Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 19

Patient Healers



Thursday, May 8, 2709, continued

       Sometime past midnight Cyran starts sweating on hir own. Gratefully Hekut and I look at each other across hir sleeping form and laugh, quietly, with relief. Then we lay down in the bruised grass to either side of hir, allowing enough space for air to circulate, and fall dead asleep.
       (The dead finger wriggles towards me, pulling itself along by the nail, arching up like an inchworm, then down again, up again, down, the golden band on it glinting dully in the dimness. I sit there frozen with the most heart-stopping fear, hearing nothing but the very faint whisper of its slide across our old kitchen table.
       Then it rears up on its black, blood-clotted base, the tip pointing straight at me, as I've always feared it would. Slowly the nail pries up from the flesh of the tip, like an opening beak. Then I hear my mother's voice saying, "I'm not really dead, silly!"
       I wake up screaming and screaming! I hear the dazed groan in the other room, then the thundering steps of the fat man running, bursting through my door as I keep on screaming. And then I feel the great arms around me.
       "It's okay, Rashid," he mumbles sleepily. "You're safe. I'm here. We're all safe here." Malcolm has no idea what I'm not safe from, and I'm not about to enlighten him. Ghosts infest every corner of Damien's old village. I just hug his soft, warm bulk and let him think that he consoles me.)

       We take to the water again, come daylight. All morning we sail between trees, lazily drifting over an upside-down world of sky and clouds below us, glimpsed between the boughs of a mysterious mirror-forest that flutters around our hull, curving to embrace the dip of Kiril's pole. Above us a solider forest and more sober sky stretches out in all directions, too stern to swirl and carry on, except when the wind whips up. Then the trees do dance, and their counterparts ripple as if laughing.
       However lovely the view, I drowse. I keep slipping in and out of sleep, catching up after last night. Lufti sponges me off and lets the wind fan me, affectionately murmuring, "We all must burn."
       (All morning we cross a burnt-out stretch of Vanikke farmland, dotted with charred stumps of trees and scorched chimneys out where houses used to stand. To my surprise I see that somewhere Jake has found a rosary of sodalite and steel; he doesn't know the prayers, but he passes the beads through his fingers anyway, frowning, trying to get some sense of them.
       Gradually I realize that time has passed since this tragedy; among other things, it no longer reeks of smoke, but instead gives off a tentative breath of spring freshness. I see a faint green glow of new sprouts coming up, and the stumps send up bright new shoots. One has even flowered--it looks like the remains of an apple tree.)

       Petals drift down from the heights above us, plum-veined lavender paling to white at the base. Something up there blooms. I watch them spiral lazily down to me. One lands on my cheek, soft as a satin kiss, smelling like perfume. Then I realize that I face the sky because I'm lying down in the coracle.
       "How's her fever?" Kiril asks Lufti.
       "Not so hot as a star, so the old gods won't drag her away just yet. But her tusks could burn a violet, if she had any."
       I hear Kiril sigh. "She hardly seems to get a break between flare-ups anymore. I hope Rashid can concoct something for the bugs in her blood."
       From another boat I hear Chulan call out, "I see a village ahead of us, up on docks."
       Khouri answers, "That would be Mayuraq." Then I hear him, so quietly that it seems to unfold in my head, mutter something about how disappointed they'll be that we couldn't restock at the manor the way we'd planned. I send back comfort, that no plan ever stands the first ten minutes of battle anyway; we did the best we could. He seems consoled indeed, without quite knowing why, no more than I know how, but hey, nobody expects a woman in a fever to think sensibly anyway. I feel myself slip back into sleep...
       (Time to leave, after a pleasant night in three homes with a different couch for each of us, and lovely breakfasts. Mine had eggs and lamb sausage, challah toast and latkes, three kinds of jam, and a delicious, meaty stew called cholent, with a refreshing mint tea to wash it down. If everybody keeps feeding us up every time we bring the antidote, I'm going to have to pick up a new and looser wardrobe!
       Moshe the Gatekeeper has an older brother, Dayin, who needs to come with us, he says. This one has a thick, black beard, wears glasses, and doesn't braid his side-locks, a leaner, lanky fellow. He slides into the seat before we can say yea or nay.
       "It's okay," Ozwald says with an ironic smile. "I'll ride in the back and let the grown-ups talk." I give his hand a squeeze before he climbs into the cargo box.
       "I haven't heard from my Aunt Edna," he says as Anselmo starts up the engine with a sputter and a whirr. "Not with the usual kind of messages. But this telepathy thing--even after the confusion has faded, it still stays strong for family and loved ones."
       "So you're a telepath? That's nice, dear. So am I, and so is Anselmo."
       "Really?" he says, eyes widening.
       "Really," I say with a smile, but then seeing the look in his eyes I take his hand. ""Poor baby--that must have been brutal through the worst of the Confusion."
       He meets my eye briefly, before gazing down into his hands again. "You would know. Yes. Such thoughts--so many confusing thoughts…"
       "...till it became hard to tell where you left off and others began." "
       Exactly. I don't know how I could have survived it without my family. They would sit with me, like sitting shiva only nobody died. And yet so many died! I kept living through so many deaths of total strangers, so yes, it was a shiva that went on for months, but they stood by me, they helped me through. Mercifully, it has faded back since we discovered the poison in our food. Who could do such a thing?"
       I remember poor Belen. "I don't think it was so much a who, as a what, taking people over."
       "A dybbuk?" Then he suddenly grips my arm crying out, "Who was that? Who were they who just now spoke in my mind to say yes, something like that, yet also not like?"
       I shudder; one of them was Jake. "We call them oracles. This country is full of them right now." With so much trauma how could it not be? "Since my friendclan also includes an oracle, sometimes their thoughts can echo through me."
       He lets go of my arm, blushing a little. "You seem to know a lot about all this."
       "I'm a Til agent, darling. Surely Moshe told you?"
       This time he grips me with both hands. "Can you HELP them?"
       "Help who, dear?" but just then he floods them into my mind, thoughts full of fear, confusion, nowhere to turn, only hiding, only struggling to survive. "One of them's Aunt Edna, I'm sure of it. After the gift faded some, it still worked whenever family needed me. I think one of them's my aunt. We have to find them."
       I gently disengage his grip and then place his hands firmly in my own. "We will, dearheart. We shall find them and we shall help them.")

       "I don't know how to help her," I hear Kiril say over me, as the world drifts in and out of my grasp. "She's sick more often than well, now."



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