IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!


Chapter 32

Long Night into Dawn


Saturday, April 4, 2708

          We all sleep restlessly tonight.  (I cannot sleep.)  Our guts gurgle and whine, and we groan where we lie, annoyed that our stomachs have remembered, with just a few mouthfuls, how to digest and hence how to hunger.  And yet we begin to feel a certain strength creep back.  (It had seemed quiet for awhile, but I can feel it all creep back, all the chaos or evil or whatever it is, that does not belong in this school, that I should not even perceive, certainly not this way.)  I try to doze, and sometimes succeed, in snatches.  But never long.  (I have tried to fall asleep to all of these misgivings.  I have tried to be sensible, to tell myself that nothing extraordinary goes on here.  I have grown stern with the mirror, telling myself that if I don't pull myself together, someone might report me as unsuitable for my post.)

          If I don’t get some rest, how will I keep up, tomorrow, with my captors?  How will I…how will I watch over these children?

(And they might well be right.  I might well be suffering a nervous breakdown.  The memory of those eyes, in that reflection, haunt me even as I lie here, snug in bed, where nothing ought to worry me.  I might be going mad indeed.)

          But then Alysha comes by, gently shaking shoulder after shoulder.  “Come on, my dears.  Nobody's getting much rest anyway.  Let's get moving, and we might make base before the next sunset.”  Drowsy cheers answer her, children rubbing stomachs and rising all around.

          (I cannot sleep.  I get up, shove my feet into my slippers, and pull on the night-robe, blowing on my fingers to warm the chill out of them.  I cinch the sash tight, as though I gird on armor, not wool.  I can't forget something, a little thing that I overheard in the halls.  Some boy whispering, “The monk with the hot poker was the most artistic,” and another boy snickered to hear it.  That just feels wrong.  I wouldn't have made Headmaster if I didn't know when something feels so wrong.)

          So on we go, past more and more moonlight-shimmered bushes, and past dim silver trunks, till we find ourselves fully under the black rainforest canopy, searching out the path by feel, following the faint glimmer of Alysha's blonde head in the lead.  Soon it grows so dense that no star nor ray of moon can make it in.  We could forage, now, except that we can hardly see a thing.

And yet the chirps of insects define space audially, for miles all around.  My fine-honed senses can make out trees as breaks in the sound; I prevent Kiril from walking into one, the chain clinking softly between us.  But Alysha knows this path by heart; body memory tells her where to turn, as brightly as if a day’s light shown on us.

          (So I step out into the hall, and go down the stairs in the dark of night.  I have spent my life here, from the age of thirteen.  I know the space of each step, the twists and turns, the landings and the bannisters, by feel, by memory, by scent of the cedar-wax rubbed into them.  I stop only in the basement, where something different wafts upon the air.
          Incense?  Not tobacco, marijuana, moonshine brewed in the back of the chemistry lab?  Who sneaks out in the middle of the night to break the rules with incense?)

          And so I put my complete trust in a teenage girl, an enemy, in an unknown, unseen countryside.  (Whatever, they are gone now.  Nobody breaks curfew now but the Headmaster.  Time I went back to bed.  To sleep.)  At first I attend to scents, sounds, the texture of the rainforest floor beneath my bare feet.  But after a time, sleep-deprived and low on blood-sugar, an animal part of my brain minds the placement of each foot, without conscious direction of mine, following wherever the chain tugs me, as my thoughts go adrift, till they resemble no thinking at all, asleep on my feet…

(I never worked this deep into the rain-side valleys before.  I have traveled miles beyond my home, I'm not quite sure why.  I have slept in inns for days, now, when I can find them, out on the ground when I can’t, half awake by a fire lest some predator find me.  No use even trying to sleep crammed into my car.  Yet tonight I can’t sleep—I just want to drive and drive, straight through into daylight, if I can.

Maybe this way I'll lose weight, forced to eat only what the wayside merchants can spare.  Maybe that's why I've done it, trying to leave my crazy hunger far behind.  And others need me, far from where the other dentists go.  Lord knows I never run out of teeth to fill around here.  How long before I run out of amalgam to repair them all?

The trees above trees grow so thick that I cannot tell whether dawn has come or not.  The road tunnels deep into the dark and real, so little traveled that my car tears vines and branches as it goes, grown long since anything so large passed through.  I travel garlanded like a hero, or at least this sorry, battered vehicle does, bouncing along on what's left of its shocks.  Ah well, if nothing else, I've certainly built up plenty of shock absorber around my bones to cushion the road a bit.

They used to have a university nearby, if I recall correctly.  Nobody mentions it anymore.  Giving up on the little dental schools, I've tried to research this full-service campus, but librarians won't help.  I can find no more than newspaper clippings about it having once been a hotbed of revolution, how the government had to close it down for the safety of the community.

Now the rich send their children abroad to study; anyone who can't afford it, the reasoning goes, hasn't earned the right to learn.  Which conveniently excludes anyone from ever bettering their condition.  And if the children of the rich learn anything that might make them question the wisdom of their elders, they discover it in Til Institute, or Istislan Capitol, or some other place so foreign that the rules don't quite seem to apply to the Charadoc; they shed those concepts when they change back into clothes that never reveal their arms.  Things are different here--everybody tells me so.

My stomach growls, but I only have a couple candy bars left to pacify it.  I crave that sweet comfort that others attain simply by not noticing what doesn't concern them, that warm and fragrant kitchen feeling that all is well, someone else will take care of all the details.  I have to swallow something tangible and tastable to get that feeling back; they need only swallow lies.

Leaves whip past, scratching at the windows like many, many hands, and the scratches make high-pitched, accusing little cries, but I drive right on past, as callously as I must for nine out of every ten human beings in need.  I can only fill tiny, pinprick cavities, after all; the greater needs gape all around me unsatiated--hell, I can't even fill myself!  I have to laugh, though, however bitterly--who'd have thought there wouldn't be enough of me to go around?

I absolutely must not break into the food stored in the back for patients and their families.  I can be iron-willed for a few hours more, till I can find a place to light.  And then...and then who can binge in a public inn with so many hungry faces staring into the half-cup of beans that they can afford?  In any case, I'm nearly out of cash, myself.

Listen to me!  Why do I fool myself?  I could lose fifty pounds and who would even notice its absence from the hundreds?  Why do I even pretend that this excursion of mine could make a difference?  If no one ever saw a single morsel pass my lips--hey, if I gave up eating altogether and died of alkalosis from living off my fat alone--eyes would still follow me, condemn me, envy me, wish me dead.  Thieves can look newborn-innocent, murderers can wash the blood off of their hands, bureaucrats can commit nation-sized sins, destroying tens of thousands with a little bit of ink, and still look perfectly respectable, but a glutton can't hide anything.  No one will ever forgive me for a fault that they cannot help but see.

I wrench my thoughts away to other obsessions.  I halfway scan the jungle for a hint of unused road, maybe a bit of marble forgotten in the foliage.  I keep wondering if that university had a medical department, and if that department had a branch for dentistry?  Do any dental tools rust abandoned in the ruins, something I could clean up and use, or at least cannibalize for parts?  Did the last librarian lock the door before she left and did the jungle break in anyway, branches shoved through windows, till now the wind turns pages of forgotten texts, like it could learn something of the graduate studies denied me?  I must find out.)

When did that faint gleam begin, between leaf and leaf, so far away that even if I had my flit I could never reach it, yet sending back whispers of light, radiating nearly horizontal from a rising sun?  When did the birds begin to take over from the incessant chirp of evening’s bugs and frogs?  When did the breeze shift, fluttering in my rags?
          An agent should never lose such cognizance of her surroundings!  And I meant to watch over these misguided youngsters—somebody ought to; they have no business starving in the wilderness alone.

And yet, oh God, I feel so tired…so almighty tired that I could drop right here, and never note my surroundings again.  Would Jonathan understand, after all his careful training of my skills?  Would he still love me if I…no.  I must live up to him.  I must be the daughter that he wants, that he could respect.  I must not give up.

 

Saturday, April 4, 2708

As I write I gaze up at the first turquoise glow of dawn after a night almost unrelieved by a mere half moon and usually cloud-shadowed besides.  When did that happen, exactly?  And how many months does that make, on this quest of mine to recover my daughterling?  I've lost track. 

I fall asleep easily these days, but can't seem to stay that way for long.  Old guilts gnaw at me, scalp and belly and behind my eyes.

And what possessed me to spend a night out on the cold, hard ground, with dew in my face and rocks poking in my back?  Did I get kicked out of another hotel?

Diary, I just saw another person, curled up asleep in a bedroll next to mine!  She rubs her eyes in her sleep, smearing the last traces of eyeliner there.  Oh God, what did I do?  She hardly has enough breast for a decent mouthful, half-starved by the look of her.  Did I buy her favors for food?  Have I sunk that low?  Nothing so sweet and young would otherwise have fallen to the arms of something as decayed as I've become.

It is later in the day.  I make this entry by muleback once again.  How embarrassing, to forget whatever deal I've made with Cici to lead me to Cyran--I only discovered it by rereading this diary in surreptitious glimpses, while trying to make small talk as she cooked us up a breakfast that I couldn't eat (So she ate my share, and looked like she could stuff in more, easily.)  We started in the night, apparently; I don't recall a bit of it.

And what a cheat!  Here I've finally obtained blackouts, and what good do they do me?  They seem to have no effect whatsoever on long-term memory, only the immediate, only what I need most to keep track of.  I might as well abandon the entire project.

Yet even now I watch the sun climb up towards noon, my head splitting in the light but my hands trembling on the reins in dreadful anticipation as I try to will it to hasten past the peak to the other side, past that point in the afternoon where I can justify my drinking in the tiniest measure, that at least I wait till a decent hour, I have that much of a man in me.  It just all hurts so much anymore without some softening veil.  I can't make those other memories go away, but at least I can fade them back to a sort of pastel version, pink stains not red, watered down in alcohol.




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