IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
A Proper Funeral
Saturday, December 5, 2708, continued
Nightmares…back in Alroy’s palace, except that this time I run suicidally into the flames, not him. Fire-worms crawl in my veins, burning! Smoke chokes my lungs and glare fills my eyes, blinding me! Again and again, and even as I know I dream, I can’t wake up.
Jake…has the connection between us severed completely? No, wait, one strand remains, frayed and tenuous Save me, Jake! Please! Though I scorch you to embrace you, please, please, save me as I’ve saved you!
(“Don’t cry out,” a familiar, deep voice rumbles in my ear. “Don’t say a word. Just wake.”
Jake! Silently I grab him, hug him tight, gasping with the effort not to shout, I hold him close, so close, shaking with emotion. Tenderly he nuzzles my ear and says, “I need you to gather up your clothes and dress out in the hall, where you won’t wake anyone. Not just the robe—we’re going outside.” And then he gently pries me loose, and goes over to Don, to wake him, too. Thank the good Lord Don’s detention ended yesterday!
Out in the hall, I fumble into my clothes and hiss, “Jake! You worried me sick!”
“Yes!” Don agrees, but before either of us can say more, Jake makes a hushing motion.
“I’m all right,” he says, sotto voce.
“You don’t look all right,” I say.
“Better than I’ve been. George damn near poisoned me to make it happen, but I finally caught some sleep in the Married Teacher’s Quarters.”
“Oh thank God!” I breathe.
Jake lays a hand each on our shoulders. “I need your help with something before George wakes up.” Just then, as though something in his posture shouted its presence, I see the sack on the floor, and I smell the old corruption, and I hear Don’s teeth chatter even while we’re still indoors.
Jake nods. “Yes. She’s in there. She never got a proper burial. A dream told me that we need to take care of it—that’ll go a long way towards breaking up what’s wrong in this school.”
That baby. I recall her history as I don my coat and follow the others down the stairs, carrying the stinking bag since I’m the least sensitive to the psychic touch. Poor little baby. Born in the dark age after the Great Migration, deformed by a tusk or beaklike growth of bone jutting from her face. Her mother couldn’t feed her, so she brought her to a monastery for the monks to see what they could do.
The monks had tried to remember something from before the dark age. They recalled that, in past darknesses, their church had done horrible things in the name of intolerance, so they tried to cling to the light by showing respect to every faith. But the darkness invaded even this. They believed the girl to be the daughter of the devil. And so, by whatever rites and tortures they imagined to be most satanic, they tried to give her back.
And in doing so they all went mad. And they unleashed an evil that has poisoned Novatierre ever since, only partly mollified when we laid their ghosts a few years back. We never laid this ghost.)
Now my nightmares go even further back in time, dodging crazed monks in the ruins of a horror-haunted monastery, trying to flee with a stinking bundle—the relic of a tragic child’s corpse—before they put her to foul use.
(So now we go, by a roundabout way, out into the snow. Jake knows a path through slush that will not show our footsteps. I shudder in the cold, turning up my collar against it with my free hand, but at least the air smells purer out here, the chill breeze blowing the stench away sometimes.)
But now sometimes I am a monk, raving from a golden evil, killing anyone who gets between me and my damnation! I run through the night, the scent of all the dew-soaked grass heady and perplexingly sensual, trying to track down Deirdre Keller and her precious, fetid plunder.
(Her story didn’t end there. Archaeologists found the body, and Alroy—he who set himself up as The Outlaw God—stole it from them. Well, technically Deirdre did, to try and keep it out of the wrong hands, but then Alroy stole it from her. Or his agent did, and then turned on Alroy, trying to use its evil power to best his master, but Alroy had long ago gained enough power already to wrest it away from him again. Both slave and corpse fell together into a boiling vat of poison dye, and a more faithful flunky fished out the chunks again, which Alroy then used, evaporating them in a ritual meant to end reality as we know it, in favor of a chaos where Alroy would feel more at home.)
And now I change again, into a fight-torn junkyard dog, falling falling, FALLING into a bubbling, boiling vat of scarlet PAIN!
Oh Jake oh Jake oh Jake oh Randy somebody do something to cool the flames of hell around me! For it scalds my mind and evaporates my soul and I can’t, I just can’t, just give me one more chance oh please!
(We stopped him, though it took the whole friendclan, and none of us came through unscathed. (In most lights you can’t see the thin scar around my throat anymore, though I know it’s there.) But how could we bury an evaporated baby?
Now, because George messed up time and space, God bless his misguided soul, we have another chance.)
“Did she just murmur ‘another chance’ in her sleep?”
“That’s Deirdre for you, always strategizing, awake or in dreams.”
(“This might have given us the break we needed, three years ago,” Jake says. “Maybe the corpse had lost the evil around it by the time Alroy used it, and he didn’t build up as powerful a gregor as he’d thought he had.” And with that Jake opens the gate, and we follow him outside, on our way to the graveyard that we consecrated before when we burnt the rug.)
“What the…What’s going on?” Deirdre sat up abruptly, releasing the magentine handle like it burned her. “Justín? Justín! How come I’m picking up on my friends clear on the other side of the equator?”
Justín didn’t even open his eyes, merely smiled, nestled back into the thick upholstery. “You just now noticed?” he answered drowsily. “Or remembered noticing, at least. You did before. ’Sbeen going on throughout the entire interrog…oh hell, now you’ve got me saying it. Throughout the debriefing.”
And then he did open his eyes, just a little bit. “Must be that link thingamabob between you, passed on for the moment from Jake to Randy. Jake sometimes picks up on you, too…did you know that? He doesn’t.”
Justín woke still more, sitting up and leaning forward, his eyes brightening strangely. “Oh yes, we debriefers know all the secrets, great and small! Oh, what politicians we could make, what informed decisions…if only drugs didn’t so lovingly pin us into place.” And the light faded into something soft and smoky, as he settled back into the cushions again.
“Jake,” she murmured. “Oh Jake!” She remembered, no felt his insomnia. She remembered smoking through his lungs. “What have I done to you?”
Justín roused again, a little bit. “And what has he done to you? You might as well ask that, too. Soul-grafting gets messy; Til normally doesn’t encourage that sort of thing, or let it get about that it’s possible. But hey, that’s your business, not mine.” And he shut his eyes firmly again.
Reluctantly, Deirdre touched the magentine attached to her chair, then gripped it firmly, sank back into her own cushions, and closed her eyes till the chimes became (the tinkling of ice as I move frost-armored twigs out of the way. Everything looks spiky out here, beyond the jurisdiction of the school gardeners. Spiky and cold and so heartrendingly beautiful! An entire crystal forest sparkles all around us, chaotically growing every which way, with not a right angle anywhere save in the stone blocks behind us, now screened from view.)
Oh cool me, please, please cool me, warm me and cool me for I have burnt and frozen all at once!
Can’t wake. I lie as someone dead. Maybe I have died. For don’t I feel about six feet of clay pressing down upon my limbs? Fear, Oh God the fear! For I have not been good, and I see Hell. Burning beams again fall before me, and wherever my body might lie, my soul flutters on the smoke like a rag of ash, tossed this way and that, a plaything for the devil!
(“Over here, Randy,” Jake calls. “We’ll need you to thaw the ground before we can dig in it.”
I take out my magentine and send summer thoughts through it, kindly warmth, remembered from a day when I lay upon a beach back home, hoping that all my freckles would run together into one great tan. The earth responds, sending up a steam, small white ghosts welling up from the soil. Don and Jake dig, wait for me to warm things up a bit deeper than that, and dig again, but it doesn’t take long for such a little hole.
I hand the bag over to Jake while Don feeds me a candy bar from his pocket. “Big brother’s been holding out on me,” I say to him.
“I’m taller than you,” Don says in his defense. “I need more calories.”
Gently Jake folds back the burlap, as though he held a living baby. He kisses her on the brow, oblivious to the smell. With his free arm he takes a small cup from his own pocket and scoops up some snow. “Melt it, Randy.”
I do so, and he hands it to me.
“Now baptize her.”
“Uh…under what name.”
“Gita,” he says. “It’s as good a name as any.”
And at that moment, I instinctively know how to exceed my instructions. I pour water upon the mummified skull. “I baptize you Gita,” I say, “In the name of the Real Father, the Real Son, and the Real Holy Spirit.”
I hear a distant scream.)
I scream! I vomit sound uncontrollably till Tanjin, cursing, claps hands over my mouth and nose, then releases me to gasp for air and holds me and holds me till my shuddering stops. As I fall swiftly back to sleep I hear Hekut say sleepily, “’sokay, somebody in the enemy camp screamed at the same time...now that’s weird. Must be our ghosts covering for us.”
Lufti mutters, “Not all ghosts are our friends.”
(Ignoring this, Jake says tenderly, “And so we take you back from the devil. You don’t belong to Hell. The things done to you should never have happened, poor baby.” He rewraps her in the sack and lowers her down into her grave. “And now receive your burial, Gita. May all the wrongs against you heal in the hereafter.”
Before we can shovel dirt onto her, the sack seems to move a little bit, as someone stirring softly in her sleep, snuggling down. And then, as the first clods land, it collapses, and we know that she has vanished back in time. But we pour in the dirt anyway, burying the cloth that used to hold her tragedy
A strange yellow light shows us our work, casting long shadows from the trunks of trees. At first I take it for the dawn. I think I smell the wood of living trees, dampened by the snow It takes me a moment to recognize the smoke.
When we finally look up we see the fire in the school.)
(A general should supervise the burials, giving the men one last salute, in the first daylight, before the soft spring earth seals them away from us, this early harvest upon summer’s brink. The pipes play, and the drums, marching them off as if to storm heaven. If heaven really existed.
I want so badly to sleep! One disadvantage of night attacks is that you still have to bury the dead or prepare them for transport when every muscle cries out to lay down and be done with the whole bloody mess. But look at the ranks at attention around me—do they break discipline to rub their sore muscles? They have worked harder than me.
I walk down the rows, the new-turned soil smelling dank and sad. Some think that atheism should make war easier, make killing no big deal, if we fear no judgment for it. But it makes it a very big deal indeed. We have no consolation that we send soldiers—theirs or ours—to anything better than what they could have had right here, had we let them be.
Getting sentimental Layne? That’s what the critics watch for, female sentimentality. Nothing lies in those graves but lumps of meat, soon to rot. Best to bury it all in a hurry before the summer heat arrives. We can declare it a military cemetery later.)
Now I lie deep within the comforting coolness of my grave at last, all burning ended, pressed down by the fecund piled soil...and yet I dread, for I know the devil’s coming for me, and still more Hell awaits ahead.
(THE DEVIL TAKE YOU ALL!” I hear George shout, his slim frame a black silhouette against the fire that consumes the Married Teacher’s Quarters. “WE’RE ALL GOING TO HELL, AND YOU’VE LED US THERE, WEATHERBENT!” He throws bottles of lab-made hooch into the flames, shattering the glass, sending up puffs of fireballs within the greater conflagration. Then he starts to run towards it.
“George! No!” Jake shouts, streaking past us. At that voice the boy turns and his face looks ugly with fury; he runs towards us instead and attacks Jake.
“You did this!” he cries. “You stole my Gita, you broke my power, you, you, you…!” The ineffectual fists pound upon Jake’s broad chest, as servants and the older boys run up, throwing shovelfuls of snow onto the flames. Then George sobs and throws himself into Jake’s arms—and then claws and bites him to get away, and then embraces him once more.
“It was too much,” Jake says, holding him stoically. “It made you somebody you weren’t.” Again the boy attacks, kicking and biting because Jake firmly holds his arms. “It made you murder,” Jake says softly, “And called it sacrifice.” George’s eyes go wide, his mouth slack, and suddenly he sags there, awake and yet not, his limbs gone rubbery and unable to keep him upright.
Headmaster Weatherbent runs up, the wet hem of his robe slapping around the snow-soggy legs of his pajamas. “What’s this? What’s this? Arson of school property?” And then he sees George lolling in Jake’s grip, and he winces. In a quieter voice he asks, “Has the boy gone mad? Must I send our star pupil home?”
That seems to reach George. I see him pull himself together the wobbly-best he can. I can almost feel the effort. “I’ve been an idiot, sir,” he says thickly, and swallows. “Drugs. I concocted drugs from herbs. I…I went outside the walls to gather herbs. I won’t do it again.” He gives Wallace a poignant look, and in his most persuasive Changewright-voice, begs, “Don’t send me back to my parents, sir. They have become drunkards since they lost their jobs, here.” The Headmaster flinches. “Yet we all deserve second chances—don’t we?”
Wallace’s face flushes, but he straightens his robe and pulls himself up. “Drugs, eh? Well, that should wear off, then—at least I’m glad to see that you know what a fool you’ve been.” He surveys the charred wreckage, now sizzling and steaming to quiescence under the barrage of snow. “And at least you had some wit left, to burn down useless old structures that needed torn down anyway. I can’t imagine what we ever built them for; nobody comes out here.” He turns to Jake. “And you—haven’t you been missing, too? Cutting classes?”
“I was, sir,” Jake says. “Looking for George.”
Weatherbent winks, then says in the hearing of all the bleary boys who’ve run out to investigate, “Well, well, you’ve found him, but you should have come to an adult with the information, instead of haring off after him yourself. We might have prevented this.” He reaches up to give Jake a patronizing pat on the shoulder. “I shall give you a lighter detention than I might have otherwise, because you meant well. Now take young George, here, to the infirmary.”
I blurt, “Jake hasn’t eaten in days, sir.” Now how did I know that? “Can you ask the kitchen to save some breakfast for him?”
“Neither George nor I have,” Jake says.The Headmaster looks at them, then nods. “I’ll have food sent up for you.”)