3. The Blood

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Throughout all of the dreams, an anchor: the dull, hot pain. The pain was a tiger and he chased me as I chased my mother, the three of us careening faster than I'd ever run through a desert with no beginning and no end. Then the pain became a fire, the fire at home, the fire that cooked my food and warmed the mother's tea, but mama took my hand and looked into my eyes and smiled, and held my hand over the fire until it burned, until it was a flower of flame, and I woke up with a scream in my throat.

The wind was blowing very hard, and the scream from my nightmare blew away behind us. It was still dark, but the moonlight glowed dully and after a sickening moment when I could not find my center, I realized that I was on a bike, slumped backwards against mama, lashed against her torso with a bolt of cloth. I craned my neck to find her face. Her eyes were roving the landscape, her mouth a grim line. As quietly as she could, she raised her voice against the wind. "Try not to move," she said. "Be very quiet and very still. When we stop, keep your eyes closed and listen." I could feel her heartbeat through my cheek, which was pressed against her chest. "It will be okay," she whispered.

The pain, though, which had been so persistent in my dreams -- it was here too, in real life. There was something wrong with my hand. It was bound up and pressed against my chest, higher than my heart, and when I tried to wiggle my fingers, I felt a flush of something hot and sticky soak the cloth, and the pain shot through me. "Don't do that," Mama said. She must have felt me flinch. "Still and silent," she said, and went back to scanning the horizon. There were men on bikes fanned out on either side of us, and we were flying through the desert like we had great noisy metal wings. I was so thirsty, and my hand hurt, but I was also tired. Shivering, I fell uneasily back to sleep.

When I awoke again, the air was still. We had stopped moving. I could feel the heat from a fire against my cheek. Strange voices -- so much deeper than the mothers' -- rang out around me. Remembering mama's words, I kept my eyes shut and listened.

"He won't want her all scarred up like," someone growled. "Why waste the water?"

My mother's voice, just a murmur, from some feet away. Then --

"The bird says she can sew her up. Says she can make her good as new. C'mon men, you want to lose your bonus just like that?"

"She's not a bonus, Bill, she's a gamble. Bird says the kid needs blood and water, too. Food to make her strong."

"Blood?" a third voice shouted. "That's mine, and no, you ain't bleeding me for a kid. Even with the bonus. There are plenty more young birds in this desert. Joe don't ask where they came from."

"All right," Bill said. "The Blood has spoken. No bonus today, boys. At least we'll eat well. Stoke up the fire." Grumbling, shouting. Then mama's voice rang out:

 "No tumors."

"Eh?" Said Bill. "Hang on, the bird wants to say something."

I opened my eyes just a slit and found mama through my eyelashes. Her clothes were smeared with blood -- maybe mine -- and the wind had tangled up her hair. She looked like a wild animal. She was standing among the raiders like she was one of them.

"I'm her mother. The proof is in me." Calmly, she began undressing. "I am forty-one years old. I had the girl just four years ago. I still bleed, and I can still have children. And as you can see --" she stood naked now, lit up by the fire, surrounded by raiders --  "I am healthy. I have no tumors." She stood fiercely. "I speak the truth. Bill can vouch for it."

"Bird doesn't lie," Bill acknowledged. There was an uneasy muttering around the group.

Mama stooped to pull up her clothes. "I can heal my daughter -- you'll get your bonus," she said. "There are some things I need. You'll more than be able to replace them when you are rewarded for finding healthy breeding stock." Her voice stayed steady. She was fully clothed again. "Do we have a deal?"

Bill said, "it's up to The Blood."

The Blood cursed. We all waited.

"Aye, we've got a deal," he said finally. 

"Good," mama said briskly. "We'll need water on to boil. Bill, can you bring The Blood?"

"I've got bloody legs," The Blood growled. Suddenly his great scarred face was leaning over mine, and my eyes opened fully in spite of themselves. "Well, girlie," he said, "looks like I'm about to save your life." There was strange matted hair growing out of his face. His breath hit me square on, the same time as the fear. I couldn't stop myself. I arched my back and retched. 

The sick hit The Blood full in the face. 

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