Job 33:14-16: Indeed God speaks once,
Or twice, yet no one notices it.
In a dream, a vision of the night,
When sound sleep falls on man,
While they slumber in their beds,
Then He opens the ears of man,
And seals their instruction in...
Karat Eku Ra 1638-1639: Tu nee dlon dlon klin nebu? Dlon dlon klin lon lon? Nayla Eku haeer gral dlon dlon ha Eku ger flatlee baf feem fed ha ger flatlee baf Plir.
Did we not come from another world ourselves? Are we not strangers? Yet Eku, who brought our people, is stronger than all gods, stronger than Plir.
Purple clouds crowded the sky, threatening rain, and I shuddered
at the tension in the air. Back in the desert, I'd loved the rain,
but out here, I knew it would just leak through the tower and
make everything smell like our refrigerator had, back when we'd
had food in it. Back when I was home, not worlds away from it.
A storm would have at least muted the sound of metal clashing on metal, the screams of wounded men, the crash of bodies against our stone fortress. They'd been fighting forever, it seemed, but I still couldn't ignore the noise. The enemy shot at us, but the arrows lost altitude before they could even try their luck at passing through our narrow windows. We were out of arrows, ourselves, and practically out of men. We had less than a hundred alive down there, but soldiers in dirty uniforms, crowded around the tower as far as I could see, maybe a thousand of them. I had no idea who ours were; I was too high up to see the faces, and the muddy uniforms all looked the same from three stories up.
We were lost already. But here I was, safe until I starved, far above the fighters, and the fighting. I desperately prayed that somehow our side would overcome.
A light, strong hand touched my shoulder, startling me.
"I think this is the end, Bonnie," he said softly.
The man was as dirty as the soldiers below, as dirty as I was. His hair was almost black with mud and grime, and his once-green uniform had turned brown. He was so filthy he could've had purple skin beneath all the mud, for all I knew. But I leaned against his small frame, and took some comfort in his firm embrace.
"This can't be it," I replied.
"Not for you." The man smiled sadly. "They won't kill you."
"They kill women and children," I said, shuddering.
"But not goddesses." I had always wanted a man to think of me as his goddess, but for some reason I was disgusted to hear him voice it. I pulled away, and the man quickly amended, "Not powerful women. They don't know you won't help them.
"I'm going down to the battle," he added. When I tried to protest, he said, "If I'm killed, we're lost--but we're lost anyway." He knelt before me and pressed his lips to my limp hand.
"Don't go," I murmured, but I knew from the look in his eyes that I'd lost that battle, too. As he left me with the wounded on the second-to-top floor of the tower, my head felt hot, and I thought I heard thunder.
Awful coughs woke me from my sleep--terrible sounds, a noise
more like an engine turning over, than reflexes from the woman
who had brought me into the world. The coughs ended in a rasp.
I used to get up and check every time Mom stopped coughing, afraid
she'd stopped breathing, too. But she'd been survived for six
months since she'd lost her job, practically a cripple the last
two. She was still holding on. In a couple minutes she was snoring,
a noise I used to find embarrassing, but now cherished. It meant
the only thing I had to worry about for the time-being was making
too much noise and waking her. Luckily, pens aren't noisy.
I'd been dreaming about Sheshack as long as I can remember, and had been writing about it since I was ten. The place was a verdant land--all forest, grass, and rivers. It had all the scenery we didn't have at home, and people too pretty and chivalrous for this world. I mainly saw two nameless men. The skinny one--the one who had just seemed to hug me a few minutes ago--was always trying to comfort me, like an older brother. If I ever met him on the street, I think I'd run away. Not because he was intimidating; he would never hurt me. But I almost never daydreamed about him unless we were in some sort of trouble.
The very first time I wrote about Sheshack, it was when Mrs. Hacklestein made us compose a story about a fictional country. The words came to me like I wasn't imagining them at all, and though I only got a B on the assignment, I soon had more daydreams, and kept writing, both for school, and for the fun of it. The only story any of my teachers had been impressed by was one of the few I felt I made up entirely; the words didn't come easily, and I worked hard on it. I'd written that the two men were fighting over me; I don't think I even mentioned the reason, or thought of one myself. But my grammar was good and I'd got a green star sticker for it--green to match Sheshack's trees. Maybe the teacher just felt bad for me; that was around the time the divorce was being finalized. That's probably why I fantasized about two men loving me enough to kill for me. My father didn't love my mother enough to live with her. He'd vanished soon after the divorce, and I hated him for it. If he came back and tried to get custody of me now, I think I'd run away, like a coward, just like he had.
Now I wasn't just looking for someone to love me madly. I'd settle for a man who could take care of me, who wouldn't leave. The other man I'd envisioned--a tall, muscular, long-haired man--could provide for me and love me. I flipped through my book, scanning for passages I'd circled--parts that I drew comfort from sometimes.
He held me close, and I stopped fighting. "I'll never let you fall, Bonnie," he said in a voice as strong as his arms.
Mom's coughing startled me into closing the book. No matter. I'd be back in Sheshack the next time I closed my eyes. Sometimes I found myself there while I was still awake, too. I tried to get there now, though my body moved towards Mom's bedroom.
I was lost in my thoughts and stepped on an empty cassette case, cracking it, and almost cutting myself. I yelled curses at the idiot who hadn't cleaned up the hallway, until I realized that person was me. So I quietly cursed the neighbors. They'd given us all these awful cassettes, when they upgraded to CDs. Mom appreciated them, and even I'd found a few I kind of liked--some dance music, and some classical. But I felt really poor, listening to old tapes.
Mom also collected magazines our neighbors had finished with, and bundles of them lined the walls of the living room. Their presence made our two bedrooms, tiny kitchen and living room seem all the more cramped. Mom was always in bed, but Frieda and I stepped on each other's toes quite a bit in the remaining 500 square feet of space. Frieda sometimes made me feel more useless than the broken cassette case I pitched.
Mom was sitting up in bed, and she took the glass of water I offered her. We'd all given up on making her bedroom cheerful; in fact, I couldn't bear to touch bloodied Kleenex, so I rarely even cleaned the room. She had some old plastic flowers by her bedside now, and some of her old magazines. She smiled at me, but she didn't mean it--hadn't meant it for months.
"Bonnie, I'm feeling better today."
Mom was lying. She was thinner than me now, and her skin was always dry, her eyes so tired-looking I wondered if she really wanted to close them forever, and was just staying here for me and Frieda. I'd seen corpses on TV pinker than her, and my grandfather had looked better at his own funeral.
"I'm glad," I said, trying to sound cheerful, but I guess I came out sarcastic, judging from Mom's look--a desperate, silent plea for me to pretend everything was OK. "Can I turn the fan on? Aren't you hot?" I asked quietly.
Mom wasn't, but it was over 100 outside, and I would've traded my best pair of shoes to get in a swimming pool for a few hours.
And that's where I was, fully dressed. Not in my clothes, but weird ones, blue and green, and heavy. Long black hair streamed in the water beside me--not mine, but a man's. I knew the man well; he had piercing green eyes, and a strong jawline. Though he was just imagined, I'd already started to love him. He even looked strong in the water. I was sure he could lift me, Frieda, and Mom without thinking twice about it. Maybe he could even juggle us, if we all stayed very still so he could balance us. But even though I was daydreaming, even though I should've had free rein over what this imaginary man did, I couldn't picture it.
We weren't in a pool after all, but a pond, almost a lake (although, to someone born and raised in the desert like I was, anything larger than a swimming pool seems to be a lake). I wasn't much of a swimmer, but I could've swam across the water, to the bright trees along the shore, or at least halfway, if the man hadn't restrained me.
The man's shoulders were clothed in blue and green, like mine were, in three-quarter length sleeves. At least we wouldn't get sunburned. We swam, but not very far, and when the weight of my wet clothes started to drag me down, the man helped me float.
"Be careful, Bonnie," he murmured, and then he told me he loved me.
At those words, I was floating on the inside too.
"Bonnie!" Frieda's voice stung like a jellyfish, waking me. I was still in front of Mom, sitting like I'd just fallen asleep. That must've scared Mom pretty good.
"It's the heat," Mom coughed. "Look how red her cheeks are."
Frieda hauled me up. Maybe that's where I'd imagined the man from; Frieda was nearly as strong as he had seemed, though not nearly as pretty. Her jaw was every bit as square, and her eyebrows bushier. "All I asked was for you to make a salad, and you can't even do that?"
I shouted back at her, but Mom had a coughing spell, probably faked. We stopped arguing anyway. Mom sometimes cried, or said how ashamed she was of us, and neither of us could stand that. And we couldn't bear to imagine the last thing she ever saw being us fighting.
"I'll help you make supper," Frieda said slowly. It wouldn't help; everything I made tasted like it'd been left on the counter for three days, no matter how I tried. "Can you clean a little tomorrow?
"I'll grow my hair and go to work for you," I shot back. "We can trade places, if you're so good at cleaning."
"Don't be stupid," Frieda said. "You're too young--the state doesn't think you're mature enough to work. And I agree with them for once."
I nearly said something sarcastic about the difficulty of flipping burgers, but I managed not to. Besides, with my luck, every burger I flipped would make everyone who ate it sick, just like the chili I'd made with leftover pot roast and the swollen can of beans from the back of the cupboard. Frieda missed work and I was stuck home for three days. If Mom had been up to eating that day, she probably would've died of food poisoning.
I pulled the salad out of the refrigerator, lingering in the air that came out from the open door. There was a cool breeze in my face, and a cold meal in front of me, as colorful as a bowl of Play-Doh, and maybe as salty. I would've tried to eat it no matter what it tasted like, to keep from offending the cook, or the two men...
Of course I had lettuce in my mouth when Frieda caught me.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked. "Are you a rabbit?"
I said something mean back, and she did the same. Then Mom coughed from the bedroom, so we argued more quietly.
"What's gotten into you?" Frieda hissed.
"Nothing," I said. After a pause, I said, "I'm sorry," and I wasn't lying, exactly. It was true when I added, "I've just been worried about Mom. I'd rather think of anything else."
Frieda's right eye lost its twitch, that special annoyed flutter that only I could give her. "I know," she said softly. "But worrying isn't going to help anything." I almost forgave my sister, until she added, "You should go crash with Tina or whoever. Get away from Mom, and save us some money."
I hated Frieda and Mom sometimes, and I hated our pathetic house. But I could've slapped Frieda for trying to send me away from it all. "I don't eat that much," I said. "And if it weren't for me you wouldn't have anything to wear!"
That last part was almost true. We still had an old sewing machine--we'd get maybe $25 if we sold it, so we'd kept it. And I used it to mend hems and seams that came loose, and to sew new clothes. I made most of what I wore, some clothes for Frieda, and all Mom's nightgowns. (She didn't need suits anymore, and she had enough church dresses to last 20 years, 30 if she missed every third Sunday or so as she had been lately.) Frieda hated skirts, but I made her high-waisted cargo pants, with room for her hips--stuff a woman couldn't buy in a store anyway.
"I can buy clothes at Goodwill, Bonnie," Frieda said. "Where am I supposed to buy a clean house?"
"I guess we're too poor to afford one," I said. Frieda didn't have an answer, so I said, "Fine. I'm going to Tina's. I'll be back for the funeral, I guess."
We both knew I didn't mean it, but Frieda was still mad and didn't try to stop me. I slammed the door hard as I left.
The stifling heat from the setting sun nearly drove me back inside. It wasn't like I could really go to Tina's--she had hardly spoken to me in two weeks, busy with her boyfriend, and she had stopped wearing the spaghetti-strap tops I sewed for her. My other friends had grown distant after Mom got sick, like they thought cancer was contagious. And I couldn't live on the streets--a sidewalk hot enough to fry an egg would surely fry me too.
Uncle Gary would help me in a pinch, but he lived across town. None of our neighbors had ever brought any food over while Mom was sick, just their outdated junk. They didn't have that much more to spare than we did, but you'd think they would've helped with what they had--maybe in gratitude for the fact that their own families were healthy. They never had, though, and I knew they wouldn't take me in.
I'd made it to the park. It was a tiny bit of ground, with almost the only trees in a two-mile radius, and just about the only living grass. A few years back no one dared set foot there, for fear of gangs, but the homeless people had taken over, and now everyone else stayed away. I could just imagine a couple gangsters in bandanas stalking off from the place, clucking their tongues in disgust about the park going so far downhill.
The homeless were mostly gone around dusk, getting food from our poor church a mile away, and the ones left behind were fast asleep, more pathetic than scary. I wasn't at all afraid of them, but I hated to look at them. I wouldn't be one of them, not the moment Mom died, anyway. Uncle Gary would take care of me, for a while. But if he got tired of me, I'd be a ward of the state for a couple years. After I turned 18, I didn't know what would happen. Frieda couldn't afford to go to college, so I'd probably have a job like hers, flipping burgers. Then I remembered that I probably couldn't even do that right. Scrubbing toilets, then. I guess that's hard to mess up.
I leaned against one of the trees. Its trunk was no thicker than a volleyball pole, and its leaves were nearly as thin as a net's strings. I was alone; it was far too hot for any sensible person to be outside with nothing but a stick to protect her from the sun.
I tried to go back to my dreams, to feel a cool breeze, to smell strange flower scents, to hold the hand of the handsome strong man with the long hair. I tried to imagine anything, but all I could picture was the pole-tree leaning over me, as if to speak, and then suddenly choking me with its half-dead leaves.
Why was I imagining being attacked by a spindly tree? I'd thought the only thing I was afraid of was Mom's death, maybe being poor, or poorer. But a tree?
I didn't want to go home, back to the people who were disappointed in me. I longed to be taken away, even to be caught up in wicked tree branches. I pressed my hands to the tree trunk, and then I wasn't so angry with Frieda anymore. She was pathetic, not worth my anger. I imagined her bowing to me, begging my forgiveness, pleading for my help. But it wasn't what I really wanted, was it?
Frieda found me just before dark, and she didn't scold me, but she didn't say she was glad I was OK, either.
"Thanks for scrubbing the toilet," was all she said.
After supper I worked on Frieda's new church dress for a couple hours, until the hum and ratcheting noises of the machine started to annoy Mom, and I had to stop for the night. Then I halfheartedly studied for my exams, really just hoping to tire myself enough to drift into my fantasies again.
But once I finally fell asleep, I didn't dream.
On to Chapter 2: A Calling
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