By now the sun was coming up, tinting the sky pink and frosting the clouds with gold. It promised to be a beautiful day, and it was almost enough to distract me from the way the wind blew down off the range, half-freezing me. I wrapped my fingers around one of the stones in my pocket and felt the warmth through my glove.
It took awhile to place the flowers because of the wind, but I decorated all my family's graves, as well as the ones in Auntie’s family plot, giving extra flowers to Ishkin and Carina. Then I returned to my mother and grandfather’s graves, lingering so long that a few hardy birds landed on nearby markers and a rabbit came within a few feet of me, busy with his early morning foraging.
“I’m sorry I haven’t made anything better of my life,” I told my family. “I'll do better, though. I promise.”
And then I left.
When I got back to the house there was coffee and breakfast waiting, and la Señora had packed some food for me to take on the road. We talked about nothing in particular over breakfast, just rehashing the previous night’s conversation about routes and road hazards. I guess we all knew there was no point in talking about anything new, since we might not get a chance to finish before I had to leave.
After breakfast the children followed me to the stable, and now that they were free of their father and grandmother’s scrutiny, they had a hundred questions about where I was going, how I would get there, and what it was like to travel such distances alone.
“You don’t get lonely?” Laura asked.
“Then why do you do it?”
“I want to get somewhere.”
“Don’t you have friends?”
“Flecha is my friend.”
Laura and Rigo giggled at this. “Why do you hit her, if she’s your friend?”
They had just seen me slam my shoulder into Flecha’s belly so I could tighten the girth strap. “Because she’s being a brat today and won’t let me put the saddle on right. She puffed up her stomach with air. If I don’t make her release it, the saddle will come loose later on.”
I don’t think they quite followed this explanation, because Rigo wandered off in the middle of it, and Laura followed him with her eyes. “Is it true you’re letting us keep the mule?”
“I’ve got no more use for her, and it’s a way I can pay your father back for the nice things your family has done for me and my people.”
“Papá says we have to be nice because we live at the church. We’re not supposed to ask for anything.”
“He didn’t ask.”
“But. . .” She reached a hand toward her neck.
“Keep the necklace,” I told her. “It was a gift. If you’re ever in trouble, maybe you can sell it or trade it, so be careful not to lose it.” She nodded and I added, “It’s hard being a girl. Grow up to be smart, okay?”
When we got back to the house, Joaquin and his mother were standing outside waiting. I hugged them both, and then la Señora took the children into the house, leaving me and Joaquin alone. I fumbled with my packs and gear, making sure it was balanced and strapped on correctly.
“You’ll take care of yourself out there, won’t you?”
“If you ever change your mind and want to come back. . .”
I shook my head. “There’s too many memories here.”
“You could always create new ones.”
A pack had slipped and I tried to right it while Flecha fidgeted.
“We’ve grown fond of you. If you wanted to live with us, we. . .well, I—”
I looked up. This little speech wasn’t leading where I thought it was, was it? “I’m not coming back.”
“Okay. I just thought—“
“Sometimes too much thinking is a bad thing.”
“I suppose you’re right.” His features shifted slightly and now he was his old self again, just a kind village priest. “Would you like a blessing before you go?”
“I’d like that very much.”
He blessed me and said a prayer for my safe journey. Then I climbed into the saddle. “Thank you for everything,” I said. Then I touched Flecha’s flanks with my heels and we headed down the path to the main road.
As I made my way through the valley toward the southern foothills, I kept telling myself that it wasn’t forever, I could come back any time. Having come back once and found myself strong enough to bear it, I could return over and over. But in my heart, I knew I would probably never return, unless it was in a box to be buried in that hilltop cemetery. Valle Redondo was no longer my home. Even if it had been just as I had remembered it, I had changed too much.
I felt better after I climbed into the foothills and picked up a trace that wound through a series of small passes. These particular mountains were deceptive. They were impassable if you were driving a wagon or a gasoline-powered vehicle, but on foot or on a good horse or mule, it was easy enough to navigate the narrow rises and fissures that traced a way through to the next valley.
I didn’t start seeing people until late in the day, when I came upon what appeared to be a small store, with a few houses and outbuildings nestled on a hill a little way back from the road. I was chilled and the thought of doing a little work for a hot meal and a night in a house seemed good, but I wasn’t in a very sociable frame of mind, so I hesitated.
Soon practical considerations took over. I couldn’t be sure what I would encounter tomorrow. It might take longer than I anticipated to get through the range to the plains on the other side. This was no time to be picky. At the very least, I should try to get a meal and save the food in my packs for when I really needed it.
I left Flecha at a hitching post and pushed open the door, which was marked with a sign bearing a symbol I had never seen before—a combination of a circle, triangle and a broken line. Inside, I found the same symbol on signs and tags of various sizes, posted to walls, counters, and even on the storekeeper’s cash box.
I browsed the goods for a few minutes. The selection was limited, but I saw they had coffee and potatoes. I would buy some, if I couldn’t make a trade of some sort. I approached the counter. “Do you need any work done?” I asked. “Maybe in return for a little food or coffee?”
“Are you a Singularian?”
“This is a Singularian town,” he said, frowning. “If you’re not a believer, you need to keep going.”
This was a new one on me. But although his words weren’t very nice, his tone wasn’t threatening. “What do Singularians believe?”
“We believe in the oneness of of ‘Azda’s creation. We who were created and blessed by Him are all parts of the whole and worthy of the light on the Day of Convergence.”
It didn’t sound too bad. From the way he described it, I couldn’t think of any major objection I had to this philosophy, other than that I had no idea who ‘Azda was. “That makes sense,” I said. “So do you have any shelves that need organizing?”
He let me sweep the floor and gave me a plate with some beans and a stale tortilla.
“Would you like to learn more about Singularianism?” he asked. “We’re having a meeting tonight. If you are recognized as one of 'Azda's Elect, my wife and I can let you stay in our home for the night.”
Now it was starting to sound a little weird, but it had been growing colder all day, and now as I looked out the window I could see snow clouds on the horizon. It wouldn’t be wise to turn down an offer of shelter.
I let the shopkeeper take me to the Singularian meeting. What a disaster! It was held in a dome-shaped building among some trees well back from the road, and it seemed everyone in town was there. They chanted and swayed to drumbeats in the glow of torches for what seemed an awfully long time. And then a man in red and white robes came out of a room at the back and started preaching while everyone took out flashlights and flicked them on and off so that it looked like a meteor shower.
I didn’t find the preaching objectionable at first, since it was just prayers for peace, good health, clean water, and the return of oil and prosperity. But then it started getting strange. The man talked about conspiracies and about what signs to look for so true believers would know who was worthy of 'Azda's love and who was not. He said that anyone not of ‘Azda’s Elect was not really human. Such creatures were responsible for the economic collapse and the disappearance of fossil fuels. They were not of 'Azda's creation, but of the devil. Naturally, the devil’s creations weren’t part of the oneness of Singularity and must be destroyed wherever they were encountered in order to make way for the return of cheap petroleum and the Day of Convergence when all that was good would be connected forever in the Light.
I didn’t want to stick around to see if I met the criteria of ‘Azda’s Elect. I sneaked out, jumped onto Flecha's back and kicked her hard. I rode for at least an hour in the darkness, thankful that the road was good and Flecha’s eyes were better than mine, before finding a tumbledown farm house we could shelter in for the night.
Flecha and I will continue in the morning. Hopefully this Singularianism isn't a popular religion in these parts. I don't want to encounter any more of these people.
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