IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 31

Penance


Tuesday, January 19, 2709

Kiril keeps an eye on me as we stumble through this pallid stretch of the Canyonlands.  I don’t have any heart for the greenfire.  It just seems wrong to let it rob me of my feelings when Tanjin’s body lies withering under stones.  I shove on without it as a punishment for all my sins, maybe his sins, too, though I don’t know of anything he ever did compared to me.  But when I stumble to a halt Kiril puts the leaf between my lips, herself.

So my feet push hard against the sloping ground and keep on marching, but I’m not here, I till the soil on a little patch of farm with Tanjin in some sheltered valley, far from all the politics, kindly land with a brook chuckling through it that gives us just enough of everything we need.  The hay smells sweet in the morning sun, and the orchard drips with fruit.  Oh, I make commands back in the world of grit and blood, I choose directions, and a part of me scans for danger across a stone landscape where a bird can scarcely find a mouthful fit to peck, but another self laughs beside the summer harvest table, wiping squash-pie off the chin of our giggling baby girl.

“I’m all right,” I tell Kiril, the next time I catch her sidelong glances.  You can relax, I want to tell her.  You can be a little girl for awhile.  Instead I just say, “I’ve lost friends before.”

“They weren’t Tanjin,” she says, and squeezes my hand.  And I cannot help but nod.

Daba’oth walks nearby.  I didn’t expect to see the sympathy in his eyes.  “The Dead march with us,” he says softly.  “Always.”  Lufti holds my hand on the other side, sometimes peering fearfully around me, but on this much at least the two concur.

But I don’t want Tanjin wafting about me as a ghost!  I want his arms around me, the soft-hard muscular one and the stiff little stick one, that embrace unique to him that I only felt in brief hugs now and then.  I want to taste his tongue in my mouth.  I want to let him in where I never let in anyone before.

Maybe it would never have happened, had he lived.  But now I know for sure that it never will.

The pace gets easier.  We won’t have to worry about the Charadocian Army for a day or two at least.  Blamed poor tactics, if you ask me–what were their officers thinking?

After our noon meal Lufti takes the lead, and I let him, though now Kiril frankly stares at me with skepticism about my sanity.  About mid-afternoon I order everyone to give the greenfire a rest.  By twilight Lufti leads us stumbling down into an ever-narrowing canyon, a deep crack in a surprising upthrust of white marble.

Dabao’oth stares in wonder at the faintly translucent stone to either side of us, appearing luminescent in the sun’s last light.  “I will remember this place,” he says, running his fingers along the rock.  “I will come back.  I will build with this.”  All very beautiful, yes, but sepulchral, too. I wish I’d had this to hand for Tanjin’s cairn; it seems wrong for us to sleep within its sad, pale splendor and not him.

For sleep we will, tonight, nor even set a guard.  Because Lufti, budding oracle that he is, leads us even deeper, into a bare crack of stone roofed over by overhanging shrubs high above our heads, soft at the floor with ages of their litter, narrowing till it becomes too dark always for anything to grow down here.  So on this musty cushion we lay down, head to foot in a long train of weary warriors, with Honeydew at the open end.  If anybody comes at us, they must shoot the donkey first in this tight space, and his braying will wake the rest of us in time.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I for one will never wake again.  And maybe I won’t mind.

I walk barefoot through a bloody battlefield; the ground squishes underneath my feet, and the air smells like a butcher-shop.  My shoulders ache and sting. At first I think I bear those horrid wings again even as I walk upon the ground, grinding down on me, breaking down my back.  Yet gradually I become aware of my own motions, the swing of my arms, up over left shoulder, up over right shoulder, up over left, and on and on, until I realize that I flagellate myself, and all the blood around me, all the blood that ever spilled, is mine.

I wake to Lufti wiping the tears from my face.  Then he snuggles down against me and we fall asleep again.

(We wake in the boat at the same time, Jake and I.  Then I hear stirring beyond the thin partition between our cabin and the one that George and Wallace share.  We totter into the mess-hall as one, Don joining us from the captain’s cabin.  Wallace’s thin hair sticks up every which way and George’s forelock hangs in his eyes.  I suppose I must look every bit as disheveled.  I mix up some powdered milk, cocoa and sugar while Jake sets the water heating.

Wallace rubs his shoulders.  “Dreadful nightmare, but I suppose the unaccustomed labors brought it on.”

George stares at him.  “Did you dream of...of lashing yourself?”

“Yes,” he husks, and shudders.  “Penance.”

 “Was there...”

“Blood,” says Jake, and pours the hot water into my powdered mixture.

George stares off into nothing.  “So much blood!  And then his eyes turn to his own hands, and won’t leave.

I say it for the others.  “We all had the same dream.”)

Just another dream, fading fast.  Was I on a boat or hidden in an army tent?  But the blood was real.  The blood is truth.  And so is the sting of my infected scrapes, where my face sinks into the pack I use for a pillow.  I heal so much more slowly than I used to.

(Sting.  Sting.  Sting.  Sting.  The rhythm continues.  Swing over the left shoulder, then the right shoulder, then the left shoulder, then the right, so that it almost drowns out the pain of gripping thorns with both hands.

Because I deserve this.  Because I cheated on Merrill before he ever cheated on me.  Because I tormented him for agreeing with my own decision to betray my father and blaspheme against my faith.  Because I never wanted to face the Truth of what I did.  Because hurt is real and hurting makes my penitence feel real.  Because...

...real?  Oh Gates I’m not dreaming this!  I throw the bloody branch away from me, black and red against the snow, I feel the fire in my shoulders and back and the ice wind biting into my bared breasts and the shivering builds until it borders on the convulsive.

Can’t afford that, darling.  I have no medicine.

I close my eyes tightly, pulling my clothes back up and savoring the sudden warmth, barely in time it feels like.  I will pull them back down to put on salve in a minute—right now warmth has become my top priority...

...No, one other takes precedence.  Because I still hear the rhythmical whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.  I open my eyes and see people all around me in the latest camp, all flagellating themselves with branches, belts, purses, ropes, wires, at least one string of pearls, all of them naked from the waist up.  A child falls into the snow, her back streaked red and her lips turning blue.  I run to her, pull her up into my arms and shout, “Stop!  Stop!  All of you!”

I pull the coat back up over the little girl and hold her in my arms, concentrating as hard as I can on Darvinia, my vacation there, luxuriating with Merrill in a warm bubble-bath silky with oils and minerals, the scent of lavender and calendula in the water.  Pleasure, I project.  Pleasure.  Think of Merrill putting the chocolate into my mouth, laughing throatily.  He forgave me and I forgave him, and my father, I am sure, forgave us both. 

People around me sigh and the whooshing stops.  I open my eyes to others suddenly opening theirs, confused, covering themselves.  “I don’t have chocolate,” I say loudly, “But I do have a big box of raisins that I found yesterday—that’s as good as candy.  Come on over and share.”  As they turn towards me, yearning and horror and shame in their faces, I say, more quietly, “I also have salve.  I think we can all use it.  And we all saw each other, just now, so there’s no point in being modest, is there?”

Two men start a fire going, and some women gather up the bloody branches to burn in it.  I get someone to treat my back, and then start taking care of everybody else, each in turn.  And we each get a handful of raisins.

I savor the sweet, dark flavor, thinking of far-off sunny vineyards where they grew.  I enjoy the very act of chewing them, and the burst of energy in my blood, and the act of being alive.  And why not pleasure, wherever we can find it?  It’s as true as anything else.  Flagellation doesn’t do a lick of good—only Lovequest makes amends.

The little girl says, “I had a bad dream, Mommy,” and starts to weep against me.

“We all did, dear.  But we’re awake now, and we can make things better.”)

(The blood is real.  The blood is truth.  Each lash of the scourge awakens me to reality.  I deserve this.  I deserve this for what I do and for doubting whether I should do it.  The contradictions smooth away with every surge of pain, till the suffering in my soul mixes with it, becomes it, as my blood mixes with my sweat, no longer a separate thing and my eyes bleed tears for the unfairness of the world, my life, my birth, my inevitable death.  And maybe I weep with relief, to have my rawness out in the open at last, cutting away the skin of duty and doubt, just bleeding raw me, beyond agonizing, beyond all rationalizations, beyond words, just me, just hurt, just the look in my mother’s eyes for the chronic wrongness of my existence.)





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