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The Rescuer's Path

Excerpt 1: Malca, June 1971

It was coming into the full moon, that early summer evening--blistering heat after too cold a winter, antiwar protests downtown near the White House, rumors of another murder in Bethesda--when young Malca Bernovski turned the stallion for the first time toward a red-clay gully at the northern edge of Rock Creek Park.

Ears back, Dragon reared; legs stiff, he fought his tiny trainer. She let him plunge, her long hair flopping, and struggled to stay balanced. Then, urging him sharply forward, she sat bolt upright as she’d seen the stable manager, Gerilee, do a hundred times, and, hands gentle but steady on the reins, guided him along an overgrown game trail into the steep gully, down between high banks. The horse no longer balked; he was nearly to the bottom, almost to the water--indeed, his left foreleg had already stepped into the turgid current--when he glanced to his left and once more reared.

"Stop it!" Nearly thrown, Malca flung herself against the gleaming neck. "Down--there’s nothing scary here." But at that moment she saw the form.

Black hair grimed by mud and water, covered with dirt and blood, a man lay nearly hidden behind the vines and granite rocks. He barely seemed to breathe. Blood was caked across his torn, green-and-blue striped sleeves and down along one thigh, his hands spread flat against the clay, and his legs lay helpless in the shallow current. Shivering, badly injured--but no one ever came here. And he was haggard, filthy. He must be someone desperate--crazy, even the Bethesda murderer. Her eyes caught the pallor under the olive skin, the foreign hollowness of the narrow cheeks. Maybe that bomber who’d blown up the soldiers, downtown.

Excerpt 2: Gavin, September 1971

So when at last he comprehended that those words she struggled forth, shaking in a brave fragility, were simply true and all that he had done or grieved for came from caring, he could not keep back the silly smiles. She knew.

As if he climbed a chasm with the ocean pouring below, and gripped the slippery rock to bear the people upward, time after time, each time a struggle not to stay beneath, not to hang in the wave but to lift each person to an ultimate safety. As indeed she had dragged him up the bank.

And, frightened but holding back the drowning, she had understood. Yet never had she halted, unmoving, in the blasting blue glare and known I could have caused this,then failed to do what might, past what was counted possible, yet save. Never had she placed into a palsied mouth the little red pills, never opened the door to find the dead. There were times he had imagined each half-rotted body like a stillborn puppy’s, saying wordlessly, "I was the universe. If you had died, this void would now be yours not mine." His mother, lips gaping and arms spread as if inviting someone home, had lain like meat, the rigid eye-jelly under heavy lids; those soldiers’ bodies had blown past in bleeding pieces like steak sandwiches.

But this morning Malca had said, "You care, Gavin, you more than anyone!"

So he must strive again--for himself and her and for the people running fugitive beneath the bombs. For if one life had meaning, so must all; he'd known this when he watched those two poor soldiers struggling with their truck and thought to never again take the route that killed. Now again the path would dare that circus edge of violence.

Somewhere, she had to stay safe. And some day, he would find her, and bring new songs no longer so haunted; there could be a future.

Except--already the light was slanting yellow, ripples on the water turning bronze--none of it was so damn sure.

Excerpt 3: Malca, 2008

Breath slow and sated, exhausted from arguing this week’s immigration cases against the ICE, Jeff slept beside her--beloved Jeff, his fears and ultimatums of the years before bare memory. Mama-Deluxe, the orange cat from the Berkeley Humane Society, lay curled, tail over nose, on the walnut hutch. All around, the walls stood, seeming firm--the house walls, and those others.

Gavin had missed so much, had missed these years, all this. As she would miss little Gabey’s far-away adulthood. As the people in those falling towers of 9-11 had missed their future, as the people had in Baghdad, in . . . wherever came next. No meaning, no sense to it, ever. Yet life, love, blessings.

Malca turned, making sure the warm fleece blanket stayed tucked around her husband’s shoulders. She wanted no false reassurance from him now, however well intended, but sometime this morning she must say it, "The doctor phoned back yesterday, Jeff. Some tiny nodules showed up in my scan." Really, the dream that woke her had felt startled, angry at the injustice of her dumb philosophy professor saying no he could not pass her if her sewing course were not complete, though she had carefully explained she was about to graduate and that a sewing class was just a joke, beneath her, and besides she had no way to match that shade of leaf-green cloth with some other "What do you call it, ‘lot’?" Until finally he said he would accept the off shade, but only if she finished; but this meant her future could not be at all as she had planned.

A bargaining dream, she supposed, expressing an unacknowledged anger--an anger I must tap? Why do I dread that?--and hopelessness, despair at the ridiculous, stupid, absurd unfairness. This was only the beginning, probably, beginning of the end of everything. And when the path into that end turned horror, would she dare (as then she must) to not choose life? Feeling the air slip in and out her nostrils, beginning to sense how hard it might be to let go, she understood, with startled awe, what Gavin once had given. She lifted her hand from the fleece, careful not to wake the man beside her, and watched the wide half-curtained window while she listened to the frightening, beautiful arrival of the dawn.