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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 38

Greg Bear

  Bert and Olive treated him like a lost son or at least a well-regarded cousin. They treated all their employees as if they came from various branches of the family. Bert had called the restaurant his "United Nations retirement home" after hiring Michael. "We have a red-headed Irishman, or a lookalike anyway, and half a dozen different types of Latinos, and two crazy Jews in charge."

  Michael served on the lunch and early dinner shifts, and he studied the people he served. The restaurant attracted a broad cross-section of Los Angelenos, from Nicaraguans hungry for a taste of home to students from UCLA. Lunchtime brought in white-collar types from miles around.

  This morning, Bert's mug of coffee did not settle him firmly into the day. He seemed vaguely distraught, and Olive was unusually subdued. Finally, a half-hour before opening, Bert took Michael into the back storeroom behind the kitchen, among the huge cans of peppers and condiments and the packages of dried herbs, and pulled out two chairs from a small table where Olive usually sat to do the books.

  Bert was sixty-five, almost bald, with the remaining white hair meticulously styled in a wispy swirl. He could be relied upon to always wear a blue blazer and brown pants with a golf shirt beneath the blazer, and on his right hand he sported a high school class ring with a jutting garnet.

  He waved this hand in small circles as he sat and shook his head. "Now don't worry about whether you're in trouble or not. You're a good worker," he said, "and you wait tables like an old pro, and you're graceful and you could even work in a snazzy place."

  "This is a snazzy place," Michael replied.

  "Yes, yes." Bert looked dubious. "We're a family. You're part of the family. I'm saying this because you're going to work here as long as you want, and we all like you… but you don't belong." He stared intently at Michael. "And I don't mean because you should be in a university. Where are you coming from?"

  "I was born here," Michael answered, knowing that was also not what Bert meant.

  "So? Why did you come here, to this restaurant?"

  "I don't know what you're getting at."

  "The way you look at customers. Friendly, but… Spooky. Distant. Like you're coming from someplace a hell of a long ways from here. They don't notice. I do. So does Juanita. She thinks you're a brujo, pardon my Spanish."

  Michael had learned enough Spanish as a California boy to puzzle out the brujo was the masculine for bruja, witch. "That's silly," he said, staring off at the cans on their gray metal shelves.

  "I agree with her. Maybe even, pardon me, a dybbuk. Juanita washes dishes, and I taste the food and maybe yell once a week, but that's both our opinions. Both ends of the rainbow think alike."

  "What does Olive think?" Michael asked softly. Olive reminded him of a slightly plumper Golda Waltiri.

  "Olive would like to have half a dozen sons, and the Lord, bless him, did not agree. She adores you. She does not think ill of you even when she sees the way you 'learn' our customers, the way you see them."

  "I'm sorry I'm upsetting you," Michael said.

  "Not at all. People come back. People, who knows why, enjoy being paid attention to the way you do it. You're not in it for the advantage. But you still don't belong here."

  The room was small, and Bert was wearing his look of intense concern, raised brows corrugating his high forehead. "Olive says you have a poet's air about you. She should know. She dated a lot of poets when she was young." He cast a quick, long-suffering look at the ceiling. "So why are you waiting tables?"

  "I need to learn some things."

  "What can you learn in a trendy little dive on Pico?"

  "About people."

  "People are everywhere."

  "I'm not used to being… normal," Michael said. "I mean, being with people who are just… people. Good, plain people. I don't know much about them."

  Bert pushed out his lips and nodded. "Juanita says that for somebody to become a brujo, something has to happen to them. Did something happen to you?" He raised his eyebrows, practically demanding candor. Michael felt oddly willing to comply.

  "Yes," he said.

  Having struck pay dirt, Bert leaned back and seemed temporarily at a loss for what to ask next. "Are your folks okay?"

  "They're fine," Michael said abstractedly.

  "Do they know?"

  "I haven't told them."

  "Why not? They love you."

  "Yes. I love them." The dread was fading. Michael did not know why, but he was going to open up to Bert Cantor. "I've tried telling them. It's almost come out once or twice. But Mom gets upset even before I begin. And then, it just stops, and that's it."

  "How old are you?"

  "I don't know," Michael said. "I could be seventeen, and I could be twenty-two."

  "That's odd," Bert said.

  "Yes," Michael agreed.

  The story spun itself out from there, across several days, each day at eleven Bert drawing up the chairs and sitting across from Michael with his corrugated forehead, listening until the lunchtime crowd arrived and Michael began waiting tables.

  On the fourth day, the story essentially told, Bert leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, nodding. "That," he said, "is a good story. Like Singer or Aleichem. A good story. This part about Jehovah being a Fairy, that's tough on me. But it's a good one. And I'm not asking to insult you - but, it's all true?"

  Michael nodded.

  "Everything's different from what the newspapers and history books say?"

  "Lots of things are different from what they say, yes."

  "I'm asking myself if I believe you. Maybe I do. Sometimes my opinions are funny that way. You're sure it's better here than going to college?"

  He nodded again.

  "Smart boy. My son James, from a previous marriage, he's gone to college, the professors there don't know frijoles about people. Books they know."

  "I love books. I've been reading every day, going to the library after I read all the books my folks own. I need to know more about that, too."

  "Nothing wrong with books," Bert agreed. "But at least you're trying to put things in perspective."

  "I hope I do."

  "Well," Bert said, with a long pause after. "What are you going to do about yourself?"

  Michael shook his head.

  "I feel for you, with a story like that," Bert said. Then he stood. "Time to wait tables."

  The winter passed through Los Angeles more like an extended autumn, crossing imperceptibly into a wet and clean-aired spring such as the city had not seen in years, a sparkling, green-leafed, sun-in-water-drop spring.

  The pearls appeared in Michael's palms six months after his return from the Realm, in the first weeks of that spring. They nestled at the end of his lifeline, insubstantial, glowing in the dark like two fireflies. In two days' time, they faded and disappeared.

  The pearls confirmed what he had suspected for some weeks. Events were coming to fruition.

  So ended the pretending, his time of normality and anonymity, the last time he could truly call his own.

  Rain fell for several hours after dinner, pattering on the roof above Michael's room and chirruping down the gutters. Moonlit beads of moisture glittered on the leaves of the apricot and avocado trees in the rear yard. Rounded lines of clouds, their bottoms turned orange-brown by the city lights, moved without haste over the Hollywood hills.

  Michael had come upstairs to read, but he put down his book - Evans-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries - and went to stand before the open window, feeling the moist air lap against his face.

  The night birds were singing again, their trills sharp and liquid by turns. The trees seemed alive with song. He hadn't heard them singing this late in months; perhaps the rain had disturbed them.

  Michael closed the window, returning to his bed and leaning back on the pillow. He slept naked, disliking the restriction of pajamas while he lay in bed, while his mind acted like an antenna, extending itself and receiving, whether he willed it or not…

morrow, Michael would leave the home of his parents to live in the house of Arno and Golda Waltiri and assume control of the estate. He had planned the move since telling Bert and Olive he was quitting, but the time had never seemed exactly right.

  Now it was right. Even discounting the pearls, unmistakable signs were presenting themselves stacked one upon the other. He was having unusual dreams.

  He turned off the light. Downstairs, a Mozart piano piece - he didn't know which one - played on his father's stereo. He felt drowsy, and yet some portion of his mind was alert, even eager. Moonlight filled his room suddenly as the shadow of a cloud passed. Even with his eyes closed to slits, he could clearly make out the framed print of Bonestell's painting of Saturn seen from one of its closer moons.

  For the merest instant, on the cusp between sleep and waking, he saw a figure crossing the print's moon landscape. The print was not in focus, but the figure was sharp and clear. A young - very young - Arno Waltiri, smiling and beckoning…

  Michael twitched on the bed, eyes closed tightly now, and then relaxed, falling across continent, sky and sea.

  He saw - in some sense became -

  Mrs. William Hutchings Cunningham, widowed only a year, addicted to long treks in the new forest beyond her Sussex country home. She walked gingerly, her booted feet sinking into the damp carpet of compacted leaves, moss and loam. The early spring drizzle beaded in the fine hairs of her wool coat and cascaded from ferns disturbed by her passage.

  The dividing line between the new forest and the old was not well marked, but she knew it and felt the familiar surge of love and respect as she crossed over. The great oaks, their trunks thick with startling green moss, tiered with moons of fungus, rose high into the whiteness. Her booted feet sank into the loam and moss and piles of leaves.

  Mrs. Cunningham felt herself become a part of the deep past whenever she crossed into the old forest. There was so little of it left in England now; patches here and there, converted to housing projects with distressing regularity, watched over by (she felt) corrupt or at the very least incompetent and uncaring government ministries. She swung her goosehead-handled stick up and poked the empty air with it, her face a mask of intense concern.

  Then the peace returned to her, and she found the broad flat rock in the middle of the patch of old forest, near an ancient overgrown pathway that arrowed through the trees without a single curve or waver. The trees had adapted themselves to the path, not the other way around, and yet they were centuries old. So how old was the path?

  "I love you," she said, with only the trees and the mist and the rock as witness. Carefully maneuvering around a slick patch of wet leaves and mud, she sat on the rock and let her breath out in a whuff.

  It was here and not by his grave, which was in a neatly manicured cemetery miles and miles away, that she came to hold communion with her late husband. "I love you, William," she repeated, face downturned but dark brown eyes looking up. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back to feel the mist's minute droplets land on her face.

  "Do you remember," she said, "when we were just married, and there was that marvelous inn, the Green Man, and the innkeeper wanted to see identification, wanted to know how old we were?"

  For some, such a process, day in and day out, would have signified an unwholesome self-torture. But not for her She could feel the distance growing between herself and the past, and she could feel the wound healing. This was how she kept a bandage on those wounds, protecting them with a bit of ritual against the abrasions of hard reality.

  "Do you remember, too-" she began, then stopped abruptly, her eyes turning slowly to the path.

  A tall dark figure, walking on the path miles beyond the trees, yet still visible, approached the rock on which she sat. It seemed she waited for hours, but it was only a minute or two, as the figuie grew larger and more distinct, coming at last to the extent of the path that Mrs. Cunningham would have called real.

  A tall, pale-skinned woman arrived at the rock and paused, drifting forward as if from ghostly momentum as she turned to look at Mrs. Cunningham. The tall woman had dark red hair and a thin ageless face with deep-set eyes. She was dressed in a gray robe that was really a translucent black. Mrs. Cunningham had not seen her like before.

  She felt a feather-touch at the back of her thoughts, and the woman spoke. With each word, the uncertain image became more solid, as if speaking finished the act of becoming part of this reality.

  "I am on the Earth of old, am I not?" the woman asked.

  Mrs. Cunningham nodded. "I think so," she said, as brightly as she could manage, or dared.

  "Do you grieve?"

  "Yes." Mrs. Cunningham's expression turned quizzical, with a touch of pain.

  "For a loved one?" the woman asked.

  "For my husband," she replied, her throat very dry.

  "Silly grief, then," the woman said. "You do not know the meaning of grief."

  "Perhaps not," Mrs. Cunningham conceded, "but it feels to me as if I do."

  "You should not sit on that rock much longer."


  The woman pointed back up the path. "More of my kind coming," she said.

  "Oh." She stared at the path, head nodding slightly, eyes wide.

  The tall woman's pale face glowed against the dark trees and misty sky. "I say that your grief is a silly grief, for he is not lost forever, as we are, and you have paid mortality for infinity, which we cannot."

  "Oh," Mrs. Cunningham said again, as if engaged in conversation with a neighbor. The woman's eyes were extraordinary, silver-blue with hints of opalescent fire. Her red hair hung in thick strands down around her shoulders, and her black gown seemed alive with moving leaves in lighter shades of gray. A golden tassel hanging from her midriff had a snaky life of its own.

  "We are back now," she said to Mrs. Cunningham. "Please do not cross the trod hereafter."

  "I certainly won't," Mrs. Cunningham vowed.

  The woman pointed a long-fingered hand at the rock. Mrs. Cunningham removed herself and backed away several yards, slipping once on the patch of leaves and mud. The woman drifted down the path, not walking on quite the same level, and was surrounded by trees away from Mrs. Cunningham's view.

  She stood, her lips working in prayer, and then returned her attention to the direction from which the woman had come. "The Lord is my shepherd," she murmured. "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want-"

  There were more, indeed. Three abreast and of all descriptions, from deepest shadows without feature to mere pale wisps like true spirits, some dripping water, some seeming to be made of water, some as green as the leaves ia the canopy above, and following them, a number of beautiful and sinewy horses with shining silver coats… and all, despite their magnificence, with an air of weary refugee desperation.

  Mrs. Cunningham, after a few minutes, decided discretion would be best, and retreated farther from the path - the trod - with her eyes full of tears for the beauty she had seen that day, and for the message of the woman with red hair in the living black gown.

  Paying mortality for infinity…

  Yes, she could understand that.

  "William, oh William," she breathed, fairly running through the woods. "You wouldn't believe… what has… just happened… here…" She came to the boundary and crossed into new forest, and the sensation dulled but did not leave her entirely.

  "But whom will I tell?" she asked. "They're back, all - or some - of the faerie folk, and who will believe me now?"

  Michael opened his eyes slowly and stared at the dawn as it cast dim blue squares on the closed curtains.

  Behind the vision of Mrs. Cunningham had been another and darker one. He had seen something long and sinuous swimming with ageless grace through murky night waters, watching him from a quarter of the way around the world. In that watching there was appraisal.

  On the morning of his move, Ruth offered one last time to help him get settled in the Waltiri house. Michael politely refused. "All right, then,
" she said, dishing up one last home-cooked breakfast of fried eggs and toast - consciously leaving out the bacon. "Promise me you won't take things so seriously."

  He regarded her solemnly.

  "At least try to loosen up. Sometimes you are positively gloomy."

  "Don't nag the fellow," John said, holding one thumb high to signal friendly banter and not domestic disagreement.

  Michael grinned, and Ruth stared at him with wistfulness and then something like awe. He could almost read her thoughts. This was her son, with the strong features so like his father's and the hair so like her own - but there was something not at all comforting in his face, something lean and…

  Fierce. Where had he been for five years?

  Michael walked with suitcases in hand in the pale rich light of morning. Dew beaded the lawns of the old homes and dripped from the waxy green leaves of camellia and gardenia bushes. The sidewalks steamed in the sun, mottled olive and gray with moisture from last night's rain.

  He passed a group of nine school girls, twelve or thirteen years old, dressed in uniforms of white blouses and green and black plaid skirts with black sweaters. They averted their faces as they passed but not their eyes, and Michael sensed one or two of them turning, walking backward, to continue staring at him.

  The possibilities offered by his appearance seldom concerned him; he appreciated the attention of women but took little advantage. He still felt guilty about Eleuth, the Breed who had given her life for him. and thought often of Helena, whom he had treated as Eleuth had deserved to be treated.

  For that and other reasons there was a deep uncertainty in him, a feeling that he had somehow twisted his foot at the starting line and entered the race crippled, that he had made bad mistakes that lessened his chances of staying ahead. He was certain about neither his morals nor his competence.

  He set the bags down on the front porch of the Waltiri house. Using the keys given to him by the estate's attorneys, he opened the heavy mahogany door. The air within was dry and noncommittal. Plastic sheets had been draped over the furniture. Gritty gray dust lay over everything.