IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, April 21, continued
"Here, Deirdre." Alysha pokes a cigarette into my mouth and I inhale before I know what hits me. "You can't play coy about it anymore!" Cultural immersion, I tell myself, and drag at it till the giddiness hits all over again. I barely move it from my lips before Makhliya hands me a bottle of I don't know what, and after a gasping swallow I still don't know. Then Rashid passes me something completely different but just as raw. At last, I think, I get so tired of playing General all the time that...what? What'n'earth can I be thinking? I still wear the collar of a slave, for pity's sake, just shed the chain this morning! How arrogant we agents of the Tilián can be. Give me something to wash that thought out of my throat!
I hear Father Man intone from on high, "Bless you, my children! It is no sin to turn water into wine." I just crack up at that, cigarette in one hand and bottle in another, and I'm not the only one, yet I see some others solemnly cross themselves at the mad priest’s words and dive back into the party more wildly than before.
(And now, at last, no more the General! It feels so good to put aside responsibility for one merry night and play--just play!) Cyran comes over, grinning like the rest and no longer walking quite as straight. I pass on what I hold to accept the bottle from hir. I make the mistake of swigging it like wine or beer. E laughs merrily as I choke and sputter with watering eyes.
"I guess you like your chaummin better with wine coolers wrapped around it," e says. (So good!)
"You! You spiked my drinks at the New Year's party! I knew that hadn't all been my fault!"
E laughs again, pushing the sweat-soaked hair from hir brow, then takes the bottle back for a swig on hir own part--just like wine or beer. "Of course. I didn't think I could overpower an agent of the Tilián any other way."
"Even so, I managed to..."
"I know! I remember!" And we laugh together, arm in arm like old friends reminiscing. (And who could stomach even a sip while watching over Jonathan, even had the danger not been great? But now, every now and then, oh Holy Mother I get so tired of grim and sober stratagems!)
I take the bottle back, this time to sample it more cautiously. "Did your arm heal all right?"
"Couldn't tell the difference,” e says, and uses it to snag a jug from a passing youth.
"Glad you healed better than me, then."
"Huh? I never dislocated your arm."
I pass my bottle and cigarette on to a laughing girl. "Nope. Someone else did, a long time ago. And then I kept redislocating it, one way or another, before it had half a chance to heal from the last time. So my shoulder never quite recovered right--it's weak to this day.”
"I hear you've had quite a history before we even met." e says, wide-eyed, as e passes me the jug. "I bet that's a good story right there."
"Um," I wipe my mouth, suddenly realizing drunkenly where the conversation heads. "It's not one I can tell you, actually." I try to sound playful as I whisper in hir ear, "Even my own government doesn't know."
E winks at me and takes the jug back, then staggers off roaring for tobacco. I turn to watch children pile on top of Marduk and hang from his arms, trying to see how many he can lift, his face flushed and grinning with all the attention, neck bulging with exertion. Nearby Damien dangles from a branch to chat with Father Man--if anybody besides Cyran could make sense of the mad priest's utterances it'd have to be Damien.
I hear a POP! Whooosh! behind me and a sticky liquid rains down all over my hair. I now smell like beer. Laughter shrieks around me; then someone splashes me with very, very fragrant rubyberry brandy, saying, "Here--Perfume! That'll block the reek!" I chase him through the crowd till I catch him and make him surrender the brandy to me--can't even tell who he is in the dark. Elsewhere kids, now inspired, make a game of shaking overheated bottles of beer and bubbling wines before opening them in the sultry tropical night, positioning themselves to take the foaming stream into their mouths.
I trade the brandy to a young gallant for a cigarette, to wake me up a bit--it zings in me; I like it. I like the curling of the harsh-sweet smoke in mysterious patterns barely touched by the lurid light of emberglow. But I need more. As if in response to my thought, someone in passing presses a leaf between my lips and tells me "chew." I chew. Bitter numbness runs down my throat but so does new energy. I could do anything now, I could leap, I could dance! But anywhere near sober? Not on your life!
Music starts up behind me--again, as if in cue to my thoughts, as if we have all become linked into one great mind and that mind intoxicated, in some communion both sacred and profane. I turn to see some adolescents armed with homemade flutes and pan-pipes, and one boy with a pan to bang.
"The Bailebelde!" Damien shouts as he drops from the tree. He scrambles into Father's hut and dashes back out again, a little harp in hand. I had no idea that Damien played harp, nor that Father owned one. I didn't know the Bailebelde had lyrics, either, but Damien belts out such a raunchy song in his cracking voice, about the notorious behavior "In that other village that we all know" that I alternately giggle and gasp. The chorus sings praise for the merry freedoms of the Charadoc: "But we do what we want here, oh yes--we surely do as we please!" The song has many, many verses--and Damien knows them all.
Of course I dance. I remember every step. I join hands with a lanky youth on one side and a little boy on the other, and we skip to it, soggy hair slapping into my face and away again with all the redolence of beer and brandy, bare feet trampling the mud churned up beside the dying coals. I can’t help but notice that not all of the dancers wear all of the clothes that they started with, but hey, on a hot night like this, so what?
I didn't see who carried Aron, the footless boy, to the center of our circle where we dance, off to one side of the embers, but there he sits, dancing from the waist up, waving his arms and his spine to the music. Kanarik splits off from us and swirls around and around him, in her own mad, brave world, and I don't see buck teeth or scruffy hair anymore, I see litheness, I see life! Between the dancers’ moving limbs I see Mischa over on the other side of the coals, propped up on her brother's leg; I see her raise her hands briefly, merrily swaying them to the music, as Imad shares a drink with her.
Now Father Man leaps from his tree with a mighty hoot and joins paws to our hands while Cyran catches his fallen pipe and reverently puts it away. We stumble gaily through the rounds, not always in step, not always on key, but we didn't come here pretending to be perfect. I leap after notes, sometimes just missing them, sometimes pouncing right on top of them, but having fun with the sport all the same, till dizzily, happily, I fall out of the circle and collapse onto mossy ground, the sweat just pouring off of me, to pant after the oxygen-rich, scented jungle air. I watch as Aron lifts up Kanarik's discarded skirt and twirls it in patterns folding in on patterns over and around him as the circling dancers cast him in ripples of shadow and red light, and my senses seem to fold and swirl around me just like that.
The music changes to a different tune. Now, as the rest collapse on the sidelines, Malcolm steps forward to dance for us, a jiggling and rambunctious romp in a glaze of fire-shining sweat, swinging his weight around in spectacular waves, grinning back at the giggling applause. I prop myself up on an elbow to toast his lapse of inhibitions with the cider someone passed to me. Then I pass it on in turn, to clap along with the rest, to the beat of his performance.
(How strong, to bear so many people's hunger! How brave, to dance under the weight of such compassion!)
Despite the almost total lack of light, I feel drawn to gaze deep into the shadow of the trees beside the musicians. At first my blurry vision makes out nothing. Then I note the twin gleam of eyes. (I don't get it. I should envy the prosperity, the freedom to grow so great. But I just want to let that softness into my life, not take it, not own it, just share it.) My experiment-heightened brain sometimes just does things on its own, no matter what I inflict on it. I discover that I can gauge the height of those eyes, take in hints of a flicker on the sheen of sweaty skin, and reconstruct it all into Cyran. A second more and I cannot doubt it--Cyran stands behind the musicians, staring hungrily at Malcolm.
I almost giggle at the thought. Cyran and Malcolm? But no, suddenly a shot of sobriety hits me like I swallowed it too fast. How agonizing the passions that a hermaphrodite must feel, never knowing how e'll be received. I sip ale to shake the mood, and pass the bottle on.
A child shoots past me, moaning, into the bushes. I climb to my feet and go in after, entangling myself on every twig and thorn, till I find Rashid. He has just been sick. I wipe up his face with my handkerchief and then carry him out, a soggy bundle heavy on my shoulder. With my free hand I steady myself on trees as much as I can; the little healer doesn't need me to sway any more than I have to.
Cyran leaves the shadows to tell me, "Take him to Father Man's hut. He looks after the little ones.”
"Father Man?" I exclaim.
"Yeah," e says drunk-defiantly. "You got a problem with that? Just because a man's crazy doesn't make him worthless."
"Cyran, Father Man can't even take care of himself."
"Aw, he always pulls himself together whenever children need him. He just can't expend the effort on his own account."
Rashid moans again on my shoulder; I shift his weight to make him more comfortable. "Isn't this just the stupidest thing ever," I blurt out, "To give small children strong drink on top of their first smokes! How can they not get sick?"
"Oh, I mean them to get sick," e says with a shrug. "If they don't throw up, the little fools'd all drink themselves to death. The next time they'll use a little caution."
I look around us meaningfully. "Your older veterans don't seem to have learned their lesson." Two young men break out in a fistfight right in front of us. Cyran knocks one to the ground and throws the other into the bushes.
"Behave!" e yells. "Look what kind of example you're setting!"
I burst into barefaced guffaws at that and e snaps, "Gimme a break, Deirdre!" but I only laugh the more till Rashid whimpers at the motion, so I quiet down.
"I'm sorry," I manage to say at last. "Maybe I'm taking everything too seriously."
Hir glower turns to a grin at that, as e grabs a bottle from some passing teen and says, "You just need a drink, 'sall," as e shoves the bottle between my lips while an armful of boy leaves me defenseless. To keep from choking I have to twice gulp some kind of moonshine so raw that its only flavor is fire. Then e clears the way for me through the bacchanal till we get to the hut--just in time before the full vertigo of that last swig hits.
"That,” I manage to gasp, "Is the last thing I need!"
Inside Father Man has lined the walls with propped-up children. He goes down the line to fuss over them, poking some awake, making some drink water, monitoring the pulse and respiration of those who sleep. We add Rashid to a bare corner, then run into Malcolm just outside the door carrying Lufti and Kiril.
"In here," Cyran says.
"Cyran, I don't think it's such a good idea to..." I wander away, knowing how the rest of it will go.
A flask winds up in my hand. Corn beer, not so bad. After a swig I trade it for what I think might be a cider--pome, perhaps. Then a cigarette--oops, not tobacco, too late, oh well. Reflexively I accept whatever they offer, my brother and sister rebels, and pass it on like a good sport, everybody sharing like proper egalitarians, everybody uniformly, democratically smashed.
Only the older ones remain, now. I stumble in the dark over something that twangs in sweet complaint. I disentangle my toes from the little harp that Damien had borrowed from Father Man. For a moment I totter there, regarding it. Did the priest used to play it, when he had all his fingers? Did he used to sing like an angel? Did its music mean so much to him that he clutched it still to his chest with bleeding mitts when he led the march from the murdered village of Tensei? Too much to think! Give me wine--drive all such thoughts away! No one can bear them--not even Father Man.
Uh oh...getting dangerously close to toppling over the edge, I think. I stand a moment, trying to get my bearings, because the clearing tips a little every time I move. Before me, still beside the coals, I see Mischa lying there, her head still propped on Imad's knee. He takes a long pull at a bottle, then brings it to her lips. Her delicate hand guides his unsteady one as she gazes up adoringly. Then another person stoops to hand them a different flavor. And then another. And then I bring over the cigarette I just found in my hand and receive from them some sharply herbal brew. After a swallow I pass it on to Aron, who doesn't miss a beat in his waist-high dance to take it from me and swig from it, the music only in his head, now. Nobody gets left out. Nobody.
With the meadow now in serious motion, I struggle towards the nearest tree (Oh, kiss me again, my sweet, sweet Kanarik!) just to sit there under its boughs, propped up by the trunk (Drive carefully, dear--they say that these hills just crawl with rebels and bandits and lawless men who kill for nothing.) to try and sort out all the random thoughts that whip through me like rain through a net. (They burned, he bled, I saw it all--little ones like this.) Cultural immersion! (Let me dance, oh yes! My arms can still dance, Cyran!) Oh, I think I'm immersed, all right. (Oh God, let him dance, let him not think of love tonight!) I mean I am absolutely (The scar doesn't look so bad, beloved, rather like a flower or a star, nestled in your cheek.) totally (Drink, drink! Pretend I have the courage for the fights ahead of me.) head over heels (How--generous he is. What other word can describe him?) immersed to the point (Wrap your sweet and sweat-slick dancer's legs around me!) of drowning (They say that rebels never sleep. Drive slowly, and with both eyes open.) in sweet-as-brandy culture (I made the pilgrimage with the Children's Crusade, a spear in each and every heart.) seething with (Let me dance in worship of you, my Lord Cyran!) feelings (For if he tries to love like this, drunk like this, his flesh will fail--and that he'll blame it on me.) and images (The scar pulls your lip up in a wry little smile. I think I like that smile.) and thoughts (Pass the wine--we may never feel so happy again.) that aren't really quite (Oh, fool, fool! How insane of me to let this man into my confidence on nothing but a crush!) my own.
(But let the night ring out with insanity--I sicken of leadership! I can't live on lead-cold calculation all the time.) (Let the musicians falter--I'll dance on, your inexhaustible devotee!) (God hide us all from rebels and bandits and men without law.) (Let me touch it, beloved--do not fear my touch. Let me kiss the star.) (Oh no--he beckons me to him. Oh no, not now, not in his cups, please God, no!) (Oh, oh Kanarik!) (Drink, drink till fear dissolves!) (Burn, burn, I drink up their burning, I make it part of me, dark communion lights up the night!)(The diary has passed on. Now let me enjoy my wake.)