Snow. This must be snow.
I shudder in the cold. Something had fallen on my hand, and my hand was wet. Must be snow.
I take another brick in my snow-wet hand and put it on the others. They are snow-wet too. Or are they blood-wet? My hands are bleeding again, I can tell. The cold numbs the pain. Only a little, though.
The workmen call to each other. They're going in. It's snowing.
But I don't want to go home yet. They aren't here to make me stay, but I don't want to go home. My hands are bleeding. My father will yell if I get blood on the floor again. He says that I'll stain it, and if something is stained with blood, it is cursed.
This whole mill must be cursed, then. There is enough of my blood for a thousand curses.
I drag the plank with the bricks on it across the wet ground. My blood is soaking into the rope, I can tell. They will yell at me again, but it's not so bad as when father yells. They don't hit so hard.
I trip. They've left a plank stray on the ground again. I curse under my breath. That's something I've learned from them, something that I didn't know before. Before the fire. Before the blindness. Before everything.
I stumble back to my feet, and drag my bricks onward. It's hard to tell where to go. Normally, I take it to the bricklayer. I can hear him working. The slap of mortar hitting the bricks is something I've gotten to know very well. I just drag the bricks to the sound.
But now he's gone, because it's snowing.
I trip again. This time, I put my hands out to catch myself. One falls into something squishy.
A bucket of mortar. I curse again, and pull my hand back out. It makes a squelching, gloppy noise as I free myself. They will be angry because there is blood in the mortar now. I scrape it off on the edge of the bucket. I don't care.
I want to leave. I want to vanish. If I could turn to smoke and fly away, then I would be happy. I would sting at their eyes, make their vision cloudy and black, black like mine, if only for a moment. Maybe then they would understand.
“Vale.” I didn't hear Ivan walking towards me. “Are you ok?”
“Fine.” I pulled myself up again, feeling around in front of me for the brick wall that I knew was here somewhere.
“Sorry I couldn't get here earlier.” He is breathing hard. I can tell he's been running. “The doctor came by today, and I couldn't leave until he'd had tea and crumpets with my mother and told me all about how I must take care of my hands.”
“What did he say?” I try to smile, if only for his sake.
“He says that I'm almost completely healed! He took the bandages off, but he wouldn't let me look at the burns while he put something new on it. It smells better than the other stuff. Here.” He shoves his hands into my face. They smell of aloe and dirt. “He says that I'll be able to keep the bandages off in about a week.”
“Has he been to see you lately?”
I shake my head. “Father won't pay for it. Besides,” I finally find the brick wall, and put my hand on it to guide me as I feel around with the other hand for the rope that I've dropped, “he said that I couldn't be cured.”
“I know what he said, but don't you think that maybe he could've changed his mind? Maybe he's learned something since then. I'm sure there's something he could do if he just would try...”
I shrug. Where is that accursed rope... “I don't know. But father won't pay for it anyway.”
We stand in silence for a moment. He's looking up at the mill, I think. I can't feel his breath as much when he's looking up.
“The mill's almost done. Maybe when they finish it, you won't have to spend so much time up here...”
“Maybe.” I shrug again.
“I wish you could see it. The bricks are really pretty against the snow.”
I don't reply. I've been far too much involved with those bricks to ever wish to see them.
“Your hands!” He's finally noticed. I keep my palms down so he can't see them. “Vale, what happened?”
I shrug and keep my face to the ground. “Nothing.”
“Let me see them.” He grabs the hand that I've been fishing for the rope with. “Oh, wow...”
I jerk my hand back. “I'm fine.”
“No,” he grabs my hand again, “you're not.” I hear the soft swishing of his bandages unwinding.
“Just the stuff around my wrists. You need your hands more than I need mine.”
“Ivan...” I try to pull away, but can't. I hear the sound of threads tearing from each other.
“Here.” The bandages are ragged. He wraps my hand clumsily; I can feel the cloth twisting around itself. The knot is similarly tied. I know it'll come undone in a few minutes. It just feels unstable. He begins to unwrap his other wrist and releases my hand. “Give me your other hand.”
I obey. He exhales, then lets go. He grabs it again in a moment, and begins to scrape off the mortar with a stick. In another moment, the wrapping begins again. He runs out of cloth halfway across my palm. Snow touches down where my skin is left bare.
“Hang on just a second...” I hear him unwrapping cloth again.
“No, Ivan. This is good enough. Thank you.”
“I'll wrap it again as soon as I get home, ok? I have plenty of this stuff. You need it more than me.”
His sharp gasp cut me off. “Oh...”
“What?” He doesn't respond. I repeat myself. “What's going on? Are you ok?”
“Vale, look. Look at my hand.” I can hear panic in his voice. “Look!”
“I can't! Ivan, what's happened?”
“Ivan, I can't see your hand! I'm blind! What's happening?”
He is silent for a moment longer, then he takes my hand in his, mine unbandaged and his fully wrapped, and guides my fingers to his other hand. As soon as I touch his palm, I know what has happened.
We stand here for a minute, as the snow swirls around us, as I trace his scars with my blood. He is shaking. He is almost crying.
I remove my hand, but do not speak.
And slowly, surely, he wraps his hand back up.