کتاب 03 - فصل 01

مجموعه: چهارگانه بخشنده / کتاب: پسر / فصل 33

کتاب 03 - فصل 01

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BOOK III - BEYOND

One

The old woman appeared frequently. Suddenly she would be there, standing in the thick pines beside the river, watching him as he worked. Gabe would catch sight of her, would see her dark homespun clothing, her stooped posture, and the fierce, knowing intimacy of her gaze. But then she would withdraw and disappear into the shaded grove of trees. If he turned away and then looked back, there was no longer a sign of her, not even a whispering motion in the needled branches she had moved through. She simply went away. Sometimes he thought of calling after her, asking who she was, why she watched him. But for some reason he felt shy.

He saw her in the village as well, but noticed her less there because he was generally in the company of friends. He and the other boys, the group he lived with, would be wrestling and joking, vying to be cleverest, or strongest, as they made their way together to or from the schoolhouse. Sometimes the people of the village complained about them and their horseplay, said that they were a noisy, inconsiderate group, worse than any bunch of adolescents that had ever lived in Boys’ Lodge. One neighbor had called them “louts” after they wrested plums from the tree beside her cottage, then squashed them in the path.

This particular old woman, though she was often nearby, never glared at the group of boys, as others did, or chided them for their behavior. She simply watched. She had been doing it for a long time. And Gabe thought that she watched him most of all. It puzzled him.

Occasionally he thought about using his power—well, he never knew exactly what to call it, but he thought of it as veering—to try to learn more about who she was, why she watched him. But he never did. His power made him nervous. He found veering tiring, painful, and a little frightening. So though he tested it now and then, seeing if it was still there (and it always was; sometimes he found himself wishing it wouldn’t be), trying to understand it (and he never did, not really), he rarely called it into full use.

Anyway, she was gone. He was annoyed at himself for the time he had wasted, wondering about her, when he had so much to do, still. Sighing, Gabe looked around the clearing on the riverbank, the place he had claimed for his task, the place where he was now spending hours every day. His bare feet were deep in wood shavings. He smiled at himself, realizing there was sawdust on his face, stuck there by his own sweat. He licked his lips and tasted powdered cedar.

The boards that he had crafted so carefully were neatly stacked, but his tools were scattered about, and it looked from the graying clouds as if rain was on the way. He heard a rumble of thunder. Time to get things into the shed. But even as he moved his tools, trudging back and forth to store them in the primitive little structure he had built between two trees, he found himself thinking again of the old woman.

There were so few mysteries in the small village. When new residents arrived, there was always a ceremony of welcome. Their histories were told. He remembered none for her, but he would have been a child then; he had seen the strange woman for years now, had felt her eyes on him since he was a young boy. And he rarely attended the ceremonies. Some of the histories were interesting, Gabe thought, especially if they involved danger and narrow escapes. But people rambled on, and sometimes they wept, which embarrassed him.

I’ll stop being shy, he thought. Next time I notice her staring at me the way she does, I’ll simply introduce myself. Then she’ll have to tell me who she is.

The rain began spattering suddenly. Gabe closed the crooked, hastily made door of the shed he had built from old boards. Briefly he glanced back through the increasing downpour, at the grove of trees where the woman stood from time to time. Then he closed the latch on the door of the shed and ran through the rain toward the village.

“How’s the boat coming?” It was Simon, one of his friends, standing on the porch of Boys’ Lodge as Gabe climbed the steps and shook his head to try to get some of the wetness out of his curly hair.

“All right, I guess. Slow.”

He went inside to change into dry clothes. It would be time for dinner soon, he thought. There were no clocks in the village, but the bell tower rang at intervals, and the midafternoon bell had sounded some time ago. On a shelf in his cubicle Gabe found a clean, folded shirt and put it on. He tossed his wet one into a bin in the hall.

He lived in Boys’ Lodge with twelve other adolescent orphaned boys. Most of his lodge-mates had lost their parents to illness or accident, though one, Tarik, had been abandoned as an infant by an irresponsible couple who had no interest in raising a child. All of the boys had a history to tell. Gabe did too, but he didn’t enjoy the telling; there were too many I-don’t-knows to it.

He had asked Jonas again and again. It was Jonas who had brought him here years before, when Gabe was just an infant. “Why did my parents let you take me?” he had asked.

“You didn’t have parents,” Jonas had explained.

“Everybody has parents!”

“Not in the place where we lived. Things were different there.”

“How about you? Did you have parents?”

“I had people I called Mother and Father. I’d been assigned to them.”

“Well, what about me?”

“You hadn’t been assigned yet. You were a bit of a problem.”

Gabe had grinned at that. He liked the idea of being troublesome. It seemed to give him a certain superiority.

“I had to have parents, though. People don’t just get born from nothing.”

“You know what, Gabe? I was just a boy then. Babies appeared from the infant-care building and were given to parents. I accepted it. I never knew anything else. I never asked where the babies had come from.” Gabe had hooted with laughter. “Hah! Where do babies come from? Every kid asks that!”

Gabe was laughing, but Jonas had looked serious and concerned. “You’re right,” he said, slowly. “And I do remember that there were young girls chosen each year to be what was called ‘birthmothers.’ They must have been the ones who . . .” “What happened to the birthmothers? What happened to my birthmother?”

“I don’t know, Gabe.”

“Didn’t she want me?”

Jonas sighed. “I don’t know, Gabe. It was a different system—”

“I’m going to find out.”

“How?”

Gabe was very young then, no more than nine. But he swaggered when he replied. “I’ll go back there. You can’t stop me. I’ll find a way.”

Now that the boys had moved out of the Childhood Place where they had spent their first years, now that they were in Boys’ Lodge, their interests had changed and they rarely talked of their earlier years. It was girls who did that, Gabe thought. At Girls’ Lodge, he heard, the girls talked long into the evening, retelling their own tales to each other. For the boys, though, talk now was of school, or of sports, or of the future, not the past.

Boys’ Lodge was a congenial group. They did their schoolwork together in the evenings, and shared meals, their food prepared by a staff of two workers in the kitchen. There was a lodge director, a kindly man who had a room within the building, and who mediated the infrequent disputes among the boys. One could go to him with problems. But Gabe often wished that he lived in a house with a family, the way his best friend, Nathaniel, did. Nathaniel had parents, and two sisters; their house was noisy with bickering and laughter.

Glancing through the window, through the rain that had now almost stopped, he could see the house where Nathaniel lived, farther along the curved path. Its little garden was thick with summer flowers, and as he watched, a door opened and a gray cat was sent outside, where it assumed a pose, in the way of cats, on the little porch and licked its paws. It was Deirdre’s cat. Gabe tried to remember its name; he could picture Nathaniel’s sister laughing when she had told it to him, but the whimsical name eluded him. Catacomb? Cataclysm? No. But something like those. Deirdre was good with words.

Pretty, too. Gabe flushed briefly, a little embarrassed at his own thoughts. He watched the cat, hoping that Deirdre would appear at the door. Maybe she would sit down and stroke the gray fur. Catapult! That was its name. He pictured her there, stroking Catapult, gazing into the distance, maybe thinking about—him? Maybe? Could that be possible? Of course, he realized suddenly, he could veer, and find out. But maybe he didn’t really want to know? And anyway, there wasn’t time. The dinner bell was about to ring. The other boys, laughing and noisy, would soon be rushing down the hallway.

Also, Gabe reminded himself, shaking off the thoughts about Nathaniel’s pretty, dark-haired sister, it wasn’t fair to her, even if he found that she did care about him. She shouldn’t. Very soon he would finish his boat. And then he would be gone.

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