Run Home Children ~ Chapter 1

The shifting sands beat against the crumbling brick wall. Natalia swung her legs over the edge and stared down at the changing landscape. From her height, she could almost see over the large dunes surrounding her town.

Pulling a loaf of bread out of her knapsack, she hummed a tune to herself and smiled. Somehow she had managed to keep all sand out of the bread this time.

The loaf was still warm from the oven, so she ripped it into four pieces and gently blew on one, rocking back and forth. In between bites of the bread, she hummed a bit more of her happy song. She let the notes be light like the wisps of clouds that sometimes appeared in the sky. There was no reason in particular to be sad, she thought, so why shouldn´t her song be happy?

After eating half of the small loaf, Natalia stuffed the left over pieces back into the knapsack. She stared out at the hazy line between sky and sand for a few more seconds before slinging the knapsack over her shoulder and climbed back down the wall. On her way home she stopped at the glass blower’s shop.

“Good morning, Tali,” Mr. Ramira smiled as she appeared in the doorway. The hot air in the shop made the folds of her dress billow forward. The air outside hadn’t quite reached its peak temperature yet.

“Good morning.” Natalia glanced over the jars of chemicals on his table and pointed at the glowing ball of molten glass at the end of the stick he was slowly turning. “One of your wave bowls?”

“Very good.” Mr. Ramira tapped the bar on a separate table a few times and stuck the whole thing back into the oven. “The new shipment’s in the back room.”

“Are they labelled?”

The glass blower took the molten orb back out and rolled it on the table until it was twice as long as it was wide. “All you have to do it put them on the shelves.”

“Okay.” She watched him as he blew air into the rod, expanding the orb and making it more malleable, then she shifted the bag strap on her shoulder and went through the door to the back room.

The boxes were green, each one about tall enough to reach her knees. She peered at the labels on them and deciphered the shorthand written on them. Three of the boxes had to go on the top shelf. She started with those.

About a foot away from the first box, Natalia stood with her feet shoulder width apart. She clasped her hands together, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. As she let the air out of her lungs with a hiss, she let her mind drift down her body to her feet, then bleed out into the floor until she could sense the box. Once she could feel every edge of it, she took another, quick breath and raised her hands, opening her eyes. The box soared into the air, and she pushed it higher until it was over the uppermost shelf. With a flick of her left hand, she fit the box between two others and gently let it settle onto the shelf. The other two top shelf boxes were easier now that she’d started, and there were only a dozen or so more boxes she had to put away. She was done in a few minutes.

Natalia brushed the sweat from her forehead as she walked back out to Mr. Ramira’s workshop. “Is that all for today?”

“That’s all.” The glassblower nodded at a small figurine on the table with the chemicals. “That’s for you.”

Natalia held out her hand and twitched her fingers, bringing the figurine towards her until it stopped, floating, above her palm. It was a light blue glass camel, its legs in a walking position and two ornate bags slung across its back. She spun the camel around to marvel at the detail. “I get to keep this?” she breathed.

Not looking up from his work, Mr. Ramira chuckled. “It’s the least I can do for all your help around here.”

“Thank you!” Natalia bowed to the man and scampered out of the shop. Her bag bumped her side, and she cupped the glass camel with both hands, the little feet touching her palms lightly.

The door to her house was slightly ajar as she ran up to it. As she peeked into the house, her mother looked up from sweeping the floor.

“You’re home early,” she noticed. Natalia walked into the house and set her bag on the table.

“Mr. Ramira didn’t have much work to do, and I was let out from classes early anyway.”

“What did you learn in class?” Natalia’s mother swept sand out the open door with three quick sweeps.

“Mostly geography today.” Natalia took the broom from her mother and started sweeping under the table. “It made me miss Ms. Catherine.” The second after she said the name she winced and looked up at her mother, but the woman only raised her eyebrows slightly in warning. Nevertheless, Natalia lowered her head and her voice. “We talked about the northern border countries mostly.”

Mrs. Marli leaned against the doorway to the bedrooms. “Did you talk about your uncle’s country? Bandilai?”

Natalia swept the rest of the sand out of the house. “Yes, we talked a lot about how the border between us and Bandilai has changed so much in the past fifty years.”

“So it has,” Mrs. Marli said thoughtfully. “Have you thought of what you’re wearing tonight?”

The sudden change in subject startled Natalia, and she clutched the broom handle. “No. Not really.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t seem…” She paused when she saw the same look of warning in her mother’s eye. “You know what I mean?” she said instead.

“Yes, I know.” Mrs. Marli placed her hands on Natalia’s shoulders. “But what will people say if you go to your own brother’s grave without proper mourning clothes?” When Natalia didn’t respond, her mother touched her cheek. “Remember, you won’t have to say a word to anyone.”

“I know.” Natalia set the broom next to the door. “Will you help me pick it out?”

“Your outfit? Of course!” Mrs. Marli smiled. “I’ll show you what I’ll be wearing and then we can pick something for you to wear to match.”

~~~~~

Natalia stood next to her mother at the entrance to the cemetery. They were somewhere in the middle of the crowd of villagers waiting for the doors to open. As she waited, Natalia ran her thumb over the little camel in her dress pocket.

When the doors opened and the sun sank under the dunes, the villagers slowly entered the cemetery, some holding candles, all holding gifts for their lost ones. Natalia put her hand in her other pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. She glanced down at the slanting cursive.

“Peter would love it, darling,” her mother said. She held up a small wooden statue of the god of peace. “Do you think this will hold it down?”

“Long enough, I think.” Natalia stopped as they neared the gravestone marked “Peter Marli.” She grasped her hand-written poem and looked up the cemetery hill at the ceremonial lantern. She watched as the village leader said some unintelligible words, then lit the lantern and shouted, “Hali!”

“Halu!” the entire village shouted back.

Natalia placed the poem on the gravestone, leaving enough room so the name was visible. Her mother placed the statue on top of it, and they both bowed their heads and pretended to mumble words to Peter’s spirit. Natalia said a few words to her father. She wasn’t sure what her mother was really saying.

After a few minutes, the villagers began paying their respects to the other gravestones and leaving rocks on the graves of those they were particularly close to. As Natalia was placing a rock on the grave of a friend’s mother, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“Tali!” Rebecca, a schoolmate of Natalia’s, put her hands on her hips and grinned. “I thought you’d be north at your dad’s village tonight.”

“We were there last year, so we decided we’d stay here to help appease Peter’s spirit.”

“But he’s not…” Rebecca bit her lip. “Do you think the spirits get mad if you make a grave for someone who, you know…”

Natalia shrugged. “I think they understand given the circumstances. I know my dad would be proud of Peter.”

“We all are, really.” Rebecca placed a rock on the grave in front of them. “You need to come by my house soon, my dad wants to give your mom a pie. We’ve made too many.”

“I’ll tell her,” she replied.

She watched as Rebecca moved to the next grave. Feeling nervous, Natalia glanced around at the villagers around her. In the distance she spotted a couple of Inner Citizens, but since they had no family or friends in the village they also had no deaths, so they stayed out of the ceremony as much as possible. Natalia hoped they saw her wearing mourning clothes for her “dead” brother. It might not convince them, but it might keep them from asking more questions. A year and a half later and they were still very curious about Peter’s demise.

Natalia rubbed her fingers on the camel again.  What she wouldn’t give for it to become real and take her out of the village and across the dunes to the other side!

Her mother caught up with her a half hour later back at Peter’s grave. They walked out of the cemetery hand in hand chanting a prayer to the god of death to keep the spirits in their rightful place, so they wouldn’t follow the villagers out when they walked through the cemetery doors back to the land of the living.

There were still a few rocks in Natalia’s pocket, so she let them float through her fingers. She felt tears stinging her face as she hoped Peter would be proud of her, too.

Memorial

It’s raining. The sidewalks are full of people scurrying off to drier places. Cooper has to squeeze his mother’s hand and run to keep up or else he’ll be lost in the crowd. Cooper tries to see past all the bumping legs and handbags around him. He wishes they had stayed in the nice warm restaurant a little longer, but his mom said they had to make it to the memorial before it closed. He asked what a “memrial” was, and she said it was like the word “memory” and that it was made for people to remember the bad things that had happened and the good people they happened to.

Cooper and his mom finally leave the busy sidewalk and head towards a building that looks like a shiny piece of pie. Once Cooper walks inside, he wipes his face with his sleeve and points at a man in uniform. “Is that a policeman?” he asks.

“He’s kind-of like a policeman,” his mother answers, taking his jacket. “He’s here to make sure everyone is safe.”

“What are those?” Cooper points to the row of gray gates separating them from the rest of the building.

She places both their jackets in a similarly gray bin. “We walk through them and it goes beep if there’s any metal.”

Cooper tightens his grip on his mom’s hand and together they step through the gate. When it doesn’t beep, Cooper gives his mom a thumbs up. He takes his coat back, even though it’s dripping wet, and looks around.  People are talking to one another, but it’s a quiet kind of talk that Cooper doesn’t understand. No one whispers, everyone talks, yet everyone is quiet. He wants to ask his mom what this means, but they are already walking across the hall and down some stairs.

On the next floor, the first thing Cooper sees is a pair of tall metal pillars. They look old because they’re rusted and broken off into separate pieces near the top. “Can I touch it?” Cooper asks. His mother shakes her head.

They both examine the room to figure out where to go next. There’s a help desk on the other side that looks so neat and clean like the floor and the walls and the lights and the stairs. Cooper looks back at the pillars just to make sure they’re still there. “They don’t hold anything up,” he realizes.

“They used to,” his mother answers.

After watching other people walk down the stairs and go left, Cooper and his mother go left as well and finds themselves walking on a bridge alongside a cement wall with strange shapes poking out of it. Cooper thinks they look like Legos and wonders if anything used to be connected to them.

Around a corner, Cooper’s mother spots something and brings him over to the side of the bridge. She points to something the wall. “Do you know what those are?” she asks. Cooper follows her gaze and sees projections of people’s faces surrounded by some large words in bold. Most of them say “MISSING” in black or red ink above the picture. Every second, one of the projections is replaces by another. Different person, same word.

“We made one of those for Murphy when he ran away,” Cooper says. “They make them for people too? Did they run away?”

“No, they didn’t run away,” his mother replies, “but the people who cared about them didn’t know where they were so they made these posters to try to find them.”

“Did they find them like how we found Murphy?”

His mother shakes her head.

They walk down another flight of stairs. Cooper looks up and wonders how much of the building is above him. It feels like there is less air down here, or maybe it’s just warmer. Either way, Cooper feels a little dizzy as they reach the ground. He hears noises coming from a room ahead of him, and listening closer, he realizes it’s a recording of people saying names. It sounds official, like roll call at the beginning of class, because they say the entire name and they say it slowly.

“Do you know what this used to be, Cooper?” Cooper looks up at his mother. Her face is wet. Cooper shrugs. “This is the North Tower,” she tells him. “Do you remember the North Tower?”

“Is that where Daddy worked?” He asks. His mother nods.

Cooper thinks the recording is too loud. He doesn’t like how it keeps saying people’s names over and over. “Can we leave?” he asks. His mother nods.

As they walk back up the stairs, Cooper says, “I don’t like mem’rials. Mem’rials have all bad memories and no good memories. I don’t like remembering that Daddy’s gone.”

“Memorials aren’t just about remembering the bad thing that happened,” his mother explains. “They’re about remembering what happened before too, and what can happen in the future.”

“So good memories can happen in the future?”

His mother stops and kneels in front of him. She puts her hands on his shoulders and smiles. “Sweetheart, we can make the future as good as we want. But we need memorials to remind us that we can get through the bad times too. Do you understand?” she asks.

Cooper nods.

The Bridge

Because of the consistently low temperatures I haven’t been able to do this in a while, but I have an obsession with taking long walks along the streets of Ann Arbor. You really can’t get to know a place by studying a piece of paper, so I ditched my map of the city months ago and opted instead to get myself lost by wandering among the many university buildings and businesses. You have to get out there and make a few wrong turns and end up in places you wouldn’t have explored otherwise.

On my first Saturday morning at the University of Michigan last fall, after two hours of walking I succeeded in finding the cluster of buildings situated on what students refer to as “the Hill.” I heard that one of the buildings had a dining hall in which you could find the best cookies on campus, so finding this building took top priority.

The dining hall wasn’t open when I got there and wouldn’t be open for another couple hours, so I wandered about the Hill for a few minutes before discovering a narrow bridge high above Washtenaw Avenue. I walked along it until I reached what I thought was dead center, then leaned over the edge and stared down at cars rushing by. Rubbing the small collection of coins in my pocket, I contemplated the consequences of dropping one over the edge. I think I saw something on TV once about how it’s bad to drop objects off of bridges because of the potential damage to the cars. I thought for about two more seconds and then took a penny out. To heck with caution. This penny was going overboard.

I dangled the coin over the edge with my thumb and middle finger apart just enough to feel the miniscule weight of the penny pulling down towards the pavement below. Just as the last car in a long line of vehicles disappeared underneath the bridge, I let go. For a short moment, it felt like I was moving away from the coin, maybe flying upwards into the clouds, but before I could really understand the feeling, the penny and the moment were gone.

As the semester went on, I began to take my walks earlier and earlier. I’m a morning person, much to the misery of my roommate Jan. Once my alarms started going off before the sun had even begun to shine through our window, Jan threatened me with bodily harm unless I promised to wake up later on weekends. I compromised by waking myself up at my usual time without using an alarm. I think I should put that on resumes: “can wake up without use of alarm clock”.

Every Saturday I’d leave the dorm around seven and walk the fifteen minutes to the bridge. It became something of an anchor for me; no matter where I went, I started at the bridge and ended at the bridge.

The second Saturday, I went exploring through the Arboretum. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be there that early in the morning, but I’ve always lived by the philosophy that if you don’t know if something is permitted, do it until someone tells you to stop. And then sometimes keep doing it anyway.

The third Saturday, I discovered the residential areas north of Central Campus. I began taking random turns and quickly lost track of the roads I’d walked down already. Luckily, my sense of direction is reliable, and I was able to find my way back to campus and the bridge without getting in too much of a panic.

The fourth Sunday was the day the man first showed up. I didn’t even know he was a man at first, just that someone was on my bridge. The sun had been up for less than fifteen minutes, so I didn’t see his dark gray silhouette until I had already taken a step or two onto the bridge. When I did notice him, I guess my brain and my feet went out of whack because I tripped over my own toes. Arms splayed to regain balance, I frantically ran through my options. I couldn’t go forward with my usual routine; he even had the nerve to stand almost exactly where I liked to stand, leaning over the side in the spot I usually leaned over. I thought about alternate routes I could take, but immediately my stubbornness stalled that idea. Instead, I went to the end of the bridge and sat down cross-legged, glaring at the man the whole time. We stayed like that for ten minutes, him in my spot and me on the ground. Finally, he raised his head, stretched, and walked in the other direction.

On the fifth Sunday, the man was in my spot again. I took my place at the end of the bridge on the ground, willing him to leave. You always read about people looking daggers at other people, but in my experience those moments tend to happen when the other person isn’t looking and so the moment passes without any kind of metaphorical wounding. As it happens, the one time I wasn’t looking at the jerk was the moment he chose to turn his head around and call out, “You know, we could just share the bridge….?”

I was staring down at my scuffed shoes at the moment, but when I heard his voice my head shot up and I blurted out, “You mean my bridge?”

I had been hoping that would discourage him from conversing with me, but evidently something about the way I said it was funny enough to elicit laughter from him. He looked out at the road again and shifted his weight to one leg in an annoying “I’m comfortable where I am right now” sort of way. I sighed and stood up. Hands in my pockets, I walked over and stopped next to him, copying his pose.

We were there for another minute before either of us said a word. Finally, he asked, “So, come here often?”

I snorted. “Really? That’s the line you choose?”

He shrugged. “Seemed appropriate. Do you come here every Saturday morning?”

I turned towards him, leaning on the bridge with one elbow. “As a matter of fact, I do. I come here and then I take a walk and then I come back here. Got a problem with that?” That made him laugh again.

The two of us did a bit more bantering that transitioned into small talk. I learned that his favorite band was Styx, that his family owned two cats (a black cat and a tabby), and that he was a junior at U of M studying computer science. I told him about my brothers and I vented about the obnoxious students in my organic chemistry class.

We parted ways with a short “bye”.

The next few weeks went the same way. By the time I got to the bridge, he was already there. I hadn’t bothered to ask his name, but in my mind I referred to him as “Greg” because I thought the name was funny and didn’t fit him at all. I would greet “Greg” with a new insult, usually about the state of his hair (which didn’t seem subject to gravity). We’d then stand next to one another, gazing out at the road and talking about little things.

One Saturday, I brought my iPod so I could play the music from RENT. The week before we discussed musicals and he had mentioned he’d never seen it, which I deemed unacceptable. And the second-best thing to seeing it was listening to the original cast recording.

We stood on that bridge for almost two hours singing along to the whole soundtrack. During Tango: Maureen, “Greg” and I clasped hands and tangoed across the bridge with imaginary roses in our mouths. I had to play the song three times just so we could get through it without cracking up. During the slower songs, though, “Greg” sat and listened to me sing. While my friends usually avoid eye contact with me at all costs while I sing, he looked straight at me and nodded whenever I sang some particularly difficult part well.

Afterwards, we sat next to each other and talked about what the songs were really saying. I said I wasn’t sure exactly because they seemed to simultaneously glorify and condemn existentialism. However, “Greg” shook his head.

“I think it’s just about the balance, you know? You have to know the consequences of your actions, but you also have to live in the now because tomorrow, it’s gone.”

The few times I saw him after that, our discussions were a lot heavier. We talked about things like racism and poverty and politics. The shooting in Ferguson was still a hot topic in the news, so we talked about the existence of “white privilege” and systematic racism. We also talked about life in general. It felt like, whenever I went up to that bridge, I stepped out of the real world to a much simpler one for just a moment, a world where I could talk about everything without having to resolve anything.

On the second Saturday in December, I went to the bridge a little before seven in the morning. “Greg” wasn’t there. I walked up and down the bridge for a few minutes. He didn’t come. I stood by the side of the bridge, looking down at the traffic, wondering if my glasses would fall off and land on a car. I thought about dropping something but decided not to.

I haven’t seen him since. I’m not sure I remember what he looks like. Sometimes when I’m walking to my classes, I’ll look for him in the crowds of students. I went to the bridge a few more times, but I stopped after a few weeks. It’s too cold for that anymore.