Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VII: The Burning

Chapter 16

Red River



Tuesday, April 13, 2709

Today we can’t budge Lufti.  He curls in upon himself, not crying or anything, just staring in an exhausted kind of way at a seed-pod fluttering on the end of some weed.  I try to get him onto my back, but he won’t hold on.  In the end Marduk has to carry him babelike in his arms, the long limbs dangling listlessly.  After awhile we all hear soft snores against Marduk’s chest.

(The western quadrant will bring us to the largest, densest part of Nuvelle Parie.  I’ll admit that I rather dread the thought of covering it on foot!  I try to recall where I picked up these excellent hiking-boots that I now lace up, glad at least that I don’t have to make the journey in some of the impractical shoes that I bought before everything fell apart.  While Cybil packs our lunches with her usual excellent taste (she can pair up road rations into a charcuterie board like she’d been born a chef before she even suckled) I wipe the soot from the car mirror and dab on my lipstick, rubbing in two spots of it for rouge as well.  Curious, how just a dab of red can bring so much life to a face.

“Makeup, Zanne?” I can see Cybil’s grin in the corner of the mirror.  “Again?  Every day?” asks my homeless gourmet.  “No matter what?”

“Am I not a woman, darling, no matter what?”)

(This time it’s a woman.  The fishnet curtains clued me off right away—serving no purpose; light can shine straight through them, just put up there to drape prettily.  It didn’t matter that nobody else could see; she saw those curtains every day till the last hour of her life.  But the other guys  knew before we even made landfall, referring to our latest hermit-corpse as “she”.

And there she lies, freeze-dried over the winter, her  hair fanned out on her pillow: an old dried pod with the life long-emptied from it, yet still oddly pretty, like a brown, dried flower arrangement.  Enough toughened skin  clings to the skull to show that she died smiling.

And sure enough, she left this life with every plate in place, every jar in order, homemade lace on the table and the cups and saucers and spoons laid out, with the teapot and the dust-coated bowl of sugar, as if she expected to enjoy a cup of tea with Death before he got down to business. Withered flowers still occupy a bone-dry cut-glass vase in the table’s center.  I can still smell old perfume lingering in the air, probably from that cachet  dangling with the rack of dresses.  It almost masks the mustiness of our latest customer, waiting for her funeral.

Very tall dresses, for one closer to Wallace’s height than mine.  Very big shoes.  Very small pelvis on the bones in bed.  Traces of make-up still color the leathery remains of a face that met her death serenely.  She sought solitude to be what her country had no surgery to make official.

My mother would have shaken her head, saying something about accepting whatever God gave you, no matter how perplexing, and quoted whatever scriptures seemed most suitable, but would only say it once.  Then, testifying done, she would have poured that cup of tea, sat down with the dress-clad hermit as comfortably as Death must have eventually done, maybe swapped some recipes, and never mentioned the issue again.)

Out of what bits and dabs we find I cut the rations as close as I can, to stretch them out.  Hunger seethes in us, like something with a substance of its own, hazing through our brains till we can hardly connect one thought to the next.  All else loses substantiality.  Yet some of us have plenty of experience with want, and can direct the steps of the three with no familiarity with it until the fire.  Even they can hang on better than they might have done in times past, for what we endure now doesn’t compare to what they'd nearly died of when we found them.

Chaska hums a few bars of Rebel anthem.  Damien picks up on it and starts to strum along.  Sometimes music can stand in for food, sort of, or at least stir up a hope that it can.  She smiles at him, a little bit saucily, and starts to sing.

What would her parents think of what I’ve made of their daughter?  Maybe all they’d care about is that I saved her and her brothers’ lives.  At least I hope so.

(What about me, mother?  Would you have accepted whatever God has made of me, no matter how perplexing? Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t, and I honestly don’t always know for sure which is my time of virtue and which is of my vice.

But mother isn’t here, and Death has long since left for other business.  Death creates work for undertakers, but doesn’t engage in the trade himself.  She has waited patiently for us to give her this one, final dignity, so we get to it right away.

We slit the back of her fanciest dress so that we can slip her into it.  We wrap her in the lacy tablecloth for her shroud.  After the burial and proper words, we dig up bulbs from among the flowers around her porch, planting daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths and anemones in the soft soil of her grave.  And then we lay cobbles in a scalloped border around her final rest because she seemed to like the little touches.  We give her no headstone because we can’t find a clue as to her name, and even if we did it would probably be the wrong one anyway.)

(Right away we find more graves, some marked with stones, wood, or metal, scratched with letters that fade already, some with mementoes of meaning only to those who left them, many unmarked at all, only recognizable by the rough size and shape of the disturbed earth.  Maybe some had mementoes , once, that other people stole.  Maybe the thieves thought they had to, or didn’t even know they picked it off a grave.

People walk around them obliviously by now, some dreamy, some grim, most still in a psychic haze.  My head hurts trying to keep them all out, but Tshura helps.  We try to talk to a few, and they seem friendly enough, but we can’t get more from them than word salad.  None of them look starving; and everywhere we turn we see the half-looted remains of stores, restaurants, and warehouses.

Time to take a break, considering the marathon we have ahead of us.  Cybil and I sit on a bus stop bench and share a thermos of herbal tea.  The flavor brings me back to All Kinds Sanctuary, so I tell her more about it.
          “That really seems the way to go,” she says, and sighs, looking all around her.  “I don’t think returning to the city’s working out too well.”

“I’m starting to think you’re right,” I say, and take a deep swallow of chamomile memories.)

(Jake hesitates, then takes out a knife and, before I can stop him, cuts the still-pink scar on his wrist.  George grabs me as I cry out and try to lunge at him, but he holds his wrist over the grave and lets the blood fall on it.

“It’s for the daffodils,” Wallace murmurs.

“Jake!” I cry, “What are you doing?”

“I don’t understand it,” he murmurs, “But she wanted to menstruate.  I wouldn’t, but I respect her wish.”

George lets me go and I rush to grab his arm.  The cut’s not deep at all; I sigh loudly and bring him back to the house where we can bandage him up.  Wallace finds the bandages.  It could be worse, I remind myself.  Jake has done worse things to himself in the past.  Still, I don’t like it when Wallace says, “One way or another, you have to have blood.  For birth or for death, blood.  I never wanted to understand that.”

I grumble, “The blood of the cross is enough for me, thank you very much!”)

Still limp in Marduk’s arms, staring out at nothing, Lufti starts to sing a song I don’t recognize, in Amereng.  When did he learn Amereng?

          “From this valley they say you are leaving

We shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

For you take with you all of the sunshine

That has brightened our pathway a while.” 


Then he whispers, “But once you drain it dry, only the husk remains.”  Then we get nothing more from him.  He dangles like someone dead.

(After resting from our labors, we brew up tea from an old apothecary jar, still flavorsome enough, and share a toast to her memory in her collection of demitasse cups.  For a brief moment I wonder if Death’s bony mouth last sipped from mine, then shake my head at the power of my own morbid fantasy.

“It was her fantasy first,” George sways.

My scalp tingles.  “I shouldn’t pick up on that.  And you shouldn’t read my mind.”

Jake says, “Don picked up on it, then George got it from him, then it bounced to Wallace, and he bounced it to you because he doesn’t know how not to. Neither of them does.”

I sigh.  This is going to be a long trip.)

Lufti opens his eyes in Marduk’s arms.  “The buzzsaw!” he shrills  “All the little pockets and the whining roar of the motor but I didn’t do anything wrong, did I—did I?”

I run over to him and take him from Marduk to myself.  “It’s okay, dear—that all happened long ago, and nobody got hurt.”

“You did!” he cries, twisting to stare at me with unnaturally wide eyes.  “He gouged right through your soul and cut out all your juicy parts till you rattle like a seedpod in the wind!”

“No, no, that didn’t happen.  My friendclan didn’t let it happen.

“It did!  It did!  Just inside where nobody could bandage you and you’ve been bleeding ever since!  Everywhere you go you leave a trail of blood.”

I feel Kiril’s arms around us both.  “What’s happening?  What’s happening to Lufti?”  She shakes us in her urgency.  “It’s more than his usual madness, isn’t it?”

“Just telepathic overload,” I try to explain while sitting under a tree with Lufti wailing in my lap.  “He’s picking up on bits and pieces of my memory out of context and mixing it with his own issues.”

“It’s not mine!” he insists.  “It’s them!  The Man-Boy conducts as the rails rattle, blood rivers from all over the world converge and intermingle and it’s awful! It’s just bloody awful!”  He sobs against me until my blouse feels soaked, and I rock him, not knowing what else to do.

But apparently Kiril does.  “It’s okay,” she says, kneeling beside us and taking Lufti’s hand.  “The world is full of tragedy, but that’s not all there is.  Anybody can get swept up in it.  Sometimes it overwhelms me, too.  But there’s other stories, happy stories.  And every time we fight for truth and justice and everything right, we make more room for happiness to grow.”

“We feed the worst!  We feed the awful red rivers!  We...Oh Kiril, oh Deirdre, everything’s going red, everything’s just so...so...”
          “Real,” I say, remembering Kief telling me that.  “It’s just real.”

“All our mothers, all our fathers, how you’ve suffered—will it never end?”  Then I feel him harden in my arms.  “No,” he murmurs.  “No.  It never will.”  Then he shrugs, not in the usual raised-shoulder way, but in Randy’s idiosyncratic head-tipping way.  “Well, we must make the best of it we can, and find what beauty we might along the way.”  And he climbs out of my lap and starts walking down the path as if nothing had happened.

(How long have we been walking through these troubled streets?  I dispute my body’s claim that we’ve been at it for centuries, yet not with absolute certainty.  An unseasonable rise in temperature beats down upon the city and makes it steam with odors better left unwarmed.  A yellowish tinge to the light speaks of great fires somewhere, yet I don’t smell smoke, so it can’t be very near.  A naked youth sits up on a fire escape above us, hugging his knees , softly singing, “All my mothers, all my fathers, will it never end?  Then come sit down beside me if you’ll abide me, don’t hasten to bid me adieu...” and he breaks off into giggles.

“That doesn’t even rhyme in the right places,” Cybil grumbles beside me.

“Could be worse, darling.  At least he’s not singing a war cry.”)

“WOOOO HOOOO!” Lufti suddenly shrills in his highest voice.  I run up and clap my hand over his mouth.  He immediately crouches down the minute I let go and presses his finger to his lip.  “Sorry,” he whispers.

I settle my nerves hoping nobody had come near enough to hear us.  As handy as his oraclism makes him, it doesn’t mean that Lufti’s madness doesn’t put us at risk.

So far, though, we encounter no bullets or soldiers, and so we move on.  Or maybe...yes, I feel an approaching vibration deep in the ground.  MAC?  I signal everyone to take cover as whatever it is comes nearer, with a roaring, clacking sound.

Next thing I see a train hurtle past us across the path ahead, where we hadn’t seen the tracks in the fresh-fallen leaves that now whirl up into the air.  And its whistle blast sounds nearly identical to Lufti’s outcry earlier.
          We come out as soon as it has gone and travel on, glad of the few minutes delay that meant we weren’t on that track at the wrong time.  Lufti nods in satisfaction.  “Monsters should greet each other,” he says.

(We come out to where the street crosses a railroad track.  “Hold up,” I warn Cybil, throwing an arm across her breast to halt her as I feel a shaking beneath us.

“Ow!” she cries, for I inadvertently smacked her with Tshura.  “Zanne, do you really have to bring that...” and then she stops at the sound barreling towards us.  Of course the signals don’t work, but apparently a train still does, because it doesn’t take long for it to chug right past us as if nothing had ever changed in Vanikke.

“How wonderful is this!” I cry, my hair blowing in my eyes from its passage.  “And yes, it’s slow enough...have you ever train-hopped my dear?”  Not waiting for an answer, I run alongside an open box car, toss in Tshura and my walking-stick, then make a leap for it, then hold out my arms to catch a panic-faced Cybil and roll her over me to the safety of the haybales filling most of the car. 

“Now that’s more like it!” I exclaim.  I pick up a pinch of hay and blow it, making a wish as it flutters down.  We used to do that with the goat-fodder, back in my childhood.  I wish for an ultimate good outcome for Vanikke.  “We can travel in style, Cybbie, and spare our shoes some wear!”  I pull off my pack and start to lay out the lunch she so thoughtfully provided. “And by the way, dear, isn’t it about noon?”)

By afternoon we come across a meadow absolutely infested with hoppers.  Braulio says something about using them for bait to fish, and I praise him for the initiative.  Soon we have filled the banks of a brook with lines, each one dangling string into the water, and a hooked hopper at the end of each string.   Oh, but fish sounds so delicious right now!

(Some people have a silly notion that agency will knock the sybarite out of anyone.  But no, it’s not quite like that.  You simply redefine luxury.  You relish every pleasant detail all the more

Like right this minute, I feel absolutely pampered, lounging in this boxcar while the city rolls by much swifter and more efficiently than if I had continued to tromp along on foot.  In the current warm spell the wind of our travel feels good.  Foul odors last only for moments before we whisk on past and the predominant aroma of hay smells sweet indeed.  I smile at Cybil and she smiles back, then pays attention to the passing scene again.

For we still have our work to do, observing what has become of Nuvelle Parie.  More graves out here, and also, disturbingly, unburied skeletons.  I startle to see one seated in a car going nowhere, skull still propped against the headrest.

And then we come to the gibbets. Or rather, ropes, chains and wires hung from any available high place, most dangling human remains, some with what’s left fallen from the noose to a mess below.  Cybil hides her face against my breast and sobs.  I just hold her till we pass that area and then whisper, “It’s over” when I can.  She raises her flushed face, wipes her eyes, and continues the survey.)

I keep visualizing silver, iridescent bodies twisting and flipping on the end of our strings, and imagine the smells and tastes of fresh fish frying, the tender flakes within the mouth, the lure of satiation!  But so far not so much as a nibble.

So I I tell Kiril to get out her pans and start a fire anyway.  Soon the smell of hoppers roasting on sticks doesn’t differ all that much from fish, kind of shrimpy.   While they sizzle and pop I look for suitable rocks—something large and flat, and a rounder, smaller  one hefty in the hand—and find them.  When we get the hoppers to the proper crispiness, we grind them up so we don’t have to look at what we’re eating (since the cobbler kids, at least, have delicate sensibilities that way) and then re-roast the squishy mess into cakes, that don’t taste half bad, with a little salt and some wild onion.

We never do succeed in catching any fish.

(“Look over there,” Cybil says.  I see, coming up, an airfield.  There’s still planes with fuel in them, and people cramming in livestock, art, furniture and of course lots and lots of canned food.  “They always make the same mistake,” Cybil shakes her head.
          “Worse than that, they’re looting the country blind—and about to destroy all that loot while they’re at it.”

I realize suddenly that this thought doesn’t come from me alone, as I feel rising waves of anger and outrage crash through me from the track ahead.  It bends around the airport, so I can see the angry mob farther on, rushing onto the track to try and block the train.  I suddenly realize that this hay—and who knows what else in the other cars—also heads out of the country.

But the train doesn’t slow down.  It speeds up.  Cybil screams along with the crushed mob, seeing the bright-red spray of blood.  We hurtle on through the mess and we shudder with the horror of it, we can’t tell our own sobs from those of the mob’s survivors, we fall into each other’s arms, hysterical, inconsolable, and the screaming keeps going on and on in my head till I can’t stand anymore, I can just hold onto Cybil, crazed by the madness overwhelming me, the clacking of the train repeating itself like nothing had happened, and it doesn’t help when the telepathic tide draws back again, for it leaves a rhallunn scum of shame and condemnation.  This was my mission!  These people died—all of the many, many people died—because I utterly, completely, horribly failed in my mission!
          I hardly even register that Cybil, in a frenzy of grief and shared madness, has stripped off my clothes and now kisses me all over, and then when I finally do it’s only with relief, clinging to sensations that have nothing to do with murder or failure or anything but life, love, the giving and taking of pleasure, sensuality in defiance of the cessation of all senses, and so I cling and kiss right back, and then more than that, just a raw, throbbing instinct to throw anything between me and what I just witnessed, what I’ve been witnessing for months, what would tear me apart like a body on a train track if let it go unanswered with something, anything!  I let the feelings and the train just carry me away.)

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