IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 6

Mind Games


Friday, June 5, continued

Night-time, and the village lamps shine way too brightly.  I should've known that flaunting my knowledge of Malcolm's car would land me the task of sabotaging jeeps.

"You ready to go?" I ask Damien.  (She whispered to me, there in my arms, briefly, before she became too weak to speak.)  "Damien?"

"Uh huh."  ("You didn't miss," she said.  "I haven't had my bleedings ever since.")

"That's Aron's family's house, over there.  You're to call the eldest man "Uncle Stochi", the woman "Aunt Kia," the littlest girl "Cousin Mira," the next one..."

"I memorized all that already."

"Then what are you waiting for?"

"Nothing."  I watch him step from the bushes, hesitate, hoist his thambriy on his shoulder like a gun and walk to the house as if he'd been there many times before.

(Alysha once told me that girls stop their bleedings if they get too skinny.  We all go hungry; I don't think a baby'd find enough room in Kana's bony little body to make itself at home.  So maybe nothing happened.  Maybe I've got nothing to worry about.)

I cover his back till he reaches the door, knocks, makes a gesture when the door opens and the light spills out.  (And maybe the Meritocracy will give us all votes for free.)  Then I make my own sly way, by bush and by tree, to the fourth jeep I come across.  Mustn't make it the nearest one to where a newcomer arrived.

I crawl on my belly through the grass and under the jeep.  Quick work, take a rock and dent a part that might run afoul of a very bad road--a part that cannot function with so bad a bend in it.  They will wonder, maybe, how it ran just fine till now, but the damage almost makes sense.  Superstition rises fumelike from such in-between occurrences, the explanations too close to discard but not quite covering all the facts.  Obvious injury'd make them think of rebels immediately.  With this, what?  Ghosts?  Maybe they will think of rebels, but not necessarily the ones who fall to bullets and stay dead.

In the distance I hear a woman calling in her kids.  A dog barks, a door closes, and a thambriy begins to play.

* * *

(The army has never had such gourmet fare in all its history as Sanzio D'Arco now acquires for his troops--fat of the land.  And they eat in shifts--three teams have breakfast in their turns, three lunches follow, three different dinners–here, in the banquet-hall of the evil old Master who once ordered the amputation of Aron’s feet.  The women pressed into servicing the kitchen never go home, but set their cots up in the relative dimness and privacy of the pantry, right over there; they live in shifts, too.

Sometimes the smell of it drives me crazy.  Sometimes I can kick back and enjoy the scent in its own right--taste, after all, not hunger, always drove me before, and taste and scent count as practically the same sense.  But I know that I weaken daily—in my flesh and my resolve.  I kid myself to think that smell can satisfy my needs.

Yet compared to what he did to Aron...what is it with you, D'Arco?  Why such mild torture, when I know you could twist whatever you want out of my guts in a few hour's work?

And what’s that in the corner?  Something someone shoved in between the bars?  A cookbook, to further torment me.  I throw it flapping across the cell and hear the laughter all around.

I see the Master come in, unease increasing on his helpless face, staring at the scratched-up marble floor as military cleats come and go, startling when a sneering young soldier elbows him in passing, not quite by accident.  I can distract myself a bit, watching his discomfort.

But such shabby entertainments never last, and cannot sustain me while they do.  The men eat in front of me, a table pulled right up against my cage, but the food stays out of reach even if I could squeeze my arm between the bars.  They smack their lips in exaggerated relish, they belch, they rub their bellies, they lick their spoons slowly.  Sometimes they even lick their fingers, eying me; I wonder what Sanzio has told them?  And they like to waste food--throw it at each other in my presence.  Do they see the women watching them, too, with families hungering back home?

I think D'Arco likes to drag it out.  It must be that.  He wants me to resist him for awhile, suffer just this side of confessing everything.  He hates me more than his profession demands--perhaps I can use this to my advantage.  No surprise that he feels that way; fat makes such a great, big target for men like him, men who hate themselves and crave the most visible of sins to hate instead.

What would you look like, Sanzio D'Arco, if you had to wear your vices wrapped around you the way I do?  Do you think your shirt could hide it all, however pure and white?

But how much longer can I drag this out, myself?  And wouldn't he just love it if the basest part of me yielded to his inquiries, if I couldn't say, "He twisted it out of me with hot coals and thumbscrews," but instead, "I traded all of your names for food," and then let them look at the size of me, or let me look into a mirror and say that--even worse!

Yes, that's the reason that he does it this way.  He'd rather degrade me than cause me mere physical pain.

But we can't always be saints, can we?  I'd know that I didn't yield for gluttony, but for simple survival.  My head spins with low blood sugar and pounds with pain, my very skin crawls with deficiencies.  It has gone way beyond sensations in the belly--the realest hunger that I have ever felt.  I'd know that, if I chanced to fail.  Wouldn't I?

I could sink my teeth into that pome, right over there.  I could feel its juices squirt into my mouth, I could taste its sugars on the tip of my tongue and its fruity richness gushing back into my throat.  I could...if only I reveal the members of the network that I set up.

How readily the flood of names could spill out from my lips!  Just sounds, syllables--so easy.  I could have everything I need by tiny motions of the lips and throat--the heavy bars would swing away without my lifted hand.  And then I could feast!

But Uncle has committed himself to a Penitential Monastery on my behalf--“moral quarantine,” they call it.  He has walled himself away forever from all the children in the world--for the rest of his life he has denied himself his greatest, most compelling pleasure.

And why?  Because it's the right thing to do.  Because he loves me, and he hurt me, and he does penance more to me than he ever could to God.  And why not?  We only know God through the fellow creatures that we walk among.

Uncle Donal starves himself of what he wants more desperately than anything in the world, and all for me.  Can I live up to that love?  Can I deny myself that luscious pome left just beyond my reach, by sitting here without a word?

          I'm not as hungry as they think I am.  Not anymore.)



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