IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
O My Charadoc!
Wednesday, July 22, 2708
Loud horns and drumming wake me before the dawn. I hasten into my smoky-smelling clothes (now dyed a dull off-black) and run out with the others to the terrifying spectacle of a parade of female giants marching down the street towards us.
A few blinks clear my head of sleep and I see that men on stilts, dressed as women in vast skirts, hold up body-sized masks of smiling doll-faces with painted-on black spitcurls—disturbing, those syrupy-sweet faces, when seen on such a scale. More men, veiled by the skirts or the drooping black lace mantles, move poles that make gargantuan arms sway and gesture. While the women run alongside, drumming, singing, playing cowhorn or flute or tambourine, the puppet giants dance stiffly in time, waving their arms and turning their heads this way and that. As the crowd approaches I can hear the lyrics praising the Mountain Maidens and asking their help in the winter herding.
"Do you know those songs?" I ask Damien.
"Of course not! Only women may sing those songs and live."
"You do know the customs, then,” Unlike so many of us, from the coastal towns, the midlands, and the rainforest slopes. “What do they expect us to do?"
"Join the procession when it comes to us. We replace whoever tires—it takes an awful lot of wind to keep up. Others will replace us in turn."
"The men and boys help the puppeteers,” He turns and speaks to the whole group of us, shivering in the shared cup of several porches. “Watch till you know how to move the limbs, and then take over. I can stilt-walk; I'll do that part, if the opening comes up. Girls and women sing and make music. Hum along and move your lips if you can't get the gist of the lyrics."
For the first time Cyran looks completely unsure of hirself when e asks, "And me?"
"Your choice—everybody here knows you're different."
If I hadn’t had faster-than-average reflexes, I’d have missed the little disciple dart into an empty house behind us in his undyed robe, and come out again dressed as Shermio. Of course. With so many foreign visitors coming and going, nobody’s going to notice one additional boy, listening for news of the outside world. He joins us so quietly that nobody but me (and Cyran?) realizes that he hasn’t stood among us the whole time.
The procession reaches us. A woman dances aside and shoves a drum into my hands. I try to skip right in without missing a beat. Cyran hesitates, then reaches for a tambourine. Two laughing women then throw a long lace mantle over hir head and e dances, oh how e dances, eyes closed tight and head thrown back till the shawl slips down over hir shoulders, hir grown-out hair swinging about with the lace. And e sings: quickly e picks up the repeating lines, stronger and stronger e sings as though permitted to go full-throat for the first time in hir life as uncertainty gives way to joy, sheer breathless joy, and e spins and leaps, as hir rich contralto soars the heights and plunges the depths in harmonies nobody ever wrote before, for a voice that can sing everything if only we allow. And I drum to the beat and I run-dance alongside the terrifyingly beautiful giant-dolls, singing whatever words I catch till my blood sings as well in these dizzying, airless heights.
This, this, this! is the Charadoc—more than politics, more than war, more than caste or creed or color, more than us or them. Dancing and singing and trumpeting and drumming when you scarce have the breath to move. Cheeks flushed, blood heating in the very breath of winter—rejoicing no matter what. I fight only to preserve moments like this, so that children can grow up unstarved and undefeated, to become men strong enough to hold up a mask as big as themselves, women who can keep the beat running and not let it go.
Thus we dance in the change of seasons, and gain the permission of the Mountain Maidens to take the herds on down to lower ground.
* * *
(I step carefully over the bodies, my winter-mantle wrapped tight against the mountain chill. I resist the temptation to lift a purple hem over my nose to cut the stench; the dogs who fight under my borrowed authority would take it as a sign of weakness, curse their guts. Could be worse, though; already some of the pools of blood begin to ice over, while snow blows against the scattered corpses to keep them for awhile. That’ll make it harder to bury them all, though, maybe impossible.
Once again her strategy has come through, our Layne Aliso in all her cold panache, though the rebels cost us. She took the risks and hardships side by side with the men, urging them on till the body count rose on both sides, the men ashamed to show themselves less brave than her. And they love her for it, and they hate her for it, too. General Aliso will win us this war—if we let her.
The men grin at me like accomplices, like pleasure in this day’s work could make some camaraderie between us. I scowl, but they have their own interpretations for my expressions, and they are too stupid for me to waste my breath trying to explain to them their errors. But I know, myself, that I am not as bad a man as I could be. I do not relish power; I have never done anything as evil as my father did to manifest the power that I do have. It is only a means to an end—and a noble end, at that.
So I walk from one end of the battlefield to the other, as the men expect me to. The walk takes far too long. Some bodies sprawl in uniform, some in bloodstained rags. Some are full-grown men; the rest are not.
Oh, my suffering country!
"We have the ringleader over this way," a grizzled veteran informs me. He knows the cant by heart, all the official words—I can see that the "ringleader" is some poor kid left holding the bag. I think I have a son that age.
The child stares at my approach like down the barrel of a gun. "What's your name, son?" I ask him.
He draws himself to attention. In a high voice he declares, "Sargent Branko Esmer, sir! A soldier in the Legion of God!" Oh Lord—have the mountains spawned a second rebel movement to contend with? Religious fanatics, at that?
"A kid your age should be in school." I count the bruises on his face—I don't like bruises on a child's face, even when I have to put them there, myself. "Who sent you out to play war?"
"Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior."
Christ! This is worse than that kid who worshipped Cyran.
I grab him by the shirt and drag him to the nearest corpse. I shove his nose into the wound. "Does that look—does that smell like the work of God to you?" Can I save his poor soul before he dies?
His face turns pale beneath the dirt, but he says, "If God wasn't with us, how come we killed so many of you with so few of us?"
"How come God let you get captured?"
The weary face slips into serenity as he says, "My time for martyrdom has come."
I slap the serenity out of him. "It has, has it? But before your execution would you like to confess to a priest? I'll take you to a priest!" I drag him down a ways to a likely dead man and shove him down again. "Here! Whisper in his ear—what's left of it. You killed the troop chaplain."
"He...is he...is...?" Actually, no. But a random killer like him wouldn't have known the difference till too late, anyway.
"How dare you speak to me of God!" I shout, shoving him back down as he tries to stand. I refuse to send anybody to their deaths safe in the opiate of self-righteousness—not when they make so many good men die. "Do you know who I am?"
He collects himself where he kneels by the corpse and says quite coolly, "Sanzio D'Arco. A torturer."
I smile mirthlessly. "That is correct—you have not lost all your senses. I cause some pain here and there, whenever necessary. I even kill now and then, by ones and twos, occasionally small groups. I do not—ever—incite massacres on this scale." I wave at the carnage that he helped create—all of it, to every side of us. "The troops may defer to me, but I am never the one to send them into battle.” I think of Layne, valiantly taken off to yet another battlefield, leaving me to clean up this one. She pushes herself too hard. She has to.
"Then who's responsible? Is anybody responsible?"
"You are." He stares at me in stunned exhaustion. "You and yours cause all of this to happen. Without rebels we would have no need to field these soldiers. I would have no need to kill, or to cause pain." I swallow back the bile—God, I hate my job, but would I trust it to somebody who loved it? "I do what I must, cause a little suffering here and there, to try and hold back the enormous suffering cut loose by you and yours." I lean down into his face and growl, "Who are you to judge me, you who unleash Hell in the Charadoc?" I stand then and jerk him to his feet with me, saying, "Everything I am that you hate, you made of me." I gesture to the guards. "Take him to the firing squad."
But then he says, as they lead him away. "I didn't make the hunger and oppression—and neither did you, I know that. But I'm the one who tried to do something about it."
They lead him out of sight but only because I turn my back. I can still hear everything. I can hear him sing, in a cracking boy's voice, "Amaaazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved aaaaaa wretch like..." and then the gunfire finishes it for him.
I detail men off for burial duty, or cremation if they can’t break the hard, cold earth, and if they can find enough scraps of wood to do the job. Then I go to my tent to change my shirt. This one's sweated through, and the wind chills me.)