How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

byAdrian Leverkuhn©

She is mesmerized by the sight of the dog, and the awareness the animal has for his surroundings. He continues to look at her, not breaking contact with her for a moment.

"Well, say howdy to Finch!" Jake says as he draws closer to her. He seems very quiet, almost expectant as he watches his friend and the woman.

"Well, hello there, Mr Finch. So you're my hero, heh? How are you, good boy?" She watches him even more closely now, becomes aware of the gentle strength deep within the animal, and she feels more attentive to her surroundings than she's felt in days. Finch hops up, placing one leg on the arm of her wheelchair, and the other very gently on her stump. He whimpers, as if asking her to lean forward, and as she does so he licks her face once. She is startled by the kiss, disoriented by the gentle wisdom on the dog's face, and she leans back in her chair. He continues to look at her, then she reaches for his face with her hand and gently scratches his neck. His eyes soften into a half-closed look of sated bliss, and his tongue comes into view as he starts to pant. After a moment he hops down and sits by her side, then, noticing the blanket on the ground, reaches for it with his mouth and lifts it up to her lap.

Madeleine and the nurse seem shocked at the dog's humanity, but Jake seems to take it in stride. "Well, looks you two are gonna be friends. I think he's been worried about you."

Madeleine looks at Jake, her eyes scrunched up in confusion. "He . . . worried?"

"Oh, yeah. Once Scout came home from the vets and he knew she was alright, well, he's been kinda sour-faced that I wasn't bringin' him here to see you. I could only hold him off for just so long, you know." Jake had a smile on his face . . .

. . . And she couldn't tell if he was serious or not. She looked from Jake to Finch, and back to Jake again. "I . . . uh . . ." she managed to get at least that much out.

"Maybe Scout can come over one of these days. She's the one you really need to talk to. She's pretty rattled, no pun intended, and I think she needs to see you almost as much as Finch needed to see you. Or maybe you could come over and meet her? Feel like getting out yet?" Jake watched Madeleine's reaction when he mentioned leaving the hospital, and he could feel her uncertainty, see the hesitation in her eyes. He was becoming very concerned that she had lost the will to fight, and he knew a life hung in the balance.

"I don't know. Maybe. I wonder what the docs would say?"

"Already checked. Look, Madeleine. You can go back to New York, start rehab there, or you can stay out at the ranch with us for a while. Personally, I'd like it if you stayed with the three of us 'till you got your gears back down." He watched the battle play out behind her eyes, yet his eyes soon drifted back to Finch. The dog was sitting attentively, looking directly at Madeleine, willing her to release the fear that held her back from living again. His eyes drifted from Madeleine to Finch and back again, and he began to discern the contours of a battle of wills that would rage in the coming weeks. He watched as oh so gently as a smile spread across Madeleine's face. He knew then there would be no losers in this battle.

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Jake's old gray Land Rover wound slowly up the Paradise Valley highway, and he nursed the cumbersome truck gently around curves and sidestepped potholes, all in an effort to smooth out the ride. He watched Madeleine out of the corner of his eye, conscious of every grimace and sharp exhale she made. Though he was getting on in years, he did have some small experience in handling a wild variety of military aircraft, and of course there were those three Shuttle missions, the last two as Shuttle Commander. Yet he felt insecure for the first time in his life, felt as though the woman by his side was the most precious cargo he had ever handled. It staggered him every time he felt those electric butterflies in his stomach, and he felt them every time he looked at her. She had the most beautiful face he had ever seen, and he loved to watch her hands for some reason. Her fingers, so long and refined, intoxicated him.

Madeleine watched Jake's hands, too; watched the surgical precision of his movements as he muscled the ancient truck along the serpentine roadway. There was something seductive in his movements, an assurance in his deliberate motions that she found both reassuring and exhilarating. No, she found his hands frankly erotic. She wanted to feel his hands, feel them on her body. And as soon as she felt that impulse - like a hammer blow came the reminder that the stump of her leg had deprived her of every innocent expectation. She looked at Jake and suddenly resented him, resented him because she knew he would reject her, be revolted by her.

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He turned off the paved highway, and headed east up a straight gravel road that crossed the valley floor. As they neared the dense tree-line that defined the eastern edge of the valley, where the green-cedared floor turned into a steep-sided granite-slabbed mountain, he slowed, and turned into a driveway off the right side of the road. Just ahead a few hundred yards was his house, a very modern structure of concrete, glass, and steel that looked for all intents like a high-tech Swiss chalet. Finch was sitting on the cantilevered deck that hung out over the valley, looking at the Land Rover as it drew near. Jake watched Finch as they came closer, watched as the dog saw the woman in the front seat beside him, saw his head perk up, his nose raising to scent the air. As the Rover came to a stop beside the house, only then did the dog jump off the deck and saunter over to the driver's door. Scout was nowhere to be seen.

Jake noted that the wheel-chair ramp was finished, and that the way was clear into the house. He hopped out of the truck and moved around to the tailgate, pulled Madeleine's wheelchair out, and set it up beside her door. He opened the door and swung her leg out, and he looked at her looking at his house, wondering what she thought of it. He just stood there, watching her, looking at her every movement.

She turned and faced him, and there was wonder on her face, in her eyes. "Oh, Jake, it's so beautiful . . . so beautiful up here. The air is so pure . . ." Her voice trailed off as she took in the purple clouds that peppered the blazing sunset that burned fiery red over the mountains. It seemed to her that the air was on fire, and for a moment she forgot her leg and the wheelchair that waited for her like an insinuation, and she felt the repressed emotions of the past several weeks welling up deep inside an empty spot in her heart, threatening to break through the walls she had built around that deep wound. She was balanced on the knife-edge of her anguish for a moment longer, and then . . .

. . . The dam broke. From deep within the bruised terrain of her soul, she convulsed in a deep, wracking sob, and through the released fury of her tears all Jake could hear was her fragile voice reaching out to him. He leaned into the gales of her sorrow, and took her to his breast, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her ever closer. He held her as the wrenching emotions took control of her, and he gave her free rein, let the power of her release consume her. He heard his name through the storm, heard her calling his name softly over and over, and he felt his heart breaking under the weight of the burden he felt so inadequate to.

He ran his arms up her back, cupped the back of her head in his hands, ran his fingers through her hair. He felt her stiffen then release as her response to this first touch penetrated the core of her anxiety. "Oh, girl," he said, "you're home now. It's all over, it's all over; we're gonna get better every day now." He regretted saying those words almost as soon as they passed his lips, knowing how hollow those words must sound to anyone not facing the horror she faced. He could feel the wheelchair by his side - pressing into his leg - and he could feel his shame crushing through his self-centered recklessness. It wasn't all over . . . her ordeal was just beginning, his journey as her companion through this darkness was inconceivable. But here he was.

And still he held her, and she felt wondrous to him. He leaned forward, buried his face in her hair, and reveled in the scent of her. He felt her weight against his chest, and he marveled at how well she fit there, how he loved the feel of her there, and how he longed to keep her there. He had taken it for granted that he would never feel this way about a woman; all of the relationships he had known had been superficial, unsatisfying affairs that had reeked of sour drama and shallow adulation. His career had as such been his chosen companion, and he knew well the cost in human terms. The painful reconciliation of his choice had haunted him, especially when he watched married friends grow comfortable in their advancing years - together; he had questioned the wisdom of this choice more than once in recent years.

He felt the waves of anguish subsiding through Madeleine's body; she seemed to sway in the ebb and flow of her uncertainty. Then he felt her trying to push her way toward the side of the Rover's passenger seat, and he sensed her resolve, her desire to begin. No words were needed; he moved away but held her arms around his neck, steadied her as her left foot sought the ground. He stepped back, held her arms as she let go and felt her weight reach the ground; he watched her body for signs of dizziness and saw none.

"You ready for the chair?" he asked. She was holding his arms, but her tear streaked face was turned toward the house, and he could see sudden conflict raging on her face. But there was something else there on her face as well, some awesome horror in her eyes. "What is it," he asked as he looked at her, then he turned his gaze toward the house, and he saw Scout standing there. Standing there on three legs, her right front leg gone, amputated when gangrene had set in three days after saving Madeleine.

______________________________________

Scout stood on the deck, looking at the woman standing next to her human, and as recognition set in, the chords of memory struck deep inside. She seemed to stagger momentarily, lose her balance, but she held her ground, knew she could not show weakness in front of this new human. She watched as the woman struggled to move, fighting to cross the small distance to the chair by her side. It was then she saw the woman's leg, saw that one of the woman's legs was missing, and again Scout seemed to stagger and sway as the realization hit her. Her head tilted to one side for a moment, communicating empathy and understanding, then she turned and walked with as much dignity as she could back into her house.

________________________________________

Madeleine sat on one of the black leather sofas that looked out on the now almost completely dark sky; only the faintest sliver of copper-bronze light streaked the western sky, and she was mesmerized by the beauty of the scene spread before her. The severe modernism of the home's exterior was gone once inside, replaced by more comfortable though vaguely Japanese textures and furnishings, and she felt comfortable if not exactly at home in the new space. Soft music dropped down like warm rain from the loft above, and she could smell pine burning in the fireplace behind her. A log popped, scattering it's dying fury against the fireplace screen, and she felt herself jump at the sound. Finch was curled up on the sofa beside her, and she absent-mindedly twirled her fingers through the soft, fine hair on his neck. She heard a contented sigh from the dog and smiled inside at the thought of his acceptance of her.

She had been turned completely upside down after seeing Scout, and had felt small as she watched the dog standing there on the deck, proud, almost defiant. Madeleine had looked at the hair shaved away from the dog's shoulder, the deep-red sutured wound an angry reminder of their shared encounter on the mountain. Madeleine had wanted to reach out to the dog, touch her, thank her, and had been visibly upset when the little girl hobbled away. But she had watched, too, as the dog held it's head high, and walk as best as she could back into the house. What strength of will, she thought, possessed that girl. Did dogs not just give up? Could they conceive of such a thing? Were humans really so weak? 'Am I so weak?' Madeleine thought.

Jake walked into the room and put a glass in her hand, and she looked at him, then the glass. "Mineral water," Jake said, "slice of lime. Caesar salad coming right up, some cheese, hell, just hope I don't poison us all tonight. I'm not really the best cook up here on the mountain."

She took a sip of the water, and smiled as the bubbles and the scent of the lime tickled her nose. She turned her smile toward Jake, felt her eyes melt as she took in the sight of him. "You'll do," she said enigmatically, the double entendre slipping casually from her lips. "You'll do just fine."

"Made a friend, huh?" he said, motioning toward Finch, hiding his embarrassment.

She looked down at the dog and simply nodded her head. "Do you ever get the feeling that they're running the show? You know? Not like you own them, more like the other way around? That they own us?"

"You must not have owned a dog before, Madeleine," Jake said, grinning. "At least not a Springer! I've always thought that because their lives are so much shorter than ours they just live more intensely, pack life in more intensely. But there's more to it than that. They know us. Instinctually, you know what I mean. They know what makes us happy, what makes us sad, and they know how directly they can influence our feelings. That's a lot of power, you know, that we give them. And they so rarely abuse that trust. That's frankly what amazes me most; they extend so much trust to us, and how many people abuse that trust. Yet that trust never falters. We have so much to learn from them."

He turned and walked back toward the kitchen. She could hear him working away in there; then she heard Scout walking around in the kitchen with him, and she listened as Jake talked to her. Such familiar words, bathed in those soft comforting tones of his. No wonder they loved each other so. She drifted into those words and the comfort that swirled inside sudden mists that enveloped her as she listened. She could hear love for her in his every word, and she felt vaguely jealous, then she laughed at herself with the thought. Just as suddenly, Finch turned and raised his head and placed it on her left thigh; then he looked up at her with soulful eyes. Madeleine looked into his eyes - met his stare, and she saw the trust there, was drawn into the warmth that radiated from the dog's eyes. She continued to rub the dog's neck and ears, and smiled as his eyes glowed in satisfaction with her.

They ate in silence, the three of them. Finch ate some cheese with them, but studiously ignored the salad. When Jake brought in some sliced roast beef, the dog did manage to choke down a few slices.

Scout remained secluded in the darker recesses of her house.

_________________________________

Once upon a time there was a princess. She lived in a white tower high above the battlements of a castle that was perched on a hillside. She lived quietly, peacefully, above clouds that drifted over the sun-studded land and the valley that lay spread out below her like a wounded lamb, and she studied poetry and painting when the sun came out each morning. When the moon came out she sang, and to all who heard her voice a spell was cast, and time stopped. The moon above would stop and listen to her song, grizzled old men would remember the fire that had spread through their loins when they were young, and old women would feel new life again in their withered wombs. She lived to walk through the woods of the land below when the sun returned, she loved above all else to walk beside the animals that lived among the trees and the flowers, and she would sing her song of love, cast it to the wind, and the land would remember when all had been new and pure.

One day the princess was walking through the woods and she came upon a creature she had never seen before. It was long and slender and was covered with golden diamonds, and it lay across the path the princess was walking on. The creature did not move, neither did it pay attention to the princess when she asked the creature it's name. The creature only looked at the princess; there was no malice in its eyes, but neither was there recognition, or joy, or hope. The princess moved to walk around the creature, but as she moved the creature moved quickly toward the princess and bit her on the leg.

The princess felt betrayed, lost, and full of sorrow as she looked down at the creature. "Why have you done this?" the princess asked, but the creature only looked at her. "Why have you done this to me?" the princess wailed again. The creature's black, lifeless eyes only considered her briefly, then it moved to the princess's side once again and bit her once, then a second time it bit her, then a third time it struck, each time on the princess's leg. The princess could feel her life slipping away, could feel her soul dissolving all around her, her life transforming itself as if she was becoming mist, and she felt as if she was drifting off into the woods. The earth rose and swallowed the princess's legs, and she felt herself slowly being consumed by the earth. As she dissolved into the earth she tried to sing once again, but her voice was empty, hollow, and she felt terror for the first time in her life. She watched as the earth grew closer to her face, but there on the surface of the earth was the creature, looking at her with it's black, empty eyes, and she knew as soon as she drew nearer to the creature it would bite her once again, on her face.

She was consumed with terror, and she knew if only she could sing the creature would understand and take pity on her, leave her to grow again, renew herself, return to the world of the living. She tried to sing but no sound came from her mouth, and she looked across at the creature, saw the creature drawing near, saw the creatures mouth opening and the sunlight gleaming off the sharp fang that sprang from it's mouth. She tried to move, tried to defend herself, but her hands were gone, consumed by the earth. Time slowed, altered, and soon stopped, and frozen in that moment like a crystal-hued nightmare was the creatures mouth, open, malevolent, ready to take her life, moving slowly toward her through frozen time, drawing nearer, black, empty . . .

_________________________________

Madeleine was aware of the wild terror that was closing in, of the wild scream that was struggling for release, release from the grasp of the earth, from the creature. She felt her pulse thundering through her head, saw lightning crawling across her closed eyes, and she was aware that from deep within her dream she was screaming. She felt the tears that ran down her face; they felt like molten lava spilling down the side of a mountain, and she was afraid. She felt the empty bed all around her, and she opened her eyes to see that all was blackness. Terror closed in, she felt caught in it's grip, in it's bite, and she screamed in wild terror at death, death that must surely flee from the fury of her scream. She saw a light turn on far away, but she heard the door to her room opening, and the creature was upon her, it's dark eyes searching hers. It moved slowly closer, she could feel its breath on her face, and she felt herself turning inward, away from the truth in those eyes. She felt herself turning toward the fear that protected her, the fear that concealed her from the truth of her denial.

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byAdrian Leverkuhn© 3 comments/ 14645 views/ 0 favorites

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