IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Sunday, December 20, 2708
I have assembled my band, fool that I am. (I have assembled them, O Lord of the Rift.) Lufti–who else will take care of him? Kiril, for I have promises to keep. Tanjin because I’m an idiot, and because he so often knows exactly what I need before I do. Dosh and Nishka because I require strength and stealth, pixyish little Daia for her sharp eyes and keen aim. Hekut I feel none too fond of, yet the little fellow does have the agility required to complete the team, and give him credit, he would never leave a soul of us behind.
(And now we all sit together in three neat rows like a choir, staring up at the drunken old pastor as though we paid attention to his slurry maunderings. Or like the Lumnite’s rings, pressed together shoulder to hip, so much energy buzzing between us that it leaps the gaps between the pews. Yet what we pour out to Pastor Jean is pure love. Doesn’t that make us good?)
That’s more than enough to go on, right there. Even at this late time of year we pull on every layer of clothing that we have, shivering in the dawn, at least until the day warms up, when we’ll swelter once again. For already we have climbed much higher than we'd begun yesterday, and the road still zigzags upward at a steep incline.
(We have come so far and yet achieved so little. Some crucial information evades us. I wake up with these thoughts in a dusty bed in Montoya Mansion’s abandoned guest-suite, running my fingers through my hair and hoping for something better for breakfast than hamster-feed. “Tshura? Have you or Guaril found a safe way into the kitchen today?”
Guaril?” she asks sweetly in my head, in the equivalent of
Him. Now I remember.”
(Cold blow the drafts around the stained glass windows. Except, of course, the boarded-over ones. Who did they portray, Pastor? The Virgin Mary nursing baby Jesus? Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross? Did you break the glass, yourself? Can you remember doing it, or did you conveniently black out? Do you even know why I have to press tightly to this nugget in my pocket to recall their names?
And yet we embrace you, dear chaplain of a faith no longer ours. Can you feel our embrace? Each of us, holding magentine in our pockets, embrace you with our very souls—isn’t that what a minister wants?)
Everybody assigned to other bands wants to hug me before they depart, knowing that they might never see me again. We haven’t yet achieved the cold-steel precision of a regular army in this much, at least–no crisp salutes for us. So I take them all in turn into my arms, feel the soft clothes-padding and the hard limb cores, breathe in the very scent of them as deep as lungs allow. Every hug seems to set off a soft fireball inside me, building up the glow till it burns away the post-greenfire melancholy, even though I’ll miss them like a drug. I look beyond them now and see the blooming meadows, all the flag-brave colors unfurling everywhere that sunlight streaks between the trees. I smell the floral scents that intermingle with the pine. I hear the songs of birds. I almost, in that instant, feel renewed.
Almost, not quite. As soon as they leave, as if watching it happen to a stranger, I crumple down to sit upon the ground, curling in around what must be somebody else’s searing pain of soul. Tanjin sits down beside me and puts an arm around me, waiting for me to talk. And finally the words whisper from my lips. “I don’t deserve so much love.”
“So?” he asks with a gentle smile, wiping away the tears that sting my scratched-up cheeks. “If everyone got only what they deserved, we’d have no need for revolution. Why can’t the unfairness go the other way sometimes?”
(You think you don’t deserve our love, but you have shown us the emptiness of your religion, and for that we need to thank you. We only want what you do, when it comes down to it. Oblivion for you. Haven’t you courted her for years? Won’t you rest at last, in peace, as you like to say over all the little graves, finally nestled in the arms of Lady Death?)
“Why do you take care of me, Tanjin?” I ask. “Why do you lo...” but I can’t finish it.
“Do you want to know why I became a rebel?”
I nod, unable for the moment to speak.
“I had run away from home. I made it all the way to the sea. I stood upon a cliff, and then I climbed down to a ledge, still higher up than many buildings, and I watched the waves churn in torment around the rocks, far, far below. Breathing too deeply could’ve knocked me off that ledge. And I wanted to jump.”
“Oh Tanjin! No!”
“And why not? My birth drove my mother to suicide. Nobody in my family wanted me, really. I didn’t deserve love.”
“Yes you do! You do!” I grip him as tightly as if he would jump that minute down a cliff miles and years away, I sob against his breast. “You do!”
“Now you say. But nobody said it then.” He lifts my chin to face him. “We go on, Deirdre. We’re here so we just go on. You don’t know what might change tomorrow. I never knew, back then, that someday I would matter to somebody like you.” He shrugs. “I became a rebel because I had nothing left to lose. Why not die avenging my mother? Why not take down the system that perverted my father?” He kisses my brow. “Why not accept love when it’s offered you, and never mind whether you ‘deserve’ it?”
Dosh has gone off on his own somewhere; he left sometime during my melt-down. He’s shown more than a little melancholy of his own recently, and maybe he knows the hollowness of the praise afforded me. So I let him go, even when, in the corner of my eye, I saw his back disappear among the trees. If he returns, good. Yet if he leaves the rebels, if he simply wanders off without a proper mustering-out, who can blame him, really, after all that he’s been through?
Nishka frets, though, twisting a crochet-edged handkerchief in her hands. “He saved us,” she keeps whispering. “Just when I thought I couldn’t bear any more he broke free and he helped us all escape with him. He could’ve just saved himself.”
Yet he does show up again, just about when we had given up on him and started the first few steps out into the thick new grass. He grins from ear to ear, coaxing a burro along.
“Tell me you didn’t steal that animal,” I say, my heart sinking further still.
“Steal? Not at all! I wheedled, sure, but he comes with the farmer’s blessing.” Dosh leads the beast straight for Lufti. “This’ll spare your little friend here a few steps.”
But Lufti’s eyes go wide and he stumbles back. “Noooo,” he moans. “Not the saddle. Anything but the saddle!”
Dosh stares, dumbfounded for a moment, then nods. “Torture. I understand. It does things to you.”
I tell him, “It’s all right, Dosh. The burro will help a lot with carrying supplies. Thank you. It’s a princely gift.”
(It does something to you, love. It can be a rare kind of torture, sometimes. To be understood. Who honestly wants understood, dear Pastor? Wouldn’t we really rather have our lies believed? Yet we know you—intimately. We know about the taboo statue, hidden under lock and key. We know the things that you’ve hidden from yourself. And we want to indulge your most secret desires.)
And so we march into the brink of summer, a few brown flecks like autumn’s scouts against the green expanse, a rebel band once more and not an army. Birds sing their hearts out, as though to comfort us for our missing bard. Flowers make the most of the brief warming of the mountainside. Leaves soften sunlight radiating between the trees, cooling it in shades of green. I hear the rush of water everywhere.
And I feel a brief, cool joy, seeing a burst of red-trumpet blossoming over a meadow glimpsed between the trees. I feel a kind of satisfaction. If, right now, the government tracked us down and shot me dead, I would die happy, with beauty in my eyes, pouring out my blood to blossom scarlet in the grass, one more burst of color in the Charadocian landscape, one more song among the tales.
Might Damien have told me such a story, once upon a time? That the red-trumpet grows wherever a rebel fell, to honor blood well-spilt? I can’t remember everything he’s ever said or sang. I wish I could. Someone should keep track of it.
(Can you hear the trickle off the steeple of the thawing ice, dripping faint behind the droning of your sermon? But it’s only a momentary warmth. Tonight will snow again. And tomorrow—the longest night of the year.
What if the sun won’t shine again—for you? Would you even miss it?)
(Oh my God. How could the sun ever shine on something like this?)
After awhile, though, the beauty fades behind a fog of achiness. Winter still lives on in me; my joints feel halfway frozen and my numb feet drag like stone; I can feel every leak in my secondhand boots that slide around my narrow heels and pinch the toes like misers. Yet the heat oppresses me above the waist, while Lufti’s body holds my layers of wool in place. Those less encumbered, those whose burdens ride upon the donkey’s back, throw off their jackets and ponchos and soon breathe free. Something in me feels that I have no right to do the same.
(What made them think they had the right? Could their uniforms excuse them even in their own sight?)
Now all that moist and fertile earth, all that mud, becomes nothing more than something dank and thick and cumbersome to trudge through, endlessly, forgetting any sense of purpose, too weary even to feel danger, just going on, as the shadows fade into the general gloom of another overcast, and now the rain doesn’t exactly fall, it just mists about vaguely without clear direction, veiling everything in gray so that nothing keeps the mind from wandering...
(They used to be our sisters, these cold, gray limbs thrust out into the rain. These used to be our daughters, our mothers and our wives, some taken at gunpoint, some leaving home by choice in the hope of sending money back to those they really loved. These used to be our lovers and our friends, our neighbors, even the occasional enemy so comforting-familiar that we’d give anything to hear that old shrew cuss us out across the fence again, just one more time.)
And now it rains down heavily once more, drenching me till the weight of my clothes could almost bring me to my knees. But not quite. Never quite. I push on through the gray.
(And now we find them here at last, sometimes a body alone, sometimes by twos and threes, sometimes a heap left halfway sunk in mud where the soldiers used to camp. We watch the raindrops kiss the cold blue lips we used to know, the black track of blood traced down the side of the face from the faintly opened lips, now diluting before our eyes, and finally washed away, the eyes half-closed as though content. We find them with their limbs all jumbled into postures strange to us, their hair slicked down black and wet, drops like pure white diamonds in the strands, like stars upon their brows.
At first we wonder–what offense? What sin, real or perceived, called for their annihilation? What lies whispered against them, what impossible demands?
Gradually the word goes ‘round. Nothing. Nobody did anything wrong. The order came–kill all the camp-followers. That’s it. That’s all. Enough.
Of course, some say. Too many rebels had infiltrated that way. What else could the government do? And they curse the rebels as they stand in muddy water, digging graves by shovelfuls of silt, loth to sink their darlings into such a dirty bath.
Others say nothing; they just pick up an axe or shovel or machete, or pry up the floorboards over a hidden gun, and they go out into the night, telling no one, so that none might give any reason to have the answers tortured out of them. But we all know where those others go. And now whole houses stand empty, sometimes entire rows, rain blowing in where one unlatched door flaps open and shut, open and shut, in the wind. Many don’t expect to return. Some plan on never coming back.)
(We’re never going back. Nobody ever goes back from this school, not really. You, and the man over you, robbed us of our women, all womanhood, and without the feminine there can be no home, no everyday mercies, and love becomes just one more empty conquest.)