IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Awake, Asleep, and In-Between
Thursday, April 16, 2708
It’s been a rough night. One kid’s raving delirium triggers nightmares all around. Then the added stress spikes a fever here, a pain crisis there, we just don’t get a break. But then, neither do they, poor kids.
Dawn streaks the sky before Rashid and I finish up our rounds. By the time we've washed up and stretched out the kinks the scent of breakfast already carries on the wind. I glance at the chain hung up by the door. Kiril forgot again. She often does when we work really late like this, or else she's just plain too little to stay up past her bedtime.
No matter. I clip the chain to my collar, so that Kiril won’t get in too much trouble, and turn to hand it to Rashid, but he has gone on without me. So I drape it over my shoulder, as awkward a garment as any petal-dress. I know my own way to the mess hall. And after that my hammock--I need an hour or two of rest at least before I start it all again. I hope they give me that much.
Except...light pouring out of one of the classrooms beckons me, a class begun before the dawn and the call of breakfast duties. It reminds me of Til Institute, my natal state that's really one big college, and suddenly I feel so homesick that my stomach clenches up like hunger. We used to study for the sheer pleasure of it in Til--the national hobby. I stumble towards the classroom, half-drunk on exhaustion, I guess, except I feel every ache in my body so keenly that I wonder why the metaphor even occurred to me.
Yearning, I stand in the doorway and watch Alysha teach. She looks luminous here in the light of many candles, her startlingly blonde hair for once not braided but shimmering all around her, down past her shoulders, its gloss returned with nourishment and rest. She stands erect, strong yet strangely otherworldly in the curling smoke of cigarettes, a slender Artemis teaching the children under her protection the Ways of the Wild.
"When your officer gestures with the smallest finger, thus, he intends for the stealthiest of you to go in the direction that he points. When he uses the foremost finger, he directs the eldest or most learned." Oh no--hand codes. I shouldn't be hearing this. "The thumb directs the strongest, while the middle finger points out someone for the smoothest talker or sexiest seducer to approach. The ring-finger is for the company sharpshooter and gestures towards the target. The fanned hand means all of you at once. In whatever troop you travel in you will know each person's specialties and your role in that particular band"
Then she looks up at me, and to my surprise she smiles. "Come on in, Deirdre." Hesitantly I enter and sit on the floor, against the back wall. Her smile...I have never seen her so radiant. Maybe because I long so badly for the classrooms of my home. My eyes water with gratitude for her kindness.
"Drawing the fingers in one by one indicates you should travel single-file. To begin with the first finger means the appointed leader takes the fore, but to begin with the last finger means to send the stealthiest one forward as scout, while the leader brings up the rear."
I lean back against the wall and against all reason it feels just like the perfect fit, cool and comforting as I stretch out one leg on the floor and the fog closes all around me as we crest up through yet another band of cloud forest, soft, dreary-soft, murky inside and out...my eyes fly open. I hadn't meant to drift off like that.
"Naturally, all the signs that I teach you today work only under close quarters, indoors, or standing together under city conditions, when you don't want words heard, you don't even want people to know that you whisper to each other, even if they can't hear what you say. So what do you do outdoors when only a shout can reach you?”
Damien’s hand shoots up. “Bird calls!” he says before Alysha can call on him.
“Yes. That’s right, Damien. Calls in the right place, but not in the normal rhythms of the wild. You will first have to learn how the natural calls sound, before you can distinguish the subtle differences we make..."
(It all should look beautiful to me, the interlacing foliage with the birds singing up the sun, the sparkling droplets dripping off of everything, off of twigs and leaves and my hood and I kind of like it and I hate it, too. It reminds me of Rhallunn.)
I wake again and dig nails into my palms to not miss this grace, this rare chance to belong, if only for a moment or two, for I have been too long alone in company. Yet I find myself closing my eyes just to hear the bird-calls better, just to pretend that I'm out somewhere and free (...out here without ties, without nation, rocking lazily on the slow-plodding mule, too weary to wave away the mosquitoes that bedevil me, breathing in the dark, wet smell of earth and rotting leaves and sweating mule and chaummin...)
Wake! Damien moves to the head of the class to trill like a Two-Tail Quetzal, his face flush with the effort (and Alysha's praise) as Kanarik gives him one of her buck-tooth grins. But then the lecture drones on, and I've lost all interest, all I want to do is sleep, I don't know what possessed me to come in here, I just want so much to stretch out and (...hunch in the saddle, swaying through the fog, feeling no pain, thank God, but that can only mean I must be drunk again, already, or that I never sobered up, and oh, Jeez, I can't even remember starting to drink but here's a bottle half empty already in my hand...) I jolt awake from my nightmare and look at my palm. For a second I felt a bottle there. But I can't sustain alertness, not after last night, and the hard nights before, I can't stay awa...(I just can't. I can't remember how it all got to be so bad, why I started drinking, what I seek in this godforsaken forest with this coldhearted woman riding alongside me and leading me God knows where. There is no god, so nobody knows. Nobody cares. I feel no pain anymore, and that's a damn shame but I don't know why, but I know.)
"Deirdre?" Alysha's gentle voice wakes me again. "Deirdre, the class is over." She kneels down and takes a good look at me. "Lord, honey, but you're wiped out. Listen, you just wait right here, and I'll fetch you your breakfast. And then we'll try out some of those new kids that you and Rashid trained after the battle influx, Makhliya and the rest; you and Rashid can go to bed, forget all about..."
(I think maybe forgetting had been the whole idea, once. I dunno. Something like that. But whatever I had to forget couldn't be worth this. I'm dying. Everything fades into fog like I die to the world already, little by little, swallowed up in the haze.
But I feel no pain. I can resign myself now to dying, resign myself to Jahannum, hell. I can't remember anymore why I deserve hell, but that's a given, that's all right, I don't need to know anything anymore with Cici's hand upon the reins.
She goes on and on about politics again, but I can't follow it, I can't refute. Arguments gone, quotes gone, statistics gone, all gone. No politics anymore, nothing to make sense of anymore, it all dissolves into fog, dissolves into alcohol like stomach-lining into acid, but it all burns far, far away and only the smoke remains...)
* * *
(...Another one. I wash my hands, pull on the rubber gloves, dip the swab in the topical anaesthetic, its cloying candy-orange smell making my stomach growl uncomfortably. I banish thoughts of the cook's orange marmalade pastries and tell her daughter to open up again. Her mouth struggles to stretch against the scar tissue; I have to massage the tight muscles in her jaw and neck as she tries to please me.
Another young girl with scarred lips. It seems to start around age nine, but only the prettiest ones, the ones with the straightest teeth, the ones with only a few cavities to fill. And one young girl with perfectly good lips but rotten teeth fled crying when I offered her my help.
No one will tell me why.)