IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Friday, March 13, 2708, continued
(Humiliation! Oh, the deep, deep, deep humiliation jolts into me rhythmically with every step, as I sway in my hammock like a trussed up beast on a branch between Alysha and the captive-woman. Does Kanarik see me here, with feet too swollen to walk? Of course she sees me, but does she keep looking, or do I only imagine it?
Alysha had every right to scold me, to protest that I should've reported to her first, she could've found something to shield my feet, even as she told Rashid to poultice them. But I had to go and play the hero; she's warned me about that before.
I grew up listening to too many legends, that's my problem. Everybody in my village turned out like that, memorizing the old tales for generation after generation, till they made us all too bold, till the Purple Mantles wiped us out like a nest of mice, so that now only I remember all the tales, and if some remained that I hadn’t heard, mold and the roots of plants now shut the lips that could've told them to me.
Oh Kanarik, I so wanted to play the hero of your epic! My dear, dear Kanarik, I wanted people to sing ballads about us! How can you even look at me right now?
Bush and trunk shudder by me like a sideways dance and all I can think of is Kanarik dancing once in moonlight, to a tune she hummed herself, leaves and flowers in her hair, when she thought us all asleep. I had not thought to find her there. I had gotten up to empty a full bladder, and I came back a different way, and stopped when I heard the humming. And just then the moon came out from behind the storm-clouds that had rained on us all night, and every droplet on every leaf turned into a star, and there I spied her, fabric wet and clinging to her body so that I glimpsed what she had hidden there before, the delicate buds of new-formed breasts. And her bared arms waved over her head like branches in a wind, and her head tipped this way and that, starlight jeweling the raindrops caught in every straying lock, while her hips swirled ‘round the way that water does, and the music dissolved all the breath inside my chest till it hurt and I felt I had to faint or something, couldn't stand another moment of her beauty.
So I slunk away, ashamed to see a sight too good for me. I went back to bed, but something happened that night, something in my sleep. I dreamed of her. I dreamed such exquisitely daring dreams, unpermissible dreams, beyond a peasant like me to imagine yet somehow I had the gift of them all the same, so that I woke with my face wet for tears of gratitude, for a moment that no one could take away from me even if it never really happened.
Then I discovered that more than my face got wet that night. How scary, the fear that someone might find out! I took such pains to wash my bedding out alone, let no one see, let no one laugh, wink, nudge me in the ribs about it. I knew what it meant, all right--I’ve heard the big boys talk. But I didn't want a single human being on the planet to say a word to coarsen that dream, or the waking vision of Kanarik dancing.
So, if it means, as they'd say, that I have begun to become a man, how come I feel so boylike helpless, swaying here between two women twice my strength, unable to even walk?)
I see what Alysha means. We march slower than before, taking our time to adjust to the thinning air, through jungle that also thins before us (yet thorny, tougher, fibrous leaves, the kind you can hardly even chew let alone hope to eat) but the way goes steeper and steeper from this point on. When the branches part I can see the pass we aim for, miles beyond and above, between two peaks that the thunderheads war over with crash and spear of light. I keep catching myself staring up at that thing and the rocks that tooth it. We've gone up and down this mountainous country for weeks and weeks now, but of all the passes that they've dragged me through none looked so intimidating as this. Not even in height--we pass through foothill ranges here, nowhere near the summer snowline--but for sheer inhospitable steepness it catches my breath.
Kiril, who holds my leash today, gives me a shawl to fend the harsh wind from my face. Silly little chain--I could jerk it from the child's hands in an instant if I wanted. Does Alysha really have to bolster her sense of control with these inconvenient tokens? If she found me so unwilling, would I cooperate to the extent of enduring these poles grinding into my shoulder to carry the injured boy? Maybe with a knife to my back or something, but would I point out to Rashid as I do now the herb with the berrylike leaves
that will drive off mosquitoes for us all?
* * *
"Hold it, please. Stop the tape."
"Hunh, wha...? Oh. Okay. Got it. Got it. It's okay." Bleary-eyed, the debriefer fumbled for the switch till the trance-music went off. Silence cushioned them like the calm of awakening after too intense a dream. "What's up, Deirdre?"
She rubbed her forehead piteously. "I've got an awful headache. I can't go on like this."
"I've got something to help that..."
"Just a little salicylic, with some caffeine to speed up the action. That's all."
"You wouldn't sneak in anything more potent?"
He drew himself up as steadily as he could, straightening his rumpled shirt. "I'm a professional, Ms. Keller, same as you. For that matter, I believe that an agent would be more likely to drug someone against their will than..."
"Okay, I'm sorry. Just please get me the headache remedy."
"Right here," he said, as he pulled a couple white pills out of a drawer and refilled her water glass. She doesn't want to see the truth, he thought, and even as he thought it he wondered if she unconsciously picked that up.
* * *
"So all you have to do is rub it right on your skin, if you have the fresh herb." I explain to Rashid as he walks beside me. "If you need to carry insect-repellant some distance away from where it grows, though, you have to prepare. You get a bottle of the strongest liquor you can buy--imported vodka or primera is the best, but make do with what you can. You pour about a third of it out..."
"Or drink it," Branko throws in, and everybody laughs.
"Or drink it," I agree with a grin, "but don't let the party get out of hand so you forget what you're doing. You've got to save back most of it." Even as we speak Rashid rubs on the herb--fairy-globe they call it around here--releasing an oregano-sharp odor. "What you do is stuff into the bottle as much of the herb as you can fit. Pack it down hard with a stick or something, bruising it as much as possible. You let it sit for about a month that way. The liquor should turn a ruddy brown color.” For some reason the thought pops into my mind, No decoction will quite work. No amount of alcohol will dissolve the memory. No maceration of the facts will reduce to naught the sound of a snapping spine. But I pull myself out of that morbid fantasy, wherever it comes from, to add, “Then you pour it out, straining it, into another bottle. It won't be fit to drink anymore..."
"Alright, Branko--maybe you're not so particular. But for the rest of us, a splash or two of that on your skin and insects will fall all over themselves trying to get out of your way."
Rashid says, rather stiffly, "My mother already taught me about decoction, and expressing essences and stuff. She taught me everything about herbs."
"So tell me about that poultice that you used on Damien's bee-stings." (She acts like she cares, like she's interested. I remember the anthropologist. I remember him asking Mama all kinds of questions about what the quaint people do when sick and too poor to go to the hospitals.) I wait, but he says nothing, his young brows crinkling like he’s trying to remember. (I remember he took an interest in me, just like this lady does. I remember the compass that he showed me and the maps, so proud to teach me things, to establish who had knowledge and who had ignorance, but then he found out that I could already read, I could name the mountains and the cities and the rivers when he pointed to the letters on the map.) This is taking too long--is there something wrong with the boy? (Then he left sooner than he'd said he would. Then the Purple Mantles came, saying that they, too, just wanted to ask my mother a few questions.)
"Figure it out your own freakin' self, if you know so much!" the boy shouts at me out of the blue, then storms back to the rear of our company, hands clenched in fists like he'd beat something up if only he could grasp it long enough to hold it down.
"Don't mind him," Alysha says to me, when I look at her, bewildered. When she turns her head her bruised face looks about three decades older than it is. And have my own bruises healed up yet? I have no idea how I look right now. (So, when you get right down to it, it was all my fault. I just had to show off what I knew. I killed my mother, just by reading names off of a map.) "He's just young and hurt."
I ask, "Have you no adults in the movement besides Cyran?"
She shrugs, and the poles jolt on my shoulder. "Here and there. We have lots of adult sympathizers who help where they can, but only a handful of full-time marching members." We work our straight poles around the curve of a great trunk, our feet picking through the tangle of roots that hang over a steep bank, dry stream stones about five meters below, bearded with the pale and dormant moss that waits a change of weather. "They lead rebel cells, usually, when they can, but of course a number got too ruined to do much good for anybody, us or the bosses either one, before they came to us." She snorts, not quite a laugh. "Cannon fodder. Hardly anybody of much use ever gets away. At least the mad ones put up a good fight before they die." (I killed my mother.)
"But the children can break away."
"Their parents often send them to us." We both have to duck low to get under some branches, then stop, crouching there half-bent with the weight on our shoulders, because Damien's hammock caught upon a thorn.
"What, to go hungry out in the woods?" I ask, waiting, aching, while Kanarik disentangles the hammock for us. "Wouldn't they do better, even in virtual slavery, with regular meals?"
"Are you out of your mind?" she snaps. "We only lose a couple to malnutrition every year--on the farms and in the mines and factories that's the chief form of birth-control." (I killed my freakin' mother!)
"Why didn't Jee join you, after her husband died? Why'd she become a prostitute?" Now we have to lift the pole high above our heads as we wade through shrubbery, snagging our own clothes with every move we make--who’d know, to look at him, how heavy the boy could be? (When we go out into battle, I hope I hope I hope I die out there.)
"You think Jee had a choice? A beautiful woman like her? They took her as soon as her husband couldn't rise from bed. She just made the best of the situation."I can say no more to that. (No, I can't die, I'd have to face Mama if I died, and my stupidity for blurting out what I shouldn't know. I shall instead learn everything, as much as I can, of what I shouldn't know, to become a magician or a priest. I will learn more than herbs, more than the reading of forbidden texts. I will learn how to deal with the dead.)