IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Fruitfulness and Decay
Thursday, April 16, 2708, continued
The jungle all around us has gone into mast. Mast! Birds sing and monkeys hoot for joy whenever all the year-round fruit-trees, bushes, and vines happen to ripen their offerings at once. Animals swarm the branches, eating the abundance of fruit, and more dine on the fallen excess splattered sweet and sticky on the ground.
Our cooks sweat in the steaming ramadas, stewing as much fruit as they can into preserves, while more slices spread between screens to dry. The cider press runs with juice as Marduk tests his muscles against the screw again and again, while Branko sterilizes the N-necked stoppers looted from the labs to make us wine--and that kid knows more about the vintner's art than I do. A lad named Imad, whom I’ve seen visiting the deeply-violated girl in the infirmary, watches keenly and learns from him.
And still enough remains for us to stuff in our cheeks, faces flushed, eyes glassy-bright. Children dart about, hyper with too much sugar, till at last they gobble down too much to move. All work stops except for the most essential, in celebration of this moveable feast.
Essential includes the infirmary, of course, but today Rashid and I get a break, courtesy of Alysha, while all our charges who can do so suck rich juices from a bloom-frosted rainbow of globes. We slept in very, very late, but now we have rested enough. Rashid takes up my chain for me, since we can't find Kiril anywhere, and we join a gathering around a basket of indigo dulcinas. Gladly I throw myself down on the grass and sink my teeth into flavor so luxurious that I have to close my eyes in appreciation. Imad comes back from the lab and plops down beside us.
"Tell us a story, Damien," Kanarik says, her lips rouged with juices. I thought Damien had gotten his face all smeared with fruit, but no, he just blushes.
Then he looks up at the trees above trees above trees here at the margin of the campus. "I will tell you about the Lady of the Mast. She has dulcina-dark eyes and rubyberry lips, her cheeks round out and flush like pomes, and she breathes the scent of honey on all who spy her, so that they swoon with the deliciousness of it, and when they wake they wonder if they dreamed her. That's how she keeps her secrets."
"But what secrets has she?" Kanarik asks.
"How would he know?" Rashid says, reaching for more. "If he ever got close to finding out she'd breathe on him."
"Ah, but one man in Koboros did spy on her," Damien tells us, "generations ago. He hid where she didn't see him, downwind where she didn't smell him. He saw her dance." He gazes into Kanarik's eyes, his own as dark as those of the Lady of the Mast. "That's her secret, Kanarik. Her dance. She can do it up in the branches, lightly leaping from twig to twig, tripping along the vines. Here we dance upon the ground, but she dances up and down as well as left and right, forward and back. We dance in a circle but she dances in a globe. And you know what?"
"What?" I say, as raptured as the children.
"Whenever she dances, not just traveling but really loses herself to the magic of her art, then everywhere her toes land grows a blossom. You've all seen the mass-flowering that precedes the mast--that's a sign that she danced the night before. That's why sometimes--no one can say when--everything ripens all at once. It's because some great joy has moved her to celebrate."
Kanarik's eyes sparkle as she says, "Oh, how can we move her to rejoice again!"
Quiet till now, Imad averts his dark eyes and spits out a seed. "Kill the oppressors," he says. "That would make anyone dance for joy."
* * *
(Rhallunn. That's where former agents go, isn't it? Not to fine and dignified retirements, not really, why didn't I realize it? But Rhallunn can be anywhere, I reflect, studying the chaummin bottle in my hand. It's just a word, given as a name to a marsh and a slum, but the thing itself—Ai! It can spread out for miles, or fit neatly inside of a bottle that one cannot quite keep corked. A decay-rank silt so fine that it soaks into everything; you can never wash it out.)
(Didn't I hear that the Tilián have a word for moods like this, raw loon or something uncouth like that—a sogginess of spirit that pulls one down into it till it becomes its own consolation, a resignation to or even appreciation of decay? Why do I feel like the entirety of Toulin Academy has become accustomed, even welcoming, to some sort of decay, when everywhere I look I see polish and propriety?)
(Rhallunn. It's just on the other side of the gulf, and here Randy and I sit, well-fed and happy, finishing up with dessert, as though it didn't matter at all. And yet I cannot stop thinking about it, and I don’t know why.)
Freshly scrubbed, happy and un-hungry, I towel my hair thoroughly before climbing into my hammock for the night. Rashid fastens my chain to the bookshelf, hesitates, then leans up to give me a quick kiss on the cheek before hurrying out. Surprised, I smile, spread my hair out the best I can, and settle in.
Oh, what a day! Ample food, ample rest, good company and conversation!
(Maybe the incident in the dining hall plunged me into this mood. The foolish old cook just had to carry the pudding out for the children, maundering to herself the whole way, instead of decently leaving it out for them to help themselves, and slipping back, unseen. If she persists in violating the Academy rules, the poor thing will force me to fire her. Ah but I…I mustn’t think of…mustn’t…)
(Foolish Randy, expending his personal flame to harden a creme brulee, forgetting that it will exaggerate his hunger for sweets and make him eat more than he intended. Ah, but why should it matter, so long as I have his good company? I really don't care whether he looks slim or chubby. And we have every reason to celebrate the extension of our vacation—a sabattical!)
I never knew that a slave could get a real, bona fide vacation. (Headmasters in other countries get vacations, I hear, closing down their schools for months at a time. Oh, how I ache with longing at the thought! But no—that’s not for me. That would be…wrong.) (Why do I feel that Randy and I are not on vacation, that I must remain rigidly alert to every detail, every clue, even here at home, eating creme brulee with the love of my life?) I lie contented in my hammock, knowing that I’ll take up my work refreshed tomorrow. (Why do I feel that tomorrow, some soon-to-come tomorrow, the peace all ends?) (And too much pudding! Tonight the boys will bounce all over the dorms, we won't get them to settle in at a decent hour—and tomorrow we will have to deal with classrooms full of drowsy, inattentive grouches.)
Except now I can't sleep. For some reason I can’t get Rhallunn out of my mind--that soul-sucking swamp of a slum back in Til Territories, where my mother went to die amid the other derelicts. Rhallunn! The backside of dear, ol’ idealistic Til, where the Institute excretes what’s left of agents and teachers and all servers of the Common Good, after devouring everything useful from them. Why does it feel so close right now, just the other side of a screen of rainforest trees? Why do I feel that if I dare to close my eyes I would open them again in Rhallunn?
(Why do my thoughts go back to Rhallunn, a short boatride and a million miles of the soul away from creme brule and good conversation?) (Why does my mind keep going back to satanic cults that erupted back in the dark ages of Toulin, before we became such an orderly, well-regulated people? And why do I come so perilously close to remembering…her?) (I am in Rhallunn. I sink into its mud. Soft Jahannum, sucking me down.)
Why do I have to remember my mother, now, after such a lovely day? My mind keeps dwelling on that time, last year, when I found her there, in Rhallunn, and on the place where I found her: a different hovel from the last one where I'd seen her several years before. It might have once been a packing-crate for a piano, that thing she dwelt in, with rags stuffed in the cracks of the rain-warped wood to keep the drafts out. But the smell of Rhallunn never lets up no matter where you go around there--the decomposition of food not fit to eat, the clothes not fit to wash, the bodies that believed they didn't deserve to bathe, and over all the miasma of the stagnant nearby marsh.
Rhallunn--the place where people go to give up. No sociologist has ever come up with an adequate excuse for this slum to even exist in Til Territories, when we excel so marvelously at solving everybody else's problems. But the people there will tell you, if they answer you at all, that Rhallunn is the comforting darkness that you crawl into when the light shines too brightly, when all the self-righteousness and impossible ideals reach a certain pitch of pain and you just can't do it anymore.
I remember every move I made in that cramped space. I remember reaching over to tuck the rags more comfortably under the skeletal figure sprawled before me; the bedding tended to spread out too thinly when Little Bertha tossed in pain. I recall that when I did so insects ran from my pushing fingers.
"How long have you known?" I remember asking her that.
"I don't know." The lips moved and I read them. "I don't remember." No sound came from my mother save for the wheeze of that thing that she breathed through. I remember inspecting the makeshift tracheotomy site, dismayed but not surprised to find it infected--and so what? Maybe a fast and feverish death would do the poor woman a service.
"Mother, the Tilián have been curing thyroid cancer for centuries!” At least before it advanced this far. “Why didn't you come to us?"
"Rhallunn has her own doctors."
"Right, Mother." I remember the frustration, hugging my soiled knees and trying not to cry. Quacks always wound up in Rhallunn, still dripping their tar and feathers. Ex-doctors, stripped of their licenses, came here, too. Maybe some of them actually could treat you serviceably enough, if you didn't mind them copping a feel. Maybe others could dispense good advice, you just couldn't let their shaking hands anywhere near a scalpel. But whoever Bertha had run into didn't even remotely qualify.
I reached over and squeezed my mother's fingers--a handful of bones. "I'll make sure you get all the painkillers you need," I promised her.
"Oh, Rhallunn has lots of that."
"But they won't cost a thing, Mother, and I'll make sure they get to you alone."
She looked up at me, this tiny, pallid woman who hardly resembled me in any way, all wizened in the throes of her illness--and still those enormous blue eyes looked so damnably childlike! "Y'know, I think Shogy's been diluting my doses again, maybe keeps a little for himself." She shook with pain--constantly.
The kerchief slipped and I saw veins twisted and pulsing over her bare scalp. Gently I asked, "Did you have to sell your hair for medicine?"
"Oh, not at all. It fell out from my treatments."
I stiffened, I felt myself harden, you could break Rhallunn on my back. "What the devil did they do to you?"
My eyes fly open at the memory. I toss in the hammock, I make the bookcases groan ominously. I had to get her out of there, I thought at the time, everything would go better if I could just get her out of there.
Right. That went over real well, didn't it?
I pull out from under my head the pillow that Lufti gave me at our last lesson. I hug it tightly, glad that my mother gave me up at birth to Til, hating myself for feeling that, wishing I’d never gone looking for her, wishing I hadn’t started caring the minute I’d laid eyes on her.
That had all been Jonathan’s idea, I recall, to get me in touch with my roots--and in touch with a convenient informant on the Rhallunn crime-scene that I just happened to need for a job at the time. Did she have cancer even at that first meeting, a year or two before? Could I have said a key word here or there that would’ve softened her to the idea of seeking real medicine when she needed it? Did Jonathan know how badly I did not want this meeting to take place, what it would do to my heart for the rest of my life?
Oh, Jonathan! How could you not know that I wanted you to be father and mother to me for all time? You would never break my heart just by being who you are. You would never make me wish I couldn’t love. Dear, dear Jonathan, so far away...
Tightly I hug the pillow, feeling my eyes water. Oh, Deirdre, grow up! You think you’re the only soul in this campus of lost children who feels abominably homesick right this minute and misses a parent like she could die? So what if Jonathan couldn’t share sweet fruit with you today, laugh and joke in the first happiness that you’d known in God knows how long? You’ll have other good times with him. Enjoy what you’ve got now, on your own. Get some sleep, while you can; a whole lot of work awaits tomorrow.
(Well, nothing for it, but to march the boys out of the cafeteria to their dorms, in at least a pretense that they will get enough sleep to do their work tomorrow.) (Well, nothing for it, but to wait and see if tonight's dreams give me any further clues.) (Well, nothing for it but to just let go and let the chaummin...)