Dolores J. Nurss

Volume III: Responsibility

Chapter 21

Greenfire Ash

Sunday, June 21, 2708

"I know of a rich man's hunting-lodge near here," Malcolm says.  "The good news is that tomorrow's the winter solstice.  We should find it abandoned for the season, but with the larder stocked and ready for the owner's return."

My stomach growls to imagine it.  "And the bad news?" I ask.

"Tomorrow's the winter solstice, and it lies upslope."

I nod wearily.  "Above the snowline, is it?"

"Close enough to make it too uncomfortable for the rich this time of year, but not reliably enough to make it a ski resort.  It might be snowing there; I don't know."

I sigh.  Most of the Cumencians discarded their gear along the way—blankets, serapes, winter clothes.  "Walk apart with me, Malcolm."  When we get away from the others I say, "You're in an interesting position, my friend...ah, how shall I put this?"

"Say it, Deirdre.  I’m fat."  Yes, even now, though much less.  With an ironic grin he adds, “I’ve known this for awhile.”

"You’re insulated.  And you’re the only one among us with any surviving reserves.”  I hesitate to admit what I have to.  “We may have to count on you to keep the rest of us going, Malcolm.  I...I don't know how well I'll keep my head, myself, under hypothermia, on top of everything else."  I do know that I lost it as bad as the rest when faced with sensory deprivation mixed with hunger—accelerated intelligence doesn't seem to interfere with that at all; maybe it even helps the madness along.

"I'll do what I can.  You know that."

"Thanks," I say, as I grin up at him and squeeze his hand.  I wish Marduk could see now how much we need this man.

We go back to the others.  We link hands and pray.  Pray for the Sabbath, pray for the dead, pray for the living still bearing this war, pray most of all for the virtue of hope.  We have no bread, oh God, we have no bread, and certainly no wine, but we take communion from the puffs of each other's breaths misting on the air. 

"Pack up camp and hide the firepit," I say.  "Malcolm will take the lead."


Monday, June 22, 2708

The foliage gets thinner, the leaves brown and brittle (at least I assume that they’re brown; I know yet cannot feel the colors) yet still it grows enough to block our path now and then.  In rear-guard position, I watch the others push a branch on the left out of the way, one after another, till Gaziley’s turn comes and it smacks him in the face.  The others laugh grimly, just a few chuckles dry of any real mirth, but I push up to his side and examine his face.

“How long have you been blind in one eye, Gaziley?” I stare past the charcoal around his eyes, at the scar of a corneal ulcer.  Yet whatever infection caused it has long since passed.  No wonder the kid can’t shoot!

“I dunno, a year, maybe.  Lucinda eventually found somebody to give me drops, and it stopped hurting.”  I release his face; nothing I can do about it now, then.  And the light scratches on his face don’t need my attention.

Chulan says, “We didn’t used to have medics, Deirdre.  We did the best we could.”

Gaziley adds, “And after I got the infection, Lucinda would try and get us the best cosmetics, when she could, not because we needed it, just because she loved us.  She went out and learned which brands were safe.”

We start walking again, as Chulan says, “Government never inspects the cheap stuff.  Some companies put all kinds of poison in there if you’re not careful, or don’t use clean methods, or both.  Your Ma and Pop store homemade is the best for cheap and safe, unless you’re in a mining town.  Then they put in local junk that could give you the palsy, but it’s what they’ve got to hand.”

Damien says, “They probably don’t even know they’re poisoning people, so many have the palsy already in those towns.”

“Now perfumes,” Chulan goes on, “Most of those are safe, if you don’t drink them.  Contact poisons don’t usually smell nice, though they come in pretty colors.  Some perfumes’ll give you a rash, but that won’t do much harm if you stop using them soon as it happens.”

She pushes a branch out of the way and holds it for Gaziley before she adds, "Fatima used to like this one perfume, kind of resinous, sweet but sharp."  She bites her lip, fighting not to cry, and then continues.  "She wore it so much that it became a kind of signature for her; we knew by the scent when she came down the hall before she reached the door."  The branches across the path grow fewer, as the vegetation becomes sparser still; we've almost reached the altitude where I got sick when Malcolm drove us up so fast.  "Then one Sunday I sat near the aisle at mass and smelled the censer as the altar-boys passed by.  I suddenly realized that it smelled just like Fatima—that's why she picked that one."  Chulan giggles abruptly.

"Was that the same mass," Gaziley asked, "where one of the regular altar-boys worked at Madame's every night?  And the priests never guessed?"

"No, Berel only did the noon mass.  And the priests all knew—they just didn't let on."  She broke off a twig and threw it at him.  "He had a family to feed, Gaziley—what with his dad dead, his mom gone mad, and all those kids younger than him.  What's a guy s'posed to do?"

"Priests could've helped."

"And get their church shut down?"

Gazi prowls the thinning forest, scowling at the dying grass.  "Some things are worth getting shut down for."

"What—leave us with no sacraments, as happened in other towns?  Blow it out your hole, Gazi."

I ask her, "What about Lucinda?  Did she have a favorite perfume?"

"A subtle one.  Apple-blossom.  You wouldn't know to look at her, but she liked delicate things.”  Chulan laughs sadly and says, “You should've seen her room, Deirdre—more ruffles and lace than any of the whore's quarters, and loops and bows of ribbons, all different colors.” 

Smirking, but affectionately, Gazi says, “Girls hardly ever got a bouquet from the gentlemen without her coming around a week later to see how the rosebuds dried and whether she could use any of the baby's breath.”

“Of course we always gave her what she wanted,” Chulan tells us.  “We owed her.  She protected us as fiercely as she did those fragile little dried-flower arrangements of hers.”

She stops to light her last cigarette, her face momentarily gaunt and old-looking when she sucks on it.  “Lucinda kissed all that goodbye to join the rebels, of course.”  The cold air whisks away the frail wreathes of smoke as though they’d never been.  “But you know, if you ever got close to her right after she bathed, with her hair all wet, you'd still get a whiff of that apple-blossom stuff—I think she kept a vial of it hidden somewhere."

Ambrette nods.  "I remember that.  Anybody smells apple blossoms, we'll know she's watching over us."

I can hardly even imagine the scent of perfume, I ache so badly all over.  Leaf burns bright inside, but it leaves an evil smoke behind; I've never seen the daylight look so drear.  But I take it on faith that good things still exist in the world.  Apple blossoms.  Incense.  Dried rosebuds and ruffles and baby's breath.  And brave, devoted, big brothers, loving the little ones so much that they'd go to work in a house of...God!  Nothing can shake this mood off me; I'll just have to ride it out.

Chulan says, "You getting all this, Damien?  Because it's up to you to pass their memories on."

          "All that and more," he says.  "You'll have to tell me all your separate adventures, too."  He stares grimly on ahead, gun on one shoulder, thambriy on the other.  "I'm writing a song called The Black Retreat."

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