IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
of the Dead
Friday, March 26, 2709
He dies at dawn. (We were born at dawn. It should have been a time of hope.) I hear the final wheeze, an almost contented exhalation, letting go of a body hurt too badly to continue. (She told me once that nobody said a word–no congratulations, no “How’s the mother and children doing?” not so much as a sigh.) We don’t say anything, we just go out looking for the other graves, the ones that he dug the day before, by what last wringing of his strength I can hardly imagine even after all that I’ve been through, myself–and he had no greenfire to help him. (No matter what I go through, no matter what sacrifices I make, it will never equal what she endured for my brother and I.) So we add his grave to the row, not knowing which ones hold his wife and daughter, and which his hired hands, or maybe other kin that we never heard of. Then, with nothing else to do, we shoulder our packs and follow the road down, down, into the ashen waste.
Lufti leads the way, dancing. After awhile Damien strums something in a minor key to match, for the boy does something horrible and holy, honoring, in his own mad way, all of the souls who died unshriven and unburied here, miles of murder in all directions.
Sometimes we pass the bones of animals, sometimes those of human beings. We haven’t the strength to bury them all, though Hekut begs me to try. So instead we support Lufti in his dance, pausing to let him rest now and then, giving him water, wiping his sweating brow. We don’t march as rebels here–we make a funeral procession.
Water–it worries me. The ash contaminates every stream, every well–that’s not water anymore, that’s liquid lye.
And now we feel it–the pressure. The building press of so many ghosts, villages and villages full of them, all converging on the only people for miles around to show them any mercy whatsoever. Baruch stumbles at my side, stunned at the length and width and breath of war, the absoluteness of this hell that he has volunteered to share with us. Marduk crosses himself over and over, clutching his luck-doll, or rustling something in his pocket. Lefty fingers a rosary with his intact hand (it looks like one that Father Man made) and mutters his prayers under his breath. Kiril’s lips move, too, her eyes always on Lufti, as if he himself has become a ghost, powdered in ash like all of us by now. Nishka and Hekut send their gazes outward, their heads turning this way and that, gasping now and then at some new detail spied in the cremated landscape–the bigger skeletons huddled protectively over smaller ones; the dead tree with the swingset-chains still dangling from it; the sign where the paint burnt darker than the wood, still saying “Welcome Inn”. The rows and rows of tall stumps that used to be orchards. The charred spots and bits of metal that mark where carts once stood, their cargo only guessed-at now. The bones fallen over their scythes, looking ominously like they simply rest before resuming the grimmest harvest of all.
I can see the whites all the way around Nishka’s irises as she says to me, “Too many ghosts can drive a body mad. Even when they don’t mean to.”
Still spinning and stamping ahead of us, Lufti pants, “I, the lightning rod, will burn for you.” His arms float upon the air, his fingers gently sketch out arcane gestures of unknown meaning. “I’m a star now, nothing left but fire. I stopped being human ages ago. They cannot kill me twice.”
Even as we walk Damien adds to his song of the night before, his eyes as big as any of ours. The minor-key melody lifts and falls like billows of smoke upon the wind, and his harp adds mournful chords, shivering beneath his fingers. He describes all that we see, all that we feel, even as it happens. He traps it all into his song before it can burn us like the bones.
(She haunts me, and she’s not even dead. They both do, she and my brother, both very much alive.. I look in the mirror, and I don’t look a thing like him. Of course not. Fraternal twins.
My father never haunts me, oddly enough. We will never know whose bullets hit him; it might have been mine as much as anybody’s. But maybe it satisfies him that I repented, that I chose his side, stopped hating him to hate instead the forces that drove him mad.)
* * *
(I pull over when I see the group digging a grave; I hear the singing as soon as I open the door. My body wants to flex itself again, so I get out my shovel to help.
I hardly get two steps away from the car when a thin woman as blonde as myself cries out, “Zanne? Hey everybody, it’s Zanne!” And before I know it three whole families commence messing up my hair and hugging the wind out of me. And I don’t know any of these people.
“Don’t you remember me?” the woman asks, seeing the confusion in my eyes. “You saved my son when the ice broke under him. You showed us how to fish with a raveled sock and a pin.”
Others press forward. “You taught me how to filter water.” “You fixed my bicycle.” “You told me where to find good blankets.” “You shared raisins with me.”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. I was out of my mind half the time. I remember none of this.”
They nod, understanding. We’ve all been there. The woman who first greeted me takes my hand and says, “Spend the night with us. It’s the least we could do.,”)
We spend the night in an unroofed church. Marble saints and angels wear their ashes, doing penance for our sins. Bones and charcoal slabs that once were pews pile up in two rough rectangles in the middle with a corridor between. I don’t think they expected any miraculous deliverance when they crowded in here; they probably just decided that they’d rather die here than elsewhere.
Any other time it would have upset us all to shelter close by so many dead, but since we find skeletons no matter where we turn, we feel safest among the ghosts of those who faced the end with their souls set right. Besides, the apse that arches over the stone altar offers us better shelter than anything else we can find.
Damien’s soft strumming turns to hymns. We give thanks for whatever we can get.
“God let the stars in,” Lufti whispers, gazing out at the sky, where by now some haze has cleared. Then he topples down onto his belly on a mat that I spread for him, so that Kiril can knead his knotted muscles. “That’s because he’s going to baptize them. We’ll be all right after this.”
No sooner does he say it than the wind whips up, and Damien stops strumming. We wrap our faces against the flying ash. Marduk and Nishka hold up a blanket to shield Kiril and Lufti the best they can, as Kiril doggedly continues to massage Lufti’s sore body.
(Does he still get drunk on her birthday, every year? Does he ever wonder if I still do? Every year I say I won’t, it’s a stupid custom. I celebrate my own birthday, now, unlike him; I didn’t commit any crime getting born, I’m glad I’m here, and I think that God has found some use for me. If God didn’t want me here, he could have stopped me easily enough–many born under our circumstances never live to take a breath. No, he and I don’t do things the same way anymore–not by a long shot! We never were identical.
Yet here I sit, with the glass and the bottle. I can’t seem to break that custom. I may have come to terms with my birth, but I can never come to terms with her suffering.)
I didn’t even see the clouds roll in, averting my eyes with everyone else from the stinging ash, but I hear the first patters of rain behind me, and then the thunder’s rumble. I give it a fair moment to wash the grit from the air before I order the band (except for Lufti, still stretched out on the floor) to put out every pot and pan we have to catch every drop we can–on the rain-swept steps up to the altar, not out in the church proper. Then we huddle as far back into the apse as possible, shielding each other with our bodies, and we try to get some rest.
(I try to get some rest, but that’s hard to find with Jake muttering in his sleep, “We burn, we burn, we all must burn!” Then I realize that I also hear it—synchronized—coming through the bulkhead, barely audible, mumbled in Wallace’s gruff old voice and George’s tenor. I shiver and pull the blanket in closer. I feel a strand tickle me…)
A strand tickles my mind, almost not there, but yes, attached now for good, a strand of light. Not the brightest, purest light, more of a faint wisp of candleglow, but welcome in the dark.
What am I thinking? Must be dreaming. I turn over on the hard church floor, feeling the grit beneath my mat as I do. Lufti opens his eyes briefly, staring piercingly into mine, then settles again against my new position.
(I rise carefully, so as not to disturb Randy…except I distinctly recall climbing into my own bunk, not his, last night. And sure enough I see my body there. Okay. Must be dreaming.
I go out silently, or rather drift; only habit makes me move the seeming-feet beneath me. George and Wallace join me, sketches of moonlight on ocean-deep shadow, and we join the mad boy and the priest leaning on the gunwale to watch the fireworks, exploding over the water without a sound.)
(Explosions! A whole barrage of them, one after another!
“Tha’s no dream!” Zora cries, waking me the rest of the way up. “Hep me w’ m’braces,” she slurs, so I buckle her in quickly and we run out in our nightgowns to the whizzing, shrieking, booming spectacle of fireworks blooming in the sky like spring lost her mind.
“To the docks!” I cry, not bothering to ask why, my arm around Zora to help her keep up without her crutches. Others run in the same direction.
“It’s that crazy old sea-captain acting up!” I hear somebody shout, while another shrills, “Call the OCC!”
But we get to Jauregui before caseworkers from the Oracular Crisis Center can arrive—add one more reason I like living a block away from the shore. We see him as a round silhouette against the flares of brilliant colors in the night, setting off one rocket after another. Zora hurls herself from me to tackle him, and though she hasn’t the strength of a flounder on dry land, he stops. Tearstreaks flash on his face, reflecting the embers of the final burst as they die.
With one arm around Zora, holding her up, he bearhugs me in the other, sobbing, “They have to learn some other way to burn. They have to! They have to!”)
(The show ends. In the fading glow I almost make out Randy with us. Wallace says, “He’ll never completely let go of her, now.”)
Saturday, March 27, 2709
the morning, after a hot porridge breakfast
that they insist I share with them, I leave the three-family
alliance and hit
the road again, the skeletal trees blushing green with the
first buds of hope. They say I
got them to team up, on top of all
the rest that I apparently did for them, and it has worked to
ever since. It broke their heart,
say, when I wandered away and they couldn’t find me again. They had feared me dead.
In the morning we find enough rain in the pots to fill up all our waterskins, and enough left over to scrub up in. Back to our own flesh colors, we say our prayers and leave.
I dreamed last night of the fireworks in Alonzo Valley. Escapism, I suppose, triggered by the smoke-smell in the air. I think no more of it as Lufti says, “Saturday will do for Sunday in a pinch.” He looks up at me and I remember the brightness of his eyes the night before. “Many folks prefer it so.” That actually sounds lucid, and puts a little ray of hope in my heart. Then he starts dancing again, doggedly, and Damien swings his harp around to strum, and I watch the boy with renewed anxiety, my poor, mad, visionary son!
How long can his heart keep this up? I know that Makhliya had phased him into exercise to build him up again. I saw the new muscles bulge that carried Kiril the other day. But to dance all day, every day?
And yet I dare not stop him. If I do, the stress of this land of holocaust will surely kill him–and the worst of it is, he would die of fear. If he dances himself to death, at least he will know peace to the very end.
Today he hops about on the high-points of the ground, avoiding every puddle that he can. And we try to do the best to follow suit, less gracefully, for the lye-water sizzles and eats at the leather of our boots, sending up an awful fume. Lefty takes a turn at carrying Kiril on his back, and so help us we cling to the sound of her wheezes–the sound of something still fighting to stay alive, a hoarse defiance underneath the funerary music.
(Life goes on, hangover or no. Certainly her life goes on, birthday after birthday, because the hospital won’t let any of her attempts to end it succeed. And her other child lives on, no matter how hard I try to stop the obscenity of it. And mine, God help me.
I bear up stoically. The men have no more of a clue than they’ve had of lashings taken on before. I thought about it last night, but there’s no penance in flailing a half-numb skin.)
We take a break, resting on the stone floor of a raised gazebo in limestone, in the center of what must once have been a prosperous town square. Hekut studies the remains of some unfortunate fellow collapsed upon the steps.
“Leave that alone, Hekut!” I bark.
“Look,” he says. “He had fillings. They sort of melted a little, trickled down the outside of the teeth.”
Marduk grabs him roughly by the collar and jerks him back. “You little idiot! If you rob gold from a dead man’s mouth, you’ll curse us all!”
“I wasn’t going to rob him!” Hekut snaps back. “I just felt curious, that’s all.”“Let’s get going,” I say. “Lufti’s ready for another turn."