The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 5
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 palm.
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 more stew.”
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 simply...flew.
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 the infirmary.
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 me.”
“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 day?”
“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 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 hand.
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.

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