The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 6
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, anyways.”
“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 you arrived.”
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 world’s woes.
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 partner.
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 obliterate.
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 to fear.
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.”

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