The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 49

Wednesday December 19, 2700

(Poem by Kay D. Sundstrom)

In so short a time Merrill already knew each nuance of the footsteps that came behind him. Carefully, he laid down the fish that he had just unhooked and listened as Zanne began to speak:
"I dreamed of a gray man in a gray cave,
Hair white as clam's meat, eyes darker than my soul.
And when I woke, my fists were bloody.
At first I thought it was his blood.
I dreamed I rode a foam-flecked horse,
My throat hoarse and raw from swallowing the storm-winds.
But as I rode I sang a song
Pure and sharp as a seagull's cry.
I dreamed I wove you a heart, my love,
Of mirror-grass, thyme and fern.
But as I wove my fingers bled,
Blood bloomed like flowers on my kirtle.
I dreamed my hands were feathers,
And wings like song flowed from my shoulders.
But you sheared my wings with a silver knife
And kissed my fingers back to flesh.
I dreamed that I no longer loved you,
No more this sweetness, this slow warm honey.
Your mouth upon mine a cold dry weight–
And that dream held a horror beyond all others.
Merrill looked up, opened his eyes and saw Zanne standing in front of him. A month ago he would've found her stance confrontational, a child who insists upon a truth that her elders couldn't face. Now he read in it the weariness of maturity--a woman who faced the unavoidable. Her words stung and they satisfied. They burned like liquor in a wounded man's throat. They shamed and relieved him; they made him weak in the joints.
"Who's the poet?" he asked.
"Myself," she replied. "I studied other forms of poetry than Byron's, after all."
"I'd love to teach you contemporary braided verse."
She knelt down beside him and fingered the sand. "Actually, I don't write much poetry--I'm not very good at it."
She looked up, then down at her scrawls. "No, really, I haven't much use for it--my own, that is. I'd rather speak directly."
"Oh, I don't know." Carefully, he touched her knee. "I think you communicated beautifully.
"Beautifully?" She gave him an acid smile.
"Truthfully," he amended.
"You must really love truth," she muttered to the sand.
He gripped her hand and drew it from its designs. "Would I have gone through all this if I hadn't?"
She met his eyes directly with her own. "Then tell me if you see the truth in a dream."
"And the dream is?"
"I think you know."
He nodded. "Yes." Solemnly he drew her closer. "Yes, Zanne. We can still make it." His kiss held all the tenderness of the tentative and in his embrace trembled the gentleness of uncertainty.

* * *

Don sat on a rock and stared out over the ocean. Its waves daily approached a sense of proper tempo; they seemed almost normal now.
He didn't look up when Lisa sat beside him. "Hi," she said. She knew better than to touch him.
"We made a mistake," Don said. "You know that."
Lisa sighed. "Does intelligence mean cutting out all the small talk? Look, some things are supposed to sound stupid. They're designed that way."
"How are you? That's nice. I'm fine, too. Everything is fine. Now let's talk bloody murder."
Lisa hugged one knee to herself, watching the same waves and wishing she had the guts to swim and swim and swim till exhaustion dropped her like a stone. Then, sternly, she told herself that she wished no such thing or else she'd have done it already. "Don, we've been through every post-mortem possible. What's left? The issue has rotted."
"Not the autopsy of our relationship."
"Did it die?"
"Stillborn. We made a mistake."
She turned to him. "Did I? Loving you?"
Don's guts clenched. "You're just a kid. We both are--or were. We made a decision under unfair pressure. Let's leave it at that."
Very quietly Lisa asked, "And what if I'm pregnant?"
His eyes widened upon her, then his face hardened and the eyes narrowed down like knives. "It won't work, Lis. The toxin would've aborted any baby you carried."
She hung her head. "Then you don't love me."
He shook his head raggedly. "I don't know what love is. I'm just now seeing all the gaps in my understanding. My view stretched and all these holes sprang up."
Earnestly she said, "I could fill some of them."
"I doubt it."
"Or mend them!"
"You know better."
She stood up, her voice charged with emotion. "Why do you talk of understanding when I understand very well? I love you, Don Khmi. I know I do. Nothing can change that."
Don finally looked at Lisa. "Perhaps your heart outstripped your mind to begin with and still can hold its own." He turned away to stare out at ocean beyond ocean beyond ocean. "Then again, perhaps you're deluding yourself." He dropped his gaze down to his hands. "All I know is that mine can't catch up yet. I'm working on it--we all are. Just give me time--please."
"But you love me, too!"
"How would you know?" Cruelly he added, "Without your pendant?"
"How can I not?" Lisa husked. She hesitated, then grabbed Don's left hand. He winced. "Don, you can't read my mind." She squeezed his fingers together, meshed the rings, then thrust his hand into her bosom. "So read my flesh."
He screamed, recoiling, then fell off the stone and staggered back to his feet.
"Don, I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Tears scored her cheeks like nails.
"You," he cried in a shaking voice, "embody everything that I’m fighting to control!"
Don ran away and Lisa watched him. Then she huddled down in the sand, sobbing and sobbing, hugging the stone in front of her.

* * *

Deirdre stared straight into the ball of the sun as it reddened, as full of dusk as a wound full of blood. She half-glimpsed eddies in its depths, but vertigo crawled through her veins anyway, so she couldn't be sure. Her scavenging had failed her for days, yet she feared to climb down to the others for sustenance. Below the ocean bellowed and hissed; it, too, hungered and tried hoarse songs to mesmerize her down.
Agents faced fear. If oracles prophesied mortanda for her fate, then hiding in a cave couldn't save her. Her weakened flesh could not sustain a fast.
She pulled her resolve together and rose to her feet. She stood tiptoe on the cliff's red brink, stretched out arms to either side as though to sacrifice herself to the sky's last splendors, and then she tumbled downwards towards the rocks.
The makeshift flit of branches and vine galled her ribs where she'd bound it to her chest, it pulled her strain-wrenched shoulder, but it held secure the crystal that she stole. She leveled off just low enough to taste the seaspray as it fountained off the basalt fangs. The droplets tangled in her hair like jewels in the twilight glow.
She skimmed along the beach till the cliffs lowered to meet it, then soared up over the forest, a bat-shape hollowed with a bat's night hunger.

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