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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 57

Morning Care


 

 

Tuesday, May 6, 2709, continued


       I wish I was Rashid. That child has more practical experience than I'll ever have in actually healing people. I always used to let Zanne do it, or Don. I took all the classes for field first aid, but they hadn't really gotten into my muscle-memory.
       Stop worrying so much! I've had more than a year since then to learn. And speaking of muscle-memory, my right shoulder's finally fully recovered, and I can use the thumb and forefinger of my left hand lightly, although it does hurt. Progress!
       It's just...it's Cyran. It's really serious and this isn't just some foot-soldier, it's Cyran.
       I watch by his side, the shelter stifling in its heat and the odor of disease, the air weighed down with the jungle's humidity. Somewhere a fly whines, circling around and around the dome, insolent in its disregard for my desire for a nice, clean clinic. I relax into the kind of patience that knows no recourse, listening to the constant thrum of rain upon the dome. Beside me Cyran tosses and murmurs, blind with fever. At fitting times I swab hir off with cooling waters, or change the dressing on hir chest, or blanket hir whenever the chills commence.
       I've done this so many times before, for people less important yet dear to me, every one of them dear to me, enough to call me away from Jonathan and all plans and all common sense. But...hir. Something about seeing hir so helpless, while battles rage in hir name, all that smoke and fire and thundering ruin, for someone who doesn't know what's happening, who can't even sit up. Seeing hir so helpless makes me feel even more helpless.
       Sometimes illness makes people look old, but on Cyran it brings to the fore the slightness of hir years, too young to take on a country’s needs, barely older than the minors e leads, hirself. Hir face has gone slack of all worries save for brief flashes of the petulance of delirium, hir muscles untensed against the struggle, eyes shut to the war and hir countryfolk’s griefs--all this returns hir to a semblance of childhood.
       Nearby Alysha sprawls on the ground like a dead woman, crashing at last. Lufti sleeps, too. But he doesn't rest; he tosses and twitches nearly as much as our leader, muttering in what sounds like several languages, at least two of them unfamiliar to me.
       But after awhile Lufti settles down. His motions become less frantic and more dancelike, his breaths longer, deeper, slower. Gradually he falls silent and still, his sleep more normal. Or...not normal, not quite. I keep thinking of the calming of a web-trapped insect, moving less and less, slower and slower because the spider binds the limbs, stroke by stroke, and the venom starts to work.
       (I surge through my own nerves, no, some other network, more than me, some of it both me and not me. Silver now streaks the copper strands that bind me together, the beautiful, branching, curving mesh that knits shut my wounds, in need of some mending of her own. Unions flourish outside the common joining of man and woman, and these bear strange fruit of their own. They look like dewdrops at first, dangling here and there, frozen tears forever unshed, but they swell and turns rose-red. They quiver at a touch of the silver, all of them together, shivering and coruscating. Then they burst and I cry out in labor as they shoot seeds sparkling all over the world!
       "Jake?" Randy's voice sounds muzzy in sleep. I find myself nestled in my down bag between him and George. "You okay?"
       "Uh huh. Just a dream."
       "Mm." I hear a rustle, then he presses a notepad and light-up pen into my hand. "Till we can get back to civ'lzation," he murmurs, then rolls over and almost immediately starts snoring again. I click on the tiny beam, shielding its light between his back and my own crouched body, and jot down the dream.)

       Lufti jolts awake, blinks a moment, and then settles back to sleep. Alysha has begun to snore softly, her nose pushed sideways against the ground. I go over and gently rearrange her, remembering how the body sometimes falls any which way when the greenfire goes out, and how you can feel a crook in your neck when you wake...until you forget it by chewing some more leaf.
       Did I do that? I try to recall details, but I can't.
       I wish Rashid was here. And it's not even about comparing expertise anymore. When I look at it objectively, I know that I'm the better medic. Techncally. But lately I've been flunking sheer basic humanity, so what does it matter? Cyran needs someone better than me, someone like Rashid, someone with two good hands…and he has such fine hands that I find it a pleasure just to watch them move, fluttering milky-brown fingers nimble at their surgery--but wait! Does he have one too many? What about that bluish one in a golden wedding band? He/I pull up my hands in horror! Too many fingers! Which one has the ring? Which one! Better to chop them all away!
       I hold out my hands to Daba'oth, who smiles hugely, his wild eyes full of love, full of crazy sacred love because of what I ask him to do. He spreads out my hands upon the operating table, and with a triumphant grin raises up the cleaver, brings it down and…

       "Blood!" I cry, waking up on the ground next to Cyran. Lufti opens his eyes briefly and then falls back asleep. Cyran catches my eye for a moment, nods, and then slips back into whatever twilight space his burnt mind wanders. Alysha doesn't even move.
       I should never have fallen asleep. Greenfire's what I need. But I don't dare leave Cyran long enough to look for it. I force myself to shrug. Rebels do without what they need. Someday I will be able to live on air, wafted up so light that I won't even need a flit. Until then bone grinds against bone every time I move, heavy as the hill into which we nestle, but I keep Cyran's dressings fresh even with one hand.
       (I wake up feeling a little less cozy than usual, a little less warm. I can hear Wallace's wheezy, whistly, snuffly snore--he even snores like a headmaster! I catch George's opening eyes and he grins back at me.
       ...GNAARK, whuffle whuffle, heeeee GNAARK whuffle whiffle heeee GNAARK…
       George and I suppress schoolboy snickers. This would be rich stuff to share if we were back at the Toulin Academy for Young Gentlemen!
       But we are not. I see the humor fade in George even as I feel it in myself. We are precisely in this position, former students sharing a tent with the former Headmaster, listening to him in his sleep, because the school fell apart and we are, for all practical purposes, fleeing it. Even if nobody stalks us but ourselves.
       And why am I also in a position to see George's face? Because, obviously, the first dawnlight shines blue through the walls of the tent. And because Jake no longer lies between us.
       I gently extricate myself, carefully stepping over Don's legs to exit the tent. And there I find Jake, squatting by the campfire, patiently waking it up again, teasing the coals alive with breaths and twigs and then the broken bits of branches, tickling the baby flames with the splintery ends, coaxing it to grow. From his lips dangle his morning cigarette.)

       As I step out for my morning cigarette, I remember something. Before they left, Makhliya had slipped a couple of oranges into my bag. I had taught her, I now recall, the value of vitamin C in healing. I have one left.
       I dig it out of my bag, hike over the hill, and wash it and my hands at the creek that I find there. It's still quite sound. I'll have to rebandage my bad hand when I get back, but the infection seems to have mostly let up. It's sound enough to at least hold the orange while I peel it with the other.
       As soon as I get back and salve and bind my own hand with good fingers and my teeth, I open up that beautiful, bright orange, releasing a smell like days gone by, days of childhood and laughter. I'll have to squeeze it in one hand, and then deal with picking out the seeds (I might eat the pulp) but I think Cyran can drink this.
       (Together we enjoy a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, delivered with apologies that they had neither grits nor toast to go with it, more than compensated by the fat and spicy fries, washed down with the sweetest, freshest milk that I ever have tasted. Anselmo and me, and our two teenagers, Ozwald eating with as much gusto as the recently starving Finn, Finn laughing as much as Ozwald. And the entire household joins us, as well, around a table long enough for board meetings, probably hauled from some closed-down office. It has that formal, carved look, and the folks here keep it just as polished ever.
       When we've emptied our plates and mugs, Miss Julie instructs us on how to reach Bishya Kibeho. "They're a different tribe--Old Afric, not Aframerc. Some call them Heathens, but they seem Christian enough to me, invoke the same Lord Jesus we do. They just have some old customs, but maybe that's kind of like a people's old testament, you know what I mean? Some of theirs helped some of ours through the Curse and Confusion, so whatever hostilities we might have had once, in the days before, died with a lot of other things and people through a long, hard winter." Confidentially she leans over and murmurs, "If you want to know anything about dreams, they're the ones to ask."
       "Uh, thank you, Ma'am," I say as politely as I can, wondering if I'd screamed in the night when I'd dreamed about chopping my own fingers off as punishment for my failures. "I'll keep that in mind."
       "And you, too, " she says, to Finn, who might have also screamed a bit last night, before she remembers that he can't see her, and touches him on the arm. "You, too, honey. Did you get enough to eat, by the way? Did both of you growing boys get enough to eat?"
       Our teenagers grin immediately. Ozwald says, "I think I could find room for more, Ma'am, and I know Finn could use it." So two new heaping plates appeared so quickly that it almost made me wonder if this devout Protestant lady had dabbled, just a tiny bit, in magic.
       When finally even they had filled themselves to the point of sleepy satisfaction, and we prepared to leave, Ozwald bowed to Miss Julie (while I marveled that he could bend at the middle at all) and said, "This Heathen will never forget your kindness to strangers, Ma'am." She looks gaping-mouth shocked, but quickly collects herself and nods her head in acknowledgement.
       "I'll pray for you, child," she says at last. "I'll pray for all of you."
       "Thank you, Doña" says Anselmo, holding the door for the rest of us. "We can use all the prayers we can get.")

       Cyran could sip at the juice, and now I spoon broth into hir as well. Lufti has hunted some small creature, butchered and boiled it before I could find out what, and found potherbs to stew with it. Now he eats the solids while my own portion cools, waiting for me. Alysha still catches up on sleep, though she has roused enough to stumble out briefly to the bushes once or twice, only to collapse again into the furious, pent-up dreams of her crash, crying out a few times, but Lufti strokes her hair and arm till she settles down again. We'll have to get food into her soon.
       And far away the war goes on. Nobody waits for orders from a commander who couldn't say hir own name right now. This war went on before Cyran's unhappy birth (why do I think of it that way?) and if I don't change something, it will go on long after e dies.
       Why does it have to be me? Because I'm the Tilián agent--agent, witch, whatever. If they could do it by themselves, would it have gone on so long? Me--the one who feels as crushed as Alysha looks right now, her tangled hair sprawled out in the dirt.
       I realize the truth, now. No matter what Rashid may or may not say, I can't leave the Charadoc just yet.

                  

 




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