Chapter 2 – Whispers on the Wind
Mari couldn’t tell how many days had passed. The heatstroke and dehydration had wracked her body more than she would have admitted. On the first morning when she awoke, when the dark-eyed man had spoken to her before disappearing for hours “tending to his garden,” she had rolled over and tried to sleep. Comfort was fleeting.
Her skin radiated heat intense heat, while everything below her skin felt ice cold, occasionally causing her to convulse with shivers. Her cheeks were rough to the touch, sanded down by the wind. Her lips were cracked and, when stretched at all, would split and begin to bleed. Her eyes were fatigued as well, and for the first few hours she was awake that first morning, she could barely make out the blurry shapes in the room. As that day wore on, the bright light outside burned her eyes, and so she closed them. The stranger, Amid he said was his name, had left a bowl of fresh water and a damp cloth next to the bed. Mari wet the cloth and placed it over her eyes, lying on her back and trying to sleep through the worst of it – recovery was always most difficult to start, as Mari knew well. But after a time, the pain either healed, or you simply learned to live with it. Either way, someday it hurt less.
Mari’s waking hours were marked by the comings and goings of Amid. The ageless man slept nights on the ground at the foot of the bed. In the mornings he would take a breakfast by himself, then come and feed his patients. He didn’t say anything, didn’t ask any further questions. Mari wanted to ask him many things – who is he? How does he know the Dall? Why would they send for him in the middle of this forsaken land? What could be so important – but she didn’t ask. For now, she enjoyed the company of the man who, unbeknownst to himself, would occasionally smile while tending to his wards.
Each morning after seeing to the needs of the others, Amid would leave the cottage, apparently gone to the garden for the remainder of daylight. It was during this time that Mari would notice the silence.
Not that Amid ever said much, if anything. But his presence was somehow fulfilling even in the absence of conversation. His motions about the cottage were somehow full of depth, as if each step was measured in both distance and in purpose, every lift of the arm a deliberate and appreciated act. And his smile – Mari woke one morning to find the man grinning sheepishly as he tended to the bandages on Rath’s arms and face. (How bad must the damage be on poor Rath? She wondered). She feigned sleep as Amid approached her. His hands were steady, powerful as he dabbed the bowl of water with a fresh cloth, and began washing her face. By this time the sunburn had began to peel, and the cloth eased the itching and burn that marked the transition of new skin to replace the old. Even with her eyes closed, Mari could feel Amid’s stare on her body, and she suddenly felt herself blush.
Mari was raised and had spent her life with the same family, though few were blood related. In close proximity at all times, traveling and sleeping in tents as much as in houses, Mari was raised to expect no privacy. Bathing, for instance, was a purely communal experience – when 15 men and women wished to use the scarce hot water, it was common for them to simply all share the same basin at the same time. And when the Blight came, even the act of making love became a thing of obligation less than passion …
So this blush that she felt was alien to Mari. She at first thought that her skin was reacting to the sunburn and dehydration, a lingering after-effect finally surfacing to bring in new discomforts. But instead, her reflexes kicked in just as she realized what this strange new heat was in her face – she pulled the blanket up tightly over her body, and rolled to the side. The ruse ended, she opened her eyes and looked up at Amid, who must have been startled by her motion, as he had pulled his hands up almost defensively. The dark eyes were mesmerizing when paired with the devilish smile she now caught him in. He was, Mari thought, not so much handsome or masculine so much as … beautiful.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” he responded quietly, the smile now disappeared to whatever dark places hid the human inside his body.
And with that, Mari rolled again, and found that her body felt well on the way to repair. Remembering that fleeting smile of his, Mari closed her eyes and slept, the chill and the burn finally gone from her. And she smiled widely.
It was on that day that Mari first noticed the wind.
With Amid gone for a few hours and Rath still out of commission, Mari tried to take in her surroundings. The house was sparse and functional, but cramped when three people were inside. The space was designed (imposed? inspired?) with only one occupant considered. One bed, one chair at a small table, one shelf for the single set of utensils and the single bowl. One window by the bed, and one door out into the garden. It was comfortable, in a way, and yet Mari couldn’t shake the feeling of being imprisoned here. Even with the beauty of the gardens outside, Mari had never in her life felt so alone. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like for Amid, living here for so many years with, it would seem, no contact with another human being.
As if suddenly aware of her fears, the wind whipped up and gusted. The cottage creaked a bit, pressed hard y the winds. Outside the walls, Mari could hear the howling of a sudden wind storm – she and Rath had been caught in such a windstorm the night before they had found Amid. The cold, the sharpness of the wind, the rough sands raked across her face, in her eyes and her ears and her nose. Even within the safety of the cottage, within the safety of the walls surrounding this oasis, Mari could feel the hatred in the wind. With Amid out in the garden and Rath unconscious on a mat nearby, Mari realized that she was, for the moment, completely alone.
And she was afraid of the wind.
She sat up in bed, pressed her knees to her chest and wrapped the blanket tightly around herself. The house creaked more heavily now, and Mari saw sand spill in from a corner of the ceiling and walls. She put her head down, covering her face and hiding from this monstrous force of nature. The wind grew stronger now, great forceful gusts battering the walls, shaking the house. A tapestry was knocked from its place on the wall, and even Rath stirred in his sleep.
Great cracks now appeared in the walls and the ceiling. Sand began pouring in, covering the floor and whipping about the place. The wind was immense outside this cottage, and Mari began to shake uncontrollably. There was nothing she could do – however Amid had lasted this long, the world was finally taking back what belonged to it, turning everything into dust and ash and sand, scouring the last remaining life form its face. She felt her eyes tear up, blinding her to the destruction that she knew was inevitable, was fast approaching. The wind was a horrible force outside, blowing and gusting and wailing …
Not her! Please not her!
Mari knew she was alone, but she heard the voice nonetheless. It was carried by the wind. It was the wind itself.
I love you I need you I love you I need you.
Too soon! It should have been me!
No! no! NO! Please god no!
Where was he? He promised he wouldn’t leave us!
The voices were horrible screeches, razor sharp and ice cold. The wind sounded like clawing on the outside of the cottage now – any moment now, these voices, the monsters calling through the wind would be upon her.
There is no hope anymore! Everything is gone! Everyone is gone! All that’s left is me!
Mari woke in the bed. The sun was shining warmly though the window – it must be early afternoon, she realized. Her throat was parched. She realized she was curled into a ball, hiding all but her eyes under the blankets. It had been a dream.
Recovering from the nightmare, Mari steeled herself – today was the day she got back to independence. She placed her feet on the ground, feeling the cold floor beneath her feet for the first time in – days? Weeks? Her muscles had not atrophied too badly, she was relieved to find, and she leaned on her elbows to push herself up onto her feet. She leaned against the wall as she headed to the drapes serving as the door to the cottage. Water. She needed to get some water.
Grabbing a small cup from a shelf, she headed out into the garden. The sunlight felt warm and comforting. There was a light breeze inside the garden. Outside, Mari heard strong winds whipping against the walls. For a moment, she heard a voice, a crying whisper … but it was merely the last echoes of a dream, she decided.
She slowly made her way to the water pump. Her thirst was immeasurable now, the sight of the fresh water source starting her salivating. She reached down to the pump handle with one hand, held the cup at the mouth of the spigot with the other. She pumped.
Nothing came out.
She pumped again, more forceful this time. Perhaps it simply needed more effort, this well in the middle of a desert. Perhaps it had to dig deep for its source, and therefore so must she. So she pumped, several times now, with all of her strength.
The only thing coming from the spigot was a hollow gaseous sound, like a deep sigh from the earth.
Mari was so thirsty now. She placed the cup on the ground, grabbed the handle with both hands. She leaned over the pump with the full weight of her body, and grunted with exertion as she pumped with all of her might. Upwards, downward, upward, downward. She groaned and gave it her entire strength of both body and will.
This time, the earth groaned, sputtered, and then exhaled.
Mari, furious at herself and her weakness, threw up her arms and grunted once more, this time in defeat. She hobbled to a nearby tree, shady, with fruit that had fallen about its trunk. She sighed, leaned back against the trunk, reached for the nearest fruit and began to eat. Even in its rotten state, the melon was the most delicious thing she could remember ever having ate.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke to the dark eyes, staring down on her.
“The pump is broken,” she said to Amid.
In response, he simply walked over, gently pumped, and let the cool water fall to the ground.