I sipped my coffee and walked around, being careful of the slippery frost and hidden sheens of ice on the rocks. I was in a magical world, and couldn’t help but be amazed that I was alone. I came across the foundations of some small buildings, and I even found some old pipes, but of course no water came out of them. The pipes looked to be crusted over with minerals, anyway, so I guess whatever water they once had here wasn’t very good.
Not good for humans, at any rate. I had seen plenty of animals—owls nesting in the uppermost hollows of the rocks, and rabbits scurrying about in the dawn. And there were the usual cacti, stunted trees and Russian thistles one would expect to find in this type of country. The land in Valle Redondo was similar, but the water was sweet and close enough to the surface that we could have wells. And we had the creek. We had prospered, even with most of our men away fighting the wars, until the day the Guard came.
But it didn’t look like anyone had ever prospered here. And most likely they never would. Looking around at the peaceful rocks reaching their twisted shapes toward the sky, I was glad. There are places humans don’t need to be.
I could’ve killed a rabbit for breakfast and taken the rest on the road, but something seemed wrong about that. This was sacred land and I wouldn’t be the one to defile it. So instead, I made a quick meal from my packs, had a little more coffee, then cleaned up my campsite. I would leave nothing here to disturb the magic.
And then I set out again, still heading south.
It was another dull day, a good opportunity to think over some of my problems and try to come to solutions. But of course I was just as scatter-brained as ever, unable to get much of a handle on anything. And maybe that was for the best. Thinking always seems to get me in trouble.
In the afternoon I came upon an old man driving a cart to market. I couldn’t see where he had come from, but he pointed in some vague direction and said he had a rancho. He went on to tell me there was a rail town up ahead and we would get there by evening if we didn’t run into any problems.
“What kind of problems?” I asked.
I hoped he would say he feared ordinary things like a lame animal or broken wheel, but no such luck.
“There’s been some fighting in the area around the town. We heard it’s mostly over, but you can never tell. Too bad, because my granddaughter usually comes to market with me, and she was pretty disappointed to have to stay home.”
This made me smile. “I used to go to market with my grandfather, too. Those were good times.”
We continued on in silence, and I reminisced a bit on all those childhood market trips. When I was very small I had a special knack for getting a good price on batteries. Elderly people could never resist a little girl saying she was afraid of the dark. As if I had ever been afraid of anything in those days!
I had been such a happy and confident child. What had changed? A lot of things have happened since then, but I've found a way to prevail each time. I should’ve grown more confident, instead of less.
I looked at the old man, driving his mules and no doubt missing his granddaughter as much as I missed my own grandfather. My grandpa wouldn’t have wanted me to turn into who I was now. I covered my fears well enough around other people, but the confidence my grandfather had loved in me was something that used to run clean through to the bone.
I was pondering this as we came within sight of the town. Like every other place that had once been important, it was ringed with dilapidated housing of a cheap make that fell apart and caved in on itself with little provocation. The metal in the doorknobs, fences, and the like, had been taken away for scrap. Plastic-pickers had been through, too, and what was left was being steadily eroded by time and picked away by people stealing the wood to burn in their stoves and fireplaces. Burning housing lumber was always a bad idea because the wood was treated with strange chemicals. But when faced with a choice between freezing to death tonight or dying of a lung ailment five years from now, you burn the wood and hope for the best.
Once we got into the city center, things looked a little better. And to my nostalgic delight, the town market was just like the one Grandpa and I used to go to in Macrina. It was a big oblong field, surrounded by benches that went up on stairs all around. I turned to the old man. “There’s a word for these types of markets. I used to know it, but I’ve forgotten.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know—before this place was a market.”
“You mean a stadium?”
“Yes!” In spite of myself, I laughed. “I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard when someone told me what these markets really were.”
He shrugged. “I guess it does seem a little silly, given how things are now. But it didn’t seem so silly then.”
Since I had no place in mind to go and I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel, I helped the old man set up his market stall for the next morning and helped him pitch his tent in the nearby vendor camp. Then I set up my own shelter next to his so it would look like we were together.
It looked like it would be a pretty good market, in spite of the season. Proximity to the rail line was probably a help. I had seen several diesel scooters in town, and even an automobile, so the market would probably have more to offer than just food, animal feed and wool. This was the only place to trade for a couple of days in any direction, so of course it was popular, even in winter.
I think in the morning I’ll check out the market. I still have some of the money I earned with Vince, and I have those necklaces, too. I’ll also try to get all the news on the area before heading east. I’m pretty sure I’m beyond Don Reymundo’s southern border, but I need to be sure he hasn’t added to his little fiefdom recently. And I don’t like the vague hints I’ve heard so far about fighting in the area.
At least in one respect, this town is nothing like the market town of my childhood. In Macrina, there had been a news blackout. They would bar you from their village for sharing the barest hint of a rumor about the world beyond the town limits. They figured all news was bad news and therefore bad for business. But around here, it seems everyone is a gossip. I’ll have no trouble getting information tomorrow. Then it will just be a matter of figuring out how much of it I can trust.
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