No Place Like Home
by Varya Kartishai
part 1 of 2
I lay warm in the nest of torn blankets, listening to the chirping of a Kokee bird. Then my father’s feet shuffled across the floor. His hand gently shook my shoulder, and his cracked voice said, “It is time.”
The corners of the room were still dim with the shadows that lay there before sunrise. A soft wind hissed through the cracks in the mud brick walls, giving promise of a fair day. Untangling myself, I climbed around my brother and sisters on the floor beside me, and went outside to splash water on my face from the pail by the door.
I was fourthchild and this would be my first market day. My father usually took Rowe or Suny, my older brothers; Lusa, my sister, was firstchild but had never gone at all.
By the fire my mother sat weeping; her tears sizzled on the baking stone as she made flatbreads. As she grew big with a new child, she wept more and more. The others began to make small waking noises, and I hurried to hold out my hands to her before the others got there.
She placed a whole flatbread in them and stroked my hair for a moment before waving me away. “You may be hungry later.”
I knotted half the bread into the hem of my shirt before eating the rest. Then Rowe came up to me, with the leather vest he had made for himself when our goat died. He draped it around my shoulders, frowned and muttered, “It gets cool at night.”
I stammered thanks, but he turned abruptly and went to get his bread. The vest hung almost to my knees though I am tall for fourteen summers. It was almost too warm, but I wore it proudly.
Then my father said, “time we were going.” As we went toward the door, Lusa hugged me so hard I almost lost my breath — she was weeping too, although I was fairly sure she was not with child. She and mother stood by the door as I climbed onto the cart.
My father flapped the lines on the swayed back of our old mule, and I made myself comfortable against the netted bags of potatoes and onions. The rising sun shone on the fields as we rumbled by, all were as dry and dusty as our own.
We drove silently for hours, stopping only at mid-morning, when I ate the piece of bread in my shirt. My father drank water, passing me the bottle afterward, but ate nothing himself. Then he let the mule graze a little and drink from an almost empty creek bed while we saw to our comfort by the roadside.
At last we crested a rise in the road and a stone wall appeared across our path. The road ran up to an iron gate in the wall. When we reached it, a man in a leather hat studded with brass rounds barred our way with a long pole. He used a metal point on the end to poke through our load, then took a sack of potatoes and tossed it into a little hut just inside the gate.
My father looked down at his feet and said nothing.
At last the man growled, “Move on.”
I stared at my father. “He took our potatoes.”
“It was the price to enter the gate. This is how towns are.”
Inside, we rattled along cobbles. People moved in and out of the houses that lined the road, then the road became a paved open square surrounded by buildings. In the center, a stone woman in a hooded robe held out an urn that trickled water into a stone basin at her feet.
We drove around the square, stopping our cart next to a man who sat by a straw mat piled with clay pots like those my mother stored grain in when we had it. My father pulled two rolled-up straw mats from the back of our cart, and I helped him pile the potatoes on one and the onions on the other.
People walked over to us and argued over the price, but all bought. There was another onion seller, but there was no one else selling potatoes. My father was pleased, “That is what comes from taking a chance on the plants being in too early.”
As the afternoon wore on, he gave me a copper bit from the selling to get fried dough from a vendor. It had been more than a year since my mother had made fried dough; we had a feast with water from the fountain. I filled a pail of water for the mule, and fed him a couple of onions that had gone a little soft.
At last the potatoes were gone and all but two sacks of onions. My father loaded the sacks into the cart, rolled up the mats and got up on the seat. I started to follow, but he waved me back. “Wait here by the fountain. I am going to buy flour to take home.”
I begged to go along, but he said, “Kano, you are a good boy, but the miller doesn’t like young boys. If you came, he would raise the price.” Then he drove off in the direction opposite where we had come in. I could have sworn I saw tears on his cheeks, but that made no sense.
As I waited, the light faded. The other sellers packed up their carts, if they had them, or loaded unsold goods into baskets to carry on their backs. A few looked at me, and shook their heads. At last I was left sitting alone on the edge of the basin in the cooling air, staring at the untidy heaps of vegetable trash they had left.
Suddenly, out of the alleys between the buildings surrounding the square, poured a crowd of children of all sizes, like ants when you stir up their nest with a stick. They snatched at wilted cabbage leaves, bruised fruit, anything eatable. I was hungry, but not hungry enough for that. I looked down at my feet, but after a few minutes a tall boy whose beard had begun to sprout, swaggered up to me. He gulped down the wilted carrot he had been chewing, saying, “What are you doing in our square?”
“I’m waiting for my father to come back from the miller, and it isn’t your square or your business.”
He reached out so fast I didn’t see his hand coming. Holding me by the vest, he pulled it up against my throat, almost choking me, and said, “That’s a funny-looking vest, I’ll take it off your hands, little boy.”
“Let go,” I yelled, “it belongs to my brother!”
He gave me a push that would have sent me into the water if I hadn’t held the stone rim. I got my balance and jumped up, pushing him back as hard as I could, then we were rolling around on the stones while I kicked him and he pounded me and tried to gouge my eyes.
“Pick on somebody nearer your size, Janno!” A tall skinny girl had gotten a chokehold around his neck from the back. She pulled him off me, and said in a hoarse voice, “ Come on, new one, it’ll be dark soon.”
“I have to wait for my father!” My face felt swollen and there was blood dripping down my shirt, probably mine, but I still had the vest.
“He won’t come back tonight. They’ve already locked the gates. Come on, you can’t stay here.”
“He said to wait here, I won’t go!”
She turned to a couple of boys behind her. “Grab his arms.” I struggled, but they dragged me across the square and into one of the alleys. They opened a door a few yards down, pushed me inside, and pulled it shut behind them.
I landed hard on a stone floor, bruising my knees. I got up and tried to pull the door open, but it wouldn’t move. The windows were higher than my head and there was nothing to climb on. I was more angry than frightened. What if my father was outside the locked gate right now and couldn’t get back in? What if he gave up and went home without me? Miserably, I sat down and leaned back against the wall.
Finally, a key turned, the door opened and a dozen or so children, all sizes, walked in, followed by the tall girl. She ignored my anger and held out an apple. “Are you hungry? One side is good.”
I took it, and carefully bit into the part that wasn’t rotten.
“You could say ‘thank you’.” She sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulders. “Do you have a name, new one?”
I shrugged away the arm. “My name is Kano. I’m not staying here!”
“I’m Nilla. Your father won’t be back.”
“No,” I screamed at her, pushing her away. How dare this strange female say such a thing. My throat tightened and burned, but I wouldn’t let myself cry in front of these strangers.
She sat patiently for a few minutes, then asked in a soft voice, “How many children in your house?”
“Eight, and one coming.”
She put her arm back around my shoulders, saying, “Too many to feed, and you’re nearly grown — big enough to make it on your own.”
“I don’t believe you, my father would have told me.” But this time I didn’t push her away.
“Poor, foolish one, would you have come if he had?” Nilla got up and walked toward the door. The others were watching us. I hadn’t paid much attention, but when they came in all of them had dropped handfuls of discarded vegetables and fruit from the square into a basket by the door, and piled dried leaves and stems in another basket, maybe for fuel.
Nilla took the first basket now and dipped the vegetables into a bucket of water to clean them, cut away the good pieces and dropped them into a pot simmering over a tiny fire on the hearth. I hadn’t noticed it when they threw me inside. She did the same with the fruit and dropped it into a smaller pot. The first pot was starting to smell a little like the soup my mother made.
A thought struck me. I asked Nilla, “Were all of you left here?”
“Most. Some, like me, are orphans.”
No wonder they thought my father wasn’t coming back. Fear began to rise in me again — I started for the door.
“Wait,” Nilla shouted.
“No, I’m going to the gate to see if he’s out there, and you can’t stop me!” Nilla rushed at me, grabbing my arms; two of the others held my legs, I couldn’t move.
“You can’t go out there now! If you don’t believe me, so much the worse for you. You can go in the morning and ask the guard if your father was there!”
“Why not now?”
“The catching lights will take you. Listen!”
I heard a low humming sound outside — like insects, but steadier. Nilla whispered fiercely in my ear, “Be quiet. Don’t go near the window.” Finally, after a long while, the sound faded into the distance.
“What was that?”
“Nobody knows. We first heard it about six months ago. The humming noise began after dark, then circles of light moved across the ground. Lilla and Tako were just outside the door. As the light shone on them, they floated into the air and disappeared. We never saw them again.”
Through the high window, over the roofs of the houses opposite, I could see beams of light, brighter than candle flames, sweeping by. Maybe she was right; I could go to the gate in the morning. The smell of soup caught my attention, making my hunger nearly unbearable.
Nilla saw me hesitating. She dipped out a wooden bowl of soup and handed it to me with a big piece of dry bread. The other children were already eating.
“Where did you get so much bread?”
“I clean at the tavern, and they give me the stale bread. My mother used to work there. After she died I could have lived there, but I didn’t want Taverner in my bed.”
“Doesn’t anybody mind you using this house?”
“It belonged to my mother. I have a paper that says so.”
I quickly finished the soup, and with a full belly, tiredness swept over me. As my head began to nod, Nilla pushed me gently toward a corner where a heap of sleepers already lay. When I woke up on the floor, sunlight was coming through the window. For a moment, I thought I was home, but those next to me were strangers. My eyes spilled over before I could stop them.
A small boy pulled at my arm. “Don’t cry, Kano; Nilla said to make sure you eat something. I’m Mino.”
Copyright © 2013 by Varya Kartishai