the drowning

August 19, 2009
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They came to her window in the night and asked her if she wanted to live.

The door was closed then, the room white and still, and outside the cries of bloodletting had been going up for some minutes. She would’ve crawled to the window to see; she wanted to see, she wasn’t afraid yet, but the pale cuffs were still tight around her wrists and she could only arch her back in frustration. The scars at the inside of her elbow were softly shining, like lilies.

Her window sighed open and they were there.

“You can’t save me,” she said. Her blood howled through her veins, making the lilies squirm. They could kill her, she knew. There was no blood on their mouths or hands or shirts or shoes, but they could kill her. There were so many ways of dying that did not let blood. She was one of them.

“We can’t save you,” one man said. “But you can save yourself. You can live.”

“You’re lying,” she choked, but she’d said the same to those who told her her disease was inescapable, that she would die. I’m the liar, she thought, and she was right.

The man stepped down off the windowsill and stood beside her. His shadow twisted itself up on the bed. In the moonlight, as he cut her cuffs with a knife, she saw something glisten either side of his face– earrings maybe, she thought. Or wet bones. His fingers took her brittle wrist and tried to pull her up, but she wasn’t used to movement yet and her head lingered on the pillow, neck twisted. He put his other hand around her waist to bring her up and took her tiny weight against his hip. “Ready to go?” he asked, eyes flashing in the shadow of his face.

“Yes,” she said. With her right hand she ripped the IV from her arm, ignoring the bloom of peony on her paper-thin skin; it’d turn to lilies soon enough.

The others turned and slipped from the windowsill. He helped her up. The ground, grass gray with night, had never seemed so far away. Or so near. “Hold tight,” he said, and stepped into empty air. You can her, but she won’t admit to shrieking on the way down– not to this very day. His feet pounding against the earth sent two drumbeats through her skull, wake up. “Now, child, here is what you must do.”

She listened.

“We’re driving them out of the hospital now, so be alert. When you find someone, kiss him on the mouth and ask him to save you. Want him to save you. And he will.”

“Okay,” she said. He released her suddenly, moved away, the shadow of a cloud broken free from the moon. Standing by herself, she wavered and fell. The warmth of blood on her arm was sickening and a scream in the distance haunted her; the darkness waited ready to consume her. “I will live,” she told herself.

“Ava!” She jerked in surprise at the sudden shout, at her name. One of the doctors had spotted her lying in the grass. “Ava, are you okay?”

“I’m alive,” she said.

“Thank God,” he choked, “thank God, you made it out.” She reached up then and he took her into his arms. “It’ll be okay,” he soothed. “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay, they aren’t taking the children.”

No, she thought, the children are taking you, but she didn’t say it and she reached up and pressed her palms to his face. She could feel his blood snaking in waves beneath his skin. His eyes were bright with tears. “I want to live,” she said, and before he could say you will she pressed her lips to his. He tried to pull away; his body jerked; but she grasped his cheeks tighter and said into his mouth, “Save me.” His face convulsed. She dropped her hold then and scrambled away, scrubbing at her mouth, thinking he’d spit into it. “What was that?” she called to him, disgusted, but he didn’t respond. His shape lay crumpled on the ground; she watched it until it seemed just a part of the grass, then turned and dashed away.

The skin behind her ears itched and burned.

When first light hit, when the others returned to her, she could see clearly what the glistening beside their cheeks was: horns– long white rams’ horns curling about their ears. By that morning, it wasn’t strange to feel the same weight on her own head. “You did well, Ava,” the man said, and now she could see that his pale face was terribly beautiful. His thin lips were curved into a smile.

“I lived.”

It was much later that they explained it to her, how she could do such a thing, how people would bow to her, that she was one of the damned. Tonight she took the faces of so many people and said to them, “Save me!”

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