JunoMagic's Birthday Stories Playlist 2006
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Inheriting the Earth: 1. Inheriting the Earth
"Yeah, that's him," he replied. Jake looked skeptical. "No joke—boss brought him by, said we should keep out of the way, unless he asks for something."
"I know the boss and him were friends from Korea... or whenever," Jake said and waved a hand. "Never did get all those dates. But man, he coulda said he was hiring someone's grandpa!"
"He's the boss. Says he's a first class grease monkey."
"Must be a pain to clean out of that hair. He's seriously gonna make that engine run again?"
"Boss thinks so."
Jake whistled softly, then grinned. "Master Li's in the house, and we get paid to sit. I like it! Wonder if he can fix that stupid pump while he's—"
There was a coughing sputter, and then the whine of gears and pistons churning up to speed. The two young mechanics turned to see Li wiping his hands off on a rag, seeming quite pleased. He gave the engine casing a proprietary pat, then carefully shut it down again.
"There you are; she's good as new," he told them.
"Weeks we've been working on that! And nothing!" Jake exclaimed. Li snorted and gave him an appraising look, then harrumphed.
"Course you have," he grunted. "I don't know what they teach you in these fancy schools of yours, but it isn't craft. No pride, no love, just pieces and parts as dead as an or—never mind. It's working now. Tell Mr. Walker it's done. I'll let myself out."
Nevertheless, Miguel, after a moment, followed him to the door, which opened onto the long row of dockside business. Tugs and boats dotted the harbor and a hot breeze was blowing. Across the lot, the shop sign—Walker's Repairs: Family Owned Since 1910—swayed, unsettling a gull that had perched atop it.
"I said I'd let myself out, lad. There's no need for you to be hanging about in doorways," Li said, without even looking back, and Miguel jumped a little in surprise. Li turned and gave him a bit of a glare. "I may be an old grease monkey with oil in his beard, but I'm not deaf, son, you know."
Ouch, Miguel thought, and winced, and quickly apologized: "Sorry. Jake doesn't mean nothin' by it, sir."
"I'll say!" Li grumbled. Then he sighed. "Well, what is it, then?" he demanded.
"I just..." Miguel paused. History was no more to him than it was to Jake; he had always been too busy taking things apart or putting them back together again to be bothered with stuff that was good for nothing but fighting over. But he knew Mr. Walker, who had gotten him this job in his shop, thought differently.
"Almost a hundred years my family's been in this business," his white-haired employer was in the habit of saying to him, and more and more often now, Miguel had noticed. "A long time. I'm not looking forward to taking that sign down, but I suppose if the gift just isn't given, well... Well. Better this shop go to someone who's got it, family or no. Someone who likes old things, likes seeing them made new again. Pity Li isn't younger."
So he would say, and smile at Miguel, and then retreat to his private office—really his workshop, since half of it was given over to more delicate parts in need of care. And for all that Miguel was not one to dwell on ancient history, he thought he understood a little; at least the part about old things being made new again. He was also fairly certain that Jake didn't, who was wont to complain that some of the jobs they got should just be tossed and the owners advised to buy something new, or at least to order out new parts instead of trying to fix them.
And so now here was old Li, Mr. Walker's strange old friend from Korea (or someplace and some war, somewhen), whom Miguel had heard so much about and frankly been hoping to meet at some point, and he was... not exactly what he would've expected. Miguel had a couple of Korean neighbors, and Mrs. Woo came up taller on him than Mr. Li did, and what with that bristly beard, he looked like he came out of one of those old photographs from a hundred years ago or more, back when the Walkers had first moved out West to set up their shop. And he certainly didn't seem Korean, either, or anything else.
But he had gotten that engine to start, and Jake hadn't been lying when he'd said they'd been working on it weeks without getting anywhere. "It—she sounded good," he said at length, only mildly surprised by how easily that 'she' came to him, after having heard Li say it once. "We couldn't get her going right; there was always this rattle and then that plug would snap..." He paused. "How did you do it?"
At that, Li's face cleared rather remarkably. "Trade secret, lad," he replied, and chuckled. But then he cast a speculative dark eye over Miguel, and said, after a moment, "Old Walker's been a sad sight these last ten years, I tell you. He keeps looking at that sign and sighing over the daughter in law school and the son writing his screeds at the local paper. You know his son told him he ought to sell this place, that it'd be worth more to his retirement than keeping it?" Li gave a disgusted shake of his head. Then: "If you want to learn, you should come by sometime. I live down by the point, there, just under the hill." This, as he gestured with one well-muscled arm to the strip of land jutting out into the bay some ways north.
"Could I?" Miguel asked, eagerly.
"I think you should. Ask Walker to bring you by next time he goes out to the point. He won't say 'no.'"
"Thank you, Mr. Li!"
"Good afternoon, lad." With that, Li strode away towards the bus stop, moving remarkably quickly for a short, stocky old man.
For of course, of all the things that 'Li' was, an old man he was not. The elder children of the earth do not die as do the younger. Bodies wore out with time, and more quickly than of old, it was true, for Mahal's people were not immortal, save only in spirit, as are all the speaking peoples of the world. But still, they endured longer than most Men, which was good, for they were few who were chosen to return, again and again, and there was much to take care of in the world, while Men wrought their changes and then departed. One day, the Last Breaking would come, and all the long learning of the Dwarves of the foundations of the world would be gathered then to mend what had been Marred so very long ago...
But that was yet to come. Today, there was a new apprentice, who might perhaps learn something of the old way in care of the new things of this thinning world, whose matter could hardly bear the spirits put in it anymore it seemed. Not as it had once, and even in days not so long ago as the First Awakening. He remembered, if much more dimly now, the feel of flesh made of that younger earth, so much stronger than this present form, which tired so very quickly.
And the task not even so weighty now as it was then, when the Dark Lord might have ended the Dominion of Men ere ever it began. Now it is come, the world is more fragile, even as they are, and they change it so... Ah well. We all have our long tasks, he thought as he boarded the bus and caught a glimpse through the window of the young lad staring after him still. And in amidst that long, steady effort to maintain the world, there was the other—necessary, and necessarily shorter, but to tend the spark that might make another custodian of the earth and its things was no small thing, however small the effect might seem. And I am already weary! But no matter. Dwarves make light of burdens, and as for every body, the way forward to the final end was one day at a time.
I should note that I am perhaps the most unmechanical, impractical person on the face of the planet. So please don't ask exactly what sorts of engines and gizmos Walker's Repairs deals with, or how you go about fixing them, because I haven't the foggiest notion.
Dwarven reincarnation and mythology: "For they say that Aulë the Maker, whom they call Mahal, cares for them, and gathers them of Mandos in halls set apart; and that he declared to their Fathers of old that Ilúvatar will hallow them and give them a place among the Children in the End. Then their part shall be to serve Aulë and to aid him in the remaking of Arda after the Last Battle. They say also that the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves return to live again in their own kin and to bear once more their ancient names..."—"Of Aulë and Yavanna," Silmarillion, 42.
Obviously, I'm taking a liberty in saying there might be others besides the seven fathers of the Dwarves who return, but if anyone else were a candidate for continual reincarnation for some Valar-appointed task, I know who my money would be on...
"Dwarves make light of burdens"—"The Ring Goes South," FOTR
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