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To Grandmother's House

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MayLynne liked Jun Uncle more than most in her family. He was an odd one, not like her, but not like a regular person either. "Can I hear what you tell them?" she asked, after she told him that Tai Lao Lao was bringing Grandma Harken to question a train.

"You don't have anything else to do today?" he asked suspiciously.

It was a fair suspicion. She was supposed to clean and grind corn for Tai Lao Lao this afternoon. And she'd had plans of her own to go hunting cholla buds in the desert, if she could get out before it got real cold and she grew tired. "I should bring Tai Lao Lao back home when her friend is done talking to you," she said, instead of answering the question.

He raised an eyebrow at her, but nodded slowly. "There's mail that needs bundling. You can work on that until Lao Lao gets here."

Sometimes the mail was interesting, with postcards she could rifle through or packages in strange and arresting shapes, but today it was mostly letters, mostly to places back East she didn't know anything about and couldn't imagine, a couple to California chasing people who had gone out to strike it rich but hadn't really. There weren't even any of the messages the train priests shared between themselves sometimes, only addressed as "Excelsior wills it" or "Conestoga passes this along." She had talked to Conestoga once by accident, when Jun Uncle was supposed to be relieved from train duties and actually was making sure she didn't burn herself or eat glass or wander into the desert, the way a three year-old might while her parents went to the county seat for three whole days. MayLynne didn't really remember that conversation, just the way Jun Uncle had looked at her like she wasn't MayLynne and he wasn't Jun Uncle, the light in his eyes gone smoky almost.

Anyway, she didn't take too long sorting the mail; it never had a chance to build up and she was pretty good at reading, at least the names of the states and territories, which was what sorting the mail called for.

MayLynne knew something serious was happening when Tai Lao Lao didn't start in about the neglected corn as soon as they left the train station. Instead Tai Lao Lao said, "You are not an ordinary person, like my granddaughter and her husband."

"No, Tai Lao Lao," said MayLynne. She didn't need as much water as other people, and she didn't get confused by too much sun, but she was weak, even for a girl. She wasn't sickly, but she wasn't allowed to run and tumble the way her little sisters and her cousins were. And she couldn't carry hardly anything, compared to other people.

"We have let you run a bit wild because of it, because no one in the family has been on your path before," said Tai Lao Lao. "But I am giving you to Mrs. Harken for a little while, to see if she can help you find your way."

"But I'm not a witch!" gasped MayLynne, then bowed low for speaking out of turn. "I mean, Jessie at school said Grandma Harken is a witch and that's why she lives almost in the middle of the desert."

Tai Lao Lao snorted and pulled MayLynne upright. "Jessie at school is a very ordinary person. Mrs. Harken doesn't live in the middle of the desert. She is not a witch."

They walked on in silence. The train station and Tai Lao Lao's house were usually quite close together, but, sometimes, when Tai Lao Lao wanted to have a Conversation with you, they were farther apart. Today seemed to be one of those days. Eventually, MayLynne asked, "If she's not a witch, what is she really?"

"She is a creature of the desert," said Tai Lao Lao, and walked two steps, and then her house was two steps in front of them, although it hadn't been in view before.

MayLynne spent the next two days running back and forth between her own house and Tai Lao Lao's house, with Littlest Sister at her side, trying to learn all the things Tai Lao Lao would need. A lot of the chores were the same as at Mama and Baba's house, like sweeping dust out every day, the laundry, and the cooking. But Tai Lao Lao also needed you to read her mail to her, because they did not have schools here when Tai Lao Lao first came, and they had not let Grandmother go to school because she was Chinese. But Littlest Sister could read and write English, and read and write enough Chinese for Tai Lao Lao to gossip with her children who had moved far away, and recite some Chinese poetry, and do math even better than MayLynne, so that was all right.

On the other hand, Tai Lao Lao took a lot of medicine for a woman that MayLynne had never known to be sick, never known so much as to sneeze, and the preparation of that was fairly elaborate. And she was much more particular about her tea than any of the aunties and uncles, or even Grandmother, who was more particular about most things, and enjoyed being disappointed by her descendants besides.

"But what are these all for?" asked Littlest Sister. Littlest Sister was probably an ordinary person, but she was very curious and always wanted to know the why and when of things.

MayLynne was more of an observer than a questioner, so sometimes she could tell Littlest Sister what she wanted to know, but this was one of those times that she could not say much. "I never missed giving her a dose, so I never saw what happened when she did not take it. And Cousin Sun, who taught me, didn't explain." Cousin Sun was nice, but she never had much to say. She was always working with her hands, mostly on clothes for her six younger siblings, but also medicines and cooking.

Littlest Sister huffed in the way that MayLynne knew meant she was just getting started looking for answers.

"If Tai Lao Lao won't tell you, write Cousin Sun a letter." Cousin Sun wrote great letters, though it sometimes took her a very long time to write them. But she was more likely to actually tell Littlest Sister about the medicine if she could write it down, instead of having to talk.

On the third day, MayLynne said goodbye to her bedroom, her sisters, her parents, Grandmother, and Tai Lao Lao, and sat in the back of Old Man Klein's wagon with the bag that contained all of her worldly possessions, except the cholla grove she hadn't told anyone about and the coyote skull she'd buried behind her parents' house.

He took her as far as Johnsonville, but she had to walk the rest of the way to Grandma Harken's house. She had slept in the wagon, and it was late afternoon, still a good three hours of sunlight, and a full moon tonight. She got water at the general store and used the money her father had snuck her to buy a few sticks of sugar candy. Her mother had given her good paper to give to Grandma Harken, and Tai Lao Lao had given her a bit of tea, but she thought bringing something that was just nice and not useful might be a good guest gift, too.

The first part of the walk was almost pleasant. All of her worldly possessions weren't enough to tire out even her piddly arms, and the spring sun filled her up with energy. Daringly, she even pushed her hat back and risked her face turning brown like a nut. The warmth from the sky felt like a full meal.

But it was a very long walk, and even though she had been given a map to go along with her directions, she began to wonder if she was lost. She was not into the desert, but town was starting to get thinner and thinner. MayLynne liked the desert, actually, but she liked the desert she knew, the stretches between her parents and her grandmother's and Tai Lao Lao's and the train station. That desert was home.

This desert was different. She didn't know where the cactus stands were, where the crows met or the coyotes crossed at night. She didn't know who had seniority and pride of place among those who were wise but not human beings. As the sun began to set, her steps began to slow and her bag dragged heavier in her arms.

She became aware, gradually, that she was not walking alone. A lobo was pacing her, slow as she was walking. Without quite thinking about it, she stopped walking and turned still, barely breathing in and out, listening for the lobo's movement.

The lobo stopped moving with her, but then it proved it was wise, for it said, "I smell a cholla blooming and a girl not yet ripe to womanhood, but they are the same, and that is not something I have smelled before."

MayLynne said nothing, for she had not been asked a question, nor offered a greeting, and she did not want to offend the lobo nor offer something she could not afford to give.

"What are you doing in the desert, cholla girl?" asked the lobo.

MayLynne found herself bowing before she even thought if that was what she wanted to do, and speaking as softly, as respectfully as she would to Grandfather. "I am walking to Grandma Harken's house, Wise Lobo."

"What a peculiar thing to do," said the lobo, "for Grandma Harken is not there."

"I expect her to return soon, so I should hurry there. I don't want her to arrive before me and come looking for me," said MayLynne.

The lobo snorted at this information, and moved along, for a lone wolf prefers to hunt packless creatures.

MayLynne moved quickly after that, and got to Grandma Harken's house, and, as the lobo had told her and Tai Lao Lao had warned might be the case, no one was home, or almost. The garden was still mostly alive, but could use some water, and there was something in the house, small and possibly furry, but it had skittered in a corner and through a knothole as soon as MayLynne poked open the door, so she did not know what it was.

The house was larger than she would have expected for an independent old lady. But maybe Grandmother Harken wasn't just a courtesy title, maybe she had had a husband and children? In any case, a bedroom, a front room, a kitchen, another room without much in it, and a front porch wide enough to sleep on.

MayLynne left her bag in the mostly empty room, and found corn and salt and some water to make a few cakes with. She had two for breakfast and left three for lunch, then made a plan for the day.

That lobo had not frightened her, exactly, but she had slept in the house, just in case. A wise lobo might be able to work its way inside a gate and a house, but if it were hungry and reckless enough to do that, why not attack her on the road last night? Anyway, it should be sleeping now, so MayLynne decided that the most urgent need was to find where Grandma Harken got her water. It must be close, if she could host a garden with those reddening fruits. They felt wet and … not wrong, but misplaced, to MayLynne. Delicate and too thirsty for the desert.

She only took one of the water buckets. They were thick-walled and large, and while she was confident she could carry two empty buckets, two full ones seemed impossible. One full one would be a stretch, she might only be able to fill it two-thirds full.

She walked out of the house with her bucket and let herself feel thirsty. Her skin felt parched and on the verge of crackling. Her mouth was dry and scratchy. Her nostrils ached. But to her left and a bit in front of her, there was a relief, a feeling of ease, and she moved in that direction. The water was there, a good creek flowing from up in the mountains and headed back in the direction of Johnsonville.

She filled her bucket, filled her belly, then took the opportunity to sit with her feet in the water and wash. She sat ten or fifteen minutes to let the rest of her body air dry, then another ten minutes for just her feet to dry. She drank more water, then headed back to the house.

She was cleaning up from lunch when she heard a noise and thought of the furry thing that had run from her in the night. In the kitchen, there had been a bowl on the floor. She had thought that Grandma Harken was, perhaps, a careless housekeeper, or had left on her errand in a great hurry. But maybe the bowl was there purposefully. She put some water in the bowl, then took some water to the garden. She touched the ground around the plants, the red fruits, the beans, the peppers hiding in a corner that she had missed on her way out. She gave the plants a little water where the soil was dry, a little more if the leaves looked thirsty.

When she re-entered the house, the bowl was empty, though not completely dry, and she nodded in satisfaction. She filled it again, then took the empty water bucket back to the creek, where she drank enough water for two or three days and carried back a full bucket.

Dinner was a simple stew with last year's beans and a sliver of ham. It took a good while to cook. She tried to distract herself by arranging her few belongings in the empty room, but she hadn't brought anything she wanted to keep on the floor. She put everything back in her bag, but as neatly as she could manage.

Eating took just a few minutes and cleaning up afterwards a few minutes more.

Then she stretched out on the floor of the kitchen and went as still as she knew how, the deep, dry patience that had led Father to send her to Tai Lao Lao, because it was not a human way, to hold that still, to let the wind run over you and the sun shine down and react to none of it, just keeping your water in your body. But MayLynne could and would plant herself in a place, if she had nothing better to do or something she wanted to think about.

Or if she wanted to learn about an animal. If she was still enough and low enough, many creatures would indulge their curiosity, sniff in her hair, nibble at a sleeve, press a paw to her stomach, because they wanted to know what would happen.

She heard the noise first, a tiny thump of pads on wood, and then a good long pause. She did not turn her head to look, because that would show too soon that she was big and mobile and potentially dangerous. The pad pad pad came closer, then skirted around her, and she felt a small, furry body between her and the bowl of water.

She waited, still and still, and then a wide, flat face, a sandy-reddy cat face, came close to hers. She felt the huff huff huff of soft cat breaths and smelled whatever it was that had died last in its mouth. She stayed still, further. She wouldn't move all night, she wouldn't move unless the cat bit her or scratched her hard.

It sniffed her up and down and side to side, then wandered off on its own business for a while. It came back to find her where it had left her, and put one paw gingerly on her belly, then another, then the last two. It held itself still, not quite as still as MayLynne, for a brief period. At a certain point, the cat relaxed abruptly, and kneaded at her belly, and curled itself up asleep.

MayLynne relaxed herself then, allowed herself a small smile, wiggled her fingers and toes just a bit, and fell asleep, too.

They were friends in the morning, MayLynne and the cat. It was a bit upset, at first, to realize that MayLynne was quite so tall when she was on her feet, but then MayLynne gave it a tiny sliver of ham, and it wanted nothing more than to wind between her legs, as long as she was in the house.

The cat didn't join her when she went out to survey the local landscape, to walk a little ways into the local desert, introducing herself to the cacti and the lizards, being respectful.

But when she came back to eat lunch and sit on the back steps, watching the garden to see if anything might visit, the cat snuggled right up against her. She pet it and it purred.

MayLynne had just begun to think about making herself dinner and offering the cat another sliver of ham, when Grandma Harken walked through the gate.

"My great-grandmother sent me," said MayLynne.

"I know," said Grandma Harken. She was dirty and maybe bruised, and her skin looked dry, but not dangerously dry. She looked like an ordinary person who had crossed the desert safely but not pleasantly, even though Tai Lao Lao had said the desert was her way.

"She says you're supposed to teach me," said MayLynne.

Grandma Harken looked at MayLynne a good long moment, looked at the cat, then back at MayLynne. Then she shrugged and said, "Have you ever made a really good tomato sandwich?"