IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
What's Sanity, Anyway?
Thursday, April 1, 2709
We find a squash-field, burnt so quickly that the insides of the larger squashes still contain edible seeds, and even some dry, tough, chewable pith. We get charcoal all over our hands and faces and laps from breaking into them, but our empty stomachs care nothing for appearances. The seeds taste good–toasty. They crunch satisfyingly in our teeth. It’s enough to get by on.
Feeding-frenzy’s a hard thing to curb when you’ve gone without, but I hold everyone back. Stuffing yourself on rough food till you throw up defeats the purpose. We bag the remaining seeds and pith for days to come. Kuchi cries and begs but Chaska holds him and Baruch explains the necessity, though his eyes water too.
Friday, April 2, 2709
Kiril wants to march near Lufti, but I have to position her off to the side, where she won’t breathe so much of the clouds of ash that he kicks up. My own mouth tastes like I’ve been smoking even when the twitching of my nerves tell me that I haven’t. Those of us who need it divvy up the last of “Grandfather’s” stash, passing his pipe between us as we walk; it tastes poignantly sweet to me, knowing that I have no idea when I’ll get another puff. I notice that Lufti doesn’t ask for any; I wonder when he stopped smoking?
By now the new kids take Lufti’s dancing in stride. At least it means that we go at a slower pace, giving them time to get used to walking all day, every day. I even heard the youngest boy, Kuchi, hum along with Damien’s chorus. Poor, bony waifs–all the reality that they have ever known went up in smoke. They might not even realize that Lufti’s crazy anymore.
What’s lunacy, anyway, and what is sane, in this lunar landscape that we cross?
Saturday, April 3, 2709
Marduk shoots a big, fat dardie. Meat-eating birds taste gamy and unpleasant, and carrion-birds the worst of all, but we are so far past particular that we laugh as though at a feast, though one bird among ten does not entirely satisfy us.
“I think I could have shot one yesterday,” Marduk tells us, “But not on a Lenten Friday.” We all nod, agreeing, though our stomachs argue the perfect insanity of following Lent while starving, and not a single pope would have condemned us for the lapse. But our frightened hearts forbid any act, great or small, that might possibly maybe alienate from us divine protection in this haunted land.
A little meat between the teeth does us all a world of good. But it doesn’t give us nicotine.
(I open up a jar of biltong and chew the dark strips of cured meat as I drive, savoring its salty, spicy, umami flavor. I feel stronger now than even before I got sick, before I can’t say when. Good, clean food, shelter from the elements, plenty of rest and most of all that sense of safety, the freedom to not stay perpetually tense and ready for action, has done me a world of good.
Yes indeed, I don’t need sheltered anymore. I smile into the rear-view mirror, and the reflection shows me a sassy curve of looted lipstick back. I feel like Zanne again.
So much so that I see a couple of hitchhikers by the road and feel generous. They look like they looted a costume shop, several feather boas each in a range of colors, red sequined shorts on the girl over black leather leggings, under a tunic of fake leopard fur and equally fake mink stole, worn over purple balloon sleeves, all topped off by a ridiculously wide lime green cavalier hat, swooping and bobbing every time she moves. He wears a pink velvet gown over a yellow satin skirt, an olive camouflage jacket and strap-on fairy wings jutting to either side of his blue backpack, the total effect crowed by a gold-tasseled red fez on top. They both wear pirate boots.
I shrug and say to Tshura, “We’re all beyond good taste, darling. I suppose it keeps them warm.” Hmmm…country towns don’t usually sustain costume shops. I wonder if they came from Nuvelle Parie?
I pull over and roll down my window. “You dears need a lift?” I ask.
“BANG!” the woman cries, and something hits me in the chest!)
We pass a gunshop—or rather, the façade of one, creaking a bit where it totters; I tell the kids not to get too close lest it fall on them. All the ammunition that it once held has exploded most of the rest of the walls away, a rubble of stones and mortar and twisted gun barrels. It still gives off that brimstone smell. Nothing useful there anymore. We march on.
(They toss something in the car and run away giggling. The suction cup on the toy dart falls from my chest. A toy dart gun. I breathe a gust of relief and drive away from there, after a glance to see that the tossed-in things are nothing more than scrap paper scrawled on in crayon. I continue to breathe slowly and deeply to settle my nerves back down. My but that was moronic of me—that could have gone so much worse!)
Sunday, April 4, 2709
We cross the charcoal of a small farm, with a couple rows of fruit-tree stumps and a burnt-out coop, just outside of a little town, and here Lufti stops, sobbing uncontrollably. Kiril goes over to him and wraps her arms around him. He shudders against her breast until suddenly he tips back his head and wails.
I scan through the wreckage of the house for anything useful. I find three skeletons huddled together, probably teenage. One skeleton would have been tall, a second one short, and the third has a female pelvis.
I look out beyond the charred timbers at the shape of the hills. Yes, we’d come this way, before the retaking of Abojan Pass; I just hadn’t recognized it, with all of the changes. What a horrible coincidence!
Or not. Lufti has calmed down somewhat, though he’s got the hiccups. Red-eyed, he joins me and grimly death-dances around the trio, somehow managing to navigate the dangers of the ravaged floor while never taking his eyes off the bones. I whisper to Damien and he sings a song for fallen comrades.
[(I realize that I’ve driven all night and well past the dawn. This won’t do; I need to get my rest. I pull off the highway and travel on surface roads for awhile, seeking refuge. The spring grass has grown quickly, showing me that a lane to the left hasn’t seen use since it last snowed. I pull up into it till I’m no longer visible from the road; anyone addled won’t be looking for tracks or anything like that, just following impulses. All the same, after a brief step out to stretch my legs and do the necessaries, as birds quarrel melodiously in the trees, I lock myself in the car for my nap.
I let All Kinds Sanctuary make me soft—I do love softness when I can get away with it! Yet not everyone has access to medicine and farm-clean food. Not everyone has returned to their senses.
I drink some water and settle down into my back seat nest. How sensible am I, for that matter, thinking that I can do anything about this disaster?
“For Lovequest,” I sigh, pulling up the blanket. “With understanding, or if necessary without.”)
Lufti finds us another cistern, and a few canned-goods that escaped the fire in their tins–beans and carrots and molasses-rich brown bread. We share the food around between us, with nothing left to carry again tomorrow; it all tastes overcooked, and I suppose it is, but it fills us up and we feel grateful for every morsel. Damien sings a hymn of thanksgiving; you can’t travel through what we’ve been through without some heightened religious feeling, a painful sense of the numinous.
After lunch, Lufti solemnly announces, “They’re coming with us, you know.”
“The ghosts of the Midlands?” I ask, the hair on my neck prickling upwards, “Or just of this farm?”
“This farm,” he answers. “They may be weird, but they’re our weird.”
Nishka nods, her eyes reddening as she finally realizes the truth. She unfolds her pack-shovel and starts digging. Those three skeletons are the only bones we bury in this entire wasteland, and we bury them all together in one grave. They would have wanted that.
(Turning over where I rest makes a crackling sound and it wakes me up. I feel the papers under me and tug them out. I had forgotten completely that those lunatics threw this in. I unfold a yellow page, smooth it out, and read, “Oh take me, Byron Lord, to tan and freckle on thy distant shore…”
Oh Gates! It’s starting all over again)
When it comes time to end our march, in yet another ruin of a town, we choose a building with less ash than most (a bank, I think, judging from the metal grills) and sweep us a bare space on the floor to lay down our mats. I give mine to the new kids to crowd on as best they can. The stone floor feels hard to sit on; I miss the softer soil outside, but it’s all so poisoned that it would burn into our skin if we slept out there. Somehow Lufti, rummaging around in scorched metal desks, also finds us one unburst bottle of wine as well...
Monday, April 5, 2709
...I suppose Kiril handled ordering the watches for the night and such. To my embarrassment I learn that I passed out after only a few sips of the wine. The hangover doesn’t hurt nearly as much as all the aches where my bones ground into that floor. But I look on the new kids, stunned into complacency, doing whatever we do without complaint, and I wonder if before this horrid week they’d ever slept without a bed in their lives. I don’t begrudge them my mat.
Finally, in the distance, I think I see an unburnt wood.