IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 8

What the Young Ones Want


Monday, June 8, 2708

Creeping back from adding a little sand to a carburetor, I stop beside a certain building where the light shines warm and tempting.  I crouch in frosted grass and shadow, listening to Damien protest that he can’t possibly sing another song without moistening his throat a bit.  But the crowd implores, and soon the thambriy tunes up again.  The song wafts out to me; I close my eyes and sink my head back against the wall, listening.

 

Oh, Brave Meni Jhien had her three sturdy sons

And each soul as brave as her own

With machetes so bright and their three pretty guns

And their three hearts all proud to the bone!

 

Hearts don’t have bones, but what does he care?  I can smell the beer clear out here.  I breathe deeply and the rich aroma refreshes me almost like a draught.

 

The first son, Ibraham Jhien was his name,

To the Governor’s mansion did go...

 

But I dare not listen to the rest of the tune.  With all ears homed in upon the song, I make my silent escape.

(The door makes hardly a sound as I slip out of the dormitory.  I have become so accustomed to dodging the night watch that I feel no fear at all anymore.

I take a deep breath of the summer night air.  The walls can’t keep the scent of the trees out—deep, musty, resinous perfume.  Nobody else notices but me.  Gentlemen don’t smell anything; they hardly sense at all.

The moon has waned to nearly nothing, but I don’t intend to make my way by sight; I use the sense they’ve taught me to forget, and sniff the air.  I’ll find the herb I look for best by night.  In any case, I don’t need moonlight to show up my trail through the dew.  My little one has chosen the perfect time for me.

The Gate.  It looms before me, a darkness upon darkness.

I take a deep breath.  This always comes hard.  It looks too heavy, too forbidding, impossible—even though I remember having done this many times.  Gita give me strength!

The mention of her name—her name!—unfreezes me.  Nothing bars it.  I grasp a great ring.  I pull with all my weight.  It does not come easily—yet not impossibly.  Fools, to think that a bitty homesick child could do such a thing!  But they believe what they want, in here.

I budge it just enough to squeeze on through.  And then oh god I run, I run!  I gulp in huge cool lungfuls of sweet forest air, my slippers flying through the unkempt, fertile piles of years of tree detritus, so soft, so good, so oh! Oh!  Oh!  The tears run down my face of joy and awe and shuddering relief!  I reel from tree to tree, hugging trunks, rough bark against my cheek, nothing polished, nothing symmetrical, no, no, no!

To business.  The herb smells like parsnips.  It looks like parsnips, too, but wild, and by day it would show flecks of purple on the leaves.  People think that it only grows in grasslands, way down south, but I know better.  Students have written it down in the book that professors never read.  Four accidental bites of it sparked a new religion, and that was cooked.  Normally I’d cook it, too.

The boy shall have it raw.  The compressed juice of an entire fresh goda-root, and he shall see the rift of time and space, and the Woman at the Gate, oh, the raw cavewoman priestess, stinking unabashedly of breast-sweat and vagina, knowing things that our teachers cannot bear!  And she shall wed them, Gita and our Corey, and he will die into the arms of love, remembering.

I see her so clearly in my mind out here, on the wrong side of the gate.

Here.  I smell it.  Little plant, so rare, but you do know who to call out to, don’t you?  I lick my lips, I brace myself.  Sometimes even the juice of a leaf upon the hand can affect you, just a touch.

Nothing for me to feel afraid of!  Change, I embrace you!  I grasp the stalks firmly and pull.

The root fits neatly.  You can hide a world in these pockets-- the one sensible thing about these uniforms.  And now I make my way back to bed, just faintly lightheaded, the world singing to me a little, all things slightly odd.herh)

 

Tuesday, June 9, 2708

          We're supposed to have all the answers, we Tilián.  We're supposed to spread virtue and enlightenment by our teachings.  But no child who has participated in war cares about any of that.  I teach them tricks on how to survive, what to do when grabbed from behind, when grabbed from the side or in front, how to defend themselves without weaponry.  My vows may not permit me to teach them the crafting of weapons unknown to them, but I can share skills.

          (What I would give to learn how to read!  I thought the Tilián taught stuff like that.  But Deirdre only has time to show me how to fight.  Maybe that's all that any of us have time for, ever, to see how long we can stay alive, fighting, and no room for books or anything like that.  I'm sure if reading would help she'd bring it up.)

          I teach until I drop back into my hammock, exhausted, the sweat turning cold already on me, the muscles cooling down too fast.  I must save some of myself for tonight.  Kiril brings me tea, warm and nicely bitter in the throat.  I don't know what she found to brew it from, but I bet it has some trace of vitamins in it, for it feels good in me, like a soft explosion of sunlight in the bones.

          So kind of her—so why does she look so yearningly at me that I almost feel accused of something?

* * *

           (It must take place tomorrow.  I can’t have the potion ready any earlier.  I try to explain this to her.

          Why do I feel accused by Gita’s gaze?  She doesn’t even look; her dried eyelids stay perpetually closed.  I feel the ridges in the dark, like pressed flowers, trapped in spring forever.  Poor little one—you have waited too long for a mate.

          So why do I feel guilty?  I do a good thing, here.  Because ol’ Weatherbent would never understand?  That makes it especially right!

          I hasten down the dust-thick stairs of this forgotten place, down through the room with all of the furnishings under dropcloths.  They could be anything.  Secret beasts, frozen in a moment.  Like Gita’s poor little eyes.

          Nobody sees me exit, out between the stately, peeling pillars.  Not from any stealth of mine; the morons cannot look this way.  I feel my specialness, my exception to the rule.  I stride towards the cafeteria, my coat fluttering like a cape, like something out of a story.  For I can remember…

          Dang!  I forgot her name again.

          And then, a few steps more and I forget h…something else.

          But it doesn’t matter.  I can recall my instructions.  The potion will be ready by tonight.

          I invite Corey to my table.  He glows, to sit with the big boys; his eyes shine.  I whisper into his ear how special he is.  And my heart sinks.

          Stupid heart!  Yet, he seems so young, so…innocent.

          So?  So was…somebody, once upon a time.  That did not stop what happened.

          He will be lucky, I remember that much.  He will unite with…someone.

          No!  I can’t do this!  Not for something I can’t even remember!  But that’s why I have to—isn’t it?

          Plates and silverware clink like any other day.  I hear boys talk with their mouths full, and their teachers rebuke them for it, like any other day.  Corey asks why we can’t picnic out on the lawns, with the sun still up and the weather fine.  The elocution teacher just stares at him with a cruel gray eye, like he just said something inexcusable.  The others begin to chuckle, quietly at first.  Corey turns bright red and squirms.

          “Why not indeed?” I say too loudly.  “It sounds like a splendid idea!”  And all the laughter stops.

          “Your parents did not send you here to sit upon the ground like heathens!” the curmudgeon snaps, and walks away.  And suddenly every boy in the room wants very much to become a heathen.  Exactly the sort of result I wanted.

          And Corey smiles at me, trustingly, most of all.  And I find myself smiling back, and ruffling his hair.  Soft, fine hair, like a child’s ought to be, not dry and brittle like…something else.

          Why do they expect me to have all the answers?  Why not the adults?

          Yeah.  That would be a novelty.

          Look at him, making a crater in his mashed potatoes, and now he pours in the gravy, and stares at it, wide-eyed, still young enough to imagine it a mountain lake--or maybe a volcano!  Someplace far from here.  He hasn’t yet had the imagination smothered out of him.

          Better I should never let anyone do that to the boy.  I pass him the note, under the table.)



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