TUESDAY: Bozeman Before the Fire, Part 2

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

This is the second and last part of a two-part story. Read Part 1 here. Copyright is held by the author.

*
At this point, I must admit, I considered murdering the girl outright, forgoing the charade of her illness. I could have burned her right where she sat, reducing the pale, wretchedly thin girl to a pile of ash and dust. I could also have ripped her heart out of her chest and laid it on her picnic blanket, but these actions might have brought a little undue attention toward me. Besides, I wasn’t a teenage girl governed by impulses. I lived by reason, and I had my own bosses to contend with and they preferred my work looked liked natural causes. So, I cradled my temper. Summoning my best fatherly tone, I said, “Emma, it’s a lovely day. Perhaps you should spend time with the other children and join in the fun. A little exercise always works wonders.”

“Whacking little birdies is not what I consider fun. Besides, I must keep my strength, and you haven’t answered my question. Do you remember Dresden?”

“What has Dresden got to do with anything? Is this part of your studies?”

“Just answer, please,” she said. “We don’t have all day. Some of us aren’t in the best of health.”

“Yes, yes, I remember Dresden, but I don’t like your tone. It suggests or implies that I or my associates share a duplicity in the city’s tragic course of events.”

With a squinty-eyed scowl and a shrug of disappointment, she said, “Share a duplicity? Is that the course you want our discussion to take? Obfuscation? Deceit? If so, this discussion has arrived dead on the proverbial doorstep.” She stopped and brought her hand to her face and picked at a flake of dead skin on her cheek and slowly, deliberately pulled at it as if she were ripping off a bandage. She then slipped out her tongue and ate it. When I didn’t respond she frowned.

“Yes, obfuscation,” she said. “I believe that is the correct word. Obfuscation. You must excuse me. My vocabulary is not what it should be. I’ve missed the last three months of the school year, and I’m not always at my best with my current tutor. You know, with the cancer rotting away my brain and all.”

“Your vocabulary is sufficient, Emma. Please get to your point.”

“What’s the hurry? You have all the time in the world. I’m the one who is under your sword.”

“An inappropriate metaphor, Emma. Rude and untrue.”

Another shrug. “Very well. If you insist, I will accommodate your charade.” She thought for a moment, and glanced back at the kids playing. “How are things back home? What’s it like hanging out with nothing but feeble old farts, spending your short years bitching and moaning about the new breed of wizards, the lack of standards, plans gone awry, worlds gone to shit, and women you should have fucked, or worse, shouldn’t have?”

I tried not to gasp. Emma’s vulgarity surprised me — so unlike a White Witch of Empathy, or any White Witch.

“Oh, don’t look so surprised. You should know there is nothing I could say or do that would surprise you.” The White Witch laughed, a hideous cackle that drew the attention of the children playing. They stopped and stared briefly at Emma, probably wondering if it was her time. Emma paid them no attention. “Come, sit, old man,” she said. “You look tired. Shall we continue our discussion?”

I never liked taking orders, especially from those beneath me, but I had come to gather information, to understand the beast slouching within this unique young witch, and if necessary to speak with the monstrosity that murdered my sister’s granddaughter. I must admit, it would have been so much easier to have continued my observations and actions from afar, without engagement, and to treat her as just another variable to determine and exercise. I also must admit, however, that the girl did have a certain charisma. I sat.

“Excellent,” Emma said as she folded her hands across her lap. “Now, about Dresden. Tell me your thoughts. What do you think happened?”

“Why do you care what I think? It’s obvious you don’t give a hoot about my opinion. You’re simply itching to give me yours.”

She laughed again. “Oh, Nathan. That is your name, right? Nathan Dreary, former printer from Milwaukee. After you retired, you moved to Bozeman, but you didn’t choose to live with your sister. Instead you chose to live among the grizzly bears and bobcats of the Gallatin National Forest in a quaint three-room cabin in the mountains. Just you, alone, until heart failure forced you to live permanently in the dreaded and oh-so-off-limits corridors of probability, home of the not-so-all-knowing and the not-so-all- powerful, soon-to-be-obsolete boys club — lackeys to creatures too frightened to show themselves, and so scared that they sent their errand boy to finally confront me. Am I right, Mr. Dreary?”

“Yes, Emma. Your research is both impeccable and delusional,” I said. “But, I’ve come on my own accord. This is a personal call, and I suggest you don’t make the mistake of over-estimating your importance and abilities.”

“I will do my best,” she said with a dismissive wave. “But, enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Tell me, Nathan. Why the life alone? No wife? And from what I gathered, not even one girlfriend during all your 80 odd years. Why? Were you impotent?”

“Don’t push me, Witch. Even my patience has limits. Get on with your lecture.”
“You’re right. I must keep moving. If you linger too long, my nurse will get suspicious. My adoptive parents will worry. They will think you’ve come here to sodomize me.”

I chose not to respond to the girl’s taunt because as I stared into the withered young girl’s eyes, I saw fear. Despite her bravado, her gifts, and her psychotic determination, she had to suspect that she could not win her battle with her disease, or with me, or with the powers that had developed an interest in this girl. I waited for the girl to continue, which she quickly accommodated.

“Very well, Nathan, let me give you a history lesson, one I suspect you may already know, but humour me as I will humour you, okay? Good.” The White Witch leaned forward as if she were telling me a secret. Her dull grey eyes had finally shown a modicum of light. “It was in the winter of 1945, near the end of the war, a war whose ending was very much a fait accompli, a probability wave that could not be quartered. The Allies were going to win. The Russians were going to invade, plunder, pillage, and rape the skeletal remains of the German empire, and the British and the Americans were going to launch a massive air assault on the German city of Dresden, their combined forces dropping more than 2,600 tons of highly explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, which would create a massive firestorm killing more than 35,000 people. Some say it was more like 100,000, but people like to exaggerate, like 35,000 broiled and asphyxiated Germans weren’t enough to constitute a tragedy. People like big numbers. You like numbers, too. Hell, I like numbers. Without them, we are just mentally troubled primates speaking in tongues.” She paused and inhaled a long, hard-earned breath. “Are you still with me?”

“Yes, believe it or not, I’m keeping up.”

“Good. I’m not always sure my points are clear. I tend to ramble. You know —”

“Yes, the cancer. It’s bad. Please, get on with this.”

The White Witch chuckled. “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who cares whether a handful of Germans died? Didn’t the civilian population deserve their fate? By their silence and inaction, they supported Hitler and his cruel minions and thus were responsible for the deaths of more than 80 million souls including 6 million Jews. My question for you, Nathan, is —”

I raised my hands. “Emma, do not imply that I or any of my colleagues would have participated in or were behind the start of this war, much less the Holocaust.”

Emma rolled her eyes and held out her arms as if to embrace the world. With a vile smile, she said, “There’s no need to lie to me, Nathan. There’s no need to argue. I know you don’t pull the strings behind this great and secret show; it’s much worse. You are the string, the delusional string. You still believe you have control over me and all the other little marionettes you frivolously command.”

The poor girl was right. I should have known better and not argued. Arguing with crazy is a futile endeavour.

“Now you’re pouting? Lord, Nathan, you’re a sensitive fellow. Please, stay focused. My question is simple: Why did the Allies attack Dresden? It held little military significance or strategic value. No, don’t answer. Let me continue. I’m enjoying our little conversation.”

“Right now it’s more rant than conversation.”

“True, true,” she agreed, adding another smarmy shrug, this one more self-important than the previous ones. Teenagers. “Nathan, I do appreciate your patience. No one pays any real attention to me; no one indulges me like you. The nurses stick me with their needles and scamper away. My three doctors huddle over me amazed that I’m still alive. Sometimes I hear them whispering in the hall like seventh grade boys comparing erections. It is during these times I wish I knew my birth mother. Mom means well, but since my illness she has become distant. In her heart, she has already buried me.”

No, you don’t, I thought. Her birth mother was one step above a common prostitute, sleeping with an indiscriminate number of men for a bed and a meal. “Emma, again,” I said softly, “I am begging you. Please, get to the point.”

Emma opened her mouth to speak, but then halted. She lowered her head and looked as if all her energy had been spent — as if a breeze might blow her away like dandelion dust. I reached out to her. “Emma?”

Emma pushed my hand away. “I’m okay. I don’t want your sympathy. I detest the irony.”

I was not without compassion. White Witches are not our enemies; they serve the world as designed and then they expire, as they have for thousands upon thousands of years. Yes, they suffer. Rarely are they loved. They are terrifically ugly, and Emma was not an exception, probably even more so than most. Even before her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Emma’s skin was pockmarked with long-term acne and dark red scars. Her obscenely exaggerated features looked as if she were carved out of sharp stone. “Emma, Dresden?”

“I’m sorry,” Emma said wearily. She took a long breath, exhaled, and continued. “The Allies’ position, that they could weaken the resolve of the enemy by inflicting mass civilian casualties, was nothing more than a self-serving façade, another whopper of a lie. They tried to convince the world that bombing the German people down to their last collective breaths would motivate the German command to capitulate. Their theory was unsubstantiated by history and by the present. The German command did not give a rat fuck about their people. The German leaders loved their people as a carpenter loved his tools — useful objects that were easily discarded when obsolete or worn. I’m sure you see the irony.”

“Yes, yes,” I said. “I’m not as dense as you think.”

Emma looked back at the children. They had ceased their game and began walking back up the hill. She watched until they all made it back to the main tent. Facing me, she said, “Nathan, as you have probably surmised, I’ve been to your home in the Spaces-In-Between.

“Yes, I’ve been a bad girl. Many times. I’ve watched you as you slept. I’ve watched you scheme with your cronies, huddling together in your putrid little hovels. Mercy, what forces bind you to such shameful and squalid conditions?”

I didn’t reply.

“Nathan, I hope you will forgive my intrusions. I know it’s unsettling, but I want you to remember that I know your heart. I’ve eavesdropped on your conversations. I’ve listened to you and your sad ilk talk about your grandchildren and how much they mean to you, how much you love them, and how much you resent not being able to see them once you have permanently moved into the Spaces.” She smiled coyly. “I guess not all wizards live lives of frustration.”

I stood. I had grown tired of her insults, each all-too-achingly true.

She reached out her hand and grabbed mine. “I’ve even watched your dreams. Yes, your dreams. I must admit it. I was surprised. I didn’t think you were still capable of dreaming. I suspect it is your only respite from all that you have endured. Despite all your powers, you’re a sad lot. I never thought that the gods could be so incredibly lonely.”

I searched for words. I searched for clarity. Confusion reigned within. I was appalled at her indiscretions, her intrusions. All I could stammer out was a pathetic, “It’s not so bad.”

The White Witch ferociously grinned. “But it is, and you’re afraid. Since the day Marie passed and you realized my role in her death you have been terrified. Yes, I let the girl die, and it broke my heart. She was sweet and innocent, but no more than any casuality of war. It had to be done.”

It was true. For the first time in years, I felt fear. Fear was an unknown: It was as if I looked down a grey corridor of probability and found only blackness, undefined dark matter. I forced a breath. “Please, Emma, tie all this together: Marie. Dresden. My time here with you is limited. Why the senseless killing? The senseless bombing?”

The White Witch released my hand. She stared up at the clouds and fell silent. She did not move. She stayed motionless for 10 seconds, 30 seconds. A minute. Two. Three.

Unsettling emotions raged within. I felt pity for the young girl. I was not without empathy myself. I knew she was suffering terribly. Knowing a White Witch suffers is one thing; witnessing her pain and anguish was a new and unsettling trial. I wanted to get home, and quickly. “Emma. Please.”

She nodded and said, “They burned Dresden to punish the Germans; they felt justice by tribunal would be nothing more than a show, a spectacle, a circus for the masses. But mass death, violent death of the innocent, is the purest form of justice or revenge.”

The White Witch rose to her knees, steadied her trembling body and fixed her lonely stare at me. “Nathan, I hate everything about you and your kind. You’re manipulative. You’re cruel. Worse, you’re vain. Despite all you must endure, you still believe in your work, and the price that others must pay. What price have you paid, Nathan? A life alone? A death devoid of tenderness? A death without a hand to hold?”

“We all have our roles to play, Emma,” I said. “I’m truly sorry, but this world was not of my or my associates’ making. All I can do, or all we can do, is what we think is best for everyone. We all must serve our masters, even you.”

Emma coughed. Every one of her breaths sounded as if it would tear apart her insides. “Nathan, I know it is you who controls my cancer. Every cell that has metastasized, every tumour, every tortured breath that I have endured is your work.” The girl grabbed her book and stood. She wavered a moment and then stepped forward. She was tall for her age, and her eyes met mine. “Nathan, look into your blackened heart and tell me: Are you willing to place all those you love, both in this world, this beautiful world of light, and those you must serve in that cynical world of shadow before the fire?”
**
“Nathan, you’re staring,” the girl said. “You’re debating whether I not only have the skill to carry out my threats but also the will to burn all you love into charcoal.”

“A White Witch of Empathy does not slaughter,” I said firmly. “She protects.”

Emma closed her eyes. “Nathan, I am tired. Tomorrow I begin another round of chemo. Nasty, nasty shit. I give you credit. You’ve picked a virulent and persistent form of cancer.”

I did not attempt to hide my pleasure.

Without looking at me, she said, “Nathan, before you go, please understand: You can’t wait me out. You can throw all the diseases and medical trials at me that you must. Your anger and your spells are worthless, desperate actions of a cowardly man. I will endure the tumours, the viruses, and the aneurysms — everything. I will survive. I will age. I will get stronger. And then I will carry out what I have threatened. Be certain, I have the will. Now, go. I’m not feeling well. You know — the cancer.”

“I will, Emma, but now I want you to remember: Your fight is futile. Your days are limited, even more so than mine.”

A short, heavyset woman in white approached us. “Emma, I believe your nurse is summoning you. You must go. But tonight, as you lie alone in your bed, I want you to understand this: You must learn to love your disease. It will be your only love.”

As Emma left, holding the arms of her nurse, her steps tentative, I slipped back into a shadow, and entered the protective corridors of the Spaces-In-Between, eager to get back among my own, and to plan how we must handle the girl.

I anticipated a long, brutal conflict with Emma, the terrible White Witch of Empathy.

***
Sadly, yes, sadly, I was wrong.

Emma died four months later, succumbing to the disease that she had fought for nearly a year. She died at 3:30 a.m., at Deaconess Memorial, Room 712, accompanied by the rhythmic throbbing of the hospital’s ancient radiators and the wind and the hail pounding at the windows.

I had come near midnight, not to gloat, but to witness, and because I had expected she would be alone. The doctors had left her in the care of the nurses, but none of these bitter, indifferent women witnessed the course of Emma’s remaining hours. Her adoptive parents, an older couple, were exhausted and had gone home for the evening.

As the night patiently collected Emma’s final breaths, Emma did not speak. Nor did I. I watched Emma’s skin drain of its blood, leaving a taut, ivory death mask. Her eyes turned a hideous brown, evidence of the poisonous bile spilling throughout her wasted shell. Occasionally, she cast an expressionless glance toward me, but mostly she stared absently forward or toward the windows. Perhaps she still believed she could recover her strength and wage that terrible war she wanted against me — the determined child, the bastard White Witch of Empathy.

As I watched the young girl, I could not help but think of what she had said at our first and only discussion: “Why shouldn’t I pray for the creature responsible for all this? Hadn’t Jesus said to love thine enemy?”

This White Witch deserved to live. Yet, with her ability to enter the forbidden corridors of probability and see a world where White Witches possessed the ability to challenge all that we have held sacred and right, it was best she passed on. The thought of her someday bearing a child sent a deep, cell-crushing chill through me, and this prospect, slim as it might have been, this frightening probability, could not be harboured.

Around 3:00 a.m., Emma moaned and the stench of urine and feces rose from her bed. The final hour had arrived, yet I didn’t want Emma to die awash in her own waste. I didn’t call for an aide. I knew neither of the old hags would come. The uneducated old women feared Emma; they claimed Emma spoke in tongues, hurling insults at them as they washed the poor girl. Most likely it was just Emma chanting long-forgotten prayers for the departed.

I stood and went to the bathroom. I soaked the bathroom towels in warm water and spent the next 15 minutes cleaning the waste from Emma, being careful not to offend. Next, I gently turned Emma from side to side and removed the soiled sheets. I replaced the old sheets with new ones from the bed next to us and tucked them snuggly to her chest. Finally, I wiped the sweat from her forehead and cheeks.

After I tossed the dirty linen into the hallway, I closed the door and locked it. I wanted Emma to have the privacy she deserved. When I sat back in my chair, Emma turned her head toward me and said, her voice hoarse and soft, “You missed your calling, Nathan. You would have made a first-rate orderly.”

This girl — she would have been interesting to know. “Not really. I don’t look good in white.”

She smiled, both sad and cynical. “Nathan, will you do me a favour?”

“If I can, I will.”

“Always the lawyer,” she said. “Please, take my hand.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I can’t. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried.”

I took it. I expected coldness, but it was wonderfully warm, filled with empathy.

“I’m not a bad witch, Nathan,” she said. Her breath was acidic, marinated with the bile stench of death. She squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry for some of things I said — ou know, about your personal life.”

“It’s okay. I understand. I am not without empathy.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I would have burned every last soul. Every one of you, even those you love. The good. The innocent. All of them.”

“I know.”

The warmth in her hand began to dissipate. She started trembling.

“Emma, do you want another blanket?”

She shook her head and drew me close. Her eyes flashed red, and then fell back to grey. In a voice soft and distant, she said, “Is it true, Nathan?”

“Is what true, Emma?”

“Is it true that a White Witch will continue to dream . . . after she passes?”

“Yes, Emma,” I said. “I believe it is so. You will dream.”

She released my hand and closed her eyes. “Good,” she said, “then, I shall dream. I shall dream of fire.”

****

I know the universe as it is constructed is unfair. Why should a young woman such as Emma suffer and die, a child born to protect other children, before reaching adulthood? Doesn’t she deserve love and empathy? Family?

If I had an answer I would share, but I have only my purpose and affairs to manage, in the manner that I was taught, and to do so until my end comes forth. It is the best I can do.

If that makes me a coward, then I am exposed.

Emma died 50 odd years ago, and every day I think of her. I also think of a possible future that might involve a child of Emma’s, and, like her, she may be a White Witch of Empathy, powerful and deranged, a new breed, blessed with empathy and cursed with vengeance.

And like Emma, I dream.

I dream of fire.

 

 
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5 comments

  1. Pingback: MONDAY: Bozeman Before the Fire, Part 1 |
  2. Georgia Dayley

    Wonderfully imagined world. I don’t know who I feel more sorry for Emma or the narrator — two very lonely lives.

  3. Mary Steer

    The writing is superb — such wonderful images and turns of phrase, the beauty of the scene in which the narrator changes the bed linens and tidies up the dying White Witch….But I struggled with the breadth and complexity of what was going on, and at times I felt it could have done with some judicious editing. The scope of the tale might be better served in a novel, perhaps — there’s a lot here to digest, but still I felt as though I was missing quite a bit of information, e.g. why did Emma think she was going to have a child and why was this such a feared outcome? What was all the discussion about Dresden and why did Emma leave the granddaughter to die? What is the relationship between Emma and the narrator? So many questions….

  4. Frank Sikora

    Ms. Steer: I appreciate your comments. Regarding your concerns, I would love a discussion with you. You could email me at franksikora/at/sbcglobal/dot/net. I would enjoy picking your lovely mind and discuss the sequel, the theme of retribution, the concept of probability waves, personal loss, and my obsession with witnessing the passing of loved ones. Please see my story The Memory Merchant in the latest commuterlit anthology where I address the latter. You may find an interesting similarity.

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