Monday, November 25, 2019

Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, Wherever You Are

A child awakens in a field overlooking a seaside cliff. It is near dusk. Realizing it is late, she runs, hands feeling the tall grasses as she blows through them like the wind through her hair. Overhead the first pinholes of light are dotting the sky. An electric and crackling voice calls through the compound's speakers that are ahead of her.

"Ilia, come home. Enough fresh air for today."

Hearing her name, Ilia adds an extra step to her speed. As she runs she pulls her hair back into a ponytail. The hair is free during free time only. The child is free during free time only. In through the rusted gate she pushes, making sure to lock it behind her. She is almost home now so she slows her pace. She walks a path cut into the dirt. On each side of her, hundreds of weather vanes and whirligigs of different shapes and sizes move rhythmically.

They are her friends and she stops to greet a few of them. Her favorites are the silver rooster with a few flecks of red on its comb and a crazy cat that looks like it's running fast. She does not greet the frog though. They are not friends. Not anymore.

Home is a door in the side of a hill. The only light that enters into Ilia's home is from the four pane window in the upper part of the door. The rest is a sturdy oak reinforced in places with metal plates. She slides a key from around her neck into the lock and turns it carefully one way, then the other. The door unlocks and she enters, making sure to lockup behind her.

As she walks down the long corridor, she traces her fingers against the pebbling of the concrete walls. When she enters the main room her mother is sitting beside a table with a shortwave radio. Around them a few empty chairs and couch sit atop a large multicolored rug. The only light from a halogen lamp strung from the ceiling. Seeing her daughter she beckons for her to join her.

"Ilia, where have you been all this time? You know how I worry when you're gone too long."

"I'm sorry, mama," she responds. "I was staring at the clouds above forming shapes, and the next thing I knew they'd become stars."

Her mother raises a finger to scold her then drops it instead with a heavy sigh.

"You must be careful to observe the times," Her mother cautions. "Did you see anyone?"

"No, mama. No mans or boats or anything."

Her mother nods and turns to flick a couple of switches on the radio. Turning the dials finds only static with the occasional pop and hiss. She flips the off switch and turns to her daughter.

"Now, young miss, looks like you went out without boots again."

"I like the feel of the ground."

"And the dirt. Off you go, to the basin and wash those feet."

"But I had a bath two days ago."

"And I said nothing of baths. Wash those feet before you get mud on my carpet. Then get ready for chores."

Ilia obeys and walks down another corridor to the washroom. She undoes her hair, washing her face and hands before her feet. After she is clean she changes into her work clothes. A shattered sliver of mirror shows her slim frame now covered by the brown rags she's wearing. I am the burlap baby. I am the patched child.

From the other room she hears her mother excitedly calling. Quickly she darts back out. Her mother is frantically clicking a button on the part she speaks into. She is speaking words Ilia has heard before but doesn't understand. Every few seconds her mother stops to listen.

"Get the welding gear," her mother tells her anxiously, before heading into the third and last corridor.

"But we always do domestics first," Ilia calls after her.

"No domestics tonight. Hurry."

Ilia grabs the welding gear from a metal shelf by the couch. Two masks, two pairs of gloves, and a torch. In the third hall her mother is stripping weather vanes apart. She arrives in time to see a bear shaped vane get pounded by a hammer. Bear was an old friend. A good friend. Her mother grabs the gear and starts putting it on.

"Why is your hair down? You know it's dangerous when we weld."

Ilia grabs her dark brown hair and pulls it back into a band. She slides the too big mask and gloves on. Her mother's golden hair has already been tied into a knot and hangs down all the way to her waist. When she was younger, Ilia would play with her mother's long hair, twirling it in her fingers and watching the sunlight get caught in between the strands.

Her mother grabs the torch and lights it up. She motions to Ilia who grabs the bear and holds him up against the concrete wall. Each of the walls in this corridor are lined with veins of metal from the backs of Ilia's old friends. She watches in dismay as bear slowly becomes a part of the wall. A part of corridor three.

"Why are we doing this, mama?" Ilia asks.

"I've told you before. This tunnel is like a big antenna that makes the radio's signal stronger. The more we add, the stronger the signal."

"I know that," Ilia responds. "I mean why are we making the signal stronger?"

"So we can find others."

"But why do we want to find others? Aren't we enough?"

Ilia's mother turns off the torch and raises her mask to look at her daughter.

"Wouldn't you like to have some friends to play with?"

"I have friends."

"Real friends. Ones that can run with you when you're out in the fields playing."

"I have you," Ilia states defiantly.

"But you won't always. One day, I'll be gone. I want to know you won't be alone when that happens."

Ilia puts her mask back down, but her mother lifts it again and wipes the tears forming in the corner of her eyes. The torch is almost dropped as Ilia hugs her neck. After a few minutes of rocking her daughter the tears are dried and the work is resumed.

"Is that the only reason?" Ilia asks, holding up a long rusty piece.

Her mother continues welding even as she talks.

"You remember what I told you about God? How he's always talking to us, and we just have to learn how to listen?"

"You think God is going to speak to us through the radio?"

"Not exactly," her mother responds. "Well, maybe in a way. I think God uses all kinds of ways to talk to us. It's our job to be prepared when he does."

"Why couldn't God just knock on the door? My arms are getting tired."

Her mother laughs.

Suddenly, from the other room, the sound of crackling static mingles with the strains of music. Mother and daughter look at each other before bolting to the room. Gloves and masks shed as the two run.

Ilia's mother sits down in front of the shortwave and begins twisting dials, fighting the static that threatens to overwhelm. There's a fading in and out of music and a voice neither can quite make out. At last just as the music is ending her mother manages to get it clear, just in time to hear the final few words.

"Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."

After that there is only static again. The two sit there stunned for a few minutes, not saying anything. Listening to cracks and pops as if they're holding new secrets to be divulged. Finally, Ilia is the one to break the silence.

"Was that God, mama?" she asks.

"Not exactly," her mother responds. "Well, maybe. In a way."

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