IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Sunday, October 25, 2708
(The sun has already climbed pretty far up by the time I finish digging the grave with the rusty old shovel that I found out back, though I started at the first hint of light in the sky.)
(The kids arrive at noon, hungry, shepherded in by Jacques: a brother and sister. He has dark brown, curly hair, hers looks more bronzy-light brown, kinky and cut short, and he has lighter skin than her, but they both have the same dark eyes and compact builds.
“They’re good people, Zanne,” Jacques tells me gruffly, then goes to fetch his lunch.
Cybil clucks over the newcomers, then sets out plates of noodles in cheese sauce, stretching out a little bit of chopped up vegetables as far as they can go. My money has finally begun to run out.
Now comes the time to teach these city-dwellers how to scavenge weeds and seeds, the secret caches of rodent nests, and the rodents, too—anything they can find. Now it gets hard.)
(Now comes the hard part; I shiver in my sweat. I go back into the dead folk’s home. I spread out their blanket on the floor. and then I gently scoot the man’s bones into it. They don’t hold their form too well, but I do the best I can, finding every bone chip and fingertip and placing them on the blanket, many of the bones still in the shirt and pants. Summer clothes, no layers: this happened in the summer. I hadn’t yet become an Egalitarian then–or maybe this happened on some other summer, long ago, maybe before I was born.)
(I look at the new kids, eyeing us suspiciously, holding their dishes close. I realize that the wrongness in this country started before their birth; they’ve seen nothing else. I shiver.
“How well do you know these two, Jacques?”)
(The sleeves have kept the arm bones more or less together, so I lay the poker—his sword—on the hollow of the shirt stretched over ribs, where his heart used to be, and I move the arm bones in their sleeves over it, and I pour all the little bones of the hands on and around the cold steel.)
(“Raif and Kimba?” he says, scratching the beard that he has started on to save razors. “A year or two. They’ve run errands for my stand now and then.” And that’s all he says.
“In other words, darling, you don’t know them well at all.”)
(Now her turn. I drag the blanket over the best I can without messing up the skeleton any more than I have to. Gently I tug the skirt down to where it belongs. I think she must have had a pretty face, with cheekbones like that. I put her next to her man on the blanket, bone against bone, all snuggled together.)
(“I know them well enough. They never cheated me.”
I nod. “That goes a long way,” I say. I give the sibs a light telepathic scan. Nothing leaps out as bad...yet something still doesn’t feel quite right.
“They’re French,” Jacques says gruffly, and walks away.
Not entirely, I think. Kimba, at least, looks part African, her lighter hair notwithstanding, and her eyes a dark hazel to Raif’s chocolate brown. He has porcelain skin, like Merrill’s, but hers comes closer to cocoa-powder. His nose is thin and hers looks shorter and wider, but both have the same chin and shape of face. They appear to have two different fathers, of two different races—reason enough to become orphans, the way things go these days.
They both stare at their empty plates hungrily. Cybil goes to the cupboard to see what else we can give them that doesn’t need much preparation.)
(I check out the cupboard. Empty, of course. But I know how people like us hide food from foraging soldiers. I tap floor-stones till I hear that hollow-sound, then I lift the stones away. Most of the roots and things have moldered into dust, just like you’d expect, so it must not have happened this year, but I do find the bottle of oil I was looking for. I sniff at it—not as rancid as I feared. It hasn’t been all that long, then, since this tragedy played out–maybe a couple years.
I learned the word “tragedy” from a book of plays I read from while taking a break from the digging. I read fast, now. This house has so many books in it! Probably what got them killed.)
(Raif notices me studying him. “My Mum belonged to the Revolutionary Theater. That’s what got her killed.” He gives a short, sharp laugh, his eyes not smiling. “Just a name! They just meant the revolution in the head that art can spark. But folks called her unpatriotic.”
And his eyes say don’t even ask about the fathers. And Kimba is not a French name. Did the killers mean “patriotic” to the country—or to their ethnicity?
Toni pours them the last of our milk. “I’ll say a rosary for your mother,” she tells them, and they visibly relax. )
(I kneel beside the bodies with the oil, praying for their souls with all the verses that I can remember, making up the best words I can to fill in the gaps; if it works for Father Man it’ll work for me. As I trace a cross in oil on the forehead of each skull, I feel a tenderness steal through me, no fear anymore, like I lay babies to rest, not corpses to the grave. Sleep in peace, my dear ones. Your troubles here are over. And thanks for the shelter—it’s something I always want.)
(Beyla, baker that he is, has made quick-cooking mini-biscuits, and Cybil brings them in for the hungry children. Then I escort them to our room-divider couch (more like a loveseat, really) vacant for the moment. I consider the boy’s lankiness and add cushions on the floor so they’ll both have room to rest beside each other. Tshura spreads sheets and blankets for them. “Get some sleep while you can,” I tell them. “You’re on night shift.” Others will need the bedding when they do guard duty.)
(I fold the blanket ends over skulls and foot-bones, then I pull over the sides, sort of like that food that Deirdre makes for us sometimes...what’d she call it? Wraps. I tuck them into a wrap. Then I poke around the house till I find the sewing-kit, and I stitch them in, safe and sound.)
(They don’t lie down immediately. The sister kneels on the cushions whispering to her brother on the couch. I shrug and take my turn washing dishes. They’ll learn soon enough to catch rest while they can.)
(When I pick the bundle up I know that all my care to arrange them meant nothing, that they tumble all apart in my arms. No, not apart—together. They mingle together, the man’s bones and the woman’s—they would have wanted it that way.
I lay them gently into the grave, bow my head for a moment in a few more prayers, then pile the dirt back on. I look around for a big enough stone, roll it over, and scratch words into the headstone with my knife the best I can:
That’ll do. It’ll have to. Maybe that’s the only name they need.
I finish with a cross, then go back in and take from the floor-cache a bundle of sage leaves. They still have a little scent to them—good. I build another fire, a small one out on the flagstone floor, so the house will trap the smoke in awhile before it finds its way to the chimney. I throw the entire bundle of sage onto it, then leap over the flames again and again, till I know the smoke has smudged me real good and cleansed me of any possible rudeness to the dead.
Now I’m free to take those jars of jams and jellies out of the cache and stuff them in my pack, and toss in some books, too. The army wants to kill me anyway, so why not?
But before I finish I feel a tug to go over and look under the bed; I don’t know why, I just have to. (and I feel like an idiot—if I hadn’t been so tired I’d have noticed that I could’ve slept soft last night!) I see a bundle in the dark down there and pull it out, coughing in the smoke. I take it out to the clean air outside...
A tent! It’s a little, bundled-up tent—boy will that ever come in handy!
Thank you, Good People.)
* * *
“They’re still camped out at the dairy?” I ask Bijal as I shift on my crackling bed of leaves, resting after wound checks.
“Still.” Another cloudburst rains down hard, and thunder rolls around the peaks with sudden flashes of light, but Bijal has sheltered us so cleverly that few drops find their way through to our individual niches; they just make soft percussion all around and enrich the air’s scent.
Bijal stares at me expectantly. I told him to brief me every day so I’ll be ready to resume command when the time comes. Already I can follow trains of thought pretty well, and I haven’t lain here silent all that long between his words and my reply...“What are they waiting for?” I remember to ask.
He grins. “I think they’re waiting for their mommies to tuck them in and chase all the bad dreams away.”
“Think about it—the whole concept of dairies.” I do, and visions swarm in my head of cheese omelets and butter cookies, whipped cream, ice cream, and frothy shakes. “Mother’s milk and all that. I think they want to stay as long as they can stretch it, because the minute they set foot out into the real world again, they go back to being soldiers.” He grins wickedly. “And we haven’t made them one bit too happy about that.”
I can actually follow what he’s saying. “Have you studied psychology, Bijal?”
He glances around a moment, before grinning shyly and whispering, “Everything I can get my hands on. Talking to people, you know, folks who don't expect my class to ask questions, whenever I can get away with it. I hope to learn to read, someday, too. I started once, but...things got in the way. I want to finish what I started. And when the war’s over I want to become a shrink.”
I nod. “Good choice—you won’t lack for business before we’re done.”
“I plan to specialize in post-traumatic stress.”
I take his hand in mine; I can’t help but note the kind of calluses you develop when you shoot for a living. “Promise me you’ll treat all comers alike—former rebels and former army, both. Because they really, really, don’t think all that differently, Bijal.”
He swallows and turns his scarred-up face away. At last he says, “I’d tell you no, Deirdre, if God weren’t haranguing me for the exact same thing.” Then he blushes and says, “Don’t tell anybody I said that.”
“Or a shrink might lock you up?” I smile up at him and he grins back.
“It’s hard, though,” he says. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to treat the other side like human beings, let alone like patients.” And then some horrible memory twists his face.
“Don’t worry,” I say, patting his hand. “If you’ve still got enough soul left to hear God haranguing you, you’ll do just fine.”