IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Sunday, November 29, 2708
I didn't go to mass today. Why should I? What could any priest say that could possibly save me now?
(It's been three days and Reno hasn't said a word—not to me and not to Sarge. He slumps with his arm bound up, curling in on himself. Sometimes he glances over at me and Lufti riding beside him with fear big in his eyes, like we're supernatural creatures or something, but that's Reno all over—for as long as I've known him he gets scareder and scareder every day, and never does anything about it. But it hurts in my heart that now I'm part of what frightens him and he has no refuge anywhere.)
Nightmares don't mean anything. They always happen in a greenfire crash. I'm sure there's just some chemical explanation. It'll all get better soon.
(It's got to get better. It's got to get better. I lie here on the rough, jolting boards with my head in Kiril's lap and that is the only kindness in this world, her soft and cuddly lap against my cheek, but all the rest has turned to a splintery, hard cart jolting underneath me and prickly stars inside my skin. Oh Kiril, Kiril, Kiril!)
Depression doesn't mean anything, either. You go on. I ride my horse slowly down the road like an ordinary citizen, the woods full of my hidden soldiers, the living and the dead, and we all go on. There's a minor kind of salvation in taking action, any action, or at least it passes for the nearest thing available.
(Oh, I want so, so bad to, I just ache to jump up and shout at him, "For God's sake, Reno—turn me in or join me, but DO something!")
(We go on. But not by horse anymore, all praise be to the saints and angels! At least I find that much mercy in the world. God bless the ox that takes the burden off me for a little while.)
Someone else wouldn't catch all the little rustles meaningful to me, or sniff the air for whiffs of war on a sweet spring day. Someone else would step out of church right about now, ready for a day of rest. But I have no hope in saints and angels anymore, only in ghosts, and I finally understand the real meaning of Hell: the inability to move on to Heaven because we've all gotten so tangled up in the business of Hell that we can't imagine anything else. So we go on. For all eternity we go on, and this damnable war will never end.
(Lufti opens his eyes and gazes sleepily ahead. "I like oxen better than horses," he says. Just then one lifts up his tail and drops a big, stinky cow-pie right in front of us and all three of us burst out laughing.
Reno says, "Is that a comment on your opinions, Lufti, or what?" I jump to hear him speak at all.
"Stars never shit," Lufti says philosophically. "I'm better off around things that do. I don't want to be a god anymore."
"Oh stars do, all right," Reno says. "Big, smelly planets, and we're on one right now." Lufti sinks back into his gloom.
"Did you have to say that?" I ask, stroking my lover's hair. "I almost thought Lufti was gonna cheer up for a moment, there."
"He can't," Reno grates. "Not till his system clears and nature runs its course." And he glowers over the reins again. What a happy crew I ride with!)
Steddy kicks through the cow-pies left by the army oxen that went ahead of us, unconcerned with human thoughts like dignity. Not that fresh; we're miles behind where I'd want to be, thanks to the delays I've caused. Placidly the horse clops on, indifferent to my timeline, over the footsteps of marching rows of men, all blurred together, you couldn't tell one from another anymore. Do the rebels look like that to them, all of us alike, no personhood to feel ashamed of shooting?
With the wind in my face I catch the scent of something that has nothing to do with steer manure or spring blooms in the sunshine: jojoba oil, like I used to smell when fixing tractors on the farm. I glance down and see dark spots, oil and dirt mixed together—a lot more than one might expect from one farmer who got his hands on a tractor. And doesn't it look, come to think of it, like the boots of marching soldiers—more than just our troop alone—tramped over ruts wider than a cart would make? Lots and lots of them?
I raise my arms like stretching, then, casual-seeming, I make the gesture for "Halt!" But I ride on farther at a trot, and soon I hear a horrible, grinding sound, growing louder and louder: a noise that I'd prayed I'd never hear again. Before I crest a hill I tether my mount and take to the trees, gliding from bough to bough in absolute silence, past Kiril's plodding troop (there she is, in the cart with Lufti's head in her lap and that handsome man with his arm in a sling beside her) and beyond. Soon my stealth doesn't matter, for the roar mounts to a pain-inflicting thunder and I can make no mistake about what I see beyond the leaves:
Tanks! A whole fleet of tanks pour into the main road from one side where they've churned up their own highway like a gash in the countryside, to join the ranks of others gone ahead. And men, hundreds upon hundreds of men trudge through the mud in their wake, spattered and humbled behind their machines, rows upon rows of arms upon their shoulders, flags flying everywhere, as far as fear can see.
I turn back, flinging through the trees, now reckless of noise beneath that deafening metal grind. I leap from the tree to my horse, levitation-lightened, flick the tether off and ride, ride, ride!
We'll have to go to ground till nightfall, I know that much. And what of the next day? Shall I share the long-hoarded leaf to catch up? Or save it for still worse trials ahead, husbanding the strength of my troop?
(Just when I thought he'd never speak again, Reno asks, "Tell me one thing, Lufti, and tell the truth." Ohhh no.
"Did somebody tell you to chew leaf and drink chaummin like that?"
Lufti's brows wrinkle as he tries to remember and I sweat fear. "Somebody told me not to," he says at last. Thank you, all good ghosts! "But I did what I had to do." Oh cow-pies! He straightens up like he's trying to sit, but then he hits a sore and sinks back down. "Yes," he says firmly. "I had to find Kiril. I knew that everything would be all right if I could only find Kiril. She'd shut the eyes of all the stars and make the death-dance stop." I breathe. "And slowly they close, one at a time, they close." Reno nods, gazing out over the oxen.)
Then I look beneath me, at the underbrush. I don't need to ration anything—greenfire grows rampant in this country. Maybe not as strong as what the arid-lands grow, but so plentiful it doesn't matter. Why didn't I notice it before? Why didn't I look for something of such strategic value? Ah, the things you learn when you stop going to church!
I push hair out of my eyes; sometimes I forget all day to braid it, anymore. I've let a lot of things slip. Time I paid more attention.
(Lufti's hair has grown so long he could braid it like a girl's. I stroke his curls in my lap, but that uncovers the vein that pulses in his brow. And his poor cheekbones still jut way too far beyond his jaw.
The silence just grinds on and on, like old cartwheels. I need to get some kind of conversation going—anything. It just seems like something would give, maybe get better if we talk, it doesn't matter what we say. I ask Reno, "Why didn't the chaplain hold mass this morning?"
"Because there's a chapel at the end of the road tonight; he'll hold services there." He looks straight at me for the first time in days. "Why? Do you want to go to confession first? Father's marching right over there if you want to." It hurts to look into his eyes.
I just sigh. "How can I?" I say. "Everything's so topsy turvy I don't know what's a sin and what's a virtue anymore.")
(But the death-dance never really stops, not with more and more dancers joining in every day, bright red blood corsages on their breasts, bright red wreaths burst from their broken brows, and all the other colors gone, gone far away. Not even Kiril can change that. The dance drags on and on, the dancers stumble through the steps like bones bouncing on a dragging blanket, as the bright red flames of Hell lick up the color of the world and leave the rest gray ash. Ash, ash, Man is ash, he said so himself and so am I so are we all.)
No. No. Whatever my sins, I can't make these children march doubletime whipped on by leaf, not so soon after seeing Lufti and what it's done to him. If we're late, we're late.I still believe—that's the hell of it. I have faith and love aplenty in my heart. I've just run out of hope.