IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
THE NEW NORMAL
Saturday, March 14, 2708
Another day on the road with my Purple Mantle friend. Our trail wound steeper and steeper, back towards the west again, up the rainshadow side of a foothill range. Dwarf forest contorted around the path, dry and thorny, the trill of birds here strangely importunate. But Sanzio's old flame called this the road to Cyran's camp, so this road we had to ride.
"I don't like it," Sanzio said, turning his head this way and that. From the look in his eyes you'd have thought that the ghosts of every poor fool he'd ever murdered haunted those bushes. "I don't like that pass we have to go through up there, between those rocks." Up above, some ancient cataclysm had split a ruddy hill-sized boulder neatly in two, with eroded fingers of stone splintered upward like a pair of giant's hands, about to clap shut on anyone foolish enough to try the pass. In fact, the locals named it Giant's Clap. "An ambush could hide up there."
"You're right," I said. "So how far can you trust Rosa?" Or Rosette. Maybe her name was Rosette.
His brows knit and he bit his lip. "I don't know," he told me finally. "We've had kind of a strange relationship."
I wore the machete on my belt. I put my hand on it then, but I didn't really care, we both knew that. Some people would consider that dangerous, to travel with a man who didn't care whether he lived or died. But others call it the very best strategy to cultivate this frame of mind.
So up we went into heaven knew what, our mules laboring against the grade, their sweat heavy on the torrid air. Bright sun shone against the dark, dark clouds just the other side of those great, red rocks, where they rained on luckier slopes than ours. A white bird that flew between the stones looked ominous, a messenger from God, punisher of torturers. I smiled, at peace with whatever fate would befall me.
I felt at peace because I've discovered a kind of mystical experience in befriending my hangover. I accept the pain as condign. The stomach even more than the head, now, this private pit of hellfire in my solar plexus--it tells me that everything in the universe works as it ought to. The bad get punished. That means that Deirdre's captors will also suffer hellfire. The more I hurt, therefore, the more it cheers me up. I can endure anything if I can drag those wretches with me. And yes, today I think I do believe in Hell.
No, an ambush didn't frighten me one bit. Either way it went, evil would meet its punishment, and I'd be there to witness it.
We rode into the shadow of Giant's Clap. Just as Sanzio's mule poked his nose in, a blast of thunder rattled us from teeth to anklebones. We jolted, all four of us, the mules braying, and then Sanzio and I looked at each other and laughed like children.
Sanzio clasped his hand to his breast in a parody of shock and chuckled at his own fluttering heart. "You know, Jonathan, I thought that ol' giant got us for good that time!" I grinned and shook my head.
But the tension built again as we rode into that darkness with the storm ahead of us. Hooves echoed up the two flat sheets of ragged-topped rock to either side as we picked our way across that stony space. A gust of wind blew rain into our faces; soon the chert beneath us became slippery and we had to strike the mules to make them move at all.
I swear I felt relief when the robbers dropped down on us at last! I turned my mule so hard that the poor beast slid onto his side; I kicked free only just in time. I had my machete in one hand, knife in the other, before I'd even known myself what I did; the snick of the automatic sharpeners in the sheaths made a dangerous sound beneath the shouts.
Training took over. My limbs knew more than my mind; I kicked back and watched like a blood-sport spectator, cheering in my heart when I sheared off a wrist, triumphant when blood spurted other than mine. My muscles felt glad to twist and lunge and feint and dodge--I liked this! I didn't have any ethics left to tell me not to like it. The thunder burst again and the rain sheared in with so much force that it hit us almost horizontally, bathing that red stone till even the cliffs that towered to either side seemed to run with blood. I danced in battle like one of those demons of war in old Earth's Asia, that one could harness to causes evil or divine; I fought for Deirdre's life and it felt good.
And afterwards I stood there, all our enemies slain, I stood there with no shouts around us anymore, nothing but the softening patter of the rain as the storm moved on. "Hey," I said with a grin, "We didn't do too bad for two guys outnumbered by a whole robber gang."
"Look again," Sanzio said in disgust as he pulled off a bloodstained shirt to exchange it for a clean one. "Those poor beggars were starving." I saw now that the wrist I'd severed so easily had little more to it than bone. I looked at cheeks so sunken that they seemed to decompose before my eyes. "My granny could've beat them off with a broom."
"Starving?" I asked, dripping rain. "In the Charadoc?"
"Well, he drawled, "Not officially." Then he helped me check my floundered mule for injuries and, finding him sound, boosted me back onto him.
* * *
I watch Marduk watching Alysha as she sways through the underbrush, leaves tangled in her moon-pale hair. His eyes gleam dark under thick, black brows--panther eyes, stalking the lithe-limbed deer.
He starves for her; I can feel it somehow. But I don't know if you'd call it love, unless it's like the love of chocolate. He wants to devour her, swallow her up and melt her into him until nothing remains but a memory of sweetness.
Marduk keeps growing taller and taller, whether or not he gets the calories to sustain such growth. His bones stick out of his cheeks, and his limbs don't look half the width of the vines that he shoves out of the way for the smaller children. Who am I to judge if hunger's the only kind of love he knows?
Right--how can I judge the rabid dog, the rogue elephant, the wounded lynx who snaps and claws at loving, healing hands? Is there any judgment in wanting to destroy that which can no longer help but harm?
Sunday, March 15, 2708
Gratefully I sit on a mossy rock when Alysha declares a rest. Mists curl around us, muting edges and concealing thorns; we have scaled our way to cloud-forest, and every thorn drips sparkling dew, and all looks deceptively soft. We have even found a little sustenance, in herbs and insects, berries and small birds.
Yet my feet hurt more and more, not less as they should, as I acclimatize myself all over again to the hiking that I love so well--a sharper, stinging pain, with something heavy, morbid behind it. I pull up the muddy hem of my skirt to look at them. Every slightest scratch of twig and stone has swollen up, discolored. I bring one foot up into my lap and press the darkened lips of a cut. Aqua-colored pus seeps out. It's pseudomonas--jungle rot.
I sit there, discouraged, listening to the birds trill overhead and wishing I had their wings. But where'd that thought come from? Actually, I can fly, I'm a levitator--give me a magentine focus in a proper flit and the ground would never see these feet again until they healed. I look around me. Not a single rock looks like it holds a scrap of magentine. Of course not.
As I look I take note of the children's feet around me, bare or sandaled. They all show puckering sores and purply swellings, every one. This is the norm then; I'd better get used to it.
* * *
(I hurt so much, walking on mile after mile of broken glass. I look down at my bleeding feet, at all of the clear, curving shards and the sand that spills out of them. Hour-glasses, shattered. Stars shine through the gaps in the sand, below and above and all around me...at least until they flicker out.
“They broke it! I cry.
“Wake up, Jake!” Randy shakes me. “Wake up—it's only a bad dream.”
“They've broken time! And space! And more!”
“Hush. Hush.” And he embraces me.
I wrap my arms around him, feeling his heart beat against mine, as I listen to the crickets and the frogs. Regular, regular, beat beat beat. You can tell the temperature by counting the cricket-chirps in a minute, time tied to space and its material conditions, reality all in order. Nobody's broken anything here, and my feet don't hurt at all.
Except for a rule. That broke. Randy shouldn't even be here, in my bed, at this hour of the night. I don't let go of him. I don't care. Maybe some things need breaking now and then.)
Tuesday, March 17, 2708
Haven't written for days cause nothing to write. Villages. Unofficially poor. Unofficially starving. Woods. Thick. Thorny. Rocks. Lots of Rocks. Mule threw a shoe today. Nothing else to write about.
Staying with my program. Still haven't forgotten a goddam thing. When you hurt every single morning and sink every night into bliss, is that the knowledge of good and evil? What fermented fruit did Eve pick for the human race, anyway? Are we, every one of us, drunk on our own notions of what good and evil mean?
But no, that is the Christian myth. Have I walked so long among Cristians that I should forget my own myths? In the beginning was the pen of God, and the pen wrote all our fates. I'm just a goddamned character in God's wretched novel, acting out his wretched plot, and right now it bores me sick. Why should I add writng of my own, in a universe already too full of words?
Who am I to act as critic to God? Am I drunk enough to evn believe in God, believe in anything at all but misery? Then drink more to dull that thought back out again!
If he dos exist, he wrote my doubts already, no news him, all part of plan. Maybe I do believ in some sort God—just not benign one. At least not one with much in the way of literarry talent. If I had written my own story, I would have found it completly implasble Til agent culd break a man's back.
The transcriber wondered how much liberty she should take in making corrections. She went back and fixed the spellings. Then she considered some more, and put back all the missing articles that drunkards tended to drop from their writings. Then she frowned, deeply. To edit required paying attention to the contents. She shrugged, chewing on her chocolate toothpick. Maybe she could demand of her supervisor a raise in pay for the difficulty of this manuscript.