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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 38

Contagions of the Mind


 

 

Tuesday, April 29, 2709, continued

       “Meet Sonja,” Chulan says, taking a young lady by the hand and leading her from the foliage.  She looks pale yet freckled, her red hair softly frizzy, her blue eyes huge, her smile so sweet that you’d have to be a monster to care that she’s also hare-lipped.  “She’s Madame’s daughter, born when Madame was still Amalie, before I joined the Happy House.”  Just as I wonder how she could have whistled a single note with that mouth, Sonja happily blows on a child’s toy that chirps and whistles for her, putting the mouthpiece in the corner of her lips where she can fully close on it.  God bless human adaptability.
       And God damn whoever invented that thing!  I really am not bouncing back from the crash as quickly as I should for so short a run.  Every squeak doesn’t just cut through my head like a hot wire, it’s like it suddenly frays out into a lot of little hot wires like a scared cat’s tail with every blast, right inside my brain.
       (A shrilling whistle wakes me from the serenity of shock.  “Stay with me, sir!” says a corporal manhandling my face to wake me up.  Idiot!  I’m not going to die of a graze to the ribs.  Men move me efficiently onto a stretcher and jog with me.  They don’t bother attempting to cushion the jolts for me the way they might with someone that they like, and my side feels every jog.  But I can play insensible; because I allow my eyes to close and my head to loll to one side,  I can listen to them murmur over me.  Old habit.
       “Is he out?”
       “Yeah.  Looks like.  Brrr, but this’n gives me the shivers!  Did you see what he did to that poor kid?”
       “Yeah, but then he took care of him like he cared.  It’s weird.”
       “Oh don’t let that fool you.  He’s a hard one, D’Arco; I don’t really think he cares for anyone.”  I had a wife, once, though she seems to have moved on, by Jason’s account.  “He always plays nice after he breaks someone.  He’s his own good cop and bad cop rolled into one.”
       “I know I shouldn’t think this, but I’m kind of glad that that prisoner got away.  God knows what else he planned for the poor devil”  God knows?  Yes, of course He does.
       “Don’t let him hear you say that.”  Too late.  “He’d turn you in for a traitor.”  Only after I turn myself in, you sorry fool.  I really wish I was unconscious.)

       As Sonja leads, trilling now and then on her whistle, Chulan fills us in on what’s really no business of ours.  “They had a Mister in those days, and a hard man he was.  He didn’t hold with babies.  Amalie concealed her pregnancy by starving herself while pretending to have a great appetite, slipping the food to the other whores--they told me all about it—but it cost Sonja.”  The woman shrills ahead of us at the sound of her name, as I curse the mounting heat of the day, and how each step seems to drag through humidity as thick as mud.  “Even so, Mister might have let the girl live, if she’d looked salable, but as it stood, Amalie had to smuggle her out to Sister Assunta, who found a farm to take her in.”  I start to see the brightness of a clearing up ahead, and I catch a whiff of those odors which come to smell sweet to those who till the land and horrible to those who don’t.  I’ve been in the first category, but right now I side with the cityfolk.  “The one who used to carry money to the farmers died soon after I arrived, so I took over and got to know them.”
       (I smell the odor of a farm approaching.  I dislike it, but not for any effete reason.  It just reminds me too much of the village where I grew up.  The medic has commandeered a local farmhouse so that...
       ...The medic.  Oh my God.  The last person in the world I want to see my body!  How did I overlook so important, so personal a detail in my plan?
       Does the Charadoc demand everything of me?  My life, my faith, my son, now even my final shred of dignity?)

       I miss some more of what Chulan has to say.  My mind wanders or something. Yet I seem more aware than some.  Throughout this speech Sonja, well within earshot, has remained unaffected, unabashed, smiling whenever she peeks back to see if we still follow, the whistle hanging from one side of her split lip.  That’s because (I can’t help but put the clues together) she has no dignity to offend.  The Happy House had found a use for scar-faced Lucinda, but Lucinda had a sharp and trainable mind.   Sonja’s like Aichi. 
       It all clicks together.  “Mister” could have used a girl-child born with either disability, but not both.  Madame—Amalie—must have known right from the start of a problem less obvious than the facial deformity.  What was it—a failure to grip an offered finger?  A dullness of the eyes?  Common knowledge of what happens to the children of malnourished mothers?
       And Sonja just keeps on shrilling on that cursed toy of hers, as if my nerves weren’t badly shot enough!  Just when I feel about ready to snatch the whistle from her mouth, Chulan stays my hand and says, “It’s okay, Deirdre.  We taught her to do that whenever she wanders in the woods, so that we can find her.”
       “Great—so can the Charadocian army!”
       “They don’t care.  The local garrison knows Sonja and expects it.”  She winks.  “What they don’t know is that Sonja has kind of a sixth sense for finding rebels and bringing them to the farm.”
       The soldiers know Sonja.  As Sonja turns once more, I gaze unwillingly at her belly , which has just begun to bulge in a way not consistent with the slender rest of her.  Apparently she didn’t escape much when her mother smuggled her out of the brothel.  I shiver and let it go—at least she’s alive.
       Chulan sees where my eyes go.  Sadly she says, “We make sure that she gets enough food.”
       (No, far be it from the Charadoc to leave me enough of anything, not so much as a scrap of bloodsoaked shirt to conceal my nakedness.  The medic snips the cloth away, catches a glimpse of something beyond the bullet-graze, and calmly tells the orderly to leave the room.  He turns me to my side, shifting my arm for access to my wound, but also giving him a clear view of my back.  I sweat, waiting for what he’ll say next, as he cleans and disinfects what the bullet did to me.
       In a matter-of-fact voice he says, “Well, I’ve seen worse self-destructive habits.”  I close my eyes in shame, pure raw shame the like of which I thought myself beyond by now.  “Just make sure you don’t give me cause to ground you.”  I shiver as he wipes an icy fluid across my back, gritting my teeth against the burn that follows.  “That could get embarrassing.”
       I grate, “Do you think me not embarrassed now?”
       Does he hang his head?  Or does he shrug.  Maybe he even smirks.  I can’t tell with my eyes fixed on the sloppy plastering of the farmhouse wall.  Yet in a gentle voice he says, “I suppose it’s not surprising in your profession.  It can’t be easy, what you have to do.”
       “I am a patriot” I say, unsure whether I feel grateful or resentful.  “And a professional.  I do what The Charadoc demands of me.”  I uncover truth.  Where is the confidence that I felt so full of this morning?  But are these not real feelings, that sting my eyes with tears trying to fight their way past my lashes, whether I know what to call them or not?  Isn’t that a truth?
       “As an officer, you’re entitled to a room of your own while you recover.  I will make sure that nobody treats you except myself.”  And now I know what I feel, and I thank him, from the bruised rock-bottom of my heart.)

       My hand goes to my heart.  Vaguely, suddenly and yet not, I realize that I don’t know what I feel anymore.  Don’t know what I think.  Think?
       What was I doing, anyway?  Where are we going?  Going?  Is that what we’re doing?
       (I feel heartened to walk with Anselmo again, on the way back to the road.  And yet also just a bit gun-shy—perhaps my reunion with Cybil hurt more than I care to admit.  Ah well—keep your panties on, Zanne, and the pain of rejection will hurt a whole lot less.
       Gee thanks, Tshura!
       Anselmo looks good in long hair, even if it is half-gray.  He binds it back with a folded bandana, which also conveniently covers the word burned onto his brow, but his gray eyes never forget, steel gripped in squints in the lined brown face.  Right now he looks troubled, yet resigned to trouble like a habit hard to shed, like the battered old coat he wears for lack of anything better that fits him.
      “I don’t like killing,” he says softly.  “I mean I never thought I’d have to,
ever, but especially not killing people out of their minds.”  He crosses himself.  “I just hope God allows for that, the fact that they didn’t know what they were doing when they tried to kill me.”
       Ozwald pats him on the arm.  “I don’t think any god worth the name would hold it against them.  You can’t run the universe and still be stupid.”)

       I blink stupidly at a barn door.  The heat of the jungle smothers me.  Sound starts to throb in my ears—loud, soft, loud, soft, the whistles and the murmurs and the jungle noises fading in and out.
       “Deirdre?  Are you okay?”
       “Check to see if she’s feverish.”
       “She’s feverish.”
       “Okay, this way, then.”  Like a zombie I stumble where somebody leads.
       (Anselmo shakes his grizzled head, muttering “Zombie juice!”
       “What’s that?” I ask.
       “Something my attackers said.  They seemed sane at first, you understand.  They invited me to their homestead, to come pick up some lumber that they wanted to trade for my help repairing a generator.   But then...they seemed to believe that I and my buddies were brewing up ‘Zombie Juice’—that’s what they called it—claiming that we planned on launching an army of skeletons against everybody else because that, they said, is what Mexicans do.  They think that we animate skeletons, or make people into them, turning them into our puppets.  They didn’t want my help—they wanted to ambush me.”
       Ozwald says, “I think I know where that idea came from.  There’s a nutcase up the road who makes himself look like a skeleton and everyone around him look like puppets.  It’s some kind of magentine magic thing.”
       “Illusionism” I say, “And it’s not magic.  It’s just a form of psi.”
       Ozwald shrugs, unconvinced but not inclined to argue.  “Anyway, it was kind of cool, now that I think of it, to look like a pirate-puppet.”  He wiggled his fingers in front of him, remembering how they had appeared as if they had joints of wood.  “I mean he didn’t actually have any control over me or anything, just in how I looked.”  He frowned, scratching his scraggly teenage beard.  “But I didn’t think he was Mexican.”
       “That’s because he wasn’t,” I drawl.  “He looked Slavic when the illusion failed.”
       “Then why...”
       “Dia de los Muertos”, Anselmo fills in.  “We give our dead a holiday where we celebrate the lives they led, and we often make little figurines of skeletons throwing a party; some folks even costume up like skeletons, themselves.  Deranged minds must’ve leaped to us when they saw that poor...?”
       “Illusionist,” I fill in.
       “Illusionist,” he repeats, feeling the word in his mouth for future reference.  “And once the madness hit one mind, it spread to a whole lot of minds all at once.  There’s still people out here living on canned goods. They believed they had to stop us.  They never asked why we’d even want to do such a thing.”
       “Were you brewing antidote?”
       He stops and stares at me.  “There’s an antidote?”
       Oh, that’s right—he got split off from us before we found it.  How could I forget something like that?  “Yes, yes, we found one!  And I will teach you how to make it as soon as we...”
       “Not yet,” he says, reaching the road.  “First we have some bodies to bury.”)

       I lurch against Lefty.  “Have you come to bury me?”  I ask.  I read that somewhere.  It seems to fit for I feel dead.
       “Good Lord no, Deirdre!”  And he steers me into the barn towards a makeshift bed of straw while Lufti gives me a knowing look—what does the boy know?  And then I sink down and die.  It feels like such a relief that I don’t even care that Kiril and Chulan pull my clothes off.
       (I for one hope to never have to bury another body for as long as I live.  As we sail in towards the final island I thank God that it’s the last, that we can get back to the business of escorting our charges home.
       We row from our yacht to the shore of a tidbit of land  more pleasant than most out here, and the lowering clouds, threatening to dump more rain on us to add to this morning’s drenching, can’t dim my mood.  Even some ways away I can smell the spring flowers purpling its hill.  Some trees have found purchase among its stones and helped to create soil, and the gulls keen about the shallows, finding the clamming good in this low tide.  Our boat shushes up onto the beach and we drag it further up from the gray to the dryer white sand, in case our work takes us longer than the turning of the tide.)

       I feel motion, like a boat rocking, only slowly, each breath a wave.  I also feel very still, beached.  And then the cold spray—no, sponge—tries to ease the heat before it burns me to a cinder, ashes skittering over the sand with every breath of breeze.  I try to push Kiril’s hand away.  “No, no, I want to join Tanjin!” I murmur when I try to shout, restless yet unable to rise.
       “Don’t you dare!” she growls and keeps on sponging me off.
       (Jake takes the lead, grimly stalking up through the rustling weeds, till we come to a wide, black clearing.  Some grasses already send out runners to reclaim the scar, but this tragedy didn’t happen long enough ago for them to cloak the charred bones in the middle, collapsed beside the large can of who knows what accelerant.
       Jake scowls and says, “He sought visions n the goda root.  He thought God told him to do this.”  and then he turns a terrible gaze on George.
       The boy pales, but then, to our surprise, Wallace murmurs, “We all must burn,” and turns in a dazed way to the south.
       “Yes, but not like this!”  Jake grabs the old man and whirls him to face us hard enough to flop his combover against the wind, the white hair sticking out at a weird angle.  “We must burn with inspiration, love, anything but this!  He died horribly for nothing—he didn’t know what...”
       Wallace blinks at him in confusion and then suddenly collapses.
       “Great job, Jake!” I cry, helping him lower the old man to the ground.  “You of all people should’ve known better than to jolt him like that in a vision!” Soot gets all over the former headmaster’s clean clothes as we elevate his feet and take his pulse.  Steady, thank God.  “He’s going to be a mess for days.”
       “I didn’t know!” Jake cries. 
       “How could you miss how his eyes...”
       “I only see it from the inside!” 
       Then I look up at George staring in just as much shock—I push up from the ground just in time to catch him, too.  “Oh Lord, they’re linking.”  I glance anxiously at Jake but he seems all right, just looking as ashamed as he ought to be.)

       “Draggin’ fever,” Kiril explains to Chulan while she fans me.  “She’ll likely be out of commission for a few days, but she always snaps out of it.”
       My lips murmur. “We all mus’ burn,” before I even know they’re going to move.  Lufti, looking on, nods sadly and then turns away.

                  

 




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