IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Phoenix of the Vanities
Wednesday, February 24,
(Morning light shines in through the car’s
iced-up windows. I slept half the day
yesterday and on through the night, but I guess I needed it. Stiff as an old woman, I force myself outside
to do the necessary, shuddering with the cold when I have to bare my fanny within
the discretion of a clump of snow-topped bushes (sneering at my own
modesty—it’s not like anyone else walks about!) and then I look around. Not as much snow as I thought; it wouldn’t
even require a snow-plow if I drive carefully.
Drive? I return to the car,
where I find a self-heating can of hachee and open it. I need something hot in me more than I need
to avoid magentine, at this point. Correction:
I need something in me, hot or cold.
Even an agent finds food hard to come by in the forest, in winter,
“Why drive?” I ask Tshura in the box, fiddling with the useless
dial because at least it helps me think that I can tune in. “Why did I think of driving? Because...because it’s possible? I climb into the front seat, behind the
wheel, and use the card on the ignition.
Not only does it fire up, but a dial shows I’ve got a full tank of taro! Who knows what lunacy caused the owner to
abandon a perfectly good vehicle, with no cars behind and the capacity to
simply pull back and out of the whole mess?
We’ve all been asleep for months, it seems, shuffling through the
motions of life.)
I sleep through the
day. Sometimes people wake me up to
shove food in my direction. I try to eat
it, with middling success. I hardly taste
any of it; it’s just volume in my gullet.
I hate everybody who drags me even for a minute from my pillow, but I’m
sure they’ll forgive me for it later.
Back to sleep again. Not even the
gunfire can wake me up.
(Oh lord, oh lord, where
did they all come from? And why–WHY?
Mehti–dead? And Pawl dead, and Jiaolong bleeding here in
my arms and I can’t stop it, I can’t stop the bleeding! And...now he’s dead, too? His blood still feels warm on me–how can he
have died? How can any of it
happen? I thought the Peshawrs had an
understanding with the smugglers!
They saw the banners—because
they shot right through them. The
Charadocian flag and the Peshawr family crest, as if with particular malice. My ears still ring with the shots. But I’d have given them yards of banners to ruin
if they had let my friends alone.
All I freakin’ wanted was a
smugglers. They wore Charadocian
peasant-rags of the lowest caste, underneath the bandoliers and fur. Low caste folk have no authorization to carry
guns of any kind, let alone automatics!
Those were rebels. They have
taken over the smuggler base.
They have made me their
Thursday, February 25, 2709
I wake on my own, to find
myself not completely without responsibilities.
Makhliya still needs help, especially with a new influx of wounded, and
with her belly by now so swollen that it's starting to get in the way. I put in a few hours today, before she tells
me to rest.
(Lord have mercy! Where can I light? Where can I find rest? The rebels hold Abojan Pass, too! Look at them down there–not one of them in
uniform, and all of them armed–guns stolen from our own manufacture, by the
look of it.)
(All right, so I have
wheels. But where can I rest? The countryside rolls past me, forests
sparkling with ice giving way to snow-heaped farms. The most I could hope for might be some
forgotten turnips, but I couldn’t dig the frozen ground even if I could tell
which patch once grew that crop.
Still, it feels good to
make the miles melt while sitting on padding in a deliciously heated compartment! Hungry I may be, but I ride in style; I feel
the happiest that I have in a long, long time.
Some consider hope
incompatible with the doctrine of Truth.
It doesn’t, after all, wait on proof.
But my father taught me that hope is in fact a possibility, as
potentially true as any other possibility.
While one should not worship it, one may freely entertain it.
And wasn’t I the girl whose
dream came true and walked into my life?
I think I’ll roll down this highway basking in hope while scanning for
an improvement in my lot. Another thing
my father taught me is that we’re more likely to see the potential in hope become
a truth if we actively go looking for it.
So here I am, Papa, looking! Wish
me joy in the search!)
I should rejoice, and so I
dutifully make the noises of rejoicing. For we have real antiseptic now, and ointments
and painkillers and even antibiotics.
With the pass secured, cartloads more of the stuff roll off to Koboros,
just as Rashid had wanted in the first place, before any of us knew that the
pass would become so hotly contested. It
smells very different from my first clinic in the old university, all of these
clean, sharp chemical-scents, and hardly ever a whiff of rot, these latest
wounds all cared for while still fresh.
Even from up here I can smell the blood that spilled down there, rotting
in the mud. Deaths here, too, on top of
those I left behind. And surely my lover
among them, so recently in my arms that I can almost believe that I still carry
a bit of her scent her on my body.
How can I lose so many
friends all at once? How can anyone bear
it? I sit back against the rock,
stunned–absolutely stunned! Where do I go? What can I do? How can I make my way home with rebels
holding the roads? How do I go on
We rig up crackling xylophane
tarps into more oxygen tents just as the latest tankfuls arrive. Who knew, a year ago, that we could have such
a wealth of supplies? Kiril now at least
(I don’t. I must purge all gentler emotions from my
breast. My fists clench up like
hardening hearts. The rebels have driven
me to this. I don’t go back. I now have enough supplies for four men,
meant for two weeks of eating enough calories to fuel a major
mountain-climb. With care I can stretch
that out for months.)
Marduk’s broken ankle turns
out to be a sprain. A very, very bad
sprain, I assure him; it could have fooled anybody. The swelling even looked like a bone jutting
out at the wrong place. He just buries
his face in his pillow. Cyran finds work
for Alysha anywhere else but there.
(Hold on, Zanne. Tracks in
the snow? Yes indeed. I am not
hallucinating. Tire tracks, cartwheel
tracks, and many, many footprints, all converging onto this road to make a nice
slush of it. Now that sounds hopeful
indeed! Perhaps they lead to food?
Good, because I feel so hungry that the snow looks like that
powdered sugar confection that the little coffeeshop by the shoe-store used to
sell, mounded with whipped cream dusted with sugar...what did they call
them? Skislopes. And underneath it all, a white cake base
flavored with mint. Oooh yeah!
I pull over for a moment, laying across the seat till my poor,
dizzy head stops spinning. Perhaps it’s
not a good idea to think of food till I get some actual edibles into me. That can of hachee didn’t go very far when I
went hungry for so long before finding it.)
I tire quickly. Sometime during my long sleep every overtaxed
portion of my body has unionized against me and now goes on strike. But Makhliya understands. Tomorrow, she says, she will start me on
exercise, but today I should just go back to bed–after I finish a few simple
stretches that she recommends, and then eat a little more.
(I stare down at the
rebel-held base, as cold as the mountaintops.
Weary or not, supplied or not, alone or not, I will get my revenge. I have no arms, but I’ll think of
something. These brutes may do very well
at frightening peasants, and murdering a lady who should never have become an
officer, but they have yet to reckon with a man of the highest caste.)
“And Deirdre, do something
about your hair,” Makhliya says before I can lie down. “You’re scaring the patients.” I lie down anyway.
(After all, rebels improvise weapons all the time. And not one of them could match me for
intelligence or education. I will find
or make the tools I need for this dirty business.)
When next I open my eyes I
find a brush, comb and mirror laid out beside me. Oh sweet Mother Mary, I do look worse
than hell! I try, but soon my weakness
defeats me and I fall weeping back to the mat with a comb stuck in my hair.
(When I wake from my little nap I look in
the rear view mirror and laugh at myself.
Really Zanne? With the hair on
half your head sticking up like a wing?
Perfect for a lopsided flight, or more likely a tailspin, but hardly de
riguer for meeting future friends in whatever gathering all those tracks lead
I pull out my brush and settle it all back
to where it belongs, then dig out some string to tie it into two ponytails in
the old style. Farm folk tend to be a
conservative lot, or at least don’t see much point in following every little
trend that comes along.
I give myself one last glimpse in the
mirror. Weary or no, hungry or no, Zanne
I remain, and that’s precisely how I shall present myself! It puts a twinkle in my eye just to think of
it. In a good mood, I start up the car
again and head to wherever everybody else heads. I like my alone time as much as anyone, but
the prospect of joining forces with others again heartens me no end.)
But then hands pull me back
up again. Alysha kneels beside me and
wrestles with my tangles for me. Then
she motions over Nishka, who starts brushing out the other side, inch by torturous
inch. “Lordy, Deirdre!” Nishka exclaims
after a few strokes. “I never thought
any human being could get rat’s nests this bad!” I think back to how often I flew with it
unbraided. I think about the other
occasions when I just grabbed up handfuls and braided it on the run, without
bothering to untangle it first. I
can’t...oh jeez...I can’t remember the last time I actually combed it.
Alysha asks, “Would you
like us to cut it for you, Deirdre?”
No! No! No!” I shove them away and crawl backwards away from
them. “No! No!
“Easy, easy,” Alysha
soothes. “We won’t cut it, then. Here, Nishka, let’s give it another try.”
And I find myself
ludicrously, unheroically weeping throughout the entire operation. The endless tweaks and twinges aggravate me
absurdly, more than all the agonies that I have already passed through. I feel like they comb my nerves. Greenfire might embolden the warrior on the
battlefield, but it makes her a mewling baby in the wearing-off.
Yet at last they sleek it
all down, and braid it into two ropes, less thick than formerly, and not nearly
so glossy as I remember them being before.
I lift one braid and examine it...
“You cut it!” I cry, and
recoil from them again.
“No, we didn’t, honest!”
“You did! You did!
It barely reaches my hip–it used to reach my thighs.”
“No, no, you just lost a
lot on your own,” Alysha reassures me.
“Starvation does that. Your hair
has become brittle and doesn’t replace itself as fast.”
I vaguely remember...yes,
it might have looked this short before I got here, come to think of it. I look at the woolly piles that they’ve
pulled again and again from the brushes, and I whisper, “What have I done to
Alysha laughs grimly. “Has it taken vanity to finally get you to
ask that? Then God bless vanity!” And she and Nishka gather up their things and
the matted hair, and leave me to my rest.
(And then, right there,
upon my rocky perch, a strange impulse takes me, but following it gives me an
odd feeling of hope in the face of crushing despair. I pull out my comb and a little signaling
mirror. I take care not to let the sun
fall on the mirror in such a way as to send a flash either to the complex below
or to the road beyond, but I comb my hair as fastidiously as if I spiff up for
a date. I must not let one detail of my
superiority slip. I must remember,
always to the very end, who and what I am.)
I lie there,
frustrated–this is not who I am! What’s wrong
with me? Other people have already
recovered by now. Sometimes I catch
Makhliya’s worried looks; she notices, too.
One more anomaly of my rewired neurology, I suppose.
I turn on my mat and look
over to the patients that I’d helped to care for before, trying to remember who
and what I am. Kiril lies propped up in
her tent with a couple other patients; she shouldn’t have shared my sleeping
mat the night before, I realize; I feel ashamed of being so needy.
I hear her complain of
boredom, but as I watch Lufti approaches with a book. I can’t make out much of the words from here,
but he reads to her till he goes hoarse, and then comes back later and reads to
her some more. I have no idea where he
gets his books, but he reads now at a furious rate, anything and everything he
can get his hands on. He has become
well-versed on a dizzying array of fantasies, classics, pop-lit, histories and
myths, and they all scramble together in his speech.
(I miss my library. It would help me to remember myself as a
cultured man, if I had just one book to read.
But they seemed like an unnecessary weight to pack at the time. All I brought for entertainment was a pack of
Lufti has read enough. From my position lying down, I watch him go
over to trade stones with merchants for more books–ah, that explains it. I see one smuggler fit a loup to his eye and
gaze appreciatively at a crystal; apparently Lufti’s got a better eye for
gemstones in the raw than we gave him credit for.
(It doesn’t matter. I know my own education. I know that I can discern the good from the
bad, the high from the low. Even reduced
as I am. And perhaps my straits do some
good, to separate me, my true quality, from the mere appurtenances of
wealth. To show my real merit.)
And perhaps my debility
does some good, for it keeps Kiril and Lufti here, resting, recuperating, when
otherwise they would have followed me to ruin.
Thank all the angels and saints, then, for leaving me depleted!
(Thank all the angels and
saints that inspired me to take precautions this time, to climb this peak above
Layne Aliso’s base and gaze down with binoculars before taking the road. And yes, I know beyond a doubt that she must
have died, herself. Had she lived, she
would have found a way to hold the pass.
God but she had spunk, for a woman.)
we can’t make this our main medical base.
But the grueling climb, the cold and the thin air, argues against
it. And we must not fall to the
temptation, ever, of thinking any base secure.
Red summer flowers grew all the way up.