Cobblestones and Mud, Part II

Bucket Battalion!

Max knew that, despite the late autumn chill, despite the need for coats and jackets, it would likely be a wild frenzy. A crowd of upper-class boys from the Thorne School lined the footpath in front of their building, while their counterparts from Holy Kynareth Girls’ Prep were similarly arrayed in front of their building, across the street. The section of street separating the two schools was blocked off, awaiting the parade of young costumed children bearing buckets. Once they appeared, the older students were supposed to shower them with the sweets they brought, while the youngsters were supposed to scoop them into their buckets as fast as they could.

Max remembered being in the youngsters’ place, years before. Even if it was raining sweets, filling up a bucket was harder than it looked! First of all, you were competing against dozens of other little ones, all trying to do the same thing. Further, if you tried to grab the sweet that fell right in front of you, you might miss the one that hit you on the side of the head when you weren’t looking. Worse, if some other kid got the sweet you spotted first, it might be too late to find and grab the one that hit you. If you were doing Bucket Battalion, you had to be quick, and maybe a little ruthless. Max, having been a competitive athlete most of his life, usually managed to be a bit of both.

Max stood near the middle of the crowd, just off to the left, a big plastic bag of assorted sweets in one hand, his lunch bag strapped over his shoulder. After the children passed through, the older students would help clean up the mess and take their lunch breaks. Max’s friend Bopo (whose real name was Boris, not that anyone ever called him that) stood to his right, slightly behind, just as he usually did on the football pitch. He was similarly equipped with a large bag of sweets.

More students assembled on the sidewalks as Max craned his neck, looking this way and that. “What are you looking for, Max?” asked Bopo.

“Cari Ayalu,” said Max. “I needed to ask her something.”

“I don’t see her,” said Bopo, but since he was considerably shorter than Max, he was unlikely to have spotted Cari through the crowd. “What were you going to ask her? For a date at the cinema?” Max turned to Bopo, who grinned slyly.

“Never you mind!” said Max, glowering. Then he spotted Bopo’s bulging overcoat pockets. “What’s that you’re carrying?”

“Oh, in my pockets?” Bopo pulled out several small bags of sweets.

“What are those for?” said Max. “You keeping those for yourself?”

“You’ll see,” said Bopo. “I think the Bucket Battalion’s about to start.”

And it was. Off to the right at the end of the roadblock, dozens of excited young children assembled while a group of teachers tried to maintain order. All the youngsters were costumed: mostly as waifs or vagabonds, some as scarecrows, with the odd monster, noble, or ghost scattered here and there. Presently, a teacher walked out to the center of the street and addressed the older students. “Remember, we want to keep the Bucket Battalion from becoming too chaotic. Don’t start throwing sweets until the whole parade has made it to the middle of the street. We don’t want to start a stampede!”

For their part, the youngsters seemed ready to stampede; though corralled behind the roadblock, most were eyeing the street carefully, as if staking out the territory they were going to claim. Eventually, the teachers managed to line them up and start them beating out a rhythm on their buckets, using their hands, sticks, or in some cases, spoons.

Clack! Clack! Clack-clack-clack!

Clack! Clack! Clack-clack-clack!

Then two teachers removed the roadblocks, and the children began marching slowly up the street as they chanted along with their bucket cadence:

WE are HUNGry! LET US EAT!

WE are STARVing! GIVE US SWEETS!

As the children approached, Bopo turned to Max. “When you throw your sweets,” he said, “try to arc some to the middle of the crowd, but don’t forget to throw some to the edges as well.” As Max opened his bag, he marveled a little at Bopo – he’d really considered all the angles, hadn’t he?

WE are HUNGry! LET US EAT!

WE are STARVing! GIVE US SWEETS!

Finally, as the procession passed Max and Bopo, the time had come. Max and Bopo reached into their bags as the children turned to face the crowd. Max noticed one little waif looking at him with an expectant grin, as if to say, “Right here! Throw ‘em right here!” Max, Bopo, and all the older students on both sides of the street let fly as a delighted cheer erupted from the young crowd. Little faces tracked the arcs of flying sweets all the way to the cobblestone pavement.

Then the mad scramble began. Youngsters tried to look everywhere at once as sweets sailed over their heads or landed at their feet. Shrieks of surprise, joy, or outrage filled the air as Max, Bopo and the others emptied their bags, handful after handful. As time went on, Max noticed that most of the youngsters managed at least some sweets. The more aggressive ones, of course, had the fullest buckets, while a small number of children had nearly empty buckets. Their frustration showed in grimaces, cries of “No fair!” and occasional tears. Max saw some of the littlest ones trying to pick up sweets only to see them snapped up before their eyes. Remembering how he’d behaved years before, seeing that made Max feel a little guilty.

Though it seemed longer, the worst of the pandemonium lasted only a few minutes as the older students ran out of sweets to throw and the younger ones darted here and there to gather what was left. That was when Bopo swung into action. “Here,” said Bopo, pressing two smaller bags of sweets into Max’s hands. “Take these and head for the tears!”

“What?” Max started to say, but Bopo had already waded into the crowd of youngsters. Max watched as Bopo stopped next to a little boy who had dropped his bucket and was clearly crying. Bopo handed him a small bag of sweets and patted him on the back. Oh, so that’s what these bags were for, thought Max, as he entered the crowd himself.

It wasn’t hard to spot children who had missed out. Max just looked for little ones standing alone, shoulders sagging. The first one was a little red-haired boy, maybe seven years old. His bucket was nearly empty, and he was trying desperately not to cry. “Bad luck?” Max asked him.

“I was too slow,” the little boy complained. “The big kids get all the good stuff before I know it’s there. They don’t even care.”

“They should pay closer attention, shouldn’t they?” Max said. He held out one of the bags Bopo gave him. “Would this help?” The little boy brightened noticeably. “It’s yours,” said Max. “Just remember, when you’re big and quick, you might want to think about the little kids yourself!” Exactly like I didn’t, Max thought to himself.

“Thanks, Big Brother!” the little boy said as he dashed off to meet his classmates.

The second bag went to a little girl who had taken a tumble during the scramble, scattering what little she’d accumulated over the cobblestones. While her friends gathered around to comfort her, Max emptied the bag into her bucket. After thanking Max, she told her friends to help themselves to the new sweets. That little girl has a lot of class, Max thought. Would I have done that? Probably not.

Questions Asked and Answered

Eventually, a group of teachers herded the younger children back to their classrooms as the older students began tidying the street. Max caught up with Bopo as he was emptying a couple handfuls of trash into a dustbin. “What made you think of it?” asked Max. “The extra sweets, I mean.”

“Oh, that?” answered Bopo. “Well, when I was younger, I wasn’t as quick as I am now. It took some growing, and a lot of practice, too. I decided a long time ago that when my turn came to throw the sweets, I’d hold some back for the kids who couldn’t get any. Not that big of a deal, really.”

“I’ve got to hand it to you, though,” said Max. “I hadn’t thought of it, but I’m glad you did, and I’m glad you let me in on it. Thanks.”

“Think nothing of it. Where do you want to sit down and eat?”

“How about over there,” said Max, pointing to a bench set back from the street, under some trees.

“Sure. I’ll meet you over there in a minute. I’m going to go wash my hands.” Bopo jogged quickly back to their school building, while Max headed to the bench. He was just sitting down when he felt a tug on his overcoat sleeve.

“Big Brother, what about me?” Max turned to look. Behind him was the most waiflike little boy he’d seen all day. He looked to be about nine, but Max couldn’t really tell. He stared up at Max with wide, grey eyes. His dark hair was very short, and not very thick. Despite the chill, he wore only a tan tunic, which was patched and spotted with what looked like grease or soot. His grey trousers were frayed around the cuffs, and what Max could see of his canvas shoes looked ready to disintegrate.

“Oh, hey, little fellow. Bucket Battalion’s over, and I don’t have any more sweets.”

“It’s not sweets I seek,” said the little boy in a quiet level voice. “I’m quite sore with hunger.”

“Shouldn’t you be back at school?” Max said, pointing across the street. “Don’t they feed you there?”

“I do not attend there,” said the boy, in the same level tone as before.

“So you go to Solitude South?” said Max, referring to the city-run junior school a couple blocks distant.

“More and more questions you have,” said the little boy, his tone changing to mild exasperation. “I hunger. Can you help?”

Max was puzzled. Who is this little fellow? Shouldn’t he be somewhere? Who’s supposed to be looking after him? It finally occurred to Max that the boy wasn’t dressed as a waif; he really was one. And he did look like he needed food. He looked like he need a lot of things. Max reached into his lunch bag. “If it’s real food you’re looking for, maybe this will help.” Max handed the little boy half a ham sandwich and a bag of nuts. “I don’t have anything for you to drink, but there’s a corner shop a couple blocks that way,” said Max, pointing. He reached into his pocket and retrieved some coins. “This should get you a bottle of tea.”

“You’re gracious and kind to me, Big Brother,” said the little boy, bowing formally. “I thank you.” He turned to walk away.

Max was a little startled by his formal manners. “Any time, little fellow,” he said. “By the way, I’m Max. What’s your name?”

The little boy turned around. “I am given the name Gustav,” he said. “But many call me Gus.”

Max nodded at him. “Well, maybe I’ll see you around, Gus!” The little boy smiled and started in the direction of the corner shop. What a strange little fellow, thought Max as Gus disappeared into the crowd. By then, Bopo had reappeared. “I just saw the oddest little boy,” said Max. “Did you see him just now?”

“Where? I didn’t see anyone with you,” said Bopo. “When was this?”

“Just now. Not a minute ago.” Max told him about his encounter with Gus and donating half his sandwich. “You must have just missed him,” said Max.

“I suppose,” said Bopo. “He must have made a pretty big impression on you if you actually parted with food!” Bopo grinned.

“I’m going to be hungry the rest of the day,” Max admitted. They ate quietly until someone on the other side of the street caught his eye. “Oh, hey, there’s Cari,” he said. “I still need to talk to her. I’ll catch up with you later.” Bopo, his mouth full, waved him off with a silent salute.

Cari gave Max an impatient look as Max caught up with her. She was wearing a dark gray hip-length jacket made to match the gray and green plaid of her school uniform. A beret matching the plaid of her skirt completed her outfit. “I just wanted to let you know, I read some of that book you gave me,” he said.

Cari eyed him a little suspiciously. “What part?”

Was she doubting him? “I read all about the Naktergal,” he said, and recited the basics of what he’d read. “It was really interesting,” he said.

Cari brightened; apparently, he’d impressed her. “It’s amazing, if you think about it,” she said. “You and I, we’ve both walked in the same places, maybe seen the same things, as Naktergal had a thousand years ago. Isn’t that staggering to think about?” Cari looked at him expectantly.

Max had never thought about it, but seeing how the idea affected Cari, he couldn’t help but appreciate the idea. “Solitude’s an old city,” said Max. “All that history, it’s all around us all the time, in a way, isn’t it?”

“Almost like echos,” said Cari dreamily. “But they never really fade away completely.”

“I hadn’t looked at it that way,” said Max, “but when you say it like that, I kind of understand.” Max paused. “Believe it or not.” Max grinned at his little joke. Cari responded in kind. “Hey, there’s one more thing I wanted to ask you.” Max shuffled his feet a little. He knew he would be nervous, but his level of unease took him by surprise.

“And that is –” said Cari expectantly.

“Well, the Metro Solitude Amateur Sports Ball is this Fredas. My parents will be out of town at a conference, so I wasn’t going to go, but Uncle Adrian said he could drive us.”

Cari raised an eyebrow. “Us?” she said simply.

Focus, thought Max. Focus. “Um, I was wondering if you wanted to come with me.” Max bit his lower lip in an effort to center himself. “It should be lots of fun. Great dinner, music, and dancing!”

Obviously, Uncle Adrian put him up to this, Cari thought. But if he’s making an effort, maybe I should as well. “Are you sure it won’t be just a bunch of footballers yelling and bumping into each other?”

“It’s not just football,” Max said. “There will be tumblers, swimmers, archers, just about any sport you can think of.”

Cari smiled. Her friend Anisa was an archer, and pretty good at it, too. Maybe she’s been to the ball. “Tell you what,” Cari said. “I’m not sure what’s going on this Fredas, but I’ll check and let you know tonight. Is that all right?

“Great,” said Max. “Just let me know, so I’ll know whether to dust off my suit!” Cari giggled as she waved and went back to her school building.

Max was pleased to see Aunt Teri driving his trolley home that afternoon. He was about to mention his conversation with her niece, but from her smile, it was clear she already knew. Later that evening, Max received Cari’s message. She was free on Fredas evening, and would be happy to go to the Metro Solitude Amateur Sports Ball with him! Max was relieved, but immediately realized he’d have to make sure Cari had a good time. So how am I going to do that? he thought as he lay down. No answers came to him before he drifted off, dreaming of flying candy, cobblestones, and older kids who were much quicker than he was.


Back to Part I

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