Mercifully, Tarn had gotten to work on something far away from Irian.
Tarn was always hesitant around the gills, even after a month, but Irian had supposed it was because Tarn was often a timid kind of person.
Either that, or it was like when someone was working at a slaughterhouse for the first time. A messy job, but one you got used to eventually. Irian had gotten used to it.
But Tarn’s outburst today had been jarring. It seemed like the boy had been feeling this way this whole time, and only now did it come out.
Irian had the decency not to snitch to Mr. Derkin about it, but he silently hoped that the kid would act up again and get himself fired.
“And..., there we go,” Mr. Derkin said as he got the lift winched up all the way. Irian tried to grab the red-tailed gill, but it squirmed wildly.
“This is er’ first time,” he explained, helping Irian hold her down, “just got er’ from Fleming.”
“Really?” Irian asked with a hint of surprise. “He’s usually very stingy with selling his mers.”
Mr. Derkin laughed. “Oh, I didn’t buy er’.”
Mr. Derkin shook his head. “No, Fleming had dropped a few too many silver rellas on the table, if ya’ know what I mean.”
Irian chuckled. “Doesn’t seem like he was wagering much.”
Mr. Derkin smiled as they finished binding the gill.
“Oh Irian,” he said, “even one ornery gill is worth a lot. Fleming may not think so, but we’ll toughen er’ up.”
Mr. Derkin slapped him on the back as Irian lifted the gill into his arms.
He had a hard time carrying it to the bowl, as it struggled against him.
Irian may’ve lost his strength in his legs and chest, but he definitely could still hold his own when it came to arm strength.
It wouldn’t do the gill much good to try to escape anyway. They’d catch the gill easily when it was dragging itself around on the decking.
After a walk that should’ve been much easier, Irian finally began to bind her to the bowl’s restraints.
“Take it easy this time,” Mr. Derkin called to him. “Stay away from the sensitive areas. She’s not as conditioned as the others yet, and I’ve noticed you’ve been cutting a bit to harshly.”
“Okay,” Irian called back. Mr. Derkin walked off to see how Tarm was doing.
Irian was not cutting too harshly. He’d gotten adept at holding his wrist steady, and setting the knife at the right angle.
He sucked in his temper, and set his knife to the scales.
Almost immediately the confounded gill started screaming.
He pulled back the knife, and held gill steady, calming her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said, “it’ll be easier if you relax.”
The gill let him place a dowel in her mouth, and she bit down hard on it.
The whole time he scaled, he heard the gill whimpering.
It was very taxing on him.
How could he begin to concentrate with the gill shaking?
Because of this, he only made more mistakes, leading to more frequent accidental cuts in its tail-skin.
He changed out his knife for a sharper and smaller one. He moved more delicately.
Finally, after an hour, he was getting close to being done.
He looked in dissatisfaction at the many remaining scales. Without these, he was only harvesting about half as many scales.
If he got more scales, and more of the smaller ones, it would mean a larger cut of money for him at the end of the month.
More money for him meant more money going to his family, and to Nalrie.
Mr. Derkin wouldn’t go through the scales; He’d just add them to the total monthly pile of red colored scales. He wouldn’t be able to tell that Irian had scaled more than he was supposed to.
He knew he could do it without causing too much damage. He just had to be careful. Irian could drop the gill in the water before Mr. Derkin saw. He could excuse his longer scaling because the gill had struggled.
Irian thought it over as the gill looked up at him.
He wiped off his sweat, and picked up his knife.
He started scraping off the scales on the tip of the tail. The intricate scales began to fall.
The gill’s whining became louder, until it convulsed, and spat out the dowel.
“Please! I don’t care what I have to do! I’ll do anything to make it stop!”
Irian dropped his knife.
He was surprised to hear one of the gills talk - a rare occurrence.
But at that moment, Irian’s heart thundered. An image burned into his vision -
Nalrie’s screams when she first got the heats.
He thought back to her torment when they performed the surgery.
His blood ran cold. She’d pleaded for relief, for any other option.
She was too young a girl for such hardship.
But they’d cut into her, and there was no medicine they could afford to dull her pain.
And there was nothing that could dull her screams.
Despite the boiling wet heat in the air, Irian’s skin felt like ice. He kept trying to return to his task, but his mind kept drifting into that horrible, dark memory.
Irian removed the leather cuffs from the hill’s wrists, and bound them together with the strips. He picked her up, and this time, she didn’t struggle.
He hurriedly got back to the water, and tossed her back into the pool.
The only thought present in his mind was a desire to be rid of the pain.
As the gill vanished, he felt a pang of fear.
He’d forgotten to remove the leather strips binding her hands.
Irian winced. Next time he scaled the gill, he’d need to be in position to make it look like he’d only barely tied the strips.
He swallowed nervously.
Irian didn’t want to scale her again.
He turned away from the pool, and plodded his way back to the bunkhouse in the dying sunlight.
He shut the door and walked silently to his bed.
His body shook as he sat down on the blankets. His veins felt as though they were experiencing the rush of cold mountain rapids.
Irian was letting the situation with his family get out of hand. It was intruding his every thought, and he was trying to ignore that it was there.
He couldn’t let it consume him any longer.
He had to learn some self control.
Tomorrow, he would sell that cursed pocket watch.
Then, he’d send his family as many rellas as he could spare.
He was going to lose a lot of his savings helping them, but he couldn’t live like this.
It was interfering with his work. It was staining his leisure with guilt.
He couldn't live like this.
He couldn’t live like this.
He couldn’t live seeing nothing but Nalrie’s screaming face.