IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!



Chapter 15

ON WEEDS AND WILD THINGS


Tuesday, March 3, 2708

          I stumble on, everything a blur.  I can't even remember yesterday.  Nothing consoles me anymore.  Not religion, not beauty, not Damien’s attempts to sing.  The meals have gotten so scanty that they hardly do more than tease my stomach into producing acid to no real purpose.  The rainforest around me just looks green; no particular detail stands out.  I occasionally stuff leaves into my mouth and chew them, but they rarely do me any good, just upset my system with too much roughage and not enough food.  I hear the weary shuffle around me, young feet dragging like old ones through the piled years of forest litter.  Nobody says a word.

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2708

No breakfast this morning.  Anxiety knits Cyran's brow; e doesn't just move, e prowls, like something that knows it has to hunt, hir jewelry glinting like the raindrops on the foliage, ridiculous yet brave, bright like the hungry eyes of beasts that lie in wait in rainforests for other beasts to eat.

Yet there comes a point where the lightheadedness of hunger actually almost feels good.  I have turned a corner, so to speak.  I see everything around me again, yet transmuted, supersubstantial.  Not that I wouldn't pounce on a wild steak if it happened to wriggle by, but to fast in the midst of such beauty, the curling tendril and the arching bough, is to become ethereal, to walk on the ground-mist rather than the ground, to fancy oneself a saint of the wilderness or maybe a spirit entire.

Damien starts to hum a tune, a poignant yet merry sound with the sort of turn that catches the heart unexpectedly.  Others start to chime in, and next thing you know each high-pitched voice rings out like angels, like fairies, not like human children at all. 

 

"We, the seed trod underfoot

Shall send a secret, deepening root,

Shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot,

Abandoned to sun and rain."

 

Marduk adds a surprisingly deeper tone; he doesn't have that far to go before becoming a legal man.  It makes for a martial drone beneath the piccolo shrilling of the younger ones. 

 

"We, the wanton, wild vine,

Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,

Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,

Made tougher by want and pain.”

 

Damien's voice cracks and he chuckles nervously, then catches the tune again.  I realize that he, too, is growing up a soldier.

 

"We, the lush, ungoverned wood,

Shall thrive where no one thought we could,

Shall strangle harm and shelter good,

And overgrow our own again!"

 

The children have picked up sticks and now beat them together in rhythm to their march.  The rhythm catches me up like a storm can catch a leaf, and I feel as light as that leaf, and I feel myself soar on the melody, swept up in the winds of war.

 

Thursday, March 5, 2708

We come to a broad-leafed vine that chokes out everything else beneath a certain kind of mottle-barked tree.  Cyran calls the vine catawlba and orders us to dig up its fat rhizomes.  I've heard of it, some sort of starchy root.

(The payroll never came.  My husband looks at me, his eyes so hard so scared so big so full of frustrated love so full of hate.)

They unchain me for this labor, and why not?  Where could I run?  At least I will stay with my captors until I better understand the lay of the land.

(The payroll didn't come last month, either, or the month before.  "Rebels," he says, and turns quietly away.  Then he opens the pantry door, moves things around, as though some food hides behind the dishes that we cannot fill--then he rips the door off the hinges, flings it down cursing and weeping and kicks it across the room.)

The others carry knives with which to gouge the ground, but I must make do with whatever sticks come to hand.  When one breaks and I fling it away from me, though, a little boy named Lufti takes pity on me and provides me with a large clamshell from his private cache of "neat things".

(He straps on his knives and his machete and goes out to work.  The Captain can no longer afford bullets for the police.  We'd recycle them for cash, for food, if we could.  He goes out to work, while brigands and thieves and rebels have all the bullets and laugh.)

Sandy-haired Lufti looks so much like Kiril, amid so many dark heads, that the others tease them, call them brother and sister, ask how many wives their father had, anyway?  Already the two of them draw close to each other out of sheer defense.  When they walk hand in hand the teasing soon has nowhere to go and stops.

(They look so much like him, the children, big-boned like him, more to love, more to fill up.  They stare around the doorway, frightened by his rage.  Poor little waifs!  It's not you your father'd like to kill.)

I look at them, the innocent glances they give each other, and I try to imagine what sort of men would want to kill such "soldiers".  In all earnestness I try to dig them up some food.

(But now I have to feed them.  The big bones don't have enough on them, anymore.  I go out into the woods out back, looking for herbs for salads.  I feed them lots and lots of salads, any weeds that I can find, though their stomachs cramp around the rough fare, though their hair grows pale and their bellies bloat for lack of meat or bread.)

I get down to my elbows in dirt, moving forward on my knees, plowing through the hillside by increments.  All around me children grub like burrowing things.  Then I see Cyran push sweating black locks from hir forehead with hir muddy hands, down on hir knees with the rest of us.

(When no one can see I get down on my hands and knees and look for insects, lizards, mice.  I look for anything that might hold a mouthful of protein for my young.  Roaches, snakes or snails.)

A little before noon Cyran declares that we have gathered enough.  I straighten with a pang to my back, glad that we've finished just as the heat begins to mount.  But no, we only go on to the next step.  We wash off the dirt as best we can from our hands and our harvest, then carry the roots to some flat-topped boulders, where we pound and grind them to a pulp.  We sit curled over our work, thudding stones onto roots, rolling stones over them, scraping, crushing, so many different motions, shifting as the texture of the roots changes between rock and rock.  We must break down every fiber or we won't be able to leech out the poison.  We take turns on which of us gets to rise to bring water to the others.

"Purple Mantles came to my house, once," Rashid says, wiping dense curls from his eyes, curls the same gingery brown as his skin.  "They took my mother away."

"What'd she do?" Kiril asks.

"Taught kids to read.  She taught me to read."

Cyran looks up, root-mash on hir fingers.  "You should have told me before," e says.  "I can always use a literate."

I say, "She must've done more than just teach kids to read.  Was it seditious material she taught?"

"Nope," Rashid says.  "She taught us from the Bible."

Cyran laughs harshly.  "Oh, that's seditious, all right!"

Rashid says, "The Purple Mantles said that no one would want peasants to read except to teach them to rebel."  He shrugs.  "So now I rebel."

Gently I ask, "Did your mother ever come back?"

"Parts," he says, and then nobody says a thing for the longest time, we just let the grinding of stone on roots say it all.





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