The Whole Law and the Prophets
Summary: This is a story about things that can be fixed, and things that can't, and things that were never broken in the first place. An unauthorized sequel to The Dirt of Sowing and Reaping, for Salieri on her birthday.
Everyone nowadays says that they saw the light that afternoon--that big brilliant firework burst, way far away behind the low clouds, like lightning but without any thunder. You'd think I'd seen it too; I know exactly how to tell the story, don't I? Some people go ahead and put thunder in the story, for instance, but I don't because there wasn't any. They're just making it up, or remembering wrong, or I suppose maybe their light was different. That could be, too.
Anyway, pretty much everybody says that they saw the light, but this is the truth: It was short, just a burst and gone, and lots of people never saw it at all. I didn't, and I know Tammy didn't either, because it was Saturday, there wasn't any school, and we were playing dress up inside. I mean to say that Tammy was playing dress up with me while she talked to Megan; but that was the way things were in that house, and I never thought to say anything about it. That was the way things were.
I don't want to make anyone think that Tammy was bad. She was sweet; still is, as sweet as cotton candy back in The Day, and almost as insubstantial. It was pretty much all she could do just to keep herself fed, and so I'm grateful that she did the same for me. If she wasn't ever really clear on who I was, well, there are worse kinds of crazy in the world. But looking back I can see that didn't help me any. I can remember feeling like either I wasn't real or the world wasn't, like maybe I was a ghost, or in hell, or... I don't know. I don't know what I thought. I was wrong, and it was wrong, and nothing was ever going to fix it, certainly not Tammy, who I was almost sure shouldn't be calling me by her dead daughter's name.
She tried to pull my hair out once, because it was the wrong color, and she wanted to fix it. I ran out into the corn and when I came back in for dinner--where else was I going to go?--she'd forgotten about the whole thing.
Anyway, so Tammy was braiding my hair, she was half done, it was just when she was putting a rubber band on the bottom of the first pigtail--Tammy was braiding my hair, and I started to cry. Just cry, and cry, and I know now that outside there was a flash but I didn't know that then, all I knew was that it hurt. Tammy, who was conscientious when she wasn't being crazy, was afraid that she'd pulled my hair. I remember she rubbed my head a little, and then when I didn't stop, she cuddled me close and told me it was all right, she was sorry, so sorry, she hadn't meant to, Megan, sweetie, please, stop crying.
Tammy didn't know what to do with me; eventually she put me to bed, tucked the Barbie comforter up around my chin, and left me to cry myself out. No one can cry forever, so eventually I fell asleep. When I woke up I was just drenched in sweat--I hadn't thrown off the comforter, because Tammy put it over me and so I figured it had to be there because that was the way things were. It was hot out, still, and awful humid, even though it'd passed through evening into night. The sky had cleared enough for a faint starlight to come in through the window. I didn't want to cry anymore; I was just hot, and thirsty, and sad, sad like I hadn't been since Before. It felt so strange; I wasn't used to sad anymore, not real sad, sad that feels like a part of something.
I laid there for a while, and then I thought, well, I could get up and get some water. So I sat up, and there was a feather waiting for me on my pillow--a long gray wing feather, a goose feather.
My pillow was stuffed with down, as it happens, but it didn't have big feathers in it. I know it didn't come in through the window, because they were closed tight. Tammy always made the bed; she was neat about that kind of thing, so it wouldn't have been there when I went to sleep. Someone had left it for me, as a gift, I was so sure of that, but when I asked Tammy she said it wasn't her. Then she tried to take it away, because it might be dirty, but I said No so she let me keep it.
I think she was mostly just surprised to hear me tell her No.
I carried it with me everywhere, like Dumbo and his magic feather…that doesn't mean much now, does it? But I loved that movie back in The Day, when I was little. Anyway, it doesn't matter; the point is that I held onto that feather practically twenty-four hours a day, all through those years after the light. I pierced the quill, so I could wear it as a necklace, always safe under my clothes, flat against my skin. When I felt like things were going unreal again, I would touch it, press the point into my collarbone, and it was real so I'd been given a gift, hadn't I? A real gift, which I shouldn't give up.
I still went to school and recited the Laws, until Joshua Mason lost his grip on our little corner of the world and we all learned that the gods—the aliens, I can call them that now—weren't coming back anymore. People ran Miss Ingram out of town after that, I guess; Mason's people had done an awful lot of work for the bad guys, but no one could get at them, so poor scaredy Miss Ingram had to take the fall. The new guy didn't last long, less than a year, but he tried the same deal, where kids would all just learn what he wanted them to learn, you know? Special warlord patriotism, where he was our great savior from the aliens.
Then he got shot in the back of the head—isn't it funny that I can't remember his name, but I remember how he died?—and O'Connell took over. O'Connell didn't give a shit what we thought about him so long as taxes got paid, and so school turned into, you know, school again, and I stopped going. Tammy and I took care of each other, and she never did quite figure out that I wasn't her dead daughter but I guess for whatever reason she didn't get a present like I did.
Sometimes when I thought about that I had to hold my feather hard, but it got better over time, and I stopped wearing the feather for good after Hannah. Hannah walks right through every piece of brokenness I have without even noticing the shards. She's too young to remember Before, which helps, I think; what we lost isn't real to her, you know? When people talk about good medicine and elected government and crappy TV, it means something to me, but Hannah just says "yeah, that would be nice" kind of like someone had started talking about how people used to be able to fly if they just flapped their arms hard enough.
Tammy doesn't have anyone else, so I had to stay with her, but I'm not alone with her anymore. Plenty of boys in Carole were after Hannah—with her fantastic curves, and her wonderful dark eyes, and the way she can be incredibly funny or totally, sweetly serious and she chooses the right one to be at least three-quarters of the time, who wouldn't be?—but she stayed over with me one night and just pretty much never left. Some of the boys were pretty pissed about that, but Hannah carries a gun and people still remember me as crazy Lizzie from years ago, so no one gives us any real trouble. We figure people talk, but we talk about them behind their backs too, so that's fair.
We took one long trip together, Hannah and I; she wanted a honeymoon, and I wanted to see the Dust Sea, and I guess that probably sounds like a weird couple of things to combine but Hannah didn't mind. We rode all the way to the border, just the two of us and the horses and the stars. The roads are safe enough with O'Connell in charge, so long as you don't try to make any money without giving him a cut, and we know how to be polite to the nice men with the weaponry so it was a pretty easy trip, all in all. We talked (a lot) and sang (badly) and I told Hannah all about reality TV, though I'm not sure she actually believed me, and when we got to where the land ends and the Dust begins I was in a good enough mood that it was just a regular sad that I felt.
I sat on a hill looking out southward across the end of the old world, and I thought about Mom and Dad and Dumbo and ice cream and Lu's goose, that time when Michael brought it back, before he was taken away. There was a breeze at my back, strong enough that I had to tuck my hair into my shirt collar but not so strong that it pushed me any closer than I'd already gone. Hannah left me alone at first, which was just the right thing to do, and then she sat down and took my hand and that was the right thing to do too because it was Hannah and I was stupid in love.
I brought out the feather, and pulled the chain free—very carefully, I didn't want to damage the quill, you know? It felt important that it not get broken. The chain went in my pocket; I closed my hand around the feather for a while, very gentle, and then I opened it up and let a gust of wind take it away. It went up high with that first gust, and there were storm clouds coming in so I lost sight of it almost immediately. Grey on grey, like it had just disappeared into nothingness.
We were a ways from the Dust, and I know the feather probably didn't get that far. But if it hung up in the grass, instead of going on into nothing like the offering I meant it as, that's okay. I loved that thing hard, so it was kind of ratty by the time I let it go, but it'd be pretty hypocritical of me to begrudge it its survival, wouldn't it? I was supposed to go into dust too, after all, and I'm a little ratty myself—don't tell Hannah I said that, she'd be pissed—but here I am, still, moving forward after I felt like I was stuck forever. I have Hannah, and Carole, and poor sweet Tammy who needs taking care of, which doesn't really sound like a gift but sometimes taking care of her makes me feel better about my own luck.
I didn't stay to watch the feather go. I turned around and walked away without looking back; Hannah teased me a little about coming all that way for half an hour's sitting time, but when I didn't laugh she let it drop, and within an hour we were betting that night's dinner duty on which of our horses was going to shit first. The world was what it was, and we were part of it, and by the time we got home it would be time for the harvest.
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