The Giftie Gie Us
The sun was barely up as I left the cabin that morning, but it was already promising to be a beautiful day. Some freak of nature had blown away the usual cloud cover and was treating the world—or at least the middle Appalachians—to an absolutely clear blue sky, the first I'd seen in months. I admired the sky and the budding April greenery around me as I made my way down the wooded slope, long practice enabling me to avoid trees and other obstructions with minimal effort. It was finally spring, I decided, smiling my half-smile at the blazing sun which was already starting to drive the chill from the morning air. Had it not been for the oppressive silence in the forest, it would almost be possible to convince myself that the Last War had been only a bad dream. But the absence of birds, which for some reason had been particularly hard hit by the Soviet nuke bac barrage, was a continual reminder to me. I had hoped that, by now, nearly five years after the holocaust, they would have made a comeback. Clearly, they had not, and I could only hope that enough had survived the missiles to eventually repopulate the continent. Somehow, it seemed the height of injustice for birds to die in a war over oil.
I had reached the weed-overgrown gravel road that lay southwest of my cabin and had started to cross it when a bit of color caught my eye. About fifty yards down the road, off to the side, was something that looked like a pile of old laundry. But I knew better; no one threw away clothes these days. Almost undoubtedly it was a body. I regarded it, feeling my jaw tightening. I'd looked at far too many bodies in my lifetime, and my natural impulse was to continue across the road and forget what I'd seen. But someone had to check this out—find out whether it was a stranger or someone local, find out whether it had been a natural death or otherwise—and that someone might just as well be me. Aside from anything else, if there was a murderer running around loose, I wanted to know about it. I took a step toward the form, and as I did so my foot hit a small pile of gravel, scattering it noisily.
The "body" twitched and sat up abruptly, and I suddenly found myself looking at a strikingly lovely woman wrapped up to her chin in a blanket. "Who's there?" she called timidly, staring in my direction.
I froze in panic, waiting for her inevitable reaction to my face, and silently cursed myself for being so careless. It was far too late to run or even turn my head; she was looking straight at me.
But the expected look of horror never materialized. "Who's there?" she repeated, and only then did I notice that her gaze was actually a little to my right. Then I understood.
She was blind.
It says a lot for my sense of priorities that my first reaction was one of relief that she couldn't see me. Only then did it occur to me how cruelly rough postwar life must be for her with such a handicap. "It's all right," I called out, starting forward again. "I won't hurt you."
She turned slightly so that she was facing me—keying on my voice and footsteps, I presume—and waited until I had reached her before speaking again. "Can you tell me where I am? I'm trying to find a town called Hemlock."
"You've got another five miles to go," I told her. Up close, she wasn't as beautiful as I'd first thought. Her nose was a little too long and her face too angular; her figure—what I could see of it beneath the blanket and mismatched clothing—was thin instead of slender. But she was still nice-looking, and I felt emotions stirring within me which I thought had died years ago.
"Are there any doctors there?"
"Only a vet, but he does reasonably well with people, too." I frowned, studying the fatigue in her face, something I'd assumed was just from her journey. Now I wasn't so sure. "Do you feel sick?"
"A little, maybe. But I mostly need the doctor for a friend who's up the road a few miles. We were traveling from Chilhowie and he came down with something." A chill shook her body and she tightened her grip on the blanket.
I touched her forehead. She felt a little warm. "What were his symptoms?" "Headache, fever, and a little nausea at first. That lasted about a day. Then his muscles started to hurt and he began to get dizzy spells. It wasn't more than an hour before he couldn't even stand up anymore. He told me to keep on going and see if I could find a doctor in Hemlock."
"When did you leave him?"
"Yesterday afternoon. I walked most of the night, I think."
I nodded grimly. "I'm afraid your friend is probably dead by now. I'm sorry."
She looked stricken. "How do you know?"
"It sounds like a variant of one of the bacterial diseases the Russians hit us with in the war. It's kind of rare now, but it's still possible to catch it. And it works fast."
Her whole body seemed to sag, and she closed her eyes. "I have to be sure. You might be wrong."
"I'll go and check on him after we get you settled," I assured her. "Come on."
She let me help her to her feet, draping the blanket sari-style around her head and torso and retrieving the small satchel that seemed to be her only luggage. "Where are you taking me?"
That was a very good question, come to think of it. She wasn't going to make it to Hemlock without a lot more rest, and I sure wasn't going to carry her there. Besides, if she was carrying a Russian bug, I didn't want her going into the town anyway. Theoretically, she could wipe the place out. That left me exactly one alternative. "My cabin."
I had never realized that two words, spoken in such a neutral tone, could hold that much information. "It's not what you think," I assured her hastily, feeling an irrational urge to explain my motives. "If you're contagious, I can't let you go into town."
"What about you?"
"I've already been exposed to you, so I've got nothing to lose. But I'm probably not in danger anyway—I've been immunized against a lot of these diseases."
"Very handy. How'd you manage it?"
"I was in the second wave into Iran," I explained, gently pulling her toward the slope leading to my cabin. She came passively. "They had us pretty well doped up against the stuff the Russians had hit the first wave with."
We reached the edge of the road and started up. "Is it uphill all the way?" she asked tiredly.
"It's only a quarter mile," I told her. "You can make it."
We did, but just barely, and I had to half-carry her the last few yards. I put her on the old couch in the living room and then went and got the medical kit I'd taken when I cleared out of Atlanta just hours before the missiles started falling. She had a slight fever and a rapid pulse, but I couldn't tell whether or not that was from our climb. But if she'd really been exposed to one of those Sidewinder strains, I couldn't take any chances, so I gave her one of my last few broad-spectrum pills and told her to get some rest. She was obviously more fatigued than I'd realized, and was asleep almost before the pill reached her stomach.
I covered her with her blanket and then stood there looking at her for a moment, wondering why I was doing all this. I had long ago made the decision to isolate myself as much as possible from what was left of humanity, and up till now I'd done a pretty good job of it. I wasn't about to change that policy, either. This was only a temporary aberration, I told myself firmly; get her well and then send her to Hemlock where she could get a job. Picking up the medical kit, I went quietly out.
It was late afternoon when I returned with the single rabbit my assorted snares had caught. The girl was still asleep, but as I passed her on my way to the kitchen she stirred. "Hello?"
"It's just me," I called back to her. I tossed the rabbit on the kitchen counter and returned through the swinging door to the living room. "How do you feel?"
"Very tired," she said. "I woke up a couple of times while you were gone, but fell asleep again."
"Any muscle aches or dizziness?"
"My leg muscles hurt some, but that's not surprising. Nothing else feels bad." She sat up and shook her head experimentally. "I'm not dizzy, either."
"Good. The tiredness is just a side effect of the medicine I gave you." I sat down next to her, glad to get off my feet. "I think that you're going to be all right."
She inhaled sharply. "Don! I almost forgot—did you get to him in time?"
I shook my head, forgetting how useless that gesture was. "I'm sorry. He was already dead when I found him. I buried him at the side of the road."
Her sightless eyes closed, and a tear welled up under each eyelid. I wanted to put my arm around her and comfort her, but a part of me was still too nervous to try that. So I contented myself with resting my hand gently on her arm. "Was he your husband?" I asked after a moment.
She sniffed and shook her head. "He'd been my friend for the last three years. Sort of a protector and employer. I'll miss him." She swallowed and took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'll be okay. Can I help you with anything?"
"No. All I want you to do right now is rest. I'll get dinner ready—I hope you like rabbit. Uh, by the way, my name's Neil Cameron."
"I'm Heather Davis."
"Nice to meet you. Look, why don't you lie down again. I'll call you when dinner's ready."
Supper was a short, quiet affair. Heather was too groggy and depressed to say or eat much, and I was far too out of practice at dinner conversation to make up for it. So we ate roast rabbit and a couple of carrots from last summers crop, and then, as the sun disappeared behind the Appalachians, I led her to my bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed, a puzzled and wary look on her face, as I rummaged in my footlocker for another blanket. "You'll be more comfortable here," I told her.
"I don't mind the couch," she murmured in that neutral tone she'd used on me before.
"I insist." I found the blanket and turned to face her. She was still sitting on the bed, her hands exploring the size and feel of the queen-size mattress. There was plenty of room there for two, and for a moment I was tempted. Instead, I took a step toward the door. "I've got another hour's worth of work to do," I said. "Uh, the bathrooms out the door to the left—the faucets and toilet work, but easy on the water and don't flush unless it's necessary. If you need me tonight, just call. I'll be on the couch."
Her face was lifted toward mine, and for a second I had the weird feeling she was studying my face. An illusion, of course. But whatever she heard in my voice apparently satisfied her, because she nodded wearily and climbed under the blanket.
Leaving the bedroom door open so I could hear her, I headed for the kitchen, tossing my blanket onto the couch as I passed it. I lit a candle against the growing darkness and, using the water from the solar-heated tank sparingly, I began to clean up the dinner dishes. And as I worked, not surprisingly, I thought about Heather Davis.
All the standard questions went through my mind—who was she, where did she come from, how had she survived for five years—but none of them was really uppermost in my mind. Five years of primitive hardship and self-imposed solitude should have pretty well wiped out my sex urge, or so I would have thought. But it was all coming back in a rush, and as my lust grew my thoughts became increasingly turbulent. I knew she would accept me into her bed—if not willingly, at least passively. In her position, she couldn't risk refusing me. Besides, I'd given her food and shelter and maybe saved her life. She owed me.
And then I glanced up, and all the passion left me like someone had pulled a plug. Reflecting dimly back at me from the kitchen window, framed by the bars I'd installed for security, was my face. I'd lived with it for over five years now, ever since the Soviet nerve gas barrage near Abadan that had somehow seeped through my mask, but it still made me shudder. The reactions of other people were even worse, ranging from wide-eyed stares to gasps of horror, the latter especially common among women and children. Frozen by some trick of the gas into a tortured grimace, the left side of my face looked more like a fright mask than like anything human; the right side, normal except for three parallel scars from a mortar fragment, only made the other half look worse. My hair and beard followed the same pattern: a normal chestnut brown on the right, pure white on the left. And if all that weren't enough, there was my left eye; mobile and still with perfect vision, it had turned from brown to a pale yellow, and sometimes seemed to glow in the dark.
I stared at my reflection for a long minute before returning to my work. No, I couldn't take advantage of Heather's blindness that way. It would be unfair of me to go to bed with her when she couldn't tell how horrible I looked. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that this was the same argument, in reverse, that I used to avoid approaching any of the sighted girls in Hemlock, but that was irrelevant. The discussion was closed.
I finished the dishes in a subdued frame of mind and then headed toward the front door. As I reached it, I heard a muffled sound from the bedroom and tiptoed in to investigate.
Curled into a fetal position under the blanket, her back to the door, Heather was crying. I stood irresolutely for a moment, then went in and sat down by her on the bed. She flinched as I touched her shoulder. "It's all right," I whispered to her. "You're safe now. It's all right. I won't hurt you."
Eventually, the sobs ceased and the tenseness went out of her body, and a few minutes later the rhythm of her breathing changed as she fell asleep. Careful not to wake her, I got up and went back to the doorway. There I stopped and looked at her for a moment, ashamed of my earlier thoughts. Heather wasn't just a warm female body put here for my amusement. She was another human being, and whether she stayed here an hour or a week she was entitled to courtesy and respect. It was the least I could do for her in the face of the barbarism out there. For that matter, it was the least I could do for me. There were enough savages in the world today; I had no desire to add to their number.
I closed the bedroom door halfway as a gesture to her privacy and went to finish my chores.
I stayed close to the cabin for the next couple of days, tending my garden and doing needed repairs and odd jobs. Heather's fever disappeared, and she recovered quickly from the effects of her journey and the medicine I'd given her. By the third morning after her arrival, I felt it was safe to leave her and go check on my snares. They were empty; but after a few hours of hunting with my bow and arrows I bagged a small squirrel, so at least we wouldn't go hungry. I swung by my "refrigerator" to pick up some vegetables and then returned to the cabin. Once there, I went straight to the bedroom to check on Heather.
She was gone.
I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded. The damn girl had cleared out, sure enough—and probably helped herself to everything she could get her hands on. I'd been a naive fool to leave her here alone. "Heather!" I barked, the name tasting like a curse.
"I'm back here," a voice called faintly.
I started, and after a second I went outside and made my way to the rear of the cabin. Sleeves rolled up, Heather was standing by the hand pump that brought water from the nearby stream and sent it into the storage tank on the roof. She smiled in the direction of my footsteps, her face glistening with sweat. "Hi," she said. "I was just taking a break. How was the hunting?"
"Fair; we've got squirrel for supper," I told her, trying to keep my voice casual—hard to do when you're feeling like a jerk. "Also brought some corn. Why aren't you in bed?"
She shrugged. "I've never liked being a professional freeloader. Besides, you forgot to pump any water last night."
I hadn't forgotten—I'd just been too lazy—but I hadn't expected her to notice. The tank usually held enough water for three or four days, though I tried to keep it full. "Well, thanks very much. I appreciate it."
"No charge. You said you had some corn? Where did you get that?"
I started to point north, remembered in time the gesture would be wasted. "About a mile upstream there's a hollow right behind a small waterfall. The creek comes from underground at that point and stays pretty cold even in the summer. I use the hollow as my refrigerator. In winter, of course, it's more like a freezer."
"That's a good idea," Heather nodded, "although it's kind of far to go for a midnight snack. I'll bet it's fun keeping the animals out, too."
"It was, but I've pretty well got that problem solved." I suddenly realized I was still holding the squirrel and corn. "Come on, let's go inside. You look tired."
"Okay." She seemed to hesitate just a second, then stepped up to me and took my arm, letting me lead her back into the cabin.
Another surprise awaited me in the living room. Heather had neatly folded my blanket and laid it at one end of the couch; her satchel, some of its contents strewn around it, sat at the other end. In the middle lay a shirt I'd torn just that morning, neatly mended.
"I'll be darned," I exclaimed in delight, unaware of the pun until after I'd said it. "How did you know that shirt needed sewing?"
She shrugged. "I heard you getting dressed this morning, and right in the middle of it I heard something tear. You muttered under your breath and threw whatever it was onto the couch. When I got up I found the shirt and used a needle and thread from my sewing kit to mend it. I hope the thread doesn't look too bad there—I had no idea what colors I was working with."
I opened my mouth, but closed it again and instead reached for the shirt, my cheerful mood suddenly overshadowed by an uncomfortable feeling creeping up my backbone. Dimly, I remembered the sequence of events Heather had described, but it seemed too incredible that she should have pieced such subtle clues together that easily. Was it possible she wasn't quite blind?
There was a way to check. Still holding the shirt, I walked over to the window, loosening my belt with one hand until the big brass army buckle was free. The sun had come out from behind the clouds and light was streaming brightly through the glass. I turned slightly so that I was facing Heather and twisted my buckle, sending a healthy chuck of that sunlight straight at her eyes.
Nothing. She didn't flinch or even blink. Feeling a little silly, I let the loosened buckle flop back down against my leg and held up the shirt for a close examination, trying to pretend that that had been my reason for moving into the light in the first place. The seam was strong and reasonably straight, though the material bunched a little in places and the white thread was in sharp contrast with the brown plaid. "It looks fine," I told Heather. "It's exactly what I needed. Thank you for doing it for me."
Her face, which had been looking a little apprehensive, broke into a tentative smile. "I'm glad it's all right," she said, and I wondered that I had ever doubted her handicap. Only a blind woman could ever face me and still smile like that. And even though I knew how undeserved that smile was, I rather liked it.
I cleared my throat. "I guess I'd better go skin the squirrel and start cooking it."
"Okay. First, though, come on back and show me how to tell when the water tank's full. I want to finish that pumping before dinner."
It was pretty clear that Heather was completely healed from whatever she had caught, but I decided to keep her at the cabin for a few more days anyway. My official reason was that it would be best to keep her under observation for a bit longer, but this was at least eighty percent rationalization, if not outright lie: the simple fact was that I found her very nice to have around. I had never before had the chance to find out how much easier primitive life could be with an extra pair of hands to help with the work. Despite her blindness, Heather pitched in with skill and determination, and if I somehow failed to give her enough to do she would seek out work on her own. One morning, for example, as I was weeding the garden, she came to me with a pile of dirty clothes and insisted that I lead her down to the stream and find a place where she could wash them.
But most of all, I enjoyed just being able to relax in the company of another human being. That sounds almost trite, I suppose, but it was something I hadn't been able to do for five years. And, while I'd buried my need for companionship as deeply as I could, I hadn't killed it, a fact my infrequent trips to Hemlock usually only emphasized. The people of that tiny community were helpful enough—their assistance and willingness to teach me the necessary backwoods survival skills had probably saved my life the first year after the war—but I couldn't relax in their presence, any more than they could in mine. My face was a barrier as strong as the Berlin Wall.
But with Heather the problem didn't exist. We talked a great deal together, usually as we worked, our conversation ranging from trivia to philosophy to the practical details of postwar life. Heather's knowledge of music, literature, and household tasks was far superior to mine, while I held an edge in politics, hunting, and trapping. Her sense of humor, while a little dry, meshed well with mine, and a lot of our moral values were similar. Under different circumstances I would have been happy to keep her here just as long as I possibly could. But I knew that wouldn't be fair to her.
My conscience finally caught up with me late one evening after dinner as we sat together on the couch. Heather was continuing her assault on the pile of mending I'd accumulated over the years; I was trying to carve a new ax handle. My heart wasn't really in it, though, and my thoughts and gaze kept drifting to Heather. Her sewing skill had increased since that first shirt she'd mended for me; her fingers moved swiftly, surely, and the seam was straight and clean. Bathed in the soft light of a nearby candle, the warmth of which she enjoyed, she was a pleasure to watch. I wondered how I was going to broach the subject.
She gave me the opening herself. "You're very quiet tonight, Neil," she said after a particularly long lull in the conversation. "What are you thinking about?"
I gritted my teeth and plunged in. "I've been thinking it's about time to take you to Hemlock, introduce you around, and see if we can get you a job or something with one of the families there."
The nimble fingers faltered for a moment. "I see," she said at last. "Are you sure I'm not contagious anymore? I wouldn't want to get anyone sick."
"No, I'm certain you're completely recovered. I'm not even sure you had a deadly bug, anyway."
"Okay. But I wonder if it might be better if I stick around for another week or two, until the garden's going a little better and you don't have to spend so much time on it."
I frowned. This was going all wrong—she was supposed to be jumping at the chance to get back to humanity again, not making excuses to stay here. "Thanks for the offer, but I can manage. You've been a lot of help, though, and I wish I could repay you more than..." I let the sentence trail off. Heather's face and body had gone rigid, and she was no longer sewing. "What's the matter? Would you rather go somewhere else instead of Hemlock? I'll help you get to anywhere you want."
Heather shook her head and sighed. "No, it's not that. I just... don't want to leave you."
I stared at her, feeling sandbagged. "Why?"
"I like being here. I like working with you. You don't—you don't care that I'm blind. You accept me as a person."
There was a whole truckload of irony in there somewhere but I couldn't be bothered with it at the moment. "Listen, Heather, don't get the idea I'm all noble or anything, because I'm not. If you knew more about me you'd realize that."
"Perhaps." Her tone said she didn't believe it.
There was no way out of it. Up till now I'd been pretty successful at keeping my appearance a secret from her, but I couldn't hide the truth any longer. I would have to tell her about my face. "If you weren't blind, Heather, you wouldn't have wanted to stay here ten minutes. I'm... my face is pretty badly disfigured."
She nodded casual acceptance of the information. Maybe she didn't believe it, either. "How did it happen?"
"I was a captain in the army during the Iranian segment of the Last War; you know, the Soviet drive toward the oil fields. They were using lots of elaborate nerve gases on us, and one of them found its way into the left side of my gas mask." I kept my voice even; I was just reciting facts. "None of it got into the nosepiece or respirator, so it didn't kill me, but it left one side of my face paralyzed. I won't trouble you with any details, but the net effect is pretty hideous."
"I thought something must have happened to you in the war," she murmured. "You never speak of your life during that time.... Is that why you were here when the missiles came?"
"Yes. I was in a hospital in Atlanta, undergoing tests to see if my condition could be reversed. They hadn't made any progress when I saw the handwriting on the wall and decided it was time to pull out. A friend of mine had told me about his cabin in the Appalachians, so I loaded some supplies in a Jeep and came here. I beat the missiles by about three hours."
"Oh, so this place wasn't originally yours. And I'd been thinking all along how terribly clever and foresighted you'd been to have built a cabin out here in case the world blew itself up."
"Sorry. Major Frank Matheson was the one with all the foresight. He was also one of the best friends I ever had." That sounded too much like an epitaph for my taste; I was still hoping he'd show up here someday. But he and his wife had been in Washington when the missiles started falling.... I shook my head to clear it. "Anyway, we're getting off the subject. The point is that I'm taking advantage of you by keeping you here. I think you'd be better off living in a community with other people."
"Yes, I suppose you would think that." Heather's lip curled, and for the first time since I'd met her I heard bitterness in her voice. "You probably think it's been beer and skittles for me. Well, it hasn't." She glowered at some unknown memory; but even as I groped for something to say, her anger turned to sadness, and when she spoke again her voice was quiet. "I went blind almost a year before the war; two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. I had a small brain tumor in the back of my head and was taking an experimental interferon derivative. Somehow, something went wrong with the batch they were giving me, and at about the same time I caught some kind of viral infection. The combination nearly killed me— they told me afterwards that I had delirium, high fever, and an absolutely crazy EEG trace for nearly forty hours. When I recovered, the tumor was shrinking and I was blind. That first morning, when I woke up... I thought I was either dead or insane." Her eyes closed, and she shivered violently. After a moment she continued. "People hate me, Neil. Either hate me or are afraid of me, especially now that civilization's becoming a thing of the past."
"Why would people hate you?" I asked. "I mean, that's a pretty drastic reaction."
She hesitated, and a series of unreadable expressions flashed across her face. The moment passed, and she shrugged. "I guess it's because I'm blind. It makes me an oddball and—well, something of a parasite."
I snorted. "You're no parasite."
"You're very kind, Neil. But I know better."
I shook my head, thinking of all the work she did around here. To me it was perfectly obvious that she was pulling her own weight, if not a little more. I wondered why she couldn't see that; and, in response, a fragment from a half- forgotten poem swam up from my subconscious. " 'O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us...' "I murmured, trailing off as the rest of the piece drifted from my grasp.
Surprisingly, Heather picked up where I'd left off: " 'It wad frae mony a blunder free us.
" 'And foolish notion: " 'What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
" 'And ev'n devotion!' "
She paused for a moment, as if listening to the last echoes from her words. "I've always liked Robert Burns," she said quietly.
"That's the only thing of his I know," I confessed. "My father used to quote it at us whenever our views of life were at odds with his. Despite your own estimation, Heather, the fact is that you're a very talented and hardworking woman and no one in his right mind is going to care whether you're blind or not. People won't think any less of you because of that."
A wry smile touched her lips. "You're not being consistent, Neil dear. That's exactly what you seem to think people are doing to you. If they can judge you by your face, why can't they judge me by my blindness?"
She had me there. I wanted to tell her that was different, but it was obvious she wouldn't buy any explanation like that—her blindness made it impossible for her to realize just how strongly my appearance affected everyone who saw it. I tried to think up some other reasoning I could use... and suddenly it dawned on me what I was doing. Here I was, sitting next to a lovely woman who was very possibly the last person on Earth who could endure my company—and I was trying to send her away from me!
Insanity has never run in my family, unless you count our military traditions. I'd tried being noble and honest, and my conscience was clear. If she wanted to think I was doing her a favor, that was up to her. "All right, Heather. If you're really sure you want to stay, I'll be more than happy to have you here. I have to admit that the thought of you leaving was pretty hard. But I had to—you know."
She reached over and touched my arm. "Yes. Thank you for being honest. And for letting me stay."
"Sure. Look, it's getting late, and we've got to get up by dawn. Let's get some rest."
"Okay." She paused. "Neil, were you ever married?"
I blinked at the abrupt change of subject. "Once, for a couple of years, when I was twenty-one. It ended in divorce. Why?"
She turned her head half away from me as if she didn't want me to see her face. "I was just wondering why you were still... sleeping on the couch instead of... with me."
The evening was rapidly taking on a feeling of unreality for me. I hadn't felt this strangely nervous since my first date in high school, and I opened my mouth twice before I got any words to come out. "I didn't want to impose on you." Damn, that sounded stupid! I tried again. "I mean, it wouldn't be fair for me to take advantage of you like that. You might just do it because you felt you owed it to me. I don't want it that way. I figured that if you ever wanted me like that you'd let me know somehow."
She nodded, her face still averted, and swallowed. "Neil... will you come to bed with me?"
I looked at her, my eyes sweeping her body, and for the first time I noticed that her hands were trembling. And suddenly I realized that she was not just offering an altruistic favor to a lonely hermit. In many ways Heather was an outcast, too, and she needed this as much as I did.
Never having been the romantic type, I didn't know the right words to say. So, instead, I blew out the candles, took Heather by the arm, and led her to the bedroom.
Afterwards she fell asleep next to me, one arm across my chest with her hand resting against my good right cheek. I watched the moonlight throwing shadows on the bedroom wall for a few minutes longer before drifting off myself, and I slept more restfully that night than I had in months.
The weeks went by, spring turning into summer with astonishing speed. Heather continued to take on a good deal of the day-to-day work of running our cabin, leaving me free to hunt, trap, and carry out repairs and maintenance that I'd been putting off for lack of time. We had our share of disagreements and misunderstandings, but as we got to know each other's moods and thoughts we began to mesh together, to the point where it sometimes seemed to me that we were becoming two parts of a single, well-oiled machine. Within the first four months I felt I knew this woman better than I'd known anyone else in my entire life. And, although I refused to use the word even to myself, I was quickly learning to love her.
And yet, there was something about Heather that bothered me, something so subtle that it was a long time before I could even put my finger on it. It wasn't anything big, and it didn't happen with any regularity, but sometimes Heather just seemed to know too much about what was going on around her.
I brooded about it off and on for several weeks, trying to remember everything Heather had ever said about her blindness. From her explanation I assumed her eyes and optic nerves were still healthy, that only the sight center of her brain had been affected, and for a while I wondered if her blindness was either incomplete or possibly intermittent. But neither explanation was satisfactory: if she was blind enough that she couldn't make out my face, she was too blind for any practical purpose; and if she occasionally regained her vision, her first reaction to my appearance would have been impossible for me to miss. Besides, there was no reason why she would keep such a thing secret, especially since she was so open about every other aspect of her Me.
Eventually I gave up thinking about it and chalked up her abilities to the enhanced senses blind people are reputed to have. It really wasn't important, after all, and Heather and I had come too far for me to start wondering if she was hiding something from me. Having overcome the problems of my face and her blindness, I wasn't about to let a figment of my imagination become a barrier between us.
So we worked and sweated, laughed and occasionally loafed, and generally got by pretty well. As the crops in our garden grew large enough that Heather could take over some of the weeding duties, I began to expand the network of handmade traps and snares that I had set up in the wooded hills around our cabin. I took the job seriously—I was after enough meat and furs for two people this year—and I ranged farther than usual in search of good sites.
It was on one of these trips that I stumbled across the freshly killed man.
I stood—or, rather, crouched—by the still form lying face downwards in the rotting leaves, my bow and arrow half-drawn and ready as my eyes raked the woods for signs of a possible attacker. Nothing moved, and after a moment I put down the bow and began to examine the body. He was a middle-aged man whom I vaguely remembered as living in a shack some six miles west of Hemlock and a couple of miles southwest of my cabin. He seemed to have run and crawled here under his own steam before dying, probably no more than a few hours ago. The cause of death was obvious; a homemade knife hilt still protruded from his back just above the right kidney.
I rose slowly to my feet. The dead man couldn't have made it all the way here from his shack with that wound. He must have been either in the woods or on the road, which was only a quarter mile or so away from here, when he ran into... who? Who would murder a harmless old man like this? On a hunch, I knelt down and checked the pockets in the faded overalls. Empty. No pocketknife, snare wire, fishhooks, or any of the other things he was likely to have been carrying. So the crime had probably started out as a robbery, perhaps turning into murder when the victim tried to escape. Not a local, I decided; more likely a wandering vagrant, who was probably long gone by now. Unless, of course, he'd gone down into Hemlock.
Or had found my cabin.
My heart skipped a beat, and before my fears were even completely formed I was racing through the woods as fast as I dared, heading for home. The cabin was not easy to see, even from higher spots on the surrounding hills, but it wasn't invisible, and there'd been only so much I'd been able to do to disguise the old drive leading up to it from the road. If anything happened to Heather... I refused to think about it, forcing myself instead to greater speed. Maybe I could beat him there.
I was too late. Out of breath, I had slowed to a walk as I approached the cabin, and as I started the last hundred yards I heard male voices. Cursing inwardly, I nocked an arrow and made my way silently forward. There were six young men standing casually around the front of our cabin, chatting more or less amicably with Heather, who was leaning back against the closed front door. The visitors were all of the same type: thin and hungry-looking, with hard-bitten faces that had long ago forgotten about compassion or comfort. Their transport—six well-worn bicycles—stood a little further from the cabin. In another age the men would have fit easily into any motorcycle gang in the country; the image of them pedaling along on bicycles was faintly ludicrous. But there was nothing funny about the sheath knives they were wearing.
I raised my bow and started to draw it, aiming for the man nearest Heather... and hesitated. I had no proof that they had killed the man I'd found, and until I did I couldn't shoot them down in cold blood. Besides, there were too many of them. I couldn't get all six before one of them got to Heather and used her as a shield.
Lowering the bow again, I tried to think. The smart thing to do would be to triple-time it down to Hemlock and recruit some help. But I didn't dare leave Heather alone. From the bits of conversation I could hear I gathered that Heather had told them I would be returning soon, and it was clear that they had decided to behave themselves until I showed up. But they wouldn't wait forever, and if they came to the conclusion she was lying things could turn ugly very quickly.
There were really no choices left to me. I would have to go on in and confront them, playing things by ear. If I bluffed well, or played stupid enough, there was a chance that they would take whatever food we offered them and leave without causing trouble. Even at six-to-one odds murder could be a tricky business; hopefully, I could convince them we weren't worth the risk.
One thing I was not going to do, though, was provide them with more weapons. Backing a few yards further into the woods, I found a pile of leaves and hid my bow and quiver beneath it. My big bowie knife went into concealment in my right boot. I then made a wide quarter-circle around the cabin so as to approach from a different direction. Taking a deep breath, I strode forward.
I deliberately made no attempt to be quiet, with the result that, as I broke from the woods, all eyes were turned in my direction. I hesitated just an instant, as if startled by their presence, and then walked calmly up to them.
Heather must have recognized my footsteps. "Is that you, Neil? Hello, dear— we have some visitors."
"I see that," I replied. I'd been wondering how I could tip Heather off that there could be trouble here, but I saw now that that wouldn't be necessary. Her voice was cheery enough, but her smile was too brittle and there were lines in her face that I knew didn't belong there. She already knew something was wrong. "Welcome, gentlemen; it isn't often that we get this much company."
Their apparent leader—who looked to be all of twenty-five—recovered first from the shock of my face. "Uh, howdy," he said. "My name's Duke. We were wondering if maybe you could spare some food." "We haven't got much ourselves, but I guess we've got a little extra," I told him, studying the six as unobtrusively as possible. They were all younger than I was, by twenty years in some cases, which probably gave them a slight edge in speed and maybe stamina. All were armed with knives, and two of them also sported club-sized lengths of metal pipe. On the plus side, I was much better fed than they were and had had a good deal of combat training and experience. If I'd been alone with them, I would have judged the odds as roughly equal. But Heather's presence put me at a dangerous disadvantage.
I would have to remedy that, and while I still had the initiative was the best time to try. "Heather," I said, turning to face her, "why don't you see how much rabbit meat is left from last night."
"Okay," she breathed and started to open the door behind her.
But Duke was smarter than I thought. "Colby," he called to one of the boys nearest Heather, "go with her and give her a hand."
"That's not necessary," I said, as Heather hesitated and Colby moved to her side. "She's perfectly capable."
"Sure, man, but she is blind," Duke soothed. "Hey, Colby won't take nothing."
"Yeah," Colby agreed. "C'mon, kid, let's go in."
"No!" I barked, taking a step toward him. I knew instantly that I had overreacted, but I couldn't help it. Attached to Colby's belt were two sheaths, one of which was empty. From the other protruded a hilt whose workmanship I recognized.
Perhaps Colby saw me looking at his empty sheath, or maybe it was something in my voice that tipped him off. Whichever, when I raised my eyes to his face I found him staring at me with a mixture of anger and fear. "He knows!" he croaked, and reached for his remaining knife.
He never got a chance to use it. Even before the words were out of his mouth I had taken the single long stride that put me within range; and as the knifetip cleared the sheath, I snapped a savage kick to his belly. He doubled over, and I had barely enough time to regain my balance and turn around before I found myself surrounded. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Heather disappear into the cabin, one of the boys in hot pursuit, but I had no chance to go to her aid. Knives glinting, they moved in.
I didn't wait for them to get within range, but charged the closest one. He probably hadn't been attacked by an unarmed man in years, and the shock seemed to throw his timing off. I deflected his knife hand easily and gave him an elbow across the face as I passed him. The others, yelling obscenities, ran forward, trying to encircle me again. One came too close and got his knife kicked from his hand. He backpedaled fast enough to avoid my next kick and drew the metal pipe from his belt. Clearly surprised by my unexpected resistance, my attackers hesitated, and I used the breathing space to pull my bowie knife from my boot.
For a second we stood facing each other. "All right," I said in the deadliest voice I could manage, "I'll give you punks just one chance. Drop your weapons or I'll carve you into fertilizer."
I'd never fought with a knife in actual combat, but the training was there, and it must have showed in my stance and grip. "Duke...?" the boy I'd elbowed began.
"Shut up, Al," Duke said, but without too much conviction.
A sound from the cabin door caught my attention. Heather, struggling against an arm across her throat, was being forced outside by the punk who'd been chasing her earlier. "Not so fast, you son of a bitch," he called at me, panting slightly.
"Attaboy, Jackson," Duke crowed. He turned back to me, eyes smoldering. "Now you drop your knife, pal. Or else your broad gets it."
"Don't listen to him, Neil!" Heather shouted, her sentence ending with a little gasp of pain.
"Leave her alone!" I took a half step toward the door—and heard the faint sound of cloth against skin behind me.
Heather shrieked even as I started to turn, my left arm rising to block. But I was too late. The whistling iron pipe, intended for my head, landed across my shoulder instead, still hard enough to stun. I felt my legs turn to rubber, and as I hit the ground the world exploded in front of me and then went black.
I must have been out only a few seconds, because when my head cleared I was lying on my back with Duke and two of his pack standing over me. I wondered what they were waiting for, and gradually realized Heather was shouting at them. "Don't kill him! I'll make a deal with you!"
"You don't have nothing to offer that we can't take by ourselves," Duke said flatly, his glare still on me.
"That's not strictly true," Heather shot back, her voice tinted with both horror and determination. "Rape isn't nearly as enjoyable as sex with a willing woman. But I'm not talking about that. I can tell you where there's a big cache of food and furs."
That got Duke's attention, but good. He looked up at her, eyes narrowed. "Where?"
"It's well hidden. You'll never find it if you hurt either of us."
"Willy! Zac! What've we got?" Duke called. I turned my head slowly toward the cabin as two of the boys came out the door. Heather, I saw, was no longer being held, though Jackson stood close by her with his knife drawn.
"Not too much in here," one of the two called back. "A couple days' worth of food, maybe, and some other stuff we can use."
Duke looked back down at me. "Okay, lady, it's a deal. Zac, go see if you can find some rope."
"You gonna tie him up out here?" Al asked. "Someone might find him."
"Naw, we're gonna take them inside. But I want his hands tied before he gets up." Duke grinned down at me. "You've got a good place here to hole up. We almost missed it."
I didn't bother to reply. A moment later Zac brought out most of my last coil of nylon rope, and in two minutes my hands were tied tightly behind my back. I was then dragged to my feet and marched at knifepoint into the cabin. Heather was already inside, her hands similarly tied.
"Let's put 'em in the kitchen," Willy suggested. "We can tie 'em to chairs there."
We were taken in and made to sit down, but they ran short of rope and only I was actually tied to my chair. Al suggested instead that Heather and I be roped to each other, but Duke decided against it. "She can't get into any trouble," he scoffed. Stepping over to me, he inspected my ropes and then drew his knife, resting its tip against my Adam's apple. "Okay, girl, I got my knife at your friends throat. Give."
She gave them directions to my upstream "refrigerator" hollow. "You'll probably need to walk—there's too much undergrowth for bikes," she concluded.
"Okay, we'll go take a look." Duke sheathed his knife and glanced at the others. "Jackson, you and Colby stay here and keep an eye on things. And keep your paws off the food—hear?"
"Gotcha," Jackson said. Colby, mobile but still hunched over from my kick, nodded weakly.
Willy caught Duke's eye, glanced meaningfully in my direction. "Why bother with guards?"
" 'Cause if she's lying we want him in good shape, so we can take him apart for her," he said calmly. "Let's get started."
They left. Jackson and Colby hung around a little longer, until the sounds of conversation from the others faded into the distance, and then went into the living room where they'd be more comfortable. The swinging door closed behind them and we were alone.
I looked at Heather, wishing I had something encouraging to say. "Did they hurt you?" I whispered instead.
"No." She paused. "They're going to kill us, aren't they?"
There was no point in lying to her. "Probably. I blew it, Heather." The words made my throat ache.
"Maybe not. They took the four kitchen knives out of the drawers earlier. But they didn't find your bayonet."
I stared at her, hope and surprise fighting for supremacy in my mind. I'd long ago told Heather of the weapon and its hiding place, of course: it had been put on top of the wall cabinet over the kitchen sink precisely for a circumstance like this. There was only a three-inch-high gap between the cabinet and ceiling, an easy spot to overlook in a quick search. But how did Heather know Duke's punks had missed it?
For the moment, though, the answer was unimportant. Carefully, I tested the ropes that held me to the chair. It was a complete waste of time—the boys hadn't taken any chances. "There's no way for me to get over to it," I admitted to Heather at last.
"I know." Her face was very pale, but her mouth was set in grim lines. Swaying slightly, she stood up from her chair. Her feet were tied at the ankles, but by swiveling alternately on heels and toes she was able to inch across the floor. Turning her back to the counter that adjoined the sink, she used her tied hands to help push herself into a sitting position on top of it. The counter was, for a change, clear of dishes and other obstacles, and by twisting around Heather was able to rise into a kneeling posture. Positioning herself carefully, she bowed forward at the waist and stretched her hands upwards toward the bayonet.
She couldn't reach it.
"Damn, damn, damn," she whispered bitterly. She tried again, straining an inch or two higher this time, but she was still nearly a foot too short. Standing up would help, but there was no way, tied as she was, for her to get the needed leverage to manage such a move.
She seemed to realize that, and for a moment she knelt motionlessly. I could see tears of frustration in her eyes. "It's all right, Heather—" I began.
"Shut up, Neil." She thought for another minute and I could see her come to some decision. Moving cautiously, she turned so that she was leaning over the sink in a precarious-looking position. Then, taking a deep breath, she hit the window sharply with her elbow. It shattered with a loud crash.
I bit back my involuntary exclamation. Jackson and Colby stormed in, knives at the ready. "What the hell's goin' on?" Jackson demanded. He glanced at me to confirm that my ropes were still intact, then strode to the counter and roughly hauled Heather down. "What the hell were you trying to pull, bitch?"
She shook her head defiantly. He slapped her, hard, and turned to me. "What was she tryin' to do?"
A damn good question, especially as I hadn't the slightest idea. "She didn't say, but I think she was trying to get out," I said, hoping I was way off the mark. "I guess she forgot about the security bars."
He looked back at Heather, who was now looking sullen. From the doorway, Colby spoke up. "I'll bet she was looking for something. Let's check those cupboards."
Jackson dragged Heather back to her chair and then returned to the cabinet. I watched in helpless silence as he searched all the cabinet shelves and then, almost as an afterthought, climbed onto the counter and looked on top of it. With a triumphant war whoop, he pulled out the bayonet. "Trying to get out, huh?" he sneered at me. "Hot damn! Wait'll Duke sees this."
"Jackson," Heather said, speaking to him for the first time, "won't you let us go? Please? We can't hurt you anymore—you'll all be long gone before we could do anything."
"Screw you, sister." He looked at her a moment, as if wondering whether she should be punished for her escape attempt, then apparently decided against it. Swinging the bayonet idly, he nodded at Colby. "Let's get back to the cards. I don't think we'll have any more trouble from these two."
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling crushed. The bayonet had been, at best, a very long shot, but somehow it had helped just to know it was there if I was ever able to get to it. Now that last chance was gone; and all because I hadn't had a convincing he ready when it had been needed. I'd blown it for us twice.
A faint scraping sound made me open my eyes. Heather had stood up again and was once more inching her way toward the sink. "Heather—?"
"Shh!" she hissed. Her face held concentration, and not even a touch of the despair I was feeling. What was she up to?
I soon found out. Again she hoisted herself to a sitting position, on the edge of the sink itself this time. Instead of getting up on her knees, though, she extended her hands back toward the jagged spikes of glass in the broken window. Without hesitation—and without touching anything else—her fingers zeroed in on a particularly loose fragment. She tugged, breaking it free with only the slightest snap, and I finally realized what her plan had been. Hopping down with her prize, she started back toward me.
But we were still a long way from freedom. We now had something to cut the ropes with, but with my hands half-numbed from loss of circulation I knew I could never cut Heather's bonds without severing a vein in the process. Her hands were probably in the same condition, and even with her enhanced sense of touch she wouldn't do much better on my ropes. Still, it was our only hope.
Heather, however, seemed to have an entirely different idea. "Open your legs an inch," she whispered as she reached me. I started to object, but she seemed to know what she was doing, so I shut up and did as I was told. Turning so that her back was to me, she stooped down and placed the piece of glass directly between my knees. "Close 'em," she said.
"Wait a second, Heather, this is too dangerous," I objected, suddenly realizing what she had in mind. "Why don't you go around and cut my ropes instead?"
She ignored the suggestion. "Close your knees and hold it tight," she hissed furiously.
I did so. I was terrified for her hands, and my stomach was knotted at the thought of what was probably going to happen, but we were running out of time. If we did nothing before Duke returned, we were dead. Heather crouched a bit more, placed one of her bonds gingerly against the glass, and began to rub.
After all my fears it was like watching a minor miracle happen. Quickly, accurately, and with no wasted motion, Heather attacked the ropes around her wrists. Even with her hands undoubtedly numb she always seemed to know exactly where the ropes and glass were relative to her skin, almost as if she had eyes in the back of her head. Only once did she so much as scratch herself, and that was due to a momentary loss of balance that made her sway a little.
Seconds later her hands were free. Sitting down on the floor, she took the glass from between my knees and set to work on her ankle ropes. They were off almost immediately. For another few seconds she remained where she was, grimacing as the blood flowed back into her hands and feet. Then she stood up and walked around behind me, and I felt her fingers tugging and probing at the ropes on my wrists. "Come on, hurry up," I muttered impatiently.
"Just a minute," she whispered back, her voice strangely tense. Her examination finally over, she began to cut my ropes, moving much more slowly than she had earlier. Despite her caution, though, she nicked me twice and once even managed to cut her own finger. However she had worked her earlier miracle, things unfortunately seemed to be back to normal now.
But finally I was free, and as I rubbed life back into my tingling hands Heather cut the ropes on my feet and those tying me to the chair. Standing up carefully, I tiptoed over to the cupboard and utensil drawers to arm myself. A large pan lid and carving fork went into my left hand, the fork extending a couple of inches past the lid's rim; a one-piece wooden rolling pin, the housewife's traditional weapon, went into my right. I handed Heather a small metal frying pan and positioned her by the swinging door. "I'll announce myself before I come back in," I told her. "If anyone else comes through, clobber him." "All right." She paused. "They're both still sitting on the couch playing cards. The bayonet is on the floor in front of Jackson."
I nodded. I still didn't understand Heather's strangely capricious radar, but for the moment the how and why were irrelevant. She seemed to know how it worked and when it could be trusted, and that was what mattered right now. "Good. This should only take a minute."
"Be careful, Neil," she said, moving next to me for a quick hug.
I kissed her. "You bet, honey." Facing the door, I settled my nerves for combat. I'd nearly blown it for us twice now. This time was going to be different.
And it was.
The rest of the incident, though not without some danger, was straightforward and almost not worth mentioning. Jackson and Colby, taken completely by surprise, were easy to overpower and tie up. By the time Duke and the others came trooping back, Heather and the two prisoners were safely locked in the cabin and I was outside with my bow and arrows and lots of cover. The boys put up some resistance, but they had no real chance, and after two of them collected arrows in the shoulder they finally gave up. I marched the whole group to Hemlock, confirming my story by taking the town leaders to the body in the woods. Frontier justice being what it is, the boys were found guilty of murder and hanged that evening.
The stars were shining through gaps in the cloud cover when I returned to the cabin. Heather had left a candle burning in the window and was waiting for me on the couch. "How did it go?" she asked quietly.
"They were convicted. I'm giving their bikes to the town; some of the men will come by tomorrow to pick them up."
She nodded. "I'm almost sorry for them... but I don't suppose we could have let them go."
"No. If it bothers you too much, try thinking about their victim." I sat down next to her. "Heather, we have to talk. I need to know how you were able to do the things you did today. I think you know what I mean."
"Yes." Her smile was bittersweet, with traces of fear and weariness, and I suddenly realized this wasn't the first time she'd had this discussion. "You're wondering if I'm really blind or somehow faking it." She nodded heavily. "Yes, I am completely and totally blind. My eyes are useless. But the... disease, accident, whatever... that blinded me did something strange to my brains optic center. Somehow, I'm able to pick up the images that all nearby people are getting. In other words, I can see—sort of—but only through other people's eyes." I nodded slowly as all sorts of pieces finally fell into place. "That was one possibility that never occurred to me," I said. "A lot of things make sense now, though. What sort of range do you have?"
"Oh, thirty or forty feet." She sounded vaguely surprised. I wondered why, and then realized that the usual reaction was probably one of shock or revulsion. I wasn't following the pattern.
"It must have been rough for you," I said gently, taking her hand in mine.
She shrugged, too casually. "A little. I haven't told very many people. They usually... aren't sympathetic."
"I can imagine. I'm glad you told me, though."
"I couldn't hardly keep it a secret after all that stuff with the ropes," she smiled faintly. Then she turned serious again, and when she spoke her voice was low and just a little apprehensive. "Do you want me to leave?"
"Don't be silly. My gosh, Heather, is that why you held out on me this long? You thought I would toss you out?"
"Well..." She squeezed my hand. "No, not really; not after the first two months. By then I knew you cared for me and wouldn't treat me like a freak or something worse. But..." Her voice trailed off.
But she couldn't override her own defenses, I decided. Not really surprising— a good set of defenses would be vital to protect her from both external and internal assaults. I thought of what it must have been like, waking up that first time to see your body from someone else's point of view. No wonder she'd almost gone insane.
And a horrible thought hit me like a sledgehammer.
Heather must have sensed my tension, for she gripped my hand tightly. "Neil! What is it?"
It took me two tries to get the words out through my suddenly dry mouth. "Those hoodlums. If you could see through them... you saw my face."
She sighed. "Neil, I've known what you look like since the first night you brought me here. I saw your reflection in the kitchen window while you were washing the dinner dishes."
I stared at her, my head spinning. No wonder she'd cried herself to sleep that night! "But if you knew—?"
"Then why did I stay? I explained that to you months ago. Because you're a warm, generous man and I like being with you." "But my face—"
"Damn your face!" she flared. "That thing has become an obsession with you!" She closed her eyes, and after a moment the anger drained from her expression, leaving weariness in its place. "Neil," she said, her quiet voice brimming with emotion, "I've wanted to tell you about my... ability... for a long, long time. But I couldn't, because I was afraid that you'd never believe I could care for you if I knew what you looked like. I was afraid you'd make me leave you."
Letting go of Heather's hand, I put my arm around her and held her close. All around me, I could feel reality going tilt. "I get the distinct feeling I've been acting like a jerk," I told her humbly. "I'm a little old to start changing all of my preconceived ideas around, though. I'll probably need a lot of help. You'll stick around and give me a hand, won't you?"
She took my free hand in both of hers and rested her head on my shoulder. "I'll stay as long as you want me here."
"I'm glad." I paused. "Heather, I think I love you." Eyes glistening with tears, she treated me to the happiest smile I'd ever seen. Then she chuckled. "You mean you're just finding that out? My darling Neil, sometimes I think you're blinder than I am."
I denied that, of course. But now, after fifteen years with her, I sometimes wonder if she was right.
This story gave me my first genuine head-on collision with the First Law of Science Fiction: There are few, if any, truly "new" ideas. For a beginning writer it was a bit traumatic, but as it turned out I got off with only minor fender damage and no ticket at all.
I'd just sent off the manuscript to Stan Schmidt at Analog, and was still congratulating myself on such a neat concept as a blind woman who saw through other people's eyes, when my copy of the July 1980 Analog appeared in my mailbox. Which contained the first part of Dean Ing's "Anasazi"... which featured a blind woman who saw through other people's eyes.
I walked around in a permanent wince for six weeks, awaiting with dread the caustic comments that must surely be on their way. But—surprise!—when Stan sent the story back he made no mention whatsoever of the unintentional overlap, merely saying that he liked the story but was too overbooked with novelettes to buy it right away. He must have been sincere, because when I ran it by him again five months later he bought it, again making no mention of "Anasazi."
Which was, I suppose, my introduction to the Second Law of Science Fiction: What you actually do with the idea is the truly important thing.