Her feet are bleeding again. Lev, kneeling, strips away the sodden wrappings and ties new ones tight over the deep gouges in Yael’s soles. “You have to tell me when you feel them open,” he says to her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she answers, unfazed. “It’s not my time quite yet.”
The air conditioner rattles against the window, spitting a thread of cool air into the stifling room. The only light comes from the bedside lamp; everything else is off in an attempt to minimize the heat. Yael sits on the edge of the bed, her eyes fixed on something Lev can’t see, something far beyond the peeling walls of the motel room. In the past months she has spent less and less time present, and the space in Lev which had been made for her at the beginning now yawns nearly empty. It hurts.
Yael herself seems not to feel pain anymore – not the way pain is usually felt, anyway. She doesn’t complain of her feet, where the wounds appeared, nor of the lasting bruises which mark her ribs, nor of the scratches she leaves on her own shoulders and chest. The suffering she knows is all intangible, internal, fierce enough to make her writhe and tear at her skin. When Lev tried to hold her back, the first time, she’d broken two of his fingers and ordered him away with a voice that was not hers. Since then, he’s known to leave and shut the door behind him when she begins to shake. It is a matter between her and her god, Lev has been telling himself.
Already the new bandages are stained through. Lev leaves them and settles back on his haunches, looking up at Yael’s face. The concentrated light shadow-stains the harsh hollows in her cheeks. “Have you eaten?” he asks.
“No. Where are the others?”
“You sent them away for the night. Should I call them back?”
“No,” she says again. Her heavy-lidded eyes turn to Lev, and he flinches, for as much as he feeds on her infrequent glances, they are increasingly thick with the ineffable. She thinks in languages he’ll never understand, he’s sure. “You can sleep,” Yael tells him.
“Not now.” She rests a hand on his head, giving him a distracted smile. Her fingers curl into his hair. “We’ll leave here in the morning. Rest – there’s far to go.”
Lev lies on his back, the lamp switched off though Yael still sits gazing at the seam between ceiling and wall. She doesn’t need human light to see the things given her to see. Somehow, her breath is loud enough to keep Lev awake; her breath, and the weight of her which tugs the mattress down on one side, and the way her indecipherable thoughts are a being unto themselves. Lev feels them buzzing, a frenetic corona, too great for any vessel of skin and sinew. They are thick as locusts in the dark.
He met her first in a stairwell, going down – he’d dropped something – he found it in her hand, as she climbed to meet him. He didn’t know what she was, then. Just someone with a long face and thin lips, someone on her way to the library’s second floor with a jumble of papers pinned under her arm. Lev laughed at himself and thanked her, and she smiled. Her smile changed her face, made him look twice and ask her name. She wouldn’t give it that time, but then they found each other in the little Episcopal church on Elm Street the next Sunday. After the service, they went for coffee – her initiative. She had beautiful things to say, though Lev couldn’t understand some of them. It seemed she left out pieces, assumed he knew everything she did. She was maddening in that, and tantalizing, and Lev was just about in love by the fourth or fifth time they sat down across from each other (he with his tea, she with her milky coffee).
That was around when she’d begun to shift, to slough away the dried-out pretense of normality. Lev followed her to her street corners and shoebox bars, hearing her raise her voice as she’d never done before. The chemistry of her was altered, somehow, like body and mind and soul had all been boiled down to a concentrate. Her temperature ran continuously high; her words flowed thick and fast as blood from a cut artery. Lev marveled at her for a few weeks before he noticed how her fervor was beginning to wear her down out the outside. He had only ever viewed Yael’s cause through the lens she embodied, and as her bones rose to corrugate her dulling skin Lev ceased to make any effort to see beyond her. The matters which drove her were not for him, he decided. Within a few months they were living out of rented rooms, marking up roadmaps of the Midwest with the places they’d passed through. Yael was effervescent, but ever more divinely damaged.
Lev is still awake, still thinking. They’ve been on the move for almost two years. More and more people have taken notice of Yael, which means notice of Lev – and sometimes sidelong looks and mutters, furtive words spoken too low for comprehension of anything besides their ugliness. He is tacitly beloved, more so than they. Their envy always burns on his back when he follows Yael into her room for the night. The crowds make Yael bright with fulfillment if not exactly happiness, so Lev keeps his resentment of them tamped down in a back corner of his mind. In that little space, though, he thinks it’s their fault, what’s happening to her, and he loathes them for it; but Yael’s work is her life and she trusts him as helpmeet and he cannot betray that.
Who is she is the usual question, from the police who come to break up the masses formed to listen, and from the desk clerks at the hotels who catch the whiff of significance about her. Lev still doesn’t really know. A prophet a martyr a wineskin a healer a lover…It used to be she was at her most human when she woke up. They would lie curled around each other, fingers locked tight, and talk about small things. Now, though – some mornings, he wakes her with caresses and whispered adorations as before; some mornings, she wakes him coughing blood and water into the bathroom sink. These days, her kisses are hot as a brand and soft as poured oil, seeming to mean more than Lev would wish them to. That’s a result of Yael’s halfway state, tugged out of herself to make room for the metaphysical. But this is how it must be.
Yael is still there on the edge of the bed, and her progress of transcendence sounds like grinding teeth. Lev shuts his eyes against it. He cannot keep it out of his encroaching dreams.