Chapter 11

 

Things do not change; we change.

– Journal, 1850

The High Gregory sat next to Spur in the bed of the Sawat-dees’ truck, their backs against the cab, watching the dust billow behind them. Sly and Ngonda rode up front. As the truck jolted down Blue Valley Road, Spur could not help but see the excitement on the High Gregory’s face. The dirt track was certainly rough, but the boy was bouncing so high Spur was worried that he’d fly over the side. He was even making Sly nervous, and the old farmer was usually as calm as moss. But then Sly Sawatdee didn’t make a habit of giving rides to upsiders. He kept glancing over his shoulder at the High Gregory through the open rear slider.

Spur had no doubt that his cover story for the High Gregory and Ngonda was about to unravel. The High Gregory had decided to wear purple overalls with about twenty brass buttons. Although there was nothing wrong with his black t-shirt, the bandana knotted around his neck was a pink disaster embellished with cartoons of beets and carrots and corn on the cob. At least he had used some upsider trick to disguise the color of his eyes. Ngonda’s clothes weren’t quite as odd, but they too were a problem. Spur had seen citizens wearing flair jackets and high-collar shirts — but not on a hot summer Sunday and not in Littleton. Ngonda was dressed for a meeting at the Cooperative’s Office of Diplomacy in Concord. Spur’s only hope was to whisk them both to Diligence Cottage and either hide them there or find them something more appropriate to wear.

Tell me about the gosdogs,” said the High Gregory.

Spur leaned closer, trying to hear him over the roar of the truck’s engine, the clatter of its suspension and the crunch of tires against the dirt road. “Say again?”

The gosdogs,” shouted the High Gregory. “One of your native species. You know, four-footed, feathered, they run in packs.”

Gosdogs, yes. What do you want to know?”

You eat them.”

I don’t.” The High Gregory seemed to be waiting for him to elaborate, but Spur wasn’t sure what he wanted to know exactly. “Other citizens do, but the browns only. The other breeds are supposed to be too stringy.”

And when you kill them, do they know they’re about to die? How do you do it?”

I don’t.” Spur had never slaughtered a gosdog; Cape didn’t believe in eating them. However, Spur had slaughtered chickens and goats and helped once with a bull. Butchering was one of the unpleasant chores that needed doing on a farm, like digging postholes or mucking out the barn. “They don’t suffer.”

Really? That’s good to know.” The High Gregory did not look convinced. “How smart do you think they are?”

At that moment Sly stepped on the brakes and swung the steering wheel; the truck bumped onto the smooth pavement of Civic Route 22.

Not very,” said Spur. With the road noise abating, his voice carried into the cab.

Not very what?” said Constant Ngonda.

The High Gregory propped himself up to speak through the open window. “I was asking Spur how smart the gosdogs are. I couldn’t find much about them, considering. Why is that, do you suppose?”

The ComExplore Survey Team rated them just 6.4 on the Peekay Animal Intelligence Scale,” said Ngonda. “A goat has more brains.”

Yes, I found that,” said the High Gregory, “but what’s interesting is that the first evaluation was the only one ever done. And it would have been very much in the company’s interests to test them low, right? And of course it made no sense for your pukpuks to bother with a follow-up test. And now your Transcendent State has a stake in keeping that rating as it is.”

Are you suggesting some kind of conspiracy?” Ngonda was working his way to a fine outrage. “That we’re deliberately abusing an intelligent species?”

I’m just asking questions, friend Constant. And no, I’m not saying they’re as smart as humans, no, no, never. But suppose they were retested and their intelligence was found to be… let’s say 8.3. Or even 8.1. The Thousand Worlds might want to see them protected.”

Protected?” The deputy’s voice snapped through the window.

Why, don’t you think that would be a good idea? You’d just have to round them up and move them to a park or something. Let them loose in their native habitat.”

There is no native habitat left on Walden.” Spur noticed that Sly was so intent on the conversation that he was coasting down the highway. “Except maybe underwater.” A westbound oil truck was catching up to them fast.

We could build one then,” said the High Gregory cheerfully. “The L’ung could raise the money. They need something to do.”

Can I ask you something?” Ngonda had passed outrage and was well on his way to fury.

Yes, friend Constant. Of course.”

How old are you?”

Twelve standard. My birthday is next month. I don’t want a big party this year. It’s too much work.”

They know themselves in the mirror,” said Sly.

What?” Ngonda was distracted from whatever point he was about to make. “What did you just say?”

When one of them looks at his reflection, he recognizes himself.” Sly leaned back toward the window as he spoke. “We had this brood, a mother and three pups, who stayed indoors with us last winter. They were house-trained, mostly.” The truck slowed to a crawl. “So my granddaughter Brookie is playing dress-up with the pups one night and the silly little pumpkin decides to paint one all over with grape juice. Said she was trying to make the first purple gosdog — her father babies her, don’t you know? But she actually stains the right rear leg before her mother catches her out. And when Brookie lets the poor thing loose, it galumphs to the mirror and backs up to see its grapy leg. Then it gets to whimpering and clucking and turning circles like they do when they’re upset.” Sly checked the rearview mirror and noticed the oil truck closing in on them for the first time. “I was there, saw it clear as tap water. The idea that it knew who it was tipped me over for a couple of days.” He put two wheels onto the shoulder of cr22 and waved the truck past. “It’s been a hardship, but I’ve never eaten a scrap of gosdog since.”

That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said Ngonda.

Lots of citizens feel that way,” said Spur.

As is their right. But to jump to conclusions based on this man’s observations… .”

I don’t want to jump, friend Constant,” said the High Gregory. “Let’s not jump.”

Although the deputy was ready to press his argument, nobody else spoke and gradually he subsided. Sly pulled back onto cr22 and drove the rest of the way at a normal pace. They passed the rest of the trip in silence; the wind seemed to whip Spur’s thoughts right out of his head.

As they turned off Jane Powder Street onto the driveway of the cottage, Sly called back to him. “Looks like you’ve got company.”

Spur rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. Who told the townsfolk that he wanted them to come visiting? He leaned over the side of the truck but couldn’t see anyone until they parked next to the porch. Then he spotted the scooter leaning against the barn.

If it was really in the High Gregory’s power to make luck, then what he was brewing up for Spur so far was pure misfortune. It was Comfort’s scooter.

The High Gregory stood up in the back of the truck and turned around once, surveying the farmstead. “This is your home, Spur.” He said it not as a question but as a statement, as if Spur were the one seeing it for the first time. “I understand now why you would want to live so far from everything. It’s like a poem here.”

Constant Ngonda opened the door and stepped down into the dusty drive. From his expression, the deputy appeared to have formed a different opinion of the cottage. However, he was enough of a diplomat to keep it to himself. He clutched a holdall to his chest and was mounting the stairs to the porch when he noticed that no one else had moved from the truck.

They were watching Comfort stalk toward them from the barn, so clearly in a temper that heat seemed to shimmer off her in the morning swelter.

That woman looks angry as lightning,” said Sly. “You want me to try to get in her way?”

No,” said Spur. “She’d probably just knock you over.”

But this is your Comfort?” said the High Gregory. “The wife that you don’t live with anymore. This is so exciting, just what I was hoping for. She’s come for a visit — maybe to welcome you back?”

I’m not expecting much of a welcome,” said Spur. “If you’ll excuse me, I should talk to her. Sly, if you wouldn’t mind staying a few minutes, maybe you could take Constant and young Lucky here inside. There’s plenty to eat.”

Lucky,” said the High Gregory, repeating the name they had agreed on for him, as if reminding himself to get into character. “Hello, friend Comfort,” he called. “I’m Lucky. Lucky Ngonda.”

She shook the greeting off and kept bearing down on them. His wife was a slight woman, with fine features and eyes dark tas currants. Her hair was long and sleek and black. She was wearing a sleeveless, yellow gingham dress that Spur had never seen before. Part of her new wardrobe, he thought, her new life. When he had been in love with her, Spur had thought that Comfort was pretty. But now, seeing her for the first time in months, he decided that she was merely delicate. She did not look strong enough for the rigors of life on a farm.

Spur opened the tailgate and the High Gregory jumped from the back of the truck. Ngonda came back down the stairs to be introduced to Comfort. Spur was handing the High Gregory’s bag down to Sly as she drew herself up in front of them.

Gandy Joy said you wanted to see me first thing in the morning.” She did not waste time on introductions. “I didn’t realize that I’d be interrupting a party.”

Comfort,” said Spur, “I’m sorry.” He stopped himself then, chagrined at how easily he fell into the old pattern. When they were together, he was always apologizing.

Morning, sweet corn,” said Sly. “Not that much of a party, I’m afraid.”

But there are snacks inside,” the High Gregory said. “This is such a beautiful place you two have. I’ve just met Spur myself, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be happy here someday. My name is Lucky Ngonda.” He held out his hand to her. “We’re supposed to shake but first you have to say your name.”

Comfort had been so fixated on Spur that she had brushed by the High Gregory. Now she scrutinized him in all his purple glory and her eyes went wide. “Why are you dressed like that?”

Is something wrong?” He glanced down at his overalls. “I’m dressed to visit my friend Spur.” He patted his bare head. “It’s the hat, isn’t it? I’m supposed to be wearing a hat.”

Constant Ngonda, a friend of Spur’s from the Ninth.” Ngonda oozed between them. “I apologize for intruding; I know you have some important things to discuss. Why don’t we give you a chance to catch up now. My nephew and I will be glad to wait inside.” He put an arm around the High Gregory’s shoulder and aimed him at the porch.

Wait,” said the High Gregory. “I thought I was your cousin.”

Take as long as you want, Spur,” Ngonda said as he hustled the boy off. “We’ll be fine.”

Sly shook his head in disbelief. “I’ll make sure they don’t get into trouble.” He started after them.

There are pies in the refrigerator,” Spur called after him. “Most of an apple pie and just a couple slices of a peach.” He steeled himself and turned back to Comfort. “My father said you were here the other day.” He aimed a smile at her but it bounced off. “You made my favorite pie.”

Who are those people?” Her eyes glittered with suspicion. “The boy is strange. Why have you brought them here?”

Let’s walk.” He took her arm and was surprised when she went along without protest. He felt the heat of her glare cooling as they strode away from the cottage. “I did have a chat with Gandy Joy,” he said. “She said you were feeling pretty low.”

I have the right to feel however I feel,” she said stiffly.

You haven’t been accepting communion.”

Communion is what they give you so you feel smart about acting stupid. Tell her that I don’t need some busybody blowing smoke in my eyes to keep me from seeing what’s wrong.” She stopped and pulled him around to face her. “We’re getting divorced, Spur.”

Yes,” He held her gaze. “I know.” He wanted to hug her or maybe shake her. Touch her long, black hair. Instead his hands hung uselessly by his sides. “But I’m still concerned about you.”

Why?”

You’ve been talking about moving away.”

She turned and started walking again. “I can’t run a farm by myself.”

We could help you, DiDa and I.” He caught up with her. “Hire some of the local kids. Maybe bring in a tenant from another village.”

And how long do you think that would work for? If you want to run my farm, Spur, buy it from me.”

Your family is an important part of this place. The whole village wants you to stay. Everyone would pitch in.”

She chuckled grimly. “Everyone wanted us to get married. They want us to stay together. I’m tired of having everyone in my life.”

He wasn’t going to admit to her that he felt the same way sometimes. “Where will you go?”

Away.”

Just away?”

I miss him, I really do. But I don’t want to live anywhere near Vic’s grave.”

Spur kicked a stone across the driveway and said nothing for several moments. “You’re sure it’s not me you want to get away from?”

No, Spur. That’s one thing I am sure of.”

When did you decide all this?”

Spur, I’m not mad at you.” Impulsively, she went up on tiptoes and aimed a kiss at the side of his face. She got mostly air, but their cheeks brushed, her skin hot against his. “I like you, especially when you’re like this, so calm and thoughtful. You’re the best of this lot and you’ve always been sweet to me. It’s just that I can’t live like this anymore.”

I like you too, Comfort. Last night, after I accepted communion — ”

Enough. We like each other. We should stop there, it’s a good place to be.” She bumped up against him. “Now tell me about that boy. He isn’t an upsider, is he?”

She shot him a challenging look and he tried to bear up under the pressure of her regard. They walked in silence while he decided what he could say about Ngonda and the High Gregory. “Can you keep a secret?”

She sighed. “You know you’re going to tell me, so get to it.”

They had completely circled the cottage. Spur spotted the High Gregory watching them from a window. He turned Comfort toward the barn. “Two days ago, when I was still in the hospital, I started sending greetings to the upside.” He waved off her objections. “Don’t ask, I don’t know why exactly, other than that I was bored. Anyway, the boy answered one of them. He’s the High Gregory of the L’ung, Phosphorescence of something or other, I forget what. He’s from Kenning in the Theta Persei system and I’m guessing he’s pretty important, because the next thing I knew, he qiced himself to Walden and had me pulled off a train.”

He told her about the hover and Memsen and the kids of the L’ung and how he was being forced to show the High Gregory his village. “Oh, and he supposedly makes luck.”

What does that mean?” said Comfort. “How does somebody make luck?”

I don’t know exactly. But Memsen and the L’ung are all convinced that he does it, whatever it is.”

They had wandered into GiGa’s flower garden. Comfort had tried to make it her own after they had moved in. However, she’d had neither the time nor the patience to tend persnickety plants and so grew only daylilies and hostas and rugose roses. After a season of neglect, even these tough flowers were losing ground to the bindweed and quackgrass and spurge.

Spur sat on the fieldstone bench that his grandfather had built for his grandmother. He tapped on the seat for her to join him. She hesitated then settled at the far end, twisting to face him.

He acts too stupid to be anyone important,” she said. “What about that slip he made about being the cousin and not the nephew. Are the people on his world idiots?”

Maybe he intended to say it.” Spur leaned forward and pulled a flat clump of spurge from the garden. “After all, he’s wearing those purple overalls; he’s really not trying very hard to pretend he’s a citizen.” He knocked the dirt off the roots and left it to shrivel in the sun. “What if he wanted me to tell you who he was and decided to make it happen? I think he’s used to getting his own way.”

So what does he want with us?” Her expression was unreadable.

I’m not sure. I think what Memsen was telling me is that he has come here to see how his being here changes us.” He shook his head. “Does that make any sense?”

It doesn’t have to,” she said. “He’s from the upside. They don’t think the same way we do.”

Maybe so.” It was a commonplace that had been drilled into them in every self-reliance class they had ever sat through. It was, after all, the reason that Chairman Winter had founded Walden. But now that he had actually met upsiders — Memsen and the High Gregory and the L’ung — he wasn’t sure that their ways were so strange. But this wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Look, Comfort, I have my own reason for telling you all this,” he said. “I need help with him. At first I thought he was just going to pretend to be one of us and take a quiet look at the village. Now I’m thinking he wants to be discovered so he can make things happen. So I’m going to try to keep him busy here if I can. It’s just for one day; he said he’d leave in the morning.”

And you believe that?”

I’d like to.” He dug at the base of a dandelion with his fingers and pried it out of the ground with the long taproot intact. “What other choice do I have?” He glanced back at the cottage but couldn’t see the High Gregory in the window anymore. “We’d better get back.”

She put a hand on his arm. “First we have to talk about Vic.”

Spur paused, considering. “We can do that if you want.” He studied the dandelion root as if it held the answers to all his problems. “We probably should. But it’s hard, Comfort. When I was in the hospital the upsiders did something to me. A kind of treatment that… .”

She squeezed his arm and then let go. “There’s just one thing I have to know. You were with him at the end. At least, that’s what we heard. You reported his death.”

It was quick,” said Spur. “He didn’t suffer.” This was a lie he had been preparing to tell her ever since he had woken up in the hospital.

That’s good. I’m glad.” She swallowed. “Thank you. But did he say anything? At the end, I mean.”

Say? Say what?”

You have to understand that after I moved back home, I found that Vic had changed. I was shocked when he volunteered for the Corps because he was actually thinking of leaving Littleton. Maybe Walden too. He talked a lot about going to the upside.” She clutched her arms to her chest so tightly that she seemed to shrink. “He didn’t believe — you can’t tell anyone about this. Promise?”

Spur shut his eyes and nodded. He knew what she was going to say. How could he not? Nevertheless, he dreaded hearing it.

Her voice shrank as well. “He had sympathy for the pukpuks. Not for the burning, but he used to say that we didn’t need to cover every last scrap of Walden with forest. He talked about respecting… ”

Without warning, the nightmare leapt from some darkness in his soul like some ravening predator. It chased him through a stand of pine; trees exploded like firecrackers. Sparks bit through his civvies and stung him. He could smell burning hair. His hair.

But he didn’t want to smell his hair burning. Spur was trying desperately to get back to the bench in the garden, back to Comfort, but she kept pushing him deeper into the nightmare.

After we heard he’d been killed, I went to his room… ”

He beckoned and for a moment Spur thought it might not be Vic after all as the anguished face shimmered in the heat of the burn. Vic wouldn’t betray them, would he?

It was his handwriting… .”

Spur had to dance to keep his shoes from catching fire, and he had no escape, no choice, no time. The torch spread his arms wide and Spur stumbled into his embrace and with an angry whoosh they exploded together into flame. Spur felt his skin crackle… .

And he screamed.