Everyone turned to Painter, as if waiting for his agreement.
“Of course we’re going,” he said.
Omaha clapped him on the shoulder. “Finally something we agree on.”
S AFIA HUGGED Kara. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m not sure.” Kara trembled in her grip. Her skin felt clammy, moist.
“The others? I saw Painter…what about Omaha, his brother…?”
“As far as I know, everyone’s okay. But I was away from the fighting.”
Safia had to sit down, her legs weak, knees rubbery. The cavern swam a bit around her. The tinkling of the waterfall through the hole in the roof sounded like silver bells. Firelight from the five campfires dazzled her eyes.
She sank to a rumpled blanket by the fire. She couldn’t feel the heat of the flames.
Kara followed her down. “Your shoulder! You’re bleeding.”
Shot. Safia didn’t know if she’d spoken aloud or not.
Three women approached, arms full. They carried a steaming basin, folded cloths, a covered brazier, and oddly out of place, a box with the red cross of an emergency medical kit. An elderly woman, not the same as the one who had led her here, followed with a tall walking stick, fiery in the glow of the campfire. She was ancient, shoulders hunched, hair white but neatly combed and braided back over her ears. Rubies adorned her lobes, matching her teardrop tattoo.
“Lie down, daughter,” the old woman intoned. English again. “Let us see to your injuries.”
Safia had no energy to resist, but Kara guarded over her. She had to trust that her friend would protect her if necessary.
Safia’s blouse was stripped from her. The soiled bandage was then soaked in a steaming poultice of aloe and mint and slowly peeled back. It felt as if they were flaying the skin off her shoulder. She gasped, and her vision darkened.
“You’re hurting her,” Kara warned.
One of the three women had knelt and opened the emergency medical kit. “I have one ampoule of morphine, hodja,” the woman said.
“Let me see the wound.” The elder leaned down, supported by her staff.
Safia shifted so her shoulder was bared.
“The bullet passed cleanly through. Shallow. Good. We’ll not have to operate. Sweet myrrh tea will ease her pain. Also two tablets of Tylenol with codeine. Hook an IV to her good arm. Run in a liter of warmed LRS.”
“What of the wound?” the other woman asked.
“We’ll cauterize, pack, and wrap the shoulder, then sling the arm.”
Safia was propped up. The third woman poured a steaming mug of tea and handed it to Kara. “Help her drink. It will give her strength.”
Kara obeyed, accepting the mug with both hands.
“You’d best sip, too,” the old woman told Kara. “To clear your head.”
“I doubt this is strong enough.”
“Doubt will not serve you here.”
Kara sipped the tea, grimaced, then offered it to Safia. “You should drink. You look like hell.”
Safia allowed a bit to be dribbled between her lips. The warmth flowed down into the cold pit that was her stomach. She accepted more. Two pills were held in front of her.
“For the pain,” the youngest of the three women whispered. All three looked like sisters, only a few years apart.
“Take them, Saffie,” Kara urged. “Or I’ll take them myself.”
Safia opened her mouth, accepted the medication, and swallowed them down with a bit more of the tea.
“Now lie back while we minister to your wounds,” the hodja said.
Safia collapsed to the blankets, warmer now.
The hodja slowly lowered to the blanket beside her, moving with a grace that belied her age. She rested her walking stick over her knees.
“Rest, daughter. Be at peace.” She placed one hand atop Safia’s.
A gentle bleary feeling swelled through her, fading all the ache from her body, leaving her floating. Safia smelled the jasmine wreathed about the cavern.
“Who…who are you?” Safia asked.
“We’re your mother, dear.”
Safia flinched, denying the possibility, offended. Her mother was dead. This woman was too old. She must be speaking metaphorically. Before she could scold, all sight dissolved away. Only a few words followed her away.
“All of us. We’re all your mother.”
K ARA WATCHED the group of women attend to Safia as her friend lolled on the blankets. A catheter was inserted into a vein in her right hand and hooked to an intravenous drip attached to a warm bag of saline, held aloft by one of Safia’s nurses. The other two rinsed and daubed the bullet wound in Safia’s shoulder. The injury was smaller than a dime. A cauterizing powder was sprinkled generously over the site, which was then painted with iodine, packed with cotton gauze, and expertly wrapped.
Safia thrashed slightly, but remained asleep.
“Make sure she keeps her arm in a sling,” the older woman said, watching the work of the others. “When she is awake, make sure she drinks a cup of the tea.”
The hodja lifted her staff, posted it on the ground, and pulled herself up. She faced Kara. “Come. Let my daughters care for your sister.”
“I won’t leave her.” Kara moved closer to Safia.
“She will be well cared for. Come. It is time for you to find what you have sought.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Answers to your life. Come or stay. It makes no matter to me.” The old woman thumped off. “I will not argue with you.”
Kara glanced to Safia, then to the elder. Answers to your life.
Kara slowly rose. “If anything happens…” But she didn’t know whom she was threatening. The nurses seemed to be taking good care of her friend.
With a shake of her head, Kara set off after the hodja.
“Where are we going?”
Ignoring Kara, the hodja continued. They left the trickling waterfall and fires behind and crossed into the deeper gloom that rimmed the chamber.
Kara stared around. She barely remembered entering this cavern. She had been conscious of it, but it was as if she had moved in a pleasant fog, plodding behind a similarly clad older tribeswoman. After leaving the van, they had walked for well over an hour, through a shadowy forest, to an ancient dry well, accessed via a narrow cut in the rock. They had spiraled down into a mountainside, walking for some time. Once they reached the cavern here, Kara had been abandoned by the fire, told to wait, the fog lifting from her. With its dissipation, her headache, tremors, and nausea had returned like a leaden blanket. She felt barely able to move, let alone find her way out of this warren of tunnels. Questions she asked were ignored.
And she had many.
She stared at the back of the elder ahead of her now. Who were these women? What did they want with her and Safia?
They reached a tunnel opening in the wall. A child waited at the entrance, bearing a silver oil lamp, like something you’d rub to raise a genie. A tiny flame lapped the tip of the lamp. The girl, no more than eight, wore a desert cloak that appeared too large for her, the hem bunching slightly at her toes. Her eyes were huge upon Kara, as if she were staring at some alien being. But there was no fright, only curiosity.
The hodja nodded the child forward. “Go, Yaqut.”
The child turned and shuffled forward down the tunnel. Yaqut was Arabic for “ruby.” It was the first time she had heard a name spoken here.
She stared at the hodja at her side. “What is your name?”
The old woman finally glanced at her. Green eyes flashed brightly in the lamp’s flame. “I am called many names, but my given name is Lu’lu. I believe in your language that means ‘pearl.’ ”
Kara nodded. “Are all your women named after jewels?”
There was no answer as they continued walking behind the child in silence, but Kara sensed the woman’s acknowledgment. In Arabic tradition, such jeweled names were given to only one caste of folk.
Why did these women pick such names? They certainly seemed freer than most Arab women.
The child turned off the tunnel into a limestone chamber. It was cold, the walls damp, scintillating in the lamplight. A prayer rug lay on the cave’s floor, cushioned by a bed of straw. Beyond it stood a low altar of black stone.
Kara felt a thrill of fear ice through her. Why had they brought her here?
Yaqut walked to the altar, circled behind it, and bent out of sight.
Suddenly flames crackled brighter behind the stone. Yaqut had used her oil lamp to light a small stack of wood. Kara smelled incense and kerosene from the pile, scented and oiled for easy lighting. The kerosene burned away quickly, leaving only the sweet fragrance of frankincense.
As the flames licked higher, Kara saw her mistake. The dark altar was not opaque but crystalline, like a chunk of black obsidian, only more translucent. The glow of the flames shone through the stone.
“Come,” Lu’lu intoned, and led Kara to the prayer rug. “Kneel.”
Kara, exhausted from lack of sleep and shaky from the drain of adrenaline from her system, both naturally and artificially induced, gratefully sank to the soft rug.
The hodja stood behind her. “This is what you have come so far and searched so long to find.” She pointed her stick toward the altar.
Kara stared at the block of translucent stone. Her eyes widened as the stack of wood blazed behind the altar, shining through it.
Not opaque stone…raw glass.
Flames lit the interior, illuminating the heart of the glass block. Inside, embedded like a fly in amber, rested a figure, plainly human, blackened to bone, legs curled fetally but arms out in agony. Kara had seen a similar stricken figure. In the ruins of Pompeii. A form turned to stone, buried and petrified under hot ash from the ancient eruption of Vesuvius. The same posture of tortured death.
But worst of all, Kara knew why she had been brought here, shown this.
Answers to her life.
She collapsed to her hands on the rug, her body suddenly too heavy. No… Tears burst to her eyes. She knew who lay buried in the heart of the glass, preserved in agony.