IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Saturday, November 21, 2708, continued
Ouuuuch. Did I really doze off here in the bole of the tree? I did, and my neck and shoulder pay for it, cramped up where they fell into an unnatural position against the wood. I rotate the offended parts to try and pop things back in place. That helps a little; something clicked, and now I feel some warmth flowing where it should.
(My blood! My blood all over my clothes, all over the ground, the leaves, everything! I don’t even feel it yet. But that guy with the stars on his shoulders won’t ever feel anything again. Captain Deirdre will be so proud of me!)
These spontaneous little naps get more common and more inconvenient all the time; I must have worn myself half to ruin without even realizing it. (Fall. Drag up, run, fall. Drag up, stagger forward. Cold, so cold! Fall. Drag up...) It’s hard to say, anymore, what’s normal in the way of rest, hunger, levels of pain, all the little niceties that I used to take for granted; you lose track of how much to tune out, what to pay attention to.
(I stagger through the woods, sticky hands on trunks, and then I crawl. Now I feel it oh God I feel it I feel it I Sweet Jesus I feel it!)
(I don’t feel anything anymore. Am I even Lufti anymore? Does it matter? The war outlives us all. The stars have seen all of us come and go for ages, and they murmur comments so high up that none of us can hear.)
Jeez, first stars in the sky already! I’d better get moving; Dosh and Nishka probably wait for me by now, and that sour old lady watching over Betany must be frantic, wondering who they are and how long they intend to occupy the premises. So I make my way swiftly in the sweet night air, as the first lights glow in cabin windows here and there, bright gold against the blue. And...here we are.
(Can’t go further. Here I lie. Nightfall hides my trail, I hope. But my own won’t find me either.
So...okay. I can live with die with this, sweet-smelling greenery all around. Better here than in the mine. Oh lord but it hurts!)
Nishka opens the door for me—a big, strapping farmgirl, she’s muscled to carry calves across those broad shoulders of hers. The wide planes of bone in her face look designed to support a lot more flesh than she’s got, but she does all right with what she has. Why should it surprise anyone that she and that muscular mine-boy, Dosh, fell in with each other from the day they met? He must like the frank look of her eyes, under the straight thick brows brushed with her bangs. She must feel right at home with his big, blunt jaw.
(Warmer under the bush. Warmer...scent...and twigs...and pain...but stars...stars between the leaves...better here than home. Tell myself that, over and over...throb...throb...throb...)
The thick clay walls hoard the warmth and the light to themselves within; I step from a chill spring night into a box of summer day. (Hurt I hurt I hurt I hurt...bleeding...still cold...throb...throb...throb...but I got my target just like Deirdre said to do. Hold onto that while I clutch my side...feel the liquid heat slip out...throb...throb...) Betany looks even better than the last time I saw her; she’ll do well under Zofia’s care. (If I could just make it to Zofia’s...but I can’t even raise my head anymore.) I tell the others how to help her dress without disturbing the bandages or starting up the bleeding again, then I head out to saddle up the mule. (How long does it take to bleed out, anyway?) On my way I check out the hospitality bureau.
Nothing. Dust. An old stamp over there in the corner of the drawer, out of date, and that’s it.
“I don’t get much company,” the widow says behind me in an unapologetic voice.
I feel anger and disgust rise in me, inordinate to the offense; I barely choke it down in time. After all, she didn’t have to take care of Betany at all. I pull out my pocketknife and leave it there in the drawer, saying, “Maybe you need it more than me.” Then I try to stalk away dramatically, but suddenly my head spins and I lurch to my knees.
(Oh. There. Pain and cold recede again. Much better...much, much bet...)
(Tears run down my face but I don’t feel them anymore, don’t feel anything anymore, nothing but anguish for my bleeding people crying out for the God of Freedom to come and...faster! I must ride faster! My chest throbs with heat then ice then heat and I must find Kiril before I explode!)
“Deirdre!” Dosh runs up to catch me. “What’s happening?”
“I am not well,” I gasp, then laugh shakily. I have not got the foggiest notion of what just hit me. So weird; I feel all woozy, sick and weak, almost kind of drunk, but also wildly jittery, all wound up and twisted, restless and fearful and rocked with surges of pride and wrath for no reason. “I just...there. It’s passing. Just...whoa! Let me sit for a minute; I’ll be all right.” Maybe.
(Faster...faster...almost there, hang in there just a little more...)
(“Ice!” Don shouts. “Get ice on him, right away—his fever’s spiking through the roof!” The school nurse doesn’t even rush downstairs; he opens a window and scoops snow right off the sill onto a towel to make a cold-pack on the spot.
“Hold him down,” the nurse says. “He’ll seize with the sudden contrast in temperature. Randall, you get his shoulders. Donald, you take his legs.”
I throw arms across Jake’s hot shoulders and chest while Don leans against his shins. And then the nurse applies the snow.
(Reno doesn’t say a word to anyone all through supper, doesn’t look at me, just keeps his eyes strictly on the bowl of stew in his shaking hands. I think he fears more than my scowl, though; I notice how he always sits or stands to face fire or a lamp, to avoid those corner glimpses of darkness that can so unnerve you when you fear what hands can’t shove away. My heart goes out to him; it took greenfire to make me feel that bad, once—what must life be like for him, when he feels that way normal, no leaf that he can quit to set things right again?)
(I can feel Jake’s heart where my arm holds him, pounding, fast—galloping.)
(I hear...hooves? Maybe...yes...distant at first, then I hear the hoofbeats beating closer and louder. Everybody hears it; the soldiers look up, hands going for their guns. A night-raid? Would Deirdre risk swooping in by horse with everybody settled, no stragglers to pick off?)
(I know where to find you, Kiril. I ride hot on the trail of rumors that glow in my mind like luminous footprints in the road before me. People spoke of you, Kiril; they told me about the troop that travels with a light-haired young girl for their cook. Last time I refilled my pouch they told me, and they said your name. They said the sergeant stole spices from their cabinets to please you. They snickered, saying that by the size of you he had already pleased you too much.)
(Louder...men leap to their feet and take aim as the horse crashes through the foliage right in front of us—with Lufti!
“STOP!” I scream at the top of my lungs, throwing myself ahead of the rifles. “That’s my brother—he has no gun!” What the devil are you DOING, Lufti?)
(There she’s there she’s there no words I can’t find words struck dumb the ghosts stop my mouth that’s what I get for riding the horses of the dead but she’s there my beloved my wonderful Kiril fat and sassy just like I feared but she runs up anyway and I topple right into her arms and she feels so soft and warm and radiating love with every wheeze like streaming light straight through me illuminating great big truths bigger even than the God of Freedom that I can’t understand but this and only this makes any sense in the entire world at all!)
(“Get the medic!” I gasp against the asthma while everyone stands there frozen. “Something’s wrong with him—look, blood all over his pants.” Good Lord but Lufti stinks!)
(Kiril’s bosom heaves against me. Oh sweet dizzy heaven at last!)
(Only when Doc takes him from my arms do I realize that I should never have been able to hold Lufti like a baby—not if he weighed what he should.)
( “Stand by, boys,” the medic says. “He might need more ice soon. And Randall, we’ll need to check your wounds, to make sure you didn’t tear the stitches out.”
Why do I keep thinking of the school nurse as a medic? That sounds so…military.)
(I run after Doc, fighting for breath, into the med-tent where he carries my darling. While I use the inhaler, Doc cuts the pants back from where they stick to Lufti’s sores, and phew! The smell just gets worse and worse.)
(Can’t talk. Can never talk again. Yan and Yaimis have stolen my voice because I rode their horses too hard. I can only stare, just like the stars.)
(“Pretty nasty decubitus ulcers he’s got there,,” the doctor murmurs over him. “Infected—cause enough for his delirium right there, even if...”
“More than that,” Sarge says, coming in behind us. He holds out a pouch and a flask. “Found these in the saddlebags—chaummin and greenfire leaf. Looks like he’s been mixing them, too.”
“Just as I thought,” says the medic. “I could smell the liquor, and the dilated eyes and bronze-stained teeth filled in the rest. How long since you’ve eaten, lad?”
Lufti just gazes on him, eyes huge and bleary and red.
“He hasn’t changed his clothes for more than a week,” says Doc, with that calm voice of his that kicks in when the rest of us feel ready to burst with emotion. “That might tell us how long he’s been flying. It’s a wonder the kid’s alive.”
Doc peels off Lufti’s shirt and moves the skin over the ribs. “Rapid weight loss.” He takes the pulse. “Is that a murmur? The child might have damaged his heart.” Oh. My. God. “No one should ever mix greenfire and alcohol.” No one ever told us!
I go heat water so that Doc can bathe Lufti and clean his sores. I feel tears stream down my face and a hard part inside me thinks, “Good! That’ll convince everybody that we’re related,” but another part just grieves that Lufti could wind up so badly messed up.
As I come back with the kettle and the basin, through the tent walls I hear Sarge say, “The horse looks a whole lot fresher than he does—somebody’s been posting him.” I nearly spill the water—quick! Think up a lie! “Those wicked, wicked rebels—damn them all to hell! It’s obvious that somebody got to this kid, juiced him up till he don’t know his head from his ass, packed his dizzy brain with lies, and then sent him to fight their battles for them.”
I come in just as the medic says, “So where’s his gun?”
“Rebels don’t always need...”
“He doesn’t have no gun,” I say. “He thinks he does. He thinks he’s the best shot in the world, but he’s never shot a round in his life.” Fury turns Lufti’s face purple, but he still can’t seem to speak. I kneel down and start to bathe him, myself, as Doc cleans up the wounds. “Lufti has lived in fantasy since the day that Mama died. This isn’t the first time that he’s run off and stolen horse after horse, chasing after some dream, blasted out of his mind. But somehow he always finds me again—I just wish that I could keep him!”
Doc sinks back on his heels and sighs. “Self-medication! That explains a lot. I’ll bet half the addicts in the Charadoc just take whatever they can grab to try and stop the voices.” He climbs to his feet to fetch his chest-listening thing. “If they’d only give doctors the extra votes we deserve, we could make mental health care a priority for a change.” He goes off muttering to himself as I look up at Sarge.
“Lufti’s no rebel,” I tell him. “Sometimes he thinks he is. Sometimes he thinks he’s a soldier like you, fighting for the government. Sometimes he thinks he’s a secret agent, or St. Michael, or Napoleon.”
“A god...” Lufti mutters for the first time; we both turn to him. “...just this past week. I became a god. But the stars don’t like it...” then he sees the look in our eyes and shuts up. Thank you, Lufti!
Sarge glares at me, the hardest he’s ever looked at me. “Don’t think that because I treat you nice I’m running a charity here,” he says. “You pay your own way—you’re a good cook, Kiril. But I’m not adopting some lunatic drug fiend with delusions about guns just because you’re related.”
Thank God! He won’t shoot Lufti. “Can’t we just nurse him back to health, till he can walk on his own feet again? Please, Daddy Sarge? I’ll give him half my food.”
Sarge’s eyes soften. “Now honey, don’t talk that way; you don’t have to give up a thing. We’ll allow him a little time, maybe—but once he gets sound enough to fend for himself, he’s got to go.” I nod acceptance. “Don’t look at me like that—it’s the best I can do.” I didn’t look at you any way but grateful, Sarge, but if you imagine more, that’s not my fault. You know darn well that your “best” never is.
He leaves the tent, giving me a few moments alone with my “brother”. I bend down to his ear and whisper, “Lufti, pull yourself together and listen real good. If you say one thing, the least word, about Cyran or Deirdre or the Egalitarian army, to anyone but me, in private, I will personally smother you with your own pillow and tell the others that your bad heart gave out—got it?” He nods, eyes pink-white all around the irises.
Oh Jesus! Grant that I never have to follow through on that!)
(“His fever has broken,” the nurse says. “Sponge-bathe him, change his sheets, and watch him for chill. Give him plenty of liquids, but don’t let him rise for the toilet—fetch him the bedpan instead.”
Don has already drawn warm water. I take up the sponge in one hand, and a towel in the other, and as gently as I can, I polish clean that beautiful, muscular body. Don props him up and brings him a mug as Jake opens his eyes. The soap smells faintly of lilac, the sheets of sweat. The skin feels satiny, too smooth for such a rugged man, but heartbreakingly delicious to the touch.
His voice sounds cracked and hoarse, higher than usual, when he asks, “Randy? Is that you?”
“Yes!” And I drop the sponge to hold his hand.
“And Don…I see you, too, Don.”
Don laughs and says, “Yep, that’s me.”
“Did I say anything?”
“Quite a bit, actually,” says Don.
“I…” He shakes his head. “I can only remember one thing, now. Borders, melting in the heat. Too many borders melting. Things bleed together that shouldn’t. And…ghosts. We should never forget the ghosts.”)
* * *
Zofia seems to glow, the way she smiles as she settles Betany into her new quarters; there’s something about risking yourself for a great cause, in a way that doesn’t entail killing on your own part, which holds an almost serene excitement to it, something that can anchor you and yet let you detach from anything that stands in the way. Soldiers can never quite capture the same feeling, though war has passions of its own.
Two new wounded now sit on a bench, bandaged and resting from their stitches. And three never made it back alive. Not bad, I tell myself, for an operation that size. I sigh and ask, “How’s Kurmal?”
She turns her smile to me. “Better. He might actually stand a chance, now.” I almost warn her not to get her hopes up, but hold my tongue; she has the power, right now, to withstand even this.
“How are you?” she asks me. “I heard you had a bad spell, earlier.”
I sink into a chair and sigh. “I can hold a gun. I can aim it and pull the trigger. What more do I need?”
“No more than anybody else.” I don’t know. Have I done more than the rest, or just worried more? Or maybe I really am as spoiled as Cyran first thought of me and can’t keep up with simple Charadocian reality; you don’t see kids hungrier than me fainting on the job. Abruptly I force myself back up from the chair and stalk out to look over my crew in the main room.
One thing you can count on with Zofia, if she has anything to eat at all, everybody under her roof gets a share. Take that old woman, Katya, gulping down soup with a toothless grin—she’s the herbwife somebody found, willing to work with Zofia—a homeless old dame who drinks a bit, but she knows a lot that Zofia doesn’t, and could come in handy if we can just keep the chaummin out of her hands.
At the mere thought of that liquor the memory of its smell assails me like someone dashed me in the face with it—I feel dizzy and sick, and if I hadn’t caught the lintel the others would’ve noticed. Get your mind on setting up the infirmary, Deirdre! We’re going to need to improvise a lot more beds. We can detail off a girl, too, to aid Zofia—the one who used to help Rashid dress wounds when her own got better. I smile to myself as I light up a cigarette; Zofia can set up shop better than what Rashid started out with in Koboros.
I should take this outside—smoke’s the last thing our patients need. I pass Zofia’s hospitality bureau on the way; curious, I pull a drawer open. It holds handkerchiefs, mostly. Old, threadbare squares of muslin cut from faded sheets and pillowcases, by the looks of them, but edged with carefully crocheted lace in yarn unraveled from whatever knit goods went past repair. I smell the lavender-water with which she pressed them before laying them out in the drawer.