Patiently Matty had helped him to rebait his hook. “You need knowledge,” he said. “That’s how Jonas got to be Leader, by studying.”
“I don’t want to be Leader.”
“Neither do I. But I want to know stuff. Don’t you?”
Gabe sighed. “Some stuff, maybe. Not math. Not grammar.”
Matty had laughed. Then he had turned serious again for a moment. “And Gabe?”
“You’re going to find that you have a gift of some kind. Some of us do, and you’re going to be one. I can tell.”
Gabe busied himself with the worm and the hook. For some reason the conversation had begun to make him self-conscious.
“I know,” Matty said, “it’s hard to talk about it because it’s hard to understand. But it’s another reason why you must study. You must make yourself ready. Someday you’ll be called upon for something special. Maybe something dangerous. So you have to prepare yourself, Gabe. You’ll need knowledge.”
“Look,” Gabe said loudly, changing the subject, and pointed. “There’s a big trout over there where the rock makes a shadow. He’s hiding. But he sees us. Look at his eyes.”
Matty sighed affectionately and turned his attention to the large fish suspended in the dark water by the rock. It withdrew further, as if it felt their sudden interest, and its shiny eyes darted back and forth. Matty watched. “He thinks he can escape us by lurking there in the dark. But not us, Gabe! We’re too clever for him. Let’s do it. Let’s try to get him.”
Thinking of it now, Gabe remembered it all: the laughter, the puzzling conversation, the sunshine that day, the sound of the slow-moving river, and then their stealthy maneuvers as they stalked the huge, silvery fish, finally caught him, and then threw him back. It had all been years ago, and they had never had another chance to talk in that way.
Matty had been correct, though, about needing to learn stuff. Gabe had tried hard to settle into his studies, and it served him well now, the math he had hated, as he measured and fitted together the pieces of his boat.
But he found himself wishing now that he had not felt so awkward, that he had confided in Matty that day. He had just discovered it then, the power that he had, the power to veer, and was still confused by it.
It had been at a feast, one of the usual celebrations. Probably Midsummer, he thought now, remembering it. With the other boys his age, eight and nine, he had joined the crowd watching a contest. Two of the village men were wrestling. Their bodies were smeared with oil so that their hands slid as they tried to grasp at each other. The crowd shouted encouragement and the men repositioned themselves, shifting on their feet, each waiting for the right instant, the right move, to topple the other and emerge as the winner. Gabe, watching intently, found his own bare feet shifting in the dirt; he panted, imitating the wrestlers. He focused on his own favorite, the man called Miller, who was in charge of grain production each fall. Miller was a large man and a likable one who sometimes on slow workdays organized the boys into teams and taught them intricate games on the playing field. Even in the midst of this intense match, Miller was laughing as he caught his opponent in a hold and struggled to down him.
Gabe, moving his own skinny body in imitation of the wrestlers, found himself wondering how it felt to be Miller: to be so strong, so in command of his muscles and limbs. Suddenly an odd silence enveloped him. He stopped hearing the grunts of the wrestlers, the shouts of the crowd, the barking of dogs, the music from the fiddlers preparing nearby. And he felt himself move, in the silence. He veered—though the word had not yet come to him then—and entered Miller. Became Miller. Experienced Miller. Was Miller for that instant. He knew, briefly, how it felt to be strong, to be in command, to be winning, to be loving the battle and the coming win.
Then sound returned. Gabe returned. The crowd roared in approval and Miller stood with his arms raised, victorious, then leaned forward and helped his laughing opponent up. Gabe slid to the ground and huddled there in the cheering crowd, breathing hard, exhausted, confused, and exhilarated.
After that day it had happened again, several times, until he could feel it coming, and then—later—found that he could command and control the veer. Once, he remembered guiltily, he tried to use it to cheat in school. Seated at his desk, floundering over a math test—fractions, which he had not studied the way he should have—he glanced up at Mentor, the schoolmaster. Mentor was standing near the window, looking at the board on which the test questions had been written.
If I could veer into Mentor right now, enter Mentor, Gabe thought, I could grab all of the answers to these test problems. He concentrated. He closed his eyes and thought about Mentor, about his knowledge, about what it would feel like to be Mentor. Sure enough, the silence came. He felt his consciousness shift and move toward the schoolmaster. Within seconds he was there, within the man, experiencing being Mentor.
The veer worked. But not in the way Gabe had planned. He found no math answers there. Instead he had an overwhelming feeling of a kind of passion: for knowledge, for learning of all sorts—and for the children who sat that day at the small desks, as Gabe did. He felt Mentor’s love for his students and his hopes for them and what they would learn from him.
The veer ended suddenly, as it always did, and Gabe put his head into his hands. The sounds of the classroom returned, and the schoolmaster appeared beside him.
“Are you all right, Gabriel?”
Gabe found himself shaking. He had tears in his eyes. “I don’t feel well,” he whispered.
Mentor excused him for the rest of the day and Gabe walked slowly away from the schoolhouse, promising himself that he would study, that he would not disappoint his teacher again as he had so often in the past.
He never told anyone. Veering seemed a private act, something to both savor and sometimes dread alone.
Now, though, he found himself wishing he had confided in Matty when he’d had the opportunity. Not only about the veer. He wished he had told Matty about how desperately he yearned to know about his mother. He couldn’t tell his lodge-mates; they would laugh. But Matty would have understood. And it was lonely, to yearn so, all alone.
He reached down into the path, picked up a small pebble, and tossed it toward Matty’s gravestone. It tapped lightly against the rock and fell to the ground where other pebbles lay near the flowers. He had thrown each of them. “Hi,” Gabe whispered.
Ahead, from the Pavilion where gatherings were held, he heard music and the happy shouts of children. He thought of his friends, of the games they were already playing, and of the contests and dancing later. He thought of pretty Deirdre with the sprinkling of freckles across her nose. He saw smoke and could smell the pigs that had been roasting on a spit most of the day. He knew Kira would have made a pie, and there would be thick cream swirled with honey to mound on top of it. Gabe left the cemetery and his somber thoughts behind him and began to run toward the party.
Her back ached badly. It had ached for a long time now, for several years, but it was getting worse, and Claire had difficulty straightening herself. She walked bent.
She had gone to see Herbalist, the man who dispensed medicines to villagers. But it was clear that his remedies were the same that she had learned in her years with Alys. The drinking of birch and willow tea would ease the pain a bit but could not take it away.
Herbalist had asked her the obvious question: “What is your age?”
“I don’t know,” she replied to him. That was true. She had been a young girl when she was washed from the sea to the place where she had lived for years. She had grown up there and become a young woman. She had left there and become, overnight, old. It was not a question of years.
Herbalist was not surprised by her answer. Many people who had found their way to the village had little memory of their own past. He prescribed the bark infusions for her aches but said to her, “Such pain comes for us all, in great age.”
“I know,” Claire said. She had no wish to explain what had befallen her.
Herbalist lifted her arm gently and felt the thin, sagging skin. Carefully he examined the dark spots on the backs of her hands. “Do you still have teeth?” he asked.
“Some,” she said, and showed him.
“And your eyes? Ears?”
She could still see and hear.
“So,” Herbalist said with a smile, “you can’t dance or chew meat. But if you can hear the birds sing and watch the wind in the leaves, then you still have much pleasure left.
“Your time is limited now, though,” he told her, “so you should enjoy everything you can. That’s what I do. I think I must be as old as you. I have the same aches.” He wrapped the dried barks for her, and she placed them in her carrying basket.
“I’ll see you at the feast,” he said as she turned to go. “We can watch the dancing and remember our young years. There is pleasure in that.”
Claire thanked him, leaned on her cane, and continued down the path to her small cottage. In the distance she could hear some young boys shouting as they played some sort of game with a ball. Perhaps one was Gabe. She rarely found him at games, lately, though; most often he was alone in the clearing near the river, hammering away on the misshapen vessel that he called his boat. Claire often stood hidden in the trees and watched him at work. In a way she admired his dedication to the odd project. But it saddened and puzzled her, his wish to be gone.
When she had entered the village for the first time, like so many others, she had been welcomed, years before. The fragility of old age was new to her then, and it had still startled her when she rose in the morning with her bones aching and stiff. The memory of running, climbing, even dancing, was alive and throbbing within her, but frailty made her hobble and limp.
She had seen her son for the first time, in this place, when he was a child of eight or nine. She remembered that day. He ran along the path near the cottage to which she had been assigned, calling to his friends, laughing, his unkempt hair bright in the sunlight. “Gabe!” she heard a boy call; but she would have known him without hearing it. It was the same smile she remembered, the same silvery laugh.
She had moved forward in that moment, intending to rush to him, to greet and embrace him. Perhaps she would make the silly face, the one with which they had once mimicked each other. But when she started eagerly toward him, she forgot her own weakness; her dragging foot caught on a stone and she stumbled clumsily. Quickly she righted herself, but in that moment she saw him glance toward her, then look away in disinterest. As if looking through his eyes, she perceived her own withered skin, her sparse gray hair, the awkward gait with which she moved. She stayed silent, and turned away, thinking.
Did he need to know, after all? He appeared to be a happy child. If she were to make herself known, to tell her unbelievable story, he would be stunned, uncomprehending. His friends might taunt him. Perhaps he would reject her. Or worse—perhaps he would feel obligated to tend her in her remaining days. His carefree life would be interrupted. She would be a burden, an embarrassment.
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