IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 54

Turning Point


Friday, December 11. 2708

(A year ago I would not have thought that any human being could eat so much breakfast all at once, but with practice you can do anything.  Malcolm told me once about something that had happened to him, and it gave me the idea.

Sarge looks so pleased!  I held back the protests as long as I humanly could, while he fed me with his own hands, and now I lie sweating on the ground, staring at the leaves above and holding my swollen belly while the soldiers on KP clean up the dishes all around.

When I moan the smile falls from Sarge’s face, but then he looks stern and keeps on ordering the breaking of our camp.  I close my eyes and offer up my pain for the revolution, listening to the morning clatter, pretending that I hear my own folks packing up for the day, trying to remember just how they sounded, all the little differences, but I can’t, quite. 

When Sarge comes to help me up onto the cart I weep and push his hand away.  “Don’t move me.  Please don’t move me,” I say weakly.  “Oh God, please don’t!”  After a few more tries he realizes I mean it and he runs for Doc.  I swear to God I really, really, really never want to see or even smell another cheese omelette again!

“Just what the hell did you expect?” the medic snarls the minute he arrives, carefully palpating my stomach—I knew he’d do that, I couldn’t fake a thing.  “Do you realize you can kill a child by feeding her too much?”  I had to cut it close.  I had to make it real.

“She’s got to live on whatever I can give her.”  Sarge sounds like he’s pleading for something.  “I don’t know when she’ll eat next, once we part company.”

I should keep my mouth shut, but I pluck at his boot and husk, “Is it real for you yet?”

“Huh?”

I try to say, “That people out here starve,”  but sickness chokes the words back just in time.

“Quick,” Doc says.  “Help me turn her on her side—but gently!  Don’t jar her too much.”  I lose some of the breakfast, and feel a little relief.  “That’s it, girl,” says Doc.  “Clear out what you can.  But easy, not too much at once—you could perforate your stomach.”  No helping it—the smell makes me throw up again.  Doc wipes my mouth and cleans what he can from my hair.  His touch feels cool and professional.  Oh Doc, why’d you have to choose the other side?

Sarge asks, “What does she mean, ‘is it real’?  Think she’s delirious?”

“Maybe.”

“ The troop’s ready to go—can I move her, Doc?”

“Not even from this spot.  Clean the vomit up, and provide a basin for her.”  He presses a hand to my brow.  “That sweat’s turning clammy; bring her a blanket.  Give her nothing by mouth except water.  If she vomits any more—and pray God she does—give her dehydration-drink and ease her gently onto a mat.”  Oh please don’t pray for me!  Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.  “By tonight you can help her to your tent, but I don’t want her bouncing around in a cart tomorrow, either.  Tomorrow she can have clear fluids, but nothing else.  The next day maybe a little dry toast, and she can have it on the cart.”  He glares up at Sarge.  “That’s assuming she lives.”  Sarge looks sick, himself.

Maybe I miscalculated.  Somehow tomorrow I have got to convince them to let me cook for them.  The pot I set aside before breakfast should be ready by then.  Just the thought of it sets me retching all over again.  I look up into Sarge’s face and I see him suffer, and I want him to suffer, especially because I also don’t want him to suffer, and I hate myself for that, and hate him, too, and I hate my whole damn life.)

(“They’re poisoning Belen Montoya,” I tell the others as I lead them to quarters that I know lie near a lab, “With her own food, or what they’ve done to it. They won’t allow her anything else.  Hush...”  I motion them into a dust-thick side room.  Nobody makes a sound.  At first nothing, then we hear the boots march down the hall.  I wait till I know they’ve gone past earshot, then rise to resume our journey, but reel against Cybil’s soft shoulder.

“Zanne?”

“Sorry.  My...my head hurts.”  The place zings with so much telepathy!  I know everyone’s movements in the manor.  I don’t want...I just...I...

Not now, Zanne dear.  Keep it together a little longer.

“They’ve saturated themselves, too,” I explain.  “I have to keep us shielded constantly.  We can find each other’s thoughts.”

“No, you don’t” a high voice pipes.  It takes me a moment to realize that it’s Kimba speaking.  “Guaril and Tshura watch over us.”

“Hush, Sis,” Raif whispers.  “Don’t be silly.”

I raise my eyes.  “No...wait.”  I scan, though it makes my head feel as if it quivers to explode.  “No...she’s right.  Sucking up Guaril and Tshura’s life-force has backfired—they’re in the circuitry!”  I feel suddenly drunk with hope.  “And they’re diverting thoughts away from us!”  And with the relief of this realization I finally let go and pass out.)

 

Saturday, December 12, 2708

            No.  I do not want to sit up and eat.  No.  I do not want food.  Don't bother tucking the blanket around me as the day turns back to night and the air grows chill.  It's all the same night; why should I care?  The eyes stay closed, no matter what, the chill stays in the heart no matter what the outside temperature.  No, do not try to entice me with the scent of berry-blossom tea with honey in it, though my stomach growls and the animal in me longs for it.  I don't want to smell, nor taste, nor see, nor feel, nor anything.  I do not want to be.  Let me cease, dissolved into the cold and night.  Or, if the terms of my damnation do not permit such relief, let me at least become someone else for awhile.  For I know that this has happened in my dreams...

(When did I first realize that I was damned?  I strip off the latex gloves and study my nails—clean, well-trimmed, not a spot of blood on them anywhere.  Was it...no, it didn’t happen at the first interrogation, no, nor the fifth, nor past the point where I lost count.  That’s not what did it.  The hands look fine, but the shirt’s a mess; some of the spurting missed the apron.  I’d better get it into cold water immediately or the stains won’t come out—it’s been a hard day.

 Already the latest girl waits at the door for me to strip, her eyes downcast to hide the hardness in them, the papaya extract ready in her hand.  When I toss the shirt at her she jumps back, careful to catch it by the unspattered back.  I shall have to hire a less squeamish girl.  Pity.  I hate the severance package for those who know too much, but what else can I do?

The interrogations didn’t do it, because I understand them.  My clients don’t come into my clutches without good reason—they’re the damned, themselves, and I make sure they get a good taste of what they’ll deserve for all eternity, for what they’ve done to my country.

Most of them, anyway, but I know for a fact that even God makes mistakes, now and then.  He must—my mother survived that rebel bullet, only to go mad.  At least I think it was a rebel bullet; with all the ricochets going around that day, I can’t look back on it with the certainty I used to.

Dad died–that’s the main thing.  I still feel torn on that–a good thing, a bad thing.  If I could just split and have one of me carry each opinion, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.  Then I laugh, just a short bark of mirthless humor.  In a way, isn’t that exactly what happened?

I hear the girl draw water for the laundry.  Sometimes it’s a mercy to die young; you never know.

A hard day, but it’s over.  I pour myself a small glass of chaummin before dinner; I think I’ve earned it.  What makes the kids resist so long, when they know I’m right?  Every single one of them eventually concedes that I am right.

Dinner will take awhile, with the girl tending to my shirt, first, so I kick off my boots and settle on the bed, my legs stretched out before me and my back against the wall, and I sip the chaummin slowly, mulling its sweetness on my tongue, feeling the tension leech away.  And what did I learn for all my trouble?  That the rogue Tilián agitator has rallied together the local riffraff?  Hardly a surprise, there—her style stinks on every vicious act of terrorism for miles around.  I can’t believe I wasted last summer trying to rescue the little witch.

When did I first realize?  Not when I first had to “process” a child—that came early on.  I accepted the reality.  There are no children in the Charadoc.  Except my own, of course.  I have no regrets, there; I will do anything to anybody necessary, rip the countryside apart clear to the magma-bleeding core if I have to, to preserve some shred of childhood for my sons, and after that give them some kind of future, better than their old man ever had.

Maybe I can’t stop the revolution; maybe nobody can, not for generations, at least.  But nobody can kill off all the mosquitos in the world, either; still we strive to keep their numbers down and minimize the danger.  If I can keep the revolution small and ragged and always on the run, maybe I can do my part to preserve some pockets of peace here and there, and nestle my children into one of those pockets, and sleep well each night to think of it, even if I can never live there, myself.

And oh, what this country could be without rebellion!  People really could rise or fall on their merits, then, with no fear to stand in their way.  The rules would lighten up; we’d have less need of them.  Businesses would prosper and proliferate, creating jobs for everyone.  And there are generous souls aplenty among the upper castes who would gladly open up schools for the poor, reopen the orphanages, set up rehabilitation centers for alcoholics and drug addicts, heal all the wounds.  Instead they must either spend their money defending themselves or paying extra taxes for the government to do it for them, or misguidedly channel resources into the revolution itself, like that monstrous dentist did, may he rot somewhere in a well-deserved and unmarked grave!

The girl comes in with a clean, pressed shirt for me, and reports that the other’s drying by the fire.   I tell her, “Fix dinner for two—the captive will dine with me tonight.”  She nods; she knows the routine.  I reward those who finally accept reality and give me what I want.  I become their best friend.  I listen sympathetically when they weep and I help them understand how they’ve been misled, how it’s not their fault, so long as they take steps to rectify matters.

It doesn’t work with everyone; some the rebels ruin utterly and I can only control them with fear, death, or a just self-loathing.  No matter; I can use that kind, too.  But I think that I can save this boy, and put him to good use.

The scent and sizzling of a good dinner cooking wafts in through the door.  I’m sure my new best friend smells it, too, for I left him tied up in the pantry.  Won’t he be surprised when the girl comes in and unbinds him, tends to his hurts, helps him to bathe, and dresses him in clean clothes?  Yes, she knows the routine, all right, and handles it deftly, gently, the perfect touch—maybe I’ll keep her, after all, just give her time to get over her squeamishness.  I hope I can—I hate it when my maids change sides.

I glance over at the bottle and resist the temptation to pour myself a little more.  I’ll need a clear head for the delicate business at hand.  So I just put the glass down and lean back, considering my damnation.  When?

It happened when I visited Mom at the asylum.  That must have been it.  I had the best of intentions; a lesser son would’ve left her comfortably out of sight and out of mind.  But no, I wanted to give her my support, even if she’d gone hopelessly, humiliatingly mad.  Even if she hardly knew her son.

No, Sanzio, not quite the truth—it did matter, after all.  Mom didn’t want me; she called out for her “brother”, instead.  I tried to reason with her, I told her that we had no brother, it was all a mistake—a tragic, sickening mistake.  Heaven and all the saints know that I began gently and with patience.

But she persisted, she got louder and shriller, and God help me but her whining started to sound more and more like one of my clients.  I meant only to slap her lightly, you know, bring her to her senses, but something slipped out of control and two orderlies wrestled me out of there, saying that I could never come back, but not before I saw a nurse help my bleeding mother up off the floor.  That’s when I knew what the job had done to me.  That’s when I knew that I could never go home.

I pick up the glass, stare at the drop or two of brown fluid left on the bottom, shake my head, and set it back down.  Is that girl going to take forever to get dinner on the table?

Easy, Sanzio—she still has to get our friend ready for the meal.  And after all the work you two did together, that might take awhile.

Remember to tell him how much you respect him for holding out so long—pity he did it all for the wrong cause, but you have to admire a man like that.  Boy, really, but let’s call him a man; that’s what he thinks he is, and who am I to disparage that?  He resisted like a man.

I hurl the glass at the wall and then stare coldly at the shards that sparkle on the floor.  I’ll tell the girl about it; she’ll clean it all up before the dinner’s through.  No, I don’t have to tell her, after all; she pokes her head in the door, gives the broken glass a dull-eyed glance, no more, and tells me dinner’s served.  Yep, she’s learning; I think I’ll keep her.  I’d be a fool to waste someone so well-trained and start from scratch with another.

One last glance at the mirror, straighten the collar, smooth down the hair.  However casual one may pretend to act, one must always put on one’s best appearance, always stay slightly more in control than anyone else in the room.  The girl will have given my friend clean and comfortable new clothes, better than he had, but slightly coarser than my own, with thinner sleeves

 I pause, looking into the mirror’s eyes.  Haunted—better do something about that.  Compose yourself, man.  You have wasted too much time wallowing in damnation.

I leave the room, and greet my friend softly where he trembles at the table.  Whatever gave me the idea that I’m damned, anyway?  Everything I do is for the greater good.  How could the damned want peace in the Charadoc as much as I do?  And would a slave of Hell trouble himself the slightest over the deeds done—of necessity!—along the way?)




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