Fiction isn't life but a good book should make us live life more fully: The final book of the Kyrennei series

Light of the Shield (Book 6 of the Kyrennei Series) has been released.

I have never liked endings in books. I usually don't like them even in my favorite books. I don't mean that I don't like happy endings or sad endings. I don't even mean that I don't like when a good book ends because then it is over, although that has been an issue a few glorious times.

No, I just don't like what endings have to do.

In fiction, when you write an ending, you have to tidy things up, tie up loose ends, bring subplots in, show why this or that happened and wrap up neat little packages. Everything needs a reason or at least a purpose, even if that purpose is to show randomness. That's what fiction is. It's a way of making sense of life. 

But something in me always rebels.

Life isn't like that! Or at least the logical, linear part of me clings to that belief. If life was like fiction--if everything made sense--it would be an even scarier world than it already is. Maybe that's one reason why I don't like endings.

Beyond that, I find them to be too predictable, too convenient and too unrealistic. Endings are like sex scenes. There just aren't very many creative, original, non-cliched ways left to pull one off. 

Ending the Kyrennei series, a story I started when I was less than fourteen years old, was admittedly tough from a technical writing standpoint. This story grew and evolved with me, and traveled in the back of my mind as I became a freelance journalist. It's a story I poured so much of my imagination into for so many years that ending it by putting the last part down on paper where it no longer changes was one of the hardest tasks of writing I have ever completed.

I was determined to make the ending as emotionally real and creatively honest as the rest of the story, even though I often feel endings lack in exactly those qualities. In short, that's why it took so long. I know a lot of readers have asked me where the ending is. And I finally have your answer. 

The story that started with Aranka Miko and bound you to a dozen other characters in the process finally has it's conclusion. It's one that meets my high standards and I hope it will both entertain and satisfy you. 

This is the final book in an epic series. The fifth book was almost an ending, more so than some of the cliff-hangers early in the series. At the end of Path of the Betrayer (Book 5) there was some resolution. Kai Linden and Elias Miko completed an insanely risky mission and saved the lives of hundreds of Kyrennei. Although their world is tenuous and J. Company is forced to take refuge in underground caverns, they do find refuge. Aranka and Kenyen are also safe for the moment. Many readers told me they thought that was how things would remain.

The idea that the the resistance could truly overcome the Addin is as unthinkable as our chances of achieving world peace, healthy democracy and ecological sustainability in our world. It is what we want but there are forces that stand in the way that are far stronger than any of our known weapons.

The one major piece that is unclear and still really sad at the end of Book 5 is Maya. Kai did manage to rescue Maja during that terrible mission. But she is unconscious or at least unresponsive and has clearly suffered a lot. There are also plenty of loose ends that haven't been tied up throughout the series.

Thus Book 5 provided the ending we see as possible in our world. If we fight hard, we might be able to achieve a measure of safety for a few of those closest to us. We will then stand vigilant against the darkness and aggression in the world and mourn our losses. Many questions never get answers. And there are some who we cannot save, even those we love the most. 

The challenge of the final book in the series is how to create a vision of hope and also make it one that will not betray the authenticity and realism of The Kyrennei Series. How can Maya survive what she has undergone? Is this all we get? Like Kai, we are stripped of everything that truly matters, even our core principles, and left with survival and survivor guilt? Can those who fight for freedom and justice ever win a battle that actually matters in the long run?

These were the questions I set out to answer in this final book of the series. It begins with Kai as he enters the rebel base in an underground salt mine, holding Maya unconscious in his arms. His parents were taken by the Addin. He is a fugitive and because of the success of their mission, he knows the Addin leader Marti Bloom will expose the fact that he betrayed the resistance and the Kyrennei in his apparently futile attempt to save Maya. What little has been won came at great cost. 

While he waits for Maya to come out of a comma, Kai begins training as a scout, learning Kyren and the rest of Aranka Miko's dearly bought secrets from Elias Miko and other teachers. But he keeps to himself and spends every available minute sitting at Maya's side, even though she is unresponsive. 

It isn't a situation that can last and when Maya is finally taken from him, Kai has only one thing left to fight for, one person he might still be able to save. But with martial law declared across the United States, the attempt is an obvious suicide mission.

That might not sound like a promising beginning for this end game. But keep in mind what I said before. The situation is hopeless given the weapons we know we have at our disposal. It is easy to forget the weapons of solidarity and mutual defense. They have been lost in time, both in today's world and in the world of the Kyrennei Series, but they did exist once. And if such solidarity can be found, then hope will arise in places we never imagined. 

Read Light of the Shield, the final book in the Kyrennei Series, here. It is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Young activists, millions strong

One day in seventh grade is etched into my memory. I was sitting in the second row in a dimly lit science classroom, bored as usual. Our teacher was uninspiring. He was droning on again, something about a military program to train dolphins to attach bombs to the bottom of enemy ships.

I wasn't sure what the science point of the lecture was. Animal behavior maybe? The chemistry of explosions? You never knew with this guy. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

But then this sentence got my attention: "So then these morons from Greenpeace came along and started blockading, so that they had to stop the program and put the lives of our troops at risk." 

I raised my hand. Most of the class was half asleep anyway. I wasn't even sure what I was going to say until he called on me. I tried to find words for the wrongness I felt in the lecture. I think I said something along the lines of, "So you think dolphins should have to do the humans' dirty work?" 

There were a few snickers around the class. The teacher leveled his gaze at me and paced a few steps closer. At least to me as a seventh grader, his voice was low and intimidating. "And you think a dolphin's life is more important than a human life?" 

More snickers and a few derogatory comments were flung my way by some of my classmates. I wasn't one of the popular kids who would get support for mouthing off to a teacher. And apparently mine wasn't a popular sentiment. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

I had all kinds of arguments, all lined up. But I also knew this wasn't one of those times where reasoned argument would work. You don't argue with teachers in front of the whole class, not if you want to avoid trouble. How many times had I been told that? I knew that if I got one more sentence in I'd be lucky. 

And for once I had it. "If they are so concerned about human life, what are they doing blowing up ships in the first place?" 

The snickers stopped. Everyone was watching the teacher and waiting for his reaction. He stumbled a bit over his words, told me I was out of line and went on a rant about "patriotism." But I didn't care anymore. I knew when to quit. 

It was lonely being a wannabe activist in 1988 in rural Eastern Oregon. Today it may still not be the mainstream, especially environmental activism. but at least there are places to turn. If I was thirteen now, I could get on the internet and find like-minded others. In the last few weeks, I could see and join the amazing youth movement for gun regulations. 

We scarcely had books about nature and PBS documentaries. If you were interested in activism for social or environmental causes, it was a long, lonely and mostly silent road. Today there is more media and more connection across distance, especially for teenagers.

For younger kids, there are books like Shanna and the Water Fairy. I wrote this story with kids and parents on the activist road in mind. It's a gateway for kids ages six to twelve, for those who might feel like lonely voices against wrongness in hopes that they may add their voices to the rising tide of young activists for a better future.

This is the third book illustrated with emotive oil pastels by Julie Freel. It tells the story of a sister and brother, Shanna and Rye, who discover a hidden spring on dry waste land behind their school. The spring is a magical pocket of vibrant life in a drought-stricken land, a sanctuary for wildflowers, butterflies and a being they call a fairy. When the children discover that the spring is slated to be bulldozed to make way for another shopping mall, they look for ways to call attention to what would be lost and inspire local activism of their own. 

Shanna and the Water Fairy is the kind of book I longed for as a kid. It is a story that reaches out to every kid who has wanted to be heard and taken seriously for concerns many adults think kids aren't bothered with.

You aren't alone and your voice does matter. This is the time of the rise of young activists, millions strong.

The stranger in the orange kameez

I include fiction and short stories based on fact in this section of the Hearth from time to time. This story is one that really happened though it is told here from an uncommon perspective.

In Dhaka there is a small area of square blocks with a grid of paved roads between them. Each block is surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire and guarded by several weathered men. This is the Embassy District. Many wealthier Bangladeshis live here as well but a good portion of the houses are inhabited by foreigners--embassy personal, aid workers, scientists and the like.

One day near the beginning of the dry season a girl walked out of the district wearing striped orange kameez, the long tunic over blousy cotton pants favored by more progressive women in the city. The matching orange scarf was looped casually over her head, respectful enough but not quite right in its folds.

At the edge of the Embassy District stands the imposing red brick edifice of the American Embassy, the largest US embassy in the world. Because Bangladesh is considered a difficult country for Americans to work in, almost everything the staff needs is actually inside the embassy itself. And almost no American comes to Bangladesh without some tie to the embassy. 

Beyond the embassy there is an open space of several hundred yards where no one is allowed to build. This is a Muslim country after all, though not a particularly extreme one. The embassy requires security. But half way across the security buffer little garden plots have sprung up. Workers tend them in the hot sun, heads hidden under round conical hats.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

On this day, the conical hats tipped and bobbed as everyone tried to get a glimpse of the strange girl in the orange kameez. Almost no one left the Embassy District by this muddy track headed toward the vast slums housing millions of the nameless, hopeless poor--people uprooted from rural areas by floods, starvation and disease and tossed at the edge of the city like so much garbage. A few of the luckiest residents of the slums were hired as gardeners, cleaners or other laborers in the district. Thus the need for the muddy track. But almost no one came the other way, let alone an unescorted girl. 

The peering eyes took her in--uncomfortable in the local attire, her face pink from too much sun and not enough pigment. She carried no bag but something bulged inside her scarf, carried on her chest. 

She walked slowly and smiled at everyone. They smiled back. It is good if a foreigner smiles. Then she lifted the scarf to reveal a sleek black camera. She took the cap off of the lens and nodded toward two of the workers in a nearby garden. Her eyebrows arched in question. They grinned and stood up, walking toward her through the small garden. Several other workers followed from nearby plots. And four young men ran down the road to join them. People in the slums love cameras and they love posing for pictures.

But the girl's face changed. Now she looked dismayed and she waved at the workers to go back. She gesticulated and tried a few halting words of Bangla, "No come... Yes work... I please." The workers laughed and jostled one another. A foreigner--European foreigner no less--who spoke Bangla no matter how badly. This was a true wonder, something to break the monotony of the day.

But they could not make out what she wanted. She wanted to take a picture. They were willing. But she was now unhappy. Some moved slowly back to work. Others stood waiting to see what she would do. The four young men ran around her in circles on the muddy track. 

Finally the girl's face firmed with decision. She turned her back on the workers and lifted the camera toward the far horizon, away from the slums and back toward the embassy district. She seemed to be taking a picture of the great brick wall around the American Embassy. The workers sighed. She was not interested in them after all. Of course, the embassy wall was something much greater. They straggled back to their plots and even the young men looked disappointed and ran back down the road toward the slum. 

The girl peered over her shoulder, smiled and turned back to her study of the horizon. She did not actually take any pictures. She only waited. 

Then when the scene had cleared she turned back around and framed two of the workers in her lens. Their conical hats and quick hands were delightful. She was about to take that first beautiful picture when an angry shout split the morning sunshine, "Stop or we'll shoot!"

Half a dozen soldiers were running down the track from the embassy. They each carried a heavy machine gun.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The girl's hand's jerked and she would have dropped the camera had it not been on a strap around her neck. She was not prepared and she did not run. The workers ran and the children playing in the ditch flattened themselves into mud. They knew what was good for them and being noticed by the soldiers was no part of it.  

The girl was surrounded by the soldiers before she took even two steps. The lead soldier demanded her camera in broken English. The girl trembled a little but tried to protest. "I'm American," she said, gesturing toward the embassy wall. "I am a tourist. You can't take my camera."

The lead soldier looked a little less sure. "You come," he demanded. The soldiers formed up around the girl and marched back to the embassy. The workers and the children looked after them, relieved and a little confused about the girl. She clearly did not belong here.

In front of the embassy the soldiers met the Americans. They were men dressed in black pants and white shirts. They had black ties and black sunglasses. They looked like pictures from the American magazines that the workers from the slums sometimes found in the trash. They too demanded the girl's camera. She finally gave it to them along with a small blue book that she took out of a pocket hidden inside her kameez. One of the American's put it in his own pocket.

"You need to answer some questions," he said. "You cannot take pictures of the embassy."

"But I wasn't taking pictures of the embassy," the girl protested. "I was only trying to distract the crowd so that I could get a picture of the people working in the garden." 

The man in black sunglasses did not look convinced, but no one could really tell. His face looked like stone beneath the glasses. But the soldiers took their positions again. Two American soldiers, in the crisper uniforms than those of the Bangladeshi soldiers, came and stood behind the man and the girl. And they all walked into the embassy together. It was not clear if the girl was a prisoner or if she belonged there. She suddenly moved like someone who belonged, swinging her hips and chatting with the man in sunglasses, thickening her western accent a bit and making as many American references as she could come up with on short notice.

It won her nothing. She was taken inside and then the man opened a door for her, as if to courteously let her go in first. The girl, expecting a conference room or at most an imposing office with a heavy wooden desk, walked in without hesitation. But the man did not follow. Instead, he slammed the door behind her. And the girl found herself in complete darkness.

The first sound she made was wordless--a cry of shock and fear. The room had been built to inspire just these feelings, though it was usually used to interrogate Bangladeshis. No foreigner ever went where the girl had gone. 

A strong light came on with a snap and the audible hum of electricity. The girl could not see anymore than she could in the dark. She put her hand up and squeezed her eyes shut. 

"Who are you?"

"Where are you from?"

"Who do you work for?" 

"Why were you taking pictures of the embassy?"

Again the girl insisted that she was not. She told about the excited people in the gardens, how she had wanted a nice pastoral picture. She had only vaguely recalled where the American Embassy was. She had not thought it through.

"Where is your residence?"

"Why are you in Bangladesh?"

"For how long?" 

The questions continued like the beat of an ominous drum. The girl answered and insisted she was a "tourist." She was in essence telling the truth, but it was such a strange truth that it was not believed. She wanted to see Bangladesh. She had a friend she could stay with in the Embassy District.

"Who? What friend? What is his name?"

The girl's answers were coming between hiccuping sobs now. She was properly terrified. But finally she gave the answer that mattered--the only one that mattered. "Oh, my friend is the medical director at the embassy. He has to be here. Ask him. He'll tell you I'm not lying." 

A quick phone call confirmed the girl's story. The men in black sunglasses came and let her out of the dark room. They handed her back the camera and the little blue book. They even apologized. She nodded, blinking back tears, trying to pretend it was all just fine. She understood. Terrorism and all that.

The only thing the men in sunglasses couldn't understand was why she had not given the name of her friend at the embassy first thing. The truth was that her presence here was just as strange in the American world as it was in the Bangladeshi world--impossible really. She had never before been in a position to drop a name. She was not of that class.

The girl walked out of the embassy and back to the muddy track. Several of the workers saw her and they were surprised. No one came back out of the embassy that quickly. It was scarcely noon.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

She stood in the middle of the track. Her hands shook. She looked back toward the square blocks of the embassy district. But then her mouth firmed into a determined line and she turned her feet again toward the slums. This time she kept her camera well hidden under the scarf. 

She walked in among the low cardboard and sheet-metal homes of Dhaka's poor. The lane leading to the muddy track from the Embassy District was fairly wide and moderately straight. The girl glanced into the side allies, teaming with children and trash heaps. But she pressed on for some distance, deeper into the slum. A gaggle of children followed her, laughing and speculating on why she had come and whether she might give them some money or even take their picture.

Finally she came to a little market set up at the meeting of three of the larger alleyways. Several people sold vegetables, fruit and cheap clothing from stands there. The girl peered curiously at the produce, but she didn't seem to have any money. Finally she smiled at one seller, who smiled back. And she lifted her camera and took a couple of tentative pictures. The children pressed forward, waving excitedly. To be in a picture was good luck. It meant you were someone and your picture would be there forever, somewhere in the world of the rich.

Then there was a low growl behind the children. "Scat! You filth! Move out!" 

The little market was ruled by a slum gang. The sellers paid them for the right to sell and for protection from the hordes of thieves in the slums. And the gang mostly left the sellers in peace. But none of them, not the gang nor the sellers paid any taxes or tribute to the more powerful city gangs, and the gang bosses did not want any outsiders taking notice. 

This girl had a reason for coming here, an uncommon reason. No one from the Embassy District came to the slums without a damn good reason. The gang leaders were sure of that.

The children scattered before the growling voice, all but one little girl, who crouched down behind a barrel by one of the stands. This girl's name was Minara and she was eight years old. She wore a shift with a faded red and white pattern and nothing on her feet. She was too intrigued by this tall, sun-haired lady in the orange kameez to be scared away.

Minara had never seen anyone like this. The women she knew were small and stooped, scurrying across alleys furtively and always working. They never had time to play and they lowered their eyes before men.

This lady was taller than the men, even taller than the men of the gang. They crowded in around her--a dozen gang members and two dozen more of their supporters and those who owed them something. Minara sucked at a strand of her tangled hair.

"You don't belong here! Go away!" one of the gang enforcers stood in front of the tall foreign lady and shouted at her. Sellers and costumers alike vanished from the market, ducking their heads and hitching up their clothing to run. 

"Why did you come?  You have no business here!" Another man made a fist at the lady.

Minara couldn't decide if she was really a lady or an oversized girl. Her face was unmarked and smooth. And her expression was one of interested amusement rather than exhaustion and fear. 

The overgrown girl turned around in a half circle, looking at the men who suddenly surrounded her and possibly looking for an escape, though she looked more confused than frightened. 

"Take her camera!" a voice called from back in the crowd. "See what kind of pictures she's been taking."

Minara stood up from behind her barrel and slipped between two of the men. She thought this lady or girl or whatever she was should not be here. The men were angry and it is never a good idea to make the men angry. Minara was now the only women around, and her mother had often told her that the oldest woman around was the one who had to take responsibility.

So, Minara reached out her slim hand and slipped it inside the hand of the strange lady just as the front line of men took a threatening step forward and two of them put their hands out to grasp at the camera.

The first man who had shouted--a gang leader, Minara knew--shifted his gaze down to the child. 

When Minara spoke her voice was a quiet rasp, but the man saw her lips move. "She's only lost. A silly girl."  

He stopped shouting and stood still. All the other men were looking at him and they stopped as well. The lady beside Minara jerked with sudden realization. Minara looked up and the lady's face was now full of fear. 

Minara gripped the hand more firmly and the lady looked her. Minara smiled and then tugged at the hand. 

"Come," Minara said. "Don't bother the men. You are so silly."

For a moment, Minara was not sure that the lady would follow her. Her feet were set and she was so large that no one except maybe all the gang men together was likely to move her. But then the foreign lady softened her hand and her face, ducked her head and docilely followed Minara like a wandered cow. 

The men said nothing. They only stared as the child led the strange woman away. 

An idea was quickly forming in Minara's mind. She knew now where to take the strange lady. Foreigners and especially tall, pale foreigners had money. She should show this foreigner the beggars and maybe she would give them money. Everyone would be happy then and there would be good luck. 

Minara led the lady through one street and then another. A few of the men followed them for a bit, but then they dropped back and another gaggle of children began trailing a few steps behind. They kept back this time. There was respect, since everyone could see that Minara had this one in hand. 

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

They soon approached the crowd around the blanket where a child who had been born deformed with only nobs for legs sat every day. The child was doing tricks, standing on his hands then turning in a circle and falling onto his stumps. A crowd had formed and people threw bits of food or the smallest coins onto the blanket, where a little girl collected them. 

Minara tugged at the lady's hand and she bent down from her great height. "Baby!" Minara squeaked over the noise of the crowd. 

The throng was too thick and tight for Minara to see much at all. But the tall lady went close to the edge of the crowd and peered over the heads of the tallest men. She backed up much more quickly than Minara expected though. Her face looked funny and she shook her head fiercely. 

"Baby! Money!" Minara told the tall lady. She must understand something. 

The lady put a hand inside her Kameez while turning her back on the men and after a moment she produced a coin. It was not the smallest coin, but enough to buy food for Minara's whole family. And to her shock the tall girl put the coin in Minara's hand. Then she looked again toward the crowd of men around the beggar's blanket. She did not seem to know what to do.

Minara smiled and gripped the coin firmly. She pressed between the legs of the men and crouched at the edge of the blanket. With great excitement she revealed her fist and then slowly opened it to show the coin. Everyone in the circle made a noise of approval. 

Minara flipped the coin off her fingers and onto the blanket in front of the smaller girl, who grabbed it immediately. And the child with no legs began a kind of dance, hopping from one stump to another. And then with a flick his hands he bounced up and flipped to stand on his hands again. Now he would do the best tricks. Minara had seen him do them plenty of times, but it was always fun. 

The foreign lady would like this, Minara thought.

She wiggled back between the men's legs to look for her strange charge. The lady was standing across the narrow alley, her back pressed against one of the shacks. 

"Come! You see baby play," MInara said, using simple words so that the lady would understand. She pulled the lady's hand again, trying to get her to come toward the circle.

But the overgrown girl shook her head and pulled back. This time Minara could feel how strong she was. She did not want to go near the crowd of men 

"Where?" MInara spread her hands to show that she did not know what the strange lady wanted.

The lady squatted down so that her face was the same height as Minara's. That made the smaller girl step back. No adult ever crouched down to her short height, let alone a foreigner who was normally so huge. But the lady's face looked kind, so Minara waited.

After a long time, the lady spoke--her words halting and clumsy in Bangla, "I see... Look me... your school?"

Minara didn't understand until the lady had said it three times, but when she did understand, she was happy to know what the lady wanted at last. She grasped the lady's hand again and pulled her down another street and around a few more corners until she arrived at the reading house, where a barefoot Imam taught the boys to read the Koran.

Minara patted the lady's hand to tell her to wait and then she hopped toward the school. It was one of very few full brick structures in the slums and the only one with a sort of second floor, but some of the walls had crumbled into rubble. If there had ever been glass windows, only empty window frames remained. Minara grabbed a hold of a window sill and boosted herself up. The imam looked up over his book at her with watery, surprised eyes.

Minara told him an America had come to see him and then she hopped back down and ran to stand behind the foreign lady. The imam came to the doorway with some of the boys he was teaching clustered around him. Their legs and arms showed their bones under the skin.

The foreign lady said a few words to the imam in her own language, but he did not understand her either. Finally the lady knelt down again to speak to Minara. "You go school here?" the lady asked, pointing directly at Minara's belly. 

Minara shook her head vigorously and the boys standing near enough to hear laughed. This did not make the lady happy either. She looked even more unhappy than she had with the baby that does tricks.

The lady seemed to think and then she asked "Where is your..." but Minara could not understand the word she used. It sounded like a word for a palace or one of the great houses of the rich. Minara knew she had no such thing. So she only shook her head.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The lady tried again, "Where is your mother?" 

Ah, this Minara could do! She called a farewell to the imam and started off down another alley. Soon they came to another little market and here the lady tugged at Minara's hand to stop her. She pointed to a pineapple on one of the carts. The seller jumped to attention, pulling out a plastic bag and putting the pineapple inside. The lady looked around as if searching for something. She put her fingers against her lips and whispered, "Yellow and orange, yellow and orange," In English, so that Minara did not understand. 

Finally she asked the seller for a bag of sweet potatoes and another of oranges and bunch of bananas. Then she pulled three coins out of her hidden pocket and gave them to the seller. The seller smiled at her, showing more holes than teeth. Minara wondered if this was finally what the foreign lady had come for, though she knew that some of the richer women of the slums worked for houses in the Embassy District and they had maids to do their shopping for them. 

But when she was finished the lady asked again about Minara's mother, so Minara continued on her way home. A few streets from her house, she glimpsed her little brother, completely naked and sitting by a trash heap. She chided him with a click of her tongue and he got up and toddled after Minara, too stunned to ask what his sister was doing with this large, orange monster. 

Finally they arrived at the little house where Minara lived with her mother, her brother and sister and her uncle who was odd in the head since he had a bad sickness as a child, so he could not go away to work in the factories with the other men. The house had three brick walls, which was better than most of the houses in the slums. Inside everything was neatly hung on pegs made from sticks whittled and stuck into the cracks. Minara was proud to show how she had cleaned up that morning. 

Her baby sister was there and uncle, but not her mother. The lady took a several photographs and then asked Minara about her mother again.

Minara motioned for the lady to follow and hurried behind the house to the brick yard just a short distance away. She knew her mother would be there. Many women and some children squatted in the brick yard, knocking bricks together with their hands to make the reddish gravel that the construction workers used in the Embassy District. 

After a few minutes of searching Minara called out and her little brother ran ahead. Their mother stood up slowly from her pile of bricks and gravel. Her eyes were tired but lovely to Minara. 

"What have you done now? What have you done?" her mother's words were more fearful than angry.

"It's okay, Mama," Minara said. "She is silly. I don't know why she is here."

Minara's mother turned and reached out her hand to touch the lady's knee. But the lady knelt down again, looking deep unto the mother's wrinkled face. 

"Good girl. Very good girl," the strange lady said, patting Minara on the shoulder. 

The mother's face broke into a delighted grin, showing that she had lost all of her teeth. 

The foreign lady put her hand on her own chest and spoke a strange name that Minara could not say. Her mother only continued to smile. 

"How old are you?" the strange lady asked the mother. But she did not understand the foreigner's broken Bangla. So Minara had to tell her mother the question again.

"Twenty six," Minara's mother finally said.


The lady's face when strange again, blank and troubled. Minara knew the look by now. She knew that it meant the lady was unhappy. 

"I am twenty three," the lady said at last. At least that was what Minara thought she said. If it was true than the lady really was not an overgrown girl at all. But how she could have such straight, white teeth and such a smooth face and be so old, Minara could not understand. 

The sun was getting low in the sky and after a while the lady started to walk back toward the muddy track to the Embassy District. Minara went with her, walking among the piles of bricks. Finally the lady stopped beside a rickshaw. She asked the rickshaw puller to take her to a street in the Embassy District. He nodded.

Then the lady turned to Minara and knelt down again.

"Go to school," she said. Her face still looked unhappy. but she tried to smile. 

She took paper money out of the pocket under her clothes and dropped it into the bag of fruit and sweet potatoes that she still carried. 

She stood up and said again, "Go to school." Then she looped the strings of the bag over Minara's hands so quickly that she couldn't do anything but grab the strings to keep from dropping the bag in the mud. Then the lady hopped into the seat of the rickshaw and the puller started off. 

Minara stood watching her leave, holding the bag with all the yellow and orange foods, whih contain the most vitamin A. She never knew why the strange lady had come. She did not even know about vitamin A or why so many children she knew went blind. She only knew that the things in the bag cost more than the rice to eat for a month.

That was twenty years ago.  If Minara is still alive, she is an old woman, haggard and bent. Now floods caused by the exhaust of cars, factories and cattle in distant countries drown the streets. Minara might have her eyesight at least. Maybe she has her own children who play at the edge of the flood waters and eat little bowls of rice. She almost certainly never went to school or left the slums, unless she was very lucky.

But her picture and her name are here someplace in the world of the rich. 

The threshold

(Short fiction)

"I just don't know." The girl with straight, honey hair, waved a hand toward the heavy window casements. "No one is going to care anyway. Why should we stand out there and get wet?"

Lori shifted in her chair, but she was done mentoring. They'd do what they'd do. 

Rain beat against the windows. Nate, the lanky ringleader of the group, lolled in his chair. "Look, we did what we had to. The Nazi won't be speaking on campus. Our message is that we've won."

Creative Commons image by Max We 

Creative Commons image by Max We 

The talk shifted into plans for the weekend. Nate steered things that way and the other students, three girls and one other boy, followed his lead as usual. Every student group needed a faculty adviser and they had Lori. But advisers don't usually attend meetings. 

The group broke up and three of them got up to leave, while Rust and Kelly were giving each other looks and eyeing the back stacks speculatively.

"When's the next meeting," Lori asked Nate's back. 

He turned back around, black dreads swinging, and he looked apologetic. "Oh, sorry, Lori," he said. "I'll let you know. Maybe in a couple of weeks. See you on Twitter."

Then they were gone. Lori wheeled slowly toward the exit. The trek back to faculty housing was going to be soggy and cold. 

She stopped under the architectural overhang that made a dry spot at the front of the library. There must be a specific word for that, Lori thought.... Wait! No, that was Russian and not quite the right term anyway. It was the English word she wanted.

She chuckled at her own nerdy preoccupation. Who but a linguistics professor would care? 

The poster caught her eye. It had a huge anarchy A scrawled and circled over it. But the black block letters underneath were still clear. "White lives matter in America the great! Pastor Author Cox at the Washington Park Center at 5:00 pm on Saturday, November 25."

The poster had been torn down and replaced dozens of times and there were still soggy remnants of the previous posters pressed into the wet sidewalk around the library entrance. Well, Nate's Anti-racist Alliance had managed to keep the speech off of campus at least.

Cox was a national figure and there was talk of a Senate race in 2018. This was the man who said insurance companies should be "encouraged" to deny people with disabilities coverage,  until all books mentioning evolution were stripped from America's classrooms. After all, his argument went, evolution would require all the disabled to die as soon as possible.

Lori put her hat on and tucked the collar of her jacket up before wheeling out into the drumming rain. The cold drops splashed on her head, on her shoulders and on her thighs. She turned down Baker street. Four blocks. That was all and she could always change into a new outfit. A different kind of thoughts clamored at the back of her mind, but she had a thick wall up against them.

She had her head down so that she didn't see the truck drawn up to the convenience store until she was just ten feet from it. She stopped. There was no sign of life, no loaders or unloaders at the back. And the space between the truck and the shop was too narrow for her chair. Lori eyed the street--cars speeding by on four lanes, dirty water spouting from their wheel wells. Better to wait than to go out into the street in an attempt to get around the truck. Wait and get progressively more soaked.

Then she spotted the bus shelter. Okay, make the best of a bad situation.

She wheeled under it and stopped. Rain rattled on the fiberglass roof and a damp chill sank into Lori's limbs. This wasn't the life she'd always imagined. She'd had high hopes for travel, activism and a different kind of career. Everyone had said she could and would do it. And there was no specific reason why not. She and her chair had traveled for exchange programs--Russia, Germany, the UK, even a short stint in Egypt. And a doctorate in linguistics and a career as a professor were nothing to be sneered at. But there were moments...

The hiss and rumble of a large vehicle pulling up startled Lori. Before she could get herself turned around the doors were open and the wheelchair lift was buzzing out of it's nook against the wall of the bus.

Damn it! She'd only been hiding from the rain in the bus shelter, waiting for that damn truck, which still hadn't budged. She rolled out of the shelter, trying to catch a glimpse of the driver and shaking her head in the rain. This would be just her luck and the next time he saw her, that driver might gripe about putting the ramp down. 

"Addison, Washington Park, Central..." the line of electronic orange text scrolled across the panel on the side of the bus. 

Lori stopped rolling, stopped shaking her head.

Okay... this was weird. Were the "powers that be" trying to tell her something? Or was this day just trying to outdo the standard end-of-November drear?

What the hell! Clothes dry.

She yanked on the left wheel and spun toward the ramp. It bumped down and she rolled into position. The driver jumped out and ran around to check the clamps. Lori wished he wouldn't. She could actually clamp them herself. But she guessed there were regulations. They couldn't have wheelchairs rolling off the ramp when it was two feet off the ground. Just the thought of the lawsuits. 

"You're brave, lady," he croaked, grinning up at her from a weathered dark-brown face, "coming out here in all this weather. Where're you going?"

"Thank you so much, sir," Lori said and tried to give him her most winning smile. "Washington Park, if you don't mind. I know it's only two stops but--"

"No problem, no problem. Don't you worry about that, ma'am." He gave the lift a pat and headed back around to the front, his uniform already damp. 

The bus was nearly empty and the heat was on so high that the windows were completely steamed over. Still, the moisture in Lori's clothes did nothing but warm slightly in the eight minutes before the lift started buzzing again at Washington Park. She thanked the driver and ducked her head against the wind. It was too bad they hadn't scheduled the Cox speech for the park itself. If anything constituted inclement weather, this would be it. 

The Center, a conference building owned by the Chamber of Commerce, was on the other side of the park and across a major street. But there were curb cuts at least and the light was still good. She was a whole hour and a quarter early after all.

The students had a permit for a protest in the park across from the Center. She could theoretically position herself there, Lori realized, and be perfectly legal. Except she hadn't actually planned on coming, so she didn't have a sign or an umbrella with her... only maybe a yellow notepad in her backpack. She and the pad would be soaked in minutes out here. 

She crossed at the light and turned up the sidewalk toward the glassed entrance to the building. It had one of those turning doors but at least it was a big one, one her chair could theoretically move through, if she kept turning exactly right. She managed it with little more than bruised knuckles. Inside there was a long entrance with potted plants and at the far end a desk.

Lori wasn't sure what exactly she was going to do. She thought she should be nervous. She could end up in trouble with the university administration. They had been warned that protesters who crossed the street, let alone entered the building, would be arrested.

She put that wall up agaom. She would not care. Some part of her could not let this bigot speak in her town without a protest registered. He was a prominent member of the KKK. He advocated the most hateful positions possible and there were two large student groups on campus that supported him and planned to attend. 

"May I help you?" the trim woman with tasteful make-up and short brown hair leaned over the counter.

"I'm a little early," Lori said. "It's at five, isn't it? That's just how the buses run."

"You're here for the talk?" The woman sounded like she didn't believe a word of it. 

"Why not? White lives matter, right? Wheels or not," Lori said, and put on the same smile she'd given the bus driver. Smiles are cheap. 

"Okay, have it your way," the receptionist sighed.

Cox was to talk in the main conference hall. Lori had been there several times for off-campus events. She didn't really know why she had come, except she had some vague idea that she would go in and sit quietly. Then she would start yelling during the beginning of the speech. Security would haul her our. Not a big deal, but she would at least answer him in some symbolic way. She could not bear to be silent.

When she turned into the main hallway behind the reception area there were three police officers talking at the other end. Of course, the police would be on hand. Nate and his friends had a permit to protest after all, even though they weren't going to use it.

Lori stopped to examine the notice board, which was covered with the shiny brochures of local businesses and several not so local corporations. The officers finished their conversation and walked toward her and then past. One stopped. She could feel him behind her, hear his breathing. But he said nothing and eventually followed the others. Was it her wheelchair, she wondered, or her rumpled jacket?

The hallway was empty again but she heard a murmur of voices. She rolled quietly toward the door to the conference hall. It was cracked open, and there were several men inside. She was surprised. Cox was one of them. An hour early? Maybe he'd come to check the venue. She recognized one of the faculty from the university, a political science professor who had promoted Ayn Rand ten years ago. She didn't know the others.

There were double doors but not too wide. The doors themselves and the frame were both made of carved oak, and old fashioned glass had been fitted into small diamond windows on either side. It was a handsome entrance, the only one, except for a fire escape at the back, she recalled. Despite the new glass facade, most of the building was old and well-preserved. Lori recalled the fight over accessibility at the Washington Park Center when the building was remodeled...  was it fifteen years already? The fire escape was still marginal.

It was the easiest thing in the world at first. The door was only cracked open three inches. She just reached out and shut it. 

Creative Commons image by Roger H Goun

Creative Commons image by Roger H Goun


That was all. But the two handles... they could be bound together...

The bike lock hung on a clamp from the side of her chair--mostly for safety, not so much for locking up the wheelchair, although she could get up and walk a few steps, if painfully. 

A swift loop around the door handles and then through the spokes of a wheel.. 

Click. Again. 

The key was on her key ring, tucked in the inside pocket of her jacket. But she didn't even need it to close the lock.

"Hey! What are you--?" A harsh shout from down the hallway. One of the police officers was striding toward her, but his words cut off in a snarl. 

Lori glanced up at him. Her face relaxed. This would do. Yes, it would do very well.

She lowered a hand and engaged the safety brake on the chair. The officer stared at her with blue-gray eyes. A bit of gray showed at his temples too. but his neck was turning red, as were the corners of his eyes. 

He stepped a bit closer, craning his neck to see the bike lock. "Unfasten that immediately and clear the doorway." It was a cold order but there was an edge to it. He did not want this to happen.

Lori's face didn't change.

A fist hammered on the inside of the door and the handle moved. The door opened a crack and the chair jerked against it. Lori braced herself a little better but the doors stopped on the lock.

"Just a moment," the officer said more loudly. "I'll get a saw." 

"There's a fucking moron chained to the door," a voice said on the other side of the door. Lori peeked and glimpsed the profile of the Alt-Right faculty member on the other side of one of the windows out of the corner of her eye.

"I'll gladly see you arrested," the police officer hissed at Lori. Then he stalked off down the hallway.

It took longer than she'd thought, at least fifteen minutes, for the officers to come back. The curses and threats from the other side of the door had died down. Lori had managed to get her backpack and pull out a sharpie and a piece of paper from the legal pad.

She wrote, "Don't dishonor your ancestors." It was the sort of slogan a linguistics professor and lapsed Wiccan turning Reconstructionist would come up with. Most people wouldn't even understand it. Lori didn't really care.

But it wasn't the blue, gray and red officer who returned. This one was black.

He walked down the hallway with measured firm steps and stopped in front of her. She held the makeshift sign by two corners, her face schooled into calm. 

"We could arrest you for this, you know," the officer said in the placating voice some people employ when talking to a person in a wheelchair. He was big and his uniform was dark, like a looming cloud threatening rain. 

I'm already plenty wet, Lori thought.

He shifted from foot to foot. "I don't want to do that."

She tried not to smile. She tried. But finally the flicker of it came onto her face.

"I don't want you to either," she said. 

"You can't block this door," he said. "For one thing, it's a fire hazard." A hand reached up to massage the short hair on the back of his head.

"There's a fire exit," she said.

"That's not up to code if there is only one exit with an audience of two hundred in there," he said.

"They aren't in there though," she said. "There were only four in there last time I looked."

"You still can't block it. It's private property," the officer said.

He didn't look happy but Lori sensed that he wasn't angry like the other officer. She wondered what he really thought. It couldn't be much fun being black and defending the free speech rights of a man who said Christianity belongs to white people and who wanted to turn the United Sates into a white, Christian ethno-state. He hadn't said publicly how that should be accomplished, what should be done with all the black and brown people, but still...

"The city isn't private property and this speech pollutes our city," Lori said. "I may have to sit down for it but I won't take it lying down." She raised the "Don't dishonor your ancestors" sign an inch. 

"I don't want to arrest you, ma'am," the officer said. "But you've got to unlock that thing and leave."

"I don't see how you're going to saw the lock off without damaging the door or my chair or injuring me," Lori said. "Someone will end up suing you."

He gave her a flat look. She wondered if he would take offense. She had as good as threatened a cop with a lawsuit. They don't generally take kindly to that.

"We could have you carried out," the officer said.

"I insist that male officers don't touch my body for search or any other reason," she said. "That's my right."

"What's the hold up, Wheeler?" the harsh voice of the blue, gray and red cop lashed down the hallway. 

The black officer knitted his brows and gave Lori a distinctly disgruntled stare. Then he walked off toward the other cop and they disappeared around the corner. 

A few minutes later the first patrons arrived, trickling into the hallway and staring at Lori. A bored-looking local TV reporter walked around at the end of the hallway. No one spoke to Lori or came close enough for her to start a conversation. She continued to sit, holding her paper sign on her lap.

Finally the hallway was crowded except for a tense space around Lori. The people hoping to attend the white supremacist speech were all white and mostly young. There were twice as many men as women, but still far more women than Lori had imagined. Their language, whether muttered among themselves or hurled at Lori was crude and tired. She didn't store any of it for future reference.

The door at Lori's back rattled several times and the curses emanating from beyond the oak were growing more urgent and frenzied. 

After some minutes the two police officers returned, pushing a hospital-issue wheelchair through a narrow gap in the crowd. The white officer smirked and folded his arms, standing in front of the crowd. The black officer pushed the chair forward, his head down. He put the chair next to Lori and then squatted down beside her.

"Ma'am, there are no female officers available at the moment. You have to move and I have to move you or..." He spoke low enough that his voice wouldn't carry in the crowded hallway but he made a small jerk of his head. 

Lori watched him for a moment. His face was unhappy, his shoulders slumped. No, she decided, this was no fun at all for him. 

A fist beat slow and hard against the door behind Lori's head. Author Cox's words followed it in a plodding rhythm. "You're scum! The police... are idiots... in this town. How long... does it take... to arrest... one parasitic... bitch?

"You have children don't you?" Lori leaned forward so the cop could hear her low voice over the racket..

He nodded. "Two." His eyes and his tone of voice had both chanced. All direct now. He looked right at her. 

"And they need a father with a job," she guessed. She handed him the yellow paper sign and he held it awkwardly for a second. Then she nodded and he folded it into fourths.

She braced her hands on the arms of her chair. "You'll still have to cut the lock, you know," she said.

She got to her feet, wobbled unsteadily for a second. The officer put his arm out, like a bar in front of her, not touching her but steady as iron. She gripped it for support and moved a step, then another sideways and sank into the hospital-issue chair. 

The officer took out his tools and started to work on the lock, the high-pitched whine of the saw drowning out the epithets of the crowd and the pounding behind the door. The television camera came close, ignored Lori, and focused on the image of the officer cutting the lock.

It aired on TV that night. A minor incident. One unnamed and unpictured protester blocked the door against two hundred right-wing supporters of Author Cox and was forcibly removed by police.