"Are you the woman called Old Mother?" he asked.
Old mother nodded, recognition lighting in her mind. She knew this man but his name eluded her. “I know you, don’t I?" He blinked dark vacant eyes, sniffled, and rubbed the back of hand across his nose and forehead. Old Mother’s eyes narrowed and she spoke an unconscious thought before she realized it was in her head. "Ah, yes, chemical restraints." She leaned forward to get a better look at this familiar man, to see his eyes.
He blinked again as if trying to clear a fog from his mind and repeated his original query. "Are you Old Mother?"
Old Mother nodded and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. "I am. Who wants to know?"
"I do." Professor McKinley stepped into view at the chauffeur’s left shoulder and offered Old Mother a brief but respectful half bow.
"It's been a long time, Hashi. Have you been well?"
"How would a Believer put it?” He glanced heavenward as if trying to find the right words. “I am blessed?"
Old mother smiled, her eyes bright with amusement. "We would put it that way, but seeing as how you're not a Believer..."
Professor McKinley replied, "I'd say, of course I am well."
Old mother stepped aside to allow McKinley entrance, her eyes lingering on his face. "I must say, Hashi, you look younger than, well, when you were young."
They both laughed at this.
Professor McKinley turned back to his driver, "Wait for me in the car. I won't be long.”
“Your man is sick, Hashi. Look at how he is sweating. I’m sure that he has a fever.”
Professor McKinley shrugged his shoulders.
“I insist that you allow him to come inside." Old Mother lifted a thick knuckled hand and placed it on the driver’s forehead, “I’ll brew him one of my special teas while we talk."
He shrugged his shoulders again. "I never could refuse you anything." Professor McKinley turned to his chauffeur, "Airun, thank her for her kindness."
They entered the cramped and toy littered foyer. "Airun?" she repeated the name. "I once knew a man named Airun. Nice young man and he had such promise." Professor McKinley narrowed his eyes in question and she added, "But he is dead now." She started down the hall. "Follow me gentlemen." She glanced back over her shoulder, "I hope you don't mind talking in the kitchen, Hashi."
"Not at all." Professor McKinley glanced at the surroundings, taking in the decor, scarred walls naked of art, toys littered the floor, knobs missing from some of the doors they passed, a scuffed wooden floor with crumbling baseboards. His top lip curled, unable to disguise the disgust he felt. "How long have you been living here?"
"It has been long time." A rumbling and thumping sounded on the ceiling above their heads followed my tickled shrieks. They both glanced up.
"I see you're still taking care of cast off children."
She chuckled softly. "If not me, then who?"
Professor McKinley accepted a seat at the block wood kitchen table, crossed his legs, and continued, "Zara, I am disappointed in you." He waved a hand around the kitchen. "You could have been so much more than this, a poor nobody who takes care of stray children that no one else wants. You were the most brilliant of us all. You could have chosen any path, but you preferred this?" He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, forming a steeple with his fingers beneath his chin, "It's not too late. I am still willing to take care of you. You could have a beautiful new home in Sinistral with a maid, a cook, beautiful clothes, anything money can buy."
"I have never wanted any of those things, Hashi." Old Mother opened the tap and filled the brass kettle with water before placing it on the stove to boil. After doing this, she opened the pantry door above he sink which contained numerous unlabeled glass jars containing a variety of unrecognizable dried herbs and roots. Old Mother removed three of these jars and placed them on the counter.
"I see you still dabble in natural herbalism.”
“Dearest Zara, how could I forget? You took the most imperfect of all of the sciences that we were studying and managed to do wonders.” He leaned forward to get a better look. “What do you have there?"
"Dried ginger, marjoram, cloves, and," she said as she produced a white paper envelope from her pocket, "something to cure his fever." She measured out heaping spoonfuls of each and put equal portions of the ingredients into two mugs, then she took a chair at the table opposite Professor McKinley.
"I would love to sustain this pretense," said Old Mother as yet another loud thump rang out above their heads. She sighed and glanced upward, "but as you can hear, my children are an active bunch and it is only a matter of time before I will need to intervene. Come to the point, Hashi. What do you want?"
Professor McKinley leaned back in the chair, uncrossed his legs and then recrossed them. "There is a remarkable child from here on End Row."
Just then the kettle came to a boil, whistling loudly, and Old Mother rose from the table to pour the hot water into the mugs. She signaled for him to continue.
"I learned of her after an unfortunate circumstance that occurred here. It made the headlines. Poor girl, I believe she was trying to protect a group of younger children from a beast who wanted exploit them." Professor McKinley shook his head as if disgusted.
Old mother gave a mug of the steaming tea to Airun, and when Professor McKinley declined his own mug with a wave of his hand, Old Mother sat down and drank from the cup herself.
"What's so remarkable about her?" asked Old Mother, deciding to play along.
Professor McKinley's eyes widened. "She has these amazing abilities to appear and reappear." He tapped his temple with a manicured finger. "I believe it is called shifting?"
Old Mother glanced up and upon seeing that Airun, still sniffling and with a sheen of sweat on his forehead, had not started drinking his tea, Old Mother said, "Hashi, your man isn't drinking."
Professor McKinley waved his hand with dismissive impatience and called back over his shoulder, "Drink Airun. Do not insult our host."
Airun obeyed impassively.
Professor McKinley turned back to Old Mother who had her own face buried in the cup. He waited for her to speak, giving her a turn in their game.
"That does sound remarkable, but this doesn't explain why you came to me.”
"The moment I saw her---"
Alarmed, Old Mother set the cup down, the rust colored tea splashing onto the table. "Saw her?" Visions flashed in her mind of Honor captured or harmed and her heart galloped in her chest.
Again, waving his hand dismissively, he said, "Yes, I have an intriguing piece of footage from when she was forced to fight with the oaf on the street." Professor McKinley did nothing to try to disguise the awe he felt. "I believe that she is indeed special and I would like to perhaps run some tests, learn what precipitates this wonderful gift of hers. And of course she would be handsomely compensated giving her the opportunity to leave End Row with it's poverty and intellectual dead end, instead providing her an opportunity that so many of these strays won't ever have."
Old Mother called over to Airun who stood stock still at the kitchen doorway. "Are you drinking, Airun?"
He nodded and grunted something as he drew the mug to his mouth and drank in gulps loud enough for Old Mother to hear across the room. "Careful not to burn yourself,” she said. He grunted again.
Grateful for the temporary diversion, Old Mother turned her attention back on Professor McKinley. "This sounds interesting, Hashi, but again, why have you come to me?"
"Imagine my surprise when I learned that this girl, named Honor, used to be one of your strays."
Old Mother smiled, relieved that he'd finally come to his point. "So, this visit isn't because you’ve missed me and wanted to see how I have been doing?" Her smile turned coy.
Feigning being abashed he said, "Well, of course, that too..." but he stopped mid-sentence and studied Old Mother several long moments with his eyes narrowed. His internal shift was so evident, almost palpable, that Airun, as dull-minded as he was, noticed, stopped slurping the brew, and looked up at his master.
"You won't tell me where she is, will you?"
Old Mother shook her head. "I don't know where she is."
"And if you did?"
"Why ask when surely you know the answer?"
"Zara, when will you be on my side?"
Old Mother stood and went to Airun, took the empty mug from him and washed it in the sink. "Hashi," her voice was barely above a whisper and as kind and genuine as when she spoke to one of her children. "I will never help you. Never. And if you came here hoping that I would, then you are not as cunning as I thought you were." More rumbling sounded above their heads and then a pocket or muffled laughter.
Sensing correctly the finality in Old Mother's voice Professor McKinley stood up, adjusting his overcoat. His eyes were dark with emotion and his voice quavered slightly. "When I found out that she was your child, I knew in my heart that you would not help me," his voice cracked, "but I came anyway. I have missed you Zara."
Old Mother turned to face Professor McKinley. "Not more than I have missed you."
Professor McKinley waved Airun forward. As he turned out of the kitchen Old Mother heard him say, "I'll let myself out."
Old Mother leaned against the sink and waited. When she heard the click of the latch on the front door, she moved as fast as she could out of the kitchen, down the hall and to the bottom of the staircase. She called up to her eldest child, Cutter, and within moments he stood at the top of the stairs looking down. “Yes, Old Mother? Is something wrong?”
“Come here boy.”
When he was standing in front of her, she tugged on his arm so that he would bend down to meet her gaze face to face, so that he could see how serious she was. “I need to leave you children for a few hours.”
“In fact, I may not return until tomorrow. Can you mind your siblings until my return?” Cutter nodded again and she smiled. She trusted him as much as any adult to care for the children. She had taught him to cook simple meals, he knew how to buy the groceries stretching the money as far as possible, and if danger presented itself, he was very good with a blade. “Good boy,” she said patting his cheek. “Now, please pack me a small supply bag while I go change.”
“Where are you going Old Mother?”
“To see the Midlings.”