IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Sunday, March 28, 2709
More of the same. Farm and forest, village and settlement, all reduced to black and white and gray. At least Kiril doesn’t wheeze so much, now that the rain has washed the air and the fumes have died back. Brown skies still dim the sun, but all’s relative.
Already the mud dries at all the high points; they pale back to a dazzling pearl that stings the eye and memory. Miles and miles of white powder. It keeps reminding me of just how good it felt, that one sniff offered me by Sanzio D'Arco, even while it spells out for me, graphically, what the conchy-sharps can really do. Ash, ash, Father Man was ash–but I don’t have to be. Again and again I struggle to drag my thoughts back to my prayers.
Because today we all pray the rosary together as we travel, Lefty leading. Even Lufti takes a break from dancing to join us. We go through all twenty decades, and then Damien leads us in hymns, and then we start the rosary all over again. Even Hekut chimes in, and he’s never been particularly religious.
After awhile our voices tire. We rest upon an outcropping of rock, watching the ash-mud dry and examining our damaged soles. Not too bad; the lye-water could have been stronger, but the boots won’t take much hard use anymore. I just hope that we’ve gotten beyond the burnt country before we wear the first holes through.
We resume our march. This time we take turns with the prayers and hymns, saving our voices. All-day praying’s thirsty work, and our waterskins hang slack, and even after the rain the acrid air still catches the throat.
“I will dance again tomorrow,” Lufti says.
(The stench reaches me before the reason does. I roll up the car windows tight, but it still gets in. The snow had covered the bodies, so they hadn’t started to decay till recently. Rows of them, for miles. They all fall in similar positions. My mind puts together clues, the way it does. They had all been kneeling, and then they fell.
“They were praying,” Tshura tells me, and I feel rather than hear the hush in her non-voice. “Some of them just knelt down and started to pray, and so others did as well, and then others, all telepathically linked. If anybody started to tire of kneeling, joy in perseverance would flood in from some others, and so they refreshed and recommitted themselves in a feedback loop, forgetting their bodies, forgetting their fears and traumas, as more and more joined them, and the cold became shivers of delight, the sleeplessness became waking vision, the hunger became ecstasy!”
“They prayed themselves to death,” I whisper, and the words take my own breath away.
I feel a shrug in my shoulders and realize that I’m shrugging for Tshura. “They died happy,” she tells me. And soon we drive past the corpses and on to fresher air.)
Monday, March 29, 2709
By midday, Lufti veers abruptly to the right, still dancing, off the road and straight for the ruins of a dairy. We follow him unquestioningly, as he capers between the cattle-bones. He stops, panting, before a giant stone cistern, its metal roof still intact. We refill our water-bottles again, gratefully. We hear no sound for miles except for the liquid music of our pouring. The water tastes sweet, not a trace of ash in it anywhere. Now if we could only find other provisions Even on shorter commons we’re running low on food.
As we resume our journey, the silence oppresses us. We can hardly wait for Damien to start strumming again, but I look at his split and swollen fingers and nix that thought. Surprisingly, Marduk pulls out a pale, curving flute. “I carved it last night, during my watch,” he says. “Don’t worry, I made it from a horse’s rib, or maybe a mule's, I’m not sure which. Definitely four-legged, though.” And for the rest of the day, with pauses to catch his breath, he plays us simple folk tunes, while Damien gives his fingers a rest. And Lufti adapts his dance to match.
Nishka glances over at Lufti and says to me, “The ghosts must have led him, didn’t they?”
I nod. “Must’ve.” All my Til training tells me that his nascent oraclism guided Lufti to water, that this all makes a rational kind of sense. But Til lies miles away and I can hardly hear her voice anymore.
(The country road pours onto a highway. Now all I have to do is go where the signs lead me. It has enough lanes that I have no problem maneuvering around the occasional abandoned vehicle or rusting crash. A few of them even still hold fuel, a liter here, a liter there. I make good time, the wind whistling around me but the cabin snug.
I drive thus for two hours before I see another vehicle roll past. Three teenagers ride a blue vehicle without a roof. They whoop for joy at seeing me and wave as they pass, the girl standing up to do so, clutching a scarf around her wind-tumbled hair. I smile and wave back, doubting if any of them are old enough to drive legally, but nobody’s going to enforce those laws for now. I laugh suddenly from sheer joy. What a truth! Three truths roaring down the road together!
I see more cars as I go, coming and going, bright as parrots against the miles of gray pavement. My heart lifts. Maybe Nuvelle Parie really has begun to come back to life?)
Tuesday, March 30, 2709
Nightfall. Another dead country village. Lufti leads us down a street of shops, haunted by the sound of wind whistling through all of the heat-shattered windows. Lamp-posts tower over us, unlit. Marduk carries Kiril, who’s got the asthma bad again, for we have dipped into a valley where the smoke still churns. Damien strums once more, over the faint percussion of the clicking of Lefty’s rosary beads. Sometimes Nishka joins him in prayer.
“I lived in a village not too far from here,” Baruch tells me, then suddenly whirls to stare at me, stopping. The music falters; Lufti stands as at attention. “My mother! My brothers and sisters!”
“Easy, easy,” I tell him, my hand on his shoulder, trying to smile and not tremble. “The soldiers showed her mercy as a mental casualty. They would have sent her to the nearest asylum, and your siblings to an orphanage nearby .” I hope he doesn’t know what happened to the orphanages. Kiril averts her eyes. “There’s no asylum in the Midlands; she’ll be far from danger.” And the children, at least, wouldn’t have burned to death, however they might be faring in the streets—If Sanzio didn’t just let them pass through his ranks to wander home.
Baruch nods slowly, trying to believe me even as I try to believe myself. Lufti spins and starts dancing again, and Damien and Marduk catch up with him musically, Damien elaborating chords and fugues on Marduk’s few riffs.
When Lufti turns we follow him into a charcoal’d ruin of unknown former use, down into a cellar somehow spared the conflagration, perhaps because of the sheets of slate instead of boards for the floor, on a grid of steel to hold it all up. It must have looked classy, in its day.
We find shoes down here–lots and lots of shoes. Our little oracle has homed in on our need once again. A cobbler used to work here. Shelves stand full of shoes of every shape and size, and rolled-up hides and kips, and tools, and lasts, and balls of sinew or waxed thread.
“Who...?” Did I just hear a cracking voice? “Help...please.” Yes! I did! It wasn’t the footwear that drew Lufti down here, after all.
We follow the voice. We find the survivors, too weak to run away, or towards us, or anything. We find a teenage girl and two younger boys, one of them possibly a teenager, too, or on the verge, on that cusp of the transition. They have gnawed leather for lack of anything better. They look nearly dead from thirst. We give them water, and the last of our food. “Who are you?” the girl finally asks.
“Egalitarian rebels,” I tell her. “We fight the people who would do a thing like this.”
“Can we join you?” Her eyes look huge, sunken in their sockets.
I nod. They have nowhere else to go, and heaven knows they passed the test of fire. Damien sings all the proper words to muster them in, and the children themselves find the last of their grandfather’s tobacco for us all to share. We pass the water around like wine.
“We prayed,” the littlest boy husks, coughing over the pipe, and my heart sinks at just how far from God I might lead him before the road’s end. “We prayed.”
For all I know, their families might have raised them Meritocrats. The shop looks like it might have prospered, like their grandfather might have been well on his way to getting enough votes to count. None of that matters anymore.
Wednesday, March 31, 2709
We take advantage of the leather and tools to repair everything that needs repairing. The girl–Chaska–reveals that her grandfather did indeed own combination-lasts for feet like mine, and so I finally get myself boots that fit again. The others re-outfit, too; we don’t know when we’ll get a chance like this again. Kiril and Lufti have already outgrown the shoes that we got for them months ago, anyway. Lufti wants to dance barefoot through the town, but I persuade him not to; already I see ash-sores on him.
And so we leave on a hungry morning, my band expanded by Chaska, Braulio, and Kuchi. As I told Marduk miles ago, those extra guns do come in handy. At noon, for lack of a meal, we teach the new kids how to shoot. We’ll need more ammo soon, then, on top of everything else, but it can’t be helped.
They keep their faces forward as they march, but their eyes never leave Lufti, dancing in the lead, and none can mistake the terror in them. But who else will they follow, if not this young madman? Where else can they turn?