IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Sunday, November 22, 2708
I long for church. I enter with my head bowed, maiden-shy, along with all the other lost combatant souls, though I will not presume to take communion. I just want to kneel in the holiness and the beeswax glow, while soft rains fall outside, though the incense cannot really smudge me clean.
(Day of Rest, their preacher says, and that’s all that Lufti does, as sweet as any child, though he looks as gaunt and worn as an elder—worn and beautiful like some precious old thing handed down from mother to child for generations in memory of better times. He could be some antique carving of childhood lying there, clean now and cared for, though that blue vein pulsing on his temple worries me.)
In the niche to my right, St. Anthony tenderly cradles a worn and faded Christ-child in his arms of cracking wood, but some master artist of the hills has carved a smile so sweet, such gently hooded eyes, that the flickering of the candles seems to make him come alive with love, like the lips almost move to murmur comforts. As I look on them the love for my own young ones wells up inside my breast like the richest, most wonderful of aches. Surely God must understand that I do everything for my little ones, the least of these, the vulnerable children of the road who, at least among this number right here in this church, have no champion but me.
(Will he understand, when he finally wakes up, that everything I’ve done, turning my back on my own, fattening on the enemy’s bread, learning to love men that I have to destroy, all of it I’ve done for him? All this time I thought it was for me, for my family, for my anger spread to an outrage for the whole nation, but really, right this minute I know that it’s for him, for a long time now it’s been for him.
I never let the thought come up before, because even when we played at love I feared. I worried that if I gave him too much of myself, beyond the body, he’d turn into some guy like those on board the ship and it would all go bad and I would have brought it on myself for smiling. But no—Lufti couldn’t hurt me that way, because I know I really do want him. There is no question in my heart about this.)
But when I try to attend to the sermon I can’t really hear anything that the preacher says, for he talks to us of peace, and my ears have been half-deafened by the thundering of war. You can’t really see them in the dim candlelight, at home neither in church-shadows nor in the outside sun, but all my ghosts throng the space between the altar and myself. I know Kief stands there, invisible blood flowing down to desecrate the stones. The others can’t smell it, but Shermio’s charred stench burns behind the incense. And that man, that poor, well-meaning man who went to help a wounded comrade and fell to me instead, somehow in the dark—I never did get a good look at his face; anyone here might resemble him, the dead might walk among us and I wouldn’t know. And what about the bystander that I shot in his pristine lab-coat, years ago it seems? And more, more, I don’t know how many more, people whose names I never heard, faces I couldn’t possibly remember, burning youths in a tank, drunken kids I stabbed, people shot from a distance...no one should carry the blood of people that she’s never even met.
(“KIRIL!” He wakes screaming. I throw my arms around him and he holds me so tight, so tight. “The dead, Kiril! Oh Kiril, the dead!”
“Shhh. Shhh. It was just a dream. Now you just settle back down and don’t strain your heart any more than you have to, dear.”
As I tuck him back in his hand grasps mine. “And you—are you a dream too, Kiril? Because I longed to dream of you for days and days, I longed to lay down by the road to sleep and dream of you.”
“I’m here. I’m real. I love you, Lufti. You can dream of me all you want, but when you open your eyes I’ll still be right here by your side. I promise you that.” So he smiles and falls back into sleep.)
What am I doing here? I don’t really belong in church; I’m not looking for any peace. And yet I feel so deathly weary...I just feel so...
...I stand before a tribunal of stars—stars so bright that it hurts to look on them. Or are they the dead, their bones a-glow and a fire in the sockets of their eyes?
“Dance for us,” they say, and I know that they shall judge me on my performance. The steps are tricky; many have stumbled and fallen, but I’ve seen the dance before, I can do it, skipping ‘round the firecrackers, laughing as they sparkle, pop and smoke...but no—that’s gunfire I hear! That’s ordnance bursting all around! And my moves—I lunge, I punch, I spin and kick...I fight!
“No!” I cry. “I didn’t mean the dance to go this way!” But I can’t stop now—assailants keep coming at me, they won’t let me stop. I whirl out death-blows, I leap over the corpses of my own making, I duck beneath the tank-fire and hurl burning missiles in and I never miss a beat, I never lose my feet, oh I can do this dance, I can do a damned good job of it, better than most, better than I ever thought possible for someone raised in peace, as my braids whirl all around me, all the little ruby ornaments that Soskia’s maids wove in clashing and tinkling around me as I stab and shoot and jump back from the gouts of matching blood that gleam all over the petals of my dress. You wear red or gold for this holiday, that’s what they say, and I don’t have any gold, so bring on the red, come on!
Then I see Lufti lying at my feet just as I almost leap over him, sleeping sweetly, but he looks so worn, so thin, he...
Blood trickles from his back, though the hole in his heart looks so small from this side.
“Deirdre! Wake up! Are you all right?”
“I...huh? Yeah. Fine.” I bring Zofia’s face into focus above me. “Whazzup?”
“You collapsed right in church.”
“Uh...yeah. I do that. It’s no big deal. It’s only nar...uh, it’s...” I sit up then, alarmed. “I don’t know what it is.”
“Come on, let’s get you to my place. Can you ride?”
“Yes, of course I can ride.” But just then a deathly terror of horseback-riding grips me out of nowhere.
“Deirdre, you just went white as a sheet! Lie down. Here, Nishka, prop her feet up.
“No really, it’s okay.”
“It’s okay—Dolores does this all the time,” David says as I open my eyes to dancers leaping over me, medieval costumes sailing grandly around their legs in the sunlight of Balboa Park on a summer Sunday afternoon. “It’s only narcolepsy.”
“Bring out your deeeaad!” Geoffrey calls out above my sprawling form and everybody laughs. I sit up and scoot out of the way of the rest of the dancers, getting grass-stains in my skirt, but hey, that’s authentic for the costume. Well, sort of—we’ve dressed medievally but we dance before San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, which replicates a Renaissance structure; the ticket-sellers scowl even as the customers clap in line, thinking us part of the show.
Forget all that—concentrate! I tell my husband, “I need paper and pen, darling.”
“Right here.” David pulls a little notebook out of his pouch. “Good dream, huh?”
“Not sure if good’s the word for it,” I say. “Hush, please.”
“No problem.” He goes off to tell the others not to disturb me while I write the dream down, but I’m already disturbed; my memories fall apart like a poorly-handled artifact. And isn’t that what they are, shards of an ancient future that might never be, and mine the task to put them together in an archaeology of dreams, so that I can write the “historical fiction” of another world?
Don’t let your mind wander like that! Recapture the dream.
Or dreams? Did several happen in the blink of an eye? Several simultaneous dreams—I get that, sometimes. Can I recover even one of them? I start to write, and the dream flows from my pencil like something new to me. I was Deirdre Keller, in the Charadoc. I cowered in a crack between boulders with Kiril and Lufti, sheltering with them from a cold wind in a gray world. I told the children stories to comfort them in our hour of fear and despair, trying desperately to keep one of them especially warm because...
Oh Lord, not that. I can’t write that.
I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember oh yes I do!
At least one thing stands out clearly in my mind. Blood on my hands. Sticky, hot, and bright, stark red in a world where everything else looked gray. I can even smell it, like raw steak, the memory comes back so vividly.
I crumple the paper. I can’t write these tales! They’re way too violent! How could I ever look anybody in the eye again if people actually read this stuff?
Then I smooth the paper out again, and tuck it in my purse to file later. I have to. My dreams compel me, and all a narcoleptic has is dreams. My characters compel me. Without me they will die. How many times have I promised to tell their tale? All of it. No matter good or bad—everything. I love them. I owe them that much. For better or for worse, they have given me a life. And I, to the best of my sorry ability, owe them the same back.
But...child soldiers! How could I dream such things! I thought I’d left behind all nightmares of the Charadoc years ago. What sickness of the mind could bring them back? If there’s one thing abhorrent to me, it’s the exploitation of child soldiers in Africa and Southeast Asia and...
“...Latin America. That’s evil. That is really...” I open my eyes to ceiling-planks and I am nowhere near “Balboa Park”. Wherever that might be.
“She’s awake—go fetch Zofia.”
“What was that she mumbled, just now?”
“Couldn’t tell. What were you talking about, Deirdre?”
I shake my head, troubled dreams retreating fast. “I have no idea.” I blink at the children who crowd around me, weapons slung over their shoulders or hanging from their belts. Zofia hurries up, wiping dish-suds on her apron before she sits beside my...bed? Somehow I wound up in Zofia’s house, in a bed I never saw before, dragged into the living-room.
“Deirdre,” she says, “Can you tell me what happened?”
“I’ll be honest with you—I don’t know. But I feel perfectly fine, now,” I lie, “and for reasons that I can’t divulge I have a strong hunch that it’s harmless.” The Black Clam change?—accelerated neural responses can have its drawbacks. My friend, Don, has suffered seizures, and thought that maybe the rest of us who underwent the change might develop neural problems, too. But hey, it never stopped Caesar, did it? “Look, with Betany out of the woods and something coming to a head with the army, we can’t afford any more delay. Please don’t ground me, Zofia.”
“You expect me to...”
“Of course. Medic outranks everybody when it comes to decisions of health.” Me and my big mouth! “But please trust me in this.”
“I have to decide?” She glances around, disturbed for a moment, then her face softens into a smile as she takes my hand. “Of course I trust you, Deirdre.”
“Good.” I sit up, and the room only spins for a second. “It’s time we hit the road—the army’s miles ahead of us.”
“Right this minute?” she asks like humoring a child. “It’s Sunday—you should rest.”
“Will do just fine. Betany tells me that she’s making out like a bandit. Look, Deirdre, the day’s more than half over already–if you start marching now you won’t get very far before nightfall, anyway, so why not spend the night right here?”
It does sound tempting. “All right, but in that case I’ll go on ahead of the others tomorrow and catch up with the enemy’s ox-carts, then report back as the rest follow. I’ll put Tanjin in charge in my absence.” His face falls, but he doesn’t dare to contradict me.
I get up and go into the bathroom to splash some water in my face. I go into the bathroom to wash my face. Zofia always keeps two pitchers in there, so that you can use one and leave the other for the next person as you carry that one out to refill—that way everybody always has enough. Only one bathroom in the whole four-bedroom house—in a commune that holds anywhere from five to seven people at any given time, I’d better make it quick.
The water feels cold, shocking; I shudder like I’ll never stop. Then I towel my face off and look in the mirror…and blue eyes stare back at me. A different face, heartshaped rather than diamond, but still dark like mine. And a paler face stares back at me, a more rounded chin, blonde curls instead of my straight brown-black.
Zanne! But that’s impossible! She exists only in my dreams and my stories!
I still myself. I close my eyes until I stop shaking. I open them—and see Jake staring back at me.
“I’m awake!” I whisper. “This can’t be happening—I’m awake, awake, I never take drugs, I’m not feverish, I am awake awake awake!”
(And I stare, stunned, at Zanne in the mirror. Then she turns into a face I’ve seen only in visions, a brown-skinned, blue eyed face, just as Randy runs in on me crying, “Jake! You shouldn’t get out of bed—I’d have fetched you the pan; you had only to ask.” I blink, and the reflection turns back to me, but I feel stunned, utterly stunned.
His arm feel strong around me as he helps me back to bed, though I notice that he’s sparing one—did he get injured? I have to tell him. “The borders—even more borders have melted than I thought. Oh Randy, it’s bad!”)
I will myself to see nobody in the mirror but me. Dolores Jean Nurss. All of this passes in seconds, I realize.
“Flash dream,” I tell myself. I’ve read about it happening to narcoleptics, brief dreams intruding on the waking world. They call it hypnagogic hallucinations. I call it flash-dreaming. But this was the first time it happened to me while I stood on my feet, doing something, and came out of it still on my feet. I feel this sudden conviction that it won’t be my last.
I blink, and the image in the mirror turns back into me again. Deirdre Evelynne Keller. Some anomalous side effect of greenfire, no doubt, though I haven’t used any since the interrogation gone bad.
I shrug. If I’m having bad effects even while abstaining, what’s the point in abstaining?
(It’s only these miserly military mirrors, I tell myself, and the ridiculously long hours, and the stress of the latest battle. I see the same face as always, the same blonde curls, blue eyes, porcelain skin. General Layne Estelle Aliso, the one and only. I have no reason to believe that, just for a moment, I had become slightly someone else.)