IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Wednesday, December 2, 2708
I hate myself for letting Kiril suffer awhile longer, but we must do this by degrees. Time and distance must pass, till the troop moves far from home base and all help. We can’t even harass the troop yet.
All day we’ve moved beside them through the shadows of the woods, their silent escort. Now we sleep within smelling distance of their campfires and cattle, after eating our own food cold. Or the kids sleep, whatever, while the ghosts and I watch over them.
At least the delay allows still more of my scattered children to join us—each of whom I must debrief and settle in. And time to hold a trial, but it’s best not to think about that, now. It’s done.
(I can’t sleep. This miserable, thin cot might as well be a blanket on the ground.)
(No beauty-sleep for me tonight. Headache. I open my eyes. Cybil has flung her arm across my chest in sleep. With an agent’s stealth I move it aside and then get up to wriggle into my clothes, and then to pace.)
But oh, the soldiers, they don’t get off the hook that easily. In between straggler-greeting I study my magentine crystal under the light of the waning moon, I peer deep into its blood-dark depths and think my furious thoughts. If I do have some shred of dyslectic telepathy, I hope by all the flames of hell that something of my anger will shoot their way and burn the soldiers’ dreams.
Is that a grown man screaming in the distance? I smile, and concentrate all the harder.
(Ooooh, my poor head! It feels like somebody pounding to get in.)
(I give it up. I fling off the school-issue blanket in disgust; it smells stale and feels scratchy and doesn’t keep me warm. Instead, I shove my arms into my robe, not even trying to sneak about it, and kick on slippers. A few boys stir and fall back to sleep; I’m too big for them to stop me, anyway.
Randy snores on. My instincts homed in on the moment when he’d sleep the deepest. Thank you, instincts.
I settle into the corner of a stairwell, and draw out my magentine globe, barely glinting in the dark. I’ve got to fight the evil in this school. I’ve got to get back in touch with what they’ve forbidden here—the Feminine.)
(Hold on. Somebody is trying to get in! I open myself up...and then my blood runs cold. “Tshura?” I whisper. “Tshura, I watched you die!”)
(Every time I try to sleep, I hear an eerie, high voice, crying, “I didn’t choose this—I am still pure. And YOU are going to Hell!” and I wake up in a sweat.)
She didn’t want to get fat. For some ungodly, perverted reason they’re force-feeding her. I will make them pay!
(The Feminine. It doesn’t have to mean my m…mother’s masochistic helplessness. She chose. She betrayed me. I can find another. I have a link to another.)
(No! No! No! I don’t want to remember! I was betrayed! No—I mustn’t think even that! Good boys don’t make such accusations against their own…whomever.)
(“Tshura, how can I even link to you?” I ask. And I get back strange imagery, harsh, so weird that I can hardly hold it in my brain, colder than contact with the Alien that initiated me—something mechanical, something tied to a horrible abuse of magentine...)
Good Catholic girls don’t curse others, and good tilanitas don’t abuse magentine, but I’m not good anymore; I think the trial established that well enough. I can hate, and I can do what I please to those who’ve earned my hatred. Darkness, I embrace you! The light betrays the guerilla, while night befriends us.
(...and yet higher powers gamble with the abusers. The imagery does resolve into machinery, and yet a pair of wildflowers grow through it, rooted deeply in Novatierre...and...and Earth too? Simultaneously? Tendrils weave in among the gears, crushed but growing back, again and again, strengthening and proliferating till they can push the metal into different configurations.
And I hear a wild, defiant laugh—two laughs, high and deep! And the even tempo of the machine stutters, skips—and then takes on the daring shifts of a passionate Gitano guitar!
My headache subsides as I accept this unexpected connection. I go back to sleep.)
(I have a connection…Deirdre Evelynne Keller. My sisterling. Alroy tried to trick me into raping her, but we took the unexpected path: we joined at the soul instead, wholly in consent, and that bond has not failed completely.)
(A strange peace, exhaustion, maybe, settles on me. The past slips away. I can finally drift off to sleep.)
I find myself humming, “We the wanton, wild vine, shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine...” and then hush myself up again. Yet I still feel a jungly connection, tangled with others beyond count. Gleefully my hatred surges into the network.
I turn the magentine in my hand. I see my reflection in the rough-chipped bevels of its cross-cut square, thin slices of my face…and Jake’s face. And Randy’s. And that other woman, the blue-eyed brown-skinned woman who haunts my dreams. And I know that I’ve entered a kind of trance.
(And now I see Deirdre’s face, reflected back to me in the globe. And I know that I have entered trance. I send my soul into the crystal, looking for her in its blood-red heart.)
And then I see his face, red in the hellfire—screaming! And I know I know I know that pain! I run into his arms because he understands, he knows the fire that has burned away everything I used to think was me, just exactly like he said it would.
And I feel his burning arms comfort me, even as the fire scalds my soul. And maybe I wanted incinerated all along, maybe I chose this, tiring of purity; some aches go too deep for rubbing—you have to scorch them out!
(I find her. Deirdre! My Deirdre, if ever I needed you on the island I need you still more now! I run to her…but stop. No. NO!
I find her in Hell, sobbing in the arms of Alroy!)
I find the trance breaking. I light up a cigarette, suddenly shaken. I don’t rightly remember what happened. I must have lost my concentration. I’ll have a smoke, settle my nerves, and then try again.
(I jolt out of the trance. I’m on my own, now. With trembling hand I pocket the magentine, search in my other pocket for the packet and the matches, and go out in the night for a smoke. Anything to settle my nerves.)
Thursday, December 3, 2708
(We approach the Montoya Manor and Factory Complex around midnight, as the quarter moon rises and gleams pale in our puffs of breath, blue upon the winterscape. We hear nothing save the tinkle of wind in the ice-bound branches, and the crunch of our own feet in the snow. But we can smell the sweetness of fresh cookies on the air, baking for shipment before dawn.)
(I wake at midnight as usual, but Sarge screamed earlier and I made myself sleep right through it. I don’t hear his snoring, now, though. I poke my head out from my curtained alcove, then carefully dare to peek into his. He’s not there.
I smell sweet bits cooking, just outside. Nooooo.)
I want sweet things soooo bad. I lose my concentration again. All I can think of is cookies, cakes, pies—I double over with hunger and my vision blurs with tears. The leaf must be wearing off.
With shaking fingers I grope in my pockets for another. Because if I rest from it now, I would tear through the rations like Malcolm in a rage. We can’t afford that.
(“Heyyyy,” Ozwald says nervously. “What’s that glow ahead?”
Apollo pulls out a pair of fold-up binoculars. “What?” he snarls when I stare at him.
“Why didn’t you tell us you had those?”
“You didn’t ask.”)
What am I doing here, crouched in the dark with my crystal in my hand? Do I ask it a question? Yes, that must be it, trying to plum the depths of the enemy’s mind. But I can never read what I receive. I forgot that. Oh well, at least I think I can send!
(He comes back into the tent with the sweet bits cooling in a bowl. He hands them to me without a word, and watches as I eat them. I have to admit that they do taste good, all that cinnamon and nutmeg, and I’ve gotten used to feeling hungry at this time. He looks scary, though, unshaven, filling up the tent with his presence and his smell. I don’t dare stop eating, and I don’t dare speak.
But then he strokes my hair and says, “You didn’t wake when I screamed. Poor baby! You must be exhausted. Too much going on.”)
(Apollo gazes out between the trees, then gasps, swearing softly under his breath. “Don’t scream,” he says to Magda, “Don’t make any loud noise, but you need to see this.” And he hands her the binoculars.)
I stare deep into the crystal depths. I can see things in there, moving shapes, just flickering on the border of my weariness...
(Magda looks. Her jaw drops, baring her worn old teeth, and her knees drop as well to the ground as she pulls in a long breath as though to scream indeed, but the Romany elder knows when survival depends on silence. Moonlight glistens on the tears that spill down the weathered cheeks.
“Those bastards!” she hisses as I pick up the binoculars from the ground. “What have they done?”)
(Oh God, oh God, what have I done? Smoking doesn’t help. The stars between the clouds don’t help, nor does the icy midnight wind. Nothing shakes the vision in the magentine away from me, with the horrible conviction that somehow I bear part of the responsibility. I should never have cut Deirdre off. I should never have reconnected. I don’t know what I should never have done, but something!)
I catch just the faintest glimpse of horror...
(I look through the lenses. I stare in horror at the pink glow in the cliff that we had tried to climb down days before. I see the man and woman embedded in the rock, power lines hooked up to them now. I can even make out the frozen defiance on the faces of Guaril and Tshura.
Magda grips me with bony, clawlike hands. “Tell me what they’re doing,” she hisses, “Agent of the Tilián!”
“I don’t know,” I admit. “The Tilián don’t teach anything like this.”)
I drop the crystal with a hiss of cusswords! The Tilián don’t teach anything like this! I remember what I’m up to. I’ve been cursing people. I’ve done evil. I’ve...
...I’ve left Til Institute behind. I owe them no allegiance, I’m not their citizen anymore. I owe God no allegiance, either; I’ve joined up with the damned. Why not do whatever I damn well please? I pick the crystal up again.
(For the first time I realize, or at least get a glimpse, the tiniest glimpse, of just how far the trouble in this boy’s school goes. It isn’t even about what I do or don’t do anymore, if it ever was. It goes way beyond me, way beyond us all.
I stand out there in the darkness and the cold, smoking cigarette after cigarette, until my pack’s all spent. Doesn’t matter; Joel just got another gift from home. And he always gives me smokes for free, for friendship’s sake. For George’s sake, whatever.
The dark begins to lighten up. Another night without sleep. Isn’t that just great. I grind the final cigarette underfoot and make my way back to my dorm before the others wake, shivering, longing for the warmth.)
I try to rub the headache from my brow as the sky begins to pale. I shouldn’t have stayed up all night on such a dubious mission; I don’t even know if I can “send”. And stragglers haven’t wandered in for hours, now. And me with a long day ahead of me, too.
It isn’t just about Kiril, Deirdre, now be honest. And it isn’t about the cuts that still burn when I move the wrong way. It’s about all the pain in the Charadoc. It’s about last night, the case they brought before me. It’s about that shivering girl chained to a tree, waiting for me to judge her, and it’s about the outrage of her brothers, and about all of those nagging little social ills with great big rotting consequences that you can only obliquely lay at the feet of oppression, that you can never quite prove have anything to do with the political state of the nation, but you sure as hell know that the connection exists, you feel it like the itch of a thousand mosquito bites, any one of which could take the blame for a deadly fever, but none of which you could actually implicate in court.
And here I sit, scratching around wounds that I should leave alone, cold and cramped in the leg while my blankets lay nearby, untouched, as I face a long day, probably another night without sleep to follow it, if all goes well, if my informants told the truth about the road ahead. I want to stand and stretch, but I have to crawl a back-breaking number of yards through sodden leaves before I can find the space to let me; I unfold like an old woman when I finally get there. This won’t do.
I won’t use a whole one, just the curling edge of one dried leaf, I can spare that much, and maybe a little more of the same single leaf later on. But Lord knows I have to be in top form for the trials ahead, any way I can manage. I sigh as I chew and let its tongue-numbing bitterness in. Another mosquito-bite for the soul. Blame the government.
Oh who am I kidding? It’s going to take the whole damned leaf, and maybe more when that wears off.
* * *
(I hear Jake sneak in, as the black windows slowly pale to gray. I hear him toss and turn now, the old cot creaking, before he finally sits up to don his robe again. And I’ve been letting him, night after night, telling myself that I need my sleep in order to take proper care of him. But this has gone on too long, and I have not been taking care of him.
I sit up. I can barely make out his face in the shadows, even with the predawn glow. Softly I say, “Jake, it’s snowing outside. You shouldn’t go back out there in slippers and a robe. Look—they’re still damp from the last time.”
“I can go somewhere. Maybe just not out.”
Others begin to stir around us. “Let’s take this conversation out to the hall, shall we?”
As soon as we reach the drafty hall I suppress my shivers and ask, “How long since you last slept, Jake?”
He won’t look at me. I almost don’t hear him say, “I’m not sure.”
I take him by the arm. “Let’s go to the infirmary. They have teas for this sort of thing.” Don has to bunk there till the end of his detention. He’ll see to what we need; we needn’t wake the nurse.
“It won’t work,” Jake says.
“How do you know? Have you tried it?”
“I just know.” I hope to God that that’s depression talking, and not his intuition.
I guide him up the stairs. “Well, let’s give it a try. It’ll calm your nerves, at least.”
He hesitates, then he asks, “Have I been bad?”
“Yesterday you practically tore that twelve-year-old’s head off—figuratively speaking—for bumping into you and causing you to drop your books—even after he picked them up for you.”
“I guess that did go over the top.”
“Here we are.” I go over to the third private room, and shake Don awake.
“Don, it’s me. Jake’s having an oracular crisis—he hasn’t slept for days. Make him sleep even if you have to punch him out to do it.”
Don yawns hugely and sits up. “I can improve on the usual recipe if I have to. I know a potent combination.”
“Good to hear.” While Don rummages sleepily among the herbs I steer Jake to the last vacant bed in a shared room. “Now you just settle in here, dearheart, and don’t worry about a thing. Don will take care of you.”)
* * *
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain.”
Do not sing Deirdre, not though every bird in the heavens sings and the sunlight pours down like the very honey of God and glistens on every rainsoaked leaf. Let not a soul in your crew make the least little noise, no matter how rough the terrain, as we struggle from bush to vine to precipice-clinging tree root while the Charadocian Army’s finest marches on the broad, clean road upon the ridge.
“Oh, ye’ll take the high road,
“And I’ll take the low’n,
“And I’ll get to Scotland afore ye...”
Hush your heart, Deirdre. Don’t even think about singing! Grab an elbow here, a waist there, a fistful of fabric, a strap—anything to keep the young ones from slipping too far in the mud. Hold every sense in high alert, hour in and hour out till your head pounds with the strain, lest the least sign reveal your children to the enemy above. Endure the reproach in the eyes of the lunatic boy whom you’ve gagged and bound to make sure that his compulsive mutter won’t betray you (but it’s a known fact that when the mad can’t move their lips they stop hearing voices and replying to them.) Endure as well the reproachful looks of those who sweat to bear him on this pathless slope, for not sending this blatant liability back to Zofia where he belongs.
“But I have promises to keep,” quoth Robert Frost,
“And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Don’t you mutter, either, Deirdre. Must you even gag yourself?
* * *
(I do as Randy says. George has curled up so tightly under his quilt that Randy doesn’t know he’s put me in his room. But such synchronicities happen when oracles come together on the same wavelength. I found my feminine side in the arms of Alroy.George sits up. I nod to the window, and he pulls the sheet-ladder out from under the bed. The snow won’t matter; nobody will even see the smoke from the chimney of the Married Teacher’s Quarters, and they have changes of clothes over there, long-abandoned, dusty and moth-eaten, but warm.)