Life of a prayer, p.1
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       Life Of A 'prayer, p.1

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Life Of A 'prayer

  Life Of A 'prayer

  Midu Hadi

  Copyright 2014 Midu Hadi

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without written permission of the author.

  James hadn’t been eleven for two months when his father died. His mom, a scrap collector like his father, barely made enough so their joint income could feed a family of five. Father tried his best, he thought, he lived for as long as his diseased lungs allowed and then some. In the end, the disease had won. Respiratory illness was nothing new for the denizens of the Lower Quarter. The industrial waste pumped out from the sparkling land of the Uppers poisoned their area day and night. Smog and acid rain had been everyday events for them. But Father had already worked himself to death in the steel mill, he mourned. After losing an arm in an accident, his father had been laid off; the only job left to him was scrounging for scraps of metal and selling them to buy food.

  From his place at the head of the table, James glanced at his sisters, Emma & Eliza, sitting on each side of him. Dressed in the latest fashions, they looked radiant. So far removed from the scrawny, half naked girls they had been back then. Men who hadn’t even known they existed now sought their hands in marriage. His mother, a dignified lady with sad sad eyes, resembled nothing of the woman who’d have done anything to keep her children from starving. Now she graced him with a smile. They were Uppers now and they lived in a stately mansion. I did it, Father. I kept us safe, he mused. If he'd only been able to rescue Grace, too. He'd never gotten over the ache of losing his childhood friend.

  When his sisters had left the table, off to do whatever ladies did at this time of the day, he braced himself for a "conversation" with his parent. “James, you can't keep hating them forever. Surely, that has occurred to you by now". His mother sounded exasperated. "And will you please stop torturing the man?" Tinges of amusement laced her melodious voice this time. "Emma is so very cross with you for dunking him in the duckweed!" He left his serious contemplation of the tablecloth at that and looked up. Their eyes met and they broke out into muffled giggles-too loud. They would summon Emma who had always been completely capable of getting him back.

  "Did you see how.."

  "and his breeches..

  "but the frog.."

  They couldn't stop, as more hilarious parts of the incident kept resurfacing in their memories. Trying his best at sobering up-he was certain that Emma's ears were glued to the door by now-he picked up a scone to distract himself. His mother waited till he had bit into it before observing, "And then he actually presented the amphibian to her," which set them off again. Laughing with her, he picked up his napkin nonchalantly and paused to cough into it. He looked at his mother and knew he hadn't fooled her. Not one bit. He watched the sparkle in her eyes go dim...this woman who had let nothing defeat her was suffering as surely as he was.

  "I don't hate th..well him, at least. He's persistent, if nothing else. He did offer to guard the frog, even after he discovered it wasn't a family heirloom." James had hoped she'd smile at this but he was disappointed. He wanted to say something...anything...that would take her sadness away when Emma chose that very moment to rush in. "You're considering him then?" she demanded of her brother. From the corner of his eyes, he saw a flash of red as Elizabeth ducked behind the balustrade. Smiling at the sibling hovering with excitement, he said, "Very seriously." A glance at his watch told him his happy sojourn was almost over. James stood up and hugged his sisters, dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. She held him as if he were still eleven years old. Farewells gotten over with, he went up the stairs to grab his luggage.


  "Never hold it like this." James demonstrated with the nozzle facing him. Looking around, he saw some senior 'prayers moving among the rows, correcting the stance of the children. Children...I have to stop thinking of them as children, he chided himself. They no longer had that luxury. No playing with dolls for the girls who ended up here. No school for the boys who were sent here. Training occupied every waking hour. They started their training as young as 12 now. Sold by their impoverished families, they were a ticket to easy money. Could he blame the parents? Looking over to the little girl who was trying to balance her breathing tank while keeping hold of her stuffed bunny, he thought, Yes, I can. He reached her before the others. “Hullo!" He pasted a smile on his face when she turned her huge tear-filled orbs in his direction. "Hullo!" He tried again and received only a sniffle in reply. "What seems to be the problem?" He tried not to smile at the ongoing tussle which was the little girl, her toy, and the tank. Unable to keep standing under the combined weights, she let go of both to avoid toppling off the platform. A metallic clunk was heard as the tank hit the ground. James heard her sigh in relief when she saw the toy safely ensconced in his arms.

  Third time's the charm, thought James as he ventured yet again. "Hullo!" She did reply this time, but only because he had his priorities right, he gathered. "Bugsy says you have a big head," she stated. James looked from the toy to the little rascal. "Bugsy also says thank you for saving him."

  Before Bugsy could deliver more gems of eloquence-James suspected the bear had a lot more to say-James quickly asked the girl if she was all right, to which she replied with a nod. Daring to take the safely tucked Bugsy from her arms, he secured him to her tiny waist with a piece of string. She watched the activity with interest and then raised her arms, silently asking to be picked up. As he set her back down, he mentioned his name. "Ask for me, James, if you...Bugsy needs any help." For a moment or two, he watched her balance the tank, assured that her toy was safe, and then he moved towards the others.

  It was good to be back, he thought. James loved visiting his family, but that was all it was- a visit. Donning his protective gear, he glanced at the chit: Duke so and so was having a luncheon at the Magenta Bloom Gardens. Such an important event, he scoffed, simply begged for my expertise. After rechecking all the knots and buckles, he pocketed the address and stepped out. The hallway was swarming with other ‘prayers, as usual. James waved and nodded as acquaintances caught his eye or bellowed out a hullo, how d’you do. The exodus was headed towards the vehicles and he joined the fray.

  Halfway to his destination, he was accosted by a seemingly intoxicated person, since he couldn't manage to walk straight and weaved his way through the crowd to James. The man uttered, "She said yes," and fell on the ground next to where James was now standing, openmouthed.

  “She did?" James was taken too unawares to keep the incredulity out of his voice. The heap on the ground cracked an eye to glare at him. How Adam managed an honest to god glare with just one eye was beyond James.

  “You weren't supposed to be that surprised!” his mate complained, standing up and dusting his clothes. A tremor was visible in his hands as he did so. That told James his friend was as surprised as he was. Placing a hand on Adam's shoulder, he tried to say something that wouldn't have them blubbering like two, wee girls. "Of course, she said yes" was the best he could come up with, but it was sufficient. Adam met his eye and nodded stoically, and that was that. A 'prayer's wedding, Adam's wedding, would be the rarest of events. After all, how often did a dying man marry?


  Still mulling over Adam's impending nuptials, James walked towards the transport hub to get to his steed. Halting next to the transport assigned to him and a few others, he rummaged in the bag hanging from his shoulder for an apple and found it. "Hey Maxwell," he greeted the six foot tall metallic equine who neighed in reply, its eyes already locked on the prize. He could hear the other ‘prayers laughing at his expense as he fed an apple to a metal
lic horse that ran on steam, but he never let that stop him.

  Closing his eyes, James could still hear his grandparents’ good-natured arguing as one of them tried to tell him a story while the other did their best to join in, uninvited. “You're having me on! Aren't you?" he exclaimed. After all, one didn't say that to their Grampa without proof.

  Granma smiled at him and he snuggled into her, keeping an eye out for Grampa's hand reaching for his cane. "No, he isn't, James. There actually used to be an animal like that. Huge ears to..." she began but Grampa interrupted his wife, "Madam, would you tell the story or shall I?"

  James looked from one grandparent to the other- Granma didn't look too worried by what her husband had just said. Then he saw the twinkle in Grampa's eyes. "Elephants, they were. Huge ears and a nose so long that it could coil around you, boy." Grampa continued in his gruff voice. James looked as if his eyes might pop out of his little skull. A very important point occurred to him then, "Didn't the nose get stuck everywhere?"

  The adults didn't laugh it off-that was why the eight year old James couldn't have stopped loving his grandparents. "Tell me about Horses again!" he'd say next, and that was what the aging couple would do. Horses were his favorite- speed and grace, combined into a creature so majestic that young James felt awe anew every time he heard about them. Even now, years after they had passed away, their stories stayed with him. Stories about a time when horses used to be flesh and blood, not metal. A world where fantastic beings other than real horses had existed as well-Dogs, Cats, Lions and a hundred others. Stories of a world no one, dead or alive, had seen for a very long time, not even his grandparents.

  People, themselves, had wrecked the environment, polluting it so much with their huge oil refineries, steel mills and steam powered vehicles that nature had decided to exact revenge on the perpetrators. Animals had been the first casualties. Within a few hundred years, those creatures had been wiped off the planet. The flora was next, scores of plant species had become extinct, but some of the vegetation proved resilient. The “crops” they grew these days were the offspring of that very kind. Some of the animals might have survived as well, he lamented, if not for the mosquitoes.

  Coming back to the present with a rueful shake of his head, he suddenly found himself grinning at Maxwell who had left nothing of the apple, patted its rump, and got into the carriage which dropped off each ‘prayer at the site of the job. Tom's assignment was the Public Library and its adjoining grounds. James didn’t envy him- he'd have to cover the huge area by evening. It wasn't a one-man job, but Tom was a new 'prayer and he wouldn't want to share the money with someone else. James sure hadn't.

  Tom had just stepped out of the carriage when Barry nudged James, pointing to the view through a window on the other side. Next to the lady dressed to the nines was a huge, lumbering... "They're calling it a Gore...Gorale...Gerbil" supplied Barry, smacking his forehead as if that would help jog his memory. "Gorilla" finished James. "Yes, that's it!" said Barry, slapping his friend on the shoulder. It was a stunning piece of work- the primate was even walking on its knuckles like a living, breathing specimen would! "It is all the rage these days," continued Barry, aware of James and his love for such creatures. "Every duchess, marchioness and such must have one or they'd simply perish. You should get one for your sisters, James."

  By the time the vehicle had dropped off Barry to his destination- a place known for its therapeutic waters which of course, translated to colonized by the ton every day- James' shoulders were well bruised. Soon he was at his destination, too. Picking up his helmet, he put it on, rechecked the straps and got out. James waved to the others and walked through the gates into the gardens.

  The Duke’s man was already there, standing next to a towering bush. James shook hands with the man and asked the routine questions: Have the gardens and surrounding areas been cleared out? Had he informed the closest residents to seal off their abodes? How long would it take him to reach a safe distance when he left here? The answers to his queries, in the right order, were: yes, of course, a quarter of an hour. After receiving the sought for answers, James shook the man’s hand once more. He then left while James settled in to wait for an hour.

  Waiting led to thinking. All the widespread pollution had favored the cursed mosquitoes; they were the only species who had multiplied. Sometimes, James thought the whole world was covered with a living blanket of the insects. Those pests had helped make the animals extinct, feeding on them and sucking them dry. Humans had been next on the menu. If not for the mass spraying, arranged by the governing bodies, they wouldn’t have survived.

  But that hadn’t stopped the preying insects for long. As if completely turned against them, nature had betrayed humans once again. The mosquitoes had kept evolving while man had tried to win a race against time by inventing increasingly potent insecticides. So potent now that they were harmful for humans. Parts of the world were still in various stages of recolonization. Population had whittled away to half of what it used to be.

  It was said that Australia and its surrounding areas had survived the plague. The mysterious island was still populated by actual flora and fauna. Being cutoff from the rest of the world had its advantages. The Australian government had closed its doors on other plague-ridden civilizations. Visitors went through a rigorous, lengthy screening before they were let in. What I wouldn't give to visit that bit of heaven, thought James. He had always wondered if an ocean had saved Australia. The Americas might be teeming with wildlife, as well. But who would want to live in such a god forsaken wilderness! No one, if given a choice.

  Only the Uppers had the privilege of choosing where to live. If James had thought life in the Lower Quarter had been bad as a child, he shuddered when he tried to imagine what it might be like to live there now.

  It hadn’t been luck or talent that had changed the fortune of his family. His ascent into society was only possible because of his desperation. He had been desperate enough to become a ‘prayer. Desperate enough to be one of the first boys who had signed up when the 'praying regiment had come recruiting to their corner of the Lower Quarter.

  A sprayer was the highest paying job there was, because being one meant living the life of a man on death row. All his protective gear went only so far. To James, this meant a lonely life, albeit a short one. He wasn't as optimistic as Adam; neither was he as stout of heart as his best mate's wife to-be. No, he didn't begrudge Adam his brief stab at happiness, but he didn't want to be responsible for wrecking someone's life either. Being the cause of misery for his mother and sisters was enough, as it was.

  An hour gone, he checked his gear yet again. No sense in dying one whole day before I’m supposed to, he chuckled. Picking up the spraying apparatus, James turned the various dials on and positioned the nozzle away from his breathing space. Would Emma wear the new taffeta gown he had gotten her, he wondered, as his nose started to bleed. He hoped Eliza liked her new diamonds and wore them to Adam's wedding. He was happy his family was joining him for the event.



  Adam had spared no expense. The besotted groom had spent a fortune when he had decided to rent a Hindenburg, along with her crew, instead of a Zeppelin. When asked the reason, he had mumbled something about Betty's toes being cold. James could only stare at his friend. Frozen digits aside, the air-pirates were a very real threat these days. Any airline worth their salt (and fare) carried coppers with her. The law-men were given special training which included orchestrating emergency landings, prevention of hostile takeovers etc. Piracy still happened; as long as there were airships, both 'prayers and pirates would never run out of work. To ensure peace of mind for his bride (and everybody else), Adam had hired a team of "Rat-Catchers"- a privately owned firm that boasted having made the highest number of pirate robberies unsuccessful. With a stellar record and a name like that- the name was a play on what the most dangerous band of pirates called themselves i.e. Ship
Rats- the Rat-Catchers came highly recommended.

  Amongst various other improvements was the fact that the passenger lounge had been converted into a dance floor, complete with a band. The promenades became the destination of guests who wanted to converse, fully equipped with musicians serenading them as they talked. The airship also boasted a smoking room, which to him, sounded like tempting fate, and James was a 'prayer! Passenger cabins had been customized to each guest's liking- James' cabin actually had books with titles like, "Mechanical Pets and Their Care" and "What to do When your Metallic Cat Starts Coughing Nuts and Bolts." Who knew what his mother and sisters' cabin would have? When he discovered his towels were actually monogrammed with his initials, he considered throwing Adam out of a window.

  The evening of the wedding ceremony finally arrived and James found himself on the deck. The bride looked like an angel- a giddy, jubilant one, while the groom looked-well-Adam looked like the proverbial cat that got the cream. Standing next to his friend, James had never wished for anyone's happiness as fervently as he did for this couple now. Not only was Adam lucky enough to find the love of his life, he was also going to spend his life with her- Adam was leaving the ranks of 'prayers.

  I wish him every happiness, thought James. His mother wore a sappy expression, and his sisters' eyes gleamed with pleasure. Hope sparkled in their expressions. There was a time in his life when he felt that kind of hope. At one time, he thought he'd spend his life with Grace. He sighed, and then something collided with the dirigible with enough force to rock it. Recovering from a stumble, he strode towards his mother, who had been knocked down. After helping her into her chair, James chanced a glance outside at the promenade and swore in spite of himself.

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