IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Thursday, November 5, continued
(Jake slips out of his cot just like he always does this time of night, but this time he taps me and Don, so we dress under our blankets, too, and join him. Pulling on my gloves against the cold, I expect Jake to head for the smoking nook, but no, he leads us straight to a ruinous old building on the western edge of the school. How come I never noticed this wreck before? It should stand out.
“Married teacher’s quarters,” he says. Oh. Oh yeah. “Nobody will disturb us here.”
And then he does pull out a pack of smuggled cigarettes—he buys them from Joel by doing his homework for him—taps out what he needs, and in this minute I know for sure that yes, he does need them by now. Our eyes meet, and he knows that I know. And awkwardly, he knows, too, that I love him anyway.
Inside, we settle into dusty old armchairs, comfy even in their mustiness. Jake finds an ashtray of grimy cut crystal, and sets it on the end-table next to him.
He starts to speak, then stops, then says, “Did I hear something rustle upstairs?”
Don shrugs. “Rats, probably. Like you said—who would come here?” He presses his magentine-ringed fingers to
the chair’s arm and adds, “Who could?”
Don shrugs, his palms uplifted. “Not a thing, but that’s not unusual. I entered Til Institute as a baby.”
“So did I,” I say, “But Mom visited a lot, whenever she came to port.” I know this like a fact read out of a book that I’m supposed to study.
Don shakes his head. “I can’t help there. My mother lived—or lives—on a different continent entirely. And I am legally dead in Neyth.” Then he strokes his chin, considering. “I wonder if she wishes she could, though. Visit, I mean, like Randy’s Mom. Funny, I never thought about it before.”
Jake says, “We can think a number of things here that we can’t think elsewhere on the campus.”
And with that an image
returns to me. “My mother,” I say
softly, “stood even shorter than I do now, a petite thing, with red hair and
pretty little freckles. She had
sparkling gray eyes, and a quirky smile, and she bounced when she walked.”
“She…the last time we ever met, my father’s funeral…” And I stop. Oh God, I do NOT want to think the next thought. I don’t! I have never thought it—no, never! Not consciously.
After waiting for a long period, Don says, “I remember how that seemed like a hard time for you. It must have been difficult, having parents who breeze in and out of your life, and then to lose your father, when you hardly knew him…”
“No,” I grate through clenched teeth, clutching my fear-cramped stomach. “That was not it.” Then I look at him. “Did I ever tell you why her visits stopped?”
“I told Olivia that I never wanted to see her again. She wasn’t my housemother anymore, of course, but she could still carry my message for me when I couldn’t bear to. I…I didn’t tell her why. I didn’t even tell myself why. I just told myself that I was through with having half a relationship, that it hurt too bad.”
Jake kneels before me—when did he move?—and dabs the sweat from my brow with his handkerchief. “Tell us now, Randy. I am here for you. What was the real reason?”
Oh God my stomach hurts! “She…she flirted with me.”
After a shocked silence, very tentatively, Don says, “That was wrong, but I can sort of understand the confusion. She had never had the chance to form a maternal bond, and with your father gone…”
SCREEEEEEEAM! I don’t even know it’s me screaming until Jake claps his hand over my face, cutting off the air till I don’t have the breath to scream anymore.)
(What was that! My heart beats like crazy, but I don’t hear anything further. Just a dream or vision. The air’s full of them in here.)
( And then Jake lets up a little, but I still smell his tobacco-stained hand, ready just in case, and somehow it comforts me, faults and all.
I’d never been close to my father. Why did mentioning his…goneness—not his death but his goneness…set me off like that?
Jake draws back, picks up his cigarette again, and returns to his seat, smoking, saying nothing. Then he nods, and stands. “That’s what I needed to hear. I’m not the focus, the weak link, by myself.” And he looks on me with such tenderness, as he offers me a hand up out of the chair. “We all are.”
Don stays seated. “But I’m not…I’m not like…” and he doesn’t say it, and I halfway wish he would.
Jake turns to him. “No, you’re a different part of the puzzle. Lisa waits for you, pining, and you keep forgetting she exists. You connect to the absence.”
Don starts, then looks up, worried. “What does that even mean?”
“I wish I knew.”)
Friday, November 6, 2017
I just had to go and wish for a night of fun, didn’t I? Having come into the fold as a prisoner-convert, I didn’t know and nobody warned me that at the end of first contacts you teach recruits how to drink rebel-style, sharing the wealth all around in the true spirit of Egalitarianism—all for one and one for all. Just when I’d fought clear of that tea, too! Does the Charadoc never give you one moment to think straight?
Now they expect me to slip safely, silently, and discreetly back to base camp? Ohhh Lord! The night looks more menacing than it did coming in, darker and fuzzier and anything might hide in all those blurry shapes out there. Must be past midnight; maybe I don’t have to worry so much about who might catch me out. But every time I hear a dog bark I think it barks at me.
Makes sense, though. In vino veritas and all that, and aren’t I proud of myself to remember Greek at a time like this? You can learn a lot about total strangers if you hit ‘em hard and fast and sudden with too much liquor for them to keep their heads and tongues in place. That’s the theory, anyway—maybe that’s the excuse. I dunno if I could catch the perfidity of Judas Iscariot right now.
Who put that root there! I freeze where I sprawl, listening desperately for any clue that someone heard me crash to the ground. Carefully, carefully, I ease myself up in the most exquisite silence imaginable. Not a leaf rustles, not a twig snaps, that hasn’t a natural cause to blame.
Some people think it’s a blast to drink in the face of danger; it makes them feel all glorious and on top of the world. Not me—at least not tonight. I feel like a blind woman in the vicinity of a cliff. I know beyond a doubt that perils await out there, somewhere, but I have absolutely no reason to believe in my ability to deal with them. Each footstep I lay down with exaggerated care, for my feet feel somewhat numb and rubbery and distant from control, and I can’t take for granted that I’ll move quietly enough without the utmost attention. I give it so much attention, in fact, from the little I have left to spare, that when next I raise my dizzy eyes I find myself utterly lost.
Shall I whistle “Here,” and hope somebody finds me? Too humiliating. I whistle “Staying overnight,” and climb inside a dead, hollow tree, hoping that my skin’s gone too numb to feel anything that might crawl over me in the dark. At least my hurts don’t burn.
* * *
(I hate this part, but I know the new recruits hate it even more, and that’s the point. We’ve got to move out now, before the sun climbs up above the horizon—see, already the sky pales and every silhouette stands out like the ache in our heads outline them.
“Hurry, hurry!” I whisper. I’ve got to see who moves silently under the worst conditions.
“Can’t we j...” he chokes when I grab the man’s throat.
“You will not talk,” I hiss in his ear. “You will not let your gear jingle. You will not groan about your headache or sigh over your misfortunes—and you will have misfortunes a-plenty on the road we travel.” I release him and he staggers back, wheezing and feeling at the bruises on his neck. Still in a whisper, yet all can hear, I say, “You got any regrets you let me know right now.”
“No. No sir, I don’t.”
“That’s good.” I start to motion them on when a woman says, “I have regrets.” Damn. “Maybe this isn’t for me, after all.” She just had to say it. “It seemed exciting last night, but now I’m thinking, maybe revolution’s going overboard.” Nooo. “Master Barrahab’s got the only plantation for miles around, and he’s all right; he gave my sister a ham for Christmas last year.” Oh crap! “I could have a good life if I join her working for him.”
I nod. “Would you, indeed?” Then I clap my hand over her mouth tight and plunge the knife home before she has time to scream. I keep her nose and mouth pinched shut and quiet till it’s over, then I drop her to the ground. “Anybody else have regrets?” They stare at me, white-faced. One man turns to retch; I don’t rebuke him for the noise—poor cuss can’t help it. I did the same thing on my first day. Very quietly I say, “You’ve all seen my face. You’ve all seen each other’s faces. There’s no backing out now. You will become good rebels, or you will die.”
I shove the woman with my foot into the nearby bushes, then kick dirt and leaves over the blood. Police don’t care as much when a low-caste woman dies, curse ‘em. Later I’ll have Father Man say prayers in her memory so her ghost won’t haunt too much—if I survive so long. “Now let’s go.”)
(A door opening and closing wakes me up again. I push myself out of the stinking, dust-choked bed. I go over to the window, and watch the Lumne boys leave the porch down below. Now what were they up to, I wonder?
When did I pick up this flask? Why do I swig from it now? The herb-laced kusmet has come to taste good to me, bittersweet, like life. Gita seems to want me to.
Could it be that Gita calls them, too? Yet they didn’t come upstairs. Or did Jake just want the most private place on campus to meet with his island-mates? I shall have to punish him later for abusing my trust in him.
No. I won’t. Strange night. Gita did want them here—who am I to argue?
I feel it. The need. I put down the empty flask, afraid, very much afraid, that I have explored too deeply. Again. Too soon after last time. I hear the crystals singing, and I really shouldn’t do that. I push the window open,, feeling the ragged old curtains caress my face in the dark. Did they once touch…touch her face? Long ago?
The red stones want red blood again. To make things happen. To…I don’t know what. And not a little wound, this time, not a few drops, and no mere animal. I run from Gita, down the stairs, loud clomps and clouds of dust. She demands too much of me!
My hands slam into the lintels to stop me from hurtling out the door, into the night, gasping for air, the dust-free, autumn scented air, longing for the free winds outside. If I leave this building, this one forgotten corner, I will lose it all again, all connection to the feminine. Or…
Beyond the walls! I could go beyond the walls, and remember everything, strip off my shoes and sink my feet into the cold, soft, deep, ungardened earth, I could…
But killings happen there…oh, oh, the graves, the graves, they lie out there, and the ghosts press against the old stones, and soon, if Gita has her way they will…oh God!
Not God. No God will help me. I have turned my back on God.
If I leave I will forget too much. If I stay I will remember too much—and do too much. There is no innocence for me anymore. Every course leads to…too much. I stagger out into the night.)
(We barely sneak to the door of our dorm before Jake whispers, “Go on in without me. And Don, I’ll need the flask you distilled for Aaron.”
“He’ll kill me if I don’t give it to him!”
“I know,” Jake says with a smile. “But I also know that you actually distilled two.”
As soon as Don slips in for the flask I pull Jake to me and hug him, saying, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s dangerous, Jake!”
“I know that,” he says, with a caress. “Can’t help it.”
“Be careful, love!” I kiss him, then, and stop just in time before Don opens the door again.
Guardian or no, you can’t protect an oracle from everything.)
(But wait—here I find a faint coppery thread, wandering, wafting this way and that across the campus on the trail of the Lumne boys…feminine. Feminine and drunk like me, congruity, my mind swirls around the word, congruiteeeeeee….female intertwined with male but not to breed, a chaste coniunctus, oh the things I learn in long-forgotten texts, the Percival-pure coniunctus of…of him and…other…of, how can I remember fancy words and not the ordinary ones?
Oh but it sounds obscene, hee hee, but no, no! Nothing like that, no!
I pick at the thread that no one can find, no one can touch, save me. I stagger along its dizzying loops, hoping no one sees me in the dark, seemingly out of control, but I am in, so in control that…no. I’m not.
It’s all gone wrong! It never went right to begin with, I just got reeled in, sweet bait, I thought I had control when never, ever…I can’t think straight. That’s all. I just can’t think straight.
The thread leads me to…him. Why would a feminine thread lead to him? Where have his friends gotten to? There’s no mistaking him, even in the dead of night, for nobody looms as tall as he. He drinks quickly from a flask, as if it has suddenly occurred to him that he must get drunk in a hurry, to…
…to find congruiteeeeeeeee. So we can tangle all together. So he can save me. Save us.
I run to him, I throw myself into Jake’s arms, crying, “Help me! Help me!”)
“Help me,” I murmur into the rotten wood where my cheek has fallen, and I don’t even know why, I just do. “Help me, I am so lost!” Am I praying? But what’s the good in that? Especially when I don’t even know, quite, what’s wrong. Aren’t I doing everything I’m supposed to?
(“George? What is it? What’s wrong?” He feels so strong, holding me, holding me, keeping the whirling at bay like an anchor. He’s not very drunk, just a little, just enough to find me. “George, talk to me. Please. What’s going on?”
“I…she…no…” I push back from him, stumble a few steps away, feeling the longing to return to him again, but no, I can’t tell him about the deaths, too many deaths, about the demands of…of someone…about the blood. The killing. The…no. Just stupid-drunk. How did I ever conceive the notion that I could ask him to help me escape power and glory and revenge for…I don’t know what.
“George…” He takes a step towards me. I release the coppery thread, and step back. I laugh, and hiccup, and say, “Don’ mind me. I…jus’ a little too much party, you know. Jus’…jus’ playin’ the fool. It’s fun, sometimes.” And I leave him as fast as my wobbly legs will let me, and find a place to sleep in the barn, because I don’t dare even try to return to the dorm in this condition, and I pitch down into sleep, my heartbeat turning into the sound of horses galloping, galloping, where no walls block the way...)
* * *
I dream. I know that I dream. I feel fiery about the head. I am beside myself. I am...I am both Jake and…and some other? No, no. Yan and Yaimis. I am both Yan and Yaimis. And Deirdre, too, somehow, observing myself as the twins. I make a long and piercing whistle that rips open my pain into a gaping wound. The dead show me no mercy. I must do it again and again till I memorize the skull-splitting sound. No other communication can pass my lips till I get it exactly right. Then different whistles break the spell...
One shrill whistle drives into the crack in my skull that goes from ear to ear. “Impaired Soldiers,” it says. Busted—but no, that’s Kiril I hear. Ohhh no—responsibilities already! But all I have to do is find my way back to camp and send someone else on the job; I have no business going anywhere today that requires undue finesse. And that’s fine with me—I feel like I’ve already gone between the hammer and the gong.
No that’s not right—I can do whatever work I have to. I just won’t like it.
What quarter did she whistle from? I won’t know till I can extricate myself from this rotten tree. Ugh—bugs! I brush the tickly little things off my body in disgust, then climb out painfully into the light.
Who—Tanjin? He smirks at the sight of me disentangling bits of punk-wood from my hair. Our camp lies in plain sight just a little ways beyond him.
Weakly I ask him, “Please don’t tell the others.”
“Too late,” he laughs. “We all heard the whistle last night. But if our Captain wants to spend the night in a tree...” Curse him, he knew exactly how the evening had to end and didn’t warn me! With a mocking bow he escorts me back to our shelter, where I try to wash off the night’s grime with as much surviving dignity as I can muster, then he helps me change my bandages—shallow wounds that should heal quickly now that they’ve been properly attended.
* * *
“Do you understand, now, why I have to do it this way?” Deirdre murmured, then opened her eyes. Justín’s lashes fluttered as he almost woke. Very softly she said, “They hardly let me clear my poor head! I have to see—really see—what happened to me in that country, everything I was, everything I did.” Saying this out loud gave her some comfort.
And...something else? Someone else? Not just Jake? But before she could follow that thought she made herself sink back into the cushions, she listened to the tinkling of the magic music once again, and let the memories flow...