IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Friday, March 27, 2708
The sun shatters through the trunks of trees to cast scars of light across our road, and the clouds look so painfully, dazzlingly white and pure that Sanzio's shirt seems just a little off by comparison, like maybe a bit of blood got into the rinse water to give it an even taint. To hell with hangovers--I can fend them off if I sip steadily at the chaummin, just little by little. I wouldn't call myself drunk, exactly; I can, after all, write even on the swaying back of this mule, the diary braced against my knee, and if the motion makes me slightly queasy, well, I've bitten back worse lately.
Ah, but the ache goes on and on, nothing can ever drown it, really. Yet prayer, they say, can amend the past and improve upon the future. I used to be a Muslim. Maybe I still am. They call God the Ever-Merciful, after all--worse sinners than I have found their way to Paradise.
Friday. Jummah. A day of prayer. Nobody to gather with. I haven't attended Jummah in so long I can't pinpoint exactly when I let it lapse. I can't remember the last time I performed even the daily prayers. Yet suddenly, today, sipping spirits against the rules, I remember, and I do so want to pray!
How? The Ancients faced Mecca when they sought the will of God—dust, now, written on dust, lost on a dead world, and no direction on this planet points to it.
But that never bothered me before, not in my youth. My imam used to tell me to find Mecca in my heart, to face inward. Can I do that? Can I find Mecca in there, amidst all the corruption?
The Ancients used to make pilgrimage a pillar of
their faith. Where could I go, with all
the holy places gone? I travel every day
and never reach sacred ground, just more and more of the same tired villages,
probably as forgetful of their God as I of mine.
Cleanliness, another pillar of faith. I can do that. I wash. Maybe not in a ritual sort of way, but we have to start somewhere. And alms. That much I can practice. I have always given alms.
I see people in the distance, coming the other way on our road, enormous loads upon their backs as they march; they lean on staffs to help them bear it all. A family, it looks like. The load on the youngest would fill up both my arms, and that's half to what the others carry.
They draw closer. What is it, anyway? Cocoa beans? The chocolate-scent on the wind confirms my guess. Then, I suspect, they bear it on behalf of others, haul it into town to pay off a debt, or many debts, or part of a debt that none could pay in full.
Now they come so close that I can make out the bright, mismatched clothing that they wear. The mismatching comes of patches from whatever came to hand. I can see now how lovingly, how carefully, they’ve stitched the rags up again. Then I look into their faces and take a long pull at the bottle, witnessing the drawn old faces, wrinkles even on the youngest. Now they draw closer still, and then they pass us by. I can see how worn the fabric has become, how the threads separate beside each patch like they cannot handle more.
And neither can I. I am a Muslim, after all. I haven't forgotten, quite, the calling to give alms. But they have already passed, leaving behind only an odor of chocolate and sweat.
Now I pick up the diary again, from where it fell into the dirt. I sit down on the ground with it while Sanzio shakes his head; I don't think I can write into it on muleback anymore for the day.
You see, I rode back. I rode after the cocoa-bearers and threw handfuls of money at them. I watched the wind take it up and scatter it about, in the bushes by the road, in the branches overhead.
They scrambled for it. The youngest stumbled under her load and fell down hard, trying to grab at the money. The loads on their backs hampered them, but they didn't dare take the time to unburden themselves. They looked eager and they looked scared. They didn't understand. They stuffed bills into their patched-up clothing and thanked me with their wide and frightened eyes, wondering what the trick might be. Their words thanked me, but not those eyes--who can thank and fear at once? I must've been drunker than I thought to pull a stunt like that.
And then they left, and I watched them leave, and I finished the chaummin sooner than I'd planned. The stuff gets cheaper the poorer the villages get; I can spare lots of money and not really call it alms. Stupid of me to think that I could come up with anything truly redemptive with liquor in my blood.
* * *
Good Friday. Alysha has declared an all-day fast. Considering the shape of the troop, such piousness reaches a criminal pitch, except that we have so little food left that we'll have to skip food on some days anyway, so why not a time-honored date of mortification?
And God has smiled on our sacrifice, for now we can see, miles in the distance, a greener and a lusher land below. Soon we shall begin to forage in earnest once again.
Gently we push the thorns out of our way, reverent of creation. Hunger has gentled us, all these warriors-from-birth, even Marduk glows like a saint, almost. Every eye looks visionary, every body insubstantial, nothing inside us but spirit anymore. A light fever plays on all of us, along with a delicate fringe of rain, as our infections also mortify us and detach us from this world.
And the rain runs off the rock, and the roots in the cracks of the rock try to make much of what little they can catch, for this stony slope hardly cares that we’ve passed beyond the rainshadow. But each shrub-sized tree, each yellow weed sprung from a rock-held cup of dust, has a story to tell of patience and endurance, not sobbing over where they have found themselves planted, but finding and widening every fissure in the hardness of reality, thriving where no one thought they could. And every drought-shrunk leaf and needle twinkles in the wind, scintillating with a kind of joy!
I feel a quiet ecstasy, praying to distance myself from the body's grumbling. I feel drunk on the supersubstantial wine of the communion that we share, by glance and nod, I feel elevated beyond all concerns of politics or pain or why we struggle through this wilderness as steaming-hot as the passions of the martyrs.
Alysha did right to introduce us to foodless days in an atmosphere of prayer. We'll remember this day and be able to do it again, whenever necessary.
Saturday, March 28, 2708
They’re burning the potato fields. Blight. Everything’s blighted for miles around, but hellfire amends it. Smoky haze. Inside and out, a smoky haze.
* * *
A haze of hunger makes smoke of everything around me, even my body. Gloria Saturday—the day when Christ travels on His way back from Hell, but nobody can see it yet, nobody can really know. A day of anxious waiting and groundless fears. God help us through, all of us, friend and foe alike!
Sunday, March 29, 2708
Sanzio and I rode into a village and into the middle of a fiesta. We heard the music long before we saw either house or people, eerily festive in the wilderness, trilling flutes and dancing drums, voices that wailed at once merry and melancholy, shivering sounds of many tiny bells, and the throaty trumpeting of cowhorns as dull as cashmere, like and yet unlike the voice of brass.
Then we rounded a copse and saw the swirling, stamping mass of dancers, hand in hand, skipping out a gyre. My stomach stabbed me when I recognized the Bailebelde, the last dance that Deirdre ever stepped to, played out there in the clouds of dust like some dirty heaven for the humbler dead. I saw the bone-thin arms and ankles; I saw the haunt behind the mirth.
"Easter Sunday," Sanzio said to me and not to me. To my surprise I saw his eyes water as he studiously avoided looking at me, his back stiff and his head held high like he didn't care. "They'll be at it all day and on through the night, till dawn, if they can do it."
I have seen him cross himself any number of times on this journey, I have heard him mutter prayers, Hail Marys and Our Fathers and Glories Be galore, when he thought me out of earshot or too passed out to care. Not once in all this journey have I seen him take communion, or even dare to visit the confessional. I have never even seen him set foot into a church. No bishop in all the Charadoc would dare to excommunicate him--nor do they need to.
"You'll like it," he said bitterly. "They save up all Lent long to buy up booze with money better spent on food. Thus do they honor the resurrection of Our Lord."
* * *
Lufti has carried, all this way, a collection of the prettiest river-polished pebbles that I have ever laid eyes on. Since he can only bear so much weight, he continually has to discard lesser stones if a better one catches his eye, so what remains surprises me with colors and patterns more fair than the facet-cut jewel.
So, with his permission, Alysha has hidden them throughout the encampment, under leaves, in crotches of trees, in clumps of ferns, in the mouths of little animal holes. Now children dart in and out of the greenery, giggling with excitement, on the closest thing that we can manage for an Easter egg hunt. But I can see how slowly they move for children at play; they sit and rest nearly as often as they do on the march. Only one bag has any flour left at all.
And none of them really believe in the Easter Froggy, anyway. If he’d ever actually existed, he would have brought them eggs and candy long ago, before hunger drove them from their homes.Marduk stands beside me where I sit and watch, stands on his swollen and infected feet as if to show off something to some pain-inflicting god, with his arms crossed and a furrow on his brow. "And Jesus said," he intones, "what father among you would give your child a stone, if he asked for bread?"