IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Tuesday, April 21, 2708
Debridement day, again. While Kiril naps on an empty patient-mat (tuckered out from all of the fruit-canning she’s had to do lately) I set up the instruments, out of the patients' line of sight. Rashid mixes up the saline solution while a young boy mutters something about "salt in the wounds" and looks murderously at me. Even so, just for right now, all seems peaceful, the bubble of boiling water and the birdsong outside ornamenting rather than cancelling the quiet. I enjoy it while I can, before the screams begin.
(Jungle, like an intricate hallucination, parts around a weedy road with slabs of old pavement rearing here and there. It looks like some kind of hairy, scaly hide stretched out before us, as our mules pick their way more surely than I could right now. Cici has put on way too much jewelry for the occasion, twinkling in the bars of sunlight between the tree-- pieces too rich for her, obviously stolen. Yet she wears the same tough and faded men's pants that she has worn all along for the convenience of travel--a bizarre combination.)
All out of topical anaesthesia? Rashid opens up a pungent bottle of locally-brewed chaummin, but we must only give sips of that to those whose pain would otherwise render them completely unmanageable. It eats up vitamins that we can ill-afford to lose, and it slows down healing.
(And then we pass through a crumbling stone arch in a once-dignified wall of rock, trees breaking through or straddling it with great winding roots, and I suddenly realize that we approach the end of our travels--that's why Cici insisted that I bathe and shave this morning before she'd let me have the bottle, and when my hand shook too badly she shaved me, herself. Good ol' Cici. And then it dawns on me...
Oh, merciful God strike me down right now, before Deirdre sees me! I am not the man who first set out to find her. I am not...and what has she become in this hellish stretch of months? Harden your resolve, man, for love of the only daughter that you ever knew! You have to fetch her back, take her out of this hell-hole and back to Til Institute, save both your lives and let this wound in the planet, this pit that you once mistook for paradise, rot without you. Let some other agent worry about it all.)
At least we have that antibiotic that Rashid has found. All last night, it seems, while I watched and slept by my patients, he brewed it in the kitchen, down to a green-black mush, so that we can use it today. Now it sits over there on the sill-shelf, bitter-smelling and more precious to us than diamonds. Dear Rashid--how glad I am to count on him!
As I boil bandages and hang them by the window to dry, I hear some sort of commotion outside. Kiril rouses, and goes out to investigate. I keep on working. I peer through the bandage-striped view, though, as more and more kids lay down their chores and leave.
(Now the buildings come into sight, the old, magnificent structures, temples to a knowledge wasted on this land, and so left to decay. I see the children come forth, all the nightmare ragamuffins, the waifs with murder in their eyes, slow and suspicious at first, and then as fast as they can scramble. Bandoleers bounce on skinny shoulders, sheaths on running thighs, and I remind myself, as Sanzio knew too well, that these aren't entirely children anymore. But they see Cici and run laughing, arms outstretched like they know her, like they have enough love left, at least, for her.)
(Alysha--your face! Oh God, God forgive you Alysha, you let him do it to you again!)
Rashid sets another pot to boiling, the one in which we will sterilize our knives throughout the day, rotating them as we go. Of course nothing can ever make this room completely sterile, but we do our best.
("Cyran!" "Cyran!" they shout, their battle-cry, I suppose, for their mysterious leader. But then they fling themselves on my guide, half-dragging her off the mule, shouting, "Cyran, we missed you!” “Welcome home!” “Welcome home!” “What did you bring us, welcome home!" I look at this very young woman that I traveled so far with--she's the notorious rebel leader? She wraps her arms protectively around as many children as can crowd against her, fierce love in her over-painted eyes, like she'd be mother and father to all of them if she could. But there remains some ice in their blue depths when she orders them, "Bring the captive here.") (I'd better find everything in order, Alysha--if you've let him undermine your authority you're no good to me, however brilliant your strategies.)
Kiril comes back, panting like she ran all the way. Quickly she takes the chain from its hook and snaps it to my collar.
"What are you doing!" Rashid protests. "You can't take her away from me on debridement day!"
"Cyran's back," she answers breathlessly. "E calls for her. You'll have to manage." (The captive--Cici means Deirdre when she gives that order. Deirdre! In a little while I see her coming through the trees, now, a chain fastened to a collar on her neck, led by a little girl. My Deirdre, chained!
And suddenly I can barely keep myself from fleeing. I don't want her to see me drunk. But I wouldn't want her to see me sober with the shakes, either. I just don't want her to see me at all, the blood upon me, the shame, the onetime Ambassador of Til her onetime fatherling rotting before her eyes, oh why did I push for this moment? Why didn’t I let her think me dead?)
Jonathan! I see him there, in the distance. I break into a run and Kiril leaps to keep up with me, the chain clattering between us. I gather up loops of it to keep it from snagging on everything, as I feel my legs swing left right left over the broken pave, I feel them strong and young and healthy as I run and everything's going to be all right, I'm free or soon will be, and my legs can take me anywhere!
(Ai, so beautiful, so unbearably young and beautiful--curse me, damn me eternally for bringing her to this evil land! I can hear the chain rattle now as she runs to me, chiming and jittering and clamoring like my heart, my heart, maybe it’ll burst before she gets here!
More children gather. They settle on the marble steps of some pillared place, flitting in and lighting like crows on the rim of battle. But I focus my eyes on Cici--Cyran--and I have no enemies left anymore except myself. Deirdre's going to see me like this! She has no other way to see me than like this. This is all I am, now.)
Jonathan! He can bring me home, get me out of here, back to Til, back to friends, back to the red cliffs of home and the golden beach and the coral coves and...and...and...!
(I fight to sit as straight in the saddle as I can, try to straighten my clothes, to look like who I used to be. But how will I get her home? I can hardly even sit upright, how the hell will I ever get her home?)
Home, to where I'll never have to change another bandage, dig out another bullet, stare into another starving child's face...if I give up on serving Lovequest, if I quit the Agency.
(But so beautiful! See how her strong limbs leap over the weeds and the broken stones. Maybe she has strength enough for both of us. Maybe she can get us home.)
I slow. Something's wrong with Jonathan. He looks ill.
(Maybe she's my salvation.)
At a signal from Cyran, Kiril unlatches my chain. "Jonathan? Is it you?"
(God, how can I answer that question!)
"It is you!" I rush up and hug him and he falls against me and I hold my fatherling, my fatherling, and he hugs me back, so tightly, sobbing in my shoulder, and he absolutely stinks of drink, but he never used to drink except token sips at state occasions, he...and I don't care! He's here! My fatherling! My fatherling! My mentor--he who has been father and mother to me since I was a little, little girl!
(But then suddenly all of the memories rush back in, everything I tried to drown--the sound of a snapping spine, the flight of a severed hand with a bone-thin wrist, the bodies of orphans and nuns flung explosively through the air...)
But then I stumble back. Something is really, really wrong. I see in his face...I don't know what I see. He struggles to set himself aright in the saddle again; he has gotten himself completely, uncharacteristically bombed, but more than that troubles me. What could make him so horrified of bringing me back that he has to drown his feelings to do it? What kind of life, exactly, does he want to ransom his daughter for?
(I see the change in her face and feel the tears stream down my own. She knows! Somehow she knows everything.)
Tilianach has an obscenity, a word I’d never speak in Jonathan’s presence: Gamshaw. It's the name for someone who would prostitute a member of his own family. Would he bring me home—or would he tie me to the murderers of Rashid’s mother, Alysha’s village, Father Man’s hands?
Yet he cries, he cries for me, oh Jonathan! I have to get you out of here—everything would be all right if I could just get you out of…no. That didn’t work with Mom, why should it…but no! I have to try, I have to at least...yet up runs Rashid, panting hard, tears on his flushed face, as he stares at me, pleads with his eyes, too out of breath for words. How can a child like that handle debridement day all alone?
(Cyran names a sum for ransom. I don't even count it out, I just hand over a full wallet, not taking my eyes off Deirdre, trying to read them, trying to focus enough to read them, but I couldn't have guessed her next move stone cold sober.)
"No," I finally say, gazing on Rashid. “No need for ransom.” I swing my hair away from my neck to bare the ring on my collar. "Latch it back on, Kiril--I belong here."
Cyran waves the girl away. "That won't be necessary, Kiril. She's one of us, now."
(And my last hope, the last shore left in my deep and drowning sea, crumbles before my eyes, eaten up by all the acid welling from the pit inside my guts.)
Cyran hands Jonathan back his wallet, but he drops it in the dirt, staring at me. And I step towards him, reach out my hand to him, an invitation…
A trill of bird-calls suddenly, unexpectedly, shivers down from the highest trees. Children dive for cover, burrowing into bushes, diving under rocks.
"Hurry!" Cyran hisses to me. "That's the signal for..."
"I know. We're invaded. But what about..."
"Him? Nobody listens to what winos claim to've seen." (And at that Deirdre shoots me such a look of shock and pity and revulsion and then still more pity on top of that that I...I didn't know anything could burn worse than my ulcer. How foolish of me to think that pain could have some limit.
Her hand reaches out, nonetheless, her fingers brush mine briefly, a soft jolt of love before she runs away as strongly as she came. “Helal,” I whisper. “I give you helal, Deirdre, and helal to Cici, and to…to everyone.”)
Maybe he'll come. Maybe he'll follow me. Maybe he'll join us and we can heal him and...but no. He stays on the back of his mule, tears glistening in streams down his face, smiling by some weird reflex that has nothing to do with joy.
(They have all melted into cover, now, Deirdre among them. Nobody left. Nothing left. I sit swaying on my mule as an antique jeep growls and wheezes up behind me, crunching over the bad pavement. A fat man leans out the window. and asks me, "This University--does the library still stand, old man? Do you know anything about it?"
I laugh. I laugh as though it could break me in two, I wish, I really wish it could! "Nothing still stands," I tell him. "Everything's broken. Nobody knows anything about anything." Cyran's right--he doesn't listen. He drives right on into the deserted campus.)