Chapter 5 – Overwhelmed
In the flush of love’s light, we dare be brave.
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be.
Yet it is only love which sets us free.
~ Maya Angelou ~
After Uncle Padraig saw Danica safely upstairs and in bed, I begged him to find Duncan.
“Angelina, you’re asking me to look for a needle in a haystack,” he protested.
“Please. Just try.”
“You know as well as I do that when an earth druid doesn’t want to be found, no one can find him.”
My heart sank a little more; Charlie had told Duncan to “make himself scarce” and my cousin had done so. He had wanted to stay, but my chosen had reminded him that the two of us were headed into trouble, and as young male druid with magic, he would be in more danger than either of us – or so we had thought at the time.
Duncan had always kept his own counsel, however. He could very well be lurking on the edges of the grove, awaiting an invitation to return – or perhaps a signal that all was not well.
He loved Charlie, too, after all.
“Maybe if you’re out there looking, he’ll notice!”
“How?” he asked, looking concerned for my sanity.
“Set fire to the sky!” I cried. “Make the earth shake! You’re a druid, Uncle! Do something – anything – so he’ll know something is wrong and come home!”
Uncle looked at me with pity and I turned away, unable to bear it. Everyone else might be giving up on Charlie, but I would not.
“I’ll try,” he said.
* * *
I spent the next few hours alternately paging through books and bathing Charlie in mint water. His fever continued to rage; he became delirious, moving restlessly and mumbling. I knew that fever was the body’s way to fight off infection, but was also aware that too high a temperature could be damaging. One passage suggested that if a patient had an extreme fever in winter, to pack ice and snow on and around their body. Grabbing a bucket, I ran to the back yard and scooped snow into it with my bare hands until it was full. I packed snow into his armpits and between his legs, then scooped a few handfuls onto the back of his neck.
I repeated the application of snow every hour, allowing it to melt on my chosen’s burning flesh, hoping the fever would be carried away with every drop of water that melted. Between applications of snow, I searched Danica’s collection of dried herbs for the ones she had used to mix poultices. After a minute or two of frantic searching, I realized that she had left them out on the counter beside the mortar and pestle.
With my sleep-deprived mind whirling with fear and anxiety, I began grinding the herbs in the stone pestle. Having something to do, a project on which to focus, helped organize my frazzled thoughts. It took longer to mix everything than it had before; next time I would need to start earlier. The work took my mind back to when Charlie had been shot and I’d been so jealous of all those witches.
Looking back, I’d been so ridiculously foolish. All I could think of at the time was that one of them was going to bed my chosen before I could, and that all my waiting and sacrifice would be for naught. I should have ignored the Weird Sisters as they ogled him and made lewd comments. And when Maeve had taken him off for a massage, I had been envious and angry instead of being appreciative of her healing arts. It’s a wonder the high priestess hadn’t thrown me out for having such a churlish and ungrateful attitude.
In the end, Rhiannon herself had brought me a pretty yellow dress to wear on Midsummer’s Day, along with some valuable advice.
“Stop moping around, Angie,” she had said. “Get up, take a bath, do your hair, and wear this dress. Quit beating around the bush with Davis and seduce the man, for Goddess’ sake.”
She had shocked and surprised me. I had been anticipating a lecture on manners and proper behavior, and so had been caught off-guard, tricked into revealing my true thoughts. The words that tumbled from my mouth had been: “But what if he doesn’t want me?”
The high priestess had laughed. “Young druid, desire is the least of the emotions Davis feels for you. That man’s eyes follow you everywhere you go. When you exhale, he breathes it in. His hand reaches for yours before you even have a chance to stumble. He puts food on your plate before his own. He regards you as precious, to the point of guarding your life with such devotion that he nearly disregards his own. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”
“According to you, I don’t know what love is,” I had petulantly muttered, looking down at my feet.
With a gentle touch on my cheek, Rhiannon bade me look at her. “You don’t,” she’d said with a smile. “But I have a feeling that he will be the man to teach you.”
The high priestess had been right, for my chosen had demonstrated the true meaning of love to me many times over since then. Charlie had denied his own needs and desires again and again, to the point of risking his life. And yet, I had remained so self-centered, focusing my attention on my quest for social justice within this grove. I never seriously considered whether it was right to expect him to champion my cause. He was my chosen warrior and I expected it of him.
I only realized the error of my ways and began to question if changing my fellow druids was worth his any risk, but not until after Charlie had suffered grievous, mortal wounds – wounds that would have been fatal if not for my cousin’s intervention.
Had Duncan not loved Charlie so fiercely, he would never have stayed so close to him. He would not have been around to protect him, heal him, or save his life.
Yet my response was to become even more selfish, not wanting to share my chosen with anyone. I’d become jealous of my own cousin, who continued to demonstrate acts of true heroism purely out of selfless love.
If Duncan returned in time, never again would I begrudge him Charlie’s time and attention. Whether my chosen wanted to have two lovers or twenty – or even if he picked my cousin over me – I would accept it without question, grateful that he still lived.
* * *
That evening, I used up the remaining linen squares making more poultices. If Danica didn’t have another bolt of linen cloth, I’d need somebody to bring some. Putting that concern out of my head for later, I removed the now dried and nearly crusted dressings from Charlie’s back. As I peeled back the linen, it stuck to the torn and ragged flesh, causing it to ooze blood. He moaned, jerking his head and moving his arms as though trying to crawl away. I bit my lip hard until I tasted blood; I would not cry.
I took the snow bucket to the kitchen and filled it with warm water, adding just a touch of salt to it. I poured a cupful of the salinated water over his back, just enough to dampen the linen and allow easier removal. I guided the water stream from dressing to dressing until they were all dampened, then returned the water to the bucket. Even after waiting a few moments, the next poultice I tried to remove also stuck.
Charlie cried out sharply, his whole body shuddering with the agony. I stared in horror at the huge, five-inch abscess that had been hidden by the poultice. It burst, draining a handful of yellow pus streaked with purplish purulence. The putrid odor made me retch; quickly turning away, I hung my face over the bucket. It was only dry heaves, as I’d eaten nothing since the night before.
Alternately peeling off linen, rinsing Charlie’s back, and gagging, I removed all the remaining poultices. Every single lash-mark was infected, red and swollen with red streaks across the few places where intact skin remained. Several were filled with foul-smelling pus. Tucking towels along his left side, I somehow muscled him over so that I could pour the salted water over his infected wounds and rinse his entire back. Part of my mind insisted that it was so the infection would not spread; the other half whispered that all the wounds were now festering and did it really matter?
“Of course it matters,” I said to myself between gritted teeth. I allowed him to roll onto his belly once more, giving enough support so that it wasn’t too uncomfortable. I wasn’t strong enough to move him to a clean cot on my own, so I drew all the moisture that had oozed into the cot into the towels to keep the damp from his skin. Removing the towels, now soaked with water, blood, and pus, I threw them in the garbage bin outside the back door, then came back inside and thoroughly washed my hands.
I knelt by Charlie’s sickbed and saw the situation with a sudden, shocking clarity. On that low cot, I neither saw my chosen warrior, nor the hero who had become my lover. I saw a man, a human being as frail and fragile as any who walked the earth, beaten and bloodied and stinking from the fetid secretions of his wounds, as near to dying as I’d ever seen anyone.
No, not near dying. He was dying.
My legs gave out and I sat down hard on the cold stone floor. Then I wrapped my arms about my knees, hugging them tight, and surrendered to the sobs wracking my body. Charlie began to murmur again, shifting slightly on his cot while I tried not to make noise and disturb him.
I felt a light touch on my head, gentle fingers slipping through my hair, and raised my head to see him looking right at me. He hadn’t been coherent since yesterday morning when I’d found him, but the light of recognition, of awareness, was strong in his amber eyes.
“Don’t cry, Ang,” he said, in the warm, intimate voice he only used when we lay entwined together. “It’ll be all right.”
“I love you so much,” I whispered, unable to keep the tears from flowing down my cheeks.
“I love you, too, Ang,” he said with a little smile. Then he closed his eyes and drifted away again. I pushed my cot over until it touched his and lay beside him, holding his hand in mine, afraid to fall asleep.
If this was all the time remaining to us, I wanted to experience every moment. If there was no preventing his death, I wanted to be present, to watch over and guard him, to meet whatever needs he would have, and to fully give myself to him the way he had always done for me.