Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 13

Revelations of the Unwell



Tuesday, May 6, 2709, continued

       Somehow, through the fog of pulling a twenty-four without leaf, I remember how Lufti treated my infected toe before, so I send him after greenfire, with strict orders to neither chew it nor to hand it to me. He mashes it together with the next round of mushrooms, and treats my hand with some of the paste before applying the rest to Cyran. He winks at me, saying, "When the masks drop, put yours on before your child's." I have no idea what he's talking about, but it seems to make him happy. I melt more carpaya resin, but he won't let me come near Cyran till I paint some on my own feet and apply some to my puncture.
       There. The pain relief should help Cyran heal, increasing the blood flow. It sure helps me. See? Already e smiles in hir sleep.
       That doesn't change just how tired I feel. Bone-aching, back-hunching tired. I step outside to light another cigarette, but it doesn't help, so I finish it more because I don't want to waste it than because of any savor to it, then go back in and continue my vigil over Cyran. I can't wait till Alysha wakes. No, I can wait, because I must.
       She looks far too old for a teenager, lying there in a puddle of blonde hair like somebody cracked her skull and out bled sunlight...and I'm starting to think like Lufti. Maybe I really should muster out. But the mad never do.
       (I can refrain from one more cigarette, because I must. Let George have the last one in the pack. I'm already starting to see a faint rainbow glow on the trees and fences around us, in a landscape faintly populated with too many souls who no longer have bodies wrapped around them.
       When George hollows out his face, sucking in the smoke, I can see the creases that the past year etched into his skin. A teenager shouldn't wear lines like that on his face.
       I shrug. I didn't put those lines there. So what if he looks older than he should? He's older than he might have been, too, thanks to me--that cave-woman meant him and me both to die on Christmas night.
       Were you a teenager when the stone sucked you in, Amari? Did you spend so few years in the flesh? Did you envy George? Or did you just cry out like somebody else cried out somewhere that she couldn't wait any longer she had to sin to bring to Novatierre whatever Novatierre needed, somebody so different yet so like us yet so lost yet so found held so dear so totally ignored and overlooked and everywhere and nowhere and...and...and…
       "Randy…" I find myself groaning, kneeling on the cold, wet ground, my hands dug into the grass, feeling each icy finger burrow into mud as acutely as if the Black Clam toxin coursed through me again. The grass looks too textural, almost wormlike. I can hear my own breathing; the earth beneath me swells and sinks with every breath.
       I hear his steps run towards me. I sit down fully in the damp. I hear Don close behind him. My mind stretches out to measure the difference in their footfalls, the length, the pace. I lean against Randy 's chest when he kneels to hold me up for Don's examination. Randy places one finger in my hand.
       The manual said that, the book that I slipped from under his pillow back at Til Institute, read quickly before dawn and then returned to its place without him waking: "Guidelines for Guardians". When holding the hand of an oracle in the throes of a crisis, use only one finger or the grip could break bones. A single finger distributes the pressure better than two or more.
       "Why am I sweating? " I find myself whispering. "It's cold out here. "
       Don mops my brow and says, "That's a good sign, actually. Your body's trying to flush itself out. In fact, if we can rig up some sort of bath for you, that would help."
       "This way," Wallace says, and nobody argues, even though we can all hear him mutter, "I wish I knew what the hell I'm doing," under his breath, he thinks. Randy and Don help me to my feet. After a few uncertain stops, when the old man looks about perplexedly, Wallace leads us to an abandoned barn, still smelling faintly of decay, the bones of dead livestock lying trammeled in their stalls. But we don't go in. In passing I glimpse the ghosts of cattle still waiting patiently for fodder that will never come. I see arcane symbols crawl over the bones.
       "I feel sick," I say, realizing it by saying it.
       "Got it," Randy says, just as a surge of nausea doubles me over. He aims me like a vomit-cannon away from the others, then cleans off my mouth. Don hands me a canteen and I drink down several gulps.
       "I see them," George says, looking back at the barn. "In a blink they all switched to contentedly chewing." He turns to me. "I guess they just needed someone to walk by who notices them. They associate notice with being fed." I nod back at him.
       Don looks from George to me. "Can somebody fill me in on what's going on?"
       Hoarsely I rasp, "Cattle ghosts." I swallow more water. "Could somebody please open the paddocks?" Randy goes in. Then Don shrugs and joins him, grumbling, "Oh why not? I've done enough undertaker work for human beings, I might as well tend the spirits of cows, too!" I feel relief--no, elation--when I see the first flickery hints of bovines ambling out to their pastures, fading under the sun.
       We go around the haunted barn to a side we didn't see before, upwind, fortunately, where a hedge of roses overgrown with myrtle shield a space apart. Except the south side's a kind of wall of cast resin, thick, rounded and black.
       "That's not a wall," George says. "That's a thermal tank."
       "Don't read my mind," I tell him. "It's rude, and it's not good for you." Oh yeah. Thermal tank. Designed to absorb heat from the sun and store it in the water within. Got it.
       Wallace shudders. "She'd always wanted a secret garden bath." The old man wraps his arms around himself and walks away.
       We find the gate without his help, an arching double-door of wood, carved in a simple diamond mesh around its edges. No, it's a honeycomb design that covers the entire door. No, octograms. No, stars, but they keep changing how many points they have, pulsing as they twinkle. No, it's flowers that open and close... "Is there a design carved in the door?" I ask.
       "Nope," says Don as he picks the lock and then swings it open for us. A garden flourishes in here, protected from frost by the warmth emanating from the tank, weeds and planted flowers alike blossoming in painfully bright colors. In the midst stands a pearlescent ceramic tub, colors swirling and intertwining on its surface.
       I hear the growl in my own voice when I ask, "George, did you nibble something you shouldn't?"
       "Oh come on! We're not schoolboys anymore."
       I groan, "You did. You're linked to me whether I want it or not and now I'm stuck in your goddam hallucinations!"
       Wallace's voice calls from the other side of the hedge, "It's not our George. It's the mad boy of the jungles, the silver thread who's keeping you alive!"
       Randy slumps, leaning his head against our doctor's surprised breast, thumping his brow there like he'd like to gently beat his brains out. "Don, what am I going to do? There's three of them!" "
       First let's get this big lunk into the bath," Don answers, as the carvings that have left the door pulse in bright colors all around me.
       "Four!" Wallace calls out, and I hear his feet stomp off, sounding annoyed. Then I hear a gush of water and wonder when I closed my eyes.)

       I must’ve nodded off again, for it catches me by surprise when Cyran says, distinctly, “I was a Purple Mantle, once.” “
       You’re awake! How are you?”
        “Unsure,” e mutters with hir eyes still closed, trying to sit up. “In pain...” Then e collapses with a cry, having tried to rest weight on hir left elbow.
       “Don’t try to use that arm. The pectoral muscle’s involved.”
        Shocked, Cyran's eyes fly open. E gropes at the bandage that covers hir wound, then looks up at me, mortified. I touch hir shoulder. “It’s all right, Cyran. Things like this mean nothing to me, remember?”
       “I...no. No, I don’t. You...you’re...?”
        “Deirdre Keller. We’ve fought together.”
        “Oh yeah." E falls back on the clothes-bag that serves as hir pillow and closes hir eyes. E quirks a smile. “The high-maintenance, flying reprobate with a taste for leaf. How could I forget?”
       “Your memory 's already coming back,” I say, and tuck hir in as e starts to shiver again.
        E opens hir eyes again and asks, “How bad is it? I forgot...I don’t even know what happened.”
       “Just a glancing blow, didn’t get past your ribs. But I’m afraid it cut the nipple off, and some tissue behind it, and you’ve got an infection.” Lamely I add, “I’m sorry about the mutilation.”
        E sighs and stares up at the wattle overhead for a moment before saying, “No matter. I’d never breastfeed anyone, anyway.” E laughs weakly. “Never mind that the entire Egalitarian Army regards me as their personal wetnurse.” E seems oddly cheerful, all things considered. "I feel that I...I did something important. Did I do something important?"
       "You tell me. I don't know what your mission was.
       E almost answers, then hir brow wrinkles in puzzlement, then hir eyes widen in grief...and then they close as sleep drags hir back into fever dreams.
       "We all fever," Lufti murmurs from where he sits by the doorway, staring out into the rain. "We all burn. The world's on fire!" Then he starts stripping on the spot, saying matter-of-factly, "I need a bath." And off he goes, bare as his mother made him, letting the rain weigh down and darken his tangles, glossy in the storm. His voice grows distant; I can barely hear him say, as he turns towards me a face dripping eyeliner, "Water quenches all sorts of troubles."
       (The solar-heated water warms me, soothing down the twitches in my limbs. I breathe in deeply the garden scents, as if a perfumed bath held me, not water slightly browned by the traces of old leaves that the others couldn't quite clear out. It's the mad boy--the words give me some anchor in this chaos. Some young, off-balance proto-oracle who stepped in because...because something's wrong with Deirdre? I've felt that for awhile, no revelation there. What then?
       "None of your business," says the mad boy. I don't see him anywhere, but I hear the thunder rumble over him and feel the warm rain sheeting down his skin.
       I become one with him, smaller, naked, free and young and way too old. I climb up a tree, lithe, compact, bark rough against my skin, embracing the tree to scale it. The bark looks intricate close up--arcane, like the cattle-bones. So do the leaves that slowly churn around us. We all connect.
       I steady the boy, easing his heart back to a regular beat, then direct him to where I sense a nest. Take the big one--that egg doesn't belong there, anyway. I feel his chin nod; acknowledging what I teach him. Now off to another nest, where another cheater laid an egg where it doesn't belong. And now we shinny backwards, to the thickly cushioned forest floor. We lay the eggs down softly, his/my bare feet deep in the moss, before we climb up another tree, triangulating between us to find every invasive egg within reach.
       Life becomes simple. Provide for those you love. That's the real power, better than the glory of the stars and the agony of gods who ride above dark clouds thunderstruck by their hooves. I sigh, sinking into the water up to my chin. He sighs, too, lowering himself into a jungle pool fed by a musical creek's small fall. It all works out in the end. Or it doesn't, and you move on, like ghost cattle realizing that nothing ties them to their bones anymore.
       I open my eyes. My friends hover over me, foggy in the steam. "Thanks," I say. "I'm doing better now.")

       Again I wake up beside Cyran, but I do feel better for the rest. I hear a sizzling, and as soon as a gust of wind opens the curtain a bit, the most heavenly aroma wafts in. I peek out to see Lufti , clothed again under the freshened sun, flipping an omelet on a heated stone, using his knife like a spatula. The result doesn't quite hold together, but that's okay, I like a good scramble, too.
       "One star of all the firmament would do me no harm. She taught me the good ways of herbs and mushrooms and all things nourishing in the wild. Another on the world's nether side taught me all of the bad ways, too, but none of his sad surprises hide in this food; you'll find it quite safe. My mind is scrambled enough, thank you."
       He flips bits onto four broad, tropical leaves. Two he folds up into packets, tied with strips torn off the sides. Two he leaves open. These he carries in and hands to me. "Alysha has gone to bathe. I shall eat lunch with her beside the river and contemplate the flow of time and memory."
       "I imagine she's ravenous," I say.
       "She'll come back soon and you'll get to rest. But first, eat!" He turns to Cyran, who I see has awakened and now looks at us with clarity, at least of a sort. "You too. The rapids have tossed you long enough; it's time to let the river flow past rocks it couldn't budge." And then he leaves without further ado, carrying the remainder of the food.
       I bring Cyran hir meal, and twigs to eat it with. For awhile we dine together in silence, savoring flavors in a way that I haven't for days, before I find the courage to ask, “Were you really a Purple Mantle?”
       I can't tell whether e blushes or if that's just fever. “Indeed I was," e says after a pause. "My brother still is. No sense hiding from the past now, is there? Now that…” E looks puzzled for a moment, then inhales the food-aroma with relish and smiles again. “That’s how I guess the army's moves.”
        I prop hir up to help hir eat without straining hir wound. “What happened?”
       E grins. “I’d like to say that I saw the error of my ways.” Yet the smile drops quickly. “Unfortunately, it got a bit more basic than that.”
       “They discovered your difference.”
        E toys at hir meal with the twigs like e finds them heavy. “Aye. That they did.” Hir voice hardly holds any volume, all the command refined out by the long fever’s furnace. Unalloyed personality remains, pure of pretense. “I’d been careful enough, I bathed apart and all. Some of the hill-villages breed shy folk; it brought me a little teasing, nothing more.”
       I watch hir eat a few moments before asking, “And then?”
        The twigs drop on the leaf-plate “And then some drunken pig took the teasing too far.  He yanked open my shirt and all saw...what you have seen.”
        “Oh dear.”
       “Oh, not as bad as it could’ve been. They thought me a woman at first, smuggling myself into the ranks for the benefits.” E looks up at me. “They planned to rape me, actually, to teach me what a woman is for, they said. But when they stripped the rest of me, the truth made them squeamish. I guess they didn't know what I'm for after all.” E laughs, harshly, but the pain in hir chest cuts it short. “I never thought I’d bless my peculiarity, but at that point half-manhood served me better than none at all.” E averts hir eyes again. “No, they let me off with a beating.” Hir eyes grow big and sad. “My brother stood by and did nothing, ashamed of me more than he felt ashamed of them.”
        “And that’s when you joined the revolution.”
        E smiles and shakes hir head. “No, first I tried to get my back pay! Didn’t work, of course. Injustice opened my eyes to further injustice, till I came to perceive more troubles than my own. And that’s when the mad priest showed up with a crowd of orphans.” E looks up at me. “I had to learn to pity madness, you see, by seeing and loving him. I had to see my father’s illness.”
       “Was your father mad, then?”
       “He was. My mother still is. He drove her that way.” I help hir sink back onto the pillows. “Because…" e swallows, then gathers hirself together. "You see, she's also my sister.”
       I ought to feel shocked. And yet somehow it feels that I have always known.
       “Fraternal twins,” e says. “One out of three incest children have birth defects; I didn’t stand good odds.” E tries to shrug, but it makes him cry out in pain.
       "Easy, Cyran.," I say, helping hir lie in a better position. "You don't have to tell me any more."
       Yet e goes on as if I'd said nothing. “My father had been a rebel, so my brother and I rebelled againsthim." Maybe e has to. "But then I learned of what had driven him crazy in the first place." This wound must drain. "He had seen his wife—his real wife—tortured to death. I learned that my mother resembled her own mother strikingly. He could only go on living by convincing himself that his daughter was his wife, returned.”
        I don’t know what to say.
       “You have told me your darkest secret, and now you know mine." E quirks a lopsided smile, gazing up from hir mat. "Will you follow me anyway?”
       I take hir hand. “Of course. We’re lucky to have you, Cyran.” He's too weak to give my bandages much of a squeeze, fortunately.
        “Thank you. I’ve tried my best.” And, face grayed by so much effort, e falls back asleep.



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