IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
the Lay of the Land
Saturday, April 10, 2709
(Cybil and I need to get a lay of the land, on foot, before deciding our next move. While I make arrangements with Luzita to hold onto the wheelbarrow with my stuff on it (she really appreciates getting an entire ristra and the last of my smoked ham) I overhear Cybil talking to Kara.
“She seemed to feel this urgent need to burn blank sheets of paper,” Kara says in a low voice, but my telepathy fills in the gaps. “I think she thought she could read something in them. And she carries a box around with her that she talks to sometimes. Frankly, I’m a bit worried about her.” Ohhh Gates of Knowledge!
Cybil seems a little too cheerfully matter-of-fact when she joins me I shoulder a pack with a few essentials like lunch and water in them, take Tshura in one hand and a branch I found for a walking-stick in the other, and join her. She looks at the box with a nervous smile and asks, a little too jocularly, “So how’s Tshura, Zanne?”
“Sassy as ever.”
“You, uh, talk with her now? In words?”
“Of course I do, silly. You know how this works.”
Plainly she doesn’t, but she just smiles with wide eyes and we start walking north. “There’s boundaries,” Cybil tells me. “Enclaves where enough people have access to the antidote and clean food to create pockets of sanity, and other areas where people reinforce each other’s madness.” She gazes down at the toes of her boots. “I’ve been afraid, Zanne, to explore outside the German enclave, after, you know, what happened with...”
She looks up again, hopefully, at me. “But we’re on a mission again, right? Isn’t that what you agents call it—a mission?”
“I...I guess so.” I guess I’m still Zanne, even after the biggest blunder in my entire life.
So far the morning seems quiet enough, the city looking much like any other city, with the mist steaming off of brick and fence. Weeds grow where they hadn’t before, but I kind of like their bravado, getting their footholds, widening their cracks. Nuvelle Parie stinks from so many people unused to how to improvise without plumbing, but I expect they’ll figure it out, once they realize that snow can no longer take care of matters for them. And in the meantime some young, high voice sings in the morning light, filling every heart with hope.)
They learn quickly.
"We, the lush, ungoverned wood,
Shall thrive where no one thought we could,
Shall strangle harm and shelter good,
And overgrow our own again!"
Braulio’s voice keeps cracking as he marches, but he sings with more passion in every repetition, until belief flares hot in him and shines out in his glare. He has to. He has either become a warrior on the side of all that’s just and true, or else a murderer.
And the march goes on.
(A band of marching men come down the street towards us, some in various uniforms, others in rags, and some in ragged uniforms, occasionally bursting into hysterical laughter for no reason that I can see. I realize that I picked up “marching” from their minds, because actually they stroll in no particular order, though they make loud, stomping steps in time to each other.
Cybil tenses beside me, but I lay a hand on her shoulder and tell her, “It’s all right. They’re harmless.”
They pass us, mostly oblivious, the beat of their boots reverberating down the alley. One turns a grinning, unshaven face to me and says, “We’re deserting!” He laughs and they all bellow with laughter with him, all turning to face us at once, eerily in synch. “We’re deserting from the Forces of Evil!”
“Lovely, boys—carry on!” I give them a wave and go on my way.)
And so the song comes ‘round again...
"We, the seed trod underfoot
Shall send a secret, deepening root,
Shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot,
Abandoned to sun and rain..."
Kuchi belts it out with childish fervor, still young and malleable. I can see the seeds taking root in him, spreading all through him. In days to come, if he should live to see them, he might not remember ever being anything but a rebel.
(A little white dog comes running out to bark at our heels, though he never dares to get close enough to bite, dancing about our feet with tiny pride and fury. More alarming is the naked child on all fours barking with him, golden curls in his brown face, bright green eyes shining through. But he seems healthy and fed, if dirty, so we move on.)
When Chaska first began to sing along (the first one of the three) her voice sounded tentative, so quiet and halting that we almost couldn’t hear her. But she has grown more confident each time around, and has reached the point where she has added something unexpected, something saucy and sensual, to the tune.
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain...
The hip-bones move to catch the beat, the ribcage sways in memory of breasts that budded before she starved. Nishka smiles knowingly and ventures a little harmony, looking sideways at her. Of course–Chaska has reached that age, and however ladylike her upbringing, she has ached for some rebellion long before we ever came along. We have given her license to go past any limit that she might have previously imagined. I will have to watch out for her, if I can.
(I hear the unmistakable growl of a prop-plane overhead. “Oh no,” Cybil sighs. “Not again.,” She turns to me and says, “Sometimes they try to fly out of Vanikke.” The streets light up with the flash as the explosion pounds our eardrums. I can hear, though, the screams of people falling from the sky, but as I look up they all crackle and fizzle, still high up in the atmosphere, like meteors, into puffs of ash. How...?
I turn in horror to Cybil’s tear-streaked face. “They always make the same mistake. They always find the packets of preserved snacks on board. And it seems they always carry at least one combustor.”)
Palm Sunday, April 11, 2709
Today...ah today. How can I make plans for war in this of all seasons? And why does the sacred calendar mean more and more to me as I myself become more profane?
(Today we shall check out the neighborhoods south of here. Cybil wakes up beside me in the shell of my old car—there’s quite a bit of room, once you pull out the seat frames and the bit left of the steering wheel. Padding the interior with old straw underneath a blanket makes it cozier than many a place I’ve slept in this past year. But no matter how hard we scrubbed away at the ash last night, it still smells burnt in here.
“What day is it?” Cybil asks muzzily.
“I have no idea.”
“I feel like I’m supposed to know,” she says, and yawns.
“I’ll assume it’s your birthday and put honey in your porridge. How’s that?”
“Sounds wunnnerful,” she murmurs as she settles back onto her pillow. I give her a sharp spank and say wryly, “You still have to haul and filter the water for it—I’m not about to do all the work, darling.”
What did I just glimpse, fleetingly, from her mind?)
They no longer seem surprised at our fervor when we pray today, on Palm Sunday, far from any church, no blessed fronds in reach, only each other's hands. Intently they chime in, their knees in the damp, soft ground along with us, voices joining the chorus in the hymns that Damien strums. The trees arch overhead cathedral-high, the sun twinkling through the autumn leaves in stained-glass brightness. And then we rise, and cross ourselves, and resume our march through the illuminated landscape.
(Randy and Wallace sing together: I can hear them as I cook up sausage and gull’s eggs while they’re still good. It’s a slow hymn, carried on the rhythm of the waves: a fisherman’s hymn about a fisherman’s Friend. I gather from the words that it must be Palm Sunday. So I dig up the last bit of date bread and toast it for them, heavy on the butter because it won’t last long either.
I believe, but I’m not a church-going man. I never know how a church will take me. Some don’t like that I’m an oracle. Some don’t like that I’m a stranger. Some feel nervous that I’m big. And some wouldn’t like that I’m gay, if they knew. So I pray mostly in my heart, and don’t keep much track of the holidays.
Randy doesn’t care what people think of him, bless him, so long as he gets to worship. Not defiantly, though; he never disputes an unfavorable view, though sometimes I think he should. For him a stare or a sour expression just humbles him and makes him all the more fit to commune with those fallen enough to despise him.
What good’s praise, anyway? The crowd praised Jesus with palms and hymns, then crucified Him the next day. Ah, Palm Sunday brings out the curmudgeon in me.
Yet in my own way, I still believe.)
I don’t know for sure what I believe in anymore, only what I hope. And I must pray for my enemies, even as I stalk them, or I have no hope left. Pray at least that they find light before they die, whether from my hand or another, perhaps a light that I myself might miss. Hypocrite call me, monster and malefactor, but I don’t know what else to do.
(The Southern neighborhoods seem sane enough, so far. I can feel a weight lift from me here, and a freshness, as if breathing unpolluted air for the first time in ages. It takes me a moment to recognize the sensation as complete psychic autonomy—nobody’s drenching me with their thoughts. This neighborhood borders on rustic, the houses spaced farther apart, with back yard chickens and front yard raised-bed gardens Children run and giggle between the beds, playing as fiercely as children do, their heads full of heroics in their games of pretend.
Thin children. Not as many as you’d expect of such a neighborhood. And I see the graves, neat rows in the yards of abandoned houses. People used to supermarkets didn’t raise enough for everybody.
wondered how many died of triage? I
see no old people and no disabled. More
than one kind of weight can settle on
the soul. They all knew it was
must have. Yet they didn’t know
else to do.)
We hear a crackle and a snapping twig–others walk these woods! We take cover once again, guns slippery in our sweating hands. We listen to the crunch of feet in autumn leaves, and our breath aches held within our chests. Then Kuchi slips noisily, and gasps on top of all–and then the feet run, crashing through the forest...running away.
After a long time we set free deep breaths and crawl out from under our bushes once again. We brush the dried leaf fragments off our clothes and resume our march through the living halls of autumn gold.
Soldiers? Refugees? Fellow rebels? Those who could aid us or kill us? We will never know.
(Today Cybil and I set forth to check out the West quadrant—if we can ever make it there. We have wedged our sweating bodies in with all the others into one long, warm, patient human traffic jam, shuffling inches for each minute on a high, swerving ramp to a pedestrian bridge over the wreck-specked freeway I have secured Tshura in my pack; the crowd could easily jostle her handle out of my hand without even trying.
Currently few cars travel on the lanes below. Apparently the heavy traffic down there only comes whenever too many linked minds randomly decide to hit the road all at once, but who knows when that will happen next? Few will brave the breadth of the freeway on foot, for the rush can happen in a blink
My stomach growls, but I won’t be able to comfortably unpack the lunch on my back till we make it to the other side, an hour or so hence. At least I have not yet had to perform the indignity that others have, of worming sideways through the crowd in order to push their bared rump or penis between the guard rails to relieve nature; fortunately the horizontal rails run too close together for a bent adult body to pass all the way through, and nobody brings their children. I have occasionally heard the cries of stuck individuals, mortified to have to ask to be pulled back out. No, I am not that desperate yet.
To the west lies the industrial district, between the city and the river. Many push or pull carts, wheelbarrows, wheeled luggage, baby carriages, whatever they can scrounge to make the future burden easier. Those on the side of the bridge for returnees show exhausted people hauling tools, scrap metal, industrial chemicals, half-assembled products, anything valuable enough to justify the trip. The ones I can see over there smile faintly; they’re almost done. But I also note some confused souls on both sides—the gaunt and most unkempt ones—who just habitually try to get back to jobs that no longer exist. Some know that the jobs don’t exist but simply want a touchstone of their former lives and routines. Some have to see the nonexistence for themselves. And some see visions driving them to the other side.
was a mistake,” Cybil says. “I
doubt if anybody actually lives over there
full-time. Do you think we can
through to the return side?”
“I had no idea that it was this bad!”
“Excellent!” I say with a laugh.
“We have learned something new. That’s always the purpose of exploration, isn’t it, darling?”
“I...I guess you’re right,” she says with a tentative grin as we continue to shove through to change course. She clasps my hand so as not to let the crowd separate us.
I look up and see a white bird flying high above. I miss Deirdre. Right this minute, aside from anything I might say to cheer up Cybil, I wish I was Deirdre. Oh, to fly so high above in the fresh, clean air!)I’ve flown more depleted than this, I tell myself. I really should do reconnaissance. Yet the sky seems so far away, the branches thick and prickly-looking with half the leaves fallen from the twigs, and it seems like every little thing daunts me anymore. Isn’t it enough that I keep on marching? When will Damien sing again?