IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Guests of the Abojans
Thursday, July 30, 2708
How does life go on, when we keep on losing people? My training never covered bereavement on this scale, soul after soul; agents usually leave war to the soldiers. They taught me how to mesh with local customs, fine points in books and lectures so that I can behave with impeccable manners no matter where I land. I know the rules for funerals in fifty different religions, but they never taught me how to mourn.
(“Always,” I read aloud from the etiquette book, as we picnic out on deck, “eat from right to left from the plate.” It’s too nice a day for dining in the galley, while we still ride the warm currents of the Gulf of Istislan. “Your host will lay out the food to be eaten in that order.” And Don and I both look at Jake, eating his rice and fish with the fork firmly in his left hand.
“What?” he says, annoyed, with his mouth full. “You don’t think I can adapt?”
Several waves rock us gently before Don ventures, “Maybe you should practice now, so your body will get used to it by the time we reach the mission.” Jake sighs and shifts his fork to his right hand. A gull lands on the deck nearby and waddles around us speculatively, hoping for a crumb.)
I should have practiced. I should have done hospice volunteer-work when I performed the charities required for coming of age. I should have learned to love the dying, and lose, and lose, and lose each friend, till my heart became as cold as these mountains, as hard as the frozen path beneath us, as serenely affixed on heaven as the snow-pure peaks. I need to learn a callous kind of love that doesn’t listen, achingly, for the voices of ghosts upon the wind.
Zanne could do it, I think. She has that panache about her, caring yet unflappable. Maybe she learned it by losing her entire community with her disobedience. She should have taken this mission. But what did Jonathan know?
(I look up from the book. “Isn’t Zanne headed for Vanikke?” I shiver at the thought of such a cold region—to which we head, of course. “That’s just south of Toulin. Maybe we should have caught the same shuttle.”
Don smirks. “Yeah, she’s headed for Vanikke—by way of a Darvinian vacation. Which makes no sense logistically.” I’d say not, being in the opposite continent.
I can’t help but smile back. “But it makes perfect Zanne sense.” As if in agreement, the gull caws like a snarky laugh.
Jake takes a gulp of lemonade. “Anyway, she left before us.”
“Oh well.” I don’t dare ask if Merrill’s with her or not, the way things have been going. I know they’ve got two different missions planned.
I turn back to the text. “Left-handed people may proceed from left to right, but they must first rotate their plate accordingly.” Jake sighs and puts his fork back in his left hand, rotating his plate with a triumphant spin, and we all laugh, startling the gull into flight.)
Aichi jumps, startled by the scamper of a lizard, and then points after it, laughing. Already she has forgotten her distress from the night before. Maybe we went in the wrong direction, my friendclan and I, when we accelerated our intelligence. Maybe we could best serve Lovequest by damping down the mind.
Saturday, August 1, 2708
(“Blue violet becomes you,” Merrill says, touching the flower in my hair, then tracing the line of my cheek and chin. I smile coolly before I snap playfully at his finger. He dodges back, laughing. “But perhaps you should have worn black!”
I tuck it back in place. Fragrant—I love the fragrance of these blossoms. “I look dreadful in black, darling,” I say, before taking his hand. “And even worse in orange.”)
"Come in, my dears, come in!" The old woman on the porch wears an ornate, antique djellaba, fashionable a couple generations before the petal-dress, with arm-sections broad enough to flutter winglike in the evening wind, reaching to the ground. She looks something like a beautiful antique, herself, finely graven of translucent material, as the light spills out from behind her, welcoming and golden from her open door, and with that light comes the scent of cooking cinnamon-yam bread. When I set foot in her home it feels so loving-warm it hurts.
"You're the first, you are. First of the groups, or troops, or whatever you call yourselves. Here, sit down, put up your feet—we have supper enough for all, never fear." Bright-colored birds chase each other through the embroidery of flowering vines around her yards of cuffs, in edging as broad as my hand is long, and more birds frolic around her throat. Mostly bright colors, but I notice some violet ones in there—something about that feels so reassuring.
The cushions of the couch could engulf me as I sink down in with a puff of scented powder. Needlework peacocks strut over the soft surfaces, through silken gardens of many hues, past fountains and pillars that don't feel at all like stone.
"Hara, bring in a basin for our guests—they've traveled quite a ways. Isn't that right, my dears, haven't you all traveled far to do the work of God?"
I don't feel too godly about my work, but I nod to please her. An old man, with a great white moustache curving upward like it'd smile no matter what his face did, comes in bearing a huge, steaming basin of hot water that splashes against his wide, embroidered belt. The amount of fabric that muffles his arms could clothe my entire body modestly enough. “We don’t hire servants anymore,” he explains with a grin. “We do the work ourselves, and offer it up to God.”
“Old age makes the penance more sincere,” the crone says proudly, hoping, no doubt, that we notice her brave, strained smile. But bless her, she means it, too.
“We gave all of our servants generous severance pay,” the man says, then grunts to set the basin before us. “Enough to tide them over till they find other work. And good references.”
Piously the woman adds, “We must do penance, you see, for all of our years of obliviousness to the needs of the poor. Oblivion can be a choice, you know. We hide from nothing, now.”
We plunge hands and faces eagerly into the steaming bath, then kick off boots to immerse our chilly feet, as Hara stands by beaming, ready with towels like some servant and not the retired rich man that he is. Oh my, but this water sure feels good!
"Ah, but introductions!” cries the woman. “How could I forget?" She takes my new-scrubbed hand into her softly wrinkled one and says, "My name is Deni—Deni Abojan. And this is my husband, Hara."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Abojan." I make introductions all around, suddenly aware that I don't know anybody's last name save Malcolm's. Maybe some of them don't have any.
"Damien," our hostess says softly when she takes his hand. "Damien the Bard?"
He nods, his eyes suddenly wide. "Yes. Is she..."
"Yes, young man. She is here and waits for you." But his eyes already stray to the doorway behind her...
Kanarik stands there, leaning against the lintel, her hair neatly braided back without any beads. She still looks pale, her eyes still sunken, but strong enough to live. Indeed, she appears to have gained some weight under Deni and Hara’s care, and more power to her. She wears a long, white gown hemmed with less perfect needlework than what adorns everything else around us, and a dark shawl, covered with more expert work: roses and fantastic birds, stars and moon. If I didn't know better I wouldn't have guessed that the mantle hides a stump.
Damien stares and Kanarik stares and we all just sit there, waiting for something to break the spell. Then suddenly Damien dives towards her and scoops her up in his arms and she cries out sweetly as he sweeps her back into the private rooms behind her.
Deni laughs, a ladylike sound, embarrassed but forgiving. "I think that the sooner the priest gets here, the better," she confides.
"Priest?" I ask.
"Oh, don't you know? A lad called Shermio came by a few days ago with a message from Cyran—didn’t he find you on the way? No matter. Anyway, Cyran came across an old friend of hirs, wandering in the wilderness around here. A priest, e says."
"Father Man?" We all exclaim, voices all over each other. "It couldn't be Father Man, could it?" "Here?" "Alive?"
"Yes, Cyran did say that he calls himself Father Man.” She shakes her head sadly. “Apparently the poor soul doesn't remember his original name. But his credentials are real enough." She leans forward confidentially. "Cyran has warned me that the priest is quite, quite mad—dreadfully traumatized. We can't expect him to be able to dispense normal parish duties in the chapel that we're building up here; we have an obligation to take care of him, rather." Then she dimples and says, "But he might be able to conduct a marriage, with a little help, I think."
Father Man! And no one will ever know how he traveled all this way, how he knew where to find us up here, how he even managed to survive.
Thank you God, for all your mysteries.
* * *
(She needs to try and dance for me. Ai, how fragile every move, as if a frown could snap her in two, the jaggedness of gestures meant to flow smoothly, the swirling grace of the shawl that tries to conceal what the war has left of her body.
I snatch a corner of the shawl and tug her towards me, pull her back into my arms again, then gently fold the cloth away. I cup the little stump in my hands, raise it to my lips like holy communion, and kiss it tenderly. Then I gaze into her face with all the adoration in my heart, as I use the hem of the shawl to wipe away her tears.
Poor little bones in my arms, much too thin and weak to dance! Ah, but I cannot contain the gratitude that she would try, even now she would try. She runs the gentle fingers of her one remaining hand through my beard. "I like this," she tells me. "You're such a man, now." Then she tries, bravely, to giggle. "It tickles when you kiss," she says.
“And I like this,” I say, caressing her belly, though the implications terrify me: that firm, distinctive roundness above such twiglike legs–the first curve of our emerging planet, around which my heart already orbits. Barely there; loose clothes could still conceal it when she stood there in the doorway.
I stroke the gown up off of her. I stretch her down beside me on the bed. I remember sturdier limbs, healthy mountain-woman limbs in Hamalla. Beautiful memory; I admit they had almost everything a man could want, those other limbs. But they weren't Kanarik's—they could not give me the one thing that I wanted most.
I came close, my dear little dancer, my life, my Kanarik. I almost wronged you. I did wrong you a little, maybe, but not all the way. We kissed, that other woman and I. Okay, we more than kissed. We came so close that I thought I'd die to not go further. Instead I ran out unclothed into the icy night, looking for a snowdrift to hurl myself into, to make snow-angels with my naked body, angels to save me. I found nothing but the withering wind, yet it sufficed.
She stood framed in the door, the candlelight around her, and her unbound hair curled all the way down around her hips—full hips, grown woman hips, not pared down like a soldier's. I wanted the wind to blow colder still, freeze everything in me that wished to nestle back into her warmth, to explore it as deeply as a man could ever venture. I clenched my fists and stood up straight, I forced myself to take the wind full into my body and not to crouch.
"I have a woman," I told her at last. "Don't ever trust a man who would abandon his woman for you."
She nodded, went back in, brought out my clothes, still damp from dyeing, and placed them neatly on the bench beside the door, laying a robe next to them.. Then she closed it, locking all the warmth inside. I wrapped the robe around me as fast as I could, shivering in the dark, grateful that she didn't just fling my things out into the dirt. That meant she understood, I think.
Oh, sweet Kanarik. Greenish skin, almost bloodless—but your struggling heart beats just for me and the young one within. Thin, too thin, yet strong enough to hold up my courage in my darkest hours of fear. Not the straightest teeth in the world, but no other smile in my life can gladden me half as much as yours. Wrap your weary soldier's legs around me, Kanarik, my Love, and let me explore your warmth.
Oh, sweet, sweet Kanarik!)