IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
At Work in the Cornfield
Saturday, April 25, 2708
Cyran has taken me off infirmary duty for the day and set me to filling Marduk's place in the cornfield. We have to harvest it as quickly as possible, for we must abandon this base soon--too many rumors point to our presence here.
My bandaged arms sting with every reach, but Marduk only scratched me, really; I always managed to twist back in time before he gouged as deeply as he wanted. No, Cyran's right--best not to put us in the same room for awhile.
The cornfield buzzes with insects, and many of the leaves hang in ribbons from their depredations. But the stocks survive thick and green in this resistant local breed.
"I wonder how Marduk's faring," Branko says with a chuckle, "under Malcolm's care?"
"The Dentist'll treat him fairly," I reply as I fill up my sack with fat, green ears--man, it does burn when I reach! "Compassionately, even."
"I know! That'll eat up Marduk worst of all!"
("Different people get fat for different reasons," he says as he brings the cold compresses. Malcolm lets me put them on myself, sensing that I don't want him to touch me anywhere near there. "Maybe some do eat too much just to show off that they can." It's like he can read my mind, or something. "I never met anyone like that, but I can't say they don't exist."
"Oh, they exist," I tell him.
Painfully he sinks to his knees to tuck back in place the loose corner of my sheet. "You've got personal experience with that all over your face." I never before saw how difficult it must be for him to move--just to move!)
I check another stock up and down for ears, find five, and toss them in. Good crop, bugs or no. The corn grows strong on soil full of nitrogen from all the blood-soaked mats we've shredded in. Achingly I bend to the next stock and harvest four more. Sweat runs into my eyes as I slap mosquitoes on my neck, but the green field all around restores me, hearty despite the shredded leaves--just like the orphans and runaways who labor beside me, stripped to their waists, brown and muscular and scarred.
(Malcolm says, "A glutton hurt you bad once--worse than you hurt now, huh?"
Maybe it's just the pain leaving me weak, no resistance, but I come so close, so close to telling him. "Something like that," I say.) (I come so close, so close to telling him just when and how my crazy hunger started.)
The sun reaches dizzying heights directly overhead--time for noon break. Groaning, we stretch and stumble to the welcoming shade outside the clearing. "Corn's past the milk stage," says Romulo, the white-haired boy with the scar-starred cheek. "It's too dry to munch on straight off the cob, or to roast. Should boil up okay, though; it’s not so hard we’d have to crack it." Damien fetches a pan of water and we husk a couple ears to reveal deep-red kernels, which we pop into the pan like hardened little drops of blood.
We have nothing to throw in with it but salt, some nuts, and a little chili. The bounty of the year grows scarcer as the rains begin to lapse. Still the corn soup tastes sweet and strongly of the land.
"Can somebody help me change my bandages?" I ask. They've soaked through again and the cuts sting with sweat.
Romulo comes over and assists me, muttering, "If it were my command, I wouldn't even put you on a work-detail." Seeing the wounds again, I think maybe Marduk cut me a little deeper than I realized. "You belong in the infirmary--as a patient."
Branko exclaims, "Oh, then we'd see some fireworks!" He chuckles. "Put her and Marduk mat by mat!"
I smile wryly and say, "Just eat your lunch, Branko." (He brings me lunch. I never thought I’d live to see the day when a fat man would actually kneel down and feed me, saving nothing for himself.) We feed from one pot, dipping in with husks for spoons, shoulder to shoulder, grubby and achy and totally at peace. It feels especially perfect and eternal because everybody knows it cannot last, we didn't come here for peace.
Food tastes good, and simple "good" means Heaven, because we know that many of us cannot survive the year. It may be me, it may be you, it may be both of us, soon enough, with life torn out by a bullet's passage, so eat slowly, savor every kernel of the fresh-plucked corn, the nuts, the chili, the salt--roll it on your tongues, while you still have tongues, on this warm and blessed day, tranquilized by limbs wearied in a timeless labor that will continue without us as it has for centuries.
And so, stuporous with noon, we stretch out in the shade for siesta, hoppers buzzing in our ears. "Hopper legs make good eating," Branko murmurs sleepily, "If you can catch 'em--back legs fat as thumbs. Tastes like seafood."
"Makes sense," I say. "If they eat our crops, we might as well eat them."
"Shoulda caught some," Romulo murmurs, "And put 'em inna stew..." and then he falls asleep almost before he finishes the...
(We march to the last refuge of Cyran, some of us in small insurgent bands, some as survivors who tramp, sore-footed, all alone with the ghosts of our comrades on our shoulders. We come, the orphans, the runaways and throwaways with no homes left to go to, or kids who never had one to begin with, born out on the streets, in alleys and in culverts, of mothers who wandered away from us after wine and forgetfulness of pain. Or we have always been soldiers, raised on the run, taught to count by loading guns for older warriors while the skies exploded very closely overhead.
We come, from the burnt-out squatter-farms down north, from the pulverizing mines up south, from the plantations of the east, the factories and shipyards of the west. We come as scarred and maimed as pirates. We come with wrinkles around our eyes from squinting down the sights of guns. We come muscled for marching, for dodging, for carrying lead great distances.
Your thoughts hold names we do not know, but we feel the power in them, the power denied to us. We never heard of Rembrandt, Proust, or Socrates. We paint our own pictures in blood. We tell our own stories, illustrated by our scars. We make our own attempts at philosophy without having ever heard your word, "philosophy", to try and put some sense to all that we’ve been through. For our minds still grow, tall and weedy, uncultivated but stretching sunward in a prickly and determined way. Weeds can crack through stone with an undeniable need for sun, an irresistible need to grow.
We come, Cyran. We come.)