The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 4

“Look!” Charlotte cried, leaning towards the window. “The fog’s clearing!” Marie peered over her shoulder, and excited murmurs went all up and down the corridor. All time and no time had passed since anything had happened. “Look! Look!” They could make out, through the clearing mists, a continent, as far below them as though seen from space, It looked sort of like an upside-down Australia, except with a great gulf splitting down the middle, edged with mountain ranges.
“Huh!” Marie plopped back into her seat. “Theys playin’ tricks on us, Charlotte. They think we stupid.” She waved her arm to the other side of the aisle. “How come those folks see the same thing’s we do, over there? These ain’t windows, these TV screens.”
“Then we’re supposed to learn something from them,” Charlotte said, remembering all of the educational shows that her captors had let her watch.
Marie leaned over again, with new interest. “Maybe. Maybe you right.” After studying for a moment, she said, “South be up from here, and north be down. That Australia and not Australia. With a diff’rent history, maybe. Like one of them big plate-things cracked down the middle.”
“Techtonic plates,” Charlotte said, not taking her eyes off the screen.
“Yeah, them. Cracked down the middle, and threw up them mountains. Our Earth’s Australia don’t got much in the way of mountains to speak of–not enough...geo...geo...” the girl’s brow crinkled.
“Geologic activity.”
“That. Yeah. Not enough agitated molten rock and steam and such, close to the surface, bubblin’ underneath the crust, ready to crack and boil over like Auntie Rae’s pie when she forget to punch it proper.” She looked down into her lap, then. “I ain’t stupid, Charlotte. I just don’t know lots of words. Never had much schoolin’, that’s all.”
Charlotte took her hand. “I saw a show once, about a city deep in Africa, in one of the hardest places anywhere ever, hardly enough of anything to live on. The people there had nothing but mud, so they built with mud. They built the most incredible towers, a beautiful city like a great ol’ mound of cake-frosting, all with mud. They had no power-tools, no electricity, just their bare hands and what little scraps of wood the impoverished land could grow. So they stuck sticks into the mud to climb, to pile more on top of what they’d built, and stuck in more sticks, and made the sticks part of the design. With their bare hands, and mud, and scraps of wood, with love and genius and generations of hard work, they made one of the most wondrous cities in the world.” She clasped the other girl’s hand. “I can look in your eyes, Marie. I see marvelous towers in your soul. I can see you building so much with so little given to you!”
Marie flashed a smile. “I build things, yeah. That’s what I do. You show me one time, just let me take a look under the hood, and I build it, out of anythin’ I can get my hands on. I figger out a way.”
Charlotte pointed back at the “window”. Look–we’ve veered off from the mainland as we get closer. We’re headed to an island off the coast.”
Marie said, “Ain’t no close about it–it’s all a picture-show. We not above anything, not really, just changin’ channels on reality. We not astronauts.” She squinted at the image for a moment, then said, “Lord Howe Island, or the same thing diff’rent.” At Charlotte’s look she said, “What? I play with maps, ‘sall.”
Charlotte smiled. “I’m impressed!”
Before Marie could reply, the hearty voice told them to strap in. They barely buckled up before they felt the ripple again, almost nauseous this time, so that they clung to the seats and each other for any kind of steadiness, grateful for the belts that gave them an illusion of stability, and then they blinked, and the light seemed properly diffused, and their vision returned to a normal sense of space.
The uniformed ladies came by and unloaded luggage from the upper racks for the smaller children. Charlotte saw that Marie carried her things in a pillow-case, tied shut and balanced on her head. They waited for a gurney to pass, with a sheet thrown over the occupant, before crowding into the aisle with the other children. Some others murmured, but Charlotte had seen such things before, and knew when to keep her mouth shut. She had enough to manage, once again, to simultaneously handle her teddy-bear, pillow, and luggage-cart. But then Marie just tucked her own doll up under one arm and took the luggage-cart handle from the girl with other, giving Charlotte a friendly wink, her own luggage still securely balanced. They walked very close together, saying nothing, with no idea what they might find outside.
After they had stooped and climbed out of what had again become a baby-trailer, they and every other child gasped at the tropical beauty that awaited them outside. The air–Charlotte felt like she had never tasted air before! And so much green, everywhere, thicker than parks, layer upon layer of textures and flowers scattered throughout like someone had thrown great living handfuls of flower-confetti everywhere! The ground felt spongy and alive under their feet (that’s when Charlotte noticed that Marie wore no shoes.) She looked down, her own stained tennies halfway sunk into moss, and thought, “Not very many people have walked here. Maybe my feet hit places that nobody has ever stepped on before.”
She saw Rob Roy over to one side, as gobsmacked as anybody, staring with his jaw dropped open. Then suddenly he leaped into the air with a whoop, fist stabbing the sky, and soon others all around him started cheering and carrying on, and Charlotte and Marie hollered, too, and clapped their hands, and nobody wept anywhere except for surprise and joy.
Men and women in khakis came into the crowd with clip-boards in their hands. A woman approached Charlotte and Marie. “Both English-speakers? Both nine-year old females?”
“Yes’m” they said, one after another.
“I thought so. Your names?” She checked them off. “Mary Misty Boykins...Charlotte Anne Hatfield. Very good, then. Come this way.”
“It’s Marie Mist´┐Ż, not Mary Misty.”
“It plainly says right here...”
“I know my own name, Ma’am.”
The woman stared for a second, then nodded. She had khaki-colored hair, in a practical, chin-length cut, and khaki eyes, and a faint tan headed the same way; nothing in her features particularly stood out, for good or ill. As she led them down the still-green corridor between quonset-huts surrounded by fresh-planted pansies, she said, “My name is Miss Marcy. I will be your housemother and your literature teacher, and you shall soon meet your other teachers over lunch. We shall have no school for a day or two, while we settle you in, yet after that your education shall begin in earnest.”
“Oh, good!” both girls exclaimed at once, and that made Miss Marcy smile. Charlotte nuzzled her cheek against the woman, who froze for a moment, frowning, then suddenly smiled broader than ever, throwing arms around both girl’s shoulders. She seemed to move freer after that, with a bounce in her step more than the moss and the rich air accounted for.
She led them to a quonset hut with E9F on a placard bumping on the door in a stirring wind. It seemed hot inside until Miss Marcy threw open all of the windows and let that good air in. “Wait here,” she said. “Don’t go anywhere until I fetch the others.” And she went back out again.
The girls looked down rows of bunkbeds. A door in back led to a bathroom, which Marie checked out critically, peering into every stall. “Flush toilets, no bad smells so far. We find out soon if these eggheads know how to lay plumbin’ right or not.”
Charlotte wrestled her armload around till she could turn one of the faucets on and off. “The water looks clean–no rust.”
“Of course it clean–ain’t had time to rust.”
“Yeah–you’re right.”
They peered in the shower-stalls, startled a queer bug, and came back out. They both froze at a popping sound like gunfire outside, then relaxed at Rob Roy’s laugh and some adult shouting, “How the devil did he smuggle in firecrackers?”
Marie breathed first. She said, “Let’s take those bunks, there.”
“Why?” Charlotte asked, but she tugged her things over there anyway.
“‘Cause if we eat lunch soon, but not yet, then this east. Sun be risin’ here every mornin’, and I just roll over, look out the window, and watch the dawn come up.” She smiled. “I had an east window by my bed, in the old house, before it burned down. I missed it.”
“That sounds wonderful!” Charlotte sighed, squeezing her things close.
“So which do you want–top or bottom?”
“Bottom,” she said. It seemed easier, safer, tucked out of sight.
“Good, ‘cause I like the idea o’ top!” She skinnied up the ladder, doll still in hand and bundle still atop her head hardly even wobbling. She set her things down at last up there, and peered grinning over the edge. “I feel like a eagle up here!” She wriggled over to the window, gazing out at all the beauty. “Wanna go out an’ explore?”
Charlotte took her own turn wriggling across the bed, pillow and bear still gripped tightly. “Not yet,” she said. “We don’t know enough about it.”
“Lookin’s a good way of findin’ out.”
“There might be monsters,” Charlotte breathed, not entirely displeased at the thought.
“Or lions,” Marie conceded. “Strange lions growed up diff’rent from the ones used to roam the Earth.”
“Parallel evolution.”
“Yeah. That. Evil lootin’. I ain’t s’posed to believe in that, but I do. A diff’rent evil lootin’.” Suddenly she hung her head upside-down over the edge of the mattress, all the beaded braids a-dangle. Grinning, she said, “I born again, but I ain’t born yesterday!”
“I like both stories,” Charlotte answered, laying back on the bed and staring up at her friend, pillow tucked under her chin. “Maybe they’re both true in different ways.”
“Theys lots of room for all kinds of stories,” Marie agreed. She popped back up out of sight. “Maybe theys cheetahs out there, still runnin’ free, never heard a gun. Elephants or dinosaurs, all still alive. Maybe giant snakes–snakes the size of cities! Maybe things we never even heard about.”
Charlotte rolled over on her stomach, propping up on her pillow to gaze outside again. “Or fairies,” she said. “The woods could swarm with fairies–maybe they come from here. What if magic works the same as a transfer-device?”
“And dragons and trolls and unicorns!” Marie agreed, breathlessly. “Griffons and flyin’ horses with wings, and things that look like women but ain’t, things that sing men off of boats.”
“Mermaids, you mean,” said Charlotte, wondering about the haphazard education that would know about griffons but not the name of mermaids. “Mermaids are half woman, half fish.”
“Mermaids. Yeah, that’s what they called. Or sirens. I was thinkin’ more ‘bout sirens. Never could figger why they’s the same name as for them things that scream off cop cars.”
“No more cop cars, ever again,” Charlotte sighed, contented. Mama always called cops bad news.
The bed overhead creaked and rippled as Marie shifted around. “I think maybe I gots more words inside than I can find sometimes. “Never had much chance to say ‘mermaid’ or ‘evil lootin’‘ or any of them other words.”
“Well now you will,” Charlotte said dreamily, feeling sleepy in the heat. “Now you can use all the words inside you, and learn more words, and use them all you want, and I’ll listen.”
A pause, then the voice came down: “Gonna hold you to that, girl. You my best friend, now. You and I be best friends always.”
“Always!” Charlotte agreed. Then she sat up. She pushed the assigned pillow out of its place on her bunk, and carefully spread out her own in its place. Then she propped Ted against the other pillow, arranging him to sit comfortably, gazing out protectively over the space. She ignored the twin lockers at the head and feet of the bunks for now, her luggage still on the floor; she just sat there and gazed on her arrangement. “I’m home,” she sighed.
Above her she heard a slap and a cussword. “One thing sure as hell lives in them woods, and that’s skeeters!”

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