IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Pangs of Faith
Sunday, April 25, 2709
Every Sunday, when we can, we enter a church like infiltrating enemy territory. The incense and the strange-shaped shadows of saints and angels, the stained-glass glow in dimness, the scriptures read in antique accents and above all of that an indefinable perception of holiness that has nothing to do with the bloodshed of our lives, all conspire to make this an alien place. I honestly don't know, anymore, whether I consume my own condemnation in the Body and Blood, and I don't think I want to know. But I return, every possible Sunday, to different churches but the same Otherworld, just in case.
(Every Sunday I watch other people go to Mass without me. Sometimes to a chaplain in a military tent, sometimes to an old adobe chapel of the hills. And every Sunday I remind myself that I don't belong in there, not anymore. I have made my blood-sacrifices to a different god.)
I don't even move the way I used to, at least I don't think so. People read things in my body language, now, that I didn't used to say in bone and muscle. These hands I clasp before me have soaked in red. These knees that kneel have propelled me into violence. My own body feels alien around me.
(No wonder, really, why my own mother doesn't recognize me anymore. Well, that and her being barking mad. Yet they say that mothers—normal mothers--can even distinguish their own children's clothing from a pile of identical others, just by sense of smell. But what if she can only smell the blood on me these days?)
And what about all of the government soldiers, who pray as earnestly as we do? Do they ever doubt their cause, even for a moment? Kiril says that they take communion in a certainty of self-righteousness, but maybe that's the face they feel that they have to show, like me. Maybe they lay awake at night like I do, wondering.
(And what about that other, the one I used to call my brother? Does the miscreant still go to church? And why not? An abomination from the womb need not have any scruples—did I draw all of the normalcy, all of the decency to myself? Two children, of one illicit birth, and one turned out all right, and one turned out so very, very wrong.
But why does it still hurt so badly? Worse than anything that I can contrive to do to my body. Can I ever whip the traitor from my heart, when the scourge can only reach the skin?)
Why do I torture myself like this, once a week? Because I tried despair and it hurt even worse. No, that's not honest. It didn't exactly hurt, it felt achingly numb—dying. Here the holy words rip me open, my regular appointment with agony, but as they say on the battlefield, pain tells me I'm alive.
(Yet pain tells me I'm alive. I do no worse to my prisoners than I inflict upon myself. Within reason. I won’t bring it to the death-point, or the incapacitation point. Not yet. Not while my country needs me.)
This time...it might have happened on any Sunday. I suppose that sooner or later it had to. My fast reflexes do what they must as soon as I see the eyes turn in recognition, the hand move that inevitable way.
(This Sunday...but no. Why should this Sunday differ from any other? Just because this time the blood on my hands is my own?)
Now back out the door, quick, back to the march, back to the war. Get my children out of there. Leave behind that other kingdom, the realm of the peace that passes understanding, for my own country needs me. And yes, Lufti's right—it is mine now, more than any Til-taught theory of cultural immersion, more, perhaps, than Til Institute herself. For my blood has merged with the soil of this land, and the leaves that brush my face now wipe away my tears. This Charadoc of mine has loved me more than I have ever loved in quest, has punished me, too, has become my heaven and my hell and my soul's last refuge and regret.
(And that justifies everything, this torture of the soul. If I cannot have the God of my forebears, then let me worship the land of my forebears, this Charadoc, this place of endless and indescribable beauty and suffering, this love greater than wife or children, that has cost me everything!)
Deep, now, into the forest once again, swiftly, melt away before anybody sees that we never came from the road or returned to it. I try not to limp too obviously, but I don't think my band even notices; they have this image of me that filters out little details like the fact that I feel pain...
(...And so the rank and file don't even register the damage that I've done, my new limp notwithstanding. For I must turn the scourge elsewhere: the back won't take any more without repercussions that I can’t allow. Not now. Not this close.)
Soon it won't matter anyway, as I take to the air, slipping carefully between the boughs, watching over my troop. Just this morning I caught Lufti petting my flit, whispering, “Good horse—be kind to her. Carry her safely. Nobody hurt her anymore.” Maybe he notices, he and Kiril, if nobody else does. Even in the air my foot throbs.
(Soon it won't matter anyway, as I take my leave of this latest troop. I travel alone these days, only checking in when protocol demands. I move faster this way, even with the stiffness of my lacerated legs. I don't need these brutish soldiers to hold me back. Not when I'm so close.)
“He shouldn't have run in there,” Braulio says hollowly.
(Where have you run to, my erstwhile brother?)
“It wasn't your fault,” I tell him.
“I didn't want any trouble.”
“I know. I had no idea that anyone would recognize us.”
“Do you think they can scrub the blood out? Those sandstone flags looked porous.”
I hesitate, gliding over him like something opposite to a guardian angel. “I don't think it matters, Braulio.”
“He started it. Soldier's got no business running into a church, waving his gun around like that, shouting.”
“He started it,” I agree.
“You saved my life. How did you push my head down so fast, just in time?”
“Oh, I have my tricks.”
“But the bullets didn't hit me.” I remember the statue of St. Rose of Lima, bleeding plaster, white and dry, up on her pedestal, her midriff in line with where his face had been. “I had no excuse to...”
“You acted in self-defense. He would have reloaded.” The statue had seemed to lean forward as though St. Rose wanted to reach out and shield us, but instead the upper torso fell from the rest of the statue and shattered on the floor.
“But if I...”
“He might not have shot you. He might have shot Kuchi. Or any of us.”
He turns a tear-scalded face up to me. “I just wanted to go to mass!”
“I know, honey. I know.”
“Do you think they will ever be able to...you know...”
“Sometimes they do reconsecrate churches.”
I barely hear his raw whisper. “How?”
“I don't know all the details, but I'm pretty sure it involves a bishop.”
He says nothing for a long time. Then I hear him murmur, “Not out here in the middle of nowhere. They won't send a bishop out to a church where nobody but peasants go.”
(The next island looks like somewhere that nobody but a tortured soul would go, a tower of bare rock with pockets of soil here and there where grass struggles to make do. Jake takes over the rudder to steer us into a channel between this and another spire, protecting a scant arc of sand trying to become a beach.
I stare up and up at the sharp-faced, bird-limed cliffs, pocked here and there with holes where seagulls nest, and then down to the hovel perched on driftwood pylons, looking, in that scale, like a child’s attempt to throw together a fairy-house with twigs and leaves Except they’re not leaves but pinney-hides, stretched out and tanned right onto the walls to protect the daub and wattle.
We cast anchor and pile into the lifeboat as before, bringing the shovel though I don’t see much of a chance to use it. Our ghosts want proper funerals, but nowhere in this stony prison could host a grave that the ocean couldn’t uncover in the next big storm. The wind feels colder out here in this dingy, close to the slapping water; I turn up my collar and shiver, and the waves sound like they sigh to expire on the sand.
I’m no stranger to soul-torture, myself, but man, you’d have to have it bad to wind up here! You couldn’t have had much faith in salvation to think you’d need to start Hell right here on Novatierre.
Wallace turns his distant gaze towards me and says, “He found it beautiful, forbidding only to the cruelty of the city that he left behind...somewhere in Skarfangers, I believe. And when he built his first fire upon the beach, on a clean summer evening, he felt warm and safe for the first time in his life, as the sparks swirled up to the stars like prayers.”)
We venture a campfire. Soldiers don't like to camp this deep into forest if they can help it, and if they had, we would have seen the glow, smelled their smoke, and felt their nerves twang as the quiver in our own.
“Look,” Lufti says and laughs, pointing upwards at some rising sparks. “The stars go up to join their heavenly brethren to pray together!” At Braulio’s scowl he turns and says, “Not all chapels can be desecrated, you know. I hold onto that, even when it sears me.”
(I see Wallace’s point as we draw closer. This one made his garden into a sacred space, the precious soil walled off with rocks high ip against the cliff so that one needs stairs to get to it. I see a cross carved into the southward-facing rock behind it, and all its fruitfulness beneath. Grapevines wreathe it and drip down, just beginning to show the buds of new leaves. I think I see wintered-over cabbages behind them, and that must be a potato-tower to the left, near the stair. A ledge seems carved into a bench, from which one could gaze out, surrounded by greenery, over the sea past that other island rock.
We go up different stairs, into the shack., Jake cries out, stumbling; I catch him before he falls. ‘What happened?” I exclaim.
“Nothing much,” he mutters, embarrassed. “I just felt a twinge, for a moment, of a pain far away.”)
I don't want to think about my foot, though it clamors for my attention. I don't want to take off my boot in Kiril's presence. She has more than enough to deal with right now, and I don't ever want to trigger more of her telepathy in a negative context if I can help it. So I distract her.
Together Kiril and I fit together the pieces of my map of Til Territories, such as it is, while Braulio whittles my staff in a contained fury, as if he’d gouge the evil from the world. She's getting better at reading the names that I have written upon it, my awful handwriting notwithstanding.
(Inside we find a clean, spare space. A crucifix, carved from driftwood by an untrained hand, hangs on the wall above the hearth. Shelves hold unused winter preserves in neat rows of jars—we’ll be well-paid for our services this time. Our customer himself lies on a seagrass mat on the floor, and the smile on the freeze-dried face seems sincere. A withered hand lies on the breast, holding a rosary.
George whistles and says, “Well, what do you know. This one really was a hermit!” He peers closer at the rosary’s black beads. “Rose beads,” he says, “made out of a rosepetal paste. Pastor Jean showed one to me once—it gave off a scent of roses when you fondled it. But he said he couldn’t pray it any more—he couldn’t remember the prayers.”
“It was this man’s treasure,” Wallace says. “I don’t pretend to understand, but it’ll go into the flames with him.”)
Lufti points to one place in Cracked Mesa. “That one's got treasure in the name,” he says.
I stare at him in astonishment. “You know Tilianach?”
“Just a few pretty pebbles I’ve picked up here and there,” he tells me. “Not the whole continent. I read and read and read and all books pass through this map, sooner or later, and it gets more and more raggedy all the time.”
Kiril leans over and sounds out the name. “Boo-ride Trees ure Cannon,” she says.
“This squiggle over the N makes it a nya-sound. It's pronounced Buried Treasure Canyon, and the name means a ravine in which somebody put something of value under the ground.”
“As well they should,” Lufti says, nodding. “Plant the seeds for futures we may never see, full of crops and wives and maybe even children who live.”
“Unfortunately, the story behind this name didn't include children who lived.” I sit in thought a moment, remembering, glad that Damien’s not here to hear this tale, before Kiril tugs at my arm.
“Come on,” she says, “You've told us this much.”
“Ah, but it's a sad story. Pick another place.”
Lufti says, “Some treasure bleeds. It is the way of things. And all tales are sad ones, really, but happy, too. We thrust our swords into the throat of sadness and then jump back, but the rubies hit us anyway. But some of us live to sing of it later. Isn't that enough to make the stars laugh with surprise?”
“Very well,” I say with a sigh. “Once upon a time a woman dwelled over here, in Hillhollow Village. Her house burned down, and in it died her husband and her children, but she herself turned up in a field not far away...here. The people found her with her skirts still damp from the dew of the wild grasses, spring flowers still wilting in her hair. People saw this and drew their own conclusions.”
Kiril asks, “I don't understand.”
“Til Institute tolerates many religions now, but some of the outlying villages aren't so open-minded—and were much less so in those days. Different villages had different religions that didn't like each other much.”
“Sort of like how people used to feel about the old Hill Faith?”
“Something like that, yes, maybe not so bad, but sometimes on the edge. Years before the woman had wandered from a Pagan village into a Christian village, for who knows what reason, and her ways seemed wild and uncouth to many in Hillhollow, but for every person who condemned her for promiscuity another took secret advantage of it, so they...”
“She promiscued,” Lufti interrupts, “because she must die young. It's not really the other way around, you know.”
“Uh, right. Anyway, the village had their own reasons for putting up with her ways, and eventually she fell in love with one man, enough to agree to marriage according to the customs of that place. And she bore him three children, and sometimes seemed contented enough, and sometimes she'd get a trapped, wild look in her eyes—or maybe people imagined it. Once people get an idea in their heads, they have a hard time seeing anything else.”
Kiril presses, “But what has this got to do with the dew on her hem and the flowers in her hair?”
“Oh, well, I forgot to mention. The house burned down on a spring holiday of her own religion. Everybody could see by looking at her that she had gone out to dance in the old rites while her family burned to death.”
“But that wouldn't be her fault!” Kiril protested. “She didn't know!”
“People weren't so sure about that. They didn't know anything about her rituals, but they suspected evil of them, dark magic. They said that she had tired of her responsibilities and called down calamity on her family, so that she could go back to her old wanton ways. And so they drove her out.” I trace my finger on the map. “Here. She escaped through this pass—a treacherous land, a difficult journey; only the desperate would go that way. And she came down...here. To this canyon.”
“Berry'd Tressure Can Yawn,” Kiril reads, more correctly this time.
“Yes. We don't know how long she lived there. But generations later, people found her treasure buried there—keepsakes of her husband and three children, burnt but still recognizable: a wooden horse, a clay doll's head, a ring, a little boot. She had wrapped these in blue or purple velveteen—faded by the time folks found it, the original color uncertain--and then placed them in a little chest, sealed with wax. She hid them in a cave, but as people got more adventuresome in later years hardly a cave went unexplored. They found her bones not too far off, though nobody knows the circumstances of her death, or how long she'd survived in the canyon before she died. Whatever the case, she'd had nobody to dig her grave, and so she lay as she fell, within her makeshift shelter.”
“Surely they didn't leave her there!” Kiril cried.
“No. Of course not. They brought home her remains and buried her beside her husband and children, asking a Pagan priestess from the other village to officiate. And her treasures they brought to the Hillhollow Museum, to join the other, less tragic relics of their village history, as a reminder not to judge.”
Kiril sighs and says, “I guess things don't always go so easily in your country, either.”
I tell her, “Those were hard times, Kiril—the beginning times. Everybody had to struggle to make things happen.”
“Then maybe we're seeing the same kind of hard times here, fighting to make something new.”
(We thankfully take the potatoes, grape jelly, strawberry jam, cabbages, pickled fish, sugar-beets, dried herbs, pinniped pemmican, onions, kale chips, crab-powder and sauerkraut onto our boat. The pinney-blubber soap doesn’t smell too bad, rendered with sage as it is, so we take that, too.
We anoint our client thoroughly with the last of the blubber, leaving him holding his rosary. We lay the cross upon him, and then all of his firewood, and then more we find in a dry place outside, and all the dried seaweed, bird’s nests and whatever else we can find, for it will take a lot of heat, for a long time, to properly cremate a man.
We board the boat and back up a ways, till the house above the beach becomes a dim shape in the night before us, the waves rocking us as if in consolation. And the others look at me. They always want me to say the words.
“Lord, I don’t know the Catholic way of these things, but Deirdre once told me that all you have to do for anyone to do an emergency baptism is to say that you want whatever Catholics mean by a baptism, so I hope a funeral’s the same way now. I want whatever will set this soul at ease. Sorry we have to do this by fire; I think I’ve heard that cremation’s not a Catholic’s favorite way to go, but acceptable in a pinch. He and I both believed in Jesus, at least, so that’s something. So may Jesus forgive his sins, remember his virtues, and take his spirit home.”
Don hands me a chip of the old man’s potato-cracker, heaped with his grape jelly, to fuel me up. I lift up my magentine, think fire into the house and see the flash of light within it. We bob on the gentle waves for awhile, watching the house burn, then finally start to crumple in on itself, groaning and crackling, till it falls onto the beach and keeps on burning. The sea-wind blows the smoke away from us, then it climbs up the cliff like an incense wave, and curls back over us, pungent and wild. I nudge the flames every so often, as my friends give me more mouthfuls to keep it going for as long as it takes, till finally I can let it die down to smoldering coals and fall against Jake, exhausted.Bones will remain, but the next rising tide will take care of that. Crabs will have new habitats. We did the best we could.);