Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Caught Between (Blood and Books)

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Sauntering, that was the best way, browsing at her leisure, body reflecting both harmless and relaxed, feet shuffling a little. The table of books lay there like a banquet, and her fingertips skimmed a few covers. She couldn’t help herself. This was not what she was meant to be finding in a good day’s work but the bookshop had caught her attention the day before. She’d stopped momentarily. A large cat had rubbed its silky fur against her bare ankles, guaranteed to annoy her and that caused her to sneeze loudly three times; the calico jumped straight up. Then came a slight movement behind the big display window, a warning for her to move on.

Today she’d fared well in the market six blocks away: two fat yellow apples; a fresh scone in a paper sleeve someone put down by someone when looking at something; a golden pen with ten fine sheets of handmade paper (the sign said); two pair of thick socks. The socks would go to Gerry but the rest she was keeping. It was useless surplus, not ready cash. That would have to come from the half dozen fancy knock off watches and a bunch of real silver bracelets from a corner shop in Harleton. The old lady–who had been easily engaged in random patter–had picked up her chiming phone–church bells?– and it was a deal done fast and she was out of there. Then there was a sweet short wave radio on a floor in an open garage she passed–where was the owner? Drinking beer at the back, too slow on his feet to catch her.

Thieving wasn’t hard but energy-consuming–being ever watchful, smart and fast about it. Sheila was all of those, even as a kid. How many times had she been punished by her dad, and how often had she and her young aunt sneaked off again to find and raid a make up display, a table piled with purses, a bakery with mini cakes and still-warm biscuits displayed on a shelf by a front door to lure customers. They were most certainly lured, then filled up with the high of stolen sweetness. Though her dad said time and again, “You got bit by the devil’s wiles, it’ll cost you more than you know, my girl.” He knew all that and more because he’d been to prison for four years–he’d only been nineteen– for crimes no one spoke of now he was all legitimate. But Sheila knew it was burglary, maybe a few; he might not have been caught for all of it. She shuddered to think of it, her caring dad.

She was eight years old when it started; Auntie Jean was way older, fourteen. They made a perfect pair of kleptomaniacs, Jean had said laughing. She had the hands that, like magic, swiped and grabbed; Shelia was the lookout and runner once Jean lifted the thing and handed it off. Because who would think a little girl with pigtails could steal and run so fast?

Now–seven years later– it was Gerry and Jean and a handful of their friends. Mostly Shelia did minor stuff, she did what they said if she wanted a small cut, but sometimes she went her own way. In fact, more often she was going her own way and lied to them when she got back: “I was sooo close, then it got risky, I’m not going to juvie for you guys!” she protested. Or: “Everything’s tied down tight out there, can barely find anything worth much lately.”

They had bigger fish to catch, anyway–TVs, computers, cars, stuff Shelia didn’t want to know about. There business was growing. But when she was empty handed Gerry gave her a medium punch on the arm and Jean gave her a scalding look then moved on to other matters. Jean kept telling her in private that she becoming a big disappointment and if she couldn’t bring it in why bother sticking around? She was on the verge of being a liability. She had to get with it or get out, Jean was sorry but family or no family…. Shelia’s face burned with humiliation so on she went, looking for more targets.

They were family, yes. So Shelia stuck in with them. Still, she was better at school and worked at that harder. One thing her mother said before she left them was that her daughter–Sheila–was way too smart to live the low life and if she had any say left in the matter, the girl would become a lawyer, not a miserable petty–or worse–criminal.

“What’s the difference?” her dad had said, laughing with that edge he still had back then.

Her mother reportedly said, “You know what I mean. She could amount to something good. She could be anything if she gets a chance, just like me! But no, you have to stand in everyone’s way. You and your crooked paths to big dreams. What a joke!”

“I’m not in her way, just yours. She’ll get a different life, she’s smarter and better than you,” he grumbled and waved her off, his long suffering girlfriend of ten years, and his daughter’s mother, for good or ill.

But she’d soon left in a flash after losing some fight with him. And though he loved Shelia more than he could say, he worked six to seven days a week at the marina so she was on her own when not in school or watched after by a co-worker’s wife. And they got by, more or less, on his wages. He wanted better for them both. Shelia was six then. Her mother–those words sounded foreign to her. It was so long ago it was all a fuzzy dream of a memory. All she knew was her dad–who stuck by her.

She wanted to give him some of her cash but knew he’s had a fit. She bought a few groceries or personal items with the little she kept from Jean, sometimes stashed it under her bed in the jewelry box from her childhood. Her dad half-knew what she did but denied it to everyone. And his own self even more. As long as she did okay in the school year and no cops came to his door…what could he really do about it? It had to be in the blood. He blamed Jean but his niece blamed him and then he blamed his brother, her father. It was a waste of time to think about. Sheila was going to be okay.

To Sheila, the stealing was a habit, and she sometimes felt it was a pretty bad habit. One she might break someday. Or not. It bore little thought; it was not the major thing in her life. She was really trying to grow up.

******

It was the third time in a month the teenager came by and appeared to be casing the place, try to maybe steal one of the books. It always perplexed her that anyone would steal a book–there were libraries, for Pete’s sake. So Meredith circled in and out of her bookshop, very casually, and looked down the street, nodded at her.

“Nice day, hey? See anything you like?”

Just like that, the youth was gone. A very fast mover, like a ninja kid, she chuckled as she told her assistant. And never spoke a word. The girl tended to linger at the bargain mystery books on the table outdoors– but at other times she checked out a few memoirs and science books baking in August’s sizzling heat. Couldn’t be that she didn’t have the money–they were cheap in her opinion, deeply discounted after being long idle on shelves. Who knew? Might be a street kid. Maybe her ripped jeans were not due to fashion but because those were all she had. The large navy windbreaker hung on her narrow frame; her hair was worn swept into a short choppy ponytail, and she always wore sunglasses despite the weather. Once it rained suddenly; she’d left on the sunglasses but pulled a baseball cap from her jacket pocket, pressed it on firmly and slinked down the sidewalk.

Meredith thought of putting up a Free Library sort of box in the back alley for those who had no money; lots of people used it as shortcut so it might take off. So she set to it a few evenings later after closing time. As she rummaged through cast-offs by the back door Mr. Mercedes–so named because the calico sure thought he was all that— sniffed each book from the pile, then chose a couple of stacked ones to sit on. The cat had been wild and still disappeared a couple days at a time, yet always returned. Customers liked–or perhaps admired– him more than he liked them but he was tolerant enough after three years, even conversed to a few in his surly native cat tongue.

She worked a few minutes, feeling good about her effort, when Mr. Mercedes shot past her piles and raced around the corner. Meredith checked around it with caution. A mouse or-ugh-rat? A passing cyclist? What had he heard that she had not? She had closed up and locked the front door twenty minutes ago; her assistant was working on invoices in the back office. She went in search of the cat and came to the entrance.

The door, to her surprise, was slightly ajar. How had that been overlooked? Or was it jimmied? Mr. Mercedes had snaked inside; Meredith peered in the windows. There was a shadowy figure at the back aisles. She saw a hand skim then lift a few books off a shelf, drop them in a backpack. Art history section? The thief grabbed a few more in the next section, hunched down, crept between book stacks, perusing the bounty.

Should she call out to Annie, her assistant or call 911?

Before she could decide what to do, the culprit headed to the back door that was still open to the alley. As he passed the office Annie stuck her head out and shrieked as Meredith ran inside, then after the culprit. But a muffled crash stopped her at the doorway. She peered into the passageway beyond, Annie imploring her to stop right there,, and she narrowed her eyes at the the gathering dusk.

There: that teenaged girl, a booted foot on its heel in the now-impeded trajectory of the running, then falling thief–or was it really her partner in crime? The person sprawled onto pavement with a thud, books falling from the still-open backpack, each hitting ground hard, a few skidding away and coming to a pathetically scratchy, dirty full stop.

“What on earth is going on here?” she called out to both of the youths. “Leave all my books this instant or I’ll call police!”

The scruffy guy scrambled to his knees but the girl gave him another push so that he stumbled forward. Another two books fell from inside his hoodie but he was rendered useless at picking up any of them as she kicked at his ankles. He yelled an obscenity at her and took off down the darkening alley, long gone before Meredith could call out another warning.

The girl with her usual sunglasses and hat pulled low stood opposite her, hands on hips, mouth opened a little as she huffed some. Mr. Mercedes sat at her feet looking up, tail twitching. She glanced down a split second when Meredith entered the alley and walked towards her. But this was not welcomed by the book rescuer. She stepped way back. Mr. Mercedes stepped back as well, hissing at them both.

“Who are you? Why are you hanging out here so much, and how did you know he was going to steal something? Where did you come from?”

The wiry, sharp-featured girl with immobile face balled her hands up and jammed them into jacket pockets, well balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to take off.

“Well, thanks for the help–I think!” the anxious bookseller said, exasperated, as Annie circled up behind her.

Meredith picked up a couple books and then the two women tended to others scattered about. They were heavy, expensive coffee table books about art and photography, of all things.

“Stolen gifts for someone? Why these?” Annie said.

“Criminal opportunist! Why not just buy a used couple of tomes somewhere? How dare he!” Meredith whimpered and stood with hands on cheeks, studying the glossy volumes.

The books were all damaged to some degree. She might never be able to sell them for what they were worth–beautiful, informative, inspiring books. But it was her fault, apparently, since the door had been easily opened. Meredith tried to tune out the nervously chattering Annie and they wiped off the books with their shirttails, murmuring about the scare and torn covers and grime and what to do. Then Meredith recalled the young woman. still just a girl, really, and yet she was readied to fight or flee, and she spun around to find her.

Too late. She had flown.

******

“That was stupid! How much can it matter if Leo’s great-grandfather or uncle or whoever got those books for his seventy-fifth birthday? Was it worth all that trouble? Now what does he have? Nothing. Not one damn thing! And now no one can enjoy them either!”

She saw her Uncle Brad across the floor–“Blue” they called him due to the blue-black tear tattooed on his cheek–and he studied her with a quizzical look, then went into a back room and shut the door. Thankfully. She was always wary of him, even when he was nice to her-But he was often gone and Jeanie was second in command.

Sheila was pacing and yelling at Gerry and Jean. Leo had left in a funk, humiliated about having been foiled, ready to start a brawl with Shelia, his senior by two years but smaller, when Jean stepped in.

“Well, it isn’t only the grandpa, Sheil, it was a dumb, simple test! Jerry needs his nephew to get better at the simplest tasks and if he can’t even pick off a few stupid books…! Useless crew.” She shook her head in disgust. “But for you to interfere–that’s what’s idiotic, you know better, and it’s almost enough for me to–to–” She came toward Shelia with raised hand, face red as a radish, curly hair shaking as she advanced.

Sheila felt her insides quiver but stood her ground. “Aw, Jeanie, chill out. I didn’t know it was him at first. I was just hanging out, that’s all, and when I saw him break in–“

“You should have let him be,” Jerry pronounced with that rumbling voice. “What a couple of amateurs. Might be time to just prematurely cut both short, baby. But it’s not like it’s some major loss. Books, ya know? No harm done.” He put an arm around Jean’s shoulders, tugged her back. “Let’s not get her so riled up she shoots off her mouth at Speed.”

“Yeah, okay, never mind, I’m okay, my Sheil’s okay…well, aren’t ya?,” Jean cast her another look, then stomped over to the desk, where she fingered a big new batch of superior gemstone jewelry.

Speed, Sheila repeated to herself. Her father’s old name–his old identity. Shelia felt alarm shoot through her. If he even knew the extent of things going on with her. And here.

She surveyed the storage building, All the covered cars, stacks of boxes with TVs and computers and video equipment with hot new games and more–the giant desk where jewelry awaited assessment, at the dark corners where others of the group lounged like sly lazy dogs or talked on their phones making clandestine deals.

What was she doing there? Why did she persist in thinking this was really her family–and her fate?

“I’m so completely sick of this, of you all, I’m outta here!” she yelled and left.

No one said a thing. She was a kid, kids were impulsive and she was blood family.. Jean just had to wait and see. But she watched her niece go and sighed heavily. It was awhile coming to this, yet she always thought it. It wouldn’t be at all easy for little Sheil, the smart one, her protégé, slowly going sour. She had good instincts but too often she didn’t show enough common sense or lack of guilt for this line of work. It took guts and stamina and no looking back, only to the next job that might be the big payoff. Jean lived for that day so she, too, could walk away– but to her own private Shangri-La.

******

At Meredith’s Book Madness all was in order. They’d sorted out the inventory and found new ways to donate some books, started a couple new sales that were going well. The book library at back was being well used, too. In fact, they thought it brought more foot traffic and cyclists–and then to the front door.

The nine art and photography books that had been harmed by thievery were repaired and put on a discount table indoors; four had sold so far. They ordered a few more interesting volumes.

Annie unlocked the front door. It had rained the night before. The world smelled sweet and bright, warming up as sunlight streamed onto the quiet street and their ceramic flower pots along the outer wall. Then her eyes glimpsed a form at the far end of the building.

“Meredith?”

“Yes?” The answering voice wafted from back of the shop.

“Can you come here?”

Meredith came and gazed to the spot where Annie looked. Smiled.

Shelia roused, blinked in the honeyed light. She grabbed her hat which had fallen off a couple hours earlier; she’d been too tired to wait for the shop to open and dozed off. She had had little sleep all night. After she’d left Jean and Gerry, she’d gone home. She later–without thinking further– told her dad she wanted a change in her life but she wasn’t sure how to do it.

“Why all this?” he’d asked, elbows on the table, eyes piercing the short distance between them. “What do you mean, a ‘change’? Are you in trouble? I mean, more than I think? Tell me what happened.”

“No, not really. I mean, that depends on what you think…”

“I know you and Jeanie are thick as…you need to come clean with me, honey, and now.”

“You know I can’t say what I want to say, not really, and I know you know what you know. So what is there to say–except, what should I do now?”

“How deep, Sheila girl?”

“Not that deep in, I can swim to the surface.”

He rubbed his bristly chin and didn’t take his eyes off her, and it startled her, his intense stare, as if he was cutting through all her smokescreen of thoughts and seeing everything all through the years. Maybe he did, but then it was as if he looked far beyond her. And then he came back to her.

“I’m sorry, this is fully on me. So leave it to me.”

“No, Dad.” She shook her head vigorously.

“Don’t worry yourself, I know a couple of things, helpful things. And from now on, every time you get that itch…just tell me. We’ll fend it off. I’ve got your back, don’t you know that?”

He half grinned at her, the goofy one that revealed his bottom gold tooth so it winked in the light and at her. He was a nice enough looking guy, she realized, a man who’d aged too fast, but he still had energy and attitude enough for at least two younger guys. He could have gotten married a couple of times–she’d not have gotten in the way.

But he’d kept his nose clean, he told everybody, was about working hard and taking care of Shelia. Though he clearly had failed in some basic ways, he knew that already. Did he think he could’ve kept ignoring the worsening signs, though? No. Where did he think she got to when he was gone so long every day and even night? He had hoped for better times for her but suspected so long. The family, right, leave it to crazy Jean to screw it up worse.

Things just had to be made much better, he knew right then.

“Yeah, Dad, I know you’ve got me. I didn’t want to freak you out, make you sad– or worse…”

“Well, it’s lucky for me you have the sense to know when to speak up a little. And figure out you need a new direction.”

“You mean, lucky for me! I’ve sorta been on my own awhile, you know?”

“Yes–you’re right. We both are fortunate now that we put a few things on the table. And I’m stepping in this time, blood or no blood, no matter, we are not them.”

He rose to put his arms around her and squeezed three times for “I love you”, and she about cried, it had been so long since he’d done that. She squeezed back.

And that was it, for the time being. They’d figure things out. Or maybe he’d just do his bit and they would go on in a more normal way, their odd but more real way. She could only hope he didn’t step too hard on the dragon’s tail. Jean the Dragon Lady they called her–she was tougher than anybody she knew in their city. Except her uncle… and her dad, though he was not like much his brother, anymore

But for now here she was with a book lady who was looking her over as if seeing her for the first time, a creature who didn’t, in fact, have horns. An ordinary girl with some strange aspects.

Sheila didn’t remove her sunglasses to stare back harder. The woman didn’t take any offense at whatever she did, it seemed.. It was like she got it, though how was anyone’s guess.

“I’m Meredith; this is Annie. Want to give us some help? We have a bunch of books that need sorting,” she said, gesturing with a sharp motion of her head toward the store.

“Uh, maybe, I guess so.”

“If you catch on and come on time twice a week, and ask before you take anything, you can stay on. If not, you’re out. But I have to tell you right off I can’t pay you. You can, however, choose a cheaper book each week to take home. But we shall see how things go, alright? Name?”

Shelia stood up, smoothed her damp jeans and jacket, put her cap back on. The way this woman talked floored her. “Sheila. Wait a sec–did i even say I wanted an actual job?”

Meredith rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. “Oh, didn’t you? I thought you might have. And you were sitting out here waiting for us to open, right? Anyway, no worries–no pay, no real job…” and she went inside.

Sheila shook her head hard to clear it. Hesitated. Looked up at the fat clouds scudding by, heard cars honking and a cyclist’s bell ringing as he whizzed by, and those crows squabbling from the roof as if they owned the block. Smelled a bit of gasoline and a whiff of scraggly red roses growing by the sidewalk. Ordinary stuff. She wondered if the lady knew what she was really all about–and if she did, would she have offered her a gig, even for nothing? She was sure taking a chance. With a thief.

An about-to-be-reformed one, she corrected herself, and the idea excited and worried her.

Mr. Mercedes jumped out at her so she bent down to briefly stroke him; he followed her into the store. “Well, she let you stay, that’s kinda weirdly nice,” she told him. She tore off her jacket and stuffed her cap in a back pocket. Looked around the homey, dusty, beautiful bookstore. She took off her sunglasses and set them aside.

Mapmaker Girl

COpurtesy Wikimeida Commons: 1823_darton_and_gardner_comparative_chart_of_world_mountains_and_rivers_-_geographicus_-_mountainsandrivers-darton-
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons: 1823, Darton and Gardner Comparative chart of world mountains and rivers

Suriya never planned on becoming a mapmaker. Her heart was set on architecture, creating place from wood and stone, glass and metals. It wasn’t only the imagining of an entire construction, it’s becoming an enlivened entity with breath made of those who dwelt within and without. Though as she held that in her central mind the idea astonished her. No, it was the work of it: conception of design, the measurements and rejection or acceptance of materials, every alteration to the plan. The blood heat of all that went on inside her thinking and being. The anticipation like fear that thrilled as the building was to be created.

She dreamed of this inside the small grey cinder block  house she shared with most of her family. It was a humble box lost among all the others built to withstand the winds and weather draped and dropped on their village, Milliad. She watched other, older Makers construct and erect the places she improved upon in her designing mind. Nearly cried out for a place among them. And tended to the work she was given and needs she perceived.

Except her father’s needs. Zel was a Traveler, and since it was an honor to be a trading man they endured his absence. But it was also inconvenient when a man had a wife and six children–to leave them to their own devices could be dangerous, as well. But they made do. Her mother, Aya, worked the water line from dawn to dusk, muscular arms hefting urns and pots in a sliding rhythm and managing the line when others grew slack. Her body’s sways and twists unleashed song; she was paid extra for it. Suriya’s older brother, Torn, corralled his siblings, getting them to the Community Classroom and collecting rocks to trade with the Stone Master for food passes. He yearned to one day leave as had their father, to see the world. To be free of the drudgery.

Torn charged Suriya with keeping track of their father’s voyages. Father drew them rough diagrams in the earth, acting as if it made little difference to them if he went north or east, south or west. But Torn was hungry for details and his sister knew how to capture them. Suriya could draw with such precision that at fourteen she already was being given jobs by the community, documenting people’s faces and possessions. Torn convinced their mother that she would bring more security and prestige to the family if she followed that path. Maybe they would even be allowed to move. Mapmaking would be useful to all. She should be apprenticed to Mapmaker Master Joss, who’d asked for her already.

Suriya went off to find and sign on with him, not unhappily. If she drew more she might gain skill for architectural blueprints, in time. She would also be out of the house. She would not carry water or pick rocks.

Joss was pleased to have her and the Tribune was relieved to have a new apprentice such as she. In very little time she caught on to the latitudinal and longitudinal manner of all Place, the bodies of earth and water, the divergence of many skies from endless horizon. She knew about the three moons and both fixed and unfixed stars from her father’s tales. She grasped directions, spacial orientation and markers before they were uttered. The Mapmaker Master found she had such a talent that he stood behind her watching over her tidy head with its small red scarf, following every line and mark with barely hidden awe. He gave her more complex measurements of various Travelers’ distances and topographical information and let her go to it. Joss encouraged her but gave faint, often no praise. He would know more as time went by. He would consult with the Tribune if needed but he suspected the truth and knew all would be revealed fully: Suriya could become Grand Mistress of Maps. But the longer she was not informed and not officially chosen, the better for Joss and the Tribune. He had separate work to get out of her first.

Suriya took home a pouch of small multi-colored orbs each week to exchange for household goods. Over time it came to mean more than she expected. Her mother was proud of her daughter’s fine skill and contribution and told her more than once. But Aya was well aware of her daughter’s passion for creating beautiful structures. She waited to see if Suriya would stay of her own accord. It was likely this child would bring something more than acclaim to their family but she didn’t yet know what. How much she might damage, how much illuminate. It frightened Aya but she kept the feeling wrapped up tight, tucked far away. Her husband expected her to work and live without probing for more than could be yet answered. It was safer that way.

Her son, Torn, on the other hand, always sought more despite the wisdom of patience. He fingered the smooth glass orbs and thought how much he would rather see a key to the gates and the route where his father roamed, for starters. Then he went to the trading place to obtain what was needed for his mother, wondering over the possibility of a life free of rocks and orbs and grains for the bread they ate to sustain them another day.

In the night’s lonely depth and width as the others slept, Suriya perched on the flat top of the rough roof, the part before it slanted downward. She pulled from her loose garment rough paper sheaves and a drawing charcoal, then drew the route she believed their father had taken this time.

Though without costly rich dyes to aid her, she knew in her mind what colored her sketches: black-blue and violet mountains, rust brown and grey for shorelines, wide expanses of flat land that had no color except for flecks of orange and green. The sweetness of red inside white for blossoms. The moist greeness of hollows where the animals roamed. There was no sound she could hear about her as there was none in the maps. The vivid silence was music to her and it reverberated within her, a cushioned thunder of great wings moving in soft air. She glimpsed feet running along steep, barren hillsides and then they were gone. Suriya drew until her hand cramped, stiffened, until night was frayed at the edges with tiny licks of light. Then she descended the ladder and crawled into her window and then into the loft’s bed swing. And slept deeply and briefly.

But even when the map appeared to succeed with its beauty, each intuitively discovered byway declared remarkable by an astonished Joss, Suriya could not tell if he was pleased. He seemed disconcerted, even dismayed in his stern, closed way.

“I think I’ve gotten very close to Father,” she told Torn as they washed after first meal. “In true fact, it is more that Father has gotten to me and my work.”

Torn took no care in keeping the water off the floor and her garment and he splashed his face another time. “You don’t want me to know, I’m sure. You’ve already figured out I want to leave, find and go with him. Then you’ll be stuck here with the others.”

Suriya dried her face on the tail of her frock. “It’s not that easy to go. It will take a miracle to get out of the gate until you are twenty years and even then, you have to be invited for a purpose as we know. No one does something without a purpose. That is our way.”

He roughed up his ebony black hair so it stuck out in small barbs. “That is your fate, not mine.”

“I didn’t say that–we can choose our own final fate once we’re called forth by the Tribune or the Highest Power. It may require sacrifice but… oh, why must you be contrary?” She drank from the cup of her palm then flung droplets at him.

Torn batted her away and she batted him back; it seemed like play until he gave her a small shove.

“You mean like Joss and soon the Tribune have called you forth- -and yet you have chosen well enough, have you?”

She stood with feet apart and hands on hips, then let out a rush of air  and shook her head. She brought her smooth strong hands together, one cupping the other before her chest. “Please don’t joke. Drawing chose me. The images chose me. You have always known that….You are not the same brother, Torn, as you were before Father was gone so much.”

Torn knit together his tanned, lined brow as he looked into her, then away. “I’m not a child anymore, that is all, well past your age. And soon you won’t be so childish, either. There are things you can’t imagine yet because your mind can’t hold them as real. They are too big– and bitter and simple. Not tender or complex like your sweet strange dreams, your mad fantasies.” He cackled as if he’d made a joke but she felt it as a sting.

“Come to the roof tonight,” she said, “and we’ll see what is and what isn’t.”

Torn considered her standing there, her hands now gathering her skirt. She could be so earnest and what did that even count in Milliad? He’d often asked her this. But her eyes had become luminous over the passing of time. Their color–dark blue with gold around the edges–startled him again as she refused to break her gaze from his. Her hair had fallen out of her scarf, unruly and thick, hence the scarf until she gave in and cut it chin length like the older girls. But her still, steeply planed face was inscrutable. They had once been told they favored one another. Torn didn’t know so much about her, anymore, he realized and she didn’t likely know about him.

Or did she? A chill twitched his shoulders as she smiled lightly, something more beneath its easiness.

“Help me with the children, it’s late,” he told her. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Together they rounded up the four young ones. The little ones had their pieces of fruit and bread and their woven bags. They pulled on soft-soled shoes. The six of them walked to the Community Classrooms, their older brother and sister so good to see when they looked back, then whispered among themselves. This was different, surprising, all of them leaving twelve footprints in the dusty paths, the wind hovering over them and then whisking away their tittering voices.

******

Suriya had had trouble at the Mapmaker Workshop and it followed her all the way home. It seemed Joss had wanted her to diverge from what made she’d drawn. He’d directed her to follow his mechanical compass as she worked on the paper flattened out on the work bench. Instinct told her he was wrong but how could she disagree? There were other Mapmakers who worked swiftly, quietly, but he was a Mapmaker Master held in great regard. She was young, had been there far less time than anyone else. But he had not disagreed with her renderings until this time.

Zel’s current trail was not as important now, Joss had told her, as were her findings of obscure passages, whether taken by others or none other yet. Could she see the off-shooting trails amid forests? The danger and mystery of distant mountains beckoning or did they recede from her mind? Could she feel where lesser rivers and tiny creeks turned or sudden rapids became impassable? And what about the towns they should record and visit or avoid? The hamlets that, like Milliad, meant something only to the inhabitants and thus, not to them at this time. He needed to find prosperous settlements that yielded greater profits. Zel was one among many and he had such irksome principles.

Joss knew how Suriya’s gift manifested by now: she made the maps come alive, each rendered from her interior visionary views, her sensations and sightings of place and energy. He didn’t know how it worked, only what it could likely do for them all; he’d have her proficiency honed into a power he could net and wield, too, one day. If she trusted him. But when she got too close to her father’s footsteps he urged her elsewhere. Joss had his own mission in that room with her, one that would be essential to Milliad’s growth,  more so for his status and security. But he knew he had to be watchful of all Suriya’s mapmaking skills could reveal lest he miss an important cue leading to those grander days.

Suriya walked home with a brisk pace, her hand trailing a stick in the dirt. The intrepid shadows at end of day greeted and cooled her as she blinked them out of her sight. They slowly melted into the golden hour. She needed to talk to Torn tonight, to unburden herself, to share with him her secret work. Was it even possible to speak the truth in this place where people said so little? Even then it was often obscured, layered in meanings. It was the Milliad way, born of harsh weather and tightly knit families and work that held them apart more than brought them together. The mill town kept people fed but also kept them exhausted in the vast fields and ancient large mill, quick to find privacy to rest, bodies limp, minds emptied. The Tribune wanted them to give their all to the community, not so to others. They were spokes of a wheel, yes, and those spokes did not touch but strengthened the wheel of Milliad.

The night fell upon Suriya without hesitation, twilight brief and darkness blurring the perplexing ways and means of humans while other creatures lay down and just slept.

“I can hear you, Torn. You think you’re so stealthy but your body resists the wind and gives you away.”

He unfolded himself at ladder’s top and came round to the flat spot near center, before the gradual slope of roof increased.

“A more sly four-legged I am not; I have to move as keeps me well alive.” He sat beside her. “Ah, too long since I have been up here.”

“I’ve always wanted to anchor a bench here,” she said. “The roof top is just a flattened length of stucco where we might even set up a small table. If we put a rail around it even the younger ones could join us–”

“That’s the point, right? This is not a children’s area; they belong inside until they’re old enough to climb safely.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Her hair billowed out of the scarf as wind gusted; she held tightly her drawn-up knees. “Milliad’s ways, separating and dividing people except at school where we had to sit crunched side by side all day long in the stifling heat. I want to make more community spaces!”

She glanced at him but he was looking out over their village and beyond. The horizon brightened to opalescent then went black, crowded with starry bodies taking their places. He pulled his shoulders up high and let them drop, then leaned back on his hands.

“Out there….” Torn murmured, chin jutting toward the gate.

“…is what you hope to find…but also what you don’t want. Not all would be so wonderful. Father clarified that when Mother wanted to follow him, all of us like vagabonds.”

“No matter all that now. I know how to make my passage. I’m leaving soon. Don’t ask me how or when.”

Suriya felt a knot yank tight in her chest. “You can’t wait until you’re of age? Then just walk out safely?”

“There’s only so much time, sister. So many days I hate it here, the rules and cunning, the work designations and extra demands on families, the obedience to Tribunal methods. It is not a place to find more or better; everything is regulated, set to ancient law that needs amending. ”

“But what can you accomplish by running off?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s waiting to speak to me but I can almost hear the wisdom rising. I tell you this because you will find a way to understand…and you’ll forget to share it with others, am I right?”

She tapped his hand three times, their childhood signal of loyalty.

“Now what was it you wanted to tell me? Or are we to sit and gaze at the sky until we become stuporous?”

She turned sideways and placed her hands on his shoulders. “I know where father is going, brother.”

Torn grabbed her forearms and shook her a little.”You found him? How?”

Suriya reached into the middle pocket of her garment and pulled out four maps, then stopped his hands from snatching them.

“Because, Torn, I make the maps he follows.”

Torn released her and leaned back involuntarily, put his hand to his lips and gazed at her hard.

“I start out drawing what comes to my mind’s visual expanse. I feel directed in part by his thinking but that isn’t all.”

She said this as if she was explaining the way water erodes a riverbank, a thing common and expected.

“He directs you…?” Torn said, feeling scared but uncertain why.

“I just know where he wants to go, so I show him how to get there. I draw the maps for him here”–she held out the maps–“and he holds it in his mind while I work and finally when I’m done. And on he goes.”

Torn made a light snickering sound. “…and on he goes… Then how did he get places before, without your help?”

“He didn’t need my help then. Now he does. The Tribune and Joss have other plans; he has to be safe. He realizes I know things.”

Suriya turned away as he read her maps. She could hear the first moon rising, the second preparing to join it, or perhaps it was night birds lifting off from a faraway branch with a swoop. She wished she could stand up, leap out to follow, whatever the delicate ruffles of sound were. She wanted to do something unexpected, even to herself.

“These are amazing, Suriya, so detailed and beautifully made. And you believe he is headed this way?” Torn pointed to the upper edge of the second map.

“Yes. Tomorrow he crosses over a forgotten mountain here,” she said and moved her finger along lines she’d trailed in charcoal.

Her brother put his face close to the map to better see it in the deepening dark. He traced the way of her finger and let out a deep tremulous breath.

She smiled at him, knuckled his spiky hair. “They’re yours to keep. I have them in my memory. I figured you’d want them when you leave, which I suppose is quite soon. It seems the bitter, simple realities you’d mentioned revolve about people being greedy and selfish too often. They–Joss, the Tribune–want our father to bring back all he can forcibly take. But he isn’t that man. He’s a fine, hearty Traveler, a good trader, but fair and just. He knows much about many things and will not aggrieve others if he can avoid it…I so miss him. Now you will go…”

“Suriya, I can’t fathom that you’re giving me these powerful tools. Your work to help Father. You know I was to leave in three days time…? And now I will know where to go. Will you and I know each other’s ways, too? I don’t want us to get lost in all this change.”

She only nodded. Looked out into the tree branches that swayed against the elegant palette of nighttime, the stars winking at them as if they knew, too, their stories. At the rows and rows of pale squat homes lined up below, the people all ensconced inside their neat little house-prisons.

“I want to build such new places of worship, places of play, places of eating and talking and laughing. I want Mother to bring her dance and songs, bring us to our feet as she did when she was young. I want more happiness, Torn, and peace for Milliad. I ask you and Father to come back and help us. But for now you have been called, brother, so you must go.”

“Thank you, Suriya… from my soul. We will return home and we’ll find ways to make all kinds of changes.” Torn softly kissed her cheek, then left to further prepare.

Suriya stood tall, raised her arms into the enveloping darkness, then unknotted a small red scarf from her dark hair. It unfurled then floated away as wind blew the wavy strands from her gleaming blue-gold eyes envisioning even now the journey she’d soon map for her brother as well as their father. For perhaps their whole family. For where there would be new pathways there was need of the first lines made in dirt or on paper, of light to be cast ahead and a way to find and be found.