IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 5
Secret Ingredient


Sunday, November 1, 2708

(“Whatcha out there for, Jude?”  The girl’s shout wakes me up from a chilly sleep in my shelter under the hedgerow.  “Sow corn on a Sunday and it won’t come up!”  Dew soaks all through my blanket.  I peek out from behind a curtain of jewelly cobwebs at the boy in the field with the seed-sack over his shoulder.  I could’ve been that boy, if my Grandad hadn’t lost the family farm.  Odd thought.

“Sorry, Shel—I forgot what day it is.”  I watch carefully as he heads back to the barn.  I creep under the hedge to follow with my eyes.  When he goes in I dart quickly across the field to the side of the barn, hoping that my footprints in the sucking mud won’t stand out too much among the clods and furrows.  When he comes back out again, I watch him join Shel—she’s maybe a year or two older than Kiril, maybe not, with a baby tied to her back in a shawl.  They must’ve been promiscuing, just like that newspaper said.  But if that’s really something bad, then they wouldn’t be going to church, now would they?  Folks who die young got to start in on living early, right?

 I mark which way they go down the road together, hand in hand, so that I can follow a little bit after and find my way to mass, myself.  I scrub mud off my boots with what leaves come to hand, then comb my hair and wash my face in dew.  It’s All Saint’s Day, so I dry my face in my prayer-cloth, asking St. Nicholas, patron of all who have to grow up too fast, to pray or me.  Then I start down the road, looking for the church.  It doesn’t really matter when we die.)

* * *

The morning light twinkles in the spring leaves, evaporating dew and eliciting the scent of every living thing, from ox to microlife in the good, dark earth, and all the trees and flowers and grasses in between, compounded together into the rough sweetness of an old bucolic perfume, heady in all its variations since Eve first plowed the Earth.  In the distance I hear roosters challenging the rising sun, as goats bleat for their milkmaids, and farmhouse doors clap open here and there.  Some chores won’t yield to the Sabbath.

We ought to leave the poor soldiers alone on Sunday—especially on one so particularly hallowed.  I know, I know, that would be the Christian thing to do.  Ah well, no rest, as they say, for the wicked.  May all good saints forgive us!

Besides, we’ll let them have their other holiday tomorrow, won’t we?  The saints, bless their celestial hearts, forgive even those who martyr them, let alone we who slight them just a bit...but dead warriors don’t incline that way.

We shall try not to shed blood at what we do.  That’s the best we can promise, and it’s no small thing.  But we must take what we must have.

And yes, Kiril did say that the troop would restock soon, but it’s taking them a lot longer to reach their base than any of us counted on.  (Okay, so we helped that along a bit, granted.)  Besides, we can raid them again later, after they stock up.  But we need ammunition now, more than I could loot all by myself, and since we’ve given the soldiers so much of ours, it’s time we take some back.  Not that a couple of kids can haul the entire tentful of lead, but they can carry off enough.

I yawn and rub my eyes.  I feel like I bear the weight already.

(Ooh, I could rest for two weeks solid!  Maybe three.  Baskets of cans weigh enough to begin with, but carrying them through that suffocating tunnel, up those steep stairs, and turning right back around to do it all over again, makes them feel like solid bricks of lead.  Guaril carries twice as much as I do; he’s awfully strong for a salesman, but he also works out, lifting jugs of water when he can’t get weights.  (And didn’t he say that he didn’t have the muscle for heavy work before?  We must have earned his trust for him to admit, now, that he does.)  Courtney carries just as much with one good arm, now that she’s gotten over the dry heaves from her first whiff down below; she wears a fearsome scowl as if to scare off anybody even thinking about exploiting her moment of weakness.

Toni frets, saying, “We ought to leave it be on Sunday.”  But she helps hose off the goods that we haul up from the stinking pit.  Apollo searches for inflammables, while Dalmar reads the food labels to find out which company made them, separating apart those from his former employers.

He stops at a nearly empty bottle of pectin, stares at the rows of home-canned jars and then sighs, shaking his head.  I agree; pectin shouldn’t have a pinkish tinge.  At his gesture we move the jams and jellies over to the unsafe pile.  Very few foods dry in the sun on the safe side.)

Broad daylight–again.  But if the good soldiers all attend Mass, why that’s just a gift from God for us, isn’t it?  And wouldn’t we be ingrates if we didn’t take this opportunity and run with it for all it’s worth?  Still, it feels weird to creep out here, once again with a full sun shining and the spring birds singing overhead.  It’s kind of exciting, though, actually, a little bit more dangerous, but also brighter and more colorful—you really only see the full intensity of color when you know that you truly could die in the next twenty minutes.

But I don’t go down all the way.  I send two of my slipperiest youths—Rozhen and Zeb—to sneak past the guards and find that tent with the patch over the ridgepole for me.  We’ve gotten them so used to night raids that they hardly post any guard at all by day, and those would be their less promising specimens; they don’t even know that my last foray happened by day.  Zeb and Rozhen should have no trouble.  I’m sure they won’t.  And why do I keep having to learn people’s dadburned names?

(Jacques shakes his head, saying, “We don’t even know their names.”  Then he asks, “Won’t any fire down there burn the whole house down?”

“Not in a concrete shell that thick.  They have, ironically, fashioned for themselves the perfect crematorium.”)

The boys get back before I barely have time to close my eyes in a nap that took me.  Their rustling wakes me, and I jump to my feet so fast that my head spins, but I quickly put on an appearance of having been awake the whole time.  I just don’t deal with twenty-fours the way I used to.  Not without help.

A brief dream haunts me, the sort that can flash through a tiny nap when you drop from weariness so extreme, of a pale blue baby shoe engulfed in flames.  I know that somebody did terrible things to the baby.  And I heard, in the dream, Randy’s voice say, “Why won’t it burn?  I threw everything I’ve got at it!”  But I don’t want to think about the symbolism—oh no, I have much more important things to think about right now.  Don’t I?

 (“Stop!  No!”  Toni cries, before Apollo can throw in the match.  “Not today.  They’ve waited this long, they can wait one more day.”

I put an arm around her.  “What’s the matter, honey?”

She turns a tearsoaked face to me.  “It’s All Saint’s Day.”

Anselmo looks at her, puzzled.  “What could be better for a funeral?”

Toni bursts out, “But they weren’t saints!”

Dalmar grates, “They were poisoned.  It affected their minds.  They didn’t know what they were doing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know a thing or two about poison affecting the mind.  But some things are just too awful, even if the innocent do it.  Listen; tomorrow’s All Soul’s Day, and that just feel’s better. I’ll pray for them myself, then.  I’ll pray with all my heart.”

Ozwald steps forward.  “I can do it for you if you want.  You don’t have to see it.”  He shrugs.  “I’m a Heathen—I’ve got different holy days from you.”  Wide eyes turn to him from all sides.  I feel the people tense around me as though static arced and prickled in the air between us.

Beyla notices it, too.  “Just for the record,” he says slowly, holding Skirnir in front of him “I’m a Heathen, too—lots of bakers are.  Same for my son.  We went to Circle with Ozwald.”

The stares continue, no one saying anything, no one moving, people hardly breathing.  I force myself to wait, to see how this plays out; we’ve dodged this test long enough.

Then Guaril steps over to put an arm around Beyla’s shoulders, and another around Ozwald.  He says, in a menacing voice, “We Romani have a proud history of protecting refugees of other ethnicities and other religions from bigotry.  Anybody who has a problem with my buddies, here, will have to deal with me.”

  Hesitantly, with glances to Guaril, Apollo asks our Germans, “You’ve never, uh, sacrificed anybody, have you?”

“Dude, no!” Ozwald cries.  “That’s the Odinists.  I’m a Friggist—I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

I interrupt.  “That’s not even the Odinists.  Haven’t you folks figured out by now that you’ve all heard lies about each other?”

Ozwald laughs, sadly.  “So I lost my eye for nothing.  That’s what they told me when they attacked me, that if I loved Odin so much I should lose an eye like him, and they didn’t care how much I screamed that I love Friggo, not Odin.  To them all Heathens are alike.”

“Alike to whom I don’t know,” Pauline says with disgust.  “Or didn’t you know that I’m an Odinist?”

“No,” Cybil squeaks, dropping a water-bottle.  “I had no idea.”

“Lord of the Sword, lord of the scalpel,” says our surgeon.  “I do battle with disease and tumors—it’s my job.  Is it so strange to you that I worship the King of the Fine-Honed Edge?”

I step in.  “All right, children,” I say in my stern-mother voice.  “We’ve all been living in close quarters for quite some time now, and nobody has murdered anybody yet.  Let’s not start now, shall we?”  Raif giggles nervously, clutching Kimba’s hand.  “Let’s give each other’s religions a little breathing room.  And we can start by holding off the cremation for just one more day, for Toni’s sake.  The dead were Catholics, like her.”  They look properly shamefaced and get back to work.  Courtney grabs up every tool and basket in sight and carries them all at once to the shed, cursing when she almost drops a shovel.

As the others shut the hatch and head for the house, Cybil comes over to me, still as big-eyed as ever.  “Zanne,” she asks.  “Who or what do you worship?”

I smile brightly at her.  “I told you already.  Truth.  I worship Truth.”  Philosophically I add, “Or limpets, depending on how you look at it, but only special ones.”  Oh, the look on her face!  “It’s a rather complicated religion.”

“Aw, Zanne, I’m serious!”

“So am I, my dear.”  I take her arm and lead her in with the rest.  “So am I.”)

(“How serious is it?”  Our coach asks the nurse, who has run out to Jake’s side on the playing field.  Boys crowd around to watch the kneeling man probe Jake’s knee with practiced fingers, then abruptly grab and wrench it while Jake gasps a swear-word.

“Not life-threatening,” the nurse drawls with a smile. “I’ve set it back in place already.”  He wraps the knee up in an elastic bandage and I long to sponge the sweat off my lover’s wan face.  “But I’ll have to pull him from the game tomorrow.”

Half the boys groan louder than Jake did when he first fell.  The other half, the ones scheduled to play against us tomorrow, cheer.

The nurse stands, dusts off his knees, and calls Don and Joel over, as the only ones tall enough to help Jake limp to the sidelines.  Noticing my face, he quickly jots down something on a piece of paper, and hands it to me.  “See that the carpenter gets this,” he tells me.  “Jake will need a special cane cut for him; we don’t have any in the school issue to match his height.”

I nod, wordless, then lope off to the school shop.  I manage to restrain my grin until I’m out of sight.  I saw Jake deliberately aim for that slippery leaf on the field.  I’m not sure why, but I know he wrenched his trick knee on purpose.  Now that’s dedication!)

 

Monday, November 2, 2708

“Wake up, Deirdre.”

Huhhhhh?  Oh.  Oh yeah.  I ordered Bijal to do that.  Everything in me aches like a frost in the bones.  I pull myself together the best I can.  When I come back from the bushes fully dressed, Tanjin has a steaming bowl of porridge waiting for me—complete with milk.

“I can’t have this,” I tell him.  “Milk should go to the teenagers.  They need it for their bones.”

“Go ahead,” he urges.  “Everybody gets some; It won’t last another march.”

It tastes delicious!  And my body loves it.  Ohhhh how my body relishes every swallow!

I feel a hand shake my shoulder.  I did not just fall asleep into my breakfast, did I?  Sympathetically Bijal says, “You’re still not up to snuff yet, are you?”

Almost with hope I start to ask, “Do you think I should...”
            “Oh no, not at all—your wits are quite good enough to lead, even if your body hasn’t caught up.”  Coward.  “Anyway, we won’t have to go far before the army camps again.  Or have you forgotten what day it is?”

Oh.  Oh yeah.  Damn.  I’m in no shape for another twenty-four.  As I wipe off my face, my thoughts shake as much as my body and I can’t focus on anything.

Tanjin, reading my face, comes over and puts his good arm around me, saying, “Don’t worry, Deirdre; I’ll make sure you get a nice, long nap while they’re still corralling their oxen.”  I squeeze his hand on my shoulder, more grateful than I want to admit.

 (Reno nods off at the reins again, slumping slowly into my shoulder.  I shake him, but not before Sarge sees and beelines back to us.  Uh oh!  But he turns to me, not Reno.

“Kiril, have you been sharing your cookies with Reno?”

Odd question.  “Uh huh.”

“Well, don’t!”

“Why not, Daddy Sarge?”

“He’s a soldier—I don’t want you spoiling my soldiers—they’re supposed to be tough.”

“But Daddy Sarge...”

“Don’t backtalk me!” He smacks me in the face.  I fall back, staring at him in shock as he gapes at what he did.  “Oh Kiril, I...don’t make me angry again, Kiril.  I mean it.”  My hand steals up to my burning cheek.  “Please don’t ever, ever make me do that again.”

I stare at him.  He’s going crazy, too, just like everybody in this troop.  “I won’t, Daddy,” I say at last.

He gives Reno a long look; I expect him to put somebody else in charge of driving, but instead I hear him mutter, “Ah well, maybe it’s for the best,” and then he walks back up to the front.

The cart grinds on.  I look at Reno, myself, and something catches my attention.  His eyes look red.  I’m used to my own eyes being red all the time, but he doesn’t have my allergies.  Dust of the road? No, it rained last night and the road hasn’t got any dust for the cattle to kick up.  Has he been crying?  But lately he hasn’t been his usual nervous-wrecky self, now has he?  Oh no, indeed.  Clues fall together in my head before I even know I gather them.

The oxen labor upslope.  Sarge has already gone over to the other side of the hill and can’t see us anymore.  I reach under the seat and break open one of my cookies.  I see bits of an herb in there—that doesn’t belong in any cookie recipe I know!

“What has he put into my food?” I whisper, though I think I know.

Reno catches the words.  He does a double-take, then leans over to murmur,  “That looks like marijuana, kid.  The farmwife must’ve cooked it in.”  He rubs his weary face.  “That explains a lot.”

“But why?”

“Suited her purpose perfectly.  It stimulates the appetite, makes you too sluggish to burn calories, and it kills nausea and dulls pain, so when you overeat it hardly bothers you.  I wondered how you could pack away so much.”

I should not feel so betrayed.  I should not feel such deep, bile-bitter, crying-in-the-dark emotion.  “I’m glad you shot her,” I say at last.  “How could she do such a thing to me?”

“You remember when you asked Sarge if you looked like a pig?”

“Yeah.”

“That stung his pride.  He figured you didn’t come up with it by yourself.  So I saw him take a pen and put a mark on your sash, behind your back, when he pulled you onto his lap.  Later I heard him tell the woman that the mark was just outside the knot, and that we weren’t going to leave the dairy till the mark had worked its way all through the knot and wound up on the inside.”

I cuss.  I’ll bet it’s in the fudge, too.

Reno says, “Farmers around here use marijuana all the time to fatten up their livestock.”

I knew what they meant for me...but I thought I went along with it all on my own consent.  “They drugged me!”  I have not felt so violated since my initiation into ship-life.

“Yeah, kid.  The bastards drugged you.”

I don’t want to cry.  They don’t deserve my tears.  I grit my teeth, holding the tears back.  Failing, I turn to Reno fiercely and hiss, “Even Sarge’s love is evil!”

His eyes widen, but he says nothing to rebuke me.  I’ve got him soooo close...)



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