Ephemeral: Chapter 15
“So what did you think of Mother Grace?” Mother Alden asked as she led Clara toward the Almitas town center past the other two story homes with tidy flower gardens bordering the street.
Clara – much to her own surprise – smiled. “I never met a more confident woman in my life. Though I had hoped to interview her – not the other way around. Oh, no!” She clapped a hand to her forehead.
Mother Alden raised her eyebrows. “What's the matter?”
Clara withdrew her recording device from her pocket. “I COMPLETELY forgot to record our visit for my internship! Argh!” She raked her hand through her brown hair. “Some researcher I am! I can't believe this!”
“It doesn't matter,” Mother Alden said as she continued walking toward the collection of larger buildings at the end of the road.
“What?” Clara said, looking up at her. “It matters for my thesis! No one on Earth will believe I met someone over a hundred years old without documented proof!”
Mother Alden stuffed her hands into her pants pockets and focused on the ground ahead of her.
“Is … something wrong?” Clara asked when Mother Alden went nearly a block without saying anything.
“Not necessarily ...” She turned her eyes onto Clara; they seemed sad. “Don't worry about your internship. If you want, we can always visit Mother Grace again.” She set out for the town square with a renewed vigor.
Clara had to lengthen her stride to keep up. “Would she ask more questions?”
Mother Alden adjusted her straw hat. “Mother Grace doesn't have much time for small talk. She usually goes straight to the heart of the matter.”
“You mean the jugular.” Clara said. “I've never felt so inadequate for an oral examination.”
Mother Alden smiled. “I once hinted that she soften her first impression by sticking to benign topics before delving into deeper matters. Do you know what she said to me?”
Clara shook her head.
“She said the hovercraft to hell was padded with cushions of all kinds: cowardice and ignorance being two of them.”
Mother Alden grinned. “On the contrary, I loved her for that! I'd wasted enough of my life sticking to shallow conversation for fear of offending. That's one of the benefits of living longer; you gain courage and perspective.”
The road widened as they walked toward two rows of shops. Cara could see barbers plying their trade through plate glass windows. Bakers proudly displayed their fruit tarts, pies, and pastries through glass cases. Then came the cheese maker's shop, a butcher shop, furniture store, hardware store, a bookseller's, and several specialty boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.
A rudimentary base camp, indeed, Clara thought wryly. She took out her recording device to document the town's decidedly established nature and wondered again why Mother Grace had acted surprised when she'd mentioned the length of her internship. Why does that always catch people off guard? she wondered. “Speaking of gaining perspective earlier, I wanted to ask you something, Mother Alden.”
“Yes?” the older woman turned from a display of straw hats in a window.
“Is there something odd about my internship lasting for forty days?”
Mother Alden slowed her pace. “Why do you ask?”
“Because whenever I mention it, everyone acts shocked – as if forty days were an inordinate amount of time.”
Mother Alden took a deep breath and sighed. “Forty days – as you call them – is a long time for someone on Elpis 7.”
“But it's not even a full semester back on Earth,” Clara said. “Or does forty Elpis risings-to-settings exceed the typical school session here?”
Mother Alden shook her head. “No. You see, time itself is different here.”
“How?” Clara asked. “I mean, you organize time into risings and settings while I divide it into days and nights. But that's just semantics, isn't it?”
Mother Alden stopped and faced Clara. “It's not just semantics, dear ...”
By this time, the two women had reached the town square, home to the Almitas open air market where a crowd of about two hundred people milled about the bright red, orange, and yellow booths where vendors sold their homegrown and homemade wares. Their tables abounded with buckets of fragrant flowers, bushels of brightly-colored vegetables, glass jars of dried herbs, and artisan crafts of all kinds. Seductive smells of sugary pastries and sizzling meats wafted through the air. And here and there, people of all ages played games of chess or cards at circular wooden tables under the protective gaze of a stone church's clock tower at the other end of the forum. Clara had never seen such diversity in either age or ethnicity.
“Are you familiar with ephemeral plants?” Mother Alden asked as they passed a young woman selling bouquets of multi-colored flowers.
“Excuse me?” Clara asked.
“I believe you have ephemeral plants on Earth,” Mother Alden stated.
“I wouldn't know. I'm not much of a gardener,” Clara confessed.
Now they were talking of plants, Mother Alden's taut features relaxed a little. “I'll explain. You are familiar with deserts, yes?”
“I know what they are.”
“Have you ever seen a picture of the desert after a rain?”
Clara scrunched her eyebrows together. “I think so. Doesn't everything bloom?”
“Yes!” Mother Alden nodded. “Dormant seeds wait until conditions are right and then germinate, grow, blossom, and go to seed in a matter of weeks while other plants take months to go through the same process.”
“Okay ...” Clara had no idea where Mother Alden was going with this botany lesson. “Does Elpis 7 have ephemeral plants, too?”
Mother Alden put her hands back into her pockets. “I guess you could probably say that all plants on Elpis 7 are eph – ...”
At that moment, the clock bells tolled. Their deep, bronzed tones reverberated through the stone-paved ground and drowned out any possibility of conversation.
Clara scanned the crowd nearest her. Most seemed to ignore the din; they'd heard it all their lives. Then her eye honed in on two women about twenty feet away; the younger pushing the older in a wheeled chair toward a booth selling concoctions of leaves and berries in gallon-sized jars. Clara's gut lurched in recognition. That's Granna Kate!
It was Granna Kate all right – but not as Clara had last seen her. Somehow, she seemed even more wrinkled, more frail, more ancient than ever – such a contrast to the spunk and vivacity of Mother Grace. Granna Kate's hook-like hands rested limply atop her narrow lap. A blue, red, and white quilt had been placed over her useless legs, but sagged rather to one side. The younger woman reached down and adjusted the lap cover, but Granna Kate didn't seem to notice – she didn't seem to notice anything.
After the bells ceased, the proprietor greeted Granna Kate with a smile as he scooped dried leaves into two ceramic mugs, but she didn't turn her head. Had she lost her sense of hearing and sight overnight? Was such a thing possible?
“What are you staring at?” Mother Alden asked.
“Sorry!” Clara blushed. “But who is that young woman with Granna Kate? I didn't see her at the Rutgers' yesterday.”
“That's Ruth Rutger – Granna Kate's daughter.”
“Oh.” Clara recalled the woman yelling through Mr. Rutger's communicator. “But what's happened to Granna Kate? Is she ill?”
Mother Alden shook her head. “No, just nearing her final transition.”
“Transition? You mean Passing?”
Mother Alden shook her head. “No. We may use medicine to help make a natural transition more comfortable, but we don't schedule appointments with death.”
Clara winced at Mother Alden's ugly last word. “May I ask you why not, Mother Alden? I mean, isn't letting someone linger like that inhumane?”
“Life is not the enemy. It's death that's inhumane!” Mother Alden said with a sudden passion.
Chastened, Clara turned to watch as Ruth wrapped her fingers around the offered mug, took a small sip, and nodded with approval. Then she turned to her mother and said something Clara could not hear.
Granna Kate opened her eyes, but did not answer. Her daughter gently turned her mother's chin in her direction and offered the cup. Granna Kate slowly lifted her hands toward the mug, but could not unclench her gnarled fingers. Frustrated, she yelled something inarticulate, dropped her hands, and threw her lap cover to the ground.
Clara feared another awkward outburst and was about to suggest she and Mother Alden move on to a different booth when Ruth did something Clara did not expect.
Instead of yelling or stomping off in exasperation, Ruth bent to the ground, shook the blanket free of dirt, and replaced it on Granna Kate's lap. Then she got down on her knees so she could be eye-level with her mother. Taking Granna Kate's tired hands, she gently curled the old woman's misshapen fingers around the warm ceramic. Then she reached out and gently touched her mother's thin lips with her fingertips.
Clara leaned closer to Mother Alden. “What is she doing?”
“Helping Granna Kate find her mouth.”
“She doesn't know where her mouth is?!”
Clara gazed as the younger woman enveloped her mother's hands within her own – weakness surrounded by strength – and gently brought the mug to the old woman's lips. Granna Kate sipped; it seemed difficult for her. Then she sighed and leaned back against her chair. Her shoulders relaxed. Peace smoothed her furrowed brow. Her mouth crinkled into a faint smile. Ruth brought the mug to Granna Kate's lips again, using her own sleeve to catch what dribbled down her mother's chin.
Clara could neither look away nor account for the increasing tightness in her throat. There was something almost sacred in Ruth Rutgers' tenderness.
“Aging may seem inhumane,” Mother Alden said softly. “But when we love the weak among us, it makes us more human.” She reached out a hand onto Clara's shoulder and looked her in the eye. “It also makes us more like God.”
Mother Alden walked on to the vegetable stand, but for reasons she did not fully grasp herself, Clara lingered until mother and daughter finished their tea and disappeared beyond her line of sight. Once again, she'd witnessed an intercultural moment she knew she'd remember for years.
And once again, she'd forgotten to hit the recording button.
The Alden midday meal promised to be more of a feast than a lunch. When they returned to the house, Mother Alden started dancing about the kitchen simmering stew, buttering squash, and tossing a fresh green salad together. She sent Clara out to the garden with a vase for fresh flowers and asked her to set the table for six.
“Six!?” Clara asked.
“Yes,” Mother Alden said as she sampled the stew. “Unfortunately, my daughter in-law is helping with a birth, and my granddaughter's husband is tied up in the fields. So it will only be my son, my grandchildren, and my great grandson.”
“Your great-grandson?!” Clara blinked. “Would that be a fourth generation?!”
“Yes,” Mother Alden said proudly. “He's still quite new.”
“How many generations can coexist on this planet at the same time?” Clara wondered aloud. But a knock at the door interrupted.
Mother Alden – who till this point had been slicing and stirring away – smoothed her low, white bun and walked calmly to the door as if she'd never hurried a moment in her life. “Welcome! Welcome! Come in!” She stood on tip toes to hug the neck of a man not too far past the age of Passing. He looked almost exactly like Aaric. Same tall, solid build. Same dark, tousled hair – only his had streaks of gray running through it.
“How are you, Mother?” he asked after pecking Mother Alden on the cheek.
“Very well. Thomas, this is Miss Clara Milton, daughter of Benjamin and Elizabeth Ann Milton. She's a student from Earth.”
“Hello, Sir.” Clara said with an attempt at a bow.
Mr. Alden regarded Clara with a polite smile and extended his hand. “Welcome to Almitas, Miss Milton. Aaric has spoken of you.”
Clara cringed internally at the lack of qualifying adjective; Mr. Alden had not said how Aaric had spoken of her, and this oversight bothered her.
“Where are my grandchildren?” Mother Alden asked with her hands on her hips. “Especially the great little one?”
“They're coming ...”
He had barely completed the sentence when a young woman about fourteen or fifteen years old flew into the room with flushed cheeks and wrapped her arms around Mother Alden. “Mother Alden! Aaric hit another one!” she said breathlessly.
“Another what, Meg?”
“A spy-drone! Nailed it from a furlong, I'll bet! While we were riding over.”
Mother and son exchanged an uneasy glance.
“Where was it, Meg?” Mr. Alden asked his daughter.
“Hovering over one of the main crossroads. Why is the Silex tribe spying on us?”
Mr. Alden's eyes glanced in Clara's direction then back at his daughter. “I'm sure the Eldership will discuss it at its next meeting.”
Mother Alden scanned the clear blue sky through the open door. Then a smile replaced her frown as another woman arrived holding a chubby baby on her hip. “There's my greatest grandchild!” Mother Alden said, extending her hands toward the wee one.
“Gee, thanks!” the young mother said with a grin.
“It's so good to see you, too, Alisa.” Mother Alden pecked her older granddaughter on the cheek and commandeered the baby. “Let me at this bundle of cuteness. And where are the pies?”
“Aaric's bringing them in. Sorry Peter couldn't make it.”
“No worries! I'll send you home with a covered dish for him. And maybe another for this growing boy!” Mother Alden tickled her great grandson under the chin. He giggled heartily, revealing four white teeth poking from his otherwise empty gums. “He'll be eating corn off the cob before you know it!”
“Alisa, Meg, we have a guest,” Thomas said. “Girls, this is Miss Clara Milton, daughter of Benjamin and Elizabeth Ann Milton. From Earth.”
“The one Aaric keeps going on about?” Meg asked slyly.
“Mind your manners,” Alisa scolded mildly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Alisa shook hands with Clara. “Don't mind Meg. She's a bit of a drama queen.”
“At your service!” Meg bowed with a flourish.
Clara couldn't help grinning. Meg reminded her of her own sister prior to their mother's accident. Sydney had gotten the lead in her school play and had bowed repeatedly in much the same fashion till the director practically yanked her offstage.
“So!” Alisa said. “You're from Earth! I read about your planet back in school. Is it true salt water covers most of Earth's surface and you haven't yet explored it all? And what are your seasons like?”
“Well, I ...”
“And why are you studying this colony in particular?” Meg interrupted. “Aaric said something about you learning different cultures. What do you think of ours – off the record, of course?”
Clara smiled. “Well ...”
Mr. Alden cleared his throat. “Pardon my daughters. They talk more when they're excited. Meg and Alisa, why don't you help Mother Alden and ask your questions at dinner – slowly and one at a time.”
“Yes, Father.” The young women grinned before heading to the kitchen.
Mr. Alden smiled as he watched his daughters leave, then turned to face Clara. “Sorry for the inundation. I imagine this internship might feel rather overwhelming – particularly when studying a culture so unlike your own.”
Something about the way Mr. Alden said his last phrase made Clara want to stand up a bit straighter. “Yes, Mr. Alden.”
“You may call me Thomas if you like, Miss Milton,” he offered.
Clara's shoulders relaxed a hair. “And you may call me Clara. Mother Alden mentioned your wife couldn't join us because she was helping with a birth. Did she often assist with foalings?”
Thomas Alden's mouth twitched at the corner. “Not exactly – she's a midwife.”
“Oh.” Clara blushed and hoped she hadn't caused offense.
“Never you mind.” Thomas waved aside Clara's misunderstanding. “But before my daughters barrage you, I do have one question.”
Clara tensed. Uh oh. Here it comes ...
“Tell me, why are you studying Almitas when there are two other tribes?” His gray eyes – much like Aaric's – looked serious.
Clara spoke carefully. “I came to Elpis 7 to study how social roles get established in a new colony. My team and I were ...” Abducted? Arrested? She searched for the right word. “... escorted to Agilis when we landed. His Eminence is allowing us to complete our research till our shuttle returns. His secretary assigned me to study Almitas. That's all I know. And considering such short notice, Mother Alden's been most gracious to have me.”
Thomas nodded. “She is most gracious to have all of us. We love her much and highly value her safety.”
Safety? Clara stiffened. Am I a threat to her safety?
That's when Aaric showed up in the doorway carrying two French silk pies slathered with whipped cream and dusted with dark chocolate. “I come bearing gifts,” he announced.
Relieved, Clara's scrunched shoulders relaxed.
“Good!” Mother Alden said from the kitchen. “Bring them to the island. I can start serving the stew. It's piping, so we'll let it cool so Meg doesn't burn her tongue again.”
“If she wouldn't scarf down her food so ...” Alisa said, with a playful jab at her sister.
“What?” Meg said with serving spoon in hand. “If I don't eat quickly, I miss out! You know how Aaric puts it away. Besides, my metabolism can handle it.”
“For now,” Mother Alden said knowingly as she handed off the baby to Alisa.
Hearing the family banter made Clara's heart pang for home. Not the emotionally-anemic household she'd left behind, but the home she knew as a child before the accident, before Raven's father fell sick, before the world's darker realities had snuffed out the easy-going warmth in her life. She followed Aaric to the kitchen island while the rest of the family milled about Mother Alden. He placed the pies on the counter and started opening drawers.
Clara sidled next to him and spoke softly, “I believe I owe you an apology.”
Aaric paused with a drawer half open. “For what?”
“For not handling myself well with Granna Kate yesterday. I was unprofessional and rude; I shouldn't have left like that.”
Aaric pulled out a pie server and closed the drawer. “I'm sorry too,” he said. “I didn't realize the visit would disturb you so much. We could have left earlier than we did. Forgive me?” He held out his hand in truce.
“Absolutely,” she said as she shook Aaric's hand. It was strong and steady – the well-trained hand of a horse-tamer.
Their grasp lingered.
Clara's heart thumped in her chest. She looked up to find Aaric regarding her with those ocean gray eyes of his and could feel herself falling into them … soon she would drown.
Clara dropped her gaze and released his hand, but the warm memory of his still tingled.
“Ahem!” Meg cleared her throat by the dining table. Everyone was seated – even the baby in a high chair. “If those pies are quite settled now, we're waiting for you.”
“Sorry!” Clara said as she rounded the island and sat down in a vacant seat. She could feel her ears throbbing as Aaric took the empty chair beside her.
“Thomas, dear, would you say the blessing?”
Thomas nodded, folded his hands together, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.
Everyone else in the family followed suit. Clara did the same. When in Rome ...
“Dear Heavenly Father,” Thomas' deep voice intoned, “Ruler of the Universe, we thank you for your abundant provision, our friends and family, and for a sure hope. Help us to hear Your voice and trust You for whatever lies ahead. Amen.”
“'men!” Meg said. Everyone opened their eyes in time to see Meg snatch a slice of fresh baked bread from the wicker basket on the table.
Clara took a slice – still warm – and made a mental note to record the religious ritual in her audio notes. And I wonder if Mother Alden can give me this stew recipe. It smells fantastic!
“Can you get me a piece for Henry?” Alisa asked from the far end of the table. “One with a thicker crust? He is teething something fierce!”
“I can also get him a cold carrot from the fridge if you like,” Mother Alden offered.
“I'll get it,” Aaric said as he rose from the table.
“Good lad!” Thomas waited until after Aaric had returned to his seat, then turned to the family's guest. “So Clara ...”
Clara nearly dropped her soup spoon as all eyes around the table zeroed in on her face. She hadn't expected an interrogation this early into the meal. Despite the tantalizing smell of wine-braised meat and slow-cooked vegetables, she forgot her appetite as her stomach tensed in anticipation of another oral exam.
But Thomas Alden surprised her. “Aaric told me you had never ridden a horse before last Elpis-rising but learned quickly.” He eyed his youngest daughter with a playful smile. “Some of our native Almitians take several revolutions before they feel comfortable in the saddle.”
“Some Almitians prefer not to smell of horse sweat when they go shopping,” Meg said as she buttered her bread.
“Some also have a fear of heights,” Alisa smirked as she spooned soup into her child's mouth.
“Watch it,” Meg said. “I'm armed.” She pointed the butter knife in her older sister's direction.
Mother Alden shook her head. “You two. It's a wonder you've managed to grow up so respectable in light of your squabbling.”
“It's a wonder I've survived,” Aaric grinned as he sipped from his glass.
“Me too,” Thomas Alden agreed. “But as I was saying, Clara. Riding is always intimidating the first time. Well done having the courage to get in the saddle.”
“Thank you,” Clara said, “But if I'm staying upright, it's due far more to the horse than to me.”
Everyone at the table chuckled.
“Done! Done!' Little Henry clapped his hands. He'd wolfed down a bowl of stew and wanted to play. Cara could not see the teething carrot Aaric had given him … perhaps it had rolled onto the floor.
Alisa lifted him out of the high chair and set him on the ground. He crawled to a basket of wooden blocks tucked next to the living room fireplace. “That should keep him busy for a few degrees. Now, Clara. Tell me about Earth ...”
Much to Clara's relief, what followed for the next half hour or so was not a debate on social policy, religion, or politics, but rather a general overview of life on her planet. Clara described the glories of spring violets, summer watermelon, autumn leaves, and winter snowflakes. She spoke of swimming in the salty sea and building sandcastles with Sydney. She talked about her mother baking scones and her father running a marathon. She plastered a smile over a her smarting homesickness.
All went well until Alisa asked, “So when does your ship arrive to take you back home?”
“About thirty-seven Elpis-risings from now.”
“What!?” Meg almost choked and coughed into her hand. She stared at Clara wide-eyed.
Alisa fiddled with her spoon. Aaric looked out the window. And Thomas raised an eyebrow to Mother Alden. Everyone seemed uncomfortable.
“Did you say thirty-seven?!” Meg clarified. “That's like … like a lifetime!”
Clara flicked her eyes to Mother Alden and swallowed hard. “How so ..?”
Mother Alden rose from the table. “Why don't I slice the pie?”
“I'll check on Henry!” said Alisa, also rising.
“Me too!” Meg followed.
“And I'll, uh, help.” Thomas Alden stood. He took Clara's empty bowl and walked toward his mother at the sink leaving her alone with Aaric. He glanced longingly at the front door.
“Aaric,” Clara said quietly. “What's going on?”
Aaric clasped his hands together and set them on the table. His gray eyes looked paler than usual. “I'm … I'm not sure how to explain. Didn't Mother Alden already tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Clara asked.
“About how time works here.”
Clara blinked. “She mentioned something about ephemeral plants in the marketplace, but then we got distracted.”
“I see ...” Aaric glanced at his father and grandmother in the kitchen. They returned his somber gaze.
“Please, Aaric,” Clara pressed. “Just tell me. I can't do my research if I don't know the facts.”
“That's just it,” Aaric raked his fingers through his brown hair. “Your research is the least of your concerns at the moment.”
Clara's stomach tightened. “What do you mean?”
Aaric fidgeted with the corner of the white tablecloth. Without reins to hold, his hands felt antsy. “Elpis 7 time is different from Earth time.”
Clara nodded. “Okay … you say 'degree,' I say 'minute.' You say 'Elpis-rising,' I say 'morning.' Every culture views time differently.”
“No, no,” Aaric held up a hand, “It's not that we view time differently. Time IS different here – quite literally.”
Clara's misgivings grew. “How?”
Aaric sighed. “Time goes faster here than it does on Earth. The whole planet is in an ephemeral state. Everything develops more quickly. It's why we can plant things and harvest them during the same revolution. For us, this pace of life is normal. But to you, it would seem like everything is sped up.”
Clara shifted in her seat. “H-how much faster does time go here?”
At that moment, a small child in a red shirt and pair of overalls ran across the room to the table. “Uncle Aaric! Uncle Aaric! I just built a castle!” He pointed to a tower of wooden blocks on the pink and sage living room rug.
“Really?” Aaric said. “That's great! Did you show Mother Alden?”
“I'm 'bout to!” The boy flashed a toothy grin and skipped toward the older woman in the kitchen.
Clara blinked, confused. She didn't remember meeting a second great grandchild or whatever they were called. “Who's that?” She pointed.
Aaric interlocked his fingers. “That was my nephew.”
“You mean your other nephew?”
Aaric looked her straight in the eye. “I only have one.”
“But … but ...” Clara looked back into the kitchen where Mother Alden had scooped the boy onto her hip. “That can't be Henry! He couldn't even walk when we started the meal! And where did he get that new outfit?”
“I always pack a spare or two in the diaper bag,” Alisa said as she came to the table. She zipped the aforementioned cloth bag and slung it onto her shoulder. “Sized up, of course. Kids grow so fast.”
“Not that fast!” Clara stood from the table and backed away. The truth was slowly dawning on her, and she did not like what it revealed. No! It can't be! It's not possible! She felt like a rabbit caught in a snare; it was getting hard to breathe.
“Clara? Are you alright?” Mother Alden asked. “You don't look well ...”
“Want pie?” The boy on her hip pointed to the chocolate-laden plates on the island. He smiled – a full-toothed, boyish smile.
Wait a second! Clara's eyes doubled in size. That's why Sarah Rutger's face looked different! Her teeth! She was missing her teeth when we met, but when we spoke again she definitely had both her front teeth! But they only took like twenty minutes to grow! It must be true!
Clara could feel fresh sweat beading on her forehead. If things develop that fast, then it's no wonder they have cities with thousands of people! And if people live to be a hundred … Oh no!
Clara eyed the front door. Her muscles flexed, ready to make a dash for it. I have to get off this planet! NOW! But … oh, CRAP! The cold, hard, truth impaled Clara to her place. I still have thirty-seven more days here! By the time the shuttle arrives I'll be … I'll be … old!
The blood drained from Clara's face.
“Aaric, catch her!” Mother Alden shouted.
All went dark as Clara fainted dead away.
So what do you think?
Whew! How would you react if you found out you’d age 40 years in 40 days? What would be the most startling aspect? Lemme know in the comments below!