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Chapter Four: Falling Man

Some time after She Who Weeps cast him into the desert, Falling Man fell in love with Raven. He wanted to be Raven's husband. He loved the way Raven's black feathers shone in the desert sun, the way they seemed to cascade in ebony rapids down the back of her neck. He loved her eyes, opaque and onyx. He loved the way she swept across the sky with her broad wings, not moving a talon or quill, and turning in broad swoops by just looking, with those opaque onyx eyes, at the place where she wanted to go.

He told her how he felt about her. He asked her to be with him.

Raven laughed. She refused him.

"But tell me why!" cried Falling Man.

"Just look at you!" Raven scoffed. "You're worthless! And you want to be my husband? I have the most beautiful singing voice in the desert!"

Raven coughed, then let loose a few harsh, guttural croaks.

"See? The one who becomes my husband must have qualities the equal of mine, at least. I can fly from here to Monument Valley in less time than it takes you to wash your ugly face! And look at you. You can't even fly."

Falling Man knew Raven was right, but Falling Man had too much pride in his heart. He could not let Raven's challenge go unanswered. "If I show you that I can fly, will you take me as your husband?"

Raven laughed again. "If you show me that you can fly, then I will agree to discuss the matter with you further."

Falling Man went to the edge of the big cliff. A long distance below lay a dry wash. Its surface glittered with sharp stones. Falling Man wondered how best to begin to fly. He had never done it before. Should he wait for a breeze to pick up, and then glide on it? Should he just jump?

"I knew you couldn't do it," Raven scoffed. "I would never live with a coward like you."

Her words went through Falling Man like arrows. He looked down again. Directly below him a labyrinth of stones was laid out in the sand; a spiral of turquoise, carnelian, and serpentine.

He dove for the center of the labyrinth. The ground rushed up to meet him. He heard Raven's laugh grow faint and distant. The realization grew in him that he was not flying. Heartsick, he waited for the ground to reach up and swat out his life.

The center of the labyrinth came up to meet him. The sun glinted off the sand in the wash. It grew impossibly bright. And then...

And then, suddenly, with a loud sound like an explosion, the sand just went past him. He was falling through the earth. The soil was hot where it brushed against his skin. It tore at his clothing. He stretched out his arm to hold his shirt together, and was surprised to find that he was turning. He stretched out his other arm. It turned him back the other way. He lifted the index finger on his outstretched left hand and banked down toward the center of the earth.

He grew thirsty, light-headed.

The soil became thinner the farther down he flew. It no longer scraped his skin. He began to see light beneath him, filtering up through the thin soil from the second world. Soon the earth was white, no thicker than a cloud. He emerged from the base of the cloud and saw a world of mountains below him.

He landed in the center of the labyrinth. Raven was there, watching, her head cocked.

Falling Man looked Raven in the eye. "As you can see, I can fly. I am ready to become your husband now."

Raven scoffed. "All right, so you can fly. There's more to my life than just flying. Your people must stay within a day's walk of a spring, or you die of thirst. I can live for weeks in the desert with no more water than the dew from the cactus spines! I can call up sweet water from the rock! Why should I take a husband who cannot freely roam the desert with me?"

Falling Man took his despair and swallowed it, forced himself to appear brave. "If I show you that I can live in the desert with only the water I can find, will you take me as your husband?"

Raven shook her head. "If you show me that you can live in the desert with only the water you can find, then I will agree to discuss the matter with you further."

Falling Man nodded. "Then I'll prove to you that I am not weak and thirsty. I will stake myself out here in the desert, far from water."

An ironwood root protruded from the sand at the mouth of the labyrinth. He went to it, pulled on it. It was stuck fast. Falling Man tore a strip of leather from the hem of his shirt. He tied one end to the stump, and the other around his ankle. He turned to Raven. "Come back in a week and untie me."

Raven cocked her head again. Falling Man's determination was beginning to melt her heart. She croaked softly and flew away to the south.

The first day without water was very hard. It was summer, and Falling Man had staked himself out in a spot with no shade. His mouth parched, he licked the sweat from his arms, drank it where it ran down his brow and into his mouth. Then night fell. He slept. Painful dreams of water just beyond his reach flitted through him like the barn owl clicking overhead on its way down to the river.

The second day was harder. The clouds had come in and promised rain. No rain came: only the scent of it on a parched breeze. By the time night came again he had stopped sweating. He did not dream.

On the third day the clouds vanished, leaving only turquoise sky. Falling Man's skin, already fiery red, began to blister. He sat dully in the sun all day, his mind circling around the dark hole in his soul. Who was Raven that he endured such torment for her? He would prove his worthiness, and then... what? Another test?

The ants had found him. They were small ones. They did not bite, but rather climbed up among the hairs on his legs and stole the flaking, desiccated skin. He ate a few of them.

"Even if I die of thirst," he thought, "I will have proved myself worthy. But not of Raven."

The film that had shaded his mind seemed to part, like oil on water when you add soap. He saw things with astonishing clarity now. Raven was too full of herself, too boastful. He longed for She Who Weeps, the one who had first cast him into the desert long, long ago. He would survive this test, and then he would refuse Raven. She would taunt him. She would claim the right to another test of his worthiness. He would look her in the eye and tell her "I love another." He would leave the desert. He would find She Who Weeps.

That was when Horned Lizard showed up. He climbed onto Falling Man's leg. He ate an ant, swallowed, thought for a moment, then ate another ant. "Grandson," he told Falling Man, "I am happy to see you."

"Good afternoon, Grandfather," said Falling Man.

"I understand you've changed your mind about Raven."

"Yes, Grandfather. I have."

"That's good, Grandson." Horned Lizard crawled up onto Falling Man's forehead, looked him in the eye. "Raven has given us nothing but trouble. I'm very happy to hear your decision. I feel as if I might shed tears of joy."

And Horned Lizard did weep, strong bloody tears that coursed down Falling Man's face and into his mouth. Falling Man drank them greedily.

"Do you thirst, Grandson?" Horned Lizard seemed surprised.

"I have been without water for three days, Grandfather."

"You have water at your feet, my foolish Grandson." Horned Lizard scuttled to the center of the labyrinth and scraped away an inch of sand. Cool water rose up to fill the little hole.

"Drink this then, Grandson, and if it runs dry just dig a bit more, and more water will come. But be careful not to dig too deep."

Horned Lizard ran off then.

Falling Man stretched as far as the leather thong around his ankle would allow. He could just reach the water hole with his outstretched hands. He cupped them, filled them with water. But most of the water ran out before he could bring his hands to his mouth.

He thought for a moment, then took a finger and scratched a narrow channel in the sand. Water began to run down the channel. A few drops reached his mouth. He sucked greedily, swallowing some water and more sand. He scraped a deeper channel with four fingers. At last, a thin stream coursed into his mouth. He rinsed the sand from his tongue, and drank a little more.

But still, the water was not enough. Falling Man grew frustrated and angry. His thirst was so intense that he needed to sit in the water, to let it soak in through his skin, before he would be sated. He dug at the sand like a coyote, and more and more water flowed the deeper he dug.

At last he came to a rock buried in the sand, a fist-sized chunk of turquoise. Water leaked out from beneath it. "This is the stone that keeps the water from me," thought Falling Man, and he worked to loosen it. But it would not budge. Night fell, but Falling Man did not sleep. It was only in the afternoon of the fourth day that the turquoise began to let go of the leaking earth. With torn, bleeding fingers, Falling Man pried it from the bottom of the hole.

Behind it was the flood, and water rushed out. It clutched at Falling Man, tore him from the labyrinth, snapped the leather thong like a strand of spider silk. The valley filled with angry brown water. Falling Man tumbled down the wash like a broken twig, riding the front of the wave. Logs and stones battered him. The water cast him sharply up against a boulder. A bolt of unbelievable pain shot from his leg, made even his scalp and fingertips hurt. He tried to reach the surface. His lungs burned. He longed to breathe. The pain from his broken leg made him retch. He managed a gasp of air, then another, and then the flood pulled him under again.

At long last the flood ebbed. He rolled up against a slab of metal. There was a rope there. He held on to it, crying at the intense pain from his thigh, until the blackness folded around and took him. Raven found him there. She landed next to him, stayed with him until the sun began to set, then leapt into the air with a mournful croak and flapped off heavily toward the Mogollon Rim.

Falling Man slept for a long time.

It was on the eighth day that light began to filter in. There were voices, the soft sounds of machines. Then came pain, muffled and distant. A few minutes later, the sounds and pain were no longer discrete things existing on their own. Falling Man was back. It was him hearing the sounds, him feeling the pain. He murmured. His lips were cracked, his throat dry and intolerably sore. A sliver of something cold appeared in his mouth. It was the best thing he had ever tasted. He sucked at it until it was gone, and then another appeared. It was better than the first. The stuff was familiar, and he tried to remember what it was called.

The word came. "Ice," said Falling Man.

"Hush," said Cora. She put another sliver between his lips. "Don't try to talk. You've been through the wringer. Just rest."

A doctor peered through the door. "Ms. Colfax?"

Cora handed the cup of ice to Eloy. "Be right back. Don't give him too much." Eloy shot her a mock-annoyed glance.

"Sorry," said Cora. "Forgot who I was talking to." She walked out into the ICU hallway.

The doctor had a clipboard. He bore the typical expression of an Intensive Care Unit intern: tired, distracted, abrupt. "Well, the EEG looks normal, under the circumstances. It looks like your friend here is pretty lucky. No sign of brain damage, which is what we were most worried about as a long-term consequence of severe dehydration. And the sunburn shouldn't give him any problem, though we'll keep him on the Cipro just to make sure all that dirt in his blisters stays non-infectious."

Cora relaxed. "Well, that's good news."

The doctor leafed through the file. "We've got the orthopedic surgeon coming in day after tomorrow from Loma Linda to slap some titanium in that femur. I'd rather have him in the OR sooner, but apparently there was a bus crash in Barstow last night. He's booked. Anyway, we've got your friend stabilized and two days in traction won't hurt him, as long as he's in ICU. My guess is he's going to be fine after a few months and some physical therapy."

Cora smiled. "Good. Thank you, Doctor."

The doctor gave Cora a weary smile, began to turn away, halted. "You know, you probably saved his life with that traction splint. Femur fractures have a very high morbidity when the patient's untreated for that long. Are you an MD?"

Hesitation. "No."

"An EMT, then?"

"No, Doctor. My mechanic splinted him."

The doctor's eyebrows shot up. "Your mechanic?"

"Mechanic, laborer, you know. My ranch-hand."

"Huh. Well, tell him he's got another career waiting if he gets tired of fixing tractors. That was the best damn field traction splint I've ever seen. I doubt half our guys could do that good a job with the ER staff standing by." He shook his head, chuckled, turned to check on the cardiac in 11B.

Cora walked back into the room. He was sleeping. Eloy looked up at her.

"I think I need to have a little talk with Agustín," said Cora.