To the End
They had to go.
For a moment Sofia couldn’t move. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t breathe. It was too much. Too hard.
But she could hear Rube’s rapid, shallowed breathing. Hard not to. It was the only sound nearby that had nothing to do with the jungle, the buzzing of insects that had closed in as the darkness faded, the campfires around them.
They had to go.
She pushed that thought at herself, slow and laborious. Kept pushing, even when her body didn’t respond. Then she slid Papá’s head off her lap.
He lay still.
He’d be untended. Alone.
They had to go.
Sofia reached beneath her. Began to spread wide, wide enough to hardly feel the seasons again, and deep, deep enough to feel the heat inside—but stopped. She didn’t need that much. Instead, she pulled open beneath him, and then closed over him. He settled underneath, still.
She pulled herself back through her feet as she pushed to standing.
The pain burned hot, quick.
Oh. It was still there. Of course it was.
But all it was was there. So she tried again, pushing through it just harder enough. Blood pressed from the effort, trawling down her flesh to soak the skin of the earth. Trickled away to thin streams, after she made it to her feet.
Then she walked to Rube, lying there, his body tight and still bleeding, chest collapsed, his stomach rising and falling too fast. He groaned and writhed, hands and jaw clenching and unclenching in turns, claws shooting out and coming back.
He was a mess.
She stooped, careful to shift her arms beneath him, then lifted, slow. Her pain was already fading. An agonized growl pressed from him and his hand came up and closed in a tight grip over her shirt. No claws came. Already he was soaking through the remaining dry parts of her shirt.
Around them, weapons bristled. On all sides.
Rube had to make back. He had to. She had to get him there.
Sofia stretched the edges of herself over Rube. Then shouldered gently through the weapons, and the people holding them.
Some poked, some struck. One tried to pull her back by the throat, the hair. Let go when nothing worked. She hardly felt even the weight of their thousands, tens of thousands, of feet upon the earth. Rube remained untouched under her mantle, his forcefully shallowed breathing finally grown rhythmic.
The warriors scattered after a moment, pulling away from her. So too did the insects. Had there really been that many of them?
Someone started walking beside them, keeping apace. Everyone else continued parting.~ There are not many who could survive a journey in such a state as him. ~ Her words were softly spoken. Gentle. ~ If you have a moment to spare, I may be able to grant him more moments in turn.
“Sofie…” It came out of Rube, strangled. Followed by nothing.
That… she didn’t know what he wanted.
But this lady was offering to help him.
Sofia stopped. Turned. Tried to find the right thing to say.
The lady was beautifully dressed—gold and colored gems and rich, red lines of makeup over her skin. She bowed her head, then twitched a hand. A large, furry moth settled on her fingers. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. And then it flew away. She did it again, but this time a coral snake slithered up her leg, beneath her clothing, and coiled around her wrist. It left too.
And then she made a gesture. A big one. And the warriors drew away, just… leaving.
Malinalxochitl stooped. Spread her hands. A bunch of different kinds of snakes slithered over the earth, leaving a streak of bare dirt among the thick brush and mulch.
So Sofia laid Rube out on the ground. He didn’t let go of her shirt. She took his hand, and held onto it.
Wordlessly, Malinalxochitl worked. Warriors came by, with supplies—a mortar and pestle, a small pot, powders and tools and rags and bandages. Kissing bugs and moths flew in with twigs or leaves or petals. Snakes dropped small bones at her feet. A scorpion dripped its poison over her finger. Her lips kept moving, but she was silent.
Rube’s breathing deepened, little by little, throughout it all. Hitched, from time to time. Occasionally his hand tightened over hers in agony, and occasionally he stirred the dirt with his shifting, sliding feet. She let him go only to help clean him up.
It didn’t make sense. Letting them just leave made more sense. Maybe it was important to ask why. Or maybe it was insulting. Or maybe now was a bad time.
It was too hard to decide. So Sofia stayed silent.
And then, after scented smokes and salves and liquids, with supplies leaving in bits and pieces as she finished with them, Malinalxochitl cleaned her hands in a basin for the final time. And Rube was alive, not as tight anymore, and breathing evenly.
There was nothing coming to mind. No questions, no small talk. Just one thing, over and over.
So Sofia said it. ~ Thank you.
Her voice sounded so far away, as if spoken through layers of rock.
Malinalxochitl bowed her head again.
Sofia picked Rube up, and headed home.
She thought she would start crying again once Alvaro did. It always ached to see him hurt like that, even if she wasn’t hurt.
But, even through the worst of the pain, when he’d been kneading her hand between both of his, despite her gripping as tight as she did, sniffling and taking in quiet stuttered gasps, and murmuring, “I love you, Sofie, I love you,” over and over again in Spanish, hardly hearing himself… her own tears just didn’t come.
She’d have hugged him if she could. He was hurting so much.
Mom wasn’t crying, though. Maybe she’d already done her crying, months or years ago. Or maybe she just didn’t feel like crying either. Whatever the case, it was kinda nice. Mom was there just to be there and not because she needed anything or had to do anything, making a sweet nothing out of idly smoothing back her hair.
“There, Sofie.” Suze sounded far away. “Almost done.” She was tight, her expression foggy.
Alvaro squeezed her hand again, sucking in a breath and letting it out in quiet sobs. Mom kept steady, brushing her hair just like she’d been.
Then Suze eased, little by little.
“Do you…” She swallowed the last of her hesitation. “Want to say goodbye?”
He’d been hardly recognizable. Ruined. Still, so still, except a slight breath, glaringly plain as the darkness around them had begun to fade. She’d wanted to leave him there, like that, by himself, while she pulled deep, deep into the earth, far enough away to not be reached, close enough to do what needed doing. She’d wanted this for such a long, terrible time. Years passing between each heartbeat. Waiting for the stillness to be complete, so she could move on.
But she’d done it anyway. She’d gone to say goodbye to Papá.
Yoptel-mopsel it’d hurt so much she’d wanted to die.
She couldn’t do it again.
Her throat tightened.
She couldn’t say another goodbye.
Her breath wouldn’t come.
So, then, she’d traded her son for her father.
That cracked through her. The tears flooded up, and then out, too fast, too powerful.
Sofia curled on herself, sobs barely wheezing out. Alvaro wrapped around her. Mom helped Suze handle the rest.