The Newcomers by Rona Fernandez

Rain-Wait, circa 2100, Delta Marsh

The hollow metal clang came around sunrise, made Tess jerk her head up and listen hard. She heard one set of tolls—gong, gong, gong—then silence. She turned west towards the dredging station, where the bell stood higher than any other structure in Delta Marsh—though she couldn’t see it from her house—as if that would help her hear more.

Was it just one?

She took the morning water off the fire and ran to the Wongs’ house across the road. Rose Wong—whom Tess called Mama though she’d just met her five years before when she’d arrived at Delta Marsh—came out wearing an old yellow scarf over her gray hair and a faded pink robe around her skinny body.

“Troy leavin’ now,” the old woman gave Tess her hand so she could press it to her forehead in greeting.

“Just one ring, right?”

Mama Rose nodded. “Troy’ll send someone back if it’s a real emergency.”

“Why this gotta happen now, with the Rains comin’?” Tess turned to walk back to her house. The last time someone rang one alarm, the Kassas found their chickens dead, probably from coyotes. The Council didn’t tax the Kassas for that, though Tess wanted them to. Waste of time, she thought, hoping that today’s alarm was justified, though also wanting it to be foolish again so she could do chores.

When she got home, her son Rich was already up, so she gave him grits and a hardboiled egg as usual for breakfast and ate her own without sitting. By the time they got dressed and left the house for school, the sun was high enough in the sky to give off real heat.

“Mama, why can’t I go with you to Council?” The seven-year-old boy kicked dirt as he walked. “Kids say I’m lazy ’cause I go to school most every day ’stead of working at home or in the fields.”

“I don’t want you to be stupid.” Tess smacked him lightly on the head. “And you missed two days last week when we went to the Cross. Miss August won’t have classes soon with the Rains on the way,” Tess said. “You best not complain then when I make you pack everything and bring it to the Council House.”

The boy grumbled under his breath but Tess pretended not to hear. When they reached the schoolhouse—a small shack just a little bigger than Tess’s own small home—Tess kissed Rich and watched him run inside, saw a few of the other children inside the building, running around, drawing, laughing. The teacher, Miss August, came out, wearing her scratched-up glasses that she couldn’t see without.

“You seen the strangers yet?” she asked.

“What? That what the alarm’s about?” Tess’s eyes widened.

“Three,” Miss August said. A few newcomers came at least a few times a year—when Tess arrived it was with a group of ten people, though her daughter and her husband had not made it, had drowned in the waters that rose neck-high in the City. Tess hadn’t even known any of the people she’d made it to Delta Marsh with, they were all people she met along the way. Now, they were all like family to her—just like the Wongs.

Tess said good-bye to Miss August and kept walking. The sky was bright blue, sunny but not too hot. She had to harvest the last of the beans and do laundry for the last time before the Rains, when everything stopped and all anyone did was stew in the Council House and wait until they were over. She wondered who the strangers were, where they came from, wondered if any children were with them—though children usually died first on the road. She hoped there was at least one who was close in age to Rich; he got lonely sometimes with so few children to play with, and his sister gone. Tess knew if she thought more about the family that she had lost, she would get caught in the mire of memory and sink into a paralyzing grief. So she quickened her pace, trying to focus on all the things she still had—this new kind of family at Delta, food on the table, her son safe and alive, the day’s chores that lay ahead—knowing the only way she would find out what was going on was by getting to the Council as soon as she could.

*

Marcus Lee sat in something like a cage—one end of a small room sectioned off with scrap metal and rope. He could hear people talking in the other room, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. He had his back to Adam and Toni, who had no last name he knew of, though he’d known them for almost a year in workcamp. Marcus and Adam were in their early twenties, but that was all they had in common—that and the fact that they’d escaped from the camp a month before.

“They’s probably trying to figure out what to do with us,” Marcus said to no one in particular, chewing on his bottom lip.

“Ain’t right to keep us locked up,” said Adam, squatting in the corner farthest from Marcus, his hands in fists against his head, his red hair sticking up wildly.

“Don’t blame them.” Marcus rubbed his head with the heel of his palm. The remnants of lice, though the burning had stopped, leaving an itch that came and went. He got up and paced the cage. “They don’t know who we is. We might got some kinda’ sick for all they know.”

Adam puckered his mouth like he’d just eaten something sour. He’d been mad since the old man and his dog found them and rang a bell so loud it made their ears ring. Men came and tied them up in this room, but not long after came back and untied them, and then a woman came with water, rice, dried fish, even fruit. Marcus didn’t even know what kind of fruit it was, and didn’t care—he hadn’t had fruit since he’d been at camp—he just ate it quickly, slurping the juices that ran down his hands, the sweetness making him dizzy. It had been three days since they’d last eaten.

Adam got up and put his big hands on the bars to shake them.

“Let us out of here!” he shouted.

“That won’t help,” said Toni, Adam’s sister, who sat in the gap between them. She rolled her eyes at her brother. “They ain’t going to come just ‘’cause you want them to.”

Them two’s different as drought from rain, Marcus thought. Toni was probably fourteen but looked like a sixteen-year-old boy, her arms well-muscled, legs thick as small tree trunks, while Adam was as skinny as he was tall. Toni’s complexion was the color of redwood bark, not light and freckled like Adam, but they had the same nose and lips, the only way anyone could tell they were blood-tied. And Toni was thoughtful and careful, while Adam had a temper, which came in handy when they had to fight people off on the road, but also caused problems. Like the first night away from camp, when Toni wanted to sleep far away from Adam but he told her she should stay close. To stay safe, he’d shouted at her, but Toni pushed him away when he tried to pull her towards him, and they started fighting. Marcus got between them and got gut-punched by Adam for his troubles.

Marcus wondered if they were even true kin at all, though it didn’t matter much these days. People did what they had to to stay alive, made kin where they could, sometimes just for a day. Marcus wondered if he would ever feel like he belonged anywhere, whether he could find some kind of kin in this place.

“They can make us sit here all week, they want,” Marcus said, pacing. “This Delta Marsh, closest thing to heaven we ever know.”

“How you know this is it?” Adam eyed him.

“I told you, I can read. Sign said ‘Delta Marsh: Population 300.’” Adam shrugged and turned away.

Marcus was the darkest of the three of them, the deep black-brown of loam, having lived outside for a year before the Drivers got them. He had planned the escape to Delta Marsh, after hearing about it from others at camp who said it was a place you could drink clean water from any well, farm the common fields, and live in peace.

“Sounds like a real family,” Toni had whispered to him at camp when they talked about it, in the quiet dark before sleep. Just hearing the word family made Marcus’s chest get warm, and he wondered if she needed a different kind of family than the one she had with Adam. Looking over at the sour-faced, red-faced man, Marcus couldn’t blame her.

*

When Tess saw got to the Council House she saw old Uncle Rock standing in the middle of a knot people, his rifle slung over his shoulder, his dog Tyler at his feet. The mud brown dog had big, sad eyes and cheek-skin that hung down from its jaw. The old man looked much like his dog, except his eyes were turned up at the corners like a smile.

“We found them, didn’t we, boy?” Uncle Rock said, scratching Tyler’s head.

“Que pasa?” Tess asked. Mama Rose was already there, and grabbed her hand as the old man told his story.

“Tyler got me about an hour before sunup. Kept barkin’ and walkin’ out, barkin’ and walkin’ out. So I followed him down to the dredging station. None of the boys was out yet, so I walked ’round the station, and we found the strangers asleep under the overhang.”

The dog raised his head as if he knew he was being discussed.

“It’s all because of you, ain’t it? Tyler was sniffin’ them, and I aimed my rifle straight at the white one with red hair because he’s the biggest. Then Tyler turned and stared right at me,” Uncle Rock bulged his gray eyes out.

“Then I realized, Tyler didn’t even bark once, and he always bark at strangers. Then damned if he didn’t start barking at me, like he was sayin’, They all right, leave them alone. So I told myself, Barack Jordan Garcia, you best listen to that dog. And I rang the alarm.”

“How’d you keep them from runnin’ off?” Tess asked.

“They stayed put ’til Pablo and the others got there. The redhair wanted to run but the dark loamy one stopped him.”

“Where they now?” Mama Rose asked.

“In jail, but ain’t tied up no more.”

“Why not?” Tess asked. Delta Marsh’s “jail” was a cage-like room at the back of the Council House, made from old fencing and rope that wasn’t strong enough to use anywhere else.

“Pablo didn’t think they was going do no harm,” Uncle Rock answered. “They hungry as hell and only one of them even got shoes.”

“Pobrecitos,” Mama Rose clicked her tongue against her teeth.

The Council house was getting noisier as people arrived. Soon, everyone was there except Pablo, but Tess wanted to get things moving. She stood up in front of them.

“Morning,” she said, and a low rush of voices greeted her. “We got strangers among us again. Ain’t the first time, won’t be the last. They could be bad folk from another village or from the City, or scavengers tired of livin’ off the land. Either way we gotta figure out if we want them around. I know the Rains’re comin’ and we all got chores. So let’s get a move on—anyone got something to say?”

People started talking to each other in a disorganized way. Tess clapped her hands a few times to get their attention, but they were too excited or confused to settle down. Just then, Pablo walked in. His dark, thick hair was braided down his back, his strong jaw set forward in an angry line, his gray-green eyes looking straight ahead. Everyone quieted down. Pablo’s third child had just been born a few moons before, which tied him with Eddie Johnson and Roy Manuel for Delta men with the most living children, giving him a special status in the village.

“Sister Tess is right,” Pablo said, his deep voice jarring something loose inside her. Tess tried not to stare at him. “They ain’t just wanderers,” Pablo went on. “The loamy one told me they been trying to get to Delta.”

“Him and everyone else who ain’t got home or food,” Tess said under her breath. Mama Rose gave her a sharp look.

“And we takes folks in that needs a place and can work hard and get along,” she said. “Like we took you and Rich in.”

Tess looked down, knowing Mama Rose was right. It had only been four years since Tess had come to Delta, but it felt like a lifetime.

“I saw a mark,” Pablo said, more loudly. “On the big redhair one. He fought us when we took them to jail. His shirt got pulled up and I saw a mark in the middle of his back. ”

The room hushed, as if everyone had stopped breathing.

“Brandmarks?” Mama Rose asked. Pablo nodded. Everyone knew what that meant.

“Then they’re from a workcamp,” Tess said.

“Those places still around?” someone in the room asked.

“They’ll be around long as people too scared to try to survive without jolt juice,” Tess said, and others murmured in agreement.

They all knew about camps; at least a dozen people at Delta had escaped from one. People who controlled big tracts of land made the camps to create electricity, not wanting to live without it after the Collapse rendered the power grid useless, and kept people there to work. Camps were often heavily guarded, and the work was hard and dangerous: taking apart machines with radioactive parts; crouching under the blazing sun to harvest prickly cactus or roots by hand; riding as many bicycle-generators as they could day and night to keep the electricity running, a task given mostly to children and old people. Workers had no tools, gloves or boots. Their bones broke from being fallen on by piles of old concrete, their eyes and skin got burned by leaking acid, their lungs corroded by toxic fumes.

All because folks are afraid they can’t survive on their own without electricity, thought Tess, shaking her head. A week after the last time escapees had come to Delta Marsh, more than a year before, a group of eight Drivers came in the night with guns and smoke grenades, but the patrol had sighted them early.

“That last time we fought off Drivers we all had plenty of fresh ammo from Black Oak,” Pablo said. “I know ain’t no one here got enough ammo to scare off a pack of wolves, let alone armed men.”

People nodded and looked at each other with worry in their eyes.

“But the Rains—” Tess said. “Who’d be dumb enough to go lookin’ for ‘scapers when the Rains’re comin’?”

“They get washed away like ants,” Uncle Rock said.

“Like when Moses parted the Red Sea,” said Mama Rose.

“Some Drivers got trucks, though I don’t know if I’d risk losing a wheel or more in the Rains neither,” said Pablo. The room got noisy again, and Tess spoke up again.

“We gotta’ check them for marks,” she said, and the room hushed. “If they’re from a camp and the Drivers are after them, we need to do ammo run on top of all our Rain chores.” People shook their heads and made exasperated sounds, but no one stood up to volunteer.

“Damn it, I’ll go look,” said Tess, frowning. “One other person who wasn’t there this morning should come with me.”

Mama Rose stood, even though Tess could tell that she was about to cry. Pablo nodded, so Tess grabbed her hand and walked towards the jail to see for herself about these strangers.

*

Adam had been standing at the edge of the cage for at least an hour, trying to hear the talk in the other room. Marcus and Toni had fallen asleep on the floor.

“The fuck they doing,” Adam said loudly, waking Marcus and Toni. Marcus sat up and looked over at him.

“Ain’t no use being mad. I don’t like being locked up neither,” said Marcus, “but they been good to us so far.” Adam shot Marcus a narrow-eyed look but Marcus ignored him.

“I’m thirsty,” Toni said, sitting up. She got up and shook the rusty cage bars. “We need water!”

“Don’t ask them for nothing,” Adam said. Marcus moved as close to the big doorway as possible.

“Hey, we thirsty!” he called, but no one answered.

“Get back, let me try—” said Adam, pushing Marcus back from the bars.

“Don’t touch me,” Marcus said. “Sit down!”

“You ain’t in charge!” he shouted, towering over Marcus. “What, you think you a Driver?”

Marcus stared Adam right in the eye, which wasn’t easy since Adam was almost a foot taller than him.

“Don’t call me that.” They moved closer to each other, bumping chests. Marcus’ nostrils flared, and he clenched his fists so tight he felt the sting of his fingernails cutting into his palms. Let me lay this piece of shit out, he thought, but knew he couldn’t risk a fight that might get them thrown out of Delta Marsh.

“Quiet!” Toni said. “Someone’s coming.”

Just then an old pale-yellow woman with a long gray braid and a younger woman with black hair in a ponytail came in. They looked Marcus, Adam and Toni up and down, saying nothing. Then the old woman smiled.

“You can’t keep us locked up like this,” said Adam.

“Calleté,” Marcus shouted at him, and Toni grabbed Adam’s arm. Then the dark-haired woman spoke.

“I’m Tess. I’ve lived at Delta for four years,” she said, her voice deep and firm. She didn’t smile. “You don’t live here, you ain’t asked if you could be here, so we can lock you up if we want to.”

“I want to stay here,” Marcus said, his throat tight. “I’ll follow your rules. I work real hard. Once I rest I’ll be strong again.”

“I’m thirsty, lady,” Toni said, but Adam elbowed her in the ribs.

“I’ll get you water in a minute,” the old woman said, her voice gentle compared to Tess’s. “I’m Rose, but everyone calls me Mama Rose. We treat each other like family here at Delta. We’ll let you stay if you want, it’s a good place to live.”

Marcus smiled and put his hand on his chest, where it felt like fish were flopping around. Tess spoke again.

“Wait a minute, Mama. First, we gotta’ see if you got brandmarks. We have the right to know whether you from a workcamp, and if Drivers are gonna come after you. We’ll protect you, we got guns and knives and know how to fight, but we gotta’ know.”

Marcus and Toni looked at each other, unsure. Adam snorted and sat at the back of the room, crossing his arms over his chest. He had never shown anyone his marks before, and his guts felt suddenly cold at the thought of showing them to these strangers. The Drivers put them in the middle of the back so they couldn’t pick at it too much, but he had seen others’ marks at the camp, knew that it was a circle with a wavy line through the middle.

“We from a camp, at least fifty miles from north of here,” Toni said. “Me and Adam from the City. We left after our parents drowned.”

“I’m sorry,” said Tess, her voice softening. “I lost my husband and older daughter in the flood, too.”

“Lots of us lost folks when the waters rose,” Mama Rose said, then turned to Toni. “What’s your name?”

“Toni.”

“So we got two men and a boy—“ Tess said, but Toni interrupted her, stepping closer to the bars of the cage.

“I’m a girl, not a boy.” Mama Rose came up and took Toni’s hand and looked it over.

“She’s my sister,” Adam said. Mama Rose nodded as if she’d found the proof she wanted.

“Still, we gotta’ see your marks,” said Tess. “We won’t force you, we’re not like that here at Delta, but we have a right to know.”

“I ain’t showing my back to no one. What if we don’t wanna stay? You ain’t no police.” Adam said, and Marcus wanted to spit in his face.

“We got rules here,” Tess said. “If you don’t wanna follow them, you leave.”

“They ain’t hard to follow,” the old woman said, patting Toni’s hand.

Marcus looked carefully at Mama Rose and Tess. He studied their faces and hands, looking for signs—eyes that shot back and forth, hands that trembled or hid in pockets or behind backs. He saw nothing that made him distrust these women. I need to stay here. He straightened up a little, said,  “I show you.”

Marcus turned around and lifted his shirt. The mark didn’t sting anymore, but sometimes it itched when he’d been out in the sun for a long time. He swallowed hard. Then Toni turned around and lifted her shirt, looking at the floor and covering her chest with her arms. They stood silently for a long moment, and all Marcus could hear was Adam’s heavy breathing and the people talking in the other room, but they all sounded far away.

“That’s enough,” said Tess. Marcus and Toni pulled their shirts down. Adam sat across from them on the floor, his face almost as red as his hair. Marcus looked over and held his hand out to Toni, who grabbed on and held tight.

*

When the two women came back into the big room, Mama Rose looked pale and Tess was wiping her eyes.

“Marks all right,” Tess said. “Two of them, on their backs. Loamy man and the girl.”

“Girl? I thought that was a boy,” said Uncle Rock.

“Girl, just looks like a boy,” Tess said. People started talking again, worried talk about getting ready for a fight. Mama Rose put her hands up to get their attention.

“Don’t think no Drivers chasin’ them anymore,” she said. “They been on the road for a month.” Everyone looked at Tess for confirmation.

“I believe them. If the Drivers were after them, they’d gave up a long time ago. They look like decent folks,” Tess said. “But that redhair said he don’t want to be here.”

“We don’t make no one stay against their will,” said Pablo.

Someone said, “That’s right,” and the murmuring started up again, but Tess could tell by their tone that folks were getting close to a decision. She heard people say, “Let’s vote” and “I gotta get to my chores” and “Come on, now.” Tess raised her arm high in the air.

“Show of hands: who wants the strangers to stay?”

Almost everyone raised his or her hand, but Tess put hers down.

“What’s wrong?” Mama Rose asked.

“They can stay,” Tess said, “except that redhair one. I got a bad feeling about him.”

“I’ll handle him, Tess,” Pablo said, putting his hand on her shoulder, making her jump.

“Who can take them in?” Tess asked, trying to stay calm.

“We’ll take them,” Pablo said. “Can always use more men, and the girl can help Gloria around the house.”

She turned to look at him, and saw that he was smiling a small, pleased smile—just a slight change in the shape of his lips—and Tess felt the corners of her mouth lift on a reflex. Then someone in the room, and then another, started clapping, and Pablo turned away from her and started clapping too. The clapping got louder and louder, the Unity clap they ended all their meetings with, until the whole room was filled with its rising noise and people started cheering. Then it was over and everyone started shaking hands and hugging.

“I’ll tell them,” Pablo said, and walked to the back room. Tess watched him leave, wanting him to come back, but feeling foolish for her wanting. There were chores to do. So much time wasted today already, she thought. Don’t want to waste no more.

*

After Mama Rose and Tess left, Adam got up and started yelling at Toni.

“Why’d you show them your marks? You don’t know if we can trust them. Maybe they know the Drivers!” He yanked her towards him. Toni threw a fist, which landed on Adam’s right cheek.

“You going to get us thrown out—” Marcus pushed between them but Adam shoved him to the ground.

“Leave us alone!” Adam went for his throat but Marcus gut-punched him, making Adam double over. Then a strange sound started coming from the other room.

“Listen!” Toni said, getting between them. Marcus and Adam stopped fighting. It sounded like rain was beating down on a hard roof.

“What’s that?” Toni asked, eyes wide with fear.

“Clapping,” Marcus said.

“That’s good, right?” she asked. Marcus could hardly breathe, and listened harder. The clapping went on for a few minutes. Then they heard people moving around and talking, and wood scraping on hard clay. Then three men come into the small room, the tall one named Pablo in front. Marcus tried to read his face, but saw nothing.

Pablo held his hand out and said, “Welcome to Delta Marsh.”

Marcus’s chest grew warm, his eyes hot, then his throat closed up a little and he realized the wetness on his face was tears. Toni yelped and jumped up and down. Adam just stood there like he hadn’t heard a thing.

“Why I want to stay where people tie us up even though we didn’t do no wrong?” Adam’s voice was sharp and mean.

“We don’t keep no one against their will,” said Pablo.

“Good,” said Adam. “Me and my sister ain’t staying.”

“I want to stay,” Toni said, moving towards Marcus, who put an arm around her.

“You go where I go, Toni.” Adam reached for his sister, but she shrank back.

“No!”

“How old are you?” Pablo asked her.

“Fifteen, I think,” she said.

“You lying fucking bitch.” Adam’s jaw was clenched. “You thirteen at most.”

“We don’t like that kind of talk,” Pablo said. The two other men came closer to the cage.

“I talk to her how I want.” Adam said, and Marcus saw his arm-muscles tensing. Pablo waved his hand and one of the men unlocked the cage.

“Get out,” Pablo said. As Adam moved forward, he grabbed Toni’s arm. She tried to pull away but he got her by the shoulders. Then they were on the ground, wrestling. Marcus jumped on top of them, but then he felt a hard smack that landed him flat on his back.

“Enough!” Pablo yelled. Marcus sat up and saw the Delta men holding Adam and Toni away from each other.

“I don’t want to go with you!” Toni yelled. “You—you—“ Marcus saw her face twist up, then she began sobbing.

“I’m your family—“ Adam’ voice broke. A trickle of blood dripped red from his mouth.

“I don’t want to be your family—I hate you!” Toni kicked at him but the man held her back.

“He can’t keep you against your will,” Pablo said. The man that held Adam moved towards the big door.

“Give him two days’ food and water and leave him on the road,” Pablo said, his tone firm and confident, as if he had said that many times before. “You can make your way from there, but don’t try to come back for your sister.”

The man tightened his grip on Adam, who groaned, his red face crumpling in pain. The other man still held Toni, who had stopped crying. When he let go, she ran to Marcus and crashed into his chest.

“It’s okay,” Marcus said, holding her. The man dragged Adam out kicking and fussing.

“I’m coming back for you, Toni! You can’t leave me like this.”

As he was pulled away they heard him yelling and cussing but the sound got farther away until they couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore.

“Come on,” said Pablo, and for the first time he smiled. “You’ll be staying with me. You can build your own house when you’re ready. That’s what we do for all newcomers.”

He motioned them out of the cage, and then held out his hand. Marcus looked at it, confused. Then Pablo laughed and took Marcus’ hand and shook it up and down. They all laughed out loud at this, and Marcus felt lightheaded, his mouth stretching into a wide grin. He and Toni held each other’s arms as they walked slowly out of the cage and into the now-empty big room, and then they let go of each other and walked on their own, tentatively, as if they had forgotten how to do so.

The three of them walked towards the door that led outside, through which Marcus could see blue, bright sky, and good solid land with trees and green things growing on it. And then as he stepped outside, he took a good, long, deep breath, and felt so light that he thought he might float into the sky. The air smelled clean, cool and sweet.


Rona Fernandez is a writer, mother, dancer, fundraiser and activist who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her non-fiction has appeared in Greater Good Magazine, Philippine News, Instant City, and the anthology Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology (Beacon Press, August 2010). This is her first fiction publication. She is an alumnus of the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) workshop for writers of color and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop.

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