Malila goes to School Chapters 41, 42 & 43

Chapter 41

The Coming

billet

It was midafternoon when Malila awoke. Sally had insisted that she lie down after coming inside. Wrung out, she had fallen asleep almost at once.

Above the silence of the house, Malila heard a low-frequency buzz of activity at the horizon of her hearing. The noise drew her to the front yard, and she found it crowded with horse carriages, small horseless carts, and heavier electric cars. Once out in the cold air, she heard a melodious beat of song and followed it to the barn Moses had been preparing. Coatless men turning whole venison and hogs on spits over beds of red coals nodded to her as she pushed the barn door open a crack before slipping in. The building was almost full of villagers and farmers.

“Merry Christmas!” a smiling woman wished her as Malila turned to shut the door. Malila gathered that the snatches of conversation between Moses and Sally she had been hearing all week long had been referring to this event … whatever it was.

Near the entrance, a tack room had been transformed. Over the entrance a sign read, “Obamaroom.” The space was filled with projectile rifles on open racks guarded by several unsmiling men. The next thing she noticed was that everyone else was facing the narrow dais on which a meaty man in denim overalls, with the help of a woman with an accordion, was leading a song with vigorous arm motions.

The weary world rejoices,

as yonder comes her new and glorious dawn.

Malila made her way to stand behind Moses and accepted Ethan from Sally’s arms with a smile. Both Moses and Sally returned to singing, Sally in a silvery soprano and Moses in a rumbling bass.

The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;

In all our trials born to be our friend.

Malila had never heard such songs, either this one or the several to follow. The songs she knew were either love songs or heroic ballads about the cadre. Some of the crowd around her referenced small tablets, but most sang from memory. Malila spotted Jesse in the crowd, nodding to her as he bellowed out in a confident baritone.

At the conclusion of the songs, the meaty man held up his arms to signal silence, and Malila’s attention drifted back to the sleeping bundle in her arms. There was a generalized happy buzzing around her.

“A joyful Remembrance Day of the Coming, brothers and sisters,” the man announced.

“Before we get started, I want us to thank Moses and Sally Stewert for the use of the hall. This’ll be the third time we’ve celebrated here since we started the colony. God has blessed us with his bounty and his peace.”

There was a general stomping and clapping at the statement, but Malila lost track of the speech after that, as Ethan started fussing. For a while, people took turns reading an odd and disturbing story about an ancient pregnant breeder and her patron. The story included spirit beings, hereditary rulers, soothsayers, religious functionaries, animal caretakers, and feeding troughs, no part of which she understood.

The meaty man then asked someone in the audience to “prey,” and Malila looked up startled as every other head in the barn looked down. It took her several seconds to decide nothing predatory was in the offing. Lowering her head, feeling a little silly, she hardly listened to the man’s sonorous phrases. He finished, and at once people moved toward the trestle tables, carrying her along.

She had grown accustomed to the abundant fare of the Stewerts’ workaday table. After the scant rations of the trek, it had seemed unreal. At times, Malila had wondered if their bounty was artificial, an effort to fool her as the prisoner of war.

However, the food laid out for the Coming was a magnitude more lavish, not just in quantity, which was copious, but also in variety. Men and women hovered over some dishes, urging her to “try a little.” Small signs identified a golden mound of mashed rutabagas with butter dripping from it, deeper orange sweet potatoes, red new potatoes wafting steam, hearty dark-green collards, peaks of pale mashed potatoes, green beans, platters of sliced roast turkey, darker grained venison, rich roast goose dripping fat, and pale savory roast pork. Some even had proprietary names like “Susan Brannon’s bean casserole” or “Cathy Wood’s Brunswick stew.”

On another table was a bouquet of fruit pies, tarts, puddings, and colorful tarts, with an older woman there shooing children away unless they shower her an emptied wooden plate. Most amazing to Malila was a pyramid of orange spheres. They were fruits that people were supposed to peel and eat raw.

Having not eaten since dawn, Malila was wiping her mouth on her sleeve by the time Sally retrieved Ethan. Planning on sampling a small serving of each dish, Malila eventually took just the ones that looked least familiar to her, retreating to a corner to enjoy her bounty. The celebration, for the tenor of the crowd was jubilant, was at once joyous and disturbing.

Sampling some of the rutabagas, the bitter-sweet taste a welcome change from the oversweetened sweet potatoes, Malila recognized that the Coming narrative was unique.

Childbirth was considered an ordinary occurrence in the outlands, she knew, but there was some social stigma attached to the story of this birth. Moreover, despite the irregularity of his birth, the baby was supposed to be a king. That was absurd.

Malila knew about the inferior forms of government. Kingship was a protection-hierarchy model: goods and service were extorted from the numerous weak citizens with promises of protection and/or threats of violence by the few influential citizens. It was an inherited condition. No baby could be born a king. If his father were still alive, then, by definition, he was not a king. If his father were dead, someone else would have already been chosen king, and again he was not king. The story was nonsense on the face of it.

The Unity had no celebrations such as this one, of course. Her homeland acknowledged current achievements rather than past events. It was sad that these people had so little in the way of triumphs, clinging to their outdated superstitions, their children, and their guns. She finished eating and went to place her plate on a table reserved for the purpose.

“Hello and merry Christmas! My name is Eduard Billings. What’s yours?”

Malila turned to face the man who appeared to be her age, the first she had met in the outlands. It gave her a start. From what Sally had said, men her own age would still be living with their parents. Malila presumed any man living with a father was subservient either because of finances or the fear of physical retribution. What she saw was a well, if simply, dressed man whom she could imagine in the uniform of the DUFS or the gray suit of a government worker. She snapped off, “Chiu, Malila E., acting lieutenant, sir!”

The man froze for several moments.

“So how do I call you? ‘Chewy,’ Malila, or Lieutenant?”

Malila took the cue to laugh and was rewarded with a shy smile.

“Malila will serve … Eduard,” she said at last.

Eduard presented a warm hand and said, “Pleased to meet you, Malila. Where do you come from? I haven’t seen you at any of the association meetings.”

“I don’t come from here. I … I’m an officer of the … I come from the Democratic Unity.”

“Oh …” was all he said. He looked over her shoulder, and Malila followed his gaze to a vigorously gesturing older woman.

“Excuse me, Malila, but I have to see what my mother wants. You know how they can be. Don’t go away!”

She answered his smile with her own as he left, and she was again in the isolation of a crowd, noticing one after another face turning toward her and then looking away. Malila had just decided to leave the barn when the music started, appearing to be a signal for the clearing of tables.

The woman with the accordion, joined by two men with violins, started playing music unlike any Malila had ever heard: infectious, melodic, rapid, and mystifying. It was meant for dancing, and soon the center of the barn was free of everything but dancers. The couples who did not fit on the dance floor lined the space and started clapping. Malila’s senses whirled trying to follow the figures of the dance that spiraled ever faster in the warm glow of the barn.

Nevertheless, she knew, the celebrants had never intended for her to be here with her makeshift and mismatched clothing. Sally was distracted talking to a group of young women and showing off the marvel that was Ethan Graham Stewert. Moses was with a group of men who were shaking their heads at the prospect of an early spring.

Malila edged to the door. As her hand closed around the handle, a large, warm hand closed over hers. She turned to find a man looming over her.

“Surely, you’re not leaving, lass?” Jesse said in the tone of a jovial host. “The evening is yet young. There is music, and there is light. You are young and beautiful, and you should dance!”

Malila smiled, despite her surprise. It was the first time the old man had said something nice to her about her appearance, an outrageous lie though it might be. Nonetheless, it was odd talking to a man in whose arms she had sobbed just hours before.

“Dr. Johnstone, the music sounds like fun, but I don’t know how to dance. It’s much too complicated. I’d just ruin it for the others …”

“Nonsense, I’ve just the place for you to learn!” Jesse pulling her through the crowd by her captured hand, away from the twirling couples, to a group of children who were mirroring their parents’ motions, with checkered results, under the guidance of a young matron.

“Mrs. Eng! Might I ask a favor of you? My friend here and I desire to learn the mysteries of the terpsichorean art. Would you allow us to join your class of students?”

This, of course, set the children to tittering embarrassment, but by the shy smiles and outstretched arms, Malila could tell the old man was no stranger to them. In her childhood, adults had been objects of apprehension at the very least. Malila envied Jesse for the first time she could remember.

The young instructor turned and laughed. “Of course, Doctor, but you need to introduce us to your young lady.”

“A thousand pardons, Mrs. Eng. May I present Miss Malila Chiu, visiting us for a season from across the wall. Malila, lass, I would like you to meet Mrs. Lawrence Eng, an old and dear friend of mine.”

“Please call me Mary.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Mary’s face froze for a moment.

Jesse stepped in and in a grandiloquent fashion went on to introduce the six children in the small ring, with a brief hesitation in the narrative to note, “Master Thorkyll here goes by the of ‘Rocky,’” which drew giggles even from the one so unfortunately named.

Very soon, the square was formed, and Malila learned the figures of the dance. More surprising to her was that the old man was skipping and bouncing in the company of the children with grace and enthusiasm. One or another of the children would convulse with giggles when they had to promenade with Jesse, who crouched low to accommodate his partner for the circuit. Malila found she was able to lose herself, the room spinning about her as she listened for the calls, trying to remember the steps, in a whirl of light, sound, music, and geniality.

The children wove in and out of her sight, and Malila found herself jolted each time she came around to be handed off to the smiling old man. Despite his years, he was able to keep up with the children better than she was. Malila smiled back each time his hand reached hers. In time, Mrs. Eng dismissed the group, and the three adults adjourned to a large steaming bowl that had been programed, for the moment, to dispense a fruit punch.

The conversation drifted to shared stories of Jesse and Mary, leaving Malila to wonder if they had been patron and protégé at one time. The idea disturbed her.

Malila turned away to watch the children. Her memories of her childhood were so fragmentary that she had long since tried to ignore any that preceded her coming to the crèche. The dim and painful period of her pre-memories was a kaleidoscope of brief encounters with careless or harried adults, children with whom she shared toys and food but who then sickened and disappeared, and the packing and the unpacking of meager belongings from one gray building to the next.

After a few minutes more, the music stopped, and more people broke free to enjoy the punch bowl, now programed for some milky drink. Jesse warned her of the alcohol it contained, and she limited her intake to a small cup. It was different. It was good. After a few minutes, a sturdy man with straight black hair arrived. Mary introduced him as her husband, Larry, pulling him closer by lacing a finger into the thick belt he wore. Larry grinned at the attention. The four talked for a few minutes before the music started again.

“Looks like there’s room for us to dance now. Good to see you again, Doc. Merry Coming!” said Larry before they left to join a square.

“Shouldn’t let your education go to waste now, lass. You have no excuse! Let’s go dance with the grown-ups, shall we?” said the old man as he again captured her hand.

“Do you think I can keep up? The caller is going very fast.”

“Let me have a word with Simon and ask him to keep an eye out for us … to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed.”

With her last objection countered, Malila followed Jesse onto the floor to complete the number for the Engs’ square. The music seemed special and unreal as the room spun around, Jesse’s newly unfamiliar face shining with the soft light and Malila finding her own face becoming fatigued with an unsummoned smile. By the end of the evening, Malila had danced with not only Jesse but also Moses, Larry, and a beaming Eduard. Jesse collected her as the last of the music died.

“Malila, lass, I have been deputized by Moses to see you safe home to the house. Sally and Moses have to register young Ethan, and it may take a while.”

“Register? You mean, like, getting him implanted …?”

Jesse laughed. “No, lass. Nothing like that. This is the first association meeting since Ethan’s birth, and Sally and Moses both want the elders to know when his birthday was, that Moses accepts him as a natural son, and who the godparents are.”

Malila could not conceive how these people’s god had parents, but she left the question unasked and just nodded. Shivering on stepping out into the cold, Malila was glad for Jesse’s warm arm. All of the self-powered carriages and most of the saddle horses had already left. Men were helping each other harness their teams.

Jesse and Malila moved away from the well-lit farmyard to escape the congestion and walked toward the farmhouse along back paths. Arriving at the kitchen door, Malila stepped up and started to open it as Jesse reached up to stop her.

“Malila, I want to thank you for a delightful evening. I didn’t get a chance after … this morning, to ask you whether we might start over. We sort of got off on the wrong foot, you and me.”

“You mean being abducted, stripped naked, and cut open is not usual outlander greeting procedure?”

Jesse winced before he gathered she was teasing him. His laughter, nonetheless, sounded sincere.

“Nay, lass. Tha’ was special just for thee.” His face now sobered. “I’d like us ta start over, as if we hadna met before.”

Malila was puzzled. She now expected Jesse to slip into a denser brogue whenever he was feeling good, bad, happy, or meditative. She wondered what he was feeling now.

“I don’t know, Jesse. I could decide to kill you again.”

He laughed, “I’m persuaded to take my chances, lass.”

“Don’t call me ‘lass,’ old man. I am an adult!”

“That might take some doing, la— eh … Malila. You do know the word has other meanings, don’t you?”

“I don’t care. No ‘lass.’”

“Yes, ma’am!”

It was Malila’s time to laugh, and she extended a hand. “It’s a deal, old man.”

“So call me ‘Jesse,’ then … Malila.” He enunciated her name with care. “And might I come to call on you? I would like to see more of you.”

“What part of me have you not seen, Doctor?”

“Aye, I take your meaning. Different time and circumstances, don’t ye think? I mean, I would like to visit with you, my friend. I promise to forget and to forget the forgetting. Is that acceptable?”

“Acceptable, Dr. Johnstone.”

They again shook hands solemnly. Malila leaned forward and kissed his check before backing through the door. Jesse turned and left whistling.

 

 

Chapter 42

Blizzard

The day after the Coming, returning to her pallet through the quiet kitchen early in the morning, Malila saw motion outside. The dim light of the room caught the silent, furtive movement of snowflakes just beyond the glass. For a moment, Malila was back among rusting girders, with numbing cold, fear, death, and abandonment. Wind whistled around the corner of the house sending up a cyclone of snow that gyrated like a specter in the uncertain light. It made her shiver.

By first light, Moses had strung ropes between the back porch, the washout, and the milking barn. The snow outside the kitchen window was already banked, hip deep, into a gentle, sinuous curve. Malila was standing on tiptoes watching the swirling snow as Moses came in and recited:

When you can’t see the barn,

Winds spin like a top,

A blizzard will snow,

Three days ere it stop.

He laughed. “Something my granny used to say. Looks like we are in for it, though.”

“Are we going to be buried in snow?”

“We’ll be fine, Miss … Malila. Going to need to keep the path clear enough so’s you can follow the rope, is all. The barns are pretty safe, the animals have the autofeeders, and the automatic milkers will take care of most of the work unless the girls get into a tiff.”

Moses bundled up and went out to shovel.

Regardless of the snow, Malila knew she had to do it today. She was worried she might lose her nerve if she waited.

After breakfast, she and Sally braved the snow to start the cleanup from the Coming. Sally showed her how to use the church’s dishwasher and place the cleaned and dried wooden trenchers into cases for transport. Once a load was started, Malila went to find Sally, who was cleaning tables.

She knelt in the sawdust behind her and extended her hands, palms down, unsure of her own voice.

Sally, her skin pink with exertion, with a strand of hair that had escaped her bandana lying damp across her forehead, almost fell over Malila as she turned to find her.

“Oh … honey, you don’t need to do this.”

“I think I do.”

“Sweetie, we all make mistakes. It doesn’t mean I need this from you.”

“I know, but I need to try to make things right,” said Malila, her blue eyes on Sally’s.

Flushing, Sally faced her and placed her hands under Malila’s.

Malila enumerated the lies, half-truths, and assumptions that she had fed to Sally as truth, admitting her desire to corrupt Jesse’s reputation and apologizing for embarrassing Sally.

“I ask you to forgive me because you have been forgiven, because Jesse forgave me, and because I am so sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. You took me in when I was a stranger, and what I did was ungrateful. Please forgive me.”

“Of course, of course, Malila, honey. All you had to do was ask. Now stand up, and let’s dry your eyes.”

And again, Malila noticed the paradox. Reminding the injured party of their hurts made them … not disappear … no, certainly not disappear, but made the memory of pain a treasured secret the two of them now shared. It was a mystery.

 

When Ethan woke Malila next morning, it was still snowing. He was bundled up against the coolness of the house and complained the more for all the unwrapping required to get to the scene of his discomfort. He was sopping. It amazed Malila that such a small body could generate such volumes of urine. Ethan complained until breakfast was served.

Malila watched him nurse. With the sweet-smelling round head buried into the pale flesh of his mother, succulent sounds filled the small room. In the uncertain light of early morning, Malila noted the small feminine line of blue around the edge of Sally’s right areola as Ethan, voicing momentary outrage, was moved off one breast and applied to the other. Malila was surprised she had never noticed it before.

“What is that? You have a tattoo?”

Sally smiled. “Yes, of course. I’ve had that one since my mama’s third baby. I was too young to earn it before.”

“You earned it? Like Jesse? What does it mean?”

Sally laughed. “Probably not like Jesse, but it means that I’ve some practical experience about caring for babies.”

“What did you have to do to earn it?”

In the Unity, tattooing had long been out of favor; citizens did not advertise their differences.

“Well, I got it for doing about what you are doing now.”

Sally lifted her right breast, still dripping some milk, and with a finger outlined the curling lines of blue on her pale breast.

“This part is for helping at a delivery. This means I’ve cared for a baby up to a month after birth, and this means I’ve seen her through her first four months,” she said, drawing her finger over an inner curlicue and a shape that, once Malila saw it, suggested four interlocking crescent moons but could also represent a vine ending in a lily flower.

“Just for being a helper?” Malila asked.

Sally replaced her breast into her gown and smiled. “I thought it a real reward at the time, you know. Getting up in the night to fetch my sister for feeding, changing her pants, bathing her, cuddling her. My mother was trying to teach me, not just be helped. It was a big job for a nine-year-old girl.”

“You were so young! When I was nine, I was still in crèche school.”

A cloud appeared to pass over Sally’s face as she leaned over to watch her son feed. After a minute she looked up into Malila’s eyes.

“Do you have any idea how much help you’ve been to me since you came, honey? Moses is a good man. He is gentle and reliable as the sun, but take any man and deprive him of sleep with anything that does not bite at, shoot back, or make love to him, and you have one unhappy male. Just letting Moses stay in bed while you get Ethan for me is worth gold. You don’t think it’s much, because you love Ethan. I can’t pay you what you are worth. I can’t thank you as much as you deserve, but when the time’s right, I can let everyone else know how good you are.”

Malila felt her cheeks warm with a blush.

 

 

Chapter 43

Delarosa

Malila met Captain Delarosa at the door, almost a week after the Coming. He left his skis outside. Sally had asked her to take over answering the door, to their mutual satisfaction.

“I’m impressed you went through the forgiveness celebration with Jesse,” was the first thing Delarosa said after Sally had installed them in the front room with a pot of fresh coffee.

“Are you telling me that no one else would have done that? That I shouldn’t have?”

Delarosa met her eyes before speaking. “No! If anything, I think I am saying that you’ve showed me an admirable side of the Unity I wasn’t prepared to admit.”

Malila smiled and rose from her chair in the front room, taking up a stick to reform the brightly burning fire on the hearth.

“It wasn’t a Unity thing, the forgiveness, you know?” she said with her back turned, knowing he understood.

“Yes, ma’am. Let me ask you something. I am tasked with interrogating you. I don’t think you will tell me more than you already have.”

“I haven’t told you anything, Captain!”

Ignoring her statement, he continued, “If it’s all right by you, I’d like to spend some time telling you about … well, not just about America but what I know of the world, of history. You, the Unity that is, have cut yourselves off from a lot of what we, in America, take for granted. Wars tend to do that … Walls tend to do that. You have the rare opportunity to see outside your walls.”

“So that when I go home I will be denounced … Thank you, Captain Delarosa!” she said, her eyes laughing at him.

Xavier laughed himself and returned a courtly bow.

“Oh, I don’t think what I will be talking about is all that scandalous. I think you will enjoy what I have to share.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Not sure, really. I suppose because you deserve a better shake than I think you have had so far.”

“And this isn’t some sneaky way to get me to tell you stuff?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“On my honor as a soldier, one soldier to another.”

“Did Jesse put you up to this?”

Delarosa laughed.

“Hardly. I think, perhaps, this is a dose of Jesse antitoxin. He can be overwhelming at times. .”

“Annoying, isn’t he?”

Delarosa laughed again. “Depends. If I were stuck on a desert island, Jesse would be on my list for fellow castaways, but let’s not dwell on Dr. Johnstone.”

She looked at him from over the rim of her cup. “Okay, Captain, tell me your stories.”

Xavier smiled, and all at once his attitude changed. His face transformed, and his voiced somehow deepened.

“Once upon a time, there was a huge empire that, with one thing and another, collected a large number of countries to rule. It lasted for about a thousand years before the Meltdown. Over that time, the countries, one by one, gained independence. America—or rather, I should say the parts of North America that are now the Unity—was one such country.”

He ignored her rolling of eyes and continued, “But that is another story. The country my story is about was in East Africa. The people tried to rebel there as well. One rebel band, some called them the Mau Mau, had some initial success, but they failed to gain a general uprising.

“Then, they ordered their men to attack innocent villagers, commit senseless murders, take horrible oaths, eat human flesh, deny their gods, and drink vile potions. All to compel loyalty.

“They thought that if they could turn a man away from what was moral, sane, and honorable, compel him to take an oath so horrendous … it would change him, cut him off from his past, his family, his friends, his gods, and his image of himself. They hoped they had an army of ruthless, loyal men who had nothing to lose, as they had lost it already.”

“Why would they do that? Soldiers follow orders anyway … at least they do in the Unity. You can’t run an army if everyone gets to pick and choose the orders they follow.”

“Don’t forget, I am a soldier too. Yes, we all take orders, but I’m sure you know the unwritten oath: soldiers trust their lives to the officers, and the officers agree never to abuse that trust. You ask a man to die only if you think his death can make a difference. These are hard things to do: to ask and to follow. It only works if trust is there already.”

“Jesse said that killing changes you.”

“This was more than that, don’t you think?”

“I think it is a revolting story. I don’t like it.”

After a few minutes’ silence she added, “Nothing like that could happen in the Unity, you know.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it is a democracy. Objections are dealt with before they can cause conflict.”

“What if your neighbors voted that they did not want to live near you; would you have to move?”

“Of course, but who would wish to live near neighbors who hate you?”

Delarosa laughed and, turning, set his empty cup down.

“Why indeed? We should talk about that later.”

They never did.

 

 

Chapters 39 & 40; Delarosa Questions and Jesse Listens

Chapter 39

Interrogation

interrogation

 

The day after she arrived at the Stewert farm, Malila’s interrogation began. Her inquisitor was the man she had seen with Jesse in the village square. He was sparse with intense dark eyes behind rimless spectacles perched on a hawk-like nose, generous lips rescuing his face from severity. Instead of a close-fitting suit of black Produra, as she expected of a soldier, he wore a drab forest-green camouflage pattern with shoulder patches and “Captain Delarosa, Xavier C.” over the right breast pocket. He seemed harmless enough as he accepted a cup of Sally’s coffee and a fresh-baked biscuit. After a short while, Sally made some excuse to busy herself and left the front room to them. She made it clear to the officer that she was never farther away than a loud voice might summon.

Delarosa looked down at his coffee cup and rotated the handle clockwise by a few degrees, picked up a morsel of biscuit with a remaining smear of blackberry jam on it, and popped it into his mouth.

“Sally makes the best biscuits I know … Has she shown you her secret recipe?”

“Chiu, Malila Evanova, acting second lieutenant, serial number 59026169.”

Delarosa smiled.

“I see that Sally’s secrets are safe. A shame. The world would be a better place if we ate more biscuits together, don’t you think?”

“You are speaking nonsense. It is absurd talking about biscuits; you waste my time trying to make me betray the Unity.”

“That is saying a good deal, you know, wasting the time of a failed junior officer sent to the middle of nowhere. Sent because you were more expendable than a machine?”

“I am a loyal member of the Democratic Unity Forces for Security.”

“You are the first prisoner of war I have interviewed. And that explains nothing. But I must say you have made quite an impression on Captain Johnstone. It is not very frequent that Jesse voices such strong opinions.”

“And where is Captain Johnstone now?”

“Captain Johnstone asked … well, was given … a detached assignment in Lexington. I don’t know when he will be back. It is me you have to deal with, Lieutenant Chiu.” He did not smile.

After talking with Sally, Malila had recognized just how worthless the old man’s assurances would be. He had promised to look after her when they arrived, but instead he had managed to get assigned somewhere else. She should have known. Sally had said as much.

“If I’m such an incompetent, why don’t you just send me back to the Unity?”

“I would if I could, Lieutenant. We have not had any contact with the … Unity in generations. If we get close to your wall, they send hunter-killer teams after us. It is not the best way to negotiate.”

“Then let me go near the gate, and I will find my way.”

“We have tried that in the past. Those not shot out of hand were captured, restrained, and injected with something that gave them seizures. What might that be, do you think, Lieutenant?”

“That is just an outlander lie! Sapp hasn’t produced seizures in years.”

“Sapp? That’s the agent that you give your foot soldiers, isn’t it? Makes them zombies. It still doesn’t sound very good, does it?”

“I don’t know what you mean. CRNAs are loyal troops. They no longer have the cognitive abilities that got them into trouble in the first place.”

“I see. Very poetic. I didn’t think you Union types had a sense of humor. I was wrong.”

“Do you have anything to ask me, Captain Delarosa?”

“That’s more like it! Brittle, formal, and hostile to lower life-forms. Maybe I can answer a question of yours, instead?”

“What was in the buckskin roll that Captain Johnstone gave to you when we arrived?”

Delarosa’s eyes shot open. “Right to the point! You really don’t know? Okay, Acting Lieutenant Chiu, since you asked so nice. How do you think Jesse used the pulse-rifle without a registered fingerprint and ID chip?”

“I don’t know … He never said.”

“He harvested the ID chips and the fingertips of all your troopers after he captured you. That should be obvious. He tanned them in some awful stuff he carries, like salt, acid, and oil. The ID inserts have to be shared among your troopers, right? Anyway, he made a glove to use with the rifle. Man’s clever; you gotta hand it to him.”

Malila heart sank. Jesse had been carrying the key to the signature locks under her eyes … and nose … since she’d first awoken in the lean-to, bound and naked. The old man was no doubt telling all who would listen about the gullible Uni he had captured. Malila swallowed her shame.

“Thank you for pointing out my failures, Captain. I had not noticed,” she said as icily as possible. Delarosa’s candor struck her as ominous.

“Are the outlands so chaotic that they don’t try to hide their defenses?” she asked.

“Is the Unity so blind as to what constitutes a defense?” Delarosa relied, smiling.

“You talk in riddles. I am done for today. You may starve me or beat me. I will not say anything more.”

“Admirable, Acting Second Lieutenant Chiu, admirable! Let’s get another cup of coffee while I schedule you for flogging. If we are lucky, we might find cookies.”

 

To Malila’s surprise, Delarosa neither coerced nor threatened. He asked direct as well as subtle questions about her, her unit, and the Unity. He shared far more information than she did: he was a city kid from St. Louis, a town situated on the same Mississippi River Jesse had mentioned, as absurd as that seemed. He had grown up in a place called the Hill with his breeder-mother, donor-father, and siblings of the same parentage. The arrangement made Malila queasy.

“What are you doing in the outlands, Captain?” Malila asked.

“A good question, isn’t it? I’m not much of a country boy, but my wife, she was a farm girl from Illinois … so that is where we went to live. I worked as a federal marshal, and she and her brother ran the farm. It was a nice arrangement … as long as it lasted.”

Delarosa turned to look her in the face, his acute eyes capturing her own. “She was killed in the Meridosia Raid ten years ago. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of it. War breeds a lot of casual death.”

Malila had no answer to this and hurried on to her real point.

“Jesse acted as if the outlanders were all like him … old, primitive. Why are you telling me about the city?”

“I think he might have figured he was protecting you. He was operating kind of off the lead. He didn’t want to let the genie out of the bottle. Good policy that, in general.”

“Oh sure, protecting me from the truth … that does sound like him.”

Malila glimpsed an odd look on the captain’s face.

“You don’t like him much, do you?”

“Why should I like him, Captain? He captured me, cut me, beat me, and nearly killed me. Why should I like any of you?” she flared at him.

“Depends on how onerous you choose to make your captivity, Acting Lieutenant Chiu. Jesse suggested that you might enjoy the company of a woman close to your own age. Sally Stewert is a nice lady. I think you may have fallen onto your feet here, Lieutenant.”

“I like Missus Stewert very much, but if it hadn’t been for Jesse, I’d be back home! He made me miserable for weeks. He almost got me raped and sold to a brothel.”

“You do know our two countries are at war, don’t you, Acting Second Lieutenant? He doesn’t owe you anything.”

Before she could answer, Delarosa shrugged and changed the topic to Unity sidearms. Malila was delighted, as she was able to refuse to answer.

 

It was her anticipation of Delarosa’s visits that surprised her. Unity men were either her superiors, sizing her up as a protégé, or her competitors, watching for some chink in her defenses to exploit. Worst of all were her subordinates. They were ingratiating, saccharine, and looking for eventual patronage from a rising star of the Unity. Malila sighed. The hope of her having any patronage to distribute had vanished months ago.

However, Delarosa amused her. At first, he challenged her to tell stories of her homeland. Malila related the few narratives she knew, the Storming of the Hoover Building and the Battle for Wilmington, confident Delarosa was already familiar with them. Then she went on to tell him of her friends and Maddow Crèche #213, all useless information to him.

Delarosa reciprocated, not by telling stories but by relating wonders. He would set the scene with words and the pitch of his voice. He impersonated each character with distinctive accents and phrases.

“Who goes there afoot on my land, you bold foeman? Approach, if you dare, and be tried by the Strangler,” boomed an alien, brutal voice.

Malila felt her heart race.

“Oedipus of Corinth, out to seek my fortune, to foil a worse fortune at home than abroad. And what of this trial to each stranger you give, O Sphinx?” said another voice, smaller yet manly, forthright, and noble.

“Mere words, fainting man, but the forfeit is death. Take you the wager?”

Dread seized her as the foundling Oedipus endangered himself to save his family. Malila applauded Oedipus’s cleverness, his success, his noble struggle with Apollo’s plague … and wept at his downfall. It left her exhausted.

In turn, Delarosa became a dying emperor, a Saracen maiden, the village drunk, and an oriental sage. Soon Malila gave up all pretensions at exchanging stories and just listened as she was moved to laughter, tears, and longing.

Malila had thought she was sophisticated. With Luscena’s help, she had experienced the best of Unity performing arts: magnificent productions of light and sound. With each elaborate program, a boutique ThiZ, tailored for the performance, was distributed. The shows had been marvelous, but Malila couldn’t remember them now. Her heart pounded as Delarosa painted with mere words.

She was always sorry when Delarosa left for the day, usually with several of Sally’s cookies wrapped in a handkerchief in his jacke

Chapter 40

Intruder

is-4

After two weeks at the Stewerts’, Malila saw that some special event was approaching. Moses cleared out a barn before throwing sawdust on the floor. More confusing, he cut conifer boughs to decorate the house and the barn. Wagons arrived with townspeople, who assembled long trestle tables. Sally made more succotash than they could consume in a week.

The Coming, as Sally called it, was a great day of celebration, leaving Malila’s ignorance undisturbed. She meant to bring it up with Xavier the following day, but it slipped her mind when Moses insisted on showing off the new milking program to Xavier and her.

On their return, nearing the front of the house, they heard muffled shouts. The front door banged open. A hunched figure of a man in a black-and-red-checkered wool coat hastened out, scolded and savaged by the diminutive Sally wielding a broom. The man halted only when he found himself outflanked by the woodpile.

“… are a vicious, hard-hearted, rough-handed waste of skin. You are a nasty, crooked, old, dried-up, slant-faced, scant-bodied, shameless, lying, bloody-minded, evil-scheming abuser of your betters and worse for it!”

At this point, Sally sputtered in her assault, apparently having fired off all her ammunition on the first salvo and awaiting resupply. Moses rushed by Delarosa to intercept and disarm her. A hissed conversation ensued.

Malila was shocked. Gentle, loving Sally had become this angry, red-faced fury. The man must have done something horrible. After Moses wrapped up Sally in his long arms and almost carried her into the house, the miscreant unfolded himself. He was tall and clean shaven, with his long white hair caught up in a ponytail.

Jesse.

Without his beard, he looked even thinner than the last time Malila had seen him. His eyes were brighter, more brittle. He had none of the gray-skinned apathy that had frightened her during the final week of their journey. The old man stared along Sally’s line of retreat as if gauging the possibilities of a renewed attack from cover.

He turned as she approached, and his face blossomed into a smile, the tableau of the preceding few seconds seemingly forgotten.

Sweeping off his hat, he said, “Malila, lass, there you are. I came to see if the Stewerts were doing right by you! I hope I find you well.”

Malila was amazed. The old man, who for weeks had threatened her life, made it miserable, betrayed her by making the ghoulish signature patches under her very nose, and abandoned her in body and spirit, was attempting to act as if he were the wasteland’s concierge. Malila burst into laughter.

Jesse froze and then straightened up, his hat circling in his hands.

“Ah. I see you are in good spirits, Lieutenant. I’ve been told how much help you’ve been around the place, especially with young Ethan. Is there aught you might need?”

Infected with the oddness of his formality, wearing one of Sally’s dresses that she had yet to alter, a pair of cast-off trousers, and an old coat of Moses’s, the sleeves falling over her hands in lieu of mittens, Malila dropped an unsteady curtsy to the old man.

“Captain Johnstone … or is it doctor again? The Stewerts have been truly marvelous hosts. It seems that Mrs. Stewert has the same high opinion of you that I do.”

The old man looked up at the front door again and scratched his chin.

“She was fair exercised, at that, wasn’t she, lass? Sort o’ glad she didna keek Moses’s 30-30 over th’ door,” he said, giving her a watery smile.

“It is a marvel that anyone can resist your charms, Doctor, or are Sisis not held in such high esteem in the outlands as you imagined?”

Ignoring Captain Delarosa, Malila moved close to the old man and pressed herself to him, letting a hand move to fondle him as the surest way to embarrass. Jesse, anticipating her maneuver, caught her hand. It was amusing to be in the driver’s seat with the horrible old man for once.

“Nay, lass. Don’t do this,” Jesse hissed to her as she tried to press forward.

“Ooooww!” she shrieked. “So strong, you don’t know your own strength, Dr. Johnstone. And after all those weeks together!”

With her free hand Malila stroked the old man’s cheek and marveled that he still blushed.

“Sally is a good judge of character, don’t you think? She isn’t fooled by you,” she whispered into his ear. “You’re not so brave now, are you? Why come back for me now, I wonder?”

Jesse tried to pull away, but Malila was having too much fun at his expense to let him get off the hook. If she humiliated him in front of his amateur army, so much the better.

Delarosa, silent until now, interrupted her by taking her arm.

“Excuse us, Captain Johnstone. Stay here for a few minutes, would you?”

Malila, pleased to be able to leave the field of combat uncontested, allowed herself to be piloted toward the house. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the old man hunker down beside the woodpile and replace his hat.

Malila heard the muffled shouts of Sally and the low and urgent rumblings of Moses erupt as Xavier knocked on the front door and then let them in when there was no response. Ethan, absorbing the hostility in the air, had started a descant shriek of his own.

“I won’t have that vicious old fraud on our property or anywhere near our son!” Sally shouted at Moses, dramatically pointing a finger at Ethan.

“Sally, it’s only because of Jesse that it is our property,” Moses answered.

“I don’t care!” she said before looking up at Delarosa and Malila. Her pale features suffused with the dull red of rage, she turned away to scoop up Ethan and into the hallway. Malila heard the bedroom door slam.

Moses turned to Delarosa, looking pained. “Captain, I’m sorry you had to be here for this. I don’t know what’s got into Sally; I really don’t. She doesn’t like Jesse, but that just means she ignores him.

“Seems Jesse knocked on the door and let himself in. That’s a bit rude, I know. When I was proving out this section, he got used to coming in, more or less, like he owned the place, which, at the time, he did, but Sally blowing up like that … I just don’ understand.”

Sighing, Moses sat down in his old rocking chair and put his head in his hands.

Delarosa turned to Malila, her arm still in his gentle but unrelenting grip. “What might you know about this, Lieutenant Chiu?”

“Me? I just told Sally how that old Sisi treated me! Sally told me how people think he’s so important, but he’s just a Sisi. He killed all my men, and you told me how he saved the fingerprints for you. That’s just grotesque. He went out of his way to humiliate me.” She felt her outrage build now that it had an audience.

Xavier had no reaction, so she went on. “He had me strip naked every night! He hit me if I didn’t drink this or do that. It was one humiliation after another. Sally can tell you. She’s seen the marks!”

Delarosa interrupted her in a quiet voice, “I read his report on the trip, Malila. Perhaps I can add a little light to this story. Moses, would you get Sally back here? I’d like her to hear what I have to say as .

“Now.”

It was a command. Both Malila and Moses looked at him in surprise. It was a second or two before Moses stood and disappeared down the corridor.

Delarosa and she had yet to speak a word more by the time, minutes later, when a sniffling Sally returned, her eyes red and swollen. Malila pulled her arm away from Delarosa and went to stand beside Sally, who grabbed her hands with both of her own.

“I’m going to tell you what Jesse’s orders were when he left here last summer. Moses, you may not be aware of this, but I can show you the orders themselves if you want,” said Delarosa.

Moses shook his head at once.

Nodding to Malila, Xavier continued, “We needed to examine your new troop rifles, but we have known for a long time about the inserts … the implants your country uses to track its people. We couldn’t afford to have a raiding party intercepted by taking any implants along with us. I am sure you understand that, Lieutenant.”

Malila, despite herself, understood immediately.

“All your troopers were better armed than Moses or Jesse. You invaded the sovereign territory of America. Killing you and them in combat is the usages of war. Jesse’s specific orders were to allow no one with an implant to survive to compromise the mission.”

Delarosa let the statement float for a moment until its significance set Moses’s head to nodding.

“Jesse wasn’t supposed to take any prisoners,” Sally said seconds later, her voice flat and almost unrecognizable, her words falling into the silence of the room like a pebble into a vast sea.

Malila knew the Unity seldom took prisoners. Those they took, they Sapped.

Sally interjected, “Jesse wouldn’t shoot unarmed prisoners! He is an arrogant old geezer, but he doesn’t kill like that!”

“He didn’t, did he?” said Delarosa. “Lieutenant Chiu, your Unity soldiers were all armed. They outnumbered Jesse and Moses by twenty to one. They should have been more than capable of defending you. You lost, and they won.”

Malila nodded to him, one soldier to another.

“Once you were secured, Jesse sent Moses back to the summer camp with the rifles and the ID chips. That took all the horses. So Jesse followed his orders to the letter, if not the spirit. The rifles we are examining back at Colonial. The fingerprints Jesse delivered two weeks ago. He had to start processing them right away, but you might have sabotaged that work, had you known.

“From Captain Johnstone’s report, he seems to have been rather resourceful in saving your life … several times, Lieutenant. Let me ask you … the last three weeks of the trip, after you tried to kill him, how did you think Captain Johnstone was doing physically and mentally?”

Sally interrupted and turned to look at Malila. “You tried to kill …”

Jumping in before Sally could finish the thought, Malila attempted to make her story sound dry and military. Even as she spoke, Moses’s long face hardened, and a pallor invaded Sally’s flushed features. With a pang of remorse, Malila felt Sally release her hands.

“Did you have any problems with bleeding, mental depression, joint pains, or loose teeth by the time you got to Morganfield?” asked Delarosa.

“What? Of course not! But Jesse starved me. Sally can tell you. Do you know what I had to eat? And he made me drink his poison tea every day. I was sick of it,” Malila said, wondering at the direction the discussion had taken.

“Captain Johnstone arrived in town and turned you over to me two weeks ago. He was examined and invalidated to Lexington for treatment of scurvy.”

Malila watched Moses and Sally look down embarrassed.

“What’s scurvy?” Malila blurted.

“I am sure Sally would be glad to tell you. Jesse needed to take that nasty tea he makes to stay well while traveling. Instead he gave it to you. He could have died. Many have. He nearly did as well. We sent a guard with him to Lexington to make sure he got there. He took well to the treatment and got out of hospital and back to town just yesterday.”

Moses nodded in agreement, and Sally started to twist the small handkerchief into which she had been weeping.

“I learned last week that one of the Unity’s enforcer bands had disappeared, just east of the Illini-Indi line. They found five bodies, or pieces of them anyway, under a bridge at the Route 41–Interstate-74 junction,” Delarosa said as if to change the subject.

“You have any idea what happened to those five men, Lieutenant Chiu?” Delarosa asked with a smile.

Malila began to recite her story, feeling her outrage avalanche with the memory. “Jesse abandoned me and let those men capture me. He left me to them, like a piece of meat! They were going to …”

Malila looked at Sally, before saying, “… abuse me.”

A hum in her head accelerated, making it hard for her to hear.

“It was all Jesse’s fault. If he had stayed with me, we could have fought them off. We had a pulse rifle! I took a chance and ran away from them. Jesse found me and put me into a cave in the snow. He abandoned me again, and Bear caught me again. Bear cut me; Sally saw the scar. He tried to kill me, but I killed him first.”

“And how is it that you and Jesse connected up again, before or after you tried to kill him?” Delarosa asked.

Malila began to explain. She backtracked, amended, and reworded her story. In the middle of her recitation, she started to hear her own words, to glimpse the trip from an outlanders’ point of view. Moses was watching her, his face set as if he were watching the death agonies of some insect. With a shock, Malila recognized for the first time how dangerous a burden she had been. The old man had brought her out against reason, orders, and his own interests. Her account petered out when she caught herself relating her horror at her first bleeding cycle. She blushed, hesitated, looked at Sally for some moral support, and stopped.

Sally said, “Oh, dear.”

Moses stood and confronted Delarosa. “Captain, first let me say that it was me as killed the zombies; Jesse was keeping Malila quiet. That should be in the report. I know Jesse thought we would be passing her over to headquarters once we rendezvoused. It was you, Captain, as asked me to billet her here. I was glad to do it, even if Sally wasn’t.

“Now I’m withdrawing that offer. Lieutenant Chiu has brought discord into my house. She needs to leave,” he finished.

Sally interrupted. “No, Moses! Where will they take her? You don’t have any idea where she’ll go. I need her! … She needs me!”

Malila froze at the last outburst. Sally lapsed into miserable silence, sat, and wept into the hard-used handkerchief.

Malila turned to Delarosa.

“I will be ready to leave in a few minutes, Captain Delarosa.”

Without looking back, she went to the ladder and climbed into the loft. Malila collected the few items the Stewerts had given to her. She wouldn’t take the dress. She was a soldier, a captive soldier. She knew how to take orders, and she would not make it any more difficult for Sally. She took up the baby’s clothes she had taken to mend. Malila pressed the small garments to her face and inhaled the faint scent of the infant before grief overwhelmed her. Malila sank to the pallet in the loft under the eaves in the small house along the frontier of the outlands and wept.

 

“There is only one way Lieutenant Chiu can stay. She’s no believer. Who would accept her apology anyway?” Moses announced in a low voice to Delarosa.

“The girl’s lies have almost killed Jesse more than once,” Moses finished … an epitaph.

Miserable, Sally stood and faced Delarosa. “But it was me that took out after Jesse, not Malila.

“It’s true I don’t like Jesse Johnstone, but it was his walking in unannounced that just set me off. He was the cause of all Malila’s pain and humiliation … there, in my front room. The poor girl had suffered so much during her trip. She had so little to begin with.

“And I’ve made things so much worse for her,” she said.

“Sally, you’ll have a chance to apologize to Jesse too, but if he doesn’t forgive you, I’ll report him to the association. See if I don’t,” Moses replied.

This appeared to galvanize her. Sally sat up and buffed the tears from her eyes before dropping the twisted handkerchief to the floor and standing stiffly.

“No time like the present. I was in the wrong, and it’s not getting any righter, my talking about it,” she said as she threw a shawl around herself and left the house to find the old man.

Only after Sally closed the door did Delarosa ask, “Does she always go from hot to cold so fast?”

“She knew she overreacted even before we heard what you and Malila had to say. She never asked me about this last trip. She was so tied up with the baby and with babying Malila. Those two really hit it off, and I think she swallowed anything the girl said. Seems Malila believes some of what Sally said as well. I guess she thought there was no way it could be explained in Jesse’s favor.”

“Malila Chiu is lucky to be alive … luckier to have run into the old man instead of me. I would have followed orders,” said Delarosa.

Moses nodded. Jesse was always following his own drummer … always had if you believed the stories, Xavier thought.

“Malila might try to apologize. Why don’t you explain it to her, Moses? She’s not a believer, but she might understand and agree. It’s hard to guess with these Union types; it is all about hierarchy and status with them.”

“I dunno, Xavier. This is serious. I can’t have the girl spreading lies and be under my roof, like I agree with her. Jesse doesn’t deserve it … and neither do we.” Moses flung himself down onto his rocker.

“So far it is just among the five of us. If Jesse accepts her apology, will that serve?” Xavier asked.

“You heard what she said! How many times has she broken faith with the old man?” Moses replied at once.

“But if he does accept her …?”

Moses stopped as if considering. It was a few seconds later before he looked up.

“If he does, I do. I’m not gonna be out-Jesse’d by the man,” replied Moses with the shade of a smile crossing his lips for the first time since the old man had exploded out his front door.

“Let me go talk to him, and you talk to Malila.”

Moses nodded and rose.

Delarosa opened the door and stepped out into the cold air of the front porch.

“… and I had no right to accuse you of any action I didn’t witness myself. I have no excuse. I was wrong to believe the words, to voice the words, and to act on the words. God be a witness to my sorrow and sincerity. Jesse, please, forgive me.”

Jesse was standing uncovered in the cold, his hat lying on the ground. Sally was kneeling with her hands held out palm down on the old man’s open palms. She was looking up into Jesse’s face with new lines of bright tears on her cheeks.

“I accept your apology, given freely with no threat or reward asked or offered to you, my sister, and I guarantee that our communion is intact and unaffected. I forgive you, Sally.”

At the last words, she rose to her feet with the help of the old man, Jesse leaning down and quickly kissing her cheek. She, in turn, hugged him, before turning away to hurry back into the house.

When they were alone, Delarosa turned to Jesse.

“Moses is pretty upset with Malila. He won’t have her around telling lies about you.”

“Not all of it was lies. I was pretty hard on her. The last two weeks I was holding on by my toenails. I saw the signs. I was getting hazy and apathetic. It would be a terrible thing to make the girl walk for six weeks and then to die alone at the last go-round. I was getting weaker and stupider. It was a pretty close-run affair at the last.”

“Anything that you ought to be ashamed about?”

“Me? I stopped blushing after they convicted President Bokassa. No, Xav, I was the very soul of a good jailor. Yes, I stripped her, I winkled out her implant, and I didn’t ask ‘Mother, may I?’ neither. She’s pretty enough, and I won’t say I wasn’t tempted, but I never touched her that way. I wasn’t easy with her, but I wasn’t easy with me. That is why General Thomas hired me.

“Did I tell you that the implants keep women from having their cycles? When she started her first period, the poor thing near came apart at the seams. I can see how she thinks I planned to humiliate her, but …”

“But she gave her parole, her word of honor, and then tried to kill you. She shoulda too! Save us all a lot of trouble. You dumped her into an ice-water bath instead of killing her. Why?”

“Nearly did kill her, Xav. Seemed like the thing to do; she’s just a kid.”

“She has been a soldier since she was ten years old, you know, Jess. People in the Union only live to be about forty-two or so. She’s nearer being middle-aged.”

A smile flitted across the old man’s face. “So what are we to do if Moses won’t put up with her anymore? If you move her, you just set her up for another blowdown, doncha know? You want me to accept a phony apology from her?”

“No, I want you to accept a real apology from her … and I want you to really forgive her.”

“She doesn’t like me much, Xav …”

“Yeah, I noticed. But Sally thinks she needs to stay. I agree. Tough as she is, she’s still a kid. She can operate in a group, but she dissolves on her own. If I move her, she’ll be a basket case and useless to us.”

“Is she worthwhile to you now … I mean the intelligence?” asked the old man.

“No way to know. I’ve already gotten a lot out of her just by what she doesn’t know.”

Jesse laughed.

“Moses is okay with her staying?”

“Only if you are … It all comes down to whether she can apologize to you and you can forgive.”

“Don’t worry about me, Xav. It’s that time of year.”

“Are you warm enough, huddled out here? This may take a while.”

“I’ll be fine, Xav. Go on and see what you can do. If you get a moment to send out some of Sally’s cookies and coffee, they won’t be wasted, I promise.”

 

“This is a waste of time. It is just another way for that old man to humiliate me,” said Malila, waving her hand into the air.

Even as a gleam on the dark horizon of her despair began to show, Malila refused to trust it.

“No, you can’t think like that. Jesse can be hard as nails, but he has forgiven things in people that would make my heart stop. This is important, and you have nothing to lose,” Sally pleaded. “If you don’t try to apologize, you have to leave. If he forgives you, you get to stay with us. It may not mean much to you, but getting to act like the Shepherd, even a little bit, is important for us … and Jesse.”

Malila thought that being a sheep organizer was no great reward but said nothing. She rehearsed the phrases with Sally. The foreignness of the ideas was difficult enough, but the restrictions were burdensome. If Jesse perceived any insincerity, he would not agree.

With little enthusiasm, Malila went outside. Jesse sat huddled near the woodpile. An empty cup was at his elbow.

Jesse’s face was grim as she approached, like that of a magistrate. She was on trial now, and she had to admit her guilt.

She got close enough to the old man to kneel and reach out, palms downward. If Jesse did not take her hands, nothing more could be done … her apology was discarded out of hand. Malila watched his face for some telltale sign of reaction but could find none. She closed her eyes and waited. It was still a shock when she felt Jesse’s warm, dry palms under her own. She could not bring herself to look up into his face as she began.

“I’m a stranger here, and I don’t understand your customs. Sally says that I have to ask your forgiveness for what I said about your treatment of me on the trail. I may have exaggerated some things, and I’m sorry that she took them the wrong way.”

“I see.”

It was already going wrong. Telling Jesse about her own feelings wasn’t going to work; Sally and Moses both had warned her of that. Malila’s heart sank, and her hands started to slip off Jesse’s warm palms. She tried again.

“I lied to her, and she believed me. I lied about how you treated me. I broke my promises to you. I’m ungrateful. You saved my life.”

“Good, lass.”

“But you embarrassed me; you got me drunk; you gave me your tea; you fed me … You didn’t force me; you didn’t want me; you helped me when I bled; you sang me songs … You hit me,” she said, taking events at random and throwing them up like a makeshift barricade against the old man.

“I admit all that. I thought you were better than your promises. Breaking them surprised me … made me angry, lass. That is no excuse. I’m sorry for hitting you, for humiliating you. Please forgive me.”

Only then did Malila realize she was glaring up at Jesse, and she quickly looked down. This was not going as Sally had told her it would. She was doing it all wrong. She was not supposed to try to justify it or explain. Now Jesse had apologized to her instead. Sally had said he might “forgive” her, but Malila had no concept of what that would entail. All she knew was that if Jesse forgave her, she could stay. If not, she would be adrift in this chaos beyond the Rampart. She hesitated. The silence stretched away in front of her. Her palms greased with sweat, and her heart raced.

At length, Jesse said, “Will you forgive me for hurting you when I was angry? There is no excuse for that, and with my God’s help it will not happen again.”

The old man’s voice was low and modulated. Malila looked up in surprise. Jesse gazed at her with a steady, almost detached look, but beneath the look Malila knew he was all quiet intensity.

“I don’t know how to forgive you. I should have kept my promises, Jesse. Sally says I need you to forgive me.” The pale-gray eyes of the old man watched her. His face gradually changed into a mask of perplexity as the silence continued. Malila broke her gaze, feeling her eyes fill, and contemplated the old man’s boots, even as they blurred with new tears.

“Forgiveness is tough, lass. Forgiveness doesn’t make things like they never happened, but it makes things right … Can you see that? It means I give up feeling bad about your breaking your promises.”

His image swam as her tears fell. She felt better hearing the words, not knowing why that should be. She looked up and tried to buff her tears away with a coat sleeve without removing her hands from the warm palms.

“Jesse, I forgive you for hurting me when you were angry. I give up my feelings about that. You have saved my life, fed me, clothed me, and cared for me. I owe you for that … I’m so sorry …”

Even as she spoke, the litany of the old man’s actions—his decision to spare her life despite the danger to himself, despite the actual cost to his welfare—convicted her. He’d pulled her away from suicide. He’d looked out for her better than he had for himself. It was so unanswerable. She would always be in his debt. She could never repay it. A flash of dismay and grief raced through her as she recognized the truth.

Jesse’s face swam as she looked up before again bowing her head with racking sobs of regret. She had done it all wrong, she knew. Jesse would never forgive her; she had bungled the whole thing. She had taken too much from the old man, and now she would be turned adrift. It was several seconds before she sensed the old man beside her with his red bandana pressed into her hand and his solid arm around his shoulder.

“Malila … it’s all right. It is … I accept your apology, lass. I do.” Then shifting to another gear, he said, “And I thank you for forgiving me.”

The bland words worked another miracle on her. Her sobs morphed into gentle hiccups as the old man cradled her in his arms. Malila found her breath coming in ragged sighs as Sally came over and shooed Jesse away, helping Malila to her feet. Minutes later, when she looked around, they were alone in the yard.

 

 

Update of My First Tattoo

tattooNovember 23, 2016

Tattoos, so common now as to be clichéd talismans of adolescent angst or narcissistic souvenirs, I have avoided.

Condemned to one of those odd loci of non-abrogation of the Mosaical Law, tattoos were anathema to my childhood home even while pork, cream sauces, and lobster were ushered in to glad cries, when available. Then, meaning the 50’s, tattoos were a mark of the outsider: sailors, soldiers after the second war, the down, the out, and the grubby. Moreover, tattoos had a well-deserved horror to them as well, a meticulous line of numerals along the wrist revealing those who had emerged alive from the obscenity of Hitler’s death camps.

Tattoos were not for real people; you know what I mean … real people.

Thus the indescribable titillation, once I had heroically freed myself from darkest suburbia (only with the financial, emotional, and intellectual support of my bourgeois parents), in learning that some vaguely acquainted colleague, a few years older, had a tattoo, there, right on her ass, never to be seen or referenced. But there! My imagination tended to butterflies.

Then, the mid 60’s) I dissuaded myself from getting a tattoo of my own for several reasons. Not insignificantly, as a professional student, tats were déclassé.

Richard Gere, in An Officer and a Gentleman, demonstrates the point nicely. He is enrolled in pilot school, a first step to the gentleman thing, and the last thing he does before leaving the ranks of the enlisted is attempt to hide his ink (unsuccessfully) from the drill sergeant. An object lesson was provided me by my patients in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, moreover. These were mostly WWII vets and mostly in their late forties. They made a game of sneaking off the floor to smoke cigars and buy milkshakes in the commissary. All were well tattooed, and all said that they had gotten them while drunk, young and dumb. Other than their service tats, they wished they had never gotten them. As a very young medical student (twenty when I started), I tried to absorb worldly wisdom where I could; they seemed to have it.

Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man was made into a movie in 1969, emphatically freaking me out. Rod Steiger is not who I wanted in my dreams. I was still hung up on butterflies on intimate flesh.

Then came the deluge.

Tattoo came out in 1981 with Bruce Dern as an obsessive tattoo artist, kidnapping Maud Adams to receive, rather involuntarily, his magnum opus. Not the kind of image I wanted for my personal life as physician, husband, and father.

Subcutaneous ink became the rage, moving centripetally from arms to torsos to genitalia as if it were a pernicious rash. Actors, those you might think would abjure marring the tools of their trade, began to sport more and substantially more bizarre tats. Pugilists indulged, when not biting each other. The NBA, showing more skin than most sports teams, became a menagerie of mobile ink, moving pictures indeed.

Tats have become clichéd self-expression, a message, if an inchoate one, commemorating some act, thought or conviction. Simultaneously, tats, the poorly done variety, have become a sign of membership in criminal organizations of various ilks.

So ink has been, at one time or another: membership credential, souvenir, bookmark in a life story, curse, rape-substitute, curriculum vita, and de-humanizer of the despised.

I add one more.

Currently, three small blue marks mark my pristine (if one discounts an assortment of scars provided me by several surgeons, a motorcycle, a knife-wielding gentleman of my rather brief acquaintance, and various mishaps of my own manufacture) pelt. My new tats are not close together being port, starboard and amidships. There is no great art involved. They are each single dots.

In a week’s time, I start radiation therapy for a recurrent cancer in the hope that I may be cured of it and have to find something else from which to die.

It’s nice to finally join the club.

January 12, 2016

Finished.

38 of 38 done today. No significant side effects. No great tribulation.

Now we wait, off meds, to see if the dreaded number, currently bumping along near zero, ticks up or embraces its zero-ness. My odds are about 45:55 for a cure, an actual cure.

Outland Exile Chapter 36, 37 & 38

Please remember that the unexpurgated text is available through Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or my own online store at https://old-men-and-infidels-book-series.myshopify.com (with an author’s discount and free inscription)

CHAPTER 36

 

ARRIVAL

arrival

Malila sat up and moaned. Her head, feeling twice its normal size, throbbed in retaliation. She sensed something had died, died a slow, pestilential death, in her mouth. Remembering a dinner of pickles, bear ham, and alcohol, she barely had time to dress before staggering out and vomiting into the tall grass.

Jesse found her as the last heaves subsided, leaning over her to block the too-bright sun with his shadow, and tsked. He pressed a red bandana into her limp hand. The back of the old man’s hand showed a new livid bruise. She almost asked him about it.

“We have to move today, lass. Rest while we pack. When you feel up to it, we will get you something to make you feel better … when it will stay put for a while.”

“You poisoned me! I’m going to die here!”

“I’m sorry, so sorry, lass. I don’t know what I was thinkin’ … bear ham, pickles, and ’shine. I am truly sorry.”

Malila had an appropriately scathing response on her lips, but the thought of the food, again, wrung her out, making her retch bile-green slime into the grass.

In time, Malila recovered enough to stand and wash out her mouth from a bucket left near the door of the dugout.

Moses, grinning, approached her with a large tin of clear liquid.

“Jesse said for you to drink this. Make you feel better if’n you can keep it down.” It tasted vaguely salty but bitter.

Moses showed her to the corral. Jesse had finished saddling three horses and had leads on two others loaded with their gear. The old man, looking gray, finished wrestling a pack into place. Malila smiled at his discomfort, matching her own.

“Okay, miss. This here is Arab. He’s about as gentle an animal as I have,” said Moses. “Do you want a leg up?”

Malila nearly fell over backward looking up to the saddle. Unity horses were never this massive. She took the leg.

Once mounted, acrophobia replaced nausea for a season. Jesse mounted with Moses’s help as well.

They left the rendezvous station deserted, the doors barricaded against animals and the coming snow, for what Moses said would be a three-day ride to the colony.

By early afternoon, Malila was better and worse. Her nausea gone, she could devote her misery to a more fundamental pain. Moses shortened her stirrups, a name she suspected he had just invented to annoy her. As the sun sank, they moved south, a little higher out of the river valley. The high country already wore the brown gray of a winter landscape, although, here and there, near the river Malila still saw the greens, crimsons, and yellows of autumn. Occasional spires of blue smoke rose up until kited away by the wind.

The riding trip, like the foot trek before, rapidly assumed a sameness. Moses nudged her before dawn as he went to collect the horses. Jesse stirred up the fire from the night before. The three broke their fast with a bitter black effusion of what appeared to be charcoal. Malila was given some glutinous gray material in a shallow bowl that she refused to eat until she saw Moses and Jesse lather into their portions dark sugar and handfuls of dried fruit. Jesse cut his fruit into small pieces. Malila found it remarkably filling.

The trail reached ever eastward along the river valley, sometimes cutting off a large loop as the river twisted and turned. They stopped, much as they had afoot, to share out small portions of jerky and water about once an hour. Now both men mumbled their superstitious formula before eating. Malila chose to make no comment.

On the morning of the third day, the two men neglected breakfast and set out while it was still dark. As she rode, frost-rimed branches littered ice back into her face. After weeks in the wilderness, Malila began to see small signs of civilization growing around her. Wagon tracks multiplied, to left and right, joining their tracks to deepen the ruts. Horse tracks wove back and forth across the trail until it intersected a hardened road nearer the river. The few travelers they now met on foot and horseback greeted them, weapons prominent but the greetings friendly enough. Malila was told not to speak. Later in the morning, the greetings included laconic inquiries and replies. Most of these travelers wore clothes that were woven rather than skins. Here and there on the wagons were shiny cook pots, well-used machinery, and the occasional whip antenna of a broadcast radio in a jet-and-silver case. Malila saw children: dirty, fat, and dressed well against the cold. They giggled at her. Jesse talked to them, making them laugh.

By late morning, the three of them arrived at collections of buildings, clustering closer together as they moved on. There were more people. Long, penetrating stares greeted Malila. Jesse generated the most hootings and hailings along the way. Riding down a lane between fenced enclosures, they entered an unpaved plaza, one side dominated by a building with a louvered tower and pleasing symmetrical proportions. It displayed no sign except “Parsonage in Back.” The other buildings appeared to be shops. One fresh-painted green clapboard building boasted a sign that read, “James Uhuru Robertson, RSA Congressional District #19.” She thought it all impossibly squalid.

Once they had stopped, people converged. For the most part, the townsfolk ignored Malila, greeting the men with hugs, friendly insults, backslappings, and kisses.

Malila watched from the periphery as the crowd parted for a young blonde woman holding a bundle. The woman approached, staring fixedly at the new arrivals. Moses, turning when the crowd grew silent, whooped and burst through the remaining ring of people to scoop the woman into his arms. He hesitated when he saw the bundle, stopping with an uncertain look on his long face. The woman broke into a glorious smile that spoke to Malila of pride, tenderness, and longing.

Moses folded back the corner of a blanket. A small face grimaced from the light. Moses bent close, as if smelling before looking up to the woman. She spoke softly, then gently smiled, which in its quiet wisdom reminded Malila of Moses himself. He gathered up the bundle and started to turn, his cheeks streaked with moisture, when the woman stopped him. Wordlessly, she wiped his face.

Turning again, Moses proclaimed, “Hallo, old man! Come meet Ethan Graham Stewert!”

The crowd erupted; Ethan responded. The woman smiled broadly before gathering the baby into her arms once more. She clucked at Moses before trying to soothe her infant’s objections.

Malila was stunned. She had never met a breeder. Most of the Unity’s surrogates survived only a few pregnancies. The burden of childbearing was so great that no sentient Unity woman would endanger herself. But this woman’s health and pride in her new son shone for all to see. Something plucked a chord in Malila she had never played.

As the baby’s wail escalated, his mother scooped a breast from her gown and presented it to her son. The baby yawned open his mouth and homed in on the engorged nipple with seeming expertise, shaking his small head before clamping down in earnest. Malila felt ill at the grotesque display until she heard the sounds of lusty infantile satisfaction. Men and women of all ages looked on smiling as the newest and least productive member of their community was cosseted and cuddled.

Within minutes, the plaza was almost deserted. Jesse had gone to talk with a man in a peaked hat and an odd military uniform. Malila could see Jesse surrendering his precious buckskin roll to the man, prompting a good deal of discussion. Moses and the baby’s mother had moved off and were already in deep conversation.

Malila was alone and looking at the best path to escape when the dogs found her. She almost panicked. She had always hated the vicious animals. With floppy ears still dusty from their late-morning naps, the outland dogs sauntered over and started to snuffle Malila myopically. In terror, outnumbered, fearful that she would be rapidly brought down by the jaws of these outland monsters, Malila stood and endured.

Jesse and the military man continued to talk; the old man was more animated than he had been since the devil’s bridge. Within a few minutes, Moses and the baby’s mother were called back for a hurried conference.

Malila’s doggy examiners, having finished their examination, sneezed and went to sleep on her feet. Malila closed her eyes to the ordeal.

Some minutes later, she was rescued by the old man.

“Get on, you two; find someplace else to nap!” he said and wiggled a foot under each as he encouraged them to leave.

Without a preamble, Jesse pressed something into her hand. “This is for ye, lass. Ah wouldna want ye a beggar. See it wages for yer time.”

“You are leaving me, old man?”

“It seems I am. You’ll be staying wi’ Moses and Sally. I hope that is a better fit for you.”

“When will I see you again, Jesse?”

“See me again?” Jesse said, his eyebrows lifting in what she thought was surprise.

“Never mind, old man. Go!”

Malila looked down at the object, finding that he had given her one of his red bandanas, washed and smelling of wood smoke and Jesse. Tied inside was a hard fluted black disk with impressions on both sides. By the time she looked up, Jesse had turned, gathered up his green backpack, and was walking out of the square. He seemed to shrink as he walked, his head bowing and his gait growing wider. When he reached a lane leading from the square, he staggered and put a hand out to the clapboard wall to steady himself. Malila looked away as if she were violating a privacy. When she looked up, Jesse was gone.

CHAPTER 37

 

BILLET

billet

 

Malila asked, “Is that your son?” as Moses and the blonde woman approached her. Malila had never in her life expected to ask so rude a question.

Moses smiled. “Yes, or so my Sally tells me.” The woman was within hearing distance … and striking distance, fetching Moses a sharp jab in the ribs, to which he gave an exaggerated reaction.

The breeder extended her hand to Malila while juggling the nursing infant.

“I am Sally Stewert. I’d be an old woman before Moses’d think to introduce us. This is Ethan Graham. He’s our first.”

“Acting Second Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E.”

Sally looked a little blank.

The conversation stopped until Moses said, “The captain tells me that he has to question you for the next few weeks. I am to give you room and board. I ’spect you should help around the homestead if I feed and house you. Is that all right, Miss Malila?”

Malila nodded. Moses, noticing her looking at the baby, said, “Here, let me introduce you to Ethan.” Before Sally could object, he whisked the baby away from her, leaving Sally to replace her breast into her gown.

Having satisfied most of his appetite, the baby writhed slightly in his father’s hands, pursing his lips before smacking them experimentally. Malila leaned close enough to shade his eyes from the late-morning sun and was rewarded with a dark-gray quizzical gaze. She inhaled his soft foreign-familiar scent and offered a finger to the small clenching fist. Ethan’s idle, fleeting smile seduced another victim with the charm of the newly born.

Sally sat cuddling Ethan as the wind whipped about them, pointedly not listening to Moses. The girl was relegated to the back of the small wagon, mercifully out of the way, at least for the time being. Jesse had left Sally with a little souvenir of his summer adventure. The man was impossible. And just like every other time, Moses carried on as if his trip with Jesse had been some lark. It was too much to abide.

The girl was now, she supposed, their prisoner … her prisoner. Moses would be in the fields, and the enemy soldier would be added to Sally’s burden. Ethan was a week old. It was all too much to bear.

Moses’s forced jolliness sputtered to a slow death, and they finished the trip, winding through the winter-gray scrublands of their parcel in silence. It was getting on to late afternoon before they approached their homestead, nestled in its pleasant copse of trees.

The strange girl would probably notice the house needed painting, Sally thought. She probably would not notice that it had a second floor and chimneys at both ends of the gabled roof, one of only six in the county. The Swerdigans had built it, but Sally had made it a home.

Moses halted in front of the house, and Sally, after handing Ethan down to him, alighted before he could move to help her. Plucking the baby from him, she stalked into the house. The baby needed changing. She had work to do.

Sally had sorted out Ethan and started to set the fire to rights when the strange Uni girl finally entered the house, looking as if she were afraid to touch anything. It was time to set some rules!

“Mose tells me that we have to billet you while you are being questioned by Captain Delarosa. It isn’t fair, and we are on winter rations already. They tell me we’ll get some provisions from the army for you, but they can’t say when. While you are here, you work. We don’t run no boarding house. You sleep in the loft, and the washout and privy are out back. Do you understand?”

There was no use in sugarcoating it.

“Yes, sir, I understand, Sally, sir!”

Sally grimaced at the reaction, inspecting the unkempt girl for signs of criticism. The seconds stretched on. The Uni girl was actually at attention, staring not at her but apparently at a patch of blank plastered wall.

After a spell, Sally relented. “Don’t call me that. Call me Mrs. Stewert when people are around; otherwise, call me Sally. Tell me your name again.”

“Acting Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E. … Sally! Request permission to speak freely, Sally!” the girl barked out.

“Of course you can talk, Malila. Free country, after all, isn’t it?”

The girl was beginning to get on her nerves. It was as if someone had thrown a switch and turned her into some sort of a robot. Sally was feeling put upon. For the sake of her country, she could accommodate an attractive and unattached woman in her home, but it annoyed her to have one around while she herself was preoccupied with a new baby. It was barely tolerable, but apparently unavoidable, to have one around her long-absent and handsome husband during the forced inactivity of winter.

What she would not abide was the girl-bot barking at her.

“Sally, sir, what is a missus?” Malila asked.

“Oh my, girl, it means I’m Moses’s wife. Don’t you Union people use Mrs.? Relax and sit down! I’ll make us some coffee before the baby starts crying again,” she said as she turned away from the robot-girl.

“Sally, sir, what is a wife, sir?” The girl remained standing, and if possible, she seemed to straighten herself one notch more, reminding Sally of the faceless horrors of the Union.

Once again, she studied the girl’s face for the faintest taint of sarcasm. She had married Moses just two years before. They had both come up as hardscrabble kids with almost no family and no inheritance other than their hands, heads, and backs. When the old man had staked Moses to prove out this parcel, despite her dislike of him, she had urged Moses to take the chance.

After paying off his first note, Moses had walked the fifteen miles to Georgeville and proposed to her. The same day, they had walked back as husband and wife. She had only just imagined she was pregnant when Moses had left to follow that Jesse “Let’s Go Get Us Some Rifles” Johnstone to the wilderness of Wisconsin.

She was all for fighting the Union. The godless black horrors had killed her father and a younger sister only seven years ago. She and her brothers had buried their scorched remains by the road without even a marker, for fear of a return raid. But now, the horrible old man had brought a little piece of the Union back to haunt her.

“Humph … I might have known!” she said and turned again to make the coffee.

The girl, still standing and staring at the wall as if her mainspring had stuck from overwinding, looked paler. Money can’t buy people respectability, Sally thought. Folks’ husbands aren’t safe with people like this around. Sally turned back.

“Just a word, girl: come on to Moses, harm me or my son, and you are out of here that very day! Captain Delarosa or no. Understand?”

Hearing the words, Malila felt her face flush hot, her heart pounding.

“Sally, I … yes, Missus Sally. No coming on to Moses, no harm. Yes, sir!” she blurted out.

The hope of an end to her hardship was slipping away from Malila. She just wanted to stop moving. She wanted to wear clothes that were not stiff with dirt and blood. She’d hoped this was an end to her trek, but instead, the missus threatened to turn her out into the wind and wet. Malila did not know what “coming on to Moses” even meant. Ever since that terrible day when Suarez’s face had welled up into her vision, nothing had gone right. Even Jesse had finally abandoned her completely. Every fixed point in her universe had come loose in her hand. She sensed herself falling. Trying again to come more perfectly to attention in order to placate this angry woman, Malila’s hot tears streaked across her wind-chapped cheeks and prismed her vision.

It might have been the heat of the room after the weeks in the open. It might have been that she had not eaten since the night before. It might have been the catharsis of having at last arrived, or it might have been the company of another woman, no matter how hostile.

Malila found herself flittering back to consciousness. The pain of her split lip and the fleeting memory of blissed-out daydreams mingled briefly. Sally was at her side where she had fallen forward into the wall, a bright smear of blood marring its whiteness.

“Malila, Malila, honey, come back, come on now …”

Malila felt patting strokes on her hands as she resurfaced to the worried face of Sally hovering over her.

“I’m so sorry, girl! I didn’t mean to snap at you. It doesn’t matter. You can’t help how you’re raised. It will be okay …” Sally cycled through her platitudes. Groaning, Malila sat up and saw Sally for the first time: only a few years older than herself, and drawn with the concern for her baby, her husband, and, now, a sharp anxiety for Malila herself.

Malila, to her own surprise, sat up, embraced Sally, and started to sob. Malila had learned not to cry in the crèche; it had drawn the unwanted and cruel attention of the older children. It had offered no remedy. Malila sobbed now, clutching Sally’s warm form. She sobbed for the cold, for her ignorance, for not knowing what a wife meant, for the pain of her split lip, for the horror of the fight with Bear, for the despair of her near suicide, for Jesse’s abandonment. She sobbed for all the sobbing she had not done as a child. She sobbed for her lost homeland and the kindness of this stranger. She sobbed.

Sally, after a moment’s hesitation, hugged her in return. The two women embraced on the floor of a primative homestead in the outlands of the Unity and the Stewert farm of the New Carrolton Colony of the Reorganized States of America until both women were crying and laughing in turn. Minutes later, a shrill declaration of neglect by Ethan made both women rise to his summons.

CHAPTER 38

 

CAPTIVITY

Over the next two weeks, Sally listened to most of the girl’s tales. Malila needed the chance to say all the words left unsaid from her trip, her capture, and, maybe, her entire life, Sally thought. Malila retold her solitary memories of early childhood: a soft-bodied woman; a tall, thin man with spectacles; and the windblown clapboard house on a hill against an empty gray sky as it disappeared in the rear window of a government skimmer. She talked about her hopes, her patrons, and her return to the Unity.

Sally asked questions about the things she could not know and kept from her face the reaction to what the answers revealed. Some things she would never fathom. The patrons, whom Malila discussed so openly, filled her with outrage, showing her Malila as a naive victim of a repellant system.

But that first day, Sally interrupted her as Malila’s clothes, warmed by the bright fire, began to liberate the odors they had captured over the weeks of hard use.

“Let’s see if I can find anything of mine I can alter for you, honey. We can’t have you walking around in that old man’s cast-offs, can we, now? Looks like the only thing worth keeping are those boots.”

“Yes, Missus Sally.”

“Call me Sally, honey. Let’s get you out of those things before they crawl away on their own. We’ll need to get you some undies too, I see.”

Sally had seen violence visited upon flesh before. However, she was not prepared for the bruises and healing wounds she found on the slim body of the girl. Malila had a black eye just fading from green, bruises from leg to shoulder, and abrasions on her face and hands. The girl was muscular, but she was painfully thin, her ribs and hip bones protruding. Besides the small healing wounds that went along with life on the trail, the girl had deeper scars under a breast and above her privates. Her eyes spoke of long days and insufficient rest.

“You’ve had a hard trip, honey. How long did it take you to get here? Just put your arms up, and I’ll drop this old gown over you.” A swoosh of gingham interrupted Malila’s reply.

She repeated it as her face cleared the neckline. “About six weeks until we crossed this last big river; then we met Moses and rode here.”

“You mean the Ohio? Big, I suppose, but you should see it in springtime! Those scars look new. What did you get caught in, leaving you so marked?”

“Jesse did the one under my right breast, and the other one was when he abandoned me for another man to take. That was Bear. I don’t know what the mark was really supposed to look like. He said cutting me was to show people what I was and who I belonged to. You know what a brothel is, Sally?”

“Yes, I do, but we don’t generally talk about it among civilized folk, honey.”

“Oh, really? We don’t have brothels in the Unity.”

“No, I see where you might not. Hmm … looks like I’ll have to take it in a bit up top and round the hips. I’m not going to make it fit too tight. I’m thinking you might gain a little back now that you are off the trail.”

“Jesse said my boobs were too small too.”

“That old goat, he said that? They look just fine, honey. You have a sweet shape. Men always think they want more than they can get their hands on.”

“He didn’t seem to want them when he had them, missus.” Malila sighed.

“It’s Sally, honey. Did he? I mean did Jesse touch you?”

“Of course he did. We were sleeping together … oh, not for pleasure-sex! Father me, no! He watched me, especially when I had to wash. He got, you know, interested. Did I tell you he made me wash before bed every night, even as cold as it was? And he watched me. But I guess he didn’t like what he saw.”

“Must be tough to fight off a big man like Jesse. Brutish is all I have to say.”

“I guess he doesn’t have much interest anymore. I’m told Sisis, old people, are like that,” said Malila with a smirk.

“Jesse? I wouldn’t take that bet, honey,” Sally chuckled. “That old man … I’d not trust with the virtue of a spinster. He’s already run through three wives that he admits to.”

“I guess it is just me he doesn’t like, then. That must be why he abandoned me, again,” said Malila. This time her smile was wan. She looked away.

Sally looked at her without answering, and Malila, turning back, explained. “Jesse abandoned me over and over as we were walking. First, a Death Walker nearly got me. Next, he took off during a snowstorm. A band of bandits saw my fire. Before they could rape me, I ran off into the snow. Jesse found me, but then he just stuffed me into a snowdrift. He left me there and didn’t come back until after dark the next day. Even when he was there, he wasn’t there. Do you know what I mean?”

“I know something of that. Moses went off with Jesse at the beginning of summer this year. I was just beginning to figure I was expecting Ethan. Jesse said it’d be a few weeks, and it turned into months. The Sentinels kept me up to date, so’s I didn’t worry, but I couldn’t get a message to Moses. We, Mose and me, need to talk about that. I’m not happy about how he abandoned me to go keep house at Morganfield.”

“What was Moses supposed to be doing during the birth?”

Sally laughed. “Far as I know, he’s supposed to look worried and keep out of the way. Men are pretty useless when it comes to birthing their own babies. They need to be there so’s they don’t get the idea this is just a woman thing and to know what women go through so that they, the men, can have a child.”

Malila looked confused, and Sally waved a hand at her before continuing. “Men want children as much as women do, whether it shows or not. It’s a whole lot more complicated for a man to get a baby than for a woman. Boys don’t understand that, of course. They’re just rutting. It’s only when they grow up that men realize they want to bring up a child in this world of sorrows—see they turn out to be good people. The gladdest people I know are the men who are proud how their kids turned out. The most sorrowful ones are the ones who failed for not trying.”

“But Moses abandoned you when you needed him.”

“I can thank your friend Jesse for that. They were supposed to be back by middle August.”

“He’s not my friend. He abandoned me too. He abandoned me in a lot of ways.”

“Well, if it hadn’t been for Jesse, Moses would’ve been here. I expected Mrs. Parker to help with the birthing, and she brought along her girl, Simone. What an annoying child. Moses could’ve saved me from her, if he’d have been here.”

The conversation subsided as Sally, with a mouthful of pins, concentrated on the alterations.

How much to believe of the girl’s wild stories was anyone’s guess. Jesse was not above a little fabrication at the expense of the gullible. What was certain was that the old man had been too rough with a young, weak, and vulnerable girl. Considering how casual she was with sex, it would not surprise her if Jesse had taken advantage of her on the long trip south, whatever Malila said. Sex was an issue between them; that much was obvious. Sally was not so naive as to think rape was rare in a wild and lawless country, but she would be damned if she allowed the vile man into her house again.

Sally saw how much good it did the girl to talk, wrenching as it was to hear how the old man had treated her. No matter that Jesse Johnstone was a legend of the frontier and the first of the “old ones.” Since his childhood, he was supposed to have aged slower than anyone in recorded history. It was all part of some science experiment9 around the time of the Meltdown. The good news, at least for Sally and those she cared about, was that aging was now a disease like the red measles or lockjaw. You got a few shots, and it did not happen. The old man had helped make it possible. It did not mean she had to like him.

Malila’s evident pride in her country and its institutions were even harder for Sally to understand. Sally knew herself to be uneducated. Schooling for her had ceased with the murder of her father when she was thirteen. She could read and cipher. She could run the agro-support differential equations, run the diagnostics for the power panels, manage her household programs, and program the farm machines. She knew enough machine language to create her own market-prediction programs. Beyond that, she read for her own pleasure and that, for the most part, in English. There had been little room in her life for earning “merit” or admiring “the rule of the people” either.

She worked for possessions, things to ensure the safety and welfare of herself and those she loved. She would much rather have money than “merit.” As for other folks messing with her business, she was quite willing to tell them what she thought about such busybodies if they tried.

The most mystifying aspect of the girl was her baffling fascination with Ethan. The strange, alien girl, if left unsupervised, stood and watched him for hours. Malila scrutinized each of Ethan’s fleeting grimaces as they cycled across his face, watched the slow dance of the small hands as they writhed even in sleep. She talked incessantly about how sweet he smelled, newly laundered and freshly attired. Sally had quickly instructed her about replacing his diaper when he was not so sweet-smelling. She seemed to enjoy the privilege. Strange girl.

Chapters 33 34 35 Jesse and Malila almost die.

 CHAPTER 33

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

devil-bridge

The cold rains of November swept across the plains as Malila and Jesse huddled under a small lean-to near the river Jesse had refused to name.

They had reached the banks that evening. Pruned of its leaves and limbs by death and the wind, an immense cottonwood tree had fallen across the small river that blocked their line of travel.

Malila, without asking, hopped onto the trunk and started walking forward.

“Get back, you fool.”

She turned to look at the old man. Since Bear, Jesse had seemed to shrivel within himself, older now than she could imagine. His eyes became dull, his hands bore livid bruises when he took his gloves off, and he winced with each mouthful of food. He had become vague and indecisive. The only unchanged condition was her bondage. Jesse was still scrupulous in tying her up and watching her movements.

Looking back at Jesse, Malila bounced on the log, taunting him, her long lead sending sine waves back and forth to Jesse. “Losing your nerve, old man? We have a ready-made bridge.”

“A devil’s bridge, more like. Kill you quick enough if you try to cross.”

“It’s a dead tree!” Malila jumped up and down again lightly. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

“Okay, nothing to worry about. I’m not going to cross on it. Any road, we are stoppin’—now. Understand, Prisoner Chiu?”

Malila shrugged and retreated from the trunk to follow Jesse up to the lee side of the river’s bluff. Jesse was getting old before her eyes.

After constructing a shelter, the sound of the roaring water still audible, the old man acted exhausted, stumbling as he collected firewood to store dry, nodding if he sat for even a few seconds, and refusing to answer her questions. After he threw her some jerky, he went to bed, without fire, food, water, or bathing. Falling asleep almost at once, every few minutes Jesse would fret, groan, wake, and reposition himself. Malila was left to consider her hunger and isolation. Clouds scudded over them, extinguishing the stars before the sky even grew dark.

It started to rain within the hour.

Despite her hunger and the dismal weather, Malila slept. The next day Jesse was even sicker. Trapped, Malila was forced to roust the old man whenever she wanted to pee or get water. At last, Jesse, drawing his long knife and brandishing it clumsily, worked the blade between the knot and the small of her back and released her. Jesse collapsed back onto the furs, and Malila skittered away into the dull, sodden landscape.

That day and the next, Jesse lay abed, fretting and moaning. Malila scrounged enough food to keep herself nourished as the rains continued and the river rose. The old man moved only enough to drink and piss. All he ate were the berries from which he made his loathsome tea.

It looked as if he was settling himself for a slide toward a fetid death, like an old picture of a sinking ship. At home, they would have euthanized him by now. It would have been kinder. He stank.

That third night, with nothing to do all day but watch the rain and listen to Jesse die, she could not sleep. She tried pulling Jesse’s arm over her waist to console herself, to warm him. He groaned and rolled away from her, leaving her colder than before.

It had been five weeks since her capture. Jesse had abducted her only to die in his own Sisi way, leaving her in a half-drowned wilderness. The thoughts of what might have been played nightly in her imagination. Every time she drifted off, Jesse groaned and moved.

At dawn, exhausted, Malila arose and dressed, leaving Jesse to his fretful but now less-noisy sleep. It must be getting close to the end. Throwing an oilskin around her shoulders, she left the shelter barefoot, her light footprints filling with water. Once free of the shelter, the roar of the water almost overwhelmed her, and she followed it to the river.

The cottonwood that Jesse had feared to use was still there. The rising river now crested over the massive trunk, generating a monstrous standing wave of dirty water. Malila stood mesmerized. Debris sped along in the peat-colored water before being sucked up and over the aged trunk to disappear into the maelstrom below. Caught in the flood, uprooted trees and swept-up wreckage fountained into the endless cascade.

Upstream a dark object caught Malila’s eye. It moved within the torrent, and she could not tell if it was alive or dead. As it swept into the cataract and over the trunk, she could make out the carcass of a bloated and decaying young bison. It rose high on the wave but caught, for a moment, at the very crest. Malila could see the sodden head of the beast. Short horns protruded above the lolling putrescent tongue, the belly ballooning obscenely, the legs bulging away, as if fearful of its rupture. The bison pivoted in the torrent and was released, plunging over the spume and spinning away downstream.

The cold no longer bothered her. She thought how inexorable would be the plunge. The decision simplified things to a single point. She need no longer be a failure or an embarrassment. A single decision solved it all.

The huge spinning mass of her life swung back and forth over a malevolent darkness. Malila crawled and climbed up the roots to the trunk of the cottonwood and turned toward the river before standing. Through her feet, she felt the thrill of the surging water as she inched forward. A few small steps and she would snip the single corroded fiber that bound her to life. She moved forward. The trunk swayed as the river surged. The brown opaque crest of water overtopping the trunk hypnotized her, her life … squandered … too damaged to cherish.

Glimpsing a dark shadow on the shore, she hurried forward another two steps as if afraid that death might take her uninvited.

Malila, come back!

“Malila, come back!”

The two voices echoed each other inside her head and confused her. The voices were mingled: old and young, without and within. She hesitated.

Jesse swung up to the trunk, and she felt it shudder under their combined weight. She moved forward once more, no longer waiting, afraid to look back at what Jesse might have become. The Unity was already counting her among the dead. The oblivion of the cold rushing water beckoned to her. She stretched forward her bare foot … and felt the cold water close over her head.

She gasped and inhaled some water. Darkness enclosed her as she struggled to the surface to cough, the water burning her lungs.

“Stand up, lass!”

She opened her eyes. The naked scrub trees were turning lazily around her. She put down her feet, and cold, soft mud squished between her toes. Rage flared momentarily within her. Jesse, clothed in just his oilskin, jumped off the trunk, waded in, and disengaged the length of hide rope she found tangled around her neck, arm, and legs. As she dully tried to pick the line away, she recognized it, the thin line weighted with a machine nut to suspend food away from nighttime scavengers. While she had been consoling herself with the idea of her death, the old man had thrown the line to ensnare her. Jesse had pulled her into the backwater of the cottonwood, a quiet spinning pool despite the cataract beside it.

Without a word, the old man was beside her, pulling her up. Standing in thigh-deep water, he hugged her, almost crushing her, and sobbed. Numb and in the throes of her thoughts, Malila, for long seconds, stood with her arms at her sides before starting to beat at Jesse to release her. When he turned her to face him, his face frightened her, rain or tears furrowing down the man’s features before dripping onto his oilskin.

“I’m sae sorry, love. Ah haven’t been keeping ye right. Ah promise ta keek after ye, hereafter, na matter what.”

Malila stared at him.

Jesse retrieved and shouldered the rope before grabbing her by the wrist. Malila allowed herself to be half-pulled and half-led up the bank and along to the shelter. She let the old man strip her, wash her, and maneuver her under the furs, before he kindled a fire with the stored dry wood.

She awoke in what she knew to be a dream. She had returned to the blood lake, the steps, and the sunless, brittle sky. She had not had the dream since her first bleeding. The dream was different this time, even from the beginning. There was a sharp texture to the air. She was grateful for the warmth of the blood as she moved through it. She still dreamed she was climbing the steps to gain the temple porch. When she reached the top, the breeze smelled of the sea. She was wearing a long white gown of some soft, clinging material. Looking out, a forest spread into the distance. She raised her hand to the sky and watched her hand disappear as through a wall of fog. She felt the cold, wet breeze on her hand, dew condensing on her fingers to run down onto her arms. The dewdrops were the color of blood. She awoke with a start.

Jesse hushed her as she rose. “It’s all right, lass. Just your dream.”

He pulled her down to the warmth of their bed and arranged the skins over her again before settling himself. He rested his arm, thick and solid on her waist, and Malila hugged it to herself, letting the old man feel how her heart pounded.

“It will be all right, my friend.”

She sagged into his warmth and was again asleep.

Over the next several days, they scouted south until they found an ancient weir, fouled with debris but sturdy enough to offer them a footpath. They never camped near a large river again.

CHAPTER 34

THE RIVER

river

Crossing of the Ohio, Indiana Territory

Early evening, December 6, 2128

Malila sat tied with her back against the furrowed trunk of a tree, the ground littered with dried pod-like fruit, telegraphing her every motion. Since her attempt at the devil’s bridge, Jesse’s concern for her welfare had been almost endearing, making her ashamed to have ever thought he wanted her merely as a trophy. He kept her under “close arrest,” as he called it. She did not blame him.

In so many other ways, however, the old man was not playing fair.

He was an enemy. He was strange, old, and uncouth. Even so, Jesse had, without her permission, refilled her empty cache of self-esteem. Over the last week, ever since he had pulled her back from the devil’s bridge, it had become clear to her: somehow, the old man reminded her of forgotten childhood images, best forgotten … perhaps.

Regardless, the idea of causing grief to the old man was now somehow distasteful to her. Her own life had a worth because of the old man’s concern, their bondage now mutual. For a while, he had talked to her at every opportunity, expending his grand eloquence around every campfire, holding her close at night in the increasing cold.

But it had not lasted. Over the last few days, Jesse had started the same vague, slow descent into senility. He could no longer eat except by cutting the meat into small bits and swallowing without chewing. Malila had taken over cooking. Jesse forgot things … or no longer cared. The voice that had echoed with Jesse’s, calling her back, had not surfaced again.

She had no illusions. If Jesse died, her own death in this wilderness could not be long delayed, just more gruesome; she would go back to the devil’s bridge.

It had been two days since Jesse had talked to her.

Tonight he’d abandoned her at dusk, bound. She was not sure he could remember where he had left her. Darkness rendered her blind. Her ears picked up every sound: the fall of a leaf, the faint cracking of a branch in the distance, a distant bird crying unanswerable questions. She could see nothing. No doubt her body, producing a plume of scent down the wind stream, attracted any animal or plant with a taste for flesh. In the dark, her imagination invented slavering horrors circling her. Malila felt a breeze on the back of her neck.

Behind her, without a rattle of a pod, a voice whispered, “Get up.”

Jesse retied her hands in front of her. He showed no hesitancy in the gloom of the forest, his gait smoother and more assured, even as Malila found every exposed root to trip over. Eventually, she looked up to see an opening in the blackness. The forest parted to reveal a broad expanse of river. Jesse led her along a bluff and down to the water’s edge. A small skin boat waited for them. Jesse tethered her to a seat in the bow with their packs lashed amidships. The old man settled himself aft and, after groaning effort, pushed them off with a short paddle.

Jesse negotiated rather than paddled the boat across and down the wide river. Washed out by the full moon, the sky showed just the brightest stars as they slipped along between shadowy lines of forest. Within a few minutes, a little break in the tree line on the opposite shore proved to be a juncture with a smaller stream. Water foaming white even in the uncertain light, the old man pointed the bow toward the point and shoved the boat forward. He paddled them close to the port-side shore and continued upstream. Within minutes, a small light appeared, flashing in triplets. Jesse leaned back and turned toward the light before running onto the shingle of a small beach.

“Halloo, the shore!”

A dark form separated itself from the mass of the trees and caught the rope the old man threw into the dark.

“Halloo yourself, you old fool. What took you? I’ve been exposing myself with that damned light for almost an hour.”

“Well, all’s well, Mose. I got our supercargo here. Malila, please meet my friend, Moses P. Stewert. Moses, meet Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant.” Jesse’s apathy was gone, replaced by a brittle brightness, like a shard of mirror in the dark.

“You will pardon me if I don’t curtsy, and stop wasting time, you old coot!” said the voice in the dark.

The two men unloaded the boat onto a beach and lifted it bodily out of the water to walk it up the bank.

Malila heard the occasional soft scrape of a tree branch as they moved. An errant breeze carried a pungent smell that she vaguely remembered. After a great deal of opening and closing of gates and doors, Malila found herself inside a building, the air close and warm. Jesse removed her makeshift hood after tying her to a post. A small fire glowed a sullen red in a river-rock-and-mud hearth but revealed nothing of the space until the man called Moses lit a crude candle.

The dim yellow light revealed a large dirt-floored room. Moses appeared a few years older than she and was tall, with competent hands and a prominent Adam’s apple. His almost somnolent eyes looked at Malila without pleasure. He was clean shaven except for a few days’ growth. In the way of tall men, he walked in a crouch.

As Moses added new fuel to the hearth fire, Malila could see the rest of the room. Alcoves with raised sleeping platforms lined three sides of the long, narrow space. The ceiling was tall enough for Malila to stand and displayed a collection of drying herbs, tools, and food left hanging from the rafters.

“Glad to see you, old man. You were beginning to worry me,” said Moses.

Jesse grinned his grin. “Glad to see you can outrun the bears.”

“I don’t have to outrun the bears, old man … I just got to outrun you!”

The men embraced, hugging each other for long seconds. Amazed, Malila saw a gleam of moisture on the old man’s cheek as they parted.

After a scant pause, the old man said, “Are you gonna let me die of thirst, young man? I know your momma, and she would be ashamed of your manners.”

Moses laughed and, without a word, retreated from the lighted circle, only to return with an earthenware jug of considerable size and an odd shape. Its flank displayed numerous looped handles, and a gray glaze showing the mark of the potter’s hand as its only decoration. He placed it on a makeshift table. Moses poured two portions of clear liquid into metal tins before the two men rattled them together, without a word, and drank. There followed a profound silence before a smacking of lips, inrush of breath, and low hoots of amazement.

“Where did you find this?” Jesse asked in hushed awe.

“Booker Tolliver came by last week. He had orders to take all the animals that I couldn’t use to Lex’ton before winter. His missus sent it along with him as a special present. You know, Jess, I think the lady is sweet on you, you old dried-out stump of a man.”

“Just a delayed payment on services rendered, Mose. And see … no good deed goes unpunished!” Jesse gave a small salute with the tin cup.

Moses laughed for a moment before his face sobered. “The railroad has been cut again. Up near Lou’ville, place called Muddy Fork. Lost a loco and most of the hospital cars. It was on a siding, so some of the docs and nurses got away … and some were with their patients.”

“Anybody I know? Dorothy Partridge used to go on that run as part of her job, but I think she has a practice in Covington now …” Jesse’s voice petered out, and he sipped, his face now in shadow away from Malila’s sight.

Moses had no response but took a knife and carved a slice from what looked like a lump of wood hanging from a low rafter and offered it to Jesse on the tip of the blade.

“Black-bear ham, smoked with some applewood I found.”

Malila’s stomach growled.

Jesse accepted the morsel and ate it in silence. He took another slice, and the two compared notes on wild gastronomy.

“What are you going to do with Miss Anthrope over there?” Moses asked as he cut another piece.

“That is a puzzle, is it not, my friend? I don’t suppose you have more applewood by chance?”

“Tell me again, Jess: Why do we want to compromise the whole mission just to capture a real-live, bone-and-sinew Union butter bar? It don’t make much sense to me if what we get is still kicking and spitting.”

Jesse shrugged.

“We can get a message to the regimental head shed, but without the rail line, I surely don’t care to have to transport her to corps HQ in winter on horseback. But let me see something,” said the old man, turning to Malila, her face barely illuminated in the dim light. “Lieutenant Chiu, answer me a question.”

“Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant, serial number 590261697.”

Jesse sighed and asked anyway, his pale eyes now bright. “Have I told you any lies?” he asked.

His question made Malila uneasy. It almost sounded like a plea.

“You said you were going to eat me.”

The old man sighed and looked down for a second before looking up. “Yes, ma’am. I said I might … and we still ain’t home yet.”

Moses hooted in the background.

“As far as I know, you’ve been truthful,” Malila said in a childish singsong.

Jesse rolled his eyes and went on. “How many times could I ha’ killed you?”

“That’s against the rules of war,” she spat back.

“Well, we savages don’t read no rules. Do we, Mose? I ain’t read no rules of war. What about you?”

“Shucks, Jesse, you know I cain’t hardly read,” Moses replied, grinning mischievously and shaking his head.

“How many times could I have killed you, Lieutenant Chiu?” Jesse repeated.

“Anytime you wanted. Is that the answer you want?”

The old man nodded and continued more slowly, “Tell me the truth, Lieutenant: Do you know how to get back home?”

“No,” she said after a pause.

Jesse turned to Moses and said brightly, “Moses, I have a real hankering for fresh vegetables. Have you got any?”

“Sorry, Jesse, I was eating up the reserve, trying to close up the station. I got some pickles. Would that do?”

“Sure, if you are sure it won’t be any trouble.”

“No trouble at all!” The younger man rose and went outside. Malila could hear him moving around in an adjacent room.

Jesse asked softly, once the outside door had closed, “Are you going to try to kill me again, Lieutenant Chiu?”

When she did not respond immediately, he sighed.

She paused and searched her own character. There was a time when she would have killed Jesse without remorse. She had wanted to hurt him for capturing her, for abandoning her, for making her trust him while he was playing her for a fool, for making it seem that he was concerned for her.

She had gotten used to his peculiarities. No, that was unfair. She missed his confidences. She saw him floating away into senility. He had wanted her but, even then, had rejected her. He should have stayed with her, at the underpass, at the river. Even just the last few days, he had been distancing himself. Every time she’d needed him, he’d vanished. When she tried to analyze the events, the images slid and spiraled away from her.

Jesse was still staring at her.

“No, Jesse. I’m not going to try to kill you.”

“Do you mean it this time?” he asked in a quiet voice. Moses’s rummaging stopped, and Malila could hear him returning.

“Yes, Jesse, I mean it this time. I’ll not try to harm you or Moses.”

“Or yourself?”

“Or myself.”

Moses entered with a glass jar of ancient pickles, held on high, in triumph.

“Then have a drink wi’ us,” said Jesse.

CHAPTER 35

MOONSHINE

moonshine

 

Malila rubbed her wrists, long since chafed and callused from the bindings, as Jesse kicked a box near the ring of light, gesturing to her to sit. Moses shrugged and retrieved a small jar into which he poured a finger of the clear liquid before giving it to Malila. Jesse tried to open the jar of pickles before letting Moses complete the process. Jesse took a bite of a pickle and made a face that nearly made Malila laugh.

A second later however, his face sobered and he raised his cup in salute. “Here’s to Percy! May he swim farthest, swim fastest, see more ladies, and sire more babies than the rest.”

Moses laughed and clicked cups with the old man and with Malila before swallowing with gusto. Malila sniffed at the contents of her jar. A noseful of fumes made her sneeze.

“To Percy.”

She upended the glass, downing the contents to get the absurd toast over with as quickly as possible.

Moses’s smiling face froze, and he nudged Jesse.

Silence reigned.

The fire in her mouth, throat, and lungs, like a body blow, wrung the breath from her. She could breathe neither in nor out. Her vision started to narrow before a paroxysm of coughing threw her off the box and onto her knees. Jesse was at her side, pounding her back as she gasped for a breath through her still-alcohol-saturated mouth. Another frenzy of coughs seized her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She slowly recovered, breathing carefully through her nose.

“Smooth,” she lied.

The men dissolved into relieved laughter. Malila found herself smiling as well. Alcohol in its many forms was available in the Unity. The infinity of names, brands, colors, and adulterants confused her. The DUFS frowned upon its use. Some of her age group had been found drunk and disorderly when she was an E6. They’d received no reprimand, but then again, all had washed out within eighteen months. She’d never seen them again.

She took another sip. This time, negotiating the liquid past her reflexes, she grinned back at the expectant glances of the men. Between sips and slices of pickle and ham, the three of them talked about the eternally safe topic of the weather. Moses told jokes, and Jesse obediently chuckled, before explaining them to her.

She perceived no effect of the drink other than a warming action in her near-empty belly and an improvement in the quality of the humor. Her drinking companions were becoming excellent hosts.

Jesse started to tell his friend of the events of the last six weeks. He gave an account of Malila’s surgery, Percy’s release, and Bear’s attack. The old man improved upon her performance during the bison hunt but mentioned nothing about her attempt on his life, the devil’s bridge, or her bleeding. As the jug passed around each time, Malila’s opinion of the old man as a traveling companion, scholar, and benefactor improved.

The conversation passed on to local news from back home.

“… and Wesley Sanchez just bought the Zimmerman place in Cabot’s Town after Philip was near killed by some bushwhackers … broke his leg,” Moses continued.

“That’s a shame. The association8 doing anything?”

Malila interrupted before Moses could reply. “Tha’d never happen in the Unity. Mus’ be horrible to live in diz country. What I don’ understan’ is why you don’ just join the Unity,” spat Malila, becoming annoyed that her viscous tongue had taken to wandering as she was trying to speak.

“Other than I’d be turned into one of your zombie troopers, you mean?” sniffed Jesse.

Malila dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.

“Nothing is so law-abiding as a conquered country … peace of the graveyard, is all,” returned Jesse.

“How can you say we’re con … con … beaten? You’re the ones that have to run and hide, old man.” She poked Jesse’s chest for emphasis.

“Oh, I think both of our countries have been beaten, lass. Ours after the Scorching, but yours had already been conquered by that time. The buzzards were the only ones to win that war.”

“We won the las’ war … Glor’ous War of Liberation!”

“I had no idea you were such an authority, my friend. From whom were you liberated then?”

“From the old people who were hoarding all the wealth and, ya know … stuff!”

“And did these wealthy old people have rights?”

“You don’ understand rights.” Again the fluttering hands. “Individuals don’ have rights. It’s the people who have rights. No one has the right to hoard the wealth of the people for their own benefit!”

“So it was not so much that they were old as that they had something valuable? Was that their crime?”

“You can’t understan’! It’s com’licated. That was then, ol’ man. The Unity is based on rights, after all!”

The old man’s grizzled eyebrows went up in mock surprise. “Oh, well now, it’s based on rights. I didn’t know that. Educate me, lass, if you would be so kind.”

“We have the right t’ vote, t’ believe what we want, t’ be free of being offended, t’ say anything we want long as it doesn’t offend anyone else, the right to food, work, housing, transportation, and medical care. After we retire, the Unity takes care of ever’thin’! It’s guaranteed.”

“Do you have the right to be foolish?” He cocked his head to the side, like a fox.

“Of course not. Who wants to be foolish?”

“Who indeed, lass? Everyone should be protected from being foolish. So a question, my wise friend: Is gambling wise or foolish?”

“Only the foolish gamble … so you mus’ like it, Sisi!” She laughed, throwing her head back and nearly falling.

“Mose, when did you start your homestead?”

“Five years ago, Jesse. Is your brain giving out? You were there helping me pull stumps, weren’t you?”

“Yes, now that you mention it, that was you, was it? I musta mistook you for the south end of the northbound mule I was working. Tell me how many times people have tried to homestead that same parcel before you.”

“Two others. Some guy named Fletcher—he was murdered in a Unity raid—and a family of Swedes as come down from Minnesota. They started too late to get a crop in that first winter, and then they lost most of their pigs to some disease. They threw in to go stay in town somewheres. Jesse, you know all this. Why am I telling you?”

“Bear with me, Mose. Why did you think you could succeed where those good folks failed?”

Moses shrugged his shoulders and tipped the box back so that he was leaning against the wall.

“I had done it before … with you. You were staking me, and you said you’d help me if needed. I chose to prove out my section here. Where can you get cheap bottomland anymore?”

“Wasn’t your choice a foolish bet? You put up your money, sweat, and time on the chance you could bring in a harvest to pay your note. You had no guarantee, right?”

Moses laughed. “Some people might think it foolish—Sally’s mother for one. Of course there was no guarantee! I wouldn’t o’ been able afford it, if’n it was to be guaranteed. It was a bet, like most everything! I guess. That’s how someone like me deals with the future. I bet that I could prove out the section, and I have.

He turned slightly, including Malila in his comments now.

“My folks didn’t have nothing to give me by the time I set out, miss. I left with nothing but my clothes, an old rifle from my uncle, my books, and my tools.

“Jesse here hired me to help prove out his farm in Bath County, and I saved some. With that and with what Jesse staked me, I had enough to buy what I needed to homestead. If I hadn’t tried to homestead there, I’d have gone out west. The soil and water are better here, but it is closer to the damned Union, begging your pardon. I suppose it was a gamble, but it was my gamble. I bet the farm … everything I had, but I knew the odds, and I knew the stakes.”

Jesse smiled. “Always make your own bet …”

“… and never take someone else’s bet. Cut the deck when you can, and …” Moses replied.

“… smile when you lose!” they said together before grinning at each other.

“Last question, Mose: Have you paid me back?”

“Well, the note for this year doesn’t come due till New Year, Jess, but we can pay you now if you need it.”

Jesse held up his hand to the younger man and turned back to Malila. “Should we have prevented Mose from being foolish, lass?”

“Tha’s different. Back home the gov’ment makes sure everyone works ’n’ is paid good wages.” She smiled.

Moses gave a short, barky chuckle.

“And if you don’t like your wages, you go to the other government in town … right?” asked Jesse.

Malila gave him an uncomprehending stare before Jesse said, “I think I need some sleep, Mose. Must admit I am tired. It’s been long hours on short rations since you left Sun Prairie, and the liquor has wagged my tongue for me.”

Moses took his cue, adding, “We should start as soon as we can in the morning. Never know how the trail is this time of year.”

Moses collected the cups, and Jesse pointed Malila toward the latrine. She relieved herself without undue disgust, and on her return, an old piece of towel, a cup of soap, and a bucket were laid out next to the rushlight. She leaned over the top of the bucket and was surprised by the warmth wafting up. Several large river rocks bubbled in the bottom when she passed the light above it.

Moses’s voice emerged from a dark alcove. “That hot water is for you, miss. The rocks will keep it warm for a while. You can take the lamp to bed if you want. You’ve got your privacy, Miss Malila. Jesse and I are gent’men.”

She could just make out the younger man in his sleeping furs rolling away from her. She glanced over at another pile of furs that was already breathing heavily.

Since she had left the Unity weeks ago, she had not had the luxury of hot water. Shucking her moccasins, pants, and shirt, Malila indulged. She had forgotten how opulent it felt to bathe in hot water, even standing up on a stone hearth. She shampooed her hair, no longer DUFS short. The wound from Bear had healed well, but it was still a centimeter-long pink streak of tenderness. On an impulse, when she was done, she soaked the old shirt in the lukewarm water and wrung it out before draping it before the banked fireplace. Naked, she located her sleeping place. Blowing out the rushlight on its stand, Malila snuggled into the cold weight of her furs, shivering before she got them warm. It was odd to go to bed without the reassuring warmth of the old man.