IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Monday, April 20, 2708, continued
"I want to kill," the child-man beside me says. Imad’s downy chin has not yet felt the razor's touch. A dark window frames a thin curve of silver so slim it almost might not be there. New moon waxing, I think. Too late for vendettas. And I wonder where I picked up that bit of folklore. But it doesn't matter, the clouds soon close and thicken, and we shall have a storm.
We watch over Imad's sister, Mischa. Her internal injuries breed infection beyond my reach and she tosses in delirium. We take turns, one of us sponging her off while the other one fans her. The cool water and the little fan-made breeze afford the only relief from this stultifyingly humid night, as though the whole world has taken fever.
But my mind keeps drifting back to that other delirious child, Yeshu. Oh please, God grant that I not lose this one, too! At least not till she knows one moment of happiness, one single moment that can break through the nightmare of her memory and her pain. Give me that moment, Lord God, let me nurse her to that point.
Yeshu. Lost, without any consolation that I could give. Again I feel that sense of a bullet in my belly, so real that it's all I can do not to curl up tight around this fantasy of pain.
Imad says, "I will hunt down the rich and powerful--all of them, everybody who believes in privilege--for what they did to my sister."
"They didn't all do it," I tell him. "Only one man did. Most of the rich never even heard of your sister."
"They let it happen," he replies, gently wiping a sheen onto Mischa's cheek. "They made the culture that could let it happen."
"You don't know all the factors that went into that." I retreat into sociological objectivity before I, too, lose my soul.
He points a shaking finger at his sister and barks, "I know that!" The child's belly swells like pregnancy, but she will never give birth, this not-yet-woman, not even if she lives. A blanket hides the mangled genitalia: I try not to imagine what blunt object came to hand at that furious moment, I try not to think about it, but I know that she can think of nothing else, and images keep groping for my attention like an obscene call, something violently disgusting invading my peace of mind.
"But they don't," I remind him. "Most of the rich don't know the full extent of the excesses of some of their number."
His tears fall hot like the sudden downpour that bursts outside. He folds in on himself and mumbles, "They don't want to know. They don't care."
I hand him the fan and take over the basin and rag myself. He fans his sister with a hurricane fury, as though he could winnow something off of her. I pray that Rashid finds those antibiotic herbs that he went looking for; I can't hold Alysha off indefinitely from triaging out this frail and unlikely warrior. Maybe the rain will sharpen the scent for Rashid to help him find what we need.
Silence falls between us because we can't stand any more words for awhile. Outside the rain pounds down like all the unspoken words in the world strike our compound, a bullet rain, a storm of fury. Mischa tosses and mumbles something that almost sounds like, "Should've cut my lips," but that can't be right.
I want to escape. That's a prisoner's duty, isn't it? I escape back in memory to the rich and silky world that Imad so despises, that last wild party at Soskia's, dancing like I could crush all the world's troubles under my feet, like I could skip around danger like firecrackers and not get burned, like the music could drown out all the unspoken words pelting down on us into one great mire...
...and suddenly I can see myself out there, braids flying as I spin, lamplight on my sweat-polished face as I raise bared arms bear arms raise arms I rebelled to do that but...
I snap back. I had nearly fallen asleep sitting up. Weird--the way my memories sometimes shows me a picture of myself like that, like I looked at me from somewhere else.
"Her fever's breaking," Imad tells me. "See--she's sweating on her own, now."
I pull up a couple of mats. "Then we can get some rest. Here, we'll stay right beside her, so if she needs us we can wake up right away..." He already breathes deeply and regularly, unconscious before his head hit the mat.
I settle down more reluctantly. I keep vaguely remembering nightmares about finding myself trapped in an enormously obese body, every move a struggle against gravity, the motion of my arms restricted by the bulk that pushes them outward, the constant strangled sense of crowded lungs and heart. Maybe I did live too softly before my capture, and the nightmares won't let me forget it...
(...I wheeze like a broken-down machine by the time I make it to the top of the stair. I pause to catch my breath and mop off my face before I enter my benefactor's private chamber. Outside I hear the gallop of a distant horse and the laughter and shrieks of children at play.
"Ah, Malcolm. Thank you for coming." The old gentleman looks up from the window he'd been brooding at, and the gracious smile fails to smooth out the lines in his brow. "Have a...have that seat over there." He steers me to a sturdier chair than most of the delicate antiques in here; I'm used to these little humiliations.
"What may I do for you, Mr. Mukheymer?"
He glowers out the window again as the air hangs heavy and hot and silent all around us. "When I was a boy," he finally says, "My father used to tell me that if I needed to select a doctor, ask a doctor in a different specialty to whom he'd go in a like circumstance." He looks up to me. "If you had a son--a child as dear to your heart as if you carried him in your arms still, yet a grown man now--and his behavior, um, disturbed you, what psychiatrist would you send him to?"
"Assuming he would go?" I shake my head. "I'm afraid I've been rather cut off from the rest of the medical establishment for years."
He nods with resignation. "Of course. You've been on the road." No, I spent my reputation on the poor, along with all my cash. Then he looks back at me from the last ashes of hope. "Perhaps, from the basics of your own medical training you might unravel some of my son's more..." and he winces, "...unfortunate compulsions?"
I smile sadly. "As you see," I say, patting my belly, "The only thing I know about treating compulsion is what doesn't work."
I have never seen him look more miserable. "It's a dark road, isn't it?" he says. "A dark and wearing road that winds deeper and deeper into shame. You don't know how you ever got on it, you don't know how to get off, you don't know why you can't stop going forward. The only thing you do know is that somehow, at some point, it is all your fault."
"Whatever your son is doing, Mr. Mukheymer, he is an adult, responsible for his own actions. You have no blame in this."
"No, you do not, after all, understand." He picks up a family portrait full of uncles and aunts and cousins and siblings arrayed on the broad steps to the mansion's porch, a matriarch and patriarch at the top as fragile and imperious as a crumbling text of law. He points out a boy to one side with a scared-looking grin, a man's hand on his shoulder. "See him? That's my Reynaud, some ten years ago. Somewhere along the line I didn't protect him from learning something that no one should ever learn. Somewhere something horrible happened to him." He shook his head, eyes downcast. "I have read all about the etiology of such things; something awful must've happened. But nothing I read spoke of a cure."
I feel the blood drain from my face as I guess at what he dares not say. Outside the window I hear the galloping come right under the window. Reynaud likes to give the children horseback rides, I recall now with a creeping feeling in my scalp. He likes to set the little girls in front of him on the saddle, but he always goes too fast, holding them in place with one hand while he snaps the reins with the other. Or he puts them in back where they have to hang onto him for dear life. Faster and faster he rides until they scream, the wind in their hair as they hold on tight.
* * *
I open my eyes, gasping for air. I had been dreaming. The pillows behind my shoulders had slipped, making my sleep apnea worse instead of better. I shove them back into place, rearranging them to bring the cool ones underneath on top. Someday I shall choke in my sleep and never wake up. My chest heaves till at last I no longer feel like a little girl who screamed all the wind from her lungs. Gradually my heart's gallop slows to a canter.
Strange dream. Reynaud doesn't even ride horses; he prefers the roar and sputter of his motorcycle. But it seemed so real at the time that I blink to find myself here in the humid dark, sweating on the sheets, praying for a little breeze to ruffle the curtains through an open window.
We did have a conversation, Regin Mukheymer and I, before I went to sleep, but it had to do with the ruins of the nearby university. He showed me a map, with roads no longer used--paved roads, still intact enough to hold at least some of the woods at bay, passable at least for a rugged vehicle like mine, though a GEM would do better.
But he also warned me to watch out for brigands, I mustn't forget that. They camp in the ruins, sometimes, or so he has heard. He offered to send some household guards with me, and then stopped himself. He'd forgotten--the guards all went out to beat the bushes for some servant's daughter, lost or run away or who knows what. She’d been missing for some days, actually, but only now had Regin found out, and sent help for the family--peasants get secretive sometimes for no good reason. He shook his head, his face as sad as in my dream. The mother must be inconsolable, he said. Children have no idea, he said, how much heartbreak they can cause their parents.
I remember telling him that I'd pray to find the child soon. He thanked me, and as he did he handed me a list of books he'd like to read, if I should find them intact in the long-lost library.
That's the way the real conversation went. It’s just like dreams to dredge up muck from the past, and all the nasty things that crawl in it, to mix in with the clay of recent life.
Suddenly a shudder goes down my spine as the cool breeze finally comes, just a little puff to turn all my sweat to chill, while a pattering of rain begins to fall. I remember something. I turn on the bedside light and fumble through the pockets of the pants I wore that day, as the rain builds, hard and sudden. Here's the list. Psychiatric texts, every one of them, books on abnormal psychology.
I fold it back up, slip it into my pocket and turn out the light. It was just a dream. You don't know anything, Malcolm. It was just a dream.)
* * *
It was just a dream. I had fallen asleep by Mischa and my leather collar had caught on the edge of the mat; that's why I choked, not that I suffocate on a cushion of fat wrapped tight around my throat. I reach down and feel my little waist, firm between my hands, and sigh with relief. I shall never grow so fat.
I glance over at Mischa. She still sleeps, past her crisis, looking better. And her brother, he rests too. He whimpers a little and then turns over, reassured when his hand finds his sister, never opening his eyes the whole time. All around us I hear the night-creatures, and faint drips, and the distant rumble of thunder, for the storm has also moved on. And underneath it all I listen to the blurry sound of many sleeping people, breathing all at once, each in their own rhythm, some healthier than others. I see their lined-up bodies as shadows upon shadows, like brush-strokes of ink on a charcoal background. Didn't Jonathan show me some intriguingly disturbing picture like that once, as part of my education in the arts?
I settle back down, myself. Time I joined them all in slumber. Tomorrow's debridement day and I'll need all the rest I can get. Makhliya doesn’t have the muscle to help with that.