I was very determined for a long time to not post this story. I’m pretty protective of this, and it can get pretty corny and odd in parts, thoughts that I wanted to work through between these characters. An exercise in writing dialogue n’ whatnot. But I’ve decided it’s something I should throw out there. So hopefully it is enjoyable.
I was drowning.
Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, between the freezing water and my struggle for air, something narrow and frighteningly sharp crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood, and worse, I felt liquid cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by finally scrambling onto bare stone and turning myself downwards towards the slope was I able to feverishly expel the blood and water and gasp for air.
Once I could inhale, I realized that blood was not only flowing out of my mouth. I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury yet. Thick red drops fell in torrents from my upper neck and shoulder, creating a stream of crimson from my laceration that fed back into the river. The effort I had produced to stay breathing in the deep river combined with sudden blood loss made darkness pass over me, so fast that I didn’t have a chance to grasp my bloody neck. I had no time to worry about what might happen to me if the day came, or even concern myself with the thought of surviving at all.
Time abandoned me. I actually had dreams floating through my mind, which made me think that I was viewing my last thoughts. That, or I truly was alive, hanging on by a thread. I saw you, Aria. Unbearable pain rose, seeing you in my mind’s eye. I felt the urge to reach out for you, Aria, but I wondered if my body had been irreparably damaged. Every single member of my family was dead, and I would be the last, bleeding out on stone, frozen and numb. My dreams faded and disappeared entirely, and Death introduced itself to me.
But He passed me over. I don’t know why.
The very next thing I remember are spoken words:
“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”
They didn’t immediately register. They sounded like my dreams felt, indistinct and hazy. But another sound quickly filled the void: the thundering sound of shoes pounding upon dirt. It was quiet at first, but it filled my ears until it deafened me.
Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single phrase.
“What is that?”
My mind floundered in exhaustion, and nothing but the cold of my veins concerned me. Even when I felt a very powerful force physically lift me into the air and place me delicately upon my back did a small sliver of reality return.
I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.
“Look, Ian! It’s… a little person.”
“It’s dead… Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.”
I felt a warm object subject pressure to my upper chest, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.
“No, it’s still breathing, look. It’s alive,” shouted a great being above me. Perhaps it wasn’t shouting, exactly; its source was very close. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.
Iatvi. And ka Iatvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I would die. I was certain of it.
I opened my eyes. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight in my sight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me in the air. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.
“Look, it’s awake!”
“Chris, you stay back and stay quiet. You’re going to scare it.”
“No I won’t!”
I closed my eyes again. Still no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, cold gripped me tightly.
“Aaron, something cut its throat. We’ve… we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”
“Ew,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked and dirty.”
The voice above me made a clucking sound.
“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a boy. Who cares?”
“We don’t have anything to carry him in… and Dad taught me never to jostle a patient or it could cause bad things to happen.”
“Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”
For a moment, I heard the sound of cloth. For the first time, a spark of fear filled my mind when another great force took hold of my prone body and lifted me upwards. But instead of casting me to the ground or crushing my bones to powder, I felt myself being placed into a warm blanket supported by a cradle. The blanket smelled of sweat, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in hours, I felt some source of comfort.
“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.
“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry. We don’t know how much time this little guy has left.”
I felt a sudden acceleration, and to my side, the wall upon which I leaned heaved inwards and outwards with the sound and damp breeze of Iatvi breath. I didn’t know my intended destination, nor did I know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I thought in my heart that I would never see you again.
The journey felt like hours as my ripped skin lay fully exposed to the air. I wasn’t sure if I were still bleeding freely, but my arms and hands didn’t dare to move and check. The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns and the rumble of great machines, the delightful songs of birds that would have eaten me if given the chance, and the murmur of other Iatvi laughing and speaking to each other. One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other Iatvi? Would I ever have freedom again?
But then it occurred to me: I might not survive this at all. Very little mattered if I died.
“Chris! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! You’re faster than us. He should be in his office!”
“Your dad’s not home today?”
“No, he’s at work filling out papers. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”
Sneak? An interesting word. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it just for me?
I dared to open my eyes again, now that my blindness had faded somewhat. Above me was a view I never thought I’d have. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly forwards towards his travels. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his face landed upon mine, and our eyes locked. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, and deep-set green-blue eyes. His pace slowed as he looked down at me, aware that I was now fully conscious.
“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and sure. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”
‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since I was five years old.
“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest. He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon an injured animal. This one’s face was much more youthful than the ka that held me, he had a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. He was also shirtless, but of course he was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I couldn’t see his eyes very well from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.
For the first time in many hours, I opened my mouth and attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I placed my hand to my throat. Midway down my neck, I felt the paralyzing shock of a wound so deep that it felt like a channel in my flesh. I must have appeared particularly terrified, as both ka gasped at my reaction.
“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “You’ll make it worse! Come on, Aaron, hurry!”
The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long as the first, now that I was aware of my surroundings. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of an Iatvi hand, thick and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead. I suppose it was all for the better. Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like an infant. The black cloth beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of golden ivory, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether it was curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it through the hairs and against the skin. When my hand felt the surface, I realized that I smeared it with light trails of still-wet blood I’d touched from my throat.
“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great horror. “That tickles.”
I mouthed the words ‘sorry’, but only breath came out.
At once, the ka Iatvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in white stucco. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed it by and headed into the back. I saw garbage cans and wooden fencing, as well as the windowless wall of the structure the ka mentioned was a ‘clinic’. I knew the word, but I had only ever visited a herbalist in my life, and none of them ever called their practices such things. Truth be told, if you required something as grandly described as a ‘clinic’, you were very likely on the verge of death anyways, and there would be little help to give.
I hoped that wasn’t the case for me.
A door clunked open loudly, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of blinding light, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of Iatvi cleaning supplies. The air turned cold in comparison to the spring outside, freezing the blood that remained in me. Most Iatvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, nothing like the comfortable clutter of our homes. Of course, the gatherers always said that everything was relative when it came to Iatvi, and they lived in just as much of a mess as we did; everything was just a bit more spaced out.
Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway, through a door, then another.
“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”
“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. He sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “What are you carrying? You didn’t find some bird or cat in the gutter, did you? I’m not a vet. I can’t waste time treating animals. Aaron, why don’t you have a shirt on?”
“Dad, at least look! It’s a… a little boy!”
I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.
“What did you bring me this… time…”
At that moment, I gazed upon the largest Iatvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka was gigantic; his father stood over him like a mountain. The face that descended to look upon me looked remarkably like the ka that held me. Slender face, round nose, intense blue eyes, and a beardless golden complexion. His incredulous expression turned into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time. I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.
“Wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning backwards. He reappeared with a thin pair of glasses. This time, he examined me with perfect clarity. “My goodness… what is he? Ian, where did you find him?”
“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”
“I have no idea, but he… he looks human, doesn’t he?”
The father reached his hand forwards. His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee.
“This is incredible. But… he doesn’t look good, does he? I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep the wounds are. Right across his neck… He’s too small… His injuries might already be infected, and that could kill him no matter what we do.”
“Please, Dad! You have to do something! I don’t want him to die!”
Emotion hit me for the first time in many hours. Despite the dreams of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you could actually care about me. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.
The great Iatvi pursed his lips and looked up at his son with sudden determination.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess it’s the only thing we can do. Go ahead and place him on the table, and give Aaron his shirt back.”
“Look. He was bleeding,” said the youngest ka.
“Yeah, he was. Or, is. But my shirt doesn’t matter, I’ll wash it later.”
The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than an operating table. Though I felt pain flash through my body, Ian took me gently with both of his great hands and lowered me down to the surface. I laid flat, and felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what its purpose was. I gazed upwards at the ka named Ian as he looked down upon me, and his face showed immense concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, now dressed and watching me with worry.
“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Um… Okay, let’s see. This is going to be tricky. Chris, I need you to stand back. You too, Ian and Aaron.”
All the young Iatvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strange circular metal tube that I would later be informed was a ‘stethoscope’, though at the time I thought he was about to flatten me with the hammer-like tip of the tool. When he placed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, both the cold and the pain on my wound made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how else to do this. Do you understand me? If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear your lungs.”
I obeyed as best I could, withstanding my discomfort and breathing in and out. For a moment, none of the Iatvi said a word.
“His lungs sound clear,” said the father. “No rasping sounds.”
“What does that mean?” asked Ian.
“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like the wound is completely external… except… well, now that I’m seeing it…”
He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.
“Can you speak?” he asked.
Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips, but no sound emerged. Then it dawned upon me why: I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’.
“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”
“What? What is it, Dad?”
The father pulled away from me.
“I think… It’s possible the cartilage of his larynx has been fractured. The wound is certainly deep enough. His trachea might be okay since he can still breathe freely. He’s lucky that whatever caused his wound didn’t tear open any major veins, but… I don’t think he’ll be able to speak for a while. If they are fractures or complete displacement… Without surgery… I just don’t know.”
My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud. I just knew it.
“I’m so sorry…” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out a finger, and touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”
I didn’t move my head without looking up at him. I was too busy trying to process everything to be scared.
“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “I would suture all of this, but… I’m not a vet. I don’t have the right tools. I know hydrogen peroxide is not good for wound treatment, but we have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. I’m sorry, little guy, but this is probably going to sting when I apply it. I have Lidocaine, so the pain should disappear quickly. You’ll probably need lots of rest from the blood you’ve lost… I just hope this works. You found him in the canal, right?”
“Yeah,” Ian said.
“I hope he hadn’t been there long,” said the father. “We can’t exactly put him on antibiotics, I wouldn’t know the proper dose.”
“He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. I looked at him and he looked at me. I blinked a few times, and then, out of sheer hopelessness, I raised my hand out towards him. He immediately took his wide thumb and forefinger and grasped my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”
I’d only known this ka for minutes. But tears formed in my eyes anyway; these Iatvi, and especially this Ian, were the few beings that dared to care about me.
“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘van’. Of course, I knew what a van looked like from pictures, but I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until we figure out what he is. Agreed?”
“Yeah,” said all of the ka.
Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick and light-blue colored towel. Ian’s father had been correct: putting on those bandages was one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being injured: the ‘hydrogen peroxide’, as the Iatvi called it, was a clear liquid, which the Iatvi applied to my skin with a cotton swab. At first it was merely cold, but then the carved lines in my neck and chest stung as if I’d been set on fire. It wasn’t until the father applied a white cream on top of the antiseptic and covered them in delicate bandages did the pain subside into a slow burn.
Although I had nearly been swallowed by a torrent the night before, one thing was certain: nearly drowning in water does not get rid of painful thirst. This may not be a surprise to you, but I had thrown up not an hour before falling into the river. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.
“Hmm?” Ian hummed. He looked down. “Oh. What is it?”
“What does he want?” said Aaron, looking down at me as he sat at Ian’s side.
“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.
I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘thirsty’. My hands immediately went to the cotton bandages at my throat.
“You’re…? I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Ian said.
“I think he said, uh… something about thirty?”
“You can read his lips?”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.
“Oh. Nope,” said Aaron.
I pointed to my mouth.
“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”
I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my lips, puckering them.
“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty!”
“Dad, do we have any water in here?”
“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But… I don’t think that’s such a good idea anyway. You’d probably spill all over him and drown him. I have an eyedropper at home in my office, that might be a good way for him to drink.”
“Okay, that’s what I’ll do.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right for a while more?”
I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly lowered my head, but the sting reminded me to do the opposite.
The drive only took a few minutes, but as I watched the landscape out the van’s window fly by, I came to the realization of just how far away I was traveling from you. I know my circumstances had led me here, so distant from both you and your love, Aria. But I knew that if I came searching for you or the village with my injuries, I would die within a day. Only with the help of these Iatvi would I have any chance to see you again.
The van stopped first at a well-kept home, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose and slid the side and the passenger side doors open.
“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them… uh, that you’re home early because I have a doctor’s appointment.”
“Ha, you’re not wrong,” Aaron said.
“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The van then continued moving.
Ian looked down as his breath fell upon me.
“Are you okay?”
In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the van, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the terrible night… It all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for food or water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? If I lived, where would I be when I awoke?
“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”
“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep, I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”
Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure it applied then. But this Iatvi that held my injured body and crumpled mind gave me all the permission I needed to give in. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.