Monday, 24 December 2018

Chapter 21: An Invitation

Prescott: There is nothing in reports to suggest we are any closer to reaching our goal.
Boyd: This is a waiting game, Abe.  I told you that.
Prescott: We’ve been out of time for years now.
Boyd: Then a month or two more won’t hurt, will it? 
Neith was doing her darnedest to pin bone a fish.  She had never attempted to do so before.  She was surprised at how many bones were concealed in the walls of flesh and how determined they were to stay there.  Ninja sat at her feet, his tail flicking hypnotically back and forth.  Neith wasn’t sure what cat body language meant but she suspected this wasn’t good.
Elle sat down at the table, writing in her journal in a careful joined script that Neith had marvelled over more than once.  
Elle paused, stilling her pencil; “Neith?”
“How would you feel about joining Ruthie in one of the gardens, after school?”
“Your garden?”
“No.  One of the large, central plots Ruthie stops by – to pull weeds or water on her way home from school, some days.  I thought you might want to go.”  That was why Ruthie sometimes got back later.  Huh.
“I’d be happy to.”  Neith gave a flat smile.  “I wish I could tell you I’m a better gardener than I am a pin-boner.”
Elle wheezed a laugh.  “You’ll make a difference there, I’m sure of it.”
Her heart’s song – and investigative wish – was answered.  She would see more of Nydia – more than a passer-by en route to the bathing hole or a glimpse of someone fetching wood from the cache outside.  The garden was beyond.
“Thank you.”
Elle nodded and resumed writing.  And that was that.
Before the gardening routine commenced, Neith had pieced together a vague idea of Nydia’s layout – mostly from her trips to the washing hole, waterfall, and tree swing (where she took Amos sometimes, while Elle napped).  In amongst drawing the little lad laying in hammocks, climbing low-branched trees, or amassing mounds of bark and forest litter to some end only he understood, she had taken time to sketch a few hurried maps.  The maps were based on her entry with Jamin along the coastline and the first tour she’d received from Ruthie.  That had focussed solely on the house’s immediate, extended surroundings anyway – which was all removed from the rest of the camp.
Gardening took her further, expanding her daily trails.  To reach the garden, they went past the tools store, central composting system, glasshouses, and more firewood caches, to reach a large, ordered garden.  Ruthie told her there were eight of its size around Nydia, each assigned to a different group of families, and each positioned to give the appropriate soil and sun for its crop.  Ruthie added that each family grew their own herbs and strawberries next to their home, of course.  She had said “of course” as though it was obvious that strawberries must be grown near to sleeping humans, as though the fruit drew from human life forces to reach a red and ripe state.  Ruthie clarified strawberries needed guards, in most families – they were too tempting for little hands.
Not only did Neith see more of Nydia this way, she saw more of Nydia’s people.  It became clear to her that Elle’s place was indeed fairly isolated from other homes – but very close to all of the supplies and amenities. 
Going to the garden took her deeper in-land, where she got a better look at the rows of cabins and housing – each occupied, based on the proof of smoke.  Many had their curtains drawn when she came to garden, but through a few windows she would distantly spy other children or families, going about their afternoon rituals. 
Nola came closer than that.  She and one other boy close in age, Ulysses.  They came to the same garden plot Ruthie tended, twice a week. 
For over a month now, they had been weeding, laying compost, and harvesting root vegetables.  As the weather grew warmer, the tasks changed.  They began laying new seeds in neat rows.   Neith noted they mustn’t be the only ones who worked this plot – for when they returned, she often found new plantings or something pruned back since their last visit.  She had concluded others must come to this same garden in the morning or evening, or on other days; manning other shifts.
Neith was scooping compost.  She followed behind Ruthie, who drew a deep line with a hoe and dropped the seeds Neith was to cover.  Neith steered her supply barrow of compost along timber planks so that the wheel didn’t sink too deep into the soft soil.  Nola and Ulysses were a few metres away, plucking out weeds by their roots and shaking off excess dirt before hurling them to the garden’s edge to lie in the sun and dry out before they carried them off elsewhere. 
In the first garden week, the weeding pair had been quiet as they worked.  Only Ruthie had joined in conversation with Neith.  Over time, the other two had begun to talk more to Ruthie, despite Neith’s presence.  Finally, it became a V-shape, in Neith’s mental diagram; Ruthie could converse with either or both of the children OR she could chat with Neith, but the third side of the talking triangle was left incomplete.  That was fine.  Neith had no intention of scaring them away, and wanted to wait for these others – other people’s children – to make the first move.  Besides, Neith enjoyed listening.
Today, she heard them relive highlights from their day at school, which she found hard to even picture, since she had rarely taken any of her lessons with anyone besides Grace present.
“Did you see Bart’s face though?  Mr Flynn told us to keep watching the stool, but I was watching Bart’s face, and it was red.  And his cheeks were filling up.  He tried to pretend it wasn’t hard to hold that stool, but you could tell he was fit for boiling!”  Ulysses spoke fast, and loud.
Neith smirked as she poured compost from her hand trowel onto the next pile of exposed seed.
“Serves him right!  He’s always saying how strong he is!” Nola said.
“You both remember what the lesson was actually about, right?  Not just how red Bart’s face got?”  Ruthie.
“’Course we do!  Work!  As though we need a lesson!”  Ulysses threw a large clump of weeds in the direction of the growing heap of those pulled.  It fell short.  He let out a sound of frustration and stomped over to scoop them up and place them on his original mark. 
“It was about how actions that need more effort, no…force!....are harder work.  Because Bart was holding the chair off of the ground, he was working against the force of gravity, even though all he was doing was holding it still,” Nola elaborated.
“I’m glad you were listening.  You’re awesome, Nola.”  Ruthie’s smile accompanied her praise.  Nola appeared awash with warmth from it.
“Mr Flynn’s awesome!  I have never liked learning more about physics than watching Bart hold a chair.”  Ulysses spoke with reverence.
“I don’t think he was trying to be mean,” Ruthie said, looking at Nola.
“Course not, it’s Mr Flynn.  But it sure was funny.”  Ulysses resumed weeding, and Neith assigned her eyes to her own task. 
She would report she had gained only one family’s trust, and needed more time.  Time would allow her to conduct her own investigation…into Mr Flynn.