IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Monday, March 30, 2708
I now have a time limit on my search for Deirdre. It could be days, weeks, months, it could be hours, or any minute now. That's what it means when you throw up something that looks like coffee grounds and the nearest hospital lies too many miles away, beyond a tangled wilderness, and you have only a mule to bear you, anyway. It depends on when this hemmorhage stops bleeding, and when the next hemorrhage hits, and just how bad it gets.
I curl up around my tortured stomach with something in me like fear, and something like excitement. They say that the dead get all the answers. They have every reason to lie, and who could prove it one way or the other? Even in Hell, though, perhaps the dead get all the answers, if only for their torment, an age of agonizing hindsight. But oh dear God, if you deny me Paradise, at least in your mercy grant me one last glimpse of Deirdre's face, alive, a single consolation to hold me through millennia of might-have-beens and burning, ulcerous pain.
I went to the fiesta, last night. I danced amid the idols of the infidels, and drank their spirits and watched them dance still more when I could no longer steady my legs to join them. I watched the whirling potbellied waifs with the swollen joints on sticklike limbs, the miner's widows and the work-crippled men who beat the time with their canes. I heard the songs of feasts but I saw no feast, I saw what barely constituted a meal, a snack in Soskia's house. And I hated myself for not partaking of their joy, their courageously frivolous joy, so grotesquely beautiful in the land of the dancing dead, as they celebrated some hope of resurrection.
So I drank a little more till I could fake a thing like pleasure, and I laughed too loudly that night, and flirted with the married ladies while their husbands didn't say a word. Because Sanzio stood there, right beside me, wearing his purple mantle in the sweating throng, and his sleeves so dazzling white.
Even as I write this my stomach stabs me anew, a burning arrow in my belly as I pray, dear God, not this time, not yet, don't let this be the one to take me down without just one more moment with the daughter of my heart, one touch, at least, of her hand. Yet even now I laugh, as the acid boils in my throat. Is this all that my years of service have left me with, a wound worn raw, a bloody hole where Lovequest used to be?
They demanded that I care, but it hurt to even try, I couldn't care anymore and so I didn't. I know right where Lovequest used to reside, directly under my heart, precisely where the acid burns whenever I try to think about it. I hate what I've become, but it doesn't matter, even my self-hatred falls into the hole and burns, till all my remorse becomes physical, nothing to require a moral response. I throw up blackened clots of blood like my very bowels have become burnt offerings to take the place of shame, and not even that means much of anything anymore.
Why should I fear death, fear Hell, when I carry Hell within me?
* * *
(After the revolution, I will eat chocolate. Real chocolate, rich and oily, with its deep, dark flavor like submerging so far down into sensuality that you have no memories left, only pleasure. Others will harvest the cocoa pods; I will eat the chocolate.)
(After the revolution I will place strips of bacon in my very own pan, a good, heavy iron pan that feels just right in my hands. I will heat the bacon and listen to it sing and sizzle, watch it crinkle up and brown. I will breath deep the good, meaty savor it gives off as it crackles into crisp, delectable, marvelously greasy bits of flavor--the flavor of satiation, of goodly brown things and muscle and fat and everything that I don't have. Because right now I don’t feel like any kind of hero.)
(After the revolution I will eat all those little cakes that I've seen in shop windows, in all their pretty pastel colors. I will lick sugar off my fingers like I've seen the rich kids do when their mothers look elsewhere. Some of them will have berries on top, and some rainbow sprinkles, and some will have whipped-up onion-shaped tops of sweetened cream.)
(After the revolution I will sail on a luxury liner and eat all the fine food that Cook used to make for our Special Guests, the steaming roasts and the pastas in savory sauces and the desserts like works of art. Oh yes, I do remember that kind of food, and the tastes I snuck! I will eat whole meals of paté and soufflé and shish kebabs. I will eat ice cream while it's frozen, not lick a bit of melt off somebody else's plate. And I will never have to set foot in the galley to do it.)
(After the revolution I will have so many potatoes, red ones and blue ones and brown and white and yellow. I will mash them or roast them or slice 'em up and boil them. I will serve them up with butter or with gravy or with whipped-up sour cream, with onions, with spices, with salts, with sauces. People will call me the King of Potatoes.)
(After the revolution I will own herds and herds of cattle. I will hunt down and corner the cowering calves, I will slice out their hearts and eat them whole in a single gulp, I will slice out their livers and eat entire livers, I will slice out their tongues and cook them long on coals all wrapped in sage. And then I will serve up beef, so much beef, to everybody that took my side when the going got hard. People will look up to me; they will long to sit at my table and eat my beef. But only the chosen, the few who have treated me right, will ever make it to my table.)
(After the revolution I will eat whatever ballerinas eat--delicate confections spiderwebbed with spun sugar, little candied fruits, elaborate salads of every possible green with gobs and gobs of the richest, thickest, most savory possible dressing--ohhh, the sharp scent of the herbs of that dressing! And I will dance and dance all around and around the food till I become one of those spinning dolls at the topmost spire of a mountain of candy.)
(After the revolution I will learn to do magic with food. I will serve enchanted apples and roasted birds that sing, their voices thick with stuffing, I will serve magical soups that bring visions, I will serve heady potions that change the shape of dreams. I will swallow up forbidden fruits of knowledge for my breakfast, lunch, my dinner, and my snacks.)
After the revolution they will let me go home, to Til Territories, and I will feast once more with my friends in the Silverfoam Inn.
Tuesday, March 31, 2708
It has come to the breaking point. Sanzio will travel no more with me. Just as well, perhaps.
Sanzio had said that he had a lead in a village a bit to the north of the main road. Village! Some tottering shacks cowering behind a church that had seen better days, chickens running in and out like nothing was sacred, vines smothering the tombstones on the edges of the cemetery out back; more dead than alive in this village, even before we got there.
He told me to wait behind with the mules, he would get the information I needed. But he didn't walk up to the place like a man, he crept down into the grass and the wild stuff, he crawled like an insect up to the church just beneath one window. I saw him pull something out from under the purple mantle, from within the grass-stained shirt. I saw him light something.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" I ran to him--I saw a child move just inside the church! At the same time he threw the bomb into the church and children streamed out, dozens of children and nuns shoving them forward, old and young women with their veils streaming behind them and fear in their faces.
But only for a second. And then a star expanded from the church's heart, and noise so loud that it hurt every organ in my body, and then a hot wind blew the bricks like leaves. The mules bucked and tried to break free as I hit the ground and let the worst blow over me--but not before I saw small bodies, young ones and the ascetically-thin women, flying through the air.
Ever the professional, Sanzio had rolled free behind a stout boulder that he had staked out ahead of time. So he could rise at last and walk like a man, while I lay there frozen in horror, in my soot-blackened clothing and singed hair, listening with diminished hearing to the moans of the not-yet-dead.
"What the hell got into you?" he shouted at me. "Half of them got away!"
"They were children," I said so horror-softly that I barely heard myself.
"They were revolutionaries! I told you Cyran recruits ‘em young."
"Sanzio, I, I, that looked like an orphanage to me. There were holy women there, in veils. I think you made a mistake."
"The nuns were either complicitous or too stupid to let live." He sat down with a huff and slapped some soot off of his knee. "Okay, so some of them might have been real orphans. But enough revolutionaries hung out there, resting and recuperating, to make the place a legitimate military target. And I'm military, Jonathan, you know that.” He turned his face away a moment. “Hell, I even got a promotion in the mail.” He turned back to me. “I’ve got to do my government's business sometimes."
"But holy women--your own religion, Sanzio! Sweet and harmless virgins?"
He spat in contempt. "Sweet and harmless? They knew damn well the look of the wounds of warfare when they nursed the brats who came to them. They knowingly gave aid and comfort to the enemy, feeding those we need to starve out of the jungles, medicining the hurts that we had to inflict to try and put an end to this bloody mess. For all practical purposes, they ran an enemy hospital."
"But the Geneva convention..."
"Geneva's some smoldering ash heap on another planet. This is here, now, the real world."
I sat there and watched the smoke rise from what used to be a church. Did Geneva look like that, so many centuries ago when the Earth burned up? I saw a crucifix twisted by the explosion, lying atop a nearby lump that may or may not have been alive mere minutes before. A sooty, ruffled chicken came back, and cautiously pecked here and there. Nothing is sacred anymore.
"I can't travel with you anymore," Sanzio said to me as I sat there choking on the smoking air. "You're nothing but an old drunk, now. A security risk. You emote, you don't think. You can't." I heard the thump of my saddlebags landing beside me. "Give up on finding Deirdre, Jonathan--you're in no shape to do it, and I can't help you anymore on a futile quest. I've got bigger responsibilities, now." Then I heard the hooves clop away.
I reached behind and lifted a flap of one of my bags. Yep, still plenty of money. I can buy another mule.
* * *
In silence and with clean hands Rashid squeezes out the pus from all my sores, then rinses my feet in sterile water.
"I guess my soles will harden after awhile and save you a lot of trouble." They'd better; I could barely keep up today, hobbling along on raw lumps of pain.
No reply. I lean back on a mossy stone and watch two parrots chase each other through the leaves, a red one and a green one, with beaks as sharp as weapons. I try not to flinch at the many little stings as he debrides the rotten tissue, inevitably touching sore but live tissue while he's at it. Then I smell some sharp, resinous scent as he opens up a jar. He pours a viscous glob out onto a leaf, and then takes what used to be a make-up brush to paint it onto my hurts. It eases the pain even as it seals away the wounds in a kind of breathing bandage.
Suddenly, breathlessly, he blurts, "Carpaya sap--the red-barked tree, very tall, shortish branches, leaves rounded at the ends. Antiseptic, antibiotic, and anaesthetic. Very few trees left--the wood's too pretty, red and whorled with a chocolate grain."I nod my gratitude to him, not daring to shatter his confidence with words.