IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Lives
To Change the World
Monday, October 19, 2708, continued
(I feel much better than I expected already. Anselmo got the furnace up and running, and cleared the vents to every room, so now the place feels downright snug. We haven’t done too badly in scavenging and improvising furniture, especially since Anselmo also hammered together a number of bunk beds and ladders with the help of Maury, Shon, and Skirnir.
Magda has done wonders with embroidering, patching, and slipcovering all the little flaws in upholstery here and there, and making cushions; comforts increase every time I turn around. Her younger cousin Guaril might have gained no hands-on skills as a salesman, but he helps out wherever skill’s not needed and, more importantly for morale, plays guitar like a devil on vacation to make work merry for the rest of us, and his girlfriend Tshura’s dental hygienist fingers also show dexterity in crocheting doilies and antimacassars. Yes indeed, I do feel good, just looking around me, here. So why not have our first meeting tonight?
Jameel hands out yoga-mats to all who can’t find a seat. He rescued a lot of them from his old Tai Chi school, after fighting off a pack of bigots angry that anyone should be born half-black and half-Asian, and before they could come back to burn the place down. They also make the floor softer for those of us who don’t have beds yet.
Coppery-haired Lula makes sure that everybody’s got pencils and scrap-paper to take down notes. She’s a big one on notes, our Lula, academic that she is. Nobody could guess her ethnicity just by looking at her, and that’s precisely the problem. She’s a little bit of everything.
Soft, black hands patter a gentle but firm riff on the doumbek that usually serves as a side-table. “This meeting will come to order,” Dalmar intones. He may be a top-flight commercial biochemist, but he’s also a darn good amateur drummer.)
(Gently Sarge says, “Whoa, whoa! Your tummy’s as tight as a drum.” How long have I been blinking stupidly at the creamed peas in my spoon? “I think, young lady, that you’re gonna need a nice, long nap before you even think about dessert!” Uh...dessert? “I’ve got something very special planned, Kiril—but not right now.”
Noooo, not right now. I feel so heavy with sleep, cradled in his arms, as he lifts me with a groan and carries me into the bedroom. He lays me down on the bed and slips off my shoes, loosens my sash as I sigh, and then he tucks a dream-light quilt around me. My head sinks back into the pillow and my eyes close all by themselves. I can feel him stroke my hair as he tucks a stuffed animal in with me.
“You have no idea,” he murmurs, “what it means to a man like me, in this big, cold army, in this ugly war, to have a li’l treasure like you to pamper—just one soft thing in my whole, hard life.” Then he leaves, closing the door so gently that I almost don’t hear it click shut.)
(As I report on seeing magentine used for teddy-bear eyes, Young Ozwald interrupts, saying, “Whoa! Magentine’s like, treasure! Why not use rubies, while they’re at it?” A patch covers where one of his own eyes used to be, behind the glasses and the long blonde hair—the effects of an anti-German attack, from which Guaril had rescued him, alerted by the bang when they shot Skirnir.
“My point exactly,” I say. I just hope Pauline can keep the socket clean enough to heal; having our own surgeon doesn’t do us much good if we can’t maintain asepsis.
But why should I worry? Making household antiseptics was the very first thing I learned in Field Pharmacology.)
(Drowsily, I pull out the stuffed animal and regard it in the dimming light: a roly-poly little pony. I make it prance a bit across the quilt, but I don’t much want to move, so I pull it back under the covers and hold it under my chin. I smell the other girl’s scent on it–I wonder where she’ll sleep tonight? I feel the curve of its fuzzy little belly; is that what makes it—how did Sarge put it?—cute and cuddly?
Chubby little animals are cute; skinny animals are scary. They might bite. They might hate you. No one could possibly fear this soft li’l butterball, though, pressed to my drowsy cheek. I doze in and out of sleep with the horsie in my arms, almost too cozy for comfort, stunned, drugged, a doll in a perfect, make-believe world.)
(“We’ve been cozy for far too long!” Toni exclaims, then tries to light a cigarette with shaky hands, till her sister Minerva reaches over and lights it for her; withdrawal has not been kind to Toni, however good for her. “We haven’t even noticed how, year by year, they’ve divided us on purpose!”
The others roll their eyes.
“No, listen to me!” the Italiana shouts. “Yeah, the stupid addict’s speaking—shut her out again! But I didn’t start on hop for no good reason— I didn’t use before that mob gunned down my children! And where were the police, huh? Where were the police? In the freakin’ MOB!”)
(Gunfire wakes me!
“What! What is it!” cries a soldier just outside my window—the half-crazy one with the big, green eyes, I’m almost sure of it.
“Don’t fret so, Reno. Just a thief. We took care of it.” Idiot! The last of twilight still shows in the window—I told her to wait for graveyard shift. “Young buck tried to help himself to our guns—one of the farm hands.” I sigh with relief—not my fault. I didn’t speak to any “young buck”. I gave good advice. “Hey, relax, Reno. You go around looking like you see ghosts.”
“I don’t see ‘em, I just feel ‘em—don’t you?”
“But I’ve got other things troubling me. That girl. Kiril.” Uh oh. Sometimes the nutcases figure things out first.
“What about her?”
“I think we’re teaching her bad health habits.” I breathe again.)
(Toni pulls hard on her cigarette, then blows a tobacco-fragrant mist upon the air. “Yeah. Bad habit, smoking. I know. But it helps me clear my head. We’ve all got to clear our heads, folks. I tried to blot things out the obvious way, but we’ve all been doing it, one way or another. The whole damn nation of Vanikke. I’m not being paranoid. All this, this chaos—it’s on purpose!”
“I agree,” I say. And a shocked silence settles on the room.)
(“Reno, you’re just being...”
“She’s gaining weight too fast, Freck.”
“She’s growing taller, too.”
“You remember that time we cheered her on to finish two bowls of porridge at one meal? Now she has seconds at every meal-she’s used to it.”
“And Sarge keeps slipping her sweets...”
“I do, too, when I have ‘em—wake up, Reno!”
“Huh? Wake up to what?” Yeah, tell me, too.
“Her situation! You know we can’t keep her with us forever. What happens to her when the brass find out and we get orders to cut her loose?”
“Won’t we just drop her off at an orphanage?”
“Stupid twit! Don’t you keep up with these things? We’ve had to shut down all the orphanages—the rebels took ‘em over.” No, actually we didn’t. Some of us just stayed there now and then. My eyes start to water—with rage!
“I heard something about that, but I didn’t believe it. I mean, it never made the news or anything, so...”
“Fornicate the news, Re—it won’t tell you jack. The last troop I marched with, I had to help close down an orphanage, myself.”
“Every last one. Corruption just tore through the entire system.”
“Had better have some baby fat to live off of till she can find herself a position.” So that’s what they’re thinking. “I tell you, Reno, every time I see that sweet li’l tummy peep out from her coat just a wee bit more my heart warms up all over.”
I rest my hand on the roundness of my middle, ashamed, and yet not, and yet I am, too. Ashamed for playing their game, ashamed for reassuring them, ashamed of just plain being fat. But no, I won’t feel those things. I stole from them fair and square. If they feel good about what they think is going on, then more fool them. And they’re as right as they are wrong, wrong, wrong—I do need to think about my future.
I hear Freck sigh—all the soldiers sigh a lot, these days. “It’s the only way we can provide for her.” Oh really? How about changing the country so nobody goes hungry? Ever think of that, Freck?
Reno asks, “Couldn’t we help her find a restaurant to work for?” Wrong question, Reno. “She’s a good cook.”
“One of the few sleazy enough to hire a child?” Lot more like that than you think, Bub. “Anyway, once the orders come down we won’t have a chance—it’d cost Sarge his rank to actually take time off work to ‘coddle the manifestly inferior’, as they’d say, and you know he’s got his sights on promotion. Hell, he’s already doing the job of a captain, anyway.” I hear the thump of the man’s hand on the back of Reno’s coat. “Don’t take it so hard, man! You can’t save the world.”
Those words, again—but they won’t even try! I hit my pillow in frustration, but it’s too soft to make any noise. They won’t try and change the world, they leave it to the children of the poor with nowhere near their resources, and when we try our hardest to make things better they kill us! I hate them! I hate them!
Well, maybe not Reno.)
(Maury shakes his head. “We can’t change the world. It’s always been thus, all the way back through history, clear back to the other world. Pogroms. Holocausts. Wars. My family tree’s got so many branches lopped off it looks like a madman’s topiary.”
Minerva says, “It’s not just Jews anymore, though. It’s not any one designated minority. We’re all targets.” Anselmo nods his grizzled head, the word “Greaser” burned on his brow by hot grease.
“And that’s plain crazy!” Lula exclaims. I appreciate that it takes a lot for a commercial anthropologist to call anything crazy. “Persecutions always start on the perceived outsider. Somehow everybody’s become outsiders—so who’s inside?”
“Maybe what rather than who,” Jacques growls.
“Go on,” I encourage him. The newspaper-hawker has more informal education than most in this room.
“Maybe a corporation gone out of control. The craziness started in the commercial sector. I’ve watched it for awhile now, maybe before any of the rest of you noticed something wrong, and it all started on the financial pages.”
“Then we shall begin there,” I say.
“Begin what?” Maury asks.
“Finding out what we need to clean up Vanikke.” I buff my nails critically; they’ve gotten a bit scratched up with household repairs. “After all, dear boy, the Tilián have been in the business of changing the world since human beings first set foot on this planet.”)
* * *
(“They’re trying to change the world,” Jake murmurs as we buff our leather goods, now that the nurse has pronounced us fit to sleep in our own beds—which assumes a return to our responsibilities. He holds his belt up to the lamp and picks off a bit of potato that he’d spilled on it. We have to remember not to eat like adolescents, I remind myself, noticing how the wear on the buckle-holes has moved closer to the belt’s tip lately...not that food sounds good to me yet. “They’re trying to change reality to anything at all but this stifled, empty, perfect…” He falls silent again, examining his buckle.
Don hands him the metal polish, and takes from him the kind for leather. “And if the authorities tell them that anything else would be evil, well, then they’ll shake evil’s hand.”
“Yes. As we’ve seen before.”
I polish my own belt in silence, and then move on to my slippers, my fingers smelling of banana oil. Jake battled Alroy mind to mind, and Don fell under his spell for awhile, an outlaw in Alroy’s cult. They know more about this than I can even imagine.
Don asks, “Are they really in contact with his ghost, do you think?”
Jake answers, “I think it’s more complicated than that. They’re in contact with his time. And that stretched out for over two centuries—a big target.”
Soft slipper leather doesn’t polish as easily as a good, firm boot might do. It keeps bending away. You have to leave it on your foot, and contort all kinds of ways to hit all the angles. We get points off for missing patches.
Jake adds, “I don’t know if they’re even in touch with his consciousness. But we’ve gotten in trouble from unconscious sentience before.”
“When?” I ask. But Jake just sits there, looking troubled.)
“Is she going to stay unconscious forever?” Tanjin’s voice sounds so troubled. I don’t want to move; every least motion jars my aching head. But I twitch my fingers enough to take his hand. I force my eyes open to the piercing light, enough to see him through the blur of lashes.
“’Sgonna be all righhhh...” I say to him, with no idea what distresses him, but bound and determined to fix it, whatever it might be. But then I tumble away from the world once more.