IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Past and Future Ghosts
Thursday, April 8, 2709
(I can hardly wait for the dawn, shivering in my wet things, walking back and forth to keep some life in my limbs. I’ve been this cold before, I remind myself, and lived through it with my usual panache. At least it isn’t snowing.
I take in my fellow campers. Once I would have called them a rough lot, but who isn’t these days? Most of them sleep in cars or tents; only a few of us, shadows in the dimness, pace the night out, hoping to rest at last in the warmth of daylight.
I notice Kara, the woman who shared fish with me, tending a fire in some sort of makeshift stove, complete with a bit of chimney directing the smoke up and away. I walk over, hugging my damp blanket around me. I nod to the rainproof contraption and say, “Clever of you, my dear.”
“I used to be a janitor,” she says. “I still got some tools in my gear.”
I squat down beside her, grateful for the warmth. “However did you make this?”
“It’s an old car muffler. Tinsnipped an opening, drove in some holes, threaded a couple springs into the holes for hinges, propped it up with stones, and there you have it. The stones hold heat—that helps, too.”
“Oh, well-done!” She uses a rod to open the door just a bit to push some wood in, the glow orange on her weary face against the predawn blueness all around. I stuff my hands into my pockets and encounter the old poems from my past in there. On impulse I almost toss them in, but Kara stops me.
“No you don’t, nope, not here! They’ll just get stuck in the flue.” She gestures with her head. “There’s an open fire over there where you can burn those.”
“Of course.” I go over to where I see some coals glowing under the protection of a fender propped on bricks. A young family sleeps snuggled close beside it—man, woman, and two blonde little girls with square faces much like Cybil. I kneel down and lay the pages on the embers and watch them blacken and curl.
It feels fitting, somehow—there goes the last shred of my childish hero-dreams. I’m not a hero, not even with superpowers. I’m a failed agent stuck in the ruins of mission-collapse. I’m a tired woman in rainsoaked clothes huddled in a homeless camp. I’m Zanne Charlotte, but what does that even mean anymore?
I feel kind of relieved to let it all go.)
(I wake slowly, just watching the dust particles sparkling in the beams of light coming through the window, golden on the wood. I sneeze, stirring Jake enough for him to pull his arm off of me and turn over.
Window? As in square window, not a porthole? Where are we?
I remember. Storm. Island. Guy with a lantern.
I sit up, sneezing again. We have all fallen asleep on a bare wooden floor as comfortably as if we’d lain down on beds. Dust lies all over everything; apparently isolation has made Lantern-Guy lax with the housekeeping.
Don woke up before me, sitting crosslegged by the lantern, a grim look on his face. “Want to see something weird?” he asks. I nod and he pushes the lantern over to me, as dusty as everything else. I look in and there’s a cobweb inside the chimney, and not a drop of oil in it. “It’s the only one in the cabin.”
“But…nobody’s lit this for quite some time,” I say. Obviously.
Wallace stirs from where he’d lain. Straightaway, as though sleepwalking, he goes over to the only cot in the cabin, where the blankets clearly mold around our host. Except I don’t see a head on the pillow. I see a skull.
Sadly Wallace says, “Just like my father. Nobody to take care of him when he got sick. I wonder how many little islands around Toulin have ghosts just like this one?” And at that Jake and George wake up.)
The first thing I notice in the morning, before I even open my eyes, is the scent of the leaves into which we’d nested for the night. I’ve smelled autumn leaves like these before, sweet and earthy…where, though? And when? Last Charadocian autumn found me in the lowlands where the seasons don’t change. Before then…I seem to have missed out on autumn—Once? Several times?—always in the wrong hemisphere for it. The last time…was it in Duerlongh? Or one of the little missions around that region? I breathe in the aroma. Pear leaves. I last smelled this in an orchard somewhere around Duerlongh, several years ago.
I open my eyes, staring up at the feral pears still hanging in the trees, that we’d missed in the darkness of the night before, and I stretch in the crackling leaves, grinning with luxurious satisfaction.
“Hey kids,” I say as the others start to stir around me. “Looks like we’re going to have breakfast!”
(I wake with the family by the campfire, surprised that I could nod off at all. The woman stares at me mutely, her husband’s arm around her protectively, his other arm taking in his children, who look back at me more curious than afraid. I stand and curtsey. “Thank you for the lovely hospitality of your fire,” I say. The woman still stares with wide, terrified eyes.
A stout old Hispanic woman comes by with a pot of posole. “Don’t mind Daphne,” she says with rough kindness, handing me a bowl. “She hasn’t been right in the head for awhile now. She means you no unkindness.” When she sees my hesitation she says, “Go on. The hominy didn’t come from a can. I dried it myself before the troubles, and a cousin smoked the ham. There’s no poison in it.”
I learn that she’s called Luzita, has an actual home near here, and helps folks out from her stores. They in turn haul water for her, now that the plumbing doesn’t work. She owns a shotgun and makes her own cartridges, but so far nobody has ever tried to rob her. She did bag a fat Rottweiler, though, that had terrorized the neighbors; he provided the “ham”. I feel grateful for the quantity of chili in the posole, burning my mouth; dog meat has never been a favorite of mine.
Kara joins us with more of her dried fish. I dig up the last of the bread out of my bundle and pass it around—it wouldn’t last much longer anyway. Others join us for breakfast with their own contributions. I set Tshura’s box out where she can enjoy the hospitality, even if she can’t taste the food. And I feel happy.)
We march in better cheer than we have, chewing on pears as we travel, sweet and juicy, still quite hard yet fully ripened, not mushy in a grocer’s bin. All of our eyes half-close in pleasure, making the autumn light seem shimmery between our lashes. We could not have been happier if fed on ambrosia.
Soon we find a rutted country lane, and travel becomes easier, and pleasant. Sun shines into it and on all the golden leaves, making it a path of light with walls of shadow framing it. After he licks the last of the juice from his fingers (while Nishka snickers and Chaska averts her eyes) Damien swings his harp around and starts to strum it as we travel, playing something merry, something not a dirge. How I treasure such moments!
(We give our host a proper burial, scratching his name into a yellow plate by way of a headstone. Roger Eberson he is, or so says an invoice for galvanized bolts and nuts, twine, and a jar of brass polish. As I dig the grave into the sandy island soil, I notice the greenness of the grains. Commonest form of magentine—weak, unstable, and all over the planet, but sufficient to take on imprints of souls enough to imitate the real thing. Roger must have died longing for visitors, and left behind a fantasy of welcoming.
Do I blaspheme to pity these imprints that feel so real to themselves? Maybe now he can rest and let go.
While stitching the bones into his shroud, George suddenly says, “There’s five more. Each on their own islands, awaiting their funerals.”
Wallace looks at us, pleading. “We have to find them and settle their spirits. May we do that? Please?”
Jake looks at Don and me and says, “It’s not like we’re on a schedule.”
“Fine,” Don sighs. “Let’s become house call morticians.” And he takes his turn with the shovel.
After suitable words over the grave, we take what still looks usable from the larder—baking soda, sugar, and some pickled fish now quite well-cured. Wallace seems especially pleased with the discovery of coffee. I’m sure Roger wouldn’t mind.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jake says.)
We hear the tanks and scatter into the foliage. The new kids dive into the same bushes as me. I can see a tendril of cashew-vine tickle against Chaska’s shoulder where her blouse has slipped. She sees it, too, and doubtless feels it, and doesn’t move. The children scarcely breathe. Braulio keeps looking towards his little brother, Kuchi, who glares out from beneath the leaves with a feral intensity. Feral–it feels so different from wild. It’s the pampered pet suddenly trying to find his way out in a world with no food bowls, no blanket by the fireplace, no roof or walls or anything comforting and familiar.
I have to do this. The test of blood must follow swiftly. I am a monster.
Marduk has learned by now precisely where to shoot to de-tread a tank. He freezes all three of them. We run out screaming from behind, where they can’t swing their cannons around before we can clamber up over the metal flanks. Chaska shrieks like a rape-victim as she runs on the attack. Kuchi sounds as crazy as Lufti. Braulio’s voice cracks around his battle-cries.
I fire and fire at the hinges till they give, then pry open the hatch. I grab Chaska by the scruff and shove her forward before she has time to hesitate. “Do it!” I shout. Bullets come out of the hatch and she dodges back, but I shove her forward again. She fires and fires until she empties her gun, eyes burning, lips pulled back from her teeth. I hear the screams of the caged men. I see the red spatters hit Chaska’s face. I see the gory streak where a bullet grazed her cheek and ear. Then, panting, she looks at me, all her shooting done, and I see anger in her eyes, terror and triumph and sickness, all intermingled with the posture of a sheltered girl waiting for approval from the only available authority figure. I am indeed a monster.
She has to learn how to survive. We all become what we have to be.
Firing still goes on. Braulio had hesitated and the soldiers got their chance to climb out. They look insane, themselves, their uniforms dirty, their faces unshaven, no mercy left in those war-inflamed faces anymore. Braulio fires when a bullet hits Kuchi, turning white and clammy as the rifle jars him where he stands. I can see by the pattern of the spatters on the smaller boy that Kuchi also passed his test of blood.
They are rebels now, full and truly. No turning back.
Good ghosts took our side today. Kuchi also has a graze, not full penetration, in his shoulder. I clean his wound and Chaska’s, bandaging them up with as much mother-tenderness as I can muster, while Hekut loots the tanks for ammunition.
Then we set about burying the dead. Braulio runs off into the bushes to throw up, as he had not done when we faced the rotting corpses on the day before. When he comes back, wiping his mouth, I say no word as I hand him water, but I briefly put an arm around his shoulders as Lufti dances on the new-laid graves. I honestly don’t know whether that boy does desecration or reverence.
And then we move on. Lufti goes off the path around about sunset, and we follow him to an abandoned moonshiner’s still, concealed from all but an oracle. He locates one of the jugs still hidden in the bushes—much more and stronger than the little wine we shared before. Our new recruits experience their first night of fullblown drunkenness. I taste none of it, but stand watch over my children.
Monster, monster, monster!