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Descent

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"..for love of friendship one has even to put in jeopardy love itself..."
--Epicurus

Archie twists away from my desk, the blood already dappling his suit jacket. His face is surprised, engrossed, faintly annoyed. I am on my feet, but he will fall before I catch him-- I snap awake in the torturous wooden chair. A dream.

Some dreams, once experienced, accompany me through my life. I still awaken, now and again, from bathing in the foul mud that results from mixing earth, explosives, and men's bodies. Or I lie on my back, a near-skeleton staked to the ground by starvation, staring at a bright blue sky above peaks of bare rock, past being consumed by hunger, able to feel only a dull, resentful need. I know already that this new dream will add itself to the ranks that march beside me in my sleep.

Crisis reduces me to poetry, and bad poetry, at that. I could count out the hours with stories, instead. There is a kind of lava in Hawaii that reduces the shoes of all who cross it to tatters in less than a mile. If the walker has not come to the edge of that stream of solidified fire, the soles of the feet will then be shredded to ribbons. If the walker should fall--

Or, there are facts. Chest wounds are extremely hazardous, even in sturdy, healthy, young patients. The number of vital and delicate organs in the lower chest is exceeded only by the number of those in the neck and head. The probability of infection is high, and, given reduced functioning of the lung tissues, the patient frequently drowns in his own fluids.

The blood on his suit and shirt shone in the lamplight. His eyes knew his peril as they looked at me, and did not apportion blame or expect rescue, but only desired comfort. Was that the worst, seeing his satisfaction at my safety? I held him against me, trusting no one else to tend him in that crisis. I knew how to staunch the blood properly, but the flow from such a wound is never slow, and his breathing-- The red trickling through his lips was fire quenched by the sea.

In the empty chair next to me sits a thermos flask of coffee. I was unaware that we possessed such an item as a thermos, but I should not have been. Fritz takes consolation in meeting contingencies. Even now, he transforms his worries into shining jars filled with sweet jam, or tart pickles, or into brown heaps of fragrant sausages. He will be making some foodstuff that expresses faith in the future, in Archie's return to his kitchen table, in raillery, in warmth. The flask is his gift to me, his attempt to share his hopes for the days to come. The coffee in the metal cup is still warm, but bitter. Failed agent, failed warrior, failed scholar, use that comparison in your maundering.

Archie. Was it only your--

I am tired. It makes me maudlin, and understandably so. It is well into the morning following a horrible night: Archie, shot in my office, trying to protect me. Why did I not see that Johnathan Cadell was about to shatter under my questioning like a crystal pitcher dropped onto stone flags, scattering razor-sharp shards everywhere? Yes, I took reasonable precautions, but humans are masters of unreason, especially while in the throws of infatuation. Archie stepping forward, his hand outstretched. He must know he can not master this situation, this passion. Cadell turns from me, towards Archie, his forefinger tightening-- No. I will not see it yet again. Awake, I will master my own intellect.

Forcing my eyes open, I examine my surroundings. Hospitals were once occupied only by the dying, and I feel that these walls have never lost that knowledge. Those who keep watch in this room with me seem all suspended in mid-fall, waiting to see if they will strike unrelenting ground, or be caught in the arms of those they love and be unexpectedly reprieved from the possibilities that lie behind the swinging doors labeled "Surgery". That man, there, is hunched over and gray. He holds hope no longer: in the end, it weighed too much. This tired woman, though, seems to have been carrying her burden for a long while, and be willing to carry it still. Her hazel eyes meet mine, and I feel my chin nod to acknowledge the weary stretch of her lips.

The doors swing open and a doctor emerges. At least one of us will hear of our destiny. The doctor pulls down the mask that kept him faceless, as are all proper oracles, and searches the waiting room. His eyes catch mine, and I know my suspension is over, my fall recommences. "Mr. Wolfe?"

"Yes, Doctor?"

"We are done with Mr. Goodwin. So far, so good, but it will be a difficult recovery. The bullet passed through the left lung and collided with a rib. We removed it from the muscles of his back, but I am uneasy about the chances of infection."

I appreciate bluntness. It demands little from me. "May I see him?"

He frowns. "Are you two related, Mr. Wolfe?"

"No, I am Mr. Goodwin's employer. However, I have also, in some sense, stood in loco parentis for him since he was a youth."

He looks at me blankly and then, suddenly, smiles. "At one point, your Mr. Goodwin tried to talk under the anesthesia. Would you, by any chance, consider yourself a fat - busybody - Mr. Wolfe?"

"Yes. He was, in all probability, referring to me."

"Well. I'll append a note to his file that you are to be allowed access. Good morning, Mr. Wolfe."

"Good morning, indeed, Doctor. Thank you."

Archie lies in an oxygen tent, pale, unnaturally still from the anesthesia. I sit beside him, ignoring the glare of his nurse. Even unconscious, I note, he already arouses possessiveness in the breasts of his female attendants, but that is to be expected, and irrelevant. I will remain. It is irrational, I know, but my vigil seems the only link between Archie and the life that flowed out of him with the blood.

Mine is a long vigil, longer than I could have anticipated. Hours stretch into days. I return to the brownstone to eat when I must, and sleep when I must. Theodore complains. Fritz frowns, worried. Saul gazes at me, and does not speak. None of it matters. It seems to me that all that is real is Archie.

Archie. Was it only your death I--

When did I begin to slide, to slip? I would affirm that my intentions were pure enough at the beginning: only to use a tool that came, by chance, to hand, in order to goad myself into action. Even an ox must change his field, if he would eat the sweetest grass. When did his voice cease to be a goad and start to be a lure?

He can not tell me. He sleeps in restlessness and pain. A day passes, and then two, and he drifts close to the waking world. His eyes open and meet mine, but do not entirely know me. When he is well, such raw emotion never passes across his features. Even now, he is not fully aware. I say his name, trying to anchor him. "Archie."

He smiles, and his lips, dry from the flow of the oxygen-rich air, crack. Blood speckles them, and he touches the specks with a thick, dry tongue and seems bemused at the taste. His eyes, meeting mine again, are cloudy, but the question in them is clear. Someone has hurt him. It could not have been me, so would I explain? Trust, intimacy, the demand for protection.

My heart is being squeezed in my chest. I ignore it. "You were shot, but you are recovering." My stomach trembles, my eyes burn. If one stares without blinking, one can suppress-- "It was a chest wound, so you are in an oxygen tent." Without my permission, my throat works. Something escapes from the corners of my eyes. I do not allow my expression to evade my control, as well. "The doctors report that your prognosis is excellent. You should sleep."

He moves his hand towards mine, and, involuntarily, I reach out. Our hands do not meet, but brush the same bit of fabric. His fingers fall back, defeated. His eyes close. He is gone from me again. I sit and let nature have its way with me for several minutes before I wipe my face and inform his nurse that Archie approached consciousness.

That night, his fever begins.

During the worst of it, I would gladly have ceased being an atheist, if only to have someone to bargain with for his life. Such solace is denied me. I wait for him to leave me, to go where so many others for whom I cared have gone. He gazes across the border, I can tell. If he goes, will I follow? Will my fall end with my battering through that final barrier? Shall I enter the country where no one knows his fellows or his self? It would be restful, not to know myself.

Archie. Was it only your death I shall embrace?

I am not sleeping enough. My eyes burn, constantly, as if the air abraded them. Everything is, at the same time, too far and too near. Even those who have a claim upon me seem at a remove, their voices loud and formal, their words without meaning. Saul, Fritz, have both been where one learned to recognize when the fire was dying behind a man's eyes. They see something in me and worry, I can tell, even while they walk their own painful journeys. But I have only the remote attention of affection comprehended but not felt to spare them, just now. Archie is right. I am an egoist: one who dwells, though, in a dualistic universe.

When the crisis comes, I am with him, but taken by surprise. I sleep, I dream, again. No dream of death, this, but a dream of life: the life that is forbidden me, that will never be. He is in my arms once more, but whole. I do not hold him, but embrace him. He is warm, supple, and filled with laughter and strength. Like a cat, he consents to my caresses, and having consented, demands. When I soothe that which will bring him the sweetest pleasure he says my name, and I awaken.

The sound of my name was not a fragment of my dream. Swaddled within his tent, he is awake. His eyes, meeting mine, comprehend. Fate laughs; now, at this moment when I am most vulnerable, comes the first time he has known me in days. Some small shift in his expression tells me that I have not been able to mask the feelings engendered in me by my dream. Time seems to stretch as I wait for revulsion to mar his features. Then, as I expected, his expression shifts. Even veiled by the sweat and the fatigue, the change is unmistakable to one who has known him as long as I have. But the alteration is not what I anticipated. Archie likes what he sees. He is well pleased, and he preens.

Jackanapes. He will live. And, soon, he will request a raise. Joy, irritation, and the emotions that please him vie for mastery within me. I feel myself scowl. Weakly, he grins at me, and closes his eyes, content to sleep once more.

Now I wait with patience, and not with dread. I shift in my chair, an almost comfortable seat. One day, soon after the crisis, I returned to his room to find that someone had replaced the usual stark wooden perch with this wide and cushioned armchair. My inquiries to the staff were met with blankness, and I soon gave up my efforts. Enough to know that we were watched and some gentle judgement made. I am too tired just now, to cavil at sympathy: complaints about gifts are a weakness of the proud. My pride lies abraded and bleeding after its long walk, and I am content to have it so.

His illness has debilitated both of us. It is sufficient to sit beside him and speak when he is awake. Again and again he demands explanation of his circumstances. He is soothed by the sound of my voice, and, when I fall silent, he opens his eyes and glowers at me. I do not know if he remembers what he saw during that first glance, but he has always known that he may trespass, and he does so. His own short sentences are insolent, intimate. The first time I growl at his presumption, I see him relax, and know that it firms his grip on life. As quickly as I may, after that, I pick a quarrel. The nurse is horrified, but Archie seems to visibly draw strength from our conflict.

Soon he will heal, and soon he will return to the brownstone that I hope, in his heart, he names home. As he returns to himself, so I will return to myself, and once again bury the words I must never say deep within me, as if they were too sacred to speak. It was only Archie's blood sacrifice that brought them up to awareness in the first place. Archaic poetry, archaic desires: beneath my hide and fat, I conceal them both. But I left the lyrics and the lusts of the Athenians behind me with my youth and my grace, all of it an offering burnt upon the cold, steel altar of our age. It is time for me to come back to my proper self, to my rationality and my solitude. In the end, each man falls alone.

There is only one hope I will retain when I return to what must be my world. It is what I shall work towards, from among the wishes of my heart. Beloved, I will never say to him, although such he has been to me and so I name him. As long as I have known you, I have tried to protect, to support, to guide you. I have embraced only restraint, and so seen you grow into a man who supports me in your turn. Our lives together are not all that I might desire but they are sufficient, abundant. Forgive me if I yearn, for I do not demand. You know that you are free. So choose what path you will, Archie, but grant me this one gift. Live.