IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
A Fleeting Taste of Berries
Tuesday, August 4, 2708
The canyon has gone barren. The green has changed to gold, latest of all the vegetation up here, sheltered for a little while, but no real jungle after all. Only a fringe of struggling evergreens remains. And everything that could have fed us has died back till the spring.
I remember the berries that I had found, only a few days before, the last little cluster in that canyon. I remember the quick dart of my hand, the almost-spoiled orbs popping in my mouth, the winelike flavor. I could have at least brought a couple berries back, to slip in secret to Kiril and Lufti, but I swallowed before it even occurred to me. What a beast has hunger made of me! Now the memory of their taste lingers on my tongue, sweet and guilty.
* * *
(Relax, they say! I’m supposed to rest, recuperate, while my troops do without, while heaven knows when the enemy will come marching up the same road we did and we haven’t so much as a ham-bone to throw at their heads. Greenfire must still burn in my veins, because all I can do is pace, pace, forever in an endless, meaningless circle, while the tent walls close tighter around me with every turn.
I finally got some sleep last night, but not very much. My painful arm didn’t improve the situation. I wanted to help build. Deirdre sent me back when I sprained my arm, hoisting a big rock up one-handed while the other reached for more. I still don’t have good judgment, she says. I’d have fought her over it if I didn’t hurt so bad. So now I cradle my arm against my chest, circling ‘round and ‘round this stuffy little space.
I can’t afford this. I can’t keep on burning calories like this for no good reason. I must calm, callllllm....no use. My feet just start pacing again while I’m not looking
It took a lot of leaf to get us all here alive, and I had to use more than my soldiers to keep watch over them when they wearied. I had to try harder, fight harder, march harder, than anybody—they can’t expect all that to go away in a few day’s time.
I pause a moment before my pack. I found a bottle of wine in the Captain’s gear, when we looted the enemy camp after the Battle of Maiden’s Knees. I hid it away before the children saw it, thought it best to save it aside for emergencies. It made perfect sense at the time.
Nourishment? Are there vitamins in wine, any kind of nutrients at all? Rashid would know, but he’s not here. It has calories, at least.
And, come to think of it, it starves the body for vitamins—crucial nutrients that we can’t spare. Rashid told me that, once. No, I don’t really need that. Keep pacing.
What gruesome sights I’ve seen since that battle, though. Now that I don’t have the danger, the fear and the excitement driving me on, all of these hideous images keep welling up to haunt me, like that burnt chunk of a man that landed right in front of me after we blew up that one ammo-wagon—head, neck, shoulder, part of the chest, part of an arm, mostly charred, but the face still recognizable as a man’s, hauntingly similar to Teofilo’s before...and I hadn’t even been there when Teo burned. I just pictured it so vividly, and keep on picturing it, keep reconstructing so many gawdawful things that I surely don’t need all these brutal memories to add to the ferment of my imagination. And if I keep up this pacing, I’ll cut a circle into the canvas floor.
I shouldn’t even have room to pace. People need any shelter they can get. I haven’t been thinking straight—I should quarter people in here with me, officer or no. Okay, tonight I will.
But for now...when did I start pacing again? How does it keep happening?
Where’s that wine? This does feels like an emergency to me—an emotional emergency. I can’t think straight if I can’t settle my nerves—what good am I, like this?
Here’s the bottle...and what have we over here, in this corner, but a corkscrew to match? As commander of the Egalitarian Forces, I do hereby declare one emergency for General Cyran. I don’t have any more duties for awhile, anyway.
It hurts to pop it open. So what? Everything hurts. Every damnable thing on Novatierre.
There. That’s better. Much better. But just a sip or two more—a little goes a long way on the kind of rations that we keep.
“Sir?” Malcolm’s voice? “May I come in?”
Of course, of course, come in, by all means, and save me from gnawing my own brain to death! I hide the bottle behind a sack of clothes. “Uh, sure. Make yourself at home.”
At my gesture he takes a seat on my sleeping-bag. “I just finished rounds with the wounded” he tells me. “As soon as you’re ready to take command again, I beg you to send me back to Rashid with them. There’s only so much that I can do for them here.”
Oh, generous one, I don’t ever want to send you away! “We’ll have to wait till it’s safe. You understand that, I’m sure.”
“But the wounded...”
“The Abojans have resources of their own, bleach and other antiseptic compounds, plenty of bandaging material and silk floss for stitches. The wounded will last awhile with such allies. And...Malcolm?”
“It’s not Sir.”
“Oh.” He blushes. “Sorry, uh, General. I just recently found out...”
I laugh nervously and sit down next to him. “I know. It was a bit of a shock when I found out, myself.” I sigh. “But that was many years ago.” Embarrassed, I seek a diversion, and my elbow touches the cool glass behind the laundry-sack. I reach around for the bottle and offer him a swig. “Here. I shouldn’t drink alone, anyway. Don’t tell the others.” I try to smile, but I feel so shy. Can leaders of revolutions feel shy?
His eyes widen, but he hesitates only for a moment, then takes a deep pull, but he doesn’t swallow immediately. Instead, he works it around in his mouth, first, the way I’ve seen rich people do, his face thoughtful. When he does finally take it in he brightens like I’d just fed him pure sunlight. “Say, this is a good vintage! Where’d you get it?”
“By the language on the label, I’d say it came from the vineyards of Byssinia—by way of Stovak.”
Malcolm grins at that and winks at me, then takes a deeper swig. So do I, in turn. “Let me see that label,” he says, so I hand it over to him. Malcolm studies it for a moment, then shakes his head. “I can’t make heads or tails out of Byssinian,” he concedes, “but this date seems to indicate a very, very good year. What do you think—berry notes, or a whiff of apple?” He hands it back to me.
I take a swallow, but I can’t find berries or apples or anything else like that. It just tastes like wine. I laugh nervously. “I don’t have your palate,” I confess. I’ve waited on people who spoke of having a “palate” for wine.
I try again, a deeper gulp, like maybe volume would reveal something new to me, but it still tastes like wine—good stuff, though. It tingles in my mouth and warms my chest.
He takes it back. “Berries,”, he decides after a swallow. “Why did I ever think apples? There’s also a note of honey and jasmine, and a touch, but not too much, of oak. I hate wines with too much tannin in them. Here, uh, General. Give it another go. Think of flavors in layers, woven together like colored yarn, to make something unique.”
I take the wine from him, determined to plumb its ruby mysteries. “This time,” he says, “swish it around in your mouth, and then sort of breathe through it—not like that, you’ll choke.” I wipe my face on my sleeve and grin with embarrassment, but he grins back and I feel safe to risk looking foolish before him. “Try again. Here. Just hold it in your mouth as you take a breath, then swallow it. That’s right. Now what do you think?”
“It tastes like...” like drowsy summer in the rainforest, boughs full of fragrant flowers buzzing with drifting bees. But I can’t say that. “It tastes like wine.” I laugh, and he laughs. “I can tell wine from chaummin from beer,” I explain. “Don’t expect more of me than that.” I take one more swallow and still can’t taste berries or oak—and what does an oak tree taste like, anyway? “I’m just a peasant.”
“A peasant with very good taste in what he steals,” Malcolm says as he reaches for the bottle and takes a hearty chug, an ecstasy of flavors flushing his face. “Ohhh, you do know how to live!” But then he frowns. “It doesn’t feel right, though, to swill wine this good straight from the bottle.” He holds it up to the light and I’m surprised at how the level has dropped. “We should pour it into crystal and let it breathe.”
“Why?” I snatch it back before he can take it away to “let it breathe” or whatever he has in mind. “When do we ever get a chance to breathe, ourselves?” I can hardly take a breath right now, sitting so close to him, finally, finally. I hand it over to him again when I’m done.
“War does demand a lot from us.” He sounds so sad.
I take the bottle and drink from it, just to be sociable, though I’ve already had much more than I intended to before he arrived. “I think that I am technically young, Malcolm—why do I feel so old?” Old and jaded and too rough to taste whatever marvels a rich man can tease out of a bottle of good wine.
“A hard life’ll do it to you,” he replies, as he takes his turn. The wine goes much, much too fast and everything starts to feel unreal. I didn’t intend this.
Oh, who the hell cares what I intended? I drink deeply on my turn, down to the last few drops, letting the full pleasure flush through me, and yes, maybe I do sense berries and honey and sweet bloomin’ jasmine dripping off an oak tree’s boughs. “We grow up too fast in the Charadoc,” I say as I wipe my mouth.
“In other countries, too,” he says, so mournfully, so heart-rendingly tragically, that I reach out to him...“GET YOUR FILTHY HAND OFF OF MY THIGH!”
I recoil. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean—okay maybe I did mean, I mean, you must know that I have some feelings for you...” He jumps to his feet as fast as a bear, fists clenched. “Okay, you didn’t know, I’m sorry, sorry, but it’s not wrong, just to have feelings, especially when I’m really more of a woman than anything, did you know that?” I can’t stop babbling! “A woman, yes, and at your age I’m sure you can’t possibly be a virgin, so there’s no real harm in...”
CRAAAAASSSSSH! Stars burst in blackness, then I fly up, no, he lifts me up, then he slams me down to PAIN! Then he yanks me back to my feet but only so he can smash his fist into my face so hard I feel the jawbone unhinge, but I can still grate out, “Stop this before I have you shot!”
He stops. I reel back from him, but find my feet and straighten up to face him. There he stands, panting, his eyes as wild and red as a fighting bull’s. I lick blood off my lip and stare back. He snarls, “How many children have you laid your nasty hands on?”
“Huh? Children?” It hurts to talk, but I can’t hold it back. “ No children, not even adults, not for...but especially not children, I would never, I...I am a virgin, Malcolm.” I find I cannot blame him. I cannot fear him or hate him or anything, just yearn, just stand here feel my face swell up and taste the blood on my lip, aching from the betrayal of the universe, the dirty trick of my birth. I take a moment to pop my jaw back into place. Then, simply, I say, “I never fell in love with anyone before. I never dared.”
He stares at me for a long moment and then breaks out into soft, crazy chuckles. “And you just had to choose me? Me?” He shakes his head. “What is it, do I give off some kind of pherome, eau de pervert?”
I pull myself up by my dignity. “I am not a pervert. I am what God made me.” And with that something cold takes over in me. “And I am still your commanding officer.”
“If you DARE try and order me to...”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You insult me to even think such a thing.” If I could freeze him with a glare, I would shatter him right now. “For a moment, just one brief moment, I forgot myself.” I take a deep and chilling breath. “I relaxed with you. I spoke as one human being to another. I see now that you can’t handle being treated like a human being, only like a soldier. Well, then, soldier, you had better keep your gear packed, because you and the wounded will head out the day after we deal with the coming enemy—no matter when that happens, no matter what the dangers.”
I watch the fury cool in him, and a kind of bewilderment take its place, like his own actions shock him. He nods, accepting my banishment, and says, “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t blame you if you did shoot me.” He shakes his head, looks around dazedly at the shambles in the tent, looks back at me, and winces at his marks upon my face. “I lost my head. Completely. The wine...the triggered memories...if only you knew the things in my past...”
“Keep your excuses to yourself! I don’t need to know your secrets, you don’t need to know mine. From now on we deal strictly—absolutely—as officer and soldier. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. Better than you think.”
“You’re too useful as a medic to shoot—but don’t press your luck. Now get out of my tent!” I hold myself there, icicle-stiff and imperious, until he leaves, then all the ice in me melts at once; I collapse sobbing onto my kicked-up bedding. I whistle the call that only Alysha knows, though it hurts my split lip to do it.
Alysha comes at my call, takes one look at me, leaves, and comes back with compresses and a bowl of cool water. I know full well that she can smell the miasma of wine hanging in the tent’s stale air, but anyone who has ever served as a maid knows how to show no sign of her opinions on such matters. As she works on my bruises, I say, “I slipped. I...I fell off a cliff.”
“Yeah,” she replies, soothing my sore face, her own face still unhealed. “I’ve fallen off that cliff a few times, myself.”)