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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 41

An Interval of Peace


 

 

Wednesday, April 30, 2709


     With Kiril's help, I find that I can sit up and take a bowl of soup in hand. Then the bowl splashes from my shaking and she quickly takes it back again. Lufti fetches a new blanket for me, and a rag between it and my meal, and Kiril holds the bowl but I spoon it in myself.
     And oh, it tastes so good to me! Somebody killed a chicken for this. I should feel ashamed, but Kiril says, "No, we're all getting good food now--enjoy it while you can!" and I don't even rebuke her for reading my mind, so grateful do I feel. I sense the warmth and the nutrition of the soup soak into me, spreading out from my chest and into my veins and tingling all through me with new life. I taste the delicious fresh vegetables in the broth, and a tang in the salt that tells me it came from the actual ocean and not a mountain mine, and it's all just wonderful to me.
     Kiril says, "I'm sorry we couldn't risk garlic or galengal for you--they'll do you a world of good once you can hold them down, but Makhliya says not just yet." She gives me sips of fresh milk, too, but assures me that it's been cleaned and pasteurized, I won't get any more parasites from it than I already have.
     (They had all the ingredients right there, where I needed them--just when I thought my strength wouldn't last to do the first part. Surely that means that I'm forgiven, my new mission blessed, the reason for my miserable existence made clear? The "Demolition Song" reels in my head as I lay here, looking sick and innocent, the song plays over and over, repeating the formula for making a bomb out of kitchen stuff.)
     A new wave of weariness comes over me. Kiril and Lufti help me lay back down, tucking the clean blanket around me. I feel safe and cozy in their love, smiling up at them, and they give me worried smiles back.
     (But can I do the next part? Up, you sluggard, up! Look--the cook and the crazy-boy have left the room, and Deirdre's nodding off--now's my chance!
     No. There's no up in me yet. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day. Yes, the day after tomorrow will find everyone in place. And I can rest...oh rest!)
     (Anselmo shows me where to visit Tshura, in a hollow tree just outside the compound, with the opening well-veiled by grass and weeds. She looks quite cozy in there and assures me that she's fine. My face burns with embarrassment every time I think about my meltdown yesterday.
     Anselmo says, "I wouldn't have known about this spot if Tamale hadn't chased a rabbit in there." Tamale, an overweight chihuahua whom I find hard to imagine chasing anything, wags his tail at the sound of his name. Nice to see that this band, at least, thrives enough to spoil a pet.
     I nestle in among the roots, my cheek against the pungent, spring-sticky bark, one hand carefully navigating through the weeds to rest on Tshura's box. I don't look at him, but I can feel Anselmo's sorrow and concern, and part of me resents the pity, and part of me soaks it up like sun. As I tell him what happened to the rest of us, step by step in our journey, I can feel his sense that maybe he was the lucky one, too cut-up to continue.
     "So Kimba recovered completely? I'm glad to hear it--glad for all of us."
     "I can teach you the formula."
     "Then we'll have to think about how to distribute it. The sooner we spread the antidote the sooner we...no. There's no returning back to normal, is there?"
     I sit up and turn my cheeriest smile back on. "Is that so terrible? Whenever people rebuild from a collapse, they make improvements. It may take awhile, but it always works out that way.")

     "Deirdre always springs back from these bouts. And her fever broke last night; we'll be able to move her soon." Did I fall asleep? Wasn't I holding a box or something? A box inside a tree...no, a bowl of soup, briefly...must've dreamed it into a box.
     Romulo asks Makhliya, "What about Jaydee?"
     "His injuries look and probably feel horrible, but they're all superficial. He should be able to leave the same time as Deirdre, maybe even sooner."
     "But not today."
     "No, not today."
     "Then you and I, my love, have time to savor some chocolate ice cream and pretend we're wicked for an hour, with nothing better to do. Katya says it could do you good."
     "Ice cream? I've heard of it! Yes, I'd love some…" I hear their soft steps fade away.
     Not today. I get another day and night of rest, at least, and that sounds delicious. I don't feel exactly sick so much as exhausted right now. In fact this pillow under my head feels heavenly...
     (This feels heavenly, bathing in actual hot water that comes from a spigot without me having to haul and heat it first! So what if the soft-soap smells rancid? It rinses out clean enough.
     They have enough power, here at Ejidio Libre, to heat and pump water, with plenty left over to keep the algae tanks warm and circulating, and to power the drying and pressing of the algae, and the manufacturing of biodiesel. Any that they mess up turns into soap. Thank the Gates for the clumsiness of Anselmo's students!
     "Zanne? Are you decent?"
     I climb out of the tub, and start toweling off. "Oh I'm never decent, darling, but I'll soon be clothed enough for company." And with hair clean and bouncy enough for company, too, for a pleasant change.
     "How's your Spanish?" Anselmo calls through the door.
     "My Spanish is close enough to yours that I'm sure I could imitate yours flawlessly by now."
     "Good, because that'll go a long way to building trust at the meeting."
     Ah yes, the meeting. The excuse for the extravagance of a bath, though apparently it's considered no big expense, here. Oh, to sit down with sane people over a hot meal and comfortably discuss what this country needs--at last! I am soooo looking forward to this!
     Anselmo says, "The tortilleras have already started work. You'd better get yourself presentable soon. I've got to take my turn at the spit. See you tonight.)

     I can see a little bit through my lashes, in a fuzzy kind of way, without having to fully open my eyes. I watch Jaydee try to get up, stagger into a shelf full of jars and bring it crashing down on himself, shattering glass everywhere, the air now pungent with six kinds of preserves as if the Lady of the Mast had been dancing in here, her slender feet on tiptoe between the shards. He lies bleeding in the mess. Weakly he scoops up a fingerful of strawberry jam and sticks it in his mouth. I try to go to his aid, but I land face-first next to my mat.
     I hear feet come running in. "Jaydee! Here, somebody help me--I can't lift him."
     My face rises from the floor when Kiril pulls me back onto my mat. "Oh Deirdre! You're not the only medic here. When will you ever learn to rest?" Beyond her I see Makhliya extracting glass from Jaydee's skin as Marduk positions the boy according to her instructions, and Romulo, Baruch and Chaska clean up the mess on the floor.
     "Ow!" Chaska cries, staring at a bleeding fingertip. "There's glass particles in everything!"
     Over his shoulder Marduk says, "You'd better get that taken care of, as soon as Makhliya finishes with Jaydee. Every cut and scratch gets infected down here in the lowlands."
     (I hear a tinkling crash down in the galley. As I hurry down the steps I hear Wallace cry "Ow!" But he's just cleaning up the jam and glass on the floor where apparently a jar slipped from his fingers--still an improvement over catatonia; it's nice to see him on his feet again, doing mundane things. Don soon joins us to nurse the old man's dripping hand while I fetch cleaning supplies.
     "I'm all right," Wallace says. "It's just a little cut."
     "The hell you say," Don replies genially as I scrape up the sticky mass of glass-studded berry sweetness and start on mopping up all the blood.
     "I only wanted to fix myself a little toast and j...OUCH!"
     "Stings, huh?" says Don as he caps the antiseptic, and I mourn replacing the scrumptious smell of strawberries with acrid medicine. He starts bandaging. "So what happened?"
     "I'm...I'm not sure. I was here, then I wasn't here, then I was again, and I found this mess at my feet and started to clean it up, when I cut my hand. I must've dropped the jar."
     I pick glass out of the mop and then cautiously wring it out, asking, "Can you remember any of the vision?"
     "Vision?" He asks. "Is that what happened?" He crinkles his brow. "I...come to think of it…" he looks at me. "I think I tried to warn somebody that...oh, I don't know."
     "Keep at it," I urge him. "You're almost there."
     He blinks a minute, turning to a porthole, staring past the sea. "I think I tried to warn someone that someone has gone mad.")

     A jowly old man keeps sort of forming and fading, forming and fading, before my sweat-stung eyes. Then I blink and he's gone.
     I notice Kiril sponging me off again, but this time with soap and water, not just wiping the sweat away. I relax with complete trust as now she lifts an arm, now moves me to my side, the water warm but not oppressively so, soon turning cool, first the soapy then the fresh, then the toweling off. Sometimes I have the strength to help in how I move, and sometimes I don't. I feel neither embarrassment nor interest when she gets to the personal bits, just surrender and peace. I frown momentarily, remembering times when the greenfire made me suspect her, and I hate the leaf for that, but soon can't sustain anything so energetic as hate, let me just feel safe instead, in this land where you'd more likely find gold than safety.
     Now she leaves to fetch a larger basin. She has gotten a refill of that richly scented special shampoo, but I start to feel queasy the minute she uncaps it, so she leaves and comes back with baking-soda. Bracing the back of my neck on a roll of clothing, she holds my head over the basin as I stare up at the cracks in the ceiling and she soaks my hair in warm water, then works the soda-paste in to the scalp, then rinses it out again, then follows with a vinegar rinse and then clear water. She wraps my hair in a towel and helps me back to a proper sleeping position. I barely stay awake long enough to open my eyes briefly, smile, and thank her. (It seems like such a normal kitchen, here in Ejidio Libre, with a table big enough for a large extended family. The tablecloth cheers the heart in that bright, impractical cream and goldenrod check so traditional in Vanikke, so easy to stain yet passed down in families nonetheless, the stains explained to generations, Great-great grandma's famous tomato sauce from a wedding of people long dead, red for the little sacrifice of the bridal bed. The spilled wine from the moment when your grandfather realized that his wife had gone into labor with your mother. The juice spot where your uncle ate his first solid food in the form of a very ripe plum, snatched from the table before anybody knew he was ready. Every household has the stories, embarrassed by the imperfect tablecloths but secretly also proud for the chance to blush, laugh and tell the old tales anyway.
     But nobody knows what family once lived here or the meaning in this linen. I wish Don was here to tell them.
     That was Cybil's story that I just thought about, from back when I'd been her dinner guest, back when she still liked me. I hope that the ghosts of the original family, who has left behind so many fine cooking pots and culinary tools for us, and at least half of the dishes unbroken, might like the blue clay vase in the center full of field flowers. I'm sure the current residents honored them the best they could last November.
     Muscled brown men, old and young, start to take seats around the table. Strong women, old and young, bring in steaming bowls red with chili-laced posole, meaty with the pork from the pig that the men had butchered and turned all day over coals, and with it comes the smaller bowls of cilantro and onions--it almost reminds me of meals in my youth, except no limes grow in this latitude and deliveries have been interrupted lately.
     When they lay down the bowls the women pull up their own chairs, playfully shoving with a hand or a hip till the men make room for them. I bring in the platter of tortillas that I made with the matriarch of the ejidio and her two wisecracking sisters, and they make room for me, too. The children serve the food to each of us, then help themselves, carrying bowls and plates to smaller tables unfolded for them in another room, because this won't be an ordinary dinner.)

     I hear Jaydee groan. I open my eyes and see him curl up around himself, his blankets a swirling landscape of peaks and valleys, heaving at the epicenter of his pain. I can focus my eyes to see the beads of sweat form on him as he pants, fast but shallow, trying to slip some oxygen past all the cramping hurt.
     I notice that my pack now rests beside me, not in the storage room any longer. Convenient. Comforting. I reach my hand in to pat my flit...and discover a letter cylinder tucked into its framework. I pull it out...it has my name on it. I open it up and find an envelope curled up within (beige, zip-locked xerophane) and with it a letter written in Tilianach!
     He must have translated it himself, somehow. He uses Charadocian punctuation. But I know who wrote this. I read, "From one without hope, to one who understands." I have no idea how he got this to me, and I'm too tired to care.
     I open the ziplock a little bit. I see the off-white powder inside. I smell its bitterness. I zip it shut again and stuff it deep into the pack, my heart pounding.
     (Anselmo points with his chin towards a sturdy matron scooping up posole with a warm tortilla. "Felicia," he says, "Have you had time to read the recipe?"
     She nods. "Sí ." She chews thoughtfully on her food while we wait. I school myself to remember the patience of my father in meetings such as this. "I could make it, enough for the people of this ejidio, and whatever hermanos come our way to join us." She looks directly at me. "But not enough antidote to heal all the madness in the world."
     I reply, "The more we heal, the more will work with us."
     Many at the table laugh, softly, then drop their eyes when their elders give them
that look, the one they learned to fear from childhood, that says, "You're embarassing me in front of a guest!" and these same elders slip a glance to me that says, "Even a fool gets courtesy at my table."
     Felicia looks around half smiling, half uneasy, as if she's not sure which camp she belongs to. Then she explains to me, as to a child who doesn't understand the evils of the world, "Hatred came before the madness. Hatred will stay after the madness passes. Nobody will work with us."
     Dr. Ramirez--Cisco--says, "As I have testified before, this foreign-born woman accepts all kinds, and perhaps doesn't understand hatred in the same way that we do--to receive it, to hurl it back."
     Ozwald mutters "Oh, she understands, all right." When the others turn to him he goes bright red, only now aware that he spoke out loud. "I, I mean she's a mind-reader, that's all! She knows everything about what people think."
     Abuela Chepa leans forward, her toothless mouth working to make her wrinkles writhe. "That's not what you had in mind!"
     Ozwald pales as fast as he blushed before, but Anselmo lays a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, mijo. Zanne confessed everything about what happened on the cliff already--you know that. And she is not the only telepath at this table." Ozwald's adam's apple bobs in a swallow as he nods, mutely. To the rest Anselmo says, "I find no guile in Suzanne Charlotte, nor naivete. I can't tell what her plan is--it all comes to me in a jumble of symbols--but she has one." He frowns. "Something to do with childishly painted people of all kinds holding hands...people on a fence?"
     After a fortifying spoonful of posole I say, "Let me tell you what they're doing at All Kinds Sanctuary...")

     I hear the panting escalate to gasping, whining, crying, and then the tortured heaving, the liquid groans, the convulsive splatters. I open my eyes to see Jaydee vomiting blood. I struggle to sit up, fighting waves of fever and weakness, to shout, "Makhliya! Makhliya! Makhliya!"
     (Now Makhliya won't dare move me till we can finish what we started. It's coming here--I brought word of it, myself. She'll always escape, as witches do, but there's more than one way to destroy.
     I remember my father searching through the Charadocian/Tilianach dictionary for just the right words, the saddest smile on his face. I remember what he said when he handed me the cylinder and told me where to put it: "There's more than one way to lay a landmine." And then he sighed, his eyes wide and grieved and resolved, and turned away to fetch his gun for me.
     Pain twists purifyingly inside me as I purge out all of my rebelhood, all of the blood I ever shed, out onto the floor. Love and hate and love and hate...they all churn together till you can no longer separate the glass from the strawberry jam.)

                  

 




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