We was broke. That’s what Pa said. Broke as a piece of glass can be broke and there ain’t no fixing it. Not two pennies to rub together. Not even the one penny. Ma held back the tears and she said she’d go to her brother’s and ask if they could spare us somethin. Pa was all frowns and he kicked at the floor and he swore at the day.
Pa’s a road builder. He breaks stones with a hammer that weighs more than I do. And he comes home with his face covered in the dust of they broken stones, pale as a ghost, and his arms all stretched and twisted and knotted, like old rope. And small money in his pocket then and he hands it all to our Ma and she makes a show of countin it, and in her head she’s calculatin what can be bought from Hennessey’s ‘all for under a dollar’ Travelling Emporium. But that was when there was work to be had, and we shifted along Pa’s new road, day by day, edging further and further west same as the road did.
A week now since Pa worked and the road just stops and goes no further, and Pa’s pockets missing the brush of silver and Ma making do as best she can. And she has a brother, our Ma, and we call him Uncle Tommy. He’s got his own business making candles and his skin shiny and the colour of tallow and smelling of grease. And he’s doing alright. And though our Ma don’t like to, she’s been to him before to ask after a bit money to feed us kids. It’s near to twenty miles back on the road that Pa helped lay down, and she’ll have to walk, but our Ma says she’ll go.
I say I’ll go with her and she nods and I force a smile and we fill two flasks with water pulled from the river and we don’t say no word to Pa or to Lulu or to Ben. We just sets out along Pa’s road and our Ma is singing to lighten our steps and the road is smooth and warm under our feet and it is straight as a school ruler and empty, ‘cept for me and our Ma.
We pass places we knew briefly as home and Ma ain’t singing no more and I want to ask her something, but I know not to. And we walk in slow silence passed places we slept in and places where there was silver enough we could eat potatoes and corn, and sometimes meat. And I know I shouldn’t, but I wish them days back again. Not for the food, which was comfort enough, but we had a book then, and stories of how the west was won, and Billy the kid with his colt 45 and his Winchester rifle. And that’s my name, Billy, and so I imagined it was me and in my pockets more silver than any road builder ever saw, and I’d look after Ma then and she could have that dress from Hennessy’s and the shoes to go with it and a brush for her hair. We traded the book for three eggs and those eggs whipped into pancakes and now gone.
And we keep walking, along Pa’s road and our Ma rehearsing what she’ll say to Uncle Tommy and picturing him smiling and folding his easy dollars into our Ma’s palm and a stick of candy into mine. And he’ll give us a hot supper and the offer of a bed. But we won’t take the bed, cos there’s Lulu and Ben and our Pa waiting for us and twenty miles back is a long way.
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The Temple of Air
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