The Harvest of Young Minds
By Dolores J. Nurss
Noche de los Muertos
The sunset streaked the sky with coral and gold, and gold scattered
across the water as the children and their supervision hiked down to
the beach. Huge and twisting trees, their trunks green with moss,
curved around the view, and the rhythmic shushing of the waves greeted
them in lingering sighs. Marie murmured into Charlotte’s ear, “They’s
volcanoes someplace near. You don’t get sunsets like that, lessn’they’s
stuff in the air–and they ain’t no po-lootin’ ‘round here. Not yet,
“Not ever,” Miss Marcy said, overhearing. “And you needn’t worry about
volcanic activity–that’s all over on the mainland. But very astute of
you, Marie; we detected a minor eruption about a week and a half before
Some children ran, laughing, down onto the beach. Is it safe? They’d
ask each other. Yes, yes, perfectly safe, no sewage here, no factory
effluvia, no agricultural run-off, just the pure, untainted sea. Yet
things live in this ocean, don’t they? What of sharks, electric eels,
giant clams that could snap a man in two? What of sea serpents and
krakens, what of mermaids luring eager youths to drown? No harm in
getting the feet wet, though. Yes, yes, they all agreed, we can at
least get our feet wet.
Shoes soon scattered all over the beach, along with small bare
footprints in the moistened sand. In no time at all children had gotten
much more than their feet wet, splashing and shrilling, shivering and
giggling. After awhile housemothers and housefathers called them back,
before they got in too deep. Children of their generation seldom knew
how to swim, after all. The lessons would come later.
For now the grown-ups built the fire, the sputtering and dancing
flames, a warm and ancient glow mere minutes old, warming them and
drying them within their wraps of towels. Picnic baskets revealed
sausages and ears of corn suitable for roasting on sticks, and potato
salad to go with it, and papusas, and spicy beans, and lumps of cheese
with hardened rinds that would crisp up nicely in a flame, and all
manner of toothsome things. And yes, they also unpacked graham crackers
and marshmallows, and whole slabs of chocolate, to meld into s’mores.
Soon food sizzled and crackled to everyone’s satisfaction.
Rob Roy looked wary, crouching over his corn and gnawing it to the cob,
all elbows and knees and glasses glinting in the dark. Yet he didn’t
actually fear anybody snatching the food from his hands, not here. He
just waited for the stupid, officially cheery songs to start. All the
pretty, lying songs that jailors and social workers forced their
inmates to sing so they could seem like children, innocent of all the
But when Mr. Joe brought out his guitar, they all heard a thump as
Manuelito pushed himself out of his wheelchair to sit on the ground in
front of it. He made motions towards himself until Mr. Joe handed him
the guitar. Estela wrestled the wheelchair in the sand till it turned
perpendicular to its former position, then put its seat-cushion between
Manuelito and the wheel. The boy tuned the instrument with an expert
ear. Then, as everyone fell silent all around him, he annouced, “Ahora
es la Noche de los Muertos.”
“Now is the Night of the Dead,” Estela translated, then glanced in
surprise as Charlotte poured water onto the sand and quickly sketched
in its wet surface a skeleton dancing under a moon and stars. The
Indian girls nodded, glancing between it and Manuelito.
“Quiero cantar canciones sobre mis muertos–y los de ustedes, tambien.”
“I want to sing songs about my dead–and yours, too.”
Charlotte’s fingers flew across the sand: a cartoon boy leaned against
his wheelchair with mouth open, and the skeletons danced to the
music-notes coming from his mouth. A heart drawn on the boy’s chest
emanated arrows to the people of bone. The Indian girls understood.
And then Manuelito sang. And all else fell away. No one heard ocean
anymore, no one heard the twitter of birds settling into their roosts
for the night, for the song filled them up and left no room for
anything else. He didn’t bother with words. He howled out his emotions
with a flamenco-voice too big for his small frame, his thin chest
heaving and the tears running unashamed down the young brown cheeks,
till one by one the eyes around him watered, till even the grown-ups
found themselves weeping, much against their wills.
Suddenly Sweetie-Pie leaped up and danced, and she didn’t grind out the
moves that she used to do for customers, but a leaping, savagely
graceful mime of friend after friend dying on the streets, stylized yet
recognizable, matching Manuelito’s voice so perfectly that they might
have rehearsed every step and note together. Memories just seemed to
well up and take over Sweetie-Pie’s body. Now this one whirled from a
bullet in the chest; now that one shook for the medicine no longer to
be had; one fought with knives like a champion, a dark dream swirling,
until the fatal blow; one languished with rubbery limbs rippling into
feverish dreams; one rocked her belly with wide-spread legs a-tremble
for the baby that wouldn’t come, till mother and child died as one; yet
another moved in slow and fluid steps up an unseen, spiraling stair,
till leaping into sky in a thanatopic ecstacy. Sweetie’s long blonde
hair whipped about her as her bare feet stabbed the sand.
Tica got up and danced with someone who wasn’t there, her arm around an
absent waist, her fingers intertwined with vanished fingers, her face
against a phantom breast, around and around and around. Amancay got up
as well, tripping out tradition-hallowed steps with her own invisible
Marie threw back her head and, quivering with emotion, started chanting
name after name, in harmony with Manuelito’s voice no matter how he
changed the tune, the chords getting stranger and more stirring at
every turn, while Charlotte drew face after face in a kind of fever,
her hair falling into her eyes. Marie’s eyes rolled back in her head
and her arms stretched out and shook, and people became afraid to look
on her, yet her voice stayed strong and true, wracking the skinny
nine-year-old body where she knelt.
“My Meg!” Mr. Joe cried out when Marie sang out, “Meg Sampson!” “How
did you know about my late wife Meg?” Yet there she smiled, drawn in
the sand, cartoonlike yet recognizable.
“Johnny!” Miss Marcy wept over a picture, “My son, my only child!” Then
Sweetie-Pie’s foot swept over it and erased it, leaving room for
Charlotte’s frantic hand to draw more people, and more still, as
Sweetie cleared the way again and again, oblivious to everything but
dance. Children and adults gasped all around her, each reaching out
hands to sketches of love lost.
And now Sweetie-Pie danced other mimes beyond her own. One gunned-down
rioter became everybody’s gunned-down rioter, one fallen elder became
everybody’s fallen elder, one miscarriage made itself felt again by all
who'd ever suffered it.
Even Rob Roy wept, kneeling on the beach beside a cartoon of a grinning
old hippy as though he could still hear the centenarian cough. Then he
raised his face from his hands, squinting between loose black locks,
and gazed over a whole row of pictures. “Angelina. Nogood. Joaquin.
Hammer.” He had so many dead to name. “Wichita. Daylene. Smoky.
Renegade Jack.” So many that he had never dared to name before! “Judy.
Feliz. Robert. Doc.” Everyone who had ever shown him kindness in a
roving life, people who had fed him, stole for him, rescued him, gave
him shelter in the rain. “Warrior. Neptune. Kittycat.” People who had
died for him, some of them. “Gordie. Hannamae. Dangerdog.” Others who
had died for stupid reasons and left him swearing and alone. “Bodey.
Danseuse. Riley. Pat.” People who had loaned him books, and books, and
books for his ravenous and growing mind. “Mira. Lucy. Delsy.
Evangelio.” And as fast as he named them, Sweetie-Pie’s foot erased
them again. “Switchblade. Damien. Carnie Kay.” Erased them and made
their deaths final.
Then he felt a hand upon his chin, lifting up his face from its gaze
upon the ground. And through his tears he beheld tall Xochil, tears of
her own welling from the proud, obsidian eyes. And he didn’t need to
understand the unfamiliar words that she spoke to him, so soft and yet
so earnestly; her eyes spoke a language that he understood in their
kindred fire, and so she drew him to his feet and they danced, they
danced, trampling down the pain and flinging off the grief from their
whipping spines and the writhing of their arms, while Sweetie-Pie
whirled around and around them, in a madness more intelligent than
anything her kidnappers had recorded when they’d tracked her down. And
soon others joined them, dancing what their bones knew, what their
blood wrote inside them, what had to burn its way out. And Manuelito
and Marie sang on. And Charlotte drew as fast as the feet could
And oh, the memories, arcing through the air! The young limbs shaped
scene after scene from the past, fleshed out in the imagery of the
mind. You could see the smiles, you could smell the home-cooked meals,
feel the embraces, hear the dying screams or groans. Sometimes many
came together to dance out a single thing, sometimes all spun off
apart, their individual visions thrumming through their flesh. No one
knew at what point they stopped distinguishing recollections, which
belonged to which; their minds seemed to dim out the awareness as fast
as it could arise. Yet something happened that night, and they all
participated, men and women dancing with the children, teardrops
flinging from them as fast as they could weep, and above it all the two
high voices wailed over wild chords, netting them into a single dance
of grief and release, while in between the leaping, stamping,
pirouetting legs a little girl crawled on all fours, scrawling and
scrawling with a touch of froth at the corners of her mouth, oblivious
In the very center spun a woman whom no one there had seen before, her
hair a cloud of darkness floating all around her, and within a kind of
luminescence cast off from her, if tears and firelight and wild motion
did not deceive the eye. Yet when she collapsed her brother ran in to
catch her and help her out again, offering her water, and no radiance
remained to her. Him, at least, they knew: Mr. Tercos, the director of
the entire operation. Flashes of color seemed to streak the woman’s
hair, though none could tell for certain in the campfire glow.
Then the singers fell silent, and the spell broke. Children staggered
to a halt, staring blinking at each other. No one sang, now; only the
ocean’s hush and the panting of many winded chests overlaid the
silence, in the unsweet fragrance of smoke and sea.
Rob Roy blushed and released Xochil from his embrace, stumbling back
awkwardly on his too-long legs, and he could tell that she would have
blushed, too, had her dark skin permitted. Sweetie-pie stared at them
both, wondering why her heart didn’t sink at this glitch in her plans,
and why her body felt like someone had thrashed it.
Charlotte gaped at all the pictures in the sand, rows and rows of
smiley faces and stick figures, resembling nobody in particular. For
some guilty reason that she couldn’t name she brushed them all away.
She found Marie collapsed next to Manuelito, in Estela’s arms, but sips
of water brought the girl back, looking weary and befuddled. Manuelito
sat with his head bowed over a tear-spattered guitar from which snapped
strings curled at curious angles, glinting in the firelight.
The adults stood with mouths still gaping open. After a moment a few of
them, stirred, looked about, then walked among some children who had
dropped onto the sand, smiling in their rest.
Mr. Joe touched his fingers to a slender neck. “Dead,” he whispered, eyes wide in the flickering light.
Miss Emma said, “Over here, too. Another one.”
“This one, too,” said Miss Marcy.
Mr. Dennis stumbled in a circle, looking all around him. “What just happened?”
Fobos Tercos stepped forward. “Take the bodies to the back lab,” he
said. “Don’t worry, we’ll give them a proper burial afterwards–my
sister’ll give me grief if we don’t.” He alone seemed present of mind,
though grim in the set of his jaw. “But we have to find out now what
killed them.” He put his arm around the strange woman, who glared
fiercely into the night as though she stared down something more
important than attending to the stumbling of her feet, her breast still
heaving after air, a few of the wires in her hair still bobbing.
Some of the other adults picked up the remains of the picnic in a haze,
knowing it didn’t make anything normal to do so, but going through the
motions anyway. Some picked up baskets, and others picked up little
bodies. Still others herded children up the hill again, their voices
hushed. The children needed scant direction to leave that place behind.
As they bore their grim burdens back up the path, behind youngsters
that tottered on overworked legs, Miss Marcy whispered to Emma, “This
will sound strange, I know it, but...did you see some of the children,
while dancing...did you see...”
Miss Emma said, “Some of their feet lift off the ground, and not come down again until the music stopped?”
“Yes! Yes, that exactly!”
An imposing eyebrow rose. “No, Miss Marcy, and you didn’t see it either.”