Shearing

Brian D Hinson

It was the first shearing season without Lemuel. Mayumi calmed the alpaca Jesse with soothing whispers as Rojas, the ranch bot, held him firmly in their flexible, padded grips. Mayumi stroked his neck, “You’re a good boy, everything’s all right…” The alpaca’s neck twitched with anxiety as Rojas ran the clippers in perfect rows down his back, clumps of fawn hair gently falling to the tarp on the barn floor.

Shearings were done annually, and this was Jesse’s seventh. Rojas was gentle, as always, and Jesse had never been hurt, but he was afraid nevertheless. 

Jesse started his nervous humming. The kicking might come next, along with the screeching. 

“Do you have recordings of Lemuel shearing?” Mayumi asked the bot. In the past, skittish Jesse had found Lemuel’s voice more calming.

“I have everything.”

“How about playing something for Jesse before he gets worse?”

Jesse’s neck shuddered.

Lemuel’s recorded alto came from Rojas, clear as it was that day a year past. “That’s a good boy, a good boy, my Jesse…  you just keep doing what you’re doing, my boy. Without all this extra fur you’ll be cooler and happier, I promise…”

The audible voice of her dead husband struck emotions in Mayumi unfelt in months. She thought she had finished with the worst of the grieving, and maybe she had, but now a heavy tear formed without warning, along with a mass in her throat.

Lemuel. It was his idea to take over the alpaca farm when a freak avalanche buried the Mamani family in their sleep. Only a few of the herd were killed or injured. The fashionable taste for alpaca textiles, from hats and scarves to sweaters and jackets, was surging back in those days. The Andean winters were cold and the alpaca fur so downy soft and warm. Lemuel had secured loans and the ranch had been purchased.

Last year the medi-flight arrived too late after Lemuel had collapsed in the barn. It was a sudden cardiac incident. Rojas had helped her with the mummification of Lemuel’s body and entombment in the cylindrical stone funerary tower just beyond the southern edge of the pasture. Their son Arturo could not make it from his home in Lima for the funeral rites of drumming and singing. Afterward she had rebuffed his well-intended overtures to move in and take over Lemuel’s duties.

She had wanted to be alone, but it was hard. The weight of grief slowed the work. The specter of failure was distressing.

Now Jesse kicked and screeched as Mayumi openly wept, negating any calming effect of Lemuel’s voice. “Let him go!” she cried.

Rojas released the alpaca and he bolted from the barn and into the field, barely half shorn and lopsided.

“Give me a minute,” she said, wiping her cheek with a sleeve. Her watch pinged with a call from Arturo. As much as she wanted to talk with her son, the call was dismissed. She didn’t want him stressing over her voice cracking with emotion. The shearing had to be done. Buyers were waiting. Mayumi scanned the pen through tears that blurred the beasts awaiting their turn. “Bring Maria. She’s always easy.”

“All right,” replied Rojas, the insectile ranchbot with six legs/arms and configured like a centaur. They walked with the rear four legs to retrieve the white-coated Maria.

The red wine from Pisco and the crackling logs in the fireplace relaxed Mayumi after the six days of shearing. Rojas employed Lemuel’s voice for all the skittish alpacas to great effect.

Lemuel and Mayumi always celebrated the completion of the annual shearing with a feast. They cooked together for hours, devoured food until belts were loosened, drank and made love until they fell unconscious.

Her heart wasn’t up for making a feast for one. As she sat on the sofa, legs tucked beneath her, Rojas cooked skewered beef hearts, Mayumi’s favorite, the seared meat’s aroma filling the cabin.

When the clinking plates and silverware announced dinner’s arrival, she discovered she had no stomach for dining alone. “Rojas, come here.”

The bot strode in from the kitchen, their deft and delicate limbs making hardly a sound on the rugs and hardwood. Rojas’ head still gleamed from his post-shearing wash. “Yes?”

“I need to hear Lemuel’s voice. Play something from one of our conversations.”

“Something random?”

“No. I don’t want some disagreement, or some boring business talk. Play something fireside from last year’s celebration.”

Rojas paused. Then came the resurrected voices.

Lemuel: “Have you seen the moon tonight?”

Mayumi: “I see it all the time.”

Lemuel: “Tonight?”

Mayumi: sighs

Lemuel: What a lovely sliver of a crescent lighting the snowy peak of Yana Ucsha.”

(Mayumi’s reluctant footsteps)

Mayumi: “That is nice, I suppose.”

The recording played on, and Mayumi’s emotions boiled over into tears. Not at hearing her late husband’s voice, but at her own: she had been dismissive of Lemuel’s wonder at nature. But he had never stopped trying to share it.

“Should I stop?” asked Rojas.

Mayumi nodded and fled to the bedroom.

The newly fleeced herd looked thin, grazing as the sun slipped behind the western ridgeline. Mayumi watched them with pride from the barn. The wool was being boxed by Rojas for delivery to the cottage textile artisan Ima who made expensive scarves. The bulk always went to the Lana Industries textile mill which made most of the Andean high-end winter fashions. The remainder was to be auctioned to various fashion artisans like Ima.

It was an uphill trudge to the house, and Mayumi was determined to spend a few more minutes in the wooden chair with the battered seat pad before the final trek of a tiring day. She could have ridden the bot uphill when he had left to make dinner, but she vowed if that day ever came, she would retire.

“Mama?”

Mayumi jumped. “Oh! You scared me!”

“Sorry.” Her son, Arturo, laden with a heavy backpack, smiled tiredly as he retracted his hiking sticks.

“You didn’t even tell me you were coming! And it looks like you walked!”

“It’s a three-day hike from Huancayo. I rode the postal drone up to there. And I did say I was coming, even though you tried to keep me away.”

“No! I said I didn’t need any help.”

“Same thing, mama.”

“No.” Mayumi rose from her chair to give her son a hug. “This walking business is ridiculous. You could have ridden the postal drone on its trip here in three weeks.”

“That’s not as fun.” The embrace broke and Arturo unshouldered his pack and leaned it against the worn, wooden barn wall. “I thought I was hearing the ghost of Padrastro.”

“What?”

“It sounded like you were talking with Stepfather.”

“That was Rojas.”

“Didn’t sound like them.”

“Rojas is making Silpancho. And there’s cuñapé!”

Arturo flopped his damp, long hair back and smiled. “Perfecto.”

Rojas had also made coffee.

Comfortably seated before the fireplace, Mayumi sipped from her mug and said, “The first shearing without Lemuel was a success. A few hiccups and a day longer, but we managed.”

“That’s good, Mama. Looks to be good profits?”

“Yes, yes. Prices are up this year. And there were a few births since your last visit.”

“I love seeing the crias.”

Rojas entered. “Dinner will be another half hour, mi sol.” It was Lemuel’s voice.

Arturo flinched and stiffened, eyes wide at the bot.

“Switch back to your normal voice,” ordered Mayumi quickly.

Arturo relaxed again. “So, I have met the ghost of Padrastro, and it’s Rojas,” he said, eying his mother.

“Don’t be stupid. It’s a comfort to hear Lemuel.”

“I don’t think this is healthy,” Arturo shook his head. “‘Mi sol,’ just like Padrastro used to call you.”

“I’m sad sometimes. Hearing him makes me feel less lonely.”

“Oh, Mama. I know it’s hard. You’ll be less alone the next few days, okay? I’ll be here.”

“Only a few days?”

With Arturo there, Mayumi didn’t feel the need to have Rojas talk in Lemuel’s voice. After Arturo’s reaction she was embarrassed. But she made a small exception. When she turned off her bedside lamp at night, Rojas would lean his head into the bedroom and softly say in Lemuel’s alto, “Goodnight, mi sol. Sleep well.”

To which she replied, “Goodnight, mi alma.” Mayumi’s sleep came swiftly after that small ritual.

By the second day of her son’s visit, Arturo asked Mayumi, “You sure you don’t need help with the business?” They were on the deck, the grazing herd dotting the hillside. Rojas grilled meat for antichucho, and the aroma made Mayumi’s stomach rumble.

“No, no, no. Don’t trouble yourself thinking I’m old and lonely and can’t take care of myself or the herd. Rojas could probably do everything if I told them to.”

“They need a human touch, Mama. The alpacas respond to a beating heart.”

Mayumi smiled. “They do. And my heart beats. You have your obligations. Your job. You never had any interest in the ranch.”

“Maybe I’ve changed. It’s too hot in Lima, especially in summer. Too crowded.”

“That’s what you always told us you wanted!”

“I was young. Maybe a little stupid.”

“Not stupid. And you’re still young.”

“You don’t want your son as a partner?”

Mayumi paused and regarded her son. “You never wanted such a thing.”

“You’re all alone up here.”

“Don’t sacrifice your good life downhill for the farm life that would murder your soul. Look at me. I need to do this alone to prove it to myself, and to your padrastro. If you feel the same way in a year or so, we’ll talk. But I must do this alone. If you think I’m lonely you can call me every night.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I get busy.”

“I know, I know. I didn’t mean that to guilt you. You’re young. Do what young city people do. Quit worrying about me.”

On the morning of the Arturo’s fourth day, just after dawn, he was packing everything needed for the trek downhill. Mayumi gathered food from the kitchen, packaging leftover antichucho and beef tongue. 

When she returned with her bundle, Arturo said, “I don’t think that will fit.”

“I’ll make it fit.” As she fussed with his backpack a blue and gold medal clanged to the floor. Mayumi picked it up. Inscribed: 100 DAYS. “What’s this?”

Arturo looked startled, then grinned. “An award from work. Just put it back in any pocket. It’s good luck.”

Mayumi made sure the food package was safely zipped within before finding a pocket for the medal. “I’m very proud of you.”

They hugged for a long moment. After the goodbyes and promises of more phone calls, Mayumi watched Arturo as he headed down the trail until the trees absorbed him.

Rojas was in the barn readying the vaccines. They had a goal of hitting 100 of the herd before sunset. Mayumi donned her work pants and sunhat and made her way down to the barn, the sadness of Arturo’s departure following her.

Several jet injectors were arrayed on a scarred wooden table. Rojas finished filling the last one as she arrived. In groups of five and six they herded them into the barn for their shots. Each was administered to the hairless skin on the inside of their hind legs. The first two groups were easy. In the third round was the skittish Jesse.

“Have him come to you with Lemuel’s voice,” said Mayumi.

Rojas paused. “That voice is not in my memory.”

“What are you talking about? You just did it last night.” Mayumi’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Play a recording from when Lemuel was alive.”

Rojas paused. “I’m sorry, but—”

“What’s wrong with you? Do you suddenly not remember Lemuel?” Mayumi’s heart pounded. Lemuel’s voice had brought her so much comfort the past month.

“Of course.”

“Well, play his voice!”

“There’s nothing available becau—”

Mayumi slapped both hands hard down on the thick wooden tabletop, making the injectors jump. “What happened?”

“Arturo made adjustments early this morning.”

Rage gave Mayumi volume. “He erased all of your memories of Lemuel? Eighteen years?”

“Files were loaded onto a single array, which he had removed. The backups were deleted. This was done this morning, before dawn.”

“Why? Did he say why?”

“Arturo told me it was for the benefit of your mental health. He assured me that the recordings were used in a manner psychological damaging to—”

“Why didn’t you stop him?”

“His access codes were correct.”

Mayumi stalked about the barn pacing hard furious steps. “How could he think that?” she shouted for the release, not the answer. She stopped her pacing. Surely by now he was out of range of the ranch antenna, and would not be on network reception until he reached Huancayo. The dedicated comsat for the Huaytapallana Range had been down for years. Mayumi sat heavily on a chair. “All right. Get your saddle, I’ll get together some provisions and Lemuel’s old tent. We’re going after him.”

A workbot was engineered to be multi-task capable. Rojas was a customized ranchbot with certain skills specific for an alpaca ranch: shearing, injections, birth assistance, health monitoring.

This model could also transport heavy loads and function as a walking vehicle. Mayumi’s wheeled rover was of little use along the steeper and narrower stretches of the hiking trail to Huancayo. The mountain road wound a different route and was currently washed away in two places from heavy spring rains. Fitted with a saddle and a load basket for food and camping equipment, Rojas also packed an order for Ima who lived along the trail.

Atop Rojas, Mayumi set off after her son knowing they would likely not catch up before sundown, thus the extra preparations. Rojas was not a swift vehicle, but they were nimbler on the trail than Mayumi’s aged legs.

Through the pasture between grazing alpacas, they ambled on Rojas’ four legs, their two forelimbs retracted. Clouds peppered the sky in white puffs; peaks punctured the blue with their sharp icy fingers.

Two hours of walking led to a stone and wood cabin with a steep slate roof checkered with solar tiles. Smoke breezed from the chimney in the slight wind.

Mayumi dismounted Rojas as Ima emerged from her humble domicile, a bowler hat perched on her head and concern crossing her weathered face. “Mayumi! This is unexpected. Your son was just by here four hours ago. He was concerned about you.”

The two women hugged. “What did he say?” asked Mayumi.

“He looked so worried. He said the loneliness was getting to you up there.”

“He’s overreacting.”

“Maybe. Did you want some tea?”

Rojas removed the packages of fiber from his equipment store, one labeled “WHITE” and the other “FAWN.”

“Arturo dropped the fawn package here on his way through!” said Ima. “And I need to talk to you about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“The fiber didn’t feel right so I had my bot test it. It’s grade three.”

“Nonsense! We don’t even have any alpacas with grade three wool. And I know you only order royal baby grade.”

“Feel for yourself.” Ima had Mayumi follow her inside to the loom chamber, where the package of alpaca wool lay open in the afternoon light from the narrow window.

Mayumi reached in for a few fibers and lightly kneaded them between her fingers. She gasped. “I’m so sorry! I will refund you as soon as I get back home. I promise.”

“Just send me the right wool and everything is fine.”

“There’s a package with Rojas. But now I have to inspect it! Inspect everything! Every fawn package and every fawn animal!” Mayumi took a breath to calm her anger. “Did Arturo say anything else?”

Ima frowned. “Is something the matter?”

Mayumi hesitated. “He thinks I’m going crazy.”

“Why would he think that? Look at you! You got the shearing all done, yes? You’re fine.” Ima looked Rojas up and down, noting the bundles perched behind the saddle. “Going on a long trip?”

“I have to catch up to Arturo.”

Skepticism narrowed Ima’s eyes. “Now you’re acting crazy! He’ll be on the network in Huancayo! Two days! Just talk to him.”

“He has something I need.”

“What?”

“He—” Mayumi faltered. “He took my pills by mistake,” she lied.

Ima’s expression didn’t change. Either she saw through the lie or she was suspicious about this being a true emergency. “Are you going to be all right? Looks like you plan to camp.”

Mayumi settled back in the saddle atop Rojas and they rose, legs extending. She smiled, making an effort at lightening the mood. “I’m not too old and I’m not too crazy.” 

“I’m too old to stop you,” replied Ima, shaking her head. “Do what you like. I’m in your will, yes?”

The sun set and with the diminishing light came a chill. Mayumi knew the trail, but it had been seven years since she traveled it on foot with Lemuel, him pointing out every little thing that caught his eye. He would interrupt her never-ending musings about the ranch work with anecdotes on the scarlet begonia veitchii flowers or the soft orange petals of the Cantua buxifolia. He had lived a life of constant wonderment as she lived thinking of work and little else.

She had regrets.

Mayumi now had the drive to change. Too late for Lemuel to notice and appreciate it, but she promised herself she would change.

The gloom grew and all color was drained from the surrounding foliage. After night fell and the half-moon rose above the peaks, Rojas’ lights speared the darkness.

The trees parted for Occlo’s stone ranch house with the sharp, steep roof that had stood for generations.

“Rojas, radio Occlo a hello.”

“Mayumi?” came Occlo’s canyon-deep voice from the radio.

“It’s me and Rojas. Is Arturo here?”

“No. He passed through as the sun was low.”

Mayumi groaned. “Do you mind if I camp in your pasture?”

The chuckle was like rocks tumbling together. “Come inside, Mayumi. It’s just me tonight. The family is at the coast. The company would be welcome.”

Occlo had a quiet fire in the fireplace of large gray stones fit and towered without mortar. The light-duty humanoid house bot carried her pack of supplies to a spare bedroom. After washing the trail from her face and neck she returned to the living area. Occlo, a monolith of a man, hunched over on the sofa. He looked bothered, and this worried Mayumi. She feared putting him out.

“Thank you for letting me in,” Mayumi said as she sat on a thick wooden chair built for Occlo’s bulk.

“Of course.” To the house bot Occlo ordered, “Warm tonight’s leftovers for Mayumi.”

“Please, no, I don’t mean to be any trouble.”

“I need you to make sense of these things,” Occlo said, ignoring Mayumi’s polite refusal. “Your son was by a few days ago on his way up to you and a package of medium fawn went missing. This has been troubling me.”

Mayumi cursed quietly. This was the source of the grade three fiber that Ima received, from Occlo’s shearing. This news saved her a lot of work but distressed her more. “I’m sorry. I’ll reimburse you.”

“It’s not the money. What troubles him?”

Mayumi sighed heavily, her emotions a stew of confusion and anger over Arturo. “I don’t know. He’s not acting like himself. And he thinks I’m crazy. Clinical crazy.”

“He mentioned that he needed to check on you, running that ranch alone.”

She did her resolute best to wipe the anger from her face. Mayumi took in a breath, then pressed ahead, voice cracking. “I think my son is sabotaging me.” Mayumi detailed Arturo’s theft of Lemuel’s voice from Rojas, his hints to Ima about her going mad, and now the repackaging of the fleece to make her look like a crook atop all else. At the end she broke down to embarrassed tears.

Occlo stayed on the sofa, his large hands slowly wrestling in a nervous pattern. After a moment, he stood and left the room.

Mayumi’s tears were brief. She couldn’t stay here. She was making things uncomfortable for Occlo. There was no choice but to camp out of sight. She rose as Occlo came from the kitchen carrying two clay mugs, the aroma of chamomile tea preceding him. He offered her one. It would be rude to not accept. She smiled her thanks and sat back down.

Occlo broke the small silence. “What do you think he’ll do next? And what are your plans?”

“He’s heading back down to Lima. I don’t know. I plan to get to him before he catches the postal drone at Huancayo.”

“If you catch him, what will you say?”

“I don’t know.”

Huancayo was the only sizeable town situated between Mayumi’s cabin and the coastal city of Lima. The postal drone’s listed arrival time was late morning. To make it on time she rose early and Rojas had everything packed and ready two hours before the dawn.

A series of switchbacks wound their way to Huancayo as the sun rose. The city was surrounded by terraced farms with verdant rows of quinoa, beans, and maize set between the drab sheer cliffs to the east. It was once a city of several hundred thousand, but times change and populations shift, and Huancayo was now much smaller than it once was. Mayumi knew she was in range to contact Arturo, but thought better of it. He might hide if he knew she were coming. She intended to surprise and corner him at the drone dock.

“Is your net data link available now?” she asked Rojas.

“Yes.”

“Download anything useful you find on Arturo.”

Moments later they made it to the main square that was just waking up, merchants’ bots rolling carts of fruits, vegetables, and goods to their rented stalls in the shadow of the centuries-old cathedral.

Mayumi, still astride Rojas, said, “Keep an eye out for Arturo. We have to spot him before he sees us.”

“I have detected his phone’s identifier.”

She hadn’t thought of that. “Where is he?”

“Two blocks over. The map says it’s a café.”

Above the bustle of the square came the buzz of the postal drone. Its four rotors cut the thin air as it slowed for touchdown on the elevated platform at the downhill side of town.

“Keep an eye on Arturo’s position. Let’s stay at least a block away from him.”

Rojas maneuvered around the other bots and merchants and working families to reach one of the cross streets to make their way to the landing zone. “Arturo has left the café.”

“We’re ahead of him, then.”

The buzz of the drone rotors cut.

A wide ramp of cracked concrete led up to the elevated landing platform. Mayumi stopped her bot and disembarked. “Hide yourself until he passes through, then be ready to come when I need you.”

Rojas didn’t reply as they walked away.

The ramp was thick with bots and people headed up. At the platform she made her way to the western railing to watch packages roll off the drone as she kept a close eye on the ramp. A text from Rojas: “He comes up the ramp now.”

She still wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She would confront him and then what? It all depended on Arturo’s response.

There he was, behind a humanoid bot holding a smiling little girl’s hand. She spotted his huge backpack before his face.

He didn’t notice his mother and he almost walked right by her to the passengers’ waiting area, no more than a painted yellow square faded by the sun and thousands of footsteps.

Mayumi grabbed his arm.

Arturo stopped. “Mama?” His startled expression was not happy.

“Arturo. Give me back Rojas’ memory array.”

“Mama, listen to me, it’s not good—”

“Don’t you tell me what’s good or not! You stole from Occlo! You made me look like a crook to Ima!”

People and bots alike gave the two space. Some stared. Arturo looked about. “You’re causing a scene.”

“I had to ride Rojas all the way down here to get you. You stole from me! From Occlo! Why? Tell me!”

“You have things all wrong. Are you feeling all right?”

Mayumi slapped him with enough force to knock him off balance with his heavy pack, but he didn’t fall. He rubbed his stinging cheek and regarded her with perfectly round eyes.

Mayumi’s watch chirped with text from Rojas: “Arturo lost his job for embezzlement three months ago. No charges filed. He spent four weeks in an addiction rehab center. Published debts have accrued.” The news stunned her. That medal that had fallen from his pack—it was from rehab, not work.

She looked back up to see Arturo had his phone out. “Who are you calling?”

“I’m calling your doctor. You’re not well.”

She snatched the phone and stalked away, toward the ramp, pinging Rojas, people and bots parting.

“Mama! What are you doing?” He followed his mother.

She continued down the ramp.

“Mama!”

Mayumi strode harder. She spied Rojas coming up.

“My watch is broke,” pleaded Arturo. “I need that!”

Over the heads of the people between them, Mayumi tossed the phone to Rojas, who caught it deftly. “Scan all his conversations,” she ordered the bot.

“No! Mama, that’s private!”

She turned and faced her son with a glare that could wither a tree. “What’s so private? What have you been up to?”

“Rojas!” Arturo shouted. “Give me back my phone! I order you!”

“He only listens to me now,” said Mayumi. 

Arturo cursed.

Mayumi held out her hand. “The array, Arturo.”

“Okay, okay.” He wrestled off his backpack and started digging, throwing balled-up clothes to the ramp. “Tell him to stop going through my phone.”

“Once I have that array plugged in.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Don’t you ever speak to me of ‘fair’ again. Ever.”

Arturo paused to look at Mayumi, then went back to the backpack, searching.

“You didn’t tell me about anything,” said Mayumi, her voice sad. “About anything going on in your life.”

“I have it!” Arturo announced, holding up the aligned square wafers on a six-centimeter rod. “Here.”

She took the array and handed it to Rojas. “Install immediately.”

“My phone. Please.” Arturo’s eyes showed fear. Mayumi knew that expression well.

“Are you done with the phone?” she asked Rojas.

“Yes,” replied the bot.

“Wait,” Mayumi said to Arturo. “Wait until I hear Lemuel again.”

Arturo crossed his arms, his face all hard angles and nerves.

Rojas opened up a panel below the links to their forelimbs and re-installed the memory array, clicking it into place.

“Summarize in Lemuel’s voice,” ordered Mayumi.

Lemuel’s alto was welcome to Mayumi, but the news was not: “Arturo was trying to have you declared insane so he could take over the ranch, him being the sole heir, if you were not cooperative in a proposed partnership.”

“Mama, no,” Arturo placed his hands together in supplication. “Rojas has it all wrong, I swear.”

Lemuel’s voice continued. “There have been communications between Arturo and a lawyer, his recent girlfriend Bernita, and the sales contact at Lana Industries. The latter was offered cut rates on product for any assistance. They declined.”

Shock opened Mayumi’s mouth, but no sound came. She shook, felt faint.

“Mama, this…” Arturo trailed off.

“What, Arturo?” Mayumi’s voice was a whisper, almost lost in the crowd coming up and down the ramp.

“You always took his side,” Arturo spat. “I didn’t leave because I hated the ranch. I hated Padrastro. And he hated me.”

“He did not.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I got to resent you, too. I let it eat at me. I shouldn’t have, but I did.”

Mayumi found her voice again, but it was weak. “Lemuel was a good father to you.”

“You never believed me. You were right there and you never believed me. You never will. That’s why I don’t call. Why I don’t bother to share life’s little trials. I just can’t talk to you.” The sound of the drone’s rotors spinning up split the air with their chop that resolved into a buzz. Prop wash came down the ramp, blowing everyone’s hair. “You were willfully blind to Padrastro’s abuse.”

“Don’t you defile the memory of your father!” Mayumi’s voice found volume with rage.

“He was never a father to me.”

Mayumi stopped herself from slapping him again. She shook her head, “Ungrateful.”

“I’m leaving, Mama. I’m sorry for what I did. But you can be all alone now. It’s what you want anyway.”

Mayumi watched him gather up his backpack, turn, and carry it like a duffle up the ramp. His slow trudge carried more than the heavy backpack. He disappeared in the throng on the deck.

She climbed aboard Rojas and strapped herself in, tears blurring her sight but not dripping from her eyes, not yet. “It’s been a bad stretch, Rojas, this last year. I have lost a husband and a son.” She patted their metal flank, warm from the sun. “Let’s go home.”

The vaccinations were done. The sun had slipped below the ridgeline and Mayumi sat on the sofa, legs tucked beneath her, studying the red petals of the begonia veitchii flower on her palette. She flipped the page to find the rich coral hue of the Cantua buxifolia. She swirled a glass of wine absentmindedly, remembering Lemuel’s smile as he stroked the petals of these down by Ima’s place.

With two swallows she finished off the glass of wine and looked to the paltry remains in the bottle. She had yet to drain an entire bottle in one night. Best not to start any bad habits. “Lemuel?”

Rojas entered from the kitchen. They were used to Mayumi calling them by her late husband’s name, and had adjusted their behavior to accommodate her desires. “Yes, mi sol?”

“Find an argument between you and Arturo and play it. Something from Arturo’s teens. Something with yelling, if there is such a thing.”

“Un momento, mi sol.” As Rojas collated, the only sound in the cabin was the gentle snapping of the fire. “Between Arturo’s age of thirteen and eighteen, I have discovered 167 separate instances of exchanges between Arturo and Lemuel elevated to ninety decibels and above.”

Mayumi sat her glass down on the table harder than intended. The foot cracked to the stem. “That’s impossible.”

“Would you like me to play the first one? It was Arturo’s thirteenth birthday.”

“No.” Mayumi’s heart thrummed. “This is rubbish. Lemuel was a gentle soul who appreciated beauty. How could all these arguments take place and I was never there? Or in earshot?”

“For thirty-six percent of the arguments I collected, you were either within hearing range or present for some portion of the altercation.”

“No!” Mayumi poured the rest of the wine into her glass and downed it quickly. “Lemuel, I need you to delete those files. Every argument.”

“Are you certain?”

“Mi alma, I have never been more certain of anything in my life. Delete them. Permanently.”

After a small pause, Rojas said, “They’re all gone.”

“Good.” Mayumi relaxed and flipped to the next flower in her palette. “Lemuel, you’re a saint. My saint. You’re my soul.”

“I love you, mi sol.”

The author abandoned all semblance of a career in 1999 and visited 40-some countries in the backpacker fashion. He recently slowed life even further to settle in rural New Mexico, USA with his wife Kathleen Eickholt and two pitbulls to gaze at sunsets and write science fiction.

Art: James Abell

Editor’s note

This story is published online in Shoreline of Infinity 31-supplemental. You can order a copy of Shoreline of Infinity 31 in the Shoreline Shop. Available in paperback and digital formats.

—Noel Chidwick

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