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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 40

The Sleep of the Dead


 

 

Tuesday, April 29, 2709, continued


     (Ozwald has fallen asleep against the door, his eye closed and his mouth open. Smiling, Anselmo locks his door remotely as the truck drives on, past all the pretty spring farms and foliage, and I feel this magical sense of sailing, buoyed up on an ocean that smells like the salt of two sweaty men, the earth of digging, and my womanly self, but I don't care, it just feels soooo good to ride not walk once more, and the leather behind and under me feels warm and soft, and Ozwald starts to snore softly, like I've heard so many times before that it sounds safe and familiar, the husky tune of somebody having my back.
     Maybe not an ocean; maybe a funky pond but who cares when it's so calm and smooth to glide across? I relax completely, let Tshura sink to the floorboards, and nestle against Ozwald, consciousness drifting away as I sail to…I don't care where to.)
     (The island seems to drift away behind us, growing smaller and dimmer within a rising fog. I feel okay with that, safe and sheltered in the rocking of the boat even out in the open. I feel...relieved. "We've got to go back," I say. "We never buried him."
     "Do we?" Jake asks.
     "Of course. Wallace wouldn't have picked up on him if his soul didn't need some closure."
     Jake tightens a knot. "Does he deserve it?"
     "Sure--we buried that damned rapist, didn't we? It's our job to send them off and let God judge them." I step closer. "What are you so bitter about?" Then I squint at him and nod. "It's your mother, isn't it?"
     Jake checks several more knots before answering, "She could have fled. She felt some kind of righteous suicidal glory in staying with Padro, and never mind the cost to her children."
     "Children? Jake you never told me you had siblings."
     He turns to glare at me. "I'm the one that survived." And he stalks away. But he can't go far in so small a vessel. When he reaches the deck's limit he growls, "We have two messed-up oracles to take care of."
     "And a doctor on board with experience in oracles. Wallace and George can spare us to go back and do what we came for."
     "Who says I'm going to help you?"
     "You will," I say, signaling Don to help turn the yacht around as I ready the rowboat.)

     Lefty has indeed come to bury me. He carries me in his arms over to where Kiril and Lufti have padded two coffins with old, spent pillows. He lowers me into one of them and I don't resist, I rather like the idea. They put reeds between the lid and the rest, so that some air comes through; I appreciate their thoughtfulness, though I can't imagine what use I'll have for it. Then they hoist me up for my funeral...but only carry me a little ways. I feel them jostle me into place on what I deduce must a sort of rustic hearse, wood scraping under me, a little buck and jolt and then I settle in comfortably. The box next to mine moans and somebody says, "Shhhh!"
     Next comes my burial, but judging from the scratchy susurrations and the scent, they cover me in hay, not dirt. What little light slips past the lid grows dimmer, in a golden way. This hearse must be a convertible or something, open to the sky. Maybe a wagon. Yes, of course; the poor can't afford a proper hearse.
     As I feel the shifts of others clambering on board, I hear "You can't come with us, Romulo. You're on wanted posters."
     "So are you, Makhliya. So's half the band."
     "I look like everybody else, and the poster artists are bad. But a young man with white hair and a scar-starred cheek stands out."
     "My wife could burst at any moment--I'm not leaving your side!"
     She sighs. "Then burrow into the hay with the other two. But we don't have any box left to hide you."
     "I'm not an invalid. I can hide myself."
     Oh? I'm hidden? Would the army desecrate a grave if they found me? Not a smart move in the Charadoc--especially not the grave of the Tiliān Witch! I feel rather disappointed at the secrecy of my burial--I kind of like the idea of haunting desecrators.
     "And Romulo? It's not bursting. It's called giving birth. I won't explode. The baby will come out the same way the seed went in."
     "Only not so fun," Romulo murmurs, now quite close to me; I can hear him rustling through the hay nearby.
     Now I feel our vehicle roll forward, hear the creak of great, wooden wheels, the slow clop of a workhorse--and that infernal tweeting once again!
     "Not now, Sonja," I hear Makhliya say. "You're not in the woods anymore." They must think it disrespectful at a funeral--thank God!
     The slow motion of the cart feels drifty, pleasant. I bask in my fever and enjoy the ride. And...haven't I done this before? Something like it...some other place and time...I don't really care. I sink gratefully into my death.
     I look up from the bench in Balboa Park, where I'd dozed off while waiting for the aching to subside a bit and let me walk again. It often happens that way; when severe pain drops I fall asleep from relief. Did I dream something about Deirdre? It's gone now, whatever it was.
     I gaze across to the Old Globe Theater, same as it had been when I last lived in San Diego. They didn't used to have that big raised planter, though, with the clock in the middle--right where we liked to scandalize the Globe and delight her waiting customers with our free, unlicensed dances. No danger of that, now. I daresay the blossoms look brighter than our drab peasant costumes, but my oh my we did have fun!
     Oh my beloved San Diego! The Bay Area was an abusive lover, who'll tell you over and over that no one else will ever love you, then treat you like dirt and expect to be thanked for the privilege. But my native San Diego has always loved me unconditionally. Where else could I go, when my life up north collapsed, except back to Mother?
     Yet not to stay. Arizona calls me. If Mother San Diego loves me, so can other places, even lame and weary as I am. Day by day she nurses me back to health and strength precisely so that I can go out into the world again; I can feel the desire in this earth to send me forth once more as soon as I grow able, as any good mother would want her children to leave the nest and succeed. But for now I bask in her balmy air, medicinal with eucalyptus and the wild canyon herbs, and let her tuck me in with blankets of summer peace.
     Can I walk yet? No, not quite. When was the last time I really, truly danced, just let it all pour out of me in sweat and mad, brave gestures, on my feet with leaps and spins, not sitting on the floor, trying to dance from the waist up? Was it Ana's party? I smile, remembering how I fell asleep right smack dab in front of a speaker blasting earsplitting Salsa...and how the music transformed into the sweet, shrill of mountain pipes, as gigantic dolls danced down the steep streets of a Charadocian village, upheld by men on stilts within, how the cold air tasted so pure that to breathe it could cleanse your soul. Back when I worked with Ana at UCSF Hospital, before the pain made work impossible.
     Yet some say fibromyalgia goes hand in hand with sleeping disorders. I used to call my narcolepsy a gift, but gifts come for free, and this one has become very expensive indeed.
     Has it been worth the price? I smile to think of Cyran, dancing down the Mountain Maidens in the streets of Hamalla. Yes. It has all been worth it, every last bit, even at the price. How many people have lived as many lives as I have, simultaneously?
     I feel my box shift around again; my death-cart has rolled to a halt and now people wrestle my coffin out from the hay. What did I dream a minute ago? Or was it a dream? More like a contemplation, something, I think, about how many lives an agent lives, becoming different people, infiltrating different cultures. But not for me, not anymore; The Charadoc has become the mother that I never truly had. My substance shall unbirth into her clay and I shall haunt the Mountains of Fire, watching over my children of the battlefield.
     I feel them carry me, the soft jiggle of steps. What, no hymns? My throat feels too dry to contribute any of my own. Besides, people frown upon corpses singing. It upsets the dignity of the proceedings. I'm sure it never happens at respectable funerals.
     Maybe I'm too damned for the proper rites to follow. Maybe they'll bury me in unhallowed ground. So what? Most rebels never make it to a proper cemetery, good or bad. And damned or sainted, I will look after my own! At least the birds still sing for me.
     "Bring them in here." And just like that they silence the birds with the shutting of a door.
     Someone asks gruffly, "Is she contagious?"
     "Only if you drink water that she's peed in. It's draggin' fever." I feel arms lift me out of my coffin again--maybe they forgot to embalm me.
     "Seems awful bad for draggin' fever."
     "She's a special case." After a pause I hear Makhliya say, more softly, "Can't say more. Privileged information." You'd better not say more, sister! Then I wonder at myself. Why should the dead care what secrets come out after we leave? Am I as dead as I think I am?
     Too much thinking for my poor, overheated brain. I feel myself waft down onto a mat on a firm, flat surface. Curious, I open my eyes. Real, bonafide wooden floor, regularly polished and maintained. I raise my gaze. Shelves hold a wealth of food and cooking supplies. On one side a door opens into a kitchen large enough to cook feasts for the highest caste--a family could live in that hearth with the spit! I roll my head; the other door opens up to a larger storage area; I can make out luggage, holiday decor, and the corner of a big ornate frame--probably the portrait of an ancestor currently out of favor.
     Somebody closes the kitchen door, but beyond it I hear, "Her resupply's already waiting in storage, but a fat lot of good it'll do her, it looks like."
     "Don't worry," I hear Kiril say anxiously. "She always bounces back."
     The voices fade, along with the sound of footsteps leading away. "Yeah, but we were supposed to fatten her up when she arrived, Makhliya's orders. How can we do that when she can't keep food down?"
     (I must have dozed off in Anselmo's truck. I wake up to nightfall, when the car stops at a checkpoint. A light shining in turns my closed eyelids red. I listen to Anselmo speak with someone. I recognize the words as a dialect of Spanish, which of course I decipher easily, Old Tilianach having the same grammatical structure and many of the same words.
     "They grow hostile out there again. I barely got back alive."
     "And those two? They don't look like ours." Keep on talking, let me figure out the vowel shifts and the contractions.
     "You remember me telling you about a foreign woman banding all kinds together for our mutual protection? The one who stitched me up and saved my life? That's her, and the other's one of my compadres from those days. Ask Dr. Ramirez--he'd recognize her"
     I open my eyes, run my fingers through my hair, and smile, extending a hand between Anselmo and the wheel, towards a young man carrying a very big rifle. "Zanne Charlotte. Pleased to meet you," I say in their Spanish.
     The gun whips up again. Ozwald wakes up and suddenly bearhugs me, his voice frantic, pleading, "Don't make her mad, please don't make her mad! Bullets won't work on her--she's got witchy powers!" The man looks dubious, but Ozwald blurts on, "It's true--I saw her fry men's brains inside out myself!" My face burns and I can't help but avert my eyes. Anselmo looks as surprised as the guard, but the desperation in Ozwald's face gives them pause.
     "Seņora, you'd better explain yourself before I start testing your resistance to lead." and he says most of that in standard Vanikketan.
     I can't meet his eyes. "I didn't mean for it to happen." I sag against Ozwald's chest. "They were attacking us, they sort of killed Guaril and Tshura..." Anselmo gasps. "...and I didn't know the cliffs were laced with magentine crystals, and it just...I didn't mean..." The tears start without my leave. "I had to protect my own!"
     The guard lowers his gun. "Anselmo told us about the magentine problem, how it caused all...whatever this has been. And you can't fake blushing." Softly he says, "You're ashamed of whatever you did." He speaks more gently now. "We keep magentine out of this compound, so after we search you for it we can let you..."
     
"No!" I cry. I snakewhip out of Ozwald's grip, grab the box and clutch it to my breast. "There's magentine in here, but it's the only thing keeping what's left of Tshura alive!" I can hardly speak for sobbing. "What they did to, to, to Tshura and Guaril's spirits after they...no. You can't take her away from me!"
     Out of the corner of my eye I see the gun raise again, while Anselmo shouts in Spanish, "Emilio! Hold! Can't' you see they're exhausted?" Am I? I do feel myself trembling, wrapped around Tshura. "They don't know half of what they're saying."
     "I see impulsive, unstable people who have probably been eating poisoned food--why should I trust them? Were you not nearly gutted, yourself, by a poisoned child?"
     "Then I, more than anyone, know who I can and cannot trust. I have seen magentine madness, and she shows no sign of it. I see only the cumulative shocks of this horrible year." His big hands feel gentle on my arms as he turns to me. "Zanne, let go of Tshura. I will stash her somewhere safe outside of the compound where she will wait for you. Surely she feels no cold, nor hunger, nor fear anymore. If I hide her well from thieves, where is the harm?"
     I feel Tshura agree. Slowly I let go.
     I had no idea that I had become so spent. All these days of keeping up a perky face for whomever might need it, even trying to keep up appearances for Tshura...it has just been soooo much!
     Anselmo leaves with Tshura into the woods while Ozwald and I sit and wait and Emilio stands guard. He must know already where he intends to stash her. And I can trust him. I have known his honor long before this. Soon he returns, silently opens the door and gestures us out. And we follow into his settlement.)

     I briefly open my eyes, blinking away the sweat. I lay in the darkness of the pantry, though a little light leaks in from the storeroom. I turn on my side to see my fellow invalid (is that what we are? Not very dead yet?) drag himself to his feet and stumble through the door still open. After awhile he plops back onto his mat, turns over...and sees that I stare at him.
     "You're delirious," he says. "You are hallucinating me talking to you. You hallucinated me moving. I am much too badly beaten up to walk anywhere."
     I ponder this before slipping into yet another dream.
     (By the time we reach the shore once more darkness has fallen, and even if it hadn't been a moonless night, the fog would have made it hard to see anything. That's okay; we have lanterns. We can practically smell our way to the smoky spot anyway. It doesn't take us long to find the black-on-black bones, though more by texture in the lamplight's glow than anything.
     Our shovels sink into layers of soot and sand and clay. Grudgingly Jake pushes the remains into the grave with his shovel and then gives the big metal accelerant can a ringing kick. I tell him to go fetch it back; it might as well become the man's tombstone. Soot covers it and the label has burnt off, yet I can scratch deep into its surface the words, "Unknown Visionary" and they gleam like starlight, the wounded metal bright under the lantern against the black. I fill the can with sand and rocks to weight it into place, and leave it there as we fill the grave in. By the time anyone finds it storms will have washed off the soot and rusted away the scratches, if indeed anyone ever comes here again, yet somehow it matters, that we acknowledge the dead, at least for a little while.
     I lay down my shovel while Jake bows his head, and I speak for the dead the best I can. "God, please accept this poor, misguided soul. Who else but you knows what drove him to this pass? Who else but you has the right to pass judgment on offerings made to you, and to forgive what we mortals don't understand?" And I shiver, remembering the horrible moment when I slew a rat in false sacrifice. "Please be merciful, O Lord, in these confusing times." And I pick up my shovel and the lantern.
     Jake looks at me, sweaty, sooty, weary and abashed. I say, "Feeling better, huh?"
     "Yeah," he says, slightly surprised. And we go back to the dinghy waiting to take us to our floating home.)

                  

 




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