IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 9

Invitations to Destruction


Tuesday, June 9, 2708, continued

Kief insists on creeping out with me tonight in the dark of the moon, but the village lamps still shine way too brightly.  Light radiates straight through the peach and yellow curtains into the clearing as we cling to every shadow like the glow would melt us.  He holds his place as I cross the wires on a battery; then I dart back to him.

He whispers, "Can you write a suicide note for me?"

"What?"

"Shhhh!  Not "for me" like that!  For a soldier."

"Kief, I'm sure a soldier can write for himself--they teach writing in boot camp."

"Not if he doesn't want to die."  I catch the sparkle of his winking eye.  Without another word he takes off, crouching behind this bush or that, till we come to a farmhouse where the music of the thambriy spills out with the light from the window.  "I’ve had messages from Damien," Kief whispers, "and sent a few back--to recruit more men for our movement.  We're too skewed to females right now."  He elbows me in the ribs.  "We need to find you a boyfriend."

"I don't need a..."

"Shhh."  He whistles a bird-call.  The singer within cuts a few verses from the song and ends it promptly, to launch into another, somewhat nonsensical song about various birds and their odd doings.  Suddenly I recognize the names of those creatures whose calls we mimic for messages.  He thus tells us the route to a specific house and the information, "impaired soldier".  With hardly a rustle we turn to follow the directions given.

We find the shack and behind it many boxes of bottles waiting for recycling.  The soldier quartered here must have a drinking problem, then, made worse by living apart from his barrack-mates, served hand and foot by peasants eager for his fall.  Kief whistles a different tune this time, and we hear one back--the one that says, "Wait."  Damien must've taught our calls to those he trusts.  Dangerous business, though, with ol' White-Sleeves around.

We wait in the dark and listen to the crickets, feeling time crawl with stealth as slowly as a saboteur.  At last a dim rushlight spills out as a woman comes to the door and gestures us in silently.  I read the hatred in her eyes and those of her teenage daughter as she leads us to the sprawling, snoring soldier swaying in his hammock with his mouth wide open, each snore as sour as the breeze off a distillery.

Kief pulls a little box from the pocket of his vest.  As he opens it I recognize the dark, hand-rolled opiate-pills that Madame used to make.  He must've grabbed them on his way out, knowing they'd come in handy some day.  Carefully he drops one into the open mouth.  The man chokes, coughs, and swallows.  Kief drops another.  The man tries to come awake, but Kief and the women grab his hammock and pin him in it as he struggles.

"Do it, Deirdre!" Kief says and points with his chin at the box he'd dropped on the floor.  I pick up all the dirty pills in one hand and pinch the man's nose with the other, then dribble them in, one by one, while Kief and the others hold the bucking body.  He cannot cry out, he keeps having to gulp down pills, till he cannot anymore, and Kief has no more need to hold him still.  I shiver as I touch his neck and feel the pulse go slower...slower...stop.  The teenager smiles.  When I look into her eyes I wonder if we let him die too easily.

Then I ask for paper and pen.  The woman brings it from the soldier's kit.  I scan the scrawling stuff that he'd written before and mimic it well enough to pass.  I note no books or writing-stuff native to the house.  Good.  They'll realize that the woman can't have done this thing, herself.  I describe remorse for how I've treated the peasantry, for how I tried to drink it all away, how I tried to hate them and hurt them all the more to justify what I did, how none of that worked and life had nothing left for me but shame.  It feels so real as I write it—as if his ghost has become my muse and whispers it to me.

We leave the box right where it fell beneath the soldier's hammock, and we head for the door.  The girl stops us, darts back to the kitchen-corner, and back with a precious bag of breakfast-beans from their paltry store.  The mother’s eyes widen, but then she nods, and the girl hands them to us.  I feel the weight of it, shifting in my hands.  In the morning all of my children get to eat.

As we steal back through the woods I feel elated--almost dizzy with elation.  I did it, and without regrets!  I can do this thing, this killing, and feel no pain.  I fall into my hammock back at camp without even cleaning my teeth and sleep like the dead till noon.

 

Wednesday, June 10, 2708

(Noon break, and Corey has fallen asleep on a bench, dappled in the shade of a tree.  I like the dappling—so irregular, unstructured, dancing back and forth across his sweet face.  No, this elfin boy does not belong in the world of brick and mortar walls.

I feel a breeze; it rustles solicitously over the child, shhh, shhh, let him sleep.  He couldn’t rest much last night, after all, too excited about the ritual ahead.  I take off my coat to spread over him; it’s not yet full-on summer, though the old men say tomorrow will be warmer, they feel the changes of the weather in their bones.

Corey opens his eyes and smiles at me.  “Tonight?” he asks drowsily.

“Yes,” I say, smiling back, tucking the coat around him.  “Just you and me.  Something very special.  In the cellar room.  You know the way.”

He sits up, rubbing his eyes.  “I can hardly wait!”

I sit down beside him.  “We all must wait, but yes, good things must eventually come.”  I want so badly to hug him, but gentlemen don’t hug out in the open, in broad daylight.

“You say that I’ll get a glimpse?”

“Because you are special.  Yes.”

“And that Hell is...beautiful?”

“So beautiful that you cannot yet imagine!”

He gazes up at me and says, quite simply.  “I trust you.  I don’t trust the teachers.”

“Wise boy,” I say, getting up and ruffling his hair.  “Come along, now; the noon break’s almost over.”

Cheerfully he rises, his eyes still somewhat shadowed, his cheeks a little flushed with the cool breeze and anticipation.  He picks up his books and heads for class, leaving my coat behind.  Ah well, he will get more than enough rest tonight.)

 ("You're feverish, Doctor," Sanzio says to me over lunch.  “I can see it as a kind of rosy glow--a man like your uncle would see the cherub in you.”  I feel too weak to lunge at the bars just for a show.  "That comes of living off your own fat too long--alkalosis.  But listen; we're having ice cream for dessert--dulcina-chocolate swirl, drizzled with chaummin syrup and sprinkled with crushed nuts.  Care to join us?"

"No, thank you," I reply, though I feel the fever in me burn.  I don’t look up at him.  Instead, I leaf through the cookbook that he left in my cell to torment me.  I can’t help it.  Desserts.  It’s all about desserts.

"Not the most efficient way to fuel the body, the exclusive use of stored-up fat--but you're a doctor, you know all about that.  Or a dentist, at least.  Already the byproducts of such inept combustion must begin to clog your kidneys.  And your electrolytes must swing wildly right now--tell me, have you hallucinated yet?"

"As a matter of fact, I thought I had the loveliest feast, right here in my cell.”  I admire a glossy cherry enthroned on soft ripples of whipped cream; my hand caresses the slick paper as if my fingertips could taste.  “Sorry to turn down your invitation, but I feel quite full."

"Liar," he says genially, as though to a friend.  "I've watched the yearning in your eyes as you follow the trays of food.  You know, of course, that people who try to lose weight by unrelieved fasting die frequently of heart attacks."

"I know."

"Of course you do--many gluttons memorize that fact, as an excuse not to diet at all."

I set the book aside.  "But you won't let it go that far.  I can't tell you anything dead."

"I've miscalculated before," he says, and grins.

"But you won't this time."

"No, I won't.  I want you to live long enough for your wicked uncle's time to run out.  I know your vulnerabilities, now, Dr. De Groot.  I have seen you take off your shirt."  And he says nothing more, as the grim-faced women bring the ice cream around.  And I resist the temptation to cup the inoperable hernia protectively in my hand.)



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