Back | Next

Chapter Two

Cloak House Child

Lights-out in Cloak House was eight P.M., enforced to the minute. But in the long evenings of summer it was too light and too hot to sleep, and that's when the big kids told the little ones what they knew about Mister Bones, which was a lot, and about the Tandyman, which was very little but all horror.

Job knew about Mister Bones before he could speak, but it was a long time before he was singled out by that figure of ultimate authority at Cloak House, the pencil-thin man who prowled the dining hall, led the morning prayers and hymns in a deep, cracking bass, and once a week examined everyone's hair, ears, and teeth.

The big meeting with Mister Bones took place on Job's fourth birthday.

He did not know that it was his birthday. All he knew was that in the late afternoon he was thoroughly washed by the dormitory attendant, dressed in a clean shirt and pants, and taken downstairs to a part of Cloak House that he had never seen before.

"You sit right here, Fish-face." With thirty-nine other kids to attend to, the fourteen-year-old attendant could not hang around. "Stay where you are, and wait. Someone will come and get you in a few minutes."

The big door slammed behind her. Job ran over and tried to open it. The handle was at the limit of his reach, and it would not move. He went back and sat, knees tightly together, on the old black chair. He stared at the heavy dark wood of the other door to the room and wondered what might come through.

Someone will come and get you, that's what Cobby had said. But what did she mean?

Spick 'n'span, Tandyman,

Blin' your eyes an' burn your wan',

Night-time watch say one-two-three,

Tandyman, you won't catch me.

The big kids all agreed that what they chanted was true, that the Tandyman with his white-hot hands came only when it was dark, at three o'clock in the late night-time. Now it was still light, and Job had not even had dinner. But still he trembled. Sometimes, he knew, even the big kids were wrong.

As he sat silent he began to hear a voice from the other side of the wooden door. He stopped shivering. That voice he knew, and it was not the Tandyman. It was the woman who came to see him and sometimes brought him presents; not food—Mister Bones would take away any food that was not served in the big hall—but toys; little figures of carved wood, a metal chain and cross to wear around his neck, and once a box that you could shake, look into, and see something like sparkling lights. He did not know the woman's name, but she would not let anything bad happen to him.

"I don't know how you do it, Father Bonifant." When Job leaned back to the wall, he could hear the reassuring voice more clearly. "You are paid no more money than any of the other Houses. This building is older than most, and I haven't see a dime spent on it by the government in the years I've been coming here. But—"

The next sentence was drowned for Job as the wooden door creaked open. He jerked forward off the chair.

"And yet Cloak House is clean, and the children are healthy," went on the woman's voice, much louder now. "Or as healthy as some of the poor bairns will ever be. How do you manage to feed and clothe and clean, on so little?" She had moved through the door and was smiling down at Job. "Hi. Remember me?"

She reached for him. But he had not seen her for a long time (almost three months) and, suddenly shy, he ran and hid his face against the other door.

"Job Salk! Come back here at once. You are four years old now—not a baby." The other voice was Mister Bones's rough, crackly bass. It reassured Job, even as it scared him. Everyone in Cloak House did what Father Bonifant told them to do. Fast. He returned, to stand by the black chair.

"You ask how we manage it," went on Mister Bones, as though Job did not exist. "Nurse Calder, I do not know if you expected an answer to that question, but I will give one. We have two great forces working for us in Cloak House. They are called prayer and discipline. Together they can produce miracles."

He bent down towards Job. "And you, Job Napoleon Salk, you are a very fortunate boy. Today is your birthday, and you have a visitor. Not many children at Cloak House are so lucky. Can you say hello to Nurse Calder?"

Job nodded dumbly. All he wanted was to go back upstairs and join the other children. He was hungry, and soon they would be eating dinner. But the nurse had grasped his arm and was leaning over to inspect him, just as Mister Bones inspected all of them, every week. She took his jaw in her right hand, turning it slowly From side to side. She opened his mouth wide, peered inside, and looked up at the man standing in front of her. Her eyebrows arched in question.

"I know, I know, I know." Father Bonifant sounded angry. Job prayed that it was not with him. "Better than you imagine, Nurse Calder, I know. I am not blind."

"Then you know that these at least are solvable problems? It is too soon for reconstructive surgery, the bones are still growing fast, but standard dental work would help that awful overbite." She saw Bonifant's face. "I'm sorry, of course you know. But is there no grant that he could get, or some free treatment?" She pulled Job onto her knee, and he did not resist. "Job, can you eat all right, with your teeth and jaw?"

He nodded eagerly, misunderstanding the question. But she made no move to offer him food.

Mister Bones was leaning over them. His dark eyes went right through Job, who leaned back against Eileen Calder's comforting chest.

"Are you still at the same hospital, nurse?" said Father Bonifant. And, at her nod, "Then you tell me: are your facilities improving, or are they getting worse? Do you have grant money, or extra free services available? Are there less destitute charity cases, begging for your time and your resources? Are there less penniless and pathetic pregnancies? Do not bother to answer. The golden eighties ended a long time ago, for all the poor. What do you do with your most hopeless cases?"

I bury them, thought Eileen Calder. But she would not say it, not with Job snuggling up against her as living proof that such an answer was sometimes wrong.

"Father Bonifant, I know the problems. But it would be wrong if I did not at least ask." She stroked the boy's black hair. "Father, can I take Job for an hour?"

"Outside Cloak House? No. He is too young, and the AQI today is dreadful. We have been pumping in from the highest level."

"I know the ground air is bad—I walked here through it. I didn't mean outside. I mean up, to the roof. Last time I was here Job said that he had never been, and there will be lots of Mall activity tonight for him to look at." She turned Job's head, so that he was looking up at her. "Would you like that, Job? To go up on the roof with me?"

Job said nothing. His eyes flickered from her to Mister Bones.

"Answer Nurse Calder. Be honest. Tell her what you would really like."

"I would really like dinner."

Father Bonifant smiled, for the first time since Job had entered the room. "Of course you would. You can see the roof after dinner. Nurse, I should have had more sense. He has had nothing since lunch, and everyone else is upstairs, eating. I should have recognized a child's priorities. Come on."

"Here. I brought this." Eileen Calder reached forward into her purse and produced a big transparent sack of hard candy.

Bonifant reached out a long, skeletal hand. "That is very kind of you. I accept it, gladly. But you know that the rules of Cloak House require that this be shared equally among all the children."

He led the way up two flights of uncarpeted stairs. The beige paint on the walls had peeled away in places, the light fixtures were cracked and patched with plastic, and the stair treads were worn; but everything was neat, scrubbed clean, and dust-free.

They entered the dining room. Food had already been served on the long formica-topped tables, and two hundred seated children of all ages from two to sixteen were busy eating. The conversations died as Father Bonifant's arrival was noted.

"Continue!" He waved his arm, as Job ran to take a place beside a little girl of Oriental appearance who was sitting alone. A filled plate was set in front of him. Eileen Calder walked to stand behind him and heard the girl chattering to Job in an unfamiliar tongue. He replied with his mouth full.

Nurse Calder turned to Bonifant, who had moved to her side. "What language is that?"

"I wish I could tell you. She was deposited at the front door of Cloak House two months ago, frightened, badly beaten, and undernourished. The only word she could say that made sense to us was Laga, which is now her name."

"But she's talking a blue streak to Job, and he's jabbering back like nobody's business!"

"I know. She is learning English—slowly—but for the time being Job is her interpreter. He is the only one here, child or adult, who understands her."

"But how?"

"By God's good grace—that is my only explanation." Father Bonifant's cadaverous face wore an expression of real pleasure. "Nurse Calder, when Job Salk came here from the hospital, you told me your fears: that his mother's addictions during pregnancy would add mental retardation to his physical problems.

"I told you that it was useless to worry, and that the Lord tempers the wind to a shorn lamb. I said that we would pray for him. We did, everyone here at Cloak House. Maybe you thought that it accomplished nothing. When you looked at Job, you still saw that deformed jaw. But look inside his head, and you will find no defect, but a great God-sent gift. He picked up the street argot—which the children here are officially forbidden to speak—through his pores, before he was two years old. No one knows how he came by it. He has had no tutoring, but he speaks Spanish as well as he speaks English."

The plates of food had been rapidly emptied as Bonifant was speaking, and were disappearing back into the kitchen hand-to-hand, like a well-run assembly line. Within two minutes the food was gone and cups of milk had taken its place.

"Everyone helps," said Father Bonifant, at Eileen Calder's nod of approval. "It is one of my rules. By two years old, a child can understand enough to contribute."

"Understanding is one thing, but children are children. How do you make them obey you?"

"You will be horrified to hear my answer. I told you that Cloak House works through prayer and discipline. Both are needed, if we are to survive. I can scour the city for cheap meat and three-day-old bread and give-away furniture and condemned cleaning materials, but even so Cloak House sits at the very edge of survival. I cannot afford to waste anything, or see anything wantonly destroyed. If a child who is more than two years old wilfully breaks something, or dirties something and does not clean it, or wastes food or drink, he or she joins me in prayer. And he forfeits the next meal. I make no exceptions."

Eileen Calder said nothing, but her lips tightened with shock.

Father Bonifant could see her grim-faced disapproval, and then her skepticism. She did not really believe him. He had expected nothing less. As the cups of milk were emptied and vanished back to be washed, he walked forward to collect Job.

What he had told Eileen Calder was exactly true. He did not see the need to mention that whenever any child missed a meal, so too did he.

* * *

"Come on, Job. There's nothing to be afraid of, it's quite safe up here."

Eileen Calder could not understand why Job was so reluctant to take the last few steps. He had walked up the stairs willingly enough, although he had been forced to stop frequently for breath—those lungs, flawed at birth, would never have normal efficiency. But Job seemed excited at the idea of visiting the very top of Cloak House. He had wanted to look out of each window as they moved higher and higher, and he had paused and gaped with pleasure and amazement at the great, noisy air handlers, drawing their intake at the top floor of the building, above the smog layers, and pumping air down to provide tolerable breathing for all the lower levels. The handlers were not so necessary now, at night, but in the afternoon Eileen Calder had been forced to wear a filter mask when she walked over to Cloak House.

They had finally arrived at the door that led out into the night and onto the flat roof. And now Job was hanging back. Was he afraid of the night itself?

She had an inspiration. It was not just the roof. Job had been brought to Cloak House when he was six weeks old; Father Bonifant had made it clear that he still considered Job too young to go out into the streets. So this must be a completely new experience for the boy—he had lived all his life inside, in this building, without ever seeing open sky or breathing fresh air!

"Job, it's all right. Look." She let go of his hand and took the last few steps herself, to stand on the rooftop in the warm night air. "See, up there—stars."

They were not much to see. The muggy damp of air, even ten stories up, was still thick with smoke and dust. But Job came hesitantly forward and stared up and around in wonder.

"That's the city, Job. Our city." Taking his hand again she led him around the perimeter of the roof, with its five-foot guard rail and thick wire mesh.

"Over there." She pointed northwest. "That's the hospital where you were born, and where I work. And way over there—you can't see it, because it's too far away—is the suburb where I used to live."

She felt a stab of nostalgia for her house and flowers, followed by a stronger rush of anger. When the charity work at the hospital was done, most of the medical staff flew out on the shuttle helicopter to cleaner air and safer streets. She had done exactly that herself until last year, when compassion for the children she was leaving behind every night became stronger than fear or comfort. If she chose, she could still return to her old life. But Job and the other children of Cloak House had no place to run to if the area became too tough or the air too dirty. They were stuck with this, like it or not.

She moved on quickly, past the dark secrets of the northern and eastern ghettoes. If Job had asked her what was in those unlit urban canyons, she could have offered no more than the unpleasant rumors passed on to her by welfare patients at the hospital. And she would not have told those to Job. Maybe they exaggerated, and only a fifth of what they said was true; but that fifth was too much.

They arrived at the western edge of the roof. Eileen Calder had deliberately kept it for last.

As usual, the Mall Compound was brilliantly lit. Tonight there was an added attraction. Helicopters by the dozen were landing, loading, and taking off for the airport that lay across the river, its runway lights visible far to the southwest of the Compound's mile-long rectangle.

Job had never seen anything like it. He gazed enthralled at the swarm of choppers, lifting, hovering, and darting away like gigantic dragonflies.

"What are they? What are they doing?"

"It's the final day of Congress—the people who run this country have been living there, and now they're going home. They'll be back again in a few months."

She felt again the stab of anger. Sure, they could leave here, exchanging the barricaded security (and rumored luxuries) of the Mall Compound for forests and deserts and mountains, and the great river valleys. But how long since a congressman or congresswoman had been to visit her hospital? How long ago, if ever, had one been to Cloak House?

She could tell that Job didn't understand what she was saying, that he was obviously too young and the words "Congress" and "country" and even "month" still meant nothing to him. No matter. His bright eyes were fixed on the dazzling lights of the Compound, and on the swarm of cars and trucks around its floodlit helicopter pads.

"I like that. I want to go there." He spoke so quietly that she could hardly hear him. "I'll take Laga with me, too."

"You will, Job. One day you will go there."

He wouldn't, of course. Not with his background and his appearance and his physical problems. For him the doors to the country's treasure chamber were already locked, the glittering prizes of life already denied. But you could not tell that to a small child.

And you should not even think it yourself.

I'm getting old, thought Eileen Calder. Old and worn out and cynical. And being cynical is a lot worse than being old or worn out.

She took the little boy with his receding chin and marred jaw-line and weak lungs, and lifted him in her arms.

"You will, Job Salk." She hugged him to her. "You'll go there when you grow up, you and Laga. And then the brightest lights in the world will be switched on, just for you."

Back | Next