IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Things that One Gets Used to
Friday, April 29, 2709
We jolt to a halt when Chaska reels to a tree and holds on like a storm would wrench her away, throwing up. When did another night burn up into another dawn , red sky flickering between the leaves? Her brothers go to her and hold her up as she totters away, her legs shaking violently.
“Hydrate her,” I gasp. “Anybody got water?” Nobody answers. The old man looks gray in the face, yet fierce, sweat running into his wild eyes, flecks of chewed leaf on his dry lips, his white hair sticking up in all directions and white stubble on his chin. “No, of course not.” When did we run out of water?
“Wake up, Lufti” I say in desperation to to the boy in my arms. “Tell us where to go.” Chulan looks at me oddly, a wide-eyed sideways glance, but says nothing.
He opens his eyes, yawns, and points. “Ghosts will help,” he murmurs, “but it won’t be fun.”
(We come to the island of the next dead hermit, if
island you can call this sand-rimmed rock sticking out of the
grows on it except moss.
I can see that no source of water exists here that
doesn’t fall from the sky or splash up on the shore
So far as I can tell, nothing has been built upon its
isn’t that much to scan.
We go where Lufti points. We find the well, first, a mossy nipple of rocks with a frame over it to hold up a home-carved pulley, rope still in the groove. A spiderweb spans the well-mouth, but I see water down there.
“Baruch, you watch our backs.” I locate the bucket by stumbling over it. I guess I’ve been stumbling a lot; I pull up my skirt to see if the shin’s skinned and discover that both legs have become a mass of bruises and scrapes already starting to pucker with pseudomonas. When did that happen?
We all need the water more badly than we thought when I bring up the cool, musical, green crystal refreshment. I honestly had no idea I’d become this thirsty till taking in gulp after gulp, feeling it suffuse me, feeling a fever drop in me down to normal levels. So I don’t at first notice Chulan sobbing, now that she’s got the chance to catch her breath and mourn. Lufti cradles her head in his lap and strokes her hair, smiling like an eerie cherub, his eyeliner smudged and grimy and his hair a tangled mess.
Chulan turns up her swollen face to me and says, “Why do I survive? Why do I keep on surviving everybody?”
I sit down next to her, trying to hide my trembling. “We all ask that, Chulan.” I can’t give her any better answer, but it seems to strengthen her a little. She sits up, wipes her face, and drinks more water.
“Come along, duckies,” Lufti croons, tugging us back to our feet. “It’s not safe here.” So we fill up our waterskins and follow.
(We split up, Jake and I going left, George and Wallace going right, Don scrambling up over what little crest the rocks in the middle have to offer. No one with any navigation skill would bother setting up here, I’m sure. And practically every man and boy in Toulin learns something about sailing.
“Over here,” I hear Don call, from what must be the other side of this ridiculously small island. In a shaking voice our psychometrist adds,“I touched the boat,” We start to run towards him in that place without path nor any need for one. “Somebody else really, really should have died!”)
The once-beaten path has grown grassy and crowded by insistent ferns and vines trespassing where someone used to regularly hack them back; old stumps of branches point at us as if accusing us of wielding machetes against them. A light pattering of rain begins, as gathering clouds dim the sunshine that had dazzled our dilated eyes. Lufti apologizes as he carefully moves the anchor-points of spider-webs aside to let us through, as though they had been gauzy little gates, crystal-bejweled.
And I fear. Every leafy twig that I move out of my way (silently, as silently as possible, lest the forest take offense) reminds me that no one has passed this way for quite some time, that living human beings don’t belong here anymore. But Lufti said that the ghosts will help—that must mean that they’re on our side. Right? Yet who died here? What happened? What did he mean when he warned that it wouldn’t be fun?
(We find Don with his arms crossed, hands tucked protectively into his armpits as he stands beside a rude shelter, made from a rowboat dragged up and leaned against the rock, and the bones of our next client stick out from under it, picked clean by crabs and seagulls. Yet still she wears the rags of a Toulin dress, sunbleanched violet or blue, with a fading print of puppies at play. She had been a child.)
We find a one-room log cabin, the door left open. No bones inside, and no grave marked around it, just a feral herb garden competing with the weeds. A pot hangs in the clean-swept fireplace, though leaves have blown in since. There’s a table and chairs, and hooks for hammocks and clothes, though those have gone with their owners long before. Whoever lived here probably didn’t have the means to take the furniture or the heavy pot. All lighter kitchenware has gone as well.
Herbs, but no vegetables? Who grows only herbs, except a witch? I look uneasily at the webs in the window, hung as if in apology for the absent curtains. Are those spiders the descendants of familiars?
(This one didn’t plant food. This one didn’t know how to fish. The hair prickles on my neck because I know, without being told, what the others have already deduced. This one was a runaway. She didn’t know how to survive, and so she didn’t. She fled something so horrible that the risk of dying seemed preferable, and she lost the gamble. I can’t help but wonder if she still thought her escape worth it, or if she simply didn’t know how to find her way back. Maybe she already tried, from some other rock, and just wound up here.
And with that I realize that I’m not picking this up in any way unnatural to my combustor nature. Just good ol’ fashioned logic, looking at the evidence at hand. And I sigh with relief.)
Lufti takes my hand. “It’s okay, Deirdre. Your magic is stronger.”
“Stop reading minds, Lufti. It’s not healthy for your nature.”
He shrugs. “Sometimes I just figure things out. What you’re thinking is all over your face.” He sounds so lucid right now! My heart breaks that my mind should even have to remark on it.
Figure things out. Nobody died here. The home isn’t haunted...unless people departed precisely because it is?
But the greenfire flickers inside me, about to go out any minute. I don’t have time to find any other option. I join the others in laying out our bedding in the shelter of this home, on or above the well-tamped oiled dirt, as smooth and clean as any mansion floor, with that bit of give that shows its makers mixed in plant gels to give it a rubbery quality. There’s only hammock hooks for two, but I don’t mind. I’ve slept on worse. But then Kiril and Lufti invite me to share their hammock and I don’t mind that either. I let the old man have my mat. Chulan gives hers to the Cobbler kids, as she nestles in with Lefty, weeping a little bit. He doesn’t mind, though they’ve never met before; he may be a mooch and a thief but if nothing else he is also a gentleman. Hekut, Marduk and Baruch prefer to sleep alone, relatively speaking.
And so help me I’m so tired that I don’t hesitate to lay down with my loved ones, despite my fears of whatever shudders in the shadows. I should be used to ghosts by now.
(So help me, I’m so used to dead people by now that without even thinking I kiss the skull’s brow and murmur, “You poor, precious darling! You didn’t deserve any of this!” Then, after a caress of the dry old bone, I join the others gathering stones for her cairn.)