Memories in the Dust

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Unit was flying.   No, he wasn’t flying; he was riding on the back of something.  Something warm, alive, smooth, powerful and very, very beautiful.   It was large, with four long legs, and covered with short hair.  It had a long, curved neck with longer hair along the top that flowed and swirled in the wind, sometimes hitting him in the face.  It had pointed ears on top of its head that moved forward and backward, as though trying to hear everything around it.  The beat of its feet on the ground matched the rhythm of his own heart. 

A warm wind was blowing and it alternately caressed and beat against him as the marvelous animal raced across hard earth.  Unit laughed at the sheer joy of such freedom and power.  The animal also made a sound that seemed like laughter to him, rumbling first from the interior of its barrel-shaped body and gaining strength as it flowed through the neck and out of its mouth. The wind blew their laughter behind them almost before it came from their lips.  Looking down, Unit saw little wisps of dust puff up as each large foot hit the ground.  Looking behind him, he saw the wisps gather into great billows that marked and celebrated their passage. 

Behind him a large yellow orb shone warmly on his shoulders, illuminating the landscape all around him in shades of orange and red.  Above him, puffy white clouds glowed in the darkening blue expanse.  It seemed endless, and yet he felt as though he might reach up and touch the sky.  Great, rugged hills rose on both sides of him, in their varied shades of gray, brown and yellow.  As the fabulous animal continued, the hills smoothed, became round and gentle, and covered with growing things of various tones and textures.   Grass waved gently, bowing as they passed.   Trees lined the road on which he was traveling, some of them great, huge things with massive limbs hanging over the road, others small and tiny, waving in the wind as they swept by. 

He was laughing again as a large fallen tree trunk appeared before him.  Before Unit even had time to think about what was happening, the beast beneath him gathered its hindquarters and sailed over the obstacle.  Now he was indeed flying and he loved it.  The animal came down with only a slight jar and continued as though nothing had been there at all to impede its progress.  But the leather straps wrapped around his wrists burned slightly as he urged the animal on to greater speed.  Unit tried to unwrap the binding strips, but they only tightened more and tore at his wrists painfully.... 

His eyes opened to darkness, the only real thing remaining from his dream was the burning of his wrists.  Looking down, Unit saw in the dimness, the contrasting white of the special mitts they had put on his hands to try and keep the restraints from tearing his wrists.   They only partially succeeded.  Although he tried to keep from tugging at them, Unit often woke up to find himself jerking and pulling, trying to free himself.   He frowned and then dug underneath his body, searching for the object he had hidden earlier in the day. 

Minta had only been able to come briefly that day.  Somehow his day had seemed longer and the room had seemed smaller.  There were times when he was alone that he had found himself pacing, stopping at the door, wishing he could open it and just walk out. 

The other two people who came never seemed to be happy and he had held back, only doing that which he was asked to do.  There were times when he simply looked at the other teachers blankly, as though not understanding.  For some reason he could not fathom, he didn’t feel right about letting these other people know what he could do and what he had learned.  Minta had been very surprised at how quickly he learned and Unit got the impression that other units didn’t learn as fast.  It was something he didn’t really understand, it was just something that was. 

Unit continued digging under his sheet with his restrained hand until he found what he was looking for.  It was difficult with the mitt on his hand, but he kept trying until he felt the two objects.  It was a fork from his most recent meal and a hairpin that one of the teachers had left on the table when she had fixed her unruly hair.  He had watched Minta and others when they had undone the restraints and noticed that they had always put long, thin pieces of metal in holes on the bands.  He poked with the fork, but it broke.  Then he dug with the hairpin.  Even at the awkward angle at which he must work, the pin went into the hole easily and he wiggled it around, listening for the clicking sound that would tell him that he had succeeded.  He felt the sweat rolling down the side of his face and lodge in the itchy hair of his cheek. 

Click!  Unit sighed with relief as he pulled his hand from the now open restraint.  Taking the pin with his free hand, he repeated the process on the other one, smiling with deep satisfaction when another clicking noise heralded his newfound freedom.  Pulling the mitts off, Unit examined his abraded and swollen wrists and then slid off the bed.  He felt stiff, his muscles underused.  His body felt restless, in need of the same freedom that his mind seemed to experience during his dreams.  He paced, striding back and forth in the confines of the tiny room.  Then he leaned up against the wall, pushing, feeling the muscles of his arms stretch and then grow taut, becoming limber with use.  In succession, he lay on the ground and exercised, first sit ups and then push ups, anything that kept his body in motion and let him feel the pulling and bunching of his muscles, then he jumped up and stretched and bent, tensed and relaxed.  The soft, lightweight material of the cream-colored jumpsuit that Minta had given him to sleep in stretched with his movements. There was no pain from his almost completely healed wound.  Sweat gathered and trickled down his chest, which rose and fell faster with the increased exertion.  Too soon he had to stop and rest, panting lightly, feeling his heart race.

Unit was not satisfied and when he had recovered his breath, he began pacing the room again, back and forth, back and forth.  Suddenly, he stopped.  This was not what he wanted either; there was something missing, something that his body wanted to do, but he could not pull it from his mind. He picked up the fork that he had tried to use to open his restraints, balancing the shaft lightly between his first finger and the ball of his thumb.    He did not wish for anyone to discover him with it.  Folding his other fingers around it, Unit turned to put it on the little table.  Then he stopped.  Somehow it should feel heavier, he thought.  In his mind, it lengthened, became long, round and deadly.  The handle thickened and a piece of metal appeared in front of his hand.  The tiny vision showed him what was done with the thing in his hand.  Joyfully, Unit exercised some more, this time lunging forward, his weight on his right foot, one arm, the one holding the fork, outstretched.  Then he retreated.  He smiled, feeling the rightness of his moves, power in his muscles.  Forward and back, over and over again, until once more he had to stop and rest. 

Occasionally he put his ear to the door, listening for the sounds that would tell him that morning had arrived.  Finally his tired body and mind were satisfied, the compelling urge to keep moving abated.  Unit returned to his bed, slipping his hands into the hated mitts, which he then put into the restraints.  One he clicked shut, the other he was not quite able to shut one-handed.   So he hid the pin under his sheets, closed the restraint as best as he could, and then waited, and during his wait, he fell back to sleep, to dream of a deep blue expanse of moving, churning water, and a lady with skirts that rustled like thousands of gauzy-winged butterflies. 

The next morning the caretaker expressed astonishment at the laxity of the caretaker before her and relief that the unit had not tried to get out of bed, thus possibly hurting itself.  Unit watched in amusement as the teacher wrote something on the chart.  

 

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The unit’s wound healed quickly, leaving only a thin pink line half buried in the dark thatch of hair on his chest.  That hair never ceased to amaze Minta, used only to hair above the eyes and on top of the head.  Similarly, her lack of the same seemed to hold an identical fascination for him.  Sometimes he would stroke his fingers along the lower part of her arm, just to feel the smoothness.

After a little more than a week, her charge was fairly conversant considering that he had not been out of the confines of his room.  She had brought in a few picture books, such as those that were used to teach some of the new units in their secondary stages of education, and the two of them had spent hours looking them over, he asking innumerable questions and she trying to answer them all.  Minta chafed at not being able to take him outside.  She felt that he would have the same pleasure at the world around her as she had when she was a new unit, the same pleasure that she had even now when she went to the park.  But she also feared.  She feared the powers above her finding out just how well Unit was doing; fearing that they would take him away from her, sooner rather than later.  Sometimes she wondered if her attachment to him was a good thing and if it would be better for him to go now, before she became overly bonded with him.  Then she wondered if she already had, but that thought was dismissed.  She simply could not imagine not teaching this unique unit.

“How long do I have to stay here?” he asked, bringing her back from her reverie.  They had been sitting on the edge of the bed, looking over a book of simple pictures.  She gaped at him for a brief moment wondering if he could also read her mind.  He saw her look and cocked his head, a sure sign that he was unsure of something.  “Did I ask something wrong?” 

“No, you didn’t.  It is just that I was thinking how much you would like to go outside, and maybe have a picnic.”

“A picnic?  What is that?” 

“That is where you take your dinner and eat it outside,” Minta explained. 

Unit looked at the wall, his face reflective, the coarse hair around his mouth making him look almost serious.  He reached up and absently scratched under his chin.  He had been doing that a lot lately.  “I think I would like to go outside.  I do not like it in here.  It is too small… too….” Her companion paused, not having the right words to convey his thoughts, but Minta thought she knew what he meant.  He put his hands close to each other to elaborate for her.  

“I think you mean confining.  You feel confined, shut in,” she explained.  He nodded.  Minta continued, “I am going to take a chance and see about getting permission to take you on an excursion soon.  I can’t promise, but I will try.  Two weeks is a bit soon to take new units on excursions, you know.”  She said with a smile, then paused and watched him as he continued to rub his chin. “Does the hair on your face bother you?” she asked, as he continued to scratch. 

“Yes, it makes me want to….”  Unit made motions to indicate scratching.

“It itches and makes you want to scratch,” Minta said, supplying the words he didn’t know.  “I will see if I can get something to take it off,” she added, chuckling.  She expected him to laugh with her as he often did, but instead he just looked more serious.

“Minta, what will happen to me?” he suddenly asked. 

She slid off the bed, walking toward the door, unhappy to be reminded of the inevitable separation.  Minta heard his soft footfalls behind her and then felt his strong hands grasping her shoulders.  “I don’t know,” she answered, her voice almost a whisper.  “You will be sent to another teacher and live with other units.”  His grip seemed to tighten.  She almost gasped at his strength.  

“When will that happen?” 

“When they feel you have learned enough to take care of yourself,” she said, bluntly.  

“That is why you have not written much on the chart. So they will not think I am ready for another teacher?”  

“Yes.  And if I get permission to take you outside, you must not act so independent,” she said, concerned.

“Independent?”

“That you can do everything for yourself,” she replied.  Again, he nodded his understanding. 

Getting permission took two days, longer than she wanted, but shorter than she expected.  They both laughed when she brought him the news.  Minta had it planned; she would take him to the same park she remembered.  It was on the hospital grounds, nearby, so they would be able to walk to it.  Checking the weather forecasts, she found that the day would be perfect. 

 

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On the day of their excursion, Minta had finally brought in various items that would help Unit get rid of the hair on his face, mostly items that were used to cut hair on the head, but some were items that were used surgically.  She had worried the whole time she had walked toward his room, expecting someone to say something to her, challenge her for having such dangerous items in the new units’ training wing.  When she got to his room without incident and dumped the various items on his bed, Unit peered at them carefully.  Without saying a word, he picked up the scalpel, walked into the little cubicle that served as a bathroom and turned on the water in the tiny sink. 

Curious, Minta followed, watching through the narrow doorway as Unit studied his reflection in the mirror.  He ducked his head, wetting his face and hands.  Then he squeezed a small amount of the soap gel on his hands and rubbed it on his face.  Carefully, he applied the sharp side of the scalpel to the coarse hair.  She gasped in fear that he would slice his cheek open.  With a faraway look, Unit scraped along his cheek, stroke after stroke, sometimes going back and scraping off what he missed.  When he turned to her she saw that he had taken off all of the hair except for a small, thin line above his lip.  They looked at each other for a moment. 

“Why did you leave some?” Minta asked.

Unit shrugged.  “I do not know.  It just seemed right.   Does it look right to you?”

Minta paused and gazed at him thoughtfully.  Yes, somehow it did look right on him.  She couldn’t understand it either, but didn’t question her feelings.  Nodding, she said, “Yes, it does.”  She paused again.  “Did it hurt, all that scraping?”

“No, not really.  My skin itches where it was… scraped.”

Suddenly Minta laughed.  The day was going to be wonderful.  “You do look ready for a day outside, Unit.  Are you ready?”

“YES!” he exclaimed, his eyes glowing with anticipation.

 

As they walked out of the room and down the corridor, Unit received startled glances from all he met, but no one said anything.  A few new units were taking short walks in the corridors.  They were too intent on what they were doing to notice Unit, but the others, the teachers and other workers all gazed at Minta’s charge unabashedly before returning to their tasks.  Minta sighed in relief as they made it out of the building without incident. 

The sun was high overhead, ruby red and bloated, its light falling warmly on his skin.  Unit felt the breeze stirring his hair and wafting lightly over his body.  It lifted the material of the new clothes he was wearing.  Gazing down at the shirt he was wearing, Unit felt the rightness of it, the soft dark-colored material lying loosely against his skin.  The clothing Minta had given him in the hospital after he had awakened was fine, but this was so much better.  The pants were of a lighter colored material, but they, too, felt soft.  They let him move more comfortably than the heavier hospital outfit, too.  

Unit looked all around him, delighted to be outside, to be free of the restrictive confines of his room.  His wonder grew as he scanned the park.  Other people walked near the pond, most stopping and staring at him before moving on, but others continuing to gaze, their eyes mostly curious, although a few seemed fearful.  Unit felt self-conscious, but returned each person’s gaze with one of his own.  Most were as dark-skinned as Minta, although some were a bit lighter, more like the soft brown of champurrado.  Champurrado?   He had no idea what it was; that it represented something pleasant and warm. 

He looked up again.  The sun seemed wrong, the sky should be blue, not violet, the limbs of the trees should be raising arms to the sky, not drooping to the ground.  Below his feet, spongy moss gave way, cushioning each step, varying in shades from yellow to rust.

Minta tapped on his shoulder and pointed to the milky blue water of the pond.  Small ripples marked the passage of tiny creatures below the surface.  Small, slender white birds skimmed across the pool, scooping their dinner with shovel-like mouths.  The two of them walked down to the pond, Minta laying a blanket a short distance from the shore.  They sat down, Unit continuing to gaze around him at the beautiful, but strange, similar but different.  His mind was unable to comprehend why everything looked so exotic.  Something was strange, but he wasn’t sure exactly what it was.  He only had the images of his dreams to compare.

The dreams had seemed so very vivid and yet the spongy feel of moss beneath him was real, too.  The soft redness of the sun was real as was the violet-hued sky.  Minta handed him a meat and vegetable combination that was wrapped in flat bread. He munched absently, only remotely savoring the tangy flavor of the spiced meat.  She handed him a cup containing a dark red liquid.  The flavor of the tangy drink burst on his tongue and made him look down into the cup in surprise. 

Reflected on the surface of the liquid was a face, a face that was like his, light skinned, but older, the chin was covered with hair slightly lighter than Minta’s, but coarse like the hair he had scraped off earlier in the morning.  In the reflection’s hands were small, globed fruits, each one deep red and perfectly round. The man in the cup was happy, his mouth parted in a laugh.  After a brief moment, Unit thought that he could hear the laughter.  It was as though it was coming from far away, it was so soft, and yet he heard it clearly in his mind.  The face seemed to be looking directly at him and the mouth formed a word.  Like the laughter, it was almost inaudible to his ears, but he could still hear it… ‘Diego.  Diego’ 

“Unit,” Minta said softly, breaking into the vision.  “Unit?  What is it?  I thought you would be happy out here.”  Her hand lay softly on his.  “Unit?”

As the vision faded, he felt a deep sense of sorrow, but as he thought about the old man’s words, he understood and his disappointment changed to joy.   “Not Unit.  Diego.  I am Diego.”

 

 

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