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In the midst of this sorrow, exhaustion, and uncertainty, a sorceress from the Dark Province appears to Calvin. She promises to make his terminally ill twin sister, Marilyn, well again. As twins, Calvin and ...
In the midst of this sorrow, exhaustion, and uncertainty, a sorceress from the Dark Province appears to Calvin. She promises to make his terminally ill twin sister, Marilyn, well again. As twins, Calvin and Mari share a special bond, and Calvin will do almost anything to save his sister's life. But in order to free Mari from death's grip, the sorceress claims that Calvin must travel to the Dark Province-a land where souls and flesh are devoured by the lawless and the spirit of man is bound in shackles. It's a reckless land dominated by morally corrupt warlords and open sexuality.
Wrapped tightly in his religion, Calvin must make a life-altering decision. He can choose to follow the sorceress into the sinful abyss to save his sister, or he can accept a life of guilt and certain torment over Mari's death.
We were born the pride of two humble, earnest, faithful Duprinites, Johanis and Theresa Gooding. They couldn't be prouder, you see, as it is said that upon our entrance into this world we did not cry-not a tear, not a sound. We only searched about my mother's bare belly for each other, finding rest in the exchange of an infant's blurred gaze and the distant beating of our mother's heart.
Raised as children in an orchard nestled deep in the countryside of Duprin's Southern Province, Mari and I never left one another's side. We shared all that a brother and sister could: lunches, secrets, and all the innocent love that young siblings are so fitly ready to share from their conception.
Even in our adulthood, when I moved out of our parents' home, the one where they currently reside, and moved to the western border town of Efam, Mari and I still wrote quite often. Being unmarried, both of us, we had no personal obligations of any great nature to cause any significant interruption of our usual correspondence. We wrote and wrote as young adults. I remember fortnights in which I would receive up to five letters from Mari. These were the times when we were debating one topic or another. Mari would get so passionate about her ideas that she would send two or three letters in a row, adding additional volume to her arguments before I would even have an opportunity to read her initial comments, let alone post a rebuttal. And when I would receive them, I would volley back my submissions, sometimes staying up late into the night so that the wording was perfect.
Looking back now, those nights of reading Mari's letters and writing my responses seem as innocent as any day we spent sprinting through that orchard as children, our mortality as much a vague and distant abstraction as when we were small. But that all changed, or began to, when I received her last letter. I'd actually spent the night across the border in Tidames, so I didn't receive the envelope until a day after it had arrived. Excited, I tore it open to see what musings awaited me that day. But the letter, so short and to the point-I struggled to accept that it was she who'd written it.
Dear Calvin, I have fallen quite ill and have returned home for care. Please come and see me as soon as your schedule permits. Love, Mari
When I saw her-which, as you can guess, was only as long as it takes to travel from Efam to Inland County from the moment I read her note-when I saw her, I demanded to know how dare she write such an inexplicit letter with regard to such a serious issue. Would you believe she told me it was because she knew that I was emotional and she didn't want me unnecessarily stirred?
"And," she continued with a fatigued smirk, "I knew the less I described it, the faster you'd be by my bedside."
Dear brothers, that smile she tried to offer me-she could not even maintain it. It drained from her face slowly as though after a long strenuous struggle it had finally lost the will to hold onto her lips. And when it faded, it left two full, brown eyes gazing at me desperately for answers, desperate for hope.
"You look good, Calvin," she said. "Still able to eat like a sow and gain nothing."
My eyes wandered along the length of her petite frame. She had lost considerable weight. Her cool brown skin, which in health mirrored my own, had lost a shade, appearing with a slight tint of cream. Her wavy, brown hair, typically straightened to appear more like our fair mother's, appeared in its natural state and unkempt as it gathered on her pillow. Her slender arms and fingers, usually an active mouthpiece of expression when we spoke, gestured weakly at best as she greeted me.
"You also, Mari, though tired."
The outline of a smile returned to Mari's face, but it was all that she could muster.
Seeing her like this chilled me to the center of my core. Were a man to place his hand on the surface of my heart at that moment, I was sure it would have felt cold to the touch. I knew then that her condition was grave, though I could not articulate how or why, nor did I even know what it was exactly that ailed her.
To my exasperation, no one would tell me what ailed her for the better part of the day and into the evening. But that would change just as the Oron moon sought its evening perch. That very night, my father, mother, and I were summoned to meet with Mari's chief medic in the study on the first floor of my parents' house.
It was a tiny room. It felt even tinier that night. Those walls, hidden behind a curtain of bookshelves, seemed to press the stiff wooden planks checkered with spines of musty greens, yellows, and reds right into our ribs as we sought to situate ourselves; my mother and father were on a small sofa and I on a hard wooden chair directly adjacent. The polished furniture's rich browns, which I usually found comforting to the eye, this night appeared as a mixture of charred foliage and shadow.
My father, a broad-shouldered man whose height I never quite reached in my boyhood, sat still and pensive. His gaze was at nothing specific. His brow, eternally creased by the burden of modern manhood, darkened even the deep brown complexion of his Edanese ancestry. It is said of the men of Edan that the Goddess gave them dark skin to embellish the landscape of their desert homeland. Having inherited only some of his hallowed hue, I often jested as a young man that I may at best gain half of his self-certainty. He would grimace at this but never refute it.
My fair mother sat obediently to his left, between us. Her head was bowed. Hers was the proud heritage of ancient Duprin-the cool skin that tanned gracefully in the light of the High Star and confident cheekbones past which her loose, thin, black hair never descended.
As we sat quietly, I yearned to fellowship aloud with them and share in the manner they'd chosen to encourage themselves. However, their dedication to the silent void acted not only as a confession of how difficult the ordeal had already been, but as a warning against speaking about it out of turn. I dared only to look into my own hands as we waited quietly for Mari's chief medic to come and brief us.
Mercifully, the tall, graying man arrived very shortly after we'd taken our seats. He was very formally dressed. His suit was a sharp black and his tie freshly tightened to the collar of his shirt.
"Good evening, brothers, madam," he began, deciding after brief consideration that he was more comfortable leaning against my father's desk than taking a seat in his chair. I watched him labor to choose his next words. Tension skipped about the surface of his face. At times it pursed his lips into an ugly wrinkled bunch; at others it drew his thick eyebrows together.
"My staff has concluded the tests on Marilyn," he continued. This drew my mother's posture to attention and tightened the clasp of my parents' locked hands. "She remains free of pain, though severely fatigued," he said. "Her spirit is robust underneath the discomfort she's experiencing. She hasn't in the slightest measure turned to defeat and despair."
The chief medic shared this with almost celebratory pride, then his face became very still and his eyes locked unwaveringly with my father's.
"Our analysis, however, of the test results reveals that it is emnia that ails her, as we feared."
"What stage?" my father asked as my mother's breathing stirred to quiet steady gasps.
"It's in its final stage, Jon," the chief medic said with a gentle nod. "I'm sorry."
"What is ... what does this mean?" I blurted out. The graying man's words had boiled anxious pressure, and its steam gathered in my chest and at the base of my throat. I could not wait for another word. I needed a direct description of what this emnia was and what it meant. However, the chief medic continued speaking with my father as though I hadn't spoken at all.
"There's nothing we can do," the medic explained.
"What about relieving her?" my mother staggered to ask. She was barely comprehensible. Her sobs had become like tiny restrained coughs she barely managed to choke out. The chief medic paused-in part, it seemed, out of patience and in part out of shame.
"We did attempt to relieve the excess blood in her system," the medic told my father, at least softening enough to offer my mother and I a brief glance. "She lost consciousness. We almost lost her. It's not an option."
Silence fell over the tiny room. Only my mother's rapid deep breaths of restraint served to keep the air around us from becoming as still as glass.
The chief medic described at this time to both my parents his recommendations for how Mari should be fed-small amounts, several times during the day. He explained that beginning with the lightest meals in the morning and finishing with equally light meals in the evening while saving the heaviest for the middle of the day would apply the least stress on her system at any one given time. Mari was to be confined to her bed indefinitely, and nurses should be brought in to assist with basic necessity.
"The simplest bruise," the medic explained, "could be all it might take to fatally corrupt an already strained and inflamed system of vessels and arteries."
My father considered this, nodding gently as he thought. My mother sat with her head bowed, weeping, my father's closest arm wrapped tightly in hers.
"How long?" my father asked in almost a whisper.
"A fortnight," the chief medic replied. "Maybe two."
Only a modest measure of time after the chief medic gave us Mari's prognosis, I found myself standing in her bedroom. She was awake, gazing toward the window on the opposite side of the bed, looking away from where I stood.
The room was still and silent. The various bags and satchels that had been present and full of medical tools and supplies the last time I was in Mari's room were gone. The room appeared ... tidy.
"Are you alone?" Mari whispered, still gazing away.
"Yes," I replied. "It's only me."
Mari immediately began to weep, beginning with quiet trembling gasps that turned to muffled sobs that sank woefully into her abdomen as she rolled over, turning her back to me.
"No, no, Mari, please ... don't cry," I pleaded as I rushed to the side of her bed.
"Just go," she breathed, waving her hand in a limp attempt to dismiss me.
"No," I replied firmly. "I am not going."
I placed my hands lightly on the shoulder and arm nearest me in the hopes that the warmth of my trembling touch might console her, but it did not. She continued to weep openly.
"So much ... so much I've not done. So much I've not seen," she sobbed.
"They told you already, about your condition?"
"They don't have to. I feel it in my body. And I could see it in their faces, every one of them as they put away their tools and supplies. Each one of them had this cold, wet look of pity and resignation."
The trembling in my hands spread to my limbs as my whole body shook. Hot tears streamed from my eyes, but I refused to sob. Mari, noticing she'd not heard a response from me on what she'd witnessed in the faces of her caretakers, finally looked back at me. Seeing the anguish on my face, she softened, turned her body to fully face me, and took my hand. The warm touch of her hand dropped me to my knees.
"I want to marry one day, Calvin," she said with an urgent whisper. "Don't you? Don't you wish to marry?"
"Yes, Mari, yes. I ... I do."
"And you will! Oh Calvin ... I want to be at your wedding. I want to meet her!" At this, Mari's voice broke again. Her lips turned slightly inward, and her eyes overflowed as light beads of clear crystal rolled down her cheeks toward her pillow. "I want to know her. I want to question her and have her think me a miserable sister at first for being so protective of you."
"You will!" I urged, desperate to console her. "You will be at my wedding, Mari."
"No, I won't, Calvin," she protested. "Isn't that what the chief medic told you? That I have emnia?"
"Yes," I conceded bitterly, "But they are not the Goddess. They are not Our Lady Beloved. Only She can speak with certainty on your future."
"Calvin, my sweet brother-Our Lady has spoken. Emnia is incurable."
"No, She has not spoken!" I told her. "You are still here. This is your hand in mine. The High Star has not set for you yet. Our Lady can cure all things. She just needs for us to be faithful and believe. You must stand with me."
Mari's deep brown eyes darted back and forth between mine as I staggered to gain a grasp of my own words. It was as though my lips had taken for themselves all rights over passage of language between them; I learned of my own words just as Mari learned of them. I determined myself to stand by them, my brothers, for they were all that stood between the great specter of despair and my sister and me.
"I want to believe, Calvin. But I don't have the faith."
"I have it," I said. "And I will carry it for both of us. I swear to you, Mari, I will not let you die."
Fresh tears burned across the soft, brown skin of Mari's face.
"Calvin, no-that's not up to you."
"The Goddess calls us to stand faithful to the highest principles of our creed," I maintained. "Healing and restoration are at the core of our covenant." I could see the conflict in Mari's eyes, the confusion and the panic. It shimmered before me so clearly. Though I had been taught all my life to watch my tongue-to be thoughtful and diligent with every word I would ever speak-I willfully gave over to the moment's passion and refused to restrain my call to faith.
"As sure as Our Lady Beloved lives, I promise you tonight that you will soon stand on your own two feet again-free of ailment and free of this threat to your life."
A dense and deafening silence settled between us. Mari no longer wept. Her eyes rather showed concern for me, a weighted acknowledgment of the seriousness of my words.
"You know it's against wisdom to make promises you can't keep," she whispered. Her pause and the tone of her new gaze were sobering.
Suddenly I felt bare and cold. I had spoken far beyond my station. What power do I have? I thought as I quickly evaluated the promises I'd made. I was neither priest nor seer, and these were the words spoken only by one or the other.
"By whose authority do you proclaim these things?" Mari solemnly asked.
"My own, Mari, by my own authority; as a covenant-carrying Duprinite."
Mari watched me for a moment, and then her soft gaze returned.
"It is just as it is written; the kings who performed miracles did so as common men," I said defiantly. "This is well within my right. Please, Mari." I squeezed her hand just a bit more, pulling myself as close to her bedside as I could be on my own knees. "Please stand with me in your heart. Believe with me for your restoration. My faith can carry us. I know it can."
Mari nodded and began to weep once more. I leaned my head against hers and wept alongside her.
"I swear, Mari, for us death shall be just as life. If you should walk across the cool fields of slumbering souls, I will follow right behind you just as I did on the day of our birth. And the gates of Nozoria will be just as the entrance to this world, one we shall greet together!"
Mari said nothing else; she simply offered a tremulous nod. With her head still leaned against mine and holding tightly to each other's hand, we wept, for bitterness as well as for precious hope.
It was cold in my bedroom, cold and dark. I lit several candles in the hopes that both conditions would be resolved, and they were in time. I decided that as simply as a series of small flames could light and warm my bedroom, so too would the light of my faith deliver the miraculous renewal of my beloved sister. It would be that simple. I only needed to accept it as such and reject the temptation to think otherwise.
Excerpted from The Dark Province by William H. Johnson Copyright © 2010 by William H. Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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