Zander stretched, staring toward the patch of ocean he could see through the trees.
Zander whirled around to face his mother who leaned over the porch railing to look around the side of the house at him.
“You’re never going to get the house painted if you keep staring out to sea.”
“I’m almost done,” Zander assured her, dipping his brush back into the paint. But he wouldn’t be done today, and he wouldn’t be able to see Nehma and Jorn if they returned. Zander first began painting the house three days ago, and when he’d finished at sunset, he’d gone down to the pier to see if his father’s boat was near. Instead he found a sponge in his rowboat — a soft velvety sponge. Zander could only conclude that his new friends had given him the rare treat from their ocean home, and he’d missed their visit, being trapped beside the house until the painting was finished.
Zander worked as quickly as he could. When the light faded, he put his paint and brush away and limped down to the pier.
Something moved in the bottom of the rowboat. Zander leaned forward to see better in the fading light and then jumped back. The lobster was over a foot long. Its red claws were tied together, and Zander’s small fish net kept it from climbing free of the boat.
Zander’s gaze left the incredibly large lobster and scanned the surface of the water. Then he studied the sky. “Nehma? Jorn?” He didn’t want his voice to carry back to the house with his mother and grandfather.
No response. He’d missed them again!
Zander waited until he heard his mother calling. “Coming,” he shouted. He studied the lobster a moment to determine the best way to grab the net, and then carried the creature back to the house. “Hey,” he said, as he mounted the steps to the porch. “Look what lost its way.”
“Oh!” His mother’s eyes grew wide. “How did you catch that?”
His grandfather whistled. “I never saw one that big.” Then he winked. “Never saw any next to the house before.”
Zander rolled his eyes. “I found it at the pier. I was checking to see if Dad would be back.”
“You know he said he wouldn’t,” his mother said, finally coming to take the net and the squirming crustacean from him. “Get a bucket of water, dear. We won’t be able to take him to market until morning now.”
“Market? But we should eat….” Zander was sure that if he ever did see Nehma again he would ask how he enjoyed his gifts.
“Nonsense,” his mother said. “We have plenty of bluefish.”
Zander gritted his teeth together to keep from speaking. He was glad he’d never shown his family his soft new sponge. They were always practical, and any good catch or haul was sold, keeping only serviceable items to use themselves.
Zander did as his mother asked before starting his evening chores. As he tended the cow and the three horses, Zander pondered what he could give Nehma and Jorn as valuable as the large lobster and soft sponge. How could he possibly buy something that special? Even if he had time, he could never find anything like that around here.
It was three days between the first gift and the second, and Zander was relieved that three days later he had the day free. He still didn’t have a gift though, but as he started for his rowboat, he decided to head along the cliff top to see if he could see Nehma or Jorn. Along the way, he noticed the small wild strawberries, and he squatted to gather the ripe ones into his pack with his lunch. As he continued up the path, a sand phoenix rose, light diffusing through its colorful wings. A pink hopper jerked in its talons, and then tumbled to the path. Zander put the suffering animal out of its misery, then he gutted it, and wrapped it into his pack. He’d have fresh meat and strawberries for lunch instead of the dried bluefish he’d brought with him.
Zander reached the top of the cliff face and scanned the air before him, but he saw no dark bird man. Neither did he see their boat on the water. Zander sighed and left the cliff. He could at least row out to the island and wait. Perhaps he could spend the time carving the felderwood he’d found yesterday. The broken end of the dried wood had reminded him of wingdeer wings, and he need only find the rest of its body in the thick branch. Several times he’d traded his carvings for things he wanted, such as his long bow. He hoped he’d be able to trade this one to get a gift worthy of his new friends.
He rowed out and set up a fire on the western shore of the island where he’d met Nehma and Jorn before. Then he skinned the hopper and spitted it to roast. He rolled up the soft, pink fur and set it beside his cross bow. He set out three plates for his meal later, hoping he would have his two new friends join him. Then he settled to wait with his small knife and felderwood.
Zander managed to carve out the wingdeer’s head. He paused from detailing the eyes to turn the hopper on the spit. He almost knocked the hopper into the fire in surprise. Nehma crouched several feet from him, watching him.
“I did not mean to startle you,” Nehma said. “What are you making?”
“Roasted hopper.” Zander noted it was cooked and took it from the fire to set with the berries on a plate. “Are you hungry?” He glanced to the beach and then the sky. He saw neither the boat nor Jorn. “Are you alone?”
“Jorn’s wing is not healed enough for travel yet.” Nehma settled beside the food when Zander motioned him over. “Have you spoken of us to anyone?”
Nehma smiled. “Thanks.”
“Jorn will be alright, then?”
“I hoped you would come,” Zander said, motioning to the plates. “You left the sponge and the lobster, didn’t you?”
Nehma grinned again. “We have a different word. I left a mink sponge and a red claw.”
Zander laughed. “It was red and it definitely had claws. I never saw one that big before. And the sponge, it was so soft. I wanted to give you something just as good….” Zander sighed and let his gaze rest on the food. He decided to divide it between them just to be doing something. “I wish I could. We’re not a rich family and… and my mother made me sell the lobster at market. I didn’t show her the sponge. I wish….” Zander twisted to grab his felderwood and held it up. “I’m going to see if I can sell this carving, and then I’ll buy something for you and Jorn, okay?”
Nehma reached for it and his eyes opened wider as he examined the small, partially finished carving. “It’s a flying elk! I wish Jorn could see this. He loves flying with the elk.”
“Really?” Then an unlikely thought hit him. “Would you like the carving when I’m finished?”
“It is beautiful,” Nehma said, handing it back to him. “We have nothing like it. Our carving is done for tools. My father makes boats. Sometimes someone will request a cluster symbol be carved, but it is not like that, but carved into something else, like a boat or platter.”
Zander felt relief rush over him. “Then this would be a good gift for you? I’ve been trying so hard to come up with something that would be good enough.”
Nehma gave him a smile. “It is perfect, Zanderterrani. Jorn and I are the Flying Elk Cluster. I have a gift for you, also, but I left it by your boat.” Nehma motioned to the food. “I have never eaten food like this before. What kind of animal is that?” He took a small bite of the meat on the plate Zander had given him.
“It’s a hopper. You have hopper’s where you live, don’t you? They’re everywhere.”
Nehma eyed what was left on the spit. “Perhaps our words are different again, like red claw.”
“And flying elk. We call them wingdeer.” Zander reached for his hopper skin and unrolled it. Then he tried to show it three dimensionally. “See? A hopping creature with long ears — bigger than a kittle, smaller than a velwolf.”
Nehma reached out to stroke the pink fur. “It is so soft. And the color. This lives on land? There is no animal this bright on our island. How do they hide?”
Zander handed the fur to Nehma, more relief welling through him. There were lots of things he could give Nehma after all. “Here. It needs to be scraped and smoked, but if I give it to my mom to do, it’ll get sold.” He shrugged. “Hoppers have lots of babies, and their bright colors don’t come in until their second year, and it’s just the males. Females are pretty much brown, grey, or green — well, mostly. Sometimes a female is a pastel.” He could tell the word pastel meant nothing to Nehma. “It’s like they’re almost white, but they have a light pink, or blue, or orange, or green tint.”
“Wow. It must be beautiful here, like under the ocean.”
“It’s those geneticists….” Zander caught himself, and blushed, unsure how Nehma and Jorn felt about those that had bioengineered their race. Did they even know how they came to be?
Nehma had just put a small strawberry into his mouth and he seemed to be enjoying it, his eyes closing as he savored the fruit. “This is so good,” he finally said. “I wish we had these on our island.”
“I could give you some strawberry plants,” Zander offered. “You could plant them in a good spot on your island.”
Nehma grinned. “I would like that. But I couldn’t take them now. I don’t have the boat. Perhaps I can bring it next time. I think Jorn will be able to sail, but it will be at least midsummer before he can fly again.” He ate another strawberry. “Do the geneticists live near here?” he asked casually. Zander was so surprised by the question he almost didn’t note that Nehma was studying him and his reaction.
Zander met Nehma’s gaze. “The geneticists were killed in the riots over 150 years ago.”
“All of them?” Nehma almost rose to his feet and glanced around as if looking for those long ago geneticists or perhaps the people who rioted and killed them. “But….” His gaze fell on the hopper. “You said they designed that.”
“Yeah. Years ago.”
Nehma sunk down. “Back when they altered us. Our histories just said they left us, not that they were killed. Is all their knowledge gone also? No one apprenticed to them? Why did the people kill them? What did they do wrong?”
Zander couldn’t help his laugh of shock. “What did they do wrong? You don’t think….” Zander caught himself. No, Nehma must not think that the altering and experimenting with human DNA was a crime. He finally shrugged. “It was long ago. I just know that they were evil, and the townspeople revolted against their abuses. But because of that, the rest of the galaxy cut us off, and then made us a penal world — a world where they send criminals, and we aren’t allowed to have any technology that would help us get off the planet.” He paused. “You didn’t know any of that?”
Nehma shook his head. He seemed a bit let down.
“Why did you want to meet a geneticist?”
Nehma gave him a quiet smile. “Guess I did, didn’t I? I hadn’t really let myself believe that, but you are right. It would be fascinating to talk with someone who knows so much about us. And they might tell us how to stop the disease. Jorn and I are studying to be doctors. You have no doctors here?”
Zander shrugged. “There are doctors in other villages and cities. A doctor just came to Worthington about a month ago, but I haven’t met him yet. My father says it’s too late to bother him about my leg, anyway.” He could see Nehma’s interest so he told him. “I fell off a cliff last year. I was trying to catch a wingdeer. My hip healed wrong.”
Nehma gave a slight nod. “We have only been training for not quite a year. But we hope to learn all we can.” He paused a moment to savor another strawberry. “I look forward to these plants. How often do they produce fruit.”
“Mostly in the spring.”
“Have you ever thought of being a doctor?”
Nehma nodded. “I never thought about being a doctor, but when the doctors asked if we would be their apprentices, we both knew we wanted it. Jorn especially. Both his elmother and his merfather have died. Where are you apprenticing? You are near our years, aren’t you? I’m 16 years and Jorn is now 17 years.”
“I’ll be fifteen in a few weeks. I was supposed to work on my father’s boat, but since my fall, he and my brothers don’t want me. I don’t know that anyone will want to teach me anything now.” Zander felt the bitterness coming through that he fought so hard to hide. He really did have no future. Could he even marry someday if he had no work? How would he obtain a home? Zander could imagine caring for himself with his bow and by keeping a few animals and a garden, but he didn’t know how to get to that first step. How did he get the home and barn and land for a garden? It seemed impossible, especially when his family expected any coins he earned to go into the family pot. He could never save money for a home of his own. He’d have to start hiding every carving from them, as he’d planned with the wingdeer so he could sell it.
Nehma watched him. “You have brothers?”
Zander nodded. “Two. They’re older. My sister is already married.”
“They wish to work without you? Are you not bonded for life?”
“Am I what?”
“Bonded. Like Jorn and I. We will be together all our lives now. Even if Jorn could not fly again, we would find a way to work together.”
Zander shook his head. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about. My brothers… Are our words different again? Brother to me means we have the same parents. You called Jorn your brother, but… you really don’t have the same parents, do you? His parents are bird people, and yours are fish people, right?”
Nehma smiled. “You mean you have siblings. Yes, we use the word brother differently. Brothers are chosen by the elders. One Elsue and one Merree, and we are bonded for life to work together for the good of the community. You have nothing like that?”
Zander shook his head. “‘Cept marriage.”
Nehma smiled. “We will marry wives also — a pair of bonded sisters.”
Zander could only shake his head again. “What if you wanted someone who was bonded to a different person than the bird woman Jorn wanted to marry?”
“Why would I want that?”
“So he chooses your wife?”
Nehma ate more strawberries before he seemed to nod. “There must be many more women here. We are a very small community. There are not many women. Brothers with low rank never even have the opportunity to marry, especially since many women die young. It would be interesting if you studied with your doctor. Maybe we can learn from each other. Even though the geneticists are dead, perhaps your doctors know things that can help. And I can get you many deep sea medicinal plants.”
“I’m crippled. The doctor wouldn’t want to train me.”
Nehma cocked his head. “You can walk. Is running and jumping essential for doctors here?” Then he sighed. “I am sorry. It is not for me to say where you should prefer to work just because Jorn and I are studying to be doctors. But I do hope we can continue to learn from each other.” He grabbed another strawberry. “These are very good.”
“Yes. I want us to be friends, too. When will you want the strawberry plants? I’ll have them ready, and this fur and the wingdeer sculpture when you come back.”
“Seven days. Jorn will be well enough to sail by then, I think.” Nehma stood and studied the sky. “I should start back. A storm is coming.”
Zander followed his gaze and realized he was right. He needed to get back home before it reached the island. Nehma helped him gather his things together and walked with him back to the rowboat.
A large flat shell rested on the bottom of the boat, its pearlescent inside reflecting the quickly disappearing light. “Hey, that’s huge. I’ve never seen one that big.”
Nehma smiled. “I will see you here in seven days.” He glanced back at the sky. “Unless there is a storm. Then it may be two days after. It is always busy in the ward the day after a storm.” Then he dived into the water and was gone.
A sharp wind jerked Zander from his shock at Nehma’s abrupt disappearance. He needed to get back home. His rowboat would be unmanageable if the winds and waves became too severe.
The storm blew itself out right before dawn, Zander knew because he’d barely slept at all. It hadn’t taken much thought to realize that his new friend wanted to exchange medical knowledge more than fruit or carvings. His father and brothers had arrived home right before Zander had yesterday, and at dinner he’d asked in what he’d hoped was an offhand way, “Think I could get work in town?”
His eldest brother had laughed. “Doing what? Picking berries?”
“Don’t you stay busy enough here,” his father said, not even glancing up from his chowder.
“Yeah, but… I don’t want to be a burden on my family forever.”
“Don’t be begging from the Village. We can take care of our own. We don’t need charity.”
“Wouldn’t be charity if I worked,” he protested, but at his father’s stern glance he focused on his chowder and only the sound of the storm was heard.
But as he prepared for bed later, his grandfather called him to his room to straighten his few books that had fallen. As Zander had set the last one in place, his grandfather whispered, “You go find you a job. You can do plenty. You could even work on that boat with them. Your father had a lazy uncle, caused his father, your grandpa Terrani, lots of grief. All he can see is your lazy uncle. He doesn’t see you. You’re not lazy, and you’ll never be a burden. Go on. Find your niche. You’re smarter than your brothers, and if you need someone to vouch for ya, tell them to see me.” He cuffed his shoulder lightly and then waved him out of the room.
Now as the light slowly crept into his room, Zander tried to plan how he would approach the doctor. Maybe he could run errands or clean his stable, and he’d be able to overhear the doctor as he worked.
He heard his father get up and knew he better go tend the animals. Zander was relieved to learn that his father was setting sail, hoping to catch anything exotic that may have been churned up by the storm and all the fish that would be looking for such finds also.
After tending the animals and letting them graze in the small pasture behind the barn, he changed into his best clothes. He tried to leave quietly, but his mother caught him. “Zander! It’s a mud hole out there. Change your clothes.”
“I’m going to town,” he said, slipping out the door and pretending not to hear her protests.
The problem was that she was right. No matter how he tried to be careful, the road to town was a mess. Zander thought he’d made it without too much damage when a horse and rider trotted by, splashing mud up even into his face.
Zander paused under a tree before the doctor’s house on the edge of town. The doctor owned one horse, which grazed in the fenced area beside the house and barn. On the other side of the house was a small garden. Zander tried to wipe the mud off his face with his sleeve, but had a feeling he was just smearing it. He took a deep breath. Should he come back a different, less messy day without mud on his face? His mother would scold him good for going out in these clothes.
Zander walked toward the house, and then when he reached the path to the door, he went past, too nervous to go up. But then he saw the doctor working in his garden. He’d never met him, but he knew him because he was the only new person in the village. Dr. Ryans, Zander reminded himself. Slowly he walked across the grass to the small fence surrounding the garden, rehearsing his offer to help.
When Zander reached the fence, the doctor straightened and lifted a bucket of weeds, his thin body not as tall as Zander had thought. “Just go on in,” he said. “I’ll go around back with this and be with you in a moment.”
Zander felt his mouth drop open, but none of his offers to help came out. When the doctor turned toward the back of the house, Zander finally forced himself to limp to the front door. With a deep breath he turned the knob and entered the front room. Several chairs and sofas were positioned around the exterior of the room, most of it looked mildly worn, even though he had just moved there. Zander studied the worn throw rug and then the walls which were mostly bare. His father said that doctors were rich, but this man’s home didn’t look any richer than theirs. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to hire him after all.
Zander wasn’t sure if he should sit in the chair or not. He decided standing would be more polite. He stared down the hall toward the back of the house where he could hear the doctor washing up.
It was several minutes before the doctor appeared at the far end of the hall. He strode to a doorway on the north side of the hall and motioned Zander to it. He waited and watched as Zander limped down the hallway and then into the room. It was a small, but well lit room with a row of windows high along the far side. There was a counter on one side and bed in the middle of the room, although the bed was a foot higher than his own and looked much firmer.
Dr. Ryans studied his hip as he came away from the door. “I could have come out to you, if you’d sent a runner. Does it hurt more to sit?”
“Huh? My hip? It doesn’t hurt much at all anymore. And I can do most anything you need done,” he added, and then blushed, realizing he’d scrambled things. “I mean, I came because, I wondered if, I mean, I can work for free, even. I just need to learn. I mean….” Zander trailed off. He hadn’t made things any better, and the doctor just stared at him. “I could run your errands,” Zander added meekly.
“I… yes. My leg doesn’t slow me down much. I can tend your horse and barn. I can garden. I can….” He sighed. Why was the man looking at him that way?
“Why don’t you let me look at your hip? How did you hurt it?”
“It’s okay,” Zander insisted. “I fell off the cliff last year, but it’s fine. I’m not an invalid. I’m a hard worker. I promise.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I bet you are.” He motioned Zander to sit on the bed as he pulled up a wooden chair. When they were both seated he said, “Why don’t you let me help you first, and then we can talk about how you can work off your bill.”
Zander shook his head. “There is nothing wrong with me. It’s too late for my hip, my father says. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Your father may be right. But I won’t know for sure unless I know more about the injury. But if you don’t think I could help you, why do want to work for me?” He gave a slight grin. “For free even, you said. What do you get out of this? Room and board, maybe? And why me instead of someone else in the village?”
Zander bit his lip. This was it. “I want to learn about medicine,” he admitted.
The doctor’s eyes opened wider and he sat back. “Really?” He took a deep breath as he studied Zander. “But you said you’d work my stables or run errands.”
“Yeah,” Zander said, his throat now so dry and tight he could barely do more than whisper. “Just… just let me watch sometimes. I won’t get in the way. I promise.”
The doctor studied him. As the silence continued, Zander began to wonder what the man was waiting for. Then he saw a small smile on his lips. He leaned forward. “I’m afraid I’ve bumbled again, haven’t I? I haven’t even introduced myself, so sure I was that I knew your errand.” He held out his hand. “I’m Owen Ryans.”
Zander gave his hand a quick shake. “I’m Zander Terrani.”
“Terrani. I don’t believe I’ve met any of your family yet.”
“We live North, right by the ocean. My father and brothers are fishermen.”
Zander blushed and shrugged. “I guess they don’t need me.” But then he met the doctor’s gaze. “But I can work hard. My hip doesn’t keep me from doing much of anything, except maybe running.”
“Can you read? How much schooling have you had?”
“All of it. Miss Johnas, I mean Mrs. Haver was the teacher then. She knows.” He decided not to mention that he’d completed all the work a year and a half before expected and that his father hadn’t believed him, nor bothered to verify his claims, which left him wandering the cliff face last spring, wondering how he could convince his father that he was old enough to join him at sea. And then he’d seen the wingdeer.
“Aah, now I know Mrs. Haver. I saw her last week. How about we have a one month trial to see how we’ll work together. Do you have any commitments I need to be aware of? Any time you won’t be available?”
“No.” He thought of Nehma and Jorn. “Well, I have two friends — from far away — who come to see me sometimes. He’ll be here in seven days, er six now, unless the weather’s bad. I… Would you… I mean, my friend is the one who suggested I try… I….” He trailed off, knowing he sounded stupid, but also knowing he could never tell him or anyone else anything about Nehma and Jorn. Even now he may have said too much.
“I think I can spare you once a week,” Dr. Ryans said. He looked as if he might say more, but then he shrugged and stood. “Let me show you your room, and then you may bring your belongings.”
“Room? I….” His mind raced over what his parents would say, but he quickly quelled his anxiety at the doctor’s sharp look. He’d already received a concession from his new employer to see Nehma and Jorn. If he wanted him here, then Zander would stay here. “Yes, Sir,” he finished quickly, scrambling to his feet to follow Dr. Ryans from the room.
“And Zander,” Dr. Ryans said, “when you return you will tell me more about your hip injury.”
Go to Chapter 11
© 2013, 2006 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.