Maternal Imperative

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This piece won first place in the KTF Press Writing Contest of May, 2014.

The sickening stench of burnt flesh filled the air.

Karla Cooper, orthopedic surgeon, squeezed her son close in a smothering grip that turned her knuckles white. It’s a miracle we survived.

Four-year-old Cecil shivered in the damp air. He rubbed his sightless eyes. “Mommy, I’m scareded. And I have lots of owies.”

He’s had to suffer through olfactory meningioma, blindness, and now this. She slipped into her most reassuring bedside manner. “The plane had a teeny bit of trouble. We were off course, and we’re in some high mountains. But someone’ll find us. You lean up against this tree while I look around.” Someone has to find us. Thank God he can’t see the carnage.

Bodies black to the bone. Glowing embers. Hot air near the twisted wreckage. I wonder how long I was out. She limped through the crash site, favoring her left leg with its long gash from knee to ankle. I can’t tell him we’re the only survivors. She talked to her son as she moved him upwind and inventoried everything that might be useful. “We’ve got Mommy’s doctor bag, three granola bars, blankets, hunting knife, water bottle, and lots of dried branches and wood. We’ll be okay.”

She built a fire. She sutured her leg. And they waited for rescue.

                              ~*~

The nights were cool, and the morning dew chilled their bones.

Every day, for twelve days, Karla kept the flame going. She carried water from the stream, built a metal structure to protect them from wildlife, and searched for food. Mother and son weakened more with every desolate hour.

Day thirteen dawned.

“Mommy, I’m really hungry.”

“I know. Those berries aren’t very filling. I’m sorry I’m not a better outdoor person. I should have paid attention to my daddy when I was a little girl. He took me camping lots and lots. Let’s pretend we’re camping.”

“What’s that noise?”

“I’m carving some crutches. As soon as I’ve finished, I’ll find food.” She continued to prattle as she carved, keeping Cecil entertained with stories and idle chitchat. Now or never, Karla, before you get too weak.

She tousled his hair. “You stay in our metal tent until I get back.”

The little boy was a stone statue waiting for his mommy to return. He heard strange, spooky sounds. In his dark world, the noises were extra special scary and big and menacing. But he was brave, and he didn’t cry. He tried to remember pictures from happier days. The air turned warmer then cooler again as the sun moved across the sky.

Cecil heard a rustle. The rustle grew louder.

“Mommy?”

Karla sighed. “Yes, I’m back.” Her voice was a weary whisper.

“I was scareded.” He cocked his head. “Why are you crying?”

“My leg hurts, baby, but I’ll be all right. Here, I’ve got some food for supper. It needs to cook over the fire.”

Soon the savory smell of roasting meat made Cecil hungrier than he could ever remember. He stretched his mouth wide like a greedy robin each time Karla offered him a hot morsel.

“It’s yummy, Mommy. What is it?”

“Rabbit.”

He spit into the dirt. “Rabbits are cute and cuddly.” He pinched his lips closed.

“You have to eat. If you don’t eat, you’ll die. And I’ll be lonely.”

Cecil resisted. But his hunger overcame his mental image of fluffy Easter bunnies. He ate. He ate until he couldn’t eat any more.

Then he slept.

Karla’s moans woke him several times during the night. And so did the droning mosquitoes that dive-bombed every exposed patch of skin. Early in the morning, she wept. It was a disconsolate wail.

Cecil reached for her. “I’m scareded, Mommy. You’re all hot.”

“My hand was too close to the fire. It’s … okay.”

They were both awake shortly after dawn when a search helicopter whirred over the crest of a nearby hill.

Within two hours, the mountain was teeming with EMTs and crash scene investigators.

                              ~*~

Karla Cooper, devoted mother, watched the glaring parade of bright lights flicker by as she was wheeled into emergency surgery. Voices seeped into her medication-induced haze.

“Good thing she had her bag.”

“Man, I couldn’t’ve done that. Any sign of infection?”

“She has a fever, but she did a nice, clean job. Not much to debride.”

“I wonder how she controlled the bleeding. If only she’d waited another day.”

“What difference would that’ve made?”

“We could’ve saved her leg. She cut it off and fed it to her boy.”

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