IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
The Power of Words
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
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 doesn't 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.)
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.
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 it can't 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
(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 that 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
(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