IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Monday, October 12, 2708
Gasp! Barely in time I stop the scream before it starts, then open my eyes to the tarp overhead, hearing the faint pattering of rain upon it, breathing deep gulps of the fragrant night air till I can calm myself and stop hyperventilating.
Nightmares! Should anyone wonder why I hate to sleep?
And then I hear a faint scream, probably from the enemy camp, and I grin to myself in the dark. At least they share our restless nights.
(“AAAAARRRRRGH!” I jerk bolt upright, clutching my blanket around me. Oh. It’s just Sarge screaming again. Depriving the soldiers of sleep means that I don’t get much, either. Maybe this time his nightmares have to do with what they found of the soldier who strayed too far from camp. Maybe it’s something else that I don’t even know about. He’s gotten pretty regular about it, anyway.)
Stupid nightmare. I dreamed of that scalp, wriggling about, hunting for me, whistling in an eerie way. In the dream I believed that I deserved for it to choke me, for I had been unfaithful.
(Yawning, I pull on my day clothes in the dark, fumbling after buttons sewn back on in new positions, then come out from my curtained space to comfort him. As soon as he can dress he comes out, too, and without a word he hugs me tight enough to crush me, almost, and I can feel him tremble all over. He does this just about every night and I keep trying not to care, but there’s always that instant when my heart breaks for him, and I hug him back, and I wish that everything could be different, just like Sarge imagines it to be.)
I turn over carefully, trying not to disturb Lufti and Tanjin. Tanjin murmurs in his sleep, turns over himself, and drapes a hand across my hip.
How could I be unfaithful? I’m not married, have no boyfriend, no romance in my life whatsoever. Well, there’s…but no. That doesn’t count. It can never, ever count. We are nothing more than comrades at arms, now and forever.
(Then I hear the scrape of the box being pulled out from the shadows of his “room”, so we can chat over sweets and pretend that the world’s all right, here in the safety of the night where no one has to see too clearly. But this time I hear him say, “It’s empty,” in a dull voice.
“That’s okay,” I say. “You never eat much, anyway. And you wanted to get the box out of the way before we got the new supplies.” Strangely, though, my stomach growls and I feel a pang of hunger. I guess my body’s gotten used to munching at this time of night.)
My stomach growls. Sometimes sleeping makes me soooo hungry—another reason to mistrust it. But it wouldn’t do for the officer to go helping herself to extra rations.
(He squats there like staring into the empty box will make it fill up again. Boy, do I know that feeling! But then he snaps his fingers and says, “I know! My mother used to make us sweet-bits, and I think I can figure out how—with your expert help, Kiril.” He tosses me my coat and poncho and we go out into the chilly air.
“What’re sweet-bits?” I ask as he leads the way to my cookfire.
“Marvelous little things. Mom’d whip up the dough in minutes, fry them a few minutes more, and have a treat for us in no time. She always used to fix them for us when we’d have nightm...” his voice trails off, and what I can see of his face doesn’t smile anymore.)
I hear somebody in our camp whimper softly for her mother in her sleep. And I feel a deep melancholy come over me, never having had one, really. And far from giving me closure, my biomom’s funeral, right before I last left Til, seemed only to seal the melancholy into me more firmly, as entrenched as a coffin buried deep.
(But then he brightens with the fire as I stir up some life into the coals and he can distract himself with speculating on the recipe. I start with a basic biscuit mix that I keep handy, and add in spices and sugar. Then we melt up some “butter” and drop in spoonfuls of dough, and pretty soon they swell and sizzle with all the sweet smells of home—his home, not mine.)
What would a real homelife have been like? What if Grandma Maeve had gotten custody of me, as she’d wanted, instead of Til Institute?
(We fish them out of the hot grease as soon as they turn a nice, toasty brown; he jumps back at a spurt and pokes his burnt finger in his mouth, before he realizes what a rude thing that is to do in a girl’s presence. Then he blushes more than the firelight and says, “Sorry.” We dust the sputtering things in sugar and allspice, but they cool quickly in the evening air. His first bite fills him with ecstasy.
“Man oh man, you got it just right! Kiril, you’re a treasure!” For a moment I can’t help but grin at the little boy in him—still in him, after all this terrible war, after all...
...After all he must have done before I ever met him.
God, God, God! Why do You let me think such things!
“Aren’t they the best, though, Kiril? What do you think?”
They do taste good, I have to admit that.)
Would she have fixed me those luscious little sweetened cream-cheese things, till I grew plump and silly? Or did she make those only for funerals?
( I watch the boy leave his face, little by little, and the tired man take over. He doesn’t let himself have any more, he just watches me hungrily as I indulge myself, sleepily rubbing the still-moist things around the dish in the spilt sugar.)
Because Grandma Maeve took charge of Mom’s funeral. Standard requiem mass, since Grandma baptized Bertha in her faith, once upon a time. No rosary beforehand; we didn't know anyone to invite to it. I'm sure Mom must've had friends, but they sort've melted away when she got sick. I'm sure they'd have mourned if they knew she didn't walk among us anymore. But as it stood, beside the priest and a few officials of the cemetery arts, just five of us stood there as witness to her passing rites—Grandma and Grandpa, my biological father, me, and Mario the artist/ice cream maker who’d rented us a room. The guy who’d given her shelter, when she ran away to die, promised to show up, but I think he got too stoned to make it.
The words of the Mass blurred over me. I murmured the responses printed in the booklet given us. I wore a black dress that itched, and it bound across my shoulders; just because I'm slender doesn't mean I don't have muscle in my arms. I stood beside a man I’d just met, embarrassed to acknowledge me, ashamed to let me go, and together we’d witnessed a funeral for a stranger.
(What do I know about you, Sarge, really?
“Go on, Kiril, have another. Don’t be bashful, we’ve cooked up plenty.”
He gives me everything except for what I want from him. Oh well—this’ll have to do.)