IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Monday, April 19, 2709, continued
I watch a puppet contest. Each contestant sits at tables skirted with bunting, like the seating usually associated with judges–do they perhaps act both as judges and judged? I smile as I study their offerings; most of them display hand-puppets of various sorts, bright bits of felt and buttons, goggle-eyes and feathers and bits of gimp.
One woman, however, dangles a puppet upon strings, draped down below the tabletop, up in front where her blue bunting acts as a backdrop curtain for her manipulations of the spindly wooden limbs. I come closer, compelled. I see a crude rendition of my own face, framed by long hanks of silver-streaked black hair.
I wake with a start, and the start jolts my hammock, swaying with a creak of branches in an unsettling way. I feel chilly, up in the air like this. I have gotten too used to sleeping on the ground.
I peer over the edge, straight into Lufti’s eyes; he reclines at an angle from me, dangling from another tree so close that the branches intertwine. He presses fingers to his lips, glowering.
I listen, hearing what he hears, and I zoom from drowsiness to heart-hammering alertness. Footsteps in the woods–many of them. And...oh lord, panting and snuffling! They have put dogs on our trail!
I whistle the new bird-call for “Incoming!” and watch the sleepy heads stir all through the trees, not making a sound, turning very carefully in their hammocks to make no more rustle in the boughs than the wind might cause, to point their guns downward. Even the new kids know by now the importance of silent motion, even half asleep.
And now I fully appreciate the deadly gamble in my choice to take to the trees–the gamble that I might have lost. All depends on invisibility, of our presence going right over their heads. But dogs don’t need to see us, only smell us. And once found out, we can’t run, we can’t leap from our hammocks even for cover; the risky clamber back to a bough must go much slower than a sniper could point and shoot, and the thin fabric of our hammocks has no power whatsoever to stop their bullets.
All eyes turn towards me. I hold up my hand and cross both pairs of fingers: hold fire till they see us. Did I teach this one to the new kids? I don’t remember!
Foliage rustles, boots fall, dogs sniff and whine excitedly. Fallen leaves crunch, and suddenly I realize just how sparse the gold and coral crown that screens us has become. Now I see them directly beneath us; from up here they look like hats with arms. I see the dogs wagging their tails, whining, running up to trees and pawing, I hear the first bark...
Crrrack! The bullet pierces a searcher and all the dogs bark at once, the hot blood smell drowning out all other scents. Who shot? Who! I scan all the hammocks but the others seem as baffled as I do. The searchers return fire–but not at us! Whoever shot at them aimed from ground level.
We watch, fascinated, terrified. They shoot, and some bleed as shots come back at them. I see those with dogs trying to hold back the barking, frothing beagles who try to charge in their masters’ defense. I see a young man throw his body in front of his dog just in time to take the bullet instead. I watch, in the midst of the battle, the beagle lick the dying face, and when the inevitable happens, lift his muzzle up to us and howl. I see a couple other dogs, less lucky, lying in red pools.
Now I see the newcomers–not in uniform! We cheer and shout, we can’t help it, taking potshots of our own from the trees. Then one of them aims quite deliberately, coldly, upward.
Chaska screams! I whip towards her, but she’s not shot yet, the bullet took out the back rope of her hammock and now she dangles from the cloth, screaming and kicking, and more bullets come her way but she bucks and sways in the air and makes herself a tough target by accident.
Enough! I spill out of my hammock and dive on down, hollering bloody murder while I shoot and shoot, directing my glide straight at anybody aiming from either side, every time the recoil jolts me back. The farmers haven’t heard of me and can’t believe their eyes. The army’s heard too much. Some of each drop their guns and run, and their dogs go with them.
And some of each keep on shooting and I don't care! I have gained my feelings back as a gift of horror. I drop into the bloodstained leaves and run at anyone and everyone, still shooting, clubbing when the bullets run out. Several grab my hair and spin me about, but I just lash out, hand and foot, with the momentum that they give me, jabbing with the barrel at vital organs, knocking out teeth with the stock, I leap out of all their grasps at once with a skyward jolt that only reaches their chin-level before I fall again—on top of them. No one has any time to look upward at a writhing girl as I roll down bodies and hit the ground with my side. I grab at them anyway, digging in my nails, I kick their feet out from under them, I drag them down, down to my level to roll in the dirt with me, tangling in my own skirts but not letting them get a chance to get up either. More come to the aid of their own and I shove bodies into them, pop up again, leaping over those who grab my ankles and crash down again, but pulling on clothes, pulling on skin or hair, leaping anew to start it all over again, making a great, bloody wallow while my children shoot everyone who manages to crawl to the periphery.
Pain rip! Shoulder's dislocated, but I've fought one-armed before. One set of fingers hooks into my waistband while the other grabs a branch and flails, flails, driving them back enough to where my own can shoot them. I trip on my own skirt and fall back into the blood-muck and the shoulder just throbs but I keep on whipping that branch around.
At last none remain to boil up from the center of my chaos, save myself. I sprawl there, panting for air, hearing the rustle of young folk climbing down the trees. I hear soft murmurs, but I really don't want to understand the words.
I totter to my feet, shaking like I’d run on greenfire for days, staring at the dead on all sides, and on no side. Soldiers doing what their job required, farmers grown too sick of war, dogs who understood nothing but loyalty, even the trampled, noncombatant plants. Death and death and death. I feel the mud-caked, blood-soaked fabric cling to me, turning cold already. I can’t distinguish the ache in my shoulder from the one in my heart. It doesn’t make sense. Nothing about this war makes any sense anymore. The country has gone mad, and cultural immersion has dragged me into the madness, too, and I can’t pull out of it, and even flying doesn’t help.
I jump when I hear one more shot. But it’s only Hekut, a scowl upon his face, his eyes glittering wet. “It was suffering,” he says of the dead dog at his feet. “It was suffering.”
I sink back to the ground. Too many emotions return, all of them at once. All of the fear, the anger, the dread joy, the devotion, the rush, the shame and excitement and disgust. And horror. Horror and love. And I realize what a tattered thing I have become, that I can’t quite contain them anymore, I can’t hold up under all their weight.
“Here, Deirdre!” Lufti, still up in the rainforest canopy, has somehow managed to shinny from his hammock to mine, and tosses down my pack. “Ride the Bad Horse one more time–she’s not a star, you know.” And I remember Chaska. I look up and see her, not kicking anymore, just holding on with increasing desperation. So I try to strap on my flit with shaking fingers, but I can't quite do it with one hand, so Kiril helps me. Then I fly up to Chaska and hold her trembling in my arm looped 'round her too-thin waist, and bring her gently to the earth.
Chaska stares at me with eyes too wide for her face, until not breathing makes her faint. As her brothers come to collect her from me, they look close to fainting, too, their eyes on me as they drag her back as though I menaced her in the very act of rescuing her. I forgot. They didn’t know about the flit. They must have seen me wear it, but never asked me why. It chills me to think of how this march has exhausted all their questions—healthy children always ask questions. How quickly have they become something other than children, other, even, than normal human beings who try to make some sense of their experience.
Like the rest of us.
I tell Kiril how to manipulate my arm to reset the shoulder. I gasp when the bone pops back into the socket. As she binds my arm to my chest, I remember the first time that I ever fought with it dislocated. The mind-change had come onto Lisa and I wrestled her to the ground so that my friends could bind her up. And I remember thinking that surely, once we got through that nightmare, everything would get better, all troubles would become simple after that. We'd have minds and reflexes up to every challenge, we could snap our fingers at woe, solve everything.
“Let's go,” I say, once we finish looting the bodies of arms and ammunition, and dig them hasty graves with hasty prayers. “It's not safe to stay here.” And as I march my blood-drenched skirt slaps my legs, left, right, left, right, left...
* * *
(I feel lulled by the roll of the deck, slowly to the left, slowly to the right, downright peaceful till George rockets past and projectile vomits over the side. “So much blood!” he moans. “Oh God!”
Jake brings him a mug of water and a kerchief. To us he says, “Next one’s a murder victim. On the run. Didn’t run far enough. Messy crime scene ahead” And we take this in, only the waves and the creaking wood capable of reply.
“I never wanted to see,” George finally gasps. “I did it in the dark, or stoned, or both. I thought I was mysterious, but I just never wanted to see.”
Jake corrects him. “You never wanted to feel. If you saw you risked feeling what you did.”
George looks up at him with bloodshot eyes. “I could smell it,” he said. “I didn’t know you could smell visions.”
Gruffly Jake says, “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Oraclism.”
George’s face works up and he starts to cry. “I could smell my own guilt!”
I fill a basin with sea-water and use my Gift to heat it for George. The cold wind bites, but he will want to wash.)
* * *
God bless Master Barrahab's maid for thoughtfully including a jar of meat tenderizer in the swag! She knows full well that we don't care if our meat gets tough enough to fight back, but she's also woman enough to know how it can drag us down to wear bloodstained clothes. I get mine into cold water at the earliest opportunity, and my fellow females crowd in beside me, shivering and relieved to pass the orangey-brown powder back and forth, to rub into the fabric before tossing it over to the boys on the other side of a yakuthansa. Then we savage our shirts and skirts against the stones till the sweat runs down our flanks, so next we plunge ourselves into the stream, squealing and giggling against the chill, splashing and paddling about. (Hear that? Oh God, it's them, isn't it? Over in the creek?)
“What's this?” I ask, as Kiril hands me a bottle.
“Special shampoo,” she says, “For making your hair grow long again. Barrahab's maid recommended it when I asked for something to help you.”
“You angel!” I suds it up with my good hand, breathing deeply its scent of coconut, cassia, holy basil, hibiscus, and less-definable botanicals, feel its silkiness on my scalp. I feel more pampered than ever I did in Soskia's manor, there in the cold, cold water. (How many? Do they have guns? Darts? Scalps upon their belts still dripping blood from the tangled locks?)
“We should have pre-oiled your hair before you got it wet,” she tells me, scrubbing her own vigorously. “But you jumped in too soon. We should have pre-oiled it and let the sun warm the oil into your hair—that's what the maids told me. Just a little cooking-oil on the palms, rubbed thoroughly through the locks; we could spare a few drops for that. One of them has hair as long as yours used to be.”
I laugh, saying, “I'll try to remember that, Kiril.” Of course Zanne told me all this years ago, but I have not had time to put it into action.
(But no—it couldn't be them. They sound too glad, too carefree. Maidens washing laundry, and then bathing while they're at it, nothing more.)
“No, no, here—don't just pile it all up on top of your head! Wash it section by section. They told me all about it.”
“I've forgotten all that,” I say.
“They've heard about you,” Kiril says, as I wash her back. “It made them sad to think of your hair getting brittle—they liked to picture you flying about as a great, dark cloud, raining bullets down on oppressors.”
“I don't like to shoot from the air. You can't brace against recoil up there.”
“I know,” she says. “I didn't tell them that.”
(So we will not search in that direction. No need to disturb the ladies. The peasant girls often do their laundry in the nude; it wouldm’t be nice to barge in on them. Nope, no need to go over that way at all.)
Once we've scrubbed up, from our scalps down to our pink and tingling toes, Kiril rebinds my arm. Now we and our clothing lie on the broad, low stones, drying in the waning sun, staring up at the autumn tree-framed sky, while the water rushes past our heads.
First, though, Kiril spreads my hair out on the stone behind me. “Cold rinses are best for it, you know,” she says.
“Good, because it's the only kind it'll get for awhile.” I smile up at her. “You sound like my friendclan-sister, Zanne. You know, I never could get my hair past my shoulder-blades till she nagged me into treating it right.”
“Good for her. You need a keeper, you know.”
“So I've been told.”
Fire-brilliant leaves flutter against the blue. So lovely. Isn't it worth all the fear, all the pain, for sights like this? Does Chaska think such things, lying over there, shivering but gazing upwards all the same? Does she feel it in her blood, how very much alive? Does her skin tingle in its coherence, unpierced by this morning's bullets, and the graze on her cheek no more now than a memory in pink?
As I turn my head that way, I see Nishka lay down beside her, brown hip pressed to the creamy one, scarred breasts next to the fresh and barely-formed ones.
Kiril blushes. “Do, uh, do you know about Nishka and Chaska?”
Then she eyes me all up and down my naked body, and I tense. “Do you ever think about, you know...like them?”
“Nope.” Then I take her hand and say, “And even if I did, dearheart, it would never be with you. Kiril, I think you're the closest thing to a daughter that I will ever have in my life. I won't mess that up, not for anything. Life's confusing enough.”
She nods, emotions troubling her face. Then, “Good,” she says, and lies down beside me, still holding my hand. “Who needs the complications?”
I feel her grip tighten, just for an instant. “Someday you'll have to go. I know that. You told me that you don't usually stay as long in one country as you already have with us.”
“Oh? When did I say that?”
“In Merchant Caverns. In a fever. You wept and said you missed your home.”
And then my heart breaks in two. Half my broken heart yearns for the Altraus Coast, for the playmates of my youth, the carefree hikes and the sailing expeditions, beach parties and summer daydreams on the lawn...oh Lord, we used to daydream about becoming agents! In moments very much like this, only without anywhere in the back of our minds the thought that guns might shoot at us at any minute.
The other half of my heart roots firmly here, in the Charadoc which has cost me so much, and has given me so much, which has laid a claim on me in Kiril. “I will write,” I say faintly.
“Sometimes. And sometimes it gets through. Always something gets through.”
“You'll go on undercover missions.”
“And then you will get letters, seemingly from a stranger, but when you open them, a word here and there will let you know that it's me. And we know each other so well that you will have it in you to decipher every coded reference that I give you, and learn all about my life as I live it. And you will write back to the same address, wherever the strange post might have come from.”
“I don't even know how to read, Deirdre!”
“Well, we're working on that, aren't we?” And I put an arm around her, and she nestles her wet hair into my good shoulder. After awhile we sit up and I show her how to write her name in the nearby sand. And then she brushes out my hair, very gently, little by little, careful not to force the tangles, fussing over how she should really let it dry the rest of the way first. And by then our clothes have dried, and so I choose the black outfit, rolling up the blue and white one for when next I'll need to fly, and we get dressed, pick up our packs and guns, and the march goes on.
(They sounded so innocent, those washer-women, laughing and splashing. Oh Lord, I'm glad that somebody in this godforsaken country still sounds like that!)