weekly (Another Night…) – 5

Gupti said nothing and they walked silently through shadows of the crowds returning home by the light of the lampposts.

They passed Ba Maura leaning against the doorway of her mostly empty goods shop. The middle-aged widow was having her daily indulgent natter with the squat, hunched form of old Sef. She waved hello at Gupti over Sef’s bowed shoulder.

Gupti waved back, his eyes trailing warily across Sef’s mis-shapen form. The old man had the distinction of surviving the deadliest cave-in in memory. Eight hundred and forty two known workers, and countless slaves and undocumenteds, had been caught forever in that horrible sabotage twenty-three years ago.

Sef, a cocky dig diver at the peak of his game, had found a new vein and stumbled upon the malevolent Gorts as they prepared the disaster. Surprised and overwhelmed, Sef had been dealt with in ways that none knew for certain. All that was known was that he’d dragged himself back into the city almost two weeks later, with almost every bone in his body broken, along with his mind.

“She started it.”

Gupti plucked a honeyed date from the oiled pouch, popped it into his mouth, and offered the pouch to Aneesh. “Can you tell me what I’m going to say?”

Aneesh, five dates in her small hands, sighed and rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter who started it.” She grimaced peevishly and then squashed two dates into her mouth. “Yeah. I know.”

Gupti nodded. “I think you will.” He touched her head and smiled down at her. “Now go on. Ba Yanna will be expecting you soon. I want to see you both tomorrow night, okay?” He cocked an eye at her, warningly. “As friends, understood?”

Aneesh sighed dramatically. “Uh-huh,” she managed to say around the sticky, chewy dates. She hugged his soft waist quickly, leaving sticky spots on his dingy uniform, and ran off.

“And save one of those for her!”

The tawny, scrawny girl raised an arm and then was gone, lost in bodies and dust and shadow.

He sucked on the sweet treat, pressing the chewy fruit against the roof of his mouth. Another of Manadan’s favorite sayings sounded in his mind: You can’t save them all.

He sighed. He knew it was true, but he always did his level best to forget.

Around him, the steady flow of retiring day workers moved under the light of the three working lampposts at the intersection of 49 and 18. The very young skittered underfoot, called out, chased one another, and grabbed at their elder brothers, sisters, parents, and grandparents, as the constant stream of working families returned home.

Moving to the left, he neared the charred and stunted remnant of the unlit lamppost. Knuckling the post, he made a mental note to gently remind Fa’ Loukh, local appointee for the Ministry of Housing and Traffic, that the post still had not been replaced.

Beside him, a man stumbled and another man shoved him aside. The first man pushed back automatically and immediately a circle of emptiness surrounded them, bordered by slowing, vaguely interested figures.

The second man, dressed in the faded remnants of a western khatouf, the last vestige of his proud ancestry, bore an evil look and tensed to lunge at the first man, a lean and once-handsome figure long since drawn with too-sharp features and too-shallow cheeks. Then he noticed Gupti.

Gupti hadn’t moved, but the circle had swelled around him, and he turned slowly to face the men, letting his uniform do the work, under the unblinking gaze of his eyes.

The pause interrupted the reactionary anger, and almost immediately the flow of bodies resumed, sweeping the two men along, separating them with the subconscious awareness of the masses, and leaving Gupti alone once more.

He sighed deeply and lifted the pouch in his hand. Aneesh had, indeed, been hungry. There were only three dates left. More from habit than hunger, he popped another into his mouth. Even so, the honeyed sweetness no longer satisfied him. He shook his head and looked around. Everything here balanced upon the edge of a knife.

Hundreds upon hundreds of filthy, exhausted people rustled and bumped and sidled and shifted against one another, sweating evenly in the constant heat. Their eyes followed the unchanging track that led home. Their shoulders sagged and their backs slouched from the ultimately futile work of the last fourteen hours. Even the children’s cries had turned petulant, whiny, and shrill in his ears.

Gupti tried to blink himself free of this uncharacteristic melancholy. Pulling a thick hand over his face, he yawned, arching back, only to find himself gazing up at the charred tops of the nearest buildings. The Ayeed fire, back in the year of the Ninth Rat, had only danced across the tops of these more central tenements before the djinn had been summoned at last.