Francois woke up a bit too early in the morning. He looked out his window and saw the beginnings of dawn pierce through the starry sky. He got out of bed and decided to take a morning stroll, when to his surprise he saw Almaty was already up too.
"I see you're an early riser too, Francois." Almaty said. "Why don't you start chopping this firewood? Breakfast won't be ready unless we have fuel for the stove." Almaty handed Francois her ax, and Francois dutifully cut the logs into halves, then fourths. By the time he was done, Caspian was awake too. Almaty had set Caspian to pull the weeds from the garden while she was in the kitchen cooking. Francois, not seeing much else to do, decided to help Caspian out.
Caspian was struggling to use a rope to pull a bucket out the well in the center of the garden. Francois stood behind Caspian and started pulling on the rope as well. Suddenly, the bucket began to rise. Caspian watched with glee as he pulled the bucket all the way up, only for him to turn around and disappoint himself. From there, they both got to work tending to some of the starfruit and chives.
"Francois, you really are a Gypsy?"
"Yes, that is true."
"Wow. I've never met a Gypsy in real life before. You Gypsies like to travel don't you? I bet you've been all over!"
Francois had a bit of a pained expression on his face when Caspian mentioned traveling, but he managed mutter out the words, "Yes, that is true."
"I can't believe you came here all the way from France. The pictures in those magazines must have really been something, huh. Do you have any pictures of the old Aral Sea? Back when it had water?"
Francois felt around in his pocket, and pulled out a brochure in French about a new job opportunity as a pilot. He thought, "The kid's hardly old enough to read. There's no harm in showing him this."
"Wow!" Caspian said, "So that's what it looked like."
Francois raised his eyebrow, "Wait, Caspian. You have never even seen the sea with all it's water?"
"It dried up before I was born," responded Caspian.
Now Francois had to ask, "Then why do you like the Sea so much? I mean, you never even got to it in all it's glory."
Caspian answered with a smile, "My parents used to tell me all these stories about the sea, about the fishes, the birds, the waves, the villagers. It really felt like I was actually there."
Although Francois wasn't fully satisfied with this answer, he chalked it up to childhood romanticism of a long gone era.
"Breakfast's ready!" shouted Almaty.
And thus, Francois spent the next few days doing much of the same. Helping out with chores in the morning, spending much of the days in the desert "looking for buried treasure" with Caspian, occasionally walking a few miles to the neighbors' houses to borrow or lend materials, and of course, eating lots of Almaty's home cooked meals along the way. His ankle got better to the point where he could walk and even run mostly fine, just with a little lingering pain with every other step he took.
Finally, it was the day that Caspian's parents were set to return. Almaty had prepared her most intricate meal yet, Sorpa, Pilaf, some more Kazy (Francois by now had learned that the Kazy he ate the first night wasn't originally intended for him), and some kumys to drink. The preparations seemed all set when there was a knock on the door.
"Mom, Dad!" Caspian shouted and ran to the door. But it wasn't Caspian's parents, it was one of Almaty's neighbors, Talghar.
"Oh, Talghar, were you planning on welcoming Caspian's parents back too?" asked Almaty.
"No," said Talghar, in a solemn tone, "I'm afraid I have some bad news."
"But before I tell it to you, I have to say I saw the strangest thing on the way here. About half way here from my house, I saw something half covered in a sand dune. The wind was blowing away some of the sand and saw the logo for Rukazco. I could just about tell that it was one of their planes. It must have crashed during that bad storm a few days ago. I wonder what happened to the pilot?"
"Hey," shouted Caspian, "That right about where I found you, Francois!"
Talghar hadn't yet met Francois and wasn't aware he was in the room until then. Talghar asked, "Are you that pilot?"
Almaty sent a sharp look towards Francois and told him, "Francois, don't tell me you're one of those no good pilots. Are you?"
Francois realized that his time here had been cut short. Even if he did lie, his appearance from out of nowhere was too suspicious for him to be free of the locals' doubt. "I won't lie anymore. It's true. I am a pilot for Rukazco, sent to scout good locations to start drilling for oil."
As she heard this, Almaty became furious. "For days I housed you, fed you thinking you were some lost tourist. This whole time, you were one of them?" She pointed at the door. "OUT!" Francois stood up, and took his leave. Talghar's disapproving look followed him out the door. As he walked into the desert, he heard the faint sound of Almaty's voice, "To think the Gypsies could sink so low as to steal my hospitality? Everyday they seem to push the boundaries of what's possible."
Unsure where to go now, he walked to where Talghar said his plane was. Lo and behold! He could just about make out half of a silver frame of an upside down plane. He dug it the sand around it until he had uncovered most of it. "Let's see what the damage is here."
Both wings had snapped off completely from the rest of the frame. He flipped the plane over and opened up the bay to the engine. Everything looked surprisingly good on the inside. "Worst case scenario," he thought, "I can just drive this like a car to the nearest big village, and then make a phone call to Rukazco headquarters to get me out of here."
"Wait! Francois! Don't Go!" A teary eyed Caspian came chasing after Francois. "Please, take me with you!"
"Caspian, where I'm going is no place for a kid. Be a good boy now and go back to your Grandmother."
"No," sobbed Caspian, "You have to understand. My parents are missing. Talghar told me that there's going to be a war soon. Now everything's mixed up and no one knows where anyone is. Please, Francois, you have to help me find my parents."
"Look, kid as I said, where I'm going---"
"Wait! Look at what I have here." Caspian pulled out a bundle of cloth and unwrapped it. Inside was some of Almaty's Kazy. Francois took one look at the Kazy, then looked at Caspian's face again. No one knows why he decided to take the boy along with him. He wasn't seriously persuaded by the little bit of horse meat -- Francois had known too many nights on an empty stomach to let hunger hold so much power over him. Maybe Francois saw a little of his younger self in the boy. The only one who knew what was inside his heart at that moment was Francois.
"Alright, Caz, get in the plane."
Caspian got in the back seat. "How are we going to fly this thing with no wings?"
Francois dryly said, "We won't."
Francois and Caspian were speeding through the desert sands on a plane with no wings. They could feel the wind blowing in their faces at 70 miles an hour.
"Hey Francois," asked Caspian, "I thought Gypsies like to travel in groups. Why are you all alone?"
Somehow, despite only knowing Francois for only a few days, this boy had managed to ask a question that pierced deep into his soul. Francois calmly responded, "I haven't really been a Gypsy for a long time. I was separated from my family at the age of six."
"You were separated from your family?!" asked Caspian. "Why?"
"You see, when I was 6 years old, I walked away from my family and went into a store to take some biscuits. I had done this a million times and never been caught before. I was so small that the cashier couldn't even see me stuffing all the packets of biscuits into my pockets from behind the counter. This time, though, right as I was about to leave, a police man walked into me and bumped me. I fell over, and the policeman looked down. He extended his arm to help me get up, but when I did, all the biscuits fell out of my pockets."
"The policeman said 'Aha! Another Gypsy child, ey?' The policeman, already holding me, lifted me up and carried me to the police station. My whole family was at another store nearby and saw me being carried away. They chased him outside and begged the policeman to stop, but he wouldn't listen. They followed him all the way to the police station, where he put me in a back room."
"I couldn't hear what was going on outside the room, but eventually, the policeman came back in. He said to me, 'Those Gypsies don't know how to raise a child. Where you were was no place for a kid. We're going to find someplace much better for you.' A few hours later, another man in a brown coat walked in and told me that we were leaving. I kicked and screamed but he managed to drag me all the way to the train station. I remember him telling me, 'The farther away you are from home, the easier time you'll have forgetting it.' A few days later, we had reached our destination, somewhere in southern France. He dropped me off at the Francoise orphanage, gave me the new name Francois Francoise, and that's where I stayed for the next 12 years."
"Didn't you ever try to go back?" asked Caspian.
"Oh, of course, I did. I ran away when I was fourteen, and found my way back to the same place the policeman took me from, but you know how Gypsies never stay in one place for too long. I looked and asked everywhere I remembered being with them but no one could recall seeing any Gypsies in that area. After a few weeks of searching, I decided to go back."
"You went back? Why?"
"I had spent too long in the orphanage. I didn't know anymore how to live on the outskirts of society traveling from place to place and getting kicked out from everywhere. The orphanage was the only thing I knew."
"Years later, a man in a fancy suit from Rukazco Oil came to the orphanage and asked if anyone was about to turn 18. Very few people there knew their real age, but I was the closest man to 18 according to the birth dates they gave us. He told me about an exciting new job opportunity far away, where I could make lots of money very quick. I believed every word he said and I found myself in pilot school soon after."
"Hmm..." Caspian asked, "What's your real name Francois?"
Francois paused for a moment, then grew silent.
"Come on, Francois! What's your real name?"
He stayed silent. It almost seemed like he wouldn't speak, when after half a minute he finally said "Florin."
Neither of the two spoke for the rest of the trip.
Looking out over the horizon, Caspian was the first to spot the village.
"Hey look! It's a city or something. Let's stop over there."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Caz. Let's just see how far we can keep going." Florin took a peek at the fuel indicator. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn't realized that they were running on fumes. "Okay, Caz. Let's go check it out."
He turned the plane towards the village and hoped for the best. They came across a sandy footpath, that slowly turned into a paved road. He pulled into the village and slowed down.
They were coming to a stop when sirens started blaring through the village. All the townsfolk ran inside, leaving Caspian and Florin as the only two left. Soldiers rushed from concrete bunkers and surrounded the plane holding guns in their hands. "Танкдан чиқинг!" Florin had no idea what they were saying. Since Caspian's own language was closer to the one they spoke here, he somewhat understood and slowly started getting out of the vehicle.
"Сиз ҳам, кародам!" The soldiers pointed their guns at Florin. He decided to follow Caspian's example. "Ҳаракат!" They were walked towards a square, concrete building with no windows. The soldiers closed the door behind them. They were in darkness, until a harsh white lightbulb turned on in the middle of the room.
A soldier went up to Florin and stood in his face, "Сиз қайси мамлакатда ишлайсиз?" Both Florin and Caspian were at a loss. "Сиз тинч одамсиз! Сиз емасми!" The soldier took a baton and swung at Florin's stomach. Florin fell to his knees. "Бу одамни қидиринг!" Two soldiers picked him up by the elbows, while a third searched his pockets. "Аҳа!", the soldier pulled out a small card from Florin's pocket and started to examine it. "Бу нима? Сіз Ресей-Қазақстан мұнай компаниясында жұмыс істейсіз бе?"
This time, Caspian chimed in, "Ол қазақ тілін білмейді. Орыс тілін көріңіз."
Florin thought he heard a few familiar words. "Are you talking about Rukazco? Yes, that's my ID card."
"Ahh," the guard's face turned into a smile. "Why didn't you just say so," he looked at the ID card again, "Francois?" The guard turned to another guard and said to him, "Бу одамларни озод қилинг. Улар яхши. Уларга стулларни олинг." They were promptly given two chairs. "We have specifically been given strict orders to grant all Rukazco employees free passage."
"Francois..." the guard continued, "You are French? What sorry man must you have been in France for them to send you all the way out here?" He and a few other guards started laughing. One of the other guards started translating the conversation, then shortly after, even more guards joined in with their ethnic guttural laughs, "ҳа ҳа ҳа ҳа ҳа".
"кутинг!" Shouted the first guard. As quick as a tiger spotting his prey, the soldiers straightened their posture and went silent. "бу нима?" The guard snatched something from Caspian. He opened the bundle of cloth. "Kazy?" The guards started laughing again, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to get good Kazy around here?" He rewrapped the Kazy in its cloth, then slid it into one of his bulletproof vest's many pockets. He looked at one of the guards again and whispered, "Биз бу ерда тугатдик," then left the room. The lights were off again and both Caspian and Florin were picked up again. The door opened, and they were thrown into the sand outside. The door closed behind them.
"Hey!" Florin got up and shouted. He saw that the same soldier was now outside, directing two men in a tow truck who were pulling his plane away. "What are you doing with my plane?"
The guard looked back at Florin. "All scrap metal must go towards the Glorious War effort!"
Florin watched as they towed his plane somewhere east towards the frontline. "You can't do that. That's my plane!"
Now Florin was standing right next to the guard motioning the tow truck. Looking back at Florin, the guard patted him on the back with one hand, still directing the men with other. "One day," he said, "Your country will look back at your sacrifice. And SALUTE YOU." The soldier stood up straight and saluted the plane as it passed. He stood in that pose for the greater part of 5 seconds.
"This isn't even my country!" Florin shouted, but by then it was too late. The plane seemed to be just another silver blip in the pink sands.
"C'mon Caz," Florin went to Caspian, who was still on the ground rubbing his knee. "Let's find a phone, and we'll call home and tell your Grandmother all that's happened."
"I wouldn't do that," said the soldier. "The region is in a strict lock down. All communications to the outside world have been cut off."
"Yeah," said Florin, "but we aren't from here. It's just a little bit north. Can't you make an exception?"
"All communications means all communications. Even right across the border. The telephone wires were physically cut."
Florin and Caspian now realized what a predicament they were in. Stuck on the border of a foreign country with no money, no food, no way of getting around, and a minimal grasp of the local language.
Caspian's Grandmother must be worried sick.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.