IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Friday, February 26, 2709
I feel absolutely trashed. My duties for the day don't last long before Makhliya sends me back to bed. I drowse in and out, but sometimes I also sit up and fiddle on the map now and then, adding bits as I remember them. Sometimes while I draw people make me eat, and my body wants it with embarrassing fervor, but I have no sense of taste. My flesh feels made of stone, cracked in ancient weather, and all sounds annoy me. Of course. I should expect this by now.
(I drive by three heaps before I recognize them for what they are. Oblongs, long and human made, snow-muffled piles of rocks and sticks because of course nobody can dig the frozen ground. They're cairns. Dead people. Those who didn't make it to whatever hope lays ahead. I should have expected this by now.
Hope isn't a truth. It isn't even a promise. It's just a possibility. And thinking that, my heart feels as empty as my belly. But the car growls on and so do I.)
I feel no hope in anything, anymore. Father Man, one paw upon my hand, jabbers on in vain, as senseless to me as in his days of madness, for it sounds like an empty raving that any good deity could love me, could have any plan for me, or that any future, in this life or the hereafter, could be anything but gray.
(I get some cocoa cooking on the campstove, its warmth as dim and fitful as the light it sends fluttering over the cave walls. I thought it might cheer me up to have camp-cocoa with lunch, but the drink looks gray and unappetizing.
My first full day of knowing myself feral. Strange. I have no less than I did when I set out–in fact I have four times more, technically speaking. But it makes a difference to realize that I have no way to obtain replacements. Little things bother me that didn't before, like the taste of freeze-dried stew, knowing that I won't taste fresh for God knows how long; or the feel of sitting on a rock, not because I choose to but because I have no chair. And the view that I once found beautiful now looks stark, because I don't know whether I will ever see another garden in my life.)
Yet I know that I have experienced otherwise in my life. In theory, in fact, I should feel better in a few days. I can't quite imagine it.
(For all practical purposes I have no mansion, no servants, no bank accounts, no art, and no surviving friends: nothing but the contents of four packs and two pair of llama saddlebags, and the llamas themselves, of course. The only lands I own are three graves and a cave, and wherever I happen to stand.)
(Wistfully I think of my well-appointed apartment in Til Institute, with a gourmet kitchen, cozy furniture, cushions and curtains embroidered by my own hand, and an impressive collection of books. And ooh, a deep, sweet bath with scented soap and hot running water!
I laugh at myself. Right now, for me, they don't exist. That's not strictly "true", but it might as well be. They all could fall into The Dwimmormarshes right this minute and it wouldn't change a thing for me.)
I know that I have had friendships, deep and abiding and warm, but in my memory my friends seem like little more than a collection of dolls, empty resin objects of pretense that even a child would only feign to believe in. My memory crowds with little figurines of all my old friendclan–a little doll Merrill, a little doll Zanne, a little doll Jake turning creepily my way with worried eyes–and all my dead comrades–a pretty little Tanjin doll, and Fatima, Lucinda, and half-naked Kief all cast in resin with nothing inside them. No guts, no brains, no hearts.
(I still don't feel quite real. Hollow. Could one can of hachee and a couple of cough drops carry enough magentine in them to affect me?
No, Tshura points out, I feel hollow because I actually am. That can and those little drops of medicated candy are the only food I've had in days. Thank you, dear spirit.)
(I could bear the hardships of Maitreyya quite easily, if I still had my friends. With Pawl and Mehti and Jiaolong, we'd all laugh and make of this an adventure. Anything would then seem possible. Even scaling the highest mountain in the world.)
Even Cyran and Damien and Alysha look like empty, walking dolls to me. Even, almost, Kiril and Lufti. But not quite. I cling to that "not quite". Right now that's all that keeps me from walking straight through the cavern's mouth not stopping at the brink.
(Jake and George sit on the deck, listlessly, watching the sun set on the ocean, blazing in the clouds. Jake has seemed so drained lately, or apathetic or something, that it scares me. What has this mission done to him? George, too, hardly seems to have any of his former energy left.
Cryptically, Jake murmurs, just once, "Don't you believe in me anymore?" to emptiness in front of him. But I haven't gotten another word from him all day. I don't think he even knows that he said it.
Wallace, on the other hand, seems almost younger, following Don around, learning everything that his father never taught him about sailcraft. Thank God for his attitude! It gives me enough heart to check how the pea soup's coming and make sure that Don hasn't spiced it all to hell and gone while I'd turned my back.)
(Cairns. Cairns because they care. Not like the fellow before, left out in the open with his skull bashed in. They're humanizing again. We're all humanizing.
The sun has gone below the horizon, but light still lingers, pink and violet, behind the silhouettes of winter boughs. I could go awhile yet before it grows so dim that I might miss something important.
"How about it, Tshura?" I ask the leather-clad box on the seat beside me. "Shall we keep on driving? Yes? Then drive it is!"
Sometimes all you need is a friend to help you hold despair at bay. Even if she's a ghost.)
(The superstitious peasants cling to their dead, believing in ghosts. I'm too educated to indulge in that luxury. Yet it does help to think of them–to know that I have something to avenge.)
I know, in fact, that I've felt better quite recently. I felt an excitement so keen that fear became a thrill, anger and panic and even hate felt good. All it took was a little bit of leaf between my teeth.
(Well so be it! I came out here to challenge myself. The challenge has changed, but not the spirit that rises to it.)
And–again—in theory–that is the phoniest memory of all.