IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Friday, May 29, 2708
"What happened to breakfast?" I rummage through sacks and jars in the supply-trunk. They rustle and clatter emptily at my hands, a faint dust of flour, a smear of preserves, nothing more except for the half-filled bottle of oil. Somewhere some weird jungle creature croaks or gulps or something, monotonously.
"I had no time to lock it up when I ran to get the oil," Fatima tells me with averted face. "And after I forgot." Now I comprehend the sound I hear from somewhere in the woods: Malcolm sobbing. “I didn’t even put the oil away, but left it by the pool and forgot about it–that’s probably why we still have it.”
"Everything else? Even the dried beans?"
"He tried to eat them raw. He threw them all up." I stare at her in disbelief. "He's very sick right now."
"I'll say." Don't judge, Deirdre. Nobody knows but Malcolm what it's like to be Malcolm.
"The funeral got to him," says Chulan, coming over. "He joined the revolution on account of Mischa..."
"...And now he's lost Imad as well." Lord, but I feel hungry! "Well, we're at war--he's got to get used to this." As do I--I can't get drunk every time I kill somebody, after all. No, it's best not to judge Malcolm, by any means, nor the gnawing needs that drive him. "Well," I say at last, looking at the pinched faces all around me, "We've foraged before.”
* * *
(It feels good to leave the rest behind, out of uniform for the night, to feel like a woman again, arms unencumbered within a petal dress, to feel the night breeze on my neck with my hair done up. To climb the marble steps with the click of high heels, one hand discretely revealed to lift my skirt just a bit to manage it, as I give a cool nod to the doorman who opens the way for me.
And he who waits inside looks good, without his purple mantle, here in this restaurant where no one knows what kind of man they entertain. Dark his face, against the white, white shirt, but he has earned the wideness of his sleeves.
Waiters and guests avert their eyes as he takes my arm to lead me to a private booth—exactly what we wish. No one will challenge milady if she deigns to date beneath her station, so long as her stepping-down dips only shallowly. (Sanzio is not quite as dark as other Mountainfolk, after all—a bit of milk in the coffee of his genes, I suspect.) But they will not like to look on it. Perfect!
We order white wine—Valdean sparkling, 2704—and pick out our meals. I shall have the quail in lemon sauce, with asparagus and new potatoes. He will have the shrimp-steak with the spicy vegetable side. I arch a brow and smile. Only the strictest hill-sects still observe meatless Fridays outside of Lent. I have noticed this about D’Arco, on every Friday that we’ve met over meals. And yet I know, from my own informants, that our new Head of Internal Security never goes to church, not even to confess. The heart trumps logic once again.
“Is there a problem?” Sanzio asks, sipping at the glass.
I merely shake my head and giggle coyly, and he smiles back, shyly, uncertainly, not used to smiling. Does he, like me, pretend that we’re on a date? Beyond the show that we put on for the rest? He is rather handsome, if you don’t mind the overbite. And even that makes him look almost innocent.
I decide that I can reveal my knowledge and my insights to him, to him alone. I have tested him long enough. He rose from the ranks, and, like most of the peasantry, has not disciplined all of the feminine out of himself. And the man knows secrets, I must give him that. I lean forward and clasp his hand, as though to flirt, and whisper to him, “There are some things that you need to know, Sanzio—in strictest confidence—before we join our forces.”)
Saturday, May 30, 2708
It will not do to grumble. Grumbling never made food magically appear.
(It will not do to join the boys in line for the confessional. A headmaster has an image to keep up. I will meet up with the chaplain after. Besides, what I need to confess, most recently at least, does not qualify as sin, and does not need absolved. But the chaplain is the only one in this whole complex to whom I can confide, confidentially, my suspicion that I am losing my mind.)
Besides, who wants Malcolm to blame himself more than he does already? People sometimes go crazy in war, the things we see, the things we...we do. Who knows who'll lose their mind next? It's not his fault that his particular madness leaves us all dizzy with hunger, hardly able to focus on the blur of jungle hurtling past the windows, as the old jalopy pops and rattles down the road.
(I stare at the line: always the same few boys take up their positions there: the good ones, of tender conscience; the only reason that our minister bothers to hold confession at all. I hear a snicker; I glare at a passing lad till he better hides his contempt.)
I can't deal with this anymore. The car feels warm, the jouncing monotonous; sleep calls. I don't need to think about Malcolm and his issues, and I certainly don't need to think about my unanswerable need for food. I just need to lean my head against this window's edge, close my eyes, and fade...
(Oh, but this is ridiculous! I don't need this vestige of papistry, nor do I need the pseudoscience of psychiatry. I just need to get a grip on myself.
A few rebellious teenagers need brought short and back into line--“teenagers” hah! Some in their twenties. So many boys come to their education late, and naturally get restless with their child-status. So they fool with a little dab of contraband here and there, a little flirtation with darkness or each other, a testing of the rules, and it frightens the younger ones into all manner of goosy behavior: such molehills for me to climb like a calf-brained mountaineer! These things happen every year, without fail; someone of my age, so long in my profession, should realize that.
And every few years a homesick child tries to run away—harder to swallow, but that, too, happens, and we can’t always intercept them before they do. I’ve dealt with it before. Every headmaster has.
No, this suffocating sense of mounting evil has more to do with...I don't know what, but nothing sensible. And I don’t have times for things insensible.
I will forget what I saw, that boy in the dark hall, briefly, with the glowing red eyes. I didn't see it, I dreamed it, sleepwalking. No one in my position should let himself be troubled by a dream.)
Sunday, May 31, 2708
Late autumn, but we still travel tucked into the warmth of the rainforest, with all of our windows down. Chulan and Fatima roll up their sleeves in the heat, with insouciant looks that defy anyone to criticize them for it. When Kanarik does likewise I read pain in Damien's eyes, but he says nothing, just stares into his hands while we rattle down the road, crammed sweating into Malcolm's car. She still wears beads in her hair, too. She holds herself as if enough sauciness could overcome her nervousness about cars.
"I know of a village nearby," Malcolm says, "with a trading-post. Cumenci, it's called. We can buy supplies there." Rings a bell, that name.
None of us have said a word of complaint about our hunger, no more than we would complain about the weight of carrying a wounded comrade, lest he hear. But we watch the wildness grow in Malcolm's eyes, the consuming guilt, the hunger greater even than our own. We feel the violence of those big hands on the wheel as he jerks the car in screeching swerves, we feel his heaviness on the pedal as we race down roads that some wouldn’t dare crawl. And, right this minute, I fear our gentle healer more than guns.
Timidly I ask, "How long can you go absent before your patrons start to wonder where..."
"My patrons can screw themselves," he says too quietly. "I am going to bring you all to food." I feel like a prisoner in this car, as the road climbs up and up. On the march we could at least forage for something. But none of us dare contradict him.
"I know the village you mean," Fatima says carefully. "Aron came from there. There's a church on our way, not too far from here.”
He doesn’t say a word, though his brow creases even as his eyes widen, and he doesn’t slow down.
“It's Sunday, Malcolm--can we at least stop for Mass? We should just be able to make their noon service at this rate."
His eyes water as he says, "Without the chance for confession first?"
She leans out from the back seat and kisses him on the cheek. "Peace be with you, Malcolm. I forgive you. Do the rest of you forgive him?" We all hastily nod and say yes. "Do you forgive me for going back to whoring for one night?"
With a breaking voice he asks, "Did you?"
"To buy bandages for a soldier. Yes."
"Then of course I forgive you!"
Shyly Kanarik says, "I danced naughty without my clothes." And she rolls her sleeves back down.
Damien says, "I sang bawdy songs."
Chulan mutters, "I did same as Fatima."
Oh God, my turn. In precise tones, as unflinchingly as I can, I say, "I shot and killed an unarmed man--a bystander. Then I got so drunk to forget it that I put us all in danger." That hurt like vomiting to say it--and yes, I do feel better afterwards.
Fatima asks, "Do we all forgive each other?" And again we all say yes. I see a little relief creep into Malcolm's face, to not have to be the only one ashamed.
We drive on and on in still more silence. Eventually we roll up the windows again as we speed through successively cooler microclimates. Then Fatima says, "Take the second turn after this. The chapel serves all the farms hereabouts."
We take the turnoff, jolting down a bumpier road, and soon pull into a dirt lot...strangely overgrown with new grass in the old cartwheel ruts, nothing in the trough for mules, no one, in fact, there but us. We climb out of the car and hear flies, not hymns. I can distinguish their buzzing from all the other rainforest sounds, the concentration of them in a place designed to carry the voices of the choir. I smell the bloating bodies before I see them; even so I only catch a glimpse, enough to know for certain, no more than that. People don't worship here anymore.
The agent in me says we should go in, investigate, gather evidence for some legal court or other that couldn't possibly be bothered with the doings of peasantry up in the mountains. Instead we pile all the wood we can find around the building, pretty dry now with the season. We tuck in twigs and straw, and then Fatima gravely pours the last of our oil in a thin stream all around the little church as though to give it extreme unction. Finally we all stand back as Malcolm lights the match, Fatima says some prayers, and then we climb back into the car.
My brain seems to blink on and off like a bulb with a short in the wire, waving where it dangles in a dark, dark wind. A column of smoke rises up behind us as we hit the road again. I don't care. Our enemies won't investigate, won't interfere with our destruction of the evidence of their crimes. The fire may spread, or it may not, depending on how wet the rainforest remains even in dry season. I don't care about that, either. I don't even care about how dizzy-hungry I feel anymore, or much of anything, as Malcolm drives past fruiting trees and ripening berries in his own oblivious hell.