16 Nov

Oher Dlegme had only been in the delta town of Virmel for one month when the fire that became the turning point of his life occurred.

The galenic doctor was there to apply his hard-earned knowledge of herbal remedies, botany, pharmacology, and basic surgery. He had finished his apprenticeship in his native town of Vranx, at the far distant end of the Republic of Ktea.

Oher, slim and athletic, had the gray skin and silver hair of the typical Vaidek. He hoped to serve primarily the suffering group to which he belonged. The Vaideks had fled to the delta two hundred years before, hoping for a freer, more prosperous life. But they had fallen under renewed oppression by the carotene-skinned Kteans, who monopolized wealth and power in the region.

One sunny day, a farmer in brown work clothes rushed into the galenic’s dispensary, his gray skin reddened with excitement. “A fire! The school at the west end of Virmel is burning fast. The building is an old wooden one. Emergency aid is needed for the children, sir.”

Oher grabbed his instrument bag and followed the farmer out to a chevo-drawn wagon. The two swiftly climbed aboard, the driver taking the reins and signaling the pony-sized animal to advance. The chevo quickly delivered them to the scene of the disaster.

Thick white smoke billowed up from the smoldering, gutted structure. A crowd of silver-haired residents hovered over the fire victims. Children were stretched out on the greenish-yellow turf before the school ruins. A short, slender woman in a long, dirtied yellow dress ran over to the stopped chevo-wagon.

“This is the galenic I fetched from town,” indicated the farmer to her.

Oher climbed down, facing and studying the small woman with long, silver hair.

“Zleneh Drikei, school mistress here,” she said nervously. “I have tried my best to help those pupils with visible injuries, but we are in need of your expert help, sir.”

He gave her a nod. “I must look at the children at once. No time should be lost.”

With that, he hurried toward the bodies lying on the lawn of the school. For the following hour, his full attention focused on the smoke-poisoned students shaking and twitching in pain. As soon as an individual victim could stand and walk, he or she was handed over to parents to be taken home. Oher gave sedative injections to the most stricken, using tiny silicon syringes he had brought in his bag. Five serious cases remained.

Oher turned to the school mistress who had been assisting him the whole time. “We must take these five to my dispensary. I will have cots prepared for them.”

Zleneh made a face. “Vaideks don’t count for much, do we?” Her skin was an ashen gray, her eyes leek green.

Oher stared at her, at a loss as to what to say next.

A farmer approached, drawing their attention to himself. “Sir, the srig in charge of our district has arrived. He says that he wishes to speak with you when it becomes possible.”

Oher looked over toward the road. A carriage with a pair of chevos stood there.

“Our local headman has come to see the extent of the fire,” muttered Zleneh with bitterness. “His curiosity drew him here. He will do nothing to rebuild the school, nothing whatsoever.”

“I will go over to introduce myself,” proposed the galenic. “Excuse me, please.”

He walked briskly to the carriage of the srig, who proved to be a short, fleshy man with oxblood hair and a shiny carrot orange face. “Srig Anjim?” began the medico. “I understand you wish to speak with me.”

Hazelnut eyes examined Oher from head to toe. “Are matters under control?” inquired the public official.

“The students in the best condition have returned home to their families. The five remaining ones will have to spend the night in my dispensary for observation and any care I can provide them.”

“You shall have to come to terms with their parents about paying for your services. The district cannot make any contribution due to stringency in our budget. Is that understood?”

Oher nodded in silence. But then he asked a question of his own. “When will rebuilding start, sir?”

Anjim’s face flushed a bright tangerine. He gave the medico a cold, withering stare. Oher decided to continue.

“It appears best to me to begin work at once. Certainly, the pupils should not have to miss valuable instruction. I believe that reconstructing this school deserves the highest priority possible.”

The srig seemed to be choking. “This is not the time or place to discuss such business. Both national and district finances are tightly constricted. I have no funds available, none at all. Unless the families concerned decide to make voluntary contributions from among themselves, there will have to be a long delay.”

“Long delay?” blurted Oher. “What are you saying? These youngsters cannot suspend their education till the government decides what to do.” His umber eyes burned with indignation.

Surprised and confused by his audacity, the srig lifted his head up and gave the galenic a haughty stare. “How dare you address me with such insolence!” growled Sivxo Anjim. “None of this concerns you. I advise you to stick to treating the sick and injured. Stay out of matters that could cause you trouble. Do you understand me?”

Before Oher realized what was happening, the srig signaled his driver to take him back to Virmel. The vehicle rolled off with increasing speed.

Oher had not noticed that Zleneh had come up to the spot from where he watched the sudden flight of the headman. “That character is a bloodsucking villain,” she asserted in a loud, angry voice. “I could hear what he said about the rebuilding of our school. Do not believe anything he says. Do not trust him. Schools for our people have no place in his schemes of corruption. Nor do our health or well-being. None at all.”

The galenic looked her in the face. “How does such a man succeed in getting elected? I can tell how selfish and dishonest he is in just a few seconds.”

She looked away at the smoldering ruins of the school. “The Vaideks are too dependent and desperate to attend the election assemblies. Anjim can easily intimidate the few who attend, so that there remains a Ktean majority to vote him back into office.”

“There must be some way…” Oher did not finish the sentence. He suddenly realized the depth of the despair of the Vaideks in the district. They were a majority of the inhabitants, greatly outnumbering the Kteans. But they, the grayskins, lacked all power. “There must be some way…” the galenic solemnly told himself.

Since no classes could be held at the destroyed school the next day, Zleneh offered to serve as a nursing assistant at the dispensary in Virmel. Late each afternoon, after work, Oher drove her in his chevo buggy to her tiny cottage near the burned wreckage of the school.

She talked to him unceasingly about the plight of the Vaideks in the delta. “For two hundred years their existence has been caught in poverty and misery. You can see the conditions all around you. Most of the farmland belongs to a handful of Ktean families. Our cottages can only grow small amounts of ksat, ansek, and dermot on their postage stamp holdings. They are compelled by circumstances to labor in the water-filled orzine fields and zulcur canebrakes of the Ktean elite. No wonder our people have no hope for their future.”

Oher remained thoughtfully silent for a time. When he spoke, his voice seemed warmer and more intimate. “Is that why you became a teacher?”

Zleneh turned her face directly toward his. “My mother and father both died when I was a small child. There were no brothers or sisters to look out for me. A grandmother raised me, but then she too passed on. But my history was not that unique. Life has always been difficult and rough for Vaideks, ever since we came to the delta land. It is a wonder that our ancestors survived in the swamps and the grasslands. They had to depend on the wild fruit of the annona, pitomba, mombin, and the loquat growing in the wetland.

“What I have tried to do is give the children faith in themselves, a belief that their dreams will one day be fulfilled. Does that sound foolish to you?”

“Not at all,” he assured her. “It is a pure and noble ambition that you have, Zleneh.”

She beamed a sweet smile. “But you could accomplish much more, with all your knowledge and education. And not only in your health practice as a healer. I can see a public role for you, as a popular leader of our oppressed.”

Oher gave a noticeable start. “What do you mean?” he demanded with dismay.

She pursed her thin lips. “We Vaideks have no advocates of our own. No legists to speak for us and represent us with the authorities. For instance, there is no one to demand the rebuilding of the destroyed school. Why not you, then? Who is better qualified?

“If you went to the srig with this issue, it would impress him. I have no doubt of that. Your education is something that he himself lacks. There is no other Vaidek in this district with your standing and prestige. Who else can dare to face Sivxo Anjim?”

In less than a second, Oher made up his mind. “Very well, I will try it,” he agreed.

A week of repeated requests passed before the office scribes arranged an appointment with the district headman. At the indicated time, Oher appeared at the government centrum, a massive building of crimson brick. A clerk ushered him into the spacious suite of the srig.

Sitting behind a large ironwood desk, the officeholder looked up from a report he had been reading. Without a word of greeting, the heavy man motioned with his head for the Vaidek to sit down in a hornbeam chair opposite himself.

“You wish to tell me something, sir?” grumbled Anjim.

Oher swallowed hard before starting. “It concerns the school that went up in flames. The people are greatly worried about when the children can go to lessons again.”

The srig raised his oxblood eyebrows. “There is no money for anything like that. My budget for this year and the next is set. If the local people wish a new school, they must erect it themselves. No public funds are available and that is final. The fire was a tragedy we must all learn to accept and live with.”

“But think of the children. Their futures will suffer terribly if nothing is done soon.”

The district official gritted his teeth.”The matter is out of my hands. Our national administration has no program for restoring schools if they are destroyed. I can do nothing.”

“But we are the poorest district in Ktea,” persisted the medic, his temper rising along with his voice. “Other districts have much greater resources. Shouldn’t they provide aid when we face such distressing need? I understand there are fine, well-equipped schools in the prosperous regions further inland. Why is there always a lack of funding for the areas inhabited by the gray-skinned Vaideks? Anyone with half a brain can understand the unfairness of the situation.”

The srig’s face had turned a dark orange. “Hold your tongue, Dlegme. Are you accusing the government of discrimination? That is a lie and a libel. I would never allow it. Do not forget that the Vaideks came into this district with nothing but the clothes they wore. Ktea gave your people asylum when they came as refugees. In fact, our land opened its door when all this planet rejected them as undesirable. Much progress has come to the descendants of these castaways. But patience is still called for. In time, all difficulties will find their solutions. Without provocative accusations or rude demands, may I add.” Anjim, boiling with wrath, took heavy breaths.

But the galenic continued to argue. “You fail to understand me, sir. I ask only for simple fairness, for plain justice. The school must be rebuilt. Our youth cannot wait. Yes, the Vaideks have always shown patience. But that does not seem to gain them much. Perhaps impatience might have served them better in the past. At any rate, the present question is that of one destroyed school. It appears to me that our district srig is unable and unwilling to help us obtain funds from the national level of government.”

“I would be laughed at if I tried anything like that!” shouted the fat official. “All the srigs in Ktea would see me as a benighted fool. So would all my superiors.”

The two exchanged stares and glances for a time. Then, Anjim cut off the confrontation. “That is all I have to say. Good day, sir.”

Without another word, Oher stalked out.

The galenic returned to his dispensary in blind anger. He decided he was destined to fight this heartless srig. First, he would tell Zleneh, his assistant. She had knowledge he would need to use.

Once the pair were alone in his consulting sanctum, Oher told her what had happened at the confrontation. And then he watched her gray face as she learned of his plan to challenge Sivxo Anjim at the next election.

All of a sudden, a radiant smile spread across her mouth. The leek green eyes sparkled like brilliant gems. She spoke in a breathless murmur. “I have myself been groping toward the same idea. It is the only answer to the plight of the Vaideks of the district. We must have a srig of our own, who has our interests at heart and will fight the oppression that we suffer.”

Oher sighed with relief. “The odds against me are enormous. I will need your help and advice, Zleneh. You are familiar with the delta. There will be great danger involved. I beg for your advice and assistance in this political venture.”

“You shall have it,” she joyously promised. “All my energy, mental and physical. Everything I can contribute. My time, my knowledge, all of it.”

“How do we start, then?” he asked her enthusiastically.

She thought for a moment. “A tour of the district, to get you acquainted with all the Vaideks and allow them to know you.”

Zleneh drew a sheet of orzine paper from the galenic’s desk and began to sketch out his campaign itinerary.

Avoiding the eye of Ktean landowners and plantation guards, Oher and the teacher traveled back roads and paths of the district in his chevo buggy. In hamlet cottages and scattered hovels, the candidate for srig met and addressed the forgotten Vaideks. “Attend the election assembly,” he urged them. “This time things will be different. One of our own people will stand for srig. There will be a genuine alternative. Someone with gray skin is going to challenge political tradition.”

Zleneh introduced him to Vaideks of varied shades: ashen, smoky, and pearl gray. Oher had never realized how broad the range was among his people. Yet he came to realize that a single form of oppression weighed down on every individual: steel-gray, slate, purple-tinted dove, or columbine colored. He promised no one any paradise when he won. This would be only the first skirmish in a long conflict against injustice. A Vaidek srig would be a champion who could fight for a better life for all. First, for safe and adequate schools. Oher vowed to carry on the struggle all the rest of his days. Never would he surrender to the evil status quo.

Zleneh vouched in public for his sincerity. She taught him the specific needs of each locality they visited. Without ignoring his galenic practice, Oher found time to go to the places where the people lived. Finally, there only remained remote, secluded swampland left to traverse.

“When do we attack the watery back areas?” eagerly inquired the candidate one steamy morning as the pair set out on the road. “I’m ready to meet those who live there.”

She turned to him with a frown on her brow. “The grifos in the swamps hold an unenviable location. Kteans shun them as a mixed breed. Vaideks are hardly friendlier. They have suffered two centuries of exclusion and hostility. What can anyone expect of them with such a sad, miserable history?”

Oher was quiet for a time, driving the buggy over watery ground that seemed to be sinking. “I can see by their ragged clothing that grifos are extremely poor. How do they survive in these wild swamps?”

“They fish and hunt in order to survive. Their gardens are small and stingy.”

All at once, the chevo buggy came to an instant halt.

A trio of backwoodsmen with hunting guns under their arms blocked the road forward. The two men on the ends were a deep taupe, while the middle one who appeared to be the leader was a light shade of ochre.

Oher decided he had to speak first. “Let me introduce myself. I am a resident of Virmel, a healing galenic. The purpose of my visit to you is simple: I need your votes at the next district assembly. I intend to present myself as a candidate for the office of srig. All of you know the corruption of the present office holder. The time has arrived for a complete change. No longer can conditions continue as unjust as in the past. I promise to bring a new attitude to the district government. Everyone is familiar with the recent school fire and the indifference of the srig, Sivxo Anjim, to the results of the conflagration…”

Suddenly, the grifo in the center interrupted the candidate. “We have no schools hereabouts for our own children,” he roared. “So, there cannot be any kind of school fire here that harms our sons and daughters. Do you understand that? Unless you do, there is nothing we can do for each other. People like me have never had any interest in elections, who wins or loses. The srig means nothing to us, except when his tax-gatherers and guardsmen cause us trouble.”

Before Oher could say anything, the odd-looking trio disappeared into the swampy woods.

Zleneh then voiced the bitter truth. “We have failed here. Let’s return to town. Night is beginning to fall.”

Cicala insect chirping broke the stillness under the canopy of stars as the buggy halted before Zleneh’s cottage. She turned to the healer and spoke to him in an unusually soft tone.”Come in and eat supper with me Oher. We’ve been on the road for weeks now. I know how tired you are. There is some tasty salmis in my ice chest. I can warm some up for us.”

“That sounds fine,” said the tired candidate. The two climbed down and entered the small dwelling. They had been out campaigning for weeks and both of them were exhausted. Oher offered to assist her in preparing supper and the teacher accepted. Within minutes, they were eating at the small kitchen table.

“I can never thank you enough, Zleneh, for all you have done,” said Oher in a low, mellow voice. “If victory comes, much of the credit for it will be yours.”

She looked up from her wooden plate. “Don’t say “if”. I believe that success is as near as tomorrow at noon, when the election assembly will meet.”

“How many of our people will turn up, though?” he asked, furrowing his brow. “What if most of the Vaidek population stays home, following the traditional pattern, like those grifos we saw last week in the swampland? Their fears and sense of futility can keep most grays away, so that the Kteans re-elect Anjim, as they have done for so long.”

Zleneh studied his face for a moment. “My hope is that your words and ideas sink in, Oher. It is true that nothing like this has ever been attempted. But there is always a first time. What would we think of ourselves if we didn’t try?”

At that moment, a heavy knocking arose from the willow door of the cottage. Both of them sprang to their feet as the loud noise continued. “I’ll get it,” said Oher, stepping to the entrance and opening the door.

A squad of four guardsmen in police purple poured into the kitchen. The commander of the group placed a giant hand on Oher’s forearm. “Oher Dlegme, I am placing you under criminal arrest in the name of our district srig. Come at once with us. You shall remain in detention until your affair is adjudicated.”

Two guardsmen, both bright carotenes, stood before Zleneh, preventing her from moving near their prisoner.

“I have broken no laws, none whatsoever,” cried out Oher with boiling ire. “Tell me the accusation against me!”

The captain of the squad made a leering grimace. “Inciting rebellion. That is defined in the law as high treason against the Republic of Ktea.”

As he was hustled out of the cottage, Oher glanced at Zleneh. They were unable to exchange a word before he was gone.

Election day dawned brightly, the sky pink and azure.

The galenic had paced all night inside a tiny prisoner cellule at the district centrum. In profound despair and depression, Oher was near to regretting the gamble that had brought him to where he now was. What had caused him to think he could reverse two hundred years of Ktean supremacy?

All at once, the cellule door swung open. Dressed in official white uniform, Anjim himself marched in. His hazelnut eyes glowered with contempt for Oher as he faced him. “Today is going to be a memorable date for both of us, cur,” he growled. “For me, re-election. For you, defeat and criminal conviction. Immediately after the public assembly, a special court with myself presiding shall judge and sentence you. I predict an exile to a distant prison. At least a dozen years, perhaps much more.”

A sardonic expression distorted his mouth. “What do you  have to say?” demanded the gloating srig. “I could have told you the futility of what you are attempting. The grays will never follow a call like yours. They are too servile and passive.”

Oher, biting his lip, maintained silence with difficulty.

“I think that I’ll have you taken to my office,” sneered the srig. “It offers a magnificent view of the square. You can watch my re-election from the window there.” He studied his opponent to catch his reaction, but none was visible. Saying nothing more, the headman walked out of the cellule and gave orders to the guards to move the prisoner.

Forty carotene-skinned Kteans, members of Anjim’s political machine, were the first to enter the square. They marched en bloc, assembling before the platform beside the district centrum. This group enjoyed physical control of the platform, surrounding it from all sides.

Standing at the wide window at the srig’s office, Oher noticed small groups of Vaideks moving into the square from various directions. But Kteans appeared to maintain their numerical dominance, despite this unprecedented presence of the poor, oppressed majority.

By the time the assembly reached over two hundred, the election results seemed clearly predictable.The Vaidek rebellion was going to end as a fiasco. The arrest of Oher had frightened off most of his supporters, it appeared. The galenic, gazing at the scene below, felt bitter emotion fuming within. His anger centered on the clever enemy winning the election through his arrest and its dampening effect. He was critical of himself for having raised the hopes of Zleneh and so many supporters.

All of a sudden, Oher spied a strange parade of figures entering the square from a narrow side alley.

Grifos, they were grifos arranged into a solid phalanx. The marchers carried long hunting rifles on their shoulders. They entered the square with brave self-confidence.

Police guards ran over to the formation, unsure what the mixed-breeds intended. A few words were exchanged with the unexpected visitors. Then, the front row of marchers continued in the direction of the election platform.

Oher gaped with his mouth open on seeing a familiar face among the crowd of swamplanders. Zleneh seemed to be giving some kind of signals of command to those in the vanguard of the newcomers.

Growing numbers of Vaideks of all shades were congregating in the square, led by the grifos. Scores were soon hundreds. More and more men and women came. Before long, the entire square was occupied, grifos in front, plainsmen and plainswomen behind them. Over a thousand had come, Oher marveled. And Zleneh was at the center of it all!

The rising noise penetrated into the srig’s office, where the healer felt his head spin. Oher reached forward and unhooked the window, pushing it open. He could see and hear better now.

On the election platform appeared Sivxo Anjim in his white uniform, futilely shouting commands to the outnumbered, outmaneuvered guards.

The Vaidek crowd widened and burgeoned into a solid wall of bodies.

Oher glanced behind at the two guards still watching him. They looked as if in a trance. Neither was near enough to stop him as he lifted himself into the window, then leaped down to the ground in front of the district centrum. He landed on the only part of the square still unoccupied. “Zleneh!” he cried as he sprang to his feet. “Zleneh! Over here!”

It took only a few seconds to reach her through the supportive crowd. The first thing he did was to embrace the woman who had saved the day.

“We shall now nominate and elect you, Oher,” she beamed at him. “No one can stop us.”

“I don’t understand how all of this happened,” he stuttered.

She then explained it to him. “A group of grifos visited me late last night, after they took you away. When I told them what had happened, they asked me to go back to the swamps with them. A large emergency meeting was called and they agreed to take action this morning. Their courage brought out all the other grays. They set the example and lit the fire. We can win, Oher, we can win!”

He bent down and gave her a quick, gentle kiss on the cheek. “I must go up on the platform and present myself,” realized the candidate. “We have to take power while the momentum is with us.”

“Go, Oher, go up there and win this fight.”

He sped off through the delirious throng. It was clear to him that the Vaideks present recognized him and what his destiny was.

Within a few minutes, Vitmel District elected a new srig, the first Vaidek ever to occupy that office. It was Oher Dlegme, the galenic with boldness and daring who proved victorious.


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