Authors: Vonda D. McIntyre
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction
Plunging her hands into the cold water, Snake splashed it across her face,
washing away the black dust, the sweat, and even the tracks of her tears.
She led Swift quietly along the shore, passing tents and silent campsites
where the caravannaires still slept. When she reached Grum’s camp she stopped,
but the tent flaps were closed. Snake did not want to awaken the old woman or
her grandchildren. Farther back from the shore Snake could see the horse corral.
Squirrel, her tiger-pony, stood dozing with Grum’s horses. His black and gold
coat showed the effects of a week of energetic brushing, he was fat and content,
and he no longer favored his shoeless foot. Snake decided to leave him with Grum
another day, and disturb neither the tiger-pony nor the old caravannaire this
Swift followed Snake along the shore, nibbling occasionally at her hip. Snake
scratched the mare behind the ears, where sweat had dried underneath the bridle.
Arevin’s people had given her a sack of hay-cubes for Squirrel, but Grum had
been feeding the pony, so the fodder should still be in camp.
“Food and a good brushing and sleep, that’s what we both need,” she said to
She had made her camp away from the others, beyond an outcropping of rock, in
an area not much favored by the traders. It was safer for people and for her
serpents if they were kept apart. Snake rounded the sloping stone ridge.
Everything was changed. She had left her bedroll rumpled and slept-in, but
everything else had still been packed. Now someone had folded her blankets and
piled them up, stacked her extra clothes nearby, and laid her cooking utensils
in a row in the sand. She frowned and went closer. Healers were regarded with
deference and even awe; she had not even thought of asking Grum to watch her
belongings as well as her pony. That someone might bother her equipment while
she was gone had never even occurred to her.
Then she saw that the utensils were dented, the metal plate bent in half, the
cup crushed, the spoon twisted. She dropped Swift’s reins and hurried to the
neat array of her belongings. The folded blankets were slashed and torn. She
picked up her clean shirt from the pile of clothing, but it was no longer clean.
It had been trampled in the mud at the water’s edge. It was old and soft and
well worn, frayed and weak in spots, her comfortable, favorite shirt. Now it was
ripped up the back and the sleeves were shredded; it was ruined.
The fodder bag lay in line with the rest of her things, but the scattered
hay-cubes were crushed in the sand. Swift nibbled, at the fragments, while Snake
stood looking at the wreck around her. She could not understand why anyone would
rifle her camp, then leave the ruined gear tidily folded. She could not
understand why anyone would rifle her camp at all, for she had little of value.
She shook her head. Perhaps someone believed she collected large fees of gold
and jewels. Some healers were rewarded richly for their services. Still, there
was much honor in the desert and even people who were unprotected by awe, by
their professions, thought nothing of leaving valuables unguarded.
Her torn shirt still in her hand, Snake wandered around what had been her
camp, feeling too tired and empty and confused to think about what had happened.
Squirrel’s packsaddle leaned against a rock; Snake picked it up for no
particular reason except perhaps that it looked undamaged.
Then she saw that all its side pockets had been slashed open and torn away,
though the flaps were secured only by buckles.
The side pockets had contained all her maps and records, and the journal of
her unfinished proving year. She thrust her hands into corners, hoping for even
a scrap of paper, but nothing at all remained. Snake flung the saddle to the
ground. She hurried around the edges of her camp, looking behind rocks and
kicking up the sand, hoping to see white discarded pages or to hear the crackle
of paper beneath her feet, but she found nothing, there was nothing left.
She felt physically assaulted. Anything else she had, her blankets, her
clothes, certainly the maps, could be useful to a thief, but the journal was
worthless to anyone but her.
“Damn you!” she cried in a fury, at no one. The mare snorted and shied away,
splashing into the pool. Shaking, Snake calmed herself, then turned and held out
her hand and walked slowly toward Swift, speaking softly, until the horse let
her take the reins. Snake stroked her.
“It’s all right,” she said. “It’ll be all right, never mind.” She was
speaking as much to herself as to the horse. They were both up to their knees in
the clear, cool water. Snake patted the mare’s shoulder, combing the black mane
with her fingers. Her vision suddenly blurred and she leaned against Swift’s
Listening to the strong steady heartbeat and the mare’s quiet breathing,
Snake managed to calm herself. She straightened and waded out of the water. On
the bank, she unstrapped the serpent case, then unsaddled the horse and began to
rub her down with a piece of the torn blanket. She worked with the grimness of
exhaustion. The fancy saddle and bridle, now stained with dust and sweat, could
wait, but Snake would not leave Swift dirty and sweaty while she herself rested.
“Snake-child, healer-child, dear girl—” Snake turned. Grum hobbled toward her,
helping herself along with a gnarled walking stick. One of her grandchildren, a
tall ebony young woman, accompanied her, but all Grum’s grandchildren knew
better than to try to support the tiny, arthritis-bent old woman.
Grum’s white headcloth lay askew on her sparse hair. “Dear child, how could I
let you pass me? I’ll hear her come in, I thought. Or her pony will smell her
and neigh.” Grum’s dark-tanned age-wrinkled face showed extra lines of concern.
“Snake-child, we never wanted you to see this alone.”
“What happened, Grum?”
“Pauli,” Grum said to her granddaughter, “take care of the healer’s horse.”
“Yes, Grum.” When Pauli took the reins, she touched Snake’s arm in a gesture
of comfort. She picked up the saddle and led Swift back toward Grum’s camp.
Holding Snake’s elbow—not for support, but to support her—Grum guided her to a
chunk of rock. They sat down and Snake glanced again around her camp, disbelief
overcoming exhaustion. She looked at Grum.
Grum sighed. “It was yesterday, just before dawn. We heard noises and a
voice, not yours, and when we came to look we could see a single figure, in
desert robes. We thought he was dancing. But when we went closer, he ran away.
He broke his lantern in the sand and we couldn’t find him. We found your camp
Grum shrugged. “We picked up all we could find, but nothing whole was left.”
Snake looked around in silence, no closer to understanding why anyone would
ransack her camp.
“By morning the wind had blown away the tracks,” Grum said. “The creature
must have gone out in the desert, but it was no desert person. We don’t steal.
We don’t destroy.”
“I know, Grum.”
“You come with me. Breakfast. Sleep. Forget the crazy. We all have to watch
for crazies.” She took Snake’s scarred hand in her small, work-hardened one.
“But you shouldn’t have come to this alone. No. I should have seen you,
“It’s all right, Grum.”
“Let me help you move to my tents. You don’t want to stay over here anymore.”
“There’s nothing left to move.” Beside Grum, Snake stood staring at the mess.
The old woman patted her hand gently.
“He wrecked everything, Grum. If he’d taken it all I could understand.”
“Dear one, nobody understands crazies. They have no reasons.”
That was exactly why Snake could not believe a real crazy would destroy so
much so completely. The damage had been inflicted in a manner so deliberate and,
in a strange way, rational, that the madness seemed less the result of insanity
than of rage. She shivered again.
“Come with me,” Grum said. “Crazies appear, they disappear. They’re like sand
flies, one summer you hear about them every time you turn around, the next year
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I am,” Grum said. “I know about these things. He won’t come back here, he’ll
go somewhere else, but soon we’ll all know to look for him. When we find him
we’ll take him to the menders and maybe they can make him well.”
Snake nodded tiredly. “I hope sp.”
She slung Squirrel’s saddle over her shoulder and picked up the serpent case.
The handle vibrated faintly as Sand slid across himself in his compartment.
She walked with Grum toward the old woman’s camp, too tired to think anymore
about what had happened, listening gratefully to Grum’s soothing words of
comfort and sympathy. The loss of Grass, and Jesse’s death, and now this: Snake
almost wished she were superstitious, so she could believe she had been cursed.
People who believed in curses believed in ways of lifting them. Right now Snake
did not know what to think or what to believe in, or how to change the course of
misfortune her life had taken.
“Why did he only steal my journal?” she said abruptly. “Why my maps and my
“Maps!” Grum said. “The crazy stole maps? I thought you’d taken them with
you. It was a crazy, then.”
“I guess it was. It must have been.” Still, she did not convince herself.
“Maps!” Grum said again.
Grum’s anger and outrage seemed, for the moment, to take over for Snake’s
own. But the surprise in the old woman’s voice disturbed her.
Snake started violently at the sharp tug on her robe. Equally startled, the
collector jumped back. Snake relaxed when she saw who it was: one of the
gleaners who picked up any bit of metal, wood, cloth, leather, the discards of
other camps, and somehow made use of it all. The collectors dressed in
multicolored robes of cloth scraps ingeniously sewn together in geometric
“Healer, you let us take all that? No good to you—”
“Ao, go away!” Grum snapped. “Don’t bother the healer now. You should know
The collector stared at the ground but did not retreat. “She can’t do with
it. We can. Let us have it. Clean it up.”
“This is a bad time to ask.”
“Never mind, Grum.” Snake started to tell the collector to take everything.
Perhaps they could make use of torn blankets and broken spoons; she could not.
She did not even want to see any of it again; she did not want to be reminded of
what had happened. But the collector’s request drew Snake from her questions and
her confusion and back toward reality; she recalled something Grum had said
about Ao’s people when Snake first talked to her.
“Ao, when I vaccinate the others, will you all let me vaccinate you, too?”
The collector looked doubtful. “Creepty-crawlies, poisons, magics,
witches—no, not for us.”
“It’s none of that. You won’t even see the serpents.”
“No, not for us.”
“Then I’ll have to take all that trash out to the middle of the oasis and
“Waste!” the collector cried. “No! Dirty the water? You shame my profession.
You shame yourself.”
“I feel the same way when you won’t let me protect you against disease.
Waste. Waste of people’s lives. Unnecessary deaths.”
The collector peered at her from beneath shaggy eyebrows. “No poisons? No
“Go last if you like,” Grum said. “You’ll see it doesn’t kill me.”
Snake could not help laughing. “No.”
“And then you give us that?” The collector gestured in the direction of
Snake’s battered camp.
“No disease afterward?”
“Fewer. I can’t stop all. No measles. No scarlet fever. No lockjaw—”
“Lockjaw! You stop that?”
“Yes. Not forever but for a long time.”
“We will come,” the collector said, turned, and walked away.
In Grum’s camp, Pauli was giving Swift a brisk rub-down while the mare pulled
wisps of hay from a bundle. Pauli had the most beautiful hands Snake had ever
seen, large yet delicate, long-fingered and strong, uncoarsened by the hard work
she did. Even though she was tall, her hands still should have looked too big
for her size, but they did not. They were graceful and expressive. She and Grum
were as different as two people could be, except for the air of gentleness
shared by grandmother and granddaughter, and by all Pauli’s cousins that Snake
had met. Snake had not spent enough time in Grum’s camp to know how many of her
grandchildren she had with her, or even to know the name of the little girl who
sat nearby polishing Swift’s saddle.
“How’s Squirrel?” Snake asked.
“Fine and happy, child. You can see him there, under the tree, too lazy to
run. But he’s sound again. You, now, you need a bed and rest.”
Snake watched her tiger-pony, who stood among the summertrees, switching his
tail. He looked so comfortable and content that she did not call him.
Snake was weary but she could feel all her muscles tight across her neck and
shoulders. Sleep would be impossible until some of the tension had drained away.
She wanted to think about her camp. Perhaps she would decide that it had, as
Grum said, simply been vandalized by a crazy. If so, she must understand it and
accept it. She was not used to so much happening by chance.
“I’m going to take a bath, Grum,” she said, “and then you can put me
someplace where I won’t be in your way. It won’t be for long.”
“As long as you are here and we are here. You’re welcome with us,
Snake hugged her. Grum patted her shoulder.
Near Grum’s camp one of the springs that fed the oasis sprang from stone and
trickled down the rocks. Snake climbed to where sun-warmed water pooled in
smooth basins. She could see the whole oasis: five camps on the shore, people,
animals. The faint voices of children and the high yap of a dog drifted toward
her through the heavy, dusty air. In a ring around the lake the summertrees
stood like feathers, like a wreath of pale green silk.