Malila was slumbering when Jesse flicked the hides off her.
“Rise and shine, Lieutenant; daylight’s burning!”
Her detailed and profane response made him laugh.
Jesse kept the southeastern direction for three days before turning full south, although, in those first few days, they walked every heading of the compass. She realized that each step taken was a step down, a step into darkness and obscurity and away from the light of the Unity.
A routine soon developed. At first light, the old man roused her. He dismantled whatever shelter he had made, hid the evidence of it, packed his huge green pack, and swooped his shoulders into it before buckling it down. They walked for about an hour before breakfast. Malila led the way, bound. There were few ways to retaliate.
Before eating his own food, she noticed, Jesse closed his eyes and mumbled a few words. Malila decided it was some superstitious ritual, and at the next meal, she thought to parody his silly practice. Thereafter, she ate alone.
They ate what she first took to be leather. She had initially refused. Jesse had smiled and dropped her portion into his grinning mouth with all apparent satisfaction. At the next stop, she had taken the scrap and, after gnawing, been able to swallow it. It had a smoky, salty taste.
“Jerky … venison. For the record, Malila, if I wanted to kill you, poison’s not my style. You are tied up; knives are durable, have easy instructions for use.”
“You don’t scare me, Sisi.”
“Wasn’t trying to, lass.”
Daily for a week, after washing his hands in the malodorous soap and making her strip off her shirt, the old man examined her wound, lifting and probing her flesh. After some days, he removed the binding and covered the wound with some boiled cloth, sticking it to the wound with aromatic syrup that dried to a tacky brown surface. In a few days more, he removed her sutures.
“That is going to be a pretty little scar.”
“Are you done?”
“Just admiring my handiwork, lass. All done.”
“Then stop pawing me.”
He released his grip on her right breast and looked briefly at the offending hand.
“Sorry, lass, no insult to your maidenly virtue was intended. Just trying to get some light on the site of interest.”
“Sorry if my tits overshadowed your ‘site of interest.’”
“Nothin’ ye’ll need worry about, Lieutenant. Nae yer fault,” said the old man, moving to help her dress.
Malila smacked his hands away when he tried.
The following morning, the old man shoved a rucksack into her arms, containing her sleeping skins, a water flask, and some of the food.
“This is yours, lass. Time you started lifting your weight around here, doncha think?”
With a defiant look, Malila let the pack fall to the ground, folding her arms. Her duty was clear; to cooperate with the enemy was to betray the Unity.
“No matter. It’s your stuff. Carry it or leave it … all the same to me.”
Malila glared at him. His face was unreadable behind its alien bush of white beard and blue tattoos. When she did not pick up the pack, he shouldered his own, bound Malila’s wrists in front of her, and walked off. They had passed out of view of the campsite by the time she fathomed her mistake. They were a few hundred meters beyond that before her defiance crumbled.
“I get it. I get it, old man. You can turn around now,” she demanded.
Jesse’s pack advanced ahead of her, his legs churning underneath, as if she did not exist. After a few more moments, Malila dug in her heels and pulled on the lead, throwing her full weight into it. She toppled over and was dragged for a meter or so before Jesse stopped.
“Sorry, lass. Did you say something?”
“I understand. Let me get the pack.”
“Well, now, lass, that’s a problem. If I walk back for your pack, I carry my bag three times over the same ground, don’t you see? It only seems fair that we share the load. You walk it back, and I’ll take it once we get to yours. Sound fair?”
“Not really. Will you let me go back if I don’t carry your pack?”
“No.” And Jesse smiled his toothy smile.
“Okay, if you are going to be like that.”
“I’m going to be just like that.”
Malila grunted under the impossible weight of the old man’s pack, the distance expanding in front of her with each step. Her sides burned, her legs ached, and her breath came in dry rasps. She got about halfway back before she stumbled and fell to her knees. Jesse leaned over and offered her a hand.
“Nice try, lass. You can leave it there. Stand up, and we can go back without it.”
Malila followed him in silence and let the old man help her into the smaller pack before they started again.
“Lesson learned, lass?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Don’t piss off the Sisi.”
Jesse laughed before yanking on Malila’s leash and making her stumble.
“Watch your language, Lieutenant, but you were close. ‘Accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom.’ Perhaps with contemplation, you might come up with a more philosophical answer.”
“You aren’t making any sense, old man.”
Jesse laughed and walked on. For a Sisi, the man seemed to have too many layers.
They passed derelict buildings and rusted devastations that she took for bridges. Many of these last stretched over mere streams, suggesting destroyed dams or a more hostile climate.
During the late afternoon, the old man slowed his pace to investigate bivouac sites. Once camped, their main meal was various combinations of hard bread, jerky, dried berries, and the luck of the snares. If there was still sufficient light, the old man did small tasks. His movements were delicate and dexterous while repairing clothes or working on the small patches of leather that he kept in a buckskin roll in his pack. At other times, he soaked the pieces in a malodorous solution that he kept in a thick plastic satchel. Unidentifiable gray objects swam in the turbid yellow liquid.
Before turning in each night, Jesse performed three rituals. Malila understood the elderly liked their little rituals. He first brewed up an effusion from the contents of a leather pouch, bitter and tasting of some unidentifiable dried berry. It made her teeth feel furry. He drank it as well. She surreptitiously discarded it until Jesse caught her doing so. His blow stung. She had to drink it down in front of him thereafter.
Jesse’s second ritual was odd. He sang, recited passages from memory, and told improbable stories. It mystified her as he did not seem to care whether she listened or not. All his speeches were odd, but the long passages of cadenced words he called “poems” bewildered her completely. She heard about Horatio defending his father, who was also a river; a man loitering among some yellow flowers; another talking to a skin parasite; another watching for a flag; another about someone named MacPherson holding up a floor with pipes; and an academic railing against the arrival of a pool in a table. It was all very silly.
The last ritual before retiring was bathing. Jesse had some excuse, but Malila could see it was just to humiliate her on a daily basis. She would have to strip, soap up, and sluice off before Jesse would allow her to dive shivering under the sleeping skins. He followed suit, damp and shivering under the furs as well. When Malila understood that the old man did not expect her to service him, she welcomed the warmth of the sleeping arrangements and slept well … except for the dream.
During the interim of fatigue, while she warmed the bed to allow her body to sag into slumber, Malila was able to think. The old savage acted as if her abduction was a clever prank. She knew better. She was disgraced. The Unity boasted it had never lost a war or suffered an officer captured in the seventy-four years of its glorious history. If she were part of history at all, Malila would star in a great cautionary tale told to new recruits.
Malila ran through the great narratives she had known as a recruit. The Unity immortalized sagas in which the individual sacrificed for the glory of the country. Dying soldiers praised the Unity with their cooling lips. Martyrs succumbed only after striking a courageous blow to confound the enemies of freedom and democracy. Not one heroine had been caught in her underwear by a demented Sisi.
The Sisis were vile, worn-out, incompetent, incontinent, selfish, and dim-witted. They were beneath notice or contempt. She must be an unknowing fraud to have let herself be captured. She was a failure with each kilometer she walked, each kilogram she carried, and each meal she accepted.
Malila imagined how she might become a martyr for the Unity before this lunatic Sisi could show her off as a trophy. After her glorious death, her friends would mourn her and count themselves blessed to have known her. Her patrons would gain heroic cachet that their fellow officers would covet. Her crèche would have a tasteful brass plaque placed on her old bunk. However, as each of her imagined exploits to martyrdom played out in her mind, Malila returned to the same dilemma: as far as the Unity would ever know, she was alive, swimming around some muddy river of the outlands. She would waste her last words on the dementia of an old man. It was just too grotesque.
One night, after she stopped shivering, Malila asked, “Why are you doing this to me, old man?”
“I am a man under authority, and I have men under authority to me. To one I say ‘Come’ and he comes, and to another I say ‘Go’ and he goes.”
“That isn’t an answer.”
“No, it isn’t. When I start answering those questions, lass, it means that I no longer think you are going back to your damned Union alive. Do you want me to answer your questions?”
“Good … Sleep.”
She slept, somehow comforted.