Obstacle Course

Obstacle Course
by Wendy Darling (Wiebke)

Story Notes

2nd out of 5 segments in the Rescued Lives series (Deliverance, Obstacle Course, Ripening Fruit, That Was Then, This is Now, Generation Gap).

The second story is the tearjerker of the series but it has its heart-warming moments as well. A follow-up on family life and the fickle unfairness of life. One warning: Contains some major angst.

Characters
All original characters (main characters Dera, Fafa, Arafa, other hara and harlings), with concepts, vocabulary, etc., borrowed from Storm Constantine.

Spoilers
Obviously the previous story, Deliverance. No spoilers for any specific book in the Wraeththu trilogy, but it is imagined that this entire storyline takes place after the Ascension. There are still original incepted hara, but Wraeththu civilization has stablized.

Chapter 1

“Oh, please, please, oh, oh, could you–”

My cry of passion was cut off by my lover’s fingers, pressed across my lips. His eyes said, “Quiet.” So did his silent voice.

I willed myself into the mode Fafara desired, speaking to him using the powers he had helped me to develop. “Is this better?” I asked him.

“Of course, my sweet.” His mind-touch, as always, sent shivers of delight down my spine. To be so very connected!

“Finally you begin to master the technique,” he continued.

I had to laugh out loud but I managed to keep any actual words unspoken. “No, you’re the one who’s mastered the technique!” His mouth had fastened to my ouana-lim and in just a few seconds he had worked me to the point where a laugh was entirely inappropriate. Once again, I cried out loud in ecstasy.

“Oh, Dera,” he moaned silently, “what am I going to do with you?”

By now ouana-lim was throbbing with desire and ready to bury itself in Fafara’s warm, willing flesh. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t what he was going to do with me, but what I was going to do to him. That was the plan for the evening; we were to conceive a child.

Gently I moved his tender lips away from my organ and drew him down on the bed so he lay down beneath me.

“I love you,” I said, and almost immediately he was soume for me. Slowly lowering myself down, I eased into him and began the dance that we hoped would create a new life.

We ceased speaking, out loud or otherwise. As was necessary for conception, this would be a spiritual experience and we would need to tune into our most refined powers in order for our union to bear fruit.

Gradually the heat began to rise, the pleasure pulsed in waves, and I felt the climax building to the fever pitch that would bring us to the next level. We were so close!

Suddenly, a swath of light appeared across the bed. Someone had apparently opened the door.

Letting out a groan, I stopped what I was doing. In the increased light, I could see Fafara’s look of disappointment.

“Dede?” called out a small, familiar voice. Ilafa, our two-year-old harling, was using his special nickname for me. “What are you doing?” he asked.

I was tempted to tell him that I was trying to make him a new brother, but before I could get a single word out, Fafara withdrew out from under me and pulled himself to a sitting position at the side of the bed.

“Come here, Ila,” he said. My son crept over from the door, looking at me anxiously, obviously tuned in to the fact that I was rather annoyed. Fafara would not have any such negative emotions spilling over onto the child.

Pulling Ilafa up on his lap, Fafara gave him a hug and assured him that “Dede” and “Fafa” had simply been playing in bed before going to sleep. The two of us had agreed that it was still too early to discuss aruna with the child, and so Fafara wove a clever excuse.

Ilafa, being a two-year-old harling, had a few questions, such as why, a few minutes ago, he had heard me crying out as if someone had hurt me. He had been standing just outside the door the whole time.

We came up with answers, enough to satisfy him, and then finally I got around to asking him what he had been doing not only awake, but hanging outside our bedroom eavesdropping.

Hadn’t Arafa been watching him? Arafa had known our plans for the evening and had been instructed to keep the child occupied.

“He was playing with me and reading me a book when he fell asleep!” Ilafa explained. At first I found it hard to believe but then I remembered that Arafa had been pursuing his own romantic attachment. He had related to me how he had engaged in some rather strenuous aruna the night before. On top of that, just that afternoon, gone out on a house call a long horse ride away. No wonder he had fallen asleep on the job!

After all that talking, my aruna-thoughts had just about disappeared when Fafara leaned forward and attempted to share breath. I accepted his gesture briefly before pulling away.

“Not now,” I told him. “I have to put this one to bed.” I scooped up my small, sometimes inconvenient package and, waving poor Fafara goodbye, went off to put things in order for the night.

Chapter 2

We never did get around to completing our mission. Not that night. No, by the time I got back from taking care of my son, Fafara was fast asleep. I lay down beside him, feeling disappointed but hopeful that we would be able to try again soon.

The following day passed by according to the usual pattern.

In the morning Fafara and Arafa, now near the end of his apprenticeship, collected and prepared medicines from the garden and accepted a few visitors who’d come by with various ailments.

I spent the morning with Ilafa, who I’d recently started on a program of more structured lessons. Sometime in the future, Fafara and I planned on finding him a tutor, but at that point I was charged with overseeing his education and making sure he was firmly grounded in Wraeththu traditions and beliefs.

We ate lunch as a family before breaking up again for the afternoon, this time in different groupings. The healers left to carry out various home healings in town and to engage in business on behalf of the household. As had been their practice for several months, they took Ilafa along with them.

Thus I had the house to myself and time to engage in that which had been my profession in my former life. I was a jeweler. Because Fafara was quite well off and we had a comfortable lifestyle, I didn’t need to have a shop or take my work seriously as a financial concern. However, I had always enjoyed the work and so it was my pleasure to create earrings and necklaces and rings, often out of local stone. That afternoon I made a necklace out of turquoise — a gift for Fafara.

At the end of the day, I prepared a dinner of soup, bread and vegetables. Everyone came home just in time and I was quite pleased. Ilafa was tired and so I instructed Arafa, giving Fafara a meaningful look, to see that the child went to bed and stayed there — for several hours. Arafa offered a knowing smile as he left Fafara and I sitting at the dinner table.

I reached across and took Fafara’s hand. “Well, what do you say?” I asked. “Think we could try again?”

When we entered the bedroom I told him to lie down and close his eyes. I went over to the dresser, pulled out the necklace from where I had hidden it, and fastened it around his neck.

“Look,” I said to him. He opened his eyes and looked down.

“It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed softly, raising it up around his chin so he could examine it. After a moment, his eyes returned to me. “Just like you.”

That was all the thanks I needed.

Obeying my orders, Arafa made sure Ilafa did not disturb us that night.

Once again, Fafara and I soared up to the climax. Our minds were perfectly in tune and no one interrupted us as I snaked deep inside the soume-lam, broke the seal, and planted the seeds of new life.

Chapter 3

That morning, as I awoke to find Fafara wrapped around me, sleeping peacefully, I felt a wonderful sense of contentment.

After two years with my new love, I had created a child, my first as progenitor. For Fafara, it would be the first pearl he had hosted in thirty years. All his other children had long ago grown into adulthood and settled into lives on their own. This, along, with Ilafa, would be the start of our new family.

I ran my fingers through Fafara’s hair in the growing light. It was about a half hour after dawn and normally I would not yet be awake. It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps something had woken me.

It was a timely premonition, for just at that moment, I heard an insistent knock on the bedroom door. This was not Ilana wandering in; this was Arafa, evidently there for a reason.

“Come in,” I called out, gently disentangling myself from Fafara, who slumped onto the bed before opening his eyes, blinking and looking around, dazed.

Arafa burst through the door waving a piece of paper. What could it possibly be? I was at immediate attention. Glancing at Fafara, I saw he was rubbing his stomach. No doubt he was feeling a bit strange as the aren formed within him.

“A messenger from town arrived on horseback this morning,” Arafa announced breathlessly. I realized I must have been awoken by the sound of the hooves.

“He brought this message. For you.” There was an urgency in his voice but in his eyes, I detected a tinge of happiness. Whatever the message, it was not all bad news.

I took the paper in my hands. “For me?” I asked. I was known in town but I certainly was not the regular recipient of urgent messages.

I glanced down. By the time I had finished the first two lines, I was in shock. Not the shock of horror, but the shock of joy.

It seems a family in a city far north of us was hosting a family reunion in a month’s time. All the invitations had gone out, but an important guest could not be reached. A favored son, gone south with his partner two years prior, had been out of touch. They weren’t angry with him, but if someone could pass along a message that they were looking for him, they would be ever so grateful. The son had dark auburn hair and blue eyes. He was a jeweler by trade. His name was Dera.

I set the paper down on the bed cover and looked at Fafara, who still had no idea what was going on.

“They’ve called for me,” I said to him softly. “My family up north.”

His eyes went wide. “Bad news?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, good news. They’re having a family reunion and they sent out a message hoping to find me.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful!” he declared, picking up the message and reading it over. “Ah, in a month’s time.” He sighed contentedly. “So when do we leave?”

His enthusiasm had so engaged me that I almost burst out, “Today!” Then, quite suddenly, I noticed Fafara touch his stomach. “We?” I asked. “We are are not going anywhere. I will probably try to leave by tomorrow morning.”

“What?!” he cried. His face had fallen and he looked more hurt than I had ever seen him. “Of course I will come with you! I want to meet your family. I want to keep you company. You can’t go traveling up there on your own! You’ll need me to–”

“Host my pearl,” I finished for him.

Chapter 4

At first Fafara’s expression was one of stunned amazement. Obviously my words had completely blindsided him. Then, just a moment later, I saw the anger.

“Arafa,” he said sharply, looking up to his apprentice, still standing expectantly before us like a servant. “Please leave us.”

“Of course,” Arafa mumbled, scuttling out of the room and closing the door behind him. Surely he knew an explosion was imminent.

Fafara turned back to me and glared. Hard. “How DARE you!” he roared. We were still sitting so close he actually hurt my ears.

Up until that point in our relationship, he and I had barely argued and I had never heard him use the tone of voice he now employed. Commanding. Resentful. Angry.

He was positively shaking with rage. “So this is how it’s going to be!” he spat. “You plant a child in me and suddenly you start acting like some overprotective, sexist human male!”

This was in no way an accusation for which I was prepared. “If I recall, it’s you who was once a human male,” I attempted to counter. Fafara was 65 years old and had been incepted into Wraeththu as a 15-year-old human male. Pointing this out was low of me and thinking back, I deeply regret it. But what can I say? I was desperate!

“You know what I mean!” he burst out angrily. He actually yanked himself away from me and settled in a spot further down on the bed. “If I didn’t have this pearl in me, you’d have me along with you in a moment. But no! Now you start trying to make decisions for me.”

I opened my mouth to defend my position but Fafara cut me off. “No, let me finish. You point out that I was once a human male. That’s quite true. But it’s also true that this highlights a basic fact, which is that I am a hell of a lot older than you and I have much more experience with life — particularly when it comes to pearl-hosting. And do you know what my experience tells me?” he asked.

I shook my head and he continued, hand on his stomach. “It tells me that I’ll be just fine. Just give me a day or two, just to be sure the aren forms correctly without undue stress, and we can be on our way.”

Again I was about to speak and again he cut me off. “It took you and Ilana a month to get here. I know from experience that it should only take two and half to three weeks to reach your family’s home. You two didn’t go the direct route because you were more or less wandering south, not knowing where you were going. For us, the trip will be much shorter. In two days time, we can travel up there, spend a week, be there for the reunion, and return home. I’ll be back here in Delia for my last two weeks. It’s only then that traveling would be detrimental to my health.”

During his explanation, I’d grown a bit less upset. His arguments did seem quite convincing, I had to admit. Still, I was totally against the idea.

“I don’t know, Fafa. I still don’t think you should go. What if something were to happen to you?”

Sometimes it’s not until we say words out loud that we realize what we are feeling inside. Right at that moment, my own words struck me just that way. “What if something were to happen to you?” had been my hostling’s exact words to me before I left with Ilana on our “glorious adventure.”

Fafara understood this without my saying a word. “Dera,” he said. “You must realize you’re not fighting me on rational grounds. You’re against it because two years ago, a har with a pearl left on a long trip and nearly didn’t survive.”

Tears were sliding out from my eyes. Fafara reached out and wiped them away. “Please, Dera, have faith. It’s not the same. That will not happen again. That was a horrible. The worst thing possible almost. But it’s not something that will happen again. Can’t you trust me?” He looked at me hopefully.

I was still uncertain, even if I had warmed to him.

“Can’t you understand?” he pressed me. “I want to go with you. I really do! I don’t feel apprehensive at all. I’m quite healthy and I’m telling you, I used to make good long trips in my younger days, even when I had my pearls. Don’t worry so much, Dera.”

Well, this was when I melted in defeat. “Fair enough,” I announced. “You can come with me. But only after we are sure the aren is well on its way.”

Fafara agreed. And then we shared breath.

Chapter 5

During the two days it took for us to prepare for the trip — Fafara resting while I managed all the details of leaving and packing — my misgivings gradually faded. Fafara had literally decades of stories to tell me about all the miraculous deeds accomplished by pearl-hosting hara. Hara who had fought battles, hara who had ruled vast lands, hara who had had their finest hours in the midst of hosting. The trip we were planning was nothing, he assured me, not compared to any of those examples. No, it would be easy going and I should stop worrying about it, he told me. For the most part, I did.

At last we were prepared. I had hired an assistant for Arafa, someone to mind the house and dear Ilafa for him while he managed the healing practice. Fafara was actually quite pleased to be able to hand Arafa some responsibility. It would be his final test as an apprentice, he decided. If he fared well, then upon our return, Fafara would set about placing him in a community to become a healer in his own right. Meanwhile both us made sure to explain the trip to Ilafa, to assure him that we would be returning, and to emphasize that while we were gone, Arafa would be the one in charge.

We set out in the early morning with two horses and a mule. With us we had supplies to last more than three weeks — just in case — and in addition, we had packed plenty of gifts. I had brought as many pieces of jewelry as I had available, and Arafa, taking Fafara’s instructions, had prepared large quantities of medicinal herbs.

We said our goodbyes to Arafa, Ilafa and the assistant. Ilafa seemed to be taking it very well; luckily he had spent plenty of time with Arafa and they already had a good relationship. We thanked Arafa profusely for covering us and gave him our every confidence in his abilities. Finally we climbed onto our horses and headed north.

***

Two and a half weeks later, we set up camp in a valley between two mountains. We were only a short way from my home and I knew the country. I set about starting a fire and making dinner while Fafara wandered about, exploring the area.

“There’s a waterfall!” he called from far off, using his silent voice with remarkable efficiency.

“I know!” I shot back, projecting my own mind-voice as far as I could. “I’m from here, you know!”

Ten minutes later, dinner was ready. We ate contentedly, chatting about our lives together as well as about another subject that had come up quite a bit during our travel time. Ilana. And my family. We had discussed these things before, of course, but the trip and thoughts of reuniting with my family had stirred up a swarm of memories. It seemed I was at last coming to resolve some of my feelings about the tragedy that had befallen me and my beloved Ilana.

Finally I told Fafara to prepare our sleeping arrangements. I led the horses and our mule to water and took care of their feeding. When I returned, the sun had gone down and the forest was dark. I tied up the animals and came over to where my lover lay by the fire, wrapped loosely in a blanket. The firelight flickered on his smooth, olive-toned skin and his green eyes were sparkling.

“Do you know what I’d like?” he asked me.

I knew. This was a standard question. Always it had the same answer or some variation. “What would you like?” I asked, playing along.

“I’d like a little massage after a weary day of traveling,” he sighed, falling back onto his sleeping pad.

“Hmmmmm,” I said, unfastening the button on my cape and letting the garment fall. “I think I could help you with that.” Quickly I removed my shirt, my boots, my pants, and I kneeled down beside him. As Fafara himself had taught me two years prior, aruna was essential for all hara, even pearl-hosting hara. We had made love nearly every night of our trip. That night was no exception.

***

In the middle of the night, obviously well after midnight, I found myself awake. I looked over at my partner and found he was stirring as well. We both sat up, glancing about us.

“Something’s different,” Fafara told me with his mind-voice. I scanned the darkness, lit only by the moon and the stars, and didn’t see anything. Finally I heard the sound of a horse.

Fafara was suddenly on his feet, rushing over to where I’d tied up our horses and the mule. “One of the horses!” he shouted. “Letana’s gone!”

“Gone?” I rushed over. Sure enough, there was one horse, Fraka, and one mule, Boba. Apparently I had been preoccupied and failed to properly secure the lead on Letana. “Oh, fuck!” I cried.

I don’t think I had ever sworn like that. Not with Fafara anyway. He stared at me, and then, do you know what he did? He laughed!

“Oh, Dera, don’t be so consternated. I’ll take Fraka here and find Letana. I’m sure she’s simply gone off exploring.”

With these words, he headed back to the fire and began to change into proper clothes. I watched him and fought with myself over what I should say. Once again, I felt myself feeling like I needed to protect him.

“You stay here,” I told him. “I’ll go find her.” I gave him a pleading look which I hope he’d be able to make out in moonlight.

Tying up his cape, he shook his head. “No, Dera, you won’t. I will.”

He walked up to Fraka, untied the lead, and stepped into the stirrup, easily pulling himself into the saddle. He was barely at three weeks gestation and he remained in peak form physically, hosting seeming to have had little effect on him.

“Why won’t you let me?” I asked him, looking up at him as he took the reins.

“They’re my horses,” he answered. A logical answer, of course. I conceded the point and let him go. I sat down by the fire and awaited his return.

Chapter 6

For a few minutes I could hear Fafara’s horse making its way through the forest. The rustle of leaves, the snapping of twigs, and Fafara’s low whistle, as he called out to the lost horse, all made their way to my ears. Eventually they went out of range and I was left with only the sound of the forest, not empty, but without the reassuring feedback.

It was perhaps ten minutes later that I heard it. A sudden, faraway cry and then a scream. The first cry was Fafara’s. The second scream came from the horse.

Before I even knew what I was doing, I had plunged into the forest.

“Fafa!!!!!!” I bellowed, both with mouth and mind.

I knew the general direction he had gone, off towards the water, but in the thick of the forest, there was little light. Besides that, my own footfalls were making far too much noise. When I heard the sound of the waterfall, I knew I was near the edge of the river and I realized I should to be quiet. Perhaps there was something else to be heard.

In the forest silence, I heard a horse cry out once more, this time more softly. I heard the jingle of bells as the horse apparently shook its bridle. And then I heard an awful moan. Fafara.

I ran to the spot, seemingly as if drawn by a string. I arrived at the edge of a gully. At the top, I found two deeply disturbed horses, both of them with cuts on their forelegs. Near the bottom, I spotted Fafara.

The gully was steep and the stones were sharp and difficult to climb. Nevertheless, I scuttled down to the bottom in a blur and was at Fafara’s side. I did not like what I saw.

He was lying face down, his body twisted amidst a pile of sharp, granite boulders. From the way he was crumpled, it was clear that he had fallen. At first afraid to touch him, for fear of causing injury, I moved to the other side to see if I could see his face. His eyes were closed and across his forehead, there was a deep cut, dripping blood.

Before I did anything else, I said a prayer: “Oh, please, do not let it end like this. Do not take my love away. Please give him strength.”

Next I said his name, softly at first, then louder. I touched his cheek. Finally his eyes fluttered open, weakly.

“Dera,” he said, his voice a mere thread. “I’m sorry.”

***

Fafara was sorry? No, at that moment, I was the sorry one. The guilty one, really. Everything was my fault. I knew I shouldn’t have let him go on that trip with me! And when he did go with me, I should have been more protective of him! Now here he was, in a state of health I could hardly gauge.

Immediately after his words, Fafara fell unconscious. In the night, in the middle of nowhere, I had no choice but to pick him up from the rocks and carry him to the top. With every jarring step, he moaned. I worried that he had some internal bleeding. It terrified me almost too much to think about it. I had received some training as a healer, but for the most part, I was only an ordinary har and the situation was frightening being description.

As I made my way up to the top of the gully, it occured to me that Fafara had been thrown from his horse. He was probably riding in the brush near the bottom of the gully, near the water, collecting the missing horse, when something had frightened Fraka and he had bolted and thrown him in panic, perhaps snagged on something or tripped, throwing him onto the rocks. Afterward the horses had clammered up the gully, cutting their legs in the process.

All my instincts came into play. I was no longer thinking, only doing that which some part of my brain told me was necessary for Fafara’s survival. I managed to pull him up with me onto Letana. His limbs were heavy; he was completely unconscious. Taking Fraka’s reins in hand, I led him to follow me back to camp.

I didn’t much want to move Fafara any more than I had to, so I gently laid him down on the sleeping mat. I made a fire as quickly as I could and meanwhile retrieved our supplies to find what I could do for him right away. Finally I had some light and I saw the ugly cut. Probably the crack on the head was the reason he was unconscious. I cleaned the cut with water and dressed it with a bandage. Then it was time to check the rest of him.

I opened the torn cape and shirt. I did not want to see what was beneath — with all my heart I wanted to be spared — but there was no choice. I stared down at the giant bruises that had already formed on my lover’s mid-section and I had only one thought.

The pearl.

Chapter 7

The pearl. By Aghama, I had been so terrified at the thought of losing Fafara that I had completely forgotten about the pearl. Or at least I hadn’t had any thoughts about it specifically. Now such thoughts were unavoidable.

I was filled with panic. Instantly all the bad memories washed over me, memories of the desert and the cut in my abdomen, the way the blood had run down and how with every drop I had thought, “That blood is the blood of my pearl.” Fortunately Fafara was unconscious and hopefully unable to engage in such thoughts.

I knew I needed help. There was no way I could do anything by firelight in the middle of nowhere, without proper medical assistance. Using that special part of my brain once again, I quickly formulated a plan. Packing everything in a flurry, I set up the mule and the horse Fraka to carry our supplies. I put out the fire. Then, wrapping Fafara up in his blankets, I managed to once again lift him up onto Letana. I then mounted and set him to sit in front of me, leaning on me heavily.

It was time to go home. Using the mountains and river as a guide, I traveled in the direction I knew would bring me to my home. Eventually I found the main road. No matter my rush, with Fafara in such a delicate condition and two animals in tow, I was unable to make very good time.

At last I spotted a house on the edge of the settlement. By luck, it was the home of a family I knew. There wasn’t time to go all the way into the town. I jumped off my horse, laid Fafara on the ground, and ran to the door of the house.

Knocking frantically, I prayed the family was home. They were. Quickly, but thankfully clearly, I explained that there was an emergency. They knew who I was immediately. They remembered me and had heard how my family was trying to find me.

Quickly members of the household ran out to assist me. We carried Fafara into the house and laid him on a bed in a warm room with a large fireplace. Immediately someone was sent to fetch my parents. Bowls of water were brought in and a doctor was called. Fafara was undressed.

I sat in a chair at the bedside, desperately clutching one of his limp hands. In the full illumination of the room, the bruises looked even uglier than I had supposed. Furthermore, his stomach didn’t look right. Something about it looked misshapen. By the time the doctor arrived, I was terrified.

I told the har everything. How Fafara had fallen and how he was hosting my pearl. Would Fafara survive? Would the pearl survive? Was there anything to be done?

The doctor listened to me silently as he proceeded with the examination, prodding and putting his head up against Fafara’s mid-section, taking his pulse from his neck. I wanted to scream out and beg him to tell me what he thought, but instead I managed to wait. Finally he concluded his procedure and turned to face me.

“His injuries do not appear to be life-threatening. I can detect no serious damage to the major organs, just simple bruising, and the wound in his head is likely a minor concussion. Now as for the pearl,” he began, causing my heart to skip a beat, “only time will tell.”

I shuddered with frustration. “What do you mean, ‘only time will tell’? What kind of prognosis is that?”

The doctor shrugged, somewhat uncertainly I thought. “An honest one. I don’t know. Until he regains consciousness, I won’t be able to give a final assessment.”

A stared at him in debelief. “What do you mean ‘final asessment,’ if I may ask? Can’t you tell already?” I asked. “Aren’t there any tests? I nearly lost my own pearl two years ago and there were several tests they tried. Did you listen for a heartbeat?”

The doctor quickly looked down at his hands and nodded.

“And?” I prodded.

Finally he made the admission I dreaded. “I couldn’t find one.”

The doctor left the room to speak with the family of the house. A quarter of an hour later, while staring into the fire, feeling as if my heart had been torn out, I heard a moan and turned. Fafara blinked his eyes and stared at me. For the longest moment, he lay frozen, simply gazing into my eyes.

Then, without warning, he squeezed his eyes shut and burst into tears. His hands pounded into the bed and he wailed. “No, no, no!” he cried, thrashing about so that I was afraid he was going to injure himself.

Finally came a cry that explained his behavior. He stropped thrashing and he grabbed me my the arm. “Do you understand?” he asked me, his voice wild. “The pearl is dead!”

Chapter 8

I understood all right. The pearl was dead — and it was my all my fault. It was just as I had feared, my worst nightmare come true. I had been unable to protect him. Negligent even. And here he was, carrying my pearl but the pearl was dead. Horrors upon horrors.

I was at a loss for what to say. All I could do was nod, tears streaming down my face.

The doctor rushed in. It took only a quick glance for him to determine the situation. “Lie still,” he told Fafara, who by that point had stopped moving anyway. “I heard what you just — said.” In fact Fafara had screamed loud enough for the whole house to hear, but the doctor was a master of tact. “You’re sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” Fafara choked through his tears. “I– I know. I can… feel it.” He shooked his head, and briefly his body convulsed in a massive sob. “Or I should say I can’t feel it.”

The doctor nodded. “I can’t find a heartbeat.”

Fafara let himself fall absolutely limp. He mashed his face sideways into the pillow. “I know,” he said.

The doctor glanced over at me. “You realize what this means, don’t you?”

Finally I managed a few words. “No, what does it mean?”

He cleared his throat and looked back over at Fafara. “I’m going to have to operate. I’ll send over for my surgical kit and in two hours we’ll–”

“No.” Fafara’s had clamped his eyes shut but his expression was clear enough. He was not going to let anyone make medical decisions without his approval.

“Excuse me?” the doctor asked nervily.

Fafara opened his eyes and glared. “I said no. In case you weren’t aware, I’m a healer. I know how things work, how the body works. And I will not let you cut me open! It’s not necessary.” His words were spoken fiercely. I had to wonder where he found the strength.

The doctor was a brave man himself, to face up to such potent determination, but face up he did. “And what do you propose as an alternative?”

“Induced chemical abortion,” Fafara answered flatly. “Ingestion of the proper regimen of herbs will lead to the forced expulsion of the pearl.”

I froze in horror, staring. I recognized that sentence from one of the lessons Fafara had shared with me some months back. Emergency medicine. And so it comes to this.

“I can tell you exactly what herbs are necessary. We have most of them packed and–” he stopped, wincing at some sudden pain, then continued, “Dera can tell you exactly where they are.”

I wanted to tell him, “No, I won’t help you with this,” but I didn’t. He was in charge. I was only a bystander.

The doctor nodded in understanding. “I know of this method. If that’s what you really want, I will assist you.”

“Thank you,” Fafara murmurred. He then sent the doctor out to fetch a paper and pen. The doctor closed the door behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Fafara said to me.

“You’re sorry?” I burst out, rising out of my seat and turning away from him. “I’ll never make up for this. Never! That’s the end, you see. No more forgiving me. If I say ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s not enough. Not for you and not for me. Because I deserve–”

“Dera!” Fafara cried sharply. I turned around and somehow, despite everything, saw he had managed a sad smile. “Dera,” he said softly. “Please no more of that. Please. It’s no one’s fault. I can’t bear to hear you speak that way.” He closed his eyes. “Now please help the doctor.”

***

The doctor came in, pad and pen in hand. He took notes as Fafara listed out all the necessary ingredients for the potion. Finally I had to go outside with the doctor to help him find our supplies. A household member was called in to watch Fafara in our absence.

“That’s quite a har you’ve got,” the doctor told me as we went into the yard.

I didn’t reply with anything more than a nod. Mechanically I pointed to the appropriate bags and helped the doctor fish out the right containers. Luckily much of what we’d packed had been gifts and was explicitly labeled.

We found all but one ingredient, and that was something kept by the household. On our way back to the bedroom, I was stopped by a harling, who pointed over towards the living area. “Your parents.”

I must have paled, for the harling took my arm and asked me if I was all right. I nodded and, handing what I was carrying over to the doctor, I told him to go on without me. I would be coming in shortly, but first I had to attend to other family matters.

Chapter 9

I stumbled into the living area, feeling bewildered, caught in an awful dream from which I couldn’t awaken.

I saw my parents rise out of their chairs and come towards me. As one unit they embraced me.

“Oh, Dera dear,” my hostling soothed, cupping the back of head, running his hands through my hair. “We so wanted to see you again but we heard what’s happened and–”

I pulled away. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish–”

“Now none of that!” my father interrupted. “We know you don’t have time to explain to us. You need to go and attend to other, more pressing, matters. But we do want you to know we’re here and will be ready to take you two in when…” His words came to a standstill. “What is your new beloved’s name, Dera?”

My new beloved. My poor parents still didn’t know what had happened to Ilana. Neither did Ilana’s parents.

“Fafara,” I said.

“Ah,” my father puffed. “Yes, we’ll be ready to take you in when Fafara is able to be transported. It’s only a short way.”

“I know,” I said. “Thank you.” I looked over my shoulder. “And now I must go.”

Once again they embraced me.

***

By the time I got back to the bedroom, the medicines had all been mixed. It was a rather simple recipe, a foul-smelling drink that looked just poison, which in fact it was. It would, I knew, poison Fafara’s body against the pearl and make his muscles contract, pushing out the pearl.

“Are you ready?” I asked softly. Fafara nodded. The doctor and I helped him to drink the tall glass down. We then settled him into a half-sitting position. In many ways this would be just like an ordinary Wraeththu birth, only with an unhappy result.

Fafara said it would take at least a half an hour for the medicine to have any effect, and so the doctor left, excusing himself so he could lie down for a bit. The emergency had woken him up in the middle of the night.

I sat with Fafara in silence. There was nothing I could say, although there were many things I wanted to say. Fafara lay with his eyes closed, apparently willing himself into a state that would be accepting of the pain.

After only fifteen minutes, he frowned.

“Fafara?” I asked softly. He didn’t answer, just kept frowning.

Then his arm shot out and he grabbed me by the wrist and yanked on my arm. Hard. “It’s started,” he said.

The pains of birth began. With my whole being, I hated every moment of it. There was no joy, no sense of anticipation. There was only the terrible, wrenching pain. I dabbed his forehead with water and let him squeeze the life out of my arms. It seemed the pains were even worse than the usual.

“My body’s not ready for this yet,” he explained tearily in a break between pains. I wasn’t ready for it either.

Right on schedule, the doctor appeared. When he saw what was happening, he offered to assist. Fafara shook his head. “Dera is all I need.” Another pain and for a few seconds he couldn’t speak. “Try to stay in the house — just in case,” he managed. The doctor nodded and left.

Even with the medicine — re-administered several times — and the small size of the pearl, only three weeks along, it took the entire rest of the day, up until nightfall, to reach the point close to delivery. By then the doctor was long gone. We could handle this on our own.

At last Fafara’s breath came in gasps. He was exhausted and had been falling asleep from time to time, awaking only during the pains.

I took away the blanket and looked down. Fafara was soume. The birth was imminent. As I’d been instructed, I applied an ointment to the area to prevent any tearing. His body truly was not ready. Not naturally.

Finally he had reached the end. He closed his eyes and I knew he was pushing. I looked down between his legs and saw the entrance of the soume-lam shift. I looked back to his face. He took a deep breath and pushed again.

I redirected my gaze again and there it was, just barely bulging out, glistening in the light of the fireplace and candles.

“Just a bit more,” I whispered, petting his hand soothingly and wiping his brow with a damp cloth.

Another push and it was done. The pearl slipped out and fell onto the bed, damp and misshapen and, without a doubt, dead.

Chapter 10

I looked up at Fafara. His eyes were still closed. I almost didn’t want to see them.

“Pick it up and wrap it in cloth,” he whispered, the words difficult to say. “Put it on the table.”

Without speaking, I did just as he’d asked. I then stood over him, awaiting his wishes.

“Lie with me,” he said, his hand weakly patting the space on the bed beside him. Again, I did just as he’d asked. I lay down beside him, making sure we didn’t touch.

“Tomororow we will have a funeral,” I heard him say. The words seemed far away, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to hear them.

Silently he began to cry and then finally he broke out in sobs. Mine began as well. He rolled to his side and reached out. We held each other tight for a long, long time. Finally we slept.

***

When we woke up, it was early morning. Someone had come in during the night and covered us both in blankets. The pearl had been left on the table. At the bedside stood a pitcher of water and two glasses. I poured one for Fafara, one for myself.

I gulped mine down and was setting it down, about to turn to speak, when Fafara raised his hand. “Don’t say a word,” he said. “I know how you are.”

I looked away. A pity he didn’t know what a bastard I was. How could I ever have allowed him to come along with me?

“You feel guilty,” he said. “So guilty you wish you could curl up and die.” I turned my eyes back to him and found he was staring at the ceiling. “Well, please don’t. Don’t feel guilty and don’t die.”

He absolved me of all guilt, emphasizing that there was really nothing I needed to apologize for, nothing he needed forgive me for. It had been his choice to accompany me on the journey. He was the one who had insisted. Further, everything would have been fine if he hadn’t been so stubbornly independent, riding off on his own in the middle of the night in unfamiliar country.

He was truly sorry.

Both of us were miserable, but I suppose in the end no one of us was worse off. I was guilty, he was sorry. It all amounted to the same thing.

***

A brief funeral was arranged for that morning. My parents were in attendance as Fafara and I said our blessings over the unnamed pearl and lowered it into the hole that had been dug in the garden. Fafara shoveled earth back over the top and asked that, if possible, some herbs be planted on top.

My parents took us home. The reunion wasn’t for another week and we were very glad of it. Fafara was still suffering from his injuries, the bruises and the blow to his head. Both of us were exhausted.

Still, I managed to catch up with my family. I told them the story of my journey with Ilana and his untimely death. I told them how Fafara and Arafa had rescued me from the desert and brought me back to health, how they had helped me deliver a healthy pearl. Then there was Delia and my life there, my beautiful harling. I was very happy, I told them. Painfully, I explained to them how Fafara and I had been planning for a second child. They understood everything.

“Someday,” they assured me, “a second child will come.”

By the time of the reunion, Fafara and I were settled in and he was out of most of his pain. I was beginning to feel the trauma fall behind me. I saw all my brothers and uncles and cousins, people who’d come from lands all around. Fafara was treated as one of the family.

Speaking of families, Ilana’s parents came by. They had known for a long time that their son had passed away, they told me. They knew because he had never contacted them. He had always promised to write. I told them the story of how he had died, protecting me and our pearl. They thanked me for giving them some peace.

Finally the parties came to an end and it was time for Fafara and I to return to Delia. Arafa and Ilafa would worry about us if we remained any longer. Surprisingly, my parents offered to accompany us. So did Ilana’s hostling. They wanted to see their grandson.

Chapter 11

The journey lasted three weeks. During that time, we all had time to resolve a lot of issues, both within ourselves and with one another.

I apologized to my parents and Ilana’s hostling for having stayed out of touch for so long, virtually disappearing. Between Ilana’s death, the new harling, the simple distance between us, and becoming so wrapped up in life in Delia, I had simply never gotten around to contacting them, had never planned a trip.

I had missed them, however, and now that we had been reunited, I would be seeing them more often. We could take turns visiting, I told them, and it might even be good for Fafara’s business, as he could collect and trade herbs with the towns in my home country. It would be good for my own business, my parents told me; in the two years since my departure, my jewelry had become highly sought after and people still talked of wanting to buy more.

Fafara, for his part, grew stronger every day, to the point where finally, aside from a scar on his forehead, there was no longer a trace of his injuries. How resilient he seemed! There he was, 65 years old, having just recently miscarried a pearl, riding alongside Ilana’s hostling sharing the secrets of herbal medicine. Meanwhile there I was, 22 years old, still shrinking with guilt and actually itching to get home so everything could go back to normal and I could get on with life, leave that terrible trip behind.

At last we neared Delia. My parents marvelled at the desert, so different from the lands in the north. We actually rode through the spot where Ilana and I had been attacked. Ilana’s hostling said a prayer over the spot where his son had died. Later we passed the spot where I had collapsed, and then finally we were back in Delia. We headed straight to the house.

When we arrived at the gate, it was mid-morning. Ilafa was in the yard with his caretaker. As soon as he saw us, he flew into my arms, planting joyous kisses on my cheeks and hugging me. I handed him to Fafara, who received similar treatment. I noted that his eyes seemed to linger on the child longer than necessary. I suspected he was thinking of how Ilafa was now more even more precious than before, now that the pearl had been lost.

Arafa appeared out of a side door, apparently having been working inside. Fafara put Ilafa down and embraced his loyal apprentice. Arafa stepped back and stared. Things were not as they should be. Fafara’s waist should have been thick by then, only two weeks from the due date. It was not.

Fafara shook his head. How hard it must have been for him. “No,” he said. “There was an accident.”

Arafa didn’t respond. He knew he would get the rest of the story later. In the meantime it was my duty to introduce everyone. My own hostling and Ilana’s took to Ilafa immediately and soon they were playing games together. My father stayed with Fafara, Arafa and me and we showed him around the house. He was quite impressed.

“Quite a home you’ve made here,” he commented. He thanked my rescuers for their part in my survival. When Arafa went to finish up a bit of business, my father turned to Fafara and told him he was proud to have him as a son-in-law. Fafara’s eyes were shiny with tears.

That night we enjoyed a grand celebratory dinner. Arafa had done exceptionally well in our absence. The business had actually grown and he had successfully handled several difficult cases on his own. Fafara promised to make good on his offer to set him up with a practice of his own, perhaps a few towns away. The assistant I had hired had done a splendid job with Ilafa and it was decided that we would call on him again from time to time, particularly if either of us had to be absent again. There was a pleasant resolution for everyone, even Ilana’s hostling, who visited his son’s grave in the garden. At last he knew what had happened to his first-born.

Later on, after everyone else had been settled into their rooms and Ilafa had been put to bed, Fafara and I entered our bedroom for the first time in over six weeks. As we undressed, getting ready for bed, it dawned on me that we had not taken aruna since the accident. The gap no doubt stood as a record for us, but it was understandable, given what had happened. I didn’t even know if Fafara could bear to be touched, not in that way. With my family around, I hadn’t exactly been willing to investigate.

Finally, we lay down on the bed. I looked over at my lover and he was so beautiful I couldn’t restrain myself. I reached out and put my hand on his chest. Touching him, I felt the electricity return. Yes, it had been too long. I wanted him.

Turning fully onto my side, I sidled up to him and slowly, gently, watching for any sign of discomfort or rejection, I wound my leg and around him. Sensing nothing but arousal, I pulled him to me and went at his mouth. We shared breath.

How I loved him. How he loved me. Through all of it, it seemed the love had only grown. I could taste it.

He began to pleasure my neck mercilessly. Soon we were writhing just as much as we had almost two months earlier when we’d been trying to conceive a pearl.

A few minutes later, I was lying on my back enjoying some of Fafara’s “technique” when a question sprang up in my mind. It came out of my mouth before I could help it.

“Do you think it’s too soon try again?” I asked him.

Without even pausing what he was doing, he answered with his mind-voice: “I don’t know, but it’s not too soon to find out!”

***

Two months later, the time came. The new pearl had come full term. There had been no complications and Fafara, being monstrously strong and healthy and knowing every medical treatment, seemed to deal with his hosting much more easily than I had dealt with mine. His age and experience had certainly proven an advantage.

We were actually in my workroom when it began. Just as I had observed him make his medicines back when I had been hosting, now Fafara sat and watched me make jewelry. I was in the middle of straightening a piece of metal when I heard him groan behind me. I turned and was not surprised to find him clutching his stomach.

I had made preparations for the birth, calling Arafa in some days in advance. He now had a home some towns over but he was delighted to be assisting. I carried Fafara to the bedroom and lay him down. Arafa came in with the water, the cloth, the special teas. I stripped off Fafara’s clothing and even though I knew he probably could handle it on his own, I tried to talk him through the pain.

The delivery proceeded quickly, a consequence of his age and the number of births he had been through. After only twenty minutes, I had to go tell Arafa to fetch Ilafa — fast. We had decided we wanted the child to witness the birth of his brother.

By the time Ilafa entered the room, holding Arafa’s hand and staring, Fafara was in the final stages and beginning to strain. He held my hand so tightly I thought my bones would break. His breath came in quick gasps and he began to grunt, closing his eyes as he pushed with his muscles.

Finally came the parting. From the folds of the soume-lam emerged a glistening, black pearl. It was as perfectly formed as Ilafa’s had been and not anything like that which had been expelled in the miscarriage.

Immediately we said a blessing. Arafa took the pearl and examined it at a side table. I called Ilafa over. He was somewhat frightened, but quickly I explained to him what had happened.

Arafa returned with the pearl, placing it next to Fafara, who curled around it, a glorious smile on his face. Sitting on the bed, I pulled Ilafa into my lap and there it was, the image of a happy new family.

The End

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