IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Accommodations and Understandings
Saturday, October 10, 2708
I try not to remember this child’s name. Child—he laughs like a child, at least: a sweet, bubbling sound, carefree...innocent-sounding. Very proud of what he’s done for me. I try not to gag at the smell.
Gingerly I pick up, by a tangle of hair, the dripping thing that he’s brought home, as pleased as any cat. “Next time, Hekut, leave this someplace where the enemy can discover it where they least expect—like in a washbowl left outside, or on the seat of a cart. That’ll scare ‘em even more.”
He laughs all the more with delight. “Great idea, Deirdre!”
I throw the thing in his face. “Get rid of this,” I say, as he wipes off the blood, startled. “Bury it too deeply for anyone to find. And then backtrack to make sure you didn’t drip blood right to us.” He has stopped grinning and looks downright hurt. “We don’t need trophies like this, boy.”
He leaves to do my bidding, truculent, now. Good Lord Almighty—how easy for this small one, even, to reinvent scalping all over again!
(“What is the local term? Scalper? Yes. You, sir, are a scalper.”
“If you won’t sign a lease, missy, I’ll have to make up my losses if you leave before the month is out.” I sigh and look about the place. Unfurnished. I’m sure the government will check all of the furnished rentals first, especially knowing my delight in luxury. Thousands of them. As Jake always advises, take the unexpected path.
Big, though. Four bedrooms. That’s another thing they won’t expect; they’ll keep an eye out for single occupant apartments. Never mind endangering people with my presence—the outcasts are in danger anyway.
Cybil calls out from the kitchen, “Your last tenant left a mess. There’s grease in the trap, the room stinks of something burnt, and the refrigerator’s a biohazard zone.” She comes out, wiping her hands on her handkerchief. “You’ll have to knock the price down for at least a month while we clean up.”
The landlord grumbles, scribbles in a reduced rate for the first four weeks, and hands it to me to sign. Cybil doesn’t; without her job she has no income, nor a chance to settle to get a new one.
“I won’t cover telephone lines at this price,” he informs me.
“That’s quite all right.” I conceal my relief, merely smiling ironically as I say, “I’m not in a sociable mood.” And then he leaves us to our new home.
As soon as the door clicks shut behind him, Cybil laughs and says, “Did you know your accent always comes back when you’re feeling haughty?”
“Does it?” I ask, and smile. “I’ll have to watch out for that.” I sit down on my luggage and stare at all the emptiness.
“No, that’s fine,” Cybil says, putting up curtains. “A Til accent intimidates Vanikketans—it comes in handy.”
Nice curtains. Sheer moonlight. Lightweight. A luxury we can carry—for now. I start to see faces form in the moire patterns of the fabric, then shake my head and they go away. “In Til they say that I have an accent, too—but never mind that. It’s a long story.” What was I thinking to even bring that up? Do something, girl, distract yourself! I get up and carry our cleaning supplies to a confrontation with the refrigerator.
“No, Zanne!” She hurries over and grabs the sponge from me. “You’ll do nothing that involves stretching or exertion until that rib heals.”
Dandy. I shall sit here and watch my mind devour itself. Just how contagious is the madness in this country, anyway? How does it spread, and how does one contain it? But I surrender and return to the luggage, perching myself upon it in lieu of chairs. “So, as you can see, Cybil, I’ve picked a place with room for two more of your coworkers.”
I hear her voice from the kitchen. “Good, because I’ve invited six.”
I shrug. “Then we’ll just have to get cozy with each other.” It’s not like we have any furniture to get in the way.”
I hear spraying and scrubbing. Then Cybil asks, “Does it bother you that they’re...well, a mixed bunch?”
“In what way?”
“You know. Different from each other. Colors. Religions. Colonial descent. That sort of thing.”
“Oh, that!” I laugh. “I thought you meant some of them were criminals!” I start to put clothes on hangers for Cybil to hang up. “Of course I don’t mind.”)
Sunday, October 11, 2708
(The school’s minister drones on about the immense harm done by carnal sin. We must not touch ourselves. We must not touch each other. Touching in general is just a very, very bad idea. Some of the boys giggle behind their missals at his red-faced sputtering around euphemisms that make his sermon completely opaque to the younger ones among us; most, though, just look bored, having tuned out long ago. And some gaze off with dreamy looks, as though at some point the sermon triggered fond memories.
I feel crumpled paper poke at my wrist while our preacher winds down to an embarrassed silence, then clears his throat and signals the choir to sing “O Pure And Temperate Host”. I catch Jake’s eye and he nods as he passes me the note. George Winsall wants to meet all three of us after services.
I can hardly wait. Students get tea with lemon and honey after the minister finishes with us, and crumbly little shortbread cakes, still warm on the plate, waiting for us in the rec room where they have a fireplace already blazing in a friendly way. We all like Sunday, regardless of the boring mornings owed to God.)
* * *
Two youths and their girlfriend want to split off from us. “We know the country around here,” the tallest says. “We...we want to go home.”
It shouldn’t surprise me. That’s what guerillas do, serve for a time, then split off, settle down, and seed the country with dissent. “I’d be all for it, kids, but your lifestyle might draw the wrong kind of attention.”
“There’s an abandoned farm not too far from here, with some nice fruit trees in need of attention, just waiting for somebody to fix it up.”
“Good idea,” the shorter boy puts in, looking up at his friend. “We wouldn’t have to fear the ghost there anymore, because we’ve got so many ghosts on our side, now.” He shrugs. “I am so used to ghosts by now!”
The taller one explains to me, “People would mind their own business if we keep some distance from the center of town.”
I shake my head. “But that also weakens your ability to subvert.”
Then the girl speaks up. “Maybe we should live right in town—maybe we should teach the people rebel freedom!”
I can’t help but smile. “And maybe you’ll confirm your elders’ worst fears.”
“Do you condemn us?” she presses, expecting me to blush with shame, not her.
“Not at all—you don't do me any harm. But we can’t go scaring away those we want to side with us, can we?”
“But we’re in love!” she cries, as if that answers all objections. Indeed, the very air smells like love, with the orchards blooming and the rich earth thawed. I imagine it’s the scent that stirs up homesickness in them as much as anything. But enough cold lingers in the wind to make me doubt whether love can quite conquer everything.
“Okay, let me think,” I say. “How much does this town tolerate variation, anyway?”
The shorter guy says, “They know us. We grew up here. We may be weirdos, but we’re their weirdos.”
I sigh and raise my hands in surrender. “Okay. Let’s chance it, then. Do you vow to uphold Egalitarianism your whole life long?”
“We do,” they say practically as one.
“Do you vow to give aid and comfort to the Egalitarians whenever you are able?”
“Do you vow to spread the word of Egalitarianism to any who will listen?”
“Will you bear arms for the Revolution again, if called upon to do so?”
“Yes, yes,” they all say, growing impatient with the ritual.
“Go in peace, then—you’re mustered out.” And I watch the three of them depart our camp, hand in hand, their few possessions on their backs, into a shower of apple-petals tossed on a wind that threatens buds with frost.
* * *
(The very first thing Cybil puts in the freshly-scrubbed fridge are delicate puff-pastries with a lemony filling. “They didn’t cost much,” she says, “and I just wanted one last reminder of the sweetness of life.”
So of course I take one up, as she takes up another. We raise them as if to toast. “Here’s to freedom,” I say.
She gives me an ironic smile. “To freedom!”
Who was the Earthian poet who said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose?” Janus something, after the god that sees past and future. Somebody who died young. Janus Joppins or Joplin or...whatever.)
* * *
(We wait in line for our dainties, trying to look angelic, worthy of our Sunday treat. Outside the fallen leaves toss on a wind crisp with frost, just begging us to join them in a walk around the grounds. I can see them sometimes, as shadows dancing across the close-drawn curtains, teasingly in flight beyond the reach of gardener’s rakes. But only as shadows.
Then I see a bright flash. A bit later I hear a deep rumble in the skies. The leaves only fly so high from the winds of a coming storm. By the time I reach the table with the teacups I hear the rain begin to patter on the windows, building rapidly as I move on to the cakes.
We barely have time to gather up our goodies before we see George Winsall donning rain-gear, then turning to us, and nodding towards our own coats and galoshes. I gobble down my cakes, not about to carry them out into the rain, yet equally unprepared to give them up, either, and I wash them down with scalding draughts of tea, burning my tongue so that I can hardly taste the honey, before I bundle up and follow him, Jake, and Don out the door, down several flights of stairs, and straight into the storm.
“If anybody asks,” George says quietly, “We have decided to harden ourselves by challenging the weather. Teachers eat that stuff up.” He strolls as if sleet didn’t sting his face like the rest of us.
The weather blurs the angles of that place, leaving all things dim and gray, unreal if not for the very tangible discomfort of nonstop liquid pummeling. “They will not follow us out here,” he continues. “They feel quite past any need to prove their endurance, themselves.”
Lightning forks ahead, and Winsall laughs, raising his hands up as if he had commanded it. The thunder rolls over us soon after—a little too soon for comfort. He grins at us. “Good. You jumped, but not one of you begged to go back inside. I chose well.”
Abruptly he spins on his heel, splashing a little, to face us full-on, continuing to walk with us, but backwards. “What I am about to tell you has given people nightmares,” he says, “but I believe you three to be made of hardier stuff than that.”
We nod and smile, wordlessly.
“What would you say,” he asks, “if I told you that we have, right here in this school, power over all of time and space, and that I could initiate you into that power?”
Don answers, “That you are either a liar, a joker, a madman, or…” and here he breaks into an outlaw grin, “…someone who has discovered something too big to entrust to our stodgy old teachers.”
George answers with a grin of his own. But then his face changes to earnestness, maybe even awe, as he hesitates, then asks, “Do you believe in witchcraft?”
Jake says, in his deepest voice, “That depends on who does the witching.”
A pause before George asks, “What do you mean?”
Jake just smiles cryptically, and then nods to me. I catch his drift. With one hand in my pocket, holding my focus, I hold the other out, palm up Then, squinting at George, I cause a small fireball to hover over it. Before anybody might notice from the windows above us, I clench my fist and snuff it again. Then Jake nods to Don, who takes a pencil out of his pocket, and places it on thin air as though upon a shelf, and then watches as it revolves slowly, then picks up speed, then whirs like a sawblade, before he snaps his fingers and it stops, mid-air, then drifts towards him to slide back into his pocket.
George manages to smile with his mouth hanging open, then laughs, spinning in the puddles, face up to the rain. “I knew I’d chosen right! I always have an instinct for these things, you know. You’re exactly what I’m looking for!” Then he stops his antics, and stares more seriously at Jake a long moment before saying, “You didn’t show me anything. Why do I feel like you might well be the most powerful one of all?”
“Because you have an instinct for these things?” Jake says mock-innocently.
“You’re in!” George declares. “We shall initiate you when the first chance arises. Wait for my message.”)