Gib stared at the swirls of pink and orange tinged with gold against a pale blue background in amazement. He sank his feet deeper into the soft and slightly moist stuff he was standing on. His uncut mop of hair flew in the air, each strand playing ‘tangles’ with the others. The strong, unruly body of water in front of him thrashed and crashed in tune to a vaguely familiar and a stirring rhythm. Gib took a timid step forward to reach for the rolling water. His feet hit a jagged edge of something buried beneath the soft stuff he loved. Gib winced in pain, cried out and aimlessly hit at the beeping sound coming from his left.
‘Beep Beep Beep’ it made a racket.
Gib hit out even harder to make it stop. He opened his eyes as his hand recognized the cool metal touch.
Gib rubbed his eyes and looked up at the plain white ceiling of his bedroom. He felt his hair to see if it was still long. It wasn’t. His short cropped hair was intact. Gib felt a twinge of sadness, a feeling which usually accompanied his recurring dream.
“Gib go and get the oranges. You don’t want to be late for school do you?” His mother screamed from somewhere inside the house.
Gib got up, threw on his day robe, picked up his basket from the hallway and exited.
The lone orange tree stood in a corner of their 3 perch garden, amidst a sea of clean cut blue-green grass. Gib tapped the tree trunk three times and held out his basket. The orange tree shook a branch and dropped three oranges neatly into Gib’s basket. Gib looked up in surprise. ” There are four people, I need one more” but the tree just ignored Gib and raised a branch to wave at an official who was riding a grey angry cloud towards Gib’s place.
The official looked stern; his face was just as grey as his cloud. ” Give this letter to your father” he said handing Gib a letter and hit the cloud pretty hard. The startled cloud flew away leaving behind a startled Gib.
His father paled and then blinked hard when he finished the letter. He handed the letter to their mother without a word. Her small eyes widened when she finished the letter and she looked as grey as the official had looked.
“When was the last time you saw Zeb?” she asked Gib.
“Last night, when we said good night to you after the story.” Gib replied.
Gib’s father pushed a red button on their dog and ordered it to look for Zeb. The dog made a few beeping sounds and put up his screen. It showed the map of the whole world. But no dot marked a place indicating Zeb, he had vanished.
“Eat your orange and get ready for school. You can’t miss school. It will look even more suspicious.” Gib’s father announced.
“But Zeb?”Gib began but his mother silenced him with a look. But she peeled his orange for him and poured extra honey over it before handing him the orange on his favourite plate.
Gib went to school as usual. An unfamiliar hollow sensation accompanied him in Zeb’s place.
His future wife, Mea didn’t seem much pleased to see him that day. “Father told me about Zeb. It’s a disgrace.” She said haughtily. “Poor Zain” she added as an afterthought.
Zain was supposed to have been Zeb’s future wife. Zain’s cool grey eyes and the impassive face remained the same as she went about her work with an air of nonchalance.
“She didn’t even make a single mistake in class today.” Mea reported to Gib during lunch. She sounded impressed. Mea and Zain were training to be gift makers and attended the same classes. Lunch was a difficult occasion. Zeb’s and Zain’s empty places at their table looked out of place in the full cafeteria. The other children kept glancing at them curiously but were too scared of the watchful teachers to ask questions.
“What will happen to Zain and where is she?” Gib asked Mea.
“An official came and took her for questioning after the presentation tricks class. They’ll take you too. Just tell them you know nothing.” Mea ordered.
“In any case that is the truth right?” She inquired with a note of anxiety creeping into her steady tone.
“True, I know nothing.” Gib replied in a dull voice.
They finished their platefuls of stew and sipped their milk in silence. Mea spilt some of her milk attracting some unwanted notice from a teacher for her trouble. Gib tried to help her but she brushed him off and wiped the steel table top with the cloth that the teacher handed her.
“Pay attention to what you do always.” The teacher warned her.
Mea nodded acquiescence timidly.
The teacher glared at Gib. “Finish your milk young man. We do not waste food and beverages here.” Gib swallowed the rest of his milk in one gulp.
The rest of the day was uneventful.
However, the hollow feeling inside Gib increased and continued to get worse as he realized his classmates were avoiding him. Mea was the only one who spoke to him during the play hour. But she spent most of the time piling up advice on Gib on how to behave when the officials questioned him.
“Don’t panic. Just act normal and say you knew nothing out of the ordinary. And don’t mention your dreams to them. If you do, we will all get into trouble.” She commanded. Then she added in a softer tone, “If you do they might separate us. I don’t want to be paired with another boy.”
Gib felt an urge to stroke her soft black hair but he fought the impulse. Such behaviours were frowned upon. He didn’t want to attract more trouble.
When they parted that day, Gib gave her his prized silver marble with the blue eye.
“Why are you giving me this?” Mea asked, her voice clenched in fear.
“You were the only one who spoke to me today. Keep it for the night. You can give it to me tomorrow.” Gib replied.
Mea nodded and walked away.
The officials came for the whole family that evening. They were escorted into an enormous steel building surrounded by round pillars. A special agent took Gib into a separate room. It was decorated with miniature circular pillars and globes in silver. The agent took a sample of Gib’s blood and urine and conducted various examinations on his body. Satisfied the agent began asking questions.
” Did you talk a lot with your brother?”
”Did Zeb speak to you about anything strange?”
“Was there anything different about Zeb during the past month?”
“What kind of games did you play?”
Gib told them what he knew. He and Zeb always went to school, did their home work, played with their friends, and shared their meals with their future wives, talked about being excellent medicine makers, just like their father. The agent looked satisfied and led him towards his parents.
When they returned home that night Gib’s mother made redpepper dip, vegetables and meat rondelles, Zeb’s favourite. His father gave her a withering look when he saw the dishes but helped himself to a big plateful without a word.
“Zeb would have licked the plate clean.” Gib volunteered.
“Gib, I do not want to hear that name mentioned again in this house or outside!” his father said coldly.
His mother cleared the table in silence.
A week later the officials brought a charred body. They said it was Zeb. They said he has gone to a steel worker’s house. They said he had tried to work the steel machine there and that he had got burned to death. They said this happens when you go out of your own territory. A medicine maker could never work a steel machine. The governor gave a special speech on TV. He talked about the tragic story and how it should be a lesson to everybody. They buried the remains. Gib’s father forebode his family to ever speak of Zeb.
Gib’s mother customary shout of, “Gib go and get the oranges. You don’t want to be late for school do you?” continued each morning. But her voice grew terser with each passing day. She hardly looked up at Gib when she spoke to him.
Gib still got up in the morning at 7 o’ clock sharp. He went out for oranges. He went to school with Mea. In school he went to the medicine class alone. He bumped into Zain occasionally. She was with another boy, a future engineer with a square, serious face. So she snubbed him whenever they met. Mea took the snubbing as a matter of course and continued to stand up to Gib whenever some busybody mentioned Zeb.
During the break he shared a table with Mea. Played with his class mates during the break, headed for the showers afterwards and took leave of Mea every day at the school gate.
On Wednesday afternoons he went to see a movie with Mea and watched heroic deeds of every day warriors who contributed to the common good and were exemplary citizens.
Everything continued without Zeb. But Gib was beginning to feel funny inside. He was not sick he just felt hollow inside. He sometimes wanted to throw away all his books and run out of the class. He wanted not to go to the movies on Wednesdays with his future wife. He wanted to step on the oranges and squash them on the ground. He wanted to slap everyone around including himself. Most of all he wanted to find Zeb. This was strange because everyone else seems to have forgotten Zeb. Even Mea hardly ever spoke of him. She was busy planning for their graduation.
Whenever Gib wanted to talk to her about Zeb, Mea’s pretty brown eyes glazed over. She seemed not to hear him and went on talking about her blue robe for the graduation and the shop she planned to apprentice in.
Gib’s life became difficult with each passing day. The hollow grew stronger with time and refused to budge no matter how hard he tried. He knew he shouldn’t feel that way. But he did.
Nights became the worst time of the day for Gib. He just could not sleep. The hollow inside him grew heavy, stuffy, dark and unbearable.
One night, Gib found it impossible to go to sleep. He stared hard at his pillow. He just wanted the hollow feeling to go away so that he can get on with his life. Slowly it began to loosen up. To his amazement Gib saw something like water drop onto his pillow. It came out of his eyes. For a moment Gib panicked. May be he too was dying. This must be life going out of his body. But what he saw next pushed all else from his mind. Letters began to appear on his pillow. He recognized Zeb’s handwriting. Gib let the water flow out of his eyes.
If you can read this it means you are- ready to hear about the new world I found. The water drops that come out of your eyes are called tears in this world. It’s natural. And nothing to be afraid of. In this world we can choose our jobs. You don’t have to be a medicine maker if you don’t want to. Things are different here. We don’t know who our future wives or husbands are. We don’t know what we are going to be. It’s not easy but it’s beautiful.
Remember the dream you told us about. I’ve seen that place. It exists here. It is even more beautiful than you described.
Gib kept on reading.
Outside the orange tree swayed in the soft breeze, a dry leaf fell on the ground noiselessly. An automatic vacuum reached for the leaf like a snake and sucked in the leaf leaving the grass beneath spotless and orderly. A stray cloud concealed the sickle of a moon briefly and drifted on its way.