Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 11




Monday, May 5, 2709, continued

       "Thank God oh thank God you're here, Deirdre!" Alysha lays down the rifle and runs to us as we dismount. "Oh thank God!" She almost tackles me in a hug, but Lufti blocks her. "Oh, sorry! I'm so, so sorry I forgot all about your injuries what with Cyran's wound driving everything else out of…"
       "Cyran's wounded? What happened?"
       "It's, oh, but I mustn't say, must I?" She runs trembling fingers through her dirty blonde hair, looking about vaguely with dilated eyes. "No, no, don't go in there!" she cries, grabbing Lufti when he starts to lift what I now see is a camouflage curtain on what I'd mistaken for a knob of the hill. "E mustn't be seen--I have always guarded hir privacy, always, for years and years!"
       I take her hands in mine, and she squeezes painfully against the bandages. "I understand," I say as soothingly as possible while trying not to gasp. "You've had to guard hir for days on end without sleep."
       Alysha starts to cry again. "We had nobody else, not for miles and miles!"
       "Well, now you've got us. By tonight you'll be able to sleep." She nods and tries shakily to smile, reaching for a cigarette that isn't actually in her mouth, her empty hand dropping again. I give her one of mine and light it for her. "Better take the pot inside; it's starting to rain."
       "Oh. Yes, of course." She grabs up bundles of rags to lift the can off the fire; I see more rags in the water--boiling bandages. As she moves aside two layers of curtain I can make out Cyran, tossing in hir blankets, teeth chattering nonsense-sounds. And the rain, a gentle drizzle at first, now comes down hard.
       I start to follow Alysha, but she suddenly blocks me. "Let me in," I insist, but gently, Standing there and letting the rain drench me. "I'm your medic."
       For a moment Alysha's thin face stares me down, slick with the heat, the smell of her hair stained with smoke.
       "Es feverish," I press. "You'll kill hir to leave me out here.
       "I nursed hir the last time," she husks, "through the concussion."
       "This is not the last time." Behind me Lufti carries the tied-up skirt bulging with herbal medicine, indifferent to the thunderstorm breaking out overhead.
       "No," the girl wavers. "But I nursed hir before, too, when e took a bullet in the thigh." She blushes. "E doesn't like hir body seen."
       "I've bathed with Cyran before," I remind her. We hold each other's eyes. Her huge pupils seem to swallow up the light between us and her paler skin looks bruised by days of weariness. I drip rain as if my hair weeps. "I'm your medic," I repeat.
       Lufti adds, "I, too, have seen the mysteries of the coiniunctus, and returned no blinder than before. I have leaped into my most awful fear, I rode my own spine, past spirit and fire stripped down to myself, to bring a healer here. Was it all for nothing?"
       Alysha looks back at our leader, who knows nothing of our debate, our position, whether it rains or the sun shines down. With a grunt and a shrug she finally lifts the curtains the rest of the way and lets us in.
       ("It's about time we make a start with the plan," says Anselmo. I smile and agree, putting firm telepathic shields around my sinking heart. I don't ever want to start anything again. I want to just keep on riding, sitting on this padded truck seat, not even driving, not in charge of anything except for breathing in and breathing out.
       Silly Zanne! You chose adventure nine years ago, come what may, you wrote the script yourself, and now the show must go on. Even if you yourself have become your worst critic, booing from the front row.
       You've already taken the wheel, now and then. You've already established that you can do it, you're healing, you're healing, just believe that you can heal a little more. You're Zanne!
       Thank you, Tshura. I needed to hear that. I just wish I had that much confidence in myself.
       "And…" Anselmo continues, turning off the paving onto a rutted road of mud, "I know just who will let us in first, and spread the word. The Selma Sibs have always welcomed me."
       Ozwald suddenly sits straight up and cries, "Oh no no no no no!" as he pushes the air over the dashboard like he could shove away the farm starting to appear ahead. I shiver myself, seeing the dark-skinned field laborers turning to look at us. "Those guys shot at us the last time we came this way!"
       Anselmo grins and says, "You weren't with me, then. I'll vouch for you. They like the chilis from Ejidio Libre better than any they can grow out here. And I've promised them corn by autumn." He gives us a brief, happy glance before devoting his whole attention to navigating ruts. "And best of all, none of them are magentine-sick. They figured out the problem with processed food probably even before we did.")

       I smell infection--overpoweringly--as soon as I enter the shelter. Our leader twitches and mutters on a field-mat, his eyes open and rolling around, seeing nothing apparent to us, except perhaps to Lufti'
       I kneel down by Cyran's side. I feel the heat of hir face, then reach to unwind the bandages on hir chest. Alysha lays a hand on my shoulder, but I look up and she lets go.
       "Do you doubt me?" I ask. Alysha chews her lip in what I've come to see as a Charadocian "no". Then she goes out into the rain to clatter about with branches and fronds, trying to protect her coals.
       I bare the little hermaphroditic breast as Cyran shudders, hir sweat exposed to the air. I stop a gasp. The smell gets worse, so that I close my eyes for a second. When I open them again I can clearly see that the breast has no partner--the wound has sheared most of it off, and infection has filled its place.
       "Alysha!" I bark. "E'd've died of this if you hadn't let me in."
       The girl doesn't even turn around. "And e might still die when e discovers what you…"
       "I told you, I've seen hir naked before! You were there!"
       "Not that. When e discovers what you might hear hir say in delirium. The shame could…"
       Alysha does turn around, then, staring into the shelter with dark eyes. "In the Charadoc, Tilián witch, emotions kill. Have you learned so little of us?"
       (Oh Lord, sweet Lord, have mercy on my Jake. It's not really his fault that sometimes I love him more than I love You. Sometimes. But right now I fear for him; I feel his mortality too well, his recent attempts at cheerfulness notwithstanding, all that muscle looming over me--how fragile, with his long, yellow-stained fingers trembling on his pack straps, and his eyes inward, so far inward this time as he trudges beside me, yet seeing outward, too, somehow I can sense him seeing far more around us than ever, far more than could possibly be decent for a creature of muscle and bone.
       George walks in step with him, looking like a smaller, buck-toothed, slight-chinned version of the man, but with the same terrible gaze, inward and outward simultaneously. I see a tremor flash through his neck, and then it goes to Jake, and then Jake subdues it in himself, holding it together for both of them, folding George into his trance somehow. And they keep on, leading us I don't know where.
       I glance over sometimes at Wallace, but he's okay, if a bit stiff and winded. He didn't smoke any of those pinkish cigarettes. He didn't saturate himself with magentine for God knows how long before. "Hey guys," Don calls out, but softly, "Let's halt. All this hiking is a bit much for Wallace, okay?" They stop simultaneously, the same foot forward. Seconds pass before they turn and look at us, with a single gaze from four eyes. Then something relaxes and, without a word, they start helping to set up camp, looking almost normal again. Jake gets the tent going and George goes off for firewood. With Don's help Wallace peels off his pack and sits down on it with a groan.
       "Take off your boots," Don says, kneeling at his feet. "I saw you limping. If you're starting on blisters we need to take care of them now, or they'll cause real trouble down the line."
       I start in on setting up for the campfire, clearing a bare patch of dirt, finding the stones, setting them up in a tidy little circle. But I keep thinking about Jake. What could kill you, my beloved? An emotion? A word? A careless thought? Would harm to you hurt any less if I wasn't your guardian?
       Don examines the pale old feet, every rib and fold of the socks indented pinkly into flesh. "Yep, you're starting on blisters here...here...and here. But we caught them in time. Thanks for finding us the salve.")

       I feel a moment of disorientation, as if I knelt, just for a second there, on a different slope of the planet's curve. Am I so unused to the odors of the medic's tent?
       Lufti gives my good hand a squeeze. We share a glance; I realize that he, too, feels what neither of us understand. He then unknots my spare skirt to reveal the small red clubs of fungi as Alysha stubs out her smoke and comes back in.
       "I'm no Rashid," I say, "But at least I know the power of bloodfingers when I find them." I hand some up to her. "Wash them carefully, then mash them between freshly boiled stones. Then you wrap them into a poultice of boiled cloths." And how much more could Rashid have done, had he been here instead of me? How much more could Zanne have done?
       With my good hand I open the nearest pocket to reveal the trove of carpaya granules red-golden in the lamplight--the sudden release of sweet, resinous perfume lightens the atmosphere dramatically. "And Rashid did teach me the value of carpaya. When the poultice cools, give it one last squeeze over the wound, and then you apply carpaya sap. Pour water--hot enough to make tea, but no more than that--over the granules, just enough to start them melting, not enough to immerse them completely. Stir them into the water, and then paint the wound with it."
       Lufti ties a boiled rag over a twig with the same practiced knots that all medics know out here. How… "I watched you do it," he says with a shrug. "I watched you from inside-out, where the night has no stars anymore."
       I stand up for a moment, supervising him and Alysha at what I can't do right now. Then I sit down, dizzy and aching. Will I never get my stamina back?
       ("If you can't get proper brown sugar for your yams, and the molasses has the curse in it, honey's the next best thing," says the stern-eyed, soft-handed Black matron bringing us steaming plates that smell like the clouds of heaven. "There's no cornbread to go with it, sad to say, nor flour for biscuits, neither, but we make do as we can, like everybody these days. At least we've got butter enough."
       "It all looks splendid, Ma'am," I say as I accept a broad platter of fried pork, mixed greens and sweet-potatoes, but if she wants to call them yams I won't argue. At the first forkful my eyes roll up in sheer pleasure. "Oh, this is divine! You are quite the cook!" She dimples at that, wiping the condensation from her hands onto her apron.
       Still, I look warily at the red drink that she pours for me. She catches my look and smiles more ironically, one brow raised. "Don't you worry, child--we crush our own strawberries for the punch--no store-bought curse in it anywhere. It's just as fresh as spring and good for you."
       "Thank you, Ma'am." My hands still tingle pleasantly from the cold water and the sweet, herb-scented soap--nobody comes to Miss Julie's table with dirty hands, even if the rest of me is a teensy bit road-ripe.
       She sits down across from me, demurely poking at her own meal while I relish every mouthful of mine. Only when she sees at last that I and the other travelers have fully sated ourselves (and after I declined seconds on dessert--some sort of confection of raisins, nuts and millet) and after the local children clear the table and in turn get shoo'd from the room, does she lean forward and say, "And now, Miss Zanne, tell me about this cure of yours--how to make it, how to administer it, everything. You see, I'm not just the cook around here, I'm the doctor. Folks'll listen to me.")

       Lufti curls up off to the side of the small shelter, his gaze far off, but suddenly he turns to me, staring into me and through me and past me. "Don't worry about them, Copper Lady. I'll help hold them together while you lift the curse from Cyran." Then his eyes glass over, the sweat starting from his brow, and he lays down his head.
       (Jake, oh my Jake, how I wish I could help you bear what I can't even touch!)



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