Here are the collected posts of the Stars in Heaven bits and pieces I have let you all read.
from Stars in Heaven
The boy was confused. He felt attacked by more noise and more people all together than he thought he had ever suffered in his whole life. But he couldn’t be sure: he couldn’t remember everything.
Aunt Sarai said that was all right: nobody could. But Aunt Sarai could remember things about himself that he couldn’t, and that bothered him. She remembered, she said, “when you wandered out alone into the starfield just before harvesting, scaring us all to death and then some, especially so long after dark and them plants just all splinters and burrs and spines and prickers and all…” Ghorf had found him just inside the overgrown mass of glassy spikes and branches, somehow miraculously almost uninjured, “jus’ a few cuts, honey, barely bleedin’, you” — but he couldn’t remember himself. He just knew by now what it was like in the field, especially after this past harvest. How had he not died out there, alone?
Here people were everywhere: the whole If-naryadh’iq square was simply all people, talking — screaming — and running and walking and stopping to finger things in the thousand booths of tanglewood and cotton. He found it difficult to notice any one of them, there were so many.
“Having fun, boys?”
He lied. “You betcha, Unca Rim.”
His uncle had told him this would be the best time he would ever have: tit for tat seemed only fair. His other uncle, Jism, said that. It meant a fair exchange, according to Daniel, who wasn’t his brother; he knew that. Ghorf had threatened a good beating as fair exchange for going into the field alone, so Aunt Sarai always said, but he hadn’t done it. For once. His own miraculous survival saving him from that further injury.
They had all come down from the boonies together, six weeks on the road, half his life it seemed. He hadn’t arisen unpunished during those weeks.
It got hotter the closer they came to the city, down from the hill country, so hot his clothes stuck to him all over his body all the time, even if he got up to walk around the campsite in the middle of the night. He hated that. He hated it now, even as the thousand different people surged around where he crouched in the dirt outside the family booth. The only time he had ever been this hot was sloughing his way in the harvest, hacking through the fingery spines and plucking out the stars themselves here and there, hour on hour until his fingers were bloody, even in the gloves, and his shoulders and arms slashed and hurting. But half that heat was the armor — too much clothing, too heavy for the clear, hot days that made for good harvest.
Now he wore a strap of cotton wound around his forehead to absorb the sweat rolling in saltrivers from the front of his hair, and he wished it wouldn’t flood down the back of his neck. But there was no way to stop that.
“Look at that, kid!” Uncle Rimmon thumbed up and out into the square. A man, seven or eight feet tall, dressed all in fluorescent green, was shoving with ease through the crowd parting like waves around him.
“Pilot,” Daniel hissed.
Ebony flesh glistened, but he didn’t act warm at all. His authority and his confidence swept the ordinary rabble from his path, and he strode away into sunglare out of the immense square toward the spaceport.
“Real damn pilot.”
Uncle Rim was jabbering (“They eat stars, ya know” — incredibly unbelievable as that seemed), but the boy didn’t need to listen.
A pilot by his build and stature, a genuine pilot. Born and bred to the darkness between the stars (“They really do, they eat ‘em”). The boy had heard of pilots, of course. Who hadn’t? Daniel had described what they were like in envy-breeding detail after last year’s harvest trek. But now he’d seen a pilot himself. The man behaved as if he owned the entire square, perhaps even the whole city. Of course, he could go anywhere, pilot a ship to any planet around any star anywhere in heaven. Daniel said that, relentlessly, it seemed, this last year.
“Pretty cocky bastards, them pilots. Betcha ain’t got them back home, has ya?”
Somehow the boy felt unimpressed. Maybe it was the heat.
Uncle Rimmon was always trying to make him look at wonderful things.
Uncle Rim had met the travelers yesterday at the city gates, where he had waited every evening for five days, and guided them to his home, lost in a wild network of cobbled streets.
“Nothing like him in the boonies, is there?”
There was nothing like anything like this back home. Just the house and the fields and the road into town and the sheep and the goats and the three horses (two now, since Doc died on the road — and neither of them was at home now, either) and Tom the dog and the plow and the carts and the mountains in the west. And Aunt Sarai. He felt he had left it all behind him forever. Six weeks was such a long time.
He felt alone, even in the square, crushed by the sweating bafflement of so many thousands of legs and shoes, trapped between fat Uncle Rimmon and Daniel, the smell of fish from somewhere making his tongue sweat in the rear of his mouth, the hot sun finding him even in the crowd, even in the little shelter of the boothside.
Suddenly, Daniel’s elbow knocked his ribs. “Jerk,” a whisper — he always called him that — “lookie there!” The hoarse intensity made him look in the direction Daniel’s finger briefly jabbed: a lady wearing almost nothing at all was walking along the booth across the way, a leatherworker’s, as if she felt she too owned the world. She wore, just barely, around her top a blue shiny stuff, and her hips were draped only with yellow gauze. Men were stopped, looking. The boy couldn’t really see her very well. Daniel’s mouth hung open.
“Filthy whores!” muttered Uncle Jism, savagely.
Uncle Rim snorted. “She looks pretty clean to me.” He spluttered humorously. “And if she’s not, I’d clean her up, I can tell you, in a minute!”
“They’re everywhere these days. The whole damn world’s going to hell in a hurry.” Jism looked sour.
Ghorf finally put in his: “Looks alien to boot.”
“Why not?” Jiz spat in her direction. “They all are.”
Daniel was twisting around to watch her as she went around the curve and out of sight. “Boy oh boy oh Jeeziesweetpi—!” he breathed and then jerked, flying into the way, shooting a shower of dust backwards — as Uncle Jism clubbed him a good one.
“Keep your eyes in your own head, boy, and watch the goods!”
Uncle Jism must not have heard because he simply turned back to the booth. “Gotta keep ‘em in line, Ghorf.”
Rimmon disagreed. “Give the kid a break, Jiz. I’d’a gone for her myself.”
“Jiz’s right, Rim.” Ghorf spat. “Kid’s gotta do his part.”
“Part? Let him live. He be old and cranky soon enough.”
“That how you treat your own, Rim?”
“Those with the wife, no. But they’re little yet. Like the kid here.”
“See?” Ghorf belched, having made his point.
“But they’ll grow.” Jism sounded almost greedy about that. Now he turned on Ghorf. “I remember you havin’ your own times, run-ins with the old man, not so long ago.”
“Bless his memory.”
“Duluth! You hated his guts alive, Ghorf.” Rimmon sounded outraged, and baffled, both at the same time.
“Me? Who couldn’t wait to get off to the city?” Ghorf almost choked on that last word.
“You’d’a gone, too, but you knew the farm’d be yours,” Jism cackled.
“Could’a been you, Jiz.” Rim spoke the words weakly, but Jism nodded.
Uncle Ghorf actually looked thoughtful. “He hated me from the day I was born.”
Jism snickered. “No one likes to be reminded of why they’re married.”
“Don’t talk dirty about the ole man, Jiz. I tole ya before!”
Daniel could see where this was headed—edging himself under the boothside. The boy hunkered after.
“Yeah, sure, Ghorfie. Like you never thunk it yerself.”
Ghorf roared and swatted Jism, a solid one, sounding like a superplum smacking the dirt. Jism flopped on his rear.
“Wha’ the kraiss—?” He got up, redfaced, snorting like a bull.
Rimmon stepped between them. “Stop it. You two are still like little kids.”
“Stay outta it, Rim. Not yer fight.”
“It is if you trash my booth, Jiz. Now stop it!”
Ghorf snarled, “Swamp you, brother. You ran out years back.”
Rim glared. “At least I got out. Better’n both a’ you.”
“Kraiss. Listen to him. Trapped in this godforsaking mess. No fresh air, no good healthy field work.”
Rim simply smiled now. “Yeah, brothers, right.”
Daniel leaned close, breathing in his ear: “Unca Rim must have it made.”
“Yeah.” Actually, he couldn’t understand why Uncle Rimmon would ever have left to come to this city with its hot sun and always sweating and people everywhere pushing at you all the time and donkeys and horses coming up the narrow winding streets, plopping it right on your foot with nowhere to go. Uncle Ghorf must be right: Rim’s cracked in the head and stupid to boot. He knew one thing himself. He couldn’t get out of here fast enough. He hated the city.
He felt wetness running down beside his right eye and wiped at the sweat with the heel of his palm. Things couldn’t get worse than this.
He was sick of squatting here in the sun, and hungry — in a way. If he really thought about it, he was so hot maybe he didn’t really feel like eating anything anyway… He tried hard to keep thinking that way even though it made him feel bad inside, kind of, because there was no way he’d get anything to eat until they went home. But the bad feeling coiled and knotted in him and made his head feel strange, like he was floating…
Ghorf was mumbling to himself. “Don’t know why I break my back coming here every year. Don’t know why I do anything. Kill yourself in the fields for two hundred fifteen days. Spend another miserable fortnight on the goddamn harvest and more time processing the shit. For what? Six stupid weeks on the goddamn road to sit in a sweatbox in this kraissforsaking square for a week a’ hell, waiting for the big ships to come. Never here when they’re supposed to be. Sometimes I think they know about me, and screw their schedules deliberate. Just to get my goat.”
“What’s that, Ghorfie?”
“Nothing, Rim. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Let him be, Rim. He enjoys talking to himself. Only one who gives a good goddam what he’s got to say.”
“Better’n you, Jiz. You don’t even listen to your gimping self.”
“Double it in yellow, p’ssant.”
“Like I said, boys. Leave it be.”
Daniel shook his head. “Listen to that. It’s worse than last year.”
The whole trip was worse than last year—to hear Daniel talk. The road was dustier, the caravan people sneakier, the animals surlier, the weather hotter, the trip longer, the city duller. The whole thing was worse. And this was the year they took him along. Naturally.
Last year he’d been too little. Last year he had wanted to go. Last year was the first time he had helped with the harvest, and he had wanted to see what happened to the stars at market, sell the little bags he had filled himself, visit the city. Last year had been great, the year to go, what it was all about — to hear Daniel tell it.
This year was crap. This year was the worst year ever. This year was the year nothing went right.
The boy had known that before they even started. This year he didn’t really care if he went along or not. Not like last year. Last year, he could still remember, he had stood at the hilltop staring at them going: a little caravan of three horses, four mules, two wagons, Ghorf, Jism, Daniel, dwindling into tiny doll people and play animals, becoming nothing but a mist of dust scuffling slowly along the faint gray line that was the road stretching out further than he had ever gone, into the southwest. He stood, alone, staring into the brightness they disappeared amidst long after he could make out nothing of their expedition, and even the road itself blurred and resolved rhythmically.
And the suns had set gradually around their passage—blueblack cavern languorously in pursuit, lapping a cold and hungry maw all around the boy, extending itself after the purplegolden redbright glowing fingertips of day beckoning beyond their destination — until the light was all extinguished, except for the phantasmagoria of stars lacing and turning overhead. He felt himself to be entirely alone in a starsplattered emptiness of night, aloof even from the hilltop, and cut off completely from everything he had ever wanted, tasted, needed or desired. Alone and left behind. Again.
Until Aunt Sarai had finally come trudging up the dusty way behind him and put her loose arm around his shoulder, pulling him down from that cold heaven and all into her yeasty wet warmth, and begged him breathlessly not to cry any more. “No more, punkun, no more… The big old city’s just not worth all them tears, boy. …Noth’in that ole city anybody’d ever want anyway…”
She was a big woman, Aunt Sarai, and he had felt almost buried in her bosom and armpit as she cooed and murmured above and all around him. He had sobbed breathless wholehearted uninterrupted tears of passionate heartbroken joy into her and let her halfcarry him home.
He wished he were home now. Or even back at Uncle Rim’s house. Wherever it was in the concrete mess of this city. At least it was — compared with this — almost quiet there.
But not like home. Real home… Nothing was quiet here. Not really. Not if you knew, as he did, as he treasured himself knowing, what real quiet, true silence, was. Lying beside the starfield in the darkest of the night, alone, everyone else asleep inside or maybe up on the roof for the coolness, even the animals motionless, you the only thing awake in the whole world, gazing over the dark stalks at the true stars themselves, writhing and pulsing in uncounted colors for which you weren’t sure you even had names, far off and silent in the hugeness of the night. Looking for the ghosts of heaven reflected in the stalks, if you stared long enough.
That was the real quiet, the best quiet, dreaming those stars until the stars did become dream and then you were awake in the morning with the sunshine making the starstalks livid with light.
Not here. Here the star flowers were hidden in bags, crushed. From the roof of Uncle Rim’s house, after you’d sneaked through the rooms of the people who lived upstairs from him — and he lived up more stairs than the boy had ever seen — and upstairs from them and upstairs from them even, and out on the rooftop, you couldn’t, even in the parts of the sky not hidden by buildings taller than Uncle Rim’s house — and there were hundreds of those — not see any stars there, just greenish blackness, a glare over heaven.
This city stunk. Why anybody’d want to come here he’d never know. Never ever never ever never in the world never know…
But Daniel knew. Daniel knew. He knew that. Daniel had told him, at first without meaning to, just a slip of the tongue. Uncle Rimmon said that too. “Slip of the…” The boy rolled his tongue around inside of his mouth, feeling the roughness of his teeth and the tickling of the far high backside. How did you make your tongue slip? Slip where? Sometimes he knew Uncle Rim didn’t have a clue what he was babbling about. Jism there, he said that — all the way after the caravanserai. Over and over and over all the next day. Rim don’t have no, have no, have no clue, Rim don’t, don’t have no, Rim don’t have no goddam clue.
But Daniel did. This was the worst year, but Daniel nonetheless was eager, sitting there looking at everything. Getting biffed into the dirt forgotten already. It didn’t matter, not to Daniel. Nothing really mattered to Daniel this year. He had his Plan.
Like them both, Daniel had borne enough. More than enough, as he kept saying, sounding just like Ghorf. More than enough. More than anyone should have to take. And then some. They both felt like that. Who knows what Ghorf felt, even though they both used Ghorf’s words. Unlike the boy, however, Daniel was going to Do Something about it. He had taken enough. He was going to Escape.
The boy didn’t really understand. But Daniel had been different for months now. As the harvest neared, he had changed — becoming more alert, more withdrawn. Daniel didn’t seem to have time to pick on the boy any more. He wasn’t sure why but the boy didn’t feel good about that. Daniel’s preoccupation should have made him feel relieved, but instead he felt alone.
Daniel’s transformation had begun, on retrospect, not long after they had returned last year. The boy hadn’t really observed at first. The trio had been gone so long — at least so it seemed to him — that he had begun to forget Daniel’s more than daily mistreatment. …Perhaps he had no uncles, no cousin. He and Aunt Sarai had been alone together for so many months, with no furious roaring from Ghorf and incessant needling whine from Jism, no continual pushing or poking or jabbing or tripping or battering or ridiculing for the boy from Daniel. He had begun to feel he was living a whole new life, blissfully alone with only Aunt Sarai.
Now, here, he had almost forgotten… — forgotten he had forgotten. In each moment he felt the present so immediately that he separated himself somehow from all the other moments before. Unless he thought hard, remembered, made himself remember…
Daniel being mean, being Daniel. Or at least the Daniel he had been, then, before. It had been a regular business. Awakening in the morning because Daniel had shoved him right off the hay out of the loft, pitching ten feet, half-dreaming, to the hard dirt below, and screaming. Aunt Sarai bending over him then, not far from the oven where she had been fixing breakfast, cooing: “Now, now, precious. You was just a-dreamin’, just havin’ a bad dream, you. Made you twitch, l’il one, and you flopped outta the bed. It’s okay, it’s okay. You just took a tumble, took a tumble, you.”
He never told her. If he’d tried, Daniel would have just pounded him outdoors later (and then told her the boy had Taken a Fall). Telling just wasn’t worth it. Of course, Daniel’d pound him, kick him, poke him with sticks anyway. What difference would it have made to tell? He got beaten on every day, eight times a day, anyway.
Strange thing: he had never thought of it like that before. He had just simply been terrified of telling, terrified of Daniel — every day, every minute, coldwater-over-the-head, rabbitty-nervous terrified. Effectively, Daniel had ruled his life, had been his omniscient and omnipotent deity, being everywhere, knowing everything, punishing each of his acts.
He had hated Daniel.
He had spent the long hours waiting for sleep, knowing Daniel lay beside him in the loft bed, long hours indeed, night after night, trying to estimate if his own breathing were regular—even enough to convince his nemesis that he slept—trying to guess if Daniel were truly asleep or not, endless hours it seemed most nights… in his own mind imagining Daniel’s demise. He could see it still: Daniel plunging suddenly from the wagon onto the road one day, stunned, and the big solid wheel rolling steelshod across Daniel’s skinny chest spraying bright blood red in the sunshine and road dust. Daniel falling onto a star spine and the bright crystal bloodsticky thrusting from his back and the dying boy screaming, wailing, choking on his own vomit, phlegm and blood.
Then Daniel had gone, last year, again on the trek to sell the stars’ harvest. And the boy and Aunt Sarai had lived alone together for the longest time. And when Daniel—finally it seemed—surprisingly returned, he was different. He had become distant. He was planning his Escape. Talking about the pilots, how they could go anywhere in the whole blessed universe, anywhere at all, wherever they wanted.
Daniel had looked right through the boy and neglected easy opportunities for harassment. Most obviously altered, though, was his attitude toward the one enemy they both shared. Home from the trek, Daniel was polite to Ghorf.
Not that he had been surly or objectionable before, not to his father’s face. Daniel was a wise villain and knew to reserve his sarcasm and bitterness for private. Or to transform such feelings to petty aggression, behaving very much just like his father…
But after the trek last year, it had all changed. Daniel accepted Ghorf’s rebukes and buffets without a murmur—even when the old man had gone, even at night in the loft. It seemed as though Ghorf’s abuse had become meaningless, insignificant. Perhaps for Daniel it had actually changed some way—now only a memory, an impetus, something to be overlooked now that the world had grown, now that Daniel was conceiving his Escape.
For a very long time the boy had not understood. He knew that Daniel had changed, and he felt relieved of the burden of Daniel’s deliberate cruelties, but now he felt oddly neglected. Some mornings he even half-yearned for a familiar cuff across the face. Now it seemed some days even more cruel to be so casually ignored.
That’s how it had been for a whole year. Daniel had become effectively an absence. That’s how it had been along the endless dusty journey these past weeks. The journey was absolutely nothing like he had imagined, and it was worse than he had ever dreaded once he understood it was not going to be in any way fun.
When they had started, he had believed that the very task of walking was the worst. Well, not right away, not at the very first. Initially, he had felt a kind of freedom, of pure joy at walking away from home, at going somewhere, at moving but not in the heavy extra skin, the armor, through the starfield—his only opportunity for activity in the previous three months. The harvest had been hell: he had heard Jism and Ghorf and Daniel all say that for years.
The harvest was hell this year. Boy, what a hellish harvest. Helluva harvest, huh? That was pure hell. But he hadn’t understood until it was his turn to join them. He hadn’t comprehended that they had been meaning just exactly what they had said. The harvest was hell. Absolutely and completely. Hell. Hotter than any experience he had ever suffered previously in his hot and miserable existence. Longer and harder and more physically exhausting than any drudgery and beating or chores he had endured before. Up hours before sunrise, only resting during the very hottest tiny wedge of the endless day, and laboring until well after the stars themselves were dancing and churning clearly and brilliantly into the night. Oceans of sweat had filled the outrageous outfit, and yet his arms and legs were bruised and slashed even within the terrible uniform. He now understood why you wanted to be a good boy. He understood hell.
He had been in those fields, in hell, maybe just for three weeks and one day, but he had been there. Yet he had almost yearned for it later. Now, here in this hot place, the sun beating somehow like hidden thunder (but how?) on everything and everyone, but most particularly it seemed on him, the boy thought of the long arduous days in the fields, collecting stars.
The only relief had been the slightly cool jet of air from the respirator across the back of his skull into the helmet…
The attire was peculiar but important. Around home most of the time everybody wore just some kind of pants and a shirt. Except Aunt Sarai. She had her dresses, “cooler,” she always said, “than that get-up you menfolks have to wear. Lets the breezes blow where they may.” But for the harvest, you had to go into the fields themselves, and there was no natural thing as hazardous as a field of stars. The stalks were light as air but hard and sharp as glass or steel (Aunt Sarai used a starflower stem as the blade in her allpurpose kitchen knife: “Ain’t nothin’ to compare, punkun boy”); she could cut anything with that knife. The slightest brush against a starstalk could lay your skin open to the bone—severing muscles and tendons in an instant. That’s how old man Rissvaldt had lost his arm, eye and ear and most of the fingers on his other hand.
No one in his right mind went into a starfield unless enclosed in the protective armor. Helmet, respirator, shoulder pads, arm guards, breastplate, buckler, thigh guards, and the immense boots and gauntlets. Cover all that with the microthin shell skin and you were off to pick stars. Effectively, but definitely not completely, you were encased. Enclosed enough to make it seem as if your eyes and skin were melting within the greygreen contrabulation, but never enveloped sufficiently to avoid at least five or seven nicks or cuts each day.
The thinskin was intended to cover everything, and it was almost impossible to slice or puncture it (“same stuff as some of them satellites, they say”), but nothing was as tough as starstuff and the microshell worked like an oven, even though it was supposed to “breathe” and respire like real skin. In other words, you just had to open it here and there or pull off a glove once in a while or lower a boot while you were out there, to cool off, at least a little.
And then you’d get cut. Didn’t matter how clever you thought you were being or where you were, you’d get cut. Even well outside the starfield: the dust. Each grain of starstuff was a tiny knife, and during the harvest the dust carried on the wind. You hoped for a calm season, even with the dreadful heat.
Worst of all was the helmet and the respirator. You couldn’t remove the helmet, not ever. Your good things were in your head (Ghorf always laughed at that, though the boy never understood why). Your helmet had to stay in place no matter what, no matter how, no matter when. You kept it on even while showering off in the deep night when you were finally quits for that day. And the respirator was even more important. Because of the dust. You had to shun the horrible dust.
If the spines could slice your skin “like butter, kidboy, just like,” then the powder of their making flayed your lungs like a living fire.
Picking stars, however, was beautiful. Each star was a genuine gob of pure light, ecstatic color. The blossom of the unique, glasslike gorgeous plant which glorified and plagued their lives. Quintessence of pain. The light was fragile, and plucking each from the shaggy glassware stem was delicate and focused work lest you burst that frail, diaphanous bursting beauty. Utter care and concentration extended your extraordinarily clumsy, engauntleted paw to gently caress the almost insubstantial effulgence, finger its dainty base beneath the warmth fluttering within your palm, and pressing barely upon that point alone, extract the star.
If you were good, you had light’s pure beauty cradled in your gentle grip, ready to place in your collection bag among the others. Less skill and less care, and you had a ruptured star blasting brilliance and oily illuminate and ooze all over yourself, or worse, the powder of the stem crushed and blowing, feathery light, all around—dust of a substance too dangerously edgy to breathe. Thus the respirator.
You stirred up dust with every movement, the starstalks were so thick and so fragile this time of year, all of the energy of the things going into the stars themselves. But dust was as sharp and as deadly as the edges of the stems. One breath and you were bleeding to death inside. Aunt Agatha had gone that way.
He’d been little, just two or three, but he remembered vividly. She’d been hot at the far end of the field and thought she was far enough from the starstems themselves for just one breath of fresh air. She was wrong. She had died, coughing blood, over a long and savage week, and nobody could save her; she’d shredded her lungs. Jism, who’d ever been sour, Daniel asserted, turned nasty and vicious once she was gone. In his own way another victim of the stardust.
Hell. What he had always taken for beauty in his heart, he knew in his head was suffering and death. So he had been told by everyone he knew, so now he told himself from his own experience. The stars were lovely, but the stars would kill you if you gave them any chance, no matter how small.
Stars were life, and stars were death, as evenhanded as the stars in heaven themselves. That’s what he had heard everyone repeat since before he could understand what they had been saying. The stars were life, and the stars were death. The same as the stars in heaven themselves. Just as lovely and just as horrible.
But the horrors of the starfield when you were working were little or nothing, he believed that he now realized, to the miseries of the road. These many weeks, interminable day after day, always walking—almost running after the first fortnight.
I want to include a long section, following what appeared above and preceding the little chunk, about the trek from the boyʼs home to the city. I want to write (but havenʼt yet written) about the long journey — first the uncles and the two boys hiking for a while, then the caravanserai where they attach themselves to one of the regular caravans to the city. The first portion, the walk, is mostly tedium, but I have several incidents in mind for the caravanserai. The actual caravan journey is still pretty vague to me (which along with the uninteresting aspect of the foot journey may explain why I havenʼt gotten around to writing any of this). Regardless, I wanted to indicate that, although I wrote the next section (and the next and the next after that) as one big hunk of evolving narrative, my plan is that this comes quite a distance after what you (may) have read so far.The whole travel narrative remains in the boyʼs thoughts, as has just about everything so far.
You can tell me if you think itʼs necessary…
Ghorf was sure they were late and would arrive only after the harvest fair was over and all the offworld trade departed with their portion of this year’s stars. Ghorf, yapping and hollering, whining through supper and again at breakfast and full volume all along the hot dusty roads. Ghorf, kicking your backside long before dawn in the days before they joined the caravan, “to get you going, bratkid, are-you-gonna-sleep-all-day?” Ghorf and Jism bickering, shouting, all along the trail:
“We’re right on schedule, cuz. Cut the crap, huh?”
“We were with the caravan long before this last year.”
“We were not. And you know it, Ghorf.”
And they trudged on, as weary as the little boy in Aunt Sarai’s stories. The little boy, who didn’t listen to his kindly step-aunt when she told him what not to do, who always ended up in some terrible calamity that taught him the lesson of his life. She told good stories, Aunt Sarai. He missed them on the journey, even when he was telling himself he was like that little boy, condemned to wander the big world’s vast deserts in search of happiness.
But unlike the little boy in the stories, he would never find it. Never ever, never never never. The rhythm of the words, remembered, rocked in his mind, echoing inside of his skull. His head felt large and heavy on his neck. His eyes seemed slow and tired.
Just thinking about the long trek to the city could make him entirely exhausted, although he had slept very well and for a long time each night since their arrival.
Uncle Rimmon’s house lent itself to sleep at night at least. That had surprised him. It was so noisy. Everywhere. But somehow at night, jammed amidst all these people, above you below you all around you, lying on the floor in Uncle Rim’s three-room flat between Daniel and Jism (who snored), believing you’d never fall asleep, wishing for the dream silence of home (once Ghorf had drunk himself unconscious)… suddenly it was morning and you had slept the whole night through, no wakening whatsoever.
Still he felt so tired now, and the things his eyes beheld seemed to be wavering and pulsing in the immense heat.
The journey took forever. Day after day after day, walking the dusty roads away from home, trailing along after Daniel and the two men and the three horses, Ghorf in no mood for rest talk. After about a week they even took lunch while walking. He felt as though he could still touch the fruit juice sticky on his chin and chest, trying so hard to stick his head far forward and bite as he trotted along.
“Move it, ya damn brat. Serve you right to be left out here lost, wouldn’t it?” And a thwack from Ghorf’s big walking stick. “Now keep up!” As if stumbling in pain, his arm or back absolutely useless from the shock, could help him keep up. And don’t beg to ride. The horses were along to carry the stars, not worthless whiners who didn’t know when they had it good. Thought he hurt, did he? Ghorf would show him what real pain was all about, he would. Would he like that, would he?
No matter what in his life, the boy realized of a sudden, there was always a shadow. Not Daniel, though he had been truly terrifying in the past. But Ghorf. Even Daniel’s behavior—first the poundings, then this new thing, this Escape—derived actually from Ghorf, from Daniel’s own turmoil with his father and his ways. The boy wasn’t the only one to suffer from Ghorf’s savagery. Strange as it seemed to realize, he understood now that Daniel suffered too. Ghorf beat him, his own son, just as freely as he battered the boy. Daniel just passed on what he had received, and so the boy took double clubbings. Unlike Daniel he had no one to transfer it onto.
Ghorf. Always Ghorf. His very name the sound of gagging bloody phlegm in your throat.
Ghorf’s nagging, croaking, sneering voice lancing your concentration as you picked stars, worse than thinking of the dust. The dust was always there, omnipresent, but you might just get used to being alone on your own out there in the brilliance of potential death, when suddenly his irritating nonsense filled your helmet and your head. Him sitting back on the veranda, sucking down beers. Ghorf never picked stars—”done enough o’ that when I was a boykid. Your turns now. So get to it! And damn-don’t miss none, neither.”
And your days and nights, daydreams and nightmares for these last six weeks, slogging along the dusty roads to the city. Long days, hard days, waking well before sunrise, choking down cold scraps of last night’s greasy supper—rancid meat you carried most of the way from home, rockhard blackbeans barely cooked, and rice of course—even while you were chasing down the horses and packing up bedrolls and repacking the burdens and making sure the fires were completely out and everything else while Ghorf sat on what Daniel always called his fatass, giving orders.
Whacking you with sticks he’d found, whaling on you when he felt really pissed. Leaving long darkblue welts that slowly turned greenblue then yellowgreen over the long weeks. Chopping right through your skin. “Won’t work, willya? Then bleed fer it, bratkid.”
And Daniel: “Coulda been worse, kid. Coulda been me. Glad you’re along this year. Damn glad.”
But they both got their share. And then some. More than their shares. More than anyone could have ever deserved in a whole long lifetime, in a spacer’s lifetime even. Ghorf seemed almost to feed on their pain, gaining strength from every unjust beating. He was like some dynamic force of nature, bigger and more awesomely powerful than anything the boy’s little mind could conceive. Stronger and more terrifying than he had any need to be.
It had been Ghorf, all along Ghorf that had made Daniel seem so much less consequential. Daniel’s daily torment was a kind of attention, which is why its absence this last year left a longing, that dim, strange yearning of some kind. With Ghorf, inattention was a blessing.
Perhaps it was Ghorf’s neglect since they had arrived that made Uncle Rim’s place seem restful…
It would be nice to sleep now. He felt almost as if he were there, asleep, almost at home. Aunt Sarai’s voice seemed to tremble in his ears. But she wasn’t here. She wasn’t. Just Ghorf. And distant Daniel, restive now, and Rimmon and Jiz.
He lifted his heavy eyelids and looked again at the numberless legs and feet churning dustily by. Some were gray, brown, green, blue-shoed, black-shod, red-legged. He couldn’t keep track. Too many legs and twice as many feet. …Maybe not. —Too many anyhow.
Daniel kept looking at the sky. He wanted something to happen. He looked at his uncles, who ignored him, and then finally at his father. Ghorf was staring into the square, oblivious, as usual, to everything but himself.
“Getting late, inn’it?” Daniel was trying subtlety.
“What do you care, kid?” Jism snarled. Ghorf just kept staring away, though a dim sound rumbled in his chest. Daniel seemed poised but frustrated. He waited, but no one else said anything.
“How long we gonna stay here?” Daniel persisted, making his plea considerably more obvious.
Ghorf glared at his son with a nasty grimace. “As long as I say, Daniel. As long as I say.”
“But it’s time we were going… Inn’it?”
“Like I said, Daniel. What’s it matter to you?” Ghorf’s face was taking on its ugly look; that redness made the boy feel queasy. “We got stuff to sell.”
“And none of it’s gone anywhere yet,” Jism contributed, still testy. His acerbic voice twisted around the boy’s head like fumes from day-old empty ale bottles.
“Yeah. So shut yer face and keep still. We’ll go when I say. When I say.”
“Leave him be, Ghorf. This’s gotta be boring for a kid.”
“Shove it, Rim. He’s mine and he’ll mind. And keep his big mouth shut.”
“Like freck I will.” Daniel released what he’d been holding—not all of it, just what had been building up today.
“Huh!? Whadja say, kid?” Ghorf looked purple in an instant.
“You heard me.” Daniel’s face, too, looked nasty. The father and son were glaring at each other like contorted mirrorimages, both filled with a parallel rage. An explosion was coming. Rimmon backed away a step or two, but Jism leaned his knifeface toward the fight.
Ghorf rose to his feet, rumbling, bearlike, his little pigeyes redder than ever. Daniel got up, too, not retreating, glaring directly at his old man. This was it. This was the moment toward which his entire life had been constructed. The tension held yet, poised, nearly in balance.
Ghorf took one step toward his son, his arms swaying, right hand fisted.
Crouched by the boothside, the boy felt sick. Suddenly all his weariness seemed to condense, focus into his stomach and his eyes, the back of his throat. He felt sick. He felt it twisting inside and then rising from his stomach. No longer tired. Sleepiness evaporated in the abrupt biliously acidic feeling that sprouted low and then erupted from beneath his heart.
He vomited. Green and purple smoky liquid spattered the gray-brown dirt beyond his knees, speckling Daniel’s left foot. It smelled like sour wine (like Jism’s voice sounded), like fried vermin for Saturday night supper (When had he had that last? Three months back?) and oat cakes and battery acid all mixed up with snot and other things. He saw, smelled and retched again.
Ghorf reacted first. “Whuh the freck—? Whuddaya doin’, ya mealy brat?”
“Pukin’, seems to me.”
“Lid it, Jiz.”
“Lid yerself, Rim.”
“What’s yer problem?“
“Make the kid stop!” Ghorf’s hand darted at the boy, grabbing his hair.
“Think this’ll bring in business?” Rimmon sneered.
“Let him go, Ghorf. He’s not well.” Jism was defending him? Another hand smacked the hand in his hair; he felt stunned as he was released. Vaguely, he realized that Jism and Ghorf were faced off, glaring at each other, over him. He could feel the heat from their bodies. Daniel stepped closer, beside Jism.
Rimmon was fretting. “Oh, this is good. Business’ll flood in if we’re fighting.”
“It’s yer wife’s slop he’s upchuckin’ there. —Not that I blame him none.” Did Ghorf want everyone against him, all together?
Rimmon held quiet and still. Would he fight, too? The sultry air seemed filled with static electricity, but it was only antagonism, sparking out from everywhere, focused at Ghorf still looming over the boy’s wretched head. The big man was breathing heavily; he’d eaten garlic for breakfast as well. Daniel’s left foot was twisting in the dirt.
The boy felt no better. His gut still coiled, cramped and congealed. And it came again.
All over Daniel’s leg.
“That freckin’ does it! I’m outta here.” Daniel landed a kick with that filthy foot hard in the boy’s gut—once, again; the world looked green; he felt it coming one more time—and Daniel was gone, leaping away and opening a doorway of sunlight and air.
“Daniel!” Ghorf sputtered. “Get back here, boy!”
He spewed once more.
“Ah, shiva! Someone shove a rag in that kid’s mouth.” Ghorf smashed the boy’s head aside with a solid fist and took off himself, chasing Daniel. The boy flopped down in the dirt, into his own vomit, things he saw wrenching sideways, Ghorf’s sandals slapping puffs of dust as he thudded out of sight, sideways. Other feet, too… The dazzling sunlight seemed to dim a bit with each footfall—not-so-bright, faded now, turning to late afternoon, grayer, dimmer yet, going dark, black…
Today was the day. Daniel had decided: he’d had enough. So today would be the Escape. There would be no turning back…
Daniel was running as quickly as his legs could carry him down the alleyway. At the second intersection he turned left and ran harder, taking the next right and the following left. He had pushed through people rudely and carelessly: his one aim to get out of sight instantly and lose whatever pursuit had developed.
He knew Ghorf would be after him in an instant. He felt himself wishing it had been Ghorf he had kicked rather than the boy. It would have been so sweet. But all in the past now, all behind him…
But the kid had puked all over his leg. Daniel couldn’t stand that. Especially today. This day he needed to be his best, not puked on and stinking like barf. But it was too late to fix that now. It had begun, his Escape.
His wet leg worked with his left to hurry Daniel along. He could smell the kidʼs vomit as he moved, thinking vaguely, as he dodged among people who sometimes recoiled, leaving him some space, smelling the stench themselves, that this was not a good start.
But it was too late to stop. No turning back. He had heard and overheard the phrase when he accompanied his father on the long journeys to town to sell the stars. Once they were underway, after a certain distance, there was no turning back. He had come to that place for himself, in his own life. He had made the break. He had run. Now there was no turning back.
Ghorf would kill him for that confrontation just now if the old man were ever to find or catch him. No turning back.
And he dodged and turned his erratic way through the tangled routes among the thousand booths in If-naryadh’iq squared, listening keenly for outraged noise worse than what he stirred up himself. Ghorf would be after him, even without knowing where Daniel was headed, even oblivious of what Daniel had taken. After that contretemps, the old, fat ogre would be on his tail as quickly as his piggy mind sorted out the details to realize the youth was gone.
But Ghorf was old and fat, while Daniel was young. His father might be stronger, but Daniel has desperation and his dreams to wing his feet. He gloated on that thought, reaching inside his shirt for the little bag, to ensure himself that his treasure was there, safe and with him.
And he collided powerfully with a large woman bending into a booth. He had tried to place his route between her and the kiosk, but something had drawn her interest and hawklike she had moved with amazing rapidity right in his way.
As he tried to wriggle out from beneath her bulk, a huge, moist hand clamped hard on his neck, the thumb all the way up under his ear into the joint of his jaw.
“In a hurry to leave, little thief?” her raucous, city-accented voice wailed from above.
“ — No thief!” Daniel managed to gasp, as she hauled him up into her view.
“What, lad? Pretty convenient accident for one whoʼs no thief.”
“And Iʼm in a hurry.”
“Clearly. And from the country, too. But not in such haste you wonʼt linger,” and she pinioned him against the booth, trapped by her massive, encompassing torso, releasing her grip on his neck and head, “while I make sure you havenʼt…” Her body shifted as she did something he couldnʼt see with his face buried in her bosom. “ — No you havenʼt. All still here.” She sounded only vaguely relieved.
She sniffed and then stepped back further, evidently scenting the still-wet puke on his leg.
“Iʼm no thief. It was just an accident.” Daniel exploded as she stepped back, effectively freeing him.
“But exactly the kind of accident little pickpockets practice to distract someone like me from her purse. Canʼt be too careful these days.” She had a huge lopsided nose squashed in the middle of lumpily shapeless face. But her eyes were large and not menacing, blue. “Go along, boy. If you are in such a hurry you canʼt avoid an obstacle as big as me, you are donʼt have time to be ogling my pert charms.”
And he didnʼt: he could hear exactly the sounds of indignation he had been dreading.
“S — sorry, maʼam!” he coughed with rural good manners as he dashed away, aware she moved immediately into her desired position against the booth.
“Come on, boy. Wake up!” Rimmon’s voice, somewhere distant. Who’s he talking to?
“Yeah, boy. It’s me. It’s Rim..”
“You puked, kidboy.” —Like Aunt Sarai, that. “Now you’re lyin’ in it, and you should get up.”
The boy reeled to his feet, the world sloshing all awry around him, and promptly fell down again.
“Not like that, kidboy. Come on, you gotta get up. Now. It’s important.”
He tried again, rising a bit more slowly, and this time things seemed to move a little more fluidly, keeping pace with his head, remaining level.
Uncle Rimmon had a wet rag in his hand and quickly wiped the boy’s face and upper body. Very quickly. The boy tried to help, taking the rag and working on his vomit-stained clothing and flesh.
“Good boy. That’s the way.”
They were alone. Not just Daniel, but Ghorf and Jism gone as well. “Where is everybody?” He remembered, he thought, yes… Daniel had lipped Ghorf and then run for it. Was he making his big Escape?
“They’re gone, kidboy. Doncha remember? Chasin’ Daniel. —You remember…”
Ghorf must’ve taken off after his son. Yes… Ghorf’d hit him and then run. “So Jism went after Unca Ghorf?”
“Whu— where’d they go?”
“Dunno, kidboy. That’s what I need you for. Somebody’s gotta stay here. ‘N’ that’s gotta be me. Too much stardust to trust to a li’l— …You gotta find ‘em.”
“But I don’t know where to go.”
“They went that way, kid. That’s all I know. You go that way, too.”
Uncle Rim looked serious, really serious. That was not usual for him. The boy had only known this new uncle for a day, but Daniel had told stories. And Uncle Rimmon was always the good guy, the unGhorf, the laughing one in those stories. And that’s just how he had been this past day. But not now. Now something that the boy thought looked a little like fear sparkled in the city man’s eyes.
“Go now, kidboy. Before they get any farther off.”
So he went. The boy, unsteadily on his feet, turned and took steps away into the hurrying masses of people, all of them so much larger than he was, all hurrying, rushing, bumping him immediately as he cleared the boothside. Someone could scent the puke and even pushed the boy to avoid the filth.
He wanted to stop as he staggered from one set of legs into another. Big adult voices snarling at him, the clumsy one, in the way, watch where you’re going, what’s the stink, eh.
He tried right away to turn around and go back, but there were too many legs already, too many people: he’d come too far already; and the booth was out of sight, and he wasn’t even sure in which direction. And Uncle Rimmon’s peculiar look haunted him vividly, those eyes. So he turned again, hoping it was still in the right direction and kept on. And he knew he had no idea where he was going. Unless he could guess Daniel’s plan…