IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Futures Never Born
Wednesday, February 10, 2709
(It's still not healed.) Crashing won't let me wake, and yet the nightmares won't let me rest. (It still burns.) We burn. I burn. I see I hear I feel the crackling flames! (It still bleeds.) Bloodshed surges through my dreams like a poisonous red tide. (World into world into world...) I can't get the smell of all the wounds, all the battlefields, out of my mind! (Do we keep it open, Zora?) I run from patient to patient, trying to stitch shut wounds but they only grow the larger. (Do we need to, Incense?) Then an explosion rocks me, plunging me into still another nightmare. (Are we the disease or the cure?) I can't remember any of it, can't learn from any of it, because each new horror incinerates the last. (What if we're both?) What does Lovequest even mean? (Can the past heal the future?) Do any of us even know what love is anymore?(Can the present heal the past?) Does anything I do fix anything whatsoever? (What if healing hurts?) God damn me, I don't do any good at all! (What still needs born?) How did I even get into this mess? (What needs unborn?) How much more can I stand? Am I even standing it at all?
(What if it's all of us?)
What if I'm the reason Kanarik and her baby died? What if somehow, in some mysterious way, I really did shoot that bullet that transfixed them both, a pivot between before and after upon which I teeter? Because that's where my dreams keep dragging me, after every detour to my other sins, to where I shoot the gun, and the bullet pierces my belly, and I beget the baby that dies within the mother, and I myself curl up tight and trusting in a warm, red refuge that proves no refuge after all, and then I snap back to shooting the gun, and somehow a broken cup of tea gets in there, shards and scalding, and over and over mixed up with bits of every battle and crime and torment I have ever witnessed or took part in, all of these shards of dreams and memories and connections turning into sharp bits of porcelain in a splash of tea on the floor with the blood creeping into it, flowing red threads unfurling in the brown puddle till like the dreams you can't separate one from another or read anything in the mess and all I want is some rest, just some pure, sweet, peaceful goddam rest!
And yet I open my eyes to a new day. I marvel that for once I've actually had nothing to do with this latest evil, at least, even though it hurts as though I did. That final glimmer of the rapidly forgotten dreams lingers in me, being everyone at once, sharing the guilts and the shocks, sinner and victim and mourner and all of it. Except that none of that is true. I feel some measure of sanity return with the realization.
(Kneeling in slush, I throw up by the side of the road, choking acid over and over till I have nothing left in me. So many minds, minds, minds! I have lost my strength, my dignity, I can't keep them out anymore. They cry, laugh, scream, mumble, all hysterical, all amplified by magentine saturation.
Shakily I reel over to a fence and hold on for dear life. I am Zanne, Zanne, Zanne! I...I have to find my friends.
"This one's got it bad," somebody says. Strong, gentle fingers pry my bleeding hands from the barbed wire. Arms help me walk to a kindly, ugly old woman, who says, "Dearie, you need a dose of medicine."
"I don't need...what kind of medicine?"
"Just a little something to get the poison out of your veins," she says while cleaning my hands. "But first drink water. Drink plenty of water." Now she bandages me up, as tenderly as I've always imagined a mother might do. "They say it's hard on the kidneys and you've already lost a lot from vomiting. Here, dearie, drink your fill. It's boiled; it's as safe as you can get these days."
I drink thirstily, and then almost throw it up again. Instead I hold it down and take the sour drug. Anything is better than what I've been going through.)
I eat breakfast in silence, trying to remember or not remember my dreams, I'm not sure which, and then do chores with everybody else, weak but ambulatory. It helps me gain perspective. I wash dishes, I sweep the rocky floor, I take my turn at changing bandages and snipping old stitches in healing wounds that do, after all, seem to close. (Why did I ever think that they wouldn't?) I welcome the tedium, without quite liking it. I have starved for tedium these past months. And doing anything helps–better than curling up into a ball of pain and mourning, mourning, mourning.
I should never have discouraged Kanarik from wearing beads in her hair. That inane little thought plays over and over in my head, maybe because it's easier than the bigger thought, about the baby, about the family life lost. I can bear to regret something as tiny as a bead.
Damien broods in a corner, swallowing periodically from a dark bottle, and nobody interferes, perhaps because it physically restrains him from doing worse. He couldn't look more dreadful if Sanzio D'Arco had worked him over. After I finish my rounds I go over and sit beside him. I have no words for him, and don't offer any. He doesn't chase me away.
After awhile, when it's clear that I'm off duty for now, he passes the bottle over to me. I take a sip and pass it back. He takes a deep swallow, tips his head back against the wall of rock, and says in a drink-rough voice, "I ‘member when she los' her arm. You held me in your lap." He looks at me blearily. "Don' worry–I don' want that now."
"Funny how much can change in a year. I used to be a li'l boy." He smiles lopsidedly in his adolescent beard. "And now...or recen'ly, very recen'ly, I was almos' a father."
"You are a father, of a murdered child, and you are a widower. They can't take from you who you are."
"She...but you knew her. You know how she danced. You know her courage, how she could fight, too. She could be all things, Deirdre–fell an' fair, delicate an' hard, whate'er I needed, whene'er I needed it. The perfec' bride for a warrior-bard." He shakes his head. "Now I'll never sing again. I wish I could reach down my throat and tear out my own vocal chords like the strings of th' harp in that old ballad!" He looks over at the ledge. "You know they can't keep me away from it forever."
Horror rises in me as I grip his hand. "You have to keep going, Damien–you're the only one who remembers all the songs and stories from your village."
He whips around to snarl, "The bards all died!" The contortion of his young face scalds like venom spit right in my eyes. "What a fool I've been to think that I could keep their poetry alive!"
Neither of us notice Kiril and Lufti until they stand right in front of us, hand in hand. "We knew Kanarik, too. May we join you?"
"Be my guest," Damien growls, and offers her the bottle.
But she refuses, saying, "I'm already too scared of what the greenfire might've done." And she grips Lufti's hand so tightly that he pales. "Life goes on, Bard. You have to keep on singing for the living–for us and our children." And she puts her free hand meaningfully on her belly." At his widening eyes she nods. "I asked Makhliya to examine me, and she confirmed it."
Oh. My. God. God help her–not in the middle of battle, not without any way to get her to safety! And how old might she be, really? A hard life stunts so many in this land. But no–I know that she started her first period mere months ago. Surely, in so short an interval she couldn't have...but yes, it could happen. Or maybe she's mistaken, newly pubescent girls are never regular–yes, she must have made a mistake. But would Makhliya? My mind scrabbles through hopes, fears, joy, despair, amazement, outrage, I don't know what all, scattering thoughts everywhere into an incoherent mess.
Kiril gives us time to thoroughly tangle ourselves in our emotions before she takes a step closer to the gaping, drunken manchild beside me. "We've still got a future, Damien. And you have to keep on singing for it. Maybe your songs will be the only children you beget to ever draw a breath, you never know. But you have to think about the rest of us! We all belong to each other."
In all of this Lufti never says a word. I glance over at him, and see the tears upon his face, and his arms so stiff that they shake; I don't blame him for not speaking.
After they leave, I give up on finding words of my own, so I just hold Damien's hand, as he sips on, this time more contemplatively. I don't know if he's sober enough to remember later a thing that Kiril said, or whether it will sink in deep enough to make a difference whether he remembers it or not, I only care about right this minute. Because he said the truth–we can't keep him away from death, not when we march on its brink every day, in mountains or in lowlands or bobbing on the sea.
When I rise for the noon meal, Kiril and Lufti join me. Kiril winks. "Sorry I had to lie to him, but he won't figure it out for months, and by then he'll have gone past dying." I choke on my food, barely holding back a laugh, dizzy with relief (and just a trace of disappointment?) But Lufti sobs the harder.
Suddenly he shouts, "They go out like sparks, the little stars, they fizzle before they can light any fires, and, and, it gets so cold on Mt. Olympus that I wish I'd never learned to read!" Then he leaps upon the table and starts to dance, to a minor three-note chant that he hums himself, deep in his chest. And oh, the dance wrings my heart, the outreached arms, the hands suddenly clenching into fists as he slowly turns away from I don't know what, the arms trembling with the clench, pulling his fists closer by slow degrees to his heart, bending over them inch by inch–then suddenly flinging himself wide open, head back and arms out once more like he exploded, and then skipping around the table, his feet barely missing the dishes, yet never a misstep though he dances with eyes closed, the tears streaming down his cheeks. He darts like a thing that can't escape, and then slowly clenches in again, till he folds down all the way this time, down to his knees, to finally curl up on his side as others reverently pull the dishes away, and he moans, "I haven't died after all–I never got born!"
"Nooo," a rough voice groans, and we all turn in surprise to Father Man, tears of his own cutting through his grime. "No, Lufti, this is all madness–you mustn't say such things!" He rises from his seat, walks over, all eyes upon him, and he doesn't twitch or grimace, his eyes softened down from all their former wildness. He scoops Lufti up into his arms–all of the lankiness of the boy curled up against his chest. "No, no, child, you were born indeed, and you live–you live!" A sigh shudders through the boy. "We all live, lad–I don't know how or why, after all we've gone through, nor whether it's a blessing or a curse, but it's God's will either way, and we must make the best of it." And he carries Lufti out of sight, the rest of us staring in shock after him.
I hear Cyran sigh, saying, "He always pulls himself together for the children."
No one says a word after that for the longest time. Then hunger takes over and people eat, and soon things seem almost normal, in a fragile sort of way.
But it doesn't last, not for me. Makhliya comes and fetches Kiril, saying, "Come now, it's time for your follow-up." And Kiril picks herself up from the bench, moving carefully and somewhat drawn into herself–as she has this whole time, I now realize.
As I watch them leave, Cyran comes over and sits beside me. "I suppose I have to let you know, Deirdre, since you're the closest thing to a mother that the girl will ever have, now."
Somehow I already know when I turn to him and ask, "Tell me what?" as the hair prickles on my neck.
"It happens to women all the time out here. It's a hard life, the way of the rebel–it makes no concessions to anybody."
"Tell me, Cyran.""About Kiril's miscarriage? That's how she found out she was pregnant. Our people found her in the canyon, not too far from you, lying in a pool of blood."