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campfire crackles, spits sparks into black sky, crackle like old woman laughter. the grandmothers sit in a ring, planted solid like the circle of rocks round the fire, and the mountains that protect us. our friends from the north here to trade, and the grandmothers gather to tell stories of before the water come. they talk of fruit the colour of jewels, fruit that quits your thirst and your hunger, too. the grandmothers speak of many things i don’t understand, but hunger’s gone from the crinkled faces glowin pretty and sweet in the firelight, and this i know, my belly full of blackened corn from the oven.
i tasted melon, once, when a stranger from southwest passed through the yard. grandma muna wouldn’t let him sleep with us. she give him a blanket and pointed to the sycamore tree at the edge of the tall grass. traders call this place the shipyard, on account of the containers we live in – big boxes, blue, and red, and green, all in a row. ships carried these cross the ocean, once. they been here a long time, and the sun bleached the colours some. sleepin in them’s the closest i been to the sea, so i call our home the yard for short. makes more sense. i never seen a ship, and the lake don’t touch the ocean.
“noah,” grandma muna says, “sleep callin you,” and i smile and roll over onto my hot belly, push myself up and retreat from the fire.
i wander cross the field to redbox with bo whinin and snappin at the stick i use for walkin, grass scratchin at my good leg. their voices trail after me through the empty night, talkin what grandma muna calls future talk. i hear lots of talk like this, lately. feels like it’s bout me. “he’s growin,” grandma muna said, once. i knowed she meant me. everyone else here’s big as they ever gonna get.
“i’m growin,” i say to cleo when she pulls back the metal door to redbox.
“me too, boy,” she laughs, rubbin her belly.
cleo’s belly bout to pop, makes her legs look like two skinny stalks, ’cept i wouldn’t say that to her face. cleo’s face always smilin. she tucks me into bed, kisses my forehead, and goes back to her pallet without closin the door up. cleo sleeps more now the baby’s almost here, but i reckon she misses the night-sounds, the grandmothers murmurin by the fire.
two words i heard follow me back to redbox, but i don’t want to say them out loud with the night so close and black. i scratch the scab on my knee and the words pulse like my heartbeat underneath as i lie on my pallet and squeeze my eyes closed.
there’s a red flower blooms in the brown grass grandma muna calls paintbrush and cleo calls prairie-fire. with the door open and the moon shinin bright you can see it out there at night, like the colour’s tryna creep back into the earth. sometimes you can find a rusty contraption to play with, if you dig in the right place – i found hooks and a rope grandma muna called a pulley. she forbid me to go lookin after that, said i could cut myself and die from poisonin, so i just walk in the high brown grass round the yard with bo. sometimes we skirt the lake, but grandma muna don’t like bo goin near it much. says he might contaminate it. i seen other animals drinkin there, so i feel bad for bo.
cleo says i should be grateful the grandmothers let me keep bo and give him water from our well. bo’s got a paw turns under him, makes him walk funny like i do. i got a leg that withers away, but i can walk, so grandma muna says we blessed by somethin, all right.
bo grumbles and fidgets next to me on the pallet like he knows i’m thinkin on him. i turn on my side and pull him close, his nose press gainst my neck, breath on my face. bo smell just like me.
moon shines big in the sky tonight. prairie-fire flecks the grass like sparks flyin.
early mornin, grandma muna catch me by the basin. i try to avoid it in truth, but i been playin faces in the mirror leant gainst the metal sidin – pullin tongues and scrunchin my nose up and sayin, “boo!”
soon’s i see her i know what’s comin, and sure enough she calls out to cleo.
“cleo! this boy needs bathin!” she pretends a kick at bo and he scrambles off into the bushes, pokes his head out to watch.
bo’s a good boy and grandma muna likes him really. i seen her take him in her lap, stroke him behind the ears the way he likes, a smile on her face like a young smile. like my smile in the mirror.
grandma muna tells george to heat the water. it’s cleo’s chore but the grandmothers worry bout cleo. they talk bout how she’s walkin, the shape of her belly, whether it’s dropped. i’m the last baby to show itself here and i’m almost ten already.
george works quiet as he brings two pails of lakewater to the fire and warms it some in the pot. he’s one of the grey men with grey hair and a grey beard, scars like a litter of crescent moons cross his cheeks. the grey men left don’t say much less they memberin the last war, seems like. i miss the young men from the yard but they been leavin one by one since i’m a baby.
cleo comes out of redbox and yawns and stretches her body. “look at that sunshine,” she says, but it don’t look no different to me than yesterday.
george rolls out the barrel and fills it with lakewater. bo creeps out the bushes some on his belly, stretches his front paws out. i back away toward him but cleo grabs my arms, gives george a nod. he lifts and dunks me in full-clothed, so quick i sail through air and land with a splash, grip the barrel sides with my hands and shake like i seen bo do. the water shocks me. george hardly got the chill off at all.
“george, you’re a devil!” cleo laughs.
he smiles his old sad half-moon smile and goes back to tendin fire.
cleo strips the wet clothes off my body, throws them in a pile for laundry. she washes brown water from my hair and neck, talkin bout how she could plant potatoes in my collar and save on tradin our water with the others who pass through.
long as the rains still come, we all right. right as rain, grandma muna says. one time, i heard one of the other grandmothers say cleanliness next to goodliness, but grandma muna just rolled her eyes. guess you can be goodly without bein clean. i try my best to be good even when i outrun cleo at bathtime.
i hold still while cleo scrubs, but the brown water splashes cleo’s melon-belly.
cleo lost her other babies. they under the dirt with the rusted metal. i’m glad i don’t go diggin no more, and i told bo not to either. even though i always wanted a brother to play with, the lost boys spook me. they might rise up and watch us through the grass, like bandits. i used to feel safer when jennet was lookout, but he left us after cleo’s belly swole. i member he left amaranths on her pillow, and she cried some.
now the grey men take turns to guard. not too many bandits round these days, grandma muna said – most people livin got stuff or skills to trade, so i’m not scared of them no more. just the lost babies, hidin in the grass like scarecrows in the corn. i’m sure glad the grandmothers didn’t lose me.
“cleo,” i say as she squeezes water out my hair. “whose belly i come from?”
“hush,” she says. “you’re the yard’s baby.”
bo been whinin bout the brown grass lately – seems like he been hankerin to run off without me. when sunday come, i sneak him down to the lake while the grandmothers gone chantin in the clearin. he runs in and out the water, yappin and splashin and fallin over himself in the mud. i laugh so hard i trip and fall, and see a lady lookin down at me, hair all done up in a white cloth.
“where are your elders, boy?”
my name’s noah. she called me boy, but not sweet like cleo says it.
“they chantin.” i stay flat on my back.
her nostrils flare. “mountain people,” she shakes her head. “you’re still up here chanting in the woods, my my.”
she looks out cross the lake and bo gives one yap and then runs off sheepish back to the yard, leavin me with the grandlady.
“on your feet, boy.” she walks away from the shore.
there’s a girl hoverin next to the grandlady’s skirts. i see her right-way-up when i get to my feet, leanin on my stick and tryin my best to hide my trouble, with the grandlady lookin at me like i born funny. nobody look at me that way before.
the girl wears her hair tied up in white rags, and a necklace somethin i never seen the like of round her neck.
the grandlady scoffs and makes after bo cross the field to the yard. “come, eliza,” she says, and the girl follows. “fetch one of your grandmothers, boy,” her grandlady calls.
when i’m sure she’s turned i make a hand signal jennet learned me at her back.
i’m pretty scared to interrupt chantin. there’s no children allowed in the clearin, and as i’m the only child that means me. i hang on at the water’s edge when i see cleo in the distance – she steps out of redbox and waves to the grandlady. she’s carryin a basket of laundry and drops it on the ground. she don’t look scared, just spooked like when a band of north traders show up and you only got cactus pads to offer. seein the barrel out ready for washin makes me glad i took a bath this week before the grandlady come, and i move fast as i can to the clearin, preferin to catch hell from grandma muna to makin polite talk with the grandlady like poor cleo.
as i get close, their voices crackle like leafs in the tree canopy o’erhead, and howl soft like wind blowin through tree hollows. the grandmothers sing to the earth, to make it whole again, to stop it hurtin, the way cleo sings a lullaby in my ear when i scrape my knee even though i’m almost ten. soon i’ll be old enough for men’s work, but cleo sees pain, wants to kiss it better. not just with kisses but doc leafs and slimy green poultices. like grandma muna, cleo is cunning-folk. people come here for more than water. there other ways to find water, but not too many cleo’s. in some places, cunning-folks are outlawed. cleo knows what the stars mean, too, and she’s been teachin me. above us, the great bull shines while we sleep, ruttin the earth, steam billowin from its nostrils.
grandma muna’s high trill leads me on up a ridge. i crawl up slow like a bug with five legs and am bout to peek at them through fern leafs, one eye squeezed closed. i never seen the women congregate. i don’t think i’m s’posed to.
“noah!” a sharp whisper behind me.
my heart skips like a stone cross the surface of the lake the way jennet used to throw ’em. i turn and there’s cleo in her long skirts, beckonin me to her. she puts a finger to her lips. i freeze for a sec. i only seen the back of grandma muna, her arms raised in the air. her voice croaks – ayah ayah, like a hawk. seems too loud to be secret, and i don’t see why they keepin it from just me. seems like they always keepin things secret from me, ’cept cleo sharin how to read stars. but i’m never gonna find out how to mend bones or help birth babies at this rate. i’m gonna end up tendin fire til i’m grey like george.
cleo must be readin my mind. she shakes her head, once, slow, and i let go of tree root, slide a little on my backside, climb down from my ridge. she points back to the yard silent and i follow the direction of her finger. she’s gonna bring the grandmothers.
i wait under the sycamore, watch the well-gatherin with some of the grandmothers hangin back to eye up the grandlady from safe. grandma muna’s tryna greet our guests, but bo’s grown brave and keeps on whinin and hollerin at eliza.
“girl’s carryin a parasol like an old southern belle from the stories,” one of the grandmothers says. she twigs me earwiggin and sends me to tie bo up in redbox.
i’m close to the gatherin thanks to bo’s fussin. soon’s i tie him up, he curls into a ball and falls asleep, as if he done me a big favour and he knows it. bo’s a good boy.
“you keep an animal where you sleep?” eliza’s voice is cool and small. her black eyes blink slow, as if she’s weary. she’s drifted away from the grandlady’s skirts.
“how old are you?” i ask.
she flicks her head back. “twelve.”
“where you travel from?” i poke a hole in the ground with my stick, mark out the points of the ruttin bull in the dirt.
my head snaps up. “liar!”
“i’m not a liar!”
“no people live at the coast.” she thinks she’s so fancy she can trick me, but i know my history. it’s all in the stories.
“fine,” eliza’s black eyes narrow and flash, “don’t believe me. why don’t you just go chant in the woods, since you know everything?” she glares at the backs of the grandmothers standin at the well with her grandlady.
i don’t get much chance to play with folks my own age – just a few boys travellin through, a few girls come to trade their grandmothers’ produce. the trinkets jingle round eliza’s neck from a piece of string.
she sucks her cheeks in and rolls her eyes. “you’ve never seen a seashell before?”
i stare at the map my stick makes in the ground. i draw the peaks of the mountains round us, our well in the centre, holdin us together – our foundation. the grandmothers built our oven too, stone by stone they built it with their weathered hands – ’cept i guess they weren’t grandmothers back then. their hands prob’ly smooth and silvery like cleo’s. ovens and wells more important than seashell trinkets. we mighty fancy, ourselves, come to think.
“you see our oven yet?” i jut out my chin.
“what’s an oven?”
“for cookin,” i laugh, and point to the mound of stones.
her face glows. “we cook on the fire.”
“what’s in the middle of your yard, then?” i ask. “you got a well?”
“we don’t have a yard,” she says. “we’re travellers.”
my eyes near bug out my head. “travellers from the sea?”
“that’s right.” her face all smooth now she knows i’m impressed. i’m sorry i showed it. she avoids my eyes, a little smirk on her face, twirlin the white parasol.
“what’s the ocean like?” i ask. but she just smiles like she’s got a secret she never gonna tell, kicks a cloud of dust cross my dirt map.
“no more laundry for you,” grandma muna says.
cleo winces as she sits in circle, reaches out and strokes my hair. “this grown long,” she says in a quiet voice meant for me.
“cleo,” i whisper. “who’s the grandlady?” i want to ask why the girl eliza’s here, but somethin in the air minds me of the future talk i’m not s’posed to hear.
cleo hums, her eyes on the sparks cracklin into sky. “oh, she’s a trader like any other. just thinks she’s better than us, that’s all.”
“but she never brought nothin to trade!”
cleo looks at me funny, no smile on her face. she trails her fingers through my hair, pulls the strands into a ratty little braid, lets them fall. “hush now, noah. time for bed.”
grandlady and eliza gone to bed already – in redbox. grandma muna says it’s a warm night, bo can sleep in the woodshed. but i seen the bugs in there and bo more fraid of them than me. so bo sleeps under stars, and i fret through the night. bo’s not meant to live in the wild with his skinny chicken leg trailin behind him.
i creep out early mornin soon as the fog begins to lift. it’s my favourite time, in truth, like the earth’s breathin hot breath into cold air. the trees cloaked downfield, just the sycamore wearin a few wisps, and the sky hidin. makes the world feel smaller.
i creep to the woodshed where bo’s been tied up and he’s still out there on the grass. he lifts his head and whines a little. then i see a bundle of white rags and eliza raise her head, too. she’s curled up next to bo like he her best friend, not mine.
she looks shamed for an instant before she fix that prideful look back on her face.
i hide a grin. “you better run inside fore your grandlady sees you.”
“she’s gone,” eliza blinks her sleepy red-rimmed eyes, lip quiverin. “she took my parasol,” she bawls. “she left me with mountain people.”
bo rests his head in her lap, looks up at her cry-face with his big eyes wide.
i sit down on the ground beside them, stay quiet til the noise turns to a soft snuffle and eliza wipes her nose cross the back of her hand. we watch the mist unravel from the treetops, hear a hawk callin somewhere o’erhead, ayah ayah.
a red flower blooms in the brown grass at the edge of the meadow, proof there’s somethin livin under the cracked surface. “look, eliza,” i say. i want to pick it for her, like jennet did for cleo with the amaranths. but we’re not s’posed to without permission. so i just point at the spot of red. “grandma muna calls it paintbrush,” i tell her.
she makes a noise like she swallowed a bug and a sigh at the same time. then she jangles the seashells around her neck, liftin one up to show me, lettin the others rattle back together. “this is a cowrie,” she says. “i found it on the journey here.”
“where’d you find it?” the shell curls shiny-soft in her pale hand, a row of white teeth at the openin. “how close?”
“a few days away. but i’m not supposed to talk about it.” she drops the shell and brings her knees to her chest, rests her head on top of them, scratches at bo’s ears.
“it’s pretty.” i look at her face and wonder if she ever gonna tell me bout the ocean. maybe if i share what cleo learned me bout the stars.
a rumble rolls through eliza’s belly. she press her hand to it, looks at the ground.
“don’t worry,” i say. “breakfast be ready soon.” i hear the grown ups stirrin, dull clunk of feet gainst the covered box floors, someone splashin their hands and face at the basin. soon grandma muna be clappin her hands to welcome the day. “we got corn from the north traders,” i offer. “yellow as the sun!”
eliza laughs. a tiny laugh and i’m not sure if she’s laughin at me or laughin sad the way cleo do sometimes when she shake her head bout somethin. eliza dig her hand in the pocket of her white dress, holds out somethin i can tell come from the sea just by lookin. it’s shiny like the cowries round her neck, only bigger and covered in brown spots, veined like a leaf, and the white teeth bigger and sharper too.
“do you want to hear the ocean?” she says.