IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Holy Thursday, April 15, 2709
Damien just has to strum his harp as we walk. He just has to sing every single verse of the Bailebelde, eyes sneaking my way to gauge my reaction now and then, while the new kids snicker. They just have to insist that he start all over again, and teach them every smutty lyric, and now they have to try their damnedest to sing along. As we have gone deep into the forest by now, near no habitation of humankind, this continues from morning’s first pale light to a raging red evening sunset as we come to yet another river and camp beside it. And then everyone, not just the new kids, spend all of the time that they set up camp breaking out in sudden snickers, and cutting each other glances, and hum a few bars now and then, oh so innocently, as they pitch hammocks, or tend the fire, or bury our discards.
All day I have had a headache.
(Slowly my headache subsides. As I take my turn skateboarding, darting ahead to scout and back again every few minutes, while Ozwald pushes the wheelbarrow for awhile, I start to appreciate that birds still sing in spring, as the smoke starts to clear from whatever burns far away, and the brassy light begins to look cooler and normal again. It’s not like the last time I mindblasted anyone to death. I do believe I really have gained a bit of control over it.
And how, exactly, do you propose to practice while mastering the skill, Zanne? You can’t just mindblast cans lined up on a fence. There’s a reason Til Institute doesn’t teach this.
“Say, you’ve picked up on skateboarding really fast, Zanne!” Ozwald exclaims while I jump a curb to cross a street and jump back onto the sidewalk again at the other side. “I thought you said you’ve never done this before.”
“I haven’t. But Til trains agents on how to learn fast” It’s not really a lie; Til does offer such training. I just have an additional advantage.
“Even Skirnir took longer to...” and then he stops.
After we pass a few more looted storefronts I ask, “I thought you and Skirnir were inseparable, Ozwald. What happened?”
“We were. Now he’s inseparable with Gudy.”
“I wish you could’ve met her, Zanne. She really is your kind of woman, strong and elegant, funny and upbeat...everything I ever wanted. I thought for sure she and I...” He stops and hits the wheelbarrow handles with both fists. “Everybody was getting along so well! I had no idea how well.” He turns his good eye to me. “Zanne, I need to take the skateboard for awhile, if it’s okay with you.”
“Sure, Ozwald.” We switch over, and he shoots ahead so fast his hair flies straight behind him.)
Suddenly Damien says, “Good Lord, it's Holy Thursday!” And all eyes turn to me. Now? They expect me, as the leader, to begin the sacred rituals now? Reading the look on my face, Damien pales, gulps, and says, “I'm sorry, Deirdre. We're all sorry. Aren't we, guys? Aren't we all sorry?” They all nod, one after another, suddenly chastened. Shamefacedly, Damien says, “Remember that time when we all confessed to each other in Malcolm's car?”
I nod. “I don't think I'll ever forget,” I say.
He turns to the others. “When you don't have a priest, this'll do in a pinch.” Then he falls down on his knees and says, “Pray for me and forgive me, all of you. I have fornicated. I have scandalized. I have sung dirty songs.”
Blushing furiously, Chaska kneels beside him and confesses, “Pray for me and forgive me, all of you. I have, uh, experimented, uh, sexually, uh, all different kinds of ways, and I'm not married.”
Lufti follows suit, serenely saying, “I have tried to be a god. I have consorted with strange spirits and not all of them were good. I have snuck peeks under the robes of Heaven and trespassed on the stars.”
Looking at Lufti warily, Braulio kneels and asks for our prayers, saying, “I have killed. I, I still don't know whether I did it as a, a soldier or because...because I hate! I hate them for burning down my home, my whole life! But I can't hate on Holy Thursday, can I?”
“You just do the best you can,” I murmur. “It's enough to will to do better, to ask help in doing better. We all need saving, lad.” I take that as my own cue to kneel down. “I have committed scandal...” my mind goes blank of all else, then, like God punched me in the pit of my spiritual gut, “I have committed scandal...oh God!” The sin of leading others into sin. “But what else could I do? God forgive me, why don't I know what else I could have done?” Chaska pats me on the arm, her eyes melting with sympathy.
Baruch hesitates, starts to kneel, and then straightens up again. “I, I don’t know if I should confess or not. I don’t know if I believe in it anymore, or...or anything. I don’t know if there’s a God up there, or if there is but he hates us, so what’s the point? Or maybe he’s gone mad.” Then he does kneel down beside me, saying, “Okay, just in case, I confess my loss of faith. That’s the best that I can do.”
I put an arm around him. “You did just fine, Baruch. Sometimes arguing with God’s the closest we can come to faith—or at least to hope—hope that He’ll win the argument.”
Lefty quite matter-of factly confesses, “I have stolen, reneged on promises, and broken my Lenten vows. Pray for my forgiveness.” He's older than the rest of us—the news that he's not perfect doesn't shock him anymore.
Marduk kneels down, looking oddly boyish as he bows his head and closes his eyes. “Forgive me and pray for me. I, uh, lose my temper too easily. I hurt the one I love. I fornicate. Hell, I don't just fornicate, I cheat at it, too. I...I...” He swallows. “It's not her fault she's so goddam smart. I guess I could treat her better.”
Nishka kneels beside Chaska and takes her hand as she confesses. “Fornication. Unnatural acts. Scandal. Singing bawdy songs.”
Slowly Kiril kneels upon the ground. “I have fornicated, but I swear to God if I could I'd marry! They say a crazy man's got no business trying to make a vow and mean it, but I know his heart, oh Lord I know his heart! And, and sometimes I get so stone-hearted cold inside, but I don't want to be, that's not who I am. Jesus help me become, someday, who I really am!” She turns pleading eyes up to me, saying, “Lufti helps me remember who I am. Who's to say God didn't send him to save me?”
But before I can even think of a reply, Braulio turns to Kuchi and says, “You're old enough to fight, you're old enough for the sacraments, boy.” He laughs sadly. “I wish you'd had better preparation for your first confession, but go ahead and do the best you can.”
Solemnly, Kuchi kneels and says, “Pray for me and forgive me. Last night I found a worm and put it in Lefty's boot.”
“You did that, you rascal?” Lefty exclaims, but he laughs even as he shouts and makes a playful swipe at the boy, falling over from his kneeling position to do it. Soon we all laugh, and all of the negative feelings vanish as we forgive each other our sins. I strip down to a towel around my waist, and wash Kuchi's feet the first of all.
Good Friday, April 16, 2709
I thought there might have been too many camp-sounds in the night. The very first thing I open my eyes to in the morning is another camp on the other side of the river–clearly government issue. No one hesitates any longer; we dive quickly to our positions even as they do, and bring out our guns, as they do, and fire across the rippling silver flood.
And every bullet splashes into water, from both sides. They say that the ancients could make guns that could find their mark a mile off. We their children have not regained their fell sophistication. Soon one of the government soldiers stands up, throws up his hands, and orders his men not to waste any more ammunition. I do likewise.
We eat the last scraps of our breakfast, then, each on our own side of the river. Now and then one of ours or theirs stands up to shout filthy words and curses over the water’s flow, but we can’t quite understand each other, although we get the gist.
(Wallace fixes oatmeal with nut butter for George, and mixes up the powdered milk, because by Toulin custom teenagers don’t fast on Good Friday. Naturally, it’s their custom that the rest of us do. My stomach growls at the smell of the cinnamon he shakes into the bowl, and then pours on the honey, kind of wishing that he still regarded Jake and me as teenagers. Fasting has never been my strong suit.
Who am I to complain? Don fixed us all a lovely feast last night, complete with fresh-baked bread and a small flask of wine, which apparently he’d found in our last hermit’s stores and didn’t tell us, delighted to surprise us. Don’s still the best among us for sleight of hand. We had enough for two small glasses each, overly sweet, but then Jesus probably used extremely sweet raisin wine at the last supper, so I didn’t mind.
I go over to the prow and gaze towards wherever our oracles steer us—farther out than ever before. I see nothing but the line where the aqua-gray sky meets blue-gray cloud, and the perpetual slap of water on the hull sounds just as cheerlesss. Jake comes up beside me and says, “Lumne’s not the farthest inhabited Island after all. Well, formerly inhabited.”
“Well, whoever once inhabited it, I hope e laid back enough stores to see us through the return trip.”)
At length we finish breakfast, and so do they. Somebody starts laughing. I don’t even know which side. But soon we all laugh so much that we can hardly stand. Then, throwing a few friendly, final curses across the distance, we each pack up, and leave, marching in opposite directions along the river-banks. I can hear the departing troop singing the Bailebelde. Laughing, Damien joins in and soon the rest do too; even I chime in on the chorus.
Good Friday. Sometimes God makes us merciful despite ourselves.
Vigil Saturday, April 17, 2709
The next day we engage another band in actual hostilities. None of ours get hit. One of theirs falls, but most escape, and they still outnumber us, so we move cautiously after that, and do our best to disguise our trail.
And seeing the rawness of it all in the faces of our new recruits, I find myself gradually shocked to realize what a workaday business it has become for me. I try to review the details of the skirmish in my mind. Loud noises. Blood. Gunsmoke. The kick of the weapon against the shoulder. None of these stand out for me anymore. I find myself wishing for a cigarette even while I kill.
Oh God. Oh God of mercy. Oh my God.
Even that becomes a boring litany after awhile. Didn’t I, sometime, somewhere in the past, wish for the amorality of a beast? To lose all words, all causes, and all consciousness, to just survive?
(Real. That’s all it is, Deirdre. Just real.)
I shiver, pick up a pack of cigarettes dropped by our fleeing enemies, light up and pass them around. And then we move on.
(The first fuel station we come across exploded some time ago, but the second seems intact. Ozwald coasts on his skateboard beside me, asking, “What good’s a station if we can’t eat the food there and we don’t have a car?”
“Oh, I’m sure the locals have drained the pumps dry by now anyway, darling,” I say as I step through the broken door. Sure enough, prior looters have pretty much stripped out everything from junk food to first aid kits. I find some nice bunjee cords, though, in a cheery bright yellow—not a bad hue, so long as I don’t have to wear it. I also pick up some fresh lipstick and a cake of eye shadow in a soft sea green. “Go on,” I tell Ozwald “Poke around. We’ve got the wheelbarrow. Others may have picked up necessities, but they often overlook luxuries.”
“No beer,” he says sadly, after checking.
“Well of course not.”
He picks up a broken straw hat and tries it on. “What do you think?”
“Oh, it’s you, it’s you!” He laughs back. “No, seriously, keep it. Sunnier days are coming and we blondes can use the protection.” He starts to offer it to me but I say, “No, that’s all right. I’ve got a floppy cloth one that Courtney made for me in my gear.”
“Courtney! Man, how’s she doin.?”
“Quite f...oh wait! Now that’s what I’ve been looking for!” I see the mostly ignored array of maps. I grab one of each. “I should have acquired some sooner, of course, but I wasn’t in my...in my right...” I stop, remembering suddenly, fully, everything I’ve been through these past months. “In my right minnnnnd,” and I just start bawling, right in front of Ozwald, hugging Tshura close till Ozwald comes over and holds us both in his strong, lanky arms.
“I know, Zanne,” the teenager murmurs, his cheek on my head. “I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.”
After a minute of soaking him up like sunshine, I smile brightly, dry my eyes (glad that they don’t yet have makeup on them) and say, “Well, well, we’ve got quite a nice haul for such an unpromising place. Onward, my good man!” And we go out into the sunlight again, properly hatted.)
Chaska, winding her scarf into a turban to keep her head warm, finds occasion to walk beside me. For a long time she says nothing, her gun slung on her shoulder, the new red spatters on her blouse browning like the old. Then, “Nishka has scars on her breasts.”
“Yes,” I say. “She does.”
“Horrible scars. She's messed up something awful. It must have hurt a lot.”
“That was the whole point. She was tortured.”
Chaska walks a few more steps, tucking in the ends of her turban, before she says, “I know. She told me.”
“I suppose she'd have to.”
“They tore the nipples right off! How is she ever supposed to...what happens if she gets pregnant? Would her breasts swell up with milk that has nowhere to go? I mean, what..what happens to her?”
“I have no idea, Chaska.”
“Maybe she should never go back to boys again. Maybe it's safer that way.” Chaska hugs herself tightly, and her steps thump hard on the ground.
I take a deep breath. “You know, Chaska, you really shouldn't...”
“I didn't know!” she cries out suddenly. “I thought they did that sort of thing in other lands, not here!” I look at her and suddenly she realizes what I meant to tell her. “Torture, I mean. I didn't think anybody in my country ever tortured anybody.”
I feel my face heat up, remembering. But she takes it as a judgment on herself.
“I'm a free rebel woman,” she says haughtily. “I will question any value of the Established Ways that I feel like.” She scowls at me suddenly. “They torture!”