IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Penitent's Last Refuge
“Whatever. Ready to continue?” Justín asked Deirdre. She nodded, firmly gripping the magentine rod and sinking into the trance that would suck from her all the concentrated memories that she longed to leave behind...
Friday, August 14, 2708
Leave it behind, the burnt and bloody slope, follow the llamas loaded with fresh supplies and the wounded and the mercy of the poppy. Listen to the keen of hunting birds in the distance and the crunch of frosty gravel underfoot. Notice things that have nothing to do with bloodshed. See how, for instance, the wind sculpts ever-changing curves and ripples into the fabric that Malcolm wears, grown so loose on him that he looks like a lord of the highest caste in all that blousing—if lords belted in the excess with rope. Still big, of course, but much, much healthier.
Lose yourself in details, Deirdre, don’t think of the boy who looked almost like an elf. You hardly even knew him, and you’ve lost so many closer to you than that. And don’t think of the waste of the revolution’s most talented spy. That would insult the dead, to remember him mainly in the context of his use.
Don’t think of the wounded in our train. Don’t listen to the moans when their injuries get jostled by the roughness of the road, just sniff the wind and wonder if that’s new grass you smell growing beneath the old. No, it couldn’t be. The equinox won’t turn the night hours towards the day for another month yet, and spring comes later still in the high country. No, Deirdre, you’re just sniffing for any wisp of hope that the air might carry your way.
It comforts the heart to know almost no one in this troop, just Malcolm, Kiril and Lufti. And in the recruitment runs on the way back, I won’t have time to get to know anybody that I add to the force, either, handing them off to others as fast as I’ll get them. Fewer to mourn, that way, if it comes to trouble. Keep your distance, Deirdre, don’t even get too close to yourself, if you can help it. If they might as well be ghosts today, it won’t hurt so much when they become ghosts in fact tomorrow.
Lufti comes up to walk beside me. “Know what I’m gonna do when the war’s over?” he asks me.
“Write all about it. The war. Those of us who know how to read and write should put it all down on paper.” He pulls himself up, all important, but his face doesn’t look proud, he just stares far into the distance, eyes at once wide and weary, seemingly astonished by all that he’s seen in such a short life. He hasn’t had a haircut since we left the old school, and his curls now hide the notched ear.
“That’s good, Lufti. Maybe you’ll inspire future generations.”
He shakes his head. “It’s not that, exactly. I want to scare them.”
“From making the same mistakes.” Neither of us has anything to say after that.
Malcolm leads; he has intelligence of a source of supplies not too far out of our way. Maybe even antibiotics—human kind, not just veterinary. He says that there’s a monastery in these hills that the government won’t touch.
He sent a message ahead of us, by way of our swifter-traveling smuggler, after giving him every bill and coin in his pockets—a surprising amount, but when could he spend it, anyway? It went far to mollify the man, who in any case wanted an excuse to escape his captivity with us. The note also promised reimbursement at the other end, from the monks themselves, to keep our scoundrel honest.
* * *
(The message arrives first, of course. I uncurl the paper from its cylinder, still a little damp and blurred despite the best precautions. That happens, when letters travel far by sea.
Legible enough, however. The agents have departed the eerie shores of Til, taken a shuttle to Istislan Capitol, and now sail up the coast to Toulin. They should arrive in time for enrollments. But the postal trimarins travel faster than small student boats, and these agents must pass for students, after all.
So…the young agents will pose as Lumnites, will they? It makes sense. People will attribute any mistakes they make to isolation from the mainstream.
Poor Lumne boys! I always have a soft spot in my heart for the few students that we’ve ever seen from there. I understand isolation, better than they realize, perhaps more than they do, themselves.
Everyone has heard of Lumne, the island farthest out to sea, but Ishkal might as well have been; no family save for ours dwelt on that wave-swept rock, with its patches of salt-grass and garden, its sand and weathered stone, its little house of cobbles from the beach, its homegrown food sprung up from homemade soil, giving nothing without hard work. Only my father had the boat, which he needed to fish, to market the fruit of his nets, and to bring in such supplies as the meager island couldn’t give with any amount of labor. And this took months at a time. We felt so alone…
No more of that, Wallace! You are far from alone, now. You have the school. You will never be alone again.)
* * *
After a turn we ascend a steep valley, a gouge of the rock high in the flank of the mountain, as though some monster had raked her mineral flesh with a skyscraper-sized claw. The wind grows fiercer, constant, a forced moaning through its narrow passage; the blast has carved the pale sandstone all around us into curves that swirl against each other into sudden sharp edges, rippled in bands of sallow hue. Here the eternal gale has stripped down whatever vegetation had survived aridity; all that grows here waves lacy, ragged leaves which the wind blows through. The trunks of the trees all twist down to grovel on the ground before its force.
Those of us with hoods pinch them tightly over our faces. Those of us without wrap rags about our heads for protection. With stinging eyes we squint into air full of sand and push against an invisible power to fight for every step.
At last we turn onto a path off the road, almost unnoticeable at first, and steeper, entered by a squeeze between boulders that Malcolm couldn’t have made when I first met him, into a wider space. But it doesn’t take long before faint ruins of walls to either side protect us just a bit, built of the same stone as the surrounding cliffs, their edges sanded down by the unrelenting blast. Hints of what might have once been manmade stairs give such aid to the climb as they still can. Many an observer would not have even noticed a human hand in these artifacts. I figure that the path must lead us to the monastery.
“Can they quarter all of us tonight?” I ask Malcolm. “I’d hate to leave even one of us camped out in this weather.”
“They will quarter none of us,” Malcolm says. “That is not their way.”
“Ways can change,” I protest. “We’ve got wounded! How dare they...”
“They will lower medical supplies down from their walls for us, along with blankets, food, well-water, whatever we need, whatever they have. But don’t ask for shelter.”
“No—that’s not enough! What kind of people would leave hurting children out to sleep in a gale that can scour mountains down to grit?”
He turns dark eyes to me and growls, very low, “You have no idea what kind of monastery this is, do you?” and suddenly I remember how much bigger he is than me, even now, and how not-quite-sane.
“I, I don’t know, Malcolm. Explain it to me.”
He turns away again and I exhale. “We have come to the Cloister of Pederasts: part of a penitential order. No child is allowed inside. No monk ever leaves. Few such monasteries exist in all the world.” (And those few hide in countries with high, isolating mountains–just my luck. No, not luck, entirely. Didn’t that very thing first attract me to the Charadoc, the mountains that I thought I could put between me and him?) He sighs, and the sense of danger passes. “They lead productive lives within their quarantine, walled off from temptation. They offer up their longings to God and pray day and night for their victims.”
I fall silent at that. I will not press my point. We don’t say another word to each other, in fact, for miles.
Finally Malcolm says, “There. Up there.” And he points to a structure like a castle squashed low, worn-down and humbled. I could have missed it, the wind-blunted stones blend in so well with the rest of the mountainside, what with the dust continually blown in my face and all.
He turns to those who follow us. “Set up camp over there, behind the screen of those boulders and the pines all around them.” To me he says, “I will go in and talk to them. Don’t worry; I’ll come out and spend the night here with the rest of you.”
“Malcolm, you don’t have to...”
“If you think for one minute that I want to spend any more time in there than I have to, you are sorely mistaken.”
“Do you want me to go up with you, then?”
He smiles grimly with only half his mouth. “You? You have no idea how old you are, do you?”
“Tilián!” He shakes his head. “I’m not sure, either, but I’d bet money you don’t quite qualify to ignore the ban. Even if you did, you look young enough to cram the monks into their confessionals from now till Christmas.”
I don’t know what to say to that. As soon as I see the gate close behind him, I turn to do my best with whatever we can set up in the lee of the boulders. It’s not so bad, over here, and better when we rig up wind-breaks to either side. Soon I lose myself into the constant task of trying to make the wounded comfortable.
(I don’t know what I feel. I don’t know what I should feel. He’s paying for his sins—the best he can, anyway. Some debts run too high for anyone to pay but God.
Rough walls hem us in, though the place has space enough. Rough robes hem in the monks, ropes tight around their hungry waists. This is no place for a fat man, I can’t help but think.
Of course he comes out to see me. Running. Sandals slap on stone, across a courtyard so wide that I have time to think about how he used to special-order angora socks, saying that his sensitive feet felt the pinch of cold more sharply than most people could imagine. But no one wears socks in this monastery, not though what little moisture remaining in the air now blows over the walls in flakes of snow.
“Malcolm! Malcolm! I’ve been worried to death about you, boy, I’m so glad you...” I step back when he tries to embrace me. So that’s what I feel.
“Hello, Uncle Donal,” I make myself say in as noncommittal a voice as I can. I force my eyes from his blue-tinged toes to his face; I watch the joy crumple into shame, and know that my staring makes it happen, and yet I cannot stop myself. “Thank you,” I force myself to say, “for saving my life.”
He grins uneasily and fidgets. “Well, it was the least that I could do. That monster didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“He tortured me.” Uncle, Uncle—calling someone else a monster? “I got over it.”
“But...you’re all right now?”
“Better than all right.” I thought of you, Uncle. Dare I tell you that?
“You didn’t really...I mean...did you...?”
“It was war,” I say. “I killed a soldier who threatened a woman with rape. He marched with those who shoot and torture children.” I look away and say, “I don’t know how many he’d killed himself, personally, if any.” I look back and Uncle blinks at me. “I’ve confessed it all to the revolution’s priest.”
“Yes, Uncle Donal.”
We stand there in silence for a moment. He stares down at his feet and I wish to God his toes weren’t so cold; somehow that complicates everything, that he leaves them bare in memory of me. At last he says. “This...revolution. Is it what you want, Malcolm?”
“It’s what I believe in.”
Faintly he says, “I never could deny you anything. You know that.”
“I know.” Why do I feel shame in his presence? He feels shame enough for both of us, and that’s just as it should be. I tell him, “I can’t stand by anymore while the government hurts children,” I hate the way that I lock his gaze and won’t let go.
“No. I don’t suppose you could.”
“Will you take me to the Abbot? There’s so much that we desperately need,” I say to the man with no socks in the snow.
“He’s already gotten your message. I talked to him, myself. We’ve packed all the supplies, ready to go.”
I look up to see the bulging baskets lined up on the walkway of the ramparts, each one with a llama-wool blanket tucked in over the food and medicine. I...I hadn’t counted on so much, not nearly half. They must have gardens, huge gardens, in the back, sheltered from the wind, with mirrors to catch what sun gets past the rock. Of course. They would do as little trade as possible with the outside world.
I look around at all the monks looking back at me. They know, every one of them, who I am in relation to Uncle Donal, and they all feel so very, very sorry. “Thank you,” I say from the heart, and like always I hate myself for feeling gratitude to him for anything, and then I hate myself for feeling that, too.
“Malcolm,” he says, then hesitates. “Have you lost weight?”
Something changes in me, right this very minute, and I shall remember the instant of change to my dying day, I’m sure of it. I’d hardly registered my weight loss, till Donal mentioned it just now—imagine that! As if it couldn’t be real till my Uncle saw it. I look down at all the loose and flapping clothes that used to pin me in so tightly that I could hardly breathe. Can I have altered so profoundly?
Yes! Yes I can. I smile for real this time. “Yeah, I’ve lost weight,” I tell him. The sun didn’t come out from the clouds, but it feels like it did—I suddenly feel lighter in soul as well as body. “I don’t feel so hungry anymore.” Shame burns off like calories.
“Then God bless the revolution,” Uncle says, and crosses himself.
I nod to him and turn to go, amazed to find myself full to satisfaction with something that you cannot eat. Uncle didn’t give me that. Uncle didn’t have one damned thing to do with me losing weight—and that means that I no longer need to punish him with fat.
I turn before reaching the gate. “You’re doing the right thing, Uncle Donal,” I call out to him. Then I swallow and say, huskily, “I forgive you.” The least I can do, a few words, never spoken to him before. Who knows what my own soul will need before the end?)
I turn at the sound of the gates grating open again. As Malcolm comes out I see hands placing baskets atop the broad stone wall. I motion our oldest to join me to receive them, hoping for the monks’ sake that our bulky wraps and ponchos hide our bodies from the aerial view.
One monk lowers down the laden baskets, wind groaning in the ropes. I look up, not so very far, into the face of a sandy-bearded man, his visage as weathered into planes and curves as the surrounding cliffs, dusty-looking, like the blown dirt made it through and through, the wind could scour for centuries and whittle him away before it could blast him clean. The eyes look as dull as sandstone and just as dead.
I hear his voice, worn down to a whisper by the distance and the weather, faint and dreary in his litany: “It is a disease. We have an incurable, communicable disease. I got it from my father; he caught it from a babysitter and she from the neighbor next door. We are sick, and quarantine is just. The monastery is sweeter than the prison. I can live here. It’s not bad, here. My brothers understand. Only children catch it. We all were children, once.”