IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
The New Reality
Thursday, October 1, 2708, continued
(I lean against the phone booth, waiting for Cybil, unable to straighten the whole way up. Pudgy bureaucrats, sure, but so many of them, some of them swinging chairs. And I still feel vulnerable—bloody hell, I am vulnerable! Some stare and some avert their eyes, but everyone notices my blood and bruises and the rags of my lovely, soft blue dress that I just bought. (I do recall reading in the papers that domestic violence has escalated of late; I can just feel their assumptions.) My hair must look terrible. I start to laugh but pain stops me short. Silly Zanne, to even think about the hair!
I feel at my chest, below the left breast. Broken rib. That’s going to make a nuisance of itself.
“Zanne!” I hear the patter of Cybil’s heels. “What happened?”
I slip one hand over the hidden pocket in my belt, where the magentine resides, and endure the pain of turning to look her in the eye. I then send to her my run-in with the President and his men. She turns white and stumbles back a step, but I grab her hand.
She asks me, “Was...was that telepathy?”
I nod. “Safest way to communicate under the circumstances.” I taste blood when I speak.
“You poor dear!” She takes me by the arm and helps me walk. “Let’s get you to a clinic.”
“No, no. Too dangerous. Take me to the bank.”
“I need to liquidate my account—before anyone thinks to block it.”
“But they might ask questions.”
Ooh, but it hurts to laugh! “My dear, they will take one look at me and figure that I have my reasons.”)
I wake up where I fell, on a bed of snow-enduring lichen, a blanket thrown over me, with Tanjin and Lufti standing guard. “Did I just fall asleep on the march?” I ask, still feeling groggy.
“Yep,” Lufti says, while Tanjin adds, “I sent the rest on without you, under Bijal. We’ll catch up by the time they camp.” Lufti whistles the “All’s well” for distant ears.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
Tanjin shrugs his good shoulder. “I figured you had your reasons.”
(I take as long as I can to clean up after dinner, washing the tin dishes like sacred vessels, like I could free them from the slightest stain and so save my soul. But soon I have to go out to Sarge’s tent. I knew he was way too nice to me to trust, I knew it! But I didn’t want to think about that, I wanted to pretend something else.
I cross myself before leaving the supply-tent and I pray, “O sweet Jesus help me! O Blessed Virgin Mother, Protector of the Chaste, and dear ghost of Lucinda, protector of the rest of us, O Fatima who knows all about my fears and my past, please save me, please find me some way to escape what that man’s gonna do to me! Oh please, please, please, find me some other martyrdom for the Cause!”
I walk slowly to his tent—the big one, no pup tent like the others get, you can stand upright inside and walk around, just like for supplies. I try not to cry when I get inside—to what doesn’t look nearly as roomy as before.
Sarge has rigged up twine and blankets, ends stitched to the tent itself with waterproof patching over it, to curtain off two little sleeping nooks, with a cramped common space before. He doesn’t expect me to share his bed!
“Your stuff’s in there, on that side. We’ll hear each other snore, but I hope it’s privacy enough for you.” Then he takes a good, hard look at my face. “Why sweetie, you look like you’ve seen a ghost! Of course—after a night like last night. Here, sit. Make yourself comfortable.”
He pushes a cushion over for me. “No child should see such things, Kiril—I am so sorry. The faster we get you out of this war zone, the better.” Then he looks troubled, but forces a smile immediately. “Say, you know what? If I know my mother, she’ll have another care package waiting for me at the next base, so we’d better get this one used up and out of the way, and we don’t have that long to do it.”
He goes into his section; in the lampless dark I can barely see him tug a big box out from under his cot and bring it to me. He must put only some of the goodies in his pack—how much did that woman send him? He pulls out a beer, saying, “I’m off duty—at last!—and boy do I ever deserve a cold one!” But when I reach for my turn at a swig he says, “No, no, honey, it’s not for little ones. Anyway, you wouldn’t like the taste.” I wouldn’t? What’s wrong with his beer? “Here—you can have this.” He brings out some kind of log-shaped sweets.
“S’delicious!” I say with my mouth full.
“Another of Mom’s special recipes. See, the filling is sweetened almond paste, with a kiss of orange oil and just a sprinkling of powdered cloves. Then she coats it all with chaummin-sugar and rolls the bar in nuts.”
“Another one I’ll have to remember—someday I’m gonna learn all your mother’s recipes.”
He laughs. Once again he draws relief by thinking about me instead of the war. And maybe that’s bad—maybe I shouldn’t give him any relief. “Here, Kiril, have another. Have all you want. If I tried to eat everything my mother sent me I’d grow as big as those oxen out there.” But he doesn’t eat any at all, he just drinks beer. “So, Kiril, what do you like to play?”
“You know, games, pretend. Play. What’s your favorite toy?”
“I never had any toys.” We stare at each other for the longest time.
“Oh, come now,” he says at last. “It can’t have been as bad as that.”
“I never had any toys,” I repeat, and grope in the dark for another of his candy bars. Stealing food, Deirdre said. It’s all right. Papa would want me to have candies just like this. Then I soften despite myself. “I did, you know, play with sticks and cans and things—they could be anything I wanted them to be. But I had to sneak to do it. The farmer’d come and kick me for...”
“Kick you?” He stares at me, aghast.
“Yeah. For playing instead of working. I wasn’t good for much, he said, but even little children can shell beans and things like that.” I stuff some cookies into my mouth as a change of pace from the candy bars and talk around the crumbs. “Not that we often got to eat our fill of the beans, ourselves. He didn’t give the workers much to go on—it’d take away too much from the market.”
“The monster!” Sarge opens another beer, and I open another packet of cookies. “How did he expect you to work on no food?”
“He gave the grown-ups enough to get by on, just not the kids, quite. Then they’d grow up simple and easy to control. He didn’t reckon on Mama giving me half her share.” I stare at the candy-roll in my hand a long moment, then shove the whole thing in my mouth. “That’s why she died, I guess. It caught up with her.” I didn’t know, oh Mama, I didn’t know till too late what you did for me!
He looks like he’d seen the dead sit up and glare at him. At last he manages to say, “Some men just plain need shot!”
Maybe—just maybe—I can make some headway with him. Maybe Sarge doesn’t have to be my enemy. Carefully I ask him, “Do you know that lots of people go hungry working on the farms?”
“I’ve heard some things,” he says slowly, “Though I don’t think you can believe the wilder stories. But that’s just what we’re fighting to prevent, Kiril—you know that don’t you?”
“Sure—to bring law and order to every corner of these anarchic hinterlands, so that low-caste farmers can’t lord it over their help that way, and can’t call on rebel outlaws to set them up like little warlords, safe from the justice of their betters.”
I realize that I could get more comprehension from one of the oxen outside.
He reads my sick expression and says, “I think, young lady, that you’ve had enough sugar for one night. You need to balance it off with a little protein. Here,” He feels around in the shadows of the box. “Try this sausage. Mom knows a butcher who wraps the meat with herbs before starting the smoking process, after marinating it all night long in sesame oil steeped with the same herbs, but he’ll probably die without telling anybody which aromatics he uses.”
And I realize that so long as he can give me goodies he can feel like a nice man and not have to think about all those other children who don’t have toys or food. He’s not feeding me, he’s feeding his conscience.
Great sausage, though. I’ll play along. As he peels the wax off a little cheese that he says is the perfect complement, and opens a third beer, I feel a kind of relief—this will go so much easier if I don’t really have to like him.)