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A Seven Years' Death Touch

M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog,and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. An earlier story of his, first published in Daily Science Fiction, "The Highwayman Come Riding", was collected in Heiresses of Russ 2015: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. He lives in Kent, Ohio, and can be found online at mbennardo.com.
When sleep came
He was sure (and he was not sure)
That all of this had happened
in a dream
within a dream
within a dream
And in the first dream:
He lay under a cherry tree, in a forest of cherry trees. He lay under an apple tree, in a forest of apple trees. He lay under a peach tree. He lay under a plum tree.
He slept under his spread cloak, with his arm for his pillow, and his sword and his shield near at hand. Thousands of blossoms tumbled through the night air around him, petals swirling and swarming amid the blinking green fireflies.
A hundred bloomings had been bottled up in those woods, frozen as they had been in a century of unbroken winter. But now they uncoiled, spring after spring, the perfume of life reeling out of every twig, in an endlessly twisting helix of sweet-smelling blossoms. Petals of pink, petals of white, petals of mauve, petals of pearl.
They flew thicker and thicker, uncoiling and unwinding, the great emptying of spring and the great enlivening of the world.
That was when the Witch of the Moon appeared to him.
Though she somehow lived again, her gnarled wand was still snapped and useless in her claw: that iron-hard branch of an apple tree, which he had cleaved in twain in the fight. Though she somehow lived again, she would not cast another wintry spell, and the riotous spring would not abate a fraction.
But the cool patch of skin, just under his collarbone, where the tip of her wand had touched him just lightly, grew icier and icier until it burned with dark fire. Then the Witch of the Moon bent down to his ear, and breathed a few words into his dream.
My love, I won't always be with you--
My love, I can't always be here--
I am reduced now to the tiniest drop of my venom--
To the tiniest germ of a seed--
You killed me, you killed me--
But I'm never cross with you, love--
Carry me with you, these next seven years--
Back to your life--
Back to your heart--
But outside of that dream:
He lay in a bed in an apartment, high above the city streets. The lights glowed red. The lights glowed green. Then, at the stroke of midnight, they blinked only amber. Blink, blink, blink.
He slept on cotton sheets that felt like silk, six hundred threads to the inch. His white coat and his stethoscope were hung together in the wardrobe, amid somber dark ties and fragrant cedar planks. Beyond the open window, in the hot summer city, a greasy breeze stirred and fluttered a pack of papers that sat on the sill.
CAT scan impressions and after-visit summaries, his own name in block letters where the patient's ought to have been. A stack of heavy books kept the papers from blowing away, but the black words rattled off the white pages and swirled around the room. Breslow depth. Tumor ulceration. Stage IV. Distant metastes. Melanoma. Survival. Survival? Survival! Survival--
Like cells suspended in blood, the words tumbled thicker through the air. Portents of the future, statistics of probability. A bookmark in a page, in a future chapter, that would be relevant later in life.
The Witch of the Moon looked in at the window.
And as car horns echoed in the streets below: absently, his fingers strayed to his breast. He scratched at the bandage that was fixed under his collarbone. Just a little nick, the tiniest of cuts. It has been only a little black blot: hard to imagine it could ever cause such a fuss. But that would come later, much later! If it came at all.
The last dream had been better, when he had fought and killed the Witch. At least she had loved him, but this thing was beyond love. It was more like a riot, an explosion of life. Like the endlessly streaming petals of pink and of mauve, an uncontrollable chaos of growth. Then came the voice, and again he recognized the Witch.
My love, I won't always be with you--
My love, I can't always be here--
In seven years' time, I'll be strong enough to take you--
But until then, you'll have to get along--
You'll have to eat breakfast, you'll have to go shopping--
You'll have to wash dishes, you'll have to fold laundry--
You can't get out of living as easily as that--
You'll yet have to go on, for seven more years--
You'll yet have to go on, you'll yet have to be bored--
But outside of that dream:
He bobbed uneasily in a queasy suspension of plasma, aimlessly circulating amid interstitial fluid. One dot out of millions, a tiny translucent blot, pulsing with organelles and pushed by gravity and osmosis through the dead white tubules of the lymphatic system.
He floated among the millions, a cell brushing against cells, bumping and rubbing membrane to membrane: each miniature collision a new explosion, a note in the symphony of his own existence. He tested and tasted each other cell that he touched, feeling for foreignness, searching for danger.
The man in the apartment was only the dream of his cells, just as the man in the orchard was only the dream of his neurons. Each part of the body uttered a different syllable of the spell: the nerves, the skin, the blood, the stomach lining. Each one sparked against the others in an electrical dance, and from each kiss of contact the sense of the man emerged.
The cancer too: infinitesimal particulates, streaming through the lymphatic system as well. Not foreign, not dangerous. Or at least not appearing that way! He brushed up against them, he kissed them, he released them unharmed. All right, all right. Everything felt all right. For the man was the dream of those rioting cells too: they kissed like he kissed, they tasted like him. So he let them go on and he let them divide.
There, the Witch of the Moon crumbled her broken wand into fragments and cast the pieces away.
At every bulging grey node along those squeezing tight tubules, the tumbling fragments scraped and stuck out sharp points. Here: one catches hold and latches on, growing and multiplying. New little black blots, but not on the skin. Deeper inside. Deeper within. His own fears, of seven years ago, come true at last.
Cells have no tongues and no ears, but they can talk all the same. And the Witch of the Moon for the last time said what she had to say:
My love, I won't always be with you--
My love, I can't always be here--
If you break one wand, it will only become two--
Then four, then eight, then a hundred thousand shards--
I am your body and your body is mine--
You are my dream and I am yours--
But the sleeping is over and the dreaming is done--
Wake up, my love, it's time to see--
Wake up, my love, come see what we've done--
When wakefulness came
He was sure (and he was not sure)
That all of this had happened
in a stream
within a stream
within a stream
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 20th, 2020
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