IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Heart Heeds No Scandal
Wednesday, July 1, continued
I go where Rashid goes. He’s somewhat cleaner than the run of this arid camp—but then the surgeon has to be. I’m sure he pays for the privilege many times over; I can smell the sweat of his latest labor on him, though he’s wiped off all the blood. "It must have been rough on you," I say.
"Abdominals are the worst of all," he sighs, leaning against me as we walk through the camp with arms about each other. "I keep trying and trying, but even for the few who survive the surgery, I can never get conditions sterile enough to prevent a fatal infection. After the battle that got Majid...oh heavens!" His personal ghosts seem to haunt the night air as he speaks, in the whispers of wind through the few bent-over trees, to the left of us if we glance right, before us if we glance down, behind us always.
His shoulders look stooped—maybe that's why I haven't noticed any growth. Yeah, that's it; Rashid does seem a bit taller now that I allow for posture. My own back aches in sudden memory—I had forgotten how physically painful it can get, in makeshift surgeries, when the casualties mount and you get no breaks.
"In here," he says. He rates his own tent, a stuffy little wedge of privacy where a patient might whisper secrets and reveal the wounds that nobody else can see. I go down onto hands and knees to enter with him. The air feels almost hot in comparison to the gusty night outdoors. He drops onto the mat with a groan of relief and kicks over a pillow for me to sit on, then stretches over with a whisk-broom to sweep out the dirt that we unavoidably tracked in. In a space this small he doesn't have far to reach.
Not a bad little place. Even in the dark I can see that he has an astonishing collection of prayer cloths sewn onto the inside of the tent, so that he can roll it up and move on without disturbing his decor. He motions towards them, saying, "When patients die, they leave me these." So we crouch inside a sort of patchwork heaven, a jumble of images fit for a mind too tired for any organized picture, anyway.
From a pack he draws a flask, takes a pull on it, and passes it on to me. I wince at the sharpness of the moonshine.
"I distill it myself," Rashid says. He takes another belt and relaxes visibly before me, muscle by tightened muscle. "Branko gave me his own still-works after he got religion. Often it's the only anaesthetic or antiseptic I can get."
"That's not the only use you put it to, I see."
He looks shyly back at me and sighs. "Sometimes. Sometimes after days like this, when I have to torture a patient to no good purpose, hoping that this time I can sew her guts up right." He leans back on the cushions and unbuttons his shirt, baring a sweaty chest without a single hair on it. "Sometimes when I can't sleep, or fear to sleep, or after days of flogging myself on with the greenfire leaf, when I have absolutely no other hope of sleep." He gazes up at all the saints and angels, but they smile on, unmoved.
Very carefully I say, "You realize that you need to find a better solution."
He nods where he lies. "I know. It doesn't always work anymore, anyway. And it doesn't always hold back the nightmares." As if the words tell me where to look, I notice something missing: I see no chain upon his breast.
"What happened to your mother's ring?"
"Sold it," he says, "for medical supplies." He rolls over and looks at me, propped up on his arms. "No great loss, Deirdre—I kept having these nightmares, you see. I'd go back to my old home, I'd open up that package all over again. First I'd unwrap the box like some kind of present, not knowing what I'd find." He leans over and takes a swig and his voice sounds raw. "But then would come the smell—again—and I'd suspect, and fear to finish that thought. Then I'd make myself open the lid."
Again he reaches for the bottle and drinks, gasping at the sting in the swallow. "My mother's finger," he explains. "Just as the government sent it to me years ago, but with one difference." He passes the flask over to me. "Go on," he says. "You'll need it."
It tastes even more vile the second time, but he won't continue until I force down several swallows. "In my dream, Deirdre, the finger moves. Blue-gray as it is, stinking of death, but it moves. Each time I think it's going to point at me, but so far it has always pointed away." He takes the bottle from me a moment, then hands it back. This time he doesn't have to urge me on. "So far. Someday, I fear, it's going to point right at me—it's getting closer, I think. So I have to do whatever I can to keep from dreaming, if I can." He starts to weep, a little at first, but then his face just crumples before the force of a flood. I pull him into my lap and hold him, just hold him, as the alcohol hits my bloodstream.
"I'll stay with you tonight," I tell him. "If you have any more nightmares, at least you won't have to wake up alone."
So that's how I come to spend the night in that stifling little tent, the air heavy with the smell of sweat and raw spirits, my arm around a sticky little boy with a grown-up brain and the broken heart of a child. I doze in and out, but the kid snores like a tank, drunk as he is, and every so often he starts from his sleep with a cry and I have to soothe him back down again, maybe a bit more like a mother than the ghost he's come to fear, or at least I hope so.
Thursday, July 2, 2708
Finally my eyes close of their own and I forget the tent, forget the child in my arms, I find myself walking through the camp at night, past the few tents and the many bodies huddled in their blankets by the fading embers. The scene has a certain texture, a kind of Van Gogh sense of fiber and motion. I finally realize that it's the maggots—maggots crawl over every single surface so thickly that they hide whatever lies beneath them: great, fat worms that the moonlight turns a pale bluish violet-gray. But they seem much too big for maggots, they...then I see the fingernail on every wriggling little form where the head should be...
I jolt back awake, same time Rashid does. We look into each other's eyes and don't dare ask what the other dreamed. Something like this happens several more times before the dawn relieves us.
I can't say how glad I feel when the light finally shines green through the fabric of the tent, illuminating that crazy-quilt of saints and angels from behind. Hungover, hardly rested, it doesn't matter nearly as much as the daylight does, and with it release from the hellish dark. And he goes through this every night? Alone?
He doesn't look at me when he rises. He slips out to the latrines, then returns to change his clothes. Fresh scrubbed, they still bear the faint greenish-brown ghosts of old blood stains; you can't get papaya pulp around here, and washing clothes in sand leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn't look up when I go out, and I don't ask him to, leaving him his privacy.
Others notice me exiting the tent. I catch grins just on the edge of sight, winks, nudges, all carefully smoothed away whenever I look anyone in the eye, so that even though we all know what everybody assumes about me spending the night with Rashid, no one gives me the least opportunity to shout back at them, "What's the matter with you people? Have you forgotten what a child is?"
* * *
I give Branko a big hug before we go. "I am so proud of you," I say, "the way you’ve turned your life around." I'll say whatever you need me to, little one.
"Not me. The Lord."
"But E still needed your consent. There are men like Sanzio D'Arco who..."
"...we may yet meet in Heaven, if they find their salvation."
"And if not I'll gladly send them all to Hell." I draw back from him, then sigh. "Pray for us, Branko."
"I'll do that," he says, and then we turn and go.
He laughs, suddenly, turning his face upward, stretching out his hand. I feel it, too—the icy tickle of snowflakes. Quickly people scramble to put out pots and pans, reclaimed soldiers’ helmets, xanthophane wrappers, anything and everything to catch the snow. “God blesses us!” Branko cries. “It’s the right thing to do, to let go of our medic.” He turns shining eyes to me. “He blesses you, too, Deirdre.”
“I’m grateful,” I say. But that’s not why my eyes shine back.
We leave most of our guns and ammo behind with Branko, who needs it badly. Supplies, too, we leave, warm sleeping bags for those with winter cough, preserves and cheese and sausages from the lodge, whatever we can spare—and, of course, the extra water-skins. Branko assures us that some of the locals know of a hidden oasis never seen by government surveyors, and now they’ve got the water to reach it. But we take Rashid with us, as meek as a rustled lamb, pulling along his mule laden with tent and medical supplies through the thin yellow grasses that ripple and sigh in the cold, sere wind.
“Couldn’t we have left them one medic?” I ask Cyran when we pass over a low line of hills, out of sight and sound from the encampment. “We had two already before we got here.”
Cyran sighs, looks away, then leans close and tells me, in a voice pitched for my ears alone “Triage, Deirdre. Branko’s got a reputation, now, even if they do think that they hunt Majid.” A glance from Damien shows that his attentive ear has caught the murmur anyway. Cyran notices, then addresses him quietly but directly. “Not a word just yet, Bard. You will know when the right time comes to give credit where it’s due.”
Cyran returns hir attention to me. “Branko draws more and more troops out into the waste, and we harry them as we can while they’re out of their element. I need him out here, diverting soldiers from the rest of us. But in the long run, my friend, we can’t afford to leave anyone as valuable as a medic in his band.”
* * *
(It's the grenades and rocket-launchers that have finally done it. The soldiers got smart, or else it took this long for the army to get their supplies in, what with all the action boiling up across the country. But most of Tumblebugs lies crushed and blackened, smoke spiraling up from craters within the crater, making us both cough. Somewhere a broken pipe gurgles and chuckles out the mountain's generosity, sounding for all the world like one of those sacred highland waterfalls that you find sometimes.
Well, we made the diversion that Cyran wanted. I hope it bought hir more lives than we’ve lost here.
Out of bullets at last. I look over at Max's sooty face, and he gazes back at me. I think he ran out of bullets awhile back. Everybody else up here has died by now.
"Max, I know something," I say to him.
I hesitate, then as gently as I can I say, "I know you're gay."
He winces and looks away. I make myself touch him, gently. "It's okay, Max. I'm gay, too."
He looks back at me, then. I am not. But right now, does it matter?
"I've been faking it with women," I lie, "trying to deny who I am."
Tenderly he takes me into his arms, but they feel hard, strange, his body against me feels weird in his embrace, not soft enough, but that's all right, I can deal with that. We lived too soft too long, anyway.
His kiss...I never kissed a man on the mouth before. I expected him to...to taste different from women. But he doesn’t—we're more alike than we think, I guess.
Is it strange to you, God, that I want to die with one final act of kindness, anything, anything at all that comes to hand? War makes exceptions to everything—it can't only be killing that's all right in times like these.
He pulls his lips away and holds me tight again, shuddering; he shudders with sobs. I feel his tears upon my cheek. I think he knows the truth, but that’s okay.
Then I hear the whistling sound of the rocket coming straight towards us...)