9

The rains came, slow and hesitant in murky drizzles and half-hearted showers that were too short and soft, as if they were nervous and afraid of the unfamiliar city. Where did Skhala go, they wondered? Where is the city that they had rained on in this same place every year before? Where are all the people hiding? Me, I was still in my family's house in the northern quarter, still afraid to leave its walls, and I listened to the patter of rain on the street with a heavy heart, biting my nails.

I was low on food. I knew I would have to venture out. I had no intention of starving before my family returned. Some homecoming it would be, to find me a pile of bones in the hallway! (These were thoughts I repeated to myself. I didn't allow the alternative that they would not come home to enter my mind.)

Ishkandi still patrolled the streets regularly. The first few days after the siege they had gone around collecting bodies, but you still saw them after that, picking through the houses for valuables and food. I lived in constant fear that one day they would come into ours.

In spite of the occasional Ishkandi soldiers, I knew I had to leave and find food somewhere else. I crept out of my house one night and made a terrifying journey over to the Idets' front door. I had been in their house many times. I found that they had left a lot of food behind, but the bread was dried to a brick, the cheese nothing but a clump of mold, and the flour shed had been overrun by rats. Not that the flour would have done me any good. I had only the slightest idea of how to make bread, and I didn't trust myself to try. I wasn't even touching the flour in my own house at that point. For several weeks I had been living off of a sack of grain I found in one of the closets, using it to make a thin, plain gruel like the kind Per fed Ghith for supper when his teeth were sore (because honestly that was the only way I knew how to make it). But the Idets' teeth were, apparently, in good health, for I found no sacks of this grain lying around their house. I did manage to find a small bag of rice, some strips of jerky, and pom candy, which I sat down and ate on the spot until I had made myself sick.

I felt like a thief. It was not my house, after all. Therefore I left a note for Idet Pruti at her cold hearth: I borrowed some food. I'll repay everything I took when you come back. Sri.

After that I felt bolder. I prowled around the neighborhood more as the days went by. Almost no one had bolted their doors. I still felt like a thief, but in a fun kind of way. In spite of the situation, it was great fun sneaking around the houses of families I had known all my life. Across the street there had been a Shosha family, the Oroneers, and I marveled at their strange Shosha cabinet and the odd decorations everywhere, most of which featured birds prominently in their designs and were so complex that you got dizzy if you stared at them for a minute.

One day not long after I started these explorations I came to the Elkheis' house. I had always liked this house. The front door was painted very ornately, much more glamorous than the simple moon mosaic on my own. Elkhei Ju was a famous artist – that is to say, famous in our neighborhood, in that it was widely circulated that a landscape he had made had been bought by the Etlere himself and was even now hanging in his house. Once he had been making an ink-painted wall hanging for a rich family on the hill and I had posed for him. He'd stuck his little bald head out of the second-floor hall window one day while I was playing a vicious game against Jaf and his friends in the street – "Kif Sri, get up here and just stand still for a few minutes, would you?" I stood as still as I could for him, and when he was done, he showed the drawing to me. I could tell it wasn't finished yet. It was a very complicated piece made with inks in many different colors, a story-picture showing the life of Rupek, an apostle of Ki. Alas, Elkhei Ju had made me the young daughter of Rupek who was fed to the river serpent down in the lower left-hand corner. I didn't feel bad though, because I thought he had painted me very prettily, even down to the freckles on the bridge of my nose.

I went into the house now and found it very much a mess. I wondered if looters or soldiers had gotten here first and taken everything – but then I came across streaks of dried blood on the floor of the hallway. I would have bolted at the sight of it, but two things kept me still: first, I had become used to sights like this, and second, I had also become used to being practical. Stepping over the coppery-colored streaks on the tile, I went into the Elkhei kitchen and raided the cabinets, finding no store of grain or rice, but many jars– pickles, radishes, beets, water chestnuts, carrots. I was not fond of any of them, but found I had a strong craving for the carrots. I put them all in a bag – I always came prepared when I was thieving like this – and I would have just left, but I felt the urge to look around upstairs. If Elkhei Ju had left behind drawings or paintings he was working on, they would be fun to look at for a while. Curiousity was natural in the house of an artist.

I set down my bag full of jars and crept up the ladder to the second floor. The whole second floor was Elkhei Ju's workspace. Usually when you came to the second-floor landing, the first thing you'd see is a life-size black-ink portrait of his wife, Reka. When I climbed up the ladder that day, though, I saw that this portrait, which really had been a very flattering one that eradicated her blemishes, lay in pieces on the floor. This disturbed me even more than the dried blood below. Once I was all the way up and had a chance to look around, I saw that all the ink paintings that normally lined the walls were slashed and torn, and many had been ripped down and trampled. There was also more blood. A handprint in blood marred the face of one of Elkhei Ju's latest self-portraits, smeared right across his wrinkled grin.

Horrified and fascinated, I went straight into Elkhei Ju's studio. I met with a rank stench as soon as I entered. The studio had obviously been ransacked. Pieces of beige paper were scattered everywhere, and in one corner there were ashes and charred remnants, as if there had been a fire right inside that room. The destruction was awful. And there was dried blood everywhere.

I turned to my right and saw Elkhei Ju sitting on the floor by the wall.

He didn't look at me, he just sat staring out listlessly at nothing. The black linen housecoat he wore was filthy. A few feet away from him there was a pile of excrement, complete with buzzing flies. His face was so thin and drawn that I thought for certain he had starved to death.

"Mister Elkhei?" I said tentatively. He didn't respond at all.

I reached out and touched his shoulder, and as soon as I did I was certain that he was alive. "Mister Elkhei? Please say something."

When I nudged him a little, his head moved slightly, but he still didn't look at me. His eyes were glassy like a doll's. I stood up straight again and put my hands on my hips. "Please say something right now Mister Elkhei!"

He did not respond. I didn't know what to do.

Elkhei Ju was the first living non-Ishkandi I had seen since that first day with Ghraj and her husband. I couldn't fathom what had happened in that house, but it must have been something terrible. It seemed to me that he had lost his mind entirely.

Well, even if he was mindless, he was still a neighbor and a friend of the family, not to mention an artist, and even my practical soul couldn't stand to just leave him there to rot. I made up my mind quickly. "Get up, Mister Elkhei," I said. "This room is disgusting. You're coming home with me." He still didn't look at me, but this time at least I expected it. I reached down again and grabbed his elbow, pulling him up. To my surprise he followed his arm, rising to his feet in a slow and docile way. He smelled like urine. He was taller than me, but he was hunched over. I stared in wonder at his features – the flat nose and thin eyebrows, the drawn cheeks, the ring of white hair around his bald brown head, and the utterly vacant eyes – and wondered what in Ki's name I would do with him if his mind really was gone.

I remember trying to get him down the ladder. That took the longest. If I led him by the hand, he walked with me, but I didn't know what to do when we got to the ladder. Eventually I pushed him toward the opening in the floor, and his hands and feet seemed to move automatically, as if he was sleepwalking, and I made him climb down by gently pushing down on his shoulder with my foot. He walked very slowly the whole way home while I led him down the street by the wrist (as Ghraj had led me) and looked around anxiously for signs of the Ishkandi. When I got him into my house I bolted the door and immediately led him down to the cellar. I knew I would have to bathe him somehow.

Even after watching the Ishkandi attack and seeing murder enacted in front of my eyes, even after the sight of crows picking at dead bodies, even compared to the image of our ghostly, empty, lifeless street, there is no horror that compares to the memory of bathing Elkhei Ju. I had hoped that filling up the bathtub in the cellar and leading him to it would be enough, but this was not the case. I had to undress him, even taking off his undergarments (I averted my eyes as well as I could). He was pitifully thin, and I won't even tell you how filthy except to say that at some point he must have stopped getting up to go to the bathroom. I remember running upstairs and rooting through a cupboard for an old scrub brush I wouldn't feel bad about throwing away. I drained out the bath when I was done and filled it up all over again with him in it, and I let him soak for a long time. And afterwards I made double sure to scrub out that tub.

When he was clean to my satisfaction, I dressed him in some of Uncle Ghith's old clothes, and even though Ghith had not been much of a man, his clothes still hung baggily off of Elkhei Ju. Even the pants were too long. That night I boiled some grain down to a gruel and fed a bowl of it to the old man, spoonful by spoonful, making sure he finished off a glass of water with it. Then I moved him from the kitchen to the parlour and set him down on the couch, hoping he wouldn't wet himself on it. He stared straight forward, motionless and vacant as when I had found him.

For some reason it was then that I burst into tears. I had to run down to the cellar and wash my face over and over again. I just couldn't stop crying. I don't know whether I am ashamed of this or not. Elkhei Ju had always been something of a legend to me – a great artist and a neighbor both, who sometimes played a game of Phik with my Uncle Sef, often beating him so badly that Sef, after coming home, would throw his bag of game pieces down onto the floor tile in aggravation. "It isn't fair that he's an artist and a player both!" Sef would complain. "A man should only be allowed so many gifts! Where's my share, eh?"

When I came back up with red eyes, Elkhei Ju hadn't moved at all. I sighed and went into the kitchen to clean up dinner.

In the following days I found that if you led him to a chamber pot, he knew what to do. I started keeping a chamber pot in the hall closet, so that at least I could pull the curtain and wouldn't have to watch him. I fed him and kept him clean, and I brought blankets down from Uncle Ghith's bed and fixed up the couch for him. It would have been too hard to try to get him up and down a ladder every day.

After I got used to the routine, I felt much better about it. The house still felt very empty, but at least I wasn't alone anymore. I held out on the hope that eventually Elkhei Ju would come to life again.

A night came when I thought my dreams had come true. I was asleep when I heard something – surely a pot – clatter onto the tile floor down below. I jumped out of bed, ecstatic. I didn't even care what Elkhei Ju was doing, I was just so glad that he had gone there by himself. I slid down the ladder, ran to the kitchen.

Two Ishkandi soldiers were there. They looked up when they heard me and I froze in my tracks. One held up a scrap of paper – my note to the Idets – and gave me a sneer. "You're 'Sri,' eh?" he asked.

Author's Notes in my profile.