IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 16

The Rituals That Must Be Kept


        Deirdre didn’t even try to listen to the chimes; she let them become something else as fast as possible.  But they didn’t merge with the wild chirping as before; this time they became the tinkling of the little hand-bells that altar-boys ring when the priest consecrates the hosts, ringing on this Sunday of June 14, 2708, in a respectable, sunwashed church that I have never seen with waking eyes, the dome mosaic-decorated in a circle of twelve apostles on a ground of blue, with skylights in between, far from the bloodstained stones of Cumenci…

          (Silly ritual, but the peasants expect it.  And plenty of peasants find opportunity, in the army, to rise in the ranks, even among these officers around me.  So I wipe off my lipstick discreetly with my handkerchief while the others pray; priests hate having to wipe lipstick off the chalice, and we must keep the priests our friends, mustn’t we?

          I stopped believing long ago.  My intellect rebelled.  It’s just bread—not even bread, a mere disk of water and flour, flavorless, thin, and unappetizing.  And the wine that goes with it tastes too sweet.  I’m not like poor Sanzio, glad of his excuse to lie in the hospital tent and not attend Mass, even though he yearns for the wafer, he believes excruciatingly.

          Yet the rank and file require this of me.  Very well, then; I shall play the good church girl once more, that they might know the righteousness of our cause.  I shall swallow this communion, and cross myself, pretending to believe.  It bolsters morale.)

          I stretch and wake from a vague dream about a church, surprised to find myself nestled in the straw of a Cumenci barn, with the rest of the rebel host sleeping all around me, and still more surprised to discover Kiril and Lufti snuggled up against me.  I must have slept deeply indeed!

          As I rise to take care of basic needs, a bleary-eyed farmer comes in to milk the goats.  Judging from the anxious bleating of the nannies, he’s a bit late to the business, but he makes up for it now with his tenderness, petting the herd matriarch when she skips up onto the milking-stand, cooing to her as he relieves her of her burden.  As I must do mine.

          Outside, I scratch my head, fuzzily regarding the streets empty of all but chickens.  Isn’t today Sunday?  Don’t they have any church in the vicinity?  Have they no priest?

          Oh yeah.  I forgot.  They used to.

          (I lost faith in the righteousness of Charadocian patriotism, too.  We have no high, holy principles, we’re just fighting to survive.  Us or them.  Raw as anything in the jungle.

          And this frees me, really.  I don’t have to let moral angst block the decisions that we all know must be made.  Any housewife can see that you must lay traps for mice, however cute their big ears and their bulging black eyes, the little twitches of the nose, the fluffing of the fur with tiny paws.  If you don’t kill them, they soil in your flour, they shred up all your books, they just get out of hand.  So you lay your traps, you snap the bitty spines, and you dispose of them outdoors.  And then you wash your hands and get on with the rest of your chores.)

            The farmer finishes his business as I return; I watch him stumble back to bed.  The entire village sleeps in today.  I can hardly wait, myself, to topple back into the fragrant straw.  The rest of our chores can wait.

          (Even if that chore includes a charade, a dance with the company chaplain that means no more than any other dance: a display of womanly graces, to win hearts with what really has no bearing on anything important.)

* * *

          After a good, long  sleep in a warm, dry place, after a stout farm breakfast and fresh goat-milk, I feel quite fit to take the shovel from the farmer’s hand and join the others just outside the village.  We go into the dancing shade of the margin-land, back where the wind in the boughs sighs over us.  Working on a Sunday, but there’s no rest for the wicked.

          (Fresh from Sunday service, the dry taste of the chaplain’s bread still in my mouth, I slip away while the other boys eagerly head for the spread laid out in the Student Lounge. I hear the help has made honeyplum sherbert.  I hope the others enjoy them.)

          Yet it feels good to me, and good feels close enough to Sabbath rest.  I have always enjoyed the push and pull of muscles shoveling.  It brings back happy memories of archaeological digs, back when I had time for that sort of thing.  I don’t have to think, for the moment, of what I dig, here.  I don’t have to think of anything.

          Yet my thoughts wander where they will.  I wonder what archaeological treasures lie just beneath the surface here in the Charadoc.  What were the Hill Cults, really?  If  artifacts still lie in plain sight at sacred pools and passes, what else might one dig up, that none have seen for centuries?

          (Me, I walk in the warm, buttery sunlight, feeling so good in it, soaking it up the way that leaves must do, till I reach the quarters that no one sees, that nobody dares to name: the place where I began.  The big, decaying building, right there in plain sight, where eyes simply will not go, disgraceful in its dishevelment in this pristine place.  Good.  I like disgracefulness.  No promised grace ever got me anything.)

          (No promised curse ever struck me down for taking communion wrongfully.  Nanny would say that the curse has shown itself in my hardening heart, but I lay the blame for that on a society that doesn’t know what to do with me.  A soft heart would have bled to death from all the arrow glances.)

          Why does Lufti shoot me such a glance?  Oh.  I’d started whistling, didn’t even realize that I did.  I can’t help it.  A full belly makes me feel so happy!

          “We should mark the graves,” he says.  “So their families will know where to find them.  Something that somebody can read to them.”

          “We don’t want them found,” I tell him, pushing my shovel into the yielding dirt.  “God will find them; that’s as good as they give us.”

          (I do a double-take, then stare at the sign a moment, still quite legible, before I enter.  Then, through the familiar, unlocked door, weather-split through lack of paint.  Past the furnishings clad in dropcloths, dust, and spider-veils, up the creaking stairs, to the room.  Their room, her room, our room.  Golden particles sparkle in the rays of sunlight from the window and they fall upon her, right on the bed where I’ve lain her, shining on her poor, dear, withered little face, so  birdlike, so serene, the bone-growth shining in that light.

          “Hello, Gita,” I say.  “Enjoying your honeymoon?”)

I glance back at the piled corpses, now outdoors, awaiting their new home.  Thank God for the cooling weather.  We scratch mass-grave trenches just inside the eaves of the forest where the vines and moss grow quickly and should camouflage our deeds.  Damien chants whatever dirges seem appropriate to the occasion, as we quickly go down the line smudging cold foreheads with oil and muttering reluctant blessings to disincline the dead to follow us, but he can't keep an ironic tone out of his voice and neither can we.  The burn on my cheek stings when I grin to think of us sending them with hymns placidly to hell.

(“I wish I could bury you with him, Gita, side by side, body to body, as it should be.  Your marriage-bed, in the good, deep land.  But Gita—at least I’ve done it!  I’ve brought it back into the school: marriage!  The joining of male and f-female.  And nothing can stop what’s coming now.”)

Beneath the irreverent party atmosphere I feel a tension singing through all the nerves of the troops and of the village.  Other songs of Damien's play in our heads than the ones he intones for now--songs learned in that other village, the one that gave him birth.  The one wiped out for rising up en masse against the Meritocracy.

(What’s coming now?  The thought gives me pause.

 Never mind that.  Some things go beyond even the Changewright to know.  At least for today.

Today?  What does that even mean anymore?

Stop thinking so much.  Lay out the crystals, begin the ritual, as always.  Except that now I know the name of this place.  This place!  For I have, for the first time, finally been able to read the sign, without the letters blurring all together.  The Married Teacher’s Quarters.)

I know names, now.  Our taverness is Sharane, her husband is Mori, and the little girl who watches me with such enormous eyes is Pomona.  We're in too deep to conceal ourselves from each other anymore.  I dig beside Sharane and we have the same dirt on our hands and we both wear bandannas over our noses to hold back the stink, and we both look like outlaws and now we both are.  Sharane, Sharane.  Mori.  Little Pomona who doesn't know whether to fear me or like me.  We now possess the terrible, magical power of names and all the danger that goes with them.

(I invoke the power.  And at the culminant moment, I draw back my forelock, which will conceal what I have done, and make a cut along the hairline, a little sting.  I lean to let the blood drop on the child-corpse.  “Accept my wedding present, beautiful Gita!”)

Flies buzz around the clotting mud here and there--mud that came from no rain of God, that's for sure.  There's no question that everybody here passed their Test of Blood before any great vows or speeches or ceremony.  And what will become their Test of Fire?  Running across the coals of their own homes?

I slip on some loose stone and skin the heel of my hand, breaking my fall.  “Lufti,” I ask, “will you go fetch my med-kit?”  The last thing I need is graveyard sepsis.

“Noooooo!” he shouts, pointing at my hand.  “Nooo, there’s been too much...too much of, of, of that!  Too much shed already!”  I stare at him, dumfounded.  “Why does he want to shed more?”

Kiril says, “He’s just tired,” and I’m sure she doesn’t mean her voice to come out shrill.  And she puts protective arms around him, glaring as if she expected me to whip him or something.

I sigh and tell them, “We all have bad moments, I guess.  Lufti, you’re off duty for the afternoon.  Go get some rest, soldier.”  Kiril escorts him to a nearby cottage where the owner lets the boy lay down on an actual bed.  And then she comes back with my med-kit.

(Sometimes, just as I leave the building, right on the very porch, vertigo will hit me, and I ask myself, “What am I doing here?”  Yet I know.  Oh yes, today I know!

Do I?)

"What are we doing here?" Lucinda suddenly asks loudly, her shovel falling from her hand.  "Where is this place and just what in hell are we doing here?"  Ambrette runs up to comfort her but she slaps the girl away testily.  "No, no, it's not all right!  We’ve got an army here--we shouldn't have armies, not at this stage of the game.  It's all...it's just all wrong!  All wrong!  All wrong!"

Kief saunters up and puts a hand on her shoulder but she shoves it away.  "This place is rebel-controlled territory," he says.  "What we're doing here is liberating the citizenry."  She stares at him, mouth open, but whether in horror or disorientation I can’t say.  "How's the headache, Luci?"

"Screw the headache!  What are you up to, Kief?"

"You wouldn't understand if I tried to explain right now..."

"You don't know!  You're just hopping from one impulse to the next like you always do."

"Easy, Luci--don't get agitated."

"Like hell I won't get agitated!"

Then he grips her so hard that I see her face go white, but he grins as easily as ever as he drags her off to one side.  "It's not good for you to get agitated, honey.  Ambrette, come over here.  You got her medicine?  Good.  She needs a dose right now--don't you, Luci?"

The big woman's brow knits as she tries to puzzle this out.  "Have I been..."

"Uh huh.  Now take your..."

"Hold on!" I say as I hurry up.  "How come nobody told me about any medicine?"

"Because you couldn't come up with anything better for her than willow-bark," Kief says genially.  "Ambrette has something that actually stops the pain."

Ambrette shakes a couple of hand-rolled, black pills from a box into her palm but I grab her hand.  "You've been giving her those?  On top of a brain injury?"

Ambrette looks uneasily at Kief as she says, "He told me to."

"Listen carefully.  I want you to wean her off of those things, slowly but steadily.  That's the last thing she needs right now."

Kief says, "I can't allow that, Deirdre."

"What do you mean you can't allow that?  I'm the medic, Kief."

          "And I'm the general.  I give the orders around here."  And he walks off, and I watch Ambrette give an unrefined opiate to a woman with a head injury, and just like that he changes all the rules, and I can't do one damn thing about it.



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