Now I remembered: Catalunia.
I re-lit the fire, then checked the two wasted forms lying on their pallets. They were still alive, although I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. The marginally healthier man and woman quit whispering and watched as I put some coffee on to boil. After a moment, the woman shuffled over and bent over the coffee pot, sniffing it as if it were a flower or fancy perfume. Her blotchy skull’s face broke into a smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had coffee.”
“You’ll have some today,” I told her. “And then we’ll see about getting all of you out of here. My wagon is small, but—”
The man wandered over. “Thank you, but we’ve been talking. . .”
The man and woman exchanged an odd look.
“If you have a wagon of your own, that’s even better,” I said. “Do you have animals that are still alive?”
He shook his head. “No more animals, no more friends or family. Just us.”
“I was thinking I could take you to Macrina. It’s not far, it’s not much out of my way, and maybe their doctor can do something for you.”
“It’s a curse,” the woman said. “A doctor can’t help with a curse.”
“It’s bad water,” I explained. “But if you really think it’s a curse, Macrina has a priest.”
“There’s nothing that can help,” she said. “We’ve been watching our friends and animals die this way for more than a year.”
While I silently agreed they had no chance of recovery, it didn’t seem right to say so and kill any last shred of hope they might have. “How about you let a doctor decide that? At least in a proper town, you wouldn’t have to die alone.”
“We don’t mind dying here,” the man said. “We talked this morning and were wondering if you would help us.”
I had been pouring coffee, but now I stopped and set the coffee pot back on the stove. “Help you what?”
“Help us die. My wife saw your guns.”
“Are you saying that I should. . .” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“It would be a blessing,” the woman said. “It would spare us a lot of suffering.”
I shook my head. No way was I going to kill these people.
“But you would’ve killed me on the road last night.”
“That was different. I would’ve killed you in self-defense, but now that I know you’re not a threat. . .”
“What’s wrong with killing someone who wants you to do it?”
Everything was wrong with that. Or was it? I had killed plenty of people who didn’t want to die, so what made this seem immoral? It was very confusing. But whether it was right or wrong, I couldn’t do it, and I told them so.
“But if your horse were ill with no hope of recovery, wouldn’t you do her the favor of ending her misery?” the man asked.
“What you say makes sense, but I just can’t.”
They said no more and I gave them some coffee. We sipped in silence, but the issue hung in the air, as oppressive as the entire weighty atmosphere of Catalunia. These people were on the brink of death. They were weak, starving, and in pain. I couldn’t remain behind to nurse them because I didn’t have enough clean water. They refused to come with me, and to leave them behind was to consign them to even further suffering as they lost the ability to do even the smallest tasks for themselves. They would die hungry, thirsty and cold, lying in their own filth.
Was there something wrong with me that I couldn’t do them the one favor that would actually do them some good?
When I finished my coffee, I went to the wagon and rummaged among my things. I returned carrying a fully loaded pistol. I set it on a table, unable to look these people in the eye. Then I went into the garage, put the bridle on Flecha, and led her down the driveway. I had no sooner gotten onto her back when I heard the first shot. Flecha’s ears pricked up and her nostrils flared. I leaned forward and patted her neck. “It’s okay, Flechita.”
I don’t know who I thought I was reassuring.
I heard the second shot before we had gotten to the end of the street. Sound carries far when there’s nothing else to make a sound for miles in any direction.
I kicked Flecha hard, urging her into a trot even though her muscles were cold and she probably would’ve appreciated a proper warmup. Too bad. I didn’t want to hear those last two shots.
We wandered the streets for about an hour. It was still a gloomy place, even in the morning light, but at least I wasn't frightened into needless panic. I sought out the Catalunia cemetery, but it looked full. When I returned to the house I had a new dilemma to puzzle over. Without going inside, since I knew what I would find there, I took the shovel from my wagon and went into the back yard. The ground was hard, and after half an hour of steady effort I had only a short, shallow scraping to show for my efforts. No way would I be able to dig a big enough hole for four people. I put the shovel away, gathered up my courage, and went into the house.
The death scene was orderly, as if it had been plotted with a compass. The two who had been sickest lay as they had that morning, side by side. The woman I had met on the road last night lay on a pallet in front of the stove, her face covered and only a patch of seeping blood to indicate she wasn’t merely asleep. The man lay beside her and had covered his face too, before firing the fatal shot through the blanket. Only his hand and arm remained bare, so after I picked up my gun I finished covering him up.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I couldn’t bury them. I didn’t know their names, so I couldn't pin tags to their blankets in case someone else passed this way. Although I tried to think of some appropriate words to speak over them, my mind came up blank. All those years of Auntie reading to me from Shakespeare and the Bible, and now when I could have used some of those fancy words, I couldn’t remember a single one of them.
Well, there was no one to hear it anyway. Words spoken over the dead are for the living, because they sure do no good for the deceased. I gathered my belongings and took them to the cart.
Just as I was leaving, I remembered something Auntie once had me do after we buried some dead people we found in the woods. I took a knife, went to the front door and scratched the words, “Requiescat in Pace.”
I think I spelled it right. If I didn’t, it was probably close enough.
Then I left Catalunia. I had a feeling I wouldn’t get very far before I would have to stop and make camp, but no way was I spending another night in town. I would camp in the snow in the woods, if I had to. Anything was better than another night in that poisoned place.
So that’s where I am tonight— a shelter in the woods. There’s a stream nearby, and I think it’s okay, but after what I saw in Catalunia, I’m taking no chances and drinking melted snow instead. It takes a long time to melt enough to make just one cup of tea, but I can be patient.
It feels good to be in the mountains again, in the forest, where I can hear and smell life all around me. You hardly realize how alive the world is until you’ve been in a place that is dead.
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