First off: you can read the first installment below!
Second: you can get the PDF version of installment one right now, and I will add EPUB and MOBI files there in the next couple days — I have the story for you, at least, on my self-imposed deadline of today Friday the 12th. Barely. The ebook formats are delayed and will appear, assuming nothing else goes awry, by Sunday the 14th, through the link above. Long story short, a death on my wife’s side of the family threw the household into a bit of chaos but I’m hoping I’ll be able to steal the moments to get the ebook out.
For now, enjoy the PDF if you grabbed it (SERIOUSLY, GO GET IT!), check back here or see me on Twitter @Tao23 because I’ll tweet about the ebook bunches, I promise!
Next installment will be out in about 3 weeks. Unless a meteor hits me or something. Stay tuned.
Here’s the story:
Caleb woke with the first throaty crowings of the banty shantytown roosters and did not look out the lone age-scoured plexi window of his family’s one-room hovel. He rolled out of his sleeping pallet on automatic; he was washing his face with a threadbare rag from a tin bucket of tepid water before he was even aware of what he was doing. It was the everyday he had known for five years, half his life: the roosters crow: get up, get ready to go to work.
He did not look out the window because he knew too well what was outside: a gray scrum of gawky shacks a mile wide hanging off the ass of Houston, a scrum of scavenged sheet metal and cardboard and wood and plastic all jury-rigged together with zip ties and twine and knotted plastic bags discarded from richer peoples’ shopping, the vast scrum all in creeping motion, slowly changing like a forest harried by pine bark beetles and struggling not to die, decaying and regrowing and subtly shifting as the seasons passed away. The people who lived in it only ever died or disappeared – nobody escaped to make good, not that Caleb knew of.
Outside, there was also the faintest glow of the yet-unrisen Texas sun, harbinger of a bright day he’d see little of. When it came the dawn would be tinged yellowy-gray and sick with smog, same as every other day except when storms came, when it would be black and wet instead.
As always, dad had risen first and was already gone. His work gang gathered its members in darkness every day there was no rain coming, or only a little. Dad would come back home in fourteen or fifteen hours, the dry gray clay of brickmaking crumbling and cracking away from his arms and legs a little at a time, all night long while he ate and later slept, flakes and crumbs falling away from his skin like ashes. In the new day mom would shake it out of the pallet of old blankets heaped on dry-grass-stuffed plastic bags she and dad slept on, and sweep it off the packed-dirt floor and out the door.
Also as always, dad had dug the ancient cast iron dutch oven, – one of two they owned – from the ashes of yesterday’s fire. Overnight with the dying heat the rice – broken rice, scrap rice thick with starchy powder, the cheapest – had cooked, growing soft and sticky. Caleb looked into the pot – it was older than mom and dad, so old the lid was stamped “USA” – and remembered the dream he had woken from, a dream that came to him again and again and had been with him as long as he had been working, almost as long as he could remember: the people as broken grains of rice, the shantytown a cookpot, the people hard and strong slowly wilting, softening, melting into their neighbors, glommed together protesting and smiling and gossiping and sullen all at once, gabbling, and then the lid lifting and the light of the morning, the worn wooden spoon descending, the silent rice clumping, clinging, impotently quivering, and then the sun-browned lips, the red tongue, the white teeth.
Caleb lifted the first bite of rice to his mouth with a familiar worn wooden spoon, a spoon that was also the first toy he remembered. He had waved it free and wild like a flag, toddling unsteady across the shack’s single room and out into the street, showing it proudly to the blurry wash of passing faces. The rice was gummy – water was too precious to waste washing rice, and too much of the rice was tiny bits and dust to waste so much of the food by washing it away. Every calorie was precious. It was flavored with a stingy spoonful of watery margarine so cheap it wasn’t colored yellow but was industrial gray, a fat pinch of gritty Galveston salt, and a shake of chili flakes. They didn’t have much else to make rice taste like something. Mom grew the chili pepper plants against the parts of the shanty walls that were wood, where the sun wouldn’t scorch them to death like it would against metal, and hung the ripe peppers on strings from the ceiling to dry as she harvested. Dad had eaten his half of the rice already; half of what was remained was for mom.
Caleb wolfed his quarter of the rice quickly and hurried into the dark, his mother still sleeping, snoring softly. She stayed up the latest of them all, tending the fire and preparing the pot of rice to cook while all slept. Her work was in the home. She cleaned the shack and repaired the small gaps and breaks that formed in its walls and roof daily as it flexed in rain and heat and the hard dry wind that blew out of the southwest. She built up the little fire they cooked on from sticks and hunks of charcoal, the only fuel they could afford. She carried water from the Wal-Star pay pump several streets away in heavy five gallon jugs. It cost a silver dime for a gallon; that added up fast against the forty or fifty silver dollars a week the family earned when the weather was good. She also mended and tinkered broken household things until they could be used again, for herself and her family and for the neighbors who paid a few pennies for the service, or more often traded eggs or vegetables or precious spice or a bit of chicken meat or dried fish to liven up the dinner beans.
Caleb walked through the maze of alleys and joined the steady trickle of other boys and girls growing from the endless shanties. A few were as young as five, a few were in their early teens, most were in-between. As he walked, more and more children joined the trickle and it became a plodding slow-motion cataract of baggy-eyed youth heading into Houston proper, flowing without play but dogged with destination. Only murmurs and mutters passed between them, and the gravelly coughs of the ones unlucky enough to work in paper mills and asbestos plants and such. Reluctantly, they came; inevitably they would work because a new day had come. With new days came new troubles and new needs, and every penny counted in a working family.
The manufacturing district was marked by rusty chain link fence, more patchwork than original metal. The fence was a long, long line like a breakwater on an ugly and undesirable shore, broken only by alleys and roads. The shantytown washed up against the fenceline, a tide of litter and dung and the poorest cardboard shelters and brave eruptions of weeds from cracked black asphalt and hard-packed red dirt. The children streamed in through the gates, sweating. The sun was barely showing and already the air smelled like the breath of an oven. A clot of five policemen – there were no policewomen in the Republic as far as Caleb had ever seen, and no shantytown scrub would ever dare ask a policeman why or even speak to one at all on purpose – lounged against their motor scooters in the shade cast by the corners of buildings. They were low-ranking, gawky, pimple-faced. Police work, like most careers in Texas, started in unpaid mid-teen apprenticeship; higher education was looked upon with distrust; the only university in the state was in Dallas where the Republic Bureau of Intelligence could keep an eye on the students.
The sight of the police brought a surge of envy, blunted with familiarity, to Caleb’s heart. His family could never afford for him to spend five years in unpaid apprenticeship. He’d never be a skilled worker of any kind, and so he’d never be paid well enough to live in an actual apartment, not even an old pre-war one with no running water, instead of a shanty.
The cops’ tin “Lone Stars” gleamed dully over their hearts, scuffed and eroded with many rough polishings; they’d trade them in for prettier metals if they were promoted. The stars were handed down and handed down until the metal grew too thin to hold its shape. The cops ate spicy street food from little newspaper baskets and bamboo skewers (the aromas made Caleb’s mouth water wistfully), and cracked jokes about monkeys and dogs, purposefully loud. The children were wise; none rose to the bait but walked on, eyes carefully on the road, their flow through the gate separating into rivulets trickling into dozens of factories and workhouses.
Caleb’s feet found their own destination while he thought about his dream of rice, and of the doll he kept hidden in the hollow of a tree not far outside the workhouse he labored in. His feet, without conscious thought, took him inside. The broad production floor was crammed with tight rows of sewing machines, bins of materials already beside them, empty bins on the other side waiting for finished pieces. Overhead, gap-toothed rows of ancient ceiling fans pushed listlessly at the heavy humid air. Thin ranks of fluorescent tubes flickered and hummed weakly, casting thin shadows below. A pair of loudspeakers, caked with dust and bound to aluminum rafters with faded red cord, mumbled out the scratchy AM voice of Lone Star Radio; today the fourth anonymous voice of Bowie Q. Public railed against the injustice of the tariffs that Canada, the United States, and the Confederacy levied against Texan goods. The plastic outrage and threadbare subject slipped through Caleb’s ears and mind without leaving a trace. It was more white noise in a room already brimming with it.
Caleb sat on the hard wooden stool at his machine, number sixty-four, and began work.
The pieces he worked with were a slightly different shape and color than the day before, and a tiny smile touched his lips for a second – there would be something new to add to the doll. He’d been working on it three seasons and it was nearly complete.
He began sewing and gluing the shoes he was paid a Lonestar dime per hour to make, his hands moving quickly. The small changes to the materials represented a new run of a new style of sneaker, and that was no hindrance to Caleb; the steps of assembly all remained the same. Quickly, a succession of left Euro size 41 shoes emerged from the automatic movements of his fingers. They emerged steadily without pause, because there would be no lunch before the bin was full and heaped up above the lip. After lunch, twenty minutes, there would be a new empty bin to fill before he would be allowed to leave for the day. When he had started there had been a lot of hungry days and late walks home; now it was rare.
As happened sometimes, he moved his hand slightly the wrong direction and the machine drove a line of stitches into his thumb. The bin was almost full and his stomach growled its urgency; with his teeth he ripped the stitches out of his flesh from the knuckle to the web and kept working, dabbing his blood off on the bits of shoe that would be hidden, in the middle of stitched layers of sole and the inside of pieces of upper, until the line of puncture wounds clotted. The pain meant little to him; it was a distraction to be ignored. He finished the bin and called out to one of the half-dozen prowling overseers, who peered into the bin, shook it to settle the contents, and nodded silently.
Caleb left his machine and queued to take a dented metal plate from one of the tall stacks inside the door of the tiny workhouse canteen. A snaggletooth old cook dropped a “corn flatbread” (a thick masa tortilla, but it was best not to say foreign (especially Spanish!) words where anyone could hear unless you wanted police snooping around) and a scoop of stewed beans on it as he passed without pausing. There was no meat in the beans, not even a little fatback or bacon for flavor – seamsters didn’t rate it.
At the opposite side he joined the crowd of kids shuffling past a cluster of water buckets. When his turn came he snatched up the nearest dipper and gulped the two measures of water allowed. A glowering overseer, a tall thin woman hardly out of her teens herself, watched the children carefully with long bamboo switch in hand, ready to enforce the two-dipper rule with swift violence.
Once past, the child workers streamed out to the far side of a bare earth courtyard where they clustered in the thin shade of a long stand of tall half-brown reeds growing through the chain link fence. There they talked a little amongst themselves as they ate, hunched toward one another and voices low, but Caleb didn’t join them.
Instead he slipped off to the side and squeezed through a narrow gap in the corner of the fence, a gap hidden by a spray of flowering shrubs. Surely he’d been seen slipping through the gap many times over the months, but there was no reason for any of the other kids to tell the overseers. The blooms were brilliant as butterflies and nodded as Caleb made himself thinner and slipped through the branches that held them up to the sun. The air smelled like the honey street food vendors drizzled on hot fried dough, a treat he bought himself when pay was meted out at the end of the week – if he hadn’t been docked.
Beyond the gap was a tiny winding path, the brush joining just over his bowed head. As he walked he folded the beans up in the flatbread and ate the morsel quickly. The path led him to a place where animals came to drink; often he saw their prints in the mud among the trash that lined the shore of the unkempt little canal. Beside the drinking place was an old twisted tree with heavy branches that sagged down at their farthest ends to touch the water. Caleb set his empty lunch plate down on a patch of moss and climbed up the branches like a spiral stair, looping around the heavy, stunted trunk that must once have been broken almost completely in two, but recovered bent double and crossing itself and finally grown into itself like a garlic knot from a street vendor. When Caleb had first seen it, he’d wondered how many lifetimes it had taken for that to happen and heal into what looked like natural sculpture.
Near the top of the trunk knot maybe five yards off the ground, folded into a hollow that slanted upward, was the doll.
He had built the doll out of bits and pieces of waste from his station, first building balls that became the cores of the chest and abdomen and head, joining them together and filling and refining their shapes with patient deft fingers until they formed a recognizably human form nearly four feet tall. Over weeks and months the arms and legs and hands and feet had formed in his hands. Now it was nearly complete, the face human and the lips smiling. He was finishing the wings. After that would be the last touch on the feet, and it would be ready.
From the single pocket of his thin tatter-hemmed cotton pants he drew out a small wadded mass of wrong-color-wrong-size swooshes that had been in his materials bin in the morning, forgotten leftovers from the last run. He smoothed them out quickly with nimble, scarred fingers and laid them along a rough-barked branch at his side; with a heavy curved shoe-soling needle and thread he kept skewered through the cloth of his waistband under his rope belt, he attached them along the edges of the doll’s left wing like feathers; they matched the size of swoosh-feathers already on the other wing, but blue to the red he sewed on now. The doll was a riot of color. It was a secret rainbow, a bold kaleidoscope in a life of dim spaces and dirt and clay and worn-down everything and brown and black and gray. He worked feverishly until he heard the chime of the three minute warning that ended lunch. He shoved the doll into the hollow, bent it in half and pushed hard to secure it up deep in the ancient trunk away from rain and any unlikely eye that might pass. The doll was tough. Unlike his work, which he did haste-over-quality to the orders of his bosses, he was sewing the doll to last. After it was secure, he ran down the branches with the same swift familiarity that moved his fingers at the sewing machine. He snatched the plate up from the moss and hurried inside to fill the afternoon bin.
As he walked across the work floor there was weeping; he heard it but did not register it. It was as regular an occurrence as the rising and setting of the sun. The ones crying were the three or four littlest ones who had not filled the first bin and so had not been fed. The slowest of them showed long red welts on his hands and cheeks, and he moved gingerly at his chattering machine – more welts unseen under gray rice-sack shirt, across the shoulderblades and across the tops of thin shoulders from the tough, flexible bamboo switches the overseers carried. They carried them pushed through their belts and sashes, the switches hanging like swords.
Though it had been some time since Caleb had felt them, still there were dark lines on the skin of his back that would be years fading, if they ever did. When he bathed, his mother would touch them lightly with her fingers, fingers rough and chip-nailed with cleaning and cooking and mending and hauling water and charcoal, fingers gentle and comforting despite their rough surface. And she would make a small sound of disquiet, the sound of stifled wishes for a better life, wishes she had spoken aloud when he was very young, before he had to go to work – the sound of wishes stillborn and buried like the unlucky siblings she had brought forth before and after him.
And through the automatic movements of Caleb’s hands and the chattering of the sewing machine and the filling of the bin beside him, the workday ended and left him free to go home to his shack, to his single room and the evening meal, rice with beans and onions and maybe even a few scraps of meat. The morning meal was just fuel, nothing more, but if there was anything to make food taste good in the house it would be in the dinner pot. He walked home in the dying last light of the sun, to half-fill his belly (there could never be enough food, could there?) and fall asleep as quickly as he could. He would need his strength for work tomorrow, same as every day but Sunday.
As the days passed, sleep-eat-work-eat-sleep-eat-work-eat-sleep, a weird, unfamiliar feeling grew in him. He couldn’t figure out what it was – he wondered if he was coming down with some illness like the kids who worked the chemical and asbestos plants always were. He felt restless. Almost lightheaded. As the doll neared completion, as it grew nearer to looking right, the feeling grew bigger and bigger. Distracted, he made more mistakes at the sewing machine; twice he was beaten with the overseers’ slender rods and the overseers went away grumbling at how little he flinched and yelped when they lashed him even though they flailed hard enough to leave blood oozing through his thin shirt.
He wondered what the strange feeling was and it took many days for an answer to come to him. It came as he walked to work yet another morning. The moment it hit him he threw back his head and laughed out loud, still walking – the overseers’ rods found tardies quickly – and the sound of it startled him and he laughed louder, louder, until he was struggling to put one foot in front of the other and tears ran down his cheeks and dripped off his chin to make small dark stars on the parched and dusty pavement, until his ribs hurt and he coughed and choked red in the face and bright sparks floated in his vision and finally the laughter let up and he managed to straighten his steps and walk normally again, breathing hard, still chuckling, the corners of his mouth and his cheeks aching a weird small deep ache because he was smiling and he wasn’t used to smiling. It was a smile that felt like it wanted to stick around and stay for a while, not the half-second little smile he had for his mother or father before bedtime or when new material for the doll fell into his hands, but a broad one that showed teeth. A bold smile.
The weird feeling was hope. A feeling he hadn’t dared feel since mother stopped saying her wishes for a better home and for the money to send him to school out loud, a feeling part of him mistrusted and rejected – when the disappointment comes, it will hurt all the more, you fool, his mind said to him – and part of him wanted to embrace, to welcome home, to keep forever, to hide in a hole in a great old hidden tree, this strange secret hope.
As the workhouse door came into sight he forced his mouth to stop smiling; little made the overseers more suspicious than signs of happiness. Before he had realized what the feeling was, the uncertainty had made him clumsy, unsure; now that he knew, it revitalized him and his hands were fast and sure and the bin beside him seemed to fill itself with shoes. Even the oppressive heat couldn’t flatten him, and he remembered to hide his smile when the overseers were near. When lunchtime came near on the day he knew the doll would finally be done and right he found two shoe soles as if by design, at the bottom of his materials bin, unlikely refugees from a previous worker’s batch.
Since each worker made only half of a pair of shoes over and over, the soles were both for one side, both lefts, but they were small soles that suited the size of his doll: womens’ size six. They were soft and flexible and smooth, scored with the wavy razor slits of dock shoes. Agile, tough soles. Mottled like granite, white and black granules pressed together smooth. Caleb tucked them inside the waistband of his pants where they’d be hidden, rose, and queued for his beans and flatbread.
After he slipped through the break in the fence he skipped down the trail to his tree. His breath came deep and free, his hands swung free and high at his sides, his toothy grin spread wild and free like blooming flowers across his face. He hadn’t skipped since…
…since he was five years old, coming home from his first day of work, near midnight with the moon peering tarnished through low clouds yellowed by the belches of third-shift factories, hands bloody and ragged with punctures from the sewing machine’s needle, empty stomach growling and cowering against his backbone like a whipped animal, a maze of welts blazed by the overseers’ bamboo rods hot under his shirt and down his arms, the blood oozing from the welts’ swollen ridges, the rough cotton of his clothing clinging to the blood. Halfway home, ashamed at his failure, afraid to face mom and dad with the evidence of his shame seeping through his shirt, he’d tried skipping in bravado to recapture what he’d had just the day before when he played free in the street with his wooden spoon, drawing the outlines of mighty kingdoms and digging the moats of impregnable castles. He’d skipped, a dozen steps each multiplying the awkward artificiality of the last, and stopped, his cheeks burning with a blush of embarrassment for himself.
He hadn’t skipped since. But today on his way to finish his project of many months and many furtively stolen shoe scraps, skipping felt natural, real, right.
So he skipped. Free. Smiling. He paused to dance a little jig on the bank of the canal, stomping down the bits of trash, adding his footprints to the prints of the wild animals. And then he went up the ancient staircase of branches, not climbing, but leaping like a young goat.
In the tree he drew out the doll and sat it in the hollow like a child, feet protruding. It sat as his mother had liked to sit him on a low stone wall when he was very small, to remove his flip-flops and brush dirt and tiny stones from his little feet with her quietly loving fingers. Caleb worked quickly, attaching the soles carefully with stitches of strong cord. Without a machine it was difficult work to drive the big needle through the tough material; it stung even his thick working calluses and he wished for a thimble. He could feel the eye end of the needle sliding through the layers of skin like tiny cold beestings, and he had to give the needle a little tug to free it from his finger when it was time to take another stitch.
As he finished the first sole he became aware that the warning chime had already sounded, maybe a minute before. Now he hesitated: he’d have to finish tomorrow. He’d have to run to make it inside in time, to avoid a beating with those bamboo switches in the merciless hands of the overseers. Half a lifetimeas a dutiful worker pulled at him: Hurry! Can’t be late!
The precious seconds slipped by. Still he sat frozen before the one-soled doll. So close. So close!
He narrowed his eyes and bent his head back down and began to attach the second sole. It would be worth the beating to see it finished. He’d go to it after work and take it home to his sleeping pallet, his colorful companion in his dark home and dull gray life, like the brother he’d always wished for, but one not burnt and buried without a marker in a potters’ field.
Caleb stitched as quickly as he could. The line of stitches grew steadily from his stinging fingers, from high in the instep where a knot drawn in tight would be safe from wear and then forward and around the toe, back down the other side and around the heel…
…and from the footpath came the dry rattle of disturbed brush, faint but slowly growing, growing steadily nearer. Someone was walking – but with caution, it sounded like – down his path!
He worked faster, driving the last few stitches in hard, the needle sinking deeper, all the way through his calluses into raw flesh, hornet stings now, drawing blood that wicked into the thread and was sucked into the doll’s sole as he raced to finish before he was found. Hide the doll and move away, idiot! his self-preservation cried, but he couldn’t. He was so close. He’d worked so hard. It had to be done. Now. Now! He forced the needle to move even faster, stabbing deeper into his flesh, silver shock and electric pain, his blood now greasing his palm and pattering tiny drops from his fingertips like rain to the thickness of all the autumns of dead leaves on the earth below.
The rustling was very close now. Loud. And then it stopped and Caleb heard the suck of mud and wet footsteps.
“See? He was here. Brat was stomping in the garbage. Filthy,” a voice said. A young woman’s voice, sweet in its notes and sour with callous anger, a bright clarinet played by a wrathful sonofabitch. He recognized the voice – one of the overseers, yes. They had seen machine number sixty-four standing empty and had asked who had seen him. And if nobody had reason to tell where he had been going all these weeks and months, also nobody had reason not to tell if they were asked. Nobody in the workhouse had a reason to protect him.
Fingers clamped on the needle so hard against the slick blood they were white at their tips, he drove the final stitch, looped the last knot and bit the thread through. He picked up the doll to stuff it into the safety of the hollow…
…and it leapt out of his hands to the branch above, its – his, Caleb’s new bright brother – wings fluttering more colorful than any bird in the world, the thin rays of sun that penetrated the thick canopy of the great ancient tree glistening from the reds and blues and yellows and oranges and pinks and greens and indigos of the doll’s feathers and skin in a convocation of garish rainbows. The doll looked down at Caleb, its eyes deep wells of subtle, fertile green light, a rich mossy glow. Caleb had never stitched green there. And the doll winked.
“What are you?” Caleb whispered.
“Who. Who am I,” the doll said, eyes narrowing, glaring out cool contempt like the cops on the corner Caleb passed in the mornings.
“Hear? Up in the tree,” a second voice said from the side of the canal below. A second overseer. The angry feet squelched through the mud. Caleb could feel the pressure of their eyes seeking him, like dark rays seeking a path through the leaves from below as the sun’s rays found a path from above.
“I am Hope and Striving, blessing and curse. I am the Jewel from the Mud. Call me Jewel, Broken Rice Boy,” the doll whispered to him, and it launched itself into the sky. Its wings beat the leaves and twigs aside and Jewel surged out into the open air and into the bright sun, his wingspan spread wide and wild and free like a grin against the blue sky. Jewel laughed as he flew out over the canal and workhouses and shanties, higher, higher, reaching for the small cotton puffs of clouds far above.
“There! Playing with birds, stupid brat!”
A thrown bottle whistled sharp and struck him between the shoulder blades and pitched him, stunned, down into the leaves and mud he had bled onto. The ages-thick carpet of leaves cushioned his fall enough to spare him broken bones, but his vision blurred and doubled with pain and shock.
The overseers dragged him by his hair and his bleeding hand, back through the mud of the trail, through the dusty courtyard and up the cracked brick steps, through the little empty kitchen and into the workroom. There they beat him with their bamboo switches as he cowered on the floor. Two hundred and forty-nine sewing machines chattered without interruption and four hundred and ninety-eight eyes followed the switches as they rose and fell and the workers’ hands moved mechanically assembling sneakers and tossing them into their waiting bins. The overseers beat him until he curled into a ball like a fetus and wept.
Eventually the switches stopped coming and one of the overseers seized him and hauled him up by an earlobe so hard it tore with a new bright shock of pain. She forced him to machine number sixty four and threw him into his chair, and another overseer wheeled a second tub of sneaker parts beside the first for him to finish before he left, and they left him sniffling, blood dripping from his torn ear onto his shoulder, his hands moving mechanically to stitch the sneakers as fast as he could – blotting the blood from the fingers his sewing needle had wounded in the tree against the places it wouldn’t be seen, on the inside of uppers and the interior layers of soles – so he could escape. They left him hopeless because his hope had flown away into the sky. His secret rainbow, his kaleidoscope, his color in a world of gray, the brother he had made with his own hands, was gone.
END OF INSTALLMENT 1