IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 19
What We Can and Cannot Handle


Saturday,  November 7, 2708, continued

(The army slogs through spring mud and morning mist, as a cool and foggy depression clouds our hearts.  Mine, too; I should rejoice, but...you know, sometimes Freck infuriated me.  And I know for a fact that he did bad things, I mean really bad things, the sort of crimes that give a rebel reason to shoot.  But I kind of liked him,  sometimes.  I want to punish myself for that.  I liked his kind words to me, and his way of hovering around protecting me whenever things got scary.  I liked the wildflowers that he’d pick for me.  I can still smell the mountain primrose that he put in a jar of water for me as I cooked breakfast yesterday, and I remember how enthusiastically he praised the biscuits that I made, wolfing down more than his share, laughing and saying how he couldn’t help himself, me being such a good cook and all, as he wiped the crumbs from his face.  I remember his big, warm hands lifting me up into the cart and his sleepy, grateful grin, on the day that he died.

I hate myself so bad I can’t find words to say!

“I thought we agreed that you weren’t going to eat any more of those funny cookies,” Reno mutters just in my hearing.

“Can’t let good food go to waste.”

“They aren’t good food.”

“What do you know about it?”

“Kiril, I know that you’ve had to go hungry in the past, but...”

“Had to!  Oh yeah, had to, like nobody could do anything about it—oh, the poor, bleeding hearts of the well-fed and helpless!”

He stuffs a cookie into my mouth, himself.  “Hush!” he hisses.  “What’s gotten into you?”

With my mouth full I lean over to his ear and whisper, “Marijuana, I think!” and giggle.

“Well, don’t let it make you talk crazy subversive stuff at the top of your lungs,” he murmurs, gripping my arm hard.  Oh Jeez, he’s right—idiot, Kiril!

“I’m just having a bad day,” I say.  I wring my hands in silence for a moment, then help myself from the box.  “Everybody talks about how ‘resilient’ I am.  That word means that I can take anything and spring back like nothing happened, right?  Just the other day Doc called me a ‘tough lil’ critter’ when he thought I couldn’t hear him.  But Reno, nobody knows what it’s like to be me.  I can go hard for a long, long time, but every so often something breaks through.  Yesterday...”

“Horrendous.  I know.”

Oh Reno, I wish you did know.  I wish I could bare my heart to you and you could kiss away every ugly wound in it and make it all better.  Instead I have another cookie.  I do feel it, now, now that I know to recognize the coziness for what it really is, and since I’ve been away from it.  It doesn’t make the wounds go away, but it does sort of blur them so I don’t have to pay them much attention.

“I should destroy those for you,” Reno says, anger and concern and love all tangled up together in his voice.

“No, don’t do that,” I say.  “They’ve got medicine for some people.  They kill pain.”  I turn to him with an idea that I wouldn’t dare voice sober.  “You sneak out sometimes; next time why don’t you take the cookies with you?  Write a note about what’s in ‘em, and that it’s for injured people.  Drop it off at a tavern—barkeeps usually know who needs what.”  Barkeeps usually hear all the subversive talk and know where wounded rebels hide.

“I dunno, Kiril; it sounds awful risky.”

“We all agree to take risks when we take up arms.”

“We?”

Kiril you moron!  I laugh and say, “I march with the soldiers, now—doesn’t that make me one of you?  We all get shot at, Reno.”

He just stares at me, speechless.

“Maybe you shouldn’t take all the cookies, though,” I say, eating one—just one—more.  “Sarge might get suspicious if they all disappear at once.”

“So?  You should confront him with what he’s done—why so secretive?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?  I depend on his goodwill—I can’t cross him too often.  You know that.”

He nods, brow furrowed.

“Reno, you worry too much.”  You see too much, my friend.  “Here.”  I glance around, and when I make sure Sarge doesn’t look, I stuff a few cookies into his kit.

“What the devil do you think you’re doing?”

“I know you don’t sleep well at nights.  You’re a wreck.  Have a couple cookies before going to bed—it can’t hurt then.”  He hesitates.  “If you don’t start taking care of yourself, you’re gonna crack.”

“Well, maybe just tonight.”

“One good night’s sleep is worth seven miracles, we say where I come from.”  And just like that I give up on my plans for him to break in battle.)

(The cookie factory.  It’s all about the cookie factory, right now, at least that’s the only clue we have on probably quite a few businesses inundating Vanikke with magentine.  But at least with this one business Dalmar knows the way.

And right now that way leads through another rough and ready river park.  Much of the autumn color has faded into brown by now, and our footsteps crunch too loudly through the fallen leaves, but at least the fading means that few visit the park, especially along its more obscure reaches.  And however cold camping outdoors might be, at least we’ll sleep on softer ground than the concrete of another abandoned warehouse.  But oh for a genuine bed!)

* * *

The gaunt woman wakes me from a good day’s nap on a real bed with quilt and pillow and everything.  In silence she leads me out to a stout farm meal of squash and potatoes in bean soup, with the hardy mountain cabbage that lives through the bitterest snow and has fibers in the leaves tough enough to hang a rat with.  Her big black dog looks up from where he lies, and his tail thumps briefly on the floor before he goes back to gnawing at his hambone.

“Don’t get in the habit of eating here,” she growls.  “I just feel like being a sap today.”

“No problem,” I say with my mouth full.  “I appreciate it.”

“You’d better.”  We say nothing more till  I’ve almost finished, when she asks, “When did you begin your servitude?”

“To the Egalitarians?”  I wipe my mouth and gather up my gear.  “Just last February.”

She cackles harshly at that.  “You’re just a baby!”

“Yeah.”  I laugh, too.  “Wet behind the ears.”  When I’ve got all the tools of the medic’s trade back into my pack, I say, “When we’ve regrouped, I’ll send a couple of our folks over to take our “cousin” off your hands.  Can you spare a beast for her to ride on?”  For the horse ran away as soon as unburdened, apparently.

“I’ve got an old ass too broke-down to carry anything but a matchstick girl like her—you saying you’re in charge or something?”

“Just call me Captain Baby.”

(My head hurts.  I open my eyes, painfully.

The roof looks unfamiliar.  The bed feels different.  The air smells harsh and chemical.

Where!  Where!  I panic, sitting up, clutching a fresh-laundered quilt to my chest.

I see the infirmary around me, all of its polished cabinets, the glass doors revealing jars and bottles in their tidy rows.  I calm a little, laying back down.  I thought I had somehow wound up outside the school.  I’ve slept in the same bed for some fifty years at least; I don’t handle changes well.
            What am I doing here?

I must have said it out loud, because Randall answers, “I couldn’t wake you. So we brought you here.”

“Where’s…”

“In the next room, taking care of George Winsall.”  He sits down beside me.  “That’s what I wanted to wake you about.”

“I…I don’t feel like discussing anything important right now.”  Have I had another spell?  Is it my heart or something?

Has my heart broken at last?

“What did you dream, sir?”

My head moves too fast for its pain, to glare at him.  “How dare you.”  He looks startled—maybe people discuss such things where he comes from.  “They are nobody’s business, and I shall forget them as soon as I can.”  Horrible, horrible dreams, but already they fade.  Forbidden thoughts and imagery.  A rift like a vagina in time and space, through which I could see the past…but no!  I forget!  Quickly, quickly I forget.

I might have startled him, this man pretending to be a boy, but I have not shaken him.  He stands up, returning glare for glare.  “You, sir, are derelict in your duty if you refuse to remember your dreams.”  And then he stalks away.

He comes from a strange land.  They have strange customs, there.  It doesn’t mean a thing.)

(What did I dream last night?  I try to recall as I help old Magda step over a fallen log.  This park has seen some neglect—further evidence of Vanikke deteriorating.  I had seen the splotchy rat, and behind him a skinny, twitchy old man...did I see them or dream them?  Probably the latter.  Nobody attacked us last night, after all.

Then something else...I seem to recall having been someone slender, flat-chested...no, male.  I dreamed of being male.  Still with the blonde hair, though, but...glasses?  I glance over at Ozwald, still wearing his glasses even though one side will never need a lens again.

“Ozwald,” I say, pushing through mostly bare twigs with a few rattling brown leaves left to them, “I dreamed of being you last night.”

He laughs.  “Did I have lots of money?”

“No, you—I—walked in on somebody ransacking an office.  He said he planned on blaming it on me.”

Ozwald pales.  “That really happened, girl.”  He turns his good eye to glare at me.  “That’s not cool, you prying like that!”

“Whoa, take it easy.  I can’t always help what I dream.”

“You told Kimba you could enter into other people’s dreams,” he accuses.  “I heard you.”

I sigh, then say, “Yes, when I mean to.  But I didn’t make any such plans last night.”

“So...it just happened?  By accident?”

“Uh huh.”  After a few steps I add,  “Anyway, if your history comes up in my dreaming without me intending it, maybe it matters.”

“Naw, it’s just ugly.”

In my gentlest voice I ask, “Can you tell me anyway, Ozwald?”  And I lay a hand on his arm.

“No...”

Guaril comes to the other side of him.  “It’s okay, lil’ buddy.  Dreams mean something.  And talking about your troubles help.”  He laughs.  “That’s the real value in fortunetelling, you know.  For thousands of years my people have been shrinks for folks who had nobody else to talk to.  They never remembered the fortunes we told, anyway, just the kindness, and the listening.  People need to talk.”  He gives the boy a light punch in the arm.  “And you do, too, kiddo.  You don’t have to get all Germanic-stoic about it.”

Ozwald hesitates, swallows, then says, “Okay.”  Then silence for a few more steps, and then he glances shyly my way as we walk together.  “Okay.  Um...yeah.  I had this sweet job, you know, as a skateboard messenger and all, got to travel all over the city, shooting in and out of different offices and shops and restaurants and stuff, doing what I liked and getting paid for it...”

“Uh huh?”  I try to project my sympathy telepathically as much as show it in my eyes.

“Then I go to this one place, told I’ve got a package to pick up there at noon, and instead these guys are waiting for me, robbing the place and planning to blame it on me.  And I’m like what the hell?  Then the boss storms in, back from lunch, and they all start bleating about me, telling him I’m an Odinist, and after that he’d believe anything.  He and the returning employees drag me out to the parking lot, and they hold me down on the ground, all of them together, no matter how much I kick and wriggle and plead, and, and one of them kicks off her high-heeled shoe, and when I can’t tell them where I stashed their payroll she...oh Friggo!”  He stops right on the path, shivering so much that the dead leaves touching him rattle.  Or is that the rat darting just out of sight, now?  “And, and, and they all laughed when she said she’d made me just like Odin.”

“You’ve been having nightmares about it,” I say, “Haven’t you?”

He nods.

“Feeling helpless and vulnerable?”

He nods again.

“I must be picking up on it to help you through it.”  After a minute’s thought, I say, “I’m going to give you self-defense lessons—best cure I know for feeling helpless is to not be helpless anymore.”

Faintly he says, “I’m a Friggist.  We’re peaceable.”

Pauline looks over her shoulder at us from where she walks with Dalmar, then turns around and comes over to give Ozwald a hug. “That’s why there’s a whole pantheon, baby.”  She leaves her hands on his shoulders when she draws back.  “We all specialize, but all of Asgard’s got our backs at need.”  She scans a moment, then her eyes light on a meadow.  Taking him by the arm, she says,  “Come on, I’ll show you a few moves, myself.  And later, when we camp, you can show me how you take care of the sprouts even on the run the way you do.”)

“Wake up, Captain Baby!”  The old woman shakes me roughly, but almost playfully.  “Don’t want you drooling on my rug, now do I?  Don’t you have a job to do?”

“I...uh...yeah.”  I push myself up off her floor, confused.  “What just happened?”

“You keeled over on your way out.  You rebels just don’t get enough rest, do you?”  She sighs dramatically before saying, “You’d better stay another night.”



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