IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 61

Battles in the Bloodstream


Friday, March 5, 2709

(“It’s a workable system,” Lula says, while I stare at my porridge and wonder why I have no appetite for it.  “We have a pact here.  Every group has their own farm, but we trade—goods, food, and information.  Apollo and Courtney go over to Shinto Farm twice a week to learn smithing from Master Masamune, in exchange for our bok choy and pea sprouts.”  She chuckles.  “Oh yes, we got up a greenhouse first, and deliberately planted what others most desire.”

I could go right back to bed this minute.  “And how is Courtney handling her master’s animism?” I ask, picking up an unspoken thought, along with an untasted spoon.  “Iron’s alive for Shintoists.”

“Oh, she walked out the first day, but Apollo sweet-talked her back.  Eventually she decided that if Jesus could talk to waves and wind, ol’ Will Masamune can talk to metal.  We have to adapt here at All Kinds Sanctuary—outliers know that more than anybody.  We can’t survive otherwise.”  She finishes up her own bowl before I’ve even started on mine.  “Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that Shon’s ensconced safely over there; the kids will bring him back with them the next lesson they have; he’ll be glad to see you.”  She looks thoughtful for a moment.  “You know, all this time we traveled together,  I didn’t even know he was a Shintoist.”

I nod, and the nodding makes me momentarily queasy.  “He kept it a secret as much as he could.  He converted to his wife’s religion before lunatics murdered her for marrying him.”  I look up.  “Good of Shinto Farm to take in an Englishman.  That gives me hope.”

“Oh, here at All Kinds you’ll find that…Zanne, are you all right?”

I can’t answer her for coughing.)

Fatigue lingers.  I don’t remember what that poison pastry did to me, just that it didn’t agree with me at all.  My atypical neurology probably has something to do with that, but at least I needn’t fear developing an addiction to muras.

Nevertheless, I finish the bead curtain. I like the way the light shines through the corks and twine, and that merry smell they give off whenever I brush through them, and the warm feel of cork sliding over my face when I walk through without bothering to part the strands with my hands.  The Duerlonghios used to hang bead curtains everywhere.  The Duerlongh mission seems like another lifetime ago.

And Marduk has finished carving the bone chess pieces as I described them to him, white ones and ones charred black, at least for the back line; we can use pale and dark pebbles for the pawns.  He has nothing else to do, sitting while his torn tissues heal.  I assure him that a sprain that bad would sideline anybody.

And then I catch him glaring at Alysha, who hangs her head as if she deserved it.  The thick clothes that we wear here would hide a lot, I think.  He can’t chase after her with his bad foot right now—did she sit there, beside him, and let him punch her, twist her arm, something, biting back a cry so that nobody would know, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble?  I feel sick to think about it. 

I wish he had no artistic skill!  I wish he wasn’t sometimes kind, sometimes genuine.  I wish he could be a monster that I could feel good about hating!  And haven’t I killed men who weren’t nearly as bad?

I feel a little off.  Something more than fatigue, and more than disgust with Marduk; my immune system did not need one more blow like the one I dealt it last night.  Maybe I should lie down some more, now that the curtain’s done.  What a luxury–to lie down even when I feel just a little bit sick!

(I think I have a cold coming on.  My body aches and I sweat so much that I’ve stripped off all my gear and lie here tossing in what ought to be a chilly cave.  Not surprising–they say that stress can trigger colds.  I had better put my plans on hold till I can work this out of my system.  No use letting haste drive me to operate at less than my best.  If I’m going to spy on the rebels, I have to have all my wits and all my strength about me.)

 

Saturday, March 6, 2709

My fellows in recuperation decide that they like using tiny dried fish for game-pieces–the smugglers have lots of them to spare.  The smelly little things swim through the boards with imagined intent, and winners get to devour the pieces of the losers.  But after awhile we get tired of the taste and go back to pebbles.  Lufti always finds the best ones, glinting with mica or translucent with crystals, or streaked with interesting colors.

He seems better every day.  He even attempts to teach reading, lasting longer all the time before he rambles off into incoherency.  Father Mykolas spends hours with him, helping him find his way back towards sanity, along paths that no one else knows better, with as fine an instinct as Father uses to scout through tunnels.

And I seem worse, even to me.  All those little fishes want to swim back upstream!  It doesn’t seem fair, to sicken just when I’m doing everything right for my health!  (With one small lapse.)  I even have fresh sprouts, now...when I can eat.  But that’s the trouble with draggin’ fever–it flares whenever the microbes feel like it, not on any schedule of ours.  Makhliya confirms the diagnosis, and says it doesn’t help that I kicked my body to shreds before getting here, but hey, I’ve done that before, just ask my Friendclan, and I didn’t even need the leaf to do it.

(After the clean-up, the other outliers have brought in a doctor from Ustawi Farm: a thin, stern, black woman with high cheekbones and heavy-lidded eyes.  Dr. Muncie won’t say a word to Apollo when he opens the door for her, but she examines me with the professionalism of a veterinarian treating a junkyard dog.  No offense, says her sympathetic gaze; I can’t help being what I am, and she genuinely does want to ease my suffering.

Quarantine, she pronounces.  It’s probably just bronchitis, brought on by a weakened immune system (at which I can’t help but remember Deirdre’s pneumonia after her wild storm-flight) but Courtney needs to stay at Halleluia Farm for awhile lest catching it hurt the baby.  The doctor glares at Apollo when she says it, but he doesn’t argue.  Lula pays her in the last of her own homemade pepper-sauce and she nods in wary appreciation before exiting stiffly.
          “I’m sorry,” I say between coughs when the door closes.

“Oh, I’ll make more pepper-sauce soon enough.  Raza Farm has a shed full of pepper risas strung up last year for a tourist trade that never arrived, but nobody else here knows a Kenyan-style recipe for them.”

“I’m apologizing *cough* for throwing up. *cough* *cough* *cough*  Waste *hack* *gasp* wasting food.”

“Zanne honey!  You couldn’t help that.”

Maybe not that.  But something.  Lots of things.  I just can’t think of them.  And maybe that’s not a bad thing—if only I didn’t feel the guilt, even without specific memories.  Tshura will have to remember for both of us.

I sit up to breathe better, and brush out my pillow-tossed hair.  Controlling my appearance, at least, counts for something.)

Kiril persuades me that my hair will never grow back without trimming off the damaged ends.  We finally compromise between her insistence and my resistance.  We braid up my hair, and then I let her cut just the last quarter inch of the ends, plus snip at any shorter bits that stick out of the braids higher up.  Lots of those, it turns out.  I never used to have braids so fuzzy.  They’re right, all the girls.  Even poor, dead General Aliso was right.  I have got to take better care of myself.  So I let Kiril sit me up, chop away, and then I help her play a board game with Lufti, reading her cards for her.  Sargeddohl Monopoly.  She gets a hotel on Crystalia Boulevard, but Lufti wins anyway.

The board-games really catch on.  Romulo shows a surprising knack for chess, beating several of the more educated merchants before he challenges me, but my head swims too much to play right now.  Marduk surprises me with further gamepieces which he has carved, from bone, wood, and alabaster.  Delicate depictions of the local animals–a corrie grazing, a dancing llama, a mountain gazelle perched upon a peak, a coiling snake, two coneys nuzzling, a bull tossing his horns.  All smoothed by a careful hand, glossy in the lamplight.  The kid has talent.  I wonder who he might have been, if not born to violence and war?

Maybe just as awful.  History’s full of awful artists, poets and musicians.  But what if art distills the best from them?  What if art is all the more sacred if it’s the only good thing to come from a person?

I lie down as soon as Marduk limps away, suddenly dizzy, suddenly hot.  I do nothing for the rest of the day except to listen to his dogged chipping, shaving, polishing, and the click of bones upon a table.  And I hear the scrapes and thuds, clanks and rustles of rearranged merchandise, the hearty voices of smugglers, and the high quavers of llamas coming in and out.  It’s good to have trustworthy company, making a comforting blur of sound around me even when I close my eyes to them, a protective audial blanket that assures me that I’m not alone.  Most of all, though, I like Lufti’s cool hand checking up on me now and then.  May he forgive me that I wish it was Tanjin’s.

(Ohhhh Lord–this is not a cold!  Oh no–did I really do what I remember so fecklessly enjoying, taking a break from the heat of hiking to get here?  Oh, I knew that the boys and I shouldn’t have drunk water straight from that freshet, but it looked so good and pure, and we were so young and stupid, and it wouldn’t have been the first time we went home after an adventure to have a few parasites flushed out of our systems before going back and doing it all over again.  But this time I have no way to get back to the world of doctors, and medicine, and people to take care of me.  I’m going to have to sweat it out here, all alone, inside a scoop of rock.

Alone.  Never have I understood the fullness of the word before this hour.)

 

Sunday, March 7, 2709

(Oh Gates, I feel like my ribcage explodes with every cough!  No, Zanne, that is not a truth, but dear Gates it hurts!  I might have broken a rib, all the same.

Shon has arrived.  He’s masked, like everyone around me.  Silly people.  Viruses can sail right through a mask like horseflies through barbed wire.  But it makes them feel safer.  He agrees with Lula that egg drop soup can cure all ills, and I do find it possible to keep it down.  I lie there half-listening to their discussions on the care and feeding of a sick Zanne, then grip my chest for another bout of coughing.  Holding my front together, this time I feel the pain more as a stab in the back.

The conversation moves to another room, muffled now by walls but no longer by the masks.  Yet I hear something else outside, something hopeful.  Birds have begun to return already for the coming spring.)

The fever hits its peak.  At least this time it sidelines me when I can afford it.  Reality fades in and out; the walls of crate and stone giving way to the boundaries of every place that I have ever slept, and the shadows of the bead curtain change to the shadows of the foliage of many lands.  My mat seems to shift position; now I feel like I lie east-to-west, now north-to-south.  (The boat feels like it spins.  Is it spinning?)

Now Cyran stands at the foot of my mat...no, not Cyran, but a woman somewhat like hir–my personal ghost who has never died, because she never lived, haunter of my dreams.  She keeps changing age.  Sometimes she becomes a skinny little girl, staring at me with wounded blue eyes in a face too dark for them; sometimes a stout matron squints accusingly at me through waves of smoke-and-silver hair.  (She’s here.  Again.)

“Remember me,” I murmur through lips already blistering, already sore.  (Remember me.)  “Tell my story.”  (Tell my story.  Tell all of our stories.)

“Why won’t you let me rest?” the woman cries.  “You say that in all the dreams!”

And I blink, and she is gone, and I want her back, very much, and I don’t know why.  (And I pull back the thread, and hold it tight to my chest, and feel it wind all about my ribs, sinking deep into my heart, back where it belongs.)  And then, just like that, I suddenly feel so drowsy, feverishly secure that nothing matters anymore.  Someone else remembers me.

(If I die here, in this cave, will anybody know to build me a memorial?  Will anyone ever find me?  Will anyone guess at what I’ve been through, or will they just assume that I and Mehti, Jiaolong and Pawl, fell from a high place and died quickly, doing what we loved best?)

 

Monday, March 8, 2709

          (“Randy, his eyes have opened!”  George looks watery over me.  Did we sink the boat?  No, for I can feel it rocking, still, on the breast of the sea.

          Footsteps pound towards me.  “Thank God thank God thank God!”  The whole bunk rocks with his impact.  “Jake?  Are you back with us again?”

          “Must be,” I rasp.

          He grabs a canteen by the bed and I gulp down all the cold water in it.  “You’ve been out for days,” he says, “And then you got a fever, and we took turns sponging you, but it broke this morning, and I, Oh God, Jake!  We couldn’t feed you, we could barely hydrate you, and, and, and I thought I’d lose you!”

          “Not that easily,” I reply, and pull him down into a bearhug.  And with that, as I feel his heart beat against mine, I realize that sometime in this long sleep, or stupor, or what have you, I drew back from him my connection to Deirdre, what’s left of it.  And I know that it will not quite be enough.  For either of us.  We lost something that we can never replace again.)

No more fever–just the dragging weariness after, and a little residual ringing in my ears if I move too fast.  A genuine, nonhallucinatory Cyran squats down beside my mat and says, “Just when I figured we had you ready to send back out to work, you had to go and get sick again.”  E feels my cheek, but finds the temperature normal, now.  “If you didn’t have so many skills, Deirdre, I’d have mustered you out by now.”

“I’ll be all right,” I tell hir.  “I’ve fought in worse shape.”  The cork shadows make hir seem alien for an instant, when the lamplight outside my “room” flickers.  I smile.  “I dreamed of you, yesterday.”  I say “dream” so as not to alarm hir any further.

“Indeed?  And what did I do in your dream?”

I frown, trying to puzzle it out.  “I can’t remember.”

(I feel a trifle better.  I can drag myself over to fix myself a meal.  What’s in this packet?  Gingered turkey pilaf.  Sounds good.  Thank heavens camp food cooks up so easily, for every joint feels like someone drove a piton through it.)

 

Tuesday, March 9, 2709

(Coughing has subsided, though it hurts no less.  It’s more productive now.  Dr. Muncie has administered as good an expectorant as I could have brewed, myself.

I sit up and look out the window, summoned by the songs of birds.  I can see not only the chicken-coop of Outlier Farm, but Raza farm beyond it, and to the distant left a corner of Shalom farm’s pigsty.  They don’t actually tend the pigs themselves, but hire Outliers to do it for them, and then barter the piggies to whoever wants pork.  Everyone still feels compelled to live separately, yet they have become so interdependent that they can no longer demonize each other.  When my fever drops the rest of the way I could build some plans on this.)

Not a trace of fever remains in me.  It’s not that bad; I recover pretty fast, given proper food and rest, and no stress, except of course for the stress of memories and the weight of ghosts.  Ah well, I think I’ve got more ghosts on my side than against me.  That’s all that any rebel can hope for, in the Mountains of Fire.

Hope–how could I have forgotten what it feels like?  Like warm light shining out of an opening door, framing a glad-faced friend with wide-spread arms, as seen from afar on a cold and stumbling road.    That jump of the heart, startled to remember that misery doesn’t have to march on forever.  I expect Cyran will find use for me soon.

          (One more day of rest, and then I’ll learn if I can sneak in on those rebels and find out their weaknesses.  No more walking up to the front porch waving flags about–this time I’ll do it right.  And then we’ll see about cleaning out the rat’s nest!)

 




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