IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Saturday, April 4, 2708, continued
Blue dawn spreads into a dim, green day. We hurry, now, flittering through the trunks and vines and brush as swiftly as if a real path lay before us, expertly flowing through the vegetation as the native beasts must do, around and over and under, the leaves hardly bruised under feet so light.
And then suddenly, pushing through the rain-wet leaves, I see it for the first time: (Home! Home base at last!) the sculpted arch overgrown by jungle, a passage through walls already breached by trees with roots that break through stucco. (Home base? Is this where I shall call home forever after?) Ironically, the stonework portrays trellises overgrown by vines. Looks like an abandoned campus of some sort. The smell of cooking-fires and livestock beckons more sweetly than the perfume of all the flowers of the rainforest; my mouth waters--I want to eat the smoke off of the air! (Tobacco! Oh God, how I miss tobacco!)
Inside the border wall, under a golden wash of sunlight, stately buildings of classical form tower over us in proud dishevelment like the antique ruins of Earth, with rude repairs here and there patched on by unskilled hands. Slogans carved in Latin and Greek drown in moss and vines, the half-heard whispers of antiquity made visible. Other slogans declare Egalitarian values in brilliant sprays of paint, with occasional bursts of not unskillful art to illustrate the point.
Children swarm all over the place, in the shadow of monumental sculptures, tending goats or chickens or pigs, stomping laundry clean in steaming basins, nailing shingles onto roofs, attending classes, drilling with weaponry. Here and there teenagers and the occasional adult direct them. To my shock, many of them, older and younger alike, smoke little hand-rolled cigarettes.
Alysha clangs a triangle-bell hung at the gate, three quick strokes and pause, three quick strokes. Immediately children run up with baskets of bread, preserves, strips of cured meat--and cigarettes. The older children of our party (including Alysha!) go for the cigarettes even before the food, all hovering around a coal held in tongs, each to light up in turn.
I tear into salty meat, hot with bits of peppers pounded into it, and cool my mouth with bread as brown as my hand. My heart beats with a surprising excitement as I force myself to slow enough to smear pinkish-orange preserves across the remainder of the bread. Alysha hands me a tub of soft cheese that just arrived, smoke curling out of her nostrils and around her head; she doesn't look quite human. I add it to my bread and almost swoon at the combined flavors, then balance it off with the spicy meat, then take an embarrassingly noisy slurp at a mug of beer going around (one mug for all of us, just enough to aid digestion of this unaccustomed food.) And then I gulp down handfuls of nuts, and another of dried fruits, I don’t care which kinds.
“They had to come down the hungry side,” I overhear murmurs in the crowd that nourishes us. “The army held the other pass.” “Soldiers don't know about Hungry Pass.” “Nobody goes that way but us.”
I reach for more bread and cheese, only to look into stern eyes withdrawing the baskets again. "That's enough for now," Alysha tells us. "We'll get a more organized meal tonight--a dinner." (Dinner! I haven't had a real dinner since Aunt Jee's!) (I thought I gave up dinners forever when I left the ship!) (Oh dear God, we've come home to paradise!) Wise lady, Alysha; I know I would've eaten myself sick if left to myself--let alone what the children might've done to themselves. Even now I discover myself dizzy from unaccustomed nourishment and suddenly find it challenging to keep my eyes open. "For now, I think we all deserve a rest."
A girl, on the younger edge of adolescence, takes my chain from Kiril; she has long hair like a waterfall of night and skin as dark as mine. We enter the indoor shade of what used to be a library. Hammocks stretch from shelf to shelf. The girl (Makhliya, she names herself) hooks my chain to a ring bolted onto a shelf and, as I crawl into the hammock, she spreads a light covering over me. Sleep covers me as well, almost before her hands leave me...
…and I walk once again down the alleys of Rhallunn, squeezing between the makeshift shacks and shelters, the rotting tents and the inhabited barrels, half-stunned on the odor of pot and marsh and mildew and piled-up old garbage, stumbling in my weariness, hard to keep my eyes open.
But I must. I have to find my mother. Jonathan said so. But there’s more to it than that. I ache for her, the lifelong absence in my heart.
Lisa has left a trail of cowrie shells that I must follow, winding in and out, through the cardboard and the plywood and the rags, glimmering in the dimness. I follow them down stairs, and then more stairs, past the manmade parts, deep into the caverns underground. And then deeper still, and deeper, down to where vague ochre figures act out dramas in the walls. But I don’t find my birth-mother there. I find Jonathan.
He looks weird, all wrong. Unshaven and disheveled, and wild in the eyes. “You didn’t expect to end up here, did you?” he says. “Well, neither did I. But Rhallunn calls to agents, soon or late, no matter where they go. I went down. You think you can escape by taking the opposite direction, soaring up, soaring high. But up or down it all leads back to the same place, if you take that road too far.” And then he stares at me, and I don’t know what to say.
Until I remember what he taught me. The mission first—always put the mission first, and you can’t go wrong, right? “Where’s my mother?” I ask.
His eyes gleam in the dark as he smiles queerly. “Yes—that is the question, isn’t it?”
I wake suddenly, and the bookshelves rattle in my jolt. Then I shake my head over the stupid dream. Lisa had marked the trail to my mother with bright beads knotted into fabric, that last time that I visited Rhallunn. I remember that. Cowrie shells had had nothing to do with it. And I attended Mom’s funeral—no use wondering about her whereabouts anymore. And besides, no one could ever build stairs down into the soft muck of Rhallunn.
(I wake with a jolt at my desk, from my impromptu nap, the dream already fading as fast as I can push it aside. Some nasty, trashy location. And…cowrie shells! Ugh—I must not think of…of those. I stand up to clear the cobwebs from my mind, and while I’m at it I pick up a duster to remove some real cobwebs from the corners. Unbecoming of a Headmaster’s office—I shall have to address the janitor on the matter.
Wait a minute. Did I just dream of…of not being male?)
(I wake up in the middle of the night, crying out for Randy, but of course Randy’s not here. I never let him spend the night.
What a dream! Why’n’earth would her cave lie underneath Rhallunn, of all places? Still, I must jot it down, to type into Archives first thing in the morning. It might prove useful.)
(“Break’s over,” Cici says, shaking me as lightly as a maid at a hotel giving a requested wake-up call, and then she helps me back to my feet. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I think I dreamed something. But no, alcohol blocks dreams. Yet I think I did. I think I saw her face, one last time.)