Out of the Nest
Step after step pressed into soft loam. Thumb rubbed silently over the soft, silken ribbon, pushing it forward with each pace, circling the gentle knot into the palm, across the hand, and through the fingers to circle anew. Morning glories wove through lattice-tamed branches and hung down lazily.
A gravelly grunt of greeting, from Broken Neck, standing on a ladder, taming the tall hedges. “Dia dhuit, Death Wish Boy.”
Ruben let out his breath in a laugh. “Póg mo thóin, Fell On Head.” He passed, flicking a wave.
Raspy chuckling followed him. “She’s off tendin’ t’daphnes.”
Humor left him, slowly pushed aside by purpose.
Ruben took deep breaths, trying to turn his insides to ice. Then he started forward again.
This was going to be hard. Mom had offered to talk on his behalf… but this was his quest. He almost asked her to talk him back into going on the quest instead, but then he realized that would’ve been a terrible thing to ask because she totally would do it. Even so, he half-hoped that if he changed his mind after this, she’d think to try to change his mind back…
Humming drifted over, floating on the air, lilting up and dipping down like a stray petal in the wind. The low laughter of Kern River flowed under the song, punctuated by the rustling of leaves. It was a familiar melody, one that felt lonely unaccompanied by the others’ voices as it usually was. A feeling like a breath built up just under his ribs and climbed up his throat.
“Hey Moe,” he said instead. It was almost like the song, the way he said it, but he managed to swallow the harmony in the middle of his greeting before it got away from him.
“Ruben!” Her voice seemed reluctant to part from a tune of any sort. “Do you have a moment to do a little gardening? I’m just finishing up over here.”
Yeah… gardening sounded really nice.
He stepped around the corner. Moe was just across the little grove in the garden pathway, crouched below a daphne bush with shears in hand and a basket tucked in her arm. Her hair was casually wound to the back of her head, woven with one of her clooties as if the pair were partners in a graceful, swirling, whimsical dance, revealing the true length of her nape. She looked over at him and smiled out of one corner of her lips, quirking the edge of a hazel eye which only just caught the sunlight.
Then, he reached out to take the shears offered him. She hesitated as they left her hand, her smile turned quizzical. It wasn’t until then he realized that there was no longer distance between them. Warm Moe-smell drifted over him, like lilacs on a humid day.
“What’s that for?” Moe asked.
What’s what for?
Oh. The ribbon.
Ruben rubbed his thumb over its silken length once more, fixing his gaze to it. “For you.” Wait. “For me.” Hold on, that wasn’t quite right either. “I mean—it’s an offering. For your prayer tree.”
Man, he’d rehearsed the speech on the way over and everything. But this was Moe he was talking to. He should’ve known better. Mom had even warned him.
Well, fuck it.
“I’m leaving. I was trying to be all symbolic and poetical and shit about it by giving you this ribbon. So you can pray for me. If you want to.” Yeah, should be safe now. He said what he needed to say. Ruben held it out to her, and looked up.
She was still quizzical, but not in the same way. Her Moe-face was gone.
“Where are you going?” she asked, wrinkling her nose a little, as if it were pushing something back.
“To find Alejo.” Maybe if he didn’t give her details he could come away still wanting to go.
Moe’s eyes dropped to the ribbon. Her eyelashes came shy of brushing her cheeks. Warm hands closed over either side of his ribbon, and turned his fist downward and lowered. “Ruben…” She held him there for a moment.
Man. That tone. It was so much like Mom’s when she was calling him out on his bullshit. Except… less matter-of-fact. Sadder.
Moe knew he wasn’t being up-front. And was trying to be patient with his disrespect.
Her hands held his still. Her skin was smooth, pale, the planes of her knuckles and tendons and veins kissed only lightly by shadow.
“Okay. I’m going to Acopa to ask Alejo to be my patron.” Would now be a good time to look her in the eye? No, he hadn’t told her enough yet. “’Cause maybe he can help me figure out my shit and turn it into something helpful or something. Or at least give me all the hell I deserve if I pull a Victor. And…” He briefly clenched his teeth. “Maybe I’ll be able to help if Jan shows up. Not likely, but… likelier.”
It was like the whole garden went still. Even the river stopped laughing. Moe was looking down at him, looking dangerously casual.
“And you’re going alone.” It wasn’t quite a question.
“I’m bringing Hector,” he offered.
Something flashed across her eyes. “I meant more you’re not doing the smart thing and bringing Ken along.”
Yeah, that definitely would’ve been smarter than taking a feral man-eating predator along with him. Damn, he was a pendejo.
No, wait. There was a reason for it.
“It’s a pilgrimage, Moe.” Her expression flickered. “If I don’t make it, I died doing something… I dunno, right. And I figure better that than being put down by one of you guys ‘cause I’m a danger to everyone around me.”
Yobannye passatizhi. He could practically feel her heart ripping to shreds. It felt like cracks slicing suddenly through ice.
She swallowed, her lips and eyebrows twitching at the corners. Her eyes took on a sheen. “Why are you in such a hurry to die?”
Death Wish Boy, Broken Neck had called him.
Even the daphnes looked like they were going to bust up, somehow. Tears poked at his eyes like needles.
“I’m not.” He swallowed the thing in his throat taking the conviction from his words. “But… I mean, I’d rather die looking for… looking for a way not to hurt you guys than… wait around with… with my thumb up my ass…”
Her hands left his. Then she enfolded him in her arms, drawing him close, tight. Her lips pressed in his hair, followed by her cheek.
Otvali. This was a bad idea. Completely counterproductive. So he has likes hurting things? Yeah, just give him some superhuman powers, no way that’ll backfire! Sure, he was also pursuing inner knowledge or some shit, but… Hell, Sofia had just gone on to Mictlan, Aida, Ange, and Suze could all be dead for all they knew, and the threat of Jan was just around the corner. This was the worst fucking time to go on this ill-fucking-advised quest. What was he thinking?
She shook as she held him. Cool tears dripped onto his head; hot tears slinked down his cheek. He wanted to apologize to take it all back, but his throat was too tight, hurt too much.
After a couple moments, she took in a shaky breath and said, “You talked to Lisa already.”
Ruben tried to nod, partially succeeding.
“And you’re leaving soon, huh?”
He hesitated. At this point it would be crueler now to tell her he changed his mind than to go. So he nodded.
She let out a breath that was maybe supposed to be a kind of chuckle but ended up more of a sob. “Okay.” She swallowed again. “_Yoptel-mopsel._ I’m so tired of crying.” She tried another laugh-sob, and was somewhat more successful.
Miiieeerda. He was a monster.
“I love you, Ruben. Please don’t—” Her breath hitched, and she let it out shakily. “Please don’t die if you can help it.” She gripped him tighter as if trying to press as much hug as she possibly could. “I’ll be so… so pissed. Bring you back just so I can… kick your ass.”
His arms wrapped around her to help with the pressing.
She cried on him for a little while, quiet and strangely subdued. Then she pulled away, sniffing, her arms reluctantly slipping from him. “Anyone else know yet?”
“Just Mom and Carmen so far.” He opened and closed the shears, feeling the give under his hands, watching the beak-like razors part and slide alongside each other. “Was gonna tell everyone and just… go.”
“Yeah. I suppose having a bon voyage party in this case would be depressing.” A weary, wan smile quivered at the corners of her mouth. But it quickly gave way. “Why’d you have to grow up and be all brave and responsible and shit?” She drew a knuckle over her eye.
… She thought he was being brave and responsible? He didn’t feel that way even when he’d felt like going was a good idea.
Ruben hesitated. He felt like he should say something smartass-y. But it was overshadowed by the bitter taste at the back of his throat.
Moe took in a breath after his lack of response. “Here. Trade you.” She reached up to her makeshift bun. With a couple twitches and a twist, her hair spilled down her shoulders and her clootie slid free. “It should help you with the whole… not dying thing.”
Something in Ruben caught and held tight.
“I’m… worth one of your clooties?” he asked.
Moe tilted her head and crinkled the bridge of her nose. Her mouth twitched a little, pressed about by a stormy heart. “More, Ruben.” She straightened and put a hand on her heart, and the other on his. The holy ribbon spilled down his front. “With you goes a piece of me. Of all of us.”
Shiiiit. When she put it that way, he felt extra wrong doing this.
The daphnes nodded briefly in the breeze.
“That’s not cliche at all,” Ruben mumbled.
She shifted her weight, tilting her hips to one side, and brought her arms up. “Cliche and quick or flowery and loquacious. Take your pick.”
After that she uncrossed her arms and nudged him on the chest, urging him to take the ribbon. He hesitated as his hand closed over it. He rotated the other ribbon in his other hand, feeling the knot pass a couple times through his fingers. She waited, unmoving in the silence that stretched between them.
It was a stupid idea. And, yeah, Mom warned him this would happen, but that didn’t change the facts.
Moe took in a breath.
“The whole piece of us thing… It goes two ways, Rube.” Her voice was low. “If you come back, you’ll be stronger, one way or another. And so will we.”
Well… yeah. That had kinda been the idea. Except without all the words.
Man. Moe was really good with the words. She made his stupidity actually make sense.
“But if you guys die while I’m gone, and I end up alive…” He looked back up at her. She was looking straight at him, sadness still tight around her eyes, save a small smile of sympathy. “That’d be… just… wrong and unfair and… everything would be fucking pointless.”
Moe’s smile pressed out a little and twisted with hurt. “Yeah.” The word was a mere breath, caught a little towards the end. She slid her hands around him and enfolded him again into her hug. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you decide if it’s worth the risk. I’m pretty heavily biased.”
Her hug pressed at him for a while, allowing him to… kinda just… let go a little. Like she was holding him up—his body, his brains, his heart, everything. For a small, quiet eternity.
When she pulled away, she held her hand out for his ribbon. Ruben obliged, and then… stopped. Moe eyed the shears as he did. Her eyes flicked to him, and she tossed her hair back, lifting her chin.
“Do you have time and inclination to help garden one last time before you go?”
The Moe-face was back. It was… kind of a comfort.