IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Sunday, February 28, 2709
(Farmers don’t usually erect four-meter barbed wire fences around their property, so I’m getting close. Patched together, it looks like, from shorter fencing no longer needed elsewhere. I can also smell manure—cow, chicken, pig and sheep—and hay, and burning firewood—fruity, seasoned from last year’s prunings. And sure enough, beyond the barbs I start to see clusters of farm buildings, not just one central clump—and beautiful, sinuous strands of smoke rise in the still air from every chimney.
I pull into a well-slushed road. Now the fences become solid boards, yet painted with simplified figures in all races and various religious and ethnic groups, in lines standing hand in hand, all with those bright crescent smiles and eyelashed-spot eyes. Big black letters above them say, “If you can’t handle this, turn right around and go hungry!”
My mouth waters. I have no desire to turn around. I have come to trade!)
The smugglers trade in more delicacies than candied palm hearts. Some have brought out of the Charadoc, against the unenforceable laws of Stovak, a store of those exquisite muras pastries that brought about Aliso’s downfall and made some of her soldiers (I now can see) slower in the chase than we deserved in Damien’s debacle. They smell as sweet as musk, just as dark and dreamy, and the crust flakes off in the smuggler’s hand as he waves it around, looking delectable and crisp, and we all have such a need for better dreams.
(And there, the gate of my hope! Beside it two very large Hasidic Jews guard a kiosk jutting from the brightly-painted wall. One has the sort of blade-on-a-pole that peasants have fashioned out of farm tools since the smelting of iron. The other has an automatic weapon. Yet their faces look friendly; the telepathic vibe I get is that they would really rather not fight—yet they could if they had to.)
Yet it’s one thing to take in whatever we need to in order to fight, another entirely to indulge in a vice that gives us no advantage whatsoever–quite the reverse. This little pleasure slows the hand and dulls the fear that would keep us alive. Let the rich enjoy it, whose wealth protects them from consequences (for now!) and whose boredom knows no relief, at least until we rebels can finally break through to make life more exciting than they ever imagined it could be.
(Excitement at the prospect of food and human contact gives me a new burst of energy; I even find myself grinning. By gestures the guards show me where to park. Quickly I throw a shawl over my head and tuck as much of my hair out of sight as I can, in case that matters to them. Then I gather up my heap of trade-goods, making sure that the ones embroidered with stars of David, pomegranates and palm fronds, lie quite visibly on top. They point to the kiosk and I hear something slide open within, but I can’t see the speaker through the basketry screen.
A woman says, “Please state your ethnicity and religion, so that we can match you up with someone suitable to work with you.” My heart sinks.
“I’m not from here,” I sigh. “You won’t have either.” My shoulders sink as I start to turn back to the car.
“Try us anyway.”
I shrug, not terribly hopeful. “Very well, then. I’m True Tilián, a believer in the Gates of Knowledge.” I almost said, “servant”, but that wouldn’t really be true, would it? “There’s maybe two hundred of us in the entire world.”
“No problem,” she says. I hear button-punching, a crackle, and then her voice on loudspeaker, “Calling Professor Tallula Ai—we’ve got another Outlier for you.”
Tallula Ai? LULA?
Okay, a little too much excitement for my weakened state. Everything goes white and woozy and then...)
I leave the overenthusiastic salesman of decadent desserts, to retire to my “room”, with more scavenged paper with which to expand my map. But I don’t turn to it yet–sometimes the memories of who I used to be just hurt too much.
Instead I sit upon my mat to string more corks, gathered from all who come and go in this place: the fruit of slightly less perilous consolations than the drugged desserts. I sort out the beige corks unstained by white wine, the deep-dyed purply ones, and the paler rose-tinged ones, making what I hope will work out into chevrons when I’ve strung them all. Little dark brown ones from chaummin-bottles act as spacers in between. A pleasant fragrance of conviviality hovers around these plugs of quercus bark, especially when I handle them. I like their texture, too, soft yet firm, and the craggy light and dark of them. I like everything that I can think of about corks.
(I used to like everything about mountain-climbing. The harder the better. Mother would fuss about me climbing on a Sunday, but I’d grin and say that the mountains are my cathedrals! I used to laugh at the timid souls huddled on their pews, cut off from the sky and wild weather, who had no idea what excitement might be. I thought I’d tested myself to the maximum and earned more merit than all of them combined.
God, what a sheltered life I’d lived!)
I hear Father Man call everyone to Mass. I don’t go. I don’t feel the faith. I don’t know what good repeated repentance would do for someone in the bloodletting trade. Maybe I’m not as recovered as everybody seems to think, just because I can pull together enough to decorate a crappy little dresser.
I’d rather deal with corks. I can organize corks into patterns that make sense.
And where do I fit in the pattern? Or have I dislodged myself completely from who I was meant to be? What does God think of me, really? Maybe that’s the more important question than what I think of God. Maybe we really don’t know each other anymore. What if I’ve shot the whole relationship to Hell?
No, no, I don’t think I want to know. I want to string corks. I want to think of nothing beyond the pretty bead curtain that shall shortly veil the doorway to my “room”. At least I haven’t lured any more children into destruction and madness. I objected when Kiril and Lufti followed me, and I forbade them to engage in the battle proper. And hey, I never recruited them in the first place. Cyran did that. Yeah, lay it at hir feet. I could lay a lot of things at hir feet while I’m at it. If not for hir I’d still be innocent, still be...
...what? Patiently fluttering around in a petal-dress while trying to persuade Meritocrats that perhaps they could slowly allow the lower castes a tiny bit of comfort, with nothing in it for them but a hearty feeling of self-righteousness? And, in the meantime, luxuriating in the hospitality of my hosts, I’d have remained blissfully, wickedly ignorant of all the ways that I’d collaborate in oppression. Innocence and ignorance aren’t the same thing. Indeed, willful ignorance would sin more seriously than bare-faced vice, for how could I repent what I refused to know?
We increase in adult recruits of late. Maybe I can talk Cyran into mustering the minors out.
But even if we didn’t need them, they wouldn’t go. We’ve given them a taste of adulthood; we can’t dial that back.
So what if they don’t like it? Children must obey adults; that’s the way the world runs.
Except that we’ve trained these children not only in how to rebel but also how to fight to back their rebellion up. No one can make them do anything.
Yet maybe they want to muster out.
So? I do, too, but I won’t. Sanzio and I established that much between us. It’s complicated. I can’t ask of them what I myself can’t do.
I continued to grow taller after I became not only a legal adult, but an agent. Who am I to lecture anyone about the age of their soldiers? And I find that that thought also hurts.
I will pretend, just right now, and only during my off-duty hours, that I am a child indeed, that I never passed adulthood tests or won my certification as an agent. I will pretend that I have no more pressing pastime than arts and crafts. I will string corks into a bead curtain.
(I wake up on a clean little cot, not yet opening my eyes, feeling a thick, warm quilt on me; the hand-worked stitches slide across my skin when I move like the quilt I used to nestle into in childhood. For a moment I pretend that I’m a child indeed, Suzie who never knew the hardships and heartbreaks of adventure. I can feel Papa holding my hand...have I been feverish? Did I dream all the vividness that went before?
No, I’m Zanne! I settled that a long time ago. I open my eyes to a space curtained off with a print of jolly ochre chickens, rust and green roosters, and bright yellow chicks, all scratching on a sand-colored background. And Lula—oh Gates be thanked that this is a truth!—Lula the anthropologist of indeterminate race, Lula who began this life on the road with me, sits on a folding chair at my bedside, holding my hand!
“I have some egg drop soup for you, if you can sit up and eat it,” she says with a smile. “My grandmother used to call it the cure for everything. Dad wouldn’t touch it without pepper sauce, much to her chagrin, but I don’t think you’re up to that quite yet.” She lets go of my hand to pick up a bowl.
“But I haven’t yet traded...”
“Don’t worry; All Kinds Sanctuary allows an advance of food for those who arrive too weak for bargaining. It’s paid off more often than not” She winks. “And knowing you especially, it won’t be wasted.”
Oooooh this tastes so fine! And warming in the chest. I feel more myself with every mouthful.)
(I did nothing today but waste food. I feel drugged on my grief. Can’t think of the next move. I can only think of my losses, crouching here in my lair with my head in my hands.
Buttercups and lupines! What was I thinking? You can crush them in a step without even noticing. The world doesn’t reward weakness–what merit would there be in that?
Filthy rebels! Tomorrow I ‘ll do something. Tomorrow I’ll know what to do. I owe it to Jialong, Paul, and Mehti.
I feel their weight upon me, a heaviness that my muscles can’t do anything about. Before those murders I didn’t really care all that much about politics; I felt pity more than animosity towards the rebels, so long as our paths didn’t cross. I even felt sorry for them when they burglarized my father’s hunting-lodge; we had enough to spare, and you have to pity people who take mostly food and blankets, leaving behind priceless heirlooms, doubtless beyond their crude tastes to appreciate.
But then they robbed my friends of life itself!
I still remember the shock in Jialong’s eyes, the pleading in them, before his soul faded from them and they saw nothing anymore. Beyond all reason he wanted me to make it all right. Yet I didn’t know what to do; I never learned first aid beyond broken bones and frostbite—how do you stop gunshot wounds in the chest from killing somebody? He died wanting something from me and I didn’t give it to him!
And here I have learned another lesson in thinking like my enemy. It becomes harder and harder to not believe in ghosts when you owe something to the dead. Every time we kill one of theirs we add to that weight of debt—we don’t deter them at all.
And they don’t deter me. I hate them now as much as they hate me—no, probably more, for they have the blunt emotions of an ox, but I have sensibilities as fine as the honed edge of a blade! Ultimately what they did was worse, far worse, than our forces ever did to them, because they did it to people of my caste.
Who cares about deterrents? I want as many of them dead as I can kill!
For a moment I remember a flicker of guilt, recalling sermons about the evils of hatred, but it soon slips out like the smoke of my stove, leaving my cave to dissipate out there in the harsh and real, torn on an icy wind. Loving your enemy sounds all very fine in a polished marble church, but what do priests know about the world up here, safe in their rectories? What do they know about ghosts?)
Kiril came out of her tent to attend mass. Now, doubtless having noticed my absence, she comes into my “room” without knocking. Of course there’s nothing there to knock on yet, and even when there will be, you can hardly knock on a bead curtain, but still! She could have rapped on a crate or something.
don’t look up. She sits on the mat
beside me; I can hear her asthma even when I avert my eyes from
her. She belongs back in her oxygen
that’s on her. I keep on stringing
corks, paying extra attention to space and knotting them as
precisely as if she
wasn’t there to distract me, saying not a word to me, just
handing me corks as
soon as she figures out the pattern that I aim for.
Once or twice our fingers touch when she does
this. I pretend that they don’t.
“No,” she says, and hands me another cork.
I throw the half-strung twine rattling against the crates. “Goddamn it stop loving me! I don’t deserve it! I don’t!”
She just gathers me into her arms and holds me there till I start crying against my best effort and still she holds me, close and warm against the pervasive chill. “No, Deirdre, no!” And I rest there against her soft breast and listen to her heart beat and the wheezing in her chest, and feel the renewed hardness of her arms and I can’t think anymore, I can only cry and feel and thank God that even in my damnation someone doesn’t care whether I’m worthy or not.