IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Sunday, February 28, 2709, continued
(Racing footbeats pound down the stone hall. I tense, groping for...where’s my knife? Where are my clothes?
“Zanne!” “Zanne!” A soprano and a cracking baritone shout just as the door bursts open and I breathe again. Not for long, though, as Apollo and Courtney pile onto me before I can rise and they hug the wind right out of me before knocking the cot down. Apollo grabs Courtney so fast that he almost moves like Fireheart Friendclan so she doesn’t even hit the ground, but I just splay in an unladylike manner while they look on apologetically. I have enough time, as Lula helps me to my feet and gets the sheet acceptably arranged around me, to notice my clothing neatly folded on a nearby chair, and also that Courtney has gotten rather round. Apollo averts his eyes and sets the cot back up, his earlobes blushing.
Breathlessly Courtney blurts out, “Yes, I’m pregnant—don’t kill me. I know, you warned me.” She pushes her red hair out of her eyes and somehow manages to simultaneously look defiant and embarrassed. Apollo rises and wraps his long, dark arms around her protectively; those arms look rounded out, too, about twice the width I remember and all of it muscle.
“I’m going to take care of her, Zanne,” he says, lifting his chin up. “I’ve married Courtney.” He holds up a finger with a new brass band around it. “I want to spend the rest of my life with this woman.” Girl, whatever.
“How? By thievery?” I say before I catch myself, still a wee bit dizzy.
“Now that’s unfair!” they both cry simultaneously as Lula helps me sit back down. Then Courtney says, “He’s learning the blacksmith’s trade. Will says he’s good at it.”
“We both are,” he says, holding her close.
Courtney adds, "With the factories closed and so few cars running, there’s a call for horseshoes and all kinds of metal things, anything we can repair or make from scrap. They need a smith at Outlier Farm, and that’s a safe place for mixed couples like us.” She giggles. “Now they’ll get two. We shall be Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
Softly Apollo says, “I only stole because I didn’t see any other choice at the time. No parents, and nobody hiring Black kids in my neighborhood. Yeah, I got bitter about it, till I met you folks and Dalmar set me straight. I thought that’s all I could ever be. But I’ve got a way with metal, it turns out.”
“Dalmar?” I lean forward. “Do you know where he is?”
They look at each other, then at me. “We’re not sure,” Lula says. “He made it here to All Kinds Sanctuary; we thought for sure he’d set up at Ustawi Farm. He joined their drum circle one night, and I never saw him happier. But then he hit the road as soon as he could trade the formulas of several useful chemicals for a mule and traveling supplies. He wants to spread the word about treating magentine poisoning.”
“He’s doing my job,” I say with a sinking feeling of shame.)
Monday, March 1, 2709
Father also noticed my absence from mass yesterday. Naturally–I can’t pull over Mykolas what Man would have overlooked. So he comes in, and we talk and talk, and I bare everything to him, my hands crocheting furiously though I ache to do nothing at all, not even talk, not even think. Trusting in the seal of the confessional, I finally go all the way back to the Black Clam business, wondering if it doomed me to sin my whole life long.
He says nothing for the longest time, just listening to my whispers, there in the privacy of my quasi-room, afternoon into night, while the stars and swirls of my homemade lamp dance across his thoughtful face. At last his gravelly voice tells me that although I exaggerate my culpability for necessities of war, I do indeed have grave concerns in some matters, most particularly about returning again and again to sins after I repent. Yet he says also that it’s better to approach God, even risking His wrath, than to despair and turn away from Him entirely, removing all doubt as to the outcome. I tell him that I’ll think about it.
“I know what moral failure feels like, Deirdre,” he says, holding up one paw. “I still have two fingers left.” My eyes water and I turn away. How can he even think to compare his perceived failure to crimes of mine?
But then he cups my chin in one palm, and lifts my head to face him once more. “Don’t be afraid of me judging you, daughter. I can’t blame you for contracting a disease on duty–the only blame lies in not admitting it, not seeking its cure.”
My heart nearly fails me. But I whisper, “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
He smiles weirdly, disturbingly like his old self. “I think you have a problem with greenfire.”
“Oh, not really!” I make a show of grinning and shaking my head. “I only use it when necessity demands.” And my hands crochet like crazy.
“Ah yes, I know that necessity well.” And his smile fades, and all the sadness of his life wells up in his eyes. “How do you think I managed to escort all of those children from Tensei, watching over them night after night as they slept, while my hands festered and my head swam?”
I stare at him as the truth hits me. “Father, I had no idea!”
“I burned, child. The greenfire and the fever burned me up on that journey, and some parts of me will never grow back beyond the scar.” Again, the weird smile, trembling on the edge of dissolution, and the mad intensity of the eyes. “Would you like to hear my confession, Deirdre? I still hear voices. I hear them all the time–all of them. All of the dead, the ones I tried to save and the ones I failed, and with them saints and angels, and yes, tormenting devils, too. But God has seared my lips with a burning coal and my tongue untangled, all because Lufti’s illness so broke my heart that I had to finally ask for healing, myself, though I dreaded healing more than death.” He shakes his head. “The healing only goes partway, my friend, just enough. A sufficient thorn still drives into my side to make me depend on Christ for every step, every thought, every word.”
After a speechless moment I say, “That’s no confession, Father. You couldn’t help it. It’s a, a condition called schizophrenia, and now you may have become high-functioning, but...”
“I know what schizophrenia is, dear lady. Priests study psychology, you know. It takes more than a hereditary predisposition. And I know, deep in the burning hollow of my heart, that it took more in my case than the traumas of my life alone to trigger the potential. Abusing the greenfire made the final blow to crack my mind. And I did abuse it, Deirdre, after awhile. Some of the children were old enough to keep watch, too, by turns; I had only to ask them to. Yet the greenfire helped me to forget that I still have two fingers left.”
And suddenly I understand him. “I’ll think about what you’ve said, Father.”
He smiles more warmly this time. “That’s all anyone can ask,” he says, and leaves. I lay aside my crocheting and turn to work on my map. But even as I outline what I can remember of the islands in the Coral Gulf, I think, longingly, of that bitter tingle spreading down my throat.
(Bitterness. I like the taste of it in my soul. I like the hate that gives me cause to live. It keeps me from curling up another day around my grief. Instead I sharpen my pitons and my grappling-hooks. I’ve heard that the rebels have many tricks for improvising weapons. Well, they can hardly match the intelligence of a scion of the highest caste, can they?)
“No! No! *cough* Noooooo!” That’s Kiril’s voice! I drop my map and run out. “You’re lying!” I trip over a pile of bags, grab a battered filing cabinet to right myself and nearly knock it over, too, and push on. When did my body get so weak?
I hear Makhliya ahead of me, using her most soothing voice . “Now Kiril, you know you shouldn’t be shouti…”
“He’s, he’s lying!” He *cough* *couch* he’s…” And she can’t say anymore.
I dive under the hem of her oxygen tent and scoop Kiril into my arms, leaving Makhliya to reposition the rocks that hold its edges down. “Breathe, dear,” I tell her. “Give yourself time to take a few deep breaths, and then tell me what upset you.” And so I cradle her in my lap, just holding her, waiting for her asthma to subside, her tear-wet face against me. The oxygen makes me a little dizzy, but nothing spins my world like her sobs and gasps.
(Bitterness fights the vertigo, the free-fall sensation of dangling over an abyss of absences, nothing familiar to get my footing on, and nobody, dear God nobody to hold a rope above me. What am I even clinging to, anyway, to not go tumbling into hopelessness? Bitterness—a rope of hatred, grief and outrage, plied strand by strand and wound so tight that it’s got to keep me going. I don’t dare let go.)
When she’s ready, gripping me like her entire world has crumbled out from under her and she might fall at any moment, Kiril starts to speak. “He…the smuggler, he, he came back from Thierry Valley. I, I asked for news. And…”
I give her a moment before saying, “He said something that broke your heart.” I feel her nod against me. “Does it have to do with your Papa?” Again, a nod. “Is he dead, Kiril?” This time I feel her head shake. Oh dear.
“He’s been fired.”
Oh, well, that’s not so b…”
“It’s why Farmer said he fired him. The smuggler said he was so sorry, but I don’t want his pity!”
“No. Of course not.”
“Farmer finally found out where I went.”
“That you’ve become a rebel?”
“That my goddamn father freakin’ sold me to the ship that raped me!” And she breaks into wheezes all over again.
“Oh my poor, poor dear!” I press my cheek to the top of her head. “Because you were starving, because he wanted you to eat, to survive…”
“Because he had to pay off a gambling debt!” Oh my God. “Because everybody knew but me that he has a gambling problem. I was…Deirdre, I was nothing more to him than a poker chip.”
“Oh noooo, Kiril, it’s not like that…”
“We didn’t have to starve. Yeah, a famine had the land, but Farmer fed his help enough—what good were we to him too hungry to work?” I hear the realization in her voice as she puts together clues. “Farmer didn’t know why Mama got sick and skinny and then died. Papa must have been cutting into our share, selling it to hungry people off the farm.”
“Ai, Kiril!” Tears of my own fall into her hair, because I know, I know, that I let her down, too, everybody she has ever loved has let her down. “Compulsion is…you don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t think clearly of the consequences. And then…then, when you do, the only way you can bear it is to go back to your compulsion, try to numb it out, try to numb out all the things that it made you do.” She hugs me so tightly that now I’m the one having trouble breathing. “Kiril, you were much more to your father than a poker-chip! He tried to send you away from the dangers of what he could no longer control.”
“Dangers?” she cries, pushing back from me, “Like the one he sent—no, sold, sold me into?” For a long moment we hold each other at arm’s length, staring into each other’s wide eyes, reading what’s there. Then, carefully, I pull her back against me. In a much quieter voice, she husks out, “Everything I’ve done since then. Everything I am today. I based it all on a lie. I’ve killed, Deirdre. I killed Sarge with my own hands because I wanted to believe a lie.”
“And so did he,” a rough voice growls over us. I look up and see a blur of Father Man through the ripply xylophane and tears. He hunkers down, his eyes burning, and says, “We all want to believe lies. We all do things to try and stop the truth from ambushing us. But somewhere the lying has to stop. And that’s what confession’s for.”
“Father,” Kiril cries, “Should I leave the rebels?” But he has already walked away. He’s left us to figure it out for ourselves, I realize—a harsh penalty for our sins of self-deception, scouring out our own wounds with the sanitizing salt of reality. Zanne would ask, “What is the truth, here?”
So, fighting my own tears, I work it out. “Freedom isn’t about whether or not you have a full belly, Kiril. You had a full belly with Sarge and were as oppressed as you could be. Think—why did your father become a gambler?”
“Be…because nothing in his life seemed in his control anyway?”
“When you are truly, truly free, you no longer need compulsions.” And I face the scalding truth, myself. I am not yet truly free.