IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, October 28, 2708, continued
(I don’t know how Cybil does it. Some stolen eggs, a few discarded cheese rinds scrubbed and scraped, stale bread and foraged herbs, and she makes enough omelet to fry over the campfire to satisfy us all. Ooh, how the aroma intertwines with woodsmoke on this crisp autumn morn!
“So,” I ask Raif. “If this house you’re talking about is such a perfect squat, with room for all, why didn’t you stay there, yourself?”)
(“I never want to see another cheese omelet as long as I live,” I moan to Reno, who drives the kitchen cart this morning, as I clutch the pony-doll that Fara gave to me.
“That’s what you said yesterday after breakfast, and the day before, and the day before that. If we ran into another dairy tomorrow, you’d say it again—after generous helpings.” Then he gives me a friendly squeeze to take the sting out of his words. They all like to keep me snuggled up beside them these days, now that they’ve made me soft. I’m their little stuffed animal.)
(Raif passes his plate back to Cybil on her gesture; she insists that adolescents get seconds. “Kimba had nightmares. She wouldn’t let us stay.” Mumbling around a full mouth he adds, “The stuffed animals scared her. But maybe with adults around it won’t be so bad for her.”
“Maybe not,” I agree as he wolfs down another breakfast. And maybe Kimba had good reason to fear.
Cybil toasts the last of the bread for him, Apollo, Courtney, Skirnir, and Ozwald. Beyla, our baker, winces with professional pain to see his son eat stale crusts, and promises to cook up something good and fresh for us at the first opportunity, but I don’t know with what. Traveling with teenagers might get expensive on the resources. (But oh how I wish we had at least one more!) Even so, as I put out the fire for the day’s journey, and immediately miss its warmth, I regard the big-boned girl and the scrawny boys, who’d all been running on empty a long time before they found us. Clearly the kids could use fattening up more than I can!)
(In these past days at the dairy, they’ve definitely speeded up on fattening the sacrifice—no doubt about it. I don’t even want to think of how the men egged me on, the other day, to finish off all those grilled cheese sandwiches at one sitting—which weren’t grilled at all, but fried in butter—nor how I got to like whipped cream on everything sweet, and sour cream on everything else, nor how Sarge kept a candy-bowl filled in my bedroom at all times, not with plain ol’ hard candy, either, but the rich, buttery kind. And milkshakes—I discovered milkshakes. After that who wants water? Least of all I don’t want to think about how much I actually enjoyed it all, how I know that in no part of my life will I ever feel so indulged, so cherished, so nourished, ever, ever again.
Nourished, yeah, sure. But not really, not in the right way. And more than the “food-danger” that Deirdre whistled about. Something’s going on here that I should understand, that maybe I will understand when I’m older, but I’m trying as hard as I can to figure it out right now. Something about how even charity, even love itself, can go all wrong when there’s this big, ugly gap between us and them. The Don would know all about it, I think sleepily, and nod off against Reno’s shoulder, and then wake up again, surprised at how much the scenery changed when I thought I’d just closed my eyes for a minute.
For a second my hand lifts, to grope for something that isn’t there. I put it back down before Reno sees, guilt hot in my face. I enjoyed the candy-bowl way too much, that I could just lie there and reach out for another piece the moment my tummy found room for it, the indulgence—no, the decadence of it.
Suddenly it dawns on me, the awful, awful truth: you can’t rebel against the decadence of the rich without wanting a piece of it yourself. That me and the rich have way too much in common, that maybe if we do win this revolution we’d all better fast and pray and make damn sure we don’t do the same things all over again that we hate. Souls can fatten on the wrong stuff, too.)
(On my orders we break up into two’s and threes. Surprising, who turns out to have things in common in this diverse group, like Toni and Pauline, for instance, who both like Arundel ceramics, strolling off together in an animated discussion of glazes and favorite artists. Or Lula and Apollo, both fans of Wanderlust Comics. Lula left with the youth awhile ago, telling him along the way about the anthropological underpinnings of the series, and he seemed fascinated.
Now we walk down separate, parallel streets in the same direction, so we don’t look like an army of vagabonds. Vanniketans tend to build their cities on grids, conveniently enough. We can reunite in the woodlot by the river.
And, in a sense, my heart divides as well. Part of me enjoys walking under the neat rows of fire-hued trees, feeling the morning breeze and my gloved hands firm on my backpack straps—that’s adventure-Zanne. Another part of me looks longingly into windows at the orderly furniture arranged for comfortable lives—that’s decadent-Zanne.
And what of Suzie? Is she still in there somewhere, playing in the shadow of old ruins, dreaming of running away with Lord Byron, miming out swimming the Hellespont when nobody’s looking? Can any part of me remember sheer, innocent play?
Or is it all a game?)
(And when I played I nibbled, also. Sometimes I didn’t even know I did it, till I reached into the empty bowl. Sometimes I asked to have the bowl refilled, myself. Oh yeah, I can learn to take things for granted that I never even imagined being in my life before. I can learn to overdo while others don’t get enough, I can...
Too much thought, too much I don’t want to think about...then I wake up. I didn’t mean to fall asleep again. How much of the country did I miss this time?)
(No, it’s not all a game. Suzie remains inside me, bawling her eyes out for Mabel, wondering what'n'erth Zanne has become, to see such carnage and yet still savor the colors of an autumn day.
Go back to sleep, Suzie. You don’t serve any purpose out here.)
Ought to wake up...try to wake up...slept too much lately...but no, just enough energy to turn over instead, and once again it alllllll goes away...
(I’ve slept way too much lately, all those naps that Sarge made me take (but I loved it when he’d tuck me in like a father, but Daddy, not Papa, never forget that) till they turned into habits and now my eyes just want to close on schedule after every meal. Too much of some things must mean not enough of others—some kind of balance you’ve got to take care about.
Even right now, I feel so sluggish I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to chores. I hardly had to move at the dairy; I did nothing but sleep and eat and play quietly and receive whatever people wanted to give me, sort of a fantasy of what it must be like to be a spoiled little rich girl. For now, though, I just watch the countryside roll by, with Horsie on one side and Reno warming the other, glad I don’t have to deal with anything for the moment.
But I do. Something has changed. They’re getting more deliberate about trying to make me fat—trying! Who’re you lying to, Kiril? Already the loose new clothes don’t fit so loose no more. Deliberate—almost conscious? It looks like maybe the soldiers are waking up to something halfway. I have to figure out what they wake up to.
Surely by now we’ve gotten close to their base—they must mean to cut me loose, soon. Yeah—that has to be it. How soon? I’ll have to act before they do, while still among them, still trusted.
I don’t want to act.)
(I don’t want to act the agent right now, nor the decadent rebel against her people’s mores, nor the little girl who still believed in them. I just want to enjoy the shifting skies, the light and shadow of the passing clouds, and all the pretty leaves.
The rest of my friendclan loved hiking and sailing in their youth, simply for the pleasure of it. I never had anywhere to go, though, as a kid. I guess I’ve been making up for it ever since.
Oh Gates, let this also be true, as true as a teenage girl dragged across the broken glass—this one pure moment, by myself, not posing, not trying, just walking and appreciating!)
(Oh God, let this last forever, just rolling along as if the war did not exist, the spring countryside getting prettier the lower we go, the flower-fragrance on the air but Doc keeps me on medicine so I don’t get the wheezes so bad anymore, so here I am, not lacking for a single thing, not having to move or think or do anything but nestle in close to a man I actually like.
Crazy or not, Reno has somehow escaped most of the weirdness of the others. He speaks closer to reality the further he wigs out—maybe the army world has drifted so far from reality that it makes sanity a kind of madness in itself. I get straight answers from Reno.
Except...“What happened last night, Reno? I heard a lot of commotion and I think it happened on your watch.”
He averts his eyes—at least he gets points for shame. “Thief,” he says. Oh no—he proved more alert than I’d counted on. “I...I tried to wing her, just teach her a lesson. I hope I didn’t...I come from farm folk, myself, Kiril. People think we grow everything we need, but it’s not always the case. I know what it’s like to...I hope I didn’t hurt her too badly.”
I feel like I could split into two Kirils, hating him for hurting the woman who let me play with her daughter’s toys, loving him for hating himself over it. Maybe he feels just as split, too.
Carefully I say, “It’s not just the fear of getting shot that makes soldiering hard, is it?”
“No. It’s not.”
“Did you have orders to shoot anybody who tried to get into our gear?”
“Even though we robbed them blind?”
“Now wait one minute! We paid them more in tips than that whole farm’s worth.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” I back down. I cover for myself by rooting under the seat for the refilled box and bring out butter-cookies. “But would you have tipped them if I hadn’t been there?”
“What are you doing eating again? I thought you were full.”
“Full of omelet. This is different.” I turn to him. “Want some?” I don’t tell him about the fudge; nobody gets to know about the fudge but me.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he says, but he takes a couple cookies from me. “Speaking of which, how many slices of pie did that woman give you last night, anyway?”
“Palmseed, berry-cream, squash, and lemon custard,” I say and help myself to another cookie. “With butterscotch, vanilla, pecan, and mint chocolate ice cream.” And the odd dab of cheese, but I don’t tell him that.
He whistles. “Girl, that is not good for you!”
“You act like you aren’t gonna abandon me,” I say and stare him right in the eye. Silence, except for me loudly and emphatically chomping down on the cookie right in front of him. Then, in a gentler voice I say, “You know things aren’t all right.” I turn away, as though talking to Horsie. “It’s making you crazy trying not to know.” I snuggle closer to him, ducking right under his arm as he holds the reins, but still keep my eyes on Horsie to try and make it easier on him. “You can tell me about it,” I say gently, and when I do turn to look up into his face, I read grief in his eyes as he stares straight ahead. “What other orders have they given you?”
Long pause before his breaking voice says, “Things not fit to tell a child.”
I put my hand on his arm around me and say, “God loves a penitent heart.”
“But you can’t keep on doing the same things. And my duty...”
“What duty could make you do things that you can’t tell a child?”
“Get out,” he growls suddenly, and stops the oxen.
“Get out of the cart. Right this minute.”
I comply—here he’s half-crazy and now I’ve made him mad at me!
“Kiril, you are going to walk by the cart, same as you used to do when you first came to us. Maybe fifteen minutes today, a little more tomorrow. But you’re going to walk a little more every day—same as you’ve been eating more every day—don’t think I haven’t noticed. Those fools out there don’t know what you really need to survive.”
I walk beside the groaning cart, holding the pony close, surprised at how hard it’s become to march, how glad I am when fifteen minutes pass. But I like Reno the more for it.
What was it Damien said in one of his tales? That sometimes you have to give a little bit of power away to somebody who loves you right, to get all of your power back from somebody who loved you wrong. And like I said, myself, Reno’s the only one who talks straight to me, and he’s the closest to seeing straight, too.
Just how straight can I make him see? Before it’s too late?)
(The tension has changed, snapped to its opposite. Just a few days ago, nobody could even picture a feminine name for longer than seconds. Now it seems that nobody can think of anything else. I hear whispers of “Hulda, Hulda”, wherever I go, in a weird mixture of disgust and awe. The graffiti spreads, every time I turn around. Nobody ever sees it written, even I can’t catch it happening with my souped-up nerves, and yet there, on that patch of garden that stood blank a minute ago, I see “Hulda!” scratched into the dirt. And when I look up from that, on the wall right in front of me, I see a childish scribble of pornography smeared on in strokes of mud.
I go into my music theory class. Maybe we’ll do better, there, than the geometry class where, try as he might, the teacher could not draw arcs and angles without them adding up to a female form. But as soon as we all sit down (pencils furtively scraping and scratching inside the desks) the teacher raises chalk to the board and, while his eyes go over musical scores in hand, he absentmindedly writes out the name of “Hulda”.)
(And then FLASHHHhhh! SearingRoaringHurting sound and fear and heat shove me up through the air, Reno’s arms and legs wrapped around me, and we land HARD and roll like thunder bruisingly over stones and sticks and thorns!)
Explosion! It jars me awake! Not Kiril’s cart, oh please not Kiril’s cart, please no! Groggily I open my eyes and the sunlight just pours down.
And God help me, I slip back again. I slip back into the blood-red dark behind my eyes, back into dreaming, clawing after consciousness in rags too thin to hold me up.
(I smell smoke in the air, but everything sounds muffled. I feel stinging all over me, but my ears hurt worst of all. I open my eyes to the sight of Sarge and Doc running up with his med-kit and soldiers milling about the wreckage of the kitchen-cart. Reno and I disentangle shakily and let Doc check us out.
Doc asks me questions, but it sounds like he stands far away and mumbles. I grab his hand and cry, “Doc, I can’t hear! I can’t hear!”
“Not even a little?”
“Oh, wait...it’s starting to come back.” I shudder with relief and try not to cry.
“That happens, Kiril. The explosion damaged some of the delicate parts in your ear, but you have others already taking their place.” Then, while he pulls sharp bits out of Reno’s skin, he says to Sarge, “They’re both okay, more or less.” Sarge grabs me and squeezes me so tight I can hardly breathe, making me suddenly aware of my own battered skin. “Bruises, scrapes and lacerations, but no broken bones or other injuries. Private Levantos has a few small burns and additional surface-damage, but nothing serious.” Is that Reno’s last name? Levantos? “The cart got most of the shrapnel, and Levantos shielded Kiril from the rest. His quick thinking might have saved both their lives.” You mean his always being scared, always ready to jump and...oh lord—that’s why he caught the farmwife! I sent her right into fire!
Again Sarge hugs me, some of my blood getting on his jacket. “Oh Kiril, Kiril, I thought for sure you...oh Kiril!” Then Sarge lets out the filthiest stream of tear-streaked cussing that I ever did hear, even back on the ship, and all of it shouted at the rebels. From what I can make out between swearwords, I gather that land mines break some rule of war or other—at least when rebels use them.)
I feel relief flush through me, some flood of blessing, as if the warmth of the sun had penetrated the bushes and tarps above me. Kiril is okay! I don’t know how I know, I just do, and I don’t question it. I can’t afford to.
(Beyond them I see the ruins of our wagon, and the kitchen goods just scattered everywhere. I get up and go over to help sort it out, picking up my pots and pans and fitting them into each other tidily again, as much as denting permits.
This will mean delays. Most of the food splattered all over the dirt. So we’ll have to take a cart from the nearest hapless farmer, along with replacement food, and some other things that got damaged. The countrymen will hate the army all the more for it, but we rebels made it happen, like striking a man on the back of the head and then pointing to somebody else, saying, “He did it.”
Screw that, Kiril. The army shouldn’t even be out here feeding off the farmers in the first place.
Like we give them a choice. What, did we expect them to say, “Oh, you want your country back? Help yourself.”
I heard a Buddhist street-preacher, once, saying how seeing the oneness of all can bring you to enlightenment. But the more I feel one with these men around me, the darker and darker it gets.)
I turn my head to survey the coins of daylight here and there amid the undergrowth, noticing that the rays leading to them don’t slant much. “What time is it, anyway?” I ask whoever might be nearest.
Bijal answers. “Getting close to noon.”
I sit up hissing cusswords, then reel in a moment’s vertigo, but catch myself, hopefully before he notices. “Why the devil didn’t you wake me earlier?”
“I figured you needed your sleep.”
“I’m not an invalid any longer, Bijal.” But the headaches have not completely faded back. I shake old leaves out of my clothes to pull them on, but he just laughs.
“We’re traveling by night, remember?”
“Oh.” I put the clothes down and snuggle back under my blanket. “Oh yeah.”
“Anyway, it’s not my place to tell you what to do anymore,” he argues. “You’re in charge again, remember?”
“Okay, then, I’m giving you an order, from now on, to wake me when you wake yourself, if I’m not up already—unless I’ve had a different shift, that is. Got that?”
“Yes Ma’am. But since you’re up, how about some food? You didn’t eat enough when you weren’t well.”
The idea does not appeal—something about the dream that the explosion woke me from—choking on cheese omelets? Obese breasts and buttocks scrawled across brick? “Give my body a chance to change schedules,” I say. “I’ll eat breakfast at nightfall with the rest of you later. How long ago did the enemy launch?”
“Don’t worry; the soldiers’ll stay put for awhile, giving us a chance to see to those newbies that Kiril recruited for us. And even if they didn’t, the day we can’t catch up with ox-carts after a few hours’ lead is the day they bury us.”
(Did they bury Mabel? Or did they leave her in the house to burn? Does it matter? It’s all the same truth, that she has died, and her family will never know what happened to the daughter they cast out.)
(They buried him. I saw them bury him. They buried Corey and it’s too late now. They have planted the seed in the earth’s fecundity, and now we reap what I have sown—ye gods, is this all my fault? Bringing back what Weatherbent shut out? Different, conflicting currents surge through my mind, short-circuiting. Every time I hear or see the name of Hulda it shudders through me like a jagged bolt of lightning!
“I want to go home,” I whisper, surprising myself.
“What’s that?” Aaron asks.
“Oh, nothing.” Nothing indeed! Home is the last place on earth I want to go! This is getting too ridiculous! Something must be done.)
(I see the riverside park ahead. It won’t take long to find each other on its shore. Then the trees will hide us, Raif assures us, till we reach a bend around the neighborhood he knows. And then...I look forward to sleeping under a roof again!)
(The cast-iron pots feel like they weigh a ton, but I push myself to collect up everything I can without complaint, sweating into a cooling autumn breeze. I’m going to get my old body back again, someday, no matter what it takes.)
ends BRAIDED PATHS, Volume IV of IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE.