.. | angelika | chapter 4
Winter dragged on through monotonous days, studded with the occasional rain or sleet, on into the season of almost constant snow. In the past it had always been a period of easy contentment for Luca and his mother before a blazing fire, and the only time of discomfort came in the form of a more difficult hike to town for his job than usual. But food was usually plentiful, and boredom was staved off by a lack of expectation or want of anything more exciting. This year, however, showed as stark a contrast to last as if the sun had suddenly come blazing through the grey clouds. Instead of his mother his company was now a boy, his lover, who was trying to hide a worsening sickness from him but could not, and it was frustrating both of them.
For the most part Luca kept his worries to himself. He watched Aurel bundle himself up in blankets and cloaks, as always sensitive to the cold, but now shivered even before the fire. He was ill to his stomach, though how often was difficult to tell, since Luca was gone for the most part of the days. There were moments in the night when Aurel would wake himself up with a cry of pain, doubling over and turning away. Their lovemaking had all but stopped; it was uncomfortable for him now because of the one aspect he truly could not hide. Had they not been lovers, he could have had more success at it, but the nature of their relationship voided the possibility of concealing it under heavy clothing. It was that where once he had seemed to only be gaining weight out of health, it had now become excessive. However, it was only centered around his belly, while the rest of him remained petite as the day Luca had met him. Indeed, if viewed from behind, there was no indication at all that something was amiss. But there was no denying that this was the center if his sickness, the root of all that was wrong, and it was growing. Aurel denied that it gave him pain, but his discomfort was so obvious that Luca began to feel a bitterness setting in, much worse for that fact that he forced himself to conceal it.
However, one evening came when Aurel's nausea was such that had not been able to eat anything all day, and Luca's worry that this would continue forced him to push the subject.
"There was a man in town who used to come into the shop," Luca said softly, "and he had something like this."
Aurel's head lay in the crook of his arm. He was on his back, his swollen belly exposed for comfort, though he normally didn't like to flaunt its grotesqueness so openly. Outside a flurry was falling that would eventually cover even the top step of the porch by morning. The fire in the house's grate, constantly lit through the season, served well enough to keep the place warm.
When he didn't answer, Luca's eyes wandered up to the ceiling. He was trying to choose the right words. "It was on the side of his neck though," he went on. "Got bigger and bigger until he could hardly speak and when he finally he went to the physician, it was almost bursting." No answer still. "He lived though; the physician was able to take it out. Said it was some kind of growth. That the body makes them in some people."
"It isn't a growth," Aurel said softly.
"Maybe you should still go to the physician," Luca tried. He had said this plenty of times before, and always got the same answer.
"It's not something a physician can help."
"But," Aurel said, sitting up with some difficulty and turning to face Luca, his back to the fire. His long hair fell over his shoulder and he smiled gently down, and Luca was once again, as always, struck by his beauty. "You're right. Some day it will have to come out, I'm sure."
Luca gazed up at him, their fingers playing together, as if this conversation was merely a lover's insignificant flirtation. "The more important we go see a physician," he repeated. "There's a man of good standing not two streets from the shop-"
Aurel had put his head down again. "It is not something I will share with a stranger, only to be talked about on the streets the next day. Rumors would fly if this sort of... deformity got out. You see how they stare at me already? It would be so much worse, and they would be staring at you too for being with me."
"How can that be more important than your life?" That was the newest fear to be added to his list of 'what ifs'. "What if this thing kills you?"
Aurel remained quiet, significantly quiet. He didn't deny it could kill him, but actually nodded his head. "It could," he answered. "That is why I want you here with me, not some stranger."
Little did Luca know at the time Aurel had only used the word "could" out of compassion for his feelings. He would later learn that in reality Aurel knew- had known from the day they met- that this thing would kill him. But with that knowledge he had chosen the harder road. He could have kept to himself that day Luca had pushed through the crowd as he rested on the edge of the fountain, and eked out an existence alone in the streets or on the open road until he died one day anonymously in a back alley or ditch. But instead he had allowed himself to be taken in, cared for and loved, knowing all the while this thing was growing in him. But then again, was that indeed the harder road? Or that of a coward?
It was the question he put to Luca a week later as he lay on his back, covered in sweat and writhing in agony, tears dripping away from his reddened eyes, his heaving breaths interrupted by gasps of pain. He had been in a delirium since Luca had found him outside far from the house, near the lower fence by the barn. It was his unbearable cries that had brought Luca skidding down the hillside to find him doubled over, wet and shivering in the muddied slush on the ground. He had retched blood now, all over himself and it glowed against the dirty snow. Luca, frenzied himself, had tried to lift him but Aurel was still trying to crawl away, screaming things that made no sense, and cursing himself until he retched again.
Finally Luca had been able to get him back to the house and laid him in his favorite spot before the fire; his body was chilled to the point of feeling like dying flesh, clammy and pale. Luca stripped off his damp clothes and tried to wrap him in dry things but Aurel was thrashing too much, clawing at his swollen belly, and trying to pull at his own filthy, wet hair.
Enough whiskey poured down his throat had eventually calmed him somewhat, but did not seem to ease the pain enough. He lay there, glistening in sweat and breathing with terrible difficulty, and said, "I thought I was being brave... but am I a coward?" in a rough, husky voice. "To die here, to make you see this-" he shrank into tears again. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry Luca..."
Luca sat next to him, wiping his face and trying without success to hold back his own terror. Through it he saw everything remarkably clearly however- how he would never make it to town now to get the physician, if Aurel would've have had that anyway, and he would have to watch his lover die, as he had watched his mother die.
"It was the market," Aurel hissed, taking an iron grip on Luca's wrist. "That's where it happened- I could've said no, but what would he think?" It was the same sort of nonsense he'd been prattling on for this last hour. "...Never told anyone...Three of them!" he shouted. "Three of the highest, the most beautiful...I did it for him-" His voice was hitched short by a round of pain and he thrashed again, crying out, hitting his head back against the floor repeatedly until it had passed.
And then, suddenly rousing out of his pain, Aurel pulled Luca's arm close. "Luca, Luca," he whispered. "You have to help me-"
"I don't know what to do," Luca choked.
"No sacre, I know, it would make it easier. I've never done without," he babbled, "but we have to try. It's maiore, there's a reason." He shook his head, his wild eyes trying to focus. "Get a knife, cut it out of me-"
He tapped his wrist, the one that had been covered by a leather cuff since Luca had met him, which he'd never taken off. "It's ok... trust me. I trust you."
"I can't! It could kill you-" he tried.
"It's already killing me!" Aurel screamed. Then, he calmed, his breath a hushed, hoarse whisper. "Please, it will if you don't, for sure. I knew it the day I met you." Here he gave a sickly laugh, ugly for its bitterness. "That's why I'm a coward."
But Luca was still shaking his head. "I can't!" he whispered.
Aurel's fingernails dug into his wrist so hard surely they would start to draw blood. But in that moment he looked the sanest he had in hours. "You have to try for me," he said softly, hoarsely. "I'll die like this, but if you try, there's a chance-"
"But if you bleed to death-"
"All the better!" Aurel gave that terrible laugh again. Then, drawing Luca near, "You can't let me die, not without trying... Please... Please try..."
Luca gazed down at him, eyes blurry and burning, the knot in his throat threatening to choke the breath from him, as he watched another round of agony take his lover from his short-lived lucidity and back into a nonsensical frenzy. Then, prying Aurel's fingers from his wrist, where they had indeed finally drawn blood, he paced numbly to the kitchen and brought back his last bottle of whiskey and his sharpest knife.
Luca sat on the front porch, ignoring the cold, falling snow, looking at the woods in the distance, darkening with each minute that passed out of the sunless day into a moonless evening. He was still covered in blood but it was drying, still feeling the nausea in his throat, but it was quelling. He had already retched, his stomach had nothing left, not even the energy to heave anymore.
If he turned around and looked through the open front door he would be met with the scene he would never in his entire life be able to forget. A scene that from here looked like a butchery, though there had been love through it all, and the best intentions. He couldn't rightly remember much of it now, but the result was clear. His lover painless now in death, the red pool around him sinking, staining into the floorboards, and that thing, that thing that had been causing him so much agony and pain, which he had until the very end demanded Luca take out of him, lying on a blanket near the fire.
Luca wiped his face with his red hands, ran them back through his hair and pulled it until he felt pain. That thing. It had had hands, it had had feet, and it had made a noise, a choked, watery noise before he had felt its life leave it, even before he had been able to acknowledge it had had life in the first place. It was unrecognizable as anything else but a grotesque mound of flesh, vaguely resembling something human, if in his shock he had allowed himself to think that Aurel could have been carrying something like this in him, like a woman, like a pregnant woman.
Aurel had not seen it, he was long past seeing anything at that point, but only lay there, what color he had left draining slowly from his face, head lolling back, throat working but no sound coming. Luca had dropped the thing and crawled to him, trying to staunch the blood but to no avail.
"Aurel," he'd groaned, touching his lover's pale face, taking his limp hand into his own, touching it to his own cheek. Aurel's head rolled to him, hair clinging to his cheek with sweat and blood, his dark, sightless eyes half-mast, but there was a smile, a gentle, peaceful smile on his beautiful pallid lips.
"Is it beautiful?" he whispered, his voice having long left from overuse.
Luca's tears fell on his neck and he briefly glanced back at the heap of revolting flesh lying there near the fire. "Aurel, can you hear me?"
"Mmm," his lover sighed serenely. He mumbled something, something about the rain once more, and then his head had rolled gently to the side, as his last breath pressed gently from his lungs.
Luca looked at the woods once again. He would have to bury Aurel, tonight if he could make himself do it, and that thing as well. He would have to clean this blood off himself, and burn those furs and blankets, and chop the floorboards up and replace them.
Or he could let the whole place burn. He could set Karo loose, and the cattle, ducks and chickens to fend for themselves. He could burn the barn, fences and the orchard too, so that there was nothing on this scorched land that would be attractive to usurpers. He could then drink what whiskey was left, go outside and bury himself in the snow and let the cold slowly kill him.
His cheeks were stiff and raw; had he shed tears? The snow was still falling, and he sullenly admitted he'd probably never get a fire started in weather like this; everything was soaked through with ice.
Luca sat in that spot until it was well into darkness, and he could no longer feel his fingers and toes, and the blood on his arms and face felt stiff, crackly. Then he stood, unwilling to tear his eyes from the dark form of the woods down the hill for several moments until a glance over his shoulder showed the scene he'd left so numbly hours ago. The pool of shining blood had subsided, soaked into the floor, almost dried. He hadn't even thought to cover his lover and the huge gaping wound his own hands had made. He looked at them, held them before his face. They had made the cut, at Aurel's direction and urging, widened it, as the blood had spilled out of him, an image replaying in his mind over and over and over again.
Luca turned and suddenly found himself on his knees, his forehead to the worn, frozen wood of the porch, and a howl rising in him that didn't even sound human. Had he ever thought such a noise would come from him? Even at his mother's death, that sound had not come. He had known that death was coming for her, they both had. But he'd had no hand in that. He himself had not choked the life from her. Aurel's death was on these hands, no matter if he'd urged it on himself or not. He had not been sane in his pain, had not perhaps known what he'd been asking. But Luca had done it, he'd made the cut, and lifted that thing from him.
He was exhausted, he was cold. Sleeping seemed out of the question, not in that house right now, not in that bed. Without a direction he could only lay there and stare dully, unable to move, but unwilling to remain. He watched the dark woods quietly, unaware that they were now, for the first time, watching him back.
Dawn found him still on the porch, frozen to the core, but alive. The fire had almost died inside, but enough embers remained to flare it up again without much difficulty, as he went about his gruesome task with a hard set to his jaw and a mind so numb he hadn't the capacity to even notice how he felt nothing. He wrapped Aurel's body up in his favorite blankets and furs, and made a separate pack for that which he had pulled from him; he would not bury it with Aurel. Instead he trekked deep into the woods and buried it in the layers of dead leaves, well off the main path. He didn't care what became of it after that.
Once more beneath that old twisted tree, devoid of leaves and looking more ancient for its lack of life, the snow and frozen ground proved a cruel labor for him. He was weary and ill, and had barely enough strength left by the time he lifted Aurel into the grave to heave himself out again. He did not look one last time at that face as he had when he'd buried his mother. He knew better now. Karo waited as patiently as before while the work was finished, ears flicking, snorting at the cold air in his nostrils and wanting his morning oats. It made no difference to the mule what the job was, whether he was carrying apples, or hay, or bodies. As Luca led him and the lumbering cart back towards the house, he envied the dumb animal and his untroubled life. He would gladly forgo intelligence and common sense if with them went these emotions, this feeling of being utterly alone, the guilt, the betrayal, and the anger.
He found, not much later and to no surprise that whiskey helped stave off rational thought once he found his blessedly numb mind beginning to thaw, and kept him in a state of bleak grogginess. A day later he made one last trip into town, dressed in a dark cloak of mourning that served more to hide his face from anyone he knew, filled his cart full of stores and as much whiskey as he could get, and went back home, without much of a plan besides a vague intent to never again set foot inside the city.
So for the remaining weeks of the winter, into the thaw and the first warmth of spring he nearly drowned himself in the stuff, surviving only on what he could make himself eat, when he felt hungry. Missing him at work without word, Dunnant actually came out to find him a week later after his last trip into town. But Luca remained in bed throughout the man's knocking on the door, glad he had locked up and the windows were dark enough not to reveal his sick form laying there. Unwilling to break in, or perhaps assuming that Luca really wasn't home, Dunnant eventually went away too, without ever really trying to get in, and he was left alone again. That last week when the snow had thawed and the new green was sprouting, he set Karo out to pasture with the cows and set the ducks and chickens free to range. He then stumbled back to his bedroom, closing the door behind him and intending to shut out the light for good.
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