by Bob Lovely
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The early spring morning was cool, almost cold. The sun was peeking over the horizon, birds were singing, and Albert was cutting wood. He felt good. As he reached for his coffee, he realized he had always thought he made coffee fairly strong but now his usual brew seemed somewhat lacking. Still, it was hot and smelled and tasted like waking up in the morning. It was a great contrast to the cold.
He set down the mug and peacefully re-attacked the wood with his axe that needed sharpening. As he worked, he thought of his marriage. He had married relatively late in life, at 30. Till then he had just sort of drifted around, doing manual labor and looking for himself. He’d been raised by his grandfather, Old Eagle, who was a traditional Indian and a medicine man.
Old Eagle. Albert assumed his grandfather had a white man’s first name but everyone just called him Old Eagle. Old Eagle had always taught Albert to live in the traditional ways of his ancestors, to live as Old Eagle himself lived. Albert hadn’t listened. He never was bad to his Grampa, just never learned the things Old Eagle tried to teach.
Albert grew up as the computer grew up, and was amazed at the colors, fast pace and button-pushing of his modern world. It seemed to him that the ideas of his grandfather were quaint and antiquated, that they had worked in the naive pre-contact days but now science and TV had made all that irrelevant. No need to hunt deer and thank it when sirloin was $2.69 a pound at the grocery store.
Thinking back on it now, Albert felt ashamed. He wiped a tear from his eye with the back of his sleeve and wondered what Grampa was doing now. He swung the axe and the dull blade deflected off the wood and into his right leg.
Albert opened his eyes. He was on the ground with blood welling from his shin, which throbbed with his heartbeat. He needed to get to the phone.
The local directory was all of a dozen pages and he found the only doctor in town — “Stephen Walker, M.D.” He punched in the number, amused that with only one prefix all you needed was the last four digits.
The phone rang. “This is Doc!” In the year 2000, Doc made house calls.
* * *
As he was bandaging Albert’s leg, Doc said, “You’re new to town.”
“Yeah.” Albert grimaced. “I met Roy and the, uh, at Bob and Susan’s place.”
“Oh, great people.” Doc glanced up at Albert. “Damn shame about that boy.”
“What do you mean?”
Doc tilted his head. “How did he seem to you?”
Albert pursed his lips. “Kinda quiet for a young boy. ’Course I don’t know how old he is, and I don’t know how kids act on... where they’re from.”
“He’s sick,” said Doc flatly. “Very sick. It’s an ethics violation to discuss my patients’ conditions, but folks here are pretty open anyway, and the Smiths don’t seem to understand the concept of privacy. They’re very open about everything.”
Albert remembered what he had perceived as feeling the family laughing. “You think he’s dying, don’t you?” asked Albert.
Still kneeling, Doc looked at the ground. “He is.” His voice trembled slightly. “And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”
Albert’s kitchen was painted a horrid yellow. As he poured Doc a cup of coffee, he wondered what color he would have to paint it and realized he was planning to stay here for some time. He liked this town, and it seemed to like him. “What’s wrong with him, why’s he dying?” He handed Doc the coffee.
“That’s what frustrates me so much. I don’t know. It’s like his body is rejecting the environment, maybe the conditions here aren’t quite what his physiology is designed for and he isn’t able to adapt.” Doc sipped the coffee, grimaced and set the cup on the table. “I see you’ve subscribed to the Susan Smith philosophy of coffee brewing.”
Albert laughed. “Yes, but she buys the good stuff. I’ll have to ask her brand.”
Doc smiled. “I’ll let it cool a bit.”
“Bob and Susan seem okay.”
Doc sighed. “Yeah. Maybe it’s because they were physically mature when they arrived on earth, or maybe his body is just defective. I, I just don’t know.” Doc picked up his coffee and looked into it.
* * *
Standing in the Smiths’ living room, Doc shook his head. “Goddammit, Bob, I just can’t save him. You sure you won’t let me take him to the hospital in town?”
“We can’t, Doctor,” the boy replied. “Your people simply are not ready to deal with our existence. My family and I are here as part of a program to allow our peoples to live together. Our being here is essentially an experiment to see how our bodies adapt to, and tolerate, your world’s conditions. In truth, my death will yield much useful data and help save many lives in the future.”
Doc looked the boy right in his huge, black, inscrutable eyes and thought, This kid’s a hero, and he’s my patient and all I can do is watch him die. Doc smiled at the boy and felt, somewhere in his head, the boy smile at him.
Susan and the boy left the room, leaving Doc and Bob standing together. Doc knew from Bob’s expression that the boy was not going to any hospital and that he would die soon. It was not really an expression; near as Doc could figure, the Andromedans had no facial expression. When he had first met the Smiths, he never had a clue what they were feeling and was not sure they even had emotions. Now he knew differently.
As he looked in Bob’s face, he saw plenty of emotion. Not saw really — in fact, if you nailed him down about it, he could not have told you just what it was. It was not muscle flexion, a change of skin color nor pupil dilation. Doc knew what Bob was feeling because Doc felt it too. Not felt it really — it was more like hearing it on the radio or seeing it on TV. It was as if Bob’s feelings were being explained to him somehow. Not explained really... well, anyway...
Right now, Bob was feeling such a mix of pride and sorrow for his son that Doc was overwhelmed. He turned away, so Bob wouldn’t see his tears, and cleared his throat.
Bob looked at the back of Doc’s head. “Thank you for all your effort, Doc, and your feelings.”
Doc never did ask Bob exactly what he meant by that.
Bob stood, feeling whatever he felt, alone.
* * *
The boy’s body lay in a simple pine casket. The scent of pine and the flowers all over the Smith’s living room blended to make a very pleasant, outdoorsy smell. Bob and Susan were both dressed in black, which Albert thought, somewhat ashamed, nicely matched their eyes.
Albert wore his best clothes — new jeans, a white collared shirt with thin blue lines and shiny brown dress shoes — his hair in a braid. He somehow felt he should be in buckskins and feathers. He felt a strong urge to say something to the assembled crowd but had no idea what.
Roy wore an old but decent suit that fit him as if he had not gained much weight since he had bought it.
When every living soul in town had arrived and was packed into the Smith’s house and yard, Bob looked at Albert. “Would you like to say something?”
“Uh, actually, yes.”
Suddenly Albert remembered something his grandfather used to say. When Albert was growing up, his grandfather would often be asked to go all over Indian country to hold ceremonies, heal people, be the speaker at graduations, funerals and weddings and be the announcer at pow-wows. Grampa took little Albert everywhere, every time. In the pickup, on the road to whatever occasion it might be, Albert would often ask, “Grampa, what will you say?”
“I have no idea, Alby.” Grampa would smile and reach over to tousle Albert’s hair or rest his large warm hand on his shoulder. “One doesn’t plan what to say at a time like this. I’m only a man, short-lived and ignorant.
“Grampa will just pray, stand up in front of the people, open my heart to Creator and open my mouth. What comes out is not up to me. I trust Creator to give me the right words. I guess I could write down notes and plan something, but that’s arrogance. I’m only a man, no better than anyone else. Best I can do is try and stay humble and remember I’m just a way for Creator to act and speak in the human world.”
Little Albert was always confused by that. If his Grampa was nothing special, then how come Indian people from all over always wanted him to be there, to speak for them? Everywhere they went, the people gave them “gas money” that was a lot more than it ever cost them in gas to get there, as well as blankets, tobacco and other ceremonial payment.
He’d seen Grampa heal the sick and make people walk again. He was pretty sure he’d once seen Grampa bring someone back from the dead. His Grampa was special, all right. He was to Albert, anyway. Maybe Grampa’s thinking he was nothing great was part of what made him so great.
In any case, Albert cleared his throat and crossed his hands over his waist. The place fell absolutely silent.
“When I first came to this town, I felt like a total outsider. I expected to be rejected. I wasn’t here ten minutes before Roy pulled up and helped me move in.”
Across the room Roy pursed his lips and swallowed, a single tear in the corner of one eye.
“I thought he’d take one look at my skin and hate me for being different, an Indian. Then, when he introduced me to the Smiths I immediately thought of them as different — alien. I felt the same toward them I’d feared all of you would feel toward me. Now I’ve come to know them and believe them to be some of the best people I’ve ever met.”
“This little guy here was very brave.” Albert gestured with his chin at the boy’s body. “He knew he’d be leaving this world soon, but he showed no fear. His family is here on a mission to help two worlds come together in peace and understanding. He knew he was a part of something greater than himself, and was willing to let go his own life for a greater good.
“We all must leave this world someday. I’ll be proud if I can face that moment with half the courage and calm this boy did. We all have different beliefs of what happens after this life. My Grampa always taught that when we leave here, we go to a world just like this one but without pollution or hatred or death, where our minds and bodies are whole and well and we are happy and together with those we love.” Albert smiled. “If that’s so, I’ll bet this little guy’s in a library.”
The rest of the evening every single person in the town shook his hand and thanked him, saying that what he had said was very nice. Apparently, Creator had spoken through him clearly.
Bob was the first to comment. “Thank you, Albert. That was very beautiful. You sounded just like your grandfather.”
Albert’s face scrunched up. “What? How would—”
“I’ve known your grandfather for some time. Would you like a tissue?”
Albert’s face was streaked with tears. “Oh, yes, thank you.” Albert accepted the pink tissue from Bob’s grey hand. “I’m a little embarrassed to be the one crying, after all.”
“Not at all. Susan and I appreciate your feelings and, believe me, we grieve. We just do not cry. Our bodies are not designed for it — no tear ducts.”
“So when you grieve,” Albert looked at the boy’s body, “if you can’t cry, what does happen?”
“We die a little.”
Albert went out, alone, to the front porch, and cried.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bob Lovely