Saturday, May 3, 2709, continued
(There he stands, shivering and pale and young, his hair pure white, his eyes blind behind their clouds of cataracts, his body so thin that he resembles a standing skeleton. The wind blows feathers of snow off of, and then onto, and then off of the lumps all around him, revealing and hiding vestiges of humanity, here a blue ear, there a hand frozen onto the shoulder it clutched, all huddled down upon themselves, their last living impulse to try and preserve the warmth at their core for as long as possible.
Ozwald cinches tight the end of a bag of pan dulce. He tosses it in an arc over the ring of flames to hit the boy on the head. Quickly the kid grabs the bag before it can fall to the slush, his face still gazing out at nothing, but his sense of smell and touch guide him to unknot the bag and gobble down the sweet bread, too hungry to even question where it came from. The blue flames briefly leap up to an orange wall as a breathtaking chill starts to hurt...
STOP!!! The shout roars from both our minds, Anselmo and I, in every language that we know and in no language whatsoever, and Tshura adds to it and...is that the ghost of Guaril? The flames drop down to a charred ring soon flooded with slush.
"W...who's out there?" a timid, breaking voice comes out of the quivering mouth.
"Friends," Anselmo says. "We're here to help."
"No...no no no, not more thieves, thieves say they'll help, but...no." He starts to back away and flames shoot up around him again, but I flood him with all of the compassion that I can muster for him, for everyone I've failed in this suffering country, doubled by all of my desire to set it right. The flames drop again. Finally he half-gasps, "Why do I trust you, why...just why?"
I tell him, "Because we're baring our souls to you, darling. You can feel it. We can't lie when you can feel it."
And then I tap in on his trauma and it just gushes into us. Anselmo swears and stumbles back, unused to such things. It's worse than robbery. When he had no possessions left to steal, somebody else came upon him and raped him where he starved, then left him there to die.
"Best and worst," Anselmo mutters. "Disasters can bring out the best and the worst of human beings."
"Sometimes both in the same person," I murmur, and he gives me a glance of pity that makes my eyes water, before turning back to the manchild standing naked in the slush.
Yet it's Ozwald who takes the lead. "Dude, thieves don't give you bread, right? They just take. You can trust us, so don't freeze us dead, okay?"
"Fr--what are you talking about?" He doesn't know what he can do, what he has done.
"Never mind, darling," I say stepping forward, shrugging off my coat (not without regret!) and wrapping it around him. "There, dear, isn't that better? Come with us and we'll protect you." And he finds me, pulls me to him, and sobs against me with his arms around me, loudly, totally, the howls consuming him with shudders of sheer emotion all over the map. Then he faints and Anselmo rushes up to catch him and carry him to the truck, the limbs all dangling and gangly.
And we will never know whether the people he froze were attacking him or trying to help him. Novatierre's just full of little mysteries like that. It's a wonder that the tears don't drown us all.)
Makhliya nurses her baby in the car, where we've pulled it off the road, among the trees, camouflaged under heaps of fresh-cut undergrowth and long-dead forest litter. I rest so close that can hear the baby suckle and Mahkliya cooing to him. I just lie here in this hammock, broken--so broken, I never knew anyone could feel this low. So low that I can't even stir enough to kill myself. So...surrendered. I don't even know what I surrender to, I just give up, give in, give out, whatever.
"...but they won't give you any trouble crossing through that part of South Stovak." I hear Cyran's voice, vaguely surprised that e and others found us, vaguely not. "It's far from the conflict zone--safer than here, probably." Why did I assume that Romulo would drive somewhere random? Am I the only random soul here? "I expect you can buy passage across the Gulf to your cousin in Paradisio, but only for the children and your grandmother, and the pregnant farmworker--they said they'd only take noncombatants."
"Do I look," said the quivering voice, "like a combatant to you?" He sounds aristocratic, but also desperate.
I hear Cyran sigh. "Everybody looks like a combatant to me. I've been at this too long. Listen, if you vanish into Stovak I won't come looking for you. I appreciate the donations you've already made more than I can tell you; I won't ask you to fight."
"And my son?"
"He wants to fight."
"He's just a b…"
"He's a man, older than most I have. He gets his own choice."
The old voice chokes, "And will you use him up like that...that woman over there?" Funny how I can feel myself pointed out, even without opening my eyes.
"That is also his choice."
"But dear boy…"
"I'm not a boy."
"Dear you, don't you realize how persuasive you are? I could be sitting in my own manor right now, in the comfort of my favorite chair, with a full pipe and my dog at my...my...my dog at my…" and when he cries I know that somebody shot the dog.
Cyran's voice sounds more soothing now, more womanly. "You made your own choice, too, and it was the right one. You couldn't side with the people who tortured your butler." I hear the sound of someone proud trying to regain control of his tears. Cyran continues, hir voice more gentle than hir words. "They teach meritocrats that comfort and plenty are the proof of good decisions, but sometimes the best decisions are the ones that plunge us into suffering and want--if it's suffering for a reason. Some principles are just too precious to sell for comfort."
How faint the whispered "I know."
"I know you know. You're the kind of man who would pay passage to Paradisio for the children of his servants and his fieldhands as well as for his own. I will never underestimate that."
Tearily the voice says, "Thank you for arranging safe passage for them!"
"Oh, infiltrating the Paradisian embassy was easy! And thanks to you, I've now got allies that I didn't have before. Come, let's get your household together, and sort out who's going where…" and I hear them walk off.
(You hurt her so badly, following in his footsteps.) (You hurt her so badly, rejecting her cause.) (How could you, after what he, filthy rebel that he was, did to our mother?) (How could you, after the government murdered his wife?) (She didn’t ask to go mad.) (He didn’t ask to go mad.) (The sheer obscenity of it—to do such a thing to his own daughter!) (She looked so much like his poor, dead wife.) (It broke her mind—she couldn’t help it.) (They broke his mind—he didn’t know it wasn’t her.)
(I don’t understand, twin of my blood, if not of my face—you used to agree with me.) (I don’t understand, lost brother, how you could take it so far.) (We enlisted together.) (You didn’t see Father Man and his flock of orphans.) (Would you have just stood by and let our father conceive us, if you'd been there?) (Would you have mutilated Father’s hands?) (Of course you would—the rebels have no morals!) (Of course you would—you have embraced their brainwashing.)
(I know you must judge me harshly...) (...but at least I never sent children into battle.) (...but at least I have not tortured anyone since I left the Purple Mantles.)
(She was only a child when he called her “wife”!) (They were only children, led by a mutilated madman.) (She was too young to understand what she consented to.) (All they wanted, all they dreamed about, was to fight, to fight back!) (She couldn’t fight back—she just didn’t know how.) (They demanded that I teach them how.)
(Don’t you know how this tears me up?) (Don’t you know that I still love you?) (And) (And) (I) (I) (hate) (hate)(myself) (myself)(every) (every) (DAY!) (DAY!) (for) (for) (loving) (loving) (you!) (you!)
(No, twins perhaps but not alike.) (Not alike at all.)
I start shuddering, and Kirl hands up a blanket for me to wrap up in, hovering around to catch it when I shrug it off again. I've gone through crashes before, but not while already sick. I haven't felt this miserable since Sanzio tortured me. Or perhaps when Cyran sent me on flight after flight to deliver supplies. They're more alike than not, really--so bloody terminally dedicated that they don't care who gets hurt achieving whatever the hell they consider their higher purpose! I hate them both!
(We should never have been born.) (We seem doomed, both of us, to commit great sins.) (No matter how hard we try to find our way to good.) (Our very conception went all wrong.) (And one was born all right, and one was born so very, very wrong.) (But which one, brother?) (And it doesn’t make it any easier, that Mother loves us both.)
Yet they do care. It torments them how much they care. And God cares about all the torture that E puts us through as well, no doubt about it. And yet here we are.
I don't have whatever I need to figure it all out, not even with enhanced neurology. Admit it, I'm just fried and frayed and don't even know half of what I'm thinking.
(Everything feels itchy this morning, too hot or too cold or full of those super-tiny cactus needles that are so hard to find to pluck out though you feel them every time you move even a little. The icy cold water in which I bathe my face aggravates me till I grab a candy-bar, wolf it down and heat the bucket up, but I go too far and it boils. "What the…" I gasp and recoil. I haven't made a rookie mistake like that since…
...since the Black Clam experiment. Dear God, am I relapsing?
"It's okay," says good ol' Doctor Don. "I found some porridge-packets for our breakfast, and since you've already graciously boiled the water for us…" he tosses them in.
Jake looks up from folding bedding. "Does it seem odd to anybody else that people who have scavenged so many tools, machine-parts, and anything else they can carry, would leave behind so much food?" And we all stare at the packets of our breakfast cooking.
"Hold on," Don says, reaching into the box of yet-unboiled packets, but this time with his left hand, the rings meshed together. Then he whispers "Dear God!" and pulls it out again.
"What is it?" I ask."
"Magentine," he says, bewildered. "They're all laced with magentine.")
I nod off into some dream about fire and ice, relapsing a little into fever again, but I wake when Cyran comes back. I feel hir gentle touch on my cheek, gauging my fever.
"How are you feeling?"
"Achey." I don't want to tell hir any more than that.
"Made up your mind yet?"
"About mustering out? I almost would...except for one thing."
"Deirdre, right now you can't even wipe your own butt without help."
"Did you know your brother offered me safe passage to leave?" E stiffens suddenly. "If he wants it so much, it must be bad for the Egalitarians if I do." Then I suddenly realize why all the color has drained out of hir face. "Oh God, I'm so sorry!"
"Deirdre," e says slowly, "You're not supposed to know about that. Not even Alysha knows." And e glances around the same way e did when asking me about my neurological difference.
"I didn't mean to...I just, sometimes my brain leaps too fast to figure things out before I even know that I'm doing it! I am so, so sorry!"
E just stares at me, white all around hir irises. "So now you know my worst secret, even as I know yours. I suppose it's fitting. But if you ever let it slip to anyone else I will personally…"
"...kill me. I know," I say wearily. "Cyran, you have no idea what it's like to know all the wrong things and yet never seem able to figure out what's right."
Tensely e says, "Let's just agree to never speak of it again." And hir voice goes back to soothing when e says, "I tell you what. I'm going to send you back to Rashid to heal, and you can figure it out in Koboros." I take comfort in the change in hir voice, even though I know it's fake. "Maybe you can choose a middle path and stay on there as a medic." We all need our pretenses, don't we? "In any case, probably the only way to get Lufti to retire there is if you go, too."
"Sounds tempting," I murmur, settling into my blankets, maybe even feeling slightly less broken.
"I'll send you an escort. But I have some business elsewhere to take care of."
"Of course you do. Will you be leaving now?"
"As soon as I settle everyone else's paths, yes. I have to."
(But my son, Cyran! What you have done to my son?)
I lie there a long time, not quite awake, not quite asleep, before Lufti comes with the supper that Makhliya ordered for me: split pea soup, with carrots and onions. I scoot up in the hammock to make it easier for him to feed me. "By tomorrow," I say, "I'll have one hand back and you won't have to do this anymore."
But he doesn't reply to that. His gaze goes back and forth between the bowl and my lips while feeding me, as if nothing else in the world mattered, yet I hear him murmur, "And one was born all right, and one was born all wrong, and their sister loves them both."