IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Monday, December 21, 2708
(She must be somewhere out here!) Dawn light flashes between the horizon and the hem of the storm, kindling the raindrops into flurries of red-trumpet petals, whirling all around me, warm now, everything deliciously warm where I nestle against the donkey’s shivering side. (Yet the rain fills the hoof-marks as fast as we can track them.) They fill up every fold of my clothing. They kiss my face with grace. (Kiril calls us to turn back, yet how can I turn back?)
The raindrops in the downpour begin to show me something, each new drop continuing as soon as the last leaves off, the way that a waterfall might sculpt out the same shuddering form though the water always changes. I watch a womanchild develop before me, a sad, gray shimmer of a shape, yet growing clearer all the time: too young, too small to carry two babies in her arms. (Yet how can I not turn back, when I refused to lead, myself?) I cannot make out her features, exactly, yet her posture pleads with me. (Kiril knows what I know deep down inside.) I think she wants me to love both of her children, though one turned out all right, and one turned out terribly, terribly wrong. (Deirdre has ways, beyond us, to live through anything. If something does defeat her, it would surely do the same to us.) I can almost guess at what she means, but in the end, even if I could figure it out, I don’t know if I can promise her anything. (And if I search any longer in this storm, we will only lose another.)
And now the rain has stopped, yet sunlight doesn’t penetrate the clouds. I watch the patterns spread upon my boots, my hems, strands of my hair: a lace of white, so distant-chill, so fair. Zofia should have had such lace for her wedding-day. It’s wasted here, on me.
(The snow falls thick, dear Pastor Jean. It’s cold and I am warm—hellfire warm. Let me in.)
No, it’s not there at all. Not frost–fire! Glimmers of fire run all over my body. Everything shines and shimmers with its blue-white light. The sky cracks open and a hot rain rushes down, kindled by the lightning. Cold, then hot, then cold as the breath of ghosts, hot as the hell that they dodge by lingering with us.
(Let me embrace, dear, wicked Pastor, what I once loathed! Shiver at my smile as I once shivered in your grip.)
The donkey curls his head around me and we breathe upon each other’s necks. (She must be somewhere out here!) I think he likes the fever that I radiate. I think he needs it. (Our contact has given us nothing but good intelligence so far, and that distant scream last night confirmed it.) What kills me might well save his life. (The new bird-code told us to go in this direction, if you extrapolate from the opposite starting-point.) Didn’t Alroy the Outlaw God once say that Lovequest would burn me up until I had nothing left but ash? (Burn with me, even as the Cinder-Man has said, smiling with his charred and sweetly tragic, handsome-skull teeth!) Well, I might as well perish for an ass as for anyone else. (Yet nobody reckoned on so much sleet!) I can’t think of a worse fate than to die unneeded. (Would that we could rediscover the gun-scopes of the ancients, that could see by body heat alone!) Ah, listen to those brave, brave birds, unstilled by lightning-blast or storm! Why should I fear death, when they sing out upon its very brink? (Wouldn’t it console you, the heat of my body, here upon the brink of our damnation? Here I am, Pastor Jean, come to you willingly! Open the door.)
“There she is!” Rescued? Can I believe it? In this weather? Yet I hear the feet splash towards me. The donkey brays in loud relief. I can no longer open my eyes; I can barely smile at the strong arms lifting me. “Christ, but she’s on fire! Maybe we should leave her here to die, and save her and us both a lot of trouble.” My cheek falls against a fleecy collar and it feels so soft, so soft.
“What happened to her face? Looks like someone beat us to her.”
“Probably just running through branches with gunfire on her tail. You know how it goes.”
The wind whips up, moaning in the pines. I can feel it lifting my hair, ruffling over my rescuer’s shoulder.
“Bad luck, to get a frost on this of all days, you know. Unnatural. Runs shivers down my spine.”
“Bad luck for farmers, not for us.” I feel the rock of footsteps far below, not my own.
“They say that the weather went all crazy back in the day, right before the Old World died.”
“One fluke freeze does not make crazy weather all over the world. Are you looking for ways to scare yourself?”
Boots trudge on in sullen silence for awhile, before I hear, “Do you think the fever saved her? You know, from the cold?”
“Or made things worse. I’m not sure how that works.”
“Here, you lead the donkey; she’s so light I can carry her by myself.”
And just like that, my angels waft me away to paradise. Even the burro gets saved.
“What’s she saying?”
“I dunno. It sounds like ‘Remember me.’ She keeps murmuring the same thing, over and over.”
“Gawd, who could forget the witch? I wish I could!”
(It’s still dark outside, yet he answers the knock on the door. Drunks sleep frequently, but they never sleep for long.
Without a word Pastor Jean lets me in. I stare into his bloodshot eyes with all the passion in me.
“I wish I could forget you, George,” he says at last.
“But I don’t want to ever forget you!” And I throw my arms around him. I won’t forget, I won’t forgive, and he won’t even know the difference. “It’s cold outside, and I am warm, so warm. Let me bring summer into your winter chamber. Can you hear the drip of the thawing ice, the unseasonable warmth on this, the longest night of the year?”
He returns my kiss, but then makes a stab at pushing me away. “It’s wrong, George. I…I have misled you.”
I laugh at his too-late penitence. “Do you still believe that? Even after what your old faith did to you?”
He breaks away, staggers back, and sits on his bed with a sigh. “They had every right to defrock me.”
I sit beside him and tease off his jacket. “Then defrock—by all means. I will keep you warm.” Now I pull off my own scratchy wool, adding it to the growing pile of his clothes upon the floor.
“I should have gone to…But George, you have no idea of the horrors of a penitential monastery. Better I should change my faith, my nation, my name, my everything! Except the one thing that I couldn’t change.”
“Then don’t change,” I whisper into the crux of his neck and shoulder. “I want everything that you want.” Now that the Lord of the Rift has changed the context for me, teaching me to exult in what once smashed my already fractured soul in shock and degradation. Oh don’t repent now, dear Betrayer! Let us blaspheme together unashamed!
Pleasure is pleasure. At the ultimate moment I find myself, piercingly, remembering the exact same point with Hulda—I gasp with the intensity of the present and the past merging into a single time, crushing and expanding me with the double ecstasy!
He weeps, afterwards, and then falls fast asleep. All this we implanted into him, easily enough, for every single step he wanted.
I slip out of his bed, clean up at his basin, shivering a little with the touch of cold water, and then pull the warm wool back on over my goosebumps. I will not kill him in person. Better that a defrocked priest should do the deed, himself. I switch the flask hidden under his bed with my own. He will want it—all of it—when he awakens. And the herbs will work their magic with a greater overdose than what it took to sacrifice our Corey.
“Sweet dreams,” I say, kissing him on the brow.
One last thing, before I leave. I find his key. It takes a wrench against hinges rusted nearly beyond use, but I open up the safe in the back of the closet, and reveal the idol of his papistry. I stare into the Virgin’s gentle eyes a moment and doubt myself, but only for a moment. It is, after all, only plaster.
He will see the door open, and groggily he will not understand. He will take it as a sign, an offer of forgiveness. He will blubber his apologies. Good—he can apologize to Womanhood for all of this school’s crimes. Let a prayer fade on his dying breath. I hope he sees visions of his Heaven before plunging into Hell.
How fitting, to sacrifice a Christian on a Pagan holiday, and then a Pagan on a Christian holiday. That should make the rift complete.
Mere plaster…but, since I have done all I could to renounce the faith of my fathers, why not indulge in this, here, now? My finger, almost with a mind of its own, caresses one cold, white cheek. “Forgive me,” I whisper. “Pray for me. I don’t know what else to do.”
Except leave, before the lunk wakes up and indulges the final implanted suggestions that he longs to fulfill anyway. Escape while he still can’t move.)
I cannot move enough to help when my rescuers strip off my clothing. “Lordy, Lordy but she stinks! Haven’t these rebels ever heard of a bath?” I hear the maids draw water; maybe I dreamed the entire Charadocian Revolution.
“Well she’s gonna get herself a bath now, whether she fancies it or not.” Maybe nobody has suffered oppression anywhere in this land. Would Jonathan have called it Paradise if they had? I feel a sweat break out, a sudden rush of heat, then cold, drenching me all over again.
“Hey, stop that! Put her legs back together!” Words float down and waft away again, just out of reach.
“I just wanted a peek, ‘sall. What’s the harm?” Words splash away like raindrops at a touch. “Hey....will you look at that?” I know I hear them, I just can’t read them.
“Good gawd, she’s still a virgin! Who’d of thought it?” For a moment nobody moves my limbs anymore. Then, “Want to do something about it?”
A new voice interposes, “I would advise against it, gentlemen.” The voice seems familiar somehow, soft, almost gentle. “It always helps my case if the subject has one thing left to her that she can fear losing–if she does lose it, then it shall be on my schedule, not yours–although I will keep you both in mind for my assistants, if it comes to that.”
“Thank you, sir!” they say one after another.
“Don’t thank me; I hand on to others the work that most disgusts me, when I can. Now into the water with her–I cannot interrogate a woman frozen dead.”
Pain! The water scalds me!
“Hold her down! Keep her in!” I splash and thrash for all I’m worth.
“Easy for ol’ Whitesleeves to say,” I hear someone grumble. “He’s not the one getting splashed half-dead with cold water.”
“Quit your fussing,” another whispers. “It’s not that cold–just lukewarm, is all.”
“Well, it sure as hell feels cold soon enough, in this weather. What happened, anyway?”
“You must be from the lowlands,” says the cool, soft voice. “Up here winds sometimes sweep down off the peaks and carry frosts with them. Tomorrow it will warm up so fast you’ll miss the respite.” Steps move away.
I soon lose any power to thrash further, settling into the water while one kind soul holds my head up and another sponges the limbs hanging out of the tub. “What are we trying to do here, anyway–thaw her out or break her fever?”
“Don’t ask me–I just do as I’m told.”
‘Maybe we should drown her now, while she’s still weak, while the Mantle’s in the can.”
“Nobody told me to do that.”
“Come on–we can call it an accident–everybody’d breathe a sigh of relief.”
“He won’t. He wants information.”
“Good luck! Think he can interrogate her when she’s delirious?”
“Maybe it might go better that way. People babble in their fevers. Maybe he won’t have to hurt her.”
That’s okay, I want to tell him, capturing a few of the words. The hospital on Carmina Island isolates us agents precisely so our babbling won’t cause problems down the line.
“Why should you care? Have you any idea what this little horror did at Abojan Pass? I was there, man, and I still have nightmares!”
For an instant I capture those words, too, and the memory that they bring disturbs me. “They died fast,” I murmur. “We burned away the part that could feel pain.” Is that what happens here? Does the fever burn away my thoughts, my grief, my shame, leaving nothing save an ash of peace? Yet the very act of thinking it destroys the spell. I know what needs burned away. And knowing brings it back to me.
“Sir, she’s waking up.”
That soft voice says, “Deliver her to my room, then, and leave us. Thank you for your assistance.”
Strong arms lift me out, their muscles flexing against my naked skin. I hear the water dripping, and I feel the cool air hit me. Then soft towels comfort me dry. Then they carry me somewhere, then sit me up in a chair...and I feel them tie me upright to the back? Arms hampered in rough ropes? Something’s not right. I struggle to call back everything said in my presence, words floating out of my reach before I can clearly focus on them.
“Tie her calves and ankles to the outsides of the chair legs. I want her to feel open, exposed.” Someone laughs as they comply. At that point my shivering resumes, and I realize that no one has bothered to clothe me again.
And then I finally get my eyes open, feeling the headache and the joint-pain and every feverish thing that the frost had tucked away before, and I stare directly into the deep brown eyes of Sanzio D’Arco.
“Good morning, Ms. Keller. I would like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”