IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Sunday, July 26, 2708
(Here at last! The train winds down the mountains to Omalia, its first station in Darvinia. It whistles huskily and chugs to a stop, and when the doors open we breathe our fill of that sweet mountain air.
Florist stalls crowd the platform, all of them eager, for a price, to weave everything from garlands to boutonnieres that advertise desires. Red flowers, leaves, or berries signal general availability, pink for the curious virgin in search of a cure (judging from the volume in stock, a surprising number of tourists have this in mind) orange for those questioning their current relationship, small pins of yellow for those requiring the utmost discretion (an illustration shows how to pin it on the inside of a lapel or cuff to be flipped forward at the right time) and green for the sacred maenad who only does it in ritual. Blue and violet says “Unavailable—I’m already in a joyful relationship—be happy for me!” White declares celibacy, while black warns that the wearer has unusual tastes, but the adventuresome may ask; if you see thorns, it involves pain. Brown declares trauma or a broken heart—approach only if you want to help work out issues. The stands also sell bracelets—worn on the right wrist if you’re heterosexual, on the left if you’re not, on both if you’re open to all options.
Hauling out my bags in addition to his own small backpack, Merrill asks, without looking at me, “What’ll it be, Durmarya—blue or orange? Or maybe you’d like to go all out and just wear red.”
I stare him in the eye before he can turn away. “If you have to even question it, maybe I should wear brown.”)
I recall dreaming of flowers, in a rainbow of colors, as I open my eyes to beauty in the same rich hues. Dawn flushes the sky between the peaks when we rise, spilling down the snowy bluffs and setting rock-faces afire in their sparkling quartz, while the last few stars twinkle in the lingering indigo of the west. Below us pale blue fumes of river mist rise up to swirl against a backdrop of the darkest, richest, blue-green forest in the distance. Oh, land of poets! Land fed on their songs, their stories, and finally on their blood.
Kiril sits up beside me, also regarding the sky. “In the English Mountains,” I tell her, “the air is so pure that the sunrise glows in soft pastels, like the inside of a shell. But here volcanic ash gives the light something to bounce off of, and it breaks into colors.”
Softly she murmurs, “Light breaks into colors,” with wonder in her voice.
Lufti joins us, snuggling in between. “So the Charadoc is so colorful because light shatters here? All the breaking and the ash can cause beauty?”
“We can hope,” I sigh.
We take up our jingling gear and file out of that lovely place, back up the gorge that let us in. Malcolm will travel with us awhile yet; he still has liaison work to do. Rashid will have to settle for ghosts for company, for now.
I glance back to see Rashid standing forlorn behind us, arms hanging limply at his side, not so much as a wave goodbye in him. I hate how gladly I leave him there alone as we mobilize once more, under the morning-song of the heartless birds. I hate to leave him behind to set up for a job too big for me, the adult. Most of all I hate how ardently I thank God that Cyran now values me more as a killer than as a healer these days.
I shiver and turn my face back to my own path, glad to have boots again, glad to have the fingerless gloves that the Hamallans weave ("Fingers free for the trigger," they said when they gave them to us.) We won't leave Rashid alone for long; the wounded from all over will soon come this way.
(If I ever come back here, will it be a wound in the shoulder, a wound in the leg? What would that feel like? What does a bullet do, spiraling through the flesh? Does it feel like a cut, like a blow, like fire? Would I even make it back in time?)
(If I ever come back…but they will change it. It won’t be my village anymore. The entire Charadoc has become my village. Even after the war I shall become a wandering bard, with Kanarik by my side.)
(If I ever come back, will it be as a medic? Spies don’t live so long; medics tend to last a bit. But if I made the change, would St. Joshua still protect me?)
(If I ever come back…but I’ll be all right. Deirdre will take care of me. I’m safe as long as I stay by Deirdre’s side.)
(If I ever come back, will it be on my own account, or Marduk’s…or Cyran’s? And will a little boy even have what it takes to set us right again? Why not leave the fat man behind, instead? He is, at least, a man.)
(Why does Cyran insist on taking me along? I could serve the cause much, much better working with Rashid. I don’t see much opportunity for liason work on the road ahead of us. And they don’t need my services; If they get in trouble they have Deirdre to fall back on.)
(Why do I insist on taking him along? They all think that I know exactly what I’m doing. They have come to expect it. The brats never, ever question that maybe I’m not some steel machine of war, that maybe sometimes my heart overrides all else. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe this war would become a whole lot worse if we stripped ourselves down to gun-metal and gears.)
Monday, July 27, 2708
Travel! Oh, how my body loves the hike, the gradually unfolding twists and turns of beauty in the deliciously unkempt wild, every rock and height-defying tree, every breath of the moaning, pine-rich wind, even the crisp chill of mountain winter as we ascend to colder reaches, crunching through the first patches of snow, reminding me that I don’t huddle indoors, I embrace the risks and freedom of the open air!
(Travel at last! Me, Jake, Don, and oh yes, Lisa, though she carries no pack on her back, just her purse upon her shoulder. First a long, pleasant walk to the pier, our ritual goodbye to Til Institute, admiring her gardens and her crazy-quilt of architecture as we go. Somebody bakes gingerbread; my mouth waters as I pass the fragrant window. Somebody’s dog barks, running along the other side of a fence. I chuckle, saying, “Good dog! Yes, you’re suuuch a good guard dog, I bow to your fearsomeness! I will not invade your yard, oh no!” And his tail wags even as he barks. We all have our jobs to do.)
Oh, we all have our jobs to do; we don’t hike for pleasure today. Yet while I march I can forget about mine, just enjoy the left, right, left of legs that delight in striding across uneven ground. I can tip back my head and admire the sky and those towering clouds that love to congregate around mountains, as if to show off how they loom three times as tall. And so the morning passes before we break for food.
(We reach the docks in time for an early dinner. Zora and Incense await us at the fish and chips shop, muffled against the cold beside the outdoor tables, where the gulls cry and the sound of lapping water soothes the heart. Jake actually pulls a chair out for Zora and helps Incense settle her into it. I order food for us all, and we pass around the malt vinegar and salt, the pepper-sauce and extra napkins for our greasy fingers, talking about nothing and everything, sometimes with our mouths full, but nobody shall scrutinize us right this minute for any breech of custom.
All too soon the ferryman’s bell rings out. We make our goodbyes, Don and Lisa kissing long and lingering. I hug all the ladies, and if I give Lisa a quick peck on the cheek, Don and Jake will both understand. Jake hesitates, then gives Zora a hug. Then he carefully settles her back onto her feet and crutches, blushing.)
Together we build a quick fire in the lee of a rock outcropping, basking in the heat that bounces off the granite to warm us, as the quick-burning softwood soon renders itself down to coals in which we can stuff our potatoes, not minding the resinous tang, rather liking it as spice, in fact. Soon they soften and we can split the skins to the crumbly, lavender interiors, hot and steaming where we drop in the dried and salted mountain-river fish that Hamalla sent with us, and the little pickled buds that Kiril managed to acquire there, and oh, it tastes so fine!
(We stand in the bow, leaned against the wood, watching the spume and the rainbows as the captain navigates the maze of coral to cross the gulf. Don could have done it faster, but who wants fast? I bless whoever it was who decided, long ago, to place the Shuttle in Novo Durango, not in Til Institute herself; I love these long goodbyes, admiring the red cliff folds above the Great Gulf Road in all its jungle garlands, and the dancing, sparkling water, and all the spires of coral that jut up here and there, so dangerously beautiful!
“I’m getting married,” Don announces out of the clear blue. And he gazes out at the water that parts before us as if it puzzles him.)
“Rashid wanted a long goodbye,” Damien says as we douse our fire in sand. “He kept me up all night long, playing him one song after another. He plied me with moonshine till I wondered that I could strum at all, but I don’t think he even noticed the mistakes; the old tunes played already in his head.”
“He’ll be all right,” I say as I shoulder my pack . I don’t know why I say it, when he doesn’t ask, and when we both know that I lie. “We’re all going to be just fine.”