IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, September 9, 2708
(Snow on the mountains looks a whole lot prettier when you sleep in a good, sturdy tent the size of a house, with real army blankets, nestled in with the boxes of supplies. It looks kind of blue in the predawn light when I go out to melt water for breakfast, snow heaped up and sculpted by the night-time winds.
The army’s got good food: real pig ham, and eggs to fry in the ham fat, and genuine coffee. A few tasper-buds’ll make the ham come to life. I set out my pans by the fire and start to hum a tune that Papa taught me long ago. I stop. I shouldn’t be so happy—not here among the tents of the enemy.
“Kiril, you up already, girl?” Sarge emerges, scratching at his unshaved chin.
“Gotta have breakfast ready by the time the troops wake up, sir.”
“Honey, they got chores they can do while breakfast cooks. Don’t spoil ‘em too rotten...but my oh my, it does smell scrumptious, doesn’t it? Mmmm, mm!” He grins and ruffles my hair. “Now, I like that! I want to see more smiles just like that in the future,” he says, and heads off yawning to the latrines.
I didn’t mean to smile.)
* * *
Chianti finds us mid-day, looking worn and moody, and with her the likely youth that we'd picked to go back as second contact and captain to the young folks eager to strike a blow for freedom. I can never remember his name without being reminded, and I know I shall forget his face as soon. I may never see him alive again. I may not realize it if I do. Just a farmboy with coarse, dark hair, dull and downcast eyes (unless you catch a glimpse of him sideways, smoldering at you in secret) calluses and muscles and visible bone. A thousand like him, a million, who can count? Mountainfolk breed fast before they die, and the children all grow up the same—perfectly invisible for the kind of work that we do.
He gives me a brief report on the strengths and weaknesses that he observed in the evening, what he could gather in one night. He looks painfully tired. I almost hate to send him back to the waiting rebel wannabes.
But he leaves us, on my order, and then the rest of us turn our backs to the smokes of the village and march on, the ache in our legs almost an old friend by now, I’m not sure what we’d do without it. Chianti, certainly, seems grateful, in her quiet way, for the familiar burden on her back, the comforting monotony of putting step past step. Who knows what will sprout in the spring from these seeds we’ve sown in snow?
(“Who knows what seeds we can sow, before it’s too late?” I tell Cybil in my most reassuring agent voice, as we descend the concrete stairs to the beach, holding onto the steel rails to keep from slipping on all of the sand tracked on the steps.
“I feel like we sow them down there,” she says with a wry smile. The beach looks hot, uncompromisingly white and sterile, reflecting the sun’s glare; September already, and sweltering anyway. “Indyan summer”, they call it, but nobody knows why. Yet the wind feels nice, and the sea looks, sounds and smells familiar to me—homey. “Not much good for growing, is it?” She holds onto her hat in the wind.
“I have more faith in Vanniketans than that.” I like Vanniketan swimwear: a short, sleeveless tunic and matching underpants, belted under the breasts for women by an elastic band, at the waist or under the belly for men. Practically anyone looks good in it, which I appreciate because I seem to have gained a few pounds. Her diagonal cyan and avocado stripes make Cybil’s eyes sparkle; I wear a floral print in rose on smoky navy.
She stops on a landing, leaning against the rail. “Look at them,” she says. Different ethnic and religious groups have made little sand walls around their distinct preserves, and they eye their neighbors suspiciously. “People didn’t used to do that.”
Not knowing the strangeness of it, children laugh and make sandcastles at the corners. Two children of different colors work together where neighboring corners meet, till their mothers, with strained faces, pull them away, We can see the women bend to whisper to the frowning boys. Then the fathers come and quietly pat the castle out of existence, careful to not touch any portion belonging to the other side, not meeting each other’s eyes. Somehow, without contact, they manage to sculpt a distinguishing groove in between, neither acknowledging that this, too, requires joint effort.
Sadly Cybil says, “Only a couple of years ago nobody ever built walls upon the beach. It only started with a few, last year. Now everybody does it.”
“Soooo...somebody who has not been to the beach in years wouldn’t know to expect this?”
“No, they wouldn’t...uh, Zanne, what are you up to?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“That smile. It looks a bit, well, fiendish.”
I carefully smooth my face. “As of this moment, Cybil, imagine that I’m blind.” I let my eyes go out of focus. With my face straight forward, I let my eyes roll upwards. Nobody need know that I’m actually watching seagulls.
She grins despite herself. “Okay.”
She takes my arm and guides me the rest of the way down. I don’t have to fake stumbles and tentative steps, with my eyes on the gulls. My oh my, this takes more concentration than I thought! My instincts keep wanting to glance at my feet.
As we come within hearing range of the crowd, I say, “Thank you SO much, cousin, for finally getting me out of that horrible blind-school! They never took us to the beach!”
“You’re welcome,” she answers; I can hear the barely suppressed giggle in her voice.
“Oh, the sea sounds so lovely! So cool and inviting. I just have to swim!” And with that I run pellmell towards the crashing waves, resolutely watching the seagulls while feeling my feet crash and stumble through sand walls, tripping on the occasional leg, hearing curses in a whole range of voices, while Cybil shouts behind me, “Wait, Zanne, wait! Things are different now!”
Good. Let people remember that things are different. With Cybil such a roly-poly lady, it should surprise nobody that she can’t keep up with me, so I continue to gallop madly through everybody’s grim and fragile barriers, till I reach the icy kiss of the water on my toes. I run splashing into the freedom of the ocean, where sand walls cannot stand, and when I feel the water swell, I throw myself joyously into the wave!)
Thursday, September 10, 2708
Okay, no more nice guys; Kiril has traveled with the enemy unavenged long enough. I send out the son of a wheelwright to visit that supply-cart that they left too close to their perimeter. We all wait, shivering in the night, until Turin returns, half-sketched in the half moon’s fitful light, his breath another cloud upon the air. Not only has he left one wheel too loose to last a mile in tomorrow’s journey, but the scalawag’s come back with blankets and tobacco filched from the cart! Oh, blessed, blessed wool, tucked scratchy-soft around the huddled young! Everybody refills their smoking-pouches from Turin’s fragrant bag. As we nestle down to finish the night in sleep, we jestingly rename him, “Turin Wheelwrong.”
* * *
(Nobody, of course, knows about Don’s trace telekinesis. Enough to loosen the screws which hold together the chair underneath the stoutest of our tormentors. Don told us what he’d do in this, our most boring class, covering math that hasn’t changed since we studied it ages ago. Just a little something to occupy our time. So now Jake and I watch the screws slowly turn themselves, jutting more and more from the wood, our chilled hands writing out equations without needing our full presence of mind. A slight tinkle as the first one drops, and the another, and then a couple more as it starts to wobble and Boris lays down his pencil, puzzled, and then the CRASH! as Boris falls rump-first onto a pile of wood with nothing holding it together anymore.
And we laugh as hard as anyone else, reveling in the chance to avenge ourselves, by proxy, on everyone who ever made our lives hard in the days before we had the wit to do one thing about it. Oh but I’m beginning to like it here!
But then I see George Winsall staring back at Don over his shoulder, grinning. I see him give Don a nod. Now how the devil did he know?)
Friday, September 11, 2708
Someone in the enemy camp must have misplaced the matches because now we watch, well-hidden, as they try to get a fire going in the snow by flint and steel, blowing anxiously on every spark. Gee—I wonder how that happened? I can hear the puffing and scraping clear up here; sound travels far in winter, with few rustling leaves to absorb it. No one at all hears my laughter in reply, held back silent in my chest. I turn and join the others around a well-hidden but luxuriously warm fire of our own. Our new boxes of matches will surely come in handy in the days ahead.
* * *
(It shouldn’t surprise any of us when Jake’s cot collapses under him. He gives a gratifying bark of surprise, and then joins the rest of us in laughing. Turnabout’s fair play.Of course, there remains the problem of rebuilding the cot in the dark, but he seems to have luck in his favor. But with everybody’s eyes straining on trying to make out Jake’s large shape, nobody notices Don’s hand press against the floorboards, feeling out the locations of the screws. And I cough just when they start to roll towards Jake’s waiting hand, to cover up the faint sound of them. Jake then holds the wood in place and pushes the screws in, and they finish the job, themselves, with a little nudge from Don. We do all have pocket-knife kits with screwdrivers in them; people will assume whatever fits with what they know.)