Christopher and Lois Helfman loved their children more than they could express, but they understood that not everyone could accept them. They were fraternal triplets – two boys and a girl, born one bitter December morning five years ago while Papa was on maneuvers with the Royal Marines. He’d not even gotten to see his wife bloom into her pregnancy,having just one home visit a year at that point. His wife joked that he made the best of his time while he was at home, but she wasn’t laughing when she was told it was triplets she was expecting not long after he returned to the lines.
How would they ever manage three babies, , and then corrected herself. Why ever did she think they would do anything? It would be all her doing, as it was for all the women in her time. Women had always done it all – all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the child raising. They did it because this is how it was. There weren’t other options as far as they knew.
Lois sent her husband a letter as soon as she was sure the pregnancy was viable. It wouldn’t do to get his hopes up for nothing. Because it was triplets, she waited an extra month just to be sure. So when the letter finally reached him he didn’t have a lot of time to adjust to the idea he was going to be a father.
Of course, they wanted children. They hadn’t planned exactly when, just leaving that particular to God. That was the best practice anyway, they finally realized after years of struggle. So many years of trying to do things their way and plans not working out. Why would they?Plans of mice and men never measured up to a hill of beans.
But the babies had been born early, too early for the happiness of the nurses at the village clinic. Doctors were in short supply, what with the war and all. They had been sent to the field to tend the soldiers. Civilians had to fend for themselves. Their needs were much less. It was quietly understood this was one of the many sacrifices they’d have to make to win the war.
And who was the war with? Desert dwellers, the People of the Sand. They’d finally ventured out of their domain and discovered the delights of temperate climates. No longer did they have to settle for the arid lands they’d been born in. No longer did they have to settle for a nomadic life of tents and beasts of burden. Now they knew there were choices, options other than a life of wandering from campsite to campsite, from bad pasture to only slightly better pasture. The herds were growing gaunt with all the work it took to forage for food, and so were they. So when they saw these new people, these fair skinned layabouts who didn’t have to fight the land for food, they knew they had to take over.
At first they sent sentries, spies, to move into and among these newfound neighbors. No weapons among them other than walking sticks and knives for butchering their supper meant diplomacy was the order of the day. They never had to fight anyone before and hoped not to now, but they weren’t above it. Their ancestor, the great Mahd had firmly said that violence was acceptable if peace failed. The survival of the People of the Sand was paramount. It would not do for them to be erased in the same way that footprints were in their landscape.
A life of shifting terrain shaped people into never settling down, never feeling stable. It made them suspicious of outsiders, of intermingling, so they clung to their traditions all the more. It was the only thing holding them together. It was who they were as a people –not anything material but all in manner. How you acted was what marked you as a member of the People.
War finally came inch by inch and day by day, until suddenly there was fighting in the streets of the Helfman’s little village. Unrest had come to the town in dribs and drabs, two different cultures mixing like oil and water. There had been attempts to integrate. There were evening classes at the local library to teach both languages, but they were sparsely attended. If only they had asked the people what hours they were available – or even if they were interested. There were other barriers too -where there were misunderstandings and confusion. There were little arguments over use of the community center for worship services. The newcomers didn’t understand the denial wasn’t personal – they didn’t allow anybody to have services there of any sort.
When war came, Mr. Helfman had volunteered straight away, knowing that if he waited to be drafted he’d most likely get a less than desirable position. Not like any position in a war was desirable –but some were better than others. He became a captain in the Signal Corps because he had worked in the village radio station for over a decade and had a ham radio license. Sending messages back-and-forth across the battlefield without the other side listening was his forte, and he relished his role. It was important, essential even, and he didn’t have to worry about getting shot.Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He’d been trained the same as everyone else in the unit how to handle a gun. This was war, after all. The time for talking was over. Diplomacy had been exchanged for destruction, and may the best side win.
And yet he still held out hope that they could work something out. The good Lord didn’t put these people on the earth – and especially in his village – for nothing. But there were so many barriers! The culture was unusual, that was for sure, but the language – that was a real stumper. They didn’t even use the same alphabet, just a bunch of squiggles and dots. It didn’t make any sense. So he began to test the limits of his radio technology. Perhaps he could get it to translate the sounds it heard while he was intercepting their signals. If his phone could figure out what song was playing by listening, surely he could rig up a way to get some sense out of their language.
He’d always done well with the belief that if he could imagine it, it was possible. Surely the Lord wouldn’t have put such an idea in his head if he didn’t want him to try. Now, plenty of folks took that the wrong way and turn God’s dreams into nightmares. They focused the signal on themselves, not on others. Christopher Helfman had been raised to serve others,so his experiments always worked out for the best. It wasn’t long before he had worked out a translator, and within months every person in the battlefield had a portable version.
They’d left ones for the People of the Sand in conspicuous places, knowing that if they simply tried to give them away it would be met with suspicion. So they waited, and were wary. But the experiment worked – they started using the translators! A few brave souls talked with each other across the lines, sharing words and not bullets for a change. An agreement was reached and more of the devices were handed over. Before long, the war was over because they could finally, truly, understand each other. The devices didn’t just translate words but feelings and emotions as well. The full range of meaning was conveyed, and the two sides discovered they had more in common than not.They decided to share their resources, creating a whole new kind of community.
And that is how the masks came to be on the heads of the Helfman triplets. Born too soon, their lungs weren’t fully developed.They were prone to allergies and asthma, and nothing seemed to soothe them.That was, until the village got a People of the Sand doctor, who decided to try something new. These people had long relied on their unusual and somewhat intimidating face masks to survive in their arid desert home. Now that many had relocated to the village, they had no need for the cumbersome devices. Thankfully,many kept them out of nostalgia, so several were available to the doctor. He decided to try one on the children after the usual tricks had failed. Unusual was the order of the day in the village at that point, what with the two cultures openly blending and sharing, so the children didn’t stick out too much.