THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
VII: The Burning
Sunday, May 4, 2709
Lufti wakes us all shouting, "You're out of your mind, Cyran! Your entire family has lost their minds. Ohhh, you'll be the death of me yet!" When he sees us all awake and staring at him in the blue light before the dawn, he smiles, shugs, and climbs out of the hammock, picking up the kettle on his way out to the bushes. The chip and buzz of insects gives way to the songs of waking birds. Soon, as we prepare for the day, we hear the kettle whistling.
"Lufti, you shouldn't have started a fire," I hear Chulan say as I wash my face in a hillside freshet the best I can with one hand and a limited range of motion.
"Ah well, it's small and won't show much in in twilight…"
"Did I just start a fire?" His voice goes higher with fear. "Will heads explode, shooting fire from their eyes and ears and mouths? Will people freeze to death?" I return in time to see Kiril running to him. "How did I start a fire?"
"It probably won't happen again," I assure him as Braulio stoops to light the day's first cigarette from the flames under the kettle. "You have a trace of all gifts, but as your oraclism grows it will absorb them." He gives me a horrified look, then curls up right there on the ground, sucking his thumb.
"Give him some carbs," I say. "He just burned a lot of calories."
Kiril gently pushes a pack under his head and spreads a blanket over him, then gives him a stapleseed biscuit. Then, as matter-of-fact as if she cooked with uncanny fire every day, she pours the hot water over teabags. To me she reads aloud from the box, "Engel...English break fast teea...English Breakfast Tea."
"Very good, Kiril!" I say as she pours me a cup.
"Thanks," she says, dimpling. "What's an English?"
(The good ladies of Ejidio Libre have stocked our first aid kit well, including a small box of tidy little linen teabags packed with homegrown marijuana. Just for today I keep Finn provided with warm cups of calm so that he won't go nuclear on us again. It will wear off slowly as he comes to trust us without its aid; I won't keep him stoned longer than I have to, lest quitting the tea also shock him into pyrotechnics. I've never met a combustor who could draw off other people like that, but desperation can drive all manner of discoveries)
"It used to mean anything that came from a country in Old Earth," I say as I reach for my cup. "Ow!" I drop it to cradle my arm against me, the tin rolling in the moss at our feet. "I...I must not be healing as fast as usual."
"Small surprise," Kiril says, as she picks up the cup and refills it, and Hekut wraps my arm back in a sling. "Here, don't reach for it, just let me bring it close to you. Move just from the elbow, like Tanjin used to do," she says, then winces when she realizes who she just said that to.
"It's okay," I say, and try to mean it. "I'm going to let it cool a bit first, anyway." Yet it smells so tempting, so fragrant! "Could somebody light me a cigarette while I wait?"
(Finn left just a little bit cooling in his cup. I sneak a tiny sip of it only to realize that Anselmo sees me. Judging by the sympathetic look in his eyes, though, I'd say that the abuelas meant it for me, anyway. Just how nutty have I been behaving? Tshura assures me that I haven't been all that bad. But I won't do this again. It's for emergencies--like Finn.)
"Anyway, English means from England. English-land." Lufti sits up again, the blanket sliding off of him, munching a second biscuit, while Damien and Kuchi come up to listen and Kiril pours the remaining hot water in a pot to boil mush. "It was a tiny island, but influential because of their navy, way up in the north of...no, that can't be right. You couldn't grow tea that far north...oh, I don't know! I can't remember half of what I've learned."
"Neither can I," says Lufti, bringing me a cigarette and holding it, trembling, to my lips. "That's why the Queen of Secrets trusts me, though e ought to listen to me, too. I know a lot that I won't ever remember, and that kind of knowledge comes dear." All the time he moves the cigarette nervously back and forth between his lips and mine, while Kiril unwraps my wound and Hekut heats his knife-blade. I lean back and gaze up through leaves above leaves, trees above trees, hoping for a glimpse of blue, but the Lowlands overcast has returned.
I jerk away when Hekut tries to drain the pus. Immediately Kuchi starts to sing, "We the luscious covered food…" only to have Damien stop and correct him.
"Deirdre," Hekut tries to say in a tone too old for him, "you know we have to do this."
"I know. It's just my reflexes...well, I can't always control them. I just…" What a mess my life has become. I grit my teeth and let Hekut do his job, with Marduk gripping my wrist punishingly with one hand and fingers with the other. Damien softly, soothingly, sings, "We, the lush, ungoverned wood…" glancing back and forth between me and Kuchi. I don't cry out; I breathe in rapid gasps, hyperventilating. When Lufti returns the cigarette I concentrate on filling up my lungs with the bittersweet smoke, clinging to this one pleasure in my collapsing life.
(Finn clings to us, literally, every time we stop the truck. After what he's been through it doesn't surprise me. Whenever he must relieve himself, Ozwald or Anselmo will lead him to a place of privacy, and then we'll take turns singing some distance away so that he knows that we're not far off, we're still guarding him from bandits. I can join in with some of Anselmo's cansiones, not that different from the ones that used to lull me to sleep in my childhood, and I'm learning Ozwald's chants as well. But mostly I try to sing what I can remember of Irish folksongs to help put Finn at ease.)
We pack up to leave, Kiril drying and collapsing her cooking gear, Luka rolling up the hammocks with a swift and practiced hand. Once again I need help climbing up onto a horse, but not as much as before. I can at least raise my injured hand to sort of elbow my way up, helping my helpers helping me.
Soon we amble along a well-trod country path. Lufti takes long strides that seem to keep up with us effortlessly, almost gliding through the tall rainforest grass; he's reached that age where boys are mostly legs. Damien teaches Kuchi The Bullet Dance and it suits the boy's soprano almost disturbingly.
("Bullets danced with the gardeners," George sings softly, "But the garden tended itself." We all recognize the look in his eyes and follow him behind a building and up a fire escape, to a rooftop garden above a restaurant, rows and rows of weedy planters, some of them empty of all but dirt and leafy green squatters, some with mesclun mixes that apparently reseeded over the winter, basil and tender garlic sprouts pushing up beside the skeletons of tomatoes that should have been brought indoors for the winter, and a merry riot of pansies and nasturtiums. We find radishes, too; the roots are too woody to eat, but the pink blossoms and fresh green pods taste fine. Some peas have also reseeded and put forth tasty tendrils of their own, draping over the sides--and oboy, some have little pods! But the very best discovery is a row of strawberry pots!
"Thanks and halleluia!" I pat George on the back as he comes to himself with a surprised grin. "Salad sounds real good to me right about now." And we all agree that yes, we could use a break from canned and freeze-dried meals.
Wallace starts gathering the tenderest of the dandelions, which have got to be the most ubiquitous invasive species on the planet. "Celestials, my mother used to call these, he says, cleaning them off in a rainbarrel and laying them in a pot "First the blossoms look like suns, then like moons, and then they break up and scatter into stars. They grew all over the island, often when nothing else could." I heat the water to boiling till it can kill the germs, then settle it to a simmer. "They're good eating, if you cook the bitterness out first, though butter would make them better."
And up there, in our own little sky plantation, we share our meal of fresh spring goodness, gazing out over the city skyline. And even though some blocks have burned down, and leaves and trash roll down the streets in gusts, we tell stories and laugh and make a bit of a party of it, just from the reminder that sometimes things grow back.)
Now I can see a plantation up ahead in the distance, the main building sprawling over a slope above a tea farm. I smell the smoky sweetness of grilled fruit as women cook a late breakfast in an enormous ramanda. No smoke rises, for now, from the two towering red-brick chimneys for the twin ovens; this master must entertain frequently and lavishly. Metal carets over vents flash in the sun on the green tile roof that slopes up from the ramada to a smaller second story, and then that roof slopes up again to a third one, narrower still. The green glaze on the tiles and the brown plastered walls make the mansion look more like a part of the jungle than most of their sort.
Chulan says, "I have a story, if Deirdre can't tell us about the Inkle Lushes…"
"The English...never mind. What's your story?"
"It's about where I went instead of the Battle of Abojan Pass. That double chimney reminded me. The ship had two smokestacks much like that. "
"Yeah. We had to stop a ship from sailing. Except it didn't have sails, so I'm not sure if sailing's the right word. Steaming? An old design, not very streamlined, not like today. Rusty thing, patched and repatched so many times it looked dangerous. I wondered at the time if it might even have come from Earth originally."
The hair on the back of my neck starts to prickle. "Some of the original colonists did turn ships into transfer devices, since Novatierre's mostly ocean--even more so than the Old World, I hear--and they often didn't know where they'd land."
Kiril nods. "Smart move."
"I didn't know any still sailed, though. It sounds...ritualistic."
Baruch cuts in with, "Easy Deirdre. Greenfire can make you imagine things, even after the fire burns out. Poor people just use old stuff, that's all. My family has a whole ironware set, handed down, mother to daughter, from Earth, carefully washed, carefully seasoned, worn down even so, but we hold on as long as we can because we won't see the like again in our reach."
Thoughtfully Chulan says, "No, she might be onto something. The ship was supposed to carry a shipment of sugar from the Charadoc up to Toulin with a stopover in Vanikke, bypassing the Istislan Horn entirely, according to the register. We had Dal in charge--he could read, you see. He looked up everything he could on The Providential in the harbor records. But it didn't have sugar in it, though the register said it did. It had rocks, nothing but rocks, enough to make it ride low in the water, and they had feathers and blood all over them, like somebody had.…" she stops and looks at me.
"Like somebody had made sacrifices," I fill in.
"Like the old hill cults sometimes did," she says with a shudder, "on very rare occasions. But this had to come from lots and lots of birds. The hold stank of them."
"Round rocks," Lufti chimes in where he strides beside my stirrup, his hand warm on my bare foot, "Bumpy round rocks piled up in a heap of eggs, with hearts of rose-red crystal blood."
"Why yes," Chulan says with surprise. "They were round and bumpy. How did you know?"
"How could I not know? I dream as much as anybody, don't I, more than most. She needed to give birth and gathered together as many Mountain Maiden eggs as she could grab."
Uneasily, Marduk explains to Chulan, "He's now like Father Man used to be. We've stayed alive listening to him, especially when he sounds the craziest."
Chulan says, "Father Man's still like that sometimes, when we need him to be. And anyway, this happened before he go this reason back--he just suddenly started insisting that there was a ship in Sargeddohl that we had to stop, because somebody somewhere had a hard enough time of it without us adding our troubles to theirs, and they were so close to getting better. He said that the ship was full of our war. We thought maybe it held smuggled weapons."
Lufti laughs harshly and says, "Oh it did, you bet it did! All's fair in love and war," and then he looks puzzled at himself.
Luka and Diomedio ride over and join us. Diomedio has as long a face as his sister, and like her makes it look even longer with a topknot on the crown of his head; he has stuck feathers in his. (They both claim that it brings them luck, that soldiers have shot at the topknot instead of them more than once.) Diomedio says, "I was sitting nearby when Father Man said that, cleaning my gun. He kept chasing after Cyan, grabbing hir by the shirt, even once by the hair. I've never seen him so insistent. I remember him crying."
Luka nods. "Cyran nearly busted a gut chewing him out, demanding why he had to bring up something like this on the way to the biggest engagement in the war in our lifetimes!" She chuckles. "Well, you know what Cyran's like when e's all wound up."
I smile despite myself. "Oh, I've seen it a time or two."
Kiril laughs too loudly. "She's caused it a time or two!"
Luka's smile fades when she says, "But when Father curled up on the ground, moaning, 'It has to be done, it has to be done, oh God who can we send?' Cyran relented and sent out a band under Dal. Dal because he could read, Dio and me because we're sailor's brats, Chulan because she knows Sargeddohl." She shakes her head. "I would've given anything to fight with my sibs-in-arms in the main battle, but orders are orders."
Sullenly Lufti says, "You'd do well to listen to those who stretch clear to the stars and back for you. It tears us, you know. We bleed. And the blood sinks into the rocks and crystallizes and then all hell breaks loose."
Chulan continues, "So anyway we four had to make our way back--in the middle of the Black Advance!--through layers of enemy lines and our own lines and peasants fleeing all sides and whatnot, to try and get to the harbor before December 28, because that's when the Providencial would launch."
When did Damien drop back to listen? Yet there he rides, and Kuchi with him, staring ahead the way he does when eavesdropping, but the faraway gaze tells us all anyway exactly what he does.
I find my mind drifting as Chulan recounts the various hazards of the return. I saw too much of that, myself, flying out over the battlefields in search of huddled survivors, to deliver supplies and messages and to boost morale...for what? The enemy took Abojan Pass all over again. They torched ungodly miles of farmland while they were at it. And we give as "good" as we get.
I feel even more worn down now than I did then in that greenfire-fueled nightmare of duty and pride. For some reason I particularly remember reciting the Lovequest vow at Kiril, staggering back to my feet to leap into the sky again--to her, who knows more about love than my enhanced mind could ever comprehend. I can't find in me a shred of the confidence that I used to feel in the vow. I know that I still have some love left in me, but it seems a paltry, cracked thing that causes those dear to me as much trouble at least as benefit.
I need sleep. I need the pure sleep of childhood, of resting in the care of others, all decisions made, all necessities met, nothing to worry about...yet even then I had nightmares, didn't I?
(Most of the time Finn sleeps in the back of the truck. I felt nervous at first, putting him next to a great tank of fuel. But right now his mind seems as calm as that of a very tired child--one home at last after a terrifying ordeal, no energy left for sustaining panic or anything, really, almost drowning in relief. Anselmo and I take turns monitoring his state of mind--so far, so good.
And still he doesn't know what he did. I steel myself to find the words to tell him. Sooner or later I must. If he had deliberately acted in self-defense, we'd have all understoond. But I must impress on him the importance of studying controlled combusting...because he kills by accident.)
I must have nodded off in the saddle. I wake from raindrops starting to pelt me, wet little pokes like bratty children wanting attention, to hear Chulan say, "We'd planned on drugging the crew with muras, but we didn't have to. They went mad all by themselves. We only meant to incapacitate them--as Luka and Diomedio said, your average sailor has no idea what's really in the cargo-hold half the time, loading up the crates and barrels but who knows if the labels match the contents, what with trade the way it is these days. So maybe they did see the rocks instead of sugar, and grumbled at their orders to haul the heavy stuff, day by day as more came in; even though the rocks seemed strangely light, they still must have added up..."
"You're wandering off the subject," Damien nudges. "You say the sailors all went mad?"
"Yeah. And not dreamy-mad like with Muras, not gently out of the way. Spittin' crazy hallucinating mad, attacking each other. Father Man was right--whatever was in those rocks was full of the Charadoc's war. They left the decks red and greasy with murder before we even got there."
"Magentine," I say, and they all start to hear me speak again--how long did I sleep in the saddle? "It must have been magentine geodes in the hold. Too great a concentration for anyone untrained to handle it. And it carried the gregor of...oh my God. That's what's going on. We're all trapped in a gregor of war--and it's been battening for generations!" I might have realized this before. I might have known it all along. I might forget about it in minutes, holding nothing very long in my shredded mind.
They clamor at me for an explanation, but I can give them none. I have forgotten all the words. I have forgotten everything but a sort of horror that blanks from me even the cause of itself.
"Well, whatever it was," says Chulan, "it got Dal as well. He slipped and fell into the hold. He landed hard on the rocks, caving a dent in his brow, but he didn't pass out, even though the blood sheeted down his face when he turned over, jerkily, like an injured bug. He just started screaming random images from all of our minds, shrapnel of battle memories shearing through us all, exploding out from him."
"We ran," Luka says, uncharacterstically serious. "Don't judge us. With that blow to his head Dal was dying anyway. We ran off the ship and then it blew up."
Shakily Diomedio says, "I blew it up. I think. It must've been me. Somehow as soon as I wished it all bursting and going away, I could feel my wish block the steam in the boiler and then...it happened. It just happened."
"All of that magentine," Chulan says, "Sunk to the bottom of the bay."
Lufti says, "And now the harbor is haunted."