IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Wednesday, March 25, 2708
It gets harder. I could cup my breakfast in one hand. We get no lunch. The bags of flour lighten up at least; they may not last the trip--and only a few days before we could barely carry it all! But teenagers march with us, and they don't just eat more than children, they need twice the calories of full-grown adults; the voracious changes in their bodies burn up fuel even when they just stand there, doing nothing more than listening to their hearts pound. I glance over at Marduk--if ever Voracious Adolescence stalked in human form, that'd be him, right over there.
We gnaw at leaves along the way, our stomachs cramping on tough, indigestible fibers, till Alysha makes us stop; the violent diarrhea attacks cause too many delays and dehydrate the smaller children dangerously. But sometimes we snatch handfuls of leaves anyway, or the stalks of weeds, if they have any juice to them, and chew them surreptitiously. They give us some vitamins at least, though little or nothing of calories or protein.
Our path climbs so steeply, now, that my hands pull on the rocks ahead of me to keep me going; once we make it to the next pass, Alysha tells me, our luck will change. My neck hurts from straining to see the pass above us, but Lufti blocks my view as he clambers above me over rocks, his sandals practically snapping at my nose. I can feel my palms grow as rough as the rock themselves; calluses burn as they form.
We all pant for air, for the atmosphere thins the higher we climb. But one child's gasps become louder, quicker, more frantic by the minute. It sounds more and more like my old friend Merrill in one of his asthma attacks...
"Kiril!" I cry as I feel the chain drop. I grab her before she can tumble down the slope. Her face and hands have reddened, her eyes swell nearly shut, as she claws at her neck and the wheezes grow louder and louder. I grab a knife from Marduk before he has time to turn around and I shove her against a precarious, crack-rooted tree. I stab, cutting hair beside her face, stab and just miss her ribs, stab at the tree so close that her clothing rips, so fast she never knows where I'll strike next, till the others finally galvanize into action and yank the chain back so hard I choke.
"Scare her!" I shout as the fists rain down on me. "Adrenaline's the only thing that can save her life!" The beating stops as they realize what I've done. "She must be allergic to something she chewed on." Kiril clings to the tree, still gasping, eyes wide in terror and fixed on me--wide eyes means that the swelling in her face has subsided, hopefully in her throat as well. "And Marduk, here's your knife back."
Thursday, March 26, 2708
Sanzio actually joined me for drinks tonight; we passed the bottle between us like old friends, like we’d known each other all our lives, our backs against the same tree as we watched the moon drift through the clouds. Said it was somebody's birthday, wouldn't tell me more. Or wait--he did, much, much later. His mother? His sister? Some woman, anyway.
Now he sleeps, snoring loudly, and I sit leaned against this tree, feeling uncomfortably close to sober, trying to finish off this bottle if only my sore stomach would let me. Am I building up a tolerance already? Can blackouts be far behind?
He puts up with my drinking because nothing seems to kill the reflexes that Til drilled into me, all for the cause. Yet nothing can prevent me from using everything I learned at Til Institute for my own purposes.
Deirdre, did you really look so beautiful out there, dancing amid the fireworks, braids looped over your shining face? Or was it all some drunkard's dream? Did the sparklers really reflect off the opal at your throat? Did the music lift your every leap like a flower in the wind? But I hardly sipped my cooler on that night, trying so hard to be almost Muslim, almost following the rules.
I think that in my descent to hell I have finally found my faith. I pray every aching day, Deirdre, for divine judgment on your captors.
Finally, finally, the chaummin begins to hit me now. I didn't know it could enhance the memory. I remember every lamp and every shadow of that night, each scintillation of the gold embroidery on your gown, I remember your flash of smile at me as your partners spun you 'round and 'round. Oh my dear, dear, Deirdre!
We talked, Sanzio and I. He's the sort who gets more boyish when he drinks, wide-eyed and clumsy and more open in his smiles. Hard to believe he could have even lived long enough to learn all the tricks of his trade.
"You seem surprisingly sympathetic to the peasantry," I remember asking him, "So why'd you become a Purple Mantle?"
He shrugged. "I love my country. And a rebel hurt my mother.” He took a deep swig and handed back the bottle. “Besides,” he said with a grin, “they pay quite handsomely. My kids never go hungry."
"Your kids? I didn't know you had any. Do you love them?"
"Of course I love them!" He glared at me over his drawn-up knees. "You think you're the only man alive who lost everything for a child's love?" He took the bottle from me and drank hard, his Adam's apple moving twice; then he pulled away and gasped, wincing--that's strong stuff, chaummin. "Of course, I don't get to see my boys much these days," he said with a roughened voice.
"Demands of the job?"
"Nope. Not really. I could take more vacations." He passed the bottle back to me. "I spent the last one climbing a mountain, far from home. I just don't want them growing up in the influence of a violent man. Would you have wanted that for Deirdre?"
"No," I said and took my own turn at forcing down as much of the burning, cloying stuff as I could swallow. "I would never have come near her if I'd been as I am now."
"Well," he said, as cheerily as if he had reason for cheer, "I provide well for them. They might even go to a good school, you know, get more votes--if nobody finds out where their old man's money comes from."
I don't exactly remember the rest of the conversation. Maybe this stuff's finally working. The last drop hits my tongue, which hardly feels the burning anymore. Time to hit the sack. Chaummin makes the ground softer under your sleeping bag, at least.
So why can I still remember, quite distinctly, the sound that a spine makes when it snaps?
* * *
Night has fallen, but every few yards intense and silver light spills down between the trees, streaked with shadows of branches interlaced with branches, sharp and scintillating shards of moonlight, illuminating a portion of a face, a shard of hand, the first staring ribs at the throat of an open shirt. We gather in the dark like ghosts for Holy Thursday, far from any priest to ease our restless souls.
I had forgotten all about Lent. I hadn't even known what day it was till Alysha told me. I never had a chance to declare my Lenten sacrifice. But what of it? What single thing do I have left to sacrifice?
Yet the liturgical season has turned, and with it our fortunes. For we poured through the mountain-pass early this morning and every step brings us closer to succor. Soon we shall leave the sere, Lenten world behind and eat the bread of Resurrection--may God grant it so!
Damien moves among us, bringing light. He shaped the beeswax from his stolen honeycombs by the heat of his own hands, pressed it around straws wrapped in thread from the fraying hems of his poncho, and now gives us the crudely lovely candles that he made for us. Each one in turn he lights by the one he holds for himself. Soon the ruddy glow flushes up into every face, bringing life back to all the little ghosts, though the eyes drown still in shadows, save for a disconcerting twinkle now and then.
Without a word he leads us to where Alysha waits beside our largest kettle. The steam of it rises up into the moonlight. Surprised, I smell herbs that have steeped in the water, a sharp and medicinal smell. What variation has the Charadoc added to the sacred Washing of the Feet?
Eyes downcast, Alysha unbuttons her shirt, thin fingers moving down the front, until it falls away from her. But hunger has reduced the little teenage breasts to hardly noticeable points upon the hard, hard ribs. Then, solemnly, she slips the skirt down and steps naked from its cirque. Reverently Marduk hands her the towel, which she wraps about her bony pelvis. Thus, attired like Our Lord on that day thousands of years ago, she kneels by the cauldron and beckons us forward, one by one, and washes our feet, and dries them with the hem of the same towel that she wears. I go ahead of all the rest, because the last come first on this of all nights, even as the leader serves.
The hot water stings my infections, yet it also feels good, too, like my hurts want to be stung just this way, the scent of the steeped herbs tangy on the air. Then, as I sit to one side, I watch every other member of our company step forward, sit before Alysha and get the same treatment. Every single foot bears the same sores I do, small feet, all mangled and infected. I cannot tell by moon and candlelight the color of the pus, but I'd guess aqua.
No custom decrees any ritual herbs here; she uses the ceremony to discreetly treat us all. Not that a single night's treatment matters in the long run; even nightly treatments won't clear this up. But it keeps the condition from worsening, at least. In peace and silence she bathes foot after foot, till that which shouts in me and burns like war at the sight of all those injuries quiets down at last.
Then we sit in a circle for the Last Supper. And by the look in these kid's faces, they never know when it might really be their last supper. My stomach growls; scavenging has borne us little fruit even on this side of the mountains, and Alysha rations the flour strictly. I can't remember when we last sat down to an evening meal. It isn't much, even now, but it doesn't have to be. We pass around one great, round griddlecake, each breaking off a crumbling bit to feed the person next to them.
When it has gone the round Alysha makes the traditional sacrifice, far greater for us than most could imagine; she takes the last bit of bread and tosses it over her shoulder into the forest behind her, for bird and beast and insect to partake in, for fungus and hungry root, so that the planet herself may join in our communion. This may not be the Earth that Jesus poured His blood into, but shaped by the same God, no doubt, and eligible to share with the children of Earth whom she shelters. Hungrily we watch it sail out into the night, and even as we yearn we feel so glad. We leave no one out on this night of all nights.
Then, eyes twinkling, Alysha speaks for the first time. "I have a little surprise for you. I saved it up." She pulls out from a nearby satchel a little bottle of wine.
Marduk offers his knife to uncork it. Doubt clouds his eyes, but he doesn't say a word. We all think, "She could've washed a few feet in that; the alcohol might just be enough to cleanse at least one pair of feet from germs. Or what if we get shot at? She could've quieted the pain of someone who had a bullet to dig out." I can almost feel each one of us thinking the same thoughts. But not a one of us objects; we could no more do that than protest sharing the bread with the forest. Not on this night.
The little flask holds only enough for one swallow each. For starving children that suffices to light up the eyes and flush the cheeks, to warm the heart and make the laughter well up bright, the silence burst like a bubble in all the voices chattering at once as high-pitched as a treefull of birds. When my turn comes it tastes cheap and sour and I don't care, it also tastes like loving sacrifice.We get into a pun contest and it goes on late into the evening, all the little soldiers falling all over themselves in giggles. On this of all nights no caste exists, and no race, and no war, and we are neither officer nor soldier nor prisoner here, but all of us friends, as Christ declared us no longer servants but friends of His; for at least a couple hours this remains. I think that if a Purple Mantle walked right into our camp he'd sit down with us, and take a swallow each of bread and wine, and joke with us while the moonlight shifts across our faces. Normally I like to rest in solitude, but tonight I fall asleep with Kiril under one arm and Lufti nestled in the other.