IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Growing Up in Ishkal
Wednesday, December 23, 2708, continued
(I can see, through the wardrobe louvers, Don standing where the Headmaster’s door will hide him when it opens. I can see the pistol in his hand, and the dangerous expression on his face. I remember, with a sudden vividness, how he had once become an outlaw, infiltrating Alroy’s ranks and then losing himself in the role. I only saw him after they had used him up and spit him out, a frazzled wreck who could barely stand on his own, but there must have been a time before that when he looked just like this, like a Don that I have never known.
I nod. So we’re on the same page, then. I have never killed in my life, but I could do it now, if I had to. I feel the weight of the knife in my hand, and I like it. I could do anything to save Jake’s life.
And this has to be how to do it—not by killing, but by meaning the threat enough to be believed, even by the random telepathic flashes of an untrained oracle. Somehow Wallace Weatherbent holds the key, or is the key, or something. Somehow we have to know what he doesn’t want to ever know again.
The Headmaster comes in, and he looks weary, and haunted, and I can feel the ache in his shoulders just by seeing him. He shrugs off the heavy overcoat and hangs it on its hook, his back to Don, who doesn’t move. Then he beelines for the bar, and pours himself a shot of kusmet—and chokes on the bitterness of unexpected herbs.
We move fast. We pin him down between us, and he sees our weapons, and the mouth opened to scream suddenly doesn’t dare.
Don shoves the barrel against his skull. “Drink the entire flask,” he grates. “Every last drop. You’ve got some remembering to do.”)
And then the story floods me, memories not my own, burning through me, hotter than the fever, than greenfire, than anything! Yet they start out in an icy place…
(…Only the three of us lived on Ishkal, awash in a cold salt wind from miles and miles of ocean and nothing else. Only my father could sail the boat, and he had business to attend to, fish to catch and sell, goods to buy to supplement the garden that he left his wife to grub for months at a time without him, forcing food from the rocks and sand between the clumps of salt-burned grass.
She would beg to go to shore with him, to shop, to buy those things that only a woman could pick out, but she had a past on the shore and he did not want her to revisit it. I didn’t know, at the time, what that meant, just that she would look away and nod, so sad, and say, yes, she agreed, she had married him precisely to escape all that. And then she’d thank him for protecting her.
Father would, gently, ask her to write down whatever she thought she might need, and she would take great care with the list, yet her heart would sink, because she had no idea what new fashions, even what new fabrics, might prevail upon the mainland. He would sometimes bring her magazines, but she knew that they’d have gone out of date by the time he went ashore once more. All this she confided to me; sometimes I felt heavy with the confidences.
Left to our own devices, Mother and I would play in Father’s absence. The labors of the island could not consume all hours, after all, and some chores could slide till the frenzy of the final week before his return, when we dashed about, half-mad with shame, to turn everything ship-shape once again before he could arrive and see. Yet until then we made our prison into a kingdom of imagination. We played explorer, and doctor, and fabulously wealthy heirs of leisure. We pretended to be elves, or aliens from some other planet, warriors, merchants, hunters, actors, carefree Gypsies “on the Road” when I had never even seen a road, or a merchant, or an agent of the distant Tilián.
And sometimes we played pirate, which I loved the best of all, for then we bedecked ourselves in scarves that saw no other use anymore, in trinkets and chains and embroidered vests, all of these over lacy, overfull blouses that boys normally should despise. We’d laugh loudly together, waving driftwood for our swords, our pistols and our daggers, and we’d shout scandalous orders to pillage and loot, in bold, uncouth voices, because pirates did that, pirates knew no law. And our crew of invisible playmates would obey, against equally invisible victims.
As adolescence came upon me she began to tell me how pirates not only stole treasure, but sometimes they also ravaged their captives. I couldn’t stop picturing it, and she couldn’t seem to stop talking about it, and she would give me strange looks.
The way she moved changed: kind of twitchy, kind of swaying, happier yet yearning, and she’d meet my eye more and more and longer and longer while my father fished, leagues away on an ocean uncrossable to us. She started to wear her sleeves pushed off from her shoulders, plunging her neckline lower, saying that pirate wenches dressed that way. She started to speak in a salty manner, sassy, using words that she formerly punished me for uttering, words that my father only used when something went wrong, and then quickly apologized for afterwards. Now she laughed whenever I said them, myself—a hearty, thrilling laugh.
She continued to bathe me, in the dented old tub in the kitchen corner, and I did not yet know the strangeness of this. I loved her hands upon me, warmed in the soapy water, and yet something increasingly felt uncomfortable, too, something I couldn’t name. When my body started to respond in a new way, achingly sweet, she told me not to feel ashamed at the sudden mushroom-growth: it was natural, it was what happened with men. But it hadn’t occurred to me to feel shame until she’d said it, and then I wondered, and then I realized that something had indeed gone wrong, but I still didn’t understand what. I matched it with the discomfort that I felt, but I didn’t know the word for the thing gone wrong.
After that her hands on me bothered me more and more, to the point of anger. One day, in the midst of bathing, I shouted, “You wash yourself, Father washes himself, I am quite old enough to wash myself—you said, yourself, that I’m almost a man!” And I pushed her away, harder than I meant to. She skidded on the soapy tiles then, and fell; she lay there surprised and bruised with her legs splayed out, and then she got up, pale but smiling, and said, “You are indeed nearly a man, and a forceful one, at that.” And she left as I picked up the sponge, and if anything her steps swayed even more.
Soon after I told her that I felt too old for the games we played. She nodded sadly, then brightened suddenly, and with a smile, said, “Let’s play pirate one last time, for old time’s sake!” And I agreed.
The last game. The lastness of it imparted a final sweetness, or rather a bittersweetness, this goodbye to childhood. It seemed like the best time ever, this ending, on a rare, golden summer day in that land that saw too little of summer and too much time cramped up indoors in the snow, living so closely that whenever father came home for the season, I could hear everything through the sailcloth partition between my “bedroom” and that of my parents, till I’d peer around an edge in the dark when they were too engrossed to notice anything but each other, to see exactly what Father did with Mother.
But in this, the glow of summer, Father sailed so far away that he seemed more of a figment of imagination than our driftwood swords. I couldn’t picture ever playing pirate with him around to watch and disapprove; I had no proof that he would, I just imagined that so criminal, so glamorous a game would not suit the dour tastes of a man who survived to work and worked to survive,
In our play my Mother hid treasures—fyvels of shell and stone and the misty sea-glass washed ashore—starting by the rose bush. One by one I found and plundered her every cache, finding clues with each one to the next. The clues grew more complicated but I had a good brain, and I felt acutely my intelligence in solving these riddles that my mother left for me.
The final clue led into her bedroom, two walls cloth and two walls stone, and she lay on the bed, resplendent in her scarves and vest and her recklessly bared shoulders. I was not used to her watching as I hunted; it didn’t quite seem the way that the game should go. But I went along with it, not wanting to miss a single detail of this, my final game of pirate.
I found some cowries hidden in her underwear drawer. “That is not the only treasure in this room,” she said in a husky voice. I found her strand of pearls enclosed in an exciting book that I used to sneak into, and she laughed when pulling out the pearls caused the pages to fall open to a provocative picture. I blushed, suddenly angry, suddenly knowing that she knew how I had sneaked, and that she taunted me for my curiosity. “That is not the only treasure in this room,” she repeated.
I looked under the bed. She murmured, almost whispering, “It is not under the bed.” I got up onto the bed and searched through the blankets and the pillows, groping around her as she lay there smiling, tumbling her this way and that in my searching.
Harshly I asked, “Did you hide it in your clothing?” as anger and frustration rose in me, because this seemed like cheating. And yet it didn’t spoil the game, because pirates are fierce and angry people, as she’d often told me.
I almost didn’t hear the faint breath of her “Yes!” So I searched her clothing, and she giggled and let me, till at last, for lack of anything else, I found myself pulling garments off or pushing them out of the way, and suddenly she caught my fingers, her face flushed, and said, “Do you remember what I told you that pirates also sometimes do?” and then she placed my hand into the hiding-place within her bosom, where I found a gem by feel. And all the while my other hand undid not just her buttons, but my own, and then with both hands I went faster and faster like something else, something hotter and stronger than me, rushed into my body and took over, as she wrapped herself around me.
When the storm had passed, I lay naked in her bed, drowsing in her arms, half-stunned after the amazing sensations, turning the rosy crystal over and over in my hands: ocean-polished to a frosty roundness, utterly, utterly feminine. Yet suddenly, as I did so, a whole parade of men passed through my mind and, it seemed, my body: beastly, luscious men, none of them my father, more vividly alive than any picture I had seen captured and flattened in a book. They smelled of beer and sweat. I felt their callous yet quiveringly gentle hands touch me in places that I didn’t have…suddenly I threw the stone away from me, cursing! Somehow the damnable thing had violated me—and then I looked into my mother’s horrified eyes, and saw my own reflection there, and felt myself in some way join the men who leered within her memory, each of them painted in the lurid light of yearning, then of pleasure, and then of shame. Deadly poison shame.
Afterwards she grew distant. She didn’t want to play anymore. She didn’t want to eat. She told me that we would both go to Hell for what we’d done. No, no, I would, not her—she had not consented, she said, often babbling it over and over, she had not consented, that made her innocent this time, this worst of times, the blame lay all on me. Yet then she’d say, again, that we would go to Hell together, hand in hand into the flames that never die.
She read to me from the Bible, parts that she had never read before, naming the thing that had gone wrong. And the fear froze all of the heat in me, while the shame, the deep and wrenching shame, became a frost upon my heart.
And yet I still desired her, though now she wore her heaviest, muffling clothing even in the heat of summer, her face shining with her sweat but her eyes dull, dead dull. She had stopped bathing, in that little stone hut without privacy, and I came to loathe the very smell of her, even as it stirred up further desire, and then I came to hate myself for loathing her, and tried to show her kindnesses, only to face rebuffs as seemingly just as they were cruel. And then, one day, the same day that we expected Father’s boat to dock, I found her hanging in the barn.
After her funeral I begged Father to take me to shore, to go to school, to never look back. The stuffy little stone hut still reeked of her; I could hardly sleep in there, suffocating.
Father didn’t argue. Perhaps he didn’t want to see me ever again, or at least so I felt, though I hadn’t told him anything; I suspected that the man needed not to know for sure, in order to save his sanity.
And so I utterly immersed myself into my studies. And except for one brief lapse with a serving-girl, I never looked back.)
I halfway awaken. “I will never do that to Tanjin,” I murmur with cracked lips. “I will never, ever…nooooo.”
(Stunned, we reel back, Jake and George, two and one, utterly immersed in the tsunami memory of a fellow oracle, smashing over and through our vision, engulfing it, washing it away! One of us says, “Now I understand. I finally understand.” And the pain of it, this understanding, scours through us like a tide full of sand.)
(“It happened against her will—she told me! She told me it was my fault, that I’m going to hell! And that she remained pure.”
“No, Wallace. No.” I cradle the sunken, drunken man’s head in my arms, sitting on his bed. “She molested you, Wallace. She killed herself because she’d destroyed her only son.”
He only groans the worse. “I mustn’t…can’t blame…not my own mother!”
I stroke the thin, white locks. “No, Wallace, it’s all right. You can blame her and forgive her. To forgive acknowledges that something’s serious enough to need forgiving. And once you do, you can finally forgive yourself.” I think of my own mother as I say it, and with that I, too, let go.
Don nods grimly above us. “That should do it.”
“Do what?” Wallace asks miserably. “What does it accomplish to rip these horrid memories from me?”
“I’m no oracle,” Don says, “But I lived among the Outlaws long enough to know the dark power of secrets, and how exposing them deflates that power.” Wallace can barely comprehend half of this, but he tries to listen anyway. “They actually taught classes on it, how to conquer people by exploiting the built-up darkness of their souls, behind the closed doors of their minds. The more light we can shine in this damned, benighted school, the better.” And he turns for the door. “Come on, Randy. We’ve got to find Jake, now.”
“We won’t,” I whisper. “Not yet. Not until he wants us to find him.” And then I ease the headmaster into his bed, clothes and all, because I fear it would drive him mad if I so much as stripped a shoe off him, right now. “You rest, sir. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal. Rest and dream of a forgiving God.” The man’s eyes close even as I speak.)
Rest...oh sweet rest. I feel almost as if I could believe myself forgiven.