Orange Dawn - Chapter 5

John Clark Smith
I awoke first and watched what was happening below. The people were marching again from all directions into the square. From this distance, the ritual was even more alarming.
"I’m thirsty," Aphra said, sitting up beneath the tree. Peirce stirred.
"Well,” I said, “there's no water around here."
"There's a stream nearby.” She ran a short distance to a tiny underground stream that flowed out of the mountain.
"I’m sure it's polluted," I called out, recalling the stream near the hut.
"It depends how much you drink."
She made a cup with her hands and slurped the water before I could stop her. Beside her Peirce licked a little too.
"Mr. Jones has been drinking it all his life,” she added, “and he's all right. Here." She held some water out to me in her dirty hands.
"No, thank you. I’m going to find water I know is clean."
I began to gather up our bags.
“Glen would know,” she blurted.
“Well, he’s not here. Do you know where he gets his water?”
“From certain caves and underground springs.”
“And where are they?”
She shrugged and turned her face away.
We began the walk up to the hut.
"Are we going to see Mummy today?" Aphra asked after less than five minutes on the trail.
"No."
"What about Peirce?"
I stopped and turned around to face her. "What about him?"
"When is Peirce going to be with Abe?"
"Come over here," I said softly. I set down the bag and squatted. She walked over and stood before me. Arms at her sides, she rocked back and forth as if she was moving to some inner melody.
"Look, I’m the one who had to leave. You could stay, but your mother thinks it's not a good idea. Believe me, you're going to be with her just as soon as possible."
"When?"
"Not until the orange lifts. OK?"
She nodded. I gave her a quick hug. She turned and started walking again.
We continued our trip without any sign of a path. Aphra clearly recognized certain trees, and other landmarks from her journeys with Glen. The climb was arduous. Periodically we would put down the bags for a few moments. Aphra would glance back down into the valley, hoping, I suppose, that the orange would start to dissipate.
When we reached the large rock slab that Paul had sat on, we stopped for a longer rest. Peirce ran loops around us, sniffing and investigating everything. Aphra hopped up on the stone.
“I’ve been watching the way you walk,” Aphra said.
“Now why would you do that?”
"Mummy calls you Poise," she said.
"Really?”
She giggled.
"She calls Paul ‘Star,’ because he has this tattoo. Abe is ‘Pillow’ because of his belly; Glen is ‘Eagle’ because of his narrow face, eyes and nose. You’re Poise because of the way you walk."
“It’s the ballet lessons,” I confessed. “I spent years walking around on toes with my back curved back, my knees turned out. It makes you aware of your body. When my feet were normal they were also facing outward. What about Tosh, any nickname for him?”
“Nope.”
"And Peirce? Where’d he get his name?"
The puppy had picked up a rotten piece of wood. He was carrying it around as if he’d caught his prey.
"He was named after some philosopher."
"I like the name Aphra. Did your mother make it up?"
"It's a good thing Mummy’s not here. Aphra Behn is really important to her. She was a writer and playwright who lived in the seventeenth century. And guess what?”
I shook my head.
Aphra leaned close and whispered, “She was a spy!”
“Wow. Quite remarkable for a woman back then.”
"Girls can do anything,” she said, swinging her legs beneath her. “And you know what else? Mummy found a man just to have me. She didn't want a husband, she wanted a child.”
I smiled and nodded. Her mother was quite a woman too, I thought. I wondered who she had selected as the father.
“‘Men aren’t bad,’ Mummy says. ‘They’re primitive.’”
“I guess it’s a good thing I’m not a man."
"She wouldn’t have let me go if you were.  She didn’t even want me to leave with Paul or Abe.”
“What about Glen?”
“I wish! I love it when Glen babysits. We have so much fun. But Mummy said he can’t leave.”
I assumed Glen’s feelings were similar to those of Paul and the rest: stay to support the town. I was hoping nonetheless to meet him. My father was always at home in the woods too.
“What are we going to do now, Poise?" Aphra said after a moment.
I stood up. "Food, water and shelter.”
*
The hut was a one-room wooden structure, unfinished but livable, with kitchenware, four cots, and a rug by the woodstove that Peirce immediately assumed was his. Caulking and insulation around the two windows were barely adequate. Light shone through a couple of small holes in the roof and slats in the floor. I blocked the gaps with pieces of firewood and stuffed some socks around the windows. Not as rough as camping, but not somewhere I would want to spend a winter. Despite the minimal comfort, I was relieved not to have the orange cloud hovering.
Aphra sat on a cot and held up a wrinkled piece of paper with barely legible scribbles on it. It was a list of chores.
"This is silly, Aphra. It's only one room. And we may not even stay."
She took the note back and began ironing out the creases on a cutting board. I sat down beside her and Peirce jumped up to lie on the other side.
"It doesn’t matter. Even if we’re here for a week. Who will do the dishes? And the sweeping? And clean clothes and linen?"
"Okay, we'll take turns."
"Fine.”
She checked those items off the list and put the bread board on the floor. Peirce laid his head on her lap. She petted the top of his head and scratched his ears.
“What about looking after Peirce?"
"The puppy’s your responsibility."
"Not fair."
"I never wanted him to come along.”
She gently grabbed Peirce’s face in her hands.
“She didn’t mean that, Peirce. Look at that face. How could you not want him here?”
“OK,” I said, “I’ll take him out at night if he has to go. Otherwise, he’s all yours."
"I'm glad Peirce can't understand you.”
She stood up and went to the tiny kitchen area, opening the few cupboard doors.
“Now, the fun part, shopping for food and cooking!"
"You can cook?" I asked.
"Of course. Mummy has shown me how to take care of myself. There's a store up the road. Glen and I have been there. And Mummy gave me money"—she revealed a wad of bills from her backpack. Next, she dug out a grocery list. We walked to my car, leaving Peirce behind in the hut.
The store had once been part of a gas station. The old pumps, the air dispenser, and the side garage were still there, as well as the outside entrance to the washroom. I could still smell the grease and the rubber from the tires displayed out front.
There were no other customers. A middle-aged woman dressed in Bermuda shorts and a loose-fitting colorful blouse stood still as a mannikin behind at the counter. My first thought was that she had just returned from a trip to Florida. As we walked by her, I smelled a heavy dose of perfume. She nodded, gave a little wave to Aphra, but said nothing.
After we shopped for a couple of minutes, she appeared directly behind us, making me jump.
“Can I help you with anything?” she said in a low voice.
“I think we’ll be fine.”
“Where’s Glen?” she asked Aphra.
Aphra shrugged.
“He was in here the day before yesterday. Strange fellow. Comes in, looks around, and buys nothing. I asked him why and he said, ‘Just wanted to make sure you’re OK.’ His father knew my grandfather. They would go off to these native rituals together. My grandfather was part Erie, you know.”
She followed us as we stocked up on necessities and bottled water.
“I miss Grandpa,” she said finally. “I’ve thought of selling, but the folks tell me they need the store.”
“Sure I can’t help you find anything else?” she asked as she cashed us out.
I shook my head.
“Well, you come back soon. Say hello to Glen, Aphra.”
On the way out to the car, I looked and saw her standing frozen at her place.
As I was driving back, I had a fleeting impulse to take Aphra and Peirce someplace far from Harding. But the orange now felt more like a test than an adventure, an even stronger motivation to stay.
Back at the hut, we unloaded the car. As Aphra made her way to the door, I glimpsed someone disappearing down the mountain path.
“You go in,” I said, “I need to grab some wood.”
I surveyed the area cautiously, not wandering far from the hut. No one was visible, but a pair of deep footprints showed the person had stood for a while where the path leads down the mountain.
When I walked back into the hut with wood in my arms, Aphra said, “I like it here."
Peirce barked. I half-heartedly agreed, looking past her out the window for any movement in the brush. Smiling down at my charges, I locked the door, sliding the long wooden board into its clamps.
I asked Aphra to sit on the cot with me. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, not at all. But it’s important.”
Once again Peirce jumped up beside her. We were like a little family.
“I don’t want you wandering around out there without me.”
She nodded.
“Promise me?”
“I promise.”
“I know you’re used to wandering around the mountains with Glen, but we’re alone up here and the orange is still out there. We must be careful.”
“Don’t worry, Poise.”
But I was starting to worry how was I going to take care of two little ones. I recalled when Dad and I would camp in the Pennsylvania wilderness and I would look at him the way they were looking at me now. I recalled that unswerving trust.


[To be continued ...]

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