Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Chapter 14: Pitter Patter


Neith had scarcely met the beautiful, fair-haired mother and child (child!) before she had been passed off to a tween – another lost species.  A sister. 

It appeared Jamin needed a few minutes to debrief Elle, or vice versa.  Neith complied, taking a deep breath to aid her in wiping her stunned mug to have met a mother with two children. 

Although her new guide was not as astonishingly small as the object of her first sighting (and staring), she was surreal enough.  Neith found something oddly unsettling in conversing with her.  It was in the juxtaposition; bright flashes of adolescent energy or a good look at her youthful appearance belied her show of maturity. Neith was talking with someone years younger than her. 

For the first time ever. 

The tween’s name?  Ruth.  Or “Ruthie,” she’d observed, to those who loved her.  She was Elle’s eldest, and had been assigned to give Neith a tour of the house surrounds.  An eldest.  This tour included identifying what was out of bounds.  It seemed that was most of Nydia.  It reminded Neith of her last walk to her tutor’s home with a chaperone.  Even chipped and monitored, she had been one of a precious few.  The Republic felt a need to reduce the risk of any sort of attack or off-books procedure damaging her reproductive system. The chaperones were one measure taken, something she got used to.  But in those cases, she had been under the direction of someone her senior, not this odd reversal.  She was still the chaperoned, years later. 

Ruth outlined activities on offer, as though Neith had booked in for some sort of retreat.  She wondered how Elle had explained why Neith was there. 

Ruth kept well away from most of the community’s dwellings, carefully hugging the outskirts of the camp close to her own home.  Neith could see it was fairly isolated.  Ruth pointed out crude steps leading off into the shrubbery – a walk to waterfall, the starting point for the path to the bathing hole, and where the kayaks in need of repairs were stowed.  Neith had so many questions, but she wasn’t sure what was appropriate for the asking.  She’d test the waters.

“Are those things you like to do for fun?  Kayak?  Swim?”

Ruth snorted in response.  “Maybe on Longest Day, otherwise, no!”

“What do you like to do then?”

“Read.  Make visits with my Ma.” 

“Me too.  Well, the reading part.”  Neith had zero interest in Lucienne’s many social calls to her admiring contingent within the mammoth horde of dinks, back home.

Neith smiled tentatively.  She was pleased to see Ruth beam happily in response.  The girl was charming and animated.  She reminded Neith of a younger Grace. Neith took her in; her long, unusually light and frizzy hair (somewhere between blonde and brown), her round eyes, the small rise at the tip of her nose, and her large-for-her-face teeth.  Neith’s hair must seem a contrast to Ruth as well.  Neith kept her sleek black lengths cropped short at the back, angling in a severe line downwards toward her shoulders by her chin.  Ruth’s expression was changing under study.  Neith realised it was time for another question, and less creeping.

“What do you use for power, out here?”

“You mean: do we have electricity out here in the woods?” 

“Lol,” Neith said.  She liked this girl.  “I guess I do.”

Loll?  I’m not sure what that means.  But the answer is yes. We have gas brought in from the farmers in Havelock for cooking – boats only, once a month.  Otherwise it all comes in on foot. We also have two old generators for important stuff.  Pipes inside our log burners heat our water.”  She paused for a moment, as if deciding if that answer had been sufficient.  Perhaps she wasn’t as eager to share all as Neith had first concluded.  “And there’s the solar chimney.” 

Neith spun to face her guide, as they walked.  This sounded interesting.  “How did you guys get solar cells all the way out here?” 

“We have a lot of things.”  Ruth sounded defensive now.  Neith began back-peddling.

“I only meant it must have been quite a feat!”  Did 12-ish-year-olds know the word “feat?”  Neith had no idea. 

Ruth relaxed a little.  “It was.  And that’s why there hasn’t been another transport of that kind as long as I’ve been alive.  They built the chimney, 20 years ago?” 

Neith was very impressed.  Her mental wheels spun.  She imagined it wasn’t yielding much at this time of year, but knew it had to be elevated to capture enough light when it was available.  Were they storing it?  They couldn’t be connected to a grid, like the City aero-sea, so maybe they had batteries.  A solar chimney, out in the sounds!  She began pivoting on the spot, searching, energised by the revelation.

Ruth saw her scanning and smiled.  “It’s built into a giant Kauri tree on the other side of the camp. It had to be close, or they also would have had to also haul in more leads to direct the flow back to where it’s needed.”

Neith’s eyes brightened further – Ruth was touching on problems and solutions Neith had never considered before.  It was invigorating.  Also: this girl was smart.  Were all 12-ish-year-olds this smart?  Had she been?

“May I ask how old you are?”

“You may.”  Ruth smirked.  She’d technically answered Neith’s question, but not with the information Neith wanted.  This served as another prompt that while this three-quarter-sized human seemed adult enough, she was not an adult just yet. 

“How old are you, Ruth?”

“I’m in my thirteenth year.”

Neith smiled, for three reasons; one – sounding older than you were had never been fashionable where she came from, two – it was remarkable and refreshing to find herself engaging in simple word games with this young woman, and three – she was pleased to learn she’d been on the money with Ruth’s age. 

“What about you?” 

“I’m old enough to leave home, but apparently young enough to feel outclassed by a 12-year-old.” Neith resisted winking.  She didn’t have to, her points of emphasis made clear she knew the rules of the game. “I’m 18.  And you know a lot about solar energy!”

It was as though Neith had unlocked the floodgates then, passing some tween test qualifier. Ruth changed gears, speaking rapidly and keenly.

“I told you, I read!  And I go to school, obviously.  Well, usually!” Ruth let out a sweet laugh.  Neith felt some embarrassment for having failed to consider where Ruth would usually be when there wasn’t an alien to show around.  Of course she had things she would be doing usually.  School!  With more children? 

Was Elle still talking to Jamin?  Or was school where she had taken the little one with the nails?  Or, without the nails, now.  Without the nail-tops. He seemed really young for school, and her age radar was proving functional, so far.

Ruth continued to erupt with words, rattling off details.  The village water was collected on the rooftops and carried through pipes and settling tanks before being brought back through a gravity-based system, into homes.  Everyone had their own role assignments – she worked in the garden some days, helped her mother on home visits; and was learning to build furniture on others.  She prattled gaily.  The pair had soon circled back to their starting point, having only visited an isolated portion of the camp.  Elle’s house was isolated.  Ruth exclaimed her satisfaction with Nydia’s self-sufficiency with an unfettered pride that tugged at Neith. 

Elle came out through the front door of the family’s homestead.  She was curvaceous like an Old World statue of beauty.  “Thank you, Ruthie.  You get to school now.”  Elle was holding the younger child.  He was leaning into his mother’s neck in a way that gave Neith the urge to squeeze him.  Or something close by, because obviously, she didn’t know this little guy.  General squeezing of something felt necessary, in response to those cheeks. 

That was new.  It gave her a new understanding of the motives tied to fleeting touches she’d endured in the City.

Ruth hugged her mother and then gave Neith a quick squeeze before running off to an area of the grounds notably excluded from the tour.  Neith stood there, her arms pinned to her sides.  She hadn’t shifted from this pose during the hug nor the aftermath of the hug; a dummy.  She was used to being touched occasionally in an entirely different way, and hadn’t expected sincere physical affection from the kid, especially on the first day.

She looked at Elle, who wore a slightly pained expression. She motioned for Neith to follow her, and led the way inside. 

Why the look, Neith wondered?  Hadn’t the tour been Elle’s idea?  There was a chance Jamin had informed her their visiting scientist was going to be even higher maintenance than they feared.  She couldn’t see Jamin now, and was sorry she hadn’t been able to thank him again. 

Neith quickly forgot her analysis of her hostess’ feelings upon entering her home.  She was overcome with the rich palette and materials within.  She released an audible gasp.  It was like stepping into the shire!  A long table and bench seats took up much of the entry.  A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stood beyond that, filled with books.  Their faded spines and casual presence floored Neith.  She had pressed her nose up against glass surrounding a contrived display of books once at Feichangbei museum.  These books were out and begging to be touched!  The wall to the far left of where she stood was lined with countertops, there were two recessed sinks, and a break in the cabinetry for a free-standing hob.  The wall immediately behind her was lined by two chests and a couch, either side of the door.  A wood-burner with an exposed flue squatted in the centre of the space.  How primitive…and enchanting.  Full open shelving climbed each wall, only adding further colour to the tableau; preserved foods in earthy tones here, vibrant hues of violet and red there.  There were stocked jars of varying contents, shapes and sizes all around.  She began scanning the floor-space for the toys, play equipment, changing tables and fixtures she’s been conditioned to associate with offspring; the icons of parent propaganda.  She found nothing to support the Republic’s vision of living the parent dream.  As if in answer to this assessment, Elle removed the squishy-faced Halfling from her hip, and plonked him in the open space of the kitchen’s wooden floorboards.  There was no apparatus for child entertainment or containment in sight.  Neith was fascinated.  How casual, this woman seemed, about her living holy grail. Was casual the word?  No.  Accustomed.  This was Elle’s normal.

“First things first.”  Elle wrung her hands across the front of her homespun tunic.  “I don’t think anything in the past is your fault.  You start here with me.”  Elle held her hand up as though indicating a level around her shoulders.  “So we’ll have you stay – if there’s any way this…exchange trip of yours can lead to something that helps the poor people back in the City, I support that.  BUT.  If you give me any reason – any reason at all – to doubt my children’s or anyone else’s safety, this ends.”  Elle dropped her hand down towards her waist as though slapping the air.  She drew a deep breath.  Then a smile lit her sandy complexion.  “Right, I have things to do.  You’re welcome to unpack.  You can keep your things in the smaller chest there.”   Neith unpacked.

Next Elle gave Neith a few basic instructions relating to the use of the outhouse – a necessary part of her orientation.  Everything in Nydia was rural, but the loo most of all (this pet name made it no less cute).  Upon learning of it, Neith immediately required the facility.  She had schooled her expression on the return walk back to the cabin, repeating with her strides, “Don’t be City, Don’t be City,” shaking her hands dry after washing in the outdoor tap’s flow.  She had never seen or smelled anything like the toilet she’d just used and was determined not to reveal her discomfort to this generous woman.  She chose to focus instead on the problems and solutions these people must’ve solved to treat their sewage and wastewater on site. She used Ruth’s tour-boasting to scaffold her mental framework.  Perhaps they’d brought in purpose-built chambers on one of their historic hauls.  The work of burying those!  She imagined they would rely on settling and biodegradation to do much of the work, and perhaps there was a discharge somewhere away from the dwellings that allowed sun and soil organisms to do the rest.  Nydia was a technological wonder…and yet looked like Middle Earth.  Neith reached the house, satisfied with this routine; she would focus on the industry, the achievement of the outhouse, until she got used to it.  It might also make it easier to routinely block out the stench.

She re-entered Elle’s cabin by a side-door, parting a curtain of colourful beads that sounded her return.  Neith imagined they kept flying intruders out in warmer months. 

Not foreign spies.

Seeing Elle still busy, Neith was decided.  “I’ve finished unpacking.  I want to help.”  Elle’s eyes scrunched.  “That would be wonderful.”  Hallelujah – give me a purpose.  This led to their next tiny conversation of the quiet morning, entailing brief directions on how to prepare a yellow-coloured root vegetable Elle called kūmara.  Neith gently scrubbed each one in a bucket of still water, Elle showing her how to identify any part that felt woody and remove it.  Quiet returned.

The little boy, she learned, was named Amos.  Amos hadn’t sat long on the spot where he was deposited.  He had straight-way pushed himself up from his hands and walked over to a curtain-covered shelf beneath the kitchen bench.  He retrieved a pot and lids with a victorious expression.  These household items entertained the miniature human longer than Neith thought logical – he was still there when she’d come back from visiting the outhouse, and long after.  Since, he’d been in and out of his mother’s arms, pseudo-helping with each task she saw to. Of these, there were many.  She went outside to split wood, stoked the fire, repaired a bag, and boiled some kind of medical implements. All with a smile and the occasional quiet hum – articulating an unending current of patience that allowed small hands to join her although slowing each task.

Amos had taken leave from her, for the moment.  He was turning the pages of a book, running his hands over the illustrations while Elle worked at the counter with greenery and mushrooms.  She sliced with imposing efficiency.  Neith had moved on to chopping up the kūmara on a supplied board at the table, smirking a little at the marked difference in tempo of the two knives at work.

It was during this process that Neith, without meaning to, began to play.

It was accidental to begin with.  She fumbled in retrieving one of the sweet potatoes from the bucket so that it returned to the pail with a splash.  Neith let out a little squeal of surprise.  Amos released deep, belly-giggles of a spectacularly cute variety. 

The tapping of Elle’s knife paused.

From then on, Neith treated each sweet spud like slick bar soap.  Amos treated her like a comedienne.  In return for feigning clumsiness, she felt warmed for sharing the room with this little boy.  She could feel a part of her heart giving way.  It was only Day 1.  His giggles evolved to fits and even a string of enthusiastic drool.  His teeth were so small in his mouth!  Amos was completely taken with the game.  Neith was hooked.  And soon out of props.  She was sorry to see the game’s end.

Elle smiled appreciatively at Neith then at Amos.  The look she gave the boy felt like a sacred vision; ribbons of love cascading from her. 

Had Mama Cole looked at Neith like that?

Elle took the trophies of Neith’s handiwork (and performance).  She turned them into something that smelled glorious.  Neith hovered, edging closer, looking on.  Elle seemed not to mind.

Cooking done, Elle invited her to sit.  Neith took a place back at the long bench she’d done her slow work at.  She rested her hands in her lap, led by Elle’s example.  Elle winked at Amos and then said, turning to Neith, “We give thanks for our food.  I’m going to say a short karakia now, I hope it won’t make you uncomfortable.”

“Not at all.” 

Neith saw Elle and Amos closed their eyes and so she followed suit – with the exception of taking a one-eyed peek mid-way – to see if the boisterous one maintained this stillness.  He did.  But he was peeking right back.

Neith caught up with the other two saying “Amen” with a quiet affirmation of her own.

“Thank you,” Elle said, in earnest.  “Let’s eat!”

Elle served Neith, then Amos, and finally herself.  The small pyramid of sweet potatoes steamed.  They had been cooked and drizzled in something Neith found to be achingly creamy and slightly salty.  The air and fare was laced with the sweet garlic she’d watched Elle crush and stir with their meal.  The morsels she’d had a small hand in were so sweet and tender to bite now.  It had Neith groaning a little.  She momentarily paused, more sombre, wondering if Nydia’s food would immediately disagree with her.  No.  Just good.

“Elle, this is soo good.  I mean, really good.  Thank you.”  At home most of Neith’s food arrived dried.  Sometimes her family reconstituted it with water.  She ate dried pasta, dried vegetables, dried fruit, dried rice, textured vegetable protein; just add water.  Elle’s food was not dry.     

“I mean, really, really good, Elle.  Thank you!” 
 
“I’m glad you like it.  Thank you for the help.”  It sounded as though Elle was thanking Neith for more than the protracted slicing.

“Hank-you!  Hank-you!”  Amos nodded at his lady friends, in turn. 

Warmth washed over Neith.

She must have levelled up in Elle’s eyes. The mother began to speak freely as they ate together.  She would have wholly attributed the changing air to having dosed it with mischief, but understood it was even more so coming together over food.  The food! The greenery of earlier was now presented alongside the other morsels in the form of a revelatory fresh salad, dressed in a fragrant vinaigrette.  Neith hadn’t even seen her making the curiously blissful, tangy and thick yoghurt that had been added to their menu.  It was all soo good.

“Neith.  That is a beautiful name.  What does it mean?”

Neith was startled initially by the warmth in Elle’s voice, and for the conversation turning away from reference to their surrounds and Neith’s questions and praise relating to the food, like How can fermenting be a good thing?  She attempted to return the same gentleness, in tone.  “It has to do with hunting.  And motherhood.”

Elle paused in her chewing.

“I know, the irony, right?  But back then, everybody hoped their child would have a fruitful future.  Fertility names were everywhere.  Mama Cole was hoping to make her own omens, I guess.”

Elle resumed chewing hesitantly, and then with a conscious effort.

Neith felt surreptitiously charged by the chance to speak about home, even if it was about people she already missed.  All morning she had felt like she was intruding upon rituals and peace that did not call for a guest.  She was in someone’s home.  She was eating their food.  She was bottling their laughter for her own happy bank and planning to report on it in secret.

Intruder.  Not guest.

And she knew from her encounter with Laser Eyes that not everyone was happy about it. 

Elle seemed to have made peace with the situation.  Neith already adored her for that, and so much more.  She ached for her own mother – both her parents – with a fierceness that caught her off guard.  She toyed with the cuff at her wrist and wondered whether she had defended her mother’s name choice enough.  She hoped she hadn’t sounded critical.

“I actually like it – my name, I mean.  It belonged to the Egyptian goddess of the hunt, and while I’ve never hunted a thing in my life, when I’m asked, I usually go with the hunting origins over the mother meaning…for obvious reasons.”  Neith hadn’t meant to uncomfortably choke a little on the word “mother.”  She usually avoided using the title in reference to her own person.

Elle reached out then and placed her hand on Neith’s – which had been reaching for her mug of spiced tea.  The tea in City rations succeeded in altering the flavour to be other than water, but made no efforts to be rich and satisfying the way Elle’s tea was.  She could taste cinnamon and peppermint at the same time!  

The initial discomfort of being touched gave way to an amplification of affection.  This touch wasn’t like the unbidden, coveting touches.  Those came for being one of the few left of the young.  This was kindness.  I am invading her home, and she is comforting me about my lot.

“It’s a beautiful name,” Elle repeated, more slowly and assertively.

Elle withdrew her hand abruptly whilst taking a fast, deep, reactive breath.  At first, Neith feared she’d somehow sensed Neith’s secrets through their touch.  Crazy.  Instead, Elle’s hand went to steady Amos’ mug, which had threatened to spill due to his energetic eating style.  Neith had been avoiding open staring (in between her appreciative groans and comments in relation to the food), but she had never seen anyone eat with such…gusto. Nor lack of affectation.  He was oblivious to the clown’s paint of yoghurt rimming his mouth.  

Neith couldn’t blame the boy for his enthusiasm.  The flavour of her first, sit-down meal in this place trumped any magic she’d seen worked with Republic rations – and she kept saying so.  Rations had fulfilled her dietary needs, but little more.   Back home she was left satiated, sometimes just under.  Her monthly hot chocolate was the only thing she could remember wanting more of when she finished it.  She wanted more of everything she’d eaten today, for its flavour.  She wanted the taste in her mouth for longer.  She imagined she would eat far past full here, given the opportunity.  Finished, and thoroughly satisfied, Neith was thinking about how she could best ingratiate herself towards her hostess without sounding like she was insulting her parents (again) when Elle spoke. “Would you be willing to read for Amos?” 

Neith looked up at her.  The mother appeared conflicted, but still, her eyes were lined with genuine kindness.

“I would love to.  And you’ll be pleased to learn, I can do that better than I can chop kūmara.”

That was how Neith ended up in a well-worn chair by the bookcase with a living child on her lap.  A child whose hair smelled distractingly syrupy each time he laughed, forcing his curls back under Neith’s chin. 

Was this happening? 

They read books for at least an hour, Amos never tiring, book after book.  The books themselves were clearly well-loved, but holding up better than the Intra suggested mere paper or cardboard could; An impractical and redundant medium.  Not so, for Amos. 

Neith could have gone on like that for hours more, being just as taken with each tale and its accompanying pictures as the boy was, but Elle called him to use the toilet.  Neith concealed a brief wince to see Elle carry him out towards that god-forsaken booth.  Maybe her age radar could do with some adjustment – he seemed young to be toilet-trained.  But what did she know? 

In effect: Nothing.

When they returned a cat followed, weaving through Elle’s heels.  The small animal stayed inside and the door closed behind it!  This would take some getting used to.  Rations and cutbacks being as they were, carnivorous pets were a historical luxury in Feichangbei.  If there wasn’t meat for humans to eat, they could scarcely be shelling it out for animals.  

There was food in Nydia, and it was fresh and seemingly plentiful.  City dwellers hadn’t been permitted to grow their own foods in Neith’s lifetime – everything was strictly controlled to ensure equality and safety; No war, no disease was a Republic promise.   

 Neith joined Elle folding clothing as they removed it from a line outside.  Amos dug with a shell and spoon in some dirt close by, reporting his findings at intervals.  Neith noted there was clothing in corresponding sizes for Elle, Amos, Ruth…and one other size!  Something in between the last two; a third child?!  No clothing for Jamin.  This confirmed her conclusion that Jamin lived elsewhere. 

Elle was here on her own.  Well, not at all alone, (she looked at the growing stack of folded clothing and smiled), but unaided?  Where was the father for the excavator, over there?  And the verbose guide?  The mystery middler?  

Neith had decided not to ask more questions, today.  She might report in secret, but only what was voluntarily given.  She answered questions instead, at Elle’s bidding. 

“So you draw?”

“I try to.  It was more of a private hobby, until recently.  My mother encouraged me.”

“Your mother…”  Elle was attentive and serious.  “Do you still live with her?”

“I do.  We’ve stuck by each other.  It’s not easy for her – there’s only so many women around still ovulating, even fewer mothers.  Our family spent most of our spare time together.”  Well, near each other, Neith modified.

“Do most people your age live at home?”

“No.  Most people my age are done with more isolation.  Most people move into one of Feichangbei’s towers…” Neith felt tightness in her chest thinking of Grace.  There they can be Matched and mix; so they can at least try.  Try to breed.”  Neith paused to read Elle’s reaction to her candour.  She appeared spellbound with concern.  Neith continued.  “As if trying harder and trying more combinations of partners might unlock the fertility problems of the last 100 years and produce a baby.  Then maybe males would stop expecting a home run on the first date based on the principles of supply and demand.”    Elle looked horrified at this part, so Neith stopped.  For the first time, Neith was glad she was chosen to be here with Elle, and not someone who would defend the tower and what went on there.  She liked Elle. 

“I shouldn’t be so hard on them.  There’s a shortage of suitors and a shortage of time.  They’re doing what they think is best.” 

Elle tipped her head sideways.  “You don’t think it’s best?”

“It’s not for me.  I haven’t left home, because I haven’t found someone to build a new home with.  I’m not interested in the towers.”

Elle looked to Amos.  He was happy to fill a pot with his quarried treasure and “cook it” on a square brick in the garden bed.

The conversation rolled on as they moved indoors.  Elle seemed glad for the company, and Neith was enlivened by the chance to attempt to describe old and tragic news to someone outside of it all.  She’d never attempted to elaborate on it, since it had been a shared experience, until now.  Being with Elle made it easy to forget the contrasting look of scorn she’d received earlier, on her way into the village; to even rationalise she might even have misinterpreted what she’d seen.  Elle was so warm and welcoming; compassionate.  Neith couldn’t possibly have seen scorn in this place.

“So there’s no one waiting for you, back home?”  Elle raised an eyebrow.

“Nope.  Not the kind of person you’re thinking of, anyway.  My best friend and parents are waiting.  That’s all.”

“Not even a crush?”  Elle showed both rows of her teeth playfully.

“Umm…I’m not sure what a ‘crush’ is.”  She was searching her memories of Old World movies for the term.  She had nothing.

“It means someone you like, but they don’t know yet.  Maybe no one is waiting, but there’s someone you wish was?”

“No.  Definitely not.”  Neith shook her head; images of Rawiri, Wilson, and her Physics tutors coming and going with zero appeal.

“Listen to me, digging for a good story.  I can’t resist a good yarn – especially if it involves romance.”  Elle chuckled.

“It’s okay.  You can ask questions.  Always.”  Gain trust. “I’m sorry I don’t have a better story to give you.  Things are what they are.  Epidemics ravaged the population, the survivors failed to produce much offspring, and then the ones they did can’t do the same.  And they’re a little messed up because of it.  It makes pairing off…a little unappealing.”  Neith was going to ask what yarn was, but saw Elle gulp.  She decided now might not be the time.  “Sorry. I’ve had years to acclimatise to living post-apocalypse, it doesn’t rattle me anymore.”

“You don’t believe in love then?”

“Oh, I definitely believe in love.”  Neith answered emphatically.  “I’ve seen it.  I know people are capable of love.  My parents…”  She trailed off, thinking of the lies she’d told them on parting.  “My parents definitely loved each other.  Do love each other.  Deeply.  And me. They love me.”  Elle seemed to be recovering from the doom and gloom Neith had served her a moment before.  Neith wanted to keep her happy and smiling, feeling bad for speaking of the bleakness so fast.  “I want to believe in love.  I guess I hope it could be real for my friend, Grace.  That’s it: I hope for love.”  In the days since she’d learned of Nydia, she’d wondered if there might be even more for Grace.“But not for you.”

“It’s hard to believe.  Everyone eligible has made themselves known to me, and I’ve never felt a spark, or even the promise of a spark.  I guess I’m basing my idea of what’s meant to happen on movies, mostly, since I’ve never watched two people I know fall in love.”

“There can be a spark.  It’s not just in the movies.”

“Really?”

“Yeah!  It isn’t always that way, I don’t think, but for me it was.  I felt…the prospect of happiness in my future flare up inside of me immediately.”

Neith leaned in towards Elle, hoping she would offer more information.  She didn’t.  Elle looked sad.  Neith didn’t want to cross a line on her first day by probing further so she turned the conversation back to herself.

“That sounds nice.”  Awkward.  She needed to say more.  “I’d like that.  Unfortunately, it’s a matter of mathematics.  The numbers are bad. I’ve accepted that I’m part of an imbalanced equation so long as I look to create any sort of sum with other parts.  As long as I’m only me, it is fine.  But I’ve looked at all the numbers, and the numbers don’t lie. Things are destined to play out this way.”  Elle looked amused and confused at once, as though her wince might help her follow Neith’s line of thinking.  What was Neith trying to say?  It still wasn’t optimistic, whatever it was.  Did she have hope for herself?   “But I guess I’d be open to an anomaly.”  It was the best she could do.  Elle smiled.

Neith had just received permission to sketch Amos – who’d followed them inside, unbidden – when Jamin reappeared.  He was genteel but curt.  Satisfied Neith had settled in without further neurological crises, he excused himself again. 

Ruth and the owner of the middle-sized clothing joined the household mid-afternoon, home from school.  Elle gave all three of her children permission to leave for the rope swing, although Davey (the middler) seemed momentarily tempted by want to stay and investigate who this was in his house. 

While they were gone, Neith did her best to be useful while Elle made dinner. 

Elle told tales of Amos’ explorations and Davey’s humour, in between pointing out where Neith could retrieve this or that.   Neith was most impressed by the store of cheeses, the yoghurt(!), and other wondrous morsels.  They were stored in a cool box built out of the kitchen’s exterior wall and down into the cool, shaded ground outside.  While helping, Neith was doing the math on Elle and her multiple children.  None of the second generation succeeded in second births; there were limited IVF implantations, and if you failed to keep your pregnancy, you failed.  Neith had never known anyone with a living sibling.  12-year-old Ruthie, middle-child Davey – who Elle had just mentioned was six, and Amos – just turned two, all knew different.  Elle had had three pregnancies.  Three living births.  Three children requiring so much from her all of these years.  Neith noticed Ruthie helped a lot, but still.  Three.

Dinner time came faster than lunch had, for all the talking. Neith relished each bite all over again, this time by candle and fire-light.  Davey proved as curious as he’d appeared at first meeting – with lots of questions about the City, which Elle mostly hushed or distracted him from. 

At Elle’s invitation, Neith explained for herself why she was staying with them.  Ruth’s teeth tore through a bread roll, eyes fixed on their guest. 

Neith began. “Where I come from, I am the youngest person around.”

“See,” Ruth glared at Davey, who was wide-eyed.

“So you three are quite a miracle to me.  And everyone back home.  We’d like miracles to happen there.  But instead of taking you there, I’m here to get to know you, draw you, and take my pictures back to help me talk about my visit here.  I’m a researcher.”  She looked at each of the three.  Curls, curls, and Mini Elle.  “I hope we can be friends?”  Neith looked at Elle too as she said the last part.  Perhaps this visit could be mutually beneficial.  She could ease at least one person’s load while she was here.

“What’s a searcher?”  Davey asked.

“A researcher?”  Good question.  She was an And designer a week ago. “It’s like…someone who does a creative job, but systematically.   It helps everyone learn more.  Systematically…that’s a hard word too.  Hmmm.”

“But that research – it’s only for very, very few people.  Right, Neith?”  Elle gave her a pointed look.  She remembered the mother’s hand demonstration earlier.  Elle wanted her kids safe; secret.  Neith needed to be gaining confidence; raising the bar.

“That’s exactly right.  A few scientists in a quiet lab will keep your findings locked away.”  How was she meant to describe MinSci’s Upper Level security?  “Because you’re miracles, we’ll keep everything we learn locked away like it’s precious treasure.  That’s what I’m doing: researching a hidden treasure.”

 Davey looked around the faces at the long table for grins to match his own.  Neith had struck upon something, she saw.

“That sounds like the purrrfect place for picturrres of you three,” Elle bounced a hooked finger at each of her children, “You’re treasures, arrrrrrrr.”  Neith understood now why Davey had been taken with her simile, as the family dissolved into Pirate tongue. Amos parroted anything Davey uttered.  She was in heaven.  They all knew about Pirates.  At home, only she and Grace said “savvy.”

The cat was stretching in front of the fire.

Neith had to find a way to protect this family.  This place.  Their way of life.

There had to be a way to satisfy MinSci’s assignment; protect her own family, and allow this place to remain untouched; treasured. 



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