Her years of catatonia had marked her poignantly. The skin of her face had hung slack on its bones for so long now that the underlying muscles had atrophied, giving her a look of mute horror. Despite the program of exercises which Linden had prescribed for her, and which the orderlies carried out diligently, her limbs had wasted to a pitiful frailty. And nothing that Linden or the nurses could do--nothing that any of the experts whom Linden had consulted could suggest--spared her from losing her teeth over the years. No form of nourishment, oral or IV, no brushing or other imposed care, could replace her body's need for ordinary use. In effect, she had experienced more mortality than her chronological years could contain. Helpless to do otherwise, her flesh bore the burden of too much time.
"Hello, Joan," Linden said as she always did when she entered the room. The detached confidence of her tone assumed that Joan could hear her in spite of all evidence to the contrary. "How are you today?"
Nevertheless Joan's plight tugged at her heart. A sore the size of Linden's palm stigmatized Joan's right temple. A long series of blows had given her a deep bruise which had eventually begun to ooze blood as the skin stretched and cracked, too stiff to heal. Now a dripping red line veined with yellow and white ran down her cheek in spite of everything that could be done to treat it.
When the bruise had first begun to bleed, Linden had covered it with a bandage; but that had made Joan frantic, causing her to thrash against her restraints until she threatened to break her own bones. Now Linden concentrated on trying to reduce the frequency of the blows. On her orders, the wound was allowed to bleed: cleaned several times a day, slathered with antibiotics and salves to counteract an incessant infection, but left open to the air. Apparently it calmed Joan in some way.
Roger stopped just inside the door and stared at his mother. His face betrayed no reaction. Whatever he felt remained closed within him, locked into his heart. Linden had expected surprise, shock, dismay, indignation, perhaps even compassion; but she saw none. The undefined lines of his face gave her no hints.
Without shifting his gaze, he asked softly, "Who hit her?"
He didn't sound angry. Hell, Linden thought, he hardly sounded interested--
She sighed. "She did it to herself. That's why she's restrained."
Moving to the side of the bed, she took a couple of cotton balls, moistened them with sterile saline, and gently began to mop Joan's cheek. One soft stroke at a time, she wiped away the blood upward until she reached the seeping wound. Then she used more cotton balls to dab at the wound itself, trying to clean it without hurting Joan.
Linden would have cared for her carefully in any case; but her devotion to Thomas Covenant inspired an extra tenderness in her.
"It started a year ago. Until then we kept her downstairs. She'd been unreactive for so long, we never thought that she might be a danger to herself. But then she began punching at her temple. As hard as she can."
Hard enough to wear calluses on her knuckles.
"At first it wasn't very often. Once every couple of days, no more. But that didn't last long. Soon she was doing it several times a day. Then several times an hour. We brought her up her, tied her wrists. That seemed to work for a while. But then she got out of the restraints--"
"Got out?" Roger put in abruptly. "How?"
For the first time since he had entered the room, he looked at Linden instead of at Joan.
Avoiding his eyes, Linden gazed out the window. Past the institutional profile of County Hospital next door, she could see a stretch of blue sky, an almost luminous azure, free of fault. Spring offered the county days like this occasionally, days when the air reminded her of diamondraught, and the illimitable sky seemed deep enough to swallow away all the world's hurts.
From The Runes of Earth: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 1 by Stephen R. Donaldson. Copyright Stephen R. Donaldson 2004. All rights reserved.
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