IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, October 28, 2708
(The usual tap on the door wakes me up. Sarge must be having nightmares again. The clock shows both hands straight up—I think that means midnight. Is that when he usually wakes? Probably. I stretch and put my clothes in order, then open my door to...the farmwife?
“I did promise you some pie, dearie,” she says with a smirk, then glances about her, saying slyly “and a chance to chat a bit.” She promised no such chat, so I know it won’t deal with idle talk. All good ghosts, please guide my tongue!
“Sarge usually wakes up about now,” I say.
“Oh, don’t worry about him—my boys are showing him a good time out in the barn.” Just then I hear several deep voices in the distance trying to sing the Bailebelde and making a bad job of it, and not caring two hoots about the flaws. Yep, that’s Sarge’s voice among them. Well, at least he won’t have nightmares tonight.)
The Day of the Dead approaches, and I can feel our dead gathering already. When we move at night I perceive them all around us. I feel like a ghost, myself. With all so dark, under a stormy sky, beneath the cover of the woods, I might as well be transparent, a thing of ectoplasm and tragic memories wafting along without weight, under the groaning of the windswept boughs. I feel as though the rain blows right through me.
But ghosts don’t listen for danger with that thrill of fear that haunts the traveling guerilla. What if our soldiers send an advance of their own? What if some other troops cross our path? What if we run into a plain old village constable? I keep my hand on my gun.
(She leads me to the big farm kitchen. Her husband stands by the inside door with a cleaver in his hand, the tallest son by the other with a pitchfork leaned nearby, and the young boy-son sits in the big bay window, gazing out grimly through the rain-streaked glass while fingering a knife.
Just then my mouth betrays me by watering at the sweet scent on the air, right when my stomach growls its loudest. With a wry smile the woman says, “I promised pie, and I’ll deliver. Which flavor do you want, and which ice cream to go with it?”
“I’ll have the palmseed ‘n’ sapsugar, uh, with butterscotch.”
“Good enough, child.” She serves me a generous helping, still warm from the oven.
“You sure Sarge won’t come by?”
They all laugh. The farmer says, “About this time, he doesn’t miss himself—and he ain’t all there!”
“You aren’t gonna kill him, are you?”
They tense. “Why? Do you care?”
“About you. If you kill him tonight the whole rest of the troop’ll fall on you at once. We’ll take ‘em down when we’re ready to take ‘em all down.” I lean forward earnestly. “One of the first things you have to know is that when you slit a single throat like that, you’d better make sure that nobody can trace it back to you.”
“How do you...”
“That’s how I’ve always done it.” They stare at me, aghast. “That’s how Cyran taught me to do it.” I mustn’t let them see me shudder, remembering the last time I got separated from Deirdre. I eat some ice cream, let it feel real cold inside me, and then say, “I never knifed a single person in this particular troop. I leave it to strangers they’ve never seen. I slip messages to my buddies to tell them where to go. When I do turn, I’ll have reinforcements to finish the job all ‘round.” I go back to the pie, make little designs in the syrup, then spear a couple juicy palmseeds with my fork. Then I look up at them pointedly.
The man says drily, “Thanks for the tip.” And I can't quite read what his face says, and I'm not sure I want to.
The woman takes a bottle of chaummin out of the cupboard and hands it to the boy. “Here. Take this to your brothers; they’re probably running low, anyway. Whisper a change of plans to them: not tonight.” He nods and dashes out.
“Good.” I bite the seeds off the fork. “Trust Cyran. They’ll get theirs.”)
“This looks like a good spot,” Bijal says, and then kneels in the mud to dig into a wagon-wheel rut. He stops, takes a deep breath, and even though I can’t see it I can almost feel the sweat bead on his brow before he takes the next step.
I almost don’t hear him whisper “Hekut...”
The little boy squats down beside him, handing him the bomb-making materials, each when asked for: harmless if not combined, confined, and ignited. The rest hover over them, holding up tarps to keep the substances dry, or else they scan for danger. When instructed to do so Dosh adds the nails, glass and lead pellets that he carried up here. And then, very carefully, hardly breathing, Bijal wedges the matches next to the abrasive, and puts together the structure that will cause the match to strike under weight. Maybe not the first step on it, maybe not the second, that deep in the rut. But when a heavy-laden cart rolls on it...and we pray, with all the tatters of our souls’ remains we pray, that no farmer comes by tomorrow, wagon full of crops, hoping for an early start to the Friday Market.
I leave before they roof it over with disguising soil, hoping not to hear a premature explosion behind me. I have to backtrack all the way to the dairy again. Kiril might whistle a message at dawn.
(The man by the door chuckles and his father says, “What, Rouel?”
“I’m just thinking of that fool trying to command his troops first thing in the morning tomorrow. We’ll get our revenge one way or another.” We laugh with him and the woman sits down beside me as her daughter comes in.
“I guess you’ve figured out, Kiril, that we want a more active part in the revolution.”
“Why?” I blurt with my mouth full, then kick myself. When they stare at me I say, “You’re rich. You got property and servants. You got votes. I can’t take anybody in to Cyran if they don’t have good reasons to fight beside hir.”
“Oh, we’ve got our reasons,” the farmer says, “if you haven’t seen enough.”
“Our daughter,” the woman says with a choke, then covers up by saying, “Fara, give Kiril another scoop of butterscotch ice cream.”
“Uh, I think I’d rather have some cheese, please.”
“Our other daughter,” says the farmer. “The grown one.”
His wife says, “The last time soldiers came by, they wanted whores. We’re decent folk around here; we didn’t have any. So they went from house to house, recruiting who they liked.” She grimaced, “Like we were no better than the lowest castes...No offense,” she adds as she sees me bristle. “Fara, where’s that cheese?” The little girl delivers a chunk as big as a pie-slice.
Says the farmer, “That happened a year ago. We haven’t seen our girl, since.”
Carefully I say, “Looks like no matter what caste you are, there’s always somebody higher up than you to cause you trouble.” I pause to nibble at the cheese. “It shouldn’t be that way.” Fatima, please guide my tongue. “There’s some high-caste and low-caste women, both, as do behave like whores, and maybe they’re the ones should help the army out—the volunteers. Then there’s some lower-caste and higher-caste, both, who want something else, something better. They...” The tears stream out suddenly and I can’t hold them back. “My friend wanted to be a nun!”
They stare at me in utter silence for the longest moment, and then cross themselves.
“I’m out of pie,” I grumble. “I want berry.”
“Go get it, Fara.”
“With vanilla ice cream.” Cold, get cold again, Kiril.
So I toy with the cheese, saying nothing, trying not to think of the ship and my “initiation” on it. They don’t have to hear about that. Talking about yourself just sounds like whining.
Then the pie arrives. With my mouth full, I say, “Okay. You’re well-placed to slip our people supplies, now and then, and have quarters enough to hide an occasional guerilla in among the help. Cyran can use all that. And one more thing.” I stare at the young man by the outside door.
“What’s that, Kiril?”
“We’re short on full-grown men. How many sons can you spare and not get noticed?”)
* * *
(No use lying in the dark, waiting for more nightmares; the sky’s just starting on a glow, anyway. Nobody walks the road but me, now; the usual travelers don’t know for sure whether the army burnt that village down, but they’re all laying low just in case. That’s okay by me; it’s a fine spring day for strolling alone and seeing the newest flowers push up from the forest floor, smelling as sweet as spring love—and what are you thinking, Lufti! Rain sparkles on everything, but the sun breaks through the clouds like God loves everybody.
I soon pass through the burnt village, still smelling charred though the rain has laid the smoke. Black fallen timbers jut up from drifts of gray ash, full of rounded jags. I stop for a moment. This means something. More than today, more than this right here. This...means...sweat breaks out right there in the cold, as I try to move, but can’t, trying not to remember something in the future, trying...there! I can move! I run the rest of the way out, glad to have escaped something awful. The place must be full of ghosts or something.
On the other side everything turns beautiful again. The further I walk away the more that spell or whatever it was recedes from me. My heart cheers up, listening to the singing birds. I came through unharmed; good fortune smiled on me.
And sure enough, I find, right here in the road, a leather pouch that somebody dropped on the run. I don’t think I’m too bad a person for picking it up and taking a look; whoever dropped it probably won’t come back again. I smell the tobacco even before I open it all the way; inside I find not only that but also papers and matches, and glory be but the leather sure did a good job of keeping it all dry! I’m not that expert at rolling my own, yet, but I do well enough for making something about to go up in smoke, anyway.
Ahhhh—that’s better! Nearly as good as breakfast. I keep an eye out for edibles as I walk, full of hope that I will find something on a day as splendid as this; it’s a good season for fern fiddleheads, for one thing, and anyway, I just feel lucky.)
I wait in the tree just behind the dairy’s outhouse, uncomfortably close to its smelly vent; others established this communication-point while I recuperated. I almost gasp when I spy just how stout Kiril has become, wheezing as she walks to the loo. She disappears inside. Soon I hear birdsongs whistled from within: “Headed south, turn west juncture. Recruits here. Send enlisters” I whistle back, “Received”. Then, after a pause, “Food-danger. Too many/much. Health-risk.”
The whistles reply, “Unavoidable. Undercover.” Huh? Slowing down on the eating would blow her cover in some way? Or risk her mission? Poor child! What have I gotten her into?”
But just when I start to whistle, “Want rescued?” I hear a hoarse man call, “Kiril?” He sounds as if he’s trying to shout quietly. “Kiril, your breakfast is ready.”
She must have realized my intention anyway, for she whistles a quick, “Leave me. Okay.” before taking off again.
Ah well. She will have plenty of opportunity to lose the excess weight again, once she rejoins us. She certainly won’t have a wagon full of food to ride in to tempt her...oh dear God!
(Jake says he needs a smoke before breakfast. This is getting ridiculous. How long does he think Don and I can save his place, while his waiting omelet goes cold? I gobble down my own eggs in sullen silence, just in case he comes up with something to make me miss it, savoring the taste and feel and smell of it, thick with molten cheese. Ohhhh, if I had a denar for every time that man has made me miss out on good food!
Here he comes, stinking of tobacco, but does he sit down at table? Noooo. “Come on,” he says to us quietly. “There’s something you need to see.” Why am I not surprised? I gulp down my last quick forkfuls as I rise from my seat to join him.
He leads us to the smoking-corner: a discreet juncture between the backside of the dormitory and a toolshed, perpetually littered with cigarette butts and the ash of secret pipes. There, all over the walls we see graffiti—and it all spells “Hulda”. Spraypaint in garish colors, stolen from the shop class. Oil paint from art class. Charcoal scrawls. Ink and chalk and pencils. Smears of mud. They have used every possible media.
And interspersed among the Huldas sprawl the drawings of great, engorged breasts, of legs splayed out with cavernous gulfs between, of impossibly jutting buttocks or wild curves of hips, of pregnant bellies hanging over pubic curls, of whorish torsos without limbs or head. Female, female, female, on the most primal level, naked and crudely drawn and yet so vivid you can practically smell a cavewoman stink.
“None of this was here yesterday,” Jake says. “It all happened overnight.”
Don studies the coarse letters, not always connecting together correctly, reeling all over, overlapping each other and the drawings. “It doesn’t look like they brought any light with them,” he says,” and then gingerly he presses together his ringed-fingers and touches the wall. He winces, but stays a moment, before pulling back his hand and wiping it off on his pants in disgust. “They didn’t just sneak out in the night. They sleepwalked. All of this,” he says with a wave, “they did it in their sleep.”)