IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, April 21, continued
"So you see," I hear Cyran explain to Malcolm, "I don't recruit 'em young.” (No--he is no Uncle Donal, this poor, brave, little fairy.) “That's all they ever send to me, all who can get away." (I saw. He showed me the infirmary. I saw the "missing girl". The "runaway". Mischa.) "Believe me, I can understand your doubts! I've had a few, myself. But what else can I do, but this?" (I can’t help but glance back at her, in the stretcher on which they carry her. Damn me, I'm a dentist, not a surgeon! I haven't the faintest idea how to save her life.)
On up ahead I hear Damien softly humming something, no doubt heroic, no doubt heartening. (Could no one else step forward to protect her, someone bigger and stronger and…she explained it all to me, why girls who work for Mukheymer Manor scar their lips. She explained it all.) I hear Cyran say, "I won't ask you to shoot--just don't ask me to." (And then she passed out again--oh, I could shoot all right! Anything you've got the stomach for, Cyran, I've got double!)
We enter Father Man's clearing, into a dim and smoldering light. Father hunches over a bed of coals that he has kindled, his lips moving over words that we'll never hear, as he often does. Then he looks up at the sound of our approach, twin firelights reflecting under brows. I smell tobacco in the air.
"I have it," he says in his gravelly voice. "The war-pipe. I, the pipe-man, I." He cradles it against him with his fingerless right arm. Painstakingly, the surviving two outermost digits of the left hand pinch up tobacco and stuff it in. He has carved a root into a pipe with a skull-formed bowl. Nobody knows how he could've carved it, but some of the children say that he can whistle down birds to peck and insects to gnaw shapes into wood for him. I have watched as Damien listened to these tales.
"I, the pipe-man, smolder," the priest says darkly. "I, the battlefield pipe-man, smolder. I have fingers left so they burned to the ground, screams and cinders flying out the windows flames and hands reach out barred windows we need to light the night!" He leaps to his feet, but Cyran catches the pipe before it falls. "We need to light the night, light the night! Fire fights fire inside and out we all must burn, we burn!"
"We do burn," Cyran replies as though used to this sort of conversation. "We burn with righteous anger, Father Man."
He grins at hir, conflagration in his eyes. "I am ash. Did you know that, my child? All they left of me, ash. I burned." He pounds his chest and laughs. "This is ash. Man is ash!" He laughs so hard I want to cry.
"And to ash we shall return," Cyran says patiently. "But we have some work to do till then."
Father grunts with satisfaction at being understood, then squats back down to the remains of the fire and stares at the coals. "Auto da fe," he mutters, his ironic grin gleaming in the dark. "Let the festival begin!"
Cyran herds all of us new recruits around the coals. Then the veterans encapsulate us in a circle of their own. I cough in the smoke as I sit down with the others, Kiril to my right, Rashid to my left, Lufti holding Kiril's hand. Beyond Rashid, Damien hesitates, then slips an arm around Kanarik; she smiles shyly as she turns her face away, but he knows, I can almost feel him knowing like I feel the heat glow from the embers before us. Malcolm groans to join us sitting on the ground; I turn to see Lufti nestle up against the cushion of his leg as he gives the boy's hair a rough tousle. Now Branko helps Imad carry Mischa on a stretcher to our circle, last of all, completing the circuit. She can at least die a rebel, if nothing more.
"We gather tonight to celebrate ten new births," Cyran announces as e paces outside us us to address the circle of veterans around us, firelight glinting off hir jewels. "Ten new souls who burn with ardor for our cause. Ten new bodies willing to live or die for our future, willing to endure any sort of pain to heal the agony of oppression in our land." Father Man hops up as if stung, then scurries back into his hut. "We gather to welcome ten new Egalitarians, brothers and sisters in blood and f..."
"Baptize the babies!" Father Man scampers back out with a big gourd full of water. "Baptize the babies!" he shouts, giggling as he splashes shocks of water onto each of us. "In the name of, uh, the name of the bleeding-guy--who needs names? The bleeding Lord of fishermen and riffraff, the bleeding guy, my Son, you know who I mean."
Cyran waits affectionately to one side till Father Man finishes drenching us, the night too warm to feel anything but refreshed by it. Not content with that, he also douses the embers. Clouds of steam leap up with a great hiss. I see, though, that with such a light sprinkling as what he has left over, that the coals still glow, and could take flame at any opportunity, though they have become dimmer, redder, barely brushing the dark shapes gathered around them. The priest settles back to crouching by the coal-bed, rocking a little as he mutters, "Bled into the dirt, He did. He was there, I tell you, Man--I saw it all." Then on to other words inaudible to me.
Now Cyran lifts up the pipe. "'They' shall become 'us', in blood and fire. What do I hold up, here?"
"Tobacco," say the voices all around us.
"Tobacco, the sacred herb. Tobacco, the purifying smudge, the breath of change. Let any who partake of it set aside all fear of death or destruction. Let any who partake inhale deeply of its hunger-vanquishing energy, feel new vigor course through them for the smiting of our enemies. Let us turn its dark powers against those who strangle the life from our land and from our people." E lowers the pipe and then says grimly, "And may the sacred tobacco choke the life out of any traitors among us, rot them from within, as treachery and cowardice rot the false warrior within, so that disease of the soul may be made manifest in the flesh."
Malcolm raises an eyebrow to me, but says nothing. And God help me, I say nothing either--I want so desperately to belong, even I can't fathom how dearly I need to belong, to burn up any taint of allegiance to oppressors as oblivious as I once had been--God help me, I still recall the touch of silken sheets!
Only somehow, when I close my eyes and see those sheets, they turn a pretty saffron yellow, smooth hempen cloth, not cheir-silk, where the oblivious lay themselves down to waste and die. I don't know where that comes from, but the image haunts me.
When I open my eyes again, smoke intertwines with strands of mist all around us in the pulsing, ruddy light. Cyran puffs on the pipe, then closes hir eyes and blows smoke rings in an almost sacred ecstasy. Now e hands the pipe over to Damien. "Just blow," e says. "Inhaling will come naturally."
Father Man chortles grimly from some dim corner to which he has retreated, and Damien chuckles nervously back. Ignoring instructions, the boy inhales deeply, chokes, then coughs while theatrically pounding his chest, grinning like a fool. Kanarik takes it from him, puffs demurely, and hands it to Rashid.
Rashid hesitates. He's an herbalist; he knows that cancer has nothing to do with whether your heart stays true. But then, grimly, he takes a long, slow pull and I can read in his eyes that he hardly cares whether he lives or dies. He releases it slowly: a pale stream colored by the bloody glow; he gasps involuntarily after and sways against me as he hands the pipe to me.
I have smoked once before--"battle herbs", ironically enough, on my rookie mission years ago. Definitely not tobacco, whatever they were. Suffice to say that I now recall nothing of the ensuing clash, though all agree that I acquitted myself well.
So, with only a little trepidation, I puff at the thing. I involuntarily take in a hot lungful of bittersweet smoke, sweet apple with a sort of black pepper bite to it, something rough yet smooth like a breath of dust-storm sanded wood.
And then everything spins so that I barely collect myself to pass it on to Kiril. I just sit there, holding onto ground, trying to decide, does this feel good? Does this feel sick? Maybe good. Yeah, maybe it feels good. Thrilling, even. Steady...yeah. Just fine.
I hear a sigh, then turn to see Malcolm take it up from Lufti. He hesitates, frowning.
Gently Cyran asks, "Are you with us, Malcolm?"
He looks over to Mischa and nods. "I have nowhere else to go." He puffs and I, too, look to Mischa as I feel something horrible and hungry gnaw inside me like it tries to eat me up.
Maybe not just fine. Maybe sick. I feel like a runaway horse carries me off, hooves pounding with my heart, and I hang on for dear life...
...to the ground, fingernails dug into the moss. Get a grip on yourself, Deirdre!
I open my eyes again as Imad holds the pipe to his sister's lips--oh no! Not her, as frail as she...what? What could it possibly do to her? Hasten the inevitable? Alleviate a little of the pain? She exhales smoke and smiles up at her protector, her ghost-white face with the bruise-dark eyes.
Branko puffs happily on the pipe till Cyran finally takes it from him. E hands it up to Father Man who, sometime during the ceremony, took up a perch in the trees overhead. No one saw how he got up there. He grips the pipe in the pads of erstwhile hands and smokes for the rest of the ceremony.
"Fire and blood," Cyran says again. E rises and circles the fire to lift us each to our feet. I feel a certain excitement as I stand there, fellow rebels leaning on me right and left, buzzed just enough to know that something different happens here. Cultural immersion--that's what it takes to be a real agent, after all, to totally, perfectly join with a people. I grin through the wet strands of hair in my face as Cyran herds us all together into a clump. This feels much more real than donning a petal dress and learning fine points of etiquette!
Then I see Cyran kick off hir sandals. I watch hir step right onto the coals! E crosses over to the other side, walking on the glow, steps swaying like a wild lynx--I never noticed before that swing to hir slightly flared hips, the moves of a tail-swishing, predatory cat. I’d almost come to think of hir as a man--perhaps because I wanted to. Now I remember that e's something more exotic.
Now e stands there across from us, the upward glow casting almost sinister shadows onto hir face. E says nothing, just braces hir hands against those barely-accentuated hips till we attune to hir with complete attention.
"Take off your shoes," e commands.
Yes, why not? We kick off our sandals and step into the mud of Father Man's baptism. For all we know Cyran has brought us the smoke of the Burning Bush and we stand on sacred ground.
"Now," e says, "come to me, one by one." E spreads hir muscle-shapely arms out to us. "Yes, across the coals, with the confidence of a rebel willing to face fire for us all.” (Uncle Donal could never look so strong. Cyran doesn’t need the smallness of children to feel his strength.) “Come to me, one by one, and let all of your past burn behind you." (Yes--I would like that.)
Malcolm stirs, then hesitates, but then Damien steps forth, first of all from the shocked silence, his wide eyes gleaming in the dark. "Yes," he says. "I believe in you." Firmly he sets a bare foot into the glowing ash, then takes the next step, then the next, his gaze unwavering and mesmerized on Cyran, until he enters the leader's embrace, unscathed.
"Believe in yourself!" Cyran exclaims. Tear-tracks shine by the coal-glow on hir cheeks. "Oh, Damien, I believe in you!"
Kanarik goes next, of course, as light-footed as if the breeze gently puffs her across like smoke. Cyran hugs her close, and then Damien folds her in his arms like he'll never let go, cheek pressed to her scruffy little head. Emberlight flushes their faces and the whole giddy night.
"Malcolm next," Cyran says. Of course. E’s heard the thermodynamic theory of this. E wants Malcolm's weight across the insulating layer of ash before the children kick any more aside. What the heck, the theory might not even work. It is, after all, only a theory.
Malcolm has either never heard the thermodynamic explanation for firewalking or else wonders if it'll hold up under him. He swallows, twice, then takes a long look at Mischa and nods. He makes it across fairly briskly, then laughs shakily with relief on the other side. Cyran embraces him like e'd sink into his flesh.
Then Branko saunters to the edge, cracks all his knuckles at once, and strides across with a big, silly grin. When he makes it he leaps into the air and whoops.
Then Rashid follows, gravely and proudly. When Cyran hugs him he turns and his eyes shine into mine.
Now I find myself stepping forward, elated, nicotine still singing in my veins. I don't look down as I feel the hot ash powdering my toes, I smell the smolder of what I cross, but I can do it, focused on Cyran's outstretched arms. Before I know it those arms enfold me and cool moss cushions my feet. E whispers, "Welcome, Deirdre!" in my ear. "I always knew, from the days I first staked you out in the palace, that your heart really belonged with us." I feel so good to hear hir say it that I can't stop grinning, my tight cheek-muscles completely out of control and burning hotter than the coals. Rashid gives me a quick, shy squeeze with a closed-eye smile that could break my heart.
Kiril follows me across, and then tackles me with affection the minute Cyran lets go of her. And then Lufti comes after and hurls into us both.
"What about Mischa?" Imad asks. "I don't think she can walk."
Gently Cyran says, "She has already burned enough. Not a soul here doubts where her heart belongs."
Unexpectedly, Marduk steps out from the veteran's circle. He pulls out his knife, kneels to her, and cuts off a lock of her hair. He hands it over to Imad. "Go on, carry this over for her. Walk for both of you." So stiffly Imad walks across, his chin held high but lip atremble, his wet eyes glistening. After greeting him, Cyran comes around and kneels to cradle Mischa's shoulders in hir arms, a kiss upon her brow. Her smile looks ecstatic beyond this world.
I think I know what to expect next. Fire and blood, e said. As if in response to my thoughts, Cyran rises and says, "You have all passed the Test of Fire for me, and I am so proud of you that I can hardly bear it. Next shall come the Test of Blood." I knew it. "But not here." Huh? "I have no need of gruesome rites to seal you to me." That's not how such traditions go. "The test of blood shall happen on the battlefield itself, your own personal triumph or tragedy. To shed the tiniest drop of your precious lives for any lesser reason falls short of Egalitarian ideals."
Malcolm looks on Cyran with new respect. Me, I examine a tiny scar at the base of my thumb; I almost can't see it in the dark. I had been a child, myself, surely no older than the youngest here, when I became blood-sister to Bram Valdez, that night in Alonzo Valley during Harvest Home. I sigh; he died years ago in a war far, far away. I had almost hoped that Cyran would ask of me something just like that, to fill in the empty spot. But we never get quite what we expect, do we?
"Paaarty time!" I hear Branko shrill, trying to bellow like a man but it doesn't quite work in his soprano. I suddenly notice that the circle around us has dissolved into children and teens laughing and chattering like excited little birds, as the veterans unpack bottle after bottle of home-brewed beers and wines and ciders of every kind of fruit or grain available, along with cheap flasks of chaummin and some Stovaki rotgut port (smuggled, no doubt, along with some of the Stovaki cigars that I see light up.) I had no idea they had stashed away so many kinds of alcohol--they must save it up for special occasions.
Che Guevara, in a manual on guerilla warfare, admonished that the revolutionary must embrace asceticism, a pure and sober life. I look at the revels all around me and toss aside anything I ever learned in books—they teach that, too, in agency classes, ironically enough. I reach out for the first bottle passed to me.
Nope, we certainly do not get what we expect. Not in an agent’s life, at any rate.