IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Monday, August 24, 2708
Oh, longed-for luxury! To stretch out gratefully on my side, cool stone beneath and the sun warm upon me, the free, clean air caressing all up and down the front of my body and a radiance of llama-warmth behind. Only one tired to the brink of death will the rock make so welcome as this.
After an age I open my eyes. Apparently, I’ve lain down on the very rim of a miles-high precipice, on a narrow path barely chipped from the mountain stone. Crashing sure makes a person stupid! My curled-up knees project out over wind and cloud; I hear the cry of the condors circling far below.
I force my aching brain to concentrate. I can remember the climb up—that endless-seeming struggle like some damnation borne without end or purpose. I cannot remember actually laying down.
Suddenly I simply cannot remain there a second longer—I must take off! I fly right over the edge, arms stretched out and back with the wind rippling in my sleeves. I fly free, free of pain or regret or doubt, up through the most pearly-beautiful tunnel of clouds, pillowy silvered angel-stuff, opalescent in a mist of rainbow yet white in essence, whiter than mortals should imagine. I fly towards the light. I fly straight into the sun and it does not blind me, it doesn’t hurt at all. And still I soar, secure within an invisible tunnel of safety.
But in that glowing heart of light, I keep getting glimpses off to my left: a gilded claw, a beard dusted in gold, the gleam of a wet, obsidian eye. I falter mid-air. With dread in my heart I force myself to look. I catch a bit more of the awful, glorious image, but must swiftly avert my eyes again to stay within my tunnel. I cannot see all, do not want to see all, of the man or beast or thing—the Glorious Monster.
Finally, still not seeing all, I catch enough from the fearful corner of my eye to identify a sparkling, golden creature, centaur-like in that instead of a beastly neck there projects a man from the waist up—a golden, muscular man with curling beard and beetling, godlike brow. Yet below lies no warm, mammalian body but something reptilian, though long-limbed like a deer. Spikes and hornlike protrusions cover it, all of gold, from its eagle claws to the armor-like fillips and plates on the beast-shoulder/man-hips—baroque and gorgeous and yet monstrous all the same. I dare not look closer but I sense more than just four legs, that it might go on forever.
With a shock I realize that I see it by its own lurid glow—there is no sun, it shines against the dark. And by glimpsing so much, oh lord! I have lost the safe path through. I recoil from the monster! And I tumble, tumble, tuuuuuumble...
...till I open my eyes, lying once again on the brink of the cliff, on the exhausting path of my duty, in the Charadocian Mountains...
...till I open my eyes in a dim and cavernous space, yet a building made by men, while the chant of sweet, soprano voices washes over me with candlelight and the scent of beeswax. Cool concrete flooring presses against my cheek, not stone, as I stare at table legs in a chapel, seen perpendicular to the orthodox view.
“Dolores! Are you all right?” A matron stoops over me in concern.
I sit up and dust myself off. “Sure. Fine. I just fell asleep, that’s all.” I still feel the weariness of the Charadocian mountains heavy in my blood like poison.
“Asleep? At the kneeler? One minute you’re praying wide awake and the next you just keel over.”
“Uh, yeah.” I climb to my feet, desperately trying to orient myself as to which world I’ve landed in this time. “I do that. No big deal.” I stand inside a “modern-style” church, circa twentieth century, in concrete cast to imitate the raw stone of...of places they never even heard of. Okay. A lace-covered card-table with a tea-set represents a makeshift altar to St. Elizabeth. Um, yeah, I remember—it symbolizes her hospitality to the Blessed Mother. Somehow I know this.
“Dolores, that’s not normal. Have you been to a...”
“Yes, I’ve been to a doctor. It’s only narcolepsy.” My name is, for now, Dolores, and I attend a women’s retreat in Berkeley. I think. “I fall asleep under silly circumstances, that’s all. It’s harmless.” It burdens my life with unrelenting weariness. It blesses me with brilliant dreams and visions that I wouldn’t trade for all the world.
“Isn’t there any treatment for...”
...till I open my eyes to the new day’s shining sun, my sore body curled up in the bushes by the side of the road, with llamas and dirty children huddled close against the cold, none of them smelling like beeswax. Good morning, reality.
I sit up and gaze out past the cliff, several safe meters away. That’s why we flogged ourselves on so hard, to reach this point where we could all lie down without risk.
I miss Damien. That kid could’ve made sense of my dreams, if anybody could.
* * *
(I catch Jake’s elbow when he stumbles on the stairs on the way to breakfast, grabbing onto the rail as if he tossed at sea in a storm. Casually I position myself up a few stairs to block from view the wild look in his eyes. To a staring couple passing us on the way down I wink and whisper, “Hung over”, and then help Jake to a bathroom on the next landing.
“Okay, buddy, what just happened?”
Slowly he looks around him, still disoriented, touching the smooth porcelain of a sink, staring haggardly into a mirror. “It all seems so real, doesn’t it? Solid.”
“Yes, Jake. Solid. Real. What’s up?”
“A…rip. Bleeding. It just tore wider. Each bleeds into the other. Worlds shouldn’t mingle, Randy.”
“I imagine that it would make for all kinds of messiness if they did.”
He turns haunted eyes on me. “You have no idea.”
“Do you?” I ask, though my gooseflesh wishes that I wouldn’t.
“I…no. Not really. Not yet. Or…” His brows knit, trying really hard.
“Or what, Weed?”
He looks himself, for a moment. “Do you realize you just called me “Weed” in Toulinian? You called me Chikhu.”
“Well, yes, the hypnosis sessions did exactly what they’re supposed to do. I’m surprised you even noticed…no, I’m not really surprised.” I dampen my kerchief and dab at his face; sometimes little refreshments restore him, and he seems already on the way back.
He pushes my hand away, but gently. Stupid me—it’s too cold for that, anyway. He asks me, “Have you ever wondered what else we’re conditioned to accept unquestioningly, all the little oddities that we don’t even notice?”
“Well, if I did I wouldn’t have accepted them unquestioningly, now would I?”
“My point, exactly.”
“Jake, can you smell the smoked ham from here? I sure can. Don’t you want to go to breakfast?”
“Hunger feels real, too.” He rubs his belly, but he doesn’t look at me.
“And well it should!” I take his arm and try to steer him out of there.
“A mothhole,” he says, with finality. “It all comes down to that, really. “A mothhole has snapped a really important thread, and the fabric already begins to unravel. Haven’t you noticed something vital missing from this place?”
Now I feel my own brows knit. “Whatever it was, we haven’t missed it.” I laugh. “So maybe we’re better off without it.”
“I guess…maybe you’re right.” And he grins tentatively back at me. “Let’s go eat.”
So we hasten down the stairs to that good, enticing aroma wafting up towards us. And yet…something in me fingers a thread, nestled against my soul, something not quite as unraveled from Jake as one might expect, something that he has entrusted me to keep.)
* * *
I still miss Damien...or somebody else? Somebody with a gentle sense of humor? No, Damien, definitely. Only he could properly describe the darkness deep within the sunlight, beyond the glare off snow and stone, or the menace in the roar of a distant avalanche just one mountain away.
Then I hear, coming out from underneath that sound, the sputter of an antique aircraft; we dive for cover like mice and shiver under snow-crushed scrub. Far from safe, still, I wriggle on my belly, wet with thaw, from refuge to refuge to ration out the bitter leaf that keeps the kids moving. I can only hope that we can march farther faster than the enemy thinks possible from the last place where they sighted us. As I chew my own leaf and wash the numbness down, I cannot say how glad I am to see that the sunlight once again holds nothing in itself but bright.
* * *
(Detention, Toulin style, isn’t really so bad. First I have to darn an altarcloth, where a fallen candle has burned it. I darn it to heck and back, and then I iron it, and then the minister makes me stand before the fire and read aloud from a book on the proper behavior expected in chapel, while he sips at something that smells sharply alcoholic, and then another, and then he pours himself a third. And I secretly enjoy the punishment of finally getting warmed up for a change.
“You have a good voice, for a Lumnite,” he says finally. “Hardly any accent left, already.”
“I try, sir.”
“Tell me, young man. Do you, uh, have a…a particular friend?”
I don’t have to fake blushing over the euphemism. “Yes, sir.”
He looks disappointed, though whether for reasons sacred or profane I cannot tell. “Ah well, I will not pry further. You may have your secrets, and I shall keep mine.” He pours himself another small glass of spirits. “Just tell me one thing, lad—as between two who respect each other’s secrets. Was there a snake?”
I look at him, and the flask, and pity fills my heart. But I force a grin and say, “Well, those boys certainly jumped at something!” And he and I look at each other, and we both crack up, the relief all too obvious in his bloodshot eyes.)