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EBFIDDLER

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (10)
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Imagination and animal husbandry


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2480    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (10)

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Follows WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).

The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
EXPECTATIONS (04)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
SHADOW (07)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
BANDIAGARA (09)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Imagination and animal husbandry

* * *

“He does that often, you know,” River offered conversationally, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of Mal’s retreating footsteps.

Zoe, who remained seated in the pilot’s seat, shot River a look. “What? Runs out on his watch?”

“No. Talks to Wash.”

Zoe made no reply, but sat rigid and unmoving in her chair. She looked impassive, but Inara had caught the briefest flash of pain in her eyes before she covered it with her usual stoicism. Inara had been at the point of leaving the bridge herself, but now she moved closer to River instead, and asked the questions that Zoe wasn’t asking. “What do you mean, River?” Inara hoped she was acting in accordance with Zoe’s wishes in pursuing the subject.

“He’s here, you know. Never leaves Serenity.”

“I know, sweetie. You said that before. I also feel that Wash’s spirit inhabits the bridge. He would have liked to be remembered here.” She glanced at the plastic dinosaurs arranged carefully on the console in front of Zoe. Was it Zoe who kept them in order? River? Or Mal?

Mal. She suddenly understood, and knew it to be true. It was Mal who dusted and arranged the dinosaurs, who kept them up as a memorial to Wash—his unspoken way of comforting his friend by honoring her husband’s memory.

“Captain sees him. Talks to him. Quite a lot.”

“Do you see him, too, River?” Inara asked cautiously. Zoe continued to stare fixedly out the window, but her breath hitched ever so slightly.

“Of course not!” River snapped, turning on her with an indignant look that clearly said, Do you think I’m crazy?! “In his head,” she explained, tapping the side of her forehead significantly with her finger.

“Oh.” Inara wasn’t going to question it. River always seemed to know what was going on inside other people’s heads. “So Mal…talks to Wash…while you’re here? Have you heard him talking with Wash?”

River nodded. “Preacher-man, too.”

“He…talks with Shepherd Book, too? Here?”

“First time on the bridge, recently,” River elaborated, still nodding, “but I think he customarily communes with the Shepherd elsewhere on the ship. This is Wash’s place.” Inara was wide-eyed, while Zoe continued to stare fixedly into the Black. “Psychoanalysis,” River added, by way of explanation.

“Psychoanalysis?” Inara puzzled on this for a moment. She was concerned. “You think Mal needs to see a psychoanalyst because he’s hearing the voices of our departed friends in his head, and conversing with them?”

River rolled her eyes. No. “Self-analysis. Wash and Book represent opposing aspects. Lost sense of humor and zest for life. Lost faith and conscience. Can’t bring himself to say it to himself. Puts the thoughts in the mouth of Book or Wash, and is able to listen to them.” Inara was staring, so she pointed out, “Always could listen to them.” Inara was a bit slow on the uptake, so River added a further clarification. “Imagination.”

* * *

“You are very much lacking in imagination,” Mal had said to Zoe, as he showed her for the first time around the broken-down hulk that would become Serenity.

“I imagine that’s so, sir,” she’d responded, with the driest of dry humor.

He’d shot her a look, fully aware of her humor, but he responded only to the surface of her statement, guiding her through the cargo bay for the complete tour of the ship. “C’mon. You ain’t even seen most of it. I’ll show you the rest.”

Imagination. She didn’t lack for it. But hers was directed quite differently from Mal’s. Mal’s imagination ran wild. It led him to do crazy, inspired things. Like the time in the War when he organized an unauthorized raid on an Alliance listening post outside of Skaggsville.

The Purplebellies were ensconced in a farmhouse, and Private Reynolds and his hastily recruited “team” took them completely by surprise. They took five Feds prisoner, captured some communications equipment, and most important, got hold of Alliance codes and authorizations that enabled Independent command to intercept and decipher encrypted Alliance communications for several weeks before the Purplebellies caught on. There were some in Independent Command who wanted to court-martial Private Reynolds for acting without orders, but given the spectacular results of the raid, there were others who felt he ought to be decorated and promoted for taking the initiative.

Reynolds didn’t give a hoot one way or the other. Turned out he organized the raid because it was peach season, and the listening post was the only thing that stood in the way between the Browncoat camp and a vast, abandoned orchard of fully ripe peaches. Soon as the dust had settled, Reynolds organized peach-picking parties, and their sparse and meager diet of dry compressed protein bars was soon supplemented with abundant bushels of juicy, vitamin-rich, tree-ripe peaches.

“Why’d you do it?” Zoe asked him, after he returned from HQ, where he’d been summoned to face yet another dressing-down accompanied by simultaneous congratulations. As the outrageous story made the rounds, more and more of the brass wanted to meet the cheeky private from Shadow who’d pulled off this tremendously successful unauthorized stunt.

“Smelled the peaches in the wind on guard duty, Corporal,” he answered. “Imagined I was eatin’ peach pie. Couldn’t stop thinkin’ on it.” He gave her one of his trademark dimpled grins and added, “Besides, Cresthaven is my favorite variety. Ain’t much I wouldn’t do for a nice, tree-ripe Cresthaven peach.”

“Oh really?” she responded, whisking the peach basket out of his reach. “How about latrine duty for a week?”

“Come now, that ain’t fair!” he exclaimed, lunging for it. “That peach is mine by rights, and you know it!”

“Gotta earn it, soldier,” she replied, scooting easily out of range. “What’ll it be, latrines or skunk patrol?”

It was that kind of imagination that kept people’s spirits up in the desperate fighting of Serenity Valley. It was something few leaders could have done—something few of them had done. It was why Mal, and Zoe, and the ones around them, were still standing—or at least still crawling—at the end of that battle.

It was also his vivid imagination that had let him envision a fresh start, after the war. He dreamed of finding freedom in space, wresting a new life out of the ashes in which they lay, and he acted on that dream to make it a reality. It was his imagination they had to thank for all the improvised plans that got them out of potentially deadly scrapes.

But it was that same imagination that got them into many of those scrapes in the first place. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” She’d read that quote somewhere—one of Wash’s books, she reckoned—and it applied to Mal. Inspired but dangerous.

“They don’t like it when you shoot at them. I worked that out myself.” It took an imaginative 神经病 shén jīng bìng like Mal Reynolds to get to the point of needing to “work that out” in the first place. And it was also his imagination that led him to the darkest places.

PTSD. Zoe knew his nightmares were worse than hers. In the early post-war days, after their release from the internment camp, when they’d been living together—if you could call such a marginal existence “living”—in the slums of Hera, they both woke up frequently with post-combat nightmares. Her own nightmares woke her often enough, but Mal had nightmares so frequently she wondered if he wouldn’t get more rest if he just stayed awake, instead of tryin’ to sleep. She knew it well; gorram things woke her up nearly every time, until she learned to tune ’em out. She knew PTSD up close and personal, and it was bad. Made you angry that you’d survived years of being bombed and shot at only to be taken down by dreams as weren’t even real. She had tried to deal with it by repressing the memories. She avoided talking about or even thinking about the bad times—indeed she avoided feeling. She went emotionally numb.

But Wash had saved her. He made it clear that he thought she was hot from the moment Mal hired him to pilot Serenity. She gave him freezing looks that would have stopped most men dead in their tracks. He responded by asking her out on a date. She gave him the cold shoulder. He laughed and simply refused to take ‘no’ for an answer, relentlessly coming on to her. She grew more and more angry—and that, it seemed, turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Wash practically forced her to reconnect with her feelings. At first, feelings of intense irritation at the pesky pilot, then reluctant humor at his irrepressible goofiness, and finally, recognition that she returned his feelings of love and devotion. Mal had saved her from physically dying in the war, but Wash saved her from emotional death, and pulled her out of the dark trap. She hadn’t completely overcome all the symptoms of PTSD, but she had moved on. She had made peace with her past—somewhat, at least. She was able to marry Wash and recapture a semblance of a normal life.

“You need to feel, 秋花 qiū huā. You’re a human being. A woman. It’s okay to feel like a woman. I mean,” he revised hastily, as she glowered at him, “a really strong, kick-ass warrior woman, but—” He kissed her. 哎呀 Āiyā, his lips were like a secret weapon. “But still. A woman. You’re supposed to feel like a woman.” He then proceeded to use his talented hands to make her feel very much like a woman.

“You do make me feel like a woman,” she told him afterwards. “Hope I made you feel like a man.”

“Feel more like a rag doll at the moment, 秋花 qiū huā, but give me a little recovery time,” he grinned.

She beamed him with a pillow.

Zoe felt. Love for Wash. Grief for her loss. Love for the baby, as yet unborn, that filled her and kept her company. She was not alone. Wash was gone, but she was not alone. Grief and love filled her, overwhelmed her, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She felt, like a woman.

* * *

She didn’t know how long she’d been staring out at the black, overwhelmed by love and grief, with tears rolling down her cheeks. She was not alone. Wash’s spirit did inhabit the bridge—she felt it was so, when she took watch. Though she knew it was Mal who dusted and re-arranged the dinosaurs, still when she came onto the bridge, her eye was inevitably drawn to the dinos on the console. She always looked forward to seeing what playful and imaginative set-up they would be in this time. It felt like Wash was still present, in a way. She was not alone.

She wasn’t alone. River was still sitting in the co-pilot seat, talking with Inara, who also hadn’t left. Zoe pulled out a handkerchief and surreptitiously wiped away the tears. She straightened her posture.

“I’ll take the Captain’s watch, River. You go on.”

She went through the standard system checks, noting that the flight software updates from Space Traffic Control were current—more than current. Been downloaded twice more since Hektor. What was the Captain thinking?

She acknowledged Inara’s farewell, and settled back into her seat as River and the Companion glided gracefully from the bridge. She gazed out into the Black.

Darkness like you can’t imagine. Mal’s imagination kept the darkness alive and active and near the forefront of his life. He tried to shut it out, but he hadn’t processed it, hadn’t dealt with it, hadn’t made peace with it, not even to the small extent Zoe had. He shoved it down deeper and tried not to think about it, and deep down it fermented and built up and burbled up to plague him when his guard was down. His PTSD had an additional component that Zoe had never had to deal with—the loss of Shadow. They were already in the Alliance prison camp when the news came. She never saw Mal shed so much as a single tear for Shadow, then. His spirit was completely depleted by the ordeal in Serenity Valley, and he was in a state of emotional numbness. She reckoned now that he’d never really processed it, never really grieved. And his imagination ran rampant.

The news of what happened on Shadow was vague, and only the sketchiest details reached them. Unsubstantiated reports told of lava flows, poisonous gases, ash falls, burning land, and boiling seas. And death. Death, death, death. There were so many unknowns there that all one could do was imagine how horrible it had been. And wasn’t that Mal’s problem? He imagined everything in wretched detail, and his imagination—vivid, strong, active—was colored dark, dark, dark by his combat experience. What he imagined was so horrible that he had to shove it away, deeper and further down than the horrors of Serenity Valley. It built up until the pressure on his subconscious was unbearable, and then it burst out in violent flashbacks and nightmares. He couldn’t always repress it, and the fact that he couldn’t keep these feelings permanently bottled up made him feel he was a failure. Broken. Damaged goods. How often had she heard him say that, or express it in some unspoken way?

Mal’s imagination made his PTSD that much worse, but it also was his ticket to recovery. He could also imagine the other side of the coin, and if River was right, his imagined conversations with Wash and the Shepherd were like therapy. Mal would never see a psychiatrist, but it seemed he was doing his own bit of psychoanalysis. It might work, she supposed, long as he stuck with Wash and the Shepherd, and didn’t try to talk it out with some twisted personality like, say, Saffron or Niska, in his head.

* * *

After the first night, Jayne discovered that he didn’t have to play music 24-7 to cover the chicken noises. Chickens settled down at night. But the earliest beginnings of the ship’s day cycle got them started again—and it weren’t just roosters what crowed at the crack of dawn, apparently.

“It ain’t easy, keepin’ both a’ you gals satisfied,” Jayne remarked as he scattered a handful of scratch in their box. General Tso and Kung Pao greedily devoured the feed, pausing between pecks to give Jayne the ol’ one-eye chicken-y stare. “You gals sure know how to keep a man on his toes.” He had to rise in the dark before ship’s day cycle began, turn on The Juggling Geese’s Greatest Hits, clean out the fouled straw, refresh the chickens’ water, and feed them, all before the hour at which decent folk arose. “It’s a good thing for y’all that I ain’t decent folk.”

Kung Pao was the loud one, often crowin’ before The Geese even finished their first song, but General Tso was more vocal, cluckin’ constantly from dawn to dusk, and even after dark if he so much as turned on the night-light to use the can.

He had a couple of close calls before he learned better. First time, he’d figured on startin’ up the music as soon as the ship’s day cycle began. He was awoken that morning at five am by both the chickens cluckin’ and crowin’ away. Chickens’ notion of what was ‘daytime’ differed from his, ’cause they were up and rarin’ to go soon as the night cycle shifted over and ambient light patterns changed, while according to Jayne, no day didn’t properly begin until a man could actually see. The birds were sensitive to pre-dawn light and started crowin’ before ship’s “sunrise.” So Jayne, contrary to all good sense and habit, became an early riser—get up with the birds, early bird gets the worm, an’ all that.

That worked well for a while, until the day that he slept through his alarm. All this early risin’ was tough on a fella’s system. He found he couldn’t stay awake at night no more—no sooner was he down in his bunk, than he was face down in the pillow, fast asleep. Didn’t even have time for his usual bedtime routine, which involved flippin’ through his favorite girly mags and…other things. He was too tired. How the hell’d Mal ever find the energy to get up so gorram early all gorram time?

Finally, he got smart. He set the music player to start automatically a half hour before ship’s day cycle, and learned to sleep through the first five songs. Seemed to do the trick.

“What I gotta put up with, livin’ with you two,” he remarked out loud to the birds. General Tso cocked her head at him and stared coldly for a moment, before resuming her pecking and clucking. Kung Pao strutted about indifferently. Jayne reached past her, to the corner of the box, and pulled out his prize. A nice shiny egg.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

神经病 shén jīng bìng [insane person]

秋花 qiū huā [autumn flower]

哎呀 Āiyā [Damn]

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COMMENTS

Thursday, April 25, 2013 4:45 AM

BYTEMITE


The peach story is one of my favourite war time stories I've heard someone come up with. Also a good look at the PTSD.

And Jayne. Practicing chicken husbandry. :)

Thursday, April 25, 2013 2:04 PM

AMDOBELL


I particularly loved this part, Ebfiddler. River explaining how and why Mal talks to Wash and Book. Zoe crying silent tears for Wash then all the memories of Mal in the war and how they both came out with PTSD, but Mal taking it worse because of his too vivid imagination. Any minute now I am expecting Jayne to cluck! Very shiny, Ali D :-)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Thursday, April 25, 2013 7:04 PM

NUTLUCK


Good that Zoe and Inara know about Wash and Book now. Somehow I think the chicken is going to end up biting Jayne in the ass before this is all over. Likely metaphorically maybe literally very likely both.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:11 PM

EBFIDDLER


Had fun with the peach story, Bytemite. Ali, so glad that you appreciated the time spent with Zoe in this chapter. Nutluck, they always knew Mal is a little shen jing bing, but this adds to the specifics. I had a lot of fun writing Jayne's chicken subplot -- there's more to come.


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