IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
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
(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
“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
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
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,
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
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
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?”
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!