Strains of Wagner
"Shit. Shit. Shit..." Vallyre clumsily pulled up the flight suit with her left hand. There was the proof, a reddish tinge to the wet spot in the sand. Something was definitely wrong from that shrapnel wound if the ache in her lower back was any indication. For a moment her little finger got caught in the hole in the back of her suit. There wasn't much blood outside but she'd bet her fourteen CD set of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' that a little piece of Iraqi metal was surfing in a tiny sanguine ocean of internal bleeding. For a moment she felt sick and disoriented in the pit of her stomach. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing; it would just hurt too much to give into the nausea. Finally, the desert stopped swaying and settled into its semi-permanent state.
Val had discovered there was something about the Arabian sand; it has a life of its own. It does not want to stay put. It got in the cots, in the boots, in the hair and occasionally in the food. As one wit remarked, either the sand was lonely for company or it was trying to commit suicide in the hash. The inhospitable sand also offered no respite from her pain.
Her dislocated right shoulder made her want to scream and not stop. Since every careful breath joggled that mass of agony, screaming was not a good option. The pounding fire in the misaligned joint made every little action an exercise in hell. Val wondered if it would hurt so much if she gnawed it off, like an animal with its paw caught in a trap. So much for the stoic hero image, way overrated in her opinion. Gritting her teeth, Val slowly unfastened and pulled off her belt to secure it around her neck as a makeshift sling. Amazing how long a simple action like that takes when you're one handed and can't focus that well.
Val pulled up the radio antennae with her teeth and pressed the switch. "Alpha Tango five nine one to Base. Base come in. Base!" Her communication gear responded with a variety of static but nothing else. Val murmured some choice invectives then tucked it inside her suit just in case. She added the mini medical kit after popping a couple of Percosets with water. That canteen wasn't going to last very long, the way she was losing fluids inside, but there was no help for it.
Words from her father came to mind, "It's not the destination but the journey." Damn, she missed her folks so much since the crash. Val held back the tears, "Not this time Dad, I've got to find Jaz." Her legs were a bit wobbly but she could move okay, well less than okay, truth be told. She would find Jaz. Hell, the woman still owed her money from their last poker game, and she had graciously offered the good loser a kiss. She felt a small smile despite her fears, and set out with the desert sun low over her left shoulder. Her body's aches and torments enveloped her in a reddish grey haze.
"But Daddy, why don't you just buy one?" An eight and a half-year-old Vallyre balanced carefully on a saw horse in the little hanger where her parents were building an ultralight.
"Because Punkin, it's not the destination but the journey. Anyone with money can buy things, but to build something, that's special. Very special and precious that no one can take away from you. Here--" Val jumped to her feet just in time to catch a small pink helmet that her mother tossed over.
"Oh, wow!" She slipped it on, tucking her blonde hair under the sides.
"Come on, Vallyre." Her mother called from outside. Val ran to the green Piper as her father came out and took the chocks off the wheels. Her mother slid a cushion onto the front seat. "Now you ought to get a fine view." Her parents kissed as she scrambled into the seat for her first flight.
Val stumbled as a spasm clawed through her back. "Shit! I don't need a sprained ankle to add to my list." She stopped and took a small sip from her canteen, then another. Jaz ejected just before her aircraft went to hell in pieces. Not that Val exited in a more graceful fashion. Please, let Jaz be okay. Up one more dune, her feet slipping in the loose grains. Her breath caught as her shoulder felt like it was tearing off anew. Val scanned the area calling for Jaz. Nothing but empty sand and empty sky, both glared at her.
Her recalcitrant radio just cackled to itself when she tried it again. Well, if Base was having problems tracking her, at least the enemy would have a hard time as well. As if her little handgun could hold off an armored personnel carrier and a dozen troops, not. Amazing how the armed forces were full of oxymorons and plain old morons at that. A half-hearted laugh turned into a grunt of pain as a fiery spear pierced her through the faint veil of the drugs.
No clouds, breeze at seven to ten knots out of the southwest, perfect flying weather. Val closed her eyes and smelled the wind. A silly eccentricity considering the place where there was oil, fuel, and a flight suit that needed washing.
At home, Val had every book ever written on Amelia Earhart. Her walls were covered with posters of women in leather bombers and khaki trousers, leaning on anything that could fly. Val had boxes of notes from pen pals in the classic Ninety-nines. Pictures of women like Jacqueline Cochran who lead Pilots to Britain, the flying grandmother: Ruth Cheney Streeter who won the Distinguished Service medal, and Ann Baumgarten Carl, the first woman who flew the VP-59 jet in 1944. And there in the tiny hanger had been the scent of cedars, saddle soap on the leather seats, and oatmeal cookies for the trip. And a denim jacket that needed washing. Some things never change.
Val executed exterior check and double-check, adjusted her helmet and climbed into the cockpit. The canopy was fastened; fuel hose disconnected and thumbs up from the ground crew. Internal check twice to make sure then green for takeoff. Short taxi, roaring like a thousand lions, and she was airborne. A giant's hand forced her back in her seat as the gees built up. The control tower reconfirmed her flight pattern and she and the sky shared the same soul.
An ocean of air, whether tumultuous or calm, had invisible currents which carried her effortlessly. Islands of clouds, immeasurable in their shifting flux were amorphous terra incognito. Here indeed be dragons and castles, giants and gods. A river of gold when the setting sun laid its pigments on the indefinable contours, older than memory and quicker than thought.
Sometimes she would dream of flying, no jets, just her will and her joy. Until that became a reality, the Air Force was the noisy close third. Her second favorite was that ultralight she had named 'Raven'. It was responsive to every whim with a soothing drone that eased her mind in the intimate blue embrace. That craft sat draped and tethered in storage since her folks had died in that stupid plane crash over Norway last year. The Cessna was never found.
Why did she lose everyone she loved? Grandmother Anaka to cancer, her folks. Jaz... No. Not after Val had found someone to share her heart. Those eyes that covered a thousand shades of blue, the smile that was hers alone. The sound of her voice that made Val feel at peace and whole, for the first time in a long time.
"Jaz--I'm not going to lose you," Val yelled into the encroaching dusk, "I refuse to lose you! Auuuuggghhhh!" Her voice was getting hoarse. Some daemon was disemboweling her with a rusty spoon and another was trying to take off her right shoulder with a blowtorch. Her hands trembled when she opened her medicine kit, spilling its contents to all sides. Val dropped to her knees to retrieve them and screamed as the lower back daemon added a toasting fork to his cutlery collection. A few forced slow breaths and she gathered up the last of the Percosets and the empty vial.
'May cause drowsiness' stated the navy blue label.
"No shit. And I suppose operating heavy machinery isn't recommended either." Val panted; her heart seemed to pound out of synch with her shoulder grinding. "This is not good. I'm talking back to a foil pack of half-assed painkillers THAT DON'T DO SHIT!" She panted again and gave a small chuckle. Val shook her head and dropped the last two pills in. She had to hold the canteen between her knees to undo the top. Which was of course, stuck.
"Furkinfairfurce," Val cursed rather ineptly around the slowly dissolving bitter pills. The top came off abruptly and a splash of the precious liquid jumped out over her hand. She drank in small sips, tilting the container higher and higher. Then it was gone. She licked the last drop from the lip and stared at it.
"You're not going to refill are you. Damn it, where's magic when you need it. Instant water...just add water." Val let the useless canteen go; it made a soft thump as it hit the sand. She slowly got to her feet and started off again.
When the war was declared official, Val was grateful in a way to that ugly bastard in the Middle East. Now she could blur everything behind hard work. She knew she was covering up the hurts that would come back later, worse perhaps, but maybe by then she could deal with the pain. At her own request, Val was shipped out in the first wave of the desert war.
Sleep was grabbed when she could get it, usually with a gas mask on. That nauseating rubber smell was something Val thought she'd never get used to. Sorties at all hours; she lived in her flight suit until someone complained that her clothes wanted a better smelling home. Through it all she kept her loss under wraps, concentrating on the battles at hand.
It's funny the way you meet somebody, exchanging the most creative ways to use creamed chipped beef on toast as a weapon to slow down enemy tanks, or poison their camels... Val had to go halfway around the world to find a woman who lived twenty miles from her hometown.
"I think we should build another set of pyramids. When this stuff dries it's a cinch to hold out for a few thousand years," said a lovely storm-eyed dark-haired Captain, grinning at Val, sitting across from her at the mess table. The tall woman made little bricks out of her wheat toast and spooned the unappetizing slop over a row.
"You might be right," Val replied, "And we can mummify the cook in it too." She gingerly picked up some pathetic string beans and laid them side by side in the mushy mortar on the other woman's plate. She glanced at her pocket tag: Captain Jazmin Wheeler.
"Along with his pots and pans," Wheeler added, her eyes bright with the game.
"Instead of a crook and sistrum," Val said, hoping she would continue.
"A baster and a ladle!" She saw Wheeler eyeing her name pin before she layered more toast on the inedible edifice before her.
"With the big sink as a barge..." Val tried to lean two beans together in an inverted ‘V' but they kept slipping in the congealing mess.
"...To carry him down the Nile! Captain Frey, do you always play with your food? My food."
"It's a far kinder fate than having to eat it, Captain Wheeler," Val extended her hand to shake the other woman's. "You as good upstairs as you are down here?"
"Better, I don't have to eat up there. Captain Frey?" Her voice was low and gentle.
"Val," she corrected the Captain, whose smile was like a soft summer night.
"Val, call me Jaz."
"Jaz! Damn it, Jaz!" It was almost too dark to see clearly. Val's throat was raw; her abdomen flared in red spears as the pressure of the accumulated blood increased. What... what happens when you're hot and can't sweat? Oh yeah, heat stroke, in the middle of the damned desert. "I don't have time for this..." Well, the heat stroke will have to take number three after the imp torturing her lower back and the son-of-a-bitch still chewing on her right shoulder.
What was it she had read? Vision isn't just seeing, it's observing. The wrong color in the right place, movement where there should be stillness, a shape foreign to the surroundings. All these gentle slopes, the same pattern of curves except for that--Val ran to the sharp-edged bulk.
Jaz was nearly upside down, still connected to what was left of her seat. Her tattered chute straggled out behind. Val knelt and unbuckled the other woman one-handed, trying to hold Jaz in place with one thigh. Her moans of pain couldn't be avoided as she moved, first lying over Val's leg then sliding down to the sand. At least she was alive. Under the faint beam of her pocket flashlight, Val saw patches of red showing through the flight suit at left shoulder, chest and thigh. Val looked for Jaz's medical kit; it must have been lost on the way down. Val wished she had saved some of the painkillers for her friend.
"Jaz--can you hear me? Come on flygirl, you can't get out of owing me money this easily." She stroked the dark curls as Jaz opened her eyes, then closed them again. Val took out her jackknife and pulled open the blade with her teeth. She sat down and sliced open the suit where she suspected the wounds were. At those areas, the fabric was stiff with clotted blood. The wounds were still oozing. She cut at the legs of the flight suit and tore off three strips.
Val knew it wouldn't be very absorbent, but she wadded the cloth into pressure pads, which she placed over the crimson gaps in Jaz's flesh. Val undid both her boots and secured the pads on at Jaz's thigh and shoulder with the laces. By leaning over and holding one end in her teeth, she was able to tie a granny knot with her left hand. The sudden jerking of Val's teeth made the world tilt rather unpleasantly. Warm salt drops found their way to her lips. She let her forehead rest on Jaz's shoulder as she felt her tears fall unbidden. Whether for herself or
"Val--ah shit, it hurts! What are you doing here?" Jaz's face was grey with pain and blood loss. "Lousy first date...ahhh." Her teeth clenched tight again, Val saw how the cords in the older woman's neck stood out with the effort of holding in the pain.
She wiped away her tears before she looked up at Jaz. "They blew off a wing, I took one of them out and gave another what for. And I thought you knew how to show a girl a good time." There was too much red staining the sand; Val tried not to see how much blood the other woman had lost. She unclipped Jaz's radio and tried calling for help.
"Alpha Tango five nine one to Base." The radio gurgled static at her then whined and went completely silent. "Goddammit!" She tossed the unit aside and pulled over Jaz's canteen. "At least this is full." Val sat back on her heels, breathing hard; the drugs she took were turning ineffective as the pain worsened.
"You look like hell, Captain." Jaz nodded at the sling. They stared at one another. Val shook her head.
"Yeah, and mama's dating rules say: never let them see you without make-up until you're married." She crawled over to Jaz. "Here, have some..." She helped Jaz sit up in slow stages; letting her get a breath between each few degrees of height. Gingerly, Val tilted the canteen to Jaz's lips then she took a few swallows as well. Jaz groaned, opening her mouth for more, so Val let her finish it. Watery blood dribbled from her lips. Val gently wiped her mouth; her fingers lingered as Jaz pressed a weak kiss on them.
"So if that was Southern Comfort whiskey, would you be trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me?" For a fleeting second, that old sparkle appeared in her cyan blue eyes, then the hideous pain grabbed a firmer hold.
"In an Air Force second, flygirl," Val answered softly, tears on her face.
"If I took a ride with your mythical Valkyres now I'd need an airsick bag. Oh shit, it hurts..." Jaz bit her lip and clenched her eyes tight.
"Where?" Val asked, mentally cursing that she was unable to do anything more than empathize. Her voice sounded hollow in her own ears, hollow and empty and helpless.
"My chest and back, mostly...I can't move my arms." Jaz opened her eyes and saw Val's wet cheeks.
"I, I--know." Her voice cracked. "You know what I liked most about you? Your hugs." Val wiped her face with her good hand. "I guess the secret's out now."
"What if I told you, I love you?" Jaz tried to smile. A vicious tremor shook her. Jaz stared through Val; her eyelids fluttered then slowly closed. She had passed out, lying quiet with Val's arm around her, her breath came in short gasps.
"If my love could heal, you'd be whole, beloved."
They're out of water. Val doesn't think base knows where to find them, and if they did, they wouldn't be in time. With her severe injuries, Jaz wasn't going to last much longer... neither was she. Val settled herself closer to Jaz, sharing what little body heat was available as the cold desert night crept in about them. When she kissed her, Val wasn't surprised that Jaz didn't respond. A little piece of her heart had hoped she would though in her gut, Val knew Jaz wasn't going to regain consciousness.
"Those missiles were meant for me, my love." Val held Jaz close, their cheeks touching as the dunes and the night grew longer and colder. "At least you're not suffering." She bit back a cry as she shuddered involuntarily. That luxury was denied her for now, but maybe not for long.
Val brushed her dry lips over the loose dark curls. She felt so weary, so tired from the pain and the cold, but she continued to hold Jaz fast against her. "Let me tell you a story my mother told me when I was little. There is a world that only the courageous may live in."
She paused; her voice started to crack. A stray tear wound down her cheek. "Can you hear me? Where there is no pain, only beauty and grace. Where the gods honor heroes, where there is neither illness nor death, Jaz. Jaz?" The woman felt cold beneath Val's hands. Val clutched her tighter. "Mother!" she screamed to a woman dead these many months. The stars shone cold, mute witnesses to her grief.
Dehydration, exhaustion, and all-encompassing pain were her companions now. Val let her eyes close against the night as she held her precious burden. She wasn't surprised to hear sounds inside her head like humming violins and brass in crescendo. It was all right, the music seemed to say. She could let go, but she didn't want to go without Jaz. Unconsciously she pulled the silent still woman tighter to her so that her head rested on Val's heart.
A voice whispered through the night, "Come, my child."
Val knew that voice, but she hadn't heard it in so long, it couldn't be real. She raised her head and blinked hard to focus her eyes. "Let me die," she whispered. "Let me be with Jaz."
"Punkin, listen to your mother," urged a deeper gentle tone.
"Come with us, child, and bring your love, as I did."
"Mother? You're-- It can't be?"
The night sky exploded in soundless light, aurora streams curled about and resolved into hundreds of women of incredible beauty riding great horses like Clydesdales, only larger. Behind each woman was a smiling man or another woman, waving and laughing.
Val looked at one woman, a Eurasian, on a dapple-grey. Val fell into her almond eyes and knew all about her. She was Chani; a medic killed when an enemy missile struck the armored personnel carrier she was riding in. Behind her was Rika, the unit's best tank driver taken by a stray shell when she tried to pull a wounded crewman to safety.
Among the troupe was her grandmother, Anaka, with her characteristic long silver braids. She was vibrant and laughing, untouched by the ravaging cancer. Sitting behind her was a strange old man in odd-fashioned clothing who bowed to Val.
"Greetings Captain Frey, I am Richard. These good people let me ride with them occasionally. They do so love the music I wrote for them. It is good to have you join us, madam."
One great silver horse stamped his feathered hooves and stood atop the dune. Val's mother was astride it, her father behind her mother, holding her waist. He kissed her mother's cheek. "Come princess, take up your hero and return home."
A massive golden horse-beast floated to the sand and knelt soundlessly by Val. She shook her head in disbelief, her wounds forgotten.
"This can't be. Mom, Dad--you were both killed in that crash-- How? How can you be here?"
"Because we are as you are, Vallyre. You never gave up the fight, your love is greater than death. Come home with us to Asgard. Valhalla awaits tonight's chosen ones."
Everything made sense now; with immortal strength Val lifted Jaz in her arms and stood. The glowing stallion turned his head and watched as Val mounted and got settled into a comfortable position, Jaz cradled against her breast. The dark woman's chest rose and fell easily, her breath warming the spot over Val's heart. Val knew that Jaz was only sleeping. The horse rose smoothly to his feet, unlike the jarring sensation of an earthly equine rising. The golden steed stepped off the sand into the air and led the company towards a shimmering arc in the heavens.
Below her, Val could see the barracks that are quiet at midnight. Base will probably send out a search party soon. They'll find an empty canteen or two, some tangled nylon and warped metal but nothing more. Some soldiers will look up and see a glow in the sky and think that rockets are exploding. Less than a handful will notice a stranger noise than that of combat. If they listen carefully, they'll hear faint sounds of music. Some will swear that they hear the strains of Wagner.
Ms. Pamela Lord was born in Connecticut a few decades ago as a damned Yankee. Now she is tucked away as a bona fide carpetbagger in Arlington, Virginia where she resides with her partner, two cats, and an assortment of fish.
Fascinated by world mythos from Gilgamesh to Frodo, she has been writing for most of her life, only recently submitting her literary children for publication. Her favorite authors include Tanith Lee, Anne Rice, and Sherri Tepper.
Her interests include mixed-media art, cooking, reading/writing/watching fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, with the occasional turn into fan fiction, poetry, and parody.
Published by permission of the author.