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The Wounded Land

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — 1

GALLOW-FELLS

Prologue. Choice

One: Daughter

WHEN Linden Avery heard the knock at her door, she groaned aloud. She was in a black mood, and did not want visitors. She wanted a cold shower and privacy-a chance to accustom herself to the deliberate austerity of her surroundings.

She had spent most of the afternoon of an unnaturally muggy day in the middle of spring moving herself into this apartment which the Hospital had rented for her, lugging her sparse wardrobe, her inadequate furniture, and a back-breaking series of cardboard boxes containing textbooks from her middle-aged sedan up the outside stairs to the second floor of the old wooden house. The house squatted among its weeds like a crippled toad, spavined by antiquity; and when she had unlocked her apartment for the first time, she had been greeted by three rooms and a bath with grubby yellow walls, floorboards covered only by chipped beige paint, an atmosphere of desuetude bordering on indignity-and by a piece of paper which must have been slipped under the door. Thick red lines like lipstick or fresh blood marked the paper-a large crude triangle with two words inside it:

JESUS SAVES

She had glared at the paper for a moment, then had crumpled it in her pocket. She had no use for offers of salvation. She wanted nothing she did not earn.

But the note, combined with the turgid air, the long exertion of heaving her belongings up the stairs, and the apartment itself, left her feeling capable of murder. The rooms reminded her of her parents' house. That was why she hated the apartment. But it was condign, and she chose to accept it. She both loathed and approved the aptness of her state. Its personal stringency was appropriate.

She was a doctor newly out of residency, and she had purposely sought a job which would bring her to a small half-rural, half-stagnant town like this one-a town like the one near which she had been born and her parents had died. Though she was only thirty, she felt old, unlovely, and severe. This was just; she had lived an unlovely and severe life. Her father had died when she was eight; her mother, when she was fifteen. After three empty years in a foster home, she had put herself through college, then medical school, internship, and residency, specializing in Family Practice. She had been lonely ever since she could remember, and her isolation had largely become ingrained. Her two or three love affairs had been like hygienic exercises or experiments in physiology; they had left her untouched. So now when she looked at herself, she saw severity, and the consequences of violence.

Hard work and clenched emotions had not hurt the gratuitous womanliness of her body, or dulled the essential lustre of her shoulder-length wheaten hair, or harmed the structural beauty of her face. Her driven and self-contained life had not changed the way her eyes misted and ran almost without provocation. But lines had already marked her face, leaving her with a perpetual frown of concentration above the bridge of her straight, delicate nose, and gullies like the implications of pain on either side of her mouth-a mouth which had originally been formed for something more generous than the life which had befallen her. And her voice had become flat, so that it sounded more like a diagnostic tool, a way of eliciting pertinent data, than a vehicle for communication.

But the way she had lived her life had given her something more than loneliness and a liability to black moods. It had taught her to believe in her own strength. She was a physician; she had held life and death in her hands, and had learned how to grasp them effectively. She trusted her ability to carry burdens. When she heard the knock at her door, she groaned aloud. But then she straightened her sweat-marked clothes as if she were tugging her emotions into order, and went to open the door.

She recognized the short, wry man who stood on the landing. He was Julius Berenford, Chief of Staff of the County Hospital.

He was the man who had hired her to run his Outpatient Clinic and Emergency Room. In a more metropolitan hospital, the hiring of a Family Practitioner for such a position would have been unusual. But the County Hospital served a region composed largely of farmers and hill people. This town, the county seat, had been calcifying steadily for twenty years. Dr. Berenford needed a generalist.

The top of his head was level with her eyes, and he was twice her age. The round bulge of his stomach belied the thinness of his limbs. He gave an impression of dyspeptic affection, as if he found human behaviour both incomprehensible and endearing. When he smiled below his white moustache, the pouches under his eyes tightened ironically.

“Dr. Avery,” he said, wheezing faintly after the exertion of the stairs.

“Dr. Berenford.” She wanted to protest the intrusion; so she stepped aside and said tightly, “Come in.”

He entered the apartment, glancing around as he wandered toward a chair. “You've already moved in,” he observed. “Good. I hope you had help getting everything up here.”

She took a chair near his, seated herself squarely, as if she were on duty. “No.” Who could she have asked for help?

Dr. Berenford started to expostulate. She stopped him with a gesture of dismissal. “No problem. I'm used to it.”

“Well, you shouldn't be.” His gaze on her was complex. “You just finished your residency at a highly respected hospital, and your work was excellent. The least you should be able to expect in life is help carrying your furniture upstairs.”

His tone was only half humorous; but she understood the seriousness behind it because the question had come up more than once during their interviews. He had asked repeatedly why someone with her credentials wanted a job in a poor county hospital. He had not accepted the glib answers she had prepared for him; eventually, she had been forced to offer him at least an approximation of the facts. “Both my parents died near a town like this,” she had said. “They were hardly middle-aged. If they'd been under the care of a good Family Practitioner, they would be alive today.”

This was both true and false, and it lay at the root of the ambivalence which made her feel old. If her mother's melanoma had been properly diagnosed in time, it could have been treated surgically with a ninety per cent chance of success. And if her father's depression had been observed by anybody with any knowledge or insight, his suicide might have been prevented. But the reverse was true as well; nothing could have saved her parents. They had died because they were simply too ineffectual to go on living. Whenever she thought about such things, she seemed to feel her bones growing more brittle by the hour.

She had come to this town because she wanted to try to help people like her parents. And because she wanted to prove that she could be effective under such circumstances-that she was not like her parents. And because she wanted to die.

When she did not speak, Dr. Berenford said, “However, that's neither here nor there.” The humorlessness of her silence appeared to discomfit him. “I'm glad you're here. Is there anything I can do? Help you get settled?”

Linden was about to refuse his offer, out of habit if not conviction, when she remembered the piece of paper in her pocket. On an impulse, she dug it out, handed it to him. “This came under the door. Maybe you ought to tell me what I'm getting into.”

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