by Carole W
Author’s Note: This story is a continuation of another I wrote, … the wind blowing in the same bare place, but it isn’t necessary to have read it. Just know that Winslow is newly below, seven years old, and has, until now, had a really rough time of it.
Not just this house
but the arms of a fierce
but healing world
~ David Whyte
A cla-a-a-n-g woke him. Rather than the tapped dots and dashes he’d learned were words, this was a boom. He lay there with his eyes shut tight and counted four more thundered bangs. That made five, but that meant he’d missed one, hopefully not two. He’d been instructed to get up at six and he didn’t want to make a mistake. Mistakes were dangerous and most of the time he didn’t know he was making them.
He guessed he’d need his own bedside clock. He’d had one before; he had to have, since his mama never got him up for school herself. Mr. Burt had given it to him, took it right down off the shelf of his store, set it for him, and showed him how it worked. It’d reminded him of something in a cartoon with those great big bells for a ringer. The numbers on the face were really big too – big enough that telling time started to make sense after a while. His teacher even told him he caught on quick.
Does it have a radio? he’d asked. But Mr. Burt shook his head and that had made him mad, even though he didn’t want to feel that way, not with Mr. Burt. He heard himself huff, felt that old mean pain shoot up the back of his neck, run over the top of his head and land right behind his eyes.
Seeing red? Mr. Burt had asked him, not the least bit mad back, and then he’d felt like crying.
The electricity doesn’t always work at your house, his friend went on, like it wasn’t somehow his fault, like it wasn’t shameful, like it just was. But remember to wind it, and that won’t matter.
It had mattered, though. When the lights were on, there wasn’t much to eat in the house, but when they were off, there was less. They’d been off for the longest – his mama gone the longest too – when he finally went to Mr. Burt and asked to live in his storeroom and ended up … down here.
Had he remembered to blow out the candles before he fell asleep the night before? The man – Mister Man, he called him in his head – had told him to be sure to. We need so many, we must conserve. The electric passageway lights will dim at ten, but you should be abed by then, he’d said. Don’t be frightened if you wake up in the night; you’ll be able to see well enough. The community pipes will ring the time on the hour starting at six in the morning, and the corridor lamps will brighten again at five after. You’ll hop to then, right? It’ll be a new day for you.
A new day.
Don’t mess up, dummy.
He held a breath, opened his eyes, the barest lifting of his lids. Whew! Still dark. Dark-ish, anyway. Whew again. He’d remembered, apparently, to snuff the candles, because they were still half as tall as when he’d lit them. The drips looked like the white icing on a cake he’d seen in a bakery window once.
And then … the bare bulbs strung high in the twisty hallway came full on; the shadows pushed back. Patter started up on the rusty iron ductwork that snaked everywhere. From the room – chamber – next to his came the sound of laughter, the long scrape of a chair, he guessed, across the hard floor. “Race ya!” he heard, one boy to another already on the way to the showers.
The facilities, they called them down here. Through the first intersection, second tunnel on the right. A circular staircase down to a warren of stone alcoves, each with a waterfall and a shallow steaming pool, each with a rock wash basin, a crazy wooden toilet. A water closet, Mister Man had called it when he was showing him the lay of the land. Weird as it was, weird as it all was, the water wasn’t brown or smelly like it had been where he lived before … when it wasn’t cut off altogether.
Who pays the bill? he’d asked, spreading his hands. Water hot and cold, electric lights. Mister Man didn’t answer right away and his stomach knotted around the thought, How’m I ‘sposed to–
Mister Man put his hand on his shoulder. He didn’t shake him or dig his fingers in, just smiled down at him. You don’t need to worry about that, Winslow. And he’d felt like crying again, wanted to throw his arms around the man and bawl like a baby, because he believed him, and it was the best … and scary … all at the same time.
He’d have to shower too and soon. Every morning, he’d been instructed. And again if he got dirty on the job, whatever that meant. Clean clothes to start every single day, not the ones he’d slept in, either. And breakfast, Mister Man had said, was man … manna … mandatory. “Not to be skipped,” he’d clarified when he must have seen he didn’t know what he was talking about. As if he’d turn down food.
Awww, he really needed to go. But if he waited a little while, surely some of the boys would come back and maybe he’d be the only one down there. He knew he didn’t stink any more, and he wasn’t the dumpiest kid in the bunch, but still … he was used to being last. Last was safer – even if it hurt.
He raised up on one elbow and reached over for the stub of a pencil lodged underneath the three-armed candlestick on the bureau and for the square of folded notebook paper on which he’d started the list Mister Man told him to make. Think of what you might need. We’ll see what we can turn up. Another thing he’d been told not to worry about when he asked – paying – and it crossed his mind there might be hell to pay some day, anyway, but it felt so good to just want something and say so and not have anybody laugh at him or smack him into next week for having the nerve …
Right underneath S-N-A-X and S-U-M-M-O-R-E S-H-U-Z … he scribbled, K-L-O-K, sounding the word in his head like his teacher had taught him to, thinking through the letters on big cards taped to the wall above the blackboards. He drew a circle with pointy hands and a few numbers on it, though, right beside it, in case he had to show it to a grown up and it wasn’t spelled right. He’d want them to know he’d tried. He examined the pencil’s lead – dull, getting duller. He’d need a sharpener too, but it was too hard to spell or draw; he’d just have to remember. Then he pitched off his covers and sat up, looked around the room.
My bed. My furniture. My clothes.
He’d been below two weeks now. The early days had been awful nice, rooming in with Pascal and his dad in their big, open quarters. (On-ree, he said his name was, but call me Henry. Not Mr. Something-or-other, or Sir. Nobody seemed to have a last name.) There’d been plenty on their table. He hadn’t minded having a bowl of oatmeal every morning and a bowl of stew every night, even if Pascal did complain about it. Whenever he griped, Henry made them stop eating and take a moment of silence, into which, Henry said, gratitude should steal. He’d laughed at what seemed a funny way of talking, but that just doubled the time-out, and really, he was grateful. It wasn’t stale dry cereal or ketchup on crackers. It wasn’t soup from a can thinned down to a salty tap water with a carrot-colored cube floating in it; this was hot and thick – the oatmeal and the stew – and he could have seconds if he wanted. More always seemed to be bubbling on the … what had Henry called it? … the brazier. After a few days, he started believing there’d be food enough the next day, which kinda knocked him down once he realized it.
First thing, they’d climbed a couple levels up to a storeroom bigger than the bargain basement a lady from his school had taken him and some other poor kids to once and sorted through the bins of clothes there until he had more things that fit him than he ever remembered having. A good thing, too, because, once he got back, he had to put half of it on, almost, to keep warm. Henry said he’d acclimatize, a word Pascal had to translate for him: You’ll get used to it.
Shoes had proved a bit of a problem; kid sizes didn’t fit him and there was only one pair of men’s that did. Something will give, don’t worry, a woman – Anna – assured him as she changed out the broken laces on the boots that worked, even while she rocked the strange baby’s cradle with her foot. We’ll find some soon enough, and, anyway, you’re growing. You’ll be back up there in a month, needing something new.
A month from now … He couldn’t remember thinking much about the future, but she sure sounded sure.
His first few days had been a blur of surprises, people and places. He kept thinking he was dreaming, that he’d find himself on a pallet in a cardboard box behind a dumpster in some alley. But he kept waking up Below and it was a whole world.
Pascal had been given time off from school and duty, two words that made him feel a little cold, well, colder than normal, when he heard them. Pascal was younger than him, a year or so, and little. If Pascal had to go to school, if Pascal had to work, what was gonna happen to him? Pascal seemed happy to be on holiday, as Henry put it, and never hinted he dreaded going back to … whatever they’d apparently both be going to soon, but he was still afraid to ask any questions.
Instead they studied the maps in Mister Man’s library, then copied a few on to paper and followed them around and around, up and down, him learning where to find the nearly hidden landmarkings that pointed in this direction or that until he felt not-lost and could walk from the Great Falls to the Great Hall to the Rope Bridge to the Common Room to the Dining Hall to the Pipe Chamber without making a wrong turn. Henry let them practice code taps on what he called a Dead Pipe until he recognized his own name and a few other Importants: water leak, rock fall, need help carrying. SOS, which if he heard, he was to run for a grownup, and if he had to tap it himself, he was to stay put. A few place names too: Willowdale Arch, Ramble Cave, Mott Street … thresholds where people came and went. And he and Pascal could even carry on a conversation, dumb as it was sometimes.
But when Mister Man asked him if he wanted to live with Pascal and Henry or fix up his own place, he’d chosen to move. At his announcement, Pascal’s mouth twisted to the side; Henry let out a little breath. He couldn’t believe they were sad about him going though, not really, but a silence hung in the library long enough that he thought he’d better explain.
It’s just I’ve … I’ve never had a real room before, he’d said, and that was true, if not the whole truth. In the hallway of the old apartment, he’d had a single bed with creaky iron springs and a mattress that folded into a valley when he lay down on it. Nobody’d asked him to swear on a stack of Bibles or anything else, so he stopped there, but eventually, sooner probably, rather than later, he figured they’d get tired of him being around and wish he were gone, make him leave, or worse, move off and leave him behind as if he were so much busted-up junk. Go, move out now, move on … a voice in his head whispered. You might as well. And so he had.
This was the first morning on his own.
My room, he said again, out loud this time, though he kept his voice way down. He didn’t need the other boys in the Dormitories knowing he talked to himself sometimes.
A dresser with a speckled mirror, a wardrobe, a bookshelf with a few volumes on it already, choices Mister Man had made, but that was fine. (You might like these, he’d said as stacked them on the corner of the big desk. All of them had pictures, but some were what his teacher had called chapter books with more words – more words than he knew, but he’d made it through one already and figured he got it … mostly.) A little round table and a chair, three … ummm … candelabras. He didn’t have enough for the room to be messy. A bit Spartan, Mister Man had commented once the people who helped him cart the old furniture down from one of the Keeping Rooms had taken off. But you’ll grow into it.
Another reference to the future, his future.
Some of the other kids in the wing had tons of stuff in their chambers. Found stuff, they called it, and told him they’d take him hunting on Free Days.
Another reference … things to come …
This is a place of belonging, Mister Man had said, his hand cupping his cheek for the barest moment. He’d frozen under the touch, unfamiliar in more ways than one, though for a moment, he’d allowed himself to dream.
As he did now.
But not for long.
“You ready?” A grinning Pascal appeared in his doorway. He was looking forward to eating in the dining hall again, he’d said, and promised to hike over in time to walk with him to breakfast. And there he was.
A part of him expected to be forgotten and a rush of old disappointments lodged in his fists. Not Pascal’s doing, but him showing up like he said he would didn’t un-do things either. Stupid to be mad, he chided himself, at the same time imagining bowling Pascal over and making a run for the old neighborhood where he knew what was what, where he knew nothing like the back of his hand.
Pascal didn’t appear to notice.
“Your hair’s still wet. Lemme show you a trick.”
Steam vented into the chamber from a crevice where the floor and wall met – it took the chill off the room and he’d made sure not to block it with furniture once Mister Man pointed it out. Pascal crouched down, a chisel pulled from the canvas bag he wore slung over one shoulder. He lodged it here and there, pried it a bit, then a bit more, and soon a loose wedge of rock popped out and a stronger wind of steam blew through. On his hands and knees now, Pascal yanked off his cap and stuck his head down; his hair lifted in the breeze. “Like this,” he said, turning his head side to side. “Dries quick.”
But he wasn’t about to get down on the floor like that; somebody might see him. Pascal didn’t seem to have any qualms about looking goofy, and nobody made fun of him that he’d heard anyway (and if anybody did, he’d deck ‘em), but that wouldn’t be his fate; at least it hadn’t been Up Top. Chubby, Stink Pot, Meathead … worse from his own mother… He was just waiting for it to start up again Below.
But … so far, so good.
“Ready enough,” he said, skipping over all the hair-drying advice, and without a word, with not even a shrug, Pascal repositioned the stone he’d chiseled loose.
He fastened the belt of the leather pouch he’d chosen from a box of knapsacks, surprised he needed to cinch it two holes tighter than when he’d first tried it on. It was empty except for the map he kept for himself, just in case, and a whistle Anna made him take for another just-in-case.
Pascal handed him a short tap-stick, a sawed off piece of rebar like he’d wedged in the hasp on the door where he used to live. “Just–”
“In case,” he finished. Pascal started laughing at that and kept laughing until he started in too. It wasn’t that funny – but it felt so good to start the day that way, knowing Pascal wasn’t mad at him for moving.
“Well, well.” A tall man with a pointy chin and a pointy beard stepped into their path out of nowhere, like he’d slunk out of a shadow. Pascal pulled up short, and he wasn’t usually surprised by much.
“Well, well, well,” he said again and folded his arms. “If it’s not Mutt and Jeff. Which one are YOU?” The man extended what seemed like an extra long arm and poked him in the shoulder.
“My name’s Win–,” he began, but the Pointy Man jumped in.
“Jeff’s the half-pint, so that makes you Mutt, doesn’t it?” Pointy Man folded his arms again and appeared to study him, hard. “You’ll be quite the large fellow one day, hmmmm? Tall, strapping. I could … use … a boy like you. Teach you, I mean. There are things you need to know. I’ll make arrangements with–”
“Yeah, well, we gotta get to breakfast,” Pascal said, plowing past Pointy Man with a look back and a jerk of his head that said Move it!
“Who was that?” he whispered, once they were two turns away. He’d seen him in the library with Mister Man a few days earlier, the two of them huddled over some sheets of paper spread out on the table. Mister Man was shaking his head, but Pointy Man kept shuffling the pages and stabbing at them with that same accusatory finger. Hiding behind the big wooden wheel propped in the vestibule, he’d been afraid to come out. Interrupting could get him slapped into next week.
“That’s not who we are!” Mister Man said.
“You don’t have the right to deny me!”
Then their voices went lower. He’d sidled away then, hot-footing it on to the Pipe Chamber, the final stop in his solo test run … well, walk.
“His name’s John,” Pascal told him. “I don’t really like him any more. He’s Anna’s husband, though, and I like her.”
“Anna’s?” She’d been so nice to him. He’d have figured Mister Man for her husband; she was always there with the Strange Baby in the basket; they were always talking, smiling, and fooling with him – Vincent, they called him – retrieving the toys the baby would fling. Once when he and Pascal were at the table copying a map, something had come flying; a little stuffed lamb – soft and round and fuzzy, the color of his breakfast oatmeal – landed on his paper. Mister Man and Anna both clapped like crazy. The boy has an arm! Mister Man crowed. But Pascal shrugged it off, whether the throwing or the clapping, he wasn’t sure, but either way, it wasn’t a big deal.
The last time he’d seen them together, though, Mister Man frowned at something Anna said. He took a little brown suitcase down off the shelf and pulled out that listening thing the doctor at the emergency room wore around his neck and stuck the ends in his ears. He’d figured something was wrong with the baby, but he’d put the flat part up against Anna’s throat. All he heard him say was Hmmmm, and then they noticed him watching and then they left, her with the baby, him with the bag.
Pascal guided him to a table peopled with kids he’d met already. They moved over on the benches to let them sit down. He was the oldest of them, he figured, the biggest anyway. Devin was really young. Hard to believe he was on his own down here – didn’t he belong to anybody? – but he’d fended for himself off and on for as long as he could remember. An older kid brought a tray of fruit around – big shiny red apples and bananas without spots.
“Eggs and toast, coming up,” the girl said. “We had a gift this morning from Dr. Wong and from Mr. Parisi. No more oatmeal for a few days.”
Over the crunch of bright apple, his eyes closed, he heard Mister Man’s voice: Good Morning, Good Morning, he was saying as he walked through the Dining Hall. Then … “Ahhh, yes, my youngest friends. Pascal, Sarah, David … Rebecca, Miguel, Olivia, … Devin … Winslow. Good morning, all.” He sat down next to him on the bench. “And how does this day find you?”
It took him a minute to finish the bite he’d taken.
“Good … so far.”
Mister Man laughed, but not in any hateful way. “It finds you well, you mean.”
“Adverb, not an adjective,” Sarah piped up.
“Show off,” Miguel groused, only half under his breath.
Still smiling, Mister Man wagged a finger. “Now, now. She is correct! And I’m glad to hear it.” He reached inside his overshirt for a square of stiff white paper that he unfolded and smoothed on to the table right beside his plate.
Mister Man didn’t ask him, but he couldn’t really read all the words. He saw breakfast and lunch and homework on the list, but the rest …
“Let’s go through, shall we?” Mister Man started in then.
Okay, so Ablutions he’d done already. And there he was at Breakfast. Morning Chores, though. What was that?
“Right after breakfast, everyone pitches in to get the day started; there’s always much to be done. You’ll learn quite a bit very quickly, Winslow, since you’ll be assigned as helper to all the grownups down here eventually – the chandler, the blacksmith, the electrician, the leatherworker, the pipe master – whom you know, of course – the stonemason … but I thought you might like to begin in the kitchen.”
“You mean, like, uhhh, peeling potatoes?” He’d seen that in comic books, an unhappy-looking soldier sitting on an upturned can with a knife in hand. “What’d I do wrong?”
“Well … yes … we do peel potatoes if the skins are tough, but I assure you it isn’t KP; it isn’t punishment. It’s a rather popular post.”
“Lucky dog,” Pascal interjected, and he felt better because he didn’t believe Pascal would say that if he didn’t mean it.
But then … Class. He’d mostly enjoyed school except for being left out of everything. Every now and then his teacher would tell him he was smart, that he was doing good. (Shouldn’t she have said doing well? The thought made him laugh a little inside.) He looked around the Hall – how many kids were there down here anyway? He wasn’t sure about Sarah and Miguel, but he was older than Pascal. How was this Class thing gonna work? Who’d be his teacher? He figured it’d be a lady. He’d only had two teachers and they’d both been …
Will she like me?
There was no way he’d ask that question though. Not in front of all the others who clearly weren’t worried … about anything. Would he ever feel the same?
Lunch. No problem. He was already looking forward to it.
“Oh,” Mister Man said and drew a big breath in, letting it out in a satisfied sigh. “Teams … the best part of the day. You’ll be grouped and given a mission. You’ll decide – as that group – how best to accomplish your task, who’ll do what, what constitutes success. Afterwards you’ll wrap up and evaluate. Then on to Tea, which is your reward for a job well done, even if … and this is important … even if your mission fails, because, if you did your best, then you’ve triumphed. And that is enough.”
“O … kay.”
Mister Man patted his shoulder. “Homework should be self-explanatory. We have study time in the Common Room, everyone together. There’ll be many available to help you if you run into difficulty, myself included. You must only ask.”
He nodded, but the day was starting to feel long.
“Supper,” Mister Man continued, “is served promptly at six. So if you finish your homework early, you can do as you wish. It’s free time, but be back to take your place at the table. We like to know everyone’s safely home. Afterward, of course, there are opportunities … storytelling, games, sometimes music in the Common Room. Or you can … just be with your friends, doing what friends do.”
He nodded again and clamped down on a wave of gladness that felt like an ache, so new it was like a hammer against solid stone – it would take a while to carve out a room. But he’d seen it done … down here … the impossible.
“Now … Reflection. It’s truly important,” Mister Man was saying, “to take a moment at the end of each day to address the mirror of questions. Now, the questions will change as you grow older, become … more complex, perhaps. But for now, ask yourself What did I learn today? What did I read? What new thoughts came to me? Did I offer help to those who needed it? Did I allow myself to receive help? What made me happiest today? What will tomorrow be like?
“Is it like … a test? With a grade?”
“No, no, no. This is a private conversation you have with yourself right before sleep. If you prefer to keep a journal of your thoughts, that too will be private. That too will be yours, Winslow, and only yours. I promise.”
“Huh.” Up until now, about the only thing he remembered asking himself at bedtime was wondering why things couldn’t be different.
Well, now they were.
“Here’s Marguerite now, our cuisinère.” Mister Man stood up and made a courtly bow. “I deliver you into her capable hands.”
“More like chief cook and bottle-washer,” she said. “Hi, Winslow. You wanna come with me?”
Her smile was like the sun coming out. He tried not to trip over himself, getting up from the table as fast as he could, trotting after her. The snicker he thought he heard from Miguel hardly registered.
She led him through an S-shaped corridor into what she called The Galley, a long, narrow space with tables down both sides, tables with massive square legs and worn wooden tops.
“This is where we stage up the food to be carried out,” she told him, still leading him on.
They had to dodge two older kids who were wiping down the surfaces, one being the girl who’d brought the fruit around earlier. They introduced themselves, but their names went in one ear and out the other – he had to hurry because Marguerite was already turning a corner and almost out of sight. She was tiny for a grown up – maybe not even as tall as he was – but she sure was quick.
“So here we are, Central Kitchen. Whattaya think?”
He thought he had to be dreaming. How’d all this stuff get down here?
He thought there were a lot of pots and pans; they hung from a railing mounted to the ceiling on long iron hooks, all of them old-looking but cleaner than the ones he’d had at home. He’d tried to keep the one he made soup in scrubbed and the inside had been okay, he guessed, but the outside was always crusty. These were shiny.
The stoves, though – he’d never seen anything like them. They’d had a two-burner in the apartment – his mom called it her cigarette lighter and, for sure, that’s what she mostly used it for – and it was white with big scrapes and dents, but it worked … until it didn’t. These were huge – six of them – big black fancy things with pipes coming out the top, with so many doors and handles and compartments, he figured he’d lose his food – he’d never be able to remember what was where.
It was hot in there too. The air wrinkled above the flat iron surfaces. Oh, man. I’m sweatin’. Something else he did that his mother had regularly pointed out to him. His spirits drooped and he eyed the doorway, calculating escape.
Marguerite took off her topcoat, the sweater vest she wore as well, hung them on stone pegs. She held out her hand, wiggled her fingers, smiled at him again. “Better shed a couple layers or you’ll keel over.”
She handed him a bright white apron and showed him how to wear it, how to fold it over so it wouldn’t drag the floor, how to tie it tight. He copied her, rolling up his own sleeves.
“I thought we’d jump right in,” she said, “and make some cole slaw. Do you like that?”
“Dunno, really. What is it?”
“It’s a cabbage salad with carrots shredded into it and mixed with a dressing. Carrots are good for your eyesight. We eat a lot of them down here. As many as we can, anyway. Mr. Wong – you’ll meet him soon – sent us a wagon full of food this morning.” From a shelf under the bench that centered the room she pulled two big metal mixing bowls, drew a knife from a drawer, two long-handled wooden spoons from another. Then she raised her arms and pointed in two directions, gesturing once – “Cold storage is through that doorway” – gesturing again – “and the pantry is over there.”
He wasn’t sure what to do though, and so he … stood there … feeling dumb.
She motioned him over. A wooden box plucked off a shelf, she started flipping through the cards inside it. “Here we go,” she said, pulling one out. “Tell me … can you read my handwriting?”
“Read what you can, out loud for me, okay?”
He tried, hard, because he didn’t want her to feel bad about her handwriting. A few words he was sure of. Cups, salt, pepper, table … spoons. Sugar. His mom sent him to the corner store for that and for coffee. Mustard he recognized from the pretzel stand he passed every day, even if he never had enough money to buy one. Some he stumbled over: Celery, mayonnaise, vinegar, but Marguerite helped him out.
“Okay, so this recipe is for one head of cabbage. Let’s go see how many we have.”
The cold storage room was huge, but emptier than he’d expected. He’d almost begun believing in magic, in plenty, but a lot of the shelves were bare. Musta been a little wagon. It felt good in there though – he guessed he was getting ‘climatized.
They came out lugging five big cabbages. He was able to carry three in his arms and got them to the work table without dropping one.
“So … if this recipe uses one cabbage and we have five, how would we go about making cole slaw with all of them? What does that mean about the other ingredients?”
He thought about the question for a while, puzzling out that ingredients meant all those words on the little card. She didn’t hurry him or give him the answer, though, just waited.
“I guess you’d need to make the recipe five different times?”
“True, we absolutely could. We could … multiply … and make it all at once too.”
“Oh.” He’d heard of multiplication tables, but he’d stopped going to school after a while, once his mother took off for the last time.
“That’s okay,” she told him after he confessed that. “Plenty of time to learn ‘em.”
“I can count though. I can add and subtract. Some.”
She dragged a low bench out from underneath the work table and stepped up on it, invited him up too. It was long enough for both of them to stand on and wide enough he didn’t have to watch where he put his feet. Everything was more in reach.
“So … let’s see. The recipe says for one cabbage, I need two cups of grated carrots.”
She pointed and he nodded.
“If we line up these pint jars … and each jar holds two cups … that means I need five jars full, right?”
“Let’s count to see how many cups of carrots we need total.” She tapped the rim of one empty jar, “One, two ..” then moved to the next and tapped it, looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“Three, four?” he offered into the quiet.
No grownup had ever suggested that, but he tried. “Three? Four?”
More emphatically, she tapped the next jar and waited. “Five, six!” He managed a little volume, enough, he guessed, because she nodded and pointed at him. He took over the tapping himself. “Seven, eight … nine, ten!”
Marguerite wore a pocket watch pinned to her overshirt and every now and then she’d check it. They hadn’t put anything in the ovens, so he didn’t know what for. As far as he was concerned, the morning could go on forever. She did all the slicing with the knife, but let him turn the crank of the iron grater screwed to the table while she pushed the carrots down with a wooden tool she said was a tamper, let him measure out the shreds, let him stir the dressing into the salad. She raked it into containers she called crocks while he held the mixing bowls up. Nice and steady … good! she’d said. There wasn’t too much mess left behind on the table, but she did have him mop it up, wring out the rag, and wipe the surfaces down again. Stick with it ’til it’s done, she told him.
One by one he carried the full crocks into Cold Storage. She called to him while he was in there, and he’d been being so careful to arrange the jars exactly right – rowed up even with each other, not so far back Marguerite couldn’t reach them – he hadn’t recognized his name … well, the name he was using now. She came looking for him and when he said I guess I forgot, she told him that she’d once had another name in another life too. A story for another day, she said. Then she let him have a second apple, cut it into wedges for him and carved out the core … poured herself a cup of something hot that wasn’t coffee. She washed some dishes and he dried, standing side by side on another long, low, trundled-out step stool. If this was Duty – what Pascal had had a break from – he reckoned he’d be glad to be back to it.
“We’ve got a little time before you need to be off to school,” Marguerite said. “You could help me with one more task?”
She made it a question, though he didn’t think he had much choice in the matter. But he agreed; of course, he agreed.
“Watermelon rind pickles … ever had those?”
There’d been a picnic of sorts at school once. Everybody in his class sat outside on blankets and towels on the weeds and asphalt they called a playground with a hotdog in a little red plastic basket – a good one, not the shriveled up kind, in a bun that was still soft – and a paper cup of lemonade, no ice, but still plenty cold. And after that, they could get up and go after a slice of watermelon for dessert if they wanted. Wanted!? He’d wanted, all right. It was a pretty thing. From his towel at the back of the group he could see it displayed on the table – already cut, hunks of bright red and white and green. But by the time it was his turn, there was nothing left but the end pieces, thin, mostly pink instead of red pieces, with a couple of flies to boot. Nuthin’ for the nobody, a couple of kids in his class chanted, when, with empty hands, he walked past them back to his place. So, yeah, he knew all about watermelon rind, more than he wanted to know.
“Winslow? … Winslow?”
Who was she even talking to?
“Hey,” Marguerite whispered, her hand on his arm. “Where’d you go?”
There was a dented metal tray of green striped hulls on the work table in front of him where it hadn’t been before. He hadn’t been anywhere but in his own stupid life.
“Where’s the rest of it?” he heard himself growl. “The good part.”
She looked down at the tray, then at him. “This is the good part … if we make it so.”
Marguerite looked at her watch one more time. “Better get a move on,” she said as she untied her apron. She took his and dropped them both into a dry basin carved into the stone wall. “First day of school for you. Are you excited?”
Grownups always figured you’d be excited when, really, you were scared. But he didn’t want to lie to her – that just felt wrong.
“I hope the teacher likes me is all,” he offered. It wasn’t all, but it was some of it.
“Oh, she does.”
Grownups promised a lot of things too, things they had no business promising. He held on to his temper though. “How do you know that?” he asked, as politely as he could manage.
“Because I’m your teacher.”
He must have looked confused – he sure felt confused – but he followed her out of the kitchen.
“We wear a lot of hats down here, Winslow.”
Now he was really confused. He only had one hat, which he pulled out of his coat pocket and jammed on. She only had one on too, as far as he could tell.
“I’m the cook – one of them, anyway – and your teacher and the Council Secretary.”
“What’s that … Council Secri-what?”
“It’s something new for us. We have meetings with everyone, then a smaller group gets together to come up with new ways to make life down here better. We’re working toward Commonwealth. I write down who says what, what gets proposed, what gets decided, so we have a good record of it and we don’t each have to remember.”
“‘Cause people remember different sometimes,” he said.
“You are, indeed, astute, Winslow.”
“Insightful … Aware? … You understand people.”
Not really, but he liked knowing someone thought that about him.
Turned out, a lot of Morning Chores had been a test, the best kind, one he didn’t know he was taking, and one he hadn’t done badly on. Marguerite said he was advanced for his age – he’d proved he had logical thinking, enough math skills to go into second level; he could follow verbal directions and had a good memory for consecutive tasks. She placed him in Curious Readers, which he liked the sound of. In truth, there was just the one big classroom with lots of kids of all ages in it. He couldn’t tell one grade from another like he could at his old school. He had his own desk right next to Pascal, a wood and iron contraption with the seat for the kid in front of him attached to it. The top was carved with a long groove – a few names and symbols too – and lifted up to storage underneath: A JUN-I-OR DIC-TION-ARY – a book with words and pictures in it, a brand new tablet of paper with a red cover … and pencils … and a sharpener!
The school hours passed quickly, a much shorter day than he was used to. He wasn’t jiggling his leg to leave, anxious with hunger, when the TAP-TAP signaled dismissal. Lunch came next,
but then Teams, and what that meant was still a big fat question mark. Still, he started to file out with everyone else, waiting until last not so much out of habit this time as for wanting to say ‘bye to Marguerite.
She was glad he stopped at her desk, she said. “I have something for you.”
From a low drawer, she drew out a leather-bound book, small enough to fit inside his belt pouch. There was a narrow pocket sewn to it, a pencil already nestled there. Two long leather ties wrapped it shut. It was his, she said, as was some advice.
“Keep your heart soft, Winslow. Get back at the world by refusing to harden. Let yourself be drawn out, if not by others at first, then by yourself. Write it down, the good, the bad.”
There was a lot of bad. He wasn’t all that crazy about going into it.
“Your friend Mr. Burt told us about what happened to your little brother. I know how it feels, Winslow … to judge yourself blameworthy.”
Still seated in her chair, she took his hands in hers. Hers were small, like Tayvon’s had been; they made his look like mitts, giant awkward stupid mitts that couldn’t hold on to anything that mattered. But she didn’t let go, and she didn’t let go, and she did that thing she did – waited – until he stopped fighting the quicksand of what was so hard and let himself be pulled back to now, by her touch, by her voice.
“I promise you’ll like having the blank page to talk to when you don’t want to talk to a person. Though you always can, you know … talk to me. Whatever you want to say, I want to hear. You can talk to Anna too and to–
Marguerite raised her brows, but she went on as if that was the name she used for him. “He’s who I talk to and I’m always glad I did. So, yes, definitely.”
“But not to John.”
She raised her eyebrows again and tucked her chin. He’d surprised her. A long moment passed and he was about to decide he was in trouble. But then she agreed, in a low, low voice. “Probably best to not.” Another moment passed, longer and quieter, but he didn’t feel shifty in it, just … still. She gave his hands a squeeze.
“Off you go,” she said, smiling at him again. “Onward, if not upward.”
That was a joke, one he got. Things felt better again.
Pascal and Sarah were waiting for him outside the schoolroom and they wound through the corridors toward the Dining Hall debating the upcoming Halloween party, their costumes, what stories they’d get Mister Man to tell.
“He knows a hundred stories,” Pascal assured him.
“Two hundred!” Sarah put in.
But they were greeted at the entrance with Lunch wrapped in newspaper: bread and cheese, some carrot sticks he reckoned second kitchen shift had cut up, a canteen of water for each of them. They’d need to get an early start on Teams, Mister Man told them. They could picnic on the way.
“Oh, boy! Procurements! You’re gonna love it,” Pascal said, once their assignment was revealed, their group designated. “Under-city’s the best.”
“Best-best is Topside,” Sarah argued.
Most everyone in their circle agreed, but no one pointed the finger at him. Rules were he couldn’t go Up Top for a while; he might run into someone he knew, someone who recognized him, knew he was … well … missing. He’d tried to tell Mister Man there was nobody but Mr. Burt and Mrs. Burt – Rhonda – who ever even thought about him, and they both knew where he was, but Mister Man and Anna impressed up on him the necessity of secrecy. This was a place of safety, but only if they all worked to keep it safe. Particularly now.
“But Under-city is really fun,” Sarah conceded.
Their mission … to determine if rumors of a coal stash were true. A second basement below an old school in the East Village, sealed off now since they’d converted to a more modern boiler, but still full. Somebody named Sam had delivered a message. He’d heard it from a reliable source, an old man once the stoker there, the fireman he was called – stories about feeding 4,200 pounds of coal a day into the cast-iron boilers that sent steam throughout the building, how he’d padlocked the double iron doors on a cellar stocked with the fuel and thrown away the key.
It would take forever to cart down, but such a supply would be a godsend,” Mister Man said and sent them on their mission with Marguerite’s words, “Now, off you go!”
An older boy, Quang, unfolded a map. “Almost a three-mile walk,” he figured, tracing a line from where they apparently were to where they were going. It was all new to him, the place names, the streets. Midtown, Bryant Park, Union Square, Avenue A. He’d never been south of 145th Street that he knew of. A teenager in the group – Delphine – suggested they catch the subway and ride part of the way, but a girl named Frances pointed out they couldn’t this time.
Because of him. Because he had to stay Below. Nobody said it, but that’s what he heard. He scuffed his foot in the dust, jammed his hands in his pockets.
“Hey, I’m new, too” the same girl said. “I’m still on restriction for a while longer. It’s okay. Besides, we don’t have any money for tokens, at least I don’t.”
“Me, neither,” both Pascal and Sarah said.
Could he make it? Everybody was looking at him. Three miles there, three back.
“A pretty good hike,” Quang said. And he waited too!
He’ll just hold everybody up, get everybody confused. He’d heard that often enough, from the kids in his class, the kids in his building. Now he was hearing it in his own head.
He looked to Pascal. Gimme a sign! he tried to telegraph. Can I? But Pascal didn’t signal sure or not on your life or anything.
He figured on a lot of climbing, stairs and ladders; he hoped not too many bridges. The rope kind made him feel all clammy. He’d been from one end of the central community to the other, down a few levels and up a few too. He’d been able to make it in one go without too many stops for water and to catch his breath. Some days, before, he’d spent hours walking around the neighborhood, up and down Eighth Avenue, because he couldn’t go home if he knew what was good for him, but how many miles that had been was anybody’s guess.
Yet, what else was there to say? He’d been put on this team. Somebody musta thought he could do it. “I’m gonna try,” he said.
“We’ve got all afternoon,” Sarah pointed out. “And we’re leaving early. No reason to get all crazy-hurried or anything.”
“So … what are we supposed to do if we find all this coal?” he asked, once they were well on their way. They hadn’t defined their objective, as far as he could tell, or decided how to measure their success.
“We need to find a way in, and if it’s true and there’s coal, we’ll have check for signs of anybody else in the cellar recently, maybe set some traps.”
“Traps? What are we gonna catch?” He hadn’t seen an animal since he’d been Below. Did Quang mean people?
“For footprints, silly,” Sarah pointed out. “You know … brush the floor smooth, so when we come back later … if it’s been disturbed …”
He didn’t like being called silly, not one little bit, but before he could round on her or start crying – it was always a toss-up – Pascal gave him a nudge in the ribs and that made all the difference.
A stop at a storeroom at the boundary of the Community provided flashlights for each of them and a couple of lanterns Quang and Delphine hooked on their belts. There were caches along the route – bundles of torches, Pascal explained – that they’d light one at a time and, as they went along, stick in holders riveted to the walls. It was news to him – and not particularly good news – some stretches of corridor, some whole levels, had no electric lights. The torches, which he couldn’t picture, should still be burning when they trekked back – or so Delphine promised. She’d better be right.
“Don’t we need tools?” Nobody carried anything else that he could see. Then he wished he hadn’t said anything, because what did he know?
“Good point, Winslow,” Quang said. “We’re mostly scouting, but we should have a pick or a stone hammer, anyway.” They stopped under a circle of amber light in the corridor, dropped to their knees around the map Quang smoothed out on the stone floor. “If we make a little detour … here … we can stop at the way station under St. George’s. There’ll be something there we can use.”
“Supply is another great Team,” Pascal told him, once they’d started off on their journey again. “You get to go everywhere Undercity, to the stash-piles and drop-points, take stuff around so it’s there if you ever need it.”
“Trades is a fun one too,” Sarah said. “You get to go Up Top, swap things we make or find or fix for things we need. Have to have a grownup with you, and you can only go at times when it seems normal for a kid to be out of school, but still …”
“Don’t forget Deliveries, when the Helpers send stuff down.”
“And Check-Ins, Above and Below, to make sure everybody’s okay.”
It made his head spin, all he had to learn.
The rope bridge they had to cross did too.
His team members let him tell Mister Man the news at Tea.
There was a basement; there was a way in. They’d busted out a few bricks in the cellar wall, Quang pecking as quietly as he could until they had a peep hole, watching and listening for what seemed like an hour – and probably was – until everyone agreed they’d heard absolutely nothing that should turn them around. They kept at the chiseling until the opening was wide enough they could slip through, even him. And there was coal, the basement maybe not jam-packed full, but piled pretty high. And there were some big metal buckets on wheels in there and some special shovels Mister Man seemed really happy about. They’d found a ratty canvas tarp wadded up in a corner, easy to tear into the strips they used to broom their own footsteps away as they backed to the just-made entry. And yes, they’d rebricked the opening – he’d tapped the last one in himself … without breaking it.
“A most successful expedition,” Mister Man said, beaming and clapping each of the team members on their shoulders, but when he turned to pick up the tray of sandwiches he would pass around, he heard him whisper, “Thank God.”
He didn’t know how they’d ever get all that sooty stuff from there to here; it had worried him all the way home, but Mister Man said they had ways and something else too, something some friend of his, he guessed – some guy named Thomas – must of said once and it made sense when he heard it, but he couldn’t remember all the words, and even if he did, he couldn’t spell them. After Homework, he’d asked Mister Man to put it on a piece of paper for him for later, when he could read better. His request made Mister Man happy, and that made him happy.
Now he pulled it out of his leather pouch and tucked it in to the journal Marguerite had given him, and that under his pillow. He didn’t even try to write in it – the things he’d seen that day, the things he’d done … Maybe one day he’d know how to describe it all. For sure, he’d never forget a minute.
He lay back and pulled up his covers, folded his arms behind his head. The gray rock roof seemed to twinkle.
~ What did I learn today?
Well, lots. But one thing – that’s mica in the stone that makes it sparkly.
~ What did I read?
A map. Most of the first chapter of a book called Wolf Story. My spelling list about a hundred times over.
~ What new thoughts came to me?
There, he drew a swirling blank. Pretty much everything he’d thought that day had been new, even the way he thought about the old stuff. I’ll have to think about that question summore. It was the best he could do, and Mister Man said that was enough.
~ Did I offer help to those who needed it? Did I allow myself to receive help?
I did! He’d asked for plenty at Homework time, but helped Anna out by taking a turn playing with Vincent, who really did have an arm on him.
Oh, yeah … the candles. He sat up and blew out the three burning at his bedside, burrowed back into the warmth to finish up.
~ What made me happiest today?
I made the trip to the coal cellar and back, even though the last part ‘bout killed me. I think maybe, finally, I’m gonna have some friends. And I made it through the whole day without getting too mad. Or crying
~ What will tomorrow be like?
His eyes were closing. Even … better.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements and impossibilities:
It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.
~ Thomas Carlyle
Title quotation: David Whyte. At Home. from The House of Belonging. Many Rivers Press,1997.
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