Gaia at Eleven
(Here’s a bit story about a character from Birthmarked when she was a kid.)
Gaia plugged the last jug with its stopper and tied the handle to the end of her pole. Once more, she tested the grip of the faucet in the great wall to be certain it was off tightly. Spilled water had absorbed into the dust already, making it a richer brown, and she messed her bare toes into it for the coolness before she lifted her yoke pole and balanced it over her shoulders. With two water jugs on each end, she could have taken more weight, she knew, but her father didn’t want her carrying more. “Bad for your back,” he’d said. It only meant she had to make more frequent trips.
She turned towards the path that dipped back down into Wharfton, feeling the weight of the water give the pole a heavy, slow-motion balance all its own. She liked the pleasing proof that she did her share for her family now that she was growing. Low, early sunlight streamed in sideways from her left, and though she wanted to tip her hat to keep it off her scarred cheek, it would have meant setting her water pole down again to have a free hand, so she bent her face low.
She didn’t see the older boys coming up the path until it was too late to sidestep them.
“I believe it’s little Gaia,” Ralph said, and he set the tip of his pole directly in her path, compelling her to stop.
There were two other boys as well, both as dirty as Ralph, and burdened with over a dozen empty jugs. She knew their families from the other side of Western Sector Three, but she’d never talked to them much. She’d never wanted to. The other two spread out on either side of Ralph, and their poles made a crisscross pattern around them. The shortest one had a couple teeth missing in front when he smiled.
“Get out of my way, Ralph,” she said.
“What’s your hurry?” Ralph said. He lifted his pole, but only to give one of Gaia’s water jugs a nudge. She had to swivel heavily to keep her balance.
“Don’t,” she said, but she was getting scared.
“How’s your scar?” Ralph said, flicking a finger at her. “I heard sunlight’s bad for scars.”
She stepped off the path to try to go around them, but Ralph only maneuvered his pole to block her feet again.
“Don’t leave us,” Ralph said. “We’re just trying to make friends. It looks like you need a hand with your hat there.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said.
Ralph laughed. “I’m just trying to help. You’re so sensitive.”
When he came a step nearer, she rolled her pole off her shoulders to set down the water, and put up her fists. She was trembling and she’d never felt so small. “I don’t want your help,” she said. “And I’m not sensitive.”
The other boys laughed.
“You going to fight a little girl, Ralph?” the gap-toothed boy said.
“This isn’t a fight,” Ralph said. Then he frowned at Gaia. “You’d be pretty if you smiled more.”
“And you wouldn’t stink if you washed more,” Gaia said.
The two other boys laughed again, and the taller one started on up the path towards the wall. “Let’s go, Ralph. Leave the warp-face and come on.”
The gap-toothed boy also moved around Ralph to continue onward, but Ralph leaned down for a little yellow flower in the grass and picked it. He twirled it idly, looking at Gaia, and still his yoke pole waited beside her feet, ready to trip her.
“I could have liked you, you know,” he said to Gaia. “It’s not too late.”
She shook her head.
“Just say please and I’ll move it,” he said.
She looked down at the pole, where the end lodged in the dry, spiky grass. Even the rope tied at the end was dirty, fraying, like nobody in his family cared about such details. She met his gaze again and beamed all her hatred at him. It made her feel stronger, this anger.
“No,” she said.
Slowly Ralph pulled his pole away from Gaia’s feet. “Just to be clear,” he said, “the mean one here was you.”
He flicked the yellow flower past her face and walked backward up the path, still watching her. She jammed her hat lower on her head and reached for her pole. Relief was making her shake worse than her fear had, but she didn’t feel like she’d won exactly. It took her forever to get her yoke pole balanced right again on her shoulders, and even as she started down the path again, she knew she’d have to come back for more water the next day.
The important part was going to be not telling her parents, so they wouldn’t prevent her.