IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Tuesday, December 1, 2708
I want to wake. I ought to wake. Night patrol? No. Something needs done? Some desperate errand? I can’t remember!
No, just a dream. Nothing urgent. Others watch.
“Sleep, Deirdre,” Tanjin murmurs to me drowsily. “You need your rest.”
“No,” I moan. “Something happens. I must...” but I can’t. Sleep ambushes me. I lie here helpless on the ground and sleep just...
(I lie on the little bed beside Lufti, eyes closed but ears wide open, listening as Sarge tosses and turns on the floor, trying to accommodate the cuts on his back, then slowly settles back to sleep after his usual midnight waking. Lufti already snores again in husky little growls, his breath full of chocolate; occasionally he moans and holds his tummy, then turns over and murmurs unintelligibly in dreams. I fight not to join them in sleep—one of the fiercest fights of my life, against the weight of all the candy in my belly, against the marijuana still clouding my head like a smoke that won’t blow away, against the timeless, lightless night.
When I make absolutely sure that nobody stirs but me, I sloooowly slide one foot off the bed, then the other, making no sound at all as I step carefully around Sarge. He tosses again and his hand falls right against my foot—I freeze! I hold my breath till I feel dizzy, then force myself to let it out as slowly as possible, desperate for new air, then I make myself take small breaths though I long to gasp, and still his goddam hand lies across my foot! At last he rolls away again just when I think I’ve gotta faint.
Finally I can slip out the door, not even daring to take the time to put a coat on over the nightie that Sarge gave me, so that I have to shiver when the outdoor air hits me, I have to clench my jaws to keep my teeth from chattering out loud. My white flannel nightie must glow against the dark like a little patch of moonlight fluttering in the wind, as I steal from wall to wall, listening, listening, my bare feet icy on the wet pavement, but silent at least; if nobody wakes nobody can see. But careful, careful—guards do walk their rounds.
I take a shortcut through the wreckage that Deirdre cut through the main building with that tank, hiding between the walls of rubble. It’s even darker in here, dark as forgetting how to see. I look down at my feet and I might as well be wading in ink, but I know that splinters and broken glass lie down there unseen. So I pick up a broken board to sweep the way ahead of me, hoping that this works, and that nobody hears the scrape. I can’t afford to leave a trail of blood.
And what the devil was Deirdre thinking anyway? She didn’t crush anything essential. The officers just meet somewhere else, now, as they did before coming here. The paperwork all had copies. And we could have used this building to help make it a school again someday.
That’s not like her. She’s usually one step ahead of everybody else in planning her next move. This just seems too...random. But I know it had to be her because the soldiers haven’t stopped talking about a flying rebel, and we’ve only got the one.
She must’ve had her reasons. She’s Deirdre.
I come out the other side and...here we are, the makeshift “outdoor commissary”—or at least the place where they piled what food they could salvage from the burning cafeteria. I can’t find our rice-can anywhere; maybe it got scorched beyond recognition, anyway, and can do us no more good. But here’s white rice in sacks as big as me—I can’t lift one of those. So I pull up the knees of my nightie and fill up my lap with moon-white seeds. Now I must move even more carefully, lest I spill a single grain to betray me.
I reach the last corner of the last building that I can hide behind. Beyond me stretches the perimeter that the tanks flattened earlier, and guards patrol it. Oh God, oh God, how could I forget? Many guards pace that circle, guns on their shoulders, each within eyeshot of each other—this isn’t the decimated troop that we’d harried for so long, even with the casualties we gave them. And I can’t make a dash for it, not with the burden I carry, not with the moon just past the full.
Sometimes I just want to sit down and cry and cry and cry; what started as faking went on all day because I pulled the scab off something so deep inside me that if I let myself fall headlong into it I might never hit bottom. I wish Sarge could make sense, that I could really be a little kid and let the grown-ups do all the worrying for me.
But that kind of thinking won’t solve a thing; what’s real is real. So I scan from where I stand till I spot one tank, left right in the long moonshadow of a tree. Careful not to spill my load, I take up a stone and fling it far the other way. Now the guard has to look where the noise came from; while he does, I trot as fast as I can to the tank without spilling rice. I dive under just in time to hear the boots returning to their rounds; I cower like a cat-chased coney, trying to listen above my own heart’s thumping.
I can’t see it well under here, but the ground smells charred. Very, very carefully I manage to slip out of my nightie while still cupping the rice in its folds, to turn it into a bundle of rice that I can carry more securely. I then wallow in the soot of burnt grass (quiet, quiet!) and rub it all over my chilly body. I wad my bundle up as small as I can make it. Fat arms can hide more than skinny arms, I tell myself.
Now I wait for my moment. The clouds move fast, closing up again. I wait till they utterly block the moon, not even a glow to tell where she sails. I throw another rock to the same place I did before. This time the guard calls two others to investigate with him. I make my naked dash to the shelter of the woods, feeling more like an animal than ever, bitterly missing the warmth of the flannel.
Idiot! Idiot! I’ve got soot all over the cloth and everything—how’m I supposed to sneak back in and explain all this? Worry about it later, girl—stick to the job at hand.
I look up into the branches, scouting out the kind of tree-trail that Deirdre likes to use, bough linked to bough in the general direction that she’d want to take. Hoping I guess right, I make a trail of rice that glimmers in the darkness, but that nobody’d see if they use roads. I find a meadow, open to the skies but to nothing else, and end my line in an arrow, and with the last rice I sketch out on a dark rock the letters that I coaxed from Lufti when Sarge left to find us goodies:
There. That’ll point her to the crossroads where Sarge intends to dump Lufti tomorrow. I just hope she can figure it out. I sigh, then I sit in the dirt and let myself cry just a little bit more, biting my lip, holding back the sound though it breaks my heart trying to fight out of my chest.
And the sky cries with me, at first in a scattering of big, sloppy drops, then smaller but faster and harder and more, and now all this flood comes crashing down on me, washing through my hair and down my naked skin, sluicing off the soot. I stand up with my arms outstretched to let it freeze me if it can, shivering and not caring that I shiver, not caring that lightning breaks out and could strike me dead at any second—I’ve secured Lufti’s safety and nothing else matters anymore. Let it burn!
Enough of this. I check to make sure that the rain didn’t wash the message away, pushing the rice into moss to hold it better. Good, fat letters, visible from the sky. That done, I make my way back to camp, entering on the opposite side I left, because the gap’s bigger there with guards trying to investigate the noise I made before. Thunder makes the guards jump and look up nervously at the sky—that’s my chance. They still think they’ve got something to lose.
I know what to do now. I go to the ashes of the cafeteria. There I pull the soggy nightie back on, tugging it over my belly where the water makes it stick. The soot has gotten too deep into the weave for mere rain to wash it out, but that’s okay here. I look behind me at how the storm dissolves my footprints—can ghosts influence the weather? Does God have mercy even on those of us who kill? Maybe Fatima put in a good word for me; she knows what it’s like, here.
Now I let the tears escape full-force as I wander in the charcoal ruins, wailing to high heavens. The sky cracks as if to help me wail, and more rain comes down with the thunder and lightning, drenching me in cold and cold and cold, and then lightning again, but it doesn’t warm me, it just makes me howl the more. Men come running, but Sarge runs fastest of them all.
“Kiril! What happened?”
“I, I, I dreamed I went to work here, like I should, but you locked me in the pantry and you wouldn’t let me out!” That much I did dream, the first night we arrived. He called me “Little Sweetie, Little Sugar-Pie” in my dream and smiled like he did when he made me sick on birthday cake. “And then the flames, the flames—and I woke up here!” I sob into his chest, with real tears, that hurt my eyes that wept too much already.
“Poor baby—you must have sleepwalked.” He hugs me tight, trembling as much as me. I hear him say to someone I can’t see, “She’s been through hell, Sir—and you’re going to make her go through more!” Then, straining, he lifts me up to carry me on his shoulder back to bed, and I can see him there, behind Sarge, looking at me all too keenly:
Sanzio D’Arco, in his purple mantle and his white, white sleeves.)
* * *
I stir from some dream about Hansel and Gretel to the first birds greeting the dawn. Tobacco summons me awake, and a deep need for food, which I restrain because I think I ate more than my share last night. But a cigarette, that I can permit.
I step softly out of the ruined barn, around all the little bodies deep in the sleep of the young and weary. I had sent them out by twos and threes, while Tanjin and I took on the school, to harry the late-approaching troops who hadn’t made it in yet. Not all of them made it back. Of course.
I pause briefly over Tanjin, who smiles in his dreams like a soul nestled in the bosom of Abraham, then turns over to reveal his skeletal arm. I step out and let the warm and heavy scent of the barn give way to the refreshment of the mountain spring air, as I gaze out over a landscape silvered in dew.
Have I ever, in all my travels, known a land as beautiful as this? Jonathan told me that much truth, at least. I light my cigarette and feel the appreciation of life, at least, damned or no, return to me after last night’s darkness, warming through my chest. Even if it’s not quite the same thing as joy. I stretch my bones to ready myself for the day’s work, though I almost groan for desire of my mat again. I have read of saints who found heaven in ancient leprosariums, or the stinking alleys of Calcutta, or even in the horror-stained camp of Auschwitz; I have found my hell here in the lovely Charadoc.
I shrug. Time to make one last flying sweep around the enemy camp, in the sky-camouflage that Deni Abojan made for me, to see what buzz might roil from the hornet’s nest we stirred. And then move on.