The Harvest of Young Minds
By Dolores J. Nurss
Lunch on a New World
The cafeteria had a pleasingly primitive appearance. Whole tree trunks
held up a ceiling of vigas and green tarp. Mud and wattle walls made a
cozy, shady curve around them. At least half of the kitchen extended
out into a ramada outside, equipped with a clay horno-style oven and a
rock-built barbecue, but the rich, smoky smells got inside anyway.
Manuelito suspected that the people who established this school had
built this place first of all, out of whatever had come to hand. He
felt more at home here, certainly, than in the quonset-huts. The ramada
he’d glimpsed on the way in reminded him so much of his grandmother.
Manuelito missed his Nana. Nobody here seemed to keep track of dates–if
indeed this world had the same dates at all. Seasons didn’t seem to
matter here, in the tropics. And long before he’d arrived, the adults
had not paid much heed to days of the week; his requests, every Sunday,
to go to Mass, met with blank stares and a change of subject. But
Manuelito kept track, and knew that the Dias de los Muertos had begun.
The time for honoring and remembering the dead.
Could his grandmother’s ghost find him, here on another world? She
must. The saints could go anywhere, couldn’t they? And she had to have
become a saint, the minute she died with him on her back, trying to
carry him to the Red Cross station. God had to see Nana’s goodness and
self-sacrifice and reward her with a crown, maybe even the martyr’s
Another refugee had picked him up, but carried him to a guerilla camp
instead. There, seeing how it was with him, they set him all day to
breaking down guns, cleaning them, and putting them back together
again. Sometimes mud clogged the works and the barrels, if the last
owner had died in the swamps. Sometimes the guns came to him clotted
with blood. He cleaned whatever they brought him, and thanked the Good
Lord Jesus for the curse that made him useless as a foot-soldier. He’d
never had to kill a soul. Nana must have looked out for him, interceded
to give him his unexpected knack for learning how to take things apart
and put them back together better, for some bands shot dead weight.
He slipped a piece of bread into his pocket for later, an ofrenda for
the dead. These people did not guard their charges closely. Sooner or
later he’d get his chance, slip out of his wheelchair, then worm his
way into the jungle, unseen, to make an altar out of whatever sticks
and stones might come to hand.
* * *
Xochil, Sewa, Tica, and Amancay shoved their bowls together, eyes
bright, watching each other closely. Tica of the diamond-shaped face
began, reaching her brown fingers into her stew and touching a bit of
chicken. She crooked her index finger like a chicken’s head and neck;
her thumb curved up in a circle to make the chicken’s body, and the
remaining fingers made a quick scratching motion. The rest nodded, made
the same motion, and then each took and ate a piece of chicken from
their own bowls as though to fix the lesson in their minds.
Next slender Amancay touched a potato-slice. She made a fist and dipped
it down below waist level, palm-side up. They all agreed–this would
signify “potato”. They ate the piece.
Chubby little Sewa touched the celery. Her fingers pressed upright
together, curving like the celery does. The others mimic’d her and
communed on celery pieces.
Xochil, Roman-nosed and taller than the others, touched the broth.
First she cupped her hand into a bowl, but it quickly dissolved into a
flowing motion, fluttering the fingers. Liquid in bowl: broth. They all
agreed, and ceremonially spooned up a mouthful together.
The school had provided teachers fluent in both English and Spanish,
and some knew French or Portugese as well. No one had given thought to
the languages of Indian tribes. These girls knew little Spanish and
even less English, and nothing at all of each other’s tongues, but they
wouldn’t have wound up here if they couldn’t find a way. They held that
much in common between them: they always found a way.
* * *
A whiny little boy followed lanky Mr. Joe around, chanting, “Daddy Bram
gives me my next pill about now. Daddy Bram gives me my next pill about
now.” Rob Roy snorted in derision. Few were the foster-parents who had
managed to wrestle drugs into him–and they only managed once apiece. He
preferred his wits stilleto-sharp, thank you very much, regardless of
the diagnosis du jour for the disease of being Robin Royale.
He scraped the last smear from his bowl. Good grub! They had served him
a stew of chicken and vegetables that had, somehow, tasted realer than
anything he had ever eaten. Mr. Dennis (chubby and as blonde as Mr. Joe
was dark) stopped behind his chair and said, “You can have seconds, you
know. Or thirds, if you want.” He pointed to his clip-board. “We have
you on the ‘underweight’ list.”
Rob Roy held up his bowl and, in a mock-tremulous voice, asked, “Please, sir, may I have s’mores?”
Mr. Dennis grinned and said, “We’ll be serving s’mores around the
campfire tonight, you little Dickens! But as I said, help yourself to
Well, the man got points for getting the joke. But Rob Roy rolled his
eyes at the prospect of sitting around a campfire like a good little
boyscout. Languorously he pushed himself up out of his chair and tried
to amble as casually towards the stewpot as he could manage, when he
really wanted to run and pile his bowl to overflowing. Gawd, they’d
probably want him to sing “Kumbaya”, too.
Mr. Joe and Mr. Dennis–what a joke. The first names supposedly made the
houseparents seem like friends, but the honorific before the name
reminded the children of who held the authority. No doubt some fine
crackpot of a shrink came up with the idea. Well, he’d served time in
worse juvies than this. Good food and awesome scenery, and taboos
against raising welts or bruises–one could do a whole lot worse than
that. But the inescapability of it galled him. This prison had no
walls, nor need for them. Where could he run to?
He went back to his place at table and found that he had to eat more
slowly this time. He also found himself growing sleepy. He sniffed at
the food suspiciously–had the miserable gits drugged it? But no, his
sleepiness didn’t have that sensation of artifice about it. He had
forgotten how satiety could make one want a nap. “All the blood rushes
to the stomach and away from the brain,” he murmured, blinking stupidly.
He finished off the bowl, then violently pushed away from the table,
making the dishes rattle. He jumped to his feet so fast that he made
himself dizzy, but he’d be damned if he let a mere lunch drug him into
submission. He did grab up the bowl, spoon, and mug without being
asked, and carried them to the sink. Doing little things without being
told, at the start of any incarceration, bought valuable leeway later.
Oh, he knew the game well.
“I will learn everything,” he said quietly to himself, gazing on the
green fantasia just beyond the door. “I will learn what I can live off
of out there, better than they know themselves.” And not alone. He had
reached an age where a hermit’s life did not especially appeal to him.
He gazed out over the cafeteria at some of the good little girls and
boys, beaten down to doing whatever they were told. They could serve
one authority as easily as another–especially if the new master
preached freedom with passion and sincerity. Oh yes, this captivity
held possibilities after all. No situation existed that Rob Roy
couldn’t find the opportunities in it.
He slapped a biting insect on his arm. “Ah–there’s the proof right
there,” he murmured. If anything could nourish itself off of him, he
could nourish himself off the planet.
”I really should have my pill right now, Mr. Joe!” Rob Roy
whirled at the clatter that followed the small boy’s shrill. His eyes
widened at the dishes, chairs, and food flying everywhere. But it
especially impressed him that the child stood rigid in the middle of
it, fists clenched, not flinging any of it. Nobody did. The objects
Rob Roy stared as stunned as all the rest, then nodded when everything
abruptly crashed to the floor or tables or whatever they could bounce
off, their gravity restored when the boy collapsed too, spasming into
the arms of Mr. Joe. The man walked right past Rob Roy, carrying the
child and muttering “Some doctors need shot!” as he bore his charge to
Rob Roy reconsidered his earlier disdain. “I need to recruit that one.”
* * *
“No te necesito,” Manuelito said to the big girl pushing his
wheelchair. “I don’t need you.” He might have useless little sticks for
legs, but his arms bulged with muscle; he’d propelled his own chair
over ground rougher than this, and without these fancy all-terrain
wheels that the latest grown-ups had provided.
“And I don’t care.”
“I had my own plans,” he insisted. “You’re getting in the way!”
“No I’m not–I have the same plans.” And then he saw that she didn’t
push him towards the quonset huts, but into the eaves of the forest.
“You think you’re the only orphan here? Most of us have lost loved
ones. I want to observe Dia de Los Muertos, too.”
“How did you know I...”
“I just did.” Now the shadows of trees and vines striped them, and the
green scent enveloped them, and the buzzing of many insects drowned out
the sounds of the school behind them. The girl wrestled the chair over
a great root. “My name is Estela. What’s yours?”
“Manuel. People call me Manuelito, but I’d be a lot taller if my legs could grow.”
She laughed loudly, startling birds from the boughs overhead. “Nobody
ever called me Estelita! Mama said it took three day to give birth to
“Stop here,” the boy said. “This looks like a good place.”
He slipped down off the chair and pulled himself along on his elbows,
gathering a large rock in each hand, towards a split in a tree, framed
by roots reaching out like loving arms. “That looks like a niche for a
saint, wouldn’t you say?”
“Or a portal into the nether world. But yes–it looks right.” She
squatted down and helped him collect rocks and pile them into an altar.
“This one looks like a geode,” Manuel said of a roundish one. So Estela
took a bigger rock and pounded it till it split neatly in two. Sure
enough, magenta crystals, phasing into rich, cobalt blue and pale green
at the center, lined each half.
Estela stared, rock still poised in her hand. “Never,” she whispered, “have I ever seen anything so beautiful!”
“Treasure,” Manuelito agreed. Then he looked at her. “It’s a sign–we’re doing the right thing.”
“We will come back later,” she said. “One half for you, and one for me–it is meant to be.”
They set one half, open-side up, on top of the other rocks, and the
other behind it, leaned against the tree for a crystalline backdrop.
Manuelito placed his bread on top of the geode. “For Nana,” he said, trying hard to hold back the watering of his eyes.
Estela tore open a packet of sugar and sprinkled it onto the bread. “We
need it sweet,” she said. “Plain bread is for criminals.” She crumpled
the packet-paper in her fist. “Adultos–damn them all!--never let me
leave sweet bread for my parents–they made me put plain bread outside
with a glass of water, so their ghosts would not come in. And somehow,
every year, I wound up in some shelter run by damnable adults. But I
promised them, I promised Mama and Papa, that one day, I would give
them the good, sweet bread due them.” She glared fiercely at the boy.
“They weren’t drug dealers, Manuelito! They got killed by mistake. We
had no place to go, that night of the storm, except a crack house. We
thought the lightning posed the greater danger.” She threw the
balled-up paper furiously into the woods.
“Now go pick that up!” Manuel barked.
“Oh? Are you going to make me?”
“No, you’ll make yourself. Think! Nobody has ever littered on this entire planet. Do you want to be the first?”
She got up without a word and fetched the bit of paper back, then sat
beside him in front of their altar. “That’s for your Nana and my
parents. Both. Your bread, my sugar.”
“Okay.” After a pause he asked, “Did the drug dealers raise you, after?
The way the guerillas raised me? Did they make you package drugs all
“No, I ran away after that. I never gave them the chance to make me one
of them.” She lifted her chin in pride. “I gathered my own gang
together, orphans like me. I didn’t have to be the oldest to become
their leader. I found ways for us to make money–clowning and passing
the hat, cleaning shops, washing windows, anything good–we never had to
steal. I am honest, Manuel, no matter what they say of me. I walked
along the coast, figuring out where all the dead things would wash up,
into a cove as it happened–there we found shells and bones and
driftwood, and we could make all kinds of pretty things to sell to
tourists. I became the queen of all the orphans in Agiabampo!”
Then, suddenly, to his surprise, the big girl broke down into tears,
great wailing sobs. He reached up and she crumpled over him, weeping on
his shoulder. “Who’ll take care of them now, Manuelito? Who on Earth
will take care of all my children now?”
He patted the muscular back. “Their parents will, Estela, even as my
Nana has taken care of me.” And saying it, he thought so hard on his
Nana that the gnarls in the wood above their altar seemed to form into
her face, wrinkled and smiling and luminous with love. He blinked back
his own tears, regarding the vision.
Estela calmed and drew back, facing the altar once more. Then she gasped. “Do you see...do you see a face in the tree?”
“It’s my Nana. Yes. I see her. You too?”
Silence followed, then a sudden shout of, “Where are my own godforsaken
parents?” Now anger drove the tears, as Estela threw handfuls of dirt
and twigs at the tree. “How come your dead show up and mine stay back?”
Then her hands dropped, and in sudden despair she wailed, “What if they
really were drug dealers?”
Manuelito hugged her again. “Shhh. Shhh. It’s okay, Estela. Nana will
take care of them. Nana will help them make it out of purgatory. They
won’t go to hell, no matter what they did, because they loved you. Love
covers a multitude of sins.”
“I think they were, I think they were,” Estela sobbed. “Why did they know those people, in that house?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s okay. They loved you, and Nana knows about
them, now, and will help them out. And we will give them sweet bread,
not the plain, for souls in any state can visit on Dia de los Muertos,
though not all come into sight.”
* * *
Sweetie-Pie twirled one bleached curl around a finger and chewed gum,
smackingly, slouching in a corner while the citizens rounded up her
fellow inmates to clean up the mess. Genuine gum this time, sticky
stuff exuded from a real tree, its flavor resinous and bittersweet, but
it gave her jaws a familiar motion in the midst of all this
strangeness. It might have poison in it, for all she knew, and she
didn’t care two flying farts if it did. Maybe it might make her high
before it killed her. She’d like that. Or maybe it’d do nothing but
feel sort of familiar in the mouth. She could go with that, too.
“Sondra, over here. Lend a hand, please.”
“My name is not Sondra,” she said, spitting out the gum where somebody
could step in it. She hoped. She grabbed the broom handed to her and
swept up shards of bowls and mugs, sashaying while she did so, halfway
thinking of the johns who paid for French Maid fantasies.
Lord, but she missed Eldon! Sure, everybody else called him a pimp, but Eldon loved
her! Nobody had ever loved her the way he did--not like Daddy with his
grabby paws, just shove her down and take what he wanted. No, Eldon
would share soda with her, and dream about the stars, and point out
shapes in the sunset clouds. And on those occasions he would whisper to
her in secret, out of hearing of all the other girls, that he felt
differently about her. When he could raise enough money, he said, he
would ditch the others; he and Sweetie-Pie would start a new life in
Montana, up in the mountains, they still had some greenery up there,
and cleaner, cooler air--they could start a whole new life. Till then
they did what they had to do, but it wouldn’t last forever.
She dumped her load, clattering and tinkling, into the wastebasket and
went back for more. Other do-gooders had corralled her before, but she
always escaped and made her way back to Eldon. But now, here, what
could she do? What on earth–no, off of it–could she possibly do?
She saw that the tall, skinny kid with the attitude watched her,
tossing a pebble in his hand: the one who looked like an illegitimate
cross between Harry Potter and Captain Hook. She flashed him what Eldon
called her million-dollar smile and gave her hips a bit of a wiggle as
she bent down now with the dust-pan. She’d played this game before, and
Eldon always understood, in fact approved. You get your allies anywhere
you have to, any way you can. It didn’t matter; Eldon knew she loved
him, the only one for real. And this one had the hungry look she
watched for, someone who’d like to pretend that she really, truly loved
him back–she could get that kind to do anything.
She’d played that game in all the best prep-schools across the country,
long before she ever met Eldon, getting all manner of indiscretions
expunged from her records, till Daddy’d found out–every time jealous
ol’ Daddy had to spoil everything. But why should he have all the fun,
take something for nothing, when other people took pleasure in giving
something back? That summed him up in a nutshell: Mr.
Something-For-Nothing. And she had to give it to him, he did well by
that philosophy--except it couldn’t buy him love. Him and his money,
always thinking it entitled him to everything, yet never a dime for her
unless she begged for it, unless she gave him more than the worth of
all the shoes and designer jeans in the world. And then he’d take it by
force anyway, and nothing in return, laughing when she called him on
his promises, then smirking later in the background when Mother slapped
her for trying to tell her what went on. Gawd, she freakin’ rejoiced when Daddy threw her out and told her to go starve in the streets for all he cared.
Sweetie-Pie dumped the next load into the trash and tossed aside the
dustpan with a shrug and a glance over her shoulder, batting her
improvised mascara at Hooky Potter. All that Daddy business, that lay
so far back in the dust behind her that it wasn’t worth spitting at.
She didn’t just fall hard, she dived.
Daddy would have been proud of how fast she adapted to the streets,
clawing for survival with the best of them, just like he himself had
done before, by all accounts, just like he taught her without even
knowing it. They could call her anything they wanted except stupid. She
hadn’t felt a lick of fear.
Miss Emma beckoned her over. What now? The stern, pursed lips, the hair
drawn back so tight that it unkinked the African hair, made Miss Emma
look more like a warden than the “housemother” she claimed to be.
“Yes Ma’am?” Sweetie-Pie could play docile whenever she thought it would pay.
Miss Emma handed over a black tube, quirking just a hint of a smile.
“Here. I don’t use mascara, but it came in the staff welcoming basket.
That homemade stuff could blind you.”
“Oh, thank you, Miss Emma–thank you so very much!” Sweetie Pie knew how
to gush–she made an art of gushing. She gave the woman a quick hug and
danced off like she’d just received the crown jewels. And that boy
followed her with his eyes, too, the whole way out.
And there she paused, staring into the rainforest. Never had she seen
so much beauty, not in the well-pruned grounds of Daddy’s country-club,
not in the dying woods of mountain-retreat or island vacation. Once she
had dared herself to memorize every surviving wild plant and animal in
her native county, and found the list too short to challenge her. Now
she could see so much diversity within one square yard that it excited
her almost to the verge of fear. All the different leaves–round ones,
lemon ones, ovals like the oriels of European cathedrals, long thin
blades rising up to droop down again, fans and shapes like hands,
fluted shapes and rounded oblongs, jagged and smooth and glossy and
fuzzy and...and everything! And that didn’t count the blossoms, the
tendrils, the insects–oh, the many jewel colors of the insects, and the
rainbow-feathered birds! And who knew what furred things might crouch
deeper in, just beyond her sight?
“Get a grip, girl,” she told herself, and moved on. She couldn’t stop dead in her tracks every single time she stepped outside.
* * *
In her workshop Consuelo sat alone, applying dabs of conductive
adhesive to her own brow, then the wires, cased in red and black, green
and yellow, blue, violet, orange, gray, and striped. Only she knew the
meaning of all the stripes; she’d had to special-order the insulation.
Each line she pressed into place, feeling a faint thorn-prick. Then she
moved on over her scalp, sharp ends buried in the ebon hair, dark locks
intertwining strands of rainbow, all the way to the back. Her fingers
felt where to go; her scalp knew things unknown to the charts of
neurologists and phrenologists alike.
Her brother poked his head in the door. “Lunchtime, Sib, you didn’t...”
She glared and he stood frozen, staring at the wires snaking from her
head. At last he found his voice. “Connie?” he said, very carefully.
“What are you doing?”
“Not now, Bos!” she snapped.
He hesitated, swallowed, then said, “Promise me you will at least eat dinner, later?”
“Yes! Now go!”
He left. She sighed, her annoyance subsiding. They did, after all, have
an agreement that Fobos would remind her to eat whenever she needed him
to. She counted herself lucky that he didn’t bring food right into the
shop to watch her eat it. “I guess he can see that I’m a bit tangled up
in my work right now,”she said, laughing. She knew as if he stood there
that he could hear her laugh from outsides, and that he did not like
it. That made her laugh again. But then she got down to the business at
She reached behind the monitor to a dull gray box that Fobos never
noticed, not with so many bright things to distract the eye. She turned
the combination lock. And then she removed a large crystal, of a deep
rose hue, magenta on the verge of wine. No crystal like it existed on
Earth, octagonal in formation. She held it in her hand and felt a sort
of thrumming from it, a curiously soft pins and needles sensation that
seemed to extend beyond her hand in a glow of impossible sensation. She
pressed it to her breast and felt the thrumming sink into her, spread
through her, till her entire body seemed to fill with sparks, and then
become the sparks, and then her consciousness extended beyond the
sparks, beyond the body, beyond everything.
She had studied all manner of material, not just engineering, and not
just science. Natural selection had let the bipolar gene go on,
generation after generation, because the species needed it. Each
generation needed someone willing to dare what the sane could not
conceive, and would shudder at if they could.
Had anyone poked their head into the doorway at that moment, they would have seen Consuelo quietly begin to glow.