Every doctor in the "Mercy" ward at the Thorian Hospital has a tale to tell over lunch.
"I wrestled a madman," brags one. "It took half an hour. I had to strap him to the bed before I could administer Mercy."
"My patient had cancer," another chips in. "Her father spat in my face when I was done."
"Mine had TB," a younger doctor whispers to his colleague. "In a month I could be the one getting Mercy."
Mercy. That is the name of the ward, the instruments and the procedure. It is a gross euphemism for an act whose true meaning was lost long ago.
The Mercy ward is like no other place in the hospital. The doctors need no qualifications; brute strength is enough. They need no training; if they can use a needle that is enough. Blood is spilled in the Mercy ward; bones are broken. The doors and walls are soundproofed to mask the shrieks of the patients. The ward is never quiet. Not until the Girl arrives. She is borne on a stretcher by a man and a woman. The woman is erect, pale and drawn, but the man hides his face. The Girl's skin is white and her lips are blue. Her bare chest is raw and red where she has clawed at it with her own nails. Not older than seven, she was pretty once, but pain has contorted her, made her horrible. Her bloodshot eyes bulge and with every breath she screams, a sound that knifes through the air and silences the ward. The madmen, the dying, those too ill to care; all are silenced by the sound.
As she draws breath all motion is stilled. The Girl's scream has pierced the living to their hearts, and even the dead are seen to shed tears at her plight. Once again the sound rends the silence. Two doctors step forward and seize her wrists. They are afraid to move - their trembling hands betray their fear – but they drag her roughly onto a bed. Neither time nor care is wasted on those due for Mercy. One grips her arms, the other jabs at her neck with a syringe. The scream is cut short. Blood spurts from her open mouth. Her back arches, her fists clench, and suddenly she is still. Like the blood soaking into the sheet, Death soaks into her motionless body, silently but unmistakeably. At the window to the ward a pair of slanted black eyes narrow in triumph, then disappear with a reptilian hiss.
Her time is finished.
The man who hid his face now raises it. He knows what has happened without looking. He has seen Mercy more times than he can count, he has even performed it. He is hard, emotionless. Yet the prone form on the bed awakens something in him. He clutches at the cold arms, smearing his hands with red, shaking with a grief that defies words. The woman who was with him puts her hand on his shoulder.
"Euthanasia," she whispers. He does not respond. "Mercy. It's a blessing, really."
Suddenly he is angry. He shakes now with fury, not grief. "Some blessing!" he spits, and runs out. His colleagues stare after him, but he does not return.
The Girl was his daughter.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A father looks out of an open window. He is waiting. For what, he does not know, but he waits nonetheless. A woman stands in an open doorway behind him, also waiting. There is no tension, only a quiet expectation. A girl is playing outside the window. She is not waiting. For her there is no future. She lives for the present; what is to be does not matter until it is. With the gullibility of a child she believes in the perfection she invents for a plaything, fearing only the snakes that roam the grass, ready to fill a waiting ankle with venom.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Two doctors are talking. They are not yet at work, but travelling together.
"It is a rewarding job," one assures the other. Her companion seems unconvinced.
"Harsh, but rewarding," she continues, taking no notice of her companion's silence. "It is hardest for the greenhorns like you. I was new once, too. It seems like murder. But it's not called 'Mercy' for nothing." Still the sullen silence. She looks back at her husband, who hides his face rather than show his discontent. His unhappiness annoys her. She knows why he is unhappy, and understands it, but is too proud to sympathise. She prefers to scratch the bite and watch it swell.
"It keeps our daughter fed and happy," she ventures, watching to see where her bullet strikes.
"But should our daughter see blood on the hands of both her parents?" the man muses. The bullet rebounds and the woman flushes in anger. "She has a teacher," she snaps. "She will keep our daughter's mind off our occupations."
"Might not a snake do so much?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Teach me." The girl is insistent. The woman's black eyebrows arch coolly as her headscarf flaps in the heavy, sluggish breeze. "What do you want to learn?"
"Anything. You teach me. You're my teacher."
The woman says nothing. The girl uses her silence to look at her teacher again. She is tall and lean. Her skin is dark brown and her thin eyebrows are placed on a smooth forehead in perfect symmetry. Her fine cheekbones show clearly through the smooth skin, while her deep-set black eyes are strangely and attractively slanted, rendering her face almost reptilian in appearance. She is dressed in a loose black robe, which hides most of her body from view, but the backs of her hands and ankles the girl sees to be tattooed in a pattern of red and green diamonds. Her head and neck are hidden by a scarf of the same material as her robe. Finally she speaks.
"There is much to learn. I cannot teach you all, so you must choose. What will it be?"
The girl says nothing. The woman uses her silence to look at her student again. Her skin is ivory white and her lips a delicate pink. Not older than seven, she is pretty for such a young child. She has straight, silky hair, so light a shade of yellow as to be almost white. Her eyes are round and innocent, their soft grey-blue mirroring her thoughts and expressions. Finally she speaks.
"Teach me about you."
The woman's eyebrows arch again, but her black eyes remain expressionless. "My body or my mind?" she asks playfully, her thin lips twisting into what might be a smile. The girl has not expected this response. "Mind," she decides on impulse. The slanted black eyes narrow. The smile widens, and as the thin lips part they reveal unusually sharp teeth and a narrow, forked tongue. It is genuine, but it has no warmth.
"Then there is much to teach," the woman murmurs, and her voice seems to hiss as it dies away. The sound is oddly eerie. The woman stands abruptly. She takes the girl's hand in cool, brown fingers, dry and smooth like a snake's belly. Together they walk to the door, the woman leading, the girl following. Outside the air is heavy and humid, a hot breeze moving arduously through the long grass. The girl tugs at her skirt, the fabric of which sticks to her legs and makes her skin sweat. The woman sees her actions and smiles. "Let us walk," she says to her charge.
"Aren't you afraid of the snakes?" the girl asks her in wide-eyed innocence.
"Do you fear me?" the woman responds. The girl does not understand, but she lets the matter rest. There is silence between them as they walk in the long grass. At first the girl starts every time the grass rustles, but in time she draws confidence from her teacher's presence. Soon she begins to talk. "Teach me about you," she pleads.
"I will, soon," is the answer.
They walk on. They pass places the girl has not seen before, and she becomes anxious. "Are we lost?" she asks. The woman's smile is enigmatic, her black eyes glinting with thoughts that can only be guessed at. At last she stops walking. The girl stares ahead and sees the shimmer of sun on water. The woman strides ahead, parting the grass as she walks. The girl hurries in her wake. They halt at the bank of a lake, so big that it seems to defy all laws of proportion. The girl crows with delight at the sight of its glassy surface and starts to unbutton her dress. The woman stops her, saying, "Now your lesson shall begin. Beneath the placid surface of the lake there is a cruel undertow." The girl does not believe her.
"I will show you." The woman throws off her robe and scarf in a single movement. The girl stares in surprise. Where her mother's breasts are full and soft her teacher's chest is flat. Her smooth scalp is hairless and the red and green diamonds that adorn the backs of her hands and feet are tattooed down the length of her back. Free of her robe, the woman steps into the lake and is instantly swept off her feet. With an effort she stands again and steps clear of the water. "Like the undertow, a cruel intent will hide beneath a calm exterior." Still the girl does not understand. The woman leans close to her. Her smile fills the girl with unease at such close quarters. "It is like a snake in a woman's robe," she hisses. The girl is afraid.
"Your parents are Mercy doctors?" the woman whispers. The girl nods.
"How fitting." The girl whimpers as the leering visage fills her vision. The fangs and forked tongue suddenly dip. Pain creeps from the girl's ankle up her body. Her lungs burn so that with every breath she screams. She claws at her chest as the ground rushes towards her, and a cold, snake-like voice whispers in her ear: "It must be Mercy. Only Mercy."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A brown snake, patterned with red and green diamonds, hisses softly and disappears in the folds of a black robe.