IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
The Road Gives You Too Much Time to Think
Thursday, May 28, 2708
We descend a bit today, winding up and down the mountain roads looking for stray rebels who might've climbed this far by now. Fatima wisecracks around like nothing happened yesterday, her eyes gone stony cold once more, shielded behind her smirk, but she carries herself like someone recovering from a fever. Malcolm gives her plenty of privacy, his eyes casting about with every turn of the road, focused far from us.
(He really did it, made the Big Step. And sent all his money into my account--just when I no longer need it. Can't quite do anything right, Uncle, but you keep on trying.)
Me, I feel okay, but Malcolm says I still run a good risk of a relapse if we ascend too fast, and he still won't let me smoke. And that does not feel okay. (It felt good, what Uncle used to do. I have to admit that, now.) I can feel the smoke curl in my mouth, I can taste its mean, strong satisfaction--and then nothing. I can feel and taste the nothing. (I can taste the candy even now, the peppermint and the chocolate and the butter pecan--but I lied to myself, to say that the pleasure came from the taste, had nothing whatsoever to do with the...the touching. While I ate--while I pretended that nothing happened below my belly—that my body, my appetite stopped right there.)
I crave that taste so much that my body trembles with it like a child on the verge of a tantrum. ("I know your mother said you can't have sweets, Malcolm," he'd say to me, the bag of candy rattling just a little in his hand, "But you know I just can't resist pleasing you.") A shameful thing, to have ever even allowed myself to get into this state--but wave a pipe in front of me right now, and we'd see how far that shame would last. ("You can be naughty when it's just you and me," he'd say. "It's okay--I love it when you're naughty.")
"Go further north," Fatima says, “to a side-road where the dirt takes on a pale golden color mixed with gravel.” We find and take the turnoff that goes down and up and down till my stomach remembers that it didn't feel well yesterday and may not be in such a good mood today, either. "I know a path that Chulan likes when she gets the chance to travel it." (Poor, shy, childlike Uncle, stuttering when the other adults would speak to him, a wreck when they fixed him up with dates. He really could only be himself when entertaining the children. Innocent, they used to say of him.) "It has a waterfall along the way, and a clean, clear pool." (And maybe they spoke the truth--a grotesque kind of innocence, twisted like any other human thing can be--who can find any truly clean thing, this far from Paradise?) "We once found statuettes there, and clay vessels--we think it might have been one of the sacred pools, before the government stamped out the Hill Cults a century ago."
(What, exactly, is so sacred about childhood, anyway? "I only want to give you pleasure," he'd say, "I only live to see you happy." What was so terrible about what he did, his need to please, that violated something so basic in me, left me so hopelessly voracious for some sweetness that I'd lost?)
"That tree over there, bent over like that--see where a lightning blast broke it and the half-broken part just kept on growing? Take the very next turn-off after that."
(He gave me candy, that first night, while he did what he did for the very first time, back when I was pretty, as slim as any other child. It surprised and delighted him when I gobbled down the entire bag.
"And why not?" he cried. "Let's go out and celebrate our senses!" He took me to the ice-cream parlor and bought me the biggest sundae I ever saw in my life, swirled up and down with a rainbow of sugar-sparkled fruit, mounded with whipped cream, drenched and sprinkled with the most luxurious toppings, and I ate it all, scraped at the very smears left on the glass, though I felt a little queasy.
So I told Uncle I needed real food, no more sweets, and he bought me the hamburger I pointed out--the double one with cheese and bacon and mushrooms dripping grease. And fries--what's a hamburger without the fries? I forced down every bit of it, trying not to groan. He owed it to me, I thought, though I couldn't quite say why.
"Are you sure?" he asked me when I next pointed to the cake, for dessert after the meat--the delicate chocolate cake with the layers of raspberry and the finger-thick shell of icing. But he bought it for me when I nodded, though the nausea had turned to pain; he wouldn't deny me anything, he said, his most beautiful and precious nephew. My belly stretched so achingly heavy that nothing below it seemed to exist anymore. And that seemed right. That seemed...fulfilling.)
"We've traveled a lot this way, Chulan and I, with the Egalitarians. She's all right, Chulan."
I ask her, "Have you two been friends a long time?"
"She nursed me back to health when I first arrived at Madame's." (Health! You know no more about health than I do, Fatima.) Fool of me to forget. For a long moment I say nothing in reply. I don't want to think about that.
(I don't want to think about afterwards, when he nursed me so tenderly that it almost felt like an apology, sweet penance for sickening me on "pleasure." His shamefaced, gentle caring for me felt so good, I remember feeling that I wanted to get sick like that more often--I don't want to recall that. But he owed it to me--somehow it seemed that way at the time. "Poor nephew," he said, gently sponging off my brow. "Too much fun--life just got too sweet for you. I am so sorry--I just love too much to please.")
After enduring enough of my silence, Fatima says, "And yeah, we pal'd around a lot after that. She showed me the ropes."
I don't want to know about the ropes, Fatima--please don't tell me. (I don’t want to think about how much I loved him. He shared so many things with me, not just food and...and that other. He gave me music, and theater, the subtleties of wine-tasting, the appreciation of art, the marvels of the library and the secret joy of scented baths. We celebrated all the senses. He gave me so much good. And rat poison is mostly wholesome grain.)
"She told me she wasn't really Mountainfolk, but part Chinese--yeah, right, like Chinese comes in brown. But we all had our fantasies in those days." She laughs nastily, as brown as me, herself.
(Soon I became "beautiful" only in his fantasies–his “little cherub”. And then, eventually, even he had to admit that we had a "problem"--by the time my belly had completely buried that which he desired, tucked safely away beneath an avalanche of fat. Yet still, by some habit or compulsion to break rules, or some perverted recompense, he continued to feed me on demand. I watched him grow sadder and sadder as I grew bigger and bigger--I could punish him by eating, all the while appearing to cooperate! Even to myself I appeared to cooperate.
And I did, really, to my everlasting shame. I let him caress my buttocks, still accessible to him, while I stuffed my mouth, not looking on him, lying on my side, turned away from him. And then I let him...oh my God!
“Love handles,” he'd say. “What do people have against love handles, anyway?”)
"She and I, we'd slip out to church together--we'd stay up for morning Mass, bathe, wash each other's hair, then go out in some proper clothes that we'd set aside for Sundays." Fatima giggled. "Funny, to watch our clients in the front pews, trying not to look at us! We wouldn't take communion, but we'd watch them do it, kneeling oh so primly while the others rose, and we'd smile. Just a little smile, catch their eye with it, hear the wives say, 'Are you okay, Honey? You look a little flushed.' That's how we punished the men who 'loved' us." I can hear the sneering quote marks in her voice.
(But why did I feel such a need to punish a man who meant me only joy? It made no sense to me, for a long, long time, these warring emotions. I'd feel so achingly guilty about my cruelty to my Uncle, who adored me, fat or no, when everyone else by now had only mean words for my size, who indeed saw nothing else of me anymore but fat. Shame on me for exploiting his love like that! Who else would cherish a disgusting glutton like me, after all? Certainly not the young girls that I used to watch with such impossible desire.)
She pulls out a cigarette and puffs at it absentmindedly while I watch her in agony. "And what's the big deal, anyway, that some people make? Can't a whore pray? Didn't Jesus die for my sins same as theirs?" I try to get whiffs of the secondhand smoke, but it doesn't come near enough to satisfying me.
"Put that out, please," Malcolm says, not taking his eyes off the road. She shrugs and grinds it out, wasting a brief scowl on the back of his head as he glances away.
(I'd run to church and pray to be a better person. I became an altar boy and a choir boy--the robes hid a lot, I fancied. I headed junior charities--all on my Uncle's money, since my parents had none, since they had so many debts that only Uncle stood between them and jail. But he couldn't refuse me anything--anymore than they could refuse him anything--and it did him good to give of his surplus, it made him feel better about himself, almost innocent again.
"I'm the glutton, not you," he'd say, "for I padded my life with all this wealth at other people's expense--but giving sets it right again." He thanked me for offering him this opportunity to save his soul, and then he would come to me, feeling pure...Oh God!
"I know you're supposed to be on a diet, Malcolm, but we can't be saints all the time." No, we can't, can we?)
We come around a bend and I first hear, then see the most breathtaking waterfall sparkle before us, spilling down a sister-slope from an angel-high height above us, separated from our road by a deep and narrow gorge. We wind and we wind ever downward now, away from that roaring music and then back again, sometimes so close that Malcolm has to use his squeaking windshield wipers, sometimes completely out of sight and sound, yet always headed towards the pool, even as a labyrinth always leads to its heart though it might seem to veer away. And somehow I know that generations of reverent feet beat down this path on their way to the sacred waters, long before the government widened it into a road.
"Look--over there! That's Chulan's mark, the branch tied to the branch. She knew I'd find her here.” (The hell of it is that, despite everything, I still love him, too. Now, is that saintly or is that another kind of sick?) We turn off the road, jolting over the rocks and roots till we reach a point of concealment, then pile out to find a footpath still well-worn, and not by animal paws. We leave the car and put our feet on the ancient track, wherever it might lead.