The afternoon continued in a very strange way.
Although I was still confined to my bedding, Ian was more than excited to have someone to talk to. He showed me things that I had only read about in Iatvi advertisements. I’m sure you know what a ‘phone’ is. But you and I only knew them as enormous and clunky plastic devices with loud, angry ringing and cords everywhere. No, the phone that Ian showed me was a marvel, a thin square of glass, plastic, and metal with no cords and an incredibly smooth screen that looked much like a hand-held television with incredible clarity. Better yet, he brought the phone into my arm’s reach, and I realized that I could move the contents of the screen with my hand, as easily as if I slid a piece of paper across a table. Pictures flashed behind the screen, showing off images of Ian’s family, strange homes and places I had never seen before. The pictures even moved like a movie, and combined with sounds. This phone made me feel as if I were looking through someone else’s eyes, looking into rooms and conversing with Iatvi as if I were their size. You’ve probably heard Iatvi music as well, but the songs that Ian had me listen to were fast-paced and electronic. Some were played with string instruments, some featured pianos, and some were played with instruments I did not recognize. I know you hate it when I say things like this, but they made me wish for legs I could dance with.
Then, with this magical device, Ian ‘looked up’ information about polio, as both of us were curious. I learned later that when Iatvi ‘look up’ information, it meant they learned things from something called the ‘internet’. I still don’t understand how it works, but it is extremely useful. He quoted what was written about polio, and I later wrote it all down so I could explain it to you and study it myself. He said polio “is a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death”. This sounded familiar, except I had no idea I could have simply died as a child.
To my utter horror (and I’m sorry for quoting what he read to me), he explained how I probably became sick with the disease as a child: “The polio virus is usually spread from person to person through…” He paused. “…infected fecal matter entering the mouth. It may also be spread by food or water containing human feces and less commonly from infected saliva.”
Ian said the words, looked at my expression, and immediately expressed regret for reading the description. My eyes grew wide and I wore a face of complete disgust. How? How? How could this have happened? And why was I unique? No one else I knew had a leg like mine. I knew infants in the village sometimes died of illness. I knew our food and water was always of questionable quality. But while I knew the village we lived in was unclean for how many of us lived together, I never contemplated how filthy the conditions actually were. Didn’t we live the right way? Every gatherer I knew hated the pristine environments Iatvi lived in. But if I had polio like James said… It was much worse than I ever imagined. If they only knew what I knew. If they only knew what Iatvi knew.
I wrote a note to Ian asking how polio could be treated. He read the following: “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends polio vaccination boosters for travelers and those who live in countries where the disease is occurring. Once infected there is no specific treatment.”
No cure. James had said as much. But I only thought of you. I wrote another note to him: “What is vaccination?”
“It’s a shot that doctors give you… I think Dad told me that vaccines have a dead version of the virus that your body fights off and makes you immune.”
I wrote another note, aware of how black my hands had become and how rapidly the graphite was shrinking: “How do you make a vaccine?”
Apparently, Ian’s device had all the answers.
“To create vaccines, viruses are completely inactivated (or killed) with chemicals. By killing the virus, it cannot reproduce itself or cause disease. Polio, hepatitis A, influenza, and rabies vaccines are made this way. Because the virus is still ‘seen’ by the body, cells of the immune system that protect against disease are generated and generally last a lifetime.”
I ignored all the other diseases, although in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have: they were no doubt all illnesses our people were dying from. Something you could die from in an instant, Aria. I couldn’t stand it. I wrote another note: “What chemicals?”
Ian paused, swiping and typing on the phone’s screen.
“Aluminum salts… antibiotics, uh… formaldehyde… That’s all it says.”
I wrote: “Do you have those? Can you make a vaccine?”
Ian frowned as he read the question.
“How come? Do you know someone who needs one?”
“I don’t know… We can’t even give you any medicine because we wouldn’t know how much would hurt you. If we tried to give you a vaccine, you could die.”
I closed my eyes and covered them with my hand. I didn’t know the truth. My whole life, I never knew why my leg was so bent and powerless. Our herbalist didn’t know. You didn’t know, surely. How could we? I wrote another note and gave it to Ian.
“Hang on,” he said, stepping out of my sight and into the hallway. I waited with severe anguish from the very thought of you suffering the way I did. I thought of you with thin, crooked knees, walking with wooden crutches, enduring sores under your arms, crawling in the dirt, every attempted step filled with pain. I thought of you having to care for someone like me all over again, making you live with a child just like me, someone you would love but ultimately have to throw away when the animals came, or the food ran out, or when the rains fell…
Hindsight is a curse. I know that if I had said such things to you, you would have struck me. And I would have deserved it.
Ian stepped into the room first, followed by James.
“Hi Lenn,” James said. “Ian told me you have questions about vaccines.”
I nodded, and repeated my question onto another piece of paper. He bent down low to take it.
“Can I make a vaccine?” he read. “Me personally, no. There are many companies that make them, though. What makes you ask?”
“I’ve been looking up stuff about polio, and reading it to him. There were some… things that don’t sound too good about it, like how it spreads.”
“Oh,” James said. “Yeah, you read that, huh? I know what you’re talking about. Lenn, I told you that polio can’t be cured. A vaccine doesn’t cure, it makes already healthy people immune to it.”
I quickly nodded, and wrote. James read it.
“Vaccine for a friend?”
I frowned and froze. I felt I was giving up way too much information about myself way too quickly to people I didn’t know, especially to Iatvi. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to make up my mind, so I committed. I told them your name.
James read my note.
“‘My friend Aria. I need a vaccine for her.’”
I wrote another on a clean page.
“‘She’s special to me. She’s all I have left.’”
“Lenn, I have no way of knowing if our vaccines would work. They would most likely hurt her instead of help. There’s no way to know.”
I furiously scribbled my response.
It said: “She can’t become me.”
I was already writing.
“Don’t let her become me.”
I didn’t even hand the note over before writing another one.
“Please help her!”
I wrote another.
“Help me help-”
I even tried to scream, pounding my arms into my bedding and mouthing the words I had written. I yearned furiously to release the sadness that had been refused its outlet. No sound. Useless. Hollow and broken.
James picked up my last few, and read them. As I would find out later, this responsible doctor told me that he regretted his response.
“I’m sorry, Lenn,” he said. “I can’t help you.”
I looked up at Ian and James, who looked away and fell silent. James sighed, and Ian looked to his dad for any other answer.
I knew I was being foolish. I knew I was asking for too much. A miracle, maybe. An Iatvi miracle. And worse, I couldn’t know if I was overreacting or acting appropriately. I didn’t know if the most beloved piece of what heart I had left was on the verge of a death that could be prevented. I was too distant from you. I couldn’t save you like you had saved me. I had always been horrendously useless, and nothing but a burden to you, the Iatvi who stood above me, and to everyone else. The world left me behind, and I hated it. But worse, I left you behind. And the last words I said to you made certain that you would forget me.
I snapped. I shook my head violently despite the sting of my wounds and threw the piece of graphite and pad of paper from my lap. They fell to the floor… and I cried. No, I mourned. I mourned for you as if you were already gone. I mourned and pitied myself and my inability to do anything until I could no longer breathe. I could not call out your name. I could not scream at my newfound keepers. I could not crawl away into a dark place and rot. I mourned, and likely opened my wounds afresh from my anguish. Time abandoned me again. I may have heard the words: “What happened,” and, “Let’s leave him alone for now,” but my mind did not care. I wished only for two things: to either see you again and beg for your forgiveness, or to die.
I cried. Long enough to completely exhaust me, which, admittedly, probably wasn’t as long as I thought. I fell asleep from exhaustion between the afternoon and the deep evening. When I awoke, the room was much darker despite the yellow light that still shone from the lamp behind me and my chair.
Again, fear gripped me, if only for the fact that I’d spent so much time in Ian’s bedroom, denying him entry because of my outburst. For a fair amount of time, I remained seated in the enormous chair and my comfortable bedding; I knew that attempting to move would be more than a bad idea.
My mental state had changed enough that some reason had returned, yes. But when I thought of you, it filled me with a foolish determination to do… something. It wasn’t just restlessness. I had been floating, crawling, pressing my feet into concrete and dirt for days.The urge to continue moving filled me; I couldn’t simply wait to be doted on. The dark side of my mind continually reminded me that I was useless and crippled, but I had to prove that it wasn’t true. If not to myself, then to the Iatvi who were watching over me.
I know what you would say to me: “Saika, you idiot. Rest. Save your strength.”
But I had to do this.
I lifted myself. The pain was bearable. At first. I then heaved myself sideways with my arms, using all my strength to rotate my weighty legs in unison to remain straight. My legs moved just fine (unbelievable, I know), but my left arm and my unsteady neck exploded with pain, and made me pause. I could not see the thick bandages, but I could already imagine the wound opening and continuing to bleed. Again, I pressed my arms down to slide myself, aiming for the right side of the fabric chair. I ignored the inflammation, and pressed down again.
It took me about ten minutes to slowly remove myself from my thick bedding. Once on the flat surface of the chair, my troubles were greatly lessened. A few moments later, I slid my legs over the side of the great seat. The distance to the floor was only two, perhaps one and a half of my height. Simple. And yet, the edge of the fabric chair was curved, and offered no easy handhold to gently descend. So, I crawled myself to the rear of the chair where the back of the padding met with the wooden rear; I could wedge my fingers into the flat gap it provided.
I did not hesitate. I heaved my legs over the side, bent down to slide my hands into the corner of the joint, and let gravity take me.
My drop began as planned. My hands held fast as my body twisted 180 degrees to face the chair. James and Ian were right: I prided myself on my arm strength, if nothing else. Holding myself in the air, I did my best to look down. Only a few inches to fall, maybe a foot. On a count of three, I released my grip.
I did not fall straight. Because of course I didn’t. My lame leg bent forwards and caught the crossbar of the chair that I didn’t realize existed. This sent me into a head-over-heels spiral that only lasted a split second, but resulted in me smashing into the thick and plush carpet flat on my back. I let out a guttural whine as air escaped me. My entire wound flared, but my warped mind felt a sense of accomplishment once I realized that I hadn’t killed myself: I had achieved part one of my goal.
After about five minutes of resting on the carpet to allow the pain in my neck to subside, I thought to myself, where to go?
From my position on the floor, several things became immediately apparent. Just as when I woke up, the smell hit me first. Instead of a semi-pleasant identifying scent, it had officially been replaced with the funk of dirty feet. Lifting myself into a seated position, I noticed that the boy Ian was a fairly typical child, even for our people. Strewn about the white-and-black speckled carpet were discarded items of clothing, the occasional notebook and piece of crinkled paper, empty soda cans beneath the bed, and specks of dust and debris that desperately needed a good vacuuming.
My left knee from the fall grew sore immediately. My right, not as much. As I could see nothing I might use as a crutch, I supposed I would have to do this the hard way until I found a wall I could lean on. I chose a direction, and probably the most stupid one imaginable: towards the door of the bedroom. Despite the pain of twisting and turning, I hauled myself to my feet and stepped, one foot after the other, towards the exit.
It took me a good few minutes to get to the dresser upon which Ian had first placed me. Once there, however, I heavily leaned upon it. Careful not to fully bend my left backwards, I led myself by my hand and shimmied further towards the door at a much greater speed. I was sweating rather profusely when I finally arrived at my destination, and not due to the temperature of the room. I also noticed a fairly worrying characteristic of my adjusted larynx: under strain, it closed up rapidly, and made it difficult to breathe. I took a quick rest to gain my bearings, and decided to move much slower.
It was then that my greatest fear was all for naught: the bedroom door had remained open. I shoved it, and with the utmost quiet from the hinges, the door opened with a great amount of ease.
The hallway was dark. I peered around the corner in both directions. To my left was an end to the hallway, with a single door at the very end and one beside it to the right. I looked the other direction, and apart from the one door on the left, there appeared to be an opening into a colossal room from which bright lights emanated. Naturally for Iatvi, the hallway was immaculate, and offered no places to hide should any giants come in this direction. Fair enough, I said to myself, and despite the continuing pain in my neck and my shoulder, I limped around the corner and did my best to hurry.
Oh, the smell of roasted meat… I hadn’t eaten anything but black moss and roots in days. As I hobbled closer to the room of bright lights, the scent grew stronger and stronger. Although I doubted such a feast would be awaiting me on the floor of the room ahead of me, I decided I would do everything in my power to climb up to it and eat my fill.
I saw no movement further into the house beyond the lit room, but I heard the sound of a television murmuring deeper into the home, the sound of quiet conversation, and that infernal metallic clicking noise. I looked, and on the opposite side of the hallway was a strange device plugged into an outlet. Whenever the device clicked, a red light would also blink on and then immediately fade. I learned later that this startling device was meant to keep insects and other pests out of the home with something called ‘ultrasound’; apparently, it was effective at deterring me as well, and I hated passing by it.
On my strong foot and with the support of the hallway wall, it only took me a minute or so to reach the wide room. And ‘wide’ hardly described it. In fact, it appeared that this room was actually three combined into one: an obvious kitchen, perhaps a living room beyond a pair of banisters with a single door that no doubt led outside, and a dining room further in. I peered around the corner, keeping myself in the shadows as much as possible. I viewed a building-sized stainless steel refrigerator, a half-as-large stainless steel dishwasher and dark black oven, bright white wooden cupboards and drawers, the edges of dark marble countertops, and a large kitchen island the same color as the rest of the cupboards that dominated the center. Beside the hardwood pathway, the floor of the kitchen proper was decorated with a myriad of decorative tiles in a variety of complementary colors, making the kitchen feel remarkably elegant. In the dining room, I could see iron chairs and a tall hardwood dining table, though everything else that might have been there was concealed.
Feeling rather exposed in the bare hallway, I dared: using my strong right leg, I hopped into the kitchen towards the island. My reverse knee immediately groaned under the strain, but I ignored it. After all, the fear of my surroundings was more than enough to focus my attention. I finally collapsed against the wall of the island and took a deserved breath.
At this point, I had even less of an idea of where I intended to go. It was fairly obvious that there were no cords or descending plant vines with which I could climb to the counters above. No meat for me, I supposed. From my position on the island, I saw that it also had several cupboards attached to it. Curious, I stepped around the cupboard I leaned upon and opened it. Though dark within, I could make out two shelves that held the reflection of spotless pots and pans, trays, and cooling racks. Of course, they were all neatly organized with large pots upon the bottom shelf and smaller upon the upper.
From what the gatherers had told me when I was younger, there were definitely dirtier and more disordered residences. Was it James who kept all of the homemaking running smoothly? After all, it couldn’t have been Ian. Children are children.
The question answered itself in the most frightening way possible. I couldn’t see it properly from my position behind the island, but the loud click of the front door made my heart leap up into my weak throat. My first instinct was to climb into the island cupboard, and I obeyed it without question. The cupboard door closed most of the way, leaving me just a vertical line of light with which to peer through.
Footsteps. Click-clacking ones. Heels. The Iatvi that entered the house headed straight for the kitchen towards my hiding place, and I had a front-row seat to her destination.
Black dress shoes with shallow heels. Bare ivory legs. A dark-gray skirt and a suit jacket of similar color. All the way to the top, she wore a complex bun of deep brown sparsed with aged graying hairs. She stood in place for a few moments, apparently stirring something on the stove. The smell of meat hit me in the back of the nose and made me salivate.
She hummed with satisfaction, tapped her utensil against the edge of whatever the food was cooking in. She then turned away and disappeared from my sight.
I let out a breath. Close.
Then I heard a voice.
Thundering footsteps up carpet, and then equally powerful steps thumping into hardwood.
“Hi Ian,” said the light voice of the woman. “I heard we have a guest.”
“You didn’t tell anyone about him, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. But why? When your father told me we had one of his patients in our home, I thought he had brought some stranger in to sleep on our couch!”
“Not the couch,” Ian said. “You’ve got to see him, he’s awesome. I think he’s sleeping right now, but I want to introduce you.”
“Awesome?” asked Ian’s mother. “What’s all this about? What’s with all the secrecy?”
With that, the two of them proceeded down the hallway from whence I’d come. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the dreadful moment. All was silent. Both of their voices were hushed. Then Ian spoke up.
“Lenn?” he whispered, his voice barely audible past the hallway. “Lenn, where did you go? Come on out, it’s okay…”
“What is Lenn?” asked his mother.
The question went unanswered. Within ten seconds, Ian’s voice became panicked.
“Lenn!” he cried, his voice quite loud. “Lenn, please! Where did you go! Oh no… No no no…”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Watch your feet, Mom,” Ian said, breathless. “He could be anywhere. Lenn! Don’t be afraid! I know you can’t speak, but… bang on something! Come on! Let me know where you are!”
This continued for about a minute, with Ian’s mother becoming more confused as time went on. Finally, a pair of mountainous footsteps emerged from the hallway, and Ian’s voice exploded.
“Dad!” he cried. “Dad! Lenn’s gone! I can’t find him!”
No sound came for about five seconds. Then, another pair of footsteps emerged from somewhere beyond the kitchen.
“Are you sure, Ian? He didn’t just dig himself further into the towel?”
“I lifted it up and everything! I looked under my bed, behind my dresser and behind the TV… I can’t find him!”
“James, I’m very confused…”
“I know, dear, I know… Give us a moment, we’ll explain everything.”
Three pairs of Iatvi feet proceeded down the hallway to Ian’s room, and hushed whispers filled it immediately. Ian’s voice was less hushed, crying out for me every few seconds.
My eyes were still shut tight as I listened to the cacophony. What to do, what to do? The thought of standing in the middle of the floor only to be discovered by not one, not two, but three Iatvi filled me with incomprehensible fear. At the same time, my conscience didn’t dare allow me to cause Ian and James such incredible worry; my wounds were nowhere near healing, and it wasn’t as if I could simply leave their care. It didn’t seem I had any other choice. Again, my foolish decisions had placed me in a terrible position.
The three Iatvi were still feverishly searching for me when I gathered enough nerve to open the island cupboard. On my right leg, I closed the cupboard and leaned against it, stepping towards the open floor. By the time I could peer down the hallway, the desperation in the bedroom had descended into a tender form of mourning. I could hear it in Ian’s tone. He thought I’d left for good.
I shook my head. I could hear your voice loud and clear: I was a saika. A real idiot.
I walked into the open, supported by my right leg and the tender strength of my left, and once I’d reached roughly the center of the space, I sat upon the floor with my legs outstretched and waited. I didn’t know which was worse at this point: my fear of being discovered, or of listening to the Iatvi speak.
James consoled Ian, telling him it wasn’t his fault that I’d disappeared. That I had my own life and worries to deal with, and that Ian couldn’t have known what they were. James also described as best he could to his wife about what I was. She seemed incredulous at first, but as she listened to her son’s reaction, it became apparent to her that some measure of James’ story was true. And most painful of all, I could hear Ian crying.
Thirty seconds passed. Then, I heard them exit the room. Ian was supported with James’ arm around his shoulders, followed by his mother behind them. It wasn’t more than a short moment once they’d turned the corner that Ian and James’s eyes fell upon me.
Ian gasped first.
“Lenn!” he cried, and ran towards me at a frightening pace. Before I could scramble backwards in horror, he fell to the ground before me with the weight of a rockslide. He folded his bare legs, wrapped both of his hands around my waist, and hauled me up into the air. My stomach sunk into my feet, but Ian’s face told me everything I needed to know about his intentions: tears flooded his puffed-up eyes, but he wore a great wrinkleless smile. His hands were warm, and his grip was a bit tight, but I patted my hands on the backs of his and returned a sheepish expression. James leaned down beside his son and also beamed down on me as if sure that I hadn’t departed.
Ian’s mother, on the other hand, had a look of absolute shock, and my fear spiked as I looked at her. Her hands gathered themselves as she stood back and examined me from afar. Her expression looked like one I would have had if a cockroach appeared in the school in the dead of night.
“Mom, Mom! This is Lenn!” he said, twisting around and showing me to her. “I knew he didn’t leave!”
“I’m certainly glad he didn’t,” James said, placing his hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Who knows what would have happened to him. Be careful, Ian, don’t hold him too tightly.”
“Oh. Sorry Lenn.”
“What…” Ian’s mother whispered. “What is it?”
“He,” Ian corrected her. “And we have no idea! He’s just… small!”
I frowned at Ian and gave him the first thumbs down I’d ever given someone. He caught a glance at me.
“Oh, uh…” he said with a laugh. “Not small?”
I gave him a confident affirmative in the form of a thumbs up. Ian laughed.
“Are you okay, Lenn?” James asked me. “From our conversation before? I’m sorry I don’t have more answers for you.”
I looked up at him as best I could and nodded.
“Are you in pain?” James continued. “Are your bandages loose?”
I couldn’t properly turn my head to look at him without burning, but I nodded and raised my hand and held two fingers up spaced apart. “Just a little bit,” it said.
“Lenn, why did you leave?” Ian asked me with sudden worry. “You could have hurt yourself! I thought you couldn’t walk without crutches. You didn’t crawl, did you?”
I shook my head, and pointed down towards the floor.
“I think he wants you to put him down,” James said.
“Why doesn’t he talk?” Ian’s mother asked. “Does he understand English?”
“He does,” James said. “But he received an injury that took his voice. Possibly a laryngeal displacement. That’s what the bandages are for, although if he were human-sized, we would certainly have taken him to the hospital for surgery. Since he looks to be breathing fine and not coughing up anything, perhaps he’ll be able to heal on his own.”
“How awful,” she said. “Poor dear… Where is his shirt? Or his shoes?”
“I believe Ian found him without any.”
“Yeah. He was really cold. He’s still really cold. Aren’t you?”
I shrugged, and pointed down to the floor again. Ian followed my instructions, placing me down. Instead of sitting down, I exited his hands by standing on my strong leg. Then, I demonstrated what I could do. With a captive audience, I walked a second at a time, a strong step forwards on my right, and timid step on my left. It only took me a moment to reach the island, upon which I leaned and turned around.
Ian’s face was pure surprise. James was all smiles.
“Well look at you,” he said. “Whatever sickness you had as a child sure hasn’t stopped you, has it? Maybe we were being too careful with you after all.”
I shrugged, carefully bending my left leg as far as I could without pain. It wasn’t much, and it bent awkwardly backwards as it always did. But I didn’t care. For the second time in my life, I felt a strange amount of pride: my body was bent and slow, but it didn’t stop me from moving. But I don’t have to tell you about the first time, do I?
Ian laughed, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“Then I won’t worry about you ever again,” he said. “Just don’t disappear like that, okay? You scared me to death! I don’t ever want to step on you or anything.”
“True,” James said. “You should limit your explorations unless one of us knows where you are, yeah?”
At this question, I scrunched my face and shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, I made no promises.
“You’re really weird,” Ian said with a grin of his own.
I nodded, scratching my cheek.
“Well,” Ian’s mother said with a sigh, bending down. “I can hardly believe this… This sure is an interesting surprise! Lenn, was it? My name is Catherine, and I’m very glad you can stay with us. It looks like you and Ian are already good friends. And James is an excellent doctor, so you shouldn’t have any problem getting the treatment you need.”
“Yeah,” Ian said.
This made me smile. I’d known the ka for a day, and he had befriended me immediately. He would come to remind me of you, Aria: compassionate and unselfish. Like I once relied on you, I would come to rely on Ian. Even though I showed him I could walk and write, he never hesitated to come to my aid if I asked for it or not.
“I hoped you would say that, dear,” James said. “Like I told you, no homeless people.”
James looked down at me just in time to see me raise an eyebrow and wobble my hand, twisting it back and forth a few times.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”
“Homeless or not,” Catherine said. “I’m certain that you’re ready for dinner. I think we all are.”
“Yup,” Ian said. He looked down at me. “I’ll bet it’s been a long time since you’ve had anything good to eat.”
My mood soared: that meat would be mine after all. I clasped my hands together and lifted them to my chest, begging with my eyes and a smile. At this, all the Iatvi laughed, and I did too. Without a voice to accompany it, and not without pain, but at that particular moment, I didn’t care.
“Not just yet,” James said, and my shoulders drooped. “We’ve got to check your bandages, Lenn. Get you some new ones. Don’t worry, no peroxide this time, just some neosporin and vaseline on the bandages. No sting to worry about.”
I nodded. The faster this wound healed, the less useless I would be. And maybe I’d get my voice back someday soon.
James was right; changing my bandages this time was not nearly as painful as the first. I sat near the edge of the bathroom counter, and James helped me remove them; what he could not remove with his large fingers I could do with my own. I couldn’t see my wounds, of course, but I could see James’s reaction to them: he pursed his lips as the bandage removed. I did see the fabric bandage from the center of my neck, a mess of cotton, white Lidocaine, and thick splatters of blood.
“Can you turn your head? Careful now, let’s not reopen anything.”
I did so, and the deepest part of my wound (the part that had taken my voice) felt ready to split. He removed the bandage from my upper neck and just below my ear. The bandage stuck for a moment beneath my jaw, and shocked me like an ant sting.
“Can you lift up, look up at the corner? Just as high as you can without pain.”
I tried, but it felt as if the wound were pulling apart.
With his glasses halfway down his nose, James examined me, his eyes intense.
“I guess it’s too early to tell,” he said, taking the bandages and throwing them in the garbage beside the toilet. “Inflammation has started, which is a good sign. No discharge that I can see. You don’t feel sick or nauseous at all? No fever?”
I shook my head.
“Does it itch?”
“Try not to scratch. From what I can see, it looks good so far.”
The neosporin froze me, as did the vaseline, but soon warmth returned with thick fabric bandages. On top of the bandages, James cut out pieces of plastic adhesive strips, and with his guidance, I placed them where they needed to go to keep the bandages secure.
“Excellent,” James said, patting my knee. “I can tell that you have a lot of willpower. If I had an injury like this, I’d be crying on a hospital bed like a baby.”
I wanted to tell him I already had, but I shrugged instead.
“Ian?” James called.
“Lenn’s all done. You can take him to the kitchen table, I’m sure he’s starving.”
“Okay,” he said. The boy appeared as his father turned on the faucet to wash his hands.
Ian took me in his arms and carried me to the dining room table. He placed me down, and I sat as comfortably as I could on its solid wooden surface. His hand held onto my wrist and arm for a moment, as if he expected me to fall backwards. When he saw I did not, he released me and brushed his hair away from his eyes.
Although connected to the large kitchen, the dining room was cozy: besides the metal chairs and the table, there was only one piece of furniture. Against the furthest corner next to dark glass windows was a great display cabinet filled with fine china, glass and ceramic figurines, and other knick-knacks that none of my people would ever dare touch. Memorable objects of that nature, no matter how valuable or useful they might look, were the first things that would be noticed as missing, leading to strife in the home as to who stole or hid it; all in all, more chaos in a Iatvi home was bad for gathering, or so I was told.
Upon the wall next to the cabinet was a painting that dwarfed me in both width and height. Within its dobs of thick paint was an image of a pleasant seascape, something that I had only read about. Endless water as far as the eye could see… Considering the luck I’d had in a rushing river, the idea of floating in something as big as the sea made my eyes cross. I had only painted a few times in my life, whenever the gatherers remembered to scavenge for ink and oils.
The longer I looked at the painting, the more it caught my attention. Ian watched his parents as I looked upon the canvas. Indeed, it wasn’t a mere flat surface. It truly was the work of some brilliant artist who utilized more colors than I had ever had access to at the village. I could imagine how bright your face would glow if you could have had paints like this. The painting didn’t merely show a blank featureless blue ocean; there were sailboats and trawlers, boats with thick smoke stacks bellowing gray into the stormy day, and beautiful white stone piers and buildings lifting up the composition.
Ian’s hand rested beside me, and I tapped his finger.
“The wall?” Ian asked. “Oh, the painting? You want to see it?”
With much more care, Ian lifted me into his arms and stood in front of the work of art. While his shadow mostly blocked the light that fell upon it, I was fortunate enough that he held me within arm’s reach. Gently, I touched its surface; indeed, the paint used to create it was thick, applied with powerful brush strokes. Looking at it closely (as is the case with all paintings), the colors seemed random and mishmashed. But the totality of the piece brought everything together.
“You like it?” Ian asked me. “One of Dad’s friends painted this for us. It’s an oil painting.”
“Early 1900’s,” James said from the kitchen. “One hundred years ago, a port in the Mediterranean might have looked just like that.”
I nodded, looking back at the painting. ‘Mediterranean’. I don’t know if you remember that word from the geography magazines. It’s a body of water as large as an ocean on the other side of the world, somewhere I would never even hope to go. If the gatherers only knew just how large this world was; I’ve studied countless maps, and I still don’t comprehend it. The size of the Iatvi, their endless numbers, and their countless towns and cities doesn’t help to put things into perspective, either. Yul, the floor space of Ian’s own room dwarfed the size of the village twice over.
“Do you know where that is?” Ian asked, curious. “The Mediterranean?”
I nodded, looking up at the boy’s face.
“You do? How?”
I pursed my lips. Then, I repeated my motion for something to write with.
“Oh, yeah. I’ll go grab them. Wait right here.”
Ian placed me down upon the table and stepped away towards his room. The feeling of being completely exposed hit me rather mercilessly again, but James and Catherine tended to their food preparation and didn’t pay me much attention. Ian reappeared quickly. He handed me the pad of sticky green papers and a larger piece of graphite than before.
“How do you know about the Mediterranean? You haven’t gone there, have you?”
I put pencil to paper, large as I could write, and handed him the note. He read it.
“Really?” he asked in surprise.
“What did he say?” James asked from across the room.
“He says he’s a… teacher?”
I scribbled on another piece of paper. Again, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to explain.
I handed him the new note.
“‘I teach kids how to speak and read English’, he says.”
“That’s wonderful,” Catherine said. “Good for you!”
“So you’re an English teacher?” Ian said. “Ew. That doesn’t seem fun.”
I laughed without pushing breath too hard, and wrote another note. Ian read it, and smiled.
“What’s it say?”
“He says he couldn’t write or read if it wasn’t for his friend.” He looked down at me with a subtle tone. “Is this your friend you wrote about before? What was his name again?”
“Oh. Her name. Aria.”
I wrote again.
“He says she was the best teacher he ever had. How old were you when you learned to read?”
I held up my fingers.
“How old?” James asked.
“Well, that’s not too much later than us,” Catherine said.
Ian then lowered his eyes to look directly at mine; perhaps two arm lengths away, I leaned backwards a little bit and gave him a concerned look. I could feel his breath skip across the table, and noticed all the small freckles on his nose and cheeks. I couldn’t tell what he was searching for from the expression on his face.
“How old are you?” he finally asked me.
I blinked a few times. Gathering my senses, I wrote a quick note and handed it to him.
“Huh-uh,” he said with a shake of his head and a small smile. “I asked you first.”
I pretended to roll my eyes, which made him giggle a little. I held up two fingers in one hand and shaped an ‘O’ in my other.
“…two plus zero? You’re two?”
This time, I rolled my eyes authentically and mouthed the word ‘no’.
“Oh,” Ian laughed. He lifted up his fingers like mine. “Um, so you’re twenty?”
“You don’t look like twenty.”
I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow. I wrote a note.
“You can’t grow a beard?” he said cheerfully.
James brought a blue plate as wide as I was tall to the table. Upon it was a rectangle of pure butter that could have helped feed a team of gatherers for a week. “Well, I’ve got a baby face, so my patients always think I’m still in my thirties. How long have you been a teacher?”
To my surprise, Ian’s hand strapped horizontally around my waist and legs, and rotated me to face his dad. The pad of paper almost fell from my lap, and it made me a bit dizzy.
“Ian, be careful with him,” James said quickly. “Don’t do things like that without permission.”
All of a sudden, I felt an immense presence of warmth to my right side. I looked as best I could, and I saw the enormity of Ian’s soft face hovering right next to me, his eyes peering sideways towards me.
“Sorry,” he said, his whispering voice booming in my ear.
You’d think I was crazy, but I lifted my arm and blindly reached behind me. I didn’t know what my hand met with right away, but the round shape and elasticity told me what it was. I probably kept my hand there for a moment too long.
“Hey,” he said, his hand suddenly appearing beside me. “That’s my nose.”
I smiled despite my apprehension. The smile faded and my eyes squeezed shut when a finger thicker than my thigh blinded me and gently bopped me in the face. I’m sure he intended my nose, but it ended up covering much more than that.
“Ian…” James growled.
When I waved my hand as if to push him away, he laughed and his face disappeared.
“James, can you come help me lift this?” Catherine asked from the kitchen.
“So how long have you been a teacher, Lenn?” James asked, rising and stepping towards his wife. “A couple years?”
I counted in my head all the time I’d spent in that sheet metal shack, attempting to clear my throat again. It came out as a gurgle, and the discomfort made me grimace. I placed my graphite down in my lap and held up all fingers.
“Ten years?” James asked. “Wow, probably since you mastered reading and writing yourself. That’s impressive.”
My eyebrows flashed upwards. It was certainly the first time I’d ever heard anyone describe my work as ‘impressive’. Let’s be honest, Aria: although you tried to convince me otherwise many times, everyone in the village simply tolerated my profession until I taught their kids to count and spell their names in English. I was just lucky there were so many kids. Everything else, from studying newspaper and magazine clippings to writing instruction books for gathering, these were just hobbies. No one took them seriously.
“What about your friend?” James asked, returning to the kitchen but continuing to speak. “Did she work with you?”
Complicated question, don’t you think? I wrote down an honest answer and handed it to Ian.
“Yes and no? What’s that mean?”
I couldn’t move my head to face the boy, but I shrugged and wrote more, handing him the note over my shoulder.
“‘She helped teach the kids some days. But the gatherers hated me.’”
I looked down at the table surface.
“You said that your family abandoned you,” Ian said. “How come? Just because of your leg?”
“Ian… Lenn, you don’t have to explain anything.”
“But that’s what he said.”
“He says he couldn’t gather, he couldn’t hunt, and he could hardly garden. What’s ‘gather’ mean?”
“Search for food, medicine, supplies, no doubt,” James said. When he saw me nod, he continued. “Can you imagine? A whole group of people like Lenn living beneath us and living off our scraps…”
I hesitated. But what I wanted to say was an honest truth. I wrote another note.
“He says that…” Ian paused. “…my people got rid of the dead weight.”
All Iatvi paused and looked in my direction.
“Dead weight?” Ian asked, his face leaning in close again. “They meant you? Are you serious?”
“You poor boy,” Catherine said. “How could they do something like that?”
I wrote again, and everyone waited for my response. I passed the note to Ian.
“The gatherers finally had an excuse to do it?”
“Oh!” exclaimed Catherine. “That’s terrible!”
“I should very much like to meet these gatherers of yours someday,” James said. “I would never abandon Ian for anything.”
I wrote a quick note.
“He says to them, it’s survival.”
“Don’t you think like that, Lenn,” James said, grabbing a pile of heavy plates from the cupboard above the counter. “That’s not fair to you. Like you said, it’s an excuse. They may have thought it was survival, but it wasn’t for you. But look where you are now. I don’t know about them, but you’re going to make it just fine.”
I looked away. Yes, the only reason I lived was because of the Iatvi that surrounded me. I had to break the only rule our people clung to in order to survive. At that time, I didn’t know what you would think about that. I thought so little of myself, despite the occasional tiny victory, that I believed the lies I’d heard for years. But I know that you would want me to do everything in my power to come back to you. I know that now.
“You’re not ‘dead weight’ to me,” Ian said to me next, his voice close. ”You’re awesome.”
I wasn’t sure about the second part. But I more than appreciated the first. I gave him a weak thumbs up that slumped to my side too quickly. To my shock, Ian’s whole fist slammed against the table beside me (at least it trembled the table like a slam), giving me a humongous thumbs up in return.
“Well,” said Catherine, carrying an enormous ceramic plate. “No more depressing talk. It’s time to eat and be happy. Right?”
“Right!” Ian said.
James placed down the plates and Catherine put down the… the…
My mind melted like the butter in the center of the table: I saw the reality of what I was about to experience. About half my standing height in thickness and a full arm’s span in width was the largest single piece of meat I had ever seen. You and I have had what Iatvi call hamburger before. This looked nothing like it, and smelled much different. You and I have added salt, or sugar, or sometimes even vinegar to food. Whatever spices were cooked into this slab of carnivorous goodness created a scent celebration that overwhelmed me. It wasn’t just because I was starving, either. I had this meal many times, and it never ever lost its appeal. So lost in the sight of the mouth-watering meat, I didn’t even see the cooked carrots, potatoes, and the strange green stalks that lined the plate. There was even bread on a separate plate next to it.
Catherine and James noticed my mind-twisted expression and laughed to each other.
“I think he’s going to enjoy this,” James said.
I shook out of my daze and looked up at Ian’s parents with a coy half-smile.
“Oh,” James said, returning to the kitchen. “We’ve been talking so much, I didn’t think of what Lenn would use as a fork.”
“Ian, would you grab a small plate for him?” Catherine asked.
“Let’s see,” James said, opening the cupboard between the oven and the fridge. “We have plastic forks, but I don’t know if… Lenn, what do you usually use to eat?”
I wrote a quick note and handed it to Ian after he placed before me a wide ceramic plate (not half as wide as the others).
“A plastic fork works fine, he says.”
“Yeah, he’s sure.”
James returned and handed me the fork; about the size of a pronged rake, I held it near the neck and held the upper plastic over my bandaged shoulder. Fortunate that it didn’t weigh much at all.
With everyone seated at the table, I thought for sure everyone would proceed to dig into the delicious food. But to my surprise, everyone paused. James pointed at Ian.
“Want to say a quick prayer?”
“Sure,” Ian said.
All of the Iatvi then bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and folded their arms. In that moment, my eyes bounced from person to person, my anxiety level soared, and I clung to my fork; I had no idea what they were doing. Ian then spoke words that I had never heard combined before, a title for a being that I had never known.
“Our Heavenly Father…”
Ian continued speaking, but I clung to those first words. I’d learned many words before. But my insignificant knowledge gathered from scraps of paper had never taught me of this person. “Heavenly’. Like many words, I only knew of ‘heaven’ as an idea: a bright place where Iatvi go when they die. Advertisements described things like ice cream as ‘heavenly’, but I wasn’t so sure Iatvi died just to go to a place filled with ice cream.
And then, of course, the word ‘father’. The only example of a father I knew was my own. Yours as well, of course, but he was “kinder” than mine. You know how rare it was to see him home… or even in the village at all. He spent more time drinking the alcohol that the gatherers brought back than drinking water, and it never ceased to amaze me that he bothered to have more children besides me in his older years. Or maybe it was my mother who convinced him, I don’t know. I didn’t count as one, after all.
So who was this father that Ian called ‘heavenly’? It couldn’t have been like my father. There was nothing heavenly about alcohol or abandoning your son to die. Was this Father like James? Kind and loving, someone who actually cared for his son? I didn’t recognize it then, but I felt a sense of warmth in me. If it wasn’t like James, then it must have been someone very similar. Someone who had taught Ian to care about someone like me. I would later learn that Aaron and Chris also believed in this ‘Heavenly Father’.
I can hear you giggling at me now; you always told me I think too much. But you know me: when I do nothing, I think. And looking back, I know there were so many things I didn’t pay attention to; it was all so… immense. But this was certainly something I latched onto. And I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but in this moment of fear, combined with exhaustion and hunger… Hearing this title from Ian, ‘Heavenly Father’, I knew these words matched together. I wish that the gatherers had ever gathered scraps of scriptures as greedily as they did newspaper with obituaries and ads with scented perfumes.
As the Iatvi lifted their eyes, I looked down at the table and hoped none of them would then ask me to ‘pray’, or say anything about what had just occurred. When they did not, and a voice asked me what I wanted to eat first, I looked up and continued with life.
The feeling did not leave, though. It didn’t leave me for the entire night.