“Indeed. I am here at your service, prepared to offer a fulfillment of your wishes, at a price to be negotiated to our mutual satisfaction.”
Claire drew herself up. “I understand that,” she replied, and could see him stiffen with annoyance again. He wanted her to be weak, and needy. She swore to herself that she would not be. “You realize,” she went on, “that I have nothing of value to give to you.”
“Shall we let me be the judge of that?” He spoke now in a threatening whisper.
“If you wish,” Claire said.
“Let us begin, then. Let us commence. Let us undertake to establish what it is that you hope to achieve or acquire, what it is that I may provide to you for this yet-to-be-determined price.”
She could feel her resolve weaken, and her voice faltered as she told him. “I have a son,” she said. “I want to find my son.”
“A son! How sweet. Maternal love is such a delicious trait. So you don’t want riches, or romance, but simply . . . your son?” The way he said the word, hissing it, sneering it, made her feel sick.
“I was told that you could help me.”
“You have been informed correctly. Accurately and precisely. But! We must agree on the price to be paid. The trade, do you see? A son in return for—”
She made her voice as firm as she could. “I have nothing. You can see that. I was hoping—”
To her horror he reached forward and grasped a thick handful of Claire’s long hair. She flinched.
“What is this, then? You have beautiful hair. Luxuriant tresses, I would say. Sweet-smelling despite your recent ordeal. Do you call this nothing?”
He put his face into her hair and inhaled. His breath was foul-smelling, and Claire willed herself not to step back in disgust. He was twisting the hair he held and hurting her, but she stood her ground. Was that what he wanted? Just her hair? He was welcome to it. It was dirty and tangled and she would be glad to free herself of it, Claire thought.
But he opened his gloved hand, released the handful of curls, and stood back to look at her with his slitted, close-set eyes. Her first thought on meeting him had been: ordinary. Now she saw that he was not ordinary at all but darkly sinister. It was not just his breath that smelled. Suddenly he was enveloped in a rancid aroma so thick that it was almost foglike. His words seemed to ooze from his lipless mouth.
“Hardly a fair trade, is it? A head full of coppery curls in return for a living boy? A son?” Had she imagined that his tongue darted in and out, like that of a snake, when he hissed the word?
“No,” Claire agreed. “It doesn’t seem an equal trade. But as I told you, I have nothing.”
“Nothing is such a pathetic word, isn’t it? But then, you are pathetic. Your clothes are rags and you have a pustulous scab on your neck. Still . . .” He hesitated. “My calling, my mission, my motivation and my very existence, is to create trades. This for that! Reciprocity!”
The tongue flickered again as he drew out the word “reciprocity.” Claire shuddered but maintained her composure.
“So you want your boy. Your son. Tell me his name.”
“I’m sorry—I’m not certain. My memory has been damaged. I think he was called Babe.”
“Babe?” His voice was contemptuous. Claire felt as if she were failing a test.
“Wait!” she said. “Maybe it was Abe! It was so long ago. It might have been Abe!”
“Abe, Babe . . .” The man’s body swayed as he repeated the words in a singsong voice. Then he fell silent, moved close to her, leaned forward, and whispered harshly. “I offer you this trade. I make the offer only once. Take it or leave it. Ready?”
Dreading what he was to say, Claire nodded. She had no choice.
He grabbed her neck with his eerily smooth gloved hand, pressing into her wound so that pain sliced through her, and drew her face close to his. She could smell his foul breath again. “I want your youth,” he said harshly into her ear, and his warm saliva sprayed across her cheek.
“Trade?” he murmured, still holding her in his awful embrace.
“Yes,” Claire whispered.
“Trade,” she said loudly.
“Done.” He released her then and shoved her away from him. When he turned and walked away, she understood that she was to follow. Surprisingly, she found it difficult to walk. Her legs were weak. She couldn’t straighten her body easily. Had it been only twenty-four hours before that she had leapt from rock to rock, had climbed and grasped and pulled herself up the sheer cliff? Now she was shuffling and bent, and it was hard to catch her breath. She struggled to keep up with the man, who was striding quickly ahead. Her hair fell forward over her face, and when she reached up to smooth it back, she saw that her hand had changed, had become veiny and spotted; and she saw, too, that the loosened hair was no longer the thick red-gold curls he had admired a few minutes before. Now it was a sparse handful of coarse gray.
He paused, looked back, and smirked at her confusion. “Get a move on, you old hag,” he said. “And by the way . . .”
He watched her contemptuously as she made her way, shuffling around a boulder in the path. “Your son’s name is Gabe,” he said.
“And mine? My name,” he added, with a superior and hostile smile, “is Trademaster.”
The old woman appeared frequently. Suddenly she would be there, standing in the thick pines beside the river, watching him as he worked. Gabe would catch sight of her, would see her dark homespun clothing, her stooped posture, and the fierce, knowing intimacy of her gaze. But then she would withdraw and disappear into the shaded grove of trees. If he turned away and then looked back, there was no longer a sign of her, not even a whispering motion in the needled branches she had moved through. She simply went away. Sometimes he thought of calling after her, asking who she was, why she watched him. But for some reason he felt shy.
He saw her in the village as well, but noticed her less there because he was generally in the company of friends. He and the other boys, the group he lived with, would be wrestling and joking, vying to be cleverest, or strongest, as they made their way together to or from the schoolhouse. Sometimes the people of the village complained about them and their horseplay, said that they were a noisy, inconsiderate group, worse than any bunch of adolescents that had ever lived in Boys’ Lodge. One neighbor had called them “louts” after they wrested plums from the tree beside her cottage, then squashed them in the path.
This particular old woman, though she was often nearby, never glared at the group of boys, as others did, or chided them for their behavior. She simply watched. She had been doing it for a long time. And Gabe thought that she watched him most of all. It puzzled him.
Occasionally he thought about using his power—well, he never knew exactly what to call it, but he thought of it as veering—to try to learn more about who she was, why she watched him. But he never did. His power made him nervous. He found veering tiring, painful, and a little frightening. So though he tested it now and then, seeing if it was still there (and it always was; sometimes he found himself wishing it wouldn’t be), trying to understand it (and he never did, not really), he rarely called it into full use.
Anyway, she was gone. He was annoyed at himself for the time he had wasted, wondering about her, when he had so much to do, still. Sighing, Gabe looked around the clearing on the riverbank, the place he had claimed for his task, the place where he was now spending hours every day. His bare feet were deep in wood shavings. He smiled at himself, realizing there was sawdust on his face, stuck there by his own sweat. He licked his lips and tasted powdered cedar.
The boards that he had crafted so carefully were neatly stacked, but his tools were scattered about, and it looked from the graying clouds as if rain was on the way. He heard a rumble of thunder. Time to get things into the shed. But even as he moved his tools, trudging back and forth to store them in the primitive little structure he had built between two trees, he found himself thinking again of the old woman.
There were so few mysteries in the small village. When new residents arrived, there was always a ceremony of welcome. Their histories were told. He remembered none for her, but he would have been a child then; he had seen the strange woman for years now, had felt her eyes on him since he was a young boy. And he rarely attended the ceremonies. Some of the histories were interesting, Gabe thought, especially if they involved danger and narrow escapes. But people rambled on, and sometimes they wept, which embarrassed him.
I’ll stop being shy, he thought. Next time I notice her staring at me the way she does, I’ll simply introduce myself. Then she’ll have to tell me who she is.
The rain began spattering suddenly. Gabe closed the crooked, hastily made door of the shed he had built from old boards. Briefly he glanced back through the increasing downpour, at the grove of trees where the woman stood from time to time. Then he closed the latch on the door of the shed and ran through the rain toward the village.
“How’s the boat coming?” It was Simon, one of his friends, standing on the porch of Boys’ Lodge as Gabe climbed the steps and shook his head to try to get some of the wetness out of his curly hair.
“All right, I guess. Slow.”
He went inside to change into dry clothes. It would be time for dinner soon, he thought. There were no clocks in the village, but the bell tower rang at intervals, and the midafternoon bell had sounded some time ago. On a shelf in his cubicle Gabe found a clean, folded shirt and put it on. He tossed his wet one into a bin in the hall.
He lived in Boys’ Lodge with twelve other adolescent orphaned boys. Most of his lodge-mates had lost their parents to illness or accident, though one, Tarik, had been abandoned as an infant by an irresponsible couple who had no interest in raising a child. All of the boys had a history to tell. Gabe did too, but he didn’t enjoy the telling; there were too many I-don’t-knows to it.
He had asked Jonas again and again. It was Jonas who had brought him here years before, when Gabe was just an infant. “Why did my parents let you take me?” he had asked.
“You didn’t have parents,” Jonas had explained.
“Everybody has parents!”
“Not in the place where we lived. Things were different there.”
“How about you? Did you have parents?”
“I had people I called Mother and Father. I’d been assigned to them.”
“Well, what about me?”
“You hadn’t been assigned yet. You were a bit of a problem.”
Gabe had grinned at that. He liked the idea of being troublesome. It seemed to give him a certain superiority.
“I had to have parents, though. People don’t just get born from nothing.”
“You know what, Gabe? I was just a boy then. Babies appeared from the infant-care building and were given to parents. I accepted it. I never knew anything else. I never asked where the babies had come from.”
Gabe had hooted with laughter. “Hah! Where do babies come from? Every kid asks that!”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com