The boy’s folks came to collect him at the first of dawn. He’d stopped bleeding hours ago, but his whole torso was a mess of scabs and dry blood. I helped cut him down. He was still breathing.
“I was dreaming,” he whispered as his older brother gathered him up. “The first snow came real early, and it froze the sheep standing out in the grass.” His parents gave each other nods. His mama went off to tell someone what the boy’d said, while his papa washed him up careful, not wanting to start him bleeding again.
“Clean cuts,” he said as he worked. “I worried like a sheep dog at a sweater factory when you cut him. Thought maybe he’d bleed out.”
I looked away. “I’m sorry for worrying you.”
He was wrapping his son in a clean blanket. “Last year’s girl died, they tell you that?”
“No.” What else was I gonna say to that.
“Cuts weren’t clean. Not a lot of blood, but something was wrong. Afore dawn they already looked angry. Turned into infection. And the winter was long.” He looked after his wife’d gone. “Sounds like this year’ll be long too.” They carried the young man off and left me alone next to the stone.
Well, weren’t so much alone. The older woman was there again. “Tired yet?”
“So tired I ain’t able to hear how awful I been.” So tired I couldn’t feel much anxious about admitting it.
“Or maybe you done right and that’ll shut ’em up for a while,” she said.
“Reckon I’ve always been rotten inside,” I admitted. “No amount of right’ll change that. If it worked I’d’ve still been at the temple.”
She put her arm round my shoulders. “Temples ain’t right for everybody. Some of us do better in the open air is all. No shame in it.”
“All my shame’s in here,” I said, hand pressed up on my empty chest.
“Stop holding on to it so tight,” she said, and suddenly instead of being next to me she was all around. I didn’t understand at first. “Rotting things go in the earth, Egle. Give over your rot and let me help.”
Sure then I was shaking and alone, walking back to my room in town. I didn’t see a soul the whole way there, and when I fell in the bed I didn’t much fuss whether I’d even wake up.