IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Sunday, March 8, 2708
I had no idea that the gang could pack away so many child-sized pots and pans and oven-sturdy jars. Yet there they all sit, bubbling away up and down the coal-filled trench that we dug, sending up their own steam to mix with that of the rainforest, and the sizzling white smoke where the rain hits the coals. We have raised up a tunnel of branches thatched with leaves, but the rain gets through anyway, but not enough to kill the kind of heat we've built. I can see the little pots all lined up crookedly through the branches, and the smallest children, crawling carefully along the side, skimming off the bluish oil with bundled leaves, trying not to slip into the coal-bed themselves. I feel huge and useless, sitting here and letting them do that for me. On the other hand it is Sunday; I could use the rest.
(Kitchen-work! Wouldn't you know it. At least Cook kept a tidy little fire, shipshape and safe in the Galley--she was a stickler about that. Funny how I never appreciated her ferocity on fire-safety rules before.)
Alysha comes over and sits on my log. "Smells delicious," she says.
"Yes. Like oatmeal in the morning, oatmeal for breakfast."
Alysha barks a laugh. "Well, you won't get brown sugar and cinnamon in this 'oatmeal'."
"I didn't expect it."
"It tastes more like smoky turnips, actually. Some people find it kind of bitter. My father thought it vile."
"I'm not a fussy person." I'd take any communion I could get right now, if these towering trees were steeples, if the birds sang hymns, if the rivers ran with wine.
She smiles at the boiling pots as though on prey that she stalks. "But when you're hungry enough, you acquire quite a taste for it.”
Sunday, March 8, 2708
I have to write this down. I have to try and understand what happened, how it could happen. I wish I could reach down inside me and pull out the gnawing thing that insists I have to write this down, and wrench it from my belly, throw it down into the deepest, darkest chasm I could find. I wish.
Why should I care? I have no reputation left, anyway. Why not tell the whole world what I have become in search of my dearest,dearest embarrassment? Maybe Soskia and all the rest of them are right; only tragedy can follow such associations. Too late for me now, at any rate; I have nowhere left to go but on the path laid out for me.
It started like any other Sunday in the dispirited village that Sanzio led me to. I watched the villagers, all in clean clothes for once, hastening to Mass like bits of debris blown by the wind, all in the direction of the church. I felt like an infidel to stand there in the doorway and let them pass me by.
Yeah, like I should spill my guts to some priest for a scrap of bread. They have no mosque, not in a godforsaken place like this; I wouldn't go if they did. I stopped believing long ago, and never attended the mosque in Alcazar.
I can't remember precisely when I stopped believing. My once-ardent faith just sort of faded, like a bruise no longer tender to the touch, you glance down and realize that it's been gone for quite awhile now.
Maybe that's why it happened. Maybe I drifted into damnation long before this day.
No, no, pride—it was pride. I couldn’t quite, when it came down to it, stomach predestination, and all the rest unraveled after that. I wanted to believe that I controlled my own destiny, a self-made man, diverting my faith from religion to meritocracy. Now I desperately cry out for some assurance that I have not shaped my own life, that the One True God has fated it from the beginning of time, that what happened, oh God, was not my fault!
No, no, that doesn’t work. Foresight of what I would choose does not make me innocent. Nothing makes me innocent. And what hope could I have of helal?
Sanzio didn't go to Mass with the others, either, though a little golden crucifix nestles in the hair below his throat and catches the light sometimes. We had other business. As soon as we noted the last straggler to scamper into church he led me silently to a certain house,and then down into the basement beneath it.
"I found him yesterday morning," he told me on the stairs. "I think he has information on Ms. Keller's whereabouts--certainly he knows about Cyran. I left him overnight to soften up for us."
A smell assailed me when he opened the door. Our subject slumped dozing in the chair that Sanzio had tied him to, his pants soaked through and stinking. I remember intense disgust, that he didn't have the self-respect to hold it longer than that. He jerked up at the sound of our entrance, unshaven, as red-eyed and swollen-faced as a derelict; maybe he really was a derelict, for all I knew. But the cut lip and dried blood on his chin indicated that Sanzio's "softening"did not end with leaving him there.
So? They probably beat up Deirdre, too--how else could they have captured her?
"I already told you all I know," he rasped in a grating Hill accent. "Now can I have some water?"
"You can't hold your water," Sanzio said with a smirk. I remember how my friend wore snow-white blousing, very full in the sleeve, and he smelled of fresh soap. I stood close by him, as though his cleanness could protect me. Then suddenly he punched the man in the stomach and bloody spit spattered on his sleeve. "You told me nothing!" he shouted. "When are you going to realize that telling me the truth, and that alone, will get you out of here?"
"Because I know nothing! I can't think of anything else to say, I can't even make up good lies anymore!"
Sanzio grabbed him by the hair and jerked his head back. "Raise your voice to me, will you?" He looked up at me and said, "He knows, all right. Look over there, on the table."
I saw it then, glinting on the tired wood, the only beautiful thing in that room: Deirdre's opal pendant. I cradled it in my hands, cold to the touch, and gazed into its shifting mists and colors.
"You want water? I'll give you water." With his free hand Sanzio took up a glass that had sat there all night beyond the prisoner's reach, and poured it onto the tipped-up face, running up the nose. "If you know nothing, where'd you get that pendant, huh?"
The prisoner choked and bubbled like some monster-thing and gasped, "I'm a thief! I told you that already! I got it off a little girl just passing through the village." With the kind of incongruous pride that only scum can muster even in times like these, he said, “Good job, too--right off her neck and she never even noticed.”
Deirdre had looked so beautiful that night, dancing madly in and out of lamplight, this very stone coruscating like she spilled her soul through it.
"Oh, right! Like children around here wear opals when they please!" And then the blows began again.
I remember that it thudded to the same beat as the dance that night, that lovely, fateful night—slow at first, but picking up speed. I wanted to make Sanzio stop, just because if he kept it up at that rhythm the tune would soon come back tome, all of it, and my heart would tear like my belly, all the way to the soul it would tear, and just then I looked up from the opal and saw those hands where they poked out from the rope, grimy and swollen and coarse, clenching with every blow like greedy things, and I thought of those hands on my Deirdre,and I
I don't have to write this. I can refuse to write this and let the ulcer eat me alive holding it back. If I write it, it will burn the page like all the acid inside me made up the ink. But I want it all down. I want it spread out on clean, white paper where I can stare at it like it happened to somebody else.
I took over, okay? I thought of that brute, his bestial hands ripping the pendant from Deirdre’s tender breast, and I shoved Sanzio aside to strike and strike and strike, and when the chair fell down I kicked at it till the wood flew to pieces, and then I picked him up by the scruff with chunks of chair still tangled in the ropes, and I threw him against the table and heard a terrible crack under his screaming, I don't know how I could hear such a thing under so much screaming, but he fell in spasms to the floor and the angles looked all wrong, and I realized that I had just done something terrible.
Worst of all was Sanzio, clean Sanzio, looking at me in disgust. "Great going, Jonathan," he said to me. "Spinal damage--you've just created another burden on society. Why don't you leave torture to the experts--you Tilián don't do it too well."
Torture? Is that the name of what we engaged in there? I saw no rack, no hot poker, no atavistic mechanisms of agony, just fists, a little rope, a little water--common things, you could find them in any home. Could a simple kitchen table become the instrument to break a man's back, a man's life? No. It couldn't be. No. Not with me there, agent of the Tilián, servant of Lovequest. No.
It is there, all of it, on paper. And maybe if I look at it long enough I'll find some detail, some loophole that proves that what I did wasn't torture,what I did made sense, something that can quench the hellfire burning in the pit of my stomach because I am really not that kind of person at all, I am a gentleman and always have been, whatever Soskia and the rest might think of me.
If I could take this to a priest, if I could read it to him in that dark little closet thing that Catholics go into, if only I could ask for helal by proxy, as though he could speak for the broken man, and hear his old voice say, "Bless you my son, you are absolved," then I wouldn't ask for the little scrap of bread, I wouldn't ask for anything in return, except maybe, come to think of it, that wine which goes with the bread,forbidden by the Prophet, that wine to neutralize the memory even as it fuels the acid inside, and which is worse, really, the ulcer or the guilt?
If I could, if I could! Nothing goes by any "if" I want!