Keenin stood peering up at the second story windows of Alaban’s house for any sign of movement. After spending the night hiding between the houses where his friends wouldn’t find him, Keenin had felt exposed. Now, he started to feel stupid. He knew that he should have waited longer, but after jolting awake that morning, all he could think about was Alaban assuming he had run away.
As he dropped his gaze, Keenin again noticed the water barrel Alaban kept by his house. Keenin went over to inspect his appearance. He scooped some dead leaves off the top of the water and in the reflection saw that the patches of scraped skin on his face had scabbed over in the night, leaving his face dirty with dried blood. He splashed some water on his face and rubbed it clean. Then, he looked at his arms and stuck those in the barrel too. While he was busy scrubbing, the door to the house opened.
“You’re supposed to use that for drinking,” Alaban called to him from the doorway.
Keenin halted in his task and lifted his eyes. Did this mean he wasn’t hired?
Alaban smiled at seeing Keenin’s nervous expression.
“Don’t worry about it,” Alaban told him, “I have a pump in the back. That water has been sitting there for ages. Take out that cork at the bottom.”
The man pointed down to the plug sticking out at the bottom of the barrel. Keenin saw the cork and reached down to pull it out so the water started to drain onto the grass.
“Now come on in.”
The inside of the house was dark. Unlike the second floor, there were no windows, and if it were not for a few lit candles Keenin would not have been able to see anything when Alaban shut the door. As it was, he could only distinguish the outlines of plant bundles hanging from the ceiling and a bookshelf that held substances stored in glass jars.
As his eyes adjusted, Keenin saw that the only other furnishings in the room were a stone fireplace, a rack of pots and pans, and a dining table that held some jars and different tools that must have been for potion making. Stairs to the second floor ran up along the left wall. Alaban had picked up some dry grass from the table and was trying to light it under the logs in the fireplace, but the match wasn’t catching. Presently he gave up the task and called Keenin over to the table.
“Here is all I want you to do today,” Alaban said setting a stone bowl and a bundle of what looked like fern leaves in front of Keenin. “I want you to strip the seeds into this bowl and crush them into powder with the pestle. It will take you a while, so don’t get impatient. I’m going to go out for some matches.”
Before he got out the door, Alaban picked up some of the jars that had been left on the table and went to place them on the shelf. Keenin wondered if any of the ingredients were dangerous. They must have all been worth something. Alaban should not trust him so much Keenin thought. But as Keenin ignored the opportunity for theft and turned to the task assigned, a different question came to mind.
“What plant is this?” Keenin asked, feeling that he should know what he was working with.
“It’s a Ciliac. It’s used to increase immunity to infections,” Alaban explained as he reached up to slide the last jar onto the top of the bookshelf because the lower shelves were full, “Try not to waste the seeds. The leaves can go on the floor.”
Alaban locked the door when he left and Keenin realized that the man wasn’t so much trusting as he was in control of the situation.
Keenin sat at the table and picked up the crushing pestle to feel the weight of it. Then, he put the object down and started sliding the seeds off the underside of the fern leaves. With the seeds in the stone bowl, he faced his first problem. The seeds liked to scatter out of the way when hit with the stone pestle. He couldn’t afford to waste ingredients with his violent movements, so instead he held the pestle right against the seeds to scrape them back and forth against the bowl. His continued efforts were just starting to achieve a powdery mix when Alaban returned with matches and a mysterious paper bag, which he set on top of the fireplace mantle before occupying himself with getting the fire to start. Once a fire was lit, Alaban came to inspect Keenin’s work.
“I thought you would be done by now. How did you manage to leave whole seeds?” Alaban said holding the mortar.
“You must be strong if you can do better,” Keenin said.
“It shouldn’t be that hard. How are you crushing them?” Alaban asked returning the bowl to the table.
Keenin demonstrated the side to side motion.
“Ah. You’re supposed to crush in a circle,” Alaban explained, “I’ve been at this so long that I forgot that not everyone knows how to do it.”
Keenin felt cheated. He had put in all that effort and it could hardly be recognized.
“Do I need to keep crushing? My hands are getting tired,” Keenin explained.
It was true. With the force he had used in his faulty crushing method his hands had grown red and sore. There would be blisters for sure.
“You can give it to me,” Alaban said.
Keenin handed the mortar and pestle over, and Alaban quickly finished crushing the mixture. He then left the bowl on the table while he retrieved a jar from the shelf. Alaban unscrewed the lid of the half-filled jar and poured in the newly crushed powder.
“Do you think I could mix potions?” Keenin asked.
“No. Not today,” Alaban said to Keenin’s disappointment. “It takes some precision and I don’t have the time to supervise you. Today, I need you to fill up the rest of this jar. It’s important work, so no complaints. If you can do that, then I can bring us some dinner after I try to sell some goods.”
Alaban left the open jar on the table. Keenin watched him go over the travel case full of potions that had been stored beside the shelf, and crouch down to inspect the contents. Keenin guessed he should have known better than to complain about a job he had volunteered for.
“Where do I get the plants?” Keenin asked gloomily.
Alaban locked up the case, lifted his heavy cargo, and turned around one more time.
“They’re all tied to the rafters. You can stand on your chair to reach them. All the ones on this beam are Celiac plants,” he said tapping the beam with his fingers. “If it doesn’t look like a Celiac plant then don’t crush it.”
Having given his instructions, Alaban headed for the door.
“Oh,” he said leaning in on the door, “There’s some bread in the bag on the mantle.”
Then he was gone.
In the dim light of the fire, surrounded by bunches of weedy plants, Keenin crushed seeds. Every once in a while, he took another bite of the bread he had torn away from the loaf. He had already eaten half the bread and was tempted to retrieve the half still stored in the bag, but he restrained himself, remembering Alaban’s promise of more food.
When the fire started to sputter out he wondered how long Alaban would be gone. Could he be hunting deer? Surly not even that task would take an entire day. He wondered what time it was. With no windows, it was impossible to tell.
The front door finally rattled and banged open, and Alaban emerged with a big pot under one arm and his case in the other.
“The neighbor gave me leftover soup so that’s what we get,” Alaban announced.
Keenin got a glimpse of a golden sky before the door shut and smothered the room in darkness once more.
“Why the hell is it so damn cold and dark in here?” Alaban asked as he walked precariously towards the table.
The lit candles still marked some of the features of the house. Keenin didn’t know what to say.
“Speak if you’re here, kid.”
Keenin jumped a little as he realized how close the man had come. Alaban was already making room on the table for the pot.
“I’ve just been working,” Keenin said.
“Why did you let the damn fire go out?”
“I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to keep it going and you didn’t show me where the wood was.”
“Didn’t know to keep a fire going,” Alaban mumbled.
He leaned in to slide the pot on the table and something crunched.
“Damn,” Alaban said, “That was my potion box. All right! Clear whatever mess you made to the side and get up. You’re getting some wood.”
Keenin watched as Alaban used a match to light the dry grass under the logs and slide in some small branches and bark that caught fire long enough for the big logs to start burning by themselves.
With that done, they sat down for some soup. It was home cooked and delicious – worth everything he had done that day. Except that day was ending. He would have to go back out in the cold and find another place to hide. After all, this wasn’t his house. Regretfully, the food lost its flavor. Keenin put the spoon down and considered his reflection in the metal.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Keenin said.
He would just tell Lester that he got chased by a dog and had to visit here a few times since the old hero was treating him.
“I don’t think so,” Alaban said to Keenin’s mention of tomorrow.
“You want me to leave,” Keenin stated.
Had he done that badly?
“Where did you hear that?” Alaban said. “You can sleep down here and keep the fire going. I’m all about early mornings.”
“But…” Keenin protested. “My friends will misunderstand.”
“Your friends would never let you go anywhere even if you wanted to,” Alaban said. “Think about it for yourself tonight because I intend to make you my apprentice.”
Alaban finished his bowl and put the lid back over the pot that rested between them on the table.
“But that’s crazy,” Keenin protested.
Alaban carried the empty pot to the front door and placed it down.
“Heh. I was thinking about it for a while.” He looked back at Keenin. “I liked how honest you are and how you stood up for yourself. If you don’t want to admit that you’d rather be here you’re free to go back to where the world dumped you.”
“But then…can’t you take more than one apprentice.”
What about his friend Lester?
“No,” Alaban said. “If you want to help them, you need to be respected. Any of those thieves would empty this home and leave you in the dirt.”