IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
of the Mind
Wednesday, April 26, 2709, continued
(We rise at dawn, because we never stay up late, having nothing much to do after dark except talk and sing old songs, and we do that all day as we walk and skate, anyway. The sybarite in me shakes her head, while my agent side stands back amused—oh what has become of our spoiled little Zanne!
I stretch luxuriously, then laugh at myself as I pick straw out of my hair. Outside this latest barn the birds sing up the sun, as delighted and a bit surprised as I am to wake to another day. The sun streaks in through the high loft window and in between the boards. Tiger stripes, sparking with hay-dust. I feel a ferocious hope well up in me today.
“What do you think, Tshura?” I ask my box. I get from her a hint to remember my dreams, but I can only catch a glimmer, something about sailing like the Queen of the Nile across a stagnant pond, thick and green. Except they didn’t hail me as Cleopatra, but as Consuelo, the legendary foundress of the Tiliàn. Whatever the case, and despite the putrid water, I did feel grand!
I smell real eggs and sausage, mingled with campfire smoke! That farm where we taught them how to make the antidote rewarded us so generously that we shall have to feast before it all goes bad. I dress and take care of business in a hurry, then splash my face in the rain-barrel and finish brushing out my hair, smiling when Ozwald calls out, “Come and get it!”
Maybe we’re going slow, but we have done some good. And right now life feels grand.
But what does Tshura want to tell me?)
When I wake the noon sun rides the sky. Lefty succeeded in catching a badger and now Marduk butchers it. The blood spurts everywhere, but at least it's not human for a change.
(The blood spurts everywhere, all over the walls, all over me, even all over my freshly laundered shirt. She just had to demonstrate that she could wriggle out of the bonds. And now I have to demonstrate that this foolish little blonde still has no way out of this cellar except through me,)
“I can stew,” Lufti says, “No reason to wake her. I have watched. Let sleep knit all her ravels for a little while.” I believe him. I get up and bring him the supplies. But I also sit close and watch him with the knives and fire.
(She held up to knives, She even held up to fire. But somehow it's the scourge that brings her around at last. We both know that she needs to do penance. We have learned that together. One more spoiled little middle-caste runaway, out to practice bloody murder under Cyran's leadership, because she thought that rising up against the government would make a fine way to rebel against her parents.)
While we wait for our brunch, Chaska and Braulio confer between them how best to repair my boot to fit my swollen and bandaged foot, while allowing a way to tighten it back up again later. I motion Kuchi away from gathering firewood to go join them, to watch and learn the family trade. It seems to comfort them, returning to this fragment of their lost, middle-caste life. Their eyes soften and their moves look relaxed, and the air smells rich with the aroma of badger stewing with potatoes and carrots. Hekut and Baruch can keep the fire going for Lufti.
(It seems to comfort her, after she finally tells me what I need to know, when I let her crawl to the bluegray robe that I flung to her, to cover up her nakedness. She even pulls the hood up. For a second I pity her. For didn't I rebel against my own father when I chose to enlist with the Charadocian army?)
As we listen to the crackle and the bubbling, and watch the dance of flames, Braulio leaves the rest of the boot-repair to his sister, to whittle my staff into a proper cane. After dropping a decent pile of branches beside the fire, Baruch sits down and tries to remember (without asking) what I taught him on how to break down and clean a gun. Lufti sprinkles herbs and mutters over their properties like Ophelia.
Hekut found a dry-rotted chunk of trunk and drags the thing over to the woodpile all by himself, then sits down beside me with a huff and a mop of his brow. (I see that he has a prayer cloth of St. Barbara.) I ask Hekut, “And what was your family trade?”
(For wasn't revolution the family trade?)
“Mining. “ Thought so—it fits with the saint. “Mercury mining. Some of us also worked in the refinery, using the mercury to get at silver ore. But then the boss caught Daddy setting a little silver aside for himself. A thief would get flogged, but the crazy old bastard got it in his head that Daddy stole it for the revolution; I guess he’d been around that mercury too long. So he called in a government expert to get to the bottom of what wasn’t even real.” He stares at the fire as if his glower had ignited it. “That's when I first heard about Cyran and all the rest, waiting my turn for interrogation right there, down in the mines, hearing my Daddy scream in the dark, then Mommy, then my big sister, all of them screaming that they knew nothing.”
(She tried at first to convince me that she knew nothing, about Cyran's route, about supply lines, about anything, but I know better, I know all about that game. We were supposed to know nothing, too. He had put all that behind him, people said, don't trouble the poor children with it. But we grew up knowing, even as we knew the wrongness of our birth, overhearing bits and pieces, the silences hanging like old cobwebs that you can see right through, the sudden silences whenever we entered the room.)
Hekut looks darkly at me. “Finally my second sister caught on. The interrogator fancied her; he kept feeding her leading questions, so she confessed whatever he wanted her to confess, and I learned by listening all I needed to know. He turned the lamp up, I guess as a sort of reward, and I remember how his frown just sort of slid upwards. They both started to grin at each other, right there in all the smell, knowing that they made life easier for both of them. He switched the recorder off before telling her, 'You make a good rebel!' and winking.”
(They say he made a good rebel in his day, Binjamin D'Arco, and even after he mustered out the rebels always knew they could find succor with him on the little farm he owned with his wife and daughter. Bought on loot, I heard. Smart man, they said. He saw his chance and took it.)
“I saw my chance,” Hekut goes on, “when they fell to the floor, tearing off each other's clothes and kissing madly. Weird things happen in interrogations, Deirdre. It drives both sides a little crazy.” How painfully I know! “They knew nothing but each other; they didn't notice when I snuck away.” The boy pauses in thought a moment, then says, “Unless she did. Maybe she bought me that time on purpose. Maybe she hated him, but loved me more. Or maybe she just went mad.” He shrugs. “I'll never know, I guess. ”
(But all that happened before my birth, before the past caught up with them and soldiers shot his wife, before he went mad with grief and came to believe—or pretend to believe—that his daughter really was his wife returned.)
“On my way up out of the tunnel,” Hekut confides, “I heard the shot. He never intended to let her get away. But at least she got an easier death than the rest of them.”
(But at least his wife had a quick and easy death. What he did to his daughter—my mother!—surpassed any dying, surpasses any of these little pains that I must inflict to stop men like him. How dare this bitch at my feet rebel against parents that she merely found tedious! The blood seeps through, in streaks, the penitential, staining blood, the stains—I can't take it!)
“So that makes me the last of the family, the only one left to do the right thing, to avenge what the government did to them—and it was the government itself that told me exactly who to seek and what to do!”
(So I just can't help it, I go after her again, while she squeals and cowers in terror against the wall. And then I stop myself, standing there, dripping sweat and blood, panting, catching my breath and my dignity.
But she deserves it—I am the last member of the family somehow rational enough to know the right thing and do it—to avenge my mother, to denounce the wickedness of my father's horrible revolution, doing penance for the sins of my family every time I force myself to the ugly things I must. I stare at her, cowering in her corner of the floor, I hear her whimpering, the spoiled little brat, and I shout at her, “I had a madman for a father, and a madwoman for a mother, so why am I so SANE?”)
Lufti calls us to eat, and he looks healthy again, even almost sane. Sure, he crouches down by the badger's head to apologize to the creature, but while irregular for the Charadoc, some cultures do that. Then he goes to wake up Kiril.
(I strip off the ruined shirt and give myself what I, too, deserve, lashing and lashing as if I could liberate wings from my too-coarse flesh if I could only cut in deep enough. The girl sobs in the corner, but I've heard it all before.
Some cultures do kiss the instrument of penance; it isn't really so strange that I should do so. The blood tastes salty; doesn’t the priest put salt upon the tongues of babies in baptism, to purify their souls? And then it seems right to apologize to the scourge, for sullying her with rebel blood. Yet it also seems right to have mingled that blood with my own in the first place, for I already have rebel blood in my veins, do I not?I go out of there, up the cellar stairs, locking the sobs away. Later I shall send down food and water for her, and let her go, made wiser by her encounter with me, awakened to reason by the harsh, sure way. But for right now I must wash my shirt and my scourge.)