IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
of the Dead
Friday, April 9, 2709
The new kids look bleary and move carefully in the morning, yet they make no complaint. I’m not sure if they know whether they’re allowed to complain. Or maybe they accept misery as the new norm. I make sure that they drink plenty of water, and share in what little food we can scrounge.
Nuts we can find, though not many, for scavengers have passed before us. Lufti, of course does the best of all, yet still finds less than what could fill us. Kiril identifies an edible fungus, and it’s not too bad. Marduk and Damien shoot several squirrels apiece, each precisely in the head to spare the rest of the meat, and we boil them up with mushrooms and such roots and greens as Kiril has dug up.
Now, if only we can get our crazy oracle to find us a bit of tobacco!
(George found a pouch of tobacco and papers in Roger’s home and didn’t tell me. First thing in the morning I catch him and Jake smoking in the stern, hoping that I wouldn’t rise this early, since I had a late shift. But the head also lies in the stern (where they apparently think my own head must be!) and whether the rest of me wanted to wake up or not, my bladder keeps the same schedule that it usually does, so I caught them.
I say nothing till I finish my business, but then I slam out shouting, “Aw, come on guys! I thought you’d have that out of your system by now.” I round on Jake. “You think you’re really a schoolboy delinquent? You want me to treat you like one?”
George enjoys this altogether too much. “Spank him,” he suggests, with a gesture of his cigarette.
“You’re not helping!”
“Why should I help?”
I soften my glare and say, as earnestly as possible, “Because you’re trying to become a better person.”
His smile falls at that, but Jake says, “You’re asking too much, Randy. We’ve got enough to give up without adding nicotine to the pile.”
“It gets…tangled. You’ve had a taste of that.” His eyes plead as he takes another draw, but says nothing more.
I sigh. “Okay. For now okay.” And I leave to get ready for the day, since I can’t see going back to sleep anytime soon. Over my shoulder I call, “If you’re all right smoking a dead man’s tobacco. How do you know that it wasn’t what killed him?”
Jake says, “Oh Randy, that’s mean.” I just cock my head in a shrug without turning and go into my cabin.)
Food perks everybody up. We move in silence for awhile, just taking in the autumn beauty all around us and the absence of tanks, nothing but the normal rustles of the forest. Soon we find a lane again, hardly more than a path; you’d have to haul goods by wheelbarrow or pack-mule here, because there’s no way in Hell you could wrestle a cart or car through the thickets to either side., I look both ways before leading my children onto it, but I feel fairly confident; armies prefer wider roads when they can get them. Our legs appreciate not having to step over branches or wade through weeds.
“I I I I”, Lufti says as we walk, then looks up at me desperately.
“What is it, dear?” I say and lay a hand on his shoulder,
“Try…trying to talk straight . She came from here. Near here. She wants her story told.”
“Betany.” We all hush at that, though we keep on walking. Damien’s face reddens in its beard before he turns away.
“Tell us,” I say. Best not to keep the ghosts waiting. Damien swings out his harp and picks softly at it in a minor key. I see the tears that shine on his face.
“Just that she…that I I I I…” then his voice suddenly goes hollow. “I came from here. I know this land. My…my father owned it.”
Nishka gasps. “Elizabeth? Elizabeth Hayeki?”
“Yes.” Lufti stares straight ahead. “That was my name before I became Betany to join the rebels.
“The girl who went missing, the girl we thought he’d murdered. But, but why didn’t I recognize you?” Nishka addresses Lufti as though he had indeed become the dead girl.
“Did you expect a find a rich girl in the woods, bruised and starving and ragged?”
Lufti turns dead eyes to her and everybody stops. In that other voice he says, “When parents mistreat a poor child everybody in their tenement can hear the screams. Nobody hears the screams in a country manor, except servants scared into silence. My parents bribed the constable, threatened the doctor, and ruined the tutor’s career for going to the constable in the first place. They did as their own parents did before them.” Then he turns to the cobbler’s children and they stumble back at his gaze. “I want you to know. You’re not just championing the poor. Too much power hurts the rich, too.”
Lufti starts walking again, and we follow. Softly, in that same hollow voice that we all remember, he says, “I had a hard life, and a hard death. But in the end I also had my freedom.” Then he shudders, runs off the path and throws up. I leave him leaning against the tree, till he straightens up and wipes his mouth, and looks at me with Lufti’s eyes again. In his own voice he asks for water, and I give it to him.
“Let’s keep moving,” I tell them. “I want us to find somewhere safe before it gets too late. Lufti and Nishka, you take lead”
(“You’re late,” I drawl as Cybil runs into the encampment to thump into me with her embrace. “You really should have found me yesterday.”
“Zanne, Zanne, Zanne!” she sobs. “I thought I’d never see you again!”
“There there,” I say, stroking her hair. “I’m right here, right now. Where’s your car?”
“I ran out of fuel by the time I found a way off the freeway and all the cars around me had been drained before I got there. That’s what took me so long to get to you. We’ll have to use yours to get fuel to mine.”
I chuckle delicately and turn towards the burnt wreck of my vehicle. She follows my gaze, gapes, and then laughs, too. Next thing you know, the chortles build till we’re leaning into each other, we both laugh so hard. I notice Luzita watching us speculatively, and then leaving, and then Cybil and I start giggling all over again, by fits and spurts, and then I open the back door of the charred remains so that Cybil can sit in the doorwell while we chat.
She’s been traveling with the Germans, passing for German herself because back in the city people still care about “all kinds mixing,” except in homeless camps like this one, with people sunk too far below social expectations.
“Did you find Dalmar? I hear he’d headed this way when he learned that people were trying to rebuild something here.”
The cheer in her face vanishes. “Why yes, yes we did. And, and Pauline worked side by side with him, at first…” and then she burst into tears.
“At first? What happened after.”
“We found him hanging from a fire escape. Somebody had hung a sign from his feet, low enough for anybody to read. It said, ‘He fraternized with a White woman.’”
“Oh Gates how horrible! But they were doctors together! Couldn’t people see that?”
“See? Zanne, see? Who sees anything clearly anymore?” She chokes on a sob and then tries to talk. “It’s not just the poison, Zanne. Even after we clear that out of our system, it’s all so...it’s just...” She looks at me with desperate, wet eyes.
“Trauma,” I say gently. “Mass trauma. It doesn’t clean up as tidily as poison, does it.”
“Pauline went nuts. When she found Dalmar, she just... Bela and the boys tried to stop her, but she tracked down those who did this thing, and then she just went blood-crazy. She turned everything in the room into a weapon. The others told me about it; they knew the band responsible, on the fringe of their own community. She just kept going, ignoring wounds of her own, swinging a broken lamp around, in the end, until she finally bled out, herself, staggering and then toppling, still trying to beat the corpses...What, Zanne?”
I hadn’t realized that I’d murmured out loud, “So I’m the only one left who knows the formula.” Immediately I feel ashamed of my selfishness as soon as I see the look on Cybil’s face.
A throat-clearing interrupts us. There stands Luzita, with a wheelbarrow. Gruffly she says, “You’re going to need this. It’ll cost you the jar of pickled pigs’ feet, two limes, a pair of gardening gloves, and that bottle of apple cider that I saw in your stash.”
“Of course—and thank you!” I hastily go for the barter goods, glad to change the subject. I felt a little leery about the pig’s feet anyway. “Thank you—but why Luzita? Why are you so kind to…” and I can’t finish.
“To all kinds?” She laughs grimly. “During the Crazy Time the only thing keeping me alive was visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And she made me make a promise in return, to serve her Son with the sharpest edge of my mind, the softest tenderness of my heart…”
“The holiest courage of my soul,” I say, straightening up and staring at her, “And the last endurance of my body.”
She smiles with wonder in her eyes. “So you know it, then!”
“With understanding, or if necessary without.”
Earnestly she finishes, “Where I cease to love Creation, there I cease to love myself,” and here she adds something not familiar to me, “and there I cease to love my Creator—so let me never cease to love!”
“Amen,” I whisper, though that is not a saying in my own religion, grateful for the reminder.)