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A Host of Sparrows

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"Hey'dho!" a stranger said, lifting his hand up to me. I set my empty beer down on the porch and lifted a hand back. "Hey! Looking to trade? They're all up in the square."

He grinned back at me and shook his head. "I'm looking for Sherrea -- I need to talk to her about zebras."

"Ah," I said, resolving not to ask. "She'll be over in the square, too, setting up for the whoop tonight."

Frances stuck her head out of the kitchen as the stranger turned away. "Sparrow, did I hear him say zebras?"

"I didn't ask," I told her, and took the beer she held out to me.

I was swearing at the generator in the shed the next day when Sherrea came to find me.

"I thought Theo was going to help you before he went back to the Underbridge," she said to my feet. "Oh, he was," I said, giving up on the pulley nut and using my wrench as a hammer, "but he was so hung over he couldn't swear right, so I sent him away before he spoiled my fun."

"Oh, hell, I wanted to talk to the both of you."

I planted my boots in the cold muck under the generator and slid out to face her. "Sure," I said. "I can't do a thing with this until LeRoy brings me a new belt, or a ten foot lever and an immovable fulcrum to get this nut off."

"If you can clean yourself up enough to sit on real furniture, I'll get some tea and scones from Mags," Sher offered, reaching a hand out to help me up.

I grinned and shook my hair out like a dog. "You think oil stains don't improve the furniture?"

"Mags put her foot down after Theo left spare parts on the cushions," Sher told me. "If I find Theo, I'll send him over with some towels." She looked at me again. "And a change of clothes."

I took a deep breath as I pulled my wet shirt off and approached the pump behind the machine shop. Most people in town knew what kind of animal I was, and if they didn't they wouldn't learn from seeing me with my head under the tap. It was still hard to have eyes on my skin, even harder than grabbing Sher's hand or Frances's shoulder.

I'd been scrubbing my arms and my face under the cold water from the tap for five minutes when I heard Theo clear his throat behind me. I wondered if the sight of my bare back was as uncomfortable for him as the sight of his was for me.

"Hey," I said, not looking up.

"I brought you a towel."

"Thanks." I reached behind myself blindly and felt it thud into my hand. Would Theo have thrown it at Sherrea, I wondered? Or was it just me that he was so careful with? But I couldn't ask, and I couldn't tell from watching him.

I scrubbed my hair and face dry with my back to Theo. As I stood up, I had a single moment to decide what the new me, the me trying to be comfortable in the skin I had, would do with the towel. Over the shoulders? Wrapped around my chest? Tied around my hair? But none of them were good options, and I didn't know me well enough. I was still holding it in one hand when I turned to face Theo.

He wasn't looking, anyway.

Sherrea wouldn't quite look at me, either, when I walked up to Mags's porch with the towel over my shoulders. I draped it over the chair and stood bare-chested for a moment, for as long as I could bear, before I dragged a clean shirt over my head.

I took the tea Sher offered me, drawing breath through the minty steam and hiding my face behind the cup.

When I looked up again, Theo was already eating. "So, why did you call us here today?" he asked.

"Did you see Samuel at the whoop last night? He's from the Hoodoo Engineers up north, where we drove the musk oxen. He says they've got a group -- a flock -- what in hell is a group of zebras called?"

"A zeal," I said, the word new on my tongue, and I knew it for a borrowed memory. It was mine, now that I had said it.

"Bullshit," Theo said through a mouthful of scone. "It's got to be a herd."

"A zeal," I said again, and now it was doubly mine. "A zeal of zebras."

"They've been taking care of the zebras, but they're running out of the right food for them, and besides, they don't like the winters. So they're planning a zebra-drive, from Toronto to us. A whole zeal of zebras," Sher grinned at me. "We don't have the right weather for them, but we're as far as they can go. Samuel found a group out by San Simeon who'll take them in, if we can get them there."

"So, okay, that's great, save the zebras, but I don't know anything about zebras. Why talk to us before all the rest of the Engineers?" Theo asked.

Sher smiled at me and refilled my tea. "I thought you might want to help. Campfires, s'mores, singing git along, little zebra...."

"Because it needs doing?" I asked.

"And because the Hoodoo Engineers out at San Simeon have a couple of perfectly good amps that they don't need anymore."

"You're shitting me," I said. "They'll just give them to us?"

"They say they're sick of trying to repair their generator, and they'd rather the amps go to somebody who'll love to use them. And," Sher grinned triumphantly, "they said that anybody here who wants to spend the time at it is welcome to go through the old film archives up at the castle."

Theo gasped theatrically and fell backwards clutching at his heart. "Shit, Sparrow, shit, it's coming right into your hands with a copy of Casablanca loaded. Next time ask for a first gen copy of Easy Rider for me."

I flicked my towel at him. "Think Robby can spare us for a couple months?"

He cracked one eye open and grinned. "I think if we come home with some new tape, Robby could spare us for a year."

Theo and I stayed for dinner at Sherrea's place that night. Frances scowled at me as she sat down at the table. "You're planning a cross-country zebra drive and you didn't ask me? I love a road trip."

"Weren't you planning to do nothing but hang around and make trouble?" Theo asked her.

"Oh, but this is one of the amusements I promised myself," Frances told him. "I thought if I spent enough time with you I'd find something just this crazy. I want to ride a zebra off into the sunset."

"Chango, you can't ride a zebra!" I protested.

"They used to ride them in the circus, plumes in their manes and jewels on the bridles." Frances's eyes were vague and distant, seeing memories from some other time and some other body. "A zebra's basically an ass; if they've been trained for it, they'll let themselves be saddled up."

I grabbed a fork from the table and tapped her shoulders with it. "For your sins of knowledge, I name you Sir Frances of the Zebra," I said, "henceforth in charge of the zeal of zebra drive."

"I'll pack more whiskey than flour," Frances warned us.

"I like whiskey better," Theo said.

I started to doubt the wisdom of the zebra drive over the next week, as I swore over hydro generators and wired phone plugs in the Deeps; I wanted to go, to find new film for the Underbridge, but I'd promised myself that Theo and I would finish the phone system. Even coming out for a few days to have drinks with Kris and Josh at a whoop seemed selfish, like I might be taking energy out of the system.

I think Sher could tell what I was thinking, because she started to talk to me about hoodoo again. About love, and about bringing joy to myself and everyone else; about work that needed doing, even if it was looking into the past.

"I wanted to stop being a graverobber," I told her. "I wanted the phone system to be my hoodoo work, the work I did with my own two hands."

"The Underbridge isn't?" she asked. "I never would have guessed from the way you swore at the sound board last night."

I grinned; I couldn't help it. Last night had been a perfect dance with Theo, neither of us able to tell who was leading. Until the sound board crashed in the middle of the French vaudeville bossa nova he was playing, and the crazy-ass fake home movie I had matched it with played on alone for five minutes as we struggled to fix it.

"You're not stuck in the past," Sherrea told me. "You're making something new out of its bones. If that's not hoodoo work, I've been doing my job wrong for years."

"Okay," I said, but I didn't entirely believe it.

Samuel came back a month later, trailed by five friends and fifty zebras. Theo and I got to town in time to see them arriving at the square, milling around in confusion.

The zebras were bigger than I'd expected; their shoulders higher than mine, their backs broad and strong. I offered a hand to one, and he reached down and blew out of his wet nose against my palm. He was a strange animal to be staring at, out of place, but so was I.

Frances appeared at my side; she was always trying to be underfoot. "We're leaving tomorrow," she said. "Samuel's got the lead males broken for riding, so we won't have much trouble telling them where to go."

"I don't know how to ride," I said.

She looked at me with an expression I couldn't place. I was getting better at reading Frances, her black moods that covered an amusement at the world and her black moods that covered bitterness, but her face was strange to me in that moment. "It's easier than you think," she said. "You can direct the horse where you want it to go, but you can't make it like you."

Theo came up behind us and threw his arm around Frances's shoulders, pulling her close. "Frances! Mi hermana! Tell me you kept your promise about whiskey and flour."

"I might've given in on that point at Josh's urging. But I promise that we'll have enough for campfire songs that we'll all want to forget the next morning." She laughed, grabbing him around the waist. "Cannabis, of course, is your problem."

"Hw many of us are going?" I asked Frances.

"We don't need many," she told us. "Zebras will follow the leader of their herd, and he's trained for riding. If one of us points him, the rest should follow. It's going to be the four of us, three on zebra-back and one in a truck to carry food and water and tents."

Theo sighed, and rocked back on his heels. "I always wanted to have a road trip."

"You always wanted to be in Easy Rider," I said.

"Well, if I can't have a motorcycle, a zebra will do," he said.

Riding out with the three people I knew best in the world was easier and harder than working in the Deeps. They knew who and what I was, and I could be myself with them, if I knew who I was. I was still pretending.

We road days and camped nights around fires that Frances built, tethered trains of zebras huffing and lowing in the dark around us. She had remembered whiskey, plenty of the good pre-Bang stuff, and we got shit-faced and told each other stories. Theo and I worked our partnership here, too, taking dead stories and making them live again, bouncing them off each other -- "and then, she turns around, and he wasn't dead after all, he's standing behind her with a knife," and "a lady walked into his office, legs up to here and a cigarette holder in her hand" and "do you feel lucky, punk?" And we made up scenes and pretended they had always been there, tried to pass off an alternate ending of Laurence of Arabia and turned Citizen Kane into a shaggy-dog story that took several nights to tell. We danced, and threw the story back and forth, until we couldn't tell who was leading, whose idea it was to make Godfather a comedy and Airplane! a revenge tragedy.

Frances packed tents, but we never slept in them; it was too hot already, even though it was barely spring, and so we rolled ourselves up in sheets and slept in this little space we'd made in the middle of nowhere.

I always woke up before they did; the powers who made me made sure I would never get hung over. I would wake up and put water on to boil, for hot cereal for me and hot tea for Sher and Frances. I bathed quickly in the streams we camped beside; it was dangerous for me to be seen, here, away from the Engineers. I wrapped the towel around my waist, and walked back to the fire, feeling Theo and Sherrea's eyes skitter past me while I drank my tea. Frances always looked at me, and knew who she was looking at, but she'd ridden me and knew my reactions the way I knew my zebra's.

We rode for weeks; Theo and I ran out of stories, and made Sherrea tell us things we didn't know about the town, and the people in it. She told us how LeRoy got that scar on his foot, from dropping a generator when he guessed wrong about its weight, and how Mags fell out of a tree when she was just a kid, and was so startled she laughed instead of crying.

I didn't have that kind of story, that kind of map connecting me to me; maybe that's why I'd always felt uncertain of my body, uncomfortable below my skin. All I had from before I woke up in Louisiana was memory, fully-formed and disconnected the clean body I walked North in. I didn't have scars on my hands from learning to weld, or a heeled fracture in my foot from dropping a generator on myself the first time I underestimated its weight. I knew how much it weighed, and how to hold it, the first time I ever touched one.

But Sherrea told me I owned my body, I thought, and tried to look at it like that, like a spanner or a wrench. A tool I used every day.

"Hey, Sparrow, are you okay?" Theo asked me, and I looked up from my hands.

"I was thinking about the way I wear my skin," I told them, a little buzzed and more open than I'd been before. "Like a new pair of jeans, and I don't know where the creases are yet."

"Oh, Sparrow, of course you do," Frances said, and took my hand in hers, pointing at a tiny ridge on the back of my wrist. "That's where Josh and I sewed you back up, after you decided that self-sacrifice was the new black."

"I know where you got these calluses," Theo said, holding my other hand, "because I've got them, too, from fixing wiring."

And Sherrea walked across the fire to me, her face solemn and her eyes bright, her skirt fluttering out behind her. "And this," she said, one hand on my cheek and her lips on my forehead, "is where I kissed you, just now, and you felt it."

And then she stopped looking solemn and collapsed cross-legged in front of me. "You're not wearing your body, you silly ass, you are your body. This is you." And she pulled me down into a hug.

I did feel it.

I knew I was dreaming, but that didn't mean it didn't hurt. Tape flickered past, 16 mm, peeling and cracked and brittle. I could see Tom Worecski out of the corner of my eye, way down on the left, his grin and his outstretched hands flickering in and out with the film; and off on the right, nothing but darkness and the blank tape I could never find. I couldn't look at either, and so I had to look in front of me, at my reflection staring back out of the film, my naked body in front of me in flashes of light and absence. I stared at my face like I'd stared at it in another dream, months ago; I didn't recognize myself. I couldn't find me in the mirror, and so I stared at the flashes of me, willing the bones to become familiar, and feeling them moving under my skin -- Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup. I felt my cheekbones grinding down, and it hurt, bone against bone inside me, and it was too much.

And I knew Frances suddenly beside me, her hand reaching out for mine; I didn't take it. Frances is dark hair, dark eyes, dark wit, thin bones, and an angular smile. I knew her beside me, even out of the corner of my eye. I knew her reflection in the tape, too: broad-shouldered, light hair, wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and the same smile. Frances.

When I woke up, I was shaky, wobbling on my feet like a new colt. When I washed my face, I didn't quite recognize myself in the still water.

Theo and Sherrea and Frances looked at me oddly over breakfast; I wasn't sure if it was my still-trembling hands, or if I looked different to them, too.

"I was supposed to be a customizable human being," I told Frances when I was riding beside her later. "I was wondering if it worked through dreaming -- if a horseman could dream a cheval more her."

"Oh, it sounds good, but it wouldn't have worked," Frances told me. "Not for me, anyway, and I don't think it would've worked for any of us. I couldn't do that kind of identity magic."

We rode in silence for a while, and then she laughed, the breezy laugh that she used to disguise a secret bitterness at the past. "Just another one of the U S of A's bad ideas. We were such boogeymen, even then," she said. "So they designed you to make our troops not fear us, and never realized it wouldn't work."

"Why not?" I asked, past being stung by Frances's moods.

"I was a man twenty years ago," she told me. "That was a great body. Never got drunk, though, he must've -- I must've had some weird chemical thing going on." She grinned at me, and circled her fingers around one narrow wrist. "I like this one, too. I've got a good stomach for trouble."

"I don't -- "

She reached out and wrapped her same hand around my wrist. "Sparrow. If I rode you, and I looked in the mirror, I'd see you. Me."

"Don't you remember what you looked like the first time?" I asked, thinking of the broad-shouldered woman I had seen in Frances's reflection. "What you felt like?"

"No," she said. "I'm different every time," and she urged her zebra faster, leaving me staring after her.

As we crested brown and dusty hills we saw something blue and sparkling in the distance: ocean stretched out for miles, a landscape made out of still blue water and still blue sky.

Theo rode up beside me and threw his arm over my shoulder, laughing, "Sparrow, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

"Oh, sure, you're adapting this so I have to be the dog?"

"Yeah, and I have to be Dorothy," he agreed. "We just switched to color film, back there, and now there's a whole world ahead of us. I call dibs on the lollipops."

"With our luck, we're going to get squashed by a falling house, instead." I turned to look at him, and his face was right beside mine; I could smell his sweat and see the dust gathering on his skin. It made my cheeks itch in sympathy, and I reached up to brush it off.

"Hey," he said, surprised at my hand on his face. "You don't have to do that."

"Yeah, I do, you're making me itch all the way over here."

"But you don't like to touch other people," he frowned.

"I'm learning," I said. "First a hand-clasp, later the world."

"Now you're just trying to confuse me!" he protested, pulling back to look at me.

"No," I said. "I've figured out where I am. This is me, in my skin." I reached out and put a hand on his naked back, felt him hot and sweaty, his muscles jumping and twitching, his skin moving with his pulse. "And this is you, in yours."