The Miner’s Purge
Jacob coughed as he searched through the smoking ruins of the market. He glanced frantically at the bodies looking for some sign that he could recognize. He turned in a circle. The air stunk of burned flesh and tar from the stall roofs. The militia had thrown matches onto the tar roofs setting them ablaze, burning the evidence of their slaughter. Sick beyond shock, Jacob kicked at a smoldering tapestry. It unfolded revealing a bit of blue fabric. The dairyman’s sign was blue. He turned. Mama said she would buy fish. He paced back two stalls searching for the fishmonger’s stall. Stripping off his shirt and using it to protect his hands he lifted a fallen timber and shoved it aside. Tears streamed down his face at the sight of the burned bodies on the ground. One he guessed to be the fishmonger by the bulk of the body. He knelt beside the charred remains covering another body. He rolled Mama’s body aside to reveal Mary’s body still recognizable under Mama.
He sobbed and made the sign of the cross. He lifted his head to look for help. Nothing around him moved. Nothing met his eyes except death and destruction. No help would come. Gently he lifted his Mama’s body over his shoulder, then gagged at the scent of her burned flesh. His sister was easier to lift because Mama’s body had protected hers from burning. From the front he could see blood stains from the bullet wounds. Once he lifted Mary toward his shoulder, he saw the back of her head was gone. He gagged.
Once home again, Jacob and his twelve-year-old sister Virginia buried what they could find of their family. Jacob dropped the shovel beside the graves and reached out to take his sister’s hand. “We have to get out of here. We know what happened and who did it. I’ve been thinking. You’ll take the train to live with Aunt May. I think you’ll be safe in a private compartment. I’d take you to her, but the chances of one of us surviving are better if we split up.”
Virginia lay sprawled on her cot too hurt and heartsick to move. Dry sobs wracked her body causing sharp pains to shoot across her chest. I must stop this. I am hurting myself with these sobs. I’ll count ten times I was happy. I was happy when I held my babies. I was happy when I held my tiny grandbabies. She stirred and the pain flashed across her chest and around to her back. “That brute must have broken one of my ribs.”
She stared at the ceiling afraid to look out her little window. “I love my little house. I love my grandson, Bruce. He’s so much like papa.”
Her eyes darted around her small room taking in the stains and pealing paint. Years ago, she’d hired a man to build the little enclosed porch that was now her bedroom. Her husband had raged over the expense of adding the porch to the house. A smile tried to tug at the corner of her mouth as she remembered saving money and saving money for over a year to hire someone to build her dream porch, then she hired a native man to build it when her husband was in Mesa City at his father’s funeral. The deed was done before he knew, and he could only rant and rave. The same hint of a smile played at the corner of her mouth, again. I’ve always been good at saving money and hiding it away. She glanced up at the picture of the Holy Mother on her wall and prayed, “Blessed Virgin Mother, protect my savings, and help me visit my nephew.”
The scent of smoke drifted into her small room on the porch. She shuddered. The scent of smoke brought back the old memories. She thought to herself, “I’m old, but I’m tough. I’ve run away from fire before. If that bastard grandson wants to burn my pictures, I’ll go find the originals.”
The pictures in the outside fire were only newspaper clippings about the president of her country. For years, the family had laughed at her, saying, “Don’t be foolish. Those people are no relation to us.”
She’d answered, “I know my own brother when I see him, and this is a picture of him.” She’d tap a picture of an attractive man standing on a piece of railroad equipment or beside Mr. Rouseff, one of the most powerful men in the country. “You don’t understand about the purges. Families were separated. Everybody died. We had very little money. We could only run away.” Each precious picture had been saved in a scrapbook that had once had pictures of pink roses on the cover, but was now faded and ratty.
First, her husband had called her a fool. Next, her son had called her crazy. Now, her grandson, Aaron, had hit her as she sat with tears running down her face over a newspaper article several weeks old.
President Jake says he is shocked and grieved at the deterioration of his ex-wife’s health. Despite the fact that she is his children’s mother, he had not seen her since her remarriage…
The article went on to detail the assassination attempt and the heroic efforts of Jake’s security to protect him. Virginia had read and reread the article grieving for her nephew’s grief. She fingered back through the pages to find the faded announcement of his marriage. He looked so happy. She grinned and fingered the dimples in her own cheeks then touched the dimples on the man in the paper.
At this moment, Aaron had barged into her room without knocking. “What are you doing? Ivan’s diaper is stinks. What?” He ripped her newspaper and scrapbook from her hands shouting, “Stop that, you crazy old woman. Those people are no kin of ours. You’re no better than our neighbors. You’re just an old dried up embarrassment to us all.” He stood over her with his nostrils flaring and veins standing out on his neck.
She made a grab for her book. “I know my own family.” She fell to her knees as Aaron pulled the book away.
He kicked her, then turned toward her door to the outside. “I’m going to burn this thing and put an end to this nonsense once and for all.” He slammed out the back door with her precious scrapbook.
Now, she made up her mind to leave. She’d tried to leave once before when Jake had first become president. She’d made the mistake of leaving a note. “I’m going to visit my brother and nephew. Karinsa can manage the house for a few days without me. I have enough money for my train fare and hope to stay with Jacob and his wife.” She left grocery money for the family on the table with the note.
She’d just boarded the train and settled in a comfortable seat while visions of how happy Jacob would be to see her danced through her head. He’ hold her in his arms just like he had when he put her on the eastbound train after the purge. She wiped at a tear. A commotion on the train platform distracted her. A station hand had fallen and another stumbled backward. Her son Ivan emerged out of the melee and strode toward the train. She looked about for a place to hide, but Ivan had swung himself up onto the short train and ran toward her. “There you are you crazy woman.” He grabbed the braids neatly pinned over the top of her head and using them like a handle pulled her to her feet. “Now, you get off this train and come back home where you belong. You stupid whore. I won’t have you shaming us with your crazy ideas.” He dragged her back home.
Still on her back on her bed Virginia asked for the ten thousandth time, “How did I manage to raise a pack of fools?” The old woman glanced up at the Virgin Mother and prayed again. “Help me find my nephew. I know where he is, but I’m afraid to go alone.”
The next morning, just as the sun began to lighten the eastern sky, the sound of vomiting woke Virginia. She held her broken rib as she eased herself off of her cot and followed the sound. The rest of the family still slept. She found her great-grandson Bruce sitting on the front steps vomiting into the shrubs.
“You’re drunk.” She accused
“I got paid.” He pointed to three bottles of whisky the Vanderholm distillery used to pay their workers. One bottle was open and about a third gone. “I was so hungry. I was desperate. I know I’m supposed to sell the bottles, but I was hungry.”
The old woman looked down at the lad who had just turned fifteen. He leaned on the post to the porch railing and sobbed. She said more to herself than to him, “You should be in school.”
“I worked all night. I can’t go to school.” Bruce retched again with dry heaves. “What am I going to do about the opened bottle? Papa will be furious when he sees it.”
“I’ll help you, but you have to help me.”
The boy looked at his great-grandmother. Desperation to avoid a beating, drove him to trust the crazy old woman. “What can you do?”
“Come inside. Bring your bottles. I have an unopened bottle in my room. We’ll trade, so your papa won’t know you opened a bottle. I’ll get you some breakfast. Then you will help me.”
The young man looked at her sideways. “What do you want?”
The old woman looked away. “I suppose, the same thing everybody wants - a better life. We haven’t always been so poor.”
“Don’t get started on the president again, Grandmama.” A wave of embarrassment over his crazy great-grandmama crashed over the adolescent. He glanced sideways at the neighboring houses to see if anybody saw him talking to her.
“You’re smarter than the others. Think for yourself. Look at this house. I own this house. I bought it with money my parents gave me. Do you know anybody else who owns their own house?” She lifted her chin pushing the knowledge that she hadn’t shared the money with her brother Jacob or even told him she knew her parents hid their money under a floorboard in her bedroom. She'd taken the money and hid it among her things while Jacob searched the ruins for their family.
Her great-grandson picked up his bottles and staggered behind her into the house saying, “Whatever.”
Virginia shoved Bruce down on her bed and set a chamber pot beside him. “Vomit in there if you must. I have to fix breakfast and get the little ones off to school.”
Aaron grinned when he examined the bottles of whisky Bruce left on the shelf in the hall. “Oho, look at this.” He held up the bottle Virginia had substituted. “My boy must have done something special to earn this. I was smart to get him that good job. He’ll make us rich.”
“I believe he will.” Virginia answered and refrained from mentioning school or the university, but she imagined Bruce looking like the picture of Jake wearing his university robes.
The house fell silent as the adults left for work and the children kissed their great-grandmama and left for school.
Virginia returned to her room where Bruce sprawled on her bed sleeping off his drunk. “Wake up. Move.” She shook the boy. “Did you get paid any money at all?”
Bruce licked his lips and smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Just enough to renew my bus pass.”
“You don’t smell good, but that can’t be helped now. Come.”
“Then let’s go get you something to eat.” Virginia smiled at the boy, then straightened the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mother on her wall. She whispered to the saint. “Thank you. Please watch over us.”
Bruce still had trouble finding the ground with his feet when Virginia led him down the front steps of the house. “Where are we going?” He asked as he stumbled into the stair railing.
“Why, to buy you a nice breakfast of course. You should be in school, but you’ve worked hard and deserve a treat.” The bus stopped in front of them. “Bruce, give me a hand to climb on. Give the man our bus pass.” She led her still-sleepy great-grandson to a seat and cushioned his head with her bag when he promptly fell asleep again.
She watched the ramshackle houses give way to slums. The streets grew cleaner and she eagerly looked in the shop windows noting how fashions had changed since last time she’d been to town. On the far side of town, the bus stopped at the train station where early commuters surged forward to get on. Virginia pulled Bruce by the arm out the rear door. “This is our stop. Come we’ll get you something to eat. This way so others can get on at the front.” She glanced around, thankful for the crowds that hid them. She hoped nobody would recognize them and tattle to Aaron. It didn’t occur to her that nobody outside her family had seen her for five years and the people surging around her had no idea who she might be.
At the ticket booth, Virginia nudged her reluctant great-grandson forward whispering, “Ask for two tickets to the capital.”
Bruce turned to the old woman. “Grandmama!"
“Oh hush up. I thought you might like a little adventure. You seem to have more smarts about you than the rest of the fools I raised. I don’t know what I did wrong.” Her voice wobbled and tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.
Bruce quickly turned to the ticket seller. “One student and one senior for the capital, please.”
Virginia watched her great-grandson out of the corner of her eye as she slipped him the money for the tickets. She nodded. He did have more smarts about him. She didn’t know that students and seniors could ride almost free.
Once the train left the station, Virginia patted Bruce’s knee. “Isn’t this fun. Now, let’s get you a grand breakfast. You’re a good lad. We’re going to see so many new things.” She followed the signs to the dining car.
Once fed and settled on the upper deck of a sight seeing car, Bruce fell asleep beside his grandmama again and didn’t wake up until the train slowed in the suburbs outside the capital. “Where are we?”
“I’m not sure. You missed seeing Mesa City and some beautiful countryside. I saw a herd of wild animals. My papa used to call them deer, but I don’t think that is what people here call them.” She continued to stare out the window. “There, I saw a clock on a bank. It’s one thirty-five. We should be in the capital in a few minutes.”
“Grandmama, I don’t think this is a good idea. We could get arrested.”
“Why, what do you think we are going to do?”
“You plan on going to The Compound and telling everybody you are the president’s aunt.”
“Yes, you are brighter than the rest of the family, more like my brother Jacob. Now you listen to me. Think for yourself.” The elderly woman looked the youth straight in the face and spoke slowly and emphatically. “The president is named Jacob Jaconovich, the same as my brother. There are very few people named Jaconovich in this country. Our papa came here from Bohemia. He was a mining engineer. The whole family except for Jacob and myself were killed in a purge. Think child. Think about how many other people you’ve even heard of by our name. At least, think what this could mean for you. You won’t have to work at the distillery. You can go to university and become an engineer like my papa or an attorney like your uncle.”
Bruce hadn’t grown up among the poor of Agros Province without learning a thing or two about getting what he wanted. He leaned back in his seat, folded his arms over his chest and squinted at his great-grandmother. A thought slid into his brain, “What if the old woman can pull this off? She’s crazy, but what if the president doesn’t know that? Her story is plausible. I’ll pretend I didn’t know she’s a fraud if she gets caught out. She must have more money on her. If she gets arrested, I’ll take her money and run.” He shrugged then sat up straight. “I’ll use the restroom and wash up. Maybe we should buy some decent clothes before we visit The Compound.”
Shortly after two in the afternoon, First Lady Celia had just left the president’s office and stopped a minute to listen to the chief of staff, Andrew Corbain, tell her about his daughter’s new boyfriend. “I figure she’s smart enough to figure out the suckerfish is after her money, but I wonder if she’ll ever find someone suitable.” He shook his head.
A commotion at the front doors disturbed the quiet. Caesar, the big guard dog who slept in the president’s office, didn’t come bounding out, so Celia figured the problem at the front entrance wasn’t dangerous. She hurried to the head of the stairs and started down. “What is the problem here?”
Celia, although she had recently married the president, was still classed as a security agent for the Compound with the rank of Colonel, so the guards jumped aside, very willing to let their superior officer deal with the intruder.
An old woman leaning on the arm of an adolescent stepped forward. Celia’s eyes never left the face of the lad. Her heart began to beat faster as her eyes traced the line of his jaw. Her eyes flicked to the face of the old woman. She recognized those eyes. She barely heard the woman saying something about her papa being a mining engineer. Her ears buzzed as she stared at the beloved features on the strangers faces. She nodded, then turned, “Andrew!” She turned back to the strangers at the foot of the stairs and smiled as she continued down the stairs to greet the old woman.
The youth stood with his mouth hanging open in a manner that reminded Celia of her step-son. She smiled at him as she started down the second flight. “Son, close your mouth and introduce me to your grandmama.”
By now, Andrew stood on the third flight of stairs. The Minister of Health stood beside Vice-president Anatole on the second flight. Celia quickly descended the last flight to the first floor.
The old woman looked up past the people on the stairs. She held out her arms and cried, “Jacob. Jacob.” Tears started to roll down her cheeks.
Jake’s footsteps pounded down the stairs. “Aunt Virginia?”
The youth’s mouth dropped open again.
Jake reached the bottom of the stairs and scooped the old woman up holding her close to his heart before setting her down and kissing her on top of her head. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come sooner? Papa is gone now. He looked for you for years. Where have you been?”
“I tried and tried to come to you, but they wouldn’t listen. I had babies to take care of. I tried running away, but they found me and carried me home.” Here the old woman broke down into uncontrolled sobbing.
Celia motioned for the onlookers to go away. “Come. Let’s make you two comfortable.” She led the way to a first floor apartment with rooms that looked out across the lawn toward the cathedral.
Jake had picked the frail old woman up in his arms and carried her to the apartment.
Mariah the vice-president’s wife caught up to the party in the hall outside the apartment. “You’ll need two suites so the young man can do as he pleases while she sleeps.” She turned to the youth. “Sir, will you come with me. You can have the room just across the hall from your Grandmama.”
Mariah’s eyes met Celia’s then flicked down at the genetic testing kit she held in her hand.
Celia nodded and held out two fingers down at her side, indicating she wanted to test both of the people claiming to be her husband’s family. She smiled, thankful that Mariah understood this guest should be treated as any other client in the Family Reconciliation Project.
Jake set the old woman on a sofa then slid to the floor at her feet. “Tell me, do you have children? I’ve always wanted cousins on my papa’s side.”
Celia called housekeeping and asked for fresh towels, fruit and flowers. She called the clothing bank, a room in the old wing of The Compound where used clothing was kept and shared with those who needed it. “Can you send over a selection of clothing suitable for a small woman in her later eighties and some for a youth about…oh…Ramon’s size.”
After watching her husband hang on every word the old woman said for fifteen minutes, Celia put her hand on his shoulder. “Sweetheart, I think your aunt is tired. She’s traveled a long way. Can you let her rest for now? U’Nice is here to help her bathe and get into bed. You do have your meeting with the governor of Midland Provenance.”
Jake got to his feet and kissed Virginia’s hand. “You will soon learn that my time is never mine. I’m a slave to this job. You rest now, because when I am free you are going to tell me every detail of your life since Papa put you on the train after the purge.”
The medic Kai waited in the hall for Jake to leave the old woman’s room before he entered, insisting that he must check her health before she could have a bath and take her nap. In the process of the brief physical exam, he asked her to spit in a vial for the genetic testing.
In his room, Bruce paced and looked out the window at the courtyard. He didn’t know what to think. All his life he’d been taught that great-grandmama was crazy. He had really expected her to get arrested at the doors to the president’s compound. Instead, she’d been scooped up, kissed and coddled. He blinked trying to believe the evidence before his eyes and began to believe the old woman had been telling the truth. He twisted the frayed hem of his tee shirt and stared out the window without seeing. “The president does look a little like papa around the chin and mouth,” he thought as he tried to understand his present circumstances. A servant in a blue and gold uniform entered his room with two trays of food, one nothing but fruits like he’d seen in pictures at school and another with bread, soup and fish. The servant bowed and gestured to the table where he’d laid out a plate and silverware. “I’ll fill your tub with water for your bath while you have your lunch. Another servant tapped at the door and entered carrying fresh new clothes, finer than he’d ever seen. “I brought you several sizes so we can see what fits best.”
Words choked in Bruce’s throat as he began to wonder what his life would have been like as the president’s cousin. He felt hungry but the fine food he tried to eat barely slid past the lump in his throat.
In his bath, Bruce faced his memories of Cousin Mary, just a year older than himself. She’d been married off at age thirteen and died in childbirth when she was fourteen. His outrage and anger began to grow over the poverty he’d endured because nobody would believe Grandmama. He hit the water in anger and grief causing a splash to flood the marble floored bathroom.
Tears streamed down his face as he leaned back in the tub, closed his eyes and tried to puzzle out if his papa and grandpapa really didn’t believe Grandmama, or was their denial of her family connections some cruel trick born of a desire to control and hurt, leading the rest of the family to call her crazy?
Bruce opened his eyes as his world turned upside down. All he’d once believed was true became lies, and all he had once thought were lies became truth.
The genetic testing on both Bruce and Virginia came back a match with the president. For his part, Jake had seen his father’s eyes in his aunt’s face and never doubted. Of course, Virginia’s whole family benefitted to the extent that Jake could forgive their treatment of his aunt. Which was to say that the innocent lived in luxury on Jake’s property near Midland. Aaron continued to live in the, now repaired, house in Argos Province and work for the sewer department.