IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Tuesday, March 2, 2709
I string corks in the light-speckled dimness of my cell, hearing steps and voices and life just outside the walls that I made for myself. I keep thinking about what Father said.
I didn’t have to keep on building stairs, once everyone had seen me help. I could have built one stair each. My shoulders still ache with the memory of it. And I could have sent messengers between camps; I didn’t have to personally visit each one over again for day after day after day.
(“Days, days, days!” George grumbles, swabbing the deck with heated water that steams before turning so cold that I swab rapidly behind him, drying it before it can freeze and make the deck still more slippery. “Who would’ve guessed that adventure could get so monotonous?”
“Welcome to the life of an agent,” I say with a smile. “We don’t spend quite every minute saving the space-time continuum.”
Jake ducks out of the cabin. “Whose turn is it to clean the head? It stinks in there.”
George groans with a bit of his old theatricality, but goes for the brush and soap.
Wallace watches after him. Softly he asks, “Do you think he forgets, too quickly, that he has killed people?”
Jake stops in the middle of hanging blankets to air, and stares at him darkly. “No.” He shakes out the wool. “And he never will.)
Days, days, days, days, days. A burden and a blessing. Time to breathe, to sleep, to eat. Time to mend my raveled hems and nerves, to scrub out stains, time to knit some socks of soft alpaca wool, worth pennies in The Charadoc and a fortune in Stovak. Time to forget the exigencies of the road and battlefield, and time to remember...well, everything. And everybody. Every body, ha ha. Not a joke.
The map spreads out now over three big sheets of paper, which I have cut to fit together into the curve of the coast that I knew. It reminds me of that other place, that land not in the Charadoc, where I hiked and boated and explored with the free heart of a child. Sometimes, when Kiril takes a break from her tent (retraining her lungs to the outside air) she and Lufti crowd to either side of me, as I tell them stories of this coastline where I hiked and boated and explored, this place I loved. Sometimes others come 'round and listen, too. Whatever makes them happy.
Speaking of exploration, Father Man or Mykolas or whatever leads others out to fathom a whole network of tunnels and canyons in these mountains. He has quite a nose for which ones will lead out to air and light again, and which will dead-end. I am certain that he must be some kind of oracle; the untrained ones often do become schizophrenic. Which presupposes some kind of tragic early in his life before he even became a priest–maybe even driving him into the priesthood in the first place. He did say “traumas”, plural, in our conversation, after all. But if he doesn’t want to talk any more about it, I sure don’t want to pry. He’s already told me almost more than I can bear.
Today he came home with a string of cave-fish, sparkling and more precious than the pearl and silver they resemble. Now I smell them frying in stapleseed oil. Good–I really want something fresh. Except I’d love fresh greens even better than fish–something from the vegetable kingdom that doesn’t come out of a canning-jar or dried up in a bag. I’m going to see if I can get some sprouts going. I have the time.
And have regular meals rendered me so delicate in my tastes? Was it so long ago that I wolfed down barely edible mushrooms just to chew on anything at all?
(Days, days, days, days, days, and no relief in sight. The llamas escaped last night–there goes half my plans, right there, and a good source of meat, if worst came to worst.
I must not be delicate in my tastes. The supplies will have to last. My field-book calls these mushrooms edible, though fibrous and not recommended for taste. And this fat rock-rat, convulsing itself to death in my snare, will make as nice a meal for me as for a condor, once I get it sizzling over the fire. That’s what I shall become–the condor that swoops down on his prey from on high. That should put some heart into me!)
Wednesday, March 3, 2709
(Sometimes, at twilight, that time unsure of whether to be day or night, I step away from the field-desk and out of the tent, to breathe deeply of the moisture-charged air, listen to the birds begin or end their day in flock-fellowship, and think of what could have been, instead of what is. What if I had never joined the Purple Mantles, nor the Rebels for that matter, nor any side at all? Who would I be, if my flock had never held a gun?
Fruitless. I have imagined all of it before and none of it magically came into existence. I must finish the road that I have taken, too far from what I’d wish to ever turn back now.
I go back into my tent, returning to the reports that have arrived on the loss of Abojan Pass and the fall of General Layne Aliso. What other path might you have tread, dear Layne? You could have outshone all the other ladies in their shimmering petal-dresses, and I, your loyal butler, could have met you at night when respectability didn’t matter, blessed and uninhibited by your wickedness.
Impossible. Her road ended in a bloodsoaked battlefield, as I suppose mine shall, someday.
I pick up the report from the deserter who fled before the final fall, spared execution if he could write this report as thoroughly as possible. And indeed he spilled out a thick sheaf of information as if a pile of words could fortify him against me, when I couldn’t care less about his cowardice, because this time it came in handy.
He mentions Deirdre Keller, giving me a satisfying account of her destruction. Or it ought to satisfy me; it doesn’t. Skeletal frame, matted hair, sores all over her skin, wild eyes. The man writes about his living nightmare in such morbid detail that I can see precisely how well my plan unfolds.
Because of course I had slim odds that Ms. Keller would ever have accepted concentrated stimulants from the hands of the enemy. I suspected as much, though I had hoped it could have ended that quickly—one more what if. The real trap was to get her to see the self-destruction that she had already begun as not too bad in comparison. Believing herself moderate, resistant to temptation, she has completely lost control.
Oh Deirdre, what alternate path might you have walked, long enough ago to have made a difference?)
Sometimes, at twilight, I sit on the ledge, my feet dangling over the abyss, with Kiril and Lufti beside me. She now breathes the thin air full-time, on the understanding that she must not exert herself. The cave faces north, so we don’t see the sunset head-on, but we do get enough of the color to count for something, as we watch the first stars come out, the bluish light from struggling lanterns behind us casting a twilight glow around us, even after night has fallen full. I have grown used to the cold and the stingy air. We don’t say anything. The wind sighs and groans enough for all of us, filled with centuries of ghosts.
(The common folk believe in ghosts. I don’t, of course. But on a night like this, miles from my usual reality checks, temptation comes upon me to set my reason aside, to listen to the wind, and wonder if I hear the voices of my friends in them. I find myself averting my eyes from the black hole of the cave entrance, half-afraid to see them there. And no one can see me cower, so I have no shame in doing this.
Ridiculous! I can see myself. I force myself to stare straight out. Nothing out there but the stars.)
Thursday, March 4, 2709
(Barter wins you goods from All Kinds Sanctuary, but continued lodging requires manual labor. Which I don’t mind in the least. Yes, feeding chickens and mucking stables doesn’t exactly suit my glamorous image, not to mention my inclination to perfume myself and my surroundings any way I can as often as I can, but seriously, my dear Tshura, it sure beats sleeping in a car and scavenging for food! You may be a Gypsy, but I am not.
I am an agent.
Oh botheration! You’re right!
I pick up a pail of pig slop with one hand, and Tshura’s box with the other. Nobody questions why I carry the box everywhere; I’m not the only one with “security objects”, although Lula knows it’s more than that. I don’t think Apollo and Courtney have ever understood, but still regard me as comparatively sane, for Vanikke.
Yes, darling, I’m fully aware that you’re listening to every word I think, at least on the conscious level. You are officially classified as my harmless neurosis. I can feel you laughing. I try to keep from laughing, too, though I can’t suppress a grin. Random giggles over a jest between me and my invisible friend might be a bit much even for the locals.
But getting back to…no, I’m in no hurry to get back to the subject. Let me feed the pigs first; before their eager grunts turn into squeals of indignation at me standing here so long with food just out of reach. There, you go, Vosco, and you Brunnel, and Sanchez, and Pierrot. Their owners have named them each for a politician of the fallen government.
Okay, okay, back to the subject! Let me wipe my hands first, girl, and then hit me with it. But I already know, Tshura. I have let days pass without leaving to be the agent that I came here to be. The mission has changed but not ended.
Back in the barn, I sit on a milking-stool and fiddle intuitively with the dials. I don’t know why this helps me tune into Tshura. It just does.
Not yet. Don’t go quite yet, Make your mind ready but don’t go yet.
No? You know something I don’t? But that’s lovely. I won’t complain!
I stand up, stretch some kinks out of my bones, and start coughing. Oh my. Better get back indoors!)
Peace begins to bore me. I pace my “room” after completing my few chores. Good news–I must be mending. Bad news–how can I ever go back to a normal life?
But that starts a thought: bored, board, why not make board games? We have scrap cardboard enough to cover with squares or loops or whatever the games demand. We can use pebbles or any other small things for markers. What have I done with my brains these past months that this didn’t occur to me till now?
Something needs done. I’ve seen some of the kids chatting with the man who deals in muras. I smell a musty sweetness on the air. Nothing certain, but I think I’ll mention it to Cyran. Boredom can endanger soldiers more than bullets, sometimes.
(I pull myself together more every day. In fact, I feel almost bored. I take out the deck of cards that I brought along for a few friendly games, and I play solitaire for awhile. Then, for a change of pace, I make a house of cards, rebuilding it again every time it tumbles.
Tomorrow, I know, I’ll feel up to more than this. Time for me to make some reconnaissance. They have to have some weakness, these inferiors. They cannot hole up Cherone Peshawr forever.)
On the other hand, why not? Why not sample just a taste of the pleasures of the rich? Cyran and Makhliya won’t let me budge; I’m as useless as some idle Lady smothered in a petal-dress anyway. Discreetly I make my purchase out of the sight of the others, then slip into my “room”. Just this once; I’ll try it just this once.
Flaky. Delectable looking. Smells like rare perfume. Will it give me visions as sweet and dark as it smells and looks and oh my yes as sweet and dark as it tastes? My teeth crush through the delicate filo into the sticky richness in between. Will it make me forget everything I want to forget, just for one delicious night? I chew, I swallow, the body eager for the calories, oblivious to what else the confection carries, the mind eager for surcease. The senses swoon into the moment, the feel of pastry on the tongue, licking the jam from the teeth…oh heaven!
Now what? I finished it, so now what? Maybe a slight wooziness, but maybe not, maybe that’s just what I hoped for. So disappointing! My neurological difference probably interferes.
Forget it. I turn to old-fashioned escapism, picking up a book beside my mat. “In the Mountains of Fire”, the title says, wreathed in an amateurish attempt at stylized vines. Looks interesting. It’s an easy read, too. Sort of. The images fly at me off the page; I don’t seem to need the actual words in print—images from my life, everything I long to forget! I watch screaming men burn to death as they try to escape their tank, I watch exploding heads, I watch the thatch of a hut catch fire despite the rain that washes blood off my hands but not my soul, I burn, I burn, I burn!
I rip the book to shreds and my hands catch fire—I can write a better story than this! I grab up multicolored pens and start scribbling furiously! “You ruin my life to write your stories, only to balk at letting me publish them!” But why do I write in black? I’m supposed to write in blue, aren’t I? Why am I writing this at all?
Because every time I ask for therapy my family says they can’t afford it. Because it’s my only chance at getting well, to hold group therapy sessions with different parts of myself and try to work things out between us. I open the big felt-pen collection. Red will be Merrill, blue will be Deirdre, purple for Zanne, green for Don, orange for Lisa, brown for Jake and turquoise for Randy. I’ll take the black pen, myself…
Questions and answers, questions and answers, but the answers never seem to make sense and lead to more questions. And the images don’t stop assaulting me—my hands on Kiril’s throat, Tanjin’s face exploding into blood, the craziness burning in Lufti’s eyes…
“Wake up, Deirdre! Snap out of it!” Hands grip my hair, rocking my head back and forth. I grab Lufti and stare back at him; his madness makes more sense than anything right now. “I’ve seen where you went, Deirdre. I’ve been there, too. That world’s too much for us. Come back to this one. Come back here.” I hold him and he holds me, and I don’t cry, I burn, but no more flames surround us, and I never had a book in my room or pens of different colors. “She did get therapy, Deirdre. We all got therapy, even though I never got a color. I don’t have to carry it all by myself.”
And I stare at him, trying to remember what he’s talking about, but I just feel spent.
“Never mind,” he says resignedly. “Just lay down. Sleep it off. World-hopping can wear you out.”
She looks on me compassionately, and without judgment, as I explain to my therapist, “For years I’ve held what I call polylogues . I’d give each of my dream-characters a different color pen, and we’d hold conversations, trying to solve our problems. The idea is that my waking world would be their dreaming, so while in the polylogues they’d have access to my memories, but wouldn’t remember any of it when waking up in theirs.” It’s such a relief to finally have someone to talk to, a professional--God bless you, Joan Winchell!“Sleep, he murmurs, guiding my body down to the mat. “Sleep and forget everything.” He kisses my cheek and pulls the blanket over me. “I will stand guard, Deirdre. I’ll have the nightmares for us both tonight.”