Red sky at morning, sailors take warning…
I woke to see pink clouds on a blue sky out of my Eastern window. Possibly not a good sign for travel, but I had dreamed of this day for four years and now that it had finally arrived, I couldn’t contain my excitement about going home, back to Alfond City. Back to my parents. Back to Zach and Liz who ruled our City and treated me like their own daughter. Back to the world I knew, the one where I grew up.
No weather would stop me from going home again.
Woodsmoke and the aroma of coffee wafted up to my room from the kitchen downstairs, bringing a touch of sadness. On the other hand, no more hauling wood to heat the house and our food. I looked forward to the quiet of my own cubicle as well as the vanilla shakes and chocolate bars I had eaten every morning back home.
I’d been beyond miserable when I first arrived in the Village, but I’d made friends, and learned to love the morning sounds of the birds, and the bitter hot coffee Gabby made from chicory roots and precious coffee beans. Topped with sweet, fresh cream, it almost rivaled those chocolate shakes.
I unzipped my sleeping bag and hung it over the drying rack at the end of my bed. I considered rolling it up and adding it to my pack basket, but why bother? I wouldn’t need It in the City where all the rooms had heated floors. Better to leave it for someone else in the Village.
I pulled on the first pair of pants I’d ever made. Wool for warmth, and also the easiest fiber to spin, so Moses made all the kids start with it. My best friend Jeanne’s mother taught me how to weave the yarn into cloth and sew it into pants with big, deep pockets. Over the years I’d added patches to the worn places, as well as let out the seams as I grew and put on weight. I’d grown quite a bit in the last four years since I arrived in the Village, three weeks before my thirteenth birthday. A fancy brocade trim at the pants’ hem stood tribute to my extra height. Not only would the pants be warm for the journey, but I couldn’t wait to show Mama and Liz what I’d learned to do in the Village.
I poured cold water from a pitcher on the table into my wash basin. The weather had warmed so I no longer had to crack through a thin layer of ice. I splashed the water on my face and wiped away any sleep residue from my eyes. I patted my face with a soft cloth and took a good look at myself in the mirror, imagining how Mama would see my changes.
My skin shone as dark as water in the deep pool of the nearby spring where the brook trout lived. My cheeks seemed thinner than when I arrived, but I still had the same round forehead as my mother. I had my father’s green-gold eyes. I always thought of him when the goldenrod bloomed.
My hair was longer than it had ever been. Last night, through both our tears, my friend Jeanne had carefully sectioned it off and made braids. Each braid had a special bead, she’d chosen to protect me on my journey home.
Jeanne never tired of arranging my hair in different patterns with different decorative beads. She wore her own straight brown hair in a rope braid that stretched down her back to between her shoulder blades. She never let it get any longer. I admired the way it shone in sunlight and the way she wove in ribbons to make herself beautiful. We had taken turns caring for each other’s hair as soon as my hair grew long enough for Jeanne to braid it.
I wondered what Mama and Liz would say when they saw me. Everyone wore their hair short enough to see their scalps in the City. Maybe I’d start a new fashion trend like the one the young boys had started by shaving the sides of their heads and leaving a thick swath of hair that stretched from their foreheads to the nape of their necks.
I chuckled remembering all the remarks they got from the elders and how pleased the boys seemed with their own ingenuity and their ability to cause a stir.
I took the water basin and made my last trip to the toilet down the hall. I’d gotten used to the smells of mushrooms and wood chips mixed with whatever wastes got dumped into the compost bin on the first floor. I poured in the water and sprinkled my last trowel of pine needles and wood chips over this morning’s offering, feeling happy that tonight I’d be in a more sanitary place, where wastes disappeared instantaneously.
I grabbed my pack and bounced down the stairs in search of coffee. Joe was sitting at the table with his head in his hands. He looked up. His eyes seemed a bit red. He’d stayed out late last night drinking by the campfire with a few friends. I figured he hadn’t gotten enough sleep.
“Where’s Gabby?” I asked as I poured coffee into my blue mug from the pot on the woodstove. I’d hoped to see her to give her a hug and thank her for all she’d done for me during my time here in the Village.
Joe answered as I poured in cream from a pitcher on the counter, watching the liquid change from the color of my skin to a shade darker than Jeanne’s. Much as I looked forward to City shakes and bars, I knew I’d also miss this morning ritual from my time in the Village.
“Gabby left early, for a birthing. New mom. First child.”
I knew how those first-time births went. I’d attended almost every one since arriving in the Village. Gabby, the head woman, had requested me, or someone like me, to come and train as a healer and midwife for the Village. Our City population had overreached our resources, so Liz and Zach decided I would be the one to go.
I hadn’t taken it easily. There’d been lots of tears all around and more than a few tantrums from me. Food and Pharmacy had made me special shakes that numbed my pain and I’d learned a lot during my time here in the Village. All our City babies got delivered robotically in the surgical suite. Liz’s skills ensured we never lost a mother and Mama kept the robots going with whatever came out of the mines.
It had been a shock to see babies come out on their own. Now, Gabby sometimes even sent me out alone on “easy” cases.
I’d moved into the house with Gabby and her nephew, Joe. Joe’s parents had died when he was only four years old, from one of the flus that sometimes rushed through the Villages. Gabby had taken him in and raised him like her own son. They looked like mother and son, sharing the same coarse black hair, skin the color pine needles that carpeted the forest floor, and eyes as deep and brown as the trout pool.
Joe had been my big brother. He had just finished his Vision Quest and Naming ceremonies shortly before I’d arrived, and took me under his wing, teaching me about the Village and protecting me from children who wanted to tease me about my fears of plants, animals, weather, and all the unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, and feels of Village life.
In Nanny School, they kept us grouped by age cohorts, so it felt strange to have an older brother. I’d read about brothers and sisters in books and seen them on the vids, so I had an idea what to expect. Joe had exceeded all my expectations. I wiped away a tear, thinking how much I’d miss him, and Jeanne, and Gabby, and Moses, and all the other friends I’d made in the Village.
I had never expected to return to the City, so I’d been overjoyed when the message arrived two weeks ago. They wanted me back. They had an opening in the MedTech division and I just knew my parents must have prevailed on Liz and Zach, to bring me back to fill it.
Joe had left for the Norridgewock Landfill mine the day after we got the message. He’d only returned home the day before yesterday to say, good-bye. I could see his pack by the door and figured he was also heading out this morning.
“I’d hoped to say ‘good-bye’ to Gabby this morning.”
“You know my mom, duty calls. She left you a sandwich for the journey. And a pipe to make it more fun.” Joe smiled at me and shrugged.
“Speaking of duty, she asked me to feed the goats and chickens. When I get back, I’ll hitch up Daisy to the cart, and walk with you as far as the old road.” With that Joe headed out the side door to the barn.
I was pleased to hear Joe would take the longer route so he could walk with me for the first half-hour. The Norridgewock mine took two days walk, or sometimes even longer with bad weather. Joe had worked the mine with Daisy and the donkey cart since he’d been a few years older than I was now. It was rough, dirty work, but he brought home so many treasures. He’d found my sleeping bag still in its original packaging; like “brand new” after we aired it out for a few weeks. Joe sold all the metals, glass, and plastics we couldn’t use in the Village to traders in the Essential Workers Enclave, or EWE outside Alfond City. Electronics brought even higher prices. EWEs dismantled them, smelted the metals and sold whatever other components were still useful to techies, like Mama, in the City. Sometimes Joe would strip out the gold and silver to make jewelry that he sold for even more credits to EWE shopkeepers.
I’d always wondered why City people sometimes called people who lived in the EWE’s “sheep.” In the Village I’d learned they called female sheep, “ewes”. I imagined that EWE people must have easy going natures, and occasional moments of stubbornness. That didn’t completely square with Joe’s stories about crafty deals, and the occasional thievery he encountered selling his wares in the Alfond City EWEs. Or with Papa’s tales of negotiations and treaties he’d arranged with EWEs who served our City and others like us. Papa had a reputation for getting good trade deals. He had to travel outside the City and he did his best to ease my fears about the many vaccines I’d be getting. I wondered if I’d have to quarantine for weeks in a solitary cubicle like he did when he came back from a trip. No sense worrying about that now. If he could do it, so could I.
My journey to Alfond City would only take a day, and I would be carrying everything I wanted to keep in the travel basket Gabby had made for me when I started bleeding and had my own Vision Quest, and Naming Rites, the year after I arrived.
I finished my toast and cheese. I’d learned to love the dark bread and soft cheeses Gabby made every week. As I ate, I dreamed about the sweet bar and shake I’d be eating tomorrow. I poured the last of the coffee into the precious thermos Joe had brought back from the mines and given to me as a Christmas present a couple of months ago. It had come in handy when I went out on calls without Gabby.
I poured some water from a pitcher by the sink into the coffeepot, rinsed it out and put it on the platform of willow sticks we used as a dish drainer. I put the pipe and herbs in my pocket, pulled my heavy wool blanket around me, fastened it with a sturdy pin, Joe had made for me, and snugged on the thick alpaca hat Gabby had crocheted. Then I headed out to see if I could help Joe with anything.
I felt more tears well up as I watched Joe kiss Daisy on the forehead. That was always the last thing he did before the two of them headed out. No one had pets or the need for work animals in the Cities. I’d been terrified of all the animals when I first arrived, and now I’d knew I’d miss them, too.
Joe reached out for my pack to put it in the cart. Suddenly, he put it down on the ground and hugged me so tightly I could feel the chest binder he wore to protect his breasts when he worked in the mines. I felt it through our layers heavy winter clothes as we pressed ourselves against each other. Joe released me just enough for us to look into each other’s faces. I followed the familiar scar on the left side of his face to black pools of mystery in his eyes. Somehow, I’d never noticed his long, dark eyelashes before. Then we pulled each other tight and I felt his lips soft against mine. I held him even tighter and closed my eyes before the tears spilled out.
I opened my lips without meaning to, and our tongues touched, I felt a rush of liquid, between my legs. I’d felt that rush before, from my own touch, but this was so much more…intense.
I realized this must be what all the girls described in giggles and secrets around the campfires by the beach. I tried to take it all in, but before I could, Joe pushed me away. Then he reached for Daisy’s halter and turned her around toward the lake. My knees felt weak and I was speechless as I watched him head in the complete opposite direction from where I was going.
My mind screamed in shock! But I couldn’t open my mouth to call him back. Why was he suddenly taking the shorter route, instead of walking with me to the crossroads? And without even a word of good-bye?
Part of my shock stemmed from the feelings inside. I wanted to call him back and feel his soft lips and strong hands. I wanted to wrap my tongue around his and become a part of him. I wanted to feel him become a part of me. Brothers and sisters didn’t behave like that. What did that mean?
I watched him and Daisy disappear around a curve in the road, then I shook my head, pulled on the carry basket and headed in the opposite direction.