IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 25
Dangerous Lessons


Friday, November 13, 2708

(Cybil sits up and hugs her knees at the sound of wolves howling in the dawn.  We couldn’t find shelter last night, so we improvised with tarps and trees—none of which could keep out a predator, of course.  Seriously, they can hardly keep the wind out.

I smile at her where I lie and say, “Don’t worry, pet.  They sound rather far away.  And rainbow wolves become notorious cowards if they find that human beings also travel in a pack.”

I see tears on her face in the first dim light.  “It’s just that I’m not used to this.  I am So.  Not. Used.  To.  This!”

I sit up and put my arms around her, and she sobs and sobs on my shoulder.  “I know, chickling.” I murmur over and over in her hair, but I don’t really know, and I don’t actually want to tune in telepathically to find out.  I have always embraced the things that I wasn’t used to.  She feels warm and plump against me in the cold.

Does it matter if I can’t empathize, so long as I can sympathize?  It’s like Merrill’s allergies—just because I don’t share them doesn’t mean I can’t see how they bother him.

I tell her, “Yes, yes, it all seems so unfamiliar to you, but you’re learning, you’re doing just fine.  I’m really impressed.  It wasn’t that long ago that you’d fall apart if you got a run in your stocking.  Now look at you!  You’re a regular adventurer!”

“Y-you think so?”

“I’ve seen with my own eyes, dearheart.”

“Thank you, Zanne.  You’re a peach.”  Cybil wipes her nose on a kerchief that I offer her, then goes off to wash up a bit.  Pretty soon I hear our hamster-feed “cereal” bubbling in the pot.

I perform my own morning ablutions, flinching by the ice-rimmed creek.  At least I’ve kept a brush, and a stick of lipstick; I can still feel like the woman I am, even when I have no mirror to confirm it.)

This morning finds Kurmal a little better.  He has managed to contribute a dark flow to the chamber-pot, and now he can sit up and take a little soup.  Good stuff, too; Zofia got fresh beef from somewhere, and has cooked it up with lots of garlic; garlic can cure just about anything, they say.  And she stirred in potatoes and spring greens and everything else needful for a healthy broth.

(Cybil gives Elmer second-helpings of “cereal”, along with the teenagers.  No one, seeing how thin he is, objects.  For that matter, not all of the crew looks happy about their first helping, unused to the taste of alfalfa pellets in their grains and nuts, though I myself have a much more cosmopolitan palette than that.  I think they would just as soon see us run out, anyway. 

But Elmer, now, he dives in with gusto, his spoon rattling against the tin camp-dish from the shaking of his hand.  He smacks his lips and says to Cybil, “Ma’am, you’ve made a new man of me!”

“Well, New Man,” I say to him, “Now that you know we have rescue in mind, are you going to save us trouble and show us the way to your former employer?”)

“Troops’re movin’,” Kurmal says weakly as he sets the bowl aside; he shakes a little, splashing the portion left.  “Lotsa differen’ troops.”

“Theirs or ours?” I ask.

“Gover’ment troops.  Theirs, I guess.”  He sinks back on the pillows and smiles on Zofia.  “Not a rebel anymore, pers’nally.”

“I can respect that.  Consider yourself mustered out.  But tell me...”

“Can your folks harry theirs?” he asks, fever rising in his face again.  “I done all I can, Deirdre.  Gotta settle down.  Always more rebels where I come from...”

“Can you tell me where the troops are headed?” I ask, but too late; his eyes glaze over as he slips back into a stupor.  At least we got some broth into him, first.  I sit there for awhile just listening to his labored breathing, before I go out for a smoke.

(Elmer stares at his bowl, scraping up the last few seeds.  “Pet food,” he says in his gravelly voice.  “Smart.  At the factory the new bosses give us nothing but the company food.”  He holds up a spastic hand.  “They don’t even pretend to follow the original recipes anymore.  Poison.  They’re making the whole country eat poison.  Why?”)

Zofia joins me outside, but she shakes her head when I offer her a light; fewer rebels use tobacco up here where the air thins out.  I tell her, “I can’t stay much longer, you know.”

“I know.”  And just saying that, hearing that, every bone in my body aches to stay there forever, to farm for my food and never shoot another bullet or hide in another tree.  You should’ve chosen this sooner, Kurmal.

“Listen,” I say.  “You’ve got a nice, out-of-the way location, here.”  I wave my cigarette at the forest-rimmed fields.  “And you’ve kept Kurmal alive longer than most could’ve done.  You know any herbalists around here?”

She nods.  “My late husband’s aunt.”

“How’s she feel about the Revolution?”

“Bitter,” she sighs.  “She raised my man like a son after his dad died for the cause.  And then he...”

Damn.  I drop my cigarette-butt and grind it under my heel.  “Can you pump her for knowledge anyway?”

“M-maybe.”

“Think she’d turn you in if she figured out what you wanted it for?”

She turns wide eyes to me.  “What do I want it for?”

“We need a hospital in these parts.”  Time to ruin Paradise.  “I think you’d make a good nurse.”

She straightens and slowly salutes me.  “I’ll learn whatever I need to, Ma’am.”  Then she looks out over her fields and says, “The rye will grow tall.”

I take her by the arm towards the storage-shed, where I saw some useful household chemicals.  “First I’d like to teach you how to mix up a wound-wash called Dakin’s solution...”

(Pauline takes Elmer’s shaking hand and says, “Neurotoxins.  It all adds up to neurotoxins.  You’ve gotten more than most, undiluted, but everyone could end up like this.”

I nod.   “For some reason somebody wants the entire country in an altered state—and saturated with magentine.”)

* * *

(George still seems shaken, days after his ordeal, but he promised a lesson, in his capacity as Changewright, and he’s doing his level best to deliver.  And, as good initiates, we must attend, sitting on the dusty floor in that stinking room.  One more lousy night of short sleep.  Randy, you’re a sybarite; why’d you ever choose the life of an agent, anyway?

For this demonstration we have lit candles, the better to see what he’s doing, and their light dances ruddily over all the young faces, casting shadows up the wrong way, making the familiar weird.  It’s not like actual satanic worship or anything, just an imitation, for instruction.  I keep telling myself that, trying to keep the shivers down, trying not to study the layers of blood in the filthy carpet, trying to keep my heightened mind from distinguishing the small rat splatters from the great soakings from something or someone much larger.  Oh God be with me!

“First you make sure you have your rat good and stunned.  You don’t want bit in the middle of the ritual.”  Nervous giggles answer.  He reaches for a box on the table.  “I feed them herbs for that, oxstager, goda root, and berries of the hellbind, mixed with a little grain.  A rat can starve to death in two days; after awhile he’ll eat anything.”

The candles give off a haylike odor.  Who knows what herbs he’s worked into the wax? I do feel a little dizzy, come to think of it.

He lifts a rat out of a box.  The creature moves his legs feebly, but doesn’t offer much resistance.  “You see?  He’s awake—after a manner of speaking—but incapable of fighting back.  Maybe distracted, too—some of what I gave him can bring on visions.”  George smiles affectionately, petting the fur.  “He goes to his demise in a sacred state.”

He lays the rat down onto a silver platter.  “We place the rat on silver, for the fem…feminine principle.”  And a nervous “oooo” whispers through the crowd.  For a second it seems to strengthen George, as he holds up a yellow knife with a white-honed edge.  “And we gild the knife with gold, to represent the masculine principle.  Make sure that you keep it as sharp as possible; you don’t want to waste a second sawing through a rat’s throat.”  Students giggle again, and he tries to smile back, but he looks drained once more.  “Henceforth we shall call the rat Chalice, and name the knife Atháme.”

Even I know that’s not right, and I’m a Baptist!

“You can read all manner of books with various chants for every kind of ritual, each warning you not to deviate one word from the original, even dictating what tone of voice to use.”  His face whitens as I watch, and he wavers a moment.  “Yet I find that the rites become much more…exciting…when you follow Holy Impulse and improvise.”  He raises the knife, wavering a moment over the rat…and drops it, fainting.

Don and Aaron rush over to him, stretching him out and elevating his feet.  Don says, “You’ve been under too much stress for this, physically, emotionally, and toxicologically.  We can continue the lesson another day.”

He only replies, “Pull me out of the way, for now.  I do feel tired.”  George glances over at Jake, who looks lost in thought, not quite here.  Then he turns instead to me.  “Randy, take over for me.”

“Me?”  I squeak.

“Yes.  You Lumne boys plainly know a thing or two about dark matters.  Who knows what you get up to out on that island?”  And I hear the others murmur in astonishment, asking each other why they never thought of that before.

“But, but, Don knows a lot more than me.”  Don actually participated in some of Alroy’s rituals.  “I’m just the baby brother.”

George laughs weakly.  “Time to grow up, Baby.”  Then he turns serious and says, “Follow Holy Impulse.”
            Ohhhkay.  God forgive me.  “Tell me what to say,” I plead.

“No.  Let it come to you.  And not in Toulinian, either.  Let your mouth find words unknown to you.”  I scoot around to the Changewright’s former position, take up the knife in a trembling hand, and gulp in a deep breath of candlesmoke for inspiration, but all it does is make me dizzier.  “Ooga gooba looba moop!”  I chant as earnestly as I can, and everybody laughs.  “Jaloopa moopa noop!”

Faintly I hear George sigh, “You’re not even trying.  Tune in.”

Oh sweet Jesus, grant this poor sinner the gift of tongues, that I may turn this over to you!  But wait—stupid paralyzing panic!  I already know languages that people in this school never even heard of.  In Pakashki I cry, “Forgive me O Lord!”  Everybody sits up straight, as I feel a power surge through me.  “We have no lamb, O Lord, only this poor beast.  And You want mercy, not sacrifice.  May Your blood cover his blood, and deliver us from this insanity!”  And I plunge in the knife.)



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