Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 8

Hearts on Fire



Sunday, May 4, 2709, continued

       (Wallace takes a turn down an unpromising street, but with such far-gazing determination that we know heís starting to get the feel of his oraclism, so we let him. The snow has gotten patchy under the warming sun, and green spikes of new life push up from the frostbitten blades and thawing mud of little strips of earth between the tenements and the pavement. We hear the drip of water constantly. Many of the windows look boarded up; I donít know what Wallace expects to find down here, but thatís the whole point, I suppose, to not expect anything, if you want to find the unpredictable.
       He turns around a corner, and there it is! A whitewashed government building! Authoritative, in good repair, with a pleasantry of form that says somebody hired an architect to design this building specifically and uniquely for this precise location and purpose. And yet not a top-flight architect, for anywhere prestigious, maybe an up-and-coming fellow who still worked cheap.
       Oboy! The government officials always left stuff behind! They must've been the first to run.
       Inside it still has posters on the wall, showing low-income people doing sensible things. A smiling mother sets a smiling child on an examination table while an equally smiling nurse stands nearby with an injection patch in hand. I laugh, despite myself; I have never seen so much good cheer in any vaccination that I have ever witnessed, certainly not my own. Another picture shows a beaming man circled by wholesome, fresh foods in the proper proportions for good nutrition, all with arrows pointing to various regions of his body made the better for a healthy diet.
       Some posters tell a different, cautionary tale. A non-smiling, skinny and scabrous mother squats in a dirty alley to stick a needle in her arm, suddenly alarmed to see her horrified children looking on. A sickly looking man smokes, while arrows this time point to various parts of his body affected badly by the habit.
       "Look what I found!" George shouts, and Jake gives an uncharacteristic cheer. I sigh, turning. George lifts up, from a desk-drawer, two entire cartons of cigarettes. I hope Wallace finds us something more useful than that.)
       (Ozwald glares at the fencepost like a valkyrie leaning into battle, then sighs when all he can conjure up is a fingernail-sized charred spot and a thin curl of smoke. "I really wanted to manage something more useful than that," he grumbles, hugging himself in the cold. He pockets the nugget of magentine that used to be a teddy-bear's eye.
       Anselmo studies the post. "Wet wood," he says, and hands him some dried apple-rings. "You're a combustor, not a miracle-worker."
       "Making fire still seems pretty miraculous to me," he says with his mouth full.
       Anselmo gives Finn some apple too. The boy says, "I smell smoke again."
       "Just me," Ozwald mumbles. "I tried for fire and all I got was a hot fart."
       "Why do I smell smoke so often? And what do you mean by 'tried for fire'?"
       Anselmo looks at me. This has become the one thing that I hate now about agency, more than any other discomfort of the field--that they always look at me. "Finn, dear," I say, "There's something we have to tell you. But after lunch. Today you may have a good, full lunch; I think your body can tolerate it, now." A good looooong lunch, I hope--something that will give me time to think of how to say everything I must.)

       When we stop for lunch Lufti, instead of resting, takes his share of bread and raises it above his head. "Oh Lord," he moans. "We do this in 'membrance of you, even if you don't remember us. We do this because you bled wine for us, even though we've turned it back to water. We do this because the stars whisper that you only pretend to forget us, you're really watching everything, and somehow, some gawdawful way, it all makes sense. We devour you and we are devoured. Amen!" And with that he breaks up all the pieces and gives them to each of us. Since he's not a real priest I partake with the rest of them. Then we finish with more common foods, and climb back into the saddle. Today I'm riding a gray named Pearl, and wondering why I didn't bother noticing before what a fine animal she is--a rich man's trim steed, not a hefty plow-horse.
       All except Lufti, of course, who gives his feet a break by climbing into a tree. Damien stares up at him for a moment, then turns his horse around and rides. "Don't worry about him," he says uneasily. "He's like Father Man. He'll find us when he's ready. And no one can kill him until it's his time."
       We have now gone too deep into the woods to see the manor, anymore, looming up on its hill. The smell of breakfast has long since wafted away, like all good things do in this tangle of a country. Our horses, their hooves muffled on soft soil piled with leaves, tread single-file on a path that's barely there, slowly, carefully, stepping over the occasional thrust of encroaching vegetation. Soon we realize that Lufti has joined us, just not on our level: he swings through the trees beside us, not so much like a monkey as a fairy dancing through all dimensions, his feet sometimes planting perpendicularly on a trunk before pushing off again, his pale hair whipping about against the shadows behind him like a trailing glow, seemingly indifferent to up or down or any usual direction. The audial clutter of the rainforest birds and bugs and rustles seems to falter briefly all at once, in time to let us hear Damien whisper, "Why is that daft boy death-dancing up there?"
       "Sometimes--rarely--I can fend death off a little bit," Lufti answers without looking at any of us, yet following our path accurately enough in swoops and dives. "I'm negotiating with a ghost."
       After a community shudder we turn our attention back to our path. Damien says, "We're staying at that manor tonight. We have patrons there. They have rooms enough for all of us, they say."
       ("Hold on," Don says, taking a carton into his hands. He shakes his head and drops it into a trashcan that nobody's likely to empty for awhile. "Sorry boys, but even the tobacco's laced with magentine."
       Jake shrugs and fishes it out. "After all that George and I have been through, we've built up quite a tolerance for the stuff." He pulls a matchbox out of the drawer, strikes up a match, starts to light himself a cigarette...and I put the flame out.
       "Randy, come
on!" he cries in his most aggrieved voice possible, throwing the matches onto a desk.
       "I'm sorry, Jake, but you've had quite enough magentine and nicotine both." He looms over me but I stand my ground. "I'm serious, Jake. Either I'm your guardian or I'm not. What'll it be?"
       Slowly he picks up the matchbox again. Then he turns to me a look that chills me, that I have never seen him give me before, ever. I see rose glints in his eyes as he lights the match without even striking it, and I feel my knees go weak with a sudden drain of energy. The filing cabinets behind him burst into flames. The cigarette in his other hand ignites, too.
       "Don was right," he says as he shakes out the match with a snap of the wrist. "I realized that back home, that I could learn a thing o two from Zora."
       He takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette, his eyes half-closing with the pleasure of it. And then he blows a smoke ring, and then he throws the matchbox and the carton of cigarettes into the fire rising behind him and stalks out as calmly as if we weren't fleeing a burning building.
       "But I don't want her old life," he says. "She threw it away, herself. You're still my guardian, Randy.")
       (For a long time, after I finish speaking, Finn just sits there, staring forward with his frosty, sightless eyes, digesting my words as much as the challenging meal with which we plied him. And then his lips start to quiver, then he grimaces, and then his eyes start to overflow with tears. When the sobs come he hugs his knees, his face buried in them, shuddering, whining, almost growling with each gasp.
       I put my arms around him. "You're not alone anymore, Finn. I accidentally did terrible things, too. It's magentine-poisoning, not you, and not me. We did things before we even knew that we could do them. But we can all learn how to handle it. We can! I've done it before and I can help you." Anselmo and Ozwald wrap their strong arms around us both; I can feel Ozwald shaking. Tears stream from his good eye and darken the bottom of his patch. I feel like tearing up myself--he loves me even more than he fears me!
       I suddenly realize that it's like the whole country went through the Black Clam change, except on the psychic level. And with that I realize that yes, I can deal with this, my failure notwithstanding, because I've dealt with it before. I am in fact the perfect person for this mission.
       None of us are alone.)
       (I don't know what to do for hir, except to be here for hir, as e has always been for me, no matter how angry, how tired, how jangled, how hopeless, how drunk...how wounded. I change hir dressings in the close, hot dimness, feeling like hir fever has filled the entire bunker, but I don't have antiseptic, and the smell of infection chokes me. When did I get so complacent that I stopped carrying a tube of Akbar's Ox Ointment in my kit?
       Oh God, isn't there anyone to help us, anyone at all?)

       Suddenly Lufti drops from the bough right next to me and grabs my stirrup. "Deirdre!" he cries, his kohl'd eyes round. "Turn around! Turn around and gallop back or Cyran dies!"
       "Wait! What? No!" Kiril shouts, as Damien signals a halt, his eyes as wide as Lufti's. "You can't take her, Lufti--she's wounded, body, mind and soul--pick someone else. Pick me."
       "Why are we evenÖ" Chulan starts, but Braulio growls, "Shut up. He knows things."
       "No no no no no!" Lufti objects. "It has to be Deirdre--she knows things, too! She knows the secrets of the stars even when she doesn't realize it." Damien turns his horse around to come near. "Do I have to hurl myself on the ground and moan who will God send when I can plainly see who, right here?"
       Suddenly Lufti takes a flying leap past Damien, yanking the chaummin bottle out of the bard's pocket and into his own, before dashing into the woods and out again with a handful of greenfire, stuffed into the other pocket. Then, before we can gasp he richochets up into the trees, then swings back down to light in the saddle right in front of me, his teeth chattering with dread. "We have to ride fast, ride like Gods even if it crucifies us!" And he grabs the reins from my curled-up hand, jerks the horse around and kicks, shrieking, "RIIIIDE!"



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