Little Ghosts

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At midnight, the clock in the hall chimes twelve times. I listen to it, waiting until the last echo has faded, and then I get up and fold my blanket. And wait for the children.

They come in twos and threes, padding up to my rooms in the attic like little ghosts, dressed in their white nightshirts, their little gowns. The girls sit on my bed, and the boys gather around on the floor, their knees hugged to their chests. I braid the girls’ hair, and we talk. About everything. About life and love, about people, about the future. The headmistress doesn’t like them to come to my rooms. She’s always hated me: the old caretaker who has been around longer than she has. Longer even then her predecessor. She tells the children that I’m a witch, and that I’ll strike them dead if they ever come up to my rooms.

Some of them believe her.

Most don’t.

They come at midnight, because that’s when she’s sure to be asleep, and because that’s when the moon is shining through my skylight and they can see the stars through the clear glass. I tell them that sometimes the moon lets down a ladder for children like them. Children without homes, without parents. If they catch the ladder at just the right time, they can climb it and live on the moon and play with the faeries every night, instead of going to bed without supper.

They don’t always believe me, of course. And it isn’t really true. But it’s something for them to hope for, something to dream about.

They have so little else.

Eagles

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The mountains rise above us, black against the blue skies, against the white clouds driven on by the keening wind. I can see the eagles above them, floating in the breeze, black specks among all that blue, all that white. We’re following them. Following the eagles.

We have nothing else to do.

The paths we’ve been walking are so stony that my shoes fell apart weeks ago. They dropped off my feet, and I left them where they were. The soles were gone, anyway, and most of the rest. They weren’t worth anything, not after how long I’ve been walking in them.

My mother’s feet are bleeding. She never says anything, but I can see they hurt her. She had shoes too, when we left our village. They’re gone now, like mine. Everything we own is strapped to our backs, and we’ve left bits and pieces on the trail behind us when they got too heavy. An old idol. My sister’s doll. A cooking pan that was too large. Someone will come along behind us and pick them up. Another refugee family, or some of the traders that pass this way. Sometimes mule trains climb through these mountains, heading for the border on the other side.

I wish we had a mule to ride.

The eagles scream, their sharp shrieks loud in the thin air. It’s a good sound. They’re getting closer. Their nests are in the cliffs above the pass, where we need to be. So we follow them. Hoping they’ll guide us places even a map can’t find.

Water Buffalo

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We take them out at dawn, when the sky in the east is red and the birds are starting to sing. I climb onto our bull and pull my sister up beside me. It’s her first time herding, her first time coming into the fields and pastures with me, and her little arms wind around my waist and hold me as tight as if she thinks Molo will shake us off and run away. He won’t. He knows we’re going to feed, and he knows I’ll chase him with my switch if he tries to run away. He’s done this many times.

So have I.

The cows follow us when we start out onto the dusty road. Their calves run at their sides, kicking up their heels, playing with each other. They have more energy than the slow, lazy cows or Molo, who is so grumpy and sleepy. He likes to sleep in the mud all day, eating only when the clouds cover the sun or dusk begins to fall. He is fat and old and lazy, but I remember when he was just a little calf like all the rest, and kicked up his heels the same way they do now. I’ve herded our families water buffaloes for many years, and I remember when each and every one was born. They all liked to run and play.

The calves will settle down soon. They’ll become old and slow and fat, just like the rest. I like them to run and play best, but I have to chase them sometimes, too, so it’s better that they grow, like I have. And like Molo has.

Angels

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The air smells like antiseptic in the hospital tents. Men lie in rows along the canvas walls and listen to the war waging outside, barely a mile away. So close. So very close that sometimes the gunfire and thunder of the bombs shake the walls. I don’t have enough bandages for them all. Their shirts and trousers, their hair and boots, all of it is stained in blood, and we are running out of bandages.

The air smells of antiseptic and pain. Blood, smoke, gunpowder. I can smell them all. And I want to run away.

A man grabs my hand as I walk past him. His face is stained with blood and the soot of the battlefields, and his eyes are wild with fever. I’m so afraid of them, all of them. The soldiers. Their uniforms are never the same color, never the same style. Men from different armies, different lives, different countries. We try not to see the flags they wear on their shoulders or their breasts and treat who they bring us. It doesn’t matter anyway. This close to death, there are no countries, no different nations. There are only people. Hurting, terrified people.

“I saw angels in here last night,” he tells me. His voice is slurred with pain.

I take his hand off my arm, press his fingers. Comfort him. There are no angels here. Only us. The nurses, the doctors. Outside a war wages and demons run. But here they see angels.

Garden Faeries

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I leave a handful of seeds outside my garden gate when I plant in the spring.

The faeries don’t like it if I forget them. They like to plant their own little gardens, sometimes beneath my flowerpots, sometimes under the porch in the front yard where the light is dim and the mice leave their little droppings. The faeries don’t like it when I forget. If I do, they’ll take their own seeds when my plants are grown. They climb the stalks of the tall sunflowers and pry seeds out of the bobbing heads, they burrow into my pumpkins and squash and leave holes after they’ve dragged their prizes out. I’ve caught them a few times at such games, but I don’t have the heart to scold them for long. They look so funny with pumpkin goop in their fiery hair and smeared on their little faces. They try to hide the seeds when I catch them, but pumpkins seeds are so large, almost bigger than they themselves are. They never manage it.

But I am never cross.

I like them in my gardens. They dig the potatoes for me, because I tell them that we are digging for treasure that the moles have buried. They tickle my geraniums, tease my peas, pick my beans. They like my bird bath best of all. They chase the sparrows and chickadees away when they want to have a wash, usually in the early morning or late evening when I am working in the beds.

I scold them, but I don’t mind. Not really. I like them in my gardens.

Spices

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We open the stall before dawn turns the eastern sky pink. Grandfather pushes the metal door up until it disappears, and I sweep the floor and tidy the booths. The spices have spilled in the night, only a little, a dusting of red here, yellow there. I sweep them into the street and watch the colors mingle with the dust.

He tells me stories about the spices while we work. About how the gods used the turmeric to paint the sunsets yellow, how they stole a little chili pepper for the tiger lilies to make them darker. I love his stories. I’ve heard them a hundred times, a thousand, even, but I love to hear them.

Someday, he tells me, he’ll be gone, and I’ll tell the stories.

The customers come once the sun is high overhead. Grandfather rolls out the awning, sets out his chair, and fans himself. Heat rises in shimmers from the cobbled roadway, and the women come with their baskets, the men with their coins.

And the children, with their wide eyes.

The adults come to buy our spices, to hear the news from the city, but the children come for my grandfather’s stories. He tells them while he selling the cumin, the turmeric, the garlic, and the pepper. Stories of where they came from, the people he haggled with, the sights he saw. The stories are all made up, every one of them, but no one minds. They come for his stories as much as the spices, and I listen hard. Someday, I will sell the spices. Someday, the stories will be mine.

Smuggler’s Camp

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The trucks come rumbling into our camp, dust rising in their wake. The beds are full of boxes and men with guns on their backs, and I run to meet them, praying to whatever god might listen that Fetch is with them. I’m always worried he won’t come back. He almost didn’t once. They dragged him in with blood on his face and his side all bandaged and bloody. It took him three weeks to get back on his feet.

I worry every time he leaves now.

But he’s with the trucks, and he smiles when he sees me. He jumps down from the truck and ruffles my hair, shoving my hat down over my eyes. “There you are, little brother. I told you I’d be back.”

He’s not really my brother. They found me on the desert after my father threw me out, almost dead with thirst and barely strong enough to stand on my own two feet. Fetch tells me I tried to put up a fight, even then, but I don’t remember. All I remember is waking up on his camp bed, and him giving me what was left of his dinner. I’ve been his little brother ever since.

I run over to the trucks and clamber up on the tire, climbing until I can see what they brought back. Boxes and bundles are stacked two or three high in the bed. It must have been a good run, though when I ask how it went Fetch only says it was all right, and it isn’t any of my business. He always says that. I’m going to join them in the trucks when I’m old enough, but he won’t tell me anything now. He says I have to be sixteen first.

It seems like a long time to wait.