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Featured Story • November 2017

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The Desert Cure

 

Daniel Ausema

 
 

Dearest brother,

I take pen in hand to tell you that I have survived the ocean crossing. It was not a pleasant crossing for my breathing. My lungs labored in the heavy air. If the desert cure is as much better as the open sea was worse, then I will be in full health in no time.

We immigrants were cramped into the ship’s hold, but not poorly treated. The deep hum of the steam boilers drowned out most other noise, so with eyes closed, we could well imagine ourselves comfortably alone. I made my way on deck many nights, when the cooler air was not so thick. On several nights, the water around us was dotted with sea gods, their tresses nets of sparkling ice. The captain refused to budge, for fear of another disaster like the one in the news of late. He was a most honorable man. Cautious but not fearfully so. The gods took no notice of us, though they sang a creaking, cracking song of winter’s end.

I wish you could have seen the curtain of fire as we crossed it. It looked at first like mere sunlight. As we approached, all the immigrants crowded the deck to see. Loops of fire and light shot out from the wall, some just like weird flames, licking at the hull of the ship. I was glad we were not in wooden ships, like a century ago! And yet, the flames gave off no heat. We steamed straight into it. The smells! Like eel soup, just a touch overcooked. Or a tulip just beginning to wilt. The smell that our skates cut into the canals when the ice is first melting.

I know, none of those smells are like each other, but I caught some hint of all three and many others. Then we were through, and I knew I was on the other side of the world from you and the whole family. The wall of flame behind us was the absolute proof of our separation.

Now I am landed, gone through all necessary steps, and waiting to arrange a trip nearly as far, but by wheels.

I crave your letters, when you are able. It tears me to think I will not see you again, but reading of your lives back home heals me. Give my greetings to little Liza and all the family.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I seat myself at this hotel table with happy heart and a light pen. I have met with Mr. V—-, and he has confirmed his stake in the large parcel of land out west. Already a number of our people have gone to settle the land, buying or leasing from him, and the sanitarium is running. My lungs feel better already!

But that is not all. He knows of a family that is heading out there as well. They have room in their wagon for me, which will save me much money in getting there. The train would have cost half of what I brought. Instead I will reach the sanitarium with money for food and even perhaps some comforts. Don’t think that I have become vain! I will spend the money with the same care I would have otherwise.

The only hard part is that the family leaves on the morn. So I will not be able to visit your wife’s dear cousin before I leave, nor wait here for any letters from you. I am rushing this letter out now so I can be ready to leave first thing.

With love for all my nieces and nephews,

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

Did I mention pride? Vanity? Surely something that deserved this punishment. I recall. I was making plans for the money I would save, before I’d truly saved it.

The journey went well at first. It was a beautiful country we rode through, the roads well traveled and the hamlets cozy. Hills like you never see at home and very forested, but not wild. We came to a wall of water after many days. It was the sibling to that wall of fire we crossed at sea. This one stood above a river, a huge river twice as wide as the Dart back home. A river god crested as we ferried across. It stared into my eyes, its look as alien as they are at home, but the frills around its mouth a more lurid shade of red. I felt like it marked me.

The wall of water enveloped us. Cool, the impression of dampness, but it never made us wet. We came through into what was surely another land. Just as the fire cut me off from you, the water would protect me from that river god.

No such luck. The land beyond had many rivers, all swollen with rain, and after days of muddy travel, we came on another great river, nearly the equal of the last though without a wall of magic water. The muddy roads grew disastrous. Even I, wracked with coughs, got out to push the wagon at times. But no pushing would help when the river rose and swept the wagon away.

We all survived, praise the powers, but all my possessions were gone, except for the money I had saved in a pocket of my dress. By the time we reached the train, we discovered that the price to ride was much higher out here. I am boarding the train as soon as I send this letter, but with fewer possessions and less money than I would have had if I’d taken the train from the first.

One mustn’t complain. The desert awaits me, and healthier lungs, and that is what matters. A new life, there where I can breathe freely. For now my lungs wheeze at every breath.

I think of you and pray that the sea gods keep the floods from your pasture this spring. Give my love to the girls.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I take pen in hand to tell you of this strange country I am crossing. Every hill here has its own godling, it seems. They shake their bovine heads as the train passes, and the engine draws its energy from the divine power. Spirits hover around the cottonwoods that line the streambeds, providing the train with extra power. The engine goes as fast as the power it harvests allows, which is often frighteningly fast. I do not like it, yet I like that every bit faster we go, it means I’m getting closer to the sanitarium and the healing it promises.

Everywhere we go, though, the river winds along with us. Its tree-lined path is sometimes near the horizon, sometimes right beside the tracks. Whenever we come close, I see a river god. The river god. The one who stared and followed and punished me. Still it stares.

I miss the harmless spirits of home. The way the canal gods cheer as you skate by. The way the polder bosses scatter luck from their braids if you greet them politely.

We are approaching the mountains now. I will send this letter when we arrive at their feet. There I will switch trains and head to the sanitarium. I wonder what deities I will find haunting those steep rocks and what desert gods lie beyond.

Greet the gods of the old country for me. Perhaps their luck might reach me even here.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I seat myself in the shadow of the mountain titans to write you these lines. Cunning giants, they guard the mountain passes and may even have driven off the river god that has been tormenting me. I have seen no sign of it in the waterways here at any rate. Too bad my route does not cross the mountains rather than merely skirt them, or I’d be sure of leaving that river power behind.

As we travel south I am told that this is the desert I came to see, running up against the mountains. It is not what I pictured. A sere land, no doubt, and the green of the weeds and short grasses barely deserve the word green. But it has a vibrancy I hadn’t expected, a sense of life, of growing. It is the snow melt, I guess, giving the desert greater moisture. Further on, I’m told, it grows ever drier, the soil turning rocky and red, the plants more patchy. This is where I have come, though. The sanitarium is still a day to the south, but the land will be much the same as here.

My lungs wheeze and gasp. I hope the doctors know what they’re saying when they claim this land will cure me. If it does, and the titans keep the river god away from me, I’ll gladly adopt them as my own luck gods.

Greet the shoe spirits and rafter gnomes on my behalf.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I take pen in hand in a state of some distress. The sanitarium is not as Mr. V—- presented to me. It is no more than a barracks, a plain building of primitive blocks with cots in the rooms and no space for even the least comfort, if I had money left for such things. You know well that I am not a demanding sort. I can live in comfort in many situations; I accepted the lot given me in the hospital at home, the situation in the ship, the clanking corridors of the train ride here. So if I complain, you know it is not from vain softness.

The condition of the living quarters is the least of the problems. Worse is the leader of the place, Dr. M—-. He is no true doctor, mark my words. Or if he is, he studied a form of medicine that consists only of strong drink. It is all he prescribes and all he knows, and though my lungs may bother me less if I were to take his medicine, I do not think I would survive such a regimen for long.

And even more serious, the camp is guarded by cactus folk. Mere cactus at a glance, but they move about the periphery and cry in pain when they release their needles at any threat that approaches.

I had hoped the mountain titans might have some influence here, but they seem to be the enemies of the cactus folk. I fear that the cactuses sensed the mountains’ presence in my thoughts when I arrived. They hate me. When I step out to enjoy the dry air—and it does feel good on my taxed out lungs—then they sidle close, prick me if I’m not careful. They keep the desperados out, no doubt, but one of these days they will converge on me, pull out their own quills regardless of the pain, and stab me over and over until my lungs are the least of my pain, and the memories of other godlings no longer have any influence.

Even a river god might be better than them.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I take pen in hand in a cry for help, though I know there is nothing you can do, separated from me by walls of fire and water. The cactus are not the gods of this land, only its lieutenants. Their master is a huge coyote that sucks the water from the air and seems to have taken an interest in me. A disliking to me, as it were.

Perhaps it senses the water that so often gathers in my lungs. Perhaps it hears echoes of the canal laughter from home. But I think most likely it notices the river god’s lingering influence, interprets its malign interest for blessing. Whatever the reason, it hunts me. When I stay inside the sanitarium, I am safe. But let me so much as set a foot into the desert outside the grounds, and the coyote appears. Lunging at me. Pacing beside the edge of the grounds if I step back. I would like to visit our people in the village nearby, but there is no chance for that. Today I watched Dr. M—— bring a dish of water to give the coyote, but was it only water? Or does he draw our blood to offer the god? When he drains my lungs, is that the source of the drink he gives this desert spirit?

The desert presses against me, squeezing my lungs, urging me to flee the safety of the sanitarium. The cactus folk move aside to let the coyote god have a clear approach.

And now one of the other residents of this pretender of a sanitarium says the monsoon rains are coming, that the dry gulch that crosses the far corner of the property is likely to fill with water. The gulch runs downhill to some river, no doubt. I am under no illusion that the coyote will be able to absorb all that water before it reaches the river god and tells it where I am.

I look to the mountains for the titans’ aid, but they are so distant, their hazy heights only a teasing blur above the horizon.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Brother,

I hide beneath a storm cellar door to scratch out these words. The coyote god rages above, as the rains fall down. I fear it sees me as a sacrifice of some sort, a weapon in some ancient pact or conflict. When the rains began, the cacti opened ranks, and the coyote marched straight in. It swallowed Dr. M—— whole, and perhaps he was never human anyway, but only a part of the god, stationed in this barely-human place.

I fled, as you can imagine, but the cacti cut off any escape. The rains made them bloom into deadly flowers. I tried to sneak around. Their flowers caught even the quietest shuffle, like the ears of a desert fox. Their needles became projectile.

The coyote prowled around the sanitarium, a hunter with no need for stealth or even speed. I ran for my room, but realized just in time that its door wouldn’t stop the god. So I veered to the storm cellar and pulled it shut as the coyote pounced. It struck the door, howled its anger, scratched and slammed itself against the cellar.

It’s holding, for now.

Only hope I have is in the river god.

 

[unsigned]

 

* * *

[Written on the back:]

Dearest brother,

I take the bones of a coyote god in hand to write you my greetings. A god’s blood makes a treacherous ink, one that brooks no lie and only glancing truths.

The monsoons brought the river god, or my own entreaties did. Rather than resist it, I made myself its partner to overthrow the coyote god. The battle shook the sanitarium, flash flooded the cactus folk away, and ripped the desert to its bones. When the floodwaters crept into my cellar, I emerged and called one final time for the river god to come.

A wave of filthy water ripped into the sanitarium. The coyote opened its mouth to suck the floods dry, but the water lapped around it, flashed through the buildings, pummeled me. By the time I climbed back to my feet, the coyote god lay with its belly bloated. My lungs nearly gave out on me as I harvested my writing implements.

This sanitarium has become the protected land of the river. It swelters with a humid heat that pains my breath. The god gives me a mask made of dead cactus spines to filter the air, and it works, as long as I remain committed to the river’s sovereignty. The desert beyond the property grows drier with every drop that gathers within.

Greet the gods of isolation and pain for me.

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dear brother,

I seat myself on a raft of desert-bleached wood to write you these lines. My lungs ache and wheeze with every breath, which pleases the river god. My illness somehow protects it from the desert, gives it a small foothold here. To keep that foothold strong, it makes sure my lungs are full of fluid as often as possible. Even the cactus spine mask only just keeps the humid air at bay, only just keeps me alive.

Today I tore it from my face and flung it far from my cell. The spines left their mark around my lips, and after only a brief time, a wave like a disembodied arm carried the mask back to me. I didn’t dare refuse it.

My face pulses with the pain, and I think maybe my own blood would make a stronger ink than the coyote’s blood-ink. One that would let me tell all the tales of this terrible land.

Please write to me. I need to hear that all remains well at home, need to imagine lands beyond my flooded prison, before the memories leech away.

Your sister,

 

Theresa

 

* * *

Dearest brother,

I take pen in hand—a real, nub-tipped pen with real ink and done with the bones of gods—to greet you. Has it been so long? I fear it has. Time here is not the same. Your letter finally reached me in my mountain hideout, among other gods-fleeing outsiders, and I read it with pleasure. It is good to know that you are well, that life at home has changed but in its normal flow, not at the whims of ambitious spirits.

I have escaped the sanitarium and now live northwest of there, in a high valley. I do not wish to relive that escape. Even now the memories make my lungs heave. The short of it, and all I dare entrust to paper, is that I uncovered an ancient gulch, blocked with centuries of brush and rubble. There, though it taxed my lungs beyond imagining, I chipped away at the blockage with anything I could lay my hands on. Cactus spines until they splintered or grew soft. Sun-bleached sticks that cracked far too soon. My own fingernails, adding my blood to the soil and flood. I kept at the rubble for what must have been many lifetimes, if time proceeded within the river god’s influence as it does elsewhere.

At last, aged yet kept alive by divine cruelty, I grasped a petrified stick that held the blockage in place and pried. The gulch opened and the river’s terrible flood drain away. I stumbled through the sudden desert.

When I first came into the mountains, I spread word to the titans that the river god was making advances into their territory. Killing local deities, threatening their power. But I will not ally myself with them. I am done with the squabbles of gods. The air here is good, dry and clean and free from divine essences. My lungs grow strong as the days pass. It is what I was promised when I left home so long ago, a new land where I can live.

Greet your lovely Liza for me and the new one as well. I am honored that you have named her Theresa, and I hope to be a worthy namesake.

 

Your sister in other lands,

Theresa.

 
 

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A runner, writer, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema has had his fiction and poetry appear in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Diabolical Plots, and Daily Science Fiction, as well as previously in Mythic Delirium. He is also the creator of the Spire City series, and his first traditional novel, The Silk Betrayal, is scheduled to be released in fall 2017 by Guardbridge Books. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.

About “The Desert Cure,” he writes, “Strange as it may seem, this story is deeply entwined with real life. It draws on a number of stories about my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ immigration to the Americas, including one ancestor with tuberculosis who traveled to New Mexico. The ‘I take pen in hand’ opening of the letters is something I found in translations of the letters written by their relatives who had stayed behind, and it always struck me.”

 

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