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Breathe for me, p.1
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       Breathe for Me, p.1

           Edward W. Robertson
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Breathe for Me


  Edward W. Robertson

  © 2012

  Dormun had never been a slave before, and even before the three bald men approached him on the hot afternoon of his first full day in camp with stones concealed in their scuffed and oozing fists, he had found it wasn't to his liking. Their section of the aqueduct was scheduled to take another year and a half to complete. Eighteen months of jungle-cutting and trench-digging and stone-sledging in wilting heat, pimpled by mosquito bites, fogged by the camp's excremental stink, numbed by work and soured with the knowledge that, even if he survived to the end, he would be released back into the same squalid circumstances he'd been plucked away from.

  Yet all that was nothing more than the general experience of his 32 years rephrased in specific terms. Another piece of evidence, as if he needed it, that the bad keeps on coming but you make some corner of it your own. After two years of isolation, he was shocked to remember how actively everyone else took the bad and made it worse.

  "What's that?" the tallest of the bald men said (Harolt, Dormun would later find he was called), pointing a crooked finger at the small wooden panther seated in the palm of Dormun's hand.

  "It's my pet," he said.

  "Wrong. It's my pet."

  The guards sat some thirty yards off, laughing over the only dinner table in the clearing. Several other slaves sat nearby, locked in their own low conversations, poking at their rice bowls, nabbing insects from the grass. Slowly, Dormun stood.

  "That's not right. It'll be yours in a minute, but right now, it's still mine." He was hoping to tangle them with words and buy some time to stir up a show, but the pale-skinned man whose name Dormun never learned drove a stone-hardened fist into his gut, dropping him into the patchy grass. A fat red ant waved its antennae at his nose and then they kicked him and he balled up and he cried out. A heel clamped his wrist to the dirt and ground down, forcing his fingers apart. Dormun looked up to see a baldheaded one-eyed boy pass the panther to Harolt, then stomp his open palm. He yanked his hand back to his chest and the pale-skinned man swung his toes into Dormun's stomach and he shut his eyes, careless of his dignity now, tied up in his own pain, rocking on his side in the clearing in the jungle where two hundred-odd slaves and their thirty watchmen ate and rested and joked.

  When he could breathe again, he swept the sweat from his forehead and the tears from his eyes and crawled for the shadow, stretched long by the afternoon sun, of the nearest tent, where a dozen other men sat with their bowls in their laps. He ignored them and breathed, tensing every muscle he could on the exhale (a hitch in his ribs, knots on his back and on his arms where he'd shielded himself), relaxing them all at once on the inhale, hands cupped, empty, in his lap. He breathed and his palms filled with what looked like water, silver as a mirage; he breathed and the not-water coalesced into two tiny panthers, one black and one white, just ethereal enough to make out the lines of his palms beneath them. They bobbed their heads and licked unseen wounds, tails flicking.

  "What the hell is that?" A man with a crooked nose and kind eyes stood over him, skinny as a finger (but they were all skinny here), staring nakedly at the two panthers.

  "My pets."

  The man with the crooked nose glanced at the guards across the camp. "Are they real?"

  "No." He breathed and the figures faded, then snapped back to fullness. "My name's Dormun."

  "Aker," the man nodded. "Can you make anything else?"

  Dormun gazed up at him, pain forgotten. "What do you want to see?"

  "My children."

  Dormun breathed and the panthers stood upright, tails shrinking into their bodies, snouts flattening, fur shifting into clothing, a boy and a girl four inches tall who smiled at Aker and laughed as faintly as a memory.

  "Two boys," Aker said. "One's taller. Both handsome."

  The boy grew by a fraction and the girl's hair shrank close to her head and her jaw sharpened and Dormun painted the boys' faces to match how Aker's may have looked in his soft youth, before his nose was broken, before his face was creased with sun. Five other men ringed Dormun now and a man with long black braids met his eyes.

  "I saw the men who beat you."

  Dormun nodded, breathing. "Then I imagine you saw it hurt like hell."

  "I couldn't see any horns," the braided man teased, gesturing at his forehead. "How was I supposed to know you were a spiros?"

  One of the men flinched at the word. Another laughed, glancing between the others, incredulous. Dormun smiled. Ten minutes ago, they would have let him die. Across the humid clearing, a horn blared like a headache. Aker helped Dormun to his feet. Once the slaves began to march for the waiting stonework, the guards stood, too, slinging bows over their shoulders, untying the dogs from their posts, others buckling armor, securing spears across their backs and gathering chains, bitching and laughing as much as the men they followed.

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