IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
Tuesday, October 20, 2708
(Past midnight, and nobody sleeps well in the drafty old house, even with the furnace fixed, as the wind moans all around and creaks in the antique boards. One by one we stir from our various beds, bunks, cots, couches, mats, hammocks and sleeping-bags, sit up and blink at each other.
Toni rises and heads for the kitchen, stepping around those who still lie on the floor staring at the ceiling or trying to keep their eyes closed. I hear the clink of jars as she moves Ozwald’s sprout-farm out of the way. Soon her gaunt face glows in the blue light of a methane flame. A few minutes more, and the house fills with the aroma of chocolate.
“Hot cocoa’s the best thing for insomnia on a cold night, short of drugs,” she murmurs. “I used to fix it for my kids when they’d have nightmares.”
I accept my share gratefully from her, wrapping my stiff fingers around its warmth. “Thank you, Toni,” I say.
She shrugs. “No prob. Once a mother, always a mother.”
“Hey, let’s throw a birthday party!” Cybil says, heading for the cupboards. “With this many people, somebody’ bound to have an October birthday, right? Show of hands?” Anselmo, Pauline, Skirnir and Guaril, it turns out, have birthdays in October. “Good, ‘cause I’ve stashed away some cookies for a special occasion, and they’d be divine dipped in hot cocoa.”
She pulls out a bag, but Dalmar leaps up from his bedding, shouting, “No! Not those!” Before she can say a word he grabs the bag from her and throws the whole thing unopened into the fireplace. “I lost my job from writing up a report on those,” he says when we all stare at him or the blackening package. “You wouldn’t believe how toxic they are.”
“But they’re advertised as extra healthy!” Cybil protests.
“Yeah, about that...”
I don’t hear the rest of the conversation, repairing to the bathroom before anybody else rouses enough to realize what they need more than cocoa when awakened in the middle of the night. But I must look into this; it might point us to where the trouble started.)
My lids flutter briefly open, enough to see Tanjin watching over me, the brazier’s light accentuating the bags under his eyes, all the rest of the barn in shadow with the soft sounds of sleeping all around. I close my eyes again, thankful for the darkness, dreading the dawn’s bright burst and what it’ll do to my headache. I don’t want to, but I have to try and make my mouth move again. “Latrine,” I murmur.
“Chianti,” Tanjin calls out, softly. “Wake up, please, and get a sturdy girl to help you—Nishka, maybe. We’ve, uh, we’ve got a job for women, here.” I can practically hear the blush flaming in his words.
I feel arms tug me up onto a chamber pot and I try to help as much as I can, but it’s like most of my muscles don’t belong to me, like I’ve somehow gotten as drunk as humanly possible and yet already feel the hangover pounding at my skull and churning my stomach and those are the only parts that work right. Can’t remember...bad sign, that. I feel my head fall on somebody’s shoulder as she says, “Help me with her skirt, here.” Humiliation nauseates me. I make a point of falling back unconscious as soon as I feel my fanny planted firmly where it belongs...
(I don’t even remember falling asleep. I open my eyes to total darkness by the time the farmwife knocks on my door in her nightrobes. Wasn’t she here awhile ago, giving me a cookie, or did I dream that? “Come along, my pretty piglet—your soldier-daddy’s sent for you.”
“He’s not my daddy,” I say with a yawn. We tiptoe down a hall so quiet that I know everybody else must sleep...more or less. To my surprise my stomach growls and feels hungry all over again. This must be the time of night that Sarge and I usually have snacks till he can settle back to bed.
The woman leaves me at the door of a dim-lit room. When I go in I find that the light comes from all the candles on a cake.
“Happy birthday,” Sarge says; I can tell by the angle of his stance that he is very drunk.
“Uh, happy birthday to you, too,” I say. When he hugs me I can smell the Chaummin thick upon him.
“My daughter’s birthday, actually. When’s yours?”
“I, I don’t know.” Nobody much cared, where I grew up.
“Just like the Tilián. Did you know that none of them know their birthdays, either?”
“Uh, no.” Deirdre doesn’t? Someone as fancy as her?
“Ever have a birthday cake before?”
“I didn’t think so.” He gives me a sickly sweet smile as his eyes water tipsily. “First you make a wish—but don’t tell me. It jinxes it if you tell anyone.” I wish for the success of the Egalitarian Revolution. “Now you blow out the candles and the wish will come true.” I perform the ritual just like he says, and he lights lamps.
Oh, how beautiful the cake! Icing roses and ribbons adorn it, and candy birds—I have never seen anything so exquisite in all of my life—not even on the ship!
“Come on, come on—there’s ice cream to go with it, and fresh cheese and goat sausage to balance off the sweetness. Do my poor heart good and let me watch you enjoy it.” When I sit down to the table, he cuts a big slice with an icing rose on it—real butter icing, and there’s probably butter in the cake, too—and then he puts a generous scoop of ice cream next to it. “Wait, wait...here.” He squeezes chocolate syrup all over the ice cream. “There. That’s better...come on.”
I start to lift the fork, but stop, seeing my belly touch the table’s rim. “Uh, Sarge, I had a big dinner...”
“Awww, don’t be embarrassed, dearheart. I like to watch you eat. You went without for far too long. You don’t think I know that, but I do.” He pulls up a chair and scoots close to me, and traces with his finger the roundness of my arm. “You were nothing but bones when we found you, like some poor, scrawny little animal.” Scrawny little animals bite. Plump and cuddly little animals, though...but then suddenly my stomach growls so loudly that it makes Sarge chuckle. “There—see? You know you want it! I think you’ve got a little bit of room left, riiiiight there,” he says with a playful poke.
So I dig in. I can’t help myself. He laughs again, and I laugh back with my mouth full. And oh, it does taste wonderful! Only a dairy can make icing this rich, or butter-cake this fresh. And who could describe the berry filling? Mmmmm! Oh, oh, ice cream, too! On board the ship I used to sometimes sneak licks of leftover ice-cream melt when I’d take the dishes in to wash them, on those rare occasions when we had the ice to make it, but I never ate it fresh and frozen by the spoonful—so much better than I imagined! Sarge gets up and fetches a bowl.
“Try this flavor,” he says, and adds another scoop. It comes in more than one flavor? Mercy!
“Tell me about your daughter,” I say with my mouth full of cake again, just to warm my mouth. Now I hit the creamy layer with nuts!
“Oh, she’d be just about your age, I’d say. Pretty little thing, even if she is darker than you.” He sighs and pours himself another drink. “She’d be even prettier if her mother kept a little more meat on her. ‘Course, I haven’t seen her in so long I don’t know what she looks like, anymore.” He knocks the drink back fiercely and blurts, “She ain’t legit, but she’s all mine. Here, if you have a bit of cheese, you can hold out longer with the sweets.” He cuts me a fat slice.
“Did you love her mother?”
“Did I! Darlin’ woman, but the wrong caste. Marry her and I could kiss any chance of promotion goodbye. The army expects a lot from an officer’s wife—you know how it is.” Oh yes, I know. He drinks some more. “I try to send ‘em money now and then.” Try, Sarge? “You know, Sweetie, sometimes I pretend she’s you, that you’re my daughter. Hell, you’re somebody’s daughter. Here. Have some more cake.”
There’s a lot of cake, and six different flavors of ice cream. I eat till it stops being fun, then I eat more so I can get good and sick of his kindness, nauseated at the very thought of his brand of generosity, so that I will never again want birthday cake or ice cream or fatherly affection from someone who’s not Papa. I keep on till it hurts and then force down just a tiny bit more, though I can’t say whether I’m punishing him or me or somehow the whole rotten, sickening system that’s got us all tangled up in it.)