Saturday, June 2, 2007

Don't Forget to Write (p. 22)

FICTION


Don't Forget to Write
Vincent Saint-Simon


Alvin sat hunched against the first cool evening breezes, watching the twin suns go down, squinting through the whirling sand of yet another Tatooine sunset. "WHA WHA WHA!" he sighed to himself in discontent. Readjusting his sawed-off blaster rifle on his back, he turned and looked at the rest of his friends on their Banthas. He wished his parents were rich enough to buy him a Bantha so that he wouldn't always have to ride around with Oliver, who happened to be a total douche. It seemed like all his friends ever grunted about was getting wasted on glug and raiding moisture farms. Alvin stared hard into the suns, watching them until the last arcs of orange were past the tan horizon, hoping that the bright orbs would take away his sight, his boredom, or his loneliness. The suns picked answer D, taking away none of the above.

Charles Dickens awoke suddenly to a mass of hands, horrifying masks, and blaster rifles. He didn't sweat it. He was Charles Dickens. He tried to sit up, but the pain was too great. His legs felt like they were being slowly roasted, his back felt like it had been neatly sliced open right over his spine, and his migraines were worse than England's view of a child's education (which was very bad indeed). In short, it was nothing he couldn't handle, but he couldn't get up. Fortunately, a hand rested on him, stopping any other efforts. Dickens saw a compassionate mask above him.


"WHA WHA WHA!" the mask said soothingly.


"Yes," Dickens whispered, "Thank you. I do need rest. But where am I? Where is the Corellian Corvette 'Staplehurst' that was supposed to carry me to my reading in Mos Entha?"


The answer came back to him in a flash. The careless mechanic that accidentally disabled the sub-light engines. The panic on the faces of the other passengers as they recklessly careened toward Tattooine. The tears in the Solstan captain's eyes. Dickens himself screaming at the crew, trying to be heard above the din of the women and droids, telling them to turn on the repulsors and to please, for god's sake, remember the plight of the lowest class who had to face worse trials than this every day just trying to feed their families on the few shillings that were condescendingly thrown at them by the industrial tycoons. The capital ship ripped through the atmosphere and gained momentum. As they barreled toward the expanse of sand Dickens thought he remembered a lone figure running out ahead of them, desperately trying to get out of the way of the ship, looking over his shoulder every couple of seconds with terror written on his mask. Alvin dove to safety just as the ship slammed into the ground spraying waves of dust, sand, and wreckage.


Charles Dickens' eyes opened as he slowly came back to consciousness. The blurry outline of a dark brown lean-to, the sharp aroma of the tanned Bantha hide, and the sound of a fire were all he could gather of his surroundings. Fully rested and suddenly famished Dickens sat up and took his thumb out of his mouth. He found, however, that even these small motions were too much for him. He slumped back down onto what he now knew was a Dewback-hide bedroll, pain throbbing in his powerful cranium and down his back. It was in this moment of vulnerability that Dickens heard footsteps behind him. His headache was getting worse, his forehead and palms sweating under the pressure, his breath coming heavy and infrequently. The steps came closer, stopped, a clang of metal and the rustle of cloth as something knelt beside him. A cool cloth on his enormous brow, a hand in his hand. As the pain subsided and Dickens could breathe normally again he looked up and through the tears saw the most beautiful mask he had ever seen. "Thank you," he whispered, "What is your name?"


"WHA WHA!" the beautiful mask said.


"And I am Charles Dickens," he said, "You can call me Boz."

Alvin also came to see the bed-ridden Dickens many times. He had no choice. It was his hut. Still, as the days shuffled themselves neatly into a week, and Charles was slowly beginning to regain mobility, Alvin found that he liked the man, and that in fact they had much in common. It was Alvin who told Dickens about the Staplehurst crash, about the smashing of Oliver and his other friends, and how Alvin stole their two Banthas before the respective families could claim them (something he was very proud of but that utterly perplexed Dickens).

"You say you stole their banthas?" Dickens queried.


"WHA WHA WHA!" said Alvin.


"Well, that really is something then. And you had not one of your own?"


"WHA WHA!" Alvin said emphatically.


"Ah. That is what I did not understand. You are of the lower caste, then, and must make do with what you can. In a position like yours I am surprised that morality is even a word in your vocabulary. Well, we all hope to be moral but," and here Alvin noticed a tear in Dickens' eye as he squeezed Alvin's shoulder, "the world often has other plans doesn't it, son?"


For the first time Alvin felt like someone understood him.


During the middle of the second week Dickens was able to leave the hut and walk around unassisted. He began to talk to the other Raiders in the village, to tell jokes to the women and teach the children games. In fact, he seemed to be everywhere at once. Though many had wanted to slay Dickens right after the crash and take whatever stuff he had for their own, all were now deeply impressed by his kindness, sincerity, and willingness to help. Alvin was proud. It was also during that second week that Alvin took it upon himself to introduce Dickens to his wife, Ellen Tersken.


"I believe we have met before, have we not, Ms. Tersken?" Dickens said with a sparkle in his eye.


"WHA WHA WHA!" Ellen coyly responded.


"Yes, I thought it was you, madam Ellen. Alvin, you have a most beautiful wife."


Alvin already knew that, but he was glad to have Dickens' approval. If the smile on his mask appeared just a little plastic it was only because he knew Ellen to be a bit of a stoic; never letting anyone get too close, not even Alvin. She did not have any good friends and she seemed content to keep it that way. Why, then, had she referred to Charles as Boz?


That evening Alvin and Charles rode Oliver's bantha out into the expanse of desert known as the Dune Sea. Stretching waves of sand, moving in the wind and smashing on the horizon against the cliffs of the Junland Wastes. Dickens took a long look at the golden-tan ocean and then out towards the two suns, one of which was setting neon-rose. Alvin had stopped the bantha and now stared at Dickens amazed. Even the double-blinding glare of two suns couldn't damage his eyes. Eventually the two dismounted and sat on the skeletal spine of a Krayt Dragon looming large on one of the taller dunes.


"This place reminds me of England," Dickens whispered reverently.


"WHA WHA WHA!"


"No, no, Alvin my friend. Not like that. England," Dickens said, "doesn't have sand. I mean that the waves remind me of water and the cliffs are like their counterparts in Dover. Also, I have noticed the way people here talk about moisture farms and the so-called 'human' cities."


"WHA WHA!" Alvin said bitterly.


"I thought as much. Of course you cannot enter the cities. I'll bet they chase you off like common beasts, don't they? Like a bunch of feral felines that they don't want hanging around the scrap heaps, no? Well! So much for 'humanity.'"


Alvin couldn't help but look down. "WHA WHA!" he said.


"Yes," said Dickens, now looking him straight in the eye.


"WHA WHA WHA WHA!" Alvin said, sawed-off blaster rifle waving above his head in excitement.


"Yes," said Dickens.


"WHA WHA!"


Yes, my friend," said Dickens. Some conversations can never be fully translated, but tears were in eyes and mask alike as they stood and embraced. "The suns do not shine upon this desolate planet to meet frowning eyes, depend upon it," Dickens said.


Alvin, a little embarrassed by the moment he and Dickens had shared and also forced, with his wife, to hunt to feed themselves, spent the next three days without so much as the sight of Dickens. He found when they came back laden with the bodies of womp-rats and two moisture farmers that, in fact, no one had seen Dickens. Others reported he had not left his hut (he had by now moved into one of his own) since he came back with Alvin from the Dune Sea. Concerned but still feeling awkward, Alvin asked his wife to look in on Dickens. After nearly three hours Ellen returned saying he was not well and could not see people. The trauma of the crash catching up to him at last.


Ellen spent much time with Dickens, devoting almost all her free moments to him while Alvin tended to their hut maintenance and cured the meat. Sand People started to talk. Why was Ellen there for hours? What was she holding when she came out? Even Alvin started to see curious habits. Ellen would start fires in their fire pit (in the middle of summer, no less) and he could swear he saw paper burning. He also thought he saw her squatting on the floor scribbling on what appeared to be stationary. Alvin was not the type of sand person who felt the need to bust into every situation yelling his mask off about everything under the suns and demand his wife not keep secrets. He realized that intimacy thrived on autonomy, and he just could not believe that anything sinister was happening between these two people he loved.

On the second day Dickens was in confinement, however, Alvin's curiosity got the better of him. As his wife left the fire to go back to Dickens' hut Alvin ran over, whipped out his portable hose, and pissed out the fire. There was a letter in it! All was burned but a small scrap, almost nothing really, but Alvin picked it up anyway. "The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me..." the letter read. After that small sentence there was a charred piece of ash and then, barely decipherable at the bottom, "Boz."

Alvin had no idea that the Staplehurst crash had had such an effect on his friend and felt bad for reading even the shred of letter he had been able to. He decided then and there that, however bizarre, he would not interfere with the close relationship that seemed to be budding between Charles and Ellen. If it would help Dickens heal, it was worth the small pain of tamping out his curiosity for the time being.

It wasn't until two weeks later that a truly strange event finally brought Dickens out of hiding, although by that time he had invited Alvin to his hut at least once a day to chat. Dickens made it clear, over the course of their conversations, that he was very troubled by the second-class status of the Tuskens.

"Don't you see?" Dickens had explained to Alvin one day, "The people here give you the name 'Raider' and with it the connotation that you have always been a barbarian people who are by nature a danger to society. They force you to believe horrible things about yourselves; that you are aggressive and cruel; that you eat humans and take their things; that you do not have a place with the other so-called 'civilized' races that push you into the unspeakable wasteland of sand where nothing will grow. But how do they expect you to live when you cannot grow food and are forced into a parasitical relationship with those around you? It is a vicious cycle where they force you to pillage what you can and then say you are to be feared because you pillage. If only they would give your children a proper foundation, schools and housing, a decent job, or the charity all people are owed. My meaning is that no man can expect his children to respect what he degrades."


"WHA WHA!"


"Don't ever say that, Alvin," Dickens said looking him straight in the mask, "you must never lose hope. There will come a time when we can prove them wrong. Also, please don't take my name in vain."


Alvin apologized for his oath.


Three days later a Tusken hunting party from Alvin's small village brought in three drunk smugglers who had wandered into the desert. They were, of course, dead by the time they made it to the encampment and two had already been gutted and skinned. As the third was being dressed for dinner, however, a data pad was found on his body. Dickens had asked the village to bring any written findings to him, that he might assess their value, so after every raid all data pads and other more conventional written documents were put in a sack that Ellen would take in. When Dickens read this particular data pad, he came bursting out of his hut half-dressed (although Alvin knew from personal experience that Dickens slept in his clothes) and ran over to Alvin's hut.


"WHA WHA WHA," Alvin asked.


"Our solution, that's what," Dickens responded with a gleam in his eye. "Can I borrow one of your banthas for a journey? I'm afraid I must go alone."


"WHA WHA WHA," Alvin responded, confusion written on his mask. Dickens was already almost out the door again, all excitement.


"Thank you, my friend."


The day Charles left was the hottest day the tribe had experienced in a great many years. There were places in the sand that were literally smoking from the heat, turning to speeder-class wafers of charred glass. Most in the village expressed concern, asking Dickens to please wait until this heat wave passed them by. They also reminded him that the water from the moisture farm they had taken over was rapidly evaporating and they would soon have to relocate. They didn't know where they would go, what they would do, much less how they would let Dickens know. He seemed to barely hear them. Mumbling his thanks for their kind thoughts and telling them to remember the orphans, he saddled Alvin's bantha. He took no water, telling the tribe that he did not want to inconvenience them and politely reminding them that he was Charles Dickens. Finally all preparations were done and it was time to leave. Everyone able gathered to see him off, many of whom were grunting and sobbing, their tears instantly dissolving in the heat. Alvin and Ellen were at the forefront of the mass.

Dickens embraced them both, whispering something in Ellen's ear that made her mask blush.

"WHA WHA," Alvin asked, his sadness overtaking him.


"I will return in forty days," Dickens responded, brushing his beard out of his mouth, "and not a day later. Goodbye until then, my friend."

With that Dickens rode out, and though Ellen still wrote letters constantly no one knew where they went and no one saw or heard word of Dickens.

During his sorrowful days Alvin often went out with hunting parties to take his mind off things and everyday he would go to the edge of the village and etch in the sand the number of days Dickens had been gone. They were always gone by morning. Eventually he lost count, choosing instead to etch random numbers, always wishing that the total of his etches would rise like the two suns to match the number that had hit inside his head with the force of the blaster bolt, shattering all other wishes and dreams and leaving only a longing for his friend that he had never known.


Another curious thing shook the village shortly after Dickens faded into the pulsating horizon: Ellen started to show that she was pregnant. Alvin, loving her more than ever, stuck his blaster rifle into the sand and made another mark.


The small tribe had just finished putting up their lean-tos at the commandeered moisture farm that was to be their new home for a while. All had gone inside, adjusting bedrolls, cooking, or making love, and so no one was there to see the bantha or the man who rode it. Dickens had returned.

Of course there was a big to-do when Sally the Widow went outside to take a leak and happened upon Dickens doing the same. He was as handsome as ever, calm now, with a look in his eye that bespoke great adventure and personal achievement. The whole village gathered, but it was Ellen and Alvin that he sought first, embracing them both the same as when he left. Ellen was composed. Alvin broke into tears and eventually had to have a bag put over his mask to keep him from hyperventilating.

"Hello, my dear friends. I come from Jabba's palace, and I come with great tidings. I'm sorry I had to leave in such haste, but I hope I can explain myself. The data pad the smuggler carried contained information about a lottery that Jabba was having to gain money for a new operation that it is best you know little about. Most of the capital from the sale of the tickets, of course, he kept for himself, but to the winner of the lottery he offered five million credits in one lump sum. I traveled to Jabba's palace and had an audience with him. After a series of charismatic efforts on my part he threw me into a pit with a giant rancor, wishing to kill me. I was able to impress him and all his underlings, however, when I looked the rancor straight in the eye and told it to stop. Of course it did. I then asked its name and then said, 'Micah, I command you to sleep.'


After this event I was able to get into Jabba's inner circle. I told him of the Staplehurst crash and how I was living among those called Sand People." Here Dickens stopped and looked at Alvin.


"You have been a good friend to me, Alvin, and my life is better for the meeting. I did this for you, and so to you will go the reward for my efforts. This," here Dickens took out a credit chip, "is for you."


Alvin looked down and saw the chip was for 4,800,000 credits. Shocked, he looked back at Dickens.


"WHA WHA WHA!"


"Please Alvin, I want you to have it. You raised an interesting point. Where would the money come from? The cities will have nothing to do with you and you certainly have no savings of your own. This is to build our dream. Right here. A school for your children; clothes; decent food; moisture farms. This is the investment I am making in your future. I hope you will use it to help the Tusken people everywhere to better their position and once again join the world of the living--where you belong."


Alvin's mask, already drenched, was leaking anew. He bowed his head, humbled.


"WHA WHA," he whispered.


"I knew you would," Dickens said, "and I'm glad. I will not be here to see it, but I know it will be a source of pride for your people."


Dickens did not even give the village time to release their shock and protest.


"Don't bother with your excitement or your pleas. I love you all but my time here is finished. I have used the remaining credits to buy myself a ship, and it awaits me."


Dickens started to turn and then looked back at Ellen.


"Your child will be the future of your people. Congratulations, Ellen, and please--don't forget to write."

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