IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Tuesday, April 6, 2709
We come to the very edge of ash and desolation, and there we stare across the water between us and paradise. We shall have to cross a wide river to reach the living lands. They tantalize us, just the other side of that sparkling flow, as we scout the shore for some way over. (I think I can see the skyscrapers of Nuvelle Parie ahead!) We dare not try to swim; we don’t know how much lye has polluted the river, but dead fish float stinking through it, looking half-dissolved already. (Yet I smell something bad and I roll up the window—that can’t be good.) It might have washed clear by now, but we can’t be sure. (I tell myself that it might have been a dead animal. A big animal, like a cow.) And I curse in my heart, for even though the fire stopped here, the damage will go on and on, carried by the very barrier that thwarted it. (Even so, I remember that crazy couple who threw my old poems into the car, reminding me that the antidote hasn’t reached everywhere.) I don’t know whether those trees show the normal foliage of the season, or if poisoning has killed them. (And new poisonings in the meantime, continue.)
(“What are you guys up to?” Don asks, as Wallace, George and I change the tack of the sails.
“Trust us,” I say. “We know what we’re doing.” He opens his mouth to argue, then I look at him and he shuts up.
Eyes wide, Randy takes him by the arm and says, “They don’t know what they’re doing, but I think you’d better let them do it anyway.”
The salt wind sharpens on the skin of my face, tossing my forelock on my brow. The sails snap and ripple till we set them right and change direction altogether. And the sunlight drops into shadow as the first swift clouds thicken overhead
“That’s farther out to sea,” Don points out.
“I know.” And suddenly I do know.)
(I reach a huge suspension bridge over a river, of the sort that would point to a big city nearby. Citizens have pulled themselves together enough to clear the innermost lanes of wreckage, so I can carefully navigate my way through, slowly enough to hear the oboe that someone plays. I notice that people have moved into some of the abandoned cars, hanging curtains made from old clothes, stacking tires on hoods to hold container gardens. Fishing-poles extend off the bridge’s sides, along with the occasional bucket on a rope. Laundry flaps gaily from lines strung between cables on the upwind side, while fish dry on the downwind side. It’s a tidy system.
Not bad, altogether, as apocalyptic villages go. I wave to some as I pass through, and they smile and wave back at me. I almost feel disappointed when I reach the other side. But these people don’t seem to need an agent to help them find their way.
A barrier makes me stop, with a sign saying “TOLL”. I cheerfully hand over a bottle of pepper-sauce and a small smoked chicken. Just as cheerfully they raise the barrier and let me through.
That could have gone much worse, I think as I drive on. They could easily have robbed me for all I had. Encouraging, that they didn’t.)
At last we find a small metal suspension bridge. Carefully we inch our way across the supports on either side, clinging to the railing, the charred timbers between no longer apt to hold up even our frail weight. But we make it to the other side.
The first trees do indeed look dead, but we find others beyond them still with vigor in them, even sleepy with the season as they are, and the weeds grow lush between the trunks. We can feel the difference; it tingles beneath our skin.
No one has ever set a more grateful foot on life-rich humus than we do on the hour that we finally reach the shade of living trees. No one has ever breathed more deeply of the sap-sweet forest air, nor looked up so reverently at the towering trunks. We bless even the cashew-vine as we skirt around it.
Lufti dances one final spin, his head tipped back, looking up and up at ascending layers of autumn leaves. Then he falls dizzily onto a crackling mound and sinks into a deep and instant sleep, as though upon a long-lost mother’s breast.
Wednesday, April 7, 2709
(The Nor’easter hits us in the dark. George has the watch and wakes the rest of us by singing, eerily in the lightning flashes and the roaring winds, about our danger. Nice way to end it all, if end it we do, thank you Jesus—but I’d rather live if it’s okay with you.
I shiver in the icewater rain and the saltwater slaps as I stagger across the rolling deck to my station at the rudder. Jake, George, and Wallace take control of the sails, moving in synch, ignoring Don’s shouts over the gale that they’re doing it wrong, the wind’ll tear the sails!
Instead the boat shoots forward, racing on the wind just a razor-edge from ripping, as our oracle and proto-oracles find the unexpected path between destructions to keep us on course to whatever destination they have in mind.
Meanwhile it’s not just the boat’s wild pitching that makes me dizzy. I feel the link. I feel the boat’s motion from three perspectives besides my own, two of them untrained oracles still quite capable of telepathically roping me in, the third one tearing from all the pressure on the weak point in his Gift. Oh God, he can’t break his oraclism!
Their combined force makes me move the rudder as they will. I take shuddering breaths till I stop resisting, and send one thought back.
DON’T TAKE JAKE!)
I wake, gasping, and clutch Lufti to me, crackling through the leaves that bury us. He wakes, too, murmuring, “I can help. Let me help, copper lady. Save the bitter licorice-man from lunatics like me.” And I feel power rush into me, strengthening my connection to Jake, holding him fast, holding him together, keeping him from…something. I wonder if I dream all this.
“Yes and no,” Lufti gasps and clutches me still more tightly.
“Lufti’s in trouble!” Kiril cries as she wakes, too, groping for both of us in the dimness till she can embrace us together, binding us even tighter. “What’s going on?”
“Magic,” Lufti whispers, the sweat beading on him like seaspray. And I feel my connection with Jake expanding back into places it had torn away from, with…
“…golden swirls of other matter does it matter? Yes, it’s fragile stuff, gold, but it’ll do in a pinch, the bowl weeps for joy that it ever broke. Hold fast my heart!”
(“His heart!” Jake cries, and falls to the deck, clutching his breast. “He’s too young for this! If I can’t stabilize his heart he’ll die!”)
“Mission accomplished, “ Lufti murmurs, and suddenly falls limp into my arms. Have his lips turned blue? I can’t tell—everything looks blue in the predawn glow! Anxiously I feel his pulse while the others, waking all around me now, look on as much as they can in so little light. At first alarmingly irregular, the beat stabilizes, strengthens, and so help me finally feels completely normal! He opens his eyes, smiles, and says, “We’re healed.” And then falls back asleep.
(“Land ho!” Don cries. I look up from where I kneel beside Jake, not even remembering abandoning my post, but it’s all right, Wallace has the rudder, and he steers us towards an old dock on the unexpected island, as surely as if he had trained in his father’s trade.
“I’m okay,” Jake says, gazing up at me in the dawn’s first glow. “Never better.”
“Who’s he?” I ask. “The he whose heart’s too young for something or other?”
“What are you talking about, Randy?”
The storm rages on, hurling us into the padded pylons with a jolt and a loud thunk. Don and the other two quickly secure the ropes and drop anchor for good measure. I help Jake up, we grab some supplies, and run through the rain towards the shelter of the man waving a lantern and pointing where to go.)
(Wheeee! Nuvelle Parie, here I come! I make myself skip the first exit into the outskirts of town, picking up speed, headed for the city’s heart. Gathering stormclouds to the northeast make the air feel heavy and cold, but I don’t care, I roll down the windows and relish the wind in my hair, just because it feels so free, even though I promised myself I’d arrive flawlessly coifed. I can always put it up later. I’ve got my lipstick on, violet perfume dabbed behind each ear, and a grin stretching my face to spoil the entire cool look that I had envisioned for this moment. Gates, who cares?)
I smell smoke on the air. Does it smell like ham? No. Then Kiril looks at me and grins. “That’s corn mush. Somebody’s frying up corn mush for breakfast!” and we all start laughing for sheer joy. The cobbler’s children smile, their eyes luminous with hope, as though this is the first time in their lives that they have ever smiled. They look at each other, then at me and Kiril, and then each other again, then finally join in the laughter.
(I pass the second exit that leads into a residential district. More traffic fills the road, coming and going, zigzagging dangerously in between old wrecks and not slowing down. Rain starts hitting the windshield and my arm by the window; I feel the slickness of the road beneath me, but I can’t slow down. The mechanical tide cuts me off from the third exit as we hurtle towards downtown. Oh well; I wanted to head there anyway.)
The first village we come to has blocked the road with a barricade, marked with a skull and crossbones—a real human skull, and real femurs. For those who can read, someone has painted below:
We Shoot All Stranjers!
Apparently they aren’t averse to other modes of execution, however, for from the limbs of trees beside the road we see bloating examples of each, dangling neck-first from ropes: A young man in government uniform, an older woman who probably would have died of her burns anyway, and a boy crisscrossed in (empty) bandoliers. No doubt they didn’t want the message lost on the illiterate.
The new kids stare at the corpses in a kind of dull wonder; the shadowed tension under their eyes looks like holding them so wide all the time has exhausted them. I can feel that these children had never been outcasts before, not even on the schoolyard level, had never even considered the possibility. And now they feel too tired to register the shock.
(Did I just see a skeleton driving one of the cars? Oh Gates! I don’t get it; I’ve been eating clean food! Oh wait…are these people still so magentine-poisoned that they’re overwhelming my telepathy again?
And the rain pounds harder and harder, and the road grows more slippery even as traffic speeds up and the wrecks become more numerous. I don’t dare take my hands off the wheel to roll my window up, shivering as the wind hits my wet shoulder.)
The wind changes; we gag on the odor and slip back into the forest. We soon become aware that two huge dogs escort us, between us and the village’s outer bounds. When we step too close to that side, they growl.
Lefty asks, “What do they feed big brutes like that on, if they haven’t got food enough to share?”
“Manflesh,” Marduk answers. We say nothing more for the next few miles, until the dogs recognize a territorial boundary and sit down, still watching. Marduk turns around and stares them down. They stand and bark until he turns his back again.
(I see her coming straight at me, waving her arm out the window at me, her square face framed by her rainsoaked, short-cropped hair—Cybil Tamor! She swerves around a wreck and into the lane going the opposite way before another car can crash into her.
“Zanne!” she shouts. “Zanne!”
“Cybil!” I shout back
“I don’t know where you live now…” she cries as we pass each other, before the traffic forces us apart again. I veer for the next exit, determined to make it this time, hoping she has the sense to do the same. A car sideswipes me, but my fast reflexes compensate, but the tires skid, yet I can still sort of manage the skid, careening sideways into the exit while other drivers scald the air with curses till I get my bearings again but then another car rams me and sends me flying off the road, but by now the embankment’s low and I land bone-joltingly on my wheels. I can barely limp to a parking-lot, leaking vile-smelling fuel as I pull over.
Frantically I grab food and water and throw them along with Tshura’s box into my bedding, gather it all up and run out of there with it all bouncing on my shoulder like St. Nicky’s bag of toys before the car explodes behind me. Well, driving was fun while it lasted, but we can’t have luxury every day, now can we?
I assess my surroundings. Makeshift shelters fill up the lot and ragged people stare dully at my arrival. Some go over to ignite slivers of lumber at the fire of my wreck to bring back to their encampment. Nobody seems particularly surprised by anything anymore.
This seems as good a place to wait for Cybil as any, though I can look forward to a cold night as the rain soaks my blankets. But maybe I can find somewhere sheltered yet airy enough to dry it with some fire of my own.
“Do you want a fish sandwich?” a tight-throated voice squeaks at my elbow. I turn to see a woman with rain-darkened blonde hair straggling from a rag-turned-kerchief, too bent and strained for someone her age. “Only I got no bread for it. But it’s a sandwich if we both agree it is, right?” she says without smiling, her dark eyes beady and intent, as she holds up a dried fish with a bite taken out of it..
“Marvelous, darling!” I reply, smiling for both of us as I lower my “bag” on a weedy spot as much out of the mud as I can manage. “And I shall provide the bread as we split it.”)