“Why didn’t you just tune it in on your Informateur?”
“That’s not the same thing.” Luis tried to ignore his friend’s sarcasm and disdain.
“No. But the point of the exercise was not to see the comet. Like in Imperial Rome, the point was to participate in the civic ritual. I assume you did that at least.”
The lack of words hung like a broken body from a Roman cross. Knowing to answer he had gone to the comet viewing would launch a diatribe about ‘sheeple following orders’ and answering he had stayed home would trigger a rant about ‘De Authoriteit monitoring our every move,’ Luis entered the minefield. “I went. No one stayed very long. I just walked across the plaza and went back into the station. We couldn’t hear or see anything: the storm was that bad.”
“So you opted for conformity.”
“Of course. I want to keep my job!”
“Do you really believe you would lose your job because you didn’t stand out in the rain for a couple hours?”
“It was not just rain, it was a gale and yet the weather report said it was clear.”
“You still trust that thing.”
“Trust isn’t the word. The Informateur is the only source of news and information.”
“Have you ever thought about talking to other people?”
“I talk to people.”
Having taken the silent train to Roseville, Willem was not convinced.
“My neighbor Toshiro invited me to join some of his friends that night, but I could not find them.”
Willem looked at a house. “Huh, the Salkovitches painted their house again. I’ve never understood their fascination with ugly shades of taupe. How can they repaint each year and still manage to find a new shade of taupe? I used to live for the time they ventured into beige. Heaven forbid they make it to ecru! Oh well, just one of the things I’m going to miss…”
Luis stopped walking. He knew the day would come, but the gravity of the situation made it hard for him to react. He watched as Willem kept walking, turned a corner, and disappeared.
“This is really good. What do you call it again?” Luis asked.
“Well, I don’t call it anything. It’s just baked chicken with roasted new potatoes.” Willem explained. “More than anything, I’m going to miss that market.”
“They have to have something out there: people have to buy food some place.”
Willem took another bite and chewed with leisure. “I’ve got no idea what they have but I expect people grow most of their food.”
“You have done research…” Luis let the statement hang.
“Not really. What’s to know? Saint Louis is the end of the line. Civilization stops at the Mississippi. After that, all you’ve got is the Great North American Wilderness Park until you cross the Cascades or Sierras and then you’re in the Northeastern Pacific Sector of the Industrial Confederation.”
“I understand the geography. That country has been wilderness for hundreds of years. No one has been permitted to live west of the Mississippi since the Great War.”
“Yes. One of the two great results of Carmageddon: massive depopulation and final conversion from a fossil fuel to a geo-cosmic economy. And we’re still here.”
“I have heard stories about savages – people returning to the ways of the ancient inhabitants that lived there before European Americans arrived in the middle of the last millennium. They ride horses, live in leather tents, and hunt the great beast.”
Luis’ voice dripped with urgency. “They might kill you!”
“And they might not.” Willem continued eating and talking as if he was discussing replacing a Lavandula angustifolia with a Lavandula latifolia. “That’s why I’m going.”
“You want to find savages?”
“No, but if they find me I’ll deal with it.”
“Where will you live?”
“But…” Luis was stymied.
Willem put his fork down, finished chewing his mouthful of food, and took a sip from his glass of white table wine. He looked his friend in the eye. “I’m going because I want to know what it is like to live; live like our ancestors did. Live with the fear of the weather and the joy of the harvest. Live as every other animal on this planet lives.”
“But you have all that here. Or you could just move to the commune.”
“Don’t you see? Those are only half measures. You still have everything, every conceivable convenience of modern civilization at your fingertips. And you have this thing in your skull.” Willem tapped the place on Luis’ skull where, as a small child, a surgeon implanted the tiny device that would always interface with the communication infrastructure maintained by De Authoriteit.
“You have not!”
“But I will. I already know of someone who will take it out.”
“What are the risks? You don’t know what will happen if you take it out. You could die without it. What if you need help?”
“I won’t die. It’s as easy to remove as it is to install or upgrade. They just want us to think we can’t live without it. Humans existed for tens of thousands of years without an Informateur in their skulls. Remember, primitive devices were carried around in the hand and there were thousands of people who lived without even them.”
Luis was accepting that there was no logical argument to fight the inevitability of Willem’s leaving for the unsettled lands in the middle of the continent. “How will we keep in touch? It’s not like there will be way to contact you.”
“Actually, how do your books get to you?”
“Someone brings them here.”
“Same idea. In the market there is a kiosk – Confederated Express – where you can send a written message for me in care of their Saint Louis office. I’ll leave word in Saint Louis which way I’ve gone. They will forward the message on.”
“So there really are towns west of the river?”
“Luis, you have to stop thinking of this like I’m time traveling back to the Stone Age. Those I’ve talked with say it’s much like we read about when EuroAmericans first started the Great Westward Migration. People find land to farm or graze and where they congregate, villages spring up. The villages are connected to each other and finally to civilization in cities like Saint Louis.”
“But such settlement is illegal. It’s on wilderness preserve. I thought the whole point…”
“The whole point is to have places where natural forces can play out. Humans are as natural a force as any other predator, as is the wind for that matter. However, De Authoriteit does not exercise control over that land. At least, that’s my understanding. It’s wild.”
“I get that. I just cannot imagine how you are going to live out there.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Willem watched as the couple of guys from the cheese stall balanced his mattress on the hand cart. Their trade of some hard, local cheese would travel well. “Are you sure you can make it, just the two of you?” he half offered.
“Oh, we’re used to carting around awkward loads,” one answered. The other added, “I promise, she’ll be most appreciative to have a bed, even used. Thank you again and good luck on your trip!” The first continued the expression of gratitude and soon they headed down the path towards “Marigold Place.”
Willem looked around his home: not much was left of his few belongings and he felt better for it. He knew little of the new couple that planned to move in, but they had enough furniture to fill the two rooms. Opening the door to the bathroom, he entered. Willem opened a wicker basket and placed the wheel of cheese inside with some other foods he planned to take on the trip: a sausage, some sugar, a loaf of bread (in addition to the one he’d started earlier in the day), apples, pears, chocolate bars, and of course, his tin of tea. He removed the basket and his canvas duffel from the bathtub and returned them to his bedroom. All that remained there was a painting he’d done of Avinashika standing in the garden as it approached harvest. He admired how he had captured her long, black hair waving in the late afternoon breeze. At that time it still reached down to her waist.
“Knock, knock,” she called at the front door.
“Come on in,” he returned. Color burst from the background greens invoking the images of flowers, fruits, and herbs. The painting beamed with pride at all they had grown.
The front door squeaked open and he heard her gasp, “Oh my, where did everything go?”
“I’m back here.”
She paused in the doorway, her chestnut brown eyes wide at the shock of the empty rooms. “I didn’t realize you were planning on going quite this soon.”
“Neither did I, to be honest. But this morning in the market I was talking about getting rid of stuff. A couple hours ago people started showing up willing to take this and that. The new people wanted me to leave the pots, pans, plates, and utensils, but otherwise, this is all I’ve got left.” He motioned her into the room, looking at the painting. “I want you to keep this for me, okay?”
She smiled but he could see it was not out of happiness: she was trying to hide her feelings.
“Unless you don’t want it…”
“No, it’s not that. I just thought we’d have a couple more days before you left.” She paused. Recognizing they were both uncomfortable with the maudlin tone of the discussion, she changed the subject, “Are you hungry? I made some Channa and Toor Daal, Pitla, and even cooked up that asparagus you forgot you were going to use today.”
“Of course.” Her smile was genuine now.
“How can I pass on a meal like that? No idea when I’ll eat well again. So, you want the painting, right?”
He took the five foot wide canvas off the nail where it hung and carried it for her. “Get the lights behind us. Here,” he fished a key out of his pocket, “probably better lock it tonight just to be safe.”
♦ ♦ ♦
They sat on her stoop spooning food from pots onto rice and then eating it with their fingers in a more traditional manner. “Would you like a little more beer?” Avinashika offered.
“Yes, thanks. I’m going to miss this EHSFA Brewers’ Pilsner. Don’t ask me why, but I know I’ll miss it.” Willem looked up at the sky and watched the Hale and Hearty Comet as it moved from Cassiopeia into Perseus.
“It’s easy to drink. I’ll give you that. So, what’s the plan for tomorrow then?”
“No plan really. Just going to head into the city and catch a train north. I’ve got to stop in Appledorf to see a guy named Ugo. Not sure how long I’ll be there. After that, I’ll take whatever train comes next. That’s the joy of having a fourteen-day railpass.”
“And no plans where you’ll enter the park?”
“Nah. None. Might go by way of Norleans and then head up the Mississippi. Or might head straight for Memphis or Saint Louis. Don’t really plan on heading as far north as Twin City, but who knows.”
“I could try and read your fortune…”
“Nah. I’ll go where I go. I’ll try to get you word someday where I settle, but it’s hard to say when that’ll be.”
“And if,” he agreed. Having had his fill, he leaned back against the railing and took a slug of his beer. “Might just try and take up with one of those bands of nomads riding horses and hunting the bison across the plains.”
“How’d Luis take the news?”
“Well, if his arguments were any suggestion, I’m guessing he was pretty upset with the whole idea. But of course he’d never say as much.”
“You’ve always said you were more than just good friends, right?”
“Well yeah. It’s just I’ve never been quite sure if he wasn’t hoping that maybe some day… But you know me, the last thing I want to do is settle down with anyone. I’m only thirty. It’s too soon to be tied down.”
“Do you love him?”
“Not in the way you mean. Never have anyone best I can tell.”
“So I won’t make it hard for you to leave if I offer to let you spend the night? It’s not like you have anywhere to sleep tonight.”
“I’ve got a sleeping bag. I was thinking of just sleeping under the stars.”
“How about one last night in a nice, comfortable bed?”
Looking up at the sky, he watched as the comet disappeared into the west behind a bunch of trees. He thought for a moment about Avinashika’s offer. Willem was never one to say no to an attractive woman who offered her bed.
Avinashika Joshi woke alone in her bed. On the nightstand was a note. “I hate goodbyes. I’ve left the key for the new people on your kitchen table. Enjoy! Willem.”
She lay there a few minutes trying to sort through the emotions that swirled across her mind. It’s not that she expected anything from him, she just felt disappointed that she didn’t get to say goodbye. Well, not in so many words: not in the way one normally did.
Out of bed, she covered herself with an unbleached cotton t-shirt and panties before heading to the toilet and brushing her teeth. She’d bathe after she weeded the garden and did some chores. From the hook on the back of the bathroom door she removed denim bib overalls, stepped into them, and fastened the shoulder straps with a pair of daisy buttons.
As promised, the key sat on the kitchen table: the stem of a single, pink rosebud through the hole. She removed the key from the stem, put it on the kitchen windowsill, and filled a small glass with some water for the rose. She left it in the middle of the small, wooden table.
She put some coffee on to brew, filled a mug, stepped out her door, and looked over at the empty home next door. She felt it odd not to see Willem stretching. Would the new people be by for the key today? She knew Willem had never been one for planning: he could have agreed they would move in next week. Avinashika took a few deep breaths and released the seeds of tension. Happy to help, it was not her responsibility. She cleared her mind of thought.
Her awareness shifted to the world that surrounded her. The morning was alive with birdsong and she watched as an oriole darted from the pea trestle after some small creature hidden in a patch of sage. Its prey in its beak, it flew to a nearby tree where chicks squawked hungrily.
A long drink of coffee and she was aware of a soft mewing under the wooden stoop. She rested the mug on the step and peered between the slats into the darkness below. She sensed movement but saw nothing. She crept off the steps, examined the structure, and found a gap between the boards and the foundation. This was the first time a feral cat had taken up residence under her steps. Could she have kittens down there? If that was the case, Avinashika decided it would be best not to disturb them.
As she finished her mug of coffee, a couple crows landed on the eaves of the house next door. They took up cawing and cackling as if in a heated debate over which part of the garden to invade first. She surmised the new neighbors would arrive soon. Another pair joined the first duo on the eaves in raucous debate.
♦ ♦ ♦
Gardening done, Avinashika dried herself after bathing. She dressed in some loose denim pants and a forest green blouse, preferring conservative dress when going to the market. On a piece of paper she wrote “will return before sundown” and hung it from a nail in her door frame she used for this purpose. She slipped into comfortable walking shoes, picked up a canvas tote, closed the door behind her, and headed through the garden.
She enjoyed a brisk walk and paid attention to her breathing and pulse along the way finally slowing as she entered the market. Her first stop: a favorite fabric stall. Avinashika browsed some stouter cotton fabrics certain she had a ready market for work shorts and pants, but her eyes and fingers were drawn to luxurious, imported silks. Unable to remember when she had last made herself a new dress, she still could not justify the expense. Another day.
Off to the food stalls next she picked up some lentils, brown rice, and a couple apples before stopping in at a tea stand for some sencha. She stood at the two-meter-long counter between two other patrons: a man and a woman who seemed too far apart to be together. Avinashika waited the minute for the tea to steep before pouring it into a wide-mouthed drinking bowl.
As she sipped the hot liquid, a woman with black hair and graying roots walked up. She was short by comparison and wore a bright, flower-print smock over her dress. “I’m so glad I ran into you Avinashika. I just had to see you today.”
“How are you, Bubbeh?”
“Oh, the knees hurt and my youngest tells me he is still not ready to marry…but what’s new?” Her voice was enlivened despite years of weariness and worry. “When I woke this morning, I had this feeling that something very wonderful happened to you.” She reached out gnarled fingers which had worked hard for twice as many years as Avinashika had been alive. Her hand stopped in mid-air.
“Wonderful?” Avinashika was puzzled. She took a longer sip of the tea enjoying how the slight astringency quenched her thirst.
Bubbeh examined Avinashika’s face. “Yes, I can see something is different.”
Avinashika remembered the warmth of Willem’s embrace, felt her face flush, but said nothing.
Stepping closer, Bubbeh’s hand made contact with Avinashika’s forearm. “Yes. Yes, it has happened. I’m sure of it.” The woman closed her eyes and laid her head back. She took a deep breath, releasing it with a guttural sound somewhere between a growl and a moan. She repeated this breathing routine four more times then stopped. A minute passed. Three sharps gasps for air were accompanied by a high-pitched tone.
The female patron drained her cup and bolted from the stand. Avinashika looked at the chai wallah trying to communicate non-verbally that there was nothing wrong – such behavior was normal for her friend. The male customer, oblivious to the spectacle, sipped his brew, probably engrossed in something on his Informateur.
“Listen and know!” The voice coming from Bubbeh’s mouth was whispy, otherworldly. It said:
Man of Bright Colors deposits a seed in an empty vessel.
Elephant takes the vessel to a man of letters.
Elephant and Man of Letters take vessel out of diseased garden.
Man of Letters harvests fruit under a distant, barren land.
Man of Bright Colors finds fruit.
Elephant takes the vessel to a man of letters.
Elephant and Man of Letters take vessel out of diseased garden.
Man of Letters harvests fruit under a distant, barren land.
Man of Bright Colors finds fruit.
“Listen and know!” It proclaimed and Avinashika reached to grab her friend as the woman gasped for air and her knees buckled.
“Don’t you have a chair?” Avinashika demanded.
The chai wallah rustled behind the counter and brought out his short stool and placed it behind Bubbeh.
“Sit, you’ve had another of your spells, Bubbeh.” She lowered the older woman onto the stool. Then to the chai wallah, “Please, some strong black tea.” Then to Bubbeh, “You like two lumps, right, my dear?”
“You know I take three!”
Avinashika smiled. “Just wanted to make sure you were yourself again.”
“Was it understandable this time?”
“Well, the words were English, but…”
“Did you write it down?”
“I don’t need to. Do you want to know what it said?”
“Is the message for me or mine?”
Avinashika shook her head. “No, that’s doubtful.”
Bubbeh changed the subject. “So, tell me about your young man then. When did it happen?”
“Mike and I decided to go our separate ways – I don’t know, maybe it’s been a week now. I don’t think about it.”
“NO! Not that one.” Bubbeh spat the words out.
The chai wallah dropped three lumps into a white, bisque teacup and poured the hot, dark tea after.
Avinashika reached for the cup waving away the offer of milk. “Here, Bubbeh. Drink this.”
“Thank you dearie. No, I mean the artistic fellow who lives next door.” She brought the steaming cup to her lips and puffed away the heat.
“We said goodbye this morning. He…”
“Goodbye? What do you mean goodbye?”
“He left for the west today.”
“Pfft! Such nonsense! How can a man be with such as you and then just leave?” She took a sip and let the silence hang between them for a few moments. “When will he return?”
“I don’t know.” Avinashika shook her head and looked at her feet. “I don’t think he intends to come back here. Ever.”
Bubbeh was pensive. “Promise me you’ll see a midwife next week. No excuses.”
“I will, Bubbeh. I promise. I’m so sorry, but it’s getting late…”
“Yes, I know. I must be going… Have to cook dinner you know.”
“Will you be okay walking home?”
“Pfft! Don’t fuss. It’s not so far.”
“Let me pay for your tea, Bubbeh.” Avinashika handed the chai wallah a couple pieces of market script and then slipped some more into Bubbeh’s pocket. Avinashika recognized the old woman ignoring the gesture. “It was good to see you today.”
“You come see me and tell me what the midwife says. And don’t be too long about it!”
The women waved goodbye as Avinashika headed out of the market. She tried to remember what else she needed but the oracle stuck in her head. The only part she understood was about the seed planted in her empty womb. She shook her head. “No. It’s not possible. It’s just not possible.”
♦ ♦ ♦
As Avinashika turned off the cart path into her garden, she was greeted by a young couple sitting on Willem’s porch. The mother nursed her infant; the husband stood and approached.
“Please don’t get up. I’ve got your key. Just a second and I’ll bring it.” Avinashika quick-stepped through the garden and up her stairs. She opened the door, set her bag on the kitchen table, and grabbed the key from the windowsill. Back out the door and through the garden, she started speaking before passing the corner of the house. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I needed to pop into the market and ran into an old friend…”
The man met her at the corner of the house. “Please, don’t worry about it. I’m Tristam, but most people call me Tris. This is my wife Beatrix and our baby Eton.”
“It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Avinashika. I hope you’ll like it here.”
Beatrix looked up. “No doubt we will. We were rather surprised to find Willem was already gone.”
“He didn’t tell you when he was leaving either.” Avinashika stated.
“Well, he said it would be soon,” continued Tris. “We stopped by to see if maybe we could use some of his furniture.”
“I’m sorry, but he cleared everything out last night. He mentioned you wanted some kitchen stuff. I hope it’s there…”
“Please, don’t worry about it.” The husband dismissed.
“We really do appreciate you holding the key for us,” continued the wife.
“When Eton’s finished, we’ll have a look around. Hopefully we can move in tomorrow – it just depends on the carting situation.”
Avinashika understood. “Well, if there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to come over anytime. And when you’re ready, I’m happy to babysit.”
“Well, we won’t keep you any longer, Avina…” he replied.
“Avinashika. And welcome to your new home!”
Life had a dreamlike quality for Luis since leaving Willem’s house; the train ride, the dining hall felt more like Informateur images than reality.
The conversation with Willem dominated Luis’ thoughts: Had his friend gone mad? Why was Willem running away? Chasing aspirations of a natural, wild existence was not beyond Luis’ ken – romantic era literature was riddled with pursuit of the idealized natural man: a life free of artifice and rationalized presumptions of how the world should be. He too wanted life to be better, more perfect, but running away from society was not the answer.
Approaching this new world with no plans worried Luis most. “When are you leaving? Where are you going? What will you do out there? Where will you live? How will you get food? How will you defend yourself?” Why not just stay here? Luis had given up asking the questions which inundated his consciousness like the bank-swollen Mississippi flooded the Delta.
“Will I see you before you go?” Luis had asked.
“Hard to say – might leave tomorrow, might leave next week,” had been Willem’s reply.
“Well, in case – you know – take care. Get word to me that you made it.” Unable to look his friend in the eye, Luis tensed up when Willem put his arms around him. For Luis ‘friendly hugs’ were an oxymoron. The moment had grown even more awkward: his clumsy return of the hug then mumbling “see you” as he had walked out of Willem’s door.
Thinking over the events, Luis wished he could have acted differently but he succored his conscience with the knowledge he would have another chance to say goodbye.
Luis picked up his tray and carried his half-eaten meal of Yankee pot roast, mashed potatoes, and succotash to the cleaning station. He set the tray on the receiving platform, a door opened, the tray glided past the threshold, and the door slammed shut. The suddenness shook Luis from the replayed memory.
Too depressed to go for a walk, uninterested in talking with other residents, put off by the thought of a swim, Luis took the lift back to the thirty-fifth floor. He stopped at the communal sanitary facilities and checked the status displays looking for the first door that showed “ready” above an icon of a sit commode. The door slid open and then closed behind him. At completion Luis thought, “No bidet service,” used the proffered swipe, stood, pulled up his trousers, and exited the small room. The status changed to “sanitizing.”
Across the room were another set of doors and he stopped at the first one that said “ready” above a spritzing shower nozzle. He entered, sat on the small bench, and started to undress. Across from him a panel opened revealing hatches labeled “laundry,” “shoes,” and “personal items.” He pushed his dirty clothing through the laundry door and placed his shoes in a container.
He stood, the panel closed, and the shower adjusted to Luis’ preset temperature, nozzle position, and water pressure. Water cascaded over his short, black hair and down his café au lait colored skin. He allowed himself to cry for three minutes while the water ran.
A small amount of shampoo dripped onto his head and he rubbed his scalp and face with his fingers. When a pre-lathered brush appeared in its window he swiped it over his body. He replaced the brush, the window closed, and the water returned for a three-minute rinse.
When the water ceased, another portal opened radiating warmth. Luis reached for the waiting towel, dried off, dropped the used towel through the laundry hatch and took a warm, white, terrycloth bathrobe and pair of moccasins from the same window. He slipped on the robe, cinched the belt, stepped into the slippers, and shuffled off to his room where he changed into a pair of freshly laundered, silken pajama pants and slipped on the matching top, misaligning the buttons.
Luis flicked off the moccasins, climbed up the five-rung ladder to his bed, and lay on his back. The lights dimmed, he closed his eyes, but sleep was a reluctant companion.
He and Willem walked a hillside wooded with familiar trees – oak, hickory, birch, maple, and pine – when they approached an enormous evergreen which had fallen across a gulch. Luis asked, “Will you cross it?” Willem answered in the affirmative, handed Luis a tiny, ivory egg, and started across the whitish-grey trunk. As Willem walked the tree grew smaller, sagging and bouncing under his weight. At the same time the egg grew in both in mass and volume. Luis watched silently as Willem disappeared into the woods on the other side.
Luis continued up the path on his side of the chasm. The trail grew steeper, the trees less familiar and covetous of sunlight forcing him to struggle against their tangled murkiness before emerging into a dense prairie which covered a now gentle rise. Cresting the ridge, he sat on a large boulder and reveled in the glorious sunshine. His eyes followed the hill brow around a wide, irregular, circular expanse which enclosed a body of sapphirine water too wide to swim across. The ridge’s far edge was obscured by clouds.
A noise – it could not be flatulence – captured his attention. Along the crest he saw the back of a fat man with blond hair sitting on a log defecating over the lake. The naked man stood and walked towards a small, dilapidated hut. Equally naked, a dark-skinned woman with long, black hair greeted him at the door: they embraced and made love on the earth. Were they unaware or uninterested in his presence he wondered.
A rush of wind blew away the clouds and Luis discovered a churning sea beyond the far ridge. Enormous waves barreled towards the shore. Whether from fear or fascination, Luis sat transfixed watching as the waves broke and water rushed up the mountainside. Another and then another wave breaking, each higher than the last, until finally the ridge was bested.
Luis sat resigned to his fate: the seaspray hitting his face. He felt refreshed but guilty.
Having engulfed the pristine lake, the ocean receded. The hut, man, and woman were gone. He looked around for the egg but only found a small chick. Safeguarding the chick in his shirt pocket, Luis started walking home to a collection of small shacks perched on a plateau high above the ocean. He stopped at the lean-to of the old man and admired his cow, its udders swollen with milk, before continuing to the overlook.
Tourists milled around admiring the view. The ocean had receded exposing kelp and crustaceans to the air before again swelling in the distance. Luis feared another eminent tsunami and wondered if they were high enough to escape the sea’s wrath.
As the first wave broke against the cliff, the tourists ran away. Villagers huddled together as this first wave dissipated leaving the broken bodies of seals strewn on the rocky beach far below. Another giant wave broke and Luis could see the drops of spray on his black, leather shoes, but the village remained safe from the angry sea.
Luis woke from his dream.
♦ ♦ ♦
Avinashika’s evening was uneventful. A palmful of raisins, yoghurt, and curry powder seasoned the bowl of rice and lentils she ate sitting on her back stoop. The sun dipped below the roofs of the neighboring houses and trees and the soft mewing started again. She drew comfort knowing that her favorite part of her home – besides the garden – now sheltered a family of feral cats.
She debated if going next door to offer assistance would be helpful or annoying. Curtains were already hung and drawn in the bedroom. Maybe the baby was sleeping. Maybe the parents too? Or maybe they had gone for another load. She decided it was better to wait for some indication they needed help or at least wanted a hand.
Her thoughts drifted to her run-in with Bubbeh’s oracle the previous day:
Listen and know!
The man of bright colors deposits a seed in an empty vessel.
The elephant takes the vessel to a man of letters.
The elephant and man of letters take the vessel out of the diseased garden.
The man of letters harvests the fruit under a distant, barren land.
The man of bright colors finds the fruit.
The elephant takes the vessel to a man of letters.
The elephant and man of letters take the vessel out of the diseased garden.
The man of letters harvests the fruit under a distant, barren land.
The man of bright colors finds the fruit.
Listen and know!
How strange it seemed to her. The imagery made sense though a couple things gave her pause. Who was “the man of letters?” A learned man? Someone in the market who passed messages? The wording of the oracle seemed to put this man in opposition to Willem – “the man of bright colors.”
If she was “an empty vessel” then the man of letters would take her on a journey – a journey of hope and success – for the elephant was a good omen for the traveler. She struggled with the possibilities: Where would they go? Should she travel now? Would she find Willem? Was she really pregnant? And wouldn’t it be safer to have the baby here? It just made no sense to her, the granddaughter of fortune-tellers and soothsayers, but she trusted the true meaning would be revealed in time.
Feeling fatigued, Avinashika headed for bed. Maybe her new neighbors would welcome some assistance tomorrow. She donned the simple nightgown of pink, cotton tricot that she wore when sleeping alone, switched off the light, and slipped between the sheets. Replaying the image of the sunset in her mind, her eyes grew heavy and sleep came easily.
“We must find Ugo. He’s got the answers,” she said to her unseen but seemingly familiar companion. “Appledorf. That’s all I know. Ugo. Appledorf.”
Together they ran chased by a pair of over-sized Rottweilers with teeth too large for their mouths. They barked “Where?” and “When?” and “Why?” until she pulled her comrade into a large wooden crate and slammed the side shut. The dogs ran past the box and continued barking their one-word questions, the sound fading in the distance.
Pushing against the side of the box it would not give. She tried another side, then another, moved around, and tried again. They were locked in. In the pitch black she sensed her companion’s anger but felt no menace. Continuing to press against the sides of the box she cried for help. Nothing happened.
She tried to slow her breathing and banish the panic. “Don’t worry, we won’t suffocate.”
The top of the box dissolved into a cloudless, azure sky. She rested her hands on the edge and peered over. She was now in a boat with two people – the seemingly familiar partner and a man with a malevolent quality. He demanded, “I want more. Give me more!” He grabbed at her.
She pulled her companion out of the boat box. A single, red cloud hung in the sky. She pirouetted three times and an elephant with many arms appeared. Marigolds rained from the heavens as a tiny Willem sprang from the ground where she had danced.
“Thank you, Ugo!” she sang as she danced with her companion.
Avinashika woke feeling hopeful.
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