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|Getting up is Easy|
Jee and Ren try to save a new prisoner's life
Chapter II: Getting up is Easy
- Been away gone one year, Been away getting on now
- Been away far too long, gonna get back home
- but I don't know how, but I don't know how
It was hot. It was always hot here on the Earth King's Salt Pot, a high flat topped mountain riddled with salt pans and mines. It was cut off from the mountain range by deep ravines in which stood strange needles of stone. Some of the men said they stretched all the way to the sea. Jee squinted into the glare off of the largest salt lake where he was working, passing buckets of salt along the line up to the giant stone salt hoppers. Near the ramshackle collection of huts and shacks which made up the camp, at the edge of the mountain, men were gathering.
"Jee! Get a move on!"
"There's a new shipment, Mongke," he called casually. He knew that would produce a reaction.
"Alright everyone, take a break." Since none of the prisoners could get off the mountain, there were no guards, but inevitably someone would throw their weight around, and up here Mongke was the weightiest. He and everyone else wanted to check if what was coming up in rations matched what had been sent down in salt. As with everything around here, it all came down to weight.
But already the men standing at the edge of the plateau could see what was coming their way. Some had started to walk back to the salt lake. Jee continued to the edge. Since getting to this hell he had found his role was to care. To be bothered. He was bothered, was the thing. He was bothered that his luck had been so bad as to land him here. To have gone from what was, all things considered, a fairly easy war, not greatly damaging to his self-respect; to the carnage at the North Pole; to drifting for days before being taken prisoner. It annoyed him that it didn't matter what he had been before. Now he was just one more Fire-Nation dog, another link in the chain-gang. So this was how he maintained the distinction, even if it only mattered to him. He wandered to the edge. Another man, who had been a ship's physician and who was also bothered, was waiting. The doctor was a shortish, squarish fellow, with a jutting jaw on which he grew a jutting beard. They acknowledged each other, then looked over the sheer edge.
Through the dust, a chunk of rock was rising rapidly. On it, huddled shapes were clinging to the rock, terrified of what was awaiting them.
The platform of rock reached the top of the Salt Pot. Immediately Jee and the doctor, Ren, started yelling at the men, pulling the ones nearest to them off. It only took a few seconds for the new arrivals to realise why, as the rock beneath their feet started to dissolve, starting at the farthest edge. Now Jee and Ren had to stand back as the rest of the men stampeded off the rock, all except one who was being trampled in the rush. There was usually one, passed out from injury or dehydration. They rarely survived. Jee and Ren had to fight through the panicked herd, grabbing the man's limbs, hauling him with no consideration for whatever injuries he might have. They made it, but barely, before the platform crumbled entirely.
Kneeling in the dirt, waiting for the dust cloud to settle, he felt a small victory. He looked at Ren, who he knew felt the same. They would not be destroyed by this. He looked down at the prone body between them, lying face down. As always, he caught himself thinking that the man better actually be alive. The doctor was feeling for a pulse, nodding. "Can we turn him?" said Ren, glancing up. Working together, they turned the man onto his back.
Looking at the man, Jee sat back a little on his heels, although he couldn't quite say why. It was difficult to make out exactly what was what, with the salt and dust settling on everything. The man's features were distorted by injuries, but he must have been getting on in years, his beard and close-cropped hair snowy. He was tall, his large frame painfully visible under his pallid skin, livid scars everywhere.
The doctor was doing the same as Jee, but with more purpose, feeling down the head, neck and torso. There was a brand on the collar-bone, a Fire Nation symbol denoting a Firebender, surmounted by an Earth Kingdom coin. The flame symbol had been defaced by another line branded across it. A Firebender no more, apparently, a claim confirmed by the hands; crushed, swollen, and bound in blood blackened rags.
"Hmm. It looks pretty bad. We're going to struggle to get this one in shape before Mongke decides to toss him over the side. Ready?" This indicated that the rapid examination was over. They hefted him between them. He was not as heavy as Jee had been expecting for a man of his size.
When they had dumped the man on a bed roll in the medical tent, Jee took his leave and walked back to the salt lake. If they didn't make quota, they would get less food in the next delivery. Mongke would make sure that any man who had not pulled his weight, literally, bore the brunt.
That evening, after he had collected his bowl of rice, he wandered back over to the hospital tent. Despite the man's terseness, the doctor was one of the few other prisoners he enjoyed conversing with. He felt like he was learning something, speaking with him, instead of wasting his time with the blowhards that hung around Mongke.
"How's the new admission?"
"Came round for a bit, but wasn't up to talking. I managed to get some pitch-root bark tea into him. Might help, might not." Jee knew from Ren that pitch-root was good for pain and fever. The gnarled trees with their dried-up leaves were one of the few things that grew up here. It was just as well; they weren't getting medicine from anywhere else.
"He was tortured," said Ren.
"Hmm?" Jee came out of his thoughts.
"The new fellow. Tortured. They did a thorough job, too. Sometimes, they send them after Fong has had them." The doctor tailed off, shaking his head.
"It's bad then?" Jee looked at the few remaining mouthfuls of rice in his bowl, and with some effort, set it aside. He wouldn't be the only one to do so, and it meant the injured men didn't starve.
"As bad as I've seen. Lots of injuries, some quite old, some newer. I had to slice his shirt off his back. And he has frostbite."
"Maybe he was at the Siege." But that was four months ago. Had this man been tortured the whole time? Could anyone survive that?
The doctor made no comment, and started gathering up the dishes which had been left, scraping the left over rice together. "You sticking around?" he asked, as always.
"Sure. I'll give you a hand?" replied Jee, as always.
"Thanks." There were about twenty men in the hospital tent. Mostly they had pick-axe injuries to their limbs, caused by a moments lapse in concentration, or they were suffering from dehydration, which usually only meant a couple of days out of action. Mongke had imposed a ten day rule. No rations after ten days off the work gangs, over the side in another ten. The pick axe injuries all prayed they would not get an infection which would keep them out of action beyond the limit. The men who were beyond their first ten days were given the left overs. All of them had an air of desperation. They had no pity left for lost causes like the white-haired man.
Ren or 仁 is the Confucian virtue of Benevolence 
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Journey and Return|
|Light reveals - Getting up is easy - Coming Round - Reparations - Evasions and Maneuvers - Peace, and how to get there - Downhill all the way -Going Under -Thin Ice|