Memories in the Dust

 

 

Chapter Thirty-four

 

The rain pounded violently on the tile roof while the wind howled along the balcony.  Blinding flashes of lightning and booming thunder testified to the power of nature.  The entire house rattled.  Diego wondered why the fire in the fireplace was out, without even embers to show there had ever been anything in it.  He was puzzled by the lack of candles or lanterns.  His room seemed cloistered and small, and he paced with the nervous energy of a caged bear, his steps guided by memory and the flashes of lightning. 

Finally, he could stand it no longer and he opened the heavy, ornately decorated door that led to the balcony.  Puzzled, Diego saw before him a long hallway, like that in a monastery.  Candles in sconces were placed in the walls at intervals only close enough to prevent him from stumbling on the somewhat uneven packed earth floor of the corridor. 

Lightning still flickered behind him and thunder shook the walls, the booming noise echoing dully in his brain.  For a moment Diego paused, trying to make sense of his strange surroundings.  Then he continued, coming to a door that was partially opened.  Reddish-gold light filtered out through the doorway.  Curious, he pushed it open, his eyes beholding the light of over a dozen red candles with flickering red flames.  Diego stared at them in wonder, then he continued to the long box that the candles surrounded.  He realized the box was a coffin and dread shot through him.  His heart began pounding until it became a pain that filled his chest.  Who is it? he asked himself and realized he didn’t want to know, but his feet kept moving toward the dark brown box.   He tried to stop, his dread increasing until it almost threatened to close off his windpipe, but it was as though he had no control over his body. 

Suddenly Diego was standing over the coffin, looking down.  His eyes widened at the sight that greeted them.  In the coffin lay a woman in sweet repose, her dark skin smooth and soft, her light hair like a halo around her face.  The candles flared up, further illuminating the face of the dead before him. 

“MINTA!” he screamed, jerking upright in the small bed.  The leather strip lattice mattress protested under his weight.  There was only one candle for illumination and it was across the room.  Diego felt the sweat drip down his face as he looked wildly around him. 

“Diego, my son, it is all right.  You are having a nightmare,” his father said, his hand on Diego’s arm providing a link to reality.  There was no coffin, no red-flamed candles; only the darkness and a slight muttering of thunder in the distance. 

He stared at his father.   A dream.  It was just a dream, he thought in relief.  But how is she?  How is she really?  Will she die??   Sensing the dread building, Diego got up, feeling his now wrinkled clothing sticking to his body.  Slipping out of his father’s grasp, he crossed the room.  Diego saw that his wife was still in the same position that she had been when he had laid down.  She was ominously still, her face swollen, her hair hanging limp.  Father Felipe was wiping her forehead with a damp cloth. 

Silently, Diego approached Minta’s bedside and gently took the cloth.  “Diego, mi hijo, you should sleep some more,” Father Felipe told him softly.   “We can take care of Minta for you while you rest."

“I should be by my wife’s side,” Diego responded, his voice low, but resolute.  He dipped the cloth into the basin, wrung it out and tenderly wiped her battered face.  “I should always be next to my beloved.”

Again his father laid a hand on his arm.  Diego looked up.  “Diego, my son….”   The eyes spoke volumes of the love that the older man felt for his son and of the understanding that he had for Diego’s anguish.  As the young man continued to care for his wife, he realized just how hard this must be on his father.  Father had also gone through the suffering of someone he loved.  Except Mother had died.  Mother of God, do not let that happen now, his fearful mind cried.

Diego nodded, unable to speak, and turned back to Minta.  Neither his father nor Father Felipe said anything else, and Diego realized several minutes later that he was alone.  Taking Minta’s hand in his, he cradled it next to his cheek, feeling the warmth of her skin.  “Oh, querida, I am so sorry, so very sorry.”  Closing his eyes, he prayed.  He prayed to his patron saint, to the Holy Virgin, to her Son and to God, Himself.  At the sound of a soft sigh, his eyes jerked open.

“Oh, Diego, you are here,” she murmured, a slight smile crossing her battered lips.  “I dreamed that you were with me.  I dream of you; always…”

“And I, you,” he answered, kissing the back of her hand, then leaning over and kissing her gently on her battered lips.   “You will soon be well, mi amor and then Padre Felipe will marry us.  And I will never leave your side.”

Minta looked over his shoulder and then said, “Yes.”  She paused and sighed softly.  “I love you and will always love you, Diego.  I felt something about you from the first moment that I saw you.  I want you to be happy, my love.”

To Diego it seemed as though Minta was saying goodbye to him and his heart constricted.  “I will be happy, Minta, when you are well.  Just get well, mi amor.”

“I love you,” she whispered and closed her eyes.  Soon her breathing slowed to that of sleep.  Diego sat with her for hours, occasionally giving her sips of juice when she was awake enough to swallow, wiping her face with the cool, damp cloth, always holding her hand and talking to her.  She sometimes moaned and murmured as she lay on the bed, but she never fully awakened.  For two days, Diego sat his vigil, sometimes with Father Felipe, sometimes with Bernardo or his father nearby.   They brought him food, but he only ate a little.  As each hour passed, Diego felt more and more despondent; hope trickling away like the shiny sand in an hourglass.

“My son, Minta’s injuries do not seem life threatening, but her recovery from this act of evil is going to take a long time,” Father Felipe told Diego on the second day.  “Let me care for her for a while so you can sleep.” 

Diego simply shook his head and remained by Minta’s side.  He felt the reassuring touch of the priest’s hand squeezing his shoulder and then heard the slight sound of Father Felipe’s sandals slapping against the stone floor of the room as he left.  He continued his vigil through the day and into the night.  As the early morning sun filtered through the tiny window, Diego was dismayed to find that he had dozed off.  He touched his hand to her forehead.  Madre de Dios!  A fever! he thought.  Taking her hand in his, he brought it to his cheek. “Mi amor,” he moaned.

Dr. Avila visited as he had several days earlier, but he could do very little, only giving them medicines to help with the fever.  Father Felipe mixed the medicines, and Diego gave them to her, but as the fourth day progressed, Minta’s fever rose higher.  Prayer was mixed with soft whisperings to his beloved, admonitions to get well in both conversations.  “Minta, do not leave me, please do not leave me,” he murmured in Rantiri, close to her ear.  Her only response was a soft sighing moan.  He only left her to go to the small side chapel that was mainly used by the neophytes, and light candles in her behalf.  “Madre de Dios, heal her, por favor.  Please hear me.”

Back in the room, he rubbed his finger gently down her fevered cheek.  “I would do anything for you, Minta,” he said to her.  Again praying, he murmured, “Dios mio, you know that I would give anything for her to get well.  Anything.” 

During the fourth night, exhaustion caught up with him and Diego caught himself dozing in the chair next to Minta’s bed.  Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked into the Father Felipe’s apprehensive face. 

“One of Minta’s people is here,” he stated, his voice registering concern alongside bewilderment.   “I did not ask how, but the man simply showed up at the mission gate.”

“What?” Diego asked, his mind still fogged with exhaustion.  From behind Father Felipe, a Rantiri stepped into the room.  He looked familiar, and Diego frowned, trying to remember.  Then it came to him.  It was the one who stuck the needle in his arm before his memories were taken from him.  “Jerintas?” he asked tentatively, remembering the name that Minta had given him. 

The Rantiri nodded, his eyes quickly leaving Diego’s and traveling down to the young woman on the bed.   He knelt by Minta’s bedside, lightly touching her forehead, checking her injuries.  “What happened?” 

“Why are you here?” Diego asked, temporarily avoiding the Rantiri leader’s question.  Fear warred with anger as he considered Jerintas’ presence.   He felt he already knew the answer to his question.

“I came to get Minta,” the director answered, looking up at Diego accusingly.  “She is not of your world.”  Standing by the door, Father Felipe watched both men, confusion registering on his face, since the conversation was in Rantiri. 

“She chose it, all the same,” Diego answered tersely. 

“Yes, and look what it got her,” Jerintas answered bluntly, looking back at the battered woman.  “What happened?” he repeated, his features softening as he saw the haggard and despairing look on Diego’s face.

Briefly, Diego told him.  Jerintas took an object from his pocket and held it close to her body.  Father Felipe started forward, but Diego held him back.  He recognized the object, remembering that Dr. Klictus had used it on the ship.  When?  An eternity ago? he asked himself, remembering the peaceful tranquility of that long trip. 

“She has serious injuries that need to be taken care of.  There is the infection that could kill her if she is not taken care of soon.  Thankfully, the beating she took did not cause brain damage,” Jerintas told him bluntly.  Diego translated for the priest who was still standing nearby.   He saw his father standing in the doorway, a deep scowl on his face, his eyes burning with indignation as he stared at Jerintas’ back. “She cannot stay here,” the alien director added, gazing directly into Diego’s eyes.  “She needs advanced medical attention.”

“Don’t you think I know that, Jerintas?  But she chose to come here…” Diego let his voice trail off, knowing that whatever had been decided before, it had been negated by her injuries and by the director’s presence.  Despair filled his mind and heart and he felt as though he was mired in it.

“Designated One…”

“Do not call me Designated One!” Diego interrupted, his voice raised in anger.  “I am not your designated one!  I am simply someone you chose to kidnap, to steal away from my home, my family, and my friends.  You chose to try to take away my soul as well when you stuck that needle in my arm and took my memories.  The only thing I had was Minta and now you want to take her away, too?  Will you leave me with nothing, Jerintas?”  Diego felt his breath harshly in his throat.  He felt the beating of his heart seemingly battering his ribcage.  “Will you take my heart as well as my soul?”

The Rantiri leader looked back at the woman on the little bed, sighing heavily.  “Look at her.  Do you really think that she will live without proper medical attention?”  He raised his head and met Diego’s eyes.  “Do you want her to suffer?”

“NO!” Diego said harshly.  “Use your medicines and make her well.  After that I can take her home to the hacienda with me.” 

“And can you guarantee that this will not happen again?” Jerintas asked.  “Can you protect her?  Can you keep her safe?”  The words came from the lips of the Rantiri gently enough but they were like musket balls penetrating to the innermost parts of Diego’s soul.

Diego turned and dropped to his knees, moaning.  He laid his forehead gently on Minta’s good arm, feeling the warmth of her body.  He remembered the hate-filled look that Maria Louisa had given him as she had slunk from the shed.  Could he guarantee Minta’s safety?  Did he want something like this to happen again? 

“Get out of here!” his father commanded harshly.  “How dare you come here again!  Have you not done enough?”

If Jerintas takes her, she will be safe.   Diego picked up Minta’s hand and held it close to his cheek.  He felt everything inside swirling in a whirlpool of despair and hopelessness.  It was as though he were drowning.  Whichever way he decided, he would lose her, but if he sent her back to her home, she would at least live.  And if I went with her?  Yes, that is what I will do, Diego thought. 

He carefully laid her hand on her chest and slowly got up.  His knees felt weak, but resolve grew within his mind.  “No, Father.  Jerintas is right.  Minta is not safe here.  She will always be suspect and someday someone may very well succeed in killing her.  She must go home.”  Looking at Jerintas, he told him in Rantiri, “I will carry her to your ship and then we will leave together.   I will not be parted from my beloved.”

“Designated One, that is not possible.  You would die back on Rantir.  I will not take you this time.  I cannot.”  Jerintas paused and gazed thoughtfully at the suffering young man.  How could he convey what he knew to this individual who had become so deeply caught up in the turmoil of his own people.   Even if there were no Late Comer, Diego de la Vega would sicken and die.  His heart was tied to this land.  From Minta’s communiqués that was all he talked about as his memories returned to him . . . the people, the land, his duties.  Softly, he said, “Designated One, what was it that you were doing when we captured you?”

Diego was taken aback, not expecting a question.  “Captured?  I had rescued a woman from kidnapers,” he said. 

“Why did you put your life at risk like that.  I remember when we took you, there were about four men chasing you.  They had percussion weapons.  Any one of them could have killed you,” Jerintas pointed out.  Until he had read Minta’s letters from the ship, he had always puzzled about that.  She had explained a bit about the Designated One’s alter ego.

“Why?” Diego repeated.  “Because otherwise she would have died.  They would have killed her after receiving the ransom.” 

Jerintas’ voice became even softer.  “What would you do on Rantir, besides die?”  He paused again and took a deep breath.  “You would sicken and die, and then how would Minta feel?  She would blame herself.  She would be filled with guilt.  She would never be happy.  At least this way, you will be alive to help the people you love so much.  And Minta will be alive and remember you as a vibrant and meaningful part of her life.”

Diego turned away; his eyes squeezed shut.  Jerintas was right.  Damn him, he was totally right.  He wanted to beat his fists on the floor in frustration, scream to the heavens, cry.  No, I will not cry.  I cannot.  When he opened his eyes again, he saw Minta, bruised and battered, almost dead.  No, he didn’t want to remember her as someone who died.  He wanted to believe that she was full of life, happy and contented.

His father walked across the room to face him and looked questioningly into his eyes.  He might have guessed what was being said, but he could not know the extent of the conversation.  “He is right father,” Diego repeated in a whisper, composing himself.  “Minta must go with Jerintas.” 

Turning back to the director, Diego said, “Yes, you have to take her home with you, but you must promise me one thing.”

“I will do whatever I can,” Jerintas answered, his voice still soft, seeing the enormity of the decision that Diego had made.

“Take care of her.  Do what you can to make her happy as she has made me happy these last months.”

Jerintas nodded, his eyes sorrowful.   Diego realized that the Rantiri would do his best to keep the promise that he had made to him.  He would have to be content with that. 

Gently, carefully, he reached under Minta’s unconscious body and picked her up, cradling her close to him, feeling her warmth, feeling her breath on his chest.  She moaned lightly, but did not wake up.  That, too, is good, Diego thought. 

“The shuttle is not far.  You will not have a long walk,” Jerintas said softly as he led the way out of the mission.  Father Felipe and his own father followed quietly behind.  Although the conversation had been in the Rantiri language, they seemed to understand what was happening now. 

“Diego…” his father began. 

“No, Father, this is the right thing to do.”  Diego kept telling himself this as he walked behind Jerintas.  He felt as though his feet were betrayers, taking him away from that which was most precious to him.  As Jerintas walked out of the back of the mission toward the hills that sat serenely before him, he hardened his resolve, knowing that this was the only thing that could be done.  

Diego hoped that Minta would have a happy life; that she would find someone else with whom she could be happy, possibly have children with.  In the darkness of the night, he gazed down at the halo of hair that lay helter skelter across her face and his arm.  He could barely make out her features, but he knew them, they were memorized and ingrained into his mind.  He would never forget this wonderful, beautiful person who had come into his life, unusual though that meeting had been. 

After cresting a hill and walking down into the sloping valley beyond, Diego was able to make out Jerintas’ ship by the light of the moon just peeking over the eastern hills.  It was small, but its smooth lines seemed cold and repellant.  He didn’t feel the same fear that he had before with these kinds of ships, but there was still fear.  This was not a gate to Hell, but Diego decided that Hell took various forms. 

When the ship opened and the ramp descended, there were no lights shining from the inside, but the young man still heard his father’s and Father Felipe’s audible gasp behind him.   He turned and faced them.  “Wait here,” he said quietly.   “I will be back shortly.”

His father simply nodded, while Father Felipe made the sign of the cross over Minta.  “Vaya con Dios, my child,” the priest murmured.  When he was done, Diego turned and followed Jerintas into the ship.  The Rantiri led him to a cabin where he laid Minta down on a narrow bed.  With slightly trembling fingers, he straightened her hair, moving it away from her features so he could drink in her face one last time.  His finger traced the outline of her cheeks, nose and chin.  He kissed her gently on the lips, picked up one hand and held it to his cheek.  Kissing the back of her hand, he then tenderly kissed each of her five fingers and laid her hand back on her stomach. 

“Designated One,” Jerintas said softly from behind him. 

“Leave me alone with my wife for a while,” Diego said, ignoring the Rantiri’s name for him. 

“We have a short window of opportunity.  We must go soon, but I can allow a little time.   It is your right,” Jerintas told him. 

“Yes.”  Hearing the sound of Jerintas leaving, closing the door behind him, he knelt next to her bed and brought his lips near her ear.  “Minta, querida, amor, do not forget me, but do not feel sad that we are apart.  Find one to take care of you, who will love you as much as I have loved you.  As much as I will always love you.”

Avoiding the worst of her bruises and cuts, Diego kissed her several more times and then drew back.  He felt as though he was being swallowed up in his sorrow, and he used his eyes to consume as much of her as he could, feeling that his memories would be the only thing that would save him from total despair.  Too soon, he heard the sound of the cabin door opening. 

“We must leave, Designated One,” Jerintas said quietly.  “You must release her from the Union.”

“Union?” Diego asked, perplexed.  Then he realized what Jerintas was saying.  “Yes, she cannot be held to a union that cannot last.”

“It would make her too unhappy to be united to you and know that she will never see you again.”

Almost choking on the words, Diego whispered, “Minta, I release you from our union.  You are free to find happiness on Rantir with another who will bring you joy.”  Standing, Diego pushed his way past Jerintas and made his way to the airlock door.  Hearing the Rantiri director behind him, Diego turned and faced him.  Behind him he heard the sounds of the California night, but they gave him no comfort.  “Remember what you promised me.  And remember also that I am Diego de la Vega.  I am not ‘Designated One.’  Remember that.” 

“I will remember, Diego de la Vega,” Jerintas said softly, but with as much conviction as he could give the grief-stricken human.  “And remember what you have done for the Rantiri people.  You have not only given them hope for the future, you have shown us what true courage and sacrifice is all about.   You have saved a doomed race, Diego de la Vega, Designated One.”   Diego gazed at him, his eyes filled with incomprehensible sorrow, then he turned and disappeared into the night.  As the co-pilot was closing the airlock door, however, the Rantiri thought he heard an anguished cry like that of an injured animal.  He returned to check on Minta Morlif-Brocnor, wondering about the anomaly he had found when he had run a diagnostic test on her.  He thought about the name designation she had given herself and felt an odd chill run up and down his spine.  As he used his diagnostic again, more carefully this time, he felt the chill again.  His breath caught in his throat and almost choked him. 

When they reached the mother ship, Minta was transferred to the medical facility.  There she was given the antibiotics that would save her, and the medicines that would restore her strength.  The procedures to deal with her broken bones and lacerated skin were performed.  As the ship passed through the far reaches of Diego’s solar system, readying itself for a hyper jump, Minta finally regained consciousness. 

Jerintas had not left her side during the past day cycle.  Minta looked around for Diego and when she didn’t see him, gazed at the director, the significance of his presence working itself into her consciousness.  “Where am I?” she asked in a whisper, her eyes wide in shock. 

“On a star cruiser,” Jerintas answered, his voice low. 

“Where is Diego?”

“Back on Earth.  He released you from your Union, Minta.  He let you come with me because you would die if you remained on Earth.  He wanted you to find your own destiny in a place where you would be safe.”

Her screams of anguish echoed in the medical quarters, over and over.  Jerintas knew it would haunt him the rest of his life.     

 

 

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