This is a Tomorrowlands universe story; they are listed at http://www.tomorrowlands.org/story/stories.html.
(c) 2002, Tad "Baxil" Ramspott
Who'll be our role model, now that our role models are gone? SCATTERLINGS An Ash story by Baxil, 6/2002 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- A man walks down the street; it's the street of a strange world. Strange to his eyes: haphazard wooden shacks and squat adobe towers; laundry lines fluttering like rows of flags over embassy alleyways; adults and teenagers slumped on stoops and steps like old men, withered by the eternal tropical sun. Strange to his ears, mostly in the silence: he can still hear the clink of ceramic, the laughter and staccato conversation, of the obnoxiously decorated tourist-trap cafe back on the corner a block behind him. The English carries, raised voices bouncing off walls; the city can't absorb it, and so pushes it around in circles until it gets bored and flees for home. Tourists. Like them, but wholly unlike them, he flew into town. Like them, and even more unlike them, he is a Caucasian in a Hispanic city. Heads raise, eyes catch his light skin and well-tailored clothing -- perhaps stopping briefly to narrow in amusement at the silly gringo's overcoat -- and heads lower, ignoring the visitor, inwardly bracing for the inevitable camera flash. He walks along unchallenged as the air dances around him, leaping hotfooted from the pavement to join the dry breeze languidly skipping down the street. The city is not, he realizes as he walks, silent; it merely talks to itself. He is surrounded by sound -- the distant cries of children at play, and madres shouting at their niños in the universal language of parenthood; the yawn of wood and groan of hinges as wind prods at doorways; the singing of a rusted pulley as a woman wheels in her laundry from the line; the far-distant growl of traffic. Then, behind him, a sudden symphony of approaching children: he turns, and a dozen or more tattered young waifs, thin and dirty but without the desperate fear in the eyes of the starving, have pressed themselves around him, shouting pleas at him in pidgin English, holding up palm-sized cardboard signs proclaiming their poverty. The man shrugs helplessly, struggling to dislodge one young girl's firm grasp on his wrist. He tries to concentrate, searching his vocabulary; the children circle him, often stumbling as the tide of bodies sweeps in and out, their cardboard signs pressing into his clothing. He says haltingly, "No tengo dinero" -- I have no money -- and realizes they had already started moving away before he opened his mouth. He checks his coat pockets as the last few of them disappear around corners or into alleys or doorways -- and sure enough, the pocket mirror and the little wooden cross are gone. An old scam. If he'd been a tourist, the kids would have had his wallet. He smiles wryly at their bad luck in finding probably the only norteamericano in the city who wasn't on vacation, and allows himself a chuckle as he imagines their disbelief at ending up empty-handed. He reaches into the hot wind with a practiced hand, snatches his mirror and cross out of thin air, and then, as an afterthought, reaches up once more -- eyes squinted in concentration -- and grabs one of their cardboard signs as a souvenir. It reads, "Hungry - Plese Help," and goes into his pocket along with his recovered gear. He walks; the streets get narrower, denser, curving at whimsical angles and intersecting haphazardly -- a cartographer's nightmare. The city gets cooler as the streets crowd in -- no direct sunlight to warm the hard-packed dirt. At some points, it seems to him that he is finding his way on scent alone -- tortillas cooking back there; cigarette smoke from that window; the acrid smell of dust from the ashes of a burnt wooden hovel. He rounds a corner and sees where the fire must have been, no more than a few days ago. Nobody has bothered to clean up the wreckage or salvage the half-burnt furnishings from the far edge of the fire. It's lucky, he thinks, that the neighbors' buildings were all adobe. The city's sounds do not press in as the streets shrink, but the smells do. All around now is the tang of old urine, the musk of dusty sweat. He continues walking. Nobody sits along the streets here. Instead of old faces rising from underneath wide-brimmed straw hats, he catches glimpses of frightened eyes peering at him from behind the thin curtains covering window-holes. Birds cry out from alleys and rooftops. The traffic noises are a memory. There is a child's anguished wail, the painful heaves of an old man's labored breathing. Footsteps. Dirt-greyed Nike sneakers, laced with twine, on the bent feet of a man not quite out of his teens, who steps out of an alleyway into the gringo's path. Hands in his pockets, one clenched around something. Dangerous eyes. The man in the overcoat looks up, coolly meets the teen's stare, blinks. The teen can't quite keep himself from a double-take when he finds himself looking suddenly into pupilless red eyes. He jerks his hands out of his pocket -- empty -- and flattens himself against the wall as the gringo walks by, not even breaking stride. "Gracias," the man says quietly, not turning his head, blinking his eyes back to a human's. The teen mumbles something to the man's back. Crosses himself. Hurries away. The man smiles, fingers the crucifix in his pocket, looks around, looks up. He catches a glimpse through clotheslines of a cross, a white silhouette against the sky, several blocks away. He stops, turns, and zig-zags his way toward it. Three blocks and seven streets later, he is in front of a whitewashed adobe building. He's been walking past whitewashed adobe buildings since he entered this neighborhood, but this one's got a porch, a cross on its roof, and a conspicuous lack of second-story windows above the street. It is taller than its neighbors -- only by a foot or two, but enough to give the impression that the building is a much larger beast, crouched down to blend in against the surrounding skyline, that could at any moment stand up to twice its height. The modest whitewashed cross towers over the neighborhood. She sits on the porch, knitting a blanket from a coil of undyed wool, singing a folk tune he dimly remembers having heard somewhere before. He stops at the edge of the porch, leaning against the wooden beam supporting the ragged overhang, and listens to her smooth, weathered voice croon out the last verse: Sobre la ciudad, en la colina, el lobo grita. En las calles, el niño camina con la perrita. ¿Donde está su hija, cazador? Perdida en el bosque de amor. Now he remembers where he's heard it. She sang it for him at The Meeting. Soon after the world turned upside down, at an inconceivable convention of the fantastic, they had been sitting around a campfire and waiting for the announcement that would decide the course of the rest of their lives. That simple Mexican tune had kept it all real somehow. She finishes the song, and looks up from her knitting, directly into his eyes. She smiles tenderly, and the gentle creases on her face deepen. She folds the knitting needles together, brushes a hand through her still-black hair, and says in easy unaccented English, "It's good to see you again, Ash." He smiles back and looks down; tall, thin frame still propped up against the post. "Likewise, Tia. How's life treating you?" She is not his tia, although at twice his age, she certainly could be. But she introduced herself as Tia Pluma when they met, and everyone he has talked to (except for Pete, who always affectionately calls her "my feather") refers to her that way. She stands up, folding the half-knit blanket, smoothing down her plain dress. "God has sent me many blessings, and many responsibilities. I welcome both." He looks up again; she catches his gaze and smiles. "Do come in. Tea? Lemonade?" "I'd love some. Lemonade." He stands straight and walks onto the porch, then follows her through the doorway of the church. He marvels inwardly at how she's taking all this in stride -- then, at how she has remembered his name, having met him once, for the better part of an evening, a year and a half ago. Magic comes in many forms, he reflects, and perhaps that's part of hers. The pews, simple wooden benches, have been shoved over against one wall and covered with blankets to form a dozen makeshift beds. Neat piles of clothes and toys are stacked underneath them and against the other wall. The spacious wooden floor is crammed with colorful chalk drawings and two sets of hopscotch squares. The altar, at the far side of the room, is reverently untouched, and contains several lit candles; a nearly-life-size crucifix hangs behind it, stretching from head level toward the lofty ceiling. The room, he realizes in shock, could fit several dragons; the spaciousness is completely out of place in the cramped, poor neighborhood. She takes a ceramic mug -- handmade, and lumpy in a way that makes it seem to hug your hand -- and fills it from the sink on the near wall, making certain to run the tap for several seconds first. There are several lemons on the counter next to the sink; she reaches to the shelf above for a battered knife and saws one open. "Could you get the sugar out of the pantry?" she asks as her thin hands wring juice into the glass. He looks around, and realizes that several cabinets line the back wall of the church, opposite the counter at which she works. After a little trial and error, he locates the azúcar in its sealed tin; she adds a heaping spoonful and stirs. He walks to a side wall plastered with pictures, admiring a six-year-old's crayon drawing of two dragons flying through the air, green circles with blobbish legs and stick wings. "Papa y mí," it is labeled. The paper is surrounded on all sides by other sketches and scribbles, of animals, myths, and humans in a variety of combinations, skill levels, and styles. He takes a deep breath, smelling the faint sweetness of scented candles in the warm, still air. "I like what you've done with the place," he comments. She laughs, pressing the mug into his hands. "With seventeen children around, it seems to decorate itself. Sweet enough?" He takes a sip of the drink; it is ice-cold, smooth and strong. He blinks and shivers slightly as it hits. "It's the best I've ever tasted," he answers truthfully, eyeing the single, half-used lemon on the counter. "Seventeen children? Where are they all?" She smiles. "Thank you; and they're gone for the day. All of them who are old enough attend school full-time. Two days a week, Maricel and Inez take the youngest with them so that I can do errands and housework. Sundays, we take trips so Alejandro can hold services. You should come by on a weekend." He smiles. "I'll pass. Don't they ... you know. Run into any discrimination, at school?" "Not any more. The other children have learned not to call them bestialitos ... to their faces." She smiles humorlessly. "But they make fewer friends than I would like. At least they have each other." "Yeah." "Speaking of which. How is Susan?" He winces. "Don't ask." She looks at him with motherly concern, but nods. "How's your circle, then?" He sighs, and takes another sip of lemonade to clear the bitter taste from his mouth; it doesn't work. "I don't know. I haven't seen them in over a year. I ... geez. A lot has happened." He turns around and stares at the sketched pair of dragons. She walks up alongside him. "That picture is Jorge's," she says quietly. "He's the newest arrival. Last week, someone burned his house down. His mother died in the fire. Nobody has seen his father for a month, and I fear Jorge will be here for the long run. That's the first thing he has drawn since he arrived. Today is his first day back in school." "I'm sorry," he says, looking down into his lemonade -- a bright, speckled yellow. "Ash," she says, "everyone who walks in that door is hurt, lost, and broken. I count my blessings every day that we have done as well as we have." "'Everyone'? What about you?" he asks. She stares at the pictures in silence for a long time. "I keep it hidden as best I can," she finally says. "Perhaps we should trade stories," he suggests. She nods. They sit, and start from their last meeting. He speaks of betrayal; she of homecoming; he of departure. She speaks of injustice; he of paralysis; she of determination. He speaks of happenstance; she speaks of happenstance. They speak of camaraderie; of purpose. He speaks of disillusionment. She cries, and admits to it. "I don't understand," he says softly. "You speak of the gifts God gives. I can feel the aura of refuge in this place. You yourself have told me something protects this sanctuary. How can you doubt?" "Because they come here," she says bitterly. "How could a God with so much power over the world -- a God who gives us the gift of magic -- let parents throw their children out in the streets, or let a child's family be murdered? Sometimes it feels like a cruel joke that He gives us such large pains and small blessings." "Tia," he says. "I'm not the best person to talk about God. Hell, I'm not even a Christian. But have you thought that maybe God is giving the best to the world that he can?" "How do you mean?" "Maybe the pain is just part of living here," he ventures, "and he gives us these big wonders and small fortunes to help us ease it?" She shakes her head. "I've always been taught that everything that happens is God's will. Now more than ever. How could He have the power to give us such miracles and not be responsible for the rest?" "I didn't say that he was responsible for the pain. Maybe that's just part of the life deal." "But if He has the power to prevent such senseless tragedies and doesn't, then by allowing it He is responsible for it." He looks down. "I don't know what to tell you, then. Look, I don't think it's true that God is omnipotent or omniscient. All I can say is that I think it's better for you to lose your faith in that, than for you to lose your faith that God loves us all." She looks up. "Well, Ash, what do you believe?" "Me?" He smiles wryly, takes the cross out of his pocket, and runs his fingers over it. "I'm a heretic. I think God's in this building for the same reason as the rest of us. I think he's as lost as we are." She closes her eyes. "So you still think He didn't give us the Changes. That He has nothing to do with magic." "Not my magic, no. But everything to do with yours." He puts the cross away. She smiles despite herself. "That's right, you said that last time, too. It's good to know that you haven't changed." "I've changed so much I've come full circle," he muses. "I think I'm finding myself again." "That's good. The world's better for having you." "And you. Oh! Which reminds me," he says, and pulls a small cardboard box marked "Tia" out of his coat, reaching into thin air the same way he did with the cross and mirror. She runs a fingernail through the masking tape holding it shut, then opens the box to find loose stacks of currency. American bills, twenties and tens. Pesos, mostly in hundreds. At a glance, a few thousand dollars' worth. "I know you're getting by without it," he says. "But sometimes there's no substitute. Buy the kids new clothes. Fix up the place. Pay property taxes. Whatever." "Hijole," she exclaims softly. The look in her eyes says the rest. He shrugs, and looks embarrassed. "I don't spend much money these days. Don't worry about it. Pete told me about the place here, and I figured it was the least I could do." "The least you could do? This will keep us going for years. I don't know how to repay you," she says, staring at the box. "Come on. You're raising seventeen children. That should be the last thing on your mind." "But ... well ... if you say so," she reluctantly concedes. "At least accept my gratitude. Can I offer you another glass of lemonade?" "Of course!" As she makes it, using the other half of the lemon she cut earlier, she again invites him to join her this weekend, or at least stick around until the kids come home from school. "They'd love to meet you," she says. "And they need more role models." He accepts the drink and savors its scent. "I'm not that good with kids. Not to mention, I'd need some time to brush up on my Spanish." "Sometime soon, then?" She looks sidelong at Jorge's drawing. "Well ... tell you what. I know Pete would love to visit you. Next time I've got a week or two free, I'll see if I can arrange to bring him down here." "I'll look forward to it." He takes another sip of lemonade, swirling it around in his mouth, letting its tartness and sweetness caress his tongue. A sense of deja vu builds as the tastes sink in. Curious, he holds the liquid in his mouth and focuses. A memory surges into his mind. Orchards. Pristine rows of trees, dotted with little yellow suns glistening in reflected light. (His first thought is that this is not his memory, but it feels like an echo regardless.) The trees are unnaturally tall. An oppressive heat envelops the area, driving people to the shade, and stalking them even there with a parching breeze. Birdcalls and coarse Spanish flit back and forth: gossip, jokes, instructions, songs. Dark shapes flit through the background, gathering suns and hiding them away. There are lemons on the ground, and it is his job to pick up the edible ones and put them in a sack. The other workers, twice as tall and twice again as old, take them from the trees. It has been a long morning, but the fire in the sky has finally reached its peak. Sacks have been collected, fruit has been counted, the pale man who talks funny has made some notations on his clipboard, and bagged lunches have been hauled out. The others eat, but he sags against a tree and gasps for breath; he has overexerted himself, dashing around the orchard all day, and is beginning to feel light-headed. One of the nameless adults hands him a clear plastic cup of yellow liquid with a patronizing smile, then turns back to his friends, laughing and joking. The cup is cold to the touch; water drips down the outside. He takes a greedy gulp, and cold fire burns through his belly. The aftertaste of citrus and honey and the chill from a rogue piece of ice hang onto the back of his tongue for an eternity. It is that taste he remembers as he swallows, there in the lethargic heat of the church, a country away and a lifetime later. Tia had mentioned something about moving to California at a young age. At length, he finishes the drink, admires the mug's uneven glazing (the name "Rafael" is painted on the bottom), and says, "I should get going. I've got a long way to fly to get back to the States." She smiles, sighs, embraces him warmly. "You have your own loved ones to worry about. I understand. I am very grateful for your visit, Ash." "Thanks. You take care, Tia." He sets the mug down on the counter and takes one last look around the church. The sun has shifted; some stained-glass windows he hadn't noticed earlier now paint the floor with light. A white-robed, angel-winged man dances against a blue backdrop, eternally suspended in midair, coloring the dust motes that drift up to join him, spinning into infinity. He nods at the angel, bows to the altar, waves to his hostess, and turns away. "Vuele con Dios," she calls after him. "Huh?" he says, stopping in the doorway. She smiles. "Fly with God." "Amen," he says, smiling back. Then, as an afterthought, "Hallelujah."
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