IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Monday, April 30, 2709
Lufti curls in the hammock in the sleep of exhaustion, sweat shining on his face, the skin blue around his dream-twitching eyes. The hammock sways slightly with each deep breath, sheltered in the cabin’s shade, streaked with beams from the window. He stood watch over us for over a day and a half. And he did it without the leaf.
Listen to me! As if I never put in a twenty-four without chemical assistance! What’s wrong with me?
I know what’s wrong with me.
Kiril cries silently beside me, also staring at the sleeping boy. “I never should have let him do that,” she whispers.
I toe the dirt floor, still aching everywhere. “It’s not like any of us had much choice. He was the only one not crashing.”
I hate the harshness of her whisper when she asks, “Did you plan on it?”
Softly I say “No,” then turn out the door.
(“She haunts me,” George says when I come over to see why he’s stopped polishing the brasswork. He feels at his own throat. “She must have died of thirst even before she starved. That...that must have been so horrible! And she didn’t deserve it!” He turns wide eyes to me. “If that’s what can happen to the innocent, what about me?” Aw dang—here I thought he was growing in compassion, but it’s still first and foremost about himself.
I sigh and sit on the deck at his feet. He comes down and joins me, and for a few minutes we just let the sea rock us. He does progress, I remind myself. After all, empathy—the ability to extrapolate between others’ experiences and one’s own—is a crucial step.
I break the silence, fiddling with his chamois. “Not every kind of suffering is a punishment, George. Sometimes it’s just the consequences of somebody else’s sins. Like, if you didn’t polish that lantern, and the saltwater corroded it, it wouldn’t be because it deserved to be corroded; it just fell into the hands of a lazy sailor.”
Don comes by and joins us. “There’s other kinds of suffering, too. Some teach us things we need to know, like how others feel or why we should do things one way and not another. Some are meant to make us strong by overcoming them. Some goad us into growing. It’s really oversimplifying to think that all suffering comes to punish us and all good fortune rewards us.”
“What did that poor girl learn?” George mutters bitterly.
“We may never know.” I throw the chamois back to him, feeling angry, myself. “Probably about as much as a brass lantern in the spray. She fell into the wrong hands.” And I get up to look for chores of my own.)
I know what’s wrong with me. Father Man had it right, damn the stinking old nutcase.! I find Baruch under a dulcina tree; the shadows quiver over him with every breeze. He stares at the fruit stains on his hands, and the scent of them should smell fragrant to me, but I want something bitter. He says, “I gobbled them down, but I couldn’t taste them. Even my sense of taste has gone gray.”
“Greenfire ash,” I say. “Speaking of which...” I pull out the pouch where I stashed the last of the leaf. His face lights up but then the light crumples into fear. “You’re in charge of this,” I say, handing it to him. “You decide when we use it and when we stop. You are the Greenfire Sargent. As medic and officer both, I hereby declare myself unfit for that particular duty.” Thee. I said it. He nods, hesitantly, reading the truth in that last bit, as everyone else in the camp turns to look; I feel their gazes crawl all over me.
“But...but what if I can’t do any better?” He stares at the pouch in his hand as if it would bite him. As if he would love for it to bite him.
“Your ghost will help,” I tell him. “Your father wouldn’t want you to die the way he did.”
Slowly he answers, “I didn’t tell you what I dreamed. Do, do you have Kiril’s power?”
“I don’t need her power to know that we all dreamed of our ghosts last night. Mine wants to save me, too. He’d probably do a better job of it if I hadn’t had to kill him.” And I turn quickly away from the shock in his face, calling out “Kiril, Marduk, Hekut, explain to the newbies about Rebel ghosts and how they help us. Kuchi, you listen especially hard, if you really want to be the troop bard.” We might as well spend the afternoon telling stories; we need the recovery time. Even if we can’t talk about anything but ghosts, and war, and this whole hell-blistered suffering land.
(Oh my suffering country—how your wounds come home to me, nowhere exempt from the pain of being Charadocian! Is this the final lie, then, that I must refute, the sweet untruth that I can save anybody, that I can at least preserve the innocence of my own family? Look at him, slumped in that chair long after I cut the bonds! My burns on him, my bruises, my welts—oh what a fine protection I afforded him! But that is not the worst of it, is it?
I should have given Jason more time to recover. I should never have told him the story—what an idiot you are, Sanzio! Whatever gave me the idea that he was ready? He can hardly see for the purpling and swelling of his face, what shows of it through the bandages, and I still have a bit of his blood under my nails for God’s sake!
Why did I...but the pressure built up too much, after all these years, and the Truth, the demanding, relentless, indecent Spirit of Truth still possessed me in that room, she pressed hard on what already swelled in my heart to the bursting point, so that I had to tell him everything, all of the family secrets, answers to all of the questions about why, until now, he knew all of his mother’s history and forebears but nothing of mine. He finally understands the entire disgusting family tree and the bitter irony of it all, so horrible that he laughed, He laughed out the tooth that I’d loosened, blood spattering again after I had cleaned it all up, he howled till he made himself sick on laughter and then...nothing.
Nothing. He sits now in the throes of his emptiness. I have had to feed him like the baby he once was, just like I used to do. And judging by the smell he needs changed. I used to do that for him, too.
He doesn’t resist me as I clean him up, warm water and soft soap, as gently as these hard hands can remember. He lets me dress him again in fresh clothing, then lets me lead him docilely to bed, saying nothing, staring out at nothing, as I pull the curtains closed to make it easier for him to rest, but the darkness teems with the ghosts of our awful ancestors, even the kin who still live, as if my unholy words of truth conjured them here. )
I don’t know how long I’ve stood here, staring down into the well, the shimmering blackness beckoning, the vertiginous drop that wants me to do more than lean over, hands on the rocks. I don’t know how long I’ve ignored the theoretical beauty of the jungle all around to gaze into the shadow of these depths as if I could scry them like a magician’s mirror. I didn’t even realize I was doing it till just now, feeling Kiril’s hand upon my arm.
“Come back to us, Deirdre. None of us are perfect.”
“Get out of my mind,” I growl.
“I wish I knew how. But love keeps dragging me back to you.”
“Love!” I fling her arm away, and then regret it immediately. “You must have lost your mind again. There’s ways to cure telepathy, I hear.”
She grabs me again, this time not gently. “Yes, love! And no, I don’t want cured. Yes, I had to shut down awhile to get used to how awful it can get, but it’s not all horror. Like right now, I can see you from outside, and I can see you twice from the inside—one version exaggerates everything wrong about you and the other...” She takes a breath and now holds me with both hands. “...the other is the real you—the one so dedicated to us that you poisoned yourself to help us till the poison took over and now you think that’s all that’s left, but it’s not! I see whole landscapes of you in there, great vistas, beauty like I almost forgot the look of, many different kinds of you.”
I try not to cry. This child has seen her elder cry too many times. I at least keep it quiet this time, the shaking minimal.
She holds my hand. “Come on. Join us. Tell us some stories of your own.” And she leads me back towards the rest.
Just as well. What a stupid way to commit suicide—to poison a perfectly good water source! It’s not like we lack for weaponry. What happened to my common sense?
(Christ, Sanzio! You’ve tortured him more with one brief explosion of words than with the entire night’s work—men have gone mad over less. What happened to your self-control?
Why, dear God why do I have to always be the only sane one left?)