"The Word for Family Is Forest"
Stuck on a homework assignment
from school, Danso felt torn between
wanting to ask for help and wanting
to figure the darn thing out for himself.
How was he supposed to make a family tree
for the kind of family he lived in now?
Sure, he could list his parents and
grandparents but the worksheet said
to include everyone you lived with ...
So Danso did what he'd come to think of
as a good way to settle disordered thoughts:
he went outside to take a walk. It always
made him feel more optimistic about
finding a solution to whatever
was bothering him.
Outside, the weather was warm
and bright, the air full of noise from
the construction crew down the street.
Their team had been going around
the neighborhood from block to block,
fixing potholes and broken curbs and
things that various houses needed.
When Danso saw that they had
roped off the whole street and
both of the sidewalks, he groaned.
"Don't feel too put out. It's only for
today and tomorrow," someone said.
Danso looked over to find the
skinny black teenager whom
Amada had mentioned --
Gideon, that was his name.
"I just really need to take a walk,
and this cat's cradle is in the way,"
Danso grumbled, waving a hand
at the mess of string and yellow tape.
"Now I'll have to turn around and go back."
Gideon grinned back at him. "I guess
it does look like a string game, doesn't it?"
he said. "We're doing the survey today,
that's what all these stakes and string and
flags are for. Tomorrow we'll do the street work,
then we can tidy up the place and move on."
Something flickered in Danso's mind
as his eyes roved over the lines, tracing
patterns he couldn't quite bring into focus.
He wished that his superpower would settle,
but no, it kept picking up bits and pieces
of who-knew-what at unpredictable times.
"What's all this for?" Danso asked.
"Well, this outer line marks our work area,
where it's not safe to go without a hardhat
and steel-toed boots," Gideon said, rapping
on his hat as he indicated the yellow tape.
"Then these strings show where we'll be working,
and the flags tell us where the buried utilities are --
red for electricity, orange for communications, and so on."
"Wow. Did you do all these yourself?" Danso asked
as they walked alongside the near perimeter.
"Nah, I'm not certified for survey work yet,"
said Gideon. "I just know what they mean,
because I'm studying up for it so that
I can take the test eventually. I'll get
paid more if I can string a site."
Danso squinted at them as his superpower
flittered around trying to put the pieces together
inside his head. He wasn't consciously aiming it
but it was working anyway. All of a sudden, the site
lit up for him, with all the angles and ideas done in
glowing golden lines so that Danso could see
the municipal infrastructure that made up
the neighborhood around him.
It was amazing. It was beautiful.
It was utterly captivating.
Then he made the mistake of
turning toward the city center,
and everything caught the light
like the skyline at night.
The next thing Danso knew, he was
flat on his back in the grass with
a very worried Gideon and
an even worrieder Amada
leaning over him.
"Jeez, man, what happened?"
Gideon asked as Danso sat up.
"You really scared us for a minute!"
"I, uh, kind of zoned out on civics
and geometry," Danso admitted.
"Flickering again?" Amada asked
in a low voice as she helped him
clamber to his feet, surreptitiously
patting him down for injuries.
"Yeah, I guess so," Danso said.
He cast a worried glance at Gideon.
"We're smooth with it here,"
Gideon said with a firm nod.
"Boss does not hold with bigotry
of any kind, and likes to hire all sorts
of people." He jerked a thumb at himself.
"Black. Gay." Then he motioned at Amada.
"Nice Hispanic lady. You'd fit right in too,
if you're looking for a job."
Danso chuckled. "Thanks, but no, I have
my hands full with school and family, which is
actually what sent me out wanting a walk today."
"Oh dear, is Lakia being a pest again?"
Amada asked. "If she's still hiding your textbooks
to keep you from leaving, that's got to stop."
"No, this is a class assignment," Danso said.
"I'm supposed to make a family tree, but ..."
He shrugged. "It's complicated."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
Gideon asked. "Do you want
a bottle of water, or something
with calories after what happened?"
Danso opened his mouth to say
that he was fine, but then realized
that he was actually ravenous.
"Calories would be good," he said.
"Here, I've got Bombay mix," Gideon said,
tugging a bag out of his pocket. "I'll get you
some water -- that stuff is great, but it's spicy.
One of my coworkers had me tracking down
all kinds of weird snacks, and that one
turned out to be worth keeping."
"Thanks," Danso said as he accepted it.
The Bombay mix tasted like party mix
with curry powder on it. The stuff was
so salty and spicy that he could see why
people liked it when they were working
and sweating outdoors a lot. It helped
fill the hole in his belly, too.
"So what about your homework
has you so stumped?" Amada asked.
"I'm not sure how to find more than
my parents and grandparents, or
how to organize all the people
in my life now," Danso admitted.
"Well, I could help you with it,"
Amada offered. "I've always been
interested in my family's history,
so it's no trouble to show you
how to look things up."
That reminded Danso of something
he'd seen in Social Studies that
the teacher had called an ego-map
and all the lines running to and fro,
which reminded him of the city
with its glowing net of lines,
which made his head start
spinning all over again.
Danso closed his eyes and
minded his breathing,
and after a few moments,
the vertigo eased off.
"Could we ... maybe ... find a way
to put in all of my families?" he asked.
"Because there was my mother and
the rest of where I came from, followed
by the kids I picked up, then Hannah and
Aidan, plus your whole clan, and I just don't
think it's all going to fit on the plain form
that I got from class. I don't have
a family tree, I have a forest."
"It might take some fancy footwork with
a good genealogy program, but I think
we can make it happen," Amada said.
"You're not the only person who wants
to map out a pinnate family. I've been
talking with Hannah about this, and she
says that it's happening more often because
superkids are so hard for ordinary parents
to raise, but it's not fair to cut the ties when
nobody has done anything wrong."
"So they do what we're doing?" Danso guessed.
"They figure out how to share their lives so that
everyone's needs get met, even if it's not
the usual shape that a family takes."
"I don't think there's a usual type of family,"
Amada said. "They're like snowflakes --
all built on the same framework of love,
but every one is still unique."
"I like that idea," Danso said.
"Come on, walk with me to the office,"
Amada said. "You can have some water
and we'll start on your homework."
Danso followed her along the narrow edge
between the tape and the houses, so that
they could reach the back of the office trailer
without crossing into the construction zone.
Even though his superpower had
quit flickering around, his head was
still glowing with golden lines.
* * *
The title of this poem is a riff on the classic science fiction story "The Word for World Is Forest" by Ursula K. LeGuin. You can buy it here.
Mindful walking is a useful coping skill. Many people find that it helps them think. Despite all the challenges in his life, Danso is doing pretty well because he has ways of dealing with issues as they come up.
Surveying a construction site helps people visualize what is hidden or what is planned. Here's a simple example for preparing a foundation.
Utility flags are placed by local authorities, and color-coded to mark different types of buried objects, to avoid accidents during private or professional construction. Note that in Terramagne-America, sewage is marked with a black flag and graywater with gray. Green is for underground "green technology" such as manure bed heating, compost or cisterns, etc.
All powers have a price. With superpowers, one of the more common examples is that overstrain can cause fainting. Most people will keel over briefly if they push their abilities too hard, and it can happen unwittingly like this, especially with a new power. Danso's base power isn't very new, but it keeps morphing itself and picking up everything else, which means he can flicker into totally unfamiliar techniques like this. In this regard, the symptom is just like ordinary fainting which happens when the metabolism goes out of whack: it's a way to make the body horizontal and quiet so that everything can reset. First aid for fainting simply involves being still for a little while, not overexerting yourself again, and preferably getting something to eat and drink in case low supplies contributed to the problem. As long as the person recovers quickly, it's nothing to worry about; prolonged or frequent fainting should get medical attention to rule out serious causes.
Bombay mix is basically Indian party mix: a random assortment of crunchy nibblements. There are recipes for a simple version heating bought ingredients in oil and for making it from scratch with dough and everything.
A family tree may show descendants from one person or ancestors of one person, or occasionally other arrangements. You can make one online or by hand.
Family comes in many shapes. Pinnate leaves have multiple leaflets, hence using that to describe Danso's family. An ego map shows people in relation to a central figure, illustrating different types of kin naming systems. This helps people keep track of who their relatives are. When a culture evolves, they modify terms or make new ones to describe those relationships. As Danso's family demonstrates, superpowers can really complicate family ties.