IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Thursday, June 11, 2708
I have become entirely nocturnal. Never mind sabotage, I spend the whole night hunting for my children. I try to stretch my eyes open as hugely as I can, to spy whatever might fill their bellies. I sniff the air for edible scents. I move predator-silent, barely brushing aside the undigestible stalks and hairy vines. Kiril has become a master of boiling fibers down to greenish puddings of all kinds of leaves, but even her art has its limits. And the breakfast beans, of course, ran out quickly.
Kief finally gave the order to reserve some of the chaummin syrup to make candy. Our hostess boiled it up, herself, and gave us each one sticky lump. It tasted soooo good! It gave us each a burst of energy. And then…all gone.
There. Ahhhh yes. I gaze upon a dainty funnel in the grass, and my mouth waters. Barely luminous, the dew upon the thick lace of webbing reflects every tiny slip of light to make it down
Careful, now. A little motion will draw her out, but too much will drive her deep down underground. I pluck a blade of grass and lightly, so painstakingly lightly, I tickle just the edge of the web, then a little more, and then she leaps out after prey, but I leap too and bag her!
Four big spiders now wriggle in my sack, meaty things each the size of my hand. A good night’s haul! And when we roast them, they will taste like shellfish, and our bodies will rejoice.
And now for a few hour’s sleep before the dawn breaks out and makes sleep difficult. I think I’ve earned it, tonight.
* * *
(Can't sleep for hunger--this great, rumbling beast in my belly that has terrorized me for most of my life, and now ravages my guts in fury that I will not give it what it wants. Alkalosis makes little twitches all throughout my body and I can find rest nowhere in me, only the crazy-hunger beast prowling up and down my nerves.
The last shift has eaten dinner, and a few hours remain before the first breakfast shift. The last women finish cleaning up, then wash themselves in the kitchen, indifferent to my gaze through the careless open door, but then women have always regarded me as unsexed. Tired nudes, scrubbing skin wrinkled, scarred, and callused by the hardness of their lives. At last they retreat to their hammocks in the pantry, and mercifully switch off the light. The stripes of bar-shadows in which I live all suddenly merge together into one great night, and for a brief moment I feel as though they’ve freed me from my cage. But my hunger growl and whines in me, reminding me that I never, ever can go free.
Alone in the dark, lying on my floor, I push the incisional hernia back into place, but it resists sometimes, and that has always frightened me. Maybe it goes back into place a little easier this time; maybe the weight I've lost makes a bit of a difference in reducing the strain. But D'Arco knows where I'd feel the most pain, no doubt about it.
Uncle meant only the best for me when he acquiesced to my demands for surgery. He wanted to make amends and knew of no way to do it except to spend still more money on his favorite nephew. Me, I let him spend it; I thought that gastric stapling would solve all my problems, just like that.
I didn't think I could get through the months of preparatory dieting, but I did. I surprised myself, felt proud, felt like maybe I really could completely change myself into someone else. I figured that if a surgeon could cut all the way to my core, dig way down in and excise the crazy hunger, that this must surely effect as deep a transformation as anyone could want--how much more could we do than that? So I endured the months of Spartan living, and went to the prescribed counselor, holding back only those words that could send my uncle to jail--only the words that might have made a difference, I see now. And I felt so damn proud!
I made it through the operation. Surgeons hate this kind of work, so much sheer flesh to cut through, so much backbreaking time bent over their labor, for someone they don't respect, someone who got himself into this state by a lack of self-control. Doctors don't do all their cutting with a knife--a tone of voice, a certain look, a motion of the shoulders can slice your soul in two, and they don't always bother to stitch the wound back up.
But I did make it through. I hurt like I'd been sawed in half, which I had been, really. It takes a long time for a man my size to heal from a wound that deep. My body felt outraged, but I told it to shut up. I made myself try to picture what my life would become once I escaped the prison of so much fat, once I could walk lightly and confidently in the respect of my fellows, once women would smile on me with favor and men nod to me as a peer. That made the pain fade back a bit, to think of all that I could have. Without such weight I would walk on air!
And then he had to come to pick me up. "I promised I wouldn't visit, Malcolm, and I kept my promise. But you didn't say I couldn't drive you home."
Well, I had to get home somehow. I felt so profoundly changed that I thought maybe this would work, maybe I could have a fresh start with my Uncle, no longer the child that I’d been, now able to say no, set limits, we could still be friends. He had done me a lot of good; it didn't seem quite Christian to overlook all that just because of his sins against me. Oh, I felt generous that day!
Habits die hard. You cut into yourself more deeply than you think you could ever survive, and sometimes it still won’t suffice. Over the years I had grown so used to his one hand on my thigh while the other one drove that I didn't even notice it at first. I don't think he even realized that he'd done it, himself; I think he meant to keep his promise never to touch me again. When I finally did notice I felt this sick conviction that too much time had passed, I'd missed my chance to recoil and curse him, shout at him to get his filthy fingers off my leg, that I had somehow consented by default, by not noticing for so long. And that felt dirtier than the fact that he had touched me there at all.
"Pull over," I told him. I saw our favorite restaurant in the nick of time. Maybe I thought that just getting out of the car would end the contact and so break the spell. Maybe I didn't think at all. I keep trying to remember exactly what went through my mind that day, but I can't reconstruct it, and that scares me most of all.
When I ordered all that food he asked me, "Are you sure?" I just nodded, unable to speak to him. It hurt, oh God, it hurt worse than that very first binge so many years ago, but I ordered dessert, then seconds, then...I don't remember what all I ordered, I don't remember the taste of any of it, I just remember stuffing it in like I tortured myself while tears ran down my Uncle's face but he never could refuse me.
I did finally curse him when he ran into the bathroom after me, but he had no puerile intentions driving him, he just saw all the blood that I'd thrown up and shouted for a doctor. Then he knelt beside me, weeping hysterically, and fed me ice chips till the ambulance arrived.
I'd burst the staples all at once, of course, before they'd finished healing into place. The doctor spat out insults till his face turned red, things no doctor should ever say to a patient, but I could understand his frustration, all our months of effort wasted. I could understand the nurses glaring when they wheeled me back to my old room, two of them necessary to shove my extra-wide wheelchair. Of course the surgeon wouldn't take the risk of starting all over again on a patient as noncompliant as myself. He just took the steps required to save my life, what shreds remained to me, and told me never to come back to him again.
So of course it didn't take long for the incisional hernia to mushroom from the scar. The surgeon said that it would happen, if I continued to grow. And how, indeed, could I not?
I still don't fully understand. The craziness of this hunger frightens me more than any of the medical or social consequences, more than starving in this cage. I lie here in the dark, right now, waiting for the dawn, wanting so badly to believe that my conversion to Egalitarianism has produced some lasting change, but I live in fear that what I was--what I have always been--might grab me by the belly at any moment and drag me down again into shame deeper than shame deeper than the shame before...)
(Tweaking a hernia doesn't cause nearly the pain that I could produce in other ways; the Doctor would realize that if he could think straight, but he can't, not with his brain awash in chemical imbalances. Doesn't matter--it's where he feels most vulnerable. Where he's literally coming apart at the seams. Where his excess bursts him and confronts him and makes him feel mortal and afraid. And ashamed. I have the hardest time torturing the proud.)
I wake earlier than I’d planned, to Lufti tugging at my arm, bawling his heart out, while Kiril tries to hug him and tell him that I need my sleep.
“No, that’s okay,” I say, and sit up to let them join me sitting in the hammock while I try to wake enough to listen to him. “What’s up, kidito—bad dreams?”
Kiril nods for him, while he just stares at me through tears. Suddenly he blurts, “They want to marry me to the dead! They, they brought a cup to my lips, and forced me to look into a rift in time and space, and then they brought me to a dead little girl—but horrible! Deformed even before she died. She…I can’t describe! And, and, then he dragged a mountain maiden from the rock, and he twisted her arm behind her back to make her—no!” He tackles me and snuffles on my breast.
“There there, it was just a dream. Nothing but a dream, dear boy. Nobody’s going to do anything of the kind to you.”
“Come along, now.” Kiril gently pries him from me and coaxes him out of my hammock. “You can sleep with me. Deirdre really does need her rest.” And he goes away with her, quieter now, and I feel guilty about how relieved I feel.