The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 47
Day by Day

Thursday December 13, 2700
 

Deirdre lost track of the nights and she didn't count the days when she slept in hiding until just before the sun fled in rags of color. She chewed raw clams dug from a deserted beach, she pulled up starchy roots that she had heard about in classes, she grazed on leaves.
 
She watched the moon set on the water, her eyes wide and white to match, while she dangled her feet over death. Far below her death roared and slavered between the rocks, challenging her to come down and meet it some night. Sometimes its higher sprays chilled her toes.
 
A cave yawned black behind her. It promised safety once she left her ledge.
 

Friday, December 14, 2700
 

In the first blue glow of morning Don slipped through the trees. He felt the splendor of each dawn-scattered crystal of dew as pain, an exquisite pain. They jeweled the fern-trees and magnified the light of dawn as though life itself had crystallized and the spirit of life coruscated outward in a beauty that could blind, as sharp as splintered glass.
 
Fronds shuddered where the breezes returned to the ocean that sent it forth at night. The touch of each leaf, every tendril that caressed against his skin, hurt him with ecstacy. Tears flowed down his face and he felt the cold of them as a sharp, glistening thing, tasted their salt like a mortal dose of sensuality. Don felt alive as only gods should live; his mortal soul whimpered inside him with eagerness and fear.
 
He spread aside banana leaves that glowed along the edges in the early light and stepped out onto sand. The texture of the beach on bare feet thrilled him. The sound, the shhh'sh'shhh his footsteps made, tingled insupportably.
 
Beyond the lagoon, the sight, the smell, the music of the ocean piled down upon him, wave upon wave of loveliness that could suffocate him in transparencies of turquoise and jade, color of crystallized moss, white foam like the radiance of heaven. Beneath it all the darkest marine-blacked depths leaked through as though shadows combed the effulgence of the waves.
 
Emotion and morning cold made him shiver. With will drawn taut he explored the capacities of his muscles, raced all through his own body with an intensity of cognizance that adepts could seek for years and never find--yet still aware of the beauty of the morning on that beach, aware to the brink of torture.
 
He perceived precisely how the new sensitivity of his flesh would interpret a command of the nerves. He thought of what he wanted to do and regulated neural energies as carefully as insulin.
 
His arms swung back, controlling the fishing-rod that he'd made as surely as a dancer minds her foot. He swung it through the air. The fly arced overhead, curled out, hit the water and added rings to the ripples of the lagoon. The droplets flew upward in patterns upon patterns like liquid jewelry; he felt it saw it all in the richness of slow-motion, inside his muscles, outside in the world.
 
As he fished he watched the sky separate from sea as fogs melted in the light. The edge. And on the other side of that edge lay Til Institute. Could he ever make it back?
 
* * *
 
Her steps came harder even than in her weary days. Deirdre inched along a path fit only for her small feet. Her increased uncoordination nauseated her, forced her to cling with her good hand to each root, each jutting rock of cliff to which she pressed. It always scratched her till her front, her arms and legs had grown a mesh of streaks, old black lines and newer red.
 
The alternative to caution growled beneath her feet in invitation where the ocean hungered. It licked up tongues of waves to try and taste her; it fell back down to gurgle between stones like an insatiable throat. The threat never quieted, not for day nor fall of night. She'd learned to live with it as she had endured the ravings of her friends.
 
With head thrust to the side by intimate stones, cheeks scraped raw from coral kisses, she watched in the corner of her eye the play-flight of the seagulls. Envy and loss weakened her; she yearned for her flit.
 
Her foot slipped, but she reclaimed herself just in time. She heard the gravel clatter down, but the hiss of water swallowed up its splashes. She kept on moving.
 
Deirdre made it home another day. She loved, in an almost-hating, melancholy way, the scoop of the rock which she'd cleared of old bones, kept the feathers, then nested with such leaves and fronds as she could find. Shelter and exile it gave her, the loneliness of safety, secure from the reach of loved ones.
 
The place crackled as she crawled in. She sat cross-legged on the weed-matted stone because she had no room for any other position. She pulled the basket off her back where she had strapped it.
 
She smiled when she reached inside for the roots, the fruit, the fish and the fern fiddleheads that made up her meals these days. Her smile came from memory; in childhood Merrill had teased her about taking basket-weaving classes, but they'd proved relevant after all.
 
Her position cramped her as she ate, so she scooted to the edge of the rock and dangled her legs out over the guano-streaked cliffs. Below, the waves tried to devour basalt boulders as cruel as guillotine-blocks, but found them indigestible. She swung her feet in mockery and knew herself sweeter meat.
 
She reached her basket's bottom. Fruit and fiddleheads grew scarcer and fish grew wary this side of the island. She couldn't feed on them indefinitely.
 
For water she raided the spring at night as the others slept, filling up a bottle that someone had carelessly left behind (unless someone left it for her deliberately.) But for ration-flour she'd have to invade the camp itself and this daunted her. Here she could confront Mortanda, jeer at it, tease it with her toes just out of reach, think of death and not give in. But there it took the insidious guise of friends.
 
No matter; she had chosen this cave not only for its protection, but because it toughened her and the small need toughness. Jesse would not have shied from the risks.
 
She set aside her basket and commenced her ethics meditations. "The value of life is the basis of all law and all morality..." She let the water's growls hypnotize her to a receptive frame of mind.
 

Saturday, December 15, 2700
 

Jake watched Randy from behind a tree. The boy who used to verge on plump now looked haggard, freckles dark on a putty face, eyes sunken into caves. He hunkered over a pile of tinder from which arose a strand of smoke. He bit his lip in concentration and it bled; exaggerated responses had finally caught up with Randy Kramer. He clenched his fists and his arms jerked as though convulsed.
 
"Is it hard?" Jake asked.
 
Randy started so violently that he fell backwards, yet he didn't appear all that alarmed. "No," he said as softly as Jake. "Too easy. I'm learning how to manage it subtly, without a conflagration."
 
"And erring on the side of too little. Wise of you." He came out from behind the tree.
 
Randy stared at the tinder. "It's a fine line. Sometimes I think I've already done it when I haven't."
 
"We often are unsure of what we have or have not done." Jake put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's common."
 
Randy looked up at him. "You're shaking."
 
Jake sat down beside him. "I still haven't recovered, I guess."
 
"It's been so recent for you."
 
"I hope never again to undergo anything so horrible in my life."
 
Randy shuddered. "That, my friend, is highly unlikely."
 
Jake started to agree, but instead sunk his face into his knees. He tried to cry, but only dry sobs shuddered in him, as barren as rocks in his chest. The grace of tears had passed.
 
"Jake?" Randy's hand fell on him clumsily, but the intention came through so gently it could almost take the place of tears. "You all right?"
 
"I'm an oracle," he groaned. "I can sense worse suffering than this ahead of us."
 
"Surely not." Randy rubbed Jake's back; his roughness sent thrills through Jake's muscles. Nothing feminine about Randy.
 
"What can you expect?” Jake growled. “We'll never rest, now; we'll not be allowed. The guilt must drive us for the rest of our lives--that, and a gift which cannot be exhausted though we exhaust all the rest of ourselves." His hands trembled where he clutched his own arms. "What kind of a fate have we chosen for ourselves?"
 
"God will see us through."
 
"God?" Jake gave Randy a scalded look.
 
"Sure." Randy tipped his head to one side. "We're not beyond grace. No sinner is."
 
"How comfortable for you," Jake mumbled and looked away.
 
Randy drew back his hands and Jake ached with their absence. Randy folded them in front of him; Jake chalked it up to uncoordination that the hands gripped each other till the fingers turned red and white.
 
"Jake..." Randy stopped, then started again. "I heard something...I think I heard it, anyway. But...you see, I was quite out of my head at the time and I understand that Jesse was, too. When he said...he was delirious, wasn't he?"
 
Jake closed his eyes. He longed to sleep and sleep and sleep, but the shaking of his body would give him no release. "We are often unsure of what we have and have not done," he repeated.
 
He heard Randy's voice, very small, say, "The Bible says Jesus was tempted in all things, yet without sin." Jake opened his eyes to stare at him. The boy sat casually, yet every muscle in him had gone rigid as he gazed off into rainforest. Jake couldn't tear his eyes away.
 
He forced words from a throat that nearly strangled him with the desire to suppress them. "Run away, little Baptist," he choked. "Run away and pray for me."
 
Randy didn't move save to turn his head towards Jake.
 
"Where are your fast reflexes, Randy? Recoil! Before it's too late."
 
Randy's tears soaked a face already damp with perspiration. "That's not where my reflexes would take me, Weed."
 
Jake felt his yearning as a torture, something that clawed up from deep inside him. "Run!" It would've been a shout had he not throttled all the air out of it.
 
"Not when you're in pain!" Randy's sudden hug hurt Jake but it flooded him with ecstasy, too, so that each unintended bruise dizzied him like too much wine. He held his hands away, shaking with the effort, but when Randy’s lips met his, when that other tongue gently sought his own, he returned the embrace in a fever, a joy so intense that it terrified him, a need that blinded theologies and blasted all restraint to a white-hot crater.
 
"Too late," he murmured into the juncture between Randy's throat and shoulder as his friend helplessly returned the nuzzle. The horror of realization flared up in him that he had echoed Merrill's words, but a hotter flame burned it away.
 
* * *
 
Deirdre cowered behind a bush. She heard everything. First Merrill and Zanne, now Jake and Randy. Out of control. She tensed. That nightmare in the Czenko house--you couldn't call it love-making. Hate-rending. Passion without conscience. And now this?
 
She saw only tenderness, roughedned to be sure by uncoordination, but that did not console her. In Til Institute you could find somewhere acceptance of all customs known the world over, yet human beings have souls of only a particular size; no individual can encompass everything. Deirdre had known of homosexuality, but she had never particularly related to any sexuality; the variants upset her doubly. Wasn't it bad enough that you had to fear sending the wrong signals to half the human race without learning to fear both genders?
 
Notes condemning her as a tease, notes slipped into her books, her purse, her desk by a secret hand, they crowded her memory, the word "Tease!" and worse, much worse, a horror that mocked the shattering of childhood, when the points of breasts first began to skew the lines of her blouses like something that she ought to suppress but couldn't, something that insisted on making itself visible, it all came back--the fear, disgust, bewilderment and guilt and now, just by this reminder, she would have to learn to fear women as well as men. She couldn't protect herself just by erasing her femininity, the way she had tried before--they said some lesbians liked that. She couldn't get a handle on it all. She blanked it from her mind.
 
She blinked. Just like that? Something had disturbed her but it went away. Truly she had a powerful will. What else could she apply this to?
 
Sex. Something about it had bothered her, she could no longer say what. She recalled, however, the man who'd troubled her innocense before rehabilitators had locked him away from her. Then that wound, too, vanished. She desired only pleasant thoughts right now.
 
She summoned up a recollection of her visit to her foster-brother. Julie popped to mind immediately. Everything about hir seemed good to Deirdre. "I'd like to be like hir," she sighed.
 
Erase sexuality altogether? Easy. She had barely awakened to it; the hungers could go back to sleep. She closed her eyes. There. Done.
 
No one had told her of Juliar's words, of how Truth would shear away the veils between mind and reality. Unprejudiced by a culture that had tipped idealism to its extreme, she found in herself a capacity to weave thicker veils than ever before.
 
She opened her eyes. No more sounds came from the other side of the bush. She crept around it. Jake and Randy lay as nude as nature; their limbs intertwined, stunned to unconsciousness by a greater power, like the dreaming vines around them. Their sleep now meant no more to her than the island's slumber all around her, snoring gently in the buzzing of the beetles. She only noted that they slept and that that which she had come to steal lay in the grass nearby, forgotten, by a charred pile of twigs.
 

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