Characters and places belong to the powers that be at Paramount. Thanks to Rob Morris for his feedback, especially in developing the character of Sally.
Sally pounds at the piano, her body swaying, her eyes closed. She sings low and throaty, her voice rich with emotion. She is practicing diligently, oblivious to my presence just a few feet away.
I watch her, thinking some things never change.
It is true; you can go home again.
Sally started in Dad's kitchen as a scullery maid; she peeled the potatoes.
Now I peel the potatoes.
There is no disgrace in that.
On the contrary, I enjoy sitting in the doorway, feeling the damp, sticky air of New Orleans weave its way beneath my skin. I cherish the rough dryness of potatoes in my hands, feeling their slight warmth, as I rip away the skin to reveal the starchy tuber beneath.
Idle hands make work for the devil, my mother would say.
Devil or pagh wraith? Are they the same? Does it even matter?
And so I work more furiously as Sally sings, her voice reaching into every corner of Dad's restaurant.
I do not think of Deep Space Nine.
No, let me rephrase that.
I try not to think of Deep Space Nine as it is now. I cannot because it is the symbol of my greatest failure.
Six years ago, I would not have taken myself so seriously; I would not have considered that as Emissary, I had a duty to the Bajoran people.
The Benjamin Sisko of six years ago was widower, father and officer - in that order. Bajor and its people mattered little or not at all. It was easier when I did not care.
Disinterest is an easier emotion to manage than this hollowness, this feeling of emptiness and loss. Neutrality allows the luxury of walking away without little or no thought. More to the point, it permits one to do a job mechanically with no emotions necessary.
I miss them.
I miss Bashir's youthful enthusiasm, Odo's crankiness, Worf's stubborness… I miss them all.
That I care so much startles me. I still recall, in moments of frustration, how I hated Deep Space Nine when I first set foot on the station six years ago. It was easier to combat Kira's anger and Quark's pecuniary offenses when commanding Deep Space Nine and bridging the gap between Federation and Bajor was just a job.
Conversion did not come overnight. The line between Starfleet and Bajor blurred over the years until I did not know where the Captain ended and the Emissary began.
I prefer to think of it as an evolution.
I evolved, still evolve, will evolve... Sally's voice fades as I finish the last of the potatoes. I carry the pail into the kitchen, reveling the fierce smell of spices that attack my every sense.
Dad is already there, chopping okra. The sharp blade flashes in the light as he methodically decapitates the ends of the vegetables and stacking them to the side. A bowl of neatly cubed tomatoes, chopped mushrooms and onions sit next to him, ready to dump into the simmering broth on the stove.
"Gumbo?" I ask.
"Gumbo," he affirms. "Thank you."
Dad turns back to his chopping. Chop, chop, chop… I am mesmerized by the rapid movement of the blade.
"I can do that," I say. "You can go out front. Visit."
"It's all right," Dad says. "I can do it."
"No, Dad. Really."
"You shouldn't hide back here. It's not right."
"I am not hiding," I tell him stiffly. "I am offering to help. It's not the same thing."
"Sometimes it is."
I start piling the potatoes on the table, feeling anger swell up inside of me.
Dad puts down the knife and looks at me, "Another message arrived for you from Major Kira today."
I take the knife and pull the cutting board towards me. Already, I can feel sweat pooling on my back; it is oppressively hot in this room.
Some things never change.
As a small boy, I hated the kitchen, breathing in the spicy stickiness, feeling my shirt dampen under my armpits. In some ways, I felt I was removed from the actions of mixing, stirring, shaking; in other ways, I wanted to free myself from the oppression that bound both of my parents to the stove.
The stars, I knew, would give me a way out of the kitchen.
I would sit for hours staring up at the sky, wondering what was out there and wondering if it was my destiny to be out there, far away from the pungent aromas of the kitchen.
Every star represented an adventure. As I grew older and developed a fondness for the kitchen, I still felt the urge to learn and explore. There is only so much you can discover about gumbo, only so many experiments you can make - in short, finite solutions to finite questions.
I wanted - needed - more.
"What does it say?" I ask casually, knowing that Dad has already read Kira's message. He reads all of my messages and then tells me about them, thinking that he can stir my interest, make me care about what happens on Deep Space Nine.
I do care.
But there is a difference between actively caring and passively caring. I think, somewhere deep inside of me, I care about Deep Space Nine and my father does not need to convince me as much as he thinks he does.
But here, in the kitchen, I am away from all of that. Away from the miseries that plague the Federation, Bajor, Deep Space Nine. I can mix, stir, shake, until something forms beneath my sticky fingers. I can run my fingers through the flour, ignoring the grains that cling to me. I can do this all and not think of what I have left behind.
That, anyway, is the theory.
In practice, I am not sure.
I think Dad knows this. He recites the details of Kira's message in precise monotone, his eyes never straying from the kitchen floor.
"She said that the Dominion has taken the Jhintaka system," Dad says. "Says the casualty reports are growing longer. Says she hates posting them on Friday."
I keep chopping. "Sh
e says Jake is doing well," Dad says and I can hear the accusation in his voice.
When I first arrived in New Orleans three weeks ago, Dad looked at me in surprise, "You left the boy? You left Jake?"
The incredulity in his tone matched the disbelief still echoing in my mind and heart.
I don't know how I left Jake back on Deep Space Nine; I don't know how I moved forward, getting onto the transport that would take me home, and never once think about leaving Jake.
I think it helps when you are numb, when every limb of your body is heavy and your eyes are blurry; images around you are out of focus, almost like looking at everything from behind a wall of water.
I tried to explain to Dad. Tried to tell him that I didn't really mean to leave Jake. The truth is something more simple.
Jake didn't want to come, didn't want to leave.
Dad doesn't understand that sometimes you have to let go. That sometimes you have to do what will hurt you most.
Like leaving Jake.
"She asks when you're coming back," Dad says, a note of finality creeping into his voice.
I can't look at him; I'm still thinking about Jake.
"Ben?" he asks.
I lay the knife down on the cutting board and wipe my hands against my apron.
"I need to go for a walk," I tell him.
Dad says nothing but I can feel his glare on my back as I leave the kitchen. I fairly explode onto the streets of New Orleans, feeling the moisture weighing down on me.
New Orleans has not converted to climate control like so many other cities. Instead, it revels in its humidity, its inhabitants wearing the heat like a cloak.
I walk quickly, making my way through the streets that in some ways are so familiar and warm, but at the same time, strange.
There are places and people who have frozen in time, almost as if I set them down as carefully as a child would a toy with every intention of coming back after dinner to resume play.
The café where we ate beignets is still there, its brown, mustard yellow and black décor exactly as I remember. It's almost as if I'm a child again, sugar dripping down my chin, napkin at my throat. There is the barbershop quartet on the corner still singing the same tired tunes they sang the day I left New Orleans for good. Old Jim is still selling ice-cream cones at his little wooden stall and the Preacher Man screams his prophecies outside of the church, his voice rumbling through the stale air.
"Repent! Repent!" he screams. "And ye shall be saved."
And as I have in the past and will in the future, I walk on, not pausing to look into his hollow skull-face.
The air shimmers in front of me on the cobblestones as I turn onto St. Louis. There in front of me is cemetery number one. I pause, almost in shock, knowing, feeling, realizing, thinking…
The tombs are exactly as I remember them, the structures stained with moisture, and some are decorated with beads and graffiti. There are keepsakes in front of some, a bribe for the kind of favors only the dead can grant.
I wonder if at night, these cities come alive with the dead. Do they walk the narrow pathways between the tombs, dispensing favors and validating prayers?
Or is it just another superstition?
The death of superstition brings about the birth of religion.
I don't differentiate between the two. How can I?
Not for a single moment can I understand where one begins and the other ends. It is a circle, one of which I've become a part of, and one that I cannot, no matter how much I try, extricate myself from.
I turn abruptly from the cemetery - these so-called Cities of the Dead - and retrace my steps home.
When I return to the kitchen, Dad is still chopping with equanimity and precision. I am dripping with sweat and I replicate cold water, complete with a slice of lemon.
"You could have used the faucet," Dad says stiffly.
"This is easier," I shrug.
"You shouldn't take the easy way," Dad says.
We stare at each other and I dare him to say the words that will condemn me.
"Where did you go?" he inquiries instead.
"I don't know. I just did."
Dad resumes his chopping, "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"No," I answer.
"Do you know what you're looking for?"
There. The question finally asked. Oh so simple the words are, but oh so difficult to respond in a way that makes sense.
"No," I answer. "I don't."
"I thought so."
And because there is nothing else to say, I turn and walk out into the dining room. Sally is gone and I slide onto the bench, resting my fingers lightly on the piano. I press one key down. And then another, and another, and then four keys all together.
The music churns out from the heavy wooden upright, its notes echo my own tempestuous feelings. Discordant, loud, angry, and hopelessly without rhythm.
There is no place to slot the notes, no way to place them in a meter that makes sense.
A heavy hand rests on my shoulder, but I do not turn to look; I've known Sally's touch since I was a small child.
We are the same age, Sally and I. We grew up together, not just in age, but also in feeling. There was a time in my teens when I thought I would marry Sally. I don't know if she ever felt the same about me, if she felt the same feeling of comfort I did when I looked into her eyes.
Just before I went to Starfleet Academy, Sally and I sat on the porch, eating king cake. My fork stabbed into the tiny baby figurine hidden within. Sally laughed and said teasingly, "Next year, Ben, you owe me a cake. It's your responsibility. And we will sit here and eat it together."
It never happened because I met Jennifer and Sally's doe-eyes became a distant memory.
"Stop, Ben," Sally says, her voice soft and caressing.
"I can't," I tell her. "I have to… it makes me."
"What makes you?"
"I don't know."
"You can't keep running, Ben."
"You sound like Dad."
Sally crosses her arms across her chest, "Maybe it's because he's right?"
I turn to face her, but one hand still idly picks out notes.
"What are you doing here, Ben?" she asks. "Does it make sense for you to be here?"
Here, I'm learning, is a very relative term.
You can physically be some place but mentally elsewhere.
Mentally, I want - no, I need - to be somewhere else.
Somewhere near Bajor.
Which brings me back to Deep Space Nine.
What I can't say to Sally, and what I desperately need to say to someone, anyone, is that Deep Space Nine without the Prophets cannot be possible, cannot be real.
When I was a child, I would squeeze my eyes tight, thinking that whatever I was afraid of would disappear when I closed my lids upon the sight. As long as my eyes were closed, I could pretend the reason for my fear no longer existed.
I'm closing my eyes in New Orleans.
New Orleans is not joined with the Prophets in my mind; its religion is buried among the living in the cities of the dead.
"You have to go back eventually," Sally says with quiet certainty.
I pound out one last angry chord and then let my hands fall to my side.
"Eventually," I answer.
"Soon," she removes her hand from my shoulder.
My fingers pick out a few notes. B flat followed by A, and then back up to middle C and E flat.
"We are different, you and I," Sally says quietly. "You always believed in what could be and I only saw what was. You don't belong here, Ben. You never have."
"This is my home."
"You think this is your home," Sally replies. "Does it feel like home to you, Ben?"
I get up from the bench, taking a wide turn around Sally. She remains standing, her hand lightly stroking the wood of the piano.
"Back then… before everything… it would have been yes."
"Yes?" I ask awkwardly.
"In a heartbeat," she turns then and flashes me a smile. "But that was before." She closes the top of the piano and then says, "I'll see you tonight, Ben."
The evening slips in quietly, the sky fading from hazy blue to shimmers of lavender and gold and eventually into dark stillness.
I sit at the back door peeling more potatoes.
I could peel potatoes forever.
There is something so inconsequential about peeling a potato, knowledge that if something is wrong with the potato, I can toss it out and start again.
You cannot do that to an entire race of people.
I cannot tell the Bajoran people, "I ignored the Prophets, ignored their warnings, and I went ahead as Starfleet ordered. I did not think about you because at that moment, you did not matter. And because you did not matter, what matters most to you no longer exists."
I finish the potatoes and lug the pail into the kitchen. Outside, I can hear Sally singing and occasionally, laughing, with the patrons who are crowded around the wooden benches. They come for the food, they come for Sally, but most of all, they come for each other.
Upstairs, in my boyhood room, I stretch out on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. I turn my eyes just slightly to the left, I can see out the window, at the stars above.
At one time, those stars had beckoned to me, tantalizingly, alluringly.
Now I am frightened. Frightened that they will chew me up and spit me out.
The Emissary should not be frightened.
What Emissary? I laugh to myself. Should such a title exist when the Prophets have been banished to somewhere even I cannot go?
I sit up and look at the stack of data PADDs on my desk. I pick the most recent dispatch from Kira.
I have ignored these PADDs, assigning them a value even less than that of a potato.
Kira's messages are short and terse. There is no hint of her personality in the even-tempered messages she writes. She tells me sincerely what has happened in the previous week and offers no analysis. I suppose she assumes I will write back and ask her for detail.
The last sentence of this dispatch is one my father omitted to tell me about.
"They have resumed services on the Station," Kira's message reads. "It would be nice if the Emissary could attend in the future."
I lay the PADD down; even without the Prophets, they have the strength of belief to guide them.
The abandonment of faith is not an option even when the reason for that faith has vanished.
I get up from the bed and walk out onto the balcony. The cool air wraps itself around me, slipping beneath my thin shirt. I look up at the stairs, feeling their pull. I had once imagined the possibilities of a million stars, trying to fathom what could be out there. If something could not exist here, could it not exist there?
Which means the Prophets could exist somewhere outside of my own imagination in a place I had not yet discovered.
Which only means that the Prophets have been temporarily misplaced, not permanently gone. Which means like those who have resumed services on the Promenade, I too must have the faith that one day the Prophets will return.
And I can only have that kind of faith if I am surrounded by it. I walk back downstairs. Sally is on break, eating crawfish with one of the customers. She smiles and waves at me; I return the greeting.
I turn to go into the kitchen. Dad is frying okra and chicken together, the oil sizzling as he monitors the cooking with a careful eye.
"Dad," I say.
"I wondered where you disappeared to."
Dad does not look up, "When are you leaving?"
"In the morning."
"That is good," he says.
"I don't take the easy way, Dad," I tell him quietly.
"I know," he responds, but again, his eyes do not meet mine.
I lean against the door, watching him. Dad will never change; he will continue to do what he does the same way he always has.
There is comfort in stability.
But I don't need comfort.
I only need what was - is - mine.
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