Gabe shook his head and looked away. He wanted to be someplace else. Off with his lodge-mates. Building another boat. Sinking another boat. He didn’t care. Anywhere but here, listening to this unbelievable story being told to him by a man he loved. And last night this same man had talked of the need to destroy someone. It was scary. It was sad.
He turned to Jonas and tried to speak in a soothing voice. “You know what? You’ve been working awfully hard. Probably reading too much. You should take a long walk along the river. Have a nice relaxing, restful . . .”
“Gabe. Listen to me! We don’t have much time. This is not a wild made-up thing. This is real. She remembers you. She remembers me. She—” Jonas paused and took a deep breath. “I know you were very young when we left the community, so you won’t recall these things. But I do, Gabe. I remember seeing her there. She used to work at the fish hatchery. But in her spare time she came to the nurturing center and helped out. She did that because you were there, Gabe.
“She had given birth to you. It’s the way things were done there. Young girls produced babies—they weren’t called babies; they were called newchildren. The birthmothers turned them out like factory products. Then the babies were moved to the nurturing center, and eventually assigned to couples who applied for children.”
“That’s how your parents got you?” Gabe asked.
“So some girl had given birth to you?”
“But you don’t know who?”
Jonas shook his head.
“And some other girl—or maybe it was the same one?—gave birth to me years later—”
“Claire gave birth to you. You were the only child she ever had.”
“But you’re saying she ended up working in the fish place.”
Jonas nodded. “Yes, they determined that she couldn’t handle any more births. She had difficulty when you were born. So they gave her another job. But she spent all her time watching over you. She loved you, Gabe. But love wasn’t permitted.”
Gabe leaned down, slipped off one of the sandals he was wearing, and dislodged a pebble that had been rubbing against his toe. He watched a bird flutter in a nearby tree, and noticed that it had a twig in its beak. He examined a scratch on his arm. He yawned, and stretched. He unbuttoned and rebuttoned the neck of his shirt. He investigated his fingernails.
Jonas watched him.
“You know what?” Gabe said at last. “I guess I can believe all of that. You’ve told me before about what the community was like. So: there was a girl; she gave birth to me. I believe that. And, Jonas? I know it’s true that she loved me. But—”
Jonas nodded. “I know. It’s the rest of it.”
“Yes, the rest of it is just crazy. That old woman? I’m supposed to believe that some man in strange-looking clothes—”
He noticed that Jonas was no longer looking at him. He was looking across the grassy area, to the path beyond. Gabe followed Jonas’s gaze and saw Mentor, the elderly schoolmaster, walking slowly along the path. Nothing unusual. It was school vacation now. Mentor was a part of the village. One often saw him walking around.
To his surprise, Jonas rose from the bench and called to Mentor. “Come with me, Gabe,” he said.
He followed Jonas’s quick strides toward the path where Mentor had stopped and was waiting. The bearded schoolmaster was stooped, and his face was lined. But his eyes were keen and intelligent. Gabe had always liked Mentor, even when he had not liked school. “Good morning,” he said. “What can I do for you gentlemen this morning?”
“Mentor,” Jonas began, “I’m trying to explain to Gabe here about Trademaster. About his powers.”
Mentor visibly winced. “That’s of the past,” he said abruptly. “It’s forgotten.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t,” Jonas told him. “We have a rather urgent situation. I’ll describe it to you later. But right now I need you to help me convince Gabe that the powers exist. He finds it hard to believe.”
“It is hard to believe,” Mentor agreed, nodding. “In a peaceful village like this, it is hard to conceive of true evil.”
“We don’t have a lot of time, Mentor. Could you describe, to Gabe, the trade you made?”
Mentor sighed. “This is necessary?” he asked Jonas.
“Necessary and very important.”
Mentor nodded. “I see. Very well, then. It was years ago, Gabe. You were a little boy. I remember how mischievous you were in school. Sometimes inattentive.”
“I know,” Gabe acknowledged in embarrassment.
“You were too young to go to Trade Mart. But surely you knew of it?”
Gabe shrugged. “I guess. It seemed kind of mysterious.”
“Some of us adults went every time. There was a kind of entertainment to it, watching other villagers make fools of themselves. But you didn’t usually attend, did you, Jonas?”
Jonas shook his head. “It didn’t ever interest me until it got out of hand, and by then I was Leader and had to take action.”
“Well, I was a fool. Many of us were. I was an old man—widowed, lonely. I lived with my daughter, but I knew she would marry someday and I’d be alone. I felt sorry for myself. I had this birthmark. The schoolchildren used to called me Rosie because of it; remember, Gabe?”
Gabe looked at the deep red stain on Mentor’s cheek. He nodded. “We didn’t mean any harm.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Mentor smiled. “But I was self-pitying and foolish. And there was a woman, a widow, I was attracted to. You understand about that, don’t you? Boys your age would understand.”
Gabe’s instinct was to pretend ignorance. The question embarrassed him. But with both Mentor and Jonas watching him intently, it seemed a time for honesty. “Yes,” he said. “I understand.”
“So,” Mentor said with a deep sigh, “I went to Trade Mart and for the first time, I asked to make a trade.”
“What did you ask for?”
Mentor laughed, but it was a sardonic laugh. “I told Trademaster that I wanted to be younger, and handsome. I wanted Stocktender’s widow to fall in love with me.”
Gabe looked at the ground. He was embarrassed for Mentor, that he must make such a confession of his own idiocy. “He couldn’t do that kind of transformation, could he? You should have asked for, oh, I don’t know, maybe a set of new desks for the schoolhouse!”
“Evil can do anything, Gabe,” Mentor said, “for a price.”
Gabe stared at him. “What was the price?” he asked, after a moment.
“His terms were vague. Vague enough that they sounded unimportant. He’s very clever, Trademaster is. He sets his terms but we don’t really understand them when we agree to the trade. He told me I would have to trade away my honor.”
“So you said no.”
Mentor shook his head. “I grabbed at it. Eagerly. I told you I was a fool.”
“But, Mentor! You are an honorable man! Everyone knows that. And—I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re not young and handsome. So the trade didn’t work! No one has that kind of power, not even someone evil.”
“Oh, it worked. It worked for many of us here in the village. Me—I grew taller, and my bald spot disappeared. Thick hair where once there had been just this shiny dome! Birthmark? Faded, faded, then poof! Gone! You may not have noticed, Gabe; you were a child then, and it was summer so you weren’t in school. But briefly I was a younger, handsome man. I began courting the pretty widow.
“But you know what, Gabe?”
“What?” Gabe was stunned. So Trademaster, whoever he was, did have incredible powers. He could have made a trade with the woman—what was her name, Claire? He tried to pay attention to what Mentor was saying, but his thoughts now were on what this all meant—what it meant to him, Gabe, and to the woman, Claire, who may have made a terrible trade in order to find her . . . her . . .
“I am her son,” he whispered aloud.
Mentor hadn’t heard him. He continued talking. “I had traded away the most important part of myself. I turned selfish. Cruel. The pretty widow didn’t want a man like that! So I had made a meaningless trade, and I had turned into a person I hated—but a handsome one! And young!”
Gabe forced himself to pay attention to the schoolmaster. “What changed you back? You’re a man of honor now, Mentor.”
“Jonas stepped in. Trade Mart had corrupted the whole village. Many people had traded away their best selves. We turned on each other. There was greed, and jealousy, and . . . Well, it had to end. There was a set of horrible events—we lost one of our best young people—”
“Yes, Matty died, battling the evil. But because of him the rest of us survived and were restored. I got my bald head and my birthmark back!” He laughed. “And I lost my silly romance. Still a bachelor today.”
“And we banished Trademaster,” Jonas reminded them.
“We did. Forever.” Mentor said it with a kind of relief and satisfaction. He turned to leave. Then he said slowly, with a questioning look, “Something’s wrong?”
Jonas nodded. “He’s returned,” he said.
Mentor looked stunned. “So this battle must be waged again?”
Jonas nodded. “This time we must be sure it’s final.”
“Whom do we send this time, to die?” Mentor’s voice was bitter and sad. Like everyone, he had loved Matty.
“I’m going,” Gabe told him.
Mentor was silent. Then, without speaking, he turned away from them.
Gabe and Jonas stood watching the aged schoolmaster walk away. His shoulders were slumped.
“He got himself back,” Gabe said, after a moment.
Jonas nodded. “He did.”
“That means a trade can be reversed,” Gabe said.
“I am too,” Jonas replied. “For you, for all of us.”
She is my mother. She is my mother. Gabe took a deep breath. “How much time do we have?” he asked.
They hurried back to the cottage where Claire was dying. The sun was setting now. Someone had lit an oil lamp on the table. This time, in the flickering golden light, Gabe approached the bed without hesitation. He knew, he thought, what he wanted to say: that he’d been waiting all his life for her to find him. That he understood the sacrifice she had made for him. That it didn’t matter that she was old. What mattered was being together.
But when he knelt beside her, he thought he’d come too late. Her eyes were half open and glazed. Her mouth fell slack. Her hand on the coverlet, when he took it in his, was limp and cold.
Crying unashamedly, Gabe turned to Jonas, who stood behind him. “I wanted to tell her I knew! I wanted to tell her I remember her! But I’m too late,” he wept. “She’s gone.”
Jonas gently moved Gabe aside. He leaned down and touched Claire’s thin, veined neck. Then he rested his head against her chest, listening carefully.
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