IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Tuesday, November 10, 2708
On a sweet spring day like this, in such a kindly countryside, I can almost forget about war, about marching and dire purposes, as I ride, all alone, this ancient donkey at as merciful a pace as I can afford. The storm that drenched everything before the dawn now rumbles on the other side of those mountains, but here the sun sparkles on all the droplets in the grass and dripping from the leaves. I breathe deeply the fresh, green scents sweetened by the last spring blooms, half-stunned by an absence of aching, practically well-rested.
(This peninsula? THIS? Really? Doesn’t Malcolm realize just how off-limits this property is to somebody like me? And what’s so urgent that he’d send the servant-network scrambling for a bard?
Charming country, though. Every trellis dripping with flowers becomes a song, each blossom a note, spilling over with sweetness, the scent upon the air a melody. Sculptures peep from the vines that clothe the mansions, smiling as though they never heard of sorrow or of sin. And vast lawns shine green under the sun, tapestried with tiny flowers bred to grow just so high and no higher. Would that I could sing a place like this into existence!
Good lord! Cold water hits me! I crouch in fighting stance. The water sprays from the lawn itself—how do they do that?
No, nobody spotted me. Fountains awaken all across the estate, spraying about themselves in circles with a ch-ch-ch-ch sound. I shiver appreciatively in my dripping clothes. They do it automatically somehow. Cool!
It doesn’t surprise me, at least, that they would come up with something like this. In these parts nothing waters anything except ocean mist and irrigation. Which means plenty of sunny days for garden parties and croquet. I do see stormclouds in the distance, though, just beyond those mountains.
And I see forest much closer, or at least its cultivated equivalent. Let’s see if I can find a path in it that leads in the right direction, hopefully less conspicuous than tiptoeing through a wide open field of water landmines. Malcolm’s got to be here somewhere. )
Somewhere a revolution rages. Somewhere guns fire, and people scream, with pain or hate or battle-lust or fear, gasping mouths choking on the smoke and dust. Somewhere frantic feet pound the earth in flight or in pursuit, every heart beating with the dreadful excitement of it all, and some of us hate it, and some of us love it, and all of us know this as the most intense time of our probably short lives.
(It’s nice, you know, strolling through a rich man’s faux forest, far from the thundering grenades. I like excitement as well as any bard, but every now and then it feels good to hear nothing but a soft wind rustling the leaves and the happiness of birds.
Well, isn’t that just dandy! Just when I thought I was going somewhere, this leads straight into the biggest lily pond I ever laid eyes on, twinkling like it laughs at me, but all in good fun, and nary a way around it or across. I pause, smiling at an enormous floating blossom as pink as a newborn baby’s face, contemplating all that matters to me
And so I go look for some other route. Wait...isn’t that pavement over there?)
But for now nothing matters to me except to watch the breathing in and out of two struggling bodies whenever I sit beside two bedsides, at either end of my journeys, as I ride the miles back and forth between farms “manned” by two widows, one almost too bitter to live, one too trusting for her own good.
(Wait a minute. How did that happen? I’ve no small skill in finding my way in unfamiliar territory—so how did my clear, paved path turn into the ridge-post of a roof?)
At each arrival I change bandages, I take pulses while estimating temperatures, I ask advice on herbs. Neither woman knows any more than me about what growing things might make a difference. I do know, of course, that feverfew could help Kurmal, and advise Zofia to keep an eye out for it at the market. And I still carry some rosehips for both.
When not in the open air, the smell of iodine ointment tries to burn away the odor of morbidity that hovers over Kurmal, but Betany improves. Yes. At least I have Betany to show that I’m not completely without skill.
(But hold on—I see Malcolm over there! I wave, and come skittering and clattering down the roof’s tiled slope, take a mighty jump over the rain-gutter and land tumbling onto the lawn. But just as I pick myself up and start to flick the wet grass off my clothes, click click click three guards with three guns all point at me at once!
Okay, bard, see if you can talk your way out of this one!)
Let all the guns fire, far, far away. I’ve got war enough on my hands, on the subtle level of corpuscles and germs vying for a patch of territory, muscle cells and skin struggling to rebuild in all the ruin, with scant supply of blood and little fat for fuel. Let the revolution stampede on its own course without us for awhile; we’ve had enough of guns.
(“No need for rifles,” a cultured voice says behind me. “This must be the musician that Dr. deGroot summoned.” A graying gentleman, wearing enough purple blousing to tent several rebels, steps from the door of the house that I’d just leaped from and approaches me. “Come along, now. You can scrub up in the servants’ quarters. Then we shall need you for a delicate piece of work.”)
(Let the school sail on without me for awhile, as I lie here in the fresh sheets and thick blankets of the infirmary, staring up at the vague outlines of dreams frozen in the plastered ceiling. Let iodine and boric acid replace the subtleties of herbs or the scent of blood alike. Let worlds rise and fall, crashing and reborn, without my intercession. Let the dead do as they will and the living keep on living. I’ve had enough of sacrifice.)
(Oh time, time, galloping time, how much sacrifice must I make for the revolution? But I still have enough greenfire to make anything possible. I take another bitter leaf into my mouth, feel the cold rain in my face, and stay conscious, no matter how my body cries out against me. And the countryside keeps on whizzing past, down and up hills, past farms and mansions and burnt out wrecks so fresh that they sizzle in the storm.)
I let myself into Zofia’s unlocked home after settling the donkey in. She calls out to me, in a despairing voice, “I found the feverfew, but now Kurmal won’t drink it—it’s too bitter for him!”
His fever almost sizzles when I touch his brow. “Tell him it’s greenfire,” I say, only half joking. “That’ll make the taste sweet to him.” To my surprise it works—just from hearing me Kurmal grins wryly and reaches for the steaming cup.
(A footman shows me to a room with a shower and some livery waiting on a cot. Oh luxury! Oh hot and steaming water sluicing over my naked skin like the cleansing Mercy of Heaven’s blessings! Oh sweet baby-powder scented soap! And is that shampoo? I always wanted to try shampoo!
I pause. Is this how the rich get tempted to stay rich, no matter what? For a minute I almost turn the shower off and walk out of there. But then I lather up and scrub myself so hard it almost hurts. Why can’t I enjoy this one moment’s bliss, right here, right now? I didn’t hurt anybody to get here.
Besides, a rich man treats a poor man kindly, here. No reason to refuse something like that, is there? I smile at the thought, moving to direct the hot spray onto every ache in my body, till I can practically feel the muscles sigh.
Uh, wait till you find out why, Damien.
How could it be anything bad? Whatever I’m here for, it’s Malcolm’s idea. He made his choice in Cumenci; he wouldn’t change sides after something like that. I cut the water and shove the curtain aside.)
(Nurse spreads wide the curtains, letting in the golden autumn sun, somehow richer than the brighter summer’s shine. I think I’m the only one in this school who actually feels some sense of seasons, beyond the inconvenience of weathers.
It would feel cold out there, but Nurse keeps me warm in the infirmary, the blankets soft and cozy, the mattress thicker than our cots. I just wish I could enjoy it on painless skin.)
(Oh, the thickness of these towels—I could burrow into them! How could anyone think grim thoughts while rubbing cloth like this all over his body?
Ah, but the clothing feels comfortable, a kanona knit that allows freedom of movement in the narrow sleeves. Burgundy and orange—must be the house colors. Servants have it good, here.
And if I had found service in a household like this, would I have supported the revolution? How many support the aristocracy because they, personally, have it so good that they can’t even imagine the suffering that some of the rest must feel? I finish dressing and tune my harp.
I had an aunt once, Aunt Nula, allergic to stapleseed. One day another aunt, on my father’s side, fixed eggs for her, and had nothing to fry them in but stapleseed oil. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Aunt Roe said to me with a wink, scrambling in potatoes and peppers. Before the hour had passed I didn’t have Aunt Nula anymore. Aunt Roe could eat stapleseed just fine, and never believed that allergies were anything more than Aunt Nula acting fussy. Until that hour.
How many see poverty like that?)
Zofia shows endless patience with Kurmal’s fussing, as he deliriously knocks the teapot off the nightstand, sending the hard-one feverfew tea gushing all over her genuine wooden floor. Fortunately the pot doesn’t break, just rolls about. She sets it out of the way and mops up uncomplaining. I head for the door quietly, but she looks up with a smile and says, “Help yourself to the stapleseed biscuits on your way out, dearie. Kurmal wouldn’t eat any.”
I shock myself with my hunger, eating them all before I know what I’ve done. Scared at myself, I leave money by the basket and saddle up the ass quickly, riding out of there before Zofia can discover it. Shaking, I realize that she would forgive me with hardly a thought.
(The footman comes for me and leads me to a sunny room where a terrified girl in a petal dress lies back on a chaise lounge, wheezing like Kiril till she sprays something in her mouth. Malcolm gently shifts her position, with cushions under her back.
“My daughter,” says the rich man who sits nearby, a forlorn face emerging from a sea of purple silk. “Allergic to lidocaine and all related drugs, and cursed with a delicate constitution that can’t endure narcotics.” I look on her with more sympathy than I thought I could feel for a rich girl. “Dr. deGroot says that music can help in such cases.”
“It won’t prevent the pain,” Malcolm says, positioning the nitrous oxide feed upon the maiden’s nose, “but it can make it bearable. Sometimes it has been the only anodyne I have.”
“That can change,” says the man. “I will provide you with anything you need.” He turns to me and says, “I can’t turn on Dr. deGroot, I don’t care what the rumors say.” Then he gazes out the window. “I have doubled the food and goods paid to my people on the plantation. I had no idea. The overseers didn’t tell me. How could they assume that I couldn’t afford it, or that I wouldn’t want to?”
Malcolm says, “You don’t know what they do, and they don’t know what you want, because caste resists communication. The caste system itself has to go. Even the most well-meaning people can’t be decent, not completely, while it exists.”
Our patron faces Malcolm again. “Dr. deGroot, you are doing the right thing. Wake up the nation! Wake all of us up!”)
I surprise myself by nodding in the saddle. And after all the rest I’ve had? Pull yourself together, Deirdre! Betany needs you.
(Painpppain! Painpppain! Every hoof-fall jolts through me more insistently each time, like I didn’t get the message two or three thousand blows ago. But Deirdre needs me. Kiril needs me, and Damien, and Cyran. I chant these on and on even as the pain goes on and on.
As new bitterness washes down my throat and up into my brain, I hear the singing of the Last Bard of Koboros, thrumming on my heartstrings, turning me into all the heroes of the Charadoc compressed into one boy’s body—how can I not ride?
How can I not hurt so much?)
(The girl looks sleepy, now. “Damien, play your harp,” says Malcolm as he starts his drill a-whirring. And I play. I play all the louder when the girl starts to scream and her father grips her head like a Mountain Maiden had turned him into stone, his face snarled in a fury of grief as the tears spill down, as her screams fade down to moans. I play so wildly, so fiercely that I have the power to turn all pain into a glorious thing, and endurance into defiance, a hope, a power that the very stars must watch in awe!)
(The greenfire helps, at least. It makes me feel exalted to bear more suffering than I ever thought possible, outlining my duty in a searing light. My agony becomes as magnificent as the jagged bolts of lightning gashing the sky over the mountain-peaks with their thunder like the cannon-blasts of God.
I scowl up at the heavens that pummel me with rain. Blast at me all you want, God! I can face Your Hell, I’m bigger than Hell, I’ve grown so much that You don’t know me anymore, and not even You can stop me now!
Oh God I hurt! Please God, make it stop. Somebody make it stop.)
“Make it stop,” Betany murmurs in her sleep. “Stop the bleeding, somebody!”
“Shhh, it’s all right,” I murmur over her, bringing her rosehip tea. “The only bleeding you’ve got is the natural womanly kind. You’re safe and healing and you’re going to be all right.”
“Rashid,” she murmurs. “He kept saying that, over and over. Stop the bleeding” She opens her eyes and takes the cup from me. “Koboros got flooded with refugees, once, shot at as if they were rebels. We had to make ‘em all rebels after Rashid patched them up. They knew where we hid our hospital. Most could hardly wait, of course. Had to shoot the rest.”
I did not just hear that.
“Rashid kept saying stop the bleeding, before when he treated army bullets, and after when he tried to treat rebel bullets. We finally had to tie him up and give him a shot of his own medicine before he’d quiet down.”
She’s a sick girl. Who can believe anything she says right now?
(Refugees clog the road ahead; reluctantly I rein back my latest horse, though maybe they’d like me to trample them, who knows, give them release from this torturing world. I should have realized—Charadoc: Mountains of Fire. It’s another name for Hell. Look at ‘em, all those poor, damned souls. Look at the pinch of hunger in their faces—I know what hunger used to feel like, before the pain ate it all up. But they have nothing here for them anymore, no matter how long their families have worked the land.
The soldiers take over what they like and trash the rest to teach us a lesson. They are, indeed, good teachers. Fires glimmer here and there in the night, serving no other purpose than to illuminate the lesson, warming nothing but their pride, cooking nothing but our hopes.
Illuminate. I think that might be one of the most powerful words that I've learned, maybe from the books I’ve brought or borrowed, maybe from a fragment of a book blowing down the road, blackened in the fire, I don’t remember. Monks illuminate the Word of God with gold and bright red pictures. Lightning illuminates the heavens, and so do stars. Fire illuminates our Hell on Novatierre. Greenfire illuminates the brain. It’s a dangerous word.)
(I sing softly now, till the girl finally falls asleep in her father’s arms, exhausted by her ordeal. The look on his face...I never knew that any rich man could care so much without witnessing what the Abojans saw. Oh, I’ve sung about it. I just didn’t know. They have hearts that burn with love, just like ours do. They want everything for their children, just like we do. And maybe they don’t know that it comes from other children, and maybe they wouldn’t care if they did. Would I? I think on the child swelling in Kanarik’s sweet belly and wonder if I would rob the world blind for her. Maybe I would.
Or maybe I’d try to make sure everybody had enough. Perhaps it’s not impossible.)
(The horse makes that same neigh that the other horse did; an old man leading a pair of mares starts in the crowd and comes over to where I’ve halted. I feel so tall, waiting for him way up here in my saddle; I try to straighten and get even taller, but oh it hurts to try! Maybe it’ll feel good to topple off the saddle and be a little boy again—NO! It hurts! Oh sweet Jesus forgive me my sins!
The old man catches me; I see up close that he’s not that old, not in years. So I’m not a man in years, but who’s counting? The rest of the family crowd around to help me lie upon the ground while they tend my steaming horse.
They offer to share their pathetic scraps with me, but I couldn’t eat the feast of Heaven right now, not though God spreads His best on the bridge between His realm and ours. Instead I unload my packs for them, all the cold cuts and bread and jam and other good things given to speed me on the road. Greenfire’s enough.)
I gather up my neglected pack to take it back to Zofia’s on my return. It feels so heavy to me! Maybe because I feel so heavy. Lord—do I have to chew greenfire just to cross a village?
I can do without. A more welcoming shelter than here waits at the end of my road.
(They throw a tarp over us, and the rain stops beating me for awhile. Impenetrable. That’s another word I’ve learned. The tarp makes a space impenetrable to rain. The greenfire makes a space impenetrable to sleep. Duty makes a space impenetrable to need. But very little comes to hand to make anything impenetrable to bullets.
They ask questions, I answer where I’m able. I tell them the urgency of my mission, just not what it is. And once again I tell how Yan and Yaimis died, once again the tears fall all around, lost in the pounding rain.
Because I can’t lie inside the shelter any longer. I know this. I try to climb up onto the new horse, but I stumble with a cry. The old man puts a flask to my lips, and in a little while the pain starts to wash away. Brandy it ain’t, but boy am I glad to have it! In Hell, chaummin can pass for grace, illuminating what the fires don’t.
At my nod the old man puts a couple more flasks in my now empty pack, then he and his sons help hoist me back into the saddle, onto the new horse, and off I go again. The clouds break up, the lightning withdraws into stars, a beautiful gleaming river of them way up there beyond our reach, an illuminated road to the impenetrable mysteries of the Moon.)