Heibai and huckleberry, p.1
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       Heibai and Huckleberry, p.1

          
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Heibai and Huckleberry
Heibai and Huckleberry

  By Vincent L. Cleaver

  The world was a near twin of earth. Near enough that people, men and women, and later children, could thrive. They shared it with the native life, plus horses rabbits, cats, dogs, even rats, and all the other things of Man.

  The debris field that orbited this world was more than fifty years old. Only the height of its original orbit had kept it from falling years before. Orbital mechanics and the expanded high atmosphere of a solar maximum worked to bring it lower and lower. The great remaining bulk of the starship wreck would persist for a little while yet, but a piece of spinning hull plate, with ‘USAFV Corpus Christi’ in bold white letters, had begun its final orbit. It tumbled lower still and turned to surf the thickening atmosphere as it was finally cast from the heavens.

  The hull plate was tough, and held together a long time, skipping twice as it dipped into the thicker layers of atmosphere. Its fiery journey took it halfway around the world, approaching a land mass in the middle latitudes, flashing across the width of it in tens of seconds, as it skipped one last time. It passed over deserts and grasslands, several tired old mountain ranges, and arced towards the ocean again, almost making it. It finally broke apart in an impressive shower of other-worldly sparks, several miles northwest of the major human settlement, known in the most common local language as ‘By-The-Sea.’ Shanghai.

  Ma Hei Bai looked up at the light show, as did others at the wedding reception. The guests were taking in a show of daring and gunplay, as the cowboys from the North River Valley and Bei Cheng, North Settlement, demonstrated their skill for the wedding guests. Men from the Clinkenbeard and Wallace outfits were reenacting a deadly little set-piece that had fortunately not lead to yet another range war between the CB and Bar-W brands. The respective Cattle Barons had instead pooled their resources and secured a line of credit with the merchants and factors of the House of Ma. Goods from By-The-Sea had helped to set up a new spread in the snowy foothills of the Tien Shan, Heavenly Mountains, on the northwest bank of the North River, away from the more settled, and contentious, southeast.

  The Cowboys rode up to each other, blazing away with harmless blanks. They fell into two clumps, each side hamming up the shooting and dying until, at the urging of his cousins and ranch hands, the bride groom, Bruce Clinkenbeard, demonstrated how he had daringly ridden into the midst of the Wallace men and taken Jason Wallace III hostage. Amid the applause, Ma Hei Bai could just make out Bruce apologizing to the man.

  “Sorry, Junior! Next time, you can take me hostage.”

  Hei Bai noted that Junior laughed and clapped Bruce on the back, but when the groom turned away from Junior, his smile faded and was replaced, for just an instant, with a black look that was a little hard to identify. Hatred, jealousy and … shame? Hard feelings were easy enough to believe, and jealousy. Bruce had married Hei Bai’s oldest sister today, Chun Hua, ‘Spring Flower’, and she was both beautiful and rich. Bruce would be apprenticing with Hei Bai’s father and uncles, learning down-river business and acting as his own father’s local business manager. That point was annoying, since it meant that the sister-smothered only son would not be losing his older sister for the foreseeable future. If anything, she was now bossier than ever!

  “Little Master, come away. Your mother has sent for you.” Hei Bai turned to see Jules, the family servant his mother had assigned to him. “She wishes you to keep one of the guests company.”

  “But Jules, couldn’t you just tell Mother that you didn’t find me?”

  “I will not, because she is standing right there,” pointing across to where Bruce was now talking with his new in-laws, Ma En Lai and his wife. Mei Zhen, ‘Beautiful Treausre’, nodded to them, and smiled a tiny little smile that seemed to spell doom for Hei Bai’s plans to have any fun. “And because I serve her, first, and not you, Little Master. Not for many years to come.”

  Hei Bai could not be mad at that, and smiled fondly up at the great man-mountain. Hei Bai was tall for his age, 13 as his people counted it, 12 as the Clinkenbeards and other North River Valley folk would measure it. His people called themselves Han, Chinese stranded like the generally western people who had also been stranded on this world fifty years ago last spring, along with the aliens they had come to fight. This man, Jules, fit into the household like a jigsaw puzzle piece, but he was obviously of the western folk. His balding grey-haired head reached for the heavens and topped two meters, ‘six-seven,’ as he would say. The passive, craggy face hid intelligence and wit, but not the pain of a man who had constantly re-invented himself over the course of his seventy-three Earth years. Hei Bai was a quiet child, given to keeping his own thoughts to himself, and he had often wondered about the hidden depths of this man, the servant and bodyguard of the heir of the Ma household.

  “Well, the show is over, anyway. What does Mother wish me to do?”

  “One of the younger daughters of the younger Clinkenbeard brother is about your age. Her sisters are bridesmaids and part of the wedding party, and the littlest daughter was the ring-bearer. I believe Miss Hannah is, ah, bored.” Jules smiled blandly and did not mention his own thought, that the ‘Little Master’ would need a bride himself, someday, and George Clinkenbeard had a lot of daughters. It was better not to alarm him with that prospect. Just as well. Men such as En Lai made plans, and God laughed.

  ***

  "Hannah, Hannah, coming and going, Hannah is Hannah!" Melody sang. Hannah Clinkenbeard plotted how she was going to exterminate the little rodent. The latest version of the plan involved dumping her into the little pool with the carp. Problem was, she just might remember to stand up, and so not drown. She was such a clever little beast.

  “I told you to call me Huck!” She hissed. Huck was short for Huckleberry, her nickname. It was what all her favorite male relatives called her. Her female relatives didn’t of course. It wasn’t proper, or lady-like. Huckleberry would never get herself a good marriage, but Hannah might.

  “No, you’re Hannah-Anna-banana Clinkenbeard!” The little rodent beamed. She very rarely got their surname out in one go, and was so proud of herself. Huck relented, and turned to her, patting her little sister on the head. They were standing on an ornamental bridge. In the water below them, the two sisters looked like flawed reflections of each other. One, out of focus, the other, concentrated.

  “Very good, mei-mei.” Huck mussed up her dirty-blond hair and she squeaked indignantly. “That’s a good little rodent.”

  Melody squeaked yet another of her trademark squeaks, and ran off to seek easier prey, or at least better fun, calling half-heartedly over her shoulder, “I’m telling Mom!”

  She probably wouldn’t though. Melody fell back into her sing-song, "Hannah, Hannah, coming and going, Hannah is Hannah!"

  Huck reflected that the little rodent had only truly become insufferable since she had discovered word-games and palindromes, and this had recently ignited an interest in Math. That, and Huck had over-heard Daddy boasting how the baby of the family “croaked like a frog,” meaning French, and Melody had helped their two older sisters polish their Chinese for the wedding.

  Huck stared down into the water. The light reflected in such strange ways. It was almost alive. She became aware of a deeper darkness moving in the inky black pockets between the stones that dressed up the carp pond. Yellow eyes opened into hers, and she realized two things- That the waters were deeper than she had thought, and that she really didn’t want her little sister to drown.

  “Who are you, I wonder?’ She said to herself.

  “Meng the river dragon,” said a voice from the foot of the bridge. Huck jumped and was annoyed at herself for being surprised. A Chinese boy was standing there, speaking English to her English.

  “Don’t go sneaking up on a body like that!” She screeched, and was immediately embarrassed at her lack of composure.

  “My apologies, Miss.” If the boy, black haired and almond-eyed, was upset at her outburst, he hid it with a reserve far beyond his years. He did half-turn to look to a big man a few steps away on the footpath, as if for support. But he stopped himself, stepped up on the bridge, and, squaring his shoulders, walked up to stand before her. She had half-turned before, and now faced him. Huck could see the servant squatting down and taking a seat on a sunny slab of rock. She realized just how big he was, and had the uncharitable thought that he was incredibly ugly. The man had a piece of wood in one hand, and a penknife in the other, and began to whittle.

  “My name is Hei Bai, Miss. I don’t believe that we’ve been introduced?”

  Hei Bai saw a young ou zhou (European) girl, dirty-blonde with wild hair escaping from her ornate hair combs. She wore the same pink gown with green accents as the wedding party, although Hei Bai knew that she had not been part of the wedding. He was sure it was because there had just been no way to shoe-horn in even one more, past ten brides-maids. The gown had not been treated kindly. It was smudged and dirty, and Hei Bai felt badly for the artist who had labored over such a beautiful thing which would not survive the day.

  “What!?” Huck said, then remembered her manners. “Uh, my name is Hannah Clinkenbeard, “ she stammered. She brushed stray hair behind her ear, and blew on the rebellious lock that fell right back in front of her eyes.

  Green eyes.

  Hei Bai looked again, and again those bright green eyes drew his, away from the wild hair, the disheveled and, yes, dirty, girl. She was nothing like his sisters, or his mother.

  “You, uh, you can call me Huck.”

  “Huck?”

  “Yeah, it’s a nickname. My name!” She added, defiantly.

  “It’s a good name.”

  “You really think so?” She asked, searching his face for any sign that he was lying, or teasing.

  “Yes, yes, I do,” Hei Bai said.

  There was an awkward moment. Almost as one, they turned away from each other, and looked out over the side of the bridge, into the carp pool. Crouched on his sun-warmed slab, Jules smiled, and blew on the wooden revolver he was carving. Welcome to the dance, children, he thought. Every day, Jules thanked God for his life, and this was just one of the reasons why.

  The river dragon surfaced, and Hei Bai reached into his sleeves, taking out and passing half of a small stash of wedding cookies to Huck without a word. She took them and thanked him quietly, watching as he took a bite and crumbled a few cookies before tossing them into the water. Meng snapped one out of the air, and settled back to watch the rest floating on the surface of the water.

  “What-“ Huck started to say, but he made a motion for quiet.

  “Just watch,” Hei Bai said, smiling. He had a secret and wanted to surprise her. He stole sideways glances at her until she noticed and laughed, and then colored slightly, as did he. This was just the sort of ridiculous nonsense she deplored in her older sisters!

  Fish bobbed up to the surface, taking crumbs nervously. Meng tensed, and then snapped up, one, two, three fish, for his dinner. He made deep huffing and crooning sounds. “Chup, chup! Chup, chup! Hrooooon!”

  Hei Bai bowed, and said, in Chinese, “It is my pleasure, friend. Celebrate the wedding of my sister, Spring Flower, and Bruce Clinkenbeard.”

  Meng gurgled and chuffed, and slapped his tail in the pond. Jules looked up as the drops sprayed, and shielded his carving.

  “What did he say?” Huck asked.

  “He wishes them many big fat, ah, eggs, and many repeated, uh, blessed and holy unions to, ah,” Hei Bai stammered. He blushed deep red. “He wishes them luck and many fat children under foot. He apologizes, but he was unaccountably uninformed, or he would have attended.”

  Huck laughed, not tinkling, lady-like, but with feeling, from the belly. When she could speak, she said, “Oh, That was precious. Oh ho, you’re so cute when you…“ She shut up suddenly, and stood up straight.

  Again, Hei Bai looked to Jules for help, but the man was quietly laughing. Hei Bai did not like being laughed at, and he glared at Jules, who manfully tried to control himself, then cut loose with some more chuckles.

  “Why is his hind foot like that?” Huck asked, to change the subject, and because she had just noticed. The river dragons’ hind leg seemed to end in two feet, at right angles to each other.

  “He lost it in a fight with another river dragon. Some sort of argument over a thesis. The Lung take that sort of thing to extremes. Meng is sort of an outcast, or an outlaw, outside the protection of their covenants. My mother took him in when I was little.”

  There was a story that the older servants told, about how Hei Bai had wandered away from his nurse as a toddler, down by the river. His mother had led the search, holding herself together with an iron will, while the servants panicked. They had found him, a little sun-burnt, curled up, nestling in the coils of Meng, who had not understood their point of view, at all. Finders keepers. He had agreed to let the mother have the child back after being assured that he would be well-cared for, and taught how to swim. That point had been important. Meng had followed them home and hung around, accepting table-scraps as his due, like a half-ton cat.

  “The foot didn’t grow back right, as limbs and toes will with the Lung. Jules,” he nodded to the servant, who was still chuckling, “says that there are tiny creatures that interfered with the natural process, and that it happens to some of the Lung from time to time. The others see it as a sign of misfortune, that he carries trouble with him.” Hei Bai pursed his lips.

  “Jules also says that the land always changes us into something new, a new kind of people.” Hei Bai glanced over at Jules, who had returned to his whittling, and added, quietly, “I don’t always understand the Old People.”

  Huck nodded. Her aunt and uncles, mother and father, they were bad enough, but the oldest ones were alien in all senses of that word. They had not been born here, and had different assumptions. Their hopes and fears were different, too.

  “I never understand them, either, except for my Grandmother,” Huck said. Then she remembered something. “Did you just say ‘Jules’?”

  “Yes, Jules,” Hei Bai answered, wondering where this was going.

  “He wouldn’t happen to be Jules Le Croix?’

  Hei Bai honestly did not know. Jules was Jules. He was like the rocks in the carp pond, fixed references for his world.

  “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

  Huck made a big ‘O’ with her mouth and shook her head. Unbelieving. How could he not know, if this was the same Jules Le Croix from all her grandmother’s tales? She could not get a grip on that idea, and her mind shied away from it.

  Melody saved them all from any more awkwardness, skipping up in the company of their mother, Trisha, and singing, “Getting to know you!” at the top of her lungs.

  “Melody, be a dear and hush,” Trisha said.

  “Certainement, ma Ma-Ma!” melody said cheerfully. Jules was just standing up and putting away the carving and his penknife, but he paused, and turned to the little girl. “Parlez-vous français ?” he asked.

  Trisha walked up to Hei Bai and Huck. “Hanah, dear, you’ve ruined that outfit!” She said sadly. Hei Bai nodded in agreement. Behind them, Melody and Jules were talking, the giant in deep, rumbling French, and the little girl piping like a songbird.

  “Oui, oui, monsieur,” she said, then, in Chinese, “I speak Chinese, as well as French.”

  “Enchante, ma petite, enchante.”

  “Mom!” Huck wailed. “I didn’t even get my own dress! This is Myriams’ but then she-“

  “Hush, dear, dirty laundry, not in front of our host,” Trisha interrupted, beaming at Hei Bai. “By the way, they are seating for dinner, perhaps we can all proceed, together?” She took both of them by the hand, and pulled them along, gently but firmly in tow. Melody and Jules trailed after, the little girl excitedly telling her new friend, the giant, all about their riverboat journey, and her first trip to the beach, all in rapid-fire French. Jules was smiling, well content with his lot in life.

  ***

  Hei Bai was sitting at a table with his friends and cousins. They were rowdy. He was not. That was nothing new, and they ignored him, leaving him to draw in the tabletop with a finger-tip, making brush-strokes in some spilled tea.

  The characters for sun and moon, ‘ri’ and ‘yue’, together meant ‘ming’, bright or brilliant. He drew ‘Mu’, for eye, below it, ‘Ming Mu’, Bright Eyes. Idly, he added the character for horse, ‘Ma’, above it. He made the brush-strokes with his finger, the neck and mane of the horse, the back and tail, and the four hooves.

  Ma Ming Mu. It was, what was the English word? Alliterative.

  His friend, Owl, George Bailey, he of the ‘gi-normous’ spectacles, was looking at what he was doing. “What are you writing?” He didn’t read or write Chinese, but knew a few characters. Everybody did.

  Hei Bai wiped up the tea with a napkin. “Nothing, just my name.”

  “Liar! That bit under ‘Ma’ wasn’t White-Black.”

  Owl peered at him, glasses with their thick lenses magnifying his intelligent grey eyes. “Is your Ma going to have another baby?”

  Hei Bai blinked, and considered whether to tell another lie. Best not. “I don’t think so, no.”

  “My Ma was speculating ’bout that, not that it’s any of her busy-ness. I was just thinking how, when I had my little sister, I suddenly had a lot more freedom.” They both mused on the nature of little brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers, and then Owl went back to the original subject. “Then what’s the name? Who is it?”

  “Nothing and nobody.”

  “That’s not fair! I can keep a secret.”

  Hei Bai laughed. Telling anyone was a scary prospect, in that it opened him up to ridicule. Owl was his best friend, but he was not very discreet. On the other hand, he was persistent, and loyal. And he was looking at Hei Bai with a mulish expression, both mad at being laughed at, which he didn’t like anymore that Hei Bai did, and at the prospect of an intriguing puzzle. Owl was all about questions, and he had a way of quietly floating down on them, like a barn owl after little mice.

 
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