IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Sunday, April 29, 2709, continued.
God help me, I keep climbing and climbing and never getting to the top, never anywhere, not even that cave up there at the halfway point. The sharp rocks freeze the blood of my hands and feet, a trail of red frost leading up and up to nowhere. I can hardly see through the ice crystals gluing my lashes together, and the cold wind moans as if it feels through me how much it hurts to breathe. Each time I push upwards the pain in my thighs and calves cuts through me like jab after jab of a rock-edged lance.
The weight of my wings drags on my back fit to crack my shoulders—no, not the wings, not anymore—it’s a backpack full of food. Why did I ever think that I could have wings? The people up in that cave, they need me to get supplies to them before they starve.
I can hear the dardies calling way below. I can hear their singing circle, slowly, dizzily, as they wait for me to fall.
(I’ve been climbing this palm forever. The rough bark tears my skin and its fibers prick into me like splinters. The nuts sway and bob so high overhead, way up there in the rustling fronds, but somebody needs them, somebody’s going to starve if I can’t reach them. The wind rocks the trunk, nauseating me. Every so often spiders drop on me from the mess above, and each time I flinch and nearly fall off, my heart pounding.)
(I’m lost in the mine. I always feared this’d happen, carrying lunch to my Dad and brothers, but now it finally did. I turn around and try to go back, groping in the dark, but different tunnels open up this way, too; I can’t pick which one leads to fresh air and sunlight. Everything smells like dirt. Everything feels hard.
Somewhere I hear a drip. I shouldn’t hear a drip—I shouldn’t be anywhere near the flooded section! The tunnel floor rots there—you never know when it’ll give and drop you into a sightless lake where blind things swim and nibble what comes their way and I never learned to swim.)
(The oil in the built-in lamps have all burnt out, here in the servant’s cave where Damien left me. I can smell the last of the smoke, that musty, heavy stink of the wicks going out. I bump into furniture in the dark, trying to find the kitchen area. I need to feed the band...but where are they? I can’t lay down and rest until I make sure they’re taken care of. But why can’t I hear them anywhere?)
(I crawl up the dragon’s tongue, slick and viscous, hot and disgusting, I keep slipping; I ache with trying not to slide backwards but I keep doing it anyway, my eyes hurting from the garish colors of his spiky, leering face. I have to get up there, then down his gullet, then to the sand beyond, or the family won’t get any dinner. They’re all waiting to see if I can prove the merit of their bloodline, but I want to sleep so bad I cry. And then I try some more.)
(I crawl up the dragon’s tongue, into the blast of its foul breath. I thought it would be easier for me than for a child, but my weight drags me back again and again, slithering on the slime of that horrible tongue, and then begins the ache, all over again, of trying one more time. What if I can’t even fit through the maw?
But I have to! My grandson’s in there, imprisoned in the awful guts. crying out between the bars of ribs. I’ve got to get to him, bring him back out and sit him down to dinner with the rest of the family. He hasn’t eaten for months!)
(I’ve got to get us out of Grampa’s cellar! I start climbing up the bricks, my toes barely finding anywhere to shove themselves, my fingers aching to grip the harsh edges, but I’m the oldest, it falls on me to try and find some food for those of us who’ve survived.
Now sometimes I have to push away charred beams, stinking of the fire and all that burning leather up above. Ashes keep falling in my eyes and burning my skin. I had no idea that the cellar went so deep! But if I don’t get us supplies Nishka’s going to die.)
(The tunnel out of Ghost Canyon climbs steep. Nobody left me a lamp—damn them! I try to feel my way, but it all gets so disorienting when every move I make echoes up and down the stone passageways, and I am so, so tired from the battle left behind, hauling my loot on my back, the stolen calf heavier with every step, its blood soaking into my clothing, mingling with my sweat. But if I don’t make it up there the others will starve and push more dead down to join those already in the canyon.)
(Back in the mine. Back in the thrice-damned mine, my hand throbbing and bleeding, my ears deaf to everything but their own ringing, my eyes blinded by the blast. Or no, the explosion must have knocked out all of the lights and driven away everyone who could help me back to the surface.
Nobody to save me but me. As usual. I’ve got to drag myself up the mine shaft, with one good hand and two tired feet, but it’s gone higher and steeper than ever. I don’t know why and I don’t care, I’ve just got to get out of here, because if they declare me dead they’ll turn my family out of the company housing, the wife and kids won’t get the last paycheck, and they’re done for.
But now the way has gone completely vertical. Am I even in the right tunnel? Who can say in the dark? My head’s still ringing and I ache all over and every time I let go with my one good hand to grab the next rock I feel the vertigo, the imminence of falling backwards into the pit if I don’t latch on again quickly enough. Never mind—keep on going!)
(I’m scared. The whole world burned up, all of the everywhere, just gone. I’m hungry and tired and I don’t know where to go or what to do. Even the sky has burned to black, and everything smells charred.
Oh wait—is that a tree? I can’t make it out at first through all the smoke but yeah, it’s a charcoal stump of a tree, and still bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in my life, bigger than mountains.
I can climb trees. I’m getting big, Grandpa said. Stubs of old branches stick out—why, it’s practically a ladder! An evil, painful-looking ladder. Never mind that--if I can climb to the top of this tree maybe I’ll be able to see which way to go, where to find living lands, maybe even people. I’m the lightest, so my brother and sister need me to do this...wherever they are. If I can just get above the haze! But I feel so tired, and the charcoal keeps rubbing off on me, and I keep choking on the smoke.)
“Why are you even bothering to climb, Deirdre? You can fly!”
I ignore Kief and strain for the next rock spur above me. “You’re not here. I’m hallucinating you. I saw you die.”
He only laughs the more. “Just let go. The freedom’s heavenly, all the way down, just feeling the wind whistle through your hair, losing yourself into the embrace of weightlessness, the limbs that can fling out anywhere they want...”
“Until the crash at the end.”
More laughter. “Yes, there is that.”
And I feel the hair on my neck rise to hear him. I remember with a rush what happened to him, how he died. “Is that what you want for me, Kief?”
(“Come down off there, boy! You climb down here right this minute, hear?”
I want to listen to my father so bad! My arms tremble with a yearning to give up, to just drop and land as I may. “But you’ll starve if I don’t get you those palm-nuts!” I call down in a shaking voice. “You’ve gone too long without anything, Dad—If I don’t make it up there you’ll die!”
“I’m dead already, you tomfool!” And I nearly lose my grip.)
(The mineshaft floor gives out under me! I grab the lip of what remains, hearing great chunks of rock hit the water far, far below, trying to swallow back my heart, too scared to jar myself with the scream just hammering to get out. My feet kick about trying to latch onto anything, anything at all!
And then I start to hear a stirring down below me, as if disturbing the water woke something up...)
(I can’t find the kitchen-corner of the cave, but I draw near to one of those shafts where moonlight and rain come down to send luminous water running down a channel cut for it. The kitchen has to lie near one of these, surely—kitchens need ventilation.
I follow the moonlight-infused rainwater, just because it’s all I can see, really. But now things grow a little less dim—the cave mouth must lie nearby.
I stop dead in my tracks. I remember what I left beside the way out. And yes, there his body slumps, still leaned against the rock, spattered with his blood and brains, the hole still in his forehead where I let his soul escape what that Purple Mantle did to his brain.
Or did I? Abruptly, without pushing with his hands or anything, Dosh lurches to his feet and stares at me.)
(I crest the back of the dragon’s tongue at last, and start to slide the other way. But it doesn’t lead into a sandbox—it leads into a tank! I see them there again, men full of my bullet’s holes, eyes red with hellfire, reaching up for me as I try to stop my slide, but I can’t and no, it’s not a tank after all, it’s a desecrated church with stained glass windows bright as fire and the soldiers bleed all over the sandstone flags!)
(Dragging myself over the crest of the dragon’s tongue, I topple down into...sand? Blood soaked sand, and bodies lying everywhere, and a raw-meat smell. And there stands my boy, my beautiful, precious grandson, soaked in red, a rifle in his arms, and the most lost, habitually horrified look in his eyes, as he turns to stare at me. I throw my arms wide and cry, “Shoot! Go ahead and shoot! I did this to you—I let it happen!” I shut my eyes tight, quivering with fear of what I deserve, but standing there anyway.)
(I finally claw my way up out of the cellar, my muscles screaming with pain to push my body out of there. Then I totter on the burnt-out brink, gazing out at the ashen ruins everywhere, smoke still rising here and there, white and gray and black. Miles and miles of it—all the way to the horizon. I turn, nearly toppling back into the pit, but I find my footing again, and turn some more. More of the same, as far as I can see through the haze. How will I ever find what I need? I turn some more—and there I spy him. The Charcoal Man. He sits with his back to me, made entirely of charcoal, yet I can see the shoulders shake with sobs.
Cautiously I approach him, stepping as quietly as the Rebels have taught me to do, but a fire-weakened beam snaps loudly under me, throwing me off balance in a dizzy shock. As I right myself The Charcoal Man turns slowly at the sound. His eyes smoulder—literally! And he looks like...I recognize...
(I hear them behind me, coming up the tunnel from Ghost Canyon. Greenfire nerves, I tell myself, and try to laugh. But maybe...no! But oh God yes, I hear the clicking of bones upon the stone, trying to walk as they could back when they lived. The clattering echoes all around me in the dark—there must be hundreds of them!
The calf slides from my aching shoulders. I grit my teeth against the fear. I stumble as I turn, yet I turn...)
(“Leo. Stop.” Nobody calls me Leo anymore. I’m Lefty now. I keep on dragging myself up out of that pitch black mine shaft, my hand bleeding against my chest. “You don’t have to do this anymore. Not for me.”
My voice goes high when I say “Myrtle? What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.”
“You need to stop.” Stop? Ha! I have always climbed up that shaft. I always will climb the shaft. Because I can’t bear whatever will happen next.)
(I keep climbing up what’s left of the tallest tree in the world, getting black dust all over me and in my eyes and mouth, even my soul gets blackened, but I have to keep going, I have to scout out the way for the others or we’ll never find food and it’ll all be my fault. I grunt, I strain, I cry, but I keep going, because I’m a big boy, now, and everybody asks big-boy things of me even though I just want to drop dead I’m so tired, but no, I have to keep climbing.
“Fly with me, just like Deirdre flies,” somebody says behind me, but it’s a man’s voice. “Come, let me take you in my arms and I will carry you.” But it’s so hard to turn while holding onto the tree. I have to try anyway. I twist around to see...
...the soldier that I shot! I thought I could forget that face! The shock, the blood, the pale, staring eyes! And with that realization I scream and let go and then I falllllllll....)
I let go of the rock, tearing the bonds of frozen blood. I start to fall and just surrender to it, twisting all the way down, my hair now in my eyes, now clearing to show me miles of countryside below. I shrug my pack off, saying, “Take it Kief, take it up to them.”
But instead he grabs me in strong arms and bears me up. “You’re the one who needs it,” he says to me, his face radiant in a halo of tumbling red hair. “You’re trying to rescue yourself.” He feels so warm. I can smell his sweet sweat and his rum-soaked tobacco as he holds me close, closer than we could ever permit ourselves when he lived. “You can’t do it all alone, Deirdre. I tried and look at where it got me. Look at where it’ll get you:”
He dives down into the jungle far below. In a clearing we hover over my band, looking gaunt, spent, unwashed and wild-eyed...and there I see myself among them, extending a handful of bronzy leaves. Kiril glares at me and says, “Hekut, tell Deirdre she’s grounded. She can’t order us to chew any more leaf!”
And suddenly I’m there, down on the ground with them. I glare back and say,
“Is this a mutiny, Kiril?”
I point my gun at her and growl, “You just want all the
power for yourself, is that it?”
But BANG! I
feel the pressure against my heart, too much shock to feel the
pain yet, I fall to the ground, staring up, clutching at the
bullet wound, but Kiril didn’t shoot me, Kiril would never shoot
me, it’s Baruch’s gun that smokes...I fade...I feel the life
trickle out of my wound...I fade...I...
“You are forgiven,” he says, and he feeds me, his hand
to my mouth, a crumb of stale bread and a sip of some
dreg-bitter wine that he found God knows where, but I receive it
gratefully before falling back asleep.
“What?” I cry, grabbing his shirt. “WHAT?”
“The fire..” .he chokes, and turns into a smoke, himself, dropping me. But I land on my mat in the abandoned cabin in the woods. I hear Lufti asking somebody if she’s sorry for her sins. Somehow I know that my turn will come soon, and oh yes, I am sorry that deep in my heart I do feel a tug for the greenfire leaf...and by knowing that, by admitting it, I feel with greater confidence than before that I can resist.)
(I fall with a punishing SPLASH into the underground lake! Cold, slimy things grab me in the water and I churn about, trying to resist their tug but they...keep my head above water? And the fish would bite, not grab.
“Easy, son,” my father says, while my mother wraps her loving arms around me and swims for some shore. “We’re trying to help you.” I stop struggling.
Mommy says, “You’re drowning in the darkness, Hekut. You’ve got to make your way towards light.”
“Is the whole family here?” I ask. “Where’s my sister.”
“She’s alive,” Mommy says. Dad says, “She distracted her interrogator long enough to grab his gun and shoot him. You won’t find her here in the darkness.”
I start, and become aware of lying on the ground indoors somewhere. Out of the blue I realize that it’s Sunday. Somewhere people take communion. I’ve killed so many people avenging my sister—can I even take it?)
(Dosh stands before me, wobbling on his dead legs, no expression on his blood-streaked face. In a distant voice he says, “Sarge couldn’t be here. He’s ashamed, so he sent me. He asks that you forgive him.”
And suddenly I feel light, as light as I was when he first found me in the tasper-tree. “Yes,” I find myself saying. “He tried to love me. His love got twisted up something wicked, but if he’s really sorry then yes, with my whole heart I forgive him!”
And just like that, I’m not in that cave anymore, I’m
in the hammock beside Deirdre, and here Lufti, who loves me
better than anyone ever did, caresses my hair and asks, “Are
you sorry for your sins?”
(The bloodsoaked dead soldiers converge on me, grab me, push me around violently, whirling this way and that as I choke on their rotten stench. “Do you like killing, boy?” “Is that your answer, huh?” “Have you gotten a taste for it?”
“But I don’t!” I cry. “It’s war! I only kill because it’s war!”
But then they shove me at Maigrette, the sad old lady bleeding from my wound. In a shaking voice she says, “I repented, Braulio. I repented in the end. But will you?” And she hugs me.
I thrash through my blankets and cry out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Oh, I am so, so sorry!”
Without a word the Crazy Dancer gives me bread and wine.)
(I run as fast as my tired old limbs can lumber, but it seems to take forever, pushing through the sand, already tired from running for days before now, before I can fold my poor grandson in my arms, the blood on him getting all over me and I don’t care, I just want to hold him, to feel his heart beat against mine the way it used to...but though I search for it I can feel no pulse.
“I died, Grandpa,” he says hollowly. “I died in battle, knowing that you didn’t believe me.”
“Oh child, child, child, I believe you now! I am so sorry I doubted you I believe you now!”
“Then live for me,” he says, and pushes me backwards onto my mat, and I wake to that odd little boy with the painted eyes and tangled hair asking, “Are you sorry for your sins?”)
(“Chaska, my dear, dear Chaska,” the black ruin of a man rasps, through charcoal lips, from a death-dry throat. “I have paid for my sins against you.”
“Oh Grandpa!” I cry and embrace him, but he crumbles in my arms. I weep, falling to my knees in the rubble, trying to find all of the pieces and put them all together again.
Yet I can still hear his voice, saying, “Don’t bother with that—that’s all done for. Let go of everything I taught you. I was wrong. You’re worth more than you believe—stop valuing yourself so cheaply.”
I rock violently, but it’s only Braulio having a nightmare, too, and then the Mad Boy comes over. When he finishes giving communion to my brother, Lufti offers it to me. “Are you sorry for your sins?”)
(There, in the dark tunnel that leads from Ghost Canyon, I turn to face my dead. My chest clenches fit to strangle me, my stomach goes all queer, but nobody has ever mistaken me for a coward.
And there they stand, rank upon rank, every bone of them glowing in my dark, thousands that I have slain over the years, all of my enemies.
And eerily, they start to laugh. Huskily, dryly, the teeth clicking in the empty skulls. Yet I stand my ground, though every muscle in me cries out to run. Let them do their worst! I raise up my gun, though I don’t think it’d do any good.
One steps forward from all the rest. I recognize him, that slouching step, though nothing remains upon the bones. “When are you going to run out of enemies, Son?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say defiantly, though I tremble. “No matter what you throw at me, I can deal with ‘em.”
“Can you, my Son? Yet there is one that you always miss.” And my father holds up a mirror to me, but all I can see is snake, one great big green and purple and red-brown snake...
I scream! I thrash about, tangled in my blankets.
“Are you sorry for your...”
“No, I am not sorry! I will never, ever be sorry for killing that traitor!” and so Lufti walks away, and suddenly I feel bereft.)
(“Come with me, my love,” Myrtle says. I let go with my one good hand to take hers and fall...fall...down through the darkness and into light, and I don’t smash upon the mine floor, but land softly on the grass, but...”Nooooo! Not here! No, take me anywhere else, dash me to my death but don’t bring me here!”
“I’m Lefty! You never met Lefty—Leo died when you did!”
“I know you, Beloved, by any name.” And her slender hand, cold as death but so full of kindness that it never leaves mine though God knows I’ve given her reason often enough, her gentle hand leads me forward, to the crumbled brink of the pit that opened up under our home when the explosive went off at the wrong moment, blasting off part of my hand and throwing me back to break so many bones that I never knew how I ever crawled out of there nor could anybody else explain it.
“Oh Myrtle, I killed you! I killed you and the kids!” Once I start sobbing, I can’t stop, I just keep crying years and years of tears dammed up by my Lefty mask.
“The boss saved money by buying expired, unstable dynamite. It wasn’t your fault. The children and I are proud of you for becoming an Egalitarian.” She puts her dead arm around me and so help me I find it comforting. Then she tweaks my nose playfully, the way she used to, and smiling, says, “But we’re not proud of how you’ve become a mooch and a thief.”
“I didn’t care anymore,” I tell her. “I had no self-respect left. Myrtle, you always were my moral compass.”
“I never left you,” she says, and the dream fades as I open my eyes to Lufti, with bread and wine in hand. “Are you sorry for your sins?” he asks. I stare up at him and nod, then say, “Yes, now that I know which ones are mine.” And he feeds me and gives me drink.)
(I fall and fall and fall from the burnt-up big tree, but the soldier-ghost swoops under me and catches me. I shrink from him, terrified! But he holds me tight, cold and misty as he is he still can hold me, and he brings me gently to the ground. He says, “Kuchi, there’s no more grudges where I went, not for the ones who march to the Light. You are a soldier, now, and you did what a soldier had to do. I understand—I did the same on my side. I would have shot you if you hadn’t gotten me first. I’m sorry you can’t be a little boy, but that’s the way it is.” Then cold, misty lips kiss my cheek. “The only way I can make peace for myself is to watch over you, from now on, until you can make it to peace, yourself.” I cry like a baby, but I feel good, too. So when Lufti wakes me with his hand under my head and asks if I’m sorry for my sins, I just say “yes” and accept the bread and wine from him.)I wake again, this time to the smell of something savory. Lufti has found a silicup of tomato sauce, and stews fresh-caught rats in it with kale and other garden herbs. He has thickened it with the last of the stale bread and flavored it with a shot of wine. And my hunger roars with relief!