Ephemeral: Chapter 10
Mr. Rutger hailed Aaric with his wide-brimmed brown hat in hand when the two riders reached his property. “Halloo Aaric Alden! Where's Mother Alden?”
Aaric smiled from atop his black horse. “She's helping with a foaling and sent me in her stead.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Rutger. “How goes it with you?”
“Very well. And with yourself, sir?”
Here, a shadow passed over the farmer's round face. “Oh, a little weather-beaten above ground, but my roots are still holding solid.” He grinned, making his already-round cheeks form deep dimples. “But who is this?” Mr. Rutger turned to Clara as she rode up on Nelly.
Aaric looked at Clara. “Clara Milton, this is John Rutger, son of Joseph and Regina Rutger.”
The farmer bowed his head. “Pleased to meet you, Miss.”
“And this is Clara Milton, daughter of ...” Aaric looked at Clara with question marks in his eyes.
“Benjamin and ...” Clara's throat tightened. It had been months since she'd spoken her mother's name. “... Elizabeth Milton.”
“Welcome to Almitas!” Mr. Rutger said. “I can't say I've met any Miltons. Are you from Agilis?”
“She's a student from Earth,” Aaric explained.
“Earth?!” Mr. Rutger gasped. “How did you escape?”
“Escape?” Clara raised her eyebrows. Escape from what?
“She's not a colonist,” Aaric clarified. “She's an interstellar research intern. For her graduate studies.”
“Oh … I see,” Mr. Rutger said in a tone which conveyed he clearly didn't. “Studying what, exactly?”
“I'm studying how social roles develop in a new colony,” Clara said.
“New colony? What new colony?” Mr. Rutger looked puzzled.
“This new colony.” Clara started to wonder if Mr. Rutger might be simple-minded. “Elpis 7 was started by forty colonists, right?”
Mr. Rutger grinned. “She sure knows her history,” he said to Aaric. “But if we spend all Elpis-light talking,” he glanced at the time on his arm band, “I'll lose this season's crop.”
“Lead on, then,” Aaric said.
The round farmer swiveled his generous girth about face and started walking along the dirt path toward a brown-tilled field about a quarter mile away. Despite his short stature, he covered the ground quickly and soon outpaced the horses. Here the road widened, so Clara nudged Nelly forward to walk astride Aaric's horse so she could speak to him.
“Aaric,” she said in a low voice, “Why did Mr. Rutger think I'd escaped from Earth?”
Aaric fiddled with his leather reins. “I think he was referring to your escaping the Rite of Passing.”
Clara raised an eyebrow. “Why would I want to escape that?”
“You wouldn't?!” Aaric turned to her, surprised.
“Of course not! The Rite of Passing is a mercy. It saved Earth from the brink of global collapse, you know.”
Aaric blinked in confusion. “How … how can you think that?”
Now it was Clara's turn to look surprised. “Because it's true! Before the V. C. revolution, people lingered for decades in chronic pain. At one point, the elderly outnumbered the young five-to-one and started dying in the streets from neglect; there simply weren't enough care givers to go around.”
Aaric glanced up at Mr. Rutger walking about ten yards ahead – luckily far enough not to hear their conversation.
Clara continued. “So the Vitae Conglomerate finally stepped in and instituted a global age limit – high enough for people to raise the next generation, but low enough to prevent geriatric suffering. The last three generations have been the healthiest and wealthiest in the history of humankind.” Clara assumed the air one one who has presented conclusive evidence beyond all reasonable doubt. But one look at Aaric's taut facial features told her he would not be easily enlightened.
“So you're honestly okay with your government telling you when to die?” he asked, fighting to keep his voice steady.
“And you're honestly okay with people suffering for years before they die anyway?” Clara shot back.
Aaric clenched his jaw; this woman was trying his patience in arenas his bucking broncos never had. “It seems irrational to kill people in order to prevent suffering. Why not save time and kill them the moment they're born?”
Clara frowned. “The Rite of Passing isn't anti-life; it's anti-dragged-out-death. It might seem arbitrary to you, but that's because you're not accustomed to it. How do you sleep at night not knowing when or how you'll die? Or worse – that you might live so long you become a burden to everyone you know fighting a battle you can't win? Isn't better to accept reality than to waste time and resources trying to prevent the unpreventable?”
Aaric gripped his reins tight; his horse snorted. Mr. Rutger still strode ahead, oblivious to the conflict behind him. Aaric lowered his voice and spoke deliberately. “Life is still life, and murder's still murder.”
Clara winced at Aaric's last word. “We don't think of it that way. It's more like a merciful expiration date.”
“And if people refuse such mercy?”
Clara shifted in her saddle. Such instances were rare, but occasionally people did try to avoid their Passing Ceremonies. Then the V.C. Police would have to enforce reason. “Such people are taken to special counseling centers to be re-educated. When you think about the big picture, taking the Rite is really an act of love which promotes the greater social good.”
Aaric shook his head, incredulous. His self-control was starting to erode. “You think killing off your society serves the greater social good?!”
Clara winced again at Aaric's violent word choice. “I think it's good people aren't dying in the streets anymore. I think it's good people don't go bankrupt paying for medical treatments which ...”
Mr. Rutger cleared his throat loudly. “Excuse me ...”
Startled, Clara and Aaric looked down from their horses at the farmer standing beside a nearby fence post.
“Sorry to interrupt, but this here's the field.” He gestured to the furrowed ground with his thick thumb.
Aaric dismounted, drew Mother Alden's tonic bottle from his saddlebag and placed it in his back pocket. Then he walked/limped over to Nelly and held out his hands to Clara, though he avoided her eyes.
She looked down at him with a frown – then to the ground which seemed a mile away. Inwardly she cursed her small frame for not being taller. But there was nothing for it, and Mr. Rutger was checking his arm band for the time. Reluctantly, she leaned forward, placed her hands on Aaric's strong shoulders, and let him help her slide out of the saddle. The second she touched the grass with her black boots, he turned from her and tagged behind Mr. Rutger who had already opened a wooden gate and entered the field.
Clara took one step and let out an involuntary squeal. My legs! Muscles she'd never noticed before now felt terribly strained and painful. It was difficult to put one foot in front of the other without grimacing. But she grit her teeth and hobbled after the men, trying not to squash the tiny green plants sprouting from the brown furrows.
“Shouldn't we tie up the horses?” she called ahead.
Aaric – who by this time had walked off much of his frustration – turned and raised his eyebrows to see Clara more than thirty feet behind. He stopped to wait for her. “They won't wander off.”
Clara nodded as she gingerly stepped over a furrow and winced.
A brief smile flickered onto Aaric's face and disappeared again. “Walking helps with saddle-soreness,” he said. “But we can get you some pain relief if desired.”
Clara kept her eyes on the furrows, but accepted the olive branch. “I may take you up on that.”
It was a temporary truce.
“Here's the problem,” Mr. Rutger said as he pointed to a corner of the field. Unlike the rest of the property, this area had no sprouts. “It's been happening at other farms, too. And before you ask, yes – we've been fertilizing and rotating the crops. Haven't noticed any unusual pests or diseases. And we've tested the soil twice. All the seed's been kept safe and secure in airtight containers with no sign of tampering by man nor beast.”
Aaric knelt down, dug up a yellow seed, and held it up for Clara.
Clara didn't know much about agriculture (she had trouble keeping her houseplants alive), so she merely shrugged. “It looks like a seed,” she said, feeling idiotic.
“That it is. And a healthy one, by the looks of it.” Aaric scratched the back of his head. “I'm stumped.”
Mr. Rutger looked to the horizon and lowered his voice. “You don't think this could be … on purpose, do you? Another power play from His Eminence?”
Clara raised her eyebrows.
“I doubt it,” Aaric said. “Why jeopardize his own tribe's food supply?”
Mr. Rutger stood akimbo. “I dunno. It's easy to drum up fear by disrupting the status quo. Fearful people are easier to control.”
“Excuse me,” Clara said. “What are you talking about? Is His Eminence trying to subvert Almitas in some way?”
Mr. Rutger and Aaric exchanged a wary glance. Then Mr. Rutger smiled. “'Tain't nothing for you to worry about. Only a little local politics.” A small alarm dinged on Mr. Rutger's arm band. “It's my wife.” He lifted his wrist closer to his face. “Hello, Ruth! Everything alright?”
“No, everything is NOT alright!” a woman's voice snapped amid inarticulate yelling in the background.
Mr. Rutger's smile vanished.
“Granna Kate is throwing a tantrum – as well as everything she can get her hands on! She even broke the creamer and sugar bowl she gave us for our wedding! When I wheeled her out to the back yard so she couldn't reach any more dishes, she tried to bite me! Me! I'm so angry, I could slap her!” she choked back a sob.
Clara stood, shell-shocked. She'd never heard of such barbaric behavior.
Mr. Rutger tuned away and spoke quietly. “Any idea why she's so upset?”
Ruth huffed loud enough for Clara and Aaric to hear perfectly. “She didn't want to eat her mashed peas even though I made them with her own recipe! She threw her plate on the floor and then started throwing everything else. I barely evaded a fork; I'm lucky I still have both my eyes!”
“Where are the other care givers? And where's Mary?”
“Jessie left after helping with Granna's bath this Elpis-rising. Until now, Granna was knitting quietly, so I sent Jack to market to retrieve my grocery order. Mary's still at work, and Sarah's outside somewhere. Now the kitchen's a wreck, and Granna's still out there yelling! What on Elpis am I supposed to do?!”
Clara glared at Aaric. It was unreasonable these people should have to put up with such foolishness! Why don't they put the old woman out of her misery and relieve everyone else's?
But Aaric, for his part, continued to study the furrow at his feet.
Mr. Rutger sighed like an exhausted soldier summoned to the front lines again. “Why don't you take a walk and clear your head? Sarah can watch Granna for a degree till I get there. You know how Granna Kate loves children. She'll calm down soon, and we can clean up the kitchen later.”
“Thanks, John.” More sniffling. “Sometimes I feel like such a failure ...”
“You're not!” Mr. Rutger said decidedly. “You are much-loved.”
Mr. Rutger tapped his arm band and turned back to his visitors. “I've got to go. Are you good here?”
“Yes, sir. Oh! Mother Alden told me to give you this.” Aaric drew out out the tonic bottle from his back pocket.
“Thanks, lad,” Mr. Rutger said as he wrapped his fingers around the brown bottle. “Granna Kate likes this. It soothes her. Helps her sleep, too. When you're done here, come on over to the house. I have something for you to give Mother Alden.”
Aaric nodded as the middle-aged man turned and trudged toward the gray house sitting atop a hill about half a mile off.
Clara watched Mr. Rutger retreat, then turned to Aaric. Was Granna Kate always this abusive? Why would people tolerate such madness instead of embracing the Rite? And on a different note, was there any justification for a conspiracy theory against His Eminence? What did he have against Almitas? But if no one was tampering with the crops, what was wrong with them and – more importantly – how could Aaric possibly help? “Aaric?” she asked.
“Shhh!” he held up a hand.
Clara strained her ears, but beyond the chirping birds and lowing of cattle in the distance, she could hear nothing.
Aaric slipped the ring Mother Alden had given him onto his right middle finger. Then, to Clara's surprise, he bowed his head, made a fist, and pushed the ring's green stone into the dirt.
What on earth is he doing?! Clara wondered. She could not imagine soil was good for silver filigree. “Aaric?”
“Wait,” he replied with his eyes still closed. His lips moved silently as Clara shifted her weight from one boot to the other. Then she heard something rustle … something she could not identify at first. It sounded like a cross between the wind in the leaves and a slithering snake. Or snakes … and it was growing louder.
Clara jumped as she felt something brush against the back of her leg. She whirled around, expecting to find an animal.
What she actually saw so shocked her, she forgot to scream. All she could do was stand and gape with unbelieving, unblinking eyes.
Green, vigorous vines sprouted, curled, and burst forth from the dark furrows into Elpis light. With a rattling whoosh, leaves projected from the vines and unfurled like green sails against the blue Elpis sky. In mere seconds, flowers budded and blossomed pink. The barren brown ground had turned into a writhing green sea of churning vines.
Then, almost as suddenly as it had began, the growth stopped. The leaves stilled. Clara stared with heart pounding as a warm breeze gently breathed across the newly-grown field, fanning its floral fragrance abroad to attract pollinators.
Aaric sighed, tired but pleased, and stood to his feet. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, then wiped his ring clean with the corner of his navy blue shirt.
Clara swallowed hard and watched her humble companion in awe – almost reverence. “Wh … what just happened?” she asked when she finally recovered her voice.
“This is the Almitas heirloom – the Auxano stone,” he replied as he removed the ring from his finger and held it out to her. “Auxano is Greek for 'cause to grow.' And that's just what it does.”
Clara cupped the ring in her palm carefully, knowing it was both precious and powerful. “But how does it work?”
Aaric smiled. “It's not witchcraft.”
“But you were kneeling. I saw your lips moving.”
“I was thanking the Creator. He makes all things grow; this ring merely acts as an accelerator.”
“But how?!” Clara repeated. She turned the ring around and around in her fingers, looking for something to help her believe what she had just witnessed.
“We're not sure how. All we know is one of the first colonists discovered the stone and dreamed that if she put it into the ground with a thankful spirit, it would make things flourish. And that's what it does.”
That explains the lady wearing the ring in the Agilis relief. “Does the Auxano stone work on other things? Like money or people?”
“No.” Aaric chuckled. “Just plants.” He held out his hand, and Clara returned the ring. Aaric slid it onto his finger, then turned to hobble over the viney field back to the horses.
Clara followed, trying not to step on the new plants. “Why not use the stone on every field?” she asked. “Wouldn't that save time?”
Aaric tilted his head. “Save it for what?”
“I don't know … leisure?”
Aaric shook his head. “Work is good for the soul, and we already have leisure. Besides, there's more than enough food production without the stone. That's why we export our surplus to the Silva and Silex tribes.”
“Oh,” Clara said as they neared the horses. “On a different topic ...” she hesitated, wanting information but not another conflict. “... is the Rutgers' experience with their upset relative normal? Or is what I heard over Mr. Rutger's armband an isolated incident?”
Aaric considered. “As people age, they generally require more care, though not everyone ages or declines in the same way.”
“I don't think I could put up it.” Clara hopped over a large leaf. “The Rutgers seem worn out to me.”
Aaric nodded. “Care-giving can be exhausting. That's why we try to help support our neighbors in their caring.”
“But why take on that social responsibility in the first place?”
“Well,” Aaric considered, “having a long-range perspective helps. If you know you'll one day need help, that can help you help others even when they're difficult.”
Clara stepped over a yellow flower. “So you help the older generation in hopes that the next one will help yours in the future?”
“That's one way to look at it,”Aaric said as he came to the wooden gate and opened it for Clara. “We reap what we sow.”
Clara frowned. “But what if the younger generation decided they didn't want to support the elderly?”
Aaric sobered. “Then I wouldn't want to be in their shoes when they need help someday ...”
By this time, they'd reached the grazing horses. Aaric knelt down and interlocked his fingers to give Clara a boost atop Nelly. Clara groaned as she lifted her leg over the mare's back, but this time she sat upright in the saddle without hunching over Nelly's neck. “So if I'm understanding you correctly,” Clara said as Aaric swung himself up onto his own horse, “your eldercare support system is based on the fear that if you don't help your elders now, your children might not help you?”
Aaric shook his head as he adjusted his reins. “True compassion is never based on fear. Or manipulation.”
“Then what is it based on?” Clara asked.
To her astonishment, Aaric actually smiled. “Now that's a good question,” he pronounced. Then he clicked to his horse and urged his mount to walk toward the gray house in the distance.
Clara followed on Nelly, sighing. It's going to take me forever to complete my research.
So what do you think?
I would like to hear from people who have experience caring for others (even when it’s difficult). So whether you care for a loved one with a health condition, an aging parent, or even young children … any advice for how to do it well? Please share in the comments below.