CHAPTER FOUR: WEIGHTS
When Dante went to Hell, he went downward through the circles of the Inferno, each one becoming worse than the last, with demons pursuing him and Satan himself confronting him at the end. You'd have to figure that, after wandering around the dark wood for so long, he'd have been exhausted just walking under the sign saying 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,' never minding that God told him to take the trip in the first place. By the time he got down to the last circles, with their fields of ice and the sinners frozen in them, he had to have been whipped.
I'm in those final circles right now trying to keep something of optimism going, but it's getting harder with each breath I take, and with each breath that Vin doesn't.
The man in front of me now is the one who needs me- no, he needs Vin- the most. Unlike Ezra, J.D., or Buck, he stares right at Vin's face, those cold green eyes of his filled not with tears, but an unspoken command to his friend to wake his ass up before holy vengeance is visited upon him. Chris Larabee ain't a man to mess with, an' part of him keeps insisting that Vin, comatose as he is, will remember that and wake the hell up before pissing Chris off even more.
Always have to envy what those two have- reminds me of something I think I should have had with my father, with my mother, with all the people in my life whom I shoulda been closer to but never was. The understanding they have, though... it goes deeper than friendship and brotherhood, it's more encompassing than that of a lover, or mother, or father, it's more complete than that shared by many husbands and wives I know.
When Dante went to hell, Virgil dragged him through it from the beginning to the end. Those two... they've been to hell alone, found each other, and together delivered themselves out of it.
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When will it stop?
When I die?
Maybe that'll be happening soon, maybe sooner than I ever thought if Vin doesn't... doesn't... Hell, I can't even think about it; somehow it's easier to think of me dying, and not him. They don't call them 'peacemakers' for nothing, although them damn things ain't brought me a moment's peace since I got them, just brought more bloodshed, violence, loss, and grief for everyone. After this is said and done, after I bury my friend, I'll find my peace the only way I can. Ain't much left to do now, except ask his forgiveness.
Can't ask Josiah, 'cause he's told me forgiveness is never his to give- he's tellin' me again right now.
"Name your sin, Chris," he says, "An' I'll see what I can do about forgivin'. But I haven't seen a sin of yours in all'a this, so there really ain't much to forgive now, is there?"
"Shut up, Josiah," I say.
"So... what'll you be doin' if Vin don't make it?"
That's a question I ain't never considered. Vin's more like the mountains or the desert than anything, always so easy to think that he'll always be there. You might not be able to see him, but he's there.
Mountains an' deserts don't die... I think I felt the same way about Sarah n' Adam. Once you get used to the idea of havin' a person in your life for keeps, it's downright impossible to imagine life without them. An' when you are without them... there ain't a word to describe the feeling. Imagine the Rockies, how they've been there since the beginning of time. You take 'em away, but you can't even imagine the emptiness, how you can see the sky run clear down to the horizon. Can't rightly be done, I think.
'Cept I have to do it now.
"Don't know," I answer after a moment. "Guess I'll move on, head back to Indiana, maybe."
"You ain't got anythin' to keep you here?" There's no reproach in his question, but I hear an unspoken 'What about the five of us?' and wince.
"Reckon I do, just don't know if it'd be enough," I say honestly. Places can hurt ya, too. Don't know if I want t'be around Four Corners without Vin.
"Weights must be hard on a man like you," he observes. "Vin don't weigh much, but he pulls harder n' most, don't he?"
"Sure does," I say lamely. He's right, though. Vin's got a pull like a freight train.
"Heh... sticks himself right down in the sand an' don't budge. Funny, since he's never been one for weights himself. Never liked lettin' the past drag him down, never even liked travelin' with more than he needed."
"That he didn't," I agree.
"Vin's got an anchor in him," Josiah continues. "Might call it nirvana, maybe."
"Paradise." How's he know all this stuff? "Sort of a version of heaven, a state of pure bliss, the mind and spirit ain't clouded up by stuff." He picks up his Bible and turns it over and over in his hands thoughtfully before setting it down.
Nirvana... sounds like a place for Vin, I guess. Since that evening we sat up on my roof just watchin' the sunset, I've been more aware of how acceptin' he is of everythin'. That anchor Josiah talked about... it's that goddamn bull-headed stubbornness an' that acceptance an' everythin' in between.
"There's a poem called 'Ozymandias', Chris, 's about a traveler who finds the ruins of a statue in the desert, an' picks up a piece of stone with an inscription on it."
"Shelley wrote that?"
"Yup. Don't remember the whole thing, but I don't think I'll ever forget those last lines.... 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. 'Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.' Hm!" He pauses, and I know the question's coming.
"Now, what's that say to you?"
I shrug. What's it supposed to say? Ozymandias was an ass, obviously, but I don't tell Josiah that.
He turns away, darting a quick glance at Vin's face. "What we've wrought on the face of this earth won't last," he mutters, "but we leave other things behind. Maybe those things we can't see are more important, but they don't seem like it."
"When your father-in-law came to town with the Nichols on his trail, I had occasion to talk with the elder Mrs. Nichols. Tried to convince her that her son, bein' a peaceable man, shouldn't be honored by bloodshed. She didn't believe me, lost a few of her sons in tryin' to get the one man that killed her eldest. Maybe she saw it too late, I dunno, but after it all was said n'done, it didn't matter much. Apollo honored Hyacinth by changin' him into a flower... must have figured it was the appropriate gesture."
He looks up at me. "I don't rightly know what you're plannin' to do if Vin don't make it, but he's your best friend, and I reckon that maybe you ought to consider how he'd want you to honor him."
I think that bastard full well knows how I'd do that. Up an' leave, his eyes say. Just get my ass up an' leave. Even worse, he knows that I know Vin wouldn't want it that way. That damn honor a' Vin's would keep him here if I died, 'cause my death wouldn't relieve him of his responsibility to this town or these people. He wouldn't drink himself to death, 'cause he knows that ain't the way to go, blind stinkin' drunk in a gunfight. He wouldn't do any of the things I'd do an' have done 'cause he knows they're chickenshit ways a' coppin' out of dealin' with somethin' that doesn't want to be dealt with.
Josiah leans back, leaving me alone with Vin as much as I can be. He starts reciting something, that deep voice of his rolling out of the shadows, like an accusation, a reminder, or maybe reassurance.
"Though nothing can bring back the hours Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be; In the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering; In the faith that looks through death, In years that bring the philosophic mind..."
CHAPTER FIVE: AESCALEPIUS
He hates himself, I know. Hates that he can't have learned more, can't have done more. The unselfish are notoriously selfish when it comes to accepting a blame that cannot be placed on anyone, least of all them. The blame belongs to that bounty hunter, it belongs to the society that won't let a black man practice medicine, it belongs to no one, really.
It certainly don't belong to Nathan Jackson, but he incriminates himself anyway, 'cause in his mind, he is ultimately responsible for the life or death of the man on the table. He ain't... God, or whatever you want to call him, is- but Nathan can't see that. He sees a friend he's failed- he sees five friends he's failed, and he sees that he's failed himself.
No one coulda done more for Vin, I want to say, knowin' he'll just shake his head an' say it wasn't enough.
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It hasn't been long since I last checked on Vin, but it seems like it's been an eternity. Weird, when eternity's all he's got, but I ain't got much time at all. Wound don't look to be infected, he ain't runnin' a fever or nothin'... part of me wants to say his color don't really look all that bad, but the light's kinda strange in here an' wishful thinking don't help nobody.
"Any changes?" Josiah asks. He hasn't moved once, I don't think, since this night started, since we dragged Vin back here an' put him to bed, since I told everyone there ain't no way he could make it. Way too still, way too cold... all'a that blood. Chris had half of it on his shirt- wouldn't let no one else carry him back home after I got that Godawful wound of his stitched.
"None... just the same," I say dully. Suppose I should be glad he ain't gotten worse, but there just comes a point where the difference between life an' death fades to a blurry line. Times like those're when people get buried alive, 'cause they don't seem t'be breathin' an' you can't hear their heartbeats. I can see Vin's chest rise an' fall, though, just a little and too slowly.
Part of me wants to say that by rights he should be dead, an' that chest shouldn't be movin' up an' down the way it is... like there's somethin' there that's causin' this... Somethin' other than that hole I patched today. "You're not sure about somethin', Nathan," Josiah says softly. "I can see it."
"I just have this feelin'," I mumble, "Like there's somethin' right in front of my face, but I ain't seein' it. Seems that my mind keeps convincin' me that the wound ain't all that bad- nicked an artery sure, but I can deal with that, right? 'Course I can- got the wound patched up, cleaned off, stitched... But then I get to thinkin' about all that blood, how it got all over Vin's shirt n' then Chris's when he was carryin' him back here, an' I gotta say it ain't just a nick- it's a big goddamn hole an' he's dyin'."
Josiah listens quietly, 'cause that's his way- dont' say nothin', just lets you do the talkin' and figure it out your own self.
"Then I get to thinkin' that maybe he hit his head, but what would I do for him anyway? Not many things you can do for a concussion, 'cept keep him still an' outta the light 'til his nerves settle down. Guess sayin' that he whacked his head just gives me way too much hope... you saw all'a that blood." "Supposin' he did hit his head?"
I shrug. No one knows much about head wounds, 'cept more n'likely, you'll die from a bad one. Mild concussion's okay, but the brain's a weird thing, an' sometimes a hit that don't seem all that bad can kill a man, while other times a man can get his skull bashed in but be okay. I wish this was one of those times, but there's just no way that can be. Can't tell a lie to Josiah, so I got to answer him as truthfully as I can.
"He'd probably die anyway. Brain can swell, start to pressin' on the skull, or he could be bleedin' in there. Either way, result's the same. Sometimes the swellin' can go down, but that's only sometimes... an' I seen what happens to people who survive that kinda blow to the head. They ain't the same. Don't know if I'd want to see Vin that way."
Josiah just nods. Amazin' how he can work so much compassion an' understandin' into just doin' that. He ain't the most expressive guy around- when he is, he's usually drunk so ya better watch out- but he can get so much feelin' put into just lookin' at ya it's almost scary.
"Feel like I've failed him," I mutter. "Not knowin' what's happenin' to him."
"You're a good doctor, Nathan," Josiah says solemnly. "Ain't nothin' or no one takin' that away from you. Vin never would."
He's probably right- not about me bein' a good doctor (seein' as I ain't even a doctor in the first place), but about Vin. Vin ain't never blamed me for losing any of my patients, ain't never treated me with anything but respect, like Mary, like all the other guys- even Ezra.
Never even said 'boo' when he pulled my hide outta trouble for not bein' able to save Mr. Fallon. Didn't demand to know why I couldn't cure that man's gangrene, 'cause if I had, I'd not have dragged him out of that store an' put him in danger to save my life. Just cut those ropes off'a me, helped Chris pick me up, an' walked with us to the saloon.
"One for the doc here," he'd said that day- the day that changed all our lives.
"Man said ain't no darkie doctors," I told him, but I don't think he believed me, or that if he did, it didn't matter much.
Come to think of it, he's probably damn glad he got outta that store. If'n Mr. Fallon had still been alive, he might've given that cranky ol'bastard a cigar... But if Mr. Fallon had been alive, I wouldn't have almost gotten lynched... Lissen to ya, Jackson! You ain't doin' Vin much good to be dwellin' on the past. Gotta see to the here and now, first.
"You know, the ancient Greeks had Apollo as their god of healing until his son Aescalepius was born," Josiah says. He's always done this- stories just pop right outta him. Used to wonder if he was just makin' all that stuff up, but he's seen an' done enough that he don't need to do that.
I don't look at him- mostly looking at the stitches on Vin's chest, checking his temperature, doing the things I need t'do just so's I don't drive myself crazy with wonderin' how he is.
"Boy learned how to treat disease and injury from an old centaur- that's a creature with the upper body of a man an' the body of a horse, to you- an' became the greatest healer anyone'd ever seen. He could even bring back folks from the dead. God of the underworld got nervous, an' ol' Hades asked Zeus to do somethin' about this man who was cuttin' off the supply of souls bein' sent to Dis- land of the dead, to you n' me. Zeus agreed, killed Aescalepius with a thunderbolt."
So? I just think the question, but I think he sees it on my face.
"There are some things a man ain't meant to do, Nathan," he says earnestly. "No one's gonna blame you for Vin's death- ain't no one been able to bring back someone who's stepped over the threshold to death's door since Aescalepius, an' no one's real sure if he even existed anyway."
"He ain't dead yet, Josiah," I say stubbornly. "Aim to keep him from bein' that way as long as I can."
CHAPTER SIX: DREGS
Now it's just me, Nathan and Vin, so it might as well be just me, because Vin hasn't moved at all and Nathan's in the physician's zone right now, where only he and his patient matter.
Good ol'Nathan... I don't think he ever really wanted to give up on Vin, but I know what it's like to feel powerless, trapped in the crisis of the moment. We've been shot at countless times, only it's been quiet for a while- that bullet outta the blue scared the hell out of each an'every one of us. Scared us for the same reason.
It hasn't ended yet, an' this time we got soft, let our guard down.
This time, it's for real.
Like Chris and Nathan, I feel guilty as hell, but while I can absolve them of their own guilt- imagined as it is- I have a harder time dealing with mine. Maybe it's because one cannot sin and judge at the same time, or maybe it's just that my complete failure to comfort those who need it is so spectacular there's no making excuses for it. Nothing I say can help them get through this- I can distract them for a while, make 'em laugh a bit, but when the laughter stops, Vin's still lyin' there with most of his body in the grave an' death's still laughing loud enough for us to hear him.
I feel like all three of Job's comforters. The Book of Job's never been my favorite chapter... never did like Job's whining to God an' then his defendin' him. But those comforters got to me the most. Must be nice to be a hypocrite, 'cause then you don't have to deal with much in the way of a conscience. Don't know if I make a particularly good hypocrite, though; I've spent this entire night playin' priest, tryin' to put the fears of my friends at ease, but I feel that I don't have a good enough grip on them to do that well. Sometimes, it don't feel right. There was never yet a philosopher who could endure a toothache patiently, Shakespeare said. This is a mite more than a toothache, an' Lord knows we've all had those before, but I ain't never had what my friends have had, an' it's hard figurin' out how to help them.
I have no place trying to understand Ezra's loss of an adopted family member, J.D.'s loss of a teacher, Buck's loss of a friend, Chris's loss of a kindred spirit, and Nathan's loss of a patient. I've used up my store of comfort on them- fat lot of good that did- and there's not much left for me to do except try to make peace with this in my own way.
Dyin's a part of livin', always will be. You can't have one without the other- immortality's a fool's dream an' only a fool would dream of it. We'll all die sooner or later, one way or another- just a matter of cheatin' him as long's we can. He wins, though, in the end, every time. Never gets easier, though. You'd think we'd get used to it, accept it as an inevitability, but we still say 'he can't die!' or 'I won't let him die!' like we have a choice in the matter.
Well, Vin can't die, and even if he could, we won't let him.
What is Vin to me? Brother, sure- we all are. Ally, companion...
Gotta be jealous of him sometimes- got the Zen thing down pat, I think. Has a hell of a temper when you get him riled, but it takes a lot to knock him off that even keel. Me, it takes a few too many drinks an' one wrong look from someone. Knows trackin', guns, horses, n' people, an' the boy probably ain't picked up a book since he was knee-high to a fence post. Me, I done my time in missionary camps an' seminaries, read a lot, learned a lot from a bunch of people. I know a lot about faith, but have a hell of a time findin' my own. He don't know a thing about mantras, the Stations of the Cross, or the hajj, but he's got a faith that belongs to him an' only him.
Boy's amazin', really. God, do you have to take him?
Nathan's finishing up now, placing cold cloths under Vin's head and neck, draping one over his forehead an' adjusting blankets for the umpteenth time. Replaces the flatiron at his feet an' the poultice on his chest. Finally, he allows himself to drop back into his chair with an exhausted groan. "You think it's his head?"
"Bad concussion, maybe. Just... I just don't know."
"Can't always know, Nathan. Your judgment's the best outta all of us. Hell, I woulda thought he'd stubbed his toe." That earns a ghost of a smile, but that's it- just a ghost.
"I've done all I can," Nathan whispers hoarsely, brushing a hand across his sweaty forehead. "We gotta wait now... like we ain't done nothin' else all night." He manages to laugh softly, but it's a frustrated, hopeless laugh that's so completely unlike him.
"Get some rest now," I tell him quietly. "Ain't nothin' more you can do, an' I'd like a minute alone with Brother Tanner. Priestly instinct, don't you know. I'll call you if anything happens. I'll check those cloths, too, if you want."
Nathan's too bushed to protest- I don't even have to get out of my chair as he nods agreement and steers himself toward the doorway and the four men waitin' outside for some ray of hope that only Nathan can give them. I can see them as he opens the door, see the questions writ large on their faces even before they speak them. The questions themselves are delivered softly, in harsh whispers lest they wake the man who very likely will never open his eyes again. The door closes on them an' their conversation, leavin' me an' Vin alone.
"Don't rightly know what to say," I tell him. "I'm hopin' you've heard everythin' that's been happenin' tonight. You got some folks worried about you boy...
"You can see 'em wonderin' about lots of things only death can make you wonder about... Chris is wonderin' how he let you get so close, how the two of you could become friends when he reckons he don't deserve or want any. Guess it ain't a question of letting, is it?"
Been speakin' my own words the entire damn night, an' there's no comfort in them for me or the others. Maybe I should turn to someone else's words now. They're words that've been the source of a lot of grief in my life, but they've given birth to a lot of good, an' I reckon some of the best things in the world are like that. I pick up the book lying at my feet, open to the first page, an' begin to read.
It's a good story, one I've read many a time.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form..."
Vin still felt fine, even though the occasional whisper of those voices seemed to express concern about him. Why? He felt great.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light, and God saw that the light was good..."
The other voices had faded away, leaving only one dark, deep voice behind, a thick swirl of blue, to Vin's mind. It had been present all along as he drifted across the sky, a dark presence in the periphery of his vision. Wasn't an ominous darkness, though, but rode along with him like a comfortable weight, like the way his coat felt across his shoulders.
Where was his coat? He'd had it forever, practically. He tried to look at his arms, but saw nothing- no arm, no hand, no leather coat. Panicking, he looked for the rest of himself, but still found nothing at all. What was going on? The winds carrying him seemed to jostle around him and his mind filled with fear at not being able to explain any of this. He had felt fine before, but the memory of merely floating along on a breeze vanished as he struggled to find something to hold on to.
Something... anything... he prayed.
The voices came back, thickening around him until the air he rode on turned to water. He reached out to grasp something, to hold himself down. A terrible pounding echoed through him, like waves beating against him. He struggled to stay afloat, shouting for someone, anyone to please come and help him, but it came to nothing as a terrific weight pulled on him, like an anchor attached to his ankle, and that weight pulled him into blackness. Vin shut his eyes, figuring that if he was going to die, he'd want to see the blackness of his closed eyelids, not... not the other.
Still, that pounding did not stop- if anything, it grew louder, and the voices churned excitedly around him, a chaotic, thick whirlpool that caught him up in its grip. Wanting to see something, now that he figured he hadn't died- yet- Vin tried to open his eyes and decided to see what was going on. As if triggered by that simple action, he felt his body come back to him, his own familiar weight resolving as if it had come back to him through a fog.
The light hit his eyes with almost the force of a physical blow, and he quickly shut them against the intolerable brightness. Unreality still clung to his awareness, but he felt grounded- uncertain still, not knowing where he was, but knowing that for now, at least, he was alive.
It felt good.
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"Nathan? NATHAN!" Josiah's bellow cut through the deadly stillness of the room.
Immediately, the healer burst through the door, the others on his heels. Nathan dropped by the bed, eyes fixed on the immobile tracker, hands flying to his throat to check for temperature and pulse.
"He... I think he moved. Pretty sure his eyes fluttered a little," Josiah managed to say, the words tumbling over his tongue and tripping over themselves. Nathan nodded, acknowledging Josiah's words, his fingers gently lifting the blankets to inspect Vin's chest and then going to the cloths.
"Temperature's risin' a bit," Nathan murmured, half in shock. "A bit below normal, feels like, but risin'... God." He leaned back on his heels, stunned, before bending close to Vin's ear.
"Vin... hey, Vin, you hear me?"
Silence and a slight raising of Vin's eyelids answered, followed by an almost imperceptible nod.
Josiah looked over at his friend, seeing those blue eyes open for a moment, clouded by exhaustion and chased by death, but still a beautiful sight nonetheless. He glanced up at the others, seeing the honest, soul-deep relief etched across their faces- even Chris's face, for all his unexpressiveness, cast in lines of purest joy. He set his Bible down on the floor and stood for the first time since the interminable vigil began, stretching up on his toes and gratefully feeling his muscles catch in protest.
Nathan bent over Vin, who had lapsed back into unconsciousness, but the healer hastened to assure them it was that of normal sleep, not the coma that had gripped the tracker for the length of that awful night. "Should come around in a few hours," he said finally. "Best be gettin' some food ready- he should be hungry."
And those few words, words Nathan had spoken countless times, carried all the comfort Josiah needed.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Continues in Bring Him Back
Thank you to everyone for letting me know what you think of 'Parables.' I've had fun writing it, and I'm glad you've enjoyed (or barely tolerated <g>) reading it. Special thanks are due to Edwina for harassing me about tomorrow (and getting the Oompa-Loompa songs stuck in my head), and Derry for some medical advice.
Note: I accidentally attributed my translation of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' as coming from Michael Green, when it was translated by N.K. Sandars.
Innes, Mary. Ovid's Metamorphoses. Penguin Classics, 1955.
All poems quoted are from: Williams, Oscar, Ed. Immortal Poems of the English Language. Washington Square Press, 1952.