IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood


Chapter 40

Madame's Happy House


Monday, May 25, continued

Dark and damp lie the streets that lead to Madame's Happy House.  I ache from helping Kief so far, and the rest ache from hauling Teofilo on his makeshift serape-stretcher.  If he hasn't died by now, that boy'll live through anything.

Light and music spill from the peeling old mansion that lies ahead, squeezed incongruously between warehouses, with its bit of garden behind the iron gate.  Chulan darts in, leaving me to study the architecture as we await Madame's pleasure.  It looks all hand-hewn and hand-plastered--doubtless built before the founding of the harbor, when every colonist could build his own home and castle, before laws came and subdivided the land into real estate.  The dampness dews the sparkling webs and glistens on wet ironwork, making the establishment look lovely and haunted in its evanescent jewels.

Chulan runs out again and breathlessly tells us, "Come on--we can go into the cellar the back way."  We push through the scented jasmine vines, the last of the season, along a path of mossy stones--a mysterious tunnel of leaves and dark and the glimmering traceries of spiders.  The music sounds distant, eerie in its merriment, a revelry of ghosts.  Then around we go and down into the cellar by feel, no lamp to light our way till the door clicks safely shut behind us.  Then Madame herself comes down the other, inside stair, lantern in hand, a glowing apparition that moves towards us, delicate of limb and stature, daintily coifed in golden curls and, nearly invisibly, graced with the finest cobweb of wrinkles laid upon her face.

"Lay them down there," she directs us, waving towards two cots hastily set out for us.  "I fear I must apologize for the inadequate light," she says to me, the stranger, as I drop Kief onto one cot and then help them carefully lower Teofilo onto the other.  "The city never ran electric lines to this corner of the wharves."  She laughs lightly.  "But some find the candlelight romantic."

A couple of her girls, armed with first aid kits, start to tug off Teo's clothing as he screams.

"No!  Don't!" I cry.  "Bring me scissors."  Madame hands me a pretty pair from a nearby sewing basket.  With a wry smile she says, "The customers will think we're indulging in rough trade down here."

"Stop!  Leave him alone!"  I push away the painted little hands with their ointments and absorbent dressings.  "Not at this stage, not with burns this bad."

"Listen to her," Lucinda says  "She's our medic."

Madame turns to me.  "Tell us what you need, Medic."

"Four of your cleanest sheets--plain cloth, not flannel.  And a fifth sheet of the tightest weave--the higher the thread count, the better."

"We have a silk sheet for that--of course."  No time to sterilize the dressings, worse luck--not in a slow-to-heat wood oven.

"Do you have any painkiller stronger than liquor?"

"We cater to all manner of pleasures here," she says with a smirk.

"Then bring that, too.  And then mix a half-teaspoon each of baking soda and salt into a liter of water, add a touch of molasses, and bring that to me, also."

"Girls, you heard the lady."  She peers curiously over my shoulder at the ruin of Teofilo, and her eyes glitter behind the mask of her composure.  Lord, it's bad!  No, not so bad, on second glance, better than I'd feared, a large percentage of second degree burns--but still dangerous across so much of his body.  And he got third degree on face, hands, knees, shins and feet—all the parts that folded forward when he got blasted up into the air.  At least the back that he has to lie on came through mostly unscathed.

Madame sighs beside me.  "Ah, Teofilo!  He used to be so handsome."

Lucinda growls, "He don't need good looks no more--not in our line of work."

"Oh, Lucinda!" Madame laughs.  "You haven't changed a bit."

My supplies arrive--and none too soon.  "Leave his blisters alone!" I snap.  "Nobody touches him but me.  And bring me a thermometer."  Into the bared teeth I feed the homemade opiate pills--little black, hand-rolled balls of oblivion.  I prop his feet up, then set to work on the grueling task of mummifying him in four loose layers of cloth and then a well-sealed fifth to block all air from the compromised remains of his skin.  And he moans as I do it, and I shake all over, but I don’t relent.  Can these killer hands still heal?  They'd better!

"What about him?"  Madame twitches a bare shoulder towards Kief.  I don't even want to look at Kief.

"Cold compresses to the pulled groin muscle, bed-rest, and he'll be okay."

She chuckles as she provides him with this solace.  "Such a pity—a gorgeous hunk like you, and you're absolutely no use to me like this."  That makes two of us, sister.

"Oh, and bring me a timer, too."  I finish the bandaging, thank God, and now sit in vigil over Teo as the others file out up the indoor stair, stunned looks on their faces.  The buxom strawberry-blonde who brings me the timer notices my shaking and offers me chaummin to soothe my nerves.  I will have to stay alert all night, so I refuse.  Then she leaves us alone, just me and the wounded.

Every fifteen minutes the little bell goes off.  I take Teo's temperature and then give him sips of the rehydration drink through a straw; he takes it in his teeth, not touching the blackened, curled-back lips.  Somewhat dehydrated, myself, from our run, I drink a little bit of it, too.

I fantasize that I did not turn down the girl's offer, that I share something stronger with him and that I will soon have my turn, just like at our initiation, surcease passed back and forth between battle-sibs.  Weariness conspires with imagination to make the fantasy almost credible, so that degree by degree the tension breaks down in me.  I watch him doze in the cradle of the opiate between my ministrations: I feel some of that dreaminess pass mysteriously on to me.  The sounds of revelry, eerily faint, drift down on us like something not quite there, not connected to the silence of this space; here we share a quiet as contemplative as the convent chapel.

I drift off and the bell wakes me up.  His temperature has risen.  Quickly I slam open every cellar vent and let in a cool draft.  The noise startles Kief from sleep.  Too bad.  The bandages hold in too much heat, but gradually Teofilo cools down.  I monitor him more closely; when he drops down to a chill I close all the vents, waking Kief again.  Teo can't regulate his own temperature right now--it's up to me.

The same girl who offered me chaummin before comes down to check on us--Ambrette's her name, a sad and pretty little plumpling with kindness in her eyes.  Do they pay more for her because she looks like she might care?  Maybe she really does, poor thing.  I send her over to change Kief's compresses, and ask her to bring down some fruit juice--time to vary the hydration a bit, with something that has potassium in it.  I give her a handful of rosehips to boil into tea for later, too.

Before she leaves for supplies, though, Teo painfully wheezes, "to, to..."

"Yes?" we urge him. 

"To...va...kho?"

"Tobacco?  Is that what you want?"

"Yesssss," he sighs.  Everything in my Til training revolts--even my common sense wonders how he could ever desire to breathe smoke again.  But the cells of my body understand.  "Get him what he desires," I tell Ambrette.

She brings us a cigarette and I start it up for him, then tap it to his teeth till they open, just like I've done with the straw.  Except I tapped then because he couldn't see the straw in the dark.  Now he makes no sign of seeing the lighted cigarette, either.  And so I face the truth of what my heart already knew--he has gone blind.

We pass the cigarette back and forth till we burn it to the butt.  Just like at initiation.  The timer goes off much sooner than I expect and I give him his drink, then let him slip back into the opiate's embrace.  I can hold up a little better, now, myself.



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