IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
The Power of Words
Tuesday, December 15, 2708
The routines of Zofia’s house follow their melancholy round, while she sings sweetly over her work, boiling bandages and feeding the chickens, directing the sounder kids in farm-chores as if she’d been a mother of teenagers for years, instead of a teen, herself. Sometimes I hear Kurmal try to sing along, in the next bed over.
I know, in an intellectual way, that Zofia has a pretty enough voice, that the mountain tune has a winsome air, and that a certain beauty dwells under this roof along with all the pain. I can’t convince my heart of this, however. I can’t convince my heart of anything, in fact; it might as well have died. I carry this big lump of dead tissue in my breast, as heavy as that stack of papers on the bedstand that I’m supposed to read but right now I can’t so much as lift. Theoretically, it feels good to just lie here instead on clean sheets, to stare up at the random plaster patterns in the ceiling when I bother to open my eyes at all, and to not worry about a thing—at least my body approves of lying in bed as opposed to anything else that I might do with it; I suppose that’s the same thing as feeling good.
But it makes me angry, too. Zofia has no business grounding me! The revolution needs me. My children need me. I’m going to get right up and tell her off! Yeah. That’s the ticket. I’m going to get right up and give it to her, full force, in just a min...
(I listen to the doctor’s report, maintaining the face that everyone expects of my office, hardly blinking at a word, but inside I scream, “You IDIOT, Sanzio! Of course you knew that girl! Haven’t you learned by now to trust your gut?”
He keeps looking at me sideways, unable to completely conceal his terror from a professional like me, although he makes a fair effort. Of course he fears me, and he should. He’s wondering what kind of impression it makes that the little demon went out of her way to spare him alone of all the troop.
Yet I don’t hurt those who level with me. I rarely get to question anyone as honest as this man; I find it refreshing. He tries to sit as straight as his injury allows, a military man as much as a physician, which I like; those who put “physician” first sometimes give me trouble.
He does not leave out that the Tilián witch did a good job stitching the wound that the cook-spy gave him, but he also gives me crucial information on Deirdre Keller: that her hands shook at her work, that she has become emaciated and her skin covered with scabs, that her dilated eyes glare and dart about, that her teeth show a characteristic bronzy stain. He states his diagnosis, and I nod.
That’s not a weakness that my enemy showed me at our last encounter. Good. That means that we press the rebels to some effect. And Layne—General Aliso, I should think—can use this intelligence.
I thank the doctor for his cooperation and dismiss him. He seems half-astonished that I should let him go so easily, perhaps a little suspicious that I will quietly have him followed. Also good. It would make my job easier if everyone shared this suspicion, behaving as if I could waste the resources to supervise the entire nation.
After the orderly wheels him out, I permit myself a moment to rest my face in my hands and rub my brows as though I could scrub the weariness away. I don’t deny that sometimes I envy the rebels their bitter herb, but our side has got to keep ourselves cleaner than theirs, in some fashion at least.
But yes, it goes both ways—we press each other, and both are bound to stumble, sooner or later, as the war escalates and discipline frays to the snapping-point. Charles DeGaulle once said that a battle is decided not so much by who makes the best decisions as by who makes the fewest mistakes. I have not forgotten how Keller bested me once by luring me into a wild ride, faster and faster till her slightly better driving-skills won the day. Can she maneuver the race that I’ve pulled her into now? At each report she drifts more into my areas of expertise, and the Tilián have no stomach for such things.
Time to take it up a notch again. I call for the girl to bring me paper and pen. The official stationary, please. Is there any copy-house in this godforsaken countryside? No, not for miles around. The Ancients could send instant messages around their planet on a whim, to unlimited numbers of people all at once, often as not for the most gawdawful trivia, but I must endure mail that travels on the back of a footsore mule, and copy the same words over and over by hand, probably for the rest of the day and on into tomorrow, till words of life and death become as boring as washing shirts.
No helping it, Sanzio. Write it and seal it and start on the next, one to every troop within my influence, as far as the fear of Sanzio D’Arco can go. Does anyone who trembles at my name imagine the drudgery of my life?
It’s simple enough; it takes few words to say. “Kill your camp-followers. No exceptions.” We should have done this long before.)
Wednesday, December 16, 2708
(Hammers pound and saws rasp; the sound comes in even through the windows of the classrooms, and when anyone opens a door to outside the scent of sawdust and char wafts in. We managed to drag or roll quite a number of timbers with undamaged parts out to the periphery, where the others can actually notice them, and now the maintenance-men pare off the burnt parts for compost and make use of the sound wood for things smaller than houses, as if they did such labors every day. They just don’t think about it.
Meanwhile, the wind blows ash all over the snow, blackening everything. And not a single person comments on it. Nor mentions the gory sacrifices so recently and mundanely scrubbed away. Nor has anyone whispered the least rumor about the murder of Hulda Aames.
What makes us, this time, immune?)
The sawing of wood and pounding of hammers grates on my nerves, yet cannot keep me long awake, though it disturbs my sleep often enough. My soldiers make more and more beds, and even a room addition to hold them all; the strong ones do the carpentry, the weak ones stuff mattresses with whatever feathers, rags, hair or straw might come to hand. No longer can this place pass for a common farmer's home, if anyone so much as opens the door.
I almost wish that someone would, actually—just shoot me right here in this bed that I can't seem to rise from. No, I don't wish that at all. They'd shoot the children, too. I know as a matter of scientific fact that I have felt worse than this before...I just can't imagine it, that's all. Paying for my sins...no, for suffering just means I'm doing my job. Isn't that right?
(I must’ve done a bang-up job last night—my head feels like I couldn’t fit it through that door.) (She must’ve served the cause well—my little girl’s come home so bruised and burned that I can’t find an inch of skin in its proper color.) (I can’t believe it—my burns and bruises convince them to trust me all the more! After all that I’ve been through!) (I can’t believe I finally got the whole stack written and sent—just look at all the ink all over my cramped-up fingers! And my shirt—did I get some ink on my shirt? Does the girl know how to get ink-stains out without weakening the silk?) (Does ol’ Whitesleeves know about me yet, about what I did? I turn to my bowl for distraction, trying to scrape one last bit of porridge from it, but my spoon can’t find so much as a smear. I don’t know which is worse—thinking about Sanzio D’Arco or thinking about how hungry I feel after a breakfast-ration that the others think is good.)
(I go back to the inn’s kitchen, that recipe that Rashid taught me repeating itself in my head, nagging like the headache. The innkeeper owes me a breakfast, anyway—I sold a whole lot more beer for him than I drank last night.) (I bring out the salve that my mother taught me to make, that her mother taught her before. Sooner or later they always come back, in my family at least, even if they only come home to die.) (I wince and jerk when Zofia dabs on a little more of that salve of hers, I grit my teeth and try to hold back the tears that squeeze from the corners of my eyes. Don’t I have any courage left?) (Didn’t my mother have some recipe for cleaning ink from cloth? Poor mother—that was one stain, at least, that she could wash out.) (I glance longingly towards Zofia’s pantry, but all the recipes I learned from Sarge won’t do me much good there. Don’t think about it—you’re not the cook for now, anyway. Don’t think about anything to do with Sarge.)
(Oh it’s got its pains and its hardships—who knows better than I? But I do love the life of a rebel! All poets, bards, and artists are rebels at heart.) (“I’m not going back,” she tells me as I dab the pungent stuff on every hurt that a mother’s hands can reach. “I’m not a rebel anymore.”) (As soon as Zofia finishes up with me I get up and go about chores like I’m all right. No rest for a...oh Hell—what am I?) (What am I, Mother—really? Someone who should never have been born? I remember how you used to scrub my shirts, wrestling with stains that no one else could see. Can I make it up to you, for my grubby childhood ways, for the crime of my birth itself, if I’m really, really good, if I serve my country faithfully, no matter what the cost?) (At least I know for sure what I am, again. A rebel, through and through. Then my tummy growls and I look down at the traitor, bulging out like that and embarrassing me—more than half my body’s made up of enemy stuff by now!)
(Breakfast tastes good—it actually tastes good. Who’d have thought? And behind the headache the sun still shines, the birds still sing. Nothing can keep a bard down for long—especially one with a little bit of future ripening in his lover’s belly!) (“Hush”, I say gently, as I soothe the great raw burn across her belly.) (It should have been her that turned, with her great big belly shoved up against the table, staring at her bowl like she wants to gobble up all of our rations at once! I should have been her—to have seen the light from endless indulgence at the government’s hands, not from the sparks in the nerves, the great exploding fireballs of pain so bad you wonder how you can see or hear or anything before you’re through.) (No one should have ever seen so much pain, Mother, as that which drove you mad. These piddlin’ tortures, here and there, that people think so bad—they’re nothing, aren’t they? Because in all of those I can only inflict as much as a nerve will carry, and it reaches a limit—soon—beyond which my clients faint. But you—our father etched the pain right onto your brain, where nothing sets a limit to just how far you feel. And it just goes on and on, for every day that we live, every day that you know that we still live, no matter how you scrubbed the least trace of us away. But that’s not my fault, is it, Mother?) (It’s all Sarge’s fault! I’d like to take that kitchen knife over there, right now, and hack the fat away from my body, and throw it on your grave, Sarge—a bloody raw end to all your damnable “kindness”—how DARE you! And yes, yes, yes, I do know what you said!)
(Already I feel a new song starting in my head—oh wondrous tune that nobody’s ever heard before, and still more wondrous lyrics, unfolding inside me like a baby grows!) (I pick her up and carry her to bed, her long limbs dangling from my arms, but my poor baby weighs so little, hardly more than when I carried her inside.) (I look at the bones of my own hand, my own wrist. Big bones, but not much on them. One good supper does not make a change enough to see. But oh the change inside, the change so huge it dwarfs every last shred of who I used to be, nothing left, really, crushed under the weight of enlightenment and pain! Thirteen years of life among the rebels, burned up like it was nothing.) (Only thirteen years older than me, poor thing—hardly qualifies as a mother. Did she even know what had happened to her? Did anybody tell her the statistics, that one out of three incest-children presents with birth defects? Did she know she carried twins? Poor child! None of this was her fault.) (Damn you, Sarge—damn you to eternity in Hell! How DARE you presume to forgive me!)