The next morning Reyan woke to the rustling-mouse sounds of Avalina preparing for work by the light of a single candle. Reyan sat up and pushed back her hair. It was so dark and Reyan so tired, that she was certain it was the middle of the night and that she had only just fallen asleep. “Where are you going?”
“Well, I have a team of caravan horses to tend to.” Reyan thought there was a forced nonchalance in the other girl’s voice. She wished she could read Avalina’s face. Most people found candle light intriguing, but Reyan found the flickering shadows made faces disconcerting and illegible.
“Wait. I’ll come with you.”
Avalina turned to her, her face widened, a smile Reyan thought. “You can go back to sleep.”
Reyan was certain now. “I’ll get up.” And she got to her feet, got dressed, and the two girls stood next to each other wincing as they took turns pulling Avalina’s brush through their hair.
Breakfast was a groggy affair. The words were soft and movements delicate as though the house were made of the crumbly ice that grows at the river’s edge in late Fall.
Mr. Stableman’s elbows were on the table and his head was in his hands. At first, she thought he was crying, but no one else seemed distressed. Reyan guessed he was trying to breathe in whatever remaining bits of rest might be floating about the dim room. Reyan and Avalina sat on their cold hands, their eyes silently following Ms. Stableman as she shuffled between the smudges of golden light gathered around an oil lamp on the counter, the fire flickering in the stove’s belly, and the single candle growing up from a craggy mound of wax in the middle of the table.
She handed out plates of eggs and sausage and thick crusted bread. When one of the plates clinked against a fork, it sounded like an explosion, and everyone jumped. After that, Mr. Stableman brought up his head and smiled as though pleasantly surprised to find a full plate of food, his family, and an odd visitor all at the table with him.
“Good morning girls,” he croaked and smiled.
“Morning pops,” Avalina whispered.
Reyan didn’t know the correct way to address the man, so she inclined her head instead.
“Hope you slept well, if not long enough.” It sounded a bit like a jest, and a bit like a question, so Reyan was not sure how to react. Should she laugh at his cleverness or give an honest answer? She did neither.
“We did,” Avalina answered.
Ms. Stableman sat down next to her husband directly across the table from Reyan. She was drinking something from a steaming mug. “Did you enjoy yourselves at the keeper’s house.”
Reyan and Avalina looked at each other and through a series of quick expressions agreed that Avalina should be the one to speak, “We did. It was a wonderful dinner. Reyan’s decided to become a professor.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Stableman drew out the words to indicate admiration not skepticism, Reyan thought.
“You’re far too succinct to be a professor,” the man laughed.
“Don’t tease the girl, Brimm.” His wife’s eyes were leveled at Reyan. She saw the corner of the woman’s mouth twitch up into a smile just before being obscured by the rim of her mug.
The talk turned toward the business of the day; Mr. Stableman reminding his daughter of all the things that needed doing and her assuring him that nothing would be neglected. When he circled back to the same list for the third time she simply said, “Dad.”
An easy smile replaced his flat serious expression and he said, “Sorry Avi.” He then turned to Reyan. “So, you’re moving on today I hear. It’s been a treat having you.”
“It has,” said Avalina. She reached beneath the table and grabbed Reyan’s hand. Reyan stiffened with the effort to not jerk her hand away and offend her friend. “Do you think she could stay maybe? Just for a few more days. Through the weekend, so we can enjoy my day off? Then maybe the following weekend we could take her into Seal Tooth ourselves. It’s only a few hours ride from Rowe.”
Reyan had not expected this. While the idea sounded appealing, its suddenness and the unexpected plea in Avalina’s voice surprised her and she didn’t know how to react. In only a few days, her life had branched out in a new direction. Though it had been abrupt and frightening, now she could imagine a future in Seal Tooth. It was still distant, but it was slowly taking shape like something forming from out of a mist. Now that she had seen its outline, she wanted to see its color and feel its texture. Avalina’s idea would turn her away, for a week at least, maybe forever.
Reyan wasn’t the only person around the table who Avalina had ambushed. Her father chuckled and looked around as though searching for something else to talk about. Not finding anything, he blinked then smiled, “As I’ve said, it has been very nice to have Reyankaiya here.”
There was a “but” forming on the man’s lips when, Ms. Stableman coughed, and reached across the table and began stacking plates even though Reyan still had a crust of bread and smear of yolk remaining. “Reyankaiya. You have a long day ahead of you, let’s get you ready.” Mr. Stableman was looking at Avalina. He was still smiling but seemed to have words building up inside of him. Avalina looked like a sulking embarrassed dog. “Come on dear.” Reyan felt Ms. Stableman’s will like a tether and it pulled her down the hall to Avalina’s room.
The woman sighed as she laid Reyan’s clothes out on the bed. “Where is your bag, dear?” Reyan found her old sack under the bed and laid it next to the hand-me-down dresses. The woman sighed again and put a hand to her head as though checking for a fever or pressing down a headache. She opened Avalina’s closet and began pushing around the hanging clothes and shuffling the items on the shelves. She returned to the bed with a leather travel bag with a strap long enough to hang over a shoulder and across a chest. “Here you go. I think everything would fit better in this.” Reyan looked at it dumbly. “Go on.” The woman motioned for Reyan to begin putting her things in the bag. As she did, Avalina’s mother said, “Mr. Stableman is right, you know? It has been nice to have you here. We’re systemic folk, and have never even considered a second. But being an only child has always eaten at Avalina. She works hard and she’s a good girl, but she doesn’t make friends easily. It’s been good to see her with you. We’ll be sorry to see you go.” The woman smiled briefly before her mouth fell back to its customary flat line.
She turned away as though ashamed, and went to stand near the open bedroom door. “Come on. Let’s get you back to your benefactors.”
When Reyan and Ms. Stableman returned to the dining room, there was tension. Avalina was doing the dishes and Mr. Stableman’s head had returned to the cradle of his hands. When he heard them enter, his head popped up and he smiled. “Ah, there you are.” But his eyes seemed tired and were looking past Reyan’s shoulder to his wife beyond. “Okay Avi, looks like everyone’s ready.”
Mr. Stableman headed to the door, where he pulled a heavy coat from a peg, and lit a lantern. Avalina wiped her wet hands on the front of her heavy cedar and wool working apron, and joined him at the door.
Ms. Stableman stood out of their way as they donned their coats and slung bags. The door opened and the cold damp pre-dawn dark spilled in. The mother put a hand on Reyan’s shoulder just before she crossed the threshold. The woman frowned at her in a way that looked like a smile. “You take care Reyan. We hope to see you again.”
On the way to the stables, Reyan struggled to keep up with Avalina under the weight of her new bag. They were walking quite a few yards ahead of Mr. Stableman in silence. It was unclear to Reyan what she had done to make Avalina angry. By the time they arrived at the human door built into the stable’s enormous sliding door, Reyan couldn’t take the silence anymore. She reached out and tugged on Avalina’s sleeve.
When her friend turned to face her, she looked angry. “The caravan is just around the corner, Reyan. You should know the way. I need to get to work. Have a good trip.” Then Avalina turned, walked through the door, and let it swing shut behind her.
Reyan’s face boiled and blistered with varying emotions, a cheek twitched, a bit of lip curled, her eyes squinted. Finally, everything burst into tears and sobs.
She turned toward the town square. Mr. Stableman, who had yet to catch up, was still a few yards away. He stepped aside and feebly reached out a hand. He croaked a single syllable as she passed.
Reyan did not head directly to the town square. She wanted to get a hold of herself before the professors and Kavi saw her. More than anything, she longed for her tree. Instead, she headed down to the river and walked the front street to its end.
Then, she doubled back one street over. As the morning’s dark faded into a smudgy gray, she worked her way back and forth through the town like a weaver’s shuttle. Past the butchery and the bakery with their storefronts cold and still, but with warmth and light glowing out from the working rooms in the back. Every turn saw more townsfolk in the streets, pushing a barrow, walking a high-stepping horse, carrying a package under an arm and mindlessly touching a forehead to greet her.
When she finally got to the caravan, it was cold and dark as ashes from a previous night’s fire. The only remaining ember was in the second truck. She stepped up onto the porch and reached out to the door as though it might be hot. She knocked.
“Come in.” Parr’s voice sounded neither surprised nor excited by the intrusion.
She found the professor at his desk facing the right wall. He had an enormous book opened before him. When he looked up and saw her, he drew a ribbon across the page, and folded the book shut with a thwump.
“Good morning Reyankaiya. What can I do for you?”
“I’m cold. Kavi and Sevv’s trucks are still dark.”
“I’m sure they are. I’m surprised you are out and about so early. Is everything okay?”
Reyan swallowed hard and a hot sense of betrayal and hurt swelled in her and threatened to emerge as more tears.
She felt Parr’s curiosity slacken and he ended his questions without so much as an “I see,” “Ah,” or “Well then.” She was grateful. “You are welcome to be in here with me. I can’t offer you much in the way of company or entertainment. But it’s warm enough and there is bread and cheese if you’re hungry.”
“So, it’s not all bad then.” He forced the sort of smile adults used to draw a line at a conversation’s end. He pinched a gray ribbon and used it to peel open the enormous book. He rested his head on his left hand and continued reading.
Reyan tossed her bag on the floor, and sat down on the knotted rug. She crossed her arms over her stomach, and looked around at the inside of Parr’s truck.
All of the woodwork had grown deep brown from age and polish. The bed was crisply made and the dishes from Parr’s morning meal were nowhere to be seen. Anything that wasn’t nailed down had some contrivance to keep it from wriggling free from its allotted place as the truck rocked its way around the circuit. The small bookshelf—which currently had a gaping hole where Parr had presumably removed his present volume—had a leather strap across it which was fastened by hooks on either side. There was a high-sided rack over the stove that held three small identically-shaped glass containers. One with salt, another with something deep-green and crumbled, the last with what appeared to be black sand. The oil lamp was affixed to the wall over the desk. Everything else was tucked into drawers and cabinets which were built into every available space. Every surface could be pulled or slid or hinged into some other configuration or purpose.
Aside from the knotted carpet on which she currently sat, there were no other knick-knacks or anything at all to show the personality of the truck’s inhabitant. Reyan quickly grew bored. “What are you reading?”
He closed the book again, drew in a breath, and scooted his chair around to face her. He put his hands on his knees and leaned forward so he could look at her over his knees. “The System.”
Reyan sat up taller. “You can’t read the System,” she said. Parr did not reply, only smiled and waited. “The System’s not a book, it’s a…a…” She couldn’t exactly think of what she would call the System. She would have said “philosophy” or “methodology” if she’d had the words, but she did not. She finally settled on, “idea.”
“You’re wrong about that. But you are also right. The System is many things.” He turned back to his desk and grunted a little as he lifted the book. He brought it around so she could see it. “And this book is one of them.”
The book was covered and bound in white leather. It was almost as thick as the professor’s hand was long, so that he could barely curl his fingers around its edges. Several other colored ribbons stuck out between the rough-edged pages. He tilted the book up so she could see its cover. It wasn’t especially decorated. There were lines of copper pressed into the front to form a rectangular border. In simple blocky letters were the words, ”The System for a New Era.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about everything.”
“How can a single book be about everything?”
Infuriatingly, he changed the subject. He stood, walked over to the shelf, pulled back the leather strap and replaced the massive book. “Over dinner last night, I got the impression that you might have an interest in professorship.” He rehooked the strap across the book spines. “I find it remarkable that our little session in the town square had such a profound effect upon you.”
“It didn’t really.” This made Parr chuckle. She didn’t know what he found amusing.
“A misunderstanding then.” He wore an unreadable expression that had the raised eyebrows of interest and a frown which should have meant sorrow or disapproval but didn’t seem to. His neck tilted and his head bobbed with what might have been sympathy but could also have been acceptance. She could not make out the meaning of his eyes. Amusement?
Her face became hard. “I didn’t lie. I never lie. Kavi said some things. You stood up and talked. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there. The idea was like a tunic someone handed me. It seemed to fit so everyone assumed it was mine.”
“So, you were just trying on the idea?”
“If anything was a lie, it just sort of developed around me.”
“But you did nothing to bring clarity to the room.”
“I didn’t recognize that it was wrong. I’m still not sure it was.”
“I see.” Now the frown seemed genuinely sad. Maybe he was tired.
“But now, I think I like the idea.” She added hastily.
“And what about the idea of becoming a professor do you like?”
She could feel a chaos of thoughts and anxious little words queuing up for a chance at her tongue. If she let the words start flowing, she would become like a cracked bucket. That’s when even the most patient listener would begin to lose interest, then become flustered, and finally grow angry. But Parr’s expression didn’t change. He did not move or speak. He simply waited for the answer to his question as though it were his due. He looked ready to wait all day. The trick of it was to give Parr his answer in as few words as possible. “It reminded me of trees. And I’m like a tree.”
She brought her legs up to her chest and hugged them tight. She used a knee to stop up her mouth so she wouldn’t say too much.
“How do you mean?” He was trying to trick her out into the open. She scowled. “Like a tree how, Reyankaiya?”
Reyan felt something inside her slip. Her thoughts began to form directly in her mouth. She had the peculiar feeling of stepping aside to let a run-away cart or escaped animal fly past her, all dust and speed and destruction. “All the different ways to look at a decision. That’s how I think. I’m always asking, ‘what about this’ and ‘what will happen when’. I can’t stop until I understand it all. It’s why people hate me. That’s why, when I don’t know what to do, I go to my tree instead. Once I’m there, I find a big branch above me and line it up so it looks like it’s sprouting from my forehead. I pose my problem, then follow the branch with my eyes until I come to a place where it branches off. There, I ask a what-if. Each branch becomes a possible answer. I follow each fork from there until it forks again, and there are more what-ifs. I keep doing that until I follow each branch and twig to the very ends and I run out of ifs.
“But yesterday, when I listened to your story about Shabeer and Segenam and how it wasn’t so clear who was the most systemic, the way you asked the questions reminded me of my ifs. Then Sevv showed us the right way to make decisions. How I didn’t need to keep all the ifs in my head, I could write each down. I could give them a number. It felt like…like…like closing one eye and lining up a stone with a rock with a mountain and finding they’re all the same shape.”
Now that her thoughts were spent, she was left with only the echo of her last words. She knew she had spoken too quickly, and said too much, and without any of the back and forth people expected. She’d lost control and let it all escape. She was ashamed.
“What happens when you act on your decisions?”
She hung her head low. “I just think of things I might do. I don’t actually do any of them.”
He nodded his head slowly, his eyes fixed on her. “Not doing something is a decision too. The systemic way is a hard way, Reyankaiya. Do not forget all the other things we talked about at dinner. The hard work, the dedication, the perseverance. All of that and more will be important if you want to be a professor. A professor does not get to pick and choose who she wants to be in the moment. She cannot run and hide in the woods when things become too difficult.” He wasn’t being cruel, but his words hurt all the more because of it.
Professor Parr slapped his hands on his thighs signaling the conversation was over. His somber tones were replaced with a light cheerfulness, “Speaking of dedication and hard work, let’s go see if the others plan to get out of bed before dusk. I would like to see Seal Tooth in the daylight.”
Out in the square, Sevv and Kavi had gotten up and were working. The stages and blackboards had been stowed, and they were double-checking their lashings. When they saw Parr and Reyan, they came over and formed a small group. “Are we ready,” Parr asked.
Sevv looked over the caravan. “I believe so. Yes. Kavi, Reyankaiya, have them bring the horses around.”
The two made their way to the stable. A hot knot kept tying, redoubling, and tying itself again in Reyan’s gut as she grew nearer to Avalina and the memory of her inexplicable anger.
When they got to the door, Kavi stepped through and Reyan stopped outside. Kavi turned to her. “Come on.” She shook her head. Kavi shrugged and disappeared into the gloom.
A few minutes later the large door slid halfway open and Jax emerged leading several of the horses. Benj was nowhere to be seen. Avalina came out blinking into the morning light with the remaining horses. Reyan moved so that a horse was between her and Avalina as they silently walked back to the town square.
Instead of going back to the caravan, Reyan sat down on the tower steps so she could stay out of the way while she watched the preparations. Jax held all the horses in a cluster in the center of the square. One by one, Avalina came over and retrieved a horse and hooked it up to whichever truck Kavi directed her to.
When all the horses were in their places, Sevv and Parr came over to where Reyan was sitting. Mr. Stableman was with them. Avalina came too, but she hung behind them like a reluctant shadow.
“Reyankaiya,” Sevv said. Reyan stood but her eyes stayed fixed on the ground. “Mr. Stableman has told us that they are willing to take you in. They wish to be your benefactors.”
“It’s been so good for Avi to have you.”
Trying to figure out how to answer felt like trying to count the facets of a flame. It was more than Reyan could stand. Of all the things she could have said, for some reason she chose, “But Avalina hates me.”
“She doesn’t.” Mr. Stableman smiled but his eyes were soft and sad. “I know she doesn’t really.”
No one had ever wanted her. She couldn’t believe that they really wanted her now. But she wanted to be wanted. The idea tugged at her. It would be so easy to give in to it. “But what about becoming a professor.”
Mr. Stableman’s eyes jumped between the two professors. Parr’s face showed nothing. Sevv smiled thinly and blinked, “Of course, if you stayed, you would be here in Rowe, not in Seal Tooth. You wouldn’t become a professor, but you would certainly learn a necessary trade. Most likely, you’d be working in the stables alongside your new friend.”
Sevv looked at Mr. Stableman who nodded that that would indeed be the case, and said, “Avi said you did well with the horses.”
Reyan crouched down and began writing in the dust.
“Will make my best friend happy…9.”
“Won’t be lonely…7.”
“Role that suits me…10.”
And then she did her best to remember the systemic considerations, failed and simply scribbled, “Governing Assert” and gave it a 19.
At the top she wrote, “Seal Tooth” and “Rowe”. She looked up at Parr who showed no indication that he remembered their conversation from earlier. She added “Do nothing.”
“What’s she doing,” she heard Mr. Stableman ask. No one answered him.
She imagined herself in her tree, her back against its solid trunk. In her mind, the bark split wide and pulled her in. She became wood and age and running sap. From there, her mind traveled out along the branching possibilities of her life in Rowe and Seal Tooth.
She began to scratch numbers into the cells and cut slashes and cross-multiply. When it was done, she felt like she was coming up for air and opening her eyes. She saw the matrix laid out and completed before her. It wasn’t perfect. She looked at the professors. Parr’s nod was as subtle as a blinking eye, but she knew it would do.
She tallied the columns.
Seal Tooth 178.
Do nothing, was not really an option.
Reyan stood up. She looked first to Avalina who was not making eye contact with her and was sulking once again. She looked at Mr. Stableman who for some reason was leading forward as though trying to hear someone whispering. The professors still showed no expression at all.
“I’ll go to Seal Tooth.” This set Avalina to crying. She walked away. Her father frowned and nodded looking rejected. As he turned away Reyan reached out a hand, grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him close. She whispered, “Watch the way Benj treats Avi and the others.” A realization, or at least a suspicion drained the color from the man’s round and perpetually jovial face. “Make sure to catch him at it. Don’t let anyone know I told you, or it will just get worse.”
Sevv coughed. “Well Reyankaiya, if you’re coming with us, you’d best ride with me. If that was a matrix, it was abominable.”
Reyan sat in the cab of Sevv’s truck and leaned her head against the glass. She felt like she should be second-guessing her decision, but doing so didn’t feel right. She knew it hadn’t been a wrong choice, just a hard one. It wasn’t regret she was feeling, it was sorrow.
Keeper Shalynn came into the square along with the junior keeper, Mariana. Tamura followed behind a few yards distant. Close enough to observe the proceedings but not so close as to give the appearance of being officially involved.
Sevv, Parr and Kavi came out to meet the keepers. When they had nodded their greetings to each other. Kavi returned to Sevv’s truck, she could feel the truck lean from side to side as Kavi moved about in the back. He returned to the professors and keepers with a black book—a compendium she now knew.
Sevv reached out a hand to Keeper Shalynn, and then to Junior Keeper Mariana. He nodded to Tamura in the back. Parr did the same.
Kavi handed the compendium to Sevv, who offered it to Shalynn. When the keeper placed her hand on it, Sevv intoned, “Keeper. The year’s compendium. Learn its lessons. Keep its knowledge. Share its wisdom.”
Sevv let go of the book, and Shalynn gathered it to her and inclined her head slightly. “Thank you, Professor. Have safe travels. Thank you for your service through the years.” She then turned to Parr, “We look forward to next year’s visitation.” To Kavi she said, “Hopefully, you’ll be traveling beside him on circuit.”
There was a few moments of more nods and handshakes, and less formal words spoken.
Reyan saw Avalina approaching across the square. She was carrying something and seemed to be in a hurry. She stopped to speak to the professors and Sevv pointed back to where Reyan was slouching in his truck.
Once Reyan realized that Avalina was looking for her, she stepped down from the cab to meet her. Her friend handed her a small wooden box with a hinged lid. Reyan opened it. Inside was a comb. Wrapped back and forth through the comb’s teeth was a multi-colored ribbon. When Reyan closed the lid she was startled by Avalina lunging at her. Reyan took a stumbling step back, but Avalina already had a hold of her. She squeezed Reyan so tightly she worried she wouldn’t be able to breathe. Avalina loosened up but did not release her for a moment. She whispered, “I was hoping you would stay and we would be sisters.” She pulled away and couldn’t look Reyan in the face. “I’m going to miss you. Take care of yourself. Come back here when you’re a professor.”