IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
The Christmas Eve Feast
Thursday, December 24, 2708, continued
The women gather to braid each other’s hair. In true egalitarian fashion, hands pass back and forth some wire loops, pinched at one end and knotted at the other, to use like needle-threaders to bead the braids or to interweave them into complicated patterns. And those with the foresight to bring them share the beads around, too: red, white and green, and shiny metals—holiday colors. And nobody sets an age limit; any girl who marches with us counts as a woman today.
I can feel all the little tugs and smoothings as Nishka works my hair into fabulous patterns. I have no idea what I look like, and I might never learn, for we have no mirrors out here. I do know that some of her work brushes my cheeks, and I can see a bit of it out of the corner of my eye, like glossy drops of blood. I can feel more drape my shoulders and fall down my back. I can imagine Zanne throwing a fit over the damage probably done; she worked for years to nurture my hair into its impressive length.
“Wings,” Nishka tells me. “I’m giving you wings of red and gold.”
Less skilled at this art, I can at least work Kiril’s braids into a four-leaf clover shape atop her head in beads of green, adding chevrons of silver to the inside loops, and leaving one braid to fall as a stem down her back. I’ve never seen clover grow in the Charadoc; I doubt if they have any stories about its luck. That doesn’t matter. If I have to drag luck in from some far, more fortunate land, so be it.
Lufti smiles down on us. “Pull it in across time and space,” he says. “Weave it all together. Bring the girls back.” And then he leaves, whistling some tuneless song, like a shadow-eyed little bird.
(“They waaant me,” Kimba shrills, and fights with all the hands trying to hold her down. “They drove whole nations mad to bring back all the girls!”)
The wind grows stronger, making our work difficult, yet we persist. I don’t know why we do this. Maybe some here feel that this might be our last chance to fully feel female. Maybe we give each other a sort of psychological helmet. Maybe, like St. Perpetua, a woman can face just about anything if she feels properly coifed. Or maybe just because it’s Christmas Eve.
(George smells like spit-turned meat; he’s been cooking, I think. He lights two cigarettes, and hands me one. I puff on it gratefully, glad of its small, ordinary light that pushes away the fires of vision for a little while. And then I taste the difference in the smoke. Of course. He did this before. Before…the meaning of the word eludes me.
“We will have some time, yet,” he says. Time? “We can’t wound you before midnight.”)
We have some wounded. We’ve already buried some dead. All of our injured can walk, though, if we keep an easy pace. It suits me, too, so I don’t mind.
(“We need to sedate her,” Pauline says. I nod. I have already concocted the sedative, knowing that it would come in handy.
Kimba giggles, drooling, shaking so violently that I can hardly hold her down. “It won’t help,” she says, even as Pauline injects her. “They can use me more than ever in my sleep. Just like the guards.” And then, in the sweetest, most plaintive little-girl voice she sings, “Round young virrrrgin mother and child. Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleeeeep in heavenly peeeeeace, sleeeeeep in heavenly...” and passes out.)
Damien chafes after awhile, pushing the motorcycle along.
“I’m going to scout ahead,” he says, and takes off. That leaves me in charge. Again. I sigh.
(I may be the one in charge here, yet I must bow to opinion as if every soldier outranks me—subtly, and yet I must, and it galls me. I don’t like to braid my hair as if I’ve become a mere peasant woman, yet it at least keeps it comparatively ladylike in this dreadful mountain wind. And they would comment, out of my hearing, if I let it tangle. No male general ever has to face all of these little indignities.
I manage it quickly, during the lunch break, and pin the braids up in a corona that I can hide in my helmet. I grab a hard roll and a chunk of cheese to eat in my car while the others pack up.)
At noon Damien returns to tell us that the coast is clear for miles, so we share whatever food we carry or can scrounge together, into a great communal meal. (I hope they don’t take too much.) No one has to tell anyone to curb their appetites, among so many, with so far to go, and so little chance to forage for more. (I hope I have enough to offer.) It takes no more than a certain look to stop those who might dip in for more than their share. (I hope I can remember this recipe!)
The fare becomes accidentally nutritious, with so many little dabs of such variety. (I hope this doesn’t have anything in it that I’m allergic to.) Necessity makes us combine flavors that otherwise would never have occurred to us. (I hope someday that I get another chance to eat anything this good!)
We hardly say a word as we eat, the common fear occurring to us all: when this has gone, we will not easily gather more. (I hope I can conceal my disgust.) It makes the food almost holy, a kind of communion. (I hope nobody finds out about the food I hid.) Then I remember that holiness has nothing to do with my life anymore. (I hope that someday everyone in the Charadoc will feast so well.) Oh well–a girl’s got to eat anyway. (I hope that I can learn to get by on so little.)
Potatoes from the mountains, catawlba from the lowlands, chilies, beans and corn (the last of Annig’s chapote preserves, God rest her soul) greens of more kinds than I can name (I broke my back over those turnips, to get them to that size) squash blossoms, sosoka sprouts, sesame and dried fish (I’ll never forget planting sosoka with Herme, the sun shining on his sweating shoulders, and the way he looked at me, so that my face burned, believing that everyone in the field that day knew exactly what his smile told me.) Somebody killed a couple chickens. We even boiled the feet for the broth. (Those old biddies stopped laying, anyway.) The tips of twigs from a certain conifer that Kiril says packs vitamin C even in winter (As much as I weigh now, I could never have climbed as high as Hekut, on such precarious boughs, to fetch these down for us.) Chocolate–I’ve learned all kinds of things that one could add chocolate to that never occurred to me before. (I ought to feel scared. I know that. I ought to stay as grim as Papa and contemplate our future. But this cooking together is so much fun!) Herbs that I never even heard of, gathered in the wild on the softer side of the mountain, add their part. (I can hardly eat, for fear of what lies ahead.) No feast will ever taste quite so poignantly delicious to me as this one, here, today.
I start to nod. Oh, why fight it? Everyone else needs rest, as well, and the medic in me gives me permission. I post guards, then unfurl my sleeping-bag. Carefully I lay down my head so as not to disrupt, too much, the art that Nishka made of my hair. I hear soft murmurs around me. Everyone understands. Somebody’s elderly fingers stroke my cheek a moment, and I hear her saying, “Sleep well, dearie. You’ve earned it, and we need no haste.”
(Sweet heavens but I feel exhausted! With worry more than the twenty-four we pulled. But we will soon have time to rest, by Toulin custom, on this Christmas Eve.)
I feel Kiril join me on one side, and Lufti embrace me on the other. His breath warms my ear as he whispers into it, “We have some remembering to forget. Sleep well, my star.”
(Lunch. I look forward to it, for the dark in this cellar has begun to press down on me again. I crave the fire of vision—the only illumination I have. And George knows that this must happen, that I will accept whatever he gives me--slowly, steadily, increasingly saturating my system.
I hear the scrape of the pan laid down on the concrete floor, and the door closing once more. I crawl towards it on wobbly, buzzing limbs, mindful to veer around the great crack in the floor, and then pull the bowl towards me, fumbling with the spoon.
I don’t even know what I eat anymore, the tastes all confusing, something more than sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The sixth taste! I laugh, uncontrollably, and the echoes of my laughter braid into scintillating loops and chains around me, beaded in sparks of red, green, and white…
I move now, on stronger, sturdier legs. I have done this before and will do it again for all eternity. I spiral down and down the rock-hewn steps. I bear upon my back the old man’s oxygen tank, its tubing looping to his nose (I already stashed spares down below, and other supplies) and I hold in one hand the pole that upholds his IV bag, cradling Crespus against my chest in the other arm. He has grown so light, so withered and frail, in the last stages of his disease, that I can do this. In the link that oracles can share I feel the peace of his morphine though it doesn’t touch my muscles, steady in descent.
We wear no protective gear nor respirators. I don't care about contamination tonight. Let his breath and his sweat and his particles sink into the paintings!
Weakly he smiles and says to me, “I wonder why nobody's thought of this before? She really needs a consort to balance her.” Then, towards the bottom of the stair, he says, “And Consuelo needs one, too. The hero will open the door, and the sidekick will run through and save the day.”
We reach the bottom. I carry him to the one place that I have visited here before. I feel the rightness of what I do when I stop before that one particular painting, my handprint still on her back where the moisture of my blood marred the ancient ochre . I lean him against the image of the priestess.
I wander and meet each of the other paintings in their turn, memorizing, acknowledging, adoring. I also explore the giant crystals, art of Novatierre. Sometimes I slip deep into farther caverns without artwork in them, to find water, to sleep far from the magentine deposits, sweating and uncovered in the heat. Often, far from his hearing, I sing silly ditties from those island parties that my friendclan loves so much, because I must break out of trance frequently, and this seems a good way to do it. Sometimes I return to tend his basic needs, or inject more morphine into his drip, as needed. I wait there, in the stifling darkness, for as long as it takes for Crespus Inglorius to meld with the stone.)
I might be damned, yet I still believe in Christmas. I rouse the sleepers when I myself rise, and we continue on. As we march we do nothing special, no chance now to cook those nut and honey pastries peculiar to the season, not over a campfire. And yet we laugh all the more, we chatter like old friends, exchanging life histories and hopes and jokes and every good thing that we can think of. The smallest children have that anticipation in their eyes, even though they say they understand, we can hardly expect Santo Nikki to find us and deliver presents in the wild.
(Classes differ on Christmas Eve. Our teachers drill us in the singing of carols, but this year they’ve brought up the old hymnals from the cellar, smelling of dust and mildew--the ones that mention a woman giving birth. Carefully we turn the crumbly pages, and marvel at the pictures of Madonna and Child, blue and red and gold. The boredom drops away as teen boys sing of motherhood, tears making their flushed cheeks as shiny as the ornaments.)
(Do you feel it, George? The power leaching away from you? It might feel like a greater surge at first, the feminine rushing back, through and beyond you. But not under your control.
Old Crespus understands, old no longer, hale as in his youth, as she leads him in a dance as ancient as the upright human stance, her life-filled, planet-round belly jiggling. I watch from my perch on the rift, dangling my feet over the gulf in space and time. I watch them swirl down into it, smiling up at me, beckoning.)
“I will dance for them,” Lufti tells me. “I will dance for them all. They deserve Christmas, too.” I glance over at him, worried about that pulsing vein in his temple. Yet his color looks healthy. I think he can handle the exercise; it might even do him good.
( Physical culture lessons review the basics of the waltz, and Don sobs openly, pining for Lisa; I can’t keep my own eyes dry, myself.)
Our marching feet echo off the frost-cracked stones; we aren’t that far from the snowline of peaks that never thaw. And yet all these chill-braving flowers, native to the high summer mountains, wreathe every rock and hollow in golden, purple, rose and scarlet blossoms that spring up year after year, nodding in their wind-pierced lace of teal or silver-green foliage, or bright and startling bice. I feel as though the whole world celebrates Christmas: the growing things, the sky decked out in hurrying swirls of clouds, the very bones of the planet.
Another break. Even Mountainfolk lungs find the air here Spartan, and some of our number come from the lowlands. I lay back on a meadow, staring up at the swirls of white and blue, and yes, this stuff I lie in looks remarkably like clover.
Why do I feel so altered? Is it fever, the thin air, the giddy optimism of our hoard? I think of that potent concentrate so recently gifted to me by poor, dear Sanzio D’Arco and I don’t crave it, I don’t miss it one bit.
(Then all classes cease. Free time, the teachers say, till about three in the afternoon, when we’ll get the holiday feast. Instead of lounging over books or playing pool, however, sooner or later (for Don and me later, after a nap) we all wander into the kitchen: the great, big, warm and steamy, fragrant and enticing kitchen, where the women work. I feel the tug as much as anybody; I’m not exclusive that way, after all. Oh my Lisa, our Lisa, you should have been here!
It doesn’t go the way our teachers might have feared. Here we learn to make sweetcakes, sauces, rootmash, we learn how to stuff a pheasant and how to turn a pepit into pie. We get flour all over ourselves and laugh, and the girls laugh with us, and the older women beam, letting us lick the pan or sneak bits of candied fruit before they go for garnishes.
Sometimes I actually forget that Jake’s gone missing. I clown with the potato-peels, rearranging them into stick-figures doing things that make the boys laugh. But then I look up to grin and wink at him, and remember that he’s not here.
“The big guy can take care of himself,” Don reminds me. Can he? What am I his guardian for, then? Don massages my shoulders like a coach preparing a fighter for the fray. “When he wants found, he’ll turn up. He did before.”
In that, at least, I can hope.)
Yet I find myself pining for people not here, people I do and yet don’t have with me. I finger my luck-doll. Do the Dead only celebrate All Soul’s Day with us, or do they come around for Christmas, too? Some do say they come for Christmas. The words of others drift in and out around me, saying things like that…
(Soon the headmaster rounds us up at twilight, calling us to feast on the fruit of our labors. We will have to go to bed early if we want to rise at midnight.
“Why?” an older boy asks. “Who will perform the midnight service, with the Chaplain dead?”
For a second Weatherbent looks blank, confused. Then he smiles, strangely, and his eyes take on a look that I’ve seen often enough on Jake to recognize. “Why, for the dance, of course! And let us all eat together, faculty and students and staff, for we shall all dance together, as well.” And he starts to heap his own plate with a relish that I have never seen in him before, as the boys and faculty gape and grin at the thought of actually waltzing with females.
Don shrugs, and starts to help himself. I can’t help but murmur to him, “Mad he may be, but right now Wallace is the only oracle we’ve got.”)
I sit up suddenly. I’ve been dozing, and I can’t afford that. Maybe I could use some of Sanzio’s bittersweet powder—no, scratch that thought. Bum a home-rolled cigarette, instead, off the miner with some missing fingers, who seems to have stashed away some tobacco for himself. He winks as he slips it to me and lights it neatly for me with his sound left hand.
Once I finish it I do feel better. I round everyone up to march again. They can’t ache more than I do. The braided “wings” fall heavy on my shoulders, beating with my steps, as we take up our march again.
(I finish my last meal—a feast, and well-prepared, and more potent than the rest. I know that the caramelized parsnips aren’t real parsnips, that unculinary herbs stuff the little birds that George has snared, and strange things lace the honey in the sweets. He has built up my tolerance; this will not kill me.
I rest for awhile, digesting it, sipping the last of the eggnog provided, watching the colors flash across the crystal stalagtites overhead, hardly moving except to tip the great mug to what passes for my lips, a scintillating cloud tipping mist and smoke into another cloud that welcomes it. This unstable body needs little movement, for I feel the dance in my pulse, as Amari and Crespus, Gita and Corey, glide around and around and around, dancing in the changing of the year. Changing of the...?
It doesn’t happen in one year, one day, one lifetime. She has waited long already; change will not come hastily.)
(My good lads, my trusty lads, ah, behold them, feasting on the spread that I have prepared for them, far from the regimented tables of the cafeteria—how beautiful they look to me! And what a mother I have become today, feeding my young ones.
A strange impulse had led me to pull down a garland on my way here, full of bright red beads. Now, with a loop of wire that I’ve found to pull hair through, I braid and bead my forelock, weaving it into a ring upon my brow, feeding back into itself. Now I feel ready for the dance. Now comes the greatest dance of all.)
In the long, late twilight we pretend to turn in early, but we all know that we merely nap, settling into a wide bowl of a dell with a few stone outcroppings to one side, open to the stars overhead as they start to shine through the deepening violet, little by little. Uneasy heads try to find a comfortable way to rest with all the beads and braids. Sure enough, one by one, we each stir in the night, standing with our blankets wrapped around us, watching for a moonglow on the mountain-jagged horizon that will tell us the arrival of midnight.
(One by one we rise again from our beds, checking clocks by candlelight, eager for midnight. Don and I later than the others, but even we can’t resist for long. And some of us see the roseate glow, like an untimely dawn, from the ruins of the Married Teacher’s Quarters)
(They all know what to do by now, to prepare the new room, in the cellar underneath the char, for the final, proper rites. Candlelight and more than candlelight glistens on the golden chalice from a bygone era, set aside generations ago when tastes turned to more prosaic worship. My lads bedeck the treasure-heaps of magentine with the garlands that we’ve made. I bring out the final flask—the one potent enough to kill me, if I should drink it all on top of what already sings in my veins.
Shall I? And what shall he do?)
(I feel time surge over me and through me, as tidal as my heart, approaching the final hour. And I don’t fear. I don’t fear in the least.)
People start to gather firewood, and stir up the fading coals–much more than we have any practical use for. Here and there I hear instruments tuning; soon they synch with each other. And when Damien doubles back to join us, his new harp weighs in, too.
A kind of raw joy fills me: we might wander far from anything resembling a home, unsure of where our next meal might come from, all too sure that the future holds death and pain and screaming, yet we have this shelter and nourishment and happiness right now, in this shared peace, this simple act of gathering wood and tuning instruments, still half-sleepy, in the quiet of the night.