Edition 13: Like Bread by Patricia Russo
When magic is a consumable, how much value does the life that controls the magic hold? When the talent matcher receives a promising new child to assess, she hasn’t even assessed him before the offer comes. Will the price be worth paying if she cannot live with what that means for the boy’s existence? SY
My son tells me to stop dwelling on it. Obsessing, is his word. He scowls when he says it, but he means well. Deep down, he is a kind-hearted boy. I don’t want him to worry about me, so I try to remember to smile when he visits.
Havvie, who’s kept the stall next to mine in Underpass Market for nearly twenty years, says much the same. “It’s not your fault. If anyone’s to blame, it’s that kiddie’s father. Selfish bastard.”
“He thought he was doing the right thing.”
“Sure he did.” Havvie sells luck-bringers and fortune-changers; everybody knows who she is, so she doesn’t have to bother with the drum-banging part of being in business. Most of the time she sits cross-legged on top of her stall, chatting with old customers, sipping that vile fruit liqueur old Ave makes in his cellar, letting time slide past smooth and easy. I envy her.
“I could see it in his eyes.”
“Huh.” She takes another sip from her mug. “Man can’t take care of his own kiddies, got no business spawning ’em, ask me. Or that old wreck of a woman, put it on her. She’s the one glommed on to the kiddie like a leech.”
“She isn’t old. No older than us.”
“Missing my point. Her fault. If there’s any fault.”
“If?” That word tastes bitter.
She shrugs. “Lines of chance, lines of destiny. Hard to tell the difference. Trust me on that one. Could be you all just got your feet snagged by a sticky line.”
Lines of chance, lines of destiny. That’s Havvie’s field, the way she makes her living; naturally she’d think that. It would be comforting to believe all of it was inevitable, but I know that it wasn’t.
The dog won’t look at me. Every time I glance at him, he averts his eyes.
The other day, my daughter asked me, “When did you realize you’d made a mistake?”
I wanted to answer her, but the words wouldn’t come. She looked at me, and then looked away. Not like the dog. The dog is disgusted. My daughter looked sad.
I know I’m going to have to speak with her soon. I’ve been putting off the conversation, but I owe it to her.
I’ve never told either of my children what to do with their lives, but it’s been clear ever since my daughter was seven that I’d passed my ability on to her. My talent, if you can call it that, is identifying other people’s talents; such a small thing that it’s almost laughable, but people will pay for this service, and pay pretty decently. I’ve often wondered, though, if I shouldn’t have pursued something else. Trading, farming, weaving, distilling, teaching, law enforcement—anything else. I took the easy road, the one that didn’t require all that much effort. Two years ago, my daughter started training with Master Gret, who lives over where the old southwestern border used to be—her idea, not mine. I wouldn’t have wished my talent on her, but as the saying goes, we cannot help what we are born with. However, I believe we have a choice about what we do with what we have.
The kiddie—Seet, his name is—didn’t.
You could see he thought he was doing the right thing. He bore the expression that settles over you after a long struggle with yourself. Determination overlying despair. He wasn’t happy about it, the kiddie’s father, but he’d come to a decision and he was going to see it through.
At first glance, the kiddie seemed to have no idea what was going on. He was ten, or so the daddy said, but he looked younger. Acted younger, too, his thumb in his mouth half the time, gazing around with wide, awe-struck eyes. First time in Underpass Market, I supposed.
The father had dressed him in his best—clean, neatly darned pants that almost reached his ankles, a blue smock, new sandals. The boy kept plucking at the smock like he wasn’t used to wearing it. Lots of riverside kiddies spent their first few years naked, or near enough, from spring to winter, and these two, daddy and son, were clearly river-side folk.
The father had on a straw hat. When he stopped in front of my stall, he took it off and ran his hand through his hair. He didn’t have his hair tied back, the way most of the riverside men did. It hung loose, brushing his shoulders. He had put a ribbon in the kiddie’s hair, though, a blue one that didn’t quite match the hue of the smock.
“May I help you?”
Make eye contact and smile. Doesn’t matter what you’re selling, you’ve got to draw the customers in, show friendly, soothe them and smooth them.
It was early in the day; only two people had come to my stall before this pair showed up, and both of the previous raggers had wasted my time angling for free advice. I kept smiling.
The man twisted his hat. I remember thinking he was going to ruin it, but I didn’t say anything.
“My son,” he said, giving the kiddie a little shove forward. “Seet, this one is.”
“Seet. Good name.”
“Got eight more at home. And this one—he does things. Well, one thing. Figured it was time to find out what it is.”
“You’ve come to the right place.”
“Best in the business,” Havvie called from her stall, and gave me a grin. It might have been early, but she’d already gotten a mugful or two of that fruit hooch in her.
The man glanced at her, then back to me. “He does it all the time. Used to tell him to quit it, figured he was just playing, but he an’t grown out of it. Folks my way say it could be a, what you call, talent. Don’t see it myself, but then I an’t got a splinter of doing in me. Nor his mam.”
“Most folks don’t.”
“Where’d he get it from, then? If he do got something, I mean.”
“Sometimes it just happens.” I was watching Seet. A little boy with his thumb in his mouth. A little boy tugging at a scratchy blue smock. Something there? I was already reaching out, though the daddy and I hadn’t come to a deal yet. I do that. Can’t really help it.
“Reckon ten’s old enough to work.”
“Lots of people would agree with you,” I said. “So tell me, what is it he does?”
Pinches. Well, I’d heard vaguer. Once in a while, even I can’t find the right word to put on a talent. “Can you get him to show me?”
“Seet.” Daddy nudged the kiddie’s shoulder. “Do the thing, there’s a boy.”
Seet gazed at him.
“Come along, now.”
He took his thumb out of his mouth. I caught a hint, then. A tug on a string, a fleeting tickle. Nothing definitive, nothing solid. Just a flash.
The boy must have noticed something in my expression; suddenly, he looked scared.
“Come on, Seet,” his father said. “Pinch.”
There was no way I could have known. Even in the longest moments of my longest nights, I realize that.
With the index finger and thumb of his right hand, the boy pinched the air.
“Again,” his father said, but there was no need. I’d felt a hot twist, just under my sternum. It amazed me, that a child that young could reach through and around and between matter that way. Talent? Absolutely. But talent for what, I didn’t know.
“Wait,” I said. “Do you feel anything when he does that?”
“Me? Nah.” Daddy looked around, like he was nervous of eavesdroppers. Too late for that; everybody and his little cousin had known his business as soon as he’d stepped into the marketplace. “Couple of the other ones, you know. They said.”
“That it weren’t playing, but doing.”
“By other ones you mean his siblings? Brothers and sisters?”
“Uh-huh.” He twisted his hat again. “And the animals.”
“Animals react to him?”
I could feel Havvie’s eyes on me. Which was a good trick, as she was looking in the other direction. Taking it all in though, taking in every drop.
“Seet,” I said, “what do you think about when you’re pinching?”
He gazed at me—blankly, I would have said, except that I caught a glimmer in his eyes, deep below the surface. He said nothing.
“Can he speak?”
“Oh, yeah.” Daddy gave him another little nudge. “Talk.”
“It’s all right,” I said. I glanced over at Havvie again. I didn’t have the first clue as to what the kiddie’s talent was, only that it was big. I expected her to shake her head at me—give it more time, don’t talk business yet—but she was pretending to be engrossed by an ambling basket-man hawking his wares. “I know enough.”
“So he’s doing?”
“Oh, yes. Definitely.”
The father sighed. It was a sharp sigh, but mostly of relief. “So what is it?”
“I can’t say for sure yet. I need to do a proper assessment.”
“But you can use him?”
“Are we talking lease or sale?”
“Work,” he said. “I’m talking work.”
The boy stuck his thumb back in his mouth and stared intently at his sandals. No chance he didn’t understand everything that was happening. He’d probably known as soon as his father had woken him up that morning and made him put on those unfamiliar clothes.
“Some clients prefer long-term commitments.”
“I an’t following.”
“He has a talent, though I can’t name it with certainty until I do a full evaluation. But let’s assume that his talent matches—a need. That’s what people pay for. Me, I collect a fee from both sides, if I make a match. A percentage, you see? A commission.” That wasn’t strictly true; sometimes I was hired simply to identify a talent. I had a sliding scale for those clients. Daddy, though, was clearly the other sort. And yes, he did think he was doing the right thing. And no, not once did I ask about the child’s mother.
“I gotta pay?”
“If I find him, um, employment. Work.”
“I see.” He looked me straight in the eye. “I get more if I sell, don’t I?”
“It would be a lump sum. Leasing—”
“I know what leasing is. And I know people change their minds.” He took a breath. “Sale. Do I gotta sign something?”
Seet never twitched. Never moved an eyelash.
“You’ll have to leave him with me. For assessment.”
“There’ll be room and board charges.”
He nodded again, glumly.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Figure I am. You can get him work, though?”
“It might take some time, but I believe so.”
“Can’t pay nothing less I get paid first.”
“I understand that.”
This is why Havvie calls him a selfish bastard, but I never thought that. A passel of other kiddies at home, a chance to improve their lives by selling the services of the one with a talent—I saw his position. I couldn’t blame him. He didn’t do anything hundreds of other people haven’t done.
I can’t blame Marcil, either, the client who bought Seet—bought his childhood, anyway. That old wreck of a woman, Havvie calls her. She did look like an old wreck when she first hobbled to my stall, balding, hunched over, walking with the aid of two sticks. She showed up the day after Seet’s father had left him with me. And everything she did, she did out of need.
I hadn’t had a chance to evaluate the boy. He wouldn’t speak much, just gaze at me with his thumb in his mouth. My daughter did a better job when I took him home after the market day was over. She fed him, and talked to him, and played with him a little. She got him to do his pinching, and each time, even if I was in the back of the house, I felt it, a heat, a fullness, in the center of my body.
Marcil dragged herself on her two sticks directly to my stall, not looking left or right, making other shoppers and browsers dodge out of her path. Havvie saw her first, and clicked her tongue to alert me.
“Trouble,” she said.
“Don’t you know that one?”
“Seen her around, yeah.”
“A walking misery,” Havvie said. “Well, if you can call that walking.”
I watched Marcil as she approached. Pain, I thought. And people in pain are often short-tempered, impatient—unhappy. Perhaps Marcil was not the nicest person in the settlement, but Havvie should have been more understanding.
I put on a smile, though with the hunched-over way she moved, Marcil couldn’t see it.
I heard Havvie give a little snort.
“Good morning,” I said. “How may I help you today?”
Bracing her sticks, Marcil straightened up as far as she could. Pain ages people, but I saw at once that she was not very old. Her face was drawn and her eyes sunken, but that was illness, not age.
“You are the talent matcher,” she said. Her voice was steady.
“You have a talent I need.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Let me fetch my list, and we’ll see who is available.”
“It’s a new one. I felt it yesterday.”
“Yes. I felt it last night as well.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Seet was at home; my daughter was watching him. I hadn’t even started testing him. “What did you feel?”
She raised her head a fraction more. Her eyes were wet. “Relief,” she said. “It has been decades since I experienced even a second of relief. I need this. I will pay.”
“Can you tell me more about this relief?”
She stamped her right stick. “It is like bread to me. Fresh, warm bread, after a life of starvation. I have waited years and years for a talent that will help me, and finally one has appeared. I want it. Name your price.”
“It’s much too soon for that. I have not even begun to assess the talent-bearer.” That was my chance, and I let it pass unaware. I could have said I had taken on no new talent. Not that Marcil would have believed me, but she wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. That was the lie I should have told, not the lies I told myself later.
“Imagine this, talent matcher, if you can. You are dying of thirst, and suddenly a sip of water appears in your mouth. Can you understand that?”
I could. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Havvie shaking her head. “I sympathize,” I said, “but—”
“Fuck your sympathy. Give me the talent-bearer.”
“He is a child,” I said. “A little boy. His father says he’s ten, but he may be younger.”
“All the better. He’ll last longer. I’ll buy him.”
And I could have said he wasn’t for sale. I could have said the daddy had merely brought him to me for testing. Instead I said, “You haven’t even met him.”
“I don’t need to. Where is he? Not here. Where have you put him?”
“I am boarding him.”
“Send for him.”
“Hold on, now. We’re going too fast.”
Marcil stamped her stick again, more violently. “A lifetime! I have suffered a lifetime! Send for this child now!”
And I could have said no, that’s not the way I conduct my business, but I said, “There are things we need to discuss first.”
She put both of her sticks in her right hand. From inside her loose gray smock, she pulled out a pouch and tossed it onto my stall. It landed with a heavy clunk.
“Open it,” Marcil said.
I did. Currency. Hard currency, gold and silver pieces from the old days. Enough to buy half the settlement, and every damn item for sale in Underpass Market.
“Fetch the boy,” she said.
It wasn’t the money that persuaded me, but Marcil’s pain. Most of the money would go to the boy’s father, anyway. But the pain was right in front of me, angry and demanding, and very real.
“Would you care to sit down?” I asked. “It will take a little time for me to bring Seet here.” I would allow them to meet, I thought, but nothing more that day—simply let them meet, so that Marcil might calm herself.
“I’ll stand,” she said, and she did. I asked Havvie to keep an eye on my stall and hurried home. My daughter and Seet were outside, playing a game with round stones and squares drawn in the dirt. My daughter narrowed her eyes. She’s very sharp; she knew something was up.
“Hi, Seet. Who’s winning?”
He did not answer.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I just need him to come with me to the marketplace. You understand, Seet? Remember the marketplace? We’re going to go back there now.”
He’d been squatting over the squares and stones. Obediently, he stood up.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “I just want you to do your pinching. Someone wants to see it. All right?”
“It’s too soon,” my daughter said.
“I’ll bring him back. We’ll all have lunch together, yeah?”
My daughter looked doubtful, but she touched Seet on the shoulder, and whispered something in his ear. Seet walked over to me and took my hand.
I intended to bring him back. I thought Marcil would understand that the boy was not yet ready for market; it had been only a day since he’d been taken from everything he’d known. And besides, I still had to assess him.
Seet didn’t speak. His hand was dry and cold.
As soon as we entered the marketplace, he hunched over, as if shielding himself from invisible blows.
I knew then, I think, that I was about to make a terrible mistake. Or rather, that I had already made it. But I put a barrier between myself and that knowledge.
Marcil was standing where I’d left her, leaning on her two sticks. Havvie waved, and held up the pouch; of course she had snagged it for safekeeping. When Marcil saw Havvie wave, she crutched herself around. Seet stopped dead.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said.
“Is that him?”
“Marcil, I’d like to introduce you to Seet. Seet, this is Marcil.”
“Do it,” Marcil ordered. “Do it now!”
Seet looked at me. His dark eyes showed anguish. “I don’t like it,” he whispered.
“What?” I turned him around, so that he wasn’t facing Marcil and crouched next to him. “Your daddy didn’t say that. He said you did it all the time.”
“I do it but I don’t like it.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because everybody tells me to.”
“Does it hurt you?”
Did he lie? It’s hard to say. There are so many different kinds of hurt.
Marcil shouted, “Bring him here!”
“Tell me what you don’t like.”
“I hate it,” Seet said, and started to cry. Then he shoved me aside, pointed his hand at Marcil, and pinched. And pinched again. And again.
Marcil gasped. She dropped her left stick and pressed her palm to her abdomen. “More,” she said. “More.”
“No, Seet,” I said. “Wait.”
Havvie called, “Marcil, keep a lid on it.”
I put my arm around Seet’s shoulders. “Don’t cry. Your talent is helping this woman. I don’t know how. But look at her. She feels better. This is a good thing, isn’t it?”
He was silent.
I was full of doubt, but because Marcil’s relief was obvious, I nudged the feeling away. Like bread, she’d said. Like water. Maybe the boy was just scared, I thought. Oh, the pull to ease pain is so strong; I let myself think that Seet was being shy. “You know why your daddy brought you here, right?”
“Yes. And this is work. She will pay a lot.”
“All right,” he said.
It wasn’t all right. Not with that expression in his eyes. It wasn’t shyness; it was suffering. “Seet, do you want to go home? To your daddy?”
“I can’t,” he whispered. He raised his arm again.
“No,” I said. “Wait.” He was a little boy, and he was doing what his daddy said he had to, and it was hurting him.
And I understood this too late.
Marcil threw back her head, and laughed.
I see them every now and then, in the settlement, even in Underpass Market. Marcil leads him around on a leash. He is clean, and his clothes are neat. He appears well-nourished. She does not use her sticks any longer, and her hair is growing back. She smiles. He never does. He looks like a tiny, withered old man.
Marcil signed the minor-sale contract without a quibble. Seet’s father did not object to the percentage I took. When he came, he held the pouch and shook his head in disbelief. I asked him if he wanted to go visit Seet, meet Marcil, but he shook his head again.
“For fuck’s sake, have a drink,” Havvie calls from her stall. She holds up a jug of that vile fruit hooch. “You’re brooding again.”
“I made a mistake. One that can’t be fixed.”
“You did business. That’s what we do.”
“You’ve seen the kiddie. He’s wretched.”
Havvie rolls her eyes. “I really wish you would stop torturing yourself.”
I wish Marcil would stop torturing Seet, but that will never happen. She does what she does out of need.
As Marcil was signing the contract, I thought, the kiddie will get over it, he will see he is helping, he will come to appreciate aiding a person in pain, he will be all right. Such a lie I told myself. I’m ashamed I could pretend to believe it even for a moment.
The dog won’t look at me. Animals know.
Havvie whistles to get my attention.
“I don’t want a drink.”
“You want a slap in the face, is what you want. What could you have done differently?”
“So many things.” It was the pain that swayed me. I should have been more aware. I cannot blame sticky lines of destiny.
“What’s done is done,” Havvie says. “It’s over.”
“It’s not over for the kiddie.”
“Let it go.”
It doesn’t balance, one person’s relief against another person’s suffering.
“I’m going to take a walk,” I say.
“In the middle of the day?”
“I need to think.”
“I’ll keep an eye on your stall.”
“Don’t bother.” I walk away without locking up. It’s time. I’m going home.
Havvie shouts after me, but I keep walking. The dog will never look at me again, but I will tell my daughter everything, about the pull of pain, about the lies, spoken and unspoken. She needs to know, since she is following my path. I hope she understands; I hope she won’t try to make me feel better.
I want no bread. Not until the day when Seet finds his own, if that is even possible.
My daughter looks up as I enter. “Are you ready, then?” she asks, softly.
The dog slinks out of the room. I wipe my eyes, and nod.
You can find more of Patricia’s shorts at www.shiny-thing.com and her novella, Hearts Starve, at http://eggplantproductions.com/e-books/hearts-starve-by-patricia-russo/