The Country/The Country

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12. Mrs. Nathan

The woman addressed by the police sergeant as “Mrs. Nathan” was a small, silent, hunched human figure swathed in a dark-colored coat squatting in the cold on a stone beneath the partial shelter of the hillock. She was old, alone and, Keel thought, probably disoriented; half-asleep, but shivering.

“I’m all right,” she said, when the sergeant pressed his questions on her.

Her voice was soft, even weak; but perhaps in the manner of someone saving strength for a more important task.

The sergeant stepped back after her assurance. She did not appear to be suffering from any wound. First-aid was the extent of his training, and he preferred to wait for the EMTs to make any deeper assessment of her state.

“Procedure,” he said to the others, as he placed the call for assistance to the EMTs.

He stood quietly beside the driver and Keel, looking at his phone from time to time, and the woman who had walked away from her facility-bed turned to some state approximating the stone she was sitting on, wrapped in the added layer of a police blanket, barely distinguishable in the dark from the hollow of the bunker.

After acknowledging that she was the person they were looking for, Mrs. Nathan didn't volunteer anything more in the way of information. She made no reply when the sergeant stated a second time that they would wait where they were for the EMTs to arrive.

In her eighties, Keel thought. Though it was hard to tell much about someone by flashlight on a winter night. She answered “yes” when the sergeant asked her whether her name was Mrs. Eleni Nathan.

The sergeant tried again. “We’ve been looking for you, Mrs. Nathan.”

Keel heard her sigh.

“And I was waiting,” Mrs. Nathan muttered when the sergeant turned away. “But not for you.”

Keel heard, though he didn’t think either of the policemen did.

Even with the blanket she was shivering, at least some part of her. What would he have done spending a night out in the woods like this? The overhang from the hillock provided shelter from rain but not from cold, or wind if it came up in the night. The night was still and clear now, and he could see some stars between the branches of the nearest trees. Hyperion’s Belt. A wintry constellation. Live long enough and you grew accustomed to its eternal presence. A clock face that never changes its hour, never winds down.

He could not have remained stoically out here in the woods alone at night. He would have been cold, frightened.

When the EMTs arrived they insisted on stretchering her all the way back down the path to the parking area. The woman protested, but quietly, and then let them do their work as they wished. They blanketed her. Asked her if her hands were cold. If she could feel her toes.

Yes, she could feel her toes.

Keel walked behind the men carrying the stretcher. The police officers walked in front of them leading the way. He caught glimpses of Mrs. Nathan draped in her medical emergency when the trail curved a little; otherwise he saw nothing but the long back of the young man behind the stretcher. Two strong young fellows, he thought, manfully doing their job.

It was a shame, he thought, that the destination for their patient would be another facility, a hospital. Then, in all probability, back to the center she had walked away from. He wished he could see her face better. Why had she done what she did? Where was she going? Where did she think she was going?

They did not get an opportunity to speak. It was not his business to speak to her. He had played his part in a ‘rescue’ that did not appear to please its subject very much.

The slow slog back reached the parking area.

The sergeant and the driver stamped their feet while the EMTs carefully settled their patient into the back of the van. Keel wondered when he had stopped feeling his own toes. More stars were visible here. He dreamed himself away, back into the dream of the rabble, the vast hoard of the Sons of Pigster working their way through the land, perhaps on the way to his own city now. Were those pitchforks on their shoulders? Or semi-automatic firing arms? He could almost hear their garbled speech, some raucous singing. Were they drunk? How did they keep themselves going, traveling all night on rough roads? They would be on drugs, he decided. Of course, if you needed to string along a group of blind ‘followers,’ you had to exercise some sort of mind control to keep them slogging through the countryside.

The reality, he thought with a shake of his head, would be no such thing. They would not be walking. They would be on buses, big tour buses like famous rock and roll acts used to travel in between cities. Do they still? The Blues Monarch had traveled in such a bus. Or in fleets of vans. Maybe some super-long trailer trucks, where they could pile in their stuff. What stuff? he wondered.

The ambulance was ready to go. The foreign-looking policeman told Keel to get in the police car, he would take him home. He was saying this a second time.

Seated, Keel watched the ambulance make its careful progress out of the park with the old woman in the back. He doubted she knew his name. On the whole, he preferred it if none of them knew his name. He did not wish to appear in a Headline-Nooz report, looking for the bland, right, cliched words when a man shoved a mike in his face to ask what it felt like to play his part in the rescue of a poor old lady.

But she did know it, apparently.

The sergeant called him the following afternoon. The police, naturally, had taken his name and information for their report. Mrs. Nathan was asking him to speak to him, the sergeant told him. He had gone to the hospital to speak to her about why she had left the rehab facility alone and found it hard to make sense of some of the things she was saying. When he asked for a clarification, she told them to get the man who found her in the woods.

“She said, ’he would understand.’” The sergeant’s voice sounded tentative.

Would he go see her?

Keel found himself agreeing without thinking about it. What else could he do? Someone in the hospital was asking to see him. He hoped it would be only the one time.

He declined an offer of transportation. This time he would drive himself, even though it would be the first time in a week or two that he had turned the key in the ignition of his old, but serviceable automobile. When he sat himself behind the wheel he was happy to find some gas in the tank of the aging foreign made sedan. He did not drive the car much in winter; where did he wish to go in the winter? Keel marketed on foot.

It was only when he found himself in the hospital, looking for the information desk, that the question of what the police were asking Mrs. Nathan to talk about began to oppress him. No crime had been committed, had it? Did they think someone else helped her to walk away from the rehab facility? Was it a crime to help someone to leave such a place without, so to speak, going through channels?

Mrs. Nathan, the senior volunteer at the desk told him, was on the second floor.

He looked at the friendly face of the woman who gave him the room number, but there was no hidden message there.

What was he expecting to hear? Be careful; it may be a trap.

Upstairs he found another woman, this one younger, polite, carefully dressed in a suit the color of garden soil that had not been watered, sitting on a straight chair in the hospital room. The room held a second bed, but it was empty and made up with a simple sheet and blanket. The young woman had pushed her chair back against a wall and did not appear to be engaged in talking to the patient. Watching her then? Or had communication been attempted and failed. Keel assumed she was police.

The room was silent when Keel entered it.

The young woman stood, smiled to cover her inspection of him, and introduced herself.

She said she was from “the agency.” What agency, he wondered, but did not ask.

“We’ve been ‘expecting’ you,” she said. He nodded. “Mrs. Nathan has been expecting you,” she amended, slightly.

“Yes,” he said. “I was told.” He waited.

The woman stepped around the bed.

“I’ll leave you two to talk,” she said, and walked out of the room to wait in the corridor. Would it be impolite of him to shut the door? He shut it.

The woman in the bed followed him with her eyes as he approached and pushed the chair closer to the bed.

“I know who you are,” she said, before he managed to seat himself. “I’m not as batty as they think.”

He expected her to laugh, but she didn’t.

Looking old and fatigued, her eyelids drooping. His grandmother, the only old person he had ever really known, had never looked this tired. Her head and shoulders were propped up a little by pillows. Her thin gray hair framed her face symmetrically as if for a portrait (had they washed it for her?): Lady Such-and-such at rest. Grandchildren should surround the bedside; not an aging man waiting curiously for an explanation.

“Who am I?” he replied at length, as if she knew something he did not.

He meant it. Seeing her, he had no doubt she had something to tell him.

But why him, as opposed, say, to the young lady from ‘the agency’?

“You’re Keel,” she said. “That’s enough. You’re you.”

“Well.” He did not know what to say.

“You know,” her voice soft but insistent. “You see them too. Don’t you?”

He looked away, thinking.

“Who are they?” he asked.

He could not deny ‘seeing’ them. What would be the point? Dreams were a way of seeing. He has known this all his life.

“I don’t bother with names, if that’s what you mean.” Her voice was soft, as if she only had the one volume; all the voice that was left. “Not in this place.” She laughed very softly.

“What do they look like? To you?”

“Men, mostly. You would expect that, wouldn’t you?” She paused, but did not seek an answer. “Great, grimy men, some with beards. Not all of them.” She thought. “They wear dark clothes. They set fires. They love fires... Wearing hats, some of them, you know, like those sports hats for teams and the like... And white skin, mostly. Pale. Pale, white faces.”

“Where are they going?”

“You know that already.”

He did; though he did not wish to.

She looked at him with a new intensity when he did not reply. Her eyes wide awake. No weakness there.

“You don’t need to hide anything from me.” She made a face. Narrow features, chin almost pointy. Voice softer still, but more determined. “I won’t tell anyone about you. If you’re worried about that.”

She did not appear worried about what he would tell. He held back his question.

She answered it anyway. “It’s all over you. I see it everywhere. I don’t even need to see your face.”

“See my face?” he responded. Was she not looking at it?

He was beyond uncomfortable. He felt himself turning to ice. Not because he didn’t understand. But because he did. Somewhat.

“You mean some other ‘seeing,’” he stated rather than asked.

Then, seeing the light in her eyes once more. “You’re a seer?”

“That’s a word for it.” She laughed a kind of blunt, unhappy laugh; more of a snicker. “They called us witches.”

The witch in the woods, he thought. But if she’s a witch, then what am I? The seeker? Or the lost?

“What...” he began.

She didn’t need him to finish. “What are we supposed to do? Is that what you mean?”

The woman’s pale eyes regarded him, their expression both distant and wholly present in her plain, aging face. Waiting, perhaps to see if he wished to ask a different question.

But he shook his head, denying any further curiosity.

“There isn’t anything to do. It’s all been done.”

She said the words with no pleasure. No pleasure in her witchery, or seeing. Something like a sigh escaped her and her eyes shut for a moment.

“But you wanted to see me?” he pursued, quietly.

“I wanted to be sure. I thought you would.... You found me.” As if something more than wandering a path in the woods were involved. “I wanted to be sure you did.”

Yes. He saw that. But for what end?

“Can I ask you one thing more?” He had found a simpler question.

She closed her pale eyes again, as if this time from fatigue.

“Why did you run away?”

She appeared to consider. But perhaps she did not intend to reply.

“That ’s what they all want to know, Mr. Keel,” she said at length, opening her eyes. “Join the crowd.” A joke, but she did not laugh.

She blinked, then closed her eyes.

He felt he should go, but delayed.

“I just needed to be alone, Mr. Keel. To tell you the truth.”

He got a funny feeling hearing her say his name.

Deciding she must be feeling that need again, he rose, without speaking, nodded to the figure on the bed, though her eyes were shuttered. Then stepped away from the bedside and walked quietly out of the room.

The poised and careful woman from the ‘agency’ was standing in the hall. He was not surprised. He paused, waiting for her to speak to him. He wanted to ask her what “agency.” The CBI, the country’s central bureau? Don’t be ridiculous. Probably some follow-up by the agency that inspects facilities such as the one Mrs. Nathan had somehow walked out of.

Or, in actuality, the city police.

But she merely smiled politely and said, “Thank you for coming, Mr. Keel.”

Had she been listening somehow? Was there a device? It seemed strange that she did not attempt to question him, or explain her own presence. What ‘agency’ was that?

Of course, he thought, everything could be surveilled. There could even be a camera in the room. On the ceiling? Over the bed? He hadn’t looked. He didn’t know how.

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