The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 48
The Labor of Recovery

Saturday December 15, 2700, continued
 

"Now," Lisa said sternly to the two men who sat on the log before her, "how do you apply the Golden Rule in agency?"
 
Merrill said, "By helping a people towards the good that you yourself would desire had you belonged to that culture."
 
"Incomplete," Lisa barked. "Don, finish it for him."
 
"You must attempt to visualize, honestly, what good they would desire if they shared your knowledge."
 
"Without," Merrill amended, "projecting your culture onto theirs." He scratched his unshaved chin. "It's a tricky business."
 
"Admittedly." She swatted a mosquito like a whining student. "Now, from the global to the personal. How would you apply the Golden Rule to an intimate relationship?"
 
The boys fidgeted on the log, looked at each other. "No," Don said with grudging sympathy. "I don't think you're ready for this one yet, Lis."
 
"Answer the question."
 
"Lisa, you're crying."
 
"Answer the question! We won't get off this island by pulling punches."
 
"Very well." His voice hardened. "You do not seduce someone in a vulnerable moment when they will later regret their actions. That's for starters."
 
She bit her lip and forced into herself the strength to continue. "And Merrill? What example can you give?"
 

* * *
 

"Dear God, oh dear God!" Randy ran through the forest, clutching his stomach as though it ought to get sick, but it wouldn't, it refused to spew up the truth. He crashed into a tree and held it close, panted into its peeling red bark, gasped in the sharpened spice of its scent and breathed it back, as hot as his heart. He clung and sagged, digging fingernails into the bark.
 
He faced the worst of it: he had taken the active part. Jake had been too weak for anything else.
 
Gradually he sank to one knee, then the other, then sat in the weeds upon the ground. He rolled his forehead back and forth against the trunk; he let its roughness indent his skin.
 
"What the hell am I?" he rasped, still catching his breath. "A tempted man, that's it, isn't it, God? Tempted. You too, huh? Bible says it, 'Tempted in all things', plain as plain. Did you have a thing for John? Was that it--the Beloved Disciple? Well, come on! Was it all things or wasn't it?"
 
He knew the answer. "Tempted in all things but without sin...without sin..." he chanted to himself. "Without without without sin sin sin..."
 
He felt heat dribble down his forehead and realized that the bumps of his head against the trunk hit harder than he'd realized to the rhythm of his words. He reached up and caught a drop of blood on his fingertip. "Masochism's no way to win back your favor," he mumbled as he wiped the blood off.
 
He lay back in the weeds, arms folded behind his head. "What would you know about it?" he prayed. "You never had a toxin in your blood to make each impulse irresistible--now be fair! Do I have to tell Jesus Christ who sees all things that I didn't stand a chance?"
 
He closed his eyes. "No, that's not true. Jake gave me a chance. 'Run', he said and I knew what he meant, but I didn't run. He held out as long as he could, Jesus, mark that on his record. I'm the one who lost the chance for both of us."
 
Suddenly he sat up, shouting, "Well, what was I supposed to do? Leave him in pain? Was that my Almighty Christian duty?" He sighed and lay back down. "Okay, so maybe it would've been better for his immortal soul and all that. Probably. What would I know? Fine. I blew it. All ways. I won't do it again, okay?"
 
He hugged himself, buried in the foliage. In a small voice he said, "Problem is, I think I'm in love. Maybe I always have been." Then he shouted, "Go ahead, God, laugh at me! Randy the clown. Do you think I'm grotesque?"
 
He sighed once more, rubbed his face, and tried not to start crying all over again. "No, you won't laugh. You've seen worse. Better and worse. I'm human, God. I don't know if I'll do it again or not." He swallowed, and now the tears ran down the sides of his face where he lay. In a small voice he said. “Probably. Knowing me, I probably will.”
 
He stared up at the heavens, cloud upon pure white cloud piled onto celestial blue. "Can you put up with me?" he prayed at last. "I'll see to it that you didn't shed your blood in vain, I have lots of use for saving blood, lots of sins, and I don't think they'll all end here. I'll do my best, God, you know me, but I can't promise perfection--that's your department. You're stuck with me--a sinner." No thunder rumbled in the unperturbed clouds. The celestial blue didn't fall.
 
"And I'm stuck with you," Randy said, "a hopelessly perfect God. But have pity on me, won't you? For all of your resisted temptations. For every time you saw coins that you could easily have snitched and thought about all the poor that you could feed. For all those weary times when you thought about how great it would feel to turn water into wine just to get drunk on it, just for a little while stop hearing all those cripples whining for a cure. For that time at the well when the doxie flirted with you and it crossed your mind that there were other ways to entertain her than to count her husbands and save her soul. For your bickering disciples and the lovely temptation to just once cuff them all to silence, let you get some peace."
 
He closed his eyes and prayed harder than he'd ever dared. "Let's put it this way, Jesus; I wouldn't have gotten into this mess if I didn't have compassion, right? You take pity on me, Lord, and I'll take pity on you."
 

Tuesday, December 18, 2700
 

Life goes on. We go through the motions because the motions pull us through. Things happen that we feel we ought to die before we even think of surviving them, but first this needs taken care of, and then that, and then so many little things that the moment passes; death would make a meaningless gesture. Nobody but the dead would remember why.
 
So we miss our cues for suicide and live by default. And one day a birdsong no longer sounds like a mocker's laugh, a red flower looks just like a flower and not a splash of blood.
 
Then maybe something actually affords a little pleasure, though it seems a sin to recognize it. Maybe when the sea sounds peaceful in its sighs, maybe when we remember our old joy in the sunset and discover that it's still just as beautiful as it ever was.
 
Grief remains, and guilt, and pain, but they claim corners of our lives, not the whole terrain. We give life permission. So it happens to everyone, sooner or later. So it happened to Fireheart Friendclan, though not overnight.
 

* * *
 

Tears flooded down Zanne's cheeks as she pulled the comb through her hair, gasping at each tangle. She savaged knots with her fingers, then attacked with the comb once more. Puffs of torn blonde hair blew away on the wind, as she cleaned her comb again and again.
 
Her thin face shone beneath the tears, for she had masqued it with the whites of gull's eggs in the previous hour, and washed it clean again in spring-water. The skin had regained its rosepetal texture, while rest upon the island had smoothed away the premature lines. The Black Clam toxin had aged them only temporarily after all.
 
She gritted her teeth and again forced herself to comb her hair. Pain sent sparks through her hypersensitive scalp. She finished at last, then sobbed into folded arms that shut out the light.
 
She raised her head, finally, and said out loud, "Care for one's appearance signals a return to sanity." She had read that somewhere. She got to her feet and went back to the spring, there to study her reflection and cool the redness from her tear-swollen eyes.
 

* * *
 

Jake cupped the focus in his hands, brushing its surface with his mind. It had belonged to Jesse, apart from Don's rings the last magentine left among them, now that the crystal which he and Randy shared had disappeared. He thanked God that oraclism had transmuted whatever psychometry he might once have had, before he had to touch it.
 
He sat very quietly in the bole of a tree, finding the tlomi rhythm that he needed in the patterns of leaf-shadow and light upon his face. With his eyes closed he saw them as alternating flashes of red and charcoal gray.
 
He did not search outward for visions but within, where the visions came from. He assessed his damages. He had not felt the same since that psychic seizure.
 
His soul ached a little like a prodded bruise. Broken? No, his Gift hung together. Torn came closer to describing it; he had not long possessed oracular skill, so it remained kind of pliant, healable if not too stressed.
 
But what stress more monstrous could exist? He had not heard of an oracle undergoing anything in training like the Black Clam toxin.
 
He probed further. He found more rips that hurt more seriously, but still nothing severed. Gingerly, he examined a tear, following it deep into his psyche...
 
Too much! He thought he had screamed but, collecting himself afterwards, he realized that he had merely gasped. Still, his stomach hurt with the gulped-in air.
 
Ever have a hint of a toothache that you feared would grow worse? So you examine it carefully with a toothpick or your fingernail, hoping to dislodge a bit of food before it causes further harm. Suddenly you plunge straight into the cavity that you'd prayed wasn't there and you nearly pass out. That's how it felt to Jake.
 
As a child Jake had once gone to a dentist so newly returned from the Field that she'd forgotten the niceties of civilized anaesthesia. He had feared dentists ever since and would endure terrors in his mouth before he'd surrender to one.
 
Now he clutched his knees within the tree's embrace, Jesse's focus laid aside in a nearby hollow, and he felt that same fear. Except that this time he had no one to go to with the pain, even if he'd dared.
 
He shook himself out of his mood, pocketed the focus, rose in that cramped space and started to climb out. He reached for a branch to steady himself, but his hand went farther faster than he meant. He howled when he stoved his fingers, then toppled forward out of balance. He wrenched his ankle so fiercely that he thought he'd broken it at first, till he made an internal assessment of the damage. Severe sprain. He bound it as best as he could with his shirt and began the long limp back to base. Jake had begun recovery.
 

* * *
 

"She'll come back," Zanne said, staring into the evening's flames.
 
"You don't know Deirdre," Randy muttered. He fished his mush-cake from the ashes with a curse and sucked his burnt fingers.
 
Don looked at him. "You need something for that? We brought salve from the boat."
 
"Wise move," Randy said, "Considering that I nearly burned the camp to a crisp. No, I don't need a salve."
 
Don assessed his scowl. "You sure? I know it hurts more than it would've before."
 
Randy nodded. "It just gives me a motive to get my senses under control." Jake shifted uneasily and then restrained himself from a glance around. He wondered how much the others could read in his every move.
 
"So we burn one sack of ration," said Lisa. "No great loss. I'm just glad you're giving us fires again."
 
"And I'm grateful for the fishers among us." He nodded towards Lisa, then Don and Merrill. “A little variety helps a lot.”
 
"Sorry we couldn't bring any in tonight." Lisa shrugged.
 
"Well, with those lures you've tied," said Merrill, "we'll get blessedly few mush suppers from now on."
 
"Good news," Randy agreed. "Ration flour's great the first time around, but it sure gets old."
 
Jake gazed off into the jungle. "I just wish we had Deirdre here to cook the fish."
 

* * *
 

The last red light bled from the sun as the ocean swallowed it. By its glow Deirdre wove the final strips of frond in and out of the branches, squatting on the stone as she tied off the ends with the help of her teeth and held twigs in place with the grip of bare toes. Vines bound her bad arm close to her chest; maybe this time she'd give it a chance to heal properly.
 
Her fingers fumbled; sometimes it took three, four attempts at the simplest work. She had hastened her recovery not by strength but by an exaggeration of will as potent as a drug. Now her muscles relapsed into exhaustion and she had all to do over.
 
Far larger than a basket, her creation further constricted her already cramped space. But she didn't mind as she curled up for the night beside the lovely thing. She scooped up handfuls of dried foliage to blanket herself against the cold sea wind. Day and night it moaned through the mouth of her cave, but she'd already had practice enough getting used to things like that. She nestled down. She tucked herself in among scratching straw fingers and dead ferns crackling.

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