This is part of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. The first chapter can be found here. I will post ten chapters that together will comprise the first third of the book, then take a break before posting the next ten or so chapters. Please tell me what you think, and thank you very much for reading!
Bernard wore his new name on a cord around his neck. It was surprisingly easy to abandon his old name. He had thought he would constantly be ignoring it, waiting unconsciously to hear “Christopher,” and so for the first three days he had thought to himself constantly, “I am Bernard. Bernard is me. My name is Bernard.”
Avalon, the woman from the field of white stones, was a trained Metropiad doctor, and she too wore her name around her neck. Bernard would not have known that even if he had noticed the slim necklace. He could not yet read. Avalon assured him he would learn. As they traveled south, she would point out road signs, rusted and ivy covered, and ask him to find the letters in his name. Letter A was difficult; there were so many ways to write it, none of which looked alike. He did not see why learning the letters mattered. It seemed simpler to just memorize each word, and he said so, but she assured him that it wasn’t.
Sometimes he thought of Peddler Jack, but they had said their good-byes and the man had accepted his fee, so Bernard told himself that thinking of him was not the same as missing him. He also tried very hard not to think of him, stamping down on any thoughts and accompanying feelings like they were invading insects.
Bernard and Avalon did not begin their search for new Metropiads as just a pair. Avalon was a physician, well equipped to identify which children were best to take back, but not familiar with the roads and the ways of outsiders. She was accompanied by Cambio, a seasoned Metropiad trader. Cambio was older than Avalon. His hair was curly gray, his eyes gray to match and his face leathery red from the sun. Bernard did not particularly like him, which made him try even harder to please the man than if he hadn’t. It was easier to relax around Avalon, who he thought was very nice and very pretty, and who seemed to like him, in her own patiently detached way. He asked her more questions, and gave her more grief, and she took it as though she understood it was a sign of love.
The three traveled roads, not the ones worn down by men and goats but the old ones made of asphalt that the plants were tearing apart. They would never go camp inside a town. Cambio would stay behind to guard a campfire, and as they acquired more children, he stayed to watch them as well. Bernard thought this was odd. Avalon seemed the more motherly, and Cambio, as a trader, more appropriate to bargain with outsiders for their crippled children. However, as he observed Avalon, he realized that her mixture of quiet compassion and firm decisiveness was difficult to argue with. Cambio, upon their return to the camp, was often in the middle of rocking a baby as gently as any mother, or speaking playfully to a four year old. Bernard began to suspect it was not that Cambio was inherently surly, but that he disliked Bernard personally.
While he preferred accompanying Avalon to staying behind with Cambio, it broke his heart every time a baby was looked over and deemed too slow and unresponsive to become a Metropiad, or too fragile to survive the journey home. The latter particularly distressed him. It seemed to him that the length of the journey was because of the length of time it would take to find suitable children, but if they would only take the sickest ones and run home with them, to the magical place where all was healed, the whole problem could be avoided. He kept this to himself for six weeks before he put it to Avalon.
“You are exaggerating our powers, I think,” was all she said, and he was very certain this was the wrong sort of question to pester her with, if he wanted to be a good Metropiad, so he tried his best to stop thinking of it.
Avalon had seven names in her bag. Bernard had been the first. Now they had Pandarus, Fortinbras, Callisto, Rosalind, Percy and Sigyn. Avalon would not tell him the name of the one still to come. This was not a Metropiad rule; just a private ritual of hers. She saw the names as not just chance guiding her path, but something imbued with purpose and destiny, with energy that needed to be handled gently. Cambio thought this was nonsense, but he was not the one assigned to carry the names. Despite the secrecy, Bernard had deduced the last name was female.
They had followed the roads south for a month, and then turned to go northwest until they were almost back where they started, their path forming two lines of a right triangle. Avalon chose to take Bernard into a place he knew; the Market of The Fair Oaks. This name made no sense to Bernard, because the people inside were only as fair as you forced them to be, and the trees around them were mostly elms and maples, but that was what everyone called it.
Since coming to join them, Bernard had been careful that Avalon was always in sight. He was afraid that she had been humoring him on some level, and that he would soon be abandoned if he let them. By now, he was not afraid of that, and since he knew the place Avalon gave him permission to wander.
It was a market, but indoors. That was what it had been in the old days too. When the disease’s power had subsided, when it had killed everyone who couldn’t develop antibodies and found itself with nobody left to infect, people had crept back to look for salvage. The biggest and strongest had found a ready stockpile to trade with. Peddler Jack had been delighted by this place, and they spent a full week here.
It was not just he who remembered the mall. It remembered him, as well. As he passed a little store, one of the ones that seemed carved out of the walls with a giant’s spoon, a voice called out to him.
“Oi, beggar boy. Your peddler Dad got anything worth a trade?”
The speaker was a tall, lanky boy who had unloaded the casing of a toaster, a bottle of vinegar and a cigar box of safety pins on them, last time they had come through. Or rather, his older sister had, but it seemed to be his day to guard the little shop and its stockpiles of trash.
“I’m not a beggar,” Bernard said, trying to stand tall. “I’m a Metropiad.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. And you dropped ten years off your life as well.”
“I am,” he insisted. “I’m special. They saw I belonged with them, so even if I was too old, they decided to let me in.”
“You’re a liar,” the boy said. “I don’t like liars.”
Bernard took a deep breath and stepped forward, sticking his chin out. “You see this around my neck? It’s got a Metropiad name on it. I don’t have a bowl anymore.”
The lanky boy looked at it, and didn’t seem quite to believe him, but no longer thought it worth arguing. “All right then, you’re a Metropiad. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back in the city proper, getting all doodaded up with shiny?” He wiggled his own ten fingers.
“We can’t go back until we have all the children Mother Miranda has chosen for us.”
“Is that so?”
Bernard nodded. Lanky looked around. When he spoke again, his voice was a little quieter.
“So you are in the market, are you? Just for cripples, not gidgets and gadgets?”
“You could say that.”
“You know, I just happen to have a little baby cripple, back in my storeroom.”
“Now who’s the liar?”
“No, it’s the honest truth.”
Bernard tried to be like Avalon, cool and logical, but gentle. “Is she sickly? She will have to survive the trip back to our home.”
“No, nothing like that. I mean, she’s been sick, but she always pulls through. Momma calls her a fighter.” He spat. “Besides, you’re close to where the Metropiads go to go home.”
Bernard was embarrassed that he hadn’t known this, and in covering this up he ran out of excuses to not be dragged back into the labyrinth of storerooms. This was not a part of the mall he was familiar with. Outside, though a century of filthy feet and encroaching overgrowth had mucked the place up a bit, the muck was laid on tiling and banisters that had been designed to be aesthetically pleasing. There were glass windows and skylights in the ceiling, and candles lit all through the darker corners. It still felt like a place for people. Back here was just tight concrete tunnels, in an invariable labyrinth. It smelled cold, with whiffs of dirty animal.
After several turns they came to a numbered door, marked with letters that Bernard still didn’t recognize. He thought one might be an E, but he wasn’t sure. Lanky unlocked it, took a long metal stick from his belt, and yanked the door open. A few cats ran out, and there was a sharp ammonia smell.
“She’s in there?”
“No, just something I need. Hang on.”
Out of curiosity, Bernard caught the door with his stumps, and peeked in behind Lanky. He had expected junk. He hadn’t expected so much of it. There was no order to it. Junk was hard to organize, but he could imagine another seller going to the trouble of stacking papers together, and keeping them separate from the odds and ends so small they needed to go in boxes, and having a shelf for the bulky objects. Back there was just piles. Perhaps the family just threw things in, and replenished their stock by grabbing whatever their hands fell on first. Maybe there were things at the back of those piles that had been put there years ago, and were lost forever, beneath a mountain of things being added and taken away.
Lanky came out with a burlap sack.
“Hold your arms,” he said, and draped it over one of them, like a towel on a rod. “Follow me.”
They turned down still more tunnels, and Bernard became afraid he was about to have a joke played on him, and he would never get out to see Avalon or the city of the Metropiads. Then, he saw a bit of light ahead. It was a doorway. Outside was a concrete walkway around a big sandy pit. Or courtyard. Or, and this time Bernard thought he really had the right word, loading space. Yes, long ago there were trucks that would back into these spaces and unload stock for the shops inside. What didn’t fit into the shops themselves would go into the little rooms behind the doors. That made sense. Overhead, he could see the metal walkways that went to the second story shops.
Lanky took the bag from where it was draped, and drew the strings so it was open as wide as it could be. He hooked the strings around Bernard’s stumps, and instructed him to wait like that. He took the metal stick from his belt once again, and climbed down with his other hand.
Bernard looked over and saw a dog, a few cats, and a thing that his brain did not initially believe was a child. It was naked, and it had too many legs. Lanky poked the dog with his stick and made some clicking noises, so it got up and trotted quickly away. After a few yards it stopped and began watching him. Lanky grabbed the child-thing by a leg and it began to cry. The cats arched their backs and began hissing. The dog ran back, but just in time Lanky turned and hit it full across the face. Bernard had heard many strikes in his time. This was the sort of strike that went all the way to the bone, the sort that came from a person who really didn’t care whether the dog lived or died. Bernard felt sick.
Lanky was fast and agile. He could grab a rung of the ladder without dropping the metal rod, hauling himself halfway up and using the same motion to swing the child up. It thudded onto the concrete. Bernard expected a wail, but instead she crawled forward to the edge and started hissing like the cats. The dog came back for another stroke, but again Lanky was ready and hit it one more time before hauling himself up. He grabbed at the child, and managed to get a grip under her armpits. That is, under the armpits that seemed most like they belonged to the rest of her body. She still spat and struggled, but Lanky had her in just the right place. Her head wouldn’t reach. Bernard wondered why she didn’t scratch him, but then he saw that like him, she had no hands.
“When I get her in there, start closing the drawstring quick,” Lanky said.
He wasn’t quite quick enough, and the girl did get a bite in when Lanky went in to stuff one of her arms all the way in. Bernard wasn’t entirely sorry.
“Where did she come from?”
“She’s my sister.”
Bernard raised an eyebrow. The girl was very dark, and Lanky wasn’t. He was pale enough that it might only be a deep tan.
Lanky smiled, as if he took Bernard’s confusion for a compliment. “Half-sister. Now, about price.”
“Hang on. I’m not sure they’ll take her.”
“Why not? She’s clearly one of you. And I’ll throw in the bag for free.”
Beneath all the anger and fear, she looked to him a little like Avalon. Her hair was a mat of tangles, but he thought if it was cut off and combed out, it could be made pretty like hers. On top of that, he didn’t like the lanky boy, and did not particularly want to hand anything back to him.
“What do you want for her?” he said.
“You got money? No? Your shirt then.”
“Yeah. Your type go around shirtless all the time, don’t they?”
He agreed. It took some juggling, to get his shirt off and the bag still secured, and the girl’s hissing turned to crying by the time they were done. It was a strange cry, with a bit of a yowl in it. It wasn’t quite canine or feline or human.
Instead of taking him back the way they had come, Lanky lead the pair of them to a door that came out into a busy hall, and left them. Bernard felt both grateful for his absence, and completely lost. The child in the bag had stopped struggling, but not crying. He did his best to grip her to his chest securely. Already his arms were tired. It occurred to him that if Avalon’s first impression of her was this alien weep, she might make him take the baby back.
The crowds were giving plenty of space around him, which made it easy for him to find a bench to sit on.
“Shhhhh,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s okay. You can stop crying now.”
He tried rocking her. He couldn’t very well, because he was afraid that if he moved his arms just a little she would fall right through them. So instead he rocked her by swaying his whole body back and forth. He wasn’t sure if she was getting quieter, or if it seemed quieter because he himself was calming down.
Cambio sang to the little ones. Bernard knew this was a thing people did. He tried to remember some of the songs.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, something something something a kind of bird. And if that something bird don’t, uh.”
That wouldn’t do much. He tried to think of a simpler one.
“The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see. And all that he could see, and all that he could see, was the other side of the mountain the other side of the mountain the other side of the mountain was all that he could see.”
That was easy enough. And he could sing it as long as he wanted, just by changing what the bear went over. He tried the river, the forest, the city, and the brick wall, because just “wall” didn’t fit the meter. It didn’t help. The girl still cried, and he was sure now she hadn’t gotten any quieter. How could one person cry for that long?
What was worse, he could see Avalon. For a moment he turned his head away, thinking that maybe she wouldn’t notice him. Already, though, he knew this was hopeless. When he looked back, she was running towards him.
“Bernard? What’s this?”
He took a deep breath. “I found her. I traded my shirt for her. I think she could make a good Metropiad.”
“That’s not your job,” she said.
“I know. I’m very sorry. But I just happened to find her, and you weren’t there, so, well. Anyway they say she’s a fighter, so she’ll last until we get to the city.”
“Let me see.”
Bernard tried to think of a way to avoid her taking the bag off. The baby could run off any time. But he couldn’t think of anything, and when Avalon took the bag down, the girl did not run. She sat limply, shivering and still crying. Bernard could see little sores and scabs on her body that he had not been able to see before.
“Hmmmm,” Avalon said. Bernard’s heart began to beat faster. It wasn’t a disapproving hmm. It was a considering hmmm, even a hmm of approval.
He began to feel relief, and with relief came the space to feel guilty. “I’m sorry. I didn’t do things the Metropiad way, did I?”
She pulled a small knife out and cut a large hole at the bottom of the bag, then two smaller ones on the sides. She put the bag back over the baby’s body, upside down like a smock. “No, you didn’t. And in the future, you will have to learn to leave things to be done by the right person. But perhaps you came to us because this time somebody needed to do things the wrong way.” She took the last scrap of metal from her pouch, and tied it to the bag’s strings.
Bernard smiled. He looked at the lines, and recognized a few of the letters, but not enough.
“How do you say that?”