IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, May 26, 2708, continued
Fine and dandy. I don't have that much trouble climbing to my feet. Madame brings out a real stretcher and I do myself proud by remembering a trick with the sheet, despite everything, to transfer Teofilo with as little jolt as possible, though with all those happy pills in him he hardly cares.
Just as well; we carry him up and out with uneven steps as he rolls to and fro on the stretcher, now and then softly humming snatches of rebel tunes, now and then drifting gape-jawed into sleep. Lucinda and Fatima take turns with Imad and Chulan to carry him while Madame leads us, lanternless under the full moon, her arm firmly around my waist as if I needed it. And she keeps bumping into me, too.
Patrolling police clop up on horseback. Dodge into the alley. Soldiers march to their barracks after requisitioning food from the good citizens of Sargeddohl. Dash behind the houses, through the jungle of hanging laundry that should've gone indoors before dusk, if the housekeepers weren't too tired to see to it. Stagger through the nice gardens of better people's yards. Lift Teo over hedges and fences and then climb after. More alleys, all alleys now, we don't belong on these streets. But who feels ashamed with rum in her tummy?..and whatever else.
Imad slips me a flask that's been making the rounds behind Lucinda's back, but after the second or third pass Luci snatches it from me, hissing, "How dare you--on the job!" Then she gulps the last of it down herself and tosses the bottle. Lights flick on in the windows above where it smashed and we take a hasty detour. "Had to remove temptation," she husks. "You fools have had enough." Madame just smirks, her breath redolent with its esters.
We take a shortcut through a particularly enchanting bit of property, by way of the brook that ambles through it unimpeded. The camellia bushes have long since shed their flowers, but the lunablossom vine still blooms, near luminously white along the footbridge that it intertwines and up the mansion's mossy brick, effulging its fragrance all the way. Maybe it's just my blurring vision, but the glimmer of pale sculptures against the night-dark foliage, in the rich moonlight, makes the stone dryads seem to quiver on the verge of motion, the cherubs just about to fly. We tiptoe here, as much in reverence for the beauty as for stealth.
"Mommy, there's fairies in the garden, carrying a mummy!" We bolt into the camellias and hold our breath.
A woman leans out of a high window and gives a cursory glance outdoors. I for one see the footsteps in the dew, but she just says, "There's nobody out there, Teresa; you're imagining things again.
"But I saw fairies! In pretty fairy gowns." I glance over at Madame, Chulan, and Fatima, still decked out in their working clothes: drifts of chiffon and lacy ribbons, sparkle of sequins and rhinestones, delicate fluffs of marabou and corsets a-gleam with gilt. I giggle before I can stop myself, God help me! Fatima claps her hand over my mouth, nails into my cheek.
"Mommy, I hear the fairies laughing!"
Just then Fatima belches, to her shock, and her hands fly to her own mouth.
"Sounds like the garden-toad croaking, to me," the woman drawls. The shutters close firmly above us, but we can still hear the woman say, "Teresa, I don't want you listening to any more of Nanny's stories, do you hear me? I don't know what that woman's thinking of to fill your head with such rot."
"No more excuses, young lady--get back to your homework--right now."
And what if she had cried out, "Mommy--there's criminals in our yard"? Would her mother have believed the truth?
After a tense interval we creep out of there with utmost care, into an unpopulated stretch of garages and carriage houses, tucked neatly out of sight, in hearing range of no one. There we laugh until we can barely stand.
"Deirdre, you sot!" Fatima gasped. "You ever do anything like that again and I'll..."
"Do what? Smack me with your magic wand?" Fortunately, I don't feel the cuts in my cheek at all.
"You're one to talk, 'Tima," Lucinda chortles so that she can hardly speak. "Remind me to never, ever, let you drink beer before a stealth-job again!"
"Give her a break," Imad snickers. "First time in my life I was ever saved by the belch." And we laugh so hard that I for one fall rump-down to the ground and just keep on laughing where I sit. It takes awhile to quiet ourselves till we can safely move on, because every time Lucinda tries to pull us together she breaks down into giggle-fits herself.
But we do master ourselves, and we do move on. Buoyed up in a genial fog, we still have the presence of mind to shake Teo a bit whenever he snores. Good--I think we finally have full pain control--a laudable accomplishment.
After a few wrong turns, we totter at last into a clean, adobe-paved courtyard, under an arch carved with the words, "St. Anne's Preparatory School for the Meritorious Student." Madame sticks two fingers in her mouth and whistles piercingly.
"Young lady!" A fat old nun throws open shutters above us to shout, "How many times have I told you that ladies never whistle?"
Madame grins up tipsily and waves. "Hi, Sister Assunta. Love you, too."
"Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to a bad end!" The shutters slam shut. Even out here we can hear the heavy steps thumping down the stairs. Then the door swings open to three hundred pounds of righteous indignation. "Amalie you hussy--shame of all your class! What trouble have you brought to my doorstep now...oh. Oh dear me." She comes over and peers down solicitously on Teofilo.
"Cookfire accident," I say quickly. "You know, one of those cheap oil-stoves that..."
"Don't lie to me, girl! Nuns watch the news like anybody else." Her brow crinkles as she sniffs at his bandages. "You should've brought him to me immediately."
"We had some problems..."
"I don't want to hear it! Just get the poor scoundrel inside--one of your hellbound perverts-for-hire, Amalie, am I right?"
I answer for her, "No actually, he's now a..."
"I don't want to hear it! Honestly, I don't know how women in your profession have any business drinking themselves silly and loosening their tongues. That way, down the hall, second door on your left. No, not that one, you drunken reprobates! Over there! Silly maenads. You'd think the vices would cancel each other out, Amalie, if you'd ever had a lick of sense, never mind some shred of maidenly shame. Put him down there, on that bed--that's our burn bed. Cost us a pretty penny, too, come down all the way from Istislan to treat sorry riffraff like yourselves." She mutters on and on in an old-womanly way, her lips hardly moving but her meaning loud and clear, as she snips away bandages with an expert hand. "Riffraff and fisherfolk and carpenters and all kinds of undesirables darkening the doors of Ol' Meritorious these days, prostitutes even, like your sorry selves, and the wild zealots who riot in the streets. Hand me that jar over there, the one that says ‘sterile saline’, and the silver nitrate solution next to it, too."
Madame/Amalie asks, “Can you handle it from here, Deirdre? I need my beauty sleep.”
“Sure,” I say, and Madame leaves.
Sr. Assunta surveys the damage critically and says, "Not too bad, not as bad as you'd expect, leaving the poor wretch to the mercies of hooligans. Close that door, we can't have a draft on him now, can we, though sooner or later he'll warm up toasty enough in Hell despite my best efforts, body and soul, why do I even bother? Hand me the spray in the blue canister, my little harlot. Hmpf! Never heard of Jesus turning anyone away, more's the pity. Lord knows I’ve looked all through the Bible, but I can't say I found it mentioned anywhere. So what can you do? What can you do?"
I fumble at her side, assisting where I may, glad to let her do the detail work while I flog myself to remember all the medical data that I should and tell it to her in some coherent form. Stupid Teo--curse his insistence that we celebrate his calamity!
When I hand her the forceps and the #15 scalpel before she asks, she gives me a second glance. "So--you do know a bit about this, don’t you, young lady?"
"A bit," I say. "Not as much as I'd like."
"You must be the one who bandaged him up and kept him alive this long."
"Uh huh." Her fingers fly so fast that I keep forgetting to see them as pudgy and wrinkled. "I did my best."
"You know," she says thoughtfully, "Anytime you want to leave the life of wickedness behind you, we can always use another nurse."