Story no. 5. My deepest apologies for the delay! In the in-between time I have started classes at EPFL, and unsurprisingly I have been wildly busy. At least my computer has resumed working for the time being.
This will be only a two-parter.
At least Agbet’s boarding school town had a train station.
Cembarin repeated this to himself as he rang the bell again. The shutters over the ticket window remained closed.
Having a station meant that you had trains passing through more than twice a week. A train station meant you could leave—go to the next town! go to Caillon, even!—at virtually any time, without having to call Tuga Kadescher and beg her to let you sleep in the spare room over the garage on Thursday night until you could catch the Saturday morning train that buzzed through the platform at eleven-oh-five. With a train station in town, you certainly didn’t have to swallow your pride and beg your father to let you borrow the car, and find yourself walking twenty miles in a state of numb outrage when he squinted past you and said he didn’t think that was a very good idea and why didn’t you go down to the family shrine and pray on it a bit?
Cemberin sighed and jabbed his thumb into the button again. Far away a bell jittered.
The sound of shuffling feet approached from somewhere deep in the office. More shuffling was followed by a clicking sound and a thin line of light appearing under the shutters. The window creaked mightily, and then a trembling pair of heavily-veined hands folded around the shutters and pushed them back.
“Good day, sir,” Cemberin said.
“Good day,” the station agent said. His rheumy eyes did not seem to be able to focus on Cemberin through the bottle-glass spectacles pressed against his face. Cemberin found himself unwillingly fascinated by the agent’s right hand, which moved as if controlled by a separate intelligence to the buttons at the neck of his pezhak. The hand shook so badly that when its fingers tried to trace each button it shuddered off to the side and had to rest for a bit before it could make the attempt again. This, Cemberin thought, was his father’s future: barely able to hold a pencil, but still assuring himself that his buttons were buttoned, the hem of his coat was straight, and his seams were crisp with terrible and desperate vanity.
“I’d like to buy a ticket to Gaziresch for tomorrow, please.”
“Don’t you have a chart or something with all the stations?”
The old man sniffed. “I can sell you a ticket to Edar and they can figure it out there.”
“No-o, Edar is in the wrong direction, look, here,” and Cemberin inserted himself partway through the window and gestured emphatically at the map on the back wall.
“Are you Eudaric? You’ve got a funny way of talking.”
“No,” Cemberin said.
The agent waited, and when Cemberin volunteered nothing more, he sniffed again and wrote out a ticket to Gaziresch and a receipt on another stub of paper.
“Right. Thank you. Can you tell me where the Lazur Girls’ College is from here, please?”
“You’re none too friendly,” the agent said severely. “It’s up the hill and to the right a bit. There’s a gate with rhododendrons. Big red ones. But if Faraz is there you’d better be polite or she won’t have anything to do with you.”
“I just need her to let me in.”
“Let you in? Why would she let you in? It’s not holiday, the girls aren’t receiving visitors.”
“I’m not a visitor. I have to pick up my sister.”
“Ah.” It wasn’t fair to say that the old man’s face softened—it remained in more or less the same configuration of concentric drooping folds—but there was a flicker of paternal feeling somewhere behind his cataracts. “She’s just starting?”
“Almost finished, actually. She’s a year and a half more.”
“What’s she to do next?”
“Not sure. She’s on the haransa team. I think that’s about her favorite thing. She’s quite good at it, too.”
“Eh? Well, there’s still time for her to find something else, I suppose.”
Cemberin felt unexpectedly defensive. “No, I meant that she might be able to do that for a bit. The Goldcoats recruiter came down to talk to her a month or two ago, and she got a letter from the Kirimiz captain.”
“Reeeeally. You know, I went down to a game a few weeks ago between Lazur and another school—I forget the name—truth to tell I can’t sit for a game outside anymore, but I do like to hear them—they’ve got a strong forward, powerful runner, Agbet, Agbet Bara-something—”
“Agbet Haerka Baradom. That’s her. That’s my sister.”
“Is that so.” The paternal tic of his eye was suddenly gone in a flurry of sport fervor. Did he know Agbet’s statistics, her run times, her points scored? How did she train? When had she started?
Cemberin answered as truthfully as he could: He didn’t know, he wasn’t sure, you’d have to ask her, when she was eight. He knew Agbet was good—very good, even. Good enough that when one of the old Goldcoats that Baba liked to invite up to the house for drinks and reminiscing about their university days saw her run and throw the ball and the capsule he pressed his eyebrows toward his hairline and mouthed a tiny prayer: God, let me remember what it was like to be that strong and that graceful.
But Cemberin himself had never been good at sport nor cared about it particularly. Maman had given him a football, which he had cut apart and used to construct a little round house; Baba had commented insistently on how much fun the other children looked to be having with pick-up ozarek (the poor limping cousin of haransa,) which he had cut apart and used to construct a deep and abiding resentment of Baba. The distressing knowledge that as a twenty-seven-year-old man he really ought to take on the intricacies of haransa scoring and technique as a labor of love for his sixteen-year-old sister made him either want to laugh with the absurdity of it all or smoke out the depressing thoughts that followed with an entire pack of cigarettes.
Faraz at the gate was less grumpy than the station agent, though she was equally pleased to meet a relative of Agbet’s.
“She’s really very lovely,” she said warmly. “Your mother must be very proud.”
Cembarin choked and had to bend over for a minute before jerking his head noncommittally.
Agbet was at lunch. The girls ate together, outside on a sort of veranda that stitched together two old buildings, shivering in the October chill and sitting in rows on those long trestle tables that one always found in temple basements and roadside firink stands. Agbet had shaved her head two months ago, after a bad fall on the field had resulted in twelve stitches and handful of gravel ground into her scalp. The doctor had plucked the pieces out with forceps one at a time, leaving Agbet with a pinkish sprinkle of scarring, like a bough of June-blossoms had shadowed her skull. She looked very well with a bare head, Baba’s square jaw and broad shoulders, and Maman’s high cheekbones.
Cemberin stopped behind her. “Toadlet.”
She shot to her feet, laughing, knocked her knee against the table and almost fell over the bench, all ankles and elbows and wide hands. Cemberin felt very tired as she pressed a kiss to his cheek and wrapped an arm around his neck.
He had been up to the school before, maybe eighteen months ago, in the spring when the fathers and mothers with old gold like Baba came to make polite offerings at the school temple and bow and smile politely to the school priests. Baba had made him come (of course.) There had been a fight before about something.
Agbet was asking him why he was here.
“She wanted me to come get you.”
Agbet crumpled her eyebrows together and smiled, waiting for the joke.
“Well, you know Disreka,” he said weakly.
“Of course,” she said, and that was just the problem: Agbet had been raised in Disreka’s house until she had been sent to Lazur at twelve, just when Cemberin was finishing up his first disastrous term in university and trying to find a job out of the country. She didn’t know Maman, and he didn’t know Disreka.
You need to know someone to lie for them, he thought, and blundered on. “It’s an — unexpected — we’re both going to see her.”
“I’ve got a game after temple-day,” she said, worried. “I don’t think I can leave just now — and there’s an exam the day after –”
“All right,” he said uneasily.
“If you think it’s important,” she said in Baba’s exact tones of grave diplomacy. “It’s four days, so if . . . maybe . . . “
He thought it was a waste of time, but Baba might actually kill him if he could not do even this. “It’s important.”