The Changed -- Chapter Seventeen -- by Dee Caples
Danna wrapped a cloth around the flesh wound given her by Dancy. Other than that and being dazed by the fall, she was uninjured. There was no more gunfire and a roar of victory sounded, followed by another then another. She shook her dazed head then kicked up to her feet and ran toward one of the collapsed buildings, knowing beneath this one lay parents and children.
She couldn’t move the heavy pieces of wood by herself so she began to dig, calling out. A weak voice answered and her digging became more frantic. More help came and they all sent sand through the air, making her cough. Danna didn’t stop until someone grabbed her legs and pulled her away. They began clearing the shattered roof and walls, moving carefully to uncover the buried ones. “Go get some water,” Pericles barked at her.
Kneeling, she waited as the rubble was lifted and the rescuers began to remove bodies, alive and dead. She crawled forward when she saw the dog-woman, one arm cradling her broken guitar, the other a bloody mess of her baby. There was nothing that could be done for either of them. Instead, Danna gave water to the living, making splints and bandages for their wounds.
When it grew dark they built a fire and continued to care for the ones who were hurt, laying the dead out with respect and cries of mourning. She felt dull and heavy of limb as she went down the line, wiping tears away. Too many were little ones. Menius and Kellus were dead, as were Aces and his son. She saw Haja prostrate on the ground, in spite of her splinted lower leg. Danna cried out and fell beside Te, her head a wreck of blood and bone. Haja seized her and they wept together.
Menius’s assistant did the best she could. Danna quietly told her the ones shot in the gut would die. “It’ll be slow and painful. Lead poisoning is a bad way to die.” The dog-woman nodded and went about her deadly mission of putting them out of their misery. Danna hadn’t thrown her belly up after killing anyone but she did so now as the mortality of the badly wounded poured out, wet and red.
None of the human wounded were treated. Those who had lost family under the tank took their revenge and it wasn’t pretty. Danna looked down at Dancy, glad she’d been the one to dispatch him, and forced herself to not spit in his dead face. “You got what you deserved, you crazy bastard.”
Inside one of the vehicles they found a huge dog. When they let her out the animal nudged the first hand it came across. Since they weren’t inclined to kill a cousin, The Changed were content to let her live but speculated it would take a lot to feed such a large dog. The children were especially favored by the gentle monster and they quickly fell in love with her and shared their toys.
They buried the dead, some deeper than others. No one was quite sure why they extended this gesture of respect to the humans, but they did. Maybe it was because The Changed had blood on their hands, too. They left no marker to show who was buried there; no one would recognize any of the names. This battle would never be written in history. Only in memory would the dead be honored and that would have to be enough.
Manda, her face scrunched with grief, came to Danna and put a hand on her shoulder. “Will you sing one of your songs for them?”
She was still in shock. The thrill of having won the battle had been short-lived in the wake of all that was lost. All but two of the First Generation and more than half the second were dead. Didn’t she owe more than a song?
“All right,” she whispered. Mama had told her a story once, of a huge boat that sank in the cold, deep ocean. While the ship had been going down men who played to entertain people at dinner had gathered on deck and played a hymn. She sang this over the grave. As she did, she wondered if the people on the boat had gone to heaven. If The Changed were in heaven. She couldn’t bear the thought of them not being in a happier place. Their lives had been so hard and if they were dead, with nothing better to go to after, what had it all been for?
Danna fell to her knees and began tearing at her hair, slapping her face and chest. Pericles grabbed her hands and stopped her. “It’s my fault!” she screamed, trying to jerk her hands from his manacling grip. “I should be dead, not them!”
He held her in his arms and slowly she stopped fighting him and went limp against his chest, crying so hard her whole body shook. “No. It’s not your fault. Things happen and we don’t know why,” he said, his mouth soft against her ear. Drawing her into his lap, he gestured to the half circle of mourners gathered and they drew nearer. Their eyes were stricken and those who could were crying, too.
Manda crept close and put a hand on Danna’s leg, patting it awkwardly. “We don’t blame you, Danna. Look at all of those who are still alive. If not for you, how many more would be dead?” She put her arms around Pericles, Danna enfolded between them. She began to rock and croon in a soothing way. “It’s all right, child. We forgive you. Now, forgive yourself.”
Slowly, one by one, the rest of them came to lay a hand on her. If they couldn’t reach, they put a hand on one another, murmuring words of assurance and thanks. They took her in that day. She became one of their own.
The funeral and mourning over, they packed their things and readied the vehicles, making the wounded as comfortable as possible inside. Those who could walk limped along behind, guarded by Danna and Pericles. When they reached the end of the desert where forests were reclaiming the cities of men, they abandoned the transports. They put their belongings on their backs and walked into the trees. In less than a minute no one could have told they’d been there.
Some good things were in the cities they went through. Wintering in one of them, they examined each place and gathered new blankets, repaired old ones and replenished their supplies. A dog-woman gave birth to a stillborn child that had multiple defects, including a deformed mouth. They buried the baby and comforted the mother.
Pericles went into the night, his mind suffering over the future of his people. Danna found him and put her arms around him as he had her when she’d been low. Accepting her comforting, he was torn between misery and the things her nearness stirred up. Trying to tamp them down didn’t help and he ended up tearing himself away and going further into the dark where she couldn’t find him. Jerking his pants open, he relieved himself, grunting and falling to his knees when his useless seed spurted onto the ground.
What was he to do with the way he felt about her now? Nothing, he told himself. What can you do? She’d run from you if you tried to mate with her. The others might find solace in trying to make more of their kind but he had no one. Pericles put his head on his knees and ground his teeth with frustration. Waiting until he knew everyone would be asleep, he found a place to rest as far from her as he could.
Danna pretended to be asleep, her eyes mere slits as she watched him move about the camp. He most often slept near her but tonight he was far away. Realizing why made her face go hot and her eyes tear up. Women liked to be held but she knew it was a bad idea unless they were willing to also allow sex. Men were big on holding but only if it ended in another kind of activity. Emotional soothing had little to do with it.
Had he ever had sex? Deep down she knew the answer and her tender heart felt a pity she’d never let him see but also something else. She had quite a bit of experience even if it was mostly bad. With three little words she could change his world. Come with me. She could take him into the dark and give him one sweet hour that might make up for all the trouble she’d been.
Imagining herself with Pericles in that way, she thought of his hairy skin against hers as he pumped in and out. Would he be kind or rough? Might she find a different experience with this half-man than she’d had with human males? He was hurting and she wanted to make it stop. Sex was a great way to make one forget their troubles, if only for a little while. Danna’s tears fell harder and she turned her face into her blanket to wipe them away.
She couldn’t do it. Never, ever had she initiated the act and, so, doubt made up her mind for her and she sought her sleep. After a long while it came.
In the morning Pericles saw from her puffy eyes and reddened cheeks that Danna had spent the night in much the same way he had. This aggravated him to no end. Because he didn’t have the courage to approach her, he suggested they scout out a new home location. No one wanted to remain in the city, anyway. Humans came to them too, hoping to find sustenance.
Mile after mile they went through the wastelands and woods until finding a place that would work. It had plenty of trees and a clean river of water. There was no sign of human habitation or even their scent but there was evidence of game. They had already agreed who the new elders should be and they voted to make this place theirs. He missed Kellus and Aces with an ache that in time would dull but right now throbbed with insistence.
They hewed small limbs and made vine ropes to build shelters. Scouting game, they hid and speared some good dinner, not wanting Danna to use the guns. Loud noises could travel a great distance and they couldn’t be sure of not being heard. That night everyone ate their fill and went to bed with happy bellies.
Pericles stared into the fire and when Danna came to sit near him he stayed put. It brought to mind what he might have to eventually do. Could he let her stay? She might be content for now but would she always be? Human was human and she’d want the company of her own kind sooner or later.
When she leaned against his side, he didn’t move away this time. A great well of longing opened up and swallowed him. He let it. For right now he didn’t have to think about what to do with her. He could just let it be. This was a safe place. The next day would come on its own. No one, himself most of all, knew what tomorrow would bring.