IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
When It All Catches Up With You
Wednesday, May 27, 2708, continued
"The reason they spot you," Fatima says laconically, "is that most Mountainfolk around here don't come near as tall as you. Why, you're more arm and leg than anything." Reflexively I curl into a little ball. She just studies me over the car seat, with those eyes more slanted than my own, in a face at least as dark.
"Malcolm," I say in a small voice, "Are you on our side?"
"Did you ever doubt it?"
"But I heard..."
"What Cyran wanted you to hear. I'm supposed to be undercover--for God's sake, woman, try to keep that in mind.” He catches my eye in the rearview mirror. “Are you drunk or something?”
Fatima grins at me. “Not nearly as much as she was, so she thinks she’s sober.”
“Leave me alone,” I grumble. “My head already hurts, so I must be close enough.”
Malcolm asks, “Who do you think organized the servants in all the finest houses across the land?" He wheezes when he talks, and I saw when I got in that the wheel presses so deeply into his belly that it hurt just to look at it. I thought him huge before, but he has grown visibly since last I saw him.
"You're not well," I say, before I can stop myself.
"What difference does that make?" He shrugs like a mountain in torment.
"But you’re a hero! I have to at least tell Lufti and Gaziley."
"Jesus, Malcolm, somebody's got to cheer for you sometime!" Somebody's got to feed you something that won't kill you, dearest dentist with the big, fat, healing hands.
He sighs, and mumbles, "I'll admit that it does mean something to me."
"It better." I curl up on the bursting upholstery and give my hangover the attention it deserves. Fatima already dozes in the security of Malcolm's protection. Everything spins together in my splitting head--vandalism and leaping flames and wild drinking dancing in the cellar of the damned, a brain-damaged child shooting grown men dead while shouting "Boom!" and I owe my life to her, a pretty toy burnt down to the authentic beating heart within, a stout old nun who loves the ones she hates and a skinny young nun who hates while making love. And one unarmed guy in a white lab coat. I can't handle it all anymore. I just need to sleep...
* * *
(I just need to sleep, they keep telling me, but how can I, in that cold and empty bed? How can I sleep with all his things around me in the bedroom, and he not here to handle them? I keep on knitting, knitting, on the afghan that he won't ever see finished, and when I do finish it I think I'll burn it just as he burned, so I won't ever have to look again at what I worked on in these past few horrible days.
The fire didn't kill him, they tell me, a bullet did, a merciful bullet. What do they know of mercy! My fingers ache with knitting, with jabbing the needles in and in again to the tortuous loops of yarn. He didn't suffer, they say. He left all that to me.
Joaquim, do you hear me? Do you linger close yet, like the common folk say that the dead will do? You left too soon, Joaquim! If I ever turn this light out, would I halfway see you there, watching from the shadows? You left too soon, and I couldn't stop you. I told you not to go back to the lab that night, I told you I’d had a dream, but you laughed and said you were an engineer, you didn't listen to portends found in dreams.
You had an idea, you said, that could make the design so economical you could spread tractors and combines all over this country, every farmer at the wheel. You could even make narrow little ones for the terraced gardens of the Mountainfolk who rely on draft-goats and their own hard muscles in the thinning mountain air. Sure, today the government will use it all for tanks, you said, but tomorrow we could feed the world. We could increase yields by a factor of ten. We could...
...but now we can't. The rebels saw to that. We can't do anything anymore, you and I. You'll never slip another chocolate into my mouth while I lay here thinking about rising, before I've even opened my eyes. I'll never sit up to play chess with you again, playfully flicking the pawns into your lap as I eliminate them from the game. You'll never again sing off-key to me those horrid little ditties with all the puns, making fun of all the stuffed-shirt aristocrats that we both found so tedious and lacking in insight into what this country really needs, yet whose funds we had to beg for. You really did have a wit to you, I can see that now, a clever way with words that I should've appreciated while I...
...nothing left. All your hopes, your fine and liberal notions, gone. Let the rebels eat the ashes of what might have fed them. I don't care anymore. I haven't anything left in me to pity those who slay the dreamers of great dreams.)
* * *
I wake up feeling absolutely horrible, body and soul, worse not better, my head really trying to pull apart like I'd crammed too much stuff into it. And my stomach...
"Pull over, Malcolm, pull over now!" We screech to a halt and I fling open the door, fall hands-first into the pine-needles and retch and retch like I'm going to die. Then I try to get up but I can't, I can just crawl away and then collapse. "I...never...knew," I gasp, "that a...hangover...could hurt...so...bad!"
"Hangover, nothing!" I had forgotten how fast the fat man could move at need as he rummages in his trunk and then runs back to me to shove a rubber cap over my nose. "Close your mouth and breathe deeply. It's pure oxygen. You're mountain-sick. I drove upslope too fast for you." Gradually I can sit up again. "Though whatever you did to yourself last night probably left you wide open for it."
Fatima stares on curiously. "I didn't think Mountainfolk could really get that," she said.
"They can when they grow up by the seaside," I tell her, my voice sounding congested by the cap over my nose.
"Start to breathe from your mouth, too, now," Malcolm says as he adjusts a knob on the tank. "I am going to--very slowly--wean you to the thinner air."
"I'm using up your oxygen--you need it for your patients!" I rip off the face-gear as I realize it, but immediately he shoves it back on, with me too weak to resist.
"And what do you think you are? But don't worry, Deirdre, I get all the supplies I need, these days."
I glance over at his vehicle. "And still drive that thing?"
He chuckles. "In some venues nobody would trust me driving anything else. Naturally, my patrons don't know that I still keep it stashed away, that I go places their chauffeurs don't know about. Or, well, some chauffeurs do, but that's another story." He reaches down and clasps my wrist. "Well, your heart's slowing down to a reasonable pace. Feeling any better?"
"I...I think so. But I really need a cigarette."
"No, you don't."
Helpfully Fatima offers, "Just think of it like skipping meals. We do this all the time. You'll have your feast of tobacco when you get your chance."
Malcolm gives her a stern look as he adjusts my oxygen again, but says no word. Yeah, right, like he could judge me. Then I feel ashamed of my cranky self for judging him.
When my headache subsides to a manageable throb he helps me to my feet and back into the car. But he drives downslope now, not up, back to a place where he can turn off of the road, burrow the car deep into the forest and leave it there, out of sight, where we can set up camp. He does most of the setting up himself, and though he huffs and groans at the work, he makes no complaint in word or glance. I just lie beneath a tree and watch the branches dance against the sky.
Then he rummages in the glove compartment and pulls out one of those lockable toffee-boxes shaped like a pirate's chest. (Uncle really does love me, that's the hell of it.) He undoes the combination lock on it, takes out an envelope, and from it takes some time to untie an intricately-knotted bundle that at last reveals a key. (Even after that screaming fit I threw, throwing things, threatening to kill him if he ever touched me again, demanding that he send me to a dental school a continent away from him.) This he hands to Fatima.
"You'll carry this while you travel with me," he says. "Food's in a trunk in the back. I want you to fix three meals--normal-sized meals, what you'd eat yourself. I'm going to scout about a bit in the woods while you and Deirdre eat. Then you'll put all the food away except for that one last meal, lock it up, and whistle me back to eat my share." (He knows why I asked him for the trunk. He knows better than any man why I need such things as this. And he actually, truly, from the bottom of his heart feels sorry for what he did.)
I look up at him, the grim curves of his face. "Do you have to torture yourself like that?"
"I have to make sure that the supplies last," he tells me, "any way I can. But Deirdre, whenever you feel like the desire for tobacco's going to drive you mad, think of me and know that you're not alone." (I thought I'd have my moment of triumph, confronting him with what he'd done. But all I can think of, now, is "I made him cry. I made my Uncle cry.") "We'll need to pick up more supplies soon, in fact--with everything you used to carry gone up in flames." (So I cannot hate him anymore. I don't think I ever could quite hate him. I wish him well in the new direction that he's taken; I hope he finds his peace--may I someday find my own!)
We listen to the crashing branches as he moves off through the woods, before Fatima takes out the root-vegetables, the dried fruit, the beans and cracked corn. Some of the beans are pre-cooked and dried in flakes; we can hydrate and heat those without pre-soaking, and who cares how mushy the result? We dig the cheese out of our pockets to cook with it, and pretty soon a lovely mess bubbles in the pot with a savor that smells sweet even to me. But Fatima stares brooding at the fire.
"Up in flames..." she murmurs once, and then bursts into sobs. "The prayer-cloths--oh God, they burned up all our prayer-cloths!" Suddenly she leaps to her feet and runs to the car, but I tackle her and wrestle her from the wheel, though the pain makes my head reel. "Let go!” she shrieks, like I'd never heard her shriek before. "I have to rake the ashes, see if the prayer cloths survived!"
"Are you out of your mind?" I grip her to me, and she cries so hard she has to gasp for air with convulsive sobs. "You know how fast silk burns." She shudders almost in a kind of fit and starts to keen but I don't let go, I hold her like she'd die if I let go. "Listen--St. Teresa loves you no less whether you carry her image around or not. Saints don't need bodies anymore--why would they need cloth?"
Still wracked with sobs, the keening quiets down, the little body shudders against me, not fighting anymore. I keep murmuring over and over to her, "You're still loved, Fatima, you're still loved," as she weeps out all the tears that she's bottled up for years, rocked against my shoulder, gulping at the thin, thin air.
I still have my prayer-cloth on me; I didn’t change clothes at Madame’s. I wipe her face with it, and offer it to her, but she shakes her head; Luke is not, after all, Teresa. So then we go back, and I make her eat as I make myself eat, too, and I give her lots of water, and later Malcolm looks at her swollen face and never asks how the food got burnt.
* * *
(Smoke of fire scent of horse cold air chill stench of sweat arms clasp waist as hands grip reins as up and down and up and down
CARS! CARS! OH!
Shy away tug reins down alley quick quick quick!
No cars safe no cars here
Other way with other horse guerillas split and regroup Cyran says we listen even if we never speak
Clop clop clop clop clop clop peace clop clop
CARS! TURN THE OTHER WAY!
Faster faster faster faster Out! Into! The! Woods!
Safe clop clop peace clop clop clop
Watch your back...)