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What Can't Be Helped

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In Shabane's eighteenth year, the flood comes almost to the porch. She can feel the cottage rocking on its floats of alligator palm, but it never quite lifts out of its foundations; all the same, she brews tea carefully for the first days of the flood season so that the swaying doesn't make her spill.

"We chose a good spot," says Achane over breakfast. "Everyone closer to the bank is afloat."

Shabane only puts down her tea and buries her mouth in her elbow. She coughs until she brings up blood-streaked phlegm, until her ribs ache and her throat is raw, and Achane comes around the table to brace her back. "Thank you," she says when the coughing stops.

Achane still holds her, a moment too long and a hair too tight.

Shabane wonders if Achane even remembers choosing the spot herself, or if she's concocted a memory of how they chose it together.

*

A fisherman loans Achane his boat so that she can tend to the sick, and that means she's gone at sunrise and home well after dusk. All along the waterway, middens have washed into the river; everyone has the bloody shits. "I'll need these," says Achane, unrolling a scroll of herbs on the table in the early mornings and bracing each end with a stone worn smooth in the river. "It's a little early for snakeblossom seedpods--don't pick them if the hulls are green; they're still--"

"Poisonous. I know," Shabane replies, raising a hand to quiet her. "I've been doing this almost as long as you have, by now. I'd make a decent doctor, even if I'd never be much of a witch."

Achane laughs and makes a face, nose scrunched up and eyes wrinkling at the corners. "Don't say things like that. Doctors have no souls. It's a proven fact."

"A proven fact, is it? I'd find it in one of your scrolls, if I looked?"

"Would this face lie to you?" Achane poses, hand at her chin, eyelashes fluttering. Shabane has no choice but to throw a napkin at her, and that makes Achane upset her teacup, and by the time they've cleaned the tea off the floor they both have stitches in their sides from laughing too hard.

This is the sister I came to live with, thinks Shabane. She rests her head on Achane's shoulder and strokes back her fraying braids. The one who can't help laughing.

"Snakeblossom seeds," says Shabane, when she's caught her breath again. "But not if the hulls are still green. I'll remember."

Achane kisses her cheek, then offers a hand to help her to her feet. "I couldn't do this without you," she says, earnest and solemn. She should have been a priestess of Shonè, Shabane thinks sometimes, with a seedbag at her hip and a lantern to light the way home. A life like that might give her some kind of peace.

Achane takes an unlit lantern with her to the boat and fixes it to the mast, beneath the plume of palm fronds that marks her one of Terìchone's healers. From the porch, Shabane watches her go.

Achane never did know how to be at peace.

*

Shabane is halfway up a dendrove tree when she hears the quiet mewing. She pauses, one foot suspended over a branch, and listens again.

This time, the mew is so soft that she barely hears it, but hear it she does.

She settles her foot, coughs hard to clear her throat, and begins to climb again. Twice, she has to circle the thick trunk to find stable footing; once, she slips on the slick bark, and her heart almost stops while her legs mill over the empty air. For a terrified moment, all she can think is, If I break my legs trying to save a kitten, Achane will never let me hear the end of it.

At last, Shabane wedges her left foot between two boughs and then gets her right knee hooked over another, and then she hauls herself hand over hand toward the trunk until she can embrace it like a lover.

The kitten is mewing again, but now she can see him--a wild-eyed black cat with long fur crusted into spikes. "Here, puss, puss, puss," she calls, making kissing sounds. "Here, kit."

Some kittens learn from their earliest days that humans will give them fish and stroke their ears; they learn to trust that they will be picked up and carried, and that they have only to cry when they're frightened or lonely.

This is not one of those kittens. When Shabane's eyes meet his, he hisses and bristles as though he expects her to bring the tempest. No matter how she cajoles, no matter how she soothes and clicks and kisses, he will not be persuaded to climb down to where she can reach him. When she breaks into a cough, he backs along the branch so quickly that he nearly falls.

After an hour of fruitless calling, she climbs back down to where shelves of fungus ring the tree in violet tiers. She works each shelf free of the bark with care.

Every time the kitten mews, her heart aches.

*

"How was your day?" Shabane asks as she ladles rice soup into Achane's bowl. The bone from a ham hock has made good broth, although they have no cream to make it richer. No one pays a healer in cream.

Achane only stirs the rice in circles and watches the steam rising in the lantern light. Shabane coughs, but it's an unproductive cough, stifled against her fist. "We lost one," Achane says at length. "I gave him all I had, but it didn't help. His tongue was swollen, and his lips were so dry ..."

Shabane reaches for her hand across the table. Achane's palm is rough; her lips are cracked, her eyes reddened. "You can't blame yourself for losing him. You just said, you did all you could. At some point, you have to be able to let him go--it won't bring him back if you don't drink your soup."

Achane's smile is faint as a ghost's as she lets Shabane's hand go. "You shouldn't be taking care of me. I should be taking care of you."

"You should be taking care of yourself so I don't have to." Shabane nudges Achane's soup across the table. "Now, drink. And after that, sleep. You won't be able to take care of anyone if you don't keep your strength up."

With a sigh, Achane spoons up a little of her soup and swallows. "What about you?" she asks, when she remembers. "Did anything interesting happen today?"

Shabane remembers the little black cat in the tree, his fur crusted with dirt and his claws out. She remembers how he cried--not because he wanted help, but because he was too far gone to keep from crying.

She pours herself tea to cover the pause, and she answers, "Nothing interesting."