IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!


Chapter 39

Mercy Unromanticized

 

Friday, April 10, 2708

Incoming wounded!  “We won the skirmish”, the word comes in, but you wouldn't know it here.  Hurry, carry out everyone who can recover in their own barracks, make room for fresh bodies splashed in blood, groaning and screaming and crying out for parents who cannot know their fates.  Throw open the nearby rooms, cover every floor with mats and every mat with writhing little warriors!

Stop the bleeding, that's the first thing, since they all breathe well enough toshriek with pain and fear, stop the bleeding of wound and wound and wound, I can't count all the wounds.  Rashid and I scuttle frantically on our knees from mat to mat, compressing, elevating, twisting on the tourniquets that might well trade a limb for a life.  Blood soaks everything; the mats become sponges that squish when I press against them.  Makhliya boils the thread while I worry myself into headaches trying to keep from stitching in the sepsis that floats on the tropic air.  But first, again and again, just stop the bleeding!

* * *

          (He doesn’t see me finger the money in my pocket, he just sits there jotting in his diary, sipping from his bottle in lieu of breakfast, no questions about how he wound up in his sleeping bag last night, nor what we spoke about before he retreated into that battered old book until the pen dropped from his hand, though he glances shamefacedly my way now and then, up from his scribbling.  And I feel shame, too, his money crackling in my pocket with my every move, though I doubt if he can hear it.

          Why do I keep up this custom?  Why must I do this, every time he passes out and I put him to bed, that I should secretly draw from him the same fee that he paid me to take Deirdre Keller from the party?  Why do I need paid for a kindness?

          Because he does not deserve kindness.  Because I deserve the dignity of pay.  Because I have so many children to feed.  Because I have to keep reminding myself that I am not his friend.  Because smoke barely covers the stink of liquor in his sweat, and tobacco costs money.  And because, since he set the fee himself, months ago, for the handling of a drunk, I do not really steal.

          Why not take the lot, then, and abandon him to his own destruction?  After all, everything his kind owns they stole from us.  Yes—his kind by choice, if not by birth: something worse, really.  Why not take it back--all of it?

Because this life erodes so many standards, so many points of honor that I once took pride in, that I need to keep whatever little scruples I can afford, here and there.  Because I might need, some day, at least one instance of mercy to point to, that I might obtain mercy.  Because…because of too many things I don’t even want to think about.

And because I’m an idiot.  I keep too many stupid rituals.  They don’t mean anything, really.  Except to me.)

* * *

The transcriber scrunched her brows over the quavering text, puzzled out a word, then typed it in, grinning with satisfaction around her orange-flavored toothpick.  The more the script deteriorated the more she had learned to decipher it, till she had become the only surviving expert on this one man's writing.  The other transcribers saved this work for her.  Anyone else by now would miss the hints of letters in the stumbling lines and faint indentations, the unroofed cirques and the omitted crossbars.

She had come to love the crumbly old diary, for it imbued her with the power of decipherment.  She alone could unfold the mysteries encoded here that the Tilián coveted.  That satisfaction could protect her from the weight of the words that she brought to light...

 

Saturday, April 11, 2708

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Romantic, you know, in a way, a proof of true fatherhood of the spirit if not the flesh, to drink oneself to death over the disappearance of one's daughterling.  Sacrifice noire, filmed in black and white as the hero fades tragically into a well-earned oblivion.

Then you crawl away from your blood-blackened vomit and brush the grit off your hands and knees, while desperately trying to remember, through the sharp-edged gaps in a splintered skull, what in hell you must've said or done last night to make Cici so frosty to you now.

P for…pettiness?  Petulance?  Rude Pride surviving no matter how you try to drown it?

You sit by your gear and you try to scrawl, in a shaking hand, something to make sense of it all, but you left sense behind you miles ago, with everything else you couldn't afford to carry.  You sit there and you stink, you feel sick, you hate yourself so badly you're glad to know that you're dying, you'd rather try to go on living with a broken back than with the shattered soul you've left yourself.

Cici sits and sulks over there, the ashes of the fire between us, smoking like a demon and eating breakfast for one.  Her black brows meet over her nose as she glowers at me, wreathed in her nauseous tobacco fumes so that I can't go anywhere near her.  I'll have to find out what happened last night--later, after I've had a sip or two of courage.  Then a few sips more to forget again, or at least to make it bearable.  I can hardly wait.

 

Sunday, April 12, 2708

After forty-eight hours of crisis we've stabilized everyone we can save; we finally get a chance to clean up the infirmary a bit.  No rest for the wicked, no Sabbath for the rebel or his slave.

Alysha sends a crew to help.  Mops slosh soapy water over the tiles in ripples that quickly turn brown from all the blood.  Sponges scrub at whatever splashed on walls.  Me, my arms plunge in again and again to the wash basin's cold suds, trying to turn a crusty brown-black sheet soft and white again.  First the cold water to break the proteins down and wash out what we can see, then we'll have to boil it all, to kill what we can’t.  The papaya pulp that I rub into the fabric dyes the foam a saffron hue.  The fruit scent cannot cover the antiseptic odors that sting my nose, but I've smelled worse, these days. 

We had to haul the worst of the mats to the compost heap, rip them up and hope that their added nitrogen makes the corn grow well.  That's about the only good thing I can see could come of these past few days.  Anyone who wants to romanticize war ought to spend the night trying to fish a bullet out of a screaming kid's belly.

* * *

Cici finally got to talking.  Apparently I’d said something that touched some sort of nerve concerning her family–her rebel family.  Sure enough, she follows the party line just as her parents taught her before; why should I have expected anything more complex in her motivations?

“Don’t speak to me of madmen,” she told me–ah, that was it, some joke I’d made about lunatics in the Charadocian revolution.  “My father watched his wife tortured to death for information, and he went mad.”  Or maybe she said that her mother went mad.  I can’t remember which.  Maybe she comes from an entire line of lunatics, for all I know.  She certainly seems gullible enough.  Yet icily sane, compared to me.

* * *

          A priest holds a special late Mass for us; I didn't miss out after all.  I fear I do not show the proper gratitude for this gift, for I fall asleep in my chains, pillowed on the moss.  I can actually hear and feel myself snore, too tired to shift my body.  I do note that Mass takes place outdoors, and that's about all that I can register.  That, and snatches of sermons about Jesus healing on the Sabbath, or maybe a fiery chariot, or who knows what.  And then…grubby, gentle hands or paws or something lifting up my head, a smell of body odor in the tropic heat, a cup held to my lips, and a sip of sweet, homemade wine that's more than wine.  And back to the cool and comforting moss, and dreams…

          (…and mercy.  They call God All-Merciful.  Even through the chaummin I can feel it.  We the damned drink molten brass and eat the fiendish fruit, but hell won’t last forever.)

          (This will not last forever.  Wrestling the sleeping bag up around his unwashed body one more time, each night it’s one more time.  God, see how I forgive my enemy, and, please, I beg you, please treat my sins accordingly!)

          (Mercy.  Settle into the blessedly lonely bed, curl up under the insufficient quilt, and find refuge for the wicked in this sad, gray school.  I can wax respectable here, in this stone-walled prison of innocence, and never quite remember the gray shore’s sighs beyond, just that they happened, and that I’ll hear them nevermore.)

          (Mercy.  Let Randy spend just one more night, for a melancholy fills me up with tears unsheddable, yet I can pour them out again my way, I can let the loins weep all in a burst of grief and find here solace and release.  And without understanding, he understands all.)

          (Mercy.  God grant this poor sinner mercy, one more time, for my flesh is weak, and my spirit is so overwhelmingly in love that I hardly know what to do with myself.  Thank you, God, for loving me at my best and worst, even when I can’t always quite tell the difference.)

          Mercy.  Mercy is mossy and cool and restful, and dizzy-full of God.





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