Bewildering Stories

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chapter 8, The Valley
part I, installment 3

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Installment 2 appears in this issue.

The sun was climbing in the sky, though Dar did not think it would reach a high point above their heads; but there was no wind, it was getting hot and the walkers started peeling off the warm clothes they had been wearing, stuffing them into their backpacks. It made going a little easier on the one hand, but a more nuisance on the other as the sacks hit occasionally on the boulders, or got stuck between rocks, hindering their progress. Dar, in spite of Zik’s protests, took his sack and put it on top of her own; as the last in line it was less of an obstacle to the others.

In later years the remembrance of this climb, before it reached its final calamity, became blurred in her mind, turning into a mixed series of incidents and accidents. In her foggy condition, Dar felt they had been walking on for days on end in narrow paths, over a steep slope hanging above deep canyons. They were holding for dear life at crumbling rocks, climbing up and down through shaded gullies and over bare humps, looking down into chasms, hypnotized into the wish to jump into them and arrive at a final rest. She never knew how long they had travelled over the undulating sloping mountain, working her leg muscles, which hardened into insensitivity. She wished for nothing as she did for a small stretch of flat ground.

That was probably the reason why, at the crucial moment, she failed to support Zik as he stumbled on some loose pebbles. He lunged forward, uselessly flailing his arms to grasp at a boulder that alluded him, his head butting at Nim’s behind, causing the girl to lose her footing. The next moment, waking from her reverie by a fearful shout, Dar saw Nim’s body tumbling down the slope like a snowball, rolling over and over until she vanished from the physician’s sight. Nune and Lilit paused, stunned, as she passed by them, then burst running down after her, barely noticing where they put down their feet. Zik, having slid into a sitting position, put his head between his trembling knees. Dar breathed deeply in and held her breath, forcing herself into a calm she was far from feeling. There was nothing she could do but stay with the injured man, let the others do what they could.

It seemed to her a very long time before Nune came up the slope. “I’ll take you down,” he said to Zik.

The young man looked up at him miserably, but it was Dar who asked the question.

“What about Nim?” There was no expression in her voice. If the girl were gone after all her effort to keep her alive, she would not know what to do with herself.

“She’s alive,” Nunez replied reluctantly, “but I don’t know about the baby.” Dar thought he must have preferred to stay with the girl, but his sense of duty was too strong not to go where he was most needed.

He helped Zik on his single foot, holding him fast by the waist, half-carrying him down the slope. It was an amazingly short climb before they reached the bottom of the hill. As Nune placed the geologist comfortably on a patch of grass, Dar ran to the place where Lilit was looking after Nim; her fall had been broken on the gentle slope of the mountain’s base, not actually reaching the flatter plain. She had landed right by a clear stream of water emerging from the side of the hill, and was lying in a pool of blood mixed with water.

Lilit was using the water from a clearer spot to bathe Nim’s body and face; Dar looked at the scene with a mixed feeling surging inside her. The girl was comatose, her pretty face scratched and bruised under streaks of blood, her body appearing savaged through her torn clothes. The family doctor in Dar was cooly taking in injuries needed to be repaired, but the caring mother-like companion she had been to the girl for such a long time was looking on with a feeling of horror and helplessness.

She had come to regard her as the daughter she had never had, with whom she could find the sort of friendship and comradeship she could never feel with the sons she had lost forever. These mixed feelings were inhibiting her, leaving her unable to move and be of use. It had to be Lilit, who had noticed the situation, grasping it, as Dar could never have. The old woman looked up and said simply, “She’s in early labour.”

This short statement acted on the physician as a prod. She crouched beside Nim and began checking her vital signs, as much as she could without instruments. The girl was breathing shallowly, but her only injuries were the lacerations all over her body, limbs and face. Dar could see no signs of internal injuries, and said softly, as if to herself, “I’ve always told her she was a lucky girl.”

She was, however, plainly in labor, her body going through frequent, harsh convulsions. Dar decided to leave Nim’s superficial wounds alone, paying all her attention to the coming child. As she had no instruments to help it on its way, she found it necessary to arouse Nim from her unconscious state to help with the labor.

She recruited Lilit for that purpose, realizing the woman had a strange but strong influence on people's psyche. The small woman took a sitting position behind the laboring woman’s head, putting it in her lap. A combination of cool water, comforting persuasion and gentle slapping on her face managed at last to arouse Nim and she opened her eyes. They were red, their usually transparent green cloudy, their expression confused.

“You’re having your baby, Nim,” Dar told her gently. “You must help it on its way out as it cannot do it by itself.” She put her hand on the swollen belly, ludicrously protruding from the emaciated body, then she bent and put her ear to it. She sent a worried look toward the other woman, shaking her head slightly. How did she long for the latest instrument, for the ultrasound and the computerized equipment she would never normally do without! Dar could not absolutely trust to her instincts about the physical findings in front of her, but she was almost certain she heard no sound of heartbeat as she had expected.

“I am not sure she can really do it,” she said, instead of expressing her doubts about the baby. “She is so weak, and the child is not moving, in spite of the throes.”

“Nune, please come and support her body,” Lilit turned to the man, who had laid Zik down at a little distance away from the women. He had stood on the side then, letting the healing women do their job without interfering, ready to help if necessary. “I want to go see if I can find something that can help the situation.” She gently passed Nim’s head and half her body to Nune’s hands as he sat down behind her, then rose and was gone.

Dar returned her attention to the girl. Nim was only half-awake, her open eyes glazed and her gaze wavering, wandering. “Can you hear me, Nim? You must breathe deeply and direct your attention to the child. Try to push it out.”

A convulsion held the birthing woman, and she screamed. When it passed, she said through her tears, “it hurts too much. Can you stop it, Dar,” she begged.

“We’ll help you, but you have to go through it. I’m afraid the child has to come out, it can’t stay any longer inside your body.”

They were going through it slowly and heavily. The pain drove Nim in and out of consciousness, but Dar urged her relentlessly to continue to push; she knew the girl would die if the dead child remained in her womb.

After a stretch of time, which looked to Dar like hours but was probably not more than just one, Lilit came back. “These will help with the labor,” she pointed to some herbs she was holding. “Help me make a fire, Dar, to boil the water and dissolve this dry grass in it; it does not need cooking, only warming up in the water so she can drink it.”

It took a few more long moments before the potion was ready. Lilit brought it over to Nim, who was lying spent, her head held by Nune’s strong hands drenched in sweat; her eyes were closed again, and her body quivering. Lilit touched the girl’s forehead. In a short time she calmed down and opened her eyes.

“You’ll have to drink it,” the dark woman said in her compelling voice, getting the cup close to her lips.

“It stinks,” Nim said, pressing her mouth shut.

“I know. Nevertheless. If you don’t open you mouth I’ll have to ask Dar to press your nose.”

A very faint trace of smile hovered over the girl’s thin face. Her lips parted, and Lilit poured a few drops of the potion over them. Nim spat. Lilit put her hand over her mouth and pushed the drops inside. “You’ll have to swallow. You don’t want to die, do you?”

“I’m not sure I don’t,” the girl whispered, but she opened her mouth.

Nune bent over her head and whispered into her ear. “We know you’re a brave little creature, Nim; you are my dear daughter and lover and I want you alive. So, drink that filthy concoction and I’ll help you get over the foul taste with a kiss.”

She looked at him for a moment, her eyes filling with tears. Then she looked at Lilit, and the woman, kneeling beside her, gradually poured the potion into her mouth. The girl’s face twisted, but she swallowed faithfully.

They waited a couple of minutes. Then the girl’s body started its convulsions again.

“Hold her loosely,” Lilit told Dar, “we can let the body do its work now.”

A moment later, a great mass of flesh and blood started spilling out of the girl’s body. “Ohhhh,” she cried, twisting and turning as the mess of tissues emerged. Lilit put her hand lightly over Nim’s womb, which was emptying in an amazing speed. In a few moments, it was all over.

“Let’s move her away from here,” Dar said to Nunez. They laid her down at some distance from the mess; Lilit went to fetch more water to wash Nim, and Dar came over to Zik, who was watching from a sure distance.

“Come and help me, we have to bury Nim’s baby,” she said to him, as if not wanting to leave him outside the action.

They found some sticks, and a spot of soft soil where they could dig and bury the dead fetus with its placenta, a few moments after it had come into the world.

“What’s going to happen now?” Zik asked, looking at Nim worriedly.

“She’ll recover,” Dar said encouragingly.

“Will she be able to have more children?”

“Sure, no reason why not. I don’t think she herself has been damaged, only the baby.”

“Such a waste...“

She hugged the young man. “Don’t worry, there’ll be others; I don’t think she was ready for this one.” Then she stood up and stretched her arms.

“Look at this beautiful place,” she said, “I’m sure we’ll make the best of it once we’re really settled.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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