IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Friday, October 23, 2708
I know...yes I know for a fact...(Why am I a rebel? Because I want my vote to count.) that the reason I can’t concentrate is...what’s the word? (Why did I become a rebel? Beatings. Isn’t that why everybody signs on?) Organic. Yeah, that’s it, that’s the word. (I became a rebel because Mama said go, run away, find Cyran, I don’t have any food for you here.) Organic damage to the brain. Mere trauma, damaged connections trying to reconnect. (I became a rebel because I believe wholeheartedly in the cause, the politics, and the philosophy of Egalitarianism—why else?)
So why do I feel like what breaks up my thoughts are other thoughts? (Why? Because guns are cool, and this is the only way I’ll ever get to own one.) Thoughts I can’t remember thinking from moment to moment. (When soldiers shot up the orphanage, when I saw a bullet burst through Sister Faustina like some fast and evil flower blooming hate, I ran and hid just in time and watched them shoot friend after friend after friend...)
(...One of the soldiers didn’t understand, himself. After the shooting stopped—and I witnessed this—he knelt in the dirt and wept, he kept turning his head and looking at all the bodies, and his voice sobbed when he asked “Why? Why’d we have to do it, Sarge?”...)
My poor head aches with painful, painful thoughts...that I can’t grasp or stop.
(...Then that other man came up and said, “Because the nuns were hiding rebels, here, son. All of these children, they aren’t really children. They’re Cyran’s own soldiers, come here to recover from the war and get strong enough to fight us again.” From that moment on I swore I’d find this Cyran, whoever he or she might be, I’d give myself over to the rebels body and soul, whatever they believed, whatever they did, I would burn all day and all night for anything they stood for, so long as they stood against the army.)
“Eat something, Deirdre. Please.”
“Huh. Oh yeah. Okay.” (After the orphanage...thing...after the...the massacre, I just had to desert. These kids need adults, so here I am. And I didn’t even wait to finish the literacy training. I know the alphabet, my own name, and some short words, and that’s it. But some education costs too damn much.) My cooling porridge sits at my knee with the spoon still in it. (I became a rebel because I have so much hate in me I have to put it somewhere, and if I don’t shoot for Cyran I just know, I fear, I know for certain that I’ll shoot somebody someday for no good reason at all.) It tastes good, actually—I must need food. (I became a rebel because I love my father, and my mother, and my big brother, who each in turn died for the Cause. I’m next, I guess.) (I want to become a vampire and live forever. I like the taste of human blood. They say it can change you. Nobody knows that I lick my knife after kills. At least I hope they don’t know. Maybe they don’t care.)
But I feel full quickly and set the bowl down again. (Why am I a rebel? Because I’m good at it. I don’t know any other trade.)
My head won’t stop spinning. (Why? I dunno. After my folks died I just wandered the streets for awhile, begging, stealing, scavenging, hooking, going hungry a lot when none of that worked. Then I met a band of kids just like me who gave me food and showed me how to shoot. After awhile I found myself shooting to cover them in whatever it was they were doing, and so my friends let me share their tobacco, asked me to leap across a fire, and got me wicked drunk. And so I guess I became one of them.) Got to go lie down again. (I thought if I didn’t join when my boyfriend did that he’d kill me. Funny thing, within a month he wound up dead in battle, not me. So here I am, years later, with his knife still on my belt, and I really don’t know why.) Lying down does not help.
(I joined because I admired the rebels.) (I joined because I feared the rebels.) (I joined because I got kicked out of school and my parents disowned me.) (I joined because I believe in the cause of the poor, I believe in it more truly than all of Mom’s fine furnishings and the business that Dad wanted to pass on to me, so when the detective they hired finally found me I shot him, myself.) (Being rebels is just what my village does. You can’t be a man till you do a stint.) (I joined because fighting for Egalitarianism is the only thing fierce enough and meaningful enough to keep me off the morphine.) (Because I came from the most boring village ever.) (Because I couldn’t stand another day working under the hot sun for starvation wages.) (Because I want to be the hero in a song someday.) (Because soldiers always get the girl, but when I tried to enlist with the Charadocian Army, they told me I was too short.) (Because a man in a uniform once raped my sister, and so now every soldier that I kill becomes that man.) (Because when a rebel loves ‘em and leaves ‘em the girls just sigh and accept that I have to keep on moving to survive.) (Because my father treated me like a child—I’ll prove to him that I’m no child!) (Because I swore to serve on my father’s grave.) (Because I wanted to go to school, but the way they’ve got things set up now, I’ll never get in, so something’s got to give.) (Hey, I just thought I was joining a political club! But now I’ve sunk in way too deep to leave.) (I dunno, maybe if I’d had a bit of land or any kind of home, I wouldn’t have thought twice about insurrection. But I ain’t got nothin’.) (I’m a thief on the run. I don’t know who these guys are. They just assume I’ve been “initiated”, whatever that means.) (I’m a poet who needs to learn the gritty side of life to really, truly write.) (I have no family left but these.) (We all have so little chance at anything good that I will die, kill, suffer anything at all, rip the heart out of the sun with my teeth if I have to, to preserve that last tatter of hope that something, somewhere, someday, will change.) (Because the first time I killed a man was the first time I ever felt any power at all.) (Because I feel safer here than I ever did at home.) (I just like excitement, that’s all.) (Because I believe.)
My head just pounds and pounds with pain, overloaded to bursting with hell knows what, lanced at every heartbeat with anonymous thoughts that seem to shoot in from outside, don’t even belong to me or something, and then vanish again so fast that I have no idea what I just now had in mind. Man, but concussions sure dispose you to some weird ideas!
* * *
I only closed my eyes for a minute, but the sun slants in from the other side already. Bijal shakes me. “Come on, Deirdre. Wake up—you can do it, girl—wake up for me.”
“Good. Chianti, help her to her feet. Tanjin, can you take her weight?”
“Fine. You’re her guard on the march.” March?
“I can fight, Bijal,” Tanjin grates.
“Good—it might come to that, if the enemy gets past us. Guard her with your life, lad.” Chianti shoves me onto his shoulder while helping on the other side, and he manages me as well as he can with an arm and a half, what with all my stumbles trying to keep up with the flight from the barn. (Where are they, Sarge?) So fast, so pounding fast like my throbbing head, the world lurching all around me dizzily as I try to keep my feet. (Come on, Bijal, where’d they go?) It doesn’t help my balance when Chianti shoves my head down low. (Does anybody know what the hell is going on?)
“What’s going on?” I whisper to Tanjin as we duck into forest and I trip on a root. (Looks like any ol’ farm. What are we even doing here?)
“Army’s circled back. Farmer don’t dare hide us anymore.”
“Got it.” Memories of Kief make me shudder. “Keep their good will anyway, okay?”
“Of course,” he whispers, like I must’ve lost my mind to suggest otherwise. (Does Bijal even know what he’s doing? I’ve heard rumors...) “Bijal knows his business,” Tanjin says firmly. (We won’t find any of ‘em here. They’ve taken to the woods—I know it. Little forest devils always do.)
Ahead Bijal makes gestures, but my eyes have fuzzed out again; I can’t tell what his fingers do. Tanjin pushes me under a bush; I would love to be paid for every bush that I have ever cowered under since coming to this country. (Oh God, Sarge, I am so afraid! You don’t know what those shameless devils will do to a man. You don’t know the things I’ve seen!)
I hear the first shots tear through the air, sending echoes off the hills. Tanjin braces his gun against his stiffened arm as I hear the shrill of jeering children and teenagers dropping from branches behind the enemy, far from our position, to shoot for all their heart’s worth. Bijal whistles commands and rifles fire out as loud as fear, hot on screams from both sides. Pungent gunpowder smoke lazes on the air, but I can hear the frantic limbs crash through the underbrush, I can feel the thud of every heart in my own breast! I can sense, Oh God, somehow I know every one of them, rebel and government soldier alike, warring through my head, trampling on the synapses, ripping through my soul like leaves torn desperately out of the way.
(Oh hate, hate, I could burst into a firebomb with so much HATE!) (Oh fear, God help me, so much fear I could melt in my boots, I could die without a bullet shot!) (Nothing...nothing...I can’t feel anything anymore. I just act) (Confusion, explosions all around again, no sense, no direction, just dying and pain and trying to claw my way out.) (Die! Die! Oh how you and yours deserve to die!) (Sweet, merciful mother of God get me out of this alive!) (I am too young for this.) (I am too old for this.) (Hey, I got one! Did I just get one? Yes!) (Who needs this? Just show me where to run and I swear I’ll never fight again!) (Did I just run out of ammo? Oh HELL!) (Triumph! Yes! I got him, dead on! I won this time, I...PAIN!) (Wait—did I just shoot one of theirs or one of ours?) (No! No! Don’t slip in the mud now!) (Dear God save my most miserable and repentant soul...) (Damn you damn you damn you damn...) (Oh Lord, blood on my hands, always blood on my hands...) (There! Does that hurt? Good! You hurt me and mine often enough, you sickening sons of shame!) (They don’t look real—I can’t stop laughing because nobody looks real...) (As Our Hero lofts his mighty weapon up in arms of steel, to the admiring gaze of bards and the applause of women, he takes aim and confidently he...OW! That hurts, that really hurts, that...oh sweet Jesus.) (Here’s for the glory of the one true government!) (Here’s for you, Mommy!) (None of this makes sense—none of it!) (Have they no mercy?) (Conscienceless insurrectionists!) (Conscienceless government tools!) (I know I will get out of this alive, because I fight for truth and justice and oh DAMN!) (Is this blood mine or his?)
I open my eyes to an enemy aiming! I grab Tanjin’s knife from his side and throw before the finger pulls the trigger, but my aim goes wild, but the hilt hits him in the arm and startles him long enough for Tanjin to catch on and finish the job for me.
“Let’s go, Deirdre!” He hauls me up with his good arm, the gun cradled in the other, and I hold on for dear life as he drags me through the scratching twigs. Then he drops me to spray bullets on pursuers and he whistles for support.
Suddenly the forests comes alive all around us with slightly fallen guardian angels, blood-spray on their cherubic faces and hellfire in their eyes, killing anything that moves that isn’t them. They rally around me like I’m their flag or something, like I’m territory to defend and principles to stand for, so they aren’t just fleeing blindly through the woods any more, they’ve got something to fight for, and I just lie there in the dirt, wondering how’n’earth I could possibly be for them whatever they want me to be.
A split instant of silence falls, soldiers staring at soldiers across a thin divide of politics that neither really understands and both have sworn to kill for, a split infinity where everyone feels a shift in the balance though nobody knows quite why. Then our force yells like hell cut loose and Bijal shouts for pursuit and I lie there on the spinning ground feeling all these pounding feet in my head, pursuit and retreat all scrambled together, fear and joy and pain and anger and bullets fire! fire! fire! and every single one sheers straight through me. “Over here!” someone shouts, or “Merciful God I don’t want to die!” or “Take that you filthy dog!” or maybe “Father, into your hands I commend my soul...” I can no more determine what I hear than focus what I see, I just flutter as permeable as a tattered banner in the storm. Soon sleet and rain crash down on us for real and glues me to the mud, shivering indifferently. The whole world mourns under clouds of blackening gray. The whole world rejoices to soak up the vivifying water and blood.
And then it ends. It doesn’t really end. My soul swells so with joy and triumph and vindication, with suffering and shame and rage, that my heart exalts to madness and I don’t know who won or lost till my children come back to me, grinning and laughing and slapping each other on the back, and some lean weakly on the shoulders of others while their blood pours out thinning to pink in the rain, and some don’t come back at all.
* * *
(“Is he okay?”Joel asks, as Jake keels over, clutching his head, right when we try to exit art class before anybody can notice that I accidentally scrubbed straight through the paper and watercolored the desk.
I run over to his side. “No—obviously not!”
“Torn,” Jake mutters over and over as we struggle to get him to his feet. “Time and space—torn, torn! Who are all these people?” His eyes, wild, roll about seeing things not in Toulin.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s get him to the infirmary. No, wait—better you should run for Doc. There’s a good lad.”
And I help Jake over to a bench, while Joel hurries away and Don shows up, elbowing through the crowd around us, harshly snapping, “Get a move on, now! You’ve got classes to attend.” Perhaps because he’s big, perhaps because he knows how to put on an adult voice when he has to, the others dissipate back into the halls, on to their next class. George lingers more than all the rest, staring at us speculatively, before he, too, leaves.
Now Don stands protectively in front of us, as I slip Jake paper and pencil, whispering, “Write down what you can.”
Gray around the mouth but more himself, he nods, scribbles something, and then passes out. His head lies sweating in my lap by the time the nurse and Joel jog up. Doc feels Jake’s temple, and pronounces him feverish. That’s because I warmed Doc’s hand by way of explanation. Joel and Don rouse Jake and get him between them, and march him off to the infirmary for a lie-down. No doubt our nurse will decide that his fever broke on the way up, and release him back to us by evening. No harm done.
I look at the paper. Jake scrawled, “I am a rebel because” and nothing more.)
* * *
(I take a deep breath, shaking off another of those funny spells, like for a minute there all the ghosts that ever died in the war tried to shake me, grab my attention, all at once, but they can’t yet reach me, they can’t get solid enough around me. And then I blink, and they were never there, only the road ahead of me, and my duties as a messenger and spy.
Did Shermio ever go through anything like this? Did he just now drag me through some kind of ghostly initiation, now that I’m trying to do his job? Oh Shermio, watch over me! See me safely “there”—wherever there might be—and safely back with my own again!
If you can call rejoining rebel soldiers “safe”. Sometimes I think, “What if I don’t go back at all?” You know, let Kiril and Deirdre live out their lives just fine without me, gathering glory in the Egalitarian Cause while I quietly slip into the countryside and forget all about war.
After all, I can read, now. I’ve got possibilities. Look here, in the back of this old paper I found lying by the road—want ads. I can read want ads. I can get any job I want.
The wind ruffles the torn and muddy pages where I sit by the side of the road. The date on the top of the page says “10 June 2708.” These jobs don’t exist no more. But somewhere out there newer papers wait for me, chock full of fresh new jobs. And I can...read because Deirdre taught me. Taught me so that I can carry messages of war. I shiver and take my bundle of old news out of the wind, leaning my back to a sun-warmed rock.
I flip to a fragment of a story—“article”, it’s called. An article. True stories that people write in newspapers. I know so much more than I ever dreamed a year ago. This article worries over the low “median age” of the undercastes. We have too many children, they say, and that’s what makes us poor. We start making babies very young, then we can’t feed them all and we die very young. It’s all because we are pro-mis-cu something—I don’t know that word. But it’s something that the higher castes don’t like.
I throw the paper away. That’s no “article”. It tells a story that’s not true. Not quite, anyway. We have to make our babies early and often to replace all of us who die too young too fast—I mean it’s the same thing, I guess, but the newspaper got it all upside-down. The Charadoc makes more than enough food for everybody—we just don’t get a fair shot at what we grow. We’ll make fewer babies when we don’t have to stockpile children like potatoes against a winter that always comes too soon.
Break’s over. I shoulder my backpack and return to the road. I’m not taking any job from a newspaper that lies. I’ve still got plenty of work to do for the Egalitarian Rebels.)