Athena na’Kyria finished bandaging the wound and looked over at her best friend. “You have to give him something to chew on, or he’s just going to keep biting his sister. If you can get your hands on some apples, that should keep him busy until he outgrows this.”
Taryn du’Marcos sighed and tucked a stray dark curl back into her floral patterned kerchief. “His sister was nothing like this, you know.”
Athena smiled. “But now we’re both so busy, I think the only time we see each other is for toddler bites!” She accepted the cup of tea and piece of pie that Taryn placed in front of her. The pie tasted so fresh that she guessed Taryn just picked the pumpkin yesterday or this morning.
Taryn put pie in front of her two kids so she could chat with her friend. They talked about Athena’s mother (she seemed to be spending an awful lot of time making candles, which meant spending that much more time with the shopkeeper), Grace na’Lizeth (lots of knitting – must be planning to marry soon!), Carlo du’Valeria (can you believe what he claims he saw the other day?), and of course, eventually, Two by Twenty-Two.
“Seriously, Athena, you’re not that busy. The only way you’re going to have two kids before you turn twenty-two is if you elope and then have twins.”
Athena tried to figure out which speech to haul out. That she wanted to be certain? That there were too many men to pick from? That being a wife and mother would make it impossible to be a healer? Anything but the truth – that she just didn’t want a man as a life partner. Men were nice enough, and handy to have around, and great company. But that was it. And as much as she liked kids, she wasn’t interested in acquiring any in the usual way. So she changed the subject again, in a way that hinted it might not be a subject change.
“I’ll see if I can get David na’Yamileth to part with some of his apples for your son.” Maybe if she mentioned being with an eligible bachelor, her friend would favorably misinterpret it. Since she and David were both fairly tall, people had been trying to match them up since they were children.
Taryn smiled, and since the kids were done eating and full of energy (and bandaged), the visit was over.
Athena walked down the dirt road and up the path to David’s mother’s house. She and David were picking apples and placing them in baskets of various sizes. Yamileth was nearly as tall as her son, and they were both what folks called big-boned.
Yamileth nodded at Athena. “We get smarter every year! If we just put the apples straight into the baskets according to the amounts people usually buy, it saves us a whole lot of work! Better for the apples, too!”
“You’re right! Hey, can I get a small basket of apples sent to Taryn du’Marcos? Her son is still biting his sister. He needs something new to chew on.”
Yamileth laughed and nodded her head at her grown son. “We had to do the same thing with David.” Athena dropped the required coins into the woman’s apron pocket. When the business portion was ended, David called her over.
“Did you hear about what Carlo du’Valeria claims he saw the other day?”
"Something about a train, I think. Or part of a train. That track is pretty rusty by now, and I'm sure we would have heard a train rolling through!" Athena shook her head in disbelief.
"Unless it came during the storm the other night. There was an awful lot of lightning and thunder. We wouldn't have heard a train go past the front porch!" David was right, of course. But it was a little creepy, that a train could come by, drop off a box car, and then leave again. What was the point, anyway?
Athena looked at David, who didn't seem as practical as he usually did. In fact, he looked a little concerned. "So, did you go check it out?"
"No." He glanced at his mother. "I don't want to borrow trouble. My mother doesn't have anyone else." Normally, Athena would have considered this to be an unduly, well, wimpy response to the situation. But there was just something nagging about it, something that made David's answer seem a whole lot more acceptable than it would normally be.
David looked Athena straight in the eyes, more like himself, as he challenged "You can always go check it out with me if you want, of course!"
"Oh, no, that's OK! Really! I need to check on, um, I'd best be going and leave you and your mother to harvesting the apples. Thanks again for getting a bunch over to Taryn! I'm sure her daughter will appreciate it!"
David gave her a brief smile and then returned to picking apples from the tree and putting them in baskets.
The next morning, Athena was awakened by the smell of smoke. This was soon followed by a bit of shouting outside, which grew louder as it approached and as more voices joined in. She and her mother grabbed their ponchos from the pegs by the door and joined the small crowd.
The group went left around the little arm of the woods that stuck out here. Beyond the woods was an old abandoned railroad track. Sure enough, there was a boxcar sitting on it. The fire was in a metal barrel near the boxcar. There was no one around.
David and his mother approached Athena and hers. "Odd," was his first response. Everyone sort of stopped when they saw the barrel, and that no one was around. Different voices discussed the scene, some with enthusiasm and some more hushed.
"The boxcar looks locked up tight. Surely there's no one inside."
"Well, it'd make no sense for them to be inside. Why start a fire to keep warm, and then leave?"
"Maybe he didn't start it to keep warm. It's not that chilly out here."
"Yeah, but if he spent the night in the train..."
"But how do you know it's a he?"
"Carlo was right, though. There is part of a train out here!"
"Do you think he started the fire?"
"Of course not! He'd never waste fuel so foolishly!"
Then Carlo wondered aloud, somewhere near David and Athena, "Do you suppose someone started the fire just to bring us out here?"
"Carlo, what are you doing?" Valeria sounded a bit panicky. People always used words like scrawny and wimpy to describe her husband, and it seemed like he spent his whole life trying to prove that he was at least as brave and macho as any other man, if not more so.
"Well, someone has to check this thing out!"
"No, not really! Get back here, you fool!" But Carlo ignored his wife and kept walking toward the boxcar. A horrified murmur arose when he went to touch the boxcar. Finally he turned around and addressed the crowd.
"Seriously, people! A boxcar appears one day, but everyone ignores it. Then a fire is lit, obviously to drag us here and get our attention. Well, we're here. Now what? Don't you see? There must be something inside the boxcar, something that we're meant to see." He turned around again, and examined the train segment. He'd never seen a train car up close before, so it took him a moment to grasp how to open the car.
As soon as Carlo had the box car open, he was accosted by both a smell and a sound. Rather strange looking animals were inside the car, along with a long wooden plank. A few of the braver men, seeing that he didn't die instantly, joined him. They aligned the plank and led the animals out of the car, holding their breaths. When they got the seventh (and final) animal out, they rejoined the other people and stood looking at the animals.
"Um, what are they, exactly?" wondered Marcos aloud.
"They're cows, silly," replied Yamileth, wishing she were back picking apples instead of standing here staring at odd animals.
"Those don't look like any cows I've ever seen," retorted Valeria, as if she'd ever seen a cow up close and personal.
"Actually, they look like those starving cows you see pictures of. Cows in India or some place like that," someone contributed.
Everyone stared a bit longer. Finally someone added "And what are we supposed to do with them? They certainly don't look like anything you can milk!"
Now people looked at each other, sizing up their neighbors as good candidates to take these animals home and relieve themselves of any responsibility in this matter. However, no one was jumping right up to volunteer. The seven cows just hung out, munching on the grass and staring at the people.
Carlo felt like he still needed to do something – something that didn’t include taking seven strange cows home. So he held his breath and entered the boxcar. He wasn’t very good at holding his breath, however, and he soon discovered that it smelled just like a box car that had recently been full of cows. He discovered too late that he needed to mind his step as well.
He looked around for anything odd or remotely helpful, and found something. He went to grab it, silently cursing whoever put it at the far end of the boxcar. It turned out to be a book of some sort, which he grabbed. He then left the boxcar as quickly as possible. When he landed on the ground, he spent a bit of time dragging his feet across the grass to clean off his shoes.
David decided that it was safe to be brave, and walked up to Carlo. “What’s that?” He nodded at the book.
Carlo opened it. “It looks like a diary of some sort.” This led to a bit of discussion among a number of people about the difference between a journal and a diary. However, Carlo decided to stick with diary, since that was the word he used first.
After flipping through the pages a few times, the men looked at each other and took the diary to Athena.
“Look,” one of the men said, pointing to the book.
“Um, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” the healer replied. “It looks like a diary or journal. Did you read any of it yet?”
Carlo gave Athena a rather unpleasant look. “We can’t.”
Athena took the diary and flipped some of the pages again. “Why not?”
David sighed and pointed out to her what was painfully obvious to the men: “It’s written in that curly writing.”
Athena made a face. “Cursive? Yeah, it’s written in cursive. So?”
Yamileth came over and translated for her son. “They can’t read cursive.”
“Wait. Seriously?” Athena looked around. “None of them can read cursive?”
Yamileth sighed. “Athena, you can only read cursive because your father taught you, before he left. You didn’t learn it in school. It wasn’t taught in school.”
“Wait! My father didn’t leave! He died … in the mining accident that closed the mine!”
Yamileth ignored her friend Kyria’s glare, and continued talking to her friend’s daughter. “There is no mine, Athena. Never was. If your father worked in a mine, he’d come home every day covered in coal dust or something.”
“No, my father hated getting dirty. He didn’t even like picking vegetables out of our garden.”
“Exactly. Your father wasn’t a miner. He didn’t die in a mining accident. He left, and your mother should have told you that when you were eight.”
Athena remembered back to when she was eight. Her mother certainly acted the way a woman would if her husband had just died. But Yamileth burst into her memory before she could go on. “There was no funeral, child. That should’ve been a clue.”
Athena looked down at the diary in her hand, the diary that only she could read. She wondered why her father taught her to read cursive, and why no one else could read it. But she didn’t have too much thinking time before the cows started making noise, demanding some sort of resolution to their housing problem.
Athena wanted to take the diary home and read it at her leisure, but everyone else was curious about it as well. They all pretended to ignore the cows, who were slowly approaching the group of people. All eyes remained on Athena as they moved out of the cows' way.
"OK, well, this first entry is dated October 5, of ... wait a minute. That can't be right. That's the year I was born. I was just a few months old when this was written."
"It looks a lot older than that," said Valeria.
"Well, maybe the man had it a long time, but didn't write in it," Carlo suggested.
"How do you know it was a man who wrote it?" asked David.
"Because it's a man's handwriting. Can't you tell?"
"How can you tell it's a man's handwriting if you can't read cursive?"
"Oh, for Pete's sake! Let her read the thing!" Taryn practically stamped her foot. In the meantime, though, Athena had been flipping through the book. Years of reading the ends of books ahead of time led her automatically to the diary's final pages. It was there that she found the envelope.
"What's that?" Yamileth, David's mother, came closer. Athena opened the envelope, and pulled out a folded letter and a photograph. Since the subject of her father had suddenly come up, she half expected it to be him, but it wasn't. The man in the photograph had darker skin, and wore a coat with the collar turned up and a hat. The coat looked thick, but otherwise along the lines of a trench coat. Basically, it was a city coat, not the sort anyone local would wear.
The man stood in the doorway of what could be a city apartment building -- but any city, anywhere. The number on the door behind him was 722. Athena opened the letter and read it.
"Dear Mrs. Rafferty,
Thank you for your recent hospitality. I'm not in any danger of starving soon, thanks to your great cooking. I'm sorry that I couldn't stay beyond your daughter's engagement party, but I'm pleased that I was able to attend that affair. I will be sure to call on your again when I next come to town.
Athena scowled as someone noted "You've got to be kidding me!"
Someone else added "What kind of letter is that?"
Even David added "Is that supposed to mean something?" Athena looked from the photograph to the letter and back again, sure that some sort of hidden meaning eluded her.
"Check the handwriting in the diary," her mother suggested. "Is it the same?"
"No, doesn't look like it." Athena was baffled, and only stopped staring at the letter and photograph when a cow bumped into her.
Taryn handed her son an apple before he bit his sister again. Or a cow. Then the mother turned to Athena. "So who wrote the diary? And what does it have to do with these cows?"
Athena scanned the back few pages and front few pages of the diary. "No mention of cows. But the diary guy's name is Francisco Ojeda."
"Could he be ... government?" Valeria wondered aloud.
"Did you listen to his name?" Her husband shook his head.
"Well, he could have been ... before."
"Well, if he was government before, then maybe he knew that Mario guy. But where are they now? And what does that have to do with a boxcar full of cows?" David didn't particularly like mysteries. He wanted to be back in his apple orchard, where everything made sense.
Athena's mother pointed out the obvious: "If they were government before, they're dead now."
"So what do we do with the cows? They have to eat and drink and stuff," Taryn pointed out while looking at the neighbors.
"Let the cows decide," said Yamileth. "When we leave, they'll just follow whoever they follow, and that'll decide it for now." She secretly hoped, of course, that they didn't follow her to her apple orchard, but she didn't know much about cows or what they liked. Correction -- she didn't know what the sort of cows she saw in picture books liked; she knew even less about these weird, skinny guys. Or gals, as the case may be.
"I want to know more about Francisco's diary, and his connection to this Mario," Carlo said.
Athena, who had already begun reading the diary, looked up. "Well, he did work for the government when he began his diary."
Everyone was silent, and most of the older people stared at their shoes. The younger among them were bolder and looked around, as if to reassure themselves that there were no spies among them, noting their discussion of the government or even the word itself.
Athena kept reading the diary, or at least skimming it. "OK, Mario knew the guy in the picture. They did both work for the government. They were senators."
Yamileth mumbled "were is the key word." Then she looked up at Athena. "How long ago was this? Had it already started?"
Athena looked at the dates in the diary. "It was begun about a year before I was born. No. It was begun when I was a few months old, but he goes back to before that time. So anyway, he would have gotten the letter ... in the middle of writing the diary at least. Maybe toward the end. Although it doesn't make sense that he'd have a letter from his friend addressed to some lady."
The men and women who were closer to her mother's age looked like they were trying to do math in their heads. Finally Athena's mother, Kyria, spoke. "It started when I was pregnant with Athena, remember? In Arizona."
The name of the state brought another hush, at least to the older ones. "Arizona?" David and Carlo both looked like they'd never heard of the place, let alone what the point was.
"Arizona. The state. They started arresting everyone who worked for the government who was Hispanic. Made them prove they were citizens. At least, that's what they said."
"Wait." David looked a little baffled. "Seriously? How do you go from that to an all-white government?"
"All-white, all-male government," Athena added.
"Easy," Kyria pointed out. "If no one speaks up, then eventually there's no one left to speak up. There were lots of posters about that in the aftermath of what happened in Germany."
"What happened in Germany?" Valeria asked.
"You're kidding! What did they teach you in school? What did you learn?"
"We learned how to read and write and do math."
"Plants, too," David added. "We had that vegetable garden. And we made things out of wood. And the girls learned cooking and sewing. Home economics." He resented the implication that his education was somehow lacking something.
Yamileth looked at her son. "Who was Hitler? Or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or Malcolm X? Gandhi? Jomo Kenyatta? Nelson Mandela? Napoleon? John F. Kennedy? Jimmy Carter? Obama? Eleanor Roosevelt? Geraldine Ferraro?" She went on with a list of names, people her son had never heard of.
"It's a code," Athena interjected.
"What?" Everyone looked at her, as she looked at the photo and letter again.
"It's a code. The number over the door is 722, right? If you look at the letter, the seventh word is I'm. Two words after that is in and two words after that is danger. He's saying I'm in danger."
"But what about the rest of the nonsense in the letter? Are you saying that's a code, too?"
"Well, the letter is addressed to a Mrs. Rafferty, and it mentions her daughter's engagement party." Athena paused. "Seriously? She had a party because she got engaged? Did she get presents?"
"Athena!" her mother chastised her. Athena rolled her eyes and went on.
"I never heard of a Mrs. Rafferty, but that doesn't mean anything, according to David's mother!" She looked at the diary again. "I really need to read this, to get more information. There has to be a reason that it's here."
"Not really," Taryn answered. "It could have been put in the boxcar years ago, shortly after it was finished, and no one noticed it before now." She was about to continue when the shopkeeper, the one Athena's mother was fond of, pulled out a harmonica and started playing it. There was no obvious reason to do so. There wasn't any sort of dramatic moment that required music to point out how dramatic it was. There wasn't any long silence that needed filling. The man simply pulled it out and started playing. The young people looked at him like he was extremely odd but tolerable, and resumed their discussion of the diary and the mystery.
While they talked, they were also all walking -- toward town. It was a weird parade of people, cows, and a harmonica accompaniment. The people were also all hoping -- that the cows would adopt anyone but them. Most of them had their hopes met -- those who didn't happen to live in the nearby apple orchard. David and his mother were not nearly as happy as everyone else.
David's mother found her way next to Athena. "He used to have a wife, you know." She nodded to the harmonica playing shopkeeper.
"Him?" Athena looked at her mother's love interest.
"Yep. And kids."
"What happened to them?"
Eventually Athena and her mother Kyria made it to their house with the diary, while David and his mother Yamileth made it to their house with the cows. One pair was happier than the other. It sounded to Athena like Harmonica Man played all the way to his store.
Athena got her bag ready for her expected rounds, planning to check on a couple of pregnant young women, a baby with colic, and Darina. Darina liked to imagine that she had all sorts of exotic diseases, and demanded all sorts of tests and remedies. Athena discovered that if she just stopped by regularly anyway, Darina got the attention she wanted without exhausting Athena or her own children.
The rest of the morning therefore went along very predictably, which Athena really appreciated. Her last stop before going home for lunch was at the Old Man's house. Everyone called him that because, aside from the obvious, there was actually quite a shortage of old men in the town. There weren't really tons of middle aged men, either, for that matter.
"I hear you had an exciting morning," he stated as she listened to his chest with a stethoscope. She shushed him as she listened to his heart and lungs, making him breathe in and out a few times. She checked his pulse, and then addressed him.
"Did you hear about the cows? Who would leave cows out here?"
"I'm more interested in that diary. Did you bring it in your bag?"
"Actually, yes. I thought I might get a chance to look at it if I had to wait for someone."
"Mind if I take a look?"
Well, actually, she did. She was starting to think of it as her diary, but let him see it anyway. He read the beginning and the letter and looked at the photograph, making suitable "uh-hum" noises every so often. Then he went to his icebox. He moved aside a pair of chicken legs, a slab of meatloaf, and part of a green pepper. Then he reached back, and pulled out an envelope. He brought it back to the table and handed it to Athena.
There inside was another letter, and another photograph. This photograph was also Mario Villa, but this time he was in front of a boat.
"So why did Mario send you a picture, too? Did you know this Mrs. Rafferty?" Athena asked the Old Man.
"Yes. She was my wife."
Athena looked stunned, and barely noticed that the Old Man had put a cup of tea in front of her. She glanced down at it now and took a drink. "Did she really have a daughter who had an engagement party, or was that all some secret code of some sort?"
"No, we had a beautiful daughter, Jazlyn. Well, I expect everyone thinks their daughter is beautiful. Ours really was, though. She had long, flowing hair, as shiny black as an onyx." He got up and went toward the bedroom. He returned with a couple of picture frames in his hand. The Old Man handed Athena the first photograph. Jazlyn was as beautiful as her father said, and she stood there proudly between her parents in front of a rather large tree.
"This is her wedding photo." He handed her another photo. The bride was lovely, of course. The contrast between her dark hair and bright dress was stunning. Athena barely looked at the groom, and handed the photo back to the Old Man. "Look again," he instructed her.
Athena looked at the picture again. Finally she looked at the groom. He looked sort of familiar, and a song came to mind. She looked again. Jazlyn's groom was Harmonica Man. That must be why he started playing the harmonica when she talked about the engagement party. It was his engagement, too. His bride. Suddenly she was much more interested in what happened to his wife and children, and their connection to both Mario Villa in the picture and Francisco Ojeda in the diary.