IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 2, 2708, continued
All Soul’s Night, and for once the stars bloom overhead as brightly as the new spring flowers bloomed by day, promising us, as the flowers swore by their lingering perfume, that we shall see the someday-resurrection of all the souls we’ve buried. Whatever the gala events among the elite of Sargeddohl or Alcazar, the country people treasure this holiday as one of the most essential, right up there with Holy Thursday. (The dead walk tonight and here I camp alone, in the dark, missing the tent that I gave to Zia, without so much as a fire because the wood’s all wet, and without a meal to placate the ghosts with because I still can’t find any village along this road, let alone an inn.)
Some traditions give way to necessity. We cannot clean the graves of our dead (half the time we can’t even find them!) nor always lay out a feast of their favorite foods. (Will the Good People think me an ingrate for giving their tent to a pretty girl? And what about the others—all the others? I can feel the chill of ghosts upon the land, smothering the heat out of the world tonight.) Anyway, “food”—without finer distinctions—served as favorite enough for most of them, so whatever share that we can spread should satisfy their souls enough. (What can I give them? What—quick, think! What?)
Yet all enduring customs adapt to circumstances. So, by rebel tradition, we have cleared a plot of ground in a coffin’s general proportions, though somewhat larger, and put a stone at the head of it. I do the honors, pouring a libation on the stone. Now we have our symbolic grave, and we array our “feast” upon it—the best food that we can scavenge, probably better than most rebels can serve, especially with that generous round of cheese and all the other goodies that Kiril left for us to find. Some of our dead may never have even tasted cheese.
(As Sarge orders the last details for settling in the camp—we won’t need tents, since nobody’s going to sleep—I lay out the food upon the “grave” that the soldiers have cleared. But instead of a stone they fly a Charadocian flag at the head. Did they pick up the custom of fake graves from us, or did we learn it from them? Do enemies grow more and more like each other the longer they fight? I wish I could ask Deirdre—ask her this and so many other questions! She knows all the answers, she has the best education of anybody ever. If I had her knowhow I wouldn’t ever have to worry about anything again.)
(What can I give? What can I...
Dance. I can give the dead a dance. Not as good as Kanarik, but better than some, maybe. Lucinda would like such a gift, and she’d bully any of the others who’d complain.
Oh but I feel so cold, so cold and hungry and alone and afraid! But a dance should warm me up)
I wrap my cloak closer around me, regretting the bare fingers that I need to hold my cigarette, but appreciating the warm smoke in my chest. I can feel the predicted cold snap coming on; if we’d had clouds in the sky, snow would have fallen. The spring flowers will fall blighted before the dawn. But people say to expect this on All Soul’s Night, when the dead walk and their cold breath spreads across the land. The green things have adapted. Other buds will open after this.
(We sit in the faint moon-shadow of the dead-cart. I don’t know how anybody’s going to eat in range of that smell, now that we no longer have snow and have to raid farms for blocks from their ice-cellars and it’s never enough. Sarge had me make garlic-garlands for the oxen so that they’d abide the stench and just keep plodding on, but garlic on All Soul’s Day insults the dead, unless it’s in their favorite food. Ah well, the drop in temperature tonight should make it better.)
As Hekut sprinkles the traditional flowers between the plates, he asks, “Shouldn’t we attack the enemy camp about now? That’s what guerillas do, isn’t it, attack the enemy during holidays, catch ‘em off guard?”
Betany says in her hollow voice, “Their ghosts stand guard,” not looking up from the candles that she lights, the flames bending and dancing and threatening to go out every minute.
“Yeah, but aren’t our ghosts stronger?”
“Sure,” Betany says, adding rocks to the small wall of them shielding the candles, “but why should they fight for us if we neglect their feast?”
“Oh,” he says, and tells us no more plans.
(I have laid out all the feast and now the chaplain says the prayers for the dead, different from the country prayers I know. I follow the cue of the men around me, saying the responses just half a second behind them, bowing my head with theirs. Funny, how I never thought of this as a church-holiday, just one of those occasions that we keep in the country without asking too closely what the priests might think; they don’t always like what we know about the dead. But it seems that at least on this night they’re right in there with us.)
(So do it Lufti. Do it! The Dead wait, all around.
Eyes tightly shut, I pry my frost-stiff body from the shelter of a cleft in a tree, shaking all over, and I start to tap a rhythm with my foot till I can feel the beat all through me. I have no music to give them, just a beat; that will have to do.)
I blow tobacco to all the quarters and say the prayers that invite our dead home to visit us, then sit down with the rest to feast and reminisce about those we love who no longer dine by us with mouths of flesh. (We sit to the feast, me and all the soldiers. I take care to serve others so that nobody might notice me not eating.) (Now I let the beat twitch my spine, my hips, a little this way and that. My arms start to rise, my shoulders start to move, I feel my chin tip up, as if ghosts give my body dancing lessons and I must follow their spirit motion by motion if I aim to make peace with them tonight.)
The food doesn’t last that long, but the bottles we pass around the circle hang in there awhile longer as the gibbous moon slowly moves across the sky, and with each pass more names come up, and with them their anecdotes, inside jokes, laughter, tears; those who share their history clasp each other’s hands. (Slowly I watch the moon rise over the army banner, waning from the full. That can’t be good. I seem to recall Deirdre saying something bad about waning moons, something muttered to herself, unaware that I could hear her. I shiver as the night just keeps on getting colder and colder.) The veterans around me call out names unfamiliar to me, telling stories I don’t know, while others nod and smile, tears and memories filling up their eyes. (Men murmur softly the names of comrades lost, mustering them here for one more meal. The dark around us seems to move; air quivers between us and the stars, and the shadows under trees feel inhabited, and the moon looks like it could be a skull up there.)
(I start to sway in a more dancelike way, but twitchy, still following the beat. My tapping feet begin to stomp, twigs snapping underfoot. My head whips back and forth, drops, flings back, my hair flipping in and out of my face.
Open my eyes! Stars shine through dead branches overhead, a lopsided moon glows down and paints the shadows black against the silvered gray.)
Can I even remember all my dead? The names swim in my head as I try, hoping to omit nobody. I have none of my old comrades here to help me out with this, but I can only try my best. (My heart tightens inside my chest; I try not to look too far from the fire. The dead walk tonight, and I sit at the feast of the ghosts of the enemy.) Dear, rough Lucinda, whose shoes I try to fill. (Is that a whiff of apple-blossom that I smell, or just the cider?) (My feet step forward into the woods but oddly, jerking to the beat, toes turned out at angles, knees not straightening all the way, my back as loose as a whip.) Fatima—did I ever thank you for the focus that you gave me? (My arms go in different directions, emphatic gestures that mean something that living people don’t dare know, my body swoops and arches and twists and turns and my head keeps moving fast, branches and branches and sky and ground and branches and trunk and dizzy, dizzy hunger, but the dead go hungry, too, but if I can just keep on dancing all night long they’ll eat the dance and not my soul.) Imad who showed me how to die. (Oh, thank heaven that the ritual takes the whole night long—I couldn’t stand the terror of sleeping in the enemy’s tent on this of all nights.) Yan and Yaimis, mourned by horses all over the country, no doubt. Poor, ardent Aron, who gave his very soul, who had nothing left in the end—come and find some comfort here. And our dear, sweet taverness—I swore I’d never forget your name, and I’m sure I’ll remember it later, but you know who you are, you know I bid you welcome even though I can't toast you with the best chaummin in the Charadoc. Does your ghost simultaneously feast with your daughter and husband as with me? How does that work, anyway?
(Reno offers me some potato but I smile and turn away. How long can I avoid actually sharing in this feast? My stomach churns, not understanding why I don’t feed it. But the ghosts watch every move I make—will they turn the food to poison in my belly, because it’s theirs and they hate me? Will they choke me if I try to swallow? They say that the ghosts do know things that we don’t, that maybe they can read the hearts of the living—they must know what I intend!) (Steps turn to lunges, pivots, spins and leaps! I twist midair, I dance in all directions like the Lady of the Mast, my foot touching trunk then back to earth then up in the air again and down. My breath comes hot and ragged and my blood warms up.)
Sharane! That’s it. Welcome, Sharane. And welcome Gaziley, who fought on after death for us. (“Here, Kiril—have some turkey,” Sarge says. “It’s delicious; you outdid yourself this time.” No escape! Sarge feeds me like a child, the way he likes; I don’t dare shut my mouth to him. I chew in nauseous fear, in terror I swallow—oh Mama protect me, save me from the other ghosts! Please!)
Madame, don’t hang back, receive a blessing too, less perhaps because you exploited some of us, but you also protected us and deserve our thanks for that. ( I don’t know how to dance this good—motions just gush up from the ground, flow into my feet then legs, through my spine and out my arms and head. They insist like convulsions of beauty, something I can’t predict or hold back, I fling them from my fingers and my hair, and the ghosts feed off of them.)
Mischa, Imad’s sister—you won over our dentist, who has done us so much good; come join our feast along with your brother. (It’s all right. Nothing happens. And now it’s too late if something does happen later; I might as well eat with the rest. The wind has turned, at least, to blow the stench away. And the turkey does taste good, basted in a splash of Sarge’s scotch to give it a smoky touch.) Miko, my first dead, you got us the guns, just like you promised—thanks. Brother Branko, may heaven be all you hoped, and more. (Now I feel rich, so rich, so saturated with the power that they crave! Terror gives way to ecstasy as I dance and dance and dance...)
And...and who was that boy that I had too little time to know, who looked kind of like a toad, but who offered me a love that I was too foolish to accept? Forgive me, my memory...but here’s to you, dear boy, never mind the insulting side of my recollection, just know that I saw you fight like a man and admired you for it, and we all still prosper from the darts that you taught us how to use. Oh God forgive me—I know there must be more, that I’m forgetting people who should never be forgotten, blame the cider, but I do honor you all, see?
(Sarge says, “Give the girl a turn, men.” I sweat in the cold. “Why doncha tell us about your parents, Kiril?”
I take a swallow from one of the bottles circling around before Sarge can intercept it. “I...it’s hard.”
He looks so sadly at me and doesn’t take the beer from me, not tonight. Gently he says, “That’s what Day of the Dead is all about, Kiril. We’re all here to make it easier for you.”
“My Mama...” Dead silence. I take one more gulp and pass the bottle on. “My Mama worked so hard. She...everybody tells me how she used to be so pretty. But I remember her tired eyes, and the skin hanging weary off her thin face with nothing between it and bone, and I remember her bent back, her hands as rough as old tree bark. I don’t mean her no disrespect, don’t get me wrong. She earned all those things. I, I mean, it might sound ugly...well, maybe it was ugly, but those marks were kind of honors, too. It meant she survived all kinds of things, she kept on, long as she could, she worked hard to stay with me as...” I start to cry, “...long...as...she...” I bury my face in Sarge’s shirt and sob.) I honor every holy one of you. I raise my glass to you—bottle, whatever—and bid peace upon your scattered graves. Lucinda and Fatima and Branko and all the rest.
Oh Lord, I forgot Jesse–a member of my own friendclan! And my mother, flesh of my flesh. How could any amount of cultural immersion make me forget them?
(“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay, Kiril,” Sarge says, stroking my back. “What was your mother’s name?”
“‘Mantha. Samantha.” I shudder as the wind shifts again.
“Here, now, everybody raise a toast to Samantha.” And as I hear those bloodstained men toast my mother’s name, they who fight to keep the system that starved her to death, the food in my belly does turn to poison and I run from the firelit space, clear to the latrines to throw up, here in the dark, crowded by ghosts.)
And Tom Czenko. And Kief. And Shermio. Oh God, forgive me!