IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Thursday, August 20, 2708, continued
We travel in the dark, hurtling through another dust-storm, our skin sanded raw wherever cloth exposes it, our eyes sore, our lungs desperate for cleaner air. If the soldiers sleep through this, hunkered down against the weather’s cruelty, so much the better for us. I wait for the least betrayal, some sound of gears, some flash of light, some whiff of stapleseed oil or campfire smoke, as we keep on moving. But all I hear is music.
(Night. As instructed, I wait, my stomach growling, my head a little light, wishing that they didn’t have to serve my favorite seaspider chowder on this of all nights, when I couldn’t have any. The school, I hear, rarely gets the kind of seafood that I grew up on.)
The planet sings to me. I feel it in the sandstone as I pull myself along. I hear it in the wind. I see it when a star breaks through the dust. It crashes in my brain, the waves of melodies dashing into each other. Oh, the yearning for some harmony, for all the notes of the world to fall together just right!
(I drift off for a moment, but a burst of music suddenly seems to explode in my head, jarring me awake again. I dig my nails into my hand. Must’ve been dreaming.)
We reach that point where we have to rest the llamas again. My soldiers tumble into sleep right beside them. I force them to hold their eyes open long enough to eat a stapleseed biscuit apiece, and then let them go, watching over them. One more leaf and I can do this.
(The evening reaches that point where surely everyone but I must have fallen asleep by now. Moving very quietly, hoping nobody else will notice, I pull on my bathrobe underneath my quilt.
Darn! Eyes glint open in the dark! Jake sees me. But then he deliberately turns over, away from me, and I hear the sound of fake snoring. Good ol’ Jake—he’ll leave me my privacy.)
I hear something! Mechanical—I have to rouse everybody up again…another of the llamas has gone past all rousing.
(I hear Jake pretend to snore. I reach out a foot, as if tossing in my sleep, and nudge Don’s bed. We pulled on our robes some time ago, and now we wait.)
Or did I just hear the fall of rocks ground loose by the relentless storm? Never mind—can’t take the chance! Keep moving. The music will help, driving us onward with irresistible thunder, as wild as the night!
(And while we wait, in the darkness and the silence, my mind keeps going over the songs that we used to play at island parties, back when we were kids. Over and over and…somebody pounded a thambriy with a mad delight, with long black hair flying in a…a beautiful frenzy. I can’t remember who, but it matters somehow, I know it matters.)
Music in the dark. Wild, glorious, pounding to the beat of our loping feet, filling up the skies with invisible majesty! Music from the past races towards the future, all the notes tumbling into now. There to founder like a freshet into swamp.
(I wait. And wait some more, staring at the stars outside the window. Ready, everything but the slippers. I feel the flask in my robe’s hip pocket as I lie there, listening till I should hear someone cough, softly, just outside the door. Once. A pause. Two more coughs. And then the footsteps leave. That’s my signal. Moving very, very carefully, I rise out of bed, slide on my slippers, and steal out of there as quietly as I possibly can.)
(And we wait, till the soft steps have gone the requisite distance. Then, still more quietly than Joel did, Jake and Don and I get up and follow after. What kind of agents would we be if we couldn’t stalk a schoolboy?)
Dark. Oh lord, not a light for miles and miles around, even the stars and moon choked of their glow by the clouds of dust tonight. The music drowns into the blackness. I lead by senses unnamable, a feel for where to land my feet based on lord knows what unconscious information, but except for a few sliding falls (grit in the abrasions!) it seems to work.
(Dark. Dead dark, and absolutely no chance of lighting it. The Changewright forbids it. Not so much as a match.
But it’s just as they said. The body knows. The body remembers the maze of corridors, the various stairs and landings and doors, even in the passages where no window casts its faint blue glow.
Here. This landing, the one right before the last staircase, the one that leads down, down, down into a cellar. Here I have to follow the next instruction.)
Here. Through this crack, slippery with frost, out of the worst of the duststorm I lead them, as our ghosts crowd in about us, witnessing. The rock goes down, down like stairs, but chipped and weathered and uneven, grit rolling underfoot, but my body knows the way, though my head whirls on the descent and the wind moans of danger, always of danger and fear.
(I take the flask out of my pocket. I hesitate. It seems like an awful lot to chug down all at once. I could turn around right now, just not go through with this. But they’ll call me a wimp if I don’t. I don’t even want to think where that would lead.
It weighs heavy in my hand, this pewter full of liquid. I could pour it out somewhere and pretend I drank it. How would they know? They’d smell my breath. Okay, I could slosh a little in my mouth, first.
But the Changewright said don’t waste a drop. Precious stuff, gathered outside, gurgles around in here. And he wants that precious stuff in me, and nowhere else. It’s an honor.)
Leadership is an honor, they say. So why does it feel like a punishment for sins? I feel Tanjin’s hand land on my shoulder, seeking my guidance in the dark. It feels heavy. It also feels good.
Yet through the reverberation in my skull of the music of the past, I think I hear something else in the distance, something not wild, something of humankind…
(I hear steps. I hear rustles. I hear a stifled laugh. I’m not alone in the dark, after all. They have come to witness. I can’t fake it. They listen for my swallows.
Okay, then. Here goes.
It stings! Gasp/hiccup with a painful jolt, catch my breath after just one swallow. I hear more snickering; they can’t hide it any more. The potion tastes sweet and bitter, herbal-bitterness mingled in the cloying, fruity cordial, and my head already swims a little just from the first swallow.
Be a man, Joel. Finish it. Your classmates bear witness.
Several more swallows, gasp, follow with several after that, don’t take time to think, just keep doing it, just keep it down and go back for more as the whole world moves around me, tingling, changing, just like passing through the gate, everything changes, I change, nothing can ever be the same.)
The greenfire changes something in my brain. I can feel it, I know it in ways too subtle for the tongue. I will never be the same. This night, like it’s the last straw, like something on the surface has etched in for good, like a Black Clam sinking into its niche within the rock, a stinging acid shift that burns and makes the whole world spin. A difference carved in stone.
(The last drop. I must not waste even the last drop. I have to tip way back for it, and the disorientation gets worse. I start to fall, but arms catch me, hold me, and it slides from the flask to burn sweetly on my tongue. I disintegrate and come back together again, and out again, but that’s okay, it’s all particles, nothing solid, and who cares? Solidness is overrated.
A hushed sigh goes all around me. Hands, lots of hands reach out to me, weird pressures playing on numb, cloth-muffled skin. “Good man, Joel.” “You passed the first test, Joel.” “You’re one of us, now.” “We love you, Joel.” “Come join us, Joel.” “You’re OURS!”)
Damien once told me that there’s a pass through which all the winds of the Canyonlands must blow. In ancient times those condemned to death had one last opportunity, to stand three days naked in Gandrainarya Pass and let the Mountain Maidens scour hir clean of fault. If e survived this penance, e could return to hir community with the scars etched on hir body to show hir forgiven, and the community would welcome hir back. Oh scour me clean, Mountains of Fire! Etch me with the Charadoc!
(They propel me down the stairs, and the plunge feel dangerous. Down, vertiginous dowwwwwn, tripping on the steps but they keep catching me, and I feel so safe, so warm, so loved, right where I belong. The straight stair spirals as I spin away from all my mind and all its cares, left way up there on the landing.
Danger, I embrace you! Carry me on waves of loving arms and kusmet and mysterious herbs from the great beyond and oh wow it feels so wonderful to stop holding all the particles together anymore!)
(We play a risky game, here, blending into the crowd. Jake feels sure that whatever they do happens in pure darkness, but what if his vision spoke in metaphor? What if someone lights a candle, after all? What might happen to us, hidden in the night, in the hands of an adolescent mob?
And man, I love it! Admit it, I became an agent because I can’t get enough of the adrenaline, the high-stakes gamble—oh, I’m no better than Merrill, when it comes right down to it. Danger, I embrace you!)
Danger, I embrace you! I committed to this fierce joy years ago, a life made fluorescent by the risk of losing it at any time, long before the greenfire ever came to illuminate my way. The prickle of my skin feels gun barrels behind every crag, every rock, deep in every crevice of the stone, as I hurtle my children on, back towards the living lands where the guns can hide behind bushes, behind trees…
“…and maybe even behind the stars themselves!” Lufti mutters , seeing me chew leaf and holding out his hand to share. I pass him a handful and he takes one, and gives the rest to Kiril, who takes her own and passes the last one on to Tanjin, good rebels all, sharing what we need together.
Something wrong. Something has gone wrong. I ought to remember something very, very out of place in this whole picture. Something about Toulin, no, Uganda, no that’s not even on the same planet, no, no, something wrong in Cumenci, or…I can’t keep my mind on it. Just keep on running, Deirdre—all our lives depend on it.
(“Keep on walking. There you go, lad…and, we’re here.” I think we left the stairs behind, but the floor still feels unpredictable, my feet uncertain of the depth of every step. But now we pause, I think, though the particles never really pause, we all keep vibrating, vibrating, oh, the world, the universe, it’s all a tingle! The universe tickles us into being: we sparkle in and out, like the chuckles and the hiccups that my misty throat cannot hold
CLICK! The key sounds so loud in the lock that I jerk—I suddenly feel fear! What lies on the other side of that door? Oh lord I can smell something not right, something nauseating, I grab at arms to scramble away but they won’t let me go!
“It’s all right,” Aaron says to me. “Don’t throw up. Hold the magic herbs inside as long as you can.”
Then I hear another voice, melodious, saying, “Foulness paves the way to sweetness. Putrefaction leads to transformation.” It’s HIS voice. The Changewright.
And they pull me in. I don’t want to move, I fear that moving will make me vomit, but they won’t let me go, they bring me into that foul place. I take deep swallows, trying not to puke.
Firm hands grab my wrists, pressing thumbs in hard, and my nausea abates.
“Better now?” asks the melodious voice.
I nod, swallow, and say, “Yeah. Yes. I’m all righ’.”
“This will help,” he says. “Fold your hands, as if in prayer.” I do as he says. “Pray to the Rift in space and time, the Rift which makes all things possible. Pray for the steadiness to do what must come next.”
I do this. He squeezes something cold and hard, with ridges, in between my wrists, keeping the pressure on those spots that he dug into with his thumbs. Then he binds my hands together in that position, with soft strips of rags. And I feel better.
And more than better. I feel power surge all through and between and in the particles of my being, of everything, we’re all dust in the same dust-storm, everything, and the tingling grows, between my clouds of wrists, to a cold yet welcome fire that rushes all through me us the universe everything and I don’t have any solidity whatsoever anymore.
It’s a crystal. The thing pressed into what used to be my flesh, a crystal that stays solider than anything, that interconnects all worlds, all realities, all the different herbs blended into the kusmet and molecularly one with me now, one with everything, I am everything and everything is me and it’s all so very right so very wrong that I feel scared to death but isn’t that what I wanted, the thrill, the fear, the proximity of death, the test?
Hands draw me down to sit upon a cold and dusty floor. Part of me registers it as hard and damp, but it’s really just a fog of particles, like everything and everybody else. And then it swims away again or I swim away or the whole room dissolves but every time I start to fall hands prop me up again, shake me awake but awake and asleep have no meaning it all just is.)
Awake and asleep have no meaning anymore, I keep on running just the same. I don’t need to lie down, I dream on my feet, and the music, the music rings and tingles and groans through time and space, as I feel and hear it turn into an incantation!
(Something goes on, clicks and rustles, murmured incantations, almost-silent chants and sighs and small bells ringing and sometimes moans that could break a stone man’s heart, all spinning around and over and through me.
And then I hear The Changewright’s voice, saying low, “Kiss the baby, Joel.”)
As I run from maddened monks with a horror in my pack…
(And I simultaneously feel Jake’s and Don’s hands grip me pain-hard to either side, and the hair raises on the back of my neck, wondering what they’ve picked up.)
(The stench grows, shoved right under my nose. But I can handle it. I can handle anything, because I have no hands or am no hands or something, because the smell just consists of particles, dust stirred from the floor that is no floor.
“Kiss the baby, Joel. Kiss her on the mouth.”)
No! I mustn’t lose my footing in rush of time!
(No! The strand entrusted to me nearly slips away! I mind-grab it, yanking it back to me. Jake wants me to keep it.)
My body jerks as my foot flies skidding on the gravel or frost or time or the slipperiness of music! No matter, I recover fast enough, though my head reels in a whirlwind of fear.
(I explore with my lips. Something hard, dry, old, young, something fragile, almost crumbly. Something yearning to be loved. I kiss the dead thing. It does not feel like a mouth. But nothing feels like anything familiar. I have kissed a mouth before, I have…
“MAIA ANGELINA!” Who shouted? I shouted? I feel sobs well up in my body, sometimes great hard lumps of misery, sometimes it all dissolves again. I kissed Maia Angelina goodbye before… “I shall be punished! I shall be punished! We’re all going to Hell!”
The Changewright holds me, nuzzles me, consoles me. “It’s all right, Joel,” he says. “Yes, we’re all going to Hell, but it’s not so bad. I’ve been there. It’s a nice place, Joel. We’ve been lied to, and it’s nice.” I sob and sob, yet feel free about it, like exactly the right thing to do, to bawl like a baby, burying my wet face on the Changewright’s breast “You’re going to be all right. Just relax and let the rightness of it lift you up. You passed the test. You remembered something. It slipped away, sure, it always does, but for a moment you remembered something.”)
“I know they’re out there,” Lufti says, turning to me as we run side by side, in step with each other. “I can see them in the corner of my eye, just the shades of them, nothing else left. They come out from under the rocks.”
“I know, too,” I say. “Our ghosts.”
(I feel Don lean over and whisper in my ear, “Let’s get Jake out of here. We’ve heard enough.”
I nod, because he can feel me with his head against mine. And I’ve been feeling Jake shivering for awhile now.)
“I can feel them,” Kiril wheezes, catching up. “They shoot right through me, sometimes. And I hear music.”
I nod, wiping sweat from my face and dancing on. “Yes, the music, too.”
(Quietly, carefully, we extricate ourselves from the crowd and slip out the door, holding Jake on either side, helping him up the stairs. We reach the landing before the lights come on down there. Got out just in time.)
I did hear something. We got out just in time. I know it. But I have to check, anyway, before we risk settling in.
So, as the dawn invades the sky, and while the others guard the resting llamas, I force down some bread and take to flight again, soaring and dipping over the rocklands, following the folding currents of the air. No one on our trail, now. But…
…Yes, over there. Smoke rises, blurry shape but sharp scent, foreboding conflagration, a spark to light our world on fire if the wrong winds blow. A whole new camp, waiting to receive the report of those who’d tracked us.
Yet beyond us I see brushlands starting up: brave creatures breaking stone with roots, clumps of grass, snatches of real dirt. That will feel better, running on soft soil for a change.
And greenfire. I see more greenfire bushes, just in time. We’ve come close to running out.
(The rest of the first-year boys sleep deeply when we slip back into the dormitory. I put Jake, still shaking, to bed. Then I kick off slippers and shrug off the robe and slide under the softness of my own blanket, cooled, but it will warm up, soon. But just as I begin to drift off I feel something cold and slick slither over my ankle…SCREAM!
I hear Jake chuckling, and then Don joins in, while boys stir all around us with sleepy murmurs of questions. “It’s just rubber, Randy,” Jake drawls. “A rubber snake.” And then everybody laughs.
I find the thread leading to his bed. “You!” I cry, walloping him with my pillow. Laughing out loud, he smacks me back, and soon everybody joins in, shrilling with hilarity in the pitch-black room so that nobody really knows whose pillow hits who anymore.
Smart move. Everyone will remember us being here, and assume we’ve been here all night. And Jake needs the grounding, anyway.
“What’s going ON in there?” an old voice shouts outside the door. Sudden silence falls, punctuated by panting. At last a young soprano says, “P-pillow fight, sir.”
“Well, get back to sleep, all of you. Young lads your age need your rest.” And we all settle down again. I laugh inside, though, thinking about somebody or other’s instructions to practice immaturity. Mission accomplished!
And in the dark nobody notices that Joel’s still missing.)