vi. Into the West
I woke to the sounds of traveling. Darkness all around at first, but as my eyes acclimated to the movement and my surroundings, I could see broken light through slits in whatever it was that encased me. I found, to my initial horror, that I could not move my left hand at all. When I reached for it with my right hand, the dead hand felt extremely swollen. The ring on my middle finger bit deeply into the flesh around it.
I heard the piercing cry of a hawk off in the distance, but for the most part, there was silence around me, save for the movement of the contraption in which I lay. No voices; just the muffled breathing of the animal I assumed was pulling me. I surmised that I was pressed between two panels of flexibly latticed wood, further cushioned by pine branches and a thick blanket beneath me. The smell of baked pine filled the air; I had not known there were pine forests to be found in my slice of the world.
There was little feeling in my left leg as well. My foot felt very cramped and swollen, in a most painful position. After thirty minutes or so of traveling in my moving coffin, I cried out, near dying from heat and a pressing sense of claustrophobia. The movement stopped, and footsteps approached me, circling and untying what I saw to be leather thongs. The sun was low over the western horizon, but still merciless in the sky; I was quickly pulled into the shade of a tall pine tree.
I was surrounded by six children - three girls and three boys, all clad in faded blue. They looked directly at me, but spoke not a word, none of them. An older girl approached me and, cradling my head in her left arm, she poured water from a skin into my mouth. Warm and sulfurous, but nonetheless it quenched something deeper than thirst in me.
"Thank you," I whispered; there was no reply: no words, no nod.
It appeared that we had stopped our travels for the day. Two of the boys unpacked the two horses with which we were traveling. One of the girls began to build a fire, while the others lay out a blanket atop which they set a modest meal. Just as there were no words shared with me, there were indeed no words shared between themselves. Nods at best; most of the movements seemed long choreographed from their familiarity with each other.
My question, "Where are we?" passed completely unnoticed; not even a glance my way. Slow to catch on to my predicament, I persisted with the question "Where are we going?" before giving in to the silence. A rough bowl of bulghur and beans sprinkled with mint was set before me, along a cooler cup of water, without the sulfurous taste. There was no spoon; I made do with my right hand, as my left was useless.
I noticed that the oldest girl did not eat. She sat on the edge of our circle, gazing steadily at me.
After dinner, one of the young boys approached me with a rudimentary map. His right index finger traced a line from below what I took to be the Rif, westward to the ocean. At the bottom of the map was Ra's unmistakably chaotic script, warning me to stay with the children, no matter where they went: as if, in my condition, I had any choice. I briefly touched the boy's hand to thank him, and for some reason he was moved to speak - or try to. His lips parted to reveal a tongue that had been carved in half. I wondered if the other members of my silent chorus had all suffered a similar fate.
"Not all," said the oldest girl, the one who had abstained from eating to gaze at me through my meal.
"You hear people's thoughts, do you?" I said.
"I see. Nothing more. Pay attention in this daily silence and you see many things. Things you often do not want to see."
"Like me, perhaps."
"I pay you no mind, sir. That is to say, you do not bother me. Ra is paying us handsomely for your transport."
"These are your brothers and sisters?"
"They are now. Our village was slaughtered three years ago. We were the lucky ones to get out."
"Not all so lucky, it would appear."
"The price of a tongue or a finger -" she raised the four fingers of her right hand - "is dirt cheap compared to the price paid by our mothers and fathers."
"I'm sorry, I meant no -"
"There is no need to apologize. Living is dying for us. You travel with shades - nothing more."
After nightfall, I had no trouble believing the girl's words. It felt as if they all melted into the darkness around me, leaving me to my troubled dreams.