This story is by Karen Vernon and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The tactical unit had fought hard for six weeks and their energy and resources were depleted. Despite their rigorous training and preparation, the invasion had taken them by surprise. The troops lay low, unsure the threat had passed. They waited for communications from Battalion command.
The long grass whipped against Sandra’s boots as she strode across the paddock of her grandparent’s farm, just as she had as a girl twenty years before. She wondered how often she had traversed her grandfather’s tracks since then, and she remembered trotting by his side as they went to repair fencing or check on the animals.
But those days were far away now and much had changed. Most of the farm had been subdivided and sold off. Sandra had managed to keep this parcel of land which was enough for her and her horse, plus a few horses on agistment. This provided a small income that gave Sandra a comfortable lifestyle. She had few needs or wants; fresh air, animals and books.
Ten weeks previously Sandra and her horse achieved second place in a regional three-day event. The cross country in the rain had proved challenging but horse and rider moved as one. The next day they worked together with acuity and agility for show-jumping, and dressage on the final day encouraged the same muscles to work with finesse and precision. Re-enacting the controlled movement of cavalry from long ago, each delicate movement deceptively graceful to the watcher.
Both horse and rider had returned exhausted but Sandra doubly so. Flu came into her body like an invasion. Bed-rest didn’t suit her but she had no choice. Even now she hadn’t completely recovered. Today was her first day out after six weeks, and Sandra’s gait felt unsteady. Today’s ride would be a short, albeit welcome, one.
The paddock was in a haze, insects buzzed and the grass snapped underfoot. Humidity rose-up from the ground and the sun’s rays fell from above. Sandra breathed deeply, listening to the sounds of the birds, the rustle of the trees in the breeze. Her tired eyes ached but took in the summer-bleached colours of the grass and sky. Feed bucket in one hand, halter over her shoulder, she called to her horse. “Paladin!”
Paladin stood monolithic in the paddock. He raised his head, ears forward, snorting at her approach. He liked this game, being the coquet, trotting away and being coaxed back. He always played but the reward of food, and a chance to go through his paces, to connect to his human, always brought him close. After a skittish spin, he turned toward her and lowered his muzzle into the halter. He allowed himself to be “caught”. Holding him close, Sandra pressed her nose against his neck, and inhaled. A mixture of spices, pasture, earth and beast; the smell of a horse. To Sandra, the smell was therapeutic. They walked back to the stable, Sandra’s long, rhythmic stride easily matching his, but her energy was already depleting.
Saddling Paladin proved awkward and exhausting. Her hands fumbled with the cinch and her balance wavered as she climbed into the saddle. Instead of her usual sensitivity Sandra felt uncharacteristically clumsy. The ride lacked expected joy, and the poor connection between her and Paladin was disappointing. Once she turned Paladin back out to the paddock she walked slowly back to the house.
Something had gone wrong. The unit feared an EMP -electronic magnetic pulse- had disrupted secure comms. They were in the dark.
Sandra woke from a fitful sleep. The pins and needles in her right arm were worse, and her hand was twisted in a spasm. Unable to focus on the clock, twin images of the numbers refused to merge. To make out the time she had to close one eye. She knew something was wrong. Slowly she pulled herself out of bed.
Exhaustion combined with confusion. They had lost the ability to correctly identify friend or foe; a patrol sent to relieve them were mistakenly identified as insurgents and were caught in the line of fire.
“Not claustrophobic, are you?” said the technician as Sandra entered the MRI suite. She walked toward the monolithic machine and lay down on the thin padding covered the stainless-steel bed.
“Take this buzzer and press it if you need to; we’ll get you out straight away.”
“I should be fine, I need a nap.”
The technician smiled and handed Sandra a pair of earplugs. “You’ll need these. It’s noisy in there.”
Sandra closed her eyes as a cage-like contraption locked around her head. She felt the bed slide gently into the machine.
As the MRI scanner spun up, loud clanging, buzzing and hammering echoed through the chamber. There was next to zero chance of a nap. She tried to turn the sounds into music; imagining a rave somewhere in the world jumping to the same tune.
She could almost feel the magnetic rays slicing through her neck and head.
The tactical unit of the immune system had begun to malfunction. Programmed to seek and destroy invaders, Sandra’s immune system had turned against its host, damaging the nervous system.
“I’m afraid the MRI has confirmed lesions on the brain and spinal cord. We’re looking at Multiple Sclerosis. But you are fit and healthy and there are options that weren’t available in the past.”
Sandra looked at the brochures showing happy, young, active people living slightly above average lives: sailing, walking, hiking. Always smiling. Living well with a chronic debilitating disease of the nervous system.
The neurologist continued. “The interferons suppress the immune system and help prevent further attacks, slowing progress. And soon there will be other options. You should be able to live a normal life.”
The day of the diagnosis Sandra got home to the farm late. Paladin seemed to be waiting for her. There had not been much work over these last few weeks. He stood calmly and still, no playing the coquet today, nickering softly at her approach. Sandra wrapped her arms around the horse’s thick neck and wept for what may come.
The defence units went into shut down. Unsure of the territory they were in, they were surrounded by deception. The pervading attitude was one of war, but an enforced peace time came into play. The interferons, neither enemy nor ally, were working hard to inhibit the faulty immune system.
Sandra’s normal life meant becoming an expert in autoimmune disease, diets, alternative medicines, meditation, and medications. At first Sandra managed to avoid the “What have you done to yourself?” question from well-meaning friends, familiar with the fit and active Sandra – to accepting that she would most likely be referred to as “That crippled lady”. She learnt to manage her energy levels and avoid sick people. She stayed on interferon until something new came along, but none of the medications helped. Suppressing her already damaged immune system left her open to illness and infection. Eventually she stopped waiting for the next best thing and became cynical about the miracle cure someone’s distant cousin had discovered.
More MRIs happened over the years to chart the course of progression. With each advance of the disease, there was reduction in wellness and physical ability. The legs she had disliked for being heavy and muscular now rebelled on her by being weak and uncoordinated. One side of her body felt like someone else’s.
Internally the war waged on. Her immune system felt like it was in enemy territory. It couldn’t remember when it last had clear communication. Stymied at every turn, it would occasionally act, but often mistakenly attacking its own body.
Reading replaced riding as the main vocation, and eventually writing replaced reading.
Sandra sold the farm ten years after diagnosis, but she kept Paladin living nearby. Visits to him became fewer and further apart, but her love for him did not diminish.
Sandra lurched uncomfortably through the paddock, the long grass whipping against the walking cane. The old horse lifted his head and whinnied to her in recognition. He began to walk toward her, his long strides showing some stiffness, but quickly closed the gap between them.
“Hello old friend,” Sandra said as he got close. She raised her hand and saw him nuzzle his soft velvety nose against her palm. She could barely feel the tickling on her skin, but the warmth was familiar. He moved closer, his head gently grazing her shoulder. Carefully she dropped the cane, and put her arms around his neck, pressing her nose against him, inhaling deeply the smell of spices, pasture, earth and beast.
Closing her eyes, she remembered the times now long ago; Paladin was young and flighty, she was strong and healthy; both horse and body obeyed her impulses. She recalled how they travelled the fields together, the warm air rushing against their faces in the summer sunlight.
And Sandra wept for had been and what was lost, and for what was still to come.