IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
What Teofilo Wants
Tuesday, May 26, 2708, continued
(Among the clients with a taste for Ganymedes, I recall one man more than any other, who used to always ask for me by name. Slender, muscular; he practiced gymnastics, he said. Sometimes he'd come to Madame's straight from the gym, sweaty and smelling strong. I used to love to lick the sweat from his skin.
He taught me some gymnastics, all right. I used what I learned on the other gentlemen who came to me, and my price went up. But though he didn’t need it, I urged Madame to keep his fee down--for the training, I said. And she did as I asked, but she shook her head and she looked so sad. "Don't fall in love, Teo," she used to tell me. "It's the worst thing that can happen to a whore."
I spent extra time with him. The boys always had fewer customers than the girls; we could afford the minutes stolen here and there. He would trace my face with his strong, strong fingers and say, "Perfect. You have the most perfect skin, Teofilo--not a blemish, not a line."
And I would hold him in my arms, my brown skin pressed to his fair, I would listen to his life story--how his father never understood him, his wife never understood him, he came here so he wouldn’t feel alone. I heard about the beatings for the mere suspicion of what he was, pounded bloody in all the finest schools till he built the muscle to fight back. I heard about the sickening pretenses, the furtive meetings, the ugly divorce. I listened when he spoke of the mistress who afterwards kept up appearances and his house for him--the well-paid mistress that he never slept with. I thought about how alike we all seemed, rich and poor, nobody exempt from suffering, no reason to envy anyone. And I would comfort him.
"Does he ever comfort you?" Fatima once asked me. "Does he ever ask about your life story?" But it didn't matter. I hardly knew I had a life outside of him. I lived from sunset to sunset waiting for the warmth in those muscular and graceful arms, waiting to fill him to exploding with a joy so keen that the sound of his cry would pierce my heart. I thought that I could write my story on his body and that the tale would last forever there.
Then one day I made the mistake of asking, "Someday, will you take me away from all this?" I knew it for a fantasy even as I said it, but I wanted him to play along, like the gentlemen did for the girls, say the most beautiful lie in the world, say, "Yes, of course--someday." That word, "someday", made it all right, made it just enough not quite a lie that they could bask in the fantasy for days, dreamy smiles during morning clean-up that let us know which of the girls played the game.
But instead he laughed the kind of laugh that stings. "Me? Take a faggot out into the light? Have you lost your mind?" Of course I didn't mean that, not really! But my traitor eyes watered; I didn't laugh along with him and call it all a joke--the fantasy loses all magic if you ever admit that you don't believe in it.
His face twisted in disgust, warped into an ugly smile that I’d never imagined could disfigure his face--and then came the blows. First a slap--a sting of reality incinerating dreams. Then the shock in my face angered him and the hands closed into fists--how dare it surprise me to learn that I counted as nothing but a thing! I cried out, I begged him to stop, I wept. I screamed exactly the way that men expect a woman to scream, and it pleased him, and he hated me for pleasing him that way, and he hurt me worse.
It seemed to go on forever, but actually Lucinda burst in on us in no time at all. She pounded up the stairs and subdued that athlete like a little boy, dragged him bumping and kicking down to the lobby, wrestled him through the door, and then shoved him out the gate with a fractured arm and not a stitch on him, and let him worry about explaining.
And he never came back. Madame wouldn't let him back. Nobody ever passes her gates again once they damage the merchandise.
And I pined. I wouldn't eat for days. That's when I realized fully that I didn't want to be merchandise. Things can't forgive. Things don't form relationships with all the ups and downs, don't work it out, don't throw themselves back into stormy reconciliations. Oh, I know damn well I've got no business wanting him back, after what he did to me--but don't I have the right to try? Don't I have the right, when it comes down to it, to my own bad judgment, to play the fool if I choose?
But no. He got on Madame's blacklist and that ended that. It never even occurred to anybody to ask me what I felt about it.
Ah, what must I look like now, I wonder? Not a pretty sight, I imagine, and never will be again--no one's toy. Who would ever buy merchandise packaged in scars for all to see? I sigh with relief far greater than anything in the pills they give me. The next man to have me will love me--love me, myself, and not the thing I used to be.)
* * *
We all wake some time in the afternoon. I slept like the dead, no dream that I can remember, except maybe...no. Nothing. As soon as we may we hasten down into the basement. Madame gives me a smile as she draws the cigarette from Teo's teeth. "He woke just in time to greet you," she says.
"Hi," Teo says as though he had a normal mouth.
"Hi, yourself. Howya feelin’, brother?"
"High," he says gaily, and gurgles a sort of laugh.
I nod. "Good--we want your pain controlled. It promotes healing when the blood vessels don't constrict." I ask Madame, "How's his hydration?"
She waves to his makeshift bedpan. "Looks like he's pissing whiskey."
I peer into the brownish-gold liquid. "I see what you mean. Well, we'll just have to keep up the fluids for awhile more. Anything else I should know?"
Seriously she says, "Just that he needs somewhere better than this to stay."
"I know," I sigh, and pace to think about it. "Someplace with antibiotics." Infection must lace his entire body by now--and we couldn't do a thing to prevent it. "Unfortunately, it wouldn't take long for a government hospital to figure out where he got his burns--even if we could afford their price. We can't just hand him over for execution."
"I know another way," Madame tells me. "I've already sent out a messenger while you slept." Her wry smile returns when she says, "Long ago, in my youth--back when I had a name--I made many a contact of a rather different character than I do these days. And so I happen to know of one convent left that the army hasn't quarantined--in fact, it has successfully petitioned to establish its own infirmary."
"Well done!" I say from the heart and look on her with new respect. "When can we take him there?"
"After nightfall, of course. If we bring him in by day they could lose their privileges."
I kneel to Teo's side. "You're going to be all right," I tell him earnestly, though I know his real odds and dislike them. "The nuns will...what is it?"
"We blew them all up, Teo. We fulfilled our mission."
His ruined mouth tries to grin. "Goooood," he moans. "So...cel...eh...vrate."
I stare at him, stunned, then we all look at each other. "No," I whisper.
"Huh?" It must hurt to wince with a face like that, the motion visible under the bandages.
"Teo, you can't expect us to..."
"I did no...goood?"
"No, Teo! Your sacrifice saved lives! You did well."
"Then...ve...ha, haff, hafpvy...for...vhe, bvah, uh, bve..."
"Happy for you." Poor boy can't even say "me" anymore.
"Uh huh." The grin comes back tentatively. Demandingly.
Then we try hard to smile, too, even though he can't see us, he'll never see another smile. "Okay, Teo," I tell him. "We'll celebrate your victory over the tanks."
"Yes. Our victory."
"Worth the pain." Dear God--we haven't numbed him enough. "Oh yes, Teofilo--we have seriously crippled the enemy. They'll never crush us under their treads again." Unless Soskia can get another factory going elsewhere, with all her funds. Or has tanks already out there from past production.--as she must.
Madame smiles way too brightly with her watering eyes as she claps her hands. "Ladies," she calls out, "You heard the gentleman. Bring down the sherry and the chaummin, bring down the whiskey and the brandy and the ale, bring down...well hell, just bring down the whole damn bar! Right here, where Teo can share..."
"...Symbolically in our merrymaking," I put in hastily. "Alcohol could kill him, Madame."
Her face falls, but Teo says, "Okay. Jus...giff...vfe...fi, fil, pfills."
I say to Madame, "I’m sure you know opiates better than I do. Increase his dose, if you think it's safe. And you..." I say to Gaziley as he thirstily eyes the bottles that the whores bring down, "...will share Teofilo's hydration drink and juice, and nothing else."
"Huh? Says who?"
"Says your medic," I tell him. "You already gave your half-grown liver way too bad a beating last night. I won't let you hurt yourself again a mere eight hours later."
"Lucinda," he pleads, "You're in charge, not her. Tell her..."
"Sorry, Gazi." Lucinda throws her palms up with a wry grin. "Medics outrank everybody in their own field."
I hand him the pitcher and the timer. “Every fifteen minutes, Gazi,” I tell him.
The others have already opened bottles and begun to pass them around. A real health officer would put an end to this rebel-style carousing that practically mandates excess. But I grab the dark brown glass as greedily as anyone, and gulp down its cold stinging with ferocity, as though it could put out something that burns inside and hurts, but the fire still sizzles, nothing seems to quench it, for I have killed. So pass me the green glass, and the white. Give me license, please, to forget this victory.
A couple flutes and a tambourine come down with more liquor. Kanarik takes the tambourine immediately and makes wild with it. Now, accompanied by the clangor of kids on whatever objects they can beat into percussion instruments, two sweet harlots harmonize the shrill and moan of their flutes with Damien on harp as he sings us back our deeds, though he still sounds hoarse from last night's revelry, and his voice doesn't get any better with those swigs between songs. And doesn't he sing more deeply now?
After a few harsh swallows of my own I begin to realize that we really did win, we do have something to celebrate. We blew our target to smithereens. We killed without getting killed, if Teo lives through this, and hell, they'd have done the same to us if we'd let 'em, but we outsmarted them that day. And think, Deirdre--if we can get through this revolution with no more than one burnt kid per battle, we'll be so outrageously lucky the whole world would stand up in shock.
A swallow or two more, or three, and I get up and dance with the others, just to let Teo hear the thumping of our feet. I sway my hips with the fallen women and the rebel youths, I throw my arms up with theirs and clasp their hands and stamp my doubts into the ground. I'm a soldier, not a murderer. They shot at me first (mostly.) I just finished what they started. Or drunken little Lufti and Aichi over there finished it, bless them, not all me, after all. Who can say now whose bullets hit?
A few more drinks and I tearfully admire the courage in frivolity--the will to rejoice in the teeth of death and pain, to count our blessings, celebrate our victories no matter what the cost. Brave Teofilo tries to groan out a song, join right in with the rest of us, God bless him. Bless us all. It becomes easier and easier to laugh, to make cracks at the expense of those poor, stupid slobs who tried to keep us from blowing up their tanks--after we already had. And the guy in the white coat--what business did he have there after dark, anyway? Just couldn't wait to perfect machines of destruction, could he? The jokes fly faster, get coarser and coarser, but hey, they have it coming. Go ahead and mock the dead--our ghosts can beat up their ghosts. My luck doll bounces between my breasts as I dance and drain a flask, sweet brandy trickling with the sweat down my neck and staining the doll's bright yarn.
A few more drinks and my oh my but the time flies as fast as the humor does, as fast as dancing feet and braids whipping through the air, till the roof-vent windows darken, and before I know it a shock of water hits me in the face where I sprawl against a stack of sheets and I can't remember when, precisely, that I stopped dancing. Madame hisses, "I said pull yourself together, Medic! You'll have to go with us to report on his injuries."