Eighteen klicks over dusty roads in our old farm wagon.  It’s not a glamorous holiday for two barely teens, but that’s not the point.  The point is that it is the very first time Doreen and I have been trusted to go into town alone. By ourselves. With a little cash to buy supplies for the family. And in Doreen’s case, some of her own duck eggs to sell for pocket money. And in my case, a load of firewood in the back of the wagon to sell, so I can purchase some glass bottles and other equipment for my well-water filtration experiment.

We very patiently listened to all of Pah’s advice and Mah’s admonitions while I hitched the horses and Doreen packed the eggs carefully in a crate with straw. At least, I thought we were very patient. I caught Pah grinning at Mah toward the end, when she was repeating herself. Sometimes I think they have a little fun at our expense, like payback for the headaches of raising five daughters and a son.  

But now we are free and bouncing along beside each other on the long road to Brikmil, the nearest market town. Not talking because, well, Doreen and I never seem to have much to say to each other. Like Colony’s two moons, we share almost the same orbits but never quite touch.

Birds are singing in the trees, the mist is rising off the fields, and the horses’ backs are already starting to glisten with sweat as the sun rises. I can hear the cough of a steam tractor from the Palmer farm to the West. Mr. Palmer doesn’t own a tractor; he must have hired some custom work this week to get his turnips in. Our tractor is in good repair, and I could have used the cash. I wonder why he didn’t ask me. Is he still angry about the shed? I barely hit one corner of it, and I fixed it better than it was. Some people hold grudges, I guess. But it’s a beautiful morning and I’m driving to Brikmil on my own, like a man. I will turn my mind to better things.

Like water filtration. We go to all the trouble of digging a well, and then we have to abandon it for a season, or maybe for years, because the water is bad. Something gets into the water. Bacteria, to be precise. From dung heaps and leach fields and so forth. Farmers try to take care how they place these, but water moves around underground, and you don’t always know where it travels! But I saw an article in a newspaper Pah brought home, so I read what I could find in chemistry books in the school library, which led me to search out more on trips to Brikmil in the public library about granular activated carbon absorption. I think I can build a pump, and then I can pipe the well water into a charcoal filtration system that would make the water drinkable from the well nearest the house, which we have stopped using. I’ve constructed a small prototype filtration and testing kit, which is in the back of the wagon, but I need to get some bottles and fittings to finish it.  

“So, what’s going on inside that head of yours now, Jon?”

Doreen’s voice startles me, so I don’t take time to think of anything clever to say.

“Just thinking about dirt and water.”

“About what I expected.”

“Um, pretty morning, isn’t it?”

“You really are a poet, aren’t you, Jon?”

There doesn’t seem to be a good response to that, so I turn back to the horses, both with their six legs plodding rhythmically over the rutted tracks, making sure we turn as needed into the wider roads leading to town and give a wide berth to the occasional passing wagon or steam truck as we get nearer.


I act casual, but I feel tense going into the heavier traffic in town. The horses startle at the sound of a whistle, and they are nearly clipped by a wide wagon hauling bricks. I am sweating by the time I drop Doreen in front of a grocer and wish her luck selling eggs.  

“Meet you at Carson’s Livery?”

She barely nods as she squares her shoulders and carries her crate under the grocer’s awning. She suddenly looks very young to me, but I sense that she won’t like it if I ask if she wants me to stay with her.

I drive to a lumberyard, where they laugh at me for trying to sell firewood, even though they do sell firewood there.  My face is hot, and I know I am blushing red. I leave quickly and drive around aimlessly until I see a shop that sells tools and building equipment. They also advertise that they sell firewood for householders. I note the retail price, go in, and quickly negotiate a sale with the proprietor. Maybe I should have asked for more. Well, this is how I learn to do business, I suppose. They sell bottles and copper fittings, so I am able to get what I need there as well for my “speriment,” as my youngest sisters would call it. Hardly any money left over, but it will do.

After a quick stop at the general store for flour and other items on Mah’s shopping list, I head over to Carson’s Livery to pick up some rare pieces of tack for the horses that Pah has ordered (he makes most of the leather gear himself) and to wait for Doreen.  

While the horses are having a drink at the trough, I am trying out the fittings on my filtration device, setting it up in the shade at one side of the wide-open doors to the livery stable. A tentative voice hails me from behind, in an accent I do not recognize.

“Is to make water clean, yes?”

I turn to see a thin, young man in patched clothing peering from the shadows of the stable. He has dark skin, and pieces of straw are stuck in his clothes and hair.

“Why yes, exactly!” I hold up a lump of charcoal for him to see better, and he comes closer.

“The water passes through charcoal here . . .”


“Carbon – yes, charcoal. It captures the impurities. And then the water rests in this vessel for particles to settle, and then we take the filtered water from the top. And then I test it for bacteria. With a microscope.  Which I haven’t got.  Yet. But that’s the idea. You see?”

The man smiles. 

“We do like that my land. Before. Before I must . . .”

“You are a refugee?” I’ve read about that.

He nods. He begins to speak, when Mr. Carson’s manager, Simms, pushes past me.

“You!” he shouts, pointing a finger at the stranger. “I told you to clear out yesterday! You been sleepin’ in the stable? Stealin’ food? I’ll have the law on you?”

The man looks scared, and he starts moving away from the stable. But he can’t move far, because a crowd is gathering in the street, mostly men.

“This drifter givin’ you trouble, Mr. Carson?”

“Hey mud man, get out of here! You ain’t wanted here!”

They close in on him, shoving, shouting, calling him words I haven’t heard before. It makes no sense. They don’t know him.  No one in town looks like him, speaks like him. He hasn’t done anything. He seems nice. Smart. Driven away from his land and all alone in this one. This isn’t right!

My face is hot. I’m shaking.  

The brown man has been tripped, and he is down on the ground now. A red-faced man who smells of booze is kicking him.

“Leave him alone! Stop it!  Let him go . . . if you want him to leave, just let him go!” I can’t believe I said it aloud. People in the crowd are staring at me.

The boozy man looks around in confusion until he sees me.  

“You a friend of his?” he asks, with menace in his voice.

I walk over and give the young man a hand up.  

“I think it’s time to go,” I suggest, tipping my head toward the road. He nods in understanding, murmurs something in his language, and walks carefully down the street. The others seem to accept my logic that they have to let him go if they want him gone.

The boozy man’s eye catches my filtration gear and he swaggers over to it.  

“Didn’t take his foreign krap with him. We don’t need that, neither.”  

I move, but not quickly enough.

“That’s mine . . .”

A swift kick and a grinding boot heel, and my “speriment” is trashed to the sound of broken glass. The man gives me a wicked grin as others in the crowd laugh.  

Simms chuckles. “Got what you came for, boy? Give my regards to your Pah.”


I’m sitting on the ditch bank behind the livery stable watching leaves drift down the irrigation canal when I hear light footsteps behind me. I turn my head. It’s Doreen. She is usually careful of her clothing and normally doesn’t have much to do with me. She is in her second-best dress, but she sits right down beside me on the grass. Thinking back, I realize she was in the crowd in front of the livery stable and probably saw everything, or enough.

We are silent for a long time.

“You tried to help that boy. That’s a good thing, Jon.”

“For all the good it did.”

“He’ll remember someone tried.”

We are quiet again, watching the stream. Who knew it was so fascinating? 

“I’m sorry they smashed your … whatever it was.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll build it somewhere else. Better next time.”

“Maybe you’ll be a carpenter when you grow up. Build houses and barns and such.”

“Don’t want to build barns for the stupid people around here!”

She’s a girl. She probably dreams of having a nice house and barn of her own someday. With katel and ducks and a strong, grinning, stupid man of her own, like the ones that laughed at me and wanted the brown boy to leave town and never come back, because he isn’t like them.  

Wait … who’s being ignorant now?

Immediately, I feel sorry for my outburst. I feel my face heating up again, but from shame this time. Doreen was trying to make me feel better.  I’m angry, but not at her. I turn to her. Her head is down.

“Doreen, I’m sorry.”

“I gave him my sandwich. For the road.”


“When he left, I followed him a little way out of town and gave him my lunch. He said, ‘thank you’ in that funny accent of his.”

“Doreen, maybe that wasn’t a …”

What did I almost say? Am I thinking so differently from the guys in town?

“I mean, you did better than I did. That was kind. Quick thinking. We’re just kids, but you were able to do something.”

“Not so much.”

“We can’t fix everything. We just do what we can.”

She looks up at me now, with a little hint of a smile.

“Exactly, Jon.”

I know when I’ve been beat. I stand up and give her a hand. We start walking back to the wagon to head back to the farm.

“I’ll miss you when you leave, Jon.”

“Miss me?  I’m not going anywhere.”

“You will.” And that’s when it hits me. Of course I will.


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