Mom gave my cousin, Xavi, and me a coin as we entered the weekly town market. The disk, one of those little steel disks worth five hundred dollars, could buy a few pieces of candy to share between the two of us. Even though she gave to coin to both of us, she passed it to Xavi and not to me. Xavi took the coin, put it in her pocket and bolted away into the crowd, and shouted back at me, “I’m the hare.” That left me as the hound. I raced after her to get my share of the candy bought with that coin in her pocket. We ran through the market, scooting through the stalls and between the merchants’ vehicles. Born three months apart, Xavi and I had our fifth birthday a few months before. Xavi disappeared around the corner of a booth full of fabric, and I followed not far behind. I abruptly stopped when I came around the corner. The fabric merchant, a mountain of woman bedecked with the elaborate woven cloth the people on the river make, stood in front of Xavi and blocked our way. I knew that merchant. She enforced childhood decorum in the market.
The merchant scolded Xavi and me. “Slower…. You’re going to set things wobloose. Stop running.” The smells of lavender and sweat from the woman wafted across space between me and her. I crinkled my nose.
“What a pretty little browling, you are,” the woman said with a forced smile at Xavi. “Your skin shines nice and doughy.” Even at that age, I knew “browling” and “doughy” as insults used to describe Neanderthals.
Xavi let her wavy, red, hair hang down below her shoulders. She had bright blue eyes. Her skin, much lighter than the generic brown of most people in Aoustin, sunburned quickly. She wore the billowing, loose, cotton shirt that kids our age wore and a pair of bright green cotton shorts that accentuated the color of her red hair.
“Thank-you, ma’am,” Xavi replied awkwardly. If she realized the meanness of the woman’s words, she did not show it.
“What do they yond you, girl?” the merchant asked.
Xavi sucked in a deep breath and replied, “HAH-vee. X… A… V… I…” The merchant looked confused and did not understand how “X… A… V… I…” sounded like “HAH-vee.” Xavi pointed to me and said, “We are twins, so.” Xavi did not make this up herself. My father nicknamed the two of us “the twins” and often referred to us in that way. Xavi and I, being so close in age, had indeed grown up together like fraternal twins. We had been a daily part of each other’s lives. The merchant looked at me, and I gave her a perfunctory, polite, smile. The woman then looked back at Xavi. Xavi complexion looked very different from my olive skin, dirty-brown eyes, and straight black hair.
“Well…, is such so?” the woman said. She looked at me. “And you, little boy? What’s your name?”
“Pierrot Wa Dignac,” I answered loud with a prideful emphasis on the Dignac. I imagined then that the Dignac family name evoked more awe than it in actuality did.
I poked Xavi with my elbow.
“I thank-you, ma’am,” Xavi said. Xavi backed away from the woman and then affected a slow, loping, walk around the corner and away from the fabric booth. Once out of sight of the woman, Xavi darted back into the crowd. I did not even fake obedience. After Xavi disappeared, I turned and ran after.
“Too many youngs,” the woman complained to the other merchants around her as I sped away. She abandoned her effected friendliness to Xavi and I. “I survived the drought. Can I survive these feral youngs? How so bad it will be when they’re grown.”
That woman, maybe even without knowing, predicted the chaos my generation wrought from our town, our world, seventeen years later.
Xavi’s differences from me came through her primarily Neanderthal father’s family. Those genes gave her a prominent brow ridge, and she allowed her rusty red eyebrows to highlight and accentuate it. Like most Neanderthal girls, she didn’t grow tall but wide and robust. She mixed the body and limb proportion of both sapiens and neanderthalensis without looking like either. Her chin receded more than a pure sapiens but less than most Neanderthals. Hair did not cover her like the neanderthalensis, but after puberty, she did grow hair on her chest. And her stomach. And her lower back.
I kissed Xavi once before she moved away. We saw that Etsitty boy and a girl wrapped around each out on the Etsitty’s boat at the docks. Xavi and I stood there and watched, intrigued, for several minutes while the older boy and girl wiggled and writhed intertwined with their mouths and hands all over each other. They seemed to enjoy their entanglement and spit sharing. I wanted some of that. Xavi and I agreed to experiment with kissing and see if we could work up the same sort of joy between the two of us. We did our best but did not fall into a state anywhere close to enthusiasm. In fact, I describe the result of the kissing research as disappointing. We must not have done something right due to the general lack of pleasure the act created either for Xavi or me. In fact, Xavi fussed at me when I tried to get our legs entangled, and I got mud from my feet all over her legs. Our noses crammed into one another and I tasted the pecans Xavi had eaten. I still have the smell of pecans flash in my memory when I see a couple kissing.
Overall, Xavi and I got along well. I did get in trouble for something I told her. It started when Xavi and I played along Broadway, close to her parent’s house. We watched people as we wasted the day. “When I grow up, I want to move to New York City,” Xavi told me. “They have a Broadway there, too.” I had one hand on a light pole and swung back and forth. She could not go to New York City. I knew that. I practiced self-control and continued to fake distraction. I turn around the light pole two more times before I corrected her.
Kev, my father, owned many books. Kev had a whole amazing shelf full of them. Those creaky old books crackled when I open them, and I loved the smell of the old paper. His books had many strange words in them, and I found them hard to read when very young. I still loved them and flipped through their pages for hours. I scanned his books the best I could. I loved the ones with many pictures and maps. Most of his books had been written on Earth, and I imagined myself in that strange, magical, world. And I knew from Kev’s books that Xavi could not get to New York City.
“New York City is not in Terra Beata,” I announced to her. “It is in Earth, and such is far-far-far away. To get there, you go up in the sky and a long-long-long-long way in with the Space.”
“I’ll fly into the air and walk until I get there,” she said defiantly. “Even if it takes all day.”
I shook my head. “You can’t. It takes five hundred years. Such’s older than our parents and our grandparents.”
“So,” she said, standing tall and proud with a loud voice. “I’ll be first. I can walk a long way. I’ll show everyone how.”
“Such’s stupid, buggoybee. You need a space ship. The Space is like the ocean. You’d drown if you try to walk.” I swung by one hand one more time around the light pole. I let go and sat next to her. “The Earth sun moves. It’s not still like our sun. And once a day the Earth sun is nowhere. They yond such night. Earth sun hides once a day…,” I paused for dramatic effect. “And people on Earth can see other suns in the sky when the Earth sun is hiding.”
“Such’s stupid. How can anyone see anything without the sun?” Xavi asked.
“Don’t you listen, buggoybee? Other suns are in the sky. They light up everything.” I learned that if I spoke authoritatively, Xavi believed me. “And there are no Neanderthals in Earth.”
She got upset. “Not true! Neanderthals come out from Earth.”
“No. Your wrong. Neanderthals come out from eggs,” I told her. “They took people eggs and changed them to be Neanderthal eggs.”
“I didn’t come out from an egg,” Xavi screamed at me. “I came out from my mommy,” she exclaimed even louder.
“Not just Neanderthals. Animals come out from eggs, too.”
“I came out from no egg!”
“Such’s how they brought Neanderthals here,” I said. “As eggs. And raccoons don’t talk on Earth. They changed some eggs and made them talk.”
Xavi’s eyes begin tearing. “You lie. I came not out from an egg! And how could raccoon tell us what they want if they don’t know talking?”
“I dunno,” I told her. “Such’s books say.”
Months later Xavi rustled through the bushes next to the lake and found a clutch of duck eggs. She swiped one of the eggs away from a distraught mother duck and brought it home and hid it under her bed. Why? She wanted a puppy. Years later I asked her how she thought she could get a puppy out from a duck egg. “It made sense,” she protested. “I thought I could pray and make it a dog egg.” She added, emphatically, “You said people changed eggs.”
She did not get a puppy out from that egg. But neither did she get a duckling. The egg died and sat under her bed for weeks and nature began to work its magic on it. Unseen behind the outer coating of the shell the egg’s insides decomposed. Xavi got impatient, pushed her way under the bed, and poked the egg to see if she could force her new puppy to come out. A puppy did not come out. The egg broke and filled their house with a stench that took weeks to remove. Xavi panicked and retched and scooted out from under the bed only to throw up across the floor, and the walls and her bed.
Aunt Magritte cleaned up the mess. She could not rid the house the tenacious rotten smell. She asked her daughter why, please tell me, why would you hide an egg in the house? Xavi cried and blamed me. She told her mom that I said that she could get a puppy out from an egg.
Aunt Magritte reported to Mom what Xavi said I said, and Mom hunted me down. Her eyes had narrowed into furious slits by the time she found me. “Okay, you imp-shit, what so you tell Xavi? Did you tell her so she could hatch a puppy out from an egg?”
I started crying. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong when I told Xavi about eggs. I explained to Mom how dinosaurs and neanderthals and mammoths and dogs all came out from Earth as eggs. Aren’t I right? Mom’s face softened. “Yes, I guess.”
Mom returned to Aunt Magritte and explained where the confusion came from. Aunt Magritte and Mom herded Xavi and me into Xavi’s family front room for a short lesson in science. As I sat down, I notice that the aroma of dead egg that still clung to everything. I thought it best to not say anything about that.
“Okay,” Aunt Magritte said. “Pierrot is more accurate than not, you know, about the eggs. The ship such came here out from Earth, it didn’t carry much. Such ship brought all the trees and grass and animals as recipes in a computer. Once it got here the Intelligences made whatever they wanted as from eggs using the recipes. Even folk. Folk, they came out from eggs, all. Sapiens. Neanderthals. Denisovans. Khyberans. They also wanted dinosaurs. And raccoons such talk.” Aunt Magritte looked at Mom. “Am I right?”
“Then I come out out from an egg?” Xavi asked.
“Yes,” her mom said. “We all came out out from eggs.”
Xavi started crying. “Then in-tel-len-sis mixed resh-pee to make me? I thought you my mommy.”
“No, no, no.” Aunt Magritte said. She paused and thought out a simple, but accurate, answer. “I am your mommy. You grew inside me. Your father and I mixed… stuff… to make you. We had to mix the stuff a little differently than the Intelligences did.” I heard Uncle Esau, Xavi’s dad, laugh at our conversation from another room. “When you grow older, I’ll inform more about such.” Aunt Magritte looked toward the door and the unseen Uncle Esau and yelled, “Or your father, he will.”
Xavi smiled, assured about her mommy being her mommy and fully recovered from her discovery that she grew from an egg. “How so raccoons tell people what they need if they don’t talk in Earth?”
Mom sighed. “On Earth, not in Earth,” she corrected Xavi. “I don’t know. Talking raccoons are bad, any such. They don’t shut up. ‘Hey, hey, hey, whatcha doing.’ Did they not know what they started when they made talking raccoons? Oh, comfort…. What so were they thinking? Nasty little quadrupeds with opposable thumbs and squeaky voices.”
We all sat quietly for a moment.
“Can I have a puppy?” Xavi asked.
“No,” Aunt Magritte said firmly.
Xavi thought for a second. “Can I have two puppies?”
Pat Shatwell Wouters, Xavi’s grandmother, dripped poisonous belittlement all over Xavi during the whole of Xavi’s childhood. “You better be smart,” Xavi’s grandmother said to Xavi, “because you’re not going far based on your looks. You’re not pretty, girl.”
Later, when I got home, I asked my mom, “Is Xavi ugly?”
“No,” Mom said, “Not at all. She’s cuteful. Why so you ask?”
“Xavi’s grandmotta saided she has not good looks,” I answered.
“Oh…, her.” Mom looked at the ground. “Be wareful of her. Pat Shatwell Wouters… don’t take her sentences as truth.”
After the puppy egg incident Xavi’s grandmother hooked down Xavi again. “Come so, girl.” Pat Shatwell Wouters bid Xavi to come. I wanted to tell Xavi not to. I wanted to tell Xavi to be wareful of her grandmother and to run away.
Xavi got up and walked over. “Yes, Granmot,” Xavi responded.
“Xavi, my sweet, trudging, homely angel fart. Thought you could change a duck egg into a dog, so now?”
“Yes ma’am,” Xavi answered. Xavi’s pale white face flushed red.
“I pity on you. You’ve no cunning, I fear. Trust me. Truth. I’ll aid you get married to a desperate farmer. You need only one man. You only need a man who will be pleased just for your companionship.”
I hated her grandmother.
Pat Shatwell Wouters did not say mean things out of brutal honesty. She said them out of a brutal without any of the honesty. Her grandmother walked across town if only the faintest opportunity for meanness became possible. She loved funerals. “I guess it comforts to assume he is in Heaven despite the circumstances,” she said to more than one tearful widow.
Long ago in England people took on surnames based on what they did to distinguished themselves from others. A town could be home to Thomas the Baker, James the Smith, and William the Cooper. There may be Barbers, Potters, Weavers, and Taylors as well. Many surnames originated in that way.
The original Shatwell became known for excellence in a modest human accomplishment and passed on that surname with pride to their descendants. I don’t think the Shatwells were nobility.
Mom told me that the Shatwells and their maternal name got intermingled into the arky community eight generations before. A Shatwell female ancestor married someone in the mountains.
“Since then,” Mom told me, “the sapiens genes of the Shatwells got reduced to mere trickle by the time Pat Shatwell Wouters borned. She states herself as arky.”
Folks used many adjectives and expletives to describe Xavi’s grandmother. The milder ones used were “unpleasant” and “unkind.” Others thought she deserved the more strident “mean” or “wrong.” Still others skipped the more tepid adjectives and went straight to “wicked,” and “evil.” Even though all of these adjectives did describe her, “rancorous” seemed to fit her best. She had an abundance of rancor. Her soul manufactured it for export.
Turmoil. Greed. Gossip. Cruelty. That Shatwell woman appreciated all these dark impulses for the pleasures they brought her.
When Xavi and I were young Pat Shatwell Wouters lived in the office of the Ironsi warehouse two blocks south of Broadway. I sometimes saw Grandma Pat as she walked and persecuted the vendors in the street. She’d walk up to a table stand full of sausages and screech, “Hell you go. You didn’t wash the shit out from out the casing. Your prozes smell of barn.” Or she would go by the fruit stand and complain, “Where do you take your good wards? You brought only the rotten here, yes so.”
Pat Shatwell Wouters hunted the parents of Barron Sipai Tobin and berated them. “Your savage child-thing,” she said, “threw stones at me while I walked by the school.” Knowing Barron, I thought that unlikely. He would inform on anyone who did wrong, but would not think of doing a wrong himself. Others my age yond him an effer. But Barron’s parents believed Pat Shatwell Wouters, an adult, despite Barron’s protest.
One day Mom came out to the yard where I played and asked, “Have you thrown stones at Grandma Pat today at the Split? She says you so did.”
“No, ma’am,” I answered. “She accused Barron Sipai Tobin such.”
“Yes…, I know. Stay away from her, you now. Far.”
“I strive s’to. E’day, so. What’s the angel building?”
“What? Is such a thing she said to you?” Mom asked. “Angel? An angel built something?”
“No ma’am,” I replied. “I was in the tree. I didn’t throwed stones at Grandma Pat at the Split. I see angels from the tree.”
Mom looked at me, confused. “What? What do you talk on of?”
Three trees stood near on a slight rise behind my parents house. One tree had branches conveniently placed for me to climb and I sometimes scaled up it when bored. I could not reach the top of the tree, but I could get as high two thirds of the tree’s height. From there, I looked to the right of Landing Ridge and across the sea of treetops between my parent’s neighborhood and the main part of town. Near the town, the beehive-like building of the Intelligences rose high over everything else. The elaborate intertwined stone arches looked organic, but the complexity of its construction belied the true creators of the building, the Intelligences. Angel-like forms emerged from the huge building’s top. Those forms slowly and silently glided high above the trees on their transparent wings and disappeared behind the ridge or over the horizon.
Instead of throwing rocks at Grandma Pat, I had been up in the tree, alone and rockless, watching the angels come and go.
“Such big-big building, with the angels coming out. What now is such? Where to they go?”
“The Power Plant. Where such the Intelligences live, as much they can live anywhere.”
“Why you yond it the Powder Plant?” I asked.
She looked over towards the building, barely visible through the trees. “Power Plant,” she said. “You know cassies?”
“Not who. What. Such red box your father puts in the truck to empower, you know such?”
“Such be a cassie, is so,” Mom told me. “The Intelligences tunnel the sun to make cassies. Cassies can become very hot to make steam or they can push out electricity. The Intelligences give us those.”
“Well, because the Intelligences do what Intelligences do. They brought us here. They give us cassies to run our machines.”
“Jesus told them to help us?”
“What?” She leaned against the house. “No. Oh no. Jesus had nothing to do with such. So funny, how you think. Earth folk over five hundred years ago told the Intelligences to come here and… make us.”
“Where are the angels such come out of the… Powder Plant going out to?”
“Power Plant. How funny. No, not so angels. Such are machies. A sort of machine. Where they go? What they do? None know. When you need a cassie, go to the Power Plant. Except for such, ignore them. Ignore Intelligences, Intelligences ignore you. Worry Intelligences, intelligences worry you. The Intelligences do what Intelligences do.”
Later, I ran around our house with my arms spread like wings, imagining myself a machy. I flew low over the yard and across space, back to Earth, to tell Jesus all the secrets from the people who lived on Terra Beata. Otherwise, how would he know? I told Jesus that Pat Shatwell Wouters wasn’t nice. Jesus told me to stay far away from her. He would deal with her in his own time.
I climbed the storage shed behind the house and imagined my wings. If I believed, I could fly like Superman. I jumped. I thought I would drift upward like I had in my dreams. Instead, I saw the ground rise up and hit me, hard.