“So,” Lucille said casually, “I hear that our safely guarded secret school is the talk of the Village!”
Mary looked at her with genuine bewilderment.
“Giselle told me all about it yesterday over a cup of tea. Oh, by the way, could you ask somebody to figure out how to make this work? She left it with me to get looked at,” Lucille pulled the tablet out of the basket and set it on the table.
“How did she find out about this?” Mary asked, and a fleeting flash of fear shrouded her eyes.
Lucille forgot about her irritation for a second, when she remembered that the girl was hiding there to safeguard her life. Her previous priorities fell to the wayside for a little while, as she thought of the best way to reassure her niece.
“She listened in on the girls while they were talking in shop,” she said in a much softer tone. “It seems,” she hesitated, “that not every Council member is averse to the idea of all of you learning these things.”
“Does that mean I will eventually be able to return to the Village?” Mary asked in an even voice, emptied of all emotion.
“Not immediately, but probably soon,” Lucille smiled encouragingly; she was surprised to watch the fear in Mary’s eyes turn into great sadness. “What’s the matter, Mary? I thought you’d be happy about it.”
Mary didn’t answer, she got up to grab a cup of tea and watched the last rays of the sunset as they swept the edge of the opening at the top of the cave. She sat quietly for a while, and Lucille didn’t insist, just waited patiently for the girl to reveal the source of her unease.
“I am happy here,” the latter said eventually. “I don’t want to go back to the Village.”
“But didn’t you understand? We can move the school there, you can continue your studies, you don’t have to be alone in the desert.”
“I’m not alone,” Mary pointed out.
“I don’t mean your teleconferences, you can’t live in isolation, you need other people in your life,” Lucille argued her case.
“But I was alone before,” Mary replied. “All the time.” She noticed discomfort in her aunt’s demeanor and corrected herself. “Except for you, of course. And I’ll still have you.”
Lucille searched inside her mind for an appropriate response, but couldn’t find anything.
“I’m different, aunt Lucille,” Mary pierced her aunt’s gaze with one of her uncomfortable stares, so icy because of the clear green eyes, and her disquieting look made her aunt realize even she never adjusted to the fact that her niece wasn’t like the rest of the people in the village. Mary continued. “I’m not going to stop being different just because people no longer want me dead. I’m very happy for the girls, though, their lives are going to be so much better from now on. Are you sure the Council doesn’t mind?”
“Well,” Lucille pondered her response carefully, because she knew that selling the school idea to the Council would be a slightly steeper climb than she wanted it to be, “if Mrs. Eberhart doesn’t object to it in principle, I’m sure we’ll find our way to an agreement.”
“Mrs. Eberhart is aware of this?” Mary asked.
Mary didn’t answer, she just looked down, deep in thought.
“I miss having you around, I’m sure your friends will be happy to have you back too,” Lucille tried to persuade her.
“What of my life, aunt Lucille?” Mary asked her, and her eyes gleamed eerily in the faint light of the evening, in the glow of the stars and the moon. “What will become of it if I return?”
“You can settle down, have your own home, a family,” Lucille hesitated to offer, with the realization that Mary’s unusual countenance made the aforementioned options unlikely, if not impossible.
“You know as well as I do that these things are never going to happen,” Mary said, and continued when she noticed that her aunt was getting ready to comfort her, “but I don’t want them to. I don’t belong in the Village, aunt. I never did.”
“There will be things for you to do in Council, in time. After all you learned more about the Scholars than most of us, they’ll need your expertise to change things, I’m sure.”
“Maybe,” Mary answered plainly. “I want to be among people who are like me, learn about my heritage. I want my life to count for something,” she said with a hint of frustration in her voice.
“So, you’re saying that serving in Council is a waste of time?” Lucille asked, a bit offended.
“Quite the opposite,” Mary replied. “It’s just that I don’t think, given my family tree and my history, that this would be a reasonable path for me to consider.”
“What would you like to do, then?” her aunt insisted.
“I don’t know. That’s why I need to find out what’s possible before I decide to apply myself to it,” Mary said thoughtfully.
“There is no such thing as ‘possible’, Mary,” the one in the mirror commented. “Only the limits of your own thought.”
“How come you’re here, then, day after day, guarding that screen?” Lucille couldn’t help herself, annoyed at the intrusion in what she perceived to be a private conversation. “Surely there must be something more exciting for you to do than that!”
“Not exactly,” the one in the mirror smiled without taking offense. “Do you know how many before me tried to unravel the wonders hidden inside the Coulter repository?” He turned his gaze towards Mary. “Actually, if you want something to feel good about, consider that you happened upon a treasure many generations of our people spent lifetimes trying to find.”
“So, what’s going to happen now?” he turned back to Lucille, and his question drew the attention of the latter to the practicalities involved in presenting the school curriculum to the Council.
“I think the best thing for us to do next is talk to Giselle and get a clearer picture of the attitudes in Council. I’m sure she knows a lot more about things than she lets show,” Lucille smiled enigmatically. “The woman seems to be anywhere something interesting happens, without ever getting noticed. I sometimes wonder if she acquired the gift of invisibility.” She got up to leave and kissed Mary’s cheek as she headed towards the exit. “Cheer up!” she smiled at her niece. “The best hasn’t even happened yet!”
Mary watched her aunt leave and then turned up the lamp to chase away the shadows that had enveloped the cave at dusk. As it was often her custom when she was all by herself, she picked up the Que’d from the shelf, its pages a little worn by all the recent handling, opened it and glided her fingertips over the surface of the pages, like she used to do back in the attic at her aunt’s house. The angular indentations of the letters felt familiar under her fingers, as she sounded the old code inside her mind, in cadence, its short lines reading almost like a chant. Even after she had learned what the lines meant, the melody of the strange words, written in short sequences like an endless poem without rhyme still managed to give her goosebumps.
Her eyes lit up and she smiled, then jumped from her chair to look for something else on the shelf. She picked up an empty composition book and a pen, drew the table lamp closer and sat down to write:
“The life and times of Mary Coulter, born fair”