IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
The Convent of St. Teresa
Sunday, May 24, 2708, continued
I hear the twins gasp almost before I hear the engine, myself. "Down!" Lucinda hisses and we dive into the bushes. I listen to a cranky old prop plane growl and stutter overhead, fighting the wind to make it home. It sounds all the more painfully arthritic because I urge it with all my heart to hurry up and go where it means to go.
Aircraft--even the rich own antiques only, and have nothing but their private patches of field to land them on, visiting each other's mountain estates that way. They lost the industry to make planes ages ago, and the Charadoc's isolation makes import from more provident nations difficult. Oh there’s smugglers from Stovaki, sure, but they don’t haul heavy machine parts over the mountain passes.
Or so I hope. What could they make, what might they fashion even now, with funding from Peshawr industries?
Gradually the sound dies away and we all emerge, pulling out the stray thorn here and there from clothes or hair, rubbing our scratches. I scan the sky, but find no blemish in the clouds overhead. Still, I'll feel better when we get safely under the forest canopy again. Thank the Blessed Virgin and all good ghosts that Soskia has not reinvented the helicopter!
* * *
The day has almost passed before we approach a walled compound of brown stone buildings, simple and clean in line, clustered around a campanile surmounted by a cross. I knew I’d heard bells!
"My old convent," Fatima says, and I can't help but stare at her. "They'll help us there." She looks right at me, cool and hard, smirking grimly at my surprise. "I hadn't wanted to marry, you see. But my fiancÚ had connections. So I took refuge in the Church." She laughs and shakes her head. "I wasn't quite of age, I fear, but Mother Superior made an exception for me–she said she wouldn't deny the pure of heart."
She turns to point down a long and stony path from the convent gate and her voice sounds hard, so hard. "There. That is where they dragged me out--my fiancÚ's men who came to take me away from God. By my hair and by my habit they dragged me, till the habit tore and fistfuls of hair came out." Now she points down into a brush-filled ravine. "There. That is where they had me, each in turn, to teach me that no one should rebuff a man with connections, who'd offered so generously to raise me up above my station." Her voice deepens and roughens when she says, "'Never mind the fear of God,' they told me on that day. 'Fear your betters here and now."
She horrifies me with her distant smile, with callus grown as thick as tumor between her and her past. "There," she says and points far down below. "That's the road they sent me on, strapped to the back of a mule, bleeding and half dead. Down, down they led us, down to the city and the brothel in the city, where they sold me, where I met the rest."
She turns back to the compound in brown stone. "I had been happy in the convent, while it lasted." She shrugs and leads us down.
But not by the path. We go deep into the thorny ravine, silent and in single file, by starts and stops, patiently disentangling each other from the snags as quietly as possible. We make no more sound than the rattling of the wind. We saw the guards posted by the gate before they saw us, thank you Jesus!
At last Fatima kneels down by a certain bush grown up against the slope. She crosses herself, and then crawls under it. We follow her into a claustrophobic little tunnel, but a well-engineered one, I can tell by the feel of the stone blocks that line it, my shoulders bruised now and then when I knock against buttresses in the dark. How typically monastic--if you must tunnel beneath the convent walls, you'll do so properly.
Now earth insulates all around us--no enemy can hear when Fatima says, "I almost made it to this tunnel from the other side." Her voice sounds weirdly spiritual, coming from nowhere in the dark, echoing slightly off the blocks through which we crawl. "But then I heard them pounding on the door, almost breaking through. I knew that I wouldn't have time to close the way behind me--they'd discover the tunnel, and all the nuns would suffer. So I cowered in a different corner when they broke the door down, as if I had nowhere else to go." Ghost-voice. Martyred in the canyon. Someone else got born in the laboring blood that day, someone else carried on the body. Or maybe that's just what I'd rather believe, than to think that that courageous young nun became this killer whore.
The roof now slopes up to where we can stand, one by one, but only to climb a ladder. The rungs feel worn, greased with the oil of many sweating hands. "It's the only way they can slip out to gather food," Fatima explains, "Now that they're under siege."
"Under siege?" I could guess, but I wanted to hear it said.
"Of course," Fatima replies. "All organizations suspected of sympathizing with the 'manifestly inferior'--i.e. poor--are now kept under strict surveillance for subversive activity."
"You got it."
I hear a scraping sound ahead, then faint light filters back to us. We follow Fatima into a cramped, cedar-scented wooden space, then up, out of a...drawer? Yes, the broad, bottom-drawer of a cabinet in a chapel sacristy, surrounded by candles and books and seasonal decorations, empty cruets meant for sacramental oils and wine, richly ornamented and empty chalices and platens of gold. Christ suffers on a variety of crosses for different occasions, all of Him gaunt, you can count the ribs.
Fatima picks up a bell, rings it twice, pauses, rings twice, pauses, rings twice, and sets the bell down. "That lets the sisters know that I've brought men with me on this trip."
Next to me Lufti looks up wide-eyed at all the holy splendors gleaming in the dark as he clings tightly to my hand. "Do ghosts live here?" he asks.
Damien tells him, "Only the best kind. Saints. Nothing here will hurt us." I feel it, too. We all do.
Soon three elderly women, closely veiled, enter the room. The tallest, her thin hands folded, says, "You will follow us and go only where we give permission. You will speak no word to any of us save for Mother Superior. She will meet with you now." She leads us down a hall of polished wood, the other two closing ranks behind us. We pass other nuns in doorways, their bodies muffled in their habits, but I can see the bony fingers touch the veils.
We file into a pleasant little room carpeted in grass green, with comfy sofas and a window that opens onto a garden. Plump and rosy saints smile on us from corners and niches, in a gilded rainbow of painted plaster robes. The living crone who greets us dresses far more humbly in her black and white homespun, and scant color blooms in the sallow face, but her smile couldn't shine more warmly if it came down to us from heaven.
She pours us herbal tea from a silver pot and says, "I wish I could offer you supper to go with this, but I'm afraid we harvested all our vegetables early this year." From her tone she might've said, "So sorry to offer you paper napkins instead of linen."
"No need for that," Lucinda says, and proceeds to unpack all our supplies. Everything that the gardeners gave us, everything from Tumblebugs, everything from Chicamoq, as she no doubt planned for all along. Everything. I hate my heart for sinking as I watch all our food go to the starving nuns. "Rebels pay their way," Lucinda says. "We've got a better chance at scavenging than you do."
Tears flood the old eyes as the nun whispers, "Bless you! God bless you, bless you, bless you!" Shakily she runs to ring a bell. Then other hungry women run in, laughing like children to snatch up the bread and beans and slices of dried yams, oblivious to veils gone awry. "We're saved!" they cry. "Praise you Jesus and St. Teresa, we're saved for another month, we're saved!" My eyes water, too, even as my stomach growls. Aichi chuckles at the unaccustomed praise, eyes sparkling. She curtseys and curtseys again, then claps her hands excitedly, with no comprehension of the implications whatsoever.
Now it has all gone. Every crumb, every bean, gone, just a tantalizing scent to testify that once we had food in here. I sip my tea and scold myself to count that as enough. After all, I had breakfast and lunch, both--what do I need supper for? We settle into the sofas surrounding Mother Superior.
"Now, my generous children--tell me the news of the World outside.”