Herda Köhler. Collapsed and shaking. Increase steps back, quickly, as if stung. He'd known she has the contagion, but hadn't ever seen it, hadn't even been close enough to see it on her. She looks awful, cheek pressing into the dirt while her legs dance, her dress flipping up from her ankles so that he can see her shins, scraped and bloodied. It sounds, for a moment, like she is going to choke, a raspy cough, a hack, a death-rattle in her throat. He looks around for anyone, for help. The street is empty, doors closed, windows shuttered, as though on purpose, as though a storm on the horizon. Tennants, English to the end, angry with the Hessian girl for being her father's daughter. Her cheek scrapes now into the dirt. Her nose tips up and smacks downward causing small puffs of dust to rise. He can't see her eyes. He calls out for help. Calls out loud enough to pierce the shutters. Still, it is all he can do not to take another step backwards. What is she doing in town? Her basket, cast aside, is empty, non-revealing. Sophie Heywood would know. Heywoods knew the Germans well. He nearly calls fire! He's dropped his rucksack. Pencil worn, now broken. Papers smudged. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel made unreadable. Not that he's noticed, yet. She slows. Death-rattle still on the rise. Legs coming down to a slow tremble. Death-rattle suddenly stops. Low silence before she whimpers. Mews. Increase exhales, unaware that he hadn't for a full minute or more. He's heard that a dog sniffed someone with the contagion over in Rome and keeled over dead on the spot. It made some sense considering how much better their noses were. Her tremble slows, gives up. Her hips tip her toward her back. Her cheek is bleeding through the dirt. Even so, even now, it is all he can do not to take another step. A shutter swings open behind him. Slams shut. Pale light from the sun casting no shadows. Sophie Heywood would know.
Sophie Heywood. Four miles out toward Russell's though angling toward Slab, short cut along an old deer trail. Susan Halloway might know. Straight out the Russell road for just over six miles. Might see Anne if he went to there. Herda Köhler rolls a bit to her right side, her back to him. She whimpers again. Still whimpering. He takes a step closer. Another.
Funny, he thinks. He hadn't thought to the Vermonter. Hadn't thought to water. Hadn't thought about Vermont water rather than Homer water. The Nethan, that would have been a thought. Funny, he thinks, and thinks again as Herda Köhler rolls back to her back, as he takes another step, two steps, that the Vermonter must have killed more than one or two people with his water. So they'd said in Robert's Fine Goods. The Vermonter would have drowned the poor girl. Sophie Heywood would know. Why he was run out of Vermont. It isn't even a state. Just squeezed in. An afterthought, thinks Increase. Letting the criminals, the water-killers into the state. No evidence that he killed anyone, not like a bullet and a bullet hole. Best to stay away from the Vermonter.
Herda Köhler moans or groans or whimpers. Increase can no longer tell. He's somewhat next to her, near her if he was to count the steps. Her eyes are closed. They do a slow jig under the lids. He has heard about her. Her breathing slows even as her lids hold her eyes in. Contagion.
He sits. Against his will, mostly. He sits in the middle of the street. Her basket is ten or more feet away. His rucksack further on back where he dropped it. Even in town the road is rutted. In Rome they have cobblestones. She might have died in Rome, her head thrashing about, thrashing against the stones. The bleeding from her cheek has already stopped. The blood has streaked through the dirt on her face. Her nose is clear though. No contagion. He wonders what would happen if the stray came along, came along and gave her a sniff. She moans again. He sits, near as he can get, happy such as happiness is at the moment, that the windows are shuttered, that the Vermonter is anywhere else. They would have thrown buckets of water on her. The water might have washed her face, taken the dirt off, and the blood. The water might have killed her.
He sits. The sky has its own light. Rumor had it that it turned yellow when the contagion was near, but it was a fair shade of pale blue. Word had it that there would be coughing. Sophie Heywood would know.
He curses the Tennants. Under his breath. Curses them. Their shutters.
Herda Köhler. What was she doing in town? Her breathing steadies. An inhale. An exhale without moans or groans or whimpers or mews. Her bonnet has slipped. Dirty. Browned from the dirt. Almost a uniform browning. He thinks about slipping her dress down to cover her ankles. About getting help. About banging on doors. About cursing. About cursing Tennants, the Vermonter, Vermont in general, contagions, dirt, cobblestones, Homer. Out of nowhere, he thinks about cursing pins and nails and spikes. Nagles, Herda Köhler might have said. He thinks about getting her something to drink, something to wash away the dirt. He sits, watching her, watching over her for a long time or a short time. She seems to be sleeping. Steady inhale, exhale. Rising and falling. He half expects a hiccup. Her eyes are quiet now. There's no contagion. He can see that. Knows there never was. Wonders how he's going to get her to Sophie Heywood.
The street is still shuttered. Empty. It is late afternoon by the time she begins to wake. Increase has gathered her basket and his own rucksack. He's noticed that his pencil is broken and nearly laughs as much as he can. He's eaten half an apple, saving the rest for Herda Köhler.
She gives herself a slight hoist, to her elbows. She's done this before. Increase can see that. He rises and takes the final step to help her to her feet. Bitte, she says. It comes out quiet, from far away. Her eyes are open, but they are far away, too. Sophie Heywood is far away, but growing closer by one step after another. They are slow steps. Small steps. It looks as though she thinks she can walk more quickly, but she can't. She is whole-body tired. Increase has her by the elbow. They angle off, toward Slab, even though it's darker with the trees and lowering sun. Cooler, too. Almost cold, but she isn't shivering. The contagion used up all her shivers. Not-contagion he reminds himself. Not.
Four miles. Three hours. She's still far away as they come upon the farmstead, cut out of acres of maples on a slight rise. The undergrowth had all but disappeared with the maples, as though they had a poison in them. Maples. Beeches had that poison, too. She's still far away.
Sophie Heywood comes from the other side of the cabin when he hollers. Jacob comes out too, eleven. Curious. Sophie tells Jacob right off to run his way to Köhler's and to tell Heidi that Herda won't be home until the morrow. Tell her she's had an episode. But Jacob has already disappeared through the maples. Disappeared over old leaves nearly rotted to earth.
Sophie puts her arms around the girl and ushers her inside, talk all the way. Increase sits. Slouches down against a tree. Hopes for half a second that it isn't one that Jacob pees on. Guesses Richard Heywood is somewhere about. Withdraws the half-eaten apple from his pocket. He'd forgotten about it as they'd walked. It's browned in the meanwhile of his pocket. He takes a bite. Then another. A squirrel claims the core. Too late. Increase has eaten the rest, stem and all.
He heaves himself to his feet and turns toward Halloway's. Dusk is on the treetops. It's dark on the ground. Violets and willow bracelets on his mind.