Obamacare, it's not.

by William Huggins ©2013

I tell you this, you who listen and watch and judge: I lived in splendid isolation until the man fell from the sky.

I was tending my forest when he leapt from his ship. I saw it falling and on fire. His leap was the bravest thing I have ever witnessed—he leapt from one certain death to another. Even with trees to break his fall he never should have survived.

I left him for dead. I went to survey where his ship fell.

The area lay in ruin. The forest burned all through the small canyon in which the craft hit, flames working from the bowl up around the sides. Rain had fallen in the night, so the fire would not last. My trees were old and sturdy and could withstand a good burn. Fire would cleanse the undergrowth and fallen trees. And I could heal what damage was done when the fire burned down. The thought gave me pleasure. I enjoyed my healing work.

Something must be done with the man: men, such a delicate matter—foolish men with their wars and grievances. Dead men are much worse, for the dead bring the living, seeking the lost. I treasured my solitude, my work.

I found him where he lay, crushed, angled against the base of a tree, his left arm limp against the trunk. Though wearying, I can form physical power when I must. I would move him to the fire, let his comrades believe he perished in the crash.

Then, to my surprise, he groaned. His chest rose with difficulty. He tried to move his right arm; the effort cost him greatly. He cried out, his eyes jumped open and closed. He slumped against the tree.

I cringed. Death would have been much easier. Fool man. Now I had forced obligations. Yet beneath my annoyance rose another, more welcome feeling: the familiar pleasure at having a chance to use my skills again on something more challenging than a tree or fern or small creature of the wood.

I concentrated my energy and moved him to my cave.

I made him as comfortable as possible just inside the cave mouth, far enough in to keep the elements at bay. There was little more I could do for him until I rested—moving him had sapped most of my strength. I quickly spread across his body and entered, made some small, essential patches to the internal bleeding. I moved out, exhausted, and spent the last of my energy setting a large kagen leaf to his mouth from a drip in the wall. The sun had set when all these things were done. I retreated into the darkness

In the morning I found him chilled and pale. The kagen had done its work well; he drank from it unconsciously. He had passed fluids in the night and no doubt smelled truly awful; as I have no sense of smell I could not be offended. Blood leaked from his many wounds, staining the ground around him.

I set rocks in a circle near him, then moved outside to gather fallen branches. I warmed the wood until it broke into flame. His shivering stilled.

A large gash in his neck was the most dangerous of his injuries. The seal I applied the night before had reopened. I spent the day closing it again, feeling the textures of his muscle and skin, the strange logic of the human body. The wound still leaked slowly when I finished. My work was done; his body could attend to that healing.

I moved inside again, focusing on the tears within. Deep inside his chest and belly he was badly torn, flooding himself with his own blood. I worked half a month sealing him, persisting beyond exhaustion until every small seam was closed. Keeping him calm and still took a great deal of exertion. Any movement would undo my work and leave me with twice the labor.

While I worked I felt his mind, caught images from his life—the alienness of his emotions surprised me: fear, pride, a sense of duty. I had known only hunger and, for a time, cruelty. Now, with correction, I embraced healing service, the path I should have been on all along. That there were so many more sensations and levels of feelings surprised and captivated me. I got brief bursts that might have been memory—not images but feelings, perhaps; intimations of a self, the kind of man he might be.

I possessed little knowledge of men. My experience was only of the destruction they wrought. And here was one who piloted a machine whose only purpose was the destruction of other men, other machines. I should hate him, I thought. I did not know whether he worked for good or evil purpose, though he did not feel evil to me, and in the end it did not matter. I had obligations.

I worked.

And rested.

When he was fully sealed inside I put a calmness into his mind that I hoped would hold several days. I placed the kagen to his lips and entered the darkness again, exhausted.

I do not know how many days it was before I woke revitalized.

The man was young. His skin was pale but taut, hair light, his body lean and muscular. My fading had gone on for days, I assumed, because he had healed well, a gift given only to the young, regardless of race or species. A healer such as myself can do only so much, but a vigorous young body can call on resources beyond my ken. The small cuts and abrasions on his face and hands had mostly healed. He twitched from time to time, grimacing in pain from some of the broken bones I still had not set. When he rested again I reset the kagen to his lips and watched with pleasure as he drank.

I entered again and focused on his arms, resetting the breaks, knitting the fractures as tenderly as possible. He rested quietly as I worked, mind and body used to my presence now, and I used to him. The more I worked the less I felt he could be evil. I knew that feel and it was not within him.

I worked the arms quickly. He had two breaks in the left, three on the right. I made fast work of minor bruises and a pair of deep abrasions. The work cost me hardly half a day.

Other things needed tending, beyond the man. I left the lower part of his body for another day. I put a calming on his mind and left the cave.

Twilight softened the edges of my forest, casting long shadows across the glades and hillside. The valley lay wide and open, deep and green and ripe in the late springtime. I could see no sign of smoke from his crash. I thought of the small valley and moved there in an instant.

The burn had come and made its mark. The wreckage was gone, however. I sensed the imprint of men, seeking their fallen comrade. They cleaned the sight, haphazardly. Much small debris remained, charred and foreign-looking in my verdant world. They had taken only what they could use, maybe: the larger sheets of metal, weapons that still functioned, food, energy sources. Who knew what men might find useful?

I moved among my trees as the light fell, touching their spirits, feeling their pain and joy. I cured where I could: softened the burn scars along many; sheared branches that had burned and withered; pulled steel from a pair of saplings. In one case I ended the life of a massive elder. He had been burned halfway up his base and was in great pain. He gave me the tale of his days; long, rich days, mostly green. I no longer relish taking life, but since the imposition of my penance I never denied any who have asked, so long as their reasons were just. I put a balm on his soul and let him depart.

On the way back to the cave I stopped just outside the fireburn. Behind a kagen tree grew a short, stubby bush I know as buchako. I know it for its great healing properties. I took several of its small leaves in passing.

It gave gladly.

The next morning I turned to the man’s legs. There were multiple breaks there. If nothing was done he would never walk again. I worked his feet first. The bones were small and easily malleable. It took little time or strength to set them on the path to full healing. I paused a moment, then turned to move into the legs.

A force there repelled me.

I took a moment to recover. Nothing living had denied me access since time out of mind. I attempted to move again and was pushed back again. I gathered all my power into a knot, thrust myself hard against the barrier, and broke through. It was clear why the body had tried to keep me out.

When he broke through the trees he fell feet first. The legs took the worst of the damage—the bones shattered like rockfall from a mountain. Sparse recovery had occurred, badly. I would have to rebreak many spots and work fresh. The pain would be incredible. And it would cost me—cost me much, keeping him calm while I hurt and healed him simultaneously.

The work required weeks. I gathered my strength and set to my task.

When I reemerged from my dark rest the cave seemed a different place. The season had turned. The man lay still, his breathing deep and restful. His face had a healthy glow and no sign of the scratches. He was flush with vitality. His neck would always bear the scar of the deep wound there, however.

I had done my work well, earned my rest.

The kagen remained in place. I moved it. He was ready for deeper healing now. Before my last rest I set buchako leaves in water in a small natural bowl back in the cave’s darker reaches. A seep fed the depression in small drops; the leaves fermented and grew rich and dark over time, becoming powerful medicine. I allowed him the buchako in small sips from a hollow stone. He coughed at the first, spitting some up. Slowly, he came to accept the sharp taste and swallowed small mouthfuls. Too much and his stomach would revolt, so I let him have only a little. In the afternoon the sun hit at an angle to dimly light the entrance. His eyes opened, once, but they were unseeing. He faded again into his sleep. I replaced the kagen and withdrew.

I could do little now but wait for him to heal and wake. I fed him from the bowl, gave bits of healing, merely aiding his body in what it knew well to do. I left him for whole days at times, returning to my forest and the life I knew before he fell: tending wild things large and small, streams and seedlings. A month passed and I gathered more buchako and set it to ferment. A pair of mated birds nested near the cave and would often hop into the entrance, cock curious heads at the sleeping man. They were never brave enough to enter, and once flew off in loud consternation when he moved in his sleep.

When I fed him from the new batch of buchako his eyes opened and stayed open. He rose to sit and lifted an arm to touch one of his legs. It was dark in the cavern and he did not notice the floating stone. I felt him sense his hand on his leg and his relief.

He looked around and saw the small fire in its rocky ring, burned down to coals and casting little light. He rubbed his hands together and put them towards it. He looked toward his feet and, by the slight movement of air he could sense the entrance of the cave without seeing it. He felt the wall to his left, the moisture of the seep, and touched the kagen leaf with a look of wonder. He lifted it, put it to the wall, let it fill with water and drank. When he finished he laughed.

He looked around once more before he lay down, curling on his side. His face showed mild discomfort. I knew he still had to feel some pain, that the healing was not yet done, but he had awakened and moved: a good sign. He fell quickly to sleep.

I added brush to the fire. Outside, night had fallen. Wind stirred the world outside the cave, gusting dust and scattered leaves into the cave. He woke and looked around.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

I did not answer.

“There must be someone here,” he said. He tried to rise; his legs would not hold him. He shifted to his side, used the kagen again; drank. He tried to stand again--did somewhat better--yet could still not rise. He leaned forward and began to massage his legs.

The effort took its toll. Soon he was on his back again, asleep. While he slept I fed him from the buchako, keeping a calming on his mind so he would not wake.

The following day he stayed awake all through the light hours, trying to rise and failing. He pounded his legs with his fists. He drank freely from the kagen. He was aggrieved to be unable to cleanse himself, for being so soiled. He shouted curses at the stormy world he could see through the cave’s mouth but could not reach. He threw rocks from the firepit through the opening.

That night when I fed him he woke, in spite of my efforts to force a calming on him. He was indeed growing stronger. He pulled away quickly and sat up, testing his mouth with his tongue.

“Who is there?” His tongue worked inside his cheeks. “Whatever you’re feeding me I can’t say I like the taste.” He pulled a large stick from the fire and thrust it into the darkness of the cave to light the shadows there. I sensed his anxiety. With effort, he calmed himself. “You’re clearly helping me, so I think I have little to fear from you. Why not reveal yourself?” He waved the firebrand, spilling shadows like dark water over the cave walls. “Show yourself to me! Please!”

Even now I regret there was no way for me to speak to him in a way he might understand. I could only show him my little kindnesses.

A day came when he finally pulled himself upright. His legs held. He stood unsteadily but upright, his left arm balanced against the roughness of the wall. He walked to the opening and stepped outside. He leaned against the cavemouth and took a long breath of air. I heard him say, “Lovely.”

The mountain was stained white from storms. He stripped off his clothing and sat in the snow. He cried out. Quickly he grabbed large chunks of snow and scrubbed himself, shouting as he did. When he was done he rubbed his clothing inside and out over the snow, then hobbled to the fire and spread it to dry. He grimaced but pulled himself into a seated position before the fire, rubbing himself briskly and shivering.

From then he stayed awake longer. I regret I had no human entertainments for him. He found small things to do, moving each day with more ease, more confidence. He ventured outside, though never far, mainly just to clean himself. He explored the cave, walked into its deep recesses until he could go no further. He found the buchako seep and tasted it, made a sour face. He began to eat from it as needed, without my help. I realized I had not been feeding him enough. Men had large appetites, (which may explain their wars).

As the weather warmed he began to walk in the forest, never straying far from the cave. He sat beneath trees, sometimes climbed in their lower, larger branches. He threw rocks. He chased creatures of the air and land, sometimes threw rocks at them, never with any luck. Watching him gave me much pleasure.

He walked with a limp. On one pass through my forest I came across a stick that I thought would benefit his walking. I moved it to the cavemouth. The next morning he found and took it up, smiling. He shook his head. He gripped it tightly, slammed it to the ground as if to assure himself it was real. Then he moved into the forest.

I felt something odd about him that morning, a sense of determination. He had not spoken lately, not even to himself—not since his cries as he bathed in the snow. I followed him for a long time. He walked farther than he ever had, moving through the undergrowth with a steady stride. After a long time walking he came to a spot bright with sun. He sat on a large root to rest.

He soon rose and began to retrace his steps. The passage back was not so easy as that going out. His breathing came heavy. When he returned he fell into his bed, drank several draughts from the kagen, and lay back.

His will impressed me. His strength would come back; the muscles and bones I could reknit and help to heal, but the will was entirely his. I knew he was strong enough to leave soon, and while it gave me pleasure to know that the work I had done was good, the thought of his leaving troubled me.

The sensation was entirely new.

A year—to his reckoning—after he fell, he walked in the direction of his crash. He had little need of the stick now but still used it. I sensed his mind and prodded him subtly, nudging him when he veered off course. There was little to see once he arrived, just some slim evidence of the fire. He poked among the debris, put a name to a piece of steel or two. He shook his head several times, looked to the sky. He stayed a long while, walking back to the cave only when night began to fall.

After a week of shadowing his walks and resting, I knew he was ready to return home. As he slept, I put a calming on his consciousness for the first time in months, and slipped into his dream. I showed him where he had taken his first long walk. I continued from there, down into a deep green valley and up the next ridge. In the dell below that was a village of his kind. From there he could decide where his future should take him.

He woke with a firm sense of purpose. He took the kagen leaf, then filled each pocket with as much buchako as it would hold. Moisture leaked in rings from his shirt and pants. He held up his stick, gripped it with both hands. He stepped from the cavemouth, turned. He made a gesture with both hands, then bowed. I could sense a mixture of unusual emotions in him: relief, gratitude, curiosity.

He spoke, “Thank you.

I watched him leave. Just before he entered the treeline he turned and raised the stick toward the cave. Then the forest swallowed him and he was gone. I resisted the urge to follow, retreating instead into the deep darkness—far back where he could never go.

I have not walked my forest for many days. When I emerge from the darkness I cannot bear to leave the cave. So I sit in the mouth and listen to the seeps drip within. The wind blows outside. I watch the sun move across the sky and cannot feel its warmth, nor the chill of the evening that follows.

I never could.

But now that knowledge feels heavier to me, heavier even than the weight of moving the man from the crash to the cave, which cost me so much.

The man.

I tell you this: a man fell from the sky. He stayed for a time and then he walked away. I would never wish pain on anyone—not again, ever, for it is my penance to remain here, to atone for past misdeeds. And I will cure all who are hurt, with great pleasure, and ask nothing for myself, just as I promised you who watch and judge me. But here, in these last days, I find myself wishing he might fall again. If he did, I would heal him. I would bind his bones and strengthen his muscles. I would make buchako for him, wet his lips with the kagen, build a fire to keep him warm.

For then it would not be so hard to face the awful empty solitude of what was once my home.

x x x

A strange tale for a winter’s evening; our February fiction finds a weird weaving of health and healing and and renewal. If you follow this story, let Mr. Huggins know on our BBS. - GM

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