IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
The Dairy Farm
Monday, October 19, 2708, continued
(“Guard the kid,” says Sarge. “We don’t want her running afoul of any rough stuff.” So the two soldiers move iron pots and big rice-tins to make a kind of fortress inside the supply wagon. Then they make me lie down in the little slot between all that gear, while they hover over me grimly with guns. For awhile nothing goes on but bird-song and clouds sailing overhead in a sea of blue as I lay on my back, waiting. Then I hear soldiers shouting and women screaming, but no shots fire.
Somebody runs up to tell them, “Position secured,” in a panting voice.
“Oh, thank God,” says one of my guards. “I’ll sleep well tonight, with real stone walls around me.”
They help me out of my hiding place and we drive the cart down into a dairy compound, straight into a barn. Surly men crowd all the bleating goats to one side behind a makeshift barrier, to make room for us. Most of the men look much like each other, like brothers in one family, with a few hired hands thrown in. A small-scale land-owner, then, who probably works alongside the help and just as hard. I sure wish Papa had found work on a farm like that.
Freck speaks too loudly when he says, “Any of your goats take a bite out of our supplies, we’ll take a bite out of you!” One of the men grumbles something and the freckled boy shouts “What was that?” He jumps from the cart and slams the man against the barn wall with his rifle pinned across the guy’s chest. “What was that, ingrate?”
“You’d better mind your ‘nothings’ around me, goat-boy, because I’ve seen too many good men die to protect your filthy, ungrateful hide!” He drives the butt of the rifle into the man’s gut. “Count yourself lucky,” he says over the man who moans and retches in the straw. “Next guy who doesn’t appreciate us gets fed to the rebels—we’ll laugh when they raid you and burn down your farm and rape your women right there in the pools of their own menfolk’s blood—we’ll laugh!” Then he shoots near the injured man’s hands on the ground, and snickers nastily as the guy jumps back on all fours.
“Just a reminder,” Freck says as his gun-mates cover for him. Then he slings his rifle over his shoulder and lifts me out of the cart. “Don’t be afraid of the scum, Kiril; we won’t let ‘em hurt you.” But that’s not why I shake so badly in his arms.)
“Cover her up; she’s tossed her blankets off and she’s shivering again.”
“I think she’s coming to. I saw her eyelids flutter.”
No I’m not. Don’t mind me. I feel sick and in pain—oh do let me slip back into unconsciousnesssssssss...
(“Zanne? Are you all right?”
“Jus’ need sleep,” I murmur, and turn over in my sleeping-bag, on the hard, uneven floor.)
(The men lead me into the main house, where Sarge works at billeting everybody, there and in the hired hands’ quarters nearby. The farmer’s sleeves show some fullness to them, but I can see the calluses thick on his fingers as Sarge hands him a list of our requirements.
“Can you read?” Sarge asks contemptuously.
“My eldest son can,” the farmer replies, “and his wife.”
“See that they read these instructions to everybody, then, and that you follow ‘em to the letter. If you don’t, I’ll throw both their heads into your well minus the bodies.” Sarge spits on the floor. “My men have fought long and hard for your sorry sakes, and they deserve a few perks for a change.” The man summons his son and they murmur over the list. They send a younger son to us.
“We’ll start the hot baths right away, sir.”)
(“Let me fix you a bath,” Cybil says. “I’ve got the hot water up and running.”)
(I remember baths…)
(“Good,” Sarge says more genially, and then sinks with a great sigh into an overstuffed goat-kip chair. He motions me over to sit on his lap—he’s liked me to do that, lately—while a boy pulls off his boots. As I snuggle down against his chest, he says, “You won’t have to cook tonight.” I’ve got to be careful—I’m beginning to like these snuggles too much—they remind me of Papa. “It’s all been taken care of, kiddo—you deserve a break, too.” I can feel a nervous tic in his hands as he caresses my back, very lightly; the soldier who got the acid in his face kept us up with his screaming all night long, the night before the fire—that’s two nights with no sleep whatsoever for Sarge, though I napped in the cart. “Ah, Kiril,” Sarge sighs, “I will be so, so glad when we can finally put down this insurrection and all go home.”
“I don’t have a home,” I say, drowsing against his warmth. I feel his body tense, then he hugs me so hard it hurts.
He waves over the grim-faced wife of the manor and says, “See to her needs. You got the instructions?”
The woman shepherds me into private quarters. “This’ll be your room for the duration,” she grumbles.)
(“And afterwards you can sleep on a real bed, in a real bedroom. Maury and Shon have been fixing things up all over the house. It looks less and less like a shiriki’s haunt all the time.”
“What’s a shiriki?” I ask groggily. I think maybe I might have miscalculated on the anti-seizure medication just a tiny bit—odd neurology strikes again.
“Never mind for now,” she says briskly, propelling me up by my elbow. “First a bath, then you can lie down more comfortably in the room you’ll share with me, Lula and Magda. It’s not quite as luxurious as your old room, but we’ve made it snug enough, even put curtains on the bunks, just like you recommended.”)
(I remember the bathtub in my old stone room, probably as cold as this chill brick institution, but I never minded then. I didn’t have old bones, back then.)
(I stare at all the hand-made rag dolls, sitting on their shelves, like Mama never had the time to stitch. And on other shelves I see little doll-sized teacups and dishes, itty bitty chairs and tables and doll-things of every kind—and stuffed animals, too, all different sorts and colors. “Toys,” I breathe. I’m not sure if I’ll know what to do with them.)
(I remember the big metal tub, steaming with hot water. I remember sinking from the drafts deep into an embracing kind of warmth unknown to these Spartan academy showers, smelling the sweet, hot spices worked into the homemade soap.)
(“You’ll keep your hands off my daughter’s stuff or I swear I’ll find a way to punish you that your soldier-daddy’ll never know.” She tugs me over to a tub full of bubble-bath—I saw a bubble-bath at Tumblebugs, once, on my way to the servant’s facilities.)
(I remember the carven pirate ship that I would take into the bath. The heaps of suds used to become whole, mountainous shorelines for my ship to explore.)
(“Now get over here—your Daddy wants you cleaned up before supper.” She kneels down beside me, then rips my clothes right off me.
“No use you keepin’ them rags. I’ve got orders to make you new outfits–dresses and all. The man says you’re a growing girl.” She pokes at the red line that my waistband’s been cutting into me lately. “Growing sideways, that is, you little pig.” My face burns hot as she kneels down to measure me for new clothes, wrapping a ribbon around me here and there and marking the places with pins, clucking her tongue and shaking her head the while.
“Now—into the bath with you, soldier’s piglet, and I hope you drown!”)
(My old hams shudder in the draft mixed into the shower’s spray; I long to sit down. Instead I struggle to scrub my back—it is so hard to wash one’s back alone!)
(I gesture her close, though, first, and whisper, “I’m not really one of them.”
She frowns and asks, also whispering, “Then who might be the man or woman that you serve?”
“Neither and both,” I reply.
She rocks back onto her heels and stares long and hard at me. Then, to my surprise, she caresses my cheek, her eyes watering. “We aren’t forgotten?”
“You aren’t forgotten. Cyran never forgets.”
“Honey, you go ahead and eat the soldier’s food,” she says, “and play with my daughter’s toys, too, if you like.”)
(I remember hands scrubbing my back for me—NO! I remember nothing of the kind!)
(I lean my head close to hers and whisper, “I’ll need the packet of darts in the inner pocket of my old skirt; please make my new clothes with someplace good to hide them. And be very careful of the little vanilla-bottle beside it—it doesn’t contain vanilla anymore.” Her eyes gleam as she begins to smile. “Also, if you got any stealing to do, wait till the shift right before dawn. Reno—the good-looking Mountainfolk recruit with the big green eyes—will take guard duty then. He’s having some kind of breakdown, but the others don’t want to see it. All he ever does on guard duty is mumble to himself, staring straight down at his feet—he’s worthless.”
She nods. “Good to know.”
“But leave him alive, so he can hamper ‘em when he finishes breaking down in the middle of battle.”
She grins at the thought. “You nasty little girl,” she says affectionately. “Go take your bath while the water’s hot.”)
A cloth dipped in hot water swabs at my face and scalp. “It’s not a deep cut,” Tanjin says, “Once you clear the blood away—hardly counts as a wound at all. So why won’t she wake up?”
“I think she’s a little bit awake, sometimes,” says hollow-voiced Betany. “See? There go her eyelids, fluttering, like she’s trying to come to all the way.”
No, I’m not. Trust me. I do not want to wake up.
(I do not want to wake up. But I have to, to scramble wildly down the stairs, hand over mouth, barely making it to the bathroom in time to wretch into the porcelain. Not surprisingly, I find Jake already kneeling by the next commode over, holding on for dear life. And Don quickly stumbles in behind.
“Oh Lorrrrd,” Jake groans. “This feels just like a concussion!)
Chianti says, “It must be a concussion.”
“Oh God!” I hear someone else say. “I’ve heard that the same thing killed one of our best officers.”
Oh damn. Now I’ve got to do something. I force myself to mumble, though moving my lips nauseates me and my head just pounds.
“What’d she say?”
I repeat: “Na’ dyin’ jus’ yet...” then sink gratefully back into unconsciousness...
(As soon as the farmwife leaves the room I sink into the squishy, scented bubbles and the deliciously hot water underneath and ooooooh! I have not felt this good since Tumblebugs. I lean back luxuriously, feeling like the highest caste daughter of the land. But then I see my belly float up through the bubbles, round like I’d never seen it in a bath before, and I feel shame. I sit forward again and play with the bubbles till I forget about it, and then I splash around with my eyes closed, washing up and feeling my skin get all tingly-clean, just not looking at myself directly anymore.)
(Oooooh! I could get used to this.
“You’d better not.”
I sit up in the tub so abruptly that water splashes out. Jake’s voice seemed so real!
“Zanne? What’s up?”
I blink at Cybil, washing me like an invalid. “Nothing,” I say, then murmur, “Just shaking off a spell.” An evil spell. The lure, that this mistake feels good. That I don’t really want to worry about the mission anymore, about anything anymore, nothing painful, ever again. I take the sponge from Cybil’s hand and scrub myself as vigorously as my sluggish limbs allow.)
(I close my eyes tightly against the pain of light, hearing the swift yet measured steps of the school nurse behind me. Cool fingers touch my cheek and then my brow. “Feverish,” he pronounces, “Just like the other two.” Something in the herbs must have done that, conveniently. A competent medic would have recognized a hangover by itself. “Help them to the infirmary, and then wash your hands thoroughly, and change your clothes. This thing seems to be spreading.”)
(“Help me help Zanne out of the bath, Lula. Something’s wrong with her.”
“Not contagious,” I force precision from my mouth as the cool air hits my steaming skin. Hooboy did I miscalculate! “I’ll, uh, be better, uh, t’morrow. Coffee, please.” Maybe I should wait to see if any more seizures happen before trying even half the medication. “And, and, uh, keep me awake awhile.” I can feel the lure, more than just a chemical reaction. Someone or something wanted me to miscalculate. And hoped I would enjoy it.)
(Wallace comes in wearing a bathrobe, still toweling his thin white hair. I almost enjoy the concern in the Headmaster’s voice when he asks the nurse, “Is it dangerous, do you think?”
“Not too dangerous. I’ve seen this malady before, though it’s not in the medical books. Just a handful of students fall ill of it every year.” As the nurse speaks I manage a wink at Wallace, and he startles, but then quickly composes himself. “Very few have died, over the years.” And suddenly I feel sicker than ever.
“Aaron, George, Joel, Gordon, help them to the infirmary. I have what I need there to cool them down a bit.”)
(When the water starts to feel coolish the woman comes back in, rinses me off in fresh, hot water, and then towels me off good as if I couldn’t have done it for myself. Still, it feels fun to be pampered. She shows me the first dress that she’s made for me so far—all yellow with a pretty pink and blue calico print, loose and comfortable in a soft knit cotton, with drawstring sashes in the waistband just in case you want to change the size. She winks at me as she dresses me like a doll; suddenly I get the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve stopped being human for her, too.
She leaves me alone with the toys. You can make a whole little world out of toys, I discover, a safe world where nothing can go wrong. Here, this doll can be Kiril, and this doll can be Deirdre, and this little boy doll can be Lufti, and they’re all going to sit at this little table on these bitty chairs for supper.
But we aren’t supposed to have supper, are we, Deirdre? I make the Deirdre doll nod and say, “It’s okay. Cyran gave us permission.” Okay, that’s good. “First, though, Deirdre says, “Wash your hands, children,” just like Mama used to say. “You can’t come to my table with dirty hands.”
So Kiril and Lufti wash their hands over at this bowl, here—let’s pretend this marble’s one of those tiny soaps they give to guests on board the ship—and Lufti says, “Ooh, Kiril! Your hands are all bloody!” Yes, yes, there was a messy battle, but it’s over now, we can all stay clean, now, for the rest of our lives.
And so we all sit down to the table, with the little dishes, and this big ol’ doll can be Marduk, he’s cooking up a whole goat, he comes up and says, “Kiril can’t have any dinner—she’s too fat!”
“She can, too!” says Deirdre and Lufti both. “Malcolm can have food, and so can she!” Here, this teddy bear can be Malcolm—much, much bigger than the Kiril doll. And here, these other dolls lying under the table, they’re bad dolls who tried to keep the food away from everybody—but they’re dead now, not us, we killed them, they can’t stop us, so there!
It doesn’t matter, though; there’s nothing in the dishes, it’s all just pretend. Everything’s empty.)