IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Saturday, February 27, 2709
(Life on the road becomes routine. I check every wreck, and often find enough taroleum to siphon a little more into my tank to keep on going. Sometimes I find snowbound, weed-grown tractors or other farm equipment on wheels with full, forgotten tanks.
Taroleum stinks like the swamps that it comes from, especially when I have to suck on the siphon and try to jerk back in time not to taste the vile stuff, but it’s not toxic, just not edible. I really miss, though, the biologic conversion engines of Til Institute, that I could have fed on the frozen weeds and stubble, twigs and pine needles which come to hand a-plenty.
Silly Zanne! You know agents aren’t supposed to think like that!
Even more, though, I miss finding fuel for me! Not that I’m uncomfortable, now; I’ve reached that dreamy state where one no longer feels the stomach’s pangs, just perpetual stupor. I kind of like it, actually. Memories fade into the white of snow and sky, soft, pale, empty...but that’s not health, that’s a kind of delirium. If I don’t find food soon, I won’t even be able to drive anymore.)
Already I begin to set up a routine. And Cyran encourages me in this, even going out of hir way to settle me in. E gives me a weather-cracked bureau for my few possessions, arranging it and some other objects (crates for the most part) perpendicular to the back rock wall and coming mostly together again in front, to make a sort of room for me. I turn around one of the crates (and marvel at how much the exertion costs me) to show the advertisement on the side, of a laughing (bare armed!) Stovaki girl holding a basket full of fruits and vegetables.
I know why, I think. Though I act as a medic once again, I can see that Cyran regards me as a patient, and I don’t argue. My body aches for rest and restoration. Although I do, diligently, follow the exercise routine that Makhliya has assigned to me, and it feels good. Or at least as good as anything does, these days, a distant flicker of color on a gray horizon.
(Oh. My. Gates. Of. Knowledge! Am I hallucinating? Is that sign...is it?
I pull over next to the crudely but delectably painted boards, depicting a farm family with baskets full of vegetables and preserves, the colors insanely brilliant in a landscape of white snow and black, bare trees. They smile with wide-drawn crescents, and their eyes are black dots inside white dots with black strokes on top to mimic eyelashes, but they look beautiful to me! And...oh my, freshly painted, too!
The sign says, “Homegrown, poison-free food! Will take barter in goods or labor. Money not accepted.”
I shake so much that I can no longer stand. I make it to the car and sit in the open doorway till I can pull myself together. No wonder so many take this road! Of course some farmers would resist the madness, having access to unprocessed foods. Not all, but some would figure out that store-bought goods injured the mind. And the canny ones would take over the farms that their addled neighbors leave behind.
Have I strength enough left to go on a little longer, to make this hope a truth?)
Makhliya weighs me every morning. And every evening she authorizes me to eat a supper. Already I have begun to feel positively heavy, but she calls that weariness, not an actual assessment of my size. I know that she advises Cyran to glue me to this crack in the rock, despite so many others coming and going on missions, and that he won’t overrule her without the gravest need.
So I resign myself to staying here awhile. I carve myself a crochet hook and quickly turn discarded packing-twine into fancy belts and bags, complete with textural designs, for no one can crochet as fast as Fireheart Friendclan. I sell them to those who, like Lefty, have carried with them money this entire time. (Maybe now he’ll give me back the kerchief that he borrowed from me.) With the cash I buy nicer yarn from the smugglers, in orchid and golden-cream, and make myself a long scarf ending in tasseled fringes; for the time being I drape it over my bureau.
(Barter...barter...I’ve looted clothes from abandoned luggage and the bodies of the dead, like everyone else these days, more than most now that I have a vehicle to store them in. But they must have a surfeit of dead men’s clothes by now. What can I do to provide value added?
Embroider, of course! Nobody embroiders as fast as Fireheart Friendclan. And like all smart refugees not allowed into stores with the regular people, I’ve kept a sewing kit with me the entire time; I’d be a ragged mess by now, otherwise, and we can’t have that.
I dig up a last burst of mental energy. Where’s that ghastly, gaudy sweater-coat, in stripes of many clashing colors, that nobody with a speck of taste would wear in public unless freezing? Ah, here we go. Quickly I unravel it, separating off the different yarns. And yes, the package of needles in the kit includes the specialty ones that few ever use, including several with eyes wide enough to peek through. The yarn will fit.
An old Vanikke custom, practiced by multiple religions, would have people wear special embroidered garments on their sabbaths to signal that they are off-duty for the day. That way, if one must work on a weekend, one may take some other day off in its place, so long as one gets a break every week, and everyone will get the message at a glance to let this person be. I hadn’t paid it much thought; city people rarely observe this anymore, and stand out if they do, but I’ve heard it’s still a lively practice in the countryside.
I rummage through my memory of the most popular motifs, and stitch them onto every solid-colored garment that I can spare, feverishly, fighting my trembling to make the designs tradeworthy. Collar, placket, cuffs, hems and the tops of pockets—did I miss any of the standard places? Sometimes they’ll decorate along seams, too, but I must conserve my yarn and energy; we can skip those. I’ve run on empty for too long.)
I add an empty bottle on top of the scarf, in the center of the bureau, and then prepare to venture outside awhile to find buttercups and lupines (those lovely little invaders from Old Earth) to put in it. Just no red flowers. Makhliya fusses over me like a mother over a child, making sure that I bundle up in all the furs and leathers that the smugglers can provide, tucking my scarf around my throat. I promise them more belts and bags later, to make up for it.
Outside the chill wind at first depresses me, but then it begins to refresh me a little. The pale gray granite looks as cold and hard as my mood, and the gray sky matches, but I can find my wildflowers by their color; the little spots of brightness give me hope.
(I pocket the buttons from the sweater-coat; they also make good barter, when people frequently lose buttons on the road and can’t afford to do without in the freezing wind. Halfway through unraveling, encountering the odd mistake here and there, I figure out that a child must have made this coat, having just learned how to knit, from odds and ends left over by others, and then some mother dutifully, blushingly, wore it for her. Poor soul—at least she died wrapped in love before I relieved her body of what she no longer needed. And now that child’s generosity will brighten many people, and will buy me food.)
(Buttercups and lupines! Things still bloom. Color still exists. Not everything fair has died. Not all tenderness grows in the shelter of gardens. Oh God, oh God, are you still there, after all?)
Coming back into the relative warmth of the cave and its stone stoves feels almost like grace. I warm my hands over the nearest heater, then repair to my room to make my flower arrangement. I keep glancing at it out of the corner of my eye as I work on my map. Color still exists.
(The colors of that sign still warm me through miles of black and white. People still paint pictures. People still engage in trade. Hope has accrued a bit of evidence, tipping it closer to Truth.
And yet the day begins once more to darken, or maybe it’s my eyes. Maybe I won’t make it to wherever this magic farm must lie. Maybe I’ll faint behind the wheel, the car grind to a halt, run out of taro, and I’ll freeze to death.
But no, I see lights up ahead! Voices on the wind. The sound of live musical instruments playing!
Slow down, Zanne. That glow looks quite a few miles away, yet. I’ll have to get some rest sometime between here and there. And if I think I hear music from that far off, perhaps I should catch some beauty-sleep sooner rather than later. The farm won’t move overnight. At least I should keep an eye out for a good place to pull over and make this car into a camp once more.)
When I tire of mapmaking, I spend my evening hours drilling corks and stringing them on twine. I hope to make a bead curtain for the doorway. I cut stars and swirls into a can and put a candle in it, and the stars and swirls flicker against the raw stone side, or dance against the rough crate wood, or slide across the face of anyone who visits me. I make the place my own.
Maybe this business of living isn’t quite so bad, after all.
(I still live, out of all my friends. It has to mean something. Can one wild lupine stand out against all the mountain’s rock? But even small flowers can crack rock with their roots, given time. Life persists.
I realize that I begin to think like a rebel–it must be so for them, too—so small, so inferior, to take on the mountain of the Meritocracy.
So be it! The more one knows the thinking of the enemy, the better one can best him.)
When I emerge from my domestic arrangements, I see Cyran waiting for me with a still-corked bottle in hir hand. “This just arrived–want to try it with me? I hear it’s a very good vintage, but I need someone to share it with who knows how to appreciate such things.”
I smile and shake my head. “No thank you–I’m just beginning to feel some health returning to my body. I don’t want to do anything to set it back.”
E laughs, too, and sets the bottle aside. “In that case, let me treat you to a little delicacy out of Stovak that would be terribly unhealthy for the intended market, but happens to be precisely what you need.” And e pulls from a shelf behind hir a dish with something of pale and subtle petals in a tight rosette, faintly flushed, sparkling with sugar. “Candied palm heart, flavored in rosewater and lemon–chock full of calories and just the thing to help you win your wings again. Makhliya says you’re built up enough to tolerate the oil, and sure could use it.”
“Did she also approve the wine?”
I surprise myself by laughing; Cyran’s face reminds me so much of Merrill trying to charm his way out of or into some mischief or other! And with that my memories rush back, and my old friends no longer seem the least bit like dolls to me. “Okay–I’ll try this treat of yours.”
I take one bite and “Oh my!” Layers of delicate crispness cover a tender interior, the whole saturated with sweetness, richness and a subtle flavoring. I have never tasted anything like it in my life! I force myself to toy with it, to eat it slowly, petal by petal, and to savor every minute. “That does it, Cyran–you’ve bought my lifelong loyalty, right here.”
E laughs again. “Was there ever any doubt?”
(I make the cave my own. It’s the only thing that I can do right now, to collect myself together, before I figure out the next move. Pitons tear the fabric, but I turn the flag and my family crest into wall-hangings–bullet-holes and all. I will wake up to them every day, and they will put heart into me. Now I can gather rocks to narrow the opening, to make it warmer and more defensible. I can’t even think beyond ordering this cave, but once I have it just right, that sense of a home, a foundation of sorts, I’m sure my head will clear enough to take in my situation and rectify it.
Somewhere, in the distance, I hear the crashing of an avalanche. That’s what it feels like, everything I knew come crashing down. But I can climb back up again.)
(Another sunset ends; Jake and George get up from their usual afternoon’s brooding. Jake will cook tonight—because I insist. Sometimes the mundane things bring us back more than anything special. Soon I hear and smell some onions sizzling in ham-fat.
George goes over to the starboard side and stares at the shore in the distance, blinking. “There’s no lights out there.”
He turns to me. “You’re not taking me to Lumne, are you?”
“We’re not even in Toulin waters anymore.”
“Not for some time, now.” I make a circuit of the boat, making sure everything’s secure for the night, and he follows me. “We’ve told you where we’re taking you, George, and why. Can you remember?”
He puzzles over this. “You never were schoolboys from Lumne, were you?”
“That we’re not. Points for you.”
His eyes widen. “You’re agents of the Tilián!”
“Bingo.” I secure a knot that had begun to loosen up a bit. “We are agents of the Tilián, and we are taking you to Til Institute, so that you and Wallace can get oracle training...and other kinds of training as well.”
“But, but...that’s brilliant!”And I smile back at the first grin I’ve seen from him since Christmas, keeping to myself the knowledge of just how awful Reintegration can get.)